My eyes snapped open and I looked around the room. It took me just a moment to recall where I was. Sonya Mao slumbered next to me, one arm across my chest. I glanced outside and judged from the light that it was about six-thirty. I slid gently out of bed, and Sonya stirred slightly in her sleep, withdrawing her arm beneath the covers and making a soft purring sound. I slipped into my trousers, grabbed my clothes, shoes and valise and tiptoed out of the room. I padded down the hall to the bathroom, took a quick shower and finished dressing. I went down to the kitchen, where I found a scrap of paper and a pen and dashed off a quick note to Sonya, saying that I was off on the case. The morning was bright, but the grounds of the Mao estate were still wrapped in fog here and there. As I drove up to the gates, they swung open for me, and I was on my way. I plucked my hat off the passenger's seat and put it on my head. Soon I was back in the heart of town.
As hard as it was to leave the twin comforts of a warm bed and a beautiful woman, I knew I had to get started if I was going to find out what had happened to Marlene Milkbone. I knew eventually I'd meet up with one of the parties that were probably looking for me. I was looking forward to it - whoever was after me would be a big clue as to what had happened - but I wasn't ready for that confrontation yet. I stopped at a diner to get myself a quick cup of coffee and some ham and eggs. I picked up the paper and asked the waitress if they had a spare copy of yesterday's issue lying around. Turned out they did, and I took that one as well. By the time I had finished my breakfast, I had memorized all the important details from the stories in both papers.
Next, I made my way to the site of the accident. I didn't expect to find much, figuring that the cops had already been over it and the wreck had already been towed away. (Sonya's family would eventually be contacted about their car. I made a metal note to check with Sonya to see if I could get a first hand look at it.) I found the spot without too much trouble. I cruised slowly past it until I found a place to park. I pulled off the road about a quarter mile from the site, grabbed some gear out of the trunk, and hiked back to where the car had gone through the guardrail.
It was at the outermost edge of a broad curve, with a drop-off of about a hundred feet down a steep embankment. A piece of the guardrail was still missing from where the car had gone over, it's splintered end a few feet away. I looked at the road. There were a number of skid marks; apparently lots of folks took this turn a little too fast. But as I looked at the various black streaks, I realized that none of them belonged to the vehicle Marlene had been driving. They were all at the wrong angle, and they all stopped far short of the edge of the road. She hadn't tried to stop the car from going over.
I looked more closely at the edges of the guard rail. The way they were broken told me that the car had been going at a good clip when it went through. I looked down over the embankment and saw a piece of painted wood lying in a bald spot part way down the hill. It was quite a distance off. In my mind I traced the trajectory of that beam from the moment the car hit it until it landed. The hillside was covered with scrubby brush, so although the board might have bounced, it would not have slid far. Taking everything into account, that board was pretty far away, which confirmed my guess that the car had been moving much too fast for this stretch of road when it had gone over the edge - and it hadn't tried to stop.
The path the car had taken down the embankment was obvious. I could see the crushed branches where it had first hit, and they fit in with the other evidence about the speed of the car. Once it fell out of the sky, the car had carved quite a swath down the side of the hill. Down towards the bottom, where it was flatter, I could see the ring of scorched brush left by the car fire. The site where the car had come to rest was little more than a black pit in the rocky, sandy soil.
I stepped over the edge and began to work my way carefully down the slope towards the scene of the accident. I moved across the hill until my calculations told be I was directly under the arc the car had traced through the night sky after leaving the road. I began walking methodically back and forth, pushing sagebrush aside with my paws, looking, sniffing. I must have spent a good hour going over that small patch of ground. But my persistence paid off. I caught a glimpse of a small patch of color just inside the leaves of one bush. Pushing the small branches carefully aside, I saw a piece of red cloth caught on a twig. I reached in gingerly and retrieved it. It was a small piece, and it looked to be the same material as the outfit Marlene had been wearing when I had last seen her. It was vaguely triangular, perhaps the end of a hem, collar or lapel. Two of the edges were seams. The third was charred.
