The Innocents: Part Six

Innocents600x900Click here for previous installments

 

TEN

 

Wil aimed the .45 and fired; a plume of reddish dirt rose and fell with a clatter of stones. Aiming again, he squeezed off another round: Fifty feet away, the soup can jerked in the air and clinked against the hillside.

He replaced the clip.

Reaching into his duffel, he pulled out the beer cans, lined them up slightly apart on the fallen cottonwood. Twelve paces he stepped off, closer this time. Assuming a two-handed stance, he let loose all seven rounds at the six targets. Four spun off as the sound rolled away down the canyon.

Most of the time he hadn’t much occasion for the .45. But today he’d dug it out, bought ammo, headed out on the Harley for some fresh air and hand-eye stuff, Zavala-inspired. Most everybody who packed a sidearm now was into the teen-shot nine millimeters. Wil liked the .45 for its stopping power, despite the limited capacity: eight rounds he carried cocked and locked, the extra bullet in the chamber, compensating for the seven-round clips by carrying several.

Hand and arm throbbing pleasantly, he policed the area and left, gentling the motorcycle through Wheeler Gorge. Fragrant air rife with the smell of California laurel, the sycamores turning shades of gold; even the Super Glide was behaving. He gunned it a little and was home in an hour, making coffee when Mo Epstein rang.

“Vella asked me to call,” Mo said. “We turned up some things on your boy Zavala. Pacheco, too.”

Wil got out a notepad. “Was I right about you guys or what? Before you start, though, add a tattoo to what I gave you.” He described it, then said, “Okay, ready.”

“First, we confirmed Hermosillo,” Mo said. “Zavala worked in a slaughterhouse there and did some boxing. Man has a record going back to the late fifties: drugs, assaults, typical shit. Plus he’s still wanted in connection with stealing armory weapons, early sixties.”

“How about the people stuff?”

“That came later, apparently. The authorities knew about it but were never able to catch him. Got a half-dozen old killings—witnesses and the like—they think are his. No Bolo, though. Incidentally, our sources said he was known for the kind of knife he used, ergo the nickname. Real name is Antonio.”

“Antonio,” said Wil, writing. “Probably had a mother even.”

Epstein went on. “September 1971, he pushed his luck like you said. The Border Patrol got a tip he was coming across pre-dawn near Calexico and caught him in a roadblock with a vanful of customers including women and kids. The guy was armed to the teeth, killed three patrolmen. He got it, too—they found blood—but somehow he escaped. Incident stirred up hell with the feds.”

Wil heard him take a pull on something wet.

“There’s speculation he’s dead,” Mo continued. “But no hard evidence, either here or in Mexico.”

“Any local contacts?”

“Sketchy. He had a girl in East L.A., but she died the same year from drugs. FBI staked out her place for about six months after the shootout and came up snake-eyes. They spotted him a couple of times in the late seventies, nothing since then. Figured he got his comeuppance somewhere in Mexico. A warrant’s still out on him for the Calexico guys, though. They haven’t forgotten.”

“Hold on a second.” Wil wrote a moment then spoke. “Who’s the girl who died?”

“That’s where it gets interesting. Her name’s Lucinda Pacheco, sister of the guy they found dead in the Colorado. Incidentally, his name was Porfirio, aka Sonny. He and Zavala were pals. According to the police it was Sonny first got Zavala into the people business—Zavala did the runs to L.A. while Sonny collected the pigeons, sometimes vice versa. Sonny Pacheco had a sheet as long as your arm down there and no shortage of enemies. Finally moved his family up here.”

Mo stopped to clear his throat, started again.

“Anyway, Lucinda. It’s secondhand, but the Mexicans think she fell for Zavala and he responded by getting her hooked. Up here she got in deep and died in the usual squalid way. Sonny took it hard. According to police records, he tipped off the locals about when Zavala was making a run, and they notified our people. Sonny must have known Bolo would try to shoot it out but didn’t figure on his getting away. Bolo did and Sonny paid.”

“Any Pachecos left in L.A.?”

“Just ask. We tracked a sister, Donna. Her name’s Ybarra now. Lives in East Los Angeles, address 542 Hibiscus Place. Horrible neighborhood, more like East Beirut.”

Wil finished writing. “Sounds like you’ve been there.”

“Such a dick. The good lady suggested a way we could get to know each other better.”

“Must be your way with women, Mo. She know anything about Zavala?”

“Yeah. Said he died in a knife fight.”

 

 

Sunday traffic was light until he hit the Valley, the overcast breaking up as he parked in front of the house and went in. To his relief, Paul seemed to have forgotten their conversation, although Wil knew he’d have to bring it up again. The feeling of walking a tightrope was hard to ignore.

Paul drove. On the way, Wil briefed him on the calls from Gilberto Reyes and Mo.

