J. R. Rain
Yesterday, in a small desert town called Apple Valley, ol’ Boonie was finally put to rest amid much fanfare. Jones T. Jones was there. He even shed a tear, which may or may not have been legit. Anyway, I thought he was going to miss his mummy. They had gotten along so well together.
I was still drinking too much, but that was not insurmountable. That was fixable, and someday, when I had put my own mother’s murder to rest, I would put my drinking to rest, too. And then I would ask a certain someone to marry me.
But first things first.
A door to my right opened and a bespectacled young man with no chin poked his head out. He was dressed in a white lab coat. “It’s ready, Mr. Knighthorse.”
“ How did it turn out?”
“ Great, I think. You can thank the marvels of modern technology.”
So, I followed him in. Took a seat next to a flat-screen computer monitor that was turned away from me.
“ Here you go,” he said. And turned the monitor toward me. “Twenty years, just like you asked.”
On the screen before me was the headshot of a white Caucasian male of about forty. I leaned a little closer, aware that my beating heart had increased in tempo, thudding dully in my skull. The man on the screen had not aged well. His face was weathered from too many years in the sun and surf. His blond hair was turning a dirty blond, almost gray. Blue eyes and white teeth.
It’s called age-progression technology, and it’s used to identify runaways and kidnap victims. The man on the screen before me was the eighteen-year-old kid from the pier, the kid who had taken an interest in my mother. Except in the age-progression photograph, he wasn’t a kid anymore. He was a man. An older man who clearly loved to surf and still lived in Huntington Beach. An older man with three adorable kids who loved their grandfather. An older man who was the son of the homicide detective who investigated my mother’s murder.
“ I hope this helps,” said the technician.
I was finding breathing difficult.
“ Are you okay?” asked the technician.
The room was turning slowly. From somewhere very far away, I heard the technician ask again if I was okay.
I felt sick and stumbled out of the small room and found the nearest bathroom and threw up my lunch and breakfast. I flushed the toilet and sat on the seat and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and tried to control my breathing.
I sat like that for a very long time.
I was doing vertical leg crunches behind my desk when someone knocked on my office door.
I was tempted to ignore the knocking and finish the set. After all, looking like me takes a lot of work. But I happen to enjoy eating, not to mention my girlfriend has an expensive Kindle habit which, for some reason, somehow got attached to my credit card. So now every few days, I get email notification from Amazon saying that books like The Help and Tattooed Dragons have been purchased, although mostly it’s a steady stream of Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts novels.
So, I compromised and cranked out ten more crunches, rolled over, and pushed myself up to my feet.
At the door, I verified that the smallish shape behind the pebbled glass wasn’t pointing a weapon at me and opened the door.
The smallish shape turned out to be a woman. Her eyes were red and her nose was a little puffy. She had been crying. I am, after all, an ace detective. Then again, lots of my clients come here crying, or leave here crying. Or both. I haven’t cried since I was ten. I was going on twenty-one crying-free years. A streak I was proud of.
She looked me over. “You’re all sweaty,” she said.
I couldn’t tell if she disapproved or not. And since I didn’t care if she approved or not, I said, “I’m sweaty. I’m also six foot four with shoulders nearly as wide as this doorway. I’m a lot of obvious things.”
She blinked. “Are you Jim Knighthorse?”
“ And that,” I said, “is what I’m most proud of.”
“ You’re also kind of cocky.”
“ Cocky is good in my business.”
She looked me up and down some more, craning her head to do so. “I suppose it is. So, can I come in, or are you just going to keep blocking the doorway with those wide shoulders of yours?”
I grinned and stepped aside. She moved past me and paused just inside my office, taking it in. Doesn’t take long to take in. A bookshelf filled with Clive Cussler and James Rollins novels there, a sink with a Mr. Coffee next to it, a couch for Cindy and I to roll around on, a filing cabinet with my physical case files, four client chairs and my hand-tooled, leather-topped desk. The desk was obnoxiously big and more than one pissed-off client had mentioned something about “penis compensation,” but I dismissed it since the desk had come with the office. Besides, I had big feet.
“ What’s with all those pictures?” she asked. She motioned to the wall of photographs behind my desk.
I shut the door behind me, headed over to my desk and slipped into my new leather chair. The leather made rude noises that we both thought best to ignore.
“ Wait,” she said, stepping forward. “These are pictures of you. All of them.”
“ I’m very photogenic. At least, that’s what Cindy tells me.”
“ Who’s Cindy?”
“ The most beautiful girl in the world.”
“ Are you always like this?” she asked.
“ Like what?”
“ Only when I’m not.”
“ And when are you not?”
“ Almost never.”
She turned away from one of the pictures and looked at me. “Are you for real?”
“ Ask that inside linebacker in the Oregon game.”
“ The inside what?”
“ That picture you’re looking at. The guy with his feet kicked up in the air. He might concur that I’m real enough.”
She did look, shook her head, then came over and sat in one of the four client chairs. I couldn’t think of a time when all four were filled at once, but I’m ever optimistic.
“ Okay, I get it,” she said. She crossed her legs and kicked her foot. A sort of nervous tic. “You were a jock who liked to bash heads and hurt people. But are you a good detective?”
For an answer, I opened one of the desk drawers and extracted a sheet of paper from one of the file folders. I handed it to her.
“ What’s this?”
“ A list of referrals.”
“ And they’ll vouch for you?”
“ Some more enthusiastically than others.”
She folded the paper and put it in her purse. “Thanks. Detective Chad something-or-other recommended I see you. He said you don’t scare easy.”
“ Detective Hansen,” I said. “And not yet.”
“ He also said you could be a handful.”
“ You have no idea.”
“ Is that a sexual reference?”
“ Would a sexual reference offend you?”
“ Of course.”
“ Then, no.”
She sat back in her chair. She was about twenty-five. She was smallish, but tough-looking. Her hair was short and her nails were unpainted. Upon closer inspection, I saw that her nails were worn down by a lot of work. Work doing what, I didn’t know. She sported a bodacious tan, but also tan lines along her thighs and her upper arms. She was tan, but she wasn’t sunbathing. She was working in the sun. And hard.
“ I need help, Mr. Knighthorse. I need someone who doesn’t scare easy and someone who knows what they’re doing. Whether you’re a sexist pig or you think too highly of yourself, I don’t really care. I just need help.”
“ What kind of help?”
“ My boyfriend’s missing.”
“ Missing how long?”
“ One week.”
“ What does Hansen say?”
“ He’s becoming less and less optimistic. Which is why he suggested that I speak with you.”
I nodded and waited.
She looked around my office some more but I don’t think she was really seeing it, mostly because tears had begun filling the corners of her eyes. And now they were running down her cheeks. I handed her a tissue. Ever the chivalrous gentleman.
“ Any chance your boyfriend split and decided not to tell you about it?” I asked, when she had wiped her eyes.
She shook her head. “We were in love.”
“ Of course.”
Her eyes were red again and her nose was as puffy as ever. She looked at me long and hard. I think she was still trying to figure me out, but figuring me out was low on her list of priorities. I hate being low on anyone’s list of priorities.
“ Mitch was a good man. He loved me like no one ever had, and he had a big heart. He also had a lot of compassion, and that extended to all animals.”
I waited, wondering where this was going.
She fished into her purse and pulled out a business card. “We run a nonprofit organization that fights shark finning.”
The card had two names on it. Heidi Mann and Mitch Golden. It also had a faint black-and-white image of hundreds of shark fins lining a deck. My stomach turned.
“ I think he was killed, Mr. Knighthorse.”
She had showed me the card for a reason. I said nothing.
“ Look at the picture again, Mr. Knighthood. What do you see in the upper corner of the picture?”
I squinted, looking hard. I saw something.
“ Cages,” I said.
She nodded. “They’re not empty, Mr. Knighthorse. There are dogs inside those cages.”
I was confused at first, which isn’t hard to do. I am, after all, a jock first. But then I thought about it, and something broke inside me.
She went on, “They use dogs as live bait, Mr. Knighthorse. They hook the little fellows through the muzzle and throw them overboard, and while they paddle desperately back to the boat, drowning from the heaving line, bleeding through their mouths and noses, they attract sharks. The sharks tear the helpless dogs apart; that is, of course, if they haven’t already drowned.”
“ A few of us fight to stop them. We fight for the sharks and we fight for the dogs. Sometimes we win, but mostly we lose.”
I looked at her. “And you think your boyfriend lost?”
She looked away, swallowed hard. “They’re ruthless. Think about it. Who on God’s earth could hook a sweet little dog through the nose? And then throw that little guy into the ocean to fight for its life. Fucking animals.”
“ Have you talked to Detective Hansen about this?”
She nodded. “I have.”
“ What did he say?”
“ He said to talk to you.”
Hansen wouldn’t have suggested me if he didn’t think there was something to this. I said, “Why do you think they killed your boyfriend?”
“ Because they threatened us.”
“ And what did Hansen have to say about that?”
“ He said it wasn’t enough to go on.”
“ Police are particular that way,” I said.
“ And are you?” she asked.
I looked at the card and wasn’t very surprised to see that I had inadvertently bent it. “Me, not so much.”
“ So, will you help me, Mr. Knighthorse?”
I didn’t have to think about my answer for long. “Yeah,” I said, setting the bent card with the shark fins and dog cages on the desk. “Yeah, I’ll help you.”
She removed a manila folder from her purse and set it before me. “Here’s what we have on them.”
“ The shark hunters?”
“ We’ve got names of workers, the owner, some of their contacts, berthing docks, office addresses. Most are in Mexico. But there’s one guy here in San Diego.”
“ You’re very thorough.”
She gave me a tight smile that showed some bottom teeth. “We are good at what we do.”
“ And what is it that you do?”
“ We put the bad guys out of business, Mr. Knighthorse.”
Detective Hansen and I were sitting in his squad car, parked in the handicapped section near the Huntington Beach Pier. It was early morning so the babes weren’t out in full swing yet. A few of the joggers showed promise, but it was hard to tell with the baggy windbreakers and workout pants.
“ Next time we meet at the beach,” said Hansen, “let’s do it when the sun’s out.”
“ Because you like the sunshine?”
“ Because I like the babes.”
I nodded. Good point. There had been a box of assorted donuts sitting on the console between us. Now there was just a few cinnamon cakes and a maple bar that had seen better days. We were both sipping coffee.
“ You want the maple bar?” asked Hansen.
“ It’s all yours.”
A slender woman with a great white sheepdog jogged past us on PCH, then angled down toward the boardwalk, where the bulk of the joggers were. The sun was higher up on the horizon than when we had first started on the donuts. Hansen was a tan guy. He was wearing tan slacks, loafers and no socks. His ankles were also tan and I suspected there was a tanning bed somewhere with his ass prints all over it.
“ I take it Heidi Mann swung by your office,” said Hansen. “If you want to call it that.”
“ It’s a nice office.”
“ It’s a Jim Knighthorse football shrine.”
“ Like I said, it’s a nice office.”
“ Sprinkled with bullet holes,” he said.
“ The bullet holes give it character.”
He shook his head and licked his fingers. When it comes to donuts and frosting, every man reverts to his inner ten-year-old. After some minor debate, I went ahead and fished out one of the cinnamon cakes. I took a healthy bite. It tasted better than it looked.
I said, “You have anything on her boyfriend?”
He shook his head. There was some chocolate frosting in his thick cop mustache. With the frosting, Hansen didn’t look nearly as cool as he thought he looked.
He said, “No. And it’s not as clean and clear-cut as she probably made it out to be.”
I nodded. Few things were. I waited.
“ Her boyfriend might have been a small-time drug dealer. We’re thinking he might have run into some trouble down that road.”
“ It’s a hell of a road,” I said. I had eaten six donuts. Dammit, I wanted another. What the hell was wrong with me? “You look into the shark hunters?”
“ No reason to.”
“ They threatened them, according to Heidi.”
“ They’re just fishermen, Knighthorse. And these…activists get threatened all the time. Heidi and Mitch and others like them, get under people’s skin for a living. They shut down honest businesses for a living. To most people, they’re a pain in the ass. Come to think of it, they kind of sound like you.”
“ My kind of people,” I said. “What do you know of the shark hunters?”
“ They hunt sharks. Some of them, apparently, just for the fins.”
“ What do you think of that?”
“ I think it has nothing to do with my job, so I could give a shit.”
“ That’s what I thought. And the story about the dogs?”
“ Using dogs for bait?”
I nodded. “Yeah, that.”
“ Sounds shitty.”
“ That’s all you have to say?”
“ That’s all I can say. I can’t save the world, Knighthorse. That’s your job.”
We were both silent, and as the sun rose a little higher, we spotted our first bikini walking across the sand. Hansen smiled. I might have smiled, too, if I felt like it.
Cindy and I were at Buca di Beppo in Huntington Beach, and I couldn’t have been happier.
“ You love it here,” said Cindy.
“ They serve large portions,” I said.
“ They serve family-sized portions,” she corrected.
“ That’s just a fancy way of saying large.”
“ It’s not that fancy.”
“ What can I say, I’m a simple man.”
“ With a huge appetite,” she said. “And for the love of God don’t say, ‘It ain’t easy being me.’”
I winked. “I didn’t have to.”
The waiter came over and took our order. The family-sized portions were meant to feed four. In our case, one, although Cindy would nibble on it here and there, but not enough to do any real damage. Mostly she would fill up on salad and bread and tiramisu.
I was drinking a pint of Pyramid Hefeweizen, a new favorite. Cindy was working her way steadily through a house chardonnay. I don’t like chardonnay, or wine for that matter. It tastes funny. The problem with wine is that it doesn’t taste like beer. If wine tasted like beer, well, we would be in business.
I only see Cindy about three times a week, which works out to be about perfect. Just enough days off to miss her, and just enough on to feel deeply connected.
She asked me what I was working on and I told her. About the time I finished telling her, I finished my beer. Synchronicity at its best. Our waiter came by, saw the pathetic condition of my empty beer mug, and promptly did something about it. Good man. A few minutes later and I was once again drinking from a full pint, as happy as a mole with eagle eyes.
“ So is that why you ordered vegetarian tonight?” asked Cindy. “Because of the mistreatment of these animals?”
“ It got me thinking,” I said.
“ Thinking how?”
“ About the mistreatment of animals in general. Humans are bastards to our creatures.”
“ Humans are also hungry,” said Cindy.
“ Well, this human might change his ways.”
“ Change how?” asked Cindy. “I thought real men eat meat.”
“ Real men stand up for what they believe.”
“ And what do you believe?” she asked.
“ I’m working on that,” I said.
“ And in the meantime, no more meat?”
“ For now,” I said.
“ And what if I want meat? And for the love of God don’t turn that sexual.”
“ I haven’t a clue what you mean,” I said innocently, wiping away what I was certain was a foam mustache. “And eat what you want. I’m not trying to change the way you eat.”
“ Thank God. I love bacon.” She swirled her wine in her glass. Professor Cynthia Darwin was blond and blue-eyed and looked nothing like the distinguished anthropology professor I knew her to be. A distinguished professor with the pedigree name. Yes, she’s related to that Darwin. Survival of the fittest and all that.
She said, “So, in the meantime, you’re not going to eat meat?”
“ Do you think you’ll ever eat it again?”
She looked at me from behind her glass. Her pupils were growing increasingly dilated, seemingly with each sip.
“ So, you’re doing it for the animals?” she asked.
“ Something like that.”
“ Somehow,” she said, setting down her glass and reaching across the table and taking my hand, “I find that kind of sexy.”
“ Protecting animals is sexy?”
Except I knew that after one glass of wine, Cindy found just about anything I did sexy. She didn’t have to think about it long. “Yeah, I find that very sexy.”
I was sitting in my van and studying the outside of a bar in Belmont Shores. The bar where Mitch Golden had last been seen.
It was called Panama Joe’s. Belmont Shores is a trendy little subdivision of Long Beach, and parking is at a premium here, which is why I was currently mostly blocking a driveway into a Bank of America. I also mostly didn’t care.
Although it’s highly illegal to do so, Detective Hansen had “accidentally” emailed me some of the pertinent information from his missing person file.
Any police investigator worth his salt appreciated help on a case, even from a private eye, just as long as that private eye didn’t get in the way. Hansen appreciated the help, although he would never admit it.
So now I was sitting in my newish Ford Cargo Van, which I had recently purchased for the sole purpose of surveillance work. I loved the Mustang, and I still owned it, but the classic car was proving not to be very practical during stakeouts. People tended to remember classic Mustangs; not so much nondescript Ford Cargo Vans, which are a dime a dozen.
My Cargo Van had been heavily customized. The windows were tinted. A divider separated the front seats from the rear of the van, accessed via a small door, which I could climb through and shut behind me. The cargo area featured a small desk, two swivel recliners, a TV, electrical jacks, a mini-refrigerator, a sink and a small bathroom that I really hate to use, but will if I have to. Stacked near the desk was a pile of various magnetized company names. Bogus companies, of course. A van that said “Al’s Plumbing” drew less attention than a plain-unmarked van.
I flipped through Hansen’s notes. Seven days ago, Mitch Golden went missing. His girlfriend, Heidi Mann, filed a missing person’s report the next day. Detective Hansen had been assigned the case later that day, which was when he made his initial phone call to Heidi Mann. She had come down to his office where he’d asked her all the usual questions.
I read his question and her answers now. Nothing stood out, other than the vague threat made by owners of a fishing vessel near San Diego. The vessel apparently hailed from Mexico and allegedly hunted hammerheads off the coast of California and Mexico. Hansen never followed up on it, although he did forward her concerns to a game warden friend of his at the Department of Fish and Game, who oversees commercial fishing.
A car pulled up behind me, its headlights blasting into my side mirrors. I verified that it wasn’t a police car, then ignored it.
There was no indication that the DFG had received Hansen’s report or done anything about it. Then again, I wasn’t sure what they could or should do about it. From all indication, Mitch Golden and his crew had been threatened by Mexican fishermen poaching illegally in U.S. waters.
A minute or two later, after some grade-A investigative pondering, I realized the car was still behind me. I looked again in my side mirror. The driver appeared to be doing a lot of angry gesticulating.
By my estimates, I had left enough room for a car to squeeze in behind me. In a city where parking was at a premium-even illegal parking-I wasn’t about to give up my spot, not when I had such a clear view of Panama Joe’s.
The driver waited some more, then turned into the driveway, heading no doubt for the bank’s drive-thru ATM. He might have clipped my rear bumper as he did so but I didn’t give a damn. Hell, a nicked bumper gave my van a sort of authentic, shabby-chic look.
A few minutes later, my van rocked slightly again, and a quick glance in my driver’s side mirror showed that my pal had left the bank, and none too gracefully. He pulled up next to me and stopped, effectively blocking traffic. His passenger side window slid down.
“ Hey, asshole,” he said. “You’re blocking the fucking driveway.”
He’d stopped in the middle of the street to relay this information to me. I glanced back at the traffic he was creating, which was quickly piling up behind him. “You don’t say?”
“ Yeah, I do say, muthafucka.” He was a smallish guy with a thick neck and red hair. He leaned across the passenger seat and used his smart phone to snap a picture of the fake magnetized sign along the side of my van. “And we’ll see what your boss has to say, muthafucka.”
“ Please, mister. Not my boss.”
“ Fuck you, muthafucka.”
And he sped off. I watched him go, weaving through traffic, high on his own adrenaline rush. At one point, he nearly sideswiped a little Miata. He promptly flipped the bird to the driver of the Miata. Probably threw in a “muthafucka,” too.
With the excitement over, I went back to studying the bar. According to Hansen’s file, Mitch had been having a drink with two fellow activists who worked for Shark Heroes, the non-profit organization owned and operated by Mitch and Heidi. Both workers were contacted by Hansen. Both gave in-depth interviews. Both had watched Mitch Golden head to his car. Neither had seen him enter his car or leave in his car, which wasn’t surprising since his car had been found in the same parking lot the next day.
He never made it to his car, I thought.
Someone had either been waiting for him, or Mitch had entered another person’s car willingly, or forcibly.
I thought about that as I watched a heavy flow of pedestrians work their way down Second Avenue. Most of the pedestrians were young people. Most seemed drunk. All were loud.
From where I sat in my van, I could see behind Panama Joe’s. There was a small parking lot where Mitch Golden’s car had been found. Although two single lights illuminated the parking lot, it looked dark and forgotten. I suspected a surprise attack on someone would go unnoticed. Also, according to Hansen’s notes, there was no parking lot surveillance, even though a sign near the driveway entrance into the lot proclaimed there to be one. False advertising.
My cell rang. I glanced at the faceplate. The call was being forwarded from another number. My fake plumbing number.
“ Al’s Plumbing,” I said.
“ Lemme speak with fucking Al.”
“ You fucking got ’em.”
“ Good, ’cause you’ve got a real asshole working for you.”
“ We don’t like assholes here at Al’s Plumbing, where the customer’s always right, except when they’re wrong. Did you get his name?”
“ Hell, no.”
“ What did he look like?”
“ Hell if know.”
“ Did he have a sort of roguish charm, an impish smile?”
“ More like a dumb jock with a big head.”
“ Right. What was he driving?”
“ A white van that was blocking the B of A.”
“ So, there was no room to pull in behind him?”
“ Hell no.”
“ None at all?”
“ Shit, I don’t know.”
“ Would careful and considerate driving have solved your problem?”
“ Fuck that. And fuck you, too, muthafucka.”
“ Will do. Here at Al’s Plumbing, the customer always comes first.”
“ Fuck you.”
“ Tell a friend.”
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled away from the curb and parked illegally again, this time directly behind the bar’s back door. I took off the “Al’s Plumbing” sign and replaced it with a “Joe’s Catering” sign.
Did he say big head?
I sighed and headed inside the bar, where the bartender was a good-looking Asian guy with spiky hair. He had a big, friendly smile, which might be why all the ladies were sitting in barstools around him.
He turned his attention from a beautiful blond who might have actually batted her eyes at him, and focused on me. As he did so, one of the women must have said something flirty that I missed, and the guy looked genuinely embarrassed.
“ What can I get you?” he asked.
Spiky here was my guy. He fit Hansen’s description in his notes to a T. Or to a spike. Sometimes, as a private investigator, you get lucky.
“ Bass Pale Ale,” I said. “And some information.”
“ What kind of information?”
I took out one of my business cards and handed it to him. As I handed him the card, he handed me a dark bottle of the good stuff. Now that’s what I call a hand-off.
“ I’m here about Mitch Golden, a customer of yours.”
“ They still haven’t found him?”
“ Not yet.”
“ Sorry to hear that.”
“ You spoke to Detective Hansen?” I asked.
“ Yeah, he came by a few days ago.”
“ You mind if I ask you what you told him?”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind.”
Actually, I knew exactly what he told him, since his statement was in Hansen’s report, but it’s always nice to corroborate a witness’s facts.
“ I told him that guy Mitch had come in for a couple of drinks with two other guys. They sat at that table over there.” He pointed to a table near the big glass window at the front of the bar.
“ Any reason why you might remember three random guys?” I asked.
“ They’re regulars, actually. I see them all the time.”
“ You told Detective Hansen you’d seen them only a few times.”
“ Same thing.”
“ Not really,” I said.
“ You see someone three or four times in my business, and they start feeling like regulars.”
Actually, I know a little something about drinking, since I happen to do a lot of it. Too much, sadly. Regulars at bars are a lot different than the casual drinker. Casual drinkers come in maybe once, twice a week with friends. Regulars get shit-faced nightly.
So, which was it?
