The Innocents: Part Thirteen

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TWENTY-FOUR

 

Saturday morning brought thundershowers, rain falling and the sun shining, then the last of the clouds crowded out of the L.A. basin east toward Arizona. By nine the sky was clear and blue, odd contrast to the flood warnings broadcast for some canyon and low-lying areas.

After dozing intermittently, Wil turned the clock radio from low to off, shook the cobwebs out, and took inventory. He was much sorer than yesterday. His knee was puffy and reluctant and tweaked him getting out of bed despite its Ace bandage. A centipede crawled in his scalp wound, evidence of healing. After slow stretching, ginger steps and the oatmeal Lisa’d left with her note about needing to get an early start at St. Boniface, he showered and eased into khakis and a navy sweatshirt, deciding he felt good enough to pass on his pain pills. As he sat with a coffee, he phoned to update Ignacio Reyes. Then he tried to make arrangements for the Harley to be flatbedded up to La Conchita. A recorded voice suggested he call Monday.

Mo Epstein he reached at home.

“You accept apologies during off hours?” he said.

“Apologies meant, or the chopped-liver kind supposed to grease somebody up for a favor?”

Wil felt the sting, knew he deserved it, and said nothing.

“Well, shit,” Mo said disgustedly. “Our Lynwood hooker killer walked this morning on a technicality. Dead to rights we have this bird and now she’s out on tainted evidence. You were saying?”

“I’m sorry I behaved like a jerk. No excuses. Sincere enough for you?”

“Why not. How you doin’?”

“Better.”

“You still on the sauce? I mean not that it doesn’t do things for your personality, it’s when it becomes your personality that friends say things, right? You do get that?”

“Right now I’m sober,” he said.

“And you’re smart enough to know there’s help.”

“Yes. Look, I’m going to apologize again—sort of an advance.” He heard the expulsion of breath at the other end. “You were right. I do need your help.”

“Goddammit. You have any idea the position you’re putting me in?”

“I think so, and I don’t like it, but I’m asking anyway: You have any contacts at the sheriff’s department, Monroe County, Florida?”

“Suddenly, from out of left field—”

“Humor me.”

“That’s the Keys, right, Key West? No, I do not.”

“Okay.” He left Mo an opening that went unfilled. “Thanks, anyway,” he said.

“Why there? Not Guerra again.”

“Something I read. Probably nothing—my specialty these days.”

“Look, Hardesty, I’m going to eat my lox and eggs now and my Langer’s onion roll and if I haven’t called you by one, I ain’t calling, right? And you can screw your instincts.” He hung up.

Wil swallowed lukewarm coffee, checked the yellow pages for car rental companies, phoned a couple for rates, then a Valley listing for a cab. By twelve-twenty he was back at the house, a beige Ford Tempo running a day-rate tab in the drive. Lisa’d brought their answering machine from home and he checked it for messages, saw one flashing and punched it up:

All right. The best I could do down there is a Lieutenant Sawyer, my counterpart in Homicide.

Wil wrote down the number.

This is unofficial, he’s agreed to talk to you as a favor to me. But push his buttons like you do mine and we’re cashing in our chips, understood? Speaking of which, I think it would be a good idea for you not to call me for a while.

Wil erased the message, then dialed, waited, introduced himself, and explained what he wanted to a friendly-enough voice with a trace of South Florida.

“D-e-S-a-n-t-i-s, Martin,” Sawyer repeated back. “Nineteen-forty-five through forty-nine. Hold a sec.”

Wil heard the soft click of computer keys. A minute went by.

“Doesn’t look as though he bothered our people any. You say he lived around here?”

“That was my understanding,” Wil said. “You mind checking another name?”

“I guess not, long as this isn’t some list.”

“It’s not. G-u-e-r-r-a, Leonardo, same time frame.”

The clicks again, a chair squeaking. “Got a hit here,” Sawyer came back. “Leonardo Guerra, age seventeen, resident of Stock Island. Arrested July 7th, 1949, suspect in a homicide. Held, questioned, cleared, released. Doesn’t say when.”

“Does it say what cleared him?”

“No idea, partner. Some of these old files got transferred over with just the basics.”

“There any way of locating the hard copies?”

“Not on the Saturday before Christmas at four o’clock our time. You have yourself a good afternoon, hear?”

Wil replaced the receiver, poured himself a glass of milk, and drank it. He looked up the number of a nearby copy shop, called, and got their fax number. Then he dialed Key West information and rang the library there. A Ms. Norris answered, to whom he explained he was investigating a murder and needed her help finding a story in a forty-one-year-old edition of the local paper. That it had a bearing on the case.

“Sir—did you say Lieutenant? We’re closing soon. Can you call back Monday when our archivist will be in?”

“I wish I could do that, Ms. Norris. You sound very nice, and I have no authority to insist that you help me. But the truth is a little girl named Jessica may die Sunday unless I get that information today.”

