The Innocents: Part Five

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EIGHT

 

Leonardo Guerra put the phone back in the onyx cradle. Sunlight slanting through the French doors illuminated the smoke from his cigar, an exceptionally fine Havana. For a moment he watched it waft upward toward polished wood beams, then he rose from the desk.

Father Martin was right. They were going to have to raise the stakes for Hermosillo; the work there was too important, the old facilities inadequate. The run-down hotel they’d converted was beyond repair, the orphanage similarly decrepit. They needed another drive, another huge effort. Money and a great deal of it.

He flicked a long ash into the fire Julio had laid then panned his eyes over the photographs on the mantle. The charitable missions of St. Boniface: Gentes de Ciudad,caring for L.A.’s downtrodden; Casa de Bienvenidos, assisting immigrant families; Dirección,the urban resources network; Work Etc., jobs for the indigent;Justicia para Todos, legal help for L.A.’s hispanic poor; Friendship House, spearheading human rights; Comfort Zone, helping poverty-level disease victims; Amigos de Hermosillo,their first project together. Framed ribbon-cuttings, freshly painted signs, earnest volunteers wearing change-the-world smiles. He and Martin; Martin’s look. Martin growing increasingly distinguished over time.

Guerra took in cigar smoke, let it out slowly. When viewed dispassionately—a talent of his—St. Boniface was simply another diversified market-driven corporation. With attendant responsibilities, of course. Planning for the Amigos fund-raising would begin tomorrow.

He moved away from the hearth, pressed the button for Julio, and a slim youth appeared. Guerra’s eyes appraised him: fourteen now, not a youthful or awkward fourteen either; no, far older. His brown skin glowed in the light from the fire, the black eyes deep and expressionless as empty vaults.

“Julio, start my bath,” Guerra said, brushing a fleck of ash from his smoking jacket. “And before that, I would like a massage.” He watched Julio nod and withdraw.

Then he dialed a familiar number.

 

 

Wil had to sprint from the corner, barely saving the Bonneville from a city-sanctioned tow truck. Driving away, he reflected on the meeting. No turning back now: Dead or alive, Zavala had to be in somebody’s computer. And if they found him, what then—engineer a deal for Reyes to testify? Maybe; worry about that later.

He stopped for a quick lunch, called Lisa and got the machine, left a message he’d be back late. Outside the murk had intensified, thickened by lumpy clouds into a steel-wool sky. With the traffic already stacked up at Vermont, it was an hour to Reyes’ place. By that time rain was making soft sounds on the leaves.

Wil walked toward the house, the low gloom making it seem larger than he remembered. Shrubs glistened on either side of the walk; somewhere a metal wind chime stirred. The housekeeper directed him partway to the study, then returned to her vacuuming. Built-in job security, he thought; finish one acre, another one needed it.

As before, Reyes was in the study. Wil briefed him on the border patrol incident, the killings, Zavala’s trouble with drugs and guns. “As you said, a bad man.”

Reyes shook his head.

“I am going to see Gilberto,” Wil continued. “Tonight if I can.”

There was no mistaking the expression, the twisting of blue-veined hands. “I know,” Reyes said quietly. “It makes sense to speak with Gilberto.” He sighed. “What doesn’t make sense is how his own father could sell his brother to a man like Zavala.” He looked around the room as though seeing it for the first time. “And for what—for this? Jesumária!” He got up awkwardly, fists clenched; picking up an urn-shaped lamp, he raised it over his head and smashed it on the floor.

Pieces flew, and the room dimmed. In seconds there was banging on the door. “Señor Reyes, está usted bien?”

As quickly as it happened, Reyes’ composure returned. “Si, Marta, gracias. Solamente un accidente. Estoy bien.” Turning to Wil he said, “I will speak to my son this afternoon. For now I am tired. Please excuse me, Mr. Hardesty.”

Ignacio Reyes’ feet crunched across lamp shards. Opening the doors, he walked past sliding glass, beaded now with rain.

 

 

Bolo Zavala checked his watch: eight-fifteen. From his position up the street, he watched the three leave the house and take two cars, the white coupe following the station wagon.

The fat one had to be Rodriguez, he guessed, the black woman his wife, since they left together. No telling about the tall one—blond he looked in the greenish night glasses.

