Tags

, , ,


PART III.

I fell asleep again, this time till daylight. Finally crawling out of
bed I felt weak and my muscles ached. I lit a smoke, but started
coughing immediately and put it out. Putting on a shirt and a pair of
pants from my suitcase I put my shoulder holster back on and then tied
my tie and pulled on my jacket. The suit that I had worn up from L.A.,
which had gotten wet in the storm and which I had thrown onto the floor
when I got to my hotel room, I shook out and put on hangers and placed
as near to the radiator as I could to dry out. There was time for a
quick breakfast, which made me feel a little better, but I knew I was
seriously sick with something at that point. Sick or not it was time to
get back to work. “The Army’s not payin’ ya to lie in bed” they used say
to us. Old habits die hard. I got in the car and headed back to Angel
Pines.

The air was still cool but the skies were deep blue with almost no
clouds. My body was still achy and cold, and I tried to keep warm
drinking coffee from my big thermos, which I had them fill at the
restaurant where I had eaten breakfast. With the constant steering and
shifting it was impossible to use the cup and I threw it on the
passenger seat. I kept the thermos nestled between my legs, and when I
would hit a level section of road I would pull it up and take a couple
of big gulps. All the while I kept looking for the little niche where I
had parked the Plymouth when the storm hit the night before. I had
developed a pretty good trained eye over my years of doing investigative
work. But by the time the road leveled out just short of Angel Pines it
was obvious that I had missed the niche in spite of my best efforts.
Which didn’t help my mood any. I wasn’t sure why it meant anything to
spot the niche. But it did for some reason, and my screwy brain was
greatly disappointed.

Not wanting to repeat yesterday’s mistake I hit the filling station
first thing on coming into Angel Pines. Nick White Feather was in the
same chair he had been sitting in the first time I ran into him. He gave
me a nod as I got out of the car and started pumping some gas into it. I
also spent a few minutes cleaning of all the glass on the car, which was
very spotted due to the rain storm the Plymouth had been through.

“Here’s another Abe Lincoln, Chief” I said to him. White Feather smiled
and took the bill. “I like Lincoln” he said. “He’s the best of all the
presidents on money.”

“What about Andrew Jackson?” I asked him. “He’s worth a lot more.”

“No, I just like Lincoln” he said. “Jackson was not so good to my
people, really.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot. Sorry to bring up a touchy subject.”

“That is quite all right” he said. “Jackson was here for a while, but he
is no longer here. But I am here.” Once again, with great difficulty,
Nick stuck the fiver down into his pocket.

I decided to bunt. “Chief, you ever talk with Jane Stewart any? The
redhead who lives out here a ways?”

Nick looked me in the eye, and then jerked his chin up slightly. “She is
a wounded mountain lion, that one.”

“What makes you say that?”

He shrugged. “I like pie” he said. “I like lemon meringue best. But I
like all sort of pie, really. Last Fourth of July, we had a community
feast here. Don Harrison paid for the feast, and sent out flyers to
everyone. We all gathered down by the gazebo that you see there on the
edge of town. It is difficult for me to climb stairs these days, but I
wanted pie. And the pies were on a table inside the gazebo. So I
gathered my strength and climbed the seven stairs of the gazebo and got
some pie. Then I sat down on a bench inside the gazebo and ate the pie
that I had won for myself. Sitting next to me on the bench was the
Stewart woman. We talked a bit as I ate my pie.”

“And what did you talk about?”

“We talked about pie. I told her that I liked lemon meringue pie best.
But we both agreed that the cherry pie was very good.”

“And what else did you talk about?”

“Nothing. Just pie. I finished my cherry pie, and the Stewart woman
kindly went and got me a piece of pecan pie, which she said was very
good also. Then Michelle came up on the deck. That is when I saw the
Stewart woman’s eyes focus on Michelle. And as she did so, I felt the
lion-spirit in her reel back, and I felt the wounds in her. Then she
came back to the bench and gave me the pecan pie. But she continued
looking at Michelle. We didn’t talk after that. The lion-spirit had
taken her over.”

