Hood came up the driveway five minutes early. The desert air was cool and the sky was tinged orange with sunlight and dust. The highways north from L.A. had been a trance of darkness and headlights followed by an ordinary desert sunrise of inordinate beauty. He’d seen an LASD recruiting billboard: “Every Community Needs a Hero. Will It Be You?” In the new light he’d watched the yuccas passing outside the windows of his Camaro, put on some Merle and let the music and the flat, dry land take him back to his days as a boy.
Madeline’s home was a walled adobe alone on a crest of hill northwest of the city. It looked secure, but in Anbar province Hood had learned that all appearances are just appearances, and he was alive now because of that. So as he came up the drive, he thought again of Lupercio and the address book missing from Suzanne’s computer room and slid his.38 Colt from the glove box into his coat pocket. Hood had cleared this visit with Bakersfield PD through Marlon and Wyte, and Bakersfield had agreed to let the LASD investigation proceed so long as Hood behaved himself. He had a number to call if things got hot.
He parked at the adobe wall, between two large clay planters with saguaro cactus reaching up. The weathered wooden gate was open and he stood there looking at the courtyard inside. The floor was decomposed granite sand, clean and raked. The roof was a crosshatch of heavy lumber that filtered the early morning sunlight into a slanting forest of beam and shadow. The fountain was large but made only a soft trickling sound. The rock fireplace was blackened from use. A large black kettle sat in the pit, but Hood saw that it contained not food but an explosion of red canna lilies. There were four heavy wooden chairs held together by black iron studs and upholstered in red horsehair, from one of which a large black cat fixed its yellow eyes on Hood.
“I am Madeline Jones.”
She had materialized without Hood’s knowing.
“A pleasure to meet you,” he said.
She looked midfifties, on the tall side, built with a strength and femininity in which Hood saw her daughter. Her face was an older version of her daughter’s, too-dark eyes and high cheekbones and a general expression of capability and doubt. Her hair was honey-colored and worn loose almost to her shoulders.
Hood followed her through the courtyard and into the house. It was dim inside, with few windows and the lamps turned low. They passed through a living room and a kitchen. Adjacent to the kitchen was a breakfast alcove with windows looking out on the courtyard. There at a small table sat an older and smaller replica of Madeline-her mother or an aunt, Hood thought. She was reading what looked like a Bible, making notes directly on the pages with a pen. Same distinctive face, same skeptical calm as she looked up from her reading, quietly closed the book and watched him walk by.
Then they passed an entertainment room with east-facing windows and better light. Hood noted the couches tossed with colorful blankets, a big TV and framed posters from a Mexican soap opera featuring a very beautiful woman who looked like Madeline might have looked thirty years ago, or like Suzanne looked now.
Madeline sat him at the end of a long dining room table and took the head for herself. On the walls were framed paintings of old California-Spanish missions, vaqueros, bullbaiting, horses. Hood watched the oddly muted play of the paint lit by the electric candles of a chandelier.
The long table was dark oak and appeared old, and Madeline folded her hands on the wood and looked down it at him.
“Are you a policeman or her friend?” she asked. Her voice was slow and mannered. Like an actor, thought Hood, or a person used to being listened to.
“I’m both. What does she say?”
“She trusts but doubts you.”
“I grew up here, too. Bakersfield High, class of ’ninety-eight.”
“Well, I made the team.”
“Then law enforcement.”
“College at Northridge-political science-then Sheriff ’s Academy, then the navy, now L.A. Did you grow up here, Ms. Jones?”
“Mexico City. A Spanish family-my mother was an actor and my father was her writer. My father died years ago, and as you saw, my mother lives here with me. I fell in love and moved to Hollywood when I was very young. I married an unlucky writer, Jones.”
“I met Ernest.”
“Like Suzanne I’ve left a collection of interesting men behind me. We’re drawn to good lovers and good fathers. A very rare combination. It makes for a life of ecstatic disappointment.”
“Where is she?”
“Why should I tell you? The last time she accepted your protection she was nearly murdered by a man with a machete.”
“Because without my protection he’ll find her again.”
“Who is this man? Why does he want Suzanne?”
