To be issued in 2015
Maggie woke to Willie singing softly in the distance, Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys ...
The French doors stood open and the light of morning bathed the walls. She scanned through Sandman eyes, seeing pale yellow, coming awake to the room's consoling antiquity. She clutched the arm of the man lying next to her and held on tight. She trembled slightly from a nightmare. It wasn't the first time she'd had the dream: Tall people screaming at her in a well-lighted room, which changes to a dark hallway, their shadows elongated along the narrow corridor. She squeezes her ragged teddy against her chest, standing before the two figures blocking her way.
Maggie drew a small sense of security from Bubba's untroubled snoring. She needed him now. He had become her only connection to the previous life. Was there anyone she could turn to, without it getting back to the people who wanted her dead? Maybe Mack and the girls at Jimbo's? No, they gossiped too much. Cloris? Why would she want to tell that woman anything? Certainly not her neighbors. She hardly knew her dad's parents, they lived so far away. Mr. Swabb and his people would find out no matter whom she told. They would search for her until they were all dead or imprisoned for eternity. Her life had irrevocably changed. Maggie Ann Frazier no longer existed.
She lay immobilized by that oppressive thought, hanging on until Bubba woke.
When he did, he smacked his lips and exhaled warm morning breath, fluttered his eyelashes in a girlish way, then smiled seeing her next to him.
"Mornin', honey," he said sweetly.
Maggie smiled back. "Howdy."
She let go his arm so he could scratch; he scratched his head, then his ribs, then a kneecap. She thought for sure he would scratch his privates, but he didn't.
He sat and said, abruptly, "What about life insurance? You got any?"
Maggie frowned. "Like I would take it out on myself?"
Bubba lay back down. "Yeah, guess you're right."
"I'm not worth anything, anyway," she said gloomily.
"Aw, I don't think so … I mean, I do."
The comment drew a grin from her. "You say some funny things sometimes, you know that?"
"Well, I don't mean to. Sorry."
Maggie had been in shock last night after he told her what was going on. The thought that people wanted her dead, that they were paying money to have it done. Premeditated murder. That was a capital offense. It probably even had—what did they call it—extra circumstances? Enough to draw the death penalty. Killing her was serious stuff. She might still be in shock.
But Bubba had come clean about it. Then he told her he loved her. Then he went out and pulled off the job. Then he told her she was free to keep the money and disappear under a new name, free to start life over. He could talk smooth and straight as Dr. Phil, sometimes.
Bubba rolled over in the bed and kissed Maggie on the cheek. "We need to talk about your future, you know," he said. "I have to get back sometime."
"I'm going to the village." She pulled the sheet up to her chin.
"Indian. My father did business with them. They run an orphanage for strays and other troubled children and our babies sometimes wait there for the stork. A sort of safehouse, you might say."
"Hey, you can't do that, Maggie. You crazy? Those are part of the people want you dead."
"I thought of that already. They won't tell. Margarita and I are friends—she's the chief's daughter. What Margarita says goes."
"I don't know. Seems to me you're just walking into more trouble." Bubba's little eyes narrowed. "You're not egging them on on purpose, are you? For revenge? That wouldn't do me any good."
"They have lots of land, Bubba. They couldn't find me there even if they looked—and the only way they would look is if somebody told them I was there." She nudged him.
"Oh, man. Don't even kid like that."
"Besides, I want to go. It's so nice in the mountains, Bubba. The children are there. I can help with them."
Bubba sighed. "You know this squaw that well that you can trust her to keep your secret? What about the men there? They all lust after white women."
Maggie laughed. "You're an idiot—And she's not a squaw, Bubba. Shit."
"Okay, sorry. It's just I don't know anything about these people, these Indians."
"Nobody else does, either. That's what makes it safe. See?"
"I guess. But just till your remains are cremated and the death certificate issued. Then we'll get you squared away somewhere else, maybe even back in the states. Sort of a protective custody deal."
