About the Author
Richard Schwartz (Missouri) is a Professor of English and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He has also taught at West Point and Georgetown, and is the author of six nonfiction books, including Nice and Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction.
The second Jack Grant mystery, The Last Voice You Hear, has not been previously published. Look for it in trade paperback from Midnight Ink in June 2006.
Read an Excerpt
I was driving up to Lake to pick up a paper, some coffee, and a sweet roll or a donut. The morning air was cool and dry, and when I checked the San Gabriels I could see every line, ridge, and shrub. My girlfriend's earrings were still in my ashtray; when I turned left of f of California they slid from side to side. She started leaving them there about a month and a half ago. At first their sound was like a new rattle. Now I listened for it, like waiting for a clock to chime.
I parked my blue Celica between a beat-up Ford truck and a burgundy Mercedes and walked across the street to the row of newspaper dispensers at the corner. I picked up a USA TodayI always read it between November and Februaryand pored over the weather map, checking on all the places where I used to spend my winters. When the Pasadena freeway jams I can sometimes have all four sections of the paper read before I hit the Hill Street exit. It makes me feel as if I'm making progress.
I went into the donut shop three doors from the corner and picked up a cinnamon roll and two large black coffees, one for now and one for the thermos I keep in my car. The girl who always waits on me is named Marta. She has a picture of her family and a gilt-edged holy card of the Little Flower taped to the side of the electronic cash register. When her boyfriend comes in, her brown eyes fall, and she looks like one of those virgin martyrs from an old religious textbook. The rest of the time she shuffles money and makes change like a blackjack dealer at a hundred-dollar table. Marta carries four dozen varieties of donuts, some rolls, bear claws, and an occasional cookie. When a customer isn't able to make up his mind in eight or nine seconds, she becomes impatient. At ten seconds she starts to look like an inquisitor with a short temper and a deep dungeon. Marta prefers the regular customers.
As the mingled smells of coffee, sugar, cinnamon, and grease followed me into the street, I felt like a kid cutting school. I took a sip of my coffee, crossed the street, and sat down in my car. Sliding the seat back, I thought about the fact that I was now setting my own schedule. It wasn't hard for me to remember a time when I didn't have that luxury. The big change for me came when a crisp young army branch chief stared at the bird entrails on his Washington desk and saw a tour of the jungle in my future. He quoted me some convincing statistics from a recent study of career development patterns, informed me that there were no current command slots open for an armor captain in those parts, and encouraged me to see the wisdom of a twelve-month sojourn in the ranks of the United States Army Infantry. It didn't take much to persuade me. My wife had just diedin a way a casualty of the warand I didn't have anyone or anything left in my private life to protect or save.
The adventure ended abruptly when I saw dirt, rain, mud, and my own blood mix for the first time. I caught half of a Chinese grenade with my right leg. We had been told that they were worthless. That they split in two instead of fragmenting. That the odds were always in our favor. I lost.
I ended up with a slight limp and the loss of the picket fence of ones on my physical profile. Everything suddenly came into focus. There would be no Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth, no more serious promotions, no more command assignments, and a guaranteed return to civilian life after twenty. I had a steady run of light duty, finished up a master's degree in history, and grew philosophic. When I left Fort Knox one fine March morning in my forty-first year, it was thirty-seven degrees and gray, with a steady drizzle and smoky haze hanging over the muddied tank trails crisscrossing the landscape. It looked like the aftermath of some apocalypse in which all of the dirt bike riders of the world had inherited the earth. I pointed my car in the general direction of California and wondered how long it would take the speedometer to reach seventy-five. It took fourteen seconds. My retirement pay cushioned me for a while, but I started to develop some expensive tastes, so I took on some high-risk investigative work. I was reverting. Three swats with a car antenna and two stab wounds brought me to my senses instantly. Then I discovered Valley Mutual and a man named Cliff Henderson.
Valley bills itself as the small-town company. My neighbors in the San Gabriel Valley are encouraged to think of it as their very own: at the ready to protect them whenever they're in need. Those who don't get out much probably don't realize that Valley is also in the San Fernando Valley. And the Simi Valley. And the Santa Inez Valley. And the Napa and Sonoma and Alexander and San Joaquin Valleys. Each year they get a little more neighborly. Henderson is the district manager, the man authorized to hire an investigator for less-than-routine cases of insurance fraud, a growth industry.
