K is for Killer Page 22

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"I guess I could tell them, but I hate to tarnish her memory when it's all we have."

"My investigation may turn up worse than that."

"Oh, Lord, I hope not. What makes you say that?"

"Wait a minute. Let's stop this. I can't be effective if you keep on playing games."

"I'm not playing games," she said, her tone indignant.

"Yes, you are. You can knock off the bullshit about Lorna, for starters. The detective I talked to says you knew what she was doing because he told you himself."

"He did not!"

"I don't want to get into this 'did too, did not' stuff. I'm telling you what he said."

"Well, he's a damn liar, and you can tell him that's what I said."

"I'll convey your position. The point is, you promised to tell Mace about the video. You're lucky I didn't open my big mouth and put my foot in it. I came this close to mentioning it."

"That'd be all right," she said with caution, apparently mistaking my statement for an offer.

"I bet that'd be all right with you. You figure he's already hostile toward me, so what difference would it make? I can just imagine his reaction. Hey, no thanks. That's your job, and you better be quick."

"I'll raise the subject at supper."

"The sooner the better. Just don't leave me in the position of knowing more than he does. He's going to feel foolish enough as it is."

"I said I'd take care of it," she said. Her manner was frosty, but I didn't care.

We parted company on that slightly strained note.

I stopped by the bank on my way through town and deposited the check. I wasn't convinced the damn thing wouldn't bounce, and if I'd had any sense, I'd have waited until it cleared before I did any further work. I intended to head home. Under the trees, the February twilight had accumulated shadows. I was looking forward to an early supper and a good night's sleep. In the interest of efficiency, I did a detour as far as Mission Run Road in search of Lorna's former landlord. If he was home, I'd have a quick chat. If he was out, I'd leave a card with a note asking him to get in touch.

The house was a two-story Victorian structure: white frame with green shutters and a wrap-around porch. Like many such homes in Santa Teresa, this had probably been the main residence on agricultural land of considerable acreage. There was a time when this parcel would have been on the outskirts of town instead of close to its center. I could picture the orchards and fields being subdivided, other houses encroaching while owner after owner put money in the bank. Now what remained was probably less than six acres populated with old trees and the suggestion of outbuildings converted to other use.

As I moved up the walk, I could hear voices, one male, one female, raised in anger, though the subject matter wasn't audible. A door slammed. The man yelled something else, but the point was lost. I went up wooden steps that were rough with flaking gray paint. The front door was standing open, the screen on the latch. I rang the bell. I could see linoleum in the hallway and on the right, stairs going up to the second-floor landing. One portion of the hallway had been sectioned off with two accordion gates, one near the stairway, the other halfway to the kitchen. Burke had a puppy or a kid, it was hard to say. Lights were on at the back of the house. I rang the bell again. A man called out from the kitchen and then appeared, heading in my direction with a dish towel tucked in his belt. He flipped on the porch light, peering out at me.

"Are you J. D. Burke?" I asked.

"That's right." His smile was tentative. He was in his mid- to late forties, with a lean face and good teeth, though one was chipped in front. He had deep creases on either side of his mouth and a fan of wrinkles at the outer corners of his eyes.

"My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator. Lorna Kepler's mother hired me to look into her death. Can you spare a few minutes?"

He glanced back over his shoulder and then shrugged to himself. "Sure, as long as you don't mind watching me cook." He unlatched the screen and held it open for me. "Kitchen's back here. Watch your feet," he said. He sidestepped an array of plastic blocks as he moved down the hall. "My wife thinks playpens are too confining for kids, so she lets Jack play here, where he can see what's going on." I could see that Jack had smeared peanut butter on all the stair spindles he could reach.

I followed J.D. down a chilly hallway, made darker by mahogany woodwork and wallpaper somber with age. I wondered if the art experts could brighten the finish by cleaning away the soot, restoring all the colors to their once clear tones like an old masterpiece. On the other hand, how colorful could pale brown cabbage roses get?

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