Except that Spiky and his good-natured smile had suddenly turned a little defensive. It could have been my imagination, but his spiky hair, held in place by an unknowable amount of gel, might have quivered a little in irritation.
I didn’t want to lose Spiky, and I didn’t want his female admirers to attack my giant head with pitchforks, and so I said, “Okay, I get it. Same thing. Did you happen to notice if they met with anyone?”
“ Just the three of them.”
“ No one came up to them?”
“ Not that I remember.”
“ Were you busy that night?”
“ Sort of.”
According to the police report, it had been a quiet night. Strike two. A good witness he would not make. Bad witnesses were generally bad for a reason: they had something to hide.
I sipped on my beer. I could see the bartender’s mind working. I knew it was working because his spiky hair was shivering. I also knew he was trying to remember exactly what he had told Hansen just a few days earlier. He knew the importance of having his testimony line up.
“ How long were Mitch and his two friends here?”
“ Hard to say. An hour or two.”
An hour or two didn’t help anyone. Too big of a gap. I decided not to press him with this, as I sensed I was losing him. I wasn’t a cop. He didn’t have to answer my questions. Hell, he didn’t have to answer a cop’s questions, either, if he really wanted to play that game.
So far, he was cooperating, which was telling in itself. He knew something, but not much. So what was he hiding? Maybe nothing. Maybe he always panicked when interviewed about anything. I suspected his good looks and perfect spikes had gotten him far in life.
I asked, “Do you know if Mitch Golden was involved in drugs?”
“ What do you mean?”
“ Did he sell drugs?”
His eyes shifted slightly, and I knew I had nailed it. Strike three. His eyes came back to me quickly. “I’m sorry I can’t help you.”
He went back to the group of four or five women who looked visibly relieved to have their object of affection back. I placed a ten-dollar bill on the counter, and me and my big head left.
I was drinking an iced tea and working my way enthusiastically through a large bag of fries at a McDonald’s in Huntington Beach, waiting for the one I knew would come.
Mind you, this wasn’t an ordinary McDonald’s. Sure, it had the prerequisite two-story jungle gym, geeky cashiers, and partially masticated chicken nuggets scattered randomly throughout the store. Sure, it had the filthy mop bucket in one corner, old-timers talking over coffees, and a large, plastic Ronald McDonald display that gave even me the heebie-jeebies.
Except, of course, this McDonald’s was different.
You see, God visited this McDonald’s, and I don’t mean that figuratively. A few years ago, at this very restaurant, I met a man named Jack. Except he was like no man I had ever met before, since or in-between. Jack knew things. About me. About others. About everything. Things he shouldn’t know. Things you wouldn’t expect him to know, especially since he appeared to be just another beach bum.
Anyway, he appeared in my life one day, and he’s always been there for me. Waiting.
Here at this McDonald’s.
And as I ate and drank, I saw him coming. He appeared first in the near distance, shambling slowly along Beach Boulevard, looking to all the world not only like a bum, but a bum with some serious issues.
He paused and let a minivan turn into the McDonald’s driveway. He waved at the people inside. They didn’t wave back. The woman, I noticed, actually stepped on the gas, leaving God-or Jack-in the dust.
He crossed the baking heat of the parking lot, shuffling and limping and smiling. Little black, yellow-eyed birds appeared behind him and he opened his hands and something came out of both of them.
It had been bird seed.
He pushed through the front door, spotted me, waved and smiled brightly. I waved and smiled brightly back as he got in line in front of a cash register. A few minutes later, he sat opposite me holding a steaming cup of black coffee.
“ It’s been a while, Jim,” he said pleasantly.
“ I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
His eyes twinkled. “Sorry for what?”
“ For not coming in to see you sooner.”
“ Oh, I’m around more than you know.” And he winked.
Jack was a man of indeterminate age and race. He could have been anywhere from forty to seventy, and he could have passed for Caucasian, Latino or Native American. Hell, if he told me he was Polynesian, I might have believed him. Even his hair color and eyes were indeterminate, but with me that’s not saying much. Hair and eye color were generally lost on the severely colorblind, such as myself.
“ Still, I should have come see you sooner,” I said.
“ You should do whatever you want, Jim.”
“ It’s just that sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind when I talk to you.”
“ Then don’t talk. Just sit quietly.”
“ But I want to talk to you.”
He smiled at me serenely.
“ I know,” I said. “I should do what I want.”
He smiled again. “Always.”
I picked up my drink and said, “I know who killed my mother.”
“ You are a good detective, Jim. I’m not surprised.”
“ Does God ever get surprised?”
He winked. “Rarely.”
Just then a timid little girl suddenly appeared at our table, a finger hooked in one corner of her mouth. She couldn’t have been more than three, maybe younger. She wore a flower dress and shiny black shoes, and there was ketchup on the tip of her nose. She swayed a little as she stared at Jack. Jack smiled so warmly at her that I thought he must have surely known the little girl. The little girl removed her finger from her mouth and broke into a huge smile.
“ Your mother is looking for you, little one,” he said.
In that moment, the door to the jungle gym burst open. An hysterical woman scanned the room wildly, then spotted the little girl. She moved swiftly through the restaurant, took her daughter’s hand. As the little girl was led away, she looked back at Jack…and smiled.
When they were gone, I said, “She knew you.”
“ The little ones often do.”
“ And who are you?”
“ Who do you think I am?”
We often played this game. Jack was the master of the verbal parry. The spoken sidestep. Lexical double-speak. He would have made a fine politician, actually. God for President. Now there’s a slogan.
I said, “I haven’t been here for many months, perhaps as many as six. Yet, the moment I sit down with my fries and drink, you appear.”
“ And what do you think about that, Jim?”
“ I think it’s damn weird. Who else but God would know I was coming today? Who else but God would know the time and date of my arrival?”
“ Who else indeed?”
“ You tell me.”
He sat back a little. “You think of me as separate from you, Jim, but I’m not.”
“ What, exactly, does that mean?”
He leaned forward and placed his hand on my chest. He rarely touched me, and I was startled at first. His hand, I noted, smelled of dirt and asphalt. “God is in here, Jim.”
“ Yes, in my heart. I’ve heard all that before.”
“ For good reason, Jim.” He kept the flat of his palm on my chest; in fact, directly over my heart. Warmth radiated from his hand, seeped straight through my tee shirt and spread through me. “This is where I reside in everyone. I mean this literally, Jim.”
“ You literally reside within everyone?”
“ You are all not only sons and daughters of God, but you are a part of God. Do you understand this concept?”
“ In a Sunday school kind of way, maybe.”
“ A part of God lives in you. A part of me is you. The spark that gives you life comes from me. That spark lives in you always. I live in you always.”
“ Like a parasite?”
He chuckled. “Think of a flashlight, Jim. Think of all the components that make it work. I would be the battery residing within. A very, very powerful battery.”
I thought about this, wrapping my brain around the concept.
He went on, “You have the power of God living within you. Think on that.”
I did. “So we can access the power of God? Your power?”
He smiled, pleased. “You do so every day, Jim.”
“ With your imagination.”
“ I don’t understand.”
“ Your imagination summons the power of God. Your imagination is God at work.” He paused, letting me digest this. He went on a moment later. “As you imagine something, Jim, the full power of God is summoned to it.”
“ To anything?”
“ And what if I imagine a dragon flying over Orange County?”
“ You would not believe half the things that fly over Orange County, Jim.”
In fact, I recalled reading in the newspaper just last year of something black and winged flying over Brea.
“ C’mon, Jack,” I said. “A dragon? A real, honest-to-God dragon?”
“ Put it this way, Jim: something that matched your level of belief would eventually come into your existence.”
“ My level of belief? You mean, my dragon might actually be a balloon or a float parade.”
He nodded. “Now you’re getting it. If you truly believe that dragons don’t exist, then there is nothing that I can do to help you.”
“ But if I could get myself to believe…”
“ Ah,” said Jack, smiling and sitting back, “here be dragons.”
“ A local fishing boat caught something in their nets this morning,” said Detective Hansen over the phone.
“ Would that something happen to be Mitch Golden?” I asked.
“ Boy, you private dicks are uncanny. You want me to swing by and pick you up?”
“ Why not?” I said. “I was just thinking I haven’t thrown up yet this morning.”
Twenty minutes later, I was sitting with the detective in his sporty Ford Taurus. He had picked up two coffees and mercifully, no donuts. I say mercifully, because it’s hard to keep donuts down when you’re looking at a bloated corpse recently hauled up from the bottom of the ocean.
Another twenty minutes later, and we were pulling up to the commercial fishing docks in Long Beach. There was a lot of commotion not too far from us. I suspected that a dead man was at the center of the commotion.
“ C’mon,” said Hansen. “We might as well get this over with.”
“ I thought cops were immune to seeing corpses. Part of the job and all that.”
“ Land corpses I can deal with. Floaters, not so much.”
The commotion was centered on something lying on the ground, something sitting in a pool of water and mostly covered by a whitish sheet. I say mostly, because a pale arm was sticking out akimbo. The arm was covered in red slashes and strange markings, and as I got closer I realized that much of the flesh was missing. Hansen saw it, too, and turned to me. He looked a little green.
“ Looks like the crabs got to him first.”
I nodded and felt bile rise up the back of my throat. I swallowed it back down and nodded again. I was pretty sure I had played it off.
“ This stuff doesn’t bother you?” asked Hansen.
“ He’s no deader than other bodies.”
“ But, Jesus…the crabs.”
“ It’s nature’s way.”
He looked back at me. “Nature’s way? Thank you, Jacques fucking Cousteau.”
Hansen held up his shiny badge and pushed through the crowd. The crowd, I noted, consisted mostly of sunburned fishermen wearing everything from shorts to yellow slickers. I noted the distinct aroma of rotting fish. And maybe something else rotting.
I swallowed hard.
Some uniforms were standing around, too, keeping the crowd back. They stepped aside and we got closer to the corpse. The smell of rotting meat hit me pretty hard and I made a small gagging motion. Luckily, no one seemed to notice my small gagging motion. Hansen, for his part, kept his cool, although I noted his complexion had turned considerably whiter.
Hansen met with who I assumed was the Long Beach homicide investigator in charge of the scene. They chatted a bit. Probably not about the Lakers’ chances this year. A moment later, Hansen motioned toward me. The Long Beach investigator squinted at me, then nodded. He was a tall guy with a beer gut. Hansen waved me over.
“ Knighthorse, this is Detective Brewer.”
I nodded. “Detective.”
He squinted at me some more. Although he was tall, I still had him by a few inches. I had most guys by a few inches. Any way you measured it. He said, “You the same Knighthorse who played for UCLA?”
“ You mean that fullback who plagued USC for three straight years?”
“ Yeah, that one.”
“ You got him.”
He looked at me some more. I think he decided he liked what he saw, since he might have grinned. “Your old man runs an agency in L.A. Worked with him on one or two cases.”
“ Sounds like him.”
My old man could kiss my ass. He had allowed key evidence to my mother’s murder to languish at the bottom of a moving box for two decades. Yeah, he could definitely kiss my ass.
Anyway, Brewer studied me a little more, then turned toward the body on the dock. “They fished him out about an hour ago. Came up with a load of mackerel.”
“ A haul of rockfish,” said Hansen.
“ A what?”
“ In fishing lingo, it’s called a haul. Not a load.”
“ Thanks for that fucking worthless piece of information,” said Brewer, shaking his head. “Anyway, fingerprints come back negative. So I scanned the missing person cases in the area and lo and behold, I get a redhead missing out of Huntington Beach. So here we are. You boys ready? It’s not pretty.”
Brewer reached down and took hold of one corner of the sheet. He wrinkled his nose a little, and lifted.
I took in some air. So did Hansen. The dead guy on the ground, not so much. He was badly bloated and it was extremely difficult to tell what we were looking at.
One thing was certain, the man had died by a gunshot wound to the chest, which sported a massive reddish hole. The hole had been nibbled and clawed at by the critters, and seeing the exposed meat was enough to make my stomach turn inside out. It took a lot of willpower to keep the gorge down.
Hansen lurched a little next to me. Something was coming up in the detective, and it took his own valiant effort to keep it down.
I had seen plenty of pictures in Hansen’s police report of Mitch Golden, but nothing looked like the mess I saw before me. With that said, there was no denying the fact that something had, at one point, been wrapped around the man’s ankle. Also, he was only wearing swimming trunks, which I found interesting since Mitch Golden had been last seen fully dressed at a bar.
Like Mitch Golden, the man did have red hair and his body was covered in what appeared to be freckles. But it was hard to be sure, because of the many hundreds of small animal wounds that covered his body.
Hansen shook his head. “We’ll have to run DNA. He could be anyone.”
“ Anyone with freckles and red hair,” I said.
Brewer mercifully dropped the corner of the sheet.
Hansen asked, “Where was he found?”
The tall Long Beach detective consulted his notes. His notes consisted of a few scribbles on a small, ringed notebook that might have had a happy face on the cover. Probably not police issued.
“ About twenty nautical miles offshore. Not too far from Catalina.”
“ And not too far from Huntington Beach, either,” I said.
Brewer nodded. “The way I see it, he was shot, weighed down with something, then tossed over board.”
“ He was supposed to disappear.”
We all thought about that. After a moment, I said, “He’s wearing swimming trunks.”
Brewer jutted a thumb toward me and looked at Hansen. “Your guy always this observant?”
“ Not always,” said Hansen. “Maybe he’s going somewhere with this.”
“ Maybe,” I said. “He was last officially seen at night at a bar in Belmont Shores. Wearing jeans and a jacket.”
“ So he goes home, sleeps it off, wakes up, puts on some swim trunks and heads out to the beach.”
“ Except he doesn’t go home,” I said. “He lives with his girlfriend.”
“ So he goes to another broad’s home, shacks up with her, then hits the beach,” said Brewer.
“ Maybe,” I said. “If so, then that means someone, somewhere, saw him at the beach.”
Brewer looked at me. “So what are you saying?” he asked.
“ I’m saying, someone at the beach saw him last.”
“ It’s a big beach,” said Hansen.
“ Then I suggest we get started.”
It was late and I was sitting alone on my balcony, drinking.
The wind was unusually blustery, with low clouds that seemed to glow faintly from within. It was a rare night in southern California that you couldn’t see the stars, the moon, or the occasional UFO.
I had spent the rest of the day canvassing Huntington Beach, handing out many hundreds of flyers with Mitch Golden’s picture, my name and my number. So far, no luck. And no calls.
Something would come up. I was sure of it. Someone, somewhere had seen something. Someone, somewhere knew something.
I drank some more beer and pictured the corpse lying at the bottom of the ocean, being nibbled and feasted on, until a trawler came chugging by with its nets.
Hell of a way to go.
The clouds above swirled and churned and raced towards wherever clouds went to.
Sounds like a Shel Silverstein book, I thought.
When I was ten, my father and I came home after picking up a pizza, only to discover that my mother, Mary Knighthorse, had been murdered. She had been raped, her throat had been slit, and she had been left to bleed to death in her bedroom.
Which was where I had found her.
I’m thirty-one now. The image of my mother’s corpse reaching under her bed will forever haunt me. Hell, it’s now who I am, a part of my genetic make-up. It’s also a reminder that her killer is still out there.
That was twenty-one years ago.
I now had in my possession a time-lapse photograph of a young man, a surfer by the looks of him, who had been following my parents on the very day my mother had been killed.
My parents had spent that day in Huntington Beach, working hard to rekindle their love. I rarely gave my father much credit for anything, but I did give him credit for that: at least, making an effort to salvage their marriage.
Granted, his many affairs had done much to spoil the marriage to begin with.
Anyway, my parents had been taking photos of each other on that day-her last day. Some of the photos were just him, some were just of her. Some were together, no doubt taken by strangers. There were over twenty photos. And in three of them, a young man had been watching them.
Using state-of-the-art age-progression photography, I had one of the pictures analyzed. The image that came back was startling.
Startling, because I recognized the man.
The son of the detective in charge of investigating my mother’s murder. My mother’s murder which remained unsolved to this day.
I shook my head again, and considered the implications all over again.
His son. A cover-up?
I didn’t know.
But I was going to find out.
It was early Monday morning and I was re-reading Hansen’s police report and eating one of three breakfast burritos that were wrapped in foil and lined on my desk in front of me when an elderly woman stepped timidly into my office.
Stepped might have been overreaching. Poked her head in a little was a little closer.
“ Are you the detective?” she asked.
Her voice was oddly strong, coming from what I assumed was a very old woman.
“ I am,” I said. “And you would make a fine one yourself.”
She blinked at me. “It says ‘Knighthorse Investigations’ on your door.”
“ Sometimes the most obvious clues are the hardest to see.”
She nodded as if I had spoken the truth, then stepped all the way in. She then carefully turned around and eased the door shut. Her back was bent and her hair was white, and she probably could have used a cane or a walker, but didn’t. That said something about her. What it said, I wasn’t sure. Stubborn? Independent? Anti-cane?
I got up out of my chair and offered her one of my four client chairs, pulling it aside a little to give her easier access. She hobbled straight to it, placed a spotted hand on the chair’s wooden arm, and eased slowly down. I turned the chair slightly so that it was facing my desk again. The old woman weighed maybe 80 pounds. My three breakfast burritos weighed almost as much.
As I went back to my chair, she set a very shiny black purse on her lap, which she held onto with both hands.
“ So how can I help you, Mrs…?”
“ Poppie,” she said. “Just Poppie.”
I grinned. I liked the name for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. “So how can I help you, Poppie?”
“ We, Mr. Knighthorse, we have a problem in our neighborhood and the police just don’t seem to be taking it very seriously, and we want it to stop.”
“ Understandable. What’s your problem, Poppie?”
“ There’s a man in our neighborhood who likes to…” She paused, looked away. Some sort of emotion raced through her. What it was, I couldn’t tell. But her lower jaw trembled a little. She tried again, “Who likes to…expose himself.”
“ I see,” I said, although I didn’t. “Where do you live?”
“ Leisure World. Have you been there?”
I had. It was in Seal Beach, and it was an epic retirement community, complete with its own driving codes and police force. To get in was a nightmare. To drive around was a nightmare. To find addresses was a nightmare.
I nodded. “Have you seen this man?”
“ More of him than I care to admit.”
“ How many times?”
“ Has he exposed himself to other women?”
“ How many?”
“ Maybe eight. Maybe more. Sometimes whole groups.”
She wouldn’t look at me. As she spoke, she looked off to her right. Her lower jaw still quivered. I realized now what the emotion was: fury.
“ Can you describe a typical, ah, encounter?”
She looked at me. “Do I have to?”
“ It would help.”
She took in a lot of air. She continued looking away. “It’s always at night. At first he would knock on doors and flash whoever opened it.”
“ Single women only?” I asked.
She nodded. She still wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Of course, only single women. It even got to the point that we wouldn’t answer our doors any more.”
“ Was he disguised?”
She shuddered a little. “A wig, I think.”
“ And you told the park authorities?”
“ Of course. They beefed up security. It stopped for nearly six months.”
“ Long enough for security to forget about it.”
She nodded. “Right. Then the…exposing began again.” She turned her full gaze onto me, and her jaw was really shaking now. “Last night, he flashed me and my friends while we were walking back from a play.”
“ A play in Leisure World?”
“ We have plays all the time. And concerts, too.”
“ Of course,” I said. “Has he ever hurt anyone?”
“ Oh, heavens no. He just shows us his little willy and takes off running.”
It was all I could do not to laugh. “Could you tell how old he is?”
“ It’s hard to tell at night, but we think he’s a resident.”
“ Any, ah, distinguishing features, other than his little willy?”
She shook her head sharply. This was all, of course, highly distasteful to her. Her grip tightened on her purse. No doubt she wanted to flee, or shuffle energetically, far away. But circumstances forced her here. And for that matter, circumstances generally forced all clients here.
“ Is he Caucasian?”
“ Any chest hair?”
“ Really, Mr. Knighthorse. Is that important?”
“ Maybe not. But I like to be thorough.”
“ Be respectful, young man,” she said.
“ Yes, ma’am,” I said immediately, and that might have been the first ma’am I’ve uttered in ten years.
We discussed my retainer, and learned that the women had all pooled their money together to hire me. So I told her that I was having a special. The first two weeks were free. She seemed relieved and put her checkbook back.
Now, I thought as she shuffled off, I just need to find the perv in two weeks.
I was halfway through my second egg burrito when I got a call from Detective Hansen.
“ DNA came back. He’s our boy.”
“ Have you talked with his girlfriend?”
“ Yeah. Met with her this morning. Let her know that her missing boyfriend case has turned into a murder case. You still on the job?”
“ I don’t know,” I said. “Technically, I was hired to find the body.”
“ A trawler found the body.”
“ Found is found,” I said. “I’ll check with her.”
“ And what if she relieves you of your services?”
“ She won’t. It’s not just about her boyfriend.”
“ The dogs,” he said.
“ The dogs and the sharks.”
“ I could give a fuck about sharks.”
“ They probably don’t think much of you, either.”
“ Whatever. Let me know what she says. I could use the help.”
“ Could you say that again?”
“ Fuck off, Knighthorse.”
And he hung up.
Any good detective clarifies the parameters of the investigation with the client, especially in a case like this, when the parameters have changed.
I had jumped the gun a little yesterday when I had passed out the flyers at the beach. In a murder investigation, time is of the essence, and we were already a week behind. Tourists go home. People forget. The flyers had to get out. Hired or not hired.
So I arranged to meet Heidi a few hours later at a Starbucks in Sunset Beach. Sunset Beach is famous for the world’s stupidest house. A converted water tower, it soars high above the surrounding two-story clapboard beach homes and inns and used car lots. It’s an example of what too much money can buy. As I sat in Starbucks waiting for Heidi, I could just see the monstrosity. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so ugly if it didn’t sit atop a tangle of steel beams. Maybe, I don’t know. As it was, it looked like an architect’s practical joke.
Shortly, Heidi came in. She spotted me and came over, sitting opposite me. I couldn’t helped but notice that she was dressed in a nice pantsuit. Her face was made up, as well.
“ You want a drink?” I asked.
She shook her head. Her eyes were even redder than the last time I had seen her. Her nose was about as puffy as before.
“ I’m sorry about your boyfriend,” I said.
She nodded again.
“ The police say he was shot,” she said.
“ He was.”
“ You saw him?” she asked.
I nodded. She was about to ask something else, something she probably shouldn’t ask, something that might scar her for life, and I simply shook my head. She got the hint and closed her mouth.
The day was mostly sunny, but there was a wispy cloud coverage that made things interesting. A woman was sitting in her car at the far end of the parking lot feeding seagulls what looked like a chocolate donut.
“ They killed him,” she said after a few minutes. “Those motherfuckers shot him and dumped him in the harbor.”
“‘ They’ being the shark hunters?”
“ Yes, the shark hunters.”
“ Can you tell me when you last saw Mitch?” I asked.
“ The night he disappeared.”
“ Do you recall your last conversation?”
Her last conversation was summarized in the police report, but I wanted to hear it from her. “We were in our apartment in Huntington Beach. Over on Yorktown. He told me he was heading out to meet some of our guys.”
“ Your guys?”
“ Guys who work for us. We have a few dozen volunteers.”
I nodded. “And he went out drinking with these volunteers?”
“ Why didn’t you go?”
“ Boys’ night out.”
“ Are these boys night outs his idea?”
She shrugged. “I don’t mind them. Gave us a break from each other. Sometimes you need a night or two off.”
I nodded. She spoke the truth. “Has he ever been out all night before?”
“ Did you ever suspect him of cheating?”
She looked at me coolly. The glitter around her narrow eyes caught some of the fancy track lighting above. “Never once.”
