The Innocents: Part Seven

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TWELVE

 

The man in the ragged fatigue jacket sidled over to the white car and eased in. “Classy,” Wil said. “Explains the naked vagrant I saw back there.”

Mo Epstein eyed Wil’s stained bomber jacket, jeans, and scuffed boots. “Go ahead,” he said, “spend all your money on clothes.” He examined the interior of the Bonneville. “Nothing sadder than a concours without d’elegance.”

“You’d fit nicely in the trunk. What are those?”

Epstein showed him a stack of photocopies: sketches of Bolo Zavala with an inset of the razor blade tattoo, his description, and a phone number. Wil glanced at one: odd seeing Zavala for the first time. The eyes looked right; mean eyes, Gilberto Reyes had said.

“You packing?” Mo asked.

Wil showed him.

“Jesus, not the forty-five. Even the army’s retired that old warhorse.” Epstein rolled his eyes. “Bad enough to feel like Ahab inside Moby Dick. Now I’m in a time warp.” He unsnapped his hip holster, extracted the gun. “Beretta 92F—handles nice, shoots good, holds fifteen rounds. Name of the game these days.”

“Will it stop a Jeep?”

“Forty-fives stopping Jeeps was always more myth than fact.”

Wil patted the bulge under his jacket. “Yeah, but mine doesn’t know that.”

Epstein stowed the nine millimeter, shook his head. “Goddamn dinosaur,” he muttered as Wil grinned.

The East L.A. Angel’s was glass-brick-fronted and smelled like cigarette butts and Lysol through the open door. Wil entered, felt the place enter him. Bleary patrons sat hunched over their drinks—the usual numb morning crowd working up to postmeridian oblivion. Looks he’d seen before in the mirror. They nosed around, passed out flyers.

Ahng-hell, the man tending bar, spat on the floor as they left.

Forty minutes later, on Pacific Coast Highway, they located the second Angel’s, a sandblasted brick place with polished oak floors. “Watch out, or you’ll catch it,” Epstein whispered, looking around.

“Catch what?” Wil said.

“The yup—what these people got.” They left a lifeguard-looking barkeep named Wesley examining the flyer and shaking his head.

Afterward they ate at an open-air fish and chips restaurant near Ports O’ Call. Sun glinted off the water; pleasure craft of varying sizes moved up and down the channel. Mo regarded the boats.

“Doesn’t anybody around here work?” he said. A blond in a large Chris Craft smiled and waved. “Get a job,” he yelled, though she couldn’t hear him. Just smiled and waved some more.

Wil waved back. “Lighten up, will you? Somebody has to enjoy all this.”

“I’m gonna order surveillance on the East L.A. joint,” Epstein said. “But I can’t see Zavala sipping banana daiquiris with Wesley.” He crunched something battered and deep-fried. “By the way, your Leonardo Guerra is an interesting guy.”

Wil looked up from his cole slaw.

“Came to L.A. from Hermosillo when you said, but what’s interesting is why. Turns out a hospital his company built there collapsed, killing a goodly number of people. Quite a scandal when the authorities found out Guerra’s company’d shaved the specs. Guerra blamed his foreman. The foreman said he’d split the profits with Guerra. Guerra denied it, and the case got sent up for trial. Guess who turned up dead the day before the case was due in court.”

“The foreman.”

“Somebody’d cut his throat—sound familiar? We cross-checked, and sure enough it was one of the murders they thought Zavala had a hand in. Of course Guerra had an alibi, and Zavala’d split, so a firm link was never established. Case dismissed. Little while later Guerra emigrated. He is now a citizen, thank you, and yes, we’re checking into his L.A. background.”

Wil looked up from watching an incoming boat luff its sails. “Damn, if Guerra and Zavala did know each other in Mexico, could be they’re still in contact. Zavala might even know we’re looking for him.” He washed down the last of his lunch, thinking better alert Paul, no sense taking chances. While Mo phoned his office, Wil used the next pay phone.

