Archive for April 17th, 2009


Fate Pays The Rent (Seventeenth Installment)

Chapter 6

“Come in, Mr. Powell. Coffee?”
“Yes, please. I’m a little nervous.”
“That’s understandable. Would it help if you called me Debra instead of Mrs. Lamb? It’s after school hours and you’re not actually one of my students.”
“It might but you’ll probably have to keep reminding me. I wasn’t raised that way and I still have a hard time calling my boss by his first name.”
Mrs. Lamb stood up. “Would you like to walk down the hall to the teachers’ lounge and get the coffee? We’d still have a chance to talk but you wouldn’t be sitting in the principal’s office. I take it that’s pretty stressful for you.”
“Isn’t it for most people?”
“No, your friend, Mr. Matthews, was very comfortable down here. He seemed very proud of having spent a lot of time outside principals’ offices.”
Clement stopped to look at a painting hung about waist-high: A row of brilliantly-colored tulips stood against a blue background with their faces turned towards a smiling sun. In the lower left-hand corner of the picture, in black, the artist had attempted to paint his name. A large drop of paint marred the middle of the name and eight legs had been drawn onto it with a pencil. Clement straightened and listened to a vacuum cleaner humming in one of the distant classrooms. “I’d like to ask you something that has nothing to do with why I came here today.”
Mrs. Lamb chuckled. “You have an interest besides school reform? Can we continue?” She gestured down the hall.
“Oh, yes.” He took two steps then stopped and looked at the ceiling. “Mrs. Lamb-“
“Oh, yeah. You got an impression of Jeff when you talked with us yesterday, right?”
“Oh, yes.”
“Probably not the most favorable one.”
“I would say that I’m glad he’s not a student here.”
They began walking again. “Did he seem really bad to you?”
“He seemed like he had a great capacity for mischief and he seemed proud of having it. I doubt he’s ever done anything ‘really bad’ but he appears full of himself and wants other people to think he could be ‘really bad’. Why? Did he do something?”
“Do the walls have ears?”
Debra chuckled again. “Not at this point in the day.”
“Then maybe he did something. I’m not sure. I don’t believe he did. The police think he did and they’re holding him and asking him a lot of questions.”
“If the police are holding him then it’s serious.”
“Yeah, pretty serious. Jeff has a girlfriend named Mari. Mari used to have a boyfriend named Aaron. I say ‘used to’ because they broke up and because someone killed him last night.”
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Aren’t the police going to want to talk with her too?”
“They said they would but they have to find her first.”
“Where did she go? You must have some idea.”
“Me? Why would I know where she is?”
“You’re the one who told her to go away, aren’t you?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Mr. Powell, Clement, my job greatly resembles the job of a policeman; I have to be able to hear a story and size up the storyteller and determine almost at once whether or not there is truth in either one.”
“And that leads you to believe I know where Mari went? Why?”
“You like to rescue people. You like to help them. Maybe all those dinner rolls you were hit with made you protective. It’s hard to tell what it was now but you can’t stand it. Whether it’s helping Nick Henderson get his sloppy Joes or giving his brother a dinner roll- yes, I know about that- or helping this girl get away from her dangerous boyfriend you have to do it. But you didn’t think this one all the way through.”
“What do you mean?”
“Clement, did this girl have a reason to kill her ex-boyfriend?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Would the police think so?”
Clement poured the fourth packet of sugar into his coffee and stirred. “They might.”
“Did this girl have the means to kill him?”
“They think he was killed with a shovel that was leaning against the wall of his office. Anybody that got into the office would have had access to the shovel.”
“She could get into the office?”
“At one time she had a key. I don’t know whether she still had one last night or if she gave it to Jeff who gave it to me. But she wasn’t the only one with a key.”
“Was she the only one with an alibi that you gave her? ‘I couldn’t have done it. I left town hours before it happened. Ask Clement.’” She took a sip of her coffee.
Clement slapped his forehead with his palm. “And the only way to find out whether she killed him or not would be to find her.”
“She probably won’t be so well hidden that the police can’t find her. She may not even be sufficiently hidden that her boyfriend couldn’t have found her if he was free to put in the effort. From what I’ve read, women seem to have a very hard time getting lost.”
“She wouldn’t be lost at all if I hadn’t told her to get out of town.”
“Before you beat yourself up too much, did you still want to talk about you and the Henderson brothers and how everyone can learn and be friends?” She sat in one of the cushioned chairs and set her coffee on the table beside her then invited him to do the same.
“Yeah. I would still like to do that. I’d like that very much.”

