Chapter 24

I sat on the curb near the snack shop and stared at the asphalt. The proprietor had brought me a can of Coke and I held the cold metal against my temple. I felt sick, but there wasn’t anything wrong with me. Lieutenant Feldman had appeared and he was hunkered over Billy’s body, talking to the lab guys, who were bagging his hands. The ambulance had backed around and waited with its doors open, as if to shield the body from the public view. Two black-and-whites were parked nearby, radios providing a squawking counterpoint to the murmurs of the gathering crowd. Violent death is a spectator sport and I could hear them trading comments about the way the final quarter had been played. They weren’t being cruel, just curious. Maybe it was good for them to see how grotesque homicide really is.

The beat officers, Gutierrez and Pettigrew, had arrived within minutes of Billy’s demise and they’d radioed for the CSI unit. The two of them would probably drive over to the trailer park to break the news to Coral and Lovella. I felt I should ride along, but I couldn’t bring myself to volunteer yet. I’d go, but for the moment, I was having trouble coping with the fact of Billy’s death. It had happened so fast. It was so irrevocable. 1 found it hard to accept that we couldn’t rewind the tape and play the last fifteen minutes differently. I would arrive earlier. I would warn him off and he could walk away unharmed. He’d tell me his theory and then I’d buy him the beer I’d promised him that first night at the Hub.

Feldman appeared. I found myself staring at his pantlegs, unable to look up. He lit a cigarette and came down to my level, perching on the curb. I hugged my knees, feeling numb. I barely know the man, but what I’ve seen of him I’ve always liked. He looks like a cross between a Jew and an Indian-a large flat face, high cheekbones, a big hooked nose. He’s a big man, probably forty-five, with a cop haircut, cop clothes, a deep rumbling voice. “You want to bring me up to speed on this?” he said.

It was the act of opening my mouth to speak that brought the tears. I held myself in check, willing them back. I shook my head, struggling with the nearly overwhelming rush of regret. He handed me a handkerchief and I pressed it to my eyes, then folded it, addressing my remarks to the oblong of white cotton. There was an “F” embroidered in one corner with a thread coming loose.

“Sorry,” I murmured.

“That’s okay. Take your time.”

“He was such a screw-up,” I said. “I guess that’s what gets me. He thought he was so smart and so tough.”

I paused. “I guess you never know which people will affect your life,” I said.

“He never said who shot him?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t ask. I didn’t want the last minutes of his life taken up with that stuff. I’m sorry.”

“Well, he might not have said anyway. What was the setup?”

I started talking, saying anything that came to mind. He let me ramble till I finally took control of myself and began to lay it out systematically. After hundreds of reports, I know the drill. I cited chapter and verse while he nodded, making notes in a battered black notebook.

When I finished, he tucked his ballpoint pen away and shoved the notebook back into the inside pocket of his suitcoat. He got up and I rose with him, automatically.

“What next?” I asked.

“Actually, I got Daggett’s file sitting on my desk,” he said. “Robb told me you tagged it a homicide and I thought I’d take a look. We had a double killing, one of those execution-style shootings, up on the Bluffs late yesterday and we’ve had to put a lot of manpower on that one, so I haven’t had a chance as yet. It’d help if you came down to the station and talked to Lieutenant Dolan yourself.”

“Let me see Billy’s sister first,” I said. “This is the second brother she’s lost in the whole Daggett mess.”

“You don’t think there’s any chance she’s the one who plugged him?”

I shook my head. “I thought she might connect to Daggett’s death, but I can’t picture her involved in this. Unless I’m missing something big. For one thing, he wouldn’t have to meet her out in public like this. It was someone at the funeral, I’m almost sure.”

“Make a list and we’ll take it from there,” he said.

I nodded. “I can also stop by the office and make some copies of my file reports. And Lovella may know more than she’s told us so far.” It felt good, turning everything over to him. He could have it all. Essie and Lovella and the Smiths.

Pettigrew approached, holding a small plastic Zip-loc bag by one corner. In it were three empty brass casings. “We found these over by that pickup truck. We’re sealing off the whole parking lot until the guys have a chance to go over it.”

I said, “You might check the trash bins. That’s where I found the skirt and shoes after Daggett was killed.”

Feldman nodded, then gave the shells a cursory look. “Thirty-twos,” he remarked.

I felt a cold arrow shoot up my spine. My mouth went dry. “My thirty-two was stolen from my car a few days ago,” I said. “Gutierrez took the report.”

“A lot of thirty-twos around, but we’ll keep that in mind,” Feldman said to me, and then to Pettigrew, “Let’s hustle these folk out of here. And be polite.”

Pettigrew moved away and Feldman turned to study me. “Are you all right?”