Strange, he thought, how much he was used to answering machines. And how noticeable it was when there wasn’t one.

 

 

Paul left the house at two, headed the Chevy up Hazeltine, took a right at Victory. It was early, he knew, but he was going anyway; Wil hadn’t said, but the only thing that made sense was hitting the Valley Angel’s last, especially when he was coming by the house afterward. If Wil was due at six, he’d be at the bar when? Five, probably. That would mean, to be safe, Paul should get there at four. Piece of cake then: park out of the way, observe, then go in; be there when Wil needed him. He knew what these places were like. Dumb looks and no hablas.

Not with Paul Rodriguez there.

With time to kill, he’d swing by St. Boniface first: couple questions he had for Father Martin about Leonardo Guerra. Besides, the church was in the same general direction. He drove east, then north, turning into the parking lot about the time he figured Hardesty and Epstein would be heading for San Gabriel.

 

 

Angel’s number three was across from a rock processing plant, not far from the gravel pits that once aspired to be a pro football stadium. Once a tract house, it was the first and last one the developer put up before going broke. Renters trashed it until Mel Jefferson bought it to water the motorcycle gangs with which he occasionally rode. Talk was, you could buy just about anything there—one of Mo’s people had returned his call, told them about it as they drove.

Wil parked the Bonneville up from the twenty or so bikes surrounding the place and looked it over. Squat, featureless, and pink, all word-associated. “Angel’s,” he said as they approached the door. “Funny, I wouldn’t have thought to call it that.”

Mo fell in behind him. “You still own a Harley?”

“It’s for sale.”

“I was brave last time. You talk, I’ll cover.”

It took a minute to get accustomed to the smoky gloom: bikers and their women at the long bar and a few stand-up games; figures bent over pool tables beyond an arched doorway; fans struggling overhead. Thumpy music.

Epstein flashed his badge as Wil was approached by a bartender whose T-shirt read, Ride Your Bike, Not The Help. Pinned to it was a black plastic name tag: Mel. I Own It! He squinted at the sketch, grunted, and shook his head.

“We don’t get a lot of beaners in here. Try Pomona.”

Wil smiled. “Mel, this guy would love to hear you call him a beaner.” He gestured with the copies. “I’m going to pass these out. You get to announce it.”

“Shit, man, this is bullshit,” Mel snapped. “Cops stay the fuck outta here. We’re a club.”

Wil continued to smile. “Can the indignation, Mel, this place is a blight. Now we need your help in locating a man who would just as soon slice you as look at you. Clear?” Cold as he could make it.

Mel nodded; behind them the room began to quiet down, which made the blare from the speakers that much louder.

“Tell ’em,” Wil said.

Mel reached slowly under the counter and turned down the music. “Achtung!” he barked. “Law wants to know whether or not you seen some Essey.”

Wil set out with the copies; Epstein followed, hand on the Beretta’s grip. At each stop they got headshakes and glares. Moving toward the arched doorway, Wil heard Mel’s voice: “…asshole cops…some fuckin’ greaser…stow that shit, man.”

Through the archway: four pool tables, each with a game going under fluorescent fixtures; pay phone on the wall next to a mirror next to a red exit door. The smell of marijuana. Players, alerted, stood by the tables; around the periphery, pink-eyed types waited to play winners.

Wil began laying out copies on the first table. “This man’s name is Zavala—we’re trying to locate him. We appreciate your cooperation.”

A few bikers, and then more, collected slowly around the faces in the buzzy light. “Guy’s connected to some bad shit,” said Mo Epstein. “Child killings, multiple. Who’s seen him?”

Vacant looks. Nobody moved except for a twitchy player in a leather vest—taller than Wil but about thirty pounds lighter. He held a longneck loosely, tossed his cue to another player as he stepped forward.

Wil could see the dilated pupils.

“This sucks,” the player growled. “Why don’t you two assholes get the fuck outta here? Guy prob’ly did us a favor—too many fuckin’ kids as it is, man.” He looked to the room for approval.

