The Innocents: Part Four

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SIX

 

Paul was up and glad for the company; as he listened to Wil’s plan to meet Freiman and Vella, he blew on decaf, then offered his opinion. “Sheeit. Probably just my Hispanic instincts about cops, but I’d be careful, I was you.”

Wil said he would.

Paul looked skeptical then brightened. “Hey, I got through to my sources. Two’re researching, but my Border guy knew Zavala. Some bad mother—got into a scrape with some of my guy’s people near Calexico. Early seventies, it was, after they got a tip he was coming. Four in the morning they spring an ambush. Zavala opens up on ’em, using his illegals as a shield. They hit him, but somehow he gets away.” Paul inhaled coffee. “After he guns three of them and a couple of his own.”

“Just a gentle misunderstood soul,” Wil said.

“Yeah. Mexican authorities told my guy he was pretty good with a knife, too. Not long after the shootout, their snitch, fella named Pacheco, winds up in the Colorado with his throat cut. So happens the Mexicans have been after Zavala for years. Nothing recent though. Prob’ly dead, they thought.”

Wil leaned back on chrome legs and stretched. “Your guy’s connection say where in Mexico he operated?”

“Hermosillo,” Paul said. “Drugs and guns but mostly flesh-peddling, although he thought there were some sixties-vintage murders. No convictions—Zavala had a lot of friends in the local police. Every time the federales got close, he’d disappear.”

Wil said, “Shame Reyes didn’t know some of this stuff.” He complimented Paul’s detecting.

Paul smiled, hesitated. “It’s kind of off-the-wall, but my cousin Gabe goes to church in the north Valley, St. Something-or-Other…Boniface. They’re big into Mexican outreach, always after us for donations. I remember him mentioning once the distribution end’s based in Hermosillo.” He slid his empty mug on the tabletop.

Wil narrowed his eyes. “And you were thinking they might know somebody down there to talk to.”

Paul’s smile went to grin. “More’n I would. I’ll check it out tomorrow, give me something to do. The extra bed’s yours if you want it.”

Wil nodded. “Be great. I’m beat.”

“Um—I know how rough it’s been, man. But I was telling Raeann about how much better you guys seem, you in particular. You still seeing that therapist?”

“I’m fine, Paul, really. Lisa too. Everything’s fine. Thanks for not pushing it.”

 

 

Wil got Raeann’s sewing room with the hide-a-bed, a little milk-glass reading lamp on behind him. Hands under his head on the too-soft pillow, he lay awake, gut fluttering at the risk he was taking.

Two ways to go, the dice already rolled: If the cops were as flat as Mo Epstein indicated, they might agree to let him into the loop. If not, they could make it tight—threaten his license, haul him in, generally harass him trying to get what he had.

But finding Zavala was going to be a bitch, especially with as cold a trail as this one. He needed what cops could put their hands on readily—files, documents, reports. For a while he tried putting himself inside Freiman’s head, juggling possible scenarios, weight given to how much heat the department was taking. After a while he gave it up, clicking instead on a little boy in a desert grave and a father who, now that he had the money, couldn’t get his son back at any price.

Six, Benito Reyes had been. Four years younger than Devin.

Feelings flooded in: hearing Dev pronounced dead, blaming himself, taking whatever Lisa’d said all wrong, the same with her. Trying then to be strong, the agony of it, finally just numbness and not knowing how the hell to act—even in bed.

Lisa found the therapist; they’d gone together for a while then each alone. It hadn’t helped. For months it seemed they were on different cycles: one up—one down, him angry—her depressed. Vice-versa. Then there were the harpoons of pain from unexpected sources, tears when he least expected. For two years he’d wiped out in waves of his own making, each wave bigger than the last, each battering them both hard. One day he broke the surface like a drowning man clutching a spar and began to function again. Enough to swear with Lisa that as long as they stayed together they would never again risk the loss of a child.

They’d almost rebuilt when Lisa decided otherwise.

With effort Wil spun his mind away from it to the who and why of the Innocents, getting nowhere before his thoughts turned abstract. A species that preyed on its own: Every day there was some new horror; picking up the paper was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. There seemed to be no bottom anymore.