After the taillights vanished, Zavala took a double hit off the inhaler, then timed off twenty minutes. Satisfied they weren’t coming back for something forgotten, he left the IROC, put up his collar, and made for the house.

A snap: He was inside in less than a minute, pausing in the darkness, getting a feel for the place, then twisting on the flash. He looked around: four doors down the hall, the kitchen to his left. Start with the front room: stuff everywhere—knickknacks, knitted shit, family photos. He examined the photos.

It was him all right. Paul Rodriguez in uniform, with the woman, with babies. He swung the light down the hall. Bathroom on the left, sewing room, then master bedroom.

Zavala stepped inside, saw a canopied bed, throw rugs, plants: a woman’s room, a woman’s house. What kind of man lived in a place like this? He almost spat. If they were here, sleeping, it would be easy to take them both, pigs in a slaughterhouse. He fingered the knife: her first to keep her from screaming, then Rodriguez…

Some other time, maybe.

Back in the hallway, pushing open another door with the flash. Papers strewn on the gray metal desk, trophies; on the wall, more photographs: Rodriguez at some ceremony, posing in uniform, shirtless cleaning a machine gun. Rodriguez with…He stopped. It was the tall man Rodriguez had left with, younger but recognizable, standing on a gray ship by a mounted deck gun. He lifted it off the wall, turned it over, saw writing: With Wil, Cam Ranh Bay, 1969. He flipped it back, wondering about this Wil. And Rodriguez.

Why had he been asking about him? For a friend, the voice had said. On a whim, he slipped the snapshot, frame and all, into his coat pocket.

Next he shuffled through desk papers: junk mail, gun magazines, insurance come-ons, a take-home restaurant menu. He picked up the menu, paged it, turned it over: on the back was a yellow Post-it with a name and phone number, under that a story about the restaurant and the family who owned it. The name meant nothing, and he went on.

There were envelopes addressed to Paul Rodriguez, United States Coast Guard, Retired; next to the phone a business card. Directing the light, he read Wil Hardesty, Private Investigator. The tall guy, the Wil in the Vietnam photo. La Conchita, wherever the fuck that was. He pocketed the card, useful perhaps if the tall man came too close. An investigator—maybe he’d find him first, see what he was made of.

Finished in the den, he searched the kitchen, found nothing of interest there. For a moment Bolo Zavala stood very still in the darkness, his hand on the frame in his pocket. Then he slipped outside, retracked the glass door, and headed up the street toward the IROC.

 

 

Papa Gomez was bigger than Wil expected: Mexican tile in abundance, stone fountain in the lobby. Blenders whirred, mixing in with clatter and hum from the dining areas. In a mural behind Raeann, jaguars crept among jungle vines.

Paul drank amber beer and talked about St. Boniface, showing Wil the list of Hermosillo people Isabel Diaz had given him. “Then there’s this Leonardo Guerra,” he said, working salsa onto a chip.

“Guy’s head of the outreach program in Hermosillo. He lived there once, he’ll be at mass this Sunday. What do you say we chat him up?” He saw the look on Wil’s face. “I won’t let the door fall on you, and you’ll like Father Martin. See what he gives good boys and girls.” Paul reached into his pocket and flashed the mints.

“I can’t believe you actually took those,” Raeann said. “With that stomach? I mean.”

Paul winked. “Just being polite, hon.”

Wil sipped his pineapple-soda, flashed on himself as an altar boy, responding in Latin, pouring wine, shaking the bells—sometimes at appropriate moments, sometimes not. He tried to recall how many years since he’d been back, drifting instead to why, to the too many questions, those even before Devin. Paul’s eager look brought him out of it. The truth was, he questioned this direction Paul was taking now, this whole thing with St. Boniface. Coincidences like that rarely paid off. Still, he could be supportive. “All right,” he said. “Anything but the six o’clock.”

Paul grinned and left for the men’s room; Wil touched his glass to Raeann’s. “So, how’s life among the bullrushes?”

“If I’d done the boat, Moses never would’ve made it.” She giggled, the sound high and youthful. “Seriously, it’s a kick. We never had the time before.” Hesitation. “Which reminds me, what are you guys up to, anyway? I haven’t seen Paul this excited in years.”

