The Innocents: Part Twelve
“She’s at Guerra’s, dammit. What more do you need?” For an hour they’d kicked it around, Wil thrusting, Epstein parrying.
“You know damn well,” Mo came back. “Even if the DA likes it, we have to convince a judge to sign a warrant. And you want Freiman, one of your big fans, to kick it off?” Mo took a swig of High Life. “Terrific. You ever think that maybe Guerra has grandchildren?”
“Hard without a wife, Mo, remember? Besides, a grandfather might buy toys. A playpen maybe. But the rest—all at once like that? Give me a break.”
“So we check it out.”
“And two days later, the little girl turns up dead. ‘No mate a la niña,’ sound familiar?”
“Take us a morning, max. It’s a task force, for Christ’s sake.”
“He could kill her tonight—at the least make fifty thousand dollars off her. It’s a risk and you know it.”
Epstein looked at the ceiling. “What’s risky here is doing Guerra. This tape proves shit.”
“You don’t believe that. Sure it’s not all wrapped up, court-of-law perfect. But you’ve got the same instincts I do. Trust ’em.”
“Indulge them, you mean. I’m a cop. I got rules, answer to people—not like you. We can’t break the law gathering evidence.”
“The tape came from his dumpster, Mo. Not his office.”
“You’ll swear to that?”
“It’s too big a stretch.”
“And maybe down is up.” Wil sat forward, tossed off the last of his coffee. “Maybe Bolo Zavala didn’t bring the kid to Guerra’s so he could come after me. Maybe he didn’t work for Guerra at all. Maybe Lenny’s the man of the fucking year.” He pressed the mug into his temple. Racing the Harley through the Santa Monicas and out into the Valley, he’d felt it. They had a chance. Now this.
“Looks mean something in these cases, Wil. You know that.”
He recalled the article about shakeups: “Mo, your guys are holding an empty bag. If this is more than they’ve got—and it is—why not give it a chance? Screw it if Freiman doesn’t look good.”
“Easy for you to say. Even if Freiman goes along, there’s no guarantee the other guys will.”
“The girl could die, assuming she’s alive. All I’m saying is it’s worth upsetting some people to find out.”
Mo Epstein sank back further against the couch. “They’ll never buy it, it’s too circumstantial. On top of that, Freiman won’t hear it coming from you.”
“So tell him you had a hunch and played it. Anything. Tell him Vella found the tape.”
Mo rubbed his neck, went to the phone. Checking his book, he dialed and ordered a home delivery pizza. After that he called Vella—then Freiman.
The pizza arrived, was cooling by the time Freiman agreed; it was only then that Wil began to let go. He moved to the kitchen, divvied out combo wedges. Cracked himself a 7Up and drank half of it.
Mo Epstein’s eyebrow went about halfway up. “Freiman’s putting it out there, I didn’t think he would. Shows you what he’s up against.” Staring at the soft drink can, he said, “Stick around if you like. It’s on for tonight if we can set it up.”
Two drinks down, the pounding in her head quieting. Finally the kid was out. It had been a real screamer this time, nothing working: toys, apple juice, aspirin—mothering even, the child immediately sensing Jennette’s aversion and using it for fuel.
Valium ground up in her applesauce. That had worked.
Jennette Contreras poured herself another brandy, walked the white living room, paused to look out a shuttered window. At least the house was out of earshot, the neighbor’s tennis courts closer than the neighbors’ houses. Oleanders would muffle sounds that escaped, not that any would. She released the shutter, checked the playpen again. Soon. No one had to say it, the moon did.
She twisted a length of hair that had fallen.
Niños at least was under control: checking in mornings while the child slept, Sofia handling her clients. As for the detective, Hardesty, she’d never believed him in the first place, him and his talk about wanting to adopt. The man was a phony, the break-in suspiciously close to his leaving. Of course Lenny was still bothered about that, though he didn’t let it show. Jennette smiled at how well she knew him: Lenny had his own kind of cojones. He would deal with Hardesty.
Everything, really, was fine.
She looked out again. Beyond hedges, the street was quiet.
Nothing matched the late hours for being alone with her thoughts. Feeling his closeness. What a man he’d been then: handsome, full of fire. True, he had chosen a different path, but to her he would always be the way he’d been.
Again they came back, the memories, hot and sweet.
Swimming naked in the shallows; knowing he was watching, her every movement for one purpose. Rolling in the green warmth, diving, standing finally and looking toward shore, toward him, crystal drops falling from breasts and arms and softness. Then he was there and coming toward her: plunging in, taking her in the water, her joy overwhelming, as though all the power of Yemayá’s oceans had entered with him. And afterward, carrying her to a spot among the mangroves where they loved again more slowly, reverent to forces newly unleashed. As sunset faded, lighting candles from his satchel. Placing them in a circle around them.
Sea snakes they had been, coiling and writhing in the light.
More memories: not lying with him again, her marrying.
