A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS

By

Kim Bellard

Copyright © Kim Bellard 2010 All Rights Reserved

Chapter 1

Things did not look good for Joe Russell. He was seated on a hard wooden chair, with his hands held firmly behind his back by plastic restraints and his head covered by a dark cloth bag. The bag obscured most of his vision, although it allowed just enough light for him to dimly make out the figures of the two men who had abducted him standing in front of him. He’d been walking down the street of a small coastal town in southern France when they’d suddenly appeared on either side of him brandishing guns. They threw in him the back of a nearby van, quickly adding the restraints and the bag once inside the van. Within five seconds he’d been snatched and they were on their way. Thirty minutes later, as Joe had reckoned it, the van stopped and they roughly escorted him here and shoved him down on the chair. From his quick glimpse of them on the street, Joe knew the two men to be members of one of the most effective kidnapping gangs that he’d ever heard of, but he didn’t think their goal was to kidnap him. He was pretty sure their plan was to interrogate him, and from the tone of their voices it wasn’t going to be pleasant. So far everything was going according to plan. One of the men moved closer to him, and pushed his shoulder roughly. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Why were you following us?” The man spoke in excellent English, tinged with a slight accent. They were in France but Joe didn’t think the accent was French. He tilted his head slightly inside the bag – which of course the man couldn’t see – but didn’t respond. The man pushed harder at his shoulder. “I asked you a question. Who are you?” He sounded like he was getting angry. “Calm down,” the second man admonished in a soft voice. “She said to wait.”

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The first man took a half step back. Joe couldn’t make out if he was staring at Joe or at the other man, but something in his posture warned Joe that the man wasn’t relaxing. He suddenly swung around and punched Joe hard in the stomach. It would have incapacitated most men, but Joe had been ready for it and had tensed his abdominal muscles; all those sit-ups, crunches and other core exercises hadn’t been for naught. Still, the blow was powerful, and it took some self-control for Joe to not react, not even an exhalation of air. “Damn,” the man exclaimed. Joe could make out him shaking his hand, and suspected he was glaring at him. “Careful,” the other man warned. “She said no marks.” So that was good news, Joe thought. They still might kill him but at least they weren’t planning to leave bruises. “Did she?’ the man retorted defiantly, and proceeded to work Joe’s mid-section like a punching bag, getting in ten or fifteen good shots before pulling back. Unlike a boxer on a punching bag, though, he wasn’t wearing gloves, and Joe wasn’t giving way with the punches. Joe held on until the man stepped back, shaking his hands in evident pain. “Zut!” the man said in surprise. If Joe was hoping for some respite, it wasn’t going to happen. “That’s enough of that,” the second man said, his voice no longer so quiet. He sounded annoyed now. Joe could tell that he was stepping in, and pulling his fist back. Only this time he was aiming for a head shot, intending to smash his jaw. They still didn’t seem to realize that Joe could make out their shapes. Joe waited until the last second, then moved his head so that the man’s fist connected not with his jaw but with the hard bones on the top part of his forehead. It stung, but Joe had the better of it.

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“FUCK!” the man screamed, jumping back and grabbing his hand. He must have broken it, so Joe felt a little better about the shot he’d endured. “I’ve had enough of this playing around,” the first man said angrily. He pulled something out of a pocket; Joe couldn’t make out if it was a gun, a knife, or a blackjack, but none of the likely possibilities boded well for him. He began to regret his tough guy responses; maybe he should have let them beat up on him a little more effectively. He’d been beaten up before and doubted they would have really hurt him too badly, at least not until “she” arrived. Which she had, just in time. “Well, well,” she said in a quiet voice from a few feet away. Joe couldn’t see where she was standing but guessed she might be standing in the doorway. “He’s tied up and blind and he’s still getting the best of you.” She sounded amused. Like the others, her English was almost natural, but on her the faint accent sounded intriguing. “I’m going to kill him,” the first man told her. “No, you’re not,” she responded firmly, and it was clear from that who was in charge of this trio. She sighed. “Take the bag off his head.” “Then he’ll see us,” the second man objected. “Idiot, he’s been following us for a week,” she pointed out patiently. “He already knows what we look like.” The man grumbled but stepped forward, and jerked the bag off Joe’s head. Joe took a deep breath and quickly took in his surroundings. They were in a large windowless room with one door, which opened into a stone-lined hallway that was lit with artificial light, not by sunshine. Joe suspected they were in a basement and once that door was closed, the room would be soundproof. The building looked old, with solid walls that showed

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evidence of aging but not weakening. They’d shrug off a lot of pounding without any visible impact. It smelled faintly musty, like it had once gotten wet and never fully dried out. On the other hand, the woman was quite attractive, with an exotic look to her. She might be partly French, but there was some Slavic blood in her, maybe some Gypsy. Great cheekbones, like one might see on a fashion model. She was dark, with long black hair that curled into soft waves. Her figure was lush, and she knew it, wearing a sundress that managed to be simple and sexy at the same time. The two men weren’t in her league. Both were big, the first larger than the second. The first man had a shaved head and small eyes that were filled with rage. He looked like he lifted weights, with a thick neck and powerful shoulders. The second man was also strong looking but not quite as developed as the first man. He had dark hair tinged with grey, and his expression as one of perpetual suspicion. He was holding his hand and scowling in pain, which didn’t make his expression look any friendlier. The woman dragged a chair over towards him, its back facing him. She swung her leg over it – revealing a well-toned and attractively tan thigh and sat. She rested her forearms on the back of the chair. “I am Brigitte,” she announced in a pleasant tone of voice, as if they were having a cup of coffee. “My hot headed friends are Daniel and Georges.” Daniel was the clean-shaven man, while Georges had the broken hand. Joe doubted that those were their real names but it didn’t really matter, not for his purposes. “Why are you…” Daniel started to interrupt. Without looking at him, she cut him off with a small but decisive hand gesture. It was clear the two men were basically just her golems. Without her, they’d be in a bar, in a fight, or in jail somewhere. She looked at Joe with her dark eyes, eyes that beguiled but gave nothing away. “And you are?”

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“My name is Joe Russell.” He moved his hands behind his back to illustrate that they were restrained. “Perhaps you would be so kind?” Brigitte smiled at him. “Not quite yet, Mr. Joe Russell. My friends think we should torture you to find out why you are following us. I don’t think there’s much point in that.” “I appreciate that,” Joe told her, smiling back at her, neither one of them meaning it. Smiling at him the whole time, she lifted her left arm to reveal a stiletto held in her right hand, like a magician revealing a trick. Moving slowly but surely and locking her eyes with his, she took the blade and, with no threat, warning, or hesitation, she pushed it into his left shoulder. Joe wasn’t sure what she was hoping for but he resisted the temptation to watch the blade, kept his eyes firmly on hers and made no sound, despite the pain. When the blade was in about three inches she stopped pushing, and raised an eyebrow at him expectantly. Joe took the opportunity to look down at the blade, still in her hand, and looked back at her. “Ouch?” he said experimentally, as if not quite sure what she wanted from him. It seemed to be the right response. Brigitte pulled the blade out carefully, and wiped it off. She looked at her conspirators. “See? I do not believe Mr. Russell would be an easy person to torture.” She looked back at Joe with a sexy amused smile, one that would cause a swarm of suitors if delivered in a social setting. “Mr. Russell – may I call you Joe?” He seemed to have passed her test, and she’d proven her point to the others, so now they were old friends. “You can call me whatever you’d like,” Joe said calmly, “but Joe is fine.” Brigitte smiled coquettishly at him. “Joe, perhaps you would simply tell us why you have found us of such interest?”

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Joe looked at each of the two men in turn before he looked back at her. “I’m an accountant,” he began. “An accountant!” Georges spat out in disbelief. Brigitte shot him a stare that spoke of daggers, and he immediately shut his mouth. She turned back to Joe with her softer side, the velvet face over the iron head. She raised her eyebrows to invite him to continue. “One of my client’s sons was kidnapped,” Joe told them, watching only Brigitte. He noticed that she’d put the stiletto back under her forearm, but had not put it away. It would take a single motion to shove it into his eye or his heart, and he had no doubt that she was capable of doing that without hesitation or remorse should she decide it was her best course of action. He needed to give her a reason to see better alternatives. “He hired me to try to recover the money.” “Recover the money,” Brigitte repeated carefully, tasting the words as though they were unfamiliar concepts to her. She nodded, and Joe could almost see the wheels turning rapidly in her mind as she quickly concluded what kind of accountant Joe actually was. “I followed the money and the money led to you,” Joe told her, as if such a thing was no big deal. In fact, there were not many people, and fewer governmental agencies, who were capable of such deduction, and his ability to accomplish that task was one of the reasons that his firm was never short of clients. “I see,” Brigitte said. Her face was still smiling but behind her eyes everything had gone cold. “And you’ve been following us the last few days to try to get your client’s money back?” In fact, Joe had found them three weeks ago. It had taken longer to make sure he knew everything else he needed to know, and then once he was ready to let them notice him it had taken them a few days to get suspicious enough of him to make the grab. “Well, I

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have a problem,” Joe admitted. He let his gaze drift away from her for a second, shrugging slightly. “What kind of problem?’ she purred seductively, as if the two of them were alone late at night in bed. “You three have been busy,” Joe acknowledged, glancing at Georges and Daniel as well. “Eight jobs in the last two years?” Each job had targeted a young man, son of a rich family. Brigitte had been the bait, of course, luring the victim to a spot the trio could control. Georges and Daniel had neutralized whatever personal security the target might have had, using non-lethal but ruthless force. Their captives had been well treated and released unharmed once the ransoms had been received. None of the families had refused to pay, and none had been successful in negotiating any alterations in the trio’s terms. Everything had been perfectly planned, smoothly executed and they’d left no leads for the police organizations, security companies, or kidnap insurance companies to make any headway with. Only Joe and his colleagues had been able to trace the tendrils of the money flow and find their way to these three. Brigitte broadened her smile, neither confirming nor refuting Joe’s statement. She indicated their surroundings. “And now what, Mr. Joe Russell? You are expecting perhaps that we give you your client’s money back?” She looked at her partners, smiling until they laughed at the absurdity of the statement. They had Joe secured in their isolated basement prison, and they were not going to give him back any money. Without saying a word, their glances were raising the question – kill him now, or did they need to find out more before killing him? “That’s not it,” Joe said softly. They looked back at him in surprise; his tone sounded almost apologetic, but one thing it did not sound was worried, as they might have expected.

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“No?’ Brigitte prodded, raising her eyebrows. “See, when I said I followed the money, I meant I found the money,” he explained patiently. “The problem was I didn’t know which was my client’s and which was from your other jobs.” “Is that so,” Brigitte commented skeptically, a tiny fracture of doubt breaking across her face like an iceberg calving. Joe paused. “You may want to have your friends leave the room,” he said in a soft voice aimed just at her. “Indeed?” She raised her eyebrows again, and let just a flash of her blade show. “You may not want them to know the rest.” He gave her a conspiratorial look. Brigitte sat back, considering this bold suggestion. She suspected that Joe had some sort of financial proposition that had better terms for her cooperation than for her partners, and was slightly intrigued by what the offer might be, but she had future use for the duo and didn’t want to allow Russell’s obvious ploy to divide her from them. She shook her head almost unconsciously. “No, I think they should hear whatever you have to say,” she said in a normal tone, letting the other two know that he had tried to exclude them. That would add to their resentment for him. Naturally, they edged in closer. “OK, it’s your team,” Joe allowed, glancing again at the now even more interested duo. He fixed his gaze back on Brigitte. “See, the thing is – I found your accounts, all six of them.” “I see,” Brigitte said neutrally, neither confirming his statement nor letting her sudden nervousness show. There were indeed six accounts in which they’d hidden the money,

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and it was deeply troubling to her that he had managed to discover them. That was it, she decided; he’d have to die, after he told her how he’d found them. She brushed her hair face from her face with a deliberate gesture that hinted of other situations. “That would be quite a feat, Mr. Russell, if we had such accounts.” She smiled at him again, while thinking about how they would best extract the information she wanted. Georges and Daniel had a great deal of pent-up anger, and Joe Russell would be a useful receptacle for that; eventually he would tell them how he had found their money. The damage they would do in the process would just impact how they deposed of the body. Joe shook his head, acknowledging yet ignoring her lack of confirmation. They were getting to the tricky part. “That’s not your problem.” “It’s not?” Her smile turned impish. “It certainly seems like it would be a problem, if it were true.” “No, your problem is that, since I couldn’t separate my client’s money from the rest, I just took it all.” His statement sat there for a moment or two before it exploded in their heads like a grenade. “What?” they all exclaimed simultaneously. He looked at each of them in return. Brigitte recovered first, of course, her friendly smile returning with only that little moment of uncertainty clouding it. “What do you mean, ‘took it’? You must be joking,” she suggested in a teasing tone of voice. Joe smiled back and shook his head. “But you can’t expect us to believe such a thing,” she exclaimed in an astonished tone that was not all artifice.

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“Of course not,” Joe admitted. He told her the account numbers and balances for two of the accounts. “Should I go on?” Even Brigitte was shaken at this. He’d done more than finding the money; his tracking it to the specific accounts was quite worrisome. Daniel and Georges started to try to talk to her, demanding to know how he could know such information, and she had to silence them with her icy glare. She again tried to pretend she was not worried. “Even if your information is correct, that doesn’t mean you were able to take the money.” Simply saying those words seemed to reassure her. She turned to Daniel and George to share her reassurance. “The money was there last night. Relax.” “Yesterday was a long time ago,” Joe pointed out. “Check it out -- you have online access to all the accounts.” Even Brigitte could no longer maintain her smile at this impertinence. She looked at him as though he was an entirely new person, someone far more dangerous. She couldn’t read his bluff, and only knew one way to call it. “Get me the laptop,” she told Daniel curtly. “But don’t you think --” he started. She cut it off. “Just do it.” She and Joe simply watched each other while they waited, measuring each other. Georges alternated looking nervously at them and watching anxiously for Daniel to return with the laptop. Brigitte was running through her options quickly. She still could not believe Joe had managed to get her money, but even if he had, she still had him in custody. They must be able to force him to return they money, even as tough as he seemed to be. She inadvertently glanced at the wound on his shoulder, which wasn’t bleeding too much but had left a bloodstain on his shirt. Perhaps they could co-opt him somehow. On the other hand, perhaps he had co-opted Georges or Daniel in order to get

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to the money; as implausible as that seemed, she had to consider the possibility, which further complicated things. Daniel rushed in and handed her the laptop. She stood up, pulled the chair away from Joe, and sat back down in it with the laptop on her lap. She started quickly typing away on the keyboard, Daniel and Georges hovering over her. If there was a time for Joe to make a break, this would be it. His feet were not bound, nor were his restrained hands tied to the chair. He figured he might be able to bolt up, hit one of the men with a shoulder and possibly make it out of the door before they caught him. Then he’d have to try to slam the door closed before they got to it. It was all possible, just not highly probable. And in any event, that wasn’t the plan. His plan lay entirely in what she was doing now. Brigitte stopped typing, and her face went blank with incredulity. She shook her head, and looked up uncomprehendingly at her partners. “It’s gone,” Georges said in disbelief. “Check the others,” Daniel urged, his voice sounding lost. She threw Joe a quick look of intense hatred and started her furious typing again. In fact, their money was not gone – not yet. Joe and his colleagues had indeed tracked the money, had gotten the amounts and account numbers, but had not been able to crack the very good security of the banks. So they did the next best thing. They created replicas of the bank sites. Joe’s favorite hacker extraordinaire was sitting in a car near the villa Brigitte and her team had taken him to. He was going to intercept her laptop’s wireless signal, steal the log-in information she was transmitting, send her fake site information that showed cleaned out accounts, and meanwhile use her intercepted information to quickly log in to the actual sites and transfer the money for real. The plan could fail in a number of ways. If Brigitte tried to navigate very deeply into the fake bank sites, the copy would become very evident. If she tried to go to a site they

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hadn’t planned on, she wouldn’t get a signal. And, of course, if she simply called the banks, a banker would reassure her of the presence of her money. But Brigitte did none of those things. She proceeded one by one to check their accounts, unwittingly causing the loss of their money. When she had finished, she stood up and approached him with a look of extreme malice. Oddly enough, it made her look even more attractive, a wild animal showing her true colors. One suspected she’d be great in bed. “You’re a dead man.” Joe shook his head. “I don’t think so. You need me.” “Give us the money back and I’ll kill you quickly, instead of letting them take their anger out on you.” She looked back at Daniel and Georges by way of illustration, and they did look angry enough to literally pull him apart. “Give me your account information and help me transfer our money back.” “Can’t do it,” Joe admitted cheerfully. “My bank doesn’t have online access. I have to show up, in person. So you’re going to need me alive.” Brigitte shot a relieved glance at Daniel and Georges; so it was possible to get the money back. “Of course,” Joe continued, “I’ll need to keep my client’s money.” “I think that could be arranged,” Brigitte said, her friendly charm back in full force. It was almost impossible to remember the cold fierceness she’d revealed just moments before, but Joe had never bought into the charm in the first place. She was already thinking ahead to how they would double cross him. She didn’t realize that it was already too late for that. “I guess we’re going to have to trust each other,” Joe said. He moved his hands to indicate how that was not currently the case. Brigitte thought for a moment, and made her decision. “Release him.”

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Of course, Joe wasn’t going to take them to his bank, and they weren’t going to get their money back. On the other hand, they weren’t going to go to jail, and he wasn’t going to kill them. He knew people who had better use for their talents, and that was all part of his plan. But that’s another story…

Chapter 2 It was an idyllic setting. Joe and his wife Debbie sat comfortably in their lounge chairs, pushed close together and under a big umbrella for shade. They were sitting on the patio of their bungalow, which looked out onto the Pacific. The bungalow was part of a resort community, surrounded on either side by similar units spaced about twenty yards apart for about two hundred yards in both directions. In front of them was a private beach, and behind them were the swimming pools and tennis courts belonging to the hotel that was the center of the resort. A golf course hugged the entire complex, assuring a blanket of hard-won green to contrast with the white beach and blue water. Such a luxurious setting didn’t come cheap, but cost was not uppermost in their minds for this vacation. “How’s the book?” Debbie asked, putting her own book down and taking a drink of water. It was the first time they’d spoken in almost a half hour. They were not a couple that felt the need to constantly fill silence. She nudged at him playfully with her bare foot, more as an excuse to touch than anything else. Joe looked at her appreciatively, and rubbed his leg against her foot in return. Debbie wore a sheer white cover-up over her bikini. The bikini was quite modest by the standards of the beach – almost a two-piece

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compared to the virtual strings some of the other woman were sporting – but somehow her relative modesty made it all the more sexy. Despite being in her thirties and having had two kids, she easily looked ten years younger, and Joe felt quite confident that she was the most beautiful woman on the beach, not to mention in the state. Given her already golden skin – a gift of her half-Thai heritage -- she didn’t really need the coverup to avoid getting sunburn, but she was as smart about the long term consequences of too much sun as she was smart about most things. “Intricate,” Joe summarized. He was reading a long science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, the plot of which was very complicated and powered by a large number of complex characters. It wasn’t so much that he was a science fiction fan as he just enjoyed good writers, in any genre. He put the book against his chest. “I’d ask about your book, but I’d be troubled if you said you were enjoying it and sorry if you were reading something you didn’t enjoy.” Debbie was a professor of international affairs at Princeton, and the book she was reading might as well have been homework for one of her advanced classes. Joe suspected that, if she found it challenging enough, it might yet become such. Reading it in a bathing suit was close enough to a vacation for her. Debbie knew Joe was quite capable of having an intelligent conversation on the most detailed nuances of geopolitics – or just about anything else – but he never felt the need to show off his intelligence needlessly. If only some of her fellow professors were as restrained, she often rued. Debbie stretched languidly, a sensual pleasure that Joe enjoyed watching – and suspected some of their fellow beachcombers did as well. She put her hands behind her head and looked out at the ocean with satisfaction. “Damn big, isn’t it?” Joe commented. “You would know,” she teased him, picking her book back up. It wasn’t clear if she was referring to his periodic long swims, or to his time in the Navy – not that he’d spent much of it serving on ships. His duties had been somewhat less straightforward than that.

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Joe’s shoulder was healing nicely. Brigitte hadn’t hit any major arteries, and the muscle damage had not been too bad. It had been six weeks since the injury, and the main result was that he’d added a new scar to his collection. Joe tended to keep a t-shirt on when sitting outside their bungalow – less out of concern for the sun than not to invite questions from passers-by about his various scars. It wasn’t that he was badly scarred, but he’d accumulated more than your typical office worker could explain. Then again, typical office workers don’t often come into multi-million dollar paydays. He was still finalizing arrangements with representatives from two remaining families of the kidnap victims, but it looked like his company – which essentially meant Joe – would keep twelve or thirteen million dollars from the recovery. He’d given everyone involved a nice bonus, even though he had been the only one who’d actually been in any personal danger. It was a breath-taking payday, but Joe knew that even the prospect of such a windfall would never have persuaded Debbie that he should put his life in danger. Debbie had not been happy when he’d come home with the damaged shoulder. It was bad enough that he’d been away for a few weeks, but the shoulder was evidence that he’d been risking his own life again. She didn’t ask any questions about what had happened, but he had received a significant look from her when she first saw it. That look spoke volumes, but she had let it pass and had given him an extra long hug instead of a lecture. Debbie was a Quaker and was opposed to violence, but she’d learned to reconcile the fact that her husband resorted to it on occasion. She knew him well enough to trust that he used good judgment about when to use it. The vacation was a celebration of sorts for their sudden financial windfall, and – implicitly – for Joe’s not having suffered any worse damage. Given Debbie’s teaching responsibilities and the kids’ school schedules, it had taken a few weeks to arrange the time away. “What do you suppose the kids are up to?” Debbie asked, enjoying the respite from child-rearing responsibilities yet missing them at the same time. They could, and did, make enjoyable conversation about almost any topic, but their kids had always been one of their most favorite.

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“Knowing dad, probably close order combat drills,” Joe said with an impish smile, although it was quite possible that was, in fact, what his father was doing with their two kids. Joe’s father had been a Marine lifer, now retired. He and Joe’s mother lived in a suburb of San Diego, an enclave of similarly retired Marines. Theirs was a tight community, much more comfortable with each other than with the civilian population. Because Joe and Debbie lived on the East Coast, his parents didn’t see their grandchildren as often as they’d like, or vice versa. Compared to Joe’s own upbringing, and that of his brother Ian’s, Doug and Melissa were having a relatively undisciplined childhood – although the two of them would dispute that. Nonetheless, they loved their grandparents, and their regimented world was alien enough to them to be fascinating to them. In a couple years, when they would become teenagers, that might not be true. “At least they’ll come back in better shape for soccer,” Debbie sighed. She imagined Joe’s father running them ragged on practice drills; if he hadn’t known much about soccer before the kids took it up, Debbie assumed he’d studied up on it since then and was by now a well-informed amateur. Despite their nearing seventy, Debbie had no fears that her kids would be too much for Joe’s parents. The kids might be able to beat Joe’s father in a sprint, but he could wear them down on a three or four mile run, and Joe’s mom could beat even his dad in a marathon. Joe and Debbie had been on vacation for most of a week now, and only had a couple days left before it was time to pick up the kids. It had been a wonderful time. They could sleep in “late” – which for Joe was about seven, for Debbie more like nine. Joe would usually go for a run along the beach or a long swim first thing, then they’d have a nice breakfast together and sit by the pool or the beach. They might play some tennis – Debbie was very good, keeping Joe on his toes for the whole match – or do some browsing in one of the neighboring tourist towns. They usually found time in the afternoon to make love, and to sit by the beach like this in the late afternoon. In the evening they’d go out for drinks and dinner, sometimes maybe catch a little music someplace or take a long walk on the beach. One day, for a change of pace, they’d rented

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a small sailboat, although Joe enjoyed the sailing more than Debbie did. Still, she’d enjoyed watching Joe demonstrate something else he was quietly proficient at, with no wasted motions or indecision. Joe resisted checking in on his office email while they were away. He had his mobile phone but his colleagues knew to only call in an actual emergency. Debbie was working on a paper, something she didn’t really view as work, but she tried to only work on it when Joe was out exercising or was reading. All in all, it had been a very relaxing few days. The resort’s guests were predominantly couples, of all ages. They all either were wealthy in their own right or had someone – parents or trust funds – paying for them. One might suspect that, to most of them, staying here wasn’t something that they’d had to save up for all year, but merely one in a sequence of luxury retreats, each competing to deliver perfection. It made it less special to them than to guests like Joe and Debbie. There were very few families at the resort, but there was one in the bungalow two units down from theirs, with a boy and a girl who appeared to be a couple years younger than Doug and Melissa. Joe and Debbie had talked about whether Doug and Melissa would have enjoyed it here, but satisfied themselves that they were having more fun with Joe’s parents, and that they’d do a family vacation to Disney World sometime soon. The bungalow next to theirs was occupied by three young men and a similarly aged young woman; Joe guessed them to be early or mid-twenties. Neither Joe nor Debbie had quite figured out the relationships, but they didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, especially since the foursome was relatively well behaved and didn’t usually make too much noise. Today the foursome had some friends over and were grilling on their patio. They had music playing a little louder than Joe might have preferred, but it wasn’t terribly objectionable music and he pretty much let it be background noise. A few of them were on the beach or in the water, engaging each other in some time honored and

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energetic beach mating rituals. “Were we ever that young?” Joe asked wryly, watching one of the guys chase one of the girls, to the cheers of both their respective camps. Debbie nudged his leg again. “Well, I was, and I bet Ian was too, but I’m not so sure about you.” Joe smiled wistfully. Ian was his younger and more free-spirited brother. Where Joe had gone to the Naval Academy, then served ten years, Ian had charted his own course. Unfortunately, that course had led him into the path of some very bad people, who had savagely murdered him two years ago. Joe had gone to where Ian had lived to bury him, but had ended up tracking his killers down, after figuring out that they’d tried to frame him as a drug dealer killed by a rival. He’d been helped in this by Juanita Kincaid, a local police detective who fought against her own department to help him bring about justice for Ian. She’d become a close friend of the Russell’s, especially after Joe had subsequently helped her out when her own niece was murdered by a monstrous serial killer several months later. Juanita was going to meet them in San Diego in a couple days, as she was already in California, attending a conference in Los Angeles. Doug and Melissa adored Juanita and were looking forward to seeing her. Joe’s parents had never really had a chance to get to know Juanita, but had heard all about her from Debbie and the kids. They knew better than to expect Joe to tell them much. Joe and Debbie talked idly about where they might want to go for dinner. Debbie was keen to try a seafood restaurant they’d seen on their last shopping excursion, while Joe was holding out for some sloppy burgers at a noisy seafront bar with live music. Joe knew he’d end up doing what Debbie wanted, so his end game was to get a compromise of going to a bar for drinks after dinner, maybe listen to some music. The lazy conversation served largely as an excuse to look out at the vast ocean, with its endless series of waves crashing into the beach. Two of the guests of the next door neighbors were taking advantage of the waves, one of them try to body-surf while the other tried, less successfully, to ride waves on a boogie board. Back on their patio, someone had put on a playlist of hard-core rap songs, and the crowd was playing a drinking game of doing

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shots whenever any explicit word relating to sex was mentioned, which was a lot. They were getting more boisterous by the minute, and Debbie gradually started to notice. “I wonder if they realize there are some children nearby,” she observed, looking out at the raucous activity. Joe frowned slightly. “I don’t think they’re out right now.” Debbie stared at the neighboring patio for a long few moments, then looked over at Joe. “But they could come out at any moment. Or some other children could come walking down the beach.” “Ahh,” Joe said mildly, looking at Debbie with a slight smile. “And what do you propose we do about it?” Debbie wasn’t smiling. “I think one of us needs to go over there and tell them to tone it down.” Joe suppressed his smile. He gestured with his head over to the party. “So, that’s a good idea,” he teased. “Telling a bunch of rowdy, drunk guys to pipe down, on their own patio in front of their girlfriends.” He nodded his head gently towards Debbie. “I’m sure that will go over well.” “If Doug and Melissa were here you’d agree with me,” she pointed out. She was right, Joe had to admit, but he didn’t want to concede so easily. “Why not let the parents of the kids who are here come over themselves?” Debbie gave him a look of mock scorn. “Since when have you ever delegated doing the right thing?”

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Joe audibly sighed to let her know she’d won. He looked over at the crowd. There were six or seven guys and an equal number of young women, and, not surprisingly, the former were competing for the attention of the latter, which had the effect of rewarding ever more outrageous behavior or language. Joe didn’t think they were quite drunk yet, but they certainly qualified as rowdy. Had this been a bar, he’d have just suggested that he and Debbie should leave rather than provoke a confrontation. But they were in their own home, albeit a rented home, so doing something about the situation would be a little trickier. He took a deep breath; so much for their vacation. He looked at Debbie. “So you want me to go say something to them?” Debbie put a marker in her book and placed it on the ground. She swung her feet down to the ground and sat up facing him. “No,” she said calmly. “I’ll go.”

Chapter 3 With many wives, such an assertion would be simply a way to nudge their husbands into action, manipulating their macho pride into doing what they wanted. Not so with Debbie, who had plenty of feminine wiles but usually used them for more fun things. “Have fun,” Joe told her calmly, picking up his book and beginning to read. Debbie slipped on her flip-flops and got up. She sauntered over to the neighboring bungalow without a backwards glance at her husband, needing neither to know he was watching her walk nor to get any reassurance that he was there. Joe might well be reading, but he was damn well keeping tabs on her. It was hard for Joe not to be overprotective of his wife and children, but he’d learned to give them plenty of freedom. Still, whether it was at the mall, a soccer field, or walking down the street, Joe knew where his family was at all times. They didn’t know it, but when duty called him away for extended periods, as with his most recent assignment, Joe always made sure they were protected.

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It was hard for him not to watch her walk towards the neighboring party – not out of worry but out of admiration for how great she looked. Debbie was not a tall woman – she was a little under five foot five inches – and she was slender, but she had nice curves and great legs. More than those, though, she simply had an air about her that made people notice her and tend to like her: confident but not cocky, friendly but not naïve. And, of course, being beautiful didn’t hurt. A beautiful woman who will smile at you will get most men in a welcoming mood. Debbie plunged into the neighbor’s gathering as though she was invited. And, indeed, the young men were delighted to see such a pretty woman approach them with a smile on her face and a bikini on her body, cover-up or not. She might not have been exactly in their age bracket but no one was going to complain; her presence quickly drew a small crowd. One of the guys quickly pressed a beer in her hand, which she accepted gracefully but did not drink from, and conversation ensued. The young men around her appeared very animated, and Joe mentally shook his head in amusement. Joe could tell the point at which she brought up the nature of the music and its inappropriateness for possible wandering children. Even at a distance, Joe could see the cloud of confusion that washed over their faces, to be replaced by some boisterous denial. One of the men, a good looking guy with close cropped blond hair and an impressive physique, appeared to immediate launch into a sales pitch as to the merits of the music. Joe noticed that another of the guys, who was slender and had a scraggly beard, glanced over at Joe nervously, evidently wondering if this daring woman was accompanied by anyone he needed to worry about. If there was ever a moment of crisis, it quickly passed. Debbie’s face had an earnest but friendly expression that Joe was very familiar with, signaling that she meant no harm but was doggedly going to get her way. From the evolution of the expressions of the young men around her – and, soon, joined by a couple of the girls, who must have been intrigued by this mysterious beauty in their midst – the discussion was going from playful defending of their music to teasing her about her opposition and, finally, to exaggerated

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concession to her concerns. Joe knew she’d won when she stopped to take a drink of her beer, and Joe noticed one of guys slipping away to address the music. Soon another, less objectionable playlist was playing. Joe watched all this without giving them any signs that he was paying attention. To the casual observer, it would appear that he was simply reading, and his sunglasses did not reveal where his eyes were focused. Nor would his body language give any evidence that he was tense or prepared to move into action. But had the discussion gotten too heated, or had anyone’s hand arisen to strike, Joe would have been in motion before anyone realized what had happened. He never was too worried about the outcome; Debbie was very persuasive when she wanted to be, and her experience as a professor certainly gave her plenty of practice on how to lead young people to the right decision without being a scold about it. He hoped that once she’d achieved her goal, she’d come back and they could continue their leisurely afternoon. Maybe a little more sun, maybe a swim, and hopefully a romp in the bedroom. It made Joe smile a little just to think about it. He noticed, though, that even once they’d switched to less offensive music, she showed no signs of returning. Nor did interest in her diminish among the partygoers. The big blond guy started taking her around and introducing her to everyone. Debbie seemed perfectly at ease, and – judging by the smiles of the people she was meeting – she appeared to be welcome there. Joe noticed that a few of the guys would glance over at him periodically. Joe wasn’t sure if they were worried that he might be the jealous type, or if they were somewhat scornful of a man who would let his beautiful wife go off and mingle with a bunch of horny young men. Either way, he didn’t much care. He didn’t have anything to worry about with Debbie, and he didn’t mind if she wanted to be more social than he did. He was happy sitting here relaxing and reading his very interesting book. It was not to be. Within fifteen minutes Debbie was waving over at him.

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He tried to ignore it at first. Debbie knew he saw her, and put on a face of mock annoyance. “Joe, get over here,” she yelled sternly. Joe didn’t need to look to know that some of the guys snickered at this further proof of a milquetoast husband, a guy who let his wife come over to handle them. He reluctantly put his book down, and looked over at her. He raised his eyebrows at her in shorthand she well understood, indicating that there would be payback due, then slowly swung his legs off the chaise. He put his sandals on and got up. He walked over to the party slowly, adding to the impression of the reluctant husband. Debbie looped her arm in his. “Let me introduce you around.” The blond guy – who turned out to be the host, as his family was paying for the bungalow – was Brandon Haines. He appeared to be the informal leader of not only the foursome but also the party, his eyes bright with the pleasure of the convivial atmosphere. The guy with the beard was Zach Lott, his roommate at Stanford; he seemed quieter, and Joe guessed that he’d tend to be in studying when Brandon was out networking or just partying. Ted Cummings and Kristina Gywnn completed the foursome staying in the unit. Ted was also good looking, with long blonde hair and a lanky physique. He’d been the bodysurfer and, he soon explained, was from the area, having dropped out of UCSD a couple of years ago. Kristina was his girlfriend. Her tiny bikini made Debbie’s look conservative, and she wore it well, with a trim build. Joe collected but did not deeply process the names of the other guests. After his had been introduced around, Joe disengaged himself from Debbie with a look that told her he’d get her back for dragging him into all this; she stuck her tongue out at him quickly. He went to the mini-refrigerator and got himself a beer, noting that they had largely stocked it with expensive beers and Lite beers, neither of which Joe was that fond of. He stood off to the side near the patio doorway and tried to be inconspicuous. It didn’t last. “You’re Debbie’s husband?” one of the girls asked, appearing at his side. He believed her name was Candy, but he thought he might be confusing her with Nina. Both were,

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after all, blond, busty, and with teeth whiter than normally appeared in nature. He admitted to his domestic situation but did not pursue the conversation. Candy seemed slightly at a loss; Joe had to guess that she was more used to men aggressively pursuing conversation with her, especially on the rare occasions where she’d needed to initiate it. She slipped a quick look over at Debbie, who might have had a small smirk on her face as she watched Joe out of the corner of her eye. “She’s really… impressive,” Candy offered, searching for the right word. “You mean in the bikini,” Joe asked with a deadpan expression. Her eyes widened, and she finally giggled. “Well, that too,” she laughed, giving Debbie a more evaluative look and unconsciously arching her back to illustrate how well she filled out her own bikini, which was pretty impressive itself. Candy felt no need for a cover-up, as evidently she believed in conserving fabric. She turned back to Joe and gave him a cheerful smile. “So are you a professor too?” “No.” Joe offered a small smile to help offset the curtness of his response, but nonetheless Candy was again nonplused that Joe wasn’t taking her conversational gambits. She studied him for a long second, and decided he was good looking enough to pursue the conversation one step further. “So what do you do?” Joe could have dodged the question, could have played up the air of mystery that some women found so intriguing, but not today, not with this young woman. “I’m an accountant,” he told her, watching the interest fade out of her eyes. “Oh, that’s nice,” she replied vaguely, seeming disappointed about his choice of profession. It was clear she had no conversational response to this; to her, accountants were simply people who would work for people she might find interesting. After a moment or two of awkward silence, her eyes caught sight of something or someone else that required her attention. She muttered her excuses and rushed off, quickly joining two

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other of the young women. They started conferring with heads close together, occasionally glancing his way. Joe figured they were trying to work out his apparent enigma. He was certainly older than they were, but not so much older as to be creepy; he was rugged handsome, with a tall and powerful body; he had to have money to be staying at this resort; he was married to a beautiful and vivacious woman who could compete with the best of them. Yet he was terse and claimed to be an accountant. It delighted them to have this puzzle to crack. Debbie caught Joe’s eye, having noticed Candy’s departure, and gave him a “what happened?” expression. He shrugged and saluted her with his beer bottle. Debbie smiled encouragingly at him and returned her attention to the small group around her. Joe decided to move to the edge of the patio and watch the ocean. Party or not, he didn’t mind not talking, even if it made him seem antisocial. He was normally friendly and could be as charming as he needed to be, but he was on vacation and didn’t really feel like it right now. He focused on the sun, the ocean, and occasional sips of the beer. Joe didn’t mind standing by himself at a party; he had plenty of practice at Debbie’s academic affairs, where lack of a Ph.D. practically made one invisible anyway, except among similar spouses. He could stand by himself in a crowded room where everyone was talking to other people yet still seem like the most comfortable person in the room. He had that kind of self-assurance, and it typically served as a magnet for people to try to eventually dare to come up to talk to him. The partiers were good kids, Joe allowed, watching them have fun. They were just enjoying being young and single – soaking up the sun, showing off for each other, hanging out. Of course, he guessed most of them were to the manor born; places like this were expected, not treasured, and that made him hope that Melissa and Doug would never get too soft. It was a dilemma; he and Debbie wanted to make sure their kids had everything, but still know how to live the real world.

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After ten or fifteen minutes, Debbie decided he’d been alone long enough and brought two of the young men over to him. “Joe, I’ve got a couple of football fans for you to talk to.” He’d already met Brandon, so she introduced the second guest, whose first name was Kevin and whose last name Joe never caught. Kevin was an inch or two taller than Joe and in pretty good shape. “You a football fan, Joe?” Kevin asked with a confident air, seeking out one of the most common topics of male bonding since even Kevin was smart enough to know that it would be unwise to talk about girls with Debbie’s husband. Joe followed football enough to make passable conversation at parties or other man-talk situations, but couldn’t really claim to be a real fan. For simplicity sake, though, he simply acknowledged that he was. “College or pro?” Kevin pressed. “Depends who’s playing,” Joe responded neutrally. Kevin eyed him suspiciously but proceeded to launch into his own passions. He was also at Stanford, a senior, so of course rooted for them now, but he’d grown up in Minnesota so he still followed the Gophers, plus he was a huge Vikings fan. He went on about each of them for a few minutes, with Joe listening politely, and at some point Kevin and Brandon got into a more involved discussion about Stanford’s fortunes. It took them a few minutes to notice that Joe wasn’t adding anything to the conversation. “You look like you might have played football,” Kevin offered, trying to bring him into the conversation. “I played in high school, until the old knee blew out.” He pointed to the scars on his right knee as evidence. “Yeah, I was all-City my senior year.” Kevin seemed very pleased with himself. “Quarterback,” he added proudly. Joe wondered how small the city had been, and had seen worse scars. He suspected lack of ability had kept Kevin from playing at the collegiate level more than his knee surgery. The guy wasn’t even out of college and was already looking back on his high school athletic feats as one of the highlights of his life. “Is that so,” Joe replied in a mild tone of voice.

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“There was this one time…” Kevin started, and gave an overly detailed recount of one of his best games. Joe had no doubts that Kevin was embellishing many of the details, and had half a mind to check out the facts just to measure how big an asshole he was, but shook his head slightly to discourage the notion; it would just be mean. Kevin took the motion as a sign of awe, and graciously decided to show some further interest in Joe. “You look like you might have played some ball yourself.” Joe debated simply avoiding the conversation by denying it, but decided not to, if only to avoid hearing more about Kevin’s prowess. “A little.” “High school or college?” “A bit of both,” Joe acknowledged. He looked out to the ocean, although he knew that his reply would invite a follow-up. “Where’d you play?” Brandon asked. Joe turned to look at him. “Naval Academy.” Both Brandon and Kevin seemed surprised. Brandon was the first to recover. “The Naval Academy? I thought that was for, you know, guys in the Navy.” Joe nodded. “Yeah, it is. I served a few years.” “You were on a boat?” Kevin asked. “Ever see any action?” “Ship, you mean,” Joe corrected him gently. “Unless you mean submarines, in which case the answer is no.” He wanted to leave it at that, but Brandon was now interested as well. “Yeah, but did you ever see any action?” he asked. “You know, on the ships.”

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Joe took a moment to respond, giving them a small smile. “No, not so much. Mostly desk jobs. You know.” He shrugged, and it would have been natural for them to assume Joe was somewhat apologetic about his service record. They would be wrong. It was true that Joe hadn’t served many tours on ships, but hardly true that he’d spent his naval career at a desk, and it was most definitely not true that he hadn’t seen any action. But his response served its purpose of stalling the conversation, so when Ted and Kristina called over to urge them to join them in some beach volleyball, Brandon and Kevin quickly made their excuses. “You sure you don’t want to play?” Brandon asked, holding back as Kevin jogged towards the growing collection of players on the beach. “Not now,” Joe told him. “Maybe later.” Brandon quickly made his way to the volleyball area, leaving Joe by himself again. Most of the group was assembled by the nets, and were starting to form into two person mixedsex teams. Joe noticed that Ted and Kristina paired up, as did Brandon and a pretty darkhaired girl that Joe hadn’t met yet, while Kevin claimed an athletic-looking woman whose name Joe thought was Jessica. Kevin was already being obnoxious about how his team was going to crush everyone. Debbie came over to him. “Don’t want to play?” she asked, putting her arm around his waist affectionately. Joe made a mock sigh. “I’m feeling old around these kids.” She poked him. “You’re not so old, Joe Russell. I saw that girl in the bikini chatting you up.” “She probably has daddy issues,” he replied, grimacing. “Yeah, well, she wasn’t the only one checking you out.”

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He raised an eyebrow. “I noticed you weren’t lacking for male attention. You’re a pretty hot babe, you know.” Debbie shrugged and looked out at the volleyball game. “You know you could take any of them.” She felt his bicep in exaggerated admiration. “I’d say you are aging pretty well.” Joe grinned at her. “If I played I’m afraid I might be forced to do something nasty to our friend Kevin there.” Debbie laughed. “Well, I guess that would blow the whole mild-manner Clark Kent thing you’ve got going on here.” He gave her a malicious leer. “Let’s save the Superman thing for later, darling.” Debbie leaned in close to him, so that her mouth was close to his ear. “Our work here is done, Clark. Take me back to bed and show me Superman.”