The faint sound of long distance. “And if I find something?”

“I have a number where you can fax it after you call me collect.”

Ms. Norris agreed to look; Wil gave her the information, then waited for her call, pegging the chances she would at maybe one in four—easier to just close up and go home. He cleaned up the kitchen, iced his knee, put on a wash, things to dissipate restless energy. Forty minutes passed, an hour; wind slid the hydrangea bushes against the windows. Lisa phoned, said she’d get back to him when he explained.

“Sorry to take so long,” Ms. Norris said, calling after he’d written her off and was wondering what the hell to do next. “I had to wait until we closed and there were three articles, none very long. I hope they help.”

After she hung up, he ordered flowers to be delivered to her Monday at the library. Then he drove the Tempo to the copy shop, where the three faxes had already arrived. He read in the order she’d marked:

 

LOCAL GIRL MISSING, FOUL PLAY FEARED

(July 3, 1949) Authorities, family and concerned neighbors of eight-year-old Anita Espinosa expanded search efforts to find the girl, missing from her Stock Island home since yesterday. Dolores Espinosa, 38, told the Key West Citizen that her daughter was not the kind to run off and described her as a loving, trusting child liked by all. Coordinating efforts to find Anita is Sheriff Forrest Biggio, who said he was “fearful of foul play.” Anyone with information should contact him immediately at his Whitehead Street office.

 

ESPINOSA GIRL FOUND DEAD, ARREST MADE

(July 7, 1949) The search for little Anita Espinosa ended tragically today with the discovery of her remains in a mangrove thicket two miles from her Stock Island home. Preliminary reports by Medical Examiner Hector Torres indicate the eight-year-old was murdered. “With a knife, we think, taking into consideration the advanced state of decomposition,” he told The Citizen. The lone bright spot in this tragedy is the arrest of a suspect, Leonardo Guerra, 17. Guerra, who lives with his aunt and guardian in the same rural neighborhood as the murdered girl, was described by Sheriff Forrest Biggio as a known troublemaker who carried a knife with which he often intimidated other boys into “doing things they weren’t born to.” Biggio revealed the boys broke silence to come forward about the incidents following Guerra’s arrest. The Citizen joins all right-thinking residents in the hope that justice for young Guerra will be swift and sure.

 

ESPINOSA SUSPECT RELEASED, CASE STILL UNSOLVED

(July 9, 1949) Sheriff Forrest Biggio has released Leonardo Guerra, 17, from custody, The Citizen learned. The prime suspect in the heinous murder of Anita Espinosa, 8, was provided an alibi and cleared of wrongdoing in the case by Martin R. DeSantis, 18, a highly respected resident of Stock Island who left July 3rd to enter Catholic seminary in Baltimore. When contacted there, DeSantis testified that Guerra had been helping him prepare for the priesthood July 2nd, the day Medical Examiner H. Torres speculated was the approximate time of death. Prior to his religious calling, DeSantis lived with Guerra and Guerra’s younger sister at their aunt’s residence following the trio’s arrival here from Cuba in 1945. Other unspecified charges against Guerra also were dropped due to an apparent change of heart by Guerra’s youthful accusers. Biggio vowed to continue the search for Espinosa’s killer but agreed that valuable time had been lost.

 

New pieces of the puzzle spun and floated:

Anita Espinosa, the first Innocent.

Martin DeSantis/Lenny Guerra, pals from Cuba going in different directions.

Lenny owing his freedom, his life, to Martin’s ‘alibi’—backward-sounding if Martin is Lenny’s blackmail victim.

Other unspecified charges.

Wil had the faxes spliced together onto one sheet and ran off a dozen copies. Then he headed for St. Boniface, picturing as he drove a chain under great stress snapping at its weakest link.

 

 

The Santa Ana was blowing hard as Wil pulled the Ford Tempo into the church lot just after four. He found a spot away from Lisa’s Acura and Guerra’s black Mercedes and limped toward the administration building. Warm dry gusts bent the deodar cedars on the lawn and sent dead leaves whipping down the drive.

“Father Martin isn’t in his office this afternoon,” the girl told him. “He’s hearing confessions.”

Wil glanced around for Lisa, thought he heard her voice coming from behind a closed door, then backtracked to the church. Dust blew in the side entrance with him and forced it shut with a bang. Several people in the vicinity of the confessionals looked up sharply, then returned to their prayers. As Wil slipped into a pew near the door with the light on and the Father DeSantis sign, an Hispanic girl left the confessional and began saying her rosary. Late-afternoon sun threw reds and blues off the stained glass windows.

They’d faded by the time Wil entered the confessional.

He waited in the dim close space until the portal slid open and the familiar voice asked him how long since his last confession.

“Hello, Father,” he said.

After a pause, the priest said, “Mr. Hardesty? Forgive me for sounding surprised.”

“I was taught confession is good for the soul.”

“You have something you wish to confess?”