Cliff stands five nine, goes about 210, pulls down a salary in the high eighties, and dresses as if he just found the last Robert Hall store in the country. We met at a garage. I was having my brakes checked and Cliff was trying to squeeze some extra miles out of a warranty. We forged a for-profit alliance. I chase down white-collar criminals and he gets company trips to Maui. We meet once every two weeks to exchange paper. I give him reports and he gives me checks. It's not quite the same as liberating Paris or rolling into Berlin with the Third Army, but at least here the opposition doesn't of ten shoot back. Generally they lie, then swear, cry, loosen their ties, and, finally, try to bribe me. I have free time. I dress any way I want to and I have enough money to buy any type of wine that the local grocer carries.
With Cliff I had enough business so that I could replace the block ad in the telephone book with a simple, one-line entry with my name and phone number. I still get some callsmostly from salesmenbut unless the work is interesting, safe, or lucrative, I refer the spillage to a friend in Glendale named Dave Hagan. Dave still has a taste for the sound of guns and the sight of blood. I send him all the chancy stuff; he likes it that way.
When the call came in it seemed like a safe onea quick job and a quick check. A man by the name of Joseph Gomercio wanted me to help him find a friend. He said he had heard about me from a mutual friend, a man named Luis Cordon. Luis was from Peru, but he wasn't there now. He was under a three-foot stone cross in East L. A. I had buried him two weeks before.
When they started issuing .45 automatics a few years back, the reason was simple. The .38 will kill but it won't knock you down. The .45 puts you right on your back. Luis was shot twice with a .45, but that much gun hadn't been necessary. He was shot once in each eye. A not very subtle message: Luis had seen something he shouldn't have. I don't like dealing with third parties when the middle guy is dead; you can't be certain about their relationship. In this case I made an exception. Luis had been a special friend and he had kept honest company.
Gomercio claimed to be new in L. A. and confused. I didn't have any trouble believing that. The friend he was looking for had a Spanish surname, but he wasn't in any of the books. Gomercio assured me that nothing was involved but friendshipno dope, no green card problems, no women. He knew that his friend was in Southern California, but he figured that putting notes on bulletin boards or driving around town with a bullhorn would take longer than hiring a pro to do some checking. We arranged to meet before work the next day at the Farmer's Market. He said he had a picture of his friend.
I liked the arrangement. I don't like clients knowing where I live and I don't want them to know that I don't have an office. When I go home at night I don't want to wonder about who's still out in the parking lot. I hadn't been to the market in a while and I wanted some of those grapefruit-sized oranges and Kansas City-quality Delmonico steaks that I never managed to find anywhere else. Things were working out all around. Gomercio promised to meet me in his car near the public phone booth on the north entrance parking lot. I promised him confidentiality, speed, and value for dollar. Actually, value for $250 a day.
I drank down the coffee and had finished most of the cinnamon roll before I reached Highland Park. Traffic was still light as I passed the Golden State Freeway interchange; I should have gotten a second roll. I passed Sunset and turned north onto the Hollywood, wondering where everyone was. I drove across Hollywood on Melrose. It was a little out of my way, but I wanted to drop off a reward to a business acquaintance who had proved helpful in tracking a merchant who had filed one too many claims with Valley Mutual. He had hoped to finance a cheap condo and a lifetime of golf in Palm Springs at the company's expense. I gave my informant a fifth of Don Q rum. It had taken me some time to find it, but I thought he might enjoy it. He smiled and thanked me. As I drove away I looked in the rearview mirror and noticed that he had already opened the bottle and was taking a long pull from it. It was 8: 14 AM. I should have given him Bacardi.
I drove past CBS, tried not to hit any pedestrians on Fairfax, turned into the market parking lot, and looked for a maroon Chevy Nova and a Hispanic gentleman holding a photograph in his left hand and a check in his right.
I give all clients a half hour's leeway for traffic, so I wasn't surprised that Joseph Gomercio had not yet arrived. I reached across the seat for my USA Today and pulled out the sports section. It took about five minutes to check the essential facts and another fifteen to work through the incidental statistics. The first thing I had learned in my new line of work was the fine art of compulsive reading. I was looking for the freshly filled thermos of coffee which had somehow rolled under the passenger seat when three black and whites pulled into the lot and parked behind me. The officers all had that look that said they were too late to make any difference. The man in charge was in plain clothes; he looked like one of those supermen on a Russian propaganda bannerall seriousness and determination. There were just a few differences. He was black and he wasn't carrying a shovel. He was also bigger: six three and about 240 pounds. His name was Frank White.
