The Innocents: Part Ten

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EIGHTEEN

 

The day had been mierda, the aroma of soiled diapers well suited to the degenerating tenor of their confrontation. First there was Bolo’s incredible macho stupidity in revealing himself to Hardesty—something Bolo insolently shrugged off, but which may have doomed them all. Then this new thing with the child. Leonardo Guerra sank back in the leather chair, thirty-year-old Fundador offering scant solace for Bolo’s insufferable strut, the words that still rang in his ears:

“Whose do you think she is, goddammit? Find room!”

He felt like a man sinking inch by inch into quicksand.

He drained the brandy, was feeling nothing from it when the security company phoned. Yes, they had responded. No, they’d found no one. Yes, it could have been a false trip—even the best devices were subject to hiccups. Nothing disturbed, nothing to worry about; they’d be by in the morning to check it out. Sorry to bother him.

Son of a bitch—would this day never end?

He started to pace. If there was a breach, it would have been right after Hardesty had been by the office asking questions and using his name, the intrusion too close to be coincidence. Assuming the worst, he wondered how long the man had been inside his office.

On the other hand, what would Hardesty have found? Guerra thought about possible compromises, rejecting each, knowing the weight he gave such matters, concern that accounted in no small measure for his success. He unwrapped another cigar. This evening, he deserved a second.

He lit it and blew a smoke ring. Very soon now, Hardesty would be old news. But that damn Zavala, his nose leading his head around…Then the idea hit. For a moment he puzzled with it, adding form and substance. Could it? If it did, even the child might not be the liability it first seemed. Perhaps, rather, a blessing in disguise.

Savoring the symmetry of his thought, Leonardo Guerra laid down the unsmoked half of his cigar. Moderation in all things, he reminded himself. Except, perhaps, in certain areas. He drained the rest of the brandy, and with quickening pulse set off down the hall toward Julio’s room.

 

 

The burning started at Wilshire. Heading up the San Diego freeway toward the Ventura, Wil flipped open the glove box, palmed a pack of Di-Gel and popped two, waiting for his stomach to calm after a night of coffee-shop meatloaf and illegal entry. Around Whitehurst he began to feel better. Under his sweater, the damp T-shirt stuck like Saran.

Friday night traffic was comforting, a moving blanket after being so vulnerable. Past the Valley, however, it began to thin, reminding him of what he faced at home. He could rig the house to prevent surprise, but outside he’d have no such advantage—Zavala could pick the spot and the time.

He steered his thoughts back to Guerra’s office, devil’s-advocating what he’d found: nothing really, a piece of newspaper. If Guerra’d clipped or highlighted the article, perhaps. But there was nothing unusual in his saving an entire section—not that he could prove. Not yet.

The baptismal certificates were curiously single-sourced, but again, hardly damning. He wondered how many of the files contained St. Boniface paper, found himself wanting another crack at them. Enough to break in again? The thought made him pop a third antacid.

Despite it, Wil felt a twinge as he slowed past Mussel Shoals for the turnoff. He unsnapped the .45, gripped it on the seat beside him, every familiar ditch, tree, parked car now threatening. At the driveway he maneuvered the Bonneville, probing the unlighted carport with its beams. He hit Park and slumped down; opening the side door, he rolled out onto damp gravel and came up sweeping an arc with the gun.

Ten seconds, twenty, thirty. Nothing. Pulse thumping, he ran for the stairs and inched across the landing to the door. Anyone looking must love this, he thought. He’d explain in the morning: just practicing.

Stupid not to leave lights burning—or had he? He unlocked the door, pulled it open to still air and silence. Tossing his keys into the dark interior, he slipped against an inside wall, then pushed off, seeking cover from better-adjusted eyes. Seconds passed, the house dead quiet. Wil crawled to a light switch and flipped it on. All seemed in order until he saw himself on the floor.

The photo was the torn half of a snapshot he recognized from Paul’s den, Wil and Paul at Cam Ranh Bay. He aimed the gun at the dark hall, knowing instinctively he’d have been dead had Zavala been there. With manic intensity he checked bedrooms, den, bathrooms, returning finally to the photograph, this time spotting the other half under the table.

