The Julius House

Chapter Fifteen

ANGEL WAS DRIVING. She was very comfortable and competent behind the wheel. She'd opened up enough to tell me she'd taken several driving courses especially for bodyguards. We were going out to Metairie, a giant suburb of New Orleans, where Melba Totino had lived with her sister before she'd moved to Lawrenceton. There was a phone listing for Mrs. Totino's sister, Alicia Manigault, in the Metairie phone book.

Mrs. Totino had gotten all misty when she spoke of her former home, but I couldn't see much about Metairie to love, from the interstate, anyway. There were hundreds of small houses jammed into tiny lots, charmless and style-less, leavened by an occasional motel or restaurant or strip shopping center. Surely there were prettier parts of Metairie somewhere? The heat had begun in earnest here, and I shuddered when I thought of what it must be like in July or August. We had the air-conditioning on in the rental car, and I still felt sticky when we got out on the short, narrow street where Alicia Manigault lived. Scrubby stunted palms were planted here and there in tiny yards. All the houses were very small and one story, and though some of them were spick and span, others were in need of repair and paint. I would hate living in a place like this more than anything I could imagine. I felt very there-but-for-the-grace-of-God.

The squat flat-roofed house at the phone book address was moderately well cared for. The grass was mowed, but there were no ornamental touches to the yard, beyond some straggly foundation bushes. The house, formerly barn red, was peeling, and the side facing the afternoon sun was noticeably lighter than the rest of the house.

Angel unfolded herself from the dark green rental car and surveyed the street expressionlessly. "What do you want to do?" she asked. "Ring the doorbell."

The whole property was enclosed in a low chain-link fence. The gate creaked. There didn't seem to be a doorbell, so I knocked instead. My heart was beating uncomfortably.

A young woman answered.

I had never seen her before. She was very fat, very fair, wearing a pink dollar-store "Plus-Size" muumuu.

"What you want?" she asked. She didn't look unfriendly, just busy.

"Is Mrs. Manigault here?" I asked.

"Alicia? No, she's not here."

"She doesn't live here?"

"Well, it's her house," the young woman said, her small blue eyes blinking in a puzzled way behind blue-framed glasses.

"And you rent it from her," Angel said.

"My husband and me, yeah, we do. What you want with Alicia?" A strange sound behind her made the young woman turn her head.

"Listen, come on in," she said. "I got a sick dog in here." We followed her into the tiniest living room I had ever seen. It was jammed with vinyl furniture covered with crocheted afghans in a variety of patterns. The only thing they had in common was a stunningly dreadful combination of colors. Angel and I gaped.

"I know," the woman said, with a little laugh, "everyone just cain't believe it. I sell them at craft shows on the weekend, but the ones in here are my favorites. I just couldn't sell them. My husband always says, 'You'd think we got cold here!'"

She bent over a basket in the corner by a doorway into, I thought, the kitchen. When she straightened, she had in her arms a tiny black dog with brown on its muzzle - a Toy Manchester, I thought.

"Kickapoo," she said proudly. "That's his name." Angel made a snorting noise and I realized she was trying not to laugh. I was too concerned by the obvious illness of the dog. It was limp and listless in her arms.

"What's the matter?" I asked, not at all sure I really wanted to know. "He got hurt," she said. "A bad man kicked our little doggy two days ago, didn't he, Kickapoo?"

"Oh, that's terrible!"

"Kickapoo couldn't hurt anyone, you can see that," said the woman, dreadful indignation printed deep in folds of fat. "I don't know what was the matter with him." I assumed she was referring to the kicker. "He was in a bad mood that day, but he never has done nothing like that."

"Not your husband?" I inquired incredulously.

"Oh, no! Carl loves our little doggy," she said, "doesn't he, Kickapoo?"

The dog didn't nod.