“ Was he wearing swimming trunks when he left the house?”
“ No. Jeans.”
“ Did he own a red pair of swimming trunks?”
She frowned. “No.”
I next brought up the subject of our working agreement. Mitch, after all, had been found. Would she be interested in hiring me to look into his murder?
She looked at me as if I was a little dense. “Of course.”
I indicated her nice outfit. “You didn’t get dressed up just for me, did you?”
“ I’m meeting with some supporters. Although we’re non-profit, we still need backers to do what we do. Or, I guess, I still need backers.”
I nodded. She went on.
“ We have a website with a PayPal donation button, but we need more than just the occasional fifty-dollar donations to do what we do.”
“ Of course.”
“ Don’t get me wrong. The fifty-dollar donations help. Everything helps. But if we can get a sizable donation, well, we can really make progress. And we were, until the bastards…”
Her voice trailed off. I waited an appropriate length of time, then asked. “Are you going to be okay?”
“ I don’t really care about me, Mr. Knighthorse. I care about them.” She indicated the nearby shoreline. “ They need to be protected from the true animals, and I’ll do whatever it takes to do so.”
I believed it, too.
Cannery Row is at the far end of Lido Park on a little peninsula within a peninsula in Newport Beach.
I didn’t know much about commercial fishing or canneries, but I was developing a soft spot for little critters who couldn’t defend themselves.
I passed by the famous Cannery Restaurant, which had once been home to the biggest of the old-time fish processors in the 50’s. I knew this because I had eaten here a few times with Cindy, and the building itself was impressive.
I continued on Lido, crossing over a bridge, passing hip restaurants and nice boats and condos and Mediterranean-style homes that probably cost more than I would ever make in my lifetime.
I hung a right on Shipyard Way and took it to the end, following the address I had written on a small notepad. I don’t keep my files with me. Should someone break into my car and steal my file, well, I would be up shit creek and my clients’ anonymity would be compromised.
I parked in a parking lot and waited. At Starbucks, Heidi Mann had gone over the key players of the illegal shark finning operation. Shark finning, a term that meant catching sharks solely for their fins, is illegal off the shores of California. Ironically, it is legal to catch and process a shark-that is, kill it for its meat and fins. What’s actually illegal is to de-fin the shark and dump the still-living creature back into the ocean.
Heidi explained some more. The majority of the finning was done just south of the border. Shark fins are big business. Too big to ignore, and too big to care about the shark themselves.
The use of dogs and cats as bait seemed to be a relatively new phenomena, and it was practiced by poorer fishermen. Where the bigger ships used gill nets, which captured many sharks at once, the unlicensed fishermen with smaller boats would use any means they could to capture the sharks.
I had asked Heidi why these fishermen didn’t use chum and fish as bait, and answer was appalling. The kicking of the live animals, especially when added with the blood that poured from the hooks in their paws and muzzles and necks, was just too inviting, nearly guaranteeing a shark.
I imagined the little guys swimming in the ocean, terrified, bleeding, hurting, alone and abandoned, begging for mercy while hungry predators circled below.
I rubbed my forehead and cracked open the passenger side window.
According to Heidi Mann, one man was a key player in the local shark finning trade. One man who didn’t give a damn from where the fins came, be it from gill nets or the poor fishermen down south using dogs as live bait.
A man who might know something about Mitch Golden’s death, Raul Trujillo was called a fish broker, or a fish buyer. A harmless enough title, and not one generally associated with illegal dealings. It only became illegal, of course, when one dealt with contraband or poached seafood.
It was time to meet with Raul Trujillo.
The office was small and didn’t smell like fish. Go figure.
In fact, the office was only just a little bigger than my own, minus the dozens of newspaper and magazine articles featuring yours truly. And minus the bullet holes, of course.
The man sitting behind the desk was shockingly good-looking. He was wearing a casual blazer that was designed, I think, to look distressed or well worn. It was covered in pockets and, dammit, he looked good in it. A shimmery dress shirt seemed to fit him perfectly as well. His hair was neatly trimmed and his face was freshly shaved. He looked like a model out of a J. Crew catalog.
I hated him immediately, of course.
He looked up from his open laptop. His eyes sparkled. His teeth gleamed. He seemed generally happy to be him.
I hated him some more.
“ Can I help you?” he asked. His eyes were warm and friendly. He barely looked me over. He seemed at once busy and perfectly willing to give me his time.
“ I’m thinking of hunting shark,” I said. I had gone over this spiel with Heidi, who seemed to think it might work. “I’ve heard you’re a buyer.”
He motioned to a chair near the desk. I sat. He said, “Are you a fisherman?”
“ I’m looking to get into it.”
“ Do you have a boat?”
“ My grandfather left me his.”
He nodded. “You’ll need to get licensed.”
“ I’ve already applied.”
“ Good. Have you fished for shark before?”
“ On and off. I watched my grandfather do it. Been on a few trips. But I’m looking to get into the business. To make some money, you know. Hey, I’ve got a boat. Might as well use it, right?”
“ Right. How did you hear about me?”
“ Been asking around in the ports around San Diego and Dana Point. Don’t know much about the industry. Asked who bought sharks and for how much, and your name came up a few times.”
“ I see.” His smile faltered. Smiles only falter when someone has something to hide.
I pushed forward. “Do you work with smaller fishermen?”
“ I work with everyone. A shark is a shark, right?”
“ That’s what I always say,” I said. “I just need to know how all this works.”
“ You must have a license to commercially harvest and sell saltwater products, and you may sell only to a licensed California wholesale dealer.”
“ And you’re a wholesale dealer?”
“ In good standing.”
“ Of course. And you, in turn sell to?”
“ Retailers around the state. You will need to learn which species you can hunt, and you will need permits on various equipment, as well, like gill nets.”
I nodded and lowered my voice. “I’ve heard shark fins are big business.”
He sat back and his handsome features darkened. I suspected that he was waiting for this. I suspected that a part of him was on guard from the moment I had walked in.
“ Finning is now illegal in California,” he said.
“ That is, catching the sharks just for their fins?”
“ Oh, I wouldn’t do anything illegal,” I said. “I just want to make a buck. And what are a few sharks anyway, right? Nasty creatures. So what’s the next step?”
“ Once you have your licenses, we can set you up with an account.”
I nodded. I needed to push this. It was too much by the book. “And what if I came back with just shark fins?”
“ Just the fins?” he asked.
“ Then I would call the Department of Fish and Game and you would lose your license and be heavily fined. There’s a chance your boat might even be confiscated, as well.” He stopped and looked at me long and hard. “Look, Mr…?”
“ Anderson,” I said.
“ Look, Mr. Anderson, I run a very up and up wholesale business. I work with well-known and respected fishermen. I respect the laws of California and elsewhere. If you are considering anything less than legal, then I think our business here is done.”
“ That’s good to know,” I said. “Do you know anything about the murder of Mitch Golden?”
He didn’t blink. He didn’t react. His not reacting was, in effect, a reaction. “Excuse me?” he asked after a moment.
“ Mitch Golden was a conservationist for Sharks Now. They found his body yesterday. Apparently he’d been shot and dumped overboard. Chained and everything. I saw the body. Not pretty.”
“ I don’t understand,” he said. “Are you a fisherman?”
“ I’m told that one of your shark hunters might have threatened him,” I said. “I’m also told that you buy illegal shark fins.”
“ Get out.”
But I didn’t get out, even when he opened the drawer and removed a handgun. It wasn’t the first time a gun has been shoved in my face.
“ Who are you?” he asked.
I reached carefully into my back pocket and withdrew my wallet. From it, I extracted my business card and handed it to him. I had nothing to hide. From anyone.
He took the card, looked at it, still holding the gun on me. “You’re a fucking private investigator?”
“ I’m also a righter of wrongs,” I said.
“ What the hell does that mean?”
“ It means that if you are who I think you are, you’ll be seeing me again.”
I got up and left, all too aware that the gun was pointed at my back.
Sanchez and I were working out at the 24-Hour Fitness in Newport Beach.
Today was our “pull” day. That meant biceps, lats, abdominals and hamstrings. Like anyone who’s serious about getting bigger and stronger, we never work the same muscles two days in a row. Amateurish. Muscles need time to rebuild, especially when you hit them as hard as we hit them. Tomorrow would be our “push” day…any exercises that consist of a pushing motion, with bench presses being the obvious one.
Right now we were doing sets of old-school pull-ups on the horizontal bar. I was on pull-up number fourteen when Sanchez said, “Taking you long enough to do twenty pull-ups.”
I cranked out three more, then paused while hanging from my hands. “It’s my third set, asshole.”
“ And your skin’s all red and blotchy.”
“ Latinos sweat,” I said, resuming my pull-ups, grunting as I spoke. “Gringos blotch.”
Sanchez shook his head. “You gringos are weird.”
I finished my third set, and now Sanchez cranked out his own final set of pull-ups. I mentioned how he looked like a girl, with his legs curled up the way they were. He paused and said something about the unappealing lack of pigmentation in my skin, then finished his own third set.
Next, we hit the row machine hard, and by our second set, I had gotten him caught up on my current case. Sanchez, a homicide investigator with the LAPD and an ex-teammate at UCLA, was a good person to bounce cases off of, although I would never let him know that.
“ This guy, Trujillo…”
“ Is Latino,” I said.
“ What does being Latino have to do with anything?”
“ I thought we were finishing each others’ sentences.”
“ We ain’t fucking finishing each others’ sentences.”
“ See,” I said. “I could have finished that one for you.”
Sanchez shook his head and finished his third set of rows. He was wearing a tank top and his muscles bulged and rippled and I caught more than one woman admiring him. I didn’t need to tell him the women were admiring him. Sanchez noticed everything. Besides, his wife, Danielle, would have my head on a platter if she knew I had pointed out any women.
Sanchez said, “So why do we think this guy Trujillo plugs our golden boy and dumps him in the Long Beach Harbor?”
I was on the machine now, pulling the chromed bar back slowly and with near-perfect form. “Because Mitch Golden was giving him grief. Hurting business.”
“ Hurting business how?”
“ Exposing the shark finners for the shitbags they are. Helping the game wardens arrest his suppliers.”
“ So Trujillo is like, what, a shark fin kingpin? And his fishermen provide him the fins?”
“ Way to make it sound street,” I said. “But yeah.”
“ Street makes sense to me,” said Sanchez. “Shark fins don’t. There any money in fins?”
“ Enough to kill,” I said.
Sanchez stood and stretched and generally looked like a peacock parading around. He showed me his tan bicep. “See, no blotching. It’s brown and beautiful.”
“ And sweaty,” I said.
Sanchez shook his head, careful not to look at the women looking at him. He was afraid of his wife, too. As we all should be.
He said, “And they really use dogs?”
“ Some do. Not all of them.”
“ Ain’t right.”
We were silent as we caught our breaths. The gym wasn’t so silent. Music pumped. Machines clattered. People grunted.
Sanchez looked around. “Lots of splotchy people here.”
“ It’s Newport,” I said.
He looked at me. “You can’t save all the dogs, Knighthorse.”
“ I know.”
“ Or the damn sharks.”
“ I know that, too,” I said.
“ But you’re going to try, aren’t you?”
“ I’m going to do something.”
“ What about finding Mitch Golden’s murderer?”
“ That too,” I said.
I was driving south along Seal Beach Boulevard, and when I made a right turn, I literally left behind Orange County and entered a whole new world.
Before me was a massive, revolving globe, which was kind of fitting. I waited in line behind some shuttle buses, and when my turn came to approach the security gate, the world’s oldest security guard came out sporting a clipboard and a frown.
“ Who’re you here to see?” he asked.
“ Poppie,” I said.
“ Poppie who?”
“ Just Poppie.”
“ You don’t have a last name?”
“ That’s all she gave me.”
“ What’s your business here?”
“ I’m going to apprehend a flasher.”
“ A what?”
“ A flasher. A man who reveals his genitalia to women. Or a woman who reveals herself to men, although I’ve never been so lucky.”
He looked down at his list, looked at me, and then asked me to pull around and park. I did as I was told. A minute or two later, I found myself sitting in an old office that could have doubled as an interrogation room.
Shortly, another man appeared. He was wearing the same security outfit, but this one had bars on the sleeves. A captain security guard. I nearly saluted. He asked to see my private investigator license and I gave it to him. He studied it closely and left the office. I heard a copy machine whir on. I next heard him typing on a computer, and about five minutes later, he came back in. He handed back my license, sat in a squeaky chair behind the simple wooden desk. He introduced himself as Tony Hill. He smelled like Old Spice and sweat.
“ You check out,” said Tony Hill.
“ That’s a relief.”
“ Your license is in good standing with the state, and there are currently no complaints against you.”
“ Today must be my lucky day.”
“ I Googled your name. Are you the same Jim Knighthorse who played for UCLA?”
“ One and the same.”
“ I hate UCLA.”
“ Those are fighting words.”
He sat back and studied me. I often wondered what people thought about when they studied me. Impressed? Terrified? Envious? All of the above?
“ I don’t like you,” he finally said.
“ Doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “Most guys don’t like me. They tend to feel inferior. Less than a man. Especially if their ladies are around. It’s hard to measure up.”
He didn’t move a muscle. His stomach was mostly flat and he had some muscle around his shoulders. If I had to guess, I would say he was in his sixties. Finally, he said, “You think you’re pretty tough, don’t you?”
“ Compared to a charging rhino? Not so much. Compared to you, I think the answer is obvious. But if you want, we can duke it out old-school style. Throw on some gloves. Or better yet, dueling pistols.”
He shook his head and a grin might have appeared on his lips. “You’re a cocky son-of-a-bitch.”
“ I might have heard that once or twice. The thing is, I can back it up.”
He rubbed his smooth jaw. “I don’t have to let you in, Mr. Knighthorse. I have guys working on this case now. Except…”
“ Except the flasher is still out there.”
“ Fucking pervert. Got all the women here up in arms. The park president is breathing down my neck.”
“ You could use the help,” I said.
He got up, stepped out of the room, and came back with a visitor’s pass. “Just try not to cause too many problems.”
“ Me? Never.”
“ And let’s catch this old pervert, okay? He’s making my life a living hell.”
“ We can’t have that,” I said.
“ You have free rein in the park. Talk to whomever you want. I trust you will be discreet.”
“ Discreet is my middle name. Well that and Badass, of course.”
He shook his head and waved me off, and I happily left, clipping my visitor’s badge to the sleeve of my tee shirt.
Driving in Leisure World is an adventure.
I was adventuring now, trying to make sense of street signs, seemingly random crosswalks, painted road markers with arrows pointing to nowhere. All designed to make driving easier, but only serving to make things messier.
There were no less than 22,000 “15 MPH” speed limit signs, all of which were distributed evenly along the side of the road every few feet or so. At a stop sign-a stop sign, mind you, that was actually posted between the lanes-I pulled up next to one of the many security guards sitting in what appeared to be a luxury golf cart. I rolled down my window.
“ Excuse me,” I said.
He looked at me. “Yeah?”
“ What’s the speed limit here?”
“ Fifteen miles per hour.”
“ Thank you, Officer.”
He nodded and seemed about to say something; no doubt something to the effect of not being an officer. But he must have liked the title because he nodded again, flipped down his shades, and pulled forward slowly.
At 15 MPH, no doubt.
I somehow found Poppie’s address, and parked in what I assumed was a designated visitor parking space, but it could have been another of the thousands of shuttle pick-up areas. Soon, I was rapping on her door.
“ Who is it?”
“ Not the flasher,” I said.
She opened the door, blinking into the afternoon sun, which was hanging somewhere above my shoulder. “Oh, heavens, I’m just a nervous wreck whenever someone comes to my door these days. Please come in, Mr. Knighthorse.”
Poppie was tough but sweet. No one should ever be a nervous wreck when answering their door. Especially not a Knighthorse client. I wondered if she knew just how good of hands she was in.
Poppie’s little apartment home, or whatever they call these bungalows here at Leisure World, was about as cute as cute can be. Dolls were everywhere. Antique dolls. Modern dolls. Creepy dolls. Dolls that I was certain were staring at me. They lined shelves and bookcases and even sat along the piano keys. Three glass display cases were lined along one wall. The dolls in these cases seemed particularly old…and particularly creepy.
“ I have a bit of a thing for dolls,” she said apologetically, although she looked lovingly at one particularly big Raggedy Ann doll that was slumped on top of a hardback copy of Michener’s Alaska. Hell, I could have slumped on top of Michener’s Alaska. A beast of a book, which is why it took me six months to read it.
“ Dolls?” I said. “What dolls?”
“ Oh, Mr. Knighthorse. You are so silly.”
She giggled again and picked up what appeared to be a German doll wearing a white frilly dress and braided pigtails. She stroked the hair lovingly and set the doll back down. She led me over to her couch and asked if I wanted some homemade lemonade. It was ninety-three out today and some homemade lemonade sounded just about perfect. I said as much, and she smiled happily and nearly jogged off. I wondered how many visitors old Poppie received.
Other than the perverted kind.
She returned with a tray of lemonade and Oreo cookies and I might have just died and gone to…doll heaven? I tried not to make a pig of myself, but after the ninth cookie, I quit caring.
She watched me with a bemused smile and asked if I wanted more. I said sure, and she came back with the rest of the bag. In the end, I left her one row of cookies, and even that took a lot of willpower.
When I was done eating and had polished off my second glass of lemonade, she took me out and showed me around the neighborhood. The showing me around part took a while, since she didn’t have much giddy-up in her get-along, but we made do.
Other than her own front door, she pointed out the various spots where she and the other women in the neighborhood had seen the flasher. She mentioned some other hotspots, too. The outdoor amphitheater, the gym, and the many community centers. Apparently, the perv had been targeting bigger groups of late.
I had with me a handy map of the grounds that included each apartment home. I jotted down each occurrence and even interviewed some of the other witnesses.
When she was done showing me around, I looked at my map and had some ideas on how to proceed, but since the flasher only revealed himself at night, I would implement my ideas later.
But not tonight.
Tonight, I had a hot date with Cindy.
We were at my apartment on a Friday night. Date night.
I was in my kitchen and Cindy was sitting at the counter. She was wearing a red, long-sleeved sheer blouse with a sort of V-neckline. The neckline culminated in a creative built-in tie, which I thought was clever as hell. Hell, why didn’t men’s shirts have built-in ties? She was also wearing a tight, gray skirt that went just below her knees and I could only imagine the proliferation of crushes in her various religion classes. Her blond hair was pulled up into a kind of loose bun. Not so tight that it looked like it hurt, but also somehow still fashionable. I wondered how long it took to create such a masterful bun.
“ Your bun is masterful,” I said.
“ My bun? Just one of them?”
“ All of your buns are masterful,” I said. “But I’m referring to your hair bun.”
She looked slightly disappointed. She also looked slightly drunk, too, although she had only had one glass of wine. She reached up, touched the bun expertly, then shrugged. “Something you learn when you’re ten, I guess.”
Because I know she likes wine, I take great pleasure in looking for unique bottles for her, especially out in Temecula, southern California’s closest wine country. Granted, I wasn’t out that way often, but when I was, I always grabbed her a few bottles. And met with an ex-private investigator friend of mine who now writes novels. Good guy, but I’m not much into vampires.
As I poured her more chardonnay, I said, “Well, when I was ten, I was figuring out ways to get home from school without getting beat up. More often than not, I chose poorly. Turns out, there really weren’t that many different ways for me to get home.”
She tasted the wine and made a long “Mmm” sound. I loved her long “Mmm” sounds.
“ Delicious,” she said, and I couldn’t help but wonder what separated a delicious wine from a non-delicious wine, since all wines tended to taste like dry air. Anyway, when she was done smacking her lips, she looked at me from over her glass. “I can’t imagine anyone bullying you.”
“ It’s easy to be bullied when you’re ten. All it takes is a handful of teenagers.”
“ Could you have handled one teenager?”
“ Maybe even two,” I said.
“ At ten?”
“ I was a big boy at ten.”
She nodded. “That I believe.”
I was a slob at heart, but having Cindy around solved that. She was an elegant, sophisticated woman, a world-renowned professor, and an even better human being. Why she was with a thug like me, I may never know, but she deserved to come over to a clean apartment. And not just clean. Immaculate. With Cindy, I had long ago cleaned up my act and grew up. Like they say, she made an honest man of me. And a clean one, too.
“ Are we really having chips and salsa for dinner?” she asked.
“ Not just chips and salsa,” I said. I had just sliced three avocados and was currently in the process of scooping out the meaty fruit into a bowl. Next to me were onions and tomatoes and a chopping board. “Homemade guacamole with rice and beans.”
“ Actually that sounds kind of yummy. No meat?”
“ No meat,” I said. “That’s why I added rice and beans.”
She nodded. “A perfect protein.”
I grinned as I grabbed an onion. “Why, you must be a professor.”
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Common knowledge, I think. So you’re taking this vegetarian thing seriously?”
“ More so than ever.”
“ I can respect that,” she said. She reached for a chip in a nearby bowl and I slapped her hand away.
“ That’s dinner.”
“ It’s just a chip.”
“ Chips are dinner, too.”
She stuck out her lower lip and had some more wine. She made small noises that seemed to indicate she was still enjoying the wine.
“ I can respect it,” she said, “just as long as you don’t expect me to follow your lead.”
“ I don’t expect you to,” I said. I next scraped the finely chopped onions into a bowl. I started on the tomatoes.
She added, “That also means you won’t give me crap if I order fish or chicken or steak, or even lamb.”
“ Geez, lamb?”
“ I happen to like lamb.”
“ And no bad looks either.”
“ No bad looks,” I agreed. “Just as long as you know when you come over here, we eat meat-free.”
She drank more of her wine and looked at me, grinning. If she had another glass in her, she might have commented on the meat-free reference. Might have. Then again, she was a lady. Even when buzzed.
I next chopped up the chili and jalapeno pepper, then added the crushed garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, salt, pepper and a hint of sugar. I didn’t add cilantro. Cilantro tastes like mummy wrappings. I mixed it all together with the avocado, and I think I might have drooled a little on my shirt.
We ate on my balcony. Me with a beer, and Cindy with her second glass of wine.
Below us was bustling Main Street in Huntington Beach, alive on a Friday night. Laughter and voices reached us from below, and with our knees touching, I told Cindy about my day and she told me about hers, and we scooped and ate and drank and laughed and talked the night away…
I’m not a sailor. Or a seaman. Or a boatsman.
I’m more comfortable on the football field than on the open water. My idea of a good time is bashing helmets. Not charging through choppy waves, or dropping from crests and plunging into deep troughs.
It was enough to make anyone’s stomach turn.
Anyone, that is, except me.
I was on a Department of Fish and Game police boat, a massive 65-foot monohull that cut over the water at a surprising clip. The boat had three levels and enough electronic equipment to make anyone dizzy.
And I was most certainly not dizzy due to any sort of sea sickness.
The afternoon was bright and cool, but I found myself sweating through my tee shirt and the life jacket they made me wear. The young game warden who had fitted me with the jacket had to adjust it to nearly twice its normal chest size.
And still it was tight.
Too damn tight.
The boat bounced and splashed and hurled seemingly recklessly deeper out to sea. A Knighthorse did not belong on the open ocean.
“ You okay there, partner?” asked Warden Joe Fossil, who appeared from the bridgedeck, or navigation room. The warden’s age was hard to nail down. Months and no doubt years out on the ocean had dried out his skin and sunburned it to a permanent reddish tan. He wore a narrow life vest and a shirt that said Game Warden in big letters and Department of Fish and Game in much smaller letters. He had on a typical cop utility belt, with a. 40 caliber Glock holstered at his hip.