Reuniting the pieces, he studied the poses, their confident looks. That’s how Zavala had known Paul—busted into his house, made him from the snapshot. Paul had walked right into it. Now Zavala was spelling it out for him: Fuck you, I’m here. Close. Wanting him to know it was coming.

After a while he remembered the Bonneville and moved it into the carport. Then he killed the house lights that were making him an easy target and slumped down in a chair. Another time. Fine. He’d get the bastard. Here was where it stopped.

He made coffee and settled down to wait.

 

 

Lisa caught him early, before she left for a client meeting. Her parents were glad for the company; she was busy, curious about Zavala, missed him, wanted to come home. Hold tight, he told her—nothing about the torn photograph.

He made a pot of high octane, drank it staring at the Saturday overcast, then showered, put on jeans, sweatshirt, holster, and started on the house: slats positioned in the rails of things that slid, wood wedges under things that opened. He wired electrical cord to door handles so that anyone trying them when they were plugged in got zapped. The remainder of the wire he’d zig-zag around the stairs before turning in. Finally, he hung a couple of trouble lights at spots not covered by the outdoor floods.

It would have to do.

At eleven Staff Sergeant Tommy Rodriguez of Lackland Air Force Base called from Raeann’s: They would bury his father’s ashes Tuesday and wanted Wil and Lisa there. As Wil confirmed it, his eyes dropped to the patched-up snapshot. He asked about Raeann.

“She’s okay, Mr. Hardesty,” Tommy said. “Pretty close to going back to San Antonio with me.” He said good-bye and hung up.

Around two Wil slipped outside, cut through yards to the minimarket where he bought basics and a half-dozen burgers to go, back in about forty minutes. Halfway up the stairs, someone was leaning against the house. Black pants and shoes—tapping, restless.

Wil set down the bag, pulled the .45 from under his jacket, thumbed off the safety, and crept to the corner of the house. On the stairs the pants shifted position slightly. He got a two-handed grip on the gun, then whipped around the corner in a police crouch. Mo Epstein just looked at him.

“Fort Hardesty, I presume,” he said.

He was thin in the face and pale. Wil backed off the hammer, said, “How can someone look so shitty and so good at the same time?” Unlocking the door, he told him about Zavala.

Mo zeroed in on the Cam Ranh photo.

“I just got off the phone with Paul’s son,” Wil said. “Everything’s fine at Raeann’s. No reason Zavala’d go back.”

Mo picked up the phone and requested surveillance. “You never know,” he said. “Might figure he’d catch you down there.” After the call, he reviewed Wil’s homemade security system. “Nice thought, anyway. Any idea when this creep’s coming?”

“Tonight or tomorrow. He’ll give me time to burn out a little, get careless.”

“Real mano a mano guy, Zavala.”

“It’s why he’s vulnerable, Mo.”

“We’ll talk about that. My being here doesn’t mean I approve.”

As they ate burgers, Wil rehashed details of Donna Pacheco’s beating and her daughter’s abduction, most of which Epstein knew. He leaned back, the eyebrow lifted. “The woman’s lucky to be alive. You told the good guys about Zavala’s little visit here?”

“No.”

“Freiman hears the hard way, he’ll shit.”

“That’s his problem.”

“Listen to yourself. High Noon is a movie, pal. You agreed to Freiman’s deal, remember?”

Wil’s temper slipped before he could jam it. “Zavala nearly cut Paul’s head off in a goddamn bar while I listened. Screw Freiman.” Cool it, he told himself. “Mo, it’s way beyond that. It’s our best shot.”

“Sure, and what’s to lose? Only you, Jessica, the Innocents bust for certain.”

“We can stop him.”

Epstein snapped his fingers. “Like that I can put a shooter in every closet. Tell me why not.”

“He won’t hurt the baby,” Wil said. “But he will bolt for Mexico with her the second he spots a trap. Smart says we take him when he comes for me. Then save Jessica.”

“And you’ll have taken out your man. Very neat. What does Lisa have to say about it?”

