Authors: Margaret Millar
Tags: #Crime Fiction
Ronda looked puzzled for a minute. “I don't think anyÂthing was ever brought up concerning a heater in the car.”
“It should have been.”
“All right, take the stuff with you for tonight. Ma
ybe you'll come across some other little thing the rest of us missed.”
He sounded as if he felt the project was hopeless, and by eight o'clock that night Quinn was beginning to share the feeling. The facts in the case were meager, and the possibiliÂties seemed endless.
. Maybe Martha O'Gorman was getting pretty tired of her little boy, Patrick.
One item that especially interested Quinn was from a transcript of Martha O'Gorman's testimony before the coroner's jury: “It was about 8:30. The children were in bed sleeping and I was reading the newspaper. Patrick acted restÂless and worried, he couldn't seem to settle down. Finally I asked him what was the matter and he told me he'd made a mistake that afternoon and wanted to go back to the field office to correct it before anyone discovered it. Patrick was so terribly conscientious about his workâplease, I can't go on. Please. Oh Lord, help meâ”
But the fact remains, the children were asleep, and Martha and Patrick O'Gorman could have left the house together.
No evidence was brought out about a heater in the car, alÂthough the piece of wool flannel with the bloodstains on it was discussed at length. The blood type was the same as O'GorÂman's, and the flannel was part of a shirt O'Gorman freÂquently wore. Both Martha and two of O'Gorman's fellow clerks identified it. It was a bright yellow and black plaid, of the Macleod tartan, and his co-workers had kidded O'Gorman about an Irishman wearing a Scotch tartan.
“All right,” Quinn said, addressing the blank wall. “SupÂpose I'm O'Gorman. I'm sick of being a little boy. I want to run away and see the world. But I can't face up to Martha so I have to disappear. I arrange to be in an accident while I'm wearing a shirt that will be identified as mine by a lot of people. I choose the time carefully, when the river is high and it's still raining. O.K., I rig the accident and the piece of flannel with my own blood on it. Then what? I'm left standÂing in my underwear in a heavy rainstorm three miles from town with only two bucks to my name. Great planning, O'Gorman, really great.”
By nine o'clock he was more than willing to believe in Ronda's hitchhiking stranger.
Quinn ate a
late dinner at El Bocado, a bar and grill across the street from his motel. Entertainment facilities in Chicote were limited and the place was crowded to the doors with ranchers in ten-gallon Stetsons and oil workers in their field clothes. There weren't many women: a few wives already worried at nine about driving home at twelve; a quartet of self-conscious girls celebrating a birthday and acting a good deal noisier than the two prostitutes at the bar; a prim-faced woman about thirty standing near the door. She wore a blue turban, horn-rimmed spectacles and no make-up. She looked as if she had entered the place thinking it was the YWCA, and was now trying to muster the courage to walk out.
She spoke briefly to one of the waitresses. The waitress glanced around the room, her eyes finally settling on Quinn.
She approached him without hesitation. “Would you mind sharing your table, mister? There's a lady that has to eat before she catches the bus to L.A. Those bus stops serve lousy food.”
So did El Bocado, but Quinn said politely, “I don't mind.” Then, to the woman in the turban, “Please sit down.”
“Thank you very much.”
She sat down opposite him as if she expected to find a bomb under the seat.
“This is very kind of you, sir.”
“Not at all.”
“It is, though.” She added, with an air of disdain, “In
town a lady never knows what to expect.”
“You don't like Chicote?”
“Does anyone? I mean, it's terribly uncouth. That's why I'm leaving.”
She herself looked a bit too couth, Quinn decided. Some lipstick and a less severe hat that showed a little of her hair would have improved her. Even without them she was pretty, with the kind of earnest anemic prettiness Quinn associated with church choirs and amateur string quartets.
Over fish and chips and cole slaw, she told Quinn her name, Wilhelmina de Vries, her occupation, typist, her ambiÂtion, to be a private secretary to an important executive. Quinn told her his name, his occupation, security officer, and his ambition, to retire.
“A security officer,” she repeated. “You mean a policeÂman?”
“More or less.”
“Isn't that simply fascinating? My goodness, are you here working on a case?”
“Let's just say I'm having a little holiday.”
“No one comes to Chicote for a holiday. It's the kind of place people are always trying to get out of, like me.”