Maggie didn't say anything, but it hit her like a punch in the heart. Death certificate. Remains. It took her right back to that awful feeling of despair. This cowboy was no Dr. Phil.
"I'm going to take a shower," she said.
She climbed over Bubba getting out of the squeaky bed. "And then I want to do some shopping."
Bubba grinned and patted her on the thigh. "Anything you want, Maggie honey." She could see he didn't know shopping for her was therapy, not fun. Usually.
Willie Nelson was off that distant radio now and some cheerful Mexican song was playing, cranked up a little louder. Bubba listened for a moment to the lyrics, chuckling. He lay propped in bed with hands intertwined behind his head, wondering about the Indian land and the kind of people who lived on it. What was her involvement with them that she could trust them with her life? And she hadn't brought up the money thing yet, either. Hadn't even asked about the money stashed in her burned-up station wagon. It sure didn't seem like she was planning on fighting him over who gets to hold on to it. He figured it should go in his interest-bearing account at Great Western, where it would be safe and he could easily get to it. Get it to her as needed.
A bloodcurdling yell erupted in the bathroom. He thought the hot water might have died on her.
Then she screamed, "What is this thing?"
"Oh," Bubba mumbled, getting up. He stepped into the tiny room and removed the hobo's sack from the shower stall floor. "It ain't nothing, just something from last night. I didn't want to leave it in the car—in case we slept in."
He grinned like a horse.
Maggie made a sour face. "What the hell is it, Bubba? It doesn't look like something that ought to be in here."
He sighed and tried explaining. "See, if something had gone wrong at the scene and the body only got the epidermis burnt off it, and these dingdongs decided to run an investigation, and say they ran a dental check, guess what they'd find?"
Maggie's face changed color first then began to twist and convolute.
He went on, "The forensics sure wouldn't match with the person that owned that old Buick with California plates. You catchin' on? … So I decided to eliminate that problem by removing the head."
"Oh, God! Jesus!" screamed Maggie, who pushed herself against the farthest corner of the stall. "Get it out of here!"
Madelene Schaefer cracked opened an east window in baby Connie's bedroom and the delicate sea gull mobile tingled on the drift of a not too cool afternoon breeze. The baby slept like a baby.
She leaned over the crib to sneak a peek. Then she decided to pick Connie up. The baby opened its eyes wide, bunched its tiny face into a wad of wrinkled skin and broke into a piercing wail. She certainly has good lungs, thought Madelene.
"There, there, little one. You want your bottle now? Okay, we'll just take a walk and find you some delicious warm milk."
Madelene felt awkward and self-conscious, even frustrated cooing over the baby. But you had to talk to them, let them know you're here, reassure them. Consuela would need reassuring. God knows what she had gone through in her short three or four or five months of life. Madelene didn't even know the day of her daughter's birth. She hadn't looked at the paperwork. But she would get around to picking a date that she liked anyway, one with a good star. Poor baby couldn't have had much tenderness or affection how ever old she was, which explained why she started crying soon as Madelene touched her. Yes, having a baby was going to take some getting used to.
Mrs. Ruvalcaba warmed the bottle soon as she heard the baby cry, and she brought it to Madelene in the living room. Madelene sat in the new rocker. She stuck the bottle's nipple between Connie's puckered lips and watched the child suck as if absolutely starved.
The sound of the door chimes startled Madelene into jerking the nipple from Connie's suction—which she quickly reinserted. She was still jumpy, now from the nagging fear of losing her child. She was particularly fearful after a man with a squeaky voice she thought was imitating that cuddly little author, Truman Capote, phoned and threatened to take Connie back if she didn't answer his questions truthfully. The man said he was a lawyer with the firm contracted by her adoption agency, that she would not get into any trouble telling the truth. He just wanted to know if she had paid the money; he didn't really seem to care all that much about Connie. Madelene didn't want to get her agent Sylvia into trouble, but neither was she about to lose this baby. She told him the honest-to-God truth. Yes, she had paid in full yesterday.