Chapter 4 They slept in the following morning. That is to say, when Joe started to get up, planning to go for an early morning run, Debbie reached out and grabbed his boxers. “Hey, woman,” he said, giving her a look of mock exasperation. “If you do that, you better mean it.” “Oh, don’t worry,” she replied sweetly. “I do.” After several years of marriage, two kids, and making love after their late night – seafood had won, but they’d gone to listen to some music and do a little slow dancing at a

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seafront bar – they still had no trouble getting excited about making love. Joe didn’t need to be invited twice. He slipped back into bed and pulled Debbie close. “I suppose I could always work out later…” He kissed her. “I suppose you could,” she said after she’d come up for air. “Let me go freshen up before things get too far along.” She threw the sheets off and got up. “Spoilsport,” Joe grumbled lazily, but used the break to go to the other bathroom to freshen up a little himself. He was back in bed, sans boxers, by the time she emerged. Debbie still had on her short nightgown, and had a hungry look in her eyes. She started towards the bed. “Not so fast,” he objected. She stopped and raised her eyebrows questioningly, a small pout on her face. He nodded towards her. “Lose the nightgown.” Debbie’s lips twitched in amusement. “I was planning to take it off once I got back to bed, you know.” Joe nodded. “I know. I just want to watch you.” Debbie smiled, and slowly pulled the nightgown off over her head, milking every motion. She posed for him, arching her hips, and let the nightgown slip to the ground. She walked towards him with great deliberation, never taking her eyes from him. On the other hand, Joe was unable to only look at her eyes. He assayed every visible inch of her lovingly, and found himself sitting up so he could meet her at the edge of the bed. He put his arms around her and pulled her closely, finding her lips. They kissed long and passionately, at some point falling into the bed. Joe’s hands began to caress her slowly but firmly. The touch of her was like cocaine to an addict; it excited him and made every sensation more vivid, and he couldn’t get enough of her. He loved running his hands along her legs, up the curve of her back, over the smooth belly and up her perfect breasts, two kids or not. Debbie liked to run her hands over him too, feeling the incredible strength of him while appreciating the loving

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and tender side of him at the same time. She always touched his scars gingerly, feeling some of the pain he’d endured when he’d been injured. It chastened her to think of him hurt, scared her to think about the possibility of him getting killed. It made each moment she had him all the more precious. They took a long time to consummate the act, enjoying the fact that there were no children to worry about – no one who might interrupt or overhear. Debbie was highly vocal, indicating her pleasure and talking to Joe throughout the lovemaking. Joe wasn’t any more of a talker in bed than he was anywhere else, but Debbie knew the things that excited him and knew when it was happening. When he entered her she was more than excited, and had an orgasm almost at once, followed by another when he came a few minutes later. They lay intertwined and catching their breath, her head on his chest. “That was nice,” she teased him. Joe gave her a horrified look. “Nice? NICE? If that was only nice then good would probably kill me.” “What a way to go, though, don’t you think?” Debbie said with a smirk. She sighed happily. “All right,” she said, pretending to grumble, like a teacher forced to bend the curve. “I’ll give it a ‘good.’ ‘Pretty good’ anyway.” “Well, thanks for that,” he said with mock exasperation. “Doesn’t really give me much incentive, does it? What ever happened to grade inflation?” Debbie raised her head so she could look at him, and so that he could see the twinkle in her eyes. “You’re a competitive guy, Joe Russell. I have to give you incentive to keep trying harder.”

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Joe slapped her playfully on her behind. “I don’t think you have to worry about that, Mrs. Russell. The day I stop trying hard to make love with you is the day they declare me dead.” Debbie put her head back down, her hand idly caressing his chest. He held her in both arms, content to lie there and feel her close to him. These were moments to remember, moments to treasure in the times he was away from her. “I could get used to this,” he admitted. “Me too” she agreed contentedly. They were quiet for a few minutes, enjoying the closeness. They could hear the steady sounds of the ocean waves, and the beginnings of activity on the beach – a few children’s squeals, and few shouts from surfers hitting the deck. “I suppose we’d get hungry at some point,” Joe said eventually. “At some point.” Debbie knew that Joe would still want to get his swim or run in before he sat down to breakfast, and was in no hurry to have him go out. He was disciplined but not rigid about keeping in shape, and she enjoyed the fringe benefits of his fitness. Like now. A few more minutes passed without conversation. It wasn’t that they were each in their own worlds; they were together, and conversation wasn’t needed to advance any communications. “Maybe we should retire here,” Debbie speculated. Joe laughed, trying to picture being retired, much less in this enclave of the indolent. “Yeah, right.”

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She raised herself on her elbows so she could look at him. “Well, maybe not here, but we could get a place by the ocean. If not in California then there’s always South Carolina, Florida. Just lead a life of luxury.” “Is Princeton setting up some satellite campuses I don’t know about?” Joe asked, his tone light. Debbie nodded, acknowledging he had a point. “I could take a sabbatical. I can write anywhere, even advise my grad students long distance. Or we could get a place as a vacation home.” “Maybe I could teach high school math,” Joe suggested, playing along. “You could teach social studies. We could neck in the teacher’s break room.” “Hmm,” she said, considering. “I like the necking part, anyway. We might need some extra income, given what teachers make nowadays. You could coach the, let’s see – the golf team.” Joe gave her a skeptical look. “Golf? Why golf?” Debbie gave him an encouraging look. “Ok, you don’t really care about golf, but how hard could coaching it be? I mean, what kind of conditioning do golfers really need? And what strategy do they need help with? ‘Get close to the hole, boys.’” She shook her head dismissively. “I’m sure it must be more involved than that,” Joe protested, pretending to think about what that might be. He looked up eagerly. “Hey, could I coach soccer or wrestling, something like that?” Debbie patted his chest. “Whatever makes you happy, darling. Just as long as it doesn’t cut into our home time. So no football, nothing like that.”

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They lay there intertwined, enjoying the feel of each other’s body and contemplating this prosaic future. “Of course,” Joe said at last, “all this would probably mean no international conferences for you, no invitations to the White House.” Debbie nodded slowly, weighing this. She lifted her head to look at him. “But at least you wouldn’t be gallivanting all over the world dealing with questionable characters.” She wasn’t smiling. Joe held her eyes with his, figuring out this her point for having the whole conversation. After a few seconds, long enough for Debbie to make sure he got her point, the more familiar twinkle returned, first to her eyes and then in his. “Of course,” he observed sagely. “There’s lots of questionable characters in high schools these days. And that’s just the faculty.” “You’d probably want to teach in some terrible inner city school anyway,” she grumbled good-naturedly. “You’d probably end up taking on some drug dealers or a gang.” “I don’t go looking for trouble,” Joe objected mildly. “Not usually.” “And yet,” she replied archly, not needing to finish the sentence. Joe shrugged, and eventually Debbie put her head back down on his chest, and started rubbing her hand on his chest. Her hand gradually was drawn to his new scar, tentatively touching it, almost as though she was afraid of it or that she might hurt him. “My beautiful guy,” she sighed with a tone that was somehow tender and a bit sad at the same time. “What will I do when all of your smooth skin is covered in these scars?” “You’d still love me, wouldn’t you?” Joe teased her.

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Debbie flashed a reassuring smile that only partially masked something else, something that might have been only concern but which could have been fear. “Of course.” Joe tightened his arms around her. “Hey, to be fair – most of my scars came before I met you. Certainly most of them were from before we got married. I’ve done pretty well since then.” He could have added that he’d left the service, with its risky assignments, for her, but knew he didn’t need to. Debbie was quiet. She kept putting her palm against his chest, and it took Joe awhile to realize what she was doing. She was using her hand to measure how close his scar was from his heart, and from his neck, both places where the wound would have killed him. Joe felt a great sadness come over him. “The person who did this didn’t intend to kill me,” Joe said carefully. “I knew that.” “But you could have been wrong,” Debbie replied with a resigned smile. She patted him on the chest, and put her head down on his chest.

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Chapter 5 The following night Debbie and Joe had dinner with the foursome from next door. The six of them were at a Mexican restaurant in town called La Cantina. Judging by the various photos and other memorabilia on the wall, it was a family-run business, and that tradition went back at least two generations. There was a fairly full crowd; Joe guessed that only about half the patrons were tourists like he and Debbie, and the rest were regulars, which was always a good sign, especially in a tourist town. The atmosphere was festive – noisy but not raucous, full of fun and of people enjoying themselves. A small mariachi band circulated, playing their instruments and singing traditional Mexican songs. The owner appeared to be a stout woman who manned the cash register and greeted the locals by name and an appreciative smile. No wonder they came back, Joe thought, although maybe the food had something to do with it, judging by the appetizers Joe’s table was enjoying – some guacamole dip and an assortment of quesadillas, all washed down by a pitcher of sangria. Joe liked the place. The food seemed fresh, and quite tasty, the staff was cheerful, and there was a history to it. This wasn’t a branch of some big chain serving homogenized food that catered to Yankee tastes looking for a harmless change of pace, nor was it an exotic reinvention of Mexican food that some inventive restaurateur wanted to sell at inflated prices. Authentic food at reasonable prices, and a mariachi band to boot; Joe figured he couldn’t beat that. He and Debbie had taken some bikes for a ride along the beach in the morning, which had ended up as more trail riding than they’d intended due to some shortcuts they’d attempted. It’d been fun, and they cooled off in the pool afterward. In the late afternoon they were relaxing on their patio when Brandon had stopped by and invited them out to dinner. Joe would have declined but had wisely left the decision to Debbie, who had quickly agreed. So here they were.

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“Yeah, I’m from LA,” Brandon declared, in response to a question from Debbie. “My folks come here sometimes, so I convinced Zack to take a little vacation.” “I’m on the rowing team with Zack,” Kristina added. “And Ted is an old friend of mine.” “You’re at Stanford too?” Debbie asked Ted. He smiled broadly. “No, I’m not exactly in school at the moment.” He laughed. “He’s what you’d call a surf bum,” Kristina explained. “That’s how I know him. He decided to tag along once I promised him we’d go looking for some waves.” The waitress came by to take their entrée orders, which ended up involving some lengthy discussion, as Brandon and particularly Zack seemed determined to keep her there as long as they could. She was a pretty young Hispanic, in her late teens or early twenties, with beautiful skin and very white teeth that made her smile quite dazzling. It wasn’t just the white teeth; the smile had a warmth about it that would charm even the hardest heart. She had the sweet bloom of youth, and Joe was sure somewhere she had parents to whom she was the world. “Thank you, Theresa,” Zack said warmly when their orders were all completed. He’d had her explain two of the specials a second time, and had asked her recommendation, which he had gone along with. She gave him an extra smile, but Joe doubted it was as much in response to his modest attempt at flirting as it was a good technique for generating above-average tips. Either way, Joe enjoyed seeing her smile, and Debbie nudged him slightly when she noticed him noticing. He shrugged at her with a smile. There was something special about the waitress, Joe decided as he watched her walk away. She was pretty, but many of the waitresses were also pretty. What distinguished her, what made her more than just another pretty face, was that she had that spark -- of warmth and of life, that animated not only her face but which livened her walk, as though

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every step was part of an adventure. One didn’t see it very often – Debbie had it, but not Kristina, pretty as she was – but anyone would know it when they saw it. “Speaking of surfing,” Kristina said, turning her attention to Joe. “We saw you out swimming the other morning.” “You must like to get up early,” Joe replied, reluctantly turning away from watching Theresa move among her tables. “It’s all about the wave, man,” Ted said quite seriously, eying the remains of the guacamole. He took a chip and scooped out a large portion that went straight to his mouth, with a resulting look of pleasure. “Anyway, you’re really good,” Kristina commented. “Nice smooth stroke, and you must have been out a while. We couldn’t even see how far out you went.” Joe shrugged, his face neutral. “Thanks.” It seemed that Kristina wanted more from him, but he didn’t elaborate. In fact, he’d swum for an hour, nothing unusual for him and far short of his longest swims. “You ever surf?” Ted asked. “Not really,” Joe admitted with a small smile. “If you ever want some tips, man, you let me know,” Ted offered generously. He eyed the last quesadilla and asked the table if anyone was going to have it, then grabbed it when no one did. “Yeah, well no wonder you swim so well,” Brandon suggested, “what with you being in the Navy and all.” Joe just looked at him.

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“We’re thinking of going skydiving day after tomorrow,” Zack noted. “Maybe you guys want to come.” “Think we’ll pass,” Debbie said quickly, playing idly with her glass of sangria. Otherwise, she was afraid Joe might take them up on their offer, and she had no intention of them skydiving. “You ever skydive?” Ted asked Joe, his curiosity obvious. Joe kept a poker face. “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.” There was a long moment when the rest of the table – Debbie excluded, of course – didn’t know how to react, not sure if he was serious or not. Joe didn’t help by maintaining his best deadpan expression, which was pretty good. Finally they decided he was kidding and the table erupted with laughter. Joe allowed a small smile on his face, just to reassure them of his lack of sinister intentions. The laughter took almost a minute to subside, with Kristina wiping away tears. “You really had me going,” Brandon told him with a broad grin. “Pretty good.” They did not follow-up on Ted’s question. If they wanted to underestimate him, that was all right with Joe. Lots of people had made the same mistake and had it come back to haunt them. The entrees arrived, which diverted the conversational attention for several minutes. Theresa checked in on them, making sure everyone had everything they wanted, and again Joe felt the warmth of her presence. He felt Debbie nudge him under the table and playfully made a face at her, but he wasn’t the only one at the table who watched her walk away.

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The food was indeed good. Everyone sampled from each other’s plates, and the universal consensus was that the restaurant was a keeper. “I thought I knew good Mexican food,” Zack informed them, “but this is right up there.” “Of course, Ted is from Arizona,” Brandon pointed out, “so he’s really more of a TexMex kind of guy.” He took a bite of his fajitas, and chewed thoughtfully. “Still, it’s not bad at all.” The conversation meandered after that, helped by a round of tequilas for the younger quartet. Debbie had another glass of sangria, while Joe ordered a beer. Apparently the four were intending on an evening out at the bars, and they kidded each other about their chances to get lucky. Brandon invited Joe and Debbie to join them, which she politely declined. “No, Joe needs to be in bed early,” she claimed apologetically, patting him on the leg. “Got to get my beauty sleep,” Joe said, although he hoped Debbie was thinking of other bedtime activities. “We did go out to listen to music the other night,” Debbie noted, not wanting them to think Joe was a complete killjoy. That led to a discussion of which local places had good music or even dancing. Debbie kidded the three guys about their liking to dance, and Brandon smiled knowingly at her. “You know – drinking plus dancing equals sex,” he told her. “It wasn’t that long ago that I was single,” she replied dryly, generating laughs from the rest of them, Joe excluded. He simply smiled, his expression inscrutable. Debbie asked Brandon why he was going to business school. “You know – why not just go get a job, learn about business that way?” He laughed. “A professor at Princeton trying to argue me out of going to school?”

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“I teach international relations,” she replied smugly. “Harder to get on-the-job training.” “That’s kind of a double standard, isn’t it?” Kristina countered. “People can go join the Peace Corps or something to learn more about other countries. Go live abroad for a few years.” “Yeah, maybe even do business overseas,” Brandon chimed in. “That’d give people practical experience, not just ivory tower shit. Excuse my French.” His eyes were twinkling. “There’s an argument for that,” Debbie granted, “but diplomacy and business aren’t quite the same thing.” “Well, I’m going to law school once I graduate,” Kristina noted, “so I don’t really have a choice about going to school. Not if I want to be a lawyer.” “I have to admit,” Zack said. “I’m not quite sure what I’ll do. I’ll have a degree in Econ, and I’m still debating B-school.” He looked at Joe. “What do you think? I mean, would you hire someone with an undergrad Econ degree?” “I’m afraid my company needs a little more specialized background,” Joe replied smoothly, suppressing his impulse to smile. “Yeah, you probably want CPAs and all,” Zack agreed, turning his attention away from Joe. Ted told them that he thought school was kind of a waste. “I can always go to school,” he argued. “I won’t always be young.” They laughed and the four young people toasted their youth, while Joe and Debbie just smiled knowingly at each other. Youth is wasted on the young, Joe thought.

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The restaurant was crowded and noisy, in a good way. Joe was sitting with his back to the wall, unobtrusively keeping an eye on everything. It wasn’t that he was worried about anything; it was just force of habit. He noticed the four men enter, and it was the look on the owner’s face that caused him to pay them more attention as they were escorted to a private room off the main dining room. When she’d first seen them enter, her face had registered something – disapproval, perhaps even fear – that Joe didn’t like, before she smiled at them graciously. Joe thought it odd that they were taken to a private room, which certainly held more than four people. All of them were in their mid to late twenties, and all came in with attitude, like they owned this and any other place they entered. One of them was an inch of two taller than Joe and fifty or more pounds heavier, not all of it fat. He had a closely cropped crew cut that probably required a lot of work to keep just so. Joe pegged him as the bodyguard, although a very amateurish one by the poor way he scoped out the room. He wondered who the others were that they merited a bodyguard; maybe they were celebrities and he simply didn’t recognize them. He wasn’t as up on celebrities as he should be, given that they were, after all, in Southern California. Zack asked Debbie how soon they were going back to Princeton, which led to her explaining that they had to collect their kids in San Diego. This led to her telling them about Melissa and Doug, which led to her showing them the inevitable photos she kept on her phone. “They’re so cute!” Kristina exclaimed. Brandon, Zack and Ted muttered polite praise as well, and took notice of some of the photos of the kids playing soccer. That was more fertile territory; they understood soccer, and the conversation veered away from Joe and Debbie’s kids towards sports. Joe didn’t add much to either discussion. He didn’t carry pictures of his family and didn’t really like to talk to people he didn’t know about them. Old habits die hard. These kids seemed nice enough, but he didn’t really know them. Debbie understood his caution but didn’t exercise it as rigorously as he did, trusting her ability to judge character.

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Joe was keeping track of the private room. He noticed that they’d switched waitresses, and that Theresa was now waiting on them. The waitress she’d replaced, Joe noticed, was much less attractive, and seemed more than a little relieved to not have to serve them. She’d gone straight to the owner and had a little chat – one consequence of appeared to be that Theresa was accompanied by a male waiter on each trip into the private room. There were only four of them to wait on, so Joe didn’t figure she needed the help taking their orders or carrying their food. He also noticed that their room was getting noisier, even through the closed door. “Earth to Joe,” Debbie said, pulling on his arm. “Sorry,” he apologized. But he continued to keep the door to the private room in the corner of his eye. It didn’t escape his attention that when Theresa came out of the private room her smile seemed more forced, and her step heavier. He wondered what had happened, and he didn’t like his speculation. Kristina showed Debbie her latest tattoo, a souvenir of their previous night out. “That’s four,” she said proudly. “It’s pretty,” Debbie acknowledged, her tone not enthusiastic. “Tattoos are one of these trends I keep hoping will go away.” She looked at the three guys. “I suppose you all have tats as well?” Joe could have told her the answer to that one, although he suspected she already knew the answer as well. Brandon admitted to two, Zack to one, and Ted proudly showed them the large tattoo of a surfer riding a wave that took up much of his back. “How about you, Joe?” Brandon asked. “I figure, you were in the Navy and all, you must have some.”

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Joe smiled, amused. “Nope.” Joe didn’t have any tattoos of his own, but he’d grown up around military men, he’d served in the military himself, and even now he still moved in circles where tattoos often took on a kind of macho status symbol for the men and as a erotic turn-on by the women. Or vice versa. He could have shared stories that would have had the college students wide-eyed. The stories were more involved than drunken visits to a tattoo parlor after a night of bar hopping, ranging from heart-breaking to outright scary. But there was nothing to be gained from it. He simply smiled at them, winking surreptitiously at Debbie. Out of the corner of his eye Joe watched Theresa go back to the private room, in the company of the young male waiter. It seemed to Joe that she had to gird herself before she could enter, and the smile she put on her face was not the easy smile she’d displayed to his table. It could hardly be called a smile at all, and his amusement vanished. “What about you, Prof?” Zack asked Debbie. They seemed reluctant to call her by her first name – unlike what they did with Joe – so this nickname was a good compromise, a sign of both affection and respect. Debbie let her eyes go wide. “No, I’ve stayed away from that.” “It’s art,” Kristina argued, intent on making her case. “Maybe so,” Debbie told her sympathetically. “But art that I liked at twenty isn’t necessarily art I like today, and art I’d hang in my apartment when I was twenty probably isn’t going to go with the house I expect to have when I’m sixty. But with tattoos, you’re stuck.” That silenced the four up for a few seconds, not so much convinced as marshalling their counterarguments. A loud crash from the private room got everyone’s attention. Shortly after that the door opened and the male waiter came flying – literally – out of the door, looking very shaken up. The door slammed behind him, and the volume of noise behind

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the door increased. The owner scurried from her post to the shaken waiter and started talking to him very animatedly. The two of them seemed very uncertain and more than a little scared. Debbie looked at the room, her senses on high alert. She put a hand on Joe’s forearm, and one couldn’t have determined if it was for comfort or to hold him back. “That doesn’t look good,” she observed, her face grave. “No, it really doesn’t,” Brandon agreed reluctantly, wondering what was going on and worried it might turn into something more serious. Which it did. A scream came from behind the door, freezing everyone in the restaurant. It wasn’t from one of the four men behind the door, and it wasn’t a playful scream. It was from someone scared and possibly in pain, and they all knew who that someone was. “We should call 911,” Kristina said, her voice shaky. “Someone should go see what is wrong,” Ted suggested timidly. He looked around the room frantically for some Good Samaritan to appear, hopefully an off-duty cop complete with sidearm. The other patrons of the restaurant were similarly looking around, with no such savior appearing. Joe was watching closely. He noticed that owner was not going into the room. Nor was she calling the police. The waiter who had been so unceremoniously thrown out of the room had disappeared into the kitchen briefly, only to reappear with a big kitchen knife in his hand. The owner was holding him back and speaking to him in a hushed but forceful manner. Brandon, Zach, and Ted looked at each other uncertainly. “We could all go,” Brandon offered bravely, sounding like it was the last thing he wanted to do, which it pretty much was. Debbie didn’t say anything, just stared at the door with an intense gaze. The three

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young men looked at each other, trying to work up their nerve to do something, anything, and almost as daunted by Debbie’s intent look as by the unknown acts taking place behind that door. They didn’t think of themselves as cowards, not by any means, but they all suspected that she might volunteer to go before they would – and they didn’t like it. A second scream from the room froze them again. They looked wide-eyed at each other, their nerves clearly shaken. This was something they’d never experienced before, and despite their normal macho bravado, now that push looked like it was coming to shove, they weren’t sure they were up to doing anything about it. Brandon, Ted and Zack again frantically looked around the room in hopes that someone else was going to step up and go see what the hell was going on. They didn’t want to look like cowards in front of Debbie and Kristina, but didn’t really want to confront whomever was doing whatever was going on behind the door. Joe saw that the waiter looked like his heart was being torn out; the owner seemed deeply upset, but she still was holding him back and taking no action. Evidently she was prepared to endure whatever happened behind that door. Debbie was not. She took a deep breath, and seemed to collect herself. The eyes of the three young men grew wide, awed at her courage and ashamed that they didn’t have a similar reaction. Debbie released her hand from Joe’s arm and looked over at the closed door, her mind obviously racing about the best course of action and her face a mask of determination. She was a skilled diplomat, but Joe didn’t think diplomacy would suffice at this point, and there was no way he was going to let her go in that room. “I’ll go,” he told them quietly, patting her hand and standing up suddenly.

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Chapter 6 Joe was halfway across the room before any of them could react. If he’d been listening, he’d have heard Brandon shakily suggest that they go with him, his heart clearly not into it. “No,” Debbie assured them quietly. “It will be fine.” The owner saw Joe coming and tried to step in his way. “No, senor, there is nothing you can do,” she told him sadly. “We’ll see,” he told her curtly, brushing by her and heading straight to the closed door. Without any hesitation, he kicked it open, not bothering to try the knob. Joe assessed the scene immediately, as he was trained to do. The waitress – Theresa – was on her back, held down by one of the four men, his back to the door. The one Joe had pegged as the leader was standing at the head of the table, leaning forward to get a better view. The bodyguard was out of position, sitting next to the leader but with the table between him and the door. The fourth man was sitting next to the leader, also watching intently and laughing. The laugher halted when the door burst open. Four against one were not great odds, but Joe had faced worse, and he didn’t think he’d have too much trouble with these four. They were bullies, jackals who would prey only on the weak. They looked like they were in shape, but it was gym shape, not street tough. Without further hesitation Joe closed the distance to the one holding Theresa down and put his hand on his shoulder at the base of his neck. “Let her go,” he commanded. Joe noticed that Theresa’s blouse was torn, her skirt was lifted above her waist, the man’s right hand clutching her panties. She was crying and one eye was swollen almost shut, which Joe assumed came from a punch.

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“Buddy, you are in the wrong place,” the leader told him in a calm voice. He was midtwenties, with a sharp nose and cruel lips. His thick black hair was spiked up in what appeared to be an expensive haircut, and his clothes supported that assumption. “I’m not going to tell you again,” Joe told the man holding Theresa down, ignoring the others. The man started to turn around and suddenly gasped as Joe applied pressure to a nerve center at the base of his neck. His face went white with pain and his knees buckled; Joe guided him to his chair while not relieving the pressure. Joe used his free hand to reach out to Theresa. “Get up.” She grabbed his hand like it was a life preserver offering her the only hope in the middle of a vast ocean, and he quickly dragged her to a standing position. “Now get of here,” he told her, locking eyes with the leader across the long table. “Not so fast!” the leader exclaimed. He looked at the bodyguard. “Wayne, put a stop to this shit.” The burly bodyguard belatedly stumbled to his feet and started towards Joe. Theresa tried to hide behind Joe. “It’s OK,” he told her calmly. “You can go.” He took a single step towards the side of the table the bodyguard was on, while not releasing his hold on the first man’s neck. This had the desired effect of freezing the bodyguard in place; he wasn’t expecting Joe to come towards him. Theresa didn’t need any further urging; she rushed out of the room in tears, clutching her torn blouse to her chest. The leader started to clap. “Bravo,” he said sarcastically. He stopped clapping and sat back in his chair, shaking his head in amazement. “Man, you got some balls, I’ll give you that.” He smiled, with no warmth and no humor behind it. Then the smile faded and the cruelty showed through. “Here’s what you are going to do, pal. You go back out there and bring that girl back. As a penalty, you have to bring another one – just as pretty – back with you as well.” He smiled his cold smile again. “Because I like your style, though, I’m not going to insist that you bring your own woman back here. You can pick someone else.”

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“I have another idea,” Joe told him, unruffled. He released his hold on the first man’s neck and stepped back. The man started moaning and slumped into his chair. “You guys take out all of your money – from your wallets, pockets, whatever – and leave it on the table as payment for your meal and a big tip for your waitress. Then you leave.” The leader studied Joe, trying to get a measure of him. It didn’t take long for his normal arrogance to reemerge. “Nah, I like my way better.” “Or else what?” Joe asked mildly. He nodded towards the bulky bodyguard, who could have used this time to move closer to Joe but who had, instead, stood dumbly in place. “Or else Wayne here messes you up.” That perked the bodyguard up; he fairly snarled with anticipation of beating Joe up. Joe looked at him sympathetically. “Look, Wayne, you’re probably just stuck in the middle here. If they’re paying you, you aren’t getting paid enough to mess with me. You should find better clients. If they are your friends” – Joe shook his head in disbelief that anyone would have these characters as friends – “then you need to find better friends.” A wave of confusion passed over Wayne’s face, and he looked back at his boss for direction. “Go get him, you dumb fuck,” the leader yelled at him. Wayne turned back towards Joe and started to move slowly to the end of the table. Joe started to drift towards the same end of the table. “You look like you were a football player, Wayne,” he said in a conversational tone of voice. Wayne had that confused look on his face, expecting Joe to act more scared and not realizing that Joe was sizing him up. “Let’s see, back or knee?” Wayne didn’t know what to make of this, but closed the distance to a few feet of Joe. His response was not required. “Knee, I think,” Joe concluded, having decided it was the man’s knee that had put an end to his football career due to his seeing the signs of a slight

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limp from Wayne’s left knee. Before Wayne could rush him, Joe took the initiative, quickly closing the distance and sweeping his leg in a whip kick that was centered on Wayne’s bad knee. It would have been painful for anyone, but it was devastating to Wayne, who had, in fact, had several operations on that same knee. He went down with a thud and a scream, trying to cradle his knee and whimpering loudly. Joe stepped up over him. “I need to know that you’re out of the fight, Wayne,” he said softly. “There’s no referees here to blow the whistle. I’ll keep hurting you until I’m convinced it’s over, and right now I’m not sure we’re done.” Joe put his foot on top of Wayne’s hand that was covering the injured knee, and applied some vigorous pressure. This elicited more howls of pain from Wayne. “Well?” “I’m done,” Wayne sobbed. “Please stop. Please, please.” He started blubbering like a baby, and Joe stepped back. “You motherfucker,” the man next to the leader said, standing up quickly. He was shorter and slighter than the rest, with blond highlighted spiked hair and a mean face, but he had that aggressiveness that some smaller men have to offset their size. He whipped out a switchblade and brandished the blade at Joe. Knives are like snakes. Most humans have an instinctive fear of them, and the sight of one is often enough to freeze them. However, some people don’t have that fear, or have been trained to overcome that fear, and Joe was one of those people. He regarded the man calmly. “You don’t really want to do that,” Joe warned him mildly. “I’m going to carve you up, gut you like a fish,” the man threatened. He took a step towards Joe. Joe was not too worried. The knife was not a serious knife-fighting knife, and the man looked like he’d spent more time practicing with it in front of a mirror than using it in real life. Joe could have taught him a few tricks about how to use a knife, but he wasn’t

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in the mood. “You’re really not that smart, are you?” he asked. “Put that down or I’m going to have to hurt you. Ask your friend Wayne what he thinks you should do.” The man automatically looked over at Wayne’s prone body. “Oh, that’s right, Wayne probably isn’t going to be of much use here,” Joe apologized. His face hardened. “You’re going to have to take my word for it. Put the knife down.” The man hesitated for a moment, but Joe knew that he wasn’t going to back down. The man gathered himself, then rushed Joe, the knife held straight out in front. Joe easily parried the knife. In a seamless series of smooth motions, he grabbed the man’s right wrist, thus controlling the knife, pivoted around so his back faced the man, and drove his left elbow viciously into the man’s side. The man grunted and sagged. Joe then moved his right hand down to the man’s elbow while his left hand took the man’s right wrist. “This is going to hurt,” he warned the man, and before the man realized what was happening Joe broke his forearm over his knee like he might break a stick. The man howled, let go of the knife, and fell to the ground writhing in pain. Joe swept up the knife and knelt next to him, holding the knife idly in his hand, within the man’s sight but without any overt threat. “I need to ask you the same thing I asked your friend Wayne,” Joe told him in a soft voice. “Are you out of it, or do you still want to play?” The man’s eyes crinkled in pain and fear. “No, please, don’t hurt me,” he begged. “Please!” Joe stood up and took one step towards the leader, who was still sitting frozen in his chair. The man had the most imposing physique of any of them except for the inept bodyguard, but he had shown no inclination to do his own fighting. Joe tossed the knife up in the air, catching it without looking. “Now, about my suggestion.”

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The man studied Joe, his face flush with impotent fury. He stood up slowly and took a roll of money out of his pants pocket. He threw it casually on the table. “Toss me your wallet,” Joe instructed him. “I don’t carry any money in my wallet,” he said disdainfully. Joe waited a moment, then suddenly hurled the knife past him, driving it several inches into the wall. “I said, toss me your wallet.” His voice brooded no discussion. The leader glanced back at the still quivering blade, clearly shaken. He took his wallet out and tossed it underhanded to Joe, who caught it easily. He flipped it open, less interested in any cash than in the driver’s license. “Well, what do we have here?” he said casually, taking out two thousand dollar bills. “Think I wouldn’t find these?” He put them on the table, and slid the driver’s license out. “Alex Perlman,” he noted. “Well, Alex, tell your friends to put their money on the table.” The other three didn’t need any further instructions. Despite their various sources of pain, they raced to divest themselves of all of their money as rapidly as possible. “Don’t make me check that you’re not holding back,” Joe warned them, as Perlman stood by helplessly, glaring with extreme malice at Joe. The others plaintively assured Joe that they had given him everything they had. “OK, everybody stand up,” Joe commanded, and they each stood up – the bodyguard trying to hold his knee, the knife-fighter cradling his broken arm, and the would-be rapist still woozy. “Someone better help Wayne there,” Joe suggested. Perlman was the one who was most capable of giving assistance, but he made no move to help his bodyguard. The other two limped over and let Wayne drape his arms over their shoulders. After looking at Joe for approval, they started to laboriously exit the room. Perlman started to move but Joe stopped him. He tossed the wallet back, but displayed the driver’s license that he had kept. “Alex, I know where you live. I’m telling you now – if anything happens to that girl, I’m coming after you.”

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Perlman gave him a look of pure hatred. “You don’t know who you are messing with,” he hissed. “Tell me your name.” Joe regarded him with contempt. “Not that it matters, but I’m Joe Russell. And you are an ignorant asshole who needed to be taught a lesson. I hope this did.” Joe paused, and tapped his index finger forcefully at Perlman’s chest. “If anything happens to the waitress – I mean, if her car is in an accident, if a bird shits on her, anything – I’m blaming you and I will come after you. And you don’t want that.” He gave Perlman a contemptuous look. “Now get the hell out of here.” “This isn’t over,” Perlman warned in a harsh voice. He attempted to gather his dignity as best he could, which wasn’t very well, and strode after his wounded companions.

Chapter 7 Joe’s actions had attracted a stunned crowd. Outside the private room’s door stood the owner, Debbie, Brandon, Zack, Ted and a few others of the restaurant’s patrons. None of them could quite speak. “You’ll want to collect the money,” Joe suggested to the owner. She gave him a puzzled look but moved past him to do as he’d suggested. Joe noticed that Debbie, Brandon and Zack were holding their phones out. Debbie caught his look. “We recorded the whole thing,” she told him, holding up her phone to illustrate. “I thought it might come in handy.” She gave him a quick hug, shaking her head as she pulled back. “Good thinking,” he told her. He thought for a second, then asked them to email their versions to an email address he gave them. “Just in case.”

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“Dude,” Brandon sputtered. “That was…” He shook his head, unable to come up with an adequate adjective to describe what he’d witnessed. “Accountant, huh?” Zack said skeptically. “You looked like you knew what you were doing in there.” “I grew up on Marine bases,” Joe said by way of explanation. That part was true, and it helped to explain some of his fighting prowess, but there was more he was leaving out than including. The owner came out of the room with an incredulous expression, clutching a thick wad of cash to her chest and still appearing scared. “Where is Theresa?” he asked her. She appeared half afraid to tell him anything, but told him that the waiter – Juan – had taken her back to the office. Joe told her that he’d like to see her. “Come with me,” she replied shakily. “I’ll come with you,” Debbie told him, hooking her arm into his, and they followed her back to the office. Theresa was sitting in the desk chair sobbing, while Juan perched at her feet holding her hand and murmuring rapidly to her in Spanish. Someone had given Theresa a jacket to wear over her torn blouse, and she held it closely against herself as though freezing. She and Juan looked up as the trio came to the door, afraid it might be Perlman and his thugs coming back for vengeance. Theresa had a look of terror on her face, while Juan’s face was a combination of fear and bravery. He crouched but was poised to leap at anyone he thought might try to hurt Theresa again. Joe realized that Juan was a year or two younger than Theresa, and had a pretty good sense that he had a major crush on her that wasn’t perhaps entirely reciprocated. When Theresa saw it was Joe she launched herself out of the chair towards him. She threw her arms around him, her sobbing turning into full-fledged crying. Joe wrapped his arms around her in comfort. “It’s OK,” he told her softly, patting her back. Behind her,

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Juan stood up and didn’t quite know what to do with himself. Joe nodded at him, giving silent thanks for his comforting Theresa. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Theresa repeated over and over. “I thought…I was sure…” “It’s OK,” he told her again, and gradually her crying slowed and then stopped. He eased her grip on him and guided her back to the chair. “Are you hurt? How’s your eye?” he asked her. “Do you want to see a doctor?” She shook her head wordlessly. Juan crouched back down next to her protectively, holding her hand again. Debbie went to her other side and put an arm around her, and Theresa gratefully slumped in towards her. Juan seemed not entirely happy about this and tightened his grip on her hand. The bloom was off Theresa. She’d been frightened to her core, and it had fractured that extra vitality that had previously animated her. She was still pretty, but it was too soon to tell if her special beauty would recover as the recent events faded. Joe hoped so, and was glad things hadn’t gotten any worse for her. “Did you know those guys?” Joe asked, taking a position on the edge of the desk. Theresa looked at the owner for a long moment, then shook her head, not quite meeting his eyes. Her face betrayed her indecision, torn between fear and anger over what had happened and her fear of…something else. Joe thought for a few seconds, looking back and forth between the owner and Theresa. He grimaced at Debbie, and looked at the owner. “You know them, don’t you?” he asked the owner. She pursed her lips tightly, but eventually nodded her head. She couldn’t quite meet his eyes. Joe watched her anyway. “The police sure are taking a long time to get here,” he noted, now realizing why.

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She took a deep breath. “No police,” she said forcefully. “Not for people like them.” She fairly spat the last word, despising that it was so but knowing it nonetheless. Joe studied her. “Big customer?” She snorted. “Ha! That one – he never pays! Not here, not anywhere. He takes what he wants and dares us to say a word. But he’s never tried -- ” she looked apologetically at Theresa – “to take one of the girls against her will before.” She looked at Theresa for a long, sad moment, then dropped her eyes. “Not that I know of. Not here anyway.” She sniffled, and Joe had the sense that she knew more than she was saying, that perhaps she’d heard rumors of Perlman’s antics elsewhere. The room was silent for a few seconds. “This Perlman – who is he?” Joe asked at last. “Why is everyone scared of him?” Perlman had seemed like a punk, and he didn’t expect that he had everyone scared on his own. The owner couldn’t meet his eyes. “His father,” she admitted grudgingly. “Very important. Very -- how do you say – ruthless. He wants you in business with him, you pay. He wants you out of business, you’re out of business. He wants you hurt, you get hurt.” “They won’t hurt Theresa,” Juan vowed, surprising everyone. He looked at Joe defiantly. “Not again. I’ll protect her myself. I’m not afraid of them.” It was obvious that Juan was very protective of Theresa, more than just as a coworker. Joe wasn’t sure if he was family or if he had a crush on her, but somehow he had the sense she more tolerated than encouraged his affections. Maybe it was the way she didn’t really look to him for comfort; her eyes pleaded with Joe and, to a lesser extent Debbie. Joe didn’t want to point out to him that he’d just had his chance and missed it; who knows, perhaps the guy had lots of friends who could help him protect her. Still, his getting thrown out of the room on his ass didn’t inspire confidence. Certainly Theresa

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didn’t seem to be too reassured by Juan’s vows, although she permitted his eager attentions. “That’s great, Juan,” he said kindly. “She can use your help.” Juan swelled up in pride. Joe looked at Theresa. “Theresa, you should lay low for a few days.” She looked at him in confusion. “Lay low?” She was on a roller coaster of emotions – to being hopelessly terrified in the room, to an unexpected rescue, then comfort by Juan and her unknown rescuer, and now a warning from that rescuer that all may not be over. She had no more adrenaline to produce in order to help her cope; it was a bad dream that would not end. “Don’t come in to work,” Joe suggested softly. “Stay with friends instead of going home. Maybe get out of town if you can.” Theresa’s face clouded over with fear, and she gripped Juan’s hand so tightly that Juan almost gasped in pain. “You think they will come after her?” Juan asked nervously, rubbing Theresa’s hands to comfort her. “I think there’s no point in taking chances,” Joe told them frankly. “I’m guessing our boy Alex doesn’t take rejection well.” “I can’t stop working,” Theresa objected. She looked up at Joe and smiled wanly. “I need the money.” “She’s saving for school,” Juan offered. “She’s going to college.” He sounded inordinately proud of her. “That’s all well and good,” Debbie interjected, “but you should take Joe’s advice. He knows about these kinds of things.”

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Theresa and Juan looked at her, not quite comprehending, then looked at Joe with puzzled expressions. “Our friends ‘donated’ quite a lot of money – several thousand dollars, I’d guess.” He nodded towards the owner. “What money?” Juan asked suspiciously. “Our friends decided to pay for the meal and any damages,” Joe said. “Including a big tip for Theresa.” He told the owner to show them the money; she grudgingly produced the thick stack of bills. Theresa’s and Juan’s eyes grew wide; they’d never seen so much money, and it scared them almost as much as the prospect of Perlman and his friends returning. Indeed, in their view, it assured that they would return; in their experience, no one would give up so much money. “Is no matter,” the owner said dispiritedly. “His father’s man will come tomorrow and take it back. Plus penalty.” Her face was grim, and Theresa and Juan’s faces fell as a result. Joe looked at Debbie. Her eyes were sympathetic and loving, telling him that she’d support him no matter what. Joe shrugged, although only Debbie could have noticed it. He turned towards the owner. “What time would you expect him?”

Chapter 8 Debbie made sure they called their kids once back in their resort unit. Their four young friends were shaken by the events in the restaurant, and felt the need for some drinks to help put it behind them. They’d offered to buy Joe free drinks for the rest of the night, but he was in no mood. He and Debbie wanted to get back to their bungalow and call their children. “What’d you do today, honey?” Debbie asked Doug on the phone once they got back.

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She listened intently to what was apparently a very vigorous description of the day’s adventures. Joe couldn’t quite make out Doug’s part of the conversation, but thought Debbie seemed reassured by it, or at least by the normalcy of contact with her son. “That’s great, Doug,” she replied once Doug slowed enough for her to interject. “How about putting your sister on?” That simple request took longer than might be expected; evidently Doug didn’t feel quite ready to relinquish the phone, so it took another minute or two of continued monologue, before Melissa was able to wrest it away from him. “How’s my big girl?” Debbie asked, her voice rich with love. Joe could hear the animated tones of his beloved daughter, and they made him smile unconsciously. She was a happy girl, contagiously so. Debbie listened intently, finally looking at Joe while raising an eyebrow. “On the beach in a Jeep? Really?” she repeated skeptically. “Well, your grandfather is a good driver I’m sure.” Joe knew he was going to hear more about that later. His dad had a more open view about the kinds of risks that one should expose children to than Debbie did. They both knew that his parents would protect them with every ounce of breath they had, but Joe wouldn’t be surprised if his father felt comfortable taking them on a Jeep ride on the beach, even with the top down. He shrugged apologetically at Debbie, but secretly didn’t mind that his father didn’t coddle the kids. Debbie talked for a few more minutes, then handed the phone to Joe. “They want to talk to you.” She had a happy smile on her face that came from the contact with their children. Both kids were on the phone. “Hey, you two,” Joe exclaimed, smiling at Debbie and picturing Doug and Melissa bouncing while they talked on the phone, unable to contain their enthusiasm. Debbie was right to have called them; talking to them swept away the

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detritus of the evening’s activities better than anything else could have. “What do your grandparents have you doing?” “We helped grandpa barbeque,” Doug told him, his voice full of excitement. “I helped start the grill.” “I got to hold the plates when grandpa put the burgers on them,” Melissa added. “And I helped grandma with the salad.” “Wow, sounds like a good meal,” Joe said. “I wish we’d been there.” “When are you coming here?” Doug asked eagerly. Joe took a breath. “A couple days,” he promised. He looked at Debbie. “Your mom might come down before me, we’re not sure.” She frowned at him. “Why, daddy?” Melissa asked. “I miss you!” Her voice sounded plaintive, a tactic she had honed to perfection. “I miss you too, honey, but I might have to take care of a couple things here first.” They talked for a few more minutes – Joe getting more details on the beach excursion, which included not just the beach ride but also a long nature hike – and after that Joe chatted for a few minutes with his parents. They vowed that they were doing fine, and sounded as energetic as ever. They put the children back on the phone so Joe could say his goodnights, and he put Debbie back on the phone so she could do the same. Her voice was tender, full of warmth and yet with a taste of longing to be with them. After she hung up, Debbie held on to the phone and look appraisingly at him. “You might have to stay longer?” she asked neutrally.

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“I hope not,” he told her. She watched him for a few moments, not angry but worried nonetheless. Her face softened in concern. “So you don’t think this is over?” Joe took a deep breath, and reached out for her hand. “I don’t know. I’ll know more tomorrow.”

