The Innocents: Part Fourteen

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TWENTY-SIX

 

Rain bent the camphor tree branches, swirled under the streetlights, danced and sheeted on the pavement. It ran off the shake roof of the big Craftsman as Wil pulled into the driveway and under the portico. Drawn curtains glowed upstairs; he could hear Guerra’s big sound system playing. He got out of the car, thumbed the safety off the .45, and held it down at his thigh.

The front door was unlocked.

He slipped inside, scanned it from a crouch. The living and dining areas were dark except for miniscule greens and reds on the stereo panel. The furnishings were lumpy shapes. Light came from the stairwell. He was halfway there, remembering the old surf admonishment about never turning your back on the ocean, when Guerra’s voice came from behind him.

“Drop the gun, please, Mr. Hardesty.”

Wil froze, estimating Guerra’s location and his chances to turn and fire.

“I am a very good shot. And you are a very large target.”

The voice was from over his left shoulder and down low. Lousy odds.

“It would be a shame to come all this way and not see your wife.”

Wil backed off the hammer, set the .45 down on the carpet. He sensed a shape rising from behind a chair, heard footsteps, smelled citrus cologne, felt the touch of a silencer at his spine.

Guerra bent down and picked up the .45. “Up the stairs and to your left, please.”

“The cops are waiting for my signal, Lenny. If they don’t get it, you can blame yourself for what happens here.”

“The very cops who are protecting me from you? Who’ll sympathize with my having to shoot to defend myself and Julio from an armed intruder? I think not, Mr. Hardesty. Now move, please.”

At the head of the stairs they turned left opposite the bedrooms, down the hall through paneled doors to a second living area with a fire going in the stone hearth. In the room was a wet bar, notched wooden beams, sconced lighting, gray leather couches and, around an inlaid game table, Windsor chairs.

It was to one of these that Lisa was bound with two-inch duct tape. A strip of it circled her head and covered her eyes; another had been put over her mouth. Her face was blotched and puffy as though having been struck. Drying blood patterned her blouse and the two swollen fingers on her right hand that bore ridged imprints.

On the table was a pair of vise-grips and a chain saw.

Wil felt a fluttering inside, as though something with wings and claws was trying to beat its way out of his ribcage. The air in the room was suddenly gone. He went to her, smoothed what hair he could off her face, kissed it, saw a tear roll from a gap in the tape. He tried removing the strip from her mouth, stopped when he saw how it hurt.

“I’m here, Leese,” he said softly. “Can you breathe all right?”

She nodded.

“You son of a bitch.” Turning to face Guerra.

“I’m glad we understand each other,” Guerra said.

“She needs a doctor. At least let me free her broken hand.”

“Later,” Guerra said. He wore an embroidered silk jacket over black trousers, held a matte-finish automatic with a silencer as long as the slide. His gray eyes went to Wil’s stitches. “You seem to have had an accident, Mr. Hardesty.”

“Next time hire a better grade of scumbag.”

“Gangbangers—losers who work without a stake in the outcome. Even at his worst Bolo was better.”

“Is that the gun you killed him with?”

Guerra sighed deeply. “Poor Bolo. I could not risk his capture, and I certainly could not permit him to leave.”

Keep him talking. Wil leaned against the table, put his hand on Lisa’s wrist, and felt for pulse. It was regular—at least she wasn’t in shock. “So you waited at the tunnel and you took him out.”

“I had a feeling his ambush would turn out the way it did. Would we even be here if his head weren’t so hard?”

“It was you who saved him at the border, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Back then Bolo was worth saving.” Guerra eased onto the arm of a couch. “He called me from a house he broke into after being shot. I was able to get him out, but he was never right after that. Morphine for the pain. Cocaine to function. Bolo made his own prison.”

“Like Martin DeSantis? He’s never been free of you either, has he?”

“Mr. Hardesty, I understand your wanting to extend this, but business calls. I want the name of the man who is paying you.”

There it was. Juice, his bargaining chip. “Sorry,” Wil said. “Client privilege. Besides, my client knows nothing beyond Zavala.”

“That may be true, but I can hardly take the chance, can I?”

Lisa moved her fingers and groaned, the sound like a scream in his ears. He went to the wet bar sink, dampened a towel, began bathing her face and neck.

