The Innocents: Part Nine

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SIXTEEN

 

Wil waited until they’d finished breakfast to explain about the danger; afterward, in the silence, he took her hand. “I just think it would be a good idea for you to stay with your parents. A few days, Leese. Till Zavala’s finished.”

Lisa looked at him. “This is our house, Wil.”

“I know. But this is different, that must be obvious.”

“Nobody can find La Conchita,” she joked, “even our friends. I don’t want to leave. What I want to do is help.”

“You’ll be helping by leaving.”

“No, I’ll be running away. There must be something I can do.”

He was in no mood. “Zavala knows who I am, Lisa—for Christ’s sake, he called me by name as he was cutting Paul’s throat. How hard would it be for him to find me? Or you?” He got up and went out on the balcony.

She followed, brushed back hair the breeze had swept across her face as they stood looking at the ocean. “What about your friend Mo Epstein—police protection and all that?”

“My point exactly.”

“What did he say?” His hesitation was her entree: “Have you even discussed it with him?”

“I have my reasons, all right?”

“I know you,” she said finally. “You want Zavala to find you. You want to square this thing with Paul the hard way, kill or be killed. And what do I do, just smile while the bullets fly?” She turned to face him. “You’re scaring me, you know. We’ve already lost one member of this family.”

He gripped the railing. “Thanks to me, you mean.”

“Did I say that? If you still feel blame I’m sorry, but it changes nothing.”

He calmed down with deep breaths.

She said, “What happened with Devin is over, but I can’t go through it twice. If something happens to you, it happens to me. You think about that.”

“Look, I’m not trying to be the Lone Ranger. But I can’t just leave this thing to somebody else.” He gathered her in, kissed her. “I’ll be careful.”

“And you’ll think about how I can help in this?”

“Yes,” he lied. “Right now though, you can help most by doing me that favor.”

“All right.” She moved against him and they stood a minute at the rail. Then she led him into the bedroom and they made love very slowly, forgetting the distance between them, the danger, everything—cooling off afterward in a pool of winter sunlight that lay across the tangle.

Later, as he helped her pack a few things, he made up something about his schedule being iffy so she’d take Edward. Loading the cage, he promised again to be careful and to call every night. Then he kissed her, and she was gone.

From the window he watched the black coupe shoot north past the Rincon and disappear, thinking that she was right, of course. His hunger for blood was as real as the taste of copper pennies on the tongue.

 

 

Vella came on the line after a slight delay. Not much new: Epstein was home and expected back Monday, the stitches holding, his concussion effects receding. Wil would call him later; for now he had other business.

“Who should I talk to in Lancaster?” he asked. “I want to see the graves.”

“Whatever,” Vella said.

Wil took down the information, made the Antelope Valley sheriff’s station in just over two hours; from there they took Sergeant Montoya’s Blazer. Montoya was a big man: fortyish, two-twenty, Wil figured, tall for a Hispanic. Eyes deeply lined at the corners.

“Got the word you were in on this. How so?”

“Cost of doing business,” Wil told him. “Still, I appreciate the time. Thanks.”

Montoya nodded. They headed east toward Saddleback Butte, passing block after block of housing tracts in varying stages of development. “Take a good look,” Montoya said. “Pretty soon you won’t be able to see the damn desert. I grew up out here, watched this shit taking over. They build an airport like they’re talking about, you might as well put these Joshua trees in a museum.”

“Growing like crazy, all right.”

“And the crime rate right along with it,” Montoya said sourly.

They drove, finally escaping the sprawl. Off to the right the mountains showed a hemline of snow; where they were, the clouds roamed like tumbleweeds. Pools of sunshine darted among the shadows.

“Vella said you supervised the gravesite.”

Montoya nodded, easing around a cyclist. “Till Homicide took over. Man and his son found ’em, at least the first one. As light got better, we found the second. Then another one, and another, and pretty soon seven. Eerie, like they were growin’ there.”