I nodded, wishing I could sit down again, afraid once I did I’d be stuck.

“Anything you want to add before I let you go?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, thinking back. I know the snapping sound a.32 makes when fired and the shots I’d heard weren’t like that. “The shots,” I said. “They sounded odd to me. Hollow. More like a pop than a bang.”

“A silencer?”

“I’ve never heard one except on TV,” I said, sheepishly.

“I’ll have the lab take a look at the slugs, though I don’t know where anybody’d get a silencer in this town,” He made another quick note in his book.

“You can probably order one from the back of a magazine,” I said.

“Ain’t that the truth.”

The photographer was snapping pictures and I could see Feldman’s gaze flick in that direction. “Let me tend to this guy. He’s new. I want to make sure he covers everything I need.”

He excused himself and crossed to Billy’s body where he engaged in a conversation with the forensic photographer, using gestures to describe the various angles he wanted.

Maria Gutierrez came up to me. “We’re going out to the trailer park. Gerry said you might want to come.”

“I’ll follow in my car,” I said. “You know where it is?”

“We know the park. We can meet you there if you want.”

“I’m going to see if Billy’s car is here in the lot. I’ll be along shortly, but don’t wait on my account.”

“Right,” she said.

I watched them pull out and then I worked my way through the lot, checking the vehicles in the area adjacent to the boat launch. I spotted the Chevy three rows from the entrance, tucked between two RV’s. The temporary sticker was still on the windshield. The windows were down. I stuck my head in without touching anything. The car looked clean to me. Nothing in the front seat. Nothing in the back. I went around to the passenger window and peered in, checking the floorboards from that side. I don’t even know what I was hoping for. A hint, some suggestion of where we might go from here. It looked as if Feldman might initiate a formal investigation after all, and glad as I was to turn it over to him, I still couldn’t quite let go.

I stopped by my car and picked up the skirt and shoes, which I handed over to Lieutenant Feldman. I told him where to find Billy’s car and then I finally got back in mine and took off. In my heart, I knew I’d been stalling to allow Pettigrew and Gutierrez a chance to deliver the news of Billy’s death. That has to be the worst moment in anybody’s life, finding two uniformed cops at your door, their expressions somber, voices grave.

By the time I got to the trailer park, the word had apparently spread. By some telepathic process, people were collecting in twos and threes, all staring at the trailer uncomfortably, chatting in low tones. The trailer door was closed and I heard nothing as I approached, but my appearance had generated conversation at my back.

A fellow stepped forward. “You a family friend? Because she’s had bad news. I wasn’t sure if you were aware,” he said.

“I was there,” I said. “She knows me. How long ago did the officers leave?”

“Two minutes. They were real good about it… talked to her a long time, making sure she was all right. I’m Fritzy Roderick. I manage the park,” he said, offering me his hand.

“Kinsey Millhone,” I said. “Is anybody with her now?”

“I don’t believe so, and we haven’t heard a peep. We were just talking among ourselves here… the neighbors and all… wondering if someone ought to sit with her.”

“Is Lovella in there?”

“I don’t know the name. Is she a relative?”

“Billy’s ex-girlfriend,” I said. “Let me see if I can find out what’s going on. If she needs anything, I’ll let you know.”

“I’d appreciate that. We’d like to help any way we can.”

I knocked at the trailer door, uncertain what to expect. Coral opened it a crack and when she saw it was me, she let me in. Her eyes were reddened, but she seemed in control. She sat down on a kitchen chair and picked up her cigarette, giving the ash a flick. I sat down on the banquette.

“I’m sorry about Billy,” I said.

She glanced at me briefly. “Did he know?”

“I think so. When I found him, he was already in shock and fading fast. I don’t think he suffered much if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I’ll have to tell Mom. The two cops who came said they’d do it, but I said no.” Her voice trailed off, hoarse from grief or the head cold. “He always knew he’d die young, you know? Like when we’d see old people on the street, crippled or feeble. He said he’d never end up like them. I used to beg him to straighten up his act, but he had to do everything his way.” She lapsed into silence.

“Where’s Lovella?”

“I don’t know,” Coral said. “The trailer was empty when I got here.”

“Coral, I wish you’d fill me in. I need to know what was going on. Billy told me three different versions of the same tale.”

“Why look at me? I don’t know anything.”

“But you know more than I do.”

“That wouldn’t take much.”

“Level with me. Please. Billy’s dead now. There’s nothing left to protect. Is there?”