Jennette put down the glass, aware of a sudden bitter taste at the back of her throat. A marriage of convenience it had been, as surely as gulfweed grew: Fredo Contreras, the fisherman, Jennette’s aunt and Fredo’s mother the matchmakers, aware of the incident on the beach and of Fredo’s shyness with women. She and Fredo going through the motions for a while. Hearing later that he’d tangled in a net off Marquesas Key and drowned.
By then she had been far away.
Jennette turned off the lamps around the living room and went upstairs. Closing the door, she fired a match, touching it to black wicks until the room was aglow. In seconds she was back within the circle. The space warmed, drew in around her; standing before the mirror, she loosened her robe, let it fall.
Candlelight danced again on pale skin.
Her eyes appraised the glass: nearly the figure she’d had then, fuller in the hips. The breasts were almost translucent, nipples seeming to float. She cupped her hands around them and closed her eyes. Lips pulled apart. Soft cries rang in her head across forty years.
Her fingers had begun moving when the phone rang.
Flush fading, she crossed the room. Her tone was cool as she answered—unlike Lenny’s.
“Cops were here tonight,” he said in a voice that crackled with tension. “Here. In my house.”
It was textbook, letter-perfect. Mo nursed bourbon and described it, shaking his head. They’d gotten the unlisted number and address, arranged for a telephone warrant to search the house. They’d even obtained a warrant requesting printouts of Guerra’s phone records.
At 2:00 A.M. they’d gone in with backup, uniforms flanking the door.
Banged the iron knocker, banged again.
Following the initial shock, he’d been the soul of graciousness. Of course he would cooperate: answer any questions, provide them any background. Guerra had the boy make them coffee then, and after it was over it was Freiman apologizing and ordering Mo to dispurse the backup, Guerra excusing it as nothing and the two of them having a cigar while Guerra entranced the captain with the house and the art and himself.
The yelling had started in the car.
Mo looked pale with something worse than fatigue; their talk drifted away replaced by leaden silence. Mo broke it finally. “He knew nothing about the Pacheco girl, was sympathetic to any effort to find her. Far as the register tape goes, he had no knowledge of it—no surprise there. When we asked about the statues, he said he’d gotten them from a collector. No reason, just liked them. Even offered to hunt for the receipts.”
“Of course,” Wil said, pouring himself a straight shot from Mo’s bottle. “Was the boy any help?”
“His foster kid? Might as well have been mute.” He watched Wil down the shot, pour another. “You’re hoisting the flag again, maybe you ought to go light on that stuff.”
“Just stick to the subject.”
“All right. We lost tonight, big-time. Don’t expect Guerra to make the captain’s most-wanted list between now and when hell freezes. I may be sending you a card from Siberia, and don’t laugh, Freiman’d find a way.”
Wil threw down the second shot. “My fault. I’m the one who pushed.”
“Just what I need, all right, his finding out you’re involved. You like the sound of shit hitting fans?”
Wil’s fuse was just as short. “Mo, goddammit, Guerra’s up to here in this thing. We’re talking about a two-year-old.” He tried glaring, but couldn’t; he’d been wrong, and Epstein had paid.
“Sorry,” he said. “What about the phone records?”
Epstein jerked himself away from the kitchen counter, his face no longer pale. “What about you shutting the fuck up and leaving me alone while I contemplate having to make Lieutenant again.” He tossed off his whiskey, rattled the ice cubes in the sink, then stormed down the hall. Wil glanced at his own empty glass, then drank directly from the bottle.
False dawn was silhouetting the San Gabriel range by the time Wil pulled the Super Glide into the Rodriguez driveway and killed its rumble. The damp air felt like cold rain. For a moment he just sat there relishing the silence and letting his shoulders slump. Then he noticed the black Acura.
She was in the guest bed he’d been using. Her suitcase was up on the chair. He watched her sleep for a while, envying her peaceful state, wondering at her coming. Wanting her. Then the why of it made him want to wake her up and ask, so he slipped out of the room and lay down on the too-short couch. Mo’s whiskey still churned; thoughts flooded his mind as if pouring from an open spigot—Jessica, Guerra, how sure he’d been about him having her—until sleep took him.
The smell of coffee: Wil opened his eyes and waited as the lines and planes and colors came together, then propped himself up on one elbow. Lisa sat in the chair with the antimacassars on the arms, her feet pulled up under her. Watching him. Steam rose from the mug in her hand.
“You’re awake,” she said quietly.
He smiled, tried to read her but couldn’t. “Hi there. Time is it?”
“Almost ten. When did you finally get in?”
He blinked, ran a hand over his face. “I don’t know. Late.”
“Must have been a hard night. You don’t look so good.”
“You look terrific.”
There was a quiet moment while she looked at him, then she said, “You’re drinking again, aren’t you?” Her voice was flat.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said, attempting to mask the residual buzz with a smile that stuck partway.
“How about if I shower, then we talk?”
She nodded, and he stood up stiffly. Gray light showed through half-drawn blinds; rain murmured lightly against the windows. Raeann’s mantel clock chimed twice and resumed ticking. She handed him the coffee mug, then backed away from him.
“Thank you,” he said, taking a sip. “This mean we’re friends?”
“Partners is what I had in mind.”
