A is for Alibi Page 62

Con pushed impatiently at a stack of files on his desk. "I'll think about that," he said. "I don't want us to get buddy buddy over this.”

"Believe me, we will never be close friends," I said, and for some reason his expression softened slightly and I almost thought he might smile.

"Get out of here," he said gruffly.

I went.

I got in my car and left the downtown area, taking a left on Anaconda down to the beach. It was a gorgeous day—sunny and cool, with fat clouds squatting on the horizon. There were sailboats here and there, probably planted by the Chamber of Commerce to look picturesque for the tourists who straggled along the sidewalk taking snapshots of other tourists who were sitting in the grass.

At Ludlow Beach, I followed the hill upward and then branched off onto the steep side street where Marcia Threadgill lived. I parked and got out my binoculars, scanning her patio. All of her plants were present and accounted for and they were all looking healthier than I liked. There was no sign of Marcia or the neighbor she feuded with. I wished she would move so I could take pictures of her lugging fifty-pound cartons of books down to a U-Haul van. I'd even settle for a glimpse of her coming back from the grocery store with a big double bag of canned goods ripping across the bottom from the weight. I focused in on her patio again and noticed for the first time that there were actually four plant hooks screwed into the wooden overhang of the patio above. On the hook at the near comer was the mammoth plant I'd seen before, but the other three hooks were empty.

I put the binoculars away and went into the building, pausing at the landing between the second and third floors. I peered down through the stair railing. If I situated myself correctly, I'd be able to focus my camera at just the right angle to pick up a nice view of Marcia's front door. Having ascertained that much, I went out to my car again and drove to the Gateway supermarket. I hefted a few houseplants potted in plastic and found one that was just right for my purposes: twenty-five pounds of sturdy trunk with a series of vicious swordlike leaves protruding at intervals. I picked up some prettied gift ribbons in a fire-engine red and a get-well card with a sentimental verse. All of this was taking up precious time that I would have preferred devoting to Nikki Fife's business, but I have my rent to account for and I felt like I owed California Fidelity for at least half a month.

I went back to Marcia's apartment and parked in front. I checked my camera, tore open the packaged ribbons, and stuck several of them to the plastic pot in a jaunty fashion and then tucked the card down inside with a signature scrawled on it that even I couldn't read. I hoisted plant, camera, and myself with a slightly thudding heart up the steep concrete stairs, into the building, and up to the second floor. I set the plant down near Marcia's doorsill and then went up to the landing, where I checked my light meter, set up the camera, and adjusted the focus on the lens. Nice angle, I thought. This was going to be a work of art. I trotted back down, took a deep breath and rang Ms. Threadgill's bell, racing back up the stairs again at breakneck speed. I picked up the camera and checked the focus again. My timing was perfect.

Marcia Threadgill opened her front door and stared down with surprise and puzzlement. She was wearing shorts and a crocheted halter and in the background the voice of Olivia Newton-John boomed out like an audible lollipop. I hesitated a moment and then peered over the rail. Marcia was leaning over to extract the card. She read it, turned it over, and then studied its face again, shrugging with bewilderment. She glanced down the stairwell as though she might catch sight of the delivery person. I began to click off pictures, the whir of the thirty-five millimeter camera obscured by the record being played too loudly. Marcia padded back to her doorsill and bent casually from the waist, picking up twenty-five pounds of plant without even bothering to bend her knees as we've all been instructed to in the exercise manuals. As soon as she'd trucked the plant inside, I raced back down the stairs and out to the street, focusing again from the sidewalk below just as she appeared on the patio and placed the plant up on the rail. She disappeared. I backed up several yards, attaching the telephoto lens, waiting then with my breath held.

Back she came with what must have been a kitchen chair. I clicked off some nice shots of her climbing up. Sure enough, she picked up the plant by the wire, heaving it up to shoulder height, muscles straining until she caught the wire loop on the overhead hook. The effort was such that her halter hiked up and I got a nice shot of Marcia Threadgill's quite large bosom peeping out, I turned away just in time, I suspect, catching only the inkling of her quick look around to see if anyone else had spotted her exposure. When I glanced back casually she was gone.

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