By this time, I knew better than to try and go anywhere without my team. They were going to follow me, anyway, whether I wanted them to or not. I figured it was easier and would cause less commotion if I just told them to meet me at the cemetery at two in the morning. They were dying to know what was up, but I refused to give anything away. We gathered outside the gates of Monroe Street, piled into my car, and we were back at Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation by two fifteen.
At that time of night, the neighborhood wasn’t exactly hopping, but it wasn’t dead quiet, either. The Mc-Donald’s had just closed, and we parked on a side street where we could watch the workers sweep up, turn out the lights, and drag to their cars. A couple lowriders bounced by, their radios blaring. We waited for them to pass before we got out of the car.
“You’re not plannin’ on breakin’ and enterin’, are you?” Absalom walked at my side, eyeing the darkened office. There were a couple security lights shining on the used car lot, one near the office door, and another aimed at the double doors that led into a side garage. There was a spotlight high up on the pole to illuminate the mechanical dog. He was doing his job, still waving. The blue neon light in the office window was on, too. Other than that, the place was as dark and as quiet as I’d hoped it would be. “You’re gonna get caught,” Absalom warned. “You’re gonna get in trouble. You are not the kind of woman who will do well in jail, I’ll tell you that. You’re gonna-”
“Trust me, I’m not even thinking about going inside the office.” I gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder at the same time I craned my neck to see to the top of the pole and the laughing, waving dog. “All I want to do is get a closer look.”
“At that?” Except for a cat mewling nearby, it was pretty quiet. Which is why I heard Delmar gulp. “It’s awfully high up.”
By this time we were standing at the bottom of the pole. I glanced up at the metal handholds that started four feet above my head, then down at the sneakers I’d been sensible enough to wear, then around at my team. “If one of you could give me a boost…”
Since the question burst out of Absalom and Reggie at the same time, I wasn’t sure which of them to answer. “It’s the only way I’m going to be able to check out my theory. Dale Morgan said that Bad Dog said he had proof that he killed Vera. Well, Morgan didn’t exactly say it. I mean, he didn’t want to come right out and say it. But he sort of said it. He said that Raphael said that Bad Dog was sitting on the evidence and laughing his ass off.”
Reggie’s brow creased. The pit bull tattoo frowned. He crossed his arms over his chest. “If you think there’s evidence, then you should tell the cops and have them come look for it.”
“And they’d listen, right?” Nobody answered, but just in case any one of them was formulating a comeback, I supplied my logic. “Dale Morgan is never going to come out and admit what he told me about Bad Dog. He’s too scared, and I don’t blame him. Apparently, Bad Dog’s got a network that extends into prisons, and if word gets out that Morgan led the cops to this evidence, he’s dead meat. That means the cops won’t hear it from Morgan. And they’re not going to hear about Morgan from me. I’m already responsible for what happened to Sammi. I’m not going to let the same thing happen to Morgan. Even if he is smarmy.”
The Big Car Nation sign in the office window washed an icy blue color over Absalom’s face. “You can’t climb up there.”
“You’ll kill yourself,” Delmar chimed in.
It was, of course, a scenario I’d already considered, and rather than think about it again and chicken out the way I’d been tempted to chicken out ever since I came up with this plan, I closed in on the pole. “Come on, somebody help me out here. I don’t want to have to climb on the roof of a car to reach the bottom rung, but I’ll do it if I need to.”
With the back of one hand, Absalom pushed me out of the way. “I’ll do it,” he said.
“You’re too big to reach around the mechanical dog and see what’s inside that car.”
“Then I’ll do it.” Delmar stepped forward.
“You don’t need another ding on your record if you get caught. None of you do.” I rubbed my hands together like I couldn’t wait to get started. It was partly for show, partly because I was trying to convince myself that I wasn’t going to fall and end up dead on the hood of the ’98 Accord parked nearby. “All I’m going to do is climb up, take a look inside the car, and see if the mechanical Bad Dog is sitting on anything. Nobody’s going to see me. Nobody’s going to notice a thing. At least not if you all clear out and stop standing around like you’re casing the place. I brought reinforcements.” I pulled the voodoo doll Absalom had given me out of my pocket just to show I meant it. Before my courage faded, I had to move, and I had to move fast. I stepped closer to the pole. “Help me up, will you?”
They weren’t happy about it, but they gave me the boost I needed, and before I could talk myself out of it, I had one foot on the lowest metal rung and my hands clasped around another rung two feet above my head. I steadied myself. I swore I wasn’t going to look down. I took a deep breath, and I started to climb.