They passed the butte; Montoya found a gravel turnoff and headed north. “A flash flood uncovered ’em,” he said, “once-in-a-blue-moon thing. Whoever did the burying was smart, dug where the developers wouldn’t be—at least not in this century.” Another turnoff and a couple of miles in, they bumped to a stop.

“Now we walk,” said Montoya.

Minutes later Wil spotted the yellow crime-scene tape. Far away a storm thundered; wind blew cold off the snow; a flicker hammered at a dead Joshua tree. Following Montoya, he dropped down a shallow embankment and approached the site.

“First one was here,” said Montoya, pointing, “the kid with the medal. The second was over there. I don’t recall how the rest went. Somethin’, huh?”

Wil nodded. The scene looked like a mining operation, gridded out with stakes, lines, and fluttering markers. The top layer of soil had been lifted off; graves, enlarged in the search for clues, were now just depressions. At the perimeter, among creosote and sage, debris lay piled on stony ground.

He kicked a rock, imagining the killer here: digging, a small form lowered, earth replaced, footsteps leaving. One by one he wandered the graves, wondering who the other children were and why. He asked Montoya and got a question back.

“You have kids, Mr. Hardesty?”

Simpler to say no, so he did.

“This must seem bad to you, but it’s worse with kids. I’ve got four—can’t imagine what I’d do if something like this happened.” Montoya picked up a piece of quartz and chucked it, following its flight with his eyes. “I bleed for the parents, whoever they are.”

He turned back to Wil. “As to your question, I don’t know. Sex maybe, pedophiles kill sometimes. Pretty clean, though, for sex murders.” He lifted and resettled his hat. “What worries me is what’s been goin’ on in the meantime.”

“Meaning?”

“Serial killers usually don’t stop—they keep at it, like an addiction. How many more, I wonder, since these?”

A dust devil formed, stinging them with sand. As they watched it whirl away, Montoya said, “I’d like to get my hands on the sucker. What’s a kid ever done to anybody?”

Wil blew on his hands. “Could somebody with kids do this?”

“Yes and no. Sometimes a parent does his family and makes a run for it. More often it’s murder-suicide, breaking-point cases. Personally, I can’t see anybody who’s had a child killing one, let alone seven. Especially like this.” Montoya shook his head. “Fuckin’ thing’s scary, it’s so cold.”

They poked around awhile longer, then Montoya was out of time—the sun would be down in another hour, and he had reports waiting. Wil was reluctant without knowing why, but he followed, turning back once. Shadowed now, the graves looked grim and sad and overwhelmed by the vastness of desert.

“God,” he said to no one.

 

 

Mo Epstein was on the couch with his feet up, full of game shows and Ibuprophen. His head was shaved in back, exposing an ugly line of black stitches.

Wil opened the pint of Jack Daniels he’d picked up leaving Lancaster and poured Epstein a snort. “Nice place,” he said looking around the condo.

“Better living through pressboard,” Epstein said. He watched Wil pop open a 7UP. “Can’t tempt you, huh?”

“One’s too many, a hundred not enough. Thanks anyway.”

“How’s Raeann Rodriguez?”

“Thinking about visiting her son in Texas, who should be arriving today. Be good for her to get away for a while. The house is full of Paul.”

“Just retired, hadn’t he?”

“Couple of years ago.”

“Shit. I sent flowers—anything else I can do, you let me know.” Epstein raised his drink. “He was a good man. I’d like a piece of the guy who did him.”

They drank to that.

“Anything on Zavala from your end?”

Wil shook his head, told him about the threat, of packing off Lisa.

“Vella know about it?”

Wil tilted the soft-drink can.

“Jesus Christ,” Mo said. “You are not thinking what I think you are.”

“He’ll come and I’ll be waiting,” Wil said.

“Just you and your bird and that goddamn warhorse gun.”

Wil looked at him. “Bird’s gone. Just the warhorse.”