“Uh huh. You mind if I ask in what?”
She stood there in the pink silk robe he’d bought her last Christmas, saying nothing, revealing neither warmth nor ice from her look. “Finding Paul’s killer,” she said, clear from her tone that she’d spent time thinking about it. Then she turned and moved off into the kitchen, where he heard her setting things down on hard surfaces.
In the bathroom he washed down aspirin, forced himself through a drill of pushups and ab crunches, then spent a long time under shower water as hot and then as cold as he could stand. Toweling off, he looked as though he had sunburn, but at least he felt better despite the red in his eyes. He dressed and entered the kitchen, where she’d set out bowls of hot cereal. They ate in silence, a talk show on the kitchen radio filling the void. A weather update predicted day-long rain, heavy at times.
“So that’s what made you come?” he said at length. “Paul?”
“I pried it out of Mo a few days ago, what you’re up to, what happened to your deal with his department. Other things.”
He rose and set their bowls in the sink, then sat down, sipped coffee now cold.
“So you thought you’d come and do what—help me out?”
Her eyes moved slowly across his face. “Work together, yes.”
“What was it you said once about all this being a long way from your world? This isn’t about some self-righteous dodger looking for loopholes and you plugging in the right numbers to make the IRS go away.”
“That’s not only bullshit, it’s unfair. I’ve learned things from you. Over the years.”
“Well, that’s just great, but the answer is no.”
“I wasn’t asking permission.” She let a second pass. “I’d rather not, but I’ll go it alone if I have to.”
“You will, huh? Fucking terrific.” The aspirin had chased the pain in his head to a spot above his right temple, which he rubbed. Rain binged metallically inside the vent above the stove.
“I’ll manage,” she said.
“To do what, Leese? The man who cut Paul is dead, remember? Bolo Zavala’s dead. Look, I can appreciate how you feel, but—”
“No, you can’t,” she interrupted. “You haven’t a clue how I feel.”
“He was my friend, goddammit.”
“He was my friend too, did you ever think of that?” Her dark eyes flashed. “And I happen to know you believe somebody else ordered him killed. That’s the son of a bitch I want.”
“No, you listen, Wil. When you were wounded, Paul was there for me. He told me stories about you and how it was. He listened to me—meek little Lisa just out of college. You remember my first job, that dreary bookkeeper thing?”
Wil nodded yes, recalling her letters describing it, the words trying to make light of how frustrated she was. Lisa went on as the rain beat harder on the roof.
“Paul talked me into going back to school during your last tour even though it meant no second income and more expenses. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.” She bit her lower lip. “You remember when Daddy had his heart attack? What I didn’t write was that he had no insurance—everything then went to the greenhouses. Paul gave me money to cover it. But he made me promise not to tell you. I’d have gone back to that lousy job, Wil. Do you see that?”
“What about the money?”
“I paid it back a little at a time—more as things improved. He and Raeann weren’t rich, but they never asked me when.”
Wil made tight wet circles with his mug on the Formica tabletop. “I took a swing at him once,” he said. “In a lousy beer joint.”
“He knew you didn’t mean it.”
Wil shook himself out of it. “Your loyalty to Paul isn’t the point, Lisa. Killing is a way of life to these people, whoever they are. It’s what they do, the way their problems get resolved. Understand?”
She said nothing.
“Let me clarify. I saw what they did to Paul—”
“Zavala did to Paul—”
“Same thing. They took him out like a pig in a slaughterhouse. In case I haven’t said it, I’m running scared here. And you want me to send you after them? Use your head.”
“Damn you, I just want to help. Is that so hard to grasp?”
He blinked against the pain, saw colors moving and opened his eyes. “I don’t even know what I’m up against, let alone how I’d use you.”
“Try thinking about what you need but aren’t able to get yourself. Like sober, to start with.” The line of her jaw was set hard now and her grim, shadowed expression in the weak light of the kitchen fixture reminded him of kabuki theater. Wind drove the rain in bursts against the outside glass.
Running on empty, Julio replaced coffee cups in the mahogany sideboard and brooded over last night. It seemed to him the sheriff’s men would never leave. They’d searched everywhere, found nothing, gone over everything twice. Madre Sagrado!
And the questions—out in the garage, Señor Guerra distracted by the big man inside the house. He’d been so tempted, deputies looking at him, expecting more. Why hadn’t he told them?
He slumped in a chair. They were police, and he knew about police who came in the night. Paramilitaries, death squads. Killers who’d dragged his family into the front yard by the jacaranda tree, hung his father inches off the ground, his father kicking while his mother screamed and pleaded. The fat one hitting her in the face with his rifle and the blood on her nightdress and him trying to go to her, but the thin one holding him back.
The questions then, lowering the rope just long enough to ask—pulling on it when his father didn’t answer. After a while they looked to Julio: Save your old man, give up the Farabundo Marti. We know you sleep with the FMNL, that you are traitors. Tell us and you will live.
Nothing he could say, nothing he knew. Finally they tied off the rope and watched his father’s face go purple, the kicking stop, the tight, creaking elipses. To his body they pinned a copy of his newspaper. Then they started on Julio’s sister.
