The Innocents: Part Eight

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FOURTEEN

 

It was the honking that brought him out of it, forcing him to notice the guy behind him in the jacked-up stepside. The driver was gesturing at the car’s length that had opened up, leaning out now, yelling loud enough for Wil to hear.

“Fuckin’ car phones. Move your ass, goddammit.”

Beating back the impulse to stay on the line, Wil killed the connection and dialed 911. As he waited, he fumbled for the Angel’s Bar address, then 911 answered and he told them. Next he dialed Vella, praying that he hadn’t left work yet; five rings, then Vella was there, listening, questioning, promising to roll units, be there himself ASAP.

After that Wil went to work on the traffic: laying on the horn, bulling his way nightmare-slow to the frontage, breaking free then, tires riding the curb. Horns screamed back at him. As he approached the accident, the motorcycle patrolman blocked his way.

“You Hardesty? Sheriff’s just radioed, said you were in this mess and where you had to get to. Follow me.”

They made it in twenty-seven minutes, the CHP hanging a U-turn as Wil swung into the taco stand’s parking lot in between a paramedic truck and an unmarked unit. Angel’s crawled with cops: four cruisers in front, lights flashing as valley cops directed traffic around the scene. Two white vans stood by the bar’s entrance. Vella, looking tired, came out the double doors, grabbed Wil’s arm.

“Brace yourself,” he said, then as Wil slipped past him, “and don’t touch anything.”

Angel’s hummed: a pair of uniforms stood with the bartender while detectives in plainclothes conducted interviews; specialists combed for evidence, one sketching the layout. A paramedic brushed past him toward a group tight-quartered in the hallway where flash equipment strobed.

Vella evidently told them he’d be coming because they let him pass—through the door, past a gameroom where dusting for latents had started, past the room with the baños sign, to the yellow crime scene tape, and into hell. The blood looked spray-gunned on; it patterned the pay phone, the telephone alcove, the floor. Paul had evidently staggered, hitting the walls in several places where it was especially heavy.

Wil pressed fingers into his eyes, then looked at what had been his friend. Paul lay on his side in a huge red pool, eyes and mouth open, hands at the obscene wound in his neck as though trying to pinch it together. The paramedic came over.

“You okay?”

He nodded, not risking speech.

“You knew him, I take it,” the paramedic said as they looked down. “Slicer took out both carotids and the jugular—the cleanest I ever saw. Probably over in a minute.”

Wil looked at the still-dangling receiver, found his voice, the sound mostly croak. “I heard it,” he said. “But it wasn’t a minute. It was a goddamn lifetime.”

 

 

Wil found Vella leaning against the unmarked, holding a cigarette at his side. His breath rose, illuminated in the flashing lights.

“Some fucked day,” Vella said. “I’m sorry about your friend.” He drew in smoke. “That his car? Couple of sidewalk trade told us he got out of the wagon over there.” When Wil nodded, Vella called a deputy over and briefed him; he motioned Wil inside the unit and got in himself. “Look, I know this is tough, but what the fuck was an amateur like Rodriguez doing tracking a guy like Zavala? And how come no mention of it? We’d have had this bastard if we’d been tipped. Freiman’s gonna shit.”

Wil looked at him; the headache that had started back on the freeway was moving to a point behind his eyes. “Paul was freelancing, Vella. You knew about this when I knew about it. End of story.”

They watched the transport people muscle a gurney toward the white van; doors opened, then slammed, and the van took off. Vella shook his head. “An amateur for Christ’s sake.”

Wil’s fire blew out as quickly as it flamed. “Vella, that amateur saved my life once—in a fucking river in a fucking war nobody gave a damn about. I was supposed to be here, but I wasn’t. I could have saved him, but I didn’t. Now I have to tell his wife that.”

A minute passed; radio crackle brought them back. Vella opened his door and they got out, Wil feeling about a hundred. Vella kicked half-heartedly at a taco wrapper blowing by, then dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. “Right,” he said. “Look, I’ll brief Freiman. You take an hour or two, get things squared away with the wife. When you’re finished, come downtown. We’ll talk then.”

Wil nodded. “I’ll help your guy with Paul’s car, then take off. When you’re through, leave it. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

 

 

One of the night duty detectives directed him to the office. As Lieutenant Vella finished a call, Wil looked out at city lights, replayed the horror on Angel’s floor, the parting look in Raeann Rodriguez’s eyes.