Wil pushed a copy of the three articles through the portal.

A light was snapped on, Father Martin backlit through the screen. He put on reading glasses. Minutes passed; the sound of wind finding cracks in the building, then of paper folding. Father Martin removed the glasses, pinched the bridge of his nose, snapped off the light. Wil could hear him breathing.

“What is it you wish from me, Mr. Hardesty?” The voice was empty of resonance.

“The truth,” Wil said. “That Lenny has her.”

“Has who?”

Wil waited.

“Well? Are you not going to tell me?”

“You’re still covering for him, aren’t you? Jessica—the little girl I was telling you about,” Wil said. “Lenny’s going to kill her to bless your fund-raiser.”

“Do you realize what you are saying, and to whom? Excuse me, but I have much to do for tomorrow.”

“Don’t underestimate me, Father. You may not fear the Catholic church, but the media will wallow in this. Throw in what I’ve learned about Chawa Uve, lover of innocent blood, and everything you’ve built here is burning big-time.”

“You would threaten St. Boniface as well as me?”

“To save her? To end the killings? Try me.”

“What we do here is far bigger than one man.” The flatness was gone from his voice now.

“You know better than that,” Wil said. “First the Hollywood crowd will disengage, all your image-conscious types. Then the money dries up. Then the dream. Pretty soon it’s just you and the rebozos again—if they let you stick around.”

“You are—beyond belief.”

“And what are you, Father? Does the name Benito mean anything? He was a beautiful boy with dark eyes, six years old when Lenny cut him. And the others—Anita Espinosa. Why do you continue to protect him?”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Blood sacrifices, children’s lives traded for wealth. You an accessory to murder.”

“That’s what you think I desire—wealth?” He spat the word.

“Lenny I can see killing. But what happened to Martin DeSantis, the respected young man who wanted to be a Catholic priest?”

The wind moaned and slacked. Father Martin said, “You remind me of a child peering into a kaleidoscope, thinking he sees lions and tigers.”

“Talk to me, goddammit. Where is Jessica Pacheco?”

“I don’t know.”

“‘Which of you can be happy knowing others are suffering, can live knowing others are dying?’ Your words, the other Sunday. How long can you go on being two people?”

“I tell you I don’t know where she is.”

“But Lenny’s blackmailing you, isn’t he? Something to do with the Espinosa killing.”

“Each of us has his cross, Mr. Hardesty. No one but the very young is completely innocent.”

Wil took a deep breath. “Look, I don’t care about that. All I want is to stop him, to save the girl. Give Lenny up and I’ll try to leave you out of it.”

Father Martin leaned back in his chair, the copy crinkled in his hand. When he spoke he sounded like the scratchy soundtrack to an old travelogue: “Lenny and I met in school—in Cuba. We were drawn to each other, we became like brothers. He was a loner, usually in trouble because his father had been kicked to death by policía, and his mother was too ill to handle him. I was forest people, the one pointed at and whispered about—the only one in my village permitted to attend outside school.

“One day Lenny was arrested for stealing. At the police station, he heard talk of my village, of soldiers coming there that night. Lenny was thirteen—a year younger than me, but he knew I couldn’t go back, which is what I wanted desperately. We fought. Afterward he pulled my face close to his and told me I was coming with him and Sissy to Key West. By then his mother was dying, and an aunt there had sent for the children. Next morning, Lenny hid me at his house when the soldiers came with guns. That afternoon the three of us were on a fishing boat, sick and retching, but alive.” He cleared his throat of sudden emotion, then went on.

“Twice the boat nearly sank. But God had a plan for me, and it was St. Boniface, and whatever Lenny is he’s been a part of that plan. Give him up? You should not underestimate me either, Mr. Hardesty.”

Wil applied pressure to temples that had begun to throb and ventured in another direction. “Why were you the only one of your people to attend school?”

“I was—special. I’d passed tests. We were poor, and the others were needed for work.”

“Your people sacrificed children.”

The priest’s sigh was resignation itself. “Chawan tradition was the way of the blood, Mr. Hardesty. Very primitive, very misguided. A very long time ago.”

“And something that Lenny never abandoned after learning it from you.”

“That is absurd.”

“Lenny stole the Chawa idols from a Cuban museum in 1963. He was running guns to Castro then, easy to get them out of the country. Today they’d be worth plenty, yet he’s never sold them. Isn’t it obvious why?”

“Lenny is a collector as well as a seller of antiquities. He uses those pieces to generate business. I see many people in my office. In exchange for inquiries, our missions receive half the profits. To serve the greater good, I choose not to delve beyond that.”

“And because he also makes you money selling babies he doesn’t kill to rich parishioners you steer his way.”

“For an intelligent man, Mr. Hardesty, you disappoint me. Even if I were to accept such crudeness, my parishioners are in no way coerced.”

“And I say your splitting profits with Lenny Guerramight perk up some ears at the chancery. Last chance: Where is Jessica Pacheco?”