“ Fine,” I said. “Except I might have, you know, eaten some bad eggs this morning.”
“ Bad eggs,” he asked, shaking his head, grinning easily. “That’s a new one. Look, if you upchuck, just do it over the railing. I hate cleaning up upchuck.”
“ I won’t upchuck,” I said. “It’ll pass.”
“ Sure it will,” he said.
“ I’m not seasick,” I said.
“ Of course not,” he said. “Anyway, we don’t normally allow ride-alongs.”
“ I feel special.”
“ You don’t look special. You look green. Anyway, the captain said to show you what we do. In particular, to keep an eye out for shark finners.”
“ I’ve got friends in high places,” I said. Actually, Hansen arranged for the ride-along, although he thought it was a big waste of time.
“ Sure you do. Anyway, we’ve got a few ships out there to inspect, and after that we head south.”
“ What’s south?”
“ The Mexican border…and shark hunters.”
Someone on the bridge was speaking seriously into a radio. He turned and called Warden Fossil over. They pointed at a navigation screen propped up on the helm, near the big wooden wheel that looked far too antiquated to guide such a fine, new ship. But then again, what the hell did I know?
When Joe Fossil came back, he said, “We’ve got a commercial trawler coming up. You can watch us in action. Should be exciting for you; that is, if you aren’t too busy puking up your guts.”
“ Tough words for someone whose name sounds like it belongs on my underwear.”
“ That’s Joe Boxer,” he said, much too quickly. He must have heard it before. Damn, I hate when I’m not original.
“ Close enough.”
“ No, it ain’t. If anything, my name sounds like one of those watches.”
“ I’m sticking with underwear.”
He shook his head. “Get ready, Knighthorse.” He was about to turn back to the bridge. “And what the fuck kind of name is Knighthorse?”
“ A good name. A valiant name. A fitting name.”
“ Fitting?” he asked, but then he thought about it. “Never mind. Just be ready, Horse Shit.” He grinned, pleased with himself.
Ah, policemen. They were always the same, be it on sea or land. Cockiness. Attitude. Egos. Funny how well I got along with them.
The fishing vessel was a big one, with what appeared to my inexpert eyes to have rear-trawling capabilities, meaning, the nets were dropped from behind and dragged through the water, thus catching anything and everything in its wake.
The warden’s ship pulled up alongside the trawler. The vessel’s captain immediately met Joe Fossil, and permitted him and his crew to board. I just so happened to be part of the crew.
The trawler’s captain handed over what I assumed were various permits and certificates. As Fossil looked them over, I scanned the deck. The crew was composed of about seven or eight people, all men, and all watching us with what appeared to be mild hostility. The Department of Fish and Game were, apparently, the enemy. Most of the crew were wearing yellow slickers, just like the dude on all the frozen fish boxes in the freezer aisle. The ship itself was quite a bit bigger than the warden’s ship…and a good deal filthier. There was no denying the stink in the air. Rotting fish, fresh fish, it was all here, mixed together in a heady potpourri of fishy stink.
I fought a nearly overwhelming need to wretch. The bad eggs, the sway of the boat, the rotting carcasses, it was all too much.
For most people.
I powered through, sweating and taking big gulps of air. I followed Fossil down into the refrigerated hold, staying back while he examined the contents. He pulled out samples of leopard shark, with their fins still intact. From where I stood, the creature looked beautiful. Too beautiful to be destroyed, but that was just my opinion. The creature was measured, noted on a clipboard and given back.
Fossil did this with various other fish and sharks, some of which were held in storage drawers and all were packed with flakes of saltwater ice, which was apparently far gentler on tender fish skin. Fresh-water ice had, apparently, sharper edges, which could potentially cut delicate skin.
Everything checked out. The captain and his crew were, apparently, adhering to state and federal laws.
We did this with a half dozen other trawlers and smaller commercial vessels. We even stopped two sports fishermen and checked licenses. Most vessels complied. One trawler had too many allotted tuna and was fined.
We did this throughout the morning, and I’m pleased to report that never once did I get seasick. Food poisoning, yes. Seasickness, no.
Joe Fossil slapped me on the back just as we returned from boarding the last vessel. “That was the easy part,” he said. “Now the real fun begins.”
He barked an order to the ship’s navigator, who nodded and turned the wheel sharply. We rapidly picked up speed.
And headed south.
“ You’re in luck, Knighthorse,” said Warden Fossil, stepping off the bridged. He moved easily, his knees somehow accounting for the rising and falling boat, similar to how an expert horseman moves seamlessly moves with his mount.
Me, not so much. I felt each choppy wave. Each nauseating drop into each deep trough. Every sway, roll, and heave of the ship.
Speaking of heave. If I wasn’t such a stubborn cuss, I would have launched my breakfast burrito far and wide. But I kept it in.
At least until I was alone. Then all bets were off.
Fossil handed me a pair of binoculars and pointed to a small fishing vessel a mile or so south. Ignoring the gurgling and rumbling in my stomach, I adjusted the field glasses and settled onto the boat. Definitely a small fishing vessel. They were even using old-school rod and reel. A small group of men-Hispanics, from what I could tell-were huddled around something big.
Something big and undulating.
“ My guess is it’s a hammerhead. Big one, too.”
We throttled down and were currently adrift. Water splashed the hull. The sun beat down, and I did my best to steady the binoculars.
“ One of them has a knife,” I said. “A big knife.”
“ Usually a machete,” said Fossil. He was standing by my side.
Seagulls circled above. Other fish seemed to be churning the waters around the fishing vessel.
“ Why aren’t we fucking doing anything?” I said.
“ They’re in Mexican waters. We can’t.”
“ They’re going to kill it.”
Fossil said nothing, and I leaned over the hull, out of the water, trying to get a better look. Two or three of the guys were pinning the shark down. I only caught glimpses of the creature. Its gray hide shimmered dully. The knife shimmered, too. Before it flashed down.
The men fought the creature. I couldn’t see what was happening. Five minutes later, the man with the machete handed something flat and triangular over to someone else. The person he handed it to was grinning. He was a thick guy, as far as I could tell. The part down the center of his head was so prominent that I could see it even from here. He looked out towards us…and gave us the finger.
“ They just cut off its dorsal fin,” I said.
“ We see this too often.”
“ We need to stop them.”
“ It’s too late, my friend. And we can’t cross into a sovereign nation’s waters.”
“ There’s blood everywhere,” I said, feeling sick all over again. And there was, too. Flowing out of the boat. The pieces of shit had just cut off the creature’s tail fin. The animal was flapping a bloody stump. Still alive. In untold agony.
“ Why don’t they kill it?” I asked. My hands were gripped too tight around the binoculars; I could hear myself breathing. I had completely forgotten about my stomach.
“ Why waste the bullet?” said Fossil.
“ Fuck them,” I said. “We have any way of identifying their boat?”
“ We got its name. It’s called La Bonita. No doubt it hails from Ensenada where shark finning has become popular.”
“ Is shark finning illegal in Mexico?”
“ In theory. Unfortunately, there are many black markets where fins are sold.”
I continued to watch the man with the machete go to work. He next removed each pectoral fin, carefully stepping around the massive creature. His machete gleamed with blood.
“ I can’t believe we’re just sitting here.”
“ I’m sorry, Jim.”
I next watched as the entire group pushed the shark over the open railing. I caught sight of its beautiful, hammer-shaped head with its oddly human mouth convulsing in what had to be agony. The creature landed with a huge splash, and sank almost immediately. Still alive. Unable to swim. Unable to defend itself.
Blood immediately bubbled to the surface.
The fisherman who gave me the finger waved the pectoral fins at us, high-fived a friend, and then the boat chugged south.
The seagulls circled, squawking loudly.
And as they left, turning their vessel away from us, I caught sight of something that would doom them. Or doom me.
I saw cages on the deck. Wire mesh cages.
What was in the cages, I didn’t know.
But I could guess.
As I pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot on Beach Boulevard, I saw him sitting alone in a front booth, sipping from his coffee.
I parked and sat in my car for a minute or two and studied him. Heat waves undulated off the Mustang’s hood. Jack undulated with them, drinking his coffee slowly. He seemed to be enjoying his coffee. Even from here I could see the hint of a smile on his face. Or maybe it was in his eyes, the way they crinkled. Sweat rolled down my spine, between my shoulder blades. If I stayed in the car much longer, I was going to have to crack the window. For the moment, I ignored the heat.
Who was he? Who was he really?
How did he know I was going to be here today? I had only made the decision to come here, what, two minutes ago? I happened to be in the area and decided I needed to talk.
And there he sat.
Maybe he really is God.
Despite myself I laughed…and headed into the restaurant.
“ You knew I was coming,” I said after ordering myself a drink.
“ You knew you were coming here long before that, James.”
“ Not consciously.”
He shrugged one shoulder, almost playfully. “Perhaps not.”
“ Whether or not I knew I was coming here hours ago, or just a few minutes ago, still doesn’t account for how you knew I would be here today.”
“ Maybe it was a lucky guess.”
“ Or maybe you’re God.”
“ Maybe I am.”
“ You’re very frustrating,” I said.
“ You could choose to see me that way. Or you could choose another way.”
“ What way?”
He set his coffee cup down. Jack needed to shave. The hair on his face was peppered with gray. There was a dimple in his cheek I hadn’t noticed before. His eyes twinkled. Eternally twinkled.
“ Playful,” he said.
“ I think I would rather have God be serious.”
“ Because life is serious?”
“ Yes,” I said. “Life is damn serious.”
He nodded and looked down at his coffee cup, which he held in both hands. “Life can be serious, Jim. That I will not deny. But life can also be full of joy.”
“ For some,” I said. “Not for everyone. And certainly not for everything. There is much suffering in this world. Too much.”
“ I agree.”
“ Then why don’t you do something about it?”
“ Sometimes you need to see the acts of violence, Jim, to appreciate the acts of kindness.”
“ But that does nothing for those suffering,” I said.
“ Then don’t let their suffering be in vain. Hear their cry and take action.”
“ I’m just one man.”
“ So am I,” he said.
“ You’re more than just a man,” I said.
He tilted his head toward me. “And so are you, Jim.”
I parked my van a few houses down from the address in question. It was late, just past midnight, and this was my first time here.
Oddly, I felt nervous. Apprehensive.
It had been nearly a month since my discovery. My discovery being, of course, that the son of the very man who had investigated my mother’s murder-the same investigator who had turned up zero evidence-looked exactly like the image in the age-progression photograph.
I sat in my van and studied the single-story home. A home that wasn’t even four miles from mine. There was a white truck parked out front. The garage was wide enough to fit two cars. The lawn was manicured with a curved walk that led up to the front door. The home was fenced on both sides of the property. The fences were lined with hedges and roses. For all intents and purposes, a very normal-looking Orange County home.
That just so happened to be four miles from my own.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. My stomach was roiling. Nerves. I had been sitting on this information for nearly a month. But since my mother had been dead now for twenty-one years, I figured I could wait a few more weeks to decide my next step. Besides, the bastard wasn’t going anywhere.
Almost a month ago.
A month to stew. A month to brood. A month to come to terms with this improbable piece of information.
My mother’s murder was still technically open, although it might as well have been closed. Nothing had been done on it for nearly two decades. And to top it off, the key piece of evidence had been languishing in my father’s moving boxes for years.
My mother deserved better than this. She was a good person. A good mother. She had no family, just me. She had no friends, just me. I was a mama’s boy, admittedly. It’s hard not to be a mama’s boy when your father is ice cold.
I watched the home for another ten minutes from the driver’s side, then slipped through the little doorway that led to the rear of the van. There, I got comfortable in one of the swivel recliner chairs, and through a heavily-tinted window, I watched the home all night long.
I was certain I hadn’t fallen asleep.
Then again, when you stare at something long enough, in a comfortable-enough chair, on a quiet-enough street not too far from the beach, well, you’re bound to slip in and out of consciousness.
Except I was pretty sure I hadn’t slipped in and out of consciousness. I was pretty sure I had stared at that fucking house with its white Ford F-150 parked in the driveway, its seven bottlebrush plants following the curve of the driveway, its mostly green grass except for the dry spot in the middle, and its bright porch light that seemed to somehow reach through the heavily-tinted glass and straight to the back of my head.
After what seemed like an eternity, the porch light finally turned off and a thirty-something woman with a nice-enough body appeared in the doorway. She wore workout clothes. She did a few stretches, appeared to crack her neck, then headed down the driveway, hung a right, jogged past my van on the opposite side of the street, then continued on.
I watched her through the tinted rear window until she hung a right at the far corner and disappeared.
There was barely enough light out to call this morning. The sun was still forty or fifty minutes away. I briefly marveled at morning people. I was fairly certain the woman had been smiling to herself as she passed me by.
I checked my cell phone. A smile on her face at 5:43 in the morning?
Who smiled at 5:43 in the morning?
I marveled at this, and then let it go.
The morning continued to brighten. Birds twittered with a little more energy. Somewhere an early worm was getting devoured. Somewhere in that house across the street, a killer was either sleeping or watching his kids. And somewhere not too far from here, my mother’s bones were rotting away.
I rubbed my forehead, my eyes, my face, the stubble along my jaw. It was all I could do to not burst in there, guns blazing.
Time and place, I thought.
Besides, I still don’t know if he was the killer. His only crime to date was circumstance.
Cars started appearing on the street. No one paid a roofing truck any mind. No one knew I was staring out the heavily-tinted window.
The woman came back. His wife, I assumed. Looked pretty good for having three kids. Not perfect. But good.
As my mechanic friend Charles liked to say: Good enough.
I should have felt bad for her. I should have felt bad for her kids. I should have felt bad for them because one way or another-unless I was dead wrong about Gary Tomlinson-they were going to be without a husband and a father.
I should have felt bad.
But I didn’t.
I spent the day following Gary.
He was a medium-sized man with a great tan. I wasn’t sure if he even worked. Maybe I had caught him on his day off. I followed him to his kids’ school, where he dropped off the twin girls and their brother. I followed him to Gold’s Gym in Newport. Then to Whole Foods in Huntington Beach. I followed him to the cleaners and then back home.
At four in the afternoon, after Gary had picked up his kids, I peeled off and went home and went to bed, and willed myself to not dream of finding my mother’s body in a pool of her own blood, to not dream of her lifeless eyes and her cold flesh. To not dream of the deep wound in her neck.
But no such luck.
“ So you’re really going?” Cindy asked.
We were hiking on a wooded trail in Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim Hills. Wooded trails in Orange County were not easy to come by, so we had to drive forty-five minutes to find this one.
“ Yes,” I said. We both carried water bottles. The water bottles were Cindy’s idea. She also shoved two Luna bars in her fanny pack, should we get lost on the well-marked trail and end up in someone’s shaded backyard gazebo without a snack.
“ To Ensenada to hunt shark hunters?”
“ Hunting the hunters, yes.”
“ How long do you expect to be gone?”
“ However long it takes to find them.”
We broke through a tangle of trees and stepped out into the bright morning sunlight. By broke through, I meant we strolled forward on a dirt path wide enough to play a game of touch football on.
Vibrant and prickly cacti crowded the trail, a reminder that the deserts of California were never very far away.
“ What are these cactus called again?” I asked.
“ Beavertail,” said Cindy. She was sweating. Her shades had slipped down to the tip of her nose. She sort of looked like a petite Susan Sarandon.
“ I’m sorry, what?”
“ Beaver-oh, shut up, Jim!” She slapped at me absently, apparently too exhausted from our nine-minute hike to put much effort into a full shoulder slap.
Soon, we fell into step next to each other. I noted that my shadow was a good deal taller and wider than hers. As it should be. My shoulders were easily twice as wide as hers. So was my head. Jesus, I had a big head.
She said after a few minutes, “The world is full of shark hunters, Jim.”
I nodded. My shadow nodded, too. My head looked like a big block of cement nodding. Holy hell.
She went on. “But I know you, Jim. I know those hunters made it personal.”
Nod. Shadow nod.
“ It would have been better if they turned and split,” she said. “Rather than rubbing your face in it.”
I didn’t nod. Instead, I thought of the poor creature being hacked alive, and thought of the cages. I thought of hooks in muzzles and paws and necks. I thought of the terror, the blood, the pain, the inhumanity.
She looked at me and pushed up her glasses. They promptly slipped back down to the tip of her nose. She had a cute little upturned nose. Probably what kept the glasses from sliding all the way off.
We turned up a path that led through a tangle of beavertail cacti. Soon, we were following a high trail that gave us a spectacular view of the park. Lining the rim of the park were many dozen million-dollar homes with stately back yards. At least half the backyards had a gazebo in them. Cindy led the way along this narrow, upper path. I let her since she was wearing my second-favorite shorts.
“ So what are you going to do if you find them?” she asked, glancing back.
“ I don’t know.”
“ Please don’t end up in a Mexican prison, Jim.”
“ I’ll do my best not to.”
“ Will Sanchez be going with you?”
“ Yes,” I said. “And I think it’s funny that you call him Sanchez, too.”
“ That’s what you call him.”
“ That’s what most people call him.”
“ So? Then why is it funny when I call him Sanchez?”
I grinned. “It just is.”
She might have rolled her eyes but from my position, all I could see were her snug-fitting shorts as we continued our climb up. “Anyway,” she said, stressing the word. “I feel better knowing he’ll be with you.”
“ Most people would.”
When we had reached the shade of a rocky overhang, Cindy hugged me particularly tight, burying her face in my shoulder, and wouldn’t let go. I hugged her back and held her as long as she needed to be held. Her hair, I noted, smelled perfect. If perfect had a smell, it was her hair.
From over her head, I could see the many back yards. “So what’s the deal with all the gazebos?”
She laughed a little into my shoulder. “Oh, Jim.”
“ Gazebos are pretty, Jim.”
“ That’s it?”
She hugged me tighter. “It’s enough.”
“ So do we know these dudes’ names?” asked Sanchez.
I shook my head. We were in line at the Mexican border. I hadn’t been to Mexico in twelve years, back when I was in college. Back when getting drunk in foreign places sounded exotic. Now I prefer getting drunk alone, in my apartment. Just me and my alcohol and sometimes copious amounts of Oreos.
“ So we’re going in there blind?”
“ I have the name of their boat.”
“ The La Bonita,” said Sanchez.
“ Any clue how many boats are fucking called La Bonita?”
“ No clue.”
“ Well, let me fill you in, kemosabe. Shitloads.”
“ Shitloads, huh? You know this for a fact?”
“ Supposition. Cops are good at supposition. Something you wouldn’t know.”
“ Since I ain’t a cop?”
“ We’re both detectives, Sanchez.”
“ But only one of us has a real badge.”
“ I have a private investigator’s license.”
Sanchez snorted and looked away. We were driving my crime-fighting van with its tinted windows and control station inside. By control station, I meant a desk with some electrical jacks, the world’s smallest bathroom, and a couple of comfortable chairs.
I showed the guard at the checkpoint my visa. He checked it out and let me pass. Soon, we were traveling through Tijuana. Tijuana has a lot of good people living in absolute poverty. We moved through it steadily, following a single-lane highway past billboard after billboard selling something called Corona Light. Interspersed with the Corona Light billboards were smaller billboards for Pacifico and Tecate. Beer was alive and well in Mexico.
The single-lane highway wound around Tijuana and soon followed the coast south. Here, we passed nicer homes with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and Corona Light billboards. Some of the homes even had graffiti on them.
“ What are the chances,” I said, as we passed what appeared to be an auto mechanic whose entire facade was painted to look like a giant Corona beer bottle, “of finding some beer somewhere?”
“ Pretty good, gringo.”
“ You haven’t called me gringo in years.”
“ When you’re in Mexico, you’re a gringo.”
“ I think that might be racist.”
“ Gringo is a term of endearment.”
“ Uh huh.”
“ It’s a celebration of the lack of pigment in your skin.”
“ That’s cause to celebrate?” I asked.
“ For some.”
I shook my head. Sanchez grinned, pleased with himself. We drove on mostly in silence. Mexico is home to some pristine beaches. In California, the pristine beaches would have been turned into multimillion-dollar properties. Here, the beaches were mostly left alone, broken up by modest-sized homes that were often tagged with graffiti. We passed a variety of cars, but the prevalent vehicles were old pickup trucks piled dangerously high with junk. Where all that junk went to, I hadn’t a clue.
“ Ever been to Ensenada?” I asked.
“ Do you know where the illegal fish markets are?”
“ No,” he said, “but we can ask around.”
“ Will people talk to you with me around?”
Sanchez looked at me from the passenger seat. “Probably not. You look like a cop.”
“ A big cop,” I said.
“ With a big head.”
I shook my head. “I should never have told you that story.”
Sanchez grinned and sat back and closed his eyes. “Too bad for you.”
Two hours later, we were in Ensenada.
A minor resort town, Ensenada even boasted a modest port that could birth a massive cruise liner. Which it currently did. The thing looked impossibly big and shiny, like a skyscraper lying on its side. Or a mother ship docking from outer space.
“ Let’s head to the waterfront,” said Sanchez.
“ That’s what I always say.”
He led the way, and soon we were cruising down mostly-clean streets that reminded me a bit of Key West. One thing stood out immediately.
“ There’s no graffiti,” I said.
“ Not here,” said Sanchez. “But never very far.”
We moved down a narrow street peppered with outdoor cafes, tourist shops and random street stalls, all crowded with Caucasians moving around in small, protective herds. If anything, the Corona advertisements had become even more prolific.
Sanchez spotted me looking up at an overarching street sign that seemed to be advertising the local fresh markets. And Corona Beer. In fact, the beer logo was nearly twice the size of the real purpose of the sign, which was to advertise the various shops.
“ Don’t say anything, gringo. Yes, we Mexicans like our Corona. Let it go.”
“ I’ll let it go, if you quit calling me gringo.”
Sanchez rolled his eyes. In his world, we had a deal.
We cruised further along the street. A street vendor was selling fresh churros. The cinnamon scent somehow wafted into my partially rolled-down window. I think it was a sign. I pulled over and bought a couple of bags.
Sanchez shook his head. “Churros? Really?”
“ They smell heavenly.”
“ They do.”
“ They’re like longish donuts.”
“ Whatever you say.”
We snacked and drove and soon we came upon a narrow street lined with open stalls. And now another smell assaulted my olfactory.
“ The fish market, I presume,” I said.
“ You presume correct.”
“ Negro Mercado,” I said. “The fish black market.”
“ And why’s it called that?”
“ Because they sell just about anything here. Legal, illegal and everything in-between.”
“ Would they sell shark fins here?”
“ We’ll see, but that’s sort of a hot topic. Shark fins attract bad publicity these days.”
“ And tourists shop here,” I said, noting the many gringos pouring in and out of the huge building as we cruised slowly down the side street.
I wasn’t sure what we were hoping to find here, but the Negro Mercado seemed as good a place as any to begin our search for the La Bonita. S anchez had me park near an empty stall, and as we both got out, we brushed the cinnamon off the front of our tee shirts.
“ Hard to be badass when you’re covered in sugar,” said Sanchez.
“ Speak for yourself.”
“ Here’s the plan,” said Sanchez, ignoring me. “No one in there is gonna talk to me with you around. So entertain yourself while I ask around.”
“ I’m good at entertaining myself.”
“ J ust try not to look so white.”
“ I’ll do my best,” I said. “But no guarantees.”
I found t he fish market disturbing.
