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Authors: Lora Roberts

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Murder in a Nice Neighborhood

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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MURDER IN A NICE NEIGHBORHOOD

 

Lora Roberts

 

Chapter 1

 

I had the side door open on my ‘69 VW microbus, enjoying the sun’s last gasp for the day. I was reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s
Life of Charlotte Brontë
and eating a Bartlett pear. The bus stood on the curbside of a giant Monterey pine that shaded part of San Francisquito Creek, Palo Alto’s border. It was one of my favorite spots. Across the creek, the sunset spilled over me through a west-facing gap in the trees. The sunrise would do the same on the opposite, street side of the bus tomorrow.

The pear’s fragrance mingled with the resiny aroma of pine and a drift of scent from someone’s roses across the street. The evening air was crisp enough to downplay the smell of dog residue that blanketed the creek banks. All the dogs in the neighborhood got their walkies there.

In the quiet, I could hear the twilight songs of the finches, and the wood doves crashing around in the oaks, looking for roosting spots. Elizabeth Gaskell’s well-bred Victorian horror at the pathetic details of life among the Brontës was, for some reason, soothing. There was little but core left on the pear when I heard footsteps coming along the pavement.

Being approached when I’m alone always makes me nervous. But I didn’t lift my eyes from my book. It was a defense against living out in the middle of things, instead of in a house like the tidy bungalows that line the streets north of downtown Palo Alto. I sometimes felt like a mime, going through invisible doors, establishing invisible boundaries to secure some imagined privacy. Occasionally it worked.

This time it didn’t. The man, if he could be dignified by such a classification, came to a stop in front of me. I held the book closer to my face, but he was still there just past the margins. Even though he didn’t smell as bad as he usually did, the odor was strong enough to make the smellee want immediate access to a clothespin.

“So, babe. Whatcha doin’ tonight?”

I turned a page in my book, still not looking up. The unsavory apparition who addressed me was called Pigpen Murphy on the street—an apt name. Judging from what showed in my peripheral vision, he had recently visited the Goodwill Store. He wore huge, shiny brown wing tips in place of the cracked, broken monstrosities of the past. Nearly submerged in the general effluvia was the faint aroma of mothballs, another indicator that he had not long occupied the loudly checked trousers that ballooned over his new shoes.

The
tout ensemble
was unexpected enough, in conjunction with Pigpen Murphy, that I lifted my eyes briefly from my book—a strategic error.

“You like my new threads?” He struck a preening pose, brushing at
the worn vinyl of a brown flight jacket that contrived to look jaunty on his shambling figure. He might have been over six feet tall if he’d stood up straight. But life and drink had bowed him until his head peered out from between his shoulders like a small, inquisitive animal perched on two boulders. Sparse tufts of orangey-red hair circled his scalp and made individual roofs over his eyes.

“Groovy,” I assured him, returning my eyes to my book. Experience had taught me that just to reply to one of Pigpen’s remarks was tantamount to declaring undying love, in his strange brain. He settled beside me in the doorway of the bus, all two hundred fifty unlovely pounds of him.

“You need to look good when you got a good job,” he observed portentously. “I’m goin’ somewhere now, Sully. I got money and new clothes. Shit—I might even get me a room at the Carver Arms—for a month. What say, wild mama? Wanna head over to Safeway and pick up a bottle?”

“No,” I said, not looking up. It wasn’t just his nasty smell that made my insides clench. I don’t like men crowding me, threatening me.

He was silent for a minute. I could smell the reek of wine on him and knew he’d already started his evening’s potations.

“What is it, I’m not good enough? Nobody’s good enough for Miss High and Mighty Sullivan, is that it?” He wasn’t yelling, but it wouldn’t be long before he was.

“I’m celibate, Mr. Murphy. Everybody knows that.”