I stood there and felt the sun beating down on my hat and coat. I looked at that shard of red fabric. A piece of cloth that had most likely floated down as the car passed over this spot. I tried to imagine this piece of cloth blowing up here from the crash site. I looked down the hill, felt the breeze on the back of my neck. I didn't buy it. I took out a clean handkerchief and placed the piece of cloth into it and wrapped it up. I put it in my coat pocket continued my search of the slope.
A bit further down, I came to the spot where the car had hit the ground. There I saw crushed foliage, deep scars in the ground, scraped rocks. I caught a faint whiff of gasoline and anti-freeze. The car had hit nose fist, but I figured it had come down at a bit of an angle, with the passenger's side turned more towards the ground than the driver's side. The car had flipped over its nose just once, then had slid part way, carving out a much wider path through the brush. Finally, it had started to roll down the hill, as indicated by the uneven pattern of broken branches between the end of the skid and the black patch at the bottom of the hill.
I continued to work my way down slowly and methodically. I looked for, and found, charred twigs and leaves along the path the car had taken after it began to roll. Other than the cloth, I had found no evidence of fire above the point of impact. As I had expected, the place where the car had come to rest was a wash - nothing but a lot of trampled brush, footprints and the tracks of vehicles. I had a cursory look around, but I'd already found out enough, and I didn't think there was much more to learn here. I headed back up to my car.
All the evidence so far seemed to say that Marlene's accident had been anything but. Her car had been purposely driven off the side of the road at high speed, and what was worse, it looked like the car had been on fire at the time. Not just the car - she had been on fire at the time. I shook my head, vainly trying to knock that image loose from it. Did the cops know? And if they did, were they doing anything about it?
It looked like I would find out. As I topped the hill, I was greeted by the sight of a police cruiser parked next to my jalopy. And standing next to it, two stern-faced minions of the law, arms folded, looking straight at me and not seeming to like what they saw.
Captain Sinclair looked up from his desk as I was ushered into the room, the look of intense concentration on his face quickly turning to one of disgust. "I thought I smelled something , but I just assumed it had come in on somebody's shoe," he snarled.
"Always a pleasure to see you too, Arty," I replied, helping myself to one of the chairs in front of his desk. "Ain'tcha gonna offer me a donut?"
The large gray wolf behind the desk bared his fangs at me and directed a curt question to the uniformed goat that had brought me in. "What's he here for?"
"A patrol picked him out at the site of the Milkbone accident. He was poking around the crime scene. He gave the officers a lot of lip but wouldn't tell 'em why he was there, so they brought him in. Then he said he had to speak to you about the accident."
The wolf shifted his gaze back to me. "No doubt," he growled. "All right, leave him with me." The cop let himself out of the office. "So, are you taking pictures for the scandal sheets now, Spaniel? I always figured you'd come into that line of work some day. But crash scenes? That's low even for you."
I leaned back in the chair. "You know, Arty, it's your high regard of me that keeps me going when I'm blue. That, and the fact that I know I can do a better job than most of the livestock you got on this force. Terrible shame about Mrs. Milkbone, isn't it?"
Sinclair squinted at me. "All right, Spaniel - what's this all about? Are you trying to tell me something."
I gave him a blank look. "What could I possibly tell you, Arty? I'm sure your boys have all the facts on this one locked down tight. I only know what I read in the papers."
He sat back in his chair and scowled at me. "Who are you working for, Spaniel? Milkbone's got his own guys. I know you don't take insurance work. Unless you have sold out to the rags, I don't see what your angle is on this Milkbone thing."
"I'll level with you, Arty. This whole case stinks like two day old fish. Somebody's playing dumb, and either your boys have fallen for it or they're in on it. I don't know which it is yet, but you know me - I'll find out. I came down here cause I thought it might save both of us a lot of trouble to have a little chat." Sinclair stared at me mutely across his desk. His expression told me nothing. "So what was the cause of death? You can at least give me that - it's a matter of public record."
"Who are you working for, Spaniel?"
It was time to start laying cards on the table, but I wasn't going to show any more of my hand than I had to. "One of Marlene Milkbone's relatives contacted me and asked me to look into things. I'm not the only one who thinks there's something funny about that car wreck."