As it always did, the sweat came and the fast swallowing.
Two of them took her behind the hedges, her cries cactus spines in his heart. Silence then and the men returning, one wiping his knife, the other with a handful of auburn hair. Julio knew then he was going to die; he ran but the fat one’s rifle butt was quicker.
He’d opened his eyes to bright sun and black flies.
Drifting north then: hopping buses, begging food, sleeping in sewers, being invisible. Stealing to survive. Borders meant nothing: El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico. Moving to an inner current: America, a vague notion fueled by television and his father’s newspaper. In a year, he’d made it as far as Sonora. Then the woman from Los Amigos de Hermosilloand the slow road back from hepatitis and malnutrition and dysentery.
He should have died.
Selected for adoption, he’d gotten as far as Los Angeles when it fell through. Hearing his adoptive parents had burned to death under a gasoline truck on some freeway, that he’d be going back. And then the miracle: the gentleman who felt sorry for him, agreed to take him under his wing.
A vulture’s wing.
At first Julio had been grateful; he was beyond love by then, but life at least looked promising. Being given a home by Señor Guerra meant enough to eat, enough to live, escape from the bad dreams. Señor was good to him, demanding but generous.
Then the massages, coming at night to his bedroom—touching, putting his mouth on Julio’s; Señor whispering to him that he and Julio were alike, that people didn’t understand, and if he told anyone, he would have to go back there.
Back to hell.
He was a whore now, a fourteen-year-old puto.
He wondered what his father would think. Back home, when something troubled him, he’d go to church, discuss it with Father Jaime—maybe he could confide in Father Martin the same way. Yet every time he came close to Father Martin, after the others had left the altar boy class, he was too ashamed to form the words.
That left the officers—why hadn’t he spoken up? The big one’s face stood out again in his mind. From the moment he came into the house, the one named Freiman reminded Julio of the man who had hanged his father. From then on they all looked the same. Men with guns.
Julio put his head down on the cold wood and waited for the storm to pass.
Lenny Guerra poured, the aroma restoring him somewhat. When he wasn’t so tired, he enjoyed grinding the beans himself, sweetening the black brew, adding the leche evaporada. He never stirred it though, preferring to watch the white cloud form and swirl—destiny in a cup.
He drank some, anticipating its boost. From the Niños front desk Carmen routed a call. Jennette, he assumed; probably needing more Valium.
“Did Leonardo forget our meeting?”
Goddammit to hell—all he needed right now.“Fuck the meeting, Martin,I had visitors last night. Sheriff’s people. With a search warrant.”
There was an intake of breath. “What were they looking for?”
“Don’t play innocent with me. What do you think they were looking for?”
Hesitation, then: “I think what you are doing is absolute madness.”
“Be careful what you say, Martin.”
“I can’t permit it. I won’t.”
“Do you happen to have the Cardinal’s office number handy? Save me the trouble of looking it up. Two-five-one something-or-other—”
Martin DeSantis’ voice was barely audible now. “In God’s name, don’t do this.”
“Tears, Martin? Really!”
“I’m begging you—”
They came up with the plan sometime after two that afternoon, Wil wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he was against it, his head hurt like hell, and Lisa was on the phone talking about her skills and volunteer opportunities with Isabel Diaz, Father Martin’s secretary. They concluded by setting up a late-afternoon appointment at St. Boniface.
“I’m as good as in,” she said. “They need finance people. Something big’s going on.”
“Rebuilding their Mexican outreach mission,” Wil said through the damp towel over his face.
“Los Amigos de Hermosillo. You know about it?”
“Some. DeSantis talked about it at the mass Paul and I went to.” He pulled the towel off and sat up gingerly. “No tricks, Lisa. You use your maiden name, you get as close to Guerra and DeSantis as you can, and we play it by ear from there. The Polaroid is only if an opening presents itself. Ditto the tape recorder. No—I repeat no—heroics. That’s the deal. Period.”
“Why would someone of Father Martin’s reputation get mixed up with someone like Guerra?”
“I don’t know. Men like DeSantis—called, charismatic types—are also ambitious. It’s what drives them. What I suspect is that Guerra’s tapping in, using DeSantis’ ambition for his own agenda. How, I have no idea. But with guys like him it’s generally for money.”
“You think Guerra could be skimming off the Catholic church?”
“Don’t ask me to prove it.”
“Surely the archdiocese must have auditors.”
“Judging by the articles I read, Father Martin is extremely important to the church right now, and not just the archdiocese. He’s doing incredible things. Millions are flowing in. The media love him. That would make him an awfully big fish to jerk around.”
Her almond eyes looked thoughtful; one hand swept a wisp of black hair off her face. She said, “I can’t believe he’d condone something like that.”
“He’s hiding something. I’m convinced he lied about Paul.”
“I’d better get going, Wil. I need to shower before I go.” She stood up, cinching the pink cord of her robe tight at the waist. The gesture was completely reflex, but it defined her figure: slim with small breasts, nipples standing out against the silk.