“I’m curious,” Guerra said, tracking him with the gun. “What kind of a husband puts his wife in a position to be killed by a man to whom it means nothing?”

Wil kept on with the towel but felt his chest tighten, a burning in his scalp.

“I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me,” Guerra went on. “Knowing how your son died.”

Wil spun around, was steps from Guerra’s throat when Guerra fired. The gun made a flat coughing noise, and the Windsor chair near Lisa’s head disintegrated. The pistol then swung back to where Wil stood, his breath coming in gasps. Lisa was rigid, the tendons in her neck taut cables.

“Temper, Mr. Hardesty. The next one takes her head off. Now, who is paying you? Or would you rather I broke the rest of her fingers?”

Suddenly Lisa’s head dropped to her chest and her body went slack; Wil ripped the tape off her mouth, determined she was breathing, then took off his jacket and cradled her head with it.

“She’s fainted.”

Guerra picked up the vise-grips. “These will bring her around.”

“You think you can use that and still keep me off you?”

“You seem to have a death wish, Mr. Hardesty. And little concern for your wife.”

“Touch her and I’ll kill you. Shoot me, you get nothing. She can’t reveal the name because she doesn’t know it.”

“Mr. Hardesty, where I put these next bullets, you will beg to tell me.”

“Bolo supplied the kids, didn’t he? But he didn’t have the stomach to kill them. That’s your specialty, along with blackmail. Using Jennette to get at Martin. Threatening to expose him because they’re lovers. How’d you get your sister to go along—by blackmailing her, too? Or does she get a cut of what you suck out of St. Boniface?”

Seeing the color rise in Guerra’s face, Wil kept pushing. “Why isn’t she here, anyway? The sorcerer’s apprentice have a mind of her own?”

Guerra stepped forward and lashed the silencer across Wil’s face, the blow striking just below the cheekbone even though he turned with it. Pinpoints of light, bright fireworks; his face felt as though it was imploding into the cut. He touched blood, looked directly into the zinc eyes.

“How does it feel to kill a child, Lenny, let alone nine? Or haven’t you done Jessica Pacheco yet?”

A glimpse of movement at the partly open door: red pajamas, black hair, wide eyes. Guerra saw too. He backed up a step, keeping the gun on Wil’s chest. Rain peppered the glass beyond the curtain.

“I told you to stay in your room, boy.”

Julio said nothing. He was staring at Lisa.

Guerra raised his voice. “Didn’t you take your pills?”

“I still can’t sleep.”

Wil realized he’d never heard him speak before; the words were heavily accented. “I heard things,” Julio added, making no move to retreat. His eyes still were fixed on Lisa.

“Come here,” Guerra said, and when the boy came within range, slapped him hard across the face.

Julio took the blow as if he felt nothing. No hand raised to the mark, no register of pain. His gaze shifted to Guerra. “Es verdad?” he said. “Niños muertos?”

“Go to your room. We’ll discuss it later.”

Julio seemed sculpted. Then he shook his head slowly.

Guerra was about to strike him again, but stopped. “Very well,” he said. “We will do this together, you can help. Down the hall, Mr. Hardesty. The second door on the right.”

“Your guardian’s a murderer, Julio. A killer of children.”

Guerra put his left hand on the boy’s neck. “These are bad people, they need to be taught a lesson. Now move, Mr. Hardesty, or watch her die.” The gun came level with Lisa’s eyes.

Wil made a decision to play for time. Backing down the hall, he kept his eyes on Julio. “You don’t owe him this, you know. If you’re a witness, he’ll have to kill you, too.”

“Julio has every reason to obey. Don’t you, boy?”

“He’s going to shoot me to get me to tell him things. Then he’ll start again on my wife. When we’re dead, he’ll have you cut us up with the chain saw.” He couldn’t tell if the boy had heard; his look was distant, and he was swallowing rapidly.

Guerra said, “Julio, go to my room and turn on the water.”

“Don’t do it. Run. Call 911.”

“Do as I say.”

Julio brushed past, and Wil heard the sound of water rushing. Then Wil was at the doorway and through it into Guerra’s bedroom, standing on the black marble apron of the fast-filling spa.

“Cleaner this way,” Guerra said, pulling the boy over beside him. “You were quite right to insist on this, Julio, your education comes first. And you needn’t look like that. Mr. Hardesty has caused us a great deal of trouble.”

