Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (13 page)

This was getting interesting. I decided to give her a little something to hang some hope on as a reward. “It’s true that we haven’t seen his signature on a credit slip in quite some time.”

“Four years.”

“That was one of the things that seemed suspicious to us,” I said. “Still, the fact remains he is an authorized user. Technically, the charges are valid.”

I didn’t want to give her too much hope. I wanted her to have a reason to answer my questions, to try to convince me to write off the mythical thirty five hundred dollars.

“You have to believe me, I didn’t remember he was on the card,” she whined. “We’re divorced; why the hell would I pay his bills anymore?”

“When did you divorce him?”

“Right after he went to prison,” she said.

“What did he go to prison for?”

“He was a drug dealer,” she said. “Not a very good one. He used too much of what he sold. So did I.”

It was a nice try, that little bit of self-recrimination, but she wasn’t getting any sympathy from me. “When was he released?”

“About six months ago.”

The teapot whistled. She poured the water into the mugs.

“You’re not gonna make me pay for all that stuff, are you?” she asked. “I mean, doesn’t the fact that we’re legally divorced make what he did fraud? I mean, doesn’t that make you and me the victims?”

“How did he get the card?” I asked.

Jolene dropped a couple spoonfuls of coffee crystals into the cups and stirred them while she thought about her answer.

“All his mail was forwarded to him in prison,” she said tentatively. “I guess that included credit cards.”

That didn’t make much sense to me. I couldn’t see prison officials letting inmates receive credit cards in the mail. Couldn’t the cards be sharpened into shivs or something? But I had to give her points for thinking fast on her feet. I decided to make my next move while she was still off-balance. I headed for the bedroom like I paid the mortgage.

“What are you doing?” she asked, dropping the spoon with a clank into the sink.

I strode directly into the bedroom before I replied. “Looking for the bathroom.”

The closet doors were open, so Arlo wasn’t hiding in there. Her panties and bra were on the floor. She’d taken them off in a hurry. The bed didn’t have a mattress frame; the box spring was right on the floor. There was no way he could be hiding under the bed.

“The bathroom is over here,” she said from behind me.

I turned around and she knocked on the door that was between the kitchen and the bedroom.

“Thanks,” I said.

She opened it. The bathroom was empty. I went inside and closed the door behind me. It reminded me of an airplane lavatory, only not as roomy. I looked at myself in the mirror and pondered my next move.

The first thing I did was take some toilet paper and blow my nose, which hurt my ribs, and I was reminded again of how they were broken.

Those were definitely Arlo’s tennis shoes in the bedroom. He’d been here, maybe only moments ago. They’d probably heard my car coming up the road long before I got there.

If Arlo was still around, he was outside hiding somewhere, shivering in the wet weeds. Maybe he was waiting to ambush me, but I doubted it.

I flushed the toilet, washed my hands, and came out again. My coffee was waiting for me on the counter, an issue of Cosmo serving as a coaster.

Jolene sipped her coffee and looked at me over the rim of the mug.

“When was the last time you saw your ex-husband?” I asked.

“March twenty-seventh,” she blurted out.

That was roughly three weeks ago, about the time Lauren started acting funny. “How can you be so sure of the date?”

“It was the day after my high school reunion,” she held up her yearbook. “I was a cheerleader.”

“Really?”

Jolene opened the book and proudly showed me the picture. It was taken of her in mid-leap, pom-poms in the air, a big smile on her face. She was pure beauty then, unblemished by the disappointments that burdened her now. She stared at the photo as if it were a diamond.

“You were very pretty,” I said.

“Yes, I was.” She abruptly closed the book.

“What was Arlo doing here?” I asked.

“He wanted to borrow some money. I told him to get fucked,” she replied, studying me now. “You ask an awful lot of personal questions for a guy checking on some credit card purchases.”

“It’s my job to determine whether we swallow the charges or you do, and I have to support my decision with the circumstances surrounding the transactions,” I said, realizing I’d let her put me momentarily on the defensive. That had to be corrected. I looked over at the big-screen TV and the puffy couch. “I don’t recall seeing those on your statement.”

“They were a gift,” she said quickly. “From my aunt.”