“I’ll wash your back,” he said, instantly regretting the crack. It was forced and inappropriate, and that’s the way she took it.
She flushed, looking at him as though something dammed up for miles was about to spill out in a rush, but she said nothing. Just turned and walked away.
He felt her touch on his shoulder and realized he’d drifted off to sleep on the couch.
“I’m going now, there’s a break in the rain. How do you feel?”
“Fine,” he said. It was partly true anyway; the sharp pain in his head was gone, replaced by a queasy stomach and the sensation of his blood coursing. For some chemical reason, his system craved tequila with lime and salt. He sat up and checked his watch: four o’clock.
“Will you be here when I get back?” she asked.
“Depends.” The question, the accountability inherent, felt odd but welcome, and he amplified: “Guerra’s due at his office at five, I called while you were in the shower. I’ll tag after him, see where it leads.”
“Won’t he spot you on the Harley?”
Mentioning the motorcycle in front of Guerra came back, but he said, “I bought a helmet, one of those faceless things.”
“Wish me luck,” she said. She was wearing a navy sweater over a white button-down shirt and pleated green pants. Over her arm was a Ghurka bag and a bone-colored raincoat. Sunlight from a rift in the clouds sent shine off her straight black hair and a little zip of electricity through him.
“Luck,” he said. “And remember our deal,” the words sounding rote and vacuous to him. When she turned and closed the door behind her, she left a hint of jasmine and Wil fighting a sinking feeling of déjà vu.
It was getting dark when he edged onto 405 South and into the lit river of slowly moving cars heading up the grade toward West L.A. and Santa Monica. The city’s glow reflected dully off the reformed overcast; the promise of more rain hung in the air like a damp curtain. Spray from the roadway patterned the smoke visor of his helmet and his leather field jacket.
He made Stan’s Café at five-fifteen, staked out a table that gave him a clear shot at Guerra’s black Mercedes in the Niños lot across Olympic. A thin girl with heavy makeup told him Cindy was off duty and brought him a club sandwich, which he paid for. Then she left him alone to wonder how Lisa was doing at St. Boniface, how that whole thing had come together. It still seemed unreal, one more thing to worry about. Yet by her presence, she’d lifted something dark and oppressive off him. He realized he hadn’t thought about a drink in nearly two hours.
Guerra strolled out just after seven, put his raincoat and briefcase in the backseat, nosed the SEL out the driveway and turned left. He slowed briefly at the jammed-up northbound 405, then kept going on Olympic. Wil maintained several cars between them as the neighborhoods upscaled, downscaled, commercialized, got dismal and became respectable again. Lit signs hawked Kona coffee then kimchi then pan dulce.
L.A., he thought: Don’t like what you see, you drive awhile.
Guerra picked up Alvarado Street, then drove northeast on freeways 2 and 134. Just before the freeway arched over Arroyo Seco and into Pasadena, Guerra swung off and followed the west side of the arroyo up a winding street overhung with camphor trees, then slowed at an open-gated property with about a dozen luxury cars parked along the curving drive. He swung the Mercedes in; a garage door opened automatically; the Mercedes slid inside. In a moment Guerra came out a side door and strode under the portico and into the house.
It was a dark-shingled Craftsman, modified and set back from the street. Multilevel decks circled the exterior; brick walks led off in different directions. Through brightly lit windows Wil could see a telescope pointing toward the mountains and people standing with drinks in their hands. Mist was beginning to float and swirl in the glow.
He put the Harley between a couple of photinia bushes; at the front door he was met by a white-coated houseman who eyed him up and down, took his card, then slipped back into the crowd of people. Wil stepped inside. The place was warm-feeling and beautifully decorated, the people as well. Prosperous and late-thirties eager, they stood talking in small groups beside spotlit artwork, alcoves of antiquities, Plexiglas-framed ethnic weavings. Their champagne glasses caught sparkles of light from candles that flickered on a long table set with silver, wine glasses, and flowers. Classical music eased from tall speakers.
He recognized Jennette Contreras, then Diane Sumner across the room, and smiled at her as Leonardo Guerra approached with the houseman.
“Mr. Hardesty, I figured that must be you following me. I’m hosting a dinner party here. Is there something you want?” He was holding a cut crystal tumbler, something clear over ice.
Wil brought his eyes up from the glass. “Yeah, to give credit where it’s due. With your friends around.” He looked beyond Guerra, saw people glancing his way. “I want them to know the real Lenny. The civic-minded one who put up a faulty hospital that fell down and killed people. In Hermosillo, of all places.”
Guerra drank from the glass; through aviator lenses his gray eyes held dark glints. Conversation fell off as guests began looking openly now. Wil could see them eyeing his clothes.
Guerra nodded at the houseman. “Show Mr. Hardesty the door, Jesús,” he said. “Now, please.”
Wil raised his voice a notch. “The caring, compassionate Lenny who ordered my friend Paul Rodriguez killed.” He felt the houseman’s hand on his elbow and jerked away. He had the full attention of the group now and played to it; Diane Sumner’s eyes were very large. “God-fearing Lenny had Paul’s throat cut by a psychopath named Zavala who worked for him. Authorities say Zavala murdered seven children then kidnapped his own child. He is now conveniently dead.”