Wil turned on him. “This thing has to play itself out and you know it. Are you in or not?”

Mo Epstein stood and paced across the room; his voice was glacial. “You’d better hope you’re right on this. Because if you’re not, we’re both going in the shitter.” He picked up his burger. “Where’s the nearest supermarket? I ain’t livin’ on these all weekend.”

 

 

Mo Epstein dumped grocery bags on the counter, his hair and jacket glistening from the trip out. From the window Wil nodded, then turned back, seeing only gray where the oil platforms and the Rincon had been. Christmas strings threw colored halos; cars already had their headlights on.

“Now wouldn’t be a bad time for it,” Wil said.

Mo put a couple of frozen dinners in the microwave, tossed Wil a soda, paper-toweled off. “How you want to play this, mon capitan?”

Wil thought. “Split the watch, front and bedrooms, rotate posts. It’ll keep us awake.”

They ate, then loaded clips and checked pistol actions. Wil cut the house lights, opened the blinds; they split up and settled down to wait. Outside, drizzle sparkled in the floods.

“By the way,” Mo said from darkness, “the lab turned up an unsmudged thumb on one of the pool cues and a partial palm on the table. Matched the prints we got from Mexico and the Feds. They’re turning cartwheels.”

“No more doubts, huh?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”

Steady drip metronomed the hours; at eight the drizzle became rain, making it harder to detect foreign sounds. Wil broke silence. “Mo?” A low grunt from the gloom. “This may sound odd.”

“What could be more normal than this?”

He hesitated. “It’s not adding up for me—Zavala, I mean, and the kids in the desert. At least not Zavala alone.”

There was a sigh. “Are we talking about the same guy? Where’s this coming from?”

“Something Montoya told me: Nobody who fathered a child could kill this way.”

“Old murders,” Mo came back. “He’s only been a father for two years.”

“So far as we know,” Wil said. “But it’s a good point, and I don’t have an answer, just instinct and Donna Pacheco. She swears he’s no child killer. Even after Zavala took Jess, she never mentioned thinking the kid’s life was in danger, only that she was gone.”

“From what you said, she was pretty spaced. I know the feeling.”

“She’s still the kid’s mother, Mo. And she told me most of that before he beat her up.”

“Sorry—what seems to be is usually what is, the blinding flash of the obvious. Or maybe it’s that this guy’s got a bead on me right now.” After a moment of quiet he added, “What do you mean, ‘at least not Zavala alone?’”

Wil told him about Paul, St. Boniface, Father Martin. “I think Guerra fingered Paul for Zavala,” he said. “Nothing I can prove.”

“Then you think this priest lied?”

“I don’t know. But Paul slipped up once before, and if Guerra did pass it on, he got it from somebody.”

“You wanna relate that back to the Innocents for me?”

“Would if I could, Mo.”

“Yeah—our strong suit right now.”

Wil drew in a breath, listened to not much of anything: night noises, dripping sounds. “Dev used to like the rain,” he mused. “Funny how I keep expecting him to come padding down the hall. Even now.” Suddenly he felt the need to say it: “You remember when I poked that deputy, Mo. He was right about me letting Devin surf there. It was dangerous.”

“Come on, living is dangerous. He’d surfed there before. He was good—you wouldn’t have taken him otherwise.”

“The bottom line is I didn’t protect my son.”

“Because you couldn’t protect your son and let him have a life. That’s at the heart of it with Lisa? No more kids because you can’t ensure their safety?”

“I can’t go through life terrified for them, Mo, it won’t work. For a kid or for me.”

“Terrified—?”

“Of it happening again. You get that? Lisa doesn’t.”

“It’s your call, man. I ain’t been there, but…”

I have.”

“So what happens now?”

In the dark, Wil rubbed his eyes. “With Lisa? I don’t know—play it by ear, I guess.”

At dawn they agreed to spell each other sleeping. Later the wind freshened and the rain stopped, cloud cover breaking into fast-moving cumuli. Neighbors did Sunday things; kids played with dogs. By evening they’d finished the last of the frozen entrees.