Hood told her about Miracle Auto Body, Barry Cohen and the missing diamonds, Lupercio Maygar.
Madeline nodded. “I find it hard to believe that such a small coincidence-seeing a man from your car, in the course of your travels to visit a sister-in-law-can lead to a sentence of death.”
“In some worlds it’s common,” said Hood. “Suzanne entered that world without knowing it.”
“What has this civilization come to? Why can’t you guardians guard the innocent?”
“We try, but we need help. That’s why you should tell me how to contact her. She has a new cell number by now. That would be a good place to start.”
She looked down the table at him. “As a girl she was rebellious, like her mother and her mother’s mother. I tried to instill two things in her: courage and independence. As a young mother I wanted Suzanne to make history. As an adult, she wanted to teach it. Neither one of us ever saw the value of compromising our desires, if there is any value in compromise at all. So, I became her captain and she became my mutineer. This is the story of every mother and daughter.”
“She’s a bright and beautiful woman.”
“Do you believe that beauty is a curse?”
“It can open doors that should be left shut.”
“Are you one of them?”
Hood shifted his weight in the heavy old chair. Down at the other end of the table Madeline stared at him, her eyes reflecting the light of the chandelier.
“I don’t know if I’m better left shut. I’m pretty much what I seem.”
“She says you have secrets.”
“I think she does, too. I’m not sure that Suzanne is what she seems.”
Hood sensed the stillness at the other end of the table.
“Explain,” she said.
“I can’t explain one thing about your daughter. I don’t even have a number to call.”
“You need to know who you’re looking for.”
“I need to find her.”
“I can show you what she was,” said Madeline. “Here, come with me, Mr. Hood.”
He stood and took a better look at the painting on the wall as he pushed in his chair. He saw that it was not a painting at all but a print.
He followed her to the entertainment room, now awash in full morning sun. She pointed him to a leather couch and handed him two big, heavy scrapbooks from one of the bookshelves, then sat down not far from him. Hood looked through the pages of the first volume-a birth certificate, baby and toddler pictures, birthday and holiday pictures, soccer and swimming certificates, a record of baptism, report cards and class pictures from kindergarten, first and second grades. From what Hood could see Suzanne had been a skinny, big-toothed tomboy: Suzanne holding a snake, Suzanne with a fishing pole, Suzanne in a white martial arts uniform breaking a board with her hand and a grimace and a Bakersfield Hapkido Federation emblem on the wall behind her.
The next page contained a report titled: A Day in the Life of the Outlaw Joaquin Murrieta. By Suzanne Jones. The cover was orange construction paper, and the title was printed in a large old-fashioned typeface, like a wanted poster from the Old West. Below the title was the same image that Dave Boyer had used in his TV special the night before-Joaquin Murrieta with his long hair and his wild eyes.
Hood looked up at Madeline. She had leaned closer, and her closeness startled him. He thought that her eyes looked like Joaquin’s with less wildness, and that Suzanne’s eyes did, too.
“Fourth grade,” she said. “California history.”
Hood lifted the plastic protector and turned the orange cover.
Joaquin woke up with the sun that day as he always did. He could hear his beloved mount, Jorge, neighing in the barn. His young wife, Rosa, slept with her head on a pillow and her mind in dreams. It was a glorious morning outside the small town of Coloma, California.
“She liked this outlaw,” Hood said.
“She talked about him a lot back then. But you will learn someday that children talk about a lot of things. Her best friend wrote about Father Serra and mission life. This bored Suzanne. Suzanne always chose the underdog, the outlaw, the doomed. Later, she became interested in Frank James-Jesse’s brother-who lived out his life in Los Angeles and died in 1915. She visited his home there. Then there was Tiburcio Vasquez, the outlaw who hid in the rocks north of L.A. Of course we visited the rocks, spent a night there to communicate with his ghost. When they tried O.J., she was eighteen. I couldn’t get her to turn off the TV. Hours, days, weeks watching that trial. I don’t know how she kept her grades up.”
“What did she think of O.J.?” Hood asked.
“He fascinated her. She thought he did it.”
Hood turned pages.