Joe went to La Cantina around ten. The owner – whose name was Maria Sanchez – had suggested Perlman’s enforcer would most likely come sometime before the restaurant opened at eleven. Joe sat down at a table near end of the bar and let the bartender pour him a cup of coffee. Maria and the staff did their best to go about their normal preparation tasks, but there was an air of unspoken tension that permeated the restaurant. Joe didn’t recognize any of the other staff besides Maria, but he didn’t doubt that word about the events of the previous evening had gotten out. He could tell they were watching him by how studiously they avoided looking at him, so he tried to present an air of relaxation. It wasn’t hard for him. He didn’t see Theresa, but none of the servers appeared to be in yet. He hoped she wouldn’t come in at all, had taken his suggestion to lay low to heart, but he feared he’d be disappointed in this. Joe read The Wall Street Journal while he was waiting. There wasn’t any major news he hadn’t already seen elsewhere; he was basically just killing time so he read more of the articles than he would normally have. The center column had a story about a man in New Mexico who was using old mobile phones to decorate the exterior of his house. He estimated that he had somewhere over two thousand phones, going back to some early nineties phones. “I just like phones,” he told the reporter. The reporter noted that the collector didn’t have a mobile phone of his own, preferring an old rotary phone inside the house. Joe thought it’d be funny if the guy set up the phones so they’d all ring at the

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same time, like alarms going off in a store that sold clocks. He supposed it would really annoy the neighbors, if the guy had any. Maybe he lived way out in the desert, but then who would see the collection? The coffee was good, strong and favored with something almost bitter but not unpleasant at all. Joe was not a big coffee drinker, and he’d had as much luck with coffee in a lowbrow diner as he had in the finest restaurants. He attributed the differences to the beans, the local water, and the care with which the person making the coffee took. Quality wasn’t always a function of the price you paid or how nice things looked. Joe nodded at the bartender and half-raised his cup to indicate his appreciation. There wasn’t much doubt when Perlman’s man entered. He was dressed in an expensive suit, something one didn’t see a lot of in this largely resort community but which this man wore as comfortably as other men might wear jeans and a t-shirt. He was average height, with a slight paunch that the tailored suit almost concealed. What made him stand out almost as much as the suit was the air of confidence that he carried himself with, as though he didn’t expect to meet his equal here or anywhere else. His eyes quickly swept the largely empty restaurant. His gaze caught Joe but only lingered a half-second before dismissing him as some tourist just hanging out. The man nonchalantly walked up to the bar. “I’m here to see the owner,” he announced. “That would be Maria Sanchez, I believe.” The bartender was washing a glass. He studied the man for a long moment. “Is she expecting you?” “I suspect so,” the man replied in a jovial tone, looking towards the door to the kitchen and, presumably, whatever office the restaurant might have. “Do you want to get her or should I just go find her?” His tone was pleasant and unworried. The bartender didn’t seem happy about his presence and gave him a hard look that washed right over him. He told the man to wait, and disappeared into the back.

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Joe had asked Maria to meet with the man at his table instead of in her office, so he was waiting for her to appear. The man eyed him again. “Not a Starbucks fan, eh?” he asked Joe, making friendly conversation as he eyed the coffee. “Not so much.” Joe laid the paper down but didn’t say anything further. The man tried again. “The coffee any good here?” Joe pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Not too bad, really.” He stared at the man with a little more intensity than the man was expecting, and the man broke off his return stare when he heard Maria come out of the kitchen. “Mrs. Sanchez?” he asked, starting to walk over to her with his hand held out. She took it reluctantly. “May I call you Maria?” he asked in a familiar tone of voice. She nodded almost against her will, fighting to keep her composure. He broke off the handshake. “I’m Gerald Sharp. I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes. Perhaps we could go back to your office.” Maria’s eyes flickered towards Joe, and she remembered Joe’s instructions. “No, no – let’s sit out here.” She led him to Joe’s table and sat down. The man remained standing. He looked at her, then at Joe, and back at her. “It’s a private matter, Maria,” he said in an almost delicate tone of voice. “I think we should go back to your office, just the two of us.” “We’ll talk here,” Joe told him, taking control. “Have a seat.” The man eyed him for a few seconds, then smiled and sat down as though it was his own idea. “Of course. You would be Mr. Russell, unless I very much miss my guess,” he said with a sigh. “You must be the hired help,” Joe said lightly, trying to provoke him.

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Sharp didn’t bite. He shook his head in amusement. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’d have thought you’d be playing golf or something more enjoyable. Aren’t you on vacation?” Joe held up his cup of coffee. “I am relaxing,” he said. “But I was interested in what you had to say to Mrs. Sanchez.” “I see,” Sharp replied thoughtfully. He turned to her. “Maria, I know things got a little out of hand here last night, and I want you to know Mr. Perlman wants to apologize for the behavior of Alex and his friends. They’d had a little too much to drink and, I understand, got a little rowdy.” He shook his head, but with an amused smile. “Boys will be boys.” “It was a little more than that,” Joe noted mildly. Sharp looked at him more carefully. “Well, I can assure you that Mr. Perlman has spoken to Alex about his behavior.” He looked back at Maria. “Still, I understand that you made quite a little windfall” – he glanced at Joe quickly – “due to our friend here. My understanding is that you took something like seven thousand dollars from Alex and his friends.” He shook his head in disbelief, and barked a short laugh. “I think you’d have to admit that was quite a bit more than the cost of their meal.” He smiled tolerantly, expecting her to agree. Sharp was pretending to be just a regular guy, trying to work things out, but Joe wasn’t falling for it and he doubted Maria was either. Joe suspected Sharp didn’t really care if they bought it or not. “Well, there is the matter of the tip for the waitress they assaulted,” Joe injected, his face carefully neutral. Sharp raised his hands and looked back at Joe. “Assault? That’s not my understanding. The doors were closed, so it’s really a matter between the girl, Alex, and his friends. The

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fact is, I’m told anything that may have happened was consensual.” He looked back deliberately at Maria. Maria put her hands to her mouth, afraid to express the outrage she was feeling. Joe spoke instead. “The girl has a name, by the way,” Joe told him. “It’s Theresa. And I guess you didn’t see the bruises or her ripped clothing.” Sharp shrugged. “Maybe she likes it rough.” His tone was contemptuous. He stared at Maria, then swung his gaze back to Joe, now pretending to be indignant. “The only assault I’m aware of is what you did to those poor boys. You’re lucky they’re not filing charges or a civil suit.” “Lucky me,” Joe replied, holding Sharp’s gaze, not too worried about the veiled threat. “Yes, lucky you – so far.” He stared for a second more, then looked back at Maria. He no longer was even pretending to be friendly. “Maria, Mr. Perlman expects all of that money back. Plus, say, three thousand dollars for his trouble.” He smiled. “Not to mention my time.” Maria was ready to cry. She looked at Joe, who smiled reassuringly at her. He took out his phone and held it out to Sharp. I don’t think so,” he told Sharp softly but firmly. “See, we have the whole thing on video. Wonderful things, these smartphones.” Joe had to give Sharp some credit. He didn’t flinch or change expression. “Is that so?” he said at last, recovering and thinking quickly. “Presumably still only starting when you entered the room, not when the girl – I’m sorry, Theresa -- was alone with them.” “I think the video would tell a pretty convincing story. Juries love videos.”

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Sharp studied Joe very carefully. “That video – that phone – could disappear,” he said. He arched his brows. “You’d be surprised at how easy it would be.” The unspoken but understood implication was that Joe was just as likely to “disappear.” Joe wasn’t ruffled. He shook his head. “You ever hear about the Internet? This video is already stored in multiple places.” He leaned forward slightly. “Your boy Alex is lucky it hasn’t shown up on YouTube or the local news. Yet.” Joe shook his head. “Mrs. Sanchez isn’t going to pay you anything. Theresa Morales isn’t going to pay you anything. And you are going to leave them alone. Are we clear?” Sharp stared at Joe with hard eyes, his anger showing but under control. After a few seconds he put his hand to his tie and unconsciously straightened it. He stood up. “Mr. Perlman is not going to be happy,” he announced. “I don’t really care,” Joe told him. Sharp nodded, not in agreement but in understanding what lay ahead, the first step of which was a conversation with his employer. “We’re done here – for now,” he declared, almost sounding regretful. He bowed slightly to Maria, then turned and strode out of the restaurant with as much dignity as he could. Maria looked at him. “Do you think it is over?” she asked, her tone only faintly hopeful. Her face looked like she expected to be disappointed. Joe watched Sharp disappear into a Mercedes sedan outside the restaurant. He shook his head sadly. “No.”

Chapter 9

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Joe and Debbie had lunch with the foursome on their last full day at the resort, two days after the incident in La Cantina. They ate at a small restaurant a little outside of town, overlooking the ocean. The restaurant has about half full, mostly filled with other wellto-do tourists. The restaurant’s menu changed daily, and was written in chalk on a blackboard. Everything was supposed to be made fresh, and, judging from the assorted breads that came before the meal, perhaps it was. The conversation was muted. Zack took some pleasure in describing some of the waves he and Kristina had ridden that morning – although Kristina didn’t add much to the commentary, merely nodded quickly when Zack asked her to confirm something. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, focused dully on her food without seeming to enjoy it either. Debbie tried to draw them out by asking how and when they were heading back to school – other than Zack, of course – but even that didn’t result in a sustainable conversation. She shrugged at Joe, more amused than frustrated. Everyone agreed the food was good, which sparked a brief discussion that petered out almost as quickly as it had arrived. The elephant in the room, of course, were the events at La Cantina. They’d never been exposed to anything like that – neither the assault on Theresa nor Joe’s efficient dispatching of the four thugs – but what really had them thrown was how different Joe had been. Finally Kristina couldn’t take it any longer. She dared lift her head, cocking it timidly at him. “I, I – I don’t understand.” Joe looked at her thoughtfully, but did not reply, since she hadn’t actually asked him anything. Debbie put her hand on Kristina’s and patted it. “What is it, dear?”

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Kristina looked at Debbie with a confused expression. She shook her head, and tightened her lips. Finally she looked back at Joe. “You seem so quiet” – she shook her head again – “and then you beat up those men.” “I asked them nicely first,” Joe pointed out mildly. Debbie shot him a look. “Are you bothered that he beat them up?” Debbie asked, her own dislike of violence making her sympathetic. Kristina half-smiled and shook her head, her eyes bright. “No, those assholes deserved it. I just – I can’t get over how I misread you.” “You seem so laid-back, dude,” Ted chimed in eagerly. “And then you kicked their asses!” Zack added proudly, leaning in over his plate. His eyes were alive. Watching Joe handle the men had been like seeing a video game come to life, and he was very keen on video games. Joe sat back in his chair, putting his sandwich down. “It’s not something I do very often,” he told them modestly. “You were pretty good at it,” Brandon admitted. Joe gave him a slight smile. “Like I said, I grew up on Marine bases in bad parts of the world.” He shrugged. “You pick up things along the way.” Brandon nodded, but did not look necessarily convinced Joe was telling him the full story. He looked at Zack and raised his eyebrows. “How’s the waitress?” Kristina asked in a soft voice.

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“Theresa,” Debbie corrected. Kristina looked at her. “Thank you. How is Theresa?” “I don’t really know,” Joe admitted, shifting uneasily in his chair. “She was pretty shaken up right afterward, of course, but wasn’t too hurt physically. I told her to lay low for a few days.” Brandon looked worried. “Do you think those guys will come after her again?” he asked incredulously. Kristina and Zack exchanged shocked expressions, while Ted seemed moderately oblivious, chewing happily away on his deluxe grilled cheese sandwich. Joe shook his head. “Hopefully not, but better safe than sorry.” “Why would they risk hurting again? I mean, we all know who they are,” Zack pointed out. “Sometimes that doesn’t stop people,” Debbie replied. “Some people are too stubborn or too stupid to think ahead like that.” She didn’t want to get into how Perlman’s father was well connected and much feared. “So is she staying out of sight?” Kristina asked anxiously. “We drove by the restaurant last night and didn’t see her,” Joe said. He didn’t clarify that they’d deliberately driven by to check on her, or that Joe had driven by again by himself around closing to see if she was around then. He hadn’t seen her either time. “So maybe it will all work out all right,” Kristina offered in a hopeful voice. “Let’s hope so.” Debbie agreed.

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They drove down to Joe’s parents the following morning, after a quiet and romantic evening. After dinner they’d taken a walk on the beach in the moonlight, listening to the reassuring rhythm of the waves and enjoying the feel of the cool sand on their feet. They’d made love once back in their unit, fallen asleep in each other’s arms, and made love again upon waking up, giggling about how long it would be before they didn’t have to worry about two inquiring little sets of ears. Still, they were very happy to see Doug and Melissa again. Melissa fairly launched herself into Joe’s arms, and Doug allowed Debbie to give him a warmly maternal hug. He was at the age when he wasn’t sure how to physically greet his father – a hug seemed too much like a little kid, while a handshake seemed too formal – so Joe settled it for him by putting an arm around Doug’s shoulder. “Hey, champ, how is it going?” “Come here, you,” Debbie told Melissa; she disengaged from Joe and threw herself into Debbie’s arms for a hug and a kiss as well. Joe’s parents stood off to the side, looking happy to see them – no doubt partly out of genuine pleasure in their company but also relief at having their grandchildren’s actual parents back again. Joe shook his father’s hand and kissed his mother, while Debbie got warm hugs from both. Joe’s father was close to seventy but appeared ten or fifteen years younger. His hair was still neatly cropped, and his body taut and muscular. There was no mistaking that he was an ex-Marine; something in his bearing or perhaps the sharp look in his eyes always gave it away. Joe’s mom also looked young for her age, still in good shape and with soft skin than showed only a few wrinkles. She’d allowed her hair to show its now-natural grey, but she wore it in a stylish short cut. She still had great legs that her shorts and sandals showed off to good effect.

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The neighborhood they lived in was primarily small houses, all well-kept with immaculate lawns. There was no ordinance that residents had to be a Marine family or retired Marine to live there, but for all practical purposes there might as well have been. The neighbors were friendly but respected each other’s privacy, and watched each other’s back. They had their own watch patrols that discouraged any criminals or gangs from entering, and Joe knew that behind those neatly painted walls were arsenals that the San Diego SWAT team would be envious of. Joe was pretty sure that his father had his own weaponry in the house, but he kept it well hidden, knowing Debbie wouldn’t approve, especially with the kids staying there. “Dad, dad,” Doug urged. “I want to show you some karate moves grandpa showed us!” He made some fighting motions with his hands, which Melissa immediately copied. Joe suppressed his amusement and glanced at his father, who was unrepentant. “Pretty good,” he advised. “Just don’t hit your sister.” “Come on in,” Joe’s father told them gruffly. “Your mother’s got some lunch about ready.” The house was neatly decorated. “Spartan” was not quite the right word, nor would “spare.” They’d lived most their lives around the world, needing to be able to move on a few days or even hours notice, so they’d worked hard to not accumulate more than they needed. But Joe’s mother had always done a great job of making each house a home, warm and cozy, and with just the right souvenir from each previous place. The house had almost a Zen-like quality about it; anything less would seem too little, but anything more would seem superfluous. Joe was amused to think of how difficult it would be to keep it that way if the kids were to live here permanently, given their toys and various electronic devices, but he figured somehow his parents would manage. They ate in the kitchen, with the adults at the small table and the two kids perched in their new favorite eating spot at the kitchen’s small island. There was a big pot of homemade

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soup, and the makings of various kinds of cold cuts. His mom enjoyed cooking and had picked up recipes from their various stops around the world, but she had decided not to push the kids again about trying new foods for lunch. She had a Thai meal in mind for dinner, knowing Debbie had indoctrinated the kids into that cuisine. Joe and Debbie did their best to hit the highlights of their vacation – leaving out the R and X rated portions, as well as the V episode, which Joe would fill his dad in on sometime later in the evening over a quiet beer between the two of them. Doug and Melissa were not so interested in the recap, and kept asking questions about the planned afternoon outing to the San Diego zoo. “Didn’t you already go?” Debbie asked. “Why are we going again?” “I believe Doug wants to see if he can incite the monkeys, and Melissa wants to see the lion cubs again,” Joe’s mother explained gravely. “Who would win between an alligator and a crocodile?” Doug asked, already imagining the titanic clash. The adult looked at each other and smiled. “Depends on lots of things, like how big they are,” Joe explained. “Crocs tend to be bigger on average, but not necessarily.” “I like crocs better,” Doug asserted. “They look meaner.” “They’re both ugly,” Melissa pronounced definitively, and no one could really argue with her about that. “Hey, grandpa, have you ever fought either one?” Doug asked. Joe and Debbie exchanged glances; they had a pretty good idea of what kinds of stories his father had been telling them. Joe’s father kept a straight face. “Of course, boyo. I

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was stationed in Africa once,” he started. He proceeded to spin a yarn involving hippos upending their boat, his riding the hippo’s back to the shore, only to be confronted by a bull croc fighting a male lion. Somewhere along the way baboons were involved, which Joe thought was a bit much but which the kids seemed to have no trouble believing. Joe’s father was a great storyteller, and threw in enough specific details to make even the wildest story seem plausible. Doug and Melissa were enraptured, their mouths hanging open and the remains of their lunches ignored. “And the leather from that croc’s skin is what’s on that chair in my study,” he concluded. Melissa’s eyes went wide, and Joe suspected she wouldn’t be sitting in that chair anytime soon, which might have been one of Joe’s father’s goals. Doug looked dubious. “Don’t crocodiles’ skins have, you know, bumps and stuff?” “Ridges,” Joe suggested. “Yeah, ridges? What happened to those?” Jo’s father shot Joe a conspiratorial look, then raised his hands for dramatic effort. “Why, it’s inside out, of course. If you sit on the chair you can feel some of the bumps.” Doug and Melissa absorbed this silently, already beginning to imagine they recalled feeling these when sitting in his chair and keen to go check it out. He winked at Joe and Debbie, while Joe’s mom sighed and shook her head. She was largely immune to her husband’s stories by now, but still enjoyed their effect on his listeners.

They had a busy couple of days. They went to the zoo in the afternoon, picking up a stuffed panda bear for Melissa, then spent the evening in the Gaslamp Quarter, having dinner and walking around. The kids were fascinated by the number and variety of people strolling the streets, pointing out the more unusual ones. They loved the street performers, especially a juggler that had no qualms about throwing burning torches or chainsaws up in the air while entertaining the crowd with a relaxed patter. “Dad, can I

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learn juggling?” Doug asked as soon as the performance was over. Melissa chimed in, although less vigorously. Debbie told them they’d talk about it later, while Joe tried hard not to smile. He gave the juggler a nice donation anyway. The next day Joe’s father took them up to Camp Pendleton, where he was greeted like royalty. The kids had fun playing on the obstacle course. Doug and Melissa pleaded with Joe to go on the obstacles with them, but he limited himself to spotting them as they struggled over some of the harder obstacles, like climbing the wall. He’d done courses like this in his younger years, of course, but didn’t feel the need to show off to his own children. Debbie patted him on the shoulder in silent acknowledgement as to his restraint. His father didn’t make it any easier, goading him by challenging him to a race to see who could make it through the full course fastest. Joe politely declined. “Yeah, I’m afraid you might beat me, Pop,” he replied, not serious but not entirely kidding. Knowing his father, he might know a short cut or two. Doug was intrigued by the firing range. “Are you a good shot, dad?” “Good enough, I suppose,” Joe admitted. “I don’t really like guns. They’re pretty dangerous.” It was true that he avoided guns whenever possible, but in his military days he’d been rated as a marksman nonetheless. Doug seemed slightly disappointed. “Well, I don’t like them either,” Melissa sniffed, and it was not clear if this was an attitude that reflected her prior beliefs or a new one spurred by Joe’s admission. In any event, Doug’s enthusiasm was unabated. He pleaded to either let him try shooting or at least to let him watch them shoot. Of course, when Melissa heard this her anti-gun attitude immediately dissipated, and she chimed in too. Joe could tell his father was very tempted, but caught the stony glances from both his wife and from Debbie. “Maybe next year,” he advised them a little sadly. They had an overnight camp-out in their backyard that night, not including Debbie and Joe’s mom. It had originally been planned as a boys-only event, but Melissa made a fuss about being excluded; she wanted to do whatever Doug was doing. They roasted

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marshmallows, looked at constellations with Joe’s father gravely told them the stories – or his version of the stories, even more fanciful than the original -- behind the names of those constellations. Upon some pleading from Doug and Melissa, Joe told them a story, in some detail, about a time he’d had to camp out several days, with no camping supplies or provisions. “I had a flashlight and a knife,” Joe told them, their eyes wide. “What did you eat?” Melissa asked in concern. “I had to catch my food,” Joe admitted. “And I found some plants that I could chew.” “There weren’t any stores around?” Doug asked skeptically. “No, there wasn’t much around,” Joe told them. He’d been miles from civilization, and there only people anywhere near him had been intent on finding him and either capturing him or killing him. It had been five days before he’d been successfully evacuated, using a satellite radio he’d liberated from one of his pursers. By the time he was rescued he’d taken out four of his pursers. He could have taken out more, but his goal was just to stay safe, not to kill them. He didn’t share these parts of the story with Doug and Melissa, but he described in some detail how he’d trapped a couple rabbits, snared a fish, and made a smokeless fire. His father knew what he was leaving out and, if called upon, could have told similar true stories. It was an unspoken bond from their past, one they hoped Doug and Melissa would never need to do. “Maybe next year we’ll go camping with grandpa out in the real wilderness, and we can show you some good tricks,” Joe suggested with a soft smile. Doug and Melissa were immediately excited and started asking when they could go. They were still at the age when most children thought their father could do anything. Doug and Melissa’s case, it was perhaps more true than with most children. Joe never bragged, but his quiet competence and utter reliability spoke volumes to them. It was In

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possible that they’d grow into sullen and rebellious teenagers who looked down upon him, but Joe doubted it. He’d never outgrown his own inordinate pride in his father, and he hoped never to let Doug and Melissa down. Besides, he assured himself, Debbie would keep them grounded. Like every other parent, all he could do was to love them, just be who he was, and try to set a good example for them. Sitting in the dark, his children close to him, he smiled to himself as he thought of watching them grow up into adults that he’d be proud of, envisioning someday sitting in some other backyard with his own grandchildren. Melissa fell asleep cuddled next to Joe, with Doug nearby.

The next morning Joe came in for breakfast while his father had the kids police the makeshift campground. “How were our little scouts?” Debbie asked, sitting at the counter with a coffee cup in her hands and a plate of eggs and toast in front of her. He kissed her forehead and hugged his mom. She asked him what he wanted for breakfast, and he told her not to worry about him. She looked out at the backyard. “I’ll go take some orders,” she decided, feeling some withdrawal pains from being away from her grandkids overnight. She went outside and Joe sat down next to Debbie. “You going to drink that juice?” he asked her. She smiled at him coyly and pushed it over to him. Joe’s phone buzzed, and he looked at it with some distaste. “Let me check this,” he said with a frown. He’d set up a search agent for some very specific things, and if it was producing results he doubted it was going to be good news. Joe quickly read the information, his face expressionless, but Debbie thought she could detect a certain tension. Whatever the news was, he wasn’t happy about it. “What is it, Joe?” she asked softly. Joe put away his phone, his mind rapidly processing what he’d learned. He glanced out back to ensure there were no inadvertent eavesdroppers, then looked at her with eyes that were indescribably sad. “It’s Theresa Morales,” he said simply. “She’s dead.”

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Chapter 10 They had a good day nonetheless. Debbie could tell Joe was hiding his distraction, and she saw a few puzzled glances between his parents that suggested they suspected he was thinking about something, but on the surface Joe was his normal cheerful self. Joe’s father had the kids watch the news for an hour or so in the morning, an exercise designed so Joe’s father could explain geopolitics to his grandchildren and to forestall the pleas for cartoon or video game time. Joe’s father always wanted them to be learning or doing something – even on vacation. It was hard to get children that age too interested in what a regime change in eastern Africa might mean, but he was a good teacher and made it seem exciting. Of course, many of the stories dealt with places where he had once served or at least been, so those all lent themselves to stories of his own. “You’ve ridden a camel?” Melissa asked skeptically, responding to a comment he made during a news report about Somalia. She and Doug were sitting on the floor with Joe’s father, with his mother sitting in her chair watching with amusement. The children’s eyes were wide, not entirely sure he was telling the truth but prepared for the possibility he was. Joe’s father nodded, his face serious. “Sure. In Somalia and again in Saudi Arabia. Mean bastards,” he told them. He realized his choice of words might have been a little strong, and looked towards Joe and Debbie, who were sitting in the kitchen listening with amusement. “Sorry about that. Anyway,” he continued, looking back at Doug and Melissa. “How many humps do camels have?” “One!” Doug shouted immediately, confident in his assertion. Melissa waited a second to see if she could pick up any clues, then nodded her agreement.

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“Well, that’s only half right,” Joe’s father corrected him. “Dromedary camels have one, but there are other camels called Bactrian camels that have two humps.” “Bacteria camels?” Melissa repeated, having a vague idea what a bacteria was but not sure how it was related to camels. “Bactrian,” Joe’s mother told her patiently. “Don’t mind your grandfather – he’s just showing off.” She smiled at him archly. Joe’s father returned the look, with an exaggerated sigh, then proceeded to educate them about the humps, how camels managed moisture control so effectively, and the illadvised efforts to introduce them in the American desert for the for the U.S. Camels Corps. The kids were fascinated, and Joe and Debbie exchanged worried glances, concerned that they might soon be beseeched with a request to adopt a camel. They both knew this information – or some version of it – would be diffused to their children’s friends once they got home, and Joe made a mental note to have them refresh what they’d learned before they repeated it to too many of their classmates. “I always am amazed at how good your dad is with them,” Debbie commented in a low voice to Joe. She sounded amused. “Your mother, I would expect, because everyone loves her, but your dad can seem so…” She struggled for the right word. “Gruff? Tough?” Joe suggested with a twinkle in his eye. “I suppose so,” she agreed, laughing. “Was he like this with you and Ian?” Joe was quiet for a few moments, watching his dad. He had lots of memories, mostly good but some a little harder. “Not so much,” he told her at last, smiling softly while watching the scene in the family room. “You have to remember that he was on active duty when we were growing up, and I was the first born.” He stopped there.

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“Lots of expectations, I suppose,” she said, putting her hand on top of his. “I’m sure you were a dutiful son…most of the time.” He looked over at her with raised eyebrows. “Yeah, well, Ian was the real rebel, but mom sort of protected him. Dad and I were always a lot alike.” Joe said it matter-offactly, but there was a note of unmistakable pride in there as well. She patted his hand. “Maybe he’s learned from you how to be good with Doug and Melissa.” For all his physical prowess, Joe was the gentlest man she’d ever known, especially with their children. It was one of the things she loved most about him, and that quality had kept her coming back to her in the early days of their relationship as she had struggled to accept the other, less gentle sides of his personality. Eventually Debbie intervened in the lesson, suggesting it was time for their picnic. Joe’s mom had prepared a large basket of picnic goodies, and she and Joe’s father had scouted out a nice park with an adjoining soccer field that was a short drive away. Joe’s father wanted to walk there, but was overruled, although Joe was willing to bet he’d try to corral some of them to do the return on foot. It was a typically gorgeous San Diego day – sunny, blue skies, temperate – and the park was a perfect setting for a picnic. The kids bolted their food down quickly, both because it was good and because they were excited at the opportunity to show off their vaunted soccer skills. The adults had a relatively more leisurely meal, enjoying tormenting the kids by their deliberate pace. Finally, though, they finished as well. Joe’s parents made the kids help them police the area, picking up all their trash and storing everything else back in the picnic hamper. They played three on three – Joe partnering with Melissa and his mom, Debbie taking sides with Doug and Joe’s dad. Doug was supremely proud of his skills and confident his team would vanquish with younger sister and grandmother, even though he suspected his

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father might be formidable. Melissa also played soccer at home, and wasn’t as far away from her brother in skills as he liked to think, since she was generally quite coordinated. “You’re not worried this might be a little much for your folks?” Debbie asked Joe before the game started. “Hell, no,” he replied. “I’m more worried about us.” She laughed but couldn’t disagree. The game did feature a lot of running and – with no goalie – a fair amount of scoring. The kids were better at moving the ball themselves and at taking shots on goal than they were at passing, so the adults surreptitiously ensured that the kids got the lion’s share of the goals. Both kids loved to show off their prowess in front of their father. As often was the case, Joe had to balance not overwhelming them with his own skills and not dumbing down his game to the point where they felt he wasn’t really trying. Doug was actually pretty good, with good speed and nimble footwork. Doug liked to get his sister one-on-one, then blaze past her. Eventually that frustrated Melissa enough so that Joe had his mother cover Doug instead, which Doug initially thought was too easy. She proved to be harder to get by than Melissa had been. Doug made the mistake twice of trying to get by her not going all out, and on both occasions she managed to steal the ball from him, much to his chagrin. “Not bad, if I do say so myself,” she commented proudly after the second steal. “Picking on a ten year old,” Joe said, shaking his head in dismay. “You should tell him to pass it next time,” she instructed him with a smile. Doug’s team started to work together, actually developing some plays. Debbie was a decent player and had no trouble keeping up, but Joe’s father surprised everyone with his skills. At one point he faked Joe out – feigning a move to his right, then tapping the ball to his left foot for a long pass to Doug, who broke away from Debbie and scored. “Hey,

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old man,” Joe commented, breathing hard. “That was some fancy footwork. I didn’t even know you played soccer.” His father looked at him in mock astonishment. “How many tours did I have in Germany and England?” he demanded. “Do you think I just sat around drinking beer all day?” “Well, not all day…”

That evening, after the children had gone to bed, Joe recapped what he knew about Theresa Morales. He’d had one of his associates run down some information for him, and it wasn’t good news. “They’re calling it gang-related,” Joe told them somberly, sitting in the study in the desk chair. His parents were on the small couch and Debbie perched on the couch’s arm. “She was beaten, raped, and eventually strangled. They’re not sure how much of the mutilation was post-mortem.” They’d taken her as she was walking back to her car after working the closing shift at La Cantina. Her would-be protector Juan Mendes had escorted her, and he had been found unconscious by her car, savagely beaten. Theresa evidently had been taken to the beach for her ordeal, and found half-submerged the following morning. “Oh, my goodness,” Debbie exclaimed in horror, her hand at her mouth. They were all quiet, each having their own mental images of poor Theresa. Joe’s parents had not had the pleasure of ever seeing Theresa, so imagining how she must look after the attack was less personal for them but still awful enough. The three on the couch shook their heads in dismay. “Poor girl,” Joe’s mom muttered, her face a study of concern.

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“I hope they get the bastards that did this,” Joe’s father scowled. His face was harder to read, but Joe knew this sort of thing got his blood boiling. He looked sharply at Joe. “Gang related? You believe that?” Joe had filled him in on the events at the restaurant. “I don’t know,” Joe replied thoughtfully. “It didn’t seem like a likely neighborhood for gangs, but I suppose they can hit anywhere.” He looked down at the floor, thinking. “Maybe she had a brother in a gang,” Debbie offered. “Cousin?” Joe pursed his lips and looked up at them. “Maybe. None of the information my guy got suggested any strong family ties to gang members, but you never know. She could have had a boyfriend we don’t know about, or a girlfriend who went out with someone in a gang. Maybe it was Juan they were after, but they left him alive, so that discounts that possibility.” He shook his head. “Bad luck,” Joe’s father offered, studying Joe for a reaction. Debbie was watching him carefully as well. “Why do I get the idea you’re not buying it?” She was upset about Theresa as well, but she knew Joe was bringing all this up for a reason, and she was interested to hear where he was going with it. Joe smiled, without any pleasure in it. “Couple things. The local police are taking the case themselves, not farming it to the Gang Task Force run by the County Sheriff’s department. And the two detectives they’ve assigned – well, one has to question their objectivity.” They all stared at him. “How do you mean?” his father asked. “They seem to have a lot more real estate investments than you might expect,” Joe explained, feeling restless. He stood up and walked over to the window.

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“And Alex Perlman’s father is in real estate,” Debbie recalled, connecting the dots. She didn’t bother to ask how Joe had found out about the real estate investments; she knew that the people at his company excelled at sniffing out those kinds of trails. “Let me take a wild guess here – their real estate investments are all in properties that Perlman is involved in.” Joe nodded and turned around to face them. “Every one. It’s hidden pretty well, but it sure looks like they’re getting something for doing favors.” “What kind of favors?” his mother asked. “Like getting our friend Alex out of scrapes,” Joe told them flatly. “He’s been in trouble several times, even booked on a few occasions, but the charges have always been dropped. From what I saw of the guy, you’d expect he’d be locked up somewhere by now. Unless he had some angels watching over him.” They were all quiet for some long moments. It was clear that Joe thought Alex Perlman and his buddies had killed Theresa Morales, and that he doubted they’d be investigated too vigorously. Debbie and Joe’s parents were somber, sad for what had happened to Theresa and wondering what was to come next. None of them thought their family’s role in this was quite over. “So what are you going to do about it?” Joe’s father asked at last. Joe shrugged. “I’m on vacation. I’m supposed to get to spend time with my family, having a good time – like today.” He rubbed his face wearily, and exhaled loudly. “If Perlman did it, though, I’m going to be pretty pissed. I warned him to leave her alone.” “A guy like that, you knew once you left town that he was going to get back at her,” his father said without emotion. His face was as impassive as a stone, yet Joe knew very well what he was thinking.

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“You did what you could,” his mother chimed in reassuringly, her face sympathetic. She wanted his part in all this to be over, but she knew her son, just as she knew her husband. They were two of a kind, and sometimes that meant them doing things that put them in harm’s way. She didn’t like it – she’d hated it every time her husband went off to battle and hated that she didn’t always know when Joe was off getting into trouble – but it was part of the men they were, and the reason they went off was one of the things she loved most about both of them. Never for glory, never just to get into a fight; always to do the right thing for someone who needed help. Everyone looked at Debbie. They knew she hated violence, and that she’d been looking forward to this vacation. But they also knew that she had met the victim, and always placed justice above personal wishes. She studied him for a few seconds, her face impassive, then her face eased into an affectionate smile. “My Superman.” “Not so Super,” Joe objected somberly. “Theresa is still dead.” Debbie kept the smile on her face, and moved towards him. She touched his face. “You know what I think the hardest thing for Superman must be?” “What?” “That he can’t be everywhere at once. For every person he saves, there’s someone else he didn’t save.” She shook her head and the smile melted into something softer and much sadder. Her eyes had tears in them. “That would be so hard.” Her voice was barely a whisper. He put a hand up on her hand. “So what do you think I should do?” She shook her head. “What you already know you should do.” She smiled broadly, absolving him of ruining their plans, of potentially putting his own life at risk – all for the cause of doing right for this waitress that they barely knew.

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There wasn’t much doubt what that was. “Get the bastards who did this,” Joe’s father confirmed in a low growl.

Chapter 11 Joe called Juanita Kincaid on the drive up. The scenery was beautiful, driving along the ocean on another beautiful California day – the skies and the ocean competing for the title of prettiest blue, the ground to the east dry and brown except where someone was imposing their will upon the desert. It always seemed like there were more buildings in the view every time he drove on this highway, and in his view that didn’t often improve anything. It might be progress but he wasn’t sure it was forward. “Detective Kincaid,” he said formally when she answered the phone. Juanita laughed. “You and these damn anonymous phones, Joe Russell. Good thing I picked up anyway. How the hell are you?” Joe and Juanita didn’t talk very often, but whenever they did it was as if they saw each other every day. They were the same, despite all the superficial differences, and they’d had each other’s back more than once in the kind of situations that bonded people for life. “I’m good, but I may have a bit of a situation.” His tone was the essence of casual understatement, and she knew it. He wouldn’t ask for help lightly. “Hey, Joe – you’re supposed to be on vacation,” she chided him mildly. “Everyone all right?” “The family is fine, but a young woman we ran into while we were at the resort is dead.” That got her attention, and he succinctly explained what had happened at the restaurant, what had happened to Theresa subsequently, and some of what he’d learned about the Perlmans, especially his suspicion that they were orchestrating a police cover-up.

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She whistled. “Yeah, I’d call that a situation,” she agreed. She was silent for a moment. “You sound like you are in the car. Going to pick up some milk at the grocery store?” Her voice was carefully light but it was clear she already knew the answer. “No, I’m going back up there. I want to at least pay my respects.” “And maybe poke around a little,” she added. He paused before answering. “I might have a chat with the two detectives assigned to her case, and the young Mr. Perlman. I think Alex and I have some unfinished business.” His voice sounded sad but firm. Juanita was silent for a couple more seconds. “Joe, you should be with your family,” she told him in a voice filled with concern. “This is your vacation.” “I know.” “Tell you what. You go back home and I’ll go check things out. At least I’ve got a badge.” “Wrong jurisdiction.” “Whatever. The point is I can do this for you,” she said. “Hell, the conference is pretty boring anyway. You’d be doing me a favor.” “So you go see the kids,” Joe replied. “They’re already excited to see you, and they’d be thrilled if you came down a couple days early.” “Somehow I don’t think Debbie or your parents would think that’s a fair trade. Plus, I’m afraid your dad will want to arm wrestle me.” She kept her tone light.

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“He probably would,” Joe admitted with a smile she couldn’t see. “I’d love to see that.” “Joe, you know I’m not going down there while you are someplace getting into trouble,” she reminded him in a serious tone. “So -- why did you really call?” Joe told her.

Joe found the hospital where Juan Mendes was, and made his way to the ICU. He didn’t much like hospitals. He’d been in too many, either visiting people he knew or getting patched up himself. They were places of pain and suffering, even if the people working in them were doing their level best to relieve those. He supposed he should feel differently about, say, the obstetrical department, where he had witnessed the joy of both his children’s births, but even those couldn’t mask the bloody mess that childbirth was at best, or the incomparably heartbreaking times when something goes wrong and an infant dies. All things considered, Joe tried to avoid hospitals, but today he had no choice. He had to find out what Juan knew. Joe charmed Juan’s room number from one of the nurses at the desk. She was a seasoned nurse, looked like she’d seen everything, and was initially skeptical about Joe’s request. He didn’t look like family, and she was afraid he might be a reporter or a thrill-seeker who took gruesome pleasure in victims of horrific crimes. Joe put his hands out in surrender. “Honestly, I met Juan at the restaurant he works in – La Cantina – and I just wanted to pay my respects,” Joe told her. “I came up from San Diego to see him.” He didn’t add that there was more to his visit than that. The nurse studied him carefully. She was a good judge of people, and she thought there was something trustworthy about him. That shouldn’t have been enough, not in itself, but somehow it was. She relented and gave the room number to him. He smiled at her and thanked her, then made his way to the room, stopping at the door. An older woman was sitting in a chair pulled close to Juan’s bed.

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Juan didn’t look well. Much of his face was bruised or swollen, and both arms and one leg were in casts, the leg elevated. There were an array of tubes and electrodes attached to him, and the monitor maintained a steady beeping. The woman looked up at sharply. “Yes?” she asked. “You from the police?” “No,” Joe admitted. “I know Juan from the restaurant.” “It’s OK, mom,” Juan mumbled, his voice low and barely audible. His lips could scarcely move. “He’s a friend.” Juan’s mother looked skeptical, giving Joe a very protective look, but something in her expression relented and Joe walked up to the bed. “I’m sorry about what happened to you, Juan,” Joe told him, touching him on the arm. Juan tried to shake his head. It was difficult to tell if his eyes were open or not. “Not. Your. Fault,” he managed to say. He tried to smile, which only made more visible the damage to his teeth. “Who did this, Juan?” Juan exhaled. It appeared he couldn’t take very deep breaths, evidently due to broken or cracked ribs, so an expression of pain flashed across his face as he did so. His mother reached towards him and shot Joe an angry look. “”Don’t. Know,” he said halting. “Got. Me. From. Behind. Never. Saw. Them.” He grimaced, and it wasn’t clear if it was due to his current pain or due to the painful memory. “Have the police questioned him?” Joe asked Juan’s mother. She shrugged. “What could he tell them?” she asked rhetorically. “He didn’t see anything. There was nothing he could have done.”

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“I know,” Joe agreed softly. Whoever did this had waited for the right spot, the right time, attacking when Juan had his back turned and never giving him a chance. They probably had one or two people to subdue Theresa, and the rest made sure Juan wouldn’t be telling any tales. Joe figured there must have been at least three, maybe four of them. Once they’d knocked Juan down it wouldn’t have taken too much to keep him down. Judging from the damage they’d done, it had been more than fists, even more than kicks. They must have had bats, maybe tire irons or two-by-fours. This hadn’t been random; whoever it had been, they’d been looking to do damage, and not just to Theresa. “I. Tried. To. Protect. Her,” Juan insisted fiercely through his cracked lips, one eye making contact with Joe, desperate to make sure Joe understood. “There were too many of them,” Joe agreed, feeling bad for Juan. Juan had seen Joe take on a room full of supposed tough guys, and he’d thought he could do the same. Joe had made it look too easy, like it was in the movies. Juan wasn’t cut out for that kind of action, not at his age anyway. Not many people are. “Why are you here?” Juan’s mother asked, looking at Joe with a formidable stare. “I came to find out what happened to Theresa Morales,” Joe told her. “I think it wasn’t random, that they were after her. Juan was just brave enough to try to protect her.” “Look what good that did him,” she retorted angrily, nodding towards Juan with her eyes flashing angrily. “Mama,” Juan tried to protest.

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“I understand how you feel, Mrs. Mendes,” Joe assured her. His sincerity quieted her. “I’m going to find out what happened to Theresa, and when I do we’ll know who did this to Juan.” “You’ll see them in jail?” she asked ferociously. “We’ll see,” Joe said. “Jail may be too good for them.” He left Juan and his mother sitting, each in their own pain, but with a glimmer of hope that they hadn’t felt before he’d come.

It didn’t take long for Joe’s opinion about the two detectives to match his suspicions. Detectives Tim Welshbacher and Kevin Kovlun could have been brothers. They had large builds, with broad shoulders and big hands. Both had their jackets off, flaunting not only their musculature but also the large automatics holstered on their hips. Joe was willing to bet they both had another gun in an ankle holster, and maybe a sap stuck in a back pocket. Welshbacher appeared to be older, or had lived harder, from the bags around his eyes, ruddy skin and the fine network of blood vessels that surrounded his nose. Joe figured him for a smoker, probably mostly when he was drinking. Kovlun looked to be in slightly better health, and from the way he carried himself, he was proud of that. Joe imagined that Kovlun was at the gym working out when Welshbacher was on a barstool somewhere, but he also guessed they were both most alive when they were hassling someone. The thing they most visibly had in common were their eyes: sharp, always watchful, waiting for the mistake so they could pounce. They didn’t miss much. No one would ever mistake them for anything other than cops, or ex-cops.

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Joe figured Kovlun might usually take the first swing, while Welshbacher would make sure he could get his target when they weren’t expecting it, and put them down with malice. He was the one to watch, Joe decided. The police department was in a building that must have been built within the past ten years. It had weathered those years better than could have been expected, still trim on the outside and clean on the inside. The detectives’ desks, though, didn’t quite fit, with piles of papers scattered messily on the desks and credenzas and several half-finished cups of coffee on both the desks. “What’s your interest in the Morales girl, Mr. Russell?” Welshbacher asked, staring at Joe with a look that managed to combine hostility and indifference. Kovlun leaned back in his chair, chewing gum lazily, his hands folded in his lap. “Her name was Theresa,” Joe noted mildly. He’d wanted to meet them and get a sense about how intent they were on finding Theresa’s killers, and so far they seemed more annoyed at his presence than anything else. “Yeah, I know. Theresa Morales,” Welshbacher agreed flatly. “Answer the question.” “I met Theresa at La Cantina. She was the waitress for my table.” “You make friends with all the waitresses you meet, Mr. Russell?” Kovlun asked sarcastically. “Quite the pick-up artist, huh?” Joe ignored him. “Something happened the night I was at La Cantina that might be connected to her murder. I thought you should know.” “We’re already pretty sure it was a gang thing,” Welshbacher told him, leaning towards him. “Had all the signs of a revenge thing.” “You from around here, Mr. Russell?” Kovlun asked, still leaning back in his chair.

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Joe looked at him. “I live out east. I’m here on vacation.” He noticed they were not asking him about what happened at La Cantina. “All by yourself?” Joe shook his head, not wanting to get drawn into this and trying to keep Debbie out of it, although if they bothered to check his story out they’d here about her presence. “You have a point there, Detective Kovlun, or are you looking to write a story for the local newspaper on the comings and goings of tourists?” Kovlun seemed surprised for just a moment, then his face hardened. “I figured you might not know much about the Mexican gangs we have around here. Pretty vicious, like animals. Animals who’d do something like this to a poor girl like” – he paused for a second for dramatic effect – “Theresa Morales.” He drew her name out slowly. Joe nodded slowly. “See, the incident at the restaurant I witnessed was an attempted rape,” he said, doggedly returning to his point. “A guy named Alex Perlman and some of his boys tried to rape her.” Neither of them seemed surprised or concerned. In fact, their faces didn’t show any expression, nor did they exchange glances, even at the mention of Perlman’s name. “Is that so?” Welshbacher drawled, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands behind his head. “That’s a pretty serious charge.” He stared at Joe for a couple of seconds. “I’m not aware of any police report about anything like this. Are you, Keith?” “Nah, I’m pretty sure I’d remember if Alex Perlman was accused of rape,” Kovlun said. He sat forward, giving Joe his best hard eye look. It probably worked most of the time. “Him being from a pretty prominent family from around here.”