“So where’s that leave us?” Paul asked. “Any closer to a motive?”

“I can’t see how. If it wasn’t for money, that leaves sex. But nothing’s turned up in Zavala’s background, at least that Mo found. And people like that generally have histories.”

“What about the people he sold the boy to?”

“Benito would have been an investment for them, something to keep around. The medal indicates he was killed right away.”

“So who’d murder seven kids—devil worshippers? Great talk for a Sunday, huh?” Paul signaled a left, then waited to turn.

Wil said, “I’m no expert, but it seems pretty clean for those types. From what I’ve read, they leave symbols.”

“Sheeit.”

They turned and followed a line of cars down an unprosperous street into a crowded parking lot. Sun glinted off numerous luxury automobiles. Doors thunked, feet step-shuffled. As they joined the walkers, Paul noted the Mercedes and BMW nameplates.

“Damn,” he said. “That kind of sheet metal in a neighborhood like this? Unreal.”

Wil nodded. Ahead of them St. Boniface rose up; he stood taking it in as Paul went on ahead. The church was newish, sandblasted concrete giving it a miniature-cathedral look, oversize doors curving Gothic-style to meet at the center. Recessed in thick walls were stained glass windows. Thirty-foot deodars stood sentry along the walk.

At the foot of the stairs, a tall priest in a purple vestment with gold brocade was smiling at the people milling around him. Silvering hair framed a tan face and white even teeth. He looked familiar somehow and very much in his element. Sixty, Wil guessed—until he caught up with Paul, who was shaking the priest’s hand.

Few wrinkles showed in the priest’s face, the effect slightly disconcerting. Paul was saying, “Father, you remember me, the Ortega’s cousin? We spoke the other day about Hermosillo.”

“Mr. Rodriguez, of course. Isabel got you your list?” The voice was rich and softly accented.

Paul turned to Wil. “Yes, thank you. Father Martin DeSantis, my friend Wil Hardesty. We served together in Vietnam.”

The priest extended a manicured hand, sun highlighting clear nail polish. He gave Wil a firm grip; dark eyes sought his. “Mr. Hardesty, welcome. It’s always good to see a new face.” To Paul he said, “Is this the friend in difficulty?”

“Oh no, Father. This friend is helping me help my other friend.”

“Friendship is a wonderful thing,” said Father Martin. “By the way, I passed your request on to Leonardo.” He turned from Paul to Wil. “Leonardo Guerra—perhaps you heard he would be here today. Which reminds me, you should go in. Latecomers have to stand.”

As if to confirm his point, bells sounded.

They entered, found a seat in back. The interior was at once traditional and contemporary: more raw concrete—attractive in a stark way—dark pews, metal crucifix behind a slab altar, antique stations of the cross, Plexiglas pulpit. With just over two weeks until Christmas, St. Boniface was red with poinsettias. As Father Martin predicted, an overflow gathered in back and down the side aisles.

The church had forgone Latin, Wil knew, but he was unprepared for the impact of English. As Mass progressed, he tried to be open; at least there was active participation.

Halfway through, Father Martin ascended the pulpit. His gaze encompassed them. “How privileged I am to see you,” he said. “All of you know that we have done much in a short time. And yet there are so many still who need our help.”

He leaned forward.

“You were with me when we fed and sheltered the homeless. You were there when we went to assist families coming here to find the dream. Togetherwe created a network of urban resources, jobs for the indigent,legal help for the downtrodden, centers for the sick and the persecuted. You reached out beyond your own border, and the result was a program governments have held up for example.”

Paul leaned over. “Some delivery—regular Charlton Heston.”

Martin DeSantis went on, his voice rising. “When we stand as one there is nothing we cannot do. Nothing!”

There was a murmur of approval.

“Yet as much as we have given, as many sacrifices as we have made, our work calls louder and clearer than ever.” He unfolded a letter.

“This is from Miguel, who has been with us since Hermosillo’s inception. He says our old warehouse cannot contain all the food and clothing we send. It rots outside unprotected while all over Mexico the hungry and the sick, the neglected, go without.” On “without,” he slammed his hand on the pulpit.

“There is more,” he said. “Our shelter there no longer is safe. Plaster crumbles, pipes burst, ceilings sag. Those who have nothing have nowhere to go. We turn them away as Joseph and Mary were themselves turned away two weeks from today almost two thousand years ago.

“I look at you and see people who are whole, complete. Yet who is complete when others are not? Which of you will let brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, go hungry? Which of you can be happy knowing others are suffering, can live knowing others are dying?” Father Martin held out his hands.

“There was a time for our other tasks. The time for Hermosillo is once again now, the clarity of our mission absolute. Once more I ask you in His name. Give us the tools. Give us the money. Allow Los Amigosto remain a beacon for those without hope.” After a final look, he descended to sit between his altar boys.

