Authors: Lora Roberts
“That’s about it,” Eva said finally. “I just have to get some information from O’Malley. You two wait here for a minute.”
She bustled off down the hall. Amy, sighing, got a big tome on U.S. history out of her backpack and applied herself to it. I shifted around in my chair for a few minutes, trying to sort out my chaotic thoughts.
“Oh,” I said, jumping up. Amy blinked at me. “I just remembered that I never asked Eva who rented that van they found.”
“She said to stay here.”
“I know where O’Malley’s office is.” I patted Amy’s shoulder. “You work on your homework. I’ll be right back.”
I strode down the hallway, looking purposeful so no one would stop me—and no one did. It had occurred to me a couple of times that the police must know who rented the van, and I had a good chance of finding out if I could take them off base. I wanted to ask before I forgot again.
O’Malley’s door was ajar, and Eva’s voice came through it, passionate and loud. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard my own name—who can resist that?
“You told me to be on Liz, and I’ve been on her. I don’t think she had anything to do with the killings. She didn’t really have time, for one thing, and if she’s got the money to rent that van, I’m Ross Perot.”
Laughter from Phil’s side of the room. O’Malley’s voice came through, cool and clear.
“I’m telling you, Gutierrez, lay off. You’re out of this investigation, as of now.”
“Why?” There was frustration in Eva’s voice. “I know we’re close to cracking it. I know we’re going to nail the perp. Why do I have to quit? So you can get the glory?”
O’Malley’s voice sounded tired. “These orders don’t come from me—they come from higher up. And that’s all I have to tell you. But I will say that you keep on the way you’re going and you’ll get a rep as not being a team player. You gotta learn, honey. Poke your nose too far into some internal affairs around here, and your nose ends up shorter.”
There was silence for a moment. In that silence, I tiptoed away from the door. It sure sounded like O’Malley didn’t want me cleared. Feeling sick, I crept back the way I’d come, wondering how long before he arrested me.
I sat back down; Amy was deep in her book and didn’t even notice me. I murmured, “Just went for a drink of water. I couldn’t find the office after all.”
“She’ll be back soon,” Amy said absently. “She’d better. If I don’t get home, Mom will be tearing up the roads looking for me.”
Eva stomped in a moment later, her eyebrows etched in a frown. “Sorry to keep you,” she said gruffly. “O’Malley doesn’t seem to know the answers to my questions.”
“Aunt Liz wants to know who rented that van,” Amy piped up helpfully.
Eva looked at me, her hands gripping the file she held. “I can’t say,” she said finally. “I have to go make copies of your statements.” She put the file on the desk with a certain emphasis, took the papers she needed, and went off again.
I sat on the edge of the desk, trying to look casual, then started leafing through the file. Amy regarded me with a troubled frown, but I paid no attention. A bewildering variety of paper was contained between those stiff leaves. I went through it, looking for the information on Tony that had interested O’Malley that first night after his death. I didn’t find that, but I did run across the van rental agreement. It had been booked by phone, paid for with a credit card. A copy of a driver’s license was stapled to the form. Though the name—Carlos Amador—was strange to me, Tony’s picture was on the license.
So he had rented the van that had carried his dead body. And he had an alias to use in his coyote business.
Amy hissed at me, and I clapped the leaves of the file folder together and slid off the desktop just as Eva came into the area. She gave me a glance of mingled suspicion and complicity. I thought she might have been offering me information to keep me going on the case, since her hands were tied. I only hoped that if I did manage somehow to stumble on the truth, I would be believed by the higher-ups. O’Malley had already written me down in his scenario as the sacrificial goat.
Eva dismissed us brusquely, and Amy, her face troubled, raced for the bus, looking over her shoulder.
I had to walk fast to keep up with her. “Do you think they’re going to come after us?”
“Aunt Liz, you read her confidential file!” Amy jumped into the bus, not even greeting Barker. “She’ll probably figure it out—after all, she is a detective. Then she’ll arrest you for meddling or whatever it is they do.”
“Relax, Amy.” I took my own advice and loosened my death-grip on the steering wheel. “She meant me to look at it. She wanted to give me answers but it’s against the rules or something.”