As I approached him, he spoke." Jack. What are you doing here?"
"Meeting a client, Frank. Why all the cavalry?"
"Mostly to keep the citizens away. A guy was hit here."
"No, nothing yet. We just took the call a few minutes ago. Want to come along?"
"OK, but only for a few minutes. I've got to check back here for my client."
We walked through the row of souvenir and trinket shops and into the food area. A crowd of workmen had formed behind one of the stalls where they sell fresh fish. There was a freshly cleaned skylight overhead. The sun shone on the bloodied aprons of the men. None of them were talking. Frank flashed his shield and said quietly," Please move." It was somewhere between a request and an order. The group parted like the Red Sea before Charlton Heston. On the floor was a large galvanized steel tub, the kind they use at church festivals to ice down the bottled beer. Someone had used it to ice down the victim. He lay there on his back under a layer of shaved ice, his dark eyes open and glistening, staring upward at a sky he could no longer see.
The sawdust on the gray cement floor around the tub had been trampled by the hawkers in the streaked aprons. Any identifiable footprints were long gone. Frank looked at the floor and then at me.
"Looks like a damned cattle drive came through," I said. He nodded. The body in the tub was dressed in a brown business suit with a white shirt and conservative striped tie. Frank took a pen out of his jacket pocket and put it through the ice and into the man's mouth. With some difficulty he parted the man's lips. Gold fillings were visible, in front as well as in back. Then he put the pen into one of the man's coat sleeves and raised a hand. On it was a gold ring with a diamond of at least half a carat." It wasn't a mugger," I said. Frank rolled up his own sleeve and reached into the icy water, feeling for the man's wallet. It was in his jacket pocket.
Frank opened it." No credit cards," he said," but there's a driver's license. Joseph"
"Gomercio," I said.
"How did you know that?"
"Because the day started too well."
"You know him?"
"I talked to him on Tuesday. He was the client I came here to meet."
Frank motioned to one of the uniformed policemen." Clear out all the curiosity seekers," he said." Get one of those tarps from over there in the corner and cover up the tub until Dailey arrives with his people. Mr. Grant and I will be over at that table."
While the uniforms covered the body and removed the civilians, we sat down at a white wrought iron table with leaf work on the legs and a dusty glass top. One of the butchers brought us some unsolicited coffee in ceramic mugs with other people's names on them. I said thanks; Frank just smiled and nodded.
"What was the job?" he asked.
"Nothing, really. He was trying to find a friend. He wanted some help and called me."
"No. I was supposed to get a picture along with my retainer." Frank opened the man's wallet and spread the contents on the table. I took a sip of the coffee; it wasn't bad. Frank still hadn't touched his. The driver's license carried a San Gabriel address. There were no credit cards, no bank cards, no business cards, and no personal photographs. In the front flap was $35, in the back $250, as if Gomercio had separated out my fee so that he wouldn't be tempted to spend it. There was also a card with a prayer in Spanish, a faded picture of the San Gabriel Mission, and a soggy piece of cardboard with my telephone number written on it in dark pencil. That was all.
"Dailey and his people will be here soon," Frank said." We'll get the body out of the tub and go through all of the pockets. Maybe we'll turn up something."
"I didn't see any blood or bruises."
"No, I didn't either," Frank said." Just the big eyes and the blank stare. The cheeks are starting to swell . . ."
"What do you make of the ice? An attempt to mask the time of death?"
"Possibly." Frank paused, thought a moment, and then continued." If there was some sign of struggle, you might figure that the man was being tortured. After all . . . there are easier ways to do this. If you simply want to kill somebody you can hold his head underwater in a bathtub or wrap a baggie over his face. There's no reason to put him on ice like a dead fish and no reason to lay him on his back so that he has to watch. A quick blow to the temple and a toss into a freezer would have done the job. Simple. This is complicated. I don't like it. It was planned. Somebody knew he was coming here and wanted him to be found. The L. A. market? Hell, you might just as well put him on the lead tram at the Universal tour or strap him to a seat on the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland. People who kill this way are either smart, psychotic, or connected. I don't like any of those possibilities. I'd rather deal with simple crimes of passion." "Maybe it was simpler than it looks," I said." Gomercio might have been followed. A pop on the back of the head . . . the guy looks into his eyes, decides he's not up to bludgeoning him to death, and tosses him into some water . . . then adds the ice to confuse the cops."