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“Theresa didn’t want to file charges, not once it was broken up,” Joe told them, not ruffled by the more hostile attitude. It was what he’d expected, hoping he’d be wrong. Welshbacher shrugged. “Then it’d pretty much her word against his.” He grinned maliciously. “Sounds like maybe seller’s remorse to me. Maybe she fucked him and when he wouldn’t tell her he loved her or some shit like that, she wanted to get even.” Both he and Kovlun chuckled knowingly. Joe shook his head. He decided not to mention the video he had; there was nothing to be gained by it. He was convinced by now that these two wouldn’t or couldn’t find Theresa’s real killers, and he was going to have to take matters in his own hands. “Only she’s not around to tell her side now, is she?” he pointed out. “Pretty convenient for Perlman, I’d say.” Welshbacher shrugged. “Bad luck she happened to get snagged by that gang then.” He gestured with his hands, palms up. “Shit happens.” Kovlun tried to look sympathetic but it came across as smirking anyway. “I don’t suppose I could see the autopsy report or crime scene photographs?” he probed. He’d already seen copies of both, obtained through his usual backdoor sources, but he just wanted to see how far he could push them. “I understand she was found on the beach?” From his reading, Joe already knew that a man walking his dog had discovered the body. The dog hadn’t been on a leash, and had run away from the man excitedly, leading him to a small cove where her body floated in the inlet. It looked like she’d been thrown in the water, but the tides wouldn’t take her. It was impossible to tell if she’d died at that part of the beach or just dumped there; the tide had succeeded in washing away any blood or footprints that might have told the story. The autopsy did establish that she hadn’t drowned; she’d been raped repeatedly, sodomized, cut by a sharp knife several times, and finally choked by some powerful hands before being thrown in the water like trash.

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Welshbacher expressed mock surprise. “You in law enforcement, Mr. Russell?” “Or are you some sort of pervert that gets his kicks looking at shit like that?” Kovlun accused with an angry expression. Joe lifted his hands in surrender. “Me? I’m just an accountant.” The two detectives looked at each other, and burst out laughing. When they’d had their little fun they looked back at him, Welshbacher wiping away at his eyes. “An accountant. That’s pretty good, Mr. Russell.” “Maybe you better leave this kind of shit to the professionals,” Kovlun sneered. Joe gave them a modest smile. “I’ve had a little luck poking around in these kinds of things.” Welshbacher finally exchanged glances with Kovlun, not quite sure what to make of that, then looked back at Joe with a stern expression. “Well, don’t go poking around here. Besides, Alex Perlman has a rock solid alibi for the night of the girl’s murder.” Joe kept his face expressionless. “I don’t suppose one of you was with him.” “No, but he was with a bunch of friends who vouch for him,” Kovlun asserted much too quickly, staring hard at Joe. “Funny you should know that,” Joe noted. “Him not being a suspect and all.” Welshbacher glared at Kovlun for his misstep, then swung his gaze back to Joe, trying to calm his expression back into the cop stone face. “We keep tabs on our prominent citizens, Mr. Russell. We can’t have meddling tourists making wild accusations.”

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Joe nodded solemnly, not buying any part of it. He wondered if they’d always been bought cops. He suspected they were both guys that enjoyed having power, enjoyed bullying people and liked having a badge that made it possible. They’d probably been cutting corners all their lives, and some of those corners ending up putting them into Perlman’s pocket. He was certain now that he couldn’t expect any justice for Theresa Morales from the two of them. “What about Juan Mendes?” Joe asked innocently. “Who?” Kovlun replied with a puzzled expression. “You know, the busboy she was with when she was supposedly abducted,” Welshbacher told Kovlun. “‘Supposedly’?” Joe asked. Welshbacher shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe she went willingly, and things just got out of hand. Maybe this Mendes kid was jealous because she wanted to go fuck some other greasers instead of him.” “The gangbangers,” Kovlun leered. Joe nodded his head, not agreeing but confirming his opinion of Welshbacher. “So you’re pretty sure of this gang angle, are you?” Joe asked innocently, not letting his doubts show. “Rock solid,” Kovlun boasted. “What are the chances you’ll get the guys that did it, then?”

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Welshbacher made a face of frustration that didn’t even pretend to be genuine. “Very tough. Could have been random, could have been revenge. Hell, it could have been an initiation for some punk.” “Why didn’t they go after Juan Mendes?” Joe asked innocently. “Why kill her but not him? The gang felt sentimental?” Welshbacher narrowed his eyes. “Maybe he was part of the initiation.” Kovlun picked up on this line. “You know, get her in the right spot, then they rough him up a little.” Joe stared at Kovlun dismissively. “Have you seen him, Detective Kovlun? Quite a lot more than roughing him up.” Kovlun flushed and glared at Joe, then looked to Welshbacher for help. “Who the fuck knows,” Welshbacher said abruptly. “Maybe he was in a different gang, maybe he got double-crossed.” “Why haven’t you questioned him?” Welshbacher started to say something, then evidently thought the better of it. He sat back and thought for a moment before answering. “Look, even if we figure out which gang did it, those guys don’t roll on each other.” He glanced again at Kovlun, and faced Joe again, standing up. “That’s all the time we have here, Mr. Russell. You go back on vacation or wherever you came from and leave the police work to us.” Kovlun stood as well. “Maybe go do some taxes or something,” he added in a mocking tone. Joe eyed them intently, not taking their cue to stand up right away. If their plan was to intimidate him by towering over him, it didn’t work. “I’m not that kind of accountant,” Joe said at last, standing up. His voice was cold, and the change in his demeanor seemed

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to drop the temperature of the room by several degrees. The detectives exchanged quick puzzled glances at each other, and neither detective offered to shake hands. Joe didn’t attempt it either. They were on opposite sides here, and the two of them had marked it as their territory. “You know, I think I’ll hang around here for a few more days,” Joe told them, matching their harsh stares with utter tranquility. “At least stay for her memorial service. Maybe I’ll even run into some of those gangs you’re so worried about. You know, on the golf course or something.” They narrowed their eyes in anger at this, which he took some satisfaction from. He could feel their mental daggers in his back as he walked away from them. So far, things were going exactly as he’d thought they would, and that wasn’t a good sign.

Chapter 12 Joe met the real estate agent at the entrance to a condo unit, an attractive four-story building of two and three bedroom units, the least expensive of which probably cost more than his house – and his house was not cheap. The building was nestled into the hillside, but faced the ocean, so most units would have unobstructed views. Most of the owners used their units infrequently, and a few of them rented them out to select clients. Joe’s office had made arrangements for him to use one of the units for a few days, avoiding him checking into a hotel. The agent was in her mid or late thirties and trying not to look it. She was dressed in a skirt that ended several inches above her knees, showing off legs that she evidently kept in good shape, probably on a Stairmaster. The five inch heels highlighted her calves too. She had a sheer white blouse that didn’t do much to hide the lacy bra beneath it. For what she’d probably paid for the breasts, Joe figured she sought occasions to show them off. She had face and figure that would be very pretty almost anywhere, but in Southern California made her just another indistinguishable face amidst all the other attractive blondes. Maybe she’d come out looking to be a model or an actress, but by now was

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working hard for a living. “Hi, I’m Maggie Kurtz,” she purred, evaluating him with a practiced gaze that estimated his net worth and evidently judged him worthy of some further attention. She gave him a predatory smile that showed off her perfectly white teeth. “You must be Mr. Brown.” Joe smiled politely. “I guess I must be.” He put out his hand and she grasped it speculatively, her hands soft but her grip firm. She held the handshake a couple beats longer than necessary. “I suppose I should ask you for some identification,” she said with a smile. “Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary,” he suggested with a knowing smile. He suspected he wasn’t the first person who rented one of these units under an assumed name, and wouldn’t be the last. Her firm, which managed the rental properties on behalf of their owners, was getting its payment, and she didn’t need his driver’s license or credit card. Her firm’s customers for these units often didn’t want their presence known; whether because they were celebrities or cheating on their spouses or simply hiding out didn’t really matter. Joe wouldn’t have used his real name or credit cards even in a hotel – old habits die hard – but this way reduced the number of people who might watch his comings and goings, as well as make it harder for anyone to try to find him. His efforts might be unnecessary but it was better to be safe than sorry. “No, I don’t suppose so,” she agreed, her smile matching his. If he wanted anonymity, that was fine with her. Perhaps even better. Joe was amused to watch the calculation subtly work its way across her face, although he doubted she was aware of it. “Let me show you to your unit, Mr. Brown,” she suggested, her eyebrows lifting invitingly, although it was not entirely clear exactly what that invitation included. Joe demurred, telling her that he could find it himself, but she insisted, so he followed her. She made a point of walking ahead of him when she could, so he could admire the view, and Joe had to admit that the view was good. She walked with a bounce that hinted

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at a friskiness in other parts of her life. Once they reached his unit – a corner unit on the top floor with a great view of the ocean -- Maggie unlocked the door and indicated he should come in, and walked him around the apartment on a tour that wasn’t really necessary. It was very nice. It was spacious and expensively furnished. It was decorated in a sleek, modern décor that wasn’t quite his cup of tea, but at least it showed some personality, not just another pseudo hotel room or model showplace. The owner either had decorated it personally, or hired a designer with a large budget. Lots of white, lots of furniture with sharp edges, and filled with modern art that Joe supposed someone could make sense of. It wasn’t the kind of place most people would feel comfortable bringing kids, not unless those kids had been raised in boarding school or something. The decor didn’t much matter to Joe. “Very nice,” he told her when she had squeezed every bit of her thinly disguised sales pitch into her tour. She looked pleased with herself, and stopped by the bar. “Are you here long?” she asked, making it clear she was in no hurry to leave. “A few days,” he replied. “Business or pleasure?” she asked. “Can I get you something to drink? The bar and the refrigerator are fully stocked.” She pulled out a pair of small glasses from under the bar and paused her hand over the collection of bottles as she waited for his reply. “I’m good,” he assured her, not wanting to prolong this. “I’m here for a funeral.” She took this in with a practiced look of sympathy that probably started with a calculation of whether there might be a listing in it for her. That didn’t make her a bad person, just someone who’d probably had to work harder than she’d expected in life, and whose best assets had a clocking ticking against them in a way that she could probably hear. She needed to either get rich or marry rich soon. “So sorry to hear that. Family or friend?”

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She didn’t seem to know quite what to do with the glasses, so set them on the top of the bar. “Neither really,” he admitted, which at least generated a momentary look of confusion on her face. “It’s a long story.” He stopped there, making it plain he wasn’t going to elaborate. She nodded, trying to work this into her calculations. It didn’t take long for her to recover. “Well, if there’s anything I can do to help,” she offered brightly. “Restaurant recommendations, directions, anything?” She emphasized the “anything” in a way that was deliberately open to wide interpretation. Maybe she hadn’t noticed his wedding ring, or maybe she didn’t care if he didn’t. Marriages were meant to be broken in her world, more about assets and prenups than love. Joe didn’t live in that world. “No, I think I’m good,” he told her. He nodded his head slightly to the door, and she took the hint, walking with him to the door. They paused at the door. She didn’t give up that easily. “Hey, how about I buy you dinner?” she offered, as if the idea was just occurring to her. “Or at least a drink? I know a great little place that the tourists don’t usually find.” She gave him her best smile, one that she was undoubtedly used to working. Joe doubted she usually had to be the one doing the asking, but she wasn’t shy about going after someone she wanted. He wouldn’t be surprised if the little place she had in mind was her own house. “I’ll have to take a rain check,” he said politely. A very brief flash of surprise, and disappointment, swept over her face before the cool and calculating expression replaced it. She knew better than to press her luck right now, but Joe suspected she wasn’t quite ready to give up on him entirely. She’d sized him up, and evidently decided his net worth had prospects. Or she just wanted a harmless fling and had decided he was as good a stud as she was likely to find tonight.

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Joe let it pass. “There is one thing,” he said. She half-turned towards him with a pleased look, already congratulating herself that her hunting skills had not been in vain. “Yes, what is it?” she asked in a throaty voice, standing close to him and giving him a wide-eyed look. “You know a guy named Perlman?” he asked, not specifying whether he meant Alex or his father. Maggie was good; Joe had to give her that. There was barely a reaction on that pretty face. But Joe was good too, and he saw the shadow that crossed her face before she slipped into a neutral expression, even wiping away the coquettish look she’d been cultivating for the past several minutes. “I know a Carson Perlman,” she said in a formal tone of voice, her eyes wary. “He’s quite well known around here.” “In terms of what?” She shook her head slightly and shrugged cautiously. “He’s a leader in the business community.” She sounded like she was reciting it from a prepared script, and it didn’t come out very convincing. Either she was a bad actress or the words were simply too distasteful to say with any sincerity. “You ever do business with him?” She took a half step back, probably not realizing she was doing so, and her face started to look faintly suspicious. “Everyone who is in real estate around here does business with Mr. Perlman,” she announced formally, as if it was no big deal. But it was. The mask that took over her face – over the previous masks she’d been wearing -- told the story. She might fancy herself a shark, but in these waters it was clear that Mr. Charles Perlman

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was a bigger fish, with sharper teeth. “I understand Mr. Perlman has a son as well,” Joe pushed, interested in how she would respond. “Alex,” she allowed, her eyes narrowing and definitely not happy with the turn of the conversation. She said his name like it was something that tasted bad. She took hold of herself and her face grew perky with an energy that was almost frantic. “I really should be going.” Her desire to stay and work him had been replaced with a keen desire to leave, either before she could be asked any more questions about the Perlmans. Suddenly the polished professional was again a scared young girl. It was just a flash but it made Joe feel sorry for her, maybe even like her a little better, and it made him more certain than ever that it wasn’t just Alex Perlman that he needed to worry about. He let her out of the apartment, and this time when he watched her walk away she wasn’t flaunting, she was just hurrying to make her escape.

Chapter 13 Joe sat in his car, parked outside of the funeral home where the visitation for Theresa Morales was being held. It was scheduled from seven to nine in the evening, with another the following morning. The actual services would be in a nearby Catholic church the afternoon after the morning visitation. Joe was surprised that the police didn’t need to keep the body longer due to the ongoing investigation, but it illustrated that the local law enforcement officials did not view that there were open questions about her death, except for the small matter of exactly who had killed her. Joe didn’t want to go in while Theresa’s family and friends were there. This was partly because he wanted to observe who did come, but also because he felt some degree of

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responsibility for Theresa’s death. He thought that perhaps her family would feel the same way, and not welcome his presence. So he waited and watched. Theresa either had a large family or a lot of friends, probably both. Her visitors spanned ages and ethnic backgrounds, but seemed uniformly sad and upset. They walked in with distressed faces and walked out with tears on their faces, holding hands and hugging each other. Joe could imagine the scene at the actual ceremony; it wasn’t going to be easy on anyone. He sighed with sadness. The truth of the matter was that he didn’t really know much about Theresa Morales. He had learned a few facts about her, like her age, that she had finished her freshman year at UCSD, and had been active in plays and musicals in high school. It was all very interesting, but all too dry, facts of just another young person looking to start a life as an adult. What none of it captured was that spark. Her smile showed up in some of the high school pictures of her Joe had viewed online, but had he not met her he would have missed that special quality he had sensed in her. The pictures would be eternal – or rather, as long as digital records survived – but that spark was extinguished forever, at least from this earthy life. It had been a random thing that she had waited on his table, and an even more random piece of bad luck that Alex Perlman had crossed her path, and a wildly improbable stroke of apparent good luck that Joe had been there when it happened. Maybe it hadn’t been good luck after all, Joe thought while he watched her mourners exiting; maybe she’d have been violated but alive but not for his involvement. It was a burden he was going to have to bear. Joe didn’t notice anyone who seemed out of place – no gawking strangers, no prurient scavengers of her misfortune, and certainly not Alex Perlman or any of his friends that Joe might recognize. The mourners came with other mourners, and looked like they belonged together. Detectives Welshbacher and Kovlun were notable by their absence.

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The traffic petered out about a half an hour before the official end of the visitation, but it was an hour after the official end time before all the friends and family had dissipated. He saw a couple that he strongly suspected was Theresa’s parents. Theresa had gotten her looks from her mother, who had a regal bearing that befit her age but which Theresa had not yet had enough time to develop. Her father was slender but his face was strong, and it was taking all his strength to hold himself together. Both were obviously heartbroken; their tears may have dried, at least for the moment, but something had been taken from them that could never be returned, a wound that could scar but never heal. They leaned on each other for support as they slowly walked to a car, driven by a younger man. Joe waited another half hour to ensure there were no stragglers, then got out of the car and went to the side door of the funeral home. He rang the night bell, and had to wait for several minutes for someone to come. From the window on the door, Joe could see it was a middle-aged man, dressed in a suit and evidently one of the funeral home’s employees. The man spoke through an intercom. “Yes, what is it? We’re closed now.” He sounded neither annoyed nor particularly curious. Joe told him that he was there for Theresa Morales, acknowledging that he was late. The man was reluctant to let him in, urging him to return in the morning, but Joe was persistent and persuasive, plus the man seemed reassured by Joe’s earnest appearance. He opened the door and introduced himself as Mr. Gaynor, his manner polished to a smooth but impersonal shine through his constant interactions with the dead and those who came to mourn for them. He walked Joe to the viewing alcove, a large room tastefully decorated and featuring plenty of comfortable couches and chairs. No folding chairs in this room. Except for the casket at the back of the alcove, it might have been a living room from an upscale 1950’s house, the kind of living rooms that were expensively furnished but rarely used and never really comfortable. “She’s in here,” Gaynor told Joe unnecessarily. His voice was low pitched, soft, and professionally soothing. “Take your time. We’ll be downstairs.” He turned and walked away.

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Theresa’s friends and family had done a lot in a short period of time to try to liven the room with some hints of Theresa’s life and personality. The room was ringed with photographs and other memorabilia, as well as enough flowers to start a small florist. A HD television sat quiet in the corner, and Joe was willing to bet that during visitation hours it ran a DVD of video clips from her life. Theresa’s casket was in the back of the alcove. It was in stark contrast to the proof of life that the pictures and other remembrances tried to make, and, in the end, trumped everything else, even with the casket closed for now. Joe took a seat a few feet away from the casket and sat. There was no real purpose to his being there. It wouldn’t help him catch her killers, nor could he offer comfort to her family. It wasn’t bringing him any comfort either, yet he felt he had to make this visit, had to pay his respects. Joe was not particularly religious and had no real opinion about an afterlife. He didn’t believe Theresa would know he was here now or be comforted by it. Yet here he was. He had been sitting there perhaps twenty or thirty minutes when he heard the soft footprints in the hall. He expected them to belong to Mr. Gaynor, there to unctuously urge him to leave. Joe supposed he was ready to leave, and almost welcomed the interruption, as he might have sat here for hours lost in his thoughts otherwise. As it happened, though, the voice that spoke did not belong to Mr. Gaynor. “It’s you, isn’t it?” It was the voice of a woman, a young woman, her voice both excited and wary at the same time. Joe half turned, then stood to fully face the speaker. As impossible as it seemed, at first he thought that there had been a miracle of some sort, and that he was seeing Theresa Morales. A wild thought crossed his mind that maybe there had been some terrible mistake, that some other unfortunate girl had been mistaken for Theresa. It wouldn’t have changed the tragedy of it but it would have shifted it, away from Joe’s world. As he stared longer, though, he saw that this was not Theresa, just someone who looked much like her, only a few years older. If Theresa had been the blossom, this woman was the flower that Theresa hadn’t had time to fully bloom into. “You’re Joe Russell, aren’t

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you?” the girl asked anxiously, standing at the entrance to the alcove as if afraid to enter without an answer. “I am,” Joe told her gravely. He cocked his head. “You must be Theresa’s sister.” She nodded at him, and came forward, offering him her hand to shake. “Isabella Morales,” she told him. She essayed a weak smile, turning her head slightly towards the casket. “I’m Theresa’s older sister.” “I figured.” Her hand was soft and warm, and something of a spark of attraction passed between them as they touched. Isabella took a couple seconds before she withdrew her hand, then sat down in a chair next to Joe’s, gesturing to him to do the same. “I told them you would come,” she said in a voice that was proud yet sad. Joe wasn’t quite sure how to take that. “I didn’t want to intrude on your family, but I wanted to pay my respects.” He waved his hand slightly towards the casket. “I’m so sorry about your loss, your family’s loss. I didn’t know her well but I know she was something special.” Isabella dropped her eyes, perhaps so Joe couldn’t see her fight back the sudden tears. She regained control and looked back at him, fighting to produce a smile that showed her heart but which had no joy in it. “You wouldn’t have been intruding. Theresa told us how you’d saved her,” she told him flatly. Her eyes were fierce, and quite compelling. “You are a hero to my family.” Joe felt embarrassed, and shook his head. “I can’t help but feel that if I hadn’t gotten involved, she might still be alive.”

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Isabella uttered a humorless laugh. “So you don’t believe the gang theory either?” she asked with a tone of obvious distaste at anyone who might have bought that theory. “Is there anything to it?” Joe asked instead of answering. “Did Theresa have any friends involved in the gangs?” Isabella shook her head firmly. “No. Never.” “Could she have been caught in a drive-by?” Again Isabella laughed mirthlessly. “In this town? The police would have never allowed a few bangers to drive around. They would have been turned away with, you know, vigorous deterrence.” The expression on her face suggested that this level of deterrence might help keep the town’s streets safe but might also catch more than a few innocents in the sweeps, and those innocents were disproportionately minorities. Joe nodded, indicating that he understood what she was implying. “Could it have had anything to do with Juan Mendes?” Isabella smiled sadly. “Poor boy,” she said softly. “He’d have died trying to protect her, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly normally.” She shook her head. “He’s not the kind of boy the gangs want.” Joe didn’t point out that Juan nearly had died trying to protect Theresa; they both knew it, but both doubted it was anything but him being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. He looked at the casket with a stoic expression, and she joined him in looking at it. They watched it in silence for a minute or two. They were strangers, brought together at a funeral home by her sister’s murdered body, yet they seemed oddly comfortable sitting there together without talking, as if the shared grief was easier for both of them.

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“Why did you think I would come?” Joe asked at last, turning his body towards her. Isabella was still for a moment, then turned towards him. Her face was lovely, struggling to stay composed but not quite masking the emotional suffering she was struggling with. “Because you are the only hope my family has to get the people who killed my sister,” she told him quietly.

Chapter 14 Isabella invited Joe to join the family back at their house, but Joe demurred. That would not help him with what he needed to do. Instead, he agreed to meet her the following morning for coffee, before the next visitation. He walked her to her car, and he thought for a second that she might hug him. In the end she offered him her hand and they shook goodbye, Isabella clasping his hand with both of her hands for a few moments before releasing him. Joe stopped to get something to eat at a local restaurant, something a cut above a fast food joint but not so nice as to have cloth napkins. It had real menus but they were laminated and spotted with some ancient stains. He thought the other patrons leaned a little more on the local side than on the tourists. The hostesses and servers looked like college kids, and he wondered if any of them might have known Theresa at some point. They seemed too cheerful for that, but at that age they bounce back quickly; back among their friends, they quickly wash away the grief. Joe sat in the corner by himself and resisted any efforts at idle conversation with his waiter. The food seemed tasteless to Joe, not because there was anything wrong with it as because he simply did not have much appetite. He was refueling, not indulging in a great dining experience. His kids might like it here, he thought absently, although Debbie would not be entirely happy about how unhealthy most of the things on the menu were.

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After eating Joe drove around the town. To most observers, it would look like he was driving aimlessly, but in fact he was reconnoitering. He had a fair sense of the town from his time at the resort, but this effort was to ensure he knew which roads went where, what shortcuts, alleys, and dead-ends there might be, where the stores changed to houses and where the houses got further apart. He could have – and had -- done all this on Goggle Earth, but there was nothing like first hand experience. He made sure he found and drove by Alex Perlman’s address, twice. Perlman lived in a beachfront property, not quite a mansion but a pretty expensive piece of real estate nonetheless. It was a newer house, with a post-modern look – the outside white or glass, everything sharp angles. There were cars in the driveway and light on at the house, but Joe doubted that Perlman was in for the evening. It wasn’t the time or place for Joe to confront Perlman, but that time was coming. Once Joe had satisfied himself that he had the lay of the land, he returned to his condo. He stood by the sliding doors to the balcony and called Debbie. “Hey, there,” he said softly. “Hey there yourself.” Her voice was warm but conveyed an underlying tone of worry, and relief that he was calling. “Kids still up?” She told him they were in bed, and recounted their evening, playing with their grandparents, boys against the girls, in a game of Risk – a board version, not a DVD. Joe laughed. “I didn’t think they still made the board version.” “Yeah, I think this one has a few years on it,” Debbie agreed. She gave him a quick recap of their day, adding that the kids wished he was there but weren’t letting it keep them from having a good time. In the background Joe could hear his father saying

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something. Debbie paused a second, and yelled back that it was indeed Joe on the phone. “Tell him everything is OK here,” Joe told her, letting her relay the message. “Is everything OK?” Debbie asked once she’d finished playing intermediary. “Yeah, so far,” Joe replied with a sigh. He told her about his unsatisfactory but not surprising visit with the detectives, and about meeting Isabella Morales. “That poor family,” Debbie sympathized. She paused for a moment. “Have you seen Alex Perlman yet?” “Not yet. I’ll have that pleasant task for tomorrow.” “What are you going to do?” Debbie’s voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away. Physically they were not so many miles away, and the phone connection was fine, but there were miles between what Joe might be prepared to do in situations like this and what Debbie was comfortable with. She knew Joe was going to take action and that the morality of whatever it was going to be would be grayer than she like. Debbie knew in her heart that Joe would do the right thing, but it wouldn’t be anything she could ever justify herself doing. It was her faith in his sense of right and wrong that buoyed her, and allowed her to bridge the distance between them. Joe watched the waves, constantly in motion. The waves were deceptive, looking almost placid but such huge amounts of water required vast energy to keep them in constant motion. Anyone who thought that the ocean was peaceful need only live through one bad storm, much less a hurricane. The ocean was a killer, serene when it suited its purposes but utterly ruthless when it felt like wreaking havoc. “I haven’t quite decided yet,” Joe told her. It was true but not quite the truth. He knew the what; he just hadn’t figured out the how. “You’re not going to kill him, are you?” she asked. She tried to keep her voice neutral but couldn’t hide her fear.

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Joe took a moment to consider his response. “I’m not up here to assassinate him, if that’s what you are asking,” he said at last. “But he’s got to know that he can’t get away with what he did, and I can’t let him do something like this to someone else. He’s got to be stopped.” His voice was calm but firm. He had to wait for her to think about what he’d said. It was not like her to ask questions about his missions, but she’d seen what had happened and had met both Theresa and Perlman, so this situation was more personal. “Does that leave you much room?” she asked in a very quiet voice. “I think so,” he told her, his voice full of tenderness, proud that his wife cared about these moral distinctions. They didn’t always agree on the means, but they both had a strong sense of what was right. It was what had drawn them together when they first met, and continued to be the tie that bound them so closely together. That and their kids. Still, she was strongly opposed to violence, and it never ceased to trouble her that his sense of justice sometimes resorted to using it. They walked this line carefully, Joe trying not to hide his methods but not rubbing her face in them either. “We’ll have to see.”

About an hour later there was a knock at Joe’s door. He’d been expecting it, but still checked at the peephole before opening the door. “Detective Kincaid,” he said gravely as he opened the door, before breaking into a smile. “Come on in.” Juanita looked at him with a playful expression and came into the room, letting Joe shut the door behind her. They hugged, and she pretended to be surprised. “Let me guess – you thought maybe I was that pretty real estate woman, right?” Juanita was very attractive in her own right, but in no way would she ever be mistaken for Maggie Kurtz. For one thing, she was African-American. More to the point, she was physically strong in a way that spoke not of gyms and personal trainers but of hours on basketball courts or

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hiking – and maybe some rough and tumble with bad guys. Her confidence came not from her looks but rather quite the reverse. She was someone who Joe could always count on. “I have to admit; I was kind of worried about it,” he relied with a concerned look. “She was pretty determined.” “Maybe she’ll stop by later,” she teased him. He made a face and they walked over to the living room. Juanita settled into the plush couch, while Joe took the nice leather chair and put his feet on the matching ottoman. He asked her about her own condo; he’d arranged for her to get a place in another development, using a different management company and her own assumed name. Juanita’s face lit up. “My God, it’s the nicest place I’ve ever stayed in! It’s bigger than my house,” she exclaimed. “That chair you are sitting is probably cost more than my car.” She shook her head in amazement. She surveyed what she could see of his condo, and gave him an impressed look. “You know how to live well.” Joe seemed perfectly at ease in the condo. It wasn’t the first time he’d stayed in someplace expensive. Juanita knew, though, that he’d seem equally at ease at home, or camping out. He was someone who was comfortable in his own skin, no matter where he was. Juanita might bluff her way through situations she wasn’t used to – fancy restaurants, snooty concierges in five star hotels, political big-wigs – but she had the sense that none of that would matter to Joe. He fit in wherever he was. “It’s OK,” he told her drolly. “I’m charging it to the company.” Of course, the line between the company and him personally was primarily a legal distinction. “So,” she started. “You’ve been here less than a day and met two beautiful woman and two possibly crooked cops. Not a bad start.” She laughed, a throaty sound that practically generated a smile in whomever heard it. Juanita was a woman who had seen

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and been through enough suffering to make her appreciate pleasure when she found it. “By the way, who was the woman at the funeral home?” “That was Theresa Morales’ sister Isabella,” Joe explained with a sad smile. “She figured I’d show up.” “Smart girl,” Juanita observed with a raised eyebrow. “Pretty, too. Was she happy or unhappy to see you?” Joe recapped the conversation with Isabella, and then told her about Welshbacher and Kovlun. Juanita frowned. “Bad guys?” she asked softly. Joe nodded. “I think so. It’s going to make doing something about Alex Perlman harder.” He gestured towards her. “I think I’m going to need your help.” Juanita shook her head and gave him a tight smile. “Hey, man – you know I’m there for you, but I kinda figure this isn’t the worse mess you’ve seen, and you seem to manage all right without me.” It was true that Joe had plenty of experience with solo missions, and if Juanita hadn’t been nearby already he probably would have done so in this case as well. But she had been close and he knew they worked well together, plus his intuition was telling him that this thing with Perlman was not going to be straightforward. Alex Perlman himself wasn’t the challenge Joe was worried about. It was the support system that had allowed an idiot like Alex Perlman to make it this far without being arrested or killed that was the concern. Joe shrugged. “Hey, if you want to head on down to my folks and play with the kids instead, feel free.” She snorted in derision. “Yeah, well, I don’t think either Debbie or your dad would let me get away with that. ‘No man left behind” and all that.” In truth, as much as she enjoyed Joe’s family, she was an action junkie herself – not someone to take unwarranted

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risks, but never one to back away from a challenge. Joe had shown her the video from the restaurant and also shared the autopsy results and pictures with her, so she was almost as indignant about Perlman as Joe was. It was late, and they wanted to get an early start the following morning, so they quickly reviewed their game plan. Joe was going to agitate Perlman and see what happened. He wanted Juanita to essentially stay in the background, not let anyone know she was with him unless a situation came up where he needed her. Juanita carefully listened to his plan. Her eyes always showed her keen intelligence and curiosity, and Joe didn’t need to elaborate or spell things out. They had the kind of practically telepathic communication that partners sometimes acquire after years of working together, except it hadn’t taken years for them – just a few highly dangerous episodes. “I think I can do that,” she told him dryly. She’d been following him all day as it was, and had done a very good job of staying invisible to anyone who might have been watching Joe. Still, just to make a point, she sniffed dramatically. “Not exactly the best neighborhood for a sister to blend in, you know.” It was true, but Joe had faith in her skills. “Ahh, you’re just another pretty face down here on vacation. I barely could keep track of you sometimes.” She pretended to be insulted. “Hell, I was practically the damn Invisible Woman today, thank you very much.” “Maybe,” Joe conceded. His face grew serious. “But no one is really looking for you yet. Things are going to start to get more serious tomorrow.” Juanita raised a fist in the air and flashed a rebellious smile. “Bring it on.”

Chapter 15

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Joe met Isabella at a local hangout she’d suggested. It was on the beach, and they got a table outside on the patio. There was a biking/jogging path between them and the beach, and the former was busy with power walkers, serious cyclists, joggers, and young mothers pushing their kids in strollers. The beach had already attracted some sunbathers. Joe noticed a photographer pretending to be looking for shots of the ocean but really interested in checking out pretty women, especially ones in bikinis. The man was in his early forties, had a nice digital camera, and wasn’t dressed like a bum, but there was something in the intense look on his face that made Joe think nature shots were not his real forte. Joe made sure to shade his face when the camera pointed his way. The guy probably was just a mild pervert but there was no point in getting his face up on some website. You never knew who might be looking. They both ordered coffee. Isabella liked hers iced, with lots of cream and sugar, but Joe took his straight black. “Nice place,” Joe told her once they’d gotten their coffees. In different circumstances – like the week before, when Joe had been here on vacation – it would have been relaxing. Great view, fun people-watching, not too hot, and a nice breeze blowing. Later in the morning the beach would get much more crowded and the temperature warmer, but at the moment the conditions were ideal. Isabella looked down at her coffee, holding it in both hands, and smiled wistfully. She glanced at Joe with a small smile and looked out at the beach. “Theresa and I would come here sometimes.” She sighed. “It still doesn’t seem quite real.” Her face lost all animation and Joe thought for a moment that she might cry, but she took a deep breath and recovered. She looked back at him and essayed a smile again, but her heart still wasn’t in it. “Tell me about Theresa,” Joe asked gently. She raised her eyebrows. “What would you like to know?”

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Joe shrugged. “Tell me what you’d like me to know about her. I only met her briefly, and not in the best of circumstances.” Isabella nodded and raised her head, not quite able to meet Joe’s eyes. “That’s true.” She took a deep breath. “She loved life. She was full of life.” She smiled despite herself at the memory. “What did she enjoy?” Joe prodded. “What didn’t she enjoy?” Isabella replied, her smile breaking through. “You met her – she was just someone who was happy and full of life.” Joe slowly got Theresa’s life story as they slowly drank their coffee, each getting a refill. Theresa was the youngest of four kids. The oldest brother was a doctor, practicing at Scripps Health. Isabella was the next oldest, only a year younger than her brother. She lived in LA and worked for an advertising agency, specializing in interactive media. “So you’re probably pretty busy these days,” Joe told her. She rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t believe it. They’re going crazy with me needing to be down here for a couple days. Hell, my boss wanted me to do a conference call with a client this afternoon!” Joe shook his head sympathetically, but didn’t doubt it for a second. Advertising was a cutthroat business, especially in LA. Isabella’s coworkers were probably angling to take over her assignments during her absence in the name of pitching in, but with an eye for advancing their own careers. Isabella continued the family story. Her younger brother – three years younger than Isabella and three years older than Theresa – had a computer science degree and was working in a small software firm in San Diego. “He’ll probably be the rich one,” Isabella said with quiet pride. “He’s got some serious brains.”

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Theresa herself had been about to go into her sophomore year at UCSD. “She was in the Theatre & Dance department,” Isabella noted, her voice a little amused and full of pride. “Mom and dad about had a fit, but they shouldn’t really have been surprised. She’d been doing dance and plays and stuff since she was a little kid. Lead in the high school musicals and all.” It made Isabella laugh remembering it. “I can see how she’d have been good at that,” Joe allowed. “She had charisma.” Isabella looked at him quite seriously. “Do you really think so?” “I do,” he assured her. “You could see that spark in her.” He watched her, seeing the same spark in her. “I think so too,” Isabella agreed, her eyes welling up with tears. “It must run in the family,” Joe suggested gallantly. Isabella looked at him sharply, but saw he wasn’t flirting. “I hope you’ll meet my mom. Then you’ll see where she got it from.” Joe nodded his heads towards her pointedly. “Where we all get it from,” she amended grudgingly. They were quiet for a long minute or too, finishing their drinks and turning by unspoken consent to look out at the scene in front of them. Activity had picked up, but it was still a very picturesque and peaceful view view. Their waitress came by and asked if they wanted refills. They looked at each other and both declined. Isabella took a deep breath, playing nervously with her coffee cup. “So what about you?” she asked eventually, still not looking up. “What do you do?” Joe kept his face neutral. “I’m an accountant.” It was true, just not quite the truth.

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Isabella’s face immediately looked up, and her surprise was evident. “I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting that. An accountant?” “So what were you expecting?” Joe asked, his face serious but teasing her a little. She looked down at her empty coffee cup, feeling sheepish. If there had been any coffee left in it she’d have taken a drink, just to stall for time. “I saw the video,” she said at last in a low voice. “I saw what you did to those men.” Joe was pretty sure she hadn’t seen the video from Debbie’s phone, but he knew there had been other phones there that night and hers was not the only one taking a video of his encounter. “So you thought I was, what?” he asked. She shook her head, still too embarrassed to meet his eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe some kind of policeman or military guy.” “I grew up with a Marine father,” Joe explained. “And I was in the Navy a few years. You pick up a few things along the way.” Again, it was true but not quite the truth. “Uh-huh,” she said, nodding but not seeming entirely convinced. Isabella looked out at the beach for a while, working something out in her head. “My brothers want to catch who did this,” she admitted slowly at last. She paused again. “So far, my father and my uncle have been able to talk them out of it, telling them to let the police investigate, but they’re getting very impatient.” She turned to look back at him. “I think your father and your uncle are very wise,” he told her. “This isn’t a playground fight. The people that did this to Theresa mean business. Your brothers would likely end up dead or worse. Look what happened to Juan Mendes.” Isabella wondered what would be worse than ending up dead, but didn’t dare pursue. She grimaced at the thought of what had happened to poor Juan, whom she didn’t know but

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had visited anyway. “So, Mr. Joe Russell, why is it safe for you but not for them, Theresa’s own flesh and blood?” she asked bluntly. Joe smiled just slightly, and looked out at the ocean. “I have a little experience in these kinds of things. I’ll be more careful than your brothers might be.” Isabella smiled at him. “From what I’ve seen, ‘careful’ is not quite the way to describe you,” she pointed out. “If it were, you’d have gone on eating your dinner that night, and you’d be at home or still on your vacation right now instead of being here. You don’t seem bothered by taking risks in getting involved.” Joe looked back at her, the slight smile still there. “Fair point,” he admitted. “Let me amend my statement: let’s say I’m very careful about the risks I take.” Juanita nodded slowly, and seemed to make a decision. She crumbled up her cup, and looked at him with a new resolve in her eyes. “Are you going to kill them?” she asked pointedly. “Kill who?” Joe replied innocently. Isabella blushed slightly but did not look away. “Alex Perlman and his friends. The ones who did this to my sister,” she told him defiantly. “You’re that sure they killed her?” he asked softly. Isabella paused, then nodded firmly. “Sure enough to want them dead?” Again, she nodded, but less firmly this time. “They deserve to die,” she said bitterly, but she couldn’t meet his eyes.

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Joe took the last drink from his cup, then crumbled it up as well. He shook his head. “Isabella, there’s a difference between justice and vengeance. I’m not an assassin. I didn’t come here looking to kill anyone.” Her face didn’t quite mask a confusion of emotions. Part of her was disappointed, and another part of her was relieved. “What did you come here to do?” she asked, looking at him warily. “I came here to get justice for your sister, and to make sure Perlman and his friends can never do this to anyone again.” Now the confusion took over her face. “So you’re going to help the police?” Joe looked out at the ocean. “I think you share my skepticism about how thoroughly the police are going to look into Theresa’s death,” Joe said dispassionately. “I think Perlman’s father has some of the police in his pocket.” Joe met Isabella’s eyes again, and she could see how unconcerned he was. “So you’re going to do, what – get proof that they can’t ignore? Is that the accountant in you?” Joe let a small smile creep briefly across his face. “I’m not that kind of accountant,” he said with an air of both mystery and finality. With that, he paid the bill and walked her to her car. She didn’t ask any more questions, but did give him a tentative hug before she got in her car. Joe wasn’t sure if her tentativeness was because she didn’t know him well yet, or because she suddenly feared she knew him too well. Either way, it signaled that she knew they were in this together. He wondered if she fully understood what that might mean. “Justice” was a lofty concept, but it tended to get messy on the ground.

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Chapter 16 Joe had one of his hackers back at his office obtain Alex Perlman’s phone records and, through them, identified the people Perlman called or texted most frequently. Juanita had been amused at his getting the records – “huh, you got a warrant for those, did you?’ she’d asked laconically, rolling her eyes and not really expecting an answer -- but she hadn’t protested. She was aware that his company tapped into data sources that were often better than the local police or FBI, and by now just took it for granted. Using the phone numbers, he was able to obtain their owners’ names, addresses, and driver’s license photos. He recognized the bodyguard – Wayne Morrison – and the would-be knife fighter, whose name was Noah Torpy. The man who had been holding Theresa down at the restaurant was Chad Neugart. Joe immediately noticed that Alex had called an unlisted number for Gerald Sharp the evening of Theresa Morales’ death, which he noted for future consideration. Joe also noted that the calls to Morrison had trailed off after the incident, making Joe wonder if Morrison had actually taken his advice to get away from Perlman, or if he was simply out of commission due to his injury. He made another mental note to find out. After he left Isabella, Joe scouted out the addresses for Perlman’s companions. Morrison lived in a lower-end apartment complex a couple of towns away, while Neugart lived near Perlman in a small but obviously high-end house on the beach. Torpy lived in a condo complex close to the beach, which meant it was worth easily over a million dollars. It was almost eleven before Joe pulled up in a surreptitious parking place that had a view of Perlman’s house, pleased that his suspicion that Perlman would still be there was correct. In fact, it was closer to one o’clock before Perlman emerged from the house and got into his BMW M6 convertible, which listed for over six figures. Perlman roared off and Joe followed, trying not to break too many traffic laws along the way. Fortunately Perlman was just going into town. He valet parked the car outside a restaurant and went

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inside. Joe parked on the street in the next block and strolled casually over to the restaurant, which served upscale contemporary American cuisine. The restaurant was fairly busy, but Joe noted that Perlman was by himself at a table for four. Joe went inside. The hostess – an attractive looking blonde in a low cut, expensive dress and stiletto heels that Joe thought must leave her feet hurting by the end of her shift – looked at him expectantly. “I’m with Mr. Perlman,” he told her without slowing, seeing a look of confusion pass over her face before being replaced by the haughty expression she’d been wearing. He evidently wasn’t who she’d been expecting but Joe wasn’t going to get into a conversation about it. He slid into a chair at Perlman’s table before Perlman thought to look up from his phone. Perlman’s face went slack for a moment, and he nervously looked around – perhaps to see if Joe had reinforcements or, more likely, in hopes his expected company was there to serve as his own. Perlman quickly decided he’d have to tough it out alone; after all, he was in his element here, surrounded by people who knew him and feared him, or his father. “What the hell are you doing here?” he rasped, a glare on his face. Perlman’s voice carried loudly enough that the couple at the next table – a well preserved man Joe’s father’s age with a young woman who, Joe was pretty sure, was not his daughter – looked over at them oddly before resuming their lunch. “You didn’t think I’d forget about you, did you, Alex?” Joe replied mildly. Perlman’s eyed hardened. He started to say something but stopped due to the arrival of a well-dressed man that Joe took for the maitre’d or perhaps even the owner. Joe also noticed that a larger man followed him as discreetly as was possible in the situation; he did not look like a waiter, busboy, or valet, and Joe guessed his duties included acting as the occasional bouncer. “Will you be adding a third setting, Mr. Perlman?” the man asked in a silky voice that nonetheless made it clear that he knew Joe was uninvited. Given the presence of the man backing him up, Joe figured he also suspected Joe was unwanted.