"No, this was a friend of Alicia's, the man she has collect the rent and tend to things for her. 'Course, we mow the lawn and take care of the little repairs, but if something big goes wrong, we call..." and she stopped dead. "Yes?" I said encouragingly. I was totally bored with the conversation until the woman so obviously remembered she wasn't supposed to be having it. "Nothing. Here I am, going on and on. I haven't even found out what you need." Angel and I were both well-dressed that day, since I thought that'd be reassuring to an old lady like Alicia Manigault. I was wearing a little suit with a white jacket and a navy skirt, and Angel had on tailored black slacks and a sapphire blue blouse with a gold chain and earrings. So it wasn't out of the question for Angel to claim we were from the Metairie Senior Citizens' Association, which she promptly did.

"Oh," the woman said. "I never heard of that. But that's nice."

"And you're Mrs. - ?" Angel said pointedly.

The woman reached for an eyedropper by a bottle of medicine on a table jammed into one end of the living room. She squeezed what was in it into the little dog's mouth. It swallowed obediently.

"Coleman," she said, looking down at the animal. "Lanelda Coleman."

"So Mrs. Manigault doesn't need transportation services to and from the center?"

Angel asked.

"No, she's just here a few weeks a year," Lanelda Cole-man told us.

I was totally at sea.

I opened my mouth to ask where she was the rest of the year, but my cohort kicked me in the ankle.

"Then we'll just go, I can tell you've got your hands full," Angel said sympathetically.

"Oh," Lanelda said, "I do. We're just terrified Kickapoo is hurt bad. We've about decided to take him to the vet. It's so expensive!" I moved restlessly. They adored the dog but hadn't taken him to the vet?

"It sure is," Angel agreed.

"Carl and I just were up all night with this little thing," Lanelda said abstractedly, her attention on the dog.

"The man who kicked him should pay for the vet visit," Angel said.

I turned to stare at her.

Lanelda's face looked suddenly determined. "You know, lady, you're right," she said. "I'm gonna call him the minute Carl gets home." "Good luck," I said, and we left.

We conferred by the car.

"We need to ask some questions," I said.

"But not of her. She's been told not to talk about the arrangements for that house by someone, someone she's scared of. We don't want her calling whoever it is and telling them we've been asking questions." "So what do we do?"

"We move the car," Angel said slowly. "Then we go from house to house. Her curtains are closed, and she's busy with the dog. She may not notice. Our cover story is that we're canvassing old people in the neighborhood about the need for a community center with hot meals and transportation to and from this center every day. I just hope Metairie doesn't have one already. Ask questions about the old ladies who own Number Twenty-one." I looked up at Angel admiringly. "Good idea."

I wasn't so enthusiastic an hour later. I'd never knocked on strangers' doors before. We'd waited until after five o'clock so people would be home; most of the mothers here would be working mothers.

This was an experience that I later wanted to forget. I was never intended to be a private detective; I was too thin-skinned. The old people were suspicious, the younger people were too busy at this time of day to give much thought to my questions, or could think of no good reason why they should spend time talking to a stranger. I actually had a door or two shut in my face. One woman in her sixties, Betty Lynn Sistrump, did remember the sisters when they were in residence, and had known them superficially. "I was amazed when Alicia told me Melba had moved out," Mrs. Sistrump said. She was wearing a bathrobe and a lot of makeup for a woman her age - or any age. "They were like Siamese twins or somethin'. Always together, though they sure fought sometimes."

"So you don't think Mrs. Totino lives anywhere in Metairie?" I asked, to keep up the fiction. "We need to contact her about the center, if she does." "Alicia said she was going back up to someplace up north - Georgia, I think - to live with her daughter."

"Do you remember about when that was?" I managed to say. I'd been struck almost speechless at the thought of Georgia being far north to this woman. Georgia, north! If my hair had been shorter, it would've bristled. When Mrs. Sistrump opined it'd been about five years, more or less, since she'd talked to Alicia - though she'd caught glimpses of her since then going into and out of the house - she admitted it had caused her no grief, not seeing the sisters. And that was the impression I'd gotten from all the people on the street who would actually talk to me.

