A is for Alibi Page 37

I stopped off at the post office and left a fifty-dollar money order for my friend and then I checked out the address he had given me. Sharon Napier lived in a two-story apartment complex on the far side of town, salmon-pink stucco eroding around the edges as though animals had crept up in the night to gnaw the comers away. The roof was nearly flat, peppered with rocks, the iron railings sending streaks of rust down the sides of the building. The landscaping was rock and yucca and cactus plants. There were only twenty units, arranged around a kidney-shaped pool that was separated from the parking area by a dun-colored cinder-block wall. A couple of young kids were splashing about in the pool and a middle-aged woman was standing in front of her apartment up on the landing, a grocery bag wedged between her hip and the door as she let herself in. A Chicano boy hosed down the walks. The buildings on either side of the complex were single-family dwellings. There was a vacant lot across the street in back.

Sharon's apartment was on the ground floor, her name was neatly embossed on the mailbox on a white plastic strip. Her drapes were drawn, but some of the hooks had come loose at the top, causing the lined fabric to bow inward and sag, forming a gap through which I could see a beige Formica table and two beige upholstered plastic kitchen chairs. The telephone sat on one comer of the table, resting on a pile of papers. Beside it was a coffee cup with a waxy crescent of hot pink lipstick on the rim. A cigarette, also rimmed with pink, had been extinguished in the saucer. I glanced around. No one seemed to be paying any particular attention to me. I walked quickly through a passageway that connected the courtyard to the rear of the apartment building.

Sharon's apartment number was marked on the rear door, too, and there were four other back doors at intervals, the rear entrances emptying into little rectangles surrounded by shoulder-high cinder-block walls designed, I suspected, to create the illusion of small patios. The trash containers were lined up on the walkway outside the wall. Her kitchen curtains were drawn. I eased onto her little patio. She had arranged six geraniums in pots along the back step. There were two aluminum folding chairs stacked against the wall, a pile of old newspapers by the back door. There was a small window up on the right and a larger window beyond that. I couldn't judge whether it might be her bedroom or her neighbor's. I looked out across the vacant lot and then eased out of the patio, turning left along the walk, which opened out onto the street again. I got back in my car and headed for the Fremont.

I felt as if I'd never left. The lady in royal blue was still pasted to the quarter slot machine, her hair sculpted into a glossy mahogany scrollwork on top of her head. The same crowd seemed to be pressed to the craps table as though by magnetic force, the croupier pushing chips back and forth with his little stick as if it were a flat-bottomed broom and someone had made an expensive mess. Waitresses circulated with drinks and a heavyset man, whom I guessed to be plainclothes security, wandered about trying to look like a tourist whose luck had gone bad. I could hear the sounds of a female vocalist in the Carnival Lounge, singing a slightly flat but lusty medley of Broadway show tunes. I caught a glimpse of her, emoting to a half-deserted room, her face a bright powder pink under the spotlight.

Sharon Napier was not hard to find. She was tall, maybe five ten or better in her high-heeled shoes. She was the sort of woman you noticed from the ground up: long shapely legs looking slender in black mesh hose, a short black skirt flaring slightly at the tops of her thighs. She had narrow hips, a flat stomach, and her breasts were pushed together to form pronounced mounds. The bodice of her black outfit was tight and low-cut, her name stitched above her left breast. Her hair was an ashen blonde, pallid under the houselights; her eyes an eerie green, a luminous shade I guessed to be from tinted contact lenses. Her skin was pale and unblemished, the oval of her face as white as eggshell and as finely textured. Her lips were full and wide, the bright pink lipstick emphasizing their generous proportions. It was a mouth built for unnatural acts. Something about her demeanor promised cool improvisational sex for the right price and it would not be cheap.

She dealt cards mechanically, with remarkable speed. Three men were perched on stools ranged around the table where she worked. No one said a word. The communication was by the slightest lift of a hand, cards turned over or placed under substantial bets, a shoulder shrugged as the up card showed. Two down, one up. Flick, flick. One man scraped the edge of his up card against the surface of the table, asking for a hit. On the second round, one man turned up a blackjack and she paid off—two hundred and fifty dollars' worth of chips. I could see his eyes take her in as she flicked the cards back, shuffling quickly, dealing out cards again. He was thin, with a narrow balding head and a dark mustache, shirt sleeves rolled up, underarms stained with sweat. His gaze drifted down across her body and back up again to the immaculate face, cold and clean, the green eyes blazing. She paid no particular attention to him, but I had the feeling the two of them might do some private business later on. I retreated to another table, watching her from an easy distance. At 1:30, she took a break. Another dealer took her place and she crossed the casino, heading toward the Fiesta Room, where she ordered a Coke and lit up a cigarette. I followed.

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