She’d known as soon as she saw his face at the door. “I lost him,” he told her after trying to explain what happened. “Paul was waiting for me. I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for him.”

She put aside the brandy he’d poured her, left the room, and came back with a small tight thing—pine needles with a geometric pattern woven in. At the top the basket curved gracefully in on itself.

His first thought was that she’d gone into shock.

“I finished it today,” she said. “I was going to surprise Paul, hope it might get him interested in coming to class. That’s where Iwas today. While Paul was at Angel’s and you were wherever you were and that man was wherever he was.” She touched his cheek. “Nobody forced Paul. You were no more responsible for his being killed than I was.”

Her face hardened, and then the hardness was gone, and it was as though she were aging in front of him, her color draining, cheeks sagging. “Come back when you’re through,” she said. “I can’t be alone. Not tonight.”

Vella hung up the phone.

“Nothing I didn’t expect,” he said. “Freiman’s ticked you didn’t tell him about Rodriguez.” He took an ending drag on his cigarette, crushed it as he exhaled. “Some lousy luck about your friend, but at least we know who we’re after.”

“Yeah,” Wil said, snapping out of it. He turned away from the window. “He knew my name, Vella. The son of a bitch knew we were coming.”

“How could he have known?”

“I have no idea how, let alone when. But he knew.” Wil started to pace. “Paul said they were playing pool. Then the man’s at his throat and calling me Hardesty—some kind of macho play I think.”

“The call—Zavala overheard him, figured it out.”

“No way. Paul kept it low, never said my name. I think Zavala knew all along who Paul was and decided to kill him when I didn’t show.” He rubbed his temples. “You got any aspirin?”

Vella found some in his top drawer, lit a fresh menthol as Wil gulped four tablets down with coffee. He plunked the match into an empty hamburger box. “The girls said Zavala acted like he was expecting company. What I don’t get is, it’s been a long time since anybody was even close to catching up with this guy—how’d he know Paul?”

“Paul called some people he knew about Zavala. Maybe one of them tipped him. Still doesn’t explain how Zavala knew about me, though.”

“How about Guerra? You know we found a possible link there.”

Wil stopped pacing and leaned against the wall. “Maybe. But Paul understood that I thought Guerra’s knowing Zavala in Mexico was a stretch. He wouldn’t have said anything to Guerra, even if he had seen him before he went to Angel’s.” He thought a second. “This link between Zavala and Guerra anything provable?”

Vella tapped ash into the box. “Unlikely. It’s cold trail, almost thirty years. Nothing conclusive even then.”

“Did anything more turn up at Angel’s?”

“Lab people didn’t find much. The investigating team’s still interviewing, but so far nobody knows nada. Bartender told them he noticed Paul but never saw another man. Same for the pool players. Local cops said Angel’s is no virgin: drug busts, fights, stabbings—nothing like this, though.”

“So your shop’s handling the investigation?”

Vella yawned, backhanded it. “We do their 187s. We should have prints back soon, but the dusters said they found only one cue out. Zavala probably wiped his and stuck it back in the rack. Nothing comes easy, does it?” He puffed, waved away smoke, then pulled out photocopies stapled together and tossed them down. “Take a look. They’re pages from a spiral notebook we found in the glove compartment of the station wagon.”

Wil thumbed through them as Vella talked.

“You’ll notice Paul set up his watch at a little past four and spotted Zavala at 5:17. The last entry was at six when he went in after him. Corroborates the girls’ story.”

“He must have been afraid Zavala’d leave before I got there. No bloody chance.”

Vella pointed to the inside front cover page. “What’s this Niños de Mexico—any idea?”

Wil looked: The writing was separate from Paul’s stakeout data. He shook his head slowly. “If it relates to Angel’s, I don’t know how. Raeann made the other notes in there, I’ll ask her if she knows.”

“And let me know?”

Freiman talking now, surrounding him like Vella’s smoke. “Sure, Lieutenant,” he said. “And let you know.”

Vella extinguished the cigarette. “The investigators should be back by now—through there, the long room with the desks. Stay in touch, huh?” As Wil stood up, Vella dialed an extension on the desk phone.