Wil homed in on the boy’s eyes, saw something there, with luck what he hoped: Lenny, Key West, 1949. Boys intimidated. Unspecified charges.

“It’s all right not to care about me, but what about you? You like what he does to you, what he’s doing now? You let this happen and there’s no escape, no hope. Just more of it.”

Julio’s shoulders sagged, and Wil knew he’d hit home. “Think, Julio: How long before he kills you for a ten-year-old?”

Guerra smoothed his mustache. “You will step down, Mr. Hardesty. Boy, pay attention to where I put the first round.”

It wasn’t much: a bleat and a grab at the arm, but Julio’s move distracted Guerra long enough for Wil to complete his lunge. He grabbed, got a grip around the silencer, and hung on. Guerra ripped off three harmless shots, Wil feeling their heat before catching Guerra with an elbow to the throat. He twisted hard; the gun clattered on the marble, then they were in the tub, a single roiling, thrashing mass that bumped and skidded off the spa’s contours. Wil freed an arm, drove punches into Guerra’s middle, but without purchase they were feeble; he felt Guerra’s jaws close to his face, fingernails clawing at his eyes. He managed to get a hand around one of the fingers then, wrench it back until it snapped. Guerra screamed, and in that instant Wil shoved his head under, knew Guerra had inhaled water from the changed nature of his struggles—fighting now for air. But the slick tub offered no leverage, and Wil banged Guerra’s head on the bottom until the man went slack.

He got a knee then a foot under him and yanked Guerra’s head up from the water. Gasping, he push-dragged the limp form up and over the marble lip, shut off the taps, and slumped back against the bed.

Gradually he was aware of Julio holding the gun. Pointing it at him.

Wil extended his hand. There was a moment when he wondered which way it was going to go, and then Julio put the automatic in it.

Wil nodded, still out of breath. “Gracias,” he said, finally.

Julio said nothing, just fixed on the unconscious figure leaking reddish water on the marble, then sank to the edge of the bed, elbows on his knees, head down.

Wil stood slowly. “My wife—she thanks you too.”

No response.

“What you did was right, son. Sometimes that’s not easy.”

Wil left him there and went down the hall to the big room. With his pocket knife he carefully cut the rest of the tape off a still-out Lisa, then put her on the couch, raised her feet, wrapped bar ice in the towel, and touched it to her face. When she groaned, he laid her damaged hand on it.

Next he dialed Mo Epstein, caught him coming home late from an officer-involved shooting—deputies responding to a carjacking, one dead, one wounded. Mo said he’d send people, come himself, get an ambulance for Lisa.

She stirred on the couch. “Wil—?”

He went to her, told her what happened. “It’s over, partner. You were incredible.”

“I never faint—”

“You held out Reyes from Guerra. I’m not sure I could have.”

She took a deep breath. “I told him things you’d found out. Tried to act scared. When I said I didn’t know the name, he believed me—”

He hugged her, felt her wince from it. “I’m sorry, Leese. It’s all my fault.”

“Our fault.”

He held her, eased her back on the cushions. Then he went to check on Guerra and Julio.

Both had moved. The boy was on the floor, fists clenched, knees pulled up under his chin. His pajamas were soaking wet in spots and he was trembling as he stared at Lenny Guerra, who now lay facing the ceiling from the bottom of the spa. Guerra’s hair floated languidly out from his head and his eyes were partway open as though he were trying to awaken from a dream. One of his shoes lay on its side on the black marble.

Wil went to Julio’s bedroom and got a robe, which he put around the boy’s shoulders. Then he knelt down next to Julio. “Listen to me. He came to, tried to get up, slipped, and hit his head. You tried to save him but couldn’t. The rest of it is our secret. Are we clear on that?”

“He—made me do things. In the tub and—”

“He can’t hurt you anymore.”

“They’ll send me back.”

“Julio, I need your help now. I need you to stay with my wife, take care of her while I do something. She’s very important to me. Do you understand?”

Slowly Julio nodded.

“Friends are coming, a man named Epstein, who knows what happened except for how he fell back in the water. You tell him, okay? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Julio looked away and began to blink rapidly.

“It’ll be fine,” Wil said. “I promise.”

