Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs turns deadly, and Lillian Byrd is in the middle of it.
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damn straightA LILLIAN BYRD CRIME STORY
By Elizabeth Sims
alyson booksCopyright © 2003 Elizabeth Sims
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe power struggled back up for about ten seconds-ten brown little seconds-then failed again. I shivered at the moaning, primeval sound it made and tugged down the cuffs of my sweater.
It was March, it was darker than a stack of black cats, and wind-lashed sleet was dragging down utility lines from Monroe to Saginaw. This winter had been a long and sorry one, and spring was supposed to be coming. Most people vent their winter rage on February, but how easy it is to forget treacherous March until it rolls around. You're anticipating spring, you're remembering a bygone balmy March thaw, and your reservoir of strength and cheer against cold and trouble is low. You long to be restored by the sight of a crocus poking its brave yellow petals through a patch of snow-just one goddamn crocus is all you ask-but it doesn't come.
I put on another sweater, my red lamb's-wool one, over my turtleneck, which overlaid my polypropylene long johns; then I pulled on one more pair of socks, overlapping the cuffs of my corduroys, and lumbered into the kitchen. The water was ready, bubbling above the gas flame. I poured in the macaroni. It was a good night for my specialty, macaroni and cheese primavera, a dish I relied on in times of uncertainty. I got out the frozen mixed vegetables, poured them in after a few minutes, and snipped the foil cheese pouch.
Todd and I dined by candlelight, sitting together on the floor. He was happy enough with his carrot top and a handful of bunny chow. I stroked his fur and gave some more thought to my plan to kill Mrs. Gagnon's dog.
Most dogs are wonderful by nature, but this particular one was terrible, vicious to the core. Monty. He'd almost murdered Todd last summer, twice. And Mrs. Gagnon thought it was funny. It got so that whenever I took Todd outside, she'd let Monty out to rocket across the street, snarling and snapping. The first close call, I'd had Todd more or less corralled inside the coiled garden hose as I washed my car, and had to dive for him, shielding him from Monty's jaws with my back. My T-shirt got shredded.
The next time, I hadn't even put Todd on the ground when Monty made for us as if we were the last spaceship out of Detroit. He tried to rip Todd from my arms, puncturing my wrist with one of his fangs. Only a kick to the nuts with all my strength made him back off.
It's not right to want to kill someone's pet. But it made me feel better to fantasize about it. What if I left a package of hot dogs to rot for a month, then fed them to him? If he didn't die, at least maybe he'd get good and sick.
Whenever Monty was out, Mrs. Gagnon sat on her porch and cackled. "Monty! Ha! Monty!" I'd moved into the neighborhood before she and Monty had, so I was doubly indignant.
What if I could give him a noseful of cayenne somehow? That was a thought.
Ever since the first snow flew, I'd been thinking about this. One day spring would come, and Todd and I would want to breathe some free air.
A tentative tap sounded at the door.
My landlady, Mrs. McVittie, stood holding a lighted candle and a small plate. "I thought you might like this pork chop, dear." In the candlelight her upper teeth glowed translucent. "When you eat, you stay warmer, you know."
She should talk. I'm sure she weighed less than me, which is saying something, although she was closing in on her seventy-fifth birthday, so you'd expect her appetite to be on the wane.
I'd gone downstairs to check on her when the power went out for the first time, late in the afternoon. She'd already brought in an armload of wood and gotten a fire going using half a roll of toilet paper as tinder. I brought another two armloads in for her. I didn't have a fireplace upstairs, but my flat received spill-up heat from below, so I wasn't worried about myself.
I loved Mrs. McVittie, who'd made her husband come crawling to me for forgiveness after he'd evicted me some few years ago. I was indirectly involved with some property damage; there had been a little matter of a blood-soaked ceiling, pesky police officers, TV cameras. She'd grown fond of me, I guess, even though I hadn't lived there very long. I was grateful to get my place back.
This week Mr. McVittie wasn't home, having gone on an ice-fishing safari in the Upper Peninsula with his sons. The McVitties took turns going up north for various reasons, the chief one being to get away from each other. When the weather was good, Mrs. McVittie liked to pedal her big old three-wheeler around the neighborhood and talk to anybody who was out.
I thanked her for the food. "I'll have it for breakfast. How's your wood holding out?" Until the power came back on it was wood or nothing. "And have you started your faucets dripping?"