Then Joaquin watched as they hanged his brother. His black eyes burned with an anger that would never leave them until the day he died. In spite of Joaquin’s great strength he was helpless against the Anglo ropes that held him.
“She tried to put herself into his mind,” said Hood.
“Like a writer or an actor.”
Hood closed the report, lowered the protective plastic cover and turned the next pages of the scrapbook.
He saw Suzanne’s rush of adolescent growth in junior high school. When she graduated from eighth grade, she looked more like a high school junior.
Hood set aside the book and looked through the next one. Suzanne was still swimming and playing soccer her first year of high school at East Bakersfield. She still worked out at hapkido, but the yellow belt of her youth had turned black. She wrote sports reports and movie reviews for the school paper. She attended several dances, never with the same date. She looked lovely and bored. She went to the junior prom with a boy who looked very much like her son Bradley. Most of her sophomore year was missing. Because of the birth of Bradley, thought Hood. But there were no pictures of the young mother and her son. There were snapshots of her at work: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Subway.
Allison Murrieta’s favorite haunts, thought Hood.
Her junior and senior years of high school were scarcely represented at all-school photographs, a graduation announcement and her diploma from Vista West Continuation. Busy with the baby and work, thought Hood. Amazing she’d gotten her diploma.
But suddenly there were junior college and state university report cards, newspaper clippings of her triumphs at hapkido tournaments in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Dallas. She was knocked unconscious in the Dallas finals. There were several pictures of Suzanne with various boyfriends. Several with small Bradley, already about two years old by the look of him. He simply appeared in her life, unexplained, but increasingly present. He was cute. There were local newspaper clippings about Suzanne graduating summa cum laude from Dominguez Hills, a columnist’s note about her being hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District, articles about awards and commendations she’d earned in her early teaching career. The last page had just one small item on it, a Chinese cookie fortune taped diagonally beneath the plastic cover sheet: “History is not made by the timid.”
Hood set the book on top of the other. “Thank you.”
“The past is now. A sigh. A generation. A grave and a birthplace. It’s all one instant. Look at me and you see my mother. Look at her and you see Suzanne.”
Hood thought there was truth in that. “When I look at my father, he’s losing his mind.”
“And you see yourself someday,” said Madeline.
“The old become infants.”
“I like your daughter very much.”
“You’ve captivated her.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“To see if you’re the one,” said Madeline.
“The one who what?”
“Who sees my daughter as she really is.”
“I have no evidence of that.”
Hood said nothing for a moment, just looked out at the flat land and the power lines drooping north. A high school buddy had crashed his new motorcycle into a power pole at over a hundred miles an hour. He was a heck of a bull rider and a wrestler, too.
“I have something to show you,” said Hood.
He pulled the DVD from the pocket of his sport coat and held it up to her.
“Unfortunately, this television needs repair,” she said. “I have a small one in my bedroom. I’ll bring it out.”
Madeline left the room. Hood stood and went to the window and looked out at the desert. There was a breeze now, and he could feel a hint of its heat coming through the glass. He looked at the book titles. At eye level there were hardcover histories and commentaries on world cinema and television, entertainment biographies and non-fiction, most in excellent condition, all neatly arranged and alphabetized by title. The bottom shelves were stuffed with paperback bodice rippers, westerns and thrillers bloated by use and haphazardly arranged.
He studied a poster for the Mexican soap opera star-ring Madeline Mercedes. The show was called Nosotros, and the poster was dated 1971. There were similar posters for ’72, ’73 and ’74. Hood touched the dusty poster glass.
He wandered into the breakfast alcove, but the grandmother was gone. Her book and pen were still at her place, and when Hood stood near her chair and looked down, he saw the book was a Bible with a crossword puzzle pamphlet inserted between its pages.
Back in the entertainment room Madeline set down a small TV with a DVD player built in.
Hood plugged it in, slipped his copy of Dave Boyer’s special into the play slot and sat at the opposite end of the couch from Madeline.
They watched the first ten minutes in silence. Allison robbed and hammed it up and talked about Joaquin from behind her gem-studded mask.
“Did you see this last night?” asked Hood.
“Is that Suzanne?”
“Of course it is.”
He crossed the room and hit the PAUSE button. His heart was going fast. “Are you going to help me find her or not?”