Now, seeing Villi dwarfed by two big men at the front door, the housekeeper's elbows akimbo in a way that spelled defiance, Madelene was frightened into a state of physical weakness. She froze in place and concentrated solely on not dropping Connie.
"What you want?" Mrs. Ruvalcaba had just asked the men. "You not here about that baby, I know."
Oh, God! Madelene thought, and rushed to the door before the woman gave the whole thing away.
"Villarmini Ruvalcaba?" Sidney Rhoades asked in a voice like a song. "Are you she?"
"She who? So what I am. Who are you?"
"Just a minute, please," Madelene said, bumping Villi to move her over. She intended to sound authoritative but was anything but. She held Connie tightly in the fold of her arm and rocked sideways, which only exaggerated her apprehension. "Can I help you gentlemen with something?"
"I'm sorry, are you Madelene Schaefer?"
"Why? Ah, yes, I am. But—"
"I'm sorry, ma'am … My name is Sidney Rhoades. I'm with Immigration and Customs and I've come—"
Villi stumble backwards, as if blasted by a shotgun, almost losing her balance. Myers moved in a flash to catch her if she decided to faint. She didn't, but she had given away the truth of her illegality, sure as rain.
"Oh my God," Madelene snapped, herself just short of collapsing into a cold faint. The ICE. She, of course, thought they were here to take Connie—and throw her in jail.
"Christ," mumbled Rhoades, who hadn't completely sobered up from his margarita lunch. He backed away from the door, wearily, as if to regroup for another approach—or just to forget it and leave. Myers wasn't sure.
It was a noteworthy scene for a sober newshound like Myers, who glanced among them all, taking mental notes of reactions and trying to piece together connections and relationships and thoughts. He could easily assume the gloomy thoughts of Mrs. Ruvalcaba, with "illegal" written all over her. She was an innocent. But the homeowner's overreaction led him to notice the baby clutched in her arm, dramatically clutched as if to protect the child from the world's evils. Not to mention the maid's initial outburst about their assumed interest in the baby. He thought Rhoades might be leaning toward leaving the housekeeper in peace. It was an exhibition, a situation Myers was thinking might just make a lively story. At least in concept if not in fact—The names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty because everybody is both.
Myers broke in to say, "I'm with the Journal. Ray Myers. But don't let that make you assume anything one way or the other."
He looked at the housekeeper and grinned. "I don't think Agent Rhoades is going to take you away. Isn't that right, Mr. Rhoades?"
Rhoades nodded and then smiled. "That's right, ma'am," he said, addressing Madelene. "I'm just going to say in my report that Mrs. Ruvalcaba is unlocatable—I love that word—that there is no one at this address who's working illegally. Furthermore, I did not see the baby you're holding—Thai descent, maybe?—and would consequently have no reason to ask to inspect either a visa or adoption papers. Or anything else related to any breech of U.S. policy."
"My baby is perfectly legitimate, sir," Madelene said defensively, missing or passing over Rhoades' magnanimous intent to leave all in peace. "And Connie is Filipino, not Thai."
"This a beautiful baby," said Villi, for some reason Myers couldn't fathom.
He said, "What do you think, Mr. Rhoades? Should we take our leave now?"
Rhoades never opened his brief.
Myers handed Madelene his card. "Can I contact you later?"
He was glad he'd come along for the ride; the woman was hiding and the snoop in him wanted the skinny.
Next later chapter
Myers sensed it soon as he stepped out of the elevator, and he knew it for certain entering the newsroom. The grim hush that fell over the room told him. Those cheery, gung-ho faces that received him just yesterday had made a U-turn to pity.
Undaunted, he strode on to his station, anxious to get on the story that would hack away at the Achilles of the giant called Immigration. Of course, the story would get watered down if not trashed altogether, but that wasn't going to deter him. What was it the poet said, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall?"
Rita, the managing editor's secretary, had left the confirming note on his desk. It read: "L.C. wants you IMMEDIATELY!" the last word underlined twice just in case bold caps didn't rouse him into action.
