The Innocents: Part Three

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FOUR

 

Wil covered the seventy-five miles to the San Fernando Valley in just over an hour. Winter Santa Anas had blown out the usual murk leaving a tapestry ringed by unexpected mountains, the effect one of revelation, like focusing a lens or seeing the girl next door in a party dress. Sharply defined, the Valley, like L.A., wasn’t pretty—he’d never call it that—but it made you look.

For over a year now, most of his jobs—those that panned out—had taken him south, away from the local rep he earned during the two-year tailspin after Devin. Anything to cut the pain, slice through the black paralyzing bouts of depression, he’d done: pills, booze, dope, women, insane risks—hazy flashbacks that still raised a sweat. Lost in her own grief, Lisa stuck it out, but the investigations business Wil built up after Nam had nearly foundered. As it was, area law enforcement agencies and insurance companies were still gun-shy. Lawyers called occasionally, new ones who didn’t know him. But unlike before, they were now the ambulance chasers, accident stagers, workman’s comp shaders. Fringe types who worked the system’s cracks—and who didn’t give a damn about how good you’d been and how far you’d been down and that you were finally getting it back. Long as you were flexible.

Following Paul’s directions, he took Topanga to Ventura Boulevard. On both sides things sprawled: supermarkets, shops, malls, multimovies, billboards. The empty-promise land.

Wil made a turn toward the hills and thought about the Innocents.

Seven kids they’d found, one of them fathered by the man he was going now to meet, a man whose pain was his, the wound still fresh. For the umpteenth time he pondered motives: pedophilia—serial murders—a smuggling deal gone sideways. Somewhere somebody knew something. Maybe Reyes.

He took a peppertree’d drive to a looping cul-de-sac and parked, looked the place over. The house was newish, pseudo-Spanish and white except where storm runoff had left a brownish residue around the foundation. Curving red tile undulated on the roof, the three-car garage and what looked to be a cabaña in back. Under a Chinese elm, patchy lawn spread out, bisected by a resined pebble walk.

His bing-bong was answered by a Mexican woman who studied him for a moment, then took his card. “Venga,” she said. Looking back frequently, she led him through a tiled entryway, watched his feet for tracks down gold shag stairs, across a vast living room to a pair of oak doors.

As the housekeeper rapped, Wil glanced around at dated sectionals with matching chairs, arched brick fireplace, a big-screen. Nondescript landscapes claimed vertical surfaces, family pictures in various frames, the horizontal ones. The Virgin Mary smiled forgivingly from a distressed triptych. The oak doors opened.

The man was dressed in a navy jogging suit with white piping and appeared older than the mid-sixties Rodriguez had described. He was tall, pale-skinned and blotchy with a line of mustache under a hawkish nose and eyes that hungered for sleep. Second thoughts seemed to compete with resolve until he motioned Wil inside.

“Pase, por favor,” Ignacio Reyes said. “Come in, come in.”

The den had a lounge-like comfort. Bookcases lined three walls; against the shuttered window was a desk, on it a coffee set and two china cups. Reyes motioned Wil toward a small couch, seated himself in a chair. He examined Wil’s card, then spoke quietly, as if it were an effort.

“Private investigator. My friend Rodriguez said you were good at it. That he’d known you a long time.”

“Since Vietnam,” Wil answered.

Reyes poured them each a coffee from which rose the faint aroma of chocolate. “How old are you, Mr. Hardesty?”

“Forty-six.”

“You have little ones?”

Wil shook his head, flashing on a brief ceremony: Dev’s ashes scattered from the back of a boat. In My Life playing on the tape deck.

“I have six, grown now,” Reyes said. “My children have been everything. They run my places, worry about me. They keep Serafina alive, I see her constantly in them.” He pointed to a small ornate frame.

Wil leaned for a closer look: a hopeful-looking bride and groom, restored and hand-tinted, gazing into each other’s eyes.

“Twenty years she’s been gone,” Reyes said. And then, “I killed her too.”

A brass clock chimed the hour. Beyond the doors a vacuum cleaner prowled; over the hum, something being sung in Spanish. Reyes struggled with his thoughts.

