The Body of Martin Aguilera
The first day of her visit Laura asked if the light in the refrigerator stayed on when the door was shut. Lewis Mason told his granddaughter that it didn’t matter. “It may well stay on,” he said, putting water on for tea, “but it doesn’t matter.”
“May I have tea, too?” Laura asked, pulling up a chair and sitting at the table.
“You may have herb tea.”
“You’re not drinking herb tea.”
“Herb tea isn’t good for me.” He dropped the bags into the mugs.
“Is the other tea good for you?”
“It doesn’t put me to sleep.”
Laura watched as he poured the water. He set the mug down in front of her and she grabbed the string and began dunking the bag in and out of the water. “What are we going to do today?”
“We’re going to town for some groceries, but first I thought we’d stop and see old Martin.”
“He’s somebody even older than me. He knows all the good fishing spots and when they’re good.”
“When are we going fishing?”
“Tomorrow, maybe.” Lewis sipped his tea. “Drink up so we can get rolling here.”
They drove down the dirt road three miles to the highway and then north, crossed back over the river and followed a rougher road into the canyon.
“Martin!” Lewis called out, walking toward the little adobe. “It’s me, Lewis Mason.” He told his granddaughter that the man had few visitors.
“Doesn’t look like he’s home,” Laura said.
“It’s pretty quiet all right.” Lewis stepped to the door and knocked. “Martin?” He pushed the door open.
The old man was lying face-down in the middle of the room. There was blood on the floor by his head.
“Laura, you wait out here, okay?”
The girl backed away from the door. “What is it, Papa?”
“Just stay there.” He knelt beside the body and slowly pushed his hand forward. He rested his palm on Martin’s back, moved it up to his neck. He found no pulse.
Lewis came out of the house and hugged her. He looked up the canyon and became frightened. “Come on, honey, we have to go make a phone call.”
As Lewis stood at the pay phone outside of Archuleta’s Cafe on the river, he realized that he was saying killed within earshot of his granddaughter. The sheriff told him to wait there at the cafe.
“You said he was real sick,” Laura said.
“Yeah, I said that, but it’s not exactly true. Maybe Martin fell down and hit his head, something like that. Anything could have happened.” Lewis looked at the river. Who would want to kill the old man? He was harmless, without a cent. Everyone knew he had nothing. And if they didn’t know him, they’d never find his place. Lewis shook his head.
“Are you all right, Papa?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. What about you? Are you all right?” She nodded.
“That’s my girl. We have to wait here for a few minutes.”
Manny Mondragon pulled up in his county rig and spoke to Lewis through the window. “Climb in and let’s go take a look.” Lewis and Laura got in.
“So, why don’t you tell me exactly what you saw, prof.”
“I didn’t look around too much. Martin is lying in the middle of the room. There’s blood.” Then Lewis recalled that the body had been face-down. He hadn’t actually seen the face of the dead man. “I didn’t really see his face,” he said. “I didn’t want to touch things too much.”
“That’s all right,” Mondragon said.
“It had to be Martin. He had Martin’s build, his clothes.”
“It’s okay, prof, we’ll be there in a minute and we’ll see what the story is.”
Lewis felt stupid. All he had to do was lift the head and take a look. But he had been sure then that it was Martin. He suspected that the governing part of him just didn’t want to see Martin’s lifeless face.
“You’re sure the person was dead?” Mondragon asked.
“I’m positive of that.” Lewis closed his fingers around Laura’s hand, showed her a half-smile which she returned.
“Why would anyone want to hurt Martin?” Lewis wondered aloud.
“Got me,” said Mondragon. “Not money, that’s a cinch.”
The car skidded to a stop on the dry dirt. They got out and walked to the house. Lewis stopped and pointed.
“I left the door open,” he said.
Mondragon moved more quickly, stepped inside. Lewis stopped Laura and followed the officer. There was no body, no blood, but there was a stain on the floor.
“He was right here,” Lewis said. “I touched him.”
“I believe you, but he’s not here now.”
“So, what do you do?” Lewis asked.
“Look around. Somebody moved him or he wasn’t dead. If somebody moved him, then they left signs. There’s only one road into here and it comes out at the cafe. You notice anybody come out?”
“I would have seen them.”
Mondragon scratched his neck, then stepped outside and looked up the canyon. He lowered himself to a knee beside Laura. “And what’s your name?”
“Can you tell me what you saw, Laura?”
“I saw a man on the floor. Papa made me wait out here.”
“Did you see the blood?”
“All I saw was his feet.”
Mondragon stood and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “I’m going to take a look around.” He walked off toward a stand of aspens up the canyon.
Laura looked at her grandfather.
“The body’s not there,” Lewis said.
The girl hugged Lewis about the waist. “I’m scared.”
“Don’t worry, honey, everything’s under control.” A sound like a rock striking the ground came from the side of the cabin. Laura clutched tighter. Another sound, sharper, like the crack of wood. “I’m going to look.” He held her away and looked at her. “Stay right here.”
“Better go get in the car.” He watched the girl run to the truck and get in. He approached the side of the house, quickly, deciding that if indeed there was anyone there, he already knew of his presence. He found nothing but a tassel-eared squirrel which scurried off into the brush. Lewis’ heart pounded.
“Prof!” the sheriff called out.
Lewis went back around the way he had come. Mondragon was kneeling. Laura was out of the truck and beside him.
“See anything up in the canyon?” Lewis said.
Mondragon coughed into his fist and shook his head. “No tracks, nothing brushed over.”
“Manny, I know what I saw.”
“And I believe you, but what can I say? I’ll make a report, scout around and ask questions, get some help and search the canyon, get people mad at me and try not to mention your name.”
Lewis questioned the younger man with his eyes.
“People around here are superstitious,” Mondragon said. “No point in getting them mad at you or whatever else. A dead man is one thing. A dead man without a body is something else.”
“I see your point. So, are you telling me to keep this to myself?”
“I can’t think of any reason for you to tell anyone. Can you?”
“I guess not.”
Mondragon looked back up the canyon.
“So, what happens?” Lewis asked.
“Like I said, I’ll come back later and look around.”
“Manny, there was a man, at least unconscious, I think dead, on the floor in there. I’m not making this up.”
“I don’t think you are.”
“Then why do I feel like you do?”
“Just settle down.”
The sheriff took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. “I understand. I hope he’s okay, too. The old man’s probably down there fishing somewhere. If there wasn’t a thing living in that river, he’d still throw in a line.”
“So, I’ll just keep quiet about this.”
“I’d appreciate it.” Manny again looked up the canyon.
Lewis was lost. Laura sat beside him in the car, frightened and concerned about him, and he felt responsible. He was saddened by Martin’s apparent death, and curious, but not angry. Just lost. He went over it again in his head, trying to figure out why anyone would hurt the old man and again came up empty. He had understood the deputy’s warning about discussing the situation, just something it was his duty to say, however obvious, like asking bystanders to not wander into the field of fire at a shoot-out.
They’d come down to town for groceries and Lewis thought he had best follow through. The mundane might sooth Laura’s nerves and his own. He let her push the buggy while he strolled ahead, tossing items back into the basket. The two seemed through, at least for the time, with asking each other if they were okay.
The market was the magnet. Some people needed to visit the feed store and some needed the lumber yard, but everyone needed the grocery store and it was always crowded, a place to see people as well as buy food. Lewis wasn’t much on talking to people beyond greetings and how-do-you-do’s and it struck no one odd that the grumpy old fart from up in the hills said nothing at all. At the produce section, Lewis sent Laura to choose their fruit while he waited at the buggy.
“You’re in the way, Lewis.”
He turned to find the small face of an old Asian woman. “Old people have to stand somewhere, young lady.”
“Young lady? I’ll have you know I’m old enough to be your friend.”
“How are you, Maggie?”
“Fine. What about you?”
He nodded. “Got my girlfriend with me.” He indicated Laura with a tilt of his head. She was coming back with peaches and grapes. “Laura, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Maggie, Laura.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Laura.”
Laura smiled, then looked to her grandfather. “Can I get a kiwi?”
“Have you ever had a kiwi?”
“No, but may I try one?”
“You ever had a kiwi, Maggie?”
“I don’t eat fruit with hair.”
“Sure, go pick one out.” He watched the girl walk away.
“Lewis, are you all right?” Maggie asked. “You seem distant.”
Lewis looked at her and smiled.
“You can’t hide from an old witch like me.”
“I suppose you’re right, but I wouldn’t go around shouting about being a witch around here.”
“I’d better help my granddaughter. Drive up tomorrow if you get a notion.”
“Might do that.”
Lewis walked to Laura, feeling better for having talked to Maggie, however briefly. She was his closest friend and though they weren’t lovers, he had thought several times of asking her to move in with him, to get her out of the town. That would have amused the townspeople, the only black man in the county living with the only Japanese woman.
“How do you know a good one?” Laura asked.
“I have no idea. Why don’t you take two, see if we can’t stack the odds.”
She picked two and they went to the check-out.
The lines were long and there was nothing to do but stand there and browse through magazines. Lewis looked at the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, but he was thinking of Martin.
“Hey there, prof, que pasa?” the cashier said.
“Hot day. What it’s like up high?”
“Not quite so hot.”
“Yes. Laura, this is Carlos.”
“Encantada de conocerle.”
Carlos reached under the counter and came up with a piece of candy. “All the special little people get candy.”
Lewis looked at the red-and-white mint. Martin’s horse loved mints. That’s what was missing up there. The horse. Where was Martin’s horse? Maybe someone killed him for the horse. It seemed far-fetched, but it was something. Lewis wanted to get outside to the pay phone and call Mondragon. He drummed his fingers on the conveyor. Finally, Carlos was done and the bags loaded into the buggy.
Mondragon thanked Lewis for the call and told him he’d drive back out and have a look around. He said it seemed unlikely that anyone would want that old horse badly enough to kill and that it was strange that Martin had been killed, if indeed he had been, in the house.
Lewis hung up and turned to Laura. “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”
Her eyes went a bit wide with a smile.
“It’s okay to say things like that once in a while. Give it a try.”
“Let’s get the hell out of Dodge,” she said, giggling.
“Good. Let’s go.”
As they were walking across the parking lot, Laura reached up and clutched at Lewis’ sleeve.
“I hate it when we get a cart with screwy front wheels,” he said. Then he noticed how tightly she was holding on. “What’s the matter, honey?”
The girl looked around.
Lewis looked, too. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m scared,” she said and began to cry a little.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay to be scared.”
Lewis and Laura unloaded the groceries from the car. Laura pulled things from the bags and Lewis put them away.
“So, you didn’t tell me how you like your new house,” Lewis said. He put the cheese in the refrigerator.
“It’s all right.”
“Got anything else for the refrigerator?”
She handed him the milk.
“Just all right?”
“It’s bigger. Daddy said we’ll never move again. He said that it makes Mommy crazy.”
“I can well imagine it does. She doesn’t like change. She especially didn’t like it when your grandmother and I got divorced.”
Laura seemed surprised to hear the word.
“We’re best buddies, right?”
“Then we can talk about anything?”
“You want me to tell you what Mommy said about you?”
Lewis and Laura ate an early dinner, then went out to worm the two horses. Lewis told the girl how he used to have to blow pills through a pipe down their throats, but now it was just a matter of putting some paste in their mouths. She didn’t believe him about the pills. So he told her the story about the New Mexican rancher who lived right on the Colorado state line.
“He had a cross-eyed bull and he called the vet. The vet said he knew of only one treatment. He got a pipe, lifted the bull’s tail and stuck it in.”
Laura was delighted, hearing a naughty story. “In his — his poo-poo hole?” she asked.
“That’s not how I would have put it, but yes. So, the vet had the rancher stand in front of the bull while he blew through the pipe. The vet blew and blew and finally the bull’s eyes straightened out. A few weeks later the bull’s eyes popped back and he was looking everywhere at once.” Lewis demonstrated and Laura laughed. “The doc couldn’t come out, but he knew what to do. He got his neighbor from over in Colorado to help him. He sat behind the bull and put the pipe in his poo-poo hole and blew while the Colorado man watched. He blew and blew and blew but nothing happened. Finally, he said ‘You come back here and blow for a while and I’ll watch.’ The Colorado man sat behind the bull, pulled out the pipe and turned it around. “Why’d you do that?’ the New Mexican man asked. The Colorado man said, ‘You had your mouth on the other end’.”
Laura didn’t get it. She just looked at her grandfather.
“Well, you see he was going to put his—” He stopped. “Never mind.”
The horses trotted to the fence to greet them. Laura had been feeding them corn and so they were glad to see her. She dipped her hand into the can she held and spread a palm with corn through the cedar fence. While the black mare ate, Lewis hooked a lead into her halter and tied her close to the post. He had to put a halter on the gelding, then he tied him the same way.
Laura looked out over the pasture while Lewis applied the worming paste. “Papa?”
He pulled her close and stroked her back.
“I’ve never seen a dead person before.”
“Honey, we don’t even know if Martin was dead.”
“You thought he was dead. You think somebody killed him.”
He couldn’t deny this. And he too was feeling a bit afraid. What if the killer had seen them there? He was afraid for Laura. Then he shook his head. His imagination was getting the better of him. Even if they had been seen there, what possible threat could they pose to the killer.
“Come on, let’s go have some tea,” he said. As they walked back to the house, Lewis began to replay the scene at Martin’s in his head. No furniture was overturned. There was no sign of any struggle. The wound was in the back of the man’s head, under his hair, so he hadn’t gotten a look at that. There wasn’t a lot of blood. He sighed, then swallowed a deep breath, knowing that tomorrow he would ask Maggie to sit with Laura while he went back to Martin’s to look around.
Maggie called and was there an hour later. Her little Ford pickup kicked a cloud of dust into the air as she skidded to a stop in the front yard.
“How’s it goin’, fart-face?” Maggie said.
Lewis and Laura were standing on the porch. Laura laughed.
“You’re a sweet talker,” Lewis said.
“Hi ya, Laura.”
“Come on in and have some tea,” Lewis said.
“Got any herbal?” Maggie asked.
“You drink herbal tea?” Laura was pleased.
“Yep. The other stuff isn’t good for you. It makes me go potty.”
“That’s all Papa drinks.”
Lewis was holding the door open. “Come on, you two.”
“See,” Maggie said, entering the house behind the girl. “The tea makes him irritable and impatient and I’ll bet he pees every ten minutes.”
Laura was laughing again.
Maggie and the child sat at the kitchen table while Lewis put on the water. He turned around and leaned against the counter. “I was wondering if you’d stay here with Laura for a while.”
“Sure. Where you going?”
“He’s going to Martin’s house,” Laura said in a hushed voice.
“He is?” Maggie whispered. “Why?”
Laura said nothing.
Maggie looked to Lewis. “What’s going on?”
He hadn’t wanted to tell her anything, but better he tell her than she get Laura’s version. “I’m worried about Martin.”
“He’s dead,” the child said.
“What?” Maggie pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket.
“Yesterday, we went to Martin’s and I found him lying on the floor. I think it was Martin. It seemed he was dead. He wasn’t breathing and I call that dead. Anyway, we called the sheriff. And when Manny Mondragon went back up there with us, the body was gone.”
Maggie blew out smoke. “Hunh. This ain’t the kind of talk one expects over tea. You sure he was dead?”
“I thought he was dead.”
“I don’t think you should be going out there.”
“Martin was — is my friend. I want to know what’s going on.” The kettle began its whistle behind him. “I’m just going to look around.”
“I think we should all go.”
“Yeah,” Laura said.
“No,” Lewis said firmly, the whistle hissing loudly. He turned and removed the kettle from the burner with one hand, putting out the flame with the other. He looked Maggie in the eyes. “This is not a game.”
“What is this, some macho thing?”
“I don’t want Laura there.”
Maggie looked at the girl and seemed to understand. She exhaled a breath like she was playing a trumpet and made a funny sound. “I’m sorry.”
“This is between us,” Lewis said. “I don’t want you talking to anyone about any of this.”
“And what if you don’t come back?”
Lewis looked at Laura. She was afraid. He looked at his watch. “It’s ten now. If I’m not back by two, call Mondragon.”
“There’s nothing to worry about honey.” He felt badly that the child knew where he was going, but she had guessed it anyway.
The place was dead still when Lewis arrived. A thunderhead was forming over the hills. Lewis took a deep breath and got out of his car. Looking at the cabin, he could almost see Martin stepping out and showing that boyish smile. Martin had been a good friend. He’d been in the army and had known black people. Lewis wasn’t treated badly by the Indians and Mexicans, but he didn’t completely fit in. He had been comfortable with Martin.
He walked slowly toward the corral which was behind the house. He looked at the ground and thought he might be able to learn something, like if anybody had come back after he and the sheriff left, but he couldn’t tell anything. He laughed at himself, thinking that an elephant could have stomped over this ground and he wouldn’t know the difference. And so he looked at the empty corral and learned nothing. He turned and looked up the canyon.
As he walked up the canyon, he thought how it didn’t seem real that Martin was dead. The canyon channeled a breeze into his face. He followed a trail to his right that climbed up a ridge and after a hundred or so yards he was looking down at the canyon floor. He studied the trail, looked up the slope beside him and across at the other side. He found some old bear scat and felt better about his ability to find something. He came upon a place where deer had bedded down and sat on a fallen tree. He looked up and saw a raven fly by. Then he realized that he was hearing no birds. He had heard none since starting up. He hadn’t seen or heard any squirrels or chipmunks. The deer droppings at his feet were old just like the bear scat.
A chill ran over Lewis. He was up quickly and moving back down the trail. He tried to think, but it was difficult. He was almost tickled at how scared he was. He stopped again to listen. Nothing. He whistled the only bird call he knew, a brown wren, but there was no response. The raven was long gone.
As he reached the mouth of the canyon, he remembered the tassel-eared squirrel he’d seen near the cabin. He walked around the cabin, then inside. Everything looked normal, in place. He opened the cabinet where Martin kept his cereals and sugar, then closed it. Outside, he walked around the house again.
He thought it was a snake at first and it gave him a start. But it was bushy. It was still. He reached down and pulled the dead squirrel from under a pile of scrap wood. Lewis studied it. The hair was gone from several spots on the small animal’s body and the flesh was raw. Lewis felt sick. He carried the squirrel to his car and sat on the hood, tried to catch his breath.
“Martin,” he said out loud to the house. “What in the world is going on?”
Lewis wrapped the squirrel in an old towel he had in the car and walked toward the door of the veterinarian’s office. The vet was pretty new and so the place was clean and efficient looking. There was a tall bay in the cross-ties and a Mexican boy was rubbing a salve on the horse’s back. Inside, a fat white man and his yellow Labrador looked at Lewis. The dog stood up, his nose measuring the air. Lewis hurried to the desk of the assistant who immediately began trying to steal a peek into the bundle.
“And who do we have here?” she asked.
“This is my pet and I want to see the doctor.”
Unable to see anything, she readied a pencil over a form. “Name?”
“What is Mortimer, Mr. Mason?”
“Mortimer is sick, ma’am.”
“I can well imagine that he is. He’s probably suffocating.”
“If you knew Mortimer, you’d know that’s not possible.”
The woman’s patience was growing short. “What kind of animal?”
“Are you the doctor?”
“No, but the doctor needs to know,” she said, her back straightening.
“I think the doctor will know what Mortimer is as soon as he sees him.”
Lewis thought the woman might cry. As she struggled through her question again, the vet, a middle-aged man with a belly, appeared behind her.
“Problem?” the vet asked.
The woman composed herself. “This is Mr. Mason. He refuses to tell what his pet is.”
“I’m sure we can clear this up in the examination room,” Lewis said.
The vet looked at him and then at the yellow Labrador. He asked the assistant, “Who was here first?”
“Mr. Wilson and his dog.” She looked at Lewis as she said “dog.”
“I’m sure Mr. Wilson won’t mind if I see Mr. Mason first,” the doctor said.
Wilson gestured for him to go ahead.
The assistant glared at Lewis as he stepped around the desk into the hallway. He followed the vet into a room and laid the bundle on a table.
“Mortimer?” the vet asked.
“Indeed,” Lewis said and unwrapped the squirrel.
The vet paused. “What happened?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
The doctor began to slip on rubber gloves. “Why don’t you wash your hands over there.”
Lewis went to the sink and washed.
“Where’d you find it?”
“Does it matter?”
“It might? Near a dump? These look like acid burns. But I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Let me ask you something. Does it make sense that a person can go into the forest and not see or hear any birds?”
“Just because you don’t see or hear them doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
“They weren’t there.”
“A falcon or an eagle could have come into the area.”
“My name is Peabody, Cyril Peabody.” The vet peeled off a glove and put out his hand to shake.
Lewis took it. “Lewis Mason. Pleased to meet you, Dr. Peabody.”
“Call me Lewis.”
Cyril scratched his chin. “So, you want to tell me what’s going on?”
“It stays here,” Lewis said.
“Someone murdered a friend of mine. Martin Aguilera.”
“An old man?”
“You know him?”
The vet looked at the squirrel. “That’s it,” he muttered. “He brought his dog in three, maybe four weeks ago, with burns. The dog wasn’t dead yet, but he was on his way.”
“He took the dog with him?”
“He wouldn’t let me keep him.” He sat on a stool. “Somebody killed him?”
Lewis blew out a breath. “I think so. I found him dead, but when I went back with the sheriff, the body was gone.”