Gradually the room brought him out of it, Raeann’s passion for creating everywhere. In one corner, a group of footstools shared a needlepoint pattern; from an upper shelf, watercolor owls stared at crocheted homilies. He spotted a photograph propped up in a brass frame: the family, scrubbed and smiling.

He snapped off the lamp.

 

 

What once had been full was now empty, raucous now stilled. Cigarette smoke drifted in harsh light over green baize. There was the soft click of pool balls as two men took their turns. Now and then a sip of beer.

Faraway, audible now in the bar’s late quiet, a ringing. Feet padding closer and a pointed finger. “Teléfono.”

The man with the long scar, the shorter of the two, moved toward the alcove, the waiting call. Anyone noticing might have been struck by the man’s orange hair, light skin, freckles—especially knowing he was Mexican. No one was there, however, as he lifted the receiver.

As always, he listened first.

“It’s happening,” said the voice. “What you said would not happen is happening.”

He allowed a respectful silence to pass, then, “Cuénteme, talk to me. What concerns you?”

“Not what, who,” the voice said. “There have been inquiries—a man named Rodriguez has been very curious about you. Calls have been made. My sources told him you were dead, but the man persisted. Words to the wise, cuate. A small effort now would be time well spent.”

The listener waited; when nothing more came, he sighed deeply. “Comprendo, patrón.Tomorrow—after some personal business.”

“This Rodriguez lives in Van Nuys.” There was a soft rustle of paper. “The first name is Paul. I leave it to you.”

The connection went dead in the man’s hand.

 

 

The voices woke him, quiet as they were trying to be. He found them in the kitchen: Paul sitting with the paper, Raeann scurrying.

“Wil, honey.” She smiled, stopped for a hug. “You look good, not so thin. We worried, you know—even if Rodriguez never told you.”

“Thanks Raeann. You’re looking good too.” Raeann Rodriguez was gringa negra, the cocoa-skinned daughter of a black shopkeeper Paul’s family knew in Santa Barbara—how often had he heard the story? They’d noticed each other about the time Paul enlisted, spent the next thirty years riding out the calms and storms: one son, Tommy, a lot of service-mandated separation, flack from families deeply rooted in different ways.

Not to mention cultures.

Wil had long figured the reason he and Paul originally grew close stemmed not from common interests or professional respect but from the women they’d chosen—the unspoken bond between them. He also knew that whatever prejudices he’d felt directed at him and Lisa could be magnified a hundred times for Paul and Raeann.

They were good people, enduring.

Raeann Rodriguez eyed him. “You still could gain some.”

“Time to have your eyes checked, babe.” He sniffed. “Whatever it is, I’m sold.”

“Eggs and chorizo’s all.” She pointed to Paul. “Watch him, or he’ll be swiping yours.” She winked.

Wil grinned; Paul rolled his eyes.

“I’d love to hear what you’re up to,” she said. “But I’m off after bulrushes.” She jammed some things into an already stuffed bag, nodded at Paul. “I keep trying to interest the Chief in basketmaking, but he won’t do it. Tell him it’s fun, will you?”

“I don’t know, he might bite me,” Wil said, watching her. She was still relatively trim, with deep hazel eyes and a burnished look to her skin. High cheekbones, a comfortable sort of pretty. She hoisted the bag and backed out. In a minute they heard the car starting, a good-bye toot.

“Bulrushes my ass,” said Paul, pouring more coffee. As Wil ate, Paul told him they’d missed Ignacio Reyes last night. “He’s always at the restaurant. You think he’s okay?”

“Yesterday was tough on him,” Wil said. “You know Gilberto?”

“Sure, he runs the place. Nice enough kid—worked there long as we’ve been going, ten years about. Doesn’t seem very close to his pop, though.” Paul forked in illicit chorizo. “You gonna see him?”

“Tonight, yes. You think he knows about this?”

“Hard to say. Gilberto doesn’t let on much.”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Wil said.

 

 

Paul left for St. Boniface as Wil phoned Mo Epstein; they’d meet at eleven. At ten-fifteen he hit the Ventura freeway, then the Hollywood toward downtown. Gas fumes caressed the slow-moving traffic; ahead, high-rises lurked behind a gray curtain despite sun and blue sky overhead.

