Mildred! Laura called out. The older woman paused at the door and looked back. Laura suddenly wanted to stuff her hands into her pockets and scuffle her shoes as she had when she was a child.
Be careful, o.k.? she blurted finally. Mildreds face crinkled into a grin.
Dont worry about me, kiddo. Worry about all those single men at Mags and at Crowders. They wont know what hit em!
And what makes you so sure of that? Laura asked, a small frown line appearing between her eyebrows.
Because Joe is gonna be there watching my back! Mildred laughed.
Joe? You called Joe in on this? Laura couldnt decide whether to be alarmed or amused.
Well, not exactly. I just figured it would be a good idea to have someone nearby and, as long as the Agency is willing to pick up his bar tab, hes not going to do anything, just step in if anyone tries anything funny. She readjusted her purse strap on her shoulder. Not that I expect anyone to try anything. After all, Im not some sexy young thing out for adventure. Just an old poop out for a drink. Im gonna hang around the bar and the ladies room. Maybe the dance floor. She offered her employer a wicked wink.
Laura suddenly wished she could accompany her friend, if only to watch her on the dance floor. Grinning, she repeated her warning about staying safe and watched the glass doors swing shut behind Mildreds back.
Grace, get Dr. Cathcart on the phone for me, would you?
she said, moving toward her office.
He pulled up outside the one-story building and stared dubiously at the façade. Piece of cake, he muttered to himself.
His voice held no conviction whatsoever, but he got out of the car and walked in the front door, trying to look as if he did this on a regular basis. The young woman at the desk looked up and smiled. She hadn't been there when he'd helped drop his son off that morning.
Hi! Can I help you?
Ah, my name is Cathc--, ah, Chalmers. Im sorry. Im here to pick up my son, Harry.
The receptionists dimple disappeared. She pulled open her bottom desk drawer and began pawing through folders. Selecting one, she opened it and glanced briefly through its contents. Then she looked up again with a smile of obvious relief.
Yes, Dr. Chalmers. I just need you to sign the sheet here and you can collect your son. He should be out on the playground. She pushed a clipboard and pen over to him and he scribbled his name and the time on it.
Which way to the playground?
Straight down the hallway, take a left at the water fountain. You cant miss it. He started to leave. Dr. Chalmers? He turned back with a strained smile. Dont forget to check his cubby before you leave.
Thank you. He started off again, too embarrassed to ask what the devil a cubby might be.
The decibel level on the playground was near deafening. Small bodies hurtled in all directions like random pool balls off a fast break. He stood on the flat step outside the door and looked around, perplexed. How did one locate ones offspring in the midst of this melee? A few teachers stood in strategic spots offering guidance, comfort, a push on the swings. All were reasonably occupied.
He could yell, he supposed, but it didnt seem quite right. Looking around, a gradual order seemed to emerge. The playground was organized into zones. The swings, slides and climbers were all on the far left. On the far right was large, grassy area, littered with children and balls. Between the two, under the shade of a large tree, stood a wooden playhouse and a sandbox. A long strip of pavement ran alongside the building itself, providing access by tricycle and scooter. Surging groups of children moved randomly between each zone. He began looking more closely at the hurtling faces.
There, in that small knot of little boys in the far corner of the sandbox, busily dumping a plastic bucket of sand into another childs lap. He moved toward the sandbox, raising one long arm in a casual wave. Harry! The small face looked up.
Suddenly, his son was leaping up, plunging across the sandbox and darting across the grass.
Daddy! Daddy! Little legs pumping, chest out. His son was going to be a good distance runner someday. Suddenly, the child pitched forward and collapsed on the grass. A moment later a loud wail arose.
He reached his son moments before the nearest teacher. Helping the tearstained toddler to his feet, he inspected the small knees. Other than a grass stain, the child seemed unharmed. One dragging shoelace told its own tale of woe.
Its o.k., he soothed, hugging the little boy as his sobs subsided. Youre all right. Come on now. His son offered him a small, watery smile in response, then a crushing hug.
Hi, Daddy! You camed to get me! Hi!
Um, my name is Sheila. Im Harrys afternoon teacher, the blond young woman at his elbow interjected. He looked up and offered her a smile of his own. And you are?
Im sorry, he said, getting to his feet and extending one hand. Im Dr. Chalmers, Harrys father. Im here to pick him up today.
She took his hand briefly. I hope you dont mind, but since Ive never met you, Ill need to check with the office before releasing Harry to you.
He grinned at her. Not a problem, Sheila. In fact, Im delighted youre so thorough. Well wait out here until you return. Thank you. Holding his sons hand, he wandered back to the sandbox with him, aware of the intense scrutiny of the other teachers.