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“No, Mr.--” Perlman paused, not remembering Joe’s name, and looked over at him. “Russell,” Joe reminded him helpfully. “Mr. Russell won’t be staying,” Perlman continued, not taking his eyes off Joe. Joe met his stare, and after a few awkward seconds the man excused himself and walked away, the bouncer following in his wake. The interaction had attracted the attention of the mismatched duo at the next table again, along with one or two other neighboring tables, and that attention caused a slight wave of attention to pass through the room. The restaurant’s patrons were a prosperous looking lot, dressed expensively; no flip-flops or baggy shorts in this crowd, no casual tourists crashing the party on their way to Sea World. They liked being among their own and liked their privacy, except for showing off to each other – be it their newest jewelry, latest plastic surgery, or the most recent attractive companion. The people closest to Joe and Perlman were starting to suspect that something was off at their table but didn’t quite know what, and the other people in the room just knew that something was happening. Everyone paused for a moment, senses attuned; they all loved gossip, and didn’t want to miss something new to retell at the next cocktail party. Joe took a drink of water from his place setting, enjoying Perlman’s annoyed reaction. He ignored the curious looks from their neighbors “You have thirty seconds before I call them back and have you thrown out,” Perlman said sharply, trying to take control of the situation. “What do you want?” “Theresa Morales is dead, Alex,” Joe told him, his expression flat. Perlman blanched, but he tried not to let it show. “What’s that have to do with me?’ he blustered, keeping his voice low. He knew some of the people in the restaurant, and most

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of them knew his father, so he didn’t want to start something else he’d have to explain to his father. “I told you, Alex – if anything happened to her, I’d hold you responsible.” Joe paused for a long moment. “I’d say being raped, mutilated and murdered counts as something happening to her.” Perlman shook his head vigorously. “I, I, I didn’t have anything to do with that,” he protested. His eyes narrowed. “You can’t prove anything.” “Those are two different things, Alex,” Joe noted. “Besides, I don’t have to prove anything. I told you I would hold you responsible and that what I’m going to do.” Perlman started breathing rapidly, his eyes looking anywhere but at Joe. Finally he caught sight of something that seemed to reassure him, and he looked back at Joe trying to remuster some semblance of his confidence. “Time for you to leave.” Joe caught sight of Chad Neugart approaching the table, and took some small satisfaction in seeing how cautiously he made his way. Once he got to within a few feet of the table he halted. “How’s the neck, Chad?” Joe asked without taking his eyes away from Perlman. “How do you know my name?” Neugart asked in surprise, touching his neck with his hand in unconscious memory of the pain. “I know a lot about you and Alex and his other buddies. You’d be surprised.” Joe smiled and looked over at him with a wink. Neugart seemed shaken and looked at Perlman for guidance, which was not forthcoming. “You want to tell me anything about what happened to Theresa Morales?” Joe asked Neugart. “You might as well tell me now, because I am going to find out.” Joe’s voice

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was soft but carried far enough that the table nearest Neugart could hear what he was saying; they furrowed their brows trying to follow what Joe might be talking about. Neugart’s eyes grew wide. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stammered at last, not making eye contact. “Shut-up,” Perlman snarled at him. “We all have alibis for that night. Besides, I hear it was a gang thing.” Joe looked at him like he was a recalcitrant student, and shook his head slowly. He stood up slowly, drawing the attention of most of the people in the restaurant. “Gosh, Alex, who is ‘we all’?” he asked in mock surprise. His face hardened, and he took a lingering hard stare at Neugart and then back to Perlman. “I think you and your friends killed her. I’m not going away, Alex, and I am holding you responsible for what happened to Theresa Morales.” He relaxed and gave Perlman a smile full of malice. “Gang thing,” he added dismissively, incredulous at the notion. With that, Joe moved away from the table. As he passed Neugart he reached his hand partway towards Neugart’s neck; Neugart flinched and ducked away. Joe shook his head and walked away, leaving Neugart, Perlman, and the tables within earshot watching him leave.

Chapter 17 Joe’s phone rang as soon as he exited the restaurant. “Well, that went well,” Juanita teased him. “I thought so,” Joe agreed gravely. “You caught that, huh?”

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“Most of it. I may have missed some of the snappy repartee but I think I got the gist of it.” Joe got into his car and started the engine. “What now?” Juanita asked. Joe wasn’t exactly sure where she was, and scanned the area around the restaurant to try to get a glimpse of her. She must have been able to watch him. “Hey, no fair peeking,” she chided him. There were scattered shoppers strolling the streets, usually in clumps of two or three. Juanita had been right; there were not many persons of color to be found, and Juanita also lacked the camouflage of a companion. Still, he didn’t spot her. She might be in another parked car, or perhaps she had managed to find a vantage point on one of the upper stories. He figured he could find her if he needed to, but he was pleased she was doing so well. If he had trouble detecting her, he figured anyone else who might be on the lookout would as well. He grinned. “Something funny, big man?” she asked. “Just thinking of a joke I know,” Joe replied, not losing the smile. “Where to now, boss?” Joe thought for a second. “I think I’m going to go visit the bodyguard. Wayne Morrison. With his leg, he probably won’t be too hard to find; he’ll be staying close to home,” he speculated. Juanita told him she’d follow him, but Joe told her to stay with Perlman. “Actually,” he decided, “see where Neugart goes after they split up. I want to talk to each of Perlman’s buddies individually.” Juanita tried to protest, pointing out that Morrison might not be too happy to see him, but Joe told her that he wasn’t too worried about it. Juanita sighed dramatically, but grudgingly agreed. Joe told her he’d check in once he’d finished with Morrison, and they hung up. He waited for another minute or two to see if Juanita might blow her cover, but no such luck. He pulled out and headed south.

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Morrison lived in an apartment complex that was called Ocean Breeze, but would be hard pressed to find much of that breeze, except perhaps in a big storm. It was a couple miles inland, and had seen better days, although on its best day hadn’t been anything to write home about, much less to be home. It looked like it had been put up quickly by a developer looking to cut corners wherever he could, and the couple generations of managers and tenants hadn’t done much to preserve whatever chance of longevity it might have had. Its fate was to be bulldozed, and the buildings sat out in the sun glumly awaiting that inevitable day. The parking lot was about a third full, which wasn’t necessarily a sign that the rest of the tenants were at work; Joe suspected there were more than a few vacancies in the complex. These cars might constitute most of the people actually living here, and their being home in the mid-afternoon might mean they were unemployed or had jobs that required nighttime duties. The apartments were centered around an internal courtyard, which featured a swimming pool. A woman was there with two young children, who were playing in the pool, whooping it up while the mother looked on tiredly while she smoked a cigarette. She’d seen better days, and the expression on her face indicated she blamed the children for that and was perhaps hoping they’d drown. Another young woman was tanning in a lounge chair, lying on her back and displaying an impressive set of breasts that Joe expertly evaluated as the result of some plastic surgery. Her tan was dark and very even, and Joe found himself wondering if she had tan lines or if she wore the suit out of some sort of consideration for the children. He suspected she had a future in either the strip club or porn industries, if not already so employed. The mother occasionally glanced over at her, as if remembering more carefree days of her own. She caught sight of Joe, and slowly gave him an evaluative look that made him think her interest might be professional; even mothers can be pros, especially in this environment. He ignored her and made his way to Morrison’s apartment, which was on the second level. He knocked.

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Joe could hear someone moving around inside. He was surprised when the door opened to reveal a large woman. She was older, in her fifties, and neatly dressed. Her grey hair was pulled back in a bun, and her glasses dangled from a cord around her neck. Her features were sharp and disapproving; she looked like an old school librarian, and the look she gave him was a disapproving one she might use for kids talking too loudly. “Yes?” she asked, not sounding friendly about it. Joe told her he was looking for Wayne Morrison. He could hear the sounds further back in the apartment; it was either an action movie on the television or a videogame. “He’s not here,” she said flatly, standing indignantly. Joe doubted the sounds came from anything she’d be watching on her own, and gave her a hard stare until she relented. “Are you a cop?” she asked. Her tone sounded more resigned than angry, and Joe had the strong sense that she was family and that visits from the police were not unfamiliar to her. She might be Morrison’s mother or aunt, maybe even a grandmother, if his mother had had him young enough. He shook his head. “No.” She only seemed slightly relieved. “Are you a friend of Wayne’s?” she asked warily. Joe got the impression that he didn’t quite fit the bill of Wayne’s friends, and that she was used to not being too happy with his choice of friends. Joe rubbed his chin and smiled encouragingly. “No, I don’t think you could say we’re friends. Tell him Joe Russell wants to see him.” She studied him suspiciously, not sure what to make of him. She started to protest that Morrison wasn’t in any condition to see anyone, but Joe cut her off. “Just tell him,” he interrupted quietly but firmly. She seemed to want to argue further but decided against it. She walked back into the apartment. Joe didn’t wait to be invited; he slipped inside

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the open door and followed her quietly, stopping at the end of the hall to listen on the conversation. Morrison didn’t seem to recognize his name, but when the woman described him he became agitated. “That’s the guy I told you about!” he exclaimed. “The guy who wrecked my knee. Don’t let him in.” “Too late,” Joe said, stepping into the small living room. The living room looked like it was ground zero in a battle between order and chaos. Joe didn’t have too much trouble guessing who was on which side. The woman must be continually trying to clean up, fighting against the ongoing mess that Morrison generated. In the area within his arm’s reach chaos ruled, with mostly empty take-out containers and beer bottles scattered about. On his lap was a game controller. At least the parts of the room outside Morrison’s easy reach looked relatively neat, so her cleaning efforts were not totally in vain. The apartment was clearly a guy’s place. The living room was dominated by the big screen television, along with an assortment of game paraphernalia. There was a big leather couch, upon which Morrison was ensconced, and a couple of oversized chairs. No photos, nothing hanging on the wall, no little decorating touches. Joe could see into the kitchen, which at least had the appearance of being recently scrubbed. Either the woman was a close relative or was a cleaning lady getting hazard pay. Joe didn’t want to think about how the bathroom might look. Morrison had looked better. He was sitting on the couch, clad in a ratty bathrobe and shower slides, his injured leg propped up on pillows and impressively bandaged. He looked tired, pale and was unshaven. As soon as he caught sight of Joe his eyes went wide. “Get the hell out of here,” he blustered, not quite hiding the fear in his voice. His hands instinctively moved to protect his bad knee. The woman stood a few feet in front of him, arms crossed, and now half turned towards Joe as if ready to intercept him.

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Joe shook his head at the woman to indicate his benign intentions, and had a moment to size him up. Something in her relented; she judged that he couldn’t be any worse for her son than the other people he hung out with. Gaining her tacit assent, he sauntered to the edge of the couch and sat on the arm. “Wayne, we need to talk.” “I don’t have anything to talk to you about,” Morrison protested. He looked to the woman for support. “Leave him be, Mister,” she said protectively. “Can’t you see he’s hurt?” “Look, I’m not here to hurt him. I just want to talk for a few minutes.” Joe gave his best earnest expression, not wanting to appear menacing at the moment. She wasn’t entirely buying it, but she must have realized he wasn’t going to leave until he had talked to her son. She gave Joe a look of warning, and uncrossed her arms. “I’ll just go watch my show in the bedroom,” she announced. She gave Morrison a loving yet concerned look. “Yell if you need me.” She walked away, giving Joe another warning glance as she went by him. He waited until she’d gone in the bedroom and shut the door. “How’s the leg?” Joe asked conversationally. “Crap,” Morrison retorted. “Like you care. They had to do one operation already and I’ll need another.” He shook his head in dismay. “I did warn you,” Joe reminded him. “Yeah, you warned me all right,” Morrison agreed glumly. He looked at Joe plaintively. “Did you have to fuck me up so bad?”

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“I don’t mess around, Wayne,” Joe told him. “If I need to put someone down, I’m going to make sure they stay down.” Morrison made a face and shrugged. “So what do you want?” he asked with an air of resignation. “You said you didn’t come to hurt me.” “Theresa Morales is dead.” Joe said this in as flat a tone as he could. Morrison raised his hands in a halting signal. “Hey – I didn’t have anything to do with that! I’ve been in the hospital or here, and I’m in no shape to hurt anybody.” Joe shook his head reassuringly. “If I thought you were part of it, I wouldn’t be so nice.” Morrison was quiet for a moment, looking anywhere but at Joe. He took a deep breath. “I heard it was a gang thing,” he said in an unconvincing tone. Joe laughed. “A gang thing! Did Alex Perlman tell you that?” Morrison’s face blanched at the mention of Perlman’s name. “I told Perlman I don’t want anything to do with him.” He looked up at Joe with amazement. “That asshole wouldn’t even take me to the hospital, and he says he’s not paying for my medical bills. Says a bodyguard that gets beat up that easily isn’t worth anything.” Morrison’s face got heated just remembering the conversation. “That mother-fucker,” he muttered. Joe let him stew for a few seconds. “You’re not buying this gang thing, are you? You’re not that stupid.” Morrison looked down at the floor for a long moment, then up at Joe. “Look, I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. Alex is crazy, and his old man has the juice to make a guy like me disappear for good.”

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Joe considered this. “Perlman’s father is in on this?” Morrison shook his head. “He wouldn’t get his hands dirty killing someone like Theresa Morales, but he’s used to cleaning up Alex’s messes.” He leaned forward slightly. “And believe me, Alex has had some messes.” “So who would have helped Alex? It took more than one person to do what they did to her.” Morrison snorted. “Alex always has people help him with the shit he does. You met a couple of them.” “Neugart and Torpy?” Joe asked. “Look, mister, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there, and no one told me anything. I don’t want to know anything.” He stopped for a moment, then looked Joe in the eyes. “But if Alex was there, so were Noah and Chad. The only thing is, Noah’s got that bad arm you gave him, so I don’t know how much use he’d have been. I heard they messed that girl up pretty bad, and I don’t know if Chad and Alex could have done all that by themselves.” He shook his head. “That poor girl. I shouldn’t have let things go so far in the restaurant that night.” Morrison seemed genuinely sorry. He shook his head again. “I thought they were just playing around, but Neugart is mean and Alex – well, Alex is Alex.” “So who would have helped them?” Joe nudged, not wanting to let Morrison wallow in regrets about the original incident. Morrison scowled. “I don’t know. Alex has a lot of people who do things for him, but something like this?” He thought for a moment, idly tapping his game controller. “How bad was it?” he asked in a quiet tone that indicated he was afraid to find out.

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“Pretty bad,” Joe told him frankly. Morrison did not appear surprised. He nodded in confirmation. “Alex’s dad has a couple guys. We used to call them the Wolfmen, you know, like Harvey Keitel’s character in ‘Pulp Fiction.’ They clean up Alex’s bad messes, and they are not people you want to fuck with.” Joe asked for their real names, but Morrison professed ignorance, and Joe believed him. He asked if they were police, but Morrison laughed at the idea. Joe described Welshbacher and Kovlun, and Morrison said they might be the guys, but he didn’t sound too sure. He claimed to not know the men’s names. It appeared Joe had gotten all he was going to get from Morrison. He stood up. “Who’s she?” Joe asked, nodding towards the closed bedroom door. Joe had no doubt she had her ear pressed against the door, straining to hear every word. Morrison let a small smile flash. “That’s my Moms.” He laughed in surprise. “No matter how badly I mess up, she still tries to take care of me.” “Maybe you should try harder not to mess up,” Joe advised him. He stared at Morrison until he nodded his head in embarrassed agreement. Joe started towards the door but Morrison called out for him. “Mr. Russell?” Joe turned. “Yeah?” “These guys, Mr. Perlman’s guys?” Morrison said awkwardly. “What about them?” Morrison didn’t quite know how to say what he wanted to say. He cleared his throat. “These are hard guys,” he warned at last. He gave Joe a meaningful look. “Guys like you.”

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Chapter 18 Joe used his phone to bring Juanita up-to-date on his drive back toward town. They briefly discussed the elder Perlman’s fixers, debating if they were Welshbacher and Kovlun or two other goons. “Be nicer if we didn’t have two unknowns to be on guard for,” Juanita offered. “Yeah, but if it’s them the bad cop thing is worse than we thought,” Joe replied. “It’s one thing to cover up a murder for their boss, but if they were active participants…” “Bad either way,” Juanita decided. She went on to tell Joe that Neugart had gone to play golf after he’d split up with Perlman, going to an exclusive oceanside club. She was parked outside the club’s entrance, watching for Neugart’s car. “What, you didn’t want to play behind him?” Joe teased her. “I don’t think this club lets people in who don’t need help tanning,” she told him dryly. “Plus, I took the opportunity to grab some take-out and use the restroom. So I’m just sitting here until he comes out. Have I ever mentioned I hate stakeouts?” Juanita gave Joe the name of the club, and he used his phone to get directions. Twenty minutes later he was at the entrance. He didn’t spot where Juanita was parked, but he wouldn’t have taken the chance to acknowledge her even if he had. He hoped her belated lunch was good, at least. The club had security at the gates, but wasn’t so exclusive that they stopped everyone entering. Joe and his car evidently looked like he belonged, as the guards merely nodded at him as he cruised through slowly. The grounds were elaborately landscaped, and the clubhouse had been built to make it look as though it was an ornate Scottish castle, except in much better shape. He pulled up to the valet parking area. Joe was driving a nice Mercedes sedan – not his, but not traceable to anyone else – but here a car like that was the minimum expected. It didn’t impress the valets at all, and they greeted him

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politely but without enthusiasm. He gave one of them his keys and told them he wouldn’t be long. He wasn’t exactly dressed for golf, but his khakis, polo short, and boat shoes didn’t look entirely out-of-place either. Joe sauntered over to the golf cart stand. “Hey, could I grab one of those?” he asked the attendant. The attendant, who was neatly dressed in grey pants and a blue shirt with the club’s name and logo discreetly printed on it, looked at him skeptically. “Are you playing today, sir?” he asked, no doubt noting the lack of golf shoes, not to mention a golf bag. He was used to the golf’s members making unusual requests and to acting as though nothing they did was out of the ordinary. It led to better tips. “I’m late,” Joe told him breezily. “My friends have my stuff. I’m with Mr. Neugart.” “Ah, yes, of course,” the man replied knowingly. Joe hoped Neugart didn’t have a foursome already, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the club’s workers weren’t used to Neugart bending the rules. “They are probably on the eighth hole by now, sir.” Joe gave him a twenty, and set off in the cart. He quickly consulted the map of the course layout, then headed towards the refreshment stand that was between the ninth and tenth holes, figuring Neugart and his group would stop there. The course was gorgeous. The fairways were rolling and evenly cut, meticulously groomed, and the greens were smooth and dark green. Even the roughs didn’t deserve the name, being too intentionally manicured. He drove past Neugart on the green of the eighth hole; he had two friends with him, and didn’t notice Joe zipping by in his cart as they trash talked each other, using language that no doubt was prohibited in the club’s handbook. The refreshment stand was a picturesque one story wooden building, discreetly tucked in a grove of trees. There were several tables on a patio, as well as a small inside seating area. Joe used the extra time before Neugart arrived to order a hot dog and a soda; Juanita’s mention of lunch had reminded himself that he should eat too. He took one of the tables at the edge of the patio.

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It was another five or ten minutes before Neugart and his friends arrived. He could hear them almost as soon as he could see them; they were evidently having a good time, and Joe suspected the beer girl had been busy serving them on the front nine. Probably not just beer either. They went to the counter and flirted vigorously with the pretty young girl there, taking it a few comments beyond friendly flirting. She managed to keep a smile on her face but it appeared strained. Joe figured she was used to this kind of thing, and hoped the tips were as outrageous as the comments. She made him think of Theresa Morales and it made him angry in a cold way. Finally Neugart and his friends got their food and headed to the patio, promising to come see the girl later, which she probably hoped was just the beer talking. They were smiling and arguing about which of them was going to get the girl. It took Neugart a couple glances to place Joe. His double take was comical, and he froze. It took his friends a couple seconds to realize he wasn’t kidding around. They stopped a few steps beyond him. “Dude, what is it?” one of them asked uncertainly. “Hello, Chad,” Joe said casually. “That shoulder bothering your game?” Joe wouldn’t have thought it possible for the expression on Neugart’s face to grow more exaggerated, but evidently it was. Joe knew that Neugart had to deal with the fact that Joe both had found him and knew his name, neither of which Neugart would have thought possible. “What, what are you doing here?” Neugart asked haltingly, his shoulder twitching as he remembered the pain. “Who is this guy, Chad?” one of the friends said, somewhat belligerently. He was in his mid-twenties, with a slim build, blue eyes, and lanky blond hair. The other friend was darker and thicker, affecting a gangster attitude; his effort to look tough might work in a club but didn’t impress Joe. He eyed the two. “Beat it, boys,” he told them dismissively. “Chad and I have things to talk about.” He looked directly at Neugart with a hard look. “Don’t we, Chad?”

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Neugart appeared torn. He didn’t want to talk to Joe, yet was afraid of what Joe might do should he try to decline. He shook his head. “It’s OK, guys,” he told his friends unconvincingly. “I just need to talk to this guy for a few minutes.” Neugart walked slowly over to Joe’s table, like a prisoner on death row walking to his execution, and sat down heavily. He absently put his basket with a hot dog down on the table, as well as his beer, his hunger evidently dissipated. He eyed Joe anxiously. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?” he asked plaintively. “How do you even know my name?” Joe shook his head. “I’m not here to answer your questions, Chad,” Joe chided him, using Neugart’s first name not in a friendly way but as a way of making him feel like he was a child being reprimanded. Neugart took a quick glance over at his friends before saying anything. “What do you want?” he asked. He clutched his hands together nervously and his eyes darted around everywhere but at Joe. “I’m here about Theresa Morales, of course.” Neugart went pale, although he must have known it was coming. “I didn’t have anything to do with her death,” he protested automatically. “I read it was a gang thing.” Joe leaned in closer. “I’m really tired of hearing people say that. I told your buddy Alex that I was going to hold him responsible if anything happened to her, and something did. Something bad.” Joe’s voice was soft but stern. Neugart leaned in automatically, straining to hear the words yet afraid of them as well. He started to say something but Joe cut him off. “Shut up. I think you were there, and I’m sure Alex was behind the whole thing. You guys are going to have to pay for her death.”

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“Pay?” Neugart asked with a hopeful tone of voice. He perked up at this; paying people off was something he could deal with. He unconsciously looked over at his friends, who were sitting at the table furthest away eating and pretending they weren’t trying to listen in. “Not money, Neugart,” Joe corrected him, causing Neugart to look back at him with scared eyes. “Alex has to take responsibility. You all are going to have to take responsibility. He’s going to go to jail. The question is – are you?” He leaned back and gave Neugart a thoughtful look. “Or are you going to help me?”

Chapter 19 Joe retrieved his car, and left the club. He called Juanita and they agreed to meet at a nearby scenic overlook along the highway, with a good view of the ocean. They parked at opposite ends of the parking lot, and were just two people who each happened to be on the phone to anyone who happened to be watching. It was a beautiful place to sit, and theirs weren’t the only cars in the lot. A couple of cars had other people in them, one a solo occupant taking in the view quietly and the second with a couple of lovers paying attention only to each other. The rest of the cars were empty, as there was a path down to the ocean. There wasn’t much of a beach but one could get to the water’s edge. Joe filled her in on his conversation with Neugart. “So he didn’t break and confess everything, huh?” Juanita noted when he’d finished. “No, but I didn’t really expect him to. He’s scared of me but he’d more scared of Perlman at the moment,” Joe said. He thought for a moment. “I’m not so sure which Perlman, though. The more I find out, the more I think the father is going to be a problem.”

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“You think he killed Theresa?” “No, I rather doubt that. But he sure as hell is involved in covering up Alex’s role in it, including those dirty cops.” Juanita laughed. “And you’ve got proof for all of this, right?” Joe laughed as well. It was a longstanding point of difference between them. “Let’s call it a working theory. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep poking at things and see what happens. I’m going to be very surprised if Perlman’s father doesn’t show up.” They talked about what to do next. Obviously, the person they hadn’t talked to yet was Torpy, although either Perlman or Neugart was likely to have warned him of Joe’s presence by now. They’d be circling the wagons. He’d have the broken arm, of course, but unlike Morrison he probably was up and around. “I feel pretty useless just following you around,” Juanita complained. “You’re going to come in handy, I’m sure of it,” Joe assured her. “Think of you as my secret weapon.” “Maybe you should lay low and be the secret weapon,” she retorted. “After all, they’ll be looking for you.” They argued half-heartedly about it for a couple more minutes. “Maybe some sugar would get us further than just trying to scare these guys?” Juanita suggested. “What do you mean?” Juanita told him, and, after some mild argument, they sketched out a plan for the evening. Before that, though, they agreed to stakeout the funeral service later that afternoon, just to

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see who showed up. “It’s what I do when I’m investigating a murder,” Juanita said. “Plus, I want to see if those two clowns show up.”

Nothing remarkable happened at the funeral service, held at a small Catholic church. The original church had been established by Spanish priests back in Conquistadors days, some four hundred years ago. The original building had not survived, unfortunately; the plaque on the church indicated it had first been badly damaged in the early 19th century by an earthquake, then a fire late in that century rendered it unusable. The current building dated from the early 1900’s, and must have been quite expensive for the time, judging by the lavish detail – mosaic tiling, various carved stone figures, some impressive stained glass, and, of course, the large bell in the steeple. The site of the church was on a small hill, and it had carefully cultivated grounds that thrived despite the arid climate. One had to wonder how many gardeners it required, or if parishioners were expected to volunteer an hour or two a week. At one time the church must have been the only building in the immediate area, but over time other establishments had risen around it, including some other churches. It still was the most impressive building for blocks. Joe and Juanita took up positions on opposite sides of the church, and for a while kept busy by taking photos of the attendees. He recognized Isabella, and assumed the people who arrived with her were the rest of her family. Joe figured there must have been about a hundred people, which must be close to capacity for the church, at least judging by the crowded parking lot. Once the doors had closed, though, there was not much activity. “You figure you’ll get that many people at your funeral?” Juanita asked him via the phone, just to make conversation. “Sure,” he said. “Lots of people will be glad to see me dead, don’t you think?” “Stop it,” she chided him. “The people who want you dead probably won’t know you’re dead until long after you’re dead, if then. But you’d have lots of family there.”

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“What about you?” he asked. “You’ve got a pretty good sized family, don’t you?” “Yeah, but not so many of them are younger than me. Unless my cousins and I get busy, there may not be too many of us left.” Juanita sounded slightly regretful. “Maybe you’ll die young,” Joe teased, trying for light-hearted but not entirely pulling it off. They both knew that, given what they did, dying too young was a real possibility. Fortunately the service was only forty-five minutes or so, and then people started coming out of the church. He and Juanita followed the procession to the cemetery, using different routes. The cemetery was also old, and fairly large. The grounds were immaculately kept, and filled with headstones of varying sizes – some modest, some ornate to the point of being garish. Either way, their collective mass made the grounds seem like a battleground between stone and grass, and the stone was winning. It was a little sobering that so many people had died in this relatively small area. Eventually, the grass would prevail, unless some developer intervened. Joe always wondered what happened to cemeteries once they were full, and presumably had no more money coming in. Had they established trusts, did they reuse the plots after a certain period of time, or did they simply get bulldozed over? It probably wasn’t something he wanted to think about, which was the kind of attitude that allowed developers to eventually wipe them away. He parked a hundred yards away from the Morales gathering and settled in. He didn’t see Juanita’s car but was sure she was somewhere close. The crowd at the gravesite was much smaller than had been at the service – presumably family and close friends only. Joe felt like an interloper even watching them, and was glad he hadn’t taken Isabella up on her suggestion for him to attend. He still felt odd about the whole thing. He didn’t like funerals; he’d known too many people who had died, and had caused the deaths of too many people. Whether those deaths were justified or not was something he didn’t let himself dwell on. In this particular case, he still felt responsible. His preventing a depraved attack on Theresa had simply led to an even

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worse, and ultimately mortal, attack. Still, he didn’t know how else he could have played it; he couldn’t have let her rape simply happen in the restaurant, and he couldn’t have watched her every minute after that. He’d warned her, but maybe he should have been more explicit. He shook his head. “Jesus Christ, do you see this?” Juanita said in his ear on the phone. Joe saw what she must have been referring to. Alex Perlman, Torpy, and Neugart had pulled up and parked on the road about fifty yards from the service, at the end of a group of cars parked for a service on the other side of the road. They got out of their car, dressed casually and laughing. “Those assholes,” he muttered. He watched them for a second, then noticed something else. Welshbacher and Kovlun had parked by the mourners’ cars and were leaning casually against their car, in their suits and sunglasses. They pretended to ignore Perlman and his friends. He alerted Juanita of their presence as well. “Gang’s all here,” she said dryly. “I guess Chad didn’t finish his golf game after your little chat.” “I guess not,” Joe agreed. He saw that the Morales family had noticed the arrivals of both sets of outsiders. They didn’t seem to pay much attention to the police, but there clearly were some hard feelings about the presence of Perlman and his friends. The latter didn’t make things easier by their attitude. They stood by the car, having a good time and making too much noise. They’d have been inappropriate in a public park, but in a cemetery, at the gravesite of a person they might have been involved in the death of – well, they were making a statement. “I don’t think those cops are going to do anything about them,” Juanita observed, getting angry. Had it been her case and some jokers showed up to disrespect her victim, she’d have been all over them, even if they weren’t suspects.

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“Yeah, but I’m worried that the family might,” Joe added, watching Theresa’s father and brother getting visibly more annoyed and having to be counseled by the rest of the family to stay calm. “Perlman probably wants them to do something, so he can have his pet police arrest them for assault. Just to add insult to injury.” He thought for a moment. “Juanita, if I were to attract their attention for a few minutes, are you in a position where you could slip behind their car?” She was silent for a long moment, thinking about it and weighing her options. “I think so,” she decided. “Yeah, sure. They’re pretty close to the car, though, so if you want me to key or break a window, they’re likely to hear me.” “I think they’ll be paying attention to me,” he promised. “Besides, you can be more subtle than that, can’t you?” Joe gave her a few minutes head start, then got out of his car and started strolling along the road towards Perlman and his friends. As he got closer he cut across the grass, so he was approaching them directly in front of them – and between them and the Theresa Morales’ grave. He could see that he was attracting attention from all parties – from Perlman, from the detectives, and from the Morales. He just kept walking slowly, hands in his pockets. Perlman and his friends grew quiet as he got closer, standing nervously in a loose semi-circle facing him. He stopped about fifteen yards away from them. They had moved a few feet away from the car, as he’d hoped. They were trying to appear tough yet indifferent. “You don’t belong here,” Joe told them softly. He saw Juanita walking near some tombs on the other side of the road, just another mourner. Perlman turned his head both ways to check with Torpy and Neugart before returning to look at Joe. “It’s a public place,” he announced defiantly. “We can be here if we want to.”

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Joe shook his head. “It’s actually a private cemetery, and I expect that if the Morales complained about you they could have you escorted off the premises.” He had been discreetly keeping his eye on Juanita. She had managed to be effectively invisible by not pretending to have anything to hide. She just looked like a pretty woman out for a stroll, nothing to hide and not a care in the world. It would take some careful attention to notice that she was using the contours of the ground, the trees, and the parked cars to make tracking her progress difficult. She’d reached the other side of Morales’ car, and stooped out of sight, like she might be bending over to fix her shoe. Joe’s assertion seemed news to the trio, but Perlman was still trying to bluff his way through. “So let them.” “More importantly,” Joe continued. “I don’t want you here. I told you to stay away from Theresa and you didn’t. You think you can bother her family?” “Didn’t turn out so well for her, did it?” Torpy sneered. Perlman laughed at this, but Neugart kept looking at Joe nervously. He licked his lips anxiously. “How’d you do on that back nine, Chad?” Joe asked Neugart pleasantly. “Alex here must have called you to get you here so soon. Maybe you were to upset to finish anyway – you know, all those guilty feelings.” Joe was amused to see Perlman and Torpy shoot sharp glances at Neugart, wondering what had happened at the golf course and if Neugart had been entirely forthcoming about his run-in with him, if he’d mentioned it to them at all. He turned his attention to Torpy. “You think that arm is all I can do to you, Noah?” Joe asked, like he was surprised. “I was being nice to you.” His face grew hard, and it was the kind of scary look that the three had never seen before, not on him, not on anyone. “I’m not going to be nice to you any more.” Joe caught a glimpse of Juanita standing up and nonchalantly walking away, keeping her face away from Welshbacher and Kovlun in case they had noticed her. She made a discreet OK sign with her left hand to let Joe know she’d accomplished her task. Joe

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thought he detected the car starting to list to the far side, and had to suppress his impulse to smile. Perlman looked over at the two cops without thinking about it. It was clear he was hoping that they’d come to the rescue, and that was further evidence of the connection between them. Sure enough, they detached themselves from their car and starting ambling over to the confrontation, in no hurry. They wanted Joe to realize they were coming. Joe did not let their impending presence spook him. “You better leave us alone,” Perlman blustered with more confidence. “You think so, Alex?” he asked derisively. “Your pet cops going to help you?” “Who’s calling us pet cops?” Welshbacher asked lazily, moving to a position in between Joe and Perlman. Kovlun stood behind Joe, off his left shoulder. “I did,” Joe admitted with no embarrassment. “I figure, you and your junior partner here let some murder suspects watch the funeral of their victim, I got to figure you’re somebody’s pet.” He gave Welshbacher an insolent look. Welshbacher was not happy. “Murder suspects?” he chuckled with mock amusement. “Oh, that’s right, you and your crazy theories. Didn’t I tell you? We have some pretty good intel that says she was killed by a Mexican gang. Isn’t that right, Detective Kovlun?” He looked at Kovlun with a smile. “That’s right,” Kovlun agreed loudly. “In fact, we’re pretty sure that the killer’s name was Jose. Or maybe Jesus, I get all those names confused.” He and Welshbacher laughed.

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“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up there now,” Welshbacher declared, nodding towards Theresa Morales’ gravesite. “Got a lot of suspicious looking people up there.” “We should maybe check everybody’s ID,” Kovlun suggested facetiously. “You know, check for priors, see if we got any illegals.” He snickered. Joe looked at Welshbacher, then back at Alex. “It’s not going to work, you know?” Joe told him quietly. “What?” Alex asked in surprise. “Hey!” Welshbacher interrupted in a harsh tone. “Don’t you go talking to him while I’m talking to you.” He moved close to Joe, trying to intimidate him. Joe looked him squarely in the eye. “I think I know about as much about Perlman and his buddies as I need to, Welshbacher,” he told him. “I’m still trying to figure you and your partner out.” “What do you mean, figure us out?” Kovlun asked, a trace of uncertainty in his voice. “You know, Keith,” Joe replied mildly. “If you and your partner are bent, or really crooked.” “That’s Detective Kovlun to you, buddy,” Welshbacher snarled, poking Joe in the chest with his index finger for emphasis. “And I’m Detective Welshbacher. You need to show us some respect, and you better stop running your mouth.” His gaze was fierce. “You poke me again, and I’ll break your finger off,” Joe promised, his voice mild but his tone anything but. His look back at Welshbacher was every bit as intense, and then some, as Welshbacher’s, and for a few seconds there was a battle of wills. Welshbacher was not used to civilians standing up to him, or anyone not being scared of him when he

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wanted them to be. But there was a quiet yet sure confidence about Joe that unnerved him somehow. It could have gone either way, escalated to violence. Joe figured that, if it came to that, Kovlun would attack first, maybe with his baton, maybe just trying to restrain his arms. Then Welshbacher would step in. But Joe had some advantages. He knew Kovlun wouldn’t attack without some signal from Welshbacher, so he listened closely for sounds of Kovlun moving closer. He also knew how to react to attacks like this, even if all five tried. And, as his ace card, there was Juanita, whom they didn’t know anything about and wouldn’t be prepared for. Joe was pretty sure the odds were on his side, despite how it might seem to Welshbacher or Perlman. Welshbacher was the first to break off the stare and end the confrontation. He probably couldn’t have explained why, other than a longtime cop’s instinct about when it was better to cool things off rather than to escalate. He took a half step back. “You do that and I’ll arrest you for assaulting a police officer,” he warned. Joe shrugged. “You’d still be missing a finger,” Joe noted. “And there’s too many witnesses who’d testify that you provoked it.” Welshbacher glared at him. “There won’t always be witnesses around,” he warned with an evil smile. “And you won’t always have that badge,” Joe shot immediately back. Welshbacher seemed surprised, then narrowed his eyes. “I find you in an alley someplace, I’ll take off my badge, and you’re going to get the beating of your life.” Joe smiled at him, amused. He looked back at Kovlun, then checked Perlman and his friends before looking back at Welshbacher. “You going to bring all your friends here, just to make it a fair fight?”

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Welshbacher glared at him. He pointed to Joe – keeping his finger safely out of reach – and told him, “you wait, Russell. One of these days…” He shook his head and smiled. “Come on, Kovlun, let’s get out of here.” He and Kovlun started to walk away. “That’s right, asshole,” Perlman sneered. “One of these days you’re going to get it.” Joe fixed him with a hard stare. “You’re going to need more help than those two, Alex,” he advised. He shook his head and gave each of them a hard look. “You guys better grow up and take responsibility for what you did, because I’m not leaving town until you do.” He turned and started to walk away. He had only taken a few steps before he stopped and turned back to them, figuring Juanita had had time to slip away by now. He noticed the car was listing to the far side. “Too bad about your car,” he said with no tone of sympathy. Then he turned back and walked away, leaving them looking at each other in confusion.

Chapter 20 Juanita sashayed in to the club where Torpy was hanging out around ten. She was wearing tight jeans and a silky blouse that loosely showed some cleavage as well as her nicely toned arms. She was not a dainty girl; rather she was curvy and strong, and just about everything about her spelled exotic in this locale. Most of the heads at the bar turned to watch her, and she appeared to bask in the attention without specifically acknowledging anyone’s gaze. She took a seat at the bar and ordered a martini from the bartender who had magically appeared as soon as she sat down. “You know there’s a bunch of guys here who’ll pay for that, don’t you?” he offered with a knowing expression. “Run a tab,” she suggested in amusement.

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“The first one’s on me,” he told her. He was a good looking young man, about thirty, with an easy smile and sparkling eyes. His dark hair was carefully styled into a look that was supposed to convey casualness, as was his deliberately day-old scruff. From the open button on his silk shirt, Juanita could see his surprisingly smooth chest had welldeveloped pectorals. She got the sense he was the type who enjoyed the perks of his job, and that not all of his tips came in cash. “You being new here and all. My name’s Billy.” Juanita sipped her martini. He wasn’t exactly her type, she thought, but she’d done worse. In a different situation she might let him work for a play at her. “You make a good drink, Billy. Now leave me alone until I need you again.” She purposely did not offer her name and he was left with the definite impression she was here for richer fish. It didn’t much matter to him; she was hot, but he played the percentages, and he wasn’t going to force the issue. Besides, he’d be here all night in case she struck out in her search. He could afford to wait. His prediction was correct. Several men came over to her stool to offer to buy her another drink, but each one of them got turned away with amused indifference, making them feel like they were teenagers and she was the discriminating adult. The place was busy but not yet packed. There were lots of big screen televisions blaring away, playing music videos that went along with the dance music that was playing. Most of the people there were drinking and eating appetizers, and was split fairly evenly between men and women, still largely in the same-sex packs they’d arrived in but hoped they wouldn’t be leaving with. The women who were there had come to play, with skimpy outfits that nonetheless looked almost conservative compared to the outfits worn by the servers – short skirts and halter tops or low cut mini-dresses, most of which were filled with enhanced breasts. Torpy’s arm was encased on a blue fiberglass cast. It didn’t exactly hurt at the moment but it didn’t help his game. He and his friend were keeping their eyes on the available women – both the women without escorts as well as the ones who had come with a man.

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They had fun debating which of the men they could separate from their women, either through intimidation of the man or by making a better case to the woman. Torpy, of course, noticed Juanita, watching her arrive and appreciatively following her with greedy eyes as she went to her seat, but he probably would not gone after her on his own, figuring she was not someone he could easily get drunk and take advantage of. She was confident in a way that scared him a little. “Man, Alex would like that piece,” he muttered to his companion, watching her in the bar’s mirror out of the corner of his eye. Indeed, she was the kind of classy broad Alex liked to go after, using his father’s money to impress them so he could sleep with them and then dump. His friend shook his head, not taking his eyes off Juanita. “I don’t know, man,” he replied. “I think she’s been looking over at you.” “Get the fuck out,” Torpy protested, his heart beating more rapidly nonetheless. He snuck a look over at her, and, sure enough, she smiled at him. He quickly looked away and gulped. There were other women in the place who were probably prettier, and certainly ones who were flaunting more of their assets more openly, but no doubt she was a prize. And she was practically giving him an invitation. “What are you waiting for, man?” his friend egged him on. “She wants you.” Noah Torpy didn’t usually lack for confidence, especially not with women, but he was accustomed to a different type of woman. Her being good looking wasn’t the problem, but her confidence and evident class were. Plus, he had to admit, he hadn’t had much luck with African-American women. Still, he didn’t want to look like a coward in front of his friend; he’d never hear the end of it. He downed the remains of his drink. “OK, OK,” he muttered to his friend, or perhaps to himself. He steeled up his nerve and tried on his confident smile. “Here I go.” He walked down to where Juanita was sitting. “Anyone sitting here?” he asked, nodding towards an empty barstool next to her. She coyly looked down at it, as if to indicate the seat was vacant at the moment, then looked away. Torpy figured that was as much of an

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invitation as he was likely to get, and slid onto the stool. “Hey, Billy,” he called out to the bartender. “Another Scotch for me, and another of whatever the lady is drinking.” Juanita held up her martini glass, which was still mostly full. “I think you’re premature,” she said in a low voice. She batted her eyes at him. “Is that something you have a problem with generally?” Torpy definitely wasn’t her type. For one thing, he wasn’t tall enough. More of the problem was his air of assumed entitlement, as manifested by his overt confidence. If he’d approached her in other circumstances, she’d have enjoyed shooting him down. She had to remind herself not only to not do so, but also to feign interest. At least, she consoled herself, she didn’t have to appear too eager. The bartender brought them the new drinks, his face carefully neutral, and Torpy grabbed his quickly, blushing at her comment. He forced his smile up a notch. “I don’t get any complaints, no. Although I can see how a beautiful woman like you could cause a man to explode.” Juanita arched an eyebrow. “My, my,” she replied thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t want you to explode.” She eyed him up and down. “That’d be a waste of a good man.” Torpy couldn’t believe how well things were going. “My name is Noah,” he told her. “What’s yours?” “Eva,” Juanita suggested, for no reason other than to not give him her real name. He asked her where she was visiting from, adding that he knew she couldn’t be from here, or he’d have noticed her before. Juanita pretended to appreciate the flattery. “I’m from Chicago,” she lied. “I’m here for a conference and came down a couple days early to relax.”

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Torpy couldn’t believe his luck. If he played his cards right, he calculated, he could have a couple days of hot sex with this beauty before she had to go to her conference. “Well, I’m the man to show you around. We could have a lot of fun.” He leered at her slightly, and Juanita had to work to avoid laughing at his cockiness. “Is there a lot to do around here?” she asked innocently. “I was thinking I might go down to La Jolla or San Diego to check them out.” “Oh, yeah, you got everything you’d want around here,” he said hurriedly, seeing his chances diminish. “Great beaches, lots of good clubs, great restaurants. I know all the places.” Juanita wrinkled her brow. “I don’t know,” she said worriedly. “I heard it isn’t safe around here. Didn’t I read that some woman was raped and killed just recently?” Torpy had to pause a second and work to keep his face clear of emotion. He replaced the smile with a fake concerned look. “Oh, yeah, that was a terrible thing,” he said. “She was a local girl – you know, Hispanic – and she just got mixed up with the wrong people.” Juanita gave him a dubious look. “What do you mean?” Torpy felt he was losing her, but he wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe she was part Hispanic; her complexion was mixed enough that it was possible. “You know,” he offered hurriedly. “Gangs.” Juanita pretended to be surprised. “Gangs? Here?” “Oh, yeah,” Torpy said expansively. “There are gangs in most of Southern California. But it’s not a problem, not usually. You just have to know where to go.” He gave her his best smile. “That’s why you need someone like me to show you around.”