“Don’t be stupid. That’s why God made cops, remember? Let me order you some extra firepower.”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Well, fuck me,” Mo said. “Never mind my ass is on the line, never mind you made a deal. You’re already one strike down with Freiman, you know. Vella told me how he felt about Rodriguez.” He knocked back a gulp of whiskey and had to hold his head. In a moment he recovered.

“I suggest you reconsider, pal. By the way, Vella said to tell you that Niños de Mexicois an office in West L.A.” He consulted his notebook, copied a page, handed it over.

Wil noted the West Olympic address, thinking it must be almost to Santa Monica or close.

“Vella had some people over there today,” Epstein said. “They do adoptions, homeless kids from Mexico. Referrals only.” He rubbed the glass on his forehead. “Somehow it wasn’t on the list of agencies the team checked out after the Innocents broke. None of the directories had it, he said.”

“Legit?”

“Apparently. Vella said they turned over files from sixty-six, seven, and eight—what the investigators have been asking for.”

Wil downed the last of his 7UP and stood to go.

“Wait, you’ll miss the most interesting part. Guess who owns Niños de Mexico?”

“C’mon, Mo, I’m beat.”

“Yeah? Try Leonardo Guerra on for size.”

 

SEVENTEEN

 

New questions, old ones rephrased, panning for gold in worked-out tailings: The truth was he didn’t know where else to go this early. Besides, it was relatively close to the motel where he’d stayed after locating the Niños building last night.

Five-forty-two Hibiscus Place hadn’t changed. The porch still drooped, the paint peeled, the garbage stank, and the freeway traffic tore by as though trying not to notice. Next door, a boy of about five pulled his screaming sister in a battered wagon. Seeing the tall man, brother stopped pulling and sister quieted to a sniffle. They stared a moment, then the boy yelled at Wil.”Hey!”

“Hey, yourself, kid.” Wil said, grinning. “Lo mismo a usted.” Slowly the boy turned the wagon around, began pulling sister up the block. She looked around a final time, then began to yell half-heartedly.

Wil stepped up on the porch and knocked, waited, knocked louder. Eyeing the street, seeing no one, he tried the screen and found it hooked. He peered inside: dust hovering in a shaft of morning sun, shapes beginning to form through the dirty screen. Wrong shapes. He slipped a knife blade into the crack, lifted the hook out of its eye, and opened the door, hand under his leather field jacket.

The house looked hurricane-hit: chairs tipped over, fiesta dancers with their petticoats torn. Lamps were broken, pictures floored, drops of blood spattered like obscene rain. He drew the .45, moved slowly to the kitchen, found it similarly trashed. The back door was deadbolted; whoever had been there had likely gone out that way. Or was still inside. From the kitchen he could see into the bathroom: empty. Past a couple of the dancers, the bedroom door was open a crack.

Wil crossed the room on the balls of his feet; worn flooring squeaked. At the bedroom doorframe he listened intently.

Labored breathing, ragged snores.

Flat against the frame, he pushed open the door from the hinge side, glanced, withdrew, ducked, looked again. She was lying face-up on the bed—at least he assumed it was Donna Pacheco. There was caked blood around her flattened nostrils. Her lips were huge, her eyes purple and swollen. She had a cut above her eyebrow and another on her chin.

Wil checked the closet, holstered the gun, got a glass of water and a towel; when he returned, she was starting to make quiet hurt sounds. He wet the towel from the glass and dabbed her forehead.

She jerked awake.

“Hardesty, Donna. I was here a few days ago.” He propped her up with pillows, dabbed the worst of the blood off, covered her with a robe from the closet. In a cupboard he found budget whiskey with a dreg left and managed to get some down her.

“You have a doctor?” He looked around for the phone.

“No ’octer,” she attempted. “I be hine. Hy you here?”

Wil remembered about her throat. “Frankie do this?”

She laughed—a gurgled cough. “Hrankie’s hawn.”

“Gone?”

She nodded, tried again, frustrated and struggling with it: “Got hrunk—drunk. Left. Huk ’m.”