“I don’t know.”

Wil took a deep breath. The air in the closed space seemed fetid and used up now, and he hurt from being in one position so long. It all seemed upside down and out of sync, a dark twisting mobius of truth and lies.

“Who confesses you, Father?” he said.

 

 

“DeSantis is lying, but it makes no sense. Lenny-saves-him-he-saves-Lenny seems like a wash. Yet the SOB is still into him for something.” Wil winced as Lisa applied antiseptic creme to the scalp wound. They were in the guest bedroom, his shirt off to check progress on the bruising.

“You mentioned his ambition.”

“It has to be more than that.”

She touched the stitches gently. “You’re pulling a little bit there, but it looks pretty good.”

“I figured he’d crack.”

“Maybe he really doesn’t know,” Lisa said. She screwed the cap on the tube, replaced it in his Dopp kit. “How’s your knee?”

“Tender. They’re too tied-in for him not to know.”

“Can’t Mo do something?”

“With what—more of my speculations?”

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “It’s not going well, is it?” She began to rub his shoulders, cautiously at first, then more intently.

“Feels good,” he said, closing his eyes. “How did you do with Guerra?”

She kept rubbing.

“Ouch, lighter please. Well?”

“I don’t know, nothing concrete yet—just a feeling that more money is coming in than going out. I keep trying to poke around in the files, but—”

He unblinked. “But what?”

“I look around to see where he is, what he’s up to, what I might be able to do, and it’s as if he’s reading my mind. Following me with his eyes. When I ask questions I pretend I don’t know the answers to, he’s all smiles, but indirect and evasive. Wil, I need more time.”

“I know.”

“Are you sure about the fund-raiser?”

“Let’s get a pizza or something, forget about it for one night.”

“Don’t be patronizing. I hate that.” Her fingers hit a spot, causing him to wince. She bit her lip.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not. It’s frustrating. I want to do more.”

Wil drew her to him and held her around the waist. “We still have most of tomorrow, Lenny’ll be tied up with the event. Whatever happens will be afterward.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I’m not. But sometimes thinking that way is all you have to keep from going crazy.” Her fingers smoothed the hair over his ears. “I’m glad you came, Leese.”

She softened against him, and he pulled her down onto his good knee, lightly touched her cheek. “I was afraid I’d lost you.”

Her eyes swept his face.

“And myself,” he added.

“It’s different now?”

“What’s different is I’m not drinking even though I’m tempted. That’s been you. Having something not to drink for.”

“Wil—”

He kissed her tentatively, felt her kiss back soft, then harder. A chord struck and resonated in him, and he felt it surge against his khakis. After a bit she broke from him and traced his lips with her fingernail, smiled as he undid her blouse and took each breast in his mouth. They tasted perfumey of lotion and warm wind, the nipples firm under his tongue, and there was a tightness at his heart, as if she’d reached in and put her hand around it. She undressed first, her skin reminding him of the pale honey they’d trek to Ojai for in fall. She helped him pull the khakis off over his erection, pushed him gently back on Raeann Rodriguez’ bed, straddled him, and guided him inside. As they moved together in familiar symmetry, easy at first in deference to his knee, then more passionately, Wil felt himself floating away from everything, all the wrenching drama, lifted beyond it by the cresting sounds of two instruments lovingly played.

 

 

Patty McGann slumped in the red chair and exhaled smoke from her True cigarette; assistant news directors—even recently promoted ones—didn’t cover fund-raisers, for Christ’s sake. Before the Innocents she would have jumped at it, but now—hell, women’s groups had her booked six months in advance for speaking engagements. No looking back. Across from her the news director was saying, “Come on. Tell me you haven’t heard the Nobel Prize talk.”

“I’ll put somebody good on it,” Patty McGann said. “No problem.”

“Look,” the news director said, “I’m running it lead local with international overtones, the Mexican consul’s primed. You can swing by there before you interview Father Martin. That’s early news. At eleven we broadcast what you get at St. Boniface.” He saw her expression. “It’s hot, guaranteed. Guy’s the next Mother Teresa.”

Patty McGann rolled her eyes.

“Most of Hollywood’s coming. Pick a name…”

She sat forward. “All right, I’m weak. What do you have on it?”

Smiling, the news director briefed her.

Afterward, Patty McGann said, “I’ll take Lombardi. He’s luck.”

 

TWENTY-FIVE

 

Lisa left for St. Boniface early Sunday morning, the event, including a three-o’clock Mass and donor reception afterward, requiring every available volunteer. Wil showered, had breakfast he hardly tasted, then chafed and paced for an hour, anxious to move on what he had planned. At ten-thirty she called: Guerra had arrived, Julio in tow, to organize the financial part of the evening’s presentation. She’d slipped away to get him some numbers and had to go now, bye.