 

 

It was midnight before the Homicide detectives finished with him. Outside the office, the night had a clean, cold bite; cars still tore out of L.A. and over the Hollywood hills.

Spent, driving with the window down, Wil picked up Mulholland past the Hollywood Bowl, then took the rim to Coldwater Canyon. Fresh air helped chase some of the upset he was feeling from four aspirin on an empty stomach; before descending, he pulled off at a view spot and parked. The Valley shimmered below, rivers of light moving like gaudy blood through the traffic arteries. He got out of the car, leaned against the grille, and took deep breaths.

Every cell hungered for a drink. For obliteration. He wondered what normal people were doing at this hour. Sleeping off a day full of boss and kids and not too much saturated fat. Christ! He and Epstein nearly lose it in a bar, then Rodriguez.

In spite of Raeann’s absolution, he felt none of it—he should have saved his friend, better, cut off the whole thing sooner. He thought of times they’d shared overseas. Of nearly dying, the stink of river and spent rounds, Paul’s grip on him in the water.

His boot touched a rock and he bent down and picked it up. For a long moment he looked at the sharply irregular shape; then his fingers wrapped around it—harder and harder until there was only the pain and a wetness in his palm and he heaved it as far as he could into the dark canyon. A faraway crashing of brush came back, the crack of dead wood, and in the following stillness the awful detached telephone sounds again and the voice: Another time. Tears came then, turning the Valley into a neon abstract.

Which of those lights is you, Zavala? he thought.

Stay alive, you son of a bitch.

 

 

Leonardo Guerra stood at the arched window that looked out over the arroyo. In the glass he could make out the man in the white sweater seated behind him. He addressed the reflection.

“It was fortunate that I spoke with Father Martin this afternoon, unfortunate our luck did not hold. Hardesty remains a threat, and there is still the matter of his employer.” He drank from the bottle Julio had brought. “You’re sure Rodriguez had no idea who you were?”

“Fuck Rodriguez,” Bolo Zavala said lightly. “It’s simple enough for you, isn’t it, patrón.You just wave a finger, say make them go away.”

“Which Bolo of course does,” Guerra answered. The softness of his voice could not conceal its edge. “Although there have been times when even Bolo Zavalaneeded help.”

“That was a long time ago.” Zavala took a slug of his ale. “Things change.”

“Do they? Perhaps you should consider all the fine things you would have missed had it not been for me.”

Zavala fished in his pocket, brought the inhaler up to his nostrils, took long, deliberate pulls. The gesture was to aggravate him, Guerra knew; as always, it did. “Poor Bolo,” he said, “all that cocaine, and for what? You think you can escape in it—throw your life aside like so much garbage?”

Zavala’s face went taut, the mottles standing out; Guerra pressed him. “Maybe you thought it would be easy to dispose of me as well.”

The smaller man’s eyes glittered, fires on a dark plain.

“I see,” Guerra said. “Except for a file that will reach certain hands should anything foolish occur.”

“No fucking file will keep you from me if and when I choose. Comprende?”

Guerra backed off his anger: Zavala sober was one thing, but high and after a kill…at least he was right about one thing, it was not like the days when he could rein the man in with a glance, a well-chosen word.

The fucking coke.

He split a wide grin. “Such talk—what are we saying to one another? We are like this.” He crossed the underside of his wrists. “Flesh and blood, twin heartbeats. You did good work tonight. Now you should go home, get some rest, and we will make a fresh start tomorrow, united as always.” He handed Zavala the trash bag full of his bloody clothing to dispose of, then saw him downstairs to the narrow path that led along the edge of the arroyo to the street. As he single-filed ahead of him, Zavala took another exaggerated hit on the inhaler.

“Cuidado,” Guerra said, watching the dark shape disappear into the brush. “Take care.”

Walking back upstairs, he stroked his mustache, thought about Bolo, the nagging feeling he’d not told him everything about tonight. Not only that, his old sources in Mexico had reported further inquiries, this time about him. Not good.

He lifted a slim panatella from a cedar box and called for Julio.

 

 

It was almost 2:00 A.M. when Wil let himself in. Edith Sandoval, the neighbor he’d asked to come over, had the television on with the volume low. He saw her home, told her he’d let her know about coming back in the morning, wanting some time alone with Raeann. He tried Lisa and got the machine but left no message. He then undressed in the dark and lay down in the small room, afraid to turn on the light—imagining the photographs of Paul staring at him in silent accusation.