Sinclair crossed his arms over his chest. "Officially, she died of injuries and burns received as a result of her accident. Her husband didn't want an autopsy performed, so we couldn't verify the cause of the accident was intoxication, but we suspect that was the case."
So we were going to do this the hard way. Oh well, I hadn't really expected any different. "She must have been pretty drunk to go over that bluff as fast as she did, without even hitting the brakes."
Sinclair cocked an eyebrow at me. "I guess she just couldn't handle her liquor."
"I guess not. But you've gotta admit, it's pretty unusual for someone, even a dame, to burst into flames from having one too many."
He stayed stoic. "If you're talking about the crash site, of course there was a fire after the impact..."
I cut him off. "C'mon, Arty - even you can't think I'm that stupid. That car was on fire before it ever left the road. Are you going to sit there and tell me that the dearly departed got herself drunk, set herself on fire and still managed to drive herself off a cliff at high speed? Or can it be that your crack investigators actually missed that important detail in their rush to get their pictures in the paper?"
The wolf was frowning at me. "OK. We know it was no accident. We knew from the start that she was probably dead by the time that car went off the road. We're investigating the murder now, and the last thing we wanted was a big story in the papers about it. That's the last thing her husband wanted, too. So we kept quiet about the cause of death."
"How nice of you not to step on the esteemed Mr. Milkbone's toes. Did he give you permission to question him, or were you too shy to ask for it?"
"Hanover Milkbone is cooperating in the investigation. He wants the killers found as much as we do."
"So you've ruled him out as a suspect."
"As I said, he's cooperating with us."
"And I suppose he's told you all about the little gift his wifey left for him the other day?"
Sinclair narrowed his gaze at me. "Gift?"
"Yeah, you know - all wrapped up in a blue ribbon, with a big, noisy surprise inside."
Sinclair held my gaze for a moment, then looked down. "Yes, he told us about the bombing."
"And you still think he's not involved?"
He looked up at me. "Look, Spaniel, we're still conducting an investigation. This is a police matter, and I'm not about to rehash the details of it with any civilian, least of all you. You know we don't rule out anyone who might have had a motive. But I'm not going to tell you anymore than that."
I leaned forward in the chair. "C'mon, Art - throw me a bone here. Milkbone's boys tapped me the other day 'cause they thought I knew where the lady was. I know she went missing right before the accident. What was it, kidnapping? Milkbone wouldn't pony up and they sent his wife home in a shoebox?"
The look of disgust, which had never totally left his face, got deeper. "Spaniel, you never cease to amaze me with the cockamamie ideas you come up with! You oughta have your head examined one of these days. Marlene Milkbone was not kidnapped. She left home for a day following the bombing, probably because she feared for her life. But she was on her way home when she had that wreck. Her husband had spoken to her just a few hours before, although he didn't know her whereabouts when she called." He paused and looked at me thoughtfully. "Why were Milkbone's men looking for you? How are you involved in all this?"
"They found one of my business cards, probably while carefully searching her underwear drawer for clues," I said, leaning back. "I don't know where she got it - I give out a lot of cards. Anyway, I'd never seen the broad, so there wasn't anything to tell them. At the time I wasn't involved in it at all. Now, of course, I'm a bit more involved."
Sinclair rolled his eyes. "Great, as if I didn't have enough to worry about. Look, Spaniel, just stay out of the way, all right? If you give me any trouble with this investigation, I swear I'll lock you up until it's over. And you better not even think of going to the papers on this one."
"Not to worry, Arty," I said. "I like my privacy just as much as you do. Now, what else shall we chat about? You never did offer me that donut."
The wolf snarled, but just a little. "Get outta my office, Spaniel. I've got work to do. And stay out of the way of our investigation if you want to stay out of the pound."
"Now, Arty, when have I ever been any trouble to you?" I said rising out of the chair and going to the door. "Besides, we're on the same side on this one." He grunted dismissively, already focused back on his paperwork. I opened the door and slid out into the hall.
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