Wil hung up, transferred his B&E tools from the torn-up field jacket to a windbreaker, put Lisa’s beeper in his pocket, then locked up the house. As he drove east the sun’s glare found the windshield streaks from Friday’s storm. The Santa Ana had blown itself out, allowing an infusion of cool air into the basin, a new buildup of smog toward downtown, and scattered clouds against the mountains. Forty-percent chance of thundershowers for later, the radio said. The air smelled of ozone and exhaust.

From the gate, Guerra’s place looked empty; no cars in the drive, garage doors shut, curtains pulled across the windows. Wil cruised, found a cul-de-sac a block up, and parked. From here he had a bird’s-eye view of the Arroyo and the Rose Bowl. Ahead, the big Craftsman’s shake roof showed through close-bunched myosporum, bottlebrush and eucalyptus.

Pretending to admire the view, he found a way through the greenery and slipped into it; minutes later, he was cursing an impenetrable rear door lock, feeling around a window for alarm wire, finding none. Interesting, Wil thought, scoring and removing a glass circle near the latch: Guerra preferring to take his chances with a burglar entering the house than with a security guard who’d report what he found.

He did a fast scan of the interior, found no evidence of Jessica, then came back to what had to be Guerra’s bedroom: large, with French doors facing the mountains, gold-veined mirrors, recessed lighting, thick gray carpet, and a huge bed with a black-and-gold tapestry spread. Across from a walk-in closet was a two-person, multijetted spa surrounded by an apron of black marble. The room exuded the sweet-tart essence of citrus cologne.

Wil checked his watch: twelve-ten. He did a cursory check of the closet, then came back and tossed the bureau drawers. Nothing, personal effects. Next he returned to the wood-paneled den just off the living room and started through the desk and bookcases. Zip—until he saw the photo album. It was on a floor-level bookshelf, a corner of it sticking out from a crevice between two anthologies of Latin American poetry, their leather spines ornately embossed. The photo album, by contrast, was plain and water-spotted, deteriorating suede that cracked as he opened it.

She was there between them, a serious-looking young girl in glasses, peering out from deckle-edged snapshots blotched by time. In most, Martin was on the right, Lenny left. In some, she was petting a boxer dog or dwarfed by a heavy woman in bunned hair and a print dress. He recognized the girl immediately, but the caption under one of her and a sunburnt man with pocked features and thinning hair was mute confirmation:

Wedding Day, October 16th, 1949. Sissy and Fredo Contreras.

Wil almost felt for her, she looked so unhappy: Lenny’s little sister on her day of days. Jennette Guerra Contreras.

Christ, Wil thought, she’d been right under his nose the whole time. Jennette Contreras: Not the stolid Niños employee, understandably and expectedly supportive of her boss. Not the dutiful worker taking papers home to complete the night he broke into Lenny’s office—after Lenny transferred a suitcase large enough to hold a small child from his Mercedes to her white Camry. He pictured her looking out at him from Lenny’s arched window, her face a hard mask through the rain.

The next spread was empty save for a small pasted-in newspaper clipping showing the sunburnt man in a dark suit. Local man drowns in fishing accident 2/15/51, the caption read. There was no story.

More blank spreads, then in back, a fissured snapshot shoved in without mounts; Wil took it out. It was Martin and Jennette, he eighteen perhaps, muscular in tight swimming trunks, she younger and obviously pre-Fredo Contreras. She was smiling at him, feeling the bicep he’d flexed for her. Wil flipped it over, read the girlish hand: Mi corazón y mi vida. Por todo tiempo.

In the drawers he found a phone book but no listing for Jennette Contreras; directory assistance was similarly helpful. Mo? Not likely and too little time: one o’clock already. He began going through the desk again, anything with an address for Jennette Contreras. Nothing. He checked the bedrooms, the closets, anything with drawers, and came up empty.

Like the trash containers in every room, even the kitchen.

He bolted outside in search of the garbage cans and found them racked beside the garage. Full, awaiting a Monday pickup—his first break. He dragged them inside, dumped them out on the kitchen floor, and started going through them. Ripe table scraps, vegetable peelings, spoiled fruit, damp tissue and paper towels, milk containers, junk mail, bits of voided checks showing Guerra’s Pasadena address, wadded-up yellow tablet sheets with English and math homework attempted on them, old newspapers, cans and bottles. Bingo.

Wil lifted out the Southern Cal Edison bill out as if it were buried treasure. Stained barely legible, it was for a Palos Verdes residence, 844 Pájaro Lane, yet was addressed for payment to Guerra. The name Contreras showed under tomato seeds Wil scraped off with his thumbnail.

He was headed out the door when Lisa’s beeper sounded. Wil called her back at the number she’d given him. She was on in a half-ring, asking when he’d be coming. He told her what he’d found, about Jennette Contreras being Lenny’s sister.

“What does it mean?” Her voice had a furtive edge to it.

“That’s what I hope to find out,” he said. “But I think she’s had Jess the whole time. Guerra must own the property.”

