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1

WILMA LEFT her desk at the automotive agency just before noon, hurriedly smoothing her gray hair and snatching up her purse, frantic to get out of the tiny salesman’s cubicle before she started throwing heavy objects through its glass walls. Working in a transparent box made her feel like a lab specimen.

Well, the job was only temporary. She’d be glad to get back to work at the library. She hadn’t planned to use her month’s vacation working a second job, even if it was proving more interesting than she’d anticipated. She had spent the morning running a credit check on the out-of-town purchaser of a white-and-cream Jaguar XJR. What she’d found had her most interested. With her mind on the buyer’s skillfully forged IDs, she glanced across the automotive showroom, past the drive-through that separated it from Clyde’s repair shop, and she had to laugh.

Clyde had brought one of the pups to work, had left him tied just inside the glass door of the automotive-repair wing of the building, the pup all groomed and polished and sitting on a new plaid dog bed. All Clyde needed was a hand-lettered sign advertising the pup’s many virtues.

Who knew, maybe Clyde would find Selig a home among his customers; most of them were well-to-do; surely it would take someone with money to feed that big fellow and care for him.

Hurrying down Ocean, enjoying the sun and the cool breeze skimming in off the Pacific, Wilma puzzled over her last three loan applicants.

The first credit scams she’d investigated when she started work for Sheril Beckwhite, had occurred over a two-month period. From these, she had passed to Max Harper enough information to launch seven police investigations.

But then this past week the action had heated up. She’d had five new applicants with impeccable credit ratings; her phone calls to their home numbers had been answered by a wife or by household staff. Their social security numbers, driver’s licenses, all records corresponded to information filed in the issuing departments across the country. All were excellent credit risks. Each buyer had made a minimum down payment with a personal check, taking out the maximum loan; two had said they needed the tax write-off.

She’d turned them all down. It was after requesting hard-copy records from the archives of the various agencies, asking them not to use their computer information, but to go back to the originals, that she came up with the discrepancies. Every one was a scam.

Entering Birtd’s Grocery through the back door near the deli, she was mulling over the legality, under today’s criminal-friendly courts, of fingerprinting all loan applicants and running them through NCIC before approving their loans. The idea made her smile-too bad it would never fly.

She thought about her early days in Probation and Parole, when information was so much harder to gather-long before computers, before the statistics available through National Crime Information Center-back in the horse-and-buggy days, she thought, grinning.

Heading for the deli, she heard angry voices from the front of the store, and spotted gentle-natured Lewis Birtd near the bread display. He was arguing with an irate tourist, a dark-haired, meaty woman dressed in a sloppy Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts, pushing a baby in its stroller and hauling a two-year-old by the arm.

Birtd’s Grocery, located among the village motels, catered heavily to the more affluent tourists. Mr. Birtd carried a fine selection of the nicer party and snack foods and good wines, specializing in the two local wineries, and a complete line of imported beers and ales. He stocked only carefully selected fruits and vegetables and the finest meats. His deli was not as extensive as George Jolly’s, but what he did provide was delicious and nicely presented. Local residents stopped by Birtd’s for dinnerparty items and for sudden whims. Though for everyday purchases-of hamburger, bulk rice, and canned tomatoes, for cat food and paper towels-village folk went up the valley to one of the three grocery chains, all of which offered discounts in a constant competition that kept prices down and the residents of Molena Point coming back

Waiting at the deli counter for her avocado-and-prosciutto-on-rye and a container of dilled coleslaw, Wilma listened with interest and then concern to the quickly accelerating argument at the front of the store; the woman seemed to be claiming that Mr. Birtd had sold her an open box of cookies and that the cookies had made her children sick The children didn’t look sick. Mr. Birtd didn’t seem to know quite what to do with the woman. Her tirade had grown so heated that Wilma wondered if diminutive Lewis Birtd was in physical danger. When a second altercation broke out near the checkout counters, a puzzled unease gripped her. She craned to see.

A woman in a bright dirndl skirt and loose black jacket had backed Frederick Birtd into a corner beside the shelves of pickles, upbraiding him so violently that poor Frederick shuffled with embarrassment.