“Fancy word for queer, ain’t it? Me ‘n’ Alonso been talking about you. Tryin’ to figure out what makes a woman act this way.” He edged closer, intensifying the olfactory distress. “Me, I said I could warm you up good. You don’t look half-bad when I’m drunk, and I’ll be drunk pretty soon.”

He was drunk already. I closed my book carefully and got to my feet, standing in the doorway of the microbus. I can do that without ducking, since I’m just shy of five-two.

“Enjoy yourself,” I said, as pleasantly as I could, controlling the tremor in my voice. “But don’t come back here. I’m not interested in what you’re offering.”

“The hell with that!” Pigpen stood, too, planting both his shiny wing tips on the pavement. As soon as he lifted off from the bus, I slammed the door shut. I hadn’t counted on his hand being in the way.

After he removed it, slightly battered, there was no problem. While I locked the door and pulled the curtains shut, Pigpen howled inventive Irish curses. Though I knew he was well anesthetized by alcohol, I slid the window open and offered him the contents of my first-aid kit. It was a mistake. He reached right through the window, and it wasn’t first aid he was after. When I bit him, the sour taste of his filthy thumb nearly made me gag. I was careful not to break the skin.

I got the window shut while he nursed the bite, but seconds later his fist smashed spitefully through it.

Since the curtains were closed, most of the glass stayed outside. I
was a little put out at having to sweep it all up before I left in
the morning—broken glass wasn’t allowed in my favorite parking spot. But the smashed window was Pigpen’s swan song; he stumbled off toward El Camino--heading, most likely, for his hangout by the railroad tracks, to find his buddy Alonso and that bottle from Safeway. His rantings were audible for a while, drifting off down the creek.

I knocked the rest of the window glass onto the street and taped a piece of cardboard from the back of a drawing pad into the frame. The pear core went into a sack for the compost bin. I brushed my teeth in my little sink, squatted over the plastic bucket (covering it tightly when I was done, of course), and pulled out the bed that fills the back of the bus.

It was peaceful again, just the noise of a few late crickets and the distant sound of cars on Middlefield Road. I settled down in my sleeping bag, giving myself a few minutes with the battery-powered lamp and Elizabeth Gaskell. I wouldn’t keep the light on long, since that might tip someone off that the bus was occupied instead of just parked. The curtains shut out everything but my little domain, where each item had a place and stayed in it.

When I put my book away, I noticed the duct tape and felt a moment’s concern that Pigpen might come back after a bottle or two of wine had drowned the pain from his last visit. But the cardboard would keep him from reaching through to the door lock, and I had a knife nearby. When I first began living the vagabond life, I was torn between the freedom to go anywhere and escape anything, and the apparent vulnerability of a person with no house around them. As time went on I realized I was much safer in the bus than tied down to an address, where anybody who knows where to look for you can find you. Nothing had ever happened to contradict that assumption.

As it turned out, my concerns about Pigpen Murphy were groundless. Not too long after Elizabeth Gaskell had sent me into my usual deep sleep, he became incapable of putting his hand through any more windows.

At least, not during this lifetime.

 

Chapter 2

 

In October, in the Bay Area, nights get cold. The sun was pleasantly warm the next morning, however, heating the bus through the yellow curtains before I crawled out of my sleeping bag.

I used the plastic bucket again. I would empty it at the first construction Porta-potty I drove past on my daily rounds. The houses of Palo Alto are constantly being remodeled, so there’s no shortage of Porta-potties. I often took advantage of them, and of the library bathrooms, and of course the shower after I swim.

The bus has many amenities, not the least of which is running water, as long as I keep the water tank beneath the little sink filled. It doesn’t matter that it’s cold. After washing, I put on three layers of clothes, pushed the curtains back, and sat at the table that folds up in front of the backseat. I ate an orange from a bagful I’d collected out of the dumpster behind Mollie Stone’s Market, and a bowl of granola with the last of the quart of milk I’d bought the day before. The sun poured in. It was a lovely morning, clear and promising the warmth of Indian summer.