"Oh, do you think the pipes will freeze?"
She let me bring in more wood for her. As I turned to go, she asked, "What are you doing this evening, dear?"
"Trying to work out a foolproof plan to keep Monty away from Todd. Come spring."
"Oh, I hate that dog. He's a terrible dog."
I was surprised. She was such a tenderheart.
"Well," I said, "I guess it's not really the dog; it's that Mrs. Gagnon doesn't control him."
"Oh, no, dear, it's not just that." Her voice was pure and sweet. "Of course, if she kept him in her backyard, he couldn't hurt your rabbit, but it's not just that ... he's a very nasty dog. A nasty personality."
"I agree but thought it best not to be the first to say it. I asked Animal Control to come and talk to her after Monty bit me, and they did, but I'm afraid he'll be right back at it when the weather turns nice." We peered out the stairwell window at the relentless sleet. "Actually," I went on, "I'm trying to come up with a way to kill him-uh, without really killing him, you know?"
"I understand. Well, I'll think about it too, dear."
"Thank you, Mrs. McVittie. Thank you very much."
"Good night, dear."
The phone was ringing as I opened my door, ringing out from the shadows in the dining room. "Hello?"
"Hey, Starmate. You have to come to L.A."
My best friend always just started talking when I picked up the phone, whether it'd been an hour or a year since we'd last spoken.
"Truby! What is it?"
"You have to come for a visit right now. I can't handle anything but yes." Her voice was oddly tight, oddly desperate, oddly something. "I need you. Lillian. Listen. I really. Really. Really. Need you. You've been talking about coming for another visit for three years now, and you haven't, and writing letters is great, and Dallas was fun, but I really need to talk to you." I heard a little gulp and knew what that meant.
"Truby, don't cry-"
A huge sob drowned me out.
"Never mind," I said. "Let it out. Let it out."
The only thing worse than having somebody lose it on you is having her do it over the phone. You can't put your arm around her; you can't go get her a drink of water; you can't search her face for a clue as to what the hell's going on. How serious is it? You can't really know.
"Hon, tell me what's wrong."
"Oh, God, I can't. Not over the phone."
"How come? You sound like you're in pain."
"Oh, God. Oh, God." She made an audible effort to catch her breath. "I've never faced something like this. I'm so scared. Lillian, can't you just come? I really can't get into it. All I want is to hang up the phone knowing you're going to be on the next flight. Are you in the middle of an assignment?"
"No." In fact, I'd had a lean winter. A lean few years, to come right out with it. Since launching my freelance career with a big juicy story for the Motor City Journal about a series of murders that I more or less helped solve, work had been spotty. I was able to get a few more big assignments from the Journal, but not many other magazines took to my style of reporting. Not the ones that paid, anyhow. I made ends meet freelancing as a tech writer and doing a little busking with my mandolin down in Greektown in the summer.
Reading the tone of my monosyllable, she said, "Wolf at the door?"
"Oh, no, not that bad!" You know, lighthearted-like, which she also read.
"Then I'll pay for your ticket and-"
"No. Absolutely not. I'm coming."
"Thank you. Thank you. God, I don't know what to do."
I'd never heard her like this. She'd always been so stoic, so capable, ever since our days together as undergraduates at Wayne State. We both went through some hard times then. Primarily, hers were boyfriend troubles, mine girlfriend troubles, with regular financial crises thrown in. She'd been there for me.
"The thing is, Trube, we're in the middle of an ice storm here, the power's down, and I don't think anything's going out from Metro tonight. If anything was going, I'm not sure I'd want to be on it."
"Is it warm there?"
"It is warm, Lillian. It's warm as hell."
"Plus I have to see if Billie can take Todd."
"Make it tomorrow, then. Bring Todd. Bring your mandolin. Bring everything."
I thought about Los Angeles. The warm pavement beneath your feet wherever you walked, the warm smog, the warm tar in the tar pits. Warm. I thought of my friend, sitting in her lovely apartment, traumatized by something.
"All right. I'll be there."
Chapter TwoThe next afternoon I was wedged in a middle seat, bookended by a couple of district manager types pawing the keys on their laptops. The plane was on the taxiway undergoing de-icing, that most claustrophobic of all air travel experiences: the hammering of the thick goo against the wings and fuselage, the oozy darkness moving creepily around the plane, the heavy chemical smell pouring in through the ventilation system. You're glad somebody invented this process-yes, you're glad they're doing it-but you can't help the dread that rises in you.