Daddy, this is our sandbox, see? The child was vibrating with delight. His father made the appropriate impressed noises and the little boy beamed with pleasure. He cheerfully introduced his father to his friends.
An this is Colin an this is Robert an this is Rashad! The other three boys looked vaguely interested. An this is my Daddy!
Are you gonna stay and play with us? Rashad asked, his little, round face curiously reminiscent of a certain stuffed monkey.
No, not today. Im here to take Harry home.
Oh. Rashad and his companions quickly lost interest and returned to the endless fascination of the sand.
Dr. Chalmers? He turned and smiled at Sheila.
Everything all right?
Yes, and thank you for being so understanding, she said.
Thank you for being so careful of my sons welfare, he assured her. But, may I ask you a slightly embarrassing question? He leaned over and spoke softly. What exactly is a cubby and why shouldnt I forget it?
Moments later, he was rooting around in his sons cubbyhole area, pulling out a plastic bag of soiled pants while his son put on the light jacket hed worn to school that day. The classroom, which he hadn't had the opportunity to visit that morning, was filled with light and color and the walls were covered with an impressionists nightmare rendered lovingly in fingerpaints. He paused for a moment, looking at the pictures hanging on the walls. Each had a childs name pencilled in the lower right-hand corner.
Harry, wheres your painting? he asked. The little boy jumped off the toybox hed been perched on and started for the door.
I dont got one today, he said. Lets go home. I wanna see Mommy.
He followed his son out into the hall. Mommys working late today, thats why I came to pick you up. Guess what?
Were going to the store and then you can help me make a special dinner for Mommy, o.k.?
The childs smile was bright enough to light a city block. Goody! I get to help Daddy!
He skipped all the way out of the building.
Fast Eddies certainly didnt live up to its name, Laura reflected, gazing around the small, dim room. A few masculine forms hovered around a battered pool table, while an electric bowling game kept company with a small brown spider near the side door. Other than that, there was only herself and the bartender, a bored-looking young woman in her mid-20s.
Laura pulled herself onto the cracked, peeling padding of the barstool, trying not to grimace as the sticky surface pulled at her slacks. The bartender slapped a small, square napkin down in front of her.
Whatll it be?
Just a beer, thanks.
Tap or bottle?
Tap, whatevers brands easiest. Im not picky today.
She watched the young woman wander over to the taps, gum snapping idly between yawning jaws. How had she managed that peculiar shade of orange-pink hair, and was it deliberate?
A glass of vaguely amber liquid, with a thin, insipid layer of foam across the top, was thumped decisively in front of her.
Buck and a quarter.
Laura slid the money across the bar. Is it always this lively around here? she asked, glancing idly around her.
Nah, the bartender yawned. Sometimes we get a downright lull. But thats only on Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the time its just this mad social whirl you see before you.
Laura gave her grin number eight, her patented gee, you look like a kindred spirit, face, designed to win friends and influence shared confidences. I just moved to the area and I was looking for a place to get out and meet people. Somebody told me to try this place.
Did you get to pet their seeing-eye dog?
Laura laughed. Im Tracy Chalmers.
Tell me, Annie, how does the place stay open with this kind of customer base?
Well, the bartender sighed, it was livelier before they closed the metalworks, Ill give it that. Since then, well, I figure another six months and the placell be boarded up.
When did the metalworks close?
Three months back. We still get some of the guys in here, but mostve found jobs someplace else and theyre patronizing places closer to their work.
Must be hell on tips.
You dont know the half of it, sister.
Which half dont I know?
I own the joint. Inherited it from my dad, Edward Stevenson. Hes rolling in his grave at what this place has turned into, but nothing I can do about it, I guess. And he probably needs the exercise anyway.
Oh. Laura contemplated the depths of her glass in silence for a moment. Look, I suppose I should just keep on like this, but it seems foolish. Let me ask you something, Annie, the two guys playing pool, are they regulars?
Who Dan and Buck? Well, Dans my husband and Bucks my kid brother. But I wouldnt call em regulars. Buck doesnt even live in town. Hes got a place in Sacramento, but hes visiting us this week. Dans on vacation, otherwise hed be at work right now.
I take it hes not a laid-off metalworker?
Oh, hes laid off all right, but he bought into a gas station before the pink slips started flying, so hes doing better than most.
Laura sighed. Well, I suppose I should just cut to the chase then. She opened her purse and took out the small, wallet-sized photo of Jessica Beecham. Do you remember this woman at all? She would have been a customer five months ago or more.
You a cop?
Private. I was told she might have hung out here at one time.
With a small show of reluctance, Annie took the photograph and held it gingerly by one corner, as if it might bite.
Pretty. Yeah, I think she was in here some. Not quite a regular, but more than once, anyway. She in some kind of trouble?
Not anymore, Laura took the photo back and tucked it into her purse. Did she seem friendly with anyone in particular when she was here?