I hardly knew what to say to all of that. But it seemed clear that
Stewart had obviously had some sort of bad reaction to Michelle’s
presence at the gazebo. “So, Jane Stewart had problems with Michelle. Is
that what you are saying, Chief?”

White Feather shrugged. “It was obviously something. Something which
brought her great pain.”

I walked around in tight circles, my hands on my hips. At that point I
was not only cold but greatly saddened as well. “Oh lord, Chief. I
swear, the world is just nuts sometimes. Thanks for the conversation.
And the information.”

Nick nodded. “Be easy on the lion-woman, Little Feather. She is not a
bad person.”

“I’ll remember that, Chief” I said. I didn’t mention anything about him
calling me Little Feather. I had no Indian in me to the best of my
knowledge. But I took it as a compliment.

I drove the short ways to the diner. I walked in and up to where
Michelle stood, wiping down the counter. I didn’t bother to sit down.

Michelle gave me a smile. “Coffee?” she asked.

“Michelle, I just have one question to ask you. And please, tell me the
truth. This is important. Michelle, were you having an affair with Ron
Harrison?”

She looked at me like I was crazy. “Were you having an affair with Ron
Harrison?” I repeated, much more emphatically this time.

“No!” she said, shaking her head. She blinked, then gave her head
another shake. “No! We were friends. Just friends.”

I looked her in the eye. “And that’s the truth?”

“Yes, I swear. We were friends.” She took me by the hand. “Come back to
the kitchen. I have to tell you something.” I walked down the counter
and she opened the counter gate and we went into the kitchen where the
refrigerators were.

“I have to tell you this private-like” Michelle said, pretty much
whispering it. “I was having an affair. But not with Ron. It’s Don
Harrison that I’ve been involved with. It’s been going on for a while
now. We’ve been very careful. His wife, she doesn’t know. Nobody knows.
Not even idiot Jimmy.”

That was it, then. Michelle and Ron hadn’t been involved. Which really
only made me feel worse. My stomach seemed to sink another two inches,
like I was going down in a fast moving elevator. I walked out of the
diner and started the car and about fifteen minutes later was pulling
into Jane Stewart’s drive. Her truck was there, and I thought to myself
that the one thing that you could pretty much always count on with a
hermit was that they would be home.

Before I got out of the car I checked my .38, mostly out of habit. Then
I lit a cigarette. I was in no hurry to confront Jane. The sky was about
to tumble down on her once again. I figured it could wait a few more
minutes before it did.

She didn’t seem surprised to see me when she opened the door. But then,
I had been sitting in her drive for fifteen minutes. “Oh, Mr. Maginess”
she said. “What a surprise to see you back.”

I let that one go. “Mrs. Stewart, I was wondering if I could have a few
more minutes of your time. I have a couple more little questions that
I’d like to ask about Ron. And I think you are the only person who can
fill me in.”

“Very well” she said, waving me in. “Would you like coffee?”

“I think I’ll pass” I said, taking off my hat. “Maybe we could sit down,
though. Over by the fireplace. Would that be agreeable?”

I had often found that when trying to get a confession it was best to
keep the person a little off balance, but not so off balance as to cause
them to clam up. As such I decided to take the small wood chair that
Jane had sat in the previous day. I then waved her to the big blue chair
that I had sat in. As she sat down I could feel her nervousness. She
held herself pretty much upright in the chair, not leaning back in it but
leaning forward, her hands resting on her knees, her legs crossed
tightly.

“Mrs. Stewart, why don’t we have a little talk together, okay? A very
honest talk. There are some times when honesty is best. In fact I would
say that honesty is usually best. And this is the time for it, I think.
Why don’t we just be honest with each other? How would that be.”

“All right…” she said, her nervousness even more apparent.

“Good. So you and Ron were seeing each other. And you were intimate. Did
you love Ron, Mrs. Stewart?”

Her eyes as she looked at me were beautiful. But now the nervousness had
turned to fear.

“Yea, of course.” Her voice was cold. I thought of Nick White Feather
and his description of the lion-woman. “I would hardly have an affair if
I didn’t love someone.”