The storm had let up, allowing me at the wheel of my aging Chevrolet Caprice to follow a salt truck across town on Eight Mile. Then we more or less slithered down Middlebelt to the airport. My Navy surplus pea coat and my leather gloves kept me warm, and I looked forward to shedding them in California. As soon as I got off the parking shuttle at the terminal, it started to snow.
Holding Todd in his carrying case, I waited for the cheapest standby spot I could get. The district managers thought they were going to have a nice empty seat between them until I showed up just before they closed the door, toting my rabbit and mandolin as carry-ons.
"Hate to do this to you," I muttered to their sagging faces. They both immediately rammed their elbows onto the center arm rests.
I made sure Todd was all right in his case, switched on my reading light, and settled in with my paperback copy of Valparaiso Farewell, the latest Calico Jones adventure. I'm embarrassed to confess it, but I'd gotten hooked on Calico Jones. People say those books are trashy: just soft-core porn mixed with violence, and of course the books are never reviewed in respectable publications, but hot damn they're fun.
I'd picked up a used copy of the first one, Incident at McMurdo Station, at John King in Detroit and just stood there reading it from page one-couldn't put it down.
It isn't that the plots are so terribly plausible. But who could resist falling in love with Calico Jones, the dashing sleuth? She's rich, gorgeous, smart-everything. There's always these ravishing women and men falling all over themselves to get into bed with her. She trots the globe solving impossible crimes, getting into these totally deadly cliff-hanging situations, yet she manages to solve the crime and save her own skin, usually in one breathtaking move. She carries a big honking .45-caliber semiautomatic, and she never misses and never regrets it.
I just marvel at the author of these books. I never can remember her name, though.
In Valparaiso Farewell, I'd gotten to the point where the phony viscount had been murdered by mistake, and Calico Jones is tied up in the ambassador's wife's dressing room, and she's just regaining consciousness when the ambassador's wife, a stunningly sexy and very discontented-with-her-husband former movie star, opens the door.
So I picked up with it there, but after a few minutes even Calico Jones couldn't hold my attention. My mind started to roam. What could it be? What could be upsetting Truby Mills so terribly?
Our friendship spanned decades now, beginning when we were classmates at Wayne State University in Detroit. Both of us were from the wrong side of the tracks, from different parts of the state. Truby was rural poor; I was a city urchin. Both of us had Polish blood; both of us were half-assed Catholics. Both of us were scholarship girls. We gravitated to each other like twin planets.
And since Wayne State was the Sorbonne of wrong-side-of-the-tracks universities, we felt more or less at home.
I pictured students at richer schools strolling beside splashing fountains in cobbled squares, lounging in paneled seminar rooms with good heat and beautiful windows, thumbing volumes in well-endowed libraries with clean washrooms, their educations falling into their hands like ripe fruit.
By contrast, the students at Wayne State dodged drunk drivers on Warren Avenue, held down two jobs, caught sleep in unused classrooms, patiently added our names to waiting lists for books, assistantships, student loans, subsidized housing. It was a matter of digging our education out of the asphalt.
To be sure, there were some wonderful professors, but an unfortunate number were there by default, having failed to impress the search committees at better-endowed schools in prettier towns.
But I suppose we only resented things about ten percent of the time. We were, after all, on our own, free, free to make our own choices. Crappy choices, most of them were, but they were ours.
The de-icing dribbled to a stop; we took off to Chicago O'Hare, thence to LAX. My seatmates changed in Chicago and were just as charming as the first two. As the plane crossed time zones and mountain ranges, I continued to review Truby's and my school days.
Eventually, we pooled our resources and moved into an apartment on Prentis Street, where I encountered for the first time the most hideous emblem of the low-rent environment: the window frame with grit painted onto it. You know, where somebody paints over a filthy surface, over the scratchy grit that collects on city windowsills. No sanding, no cleaning. So that the grit merges right into the paint, becomes part of the resultant surface, like a lacquered emery board. You couldn't lean a naked elbow on it without recoiling. An uncleanable surface.
Excerpted from damn straight by Elizabeth Sims Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Sims
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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