Live eels squirming in filthy plastic trays. Live lobsters waiting to be boiled alive. Live sea urchins piled in buckets. I even watched as one vendor plucked an urchin from a bucket, sliced the spiny creature open, and displayed its yellowish insides to an interested customer. As the creature squirmed on the man’s palm, the customer nodded, shrugged, then moved on. The irritated vendor discarded the urchin into another bucket, where it continued to squirm for a few seconds more until it finally stopped moving altogether.
I strolled through the market, at once appalled and fascinated. Most stalls featured display cases packed with fish and ice. Most of the fish I didn’t recognize, but even a landlubber like me could spot the occasional halibut with its two eyes nearly side by side, or a massive bluefin tuna.
The market, which was easily twenty or thirty degrees cooler than outside, was packed tightly with stalls. Many of the stalls were overflowing with seafood and customers. It was hard to believe that this much animal life could be taken from the ocean on any given day, much less day after day, year after year. No doubt the oceans surrounding Ensenada were heavily exploited, which stood to reason why some Mexican shark hunters were forced to venture further north into U.S. waters.
After ten minutes of going up and down aisles, I spotted Sanchez speaking with an older man in the far corner of the massive, open-spaced building. The older man was sitting next to what had been a sword fish. The man held a machete, and every now and then he hacked off a chunk of fish flesh for an eager customer. The swordfish looked like it had seen better days.
With Sanchez busy, I feigned interest in a bucket of purple-shelled mollusks. So far, I had yet to see any shark fins. Or even sharks for that matter, although one stall nearby was selling the silver and white torso of a creature that looked suspiciously like a young great white shark. The sign above it read “Marlin.”
Then again, what did I know?
A few minutes later, Sanchez found me and pulled me aside. As he did so, I said, “Is it me, or have you noticed a sort of fishy smell in here?”
“ It’s always you, Knighthorse,” he said. Then added, “They don’t sell the shark fins here, muchacho. Shark fins are too hot even for the black market.”
“ So where to next?”
“ I’ve arranged for someone who will take us to the real black market.”
“ And why would they do that?”
“ Because they think we own an upscale seafood restaurant in Seattle.”
“ Why Seattle?”
Sanchez shrugged. “Large Asian population. Lots of money. Far enough north that it’s off their radar. Or maybe I just pulled it out of my ass. Does it matter?”
“ Fine,” I said. “So what’s next?”
“ We wait.”
“ Wait where?”
“ There’s a bar outside.”
“ Now that sounds like a plan.”
We waited upstairs in a next-door dive bar called Tacos Luceros. Our seats were near the railing, which overlooked the fish market and some of downtown Ensenada.
Even from here, the stink of fish was heavy. I suspected I was going to smell like it for some days to come. A prospect I wasn’t looking forward to.
Just to mix things up a little, we were drinking Tecate. We had already crushed a bowl of chips, and soon, the cute waitress was bringing us more. As she set the bowl down, along with more salsa, she smiled shyly at me. As she left, I decided her curved hips might just have been perfect.
“ Too skinny,” said Sanchez, wrinkling his nose.
“ If she had smiled at you, she would have been perfect.”
“ If she smiled at me, Danielle would have come down here and tear apart her restaurant.”
“ Your wife scares me,” I said.
“ Me, too.”
“ But I admire her…passion,” I said.
“ Me, too,” said Sanchez. “So, do we have a plan, muchacho?”
“ A plan for what?”
“ In case we come across La Bonita?”
We had a nice view of the parking lot leading up to the fish market. I also had a nice view of the nearby harbor and a lot of Spanish-style architecture with pale yellow and red walls. The sun was shining nearly straight down and, other than the strong fish stink, I could have been chillaxing on my balcony in Huntington Beach. I idly wondered what Jack was up to. Probably busy putting out some fires.
“ Well?” said Sanchez.
I drank more Tecate and finally shrugged. “No clue.”
A leggy young lady strolled beneath us. Her legs, I saw, had a bruise or two. Her shorts were too short, and her top was too tight.
“ Prostitute?” I said to Sanchez.
He nodded. “Would be my guess.”
“ Are we generalizing?”
“ And stereotyping,” he said.
“ We’re on a roll,” I said.
Sanchez drank more beer. “So what do you hope to accomplish by coming here, kemosabe?”
I thought about that. Sanchez had a way of focusing my thoughts, which was a good thing. “I would like to convince certain parties to give up their nefarious ways.”
“ And what are their nefarious ways?”
“ The practice of using live dogs as bait, and, perhaps to convince said parties that cutting up live sharks is a shitty thing to do.”
“ We can’t shut them all down, Knighthorse,” said Sanchez.
“ One’s enough,” I said. “For now.”
“ You do realize that by shutting one down you might be eliminating the sole source of income for an entire family? Perhaps many families. An ethical paradox.”
I nodded. “By saving innocent creatures, I could hurt an innocent family.”
“ So how do you come to terms with it, Knighthorse?”
“ Because it’s not really a paradox, since the innocent creatures have no choice.”
“ And the family does?”
“ The hunters do. The hunter does not have to mistreat the kill.”
Sanchez drank some more beer and watched the scene below us. Without looking at me, he said. “You do realize we might be running for the border after this with the Federales on our asses?”
I grinned. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“ Shit,” he said.
A few minutes later, with the second batch of chips nearly finished, a young man in a tank top came over to our table. The smell of rotting fish preceded him.
I looked at Sanchez. “I think our escort has arrived.”
As far as black markets go, this wasn’t much.
It was coming on evening, and a broad swath of gold rippled over the ocean. The golden swath led all the way to the setting sun. Beautiful. Except I wasn’t here for beauty.
The rooftop market was high above prying eyes.
Here, after being led away from the shinier streets of Ensenada, we found ourselves in a much dingier marina, in an area clearly not meant for tourists. Sanchez and I were next led up an exterior flight of stairs. And there, on the rooftop, I could appreciate the true decimation of our oceans. Lying on blankets, presumably to dry, were hundreds, if not thousands, of shark fins.
The blankets were arranged in sections. Behind the blankets were men and women, all looking at Sanchez and I suspiciously. The stink up here was strong. But it wasn’t a fish stink. It was a meat stink. A flesh stink. Shark fins, apparently, did not smell much like rotting fish.
Our young guide went over and spoke to a handful of people who had sort of shifted in our direction. He spoke urgently, nodding towards us, and finally one of the men nodded. Guards? Custodians of the fins? Perhaps the owners of the building? I didn’t know.
Apparently we had been accepted, because he returned, smiling. Then he stood by our side and waited. Sanchez looked at me. Slow on the uptake, I finally fetched my wallet and slipped the man a twenty-dollar bill. He blinked at it, shrugged, and turned and left.
Sanchez and I strolled the many rows of shark fins. Some of the fins were laid out on blankets. Others, I saw, were spread over wide tables. Most were dried, and others were drying.
I understand there’s no love lost between man and sharks. We have a natural fear of the toothy bastards. But right is right, and wrong is wrong. Chopping up a living creature and letting it die an agonizing death is fucked up. Plain and simple.
“ You’re getting that look again,” Sanchez.
“ What look?”
“ Like you want to turn over these tables and start bashing skulls.”
“ Not a bad idea.”
“ Except most of these dudes are armed and they’re operating outside the law, and they would kill you before you moved on to the next table, or even bashed your first skull. Then, for sport, they’d probably plug me.”
“ You’re no fun anymore.”
“ Just stay here and try not to look like you’re gonna go nuclear on someone. Just relax and let me ask around about the La Bonita. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
I liked our odds. According to Joe Fossil of the California Fish and Game, Ensenada was the hot-bed for shark fin trafficking in this area. The Gulf of Mexico had an even bigger market, which was hard for me to fathom as I looked upon the rows and rows of inexpertly chopped-up fins.
The La Bonita had to sell its fins somewhere, and this was the closest place to do it. Perhaps there was another shark market in town, but it was hard to imagine a bigger one than this.
Like I said, I liked our odds.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sanchez talking with some people. He then moved on and talked to someone else. I stopped in front of a handsome young man who was watching me suspiciously. I pointed to the fins and asked him how much. He said something in Spanish. I know a little Spanish. And I know how to count fairly high in Spanish, too. The number he quoted me sounded suspiciously in the thousands and thousands of dollars.
The sharks didn’t stand a chance. Not with numbers that high.
No wonder these guards are packing heat. There was a fucking fortune up here.
Sanchez came back. “Let’s go.”
I didn’t ask any questions. When one is undercover in a highly illegal environment and one’s partner says “let’s go,” you go. No questions asked.
We were down the stairs and moving quickly toward the nearby docks when Sanchez finally spoke. “It was getting dicey up there.”
“ Too many questions?”
He nodded. “That’s right. But I did learn one thing.”
“ And what’s that?”
“ Where most of the shark hunters dock their boats.”
“ And where’s that?”
He pointed toward the marina in front of us. “Dead ahead, matey.”
As far as I could tell, we hadn’t been followed.
Here, the docks looked old, and there wasn’t a single Corona sign to be had anywhere. I decided to keep this last observation to myself.
As late afternoon faded into evening, it was hard to get a feel for the place, but my perception was that this was a forgotten stretch of marina. Maybe it was a carefully cultivated look. Forgotten and ignored were helpful to those in the illicit trade of shark fins. Or the illicit trade of anything else, too.
Seemingly forgotten boats that didn’t look entirely seaworthy bobbed and rocked near piers that looked shaky at best. Other boats were docked around the sturdier perimeter of the marina itself, which seemed like a better idea. Old boats were piled around the dock, some literally on top of others. More than anything, a heavy stink filled the air. A combination of rotting fish, rotting boats and rotting humanity.
“ You know what this boat looks like, right?” asked Sanchez.
“ I know,” I said, and described the forty-foot vessel that had been clearly modified to easily accommodate shark hunting. Such as, a removable bulwark where the hunters could haul up their catch and pull it easily onto the deck. I recalled the fisherman discarding the bleeding, dying hammerhead. They had simply pushed it off the boat.
“ Not to mention it says La Bonita on the stern,” said Sanchez.
“ That too,” I said.
We split up, each covering one side of the decrepit marina, which was separated by about three long piers, all of which had listing boats tethered to them. Trash and other flotsam huddled around the foaming waterline. I would be shocked if anything was alive within two hundred square yards of this cesspool.
After my perimeter sweep turned up nothing, I headed out onto the first floating dock. I sidestepped rotting fish and fish guts and other organic material that could have been anything. Human brain? Hard to know. I powered through the seagull crap since there was really no way of avoiding it.
I examined every boat, dismissing only those that were clearly too small or big. I felt like Goldilocks…looking for the one that was just right. Goldilocks, of course, didn’t have shoulders wide enough to swing from.
I read many a stern. Most were written in Spanish, although a few were in English. None said La Bonita.
I continued on to the second floating pier. Sanchez, I saw, was still working his way down the pier closest to his side. Slacker. Water slapped the floating bridge, which swayed under my feet and created a general state of nausea in my stomach. Either that or I had eaten a bad batch of corn chips and salsa.
I continued on, pushing through the nausea and the seagull crap, dismissing boat after boat until a sound reached me.
I paused, listening hard.
There it was again.
The whining of a dog. Stray dogs in Mexico are nothing new. Stray dogs whining several hundred feet out on a pier was something else entirely.
I picked up my pace, following the sound. And the closer I got to it, the more emphatic the whining got. Someone shouted at the dog and the whining briefly stopped.
Now I was running, feet pounding on the wobbling pier, which juked and jived with each step. My nausea was long forgotten. The pain in my bad leg was alarming. On the pier next to me, in my peripheral vision, I saw Sanchez turn toward me. Peripheral because I had to keep my eyes focused on the narrow pier. Wouldn’t do to take a wrong step and dive into the filthy muck. Without looking at him, I waved him over. Emphatically.
He must have gotten the hint because he disappeared out of my vision. I picked up my pace.
And there it was, just a few feet away. Son-of-a-bitch.
It had to be it. The length and general size felt right, and the name on the stern said it all. La Bonita.
The whining turned to yelping.
Another shout, followed by the stomping of feet going up a wooden flight of stairs. The boat shook with each step. I leaped from the pier, over the bulwark and landed awkwardly on the deck, my bad leg nearly giving out.
And what I found there, I would never forget.
J. R. Rain
A man appeared from the lower cabin.
The man, who hadn’t looked very happy to start with, blinked once. His mouth dropped open. He looked utterly perplexed to see a massive Caucasian standing in his boat. His perplexity might have been comical if he hadn’t been holding a very long carving knife.
I couldn’t tell if he was the same guy who’d sported the neat part down the center of his head-since this guy’s hair was in current disarray-but if I was a betting man, I would bet that he was.
Just as his shock turned to rage, he launched himself out of the lower cabin, bringing the knife up in a gutting motion. Unlike the helpless sharks he was used to carving up, I could fight back.
And I wasn’t so helpless.
Before the knife got very far, my fist flashed through the small space between us and hit him under his left eye. His head snapped back. His feet flew out from under him. Where the knife went, I didn’t know. One moment he was attacking me and the next, he was tumbling back down the stairs from whence he came.
I followed him down, jumping down just behind him. The interior cabin was surprisingly big and roomy enough even for me. But that didn’t mean the place wasn’t trashed. It was. Disgustingly so. Cots lined one wall. The opposite had a small but filthy futon. A TV was in one corner. Trash was everywhere. Wadded-up, greasy tinfoils. Wadded up, greasy burger wrappers. Wadded up paper bags. Ironically, a trash can-apparently bolted to the floor-stood empty nearby. Somebody around here was a shitty shot.
Still lying in the center of the floor, bleeding profusely from a humdinger of a cut under his eye, was a Grade-A asshole. Beyond, a woman peeked out at me from behind a cabin door. I motioned for her to get back into the room and she did, slamming the door shut.
It was about then that Sanchez appeared behind me, breathing hard. He ducked his head into the cabin, saw the scene, and leaped down smoothly.
“ Is he the only one?” he asked, pointing to the dirt bag on the floor.
“ A woman’s in there,” I said, pointing.
“ That’s it?”
“ Far as I know. Boat isn’t that big.”
Sanchez nodded once. “I’ll look around.”
As Sanchez ducked away, the man lying on the floor began waking up. The boat rocked as Sanchez moved around above deck. The man on the floor groaned and sat up on an elbow.
“ Hola, motherfucker,” I said. “You speak English?”
The man said nothing. His eyes still looked a little crossed. His hands, I saw, were crisscrossed with scars. Fishing lines? Shark bites? Zipper malfunctions?
Sanchez appeared again.
“ Clean,” he said. “Except…”
My friend looked away and pressed his teeth together. His jawline rippled.
“ Except what?”
“ I think you should see this.” He didn’t look at me.
I reached down and grabbed the guy by the shoulders and pulled him up to his feet. He was bigger than I realized, easily over six feet. Paunchy around the middle. Muscular shoulders. He came willingly enough but there was still some fight in him. I shoved him in front of me, up the stairs, where Sanchez briefly took over, grabbing him from me.
On the deck, Sanchez pointed to what had once been covered under a tarp. Now one corner of the tarp was pulled up.
Something with bright, sad eyes was watching me from inside.
Watching me…and whimpering.
I knew it was there. I had heard it, after all. But seeing the little guy inside the cage, watching me, was a different story altogether.
With Sanchez holding the shark hunter back, I slowly approached the cage. Once there, I knelt down, took one corner of the tarp…steeled myself…and lifted.
There wasn’t much light in this godforsaken place, but there was enough for me to see the scruffy dog inside. It was a mutt through and through. Curly, entangled hair. Eye goop caked from the corner of its eyes all the way down its muzzle.
Its muzzle. Oh, sweet Jesus.
I leaned down closer toward the dog, and as I did so, the man behind me made a move, but Sanchez slammed him hard back against the cabin wall.
The dog. Something was gleaming from his muzzle. Something metallic and curved and reddish. Then again, my eyes have always played tricks on me, at least when it came to color.
But the smell that wafted up to me was unmistakable.
The rotten fish was a given. Hell, the whole damn marina smelled like rotten fish. No, what I was smelling now was blood. Fresh blood. Coppery, sharp, pungent.
I pulled the tarp all the way off. The mangy mutt shrank back. Or tried to. Something was wrong with his little paws. Something clank and even seemed to catch on the cage. Not its nails. No. Again, something metal. I was sure of it.
The shark hunter continued to struggle with Sanchez, who promptly slammed him once more against the cabin’s exterior. This time, the entire boat shuddered with the impact. Water slapped the hull. I heard the woman crying from below deck.
The mangy dog, which probably weighed about thirty pounds, shrank down into a small, tangled ball of fur. It shook violently. Its shaking vibrated down through the wooden deck. The metal cage shook, as well.
I moved in closer. “It’s okay, boy.”
Now I could smell the urine and see the piles of crap littering the cage. Much of the crap looked like diarrhea.
Where the dog had once been standing were fresh paw prints. Bloody paw prints, and now I could clearly see why. Massive, rusted hooks protruded from its front paws. It made walking or standing for the creature not only torturous but nearly impossible. It huddled low, shaking uncontrollably, alternately whining and growling.
There was, of course, another hook. And this was the one that threw me into a blind rage. Another hook, as big or bigger than the ones in its front paws, protruded through its upper lip, hanging down like a metallic mustache. The world’s sickest joke.
Except this wasn’t a joke.
This was real. This dog was bait. Plain and simple. Its suffering meant nothing to the shark hunter. I was tempted to reach in for the dog but I was certain of a few things. First, it was going to attack me, as the creature was nearly out of its mind with fear. And second, it needed to be sedated to remove the hooks.
I stood slowly and turned, shaking nearly uncontrollably myself. I pointed to the shark hunter. “Let him go,” I said to Sanchez.
But my friend shook his head. “You’ll kill him, man.”
“ Let him go.”
But Sanchez shook his head. “I can’t do that, Jim. If I let him go, then you’ll never leave this country again.”
“ Fuck him.”
“ I agree,” said Sanchez, who had placed his body between the man and myself. “But he’s not worth it, man. He’s just a shit bag. Shit bags aren’t worth going to jail for the rest of your life.”
My frustration was nearly overwhelming. Frustration and anger. I stepped up to the guy currently pinned against the wall by Sanchez’s forearm. There was no fear in him; in fact, he was grinning at me. Although I doubted he recognized me, I was now certain he was the same piece of shit who had removed the hammerhead’s fins, the same piece of shit who had dumped the still-living and helpless shark back into the ocean. The same piece of shit who had grinned at me in much the same way.
“ Translate this for me,” I said to Sanchez. He nodded and I went on, speaking slowly enough that Sanchez wouldn’t miss a word. “If I ever see you within a hundred feet of a dog, cat, or fucking hamster, I will come for you. If I ever see you hunting sharks or even sardines, I will come for you. Do you understand, motherfucker?”
He blinked, waiting for Sanchez to finish translating. Then he grinned again, wider, and hocked a nasty lugie straight into my face.
“ Okay, one punch,” said Sanchez, “and make it a good one.”
He released the guy, who charged me instantly. One punch for every dog to have ever been thrown overboard to the sharks. One punch for every shark who’d been butchered alive.
One punch didn’t settle the score.
But it sure as hell felt good.
I hit him just under his right eye, so hard that I heard his cheekbone shatter. His legs turned to rubber and he promptly sank to the deck where he lay unmoving.
Breathing, but unmoving.
Sanchez nodded, impressed. “Helluva punch.”
I gave my statement to the Ensenada police investigator in charge, a Detective Hermenio.
I told Hermenio that I was a private investigator working on a murder case. I told him everything I knew, or thought he needed to know, and told him that my investigation had led me here to Mexico. Detective Hermenio, an older guy who spoke fluent English, asked if the guy on the boat was a suspect. I told him it was still early in the investigation.
He let it drop, maybe because Sanchez was an investigator with the LAPD. Or maybe because he recognized a low-life scumbag when he saw one. Truth was, I had no business being on the shark hunter’s boat, who had every right to protect himself. Basically, I had assaulted a man defending his own property.
A man who had caged and tortured a dog on his property.
Sometimes cops look the other way. Sometimes laws fly out the window when something heinous has been committed. In Mexico, animal cruelty laws were vague. But they were in place, and the language of the law was simple: “no unnecessary suffering.” A bleeding and caged dog with hooks in its muzzles and paws certainly qualified.
Not to mention, one didn’t need a law to see the extent of the cruelty.
Right is right. Wrong is wrong.
Sure, I had overstepped my bounds, and had Sanchez not been here, I could have very easily ended up in a Mexican jail. But I wasn’t in a jail.
Instead, I was in a brightly-lit veterinarian’s waiting room in Ensenada, a twenty-four hour emergency clinic. After the police had cited Juan Trinidad for animal cruelty, he was taken away in an ambulance to treat his broken face. Next, they had carefully loaded the caged and terrified animal, and delivered it to the local vet.
Which is where Sanchez and I were waiting now.
My big, Latino friend was sitting back on the wooden bench, eyes closed, long legs stretched straight, crossed at the ankles. He looked asleep, but I knew he wasn’t. My friend had an uncanny ability to rest and be alert at the same time. We were alone in the small waiting room, which wasn’t much of a surprise since it was just a little past three in the morning.
“ You got lucky,” said Sanchez without opening his eyes.
“ I’ve been told that before.”
“ I saved your ass.”
“ That’s why I keep you around,” I said.
We were silent some more. I heard someone talking urgently behind a closed door that led deeper into the facility. A plump woman with round cheeks sat behind a desk. She wore a powder blue uniform that seemed to be the mandatory uniform of vet assistants everywhere.
“ Detective Hermenio says he’ll come down on the bastard as much as he can, but something like this only carries about a $30 fine.”
“ So he’ll keep the boat?”
“ No doubt.”
“ And still hunt sharks.”
“ I’m guessing yes.”
“ So what did we accomplish?”
“ You broke his face,” said Sanchez.
“ That felt good,” I said.
“ And saved a dog.”
“ Yes,” I said. “I did.”
Cindy and I were in my apartment in Huntington Beach.
It was two days since my return from Mexico, and my life had taken an interesting turn. Mainly, I was now the proud owner of perhaps the world’s most damaged dog.
Cindy was sitting at the marble-top counter, drinking wine. She seemed to be enjoying the wine. Go figure. Every now and then she would look off down the hallway where small, pitiful sounds occasionally emitted. Cindy had come over bearing tin dishes filled with veggie burritos, topped with cheese, guacamole, and sour cream.
“ You didn’t have to order yourself a vegetable burrito,” I said. We were sitting next to each other at the counter. A half-full glass of Tecate was foaming comfortingly in front of me. I had taken to the stuff.
“ I like veggie burritos,” she said. And to her credit, she was attacking it energetically, despite the distraction of the whimpering dog in the next room.
“ Since when?”
“ Since forever.”
“ I’ve never seen you order a veggie burrito before. Chicken, yes. Beef, yes. Carnitas, yes. Even lobster.” I shuddered slightly at the thought. Years ago, I had tried it. Hideous.
“ Okay, okay, I ordered it today because…it seemed like a good idea. Maybe you’re rubbing off on me. But don’t expect a complete change. I like my meat.”
I nodded, pleased for some reason. I took a big swig of beer. “Well, as long as you know I’m not encouraging you one direction or the other. What you eat is up to you.”
“ Agreed,” said Cindy, then looked over at me, then laughed. “It’s hard to take you seriously when you’re sporting a foam mustache.”
“ Being taken seriously is overrated.”
She used a napkin to wipe my upper lip. “The burrito just sounded…good. And kind of healthy.”
“ They are good and healthy,” I said.
“ Just as long as you don’t expect me to suddenly…convert,” she said.
