The air conditioning in car 310 worked so well that my knees ached from the arctic blast out of the vents. The rest of me simmered. The tinted windows were marginal help as the afternoon July sun baked the car’s paint, the vinyl inside, and me.
I had tried opening all four windows, but the effect was like putting a fan inside an oven that was set to broil and then standing in front of the stove’s open door. It would have been a good afternoon to sit in my office and work on the budget. I had returned from lunch with exactly that plan when I found the Post-it on my door from Gayle Torrez, our chief dispatcher and wife of Undersheriff Robert Torrez.
I held the note out at arm’s length so I could read Gayle’s neat, precise printing. The message was clear enough: Carla Champlin asked that you stop by her house this afternoon. There wasn’t much there that needed clarification, but a dodge was still worth trying. I walked the half-dozen steps that would put me within easy talking distance of where Gayle sat by the dispatch console.
“Gayle, ask one of the two Toms to swing by and talk to the old battle-ax,” I said, referring to Deputies Tom Mears and Tom Pasquale. “Or—”
“Ms. Champlin asked specifically that you stop by, sir,” Gayle said without looking up from her computer keyboard.
“I’m sure she did,” I said. I crumpled the note and tossed it in the trash can.
“And it’s probably very important, too,” Gayle added, and glanced up at me with a grin. “She didn’t want to talk on the phone.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’m sure.” There was no point in arguing.
I was in no mood to talk to Carla Champlin. Facing her took patience in any weather, and the sweat that trickled down my back had eroded my marginally good humor. But I suppose I felt just a touch guilty. I hadn’t seen the woman in months. The village of Posadas didn’t include a multitude of souls or a multitude of streets. Still, our paths hadn’t crossed recently, and I hadn’t made much of an effort.
Miss Champlin—and she insisted on that Miss rather than a Ms.—had retired from the post office three years before at age seventy. Either the postal service didn’t enforce the sixty-five-and-out rule or she had lied to them all these years. The latter was entirely possible.
She was three years and some odd months older than me, and at the time of her retirement she still had been rake-thin and agile. She’d been blessed with the sort of good health that kept the arthritis out of her joints and the stiffness out of her back. During the decades that I’d known her, our conversations were the comfortable sort that took place with her on one side of the postal service window and me on the other, leaning on the worn and polished wood of the customer window shelf. She was one of the village fixtures, a woman who knew everyone and everyone’s business.
For years, we’d exchanged at the very least a grunted pleasantry every day except Sundays and legal holidays. More often than not, it was just the voice that I heard, with the woman hidden by the rank and file of postal boxes as she rammed bills, circulars, and catalogs into the five hundred and sixty postal patron slots.
In retirement, Carla Champlin had retreated to the comfort of her small, neat home and the gardens that filled her lot, one of the few showplaces in Posadas. I’d driven by on numerous occasions and never stopped. Several times I’d heard secondhand versions of disputes she’d had with neighbors who didn’t know quack grass from cholla, but what was a neighborhood without a rumor or dispute or two?
And so that afternoon I drove west on Bustos Avenue, past Pershing Park where Black Jack’s old tank, too hot today to touch, rested on its concrete pedestal, waiting all these years for Pancho Villa to spring another attack across the border. A few blocks beyond the park, I turned right onto Sixth Street. As far ahead as I could see, until the macadam of Sixth turned to dirt and the horizon faded into the heat waves, not a soul stirred… no kids on bikes, no health nuts striding out their daily mileage, not even a dog sniffing a tire.
Posadas baked, and anyone with any sense stayed inside where air conditioners or thick, cool adobe made the midday heat bearable.
The retired postmistress lived two houses from the north end of Sixth Street in the house that she’d purchased new in 1974. When she’d moved in, the lot was level sand, a nicely uniform, blemish-free canvas for her to attack. And attack it she had. Whatever she planted thrived, whether or not the garden catalogs or the experts said it would survive our blast-furnace summers. Carla Champlin didn’t just give in to the climate and plant cacti and rocks like her neighbors did.