Volunteers set forth with long-handled baskets. Everywhere in the congregation was the rustle of bills and envelopes, the clink of coins dropped by wide-eyed children: “Put it in the basket, dear, it’s for Father Martin.”

After the collection Wil saw the Eucharist raised, heard hymns and responses, but it was the passion of Martin DeSantis that held him. The power. For a moment he projected the priest into politics. Then Mass ended, and he filed out with Paul as the choir punched up “Adeste Fidelis.”

As they exited, he was there. Standing in bright sun, basking in the moment, his congregation pressing in for benediction, then dispersing.

“Father, you’re enough to return strays to the fold,” Wil said at length. “And your church is not what I expected.”

“I tried to tell him, Father,” Paul added.

Children pressed in. The priest smiled, reached under his vestments, came out with foil-wrapped candies he passed out. “That’s all,” he said, and after they’d left, “You expected perhaps a few old ladies in rebozos. It was like that once. But we’ve been building St. Boniface for over twenty years now with the help of God and these people. Are they not incredible? They come because we offer them a chance to make a difference in the real world, with its disease and hunger and suffering.” Raising a hand, he shielded his eyes from the sun.

“Just now they blessed us with over twelve thousand dollars.”

Paul’s eyes widened.

“You might appreciate, Mr. Rodriguez, that our operating budget was over six million this year.” He waved at a well-dressed family.

Wil was about to ask how the money was distributed when a man stepped up behind Father Martin. Aviator-style glasses emphasized eyes the dull color of zinc; slim fingers smoothed a thin mustache. The aroma of citrus cologne hovered around him. With him was a Latin-looking young man, similarly dark-suited and silk-tied.

The man cleared his throat.

Father Martin turned. “Ah. Gentlemen, this is the man who made St. Boniface possible. Everything you see here he built. Leonardo, this is Mr. Rodriguez, whom I told you about, and Mr. Hardesty.”

They shook hands. Leonardo Guerra introduced his foster son, Julio, as the youth lowered his eyes. Guerra then dismissed the young man, who headed toward the parking lot.

“He is doing very well, Martin,” Guerra said. “We talked—he wants to be an altar boy. I told him I would ask you.”

The priest smiled broadly. “Classes start Thursday, four o’clock. And now, Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Hardesty wished to have a word with you, so I will get about my business. Gentlemen, I leave you in excellent hands. Leonardo Guerra is a true friend of St. Boniface.”

 

 

They sat at the end of a long row of folding tables, the hall crowded with people socializing over post-Mass coffee and doughnuts. Sunlight streaming in high windows flared in the diamond on Guerra’s right ring finger.

“There is talk of the Nobel Prize, you know.” The speech was Spanish-laced, the inflections arresting. “I have been here from the start, seen what he has done—the missions, the centers, the programs, these buildings. All since he came.”

“When was that?” Wil asked.

Guerra thought. “Christmas sixty-six. I had just moved here. He was simply…incandescent. Filled with what he had to do. Like Jesus to Peter, he beckoned, I followed.”

Wil ignored the comparison. The man had an odd, vain manner, smiles that stopped short of his eyes. “Leonardo…” he began.

“Lenny, please. Only Father Martin calls me Leonardo.”

“Lenny. You built St. Boniface?”

“My company did, yes. Before coming to Los Angeles, I was in construction, so it was logical for me to help Father Martin with his new home.” He looked around the room. “The labor of love, you might say.”

“You moved your business from Hermosillo?”

“Father Martin must have told you. Yes, but I don’t do construction anymore.” Guerra noticed Paul’s quizzical look. “Import-export. Latin American antiquities primarily.”

Paul nodded. He bit into a doughnut, wiped his lips with a paper napkin. Wil said, “Did Father Martin tell you we’re trying to locate someone?”

Paul swallowed hurriedly. “For a friend. He’d be very grateful for any help you can give us.”

“The man we’re looking for used to live in Hermosillo,” Wil said, throwing Paul a look.

Paul flushed and returned to his doughnut. Guerra stroked his tie.

“So Martin said. You know, gentlemen, Hermosillo was not a small place even then, and my memory gets no better with age.”

As Guerra spoke, Wil was struck by the absurdity: Hermosillo was a city, and this man hardly seemed the type who’d know about someone like Zavala. Still, this was what you did—asked somebody who knew somebody else who knew something, and somewhere along the line you made something happen.

“The name is Zavala,” Wil said. “Antonio Zavala, Bolo he was called. Stocky, reddish hair, mottled complexion. Among other things, he did some boxing.”

Paul finished a bite, used the napkin on sugared fingers. Guerra leaned back, hands coming together as though in prayer.

“Mr. Hardesty, Mr. Rodriguez, this is a remarkable coincidence.” Smiling, he opened his palms.