By ten forty-eight he’d eased off the Broadway exit and parked at a meter across from the Hall of Justice. Waiting for the light, he ran his eyes up the Prohibition-era wedding cake. Stone leaves circled it; Doric columns pretended to support the top floors; air conditioners poked out. A dreadlocked man slept curled-up near the doors Wil entered at five-till.

Mo Epstein was there in the lobby under an intricately waffled ceiling and large overhead fixtures with most of the bulbs lit. TV crews were waiting their turn while bright lights inside the Information Bureau signified interviews in progress.

“Feeding time,” Mo said, watching two reporters argue. “What there is. Every day just makes everybody that much more peckish.”

“Apply to the gentlemen we’re about to meet?” Wil asked.

Mo nodded as they entered the elevator. “Them in particular. Watch your step here, pal. I’ve told them you’re okay, but they’re in no mood to futz around.”

Homicide was seventh floor, down a lifeless marbled hall. Wil followed Mo Epstein into a conference room. Two men sat at one end of a long table; without rising, the larger man motioned them to hard-looking chairs, then spoke.

“Mr. Hardesty, August Freiman—Captain to you. Lieutenant Epstein says you have something about the Saddleback killings that might interest Lieutenant Vella and myself. He also tells me you’re something of an investigator, actually make a living at it. Kind of an independent son-of-a-bitch as well. That anywhere close?”

Wil tried a smile. “Lieutenant Epstein is too kind, I’m not that independent.” He waited for reaction, got none. Freiman was big and Germanic, blond gone bushy gray; florid face on a thick neck above a civic lunch gut. He was dressed in the bottom half of a dark glen plaid, starched yellow shirt, red tie. As though interrupted from something important, he looked out over half-glasses. On his right Vella was tall and dark-suited; vulnerable-looking by comparison. Fatigue showed in both faces: indoor pallor; dark bags under eye-drop eyes. And something else Wil knew well, the taut look of men too long on alert for a shadow adversary.

He flashed on Mo’s warning look and started again: “What you said is correct, Captain. I’d like to help.”

“Then do it.”

“And be helped in return.”

Freiman’s jaw twitched slightly. “Mr. Hardesty, I’ve met remoras like you before, and I’ll tell you to your face I don’t like private cops. You know something about the Innocents, I want it. Yesterday. And not just because of the well-meaners and wackos breathing down my neck.”

Administrative menace: Wil had seen the act before, and he knew Mo had. Vella regarded the backs of his hands.

Freiman went on. “Seven dead kids, Mr. Hardesty. You are familiar with the rules governing evidence, I assume. Particularly the part about withholding it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then?”

“Enough to know I’m not obligated by law to tell you anything.”

Freiman looked at Mo Epstein, then back at Wil. “Perfect—just perfect. Our reward for laws like that, I suppose. Mr. Hardesty, you even have kids?”

“Captain—” Epstein began.

“No,” Wil said.

“No, I didn’t think so. This your great white hope, Epstein?”

“Look,” Wil said. “What you think is your business. My situation is that I represent a client who is peripherally involved. Not as a suspect, but with a possible link to one of the victims. My client remains anonymous—that isn’t negotiable. However, in addition to the link, which could shed light on the possible reason for the killings, I’m prepared to offer you the name of a potential suspect. Now, that’s my situation. With all due respect, yours is best explained by that scene in the lobby. To be blunt, you seem to have a creekful of shit and no paddle.”

The blood left Freiman’s face for a few seconds, then came pumping back. Epstein looked at the ceiling as Vella jumped in.

“Not a real productive attitude, Mr. Hardesty.”

“Real sorry about that.”

“More like a luxury you can’t afford. Maybe you need time to reflect on that among types who’d be less interested in your attitude and more with your involvement. Men with a steel-door code about child murder. You think I’m kidding?”

“No, Lieutenant, I don’t,” Wil said. “You’ll come up with a reason to lock me up and who’d care? But remember who requested this meeting. I want to help. I just need something in return, access to information—now and down the line. You get what I know and find out, I get what you know and find out. Everybody wins.”

Freiman and Vella exchanged looks; Wil could see the hunger in them, the specter of time. Fingers drummed the table. Finally, Freiman spoke.

“Mr. Hardesty, you’ll excuse us a minute.”