“I'm interested in California history,” Quinn said. “Where towns like this got their names, for instance.”
She looked disappointed. “Oh, that's easy. Some man came out here from Kentucky for his health in the late 1890's. He was going to grow tobacco, fields and fields of the world's finest tobacco for the world's finest cigars. That's what ChiÂcote means, cigar. Only the tobacco didn't grow, and the ranchers switched to cotton, which did. Then oil was disÂcovered and that was the end of Chicote as an agricultural center. But here I am, doing all the talking, and you just
sit there.” Her smile revealed a dimple in her left cheek. “Now it's your turn. Where do you come from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Learning some California history,” Quinn said with conÂsiderable truth.
“That's a funny way for a policeman to be spending his time.”
“Chacun Ã son gout
, as they say in Hoboken.”
“How true,” she murmured. “Just as true here, I suppose, as it is in Hoboken.”
Although her face didn't change expression, Quinn had a feeling that he was being kidded, and that, if Miss Wilhelmina de Vries sang in a church choir or played in a string quartet, some of the notes she produced would he intentionally off-key just for the hell of it.
“Please tell me really and truly and honestly,” she said, “why you're visiting Chicote.”
“I like the climate.”
“A starving dog would turn up his nose at this awful stuff. You know something? I'll bet a dollar to a doughnut you're working on a case.”
“I'm a betting man but I'm fresh out of doughnuts.”
“No, seriously, you really
here on a case, aren't you?” Her blue-green eyes glistened behind the thick lenses of her spectacles. “There hasn't been anything interesting happenÂing lately so it has to be an old case.... Does it involve money, a lot of money?”
It was one question Quinn could answer without hesitation. “Nothing I do involves a lot of money, Miss de Vries. What did you have in mind?”
“So you're going down to Los Angeles to find a job?”
“Where's your suitcase?”
“Suitâoh, I checked it. At the bus depot. So I wouldn't have to carry it around. It's heavy, since all my clothes are in it and everything. And it's a terribly big suitcase in the first place.”
If she'd simply claimed to have checked the suitcase, he might have believed her, having no reason not to. But she'd elaborated too much, as though she'd been trying to make the suitcase real to herself as well as Quinn.
The waitress brought Quinn's check.
“I must be going,” he said, rising. “Nice to have met you, Miss de Vries. And good luck in the big city.”
He paid the cashier and walked across the street to his motel. The garage belonging to the first unit was open. He stepped inside, watching the door of El Bocado cafÃ©.
He didn't have long to wait. Miss Wilhelmina de Vries came out, stood hesitantly on the curb, and looked up and down the street. A wind had started blowing, brisk but very warm, and she was attempting to hold down her skirt and her turban at the same rime. Modesty finally won out. She unwound the turban, which turned out to be a long blue scarf, and stuffed it into her purse. Under the street lamp her hair, released from its confinement, sprung up in all directions and shone in the light, the color of persimmons. She walked half a block down the street, climbed into a small dark sedan, and drove off.
Quinn had no chance to follow her. By the time he could get his own car out of the garage and on the road, she would be home, or at the bus depot or wherever else young ladies like Miss de Vries went after an unsuccessful attempt to pump information out of a stranger. She was, obviously, an amateur at the game, and the turban, and probably the spectacles, too, were a crude disguise. Quinn wondered why she'd bothered with a disguise when he didn't even know her. Then he reÂmembered sitting in John Ronda's office at the
and seeing through the glass partition the tops of three heads. One of them had had hair the color of persimmons.
All right, assume she was there, Quinn thought. Ronda had a loud, distinct voice, and the walls of his office were only six feet high. Miss de Vries could have overheard something of sufficient interest to her to make her assume a disguise and arrange a pick-up in the El Bocado cafÃ©, maybe with the colÂlaboration of the waitress. But exactly what had she heard? The only subject he and Ronda had discussed was the O'GorÂman case, the details of which were common knowledge in Chicote, the evidence a matter of public record available to anyone.
Miss de Vries had made what could be construed as a referÂence to O'Gormanâ”it has to be an old case”âand then practically nullified it by adding, “Does it involve a lot of money?” There was no money connected with the O'GorÂman business except the two one-dollar bills O'Gorman was carrying when he left the house for the last time.
Ronda's only mention of a subject unconnected with O'Gorman was his brief remark about a nice little lady embezzler caught with her fingers in the till. Quinn wondered what had happened to the nice little lady, and the money, and who else had been involved.
