Hood sat in the activities room with his mother and father. He was still rattled by Suzanne Jones and he couldn’t put her out of his mind. He kept seeing her nightshirt against her back as she walked away, the soft material creasing left then right with each step. She made him feel skinned. Now he was back in uniform and on his way to swing-shift patrol that evening and he figured maybe patrol was where he belonged.
His father, Douglas, introduced Hood to his latest girlfriend, whom Douglas believed to be Hood’s mother, Iris, his wife of forty-eight years. Iris herself sat beside Hood, and together they faced Douglas and his “wife” as they held hands. Douglas was young to be in such an advanced state of dementia, and it had come over him with surprising speed after he retired from the city of Bakersfield. He’d been a landscape supervisor. Hood wondered if the herbicides and insecticides and fertilizers had contributed. The doctors talked on and on about genetic predisposition, sedentary retirement and myeloid plaque. Douglas was seventy-five years old and no longer recognized his wife. He had hit her. Now he fussed over the potted plants and the frail indoor ficus trees of the assisted-living center, and held hands with the girlfriend. Charlie could watch himself ebb and flow on his father’s memory like a small ship on a fast tide. Iris had tried to detach herself from her husband except to appear for these weekly visits.
“Go with threaded pipe, never cement,” he said to Charlie. “Make sure you’ve got enough silicon tape to do the job right. Never put the cement on threaded pipe. I had a guy with the city doing that out at the park and I fired him. Probably should have killed him while I was at it.”
“Seen any good shows, Dad?”
“They’ve got Bewitched on tape,” said the girlfriend. Charlie and Iris had gathered that her name was Brenda.
“Fanfuckingtastic,” muttered Iris.
“We always had plenty of shovels around,” said Douglas.
Later Hood took his mother out for an early dinner, and she caught him up with his brothers and sisters, two each, all older than him by quite a bit. His memories of childhood in Bakersfield were usually of him looking up at his towering siblings or later watching them drive away in cars. He learned early to hate good-byes. He developed into a decent student, a good friend, a fair tennis player. The girls usually skipped over him in favor of the louder and more clever boys. His ears were slightly large and blushed before the rest of his face did. He dated during his years at JC and Cal State Northridge but found it disappointing and expensive. He got B’s and a political science degree. The Sheriff’s Department had given him a start on life, then the first Iraq tour that led him to the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, then the second tour. By the time he came home from Anbar in ’05 he was twenty-five and he wanted to get his deputy’s job back, find a good woman and maybe have a little fun.
Hood followed his mother’s gaze out the window to the planter flowers wilting in the San Bernardino heat. The bank thermometer across the street said “102 degrees… 4:35 P.M… TWELVE MONTH CDs TO 4.25%…”
When she looked back at Hood, there were tears in her eyes though her expression was steady and unpitying.
“It’s okay. I’m okay, Charlie.”
“There’s going to be more.”
“The kind you have to be dead to get?”
“Not those kind.”
“Tell me when you spot one coming.”
“You did all you could.”
“I loved him.”
Hood reached out and took her hand. Her skin was cool and soft, and he could feel the hardness of the bones beneath it. The waitress brought their dinners then came back and topped off their iced tea.
“A soldier called,” she said. “Lenny Overbrook. He said he knew you over there and wanted your number. I said no and he gave me his.”
“It’s perfectly okay.”
She dug into her purse and finally handed Hood a torn-off corner of notebook paper with a number on it.
“I’ll handle it, Mom. Thanks.”
“He sounds polite. He said you understood him.”
“Lenny was always polite.”
Hood cruised Miracle Auto Body at eleven. He saw that the Escalade was in the lot but the other cars were gone. A new Suburban with dealer plates was parked beside the Cadillac. The lights were on both outside the shop and inside, and Hood could see three young men standing on the catwalk smoking.
They looked at him with stoic alertness as he came up the steps toward them. The night was hot and still, and in the near distance the two illuminated freeways rose against the darkness like monuments.
Hood caught the leader’s eye and nodded. He remembered the guy’s name from the department gang book: Kyle Ko. Hood had seen him several times in a popular Garvey Avenue Internet cafe, always with a different pretty girl.
“Sorry your friends got killed,” said Hood. “I was the one who found them. I’m Hood.”
“Too bad you didn’t find them when they were still alive, Hood.”
The two others were younger. Kyle looked at them, and they moved down the catwalk out of the light, toward the window where Hood had first looked down on the massacre.