Myers sighed, got up, walked past Rita, who mouthed, "He's mad as hell!" and entered the managing editor's smoky cubicle. He started to close the door before the shouting began but didn't since he wanted to breath at least some unpolluted air.
He hadn't fooled himself; he knew what was coming.
L.C. took a couple of puffs off a fresh Merit and came forward in his chair.
"You're finished, Myers," he shouted. He was mad as hell.
"Welcome back," Myers said. His eyes were lidded. "You do any downhill while you were in Colorado? Bumps?"
The heavyset M.E. might have competed in Denver's big-splash belly-flop contest, but there was no way he could maneuver his three-hundred pounds of soft flab around on skis, much less over moguls.
He ignored Myers' mockery. "You know who called me this afternoon? Got any idea? … " Oddly, he stopped, appearing to study Myers. Or maybe to let him have a shot at defending himself.
Myers brought his hands from around his back where his fingers were intertwined prayer-like, although he had not been praying. His hands got in the way in moments of nervousness.
"Lady Gargoyle?" said Myers. He thought about sitting. Maybe L.C. would flip his cigarette at him and Myers could sue. Maybe he would sue anyway for cross breathing in a tight chamber full of carcinogens. Cigarette and cigar smoking was supposedly prohibited in public and private office buildings as well as everywhere else. America's Finest was shooting for a smoke-free city.
The managing editor eased back in his chair, tapping a finger on the desk, as was his habit when aggravated. "What happened down there?"
"Don't mess with me, goddamnit. At ICE."
Myers shrugged in an effort to plead innocent of wrongdoings. "You talking about with Señor Mendez? The man was a hostile interview. I hardly pushed him."
"What made him hostile?"
"You kidding? By association; he works for ICE. Immigration's our fodder. I have to explain to the editor-in-chief?"
L.C. shook his head. "God and Magic Myers—One and the same."
Myers stepped forward. "If ever there was a bureaucrat needing bad press, it's that guy, Mendez. His own people hate him; hell, the field agents call him 'Ahab.' I kid you not. He's paranoid; but that ain't all, he's xenophobic—high official in the business of processing foreigners and the man hates foreigners. He's fucked up, L.C. Not unlike the well known sea captain of yore."
"Shut up, Myers. The publisher wants your resignation—"
"And I thought it was only you all this time. I am hurt."
"But I told her that wasn't good enough; I suggested she fire you instead … She finally agreed."
The M.E. grinned bitterly and blew more smoke at Myers. His office would have made a wonderful set piece for heart or lung disease commercials. Camera pans in on stubby fingers mashing out a cigarette in a hubcap ashtray containing thirty-seven Merit butts. Some wheezing sounds, some phlegmy coughing perhaps. A digital clock next to the hubcap indicates it's just past noon, suggesting a heavy smoker, an excellent high-risk candidate for early heart congestion or stroke. Is this you?
It gave comfort to Myers who gave up the habit long ago.
L.C. wasn't through with Myers. He ground out his cigarette in the hubcap and decreased a triple chin to a double shoving it at Myers in a gesture of finality. "There's just enough time left for you to clear out your stuff and turn in your press ID."
Myers hissed. "A disgruntled call to her highness after an experienced newsman asks a couple of tough questions—that wouldn't get me fired. That's bullshit. What's the real reason, L.C.?"
"The killer reason? You want the friggin' truth? Your arrogance—you went too far with the Cabrillo shooting, lying to the cops about the picture the victim gave you. You lied to us, your own people. The paper will be sued, bank on it."
"I never lied; I simply didn't mention it. The most harm you'll see is a slap on the hand from someone lower than a regional assistant director of ICE; he's not that high up. The paper won't be touched at all."
L.C. sighed, as might a man feigning remorse. "First thing, running a correction explaining that one of our ex-reporters is in jail for withholding evidence in a police shooting … Now get out of my face!"