The Birtds were never rude to customers; the Birtd family was patient, polite, gentle-mannered. The store was run by Mr. and Mrs. Birtd and their two grown sons and, like most Molena Point shopkeepers, they went out of their way to please their clientele. As the woman’s shouting increased, Frederick’s voice rose in unaccustomed rage. At the same moment, to Wilma’s right near the soft drinks, a tall, heavily pregnant woman began to yell and stamp, trying desperately to discipline three wildly screaming children. Business at the three checkout counters had ceased as checkers and customers watched the disruptions. When the three children began hitting their mother, pounding her with their fists, one of the checkers left his register to help her-at the same moment, Wilma realized what was happening.

Her first thought was, This can’tbe real! You read about this stuff in the police journals. Her next thought: It’s not only real, and they’re not only pulling it off, I know these people!

She flew for the front door, fighting her way past Frederick Birtd’s assailant and through the checkout fines. Glancing back, she saw the big woman swing her purse, hitting Frederick so hard he staggered backward against a Coke display, the cans and wire racks flying. Everything happened at once; the checkout lines were a battlefield as impatient customers tried to push on through. As she slid through between the registers, a large woman spun from the far register and ran for the street. At the next register, another big boned, dark-haired woman was scooping up handfuls of bills. Wilma tripped her and slammed the drawer on her hand, forcing a scream. The woman dropped a fistful of money and ran; hitting the street, she slid into a waiting car. When Wilma turned to snatch up the phone, she found that its line had been cut.

Hurrying to the motel next door, she stepped behind the empty counter, grabbed the phone, and dialed 911.

The black-and-whites must have been just around the corner. As she returned to the riot-filled store, two squad cars slid to the curb. At the same moment, four civilian cars pulled out of the parking lot fast, skidding to a pause by the front door. Half a dozen big, dark-haired women came boiling out, their loose coats and long skirts flapping. The cops grabbed three. Two jumped into the waiting cars. A third black-and-white coming around the corner gave chase.

Wilma returned to the checkout stands feeling as though she’d been caught in the middle of a movie shoot, a well-planned script. Except this drama had been real, and devastating. Lewis Birtd stood at the cash registers, pale with shock One of the three registers lay on the floor upside down, spilling loose change. The drawers of the other two hung open and empty. Lewis looked up helplessly.

“Cleaned out all three,” he said to Wilma, and turned to a pair of uniformed officers as his son Frederick approached, holding the arm of the woman who had hit him. Within minutes, seven arrests had been made, the women secured in three black-and-whites and driven away to the station. No man had been involved in the store riot; the only men Wilma had seen had been driving the getaway cars. All of the cars were new and expensive.

Wilma had, as the cars sped away, jotted down three license plate numbers. One of the cars was a blue Thunderbird, and as it wheeled a U-turn picking up its passenger, she got a close look at the driver.

She stared after the car trying to be sure, her anger rising-she hadn’t seen Sam Fulman since the day in San Francisco Federal Court, maybe ten years back, when she petitioned the court to revoke his probation.

She’d only had a glimpse of the driver, but she sure didn’t forget a man she’d twice tried to revoke before she was successful-a man she had hassled constantly about his lack of permanent residence, lack of a job, and the fact that he refused to pay his restitution. It seemed like only yesterday that she faced Fulman before the bench. She didn’t like seeing him in Molena Point. Fulman was totally bad news.

But of course he’d be in Molena Point just then.

What did she expect? With Shamas Greenlaw’s funeral pending, every shirttail Greenlaw relative in the country had made a beeline for Molena Point, looking for a share of the leavings.

She’d never told Lucinda that one of Shamas’s nephews had been her probationer; what good would it have done to tell her?

Working her way to the back of the market, stepping over fallen cans and paper goods, Wilma slipped and nearly fell on a slick spot left by spilled fruit cocktail. The floor was littered with broken glass, scattered candy and cookies. And now the aisles were crowded with uniforms talking with the remaining customers. All those present during the riot seemed eager to tell the officers their particular version.

Wilma gave Lieutenant Wendell the license plate numbers she’d noted down, then collected her lunch. Leaving Birtd’s, hurrying toward Ocean, she was just crossing the broad, tree-shaded median when she saw Clyde coming up the street, probably returning from his own lunch. He walked at an angle, leaning back, pulled along the sidewalk like an unwilling puppet by the young dog-and nearly fell over Selig when the pup stopped suddenly to sniff at the street.