Epstein moved then. He grabbed a flyer, shoved it at the player. “Shame your mother didn’t feel that way, dickhead, she’d have saved everybody a lot of trouble. Now, one more time. You seen him, you know something? You do and don’t say and I’ll find you. Even if I have to lift every rock in L.A. to get the one you crawled under.” He glared and turned away.

In a flash the player reversed his grip on the beer bottle, brought it back, snapped it forward. Wil caught a blur of motion just before glass exploded against bone.

Mo Epstein dropped like a gallows weight.

Wil froze, stunned by the suddenness: the crowd pressing in, the player bending over Epstein. The jagged stub cocked back.

Adrenaline pumped then: Wil drove his boot upward into the man’s elbow. The player dropped the weapon and clawed his injured arm as Wil loosed the .45 and backhanded him with it across the face. The player staggered, dropped to his knees. Blood streamed from under his fingers.

Wil knew he had to stop the action or lose it, the crowd had the look. His eyes dropped to the Beretta, exposed now on Mo’s hip; a short, tattooed biker, seeing it also, was edging that way.

Wil fired at his feet. Sawdust flew; in the close room, the noise was a wall. The players hesitated, then retreated.

Seeing his chance, Wil grabbed the tall man by the hair, yanked him to his feet, forced his head down on the table. Zavala faces scattered. Wil touched the .45’s muzzle to the man’s head and watched all fight leave him. He scanned the room: some chains and knives were out, but the crowd held its distance; at his feet, Epstein began to moan. Wil risked a look: Blood had soaked through Mo’s collar and was beginning to pool under his head.

“That’s it, over,” Wil said with force. He gestured with the gun. “That door there. Use it. Now!”

Sullenly, the crowd passed out the rear exit.

“Mel, where are you?” Wil spotted him in the doorway. “You’re gonna call in an officer-down. No, use the phone where I can see you.” Fixing the gun squarely on the bartender’s chest: “Do it.”

 

 

Father Martin was inside the church lecturing a couple of altar boys. Paul kept a diplomatic distance; he’d served Mass and on more than one occasion blown the responses. He glanced around at high ceilings and shining wood. Without the congregation, the space seemed huge; it also smelled pleasantly of candle wax and wood soap. Organ riffs floated down from the loft.

He was enjoying the music when Father Martin dismissed the youngsters, handing them each something.

“Mr. Rodriguez,” he said, spotting Paul. “You might as well have a couple, too. Hershey’s Kisses today.”

Paul pocketed them, shook the priest’s hand. “Father, you’re a regular candy store.”

“My personal cross, I’m afraid.” He transferred a rolled-up envelope to under his arm, peeled a kiss, and put it in his mouth. “I meant to ask if Leonardo was any help Sunday. What was that man’s…?”

“Zavala,” said Paul. “And he did know the name. Quite a coincidence, said he’d seen him box.”

“That sounds like Leonardo, always inviting me to some fight or other.”

Paul looked at light making rosy pools through the stained glass.

“Your Leonardo’s an interesting guy, isn’t he?”

“I see you enjoyed talking with him.”

“He must be very wealthy.”

The priest smiled. “Leonardo’s success in business has brought semi-retirement, which permits him to spend time here. For which we are thankful.” He began to stroll up the aisle.

“How did you meet him?”

“Leonardo attended one of my first Masses.” Father Martin stopped to replace missals in a pew rack, then resumed. “It became clear we shared a similar vision. Since then we could not have accomplished what we have without him.”

“He have other interests besides antiquities?”

“You really should ask him, Mr. Rodriguez. I find it hard to keep up with all the things he does.”

Paul saw writing penciled on the envelope—Niños de Mexico.He was starting to inquire about it when Father Martin continued.

“You seem very curious about Leonardo. Is there a reason?”

“Only that it seems an amazing coincidence he’d know the man we’re looking for.”

“Known of, you must mean. Leonardo mentioned it had been quite a long time ago.”

