Authors: Lora Roberts
“Give it a chance to heal,” Kimberly agreed. “And Ronnie Layton might like it better, too.”
I could swear Amy blushed, from the peek I stole in the rearview mirror while I negotiated the streets. “So what?” She was defiant. “Like, who cares what that pimp thinks?”
“Pimp?” I was so astonished that I forgot the first rule of being an acceptable grown-up—always pretend you hear nothing. “Someone at your school is a pimp?”
“Well, yeah,” Kimberly said, giving me a puzzled look. “I mean, some of them are pimping all the time, you know?”
Amy reached forward and gave me a condescending pat. “Aunt Liz. Whatever that meant in the olden days, it just means a guy who sleeps around a lot and gets as many women as he can, and stuff.” She turned to Kimberly. “It used to have some obscene thing to do with sex, probably,” she confided. “That’s how they react to that.”
“Yeah, that’s right.” Kimberly nodded wisely. “Like hoes. Whores,” she enunciated carefully. “That used to mean getting paid for sex, you know. Now it just means girls who sleep around a lot or act like they do.”
“Not even that,” Amy contradicted. “Some guys will call you that if you won’t sleep with them.”
“Right.” Kimberly twisted in her seat. “My house is down there,” she said, pointing to a street of houses much like Andy’s. “I’d, like, ask you in, Amy, but I’m grounded. Math bomb,” she added dolefully.
I pulled up where she told me, and she hopped out, after a final pat for Barker and belated thanks shouted toward me.
“She seems nice,” I remarked, surprised at how inane it sounded. Rule Number Two for being an acceptable grownup—never comment on the friends of your teen, at least not out loud. Simply agree with any assessment the teen offers. I was really blowing it big-time.
“Kimberly? She’s always grounded.” Amy coaxed Barker to the seat beside her—not a difficult task. “At least I get my homework turned in.”
“The math bomb—is that heavy-duty homework?” I broke Rule Number Three—never ask questions.
Amy was in a tolerant mood. “It means you’ve gotten a warning notice and you’re cruising for an F,” she said. “They never give you an F unless you’re a total screw-up, though.”
I hoped I hadn’t used up my quota of answers, because I had more questions. “Amy, about your cousin Biff. Do you see much of him?”
“Biff is scum,” Amy said vehemently.
“You don’t like him.”
Amy appeared to get a grip. “Let’s just say he sends the needle off the vomit meter.” Her face was screwed into an expression of distaste. “He went to another school last year, but they kicked him out. So now he goes to my school. And he’s even in my grade now, because of being held back a year.”
“Is he stupid?”
She considered this. “Well, not really. He just acts like an asshole all the time. Aunt Molly wants to be on the school board, partly because she’s always fighting with the teachers over Biff.”
“What’s the worst thing about him?” This question is much better at eliciting answers than the blander, what-kind-of-person-is-he type.
“He backed me into a corner at Aunt Molly’s Labor Day cookout.” Amy sniffed. “Not the first time, either. He’s always trying to feel me up, going like this—” she made smacking noises with her lips “—and telling me we’re kissing cousins. He stuck his hand right down my T-shirt!”
I love Amy dearly, but she brings out the reactionary in me. I had to bite my lip to keep from telling her that girls who wear low-cut, skimpy T-shirts are asking for negative attention from creeps like Biff. My brain says women should be free to wear whatever they want without suffering masculine harassment. But my gut wants to stand up and shout, “Beware, young ladies! The world is not a fair place, and it’s run by men!”
I didn’t do that. “So what happened? Did you tell your parents or Molly?”
“My mom says if I don’t want him to do that, I shouldn’t dress like I do.” Amy’s curled lip showed what she thought of that advice. “And Aunt Molly yelled at me because she’s always afraid Biff will knock up some girl and have to pay her off.” She sniffed. “As if I’d let his dick anywhere near me!”
“So what did you do?”
“I kneed him,” she said calmly. “You know, Aunt Liz. You’re the one who showed me how.”
“Well . . . good. Guess that took care of it.”
“He was in a lot of pain.” Amy looked undecided. “I mean, it served him right, but I almost apologized. Then he said he would make me sorry, and I told him if he bothered me again I would spread it around that he tried to have sex but couldn’t get it up, and that his weenie was really the size of a Vienna sausage.”
I pulled up in front of Andy’s house, fighting the impulse to burst into hysterical laughter.