“Guerra,” Mo said suddenly, “I forgot to tell you what we found out, probably because he’s been a very good boy up here. Even the Niños files checked out. Guy’s a pillar—active in service clubs, helps the church, pays his taxes.”

“You left out clever,” Wil said. “Wives or relatives?”

“Never been married.”

“Any chance that someone at your place might have tipped him about Angel’s?”

Mo gave him a skeptical look. “Vella did notify the other police departments that we’d be in their jurisdictions—you know, protocol. Seems a stretch, but I can nose around.”

“Probably nothing,” Wil said, tossing his paper plate in the trash.

“You figure this guy for tonight?”

Wil nodded.

“Yeah,” Mo said, looking out. “Me, too.”

 

 

Too much caffeine and too little action, three to five had been especially tense. But now light was showing in the east and their piranha snappishness was easing. Zavala would have hit by now if he were coming—chased, they figured, by too much heat and too little time.

Wil stood a last watch while Mo readied himself for L.A., then Epstein stayed on duty while Hardesty slept. At eleven Mo woke him with, “Great weekend. Especially the food.” He jammed the last of his things into his duffel bag. “Keep in touch, chum, and I’ll do the same. What Freiman doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

From the window, Wil watched Mo’s car turn southward, lost it past the Shoals, then cast an eye north. Not bad conditions. He checked the scope, thought he saw Gringo out there. After three nightmare days and the sun out and Zavala in flight, he was ready.

Deliberating whether or not to pack heat, he rolled up the .45 and four clips in a spare towel, put them in his beat-up ice chest, and locked the door behind him. The fresh air tasted clean and big and salty and it mussed his hair. Taking it in, he felt like a convict loose after hard time.

 

NINETEEN

 

Bolo Zavala watched the white car cross the tracks and swing north. First the other man and now Hardesty, no telling how long he’d be gone. Follow or break in and wait? Two days already shot thanks to the other cabrón—a cop probably—not that he hadn’t had his chance. He’d fucked up leaving the photo in there. By now Donna’d probably given him up. Should have done her when he had the chance.

A snort of cocaine snapped his head back.

It was getting crazy: Donna, the baby, Lenny. Where else did Lenny think he’d take his kid, the thought reminding him he had to get back. Fucking time! He hit the other nostril and it all came into focus. Lenny didn’t know it, but his time was up; soon as he came back for the baby, he’d settle up with Lenny. Fuck Lenny’s file and his threats and his contacts, there were places he knew.

Vida nueva. Almost there.

His eyes followed the white car and its driver. The knife would have been so much more satisfying. But he had the Llama with the silencer and an AK-47 he was pretty good with.

Passing the banana plantation: now or never.

With a shower of mud and gravel, Zavala shot the IROC out of hiding and onto the freeway. Distance melted; he saw the white car pull off and cautiously followed it into the parking lot marked Rincon. At the opposite end, Hardesty nosed into a space next to a rusty pickup; Zavala watched him unload a longboard and a cooler and make for the trail.

It hit him like a jolt of the flake: The cabrón was a surfer—better still, a bird in a shooting gallery—thinking he was safe, that Bolo Zavala had gone slinking away like a dog. Guess again. He stuck the pistol under his jacket and started for the trail, minutes later spotting groups of spectators watching the action, but no Hardesty.

He was in the water. It would be the rifle.

Too public where he was, however; around the point a creek offered cover, but it was too far from the action, though it did lead back to the parking lot. A clump of bushes faced the surfline; behind them, green lawn and a house. He cased the property. No one there—maybe his luck was back.

He approached a group of young men in bright wetsuits waxing their boards. “Which is Hardesty?” he asked. “I was told he is one to watch.”

They ignored him, so he asked again, sharpening his tone this time. One, expressionless in iridescent wraparounds, pointed out to a group of surfers waiting for a wave. “Longboard, red stripe crossed by blue. Dude’s wearing a black wetsuit. You can’t miss him.”