 

 

Isabel Diaz, who happened to be working Sunday, brought them fresh coffees; at Leonardo Guerra’s suggestion they had moved to quieter quarters, a paneled office in another part of the building. After Isabel returned to her desk, Guerra removed a silver case from his coat pocket, offered cigarettes around, lit one with a filigreed lighter. He exhaled smoke.

“I saw him fight. Not more than nineteen, he was—no style, but a ferocious puncher. The night I was there, he nearly killed his opponent, wouldn’t stop even though the man was clearly finished. Finally the other cornermen jumped in, and Zavala threw both of them out of the ring. From then on they refused to let him box.”

Guerra smiled. “After the bout I asked someone about this bantam rooster and was told the young man worked slaughtering pigs. I was also told a story. His father was a drunken ex-fighter who used to spar with the boy, wanted to make him hard to hit in the ring. To do so he had him put a razor blade in his mouth. The father would get mean on tequila, land punches and cut him. One day Bolo was fast enough. He spat out the razor blade and sliced his father’s ears off, as a bullfighter would, told him he would kill him if he ever saw him again.” Guerra paused. “I don’t know if the story is true, but not many laid a glove on him. Even fewer wanted to fight.”

Paul stirred sugar into his coffee. “Some story.”

“And after that?” Wil asked.

Guerra began polishing his glasses with a handkerchief, first fogging the lenses. “After he left the ring, I lost track. Occasionally I’d see him at a match, then not at all. Someone told me there had been trouble with the law, that he had been killed, although I don’t know when or how.”

“You remember what kind of trouble?”

“Guns, I think, Mr. Hardesty.”

“Did you ever hear of him running families out of Mexico?”

“No. But again, I didn’t follow him closely after the boxing.” He drew on the cigarette. “I know people down there. I could put you in touch if you wish.”

Paul sat forward to speak.

“Thank you,” Wil said, “perhaps later. One more question? Have you ever seen Bolo Zavala at any time in Los Angeles?”

Guerra crushed the rest of his cigarette in an ashtray on the desk. His tone was patronizing. “That would be most bizarre in a city this size. No, Mr. Hardesty, I have not seen him.”

 

 

Julio sat patiently in a black Mercedes; Wil could see his profile through the tinted glass as they walked to Paul’s car. The lot was nearly empty now.

Paul said, “Some lead, huh? Not bad for an over-the-hill gunnie.” He steered the Chevy wagon out into traffic. “Thoughts?”

Wil slipped a loafer, rested his foot on the dash. “Interesting man, Guerra. Had a good memory after all, didn’t he? The razor blade story works with Gilberto’s tattoos, everything else with what Mo found out.” He rubbed between his eyebrows. “I don’t know. Everybody on the same page—makes you wonder a little, maybe.”

Paul looked at him.

Wil caught it, grinned. “Hey, man, you did good. By the way, a free tip? Never give out more than you have to, even on something as small as a client’s gender. I learned that once the hard way.”

Paul stared straight ahead. “You concerned about Guerra?”

“Not even sure he caught it,” Wil said.

Paul nosed the wagon up the on-ramp. For a while they drove in silence, then he said, “Damn, that’s some operation out there. Twelve thousand in that neighborhood? Raeann won’t believe it.”

“We’re not the only ones impressed with Father Martin, are we?”

“I haven’t seen that many furs since the zoo.” Paul thought a minute. “Antiquities been bery good to ol’ Leonardo, from the looks of that suit.”

Wil regarded his friend’s blue polyester. “Maybe you should go talk to him.”

“Sheeit.”

At the house Wil phoned Mo Epstein and got an earful about a break they’d gotten in the Lynwood hooker killings, some woman whose husband had contracted AIDS from one and passed the virus on to her. Wil mentioned the coincidence of Zavala-Guerra and then described the man with the gray eyes.

“Just a wild hair, Mo, but I’d be hard pressed to recall what he did about some boxer I barely knew twenty years ago.” He let a few seconds pass. “Look, it’s probably nothing. You guys can’t be checking out every Leonardo Guerra coming down the pike.” After the expected profanity, he hung up, promising to call Mo again Monday. By then Raeann and Paul were off on errands.

Wil strapped on the .45, put on his coat, and left for East L.A.

 

ELEVEN

 

Hibiscus Place was a pothole-scarred orphan that dead-ended at the freeway, surrounded by a neighborhood in full retreat.

Wil got out of the car to a barrage of traffic noise and looked around. Tired weeds waved surrender through split sidewalks; dirt long ago had overrun the lawns. Wood siding on the houses begged for paint. Eaves and porches sagged.

Five-forty-two was just up from the dead end, its exterior a faded urine color, the molding a long-ago eggshell. On the porch a child about two gnawed a chicharron that had been dropped more than once. The child eyed Wil suspiciously as he approached.