"You really think so?"
"Of course not, but who knows what causes people to do things? Why is he here in the open, under the skylight?"
"Maybe the killer heard something. He panicked and ran."
"Anything's possible," I said." When I first left the service and started doing this work, I couldn't believe the things that happened. I saw more bodies in odd positions than a drive-in attendant."
"Yeah," Frank said." The family stuff is the worst. Maybe the killer and your man were related."
"Remember the guy in Alhambrathe one who used to torment his wife by making dentist's drill sounds the nights before she went in to have her teeth fixed?"
"Oh, yeah," Frank said, finally sipping his coffee." She tied him up and put one of those bulldog paper clips on his lips."
"Thirty-five hundred dollars worth of plastic surgery. I did the report for the insurance company. They didn't believe a word of it." We both took a sip of coffee as Jerry Dailey came in with the people from the lab. He was carrying a physician's bag with a broken handle and half of a Clark bar in a torn wrapper.
"Where's the tub I have to drag?" Dailey asked.
Frank pointed to the tarp. Dailey walked over, put down his bag, and removed the tarp without hesitation, like a maid changing a hotel sheet. He took a look at the body and then turned back toward Frank." Look at it this way," he said," we already know that he didn't dive in head first." No one laughed. Dailey started in to work and joked quietly with the members of his team. I half expected him to hoist the body up onto the counter by the sole fillets and the salmon, but he was doing his best to exhibit what little discretion he possessed. It's not that Dailey's incompetent. It's just that he dresses like someone trying to look like the richest guy at the wrestling matches and talks like the uncle that every family hopes will fail to show up at weddings and funerals.
He was wearing a light blue suit with dark stains around the pockets and collar, a pair of white patent-leather shoes, a white knit tie, and a gold ring with a large star sapphire in a setting clogged with soap scum and some other things best left unidentified. He chewed gum nervously and carried his lunchusually flat tins of smoked oysters or kipper snacks in oilin his coat pockets. I turned my chair around to get a better look at Dailey. He worked quietly now, breaking the silence only to ask one of his assistants to bring him some black coffee. He warmed his hands on the sides of the paper cup. Frank watched him patiently, letting him work at his own pace. Frank didn't make any phone calls or flip through his notebook. Nothing could be done until Dailey finished. I wanted to move in closer and ask some questions, maybe get a look at the body as they removed the suit, listen to their comments. Instead I sat quietly with Frank, sipping my coffee. I had learned early on that you don't crowd the police when you want information that they don't have to give you.
Thirty-five minutes later Dailey approached us. His assistant had given him a fresh cup of coffee. He took a large swallow of it.
"How you doing, Jack?" he asked." One of your boys?"
"In a sense."
"I figured so."
"He called me last night. I was here to meet with him. What makes you think he was connected with me?"
"You're here . . . and I don't think of you as a morbid curiosity seeker. Now FrankFrank is very curious."
"What have you got?" Frank said.
"Not much. No prints on the tub. Nothing. The body is clean except for some marks on the elbows."
"The elbows?" Frank said.
"Yeah. You know what I think?"
"What, Jerry?" I asked, knowing that he would tell us anyway.
"I think he was conscious when it happened. He could have been drugged or poisoned, of course. We'll know more on that later. Ifso, that would have slowed him down, but I think he knew what was happening to him. There are no contusions and no obvious puncture wounds. I'll check again, of course, but we looked in all the familiar places as well as between the toes and under the eyelids. The scalp is clear. He took in a lot of water, Frank. I think he was held under . . . he struggled . . . and he finally lost."
"Was he thrown into the ice water directly or was he drowned and the ice added later?"
"Hard to say at this point."
"Anything odd in the water?" Frank asked.
"A little urine. Nothing else yet. We might find something later." "Tap water?" Frank asked.
"I assume so. It's not saltwater and it's sure as hell not Perrier."
"What about personal effects?" Frank asked." I've got his wallet.
Did you turn up anything else?"
"No other jewelry than the ring. We found a comb, some soggy pocket lint, and a three-by-five photograph. Here." Dailey handed Frank a picture in a plastic evidence case. While Frank looked at it I asked Dailey what kind of suit the man was wearing.