Look, Im not sure I want to do this. I mean, I may not have that many regulars left, but I dont know what Id be letting someone in for if I answered your questions. If shes a runaway, she looks old enough to make her own decisions. If its a divorce thing
Shes dead, Annie. And her familys been left with too many questions. Im just trying to find some answers.
You arent saying how she died. Annies voice was flat, her eyes hard. Laura sighed.
She was murdered. Her body was cut up and left in a series of dumpsters scattered all over town. All were trying to do at this point is get some idea of her habits and actions in the last months of her life. I have the names of about four bars she was said to hang out at. This is one of them." She looked straight and hard into the bartender's eyes. "Im not looking to railroad anyone, Annie. I just want some idea of what she was like. Can you tell me that much?
Annies shoulders slumped. Shit, she muttered, and plucked Lauras beer glass from her hand. Let me refill this for you. Dumpsters? Lord, what is it, something in the water? People are just plain nuts anymore. She put the glass back down. The layer of foam on top was a micrometer thicker than before.
Like I told you, she wasnt a regular. She was a looker. She came in from time to time, trolling for action.
Did she find any?
Hell if I know. She left here once or twice with guys. But they were guys I knew. Safe guys. I dont think any of em killed her.
Did she ever leave with the same man more than once?
Nah. She went with Joe once and with Dean once, I think. Actually, I dont think Dean did more than walk her to her car, but youd have to ask him about that. Then there was Little Steve. He was the last one, must have been six, seven months ago. You might try talking to him. He seemed to like her. Came in every day for a couple of weeks after that, looking for her, but she never showed up in here again.
"Do these guys have last names?"
"If they do, I don't know 'em, and that's the honest truth, honey."
Laura nodded. Do any of them live around here?
Joe lives on Paloma, in a little four-flat over a grocery store. Dean and Little Steve are over at Ricos boarding house on Shepherd and Rice. At least I think they are. I havent heard any different. Just dont tell em I sent you. They still come in and drink from time to time and Id hate to lose what little business I still get.
Your secret is safe with me, Laura assured her, laying a five dollar bill on the counter and sliding off the stool with difficulty. And thanks for your help.
I still say you still oughta sue him.
The guy with the seeing-eye dog.
Laura laughed as she turned to leave, falling silent as she
become aware of the echo of her own footsteps in the nearly-empty
The messenger was the same kid as before. Jarvis handed him the envelope and gave him directions.
"You want this tonight?"
"They'll be closed. Do it first thing in the morning."
"O.k. to leave it at the desk again?"
Jarvis sighed. "Yeah, sure, I guess so, but get somebody to sign for it, o.k.?"
The kid nodded and vanished, leaving Jarvis to sink down wearily in his chair considering the multifaceted wages of sin.
Maybe Madam Lila would have been a better choice after all.
The phone rang as he set the paper bags down on the kitchen table. He gave it a dubious glance before picking up the receiver.
"Holt residence, may I help you?"
There was silence on the other end.
"Holt residence. May I help you?"
The silence stretched. After a few moments, he hung up with a small sigh and turned back to the groceries, which his small son was already rooting among. He rescued a box of rice and put the call out of his head.
But then, mistakes will happen. Even to the best of us.
The noise was a solid wall, slamming into the center of her breastbone as she entered the murky interior of the bar. Mildred clutched her purse and looked around warily. There, at that table near the far corner. He raised his beer glass in silent toast and Mildred felt her shoulders release their tension. She looked around again. Aside from Joe, it was a fairly mixed crowd. Mag's had only been half-full, happy hour notwithstanding, and most of its patrons looked like they were from one local softball team. But Crowder's was packed tight.
A writhing knot of bodies managed to find room to move on the dance floor, though Mildred couldn't see how people managed to stay with their own partner in the crush.
The scattering of tables around the perimeter of the room were all taken and the bar area was standing room only as well. A group of about five warm bodies were cheering on another as he took aim at a plastic dartboard and up on a raised platform area to the right of that, younger bodies hunched over a small row of video games and one ancient pinball machine.
Mildred spotted a middle-aged woman slide off her barstool and begin fumbling in her purse for something. As the woman moved off, Mildred moved in, snagging the still-warm stool for herself and hoping the woman hadn't just drifted off to the ladies' room. She caught the bartender's eye.
"Tonic-and-lime, please." Joe could drink beer but she was on duty and, while she was certain Miss Holt would never take her to task for it, she felt obligated to remain substance-free.
The bartender brought her order and she tried to catch his eye, smiling warmly. But he simply dropped off her drink, scooped up the money she'd placed on the bar and moved to the other side of the serving area without comment. Mildred sagged momentarily, but forced herself to perk up and look around at her neighbors.
