The Innocents: Part Eleven

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TWENTY

 

The cemetery lay on land a developer would die for; oaks grew there and cypress trees and, beside the bluff overlooking the ocean where the five were gathered, purple-flowered succulents. Wil parked the Harley on the downslope and walked the rest of the way, gloved hands in the pockets of his overcoat.

Worse places, he kept telling himself.

He shook hands with the caretakers and the two longtime friends of Paul’s who still lived in town. After a few attempts, small talk ceased as they waited for the family to arrive.

Lisa kept her eyes on the ground.

He felt like shit. Parts that didn’t ache were cut and scraped; bone-weariness and the alcohol had him floaty. Last night had been an onslaught of questions, accusations, fraying tempers, Dietrich hauling him into the Ventura County sheriff’s office. Lisa waiting when they finally let him go.

Starting bad, it then got ugly. She’d heard about Gringo on the radio, been frightened, hadn’t been able to reach him, didn’t know if he was hurt or missing, and then the shootout at her own house and the not knowing until he called her from Ventura. Goddamn him for putting her through that. She went into the bedroom, slammed the door; he could hear her banging things. Then the banging stopped, and when she came out she was icy calm.

He’d lied! What had they talked about? How did he expect her to go on like that, and she didn’t think she could, and she was going back to her folks until she could sort it out. He hadn’t helped by lashing back at her. On her way out the driveway, she’d dug ruts in the gravel.

Gulls squealed in an updraft.

Having her look stunning today only made it worse. Her hair shone in the flat light; she carried a bouquet. He wanted to put out a hand to her. Instead he shifted his stance to ease an aching tendon, then regarded the rows of headstones, confirmation that life was short—one of the things you never quite appreciated, he thought, like a gift you couldn’t take out of the box.

Paul’s Chevy came over the rise and down.

What there was was over quickly. Tommy Rodriguez, in uniform and reminding Wil of a darker version of his father’s Cam Ranh photograph, read something from the Bible. Lisa put the flowers down; Wil stuck a small flag he’d brought in the soft earth. The old friends, in their plaid coats and hopsack pants, embraced Raeann, then moved off. Tommy shook hands, then headed for the Chevrolet as she came over.

“Put it behind you, honey, he’d want that.”

“I know, Raeann, thanks. You okay?”

She managed a smile. “Praise God for Tommy and the letters that came. I’ve decided to go back to Texas with him for a while. Did you know that?”

“I had a feeling,” he said.

“You’re welcome to use the house if you want. The key’s where it always is.”

“Thanks.” Guessing it might comfort her, he said, “You might want to know, Zavala didn’t make it.”

“Later on that may mean something,” she said softly. Her dark eyes lowered to the patch of grass. “He was a good man, my Paul, always stood up for me. I’d like to think you two’ll come to see him once in a while.” She paused. “Funny, isn’t it—how you have to lose something to really appreciate it?”

She walked away without looking back.

Wil and Lisa watched the station wagon curve around and disappear. For a moment they said nothing, then she turned on him, her eyes flashing. “What’s sad, Wil, is that maybe—just maybe—I could have helped. Guess we’ll never know, will we?” She spun around, ran for her car, and drove away.

For a while he fixed on the spot where the black coupe had been, then he walked up the rise to the motorcycle, kick-started it, and glanced back. The scene was different from the graveyard in the desert, but the same: lonely as hell and hard to leave. He thought of Paul and the final strangled defiance coming from the car phone. Then his eyes stung, and he packed it in and left.

 

 

It came as it always did, with too much bourbon and too little sleep.

Bits and pieces out of sequence: Devin laughing, water flying off long hair he liked to swing forward and flip back; rust on aging I-beams; the sound of flatline.

Then, as though the projectionist took notice, the dream settled in at the beginning. Picketline. Named for the chest-high picket of decaying oil pier supports running out into the surf—their spot when the Rincon got crazy. Like Rincon, a right break with a rocky bottom; swells approaching in tight, regular formations. Forming up and breaking sweetly.

A succession of quick cuts then. Dev and Wil surfing together; hours later the warm sand feeling good; eating sandwiches Lisa’d packed; watching the hotdoggers get radical as the swells begin picking up; Dev wolfing his lunch, chafing to go back in until Wil relents. Them hitting the water again, everything fine until the big set hits.

“Stay here,” Wil says. “Wait for me.”

Dev nods. Dissolve to Wil taking the breaker in, special moves to impress his son, looking back then, expecting to see Devin bobbing up and down where he’d left him. Suddenly the dream projector slows from twenty-four frames a second down to twelve, to Dev mouthing “Waaaaatch meeeee, Daaaaad,” slow-motion distorted, him paddling to catch the biggest wave of the day in half-speed. Wil trying to shout him off it.

At first Devin makes him proud with the obvious emulation, father recognizing himself in his son’s form. Then something wrong, the wave carrying the boy directly toward the picket, Dev not cutting out where he should, nobody but Wil noticing.

“NOOOOOO!” Zoom-lens close: Dev transfixed, attempting a last-second bailout. The big wave crashing through the picket, sending pieces of smashed surfboard beyond it, leaving a limp form draped over a rusted beam like overalls hung out to dry.

Here the film races, collage scenes of his frantic paddling, of taking a surge into one of the beams himself, noticing the blood only after they’d gotten Devin onto the beach and into the ambulance. Of Lisa, grim-faced, holding Dev’s hand, the tubes coming out of him, of them praying. Of doctors shaking their heads. Slo-mo again: ten days, near-sleepless watches, little eternities until the machine’s monotone, worse than any words telling him his son was dead.

Wil sat up drenched, snapped off the alarm, and touched the scar between his eyebrows where he’d hit the beam. Dream images decayed, his racing pulse came down slowly. He showered, put on jeans and a sweater, stuffed necessities and the Shetland sport coat into his black leather backpack. Hungry despite the hangover, he wolfed down cold leftovers as he replayed Dietrich’s phone message.

On the way out, Wil’s eyes took in the Bonnie: rear wheels scrap; six rounds in the right flank alone, ugly holes inside raw metal rosettes. He mounted the Harley. Five trys and a kickback later, he was headed south in cold overcast, Devin’s image forming and re-forming out beyond the windscreen.