“We lived in the Sierra Madre, northern Mexico, in one of the mountain villages.” He looked around the den. “There was no heat, no running water, no electricity. In the summer we baked, in winter we froze. All the time we were sick. We had barely enough food—a little cornmeal, greens we grew. Every so often, if we were fortunate, a squirrel or chicken.” He put a hand to his temples.

“We had nowhere to go, our families were as poor as we were. Our only hope was in coming here.” He reached for his cup. “But that was no hope at all because we had no money.”

Wil shifted on the couch and wondered where this was going.

“Then we heard about this man, a border runner. We expressed interest. After a few days he came, in the night. It didn’t take him long to see we had nothing—and how badly we wanted to go. He made”—Reyes sipped, set down the cup unsteadily—”a proposal. First he told us we were lucky to have such a fine family. People he knew in Los Angeles were not as fortunate, people who wanted children, wanted to give them a good home. They would have every advantage. Be loved, have clothes, go to school. Be something. I remember the way he looked at us and at the house.

“He told us he would take us where we wanted to go.” Reyes pulled an earlobe. “If…”

Wil waited.

“If we would let him have Benito.” A hoarseness crept in. “He kept saying Benito was perfect for the people he knew.”

There was a knock. The housekeeper entered with cold turkey and a blood pressure pill for her employer, rellenos and a disapproving stare for Hardesty. As they ate, Reyes went on.

“At first Serafina and I were adamant: Unthinkable, we said, absolutely not. But he was persuasive. He kept asking us how we could deny Benito such a life. Didn’t we want to save the family? And hadn’t we already been blessed with six fine babies, and Serafina pregnant again. Over and over. Finally we had no more answers. Finally we agreed.”

He shut his eyes, fought for control.

“Try to understand, Mr. Hardesty. We adored him. But we were also desperate. Giving him up seemed the only way.” He got up stiffly, moved to the desk, where he reached into a drawer, emerging with a yellowed envelope. As Reyes eased back into the chair, Wil pulled out a small photo.

“He was the youngest,” Reyes said. “Our baby.”

Wil looked into the face of Mexico: dark eyes, large and full of promise under thin brows; black hair parted over a high forehead; a guarded smile. The boy stood there trying to fill out a coarsely woven shirt. Around his neck was a homemade drum, the sticks poised to play.

“What could I give him?” Reyes said. “I could see the life he had, the life he could have.” His voice broke. Slowly at first, then harder, he began to weep.

“God forgive me. He was six.”

 

 

Drying his hands, Wil took in the gold fixtures, hand-painted tile, expensive mirrors, and thought about the boy with the big eyes. Of guilt like a millstone around a father’s neck; wounds denied their healing: things he understood too well. Reyes’ decision had gotten him here, brought him what he wanted. Then, like an Aztec priest, it had ripped his heart out.

Reyes was picking at his lunch when Wil returned. “The rellenos were quite good,” Wil said.

The older man raised his head. “My doctor says they’re bad for me, too much fat. All my life I’ve eaten chile rellenos. Pleasures become fewer and fewer, Mr. Hardesty. My due, perhaps.”

“The man who took your son, who was he?”

Reyes put down his fork, regarded his hands. “His name was Zavala—a bad man, it turned out. We crossed over a month after he took Benito. Seventeen of us he put in a small delivery van, twelve hours, no food or water. We could barely breathe. I heard later one of his trucks broke down crossing the desert, that everyone inside perished.” He swallowed his pills with a gulp. “Bolo Zavala.”

“You know what happened to him?”

“No, but he would be a hard one to kill. I know that.”

Wil got out a notebook and pen. “Can you describe him?”

“I wish to God I remembered more. Short, young then, and very muscular. Broken nose, I think…” He shrugged, refreshed their coffees.

“What happened after you got to California?”

“Relatives of Serafina’s let us stay with them. I got a job in a restaurant, then another. A few years later, we opened a place selling chicken the way Serafina’s father cooked it in Mexico. Papa Gomez. We lived over the kitchen. We did well.”

Wil recalled Reyes’ comment. “And your wife?”