 

TWENTY-SEVEN

 

St. Boniface loomed ahead in the rain—damned lucky with the way he’d driven. Gutter runoff thumped in the rental’s wheelwells as he made the turn into the parking lot; raindrops looked like falling snow in the floods illuminating the church. It was almost one.

The white Camry was in a far corner of the lot. Wil braked beside it, saw no one inside, then tried the church doors and found them shut tight. On the lawn the big tent was flapped and dark and sounded hollow as the rain tattooed it. He checked each building, but no light shone in administration or the rectory. As he turned back toward the church, sodden grass squished underfoot.

Dammit, where were they?

The scream was so faint that at first he thought it must have been a night bird seeking shelter. Until it came again, more distinct this time, and he saw a sliver of light at a window above the sanctuary. He tried the side door: no luck.

He circled the church, found the door to the sacristy unlocked, entered a room with vestments, cabinets, drawers, the smell of incense, a single light burning. Closing the door behind him, he drew the .45, cocked it, eased toward the sounds of fighting that were coming from the open door to the sanctuary.

Where he stopped.

Poinsettias and mums from the special Mass had been knocked down and trampled; near the altar, unlit candles lay scattered, the broken tapers so many pick-up-sticks. Carpet runners undulated like sea serpents.

Shadows became human. Martin DeSantis. Jennette Contreras raging:

“Why—won’t—you—under—stand!”

It was as if they were dancing: Father Martin in his black cassock leading Jennette—teeth bared—in a violent waltz as the sanctuary flame flickered and the agonized Christ looked down.

“Let—me—go!”

Another candelabra fell. The two figures caromed off the altar where Jessica Pacheco lay motionless. Jennette let loose another scream; in her hand was a long, curved knife, held there by Martin’s grip on her wrist. She kicked, snapped at him, cursing now in some language Wil couldn’t make out.

Martin DeSantis saw him coming. He managed a desperate-sounding “Hurry” just before Jennette broke his hold on her wrist and arced the knife downward. There was a sound of fabric tearing and DeSantis fell back, grabbing at his arm. Red showed brightly through the rip.

Jennette Contreras made a frenzied lunge toward the altar.

“No!” Father Martin’s cry was hoarse with exertion. Wil leaped between Jennette and the child; Jennette raised the knife and leered at him. Her voice was shrill, compressed:

“Kneel, disbeliever, the child is His. Menga para Chawa Uve.” She charged.”Hijo de Olosi! Muerte para los enemigos de Chawa!”

The knife came close enough to feel its wind; Wil gave ground, then timed a jab and slammed the gun against her forehead. Jennette Contreras crumpled. He kicked the knife away, checked to see the baby was unharmed, then felt Jennette’s neck for pulse. He faced Martin DeSantis.

“She’ll live. You?”

The priest nodded, gasping. Blood ran down his arm and onto the carpet. Wil found a stole in the sacristy and wrapped it tight around the wound. The stream became a trickle, then stopped.

“I’d forgotten how strong she is,” Father Martin said, almost to himself.

“I was wrong,” Wil said. “I had Lenny for the murders, with Jennette helping him blackmail you.”

Martin DeSantis held his arm. His face was the color of ash.

Wil went on, “Until I got what he was blackmailing you for.” He reached into his pocket and handed over Anita Espinosa’s bracelet.

DeSantis took the bracelet and looked at the inscription, then sagged heavily against the altar rail. “You seem—reasonable, Mr. Hardesty,” he said at length. “Someone who would not knowingly instigate tragedy.”

“Go to the law, you mean,” Wil said.

“Destroy something that is of benefit to a great many.”

Wil looked around St. Boniface, seeing Benito Reyes’s eyes, his drumsticks poised to play.

“An open mind is all I ask,” Father Martin continued. “You’ll listen to what I have to say?”

“Don’t expect any miracles of faith.” Wil wiped rainwater off his face; his wet hair was starting to feel cold. Beyond the circle of light, empty pews became darkness.

“You understand the term babalawo?”

“No.”

“I was ten when I became babalawo to my people. It means high priest. You know what that meant to a worshipper of Chawa?”

“I can imagine.”

“The power of life and death. Vida para vida.”

“Anita Espinosa,” Wil said.