“Besides, he stole Grampa’s gun,” Amy added, and the laughter congealed.
“Are you sure?”
“He stole Grampa’s gun. I told Daddy, but he just brushed me off—don’t think he even heard me.” Amy’s lower lip stuck out. “They never listen to me. Anyway, Biff’s had the gun at school a couple of times. Once he was showing it around his group of moronic friends, and my friend Shayla told the principal, but he cut school that afternoon so they didn’t find it when they searched his locker.”
“Does he still have it?”
“Maybe.” Her eyes grew round. “Aunt Liz—do you suppose—nah, even Biff wouldn’t kill someone just because he thought his mom was banging him.”
I sorted through that confused sentence. “Biff thought Molly was having an affair with Tony?”
Amy looked undecided. “He saw Aunt Molly with some guy in a bar one afternoon. In the assembly next day he was sitting behind me, and I heard him tell one of his so-called friends that if some dickhead was moving in on his mom, he’d make dog meat out of him. Maybe it was Tony—I don’t know.”
“Did anyone else hear him say that?”
“Yeah, about half the school is all. He’s really loud.” Amy looked at me. “Are you going to turn him in?”
“No.” I hadn’t known what I thought about it until the word was spoken. “After all, he’s my nephew. And he’s probably no more likely to have murdered Tony than I am.”
“You didn’t.” Amy sounded positive. “I’ve planned your defense for you. We all have alibis—except Daddy, and he was just hanging around waiting for Grampa to get out of the VFW meeting.” She breezed on past this little nugget before I could quite take it in. “Mom was cooking dinner, and I had so much homework I hardly lifted my nose from the computer until just before dinnertime. Gramma was sick in bed, and Grampa didn’t have his gun anymore, anyway.” She faltered a bit. “I don’t know about Aunt Molly and Uncle Bill, but Uncle Dan’s been in Montana with the oil rig crew for the past three weeks, and Aunt Dot went up there with their boys last week to spend a few days. So you see, we’re all okay, except probably for Biff.”
“What about his brothers—Brewster and—who’s the other one?”
“Brendan.” Amy dismissed him with a wave of the hand. “Brewster’s at the Air Force Academy—that’s in Colorado Springs, you know.”
“I know.” I blinked. “He must be pretty smart. I thought it was hard to get into that.”
“Aunt Molly put pressure on some government guy Uncle Bill was working with, and got Brewster a recommendation.” Amy shrugged. “He’s not dumb—none of those guys are. And he’ll grind some. He wants to be a Top Gun.”
“And Brendan’s at UK in Lawrence, Kansas.” Amy waved in a vaguely eastern direction. “Biff’s the only one who says he doesn’t want to go to college. He works construction with Daddy in the summers.” Her lower lip stuck out. “Daddy thinks he’s so cool because of that. As if any jerk couldn’t form concrete.”
So Amy was jealous of Biff. I would have to take her confidences with a grain of salt.
“We’d better go in,” she said, opening the side door and jumping down, with Barker all around her legs. Then he began growling, and I saw Eva’s cruiser pull up.
“We’ve found a rental van. We think Tony Naylor was in it after his death,” Eva said. She’d waited for Amy to go inside, which Amy reluctantly did. The kitchen curtain was pulled aside, and Amy’s face joined Renee’s in the window.
“How could you do that?” It sounded like searching for a needle in a haystack to me.
“It’s a piece of luck for us. This big rental place lost their maintenance guy, the one who usually vacuumed and washed the cars. When we looked at all the places that rent white vans, there it was, on the back of the lot, still not cleaned.” Her voice held great satisfaction. “Found traces of blood and hair in one of the movers’ blankets, and the initial tissue typing makes a match with Naylor pretty certain. He was rolled in a blanket after he was killed, then driven to your place. Whoever dumped him is pretty strong.”
I thought immediately of Biff, toting that concrete. “Well, guess that lets me out.”
“You look strong.” She eyed me consideringly. “And you would have had an accomplice, of course. Right now, all I want is for you to come and look at the vehicle, see if you can identify it.”
I shrugged. “It was dark, and I just got a glimpse of it. But sure, I’ll come with you. Let me tell my sister-in-law I’ll be back.” I raised my eyebrows. “if I will, that is.”
Eva allowed herself a brief grin. “I’m not arresting you,” she said. “You’ll be back, unless something comes up."
Renee sniffed when I said I wouldn’t be there for dinner.