Wil knocked, waited, knocked again—this time louder than the game show playing at high volume inside. In the gloom past a dusty screen door, springs creaked.

“Told you people I don’t talk to no fuckin’ cops.”

“Not a cop,” said Wil.

“The fuck you want then?”

“Justice for Sonny Pacheco.”

Somebody won the bonus round, and a large shape became just visible through the screen. Yellowish shirt over worn jeans, part of a bulging stomach the shirt refused to cover—a woman, about thirty-five, Wil guessed.

She said, “What do you know about Sonny?”

“One, that he was cut by a man named Bolo Zavala. Two, that Zavala is still out there.”

A foot kicked open the door, nearly hitting him. Instinctively his hand went under his coat, relaxed as the door banged harmlessly.

“Donna Pacheco Ybarra?” He could see her better now: big and gone to seed; pretty perhaps, in a coarse way, with deep dark eyes. Some of her hair was up in pink rollers. She held a pistol-grip spray bottle as though ready to shoot him with it.

“Maybe. Who in hell are you?” Despite her bulk, her voice was raspy, asthmatic almost, reminding him of gravel being raked around.

“Name’s Hardesty. I was in the neighborhood.”

“Yeah, like the cops. Funny how everybody’s all of a sudden taking an interest in some guy I used to know.” She picked up the baby, who had made a beeline for her legs. “What kind of justice you talkin’ about? My brother’s been dead a long time.”

“We talk in there? Might be quieter.” Wil gave her his card.

She sized him up a moment, then grunted and turned away. “Shut the screen behind you,” she said.

He took a seat on the couch across from a patched recliner; a TV tray held more pink rollers. Under a painting of the Sacred Heart, fiesta dolls in ruffled skirts pranced on a table surrounded by orange-and-chrome chairs. In the corner was a scattering of toys that the child went for; charging full tilt, she fell and began to howl.

Donna turned off the TV, put the sprayer on the tray, bumped it as she sat down. A roller fell off onto the floor. Getting no attention, the child shut up.

“One more time,” she said. “What’s your interest in my brother?”

“I’m looking for the man who killed him, Donna. For a friend of mine who believes Bolo Zavala murdered his son.”

“So?”

“So he wasn’t much older than your baby. Maybe you heard about it: six other kids found with him, buried in the desert. Their throats cut.”

Donna shifted in the recliner.

Wil went on. “I need your help. Everybody says Zavala is dead, but no one’s seen a body. I think he’s out there laughing at us.”

She eased out of red plastic sandals, moved her feet under her. “I told the cops. He’s dead, stabbed in a fight.”

“You mean you heard he’s dead. What if he’s not? What if that’s just a story he wants you and everybody to believe so nobody will look for him?”

A cuticle caught her interest, and she picked at it.

“That would mean he’s still out there, Donna. Still killing.” Wil gentled his voice a notch. “Look, you knew him. What would it hurt just telling me about it?”

She chewed the nail. “Bolo Zavala didn’t kill no kids.”

“He killed Sonny, and you’re Sonny’s sister. How can you not help me find him?”

Wil waited for her reaction; at first he thought it was a cough. Her laugh rumbled around her throat then died.

“Hot stuff, ain’t you?” she checked his card “Hardesty. ‘A’ for effort. But you’re full of it. My brother deserved what he got. Yeah, that’s right, Bolo Zavala did him, so what? He ratted on Bolo, nearly got him killed.”

Wil sat silent, not moving as she began to warm to it.

“My brother was pinche cabrón, no-good trash. Dumped us up here and left us. The cops said Bolo hooked my sister on drugs. That’s shit. Sonny hooked Lucinda, then when she died, used her as an excuse to turn on Bolo because he wanted Bolo’s share of the business.” She glared at him, her eyes and tone defiant. “Not how you heard it, huh? Listen, Sonny was the devil. Bolo just sent him back to hell.”

As she glared, he thought about it: she was a grenade with the pin pulled, ready to go off and blow something out. “True enough,” he said. “That wasn’t how I heard it.”

“Damn right. What do you think now?”

He shrugged. “Still leaves me with no Zavala.”

“I told you he was dead. And I just know, that’s all.”

“When was the knife fight?”

She gathered a clump of hair, sprayed it, began to wind it around a roller. “Years ago. Eighty-three.”

“What happened?”

Hesitation; a breath, then, “They were Colombians. The dealer’s bodyguard pulled a knife. Bolo must have been juiced, or the guy would never have got him. He was real good with a blade.” A thin smile crossed her face, then was gone. “He cut the other guy, but it was too late. They dumped him somewhere.”

“Where? Who told you about it?”

“Fuck you. What do you care—you have no idea what he was like. Didn’t kill no kids, I can tell you that.”