A deep sigh. “My wife did not do well. Losing Benito was very hard—even the new baby failed to cheer her. She stopped eating, then talking, then living. I was at work so much, I hardly noticed. By the time I did, it was too late.” His eyes went flat, then closed.

Wil stirred milk into his cup; the spoon made a thin brittle sound. “Señor Reyes, what is it you want me to do?”

The eyes opened slowly. “Can you kill Bolo Zavala for me?”

“No,” Wil said. “I can try to find him, if he’s still alive. But it sounds pretty uncertain.” He laid the spoon on his saucer. “You’re sure the bones are your son’s?”

Reyes nodded as if it hurt. “I chopped wood three months to pay for the medal. We had it engraved for his birthday. I knew the writing.”

“He was six, you said? What date?”

“April ninth, nineteen-sixty-seven. A Sunday.” He rubbed his hands. “He looked like an angel, Mr. Hardesty, but my Benito loved mischief. He swallowed it on a dare from Gilberto, his brother. I was furious with him. The next day he was gone.

“You see,” he continued, “Benito wasn’t wearing the medal, it was inside him.” Reyes’ voice sounded distant and he looked old.

“The bones are my son’s.”

 

 

Before he left, Wil briefed Reyes on his fees. The man who was once poor was now rich, three bills a day plus expenses dismissed with a shrug. Reyes tore a thousand dollar advance from his checkbook. “Find him. I don’t care what it costs,” he said.

“What about the cops?” Wil asked.

Reyes’ gave him a weary look. “Police don’t like fathers who sell their children to murderers so they can cross the border in the night.”

“What you’ve accomplished since then would certainly be taken into account.”

“I still have my family to think of, Mr. Hardesty. The hurt they’ve already endured.”

Wil wondered how much of that was Ignacio Reyes’ pride, but he let it drop. He caught sight of a group photo in the bookcase. “Do your other children know?”

“So far they’ve said nothing.” He paused. “Gilberto would remember the inscription, but I doubt the others would. They were older and wouldn’t have stayed long at a birthday party with six-year-olds.”

“Benito swallowed the medal at the party?”

Reyes shook his head. “Afterward, when he and Gilberto were alone. I had been resting, but when I woke up I knew something was wrong—they both looked so guilty.” His eyes drifted to a point beyond Wil.

“I’ll want to speak with Gilberto.”

The eyes came back slowly. “Gilberto runs the Papa on Ventura Boulevard. Please, only if you think it will help—”

“One thing more,” Wil said. “Have you any idea why your son might have been killed? What motivated Zavala—or the people he turned Benito over to?”

“No. And I think of nothing else, imagining how it was for him. That is a terrible thing, Mr. Hardesty. Lying there in the dark assuming the worst. Hearing him cry out to me.”

Wind rasped a tree branch against the house.

“I have to know what happened,” he said. “If it means my life, I have to know.”

 

 

The phone rang just as he was raising himself off the big woman with the spiderweb tattoo. Sweaty, panting, he picked up the receiver, caution having taught him never to speak first. As he waited he admired himself in the mirrored ceiling: muy hombre, even at fifty.

“I see they found your little family.” The voice was steely. Familiar.

His mood vanished like smoke in a breeze; immediately he hustled the woman from the room: “Vete, vete, vete, vete, vete. Tengo negocios.

“An act of God,” he said, uncovering the receiver. “Who would predict a flood in the desert?”

“God acts in ways mysterious. Not so men. What about the medal?”

“No se preocupe. An oversight, nothing.” He fingered the pinkish line that ran from his chin to his right ear. “What do they know from it that could hurt us? None of those sheep would dare speak to the police. They know what would happen. They have everything to lose.”

There was silence, then, “Recuerda, compadre. So do we.”

 

FIVE

 

Using the car phone, Wil left a message for Lisa not to expect him, then called Mo Epstein and set up an after-work at Musso’s. He drove to Paul’s house, parked beside the sycamore in front, told him of the meeting, what he faced going in.

“I don’t know. Reyes wasn’t sure he was even alive.”

Rodriguez thought a moment. “I know a Border Patrol guy—and another in Immigration. Big a bastard as this one, somebody must know something. Lemme help, huh?”