“Really?” Amy considered this. “She wanted you to look at the file, and that’s why she left?”
“Well, she really did have to make those copies, probably. Seems like they spend a good part of every day in any office making copies. But yeah, I think she wanted me to know.”
I wished now that I’d told Eva how Carlos Amador probably linked up with Tony’s self-employment as a coyote. It opened up another whole area of inquiry, one she might not find out about anytime soon.
We pulled up in front of Renee’s house. Molly’s shiny sport utility vehicle glittered at the curb; I parked behind it with a sinking heart. She was there to give me hell about Biff, I knew.
Renee and Molly were sitting at the kitchen table. Renee wore her defensive look, but I was coming to realize that her prickly behavior stemmed more from feelings of inadequacy than from outright hostility. And Molly would be capable of making anyone feel inadequate. Today she was Mrs. Fast-Track, in a linen jacket and pants, with a scarlet silk top making the most of her coloring. The heavy chain around her neck and the big hoops in her ears would have to be gold.
She greeted Amy effusively, and Amy was charming back to her—and for once nice to her mom, as well. I could see that Amy admired Molly’s elegance, but she had a clear-eyed way of assessing those around her, and though her parents didn’t seem to rate with her, she knew their value.
“I have to finish my homework,” she announced, when Renee asked who would like something to drink. “I’ll just take a Coke in my room, if you don’t mind, Mom.”
Renee handed it over, forgetting for once to warn Amy against all the dangers of soft drinks in the bedroom—ants, spills on clothing, ruined upholstery and computer keyboards—that I had heard her mention several times in the past few days. Amy thanked her for that with a hug, and withdrew.
Molly turned to me as soon as her niece was out of earshot. “I’m surprised at you, having the gall to drive the child around after the scene you staged this morning.”
“Were you there?” I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t see you. If you had been there, you would have known who staged the scene.”
“I know what my son told me.” Molly’s cheeks warmed to match her shirt. “You as much as accused him of killing Tony! You brought that policewoman into it. You got him in even more trouble.”
“He did that without my help.” I took the cup of tea Renee handed me, noticing with appreciation that she’d used the new tea bags I’d given her. “Thanks, Renee. I’m sorry to have to break it to you, Molly, but your boy Biff must act differently around you than he does around the rest of the world. I found him rude, arrogant, self-centered, and threatening.”
Renee looked at me with something close to approval, but prudently didn’t say anything. It would have been hard, anyway, with Molly sputtering. Renee and I looked at her, and after a few minutes she stopped hollering and burst into tears.
Renee handed her a box of tissues. “Sorry, honey,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “But it is true. Amy’s mentioned to me several times that Biff tries to corner her at family parties, and it’s not for any cousinly stuff either.”
“Well,” Molly flashed, “if Amy will wear those tight shirts with her endowments, she has to expect that kind of attention from men.”
“Not from her cousin, she doesn’t.” Renee dug in her heels, glaring right back at Molly. “It’s sexual harassment at the very least, that’s what it is. I haven’t said anything to Andy, but if it goes on, I will. And he might just make sure that boy of yours doesn’t have the equipment to hassle pretty girls again.”
How long they would have faced off I don’t know. I cleared my throat, and both of them rounded on me.
“Actually,” I said, trying to be mild, but consumed with a wild desire to laugh, “Biff did have Dad’s gun at the time of Tony’s murder. And he had mixed it up with Tony at Dad’s house that day. I also heard he was making other threats against Tony.”
I directed a questioning gaze at Molly, and her eyes dropped. “He had some silly idea—at one time, he thought—”
“He thought you and Tony were carrying on. Other people thought that, too.”
“You told that policewoman? You—”
I held up one hand. “I haven’t so much as mentioned your name or that of anyone in my family. The police aren’t stupid—they’re checking things out, talking to everyone who knew Tony.” At least I hoped they were. “It was only a matter of time before they came across you."
Molly looked unconvinced. “I advise you to tell Officer Gutierrez all about it,” I added. “The more information she has, the more likely they are to find the person who killed Tony. Unless you don’t want that to happen?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped. “I have nothing to be afraid of. I’m confident my son couldn’t possibly kill anyone."
“That’s good,” Renee announced, again at her favorite post, the kitchen window. “Because she’s here. Your policewoman, Liz.”