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Juanita nodded, affecting being impressed. “Did you know the girl? I mean, you seem like the kind of guy who knows a lot of people.” Torpy had had a couple drinks and he was in the full flush of trying to impress a potential conquest, but he knew he had to be very careful. Perlman’s father had been very clear about what their story was and the importance of sticking to it. Still, he did want to impress her with how well he knew things around town, plus he was afraid he might have offended her about the gang thing. If she thought he had something against Hispanics she might think he had something against other persons of color. He didn’t mind either, he believed, as long as they knew their places and stayed in them, although he was willing to make a temporary exception for his new acquaintance. “Knew her?” he said hesitantly. “I met her, yeah, but I don’t know that I could say I knew her. Not really.” He was quite pleased with himself. “What was her name?” “Theresa Morales,” he replied without thinking, mentally kicking himself for answering so quickly. She gave him a puzzled look. “I thought you didn’t really know her.” Torpy felt a moment of panic. “Yeah, well, she was a waitress at a place I go sometimes.” He forced a smile. “So I’d see her there, you know?” “Uh-huh,” Juanita remarked with some doubt. Torpy was too stupid to be the brains behind a break-in at a kindergarten. She looked in the mirror at the dining room and nodded towards some of the servers. “You know all their first and last names too?”

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Now he really was starting to sweat a little. “Umm, well, you know, she was a good kid,” he improvised. “We’d talk a little when I came in. I, um, tried to help her with school and all.” Juanita gave him a knowing look. “Did you go out with her? I saw a picture of her -she was a pretty girl.” She winked at him. Torpy was again torn between denying everything and wanting to impress a date. “No, nothing like that,” he denied. “I just recognized her, you know, when I saw the thing on TV.” He was pleased with himself for his quick thinking, unaware of how lame it sounded to Juanita. She ran into a lot of bad liars in her police work, and he was in the bottom quartile. Juanita toyed with her drink. “Sounded pretty bad. That poor girl must have been scared to death. The thing I don’t understand is why no one saw anything, you know? Wasn’t she killed out on the beach?” She took a sip of her drink. Torpy really wanted to get off this line of conversation. “Well, you know, it was dark. And the place she was killed is kind of off the beaten path. You know, kind of secluded.” She looked over at him appraisingly. “You know where she was killed?” He cursed himself for saying what he’d said and desperately tried to remember what had been in the news reports. “Umm, well, I know people, like on the police force.” He smiled more confidently, pleased at his quick recovery. “I know the place. I’ve been there lots of times.” “Really?” Juanita let herself seem very impressed. “I could show you,” he told her, fighting conflicting feelings. He knew it was stupid to bring her there, but the thought of having sex with this beautiful woman in the same place

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they’d raped Theresa Morales got him very excited. He thought he saw a similar excitement in her eyes, but, as he’d find out, he was wrong about what it was for.

Chapter 21 Torpy tried to convince Juanita that he should drive them both, claiming the place he was taking her was a little out of the way, but she scoffed at the idea. “Honey,” she told him with an amused expression. “I said I was from Chicago – not Iowa. It’s bad enough I’m going off to some ‘secluded’ beach with a guy I just met in a bar, but letting him drive?” She laughed and shook her head. He sheepishly told her he’d just been trying to make it easy for her, but in the end he agreed she could follow him. They went out to the parking lot and got their cars. He was driving a Lexus SC 10, and wasn’t much impressed with her car, a Toyota Camry. She told him it was a rental, which was actually the truth. It didn’t much matter to Torpy; he wasn’t after her for her money, after all. “OK,” he agreed grudgingly, “but it’s a great night for a drive with the top down.” Juanita assured him she’d be fine, noting she’d put her windows down. Joe and Juanita had scouted out the beach in question during the afternoon. It was a small cove down off the highway a few miles. The cove itself was down a rocky hill from the road and was not visible from the road, or even from the beach from further than a hundred yards in either direction. Joe had the advantage of knowing where they were going as he followed them at a distance once they set off from the bar. He called Juanita. “So far, so good,” he told her. Juanita smiled, even though she knew he couldn’t see it. “Did you have any doubts?” “He could have picked up someone else before you got there,” Joe pointed out. “Or maybe he wouldn’t have been attracted to you.”

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“Joe Russell,” she retorted, sounded offended. “Did you see how I look tonight?” She chuckled. “No way he was going to pass this up, not once I gave him the look.” “I didn’t doubt you for a minute.” Joe still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the situation, but he reminded himself that Juanita could take care of herself. “OK, I’ll give you a couple minutes to get down to the cove.” “Take your time. I know how to stall if I want to.” Torpy pulled into a pull-off area above the cove, behind a grove of trees that obscured the cars from the road. Juanita was right behind him. She put on her game face as she got out of the car. The sun was almost down and the twilight scene was quite pretty. Still, she reminded herself with a shiver, this was where Theresa Morales had met her end in an ugly way. She hadn’t known Theresa, but she’d investigated too many other attacks on young women to not be outraged by the men who perpetrated the attacks. “It’s kind of dark,” she told Torpy, letting a note of uncertainty slip into her voice. He grinned at her. “No worries. I know where we are going.” She took hold of his arm – taking care to grab the one not in the cast – as they started down the path. “You never told me what happened to your arm,” she said innocently. Torpy tried to not let the memory of being humiliated by Russell get to him as he tried to come up with a suitable response. “Oh, hey, it was kind of a crazy thing,” he lied with a confident air. “Some friends and I were doing some extreme water-skiing and I hit the water kind of hard on one move.” “So you’re not too good with water-skiing, huh?” Juanita commented, not sounding too impressed. He lamely tried to protest, but she just laughed, which was starting to make him mad. He planned to show her what he was good at, whether she liked it or not.

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They had reached the bottom. The waves washed up in the cove, which was also fed by a small stream that came from a crack in the hills to the east. The waves were the only sounds one could hear; even though they weren’t at their peak, their regular rhythm made the only noises that they could hear. They could have been the only people left on earth or there could have been a motorcade back up on the highway; one couldn’t tell the difference. “Wow, it really is isolated,” Juanita said, not having to pretend. Torpy smiled. “Yeah, me and my buddies used to come here when we were in high school. You know, get a keg, bring some friends, start a bonfire and party all night. No one ever bothered us.” He sounded pretty pleased with himself. “Kind of funny that the girl got killed right where you and your buddies used to party, don’t you think?” He looked at her strangely, not sure what she was suggesting. “Umm, you know – a lot of people knew about this place.” “Even those gang members? Did you have a lot of gang members in your school?” she asked, a smile on her face but not in her eyes. “Don’t even try to tell me you went to some public high school.” Torpy was glad it was semi-dark out, because he was pretty sure his face was flushed. He had to think about an answer for a second before he replied. He shrugged. “You know, probably someone showed it to their drug connection.” “What about you, Noah?” she asked, staring at him with her pretty brown eyes. “You got a drug connection?” He wasn’t sure if she was asking him if he’d shown the cove to a gang member, or if she might be asking him if he had or could get some drugs. He happened to have a couple hits of coke on him, some weed, and a roofie, should he get the chance to slip it to her.

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Torpy forced himself to smile, glad she was still holding on to his arm and liking the feel of her against his arm. He didn’t mind if she was a little scared; in fact, he was counting on it. He had his knife in his jacket’s left pocket, but he couldn’t get to it without her letting go of his arm. “I can get some if I need to, darling,” he admitted. “What about you – you want to get a little high? Have a little party?” He was hard, wanting to fuck this woman in the same spot they’d done Theresa Morales. He wanted to be nasty and he wanted to hurt her, maybe scare her with the knife. Maybe cut her a little. He was breathing a little hard in excitement. Joe came out of the twilight at that moment. “Hello, Noah,” he said easily, like he happened to be running into an old friend at the local grocery store. Torpy gaped in surprise, and belatedly tried to reach for his knife. He found Juanita was clutching harder on his arm, making it hard to get at his pocket. He tried to shake her grip but it was too late. “Beat it, honey,” Joe told Juanita, playing out their script. As she let go of Torpy’s arm Joe patted Torpy’s jacket pocket. “Ah-ha, what do we have here?” he announced dramatically, pulling out the switchblade. He shook his head as if disappointed, then slipped it into his own pocket. Juanita disappeared up towards the path, but stopped once she was lost in the darkness, close enough to overhear the conversation. “It’s nothing,” Torpy denied nervously. He’d been aggressive in the restaurant, if foolishly so, but his dressing down there had robbed him of that. Now he was a bully who’d been bested, and he was scared. Joe patted Torpy’s other pockets, like a cop would, and pulled out the bag with Torpy’s little supply of drugs. “This won’t look good on your permanent record, Noah,” he said reproachfully. “What?” Torpy asked. He was still dazed by Joe’s having shown up there at all – how could he possibly have found him, he wondered – plus how did he even know his name?

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It was just impossible. The stuff about a permanent record went completely over his head. Joe opened up the bag and threw the contents towards the water. Torpy watched it go with a sense that this was just the beginning. “Figures you’d need to drug women to sleep with them. That or have some friends hold them down,” Joe said, stepping back. “Speaking of that, how’s the arm?’ “Fuck you!” Torpy snarled, glaring at Joe intensely. “Does it still bother you?” Joe asked, affecting concern. He reached in and grabbed hold of the cast before Torpy could react. Torpy tried to break Joe’s hold but was unable to. Joe held the cast with one hand and took hold of Torpy’s wrist with his other. “I imagine it would still hurt at times.” He twisted Torpy’s wrist just slightly. “Fuck!” Torpy screamed in pain. Joe hadn’t twisted hard at all, but it had hurt plenty, and Torpy’s increasing fear was making him hypersensitive. “Leave me alone!” “Did Theresa say that, Noah? You know, when you and your friends were raping her?” Torpy shook his head vigorously. Tears were starting to come his face, although he was unaware of them. “I don’t know what you are talking about! I wasn’t there.” “Oh, that’s right,” Joe agreed placidly. “It was those gangs.” “That’s right,” Torpy insisted eagerly. “She was killed by gangs. That’s what the TV said.” Joe nodded encouragingly. “So who was in the gang, Noah? You and who else?” “What?” Torpy’s eyes went wide. “No, they were a bunch of Spics.”

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Joe continued as if Torpy hadn’t said anything. “I know Alex was there, of course, and I’m pretty sure your friend Chad was there too. But I’m not sure if the three of you would have been enough to subdue her by yourselves, especially with this arm of yours.” Joe twisted Torpy’s wrist slightly by way of illustration, and Torpy’s knees went weak. “See what I mean? So who else helped you?” “Nobody!” Torpy protested. “I mean, we weren’t there.” “Which is it – nobody helped you, or you weren’t here?” Torpy was panicked and confused. “It wasn’t my idea! Leave me alone!” “I saw her body, Noah,” Joe said in a soft voice. “I saw where you cut her. Just for fun, huh?” He twisted the wrist a little. “Fun like this?” He dragged Torpy over to the water. “Did you put her in the water before or after she was dead? The autopsy said there was some water in her lungs, but she didn’t drown. Were you just scaring her?” Torpy was crying now. “I don’t know, I don’t know.” He fell onto his knees in the surf, getting wet in the process. Joe picked Torpy up and dragged him back onto the sand. He let Torpy fall down again. “Is this where you had sex with her, Noah? Did you let Alex go first, to break her in? With that arm of yours you’d have needed some help before she’d let you touch her.” Torpy covered his face with his hands, still crying. “Maybe she wasn’t even conscious when you were doing it, huh, Noah?” Joe asked. He squatted next to him. “Maybe she was already dead when you had your turn, you sick pervert.” Joe shook his head in disgust. He stood up and took a half step back. He took the knife out and flipped it open experimentally. “Maybe I should cut off your dick. It’d be a blessing to women everywhere.”

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Torpy looked at Joe in terror. “What do you want from me?” he cried out, unable to take his eyes off the knife. “I want you to tell me the truth,” Joe told him in a firm voice. “You and your friends did a bad thing to Theresa Morales. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. You and your friends don’t deserve to get away with it.” Torpy got on his knees, still sobbing. He was used to getting away with things, especially once he’d gotten to know Alex Perlman. He’d grown accustomed to being able to get away with whatever they did. The business with Theresa Morales had been the furthest they’d ever gone, but they’d had no doubts they could get away with that too. Until this man had come along, this force of nature who’d been able to disarm him and break his arm as easily as he apparently had materialized in this deserted cove, like he was Batman or something. “Are you going to kill me?” Joe was quiet for a second. “Probably not,” he replied noncommittally, like he was filing the idea away for future reference. He put the knife down at his side, but did not fold it up or put it away. “But you’re going to have to go to the police and confess.” Torpy took a deep breath and stopped crying after a few seconds. “I can’t go to the police,” he said in a subdued tone. He seemed completely demoralized. Joe stepped back. “Why not, Noah? Why can’t you go to the police?” Torpy looked out at the ocean, so constantly in motion and totally unconcerned with them and their problems. He felt like swimming out until he couldn’t swim anymore, just so he could sink beneath the waves. He seemed lost in memory, and oblivious to Joe’s question. “I didn’t know they were going to kill her,” he said numbly. “I thought we were just going to teach her a lesson, you know – have some fun with her. Just gang bang her and let her walk home in shame.”

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“Yeah, then why’d you cut her?” Joe pointed out. The knife wounds hadn’t been the cause of death, Joe knew; they had just been to torture her. Torpy shook his head glumly. “I don’t know, man. I don’t even think I was the only one who cut her. Things just got carried away.” He looked up at Joe. “But I didn’t kill her.” Joe met his eyes. “I believe you, Noah.” He didn’t like Torpy but he thought he wasn’t lying to him at the moment. Still, he thought Torpy would stick a knife in him given the opportunity. “You just need to go to the police and tell them what you did, what you all did. And which one of you killed her.” Torpy bowed his head and stared forlornly at the ground. “I told you -- I can’t go to the police.” Torpy gulped, and bit down on his lip. “They were part of it.” He started crying.

Chapter 22 Joe got back in his car and called Juanita. “Where are you?” he asked without pleasantries. “In a pull-off about a quarter mile towards town,” she replied. Joe asked if she’d been able to overhear his discussion with Torpy, and Juanita confirmed that she had. “So do you think the cops he meant are these two heading the investigation?” she asked. “Welshbacher and Kovlun?” “Occam’s Razor,” he said. “No need to postulate the existence of two more dirty cops.” “Maybe the whole force is bought and paid for,” she argued glumly.

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Joe shook his head, even though he knew she couldn’t see. He saw Torpy emerge up the path and head forlornly towards his car. He was on the phone, and Joe was willing to bet he knew who it was. “Torpy’s on the phone,” he filled her in. “I bet Alex is not going to be a happy camper.” “You think?” she said sarcastically. “Anyway, I don’t think it’s very likely the whole force is bad,” he said, referring to her earlier comment. “Perlman senior is rich but not that rich. Even if he’s running drugs it just doesn’t seem too likely he can buy everyone off. I hope.” She laughed. “Let’s hope you’re not wrong.” Torpy had pulled his car out and was heading back towards town. Joe discreetly pulled out behind him, keeping a safe distance. “We’re on the move.” “I got him,” she said. “I’ll follow you back.” “Listen. Go back to the bar and be friendly.” “Joe Russell, are you trying to get me laid?” she asked coyly. He passed her car, only noticing it because he was looking for it. She was parked in the shadows and slumped down, so it looked like an abandoned car. Torpy wasn’t likely to have spotted it. “No, I think you better establish an alibi. You were seen leaving with him, and I think we need to make sure people know you weren’t with him long.” She pulled out in his wake. “You think Torpy is going to meet any untimely end?” she asked in surprise.

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“I think it depends on how Alex reacts,” he said in a deliberate tone of voice. “Or how worried Welshbacher and Kovlun are about him.” The problem with poking at a hornet’s nest is that the hornets start stinging. Joe wouldn’t feel too sorry if Torpy ended up the one they attacked first.

Juanita strolled back into the club twenty minutes later, looking annoyed. In fact, she was annoyed, but at having to leave Joe to build her alibi here rather than at anything that happened on her would-be date. She had nothing against going clubbing, but not when there was action to be had, especially when that action left a friend at risk. She just had to remind herself this was necessary. The bar had been busy before but now was packed. Evidently there were a lot of rich people in town with time on their hands and a desire to mingle. The alcohol and, she felt sure, drugs served as social lubricants for the crowd. There was a lot of skin showing on most of the women, a lot of ostentatiously expensive clothing and accessories on both sexes, and a lot of forced laughter going on. Juanita couldn’t tell who the locals were and who the visitors were, but it didn’t really matter much; rich knew rich. There were scenes like this going on all over the country, some in fancier surroundings than these, most in places that didn’t have any aspirations for anything other than lust and oblivion. They weren’t trying to create memories to be fondly cherished and shared; things that happened in them or as the result of being in them were best left forgotten or covered up. Some served expensive food, some had fine wine or a wide selection of liquor, some would scoff at anything other than a draft or a forty. All, though, had the heady scent of pheromones, of men and women in heat – for each other or for members of their own sex. Juanita was no stranger to places like this, but usually came to them on her own terms. Tonight she was simply playing a role. She made her way to the bar and squeezed in. It only took a few seconds for Billy to spot her and make his way to her, ignoring calls from louder and more insistent patrons.

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“You’re back,” he said with a pleased smile, raising his voice against the daunting background noise. “Where’s your friend?” She grimaced, and it didn’t take much acting. “My friend,” she said very deliberately, “is a lightweight, and a grabby one at that.” She shook her head. “Takes me to the fucking beach and thinks it really was a beach for fucking.” Billy looked at practiced expression of sympathy. “I could have told you that one was an asshole. I hope it doesn’t spoil your impression of all men.” Juanita gave him a brazen look. “Wouldn’t be the first asshole I’ve walked out on,” she told him. “You going to get me a drink or what?” Billy smiled at her and disappeared for a few seconds. He returned carrying a martini. “See, I remembered.” He placed it in front of her with a flourish. She took a sip. “It’s all right,” she told him judiciously. “I’m really more of a vodka kind of girl, but this will do in a pinch.” He gave her a big smile, and moved off to serve some other customers. Juanita used the mirror over the bar to surreptitiously check out the rest of the crowd, especially looking for the man Torpy had been at the bar with. He was nowhere to be found. Billy returned shortly with a new drink in his hand. “Vodka,” he announced. “Oh,” she said with an unsurprised smile. “Do I have an admirer?” He grinned at her and leaned closer. “You have lots of admirers, beautiful, but this one is from me.” She nodded her head in appreciation at him and took the glass. “Hey, you said you knew that jerk I was with?”

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Billy shook his head in disgust. “He comes in here sometimes. Thinks he’s hot shit, you know. Usually just stays long enough to score a chick or two, then leaves.” He thought for a moment. “Bad tipper,” he added meaningfully, as though that explained everything. She nodded in understanding. “What about the guy he was with? I don’t see him.” Billy shrugged. “Don’t know him. Your boyfriend usually comes in here with some other guys.” Billy lost his easy smile as he contemplated the memory. He shook his head. “Bad bunch,” he told her gravely. He cocked his head and gave her his best smile. “Fortunately there are some nice guys around too.” Juanita gave him a sly look. “Maybe I don’t like nice guys…not all the time.” Billy gave her a look right back that indicated he understood. “He said he was going to take me to the place where that girl was killed.” He gave her a strange look. “You wanted to see that? Why?” He edged away from her slightly, not realizing that he had done so. She shrugged and pretended to look embarrassed yet excited. “I don’t know. Something different. Weird, you know, having someone killed on the beach like that, in a town like this.” She gave a thoughtful look at her drink. “Did you know her? The girl that was killed?” He shook his head, not happy to be talking about the murder; it was bad karma, plus bad for business. “Nah, I didn’t know her. I don’t remember what her name was, but I remember seeing her picture on TV and thinking I didn’t remember ever seeing her. Pretty girl; I’d have remembered.” He made a face. “Screwy thing. Who knew we had gangs around here?”

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“Yeah, how about that?” she said wryly. She surveyed the room slowly and looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Somehow I don’t guess any of these pretty people belong to any.” “Hell, lady,” he laughed. “You’re the toughest person in the room!” He had a feeling there were a lot of rooms where that might be the case.

Juanita stayed for another hour. She nursed her vodka, and at one point made her way to the small dance floor. She arbitrarily picked one young man to dance with, choosing someone hanging at the edge of an entourage. He was good looking in a sweet sort of way and younger than Juanita by a decade, but he seemed to lack confidence. “Dance with me,” she commanded, thinking it was like shooting a baby deer. He looked shocked and intimidated, but she pulled him in her wake before he could protest, to the approving catcalls of his party. He proved to be not a bad dancer, once she got him going, but he was certainly no match for her. In any event, no one was going to remember him, but she was another story. Should it come to it, and she hoped it wouldn’t, there would be multiple people who could testify to her presence there. Besides, she liked to dance, and it helped work off some the pent-up energy she’d been building up, and for a while it took her mind off of wondering what was happening with Joe. Once she had enough dancing, she declined her partner’s breathless entreaty to let him buy her a drink, but hoped that he’d be telling stories about her for at least the rest of the night. She slid back into a seat at the bar and asked Billy for another drink. “Just water this time. I’m thirsty,” she told him. “What do I owe you?” He looked at her reproachfully while he put some ice in a glass and filled it with water. “You leaving?” he asked as he handed it to her. He checked the time. “It’s early yet.” Juanita faked a yawn and took a big drink. “Late for me. I’ve got a big meeting in the morning.” She took out her purse. He waved it away. “Forget it. It’s on me.”

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“I can’t let you do that,” she protested mildly. “Then I’ll run a tab.” He leaned in close. “I’m off in a couple hours. Maybe…” She gave him a smile full of regret. “I’m afraid not tonight, my man.” Her eyes opened wider in unspoken invitation. “But I’ll be in town for a few more days,” she softened her statement. “Maybe I’ll be back.” She didn’t think it was likely but he was kind of cute. “I’ll be here,” he assured her. Billy watched her walk out, and he wasn’t the only one wishing she was leaving with him. She walked out with a cocky gait, and nothing about her struck him as a woman who was tired or who had struck out. In fact, she was energized, because she planned to call Joe and join in wherever he was. Dancing and flirting was all well and good, but somehow life was always more vivid wherever he was. As she left, Billy shook his head at the missed opportunity; he realized that he hadn’t even gotten her name.

Chapter 23 Joe knocked on the Morales’ door. The house was in a nice, upper-middle class development. It had two stories and a curving stone driveway that had several cars parked on it, all expensive. The house and the grounds were all immaculately kept; the Morales had made them so, and were proud of what they’d built – nothing ostentatious, just taking good care of what they’d worked so hard for. The house didn’t have a view of the ocean, but they did have a nice view of the mountains from the front window, and Joe could see the satisfaction of looking out the window in the morning and watching the sun rise over them.

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As he hoped, Isabella opened the door, and her face brightened in surprise. “Mr. Joe Russell,” she exclaimed. She looked quickly back into the house, then faced him with a serious expression. “I was hoping I’d see you.” Joe had to admit to himself that he was glad to see her. Isabella had every right to be crushed with grief for her sister and worry for her family, but she looked great. The pain was visible on her face, but so was the anger about her sister’s murder. It somehow enhanced her beauty. “Is that so?” She nodded, and seemed to weigh her next move. “Did you come here to say hello to my parents?” “I need a favor,” Joe told her. He could obtain the favor elsewhere, but he suspected that the Morales would be able to help. “Let’s go sit,” she suggested, but instead of taking him inside the house she led him to a set of chairs underneath a large tree. The shade was spotty but refreshing nonetheless, and the mountains maintained a haughty grandeur off in the distance. It was a pleasant spot, and Joe thought it would have been nice to sit here with Isabella on a more social occasion. They each took a chair, and Isabella smoothed out a nonexistent wrinkle in her slacks. They looked expensive, as did the linen blouse. It buttoned up the front, yet managed to emphasize her curves without actually exposing anything. Her feet were bare, and she seemed entirely comfortable about that. She scuffed them unconsciously on the ground. “What’s the favor?” “You first,” Joe said. “Why were you hoping to run into me?” Her face was carefully neutral. “I saw you yesterday at the cemetery. My family was quite upset about our unexpected guests. You know, Alex Perlman and his friends.” She wrinkled her face in anger and disgust.

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“Yeah, I thought I should have a little chat with them.” “We noticed,” she noted. “If you hadn’t, I don’t know that we could have kept my family going after them. My family was pretty upset. My brothers were about to confront them when you went to talk to them.” Joe smiled gently. “I figured, but I kind of think that’s what Perlman wanted.” She was quiet for a moment, then a sly smile slipped across her face. “I gathered they had some car trouble right after you left. Couple flat tires, as I understand it. They were pretty mad.” “So there is some justice in the world,” Joe said, enjoying her smile but not admitting anything. Juanita had punched in the tires’ values, so that not only did they quickly bleed air but were impossible to use to refill. Perlman had to have the BMW towed away on a flatbed truck. Joe had asked her where she’d learned that trick, and she’d given him an owlish smile and just told him she hadn’t always been a cop. “I guess that remains to be seen,” Isabella concluded, her face serious again. She wasn’t talking about the flat tires. He looked off in the distance. “I guess so,” he agreed. “I’ve talked to Perlman and his two friends, by themselves.” Isabella looked at him carefully. She wasn’t entirely surprised, but it was hard to say if she was pleased or worried by his admission. Her intuition told her something was up. “You know something, don’t you? You’ve managed to find something out?” She shook her head balefully. “Unlike those pretend detectives.”

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Joe weighed his words. He didn’t know Isabella well, but somehow trusted her. “Yes,” he told her, still not looking at her. “I think I know what happened to Theresa.” His tone was matter-of-fact. “And who did it?” she demanded, a sharp edge in her voice. “Was it Perlman?” Joe turned to her. “Right now I think it’s better if I don’t tell you.” Isabella frowned at him, her disappointment sharp. “Why not?” “It’s going to be messy,” Joe said with a tone of regret, looking off in the distance again. “That’s why I need the favor.” She watched him intently. “You can’t tell me what you know about my sister’s killers, but you want a favor,” she repeated incredulously. She arched her eyebrows and shook her head. She seemed almost amused. “So why would I do you a favor?” Joe smiled, acknowledging the incongruity. “Because you trust me,” he said without any irony or arrogance. She studied him for a long moment, and it could have gone either way. Fortunately, she relaxed and smiled. “That’s right,” she agreed. “I do. I couldn’t really explain why, but I do.” She seemed slightly embarrassed or chagrinned about letting herself trust him so quickly, yet wasn’t fighting her instincts. “I’m a trustworthy guy,” Joe said in a self-deprecating tone. He wasn’t selling but she was buying anyway. “There is something about you that inspires trust,” she told him with a more thoughtful look on her face that her statement required. “Now tell me about this favor.”

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It was nice sitting out here, Joe reflected. Isabella was a smart, pretty woman, and managing to maintain her grace even under the awful circumstances that had brought her home. Joe saw Theresa when he looked at her, could see the woman Theresa might have grown into being had her life not been robbed from her in such an untimely and horrific manner. He wished that he and Isabella could talk of other things. She could tell him about her life in LA, and he could tell her stories about Doug and Melissa. She might have kids of her own, for all he knew, and she’d want to tell him stories of them in return. Or she’d probably have stories about Theresa as a child, stories from better times that would make them both smile. Maybe there would be time later, after all this was over. He liked to think so. If both of them were still alive. “I need to talk to the District Attorney,” he said, sorry to get back to business. “I thought your family might know someone who could get me into see him, preferably today.” “The District Attorney,” she repeated, no doubt wondering why he wanted that meeting while at the same time sorting through her mental list of contacts. She brightened. “Of course. My uncle Carlos is a lawyer in town. He’s into politics—you know, plenty of fundraisers, some Boards and such. He’ll know the DA.” “Can you call him?” “I’ll do it when I go back in the house,” she promised. He gave her his mobile phone number, making her repeat it, and told her to have Carlos call him. “Feel free to call if you need something too,” he suggested. “Like if anyone comes around and bothers your family.” Isabella pursed her lips and nodded. She looked at him, then out at the mountains, and made no move to get up. By mutual agreement they seemed to be having a little interlude -- nothing illicit about it, just a time when Theresa’s death could be mitigated by the

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scenery and the attractive and, of course, trustworthy company. They let a half minute, maybe a minute pass in comfortable silence. Finally Isabella took a deep breath and looked at him. “Do you want to come in?” she offered in an oddly formal tone, as if she knew the answer already. “I’ll wait until I have something more to tell them,” Joe replied. “When this has all played out.” She studied him very intently. Joe found himself not uncomfortable by the attention, but, rather, enjoying having this beautiful woman looking at him. “You’ve done this kind of thing before, haven’t you?” she asked at last. “Well, not exactly this kind of thing,” Joe temporized. He didn’t want to make light of the situation, and he grew serious. He nodded slightly. “But things like this, yeah.” It didn’t seem to worry her. “And you think it will get…‘messy?’” “I’m pretty sure of it,” he told her. “Look at what happened to poor Juan Mendes.” Isabella grimaced, feeling guilty that her sister’s abduction had almost cost another innocent person their life as well. She composed her face in resolve. “For the people who did this to Theresa, or for us?” she asked. Joe thought that most people would have been concerned for themselves, but she seemed detached; like she wouldn’t mind it getting messy for her family as long as it was messier for Theresa’s killers. She was a brave girl, and she wanted justice. If not justice, then at least revenge. If both, better still. She was something, this woman. “For them, for sure,” he assured her. “I’m going to try to keep you and your family out of it.” He smiled apologetically at her. “You’ve already suffered too much.”

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Chapter 24 Carlos Morales was in his early fifties, stocky and balding with an impassive face and sharp eyes that didn’t seem to miss much. He shook Joe’s hand with a strong grip and gave him a careful once over as they introduced themselves. He was wearing a suit that he looked at ease in, and that made him look prosperous enough to reassure clients but not so much so that they might resent him for it. Joe had expected him to ask for an explanation about the need to see the District Attorney on short notice, but he hadn’t. Morales escorted Joe to the top floor of the city-county building and walked into the DA’s outer office. “Hello, Maria,” he said warmly to the receptionist, leaning over to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. “How are you this fine afternoon?” She flashed him a friendly smile in return and told him she was doing well, and that he looked good. Her words seemed genuine, as did her smile. Joe wondered if there was some history here, or if Morales had just carefully cultivated her to help with situations like this. Morales asked if the DA was ready for them. “Let me check,” she said. She buzzed the DA and he yelled through the door for them to come in. Morales gave Maria a regretful look that suggested he’d rather stay and chat with her, and gestured to Joe to go in. The DA stood up from his desk but did not make any effort to come around it to greet them. His office was not particularly spacious but he had somehow managed to get a large wooden desk into it, one that looked antique. It was well-worn but well-kept, polished to a smooth finish and completely free of papers. His computer was on a credenza behind him. “Carlos, good to see you,” he said to Morales. “I’m so sorry about your niece, Carlos. Terrible, terrible thing. If there is anything I can do, just let me know.” He seemed genuinely sorry, and Joe liked him for that. Carlos simply nodded, and looked over at Joe in a way that was at best ambiguous as to if his seeing him was related to the DA’s offer of lending assistance. The DA offered his

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hand across the desk to Joe, having to lean forward to reach. “Jack Nichols,” he introduced himself. Joe introduced himself in return. The handshake was perfunctory, a politician’s handshake to someone who couldn’t do anything to help him and likely wasn’t even going to vote for him. He didn’t look much like a District Attorney. He was short, somewhat paunchy, and had a bad comb-over that didn’t do much to disguise that he was balding. Ironically, between the two of them, Nichols was the one who fit the stereotype of what an accountant should look like. Joe had checked him out quickly before the meeting; it appeared he’d worked his way up in the prosecutor’s office to his current office, but he didn’t know if Nichols was beholden to the local movers and shakers, like Perlman’s father. If he was, things would be tougher. Nichols gestured to the seats across the desk, and sat back down in his chair. Joe noticed that he didn’t suggest that they move to the cozier sitting area that had a couch and a stuffed chair near the window. He probably wanted to do this small favor for Morales and get it over with as quickly as possible. “What can I do for you, Mr. Russell?” he asked, looking at Joe with a professionally interested yet detached gaze. “I think you have a couple of dirty cops on your police force,” Joe told him bluntly, jumping right into it with no small talk. That was not what Nichols was expecting. He glanced over at Morales, who managed to maintain his impassive expression, then back at Joe. “Come again?” he said, tilting his head slightly. “I think you have a couple of cops who are getting paid off – to look the other way, maybe even help, I’m not entirely sure.” Joe kept his voice level and his face neutral. Nichols studied him intently, and Joe saw a glimmer of what might make him a good DA after all. “Let’s start over. You are who exactly?”

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Joe nodded to let Nichols knew he understood the need to do this. “Let’s just say I’m an investor looking to do some real estate deals in the area. As part of my due diligence I kept running across a couple names that I couldn’t place, so I checked them out. They turned out to be two detectives in your police department.” Nichols managed to look interested but nonjudgmental. “Ran into their names in what connection?” “Having stakes in corporations and properties that didn’t seem supported by any corresponding investments, for starters.” “Uh-huh,” Nichols grunted, not impressed. He stared at Joe for a second. “And their names?” “Tim Welshbacher and Keith Kovlun.” Nichols was pretty good at disguising his reaction, but Joe caught the shadow that crossed his face. It suggested that he not only knew of the two detectives but wasn’t entirely surprised to hear their names. “I see,” he said finally. He leaned forward, intertwining his fingers and resting his hands before him on the desk. He looked at Morales again before turning his attention back to Joe. “Do you have any proof?” Joe handed him a sheaf of papers, containing various corporate and real estate documents. It represented quite a lot of work by his team, in a short period of time, but he was used to them producing miracles. “It will take you some time to go through all that, but the short story is that they both hold interests in a number of real estate projects that they don’t seem to have really paid much for. In most cases, they didn’t pay anything.”

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Nichols put a hand on the stack of papers but did not look through them. He acted as though he knew once he did he might have to do something he wasn’t quite prepared to do. “Maybe they have some friends,” he argued weakly. “Maybe they are just lucky.” “Maybe,” Joe said skeptically. He handed Nichols a few more papers. “They also have mortgages that pretty much equal their pay. Welshbacher has a big boat that he paid cash for, and Kovlun has a couple of nice motorcycles that he also seems to have paid cash for.” He looked at Nichols with raised eyebrows. “You have to wonder how they are financing their lifestyles.” Nichols accepted the new papers reluctantly and allowed himself to skim the top few pages. He was quiet for a minute or two, but finally looked up again. “How did you get this information?” he asked sharply. Joe was expecting this. “I didn’t do anything illegal, if that’s what you are asking,” he answered carefully. It was the literal truth but not completely the truth. His team had many ways to find out information, and some of them were more aboveboard than others. The idea was to figure out the truth, then find the right levers to get the desired results. “Still, you probably couldn’t go into court with that. You’d need to independently verify.” Nichols held Joe’s eyes, trying to discern honesty and intent but not gathering much. He wanted to dismiss Joe as a crackpot or a dilettante investor with too active an imagination, but something about Joe gave him pause. He was eerily calm and confident, not someone who would carelessly make such charges. The charges might or might not be true, but he figured Joe wasn’t making them lightly. Plus, Nichols knew Carlos Morales only slightly personally but well by reputation, and he didn’t think he would bring in someone who was going to make reckless charges against two policemen. “Have you looked at this information?” Nichols asked Morales.

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“No,” Morales admitted. He looked at Joe before looking back at Nichols. “But if Mr. Russell believes it is true, then I think you should take it very seriously.” Joe wondered what Isabella might have said to him to inspire such blind trust. “Uh-huh,” Nichols said. He rubbed his head unconsciously. He looked back at Joe. “How do you know Carlos?” “I knew Theresa,” Joe told him curtly, watching Nichols’ eyes go wide. Nichols shook his head and frowned, but couldn’t help glancing at Morales. Morales scowled, not so much at Nichols but with anger about what had happened to his niece. He didn’t know what Joe knew about Theresa’s killers but once they were out of Nichols’ office he was going to find out. He didn’t believe Joe had asked for a favor from Isabella to do something about two possibly corrupt cops who might mess up a real estate investment. Nichols looked at Joe warily. “What is it you want?” he asked, cutting to the chase. “I want them suspended.” Nichols leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “Well, we’ll have to do an investigation, of course. Not that your information won’t be very helpful, mind you. We just need to follow our procedures, get Internal Affairs involved. It will take some time.” Buying some time to absorb all this was the best outcome he could hope for. Joe wasn’t going to allow that. “You have until tomorrow morning,” Joe told him firmly. Nichols was taken aback. “Mr. Russell, are you threatening me?” He shook his head. “You better not be. Tomorrow morning is simply not enough time.”

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Joe and Juanita had talked about the two detectives, their involvement in Theresa’s death, and what to do about them. Joe had said they needed to take them off the board, and Juanita had looked at him suspiciously. “You don’t mean kill them, do you?” she had asked. “Not right now,” Joe had replied disingenuously. “But we have to get them off Theresa’s investigation, and it’d be best if they didn’t have their badges to keep getting in our way.” This meeting with Nichols was the best approach they had come up with. “Mr. Nichols, with all due respect, you have two bad cops out there,” Joe explained. “I don’t know what they are up to, but I bet there are some newspapers in town, maybe even in LA or San Diego that would be real interested to find out.” He raised his eyebrows at Nichols. “If the story also is that you knew about them but didn’t take action, well, I don’t expect that would help your reelection prospects.” He shrugged, as if that was of no concern to him. “Your choice.” Nichols looked at each of them in turn, then looked down at the stack of papers on his desk for a long minute or two. He was furiously trying to calculate the options, risks and benefits in the situation. None of his options were desirable, but he had to admit that some of them were worse than others. He looked up slowly. “I suppose we could do something on an expedited basis,” he allowed. He cleared his throat. “Mr. Russell, Carlos – do you have any reason to think that Detectives Welshbacher and Kovlun are involved in anything, ahem, anything more than some insider real estate transactions?” He seemed very nervous, and seemed to be trying to frame Joe’s response. Joe wasn’t going to let him off the hook. “I think you could find almost anything once you start digging in. You better go into it with your eyes open. They are leading the very prominent investigation of Mr. Morales’ niece, if I’m not mistaken, and the Morales family and I want to make sure nothing muddies those waters.” He’d laid out the dots, leaving it for Nichols to connect them. Joe gave Nichols a hard stare, then stood. Morales followed his lead; the mention of Theresa’s murder had turned his eyes cold. His face, while outwardly impassive, hinted at some inner furies waiting to be unleashed.

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Nichols remained seated, obviously shaken. Joe told Nichols to keep Morales informed, and they walked out of the office. Neither of them offered to shake Nichols’ hand.

Chapter 25 Carson Perlman was having a meeting of his own. Instead of his nice offices, not so far from the city office building where District Attorney Nichols and the Mayor held court, he had called his son, Gerald Sharp, and Detectives Welshbacher and Kovlun to a small conference room in one of his office developments on the outskirts of town. “So who is this fucking guy?” Perlman demanded belligerently. He was in his late forties, maybe early fifties. His hair was thick and still jet black, and he was stocky, with thick forearms that spoke of heavy manual labor in his past. His face was broad but of non-specific ethnic background. He dressed well, had his hair cut by a professional stylist, lived in expensive houses and drove luxury cars, but scratch the surface and it was evident that he was a self-made man. One had to watch for it, but his eyes burned with an intensity that hinted at deeper, darker passions. Perlman had grown up in Chicago. His dad was a precinct captain in the original Daley organization, with ties to both the local unions and the local Mob. Perlman had done odd jobs for his father and his father’s friends, showing an uncanny knack for getting people to do what he wanted, through words or violence or both. It came to him at one point, though, that he was making money for other people, so against his father’s wishes he’d gone to college, then moved out west to make his own fortune. Twenty some years later, he’d done a very good job of that. Perlman came from nothing, and he’d fight to the death to keep what was his. Many of his deals ended up getting done because people were afraid not to. He was not someone to ever forgive a debt or forget a slight. Unlike his son, though, he had remarkable patience, keeping his anger simmering until he had just the right chance to extract his

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vengeance. It wouldn’t show to anyone who didn’t know him as well as these four did, but they all knew he was mad and it scared them. Well, it worried Sharp more than it scared him. Sharp wasn’t Carson Perlman’s friend. He didn’t think Carson Perlman had any friends. He had people he did business with, people he socialized with, even people who thought he was their friend. But, Sharp thought, when it came right to it, Perlman was a wolf. He might dress in sheep’s clothing, even golf clothes, but he was a wolf, who only looked at people at prospects for killing or fucking – literally and metaphorically. What that made Sharp, for working with him and helping him, for so long…well, he didn’t like to dwell upon it. Alex Perlman looked extremely uncomfortable, as was typical for his encounters with his father. Welshbacher and Kovlun looked uneasy as well, something they were not accustomed to and not happy about. Only Sharp was unruffled. “We know his name is Joe Russell,” Sharp replied, his legs crossed easily in his chair. “That’s about it.” “I told you we should have taken care of him right away,” Perlman reminded Sharp. “That morning in the restaurant, when you let him allow the Sanchez woman to keep Alex’s money.” He shook his head in frustration. Sharp had thought that letting her keep the money would help teach Alex a lesson, and he’d seen no advantage in antagonizing an interloper whom he expected would leave town in short order, never to be heard from again. He’d managed to persuade Perlman to accept that prudent course of action, but that was before Alex chose to go after Theresa Morales again. Still, he wouldn’t have ever predicted Russell would return to do something about it. Sharp simply remained silent, his face expressionless, while Perlman fumed in impotent fury. “We know he’s trouble,” Welshbacher asserted. He was standing by the window, hands thrust in his pants pockets out of fear he might chew his fingernails. Not many people made him nervous, but Carson Perlman was one of them. “He’s been to see everyone.”

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“Everyone except you,” Sharp corrected, talking to the elder Perlman. Perlman stared hard at each of them in turn, ending with his son. “So your little girlfriend Noah told him what happened?” Alex Perlman flushed, and fidgeted in his seat. “The guy was torturing him, for Christ’s sake,” he blurted out, not meeting his father’s eyes. “What’d you expect him to do?” “I didn’t see any bruises on him,” Kovlun noted ominously. “And I don’t think he needed to get that arm set again.” His implication was clear. “You boys are pretty tough when it comes to roughing up pretty girls, but not so tough with grown-ups,” Welshbacher sneered at the young Perlman. “To be fair to the unfortunate Mr. Torpy, he at least did try to attack Mr. Russell at La Cantina,” Sharp pointed out. “Unlike Mr. Neugart and, of course, Alex.” The four of them looked at Alex, who became even more uncomfortable. He squirmed in his chair. He’d been raised too leniently by his mother, for whom his father had no further use but whom he had never bothered to divorce. He’d married her for her family’s connections, and they’d come to an accommodation about living their separate lives. Alex usually only saw his father when he needed money, or help getting out of a scrape. His father didn’t respect him, he knew, but was amazingly tolerant about helping him out. Carson Perlman continued to harbor illusions that his son would grow up, hopefully join him in the business, but so far the boy had shown no talent for business and no inclination to do anything that took him away from his leisure pursuits. “Hey, what was I supposed to do?” Alex Perlman protested, not making eye contact with any of them. “The guy is a psycho.”

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“We run into people like that in our business,” his father reminded him gruffly. “It ain’t all handshakes and bags of money.” “Yeah, pretty boy,” Welshbacher added. The older Perlman shot him a glance that wiped the smirk off Welshbacher’s face; it was one thing for him to insult his son, but it was quite another for other people to do it. Sharp shook his head disapprovingly, sitting in his chair looking utterly calm and slightly amused by the tension everyone else was showing. He had no love lost for Alex Perlman; in fact, he thought he was a little sociopath, enabled by his father. Carson Perlman was a sociopath too, but at least he was driven by goals Sharp could understand – money, power, women. Alex, well, he was driven by things Sharp preferred not to think about. Sharp was tied to the hip with the elder Perlman, not by choice, but because with Carson Perlman, once he’d taken someone in his inner circle, they stayed they as long as Perlman wanted them to, whether they liked it or not. Personal feelings had nothing to do with it, so Sharp tried not to have any. “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he admonished. “Let’s get back to business.” “What do you have?” the older Perlman asked. “Funny thing,” Sharp told them. “He paid the restaurant bill using a credit card issued to a Frank Reid. Neither Mr. Reid nor Mr. Russell had a hotel reservation during that incident, nor do they have one now.” “So we don’t even know who this fucker is,” Kovlun grumbled, shifting his weight uneasily. Sharp and the older Perlman looked at each other, ignoring Kovlun. Welshbacher watched them, trying to read their unspoken exchange. Alex Perlman and Kovlun watched in frustration. “What?” Alex Perlman asked at last, hating to be left out.