Wil was shaking his head when he had second thoughts: If Paul could get any kind of a sniff, he could pick up the trail from there. Meanwhile he could use the time to see what the law had learned. “Two conditions,” he said. “One, you’re on the payroll. Two, you take no chances.” He saw the grin, sharpened his tone. “Hear me on this, Jefe. It’s too nice a deal you got here to let me screw it up for you. Okay?”

“Your call, bro.”

Wil hesitated. “I was a horse’s ass, Paul, the things I said in that bar. Hope you understand what was doing the talking.”

“More’n you think,” Paul said. “Now go on, get outta here.”

 

 

Cruising Hollywood Boulevard, Wil took in the dazzle. The City of Dreams lived in the bright billboards, the few remaining deco facades, the glowing marquees. Real Hollywood, though, lived at street level—in the human pinballs who bounced around mumbling, in the hungry angry ones snarling for spare change, in the timid vacant ones who avoided eye contact. Bits of flotsam, they streamed and eddied past leather shops, greasy spoons, curio dives, low-fi outlets, T-shirt emporiums—the new inheritors.

Musso and Frank was an island in the polluted stream. Wil reserved a table, savored red leather booths and old wood, the long bar, the juniper smell of crisp, cold gin. At lunch the restaurant was crowded with dealmakers and doers, revved by the race. Dinner, early dinner particularly, brought out the old-timers and a nice sense of calm.

He scanned the bar for Mo Epstein, saw him in a rumpled suit rolling for rounds with the barstoolers on either side. As Wil approached, he looked up, grinning, from a spread of dice.

“Hey, Wilson, we were just celebrating the occasion. These gentlemen are buying our cocktails.”

“I see you brought your own dice again.” He shook Epstein’s hand; to the losers he said, “This man isn’t usually allowed out by himself. It’s good you kept him occupied.” He ordered a club soda, watched it being poured while Epstein collected his beer. They followed the maitre d’ to a corner booth.

Settling in, Wil regarded the man he’d first met defying authority in Saigon: compact stature, homely face, intelligent eyes over a generous nose. A pain in the ass, Wil had thought initially. Never keen on the military way, Epstein resigned his commission after Nam, kicked around, and to Wil’s amusement joined the L.A. County Sheriff’s. “Can’t live with it, can’t live without it,” he’d kidded. Still, Moshe Epstein had done well. Their paths had crossed a couple of times since, unofficially. Once over a teenage runaway when Mo had been in Missing Persons, the second on a wife-killer who’d disappeared into the San Rafaels.

They touched glasses. “My friend, the independent one,” Mo said, raising an eyebrow. “Club soda?”

“Penance,” Wil said. “Six months now.”

“At least I haven’t had any morbid drunken calls from biker bars lately. Figured it must mean something.”

“You miss those, do you?”

“About like nighttime incoming. You working again?”

“Here and there, nothing I’m too proud of.”

“Lisa?”

“Just fine, quite the business executive. She outearned me again last year—thank God.” He sipped his drink; the waiter came and they ordered dinner. Epstein tore a piece off a slab of sourdough.

“And how’s copping?” Wil asked.

Epstein stopped. “Business is terrific, thanks, very uplifting. Just had a little girl beaten to death and burned up by her junkie mother, somebody’s been slicing Lynwood hookers, and Jesus, the gangbangers. Last week a grandmother minding her own business, this week two grammar-school kids and a three-year-old. Proving themselves, or they’re bored, or you’re wearing red, or something. And the weapons: riot guns, assault pieces. Like Ma used to say, it’s no place out there for a nice Jewish boy.” He waved at the waiter for more butter, steadied on Wil’s eyes.

“How you farin’—really?”

“All right.”

“I mean about Devin.”

“I know.” Wil stirred ice around and sucked in a breath. “What-could-have-been still gets to me, usually at odd times. I see him in crowds occasionally. But the worst seems over. Except now Lisa hears clocks ticking—she wants another child. We keep going round and round about it.”

“Changed her mind, huh? You think you might?”

“Not in this lifetime. Your shop handling the Innocents, Mo?”

“All right, I can take a hint. We are, yeah. There’s another piece of work—the kid murders.”