Got that right, chico.He felt like turning the pistol on them. Never worked a day in their worthless fucking lives—at their age he was bleeding in smoky arenas for pesos. He started to go, stopped. Curious in spite of himself.

The figure caught the wave, swept down it, let it curl over him, then burst free. Casual moves, a flip, and the board was pointed back toward the line of incoming breakers.

Bolo Zavala spat, turned toward the IROC and what was in the trunk. Picking his way over the streambed, he noticed the jet trails pointing north. They were like white tracers, sharp contrast against the sky’s depthless blue.

 

 

They’d finished a run when Gringo brought it up.

“Crankin’ out there,” he said. “Think you could handle this baby?” Grinning at Wil, “Nah, I guess not.”

Wil swung wet hair out of his eyes. “That popgun? Come on, get serious.”

They were sitting on their surfboards, feet dangling in the water. Catching their breath as the surge rolled past beneath them. “One way to find out,” Gringo said. “Deal is, whoever has the most dumps on the other’s board buys the brew—winner’s choice.”

Wil looked at him. “Your brew against my cheeseburger?”

“Oh, right. You ever get a yen for the old days?”

Closing too many bars with Gringo came back like the mornings after. “Fall down and throw up, you mean? Listen, I’m sorry about Pam’s leaving.”

“Yeah. So what’s life without barf? We on here or what?”

“You must like taking gas,” Wil said.

Gringo’s expression twisted to a smirk. “Fall off something that big? Give it up, Kahuna.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Wil handed him his leash, took Gringo’s, and they headed out. First runs were dicey, the waves radical overheads that started early and finished late. Wil found the thruster much quicker than he anticipated and oversteered, then watched Gringo having control problems with the longboard. They wiped out here, bailed there, before getting the hang of it. At length Wil kicked out of a wave near Gringo and paddled over.

“This thing’s wild, but I’m gonna feel it tomorrow,” he said. “One more, then swap back.”

“If I can borrow the barge again sometime.”

“You passed. C’mon, rock and roll.” Muscles complaining, Wil paddled toward the point.

 

 

Bolo Zavala wrapped the assault rifle in his jacket and made his way back down the creekbed, cutting in this time at a secluded path between houses. So far he’d been lucky. Spectators crowded the beach, nobody leaving or arriving; to his right and through a gate he saw the patch of green, the bushes beyond. He entered, prepared now to kill anyone who got in his way.

The foliage was good cover—luxuriant growth six feet high. The only drawback was he could be seen from the house, something he’d deal with if it happened. He unwrapped the rifle, settled in, turned his attention to the pointbreak, for a moment panicking, realizing then his target had taken a previous swell. He used the time to line up another rider, watching the black suit raise up, gather momentum, angle right to left. Damn, he’d have to be quick. It was in his field of fire only briefly then was gone, too distant for a sure kill. Crucial to anticipate.

Off to his left he saw the big board slicing back out.

 

 

Gringo beat him but waited, letting a couple of half-baked ones go by. Wil caught up and they sat facing the incoming sets, wanting picture-perfect, dream-session water. Three passed, then four, and there it was: forming out beyond the others, keeping its shape, promising the moon. They bellied down and then it was on them.

Gringo, up the line, took it first, glancing back to hoot-salute.

Two seconds behind, Wil saw the bright bloom, saw Gringo jerk upright and pitch forward off the longboard. Hearing the pops, seeing the flashes and the waterspouts, he dove for the safety of the water as the big wave heaved away to spend itself.

He gave it thirty seconds, then surfaced. The shooting had stopped; on the beach were frantic scatterings, thin screams. He twisted back, scanning, scanning, seeing Gringo then, face down in a trough, arms out as though conducting some underwater orchestra. A few yards away, the Southern Cross tugged at Gringo’s leg. Urging him on.

Sonofabitch-sonofabitch-sonofabitch—

Wil made up the yards between them in seconds: The exit wound had blown away half of Gringo’s forehead; he lay sprawled on the surface, his long hair a red jellyfish in the rising-falling water. Wil shouted to the beach, to the others, anyone who’d hear. “The fuck was that?” said the first surfer to reach him. Until he saw Gringo.