 

 

Wil found a Styrofoam cup—glad even for coffee that smelled like asphalt—and dumped in powdered creamer. After two gulps the mix had ambushed breakfast and last night’s bourbon. He put it aside and took a chair beside Mo Epstein, who for some reason was in Ventura.

“Nine o’clock,” Wil said. “As requested.”

Dietrich leaned against his desk. “Go back to the ambush, Hardesty, the house one,” he started. “How many rounds did Zavala get off?”

Wil felt like heaving. “This has to be the fourteenth time. You don’t like my answers, how about multiple choice?”

Dietrich turned red and said something about memory improving in the lockup, which was where most private dicks belonged anyway. Epstein cut it off with, “Wil, cool it. How many?”

“I don’t know, as many as I fired back—about thirty. Maybe a few more since he shot first.”

“All right,” Dietrich said. “Once more—he let loose from the ditch in front of the tunnel. Then what?”

“I set up in the weeds about twenty yards south and chased him with a clip. He took cover in the tunnel.”

“Any reason to believe you winged him there?”

“Outside the tunnel, no.”

Dietrich began to pace in the small office. “Okay, then what?”

“I could hear him running for the other side. Must have figured his ambush was trashed and wanted out.” Wil leaned back; despite his acid stomach, he sipped the coffee. “He’d stolen a car, right?”

Dietrich nodded. “We found the Camaro in Santa Paula. Keep going.”

“By the time I got there, he’d made it about halfway.”

Mo Epstein said, “He was running okay then?”

“Like Walter Payton—at least until I fired—that’s when I saw him fall. I reloaded, he got up and ran again.” Wil tried to get a read from Epstein, couldn’t, and kept on. “I pursued. We had a firefight, him from cover, me down and praying.”

“Until he stopped shooting,” Dietrich said.

“Until I shot him in the head. Maybe you recall the wound.”

Dietrich stopped pacing. He began flipping his ballpoint pen—flipping it, catching it, flipping it again. “You recall seeing anybody, any parked cars?”

“No.”

“Hear any gunfire?”

“Zavala had a silencer.”

“What did you do with the other gun?”

Wil sensed a joke. “You mean the one I had up my ass?”

“No, wiseass, the one that turned out the lights on Zavala.” Dietrich watched the color leave Wil’s face; he started pacing again. “The M.E. did the autopsy last night. Pretty obvious what happened, you got him once in the body then finished him with the head shot. Only it turned out to be not so obvious.” He stopped pacing to pick up a file off his desk. “They found your lead under his ribs all right, would have killed him eventually. But not right then. The other bullet took care of that.”

Dietrich slapped down the file. Mo Epstein said, “It wasn’t yours, tests confirmed it. Not unless you brought along some reserve firepower.”

Wil felt a throb in his temple. “Like what, Mo? You know my forty-five.”

Dietrich waded back in. “Lieutenant Epstein already told us about that, Hardesty. What we don’t know is how come Bolo Zavala had a nine-mil slug in his head.”

 

 

They spent a few minutes together outside before Epstein left to brief Freiman and Vella. Mo eyed him. “You’ve been busy the last couple of days,” he said. “You doin’ okay?”

Wil grimaced. “Beginning to think there’s a nice surf shop with my name on it.” He took a deep breath. “Zavala talked, Mo—not much, but some.”

“You are fucking something.”

“The first part was Spanish, kind of frantic and unfocused, like he thought I was someone else. ‘No mate a la niña—Don’t kill the girl. Over and over.”

“His kid?”

“My guess, too. This new thing with the bullet—I think he mistook me for the one who shot him. Whoever it was had to be close enough for him to recognize from the edge of the road.”

Epstein cocked the eyebrow. “Makes me wonder if whoever shot him doesn’t have the baby. Somebody Zavala left her with—or who took her.”

“He’d have killed anybody who tried that. I like the leaving part.”

“But if he left the kid, why the sudden concern for her life?”

“Yeah. The only thing I can figure is he wasn’t worried about her as long as he was alive. Makes sense if he was going to pick her up and split for Mexico after he took care of me.”

“Anything else?”

“I asked him who killed Benito. What I got was, ‘No más’ —no more.”

Mo’s eyes widened. “No more dead kids?”

“Sounded that way to me.”

“Like whoever killed Zavala is our child killer then.”

“Maybe. Or his partner in it.”

“And whoever got him meant for all of it to stop right there with him.”

Wil watched a flight of birds veer and disappear into a tree. “If they came together, the killer would have left in the stolen car; somehow he or she followed Zavala or knew where he’d be. Odd—he’d be a hard one to surprise, even wounded, unless he knew who it was.”

“We got lucky finding the bullet, maybe we’ll get lucky with the gun. By the way, Dietrich didn’t bring it up, but this guy had a ten-foot-tall coke habit.”

“Might have pissed somebody off, you mean.”

Epstein shrugged. “Could be Sonny Pacheco gets some credit after all. You be around?”

“I think I’ll renew an acquaintance. You?”

“I was hoping to go back to something simple like gang warfare. Incidentally, Freiman’s mad as hell, talking about busting your ass when I left there, said you withheld about Zavala coming. I told him you asked for my help and that settled him down some, but it’s real iffy.” He rubbed shine from his forehead with a handkerchief. “Before you got here we agreed not to spill the second bullet to the media. Same’ll go for Bolo Zavala’s immortal words. Maybe we can find whoever popped him more easily if they think the heat’s off.”

They walked to the Harley. Wil straddled the bike and kicked; the motor hiccupped and pooped out. “Thanks for coming, Mo. Maybe you should leave before I draw blood.”

Mo waved. “Be kind to the ass that bears you. Call me.”

Wil watched him leave the lot. After two more tries the Super Glide fired up, and he gunned it into the flow, down Victoria Street onto 101 South, his mind grappling with the second bullet. Who knew Zavala was coming back to La Conchita—somebody with him at the Rincon? An old enemy? Vengeful drug dealer? The question was, how? Until Zavala found out his mistake with Gringo, even he wouldn’t have figured he’d be coming back.