Sure enough, there was the patrol car outside. Eva was still sitting in the driver’s seat. I went out and stood in the street, next to her door.
She didn’t give me her usual smile. I cleared my throat. “Somehow, I got the idea you were washing your hands of me."
“Not exactly.” She stared straight ahead, through the windshield. Car doors slammed as people came home from work and went inside. “I’m watching you. That way if anything happens, I’ll know if you were the one doing it or not."
“Well, while you’re watching me, come inside. I think my sister has something to tell you.”
“Your sister?” Surprised, she got out of the patrol car. “The mom of that kid this morning—what was his name?”
“His name is Byron. That’s why he’s called Biff by everyone. My sister, Molly, knew Tony. In kind of a different capacity than I did.” I pushed open the front door. “But I’ll let her tell you about it herself.”
I wasn’t sure Molly would talk, but Eva knew how to get people to confide in her. Soon she was sitting at the table with Renee and Molly, commiserating about raising teenagers—although I couldn’t believe she was old enough to have one herself. By gentle degrees, Molly was led to unburden herself of her connection with Tony’s illicit employment agency.
Eva extracted everything she could, including information about Conchita, whom she wanted to interview that evening. Molly, glancing around, realized how late it was.
“Heavens,” she said, collecting her smart handbag. “Bill will be home by now, and no dinner on the table, since Conchita is cooking for Mom and Dad. I’ll have to get takeout. You’re welcome to join us,” she told Eva.
“No, thanks.” Eva nodded politely. “I’ll stop by your parents’ to interview her. And it would be better if you didn’t let her know beforehand. Some of the illegals get pretty antsy when it comes to the police. I value her testimony, and I don’t see any reason why the INS needs to know anything about it.”
Molly left, and Renee, also looking at the clock, wondered aloud where Andy was, and if her roast was done. Thus hinted, Eva and I took ourselves out.
I stood on the front porch with Eva, who was frowning down at her notebook. “Does that help you any? It shouldn’t be too hard to find out more about what Tony was doing, now that you know he was a coyote.” I remembered the copied driver’s license. "That explains why he had another identity established.”
Eva glanced at me. “So you took advantage of your moment, did you?” She was almost smiling, but a moment later her somber mood returned. “I don’t like this, Liz. It smells dangerous for you.”
“For me?” I stared at her. “I thought it would let me out entirely. A whole different line of questioning, one I couldn’t be involved in. I wasn’t here—didn’t know anything about what Tony was up to.”
“Nevertheless,” she insisted. “Traffic in illegals is connected with pretty unsavory stuff around here. I’m going to go on investigating, although,” she added under her breath, “it could get me in trouble.” She pointed a finger at me. “But you need to keep a very low profile. Don’t go anywhere or do anything for a couple of days. Especially don’t go around checking up on people like Leonard Tobin.”
I looked guilty, I suppose. She almost smiled again. “He was awake when I got there,” she added. “But he didn’t remember too much, although he did remember you told him Maud was dead. I don’t like that, Liz. I want you to keep clear.”
“I will, if you guys aren’t going to just settle for me instead of finding out who really killed Tony.”
Her brows drew together. “I don’t ‘settle’ for anything. I’ll find out the truth, whatever that is. Meantime, you stay put.”
“I was going to go to my parents’ place tonight for a while, make sure everything’s okay with them.”
She considered. “Well, okay. But go straight there and come straight back. Will your brother go with you?”
“No way. He spends evenings snoring in front of the tube.” I felt disloyal the moment I said that. “I mean, he’s tired, you know. He works construction.”
“I know.” She gave me a look. “There isn’t a whole lot I don’t know by now about your family, and I’m finding out more every day. So keep your nose clean, Liz. And watch your back.”
She strode to her cruiser and drove away. I went slowly back inside to help Renee finish up dinner. Somehow I couldn’t dismiss Eva’s warnings, much as I wanted to. A cloud of foreboding settled over me, and I saw everything through it, stained by its darkness.
Mom let me in when I knocked. She still looked a little tottery, but just being up after dinner was a good sign. Dad, as usual, was intent on the TV, which he’d turned up to suit his age-deafened ears.