“So you’re going.” The disappointment was audible.

“Can you hang in until I get there? It’s important.”

“Guerra’s acting strange, Wil.”

“How?”

“Omnipresent or something. He barely lets me go to the bathroom without him. Father Martin’s been with the media nonstop since I arrived. Wil, it’s nearly two-thirty.”

“I know. This could be it, Leese. Beep me when you can, and I’ll let you know what I find. I’ll try and make the reception, okay? I love you.”

 

 

Sunday traffic was heavy in places but moving; thickened overcast made the day oppressive as though a lid had come down on it. Pushing the rental, Wil made Palos Verdes in forty-three minutes. As the road curved up and along the cliffs above the ocean, he stopped at a gas station for directions.

Eight-forty-four Pájaro Lane was set back on the hillside in a looping circle of large established lots: horse corrals and tennis courts, pittosporum and eucalyptus windbreaks, ice plant and bougainvillea, Mexican tile and turf-roll-perfect lawns, rain-birds going despite the prospect of rain. Through tall oleander bushes, he could see no white Camry. He parked a block away from the house, tried to look like an insurance agent going up the drive to an entry overhung by the second story. He rang the bell, heard it echo, waited. No one came. He found a side door, looked around, then put his shoulder to it; the wood gave grudgingly, but it gave.

It was an odd house inside, predominantly white in theme and more spacious than it appeared from the street. Wil drew the .45 from his waistband, slid a round into the chamber, and did a room-by-room. The ground floor was heavy with the smell of air freshener but clean and tidy, nothing out of place, nothing to give away a baby presence. It was upstairs that the need for the freshener became clear. In a small closed bedroom down the hall from the one with all the candles.

The shuttered window was latched tight, the room empty save for a closet with an open sliding door and a rug cleaner awaiting use. The urine smell seemed to be coming from everywhere, not just the stained carpet with the playpen-sized imprints. He ran his finger over one, the fibers rising slowly.

He checked the rest of the upstairs, found two unopened bottles of Johnson’s lotion under the bathroom sink, baby aspirin in the medicine cabinet, no-tears shampoo by the tub. For a minute he sat on the edge, imaging Jessica Pacheco here, feeling her, his gut twisting at how close he’d come. Then he went outside.

The trash cans beside the utility shed were empty and oddly free of the smell from upstairs. Puzzled, he searched the enclosed yard: unpruned rose bushes, patchy lawn, medium-size pines, a pile of recently raked needles in a shaded area, wire rake up against the fence. Wil moved the pine needles aside, then put weight down where they’d been; his chukka boot left a deep imprint. He broke the handle off the rake and began poking the sharp end into the soft spot. About eighteen inches down he felt it penetrate something, was widening the hole when the smell hit. He went back to the garage, found a shovel, and began digging.

The black plastic garden bag was full of old diapers, the stench like a slap in the face. Credit for thoroughness, he thought. With all the publicity about Jessica, she’d buried them to avoid any trace of suspicion by sharp-nosed garbage men. He reburied the bag, was washing his hands off at the faucet, when something caught his eye. Where the house seemed smaller than it was from outside, the garage seemed larger. It didn’t take long to find the reason.

The space meant for cars was claustrophobic with old furniture, appliances, storage cartons, sacks of fertilizers, bottles of pesticide, paint cans on shelves, sprinkler hoses looped over hooks. But its depth lacked about three of the strides he’d measured off outside. Behind a work bench, the rear wall was festooned with tools; beside the bench a ladder leaned up against a padlocked door. Wil moved the ladder, found a crowbar, and went at the lock. It was a big Master, the kind bullets bounced off, and the wood around it gave before it did.

Unlike the raw garage, the inner room was carefully finished and painted white. It had a small roof vent through which sunlight angled and a marbled Formica surface anchored to white legs against the far wall. The smell of burned candles was like that from Jennette’s bedroom, yet there were no candles. Roses hovered in the air where there were none.

The thing that drew him, however, locked his eyes onto it and set off a roaring in his ears, was the drain. It was in the center of the gently sloping concrete floor. Nothing unusual—just a couple of inches across with a gleaming steel grate. Yet it was everything, a vortex that dizzied and pulled him in, the portal to some dreadful dark place that sucked out hope and life and left behind a bloodless world.

 

 

It began with a blast of organ music; halfway through the Mass Father Martin took the pulpit. He spoke of feeding and clothing, sheltering and healing; of bringing forth the means to lead a dispossessed generation back to grace. He had something he wanted them to see.

As Lisa watched from her seat on the aisle, a big-screen video projector was rolled out, the lights dimmed. Underscored by haunting flute music, the production’s visuals hit with wrenching directness. In the end the appeal of the actor-narrator was passed back to the priest like a baton.

For a moment Father Martin surveyed them; then his smile vanished. With the remote, he reversed the video to a child’s face, freezing anguish made memorable by angelic features.