Lewis imagined that Cyril was now skeptical. “My granddaughter was with me. She saw him, too.”
“What did the sheriff say?”
“What could he say?” Lewis wrapped the squirrel up again. “Thanks for looking at Mortimer.”
“Wait. Where you going?”
Cyril scratched his belly through his denim shirt. “Want me to ride out to the old man’s place with you?”
Lewis studied the man. “Okay.”
“I’ve got to look at that dog out there. You mind waiting?”
Lewis shook his head. “Can you get rid of the squirrel?”
Lewis went back to the lobby and waited. He smiled at the assistant, but she ignored him. “Mortimer died,” he said.
She looked up.
“Mortimer is dead.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What was Mortimer?”
She went back to the papers on her desk.
While Lewis drove he told Cyril about everything, but he did not repeat his observation that there were no animals in the canyon. That sounded too strange and it scared him too much. Lewis wondered why the man was taking such an interest and coming with him, but he was glad to have the company. He felt a little less scared. Strength in numbers and all that, he thought.
“How long have you lived around here?” Cyril asked.
“Going on three years.”
“Yep.” Lewis didn’t like the word.
“I was a university professor?”
“No,” said Cyril. “My daughter just started there.”
“How about that.” Lewis looked at the road. “When did you open your office here and where were you?” Lewis didn’t like the way he’d asked the questions.
But Cyril seemed unbothered. “Used to practice down in Albuquerque. Got tired of city people and little dogs.”
“Martin was my friend,” Lewis said.
They crossed the river, passed the cafe and followed the trail to Martin’s house. Lewis stopped fifty yards away and looked at a blue Camaro parked in front of the cabin.
“What is it?” Cyril asked.
“Well, let’s go see who it is.”
“Right.” This made perfect sense. Lewis felt like a coward. He came to a stop directly behind the strange car.
“It’s a rental,” Cyril said.
“How do you know that?” Lewis asked.
“Says so on the license plate bracket. See, Budget.”
The men got out of the car and walked toward the cabin. Lewis glanced into the Camaro on the way by and saw nothing. A man stepped out of the cabin.
Cyril waved. “Hey there, how you doin’?”
The young man smiled, waved, and came toward them.
“What’re you doing out here?” Lewis asked.
The man was taken aback by Lewis’ tone. “Looking for my grandfather. What are you doing here?”
“Your grandfather?” Lewis asked.
Cyril reached his hand out. “I’m Cyril Peabody and this is Lewis Mason.”
“Martin never mentioned a grandson,” Lewis said.
Taylor looked at Lewis for a long second. “What’s going on here? Where is my grandfather?”
Cyril lookd at Lewis.
Lewis didn’t know if the young man was on the level or not. But if this Taylor was who he said, then he didn’t want to hurt him.
“I’m not sure,” Lewis said. “I’ve been looking for him ever since yesterday.”
The young man looked back at the house and seemed to be lost. He didn’t seem to know what to do.
“You want to ride to the sheriff’s station with me?” Lewis asked.
“What’s happened?” Taylor asked.
Lewis felt suddenly sad for the man. “I don’t know.”
“I’ll have to follow you.”
“Would you mind dropping me by my office first?” Cyril asked.
“No problem,” Lewis said. “It’s on the way.”
Lewis didn’t say anything in the car. Neither did Cyril. Except to say he’d hate to be the one to tell Taylor about his grandfather. Lewis didn’t believe Taylor. Martin had never mentioned a grandson; he had never mentioned any family. And for this guy to show up now? One day after Martin was found dead? Lewis didn’t buy it. He wondered what Taylor wanted.
The blue Camaro stayed behind him and this surprised Lewis somewhat. He’d expected the car to turn off and never be seen again. The Camaro waited while he let out Cyril.
“Be careful,” Cyril said. “Call me later and let me know what’s going on. The operator will tell you my number.”
Lewis watched the heavy man walk away. He decided that he liked him. He pulled off with the Camaro still following.
At the station, Lewis and Taylor walked in together. Mondragon was out of his office talking to the dispatcher. He looked up and saw Lewis.
“Hey, prof, got some news for you,” Mondragon said.
“Manny, this is Martin’s grandson, Joseph Taylor.”
The sheriff’s manner changed. He sighed. “I’m sorry to tell you that we found Martin Aguilera’s body in the river this morning.”
“Body?” the man said. He found a chair. “I just got a letter from him two weeks ago. He wanted me to come see him.”
“In the river?” Lewis asked.
“Accident,” the sheriff said.
“He was geared up for fishing, professor. He probably stepped out too far and the river snatched him in. Happens all the time.”
But Mondragon would not look at Lewis’ eyes. “I’m sorry about your grandfather,” he said to Taylor. “I have a lot of work to do. If you’ll excuse me.” He went into his office.
The display of grief seemed pretty genuine and Lewis began to feel for the young man. But Lewis had nothing to say to him. Lewis had nothing to say to anyone. He was confused and angry. He left the station. He wondered why Manny Mondragon had behaved the way he had. Perhaps he too did not trust the stranger claiming to be Martin’s relative. But that would have been a pretty quick assessment. Mondragon seemed to be telling Lewis to stay out of it. Lewis leaned against his car and waited for Taylor.
Taylor came out shortly, lighting a cigarette and looking at the sky. He saw Lewis and walked to him.
“I’m sorry about your grandfather,” Lewis said.
Taylor nodded. “You were his friend.” It was not a question, but a statement.
“Is there something you want to tell me?”
“Where are you from?” Lewis asked.
Lewis looked at the rental car.
“Listen,” said Taylor, “it’s clear you don’t trust me. Want to tell me why? My grandfather is dead. I want to know what’s going on.”
Lewis listened to him, looked at his eyes, believed him. “Martin never mentioned any family to me.”
“He and my mother didn’t get along. He didn’t like the fact that she married a white man.”
“I found your grandfather dead in his cabin yesterday.”
“But the sheriff said—”
“I know what the sheriff said. When he went back out there with me the body was gone. Sounds crazy. Mr. Taylor, I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t know who to trust. You pop up out of nowhere the day after I find Martin dead. What am I supposed to think?”
“I understand. But put yourself in my shoes. My grandfather writes and tells me something’s wrong, but not what and when I get here the sheriff tells me he’s drowned in the river and you tell me this.”
Taylor dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. “Sheriff told me I could pick up Gramp’s things tomorrow. Did my grandfather talk to you about something that was bothering him?”
“He didn’t mention anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Last time I saw him was a couple of weeks ago and he didn’t say anything out of the ordinary.” Lewis remembered that visit. He and Martin were sitting out in the yard looking at a full moon. Coyotes were howling in the canyon and they laughed as Martin’s dog Rojo tried to bay with them.
“Well,” Taylor said, “I’m staying at the Best Western in town. If you think of anything—”
Maggie and Laura met Lewis at the front door. Maggie waved a quarter in his face, said, “What is this? Have you ever seen one of these?”
“What are you raving about?” Lewis asked.
“This is a quarter, Lewis.”
Lewis sat down on the sofa, kicked off his shoes.
“You drop one of these into a pay phone and dial and you can tell the people who are sick with worry that you’re okay and not dead in some ditch.”
Laura sat beside him.
“I just got off the phone with the sheriff.”
Lewis looked at her.
“I was calling to tell him you were overdue, but he told us you’d been there.”
“So, what’s the fuss.”
Maggie cleared her throat. “I’ll make tea.”
When the woman was out of the room, Laura said, “Maggie’s mad.”
“Yeah, well, she has a right to be. I’m sorry I worried you.” He looked at the kitchen door. “Maggie?”
“Did Mondragon say anything to you about Martin?”
Lewis got up and walked to the phone on the wall just inside the kitchen. He asked the operator to dial the sheriff. “May I speak to Sheriff Mondragon, please? Yes, it’s important. Manny?”
“Yeah?” said Mondragon.
“It’s me, Lewis Mason. Want to tell me what’s going on?”
“I told you everything, professor. Aguilera died in the river while fishing.”
“And that’s all you have to say to me?”
“That’s what my report says.”
Lewis let the receiver down in its cradle. He looked up to find Maggie and Laura staring at him from the kitchen table.
“Martin drowned in the river.”
Maggie frowned. “But you said—”
“I know what I said. Don’t ask me to explain anything. The sheriff is writing in his report that Martin Aguilera drowned while fishing in the rapid water of the Rio Grande. I don’t think my name appears.”
“Relax,” Maggie said.
“Something really strange is going on. Martin’s grandson showed up.”
Lewis sat down at the table. “Claims he got a letter from the old man saying something was wrong. Taylor’s his name. Says his mother married a white man and got Martin mad. If he’s got Mexican blood, I do.”
“Why is the sheriff acting funny?” Maggie asked.
Lewis shrugged. “I thought he didn’t want to say anything in front of Taylor. But now I don’t know. Maybe he’s scared of something. “He picked up his mug and sipped the hot tea. “Have you met the new vet?”
Maggie shook her head.
“Cyril Peabody. A nice guy.”
“Where’d you run into him?”
Lewis decided not to mention the squirrel. “In town.” He looked out the window at the afternoon. “So, how did you two get along today?”
“Great,” said Maggie.
“No fighting or anything like that?”
Laura laughed. “No,” she said. “We played cards and went for a walk. We saw a tanager.”
“Hey, that’s terrific. That’s one of my favorite birds.” He looked at his mug.
“I think I’ll stay here tonight,” Maggie said. “Keep an eye on you two.”
“You know you’re welcome.”
Laura was pleased.
“We’ll make cookies,” Maggie told the child.
“We’ll walk up the mountain a ways. How’s that sound?” Lewis asked.
“Good,” said Laura.
“Remember when we hiked over on Garapata Ridge?” he asked Maggie.
“There’s a trail that leads down to Plata Creek, isn’t there?”
“I’m not sure. I think so. Why?”
“Nothing.” Lewis smiled at Laura. Plata Creek ran through Plata Canyon, Martin’s canyon. Lewis knew the canyon wasn’t boxed, so he could probably ride into it from the back side.
“Papa?” Laura said. “Are you all right?”
“Sure, honey.” He looked at his mug. “Is this herbal tea?”
Laura smiled. “Yes.”
“You guys are really funny.”
The late afternoon showed no promise of rain. Lewis looked at the sky. “Man, it’s dry.” He stopped as they stepped over a ditch of moving water. “Maggie, you think you and Laura could walk the ditch for me tomorrow? We ought to have better flow than this.”
Maggie said they would.
Lewis’ water came from a creek which fed a ditch which ran a mile around and down the mountain and filled a cistern and was processed. He’d yet to have a serious problem, but he could easily foresee being without water one of these dry summers.
They turned to look down. From up here they could see clear down to the town.
“You’ve got to get out of that place, Maggie,” Lewis said.
Laura walked higher, looking for puff-ball mushrooms.
“That stuff is contagious. I don’t care what anybody says.”
“The art-farts. It’ll start as an insidious rumbling in your gut and you’ll think you’re just hungry and the food at home won’t fill you. You’ll have to eat snacks from a buffet at an art opening.”
“I used to come up here every night to watch the sunset.”
“What happened? You get old?”
“Remember the first time we met?”
“At the market?”
“Come on. I can’t remember.”
“At Justin’s Gallery.”
“Yes, and it was an opening. You were very charming. I said to the friend with me that you were the most handsome man there. And you don’t even remember.”
“A gallery? I have no idea how I ended up there.” Lewis looked up the hill to see Laura scouting under a bush.
“How’s she doing?” Maggie asked.
“How’re you doing?” Lewis called to Laura.
Lewis let his head roll back, then forward.
“I’ll give you a rub later,” Maggie said.
“I’ll remember you said that.”
Maggie nodded, looked up the slope to see Laura starting down. “She’s a wonderful child.”
“She sure is.”
“Look, a car,” Laura said.
Lewis looked down at the house to see the blue Camaro.
Lewis was surprised to see Taylor but not alarmed. In fact, he wanted the man to wait until they got down to the house. He did.
“Mr. Taylor,” Lewis greeted him.
“Hello, Mr. Mason. I don’t want to bother you, but I need to talk.”
Laura stayed close to her grandfather. Lewis put a hand on her shoulder. “Maggie Okada, Laura, this is Mr. Taylor.”
“Joe, call me Joe.” He shook Maggie’s hand, smiled at Laura.
“What do you want to talk about?” Lewis asked.
“I’d like to ask you some questions about my grandfather.”
“I guess you ought to come inside.” Lewis took him in and sat him at the kitchen table. Maggie and Laura went to another part of the house. Lewis didn’t put water on to boil.
Taylor played with his thumbs on top of the table. “How well did you know my grandfather?”
“We were friends.” Lewis looked at the man’s eyes. “You said something about a letter.”
“And he mentioned a problem?”
“Not exactly. I was planning a visit and he wrote and told me not to come. I got worried.”
“He didn’t say anything to me. We were friends, but not that close. I saw him once or twice a month.”
“I never met him. He told me about you, though. Told me about the time he sent you up a mountain to a lake that didn’t exist.”
Lewis looked at the floor and smiled. “Yeah, he thought that was real funny.” He looked at Taylor anew, finding what he was hearing credible. “We didn’t spend a lot of time together, but I liked him. He was a good man. I’m surprised he didn’t mention you.”
“I’m not. We’ve always kept in touch, but he’s never forgiven my mother. And I guess she hasn’t forgiven him either.”
“He didn’t say anything in his letter?”
“Just told me not to come.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Well, something’s going on. The sheriff’s telling me Gramps died in the river and doesn’t even mention your story.” Taylor smiled. “He used to hate it when I called him Gramps.” His eyes became moist.
“Something’s going on, all right. You’re correct on that point and I have no idea what.” Lewis paused. “I’m gonna trust you.”
“You can. I promise.”
“I found a dead squirrel by Martin’s cabin.”
“It had burns or something all over it. Strange wounds. And when I hiked up the canyon, I didn’t hear any birds, didn’t see any, no animals at all, not even fresh sign.”
“Whoa, this is sounding too weird,” Taylor said.
“Tell me about it.” Lewis thought that if he were in Taylor’s place he wouldn’t know what to think or do. “I don’t know what comes next. If anything comes next. Martin is dead.”
“Maybe you should just go back to Seattle.”
“I think I’ll hang around for a while.” The young man looked out the window. “I want to see to my father’s cremation.”
“The county doesn’t cremate people. The Catholics around here don’t care for it,” from Maggie at the door.
“You’re sure?” Lewis asked.
Maggie came into the kitchen and leaned against the counter. “I’m positive. I had to take my husband Kiyosada to Santa Fe to have him burned.”
“You think the sheriff is involved?” Taylor asked.
“I’ve known Mondragon for six years,” Lewis said. “Hell, I don’t know.”
Maggie hugged herself. “This is scary.”
Taylor laughed nervously. “What do I do? What am I supposed to feel? Am I supposed to want to find the murderer? If there is one.”
Maggie sat at the table. “Joe, I’m sorry about your grandfather. Finding out who did what won’t bring him back. Go home.”
“A person needs to know,” Lewis said, looking away. “It’ll haunt you the rest of your life.”
“Lewis,” Maggie complained.
“I know,” Lewis said, “and I’m sorry. But I’m right.” He looked at Taylor. “We’re talking about your history, man. If you can live with the questions, then fine. But maybe you owe yourself being able to say you at least tried to find out.”
“What difference will it make?” Maggie asked.
“What if it was me, Maggie?”
Maggie said nothing.
“I’d better get back to my motel,” Taylor said.
Taylor went to the back door they had come in.
Lewis raised a hand to stop him. “Remember the burns I mentioned on the squirrel?”
Taylor looked at him.
“Do you wonder if there are similar burns on your grandfather? Damnit, maybe he was killed by something that could kill somebody else.”
“What are you saying?” asked Taylor.
“I’m asking you if you want to go look at your grandfather’s body.”
“I told the sheriff to go ahead and have him cremated.”
“Then we can’t really waste any time. We’ll have to look tonight.”
“This is not a game,” Maggie said.
Lewis and Taylor just looked at each other.
Maggie sighed. “There is no morgue. They use Fonda’s Funeral Home.”
When Taylor was gone, Maggie said, “I guess you’ve decided to trust him.”
Lewis was up and to the calendar. “The full moon came in the second week of this month.”
Lewis shook his head clear. “I told Cyril Peabody I’d give him a call.”
“Are you going to invite him along on the grave-digging expedition?”
Lewis thought. “No, no, I don’t think so.”
Maggie wasn’t so much angry as she was scared. Lewis could live with that. He didn’t, however, want Laura worrying. He wanted to send her back to her parents, but that wouldn’t stop her worrying, only add distance and include her mother. Perhaps there was nothing to fear anyway. Maybe he was suffering from an overactive imagination and too much time on the mountain alone. So, Laura would worry some and the degree to which she did depended on Maggie and himself.
At dinner, Laura wanted to know about Joe Taylor.
Lewis took a drink of water. “Joe never got to spend time with his grandfather the way you do. And when he came to see him, he wasn’t here. It’s really sad.”
Laura looked ready to cry.
“So, he wanted me to tell him stories about Martin, about what a good friend and fisherman he was. Things like that.”
Laura ate a few bites. She asked Maggie, “Are you Papa’s girlfriend?”
“I’m his friend,” Maggie said.
“You’re a girl,” Laura pointed out.
“Maggie is one of my best friends,” Lewis said. He smiled at the woman.
Lewis read to Laura and put her to bed. He left the door to her room ajar as she liked, to allow light from the hall inside.
He grabbed a light jacket. Maggie followed him out into the yard. “Promise me you’ll be careful,” she said.
“What do you think I’m—” He stopped. “I’ll be careful, Maggie.” He turned and reached for the car door.
She touched his sleeve. “Lewis.”
He faced her. He kissed her. Her lips were soft and he felt light. He took a deep breath as he pulled away. “You sure know to get a fellow to come home.”
“Be careful and don’t be a dumbshit.”
He got into the car. “Too late for the latter.”
Taylor had not mentioned his room number, so Lewis entered the office of the Best Western Motel. Ernesto Nunez was the evening clerk. The young man was sipping a beer and watching a baseball game on television.
“How’s it going, Ernesto?” Lewis asked.
Ernesto didn’t get up. He smiled and raised his beer can. “Que pasa, prof.” Ernesto’s brother Ignacio had put a roof on Lewis’ cabin and Ernesto always asked about it. “Staying dry?”
“What brings you out?”
“Do you have a Joseph Taylor registered?”
“Room eight. Friend of yours?”
“Martin Aguilera’s grandson.”
Ernesto reached forward and turned down the volume on the television. “Shame about old Martin. The river can be dangerous.” He looked at nothing in particular.
“Yeah,” Ernesto said absently.
Lewis stopped at the door. “You know if he’s had any other visitors?”
Ernesto focused on Lewis. “Not that I’ve seen and I can see his room from here.”
Lewis looked up at the sky as he walked across the parking lot toward room 8. He paused at the door and heard the canned laughter of a television sitcom. He looked at the blue Camaro. The only other car in the lot was a low-rider, an old Mercury parked at the end of the same row of units. He knocked. It opened almost instantly.
“Come in,” Taylor said. He was nervous. He went to the television and switched it off.
“I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Lewis rubbed the back of his neck. “Neither have I. What do you do in Seattle?”
“I drive a UPS truck. I’m scared to death.” He held a shaking hand out. “Look at that.”
“Mine shake normally,” Lewis said.
Taylor chuckled. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Fonda’s is two blocks away, so let’s walk.”
The men left the room and walked close to the building, under the overhang, in the shadows. Lewis wondered if anyone would be at the funeral home at night. Luis Fonda was getting old and he did everything by himself, except for driving the hearse. His son-in-law Edgar did that. Lewis’ breathing became more relaxed, more measured as he considered the situation. Fonda was certainly at home by now. If Edgar was there he would be drunk out of his mind.
“What happens if we get caught?” Taylor asked.
They were a block away, passing the liquor store. “I don’t know. What’s the crime? You want to see your grandfather’s body. Who wouldn’t understand that?”
Taylor nodded as if that made sense.
Lewis thought of kissing Maggie and the light feeling returned. He also considered what he had just told Taylor. What was the big deal about them looking at Martin’s body? Then it struck him that they might have to look at a couple of bodies before finding the right one. He wasn’t sure if Martin was in the funeral home. He hoped he wasn’t getting the young man into trouble. He looked at Taylor. The thin man had a long, slow stride.
“If you want to go back, I don’t mind going alone, “Lewis said.
“I’m with you. I really appreciate your concern. I understand why my grandfather liked you.”
Lewis said nothing. They were in front of Fonda’s Funeral Home, a wide, long, single story adobe with a parking lot on one side and an empty lot on the other. The tacky neon sign that Fonda had erected years ago shone with the “a” dark. A breeze came down off the hills. There were no lights on in the building. The street was quiet, no cars, no pedestrians. The parking lot was unlighted. Lewis started toward the back.
“Let’s see if we can get in this way,” he said.
Taylor followed, turned around and took a few steps backwards to watch the street. “I hope we find him quick.”
The back entrance sat under the dim glow of a single twenty-five watt bulb. The light was so weak, it was sick, eerie. Lewis pulled open the outer screen door. He looked at Taylor, then tried the knob. It turned and he pushed inside. He brought a pen-light from his jacket pocket. Taylor was close behind, the fingers of a hand against Lewis’ back.