“Lucky you,” I said dryly. I pulled a photo of Lauren Parkus from my jacket pocket. It was one of the special ones I’d taken for myself. “Do you know this woman?”

She gave the picture a quick glance. “Was she using my credit card, too?”

I just looked at her. She sighed and looked at the picture again. I studied her face to see if I could detect a reaction. What I saw was a woman afraid of being stuck with a thirty-five-hundred-dollar bill. I didn’t see anything else.

“Who is she?” Jolene asked.

“Her name is Lauren Parkus,” I said, looking again for a reaction and not getting one. “We suspect your ex-husband was seeing her in LA, that she might be involved.”

When I said that, Jolene sighed with relief. “So, you’re not going to make me pay. You believe me.”

I pocketed the photo. “I’ve still got to verify what you’ve told me. But if it checks out, we’ll pursue Mr. Pelz for the money. If we decide to press charges, you may be hearing from the FBI.”

“The FBI?”

“He crossed state lines in the commission of a felony,” I said. “That makes it a Federal offense.”

I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I was making it up as I went along. But I wanted to scare her. Then I remembered something I read in a detective novel once, I couldn’t remember which one, but it confirmed my faith in learning-by-osmosis.

“I’ll be staying at the Sno-Inn for the night,” I said, referring to one of the two motels I saw on opposite sides of the highway as I drove in. “If you think of anything that might help me locate Arlo, give me a call.”

I headed for the door, opening it slowly, my hand behind my back near my gun, in case Arlo was waiting on the other side to clobber me.

He wasn’t.

I relaxed and walked out. She stood in the doorway and watched me go to my car.

“The Sno-Inn Motel is a dump,” she said.

I smiled at her. “I’m frugal.”

I got in the car, made a wide U-turn, and drove off. I checked my rearview mirror for a glimpse of Arlo as I left the clearing, but if he was there, he didn’t come out of hiding.

Overall, I was pleased with my performance. I learned a lot of useful information. In my estimation, I was getting pretty slick.

I would have liked to stake the place out, but I didn’t see a way to pull it off. I wasn’t about to park the car and creep back up there. If he was there, he’d be expecting that, so that would be stupid. And if he decided to flee in the Lumina, I’d be stuck up there on foot. And if he wasn’t around now, there was no place to stash the car and still keep my eye on the dirt road without him spotting me when he came back. I just didn’t see a way to go after him for the moment that didn’t put me at a big disadvantage.

But I wasn’t concerned. I had a feeling I wouldn’t have to go after him. I had a feeling he’d come after me.

Chapter Fifteen

O
n my way back to Seattle to see Mona Harper, Lauren’s mother, I took an hour out to do a little sightseeing. I did it to reward myself and work up the courage to talk with her.

I stopped in Pioneer Square because that’s what my guidebook recommended. It also recommended I take the tour of underground Seattle, but I figured if they decided to bury it, nobody thought it was much to look at to begin with.

So I parked on a side street near the cobblestone plaza and walked around the neighborhood, seeking shelter from the drizzle under a Victorian-looking, iron-and-glass pergola.

I studied the passers-by and thought about what I’d learned from my visit with Jolene. I learned that cheerleaders may have it great in high school, but that things evened out later. And I learned that Arlo Pelz used to be a drug dealer and served time in prison, so blackmail wasn’t a big moral dilemma for him.

He’d definitely seen his ex-wife since he’d returned from Los Angeles. I knew that from the tennis shoes by the bed. And I was pretty certain the new TV and couch were bought with the piss-soaked blackmail money. What I didn’t know was whether Jolene knew that’s where his money came from. I was sure she gave Arlo the credit card, but she might not have known about the trip to LA or anything about Lauren Parkus.

But now they both knew I was on the case and, judging by Arlo’s reaction to me in Santa Monica, I knew he wouldn’t be too happy about the news, especially if he caught a peek at me and recognized me from the elevator. I figured he might do something rash and save me the trouble of cooking up some way to sneak up on him.

I’d be able to get more out of Arlo if I could make him think I knew more than I actually did. Private eyes pulled that trick all the time.