Really, the pole wasn’t all that high. At least that’s what I told myself. Twenty feet is what, maybe as high as the top of a house? It felt like I was climbing to the moon.
One hand over the other, one foot carefully planted before I dared to lift the other, I made my way toward the dog sitting in the car at the top of the pole. Big points for me, I froze only once, and that was only because a car cruised by. It didn’t slow down, and that meant the driver hadn’t seen me. Really, I wasn’t all that surprised. Who in their right mind expects to see a woman climbing a pole in the middle of the night? Who would even bother to look? With that car gone, everything below me was quiet. I hoped my team had listened and hightailed it around the corner, but I didn’t have the nerve to look. Instead, I continued my ascent.
I’d like to think I made it to the top in record time, but truth be told, it took longer than it should have. Once my nose was on the same level as the handle on the door of the car and that mechanical dog arm was waving right over my head, I breathed a sigh of relief. A couple more cautious steps and I was grasping the window frame of the car. From the ground, I hadn’t realized how big the mechanical dog was; I needed to be careful, or his waving arm would clunk me. I also needed to stay out of the glow of the spotlight that was trained on the dog. I lifted one foot off the metal rung where it was perched and pivoted sideways. Hanging on with one hand, I peered into the car.
The mechanical dog was no more than the head and arm that stuck out the window. He was built on a wooden frame; his motor whirred from the floor on the passenger side of the car. Technically, he didn’t have an ass, but that didn’t stop me from looking on the driver’s seat, anyway. That spotlight outside illuminated the dog, but the interior of the car was dark.
I inched closer. The wooden frame the dog was set on had a heavy, solid bottom. If I could reach under it…
I stretched, but the way I was standing, my reach wasn’t long enough. I kept my place, watching the mechanical arm swing back and forth and timing my next move. When the dog’s arm was farthest from its body, I swiveled, grabbed the frame of the car, and squeezed myself into the front seat.
I guess my timing was perfect.
No sooner was I sitting next to the dog, and cursing because of the scrapes I’d gotten as I squashed myself flat to get past his wooden frame, than every light in the car lot came on.
“This has nothing to do with you, Pepper. It can’t.”
I consoled myself with these brave words, but at the same time, I hit the floor and stayed there.
“There’s no way anybody knows you’re up here. There’s no chance anybody would even think to look. Nobody would be crazy enough to climb that pole and end up in this car with this dog.”
Nobody but me.
And it would be a shame to waste all that crazy effort.
I bent my head, listening for sounds from down in the car lot, and when I didn’t hear a thing, I got to work, feeling my way through the dark to the wooden platform that supported the dog. I slid my hand under it.
“Sitting on evidence,” I reminded myself. “He said Bad Dog was sitting on the evidence.”
But the only evidence I felt was evidence that the mechanical Bad Dog had been there long enough for the seats in the car to get damp and moldy. I grumbled, wiped my hand on my jeans, and tried again. This time, I poked my hand into the elbow where the bench met the back of the seat-and touched something that crinkled.
Encouraged, I reached in a little farther. With my index finger, I could just feel the corner of what felt like an envelope. I stretched, but I couldn’t quite grasp it. Not without twisting myself into a pretzel between Bad Dog and his motor.
I pulled out my hand, squirmed around so that I was kneeling squarely between the motor and the dog, and tried again.
Again, I felt the envelope, but I couldn’t grab it.
I stretched just a little more, and when that didn’t work, I raised up from my knees, extended my right leg, and… kicked the motor.
It stopped dead.
So did Bad Dog, frozen in midwave.
Without the constant whirr of his motor in my ears, it was awfully quiet. I was awfully glad. With no distractions, I was able to try again, and this time, with a little more room and a lot more stretching, I grabbed hold of what was stuffed into the seat and brought it out from its hiding place.
It was one of those big manila envelopes, and it was wrapped in some plastic material that was probably meant to make it waterproof. I slid my finger under the tape that held it closed, and when that didn’t budge it, I resorted to my teeth. What my mom would say if she knew that nearly five thousand dollars of orthodontic work was being put to the test chewing through tape, I didn’t want to know. The only thing that mattered was that it worked.
I slid the envelope out of its protective casing, opened it, and tipped out the contents. There wasn’t much. But then, there didn’t need to be. I found what I was looking for and I positioned myself so that I could catch a bit of the light from outside the car and stared at the Polaroid picture in my hands.