Wil poked the straw around in his drink.

“Actually, Paul’s told me a little.” She sobered. “Not dangerous, I hope. He’s the only Rodriguez I’ve got.”

“What he’s been doing for me hasn’t been, but it could be with the man we’re looking for. We have an agreement.”

Her face said it.

“No danger, Raeann, that’s a promise. All right?”

She nodded. Paul sat down and dinner came; halfway through it a slightly built man approached. Unlike the colorfully clad waiters, he wore a conservative suit and tie. Wispy hair, thick glasses—thirties, Wil guessed.

“Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez,” he said, “twice in two days. The chicken pleases you, I take it?”

Paul told him if it was any better they’d sprout feathers, then introduced Wil. Wil felt a cool, moist palm.

“My father mentioned you, Mr. Hardesty. If you can wait, I’ll be free around ten.” Gilberto Reyes left for other tables.

“Good enough kid, from what we know,” Paul said, returning to his plate. “Polite, quiet. Bit intimidated, maybe.”

“I can understand that,” Raeann said, “knowing the father.”

Wil was about to say something when mariachis appeared, making conversation impossible and speeding up the rest of dinner. Paul and Raeann left then; after a while Gilberto Reyes returned and led him to a cramped office. Wil complimented him on the restaurant as their talk drifted to why he was there.

“I knew, Mr. Hardesty,” Gilberto said. “From the medal. From my father calling.” He lowered his eyes to the desk, picked up a pencil, began tracing nothings on the calendar blotter. “I’d not heard my father cry before. Odd how little things stick in your memory. I was seven, Benito six. We never had or did much for birthdays, but that day we had a small party for him. It was supposed to be a surprise.”

On a shelf above the desk Wil saw a small print, blurry but recognizable: Serafina Reyes holding a baby and smiling.

“I think he knew. He couldn’t wait to get home.” Gilberto laughed without humor. “Then the party was over and it was just him and me and we were looking at how shiny it was. I started daring him—you know how it is when you’re kids. I never thought he’d swallow a Saint Christopher medal, for God’s sake.” The laugh became a sigh. “I was jealous—he had a treasure and I didn’t. Afterward, Papa beat us both so hard we couldn’t sit down.” He lifted his glasses, rubbed his eyes.

“All those years I thought it was my fault Benito had to leave. That the man took him away because of me.” His voice trailed off; outside the office, kitchen sounds got louder. Gilberto started again.

“After that everything changed. We came here, I got to go to school, there was plenty of food. But it was never the same. Papa would hit us for nothing. He never smiled. It was as if he couldn’t stand to be with us anymore.”

A hostess poked her head in the office, saw Wil, and quickly excused herself. Gilberto nodded to her, resumed when she’d left.

“Now I know why,” he said. “He was paying for what he’d done. Mr. Hardesty, have you any idea what it’s like to compete with a ghost? We weren’t blind—it was obvious how he felt about Benito. For a while I actually was glad he was gone. Now, at last, my father would pay attention to me.”

He made a short sharp sound.

“Instead he worked. Brooded. Told us not to talk about Benito. But my brother was there—all those years. In a way, when Benito left, we all left.” He leaned forward, elbows on the desk, chin on his hands.

“The man who took your brother, what was he like?”

“Since my father called, I’ve been trying to remember. He was strong looking, with a mustache. He gave us candy. But he had mean eyes.”

“Anything else?”

“Freckles—like a kid’s. And reddish hair, frizzy. I remember he hardly took his eyes off Benito the whole time. It was like none of the rest of us existed.”

“What about your brothers and sisters? Would they recall anything?”

“I doubt it. As for the medal, I’m not sure they even knew about the writing. I’ve heard nothing from Connie or Humberto or Felix. Esperanza lives in Albuquerque. Rafael hadn’t been born yet.” He hesitated. “Then again, we’re not a family that talks. Anymore.”

The man was visibly out of steam; Wil finished making some notes, gave him his card, rose to leave.

Gilberto Reyes stared at the card; his voice, like an echo, was detached. “What is it like out there where they found him, Mr. Hardesty?” he said. “I would like to see it some time.”

 

 

The rain was coming hard now, intermittent drumrolls on the car’s roof by the time he left Papa Gomez. Traffic added freeway splash to the pattern of fat drops.

