H Is For Homicide Page 69

Barefoot, I followed him down the corridor to a makeshift X-ray laboratory, partitioned off by a few temporary plywood screens. The equipment looked like some I'd seen in a doctor's office when I was a kid: bulky and black, with a cone the size of a zoom lens. I imagined 1950s-style rays, thick and clunky, piercing my body in poorly calibrated doses. The assistant, a young guy with a cigarette bobbing in his mouth, took two views - a full spine and a close-up of the cervical vertebrae. I'm wary of unnecessary X-ray procedures, but again, since I was cheating, it was hard to protest. I returned to the examining room, where I had another long wait, this time sitting dutifully on the paper-covered table. For all I knew Dr. Howard was observing me through a hidden peephole. He returned in due course, snapping the developed film onto a wall-mounted viewer. He explained patiently, in chiropractic terms, how misshapen my spine was. Happily, my neck wasn't broken, but almost every other part of my back was in want of improvement. He put me facedown on the table and did something divine, crunching my bones in a manner that sounded like someone chewing ice. He prescribed a lengthy series of adjustments, writing out his diagnosis with a fountain pen. He was left-handed, wrist curving atop the sentences as he sketched out his recommendations. The pen made a scratching sound as it angled across the page. Even his writing looked expensive, I thought. California Fidelity was going to pay dearly for my ills.

’’What's your relationship to Raymond?’’ he asked without looking up. Something about the nonchalance of his tone sounded a note of caution.

’’I'm a friend of Bibianna's, his fiancee.’’

’’Have you known her long?’’

’’Two days,’’ I said. ’’We did an overnight together in the Santa Teresa County Jail.’’

The sharp gaze shifted and I thought I detected a nearly imperceptible pursing of his lips. He disapproved of low-lifes like Bibianna and me, probably Raymond Maldonado, too. ’’How long have you had your offices down here?’’ I asked.

’’Since my license was reinstated,’’ he said, surprising me with his candor. Maybe I'd misjudged the man. He opened a drawer and took out a number of ink pens, of various types and colors. He passed me a sheet of paper with a series of slots in the left-hand column. ’’Sign each line with a different pen, rotating them randomly. We'll fill the dates in later when we go to bill your insurance company. Who's the carrier?’’

’’California Fidelity. I called the office up north and they said they'd send the claim forms down.’’

’’Good,’’ he said. ’’And what sort of work do you normally do?’’


’’Not good. I don't want you on your feet and no lifting heavy trays. File for disability. Nice to meet you,’’ he said. He snapped my chart shut, got up, and left the room. Half a minute later, I heard him entering the examining room next to mine.

It was two fifty-five by the time I left his office. The day was hot for late October, the air perfumed with the yeasty smell of warm exhaust fumes. The neighborhood we were in wasn't much of an improvement over the one where Raymond lived. As I approached the Ford, Luis leaned over and opened the car door. I slid into the front seat. Whatever Dr. Howard had done in the way of adjustments, my hangover was at least gone. I tilted my head this way and that, taking inventory of my neck. Not bad. No stiffness, no more aches or pains.

The interior of the car smelled of fast-food burgers and cold French fries. There was an empty milk shake container on the dashboard and a white paper bag sitting on the front seat. ’’Oh, goody, for me?’’ I asked. I peered into the bag, hunger rising suddenly. ’’Luis, there's nothing in here but trash!’’

’’I thought you'd ate.’’

’’You thought I'd ate?’’ I said pointedly.

Luis seemed embarrassed. ’’Eaten.’’

’’Yeah, well, I eaten the same time you did and I'm starving again.’’ I revised my tone. There was no point in being a bitch about this. ’’Isn't there any way we could stop and pick up some lunch for me on the way home?’’

He started the car, checking the flow of traffic in the rearview mirror. ’’Raymond said come back as soon as you got done. We got work to do.’’

’’How come we have to do everything he says?’’

Luis turned a flat look on me.

I thought about Raymond's temper. ’’Good point,’’ I said.

When we got back to the apartment, the dog was tied to the railing out on the balcony and the apartment door was standing open. There were six or eight young Hispanics on the premises, most of whom I hadn't seen before. Bibianna sat on the couch, bending over a game of solitaire which she'd laid out on the coffee table. Luis went into the kitchen and fetched himself a beer. I excused myself with a murmur and went into my room, where I removed the stolen pictures from my handbag. I moved over to the window and opened it quietly. The frame was a bifold, two photographs in matte gold, hinged in the middle. I dismantled the frame and tossed it out the window, checking first to make sure I wouldn't be clunking anybody in the head with it. I studied both photographs closely, holding them up to the light. These were formal wedding portraits. The first was one of those group shots taken at the church altar afterward, people lined up in a semicircle with the bride and groom in the center. In addition to the newly weds, there were six young women in lavender, fanning out to the left, and six guys in gray tuxedos with lavender cummerbunds on the right. Dr. Howard was clearly the father of the bride, whose mother didn't look a thing like the receptionist. I'd guessed wrong there. The second photograph was a full-length shot of the bride herself. She was the woman I thought I recognized. She was standing in three-quarter profile, her eyes lifted solemnly toward the stained-glass window above her head, bridal bouquet held at her waist. The dress was a close-fitting satin with a train that had been spread out around her feet as if the material had melted to form a pool. Her blond hair was pulled back, secured in some kind of netting like a bridal snood. The face was tantalizing, not pretty by any stretch, but she'd clearly hired a team of makeup experts to enhance her every feature. I was sure I'd seen her recently, but not looking nearly as good as this. I squinted, perplexed. It was like seeing your mailman at a cocktail party in fancy dress. I had to shrug and forget it for the moment. It would come to me, probably popping into my head when I was in the middle of something else.

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