On his first tour Hood spent time at the “Baghdad Tennis Club,” a Green Zone facility with a single court made from Tigris River clay and patrolled by men with machine guns. The Chinese-made tennis balls were pressureless and heavy as rocks. But the Iraqis love tennis almost as much as soccer. The play usually took place during the evenings, under the soft hiss of the Green Zone palms.
Hood was a steady player, having been number two on his Bakersfield High School team. He enjoyed having a racket in his hand again. He had a big forehand that was somewhat mitigated by the yellow Tigris clay, though sometimes the gravel composition gave his shots some horrendously advantageous bounces. He didn’t mind hitting with the Iraqi youngsters just learning to play.
The club was often visited by Nasir al-Hatam, Iraq’s number-one player. Amid the rubble and chaos of Baghdad Nasir was trying to get an Iraqi Davis Cup team together. Hood could rally with him, but in games the Iraqi’s serve and his deep, steady ground strokes easily did Hood in. Al-Hatam was good-natured and generous with his time, and he became the club pro, giving lessons to American soldiers, who played in combat boots and fatigues.
Hood remembered all of this as he drove away from Officer Steve Ruiz’s funeral that Saturday afternoon in Bakersfield, one week after the shootings in Madeline Jones’s courtyard. The palms lining the cemetery road looked like the Baghdad palms, and the cooling evening had the same rosy desert light. And Steve Ruiz and Nasir al-Hatam had looked very much alike-tall and dark-haired and slender, with a warm smile and kind eyes. At least that was how Ruiz looked in the portraits on easels beside his coffin. Hood had seen the similarity when he’d first laid eyes on Ruiz, terrified and dying in Madeline’s courtyard, but his mind had been too frantic to make the connection.
Hood drove to his old high school and parked and walked out to the tennis courts. There were players on one of them. He sat on a bench and watched. He tried to concentrate on the ball going back and forth but all he could think of was Ruiz.
Ruiz was his age-twenty-eight. At the funeral Hood had seen his widow and his children, his brothers and sister, his mom and dad. There was no point in approaching any of them, in telling them that his own carelessness had contributed to Steve’s death. He believed that anyone who looked closely at him would see this. It surprised him that no one at the funeral truly saw him, but no one truly saw Suzanne Jones either, and millions of people had watched her commit armed robbery on TV. Maybe seeing was a lost art.
So he loitered far back in the standing crowd, black as a crow in his weddings-and-funerals suit, wondering if better CPR would have saved Ruiz. And wondering if it was Marlon or Wyte or both who had guided Lupercio to Bakersfield that night. Marlon or Wyte? The names had been endlessly ratcheting through Hood’s mind since Arrowhead. Marlon, Wyte. Hood had told Marlon that he was going to Jones’s mother’s house in Bakersfield. Marlon had likely informed Wyte. Where was the leak? Either way you cut it, Lupercio knew where Hood would be and that Hood was looking for Suzanne Jones. Hood had set the stage on which the force of Lupercio’s character collided with the luck of two young, strong, unsuspecting deputies-a mismatch.
Hood watched the ball go back and forth over the net. He remembered winning a big match against his cross-town rival, Suzanne Jones’s alma mater, in fact, right there on that court. Now the players were middle-aged and rounded, mixed doubles teams grunting and shrieking and playing hard.
Hood thought of Nasir al-Hatam again, his smoothness on the court and his humility off of it. The story that Hood later put together went like this: Nasir was approached by his old homies to drive a bomb into the Hunting Club, a ritzy tennis club where Nasir had learned the game during Saddam’s reign. Nasir said he wasn’t sure that he wanted to do that. His family was relocated, and Nasir kept teaching and training for the Davis Cup, stayed low, varied his schedule. His old friends caught up with him and two teammates in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sedeya one day and gunned them all down. Nasir and his buddies were wearing the green-and-white warm-ups of the Iraqi tennis team and the Adidas knockoffs that were all you could get in Baghdad. Bullets and fake tennis shoes, thought Hood, all that Iraq could offer its number-one player.
Hood watched the ball go back and forth but he didn’t see it. He was back in the Baghdad, hitting with Nasir. Then he was in Madeline Jones’s courtyard. Then all he could see was the names Marlon and Wyte scrolling through the window of his mind’s eye, like symbols in a slot machine.
He watched the tennis for another few minutes then drove south to L.A.