She stared at the floor for a moment and then she sighed and stubbed out her cigarette. She got up and started clearing the table, running water in the tiny stainless steel kitchen sink. She squirted in Ivory Liquid, dropping silverware and plates into the mounting suds, talking in a low monotone as she worked. “Billy was already up at San Luis when Daggett got there. Daggett had no idea Doug was related to us, so Billy struck up an acquaintance. We were both of us bitter as hell.”

“Billy told me he and Doug were never close.”

“Bullshit. He just told you that so you wouldn’t suspect him. The three of us were always thick as thieves.”

“So you did intend to kill him,” I said.

“I don’t know. We just wanted to make him pay. We wanted to punish him. We figured we’d find a way once we got close. Then Daggett’s cellmate died and he got all that money.”

“And you thought that would compensate?”

“Not me. I knew I’d never be happy till the day Daggett died, but I couldn’t do it myself. I mean, kill someone in cold blood. Billy was the one who said the money would help. We couldn’t bring Doug back, but at least we’d have something. He always knew Daggett lifted the cash, but he didn’t think he’d get away with it. Daggett gets out of prison and sure enough, he’s home free. He starts throwin’ money around. Lovella calls Billy and we decide to go for it.”

“So the guys up at San Luis never did figure it out,” I said.

“Nope. Once Billy saw Daggett was in the clear, we decided to rip him off.”

“And Lovella was part of it?” Coral nodded, rinsing a plate, which she placed in the dish rack. “They got married the same week he got out, which suited us just fine. We figured if she didn’t talk him out of it, she could steal it…” “And failing that, what?”

“We never meant to kill anyone,” she said. “We just wanted the money. We didn’t have much time anyway because he’d already spent part of it. He went through five grand before we could bat an eye and we knew if we didn’t move fast, he’d blow the whole wad.”

“You didn’t realize he intended to give the rest of it to Tony Gahan?”

“Of course not,” she said with energy. “Billy couldn’t believe it when you told him about that. We thought most of it was still around somewhere. We thought we could still get our hands on it.”

I watched her face, trying to compute the information she was giving me. “You mean you set Daggett up with Lovella so you could con him out of twenty-five thousand bucks?”

“That’s right,” she said.

“You were splitting it three ways! That’s a little over eight grand apiece.”

“So?”

“Coral, eight grand is nothing.”

“Bullshit, it’s nothing! Do you know what I could do with eight grand? How much do you have? Do you have eight grand?”

“No.”

“So, all right. Don’t tell me it’s nothing.”

“All right. It’s a fortune,” I said. “What went wrong?”

“Nothing at first. Billy called him up and said the guys at San Luis heard about the money and they wanted it back. He told Daggett they were coming after him, so that’s when Daggett split.”

“How’d you know he’d hightail it up here?”

“Billy told Daggett he’d help him out,” she said with a shrug. “And then when Daggett got into town, Billy started working on him, trying to get him to fork it over to us. He said he’d act as a go-between, smooth it all over and get him off the hook.”

“He’d already given it to me at that point, right?”

“Sure, but we didn’t know that. He acted like he still had it handy. He acted like he might turn it over to Billy, but that was all crap. Of course, he was drunk all the time by then.”

“So he was conning you while you conned him.”

“He was just stringing us along!” she said indignantly. “Billy met him Tuesday night and Daggett was real cagey. Said he needed time to get his hands on it. He said he’d bring it in Thursday night, so Billy met him at the Hub again, only Daggett said he needed one more day. Billy really laid into him. He said these guys were getting very pissed and might kill Daggett anyway, whether he gave ’em the money or not. Daggett got real nervous and swore he’d have it the next night, which was Friday.”

“The night he died.”

“Right. I was working that night, and I was sup posed to keep an eye on him, which I did. Billy decided to come late, just to make him sweat, and before I knew what was happening this woman showed up and started buying him drinks. You know the rest.”

“Billy told me you took some kind of cold cap and crashed in the back room. Was that true?”

“I was just laying low,” she said. “When I saw Daggett leave, I knew Billy’d have a fit. I already felt bad enough without putting up with his bullshit.”

“And Billy finally figured out who she was?”

“I don’t know. I guess. I wasn’t here this morning, so I don’t know what he was up to.”

“Look. I have to go down to the police station and tell Lieutenant Dolan what’s been going on. If Lovella comes back, please tell her it’s urgent that she get in touch. Will you do that?”

Coral wedged the last clean dish against the pile in the rack. She filled a glass with water and poured it over the lot of them, rinsing off the few remaining suds. She turned to look at me with a gaze that chilled. “Do you think she killed Billy?”

“I don’t know.”

“Will you tell me if you find out it’s her?”

“Coral, if she did it, she’s dangerous. I don’t want you in the middle of this.”

“But will you tell me?”

I hesitated. “Yes.”

“Thank you.”

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