“That depends on you.”
“Maybe you should tell me what’s on your mind, Ms. Jones, because I sure can’t read it.”
Hood hit the PLAY and MUTE buttons on the little TV set then sat down again.
“How long did it take you to recognize her?” asked Madeline.
“A few seconds. But I wasn’t sure.”
“It took me longer than a few seconds. She carries herself differently when she plays this role. The second time I saw video of Allison Murrieta, I knew. My daughter. There she was, with a mask and a wig and a gun.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“I have a cell number for you. It’s all I know.”
Hood handed her a pen and his notebook, and she wrote down a number from memory then set the notebook and the pen on the couch between them.
“What’s the deal with Joaquin Murrieta?” he asked.
“There is no consensus that such a man ever existed, outside of the stories about him. Some historians say he was only legend, a product of Anglo fear. Some say he was a real man. Of those, some claim he was born in Chile, others in Mexico. For every story about him, such as the ones that Suzanne tells on TV, there is a contradictory story about him, too.”
“She doesn’t have his head in a jar?”
“No, she does not.” Madeline looked down.
Hood wondered if the positive identification of a person wearing a mask-even by the suspect’s mother-would be enough to get a warrant for arrest.
“Why is she doing this?” he asked.
“Because it’s profitable and exciting. Because it stimulates and arouses. Because it makes the routine of work and family responsibility tolerable. Because she becomes famous and infamous.”
Hood doubted that Suzanne Jones had sat down in her kitchen one day and asked herself how to make teaching and being a mother more fun, and come up with the idea of armed robbery and grand theft auto.
“Because she wants to please you?” he asked.
“How does this please me?”
“She makes history instead of just teaching it.”
Madeline looked at one of the soap opera posters, then back at Hood. “Perhaps. Perhaps it’s competition, too. I was a bright star in a small universe. Briefly. I gambled with my ambitions and failed. I saw myself in Suzanne until I saw Allison. Then I knew she’d moved beyond me. Far beyond me. She possesses the courage that I never had and always wanted. I’ll confess to you, Mr. Hood-I’m very proud of her and very sad for her.”
“You do understand how this is going to end,” said Hood.
“She’ll almost assuredly be killed.”
“I doubt that she could pull the trigger of that silly little gun.”
“There’s nothing silly about a forty-caliber bullet.”
“Find her, Mr. Hood. Stop her.”
Hood pocketed his notebook and pen, stood and went to the window. Outside, the breeze was now a wind, and he watched a swirl of dust scratch against the window with the sound of a snake passing over a sheet of paper.
“I don’t understand,” said Hood. “Of all the people who know Suzanne, and all the people who’ve seen Allison on TV, why hasn’t anyone stepped forward and identified her? She started making the news months ago. Just a little at first, then more and more. Now she’s telling the world about herself. But we haven’t gotten a single call, a single suggestion that we consider Suzanne. Her students, the parents of her students, her coworkers, her friends and acquaintances-what are they seeing? Why did I recognize her in two seconds but they still haven’t?”
She looked at him with mild surprise. “People are busy and inattentive and absorbed, Mr. Hood. Truly seeing is an inconvenience the mind will avoid. It’s possible you saw her because you’re a good detective. It’s also possible that you saw her because your hearts have touched.”
After the Hotel Laguna Hood had the same irrational idea, this touching-of-hearts thing, because he wanted Suzanne Jones like he’d never wanted anything or anyone. He barely knew her but was famished to know more. She fired his imagination. He wanted to be great for her. He started slotting her into his future like the last gleaming plank of a ship he’d been building all his life.
“She denies being Allison,” said Madeline.
Hood figured she would.
“When I told her I knew, she laughed at me. She said Allison Murrieta was an attention-starved child and obviously three inches shorter and ten pounds heavier than her. I reminded her that television adds ten pounds to any actor and she reminded me that I was getting old. She said that she’d have me committed if I continued to degenerate at such a rapid pace. She laughed. She finished eating the ice cream from my freezer straight from the tub like she did when she was a girl, then kissed me on the forehead as if I were a child. Like I used to kiss her. Her lips were still cold. Then she sped down the driveway like the bandit she is, the tires of her car smoking.”
