H Is For Homicide Page 65

The chunky mountains of rusted metal were lightly frosted by moonlight. I felt as if I'd entered a charnel house of wrecked autos. Some cars had flipped, their tops squashed flat. Some had been torn in two on impact with trees, bridge abutments, and telephone poles. The roll call of destruction conjured up awesome images of the attendant human suffering: ripped chrome and cracked glass, smashed fenders, splayed and flattened tires, engines rammed through hoods, steering columns crammed up against broken front seats. Every vehicle I saw represented a chapter in somebody's life - sometimes the last - sirens and flashing lights signaling injury and death, the loss of a loved one, or the opening scene in a nightmare of mending and medical expenses.

I waited until my heart had stopped pounding in my ears and then I picked my way down the dirt lane toward the offices of Buddy's Auto Body Shop. The pickup truck I'd seen earlier was no longer parked near the trailer, but Brutus had been left behind to stand guard over the property. I could see him, black and bulky near the single-wide, keeping watch as I approached. I sank down on my heels, calling to him softly, making little kissing sounds in the quiet. He gathered his hind feet under him, launched himself into a standing position, and began to toddle toward me carefully. He seemed to tiptoe, bones creaking, his forward motion fueled by memories of a vigorous youth.

I held my hand out and he sniffed it, making hoarse sounds of joy and recognition. I spent a few minutes with him, assuring him of my benign intentions. When I rose to my feet, he accompanied me to the trailer and watched politely while I removed all the louvers from the window. I stuck a hand through the opening and felt a solid wooden surface, which I guessed was a desk shoved up against the wall just below the window. I stacked the louvers neatly on the desk top inside.

I hoisted myself up, whispering compliments to Brutus, who wagged his tail so hard he nearly toppled sideways in the process. ’’Back in a flash,’’ I said. I swung my feet through the window and eased myself into the pitch black of the office. I was now sitting on a desk. I could feel an adding machine, the telephone, and miscellaneous office supplies. I replaced the glass louvers in the metal brackets made for them.

I eased down off the desk. I stood there for a few minutes until I got used to the darkness. I usually don't do these breaking-and-entering gigs unless I have my little tool kit in tow: flashlight and lockpicks, adhesive tape, and jimmies. Here, I was empty-handed and I felt distinctly disadvantaged. All I wanted was to check the file cabinets to see if Raymond kept his papers on the premises. Once I established the whereabouts of the records, I was out of here. I was going to have to risk a light. I kept in mind the sign I'd seen, indicating an alarm system. Would Raymond actually have such a system, or was he the kind who thought he could deter all the burglars and vandals by pretending to have security? Hard to say with him. He was so righteous about the law when it suited his purposes.

I felt along the wall until I found the switch. I hesitated for a moment and then flipped the light on. The forty-watt bulb revealed an inner office maybe ten feet by twelve, wall paneled halfway up with sheets of fake knotty pine. Girlie calendars from the last six years were tacked up above a work bench where some front windshields had been piled. Three extension cords were plugged into a socket in the inner office and looped through the doorway to service the outer office. Every surface in the room was a jumble of cardboard boxes and greasy car parts. Two gray metal file cabinets were tucked into the corner on the far side of the room. As I crossed the open door leading to the outer office, I caught a blink of light out of the corner of my eye. The passive infrared ’’seeing eye’’ of Raymond's alarm picked up my body heat and set off the entire system.

A horn, probably adequate to announce the end of the world, began a great whooping noise that alternated between high notes and low notes and seemed to include some kind of bell clanging in between. We are programmed from birth to react to sudden loud noises. Of course I jumped and my heart kicked up into high gear. At the same time, I could feel my emotions disconnect as they do in certain emergencies. I wondered belatedly if Raymond's alarm was set up to signal the police. I better count on it, I thought. I glanced at my watch. It was 3:12 A.M. I figured I had about five minutes max before the black-and-whites showed up. Might have been a charitable estimate on my part. Maybe the LAPD didn't even bother with alarms. Maybe they'd respond in their own sweet time. What did I know about the machinations of big-city police procedure? While the alarm system bleated and shrieked and pointed an auditory finger, I crossed to the file cabinet and opened the first drawer. Invoices, car parts. I shut that one and tried the next. More invoices, financial records, correspondence, blank forms. Drawer three was a repeat. I skipped to the next file cabinet and started with the top, working my way down. The bottom three drawers were packed with manila folders full of claim forms. I glanced at dates in haste, noting that the claims seemed to extend back about three years. Outside, Brutus was offering up an occasional hoarse bark, apparently overjoyed that I had hit the jackpot. I closed the file drawers, checked to see that the louvered window was shut, tidied some papers on the desk, and brushed some dirt off the Month-at-a-Glance that was lying there. I walked into the outer office, moved around the corner to the front door, which I opened, ducked back to the inner office, and flipped out the light there, then felt my way in the dark to the front door again. I stepped out and gave the door a hard pull behind me, effectively locking it again. The alarm clamoring against the night air seemed to have aroused no particular interest among the neighbors. I wondered if Raymond could hear it from across the street and two doors down. I set off at a run, jogging down the dirt path toward the gate, with Brutus bringing up the rear. I could hear him loping along behind me, panting happily as he maneuvered his legs in some dimly remembered sequence. I glanced back. For an old pooch, he was really truckin', determined to keep up with me in my little nighttime ramble. I reached the gate and pushed it, reversing the procedure by which I angled my way in. I heard a car squeal around the corner and looked back just in time to see the black-and-white appear on the scene. I shoved back hard on the fence post and pivoted my way through the narrow opening.

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