Wil cut off the freeway at Woodland Hills, turned onto Ventura Boulevard, caught the magic of Christmas full-tilt: lights twinkling competitively, decorations vying for attention, windows shouting holiday bargains, shoppers prowling for parking spaces. Off the boulevard it was somewhat less spirited.

He eased the Harley sotto voce through the expensive neighborhood and parked at the edge of the Reyes’ property. Across the street a couple of well-dressed women disapproved. Wil stowed his helmet and the pack and started up the walk. More leaves had fallen; midway to the door, he nearly stepped in a present left by something that wasn’t a reindeer.

Reyes surprised him by being in the living room watching TV, the gleam in his eye transcending the glass of white wine he was sipping from. He looked ten years younger. “You got him,” he said. “It’s all over the television.” He turned off the set.

“Marta, lunch for Señor Hardesty—ahora, por favor.”

In a few minutes Marta left a microwaved cheese sandwich, colored toothpick in each half. As Wil ate, Reyes leaned forward, asking him over and over about it: the gunfight, the wounds, how Zavala looked in death. Finally he drained the wine and sat back.

“You have lifted this man from my heart.”

Wil removed a toothpick. “I want to be very clear, Señor Reyes, this was not an assassination. Trying for me, Zavala killed my friend.”

“I am sorry for your loss. Bring your food, I have something for you.”

Wil followed him, closing the office doors behind them at a nod from Reyes, who then wrote him a check for $5,000. As Reyes spoke, he traced a finger along the checkbook’s edge.

“This is in addition to your fee, for which I expect a bill shortly. Gilberto came to see me last night. We wept together, found each other again. You did that for us.”

Wil went to the window; afternoon sun entered through open shutters; outside, a grapefruit tree was blooming and fruiting at the same time. “There is something you need to know, Señor Reyes, something the media doesn’t.” He turned. “When Zavala died, my bullet was in his gut. But he was shot in the head and killed by someone else. The bullets don’t match.”

“I don’t understand,” Reyes said.

“Someone else wanted him dead. And that’s not all—Zavala was alive when I found him.” Wil told him the words, his interpretation of them.

Reyes said, “You’re telling me someone else is involved in the death of my son?”

“I’d feel better giving you answers instead of speculating. At the moment I have none.”

A flush appeared around Reyes’ neck and spread upward. “A few days ago you quit, Mr. Hardesty.”

Wil said nothing.

Reyes glanced at the wedding photo in the bookcase and rubbed his neck. “Stopping here is not an option,” he said finally.

“Then I would ask two favors. First, don’t mention this to Gilberto, you can tell him later if something turns up. Second, someone I know needs work—dishwasher, food prep, serving line—and if possible, a small advance.” He paused. “She lives in East L.A. She’s the one whose daughter Zavala kidnapped.”

Reyes shook his head, plucked one of his business cards from a brass holder, and wrote on the back. “The Montebello Papa, have her see Humberto.” He gave Wil a sharp look. “And if you are thinking what I think you are, don’t. Gilberto was here with me two nights ago. Assuming you give him credit for knowing where Zavala was.” He pushed the check across at Wil.

“It’s yours,” he said. “Bolo Zavala is dead and I take comfort in that. Now, where did you learn about food prep and serving lines?”

“My father had a restaurant, a small place at the beach. Hard work, but it never hurt me.” He stood to go. For the first time since Wil had met him, Reyes smiled.

“I would hope not. Take your check, Mr. Hardesty.”

 

 

Wil shut the car door: thirty-five hundred cash for five-digit mileage, treaded tires, and a six that ran better than it had a right to. After a final nod, he told the salesman to fill it with gas and gave him the address. Two hours, the salesman assured him.

The lot at least was close; minutes later he was tapping on the doorframe as paint flaked off under his knuckles. There was a shuffling from inside then Donna, black and blue and other colors. Apart from a nose still swollen, her face had receded. The stomach, too, he saw.

“Did you have to kill him?” she said, seeing it was Wil. Her enunciation had improved, but the tone was wrung-out. She turned, sagged across to the chair, and sat heavily. Wil pulled one of the dining chairs over, straddled it, leaned into its back. Around the room, the table had been righted, surviving dancers reinstated, the Savior rehung.

“There was shooting going on, Donna. His choice.”

“Some reason, I thought he’d be back,” she said, looking at her hands. “Even though he did this, I thought he’d calm down and figure he’d need me—take me along.” Her eyes rose to his. “They said my Jessie wasn’t in the car.”

“Donna, listen. It makes sense he would have brought her someplace safe before he came for me. For what it’s worth, I believe she’s okay.”

A tiny spark flared in her, then died.

“Look at me. We’ll find her.” He drove the hope in with his eyes, waited while she blew into a tissue. “You’re looking better,” he said to distract her.

“Am I? I keep seein’ him in Hermosillo, walking the strip with Lucinda past the orange trees. He was some’n then.”

“I need your help,” he said, “a name. Did Bolo ever mention a Leonardo Guerra? Lenny?”

She shook her head. “We weren’t together that much, and he never said names. This one time I heard him on the phone, real low but respectful, like it was somebody who made him nervous. Afterward he slammed the receiver down. I figured he hated whoever it was.”

“Someone he worked for?”

“No sé. But I think so.”

“Why?”

She made a snorting noise and swallowed hard. “Patrón, he was calling this guy chewin’ him out.”

“Over drugs?” Wil asked.

“Bolo always had drugs, but I don’t think so. Anyway, that’s all I remember.”

“All right. How’s your money holding out?”

She touched a scab and shrugged

“What about a job?” he asked.

“Right. Beauty queens like me get hired every day of the week.”

He fished out Reyes’ card, watched her read it. “They know about Jessie, so if something breaks and you need the time, they’ll understand. Job’s yours if you want it. At least you’ll eat.”

She turned it over several times, her eyes taking it in. “Papa Gomez,” she said softly, then looked up.

The keys were dangling from his fingers; he lowered them into her hand, saw her eyes get like plates. “You’ll be working late,” he said. “The car’s clean and it runs—good as it gets with most of us.” Wil pulled the papers out of his inside coat pocket and laid them on the table. “It’s being delivered later. It’s yours.”

She sat there, eyes on the keys in her palm. Silent tears began tracking down her nose.

He cleared his throat. “It’s no Rolls Royce, Donna.”