Maybe Carla Champlin had a water bill in quadruple digits. My theory was that she simply told the plants that they’d damn well better grow, or else. And grow they did, a riot of color and texture that packed every square inch from curb to front door and then skirted the house to the backyard with its huge grape arbor and vegetable garden.
I parked 310 at the curb and took a deep breath before getting out, taking in the incredible show. Carla could have won every class in every county fair flower show, if that’s what she had wanted. Apparently she left the competition to others.
Judging from the drape of the grapevines in the arbor, she was going to have a bumper crop—of raisins if nothing else. The arbor served a dual purpose, though. Parked in its shade was a medium- sized self-contained RV, one of those big stub-nosed beasts that folks in the North buy to flee southward come winter.
I hadn’t realized Carla Champlin was the traveling type, but whether she was or not, the colors of the RV meshed perfectly with the rest of the display.
With a sigh, I got out of the car. Not a breath of air stirred, and the sky was blank and featureless, like a fine piece of stainless steel with a light spray coat of blue paint.
Two strides put me between the first rows of daylilies, dahlias, and delphiniums. Although I was sure it was my imagination, the yard felt cooler and a little more friendly.
I reached the front step just as the front door opened. “Good,” Miss Champlin said. “You got my note.” That sufficed as a greeting, and she pushed open the aluminum storm door and beckoned.
The first wash of cool air from deep inside the house was wonderful as I stepped inside. I took off my straw Bailey and dropped it on a handy chair. With one smooth motion, Carla Champlin closed the front door behind me, stepped around and picked up my hat, and hung it properly on the rack beside the dark wood-framed mirror. Having thus established that she, by God, was in control, she beckoned me to follow.
“Let’s go to the kitchen,” she said over her shoulder. “It’s cooler there, and I’m sure you’d like some iced tea or some such.”
“How are you doing, Carla?” I said. “Your flowers look great.” If she replied I didn’t hear it. As I made my way toward the kitchen, I scanned the photos that lined the hallway. They weren’t of family or famous politicians or snowcapped mountains. Each was an identically framed photo of Carla Champlin kneeling beside a show dog, the ribbons—mostly blue—prominently displayed. The champions were without exception boxers, each as flat-faced, stub-tailed, and bulging with muscles as the next. They all looked like clones of the same dog.
I stopped beside one photo whose background included a large sign that announced the pawtucket national trials.
The dog in that portrait was gazing off into the distance as if deep in thought—probably an impossibility. The ribbon Carla Champlin held was enormous, and beside her on the floor stood a trophy that must have been three feet tall. Capping the chrome monument was a cast figure that I assumed was a boxer.
The Carla Champlin in the photo was decades, perhaps even centuries, younger than the one currently clanking glasses in the kitchen.
“When did you do show dogs?” I asked.
“A long, long time ago,” she said, and appeared in the kitchen door holding a dish towel. “That’s Blake.”
“It’s short for what’s on his papers, which is even more asinine,” Carla said without offering further explanation. “He was the first national champion I ever had.”
“But not the last.” “Not the last.”
“I didn’t know you even owned a dog, Carla.”
“I don’t. Not anymore. As I said, that was all a long, long time ago. Come have some tea.”
I moved into the kitchen and she handed me a tall, elegant glass already sweating from the ice and topped with three slices of lemon. “As I remember, you don’t use sugar,” she said.
“No, thanks.” I had no idea why she would know anything about my tea habits, but thirty years in a small town supplied lots of ancillary and most often useless information if you chose to take notice and remember. Maybe she’d just noticed my ample girth and made a lucky guess that I was trying to do something about it.
“Why did you give the dogs up?”
“Allergies,” she snapped with considerable venom. “And a reversal of fortune. All about the time I turned forty.” She smiled without much humor. “Such a delight life can be, sometimes.”
“I suppose.” I knew that she had been married at one point in her life, but I didn’t suppose that discussing her early life with the dogs was why she had summoned me to her home on a broiling summer’s day. “This is the first time I’ve ever noticed your camper out back.”
