The Innocents: Part Two

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TWO

Pumping for speed, Hardesty dropped down the waveface, hit bottom then angled up for a move off the lip. After reentry and a cutback, he’d close it out with five on the nose—maybe ten—show ’em how it’s done. Nirvana coming up.

Then the wind. All day it had stoked the breakers, turning wavetops into needle spray that reached windshields driving past the Rincon. All day it had been his friend.

He was coming off the top when it hit, a maverick burst of gusting energy. Unbalanced and overcompensating, he staggered then flipped headfirst into the green wall, the weight of it rolling over him like a highballing freight. He came up breathless, tasting salt. The longboard, like a dog on a leash, tugged on the cord strapped to his ankle.

Gringo flashed by him on the next swell. “Hey, Kahuna. Gotta show me that one.”

Hardesty grinned. He and his board were relics to these kids and their racy tri-fin thrusters. They knew him, though, got a bang out of his wipeouts. What the hell, so did he.

Even with the wind the day was perfect: lapis sky, clouds long gone, Channel Islands clear enough to see the canyons etched like claw marks in the hills. And two miles south, the roof of his La Conchita house. Lisa’d have the Viennese brewing by now, burnt bitter stuff—words that made him wonder if it wasn’t the way the marriage was heading.

Hardesty ducked under an incoming. The late December swells were the best he’d surfed in years: ten foot bluebirds, the pulse of far-off storms, a blast to the younger guys like Gringo. But for Wil Hardesty, the waves ebbed and flowed in his veins, part of him.

He’d started at the Wedge, bodysurfing at fourteen, and nearly drowned. The exhilaration, though, stuck around long after the water had left his lungs. In a month he was riding breakers under the Newport Beach pier—shooting the shit afterward with the foggy morning crowd, sharing lukewarm coffee and sugary Winchells with sand on the glaze. Life then was surf odyssey and outlaw-freedom mystique, San Onofre to Malibu to even-then Rincon, Mickey-this and Corky-that, slow dances to tremolo guitar bands, Coppertone on warm skin. Fun to kick around now when he bumped into other surfing graybeards.

Back then he’d even done some money gigs before walking away. Ultimately, it had come down to him and the water.

Thinking how much Devin would have loved it today, he headed in.

 

 

The ’66 Bonneville eased out of Rincon Park and turned south, Wil’s nudge on the pedal conjuring throaty exhaust. He still had hots for the car, stolen virtually from a widow anxious to dump it during the gas crunch. The Bonnie had style; it went like a white bat. It also carried a 9’6” longboard in a partition he’d punched through the back seat. To improve its handling he’d replaced suspension and steering. Other than that, the car was mint.

Wil rested his arm on the open window; to his left, La Conchita appealed to some inner sense. It was so unexpected: half-mile long, scrunched against the coastal cliffs, a vest-pocket colony not even on most road maps. Northbound drivers escaping LA for the red-tiled splendors of Santa Barbara another fifteen minutes up the road, rarely caught more than two blinks of it in the rear view.

Which suited him fine.

Like most locals, he dug the closeness of it. People coexisted—like the housetrailers, mobile homes, beach shacks, stucco houses, redwood decks. Roses grew next to cacti, fuschias next to Spanish Bayonet. And up the street at the north end, bananas, the fruit tree-ripening in bright blue bags. La Conchita itself hadn’t grown much, though. Laid out in ’24, it had waited for the movie stars and city folk to come, some getting as far as Mussel Shoals. After a while the coast highway had brought others: oil workers, smugglers, retirees, surfers, all attracted by cheap lots and two miles of sloping beach.

Wil checked his watch, knowing Lisa’d be annoyed: Given her accounting practice and his schedule, Sunday was their day. He pulled the car in under the port, between her black Legend coupe and his ancient Harley Super Glide with the For Sale sign, and caught a glimpse of her looking down.

He waved, unloaded the longboard. Southern Cross: his cornball name for it after the blue stripe crossing red aft of center. Designed to impress other teenage surf rats, fashioned one distant summer following evening shifts at his father’s place. Like himself, it had held up despite hard use.

Up the wood stairs: cinnamon air, Edward greeting him cockatoo-loud, Lisa with silence. She was in faded jeans and the long-sleeved tee with the parrot on it he’d bought her in Cabo; at her throat, the gold heart held a splash of sunlight. She was curled up on the couch, concentrating hard on the travel section.

Wil poured coffee, tasted it, heard, “Glad you could make it,” from behind him.

“The waves were outrageous,” he said, turning. “I was hoping you’d understand.”

She folded her paper and laid it down. “What I don’t understand is how you can surf at all. Nothing I haven’t said before.”

“You see the water?”

“Through the scope, yes. That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“I know what you meant. Can we talk about it later, please?”

“Later, Wil, sure.” She returned to her paper.

He peeled out of the wetsuit, showered, toweled off in front of the mirror, more or less pleased with his chest and shoulders, the stomach less so, his evasiveness definitely not. He ran a comb through his hair, its dampness concealing the gray.

“Everything’s ready,” she said from the doorway, “I’m just reheating.” She handed him part of the muffin she’d started on.