Her “gracias” was so soft he could hardly hear it, but she said it more than once, reminding him of small victories in big wars.

 

 

The smog was twice as bad on a motorcycle; by the time Wil got to the Federal Building, he felt ready for a lung transplant. Inside, lines of long-sufferers waited and shuffled. At five to closing a relieved-looking INS employee handed him a packet regarding Mexican adoption.

He sat on the steps and read. Among the papers was a copy of a letter from the U.S. Consulate General describing legal requirements. First it was necessary to complete an INS application for advance processing. Then you had to find a Mexican child who qualified as an orphan—one removed from the custody of its parents by Mexican authorities and housed in an orphanage, or one released voluntarily by its birth parents. The child then had to be legally adopted in Mexico in a Mexican court, after which a Mexican passport would be issued for the child’s departure. This would clear the way to bring the child into the U.S. via immigrant visa, which had to be applied for, then issued by the consulate. Along the way were home studies, field investigations, petitions, releases, certificates, statements, translations into Spanish. Waiting.

The system, he thought, protecting everyone, serving no one: Put your heart in the hopper and hold your breath.

Or you were rich and let Niños de Mexico handle it.

Wil checked his watch and struck off toward the Hall of Justice until thinking better of it and finding a street pay phone. Only three blocks, but there was no point in risking a run-in with Freiman. After a few minutes the Homicide desk found Vella coming out of a meeting.

Vella picked it up in his office. Wil heard him shut the door.

“We were just talking about you,” he said, slightly out of breath. “Captain was, anyway.”

Wil waited, hearing it coming from Vella’s tone. A little flush began to spread. “Is that right?”

“Sorry to tell you, but the thing with Zavala did it. As of now we’re not supposed to give you the time of day.” He chuckled without humor. “Actually you’re lucky. Captain wanted to bring you up on obstruction charges. The freeze-out is a compromise.”

“That’s terrific. Tell Freiman to keep up the good work.”

Vella’s voice went suddenly cold. “Kill your own messenger, Hardesty. And thank yourself for this one. Cops don’t like it when you renege, especially big cops like Freiman. You played it your way—that’s the price.”

Right enough, Wil knew. “Vella, look. If Freiman thinks I broke faith by not telling him Zavala was coming, tough, there was no guarantee. At that, I managed to get a friend dead for the pleasure of taking Zavala down and even then I didn’t kill him. Talk price to somebody else.”

“Hey, at least the FBI and the Border Patrol are happy,” Vella said, his tone softening. “Can’t say having the media off our necks is bad news either.”

“And the second bullet?”

“We’re exploring it, all I can tell you. A word, though, steer clear of Freiman. He wants your license.”

A siren screamed by going up Temple Street. Wil held his ear.

Vella said, “I’ll tell the captain we had this little talk—Epstein, too.”

“Goddammit,” Wil said.

“Between us I think you deserve better, but what the fuck, I don’t make policy.”

“What about the Pacheco girl—you got anything new?”

There was no response. Wil heard the siren ghosting in the receiver as it passed by the Hall of Justice. “Christ Almighty,” he said.

Vella let out a breath. “What the hell, plenty of wacko calls and false sightings, everybody running around. Nothing substantive.” He described their efforts: APBs, neighborhood sweeps, interagency networking, media appeals. Doctors they’d notified for new patients matching the girl’s description, hospitals, pharmacies, daycare centers, on and on. “Something’ll turn up,” he concluded.

“Yeah,” Wil said, thinking of the graves in the desert. “Thanks. You ever get the coroner’s report on Paul?”

“Good-bye, Hardesty.”

“He was my friend, Vella. What harm?”

After a pause, a rustle of paper. “All right, but this is it. Official cause of death listed as desanguination—some blood in the lungs consistent with the nature of the wound—blood alcohol .06— not legally drunk, but getting there. Partially digested tuna sandwich in the stomach.”

“Anything else?”

“Traces of chocolate—your friend ate some candy just before he was killed. So long, Sherlock. Don’t say it hasn’t been fun.”

 

 

The rush-hour traffic was a distant hum, a blur of sound and motion. Wil was conscious of dial tone and hung up, the DeSantis-Guerra-Zavala connection firmed yet indefinable, a will-o’-the-wisp floating there just out of reach. Gut feel: Paul stopped by St. Boniface to question DeSantis about Guerra, questions that angered the priest and were overheard in the organ loft. Which meant Father Martin had lied. To cover up involvement he suspected Guerra of having in Paul’s death? Or something more sinister?

Come on, Wil thought, picturing the crowded church, the sermon, the man’s life work. Who he was, for God’s sake! Wil would confront him, he’d explain, and that would be that. On toward Guerra. Somehow.

He fumbled for coins, called the Shigenos: Lisa was out but had left a message to please not call, she was deciding what to do next. Wil was congratulating himself on his control until he noticed white knuckles replacing the receiver.

 

TWENTY-ONE

 

St. Boniface glowed softly in the light from two banks of spots on either side of the steps; off to the right a waxing moon showed over the San Gabriels. Wil swung the Harley into the church parking lot and turned off the motor. Stiff from the cold ride out from downtown, he loosened up with bends and proceeded up the walk.

At the rectory they told him Father Martin was working late in his office, try the back entrance to the administration building. Wil headed that way; as he passed by the window he could see through a crack in the curtains two figures bent over papers on the conference table. He found the entry and knocked at the priest’s oak doors, heard, “It’s open.”

The voice was Guerra’s; they were poring over a set of spreadsheets.

“Mr. Hardesty,” the priest said. “Come in.” He rose to his feet as Guerra leaned back in his chair.

Wil’s eyes met Guerra’s: “I don’t mean to interrupt, Father. Should I wait for you?”

“No, no. We’re finished here—aren’t we, Leonardo? Enough bad news for one day.”

“Of course,” Leonardo Guerra said. He folded the printouts and put them in a black leather briefcase, snapped it closed.

“Leonardo’s been acquainting me with the funds we’re going to have to raise to rebuild our mission in Hermosillo. Madre de Dios.” He looked closely at Wil. “Mr. Hardesty, you look flushed. Do you feel all right?”

Wil was aware his face still throbbed from the ride. “Just night air, Father,” he said. “You probably heard my motorbike in the lot.”