"Imagine the fun TV's gonna have with that. In particularly my response." Myers couldn't help loosing his magic. He had to get in his dime's worth before departing.
At his desk he pulled up an in-depth story he'd been working on before Frazier committed suicide about the revelation of dozens of child abuse cases occurring in San Diego that pertained to the LA Catholic clergy. It was a subject he knew a lot about after the Janice Parrish story, and now he was thinking why not take what he knows to the Los Angeles Times? Maybe they would hire him up there. He copied his files on a clean CD, plus a few other ideas he'd scribbled down to look into. Myers wasn't going to lay down and die just because he'd been fired from the job he had held for the last eighteen years, all benefits denied with justifiable dismissal. That's the way it was with a free press that had struggled two centuries to enable workers' rights; they turn on their own. He would only be able to collect unemployment. Maybe the guild could save at least his puny pension.
"Sounded heated in there," Lubrano said from her desk.
"Sonofabitch finally did it. You couldn't hear? Didn't already know?"
She grinned crookedly. "Don't kid around, Ray. You did it just to keep from covering the funeral. You'll do anything to avoid a damn funeral."
The word put another furrow in the frown on Myers' brow. "I forgot about that."
It was a fact known by every writer, editor, secretary, rim rat and copy clerk in the Journal's newsroom that Myers hated funerals. What they didn't know was why.
"Uh-huh. I'm not taking it, no way, buster," Lubrano said with as much finality as the M.E.
Yet another later chapter
Maggie stood before the bathroom mirror turning her lips dark with a shade of lipstick called Night Redemption. Her hand trembled applying it. Over her shoulder the reddish hue above the city sparkled through the French doors, igniting the edges of black sky. The night was balmy and passionate and she felt it calling her, like Dracula.
She smoothed mascara into the hollow below her eye. She paused and took a moment to imagine the desperate people who had occupied this room before her, women gazing at the same glow through these flung-open French doors. She imagined some gangster’s moll making herself up before stepping outside into a hail of bullets. It was a room with a barrelful of dark stories, hard-luck people running for their lives from a world that didn’t understand them and didn’t care.
Not me, she thought. But she felt sinful making herself over, for the urgent malice luring her out into the vibrant night.
A teary blur caused her to miss her eyelid and rake mascara instead up onto her eyebrow. She flustered. She dabbed her eyes with a fold of toilet paper, blinked several times to clear her vision, then quickly went on to finish her face.
She had to act; she couldn’t sit by any longer and do nothing.
She dressed in a sweet-girl-white Mexican blouse that fell just over the belt line of her tight rhinestone jeans. She put on heels to make herself taller than the men she knew would come on to her soon as she stepped into Hussong’s Cantina. She wanted them to make a play; her power worked off the desires of men.
She screwed the lipstick shut and slipped the cylinder into her pants pocket, then strapped the fanny pack she’d bought around her waist and placed the .38 snub nose inside it and slid the pouch around to her backside. Its weight tugged the strap against her stomach but she’d get used to it soon enough. She then slipped on a colorful red-and-white serape that hid the fanny pack.
Moving to the room’s dresser mirror, Maggie took a stance, her feet planted apart. She showed the mirror a hard face.
“Don’t beg, you sorry fuck,” she said through contorting lips and brought out the gun and aimed it at an imaginary figure in front of her then returned the weapon to the rawhide fanny pack and zipped it shut.
She practiced removing and replacing the gun until she could get it out without the barrel tip snagging on the satchel’s zippered corner. Confidence to pull the trigger was a different matter, but all she had to do was remind herself that he was the coward who ordered Bubba to kill her, that he cared no more for those babies than he would dolls on a store shelf, just how much he could get for them.
“Say your prayers, you are fucking dead, Mr. Swabb.”
She meant it.
She stuffed a few twenties into her pocket along with a length of folded toilet tissue. She positioned her purse behind the framed mirror and knee-shoved the dresser against the wall to trap it there. She wasn’t worried if she couldn’t get back to the room; the bulk of the money, more than seventy thousand of it, was in a Pai Pai bank called Margarita’s Hospicia Trust. She shut the French doors, turned off the overhead fan and lights and locked the door behind her.