Sniffing along pulling Clyde, the dog bolted away, suddenly jerking the lead from Clyde’s fist, charging along the median toward a blue Thunderbird parked at the curb.

Leaping at the car’s windows, barking and pawing, scratching the gleaming paint, he spun in circles, his wagging tail beating against the metal-then he cowered away, ducking as if with fear.

There was no one in the T-Bird. Wilma looked through the windows. In the front seat lay the same plaid jacket that one of the woman rioters had worn. Wilma glanced into the nearby shops and cafes. She didn’t see Fulman. She turned to look at Clyde.

“Tell Sheril I’ll be a bit late,” she said. “Tell her… tell her I’m chasing a loan applicant.” And she headed away, across Ocean, in the direction of the police station.

The station was mobbed with women, pale-haired women dressed in jeans or shorts, and T-shirts-not the heavily garbed brunettes she had seen in Birtd’s- all shouting. They were arguing and weeping, firing questions at the officers in some foreign language, screaming indecipherable accusations. A dozen officers were trying to sort them out. Entering, Wilma was nearly knocked flat by an energetic arrestee swinging her heavy arms and yelling.

Max Harper’s station was one large, open squad room. The counter at the front was big enough to accommodate the dispatcher and her radios, a clerk, and, behind her, a row of tall file cabinets set into the wall. Beyond the counter, a dozen officers’ desks filled the room, their surfaces invisible beneath stacks of papers and bound reports. Along the far, back wall, a credenza held a coffeemaker and assorted cups. Harper’s desk stood near it, with a clear view of the room, of the front door, and of the hall to the back door and alley. Harper, at the moment, was near the front counter in the midst of the melee, five women screaming and crowding at him, waving their arms, demanding answers to questions that seemed to have no meaning-though the women at Birtd’s a few minutes before had spoken in clear English. Wilma was backing away from a pair of enraged ladies when Harper saw her and motioned her on back to his desk.

At the credenza, Wilma busied herself making fresh coffee. Harper marched past her escorting two of the women toward the back door, taking them to the jail across the alley. He was followed by a line of officers, each with a female in tow. All blondes or sandy-haired, and one redhead, not a brunette among them.

Harper returned to his desk and poured himself a cup of coffee. Wilma sat down across from him. “How many black wigs did you collect?”

Harper smiled. “Eleven, most of them from the three cars we pulled over. Clothes, too. Big floppy coats and skirts. One of the women was in the midst of changing, Blake caught her with her skirt around her knees. Brennan and West are at Birtd’s talking to witnesses.” He settled back, sipping his coffee.

“Those are Greenlaw women.”

Harper nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

“My God, poor Lucinda. I wonder if she has any idea.”

“They were booked in with all kinds of aliases. These people have been working up and down the coast for nearly two weeks. Here in the village, they’ve kept it low-key, until today. In most instances, the store owners thought it was just a couple of annoying customers. They didn’t know what was coming down until the troublemakers left, and they found the cash drawer cleaned out.”

“One of the drivers,” Wilma said, “in the blue T-Bird, was a probationer of mine. Sam Fulman. Just a few minutes ago his car was parked over on Ocean.” She gave him the license plate number that, earlier, she had given to Brennan.

Harper motioned an officer back to the desk and sent him to impound the T-Bird and bring Fulman in for questioning.

“I haven’t seen Fulman in ten years.”

“And he’s a Greenlaw?”

“Shamas’s cousin. A real loser. There are a few darker-haired, lighter-boned members of the family.”

“We have two witnesses on store diversions up the coast that might be reliable. If we can ID the same women, here, and with your ID of Fulman, we might make something stick”

“Might?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Most of these cases walk, Wilma. You get them in court, no witness seems able to make a solid ID. Different hair color, different way of dressing, and the witness isn’t that sure. And these people turn the courtroom into the same kind of circus, shouting, mouthing off in a language you can’t understand.”