“Chawan tradition is the way of the blood and not quickly washed away.” He turned the bracelet in his bloody fingers. “Anita Espinosa is my sin and my shame, Mr. Hardesty. A sacrifice meant to obtain one last favor from Him—to smile upon my upcoming endeavor with the Catholics. Since then, everything I’ve done has been to atone, though nothing ever will.”

Nuances: sanity and madness, saint and sinner, roads chosen versus those compelled; Wil corralled his thoughts. “Lenny must have gotten quite a kick out of putting a Chawa idol in your office.”

“Perhaps. But I made it remind me of what I chose.”

“What about Jennette?”

Martin DeSantis focused on the sanctuary lamp. “She helped me hold Anita while I used Lenny’s knife—”

“Lenny wasn’t even there?”

“No. We’d had a fight and Lenny was…with someone. His passions never included Chawa anyway—even in Cuba.”

It was like having the piece that defied you suddenly fit the puzzle, the last key twist in the lock. “Two outsiders against the world,” Wil said. “Lenny was in love with you back then, wasn’t he? It’s how he could do all this to you now, use you. To him the money’s been secondary, he was rich when he came here. But you threw him over for his sister, then you left them both for this. No wonder he hated you. Saving his life with that alibi was only what you owed him.”

“Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, Mr. Hardesty.”

“So are his revenge and your ambition.”

A twinge of pain crossed the priest’s features, and he adjusted the tourniquet. “After I left Key West, Jennette was never the same, he told me. Slipping in and out of reality, worsening over the years, imagining herself my priestess. All this time Lenny’s protected her.”

“While she killed the Innocents.”

Martin DeSantis sighed heavily. “They were for me, all of them. Sacrificed to Chawa so the charitable missions of St. Boniface would succeed. Seven missions, seven sacrifices.”

“With Jessica intended for Los Amigos.”

“Yes.”

Wil felt a wave of fatigue. “Seven dead children—damn near eight—to bless the work of a man of God.”

“The irony is not lost on me, Mr. Hardesty.”

On the altar, Jessica Pacheco stirred. Wil took off his jacket, covered her with it. “Why risk bringing her here?” he said.

“Jennette is not well. She told me she thought it would give us what we once had—what her aunt robbed us of by sending me off to Baltimore. Tonight she waited until everyone had left. I’d been up praying for the little one.”

Wil sat on the altar steps and massaged his hurting knee. “At what point did you learn about the others?”

“I am not a monster, Mr. Hardesty.”

“Maybe. But Jennette did this because she still loved you—from the beginning she’d have wanted you to know. Explain to me how turning a blind eye to murder is doing penance for Anita Espinosa?”

Jennette Contreras snorted, then raised up and looked wildly around before curling into a tight, rocking ball from which whimpering sounds emitted. Martin DeSantis shook his head.

“God help us. She wrote me notes after each one,” he said. “Rambling explanations, deeply disturbed. Lenny kept them from me until one day after we’d quarreled.”

“Yet you said nothing.”

“Try to imagine how I felt, Mr. Hardesty, what was at stake. What would it have accomplished except to tear apart everything I’d worked for, create more innocent victims of poverty and despair?”

“How about your silence almost got another child killed tonight? How’s that one feel?”

“He promised me he’d keep her under control.”

“Lenny knew all along what she was doing. And you trusted him to keep his word after he’d allowed seven children to die?”

The priest’s eyes drifted to Jennette. “She was his sister. Despite her condition, he refused to have her institutionalized. Covering up was a small price to pay, is how he put it.”

“And Julio?”

“No matter what you think, he’s better off than when Lenny found him.” Martin DeSantis looked at his arm, flexed the fingers. “Leonardo Guerra made St. Boniface, Mr. Hardesty, I told you that before. Somehow he found me here, me with big plans and no way to make them happen. Well, he figured out the way. Tonight we took in nearly three million dollars in pledges.”

“Of which he gets what—twenty percent, a third? Easy when you control the finances.”

“Whatever Lenny holds out is bread on the water. What he does for St. Boniface is all that matters.”

“You knew he ordered Paul Rodriguez killed, the kind of a man he was. But why rock the boat—money pouring in from the donors, from Niños.”Wil brushed away seep from the cut on his face. “How does it feel to be a Guerra enterprise?”