Wil set the wipers on high, tuned in a jazz station.

An alto sax riff, sweet and sad, drew his thoughts to the seven graves. Raining there too, likely—or maybe not, the storm blocked by the mountains, the desert an apt metaphor for Benito’s family. Not knowing where he was, unable even to speak of him, their love for each other had dried up and blown away like so many tumbleweeds.

Wil remembered the sword stroke, his parents dying in a car crash. It hurt like hell, but it was clean and had healed, despite the reason for it. There had been no healing for the family Reyes.

North of Conejo Grade the storm slackened; by the time he turned off 101 it had played out altogether. La Conchita, after L.A., looked small and safe. Few lights shone in the lateness—Christmas strings, pinpoint stars through broken clouds. The damp air felt like freshly washed laundry hung out to dry.

He let himself in as quietly as he could; from the birdcage, cockatoo murmurings started.

“Just me, Edward, don’t get up.”

“Wil…?”

He came to the bedroom door, crossed the room, kissed her back to bed. “Right in,” he whispered.

Lisa rolled over and began breathing deeply. He watched a moment, thinking the composition would make a stunning silver-print, her black hair splayed on the pillow. He shut the door softly and made for the fridge, cracked a mineral water, walked to the window.

Across the freeway, surf rolled up on the beach; this late not much else moved, a few big rigs pulling all-nighters. He wondered where Bolo Zavala was tonight if he was alive: a quick upward stroke, all seven, all the way to the bone.

Gradually Wil wound down with the remaining Calistoga. He stuck the empty in the recycling bag, let Edward nibble his finger affectionately, and slid into bed, grateful for the normal things in his life.

 

 

The phone was picked up on the second ring.

“There may be someone else,” Bolo Zavala said. “A man named Hardesty, a private investigator.” He spelled it off the card. “I saw photographs. He was with Rodriguez on a boat.”

Silence on the line, a signal for more.

“Your Rodriguez is retired Coast Guard,” he continued. “Nothing on what they want.”

“All right,” the voice said. “For now we will watch closely and consider what comes next. If this man is an investigator, the friend Rodriguez mentioned is likely Hardesty’s client. Private investigators work for money. We will find out who is paying him and put a stop to it. Comprende?”

The line clicked, the voice replaced by dial tone.

 

NINE

 

Lisa’s hair smelled of jasmine; their lovemaking had been like old times: unforced, silly-serious, hot enough to start Edward squawking. An E-ticket ride that afterward, as Wil lay there while she slept, had him wondering at this kind of uneasy peace between them. He got up finally and put the covers back. Taking care not to wake her, he set the timer on the automatic drip, spoke softly to the big white bird, then let himself out.

The wind was calming, but the clouds had re-formed low on the horizon. The ocean was a vast gray plane dotted with whitecaps. Gringo was already there, juking in the breaks—paddling in when he caught sight of Wil.

“Saw the Bonnie, dude, figured I’d see you today.”

“Been in L.A.,” Wil said, struggling into the wetsuit. “I need this.” He walked into the surf and floated the Southern Cross toward Gringo, and they headed out toward the swells. “How’s it holding up?”

“Looks better’n it is,” Gringo said, “like most things.” He was as tall as Wil but more wiry, with surfing-ad features and sunstreaked hair he wore long. “Backup waves. Every now and again they’re in sync.”

Wil nodded. For an hour they fooled around, then made for shore and hiked up the trail to the parking lot. Gringo put his tri-fin in the carpeted bed of a weathered Ford Ranchero. Slapped on over a rusted spot was a bumper sticker trimmed to read, Practice Random Senseless Acts.

“Don’t you get tired of packing that old piece of whatever?” he said. “How you turn that thing anyway?”

Wil set down the longboard. “Turn? I thought the idea was to ride.”

“One of these’d change your mind.” Gringo tapped his board. “Thrusters rule, dude. Evolution and all that.”

“So that’s where the rest of that little thing went,” Wil said. “My sympathies.”

Gringo snorted.

Wil said, “By the way, you keeping up your quota?”

“Told you about that, huh? Pam’s big idea.”

“Seems fair to me—she just wants you working as many hours as she does.”

“You punch a time clock at home?” Gringo said. “Damn, I get enough of that at the sites.”

