Hood volunteered to check credentials at the press conference Monday evening because he was no longer working two assignments.
He’d never seen so many reporters for a law enforcement news conference. Not only were the national networks and local affiliates here, but PBS, all of the big cable news outfits, several of the small ones, ten or so radio networks and stations, student newspapers and radio from half a dozen Southland universities, and maybe twenty print writers and photographers. They came from as far south as Tijuana and as far north as Portland, Oregon. Many of them were from towns and cities that Hood had never been to.
He stood at the entrance to the big room and checked the names off a master list. Well over half of the media participants weren’t on the list because they hadn’t come to a LASD press conference until now.
But no one was going to miss the story of Lupercio Maygar and the trail of blood he was leaving across the Southland, and of the vanished L.A. schoolteacher wanted for questioning as a possible witness.
So he logged in the reporters and gave them temporary passes. There was an oddly festive atmosphere. Hood gathered that the Monday conference was good timing for what must be a slow local news week. He signed in a lovely blonde from a Bakersfield radio station, but when he said he’d grown up there, she looked at him pityingly and said she was from Boulder.
When the media had all been admitted and the room was nearly full, Hood found a seat near the back. His legs were still stiff from dune climbing and running in the Bakersfield desert. He could still taste human blood, though he reasoned that this was his imagination and memory playing a trick on him. But his body was the least of it. His soul felt filthy, and the faces of Officers Jackson and Ruiz-which Hood hadn’t seen clearly until the Sunday papers-waited at the center of it. Ruiz was DOA at a Bakersfield hospital. His HIV test had come back negative.
Besides all this Hood was inordinately focused on the fact that Jackson’s riot gun had never been fired. Two shotgun blasts had killed the men, but Lupercio had not taken their weapon and used it against them. Hood had seen it in Jackson’s hands. Since that moment he’d fastened onto this anomaly like a life raft. He had used part of his bleary Sunday to read every page of Wyte’s jacket on Lupercio. There was not one mention of the man ever using a shotgun. When Hood tried to picture Lupercio trotting across the desert and into Madeline’s home with a shotgun, he couldn’t quite see it. A shotgun wasn’t an assassin’s tool. It was efficient but loud, difficult to conceal, effective only at close range. Reviewing the Bakersfield PD crime scene report, Hood saw that the shot pattern had expanded rapidly-more rapidly than even a sawed-off barrel and an open choke would suggest. It was as if the shells weren’t fired through a gun barrel at all, but from some truncated handheld contraption. A zip shotgun? Possibly. How about through his fingertips, like lightning bolts-one more example of Lupercio’s black magic? But two shotgun blasts had killed the officers, this was a fact. Each charge contained number six shot, which Hood knew was typically used for large birds such as pheasant and was fabulously destructive on a human up close. It was also a fact that no empty shot shells had been recovered.
Twenty minutes later Captain Patmore had finished his synopsis of the facts surrounding the murders of two Indian brothers in San Diego County and the murders of Bakersfield Officers Burt Jackson and Steve Ruiz.
Then the monitor beside him filled with the ten-year-old California Department of Corrections release photos of the suspect, Lupercio Maygar-left profile, right profile, front.
Hood listened to the murmur that rose in the room, though he wasn’t certain what it was for. The man in the photograph looked fearless and unhappy, but far from unusual. L.A. was full of fearless and unhappy men. His short black hair was parted on the side and partially covered his forehead. Then Hood heard Lupercio’s name being spoken by some of the reporters, and he realized that they remembered him-his break with the gang he had helped establish, and his bloody war and peace.
Next came the sketch done by Jordan Jones. Hood was relieved to see that Jordan’s proud signature had been removed. And he was relieved that Jordan’s sketch of Lupercio with his straw cowboy hat on was not shown. Hood had explained to Patmore and the other media relations people that if Lupercio saw the drawing with the hat he would know who had described him. And that Lupercio might wish to silence this person. The new Lupercio looked out at his audience with a different haircut but the same steady eyes and compact, ageless face.
Patmore described Lupercio’s criminal career, from his early days around MacArthur Park, where he helped form the deadly Mara Salvatrucha, to his break from the gang ten years later.
“We’ve issued a warrant,” said Patmore. “We’re hoping that somebody will recognize this man and call us. There is currently a reward of one hundred thousand dollars, pledged from some of the fine individuals and businesses served by our department. If every one of you watches and listens, we can stop this man. There’s a number at the bottom of your screen, and for those of you listening on radio…”
Next up on the monitor was a synopsis of Lupercio’s criminal record, followed by a physical fact sheet. He stood five feet three inches tall and weighed 120 pounds. Brown eyes, black hair. Knife scars on his belly and forearms, bullet scars on his right front thigh and right stomach.
Patmore pointed to the next image on the monitor, which showed Lupercio shirtless from behind.
“Mayans in gangland,” said Patmore.
Hood stared at the hypnotic tangle of serpents and eagles and big-toothed jaguars all wound together in a tattoo that covered Lupercio’s whole broad little back. Hood remembered that in school textbooks he’d found these motifs mysterious, but stamped into a man’s skin they were ominous.