I didn’t come to any new conclusions about the case while I was standing there, but I discovered I could tell the tourists from the locals pretty easily. The tourists were the ones hiding from the drizzle under umbrellas. The locals were the ones who only needed a lid for their espressos.

Just about everybody, except the obvious tourists, seemed to have a cup of coffee in one hand and a novel in the other. Apparently, there was a city ordinance that required everybody to join Oprah’s book club and declare a favorite coffee blend. Even the bums were sipping Starbucks and reading Barbara Kingsolver.

So, before going back to the car, I stopped at the Elliot Bay Bookstore, bought an Anita Shreve novel, and snagged an empty Starbucks cup from the trash can outside, in case I ever needed to blend in with the crowd.

I drove east on Madison Street until it ended at the lake and a little shopping village that seemed to cater to well-heeled retirees and rich, young couples.

There was a small park and beach, but otherwise the shore was lined with apartment buildings that jutted out on pilings into the cold, emerald water. I wondered what would happen to the buildings in an earthquake. Californians can’t help but wonder about that.

Mrs. Harper’s apartment building was the tallest, at about ten stories, and the apartments on the end had big decks that commanded unobstructed views of the floating bridge and snow-capped Mount Rainier in the distance.

I parked the car in front of her building, walked up to the lobby, and found her name on the directory by the locked front door. I punched in the number of her unit on the security keypad and rang her up.

“Yes?” her voice crackled with static. There were Jack-in-the-Box drive-thrus with better speaker systems.

“Mrs. Harper?” I replied.

“Yes?”

“My name is Harvey Mapes, I’m a detective with Westland Security. Your son-in-law, Cyril Parkus, hired me to investigate your daughter’s death.”

I waited for her to say something, but the speaker just hissed.

“I’d like to come up and ask you a few questions.”

“Cyril didn’t say anything to me about this,” she said.

“I was afraid of that,” I said. “I’m sorry. I guess he didn’t know how to tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“Is this really a conversation you want to have over a loudspeaker? There are other people waiting to come in out here.”

She buzzed me inside. I took the elevator to the seventh floor and walked down the long, wide corridor to the very end. It smelled like disinfectant and fried food and shag carpet. It smelled like retirement.

I knocked on her door but she didn’t open it right away.

“Do you have some ID?” she asked, her voice muffled behind the door.

I was glad I’d decided to stay as close to the truth as I could with my story. I wasn’t exactly lying, but I was certainly implying a lot more than was true.

I held my Westland employee ID up to the peephole. The ID didn’t say anything about me being a security guard, it just had my name, my picture, a barcode, and their badge-and-eagle logo. It must have impressed her, because she slid off the chain, turned the deadbolt, and opened the door.

I expected to see Lauren, the way she’d look if she were an actress playing her older self, after the make-up guy glued on latex wrinkles and rubber jowls and added a few age spots and a stringy, gray wig to obscure her youthful, sculpted beauty. But underneath all that applied age, I knew her intense eyes would shine through, revealing the woman underneath it all, the one that time, real or imagined, couldn’t hide.

So, I was startled by the matronly old woman who faced me, her gray hair tied up in a bun, wringing her hands under her grandmotherly bosom. I looked for Lauren’s intensity in her eyes, but if it had been there, I wouldn’t have had to look for it.

She had the flat gaze of a trout.

If there was an actress underneath that aged skin, she had long ego become the woman she was playing. It was hard to imagine that Lauren had sprung from her loins, or that she’d ever had loins at all.

“I tried calling Cyril while you were on your way up,” Mrs. Harper said, “but there was no answer.”

“I wish you’d been able to reach him,” I lied. “He could probably explain himself better than I can. But I’ll try. May I come in?”

She stepped aside and let me walk in past her. Oprah was muted on the TV, the kind that was designed to look like a piece of carved-wood furniture, with built-in drawers and molding. There were framed, family photos on top of the TV and on most of the walls.

“Did you leave him a message?” I asked.

“Yes,” Mrs. Harper took a seat on the couch.

“Good,” I sat down in a chair facing her. Now Cyril Parkus would know I was in Seattle and what I was doing. The best I could hope for was to get as much information as possible from her before he called back. I wouldn’t get a second chance. “I’m assuming you’re familiar with the circumstances regarding your daughter’s death.”

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