“Ummm. Corn and jalapeño?”

She nodded. “They’re probably dry by now.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Staying out that long was selfish.”

“I know.”

“Forgive me?”

“Wil…”

He kissed her, got some heat, tried it again; this time she spun away. As he dressed, he flashed on the photo—silver-framed longhairs in tie-dyed shirts, him tall in leather hat, her short and headbanded. Lisa Shigeno, with the smooth skin and almond-shaped eyes that still bored holes in his libido. She’d been a junior when he first met her at a l969 UC Santa Barbara basketball game, surprised at how sport-smart she’d been. Interested, he asked her to a photo gallery opening and found out she knew more about Herbert Bayer’s work than he did. Much later, she took him home.

Her father raised orchids in one of the big greenhouses south of Santa Barbara. Tojio Shigeno had planned on a black-haired samurai for his Japanese daughter and was unimpressed with a six-two blond Aryan—the point driven home with shouts, sulks and threats. To no avail. They’d married right before Wil shipped out the first time and it had stuck—unimaginable to most of their friends, some already on thirds. Which made him hate even more where they seemed to be heading.

His eyes settled on the smaller, newer frame: Devin Kyle Hardesty, forever ten-almost-eleven. Child of water and to water returned—standing beside the surfboard Wil would always see him on. Four years of trying to have him, two more in therapy…He took a deep breath, finished dressing.

Later, as they ate, he said, “About this morning—I’d like to make it up, dinner in town tonight. We can talk then if you want.”

Lisa shook her head. “No. Paul phoned while you were in the shower.”

“Rodriguez?” Wil looked up from coring a winter nellis.

“He’s coming up, said it was important. About a friend of his. Said he hoped you were between jobs.”

“Okay. You want to talk now?”

“Ruin our one day—isn’t that what you really mean?”

“What’s it going to solve, Leese? Beyond dredging up a lot of old…”

“Four years this February, Wil. I love you, and I hate being a bitch, but I’m running out of time.”

 

THREE

 

While Lisa worked on her computer, Wil settled in front of the window, trying to remember the last time he’d seen Paul Rodriguez. Ten months, a year? The occasion was easier: wrecked in a bar down on lower State where Paul had come to pull him off the reef. Telling his friend to fuck off, leave me alone—taking a swing at him finally and falling down in a cascade of Coors bottles. Vintage Hardesty then.

His eyes drifted up and down the coast to nineteen years back.

He had them in the field glasses.

They were on a small dock; nothing much, a few boards sticking out into the river—the mother waving frantically, the baby under her arm screeching and kicking, the toddler clutching her leg. It was almost dark.

Miller ordered the Point Marlow slowly toward shore. Full alert: They’d been briefed on the Point Faro ambush, VC snipers picking off a man and ripping up the bridge.

Wil joined Rodriguez aft at the .50 caliber.

“What do you make of it?” he asked the gunner’s mate.

“I’m not too thrilled about them bushes,” Rodriguez said. “Congville, you ask me.”

Both dripped with the heat and humidity. The smell of rotting vegetation rolled over the deck in waves. Actions clicked as the crew checked their weapons.

Rodriguez spat. “But hey, women and kids in distress? Semper Paratus, Lieutenant. Watch your ass.”

Wil could hear the baby’s screams as they made shore. His grip tightened on the M-16; close in now, the mother’s eyes hollow with fear. Miller reversed engines then backed off, preparing to board the trio. The Point Marlow drifted momentarily.

Then they lucked out. The first mortar round fell short.

Twenty yards away, the pier dissolved in a dirty wall of mud and flame. Degtyarev fire spat from the undergrowth.

“Sheeit!” Rodriguez opened up with the .50 caliber.

Five-foot geysers single-filed along the water’s edge as the ship’s other machine guns hammered at the thicket beyond. Miller shot the Point Marlow ahead and starboard toward the safety of mid-river. The mortar mount was thumping now; bullets pinged and sang in the rigging.

Turning with the ship, Wil heard himself scream as an arc of automatic rifle fire caught him, the impact spinning him over the side and into the muddy wake.

He was drowning by the time Rodriguez found him, spitting brown water while Rodriguez somehow kept them afloat and Miller swung the gray patrol craft around and the crew covered them with everything they had.

Back on deck he remembered the tracers, the explosions, yelling and blood, the numbness becoming pain. And three figures blown apart in a fountain of brackish muck. Then nothing until Rodriguez’s happy wake-up call at the field hospital.

“Fuck me, it’s alive.”

Wil watched the Sunday traffic, heavy now with people going home. He’d been lucky as hell: three rounds, clean exits, no extensive damage; scarring and a shoulder that now and then told him when to come out of the water. Four months recuperating.

A year after that he’d returned—five months aboard his own eighty-two-footer, intercepting Delta contraband before going ashore for port security work: off-loading explosives, boarding vessels, inspecting cargo. The odd run-in with profiteers and hot-shot brass.

What intrigued him most was the people stuff, the sabotage, assault, smuggling, murder. He’d been drawn to it and in time become well enough known to get requested for a number of inter-service investigations. And the politics that went along.