Hood sat in the activities room with his mother, Iris, beside him. His father was across from them as usual, but without the girlfriend he had mistaken for his wife. Earlier in the week Douglas had punched the woman, and now his activities were restricted. He had lost his swagger and sat with his hands folded in his lap and a hangdog expression on his face.
Hood had brought a picture album he’d assembled from the shoeboxes of photographs he’d gotten from his mother. The doctors had said that visible tokens from Douglas’s past might help to slow the deterioration of his mind, or at least please him. So Hood went and sat next to his dad and flipped through the pages.
“Look, that pool you got me when I was four or five,” said Hood. He sat in the small blue pool with the bright shapes of seahorses and shells on the walls all around him. He was startlingly skinny but smiling big.
“You look like a POW,” said his father. “They should have fed you more.”
“I always got enough, Dad.”
“Where was I living then?”
“Right there at the Bakersfield house.”
“That was the last year we were all together,” said Iris. “Donny moved out that December, and Sharon left the next spring.”
“I have no memory of them,” said Douglas. “But the maintenance yard I remember very well. That’s where we’d pick up the trucks and sprayers and pipe and fertilizers. I remember a stack of new Rain Bird sprinklers, brand-new, still in the boxes, that got stolen on Good Friday, 1989.”
“You miss work, Dad?”
“I miss the donuts.”
Hood flipped through. Douglas nodded but Hood could tell that he wasn’t remembering much of what he saw. When Douglas pointed to a picture and asked a question, Hood saw that his hands were still strong and steady, and Hood wondered that a man’s mind could wear out so much faster than his hands.
But Hood found himself enjoying the closeness of his dad, the touch of his bare arm along his own, his familiar smell. He remembered Douglas taking him up to Yosemite on fly-fishing trips when he was a boy, the cold water and the elusive fish and the painstaking knots that his father taught him to tie. He could remember his father standing behind him up on the Merced River, taking his hands and showing him the rhythm, how to cast the line with his wrist firm and his elbow doing most of the work and the left hand paying out line. Hood remembered getting it right once in a while, and having brave little rainbow trout crash his fly, and the silver red flash of the fish in the sun as it jumped, then the furtive darts back and forth underwater as he reeled it in. The rainbows were impossibly beautiful, the brook trout even more beautiful. His father always let them go, carefully working the hooks out while keeping the fish submerged. Hood had never loved fly-fishing like his father loved it, but he had fished hard to please him. When he was on a river with Douglas it was always a time of beauty and slowness and that absurd concentration in which anglers become lost.
Hood also remembered riding horses with his dad, especially one warm spring day when Douglas trotted past him on a black warmblood and Hood had so thoroughly admired the way he sat that horse that he tried to emulate it on his own, sitting up and squaring his shoulders but trying to look relaxed also and being thankful that this man so good with horses was his father. In Hood’s memory his father trotted by, then trotted by again.
“Look, Dad, remember Taffy?”
“Not one iota.”
“The collie you got us. Remember? And she dug up the yard so bad you took her to the pound and came back with a kitten. We named her Noel because it was Christ mastime. And Mom put little squares of masking tape on her feet and we laughed when she tried to shake them off and she knew we were laughing at her.”
“Sorry to have missed all that.”
“You remember, honey,” said Iris. “The Webster’s boxer got ahold of Noel and you ran him down and got her back out. Christmas Day, 1986. Four stitches in your hand. Charlie and I were in the front yard and we saw the whole thing.”
“Charlie being one of my sons?”
“Yes, hon, the one sitting right next to you.”
“Look, Dad, here’s my first year of Little League. The Angels. You were the coach.”
Douglas set his finger under the team picture and appeared to give the photograph his complete attention. He leaned away and looked at Hood.
“Right, Dad. Charlie. Perfect.”
They ate in the dining room. For Hood and his mother it was an anguished hour of nonsense piled over sense, of imagined events crowding out the memory of real ones. There were moments of pure lucidity but even in these Hood saw nothing of his father’s once capacious heart. Mostly he complained.
Hood forced down the dinner and thought of what Madeline had said. The past is now… a grave and a birthplace… it’s all one instant…
His father looked at him. “I hate my life.”
Hood drank at a bar in Hollywood, watched the Dodgers beat the Cards, chatted up two nurses from Chicago and came back late to Silver Lake.
His cell rang as he came through his door.
“Talk to me,” said Suzanne.
“Where are you?”
“Far from you and Lupercio.”