Guerra put his hands behind his head. “Judging from what I saw on television, Mr. Hardesty, you were fortunate not to have been killed.” He turned his head. “Did you know of this, Martin?”

The priest turned from where he was pouring the last of a glass pot of coffee into a molded white cup. “Know of what?” He handed Wil the cup, his expression echoing the question.

“Thanks,” Wil said. He tried the coffee, found it bitter but warming.

“The good padre leads a rather structured life,” Guerra went on. “Mr. Hardesty was involved in a fatal shootout with that man Zavala he was asking us about, Martin. On the news, they showed the body being taken away. Someplace near where you live, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Wil said, searching Guerra’s gray eyes.

“But that’s terrible,” the priest said.“Thank God you’re all right.”

Wil admired the shaken expression, then questioned himself: Father Martin’s sincerity would be hard to fake. “Thank you. Lenny’s right, either one of us could have died.”

“So much killing these days, so little regard for life. And for what?”

Guerra rose and began pulling on fur-lined gloves. “Well, Martin, I have obligations, as you know.”

Father Martin blinked as though coming awake. “Of course. Thank you for staying late. Tomorrow again with the finance committee?”

Guerra shot the priest a look. “It never ends, does it Martin, the need for money. Mr. Hardesty—” Briefcase in hand, he nodded to Wil and slipped out the oak doors. Wil could hear the exit door bang and reverb down the hall.

“I’d be lost without him, you know, my head for figures,” Father Martin said. “Before he came we were lucky to have paper clips.”

“What about support from the archdiocese?”

Father Martin sighed, pushed back his chair, and crossed a polished black shoe over his knee. “It’s like everything else—too many demands on too few resources. Cutbacks and prioritizing and squeaky wheels getting the grease. Church politics that I have no use for.”

“Father, I’ve heard you. If anyone can get the grease it’s you.”

“To keep the doors open, perhaps, altar wine in the cruets. But it’s Leonardo who makes the real work of St. Boniface possible. The charitable missions and—” He was about to add something when he stopped. “Forgive me, you didn’t come all the way out here for a dissertation. What can I do for you?”

Wil sipped his coffee, buying time to collect his thoughts. Remembering the organist’s description of Father Martin’s blowup, he decided to start simply and work obliquely.

“Paul Rodriguez’ widow asked me to express her gratitude on behalf of the family,” he said.

“Please tell her one mass is very little in light of her loss.”

“Did your secretary find anyone here who might have talked with him the day he was killed?”

“Not to my knowledge.” He frowned slightly as if the subject were distasteful. “Mr. Hardesty, your friend’s killer is dead. Is there a reason to continue with this?”

“Two reasons, Father. One, I’m convinced Zavala did not act alone. And two, someone other than me killed him.” As he explained about the second bullet, Wil watched for reaction, saw none beyond curiosity.

“But who, then?”

“Father, are you familiar with the Innocents case?”

The priest nodded. “The children that Zavala murdered—yes, unfortunately. I don’t live in a complete vacuum, Mr. Hardesty, though at times I wish I did.”

“What’s been frustrating about the killings is the motive—before Zavala died, and especially now in light of the second bullet.”

“There is no absence of evil in this world—I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. Evil exists.”

Wil began to feel live mines around him, trip wires. “I think Zavala was procuring children for someone else. Someone who killed him…”

Father Martin’s eyes held Wil’s. “Mr. Hardesty, are we dancing around something here? If we are, maybe you should just tell me what it is.”

“Before he died, Zavala abducted his two-year-old daughter from her mother, ostensibly to take the child to Mexico. Jessica wasn’t found with him after the shootout. No one knows who has her. But every minute would seem to increase her chances of ending up like the others.”

“Jessica—the poor mother. Is there a way I can help?”

“It’s a long shot, I know, but in your studies of religions I was thinking you might have come across one…”

Father Martin cut him off. “Exactly what are you suggesting?”

“I’m not sure. Some sort of ritual?”

Incredulity blossomed in the priest’s expression. “You can’t be serious. Religions regard human life as sacred. Besides, Christ’s sacrifice made all others pointless.”

“I wasn’t thinking of Christianity.”

“What were you thinking, then?”

“I don’t know. No stone unturned, I guess.”

“Surely there are other explanations for this tragedy. Now, if you will excuse me.” There was an edge to the priest’s tone.

Defuse, Wil thought, getting to his feet; he looked around, spotted the collectables in the bookcase. “Interesting display,” he said. “Isn’t Leonardo Guerra in the antiquities business?”

Father Martin followed him to the bookcase. “That’s right. He’s always giving me little things—clay animals and whatnot.”

Wil focused on a sculpted male figure with a strand of cowrie shells draped around it. “This one, for instance?”

“Among others.”

Wil was sure now: The statue was the same as those he’d seen that night in Guerra’s office. For the priest’s benefit, he spent another moment admiring it: bearded figure with bulging eyes and broad nose, smaller figures bent over in supplication, the wood cracked in places. “Looks old,” he said. “Would you happen to know its origin?”

He caught it just before it vanished, the look in Father Martin’s eyes: faint ripples in a deep pool, a cloud across the moon.

“Someplace in Latin America. Now I really must ask you to leave me to my work. Good night, Mr. Hardesty.” He moved to his desk and sat down.

“Good night,” Wil said. At the door he turned back, cherry-picked the words. “Father, I need your counsel. In Catholic school, I learned that someone who is pleasing to God always tells the truth.”

The priest looked up sharply from his desk. “What makes you say that?”

“Being lied to in my work, I suppose. Maybe it’s just me, but there doesn’t seem to be much premium on veracity anymore.”

“And that troubles you?”

“What I want to know—at least understand—is whether the virtuous man is still responsible for the truth.”

“I see.” Father Martin’s eyes held a distant look, as though he was poring through an album of old photographs. “It would help me if you were eight years old, Mr. Hardesty. Then I’d simply insist that a virtuous person—one who would be with God—is always truthful. That lying is wrong.”

It was not the answer Wil expected. “Then you do understand,” he said.

“What I believe I understand, Mr. Hardesty, is that it is still possible to be a good man, if not a virtuous one.”

“A good man?”