He held the bottle for her again, saw the eyes were focused beneath their puffiness. Apart from the bruises, her color was returning.

“Who then?”

She turned her head away; tears started down, pinkening as they progressed. “He hook—took her. He took my—baby. Took—Yessica!”

“Who took Jessica?”

She eased her head back. “I hawt he loved me, but he took my Jessie.”

 

 

It was slow and painful, and he felt for her as she told it: about Frankie Ybarra always suspecting the baby wasn’t his—making it easy when he lost his job to steal the money they’d saved and split. Bolo coming then. Telling her he was taking the baby, going back to Mexico, that L.A. was no place to bring up a kid. Donna begging to go along; Bolo saying no way in hell, that he had a matter to settle first, but he was getting out and then nobody’d find him. Laughing when Donna said she thought he loved her. Beating her when he went for Jessie and she’d put up a fight. Bolo Zavala, the ex-fighter.

Wil let himself out and backtracked to a drugstore, where he cashed a check, bought bandages, aspirin, another pint of bourbon. He fixed her up the best he could; it must have hurt, but she said nothing. When he finished she looked like a war casualty.

“Donna, think hard about where they might be, something he might have told you. A name, anything.”

Seconds passed; her head moved side to side.

“All right. You have my card. If I’m not in, leave a message, okay?”

She nodded.

“I’ll need a photo of her.”

Another nod, this time at the dresser. Wil pulled a drawer open, found snapshots, jotted Donna’s phone number on the back of one and put it in his pocket. Then he dialed Vella and laid out what happened.

“There’ll be photos here,” he said, “but the girl’s—?”

Donna held up V’d fingers.

“Two years old, smallish, red hair and freckles.” He covered the receiver. “You remember a car?”

She looked at him as if nothing mattered anymore, spoke haltingly as he relayed it: “Dark blue Camaro, Vella. She doesn’t know the plate.”

Vella asked him again where he’d be, and he said at home, then cradled the phone and stood up. “They’ll be here in a little while, Donna. I’ll be in touch.” He peeled off five twenties and laid them on the dresser, watched her eyes widen.

“Thing I have for women and kids in distress,” he said. “It goes back a long way.”

 

 

It was nearly one-fifteen when he left the house. The wagon was on the sidewalk, no one in sight on the street. Cops, he knew, would knock on the neighbor’s doors, ask who’d heard anything, noted times, seen license plates, but the results would be the same as always. Nada. Frightened looks or angry silence. People in the barrio knowing when not to know things.

He started the Bonneville and drove west, thinking. Zavala wanted out—of Los Angeles, obviously, but beyond that what, some deal with Guerra? He drummed the steering wheel. Jessica he did not understand; Zavala didn’t seem the type, and traveling with a two-year-old he’d be spotted, where he could be nearly invisible alone. Yet he’d risked it. As for the someone Zavala intended to settle up with, Wil could only hope.

Diverting to uptown, he found the Japanese place near the Wiltern that had good sashimi, then took in a movie, timing it so he’d be at Niños de Mexico about five. At that, he missed his turnoff, having to backtrack to Olympic Boulevard and the brick building fronted with reddish granite that he’d cruised past the night before. It was five-twenty when he parked and put on the Shetland sport coat he’d brought along in case he had to look respectable.

The office was two stories, U-shaped around the parking lot and some liquidambar trees. Stairways led upward at the wings. Niños had the second floor—climbing the stairs, he could see its windows faced the courtyard. He pulled open the oversize door and went in.

Soothing colors met him; big-eyed brown kids smiling from lacquered frames made him think of Dev at that age. The room was divided into glass-walled offices where half a dozen people worked. As he looked around, a receptionist smiled decorously.

“Is someone expecting you?” she asked.

Wil eyed white metal files, a dark wood door at the far end of the room. He smoothed a wrinkle on the Shetland. “I was referred by Leonardo Guerra.”

The receptionist regarded him. “Mr. Guerra isn’t here right now. Would you like to see one of our counselors?”