The black and white photo showed Vera’s lifeless body on the floor of room 12. It was taken long before the police and the crime scene photographer arrived. How did I know? Well, there were a couple of clues. For one thing, in this photo, Vera was still wearing the locket that Lamar said contained a picture of her grandmother. She wasn’t wearing it in the photos in the crime scene files. To me, that could mean only that the killer took it. For another, though the dresser mirror was cracked, there was no mistaking the fact that the man who took the picture had caught his own reflection in the mirror.
I was staring into the face of a killer, one I recognized.
It looked like Bud had other talents than just selling used cars. Mack Raphael was in Central State at the time of the murder, so of course he would have had to have hired a hit man, and apparently the two were still together. Bud had done his job well. He must have stolen Lamar’s gun, then followed Vera and Lamar to the Lake View and waited for his opportunity. This picture, the locket, and the blood oozing out of the gunshot wound to Vera’s chest was all the proof he needed to show Raphael that he’d done his job and done it well.
And all these years, Bad Dog Raphael had kept the picture as a trophy.
I was still staring at the photograph when a couple of things happened all at once. I heard someone down in the car lot yell something that sounded like, “Watch out, Pepper!” but by that time, it was too late. Because the next thing I knew, Mack Raphael was looking into the car window at me.
Believe me, if there was any place to run, I would have taken off like a shot.
Not a good choice of words, considering that when Raphael moved his arm, the light glanced off the gun he aimed in my direction.
Call it self-preservation. Or just stupidity, considering that the interior of the car wasn’t very big and I wasn’t very small, but I scrambled to duck behind the dog’s motor.
“Give me the picture,” Mack Raphael barked. “And I won’t shoot.”
“And I really believe you.” My hands shaking, I shoved the photograph back in the envelope. “Maybe I’ll just hang on to this picture until I get safely down on the ground. After that-”
“After that, you don’t think you’ll make it out of my car lot alive, do you? Don’t you listen to the news? The county prosecutor just refused to file charges against some guy who shot a burglar. That’s what they’ll think you are, Miss Martin. A burglar. You should have listened when you were warned to mind your own business.”
“You mean the guy who tried to mug me? Let me guess, it’s the same guy who’s been watching me at the cemetery. The same one who’s been sending those tacky flowers and the cheap chocolates.” Never let it be said that Pepper Martin lost her sense of style, not even in the face of a bad guy with a gun. Since I suspected whoever was responsible for Vera’s death was behind the mugging and the art show vandalism all along, and since now I knew that someone was Bad Dog, I was entitled to roll my eyes. And to speculate just a little more.
“And let me guess, Mike Kowalski is the one who told you I was digging into your past. I’m right about that, too, aren’t I? I’ll bet I’m right about how he gets all his stories, too. You’re the one feeding him information. That would explain how you two know each other, and I know you do. I saw you chatting it up at our fundraiser. No way a guy like Kowalski is working his butt off to get at the truth and win all those prestigious awards. He’s washed up and jaded. Not exactly the type who would put himself in danger to get a big story. But it makes a whole bunch of sense if you’re feeding him the info. You want to put a rival out of business, you give Kowalski the details. He writes the story, shuts the guy down, and you, what, get a bigger piece of the pie?”
“You talk too much.” He poked the gun in my direction. “Now give me that picture or by the time those friends of yours who are hiding around the corner find you, they’ll have to scrape you out of the inside of this car.”
“Let me get down. Then I’ll give you the picture.”
Raphael wasn’t in the mood to talk terms. But then, neither was I. Tired of waiting, he lunged forward, and when he did, I did the only thing I could think to do. At the same time I tossed the envelope with the photograph inside it out the passenger window, I kicked the dog’s motor as hard as I could. It started up with a noisy belch, and Bad Dog’s arm jerked into motion. With nothing else to defend me, I pulled the voodoo doll out of my pocket and flung it at Raphael. I caught him off guard, and he flinched and jerked backward. And when the mechanical Bad Dog waved, his arm clunked Mack Raphael on the back of the head.
He grunted and a second later, he slipped out of the window.
Too afraid to look and too afraid to stay where I was and remain a sitting duck, I crawled to the driver’s side of the car, raised myself on my knees, and peeked out the window. Raphael was hanging onto the car with one hand, squirming like a worm on the end of a fishing line. When I saw that he was still holding on to that gun of his, I ducked back into the car, but really, I didn’t have to worry.
That was right about when I heard the first wails of the police sirens.