FEW PEOPLE REMEMBER WALTER NEFF. Why should they? When the story came out that he and Phyllis Didrikson conspired to kill her husband to collect on a double indemnity insurance policy, the Daily Tribune reported it on page eighteen of Tuesday’s edition. That kind of notoriety wouldn’t deter a twelve-year-old. That’s how old David Kelly was when the photo of Phyllis caught his eye as he was cleaning his grandmother’s birdcage. He read the article—about how Neff shot her twice through her evil heart and how he was going to be tried for first degree murder–and then made sure her picture faced upwards so his grandmother’s love birds would drop their displeasure on her. “That’s what women like you deserve,” he said as he slid the tray back into the cage.
“Is that the day you decided to be a cop?” Sgt. Malone asked him as the overhead fan creaked out an uneven rhythm.
“Yep. And I tell you what, few people can pinpoint a life-altering decision that accurately.”
Malone went back to reading his newspaper. “That’s a fact, Kelly.” What else could he say to a gung-ho rookie who spent his lunch hours cleaning his .38?
April 1, 1939. That was the day she came in out of the searing Southern California sun. Vickie Conklin–all 5-foot, 8-inches of her svelte self, her blond hair tousled by the Santa Ana wind blowing off shore from the desert, and her high heels making little clicks on the terra cotta tiled floor. Malone took his feet off his desk and sat up straight, and Kelly stuffed his revolver into his shoulder holster. It was time to wear their professional personas.
“Can I help you, Miss?” Kelly said, because she was looking at him with big brown damsel-in-distress eyes, and blotting her forehead with a white lace-trimmed hanky.
“I hope so, officer. I’m looking for a man.”
Kelly walked to the counter, and leaned on one arm. “You found him.”
She opened her gray purse, one of those that looked like a small version of a Samsonite overnight suitcase, and pulled out a photograph. “This man in particular.” Malone joined his partner at the counter and they both took a long look at the Tyrone Power twin who’d checked into the Bungalow 6 of the Wagon Wheel Motel last night, and checked into Drawer 2 at the County Morgue this morning—with three bullets in his chest.
“What’s his name?” Malone asked. He’d registered as Richard Kemp.
“Richard Conklin. He’s my husband.”
“Maybe you should sit down, Mrs. Conklin,” Kelly said and escorted her to the desk while Malone got her a cup of joe and grabbed the smelling salts from the first aid drawer just in case. “What makes you think the police might have seen him?”
“We live in Inglewood. He runs a gas station there and I keep the books. We’ve only been married a year and I’ve discovered…let’s just say this wouldn’t be his first bender that ended in a jail cell.”
Malone and Kelly exchanged somber glances, and Malone said, “This might be his last bender.”
“Oh no,” she said, and laid her hand on Kelly’s arm. “Is he dead?”
“Let me drive you over to the Coroner’s office.” Detective Sgt. Malone slipped on his sport coat, and ushered her to the door. “We’ll be back, Kelly.”
Lunch was over, and he had reports to finish. There’d been a fender bender at the Piggly-Wiggly market and at seven a.m. he’d rescued old Mrs. Hanson’s cat from her roof for the tenth time. But he couldn’t concentrate. All he could think about was that tall blonde with the dainty hanky who’d pressed her hand on his arm. He looked at Conklin’s photo again, and turned it over. To my darling wife Vickie was scrawled on the back. He’d add that information to the report on the Wagon Wheel Motel murder.
When he returned, Malone found him trying to finish the Hanson report and listening to the ball game. “That gal’s enough to make a guy weak, you know?” Malone said and tossed his hat on the desk.
“Is our victim her ol’ man?”
“Yeah. She pretended to take it hard.” Kelly stopped typing. “Lots of sobbing, but her mascara didn’t run.”
“Too bad. I was hoping to comfort her,” Kelly said.
Malone started a fresh pot of coffee. He always busied himself with something when he got a bead on a case. Kelly compared him to a percolator. “Maybe it’s a case of marry in haste, regret at leisure,” Kelly said. “She found out he was a closet drunk and part of her is glad he’s dead.”
“Sure. Or maybe she hired a hit man who totes a .22, according to the coroner. You ever hear of a hit man using three bullets to whack a target? And at close range? That tells me the shooter was probably a woman.”
“You like Vickie as the shooter?”
Malone poured a cup of joe. “Or a girlfriend. Vickie might have suspected a bender with an infidelity chaser, and chased them here. There’s a confrontation. She leaves and the girlfriend commits a crime of passion.”
Kelly leaned back in his chair. “There goes my chance to score.”
“Not so.” Malone handed him a business card from Conklin’s Inglewood Conoco. “She says we should mail Richard’s picture to her, or drop it off at the Wagon Wheel tonight. I think she’s waiting for you, Kelly my boy.”
She was waiting alright. She opened the door smelling like a garden and wrapped in a blue silk kimono embroidered with pink and turquoise peacocks. “Did I catch you at a bad time?” he said.
She leaned against the door jamb, her arms crossed over her chest, barely keeping the kimono closed. “Your timing’s perfect. It’s been a beastly day. I’m all cooled down now, but I could use a drink and a shoulder to cry on.”
“How ‘bout I buy you that drink?”
“How ‘bout you let me fix you that drink. I was a bartender before I was a bookkeeper. She opened the door wide, and he could see she’d stocked her bar well—gin, whiskey, and rum, 7-Up, Coke, and an ice bucket rested on the dresser.
“Sure, Baby. We’ll toast the deceased.” He followed her inside and closed the door. He watched her walk to the booze, the kimono hanging loose. He could see her in the mirror, her tits peeking in and out of the silk, her white skin disappearing into a patch of sable.
“What’ll it be, Detective?”
“Whiskey on the rocks.” He took off his coat and put it on the back of one of the chairs at the table under the window. She brought him his drink, sat on the bed, and lifted her glass. “To Richard Conklin and we who mourn his passing.” She smiled at him, her parted lips showing off perfect white teeth and a girlish smile, but her eyes told him she was all woman.
He forgot about Richard Conklin, and the picture he’d put in an envelope and shoved into his coat pocket. He forgot he was a rookie detective and could be busted back to patrolman as easily as he’d been promoted if the Chief knew he’d shared a drink with a possible murder suspect. He forgot she was a suspect, and how he was supposed to get information from her. One taste of her mouth and he forgot his manners; he didn’t ask for seconds, he demanded it.