With difficulty they got him up on the longboard and headed in, coffin-carried the board ashore. A crowd formed around the body. Gringo had the vacant look of someone wondering where everything had gone.

Wil stood a minute, fighting nausea, doubled over from the exertion, then found his towel, placed it over the shattered head. Some time later—he wasn’t sure how long—four sheriff’s deputies picked their way over the rocks. He put a hand over his eyes, feeling enraged and responsible and despondent in no particular order.

“You know this fella?”

He looked up at a hawk-nosed man with a dark crew cut and noncommittal eyes, the tag reading Sgt. Jim Dietrich. Unlike the uniforms, he was dressed in corduroys and a windbreaker.

Wil nodded.

“He got a name?”

“Adams…Jared,” Wil said, struggling to remember it. “Goes by Gringo. He’s an occasional carpenter, odd jobs. Lives in La Conchita—he has a trailer there.”

Dietrich began penciling in a small notebook. “And who might you be?”

Wil told him, waited for Dietrich to quit writing, said, “My ID’s in the cooler there cabled to that log.” He fumbled for the key.

Dietrich handed it to a deputy, who undid the lock and brought it over. They went through it, then Dietrich looked up. “Not everybody surfs so well armed. You expect this?”

“No, Sergeant, but I am on a case.” He rubbed his temples, weary of knots in his gut.

“Don’t overwhelm me with details,” Dietrich said. “For instance what this guy did that made somebody take him out like that. And why you really came to the beach with a .45, extra bullets and all. We can do this easy or hard—your choice.”

Wil looked past him. By now the deputies had pushed the crowd back from the body and were examining the ambush site. A siren growled down, a gurney bumped toward them; nearby a flash unit went off. At the eye of it, Gringo looked oddly neglected.

It was getting all too familiar. “Easy,” Wil said.

 

 

They sat in Dietrich’s sedan as the deputies reported. No one got a look at the killer, the gallery freaking at the sound of gunfire, although a couple in the parking lot did spot a guy running for a dark blue Camaro/Firebird/One-of-Those. No reason to remember the license, just that he’d wasted no time leaving. A deputy went to radio the CHP.

Sunlight danced on restless leaves.

Wil ran through the whole thing, after which Dietrich contacted Vella and Epstein for verification. A sticking point was Hardesty’s judgment. “Wonder nobody else was hit,” Dietrich griped at him. “You got a killer on your tail, and you not only play it alone, you bring your grief here. Jesus Christ.”

Wil said nothing, no arguing the point. Freiman doubtless would come to the same conclusion. And Lisa. “You need me here?” he said.

“Don’t go far,” Dietrich said coldly. “And don’t forget your artillery.”

 

 

Halfway to Santa Paula, Bolo heard the scanner’s first calls. The net was forming; no surprise there, he knew he’d been spotted. Already he’d ragged down and tossed the AK-47 into a drainage ditch; if found, it was untraceable and no great loss, plenty more around. A more serious problem was the car. The IROC was out of time.

Nosing off 126, he began to scout for wheels. Downtown Santa Paula was busy with holiday shoppers, so he cased side streets until he found it parked by a restored bungalow. The old Dart was perfect, the For Sale sign meaning it probably ran. With luck it wouldn’t be missed until the owner got home; couple of hours to L.A., then he’d switch again.

He circled, parked in the alley behind the Dart house. Grabbing his jacket and the nine millimeter, he was ready to do it when the car phone buzzed.

“Where are you?” The tone was impatient.

“Safe enough,” he said. “There were problems, but it’s done now.” In the earpiece he heard an expulsion of breath.

“Bolo, Bolo—it was on the radio. You got the wrong man, a friend or something. Come in. Now.”

“Que—?” His head felt light; heat started in his gut like a boiler firing.

“I said you missed, goddamnit. Open your fucking ears.”

He barely heard. The cabrón was dead. He’d seen it—the board, the figure in the sights, the hit. He twisted the key, thumbed in AM, flipped around until he hit a newscast.