The houseman made another grab for Wil’s arm. “No offense, Jesús,” he said. “But I am not ready to leave yet. Momentito mas, por favor.”
A well-built man with the logo of a catering company on his white shirt moved toward them. “Come on, man,” he said. “Be nice.”
“Sorry, I just don’t feel nice.” Wil’s eyes encompassed the guests. “Maybe you folks weren’t aware that last night the sheriff’s department served a search warrant on our Lenny. Right here where you’re standing. Seems they had evidence Lenny was hiding Zavala’s little girl.” He took the snapshot from Donna’s out of his shirt pocket, flipped it on the dining table. “Her name is Jessie, Jessica Pacheco. Best to take a close look if any of you are thinking of adopting a child from Niños de Mexico. Wouldn’t want any of you arrested as accessories.”
Lenny Guerra’s neck and face were red-blotched, and a vein in his forehead pulsed. He turned away from Wil. “My friends, please forgive this unforgivable intrusion. This man is a failed private investigator, a liar, and a drunk. Some years ago his recklessness was the cause of his own child’s preventable death. Now he seems to exist for no other purpose than to cause trouble. Spoiling our evening is precisely what he wants.”
“My, aren’t we well-informed.”
Diane Sumner said, “Please, Mr. Hardesty, this isn’t right. Can’t you see we’re happy here?” She sounded confused and hurt.
Wil felt himself gripped on each arm, the picture shoved back in his pocket; this time he didn’t resist. “That little girl’s mother used to be happy, Mrs. Sumner. Tell it to her.”
At the door, he shrugged off the escort and walked out into the rain. Midway down the drive, he looked back to see them all watching and, standing at a separate window, Lenny Guerra, one hand jammed in his coat pocket, the other holding a flip phone to his ear. Beside him, Jennette Contreras’ face was as white and rigid as sculpted marble.
Wil wound the Harley down into Brookside Park, where he found a phone by a deserted Little League diamond. Raindrops cratered the wet dirt of the infield.
“Wil,” she answered. “I just got home. Believe it or not, I’ve been out there all this time. Working.”
“That’s great, Lisa.”
“You sound funny. Are you okay?”
“I didn’t want you to worry—think I was boozing or something.”
She was quiet a moment.
“It’s a bitch, Leese, that’s why I’m calling.” He was still sweating from Guerra’s, could smell himself under the field coat. His knuckles were pale peaks on the hand holding the receiver. “I want to,” he said. “A lot.”
“Come home, Wil,” she said, then hesitated. “I have a surprise. The Polaroids you wanted of that statue? I got them.”
“Father Martin held a press conference for his big fund-raiser event coming up. They all went but me, I volunteered to answer the phones. Are four shots enough?”
Wil found his voice. “Nobody saw you?”
“I’ll be damned—nice going.” He checked his watch. “Now we have to get them to Lindeman.”
“Where is he?”
“UCLA, Anthro department, his card’s in with my stuff. Take 405 South, then go east on Sunset, and you’ll see it. It’s about twenty minutes. If he’s not in, slip them under his door.”
“Done. What else?”
“I love you.”
“Come home, Wil.”
He was thinking of something clever to add when he saw the blur of motion, heard the whine. The car was bearing down on him, its headlights off, part of the dark and gaining speed. Wil jumped and felt it roar by him, heard the phone kiosk explode as though an artillery shell had hit, then he was rolling and scrambling in the mud toward the Harley.
He was trying to start it when the car completed a 180 and came barreling back. Three kicks, four, and then the bike caught and he was fighting for control as the car tried to cut him off. He spun away, roostertailing mud, then felt the surface change, the bike attempt to grip rain-slick asphalt and fail. He throttled down to stop the skid and stalled it.
The car, like a cape-maddened bull, completed its turn and gunned the engine as though sensing the kill. It was a black Dodge, an ex-CHP cruiser with tinted windows, the front doors still white, a faint outline where the shield had been. On the driver’s side, a single windshield wiper swept back and forth like a twitching tail. The driver popped on his headlights, floored it, and the big engine threw the car forward, tire smoke streaming from the wells.
This time the Harley responded; after a brief jitter Wil was up and running, the Dodge gaining, then losing ground as Wil pushed the faster, lighter bike down a stretch and into a turn. Rain pelted his coat, burst on his helmet, stung his hands and neck. The Dodge’s high beams were like twin searchlights in the rearview.
He torqued the bike past seventy, felt a surge of exhilaration. Almost to the freeway, he could see the sweeping arches of the Colorado Street bridge.
The pickup truck.
Pissed or disoriented by the three raised headlights coming at him, the driver hit his high beams. Momentarily blinded, Wil reflexed a feather squeeze on the brakes, knew his mistake instantly as the Super Glide’s rear end broke loose. He turned the bars toward the slew and almost righted it. But the drift was too deep and it went out from under him, and then he was down and sliding across wet pavement and gravel, his knee on fire, and he was trying not to let the front wheel dig in, and then he and the bike were airborne and that’s all he remembered except for the feeling his head was being twisted off.