“Now, we’ve got a possible witness to some of this,” said Patmore. “Her name is Suzanne Jones. She’s thirty-two years old, and a teacher here in Los Angeles Unified. An award-winning teacher, no less. She’s a Dominguez Hills graduate, a single mom. She got herself into the wrong place at the wrong time. She was working with investigators but suddenly dropped contact with us five days ago. That was right after Lupercio Maygar attempted to murder her in a Torrance hotel parking lot.”
What came from the crowd now was more than a murmur.
Suzanne Jones’s face filled the monitor. It was apparently a school district employee photo from the year prior-poorly lit, not well focused, unrevealing.
“We have no reason to believe she’s come to any harm,” said Patmore. “We need to talk to her. We need to find her. I can’t tell you how important this is. Again, please call the number at the bottom of the screen if you know anything about the whereabouts of Suzanne Jones. Ms. Jones, if you’re out there, please contact us.”
Patmore filled in the Jones biography. Another photographic image swept over the monitor, a shot of Suzanne at a podium. She wasn’t smiling and she suffered red-eye from the flash, but she had a plaque in her hands and she looked serious and proud.
Hood’s reaction surprised him: he was proud of her, too, and wanted her to be safely alive to mother her children, teach her students, drive her Corvette fast and maybe spend some quality time with Los Angeles County’s most recently minted homicide detective. Nice guy, bright future. For a moment he was able to see her like everyone else saw her and it was good.
He told himself it was possible that both he and Madeline were wrong about Allison Murrieta, even though he knew they weren’t. It didn’t matter that no one else on Earth could see what they had seen. What they saw was true. He had told Marlon but Marlon was skeptical because the two women didn’t look enough alike, in his opinion. Wyte had agreed. Hood felt like an unwanted witness-alone, unheard, doomed. Which is exactly how he figured Suzanne felt, running for her life.
“I think my kid had her in eighth grade,” said a reporter near Hood. “U.S. history.”
“Beats me,” said the reporter.
“They say she is. The awards and all.”
“What’s the tattooed pygmy want with her?”
“I think she just stumbled across a crime scene,” said Hood.
“And now he’s after her? That’s a story.”
“Write it up. Run the pictures real big. It could help.”
When Patmore opened up for questions, they came fast and loud.
Hood drifted out with his cell phone throbbing against his hip.
“Why?” she asked.
“We had to.”
“I will not be hunted. And don’t tell me some story about a good night’s sleep in the hotel of your choice. Everybody in Southern California is going to be looking for me and it’s your fault.”
“There’s nothing else we can do, Suzanne. We can’t help you if we can’t find you.”
Hood suddenly felt a sharp and unexpected sorrow for Suzanne Jones. Had she invented the Murrieta guise as a joke, or out of boredom, or because of competition with her mother, then been seduced by the action and the notoriety? Was she simply insane? He came close to telling her what he knew-that she was Allison Murrieta-and what he almost knew-that she had taken the diamonds from Miracle Auto Body after picking Melissa’s vengeful brain. But he didn’t, because that way he’d never see her again except in a hospital or in a morgue.
And because it was his duty to arrest her.
“Okay, say you’ve found me. Say I’m sitting right across from you. What the hell are you gonna do with me?”
“We’ve got safe houses.”
“Desert, mountains, beach. Take your pick. We’d have two deputies there, twenty-four/seven.”
“Hood, I can’t believe you did this to me.”
“I’m trying to help you.”
“He would have hacked Mom and Grandma to pieces.”
Hood couldn’t get Jackson and Ruiz out of his mind, his mouth, his nose, his eyes, his dreams. “Yes.”
“He killed two cops.”
“Suzanne. Come in. I want you safe. The best thing you can do for them is stay with us for a while.”
“What’s a while, Hood? Two days? A year? What if Lupercio decides to wait me out, just lets me go back to work and bides his time?”
“He’ll kill you for sure is what.”
“I’m not going to be run off my job. I’m walking into my classroom in September. I’m going to teach those thick-headed kids whether they want to be taught or not.”
Earlier Wyte had suggested that if Suzanne would come in they could stage a video “statement” in a good location, subtly reveal her whereabouts, televise it and wait for Lupercio.
“Help us set a trap,” said Hood. “You come in. We help you video a statement where you refuse to come in for questioning out of fear. But you want your family and friends to know you’re okay, safe right where you are. You send it to the newspeople and they run with it. We’ll make sure it gives Lupercio an idea of where you are. Just a touch, just enough to get him to come around. Then you’re free to go. Or you can take a safe house. Up to you.”
“You do remember my last safe house?
“Do you have a better idea?”
“You’re unimaginative, Hood.”
“I’m trying to save your ass.”
“So I can enjoy it.”
Suzanne was silent for a long moment. Hood slipped outside the headquarters building into the heat of the evening. Again he almost told her what he knew, but he could not.
“You have to help me help you. Come in.”
“Okay,” she said. “You work out the details. You get the location set up and figure the clues and get the video camera ready. Then I’ll do it. But no safe houses. No protective custody. No cages of any kind. None of that. I’ll tape a statement then I’m splitting. Deal?”
“Deal. There will be at least two more of us, a sergeant and a captain. They’ve done this before.”
“I want you to be okay, Suzanne.”
“You busy tonight, Charlie?”
He hesitated. If she was with him she was safer. Suzanne and Allison were safer. He would protect them and bring them to justice.
He couldn’t think of any meaning of the word idiot that didn’t apply to himself. “I hope so.”