“I don’t think you would, Mrs. Stewart. I really don’t. But let’s get to
that Truth thing, okay? You loved him. But did you trust him?”

She flew out of the chair at that and, walking over near the other wall,
paced back and forth. “Trust?” she said. “Just tell me, why should I trust
anyone? Why, if we are being honest, why should I trust anyone?” She was
practically screaming the words out.

“Maybe because they are innocent of what you think.”

“Innocent!” she said, laughing. “Innocent? I don’t think there’s any of
us that are innocent. We’re all guilty. There’s just too much darkness,
too much to fight.”

I walked over to her and jerked her arm so that she would face me. “No,
Ron Harrison was innocent, Mrs. Stewart. He was a good man. A good
person. And he loved you.”

“Love? He loved that little Hollywood slut!” she said, trying to tear
herself away. But my grip held. “He betrayed me! With that little young
blonde. I followed him. He would see her at the diner. And who knows
when else. He betrayed me!”

I took her by both arms this time and looked her in the eyes. “No, he
didn’t. He was eating meat. At least occasionally. That’s why he was
going to the diner. It was the vegetarian thing, the stupid vegetarian
thing. It wasn’t about love, dammit. It was just about a stupid
cheeseburger!”

At that she did scream, horribly. “No!” She fell into my arms and I held
her tightly. “No” she said, sobbing so hard that I felt her whole body
shake. “No, no, no…he betrayed me, he betrayed me” she said, sobbing
into my chest. Then she collapsed entirely, a rag doll. I reached around
and picked her up in my arms and carried her over to the bed. Her body
felt like it weighed about ten pounds. I place her gently on the bed,
then sat down next to her. She was still crying. I pulled out my
handkerchief, but her hands were over her eyes.

After a good long while she finally stopped crying. And a bit later her
hands came down off of her face as well. Strangely, the look in her eyes
was now a determined one. “I killed him” she said flatly. “I killed
him.”

I took my handkerchief and brought it up to her cheeks to wipe them,
and she allowed me to do it, still staring up at the ceiling. As I ran
my handkerchief over her cheeks it popped into my mind that I was wiping
away her freckles too. I looked at my handkerchief, half expecting to
see them there on the surface. But there were no freckles. There were
only tears.

“I had been following him. For a month, I think. That morning I followed
him into town. I parked by the trees over by the gazebo so that he
wouldn’t see my truck. Then I walked to the diner where his jeep was. I
looked in the window. I saw them talking together, and laughing. It
wasn’t the first time I had seen him go into the diner. And I was
sure…I was just so sure.”

“Ron drove back to his cabin. I walked in on him without knocking. I
said terrible things to him. He said he loved me, that he had no idea
what I was talking about, that he wasn’t involved with her. I didn’t
believe him. I want over to the dresser where I knew he kept the gun. I
had tried talking him into getting rid of it across the months, but he
just said that he needed it out in the woods to protect himself against
wild animals. I pulled the drawer open slowly and lifted the gun. It was
so heavy in my hand. I turned to him, and his eyes widened. He threw up
his hands, once again telling me that he loved me. Then I heard the
explosion from the gun. Ron looked down at his chest. I shot him again.
He fell onto the floor. I went over to the bed, and threw the gun down
on the floor. After sitting there a while I picked the gun up and went
over to the dresser and took one of Ron’s socks and tried to wipe my
fingerprints off of it. Then I set it on the dresser and drove back
here. I didn’t even look at Ron when I left. I just came home and sat in
the big blue chair. The next thing I remember it was dark. And I
remember feeling such a peace inside myself. Like everything had been
crazy but that it all then made sense. Does that make any sense, Mr.
Maginess?”

Unfortunately, I had heard the same type of story before. “Yeah, Jane.
It makes sense.”

At that point my stomach felt like somebody had stabbed me in the gut
with a big-ass knife and was twisting it around and laughing at me. I
knew I needed to get back to Colton and to a doctor.

“Jane, would you be willing to tell the police that? To go with me back
to Colton and make things right?”