“Man, this is creepy,” Taylor said.
Lewis swept the floor in front of him with the light. He panned the whole room. It was a large room, full of tables and stacked chairs, with a clear, wide path through to an open doorway. They moved slowly, together. A noise came from the next room.
“What was that?” Taylor asked.
Lewis looked back at him. He could scarcely see his face. “How would I know?” He led on.
Pausing at the doorway, Lewis shined the light ahead. The next room was smaller; three gurneys stood end-to-end, the center one occupied, a sheet covering the body. Embalming equipment was beyond the tables.
“You think that’s him?” Taylor asked.
“There’s one way to find out.” He stepped to the middle table, bumped it and it rolled a bit, startling both of them. Lewis grabbed the covering. Ready?”
“Here goes.” Lewis pulled it back and there was the face of a very old Indian woman, one eye open, one eye closed. The cover fell and the men took a couple of steps backward. “That’s not him,” Lewis said.
“Let’s get out of here,” Taylor said.
“Calm down, okay? It’s just a dead person.”
“I know that.”
“One more room.”
Another noise. Someone ran from a dark corner. Taylor screamed and pulled at the back of Lewis’ jacket, causing him to drop the light. Lewis found himself scurrying out into the room of tables and chairs and toward the door. He was aware of Taylor and several other bodies, all moving the same way. Taylor hit the door first, catching his foot on the screen door and falling. Lewis tripped over him. They sat up and saw three men running, two carrying a body. Lewis was up, but Taylor grabbed him.
“What are you going to do if you catch them?” the young man asked.
Lewis tried to catch his breath. Taylor had a point. He watched the last man disappear into the cottonwoods at the edge of the vacant lot. The man limped and Lewis recognized the limp. It was Salvador Alvarado.
“I know that man,” Lewis said.
Taylor was kneeling, holding his face in his hands.
“I know that man.”
Back in the motel room, Lewis sat in a chair by the window while Taylor went into the bathroom to change his pants. Lewis trusted him now. The man was new to anything like this. He looked out the window at the lot, at the low-rider still parked in the back. The night looked so normal, was the way he thought of it, save the fact that he was viewing it from a room at the Best Western. Looking at the night, he found it difficult to believe he had just sneaked into a mortuary and witnessed the theft of a body.
“Do you think that was my grandfather’s body?” Taylor asked, coming out of the bathroom.
“I don’t know.”
“You said you recognized one of them.”
“Yeah. Salvador Alvarado, he owns a boot shop.” Lewis shook his head. “I don’t get any of this.”
Taylor sat on the bed. He studied the towel he held, then tossed it onto the back of the chair at the desk. “Listen, I’m just a truck driver. I don’t need any of this.”
“I say we go to the sheriff.”
“I don’t think so,” Lewis said. “He’s been lying to us and—”
“I just don’t trust him right now.”
“We’d better find somebody to trust. I’m no good at this stuff and you’re… you’re just an old man.”
Lewis let it all go. The young man was upset. Who could blame him?
“Maybe things will be clearer in the morning,” Lewis said, standing. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”
Taylor said nothing.
Lewis pulled the door closed behind him.
Lewis thought as he drove home. If he had not found Martin on the floor of his cabin, he would have thought nothing strange of the report of his drowning and he wouldn’t be in this mess. He was probably liable for prosecution for breaking and entering, but, and he laughed, the only people who could possibly identify him were stealing a dead person.
He wanted to stop at a phone, get Alvarado’s address from the book and pay him a call, but Maggie would be waiting up, worried sick. And better to get into this stuff about dead bodies in the light of day. There was also the possibility that Alvarado was not the man he had seen, in which case he might get an innocent, superstitious man out of bed to talk about a corpse.
Maggie was asleep on the sofa. Lewis watched her for a while. She was a small woman. She never seemed small when awake. He sat by her feet and she stirred. He took a foot into his hands and massaged it. She smiled. Her eyes opened and she looked at him.
“Back in one piece,” she said.
“What’d you expect after a goodbye like that?”
Maggie sat up and tried to come awake. Lewis pulled her close and pressed her head to his shoulder. She relaxed against him.
“Did you see him?” she asked.
“Not exactly.” Lewis could feel her eyes open more widely. “We got into Fonda’s all right, but—” He stopped, wondering if indeed he should tell her.
“But somebody was there.”
“No, not Edgar either. Whoever they were, they stole a body.”
Maggie sat erect, pulled away and looked at him. “What?”
“We wandered into a cadaver snatch.”
“Is that what you private dicks call it?” she said.
“I’ve run this over in my head all night, allow me some fun.” He got up and walked to the empty fireplace. “I think it was Martin’s body.”
“You saw it?”
“No, I just have a feeling. And I think one of the men was Salvador Alvarado. You know how he limps.”
Maggie walked to him, put her arms around him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. All of this is just — I’m too old for it. It keeps getting deeper and deeper and I’ve forgotten to miss Martin. My friend is dead.” He shook his head clear. “Are you all right?”
“It’s funny. We’ve sort of known each other for a while. I’ve wanted to be close to you and it’s in the middle of something like this that—”
“Shhh,” she silenced him, pressing a finger to his lips. “Let’s go to bed?”
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling.
“Get in that room,” she said and pushed him in that direction.
Lewis didn’t sleep well. He held Maggie close most of the night. She was easy to hold and he felt good with her. He liked the way she smelled. One of her small hands lay still on his chest. He removed the hand and tried to slip his arm from under her neck.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked, eyes closed.
“Going to fix breakfast.”
“And you’re going to bring it to me in bed, right?”
“Nope.” He sat up and put his feet on the floor.
Maggie turned over on her stomach. “Please?”
He slapped her butt. “Get up. It’s a new day out there.”
Lewis was showered and in the kitchen when Laura woke up. The child was still in her nightshirt. She ran to him and squeezed him while he flipped a pancake.
“Hey, honey,” he said. “How’d you sleep?”
She didn’t answer, just hugged him.
Lewis looked at Maggie. He put his hand on Laura’s head and tilted her face to his. “Are you okay?”
“Just loving me?”
The child smiled.
“I’m okay, sweetie.” He checked the cakes. “How many can you eat? Maggie says she can handle nine.”
Laura laughed. “Two.”
“So, how would you two ladies like to ride into town with me today?”
“Yeah,” Laura said.
Lewis looked at Maggie. “You could stand to pick up a few things.” He looked to Laura. “How would you feel if old sour-puss spent more time with us?”
“I’d like it.”
Lewis delivered the first servings of pancakes and put the bacon on a plate in the middle of the table. He watched Laura eat and considered again sending her home to her parents. He wasn’t sure of his reasoning. It wasn’t clear that there was a threat to any of them, but someone had killed. At least, he believed someone had killed. He could always go back to the theory that Martin had not been dead when he and Laura found him in the cabin, that perhaps he had gotten drunk, hit his head and passed out.
The smoke became noticeable. “Shit,” Lewis said, turning over the burned pancake. “Sorry, Laura.”
“It’s okay to say things like that once in a while,” Laura said.
Lewis smiled and tossed the cake into the sink.
“This child is spending too much time with you, Lewis. You’re a bad influence.”
“Am I a bad influence, Laura?”
Maggie made out a shopping list as they drove down the mountain. Laura studied the shadows of the hills on the plateau below, the way the sun caught the Rio Grande Gorge.
“It looks different than it does in the afternoon,” she said.
“Completely different,” Maggie said. “There are things you can’t even see in the morning that show up clearly later on. I guess that’s part of the reason so many artists come here.”
“Part of it,” Lewis said. “We still owe ourselves a fishing trip. Did I ever tell you two about the first time I drove up to Cambresto Lake?”
“No,” Laura said.
“It was the first summer I spent here. I was driving my old Jeep and so this fellow told me about a mountain lake. He said I had the right vehicle to get there.”
“Is this a long story?” Maggie asked.
Lewis gave her a side-long glance. “So, I followed his directions and drove over this incredible road. There were boulders I had to drive over. It took me twenty minutes to drive three miles.”
“It was bumpier than this?” Laura said, referring to the dirt road they were on.
“It was ten times worse. I didn’t see a single car all the way up and I was getting excited about fishing all alone and not seeing anybody.”
“And?” Maggie said.
“The place was teeming with people. It was like a parking lot up there. And not just Jeeps and trucks, but Pintos and Novas. To top it all off, there were no fish.”
Lewis fell silent. It had been Martin who sent him up there. He was amused by how much that excursion paralleled his trip to the funeral home and he thought about the limping man. It was a running joke in town that Salvador Alvarado’s limp was caused by too-tight boots.
“Did you call Joe this morning?” Maggie asked.
“Do you want peaches or nectarines?”
Lewis looked at the road. He was thinking about Taylor. The man was no doubt very embarrassed about soiling his pants. Funny how stupid little things mean so much, thought Lewis.
“Peaches or nectarines?”
“Peaches. It doesn’t matter. Anything is fine.”
Lewis parked illegally in front of Alvarado’s House of Boots. Maggie slid to the driver’s side and took Laura with her to her house to pick up clothes and other things. Lewis watched the car turn at the light and he felt good about Maggie, but a little silly, too, like he was too old for all this stuff. Not just the business with Martin, but to be dating. The word even sounded too young.
He entered the shop. Salvador was helping a tourist couple. There were several pair of snake-skin boots laying on the floor. Salvador greeted him with a warm hello, but gave a wary glance a few seconds later. Lewis walked around the store, examining the boots. The prices marked on the tags made Lewis want to laugh. Salvador marked everything really high because of the tourists, but cut the prices greatly for locals. Lewis was behind the man now, looking at his mop of gray hair. The way he was sitting made the collar of his shirt dip down his back. Lewis could see a red mark, a cut or something. The couple, a tall blonde woman and a stocky brown-headed man wanted matching pairs of boots, but couldn’t agree on a style. Salvador looked around at Lewis and offered a nervous smile.
“Be with you in a minute.”
Lewis nodded. That was another thing about the way Salvador did business. When tourists were present, he didn’t let on to knowing anyone who entered the shop. Lewis sat down near the counter and looked at a magazine. He read Boot News and was surprised to find it interesting.
The couple bought their boots and left bickering.
Salvador shook his head about the tourists. “How are you, Lewis?”
“Fine, Salvador. What about you?”
The man nodded.
“En que puedo servirle?”
“Yeah, I need a black dress boot. A Wellington. You know what I like.” Lewis looked him in the eye.
Salvador limped over to the far wall and came back with a boot. “Something like this?”
“Not so much heel.”
“I have what you want. Wait.” Salvador went through the curtain into the back of the shop.
Lewis saw a Bible on the counter.
The man came back with a lower-heeled black boot. “Just got these in. Haven’t put them out yet.”
“That’s what I’ve been looking for. Do you have size eleven?”
“Si,” he said and limped into the back again. It was the same limp.
Lewis was beginning to put something together. He suspected that Salvador Alvarado was a Penitente, a member of a Catholic sect that practiced self-punishment. That would explain the mark on his back. That would also explain the theft of the body. The Penitentes buried their dead in secret graves. It all seemed far-fetched, but Lewis had nothing else to go on.
Salvador came back with the boots.
Lewis removed his shoes. As he stepped into the first boot, he said, “Shame about Martin Aguilera.”
“He was a good friend,” Lewis said.
“I grew up with him,” Salvador said. “How does that one feel?”
Lewis was standing with the one boot on. “This one is good. The other foot’s the problem.”
Salvador pulled wadded paper from the second boot and handed it to Lewis.
“There’s something I never knew,” Lewis said. “If Martin was a religious man. We never talked about that. Guess you don’t think of that stuff until too late sometimes.”
“Martin was religious.”
“I heard that somebody stole Martin’s body from Fonda’s. You hear about that?”
The man nodded. “How’s that boot feel?”
“Now, see, this one is a little snug.” Lewis limped around the row of chairs. “Somebody might think I was you.”
“The police are looking to get Martin’s body back.”
Salvador pulled the loose paper together from the floor.
Lewis felt badly for scaring the man. “I respect people’s religious beliefs. You know what I mean.”
“We should all do that,” Salvador said.
Lewis sat down and pulled off the boots. “The law can’t always stay out of people’s business. The law doesn’t understand.”
“Do you want the boots?”
“No.” Lewis put on his old shoes. He paused at the door. “I’ll see you later, Salvador.”
Lewis walked out of the House of Boots and entered the tobacco store next door. He bought a few cigars. He didn’t smoke as much as he once did, but he still enjoyed them. They calmed him, made him slow down. He unwrapped a Partagas as he passed back out to the street. He bumped into Manny Mondragon.
“Hey there, prof,” Mondragon said.
“Manny.” Lewis bit the end off of his cigar and spat it out. He looked at the sheriff’s eyes behind dark glasses. “How’s tricks?”
“I don’t want you to be upset with me.”
“Why would I be upset?”
Mondragon removed his sunglasses. “I’m sorry.”
“Did you mention me in your report on Martin?”
The sheriff looked down the street at a traffic tie-up caused by a crippled low-rider. Two men were trying to push it into a gas station. “No, Lewis, I didn’t.”
Lewis was angry. “Why not?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“I’ll tell you what’s hard to explain. It’s hard to explain how a man who knew the river better than anyone around here ended up drowning in it. It’s hard to explain how a dead man dies a second time. It’s hard to explain how the sheriff can look a citizen straight in the eye and lie to him.”
“Okay.” Mondragon was beginning to worry about someone passing by and hearing them. “Settle down.”
Lewis looked up and down the sidewalk, then whispered, “Settle down? You give me a reason to settle down. Somebody killed Martin Aguilera and if you won’t do something about it, then I will.”
“Stay out of this, Lewis.”
“I’m in it, Manny.” Lewis cupped his hands around a match and lit his cigar. “Are you in it?”
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about someone stealing Martin’s body?”
Lewis tried to look surprised. “Stealing his body?”
“Don’t change the subject. Why did you lie to me? Why did you lie to Martin’s grandson.”
“What would you have me tell the man? His grandfather was dead. You wanted me to say he was murdered? I don’t know that. You saw him in the cabin. I fished him out of the river.”
“You think I’m lying.”
“I don’t know that. If I told Taylor all that stuff, would that have brought his grandfather back?”
Manny had a point and Lewis felt immediately bad for having sucked young Taylor into the mess. “No.”
“But why lie to me?”
“Taylor was standing right there.”
“But later on the phone—”
“I’m sorry. This business isn’t easy. I was tense. I didn’t want to be bothered.”
Lewis blew smoke out. He looked back and saw Salvador watching them through his window.
“I saw you come out of Sal’s,” Manny said. “Looking for some boots?”
“He didn’t have my size.”
“Ain’t that always the way.”
“So, what now?” Lewis asked. “You try to find the body?”
“I guess so.”
“And the killer?”
“Don’t cause trouble, prof. The last thing that any of us need is everybody getting scared of a killer on the loose. There’re too many old farts around here with guns in their houses. They’ll end up shootin’ their families and maybe me.”
Lewis was disappointed.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” Lewis looked at the man’s eyes again. “I’ve always respected you. But it’s hard right now.”
Mondragon put his sunglasses back on and walked on past.
Lewis turned to see Salvador still in the window. He shook his head no and walked on to meet Laura and Maggie.
Lewis stood outside of El Coche Comedor smoking on his cigar and waiting for Maggie and Laura to show up for lunch. The talk with Mondragon had left him angry and disturbed. He wondered how young Taylor was feeling and what he was doing. There was some sort of youth art exhibit going on in the plaza. A couple of girls sat on the steps of the stage and tuned guitars. A van drove by and Lewis thought the white men in it were looking him over. Some people didn’t expect to see black people in this part of the country. He guessed the van had Texas license plates, but it didn’t. He thought it might have been a California tag, but it was so covered with mud he couldn’t see. The girls with the guitars took the stage, blew into the microphones, then began to sing in Spanish. The music was pretty.
“Papa!” Laura called through the open window of the car.
Lewis didn’t know quite what to make of the picture. The back seat of his car was loaded, an ironing board was strapped to the top. Maggie pulled into a diagonal parking space.
“What is all of this?” Lewis asked, walking to Maggie’s door.
“A few things,” Maggie said.
“An ironing board, Maggie? I live on a mountain.”
‘“I live on a mountain,’” she mocked him. “Calm down, Grizzly Adams.” She got out of the car and helped Laura slide across the seat.
Lewis looked at the stuff in the backseat. “Is that a record player? Maggie, I have a record player.”
“Yes, but that is my record player and when I play my belly dancing music, you won’t be able to say, ‘Get that off of my record player.’”
He paused. “Belly dancing?”
Laura was out and Maggie closed the car door. “Let’s eat,” she said.
Lewis backed up to the sidewalk and let them pass. “What do you wear?”
“You’ll like the food here,” Maggie said to Laura as they entered the restaurant. “Put that stinky thing out,” she said to Lewis about his cigar.
“Do you wear those balloon pants? Come on, tell me.”
“I hope you don’t think you’re going to be smoking those in the house. I have a very sensitive nose.”
The hostess seated them in a booth under a painting of an Indian’s face in the middle of the moon. The waitress came and took their orders. The restaurant wasn’t crowded and Lewis began to relax.
He looked at Maggie. “What do you know about the Penitentes?”
“Not much. Why?”
“They have secret funerals, don’t they?”
“I think so.”
“What’s a pennytenny?” Laura asked.
“It’s a club,” Lewis said and he felt bad for the skimpy answer, but he didn’t feel like explaining. “Did you help Maggie put all that junk in the car?”
“You think that’s pretty funny.”
Laura giggled and looked at Maggie.
A boy came into the restaurant and to their booth, handed a note to Lewis. “Perdone,” he said and left quickly.
Lewis opened the paper. It said: I have a pair of boots your size.
“What’s it say?” Maggie asked.
“Let’s just say I’ll be able to tell you a little more about the Penitentes.” He got the waitress’s attention and asked for more water. He looked at Laura. “What do you say we call your folks tonight?”
The child nodded, looked worried.
“I’m making eggplant tonight,” Lewis said, “so pick one up for me at the market.”
“Not eggplant,” Laura whined.
“You’re not shopping with us?” Maggie asked.
“I’ve got to see somebody.” He opened his wallet and gave Maggie two fifties. “Surprise me, but get things I know how to cook.”
The food arrived. Lewis cut his cheeseburger and picked up half to take a bite. Maggie was looking at him. Laura was studying her club sandwich and he mouthed the words It’s okay to Maggie.
“What’s okay?” Laura asked.
“The burger,” he said.
“You’re not talking about the burger,” Laura said.
“Laura,” he said.
“You want to send me home.”
“No, I don’t. I just think we should call your parents so they know you’re fine.”
Laura was mad and when she got that way she just shut up. She managed a couple of bites of her sandwich and all of her pop. She wouldn’t look at Lewis.
“Laura.” Lewis used the tone that demanded she look at him. And she did. “I want you to relax. Nobody’s going anywhere, okay? Except to the grocery market and back up the mountain.”
Maggie reached over and stroked the child’s hand.
“Okay?” Lewis said.
“Okay,” said Laura.
“And guess what?” Maggie said to her. “I’m going to teach you how to belly dance.”
Lewis smiled. “Come on, Maggie, tell me what you wear.”
When they were outside at the car, Lewis scratched his head. “Maggie?”
“Where are you going to put the groceries?”
“Oh, shit,” she said.
Lewis laughed softly and turned to see the van he’d seen earlier roll through the intersection. He watched it until it went out of sight.
“Hey!” Maggie shouted into his ear.
“You’ve got to have that hearing checked.”
“You’re going to have to take some stuff back home.” He saw Laura starting to laugh. “What is it?”
“The trunk is empty,” Maggie said.
“Practical jokers, eh?” He grabbed Laura and nibbled at her ear. “Well, how do you like this?” He let her go and held the door while they got into the car. “Pick me up at the post office at three,” he said to Maggie and closed the door. He watched them drive away.
Lewis found the door to the boot store locked. He looked up and down the street and knocked on the glass. An Indian woman and her little children were carrying blankets into a souvenir shop. Eyes peered at him through parted slats of the blinds and he heard the clicking of the bolt being unfastened. Alvarado closed the door after Lewis and secured it again. Ignacio Nuñez was sitting in the middle of the room, in dungarees and a sweat-stained, blue workshirt. His face was still, solemn.
“Hello, Ignacio,” Lewis said.
“The sheriff came by here,” Salvador said.
“I didn’t say anything to him,” Lewis said.
“I know,” Salvador said. He looked at the younger man.
“We want to know why you want to see Martin’s body,” Ignacio said.
“You have him?”
“I didn’t say that.” Ignacio leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Martin was our friend.”
“He was mine, too. I can’t really tell you why I want to see him, but I need to. It’s important.”
Ignacio looked at Salvador and sighed.
“We need to know why,” Salvador said.
“I’m not sure myself.” Lewis was tired of beating around the bush. “For whatever reasons, I was there in the funeral home when you took the body. I saw you, Salvador, and I guess you were there too, Ignacio.” He measured the two men’s responses. They remained still. Salvador licked his lips. “I have no interest in going to the sheriff, but I will.”
“Why didn’t you tell the sheriff?” Ignacio asked.
“I did’t think Manny would let me see Martin. Something’s going on and I don’t know enough about it to make any sense. I do need to see Martin’s body. I don’t mean any disrespect.”