Frustrated as he’d been by Vietnam, there were small victories: he’d helped people, been enriched by the diversity, given—and been given—friendship. Indeed, some of the friends had gone from active duty into law enforcement. In a sense, he had, too—well-distanced from administrative structures and chains of command.

 

 

Rodriguez pulled in at six, climbed the stairs puffing and grinning; appraising Wil. “Lookin’ mellow, bro. Glad to see it.”

“You, too, Jefe.” Wil held him at arm’s length: still the bearish five-ten he remembered but with a layer of softness now over the military muscle. He grinned back. “Always knew you were a man of substance.”

“Brought you some’n, smart guy. Homemade tamales.” He handed Lisa a paper sack. “Compliments of Raeann.”

“Thank you Raeann,” she said, putting the bag in the fridge. “Can I get you something, Paul? Nachos?”

“No thanks, chica, ate before I left.” He hugged her. “You still crunchin’ them numbers?”

“Them crunching me is more like it. It’s been crazy lately.”

Paul laughed. “Must be pretty good judging by that little black number in the carport. LISA CPA, no less.”

“Keeps the corporate types impressed.”

“Oh, right, can’t be fun or anything.” Paul rested an arm on her shoulder, faced Wil. “Must be nice, huh?”

Wil nodded. Despite himself, the Acura was an issue—nothing rational, Lisa deserved it and they weren’t hurting for money. Her money. “How’s retirement?” he said to change the subject.

Paul went with it. “Should’a stayed in, man. I sleep late, eat good, chase mama and the checks come in regular as ever. Que vida!”

Late fifties by now, Wil figured. At his retirement bash everyone turned out, admirals to E-1s: E-9 gunnery Paul Rodriguez had played well over thirty years. The face was round and weathered and quick to let you know where you stood with it, the lines etched deep. Service length hair, ebbed back a bit now, was remarkably free of gray as was the mustache he’d let bush out.

Lisa popped him a Corona as Wil freshened coffees they’d been working on. For a while they admired the Channel oil rigs, Christmas-tree-festive on the horizon. Talked of old times. And new.

“Man I know needs help, Wil. I thought of you—who else, huh?”

“Not that I made it easy.”

Paul dismissed the remark with a wave.

“It’s appreciated,” Wil said. “You know how it’s been.”

“Hey, por nada, okay? Anyway, Rae and I are friends with this guy, Ignacio Reyes. Little hard to get close to, but a good man. Couple times a week we eat in his restaurant.”

Paul drained his beer. “Lately he’s been real stand-offish. Looks tired, drawn out—like his blood forgot to circulate. I ask him polite what’s the matter. He shines me, nice, but distant. I persist—friends, right?

“So he pulls me off in this corner booth. Time he tells somebody, he says. Then he comes out with it—you ready for this?” Paul got himself another Corona, swigged some and sat back down.

“My friend tells me he’s a murderer. Yeah, sure, I think. Tears come then, he tells me he killed his son. More tears. Benito, he says. Now this man ain’t just anybody. He’s made it, owns ten restaurants—Papa Gomez, chicken places, good ones. He works like a mother and goes to church and minds his own business. I know this man’s family, know his wife’s dead and mostly by himself he’s raised six kids. No way the guy’s a murderer.”

He paused. “But there ain’t no Benito. At least not that I’m aware of.”

Lisa set down her mug. A crawl started in Wil’s scalp.

“It’s late, so he closes the restaurant, gets out the mescal. The one with the worm? We drink a while, the mescal works. He tells me the bodies they found in the desert, one of ’em’s Benito’s.”

Lisa joined Wil in the big chair.

“It’s the medal, he says, the Saint Christopher medal. In the desert, he says.” Paul massaged the back of his neck. “Then I get what he’s talking about. Sheeit.”

Wil sat forward. “Saddleback?”

He watched Paul nod. For days there’d been little else in the news: gallons of ink, grim-faced TV reporters, sagebrush, solemn lawmen, Saddleback Butte silhouetted against the sky. The Innocents, they were calling it, child murders. Seven graves they’d found, bones and the medal—all that had been released, anyway, that and the inscription in the hope that someone would come forward.

No one had. Without breaks the national news had eased up some. Local pubs, however, were still in a frenzy, aspiring politicians demanding greater efforts of the sheriff’s department. Dead kids stuck in the public’s craw.

Wil said, “You think he’s serious?”

Paul drew a breath, exhaled. “I’m out of my league here, man, that’s why I told him about you. But I saw his face.” He paused. “Hell yes, he’s serious.”

“Has he been to the police about it?” Lisa asked.

“He’s afraid of the law, chica, doesn’t know what to do. I told him I thought Wil could help. After a while, he said okay.”

Wil rubbed the scar between his eyebrows. “You tell him anything about me?”

“Sure. That you’re a private dick and real close-mouthed. Faster than a speeding bullet, more or less.”

“Seriously.”

“Lighten up, man. The guy wants to hire you.”

“To do what?”

“Said he’ll tell you himself,” Paul said.