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Welshbacher got it first. “It means we’re dealing with someone who isn’t who he seems,” he speculated. “Someone with some resources, and someone who knows how to hide his tracks.” “And who was hiding his identity even before all this started,” Sharp continued. “Whether out of force of habit or hiding out from someone else, we don’t know.” He shrugged. They were each silent for a few moments. “So what do we do now?” Kovlun asked, impatient with the sitting around and talking. Carson Perlman slowly turned towards him. “Pretend you are a policeman for a moment,” he drawled sarcastically. “What would you do?” Kovlun blanched, and swallowed. “Well, we could run the names we know through the databases, see what comes up.” Sharp shrugged. “You could try, I suppose,” he said, inspecting his manicure for any signs of imperfection. Finding none, he looked up at Kovlun and Welshbacher with a cold smile. He viewed them as just thugs, no different from the men Perlman used for rough jobs, except they had badges – which came in handy when he had rough jobs for them as well. “We’ll use some of our contacts to ask around discreetly, see if we can find out where he might be staying.” “You’re thinking he’s got a corporate unit somewhere,” Carson Perlman said. “Maybe renting a condo.” Sharp nodded. “Something like that. One of the management companies probably would have had to handle it, and we know people in them.”

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Perlman grunted his assent. “Check it out.” He looked at the two policemen. “I think perhaps we should see if Mr. Russell can be intimidated more effectively.” “You want him to disappear?” Welshbacher asked. He’d long crossed the line where moral distinctions much mattered to him. “Not yet,” Perlman decided, thinking about it. “I’d like to have a little talk with him myself, suggest he’d enjoy his time better someplace else. After all, I am a respectable businessman.” Welshbacher and Kovlun chuckled at this, while his son didn’t quite know how to react. Sharp didn’t express any reaction at all. He’d back whatever Perlman did, and figure out how to deal with any repercussions. Carson Perlman allowed himself a sly smile, then looked sternly at the two policemen. “If that should fail, perhaps we should see if a night in jail would deter his enthusiasm.” The detectives smiled broadly. “I think we could arrange for a welcoming committee there,” Welshbacher said. He shrugged. “If he were to get hurt by another prisoner, it would hardly be our fault.” Kovlun laughed with glee at the prospect, and even the older Perlman allowed himself a small smile. “What about me?” Alex Perlman asked uneasily, not liking to be left out but not really wanting to get more involved. He wanted nothing to do with this Russell, and wished he could go back out partying with his friends. But he knew better than to say this in front of these men. He wanted to be taken seriously by them, except he didn’t know how to achieve that. His father turned to him and studied him with cold eyes. If it had been anyone else, he’d had taken care of the boy long ago – either put him in a situation where he’d prove himself or get killed, or deal with him directly. It was, he supposed, his biggest weakness, that he let his son screw up over and over. He shook his head minutely, so that

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only Sharp caught it. “You just keep out of it,” he told his son at last. “You’ve done enough.”

Chapter 26 They found Joe at a local coffee shop that evening. He had figured the next move was theirs, and he was interested to see both what that move was and who “they” would prove to be. He made himself easy to find. The coffee shop had a nice patio looking out on the ocean, and in fact the patio was larger than the interior. The evening weather was pleasant, and more people were outside than inside. There was a young singer playing the guitar inside to a small circle of fans, who listened with varying degrees of interest. He wasn’t half-bad, Joe observed idly, but in Southern California he was just another guy with a guitar. Playing here might be the high point of his career. At least, Joe allowed, he might be getting laid from it, judging from the ardor that at least a couple of the women watching him showed. Joe chose to sit outside. The ocean made soothing sounds, with the waves crashing over and over on the beach. The tables had umbrellas to guard against the mid-day sun, and were now furled up for the night. Joe sat next to the railing, the beach a short drop below, as far from the door to the inside of the coffee shop as he could get. He was reading a local newspaper, more as a diversion than out of any real interest. He figured he knew more than he cared to about local restaurants, sights, and available real estate, much less about the various socialite parties, a few of which featured photos with Perlman in them. About half of the other tables were occupied, none immediately surrounding him. The closest to him was a party of four youngish women sitting together and gossiping loudly. They had inspected him with clear interest when they first arrived, which had failed to attract an immediate response, so they continued to intermittently send signals in case he changed his mind. The other tables were a polyglot collection of

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sexes, ages, and sexual preferences, but none of them were important to the events of Joe’s evening. Joe figured if Alex Perlman came, presumably with his posse, it would mean that they hadn’t involved his father, or that his father didn’t view him as a real threat. If Sharp came, Joe assumed it meant Alex’s father wanted to try to finesse him out of town. Joe had expected Welshbacher and Kovlun were the most likely candidates to try to intimidate him, but he already knew he had the trump card of their suspension that they’d only be discovering in the morning. So he was surprised and mildly flattered when he saw Carson Perlman himself enter the coffee shop, with the two detectives trailing at a discreet but not subtle distance. That all three came must mean they took him seriously indeed. Perlman stopped inside at the counter to order a cup of coffee, and Joe tracked him over the top of the paper as Perlman came outside looking for him. Perlman walked directly over to his table with the cup in one hand. He stopped a couple feet shy of the table. “Mind if I join you?” he asked formally. Joe nodded towards Welshbacher and Kovlun standing behind him. “Tell your goons to leave,” Joe replied in a neutral tone, without lowering the newspaper. “Then we’ll see.” Perlman didn’t show any reaction to the fact that Joe knew about his connection to the two detectives. “What if I say no?” he asked pleasantly. “Then I leave,” Joe told him flatly from behind the paper. Perlman considered this. “And what if my friends and I insist you stay?” Joe lowered the paper at last and looked Perlman directly in the eyes. “Either they’re leaving or I’m leaving. It’s just a question of how much trouble you want here.”

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It was a challenge, no doubt about it, and Perlman felt his hackles rise. He almost snapped back a forceful reply, then relaxed. He could handle Russell alone. He smiled coldly. “So be it.” He turned and gestured curtly for the detectives to leave. After a moment of indecision, they did so, retreating to the parking lot where they could at least watch the exit. Joe lowered the paper. “Have a seat, Mr. Perlman.” Perlman sat across from him with an expressionless face. “So you know who I am.” Joe tapped on the paper without looking down, his finger pointing to one of the one of the photos that included Perlman. “You are quite famous in local circles, Mr. Perlman.” “You’d be surprised at the circles I’m famous in, Mr. Russell,” he replied dryly. “Unlike you, who seem to prefer anonymity. You use several names, don’t you? Is Joe Russell your real name?” He smiled again, which seemed colder than his impassive expression, and served just to let Joe know they knew about his use of other identities. Joe shrugged. He’d expected as much, and nothing they knew or were likely to find out would help them much. “It will do,” he said casually. He leaned back in his chair. “What can I do for you, Mr. Perlman?” “Straight to business, I see,” Perlman murmured. “I like that.” He nodded thoughtfully. “You and I, we have a bit of a problem, you see.” “Is that so,” Joe commented neutrally. “Would that problem have anything to do with your son Alex?” Perlman nodded slowly. “Indeed.” He raised his hands, palms up to indicate his own frustration. “He sometimes gets himself in these situations, you see.” He put his hands

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down carefully in front of him. “Boys will be boys, you know. You have any sons of your own?” Joe ignored Perlman’s probe, masked as an attempt to bond. “Then you have to help him out, I take it.” Perlman nodded again, his face affecting concern. “He makes mistakes, but he is my son, after all. It’s my responsibility to deal with him.” “And are you dealing with him?” Joe asked, his tone quiet but eyes hard. Perlman shrugged. “That is between me and my son,” he said firmly, his eyes meeting Joe’s without any apology. Joe shook his head without breaking the stare. “I’m afraid that is not good enough. Theresa Morales deserves better.” Perlman pursed his lips thoughtfully, and looked out at the ocean. “Ah, yes, the poor girl.” He was quiet for a few moments, then turned back towards Joe. “When the time is right, we will speak to her family. Perhaps there could be some monetary consideration.” He smiled coldly again, indicating that this was the way the world worked. Joe was silent, letting Perlman’s suggestion float and fall on its own. “I don’t think her family would be open to that. They can’t put a price on their daughter. Besides, I warned your son to stay away from her, and he ignored that. So he’s got me to deal with.” Perlman shook his head slowly yet emphatically. “In the first place, there is no evidence that my son had anything to do with this slut’s death,” he said with precise enunciation, letting the insult slip in as if part of the facts of the situation. He watched for Joe’s reaction and was mildly disappointed to see that Joe didn’t let himself react. He leaned

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closer to Joe, his hands clenched in front of him. “More to the point, you’ve got me to worry about, and that, Mr. Russell, is trouble you do not want to have.” Their voices had both been kept low, and between that and the sound of the waves hitting the beach made it impossible for anyone at the other tables to overhear them. But the table of women noticed the intensity of Perlman’s body language or tone of voice and glanced over curiously. This was not a place – either the coffee shop or the community generally -- for intensity. It was a place for casual conversation, for purposeful flirtation and meaningless seduction, for spendthrift shopping and for making money the easiest ways possible. There were, of course, lover’s quarrels and business conflicts, but no one looking at these two would take them for lovers and somehow their conversation was two tense for it to be business. It had to be very personal, and exposed personal feelings are always interesting to bystanders. Joe waited until the interest had died away before replying. “I think you’ve got it wrong, Mr. Perlman,” he replied in a low voice. “I’m the one you don’t want trouble with. Right now all I am concerned about is justice for Theresa Morales, and that means your son. I can understand you wanting to protect him, but things have to be made right.” He leaned forward. “So far, I haven’t taken much interest in your own activities, but I know enough to know that if I start poking around more, I’m going to find things that would be trouble for you. A lot of trouble.” Perlman glared at him belligerently. “You want to take me on, you give it your best shot. I’ll still be standing after you’re done. But you leave Alex out of it. You can’t prove anything about what happened to Theresa Morales.” Joe shook his head. “There’s knowing and there’s proving. We both know what happened, and neither one of us needs any more proof. Your son has to answer for what he’s done, and answering to you is not enough.” Perlman sat back in his chair thoughtfully. He’d been hoping for an easier resolution, but he somehow wasn’t entirely surprised. Nothing about Russell so far had indicated he would be a pushover. He sighed theatrically, as if sorry it had come to this, then looked

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firmly at Joe. “It’s like this, Mr. Russell, stay away from my son, or I will kill you. That’s a promise.” His voice was insistent yet as dead as the fate he was promising Joe. Perlman had used this threat before. He preferred to use persuasion, followed by economic or physical persuasion when that didn’t work, but sometimes the people he dealt with were stubborn or stupid and he had to resort to this kind of threat. It usually worked, but when it didn’t, he had no moral qualms about making it come true. He wasn’t quite prepared to kill Russell yet, but sitting across from him, he could see how it might become necessary, and he hoped the conviction in his voice and the look on his face conveyed the depth of his sincerity. Most men would have been taken aback at the bluntness of the threat, but Joe had expected this. He expected Perlman was used to making threats like that, but in Joe’s experience people who really intend to kill people don’t go around threatening them first. If Perlman was expecting Joe to be scared, or at least taken aback, he was in for a disappointment. “Maybe,” Joe acknowledged without seeming trouble about the prospect. “You might get lucky. As they say, even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut.” Perlman looked at him in amazement. “You’re fucking comparing me to goddamn squirrel?” he hissed. “I’m not playing with you, Mr. Russell. I will put you in the ground if you get in my way.” His eyes were fierce. Joe nodded slowly at him with a cold expression of his own, and leaned in closer as well. “Mr. Perlman, you are not the first person to threaten to kill me,” Joe told him quietly. “And if you did try it, you wouldn’t be the first for that either.” He paused for effect, then continued in an even quieter and colder tone of voice. “But I’m still here, and none of the people who have tried are around to try again. You want to try to kill me, you’d be doing it at your own risk.”

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He and Perlman stared at each other for a long couple seconds, the irresistible force against the immoveable object. The lines had been drawn, and one of them was going to have to back down, or end up dead. Perlman had come to the meeting certain he knew which of the two of them would end up on the losing side, but he felt a sudden chill of uncharacteristic doubt, which he tried to suppress. None of this showed on his face. Joe stood and, without a word or a glance back, walked out.

Chapter 27 They arrested him in the parking lot. “Arrested” wasn’t quite the right word. They didn’t actually say he was under arrest, and didn’t handcuff him. Still, Welshbacher and Kovlun made it clear – with their brusque tones and unsmiling faces -- that they wanted Joe to get in the back of their unmarked car and go for a ride with them. Joe figured Perlman had called them as soon as Joe had turned his back. Or maybe this was always their plan. It was dangerous to go with them. They might be planning to take him to some deserted spot and in order to carry out Perlman’s threat. Somehow he didn’t think so, not quite yet. And, in any event, they hadn’t handcuffed him. Guns or not, two against one, Joe figured it was a fair fight. Besides, Juanita was out there somewhere. Joe got in the backseat, and the two men got in the front, Welshbacher driving. Both rode with their outside arm resting on the window frame and seemingly bored by his presence. The car heads towards downtown, and Joe wondered if they were, in fact, taking him to police headquarters, maybe for a little interrogation, with some good cop/bad cop or bad

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cop/worse cop role playing. Maybe they really thought they could scare him off that way. “You boys are on the wrong side of this,” Joe told them calmly. “Shut up,” Kovlun snapped without looking back. Joe ignored him. “There’s an avalanche that’s going to land on your heads, and you’re idiots if you think Perlman is going to do anything but let it land on you guys,” Joe continued. “All he cares about is protecting himself, and, if he can, maybe his son. You guys are dispensable.” Kovlun turned around and pointed a big finger at him. “I told you to shut up. I’m not going to tell you again.” His face was red. “I figure you’d be the first to go, you being the junior partner and all,” Joe replied in a conversational tone. “Who knows what Welshbacher there has on Perlman to give him a little leverage? You, on the other hand…” Kovlun couldn’t help sneaking a glance at Welshbacher. Welshbacher didn’t take his eyes from the road. “He’s trying to get in your head, Keith,” he said gruffly. “Don’t let him. He’s the one who needs to be worried.” “That’s right,” Kovlun blustered pugnaciously, glaring at Joe. “You’re the one who should be sweating.” He nodded his head for emphasis, then swirled around to face forward again. Joe let the silence build for a few seconds. “I figure it was Alex’s idea to rape Theresa,” he said at last. “He needed his buddies to help him with that. What I don’t know is if they killed her and had to call you guys to clean up, or if you two came along for the fun of it from the start.”

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Kovlun swiveled his head around furiously at Joe, then – mindful of Welshbacher – turned back to the front. Still, he couldn’t stay silent. “You don’t know nothing, buddy,” he snapped. “And you better shut up or you’re going to get in even worse trouble.” “You’re about Alex’s friends’ age, Keith,” Joe said, deliberately using Kovlun’s first name familiarly. “Maybe you came along with them and needed your partner here to bail you all out once things had gone too far.” Welshbacher pulled the car into a parking space at the police station with a sharp turn. “Mr. Russell,” he said formally as he opened the door and got out. “You think you know something, but you don’t.” Kovlun got out as well. “Out of the car, asshole,” he snapped. He opened the back door on his side of the car. “Why would I want to do that?” Joe asked in a reasonable tone of voice. “You don’t have a choice,” Welshbacher answered. “Get out.” Joe opened the door on Welshbacher’s side and got out, causing Kovlun to slam the door on his side shut in anger. The two detectives took positions on either side of Joe, hands grabbing his upper arms, and escorted him into the station. “What do we have here?” the duty sergeant asked. His badge said his name was Bracken. He was young and looked like a choirboy. Joe was willing to bet he was somebody’s relative, because he didn’t believe he’d worked his way into that role or had ever worked the streets, even in this posh community. He looked at Joe with some interest. “We got a tenant for the holding cell,” Welshbacher announced. Joe was mildly surprised; he thought they’d at least try to browbeat him in an interrogation room first.

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He guessed Welshbacher would have a blackjack or the equivalent on him somewhere, while Kovlun would be stupid enough to use his fists. “What are the charges?” Bracken asked, pulling up an intake form on his computer. Welshbacher leaned over the desk screen and tilted the monitor away from Bracken. “We’re not going to log this one in.” Bracken looked at the two detectives in surprise. “What do you mean? We have to log him in.” He blinked nervously. “This is for his own good, Bracken,” Kovlun told him with a manic grin. “No need to bother with paper work. We’ll be in and out before you know it, pick him up in the morning.” Without letting Bracken try to further protest, Welshbacher pulled Joe along, heading towards the elevators. He heard Kovlun talking in low tones to Bracken, telling him the ways of the world. Then Kovlun hurried along, catching up just as the elevator arrived. He was grinning, like a high school kid in on a prank. “After you,” he said with faux politeness to Joe, gesturing to the open elevator. The elevator ride did not take long; the floor with the cells was one level below. Joe quickly took in the layout as they escorted him off the elevator, their hands back on his arms. There were only a handful of individual cells, none of which were currently occupied, plus a larger cell that did have several prisoners. They wouldn’t keep anyone here for long, shipping prisoners off to the county jail for anything serious. The larger cell was for people they were waiting to have a preliminary hearing on, probably usually the normal collection of townsfolk who’d had a little too much to drink. Tonight Joe noticed that upper bunk bed was occupied by a large man, while four other prisoners cowered on the other side of the room. The large man had a shaved head and a

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plethora of tattoos that suggested he was a biker or a Nazi, maybe both. Probably a meth dealer, Joe assessed. He was heavily muscled and at least as tall as Joe. He watched Joe and the detectives approach with a fierce expression that suggested hate and hostility, and which Joe guessed was his normal expression. The other prisoners were a mixture of people who looked like they’d been in prison before and a couple rookies, but all shared the same intimidated body language. The only other bed in the cell was the lower bunk bed, but none of them seemed to want to risk laying in it, or do anything that would get them within ten feet of him. Joe thought he saw how this was supposed to play out. “Let me guess,” he speculated to the detectives. “Your security cameras aren’t working tonight. “Funny thing about that, huh?” Welshbacher grinned at him with an evil smile. “I sure hope you don’t rile anyone up.” Kovlun opened the cell door and pushed Joe inside. “Hey, Deuce,” he called out to the man on the bed. “You got a new friend here. He claims he’s an undercover Fed, but we think maybe he’s just an informant to the Feds.” He shut the door behind Joe. “See you later, Russell,” Welshbacher told him merrily. He and Kovlun walked back to the elevators, Kovlun whistling with pleasure. Joe kept his eyes on Deuce, listening to the elevator arrive and leave. He figured Welshbacher and Kovlun would quickly exit, to make sure they had departed before anything happened here. There’d be no record of his arrival, and Bracken would be left to hang out to dry for whatever happened to him. Joe was willing to bet Deuce had recently been arrested by the two detectives just for this very reason. The prisoner was glaring at Joe. Either he didn’t understand that the detectives were playing him or he just didn’t care. Joe briefly considered explaining how things would

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end up better for him if they just got along, but decided not to waste his time. He didn’t look like reasoning was his strong suit. “Hey, you,” Joe called out. “What was your stupid nickname – Deuce?” Joe saw a look of surprise briefly pass over the man’s face. “Well, Deuce, I hate to break it to you but you’re in my bunk.” Deuce increased the intensity of his glare, and sat up in the bunk. “What the fuck did you say?” he growled, not sure he’d heard correctly but his general rage at the world increasing nonetheless and being directed at this insolent newcomer. “I know you’re bald but I didn’t know you were old enough to be deaf too,” Joe taunted him. “Why do they call you a stupid name like ‘Deuce’? Is that your I.Q.?” “Man, be quiet,” one of the other prisoners whispered furiously. Joe doubted he was concerned with Joe’s well-being; he just probably figured that once Deuce starting swinging he might not be satisfied with taking his frustration out on only the newcomer. Joe wasn’t sure Deuce knew what I.Q. meant, but either way it just made him madder. “Punk, I don’t know who the fuck you are but I’m going to rip your arms off and stuff them up your ass,” he promised with a low rumble. Joe smiled at him. “Aww, save the sweet talk for your girlfriend. Oh, but you’re probably the bitch, right?” That did it. Deuce pushed himself off the bunk, leveraging himself up with a quick flex of his arms. The other prisoners flinched, cowering in anticipation of the impending carnage. Deuce had made two mistakes. One was by underestimating how quickly Joe could cross the room, with Joe arriving before Deuce had landed. The second was forgetting that

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there was not much he could do while in the air. Joe used Deuce’s own momentum and mass to suddenly flip him over, and viciously pile drive him into the ground. Rather than simply letting him slump into the ground after that, though, Joe held on, and slammed him into the closest wall. Then he let go. Deuce seemed to melt into a puddle on the floor. Joe checked to make sure he was still breathing, then kicked him in the chest twice just for effect. Then he dragged him over to the door of the cell and left him there. Make that three mistakes Deuce had made. He should have given Joe his bunk when he had the chance. As casual and graceful as a cat Joe jumped up onto the recently vacated bed and lay on his back. He looked over at the stunned onlookers. “Listen. I’m going to take a nap now. I wasn’t even mad at Deuce, but if anyone disturbs me I’m going to be very unhappy. I don’t think you want that. Got it?” They all nodded their complete and full understanding and, to the extent possible, moved even further away from Joe. He put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.

Chapter 28 Juanita was worried when the two detectives took Joe to the police station. Like Joe, she assumed they were bringing him there to use the pretext of an interrogation as an excuse to rough him up and try to scare him off. She didn’t like the idea of the two goons beating up on Joe with impunity, and had to remind herself that he knew what he was getting into and had undoubtedly been through worse. Besides, she consoled herself, there was surely only so far they’d allow themselves to go at the station; had they taken him somewhere more private, she might have had to intervene.

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She was surprised when the detectives exited only a few minutes later, sans Joe. They were laughing and acting as though they hadn’t a care in the world as they got into their car and drove away. Juanita briefly considered tailing them, but decided to wait to see if Joe emerged. After an hour she decided Joe wasn’t coming out. She figured they must have arrested him, just to show him they could. She decided to call Carlos Morales and see if he could get Joe bailed out. “Mr. Morales,” she said. “You don’t know me, but I’m a friend of Joe Russell.” There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Is that so?” Morales asked cautiously. “My name is Juanita Kincaid. I’m helping Joe look into your niece’s murder,” she informed him. “You have my deepest sympathies.” “Thank you, Ms. – what was it? – Kincaid? How can I help you?” Morales asked, his tone still very cautious. “Why isn’t Mr. Russell calling himself?” Juanita quickly outlined the few facts she knew, and expressed her concern about Joe being in the police station by himself. “We don’t know what their plans are for him,” she concluded. “Having a lawyer present would probably help.” “I see,” Morales said noncommittally. He was wondering if it was a good idea to get involved deeper in this situation. Then he thought of Theresa, and that Joe Russell was the only person actively doing anything about her death. “Give me fifteen minutes.”

Even though it was past eleven and Morales had probably expected he was home for the night, Juanita was relieved when he pulled up to the police station within the promised fifteen minutes. She’d told him where her car was parked watching the station, and saw

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him glance quickly and discreetly her way as he got out of his car. He went inside the station. Morales exited less than twenty minutes later, and Juanita was dismayed to see that Joe wasn’t with him. He got in his car and backed it out. Morales drove by her and, as he passed, waved for her to follow. She quickly started her car and followed him a couple miles to the parking lot of a deserted strip mall. They parked their cars and got out. “What is it?” Juanita asked. Morales looked uncomfortable. “You’re sure they took him there, and didn’t bring him back out?” “Of course I am,” Juanita replied, somewhat offended. “And they didn’t sneak him out the back. I’m not exactly an amateur in this kind of thing.” Morales studied her. “I’m sure that is true,” he agreed with a hint of a smile. “I always like to rule out the obvious before I draw any conclusions.” “So what did you find out?” Morales raised his hands. “He is not there,” he said, not sounding at all convinced. “Or at least that is what they say.” “You don’t believe them, do you?” Morales sighed and put his hands in his pockets. He looked away with a pensive look. “I had them show me the arrest reports and intake forms, and took a walk through the interrogation rooms. I even had the desk sergeant let me look at the security cameras for the cells on the lower level.” “And no sign of Joe?” Now Juanita was definitely worried.

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Morales faced her, his face showing some worry. “No sign, no records, nothing.” Juanita studied him, trying to read what he wasn’t saying. “Do you believe he’s not there?” Morales matched her stare with an impassive gaze. “I did find it curious that the desk sergeant would not let me actually go down to the cells,” he admitted. “And the camera for the holding cell was, curiously enough, not working.” “That must be where they’ve got him,” Juanita exclaimed. “What are our options?” Morales shook his head. “There no evidence he’s there. I can make some phone calls in the morning, call in some favors, and get in there,” he suggested, not sounding happy about his own ideas. “But I don’t think there’s anything we can do for the rest of the night.” Juanita looked away, thinking rapidly. She was not going to leave Joe in there overnight. She didn’t know what Welshbacher and Kovlun had in mind for him, but she severely doubted that they thought a night with a bunch of harmless drunks would scare him off. They’d put him there anonymously for reasons that boded ill for his well-being. She looked back at Morales. “How many cops are in there?” Morales gave her a measured look. “The shifts changed an hour or so ago, so it’s pretty sparse. Let’s see,” he started, remembering carefully. “The duty sergeant. There was a detective finishing up a report. And the watch commander was doing paperwork in his office.” “What about the 911 dispatchers?” Juanita watched him intently. Morales shook his head. “Handled by the County.”

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“Tell me about the desk sergeant. Experienced guy?” Morales let a smile drift across his face. “Oh, yes, Eric Bracken.” He looked amused and slightly apologetically at Juanita. The mayor has a, let’s call her a ‘friend.’ Eric is her brother, and this was the place they thought he’d do the least amount of damage. I don’t believe they even let him have a gun.” Juanita asked about the watch commander. Morales told her that he was former LA policeman, finishing out his career here. “Usually he does much of his overnight shift at the diner down the street. He likes one of the waitresses there, a nice Chicano girl named Rosie.” Morales looked at her closely. “My advice is to wait until morning. They’re probably just trying to scare your friend.” Juanita looked at him with an amused smile. “You’ve met Joe. You think he’s the kind of guy many people are going to think that a night in the drunk tank is going to scare him off?” Morales had to smile at that, then his face grew worried, or at least serious. “No, I think not.” He looked down the street. “I see your point about not wanting to wait. Let me think about what else I can do.” Juanita had as much information as she needed; she’d made up her mind to take action herself. “I have a better idea,” she told him. “But maybe its best if you don’t know what it is.”

Around two in the morning Juanita returned to the police station, this time parking right in front. She strode boldly into the reception area. As she had expected, Bracken was at the front desk by himself, and she’d watched the watch commander slip out and drive down the street, presumably to the diner to woo the fair Rosie. Bracken looked up in

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surprise as she strode in. She didn’t give him a chance to collect himself. “You,” she called out, giving him her most intimidating stare. “What’s your name?” “Umm, Sergeant Bracken,” he stuttered, his eyes wide. “Can I -- can I help you?” “I’m looking for a Joe Russell,” she told him, locking eyes with him. “I think you’ve got him here.” Bracken broke his eyes away from hers. “No, ma’am,” he disagreed. “No one here with that name.” He nodded to the computer screen. “I can show you the records if you’d like.” Juanita knew he’d given in too quickly on that. She was a stranger coming in the station in the middle of the night, offering no identification, and he was willing to show her their records? No good cop she knew would do that. She let her face assume an even tougher expression, and flashed him a badge, closing it before he could get a good look at it. “Do you know what that is?” she asked fiercely. He shook his head helplessly, his face white. “It’s a U.S. Marshal’s badge,” she told him. “You know, like Tommy Lee Jones in those movies.” “For real?” he asked weakly. She nodded authoritatively. “For real. You know what that means?” He shook his head, thoroughly intimidated. Juanita leaned in closer. “It means when I’m looking for someone I can go where I damn well want and take him when I damn well want to.”

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“But, but – I already told you, he’s not here,” he protested unconvincingly. Juanita leaned in still closer and narrowed her eyes. “Listen, Bracken, if I don’t leave with Russell then I’m leaving with you in handcuffs. Interfering with a federal Marshal is a federal offense,” she informed him firmly. She looked at him dismissively. “You think you’d do well in a federal pen?” “What, what do you want?” he stammered. “I want to go down to the cells. I’ll see for myself if he’s there. Take me down there.” Bracken was torn. On the one hand, there was his fear about what Welshbacher and Kovlun would do if he let her go down to the cells. On the other hand, she was right here, right now, and she scared the hell out of him. Damn Welshbacher and Kovlun, he thought to himself; he wasn’t going to go to prison for them. “All right,” he conceded. “You can go down. But you’ll have to surrender your weapon.” In fact, Juanita was not armed, something she was very uncomfortable about, but she wasn’t about to admit it, not at the risk of blowing her cover. “The hell with that,” she snapped, glaring at him fiercely. “Marshals don’t surrender their weapons.” She poked him in the chest. “And you’re coming with me.” He looked at her plaintively. “I can’t do that,” he protested. “I have to stay on my post.” She knew that he was undoubtedly correct, that it was bad protocol to leave the front desk unoccupied. But she wasn’t going to give him a chance to call Welshbacher and Kovlun, and she wasn’t going to give him a chance to call in one of the patrol cars. “Shut up,” she told him firmly. “You’re coming with me.”

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Juanita didn’t know what to expect as she approached the holding cell, Bracken trailing glumly by her side. She tried to prepare herself for the worse; Joe hurt or possibly even dead. She wouldn’t put anything past the two detectives. She wasn’t prepared for what she saw. Joe was resting comfortably on the bunk bed, with the other inmates trying to sleep in the far corner. Deuce still lay in a lump by the door. Joe had heard the elevator and was watching her approach without revealing any sign of recognition. “That’s him,” she told Bracken, nodding towards Joe. “What happened to him?” Bracken asked the prisoners in the cell, indicating the prone Deuce. “He had a little accident,” Joe answered, not sounding too concerned. He sat up in the bed and hopped down to the floor. “Open up the door and let Russell out,” Juanita instructed Bracken in a no-nonsense tone. She saw Joe suppress a smile. Bracken opened the doors and Joe sauntered out. “All right, Mr. Russell, you’re coming with me,” she informed him. She looked at Bracken and nodded towards Deuce. “You’d better stay and do something about him.” Juanita escorted Joe out of the police station.

Chapter 29 “Just fucking once I’d like you to actually need my help,” Juanita complained as she drove, her adrenaline still up. Her tone was light yet pointed.

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“Well, you did get me out of the cell,” Joe noted amiably. “How’d you convince the duty sergeant to release me? I’d have expected Welshbacher and Kovlun had put the fear of God in him.” Juanita glanced over at him quickly with a pleased expression, then turned her attention back to the road. “He might have gotten the impression I was a U.S. Marshal,” she allowed. Joe had to work not to smile. “Huh, that’s strange. I wonder why he’d think that. You know, impersonating a federal agent could get you in big trouble. They’re kind of sensitive about stuff like that.” “I didn’t exactly tell him I was a U.S. Marshal,” she clarified, splitting the hair as finely as possible. “I might have suggested my badge was a Marshal’s, but it’s not really my fault he doesn’t know what one looks like.” “Certainly not,” Joe agreed facetiously. “I thought you might be hurt,” Juanita explained seriously. “For all I knew, you could have been dead. There I go making this crazy rescue attempt and what do I find -- you’re taking a nap.” She shook her head in dismay, but the corners of her mouth were turned slightly up. It wasn’t that Juanita wanted Joe to get in trouble, but it did bother her that, for all the trouble they’d seen, he’d never really seemed to need her help. He told her that he did, and he never treated her like the junior partner, but the bottom line was that she owed him her life and she would like to prove herself his equal. If he was going to need any saving, she wanted it to be by her.

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“It was touching anyway,” he reassured her. He looked out the window, his thoughts growing more serious. “Welshbacher and Kovlun didn’t expect me to be walking out so soon.” “Or walking out at all,” Juanita pointed out. “I think they expected that big guy to take care of you. He looked pretty formidable.” “Not a good diver, as it turns out,” Joe noted. He paused briefly and exhaled softly. “So I guess your cover is blown. No point in trying to be stealthy now. We’re probably safer staying together than having you trail me.” Juanita smiled. “Does that mean I can eat meals at a table instead of my car?” “Let’s take one thing at a time,” Joe pretended to chide her. “Those detectives are going to be pretty pissed, and pretty soon they won’t even be detectives.” “You think that’s going to make them more dangerous or less?” “Probably more,” Joe admitted, ‘but they won’t have as many resources to hide behind.” Juanita pulled into the parking lot of the coffee shop and parked next to Joe’s rental. The parking lot was otherwise deserted. “What now? You going back to your condo and grab some sleep?” Joe stayed in the car, looking out at the ocean. “I don’t know. It’s probably safe, at least tonight, but Perlman and Welshbacher did their parts, so I’m wondering if Sharp’s assignment was to find out where I might be staying. It wouldn’t be easy but eventually they’d find out.” Juanita pretended to be shocked. “You think your pretty real estate lady would give you up?”

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Joe grinned. “Maggie? Oh, she wouldn’t think of it like that, but if she thought she’d get some leads, I don’t think she’d need much arm twisting.” “Personally, I think she might be into arm twisting,” Juanita said somewhat snidely. She grew serious again. “And Perlman’s company is someone she’d want to do business with.” She tapped the steering wheel with her index fingers and made a face. Juanita turned to Joe. “Maybe you better crash at my place.” “Maybe you’re right,” Joe agreed. “That way if anyone breaks in you can rescue me.” He gave her a big smile. She reached across the seat and whacked him on the arm.

Joe got up earlier than Juanita the next morning, seeing as he’d already had a couple hours of sleep in his cell. He walked over to the beach and took a long swim to get his body pumping. There were a few early bird sunbathers on the beach and a few novice surfers in the water, but otherwise the ocean was his except for some distant cargo ships. The water was bracing, and he had to fight against the tide on the way out, which made coming back all the more fun, not to mention faster. He swam long enough to settle into a nice groove, getting his rhythm and enjoying simply using his body to work hard. He came out of the water tired yet refreshed, drawing the covert attention of some of the envious sunbathers. He paid them no attention. Joe was showered, dressed, and checking emails on his phone when Juanita stumbled into the kitchen, wearing a long t-shirt and looking not quite awake. “Morning, sunshine,” Joe called out cheerily. “Coffee,” Juanita mumbled. “I need coffee.” Fortunately, Joe had already put a pot on. She poured herself a cup and sat down at the table with him. She took a sip of her coffee

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and sighed appreciatively. Then she took a better look at him. “You look surprisingly awake. I hate morning people.” “Hell, I’ve been out for a swim already,” Joe told her. “I was going to wake you but I didn’t want to scare you.” “Thanks for that,” she said tiredly. “My people aren’t big swimmers anyway.” She took another drink of her coffee, and perked up a little. She eyed him. “So I was wondering why you already had an overnight bag in your car.” Joe shrugged. “I always have an overnight bag in my car. There’s nothing at the condo I really need to go back for.” “Hmm.” She considered this, took another drink, and gave him a sly smile. “So you weren’t expecting to get lucky, huh?” Joe didn’t even look up. “Hey, I figure any morning I wake up I’m lucky.” He finished an email and put the phone down. “I was just about to call Debbie. Want to say hello?” “Yeah, sure,” Juanita said. “But first I want to hear how you explain your being here to her.” She winked at him. “Maybe she’ll get jealous.” “Maybe,” Joe replied absently, sounding as if he didn’t really care. He hit Debbie’s mobile phone number on his phone, and she picked up immediately. “I was wondering if I’d hear from you,” she said. “Well, I’ve been busy,” Joe admitted. Juanita opened her eyes in mock surprise at this, shook her head, and took a long sip of coffee. Joe sure made good coffee, she thought. “Making any progress?”

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“A little. Things are getting interesting.” Joe said this as casually as he might comment on the unchanging weather. Debbie knew better than to ask exactly what that meant; she knew him well enough to know he was understating the situation. “You being careful?” she admonished him. “Always,” he promised. “Where’s the kids?” “Out with your folks. You dad is getting them up early; he says no one is going to get into bad habits on his watch.” “Sounds like dad, all right,” he agreed. He was happy the kids were having fun, but he was sorry he wasn’t going to get to say hello to them. He’d been looking forward to this family part of the vacation, and now it was looking like it would be severely truncated at best. “Maybe I’ll get a chance to call later, but tell them I called, OK?” “You know I will,” Debbie told him, her heart catching. That was the damn thing about when Joe went off on one of his little trips; she never knew when she’d hear from him, and, when she did, if it might be the last time. She wished the kids had been here to say hello, let them hear Joe’s voice and chirp away in their enthusiastic little voices. It had been tough for her, when they were first involved, to accept that she couldn’t just call him. Back then he’d been with the Navy, or at least some governmental agency, and his trips were officially top secret. Since he went into the private sector, the trips had been fewer and further between, but had never really ceased. Maybe they weren’t top secret, she thought resentfully, but she knew that he risked his life in ways that most white collar workers would never dream of. She just had to accept that he judged the risks well, and that his causes were good.

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There was a long silence between them, a longing that would never quite be filled until they were back together. Joe cleared his throat. “Want to say hello to Juanita?” Juanita shook her head, pointing that he should keep talking to her. “Sure,” Debbie replied, sounding a little surprised. “Put her on.” Joe handed the phone to Juanita, who glared at him. “How are you, Debbie?” “Good, good. Joe’s folks are keeping the little angels busy so I can relax. They’re out for a walk right now, so I’ve got the house alone.” “I’m sorry Joe isn’t there with you,” Juanita told her sincerely. “And I hope I can still get down there to see everyone.” “We hope so too,” Debbie told her warmly. She bit her lip and considered what she wanted to ask. It wasn’t like asking Joe directly, she rationalized. “Do you think you two will be a lot longer?” She tried to sound casual. “Hard to say. If it was anyone else, I’d say yes, but your husband has a way of cutting through things.” “That he does,” Debbie agreed, not liking the kinds of things Joe cut through or to, but wise enough to let that be a worry left unexpressed. It wasn’t quite an answer, but she shouldn’t have expected one. “You take care of yourself, Juanita. And Joe too.” “I will,” Juanita promised. She handed the phone back to Joe. “Where are you guys?” Debbie asked Joe. “At Juanita’s condo.”

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“What happened to your place?” she asked curiously. “Ahh, we thought it might be a little hot right now,” Joe told her. “So we exercised the better part of valor, so to speak.” “Uh-huh,” Debbie said, absorbing this. “Well, I’m glad you’re being careful. Keep it up.” “Aren’t you the least bit jealous?” Joe teased her, which caused Juanita to look at him with a horrified expression. “No, I don’t think so,” Debbie said judiciously. “I mean, for all you know I’m down here fooling around with some of your dad’s amorous friends.” “You would make a great trophy wife,” Joe admitted with a twinkle in his eyes. “But none of them is rich.” ‘But, honey, we’re rich now,” she pointed out. “I just need a stud who’ll actually be around.” She laughed, and Joe joined in. They let the merriment last a few seconds, then both grew serious. “I miss you, big guy,” she told him with a catch in her voice. “I miss you too,” he said wistfully. He didn’t know how long it’d be until he was with his family again. He wished he could just go down and be with them now, but the image of Theresa Morales kept popping up in his head – not the vibrant person he’d first met, but the bruised and battered corpse she’d ended up as. He couldn’t leave her to end up like that. She deserved better; her family deserved better. Isabella deserved better, and her image briefly supplanted Theresa’s, a much nicer picture.

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Joe cleared his head and focused on Debbie, feeling the connection to her that had nothing to do with the phone. By mutual consent, they hung up the phone. Juanita looked at Joe enviously. Joe and his wife had such a great relationship, such a great life together. She enjoyed her life, liked what she did for a living and where she lived, had plenty of friends. But she didn’t have anything like what they had, and she was never sure if these intimate glimpses into their lives made her feel more hopeful or more doubtful about her own prospects. She sighed inaudibly and looked at Joe with a downto-business expression. “What now, boss?”

Chapter 30 Joe and Juanita were on their way to Alex Perlman’s house when Joe’s phone rang. They looked at each other briefly, then Joe answered. “Yes?” “Joe?” Isabella Morales asked. “Joe Russell?” Her voice didn’t sound quite right – trying to be nonchalant but not quite pulling it off. “Isabella?” Joe asked carefully. “I gather you got out of jail somehow. My uncle told me about your little adventure last night. I’m glad to see you are OK.” She was trying to be casual but there was an undercurrent of tension that came through nonetheless. “Much as I’d like to think so, you didn’t call just to check on me,” Joe told her. “What is it? What’s wrong?” “Well,” she said in a shaky voice. “I think I’m being followed. There’s a big Escalade that’s staying behind me.”

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Joe quickly asked her where she was, and made a quick turn to head their car in that direction. Juanita noticed how Joe effortlessly went from casually driving to high performance driving – keeping under control and doing nothing that would attract too much attention to them from any watchful traffic cops, but nonetheless upping the speed and moving past other cars like they were old ladies driving in Miami. It was like being in a racecar with a professional driver. “Stay on the phone, Isabella,” Joe instructed her, putting the phone on speaker so Juanita could follow the conversation. She doublechecked her seatbelt just in case things got dicey. Joe made a face at her, pretending to be affronted. “Try to stick to populated areas,” he said to Isabella. “Can you make out who it is?” “The windows are tinted,” she reported. “I think there is more than one person in the car but I can’t really make out who it is or exactly how many there are.” She paused a second. “Am I on speaker?” “Yeah, I’m with my friend Juanita Kincaid. Juanita, Isabella. Isabella, Juanita.” “Pleased to meet you,” Juanita told her. “I’m sorry about your sister.” “Yes, well, thank you for caring,” Isabella replied, sounding more comfortable. “Are you the one who met my uncle last night? My uncle was quite amused – and impressed – to find Joe gone this morning. He heard Welshbacher and Kovlun came back around four, and got into quite a screaming match at Sergeant Bracken.” “Isn’t that special?” Juanita commented. She looked at Joe with a satisfied smile. Joe had worked out the geometry of their respective situations, and told Isabella to start heading towards the hills, where it was more deserted. Isabella was skeptical, knowing it would make it easier for them to overtake her. “Trust me,” he told her. Juanita took out her phone and pulled up their location on Google Maps. She held the phone up so Joe could glance at it. He did so, and asked Isabella for a more precise description of her

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location. After another quick glance at the map, he told her which road to turn on. “We’re probably a minute out.” The housing developments had transitioned from teeming to budding to under development, and had finally given up entirely as the landscape give way to the rolling foothills and scrub brush. There were scattered houses in the hills, but even those were lost with each turn in the hills. Juanita pointed at a car about a half-mile ahead of them. Joe nodded and took a good look. “Got him,” he said for Isabella’s benefit. “That’s good,” she replied with relief. “He’s getting closer.” The Escalade had pulled to near her bumper, yet showed no sign of wanting to pass, even as Isabella slowed and edged over towards the shoulder to let him go by. The Escalade stayed right on her tail, looking ominous. “I’m pretty sure it is Alex Perlman driving,” she reported nervously, glancing in her rearview mirror. “I think there are two guys with him.” “Probably Torpy and Neugart,” Juanita guessed. “I’d rather them than Welshbacher and Kovlun,” Joe said, keeping an eye on the two cars while maintaining enough distance to not make Perlman nervous. The Escalade suddenly accelerated going around a turn, pulling along side Isabella’s car. Instead of pulling in front of her, though, Perlman edged his SUV closer to her. She had no choice but to give way, until he’d forced her off the road and she had to pull up, her car hemmed in by one of the hills and a deep ravine. “Umm, guys,” Isabella said. “I’m off the road now and they’re getting out of the car. It’s definitely Alex Perlman and the two guys who were with him at the funeral.”