The men sat quietly for a few seconds. Salvador jumped at the sound of a firm knock on the window of the door. Ignacio was up and standing in the doorway to the back room. He waved for Lewis to come too. Salvador peeked through the blinds.
“It’s the delivery man,” he said and opened up.
“Botas, botas, botas, “the skinny man said and wheeled in a stack of boxes of boots. “What are you doing all locked up in here, Salvador?” He smiled at Lewis and Ignacio. “Having a private boot party?” He laughed. He slipped the boxes off the dolly at the counter and handed his clipboard to Salvador. “Sign line fifty-eight. I’ll get the rest.”
Salvador hurriedly put his name on the paper and almost bumped into the delivery man at the door. The second load standing next to the first, the skinny man left, Salvador pushing the door after him. The old man stopped before the door was closed.
“It’s Manny,” he said.
Lewis followed Ignacio into the back and behind a wall of boxes. Lewis listened.
“Manny,” Salvador said, “what brings you back?”
“You about to lock up or something?”
“Me? No, just closing the door. Just got a delivery. See.”
The delivery truck shook the store as it pulled away.
“I thought I saw Lewis Mason come in here.”
“No, no. He was in here earlier, but that was some time ago. You want me to tell him something if I see him.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. You all right, Salvador?”
“You mind if I use your restroom?”
“Uh, no. It’s dirty.”
The sheriff laughed. “Not that dirty.”
“Sure, you can use the restroom,” Salvador said loudly. Ignacio winced. It was hot in the back and the two men’s faces were beaded with perspiration.
“Why’d you do that?” Manny asked.
“Talk loud like that.”
Salvador said nothing.
Lewis could hear Manny come through the doorway. He went into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. Ignacio looked at Lewis’ eyes. Lewis turned a bit and bumped a stack of boxes. He grabbed them but could not balance them, so he pressed down on them to keep them still. Ignacio frowned. The toilet flushed and Manny came out.
“Your bathroom isn’t dirty,” the sheriff said.
“Oh, I guess Gloria must have cleaned it,” Salvador said.
“You should see the one at the station. That’s where I put suspects to make them confess.”
Salvador offered a weak chuckle.
Lewis was sweating profusely now, holding the boxes steady.
“Well, I can see you’ve got a lot of boots to unpack,” Manny said. “Hasta luego, Salvador.” The bell on the door sounded his leaving.
Lewis relaxed and the boxes spilled onto the floor. Salvador came running to the back.
“He’s gone,” the merchant said.
“None too soon.” Lewis bent to collect the boxes.
“Forget those,” Salvador told him. “We have Martin’s body.”
Lewis looked him in the eye.
“It’s our religion,” the old man said.
“It’s secret,” said Ignacio.
“You have to promise you won’t tell anyone,” Salvador said and quickly glanced out front.
“Just one person. Martin’s grandson is in town.”
Salvador and Ignacio exchanged looks.
“He was with me in Fonda’s.”
Ignacio hadn’t liked any of the business and he liked this even less. “Martin never talked about no grandson.”
“He just showed up.”
“Okay,” Salvador agreed. “Tonight, you meet me and Ignacio beind the shop and we’ll take you to see Martin. Some of our people are not going to like it.”
“Listen, all I want to do is examine the body. You won’t even know I’m there.”
“We’ll know,” Ignacio said.
“What time?” Lewis asked.
“Nine. It will be dark, then.” Salvador looked into the front of the store again. “You’d better leave out the back.”
Lewis was hot, sticky, and breathing heavily in the alley. He leaned against the adobe wall of the shop in a shadow to try to cool off and calm down. He was in there hiding from the sheriff and it just didn’t make sense to him. He wasn’t a criminal. He stood up, straightened, and took deep breaths. He wasn’t getting any cooler or drier. He walked to the end of the alley. At the street, he saw two men pushing a pickup into the Shell station. Thinking he might at any moment come across Manny, Lewis ran to help them. A young woman was behind the wheel and she smiled at him. He pushed and walked away once the vehicle was at the garage door. He went into the ice cream parlor where he knew it would be cool. He sat and nursed a vanilla cone slowly until it was gone. His shirt dry, he left.
Fat Leroi Hireles was behind the desk in the office of the Best Western. Lewis could see him through the window and was glad he didn’t have to go in and talk to him. Leroi talked non-stop and was famous for not bathing. The blue, rental Camaro was parked in the lot.
“Who is it?”
Taylor opened the door and stepped away.
“How are you doing?” Lewis asked.
“I’m fine.” Taylor sat on the bed and looked at the television.
“What are you watching?”
“Some talk show. People on here would rather be with their pets than other people.” He wouldn’t look at Lewis. “This guy wants to marry his cat.”
“Takes all kinds,” Lewis said.
“Listen, about last night. I’m sorry I got you into this.” Lewis looked at the people on television. “I’m going to see Martin’s body tonight. Your grandfather was a Penitente. It’s a religious group.”
“My grandfather was Catholic.”
“It’s a Catholic group. I’ll come by here just before nine.”
Lewis felt awful, like a bad man trying to pull a scared man deeper into trouble. He got up and went to the door. “You don’t have to go, you know.”
“See you later.”
Maggie and Laura arrived at the post office shortly after Lewis. Laura sat between the adults during the ride home. The child ate a chocolate bar. Lewis was quiet and Maggie asked no questions. Laura looked at her grandfather with candy on her lips. Lewis smiled and gave her his handkerchief.
“I had fun today, Papa.”
“I’m glad, honey.” He put his arm around her.
“Maggie and I have a surprise for you.”
“You do? What is it?”
“I can’t tell.”
“I’ll have to wait then, won’t I?”
“Did you get your business taken care of?” Maggie asked.
“Yes, some of it. I have to go into town and finish it up tonight.”
“I put some gas in the car,” Maggie said.
“Thanks.” Lewis was looking out the window again. They had started up the mountain. Down on the flat, Lewis could see smoke rising from the dump. There was not supposed to be burning in the fill, but a fire always raged. He used to like going down there when the county could afford a guard, even if it was fat Leroi. Now, the smoke irritated his eyes and the heat was disturbing.
“Whose car is that?” Maggie asked.
Lewis looked at the strange car parked in front of his cabin. He didn’t know anyone who owned a new, bright green Jeep. Maggie stopped beside it.
“Stay in the car,” Lewis said and got out. He closed the door and turned back. “Roll up the windows and lock the doors.”
Laura and Maggie did as he asked.
Lewis went to the door and tried the knob. It was still locked. He looked back at Maggie and Laura and shrugged. He came down the steps and walked along the side of the house, glancing in through the windows as he passed. He turned the corner. His heart stopped as he met another body.
Maggie pushed open her car door.
“Lewis.” It was Cyril Peabody.
Lewis let out a breath. “Christ, you nearly scared me to death.” He leaned against the house, waved back to the car. “It’s all right.”
“I just came out to say hello,” Cyril said. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Maggie and Laura joined them.
“Cyril,” Lewis said, “I’d like you to meet Maggie Okada and my granddaughter Laura.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Cyril said.
“Long way to drive just to say hello,” Maggie said.
Cyril smiled at her. “Well, actually, I was expecting Lewis to call.” He looked at Lewis. “When you didn’t, I guess I started to worry. But now I can see that everything is fine.”
“Thanks for the concern.”
“Laura and I will start carrying in the groceries,” Maggie said.
Lewis nodded. “I’ll be right there.” To Cyril, “Come in. Have some tea with us.”
Cyril looked at the full car. “I can see I’ve come at a bad time. I’m a bit rushed anyway.” He watched Maggie and Laura go into the house. “Cute kid.”
“Yes, she is.”
“How did everything turn out?”
“I suppose you heard they’re calling Martin’s death an accident.”
“That’s about it and I don’t know what to make of it.”
Cyril looked like he didn’t know what to say.
Lewis didn’t want to go into detail about Fonda’s and the Penitentes. He didn’t really understand what was driving him and he was embarrassed and he didn’t want to pull yet another person into the thick of the mess.
“Listen, I’d better get out of here and let you help with the unloading before you get into trouble. “He made a move toward his car.
“No, come on in, have tea and sit.”
“Sure.” Cyril helped carry in the groceries, then went back to the car.
“We’ll get that other stuff later,” Lewis told him.
Cyril wanted coffee instead of tea. The men sat in the living room. Maggie and Laura went out for a walk.
“I guess I rubbed your friend the wrong way,” Cyril said.
“Maybe. It’s a big step, her moving in here.”
“Oh, that’s what’s in the car. I didn’t know. I really should leave and let you two get things squared away.”
“They’ve gone for a walk now.”
They sat quietly and looked out the front window at the view off the mountain.
“That really is some piece of real estate,” Cyril said of the plateau below. “That gorge is something.”
“Yeah,” Lewis agreed, sipping his tea.
“Again, I’m really sorry about your friend Martin.”
Lewis nodded. “He was a special fellow.”
“Were you very close?”
“Reasonably, I guess.” Lewis looked at Cyril. “What did you think of him?”
“He was really concerned about his dog. That’s always a good sign to me.”
“Did he ever talk to you about anything?” Cyril asked.
Lewis chuckled. “That’s a broad question.”
“I mean like his dog and what was wrong with it. Something seemed to be bothering him when he came to my office. More than just the dog.”
Lewis rubbed his chin. “I’m not recalling anything.”
The back door made a noise being opened.
“Thanks for the coffee, but I’d better let you, you know.”
Lewis smiled. “Yeah, Maggie can be tough, too.”
“I’ll be in touch,” Lewis said. “Thanks for coming out.”
Lewis walked the man outside where they shook hands. Cyril climbed into his Jeep. Lewis watched the car round the bend of the drive, then grabbed the first of Maggie’s things to bring in. Maggie held the door for him.
“Cyril’s the vet I told you about,” Lewis said. He put his load down on the table.
“What did he want?” Maggie asked. There was an edge to her voice.
“What’s wrong, Maggie?”
“All this stuff is scary,” she said softly, mindful of Laura who was rinsing off a plum to eat.
“I know. It’s okay though.” He hugged her.
“Mushy, mushy,” Laura said.
“The plum?” Lewis asked.
“No, you two.”
“Caught in the kitchen,” Lewis said and pulled away. “Oh, my God.”
“Let’s get the rest of this junk out of the car and strewn about the house,” Maggie said. She continued to talk as she stepped outside, “Where it will remain for many years to come and when I’m asked…” She was outside and Lewis couldn’t hear the rest.
“I think she’s crazy,” Lewis said to Laura.
After unloading the car, Lewis stood in the living room and observed the disorder. “You weren’t kidding,” he said to Maggie.
“I’m serious about my clutter.”
He looked at Laura. “Do I recall hearing something about a surprise?”
“You’re not allowed in the kitchen,” Maggie said. “We’re making you a special meal.”
“Yeah,” Laura said, her hands on hips in tough pose.
“I guess I’ll see if I can’t find the sofa and take myself a nap.” He looked at a pile of clothes on the sofa. “Where do you want me to put these things, Maggie?”
“Just dump them on the floor. I don’t care.” With that, she and the child were gone into the kitchen.
Dinner was special. Maggie prepared ham, black-eyed peas, wild rice, a spinach salad and a sweet potato pie. Lewis sat back and put his hands on his belly.
“Ladies, that was the best meal I think I’ve eaten.”
“It wasn’t bad,” Maggie said.
Lewis got up and started clearing the table. While Laura ate a second small wedge of pie, Maggie carried some things into the kitchen after Lewis.
“That was really something, Maggie. Thank you.”
She stood close to him. “I love you, Lewis.”
He smiled. “I love you, too. I have for some time. I don’t know what’s taken me so long to realize it.”
“Age,” Maggie said. “It’s made you stupid.”
Lewis kissed her.
“Is it going to be dangerous tonight?” she asked.
“No, not at all. I think Salvador and Ignacio Nunez are going to take me to their morada. I’m going to look at the body and I’m going to leave. That’s all.”
Lewis felt badly for worrying her. He thought that if he had held off on this involvement of theirs, this stuff would be easier. But he had denied this woman and his feelings for as long as he could and perhaps it was this business that allowed him to take the step.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
Lewis drove into town wondering what he would see and what might happen. He turned into the lot of the Best Western and saw that the blue Camaro was not there. He found Ernesto in the office.
“Did Taylor say anything about when he’d be back?” Lewis asked before he was completely through the door.
Ernesto looked him over closely, then swung his feet off the desk to the floor and stood. “Checked out.”
“Couple of hours ago.” Ernesto turned to the key boxes and grabbed an envelope. “He told me to give you this.”
Lewis opened it and unfolded the note. It said:
Dear Mr. Mason,
Please don’t get me wrong. I really appreciate how much you must have cared about my grandfather. I can’t do this stuff. I’m just a truck driver. I’m going back to Seattle. The sheriff talked to me. I believe he died in the river. He was an old man. I’m sorry you lost a friend. I’ve got to get back to my job. I hope you find what you ‘re looking for.
“Everything okay?” Ernesto asked.
Lewis balled up the note and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. “Yeah, fine.” He waved goodbye to Ernesto and stepped out into the night air. He looked up and tried to make out a couple of constellations. He found Cassiopeia low in the sky, then just the cap of Cepheus.
He got into his car. He looked back into the office as he waited to pull into the street and saw Ernesto using the phone. He drove downtown and parked in front of De la Peña’s Restaurant, a few blocks from Salvador’s shop. He walked past the ice cream parlor, crossed the street and went down the alley to the back of the House of Boots. Ignacio and Salvador were waiting beside a pickup.
“I thought somebody was coming with you,” Ignacio said.
“No, it’s just me.”
Lewis didn’t think these men would hurt him, but he was glad he’d planted the suspicion that someone else knew with whom he was taking a ride. Salvador looked more nervous than the younger man.
“Turn around,” Ignacio said, letting a scarf fall to its length from his hand. When Lewis complied, he wrapped it over his eyes and pulled it snug, as if to state again his disdain. Ignacio was a good five inches shorter than Lewis and so tied the scarf awkwardly low on the back of his head.
“Can’t see a thing,” Lewis said.
“Let’s go,” Salvador said.
Lewis was helped into the truck. He sat between the two men. Lewis wondered if anyone would see and find interesting the sight of a blindfolded, black man seated between two Mexicans in a pickup in the middle of the night.
Lewis caught himself instinctively trying to follow their route by noting turns and speed, but he stopped because he couldn’t keep it up and because he didn’t want to know where they were taking him. It was their secret and he didn’t want it. They made many turns, he thought, to confuse him. Once the sounds of other traffic were gone, the path was direct.
They ended up on a washboard road. Dust floated freely through the cab. The truck skidded to a stop and Lewis was helped out. Someone was singing somewhere. Salvador talked to him, a hand on his shoulder.
“Lewis, this is a velorio de difunto and it is very important to us.”
Lewis nodded, still blindfolded.
“Many of our members will not like it that you are here. Many of them will not notice. You will see things that are sacred, private. Please see as little as you can.” The old man sighed. “Promise me you say nothing to anyone.”
“You have my word, Salvador. I have no wish to compromise you or your beliefs.”
Ignacio pulled the scarf away from Lewis’ head.
Lewis tried to aid his eyes in adjusting by opening them wide. He was standing in front of a one level adobe. A flame torch burned on either side of the doorway. There were several trucks and cars parked around in no particular order. The singing was coming from inside the building.
“Do not look at anyone’s eyes, especially the rezador,” Ignacio said.
Lewis didn’t understand.
Lewis nodded, frightened by Ignacio’s hostility.
“It would be best if you tried not to look at anyone at all,” Salvador said.
Salvador and Ignacio looked at each other. Then Salvador led the way. Ignacio took Lewis’ arm. The room was lighted by more torches and the smell of incense was thick and sickly sweet. Figures moved about and Lewis tried not to see them or recognize them. He looked at Salvador’s back. He glanced ahead and saw the coffin, a simple, lidless box, but he couldn’t see the contents. The rezador was to the left of the coffin. Lewis caught his eyes drifting toward the chanting and pulled them back. Ignacio must have also detected the slip for he squeezed Lewis’ arm. Then, Lewis couldn’t help seeing the procession. Men marched in a wide circle around the body beating themselves. The beating kept time with the chanting. Most men used leather, one a chain. In the glow of the firelight Lewis saw two lacerated and bloody backs. The blood and the incense and strange light made him feel ill, dizzy and then he was standing over Martin.
Salvador and Ignacio stood on either side of him and turned away from what he was doing. Lewis took a deep breath and this turned out to be a mistake for he took in a smell of death. He tasted bile and swallowed. The body was bloated, but Lewis thought not badly and then he wondered to what he was comparing it. The face was strange and lifeless, but it was Martin’s and he tried to avoid it. The body was naked and for this Lewis was thankful, for he did not have to touch it. On the dead man’s legs were several places where the flesh was raw, like burns, but the water had done things. Maybe he had even been nibbled at by fish.
“Let’s go,” Ignacio said.
Lewis was ready. “I’ll close my eyes and you lead me out,” he said.
Salvador and Ignacio took either arm and walked him through the sick-sweet cloud and outside. Lewis felt faint when the clear air hit him, but the men held him up.
“I’m okay,” Lewis said, finding his legs.
“Did you see what you wanted?” Ignacio asked.
Lewis nodded, walked to the pickup and leaned against it.
“Are you all right?” Ignacio asked, his tone different.
Lewis looked at him and found the eyes softer. “I’m fine. I want to thank you.” Lewis stood straight, looked out over the dessert. “Did you see his legs?”
Salvador and Ignacio were silent.
Lewis turned to face them. “Would you call those burns?”
“Get in the truck and we’ll drive you back,” Ignacio said.
“Didn’t you see the wounds?”
“We cannot talk of the dead,” Salvador said.
“I’m sorry,” Lewis said, then he had to say, “I think Martin was murdered. I found him dead before he showed up in the river, at his cabin. He was lying on the floor.” Lewis shook his head.
Salvador sighed. “Martin is dead. God called to him and he is dead. It doesn’t matter how he died.” He looked back at the morada. “Please, I can’t talk about it.”
Lewis raised a hand to silence the man. He didn’t want them frightened further. “I’m sorry.”
Ignacio walked around and climbed into the cab. Lewis climbed in behind Salvador on the passenger side. He looked out the window at the morada as they rolled away.
“Don’t you want to blindfold me?” Lewis asked.
Ignacio pulled the scarf from his pocket and handed it across Salvador to Lewis. Lewis tied it around his head. He felt good about this. He felt trusted and that they all understood something together.
Someone turned the radio on and voices sang in Spanish the way into town. They let Lewis out in front of the theater. Nothing was said and the two men drove away.
Lewis went back to his car. There was a ticket on the windshield. He looked and saw that he had parked over the white line in the diagonal space, but not very far. He sat behind the wheel and studied the ticket under the dome light. It had been signed by Manny Mondragon.
Lewis thought about Martin on the way home. He thought about how awful it must be to drown and halfway hoped that he had been hit on the head and killed instantly, not feeling anything. Then he considered not feeling anything. Martin had been a man full of life and would have wanted to fight, even if against the river. Just to have a chance is all anyone can ask. Maggie would laugh if she knew what he was thinking. She would laugh, but she would understand. She would think it herself.
He wondered how much Manny suspected and how much he knew. He didn’t know how to think of the sheriff. Was he the enemy? Was there an enemy? He began to feel paranoid. The wounds on Martin’s legs were real though, regardless of the cause. But what difference did it make? Could he go to the sheriff or the state police and talk intelligently about any of this? Was he closer to any kind of answer? Had he even made Martin’s death easier to take? It seemed all he had really managed to do was spend precious time away from his granddaughter. All of this settled on him and he knew he couldn’t stop. There was something to be found out. Something bad had happened and something bad was going on. Everything smelled sour and he felt something evil lurking about.
He considered the next day. He would put a horse in a trailer, drive it to Garapata Ridge and follow the trail down to Plata Creek and into the back end of the canyon. He recalled the absence of animals in the canyon and a chill traveled over him. Suddenly, he was afraid of going alone. He couldn’t and wouldn’t ask Maggie. Besides, someone had to stay with Laura. Then he remembered Peabody. Maybe the vet would go and he was a perfect choice, a scientist, a man who knew animals. He looked at his watch. It was only ten-twenty. He was glad. Maggie could stop worrying. He would call Cyril when he got home.
He could still hear the chanting of the rezador.
Lewis managed to get dressed and out of the house without waking Maggie or Laura. Only some of the light of the day to come helped him as he took the battery from his car and put it into his truck. He backed the truck to the horse trailer. It was a two-horse, front-unloading trailer that he had bought after watching a man get stepped on trying to back a horse out of a tight place. He closed the horses off in the corral and went to get the tack from the shed. The saddles were in good shape. He grabbed a couple of curb bits; the horses hadn’t been ridden much lately and he’d need leverage on some of the slopes. Cyril Peabody had said he’d take the morning and ride with him. Lewis breathed easier knowing he wasn’t going alone. He went to the corral and saddled the mare without much trouble. The gelding was a little stubborn. The horse blew up his belly when Lewis went to tighten the front cinch. He didn’t want the cinches tight now, but he knew he’d have to poke the horse in the ribs when he cinched him. He loaded the animals into the trailer and left.