“ It’s not a religion. If anyone should know that, it’s you.”
“ I like my fish,” she said.
“ Good for you.”
“ Sometimes I like chicken.”
“ I understand that.”
“ I don’t want to feel guilty if I eat it in front of you.”
“ No guilt,” I said.
“ Sometimes I’ll order vegetarian,” she said. “But only sometimes.”
“ Sometimes is good.”
She took another bite, and washed it down with some wine. “So when do I get to meet Jimmy Junior?”
“ That’s up to him,” I said.
“ And he still hasn’t come out of the closet?”
“ Not yet.”
“ What does he do if you get too close to him?”
“ Growls at me…and means it.”
“ And where’s he going to the bathroom?”
“ Let’s just say I can kiss my deposit goodbye. And a lot of shoes as well.”
She nodded. “So he’s yours now?”
“ It’s the only way I can guarantee he’ll never be hurt again.”
“ And what if he never comes out of the closet?”
“ Then he will be safe in that closet forever.”
She nodded and set aside her wine. “A better life, at least, than what he had.”
I agreed. I drank more beer and listened to Junior’s whimpering. I had spent the better part of the past few days sitting on the floor across the doorway of my spare bedroom, reassuring Junior whenever he whimpered. I spent my time reading the newspaper and working the crosswords. Sometimes I sat quietly and closed my eyes and listened to the street sounds outside. I brought him water and food, but as far as I could tell, he had yet to eat or drink.
The vets who had sedated and removed the hooks from Junior in Mexico had also been kind enough to wash and shampoo him. Granted, not so kind as to work out his many tangles, but I was hoping to get to that someday. They had given him all his shots, and given me some pain medication. They also gave me a sort of doggie Prozac that I hadn’t used yet, but was tempted to.
Shortly, Cindy and I finished our dinners and retired to the living room where I had DVR’d some movies. We were halfway through a brain twister about dreams within dreams that I was beginning to think made no sense, when I heard a noise from the hallway. Cindy, whose head had been on my lap, perked up. She had heard it, too.
“ Is that-”
She shushed, and now I could hear the claws on the wood floor. Hesitant at first. Actually, hesitant throughout. One slow step at a time. One slow, painful step at a time.
I slowly…ever so slowly…turned my head…and saw the most pitiful creature I had ever seen in my life. Junior could barely stand, his leg muscles having atrophied in the cage. The little guy was shaking as bad as ever, or even worse.
He saw me looking at him, and let out a small noise. Cindy caught her breath. We both didn’t dare to move.
He stood there looking at me, shaking and swaying. The slightest wind would have knocked him over. He seemed to be in pain, his body hunched. The wounds in his paws had been thoroughly cleaned and bandaged, but the bandages didn’t last very long. He had worked them off within hours.
I smiled at him, and softly said, “It’s okay, boy.”
He made another sound. Cindy sat up slowly. Ever so slowly.
Junior stood there at the living room entrance, shivering and swaying and panting. I had no doubt that he was thirsty. And then something amazing happened. Something so damn amazing that I nearly wept.
The little booger took a step toward me. Cindy gasped again. Or maybe squealed. Junior’s ears perked a little.
But he kept coming toward me…slowly, haltingly, painfully.
He limped on both front legs and a new anger arose within me, an anger that did me no good now, so I beat it back.
“ Come on, boy. It’s okay.”
And he kept coming until he stood uncertainly before us. He eased back a little, taking some of his weight off his front paws. I could still see some blood caked on at the back of his whitish paws. Doggie stigmatas.
I carefully held out my hand.
Junior nervously leaned forward, sniffed it instinctively. He looked at my hand, then up at me, then he rested his furry jaw in my open palm.
Next to me, I heard Cindy crying softly.
“ If you ask me,” I said, “all you have to do is look an animal in the eye to know they have a soul.”
Jack nodded thoughtfully. “I can buy that.”
“ But am I right?”
“ I’ll leave that to you to decide.”
“ Animals either have a soul or they don’t,” I said. “Which is it?”
“ Which do you believe it is?”
“ I believe animals have a soul.”
Jack nodded. “A sound belief.”
“ But you will not confirm or deny,” I said.
“ It’s not my job to confirm or deny,” said Jack.
“ And what’s your job?” I asked.
“ To allow.”
We were at McDonald’s on a warm Saturday afternoon. The jungle gym was rocking. The drive-thru line wrapped halfway around the building. McDonald’s must be doing something right. Jack was looking as homeless as ever. He wore a tattered and stained windbreaker, holey jeans. Mismatched sneakers and different-colored socks.
I drank some Coke, snacked on some fries. After a few moments, I said, “I’m a vegetarian now.”
“ I can see that.”
“ But is that the right way to live?”
He sipped some of his coffee. “It is dangerous ground, Jim, when others determine what is right.”
Somehow I knew he would say this. “So it is up to the individual to define what is right?”
“ But what if their right is wrong?”
“ Then who’s to determine what is right or wrong?”
“ You, of course,” I said.
He looked up at me. Steam from his coffee made some of the dirt on his jaw waver a little. “I know you, Jim. You do not react well when someone tells you to do something.”
“ I follow the laws of the land,” I said. “For the most part.”
“ Do you agree with the laws?”
I shrugged. “Most.”
“ And what would happen if you didn’t agree with what I determined was right or wrong?”
“ I would say, who am I to question God?”
“ But I want you to question God, Jim. I want you to question everything.”
“ Because the answers you receive will define who you are, and how you will live, and how you will treat others.”
“ But not everybody will come up with the same answers.”
“ That’s the point, Jim.”
“ So there are no wrong answers?”
“ But what if my answers hurt others?”
Jack sat back and held his coffee in both hands. His hands, I saw, were filthy. There was even dirt caked under his nails. God had dirt under his nails?
“ Hurting others is a delicate business, Jim.”
“ What do you mean, exactly?”
“ Quite simply: do what you want to yourself. But the moment you cause harm to another-or discord of any type-you will need to reestablish a balance.”
I was about to stuff some fries in my mouth. I paused about an inch or two away from my mouth. “What, exactly, does that mean?”
“ It means there’s a cause and effect in place, or a law of compensation.”
“ You’re talking about karma,” I said.
“ Yes,” he said, smiling at me. He always smiled. “Karma is another word for it.”
“ Most people believe karma is a load of crap.”
“ Karma works whether one believes it’s a load of crap or not.”
Now I smiled at hearing Jack say the word crap. “Kind of like the Law of Attraction.”
He nodded. “Yes, it’s always working. Always in place. Remember, every experience in life has a former cause. And every current experience will result in a future cause. I do not tell people how to live, but causing harm to another, or discord of any type, will be returned to you. It must be.”
“ To re-establish a balance,” I said.
He nodded. “Right. One must experience what one causes another to experience.”
“ It is the only way to true growth, Jim. Everyone must eventually understand what the effect of his own creation is upon the rest of the life in your world.”
“ You said life,” I said. “You did not just say people.”
“ Indeed,” he said.
“ So if one causes harm to another living creature…”
“ One is compelled to understand the effects of his harm…even on animals.”
“ Who compels?” I asked.
He smiled again. “The laws of the Universe, Jim.”
“ And who put these laws into place?”
“ Perhaps,” he said, winking. “That can be a question for another time.”
I was in my office with Junior when the phone rang.
He was lying on a doggie bed near my chair. Now that he had come out of the closet, he didn’t want to leave my side. I didn’t blame him. Being by my side was a good place to be.
Junior jumped at the sound, and then settled down again. His paws were healing. Only a slight discoloration now showed in the fur. I had spent the bulk of my morning sitting by the doggie bed and brushing out his fur, although sometimes I had to cut the knots out, too. He was a true ragamuffin. Part poodle, part long-haired terrier, part anything mangy and not very cute.
Except, to me, he was cute as can be.
I picked up the phone on the third ring. “Knighthorse.”
“ Is this Jim Knighthorse?”
“ Would be a hell of a coincidence.”
“ Yeah, right.” There was a pause. The guy on the phone was young, maybe twenty. Sounded like a surfer dude. “I, um, have one of your flyers.”
I sat up a little. “What about it?”
“ Look, I have some information about Mitch Golden. But no cops, okay?”
“ Are you free now?” he asked.
“ As a bird,” I said, and we made arrangements over the phone where to meet. When we hung up, I looked down at Junior. “You up for a road trip?”
With Junior waiting in the van’s front seat, surrounded by treats and chew toys, I met Ryan Wiseman in a trendy bar in Costa Mesa. By trendy, I meant uncomfortable and not very cozy. From the metal counter down to the backless stools. I mean, give a brother something to lean on. After all, something has to keep the drunks upright. Anyway, the floor was wood, which was okay, but I wasn’t sure about the ladder that reached up to the more expensive drinks high above the bar. A ladder? If I want a drink, I want it now. I don’t want to wait for some goofball to climb up and down a ladder.
“ Great bar, huh?” said Ryan. Ryan was a little older than I had pictured. He was maybe thirty and sported a long, scraggly goatee that was all kinds of filthy. He wore stained cargo shorts and a stained tee shirt, and it looked like I was picking up the tab. Again.
“ Maybe the greatest ever,” I said.
“ No shit, huh?”
“ No shit.”
Ryan was drinking a dark beer that had about an inch of head still on it. The bartender came by and asked what I wanted and I said a stool with a back on it and he laughed. I didn’t laugh. Since the stool wasn’t going to happen, I ordered a Foster’s because I liked their commercials.
As I ordered, I noticed Ryan looking me over. He nodded, seemingly impressed. “Jesus, you’re huge.”
“ I am huge,” I said. “And don’t call me Jesus.”
He blinked hard, and his goatee quivered. Hell of a blink. Then he started nodding and his goatee flapped in nine different directions. “I get it. From Airplane. Man, I love that movie.”
My beer came and I took a healthy pull from it. This was beginning to feel like a bad date. A mandate. Time to get to business.
“ You called me about the flyer,” I said, and I was beginning to wonder if the guy was just here for the free beer.
Ryan nodded eagerly, yet his goatee somehow flapped sideways, which defied logic and gravity. I was certain he was on something. Or maybe his goatee was.
“ Yeah, man. A buddy of mine over at Pipeline had this flyer in his backpack. And I was like…whoa! I know this dude!”
“ How do you know him?”
“ He’s the candy man.”
“ Candy man?”
“ You know…jive sticks.”
“ Jive sticks?”
“ Puff the magic dragon, broheim. The wacky terbacky.”
“ Marijuana,” I said. “You’re saying Mitch was your supplier.”
Now Ryan began shaking his head. “He was more than a supplier, dude bro. He was a man with a vision.”
“ What kind of vision?”
“ The big picture, mister. He didn’t just sell the love weed…he sold dreams.”
“ Sure he did,” I said. “And what’s the big picture?”
“ Life, man. Living. Live and let live. His money didn’t just line his pockets.”
“ Where did it go?”
“ To the cause, boss. Mitch Golden was a good guy, with a big heart. He sold the jolly green to help the little guys.”
“ Little guys?”
“ The animals, man,” he said.
“ Of course,” I said. “How close were you to Mitch?”
“ We were close. We were dude-bros.”
“ Dude-bros. Got it. So why did you call me down here, Ryan?”
He blinked hard and his red eyes seemed a little redder. And wetter, too. “I’m pretty sure I know why he was killed.”
Stoner or not, Ryan seemed sincere. Either way, I wanted to hear his story. I waited. Ryan collected himself. He even stroked his goatee as if it were a pet squirrel. Maybe it was.
“ He stole from them, man.”
“ Stole from who?”
“ His hookups in L.A.”
“ How do you know this?”
“ Because we were dude-bros.”
“ And dude-bros tell each other everything?”
“ Most certainly,” he said. He wiped his eyes, and you couldn’t help but feel for the pathetic pothead. “The Interceptor needed massive repairs.”
“ The Interceptor?”
“ The rig, man. The boat Mitch used to stop the fucking finners. Like a fucking superhero. The Interceptor needed repairs and Mitch skimmed some of the money. He was going to pay them back…”
“ But he didn’t.”
“ He asked for more time.”
“ But they didn’t give it.”
He shook his head. “They wasted a good man. He was doing the right thing, you know. Helping the little guys.”
Ryan drank deeply from his beer, which, I was certain, would only add to his melancholy.
“ I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Any idea who might have wasted him?”
“ The drug lords, man. The big guys.”
“ The big guys,” I said.
Ryan nodded and finished his beer, and sat back on his backless stool. After a short while, I left a $20 bill on the bar, well away from Ryan, clapped the stoner on the shoulder, and headed out to my own little guy.
I was in Detective Hansen’s office in Huntington Beach.
He was leaning back with his feet crossed at one corner of his desk. His ankles were tan in a way that suggested artificial lighting. He wore thick-soled loafers that could have been hand-stitched. I doubted these were regulation shoes. Cops in Huntington Beach were rebels.
Hansen was nodding. “Makes sense. All signs were pointing to a drug hit on our end, too,” he said. A file, now a good deal thicker than the file I had seen earlier, was open on his lap. The pages were held in place by folded prongs. Hansen lifted one of the pages absently.
“ There were rumors of a drug hit at first,” he said. “But his girlfriend was adamant that it had been these shark hunters.”
“ She claimed Mitch was threatened by one of them.”
“ Right,” said Sanchez. “Except most of these illegal shark hunters, according to you and according to my pals at the DFG-”
“ Your dude-bros?”
“ My what?”
“ Never mind,” I said. “Go on.”
Hansen stared at me for three seconds, then shook his head. “Anyway, it appears most of these illegal shark hunters, or finners, are poor Mexicans simply venturing deeper into American waters.”
“ Hardly an organized group.”
He nodded. “Exactly. And from what I understand, Mitch and his boys used their boat to give these hunters hell, harassing them, cutting lines, and generally chasing them off.”
“ Admirable,” I said, “and certainly likely to warrant a threat from one or two of them.”
“ So one of the Mexican fishermen waves his fist angrily at Mitch and his boys, and his girlfriend thinks that’s motive.”
“ Something like that,” I said.
“ Except what’s more likely is that this was a drug hit, especially in light of your latest evidence.”
“ Ryan Wiseman,” I said. “The dude-bro.”
“ We’ve talked to him, too, now. His statement’s on record and it jives with everything else we’ve been hearing. Witness after witness claim that Mitch Golden was skimming money for The Cause.”
“ Like they say,” I said. “You can lose a shipment or even get caught by the police, but just don’t steal from them.”
“ Stealing is a death wish.”
We were both silent, both meditative. Two broheims contemplating life, drugs, and everything in-between. “So where does this leave us?” said Hansen.
“ We technically still have an unsolved murder,” I said.
“ Except we have a likely idea who did it.”
“ Drug hit.”
Hansen nodded. “To find out who ordered the hit would take massive man power. Would take more man power than we have available. And in the end…”
“ In the end,” I said, “he was just another drug dealer.”
“ A drug dealer and a thief, from all appearance.”
“ A thief who helped the little guys.”
Hansen uncrossed his golden ankles and sat forward in his slightly squeaky chair. “I’m closing this file.”
“ Figured you would,” I said.
“ I mean, officially it’s open. But unofficially, it’s dead in the water.”
“ Fitting choice of words.”
Hansen asked, “You still working for his girlfriend?”
“ I am.”
“ What will you do?”
“ I’ll talk with her,” I said.
We were sitting on a bench at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley.
Junior was on a leash and sniffing near the bench. Whenever a jogger came by, he huddled between my legs and sometimes lost control of his bladder. Heidi Mann was sitting next to me. She was wearing big sunglasses, unflattering shorts and a Dodger baseball cap. Although I couldn’t see her eyes, I knew she was following Junior’s every move. I had spent the past fifteen minutes catching her up to date. The story had naturally come around to Junior and his captivity.
Now we were sitting quietly, and Heidi had a renewed interest in Junior who was now sniffing the hell out of a big, lumpy bird crap.
“ How are his paws?” she finally asked.
“ Mostly healed. Same with his muzzle.”
“ How’s he eating?”
“ Normally enough. Big healthy craps, too, if that’s any indication.”
She smiled. Her first smile. “Good to know.”
“ He’s scared of strangers, especially men, and as you might have noticed, it took him a little while to warm up, even to you.”
“ Do you blame him?”
“ Not one bit.”
“ He might have issues for the rest of his life.”
“ I have no doubt,” I said.
“ But you won’t get rid of him?”
“ Never,” I said.
“ You are my hero.”
“ I’m definitely his hero. I’m also Cindy’s hero, too.”
“ Your girlfriend?”
“ You mention her a lot.”
“ I think about her a lot, too.”
She nodded and looked away. “I know the feeling.”
We were quiet. I watched Junior move on to another, slightly older bird crap, before jerking his head up and growling. I jerked my head up, too. About halfway through the park, or about a half a mile away, a man was jogging alone. Yeah, he was going to have issues.
“ Did you really name him after yourself?” she asked.
“ It’s a good name,” I said. “But he goes by Junior.”
“ I hate them,” she said.
I wasn’t sure which them she was referring to. The drug bosses who killed her boyfriend, or the shark hunters who were going to use Junior as bait? Either way, we were silent for another five minutes before she turned and faced me. She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were red and raw.
“ I think we’re going to terminate your employment,” she said.
“ Figured you would.”
“ It was different when I thought the killers were…”
“ The shark hunters?” I offered.
“ It was easier to hate them.” She took in a lot of air, nearly broke down, but didn’t. Close call. “I knew Mitch was up to something, though.”
“ You didn’t know about the drugs?”
“ I knew something wasn’t right. Let me put it this way, I’m not surprised. Often he would come to our meetings talking about a big donation he had secured from a wealthy client. The money always went to the organization, so I didn’t worry about it too much. Now I know where the money was coming from.”
“ He picked the wrong guys to steal from.”
“ Even though the money was going to a good cause.”
“ Drug kingpins probably don’t see it that way,” I said. “For them, it’s just business as usual.”
“ It’s weird knowing his killer is out there somewhere,” she said.
“ I could look for him,” I said.
“ And find what?” she said. “A shooter who was doing his job, ordered by a guy doing his job.”
“ Mitch knew the risks,” I said.
“ But he did it anyway.”
“ All for the little guys,” I said.
She laughed a little, which surprised me. “It’s hard to love a shark,” she said. “But we do. Me and people like Mitch. As dangerous as they are, they are still helpless against man.”
“ Little guys with big teeth.”
She turned away and appeared to be looking down at Junior…but with those big shades she could have been looking anywhere. “He was a good man. We lost a hero. A stupid hero, granted, but a hero.”
Junior spied a bee and snapped at it. The bee escaped and for the first time, I think, my little guy might have looked happy.
It was a cool, crisp night at Leisure World.
Sanchez and I were in my crime-stopping van. We were sitting comfortably in the rear swivel chairs with a small light on between us. The small light could not be seen through the heavily- tinted glass. To the outside world, we were nothing more than a biohazard cleanup service.
I had just caught Sanchez up-to-date on the Mitch Golden case. Sanchez nodded. “The moment we hear it’s a drug hit, things change. And a drug dealer who steals from his bosses is low on our priority list. In fact, we’re glad to see them go.”
“ Heartwarming story,” I said.
He glanced at me sideways. “What’s eatin’ at you, whitey?”
“ The job feels…incomplete.”
“ I was hired to find his killer.”
“ And you did. His killer was, in essence, himself. He knew perfectly well the risks he was taking. It was business as usual for his bosses. Nothing that wasn’t expected. Nothing that no one couldn’t have seen a mile away.”
I thought about what he said, saw the wisdom of his words, and turned to him. “Thanks, bro.”
“ I knew I couldn’t pull it off.”
“ Did you just say bro?”
“ Never mind,” I said.
As Sanchez chuckled quietly to himself, I stared silently out my side window and thought about the man who was willing to risk everything for the little guys.
“ No flashers tonight,” said Sanchez. “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”
“ It’s a thing,” I said.
“ So where’s Junior?”
“ He’s with Cindy at my apartment. They’re bonding.”
“ By bonding, you mean she’s cleaning up a lot of piss.”
“ Something like that.”
Sanchez said, “I’ve got movement over here.”
It was the first movement we had seen in nearly an hour. I eased over to Sanchez’s side of the van. And there, stepping away from one of the many single-level apartments, were two people. Two men, actually. One appeared older and one younger. The younger man was a good deal taller. The older man led the younger to a car parked not too far from our van. Sanchez and I watched the scene with interest. Perhaps more interest than the scene warranted. We heard muffled talking, a little laughter, and then the tall guy got in, started the vehicle up, and drove off. Going, no doubt, 15 mph.
The old man paused to watch the car drive off, then slipped his hands in his pants pockets, began whistling, and whistled all the way to his little apartment.
“ His son?” asked Sanchez.
“ Let’s hope.”
We watched the house some more, until I got bored and headed back to my side of the van. As I settled in, my cell rang. Caller I.D. restricted. In my experience, this usually meant a cop.
“ Mr. Knighthorse,” said a heavily-accented voice. “This is Detective Hermenio, Ensenada Police Department.”
“ Good evening, Detective.”
“ Thought you might be interested to know that we conducted a raid tonight on the shark fin black market.”
“ El negro mercado,” I said.
“ What was that?” he asked.
“ That was Spanish,” I said.
“ It was something, but it wasn’t Spanish.”
I sighed. “You were saying, Detective?”
He continued, “It is as you said it was, Mr. Knighthorse. More shark fins than even I would have believed. As you know, Mexico currently has a moratorium on all shark hunting. Of course, enforcing such a moratorium is another business altogether.”
“ I understand.”
“ Shutting down the black market is a good step. Except…”
I finished his sentence: “Except another will soon replace it.”
“ No doubt, my friend. But, like I said, it is a step. There is one other thing.”
“ There were a handful of American buyers at the market during the time of the raid. One of them was a name you gave me.”
“ Raul Trujillo. Apparently, he is a well-known buyer in the states. Selling shark fins is illegal in California, no?”
“ Yes. Until just recently.”
“ That’s what I thought. He is being held here, and authorities in the US will be contacted. More than likely he will only be fined.”
“ It is at least something,” I said. “This will be good news for someone I know.”
“ I expect so.”
“ Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“ It is a nasty business,” he said, “and I’m happy to help.”
When I clicked off, Sanchez said, “He say what I think he said?”
“ He did.”
Sanchez held up his fist, and as I bumped it with my own, he said, “Good work…bro.”
The next morning I called Heidi Mann and told her the good news: Raul Trujillo was currently in a Mexican prison, and his days of importing illegal shark fins-at least from Mexico-were over.
“ Thank you,” she said. “It makes me think that Mitch…” but her voice trailed off in a choking sound on the other end of the line.
“ That maybe Mitch didn’t die in vain?”
“ Yeah. Something like that. He’s still stupid as dirt for doing what he did, but he started all of this, you know. Everything. The website. The organization. The demonstrations. The high-speed boat chases.” She laughed a little.
“ And you will continue it?” I asked.
“ Until my last breath.”
“ Be careful,” I said.
“ I’ll leave the high-speed boat chases to the boys.”
“ Remember…these guys play for keeps,” I said.
“ So do we,” she said, and thanked me again and hung up.
I looked out across the empty cemetery.
Well, empty of anything living. It was midday, and somewhere out there on a slope that descended down toward the Pacific Ocean, was my mother’s grave.
I was sitting on a bench in the shade of a wide oak tree. Sitting on my lap was a criminal report I had purposefully delayed getting. Delayed for no good reason. Delayed because I was not in the right frame of mind to rush this investigation.
After all, Gary Tomlinson wasn’t going anywhere.