She was all defenses. A thought came to him, and he went with it—nothing to be gained by silence. “You loved him, didn’t you.”

“That’s none of your fuckin’ business. He wasn’t nothing like you say. Bolo was kind to me even though he was with Lucinda and I was young. He was nice. Not many were.”

“Donna, he killed people in Mexico. He shot up three border patrolmen. Now it looks like he murdered seven children. Help me understand how nice he was.”

Instead of answering, she went to the kitchen, came back with two cans of malt liquor, and handed one over. She popped the tab on hers, gulped some down.

Wil eyed his, conscious of an ache spreading in his throat.

“Nobody gave him spit—ever,” she said, “just beat on him. Then he got fast and hard and people stopped beating on Bolo Zavala cause he beat back harder.” She raised her eyes. “Yeah, maybe he’s done bad. And maybe they had it coming.”

“My friend’s boy was six.”

“No way. Bolo Zavala may do a lot of things, but he ain’t no child killer. You tell your friend that.” Her eyes began to fill in frustration.

“How can I tell my friend that, Donna? How do you know?”

“He’ll kill me,” she said finally.

“Who will? Zavala?”

Her eyes darted to the door and back. “My old man. He’d be here now except for his overtime. Frankie’s all right when he’s sober, but…” She put a hand on her throat. “He gimme this voice—among other things.”

“Look, I’m sorry, Donna. He’s bad when he drinks. But why would your husband want to kill you?”

“Not husband, old man.” She sighed. “Bolo’s why. About three years ago at Angel’s Bar. We went out a couple times. Frankie never knew.”

“So Zavala didn’t die after all?”

Her head moved side to side as if it might fall off. “He came to my house, back before Frankie. I didn’t recognize him at first. Been twelve years, but there he was. Like I said, the Colombians tried.” She stopped for another swallow.

“I didn’t think he was gonna make it. His gut was split and his face—hell, surprised me he got here at all. In time he got well. Then he left.”

“And three years later you saw him again at the bar.”

“More like four. Frankie was working late, and I was out with a girlfriend. We’d get together once in a while after that.” Her eyes dropped. “Friends, he said.”

“He is alive, then.”

“You leave him alone. I told you, he’s not like that. Bolo Zavala don’t kill no kids, no way. Couldn’t of, I know.”

He tried to ask, but she cut him off.

“You don’t get it, do you, Mr….Whatever? You don’t get nothing. Now leave us alone.” Suddenly the can was off the arm of her recliner and on the floor, malt liquor foaming at her feet. As he watched her scramble for it, his eyes drifted across the braided rug to where the answer hit him. It was playing in the corner with a pile of Legos, chewing some, snapping some together. The answer had freckles and a shock of curly orange hair. Unlike Donna’s. Wil glanced from child to mother.

Donna saw him looking. “He’s good with her,” she said without sharpness. “Rough with everybody else, me included, but good with her. It’s how I know.”

Wil handed her his untouched malt liquor; she took it but barely noticed.

“In Hermosillo, Bolo used to hang out with my brother, but sometimes we’d come along. I remember this walk once. A man was beating his kid with a switch. Bolo freaked and knocked him down, told him the only reason he didn’t kill a worthless piece of shit like that was because he was the boy’s father, and if he ever hurt him again, he, Bolo, would find the guy and finish the job.”

Wil said it quietly: “Donna, if Zavala isn’t dead, where is he? Have you seen him?”

Her face flushed. “No, and I ain’t telling you no more. You leave him alone, you and your stories. You tell your friend that Bolo Zavala maybe killed his share, but he don’t kill no kids.”

 

 

They’d brought out the Christmas tree, a green-needled artificial one, and were decorating it when Wil walked in.

“All the poinsettias today got me in the mood,” Paul said. He took a gold ball from Raeann. “How’d it go?”

Wil went through it. “She’s Ybarra now, has a kid—with red hair and freckles.” He watched Paul’s eyes widen. “You got it. Said Zavala’d seen the baby, which puts him in L.A. within the last two years. And she mentioned a bar, Angel’s.”

Paul got a pile of phone directories from the den and thumbed through them. “At least we’re not looking for a ghost anymore.” He made notes on a pad. “Four,” he said at length. “The Valley, East L.A., South Bay, San Gabriel. Start with East L.A.?”

Wil saw Raeann’s look. “Paul, I’m going this one alone.”

Paul straightened.

“You know this guy, what he’s done,” Wil said. “Let me take it from here.”

“Man, I was shootin’ and gettin’ shot at before you knew which end of the gun the goddamn bullets come out—if you remember.” He jabbed a finger at Wil. “This bozo’s bad as they say, you’re gonna need the help.”