Lewis had gone through the business with the horses without realizing how tired he was. He found during the drive down the mountain that his eyes wanted to close. He rubbed his eyes and the back of his neck, shook his head. Finally he just stopped and napped for about five minutes. When he awoke, he found that just those few minutes had allowed morning to come on fully. He enjoyed the rest of the drive to Cyril’s office on the outer-bounds of town. He stopped once to check the horses.
Cyril was sitting in his Jeep in front of his office. He waved when he saw Lewis and got out. He carried a bag. He climbed into Lewis’ truck.
“I brought us some food,” Cyril said.
“I forgot all about food. Thanks.”
“I guessed you were inviting me for a reason.”
Lewis pulled back onto the highway. “Thanks for coming out with me.”
“No sweat. Want to fill me in?”
“Like I told you, we’re going to drive up to Garapata Ridge and take the trail down to Plata Creek and into the canyon.” He looked at Cyril and saw he was waiting for more. “A lot has happened and I just don’t feel like going into detail.” He took a deep breath. “I saw Martin Aguilera’s body last night.”
“I can’t say.”
“I heard it was stolen. How’d you see it?”
“Really, I can’t talk about that. I saw him and that’s what matters. Cyril, he had wounds on his legs like the squirrel had.”
Cyril just looked at him.
“Burns, well, like burns. I think they were the same. I have a really bad feeling.”
“That’s why we’re headed out to the canyon.”
Lewis nodded. “Something’s going on. Remember when I told you there were no animals up there.”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty weird, all right.”
Lewis watched the road. The men were silent for a while. Lewis turned the car off the highway onto a dirt road which got progressively rougher as they went. The truck hit big holes and Lewis looked into the mirror to see how the trailer was taking the hazards.
“Some road,” Cyril said.
Lewis groaned. He winced as a rock bounced them high. “I hope the horses don’t get spooked too badly. This road is always worse than the last time. What’s it take to run a grader over it now and then?”
“Look at it this way, keeps the tourists away.”
“Yeah.” Lewis stopped the car even though the road continued. “We’ll ride from here. It’ll be just as fast and easier on the horses.”
They unloaded the animals. Lewis took the gelding because he was more prone to crankiness. When he went to tighten the cinch, the horse did like he had suspected and blew out his middle. Lewis hit him in the ribs with his elbow and pulled the strap hard. They mounted and rode southwest.
A mile across the flat went quickly and they were headed down toward the creek. Lewis loved the land. The high dessert was every color he had ever found beautiful, every shape that had ever interested him.
On the first steep section of the trail the gelding tried to hold up, but Lewis fought with him and made him go on. Lewis could feel the short fight in his arm muscles. He felt his age.
“They don’t like downhill,” Cyril said.
“They’re fat and lazy. This is good for them.”
“Any idea what we’re looking for?” Cyril asked, following.
Lewis looked back. “No. Anything.”
The trail began a series of switchbacks. The gelding surprised Lewis and performed well. He was glad because he was unsure if he had the energy for a lot of fighting. They stopped at the creek, dismounted, and ate the sandwiches Cyril had packed.
“Good,” Lewis said and took a swig from his canteen. “How’s your daughter doing?”
Cyril looked at him. “Fine. The question is how am I doing. Paying for this stuff is something else.”
“Brown’s a good school though.”
Lewis scratched his chin. “I thought she was at Bennington.”
“What am I saying? She’s at Bennington. B’s, you know.”
“Yeah. What’s her name?”
“Donna.” He ran a hand over his hair. “Tell me about those burns you saw on Martin’s body.”
“Not much to tell. I’m not even sure they were burns.”
“Where’d you see him?”
“I promised I wouldn’t say,” Lewis said.
“Clandestine stuff, huh?”
“It is strange though. Bizarre wounds, missing animals.” Cyril half-laughed.
They sat and rested for a few minutes more. Lewis studied the sky. There were no clouds. He watched Cyril push the trash into the bag.
“What about your wife?”
“Divorced,” Cyril said. “She’s remarried and lives in Ohio.”
“Let’s ride, partner,” Lewis said.
They mounted and continued along the creek, Lewis leading. After another mile, Lewis turned to find Cyril off the mare.
“Problem?” Lewis asked.
“I think she picked up a stone.”
Lewis stayed in the saddle and watched. Cyril lifted the horse’s right front hoof and studied it.
“Yep,” Cyril said. He took a knife from his pocket and unfolded it. “Won’t take a second.” He put the blade to the hoof. “Hmmm.”
“What is it?” Lewis asked.
Cyril let the leg down, took the reins and led the mare forward a couple of steps. She favored the foot.
Lewis climbed down.
“The rock cut her frog,” Cyril said.
“Is it bad?”
“Not serious, but she shouldn’t go on. The farther we go, the farther she’ll have to walk back.”
“What a time for something like this. It’s never happened before.” Lewis kicked a stone and it landed in the creek.
“You can go on. I’ll walk her back and wait at the truck.”
Lewis looked ahead at the trail. “No, we should stay together.” He smiled at Cyril. “Besides, it’s a long walk back. You’ll need company.”
“It’s not your fault.” Lewis stroked the mare’s neck. “It’s okay, baby,” he said to the horse. He picked up the leg and saw the blood. It seemed odd that a round stone could make such a wound.
“This sort of thing heals quickly,” Cyril said.
Lewis nodded. “Well, it’s going to be slower back and uphill, too.”
“Good company though.”
They turned back. Lewis led the mare and Cyril took the reins of the gelding. Lewis looked at the limp and shook his head. He hated to see his animals suffer, any animal suffer. He looked at the creek and all the stones. He felt bad for having brought his horses down, but he knew he was being irrational, trying to blame himself.
“I guess I’ll just have to hike down here another day,” he said.
Cyril said nothing.
They left the creek and started up to the ridge.
“How’s your lady friend?” Cyril asked.
“Maggie? She’s as onery as ever.”
“What’s she think about you coming out here? Does she even know?”
“Yeah, she knows. She knows I’m out here with you because I left a note. She was asleep when I left. She doesn’t like it.”
“What’s she say about all this stuff that’s going on, the wounds and animals, all the crazy stuff?”
“Are you scared?”
Lewis stopped and looked across at the far ridge. “Yes, I’m scared. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I can’t stop. Have you ever felt that way?”
“Yes, I have. Lewis, I want you to feel free to tell me anything. I sort of think of myself as being in this with you.”
They walked on. The climb was hard and Lewis was winded when they reached the top. They started the mile trek across the flat.
“Okay?” Cyril asked.
“I’m not as young as I used to be. The nature of time, I reckon.” Lewis laughed at himself. “What I need now is a hot bath, a cup of tea and a nap.”
“What’s funny is how you talk about yourself like you’re old.”
“Comes with age.”
They arrived at the truck. Lewis lifted large plastic buckets of water from the back of the pickup and let the horses drink. Cyril looked at the mare’s hoof again and put the foot down.
Lewis loosened the cinches and let the horses stand. He stepped away from the truck and looked out over the high dessert. Birds were singing. He saw a hawk many yards away. It was hunting.
“It’s just too dry,” Lewis said.
“It is that.”
“Animals slow down a lot when it’s hot and dry like this, don’t they.” Lewis looked at Cyril.
“I suppose they do. They would have to.”
“What’s on your mind, Lewis?”
After the animals had drunk enough, they loaded them and traveled back along the pitted road. Cyril asked Lewis if he wanted him to drive, but Lewis said he was fine.
“How old is Laura?” Cyril asked.
“She’s seven.” Lewis drove high on a bank to avoid a deep rut.
“Where’s her mother?”
“Boston. I hate Boston.”
“I’ve never spent much time there. Are you close, you and your daughter?”
“Sort of. No, not really. I feel closer to Laura.”
“She is a special child. I could see that right off.”
He started Lewis thinking about the child, thinking about pulling the girl into the middle of something that perhaps he couldn’t control. He had a headache.
The highway traffic was heavy into town. “I swear to God,” Lewis said, “there are more tourists every year. Can’t blame them, I guess. Pretty place.”
“Watch it,” Cyril pointed at a Mercedes pulling out from a trading post.
Lewis parked in front of Cyril’s office. “Is practice slow or something?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You can just not show up when you want to?”
“I had today scheduled off anyway.” Cyril found the door lever and pulled up on it. “Okay, Lewis,” he said, getting out of the truck. “You take it easy.”
“Thank you for your help, Cyril. I mean it.”
“My pleasure. I’m sorry we had to turn around.”
The truck lurched forward. Lewis almost struck his chin on the steering wheel. He looked into his side mirror and saw the trailer swaying a bit. He was jolted again and this time saw in the mirror the front of a dark-colored van or truck, but only for a second because it fell in behind the horses again. The horses were spooked badly. Lewis could see one rear up and hear both of them kicking the walls. Again, a jolt. Whoever it was behind him was ramming the trailer. Lewis stopped looking back in the mirror and accelerated. The old truck didn’t have much to give. Lewis’s hands began to sweat, his heart to pound. Another jolt. The horses were in a frenzy now and the trailer was weaving across the center line. He couldn’t risk his horses. If he stopped, these people might pass by or they might stop and kill him. But as it was, he was going to kill himself and the horses. He pulled off the road and tried to stop, hoping the brakes of the truck would hold out, hoping the trailer wouldn’t upset. He caught a glimpse of a truck at the top of the hill ahead coming his way. There was one more jolt that made the truck and trailer threaten to jacknife, but Lewis got it all stopped. He heard skidding and turning behind him. He also heard the racket of the horses. He opened his door and swung his legs out of the cab, held his face in his hands.
“You all right?”
Lewis looked up and saw the flatbed truck across the road facing the opposite direction. Then, he found the face of the young white man beside him. “Yeah. I’ve got to check my horses.” Lewis pushed himself to his feet, the kid helping. “Thanks.” He walked slowly to the trailer.
“I saw the whole thing,” the young man said. “That guy just ran you off the road.”
Lewis could see that the mare was bleeding from the nose. He opened the unloading door and let them settle down for a minute. Both were sopping wet with perspiration.
“Do you know who those guys were?”
Lewis shook his head. “I didn’t even get a good look at their truck.”
Lewis looked at him.
“Well, I didn’t get the license number, but it was a dark brown, Chevy van.”
Lewis stepped into the trailer on the mare’s side. The young man looked in behind him.
“Good thing you got them mattresses up there.”
The mare reared a little, but Lewis grabbed her halter and settled her down, stroked her, and made soothing sounds. Both horses were standing well and for this Lewis was grateful. He bent slowly and grabbed the mare’s blanket from the floor, tossed it over her. Somehow the gelding’s cover had stayed on.
“They all right?” the young man asked.
“I think so. Just scared.”
“You want me to go call the sheriff?”
Lewis didn’t want to have to tell Manny where he’d been with two horses that morning. “No, I can make it home now.” He came out of the trailer, but left the door open and stood by it to further assure the horses.
“Thanks for your help.”
“Just being neighborly.”
“Well, thanks a lot.”
The young man nodded and crossed the road to his truck. He waved to Lewis as he got in and again as he rolled away. Lewis said some more soothing words to his animals, then got into the truck and drove home. He became angry as he made his way slowly up the mountain. There was danger to be found. Laura would have to go home. He realized that his lip was split. He held it in his mouth and tasted his blood.
He parked at the corral and began to unload the horses. Laura and Maggie came from the house. Maggie frowned as she came close. Lewis didn’t look at them. He walked the mare to the gate and let her in. She snorted and gave a kick and marched into the pasture.
“Papa, your lip is bleeding,” Laura said.
“I know, Sweetie.” He tried to hold it in his mouth while he pulled the gelding out. The horse tugged back at first, then came easily. He joined the mare.
“Are you okay?” Maggie asked.
“I’m fine. I don’t feel like talking.”
“Come on, Laura,” Maggie said to the child, “let’s go get some dinner started.”
Having been grumpy with Maggie and Laura hurt more than his lip or his fear. He left the saddles in the back of the truck, but took the bridles and hung them on a nail on the back porch. He went into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, you two. I’m just tired and dirty and smelly and you know a person can’t be responsible for his behavior when he can’t stand his own smell.”
“I’m going to get cleaned up.” He looked at the fixings for the meal. “What are we having?”
“Chicken enchiladas,” Maggie said.
Lewis smiled at the woman, but felt she was seeing right through him. “Sounds good,” he said and left the kitchen.
He stood under the spray and made the water as hot as he could stand it. It relaxed the muscles in his neck which had knotted. He dried off and got dressed. He went into the kitchen and picked up the phone.
Laura turned at hearing her mother’s name. Lewis couldn’t look at her, so he turned to face the wall. The child came closer.
“I’m fine,” he said into the receiver. “Laura’s good, she’s fine, but she is why I’m calling. Some business has come up and, well, Laura will be coming home tomorrow.”
He listened to his daughter and glanced at Laura. She was stunned, her hands at her sides. She looked like she wanted to cry, but didn’t remember how.
“No, there’s nothing wrong,” he said.
Maggie looked at the chopped onions.
“I’ll call you later with the time and flight number.”
“Really, there’s nothing the matter. Okay. Bye, honey.” He put the receiver back into its cradle.
Laura ran out of the room.
Lewis shook his head, sat at the table. “Christ.”
“What happened, Lewis?” Maggie asked.
He took a deep breath. “Someone tried to run me off the road. They got behind me and kept bumping the trailer. Scared the horses nearly to death.”
“Tell me about it,” he said.
“What are you going to tell her?”
Lewis looked at the door the girl had run through. “I can’t tell her the truth. She’ll be scared and then her mother will be scared. Hell, Maggie, I don’t even know what’s going on. I don’t think you should be here.”
“I know too much. I’m in this with you.”
He looked at her.
“Try getting rid of me,” she said. “You think there’s trouble out there on the highway?”
“Thanks, Mag.” He thought about his granddaughter again. “I think it’s better for her to be pissed at me than scared. What do you think?”
“This stuff hurts.” He knew what he had to do. He had to go into the child’s room and tell her she had to leave because she was in the way. He couldn’t let her consider the business with Martin. He had to leave that out all together. “Here goes.”
He found Laura sitting on her bed, looking out the window. She had remembered how to cry. He sat beside her, took her hand.
“Laura, I’m an old man. A lonely old man. I love you very much and we’ll have plenty of time to spend together. But right now, I need time with Maggie, you know, so we can get things started.”
Laura looked at him with puffy eyes and he wasn’t sure she understood.
“I love you,” he said.
“You don’t want me here.”
“That’s not it, honey. It’s just that now’s not a good time. Later in the summer, that’ll be a good time. What do you say?”
She turned again to face the window.
“I’m really sorry, Sweetie.”
“I’m in the way.”
He looked out the window, too. “Yes, sweetie, that’s kind of it. Right now, just right now, you’re in the way.”
Laura curled up on the bed. Lewis put his hand on her back and felt her convulse. He picked her up and centered her on the bed, then stretched out beside her, his arm around her. This would be a long night.
Laura was lying under the covers in bed. Lewis switched on her bedside lamp and turned off the overhead light.
“There, that’s cozier,” he said. “Mind if I sit down here?”
Laura shook her head.
He sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on her knee. “You’re pretty upset, eh?”
“I’m sorry.” He looked at her things by her little suitcase. “Sometimes grown-ups have to be alone to get certain things taken care of. Seems the older you get, the more alone you need to be and the harder it is to adjust to things.”
She just looked at him.
“Evolution hasn’t done us any favors is what I’m trying to say.”
“I wish you had talked to me about it first,” Laura said.
Lewis blew out a sigh. Quite a reasonable request, he thought. He felt guilty. “You’re right, honey. I handled that badly. I should have talked to you first. I’m sorry.”
The child’s eyes stayed on his.
“You know how much I love you, don’t you? I wouldn’t do anything in the world to hurt you.”
“I know, Papa.”
He pulled her forward and hugged her. “What do you say I tell you a story?”
“A horse story.”
“A horse story.” Lewis thought, looking out the window. “Okay, here goes. Once in a land far away, there lived a very special horse, a beautiful black mare with white stockings. Only three people had ever actually seen the horse and they had long died. Legend had it that the horse never aged and would always stay strong. They called the horse Phyllis.”
“I can’t help it, that’s what they called her. One day, a very warm day, a little girl named Tilly went walking through the woods. She went farther than she had ever gone before and farther than she was supposed to. And you know what else?”
“She didn’t tell anybody where she was going.”
“That’s right. Have I told you this story?”
“Well, Tilly, of course, got hopelessly lost. She sat on a stump and started to cry. She was a loud crier and her sobs filled the forest. Birds and squirrels came to see what could make such a noise.” Lewis looked at his granddaughter’s eyes, weak from crying themselves. “The animals huddled together and tried to come up with a plan. ‘We’re too small to carry her,’ the squirrels said. ‘She’s too heavy for us,’ said the birds. They decided that the bear would scare her and that if they got the lion, he would eat her.” Laura was drifting off. ‘“What about Phyllis?’a chipmunk asked. They all agreed. Phyllis came and the girl climbed on. They walked for a very long way, through rain and bad winds.” Laura was asleep. Lewis stood, still talking, and switched off the light. As he closed the door, he whispered to himself, “But they never found their way home. Together they were hopelessly lost.”
He walked into the kitchen and caught Maggie eating a cookie. He said, “And of course they starved to death.”
“There’re more cookies,” Maggie said.
Lewis didn’t get much sleep. He spent most of the night out of the bed, sitting in the chair by the window. He watched the horses standing, finally at ease. His head hurt. His muscles ached. He was dead tired, but he couldn’t sleep. Maggie watched him much of the time from the bed. She asked him once to come to bed, but he didn’t answer.
Maggie came up behind Lewis in the chair and rubbed his neck. “I love you, Lewis.”
He reached up and took her hands, held them under his chin. “You must. I love you, too.”
Morning came and Lewis decided that Maggie should drive Laura to the airport in Albuquerque. He didn’t think whoever it was that had tried to run him off the road would look for Maggie’s truck. The small truck also had bucket seats, which meant that only two could ride and he didn’t want to leave Maggie alone. He did wonder if he was just avoiding the awkward time with Laura and decided that of course he was, but that didn’t make the other considerations less real.
Maggie was behind the wheel. Laura was standing at the open car door, saying goodbye to Lewis.
He got down on a knee. “You call me when you get there, okay?”
“Are you all right?”
She hugged him tightly about the neck and he hugged back. He wanted to never let go.
“I love you so much,” he said.
“I love you, Papa.”
Lewis fought back tears and held her in front of him. “I hope you understand. We’ll see each other soon. You can count on that. Okay, young lady, you have a plane to catch. In you go.” He helped her into the truck, closed her door and walked to Maggie’s side. “You take it easy.”
“Speed limit all the way.”
“On the way back, too,” he said.
He leaned in and kissed her. He stepped back and waved as they drove off.
He went back into the house and took his shotgun out of the back of the closet. It’s come to this, he thought. He hoped he was over-reacting. He looked at the clock. Seven-thirty. That meant it was nine-thirty in the east. He picked up the phone and called a friend at Bennington.
“Hello, Mark, this is Lewis…I’m fine…How about you?…And Sylvia…Good, good…Listen, I was calling to see if you’d do me a favor…Shouldn’t be too much trouble. Would you check with the registrar and find out if a Donna Peabody is enrolled…That’s right, Donna Peabody…And you’ll call me back collect, okay?…That’s all. Thanks.” Lewis hung up and cleaned his gun.
An hour later, Lewis’ friend Mark called. Lewis learned that there was no Donna Peabody enrolled at Bennington.
Peabody. It was after Lewis had dropped him off that the van showed up. And that wound in the mare’s frog. Peabody could have cut her with his knife. After all, Lewis hadn’t seen the horse limping before.
Lewis took the shotgun and held it in his lap as he sat in the rocker in the living room. He looked around the room. Sitting armed in my own house, he thought. He never would have believed it. Who was Peabody? What did he want? Maybe he was just lying about his kid because she was a junkie or something and was ashamed of her. Maybe the mare really did pick up a stone. And then again, maybe Peabody didn’t want them going farther down into the canyon.
At noon, Maggie called to say that Laura had gotten on the plane.
“You’re coming home now?” Lewis asked.
“Yeah. Are you doing all right?”
“Yep. How was Laura?”
“Okay.” Maggie sounded unsure. “Her feelings were hurt, but I don’t think she knows what’s going on.”
“At least something’s working out right.”
“Do you need me to pick up anything on my way home?”
“Not that I can think of. Please, be careful. I’m fine, so don’t hurry. Don’t use me as an excuse to drive the way you normally do.”
“See you when you get here.”
“That’s one of those stupid things that people say,” Maggie said. “Of course you’ll see me when I get there.” She laughed. “Just giving you a sample of what you’re getting.”
Lewis took the shotgun and went out into the yard. He pointed it at trees and at the shed and at his car. The thing felt heavier than he had ever remembered. He sat down on the chopping block and looked at the plateau below. When he was a boy he would go hunting with his father and uncle. He’d never liked the noise and after he got his first kill, a fat mallard, he always tried to miss. He could put up with the teasing about his eyes, but not with the dead animal, eyes open, looking back at him as his father held it high. But still he went. Even though given a choice, he went.
“Why do you keep going?” his wife had asked, for he continued to attend the rituals as an adult.
He didn’t have an answer for her. It was the killing, though. It was the killing that kept him going back out there. He couldn’t do it, but he wanted to see it.