Jane looked at me and nodded. And, strangely, she smiled. “Yes.”

I decided not to bind Jane’s hands. It was a risk, but I just couldn’t
do it to her. As we headed to Colton, Jane was very quiet. She looked
out the window at the valleys below, which were covered in a slight
haze. And then she began to sing, like she had done the day before at
her cabin. It started with the soft humming. And then the words. My
nerves were on edge due to the pain, and part of me wanted to ask her to
be quiet. But another part of me wanted to let her sing on. I decided to
let her sing.

In any case, I had more serious problems to worry about at that point.
Halfway to Colton the pain in my stomach became so bad that I knew I
couldn’t continue driving. I looked for a place to pull over, then
killed the engine.

“Jane, I’m bad sick. I can’t drive any more. It’s my stomach.”

Jane looked at the gear shift, sizing it up. “I can drive.”

We traded places. Jane proved to be a very good driver. It did occur to
me that it would be real easy for her to get suicidal with all that had
gone on and for her to just yank the wheel and take us both off the side
of the cliff. But there was nothing I could do. My life was in the hands
of a misguided murderess. Luckily, the pain kept most of the worry out of
my brain.

Having been in Colton a lot more times than I had, she knew her way to
the sheriff’s office. We walked in and I took her back to Baker’s
office. Luckily, he was in. I went in uninvited and collapsed into one
of his guest chairs. Jane stood behind me. I could tell that she was
getting nervous now that the moment had come to actually turn herself
in.

“Jeez, Maginess. What the hell is the matter with you?” Baker said,
coming around to my chair. “Are you shot?”

“No. Just my stomach. This…is Jane Stewart. She shot Ron Harrison.”

Sheriff Baker looked at Jane, then back at me, then back at Jane. “Is
that true, Miss Stewart? You shot Ron?”

“It’s Mrs. Stewart. And…yes, I shot him.”

Baker called his secretary and had her call for an ambulance. I didn’t
see any need to take an ambulance five damn blocks, but I knew I sure as
hell couldn’t drive myself and I wasn’t in any mood to sit there and
suggest alternatives. A while later they pulled the gurney in and then
put me on it and wheeled me out. Ten minutes later they had me in the
emergency room under an x-ray machine.

It took about half an hour to develop the x-rays, a half hour that
seemed like an eternity. They wouldn’t even give me any ice-water,
saying that if I needed surgery that the water wouldn’t be good. I just
had to lie there in pain. Though they tried to keep me busy by putting
an IV in my arm, which also hurt like hell.

Finally, the doctor came into my little cubicle. “Well, sir, I think you
have pneumonia.”

“Pneumonia? Are you crazy? It’s my stomach that’s killing me, doc.”

“Yes, well, see the thing is, uh, Mr. Maginess, in certain cases of
pneumonia the patient’s stomach muscles tense up trying to protect the
lungs. It’s what we call an autonomous reflex. And after a while of
that, the muscles go into spasms. I’ve heard it’s quite painful.”

“You heard right” I said, moaning.

“Don’t worry, we’re going to get you on morphine to quiet down your
stomach muscles. That’ll stop the pain. Then we’ll check you into a room
here and start working on that pneumonia. I hope you didn’t have any
plans for the next few days.”

A nurse came over and put a bag up on the IV pole and stuck something
into something else. “A morphine drip” she said. “You’ll be feeling
better soon.” And she wasn’t kidding. Within five minutes the pain in my
stomach had disappeared entirely. It felt so great to be out of pain
that I fell asleep.

Then I got woke up by a rattle of the emergency gurney they had me on. A
nurse and an orderly wheeled me to the elevator, and then we went up to
the second floor, and then into a very large hospital room containing
eight beds. As far as I could tell, only one of the beds was taken.
“This is the ward” the nurse said. “As you can tell, this is a small
hospital. We have another six beds down the hall if we would ever need
them. So far, we haven’t. Now, I think we’ll put you over here by Mr.
Belkins. You two can keep each other company.”