The young-looking doctor with the red buzz cut was finishing the stitches in his scalp when they let Lisa in to see him.
“How is he?” she asked.
Wil opened his eyes against intense light, closed them again. “He’s fine,” he said, his words disjointed and faraway sounding.
“Lucky to be here,” the doctor said. “You see his helmet?”
“Yes,” Lisa said. “Doesn’t that hurt him?”
“The area’s deadened. And I gave him a pain shot for his knee. Nothing’s broken, but I want to keep him overnight. I’ll be around in the morning.”
After the doctor left, Wil felt her touch his forehead, then take his hand. He was aware of dried blood tightening the skin on his neck.
“Guerra,” he said. “As I left, I saw him on the phone. Setting it up. They must have been waiting outside.”
“No more tonight, Wil.”
“I put them under Lindeman’s door.”
“Not an accident, Leese.”
“I know. Sleep now. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
He woke up in a room looking out over a small park. The rain had let up recently; eucalyptus swayed gently in the wind, the wet foliage droopy and gray-green. Beyond them morning traffic hissed by on a four-lane surface street. He was stiff and bruised; where he’d been sewn up, he felt as though someone had left a fork in his scalp. Lisa stayed as long as she could, then left for St. Boniface, promising to call later. Wil remoted the TV on, flipped through silent channels, then turned it off. Vents exhaled processed air like a long sigh from deep inside the building.
Mo Epstein came by as Wil was picking at white-flecked scrambled eggs and pale toast.
“My, that looks appetizing,” he said, regarding the plate. “And you look better than I was expecting.”
“Put me back in, coach. I’m fine.”
“Yeah, right.” Mo regarded the stitches. “Nice even work there. I’m something of an expert, you know. How’s the knee?”
“Got me to the bathroom and back this morning,” Wil said. “What’s up?”
Epstein sat down in a blue vinyl chair. “Casewise? Well, let’s see: nothing on those file names you gave me. Every address had a different current resident.”
“That tell you anything?”
“In the light of everything else that’s checked out, no, it doesn’t. As far as the infamous register receipt goes, that came from the SaverDrug on Alvarado.”
“Guerra drove home that way the other night.”
“How about giving the Guerra thing a rest, huh? Lots of people drive Alvarado. Some even shop at SaverDrug.”
Wil downed the rest of his orange juice, shifted his weight off a sore spot. He threw a forced smile at Mo’s look and waited for him to continue.
“The buyer paid cash. The checker was working late and doesn’t recall the sale. I saw the accident report. You’re kind of hard on the transportation, aren’t you?”
“It’s a weakness of mine.”
“Among notable others.” Epstein leaned forward on his elbows. “Guerra phoned the captain personally, said you were drunk and abusive to his dinner guests. There’s a restraining order being cut.” He paused. “You wouldn’t be a little over the top here, would you, old buddy?”
Wil looked out the window. “You got something to say, Mo, say it.”
“I saw my empty bottle of JD the other morning, and it wasn’t me who emptied it. Maybe you get blitzed, go to Guerra’s, spew all over him, then dump the bike seeing double. Doc said you must have been pretty damn loose to come out as good as you did.”
“Or ridden one down before.” He was suddenly flat-out weary of justification, raised eyebrows, swimming upstream. “I’m tired, Mo. Just drop it. There’s money in my pants pocket for the Jack.”
Epstein flushed to his ears. “Hey, fuck you—I didn’t deserve that.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“You ain’t the only one with problems, but here’s another: Freiman’s talking about running you in when you’re well enough. I wouldn’t want to tell you your business, but you might try lowering your profile for a change.”
Wil sat up in bed, twisted his knee, and winced. “Am I under arrest, Mo?”
“No. At least not yet. But people who continue to futz around with the buzz saw usually wind up with the short end. Pal.” He snatched up his nylon rain shell and walked out of the room.
Later, Wil dozed and woke up sweating from a dream about Devin and Jessica Pacheco playing at the edge of a cliff and his parents with blood all over them warning him not to die. He limped to the sink, splashed water on his face, and took another painkiller with some juice. He was in bed staring out the window when Lindeman called on the room phone.
“How’d you get this number?” Wil asked him.
“Your wife. She said you’d had an accident but would want me to call.”
“Thanks. What about the Polaroids?”
“It’s been an interesting day. Turns out your little idol is pre-Santería, all right, but not what I first thought.”
“It’s sacrificial in nature—as in human. I’d stake my reputation on it.”
“Then it’s not Santería, right?”
“No. As I said before, Santería’s doves, chickens, the occasional goat. Rum and flowers. Nothing like this.”
“Then what is it?”
“Apparently some old African deity, at least an interpretation of it. Remember I mentioned there were myths? This is one—a spinoff sect that hit the beach in Cuba early on, then disappeared into the forests and never came out again. Through sources, we learned that all the governments down there have tried eradicating it. The last big push was in the forties, before Castro. Troops wiped out several whole villages—nothing they readily admit to.”