"Not Brooks Brothers, Jackie," he said, turning to one of his men." Hey, Larry, what kind of suit was the ice man wearing? Sears or Penney's?" The man said Sears, and Dailey turned back to me to see ifI had any other questions.
"You didn't find any car keys?"
"No, like I told you."
"Who picked the Farmer's Market for the meeting?" Frank asked, looking up from the photo.
"I did," I told him.
"Interesting," he said.
"Maybe the killer stole his car, too," I said.
Dailey said good-bye and went over to supervise the men loading the body onto the gurney. I turned to Frank." You know what I think?"
"The victim's arms were tied behind his back. When he tried to struggle he hurt his elbows."
"What do you mean?"
"His hands weren't tied. That would have left an obvious mark on each wrist, and Dailey didn't find any. But ifhe was tied between his shoulders and his elbows there would have been a couple of layers of clothing to protect against abrasions: his jacket and his shirt. It immobilized him. He could struggle but he couldn't win. A bad way to go, Frank."
Frank thought about it but didn't speak. I took another drink of my coffee and wondered why some men like to see other men die. The coffee was getting cold. It wasn't as cold as Joseph Gomercio." Would you like a copy of the photograph?" Frank finally asked.
"And one of the victim, too, ifit's no trouble," I said.
"You're falling into your old habits, Jack," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"He's gone and so is your two fifty. The police will do what they can. You know that. You don't need to take it any further."
"Dailey was wrong," I said." I ammorbidly curious."
"You want revenge," Frank said.
"I didn't even know him."
"He picked you. He had your money with him when he died."
"Maybe," I said.
"You're angry. Your client's body is being put into a gray vinyl bag, zipped up, and rolled of ffeet-first. Whoever did it is out on the street. He may even be joyriding in the victim's car. We don't know who he is. We might never find out who he is. For the moment at least, he won. And you don't like it."
I watched Dailey's men roll the body past us and noticed some drops of water spill onto the floor beside us." Hell, Frank, I'm not forming a posse and getting the noose ready. All I asked for is a picture."
He didn't answer, but I saw the trace of a smile. As Dailey's men took the body into the parking lot, the customers waiting at the entrance were getting noisy and numerous. Frank and I walked over to the door. A man in a blue and gray Puma jogging suit approached Dailey. He was doing his best to look more like an undercover cop than a tourist." What happened in there?" he asked.
Dailey looked at the man's outfit, paused, assumed a serious pose, and replied," Swimming accident. A bad one."
Frank glanced at me, expressionless, and we walked between the parked cars and into the clear glare. The tourist in the jogging suit was now whispering something to his wife, who was digging through her oversized straw purse in search of her Instamatic. Frank and I stood there in the parking lot, he dressed in his trim, lightgray wool suit and me in my wrinkled beige slacks, unbuttoned shirt, and worn-out loafers. Whenever I need a quick dose of formality, I reach for the old blue blazer I keep in the backseat of my car. Frank dresses more like one of those funeral parlor attendants who stands by the door of the building or next to the open door of the hearse, doing his best to look reassuring. He does look reassur- ing, until you get to the eyes. His eyes have that dull stare that draws a line across the ground and doesn't have to dare you to cross it. I haven't seen it too of ten. Frank was comfortable with me.
Somehow or other he had the impression that I was capable of holding up my end. He had done a couple of years in the army at about the time that I was an ROTC student learning how to calibrate antique radios and get my thumb out of the insides of an M-1 before it was turned into black and blue pulp. By the time I got to Southeast Asia, Frank White was riding the streets of East L. A. with a partner named Charlie Hancock. I never got to meet him; Frank took me to his grave once. It bothers some people that Frank doesn't always have a lot to say, but when you've seen more than your share of victims'eyes, the silence just happens. Some think that if it's that bad, you should just stop and do something different, like manage a Mrs. Field's Cookies store in a mall. What they don't understand is that somebody like Frank doesn't stop for the simple reason that it is that bad. Not that he's morose. I can usually draw him out, and so can his ex-wife Marie. It's just that until the people on the other side stop seriously practicing their trades, he has to keep playing at the same level.