The desk clerk snapped to when he saw her. Lust rose in his eyes as if he was seeing a tender concubine of the Great One, all primed and ready for the taking. But she wasn’t giving; she stared him down with the silent message that she was off limits and so was her room.
On the street she breathed in the city, ready for it. She felt strong, even anxious.
She walked in the direction of Hussong’s on now familiar back streets, then north on Gastelum, passing El Dorado, turning east on Ruiz, now crossing the street to the cantina. Journeying alone through these dark passages, provocatively dressed, only enhanced her sense of self. She now felt close to the city, as though she belonged to it; she didn’t need Bubba at her side.
And there was Hussong’s with it’s faded neon.
She hiked up the fanny pack before stepping between the federales, two stone-faced gargoyles grasping retrograded U.S. Army M-16s, holding their weapons up and away, at the ready. Their eyes fed on Maggie as she entered the hall.
The place was smoky and clammy and loud. A sullen Mariachi group corkscrewed around tables, swaying their bulky instruments dangerously close to patrons’ heads, playing to a crowd that couldn’t hear them over themselves. Most of the customers were locals and most of those were Don Juans. Maggie could easily tell the pretty boys from regular people by their embroidered, dark polyester attire and imitation crocodilian boots, some with elevated soles. They wore shirts opened to the navel, just above big medallion belt buckles that were mirrored by the medallion hanging from the neck. Dozens of ten-gallon Stetsons bobbed around the room like big thimbles on a sea of sin. The way they strutted, Maggie thought of bantam roosters.
There was no waiting for her to get noticed, a blink of the eye, a drag on a cigarette. She tossed her hair and struck a curvy pose, then stepped down into the din. Her audience had formed as fast as that drag on the cigarette and a way was cut for her, like waters parting. She walked the short gauntlet to the L bar expecting some groping or maybe even being tossed in the air and moved along like a rock idol. For a moment the place stood eerily quiet, even the music died, but only until she threw back the first proffered tequila shooter, followed daringly by another.
The four instruments broke into a blustery vaquero rendition of Herb Albert horns. A sound impossible to produce on a guitarrón, sour notes mostly unnoticed in here.
She would have seen Ray because of his height, and maybe Bubba, but not Swabb, who was about the size of most of these bantams. It was him, Swabb, she wanted.
Maggie didn’t see any other Americans.
“Another,” she called.
The husky one who bought her the shooters nestled up to her and drew a trick smile out of his Stetson meant to tell her he knew exactly how to handle a woman like her. His parting lips revealed a tiny diamond in the middle of a front tooth. Charming, Maggie thought, and then wondered if she had said it.
When he spoke all potential evaporated, like the bitter tequila shooters she threw back.
“My beautiful lady.” He had the Omar Sharif accent. “I see you once again. You have no man? It is all right because now Juan Castillo is here, eh?”
His roaming eyes were opaque. He seemed to float before her.
“Don Juan?” she heard herself say in a giggly voice. “Thanks for the drink, José, now beat it.”
Undaunted, the Mexican moved closer as though she’d said, Come get me. He showed her the big Chiclets leer, eyes rendering the deepest yearning for her. He said in a devilish singsong, “You dance for me, my lady, huh? My wild American woman.”
A sea of men now surrounded her. A fast and odd sensation drifted over Maggie, like fog off water, like a drug taking hold. Racking sounds from a trumpet bellowed out some melody that imbued her with musical wine. She was, she now thought, she was the wild American woman.
Diamond Tooth raked Corona bottles off a table with one sweep of his hand, then in dramatic fashion offered the platform to Maggie.
“Dance, Wild One! Show me how you do it—for me, my lovely. For all!”
She stepped out of her heels and out of herself. Her clouding eyes followed his lead to the tabletop and there she saw him, Count Dracula, extending a hand to lift her up.