He crossed the driveway and went into the motel office to pick up his key. The night clerk, an old man with arthritis-swollen hands, looked up from the movie magazine he was reading. “Yes, sir?”
“The key to number seventeen, please.”
“Seventeen, yes, sir. Just a minute.” He shuffled over to the key rack. “Ingrid's not about to make a go of it with Lars any more than Debbie will with Harry. And you can quote me.”
“Oh, I will,” Quinn said. “Daily.”
“What's that number again?”
“It's not here.” The old man peered at Quinn over the top of his bifocals. “Why, I gave you number seventeen not more than an hour ago. You told me your name and gave me the license number of your car like it's written right here in the book.”
“I wasn't here an hour ago.”
“You must of been. I gave you the key. Only you had a hat on, a gray fedora, and you were wearing a topcoat. Maybe you been drinking and don't remember? Liquor befogs the memory something fierce. They say Dean has trouble with his lines on account of belting too many.”
“At nine o'clock,” Quinn said wearily, “I turned my key in to the girl who was here in the office.”
“All right, your granddaughter. I haven't been back since. Now, if you don't mind, I want into my room, I'm tired.”
“Been carousing around, eh?”
“That's right. Carousing around trying to forget Ingrid and Debbie. Now find your passkeys and let's get going.”
Grumbling, the old man led the way outside and down the driveway. The air was still hot and dry, and not even the brisk wind could dispel the faint odor of oil that hung over the city.
Quinn said, “Pretty warm night for a hat and topcoat, isn't it?”
“I ain't wearing a hat and a topcoat.”
“The man you gave my key to was.”
“All that carousing's befogged your memory.” They had reached the door of Quinn's room and the old man let out a sudden cry of triumph. “Lookie here, will you? See, the key's right in the lock where you left it. I told you. I gave it to you and you forgot about it. Now what do you think of that, eh?”
“You traveling fellows get careless, belting the booze and all.”
There didn't seem to be any way of convincing the old man he was wrong, so Quinn said good night and locked himself in the room.
It looked, at first glance, exactly the way he'd left it, the bed rumpled, the pillows propped against the headboard, the goosenecked lamp switched on. The two cardboard boxes conÂtaining Ronda's file on O'Gorman were still on the desk. It was impossible for Quinn to tell whether anything had been removed from them. Even Ronda, who had collected the material, might find it difficult, since he probably hadn't looked through it for years.
Quinn removed the lid from the first box. In a large manila envelope were the pictures of O'Gorman which Martha had given to Ronda: one formal photograph, obviously very old, since O'Gorman looked about twenty at the time; the rest snapshots, O'Gorman with the children, with a dog and cat, with Martha; O'Gorman changing a tire, standing beside a bicycle. In every case O'Gorman looked like a part of the background, and it was the dog and cat, the children, Martha, the bicycle, which seemed the real subjects of the pictures. Only the formal photograph showed O'Gorman's face clearly. He'd been a handsome young man with curly black hair and large gentle eyes with a faint expression of bafflement in them, as though he found life puzzling and not quite what he'd been led to expect. It was the kind of face that would appeal to a lot of women, especially the ones who might think they could solve life's puzzles for him and, motherlike, kiss away the hurts and bruises it inflicted.
Quinn returned the pictures to the envelope, his movements slowed by a sudden feeling of depression. Until he studied the portrait, O'Gorman had seemed unreal to him. Now O'GorÂman had become a human being, a man who loved his wife and children and house and dog, who worked hard at his job, a man too soft-hearted to leave a hitchhiker standing on the road on a stormy night yet brave enough to resist a robÂber.
He had two bucks in his pocket,
as he took off his clothes and got into bed.
Why did he put up a fight for a lousy two bucks? It doesn't make sense. There must have been something else, something no one has mentionedâ¦. I must talk to Martha O'Gorman again tomorrow. Maybe Ronda can arrange it for me.
He didn't remember, until just before he fell asleep, that he had planned on driving back to the Tower in the morning, and from there to Reno. Both places were beginning to seem remote to him, dream stuff compared to the blunt and solid reality of Chicote. He couldn't even conjure up a clear picÂture of Doris, and Sister Blessing was no more than a bulky gray robe with a faceless head sticking out of one end and two large bare feet out of the other.