Raeann was still sleeping when he rolled out. Making coffee, favoring his sore hand, he saw Edith Sandoval peering over her hedge and gave an OK sign. She went back to her roses, glancing back often.

This time he got hold of Lisa.

“My God—what should I do, Wil, come down? Shit, I’m booked—I’ll reschedule—who could do something like that to Paul?” Singsongy phrases, edging toward frantic and cut by tears. “God, poor Raeann.”

She wasn’t needed now, he assured her, maybe later. He told her about Epstein, about the nightmare on the freeway, about how he felt. There was a pause, long enough for him to think he’d lost her.

“Goddammit,” she said finally, more to herself than him, before hanging up.

Wil showered and shaved, then tried the hospital; at least another day of tests, and they’d tell the lieutenant he phoned. Epstein called back in a few minutes. It was no easier with him. “Shit,” Mo said. “We’d have been there if I hadn’t screwed up. Son of a bitch!”

As he hung up, he felt Raeann behind him, turned, and held her. He poured her coffee. “Paul hated funerals,” she said finally, “But his family has a plot up in Santa Barbara. It’s kind of far, but I think he’d like it there, don’t you?” She welled up, recovered.

“Raeann, can you think about something for me?”

She nodded.

“A notation Paul wrote in your notebook separate from his bar entries—Niños de Mexico—that mean anything to you?”

She searched her memory. “Kids? I’m trying to think, but it’s not familiar.”

“Okay. Also, Paul’s first notes started at 4:07. I called about two-thirty and he wasn’t home. Any idea where he might have gone?”

“No. I know he had lunch though because of the dishes—he always eats at noon.” She looked at her hands.

“Could he have stayed here and missed my call?”

She hesitated. “I don’t think so. When I left at eleven, I’d just straightened up. If he spent the afternoon here, the place would have looked it, knowing Paul.” Raeann nodded. “The house was neat. He went someplace after lunch.”

 

FIFTEEN

 

Paul’s phone books had no listing for a Niños de Mexico;directory assistance brought similar results. Fresh out of phone company insiders who’d risk a right-to-privacy rap to give him an unlisted, Wil called Vella, who said he’d get a warrant for the number and pursue the lead.

“How’s the wife holding up?” Vella asked.

“Raeann,” Wil said with more sharpness than he’d planned. “Her name’s Raeann.”

“Thank you, that’s just what I needed. How’s she holding up?”

“All right, I suppose, all things considered. I told her you’d probably have somebody out to talk with her.”

“They’ve left already. Where’ll you be?”

“Here and there—my place later. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Right.”

Wil hung around to be with Raeann for the LASD detectives, the man and woman who’d questioned him after Vella last night. Afterward he asked Edith Sandoval to drive him out to Angel’s Bar to pick up Paul’s Chevy.

Sitting there after she’d dropped him off, cramped behind the steering wheel and feeling Paul’s presence, he waited, reluctant even to adjust the front seat. Finally he did, and it was then he noticed the candy wrappers jammed down in the crack between the seats. There were two of them. Small foil squares with chocolate residue on them, as though they’d melted slightly before being unwrapped. Hershey’s Kisses.

Wil started the car and drove to St. Boniface.

Father Martin was in his office in the rectory. Wil waited until he was finished with a committee meeting, then went in as they were filing out, half a dozen well-dressed men and women chatting earnestly and holding notebooks. He found the priest staring out the window at a rose garden, his back to the room.

Wil scoped out blond wood bookcases and desk, green carpet, a large crucifix like the one behind St. Boniface’s altar. On the desk was a blotter, computer printouts, a pen set and clock, several mementos. The bookcases were arranged gallery-style into groupings: books, small statues and artifacts, framed photographs. Spotlights inset into the ceiling illuminated a round conference table.

Wil tapped the back of the heavy oak door. “Father?”

The priest started slightly, turned from the window. “Ah,” he said. “Mr—”

“Hardesty,” Wil finished for him.

“Of course. Sit down, Mr. Hardesty. How can I be of service?”

“I need to talk with you. It’s important.”