The priest straightened. “Do you realize how many men, women, and children we help each year? The suffering we alleviate? The unloved and unwanted given new hope and life? Extraordinary achievements are worth extraordinary measures. Surely you can see that.”

“The greater good again.”

“Exactly. Paul Rodriguez said you’d been in Vietnam. You must have known innocent children were dying there, yet you participated, I assume for the greater good. Do you get my point?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“I’m asking you only to be reasonable, Mr. Hardesty.”

“To walk away.”

“You know what we do here, how high the regard for it. The demand. Let Anita and the others live on in the work. That’s how I came to terms. For me it was either that or go insane.”

“Your work here is the only reason I came alone, Father. I kept hoping I was wrong, that you’d sort it out for me—happy ending or something. That maybe you weren’t in league with the devil and the greater good is really what it sounds like instead of what people like you twist it into. How many more kids were you prepared to let die?”

“Don’t you see? From now on there will be only children saved. As for Jennette, I know places where she’ll be cared for. Discreet places. After this, Lenny will go along.”

From the altar, Jessica Pacheco gasped and started to cry.

“I see,” Wil said. He stood up stiffly and went to her, picked her up and held her, was aware of her heart beating against his chest, her warmth and the smell of baby shampoo. “Lenny Guerra’s dead, Father. To hell with discreet. And to hell with you.”

 

 

They were gone now: Jessica and Donna Pacheco, Jennette Contreras, Martin DeSantis, the cops except for Epstein and Freiman. Paramedics had taken Lisa to the hospital for observation and tests preparatory to having her hand operated on later that morning. On the phone she’d sounded dulled from painkillers, but holding.

As Freiman paced, Wil checked his watch: almost five. The rain had stopped, although hollow plunks still came from a gutter somewhere. Gray was beginning to show in the windows, the stained glass figures in monochrome. In the right front pew, Julio tightened his grip on the cassock covering him, his breathing audible from the altar steps where Wil and Mo Epstein sat.

“Congratulations, Mr. Hardesty,” Freiman said. “You managed to cross me and still come out smelling like a rose.” A candle snapped under his foot. “You know how much I’d like to see you selling heating oil in North Dakota?”

“I have some idea, Captain.”

Freiman pulled on his trench coat, jammed his hands in the pockets. “Your kind stink. You play it fast and loose with the rules, risk everything, and give it all a bad name. Maybe this time you grease through. But get this: Whenever I can put an asterisk by your name or a red flag in a file or a black mark on a request, consider it done. And try bending a law sometime. You read?” His coat flapped as he turned and left.

“Means you impressed him,” Mo said finally.

“Pretty obvious.”

Mo nodded. “What about the boy?”

“I’m working on it.”

“You have an idea?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Sad we couldn’t bottle that look on Donna Pacheco’s face, we’d make a fortune. She sure dumped off some pounds. Not a bad looker underneath it all.”

Wil replayed joyous shrieks that still echoed.

Mo looked around. “Nice time to be in a church,” he said. “Quiet.”

Wil nodded.

Mo said, “They turned up some things at Jennette’s, stuff you missed. Dried blood, effects from the victims. Enough to prove they were killed there.”

“Anything to ID the kids?”

“Lab people thought no, but they’re giving it a shot. Where’s this put Zavala, you think?”

“Guerra had him in a vise for killing those federal agents at Calexico in ’71,” Wil said. “Not to mention saving Bolo’s life. Over the years he’d have ordered Bolo to bury the bodies in the desert per Jennette’s instructions. Guerra probably found it amusing that Bolo’s kid was going to be number eight. My guess is he tried to sell Jessica first, then gave her to Jennette when she proved to be too hot.”

Mo pulled out a handkerchief, ran it over his face. “Still not without risk. Why didn’t Guerra just stop her if it meant nothing to him?”

“Each one she killed twisted the knife deeper into DeSantis, bound him to Guerra a little tighter. Worth it to him, I suppose.”

“Anything so long as the money kept flowing. Speaking of which—”

“Earlier I talked to a guy named Warren Sumner—church counsel. The dust needs to lift a bit before he knows whether the work will survive intact. That and a few prayers.” Wil bent forward, elbows on his knees. “What did you take DeSantis in for?”