“Please.”

She spoke into the phone, and a severe-looking woman he pegged as late fifties appeared from a forward cubicle. Handkerchief points rose like Alps on her gray suit; graying hair was tidily upswept; rimless glasses bit the bridge of her nose. She introduced herself as Mrs. Contreras, then motioned him inside the enclosure and gestured to a seat opposite the black lacquer table she was using as a desk. On the high-gloss tabletop was a yellow tablet and a silver ballpoint.

“You’re seeking to adopt, Mr…?” She picked up the pen.

“Hardesty,” he said, seating himself. “My wife and I find the concept of adopting very, uh—appropriate.”

Mrs. Contreras wrote on her pad, then looked up. “Mr. Hardesty, I’m sure you’re aware our children come from Mexico. They are generally from mothers who cannot support them or from families for whom another child would be an extreme hardship. As far as age is concerned, they are newborn up to perhaps twelve.” Her words had the staccato ring of ice cubes dropped into a bowl.

Wil said, “If they look anything like the posters, I’ll take a dozen.”

Mrs. Contreras managed a weak smile. “They are beautiful, aren’t they? And so loving. I must reiterate, however, that these are not Anglo children, even though most of our adoptive parents are. Sometimes there are difficulties. I will take your continued presence to mean that a child of Mexican ancestry is not a problem for you. By the way, what nationality is your wife?”

Operating by feel now: “Mexican is not a problem—my wife is Japanese, and we have no children.” He closed an opening. “But artificial means are so impersonal.”

The thaw was noticeable. “I am glad to hear you say that. Our way gives you choice without the risk of childbirth, plus the assurance that you have given existing life a chance.”

“Mrs. Contreras, your receptionist said you’d acquaint me with the requirements.”

“Jennette, please,” she said. “First, you must truly want a niño. That we ascertain in a series of interviews. Second, you must be referred by someone who has adopted one of our children. Then there is a financial requirement. I must warn you it is no small sum, yet it will complete your life in a way mere money cannot.”

He said, “Would a referral from Leonardo Guerra suffice?”

“I’m sure you know the answer to that, Mr. Hardesty.”

“Well, then,” he smiled, “the interviews are no problem. What about the money?”

Mrs. Contreras narrowed her eyes. “Our adoptive parents express their thanks for our confidentiality and response in the amount of $50,000—most equitable, all things considered.”

Equitable for whom? Wil thought. “Confidentiality, Mrs. Contreras. Tell me about that.”

“I’m sure you can appreciate what that means to prospective parents merely by looking at recent events. Birth parents suing to reclaim their rights, countersuits from those who have, in good faith, adopted. Hearts broken, emotions trampled in the media. Even worse, children played like pawns in some awful game.” She sighed. “Such unpleasantness is not our way, Mr. Hardesty, you may be assured.”

“You also mentioned response—as in fast?” Through the glass walls Wil could see staff members putting on their coats.

Jennette Contreras removed her glasses, leaving red indentations where they’d been. She began polishing them on lens-cleaning paper. “Most adoptions are long dreary affairs, some take years. Ours do not, and we find our clients most appreciative.”

“One happy customer after another,” Wil said. “How is it you can succeed where others can’t?”

“I’ll just say, Mr. Hardesty, that we know our business. As yet no one has been disappointed.” From a file cabinet she withdrew printed materials. “Under the terms, we require half the fee in advance; with that we begin the process. The final half is due upon delivery.” She handed the paperwork over. “The completion of these forms and your initial payment indicate a desire to proceed.”

As he took them, she tore the top sheet off her notepad, then checked her watch. “Forgive me, but I must prepare for an appointment. Next time, perhaps, your wife—” She thrust her chin up expectantly.

“My wife certainly will be part of this. Thank you, Mrs. Contreras, we’ll be in touch.”

She saw him to the door. “Mr. Hardesty, your relationship with Mr. Guerra…You are fortunate, he takes an interest in very few individual cases anymore.”

