Devil's Waltz Part 29

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"That so?" said the man.

"She patched up your gear last winter. Gibson A-four with a headstock crack? D-eighteen with loose braces, bowed neck, bad frets, and a popped bridge? Whoever baked those muffins was good."

"Who are you?" said the woman.

"Exactly who I said I was. Call Robin-she's at her shop, right now. Ask her about Alex Delaware. Or if you don't want to bother, could you please tell me where I can find Dawn Herbert? I'm not out to hassle her, just want to get the chart back."

They didn't answer. The man placed a thumb behind one of his suspender straps.



"Go call," the woman told him.

He went into the house. She stayed behind, watching me, breathing deeply, bosoms flopping. The dogs watched me too. No one spoke. My eyes caught motion from the west end of the block and I turned and saw a camper back out of a driveway and lumber toward Sepulveda. Someone on the opposite side of the street was flying an American flag. Just beyond that, an old man sat slumped in a lawn chair. Hard to be sure but I thought he was watching me too.

Belle of the ball in Culver City.

The suspendered man came back a few minutes later, smiling as if he'd run into the Messiah. Carrying a pale-blue plate. Cookies and muffins.

He nodded. That and his smile relaxed the woman. The dogs began wagging their tails.

I waited for someone to ask me to dance.

"Get this, Bob," he said to the woman. "This boy's her main squeeze."

"Small world," said the woman, finally smiling. I remembered her singing voice from the album, high and clear, with a subtle vibrato. Her speaking voice was nice too. She could have made money delivering phone sex.

"That's a terrific woman you've got there," she said, still checking me out. "Do you appreciate her?"

"Every day."

She nodded, stuck out her hand, and said, "Bobby Murtaugh. This is Ben. You've already been introduced to these characters."

Greetings all around. I petted the dogs and Ben passed the plate. The three of us took muffins and ate. It felt like a tribal ritual. But even as they chewed, they looked worried.

Bobby finished her muffin first, ate a cookie, then another, chewing nonstop. Crumbs settled atop her breasts. She brushed them off and said, "Let's go inside."

The dogs followed us in and kept going, into the kitchen. A moment later I heard them slurping. The front room was flat-ceilinged and darkened by drawn shades. It smelled of Crisco and sugar and wet canine. Tan walls, pine floor in need of finishing, odd-sized homemade bookshelves, several instrument cases where a coffee table would have been. A music stand in the corner was stacked with sheet music. The furniture was heavy Depression-era stuff-thrift-shop treasures. On the walls were a Vienna Regulator that had stopped at two o'clock, a framed and glassed Martin guitar poster, and several handbills commemorating the Topanga Fiddle and Banjo Contest.

Ben said, "Have a seat."

Before I could comply, he said, "Sorry to tell you this, friend, but Dawn's dead. Someone killed her. That's why we got freaked out when you mentioned her name, and the other murder. I'm sorry."

He looked down at the muffin plate and shook his head.

"We still haven't gotten it out of our heads," said Bobby. "You can still sit down. If you want to."

She sank into a tired green sofa. Ben sat next to her, balancing the plate on one bony knee.

I lowered myself to a needlepoint chair and said, "When did it happen?"

"A couple of months ago," said Bobby. "March. It was on a weekend-middle of the month, the tenth, I think. No, the ninth." Looking at Ben.

"Something like that," he said.

"I'm pretty sure it was the ninth, babe. It was the weekend of Sonoma, remember? We played on the ninth and came back to L.A. on the tenth-'member how late it was because of the problems with the van in San Simeon? Least that's when he said it happened-the cop. The ninth. It was the ninth."

He said, "Yeah, you're right."

She looked at me: "We were out of town-playing a festival up north. Had car trouble, got stuck for a while, and didn't get back till late on the tenth-early morning of the eleventh, actually. There was a cop's business card in the mailbox with a number to call. Homicide detective. We didn't know what to do and didn't call him, but he called us. Told us what happened and asked us lots of questions. We didn't have anything to tell him. The next day he and a couple of other guys came by and went through the house. They had a warrant and everything, but they were okay."

A glance at Ben. He said, "Not too bad."

"They just wanted to go through her stuff, see if they could find anything that might relate. 'Course they didn't-that was no surprise. It didn't happen here and they told us from the beginning they didn't suspect anyone she knew."

"Why's that?"

"He-this detective-said it was . . ." She closed her eyes and reached for a cookie. Managed to find it and ate half.

"According to the cop, it was a sick psycho thing," said Ben. "He said she was really . . ."

Shaking his head.

"A mess," said Bobby.

"They didn't find anything here," said Ben. The two of them looked shaken.

"What a thing to come home to," I said.

"Oh, yeah," said Bobby. "It really scared us-to have it be someone we knew." She reached for another cookie, even though half of the first one was still in her hand.

"Was she your roommate?"

"Tenant," said Bobby. "We own the house." Saying it with wonderment. "We have a spare bedroom, used to use it as a practice room, do some home recording. Then I lost my job over at the day-care center, so we decided to rent it out for the money. Put a card up on the bulletin board at the university 'cause we figured a student might want just a room. Dawn was the first to call."

"How long ago was this?"

"July."

She ate both cookies. Ben patted her thigh and squeezed it gently. The soft flesh cottage-cheesed. She sighed.

"What you said before," he said, "about this medical chart. Was her taking it uncool?"

"She was supposed to return it."

They looked at each other.

"Did she have a 'taking' problem?" I said.

"Well," he said, uncomfortably.

"Not at first," said Bobby. "At first she was a great tenant-cleaned up after herself, minded her own business. Actually, we didn't see her much because we had our day jobs, and then sometimes we'd go out to sing at night. When we didn't, we went to sleep early. She was out all the time-real night owl. It was a pretty good arrangement."