Maggie was overdue. Lewis looked at his watch. It had been only three minutes since his last glance. It was five-thirty-seven. If Maggie had left Albuquerque as late as one-thirty, she was still overdue. He considered that she might have stopped to shop, though it seemed unlikely. Perhaps there had been yet another mass escape from the state prison in Santa Fe and she was being delayed by road blocks. He switched on the radio and found a station with news. The woman giving the report talked about a young boy’s body being found floating in a ditch, then a story on the building water in the Elephant Butte and Cochiti dams. No jail break. He watched out the window and listened. Maybe she’d had car trouble. She would have called. He switched off the radio and went to the phone in the kitchen. He called the state police and asked if there had been any accidents reported involving a maroon Mazda pickup. A woman told him there had not been any such accident. He thanked her and hung up. He was sure that if he left the house the phone would ring and it would be Maggie needing help, but he felt an urge to leave and search for her. He reached for the receiver again, this time dialing the sheriff’s number which was written on the pad in front of him.
“May I speak to Sheriff Mondragon?”
“Lewis Mason. Tell him it’s important. Please.”
He was put on hold.
“Prof?” It was Manny.
“Manny, I need your help. At least, I think I need your help. You know Maggie Okada.”
“Well, she drove my granddaughter to the airport in Albuquerque and left there at noon or so and she’s not back yet.”
“Probably stopped to shop,” Manny said.
“I don’t think so.”
“You think she’s having a problem or something?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, if she’s just a couple hours late—” Manny paused. “I don’t see why you’re worried enough to call me.”
“I guess I’m just over-reacting.”
“I can have a man drive the road, take a look. I can’t do much more than that.”
“Okay, thanks, Manny.”
“Call me back if she doesn’t show.”
“Right.” Lewis hung up. It was six o’clock now. He grabbed a jacket and went out to his car. He got in and turned the key and nothing happened. He remembered he’d moved the battery to his truck. He got out and wondered if it would be faster to unhitch the trailer or get the battery. He laughed at his thinking. If the guys in the van were looking for his truck, then he should take the car. On the other hand, if they knew his car and his truck, then it would be better to be in the truck because it was more powerful and faster without the trailer. He shook his head as he began to undo the chains on the hitch. He pushed the trailer back and let it down.
He slid and skidded his way down the dirt road to the highway, driving too fast. He came to his senses as he pulled onto the black top. He’d be of no use to Maggie dead or maimed himself. He drove into town and out the other side. He stopped for gas before the pass, watching the road while he pumped in case Maggie drove by.
He made his way over the mountains and into the town of Española. It was here that he would really have to be alert. Maggie might pass him in this traffic easily. A maroon vehicle would not be the easiest to see. He was beginning to have the feeling that Maggie was all right, that after a drive all the way to Albuquerque and back he would find her at home worrying about him.
He left Española and stopped along the side of the road outside of Santa Fe. He would have to think this through. There was not only a great deal of traffic in Santa Fe, but the freeway began here. And it was getting dark. There were just too many ways they could miss each other, so he decided to get through town as quickly as possible, drive to Cochiti and turn back.
It was dark when he finished the loop and was again in Santa Fe. He continued toward home, still scrutinizing the roadside. Then, at Camel Rock, parked with the last tourists’ cars, was a small, maroon pickup. He stopped, got out and approached the vehicle. It was a Mazda. It was Maggie’s.
He walked across the road to the Camel Rock. A woman was yelling at her husband that it was too dark to take a picture. A teenager had almost finished his climb to the top of the Camel’s head. Lewis called out.
The highway patrolman didn’t seem all that concerned. Of course, it was not his friend who was missing. He walked around the truck, shining the beam of his flashlight at the tires, into the cab, at the grill. He studied the hood, then bent to see more closely.
“What is it?” Lewis asked.
“I don’t think she had any kind of engine trouble,” the officer said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Look at the dust on the hood. Hasn’t been disturbed. Even people who don’t know anything about cars open the hood when something’s wrong. If she had opened it, she’d have left prints, smudges in the dust.” The patrolman seemed pleased at his deduction.
“So, what do you think?”
“I’d say she stopped here, met someone and left with that person or persons-unknown.”
“If she doesn’t call or show up in twenty-four hours, she becomes a missing person.”
“She’s a missing person now,” Lewis said. “You find somebody’s car abandoned on a highway a hundred miles from her home and that somebody is also overdue after having told a friend when she expected to arrive and that somebody’s car has not failed her in any apparent way and that somebody is not missing? Is that what you’re telling me?”
The patrolman leaned against Maggie’s truck. “I understand what you’re saying and you and I are well aware that each set of circumstances is unique, but the law can’t take into account every individual case. The rule says that a party must be missing for twenty-four hours before considered missing. In some places it’s forty-eight hours.”
Lewis looked at him. “You said that very well. In the meantime, while I’m waiting for my lost friend to become missing, what do you suggest I do?”
“Go home and wait. She’s probably waiting for you.” The officer looked at the truck. “She may have heard a sound that she wasn’t familiar with, knew she couldn’t fix and didn’t bother to raise the hood.”
“She would have called.”
The patrolman shrugged.
Lewis was wishing that he had lied about how long Maggie was overdue. The younger man gave him a “keep steady” slap on the shoulder and went to his patrol car where he sat with his door open and his dome light on and used the radio. Lewis looked at the highway. The silhouette of Camel Rock stood against the lavender night sky.
The patrolman came back. “Listen, unofficially, we’re considering your friend missing. We’re keeping our eyes open, but no one is assigned to finding her. Okay?”
Lewis nodded. “Thanks.”
“We’ll just leave the car here. She might come back for it.”
Lewis got into his truck and headed home.
Lewis didn’t think there was any chance Maggie would be waiting for him. Perhaps she’d had car trouble that she recognized, like the cop said. Maybe she hitched a ride with a crazed rapist. Lewis shook his head and wondered what other kind of rapist there was. He started up the mountain. The night seemed darker than usual. Lewis had never felt so lost, so helpless. All of it was his fault, too. He parked by the corral and looked at his house. He remembered leaving a light on, but it was pitch black. He climbed the steps, opened the door and walked in. He paused, his finger on the switch to the light in the kitchen, and listened. Nothing. He turned on the light.
The phone rang and startled him. Then he ran to it. “Hello.”
“Papa?” It was Laura.
“You made it safe and sound, eh?”
“Are you doing fine?”
“Yes. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Mommy wanted me to call and tell you I got here.”
“I’m glad you did. I miss you a lot.”
“I miss you. Do you want to talk to Mommy?”
“No, I’ll talk to her later, okay? Bye, honey.” Lewis hung up. He went into his living room and sat on the sofa with his shotgun. He held the cold barrel against his face. The night was dead still, dead quiet. Lewis kept seeing in his mind the body of Martin Aguilera, naked and bloated, burns on the legs, and he could see the procession of men marching around the ugly sight of death, beating themselves, bleeding and hurting and for a second he understood, for a second would have been able to strike himself in the same manner. He took a deep breath and tried to think more useful thoughts.
Peabody was the next step. Lewis reviewed all his suspicions of the man. If he was involved in whatever was going on, then Lewis had to confront him. If the man was not a part of it, then Lewis would only make a fool of himself. He could live with that, was quite used to it.
He went to the kitchen and put on water for tea. Why had they taken Maggie? If indeed they had. Some unrelated crazy might have abducted her. The thought was no less disturbing. He fell into a chair at the table. The water boiled and the kettle whistled. Lewis cried.
Lewis managed a couple of hours of sleep. The phone remained silent in bed next to him. He showered and dressed in the morning, ate a bowl of oatmeal, dumped the horses’ trough and put in fresh water. He got out into his truck and drove down the mountain. He skidded to a stop in the dirt lot of Peabody’s office. He found the front door ajar. The assistant was not at her station. The room was dim and so Lewis opened the blinds. Peabody appeared in the doorway behind the desk.
“I thought I might be seeing you this morning,” Peabody said, stepping fully into the room.
Lewis just looked at him. He was afraid. He looked at the man’s hands to see if he was armed. He felt dumb for not having brought his shotgun.
“How is your friend Maggie?”
“You tell me.”
Peabody smiled and sat at the desk. “Please, Lewis, have a seat.”
Lewis sat on the fake-leather-covered bench.
“Yes, we have your Maggie.”
“Please don’t hurt her.”
“Whether we do is up to you, Lewis.”
Lewis looked at the man’s face. He wasn’t the same Cyril Peabody, for the eyes were cold, the face hard. “Who are you? What’s going on?”
“I don’t see that you’re entitled to any answers here. If you want your friend back, then you’ll tell me what you know about Martin Aguilera’s corpse. You told me you got a look at it. I want it.”
“I assume you had it at one point.”
“That doesn’t matter. Where is it?”
“This has something to do with the burns on him, with the squirrel, with the missing animals.”
Peabody looked at his watch. “I’m not into all these deadlines like other people, you know. We have your friend. That’s what you need to understand. And we want the old man’s body. You can tell me where it is or you can get it for me.”
“I have no idea what’s going on, but I know that I’ve seen the burns and I know that you want me dead.”
“I don’t want you dead.”
“Your men tried to run me off the road.”
“What can I say? If people followed directions I wouldn’t be here telling you to get a body you should never have seen.”
“What they say about good help and all that,” Lewis said.
“I don’t believe you’re going to let Maggie or me live.”
“You’ve seen too many movies. Look at it like this: If you don’t help me, we’ll kill her and we’ll kill you. That’s a given. If you do help? A chance anyway.”
“Just so I’m clear on this,” Lewis said. His hands were sweaty. He was cold. He wanted to laugh. He felt crazy. “You want me to get Martin Aguilera’s body and bring it to you. Then, you’ll let Maggie go.”
Peabody pointed a finger at Lewis. “That’s it. That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I’m saying to you.” He leaned back in the chair. “It’s a pleasure doing business with intelligent people.”
“I’m not sure I can get the body.”
“You can try. If you fail, you fail your friend. I kill you and that’s that. I’m glad you got the kid out of the way. That’s just too much to explain. Parents and all that, you know. But you, you I can explain. I can give you a heart attack. You can have a car wreck.”
Lewis tried to think of someone to tell. There was really only his daughter and he would only scare her. Everyone else would think he was insane, a paranoid old man.
“You can see the sort of thing I mean,” Peabody said.
“I’m surprised you don’t already know where the body is. I’m sure you had me followed.”
“I’m not here to discuss this with you. I want the body. You get it. Now, I think it’s time you were on your way.”
Lewis stood and walked to the door. He turned and looked at Peabody. He’d never really hated anyone before, but he hated this man. He watched the awful man’s face smile at him.
Lewis didn’t think about saying it, didn’t really know he was saying it, but he did say it, “If you hurt Maggie Okada, I will kill you.” He felt stupid saying it, felt like he had been tricked into saying it.
“Good day, Lewis.”
Lewis left. He drove to town and parked in the lot of Archie’s Lumber Company. He just sat there in his car, replaying all of it over and over, shaking his head and not understanding how any of it could be real, remembering how normal the day had been when he and Laura were off to pay a visit to old Martin. He waved at some people crossing the lot. They seemed to look at him a second too long.
Lewis checked his mirror as he drove through town and saw no van nor sign of anyone else following him. He parked in the grocery store parking lot, walked across the street and into a mineral and gem shop and exited through the back door. He crossed a vacant lot and was on the dirt road that went to the Episcopal church. He walked via backroads toward the plaza, realizing just how visible a six-foot, sixty-six-year-old, black man was in these parts. He found his way to the alley that ran behind the House of Boots. The back door was open and so he walked in.
He went to the curtain and looked at the room full of customers. A woman with a massive blonde hairdo was having her pre-school son try on fifty dollar snake-skin boots. A very large man had a peculiar, high voice and he was saying the boots in question were too tight. Salvador was sitting on a stool, his back to the store room, helping a couple of homosexual men in leather pants.
Salvador’s daughter Gloria was helping the mother and the very large man. She was a pretty young woman, a little heavy, but she bore her weight well. She wore a lot of makeup on her eyes. She saw Lewis.
Lewis smiled and waved at her.
“What are you doing there?” she asked.
Salvador turned around.
“I need to talk to your father,” Lewis told her. “Salvador?”
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” the old man said. He let his daughter know it was okay.
“Estos son — son.” One of the homosexual men searched for a word, standing on a thick-heeled boot.
Salvador helped him. “Corto? Apretado?”
“Which one means tight?” the man asked.
“Apretado,” Salvador said.
“Apre-tado,” the gay man said proudly, smiled at his friend. “Estos son apre-tado.”
Salvador said in English, “Would you like to try the next size up?”
Salvador got up and walked to the store room. He let the curtain down over the doorway behind him.
“I’m really sorry to bother you, Salvador, but I can’t help it. Please don’t be upset with me. I need Martin’s body.”
Salvador looked as if he wanted to run from his own store. He was terrified. “I cannot talk of this,” he said.
“Another life is at stake. We have to.”
Salvador turned away and studied a wall of boxes in the dim room. “I do not hear what you’re saying to me. Please, Lewis, leave now.”
“They’ve kidnapped my friend Maggie. I don’t know if you know Maggie Okada. She’s Japanese, short, about sixty. Oh, forget this—” Lewis stopped, and sighed a frown. “Salvador, I’ve been told that if I don’t turn over Martin’s body, they will kill her.”
Lewis turned away, then back. He thought Salvador was crying. He felt sick and guilty. He was breaking his word to this man. “I need your help, Salvador.”
Gloria pulled back the curtain and looked at Lewis and her father. “Que le ocurre?”
“Nada.” Lewis waved her back onto the floor.
The woman gave Lewis a threatening stare before going back to the customers.
“I will not discuss this with you. Find Ignacio. He is a young man with a strong heart and he can talk to you. I am too old, too close to death. Please, just find Ignacio.”
“Okay, Salvador. You relax. Forget I was here.” Lewis was sure the man was crying now. “I wasn’t here, all right?”
Lewis left. He didn’t know where to find Ignacio. Had it been the evening he could have gone to the Best Western and asked Ernesto. He remembered that Ignacio for a while lived in Arroyo Azul.
He made his way back to his truck. It was already noon. The sun was high and it was hot. He longed to be up on the mountain. He wondered if all of this would go away if he just ignored it.
He pulled from the parking lot and drove north out of town, then east to Arroyo Azul. The land was beautiful out there, a small valley green and dotted with little places. Whites hadn’t moved into it yet because they were afraid of the Mexicans who were poor and who drove low-riders and played their music loud.
Lewis stopped in front of an adobe house with two junk cars on blocks beside it. An old sway-backed horse was tied to a tree with a rope around its neck. The horse looked up from its nibbling at the grass when Lewis pulled up, then put its head down again. A man was haying a field across the road. Lewis thought he had the right house. He knocked on the door.
A dog barked, then appeared, running full speed round the corner of the house. It was a Doberman and Lewis was not pleased to see him.
“Nice boy,” Lewis said.
The dog stood in the yard, between Lewis and his car, and barked, standing tense and ready. Lewis knocked again.
A teenage girl opened the door. She was pulling a robe closed about her small body.
“Does Ignacio Nunez live here?” Lewis asked.
The girl was groggy from sleep. “Yes, but he’s not here.”
Lewis looked at her face. “Are you Ignacio’s wife?” he asked, though he didn’t believe it.
The girl laughed. “He’s my father,” she said and she tilted her head down and looked up at him in that teenager way.
“Do you know where your father is right now?”
“Can you tell me where he’s working?”
She leaned against the door and rubbed her temple. “He’s—” She thought while she spoke. “—putting a roof on a barn. That’s what he told me.”
She sighed. “I think he’s over at San Luis. A man named Rubens, something like that.”
“Thank you,” Lewis said. “You have a very good memory.”
The girl smiled weakly, unimpressed by the flattery, and started to close the door.
“Could you call your dog?” Lewis asked.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Mala.” The dog ran by Lewis and into the house. She closed the door without another word or look.
Mala, Lewis thought as he got into his truck, Spanish for bad. He wanted to get Mala the dog and take it to see Doctor Peabody.
Lewis knew the Rubens place. It was a small ranch. He drove by pastured cattle with yellow ear-tags. Calves trotted after their mothers. Lewis could see where men were working on a barn.
Ignacio was on top, trying to line up a new piece of tin against an old seam. Lewis waved up to him, but Ignacio didn’t wave back. He did not seem pleased to see Lewis.
Ignacio scooted across the roof to the ladder and climbed down. “Hello, Lewis,” he said. “What brings you out here?”
“I’m looking for you.”
“Yes?” Ignacio unhitched his leather tool belt and let it rest over the side of the pickup bed.
Lewis let out a deep breath. “I don’t even know how to start this.”
Ignacio looked at him and seemed to anticipate the subject. “Then don’t,” he said and he turned away just as Salvador had.
“My friend Maggie has been kidnapped. I know how this sounds. I don’t really believe it myself, but it’s true. She’s been taken.”
“By who? Who took her?” Ignacio turned and faced him.
Lewis shook his head. “Ignacio, I don’t know who they are.” He felt a tear on his cheek. Ignacio was staring at it. “They want Martin’s body.”
Again, Ignacio turned away.
“I talked to Salvador and he sent me to talk to you. I’m so sorry. I’m sick about it. If there was any other way, I wouldn’t be here.”
“We let you see Martin and you said that would be it.”
“I know. What can I say? They say they’ll kill her, if I don’t give them the body.”
“I can’t help you.”
“I can’t even talk about it.”
Lewis was sick of begging. “Fine, Ignacio, great. Save your soul by not talking about the dead, but be damned for letting someone die. Think about it.”
Ignacio said nothing, picked up his tool belt and fastened it around his waist. He was looking at the ground as he turned away.
“One other thing,” Lewis said. “Maybe you can do this.”
Ignacio looked at him.
“Switch trucks with me. Mine has a full tank and I’ll fill yours.”
“Keys are in it.”
Lewis thanked him. He took the beat up truck and drove to town and out the other side. Since it didn’t look like he was going to get Martin’s body, he decided to try the state police.
Lewis went over the things he might say to the state police when he got to Santa Fe. All of it sounded wild and unbelievable. Burns on dead bodies and kidnapping and vets who weren’t vets. He thought about Manny and remembered his looking the other way and filing the drowning report. Manny he knew to be a good man. If they could get to him, they could get to the state police. Maybe they had something on Manny personally. Maybe they kidnapped someone close to him. Lewis watched the yellow line of the highway flash by. He’d have to try the state police. He was out of options.
At the police headquarters, Lewis parked in the first spot in the lot he saw, hoping the walk to the building would steady him. A man and woman came through the door with a teenage boy with a bandage on the side of his face. A Mutt and Jeff team of patrolmen got into a car. A cluster of patrolmen stood laughing a few yards away from the door. One spat tobacco juice into the bushes.
Lewis entered. The station was clean, almost antiseptic, he thought. He realized he had little reason or opportunity in his life to be in police stations. It wasn’t what he expected. A woman at a desk with striking green eyes asked Lewis if he needed help.
“Yes, I’d like to file a missing person report.” He hoped he was saying it right. “Actually, I think it’s a kidnapping. Do I talk to the same person?” He felt himself breaking up. At least he didn’t like the way he sounded.
The woman’s too-green eyes showed sympathy. “Have a seat here, Mr.?”
“Mason.” He sat beside her desk in the seat she had indicated.
She picked up the phone and asked for a sergeant. She hung up. “I’ll get a call back in a second,” she said.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee? There’re doughnuts over on that table.” She pointed.
“Thank you.” Lewis was hungry. “I think I will have a doughnut.” He got up and went to the table. He looked over the selection, then up and out the large window.
Parked in the lot was a brown van. Lewis rationalized that there were many brown vans around. This one was parked with the patrol cars. He picked up a glazed doughnut and took a bite. He remembered the van which had driven past him on the street in front of the restaurant that day. He remembered that he could not make out the tag because of the dirt. He tossed what he was eating into the can by the table and went back to the green-eyed woman.
“Where is the men’s room?” he asked.
He didn’t go to the restroom. He left the building and made a wide circle in the parking lot to get a view of the rear plate of the van. It wasn’t a New Mexico tag, he knew that, but he could not make it out. Because of the dirt. He found himself wanting to run, but he walked back to Ignacio’s truck and drove away.
Lewis stopped at a restaurant in Española. The tables were in booths that wore facades of old west town places; the livery, the saloon, the barber shop. The hostess sat him in the undertaker’s.
He ordered a hamburger, a lame attempt at convincing himself he was somewhere else. The sandwich came with green chiles on it. He was especially glad now that he had exchanged his truck for Ignacio’s. He never imagined he could be so afraid. Once, while at a conference in Chicago, a man had pointed a gun at him and demanded his money. He was scared then, but it was a simple matter of handing over the cash. There were too many unknowns here. Maybe if he had some idea of why Martin had been killed in the first place, he could have found more purchase.
He thought of Maggie. Was she really all right? Was she alive? Hurt? Blindfolded? Did Peabody think they knew more than they did? He could hear Maggie’s smart ass remarks flying. Perhaps that would amuse them enough that they wouldn’t just hurt to relieve the boredom. He’d had three bites of the burger, but could eat no more.
He would leave here and go to see Manny. He knew Manny had to be getting tired of this stuff. And he’d have to do something once he learned that Cyril Peabody had admitted to Lewis that he had abducted Maggie.
