Chapter 19

My dinner that night was cheese and crackers, with a side of chili peppers just to keep my mouth awake. I’d changed out of my all-purpose dress into a tee shirt, jeans, and fuzzy slippers. I ate sitting at my desk, with a Diet Pepsi on the rocks. I studied the skirt and shoes. I tried the right shoe on. Too wide for me. The back of the heel was scuffed, the toe narrowing to a bunion-producing point. The manufacturer’s name on the inner sole had been blurred by sweat. A pair of Odor-eaters wouldn’t have been out of line here. The skirt was a bit more informative, size 8, a brand I’d seen at the Village Store and the Post amp; Rail. Even the lining was in good shape, though wrinkled in a manner that suggested a recent soaking. I touched my tongue to the fabric. Salt. I checked the inseam pockets, which were empty. No cleaner’s marks. I thought about the women connected, even peripherally, with Daggett’s death. The skirt might fit any one of them, except for Barbara Daggett maybe, who was big-boned and didn’t seem like the type for the preppy look, especially in green. Ramona Westfall was a good candidate. Marilyn Smith, perhaps. Lovella Daggett or Billy’s sister, Coral, could probably both wear an 8, but the style seemed wrong… unless the outfit had been lifted from a Salvation Army donation box. Maybe in the morning I’d stop by a couple of clothing stores and see if any of the salesclerks recognized the skirt. Fat chance, I thought. A better plan would be to show it, along with the shoes, to all five women and see if anyone would admit ownership. Unlikely under the circumstances. Too bad I couldn’t do a little breaking and entering. The matching green sweater might come to light in someone’s dresser drawer.

I padded into the kitchen and rinsed my plate. Eating alone is one of the few drawbacks to single life. I’ve read those articles that claim you should prepare food just as carefully for yourself as you would for company. Which is why I do cheese and crackers. I don’t cook. My notion of setting an elegant table is you don’t leave the knife sticking out of the mayonnaise jar. Since I usually work while I eat, there isn’t any point in candlelight. If I’m not working, I have Time magazine propped up against a stack of files and I read it back to front as I munch, starting with the sections on books and cinema, losing interest by the time I reach Economy amp; Business.

At 9:02, my phone rang. It was the night dispatcher for Tip Top Cab Company, a fellow who identified himself as Chuck. I could hear the two-way radio squawking in the background.

“I got this note from Ron says to call you,” said he. “He pulled the trip sheets for last Friday night and said to give you the information you were asking about, but I’m not really sure what you want.”

I filled him in and waited briefly while he ran his eye down the sheet. “Oh yeah. I guess this is it. He’s got it circled right here. It was my fare. That’s probably why he asked me to call. Friday night, one twenty-three… well, you’d call that early Saturday. I dropped a couple off at State and Cabana. Man and a woman. I figured they were booked into a motel down there.”

“I’ve heard the man was drunk.”

“Oh yeah, very. Looked like she’d been drinking too, but not like him. He was a mess. I mean, this guy smelled to high heaven. Stunk up the whole back seat and I got a pretty fair tolerance for that kind of thing.”

“What about her? Can you tell me anything?”

“Can’t help you on that. It was late and dark and raining to beat the band. I just took ’em where they said.”

“Did you talk to them?”

“Nope. I’m not the kind of cabbie engages in small talk with a fare. Most people aren’t interested and I get sick of repeating myself. Politics, weather, baseball scores. It’s all bull. They don’t want to talk to me and I don’t want to talk to them. I mean, if they ask me something I’m polite, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t manufacture chitchat to save my neck.”

“What about the two of them? They talk to each other?”

“Who knows? I tuned ’em out.”

God, this was no help at all. “You remember anything else?”

“Not offhand. I’ll give it some thought, but it wasn’t any big deal. Sorry I can’t be a help.”

“Well, at least you’ve verified a hunch of mine and I appreciate that. Thanks for your time.”

“No problem.”

“Oh, one more thing. Where’d the fare originate?”

“Now that I got. You know that sleazeball bar on Milagro? That place. I picked ’em up at the Hub.”

I sat and stared at the phone for a moment after he hung up. I felt like I was running a reel of film backwards, frame by frame. Daggett left the Hub Friday night in the company of a blonde. They apparently had a lot of drinks, a lot of laughs, staggered around in the rain together, fell down, and picked themselves up again. And little by little, block by block, she was steering him toward the marina, herding him toward the boat, guiding him out into the harbor on the last short ride of his life. She must have had a heart of stone and steadier nerves than mine.

I made some quick notes and tossed the index cards in the top drawer of my desk. I kicked off my slippers and laced up my tennies, then pulled on a sweatshirt. I snatched up the skirt and shoes, my handbag, and car keys and locked up, heading out to the VW. I’d start with Coral first. Maybe she’d know if Lovella was still in town. I was remembering now the fragment of conversation I’d overheard the night I eavesdropped on Billy and Coral. She’d been talking to Billy then about some woman. I couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said, but I did remember that. Maybe Coral had seen the woman I was looking for.