Wil opened the Bonneville’s trunk. “I thought you had an arrangement. Surf, work, live cheap, save up. Like that.”

“We do. Pam likes the trailer fine, just not forever. I can understand that. Her way just seems kind of programmed. Probably not used to it is all.”

“You’re working then.”

“Drywall mostly—single units. Next week a convalescent hospital.” Gringo yanked on the Ranchero’s door handle without success. “What the hell. It buys groceries, doesn’t add to the worry lines.” He looked closely at Wil. “Speaking of which.”

Hardesty laughed; Gringo never had two cents to rub together and zip for possessions, but Gringo hadn’t many wrinkles either. He shed his suit, dried off, loaded the longboard while Gringo coaxed a metallic screech out of the Ranchero’s sprung door.

“Hang loose,” Wil said. He cranked the engine over and on the way home contemplated a gray figure in a white house and the cost of things.

Her note was on the dining table: Got an IRS meeting, then the McTeer Research audit. Home late. Encore? L.

“Goddammit, Ed.” Wil let the bird out to walk around. “Next time say something.” Fucking schedules; there went their day together. Bakery scones she’d left soothed him somewhat. He carried one to the window, watched for a while, then turned his attention to the smallish two-story they’d added onto. Enlarged kitchen, a deck, bathrooms redone. To make a small space look bigger, white paint with indirect lighting, spots to illuminate their collection of photographs: Ansel Adams, a Muench White House Ruin, early Annie Liebovitz, some promising local work.

Decor they’d kept simple: trestle table and matching Windsors, nubby sectional, the oversize Danish chair. Their bedroom, being upstairs, faced the bluffs; the second bedroom was all-purpose: futon, computer and desk, file cabinets. The third bedroom was Devin’s. A thousand or so square feet, the house’s size was sometimes an issue—as was distance from certain amenities. But every time moving came up, they looked out the window.

Wil put on a CD: Jennifer Warnes smoothing “Bird on a Wire.” The bamboo palm slow-danced to an onshore breeze. Gilberto Reyes called about one.

“I remembered something,” he said. “Zavala had a tattoo, a squarish thing on the inside of his forearm. I know now what it was: a razor blade, dripping blood. There was writing, too. Benito and I were doing our alphabets then. We spelled it out after the man left.”

Gilberto paused to call instructions to someone.

“Mr. Hardesty, the writing said, ‘Ahi viene la muerte.’ You know the meaning?”

“Yeah,” Wil said. “Here comes death.”

 

 

Wil waited for the Lapsang Souchong, its aroma reminding him as always of the tarry hold of a lumber schooner once toured in San Francisco; a privy on a hot day, according to Lisa. The tea store had been only too happy to sell him the last of it. Romance is dead, he thought, pouring some as the phone rang again.

“My ear’s about to fall off,” Paul said. “Ma Bell’s gonna send me Christmas cards.”

Wil assured him it was covered.

“Came up with a lotta nothing this time,” Paul said. “One man down there’d heard the name is all. What the hell—hard to see Zavala having anything to do with Amigos de Hermosilloand vice versa.” His tone was discouraged. “Nothing from my other contacts either. I dunno, maybe the whole thing’s a dry well. Sheeit, I thought we’d have the sucker by now.”

The opportunity was there, and Wil took it. “Take it easy, the guy’s likely dead in some unmarked grave. If I haven’t told you, this is the work. Some days are like that.”

Paul was silent.

“Listen,” Wil said. “You’ve been great so far, a regular Dick Tracy. But it’s time to let the heavies and their computer nets have a crack at Zavala. Give that girl of yours a break.”

Paul’s voice hardened. “Ain’t dumping me, are you, hotshot? I been that route already.”

Suddenly it dawned: Paul hadn’t retired voluntarily. Money was always a big deal for the Coast Guard, Wil knew, and Raeann had certainly wanted it. But Paul hadn’t, and nobody had noticed.

“Look,” Wil said, “we’ll see this thing through on Sunday, then talk. I’m just concerned that you’re getting too involved. We agreed it was my call, remember?”

He could hear the voice deflate.

“You’re right, I got baskets to weave. Be here Sunday at ten if you’re going to St. Boniface.” Then Paul hung up.