“Certainly, Father, let me explain.” Wil could hardly object to a priest hearing it, he thought. “I can’t say much about what I’m working on, but the matter involves a child brought to L.A. from Mexico in the late sixties. We think Zavala murdered him.”

Father Martin crossed himself. “How awful. I know Leonardo would want to help find this man—perhaps through his connections in Mexico…”

“He’s already offered, Father, thanks.” Paul lowered his voice and stepped out further onto thin ice: “Father, I’m reluctant to even suggest this, but do you think Leonardo Guerra could be connected to Zavala in some way?”

How thin the ice was became immediately clear: Father Martin’s face clouded; veins jumped in his neck. “Leonardo Guerra is the most selfless man I know,” he began. “What you see here is but a small part of what he has done for us. The world is a terrible place, Mr. Rodriguez, full of hostility and suspicion. But your words are the worst, they wound the Savior’s heart and mine.” He slapped his palm with the rolled-up envelope. “Shame on you!”

Paul felt fire on his face, ice in his gut. Instantly he was the chastened altar boy again, averting his eyes—hoping his complexion hid the embarrassment but doubting it. Hoping nobody’d heard.

“Father…I was not accusing Leonardo Guerra. Forgive me. I meant no disrespect.”

Father Martin’s ire died as rapidly as it had flared. “Of course you didn’t. It is I who ask forgiveness, Mr. Rodriguez. Misplaced indignation compounded by friendship. Please—can I offer you a cup of Isabel’s tea?”

Paul gulped air, checked his watch. “I wish I could, really, but I have to meet someone.”

“I’ll bet it’s your friend from Sunday—Mr. Hardesty, right?”

Paul nodded.

Father Martin put a conciliatory arm around Paul’s shoulder, walked him through the vestibule and out into the afternoon. “Business or pleasure?”

“Some of both, Father. Dinner tonight after we check out a place where Zavala was seen, a bar near here. Some name, I’m sure you’d agree: Angel’s.”

“There are so many,” the priest said. “Like the plague. Good luck, Mr. Rodriguez.” He pumped Paul’s hand once. Then he headed up the path toward the rectory.

Starting the wagon, Paul was aware of how much he’d sweated, his still-racing pulse. Sheeit, him and his big mouth; probably deserved what he got. He remembered the writing on the envelope in Father Martin’s hand. Forget it—no way was he facing the wrath of God twice in one day; besides, he’d stayed too long as it was. He picked up the notebook he’d brought along, opened it, wrote down the name, made a mental note to ask Father Martin about it later.

 

 

It took a while: First the law rolled up—four LASD units responding to the triple-niner—then the paramedics. After treatment, the cuffed biker was hauled off, his nose packed and seeping through cotton. Wil held an IV bag as they revived Mo Epstein.

“Napoleon’d be proud,” he said. “How you feel?”

Mo answered slowly, as if thinking it over. “Woozy…dumb. Pissed mainly.”

To the paramedics Wil said, “That’s one of his vital signs. Nice work.”

Epstein grabbed his sleeve. “On the last Angel’s—wait for me. Be okay tomorrow.” Then he was wheeled toward the orange-and-white emergency vehicle.

Wil watched as they radioed a nearby hospital, then closed the doors. As the siren faded, he took deep breaths, rubbed still-damp palms on his jeans. It had been a long time, something like this happening. Ever since Nam, where violence ceased to be an abstraction, he’d hated it—as much for the primal stirrings it generated in him as the fear. Participant or bystander, it was like a bloodstain on a white shirt; no matter how faded with washings, it reminded you of how it got there. And how you responded to it.

To distract himself, he walked around outside, but how close they’d just come followed him until they took his statement, the process time-consuming but grounding. At five-fifteen he was on the road. From the car phone he reached Vella, who’d heard about Epstein already, Angel’s number three being county turf. For a while he cruised, then the traffic slowed around Alhambra. He dialed Rodriguez again, dismissed the feeling of unease when nobody was home.