“Someone who strives for the greater good in what he does and prays every day for forgiveness.” Father Martin got up from the desk and stood facing the window, hands clasped behind his back. “Drive safely,” he said.

Wil eased out, letting the door click shut behind him.

 

 

Father Martin was still staring at the rose garden when the door opened and Leonardo Guerra entered. “Goddammit, can you not give a simple yes or no answer when it’s called for?”

Martin DeSantis said nothing.

“You might just as well have told him you were lying, for Christ’s sake. Where is your head?”

“So much killing…”

“Don’t forget, presbitero, if I go down, all of it goes down. You, this, everything.”

“You have her, don’t you? His little girl.”

“Just keep in mind what I said.”

“You think I don’t? Every day—every minute? How do you think I keep going?”

Leonardo Guerra lifted the lid on the briefcase. “Save the self-righteous shit for your flock, Martin, it’s wasted on me. And calm down. Sometimes I think you’re losing your mind.”

“He knows about Zavala.”

“So I heard.”

“And?”

“And we have work to do. Yours and mine.”

 

 

Wil found a frame place open late on Ventura Boulevard and a sub shop near it where he put away a wilted salad and a meatball sandwich. Another stop and he was at the Rodriguez place at eleven. He fumbled for the key in the fuschia planter, let himself in, opened the pint of JD he’d bought, and poured himself a stiff one, which he carried to the den along with the newly framed photograph. He opened the door, went to the spot on the wall. The photo fit fine in the space. For a minute he looked at the two friends with the torn seam between them, him and Paul at Cam Ranh, frozen in time. He poured in a slug of the Jack Daniels, hoping to flood the guilt-voice and the one yelling about what the bleeding hell he was doing with a drink in his hand—clashing, incessant voices that led to mumbling into the bathroom mirror at 3:00 A.M. and thinking about the razor blades in the cabinet behind it.

Tightening his grip on the glass, he turned and left the den.

The pint didn’t help. He slept like crap—tossing fitfully in Raeann’s small guest bed, trying to jam together pieces of a puzzle that wouldn’t go. Finally at four-thirty he gave it up, showered and shaved, then left the house and chased the moon west over Topanga Canyon to the beach. Cold light saw him walking on sand like wet pavement, accompanied by foghorns, the ka-whump-hiss of surf, the salt-rot smell of low tide, his own breath. Groups of sea birds stood hunched as though they were trying to disappear into their feathers; mist obliterated the horizon.

The hangover made it hard to think, but his general take on last night was that Father Martin was a strong man hiding something. Resigned to it as though it was a price to be paid. To whom—Guerra? Had to be: Guerra-Zavala, Guerra-DeSantis followed. Niños de Mexico:kids adopted, kids dead—nothing definitive except for Guerra smack in the middle of all of it. His take on Guerra: smart, smooth, deadly dangerous. Could he have ordered Zavala killed? In a heartbeat, but why? Easier to let father and child simply disappear into Mexico, right? Not if Zavala dead was where the investigation was supposed to stop. Wil was reasonably sure his mention of the second bullet to Father Martin would get passed on. That had been his intent: unnerve, trigger a mistake.

Wishful thinking.

He picked up a stone and skimmed it off an incoming line of scud.

Curious that DeSantis didn’t bring up Niños last night when talking about Guerra’s contributions to St. Boniface. Then there was the shell-draped statue, more on that definitely unsaid. Which left him…where?

Wil crossed the bikeway and passed a scattering of sleeping homeless people, shapeless lumps backed up to the public restrooms. He searched his jeans, came up with a couple of dollar bills, which he handed a young woman with an old face who looked up as he went by. She said nothing, but he felt her eyes on his back. Up on Ocean Avenue, the traffic signals blinked red.

At a breakfast spot near the Santa Monica pier, he drank most of the owner’s first pot of coffee and polished off a not-bad Denver omelet. As he ate he scanned the Thursday morning Times. Toward the back of the first section wasan article taking issue with the lack of progress by the Innocents task force: shakeups loomed, according to unnamed sources. Wil put it aside and thumbed through his notebook to the names taken from Guerra’s files the night he broke into the Niños office.

Something there maybe.

Following the café owner’s directions to the library, he used the pay phone outside to try Lisa again. This time her father hung up. Donna Pacheco at least talked to him: the cops had been okay, the job was fine, the car ran—the deadness in her tone said more. Be patient, he told her, and then the library opened and he was inside cruising through the phone directories. Of the names from the old Niños files, none were still listed. Faring better with the personal file names from Guerra’s desk, Wil checked out the addresses in the detail street-map books and plotted his route: Bel Air, Toluca Lake, Pasadena.

Next he searched the periodicals subject indexes under DeSantis, Martin, and found twenty-two stories, fourteen newspaper and eight magazine. Each was accompanied by photographs: Father Martin at the St. Boniface groundbreaking, passing out food to a crowd of immigrant families, sorting mounds of clothing destined for Latin American outreach, balancing a child on his shoulders as he talked earnestly to reporters at a mission opening, leading a candlelight parade down Wilshire, shaking hands with the Mexican consul-general, signing his book The Clarity of Absolutes, clutching a bullhorn at an AIDS rally, on and on—roughly twenty years of photo-op passion and commitment. Later articles, the more rapt ones, placed the priest’s lifetime of service in the Schweitzer-Sheen-Mother Teresa category and hinted at international honors to come. Wil sifted for facts: born 1931 near Portillo, Cuba; arrived Key West, Florida, 1945; studied for the priesthood in Baltimore beginning 1949; served in North Florida, Louisiana, and Texas parishes before assignment as assistant pastor at St. Boniface, then a tiny dot on the Archdiocese of Los Angeles map; took over eight months later when its pastor died suddenly. From then on a welcome and rising star, as though the questing root had struck fertile ground.

Bleary from reading, Wil left the library. As he drove up Sunset, the chill left the air, replaced by sunshine. Houses got bigger and began receding behind whitewashed walls. Lots spread out under sycamores; hedges rose up; poinsettias flamed under arched windows. Hibiscus Place came to mind.