Harper shrugged. “A judge can charge them with contempt and lock them up, but besides disrupting the whole courtroom, they’ll trash the jail cells-those women can tear up a jail worse than a hundred male felons. And most times, the judge gets so tired of the noise and confusion in his courtroom and no solid witnesses, that he’ll do anything to be rid of them.

“I’ve never seen you so negative.”

“You’ve never seen me faced with one of these renegade families. You heard them up there at the desk, couldn’t get anything intelligible out of them. That’s the way they are in court. You can lock them up, but if your witnesses are uncertain, you’ve got nothing to hold them. Then usually, their hotshot attorney shows up and offers full restitution.” Harper shook his head.

“All the shopkeeper wants is his money and the value of the goods they stole. Lawyer puts a little pressure on him and offers plenty of cash, and he’ll drop charges.”

Harper shrugged, and lit a cigarette. “Without charges, they walk.”

He set down his coffee cup. “Your Sam Fulman-did he ever tell you anything about the Greenlaw family? Anything more than you know from Lucinda?”

“He said the clan is thick, that most of them come from one small town in North Carolina. Donegal, I think Three-story brick houses, long, curved drives, swimming pools and private woods, landscaped acreage. He claimed they practically own the town.”

Wilma watched the officers settling back to their desks, the room calm now, and quieter. “Fulman told me the families all work together, but he never would say just what kind of work-the construction trades, I remember him saying once, rather vaguely. He said they all intermarry, all adhere to the family rules. Much, I suppose, like a tightly controlled little Mafia.

“Fulman is something of a renegade among them. He didn’t knuckle under like the rest, didn’t behave as the elders dictated. He moved out when he was young, came out to the coast, set up his own operation. I had him on probation for a chop shop. Later, at the time I got him revoked, he’d gone into business with Shamas.”

“What kind of business?”

“Selling machine tools.”

“What about Shamas’s other business affairs?”

“When Lucinda and Shamas met, she told me, he was a rep for a roofing company in Seattle. Before they left Washington State, he had started the machine-tool company and entered into several related businesses- something about electroplating tools.”

Harper swiveled his chair around, reaching for the coffeepot. “When they moved down here, he kept those enterprises?”

“That’s what Lucinda told me, but she was pretty vague. Evidently Shamas didn’t like to talk to her about business, would never give her any details. Never told her anything about bank balances, just gave her an allowance.”

She looked at her watch. “Do you have anything on the Chambers stabbing? How is he?”

“He’s doing okay. Doctors got the lung reinflated and repaired-he was lucky. He should be home in a few days. He says he didn’t know his assailant, that he got only a glimpse. Said he’d stopped to use the phone, there by the rest rooms, that he was out walking and forgot he had an early appointment. The guy grabbed him from behind, a regular bear hug, and shoved the knife in his chest. Chambers fell and lay still, hoping the guy would think he was dead. His assailant heard someone coming and ran.”

“Wouldn’t that pretty well clear Lucinda? Grabbing him from behind hard enough to hold him and stab him?” Lucinda had been questioned as a matter of routine because she’d been in the area and had reported the body, but also because Chambers was on board the Green Lady when Shamas drowned.

“I’d think it would clear her. Though she’s tall, almost as tall as Chambers; and the miles she walks every day, she has to be in good shape for…”

“For an old lady?” Wilma grinned. “But what would be her motive?” She glanced again at her watch. “Didn’t know it was so late-Sheril will pitch a fit, want to know if I’ve been shopping on her time.” She rose, picked up her sack lunch from his desk, looked hard at Harper. “She’s such a bitch to work for. You don’t know, Max, the bad luck I’ve wished on you.”

Harper smiled, and rose, and walked with her to the front. The squad room was silent now, and half deserted, only a few officers at their desks. Wilma wondered, as she pushed out the door, how long the Greenlaw women would stay in jail before someone approached the Birtds with enough cash so they would drop the charges and Harper would be forced to release them. She stopped in a little park to eat her lunch, enjoying ten minutes of solitude, then headed for work. And it was not until the next afternoon that she learned, with amazement, that Clyde, too, had been arrested, that same afternoon. That her good friend had, uncharacteristically, also run afoul of Molena Point law enforcement-that about the time the Greenlaw women were set free, and Sam Fulman was picked up for questioning then released, Clyde, too, was cooling his heels behind bars.

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