Raeann went to him, rigid and glaring. “Listen to him, Rodriguez. I didn’t spend thirty years with you so you could run around after some hoodlum in your golden years. We know you can handle it, baby, we’re just asking you not to.”

He pushed her out to arm’s length. “How many baskets, Rae? How many little chores we make sound important?” His tone relented, but still he held her. “You’re busy, hon, but I’m making work. This is my life, too. I’m not ready for it to end yet.”

Tears came. Paul drew her in; over her shoulder he said, “Look, man, I’m not trying to make trouble here. But this Angel’s is probably a Mexican place—even if they speak a little English, they’ll stop the second they see you. No comprendo. Then what?”

Wil said nothing.

Paul said, “Trust me: You go to Angel’s, I stay in the car. When you’re ready, you signal and I read these guys like a book. What do you say?” He smiled hopefully.

Feeling like shit, Wil said it. “Sorry, amigo. We’re a long way from the Mekong Delta.”

 

 

The Christmas tree stood abandoned; Raeann was lying down, Paul self-exiled to the garage. Incompletion hung in the air like the haze after a burn. Wil used their phone to reach Mo Epstein, ran through the Pacheco-Ybarra visit, the Zavala connection, Angel’s Bar.

“Fuck,” Mo said, “all she gave us was bad language. Probably looked in those Irish eyes of yours and couldn’t help herself. Real sweetheart, huh? The yellow rose of cactus.”

“Yeah,” Wil said absently. “This Angel’s might be something. Are you in?”

“Lemme check with Vella, but I don’t see why not. Should have an answer by late tomorrow.”

“Reach me at home then. And see if you agree: East L.A., South Bay, San Gabriel, then the Valley—assuming it goes that far.”

“Such an organizer.”

“Just tell Freiman I’m cooperating like crazy.” He hung up, decision made; cops or no cops, he was going. In the garage, he found Paul at his workbench, struggling with a broken lawn chair.

“Thanks for everything, Jefe,” he said. “I’ll let you know what’s going on.”

Paul kept working.

“Look, I love you for trying, man. I’d do exactly the same thing. Friends?”

Paul looked up, forced a smile. “Por supuesto,” he said. “Of course, friends. Sheeit, this is me, remember? Whatever you need, you got. You want me to stay out of the way, I stay out of the way.”

 

 

Back late, up early, his breath preceding him in the morning cold.

Wil eased down the stairs and headed for one of La Conchita’s tunnels—four feet high, eight feet wide, half a football field long—that ran under the railroad tracks and the highway. He stooped his way through, pausing on the rocky revetment that shored up the roadway on the ocean side. At high tide, water came almost to the base of the rocks. Sometimes when the waves were big, he and Lisa would come watch. Once, during a storm, blanket-wrapped, they’d made love.

He clambered down to packed sand, started an easy pace toward the Rincon—with the tide out, there’d be beach most of the way, the sea calm and flat and slate-colored under overcast. He passed only two people, a girl in sweats like he was and an older man running a pair of black Labs. Gulls fought over a dead man o’war. A flock of pelicans skimmed the water.

Wil smiled at how much Devin used to like this run. Just the two of them dodging incursions of surf, Dev laughing delightedly when they misjudged it and the foam surged over their feet. His son was turning—had turned—into quite a runner. Couple of ten-K’s completed; youngest entrant in a half-marathon Wil encouraged him to enter.

He’d taken to surfing, too, Dev had. Better coordinated than his pals, better certainly than his father had been starting out.

Fearless.

Wil watched the Labs chase a stick into the water and realized he’d slowed to a walk, conscious now of the stitch in his side. The whole thing with Dev was like a movie. Beginning, middle, end—a little slice out of your life and afterward not wanting to leave the theater because the story moved you to tears. What he desperately wanted was to change the ending from what it had become back into what it should have been. Get it on course again, fix how it all came out. Especially his role in it.

Hero to fool.

Wind chilled the tracks on his face. The beach was deserted now. Identifying with Ignacio Reyes, another fool who by his own hand had lost his son and whose sorrow would never cease, Wil started back toward the house.

 

 

Lisa was just coming out of the shower. Wil followed her in and afterward joined her in front of the window where she’d set a tray with the carafe and their mugs on it. He filled his, stirred in half-and-half.

“Penny?” she said.

“What?”

“For your thoughts. You’re wearing out the spoon.”

“Sorry, Leese. This thing with Bolo Zavala,” he lied. “What I told you about.”

“Like what specifically?”

“Like why he’d murder seven kids younger than Devin. What’s frustrating is knowing that he’s out there somewhere. Alive and with the answer.”

She was quiet so long it prompted him to ask why.

“I was just thinking,” she said. “About how incredibly distant all that is from what I do. From what most people do.” She sipped coffee. “Then there’s Gringo. You know that he and Pam split up?”

“No. When?”