Parker Henry was an investment banker who worked out of his Bel Air home, a raw white Monterey-style with new plantings of purple lantana and lines of black drip-hose. Over coffee served by Mrs. Henry, Wil told them he’d been referred by Father Martin, admired their round-faced baby girl, Alyssa, asked what they knew of the baby’s origins, the process, Lenny Guerra, money, snags to be aware of—things that might smack of fraud or worse. If so, they were artfully concealed: The Henrys couldn’t be more pleased. Despite the cost? Emphatically.

The Lawrence Briscoes of Toluca Lake were equally forthcoming. He was a literary agent, she ran their office; weekends they served meals to the down-and-out at Gentes de Cuidad. Their boy, Steven, was a dream come true. Sure they knew the facts—he’d been left on the steps at Los Amigos de Hermosillo—but they couldn’t care less. Elaine Briscoe told him they were behind a group promoting Father Martin for the Nobel.

Wil kicked the Super Glide toward Pasadena.

The air was thick now with valley inversion layer; above the stinging haze he could make out the tip of Mount Wilson, hovering there with a lone patch of snow. Twenty minutes later he found Orange Grove Boulevard, started looking for the Warren Sumner place not long before he spotted it. Palms lined the drive; on a broad expanse of green, a man in a straw hat guided a sit-down mower around flower beds. From the sidewalk a golf pro could clank the portico with a five iron, but only just. A large gold crest was split between the two halves of open gate where Wil left the Harley.

Diane Sumner was about his age, blond and attractive and dressed in paint-smudged work denims. At first she was reserved, then opened up about Martin Scott Sumner, their new addition, the baby named after Father Martin, whom she considered a near-saint. Warren, her husband, was an activist lawyer and legal counsel for St. Boniface; would Wil like to wait? He was supposed to be home by four. Even before he checked his watch, Wil could see where this was heading and excused himself.

From a street pay phone, he dialed Mo Epstein, gulped aspirin as he waited for Epstein to finish a call. On Colorado there was a squeal of brakes, then angry horns blaring, making his head hurt worse. He ached for a six-pack, the thought both consuming and revolting, notice that this was where the alcoholic craziness ended or there was no end. Just a spinning, grinding carousel of demons and twelve-step programs and falls from grace, how it had been for his mother before her Corvair crossed the line and smashed into a bus full of El Toro marines in 1967, taking his father with her. Christmas week it had been. Somewhere he still had the watch they were going to give him, the day/date crash-frozen on December 21.

“Hey,” Mo said into his ear, “persona non grata. What’s happening?”

“Just a great day so far. How’d you like to live dangerously?”

“I already am, talking to you. Sorry about the freeze.”

“My luck. Speaking of which, I just spent five wasted hours with some big fans of Niños de Mexico.Youremember it?”

Wil heard the creak of a chair, then Mo: “Guerra’s operation, sure. You spoke with some of the adoptive parents?”

“Yeah.”

There was a pause. “Why do I doubt that he just handed you the contacts?”

“Ask me no questions, Mo. You able to help without totally compromising yourself?”

“No, but fire away.”

As Mo wrote them down, Wil gave him the names from the old list that hadn’t been in the telephone directories. “If you can manage, see if these people still live in L.A.,” he said. “They weren’t listed, but if you score, I’ll follow up. Who knows, maybe it’ll lead someplace.”

“Don’t trust us, huh?

Wil paused. “Thanks, Mo. I know what it means.”

“Horseshit. You gettin’ anywhere?”

“Don’t ask. You?”

“Nothing more on the second bullet. Dietrich’s men scoured the site and found zip, not even a cartridge case. As for the Pacheco girl, nobody’s seen her. Drop by the casa some time, you know where it is.” Epstein hung up then, the broken connection underscoring Wil’s sense of futility.

Walking toward the Harley as cars fumed and chased each other down Colorado Boulevard in the late afternoon sun, he felt as distant and insubstantial as the shadow cast by an airplane.

 

 

UCLA was as he remembered: sprawling, wooded, comfortably academic. Two years he’d gone to school there, played intercollegiate volleyball and partied around before transferring north to Santa Barbara. Time-capsule days and nights. At an outdoor table by the bookstore, he finished noting everything he could remember about the Guerra-DeSantis statues, wishing it were more, then crossed a broad expanse of treed lawn. The air was cool now and smelled of watered grass. On the way Wil passed three coeds in Bruin sweatshirts—pretty babies who smiled boldly at him, making him wonder where twenty-four years had gone.

The anthropology department was in a Romanesque brick building with olive trees by the entrance, just where Lindeman had told him on the phone. “Thank you for staying,” Wil began.

“No problem. A break from grading, actually.” Professor Lindeman was thin and tanned with a shock of flyaway hair. He wore khakis, Topsiders, a pilled navy polo shirt, hornrims that made him look studious. He studied Wil’s page of notes. “You don’t have a photograph—a Polaroid or something?”

“No,” Wil said. “Unfortunately.”

Lindeman took down some reference books.

“Then unless you find something similar in these, I can only speculate. Holler if you do.”

For twenty minutes Wil flipped through pages while Lindeman graded papers. At a photo in the last book he stopped. “Like this, only cruder and older—more weathered.”

Lindeman took the volume, studied the page. “Yoruban,” he said at length. “Anything else?”

“Yeah. The central figure was larger relative to the supplicants. More strident.”

“These figures are orishas, deities,” Lindeman said, reviewing the pictures again. “The Yoruba religion comes from Nigeria, where it’s still practiced. Cowrie shells are part of their ceremonies. Where did you say you found them?”

Wil made up something about verifying origin and authenticity for a dealer client; Lindeman’s eyes narrowed, wrinkles appearing at the corners. “I really should see a statue or a photo to be certain,” he said, “but there are a number of similar elements. You checked the rest of the book for an exact match?”

“That’s as close as I found.”

He rubbed the back of his ear. “One of the anthropology journals had an article a while back. As I recall, some deities like this were found in Cuba. I’ll try to scrounge up the pub and have a look.”

Wil asked about the connection to Cuba.

“Yoruba came to the New World with the slaves,” Lindeman said. “It blended first with local tribal customs, then with the religion of the occupying countries. Cuba belonged then to Catholic Spain. Unlike the Spanish, though, the Yorubans were a flexible sort. They found a way to coexist.”

Something clicked. “Santería?”