“Think of the bright side,” Wil said. “Everybody watching, no more laboring in obscurity.”

Epstein grimaced. “Gimme obscurity. Anybody with an axe to grind is out there grinding it. As we speak.”

Wil motioned the waiter for a repeat on the club soda. “Anything new turned up?” he said as it arrived.

Morris’ attention had drifted to a woman across the room; at the question, he swung back. “What, on the Innocents? Can’t tell you much.”

“Policy, or don’t have much?”

“Fulla questions, aren’t you.” He spun his beer glass slowly, watched it settle, eyed Wil. “I know you, Hardesty, the way you sneak up. You wouldn’t have something going…”

Typical, Wil thought; well, here it was. “Actually I have, Mo.” He watched his friend’s eyes widen. “I’m representing someone I can’t disclose, someone with an interest. I’m prepared to share what I can.”

“Jesus,” Mo said. “Lucky I asked.”

Wil met his eyes. “It was coming if you hadn’t. I invited you, remember?”

“Yeah, I suppose you did at that.” Epstein paused to let the waiter set down their orders, then started on his. “How’d you fall into this honeypot?”

“C’mon, Mo.”

Epstein gave him a long look, then shrugged. “What the hell. What we got is a lot of media hype and circling politicians. Carl Vella’s the task force coordinator—good man, grist for the mill, though, the way it stands, everybody out for blood.” He removed a bone from his fish. “That’s it mostly. Thing’s a bitch.”

“I’m sure it is,” Wil said.

“So what’s up?”

“I hear you say mostly?”

Epstein flushed. “Games—seven dead kids and a good cop with his tail in the wringer and it’s fuckinggames.” He took a deep breath. “Sorry. I know you’ll do what you can to help. Okay, to date: they were found about seven feet apart, regularly spaced, like in a graveyard. Except for the medal we got no physical evidence. Not even a fiber. Nobody’s come forward, no Missing Unidentified Person matches. All the databases have come up zero. Sound good so far?” He used the napkin, then dropped it beside his plate. “Whoever did this was real tight, they’d never have turned up at all without some freaky storm and a boy shooting at cans. Maybe God plain had enough.”

Wil smiled faintly at the logic. “Kids—how old?”

Mo looked at him. “We’re expecting the report on that tomorrow. First blush, though, fairly young.”

“What about the medal?”

“Maybe you should be telling me about it.”

“It’s been all over the news, Mo, Vaya con Dios, Benito. Papa, 1967.” He put down his fork. “The paper said something about sex murders. That the feeling at Homicide?”

Mo swallowed the last of his beer. “Among some. We’ve got a search going for similarities and offender profiles. NCIC, VICAP, our internal system; we’re even cruising through the Unsolved’s. So far nothing.”

When the waiter returned Wil ordered pie, Epstein coffee. In a few minutes, the waiter was back with both. Mo resumed after he left.

“You mentioned a client with an interest.”

Wil drew a breath and leaned forward. “What if I had a name, Mo? Not my client’s—that’s out—but a name that could open things up?”

“That’d be up to Vella and Captain Freiman. I don’t know, they might be in a mood to listen. Suppose it depends on what you’re asking for.”

“What I’m asking for is in. Access.” Wil chased pie with ice water. “I need to know what you guys know. Everything. Until it’s over.”

“That’s all?” Epstein looked incredulous. “Look, everybody wants this thing cleared. If you know something, Freiman’s going to want it the worst way—he’ll dance on your head if he has to. Christ, you know about withholding evidence.”

Wil bristled. “So far it’s not evidence, Mo, just dinner conversation.” He gestured for the check. They sat awhile, looking around, not seeing much.

Epstein broke the silence. “Look, all I can do is ask. Maybe you’ll get lucky. But if that’s what goes down, I’d watch the independent act if I were you. Freiman’s by-the-book and not without ambition. Vella’s a good enough guy, but he’ll toe company rope. Now, what is it you have to offer?”

“Sorry, Mo, you’re a good cop. What would you do if I told you, and Freiman wouldn’t deal?”

Wil pulled out a credit card and laid it on the table.