My link with Frank started a year ago. It was nothing, really. I was watching a man named Norman Lee Dinkle for Valley. Dinkle had reported an abnormal amount of shrinkage of goods in his warehouse down in the garment district. He claimed that his watchmen and loaders were light-fingering his suits and dresses and sport coats. Occasionally he'd fire one or two of them, wait a little while, and then start filing claims again. Cliffwas getting suspicious.
One day I was sitting in my car outside Dinkle's building, trying to keep an eye on things without spilling the raspberry jelly from my donut onto my lap, when Frank pulled up. He was driving a BMW, so I figured he was either a lawyer or one of Dinkle's dealers. He went inon a tip, as it turned outand found Dinkle starting to torch his own warehouse. When I heard what sounded like a gunshot I ran in to find Dinkle screaming and waving an old service automatic. Frank was crawling for cover behind a steel desk, holding some floor scraps against his leg to try to stop the bleeding. He yelled at me, warning me about the gun, but I had already swung an oak chair into Norman Lee Dinkle, breaking his right arm. We don't like to do that to policyholders, but it's always preferable to being shot or incinerated.
I stopped Frank's bleeding, improvised a bandage for his leg, and called an ambulance. I had to sacrifice the gray trousers, but he told me he had another six suits just like that one at home, which turned out to be true. I rode with him to the hospital, refused the services of an intern who didn't look like he was smart enough to find his fly in the dark, and brought him a couple of roast beefsandwiches from a local bar after he got a look at the tuna surprise and rust-colored Jell-O the hospital was of fering that night for dinner.
We went back to that bar when he was released a week later. It's on a disreputable stretch of Wilshire near MacArthur Park. The proprietor is a no-nonsense midwesterner named Lou Carlson, who has five kinds of cold beer on tap and hot roast beefsimmering in its own juices all day. He serves it on fresh-sliced dark rye. Today, as we stood in the parking lot at the market, I suggested getting together later for something to eat. I wanted to hear what else, ifanything, Dailey's people had turned up.
"Let's meet at Lou's around seven," Frank said. That was fine for me, because it gave me the rest of the day to run errands, catch up on chores around the apartment, and write up some reports for Cliff. I looked up at the sky, however, and decided that I really didn't want to do any of those things. I wanted to play tennis. My steady partner is a young doctor from Glendale who stitched me up once during the last year of her residency. I told her I was an international philanthropist-adventurer who got hurt trying to save the women and children of a third-world country. She said I was probably a bar fighter with an overactive imagination. She also said she'd think about going out with me. Her name is Laura Weeks. She's the one who stores her earrings in my ashtray. She doesn't like me playing with guns.
Laura used to go with me to Lou's, but she doesn't anymore. We were there one weeknight three months ago when a Chinese punk tried to hit on her. I politely told him to leave, but he became abusive and called Laura some uncomplimentary names. Then I hit on him. Laura said I was being immature. I told her that the world isn't always mature but we still have to live in it. I also told her that we didn't have to take crap from strangers. She told me that she thought I had enjoyed hitting the guy. I told her that I hadn't, that it had all happened too fast. That was the occasion of our first and only argument. Now we go to places with pink and lavender walls where we drink white wine. I don't care where we go so long as I get to see her.
We could only play tennis for an hour, but it was the best hour of the day. Afterward I took a long shower, found some fresh clothes, and got to Lou's before Frank. When I ordered some Mexican beer I noticed a loudmouthed kid with a black bandana and studded leather jacket. On the back of it was a silver medallion with two leather strips hanging from it. He was annoying a young couple at the bar. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him who he thought really wrote Shakespeare's plays. He looked at me, said something in Spanish that needed no translation, and walked away. Lou just kept wiping his bar. With its layer upon layer of polished lacquer, it could have been a display piece at the Smithsonian.
Frank came in at 7: 15, apologized for being late, smiled at Lou, and ordered a beer. Lou asked what kind and Frank said it didn't matter, whatever was handy. He was obviously working on his image, trying hard to appear agreeable. Lou knew that Frank wanted a Mexican, anyway, and gave him one. We had two more each, got our roast beefsandwiches from Lou's daughter Janie, and sat down at a table in a corner where we could have some privacy. I didn't have to ask Frank what he'd learned from Dailey.
He put down his beer, took a bite of his sandwich, reached into his jacket pocket, and gave me a set of picturesseveral Polaroids of Joseph Gomercio plus copies of the picture he had carried of his friend. Gomercio looked different without his clothes.