“—occurred about forty-five minutes ago. Dead at the scene was a twenty-five-year-old part-time carpenter, identified by another La Conchita resident, Sean Wilson Hardesty. Authorities are searching for a late-model dark blue Camaro seen leaving the Rincon. No motive has been established yet for the slaying—”

How? The lightness became a roaring that blocked the newscast, Lenny’s voice, the car, the need to flee. The heat went acid, stabbing his diaphragm. How was it possible?

“Going back,” he managed to say.

“Bad enough you let the woman live. Don’t make it worse.”

“Bolo will not be made a fool of.”

“Too late for that, my friend.”

He found the inhaler, two hard pulls. “La Conchita,” he said. They’d never look for him there, so close. “I will finish this thing and be back tonight.”

Guerra softened his tone. “Listen to me. They’re watching the roads, they know the car. Now is not safe. Not smart.”

Motherfuck: Lenny was a dead man. “You listen,” he said. “I will kill this bastard and then I will come for my niña. Comprende, patrón?” He heard Lenny say something else, but it made no difference, there would be no more listening. He wiped down the IROC, left it with the keys in. Somebody stole it, so much the better.

Two minutes to swipe the Dart, roughly the time it took to backtrack west, orange trees blurring as he gained speed. Fucking luck—losing his touch if he didn’t know better. Hardesty he’d fix—sever the link, erase the threat. But a flood, for Christ’s sake. And the medal. If only he could remember: Benito-Benito-Benito-Benito—as usual, nothing. Slowing for the turn north; sure enough, black-and-whites tearing east. Restaurant on the left, Hungry something. Hungry alright—enough to scarf the menu with room left over.

Smoke poured from the Dart’s tires, and it slewed sickeningly before he controlled the skid. Stopped there on the fringe, heart pumping, he hit the inhaler as he’d hit the brakes. The goddamn menu. It had been there all along at the fat one’s house, the name on the note: Reyes, the family who owned the restaurants. Ignacio Reyes. He tried to picture the man, came up with tall and gaunt-looking, nothing much else. No matter—Reyes was as dead now as el cabrón.

What to do? No phone in the clunker and no time to find one. In a short while, however, all the time in the world.

Finally he would finish it with Leonardo Guerra.

 

 

Wil leaned against the Bonnie, tilted the bottle, and knocked back another slug of Jack Daniels. Fuck it! Below where he’d parked, waves boomed, their constancy reminding him only of broken promises.

Fuck ’em!

He took another belt, conscious of the fire in his upper gut and a spreading shame fed by guilt and his failures. The bourbon made his mind loop: Paul, whose ashes they’d bury tomorrow; Gringo, who had nobody much to care what happened to him; himself, casualty of a battle he hadn’t yet figured out. Some detective. Just don’t stand too close.

He thought about calling Lisa, decided to tell her at home. Around five he slowly backed the car down the bluff, turned it around, and pointed it south. Still in the wetsuit, he ached for a hot shower, ached to scrub it all off, settled for more whiskey.

He passed the Rincon, feeling Gringo. Beyond the presence he’d miss, there was what Gringo represented—freer times, if there were such things. Wil looked at the waves curling around the point. Just before sunset the light was gold, the water translucent as it foamed up the beach and rolled back. As he made the left turn, the setting sun blazed from La Conchita’s windows.

Pretty some other time.

In the carport he capped the bottle, raised the trunk, lifted out the Southern Cross. Among the scratches and dents from rocks was a shallow groove from a stray round and traces of red. He hosed it off, replaced the board in its stirrup. Grabbing the bottle of Jack, he put the ice chest under his arm and started for the stairs.

The first fusillade hit the Bonneville broadside, making a punk, punk, punk sound he knew at once. He scrambled for cover around the front of the car to the back, tore open the chest, and racked a round into the .45. The flashes were coming from the drainage ditch near the entrance to the tunnel. The faint coughing noise told him silencer; little doubt who was pulling the trigger.

He flattened as more rounds hit, spanging and clanking in the wheels, blowing out both rear tires. Wil squeezed off five himself; he needed better cover, but where? Everyplace he looked would put a neighbor in jeopardy. Some already were appearing on balconies and lawns.