They had me strip down to my skivvies and put me in a hospital gown.
Then I got up onto the high hospital bed. The nurse checked my IV one
more time and folded my clothes up and put them over on top of a small
table to the side of the bed. Then she cranked up the back of the
hospital bed so that my back was at a forty-five degree angle and
fluffed my pillow. “There, I think that will do it. I’ll be back in with
your other medication. Why don’t you take the time and say hello to Mr.
Belkins?”

She left, and I turned and looked at the guy in the bed next to me. He
was skinny, looked to be in his fifties, with brown hair that was
turning grey, and sort of had the face of a turtle. “So, what are you in
for, Belkins?” I said. There was no response. He was sound asleep.
“Wonderful” I said to myself and to no one in particular. There not
being any real view out the second floor windows except blue sky, I
stared at the ceiling a good while. Which, on the morphine, turned out
to be more interesting than it sounded.

The nurse brought my other medication in and then left. Then I stared
at the ceiling some more. A bit after that, Sheriff Baker came in.

“How are you feeling?” he said.

“Just great, now. How did things go with Jane?”

“We got a full confession. On paper. I sent it over to the D.A. We put
Jane in lockup and ordered her in a late lunch. If nothing else, it’ll
giver her something to do.”

Baker stood beside the bed, looked around the ward a bit, twirled his
trooper’s hat on his finger.

“So she loved him, then” he said. “The Stewart woman.”

“Yeah, she loved him.”

“And yet she killed him.”

“Yeah. She did that, too.”

Baker shook his head sadly. “I told you I’d give you a medal if you
managed to solve this one, Maginess. Turns out, I’m fresh out of
medals.”

“That’s all right, Sheriff. I’ve got enough medals. I keep ’em in a
drawer and never look at ’em.”

Baker smiled, then put his hat on. “I’ll just not and say I did, then.”
Then, giving me a little good-bye salute, he walked out.

I went back to staring at the ceiling a while.

“Belkins” I said. “You awake?”

There still was no response. I got up carefully from the bed, careful
not to do anything to screw up my IV, and got my cigarettes from my
jacket over on the table. Then I climbed back into bed and lit one up. I
hadn’t had a smoke since early morning, and even that had just been a
couple of puffs. But the cigarette made me cough this time just like
earlier and I put it out. “Must be the pneumonia” I told myself.

The nurse brought in a big cart. “Time for dinner, gentlemen” she said,
smiling. “I think we have turkey and gravy and potatoes. Yum yum!” She
set my tray on a small adjustable table that ran across my lap, then
went over to Belkins and fixed him up too. “I’ll be back to pick those
up in an hour” she said.

The turkey and gravy turned out to be typical, bland hospital food,
almost flavorless and badly in need of salt. I ate it anyway. When the
nurse came back she smiled. “Good, glad to see you are eating.” Then she
went over to Belkins again. “Oh, Mr. Belkins, you weren’t hungry I take
it? You really should try to eat something. Well, maybe you’ll feel more
like eating tomorrow.” She put his untouched tray on the cart along with
mine.

“Are you sure he’s even alive over there?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s very much alive. He has a pulse” she said, smiling.

“Coulda fooled me…”

The night seemed endless, like some sort of strange, dream-altered
version of a regular night and with all sort of odd noises filtering
into the ward from who knew where. By the time the nurse brought in the
next morning’s flavorless breakfast I was more tired than I had been
when I had started the night. I ate the breakfast. I tried another
cigarette, and this time managed to smoke half of it before the coughing
fit started. So evidently I was improving. I tried to get some sort of
communication going with Belkins. But as usual, he was non-responsive.

The nurse did bring me in some magazines. The newest of them were about
two years old. Which further confirmed my theory that hospitals and
doctor’s offices subscribed to some sort of used magazine service that
only provided old magazines. I leafed through an old copy of Life, stopping
for a while to look at a beautiful photo of Ava Gardner. Then I started
thinking about Rhonda the bartender. There was a phone over on the bed
table, and I considered getting a number from the operator and calling
the tavern. But then I decided it might be better to just wait until I
got out of the hospital. I would almost certainly be in need of a few
good whiskeys by then anyway.