“This is Lourdes,” he said. “One of our workers found her living in a dump, her home a rusted-out boiler. Anything she could find she ate—garbage, grass.” He paused. “It wasn’t enough. Lourdes—she hadn’t even a name when we found her—died three days ago.”

There was a murmur from the packed church.

“You see, we had no room for Lourdes. Because we hadn’t room, because humanity hadn’t room, she died. And because she died, we could wait no longer. Lourdes is why you are here tonight, my friends.

“How old would you say she was from the picture—seven, eight?” Seconds passed. “She was twelve.

“Twelve!” He banged the pulpit.

“We feel the pain of hunger a few hours after eating—let a day go by and we’re fainting.” His face was stone cold. “Try it for twelve years.”

He pressed his hands together as if in prayer, then to his lips.

Lowered them.

He said, “I want you to do something for me. I want you to be silent for two minutes while you think what it was like to be”—pointing to the image—”that child.”

By the end of two minutes, many were in tears. Lisa was not ready for what followed.

“Tears?” Father Martin raged suddenly. “For Lourdes? She could not eat your tears then, and she can’t now. She could not be comforted by your tears then, and she won’t be now. She could not draw warmth from your tears then, and she certainly cannot now.

“You are too late!” His voice thundered off the hard walls of St. Boniface.

“Yet even Lourdes, who was given nothing her whole life, found in the end something to give.” His voice broke. “Before she died, she gave us her smile.

“If I had only known, you say. Only helped.” He shook his head at them. “Lourdes had one thing, and she gave it gladly. How much will you give so that no more like Lourdes die?”

For a long moment he scanned their upturned faces. “For God’s sake, help us,” he said. “Now.”

His silence was like a call to action. Baskets were passed. Every few rows, empties replaced full ones, reminding Lisa of the loaves and fishes in reverse. Then the baskets were gone, and Father Martin retook the pulpit. The video unit was replaced by a carousel projector and screen.

“Are the slides ready?” he asked. The lights dimmed again in response. “My friends, these charts will help you understand the magnitude of this project. Your project. And why tonight’s donation, generous as it is, can be only the beginning—”

Familiar with this part, Lisa’s mind began to drift. Where was Wil, what came next? She swiveled and tried to locate Lenny in the projector light, but he’d evidently left his seat during the interlude. So strange he was—courteous and deferential one minute, sinister the next. And Martin DeSantis: Wil’s logic to the contrary, there was no way the man she’d just heard could be involved in…

Lenny was beckoning to her from a shadow. She nodded, saw him slip out via the baptismal entrance. Lisa eased out of her seat, gave a last look at the audience. Every eye was on Father Martin and the figures she’d helped prepare. Well-dressed powerful people held rapt.

Outside it was almost dark, the sky heavy with coming rain; thunder sounded faintly in the San Gabriels. Across the lawn, though, all was festive readiness. Twinkling lights and the sounds of a string quartet warming up came from the big reception tent. She checked her watch: five o’clock, time to call Wil again.

“Here. Over here.”

He was standing under a deodar near the parking lot, the red carnation a spot of color on his black tuxedo jacket.

“Sorry to pull you out,” he said as she approached. “But we need to get some things for your presentation.”

“What?” A chill went through her: the persistent fear of speaking in public, something she hated about herself. “What presentation?”

“Later at the reception.” he said. “The tax ramifications of donating. Father Martin thought of it earlier, giving that part to you, and I forgot to mention it. It is your area, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but—”

“Come on, I’ll brief you on what to say. I need to get some things for my own talk.”

“I thought it was all set,” she said. He was steering her toward his car. “Where are we going?” Dammit, get to a phone.

“Only take a second to get what I need. We thought you could open with a short review of that part of the tax code.”

“Father Martin for sure wants this?”

“You’ve impressed him. Look, they’ll be through any minute, and we’re up next. Are you coming?” Reflection from the lot lights flared off his glasses, making it impossible to see his eyes.

She didn’t like it, tried to weigh the consequences, wondered what Wil would do, cursed her inexperience. Her fear decided it. Ever since eighth grade—the speech class when she’d gone mute and fled the podium—she’d had nightmares about being unprepared. As she got into the big Mercedes, Julio raised up in the rear seat from where he’d been sleeping. He blinked and took her in with vacant eyes, then settled back down on the leather cushions. Calmed by his presence, she snapped on the seatbelt and began running through possible opening remarks as Lenny Guerra headed out of the lot, the first big drops of rain pelting the windshield.

 

 

Wil was aware of the rain only as a vague presence on Jennette Contreras’s roof, its sound lost in the pounding of his pulse and the dumping of bureau drawers onto her overturned mattress. Her bedroom was a mess but a controlled one; with no trace of blood, old or new, in the shed, he needed another Saint Christopher medal, the knife. Something tangible.

One more bureau left. He pulled out a drawer, emptied it, found nothing to speak of.