 

 

“Talk to me,” Freiman said. “This guy for real?”

Epstein met his eyes. “Captain, he and I served together in Nam, toward the end of the war. One time a shipment—food that we’d seized—turned up missing and embarrassed some brass. Hardesty found out a South Vietnamese who worked with us took it to feed his family—things were tough then for locals who’d helped us. Anyway, the brass was convinced Hardesty knew what was up, so they tossed him in the brig when he wouldn’t come across.” Epstein paused. “After forty-five days they gave up. Point is, Captain, we can sweat him, but it’ll cost us time. He didn’t have to come here. My gut feeling is he has something we can use.”

Vella lit a cigarette, frowned. “I keep trying to think why the name’s familiar.”

“His son died in a surfing accident,” Epstein said.

Vella frowned, shook his head.

“Hardesty went after a deputy who fronted him for letting the boy surf where he did. Things got out of hand—the deputy’s arm wound up busted. A photographer happened to be there, and it got splashed around.”

The frown cleared. “Right, several years ago.”

Epstein nodded; Freiman shifted in his chair. “This a red flag here, Epstein?”

“No, sir. Both men apologized. I wouldn’t have let it go this far if I’d thought so. For what it’s worth, he’s helped me out a couple of times.”

Freiman pondered the input then turned to Vella, got a what-have-we-got-to-lose shrug. He exhaled loudly and motioned to Epstein who was gone and back in seconds.

After Wil sat down, Freiman fixed him with a look.

“If we agree, this conversation stays here or you won’t believe the trouble you bought yourself.” He picked up Wil’s card, snapped it for emphasis.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

 

SEVEN

 

The Camaro, an IROC model with the big engine and a midnight blue custom paint job, turned left off La Cienega and onto Slauson. After a number of blocks it hung a right at Central, drove south across Firestone and into the ’hoods. The driver brushed back orange hair, levered down a smoked glass window and spat.

Fucking coloreds, he thought, eyeing a group of men drinking outside a market with gates on the windows. Turn anything into a goddamn slum, live in shit, then whine that everybody disrespected them. He pulled a small shape out of his jacket and spun the top, hit the inhaler twice, sighed as the coke hit back. Graffiti and run-down storefronts gave way to shabby streets and hurt-looking houses.

Close now, there it was.

He circled the block, left the IROC in an alley, eased up from the rear. The place was small, squeezed in behind another and down a cracked driveway, invisible from the street. The Junkyard Dogs insignia was right where Ronnie’d said it would be.

Bolo Zavala watched the house from cover, saw no signs of life behind windows boarded-up and barred. He racked a nine-millimeter round into the chamber of his double-action Llama, slid the gun into his coat pocket, then approached and knocked. The door opened a crack, a black face in shades asking, “The fuck you want?”

“Want to see Collins. Ronnie sent me.”

“Ron knows better’n sending somebody here. Do a ghost, Taco.”

Zavala put two silenced rounds into the man, pushed through the door and scanned the room: nobody else there, noises coming from a room down the hall, the sticky smell of ether. He checked the body on the floor, dragged it behind a counter stacked with boxes. Then he started for the sounds.

There were two of them: a heavy-set black man with a goatee and a fried-looking girl whose features said black and Mexican. The girl wore only underpants; scabs lined the inside of her arms. She looked up from wrapping crystallized cocaine, regarded him with hollow eyes, but said nothing. The black man was tinkering with the coils of an electric range.

“Jerome let you in here?” he said.

Zavala took in the girl’s brown nipples, her watching him vacantly. “Uh-huh. Got something for Wendell Collins. You him?”

The man glanced at a pump shotgun in the corner, then back at the visitor who was pulling a kilo-size package from his coat. He relaxed, went back to tapping the coils. “Already got suppliers, Essey. On your way out, tell Jerome I want to see him.”

Zavala tossed him the package. “Not selling garbage, pendejo. Returning it.” He brought the gun up as Collins regarded the package. “You think I’m some cherry who don’t know coke from baby lax? Aguilera never cut his shit. Makes you think I take that from some fuckin’ gangbangers just because they move in on the turf?”