The waitress came and topped his iced tea and he asked for the check.
Unlike the state police headquarters, the county sheriff’s office had no cars, patrol or otherwise, parked in its lot. Lewis walked in to find Flora, the heavy dispatcher and secretary alone at her desk, eating a packaged snack-cake.
She wiped her mouth daintily with a handkerchief. “May I help you?” she asked.
“Is the sheriff in?”
“He’s on patrol.” She looked at the clock. “He should be back at three, but I can call him.”
Lewis decided he could wait the forty-five minutes. There was no sense in getting started on the wrong foot by rushing the man back. Lewis looked at back issues of Popular Mechanics and Motor Trend. Flora burped and excused herself. Lewis smiled at her.
Flora got up and left the room. Lewis assumed she was off to the restroom. He looked at the clock. He had twenty minutes. He stood and walked to the door of Manny’s office. He went inside and pushed the door to gently. He stood there and searched for his breath and thoughts. He went to the sheriff’s desk and glanced at the papers atop it. He looked at everything. There was an unsigned complaint of a woman accusing her husband of assault and an accident report saying that the teenage driver had been drunk.
He pulled back the blinds and looked at the lot. Back at the desk, he found a television schedule open and a program circled: Invisible Weapons. The guide said it was a documentary about the chemical warfare agents of World War I. He found a letter from the State Association of Law Enforcement Officials reminding Manny of an upcoming meeting in Las Cruces. There was nothing on the desk that helped him. He went to the file cabinets. He looked up Aguilera, Martin. The folder was thin, containing only the report which stated that an old man had drowned in the Rio Grande. He paused and listened. He guessed that Flora had just assumed he’d left. He looked at the report. Aguilera, Martin; born 1919, five-feet-six-inches tall, brown hair, brown eyes. Lewis closed the folder. He dropped it on the floor, not absently, but defiantly and he kicked it. He snatched open the Ñ-through-S drawer without a thought to Flora in the next room. He was looking for Peabody.
Lewis could hear Flora at the door. She knocked. “Manny?”
Lewis pulled files, leafed through them and dropped them. He turned when Flora opened the door. They looked at each other for a full ten seconds, just standing there. Lewis went back to the desk and pulled open drawers, dumping handfuls of things onto the top, loose bullets, plastic toy handcuffs, mint candies.
Flora came back to the doorway, more composed. She said, “Manny wants to talk to you on the radio.”
Lewis stared at her for a few seconds, then followed her to her desk. She picked up the handpiece and said, “Here he is, Manny.” She gave the thing to Lewis.
“What’s going on, Lewis?” Manny asked. His voice sounded strange through the speaker.
“What’s going on?”
“You have to push the button down to talk,” Flora said.
He held the button down. “What’s going on, Manny?” He felt Flora’s chair behind him and sat in it.
“Tell me what you’re talking about,” the sheriff’s voice cracked with static.
“What do you mean, missing?”
“I went to the state police, Manny.”
“What’d they say?”
Lewis began to think that Manny was trying to keep him on the radio and became anxious. “I’ve got to go.”
“No, wait until I get there, Lewis.”
He put the handpiece down and backed away from it.
“The sheriff wants you to wait,” Flora said.
Lewis said nothing to her. He got up and walked past her and out of the station. He got into the truck and sped off. He rubbed his head at a four-way stop. He stopped for gas, nervously checking for Manny or anybody. No one was following him, he was confident of that.
He parked across the street from the house of boots and just sat for several minutes. He decided he just couldn’t watch Salvador cry again and left. He needed to go home, though he didn’t think that was the safest place, get his shotgun and hike up into the canyon behind Martin’s cabin. The answer, some answer, was up there. He didn’t feel afraid anymore. He didn’t care what happened to him.
As Lewis drove up the mountain he thought about what he had done in Manny’s office. He’d let off steam and perhaps made some kind of statement, but he had learned nothing and had maybe alienated the only person who might have come to his aid. He wondered if subconsciously he was attempting to lure the sheriff into following him. He laughed at himself. Would that he were that smart. He glanced again at his mirror, looking for flashing blue lights.
Lewis went into his house and grabbed the shotgun. He stopped at the door. For all his holding it and gaining comfort from it, he had not loaded it. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and snatched up a handful of shells. He put them in his pocket. If the situation did arise that he would have to shoot at someone, if he could at all, he would not need many shells, the loading of the double-barrelled gun being so slow. He went to the kitchen and filled his canteen with water from the tap, then left the house and put the gun in the back of the truck under a tarp.
As he rolled down the dusty trail to the highway, he spotted a blue van parked a ways up a fire break. He backed up and studied it for a while. Then he was out of the cab and grabbing the shotgun. He approached slowly, looking behind him as much as forward. He stood by the back doors. So, it wasn’t brown, but blue. What was it doing here? He heard moaning from within.
He wondered if Maggie could be inside. He stepped wide cautiously to see that the driver’s seat was empty. He did the same on the other side. He walked forward and looked through the window, but could not see into the back. The moaning continued. He went to the back doors and grasped the handle, pushed down slowly. The handle clacked loudly so he jerked it quickly, pulled the door open and swung the shotgun up.
A woman screamed. She pulled a blanket over her body and the young man beside her pulled discarded clothes into his lap. Lewis knew he had made a mistake, but he was embarrassed and adrenaline filled his bloodstream and heart.
“What the hell are you doing out here?” he asked, letting the gun down.
“We didn’t mean to trespass, mister,” the young man said.
Lewis looked at the woman. She was considerably older than the man. The situation was painfully obvious, Lewis thought.
“Well, you did,” Lewis told them. “So, get your clothes on and get out of here.” He closed the door and walked away from them, back toward the truck. He put the gun under the tarp. It slipped from his sweaty palms and banged against the metal of the bed. He got in and just sat behind the wheel for a while. He could have shot someone. His head ached. He could have shot those people, taken them both out with one squeeze of the trigger. He looked up the fire break and saw the back-up lights of the van come on. He started the truck and drove on down the mountain.
The way to Martin’s seemed longer, though there was little traffic. On his way through town, he thought he saw his pickup at a gas station. He looked at everything, trying not to think. He watched young women, fashionable and pretty, walk through the downtown area. He watched one of Manny’s deputies, idle at a red light, not noticing Lewis, and again he was thankful for having switched trucks. As he rolled out the other side of town, he looked closely at the eroding adobe dwellings of poor Mexicans.
He drove on, across the river, past the cafe and up the road to Martin’s cabin. He considered hiding the truck off the road, up a fire break covered with brush, but he thought if he ran into trouble, he might need it in a hurry. He told himself again that he might not find anything up there, but he might luck up. He was overdue. He might find Maggie, alive and uninjured. He shook his head. He had a feeling that Maggie was dead.
He took the shotgun from beneath the tarp, left the truck and started up the trail into the canyon. Again, even more, he was struck by the absence of the sounds of birds. The trees seemed to be suffering now as well, browning, the bark of the firs reddening. He climbed higher and found the leaves of the aspens curling. There were no flies, no bees. He turned over a log and found nothing. If things were dying, they still had to be somewhere, he thought. He walked past the point where he had stopped before. He paused to catch his breath, leaned the shotgun against a tree, and drank from his canteen. He looked at the gun. He broke it open, observed the shells, and engaged the barrels. He walked on.
Lewis saw a fence and two men behind it searching for something. Then he was dizzy. He closed his eyes for a second, then opened them, trying to see more clearly. He heard a rustling and so he stopped, looked around. He stepped toward some bushes for cover. He heard another sound. In a forest without animals, any noise screamed. Then there were footsteps, definitely footsteps. Something had him. A hand was over Lewis’ mouth, the gun out of his grasp. He tried to kick and his legs were grabbed. All he could do was look and he saw Ignacio in front of him, controlling his legs and holding a finger to pursed lips. Lewis nodded and the hand fell from his face. He looked behind him and there was Ernesto. Ernesto wasn’t looking, but listening.
Lewis tried to breathe normally, quietly.
“Did you two follow me?” Lewis asked.
“Yes,” Ignacio said.
“You’re a crazy old man,” Ernesto said.
“I thought about what you said,” Ignacio said. “But it’s not up to me alone.”
Lewis realized that they were supporting more and more of his weight. Ernesto said something to him, but he couldn’t make it out. He tried to speak, but he wasn’t sure his mouth was moving.
“Do you hear it?” Lewis thought he was saying.
“What?” Ignacio asked.
He could see Ignacio and Ernesto talking to each other.
“Listen.” His tongue felt huge in his mouth.
He read Ignacio’s lips to say, “It’s okay.”
“No birds,” he said. “No animals.”
The brothers stopped walking and listened. Lewis passed out.
It was Mala. Lewis focused. Mala the Doberman sat with unblinking eyes, watching Lewis, his tongue moving back and forth in a slow pant. Lewis frowned, his head hurting as he raised it. He was on a sofa. An Indian blanket was over the lower half of his body. He looked under the cover and saw his legs. He was without trousers, though his underwear remained. Mala closed his mouth and leaned forward. Lewis didn’t move. The dog put his cold nose against the side of Lewis’ face. Lewis petted Mala’s head, then sat up, keeping the blanket over his lap. The room was furnished with mismatched chairs and a large china closet, partially filled, in a corner. A television was on across the room. It was dark outside and the room was lit by two ornate standing lamps, one with a ripped shade so that light blared out of it like noise. Lewis looked away from it. Mala stood and leaned his head against Lewis’ thigh. Lewis stroked him some more. Lewis could hear that it was raining outside. He thought how they really needed rain, then laughed. What good could rain do for dead people? He looked at his hands. They had been washed, but the scratches were plain to see.
Slowly, everything came back. Lewis remembered the fence, the masked men, Ignacio and Ernesto. He pulled up the blanket from the bottom to look at his leg. The wound had been dressed neatly in gauze and surgical tape. He could see the sink of the lighted kitchen from where he sat. He heard a rustling and he remembered the woods again.
Ignacio’s teenage daughter walked in from the kitchen with an open bag of potato chips. She stopped when she saw Lewis sitting up. “You’re awake,” she said.
Lewis nodded, still petting Mala’s head.
“I see you made a friend,” the girl said. She sat in an over-stuffed chair in front of the television. “How do you feel?”
“Okay. Did you put the bandage on for me?”
“Me and my daddy.”
“No hay de que.”
They sat quietly for a couple of minutes, the girl looking at the set. “What are you watching?” Lewis asked.
“Something about monkeys. Wild Kingdom, something like that.”
“I like nature shows.” She looked at him, offered him chips.
“No, thank you. May I have some water though?”
“Sure.” She got up and went to the kitchen. She came back with a tall glass of water with ice.
She returned to her chair, turned up the sound.
Lewis sipped the water. “Where is your father?”
“He said he’d be back soon.”
Lewis looked around the room again. There was a cross on the wall over the mantel of the fireplace. “Where is your mother?”
“My mother is dead,” the girl said without taking her eyes off the television.
“Me llamo Lewis.”
“Carla,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you,” Lewis said. “I wish it could be under other circumstances.” He put his glass down on the coffee table, looked at the old newspapers and magazines. “How long has it been raining?”
“About an hour, off and on.”
“We need it,” he said.
Carla pointed at the screen. “I think they know they’re being cute.”
Mala walked away from Lewis, barked once and sat facing the door. Lewis watched the muscles of the dog’s body, smooth and tense. Someone knocked.
Lewis knew someone was there before the knock. The girl had to know it too, but she didn’t turn her attention from the monkeys until she heard it. She got up and went to the door, opened it an inch.
“Buenas tardes, Carla,” a man said.
“Sheriff,” she said. Mala stood. Carla held up a hand and told him to stay. He sat again.
“Como esta usted?”
“I’m okay.” The girl held the door where it was and let Manny stand out in the rain. “No one is here but me.”
“Donde puedo encontrar Ignacio?”
“I don’t know where he is?”
“Tell him we found his truck.”
“May I use your telephone?” Manny asked.
Lewis tried to get up and walk into another room, but his head throbbed and he fell back.
“It’s not working,” Carla said.
“Okay. Tell him about the truck.”
“I will. Hasta luego.” Carla closed the door and went directly back to her chair where she again put her eyes on the television screen.
“Thanks,” Lewis said.
She ate a chip.
Lewis laid back down. Mala walked over, sat and watched him. Lewis closed his eyes.
Lewis woke up again to find Ignacio sitting in the chair beside the sofa. Ignacio leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “How are you?”
“Fine, thanks. And thank you for helping me.”
“I want to help your friend, too.”
“You’re a good man, Ignacio.”
“I think the same about you.”
“What do we do?” Lewis asked, sitting up. His head hurt less.
“I’m to bring you to a meeting. Our council must vote on what you want.” Ignacio worked a kink from his back. “Like I said, it is not up to me.”
“I understand. Are we going to the morada?”
“The sheriff was here.”
“Carla told me.”
“She’s quite a young lady,” Lewis said.
“Gracias.” Ignacio looked at the draped window. “It’s raining hard.”
“What time is it?” Lewis asked.
“After midnight,” Ignacio said. He pointed to the end of the sofa. “There are your pants.”
It was a hard rain and it had made the night cool. Lewis sat on the passenger side of his truck while Ignacio drove. A draft squeezed through the door and up the rip in Lewis’ pants. He zipped up his jacket and folded his arms over his chest. The wiper in front of him did a lousy job, leaving the glass streaked with each pass. He couldn’t see where they were going and he figured it worked as well as a blindfold.
“Are they going to ask me questions?” Lewis asked.
Lewis imagined himself standing before old Mexican men, giving a presentation, candles burning, a skirted Jesus nailed to a cross on the wall behind him. Lewis thought about the sheriff.
“I hope I haven’t caused you any trouble. With the sheriff or otherwise.”
Ignacio leaned forward to see the road better.
“What do you think those men were looking for?” Lewis asked.
“I don’t know. Something bad.”
The men watched the windshield. Headlights from approaching cars seemed threatening and each one turned Lewis’ head.
“I hope your friend will be okay,” Ignacio said.
The rain was falling harder when Ignacio stopped the truck in front of the morada. There were no torches burning outside tonight. Lewis got out and limped after the younger man, through the mud and into the adobe. Inside, the room was lighted as before, torches on the four walls. Jesus was indeed skirted and on the cross above the altar. There was no body this time. There was a table to one side and at it sat five men, Salvador Alvarado among them. A battery-powered camp area-light sat in the center of the table illuminating their still, solemn faces. Lewis nodded to them.
“Sit here,” Ignacio said.
Lewis sat in a cane chair, one in a row, away from the table. He watched Ignacio as he joined the men. He was the youngest of them.
Their meeting began. Lewis couldn’t make out what they were saying. Words were muttered in Spanish. It did not take long before there were louder utterances, no less understandable to Lewis for the volume. Salvador said virtually nothing. Ignacio remained calm, speaking softly to the older men who yelled at him. There were frequent glances over at Lewis. He tried to keep his eyes on them or the floor, so as not to appear to be gazing upon their secret place. Finally, Ignacio shouted and all were silent. They sat without speaking for probably just a minute, but to Lewis it felt like a long time. He adjusted himself in the uncomfortable chair, tried to put his leg out straight so that it wouldn’t go to sleep.
Ignacio spoke calmly again. There was more discussion and then the youngest was standing, walking back to Lewis.
“Are you ready?” Ignacio asked.
Lewis gained his feet.
Ignacio walked out of the morada without looking at the table. Lewis did quickly glance that way, but none were looking at him.
Outside, the two men trotted to the truck. Lewis climbed in on the passenger side again.
“Well, we talked it over,” Ignacio said.
“You cannot speak of this to anyone, not even your friend if she is alive.”
“And not to me after this night.”
“I cannot go with you to get Martin.”
“I wouldn’t want you to, Ignacio.”
The words were not coming easily to Ignacio. He looked at the rain rolling off the windshield. “Martin is buried up Lobos Canyon. Arroyo Azul comes down the middle of it. Do you know where I mean?”
“There is a dirt road between mile marker six and seven. Turn there toward the mountain. The road will stop. About forty yards beyond that is where Martin is buried. The grave is not marked.”
“You can take your truck.” Igancio opened the door and started to get out, stopped and spoke without looking back. “Martin was not buried in a box.”
Ignacio shut the door. Lewis slid across the seat. His whole body ached and the cool night air was stiffening him. He could not see Ignacio cross the yard to the morada, but he saw him when he pulled open the door and the strange light shown behind him.
Lewis started the engine and realized as he pulled away that he didn’t know where he was. He drove back the way they came and travelled the muddy road, looking for anything familiar in the darkness. The clock in the truck read one-thirty. He reached the main highway and turned north toward his place. He needed a shovel and a light.
The road up to his house was a mess. He slipped and slid his way up the dark trail. The rain let up some. He prayed he wouldn’t meet any headlights. He could imagine his heart failing him at the sight. He had never seen his house so dark and it seemed like ages since he’d been there. The vapor lamp on the barn flickered over the corral.
He walked through the rain to the house, stomping mud off his feet as he climbed the steps. He opened the door and stepped in, switching on the kitchen light without pause. He kicked his shoes off as he closed the door. He put water on to boil and went to his bedroom where he found dry clothes and boots. He realized that someplace along the way he had lost his shotgun. It didn’t matter, he figured. It would do more to get him shot than anything else. The kettle whistled.
In the kitchen, he poured the hot water into a bowl and stirred in a package of instant soup. He turned on the radio and ate while he listened to a call-in talk show. People complained and asked what could be done about workers’ compensation, which was not commensurate with the limb lost and missing baggage for which the airlines refused to take responsibility and pit bulls terrorizing a neighborhood. Lewis listened to the host ask for calls and considered picking up the phone. “Hello,” he would say, “my friend’s been kidnapped and will be killed if I don’t come up with a dead old Mexican. What should I do?” He swallowed the last of his tea and laughed. He was losing his mind.
He put on his raincoat over a sweater, grabbed a flashlight and left the house. The rain was light now. As he drew nearer the barn, he could see it. One of the horses stood over something large in the mud. The light on the barn flickered like a strobe. His legs became rubbery as he realized the gelding was standing over the mare. He went to her. Water stood in the mud around her. Her legs were folded awkwardly beneath her body. He shined the light on her. There was a hole in the middle of the race mark on her face. There was no blood; she had been washed by the rain. Lewis vomited up his soup and staggered to the barn door for support.
He didn’t have time to think about this now. He didn’t have time to think. Thinking was a bad idea. He went into the barn and got the shovel and a tarp. He trotted out toward the truck without looking at his fallen animal.
It was three-forty when Lewis turned off the main road and drove toward Lobos Canyon. This muddy road was worse than the one up to his house. He wondered if it had ever seen a grader. The rain had picked up again. He came to the arroyo. It was full and flowing quickly. He hesitated only briefly, then plowed forward. The water was deeper than he’d guessed and the flow stronger. The truck dipped down and the water pushed the back of it, but he made it across. The road ended.
He got out and shined his light up the foot path. He grabbed the shovel out of the back and started to count out the forty yards. If it had not rained, it would have been simple to find the freshly dug grave. Forty yards about. He moved the beam of the light through the trees and over the ground. There was a dead tree not far from him. The ground beside was muddy, no pine needles and grass. In the mud was a discarded can which had contained Vienna sausages.
Lewis started digging. At least the rain made digging easy. He threw the mud and dirt gently as if that made the action less disrespectful. He balanced the flashlight on the log and had it shine down into the hole. The smell hit him, then the shovel caught on something, but it wasn’t hard and he remembered that Martin had not been buried in a coffin. He put down the shovel and dropped to dig with his hands. He found Martin. He grabbed the light and shone it on him. Maggots crawled on his face, in his mouth, around his eyes. Lewis looked up at the sky and screamed, screamed as loud as he could. He tried to throw up, but nothing came. He just dry heaved, the muscles of his entire body pressing to release something that was not there.
He shouted at himself. “Do it! Just do it!” And he reached down and tried to free the body from the earth. “Do it! Don’t think! Oh, God!” He pulled the body from the hole and fell back, panting. He could not stop. He had to keep moving, not thinking. Get him to the truck, into the back of the truck and you won’t have to see him, he said to himself. He draped the naked body over his shoulder. He wasn’t heavy. Death wasn’t heavy, he thought. He was surrounded by the stench and hoped the rain would wash it off.
He dumped the body into the truck and covered it with the tarp. He stood and held his arms wide and let the rain rinse the mud and maggots and stench of death off of his raincoat. He got into the truck, leaned his head forward against the wheel and cried.
He sat there for a long time. He looked at the clock. It was five o’clock now. The rain had stopped. He turned around and went back toward the arroyo. Without the rain he could see the flow and it didn’t look so bad. He drove through the water and plowed through the mud to the highway. So, where was he going to take the body? He half-cried, half-laughed to himself. He could feel tears on his face. His nose was running. He rolled down the window to let air push the smell out of the cab.
Blue lights flashed behind him. Lewis pulled over and Manny appeared at his door. Lewis wiped his face and looked at him.
“Early for you to be out,” Manny said.
Lewis looked out over the flat. Some hint of the day to come was there. “You know what they say about the early bird,” Lewis said.
“Yeah.” Manny looked into the back.
“I’m sorry about your office.”
“It’s been messier than that. So, just what got into you? What were you saying about Maggie?”