Punching more numbers, he got an official-sounding voice that told him Lieutenant Epstein’s condition was stable, that tests were scheduled for tomorrow. Wil was not surprised, but it left a decision. He could always do the last Angel’s alone and wanted to, but it was tempting fate, Freiman’s cooperation at stake.

The cooperation swung it. He’d wait.

 

 

Sheeit, I oughta do this for a living, Paul thought.

He reclined the seat a notch, unzipped his windbreaker, and scrunched down to wait. Half past four: Wil’d be there any time now. He could see the bar clearly over the window molding. Across the street and up, Angel’s sat hunched between a dead store with newspapers in the windows and a taco stand surrounded by a rutted parking lot.

Paul cracked the window and caught the aroma of searing meat, his stomach reminding him of the time. He remembered the chocolates in his jacket pocket, ate them, made entries in the notebook, scanned the front of the bar: scrawly gang tags, black double doors; in the circular windows, Christmas wreaths. Two painted-looking chicas lounged under a sign with racked pool balls marking a smaller door to the left.

Raeann’d be bent at first, he knew. But they’d have a few beers, and Wil would tell her how much he’d helped, how he couldn’a done it without him—realize how good he was at this stuff, maybe even work him into other cases. Paul shifted on the vinyl seat and nodded.

Friends didn’t by-God cower at home when friends needed help.

 

 

At Pasadena the traffic ground down to stop and go.

On either side of him commuters picked noses and drummed steering wheels. In a 300ZX, a man spoke heatedly to someone on his cellular phone; a Plymouth full of nuns fingered rosary beads as two pickup truck cowboys flipped each other off. Life in the fast lane, Wil thought.

Seeing the guy in the ZX reminded him to call Rodriguez again.

Raeann answered. “You gotta see the basket I made,” she told him. “The Easter bunny should be so lucky.”

He made small talk, deliberately unconcerned: then, “Raeann, have you seen Paul? I’m running late, a thing we had out in San Gabriel.”

“I see lunch dishes, but no Rodriguez,” she said. There were clatter sounds, plates on a countertop being moved. “Usually he leaves a note. Probably at the hardware—he was going to fix screens today.”

Wil tried to dispel unease. “Some life you guys lead. Okay, no need for him to call back. I’ll be there as soon as the traffic goes home where it belongs.”

He pressed the gas, then the brakes a second later. In the west the setting sun lit up a few scattered clouds, then was gone.

 

 

It was getting dark when Bolo Zavala showed.

Paul, stretching to loosen the kinks, stopped suddenly. It was him, had to be: older than he’d anticipated, but hell, the man must be fifty by now. Collar-up gray leather coat, dark pants; even without seeing the freckles, Paul knew the stocky build and red hair. The physical presence. He watched him banter awhile with the two hookers, look around several times, then disappear through Angel’s pool entrance.

He began to sweat. Where the hell was Wil? Who knew how long the guy’d hang around?

Thirty minutes went by: fidgeting, worrying, adrenaline surges, righteous anger. If Zavala left, should he follow him? Probably—he could break this thing wide open. Go in? Probably not—Wil’d shit bricks if he saw him inside. He found himself wishing he’d brought a gun.

“Goddammit,” Paul breathed. “You’re blowing it, man, he’s there. Hurry up or I’m goin’ in.”

What if he did? Zavala had no idea who he was: walk up and have a beer with the guy and he wouldn’t know Paul Rodriguez from Adam. Stare him in the face, count freckles—better, sure, if Wil was there, but Wil wasn’t, and the risk lay in Zavala’s getting away. He took a deep breath.

Up to him.

Paul gave Wil another ten minutes, then locked the car and went in.

 

THIRTEEN

 

Despite the cold, the girls in the leather miniskirts were cracking up laughing as Paul approached. From across the street he’d watched them unwrap a square paper and snort the contents.

The bosomy one started it, calling to him in Spanish, “Hey, sugar. Want an early Christmas present?” The shorter one in the purple sweater shrilling in, “Yeah, piece and goodwill.” Both breaking up again—druggy giggles just shy of losing it, their eyes nearly invisible under black makeup.