Lisa’s not beeping him since Guerra’s was becoming worrisome. It was after six now and dark: probably she’d given up on him coming and was stuck at the reception. Still it wasn’t the plan, and possible scenarios squirmed in his head like snakes let loose from a basket.

Middle drawer: more slips, bras, lace panties—blue this time. Bottom drawer: white satin robe, carefully folded. He shook it out, wadded it up, and threw it at the wall in frustration, heard something hit. Something more substantial than satin.

It was sewn into an inner pocket of the robe, the space inside the prongs just large enough to slip over his held-together fingers. The bracelet was tarnished almost beyond recognition as silver; he had to wet his finger and rub hard to bring out the name enscripted on the flat part.

He was going to do it anyway, take his chances with Mo, knowing how Mo would react to the break-in and his meager evidence, when the phone rang. He wavered, decided, picked it up, listened. There was music and a faint sound like someone moaning, a voice robbed of its dignity and composure that sent icicles through him.

“Ah,” Lenny Guerra said. “So glad we caught you in.”

For seconds Wil said nothing, concentrating instead on the background voice, which had gathered itself into small familiar gasps. Then he said, “I’ve seen what’s in the garage, Lenny. It’s over. Tell me where your sister took the baby and maybe we can deal.”

“I have a message for you from a loved one, Mr. Hardesty.”

Lisa screamed then: agonized, unremitting pain and terror, the sound of a baby bird in a cat’s jaws. Wil shut his eyes, opened them. The room blurred momentarily, and he fought for air.

“Vise-grips are such useful tools,” Guerra said. “Did you know a knuckle makes a sound just like a walnut cracking?”

“Pain for pain, Guerra. I swear it.”

“The ring finger next, I think.” Lisa’s groan went soprano.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

“Already you’re giving up?” Disappointment in Guerra’s tone. “I must tell you about another snitch we worked on once, uncooperative, not like your wife. She’s told me a great deal. I appear to have underestimated you, Mr. Hardesty.”

Wil wiped away sweat as the room steadied.

“You made a terrible mess in my kitchen,” Guerra said.

“What do you want?” His voice was someone else’s.

“From you? I want you to join us at my house. Make up for the party we had to miss. You’ll come unescorted, of course, or she’s dead. That is a promise.”

“Let me talk to my wife.”

“By all means.”

There was a muffled bump, then, “Wil—? He found the Polaroid things in my desk. Stupid of me—” She sounded weak and sick and hurting.

“I’ll be there, Leese. Can you make it?”

“Think so—”

“Good girl. He won’t hurt you anymore.”

“Wil? Did you tell Jennette Contreras I was Japanese? It’s how they knew for sure, he said—”

The truth of it was like a jolt of high voltage, searing his ability to feel, leaving only his brain to recall his slip at the Niños office, playing it over and over in his mind like a shorted-out doll voice. “My wife is Japanese, wife is Japanese, wife is—”

Guerra broke the connection.

Wil replaced the receiver and put his hands over his ears, his self-righteous admonishment of Paul loud in them now as well. Then, strangely, he was conscious of the rain.

 

 

Jennette Contreras sat behind the tinted windows of her car in a shadowed section of the parking lot. Over the steady beat of the rain, she could hear thin snatches of music and people laughing—salt-in-the-wound sounds. Earlier she’d seen them exit the church in their fancy clothes, put up umbrellas, start across the lawn for the shelter of the reception tent.

Then he’d come out. Tall and straight in the black cassock he’d changed into, gray hair haloed by the glow from inside, sparks only she had the gift to see emanating from his fingertips into the darkness. Despite the rain, he paused a moment to look around, then raised his face to the sky. Then, as though reluctant to enter the realm of mere mortals, he descended the steps and strode powerfully toward the tent.

Like a thousand times before, after the initial pain subsided, she thought about what life with him would have been like.

Thunder and lightning. Fire in the sugarcane.

Babies they’d been then, but fast learners. Then her aunt: a sin, the meddling bitch called it when she’d found out. Conspiring with Monsignor Padilla to have Martin shipped off to the seminary in Baltimore and her married afterward to that imbecile Fredo. Were it not for her aunt, Martin DeSantis would have renounced his precious calling.

Jennette lit a cigarillo, let the smoke curl past her eyes, and pondered what Martin had accomplished, the price of it, and who paid. Dark windows reflected the answer: She’d paid. With her life. Martin himself had said it: Where there is one injustice, there is no justice. He’d been stolen from her. Martin had been hers, and to hell with humanity.

The smoke from the cigarillo was making her eyes water. She cracked the window to let in air. The work was his sole passion now; all she would ever have was the memory of the mangroves, she knew that. Fed by deprivation and her one taste of him.

Jennette watched the first of the guests leave the tent and hurry toward their cars. Engines started, lights flashed on. At least she would see him tonight; at least there still was something she could do.

In the backseat of the Toyota, the baby stirred in drugged sleep.

 

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