Hood toured the little one-bedroom place to make sure everything looked the way he had left it, a habit and nothing more. He turned off the lights and sat in the dark in his living room.
“We shouldn’t talk here, like this,” he said.
“Remember Laguna, before you helped me check out?”
“Hard to forget.”
“Then walk across that sand in exactly two hours. Alone.”
Two hours later he walked alone across the sand north of Laguna’s Main Beach. The sky was close and starless and the moon trailed a river of silver on the water. The waves were small and sharp and they crashed hard. He remembered that the rock archway had been easy to find at low tide but now the tide was high and the beach was smaller and steeper.
He hugged the cliff to stay dry and when he was close enough to make out the shape of the archway Hood heard a crunching sound behind him.
Suzanne skidded down the cliff face and her boots landed quietly in the sand. Her face was mostly hidden under a cowboy hat, and she wore a faded denim jacket against the beach chill.
“Keep going,” she said. “Talk.”
Hood walked, and she almost caught up with him but not quite.
“I’ve got a leak,” he said.
“No shit. A cop. How many lives has he helped rub out?”
“Four for sure.”
“I liked my neighbors, Hood. I liked Gerald and Harold Little Chief. They were men. What were you thinking?”
“That I was working with good people. I am, mostly. I think I am.”
“That’s really damned comforting.”
“It’s a soul killer, woman.”
He stopped and turned, and Suzanne stopped, too. He looked at her and felt the good thrill of having her here, caught in his eyes, unmoving for this moment.
“When I found the transponder on my car I thought it was you.”
“It was not.”
“You know me is the only proof I’ve got.”
“You don’t strike me as a chickenshit coward.”
“I care about you.” Hood hadn’t planned to say that, had never quite said it to himself. It was against all the rules, but that list was long by now. The odd part was that he cared about Allison Murrieta, too.
She cocked her head slightly, as if to hear something better.
“All this, because I saw a guy one night.”
Hood knew that the only way to keep her close was to honor her lie. Back in Anbar he’d vowed to never honor a lie again-not after Lenny Overbrook’s false confession on behalf of the men who used him. Now he was doing it again.
“It was bad luck,” he said.
“What are you going to do about it? School starts in a few days and if I don’t work I don’t get paid.”
Past the archway they came to a place where the beach widened and the pitch of the cliff face softened. Hood looked up at a gazebo outlined atop the bluff in the faint moonlight.
Halfway up the stairs to the gazebo they stopped and Hood looked back at the beach below them and the soft black Pacific.
“There’s a way, Suzanne. There are two people other than me who’ve known where I was going, and where you might be. If I give each man a different place to find you, and Lupercio shows up at one of them-we’ll know.”
“Who are these assholes? How high up are they?”
“A sergeant and a captain.”
“Men, women, white, black?”
“It’s better you don’t know.”
“You don’t know what’s better for me. So we find the leak. Then what?”
“There’s internal affairs. There’s feds.”
“More cops. Great.”
They climbed to the top of the bluff and stood in the gazebo and looked down again. They were alone. Up here the breeze was stronger and Hood could hear the cars swooshing along behind them on Coast Highway. Suzanne brushed back her hat and the strap caught her throat. She stood in front of him. Over her shoulder he saw a restaurant long closed for the night and a lamplit patch of highway.
“I saw my boys today. It made me happy.”
“I’ll bet that made them happy, too.”
“I’m a good mother.”
Hood said nothing.
“I’ve raised them on independence and they know they’re loved. I’ve exposed them to good things, a lot of them. I’ve taught them to think for themselves, to be curious about everything and to doubt everything. I’ve never missed a birthday, a holiday or an illness. Well, not many.”
“They seem like good boys. Really. A good look in their eyes.”
“After you arrest Lupercio I’ll let you take me somewhere no one knows us. Somewhere beautiful. We’ll be lazy.”
“Ernest might not be too happy about that.”
“Listen. Ernest is a truly good man. But he knows that things end. I told him they would. And I told him that again, until he really got it. I wouldn’t take him until he understood that our time would be short. Because of that I treated him like a king.”
“I’ll stay out of that one.”
“You’re smack in the middle of it, Charlie. Here’s the deal: I’m not easy and I’m not property. I’m not up to you. I’m up to me. I’ll help you find your murder-loving boss and I’ll help you nail Lupercio. I want them both to rot in hell. I’ll trust you, Hood, but I’m still up to me. Those are my terms. Acceptable?”
“Those are fair.”
“Good, because I got us our old room at the hotel.”