Collins’ eyes got large. “Hey man, be cool with that thing. We ain’t cuttin’ no shit. Straight up. You unhappy, hey, lemme see what I can do while you take the bitch in the other room. You know, she’s real…” As he reached for the phone, it was blown out from under his hand.

With the gun, Zavala motioned the girl over closer to Collins. In Spanish he asked her, “They tell you to cut the white with menita?”

She nodded, her expression unchanged.

“What you tellin’ him?” Collins bleated. “The bitch don’t know shit, man. Jerome, get in here!”

Zavala turned to him. “You think the dope’s so good, you try it.”

“Hey, fuck you. Jerome!”

Zavala took a folding knife from his pocket, threw it down next to the kilo. “Jerome’s dead. So’s Ronnie. Now open that thing up and start eating.”

Collins undid the blade, looked at Zavala and the gun then slowly made an incision in the package.

“Wider,” Zavala said.

“You Aztecs? Malvados? Whatever, you better get your brown ass home while you still got it.”

Bolo Zavala smiled.

“Suicide what you be doin’ here, man. Junkyard Dogs don’t take no dis from nobody.”

“Wider.”

Collins thumbed open the slit, brought the package up to his face. When he lowered it, his mouth was white. “There. You happy now, muthafucker.”

“More,” Zavala said.

Wendell Collins had the package at his mouth, adulterated cocaine spilling down his front, when Zavala fired. There was an explosion of white. Collins hit the wall behind him, leaving red before bouncing off.

Zavala turned to the girl.

“Dandelion,” she said dreamily.

“What?”

“One’a them things you blow on and it goes poof. What his head looked like.” She scratched the needle tracks on her arm. “You got any heroin? I could sure use some heroin.”

“No,” he said, picking up a sealed plastic bag from Collins’ table. “This stuff pure?”

“Yes. Am I yours now?”

Bolo Zavala stuffed the bag into his coat and retrieved the knife. He shook his head. “Lo siento, hermana. Wrong place, wrong time.”

“My story.” She began to shiver; her pupils were pinpoints. As he raised the gun she turned away from him. “Just don’t hurt me, okay? Other than that, I don’t much give a shit.”

 

 

Father Martin DeSantis was worried; his meeting with the Gentes de Cuidad operations committee had not gone well. They were having renewed problems with the landlord, an unsympathetic man of Middle East extraction, and the van scheduled to pick up donations this week had been crunched in a head-on with a drunk. He was sure something could be worked out with the landlord, but the van was another matter.

Leaving the administration building for the rectory and yet another meeting—this time with the Amigos de Hermosillo ways-and-means people—Father Martin was deep into it. Hermosillo was big, no Band-Aid solutions this time, and yet it seemed only yesterday they’d opened the doors.

So much work.

He reached into his pocket, peeled a mint, popped it in his mouth. In his haste, he nearly ran down the shorter, plumper man.

“Father Martin? Excuse me,” the man said. “Paul Rodriguez, Gabriel Ortega’s cousin. If you could spare a moment, it would comfort a friend of mine who needs help.”

Separated from his thoughts, Father Martin stopped, noting the earnest expression. “Of course,” he said. Ortega? He finally gave up—there were so many now. He offered the man a candy.

“Thank you, Father,” Paul said, chewing. “We’ve donated clothing and food several times before. Do I remember correctly hearing they were meant for Hermosillo?”

“Los Amigos de Hermosillo, yes. But those things you give us go out to all of Mexico.” Father Martin smiled. “My thanks, Mr. Rodriguez—as you can imagine, we never have enough contributions.” He began walking them toward the rectory. “You have a family?”

“Just the wife and myself at home now, Father. I’m retired military.”

“And what has your friend to do with Hermosillo? Is he a part of our work down there?”

Paul shook his head. “Father, you remind me of someone—who is it? Ricardo, um…Montalban. Anybody ever said that?”

Father Martin smiled, wishing he had a dollar for every time. “Poor Montalban,” he said smiling, his standard reply. “But thank you. You were saying about your friend?”

“Yes. My friend is trying to locate someone. He was told this person had interests in Hermosillo at one time.”

“I see.”

“I was hoping you might be able to suggest some people down there I could ask. If he was still around, where he might have gone, what he’s doin’ now, things like that. My friend thinks he might’ve been there off and on going back about twenty years.”