I was trying to be an unobtrusive guest, but she didn’t seem to appreciate my efforts.
“Are you taking that damned dog with you?” She pointed to the floor she’d been sweeping when I interrupted her. “He’s leaving his hair everywhere.”
“I can’t take him, but Amy would probably sweep up for him if you asked her.”
Renee sniffed again. “You’re out of your mind. Amy never does anything I ask her.”
I held my tongue, a difficult task, and went on out to Eva’s cruiser. Silently, we drove to the police station. In the back parking lot, a white van was getting a real going-over by technicians armed with weird-looking little vacuum cleaners and other arcane equipment.
I stood behind the van. “Does it look familiar?” Officer Eva stood beside me, looking at me instead of the van.
“Sort of.” I tried to remember the brief flash I’d seen when the van turned the corner, its taillights flickering. “The license number actually does look familiar. Those last three digits—I vaguely remember they had some relationship to each other in the glimpse I got.”
“Seven-two-eight?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Twenty-eight is a multiple of seven.”
“Oh, yeah.” She didn’t look convinced. “It’s pretty vague."
“Sorry. If I’d been sure about anything, I would have told you at the time.”
“Right.” She didn’t sound convinced, either.
One of the technicians shut off the vacuum cleaner and spotted Eva. “Hey, O’Malley was looking for you a little while ago. He’s gone now—tore out in a big hurry.”
Eva looked speculative. “Did he? Maybe he left a message."
I hung back when she headed for the building. Even if O’Malley was gone, I didn’t like gratuitous sitting around in police stations.
“I can wait in your car.”
“You come with me.” She didn’t grab my arm, but her gaze commanded me. “I might need you again.”
Resigned, I trailed after her. No one paid any attention; nobody came at me with handcuffs. I perched on a chair in front of Eva’s desk and watched her go through her messages.
“Nothing here from O’Malley. I’ll call and see if Phil’s in—maybe he knows what it’s about.”
I wasn’t paying much attention, but after a cheerful greeting, Eva stiffened, her eyes fixed on me. She lowered her voice, and I couldn’t hear what she said, but I could see something big was happening. After a moment she slammed down the phone.
“Where are we going?” This time she dragged me out of the chair. I found I didn’t want to leave it.
“Up in the mountains a little. Want you to see something.”
We rushed out. I found myself in the front seat of the cruiser again.
“Is this a time for sightseeing?”
“We’re not sightseeing.” Officer Eva’s face was grim. She turned on the flashing lights, and we sped through the streets, swerving around slower traffic. At a red light she touched her siren and we blasted through. “Not the kind you mean, anyway.”
I sighed. “You’re not going to tell me what’s going on, are you?”
“Nope.” She drove with cool competence, her face intent on the traffic, a swift shark cleaving schools of lesser fish. “But I want you to talk. Tell me everything you did today.”
My boring day made a monotonous recital, since I left out anything to do with Amy, Molly, or Biff. She didn’t slacken her pace while I talked; I held onto my seat and hoped we didn’t get crosswise with any ambulances.
Eva turned onto Coal Creek Canyon Road and headed straight west to the mountains. She still hadn’t spoken, and I wouldn’t ask, but I was glad I’d told Renee not to expect me for dinner. Having run out of incidents, I’d been quiet for several minutes.
"Tell me something else,” Eva said, keeping her eyes on the unfolding highway. “When did your ex-husband show up in California? Your pal Drake says he’s your neighbor, and he hadn’t seen any sign of Naylor. But you told Baldridge you’d touched base with him.”
I cleared my throat. “It was before Drake and I became neighbors. And I just saw Tony once. Then he left.”
“Without hurting you?” Her question was casual.
“What does that matter?” I wondered if Tony beating me up so recently could be used to make me look stronger as a suspect.
Eva shook her head. “So he did hurt you. And you didn’t report it.”
“He agreed to leave,” I said feebly. “I wanted him gone, not detained for questioning. And chances are, he would have talked his way out of it and then come back to show me a thing or two. Besides, I knew he wouldn’t bother me again.”
“Sure,” Eva said, her voice without inflection. She thought I’d been protecting Tony by not calling the cops on him. Really, I’d been protecting myself. But I had learned years ago that people don’t admire you for adapting yourself to circumstances, trying to slide through the tough places as easily as you can. You are admired when you stand up and make a lot of noise, even if that makes you a better target.