When I reached the trailer park, I found the trailer dimly lighted, as if someone had gone out and left a lamp burning to keep the burglars at bay. Billy’s Chevrolet was in the carport, the hood cold to the touch. I knocked on the door. After a moment, I heard footsteps bumping toward the front.

“Yeah?” Billy’s muffled voice came through the door.

“It’s Kinsey,” I said. “Is Coral here?”

“Uh-uh. She’s at work.”

“Can I talk to you?”

He hesitated. “About what?”

“Friday night. It won’t take long.”

There was a pause. “Wait a sec. Let me throw some clothes on.”

Moments later, he opened the door and let me in. He had pulled on a pair of jeans. Aside from that, he was barefoot and naked to the waist. His dark hair was tousled. He looked like he hadn’t worked out recently, but his arms and chest were still well developed, overlaid by a fine mat of dark hair.

The trailer was disordered-newspapers, magazines, dinner dishes for two still out on the table, the counters covered with canned goods, cracker boxes, bags of flour, sugar, and corn meal. There wasn’t a clear surface anywhere and no place to sit. The air was dense, smelling faintly of fresh cigarette smoke.

“Sorry to disturb you,” I said. He looked like he’d been screwing his brains out and I wondered who was in the bedroom. “You have company?”

He glanced toward the rear, his dimples surfacing. “No, I don’t. Why, are you interested?”

I smiled and shook my head, at the same time caught up in a flash fantasy of me and Billy Polo tangled up in sheets that smelled like him, musky and warm. His skin exuded a masculine perfume that conjured up images of all the trashy things we might do if the barriers went down. I kept my expression neutral, but I could feel my face tint with pink. “I have some questions I was hoping Coral might help me with.”

“So you said. Try the Hub. She’ll be there till closing time.”

I laid the skirt and shoes across the television set, which was the only bare surface I could find. “Do you know if these are hers?”

He glanced at the items, too canny to bite. “Where’d you get ’em?”

“A friend of a friend. I thought you might know whose they were.”

“I thought this was supposed to be about Friday night.”

“It is. I talked to a cabbie who picked Daggett up at the Hub Friday night and dropped him off down near the wharf.”

“I’ll bite. So what?”

“A blonde was with him. The cabbie took them both. I figure she met him at the Hub, so I thought Coral might have had a look at her.”

Billy knew something. I could see it in his face. He was processing the information, trying to decide what it meant.

I was getting impatient. “Goddamn it, Billy, level with me!”

“I am!”

“No, you’re not. You’ve been lying to me since the first time you ever opened your mouth.”

“I have not,” he said hotly. “Name one thing.”

“Let’s start with Doug Polokowski. What’s your relation to him? Brother?”

He was silent. I stared at him, waiting him out.

“Half-brother,” he said grudgingly.

“Go on.”

His tone of voice dropped, apparently with embarrassment. “My mom and dad split up, but they were still legally married when she got pregnant by somebody else. I was ten and I hated the whole idea. I started gettin’ in trouble right about then so I spent half my time in Juvenile Hall anyway, which suited me just fine. She finally had me declared a whaddyou call ’em…”

“An out-of-control minor?”

“Yeah, one of them. Big deal. I didn’t give a fat rat’s ass. Let her dump us. Let her have a bunch more kids. She didn’t have any more sense than that, then to hell with her.”

“So you and Doug were never close?”

“Hardly. I used to see him now and then when I’d come home but we didn’t have much of a relationship.”

“What about you and your mother?”

“We’re okay. I got over it some. After Doug got killed, we did better. Sometimes it happens that way.”

“But you must have known Daggett was responsible.”

“Sure I knew. Of course I did. Mom wrote and told me he was bein’ sent up to San Luis. At first, I thought I’d get even with him. For her sake, if nothin’ else. But it didn’t work out like that. He was too pathetic. Know what I mean? Hell, I ended up almost feeling sorry for him. I despised him for the whiny little fucker that he was, but I couldn’t leave him alone. It’s like I had to torment him. I liked to watch him squirm, which maybe makes me weird but it don’t make me a killer. I never murdered anybody in my life.”

“What about Coral? Where was she in all this?”

“Hey, you ask her.”

“Could she have been the one with Daggett that night? It sounds like Lovella to me, but I can’t be sure.”

“Why ask me? I wasn’t there.”

“Did Coral mention it?”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” he said, irritably.

“Come on. You talked to Daggett Thursday night. Did he mention this woman?”

“We didn’t talk about women,” Billy said. He began to snap the fingers of his right hand against his left palm, making a soft, hollow pop. I could feel myself going into a terrier pup mode, worrying the issue like a rawhide bone, knotted on both ends.

“He must have known who she was,” I said. “She didn’t just materialize out of the blue. She set him up. She knew what she was doing. It must have been a very carefully thought-out plan.”

The popping sound stopped and Billy’s tone took on a crafty note. “Maybe she was connected to the guys who wanted their money back,” he said.

I looked at him with interest. That really hadn’t occurred to me, but it didn’t sound bad. “Did you tip them off?”

“Listen, babe, I’m not a killer and I’m not a snitch. If Daggett had a beef with somebody, that was his lookout, you know?”