Father Martin joined him at the conference table. As he sat down, he checked his watch. “I’m afraid I can’t spare more than—”

“When was the last time you saw Paul Rodriguez?”

“Is there some problem?”

“Would you recall for me, please?”

Father Martin cast his eyes upward in thought. “Well, let’s see. Last Sunday, I suppose.”

Wil tried to keep the surprise out of his voice. “He wasn’t here this week? Yesterday?”

“He could have been and talked with someone else, I suppose. Would you like me to ask if anyone might have seen him?”

“I’d appreciate it, yes.”

The priest moved to the phone on his desk, picked up the receiver, and pressed a button. “Isabel, you remember Mr. Rodriguez from last Sunday…? That’s right. Was he here yesterday…? I see…You’ll let me know right away?” He hung up. “She’s calling around,” he said to Wil. “Is Mr. Rodriguez missing?”

“He was murdered last night,” Wil answered. “At a bar not far from here.”

Father Martin made the sign of the cross and sat down heavily. “Madre Domini,” he said as though infinitely fatigued. “I didn’t know him well, but he seemed so decent. He had a family, hadn’t he?”

“A son grown and gone. A wife at home.”

“The poor woman. What happened?”

Wil told him about it as the priest slowly shook his head.

He said, “And you think this man Zavala you were looking for had something to do with it?”

“He was expecting us. On the phone he used my name.”

“My God.”

“Someone let Zavala know we were coming, Father. Someone Paul may have inadvertently told.”

“Not someone here, surely.”

“Not necessarily, but someone I hope to find.”

The intercom buzzed then, and Father Martin went to pick it up. “All right, thank you,” he said after listening a moment. He laid the receiver down. “Isabel checked with everyone she remembered as being here yesterday, even the volunteers. No one remembers seeing Mr. Rodriguez. I’m sorry.”

Wil stood up; as usual, it had been too much to hope for. He fondled the pieces of foil in his pockets—little sins probably, indulgences Paul kept from a weight-conscious Raeann. Meaningless.

“Is there anything I can do for the family?” Father Martin was saying. “A mass of course, but anything else?”

Wil was touched by his sincerity. “I’ll let you know, Father. Thank you for your time.” He was almost to the door, his hand still in his pocket, when something occurred to him, prompted in part by hunger. “Father, you wouldn’t happen to have any more of those mints you gave Paul, would you?”

There was the slightest hesitation before the priest answered. “No,” he smiled, reaching into the pocket of his black suit coat. “But maybe a couple of these would help keep body and soul together.”

Into Wil’s hand he put three foil-wrapped little shapes.

 

 

Which proves nothing, Wil thought, eating the Hershey’s Kisses and taking the concrete path toward the parking lot, not a damn thing. The candies could have come from anywhere, could have been there for days, could have anything: likely find a stash of them right now in Paul’s garage. And Father Martin lying? Come on, Hardesty, do better.

Passing the church, he heard the sound of organ music and went in. For a moment he just listened—some hymn he couldn’t place, vague notes in the shafts of sunlight flooding down on empty pews. He spotted stairs and climbed the loft.

The organist was a balding gnome with a florid face who looked as though reaching the pedals was a constant struggle. When he saw Wil he hit a sour note and stopped playing.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Wil said.

“Don’t tell me,” the man said, “another new request. I keep telling them, these hymns take time to learn.” He looked as if he were about to cry.

“Were you here yesterday?”

“Here every day. You don’t have more work for me?”

“Just a question,” he said, noting the relieved look. He described Paul. “Any chance you might have seen him here yesterday, around three to four o’clock?”

“Look for yourself,” the man said. “From up here I see Christ on his cross and a lot of stained glass.”

“Right. Thanks for the music.” Wil was at the stairs when the man said:

“Heard somebody yesterday about the time you said.”

Wil turned back.

“Catchin’ holy hell from Father Martin, he was. Boy, can he skin ’em alive when he wants to.”

“You catch a name?”

“No. But the guy was gettin’ it over some question he’d asked.”

“What question?”

The gnome rubbed his lips. “You notice how stuffy it gets up here? Makes a man thirsty, you catch my drift.”

Wil took out his wallet and passed the man a ten. “The question?”

The bill went into his pocket like metal to a magnet. “I didn’t hear it actually, just who it was about: our illustrious financial advisor and benefactor, ‘His Royal Anus’—ooops, naughty me—Leonardo Guerra. Must’ve been something, because he really got his head handed to him.”