Paul pushed past them and went in.

Inside was warm and smelled of beer. From the jukebox a singer cried over amor perdido; men in work clothes downed Tecates. Through a cutaway Paul could see two men playing pool as a couple of bored-looking women watched. An open door showed a dim hallway with restrooms and a telephone sign; above it, the Hamm’s bear circled a faded clock face.

Six o’clock.

Zavala was not at the bar. Paul ordered Tecate, sat with it a few minutes, then shuffled over to look into the poolroom. The two men were arguing over the position of the cueball. No Zavala.

He finished his beer and ordered another plus a shot of tequila, which he downed in one gulp. Can in hand, he moved toward the hallway, once there noticing two things. The first was that the hallway ended in a door past the toilets and the telephone. The second was Zavala. He was alone in a small game room Paul hadn’t noticed, standing between the single pool table and two poker stations. He was lining up a shot, nine ball in the side.

Paul drew a breath and entered.

Zavala took no notice, fired down the nine, began racking for the next game. The leather coat was over a chair, black shirt rolled up. The man’s forearms were thick; on the underside of one Paul could see the razor blade dripping tattoo blood.

Zavala glanced up, looked at Paul, gave a slight nod as Paul moved forward into the light and took a swig of beer. “Mind if I watch?” he asked in Spanish.

Zavala addressed the rack and broke with a crash. Two balls went down. He looked back at Paul, leaned over to shoot again, then stopped.

“You want to try me?” he said in English. His eyes glittered.

Paul hesitated.

Zavala said, “If you’re expecting someone…” Letting the words fade, the body language deride.

Shit, why not, Paul thought; in this far, feeling good—playing him might put the man off guard. “I’ll take the solids,” he said, removing his windbreaker.

Wait’ll Hardesty got a load of this.

 

 

Stuck now, not moving.

Wil saw signs for the cutoff about the time he’d spotted the red lights flashing up ahead, the accident bad from the looks of it. He got out and stood on the Bonneville’s nose, saw the highway patrol directing traffic down to a single lane at the far right. Three cars, one overturned, piled up around a jackknifed semi; two emergency vehicles standing by; paramedics working over someone on the pavement. As he watched, a motorcycle patrolman pulled up next to several CHP Mustangs.

Wil got back in the car as traffic began to inch forward. Six-fifteen. He’d given Raeann his car phone number, and she had promised to call him once Paul got there. He sat and stared at the receiver, willing it to ring as red light pulsed in the window glass like a racing heart.

 

 

They finished shooting, ordered more Tecates, then started another game. He was no real match, but at least he’d kept it interesting—talking had gotten him nowhere. Zavala simply responded by blasting each shot with great force, as if he had to smash Paul. Let him, Paul thought, the beer and tequila warm inside, boosting him. Even so he began to sense the danger of the man. He was glad Zavala was unaware of his mission—and yet, as Zavala stared at him between shots, the hair rose on his neck.

Ridiculous, of course. How could he know?

Goddamn it.Where was Wil?

Midway through the second game, he remembered Wil’s rolling number in his wallet: why hadn’t he thought of it? He’d use the hall phone to find out what was up. Then either wait or abandon ship. Or whatever.

Zavala called the eight in the corner pocket and struck the ball so hard it sounded like the crack of a rifle. He sniffed, wiped his nose, looked up at Paul.

“Again?”

Paul nodded as casually as he could, then said, “Gotta check in with mama first. You know how it is.” He leaned his cue against the table, headed for the door, fishing for coins, turning back to ask if Zavala wanted another beer.

Zavala kept racking, paid no attention.

The alcove was a snug fit—time to lose a few pounds, Paul thought, twenty maybe? Yeah, start Monday but add ten. Fumbling for the card, he found it finally, then popped the coins in and dialed, tapping his fingers on the little shelf as he waited.

 

 

Wil jumped as though shot, picking it up before it could buzz again. “Raeann?… Paul! Where are you?”