“Then what’s the debate? I don’t understand what you’re holding back.”

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Lay off, okay? I don’t know nothin’ else so just leave it alone.”

“Come on, Billy. What’s the rest of it?” I snapped.

“Oh, shit. It wasn’t Thursday,” he blurted out. “I met Daggett Tuesday night and that’s when he asked me to help him out.”

“So he could hide from the guys at San Luis,” I said, making sure I was following.

“Well, yeah. I mean, they’d called him Monday morning and that’s why he’d hightailed it up here. We talked on the phone late Monday. He was drunk. I didn’t feel like putting myself out. I’d just got home and I was bushed so I said I’d meet him the next night.”

“At the Hub?”

“Right.”

“Which is what you did,” I said, easing him along.

“Sure, we met and talked some. He was already in a panic so I kind of fanned the flames, just twitting him. There’s no harm in that.”

“Why lie about it? Why didn’t you tell me this to begin with?” I was crowding him, but I thought it was time to persist.

“It didn’t look right somehow. I didn’t want my name tied to his. Thursday night sounded better. Like I wasn’t all that hot to talk to him. You know, like I didn’t rush right out. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

It was just lame enough to make sense to me. I said, “All right. I’ll buy it for now. Then what?”

“That’s all it was. That’s the last I saw of him. He came in again Friday night and Coral spotted him, so she called me, but by the time I got there, he’d left.”

“With the woman?”

“Yeah, right.”

“So Coral did see her.”

“Sure, but she didn’t know who she was. She thought it was some babe hittin’ on him, like a whore, something like that. The chick was buyin’ him all these drinks and Daggett was lappin’ ‘ em up. Coral got kind of worried. Not that either of us really gave a shit, but you know how it is. You don’t want to see a guy get taken, even if you don’t like him much.”

“Especially if you’ve heard he’s got thirty thousand dollars on him, right?” I said.

“It wasn’t thirty. You said so yourself. It was twenty-five.” Billy was apparently feeling churlish now that he’d opened up. “Anyway, what are you goin’ on and on about? I told you everything I know.”

“What about Coral? If you lied, maybe she’s been lying too.”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“What’d she say when you got there?”

The look on Billy’s face altered slightly and I thought I’d hit on something. I just didn’t know what. My mind leapt ahead. “Did Coral follow them?” I asked.

“Of course not.”

“What’d she say then?”

“Coral wasn’t feeling so hot,” he replied, uneasily.

“So she’d what, gone home?”

“Not really. She was coming down with this cold and she’d taken a cold cap. She was feeling zonked so she went back in the office and lay down on the couch. The bartender thought she’d left. I get there and I’m pissed because I can’t find her, I can’t find Daggett. I don’t know what’s goin’ on. I hang around for a while and then I come back here, thinking she’s home. Only she’s not. It was a fuck-up, that’s all. She was at the Hub the whole time.”

“What time did she get home?”

“I don’t know. Late. Three o’clock. She had to wait till the owner closed out the register and then he gave her a lift partway so she had to walk six blocks in the rain. She’s been sick as a dog ever since.”

I stared at him, blinking, while the wheels went round and round. I was picturing her at the wharf with Daggett and the fit was nice.

“Why look at me like that?” he said.

“Let me say this. I’m just thinking out loud,” I said. “It could have been Coral, couldn’t it? The blonde who left the Hub with him? That’s what’s been worrying you all this time.”

“No, uh-uh. No way,” he said. His eyes had settled on me with fascination. He didn’t like the line I was taking, but he’d probably thought about it himself.

“You only have her word for the fact that this other woman even exists,” I said.

“The cabbie saw her.”

“But it could have been Coral. She might have been the one buying Daggett all those drinks. He knew who she was and he trusted her too, because of you. She could have called the cab and then left with him. Maybe the reason the bartender thought she was gone was because he saw her leave.”

“Get the hell out of here,” Billy whispered.

His face had darkened and I saw his muscles tense. I’d been so caught up in my own speculation I hadn’t been paying attention to the effect on him. I picked up the skirt and shoes, keeping an eye on him while I edged toward the door. He leaned over and opened it for me abruptly.

I had barely cleared the steps when the door slammed behind me hard. He shoved the curtain aside, staring at me belligerently as I backed out of the carport. The minute the curtain dropped, I cut around to the trailer window where I’d spied on him before. The louvers were closed, but the curtain on that side gaped open enough to allow me a truncated view.

Billy had sunk down on the couch with his head in his hands. He looked up. The woman who’d been in the back bedroom had now emerged and she leaned against the wall while she lit another cigarette. I could see a portion of her heavy thighs and the hem of a shortie nightgown in pale yellow nylon. Like a drowning man, Billy reached for her and pulled her close, burying his face between her breasts. Lovella. He began to nuzzle at her nipples through the nylon top, making wet spots. She stared down at him with that look new mothers have when they suckle an infant in public. Lazily, she leaned over and stubbed out her cigarette on a dinner plate, then wound her fingers into his hair. He grabbed her at the knees and lowered her to the floor, pushing her gown up around her waist. Down, down, down, he went. I headed over to the Hub.

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