I had work to do that day at the Senior Center and in the main library, but there was no hurry. The library didn’t open until ten o’clock, and I wasn’t due at the Senior Center until after two. Actually, one of the best elements of the vagabond life is that there’s rarely any hurry. I made a cup of tea, using the fancy immersion heater I’d bought myself last Christmas with the proceeds of a sale to
Young Mother’s
Story—"My Husband Wanted Me To Be a Nun”—and let my thoughts drift.

There was a tap on the street-side window next to me. It was Old Mackie, making his daily trip downtown with his shopping cart. The cart was piled with Old Mackie’s treasures: warm coats, a spare pair of tennis shoes in a K-Mart box, neat bags of empty cans and bottles, a bedroll of bedraggled blankets, a foam pillow in a loudly flowered case, and right in front for easy access, a tightly capped jug discreetly hidden in a brown bag.

I slid the window open and handed him an orange. “Morning,” I said, making sure he had a firm grip on the orange. Old Mackie got the shakes pretty badly in the mornings. “How are things?”

His head wobbled back and forth, and it was a minute before I realized this was more than the shakes. “Big mess,” he said finally. There weren’t many teeth left in his mouth, so it was hard to understand him sometimes. “Right underneath.”

I frowned, and then remembered the broken glass. “Yeah, there is,” I told him. “No real harm done, though.”

He gave me a look I couldn’t quite interpret. “If you say so,” he mumbled and coughed up a huge gob, which he expectorated politely to
one side. Spending nights beneath a bush on the creek bank, foam pillow or no, was hard on Old Mackie. On an impulse, I offered him a cup of tea.

He wouldn’t take it, which surprised me. Normally he enjoys sitting in the bus with me. He covets the bus. It’s no wonder.

“Big mess.” He shook his head some more.

I felt a little huffy, like he was casting aspersions on my housekeeping. “The whisk broom will take care of it.”

Old Mackie stared at me and started shaking all over. He shook until I began to wonder if I should get him to the hospital, if he was having a stroke. Then noises came from his mouth, and I realized he was laughing.

So hard, in fact
,
he couldn’t speak. He stood there, shaking and pointing one knobby old finger at me, and finally he gave up trying to talk and wheeled his shopping cart away, his shoulders heaving all the way down the block.

I looked around at the inside of the bus, neat as a pin, and felt like saying “Humph!” Instead, I got out the whisk broom and dustpan and opened up the side door.

This morning the air wasn’t quite so delightful; there was a waft of sewerish aroma that the pines couldn’t overcome. Squatting at the curb, I used the whisk broom to get all the bits of glass into a tidy pile.

The dark stains that congealed in rivers next to the front tire didn’t make an impression at first; I wrote them off as old oil leaks. But when I bent farther to get right under the bus, I realized they weren’t oil.

Pigpen’s face peered out of the jumble of his clothes beneath the bus; it was a wonder his signature smell hadn’t alerted me to him. I could see the gleam of his open eyes, and his mouth was twisted as it had been when he’d tried to keep me from closing the bus door. The dark, shiny rivers came from underneath his head. They had coagulated in a parody of motion. The wide eyes, too, were still, filmed over as if smeared with Vaseline. A breeze ruffled the scanty hair above them.

I found myself holding on to one of the bay trees that grew at the edge of the creek, hanging over the twenty-foot bank that forms the sides of the ravine while my stomach tried to come out through my throat. Empty at last, I staggered back to the bus and rinsed my mouth. I took my knapsack from its hiding place and followed old Mackie’s route downtown. The closest pay phone was at the 7-Eleven.

I got a cup of tea in the store, even though all the hot liquids at those places taste like coffee. I took my Styrofoam cup out to the pay phone and called the police. The woman at the other end wanted me to stay on the line until the officers came. I gave her the location of my bus once more and hung up.

There was a rest room in the Laundromat next to the 7-Eleven, and I needed it. Carrying the still-hot cup of tea, I walked back to the creek. The uniforms got there before me.

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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