"Only problem," said Ben, "was her coming in at all hours, because Homer's a good watchdog and when she came in he used to bark and wake us up. But we couldn't very well tell her when to come in and out, could we? Mostly, she was okay."

"When did she start taking things?"

"That was later," he said.

"A couple of months after she arrived," said Bobby. "At first we didn't put it together. It was just small stuff-pens, guitar picks. We don't own anything valuable, except the instruments, and stuff gets lost, right? Look at all those one-of-a-kind socks, right? Then it got more obvious. Some cassette tapes, a six-pack of beer-which she could have had if she'd asked. We're pretty free with our food, even though the deal was she was supposed to buy her own. Then some jewelry-a couple pairs of my earrings. And one of Ben's bandannas, plus an antique pair of suspenders he got up in Seattle. Real nice, heavy leather braces, the kind they don't make anymore. The last thing she took was the one that bothered me the most. An old English brooch I got handed down from my grandmother-silver and garnet. The stone was chipped but it had sentimental value. I left it out on the dresser and the next day it was gone."

"Did you ask her about it?" I said.

"I didn't come out and accuse her, but I did ask her if she'd seen it. Or the earrings. She said no, real casual. But we knew it had to be her. Who else could it have been? She's the only other person ever stepped in here, and things never disappeared until she came."

"It must have been an emotional problem," said Ben. "Kleptomania, or something like that. She couldn't have gotten any serious money for any of it. Not that she needed dough. She had plenty of clothes and a brand-new car."

"What kind of car?"

"One of those little convertibles-a Mazda, I think. She got it after Christmas, didn't have it when she first started living with us or we might have asked for a little more rent, actually. All we charged her was a hundred a month. We thought she was a starving student."

Bobby said, "She definitely had a head problem. I found all the junk she stole out in the garage, buried under the floorboards, in a box, along with a picture of her-like she was trying to stake claim to it, put away a little squirrel's nest or something. To tell the truth, she was greedy, too-I know that's not charitable but it's the truth. It wasn't until later that I put two and two together."

"Greedy in what way?"

"Grabbing the best for herself. Like if there'd be a half-gallon of fudge ripple in the freezer, you'd come back and find all the fudge dug out and just the vanilla left. Or with a bowl of cherries, all the dark ones would be picked out."

"Did she pay her rent on time?"

"More or less. Sometimes she was a week or two late. We never said anything, and she always paid, eventually."

Ben said, "But it was turning into a tense scene."

"We were getting to the point where we would have asked her to leave," said Bobby. "Talked about how to do it for a couple of weeks. Then we got the gig in Sonoma and got all tied up, practicing. Then we came home and . . ."

"Where was she murdered?"

"Somewhere downtown. A club."

"A nightclub?"

Both of them nodded. Bobby said, "From what I gather it was one of those New Wave places. What was the name of it, Ben? Something Indian, right?"

"Mayan," he said. "The Moody Mayan. Or something like that." Thin smile. "The cop asked us if we'd been there. Right."

"Was Dawn a New Waver?"

"Not at first," said Bobby. "I mean, when we met her she was pretty straight-looking. Almost too straight-kind of prim, actually. We thought she might think we were too loose. Then gradually she punked up. One thing she was, was smart, I'll tell you that. Always reading textbooks. Studying for a Ph.D. Biomathematics or something like that. But at night she used to change-she'd dress up to go out. That's what Ben meant by her having the clothes-punk stuff, lots of black. She used to smear on that temporary hair dye that washes right out. And all this Addams Family makeup-sometimes she'd mousse up her hair and spike it. Like a costume. The next morning she'd be straight again, going to work. You wouldn't have recognized her."

"Did she actually get killed at this club?"

"I don't know," she said. "We really weren't listening to the details, just wanted the cops to get her stuff out of here, get the whole thing out of our systems."

"Do you remember the detective's name?"

"Gomez," they said in unison.

"Ray Gomez," said Bobby. "He was a Los Lobos fan and he liked doo-wop. Not a bad guy."

Ben nodded. Their knees were pressed up against each other, white from pressure.

"What a thing to happen," she said. "Is this child going to suffer because Dawn stole the chart?"

"We can work around it," I said. "It just would have been nice to have."

"Shame," said Ben. "Sorry we can't help you. The police took all her stuff and I didn't see any medical chart in there. Not that I was looking that close."

"What about the things she stole?"

"No," said Bobby, "no charts there, either. Not too thorough of the cops not to find it, huh? But let me just check, to make sure-maybe inside the flaps or something."

She went into the kitchen and came back shortly with a shoebox and a strip of paper. "Empty-this here's the picture she laid on top. Like she was staking her claim."

I took the photo. One of those black-and-white, four-for-a-quarter self-portraits you get out of a bus terminal machine. Four versions of a face that had once been pretty, now padded with suet and marred by distrust. Straight dark hair, big dark eyes. Bruised eyes. I started to hand it back. Bobby said, "You keep it. I don't want it."

I took another look at the photo before pocketing it. Four identical poses, grim and watchful.

"Sad," I said.

"Yeah," said Bobby, "she never smiled much."

"Maybe," said Ben, "she left it at her office at the U-the chart, I mean."

"Do you know what department she was in?"

"No, but she had an extension there that she gave us. Two-two-three-eight, right?"

"Think so," said Bobby.

I took paper and pen out of my briefcase and copied that down. "She was a doctoral student?"

"That's what she told us when she applied. Biomathematics, or something."

"Did she ever mention her professor's name?"

"She gave a name for a reference," said Bobby, "but to tell the truth we never called it."

Sheepish smile.

"Things were tight," said Ben. "We wanted to get a tenant quickly, and she looked okay."

Devil's Waltz Part 29

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Devil's Waltz Part 29 summary

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