“Questioning for now,” Mo answered. “Conspiracy and/or adoption fraud later—depends on what the DA decides. You want a guess, they’ll probably let the church handle it. Some nice parish in Siberia.”

“And Anita Espinosa?”

“That old a murder—the lone witness a crazy? Be up to who’s in office down there. Still, the bracelet may be enough for some hotshot to build a case around. As for the Innocents, we got Jennette, Guerra, and Zavala. Nobody here’s gonna want to put Father Martin in jail. What’ll bring him down is his association with them.”

“With Guerra and Jennette anyway,” Wil said. “I doubt he had much to do with Zavala.”

Behind them in the sacristy there were noises; an altar boy poked his head out, saw them and the disarray, and retreated.

Mo stood up. “It’s all right, son. We’re gone.” He turned to Wil. “I tell you good work? You hung in. Now come on, they want to open for business.”

Wil looked around. As he did the boy came out and was joined by another—two scrubbed-looking blond kids in black and white. They started cleaning up the mess.

Watching them made something resonate inside, a chord that brought to mind a time when the questions and answers were simple. “You go,” he said with a glance at Julio. “I think we’ll stick around for the six-o-clock.”

 

TWENTY-EIGHT

 

Mass was over by six-forty, Lisa not due in surgery till eleven. Wil called Ignacio Reyes, apologized for the hour, and told him they needed to talk, explaining that he’d be bringing a friend along. On the way, he and Julio stopped for coffee and scrambled eggs, then headed out again, feeling somewhat revitalized. The morning was bright and sunny after the storm, no clouds showing and a north wind shaking the last of the rain from the trees. L.A. sparkled; the foothills were green with new growth. Already it was warm enough for Wil to crack his window as they drove.

Instead of talking, they listened to Christmas carols on the car radio. Julio fought it, but his head was against the rest when Wil finally parked the rental in front of the big white house. The boy stretched and yawned, then they were squishing wet leaves up the pebbled walk.

Ignacio Reyes answered the bell. Man and boy shared a handshake, then Reyes asked in Spanish if Julio would like to use the pool while he and Mr. Hardesty talked. Julio’s eyes lit up, but he glanced at Wil before accepting. Marta found him a suit and Wil a fresh bandage for his cut, then Reyes closed the office doors.

It took an hour to explain.

“There is still the matter of Julio,” Wil said after he’d finished. It hung there in the silence until Wil wasn’t sure if Reyes had heard. Reyes finished his coffee and walked to the window; for a minute he watched the boy dive and climb out, shake off and dive again. Little waves threw sunlight around the patio and into the quiet room.

“What will happen to him?” Reyes said, his eyes fixed outside.

“Quién sabe.” Wil said.

The old man sighed and turned from the glass. “What you are thinking is impossible.”

“Like all this, not so long ago.” Wil rubbed day-old beard. “You’re right, I’m sure. But it occurred to me you had more restaurants than sons. And a pool that never splashed.” His eyes felt grainy with fatigue. “We’ll be leaving now,” he said. “I’ll send you an accounting.”

Reyes turned back to the window. “What will you do with him?”

“Keep him with us, I suppose. Until his immigration hearings.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said. “No promises. Now, what about your wife?”

Wil told him about the operation.

“Send me the bill,” Reyes said; then, after a pause, “and leave the boy with me while you take care of her. Papa Gomez is respected at the INS. Standing up for him is the least I can do.”

A smile started that Wil was too tired to finish. “You’ll let me know when you want me there?”

“Of course.”

Wil’s hand was on the knob when Reyes stopped him. “One thing I have thought about, Mr. Hardesty. I want Benito.”

“I understand. So far, you’re unknown to the police,” Wil said. “You’re aware of what it may mean to come forward?”

“I want my son.”

“Then I’ll find out about it and have a man call. Lieutenant Epstein.”

Ignacio Reyes stood straight and nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

“Another name, a good man.” Wil found Montoya’s card in his wallet and handed it to Reyes. “He’ll show you the grave should you wish. Gilberto asked about it once.”

 

 

Julio followed him out to the car, got in, eyed him solemnly from the passenger seat as Wil explained that he’d be staying with Reyes for a while.

“What will happen to me?” he asked, biting his lip.