Flattened by the whole experience, I returned to the rental car to find Angel leaning against it staring off into space. Angel had a great quality of repose. "Carl's home," she said. "It must be him. He went in without knocking."

It took me a few seconds to track that down mentally.

"Okay," I said cautiously.

"Lanelda said," Angel reminded me, "that when Carl came home, she would talk to him about calling the man who'd kicked their dog. And that's the man who must know where Alicia Manigault is."

"So what do we do?" I asked uncertainly.

"I can try to creep in there under the windows and listen," Angel said dubiously. "Or we can just wait to see if the man comes. He'd have to to give them the money for the vet visit, wouldn't he?" "Sounds pretty iffy. What if the dog died this afternoon? What if the man says he won't give a dime?"

"Got a better idea?"

Well, we could go back to our luxurious hotel and order a great meal. But that wasn't why we were here, I told myself.

It was still light, but fading fast. While we waited for it to get darker, so Angel could gauge if she could risk her creep, we drove to the nearest fast-food place. While we dealt with French fries and chicken sandwiches in the rental car, we exchanged stories about our block canvass. Of the people Angel had talked to, only two householders remembered the sisters. The other people had moved in since Alicia had rented the house. The two accounts Angel had pieced together basically matched Betty Lynn Sistrump's. About six years before, Alicia had told people who cared enough to inquire that her sister had gone to live with her daughter. Soon after that, Alicia had rented the house and had only appeared from time to time since then. One alert woman, confined to a wheelchair and dependent on neighborhood happenings for her entertainment, remembered a police car visiting the house about then - an occurrence so unusual that she'd asked Alicia about it, the next time she'd seen her.

"And got my head bit off for asking," she'd told Angel. "I guess I was just being nosy, but wouldn't you be? I mean, what if she'd had a robbery or a prowler? Those are things other people in the same neighborhood need to know about, aren't they?"

"And she never asked you why a do-gooder trying to find out if Alicia Manigault needed a ride to a senior citizens' center would need to know that?" "Nope," Angel said, simply. "She just wanted someone to talk to. And she wanted to know if the bus that would take them was equipped to handle wheelchairs. I had to tell her the whole thing was still pretty much up in the air. She was disappointed."

We looked away from each other, off into the distance. Angel drank the last of her Coke. Spenser and Hawk we weren't; not even Elvis Cole and Joe Pyle.

"What do you think, is it dark enough?" I asked. "Yep. But I've been looking at that yard, and I don't think there's a single place I could get that I wouldn't be visible from at least four other houses." "Um. You're right."

"So we better just watch for a while. Maybe he'll come. Whoever he is." In the short time it had taken to collect our food, return, and eat, the character of the neighborhood had changed. More cars were home; the little street was jammed with people who'd had to park at the curb. The streetlights had come on in the deep dusk and cast sharp-contrast shadows. There were some children outside playing. Angel was right, creeping around that little property was out of the question in a neighborhood as congested as this one. It was hard to see how we could sit and observe, even. How did police stake out places like this? Surely, if we started moving and kept driving by, someone would eventually get suspicious.

We left for a minute, and pulled in down the street a little, in front of a house that was still dark and had no vehicles in the driveway. We looked at our watches and shook our heads; pantomime of people waiting impatiently. Then Angel watched in the rear-view mirror and I watched the side mirror. "I thought you were used to this, Angel," I said.

"How come?"

"You used to be a bodyguard."

"Then, I was watching out for people like me. I was trying to find anyone waiting for my employer. I never waited for anyone." "Oh. What happened to your last client? Martin never told me." Angel diverted her eyes from the mirror to look at me directly. "And for good reason," she said. "Believe me, you don't want to know." I had a feeling she was right.