The man seated to her left had tufts of grey hair poking out of his ears. The long strands plastered across the shiny top of his skull were an improbable inky black. His shoulders strained the seams of his green checked sportcoat and his stomach threatened to send all the buttons flying as well. He was scowling into the depths of his martini glass as if its contents had contradicted him in some way.
To her right, a woman with sallow cheeks and long, dried-out, frizzed hair sucked wearily from the straw in a tall, narrow glass. She managed to seem overdressed, even though she only wore a champagne-colored satin blouse and black linen skirt above narrow-heeled pumps. Her eyes were as lifeless as her bleached hair and the corners of her wide mouth dragged in general discontent.
Regulars, Mildred concluded. Had to be.
Being short was an occasional advantage, she realized, as she asked the woman on her right to pass her the pretzels.
"I can never reach anything at a bar," she confided in a gossipy rush. "With those long, slender arms of yours, I bet you never have that problem."
The woman eyed her with some distaste. "Honey," she drawled, "I don't swing that way, get it?"
Mildred gaped for a moment. "Oh! No! Neither do I, believe me. I just envy people taller than me. You have no idea how much easier life is for you, that's all." The woman looked away again, disinterested.
"Easy," grunted the troll on her left. "Everybody's looking for something easy. Easy on who? On me? Not on your life. No, just easy for everybody else in the world, that's all. Never mind me. No need to make anything easy on me, is there?"
Mildred stared as the troll continued his monologue with his martini glass.
"You're in sales, aren't you?" she said finally. The troll looked up with bloodshot, watery eyes.
"How'd you know that?" he muttered darkly.
"Oh, I just recognize the frustration," she said with a cheerful smile. "I've been there myself, many times."
"Yeah, right," the troll grunted. "Bet you have. Probably worked some cosmetics counter once and think you've seen it all. Well, let me tell you "
He proceeded to do just that for the next interminable 20 minutes. Mildred shifted and twisted on her seat, trying not to run screaming from the area just to escape the verbal bile pouring out at her.
The bartender rescued her. "Refill?" She smiled at him in gratitude and began digging in her purse, finally coming up with a small handful of change and an apologetic expression.
"Oh, dear, I must have overspent at the mall again," she murmured, almost to herself. "I'm so embarrassed."
"Not to worry, lady. This one's been paid for already." The bartender's shiny, dark features split in a wide grin. He jerked one meaty thumb over his shoulder and Mildred craned her neck for a better look. Along the far wall, Joe raised his half-empty beer glass in a silent salute.
Bless the man, she thought with a rush of relief, and tipped her own filled glass in his direction. "I should probably go say thank you," she said to the bartender, who nodded, still grinning. Mildred climbed happily off her barstool and headed over toward her own personal Prince Charming.
"Hey there, sailor. Come here often?"
"Just often enough to know this is probably one big dead end, my dear." Joe's pleasant smile never wavered, but his eyes, she noted, were dead serious.
"O.k., spill it. What's wrong?"
"I just had a small chat with a cocktail waitress who tells me that the place is under new management, has been for the past five and a half months. And the new management ran off all the old crowd. In fact, those two overaged delinquents you were sitting between are probably the last of the old regulars. The staff and the patrons are all imports."
"Imports from where?"
"The Silver Shamrock, the joint the owners used to have out by Century City. This crowd is a sort of floating party. They all show up wherever the owners are. I don't think any of them were here at the same time as your dead girl. Except, as I said, the two decrepit characters you were talking to earlier."
Mildred sighed. "O.k., I'll troll the ladies' room once more, see if I can pick up any gossip about weird guys hanging around and then I guess I'll just pack it in, because Tweedledum and Tweedledumb-as-wet-toast over there aren't going to be any great fountains of knowledge. Thanks for saving me a lot of wasted time." She smiled at him and was pleased to see that, this time, his smile reached his eyes. He grasped her hand as she rose from the table.
"Hey, if we don't have to rush off right away, I have it on good authority that they're going to do a set of slow songs in about 10 minutes or so. Care to trip the neon fantastic with an old fart?"
"Anytime you say, Joe. Anytime at all." Nice to know,
she thought, moving toward the ladies room, that her evening wouldn't
be a complete waste. Thank God for Joe.
Dinner was ready to go into the oven when the doorbell rang. Harry, Jr., engrossed in a cartoon, never turned his head as his father passed him on his way to the door. Over the child's shoulder, Joji stared with blank amazement as he reached the door and opened it.
That was why only the stuffed monkey witnessed two rough hands seize the front of his shirt and haul him out the door onto the landing. The door closed behind him then, so even Joji didn't see what happened next.
There was no discussion, no introductions, no trivialities exchanged. Before he could blink, or even open his mouth, one solid fist connected sharply with his jaw.
And the lights went out.