“You’ve heard of it.”

Wil nodded. “Read some. Please go on.”

“Well, if you’ve read about it, you know Santería literally means ‘worship of the saints.’ Basically they meshed—syncretized—their orishas with the saints: lots of orishas, lots of saints. For a while everything was fine.” He offered Wil a Perrier from a cooler beside his desk and chugged from his own.

“The Spaniards weren’t altogether blind, though,” he went on. “Santería’s fundamentally a worship of natural forces, full of magic. They came to realize their slaves were into the magic more than the Holy Ghost. So they tried to kill it.” He rested his Topsiders on the desk. “The religion went underground. To this day the Santeros are secretive, even though the threat has long since passed. Hell, there are millions of them today, but who’d know?”

“So what about the figures?” Wil asked, rolling the bottle slowly in his hands.

“You want me to hazard a guess?”

Wil nodded.

Lindeman took another look at his notes, then the book. “Not very academic, but here goes: The slaves arrived with nothing, so unless the figures were smuggled in somehow from Africa—which I doubt because of the workmanship you describe—they would have been carved in Cuba sometime after the turn of century.” He looked up. “Sorry, seventeenth century—when the Yorubas began arriving. Some slave priest probably carved them from memory.”

“Couldn’t they have been brought in later from Nigeria?”

“They sound too old for that. Figures like yours would have been used in rituals around the time the two faiths were syncretizing. Besides, Spain didn’t permit Cuba to trade with other countries until the late eighteen-hundreds. By then, different images would have replaced this kind of thing.” He picked up a pencil, pointed to one of the photos in the book.

“The strung cowries here represent this gentleman’s wealth-gathering powers. On the left is another heavyweight—he controls thunder and lightning, fire. Your deity’s not familiar to me, but that doesn’t mean much. Shall I go on?”

Wil nodded as he drank.

“You’re remarkably thorough, Mr. Hardesty.” Lindeman’s eyes became slits through his bifocals. “Especially when I’ve already told you what you said you came here for.”

“My nature. Everyone says so.”

“Then consider my class.” He removed his glasses, began polishing the lenses on his shirttail. “All right. Santería believes there’s an orisha-saint for everything in life. Different ones control different things. Everybody gets a personal one they make offerings to for favors or empowerment, although any may be propitiated.”

What he’d read was starting to come back. Still he asked, “What kinds of offerings?”

“Flowers, candles, fruit, food. Rum sometimes. On matters of importance, a chicken or goat. Which doesn’t exactly endear them to our humane societies and animal activists.”

“Human?”

“That’s Hollywood bullshit mostly.”

“Mostly?”

Lindeman resettled his glasses. “There are related sects that rob graves and use the bones for spells—Palo Mayombe does that, witches. And there are myths about blood sacrifice in every culture. But Santeros are a well-behaved bunch, by and large. Some of the violent drug elements have used Santería as an excuse for murdering the competition, but even that’s infrequent.”

“I think that’s the part I read. The article was about cults.”

“The price they pay for secrecy. People are scared of what they don’t know. Santería’s no cult, it’s a religion.” He put his empty in the cooler. “Your collector should know all this.”

Wil drained his bottle, rose to leave.

“Mr. Hardesty, please take something else into account.” He stood up, hands in his pockets. “As I said, what you describe sounds to me like the genuine article. However, if it was one ofthe ones found in Cuba, I would question its availability.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning it almost certainly would have been stolen.” He spread his feet slightly, folded his arms. “You might warn your client.”

Wil met Lindeman’s gaze. “Thank you, I’ll do that.” He offered his hand. “You’ve been very helpful. What do I owe you for your time?”

The shake was firm, the expression unwavering. “Nothing,” he said. “Bring me a photo if you can. Meanwhile I’ll look for that article. What the hell, maybe your guy’d give me a deal.”

 

 

The place was one of those that came on softly like an old lover with nothing to prove. Even so he circled the blocks around it several times. He’d spotted it after leaving Lindeman’s office, anxious to walk off the formless apprehension that had settled into his thoughts like a silent creeping fog.

It was almost seven now, darkness making the Fox Theater tower stand out against the sky. Westwood Village boutique and bookstore windows were invitingly crowded with shoppers, colors, life. Things that only intensified the empty, detached feeling that always dogged him this close to Christmas. Two well-dressed couples passed him, chattering about dinner at some Italian restaurant they were headed for, cuddling up as they made room for him on the sidewalk. One of the girls had hair like Lisa’s. She left a hint of jasmine that flirted briefly before it vanished.

Jaycee’s, the neon sign read. Cocktails.

The inside was comfortably dark and leather-quiet. On the tube over the bar, a Laker’s game was starting. Clint Black sang about what would happen when his ship came in. “Would you like me to keep a tab?” the waitress asked him.

Wil realized he’d been staring at the double Jack and beer chaser she’d put down on the booth table. “What?” he said absently. “No—thank you.” He reached in his jeans and came out with a dollar bill.

She smiled patiently.

He was about to pull out a credit card when he stopped. Lisa would see the receipt and call him on his backslide. Or worse, say nothing, her silence heavy artillery in a war that would wound them both—self-inflicted pain that came with the territory. “Wait a second,” he said, reaching down on the banquette to rummage through his leather field coat—usually he kept a twenty in the flap pocket. It was there all right, the folded bill mixed up with something else, a tangle that came out with it.

After the waitress left, he poked through the tangle of stained paper strips that smelled of cigar smoke: the stuff from Guerra’s trash, jammed in hurriedly and forgotten. Cash register receipts. Carefully, he separated them: several FoodMarts first, long curls that had torn in his haste. Then a wadded-up Stan’s Cafe, Wil picturing Guerra there with Cindy. Finally a mottled SaverDrug, the kind of computer ticket that printed out the names of items rung up—good for silencing the shopper stunned at how a few things could have come to that much. Baby things, for instance.

Bottles, lotion, baby aspirin, food, powder, toys. A playpen and multiple purchases of the same item: Pampers, over and over to the bottom of the tape. The printout was dated December 17th, the day Zavala busted in on Donna Pacheco. The day he took Jessie.

Beer slopped into the whiskey as Wil banged the table on his way to the bar phone.

 

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