Father Martin paused in front of a natural stone grotto. On a ledge was a statue of the Virgin appearing to a smaller figure kneeling below; a waterfall spilled over the rocks at the Virgin’s feet, past the saint, and out into a quiet garden. He fixed his gaze on the rushing water, then turned to Paul. “Names we have, Mr. Rodriguez. Perhaps this man even helped us at one time.”

Paul smiled politely. “I’d be surprised.”

Father Martin resumed their walk, Paul following in step. They passed a row of deodar cedars and headed toward a brick residence with stained glass in the door. They were almost there when Father Martin said, “You know, I visit the city rarely now, but I wonder if I might know this person.”

“My friend remembers him as something of a character. Short, with reddish hair. Had a reputation, he said.” Stopping as they reached the door: “The name is Zavala. Bolo Zavala.”

Father Martin pursed his lips. “No,” he said after a pause. “But our Amigos chairman lived there at one time, he may remember. If you wish I will speak to him.”

“If it’s no trouble, Father.”

“Another mint?”

Paul took the candy.

Father Martin had his hand on the latch when the thought struck him. “Even better—speak to Leonardo Guerra yourself, Mr. Rodriguez. He’s here every Sunday at eleven.” He checked his watch: late again, never enough time. “As for the other, see Mrs. Diaz in the administration building, tell her you talked to me. She’ll give you a list of some people to call. And now, Vaya con Dios.”

He waved a blessing, then hurried inside.

Later, in his office, he checked his afternoon, then buzzed Mrs. Diaz. “Isabel, please convey apologies to my four o’clock. I will be unable to attend the meeting after all.” He tapped the desk.

“And Isabel, dial Leonardo Guerra for me.”

 

 

Freiman’s face was a storm front.

“Here’s how it plays, Mr. Hardesty. Lieutenant Vella will show you everything we’ve gathered, plus the coroner’s report we got this morning. You then will give us your information. All parties agree in advance to share future findings as they occur. Which means that should you act independently, as Lieutenant Epstein indicates you have a penchant for, it will be grounds for serious can time to celebrate your independence from peeking through keyholes. Am I quite clear on this?”

Wil met his eyes. “Clear.”

“Consider yourself warned.” Freiman stood, announced he had another meeting, and left the room.

As Epstein got them foam-cup coffees, Vella brought a thick file up from the chair next to him. He spread a large-scale map showing the crime site and its relative location to Saddleback Butte. Then photographs.

Wil concentrated on the close-ups. Small skulls, ribs, spines brushed free of earth; rulers to lend scale; the Saint Christopher medal once in open palm and again tighter in to show the inscription.

Vella brought it out, opened the plastic bag. “Handle it if you like.”

Wil did. It felt small and rough and insignificant, not much to show for a kid’s life. He recalled Benito’s face, then focused on what Vella was saying:

“—definitely kids, all seven. Fairly young we think, impossible to tell exact age after that amount of time in the ground, which we don’t know for sure either. Only thing we do know is since sixty-seven on the one kid, and that’s assuming the medal belonged to the victim. Condition of the other bones was more or less the same, clean. No clothing, no threads, no soft tissue, no traces of blood, nothing in the surrounding soil—killed someplace else, we figure, buried about four feet down. The flood that uncovered them must have been fairly recent, though. Coroner’s anthropologist found almost no external weathering.”

He pointed to some extreme close-ups. “This nick on the front of the neck vertebrae, each skeleton had one. The coroner says knife, possibly curved from the unevenness here and here.” Vella glanced again at the report.

“The angle would indicate an upward cut from behind, like so, all of them. Whoever did it had to have been strong—much deeper and they would have been decapitated. As for motive, the sex killing stuff is media generated so far. It’s certainly possible, but from the bones we don’t know if we’ve got boys or girls or both.” He sucked in coffee, tapped a photo. “This one’s our medal kid. Like the others, no hacking or saw marks. One nick to a customer.”

Not a customer, goddammit.

“He was a nice-looking boy,” Wil put in quietly. “I saw a picture of him. I met his father.” He watched their expressions change. It was still enough to hear Epstein’s cheap watch.

“Jeezus,” Mo said finally. He took off his suit coat, slung it over a chair.