Kyle was midtwenties. He was tall and slender with a short brush cut and a loose silk shirt for the heat. Hood now saw that Kyle looked like the dead car painter, the guy who was very young.
Hood asked him for a smoke and leaned in when the lighter clicked and flamed. The smoke went to his brain in a once familiar way.
“What happened in there?” he asked.
“You tell me.”
“That would get us exactly nowhere.”
“We talked all day to people like you.” Kyle flicked his cigarette butt off the catwalk, and Hood watched it pop and sparkle on the asphalt below. “And it got us nowhere, all right.”
Hood told him he’d never seen the Wilton Street Boyz with Mara Salvatrucha, wondered if they’d gotten together for some business.
Kyle shrugged and looked out at the freeways.
Hood played his only real card. “Sorry about your brother. I’ve got two. Older.”
Kyle looked at him.
“Talk to me,” said Hood. “I can’t put ten dead men out of my mind. I bet you can’t either.”
“He was fifteen years old.”
Hood watched Kyle and listened to the drone of the cars elevated in the night beyond them.
“And he followed you into the gang life even though you told him not to.”
Kyle locked eyes with Hood. “Cohen owed us seventy-five grand. Gambling. He brought us diamonds instead. MS-13 found out about the transaction. Either they took the diamonds or you people did. So Mark died for nothing.”
“There weren’t any diamonds when we got here.”
“There were plenty of diamonds before you got here. Tony called me from the office. Cohen brought them in a red backpack at ten-fifty P.M.”
“We turned this place over more than once. No gems.”
“That’s interesting, then, isn’t it?”
“Where were you?”
“Business or pleasure, you know-what’s the fucking difference?”
One of his Internet cafe beauties, thought Hood. Add some more guilt over his little brother’s death. Of course it was very possible that Kyle was lying and he’d carried off the loot himself.
“Maybe you came by an hour after the call,” said Hood. “You were wondering why Tony hadn’t bothered to update you. You sized it up quick, took the red backpack and split.”
“I wouldn’t be here now.”
“This is exactly where you’d be.”
“Maybe that’s what happened, Deputy. If so, then good for me. I’ll drop twenty thousand on Mark’s funeral, give the rest to the Girl Scouts.”
Then the idea hit Hood that MS-13 was tipped to the payoff either by Barry-who could promise them, say, half the diamonds he owed the Asian Boyz-or by one of the Boyz who knew the score and had a grievance. Gangs had internal problems just like any other organization. Kyle obviously knew the score and was conveniently out with one of his girlfriends.
Kyle was still staring at Hood, mad-dogging him, which was not something a Sheriff’s deputy got very often. Hood wondered if Kyle was hearing his thoughts. But Hood couldn’t see Kyle leading his little brother into a thing like that.
“Don’t stare at me like a damned mule,” said Hood. “I’m trying to help you.”
Kyle looked away and lit another cigarette.
“Cohen was greedy and afraid,” he said. “This is a bad combination. He gambled away most of his money, then came to us. We helped him and he gambled away more. When he had no more cash, he said diamonds came cheaper to him than dollars. He made us the offer. But he invited MS-13 to take half and make sure not a Wilton Street Boy was left alive. That was his idea of friendship and honest business. Salvadorans? They’ll do shit like this. But they didn’t know how tough and smart the Boyz are. Even the fifteen-year-old. It got out of control. But one of them must have survived. He figured the cops were on their way, so he got away with the rocks and his life.”
Hood dropped the cigarette butt and ground it through the metal ramp with the toe of his duty shoe. He looked out at the young gangsters down the catwalk. Kyle had just said out loud what Hood had been thinking since he saw the bloody mess, but it still wasn’t sitting right. The abandoned weapons and the dead men’s full wallets and the five-thousand-dollar watch left on Barry Cohen’s wrist still had him wondering.
“A witness saw an old Lincoln Continental parked off Emberly last night. Black, good condition, driver talking on a cell phone. Sound familiar?”
“Not me. I got that Suburban.”
Hood looked back at the parking area. “Maybe Barry had trouble keeping a secret.”
Kyle shook his head in disgust, blew smoke. “One night at Caesars Palace he tried to tell his girlfriend everything but I stopped him. If you got half an ounce of bourbon inside Barry, you couldn’t shut the guy up. He loved bourbon. Worry out loud. That was his favorite thing to do-worry out loud. No telling what he said to people. Dangerous asshole. Cost me a brother and seventy-five grand and I’ll piss on his grave the first chance I get.”
“I need the girlfriend’s name and number.”
In the office Kyle dug a business card out of the desk and flew it across to Hood.