“I don’t know exactly. They were talking about it at the store.”

“Not hard to see that one coming,” Wil said. “The guy just has an awful time committing.” He poured them more coffee, saw her look. “Christ, Lisa, you’re not serious.”

“You’re right,” she said. “It’s not as though you aren’t committed. It’s that I don’t know what you’re committed to anymore.”

He felt a familiar tightening in his throat. “Loving you is what I’m committed to.”

“That’s what hurts, Wil. You remember how long it took to conceive Devin? The goddamn endless tests, the things we tried? Then the doctor telling us to quit trying so hard, maybe it was that?”

He nodded as she went on.

“Suddenly there he was. You remember how it felt? Like all the Christmases you’d ever had rolled into one. Well, that’s what I want again. And it’s tearing me apart thinking you don’t want the same thing.”

He saw her tears forming, put down the mug, and held her.

“I know.”

“I don’t understand,” she said into his robe. “You loved Devin…”

Gently he held her away from him. “I did, I do, and I will, Lisa—every day as long as I live. But you know how I feel.”

She choked back an angry sob. “Still blaming yourself. Goddamn godlike Wil, no accidents allowed in his life.”

“Look,” he said, “maybe what we need to do is what we did before. Quit trying so damned hard.” He held her again until she broke from him and got up off the couch.

“Being with you made me want a child, Wil, something I lost when Dev died. But if you understand nothing else, understand that feeling is back for me—no matter how much I try to rationalize it away.” She turned and walked into the bedroom, shut the door.

He could hear her cries. Words that echoed and stung: No accidents allowed in his life. What the fuck was he doing—playing God, like she’d said? Wounding her to beat down his own pain? All his promises began to sound hollow and spin around him like mosquitoes eager for blood. Landing on him, sucking at his resolve—threatening to upset the delicate balance he’d created for himself.

No!

To be doing something, Wil hit the free weights in the basement, but they felt twice as heavy as normal, and after half an hour he quit and showered again. The rest of the day he and Lisa gave each other as much space as the house permitted, not angry so much as not talking. After Lisa left for a meeting, he called to update Reyes, leaving out the part about Zavala having a child, for no better reason than gut feel.

At four Mo called, breathing hard.

“Exercise bike, smog’ll kill you out there,” he said. “Okay, Vella bought in, so I’ll meet you downtown tomorrow at eleven. We take your wheels?”

“Pick you up on the Broadway side,” Wil said.

“Freeway close and a rose in my teeth. Mañana.”

He waited a while then phoned Paul, the feelings from yesterday kept fresh by his sense of guilt. After talk that bordered on trying too hard, he tried a peace offering.

“Papa Gomez, my treat,” Wil said. “Tomorrow after the last Angel’s so you can hear what we found out. Six o’clock, tell Raeann.”

 

 

The voice on the telephone was no longer calm. “What cops?” It was shouting now. “When? Cuénteme!”

“They were at her house,” Bolo Zavala said. “Asking about me. Luckily she told them nothing.”

“Goddammit,” Leonardo Guerra exploded. “Sheep, you said, not to worry. Yet someone has involved the law—who else but her?” His fury subsided somewhat, replaced by thought. “Unless one of your sheep involved Hardesty and Rodriguez, and they informed the cops. That would explain…”

“Maybe the real problem was telling them you knew me.”

Guerra’s tone became impatient. “To live a long life you must love your friends but sleep with your enemies. Meeting them, I learned two things. The first is that they know nothing.”

“And the second?”

“Their client is a man—not much, but something.”

Zavala was silent. He unwrapped a cheroot, lit it, tossed the burnt match into an ashtray. From the uneven buzz, he knew Guerra was pacing with the portable phone.

“Think again,” Guerra said. “About the sheep, about some father or brother. You must remember something. What about the name on the medal?” The anger was rising again.

He exhaled blue smoke. “How many times must I say it, the names meant nothing, Benito means nothing. They were ignorant peasants. As far as I was concerned they had no names.” On the other end, the buzzing stabilized; there was the creak of a chair, a glass set down.

Guerra said, “Then we have no choice. We must assume Hardesty and Rodriguez talked to the law, Hardesty hoping for some kind of deal for his client. We must assume also that his client’s afraid to come forward, whoever it is could have done so without them. They are middlemen, these two, between your sheep and the cops. When we sever the link, the cops will have nothing, only hearsay. It is time for you to act.”

Zavala took a long drag on the cheroot, passed the smoke through lips drawn tight. “My time for that is over, patron. Terminado!”

Guerra’s laugh was without mirth, a snake hissing. “Poor Bolo. You have forgotten how many men there are still anxious to find you. Men who remember and wait, who oil and sharpen—men I know. Not stopping this foolishness now would be most unwise.” He paused.

“And Bolo? Do something about the woman.”