Madeline smiled. It was the first smile he’d seen on her, and he saw Suzanne in it in a way that gave him desire and dread. “As a concession, and because something inside told me to, I admitted to Suzanne that I could be wrong.”
“But you’re not?”
“I am not wrong.”
“Does Ernest know?”
“I would find it frightening if he didn’t, but possible. She doesn’t let him be the man in her life because of his high intelligence.”
Again Hood thought of Lupercio. It wasn’t hard to imagine that Suzanne’s address book could lead him to this place, just as the telephone bill had led Hood to it. It wasn’t hard to imagine what Lupercio would do when he got here. If Marlon petitioned nicely, Bakersfield PD might step up patrol of this area, but that would almost certainly not be enough to deter Lupercio. Hood had a bad feeling about this day and he believed he should act on it.
“Have you had any calls recently about Suzanne?” he asked.
“Any vague or unusual calls from a man with a Hispanic accent?”
“Any unusual visitors or solicitors?”
“I would have told you immediately.”
“Can you leave this house? Go stay with someone who doesn’t know Suzanne? You’d need to take your mother. Say five days. Maybe less. Hopefully less.”
“Mary, Mother of Jesus.”
Madeline left the room and Hood heard voices from the alcove. They spoke in Spanish and Hood caught only some of it. It went from a discussion to an argument back to a discussion. A moment later Madeline was back.
“There’s one more thing.” Hood took out his notebook and pen again. “Every place she might go. Every place she likes. Hotels or resorts she’s mentioned. Vacation spots. Favorite restaurants, bars, clubs. Friends. Relatives.”
Madeline talked and Hood wrote. It took some time. Later, while she packed, Hood called the first five places on Madeline’s list. No one had seen Suzanne; she was not a recent guest. When Madeline was packed, he put her bags and her mother’s bags into a dark blue Durango.
Outside the vehicle Madeline took his hands in hers. They were warm and strong. Her eyes were wet and Hood saw the tremble in her chin.
“Don’t let them kill her, Mr. Hood. That’s really what everyone wants, because that’s how outlaws are supposed to end. And it’s such good entertainment-a real person dying a real death. Maybe she’ll listen to you. Maybe she’ll stop. Maybe she won’t.”
“I’ll do all I can.”
“I’m not expecting a promise. I don’t require theater. I used to but now I do not.”
“Don’t tell her that you told me. Tell her you sent me the wrong way. It might leave us something to work with.”
“Of course.” She climbed into the SUV and started it up. “Are you going to wait for him here? For this collector?”
“For a while, yes.”
Madeline hoisted her purse from the console and produced a house key, which she handed to Hood.
“Eat the food and drink the coffee.”
“Thank you. Call here when you get where you’re going. Don’t leave your location on the machine. If you find out where she is-”
Hood watched the Durango lumber down the drive then turn toward Bakersfield. In the dusty windblown distance he saw it join a line of traffic. Standing in the heat he dialed Suzanne on the new number and no one answered so he left a message. He said he was just leaving her mother’s house and she was a nice woman but she wouldn’t tell him where Suzanne had gone or much of anything about her. All she’d conceded was this number. He tried Ernest again but Ernest didn’t answer. He got his.25-caliber autoloader, ankle holster and big flashlight from the trunk of his Camaro.
For a long while he stood leaning against his car, letting the dry, hot wind press against him. It was nice to feel it again. He had loved the Bakersfield wind when he was a kid, sending plastic kites up into it and feeling the string unspool in a steady rush while the kite urgently vanished into the blue brown sky. And he’d loved the Bakersfield wind when he went out riding a borrowed horse with friends along the roads between the cotton farms and the oil fields, the way the wind shivered the white fluffy balls and whistled through the derricks. It was the same wind that blew through Anbar province, but he had few pleasant memories of Iraq with which to associate it. He wondered if Lupercio had ever felt that wind down in El Salvador.
Hood slung the holster and gun over his shoulder and stepped back into the courtyard. He stopped in front of the fireplace. He touched the big black kettle and confirmed that it was made of plastic. The canna lilies were paper.