“I’m sorry, Lewis. I thought when you called you were just over-reacting. She still hasn’t shown up?”
“No, she called.” Lewis didn’t feel he could trust Manny. If Manny knew he had the body, he might take it, might have to take it. Lewis became more nervous.
Manny looked again into the bed of the pickup. “You told me she was missing over the radio.”
“I said she had been missing. I was just mad because you hadn’t looked for her. She stopped to visit a friend in Santa Fe. Sorry, I didn’t tell you.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“All this stuff about Martin, it’s making me crazy.”
“I didn’t know about your temper.”
Lewis rubbed his palms together. “Yeah, it can get out of hand.”
“Want to step out of the truck, Lewis?”
“Was I speeding?” Lewis chuckled.
Manny shook his head. “No, but there is a problem.”
“It’s your tailgate.”
“What about it?”
“It’s down. It’s got to be up.”
Lewis pushed open the door and got out.
Manny fell back a step. “Jesus Christ, Lewis, what’d you get into?” He fanned the air with a hand. “You smell like a dog that’s been rolling.”
“I found a dead coyote in my pasture and I took him to the dump.”
“Hmm. That where you coming from, the dump?”
Lewis nodded. “Long way around, but yes.”
“About this tailgate,” Lewis said, “I didn’t know it was down.” He walked to the back with Manny. He looked at the lump under the tarp and tried to push up the gate. The wind played with the tarp and caused it to flap.
Manny stepped back and looked at the bottom of Lewis’ truck. “Where have you been? Look at all that mud. On your boots, too.”
“Like I said, the dump.” The gate wouldn’t latch. Lewis became frustrated, stepped back and kicked it hard. “Piece of shit,” he said.
“What’s wrong, Lewis?”
“Nothing.” He grabbed the tailgate and pulled on it for a check. “It’s up,” Lewis said. “Is that all.” He walked up and tucked the tarp under the load.
Manny followed Lewis to his door, looked at him like he wanted to say something.
Lewis got back into the cab and left. He viewed the sheriff in his mirror, just standing and staring at the lump under the tarp.
Lewis got gas in town and drove on out to Martin’s place. He wrapped the body in the tarp and managed to carry it to the shed behind the cabin without seeing it again. The morning was full. He walked around to the front of the cabin and looked up the canyon. He halfway suspected that Maggie was being held up there somewhere. He went into Martin’s cabin and sat in a chair. It was cold inside. Things were already getting dusty. He looked at the old man’s fishing gear in the corner. Lewis put together a forecast for the place. No one knew about it really, so no one cared. Taylor had gone, so there was no one to claim anything legally. More dust would collect and the place would become stiff with age, a thing or two disappearing along the way. Martin had been a gentle man, meaning no harm to anyone, and certainly no one found him threatening. But there he was, dead and decomposing in his shed, with so many people wanting him. He had lived a long life without causing trouble and now. What could he have seen to make so many bad things happen? Lewis used his finger to draw a line through the dust on the table.
Lewis walked out and drove down to the cafe at the river. He sat on the deck of the empty restaurant for a while, watching the rapid river below. He wished he were fishing. He had the body in a place he could get to. What now? They were going to kill Maggie and then him. He looked at the pay phone under the overhang. He had to try something. He couldn’t let Maggie die. He stood up and went to the phone. He got the number from the operator, but no one answered at Peabody’s office.
Lewis left the deck and made his way down to the water’s edge. He imagined pulling out a brown trout and taking it up to a campsite where Maggie and Laura waited. He looked downstream and saw where Plata Creek emptied into the flow. He looked up the mountain and again at the confluence. If there was something bad in the ground up there, it was in the river now. Lewis sat on the bank and considered it. People swimming at Cochiti. People eating trout, catfish, crappies out of the river and the lake. Elephant Butte was below that. He rocked with his confusion. Jesus Christ, everyone was being exposed.
He got up and went back up to the deck and the pay phone. He dialed the number.
“I’ve got the body,” Lewis said.
“But you don’t get it until I have Maggie. I want to know she’s all right.”
“She’s not here with me,” Peabody said.
“Well, I don’t want to talk to her anyway. I want her released. Then, you can have the body. If I don’t get her, alive, I’m taking this dead Mexican to the State Capitol steps and we’ll see what kind of attention he gets.”
There was a silence at the other end which made Lewis feel lighter.
“Do you understand?” Lewis asked.
“I’m not going to deal with you, Mason.”
“Do you think I’m stupid? You’re going to kill both of us. I don’t have any fucking thing to lose. Fuck you, Peabody, or whatever your name is. Maybe I’ll just take the body to the Capitol now, or to a television station. Do you have any suggestions? And I’ll stand beside it and point out the burns on his legs, complete with maggots, and tell the cameras and everybody about how there aren’t any animals up in that canyon. And I’ll ask them if they know why there’s a chain-link fence in the middle of the forest. Think they’ll have an answer for me?”
“She’ll be on the plaza in twenty minutes,” Peabody said.
“Fifteen.” Lewis slammed the phone down and leaned against the wall. He took a deep breath and smiled to himself.
Apparently, Maggie was alive. Lewis drove to town, thinking along the way of what he would do if Peabody pointed a gun at him. It had felt good to speak to the man that way, but he had not given the matter a thorough hashing out. Peabody might well just kill them or have his apes kill them on the plaza in front of everyone. The sun was bright and the sky showed no new rain. There would be many people out early. He thought of his friend Martin. Had he seen that body as Martin Aguilera, he never would have been able to dig it up. He shivered and fought an urge to brush himself off with his hands. His hands. He needed to wash them. Mud was dried under his nails and he imagined maggots on his palms. He stopped at a gas station, took off his raincoat and threw it in the back of the truck, then ran to the restroom where he tried to cleanse his hands with blue powdered soap from a dispenser. He rubbed at a spot on the back of his left hand that would not come off. It started to sting so he left it alone. The room was filthy, disgusting and Lewis belonged there. Someone else’s waste floated in the toilet.
He returned to the sunlight and pulled his sweater off over his head. He considered calling Manny, have him be there on the plaza. The sheriff had him confused. He looked down at how muddy his boots were. He stomped his feet.
Lewis didn’t have a plan when he turned onto the lane which circled the plaza. He parked in a diagonal space in front of a jewelry store. He stood out of the vehicle and looked across the square, starting at the stage. A hand waved to him. It was Maggie. Peabody sat beside her on the bench.
Lewis glanced about, continued to do so as he approached them. Maggie looked okay and he felt faint from happiness, he guessed, but probably from exhaustion. He had to hang on now. He sat by Maggie and she fell against him, tears flowing.
“Are you all right?” Lewis asked. He held her tight.
“She’s fine,” Peabody said.
“I didn’t ask you anything,” Lewis said to him. “Maggie?” He raised her face with his hands and looked at her eyes. “It’s going to be all right.”
Peabody looked straight ahead at the shops across the lane. “I’ve held up my end of the deal.”
Lewis looked around, turning to see behind him. He saw Ernesto trot down an alley.
“Where’s the body, Lewis?”
But Lewis was occupied with Maggie. “Did they hurt you?”
She managed to shake her head no.
Lewis looked at Peabody and realized that he was not very bright. Someone had given him a long leash, but he was not a smart man. He’d handled the matter badly. Lewis didn’t know what to do, but he could see that Peabody wasn’t all that clear on it either.
“We’ll be going now,” Lewis said and started to stand with Maggie.
“Sit down,” Peabody said with some authority. “I don’t want it to come down to this.”
Lewis considered Maggie and sat again.
“Tell me where the body is, Lewis,” the man said calmly.
“Why do you want it? I mean, I’ve seen the burns. If that’s what you’re worried about, you’re going to have to kill me.”
“You know, I could just shoot you and forget about it. You’re right.”
Lewis sighed. “The body is buried in a shallow grave in Lobos Canyon. There’s a road that goes up the canyon off the main highway. It crosses Arroyo Azul, then stops. Forty yards up the foot trail. You can’t miss it.”
“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble,” Peabody said.
“Come on, Maggie,” Lewis said.
The woman stood with him and they walked across the plaza. Lewis saw the two men step out of the van and approach them. He led Maggie on at a normal pace. “Relax, Maggie, this will be over soon.”
The men were twenty feet from them. Then there were bodies between them. Six, seven. Ernesto was in the middle of it all. The two apes stopped. Tourists standing outside of shops pointed and grew frightened. The Mexican men surrounded the two white men. Lewis got Maggie to the passenger side of his truck before she passed out. He put her in and closed the door. More Mexican men crossed the plaza to stand with Ernesto and the others. Lewis got in behind the wheel, backed out of the space and drove away.
At the intersection, he turned north. A couple of lights later, he began his circuitous route over the back roads of town so that he would be headed south toward Martin’s place. He stopped at a Giant Burger fast food restaurant, parked in the back by the dumpster.
He attended to Maggie. He shook her gently. “Maggie? Maggie?” Maybe she wasn’t all right. Perhaps they had poisoned her. He needed some water for her. He got out and ran into the Giant Burger.
A teenager met him at the counter.
“I’d like a large water.”
The kid turned around, scooped ice into a cup and poured the water. He came back and put it down. “I’ll have to charge you for the cup,” he said.
Lewis reached into his pockets and realized he’d spent his last money on gasoline. “I’ll owe you, okay?”
“A dime, sir. Company policy.”
Lewis leaned forward and grabbed the teenager by the front of his purple and gold uniform. “I’ll pay you later, okay?”
Lewis took the water out to Maggie, opened her door and stood by her, helping her sip. She came around.
“Did I faint?” she asked.
“Shit,” she said. “What a wimp. I’m sorry.”
Lewis just smiled. “It was just your turn. You okay?”
“What is going on?”
“I don’t really know. I had to dig up Martin’s body in order to get you back.” He looked at the sky. “Maybe I didn’t. Jesus. I should have just lied to them in the first place. I didn’t think they were stupid. But they are, Maggie.”
“You had to dig him up?”
“You don’t want to hear about it. Anyway, I know they still want us dead. At least, I think they do.”
“So, what now?”
Lewis shook his head. “We’ve got to show Martin to as many people as we can and tell them everything. There’s a chain-link fence, ten feet tall, in the canyon beyond Martin’s. I saw men looking for something with a metal detector.”
“You’re not making anything clearer to me,” Maggie said.
“You can understand my problem then.”
Lewis closed the door and went back to his side, got in. He drove them across the river and up to Martin’s He turned off the engine and looked at the cabin. He didn’t know if he could keep going. This was where it all started, he thought.
“Is this where you put Martin?” Maggie asked.
Lewis nodded. “I carried him from his grave, Maggie,” he said, his eyes forward. “Maggie, he wasn’t buried in a coffin. Can you smell it. Can you smell the death?”
“I have to carry him again.”
“I’ll help you, Lewis.”
“No, no. You didn’t see him, Maggie. I can’t let you near him. I’ll do it.”
“I want to see,” Maggie said.
Lewis looked at her face. He realized that she didn’t want him to have to feel it alone. “I love you.”
“I want to see it.”
“He’s in the shed.”
Out of the truck, they walked, holding hands, to the back of the house and to the shed. When Lewis pulled open the door, the stench wafted out and made them back up.
“Come on, Maggie, go back to the truck.”
“Let’s do it,” she said.
Lewis was glad he had wrapped the body in the tarp. He went in and pushed the body over, the upper part falling out into the daylight. He took the shoulders and pulled him clear of the shed. Maggie grabbed the feet and they began the walk to the truck. The smell bothered them, made them turn their heads to take deep breaths to hold.
Maggie was doing well. At the truck, she struggled to get the lower part of the body high enough to go over the side wall. She heaved and Martin rolled in. The tarp came away from his face. Maggie saw the maggots and the mud-caked neck. Lewis reached quickly and covered him.
Maggie walked absently toward the cabin. Lewis followed her.
“I’m okay. I just need to sit down.”
She sat on a stump to the side of the door. Lewis leaned against the house.
“Want me to tell you what I think?” Lewis said.
“I think the army or somebody let something loose up there, chemicals or something, and it’s killing everything. There’re no animals up there, not even bugs.” Lewis was starting to cry. “The trees are dying, Maggie. The only thing up there is a fence.” He rubbed at the mark on his hand.
Maggie stood and hugged him.
He took a breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s go.”
They did not speak. Lewis drove and thought about the blemish on his hand. Would it become a wound like the ones he had seen on Martin’s legs? Would Ignacio and Ernesto get them too from being up in the canyon? Would everyone who had contact with the dead man develop them? Maggie? Maybe you had to touch something to become infected. Perhaps he’d already been exposed by picking up the squirrel. He was mad at himself for having let Maggie handle the corpse. Laura had even been close to him. He had no idea of the extent or range of this thing. It could have been in his imagination. But the squirrel was real. The absence of the animals in the forest was real; it had even scared young Ernesto.
Lewis didn’t know what he was doing, where he was taking the body. He was hungry, needed to eat. His brain needed food. He didn’t have cash, but he had credit cards. He pulled into a gas station/fast food place and killed the engine.
“We have to eat something,” Lewis said. He took out his wallet and handed her a credit card. “One of us has to stay and make sure no one comes near our cargo back there. Try to get something that’s not too disgusting.”
“Hot dogs, something like that?”
Maggie got out and walked into the store.
Lewis pumped the gas.
Lewis could easily imagine getting to the Capitol steps with Martin’s body and being put away for being a crazy man. He could dump the body onto the desk of the editor of the Santa Fe newspaper and say, “Feature this: NERVE GAS THREATENS THOUSANDS.” He’d always wanted to say, “feature this,” but it sounded stupid. It still did. He topped off the tank and put the nozzle back. He looked inside and saw Maggie at the counter. The cashier read the pump through binoculars.
Lewis looked at the highway. A state trooper passed by. He wondered if they were on the lookout for an elderly couple, a black man and a Japanese woman, driving a Ford F250 pickup with a dead Mexican in the back. He pictured Peabody and his men trying to drive across that arroyo in the van, but then he realized that the ground had soaked all the water from yesterday’s rain and so the arroyo was now no more than a trickle. By now, they had found the empty grave and were swearing and loading pistols.
Maggie came back. “I got you a jumbo dog with the works,” she said.
“Did you get me a coke, too?”
“Yep.” She pulled a can from the bag and handed it to him.
He popped the top and took a long drink. “Ready?”
“Are you okay?” Maggie asked.
“No. Should I be?”
“I really don’t know. What do you think of the newspaper? We could dump it in the city editor’s office.”
Maggie seemed to consider it.
“The television station?”
“That might be better,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
“Well, we can’t stay here all day. Get in.”
They returned to the highway. “I found your truck at Camel Rock,” Lewis told her. “The state police have probably towed it by now.”
“What’s that on your hand? You keep rubbing at it.”
“Nothing, I said.” He switched on the radio. A woman whined a country song.
Maggie killed the radio. “What is it?”
“I think it’s going to be a burn like the ones I saw on Martin’s legs. I think we’re in trouble.”
Maggie focused on the road.
“I think things are really bad, Maggie. I mean really bad.”
Maggie was crying again.
Lewis stopped the truck and held her for a few minutes.
She sat up straight and looked at the hills. “You know how long I wanted to come live here? A long time. This was my dream place. No one to bother me, no relatives nearby.” She laughed.
“I know what you mean.”
Lewis cleared his throat. “Look at it this way; at least we’re old.”
He started the truck.
They passed through Española. Lewis looked in his mirror and saw a brown van. Again, he thought that there must be many brown vans in the state. But this one rammed into the back of them.
“Shit,” Maggie said.
“Buckle your belt,” Lewis said.
The van hit them again, then tried to pull even with them. Lewis turned his truck left and bumped them. He swerved off the highway onto a rough, but paved road. The van overshot the turn.
Lewis hoped he hadn’t made a mistake. He hadn’t made the turn with any plan in mind. He thought he could find a dirt road that would give them trouble, the ground clearance of the van being lower than his truck.
Maggie held on, one hand on the dash, the other on the strap over her door. The van was behind them again. Lewis spotted a dirt road and took it. He did put some distance between them. He didn’t hear the report of the weapon, but his outside mirror shattered.
“Get down, Maggie. Jesus Christ, they’re shooting at us.”
Maggie leaned over on the seat. Lewis slouched down. The truck bounced wildly because Lewis couldn’t see to miss the bumps. He wanted to just stop and say, “Shoot me.” He was just so tired of it all. But he wouldn’t give up. The bastards were going to kill everybody.
The road threw them high. Lewis sat up more to see the road better. Maggie looked up. She smashed forward into the dash and bloodied her lip.
“Stay down, Maggie!” Lewis shouted.
Maggie looked at him, like she was lost, confused, like she wanted to say something.
Maggie slumped over the seat. Lewis accelerated through a tight curve. The van swayed. The rain had not made the road muddy and it wasn’t slick, but because of it there was also no dust. Nothing was working to advantage. Another curve came up suddenly and he took it on two wheels. The van didn’t take it, it skidded, turned sideways and began to roll. It came to rest upside-down. Lewis kept going for a few minutes, then stopped by a small lake. He realized that he was on Indian land; he’d come to Pito Lake from the back side.
He turned to Maggie, held her head in his hands. He saw the hole where the bullet had passed through the back window. She was unconscious. Her hair was filled with blood. His fingers were wet with her blood. He could hear her voice, but she wasn’t speaking. He didn’t know if she was dead.
Why had he turned off the main road? He cursed himself. He cried. He hugged Maggie and felt the life leave her. He felt heat lift from her and she was left cold in his arms. He wrapped his fingers about her arm, so small, so frail it had seemed, and he recalled how tough she was and he yelled at her, told her to wake up. He couldn’t remember how to breathe, didn’t know if he was doing it right. His eyes opened wide and he saw the light of the sun reflected off the water. His head hurt. His leg throbbed. His heart ached. He turned Maggie’s head and looked at her face. Her open eyes scared him and he gently closed them. He put his head back on the seat and lowered his lids against the sunlight. Two bodies now. Two bodies and he was still alive, all his damn fault and he was still alive. He tried to start the truck, but it wouldn’t crank. He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Exhaustion overtook him and he went to sleep.
Lewis woke up to find that it had not been a bad dream. Maggie was still dead beside him, Martin was still dead behind him. Could he just go to the state police now? Maggie had been murdered. Nothing fancy and no way to misinterpret it. Murdered. He put his hand on her body and it was no colder than before, the face no more serene.
He opened his door and started to get out. The back window of the truck shattered. Lewis looked and saw Peabody standing some thirty yards away, his jacket ripped, blood over the right side of his face. He limped forward. Lewis wanted to attack the man, but he wouldn’t, he didn’t. It was hard for him to leave Maggie, but he did. Her dead face screamed for him to run.
He ran along the road that circled the lake. There was no one fishing today. The weather had been hot and Pito Lake was always poorly stocked. He heard another pistol report. Maybe if a bullet hit him in the back of the head, he would not feel anything, just die and find some kind of peace, the light that all the people he thought were crazy had claimed to see when on death’s edge. But there would be no light, he knew that. Not in this America and he tried to run faster, but his legs complained. It was more than the pain, though. He was tired of running. His brain hurt, felt like it was going to sleep again. He felt sick and expected to vomit at any second. He limped. The man chasing him limped. Lewis yelled back at him.
“Who are you?” Lewis asked.
“I’m just doing my job, Lewis.”
“And just what is your fucking job. To poison every-goddamn-body?”
“You’re a loose end.”
“I’m not going to run anymore,” Lewis said.
“I’m pleased to hear it.”
Lewis looked at the man. “You’re what got loose, aren’t you?”
Peabody said nothing.
“Are you supposed to be killing people? What got loose? Tell me! You’re going to kill me anyway.” Lewis looked at the man’s eyes. They weren’t cold. They weren’t hard. They were hollow, vacant, stupid, a robot’s eyes. They weren’t cold. Lewis laughed. “What, are you some kind of government agent or something, some shit like that? Well, fuck you!” He held up his hand and pointed at the blemish. “See that? See that? I’ve got it, don’t I? Well, you’ve got it, too, I’ll bet. I don’t care anymore.”
Peabody raised the weapon and aimed.
Lewis stared straight down the barrel of the pistol and it felt good. He wanted to be closer, to help the bullet. He managed a step, then another. “Go ahead and shoot! Shoot, you bastard.” Lewis felt great, he felt like dancing and so he did a little jig. “Shoot!”
The shot was loud, but Lewis felt nothing. Peabody fell forward. Manny was behind him, lowering his pistol. Lewis sank to his knees. Manny kicked the gun away from the fallen man’s hand.
Lewis looked at the dirt. Manny helped him to stand, helped him to walk.
“What the hell were you doing?” Manny asked.
“I was dancing.”
They walked many steps in silence.
“I’m sorry,” Manny said. “I didn’t know.”
“Why?” Lewis asked. “Why, Manny?”
Manny shook his head. “I just nodded and turned away. I should have seen what was happening. I’m sorry.”
“Were you scared?” Lewis asked.
“Yeah, I suppose that was it.”
Lewis looked at the lake. “Manny, they’re killing us.”
Percival Everett is the author of Suder, Walk Me to the Distance, For Her Dark Skin, Cutting Lisa, The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair, The One That Got Away, Zulus, God’s Country, Big Picture and Watershed. He is currently teaching at the University of California at Riverside