"Dailey liked your idea about the arms," Frank said." There were small but discernible marks. Dailey thinks he might have been bound with silk scarves. That's what the fiber evidence looks like."
"And no puncture marks?"
"No. He thought he found one for a second but it was just a tiny mole."
"Not even an antihistamine."
"Did he have anything in his system at all? What about his stomach?"
"Just some bean soup," Frank said.
"Well, actually it wasn't bean soup. It was those little things . . ." "Lentils?"
"Just stomach juice."
"Cause of death?"
"When was he iced down?"
"Probably after, but it's hard to say."
I looked at the other picture. Gomercio's friend was about the same age as he was, at least when the picture was taken. He was dressed in a plain white shirt and had short, thinning hair. There was nothing in the picture that gave any indication of its age." Was the photographic paper checked for age, Frank?"
"Yeah. It came of f the line about a year ago. Even with some time on the shelf, the picture can't be more than ten or twelve months old. Here, look . . ."
He handed me a photocopy of the back of the picture. The ink had run, but the letters were distinct enough: J. Ramos. I looked up at Frank." The name is printed, not written."
"Right. Even with samples of Gomercio's handwriting, we can't be sure whether he put the name there or somebody else did."
"Address on Gomercio?"
"Not yet. The San Gabriel address on the driver's license is a vacant lot."
"There are only a few thousand Ramoses in L. A. That's going to take awhile."
"Did Dailey come up with anything else? Medical history?"
"There was a lot of gold in his mouthforeign workmanship; it wasn't done here. It was good work, Jack. The guy had a little money. He didn't swim or wade into this country; he drove or flew." "Rich?"
"He wasn't poor. There were traces of an antiperspirant. He was well groomed. Nice nails. Not a La Cienega parlor job, but, you know, nice."
"Appendectomy, a long time ago. And adenoids."
"I remember them. Anything else?"
"Not really. He had a broken wrist, the left one, probably as a child . . . all well healed now."
"As sof t and pure as Carrie Nation's."
"Recent sexual activity?"
"Nothing that we could determine."
"How did the body look?"
"Good muscle tone, decent definition, but not an athlete's body.
He took good care of himself, but he was no fanatic. No significant callouses on his hands or feet. He worked with his head and he did it sitting down. Judging by his physical condition and his dress, we make him a businessmanmaybe a middle-management type. Low-key. Middle class. He didn't get his hands dirty."
"Something was dirty, Frank. Somebody went out of his way on this one."
"The motive wasn't money."
"At least not small change. Any other jewelry on him?"
"Besides the ring? A watch . . . a Seiko."
"Forget it. It was waterproof ."
"Value of a couple hundred bucks?"
"They left that, too."
"Right. The motive wasn't theft."
"Maybe Ramos killed him."
"He called him that. Maybe they were each trying to get to the other one first. I was being set up . . . the middleman. Ramos won." "Either way, it's the only name we've got, Jack. We've got to start there."
I picked up the picture of Ramos, hoping to see something I'd missed. It had to wait, however, because the juice from my sandwich was running over my fingers and onto the plate. I decided to plunge in and finish it. Then I was ready for a second. Janie must have sensed it, for she brought reinforcements before I could even turn to ask. She brought us some green peppers, too. My hands were starting to smell like her cutting board, and when I bit into the pepperoncini it didn't help. As I turned to look for her, she placed a napkin in my hand without saying a word.
When I finally got my hands dry, I finished my beer. She caught my eye before I could catch hers. When she put a fresh beer in front of me and removed the empty on the same stroke, I asked her if she was telepathic. She said nojust desperate for tips. I took a drink of the fresh beer and looked at the picture of Senor Ramos. He didn't have a first name yet. The face was completely nondescript: flat, dull eyes and a blank expression, a medium build, probably average in height (it was impossible to tell without reference points). No facial hair, no visible scars. He looked middle-aged. Mr. Everyman. He could have been a Latin member of the FBI, fading into backgrounds. You could bump into him three times in the same day and not remember a single detail. All he needed was a blue suit and an unmarked Ford sedan with blackwall tires and gray upholstery.
It took five minutes for it to hit me. "Here, Frank," I said." Look at this. Do you see it?"
He put down his beer and tried his best to look alert. Frank White never looked drunk, but he sometimes looked dangerously close to comfortable. It was a tendency that he labored to resist. "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to see, but there's not a hell of a lot here."