Wil went on. “Benito was payment to get his family across the border the same year as the medal, sixty-seven. They were dirt poor. The man who brought them over promised the boy would be adopted by a wealthy family. The parents believed they were doing what they had to do and the right thing for him. Obviously something went wrong.”

“Illegals would explain why we weren’t able to make dental records,” Vella said to Epstein. “What about the others, Hardesty?”

“I don’t know, but the pattern would seem to hold if nothing’s turned up. There’d be no shortage of interested buyers, judging from the stuff you read in the papers.”

“Who’s the man the parents gave the boy to?” Epstein asked.

“The name the father remembers is Zavala, first name Bolo.” Wil waited for both cops to write it down. “You’ll want to check it, but twenty years ago, he shot up three border patrolmen at Calexico, got some of his cargo killed using them as shields.” He paused again. “The kids must have been a side venture for him. Just so happened my client had no money. It was Benito or nothing.”

They drank coffee in silence.

“I’ll save you more time,” Wil continued. “Zavala worked with a man named Pacheco. Apparently they fell out, because after the shootout Pacheco wound up in the Colorado River with his throat cut.”

Epstein sat up in his chair. “You get all this from your client?”

“No,” Wil said. “This man would never have given his flesh and blood to a jackal like Zavala if he’d known what he was like. I’ve done some checking.” No sense involving Rodriguez, he reasoned.

Vella scratched his head, smoothed thinning hair. “This Zavala alive, dead, what?”

“That’s why I’m here, Lieutenant. So far nobody I’ve talked to seems to know. Or is saying.”

“Your client, why won’t he come out?”

“Selling your child in exchange for illegal entry? Funny thing is, up until last week he’d imagined Benito a successful doctor or lawyer somewhere. I’m sure you can guess how he feels now.”

Epstein bit the rim of his cup. “That would explain why nobody else has come forward. With no ID on the other bones, how would you know it was your kid out there?”

“Assuming the parents are even around,” Wil said.

Vella checked his notes again. “What about the medal? We found no chain, so the kid wasn’t wearing it. If he was killed somewhere else, he couldn’t have had it in his hand, it would have fallen out. If the killer dropped it, which I doubt, the medal could have belonged to some other kid.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, waved away smoke. “The killer himself could be named Benito.”

“You’re right except for one thing,” Wil said. “The day before Benito left with Zavala, they had a birthday party for him, his sixth. The medal was a present. Later, another kid dared him to swallow it, which he did—the father remembers spanking him for it. That’s why you found the medal where you did. It was inside him.”

Epstein flipped his cup in the trash. “Which means he was killed right afterward or it would have passed through his system. It also fixes nineteen-sixty-seven as our year.”

“April ninth,” Wil said.

“What?”

“The day he swallowed it. His birthday.”

Vella shook his head. “Makes no sense. If the kid…”

“Benito.”

“I know his name, Hardesty.”

“Then use it.”

“Fuck off. You’re here by dispensation, remember?”

“Right. Like you had so much going.”

“Come on, people,” Epstein said. “We’re on the same side here. Carl?”

Vella glowered, then spoke. “What I don’t get is, why kill Benito and the others? Delivered alive the kid means big bucks to Zavala from somebody.”

“A double-cross, maybe,” Wil said. “Money up front that Zavala splits with. Not much recourse when you’re adopting illegally.”

Epstein said, “Unless the kids were worth it to Zavala for sex. Wouldn’t be the first time.” He rubbed his forehead. “Your client remember what Zavala looked like?”

Checking his notes, Wil described Zavala for them, and they concluded with that. Vella went to brief Freiman and to turn the task force loose on the lead, telling Wil he’d let him know when something turned up. Mo Epstein accompanied Wil down the elevator into the lobby, walked him to the door.

“Really stepped in it big-time, didn’t you?” he said. “I’ll give you this, you did better than most with Freiman. Don’t take him for granted, though, he’s not nice when he’s mad.”

Wil was glad the sweat-soaked shirt under his jacket didn’t show. Or the craving for cold beer and warm shots. “Far be it from me to upset the captain,” he said over his shoulder. With the shouts of the reporters, he wasn’t sure if Mo heard him or not.