I started thinking about the Harrison case. Of all the cases I had
worked on, this one had been the most pathetic. It was just all so
stupid, really. I began to play the what-if game. I thought about what
might have happened if Ron and Jane had just been more honest and open
about their relationship with each other, if they hadn’t hid it from the
rest of the town. Or if Ron had been more honest about not being able to
hack the vegetarian thing and about stopping in at the diner now and
then. Or if Jane had simply confronted Michelle about her suspicions.
But the problem with the what-if game is that is was meaningful only
after the fact, and essentially worth nothing.

Just before lunch, Don Harrison walked in. “Sheriff Baker called me last
night” he said. “Told me about Jane Stewart and all. Said you were in
the hospital. Pneumonia, he said?”

“Yeah. I got caught out in that cold rain storm the other night.”

“Well, I certainly hope you will be all right, Mr. Maginess, I want to
thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now that I know what happened to
Ron, I think it will make things a little bit easier. Knowing that his
murderer has been brought to justice and all.” He reached into his
jacket pocket, unfolded a check and handed it to me. “Is that
acceptable?” he said.

I looked at the amount. “Yeah, that’s about right. In fact it might be a
little bit too much.”

“i threw in some extra for the hospital bill.” Then he pulled out an
envelope, opened it and took out some papers and unfolded them. “And I
wanted you to have this. I stopped at my lawyer’s on the way here. It
should all be in order. It’s the bonus we talked about.”

I looked through the papers. They were essentially a transfer of title
of Ron Harrison’s cabin into my name. There was also a recent property
tax receipt and a two-year old real-estate appraisal for the cabin. “I
can’t take this, Don. It’s too much.”

“Mr. Maginess, please, take the cabin. I only have one son, and he lives
in Chicago. He left Angel Pines a long time ago, and hasn’t been back
since. He would have no interest in the cabin. Besides, he’s doing very
well for himself anyway.”

“What about Michelle?” I said.

“Oh, Michelle is already taken care of. She’ll get the diner. Please,
take the cabin. Perhaps you could keep Ron’s memory going. I would
consider it a favor.”

I agreed. “I guess we’ll be neighbors of sorts, then.”

He smiled. “I’m looking forward to that” he said.

After he left I got to thinking that it might be really nice having the
cabin. If nothing else, it might be a good safe house for a client to
hide out in if I ever needed that. And I thought of Carmen, too. Even
though she would be a partner in my business after she had been trained,
at the current moment she was still just making a secretary’s wages. I
figured that Carmen would really like that area, being very athletic and
all. And there was a great irony too in the fact that Carmen was a
vegetarian. Which made it seem even more appropriate.

A little later I got out of bed and turned the top crank to raise the
back of the bed a little more. Then I got back into bed to check it out,
got out and turned the crank a little more. When the top was to my
satisfaction, I got out of bed again and turned the bottom crank, which
brought up the knees. When I finally had that one set too the bed felt
great, totally relaxing. “I’ve got to get one of these at home” I said
to myself. I started wondering about how much one would cost. The next
time the nurse came in to give me my pills I asked her how much beds
like that ran if an ordinary person wanted to buy one. But she didn’t
know.

“You alive over there, Mr. Belkins?” I yelled over at the other bed. I
laughed at the silence. “Maybe, maybe not.” I lit a cigarette.

I imagined what I would put into the case file on this one once I got
back to Los Angeles. Something about it being an imperfect world,
perhaps. About things seriously screwing up, about ideals that come
crashing down around our heads and about making mistakes — bad ones.
I thought about Jane Stewart singing the little song to herself in her
cabin, and about the Italian colonel during the war. And I thought that
in some way that the songs should be part of it too, of what I would
stick in the old file cabinet eventually. Something about the songs.
Those little songs we sing to ourselves to make ourselves feel better.
Those songs we sing to ourselves to try to make ourselves feel better.
Those little lies we tell to make it seem all right, to make ourselves
feel better.

But when the song ends, it never does get any better.

THE END

 

Advertisements