"He's not smiling, Frank?"
"So? He's not happy."
"It's not a candid shot, Frank. He isn't doing anything. It's a mug shot without the numbers and the profile. There's no background: no landmarks, no places with personal associationsjust a bare wall."
"It's a dull picture, Jack. So what?"
"So why was it taken? It's too big and too amateurish to be a passport photo."
"I don't know, Jack. You tell me."
"Look at the shirt, Frank."
"It's a plain white shirt. There's no tie. Maybe he was getting ready to go out . . . or just getting back."
"Who takes a picture then, Frank?"
"I don't know, Jack."
"Somebody who wants a straight record shot. There's no sign of fear here and no sign of joy. Most pictures are taken on special occasions or in special settings, Frank. At first I thought he might be wearing a guayabera, but he's not. It's a plain shirt, an Anglo's shirt."
"Who do you think gave Gomercio the picture?"
"That's the question, Frank. Ramos didn't send that picture to his old friend. There's no smile, no animation, no attempt to look good, to impress his old buddy. Look at those eyes, Frank. He's not looking at the camera lens, he's looking through it."
"Maybe he was unaware that his picture was being taken."
I signaled to Janie to bring Frank a beer. She brought a small pitcher, filled my glass, and said," I knew you were ready too." The smoke was thickening and the number of people around the bar seemed to be increasing geometrically. Lou was washing glasses as quickly as he could while Janie returned to the cutting board to slice more roast beef. She looked like a surgeon. She layered it slice by slice in the juice, then wiped of fthe sandwich board in preparation for the next round of orders. A tall, balding man in a purple shirt bought a hard-boiled egg and a bag of bacon rinds. She asked him ifhe wanted a beer and he said he preferred Cherry Coke. She smiled politely, but as she turned to get it for him she looked as if she had just waited on someone with a communicable disease. I took a deep drink of my beer and finished of fthe last pepper on my plate. When I reached for my napkin to wipe of fmy mouth and realized that I had been putting my wet beer glass on it, Janie came up from behind me and put a fresh one in my hand." You should sign her up," I said to Frank." What criminal could stay ahead of her?"
"None of the criminals in here," he answered." Now what are you going to do?"
"What do you mean, Frank?"
"Don't bullshit me, Jack. You know what I mean."
"I'm not going to do anything . . . I may just check on a few things."
"You're going to look for Ramos, aren't you?"
"How could I, Frank? I can't go door to door. I may make a call or two, that's all. IfI don't find out anything, so be it."
"Do you want me to run some checks?"
"No, Frank. I don't want you to go out of your way . . . well . . . if you have some spare time . . . I would appreciate it. Don't go to any trouble, though."
"You know I'll do it anyway."
"I figured you probably would. You know I appreciate it when you pass things on to me."
"It's a two-way street, Jack. Stay in touch with me."
"Of course, Frank."
"You're retired now."
"Sure, Frank. I'm just giving the man his due. He was prepared to pay my two fifty. The least I can do is give his memory a couple hours' effort. He doesn't know about it, but I do. Luis Cordon recommended me to himat least that's what he said."
Frank looked skeptical. He wasn't buying it. I signaled to Janie for the check and she gave it to Frank, who handed her a twenty.
"It was his turn," she said, handing him his change. He told her to keep it, got up, and worked his way through the crowd, heading toward the phone booth next to the men's room. A few people seemed to resent anyone asking them to move, but their expressions changed as soon as they got a look at Frank. I said good night to Lou, who nodded at me as he poured a martini into a chilled glass. Frank looked in my direction and I gestured a good-bye before walking outside into the night air. The temperature had dropped ten degrees and the number of kids on the street had doubled. They stood in groups, talking, laughing, tossing things from one hand to the other, posturing, strutting. Some Mexican girls walked by, and the boys made comments which were returned with interest. An elderly Chinese woman was walking toward her apartment with two plastic grocery bags. I waited a minute before getting into my car; I wanted to make sure she got home without any trouble.
The traffic on the Pasadena was light except for the usual single lane of cars beyond Chavez Ravine waiting to get on the Golden State. I stopped at the Union station on Glenarm for some gas, gave the glass-enclosed cashier my money, pumped eight gallons, and drove home. The sky was still clear. It had been that way all day. Somehow I didn't like it. Joseph Gomercio probably hadn't liked it either.