Earlier, I had printed out the report without reading it. Now, sitting near my mother’s grave, I decided it was time. Perhaps I was disrespecting her by bringing this here, but I doubted it. My mother knew perfectly well who her killer had been. She had looked into his eyes, spoken to him, yelled at him, cursed him, fought with him.
I opened the report. Although not quite as thorough as police rap sheets, this was close enough. It hit the highlights, and sometimes the highlights were all that you needed to hit.
There were two arrests in the report.
Gary Tomlinson, who may or may not have murdered my mother, had been arrested twice for rape. Or, as the report puts it in politically correct terms, criminal sexual assault.
The first offense had been when Gary was in his late teens. The victim had been a girl under the age of sixteen. Under the “Outcome” heading was a single word: “Dismissed.”
A small wind rattled the report in my hand. The wind brought with it a hauntingly familiar scent. A flower scent. I glanced around the cemetery. No surprise there. Flower bouquets, in various stages of decay and propped against headstones, dotted the landscape.
I glanced down at the second arrest. Same outcome.
A homicide investigator in good standing with the Los Angeles Police Department had a son who was arrested not once, but twice, and both cases had been dismissed.
I rubbed my jaw, ran my fingers through my hair.
Sandwiched between those two arrests was the date of my mother’s murder.
The rest of the report was clean. No other arrests and certainly no other convictions. Had the kid seen the error of his ways and cleaned up his act?
Or had he gotten better at covering up his crimes?
How many more victims were out there? How many cases were unsolved thanks to Daddy sweeping shit under the rug?
I didn’t know. I also didn’t know how much pull a homicide investigator had. There was, after all, only so much he could do, right?
Unless he worked the case, I thought.
Unless he worked the case, he could certainly manipulate facts and make evidence disappear. A homicide investigator also works closely with the district attorney’s office, whose job it is to convict. A district attorney could decide to drop a case if he or she felt so inclined, especially if there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.
Or if he didn’t want to convict.
Was it a coincidence that Bert Tomlinson, Gary Tomlinson’s father, had been assigned to my mother’s murder case? Or had he pushed for the case, knowing full well that his son was responsible?
I didn’t know, but I was going to find out.
I was in my father’s immaculate office in downtown Los Angeles.
My father was easily six inches shorter than me, but looked twice as mean. Or twice as psychotic. People talk about dead eyes. My father had them. Or they talk about glassy eyes. My father had those, too. Mostly, there was nothing behind them. They were devoid of any warmth or friendliness. Mostly, though, they were devoid of compassion. These were the eyes that looked down upon you from the chopping block or the gallows or, in his case, stared at you from behind a sniper’s telescopic lens. If someone were to tell me that my father was a serial killer, I wouldn’t blink twice.
I know, I couldn’t be prouder.
But you don’t pick your father, right? Mine just happened to be a sneeze away from a nationwide killing spree.
For now, though, he ran one of the biggest P.I. agencies in Los Angeles. The original Knighthorse Investigations. My agency, to be clear, was called Jim Knighthorse Investigations. A subtle, yet, important difference.
My father sat behind his desk, staring at me. Even when blinking, he still appeared to be staring. My father never seemed to master the social protocol of not looking too hard or too long at his subjects.
“ What can I do for you, Jim?”
“ I’m here for our weekly, father/son get-together.”
“ We don’t have a weekly father/son get-together.”
“ You think?”
“ You’re being facetious.”
“ I’m being something.”
“ What can I do for you, Jim?” he asked again.
“ I’m here about Mom’s murder.”
He nodded. No expression. Nothing. I could have said that I was here to sell him a subscription to Psychopath Today. I fought to control myself. I knew this about my dad. His lack of empathy was nothing new. One percent of the world’s population are certified psychopaths. I was looking at one of them.
“ I think I know who killed her,” I said.
Still no reaction, although he did cock his head slightly to one side. For my father, that was the equivalent of a “Holy shit!”.
“ And who do you think it is?” he asked.
I told him about the age-progression photo experiment I had done, and about how the man in the photograph greatly resembled the lead homicide investigator’s son.
“ Did you run a background check on him?”
“ Two sexual assaults that were dropped.”
“ Dropped why?”
“ No clue.”
“ I’ll look into for you,” he said. “I’ve got friends at the DA’s office.”
“ Thanks,” I said.
“ What are the dates of the assaults?”
“ Bookended around Mom’s murder.”
“ A pattern of violence.”
You should know, I thought.
Instead, I said, “My thoughts, too.”
“ Could have been a coincidence that the father got the case.”
“ Or not,” I said.
“ The father somehow knew about the crime?”
“ Maybe,” I said. “Hard to know at this point.”
“ So what’s your next step?”
“ I figure it’s time to talk to him.”
I was back at Leisure World.
Sanchez had the night off from private investigating to work his real job as an LAPD detective. Slacker.
Admittedly, I hadn’t been in the mood to come tonight. After seeing my soulless father, I had been in the mood to drink the night away, with occasional respites for puking up my guts.
Except I wasn’t expecting to get a call from Tony Hill, head of park security at Leisure World. There had been another flashing. I’d asked if anyone had been blinded, and he told me to not be a smart ass and to swing by tonight.
So I swung by, and now we were in my crime fighting van. There’s nothing I like more than sitting in a confined space with a hard-ass rent-a-cop with control issues.
So I offered him a beer.
“ I can’t drink when I’m on duty. And I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be drinking in this van.”
“ So arrest me,” I said. I reached inside the mini-fridge and pulled out a Miller Lite.
Tony Hill looked at it long and hard, then looked around as if anyone could see us, then said, “Fine. I’ll take one. But just one.”
I grinned and handed him an ice-cold can. We sat back in the built-in swivel chairs. Like with Sanchez, we each covered one side of the van.
“ Tell me about the flashing,” I said.
“ Do I have to?” he said. He stared at the can of beer as he spoke.
“ I’m afraid so.”
He sighed and sat back, although his eyes did go back to scanning the big tinted window. As he spoke, he drank often. So often that he soon finished the beer. “Happened two nights ago. In fact, it happened the last time you were here with your friend. Maybe ten, twenty minutes after you left.”
“ Could he have known I was here?”
“ Don’t know, but I doubt it. Your van looks like any number of maintenance vehicles. Did you see anything strange that night?”
“ Nothing strange enough for me to think a flasher was on the prowl.”
Tony Hill held up the empty can. “Got another?”
“ Got lots.”
I opened, reached, grabbed, shut, and handed him another cold one. He said, “I could get fired for drinking on the job, except I kind of make the rules for our department.”
“ Maybe you should make the rule that on nights of flasher surveillance, you can knock back a minimum of two.”
“ Or four.”
We both drank to that, and I think I might have just helped to add a new bylaw to Leisure World’s security.
“ So who did he expose himself to this time?”
“ Three women.”
“ They were leaving their singing group.”
“ Any other groups going on tonight?”
“ More singing lessons, which is why I wanted you to come tonight.”
“ Sounds like our boy knows the park schedule.”
“ Sounds like it.”
“ Who heads the singing group.”
“ Mr. Micliwski.”
“ Mr. McWho?”
“ Micliwski. He’s Polish. Lives right there, in fact.”
Joe Hill leaned over and pointed to the same small apartment I had watched the old man exit from with the young man. A house not very far from Poppie’s. A house in the hub of the flashing hits.
“ Oh really?” I said.
“ Sometimes his son helps out.”
“ I see,” I said. “Can the ladies describe the flasher?”
“ The usual. Kind of tall, thin, long dark hair. Wore a bathrobe.”
I studied the small apartment. There were a lot of lights on. Every now and then, a shadow stepped in front of the window. I looked at my cell phone. It was getting on about the time I had seen the old man escort his son out.
We drank and watched, and I kept my suspicions to myself.
Sure enough, at about the same time the door opened and the same old man walked out. The same medium-sized and stooped old man. Another man followed. His son, I presumed. The same young man we had seen the other night.
The same tall young man.
Tony Hill was leaning in my direction, watching the scene from the house. “Yeah, that’s his son. A singer, too, like his old man. We get to know everyone who comes and goes from this park.”
“ I believe it,” I said.
Like Sanchez and I had done a few nights ago, Tony Hill dismissed the younger guy immediately and watched the old man head back into his home where, I assumed, a few older ladies were waiting to finish up their lessons.
Except, I wasn’t watching the old guy, I was watching the young man who had crossed in front of the van and was now heading for the same parked car we had seen the other night.
I watched him get in, start the car, and slowly drive away.
I eased off the lounge chair and, ducking, headed through the small doorway and back into the front seat.
I started the van and, despite Tony Hill’s protests, followed.
“ The kid?” said Tony Hill. “I’ve met him a number of times. He’s like twenty-two.”
“ Perving knows no age,” I said. “I think.”
“ I don’t know. Seemed nice enough.”
“ How long ago did the flashing start?”
“ Six months back. Maybe. I can check.”
“ How long have he and his grandfather been giving singing lessons?”
He thought about it as we cruised at a good distance behind the kid. “Shit,” he said.
“ Six months ago?”
He nodded. “Seems about right.”
“ What’s his name?”
“ Charlie, I think.”
“ Why am I not surprised?”
“ And why isn’t he heading for the exit?” said Tony Hill.
“ Where does this road lead?”
“ Deeper into the park.”
“ Are there back exits?”
He shook his head. “None that we allow visitors to use.”
“ You guys run a tight ship.”
“ The park is five hundred and thirty-three acres. We have to run a tight ship.”
“ That’s a lot of old people,” I said.
“ And a lot of visitors.”
The vehicle, a Volkswagen something-or-other, turned right into what appeared to be another parking lot. The park was full of such parking lots. His vehicle slowed and turned towards us in one of the spots.
I drove slowly past. “Don’t look at him,” I said.
Tony Hill didn’t like it, but he looked forward, although I knew every fiber of his being wanted to turn and look.
“ He’s watching us,” I said.
“ How do you know?”
“ This isn’t my first car chase.”
“ Car chase?”
“ Slow-moving car chases count, too.”
I turned right down the next street, then turned into another parking lot. I slipped in next to a Dumpster. I ditched the lights, rolled down the windows and killed the engine.
“ What are we doing?”
“ We’re listening.”
“ Listening for what?”
“ Let’s see. Or hear.”
It was just past 9:00 p.m. and Leisure World was perfectly quiet. So quiet, in fact, that I was certain I could hear a car start up and pull away. Five minutes later, that’s exactly what happened. We couldn’t see him, but we could hear him.
“ He’s moving again.”
With the headlights still off, I pulled out of the parking lot and nudged my way slowly toward the street.
“ There,” said Tony Hill, pointing.
A pair of brake lights appeared in the far distance, just as the vehicle hung a right.
“ What’s over there?”
“ The amphitheater.”
“ Is there a concert going on?”
“ No, but there’s a play being performed. The old geezers are putting on The Grapes of Wrath.”
“ When’s it over?”
Joe Hill checked his cell. “Right about now.”
The outdoor amphitheater was bigger than I expected.
According to Tony Hill, it seated 2,500 people, and by my estimation, there were probably fifty people presently in attendance.
“ The amphitheater is designed primarily for concerts. We even had Pat Boone here a few months ago.”
“ Very nice.”
“ You a fan?”
“ Who isn’t? Anyone Elvis opened for is all right in my book.”
“ We might get his daughter next month. Debby.”
“ Lucky you.”
From the van, which I had parked near the entrance, we could see some of the stage and about the first third of the amphitheater seating. People seemed to be deeply engrossed and generally enjoying themselves. The lights were low and the stage was brightly lit.
We were both scanning the parking lot. I had parked in some shadows and killed the engine. The lot was surprisingly full. I wondered where the rest of the 2,450 guests parked. The VW had been a neutral color. Neutral colors mean nothing to me. Hell, they might as well be called blah, because that’s what they look like to me.
But I knew what a Volkswagen looked like, and soon I spotted the sucker in the far corner of the lot. I pointed it out to Tony Hill, whose first instinct was to charge it.
“ Easy, tiger,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be better to catch him in the act?”
“ I’d rather not.”
“ How about just before the act?”
“ A little better.”
We waited. There seemed to be some movement in the little Volkswagen, but I couldn’t be sure from our distance.
“ So what’s his M.O.?” asked Tony Hill.
“ He ditches his clothes for the robe in his car, flashes the old folks, slips away somewhere, then works his way back to his car.”
“ Where he changes again and waits for the heat to die down.”
We waited some more. Ten minutes later, applause didn’t necessarily erupt from the amphitheater, but it did spring forth energetically.
The VW’s driver’s side door opened. A dark shadow slipped out. The shadow worked its way near some trees and shrubs that surrounded the exterior of the amphitheater.
“ Did you see that?” I said.
“ Hard to miss.”
Theater-goers began trickling out. Husbands and wives, small groups, big groups, and individuals. Many got into their cars, but a few headed toward the far end of the parking lot. Toward the figure hiding in shadows.
“ He’s near the shuttle pick-up, which will be here in a few minutes.”
“ Then I suggest,” I said, opening my door quietly, “that we catch ourselves a flasher.”
Tony Hill looked at me sideways. “Why do you sound like you’re enjoying yourself?”
“ What’s not to love?” I said. “Adventure, intrigue, free willies.”
“ Brother. Let’s go.”
We both got out of the van, and slipped in behind some of the exiting theater-goers. Tony Hill and I fell back, keeping mostly to the shadows. Up ahead, a nearby pool of light with a bench was undoubtedly their destination. The shuttle pick-up.
But between theater-goers and the shuttle pick-up was a dense row of bushes.
Still walking with the group and ducking a little to keep a low profile, I saw movement in the bushes. So did Tony Hill, who suddenly broke into an all-out sprint. Although the head of security had me by about twenty years, he didn’t have a gimp leg, and soon he was covering ground much faster than I could.
He might have also been driven by adrenaline. I’m sure he was taking it personally that the residents had hired outside help. I’m also sure, having been around the guy a few times now, that he took it personally that such attacks were taking place under his watch.
And so it really came as no surprise that when I saw the lanky young man step out of the shadows, wearing only a light-colored bathrobe and a black wig, Tony Hill was in an all-out sprint.
One of the old ladies turned and saw Tony Hill running and screamed. Another woman saw the young man in the robe and black wig and screamed. A third turned, saw me and screamed, too. Hey, what did I do?
Finally, the young man, in the very act of exposing himself, turned and saw the older security guard bearing down on him. He screamed, too, just as Tony Hill tackled him to the ground.
While the two rolled around in the grass, with the flasher’s robe spilling open, I wanted to scream, too.
Cindy and I were at my apartment.
Ginger and Junior were snuggled on the couch between us. The patio door was open, and through it we could hear the sounds of the surf crashing, seagulls squawking and music playing.
“ Why don’t we ever hang out at your apartment?” I asked her.
“ Because your apartment is much cooler than mine,” she said. “And your apartment always feel like…an escape.”
“ An escape from what?”
“ Life. Pressure. Expectation.” She drank more of her wine as she gently ran her long nails down Junior’s back and up Ginger’s stomach on the return trip. “Not to mention, I always feel completely and totally safe here.”
We sat quietly, our stomachs settling. I had made a homemade pizza using two Boboli crusts, a half dozen vegetables, sundried tomatoes, tomato sauce mixed with olive oil and fresh garlic. Oh, and cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. My stomach, I knew, was busy sorting through the melange of vegetables, spices and sauces and would be busy for some time. Cindy’s stomach tended to settle a little more quietly than mine.
Cindy sat with her feet and legs tucked under her in a way that made my own gimp leg hurt like hell just looking at her. It was late evening on a Thursday night, and the street sounds weren’t quite as clamorous. The wind that meandered through my open balcony door was tinged with brine and salt and car exhaust. A heady combination. From where I sat, I could just make out a bright red star that I was certain was Jupiter. Then again, what did I know? I’m just a dumb jock.
“ This is perfect,” she said.
“ I know.”
I reached behind my couch and found the remote to my sound system. I clicked it on and soon Marc Antoine and his Spanish guitar filled my small apartment.
I debated telling Cindy about Gary Tomlinson. But I decided against it. If she knew what I was going to do, things might not be so perfect.
Instead, I kept my thoughts to myself, and as the soothing music drew us together, as Cindy lay her head on my shoulder and little Junior and Ginger snuggled deeper between us, I closed my eyes and saw Mom’s lifeless body, the endless blood, and the old pain filled me completely. The old pain that never, ever went away.
Gary Tomlinson, I thought. I’m coming for you.
He was sitting at an outdoor table, drinking what appeared to be an iced latte, when I pulled out the little metal chair and sat across from him.
“ This seat taken?” I asked.
Gary Tomlinson, who had been reading something on his phone, looked up at me, frowning. I knew the feeling. Strangers didn’t generally come up to you in California. A stranger comes up to you in California, they either want something or they’re crazy.
He sat back a little, clutching his phone, frowning. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like that his peaceful Starbucks time was being stolen by a stranger.
“ Here you are,” I said. “Enjoying yourself at Starbucks. Drinking your latte. Texting your wife or mistress or playing Angry fucking Birds. The world looks bright. The day looks bright. And then some asshole comes and sits across from you.”
He sized me up-which, with me, always takes a little longer to do. There was maybe a half dozen tables out here. We were off to one side and close to some plants and smaller trees. Opposite the trees was a Navy recruiting office. Birds fluttered in the trees above. Attracted, no doubt, by errant bagel crumbs. Or maybe they really were just angry.
“ Do I know you?” he asked, blinking.
“ We met a short while ago,” I said. “A memorable meeting for me. Maybe not so much for you.”
He was looking like he was about to get up. To prevent this, my right hand snaked out and grabbed his left forearm, pinning him to the table.
Recognition still hadn’t dawned on him. He clutched his cell phone like a lifeline. Interestingly, there was little fear in his eyes. Just confusion.
“ Who are you?” he asked.
In southern California, perfect days are a given. In southern California, perfect days were wasted indoors. The only other person out here had their back to us and was be-bopping to their iPod. The sun shone down. A small breeze meandered. Sweat stood out on Gary Tomlinson’s upper lip.
I released his arm. He stared at me. I stared at him. My heart was beating strong and sure. The heart of the just. He still didn’t look nervous. In fact, he was now looking oddly amused.
“ Did I cut you off in traffic or something?”
“ Or something,” I said.
“ So what’s your problem?”
I said nothing. It took all my control not to lunge over the table, grab his head and start smashing it into the table…and to keep smashing it until his skull burst open.
He continued looking at me. He was a big guy, although not as big as me. He had broad shoulders, although not as broad as mine. His hair was brown and cut short. His sunglasses were sitting on top of his head. His nose was small, as were his eyes. His eyes, I thought, were dark and too close together. His lips were narrow. In fact, I was hard-pressed to see any actual lip. The skin just seemed to stop at a slit. Maybe I was sitting across from Lord Voldemort.
As he watched me, as he studied me, recognition began dawning on him. And with that recognition, the smirk on his face deepened a little. I clenched my fists.
He started nodding. “Yes, we met a month or so ago. At my father’s house.”
“ Bingo, fucker.”
“ My dad had said you were looking into your mother’s murder. He was the detective on the case.”
I couldn’t speak. My heart seemed to be pounding inside my skull, pounding between my ears. He sat back a little more. As he did so, he adjusted the drape of his shorts.
“ I’m sorry to hear about your mom,” he said, and now he really did smirk. “I’m surprised you’re still looking into it. It happened, what, twenty years ago?”
“ Good memory, asshole.”
“ Well, my dad and I talked about it after you left. I even remember the case. It troubled him deeply.”
“ I’m sure it did.”
His eyes were sky blue. So clear you could almost see his twisted thoughts. His eyes regarded me calmly, blankly, curiously. He looked at me the way a scientist might his lab rat. A scientist about to perform unspeakably horrific experiments on his subject. He continued to smile. A cold smile. An empty smile. A guilty smile.
“ You killed her,” I said.
“ Now that’s not a nice thing to say.”
He didn’t act like a man who was innocent. He didn’t even act like a man who was sane, truth be known. Anyone else would have been flabbergasted, shocked, confused and horrified to be accused of such a thing.
My left hand snaked out, hooked behind his head. In a blink, I slammed his face hard into the table. One moment he had been sitting there, smirking-the next, his head was bouncing off the table. In fact, the action was so fast that I’m pretty sure no one saw it.
“ Holy fuck,” he said, holding his nose.
All it had taken was a little pain to wipe that smirk off his face. The vision I had of me slamming his head into the table had become a reality. Except it wasn’t his head. It was his face. And it wasn’t his skull that broke open, it was his nose. Clearly the Law of Attraction at work.
He held his nose, which bled between his fingers. The hate in his eyes was pure. That he would act on his hate, I had no doubt. In fact, I was counting on it.
“ Burn in hell,” I said, and got up and left.
I was sitting with Sanchez in the visitors’ parking lot at UCI.
We were in the northeast lot, which abutted the faculty parking, which also happened to give me a great view of the social science building where Cindy Darwin not only taught but also had an office.
A heck of a strategic spot.
“ And you really bounced his head off the table?” said Sanchez.
“ It seemed like the thing to do,” I said. “An impromptu head slamming.”
“ So much for subtly,” he said. “Ever consider calling Detective Hansen?”
The day was bright and warm. The students that strolled along the cement paths that connected the many buildings were all wearing shorts and tee shirts.
“ And tell him what?” I said. “That I have a twenty-year-old picture of someone who had shown an interest in my mother on the day she was murdered?”
“ Someone who happens to resemble the detective’s son. A son who has a history of violent crime.”
“ And what would Hansen do with that information?” I asked.
Sanchez thought about it and sipped from his Coke. The windows were down in my Mustang, but it was still warm enough for both of us to sweat. “Probably file it away. Get to it when he has some free time. When less pressing matters have been taken care of.”
“ And when are a homicide detective’s less pressing matters ever taken care of?”
“ Almost never. But he’s a friend. He would get to it when he could.”
“ I can’t wait that long,” I said.
“ You’ve waited twenty-two years.”
“ That’s when I didn’t know who the killer was.”
“ And you do now?”
I nodded and felt the sweat trickle down through my hairline. “As sure as I can be.”
“ Sure enough to bounce someone’s head off of a table.”
“ Sometimes you gotta kick the hornet’s nest,” I said.
“ Or break its nose,” said Sanchez. “He’s got to be nervous.”
I nodded. “That’s what I’m hoping.”
“ You think he’ll make a move?”
“ We’ll see.”
“ And you think his move might be directed towards Cindy?”
“ He’s a monster,” I said. “Monsters can do anything.”
“ So what’s next?” asked Sanchez.
“ We wait.”
“ For what?”
“ The monster to reveal himself.”
“ And until then we watch Cindy?”
“ Yup. One of us. At all times. And if we’re both busy, I’ll hire someone.”
Sanchez pointed toward Cindy’s building. “Does she know we’re watching her?”
“ She knows. She doesn’t like it. But she knows.”
Sanchez shrugged. “And what if he never rears his ugly head?”
“ He will,” I said.
“ And if he doesn’t?”
“ Then I’ll keep kicking,” I said. “And keep breaking. And did you just say ‘rears his ugly head’?”
“ Me talk pretty.”
It was two weeks before I received the phone call I was waiting for.
I was been in my office making a list of my favorite European beers. I had just decided that tops on my list was Guinness Dry Stout when my phone rang. I set my pen aside, pleased with my list.
“ Knighthorse Investigations.”
“ Mr. Knighthorse, it’s Bert Tomlinson.”
I took in some air, collected my thoughts. “The same Bert Tomlinson whose son raped and murdered my mother?”