He yelled at the closest one, saw her duck back inside. Then he dove behind the corner of the carport—still not good enough. He had to direct Zavala’s attention away from the houses. Rolling to his right, he expended his remaining shots, shoved in a new clip, angled a frantic sprint toward the ditch.

Rounds sang past his head, then he was in the weeds, the line of fire now parallel with the highway. He could see the man’s position, pumped his entire clip toward it. Dirt flew. Zavala slid down the ditch and ran under the railroad tracks toward the tunnel; seeing him for the first time, Wil felt a wild surge of adrenaline. Crazy, he thought—the man cutting himself off like that. Unless he had a car on the other side.

Zavala opened up from the mouth of the tunnel. Exposed now, Wil scrambled to where he could cover his advance. With the third of his clips, he drove Zavala back, firing as he ran toward the entrance. Feet pounded inside: Wil flattened and rolled, warhorse pointed toward the retreating sounds.

There—silhouetted against the sunset down the tunnel’s length, halfway across, stooped over running. Wil fired all seven rounds, saw the figure stagger and fall, get up and lurch forward. Two clips left, his odds dropping: He could bang away from where he was, hoping for another hit, but if he missed, Zavala would make the other side, hold him off, counterattack, or split. Crossing above the tunnel was out, more lives put at risk in a firefight across four lanes of traffic. Wil reloaded, bolted after the stumbling figure.

He nearly made it.

Ahead, the tunnel suddenly emptied and then an arm extended back toward him. Flashes came again; bullets ricocheted. Wil hit rough damp concrete, fired to drive the arm back, then rose up zigging, making slim progress before the bullets drove him down again. Slowly he cut the distance, his shots raising acrid fog, their noise savaging his eardrums. Ten yards from the tunnel’s mouth, on his last clip, the firing stopped.

Meaning what?

Wil could picture Zavala scrambling up the rocks, tires burning rubber, his own rage. Worse, the man waiting in ambush. In the sunset’s afterglow he’d be an easy target.

Wil launched himself toward the opening. The surf was loud, his breath came in gasps. Five yards, two—still no flashes; the knife, maybe: happy thought. He pressed against the south wall. Traffic jammed by overhead, and he could see shapes of the boulders supporting the roadway. He darted to the opposite side. The man was either gone or tempting fate; by now someone had to have called in. Assuming no unit was already close, a black-and-white could make Ventura-to-La Conchita in about ten minutes, fifteen at most. As if to confirm it, reeirr-reeirr-reeirr became audible rounding the Shoals.

Wil leaped for planking that served as a small platform outside the tunnel; twisting, he landed in a crouch facing the upslope. Zavala was there, but not the way Wil expected. He lay spreadeagled, eyes shut and head to one side, gun in his left hand. There was a hole above his left eye; another wound darkened the shirt under his open leather jacket. Wil flipped the gun away and felt the neck for pulse.

The eyes opened.

Wil jerked, steeled himself. Reflexes—had to be. And yet he knew the unpredictability of head wounds, believe-it-or-not survivals from Nam. He’d about given that up when the lips began to move. The voice was faint but distinct, a scratchy tape playing over and over.

“No mate a la niña, no mate a la niña, no mate a la niña, no mate a la niña—” The tape stopped.

“Who killed the children?” Wil said. “You?”

There was a cough and a struggle to speak, a focus now in the eyes. “No más,” Zavala said. “No más—”

“Who, damn you?”

Another attempt without sound, then the eyes rolled back; this time Wil found no pulse. Slowly he stood over Bolo Zavala, over the orange hair, spotty complexion, scar. He was close to the composite, and yet he was different—less imposing somehow. Menacing the way a troublesome adolescent might be.

And then Wil locked in on the Llama automatic, the razor blade tattoo where the leather sleeve had pulled up, and he had no further illusions. All that remained were the voices of the victims of Bolo Zavala, crying in the night above the sirens closing in.

Wil laid the .45 on a rock and stepped up onto the fringe, hands clasped over his head.