 

 

At the Rodriguez house, Wil exchanged cars, told Raeann he’d be at home for a few days, then headed west on the Ventura toward Ignacio Reyes’ place. Hugging the slow lane, he turned things over in his mind. If that had been Paul in the church, why had Father Martin lied? What would have angered the priest—some suspicion Paul had about Guerra and Zavala? Paul hadn’t even heard of the possible link Epstein found until last night on the phone. He’d have been speculating.

Wil turned off the freeway and called Vella from a pay phone, heard that Paul’s autopsy report would be ready “sometime soon.” The coroner’s office was swamped with bodies, Christmas holidays bringing out the best in people as usual. “You unclear how he died, Hardesty?” Vella asked, sounding like Epstein. Wil ignored him and rang off.

Clouds were moving in, deep shadow and brilliant sun striating the foothills as he parked the car in front of the white house. A gardener was making scant progress against the wind. Leaves were dropping from the Chinese elm as fast as he could blow them off the lawn.

Marta was not pleased; reluctantly she showed him in, let him find his own way to the den where Ignacio Reyes nursed a beer. From the man’s eyes Wil wondered how many had preceded it. He seated himself on the couch as Marta appeared with the coffee he’d requested.

“I realize this is sudden,” he said, taking a tentative sip and finding it too hot, “but I came here to resign.” He watched a flush spread over Reyes’ pale skin and decided the tall man wasn’t refused much.

“You disappoint me, Mr. Hardesty,” he said. “I had understood you to be making progress. You want more money, of course.” He got out a leatherbound checkbook and began writing.

“Money has nothing to do with this. It’s become personal.” He explained about Paul.

Reyes’ mouth dropped; he put a hand to his throat. “My son and now my friend. The miserable bastard.”

“My reasoning is this,” Wil said. “If I can get a crack at Zavala, I intend to take it. If I kill him, there might be talk you hired me to do it, or that I was working vendetta on my client’s time. I’m sure you understand that neither is acceptable.

“And there’s another problem. If Zavala learns who hired me, he’ll go after you. He has everything to lose if you identify him.”

Reyes slumped in his chair. “You mean my family is in danger?”

“Potentially yes, more likely no. Somehow he knows who I am, but not about you, because he asked who I was working for. I’ll tally up where we stand, and you can send a check. For now, save your money.” He stood up to go.

“One thing more,” he said. “You keep a gun in the house?”

Reyes shook his head as though having marginal success trying to keep everything separate.

“I recommend you look into it.” Wil scribbled down the name of a gun shop he knew Paul favored. “Tell them you want to learn to use it.”

Reyes got up then, but Wil stopped him as they started for the front entrance. “I’ll take the back,” he said, shaking Reyes’ hand. “You should know also the law is now involved. They don’t know about you and won’t from me, but it’s another good reason for us to stay apart.”

Reyes took a breath as if to say something but didn’t, just led the way to the sliding glass doors. “Vaya con Dios,” he said, then drew back inside.

Wil eased out onto the patio. Skirting the pool, he followed a fenceline concealed by laurel, then walked to the Bonneville and caught the 101 for home.

 

 

Leonardo Guerra took pride in his ability to sniff out fear the way a shark smelled blood. That it was over the phone only enhanced the metaphor. “You’re slipping,” he told the voice at the other end. “This is no time for mistakes.”

“I am not your equal in these matters. I willingly confess to that.”

Guerra felt the barb in the tone, but dismissed it. “You’re lucky that no one else remembered Rodriguez,” he said. “Was there some reason you had in not just admitting you’d talked to him? What would have been the harm?”

“The tree is best nipped in the bud. Perhaps if you had not been so forthcoming about knowing that murderer…”

“Useful murderer.”

“Perhaps you could explain how useful it was for him to tell Hardesty he knew they were coming.”

Guerra heard a rushing in his ears like water through a spillway. “What did you say?”

“On the phone. From that bar. Your man was even so kind as to use Hardesty’s name while threatening him.”

There was a narrowing of vision, a tightening of the skin. Finally Martin DeSantis said: “Are you there?”

Fearful of what he might say next, Leonardo Guerra hung up the receiver.