“ We need to talk.”
“ Boy do we.”
“ Not here. Not over the phone.”
“ At the police station, perhaps?”
“ No. Neutral ground. There’s some…information I need to tell you about your mother.”
“ Sure,” I said, knowing he was full of shit. “When and where?”
“ Tomorrow. Do you know where Irvine Lake is?”
“ There are some park benches along the east side. This time of year, it should be quiet.”
“ Sounds like a great place for an ambush.”
“ I’ll be there alone. You have my word.”
“ Is that the same word you used to uphold the law?”
“ I’ll be there alone, Knighthorse. Please be the same. We need to talk.”
“ We need to do something,” I said. “What time?”
“ Seven p.m. Dusk.”
“ Sounds spooky.”
“ See you there, Knighthorse.”
And he clicked off.
I sat quietly at my desk, digesting everything, listening to the sounds of the traffic outside, to my own beating heart, to the small hum of the mini-refrigerator cycling on.
I then reached for my cell and dialed the only number I could think of dialing.
Cindy was asleep and I was alone on her balcony, drinking.
It was coming on midnight and I’d had a few hours to think about my rendezvous with Bert Tomlinson tomorrow at the east end of Irvine Lake.
It was a set-up, certainly. I knew that. And he knew that I knew that. Hell, Ginger and Junior knew that.
So, why would I go?
I was drinking an old-school Michelob, which is what my poor Mexican neighbors drank in Inglewood. Whenever I saw a bottle of Michelob, with its tinfoil top, I thought of old Mexican men sitting around on plastic chairs outside their houses, drinking and laughing and having a damn good time. They didn’t act poor. They acted…content. Happy. Not to mention that they always seemed to have strong familial bonds that I never understood. I would play catch with myself, tossing a football or baseball or golf ball, and sometimes watch the Mexican men drinking in a circle, laughing or talking seriously, and I could feel their bond from across the street.
The only bond I had ever had like that was with my mother. My father didn’t know how to bond. He knew how to intimidate and kill, but not bond.
I had been starved for such connections…and then I met Cindy. With Cindy, I finally felt at ease. I finally felt at home. I never told her that, granted. You can’t tell someone something like that. It puts too much pressure on them. But I knew it in my heart. She was my rock. She was my family.
She and Sanchez. And maybe even Jack. And now Junior.
I’m weird, I thought, and drank again, deeply, from the old-school bottle of Michelob.
So why should I go and put my life on the line when I knew damn well it was a set-up? The answer was easy. At least, easy for me.
This was my chance to get answers. This was my chance to finally put this forever to rest. Something was going to go down tomorrow. One way or another, answers would be given. Lives would move on…or lives would end.
Tomorrow would be closure.
The bottle was empty now, but I still occasionally tilted it back and drank the hidden drops. Only one bottle tonight. No hangovers. I needed a clear head. Clear mind. Fast reflexes.
These past two months had been hard. And hard on my relationship with Cindy, too. And hard on the little things. Like relaxing. Like thinking about something other than my slain mother. My painting and reading had gone out the window. Yes, I paint. Not very good, granted. But it was a release for me. I saw the world the way I see the world. I painted with colors that suited me, that were alive to me.
For the past two months, color was gone from my life. I had been consumed by this, even in quiet moments with Cindy, with Sanchez, or with anyone.
This was unfinished business.
Tomorrow, it would be finished.
I thought about all of this and more as I crossed my ankles over the balcony railing and half-closed my eyes. Half-closed, because when I closed them all the way, there she was. Pale and dead and drained of blood, her hand reaching under her bed, to a box of my childhood things.
Why had she been reaching for the box?
I would never know, but I knew I had been her last thought in this world. She had thought of me while an animal stole her life and hurt her so bad.
And so I sat like that, with my eyes half-closed, waiting.
Waiting for tomorrow.
I was to meet Bert Tomlinson, retired LAPD homicide detective, at 7:00 p.m. Which is why I got there at 6:00 p.m.
It had been raining earlier in the day, which, in itself, was cause for celebration. I drove slowly through the park, around the curve of the lake, and, sure enough, there was no one here. The park said it would close at dusk, but I didn’t see anyone here to enforce such a closure. Besides, there was nothing to actually close. Unless, somehow, they drained the lake.
I ended up in a back parking lot. From there, I found a narrow dirt road that led deeper into the dense shrubbery. Irvine Lake is surrounded by a lot of stunted trees that did their best to look like woods. The undergrowth ranged from sparse to dense, and was populated by a lot of spiky plants that looked like a cross between cactus and something from Venus. On the lake before me, tethered to a floating dock, were some generic rowboats that visitors could rent.
I appeared to be alone, but I knew I wasn’t.
With my van mostly buried in ferns, creosote, huckleberry, gooseberries and sages, and surrounded by bent and twisted oaks, firs and pines, I studied the layout before me. I could clearly see the main road that led into this section of the park. The picnic tables were before me. I counted three of them.
I looked at my watch. Fifty more minutes.
I moved into the rear of my van and fetched three recorders. Each recorder, I knew, could record up to four continuous hours.
I next slid the side door open and waded through some milkweed and sugar brush, and stepped out into the picnic clearing. I crossed the sparse grass and, at the picnic tables, I did my best to hide the recorders in nooks and crossbeams along the underside of the tables, making sure the duct tape didn’t cover the mouthpieces.
I pressed ‘Play’ on each of them.
From here, I could smell the lake, which didn’t smell very clean. Then again, lakes rarely smelled clean. The light rain helped the smell. The rain smelled fresh and invigorating and seemed to fall straight from heaven. Maybe it did.
With the light rain came something else. A scent. A hint of perfume. A soft suggestion of flowers mixed with…what? Citrus? Yes, citrus.
I knew the scent well. In fact, I had smelled it not too long ago at the cemetery, too, although I pretended I hadn’t.
It was my mother’s perfume.
The hair on my neck stood on end and a strong shiver coursed through me. The skin along my forearms rippled in goosebumps. I stood there silently, feeling as if an electric current was moving gently through my body. I didn’t know what was happening, but I liked it.
I stood like that until the feeling went away, and when it did, I saw him driving along the dirt road, his lights out.
As far as I could tell he was alone.
The park was significantly darker, and the sky between the trees was a deep purple. As far as I could tell, we were alone in the park. That is, alone to the naked eye.
He’s out there, somewhere, I thought.
Bert Tomlinson parked his Cadillac near the benches. The older Tomlinson got out of his car and walked around and ran his hand through his gray hair. He exhaled mightily. He checked his watch often, and once or twice I saw him adjust something under his armpit.
A shoulder holster.
He checked his watch again, and I checked the time on my dash. It was almost seven.
I threw on my high beams, blasting the open picnic area with light.
Bert spun around, shielding his eyes, and reached for something inside his jacket but thought better of it, and stopped halfway there. Smart move, since he didn’t know how many guns were trained on him.
I stepped out of my van, holding my Smith amp; Wesson out before me, and pushed through the shrubs. “Toss your gun aside, Detective,” I said.
“ I didn’t come here to get into a shoot-out with you, Knighthorse.”
“ Toss the gun,” I said, moving closer to him. I knew my own body was silhouetted in the headlights behind me. But he was brilliantly lit, and he looked incredibly old and weary. Much older than I remembered him looking.
He sighed, reached inside his jacket, and slowly withdrew his own gleaming Smith amp; Wesson. He held it loosely before him with his thumb and forefinger. I jerked my head, and he tossed it aside. It landed with a thud, and mostly disappeared in some leaves, although the shiny barrel reflected some of the headlights.
“ Can you turn off the damned lights, Knighthorse?”
“ No,” I said, and stepped closer to him. “And keep your hands up.”
He kept them up and I stepped over to him, and backhanded him hard across the mouth. He went spinning to the ground. I ordered him to stand again.
As he did so, I said, “That’s for being a shitty cop.”
The backhand had dazed him enough that I was able to quickly pat him down and verify he was weaponless. I then checked out his car. It was empty. I came back and was tempted to backhand him again, but I somehow restrained myself.
Instead, I pointed to one of the picnic benches and said, “Sit.”
He sat. I scanned the woods, or what passed for woods in this part of the country, listening hard. As far as I could tell, we were still alone. It had also begun to rain harder. It angled down through the clearing and nearly directly into my face. Bert Tomlinson hunched forward on the table, leaning on his elbows. He was dressed in a slightly heavier jacket than mine, with a hood. I didn’t believe in hoods. Hoods were for wimps. He was wearing jeans and running sneakers. I wondered if he was planning on doing any running tonight.
Something honked out on the lake. Something honked in return. Soon there was a helluva lot of honking going on. Something was spooking these geese.
“ Where’s your son?” I asked.
“ At home, I presume.”
“ He killed my mother.”
“ I understand you might think that.”
With the headlights shining into the clearing, the scene looked a little like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rain crossed through the lights, slashing like silver daggers. The whole setting looked surreal.
“ He also raped two other women.”
Tomlinson was shaking his head. “No.”
“ And you got him off. Every time.”
“ I think you overestimate the reach of a simple homicide detective.”
Except my father had looked into this. I said, “The assistant DA at the time was an ex-partner of yours. In fact, the two of you had been partners for nearly ten years before an injury forced him to pursue a law degree, a degree that eventually landed him in the district attorney’s office.”
“ You’ve got it wrong, Knighthorse.”
“ So, how many innocent women has your piece of shit son killed, Detective?”
With the glow of the headlights illuminating just one side of his face, the retired homicide investigator looked impossibly old. A living corpse. His hands were clenched into fists, the backs of which were covered with age spots. He was an old man who should be playing with his grandchildren or relaxing poolside on a cruise ship…anything other than sitting in the rain and staring down the barrel of a gun.
“ He’s a good kid,” he said.
I stepped closer to the table, ignoring the rain, ignoring the bright headlights. “You’ve spent your entire life protecting him, haven’t you?”
He hadn’t stopped shaking his head. “He’s a good kid.”
“ Your son is a killer, and as far as I’m concerned, so are you.”
Beyond the surreal light, the geese stopped honking. I heard the lapping of water along the sandy shore. The jostling of boats tied together. The wind in branches, and another sound, too.
Whimpering. Coming from the old man.
“ You’ve bailed your son out of so much trouble, he probably thinks he’s bulletproof. Immune. A god among men. He could take what he wants, when he wants, and dear ol’ dad will always get him off. Always.”
“ No, no. You’re wrong,” he said, and his voice sounded strangled, and I saw that he was weeping now. He covered his face with his hands.
“ He’s a killer, and you’re his accomplice.”
I heard the noise behind me, coming up from the lake. As I spun toward it, a nearby voice said, “Drop the gun, Knighthorse.”
Under different circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have dropped the gun. I would have started firing and kept on firing until all of us were dead.
Instead, I tossed my gun aside and there, silhouetted in the headlights of my van, was a figure I had come to recognize.
He stepped forward through the short grass, his facial features hidden in shadow. He was holding what appeared to be shotgun. Pointed directly at my chest.
“ Get on the ground,” he said.
“ Go fuck yourself.”
He stepped closer, and the closer her got, the more I could make him out. His nose was still a little swollen. He was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled up to his elbows. He was a few inches shorter than me, but he didn’t look it. There was a lot of muscle around his shoulders, and his forearms rippled as he gripped the shotgun tightly.
“ Then put your hands up.”
“ Go fuck yourself. Again.”
Gary was now standing near his father, who was still sitting at the table, holding his head in his hands. The old man looked traumatized, bewildered, and I realized now that this whole nighttime set-up had been Gary’s idea, not his father’s.
Gary glanced at his father. “You believe this guy, Dad? You would think he was the one holding the gun.”
Dad didn’t say anything. He just continued to hold his head in his hands. The picture of denial.
“ I swept the area. Twice. We’re all alone. Park’s closed. No rangers, no campers. Nothing.” Now he looked at me. “You’re not in a very good position.”
“ I’m always in a good position.”
Gary shook his head and walked carefully around the table. He kept the weapon loosely trained on me. That was a good decision on his part.
“ Doesn’t matter,” he said. “This ends now, anyway.”
“ For some of us.”
Gary looked at me curiously from above his still-swollen nose. Curiously, because I wasn’t acting the part of a scared and cornered victim. He shrugged. “So you found me, Knighthorse. After twenty years. Funny how I always knew you would. So how did you find me?”
“ I Googled ‘murderous scumbags.’”
Gary tilted his head slightly. “I’m not as murderous as you think, Knighthorse. Sure, there was your mother and another woman who shall remain nameless. But that’s it. Just the two of them. You see, killing is more troublesome than it’s worth. There’s the cleaning and the hiding and the worrying. Not to mention I happen to like my current lifestyle…although things can get a little boring.”
“ So you mix things up with a little rape and murder?”
“ Actually, yes, although I’ve discovered other…outlets.”
“ Spoken like a true psychopath.” I didn’t want to know about his other outlets.
He shrugged, then nodded toward me. “You wired?”
“ Prove it.”
I needed him to believe I wasn’t wired. So I made a show of irritably pulling up my shirt and turning around. He seemed satisfied.
“ You’re a big boy, Knighthorse.”
I dropped the shirt, ignored him. “So why my mother?” I asked.
“ Why not?” he said. “Before your mother, there had been another girl-”
“ The girl you raped.”
He shrugged. Rape. Murder. It was all the same to him. “Anyway, I had found that experience…unfulfilling.”
“ So you wanted to rape and murder.”
“ Not in so many words…but I wanted to take things…further, if you will.”
“ But why my mother?” I asked again.
He shrugged. His gun shrugged with him. It was all I could not to lunge at him. I knew lunging at him would probably not end up very well for me.
He said, “She seemed…vulnerable. She was cute. She was an older woman. I was, what, nineteen or twenty? Her hubby, your dad, I guess, didn’t seem too interested. Sure, they were holding hands, but she seemed to be trying twice as hard as he was. I thought I would…satisfy her.”
“ So you followed them home.”
“ Not at first, but something odd happened. As they were leaving, I was leaving, too. And we all just sort of headed out to the same area. And when they exited just a few streets from my own…it was like…destiny.”
He trailed off. I waited.
“ So I circled around the street a few times. It was a quiet street. A quiet time of day.”
“ And then my father and I left.”
He nodded. “And then you left…and she was alone.” As Gary spoke, he did so in an emotionless monotone, a strong indication of psychopathy. That his words might have an effect on me, did not occur to him. Or, if it did, he didn’t care. “I knocked on the door and she answered. I told her my car had broken down and asked if I could use her phone. She said sure without thinking. Stupid of her to let me in.”
I briefly closed my eyes. That sounded like my mother. So trusting.
I nearly told him to stop, but I needed his confession on tape. Gary Tomlinson went on in agonizing detail. Once or twice he paused when he saw me wince or take in some air, and he looked at me curiously. Lacking real emotions himself, he would find my own display as something strange, something to be studied and processed.
He described her running from him through the house, of her nearly tearing his eyes out as she fought back. And as he described raping and killing her, I let my mind go somewhere else. Where it went, I don’t know, but I could only barely hear his droll monotone. When he was done talking, I came back.
“ Since then, there were a few other incidents, and, like I said, one other killing.”
“ And who was that?” I asked.
“ A girlfriend in Anaheim. I was tired of her.” He shrugged like, what are you gonna do? “So that’s it. Just two killings. Hardly a serial killer.” He took a step toward me. “When I described raping your mother, when I described killing her and leaving her to die, how did you feel?”
“ Fuck you.”
“ I can see you’re upset, Knighthorse. Angry. Horrified.” He frowned, seemed to have a thought, raised the shotgun toward his father and fired. His father, whose face had been buried in his hands, never saw it coming. The shot blasted the back of his head clean off. Bert Tomlinson convulsed, then fell backward where he landed on his back, eyes wide open.
“ You see,” said Gary. “Nothing. My own father. He protected me all these years. Shielded me. Permitted me to get away with some heinous shit, all because he said he loved me. All because he said he knew I was a good boy. Look at him now. Dead. Stupid man. He should have put me away. It’s his own fucking fault.” He turned back to me. I was, admittedly, too shocked to do much else other than to stare. “You see, Knighthorse, if I don’t give a fuck about my own dad, why the hell do you think I would give a fuck about your own slutty mother? I saw the way she looked at me. She was practically begging me to rape her. The bitch.”
He was still too far away for me to lunge at. Any lunging would result in his whipping his rifle around and blasting the top of my own head off.
“ I guess I was wrong, Knighthorse. That’s three. With you, that’ll be four. I guess I really am an honest-to-God fucking serial killer. How cool is that?”
I said nothing. The stench of fresh blood filled the air. It was all I could do to breathe normally.
“ And here you are, Knighthorse. Big, bad fucking Knighthorse. Football hero. Private fucking detective.” He gently stroked his swollen nose. “You thought you were pretty cute the other day, didn’t you?”
“ Cute is rarely used to describe me,” I said.
But he wasn’t listening to me. “So what did you hope to accomplish tonight? Maybe talk my dad into turning me in? Maybe get some answers? Get some closure, as they say?”
I said, “Tonight’s about one thing only.”
He began to bring his shotgun up toward me. “And what’s that, Knighthorse?”
“ It’s about killing you.”
He paused at that, but only briefly. The shotgun continued up, and he would have fired it a split second later, if I hadn’t raised my own hand.
As soon as I did, I heard a muffled sound, followed by a red hole that appeared in his forehead just above his right eye. Gary Tomlinson looked briefly confused, and then he looked dead as he collapsed to the ground.
I stood above him, staring down, as my father appeared from the brush wearing his sniper’s gilly suit. Camouflage. His face was painted black and his eyes were wide and empty as he came over and looked down at the man laying dead at my feet.
“ Over the right eye,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m losing my touch.”
I was sitting with Jack.
It was late, nearly eleven p.m., and the golden arches was about to close for the night. Sometimes they would let us stay after hours, as they cleaned and polished and mopped. I think the manager took a liking to Jack. It was hard not to like Jack.
We were both drinking decaf coffee.
Jack had listened quietly while I summarized the other night, about the two deaths, about the tape recorder that had captured it all, about how the police had all the evidence they needed to close my mother’s case, and the case of the murdered girlfriend in Anaheim.
I finished with something that had been on my mind since the incident at Irvine Lake. “I smelled my mother’s perfume,” I said. “It was like she was with me that night.”
Jack gripped his steaming coffee with both hands. There was a smudge of dirt on his chin, and his fingernails seemed especially dirty. But he didn’t seem to care about the dirt. And since he didn’t care, I sure as hell didn’t care. He looked at me for a good twenty seconds before speaking.
“ She was with you that night, Jim, as she’s with you every night and every day. She’s with you every time you think of her and often when you don’t.”
“ You mean in my heart.”
“ Not exactly, Jim. I mean, she stands with you, or sits next to you. Often she hugs you or holds your hand.”
I took in a deep, shuddering breath. A deep, deep breath. Talk about an emotional few months…and now this. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“ She’s with you in spirit, Jim.”
I shook my head. This wasn’t making sense. “She’s here now?”
“ She’s been with you every time you’ve sat with me.”
“ But I don’t see her.”
Jack smiled gently. “She’s sitting in the chair next to you, watching you, listening to you, laughing with you, and always sending you her love.”
“ I don’t know, Jack…”
“ You smelled her perfume, Jim.”
“ I was in the woods, for crissakes. There’re flowers everywhere.”
“ Flowers that smell like your mother’s perfume?”
Behind Jack, the McDonald’s staff was going about their various closing routines. The lights in the rear of the dining room turned off. The lights directly above us were still on.
“ You can see her,” I said.
Jack held my gaze. “Yes, Jim.”
“ Because you’re God.”
“ No, Jim. Because Mary’s sitting next to you.”
I looked at the seat in question. It was empty, of course. No shimmering mommy-shaped glow. No hovering ball of light. Just a yellow, metallic swivel chair with a smear of ketchup.
“ The seat’s empty.”
“ Do you feel her, Jim?”
“ I don’t know. We were talking about her. She’s in my thoughts…I don’t know.”
“ Close your eyes, Jim, and feel her.”
“ Do I have to?”
“ Just try it.”
I did as I was told, and with eyes now closed, I was acutely aware that I was sitting across from a bum in McDonald’s at closing time, looking like a fool. Beyond us, I could hear the sounds of trays being stacked, faucets running, orders being given to clean this or that. I smelled the golden hint of fries, the grease of burgers, and even ketchup.
“ Do you feel her, Jim?”
“ Keep your eyes closed.”
I kept them closed, feeling both ridiculous and oddly calm. It had been a helluva week. A helluva past few months. A helluva past two decades.
“ Good, Jim.”
“ But I don’t feel anything.”
“ Now look at your forearm, Jim.”
I looked, coming out of a semi-meditative state. My arm, I saw, was covered in gooseflesh. Just like the other night at the lake “What about it?” I said.
“ Do you feel anything, Jim?”
I thought about that. “A tingling in my arm.”
“ What do you think’s causing the tingling?”
“ A heart attack?”
Jack chuckled lightly. “Try again.”
“ My mother?”
The older man nodded. “Remember this feeling, Jim. Remember this sensation, and you will always know she is around, with you, touching you, loving you, remembering you.”
I took in a lot of air. My lungs ached with the effort. I closed my eyes again and couldn’t help but notice that the tingling along my arm had risen up to my shoulders and around my neck.
“ I think she’s…” But I couldn’t finish my sentence. It was too improbable, too crazy.
Crazier than talking to God at McDonald’s?
Jack said, “You think she’s what, Jim?”
Ah, screw it, I thought.
“ I think, well…I think she’s hugging me.”
“ She is, Jim.”
“ And you can see her?”
“ I can see her.”
“ And you’re not messing with me?”
He smiled. “How do you feel, Jim?”
The hair on my neck stood on end. Same with the hair on my forearms. A sweet tingling coursed through my upper body.
“ I feel great,” I said.
Jack nodded, pleased. He paused, then said, “She wants to tell you something.”
I blinked. “Tell me what?”
Jack cocked his head slightly as if listening. “She wants you to know that she loves you more than you can know. She also wants to thank you for keeping her memory alive. She knows that not a day goes by that you don’t think of her.”
Now the tingling around my neck turned into something warm, something loving. The tingling, in fact, now came to me in waves. Warm and loving waves. I think some of the hair on my head was standing on end.
Jack went on, and as he spoke, I closed my eyes. “She says she’s happy. She says she’s in a good place, a peaceful place. She says it’s time for you to be happy, too, Jim. It’s time. No more sadness for her. She says you’re her little angel, who isn’t so little anymore. She says it’s time to move forward, Jim. It’s time to move on. She says it saddens her to see you so sad.”
I covered my eyes with one hand. I fought to control myself, but I couldn’t, and the warmth I was feeling was too real, too pure, too loving. After a moment, I let go, and wept into my hand, and now the warmth and tingling moved from my shoulders and surrounded my entire body, and Jack’s voice seemed to reach me from far, far away.
“ She says she loves you, Jim. And you will always be her little angel, no matter how damn big you’ve gotten.”
I laughed a little, and so did Jack.
“ She has quite a sense of humor, your mother. She also says she wants a grandchild.”
I laughed again, but still couldn’t speak.
“ She says she’s not in pain anymore, and she’s happy. Very, very happy. But mostly she says she’s proud of you, Jim. So very proud of you.”
I wept quietly into my hands, feeling the loving tingle spread along my arms and neck and shoulders. I sat like that for a long, long time. And after a while, as the tingling began to fade, I finally said what I’d never been given a chance to say before.
I said, “Goodbye, Ma.”