Paul’s voice was low and confidential, but hearing the excitement in it Wil knew immediately where he was. “We’re doin’ pool and beers down here,” came the half-whisper. “Real buddy-buddy. Got the tattoos and the hair and the scar, and what do you want me to do? You comin’ or what?”

Wil struggled to get a grip as the traffic started and stopped. “Paul, listen. I’m gridlocked half an hour from there if everybody just vanished. Get out of there—now. Epstein discovered a possible link between Zavala and Guerra. You may be made already. Put the phone down now and get the hell out!”

There was breathing on the line, and then Paul repeated, “A link?…” the way he said it both questioning and knowing, Wil thinking this wasn’t at all how it was supposed to go.

“Paul, you hear me, goddammit? Get out of there.”

 

 

It was so obvious Paul almost smiled: the posturing outside Angel’s, the empty room, the games. Zavala had been waiting for the two of them to show, figuring he’d take them both down. Only Wil hadn’t come, the fly in the ointment. Paul was alive because Wil Hardesty was stuck somewhere in traffic.

Paul looked at the receiver, rushing in his ears making the voice in it sound far away. Get out now: barely hearing it, staring at the buttons on the payphone. Right, get out. Put down the phone and walk through the bar and out the door. Get in the car and go back to your life. Now!

Something against his throat, then. Something very sharp.

“Hijo de puta,” the voice hissed from behind him. “Did you really think Bolo Zavala would be so easy? That I would fall to some fat pendejo who sleeps in a room with lace on the pillows?”

Paul struggled briefly, then quieted, trying to comprehend that Zavala had been in the house—his house. The knife was cold fire, the pressure increasing now. He felt tiny rivulets and, by his ear, warm beer-breath. Rae! He stood very still, anger competing now with fear. When had the bastard broken in?

“My wife,” he managed to say. “You…”

Zavala was a graveled whisper, goading. “We share a taste for dark meat, puerco. Maybe I don’t kill that one.”

Paul twisted only to feel more pressure at his neck. Fighting to stay calm, he heard from far away Wil’s voice shouting and Zavala again.

“This what you wanted, puerco, to hunt down Bolo Zavala? Qué? Now you got him, what next, eh?” He sniffed in sharply. “Tell your friend you and I are going to have a party, that we’re sorry he is not here. Tell him now.”

Paul raised the receiver, warnings still coming from it. “Wil,” he said. The force of the blade on his throat made it hard to speak, but he heard the line quiet suddenly. “We got a problem.”

 

 

“He has a knife, man. He knows about you.” The voice in the phone was guttural, labored.

Fingers of ice started at Wil’s groin, worked their way up his spine. Jesus God! Catching himself then, nothing in giving way to panic. He had the phone, not much but something. Think!

He took a deep breath, let it out. “Paul, we’ll get through this,” he said. “Hand him the phone.”

He heard a rustling, then breathing; brassy trumpet faint in the background. He was conscious of his grip on the phone. “My friend knows nothing,” he started. “It’s me. I want to ask some questions—no danger to you, no law, just questions. We can work this out, but not if you hurt my friend.”

No answer.

“I can be there in minutes. All I want is to talk.”

“Liar!” The voice was bright with fury. “The truth, or your friend dies now. What questions? Who is asking them. Why?”

There was an excruciating gasping sound from Paul.

“All right, it’s yours,” Wil said. “Whatever you want, no tricks. Just stay loose.” Again no answer, Wil thinking Zavala was considering it—just maybe. He heard Paul give a strangled gasp, then:

“Fuckin’ kid-killer, man…don’t…”

Son of a bitch, not now. There was a savage grunt and the receiver banging hard against something and his own voice rising to a shout. “Zavala, wait, anything you want.” Pounding on the steering. “Wait!” Trying not to imagine what he was hearing.

Seconds later there was a muffled rubbing and the voice, cold now. “Sad you can’t see this. No mind, there will be another time for you, Señor Hardesty. Another time.”

After that there was nothing but the sounds.