1945, Key West. Martin DeSantis. “And the deity?”
“The name we got is Chawa Uve. It means lover of innocent blood. That’s why the purges. Kids kept disappearing.”
“What was the purpose?”
“Of the sacrifices? Special favors, special blessings to accomplish certain things. Usually when a great deed was about to be undertaken.”
Wil was quiet.
“You there?” Lindeman asked.
“Yeah, just thinking.”
“Kind of prickles your short hairs, doesn’t it, what that little thing’s seen. How did your collector respond to my suggestion?”
“Were you able to find out if it was stolen?”
“Uh huh—August 17th, 1963, from the National Museum in Havana. Somebody ripped off the only three ever found, replaced them with monkey heads to show their contempt. Well, if there’s nothing else you need, I have to run. The ball’s in your court.”
“Tell me about the fund-raiser,” he asked Lisa in the car as they left the hospital. It was after seven and the rain had started again. She had a country station on for background, a Mary-Chapin Carpenter ballad about Carolina. The seats made soft leathery sounds as Wil shifted around to get comfortable.
“What do you want to know?” she asked.
His fingers went briefly to the line of stitches, felt their wiry stiffness. “Whatever you know.”
“All right. It’s the event around St. Boniface. Cardinal Ennis is coming, and half of Hollywood. Media, of course.” She had both hands on the wheel, race driver style; oncoming headlights cruised across the lenses of her driving glasses. “There’s going to be a special Mass and a reception afterward in a tent they’re putting up. I’ve seen the renderings for Hermosillo and the initial projections. It’s very ambitious. They need a ton of money.”
“When is it?”
“Sunday at three.”
“Two nights and a day. Why?”
Mary-Chapin Carpenter segued into Bonnie Raitt. The Acura’s wipers swept rain noiselessly off the windshield.
“Because I think we have until then to find Jessica,” he said.
“And if we don’t?”
“Then it’s too late. She’ll be in a grave somewhere.”
Suddenly she swung off the street and stopped at the curb in front of a group of stark apartments. She set the brake and turned toward him. “I thought you were afraid Guerra was going to put her up for adoption.”
“I don’t think that anymore.” He told her about Lindeman’s findings—the violent nature of Chawa Uve, the wealth-gathering significance of the idols’ cowrie shells—and watched her face darken under streaks of windshield rain. Christmas-tree lights showed through drawn blinds in some of the apartments; a downpour rattled the car, then left as though running behind schedule.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” she said finally.
“Lindeman said great deeds. I think the Innocents were blood sacrifices for things like this fund-raiser. Seven kids, their throats cut—of course the assumption these days is serial killings, sex murders. But each was buried with respect for the remains. You could even say reverence.”
She shook her head slowly.
“Hear me out, Leese. Zavala worked for Guerra, it would be logical bringing Jessica there while he stalked me. Meanwhile Lenny senses an opportunity. He not only sees what he needs in Jessica, but a chance to rid himself of the loose cannon Zavala has become. If Zavala kills me, great. If not, Zavala is still dead and the case is closed. Somehow he pulls it off. All except for the second bullet.”
She ran her fingers through her hair. “What about Father Martin?” she said.
“What do you think?”
Rain dripped steadily on the black coupe. As she turned away to face the windshield, he saw the shine in her eyes and felt something let go inside him, as if a spring had been stretched too far.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’ll shut up.”
“No,” she said bleakly. “I just can’t comprehend that we’re sitting here talking about children being murdered, possibly by people I’m in with, working with. It’s like this tight little box where I’d lock away the bad things is broken.”
Wil touched her hand.
“Lenny Guerra brought me a rose my first day,” she said. “He was charming, warm, welcoming. And yet I believe you when you say those things about him. But you can’t convince me Father Martin is involved.”
“You’ve known him how long—two days?”
“I don’t care. I just know. You ought to see him with kids.” Fresh tears came. “Wil, I keep thinking of Devin.”
“Me too,” he said.
“What’s she like—Jessica?”
“You saw the picture—”
He let out a breath. “A lively little thing, small like her father. She likes to play with Legos.”
“It’s so goddamn real suddenly.”
“You can be home in an hour, and nobody’d blame you. One way or another, it’ll be over soon.”
She drew a deep breath, wiped her eyes. “Tell me,” she said. “Does Mo Epstein cry like this?”
Wil kissed her hair and stroked her cheek, held her to him. “All the time,” he said. Beyond the windshield, the bone-white underbelly of the moon peeked through clouds like the tail of a curtain tattered and whipped up by the passing front.
Donna Pacheco was elbow-deep in dishwater when it hit: the sound of a child crying, audible instantly over the lunchtime mutter and clink. A knife in her heart. In the kitchen, no one else noticed; so many families came to Papa Gomez, crying kids were as common as refritos. She remembered how easy it had been to tune out Jessie’s little cries. Every mother did it.
It was tearing her apart. Again.
Kids with their mothers in the market, children playing in the street, pictures of little girls—that’s all it took anymore, anticipating them was not enough. The tears were coming again. Plunking in the half-filled sink as the sobs swept across in waves.