Clement reached the top step of the number 12 bus, stopped and smiled. He had a bus ticket and a mission. His shoes were free of jelly. The man he was looking for was halfway back on the right-hand side. Clement slid into the seat ahead of him and waited to be recognized. They passed under a streetlight and a moment later the other passenger said, “Is your car broken again? You should get a new one. Where did you go the other night after the bus stopped running?”
“No, my car is fine.”
“Then why are you on the bus? You said you don’t usually ride the bus.”
“I’m riding it tonight because I wanted to talk to you.”
“I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I don’t think anyone’s ever ridden on the bus because they really wanted to talk to me and not because they wanted to make fun of me. Are you gonna make fun of me?”
“No no. I want to talk to you about riding the bus.”
“You have a ticket now. You got on the bus so you have a schedule. You’re doing okay. Where did you go the other night? Did you go home?”
“No, not right away.”
“Did you go to some lady’s house?”
“Not really. I went to Shari’s.”
“Shari’s the restaurant or somebody named Shari who isn’t a lady?” He laughed and patted Clement on the shoulder.
“Shari’s the restaurant.”
“Did you get eggs? I like my eggs cooked so you can sop them up with the toast.”
“I like mine like that too. Maybe we’ll go over there some time and have eggs together.”
“No. That’s a nice thing to say but we’re not going.”
“No. Probably not.”
“What did you want to ask me about riding the bus?”
“Were you on the bus last night?”
“Were you on this one? Is this the only bus you ride?”
The man laughed. “You’re starting to ask questions like me. I was on the 47 until dinner time then I got off and had a sandwich and an orange pop. Then I got on this one and rode it till it stopped running. Then I went home and fed my cat and put some clothes in the washer and some soap and pushed the button and went to sleep. How come you want to know what bus I was on?”
“Do you remember that building I was keeping an eye on the other night when I rode the bus with you? I didn’t say that’s what I was doing but you probably noticed it anyway.”
“Do you remember going by that same building last night?”
“I rode this bus from after supper till 3 am. I’m sure we went by it every time we were down that street. What’s your name?”
“You and I have been riding together, this is the second time, and you’re asking me all these questions and I’m asking you all these questions and I don’t know what your name is.”
“Oh. My name is Clement.”
“Okay, Clement. Good to meet you.”
Clement realized the man was still watching him intently. “Oh gosh. I’m sorry.” He held his hand out over the back of the seat. “I forgot my manners. I’m Clement and you are?”
“I’m Kenny,” he said, grasping Clement’s hand and shaking it hard. “You can take classes, you know.”
“In what?”
“In manners and how to meet people and how to act. I took them and my coach says I’ve really improved. Maybe you should take some if you’re worried about your manners.”
“Thanks but I won’t really have time for a while. I’m going to be busy helping a friend of mine.”
“I like to help people. Maybe I can help too. If I’m smart enough.” He winked.
“Yeah, well. One of us had to walk all the way across town and it wasn’t you so I think you’re the smartest one.”
Kenny laughed. “I’m retarded; I’m not stupid.”
“Yeah, you told me that before. It makes a lot more sense now.” Both men laughed. “Okay, here’s where I need your help. Last night when the bus went by that building around ten o’clock-“
“Yes? What about it?”
“When you went by around ten did you see any cars in the parking lot?”
“Did you see any cars there at nine o’clock?”
“But I was there about eight. You saw my car when you went by after eight, right?”
“But I was there. My car was parked in one of the first parking spots. How could you not see my car?”
“Simple. You can’t see any cars back there from the bus because the parking lot doesn’t face the street.”
Clement slapped his forehead for the second time that day. “Of course! The windows on the other side face the parking lot and the goat. Aaron’s office is on the street side and that’s how we were able to see the lights.”
“I don’t know anything about a goat but I just told you about the parking lot.”
“So anybody could have been back there. They could have been there for hours after I left and nobody would have seen anything.”
“Maybe if they were driving in or coming out when the bus went by but the bus doesn’t go by that often.”
“Wait a minute! The lights in the office. At eight o’clock when I got to the office the lights were all off and there were just the dim night-time ones in the hallway. Do you remember seeing any lights on in that office I was watching before?”
“I don’t remember for sure. Maybe later on when we’d gone by a bunch of times.”
“How many times? Three or four?”
“Maybe. Maybe more like four.”
“So about eleven o’clock?”
“I guess so. I think so. I’m not really sure. I don’t look at the time because I don’t have any place else I’m supposed to be.”
The driver looked into his rear-view mirror. “You doing okay back there, Kenny?”
“Yep, I’m all right.”
“That guy giving you any trouble?”
“No, he’s okay. He was just asking me if I saw something last night.”
Clement turned in his seat to face the driver. “Maybe you saw it. I was wondering if you noticed if the lights were on in the third floor center window of the new business complex.”
“I keep my eyes out for three things- cops, passengers, and bicyclists who’ve done all they wanted to do in life and are prepared to end things on the front of my bus.” He looked in the mirror again. “Oh, and I also keep an eye on my buddy, Kenny, to make sure nobody’s giving him a hard time.”
“He wasn’t giving me a hard time. This is Clement. We rode the bus together a few nights ago. He didn’t know where to go when the buses stopped and he had to walk to Shari’s restaurant.”
The light turned red and the driver turned to look at Clement. “You walked all the way over to the Shari’s by 164th and Mill?”
Clement sighed. “Yes, I did.”
“Wow, you’ve got some walking feet. You’re crazy to walk all that way but I got to admire your perseverance.”
‘Yeah, well don’t be too proud. I fell asleep right in the middle of my hash browns and bacon.”
“I’ll just bet you did . That’s a long damn way to 164th and Mill.”
“Can I catch the number 37 up here?”
“Yeah, it’s two stops from now. You want me to let you off there?”
“Yes, please.”
“You got it. Any friend of my man Kenny’s is a friend of mine. Ain’t that right, Kenny?”
“That’s a nice thing for you to say even though it isn’t all the way true.” Kenny patted Clement’s shoulder. “If you know you need to take the 37 to get where you want to go then you’re really getting good at riding the bus.”
“I like my car.”
“With the seats that heat up. Yeah, that would be nice. Clement has a car that you can push a button in and the seats get warm.”
“For real?”
“And you’re out here riding the bus.” The driver shook his head.
“I wanted to talk to Kenny.”
“I told him people don’t usually look for me unless they want to make fun of me.”
“That is true.”
“Clement has been nice to me but he said he might want to take classes on how to have good manners and how to meet people.”
“We can all use more manners,” the driver said. “This is you.” He waited until Clement was stepping down from the bottom step to say, quietly, “Kenny’s a good guy. I’m glad you came looking for him.” The door thwumped shut and Clement was standing alone in a cough of diesel fumes.