“Good things,” Wil said. “Already you’ve made three friends. You can take the train up to visit us. Go surfing, have fun. We have a room where you can sleep. A boy’s room.”

Julio’s eyes dropped. “I see things. Señor’s face in the water and the air coming out of him. Will they go away?”

“Yes. Maybe not right away, but in time. How soon depends on what you let in. Look at me, Julio. People are grateful for what you did. It seems to me that one of them should be you.”

The boy thought a second, then nodded.

“Thank you for my life,” Wil said.

Julio got out and shut the door; one hand rose in a quiet wave as Wil made a U-turn and drove away. Through a gust of Chinese elm leaves, Wil could see him following the car with his eyes.

 

 

He caught the freeway to Pasadena, made good time in the thinned-out Monday commuter traffic. The hospital was the same one he’d received treatment in after going down on the Harley. He parked in the near-full lot, checked in at the nurses station, walked past the Christmas cards standing at attention on the counter. He figured he had a half-hour with Lisa before she was due in the operating room.

She was sitting up in bed reading a magazine. She had a shiner under one eye and her right hand was swathed in white; she was turning pages with her left. As he held it, he told her about St. Boniface, what Donna Pacheco had sounded like, about Father Martin, Jennette, Julio, and Ignacio Reyes. Then the doctor came in. After a short briefing on the anesthetic she’d be getting, an attendant wheeled her down the hall.

Wil went downstairs to the gift shop, bought flowers for her room, then stamps and an envelope into which he slipped a check for a thousand dollars, addressing it to 542 Hibiscus Place. He then wrote a second check for the remaining bonus—his Zavala money from Reyes—wrapped a thank-you note to Raeann Rodriguez around it, and put both envelopes in the mail drop.

Four hours later, he was awakened by a touch on the arm. As the waiting room came into focus, he saw the doctor, still in his greens, mask hanging down.

“First of all, Mr. Hardesty, your wife is fine,” he said. “Despite some splintering of the bone, I think we can expect only minor inhibition of the range of movement in those fingers.”

Something else. Or was it him, his groggy state—sinus pressure he always got sleeping around air conditioning? “If she’s okay, Doc, then why the look?”

The doctor regarded him, then cleared his throat. “Unfortunately, she miscarried in surgery. We stopped the bleeding, but it’s a good thing it happened here.”

Wil had a sensation like the room tilting, of freon pumping in his veins. “Miscarried—”

“While we were closing up.” Seeing Wil’s expression, the doctor added, “I’m very sorry. It’s apparent you didn’t know about the pregnancy.”

 

 

Late sun bounced off the stainless-steel cover on the untouched food they’d brought him, then faded from the wall, the ceiling, and finally the window glass. Wil stared out at the headlights coming on, traffic filling the lanes in waves generated by signals up the street. The mountains behind Altadena were deeply shadowed under a last splash of pink light at the top. Sterile air hissed softly from the vents.

Approximately two months old, the fetus had been—a boy, the doctor revealed when pressed. Telling him also that Lisa had been given two units of blood and would be weak for a while but projected to go home tomorrow if she passed inspection. Follow-up, medication, etc., could be discussed then. Get some sleep, he suggested; with the sedation she might be out awhile.

“Wil—” The sound of her voice broke into snap-click thoughts ranging from Devin in life and death, to his mother and father, to all the things he’d do differently if he could, the self-serving, self-pitying ass he’d been to any and everybody, especially Lisa. To almost losing her, then this. Sadness like a spasm in the soul; guilt that he hadn’t been man enough for her to tell him the truth.

He went to her, kissed her, held the straw for her, watched her as though he’d never seen her drink before.

“Feel so weak…” she said, her eyes filling up. “So sorry. I was going to tell you…”

A peppery feeling spread out from back in his throat and threatened to engulf him. “It’s okay, Leese. Just be okay. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“My fault. I wanted another one so badly. Another us.”

“You still want that, partner?”

“Takes two…Not the way I did it.”

She was drifting now; he squeezed her hand. “I know, Leese,” he said. “That I do know.”

She smiled at him and her eyes closed, and she mumbled something about tomorrow he didn’t quite catch. Then she was asleep, her breathing steady, and suddenly his heart felt buoyed, as filled with light as the moon beginning to show through the swaying eucalyptus trees out beyond his reflection.

 

The End