“Some kind of guy, isn’t he? I can’t wait to thank him in person.” The door eased shut behind him.

Six-forty and dark outside, stars showing through broken clouds; a cold breeze searched the liquidambars for dead leaves. Wil backed the Bonneville out, drove a block west on the boulevard, turned left, and circled around behind a coffee shop that afforded a view of the brick building.

Stan’s Café was humid and uncrowded and smelled of things frying; across the windows holiday greetings unfolded like paper dolls. Wil nodded to the cashier, found a window booth with a relatively clean Formica top. A brown-eyed waitress moved in.

“What’s good?” he asked her.

She winked. “Besides me? Well, the meatloaf ain’t too bad, kinda fifties style with mashed potatoes and stuff. Want to give it a shot?”

Texas, Wil guessed from her accent. “My life is in your hands.”

“Not yet, but it could be.” She poured him coffee, winked again, left to put his order up.

He adjusted the window blinds; with the ground floor empty and the staff gone, the white Camry had to be Jennette’s. It was still in the lot when his food arrived.

“Voilà. A work of Stan.” The girl waited for him to appreciate her humor. “Not a work of Art, get it?”

Wil cracked a grin. “You bring joy to meatloaf—” he checked her name tag. “Cindy.”

“Bet your buns,” she said, moving off.

He scanned the materials Jennette Contreras had given him, recalling a cousin who’d adopted a Korean boy. The whole thing had taken forever, driven them crazy. Niños circumvented that, if he believed their literature. He stuck the paperwork back in his jacket and focused on dinner; as he was finishing, Cindy brought him a slice of pie on the house.

“There’s more where that came from,” she said.

Thanks, Stan, he thought. Watching her take away the dishes, he almost missed the black Mercedes pulling in and Leonardo Guerra getting out of it. Guerra stretched, moved unhurriedly toward the stairs, passed out of sight, then reemerged on the balcony. He was heading for the oversize door when Wil lost him behind the corner of the building.

Working late—so what? Still, he felt a tingle of anticipation.

“What’s caught your eye there, sugar?” Cindy said, refilling him. “You are glued to that window.”

“Afraid I’d lose all control if I didn’t distract myself.”

“Well, at least you’re a cute liar. They come in here sometimes.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The people from that building over there. The gals are pretty nice, except for this weird one I call Ice Maiden. Comes in with a guy looks like Ricky Ricardo.” Her eyes narrowed. “You some kinda undercover type?”

Wil smiled. “How about another piece of that pie?”

“I love it when y’all say that. Hang onto your fork.”

This time the pie came á la mode, the mode on Stan, Wil figuring Stan was going to go broke unless he left soon. Nibbling made it last thirty minutes; at nine, two people showed on the balcony, reappeared downstairs, walked to the cars. Guerra opened his trunk, lifted out a suitcase, and put it in Jennette’s trunk. Jennette drove away. Guerra unwrapped a cigar, lit it, smoked a while, then got into the Mercedes. Wil could see the glowing tip as the black SEL cruised past the coffee shop.

He gave it till nine-twenty, laid two tens on the table, then made for the cashier, feeling awash in coffee and leaden with Stan’s cooking, which was precipitating a culture war with the sashimi from earlier. Cindy blew him a kiss, then he was outside.

After a stop at the car, where he changed back into the dark leather field jacket, Wil angled across the street. To shake dinner down, he took in an extra block, was feeling better as he entered the alley that ran parallel to Olympic. Save for some leaves the wind had rustled up, the lot was empty. Luckily it was poorly lit, and he was able to make the exposed patch in relative darkness. From there it was up the stairs and a crawl along the balcony to the big door, feeling around for burglar alarm wiring.

Nothing.

He extracted his B&E tools from a zippered inside pocket and rationalized the risk. Paul-Zavala-Guerra, gut-feel connected: deadly coincidence bolstered by an old murder—Guerra’s foreman—and a name in a notebook. After a few sweaty minutes the big door clicked open, and he edged his way inside.