“Oh, that thing,” she said. “Now listen,” she added, as if I hadn’t been. “You know my sister.” The blank look on my face stopped her. “Elaine Doyle?” she prompted.
I frowned and shook my head. “I didn’t know you had a sister, Carla.”
“Well, she’s my sister-in-law, really, but that’s just a technicality. You know Bobby Doyle.”
“He ran the drive-in theater,” I said, remembering a small, quick-moving man who smelled of buttered popcorn. “He died some time ago. I didn’t know he was your brother.”
“He wasn’t,” Carla said. “Elaine’s first husband, Scott Champlin, was my brother.”
I chuckled. “I didn’t know Scott, either.”
Carla waved a hand. “He lived in Terre Haute, of all places. Never visited here. But that’s neither here nor there. Listen. Elaine’s not wired just right, if you know what I mean. I love her like a real sister, but sometimes she just goes off the deep end. When she’s into the bottle…well, you know how that goes. Anyway, about five years ago, when they moved away, I purchased that little house of theirs over on Third Street. Two Twenty-one Third Street, just behind the Salazar funeral home. And by the way, that was their RV, too. I bought it as a favor, thinking maybe I’d do a little traveling, like I used to do on the show circuit.”
“That might be fun.”
“Well, not traveling alone, it isn’t. If you hear of anyone who wants to buy the thing, let me know. It’s in perfect condition. It just sits there.”
All of that was delivered with the rapidity of a machine gun.
Carla Champlin’s voice had lost none of its metallic bark. “So, what’s the problem?”
“The problem, Sheriff, is that I purchased the house on Third Street as something of an investment. I know it’s not all that much, just five rooms, but it was just such a dollhouse. I rented it to the McClaines for almost four years, and they were just perfect tenants. Just perfect. You remember them, of course.” She paused for a moment to let that sink in. I knew that the McClaines no longer lived at 221 Third Street, but I knew better than to interrupt Carla just when she was spooling up.
“A beautiful yard, everything. The two of them had one small child, but then Mr. McClaine took work out of town, and they had to move.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, and sipped the tea. “And now, I’m just worried sick.”
I pulled out a chair from the white kitchen table and sat down carefully. “Start from the beginning,” I suggested, knowing exactly what was coming. “You’re unhappy with a tenant?”
“Unhappy is an understatement,” Carla Champlin said, sounding pleased that I had cut to the chase in such fine fashion. “I wish I had thought to take a photograph of the place when the McClaines left. What a picture.”
“And now it’s a mess,” I said. “You’ve seen it?”
“At a distance. I know the renter.”
“Of course you do. It’s one of your deputies.” Her expression said and that’s why I called you. When I didn’t respond instantly, she added, “I know it’s none of your affair, except something has to be done. I’m not going to stand by and watch my investment just go frittering out the window.”
“Have you talked to Deputy Pasquale?”
“I’ve driven by there endless times. He’s either not there or makes these grand, endless promises that he never keeps. He can be a charmer, that’s for sure. Have you seen the front lawn?”
“Not recently, ma’am.”
“Well, you should go look. It’s just such a shame. And everything else. If it’s green, he kills it.”
I tried my best not to smile. “Let me talk to Tom,” I said. “I’m not sure what I can do, but let me talk to him first.”
“I wish you’d do that. Perhaps he’ll be reasonable. You know, I even tried calling Judge Hobart’s office. I’ve left messages, but he hasn’t seen fit to respond. I don’t have the time or inclination or the money to go to a lawyer, Mr. Gastner. But if you can convince that young man to be reasonable, that would be such a help.”
Reasonable wasn’t the first adjective that came to my mind when someone mentioned Deputy Thomas Pasquale, but I nodded agreement, certain that the whole problem was just one of those petty things that festered in hot weather until it blistered out of all proportion.
I drained the last of the tea and stood up. “I’ll see about it,” I said, as if that were the first thing on my afternoon’s agenda.