Sooner than we had any right to expect, our vigil was rewarded. Carl must have been persuasive or righteous over the phone. A pickup squealed up, a white one with a fancy pattern of fuchsia and green flames painted trailing down the side. "Don't know where he can park," Angel muttered. "There's only one spot left on the whole street, and that's right in front of us ... Shit, was I stupid! Get down!" The pickup did indeed maneuver into the space against the curb ahead of our rental car. The driver would have to walk right past us. I dove down onto the floor board and compressed myself into as tiny a ball as possible. Angel, as usual, had had her hair pulled back in a ponytail; now she yanked out the band that held it, fluffed her hair quickly, and unfolded our New Orleans map with hasty fingers. She held the map up, partially obscuring her face, where the bruises were fading and there were only a few scabs left. I heard the pickup door slam and heavy steps pass quickly by the car.

"Is he going to their house?" I whispered.

"Shut up! Yes!"

After a long moment, Angel said, "Okay, you can sit up. He's inside."

"Did you get a good look at him?"

"Yeah." She had the strangest expression as she gathered up her hair and bound it back into her customary ponytail. "So?"

"It was the man who tried to kill us."

The ax-man, somehow in league with Melba Totino and her sister Alicia? So he wasn't in any way involved with my husband's Latin American ventures; we could safely have called the police when he attacked us. We could be on the right side of the law, instead of Martin's side.

"So. We follow him?" Angel asked.

"I guess so," I said. "Can you figure this out?" Angel shook her head. But she wasn't unconcerned; her mouth was compressed into an even thinner line. Her hands gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. She hadn't liked being beaten, she hadn't liked having been so close to losing her client, she hadn't liked having to tell Martin or her husband about what had happened, and on a personal level, I suspected she really hadn't liked having her face messed up.

From being basically indifferent about what she considered a personal obsession of mine, Angel had graduated to being vitally interested in the Julius case. So we both watched eagerly for the man's emergence from the little house. "We better not be here when he comes out again," Angel said, and she started the car. We drove around the block until we were positioned on a cross street so that when he came out, we would be able to fall in behind him unless he did something crazy, like attempting a U-turn on the narrow, crowded street. I was able to see him for the first time when he shut the door of Alicia Manigault's house behind him. He was tall and muscular, and he looked younger than I'd remembered him. He wore jeans and a work shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. His hair was dark and curly, and he was cleanshaven; Angel and I had been good witnesses. It was hard to square this ail-American blue-collar hunk with the maniac waving an ax who'd so nearly mowed me down a few days before. "He's walking a little stiff," Angel said happily. "I think we banged him around some."

"I hope so."

He strode to his lurid pickup truck and started it up. We drove out of Metairie and across the Huey E Long Bridge and went south steadily. After at least twenty miles, he turned right, and we followed him. He didn't seem to be looking out for cars following him, or for anything else. "An amateur," Angel muttered. I couldn't tell if she was pleased by our attacker's amateurism, or disgusted, or enraged. If it was difficult following him at night, she didn't say so.

Now we were on a narrow road with a bayou on one side, houses on the other. There were boats lining the bayou, with signs for swamp tours, promising alligators and abundant wildlife. Most of the signs featured the word "Cajun." The lighting wasn't good, but the white truck with the bright blazes painted on the side was fairly easy to spot. Finally it slowed and turned into one of the narrow driveways. We had to drive on past, and I stared as hard as I could in the dark to see a sort of cabin with a screened-in front porch. Ax-man had parked the truck under a carport, which the truck shared with a battered blue Chevy Nova and a tarp-covered boat.

"That's the car he was driving in Georgia," Angel said. We drove on until we came to a juke joint, where Angel pulled in and parked. We looked at each other questioningly.

Neither of us knew what to do next.

"We could watch all night, or we could come back tomorrow, or we could call Shelby from a pay phone in there." Angel nodded her head towards the bar, from which came loud zydeco music and a fairly constant flow of in-and-out traffic. I wasn't about to go in there.

"Let's find out more before we call Shelby," I said. "I want to know who lives in that house."

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