No buzzing, ringing, blinking. He got out a small flash, mouthed it to free his hands, then started on the file cabinets—locked but easy to breach. Not exactly sure what he was looking for, he picked through files dating back to 1980, found forms, client statements, documents issued by Mexican and American authorities. Each file held snapshots of white ecstatic couples holding brown bewildered children. After a few minutes of looking, he found the older files, minus the ’66 through ’68s Vella’s team had taken. Wil scanned them, found nothing different from the ones he’d rifled. This time, he jotted down a few of the names with addresses and phone numbers.

Thirty minutes gone.

Discounting the cubicles, he went straight to the main event, began working with the picks. This one was a bitch, but after ten minutes the dark door to the private office yielded and he stepped inside: white carpet and couch, rosewood desk, framed masks lining one wall. On a pedestal, a contemporary sculpture reflected the flash.

Old-looking statues about ten inches high regarded him from a display case. A closer look ID’d them as similar to one he’d noticed in Father Martin’s bookcase, leis of cowrie shells the common element. Antiquities, Guerra’d said. He was making for the desk when he saw the red eye of a motion sensor blinking at him from the ceiling.

Shit. The question was, how long had he got? Upstairs, hemmed in by two easily-blocked exits, dick for hanging around. Still, he had to try—if there were anything here to find, Guerra would almost certainly move it after a break-in. Praying someone had fallen asleep at the monitor, Wil checked his watch: ten minutes, no more.

He was through the three drawers on the left in four: Guerra Imports stationery, drawer phone, directories—one for Hermosillo—an unopened package of computer disks, a box of cigars.

The right side was locked but worth the gamble, he decided; after an anxious minute the lock gave, releasing both drawers. The deep-bottom one contained various dividers: Niños de Mexico, Amigos de Hermosillo, miscellaneous names. Concentrating on Niños, Wil found files similar to the others: Guerra’s personal interest cases. He wrote down the names of three: Toluca Lake, Bel Air, and Pasadena. Another three minutes gone.

The top right drawer seemed to be for things awaiting filing. Face up was a nine-by-twelve envelope that had been rolled and smoothed out, Niños de Mexicopenciled on the front. One edge was sliced cleanly off; inside were stats of twelve baptismal certificates, three of which matched the last names of the three files he’d noted.

They were signed by Father Martin DeSantis, Pastor, St. Boniface.

He slid them back, shuffled through the rest of the drawer, hit bottom and a Metro section of the L.A. Times—which could have been saved for any number of reasons except for the date, the morning after the night Paul Rodriguez was murdered. Wil remembered the section, confirmed it with a quick look inside.

Ten minutes gone: a what-the-fuck glance into Guerra’s rosewood trash basket—empty except for a wad of register receipts stuck to the bottom which tore as he lifted it out. Shoving it in his pocket, he replaced everything, hurriedly wiped the desk, then backed out past the blinking light. Twelve minutes after entering Guerra’s office, he was outside as a car pulled up and doors slammed.

Seconds from a bust: If he jumped from the middle of the balcony, he’d land directly in their line of fire; if he waited, they’d cover him where he stood. Getting shot was out of the question. So was getting nailed—Freiman would have his ass and his license and the whole enchilada.

Wil mounted the wrought-iron railing, leaped for the overhang: quietly up and over the eave and onto the roof, thankful for tarpaper without rocks. He lay there barely breathing as the two converged on the big door below. There was a jangle of keys, whispered commands. The door opened, he could hear them moving inside. He rose and made for the right stairway; outer office covered by now, he guessed, just opening the inner door. With nothing tossed and nobody there, they might blame a short—another electronic gremlin, check it out in the morning.

From the shadows at the edge of the building, Wil dropped to the outside rail, to the stairs, then down past the car: a security firm—scrambled from home base, which explained the time. As he tracked the dark safety of the alley, he could see the beams of their big Mag-Lites stabbing out through the trees.

 

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