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“Stay calm,” Joe said, his own calm infectious. “Lock your doors and don’t get out. We’ll be there in a few seconds.” “Perlman has a bat,” Isabella reported, doing her best to sound calm, as if she was reporting on something happening to someone else, as if having someone stroll towards her car bearing a bat was an everyday occurrence. She’d have been terrified if she hadn’t known help was almost there, and despite that she was still scared. A lot can happen in a few seconds. “Is-sa-bell-la,” Perlman called out happily, drawing out her name like he was playing hide-n-seek with a child. He moved to her side of the car and stood by her door. “Get out of the car, Isabella.” Neugart and Torpy took up position on the other side of the car, completing the circle around her. Perlman had a big smile on his face, and slung the bat casually over one shoulder, where it could intimidate her without actually threatening her. Isabella shook her head defiantly. “Come on, Isabella,” Torpy urged her with a smirk. “We just want to talk.” He pushed against the car experimentally, rocking it slightly. It made him grin. Perlman took the bat off his shoulder and tapped her window lightly with it. “Don’t make me use this, Isabella,” he urged. “Just get out of the car and we won’t have to smash your windows. You’re going to come out one way or the other.” Suddenly Joe and Juanita arrived, skidding his car to a stop so it blocked the rear of Perlman’s Escalade and making it impossible for them to pull out. He and Juanita quickly exited the car. Juanita moved to the far side, where Torpy and Neugart had stationed themselves, while Joe positioned himself near Perlman, but out of the bat’s reach. “Alex, Alex,” he said disapprovingly. “Are you bothering Ms. Morales?”

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The trio was stunned, as if Joe and Juanita had magically teleported themselves. “What the fuck!” Neugart exclaimed, his eyes narrowed. “It’s the chick from the bar!” Torpy realized, looking at Juanita in amazement. He subconscious pulled his injured right arm back protectively towards his side, while his left hand drew closer to his coat pocket. “How ya doing, Lefty? Juanita said disdainfully to Torpy. She eyed his left hand. “You better not try to pull out that toy knife of yours, because you don’t want to see what I’ll do with it.” Torpy guiltily moved his hand away from his pocket. “Who are you?” he asked in a shaky voice. “You don’t really think I’d go out with a twerp like you, do you, Noah? I don’t like assholes that pick on women.” She nodded towards Isabella, still in the car. “I’m on her side.” On the other side of the car, Joe was looking at Perlman. “Drop the bat, Alex,” Joe suggested patiently. “If I have to take it from you – and you know I can – then I’m going to have to use it on you.” Perlman looked across Isabella’s car to his friends for support or guidance, but didn’t find either; they were too distracted by Juanita to even pay attention to his own drama. He tried to give Joe a tough look and patted the bat into the palm of his hand, intending it as a threat. It didn’t work. Joe just cocked his head. “You really don’t want to do that, Alex,” he said, sounding like a teacher scolding a third-grader. “Drop it and move away from the car.” Perlman looked over at his friends, who were now looking at him uneasily. Perlman looked like he wished he was somewhere else entirely, but Joe saw what was going to

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happen before Perlman even realized it himself. Perlman decided, if only to save face with his friends, that he had to at least try to use the bat. He swung it back, but Joe had anticipated that; he closed the gap between them before Perlman could swing it forward. Joe grabbed the handle of the bat, immobilizing it. Perlman struggled to free it, so with his free right hand Joe slapped him lightly on the face. “Alex, Alex,” he chided him. “You knew better than that.” He easily twisted the bat out of Perlman’s hands and put it casually over his shoulder. Joe draped his free arm over Perlman’s shoulder. “Let’s take a little walk.” Perlman started to protest but Joe effortlessly dragged him along. Perlman shot another helpless look back at his friends as he walked off with Joe. Isabella got out of the car and walked over to stand next to Juanita, standing about ten feet away from the two remaining men. Neugart looked back at Joe and Perlman to see how far away they were. They were standing some thirty yards away, out of easy earshot, and Joe appeared to be talking seriously to Perlman, who was looking down but not saying much. Neugart looked back at the two women with a calculating look on his face. “There’s two of them, Noah, and two of us,” he pointed out. “They’re chicks. We could take them.” Juanita snorted. “It wouldn’t even be a fair fight, stupid. You boys need four or five to take on one woman, don’t you?” Neugart looked appreciatively at Isabella. “I must say, your sister was pretty fine, but she wasn’t even ripe yet compared to you.” He licked his lips. “We’d sure have a good time with you.” He gave Juanita a lingering look as well. “And I’ll bet you’re a lot of fun too.” Torpy looked at him nervously. Isabella started towards him, but Juanita put a cautioning hand on her forearm. “Don’t let him get to you. He’s just trying to get a rise.” She looked at Neugart. “Big talk from the one who sat still that night at the restaurant when it came time for fighting. At least your little buddy there had the guts to try to do something.”

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“Look how that worked out for him,” Neugart noted, giving Torpy a dismissive glance. He checked quickly to make sure Joe wasn’t coming back yet. “That wasn’t the time or the place.” “Yeah, I figured you’d say that,” Juanita said in disdainful tone of voice. She shook her head. “Why’d you do it?” Isabella interrupted, staring at them pointedly. Her tone sounded curious rather than mad, although it clearly was taking her an effort to remain in control. Juanita immediately liked Isabella just for this act. “Do what, lady?” Neugart responded, feigning ignorance, if not innocence. “Rape her. Beat her. Kill her,” she said coolly. “Take your choice.” Neugart shrugged with elaborate casualness. “Who says we did anything to your sister?” “I’ve seen the video in the restaurant,” Juanita asserted. It seemed news to them that there was a video, their eyes widening slightly. “I know what you tried to do to my sister then.” She nodded towards Torpy. “Plus Noah there pretty much confessed the night of our little date in the cove.” “I was just playing with you guys,” Torpy offered weakly, stealing a look back at the still-distant Joe. “He was going to hurt me if I didn’t say something bad, so I did. I just told him what he wanted to hear.” “Uh-huh,” Juanita said. “Why did I believe you then but not now?” “I don’t give a shit what you believe or don’t believe, lady,” Neugart asserted. He nudged Torpy. “I say we have ourselves a little party. Right here, right now.” He took

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one step closer. “You’re pretty tough when you have the big guy around to protect you. Maybe you’re not so tough on your own.” Juanita arched her eyebrows. She walked to within a foot of Neugart, invading his space and practically daring him to start something. “Think so, pretty boy? Hey, let’s go down the hill there where Joe can’t see us. You and Noah both. Then you can take your best shots and we’ll see what happens.” Neugart stood there, trying to quickly assess his chances. For a slight moment Juanita thought he was going to go for it, something she was fully prepared for, but she could practically see him lose his nerve. “You know you don’t have the balls. I’d kick your ass.” She shot Torpy a dismissive glance. “You and your little dog.” Juanita was a presence, and she spoke so confidently that, despite himself, Neugart flinched and stepped back. The four of them exchanged looks for a few seconds, until the two women noticed Joe walking back by himself. Perlman was sitting on the ground. Joe threw the bat some fifty yards into the ravine with a casual flick of his wrist, which served as a reminder of both Perlman’s helplessness and Joe’s strength. Neugart and Torpy saw the women looking behind them and took a quick glance themselves. “It ain’t over until it’s over, ladies,” Neugart promised, trying to regain some of his confidence, or at least some self-esteem, before Joe returned. “One of these days you and I are going to tangle,” Juanita replied. She poked him in the chest with a finger, causing him to step back, then she turned and walk back to Isabella, shaking her head in disgust. Neugart gave Isabella a meaningful glance. “These two won’t always be around to protect you, Isabella. Your family lives here, and you can’t protect them forever. You want what’s best for your them, you’ll tell these two to go back to wherever they came from and let things be.”

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“Or else what?” Isabella asked defiantly. “Maybe your sister gets some company in that plot,” Torpy muttered, mustering up his courage as well. Isabella took a half step forward, and Juanita let her go. “You’ll have to kill us all before any of us would give up on getting justice for Theresa,” she told them fiercely, her eyes blazing. Neugart was about to say something in response when Joe spoke, having come up close enough to overhear. “You guys better go help your friend,” Joe suggested. They flinched, and half turned towards him. “I think he pissed himself.”

Chapter 31 Joe moved his car to let Perlman and his buddies sullenly get in their car and, with an excessive squealing of the tires, roar off. Juanita and Isabella looked at him expectantly. “Tell you what,” he said to Isabella. “Why doesn’t Juanita drive you back into town?” “I’m OK,” she assured him, rather unconvincingly, when what she really wanted to ask was why he didn’t offer to drive her himself. Joe shook his head. “No, really. I’ve got a few calls to make anyway.” Juanita looked at him curiously, but didn’t ask any questions. “Come on,” she told Isabella. “He’s a terrible driver anyway. You’re safer with me.” Isabella looked at her, then at Joe, and finally back at Juanita, as Juanita struggled to keep a poker face. “All right,” Isabella said finally, not quite understanding but accepting. “But I’m all right to drive.” They all got in their cars and headed back towards town. Isabella kept glancing over at Juanita, and finally decided to ask. “So, you’re a friend of Joe’s?”

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There was more to that question than the words said, and both women knew it. Juanita exhaled heavily. “It’s like this. I investigated the murder of Joe’s brother, and met Joe in the process. Things with the investigation got…complicated, let’s say, and we kind of bonded over that.” “I see,” Isabella commented neutrally as she processed. She was shocked at the story. “I didn’t know Joe had a brother who got killed. I guess he knows how it feels then.” “I think you could say that.” Isabella thought for a little longer. “And you and Joe work together?” she probed, their relationship not clear to her at all. “No, I’m still a cop, same place as always,” Juanita informed her. “Joe’s from out East. He called me to see if I’d help out about your sister.” “And you were just in the area?” Juanita grinned cheerfully. “I did happen to be in the area, and Joe knew it, but -honestly, if Joe called from the moon needing my help, I’d be getting a spaceship.” Isabella processed this for a few seconds. Juanita took pity on her. “I don’t know if Joe really ever needs my help,” she said. “But when he asks, I’ll come.” “You got him out of jail last night, right?” Isabella guessed. “He needed you for that.” Juanita laughed, and told Isabella the short version of last night’s events, particularly how Joe had handled his would-be adversary. Isabella was at first appalled, then finally amused at the image of Joe so nonchalantly making himself comfortable in a cell of criminals out to get him. “I don’t know,” she concluded. “He certainly trusts you.”

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Isabella asked Juanita about Joe’s family, and Juanita happily compiled, describing each of Debbie, Doug and Melissa. “They’re down in San Diego with Joe’s folks right now, and I gather his father – an ex-Marine – is pretty much running the kids through boot camp,” she laughed. “Or, knowing them, maybe they’re the ones running him around!” They drove in a comfortable silence for a little while. Isabella’s mind kept flashing back into this most recent run-in with Perlman. “I thought I was going to end up like my sister for a while there,” Isabella admitted through tight lips. “And I was scared even though I knew you guys were on the way.” She shook her head forlornly and thought about her sister. “I can’t imagine how terrified she must have been.” Her voice was low and shaky. Juanita reached over and patted her. “I know, I know. I’ve been there,” she assured her in a gentle voice. “You’re all right now.” “Do you ever get over it?” Isabella asked. “I mean, nothing really happened to me, but it just made everything that happened to Theresa more real.” Juanita considered this. “You more get used to it than get over it, to be honest.” Isabella snuck a glance at her. “You weren’t scared at all.” Juanita snorted. “Honey, I’m a cop. Those two weren’t anything to get too worried about. And you were fine. You could have handled them.” “They were scared of Joe, weren’t they?” Isabella asked, not really looking for an answer. She gave Juanita a knowing look. “He’s not really an accountant, is he?”

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Juanita nodded her face. “I think he actually is a CPA,” she conceded in an amused voice. “But I don’t figure he does anyone’s taxes, you know? He likes to say that he figures things out, solves problems. I guess that’s a kind of bookkeeping.” “Hmm.” Isabella shook her head, not getting a good picture of who Joe Russell was. “I guess I can understand him getting involved in all this. He met Theresa, maybe he feels guilty somehow about not protecting her, he lost his own brother and all. So I can sort of see him risking his life trying to get Theresa’s killers.” She shot a curious glance at Juanita. “But what about you? Why are you doing it?” Juanita smiled and looked ahead at Joe’s car. “I told you – he called and asked me to come.” “Did you know what you were getting into?” Juanita shrugged. “I had an idea it’d be trouble if he was calling me to help, but it doesn’t matter. If Joe asks for my help, he’s getting it. He’d do the same for me – and he has.” “No questions asked?” “No questions asked,” Juanita confirmed. Isabella glanced curiously over at her. “Joe’s got some pretty good friends.” Juanita smiled. “You’ve got it backward. Joe is that kind of friend. He gets loyalty from his friends because he gives it, and he deserves it in return. I feel lucky to get a chance to return the favor to him.” Isabella nodded at this, and drove for a few minutes in silence, thinking about Joe Russell and his good friend Juanita Kincaid, and wondering how many other people in his orbit

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were equally tied to him. She could understand that kind of personal gravity, and wondering if she was starting to get pulled in by it. He hadn’t asked her to do much so far, and what he had asked had been for Theresa, but she was beginning to wonder how far she’d be willing to go for him, not just for Theresa. “He’s an unusual man, your Joe Russell,” she declared at last. Juanita gave her an amused smile. “He’s not exactly mine, but, yeah, he’s pretty special.” Isabella sighed. “There are not a lot of good men like him.” She gave Juanita a wry smile. “Certainly not where I live.” “Honey, I don’t think there any guys like Joe,” Juanita admitted with a laugh. “Doesn’t matter where you live.” “Most men I meet are still little boys at heart, or – worse yet – teenagers like Alex Perlman, teenagers who have only one thing on their mind,’ Isabella mused with a thoughtful expression. She looked at Juanita with a speculative expression. “You have a boyfriend?” Just two girls talking. Juanita took a deep breath. “Not at the moment,” she admitted with any hint of apology. “In my line of work you don’t meet the best class of guys – mostly bad guys or other cops. And once civilians find out what you do, they kind of back away.” Isabella nodded. “Then there’s Joe.” “He’s married,” Juanita noted matter-of-factly, implying that settled the issue. Isabella waited for a long moment. “How married is he?” Her own implication was clear.

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Juanita looked over at her with wide eyes. “Oh, he’s very married. Trust me.” Isabella gave Juanita a careful glance. “So you never thought about…” Juanita looked back at the road, her mouth still smiling but something more complex behind her eyes. “Doesn’t matter what I thought or didn’t think,” she replied. “I know Debbie. I know their kids. Even if Joe was someone who might give in, I could never do that to them.” “Of course, I don’t know them,” Isabella noted absently. Juanita laughed curtly, and gave Isabella a frank look. “Still doesn’t matter.” Isabella was quite the package, and would tempt most men, married or not, but she’d be playing in the wrong league trying to go after Joe. If they were both single it might have been something else, but it wasn’t and it wasn’t going to be. Isabella absorbed that without argument, but it wasn’t clear if that signaled agreement or just the end of that discussion. After a few more minutes of silence, she turned back to Juanita. She was curious about one more thing. “So, why did Joe suggest you ride with me?” she asked, not looking at Juanita as she asked. “Did he just want us to get to know each other better?” Juanita considered that, but finally shook her head and smiled. “Maybe that was part of it,” she allowed. She looked over at Isabella with a meaningful expression. “But my guess is that he was making some plans that he figured it was better for us not to know about.” Isabella considered this. “Perhaps I should call my uncle and have him meet us at the diner,” she decided. She took out her phone and made the call.

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Joe, Juanita and Isabella arranged themselves in a booth. There was a moment of eye contact between Juanita and Isabella about who would sit next to Joe, but Juanita broke the tie by sliding in first on the side Joe was closest to. Isabella settled in across the table. All ordered coffee, and – after some negotiation and something that, in other women, might have been called giggling -- Isabella and Juanita agreed to split a large blueberry muffin. Joe thought it was nice to see Isabella smiling, the weight of his sister’s murder not quite so heavy on her for at least a little bit. She had a dazzling smile that made her whole face light up. “So the boys were still feeling unruly,” Joe said, referring to the events back by the side of the road. “I was hoping Juanita might smack them around,” Isabella said, looking impressed. “One more stupid comment from them and I might have been forced to, “Juanita admitted. “But I think they were in more danger from you.” Juanita gave Isabella an admiring look. Their muffin arrived then, like a normal muffin on growth hormones. The women’s eyes grew wide and they negotiated how to split it, each insisted they only wanted a bite but ending up splitting it in exact halves with surgical precision. Once they’d buttered their halves and each had taken a bite, Juanita turned to Joe. “What about your conversation with Perlman? Did he see the light?” “I was hoping you’d hit him, just for the pleasure of seeing him suffer,” Isabella admitted fiercely, with no guilt. “I was keeping an eye on you.” “Some other time, maybe,” Joe told her. He thought for a moment and took a deep breath. “I tried to make it clear that his window was closing – he was going to get investigated for real, and it was just a matter of time before one of his supposed friends was going to give him up.”

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“I vote for Torpy,” Juanita interjected. “The little worm.” “I don’t know,” Isabella disagreed. “I think Neugart is the kind who’d stab his mother in the back to save himself.” “Friends like that…” Joe said philosophically. Juanita and Isabella exchanged glances, both thinking about their conversation about friendship in the car. “But he was surprisingly stubborn. He still thinks he’s going to get away with it, and tried to tell me I’d better get out of town if I knew what was good for me.” “Good thing you’re dumb like that,” Juanita said with a straight face. “Did he admit to killing my sister?” Isabella asked intently. Joe looked at her with sadness and compassion. He shook his head. “Not in so many words, no, but he told me she was one of the little people that no one cared about. He said no one would notice one waitress more or less, and pretty much said if he wanted you gone he could make you gone too.” Perlman had actually used rather more derogatory language than that to describe the Morales sisters, but Joe saw no need to repeat it to Isabella. He was silent for a moment. “I have to conclude Alex is not going to reform, and even if his friends give him up, his father has enough clout to cloud the arrest for a long time. I don’t know how deep his reach is.” The two women were sobered by this admission. Carlos Morales arrived then. He took a seat in the booth next to Isabella and asked the waitress to bring him some coffee. “Black,” he told her firmly. He looked around the table, then his gaze settled on Joe. “So I see you made your way out of the cell none the worse for wear.” “Well, my friend here had something to do with that,” Joe insisted, nodding at Juanita. “And I appreciate your coming out so late to help. Your intelligence was invaluable.”

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“I hope I did not inadvertently participate in a jail break,” he sighed, with a slight twinkle in his eyes. “However, since you were never officially there, it’s hard to see how you could legally be considered to have escaped.” Joe nodded in agreement, a faint smile on his face. “Any news on the guys who put me there?” Morales nodded in return. He paused while the waitress poured him his coffee. He thanked her and waited for her to go to another table before responding. “They should be meeting with the District Attorney right about now,” he declared, making a show of checking his watch. “I understand that there has been some rather heated discussions in the DA’s office in the last twenty four hours, but in the end our arguments were persuasive.” Joe noted that Morales had used “our” instead of “your,” implicitly attaching him to the scheme. “And that will mean some new investigators on Theresa’s murder?” Morales again nodded slowly. “Yes. The city is assigning it to some detectives from the County’s Sheriff, two men that I know and who are quite capable. It’s very encouraging.” “Somehow I don’t expect it’s going to be as easy as all that,” Juanita noted. “Do they have any evidence pointing them to Perlman?” Morales looked at her. “I believe the video of the event in the restaurant has turned up somehow.” He looked at Joe. “Curiously, Theresa’s defender cannot be identified, as I understand it.” He was solemn for a long moment, then winked impishly at Juanita. It was a side of his personality that she suspected he didn’t show very often, which made it cuter. She winked back.

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“Welshbacher and Kovlun are going to be coming for Joe, don’t you think?” Isabella asked in a worried tone of voice. She glanced at him anxiously. “One can only hope,” Juanita said lightly, smiling at Joe. She left unsaid what might happen to them if they did, but it was clear both that she wasn’t too worried about it and intended to be there for any fireworks. “Once the new detectives start putting pressure on Alex’s friends, you know one of them is going to crack and give the others up.” “Yes, I would agreed,” Morales said. “But I think we may have another problem.” “What’s that?” Isabella asked. “Carson Perlman is a wealthy man, and a smart one. We’ve seen how far he may be willing to go in order to protect his son.” “So?” Isabella asked. Morales shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex suddenly were to leave the country.” Juanita and Isabella both got concerned expressions on their faces, but Juanita noticed Joe did not react. He slowly sipped his coffee. “What?” she asked, nudging him with her elbow. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Morales studied him carefully. “Do you know something?” Joe shrugged. “Alex Perlman is going to get locked up by the Feds tonight or tomorrow,” he announced to the surprise of the other three.

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“He is?” Isabella questioned. Juanita had questions as well, but figured Joe would explain in due time. Morales looked at Joe with no expression. “What is their interest in Alex Perlman?” “Child pornography.” This time Juanita could not conceal her surprise, and even Morales had to raise his eyebrows. “That is not something I’d heard anything about before,” he confessed, sounding disappointed in his incomplete information sources. He watched Joe intently. Joe took a drink of coffee. “I think it’s going to come as something of a surprise to Alex himself.” Joe had, indeed, been busy on the drive to the diner. One call arranged for the compilation of a file of particularly nasty child pornography images and related instant messages, along with an executable program for loading it on a computer with backdated time stamps in a way that was virtually untraceable. The file was to be posted to an IP address. A second call asked a second hacker to download the file and install it on Perlman’s computer, not knowing why Perlman or what was on the file. A third contact was recruited to anonymously tip-off the FBI about Perlman, exclaiming he was targeting a neighbor’s child, in order to engender a swift response from the FBI. None of the three contacts knew each other, and each only knew their role in the task. Joe was the only person who knew the whole chain and the purpose of the chain, and he wouldn’t be talking. Morales was watching Joe very closely. “The evidence against Alex,” he said carefully. “Is it likely to stand up in trial?”

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“Probably not,” Joe admitted equally carefully, matching Morales’ stare. “Not with the kinds of experts his father can bring to bear. It’s good, but nothing is perfect.” “So he gets arrested, maybe is in jail for a couple days or so until he posts bail, his reputation is ruined, but then he’s out walking the streets?” Isabella asked incredulously. “It’s not enough. Not nearly enough!” She slapped the table in frustration. Juanita was studying Joe closely, trying to read him and figure out what his plan was. She was sure Perlman was not going to get off so easily. “You think his getting arrested will make him more willing to try to deal?” she hazarded. “Or scare his friends into doing so.” Joe shrugged, still matching stares with Morales. Slowly Morales eased up on the intensity of his gaze. “I have some clients in the federal lock-up in San Diego. It is not a very safe place,” he explained in precise tones. He kept his eyes on Joe and shrugged. “Particularly for someone accused of child pornography.” Juanita caught on. “And if word also got out that Perlman was behind Theresa’s death…” Isabella was not far behind. “Then some of the Mexican gangs whom Perlman claimed killed her would certainly have extra incentive to see harm come to him,” she added thoughtfully. “Kind of ironic.” Joe held his gaze on Morales for a second longer, then turned it to Isabella and to Juanita in turn. They were sharing a secret now, a plan that they were now de facto complicit in. It wasn’t legal, it might not be moral, but none of them was going to argue that it wasn’t fair. Perlman had forfeited any right he had to fairness. Once Joe was satisfied that they understand what was not being said, and that there was no dissent, he then turned his

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attention to his coffee, stirring it idly, just to watch it move. He shrugged and looked up. “Payback is a bitch.”

Chapter 32 Joe and Juanita went down to San Diego. They’d set the wheels in motion and thought it best that they be out of town when those wheels starting running over people. Doug and Melissa were thrilled when they arrived at Joe’s parents. “Aunt Juanita!” they screamed in unison. They ran up and hugged her. “I guess I’m old news,” Joe told Debbie philosophically. “Oh, that doesn’t mean they’re not happy to see you too. They’re just excited to see Juanita,” Debbie said, wrapping him up in her own hug. She gave him a kiss, then looked at Juanita. “Hi, Juanita – glad to see you.” Doug and Melissa disengaged themselves. Joe picked up Melissa, and Doug allowed Joe to put an arm around his shoulders. Juanita and Debbie did a quick but affectionate hug of their own, then Joe’s parents greeted Juanita as well. Doug and Melissa wrapped their arms around Joe’s legs and tried to keep him from walking, which almost worked. He let them bring him to the ground and wrestled with them for a few seconds. “See,” Debbie told Juanita. “It could have been worse. At least they didn’t tackle you.” “I’m not so easy to bring down,” she said confidently. “Bet they can’t even catch me.” Juanita took off towards the backyard, Doug and Melissa suddenly in hot pursuit. “Why didn’t we get her down here sooner?” Joe’s mother asked. “It could have saved us a lot of energy.”

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They carried the bags into the house, and Joe’s mother called Juanita and the kids in the house for lunch. The children came in grumbling, Doug wanting another chance to race Juanita. “Maybe later,” she promised, winking at Joe and Debbie and pretending to wipe sweat off her forehead. “I need some fuel first.” Joe’s mother had prepared a lunch that they ate on the patio. “I’m sorry it’s not more elaborate,” she apologized. “The kids having been talking about going to the beach with Juanita all morning, so they’re keen to get going.” “It’s delicious,” Juanita told her. The lunch was, in fact, quite good, even if mainly sandwiches and homemade potato salad. The bread was fresh, and the sandwich meats and cheeses came from a local deli whose owner was a friend of Joe’s father. The conversation was casual, mostly catching up on what Doug and Melissa had been up to the past couple days. Doug and Melissa were more focused on finished their food and moving on to the activities of the afternoon. “I’m gong to teach you how to use a boogeyboard,” Doug promised Juanita. “I’m really good at it.” “You just learned yesterday,” Melissa pointed out. “I stayed on longer than you did.” “Maybe Juanita doesn’t want to boogeyboard,” Debbie told them. “Maybe she just wants to relax on the beach.” Doug and Melissa looked stricken, and gave Juanita forlorn gazes that indicated she’d be betraying them if she declined. She patted their heads. “I’m game, don’t worry.” “Did you even bring a swimsuit?” Joe asked. She gave him a smug look. “Oh, yeah,” she assured him. “And I look gooood in it.”

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Her statement proved to be the truth. It was a one-piece suit, more athletic than fashionable but still highlighting her solid body. She allowed Doug and Melissa to practically drag her in the water and teach her how to use the boogeyboard, although they ended up doing more showing her than allowing her to try it on her own. She didn’t mind; she enjoyed being in the water and playing with them. Despite her prior comments to Joe, she swam quite well. The weather was great, the waves were regular but not vicious, and she felt more relaxed than she’d felt in weeks. Joe and Debbie took a long walk on the beach. Debbie looked smoking in her bikini, again wearing a white cover-up over it that helped protect her from the sun without doing anything to cover her up too much; she still drew stares from both men and women as they walked slowly hand-in-hand on the beach. Joe felt relaxed too, but not completely. “No new scars,” she observed, making a show of inspecting his visible skin for any evidence of anything bad that might have happened to him from his sortie. “At least, none that show.” “I didn’t even get into any fights,” Joe insisted, making the sign of the Scout’s Oath for further proof. She had to smile at that, and knew better than to probe. They walked further in comfortable silence, enjoying the day and the easy time together. Still, she sensed the truth. “It’s not quite over, is it?” Debbie asked softly at last. He smiled at her intuition. “Not quite,” he admitted. “I suspect we’ll need to go back in a day or two, once things fall into place.” He put his arm around her shoulder and drew her closer. “But we shouldn’t have to move many more pieces.” That was largely the extent of his report to her. She wouldn’t want to know the details, knew better than to ask. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to bury her head in the sand

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so much as they had different approaches to problems, his being more open to the use of violence, and they’d learned to just trust each other rather than to keep trying to convince each other. She just wanted him to come back to her, and for the situation to be righted however he thought best. She knew he wouldn’t feel right until then. On the other hand, Juanita had to have a longer conversation about what she and Joe had been up to. She and the kids finally took a break, greedily drinking some water on the beach. “That was fun,” Juanita told them. “Maybe when we go back out you two can race and I’ll tell you who wins.” “I’d beat her,” Doug said scornfully. “Would not,” Melissa asserted. She might be younger, but she was her father’s daughter, and her mother’s too, so she didn’t back down, not even to her older brother. He might usually beat her, but she wouldn’t give up. “Well, I think it’d be a pretty good race,” Juanita told them. They watched some other swimmers and surfers for a few minutes. “So you and Dad are catching some bad guys?” Doug inquired, looked at her intently. “Is that what your Mom told you?” Juanita asked, surprised that Debbie would share that with them. “Naw, but we’re not dumb, you know,” Melissa told her with the indignation of that age. “You are a policeman, it’s what you do.” “We know Dad catches bad guys sometimes,” Doug added. “Like when you helped him with those people who killed Uncle Ian.”

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Juanita had to look away at that. She’d never known Ian Russell. He’d been a corpse and a case to her, one all-too-easily wrapped up as the victim of a drug dispute gone bad. Then Joe had shown up, and she’d had to make a choice between doing the right thing for her career and doing the right thing, period. It hadn’t been a hard choice after all, and she wouldn’t have missed having Joe Russell as a friend for anything. She nodded and looked back at Doug and Melissa fondly. They weren’t her children, they weren’t even technically her family, but she’d protect them, or Debbie, at any cost, just because they meant so much to Joe. “It was a terrible thing that happened to your Uncle Ian,” she said carefully. “Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. It’s hard to understand why.” “And you and Daddy make things right when they do,” Doug told her, as if it was the most logical thing in the world. “Besides,” Melissa pointed out, “you’d have come here sooner if you weren’t helping him with catching bad guys.” They were bright children, Juanita had to admit, not for the first time. But one had to expect that, given their bloodline. “Well, I can’t argue with that,” Juanita conceded with a smile. “Did you beat up anyone?” Doug asked eagerly, no doubt picturing scenes from action movies that he’d somehow been able to watch despite his mother’s best efforts to shield him from them. “Can’t say that I did,” she told him. “Not this time, anyway.” “Did Dad?” Melissa asked. Juanita wasn’t sure how far she should bend the truth; she could say no, on the grounds that the original restaurant episode wasn’t part of their current activities, but she realized

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that wasn’t the point. “Does your Daddy usually tell you what he does when he catches bad guys?” “No, he never tells us those stories,” Doug admitted, sounding extremely disappointed, as if he’d been repeatedly cheated. “What makes you think he sometimes beats people up?” “We watch TV, you know,” Melissa replied indignantly. “We’re not stupid!” “No, you’re not,” Juanita agreed with amusement. “Not at all.” “Plus, he teaches us how to defend ourselves, and Grandpa does as well,” Doug pointed out, again with impeccable logic. “We figure he must have to use all that fighting stuff sometime.” Sometimes they were too bright, Juanita thought ruefully. “Let’s go back in the water, she suggested, wanting to get off this subject.

The next morning there was a big story about Alex Perlman’s arrest in the paper. Joe had seen the news on his phone already, but his father showed it to the other adults. The Perlmans were not very well known outside their immediate area, but the story was pretty juicy, the kind of thing newspapers love – rich family, spoiled son, sordid charges. “Did you see this?” Joe’s father asked, laying the page with the article in it on the table where Juanita, Debbie and Joe were having breakfast. The story meant nothing to him personally, but he was affronted nonetheless. “Disgusting.” They exchanged covert glances at each other. Juanita stood so she could read the story over Debbie’s shoulder. Perlman had, indeed, been arrested by FBI agents, who quickly found the files on his laptop. He’d expressed surprise at the contents they found on it, of

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course, but it was in his house, and was clearly his computer. Juanita imagined how much Perlman must have been cursing as they had dragged him away. “Disgusting,” Joe’s father repeated. “The kind of filth they found there. Young kids! It’s hard to believe there are perverts who like to do things like that to small children. And that those creeps like to share pictures and videos with each other. The Internet makes it too easy to do that, if you ask me.” He shook his head in frustration. “Child pornographers are very disturbed people,” Debbie agreed. She looked steadily at Joe. She knew Alex Perlman was the person he believed responsible for Theresa Morales’ death, and somehow she suspected his being arrested on these charges wasn’t just a coincidence. She was not going to ask if they were true or if Joe had anything to do with the arrest. Joe’s parents, of course, knew nothing of Alex Perlman’s involvement in Theresa Morales’ death, and so didn’t immediately connect the dots. “I read that they had a tip he was trying to lure a thirteen year old girl to a motel,” Joe’s mother said softly. “That’s why they had to act when they did.” She also shook her head. “Terrible,” Debbie said, her heart feeling sorry for the other such victims in the world, the ones no one was helping. “It just breaks your heart.” “I tell you, prison is too good for these animals,” Joe’s father growled. “They should let the children’s parents cut these guys’ balls off or something. Stone ‘em to death. The death penalty isn’t enough, and they’d only get that if they killed one of the kids, not just for…anything else.” “If it’s any consolation, being in prison as a child molester isn’t any picnic,” Juanita assured him. “So they do suffer.” “If they get caught,” Joe’s mother noted.

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“Suffering for years is probably fairer than just killing them” Joe’s father allowed. “If you could be sure they’d suffer every day.” Joe was staying out of the conversation, watching and listening but not adding any commentary. His mother picked up on the signs before his father did; he was too agitated about the crimes committed against innocent children. “What is it, dear?” she asked gently. “Nothing, Mom. Just enjoying my breakfast with my family,” he told her with a lazy smile. “I don’t need to hear about stuff like that.” His father picked up the clues, and looked at him intently. He looked at Joe, at the paper, at his wife, and back to Joe. “You know something, don’t you?” “Oh, Dad,” Debbie said blithely, “Joe always knows something.” He had to smile at that, but his intense look returned just as quickly. “Does this creep have something to do with what you were doing up there? What you and Juanita were doing?” Joe reached over and took the paper from Debbie. He folded it up. “Let’s not talk about it. What’s the plan for the day?”

About five the next morning Joe’s phone rang. He woke immediately, and answered it, quickly getting out of bed and trying not to disturb Debbie. Still, she’d woken, and tried to listen in as quietly as possible. He stood in the hallway by the door. “Yes?” It was Carlos Morales. “It won’t be in the morning papers, but Alex Perlman died late last night.”

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“Is that so?” Joe replied, not surprised at the news at all. “I thought he was in protective custody.” “Yes, yes, he was,” Morales agreed. “Someone got to his food, put rat poison in his supper. He must have just thought it was crappy prison food, and he didn’t notice anything was wrong until a few hours later. By the time he started throwing up and bleeding out later in the evening he was pretty far-gone. I understand it must have been quite painful.” “I can imagine,” Joe said quietly. “Very creative way to kill someone.” “There are some pretty creative people in that jail.” “Do you think he knew why he was dying?” Joe wondered aloud. It didn’t much matter, but it would help balance the karma if he knew why he was being punished. “There was a trustee in the hall,” Morales told him quietly. Joe didn’t ask him how he knew that. “Perlman started moaning, then screaming. The trustee told him no one was coming, no one would help him. He said Theresa Morales and her family were laughing at him now, and hoped he died in agony.” Morales stopped, and Joe could practically see the small smile Morales allowed himself. “Or so I hear.” Joe paused for a few seconds. It was enough, would have to be enough. He didn’t feel any guilt over Perlman’s fate, nor any sympathy for the suffering he’d endured. He wasn’t so different from his father, after all. “Any news on our other friends?” he asked at last. “Neugart and Torpy have both been questioned by the new detectives on the case. Neither has been charged yet but I believe the detectives suspect something is up. I give

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them a day or two before they start trying to cut deals. Now that Alex is dead they can start blaming him for everything.” Joe had to agree it made sense, but they’d still do time, and would never be the same. “Welshbacher and Kovlun?” he asked. He knew they were the wild cards, still dangerous and less likely to roll over. Morales sighed. “Yes, lots of people would like to talk to them. Unfortunately, they seem to have dropped out of sight.” “You think Perlman helped them get out of the country?” Morales considered this, not for the first time. “One can only hope not.”

Chapter 33 Carson Perlman was in a fury, although one would have to know him well to see it. Gerald Sharp did know him well, and he watched Perlman like he was an active volcano, ready to blow at any moment. Perlman would blow, Sharp knew, but not in useless rage or grief. He’d funnel all his emotion towards getting revenge. Welshbacher and Kovlun didn’t know Perlman as well, but they had enough street experience to recognize that Perlman was a dangerous man and that this was a particularly dangerous time. They’d seen different reactions from parents hearing about the death of a child before, but nothing quite like this stony pressure that seemed to fill the room. They were gathered in one of Perlman’s offices, this one more spare and much more private than the office in which he saw clients. This room had all the charm of a motel room, yet without even the promise of sex. It did have a flat screen television, which

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Perlman had tuned to a business channel and muted. Perlman sat behind the fake woodpaneled desk, while the remaining three sat on metal chairs in front of him, like school kids called to the principal. Sharp appeared to be entirely comfortable even on the hard chair, crossing his legs casually and waiting out the storm, his suit immaculate. Kovlun fidgeted in his seat, not wanting to be here and angry about the impending collapse of his career. Welshbacher was trying to tough it out, playing out the most plausible scenarios and how he would respond to them. Sharp had been the first to hear of Alex’s death, and he’d immediately called Perlman. Perlman had been silent for only a second, then growled to Sharp to convene a meeting of the four of them. “I don’t care if they’re fucking Megan Fox,” he’d warned. “Get them to the office by nine.” So here they were. Perlman hadn’t said a word or moved from his seat as they filed in and took their seats. He sat there immobile, looking at each of them in turn with piercing eyes that questioned the very need for their continued existence. “So how the fuck did this happen?” His voice was quiet yet sharp as a knife. Welshbacher and Kovlun exchanged covert glances, trying to decide who should respond, but Sharp kept his eyes focused on Perlman. “How do you mean?” Kovlun asked cautiously. Welshbacher tightened his lips, knowing that Kovlun had spoken too soon. That was a mistake. Perlman turned his full attention on him. “All right, Mr. Kovlun,” he said slowly, emphasizing the “Mr.” to highlight that it was no longer “Detective.” “Let’s see. There’s the part where you and your partner here got yourselves suspended. There’s the fact that some new investigators from the County are looking at Theresa Morales’ murder and already are asking some questions about Alex’s involvement. They’re probably talking to his friends right now.”

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Perlman paused for a moment, glancing at Welshbacher and Sharp to make sure they didn’t think he was forgetting about them. When he continued his focus was no longer solely on Kovlun, and his voice was icy hot. “Let’s not forget the fact that somehow Alex was arrested for being a child pornographer. I mean, I know Alex liked them young, but child pornography?” He snorted. “It certainly seems, I don’t know, unusual that the Feds happened to get a tip that they not only paid attention to but acted within hours. And, because Alex must have been the world’s stupidest or most careless pornographer, he has a laptop full of incriminating evidence sitting in plain site, not even encrypted.” Perlman smiled but only a fool would think he was amused. “Sir, that shit was a plant,” Welshbacher broke in, trying to gain some control of the situation. Perlman looked at him. “Think so, Mr. Welshbacher?” he asked with exaggerated yet clearly false respect. “Sort of begs the question about how someone got those pictures and videos on his laptop and convinced the FBI to search it.” He turned to Sharp. “And so we have my son not only arrested, but held without bail, mind you, in a federal holding cell.” He waited a few seconds, and they all knew what was coming next. “And there – in protective custody, no less – someone got to him and killed him.” He shook his head in amazement at the whole series of events. “Sir, I’m very sorry about Alex’s death,” Kovlun started, more intimidated than he should have been. “Alex was--” “Alex was many things, Mr. Kovlun,” Perlman interrupted with stern control. “If you and your partner here hadn’t, let’s say ‘encouraged’ some of his behaviors we wouldn’t be here right now trying to decided what to do next.” Perlman was breathing heavier by the end of this than he’d been at the beginning.

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“I think we need to focus not on what should or shouldn’t have happened but on what we do next,” Welshbacher suggested firmly, trying to gain a little control over the situation. He most definitely did not want to get into the events of the night Theresa Morales got killed, and he was reasonably certain that he needed to get out of the country as soon as possible, probably under a new identity. Personally, he thought Alex Perlman was an asshole who wouldn’t be missed by anyone but his father, and he just wanted to weather this storm and move along to preserving his own future. If that meant sacrificing Kovlun, well, so be it. They knew what came next. Perlman would want to kill whoever killed his son. And killing might not be enough to satisfy his desire for revenge. He’d want to punish, and that punishment would extend broadly to anyone involved. Perlman nodded slowly, as if he was agreeing, but only a fool would think that was the case. “And how do you think we should – move forward?” he asked deliberately. Kovlun fell into the trap again. “Maybe this time it really was Mexican gangs,” he offered enthusiastically. “They’d heard they were being blamed for the Morales death, and wanted to take him out.” Welshbacher winced, and he shook his head slightly. He definitely was going to have to cut Kovlun loose. “What would they gain from that, Keith?” he asked in amazement. “They know they didn’t do it, but having people think they did probably didn’t bother them any. Why would they use some chips to get into protective custody and have Alex killed?” He looked at the floor, while Kovlun’s face grew red. “Why indeed,” Perlman agreed drolly. He leaned forward slightly. “I’ll tell you this. Maybe they did actually kill Alex – and they’ll pay for that -- but it wasn’t their idea. Someone has been pulling all these strings, starting with getting you guys kicked off the force.”

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“Technically we’re only suspended,” Kovlun clarified, still not having learned his lesson. Welshbacher had to reach over and put his hand on Kovlun’s forearm “I kind of think that once they start digging, they’re going to find a lot of shit, Keith,” he told him matterof-factly. “It’s just a matter of time.” This evidently had not fully occurred to Kovlun; he might have been worried about it, but he’d been holding out hopes that Perlman would protect them, as he always had. “You two better stop worrying about your careers and pay attention,” Perlman warned. “We all know who’s behind Alex’s death. We’ve all met him.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Russell,” Welshbacher agreed reluctantly. He looked to Sharp for confirmation, but Sharp kept his gaze on Perlman. “Russell?” Kovlun asked, struggling to remember their conversation with him. “Russell did all this? He’s a damn accountant, for Christ sake.” He looked at Welshbacher for support. Welshbacher was watching Perlman, and saw that he was serious. “There was something about that guy,” he admitted. “Like how the hell he got out of that cell, with Deuce ending up in the hospital. Everything started happening once he came in the picture.” Welshbacher rubbed his chin. “It’s possible.” “What’d you have?” Perlman asked Sharp. He wasn’t going to admit it, but he’d been struck at the time by how unruffled Russell had been by his threats. That had worried him and should have tipped him off right away. He should have killed him when he had the chance. If he’d acted on his instincts right away, Alex might still be alive. Sharp was cool. “We managed to find out where he was staying, both times. He covered his tracks very well, used some corporate dead-ends to pay for them, and didn’t use credit cards in his own name. If Russell is his real name.”

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“He’s a spook?” Kovlun blurted out. “Very possibly,” Sharp allowed with a slight smile. “We also found some of the young people who met him on his first trip, when he met Theresa Morales. He was staying with his wife.” Sharp admitted that, according to the information he’d obtained, Russell had been coy about divulging much about himself, except for having been in the Navy. “He did, indeed, graduate from the Naval Academy, which gave us a toehold. But most of his service records are classified.” He reconsidered. “Not officially classified, but for all intents and purposes nonexistent. We could deal with classified. Whatever he was doing in the Navy, no one wants anyone to find out about.” “And since then?” Perlman asked, intent on the trail now. Sharp shrugged. “He has a company – accounting services,” he noted, looking pointedly at Kovlun, “but it’s virtually impossible to find out anything about them. Even where they are located.” “What about the woman?” Kovlun asked. “The one who lured Torpy to the beach, and got him out of jail?” Sharp shook his head. “We don’t know anything about her,” he admitted with a slight discomfort. “We have a description and a bad security video of her from the station, but no ID.” Perlman waved off that problem. “Find him, find her. She must work for Russell.” “So how do we find this guy?” Welshbacher asked. He was good at tracking down criminals, but only because most of them were dumb, or he knew people he could lean on for information about them. Russell seemed a whole other kind of being.

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“Fortunately, his wife was not quite as discreet as he was,” Sharp told them with some satisfaction. It hadn’t been easy finding some of the people who had been at La Cantina with the Russell’s, but he had. Gaining their confidence enough to have them divulge details of the dinner conversation had been easier. “She mentioned that she was a professor at Princeton, and that they were going to meet up with their children – one boy, one girl – at his parent’s in San Diego after their vacation here.” Sharp smiled, the smile of a predator. “There’s probably hundreds of Russells in San Diego,” Welshbacher grumbled. Tracking them down would be good old-fashioned police work, except without the badge or the department’s resources. “It’s probably going to mean a trip to Princeton, since we know they’ll end up there. Like you say, find her, find him.” Welshbacher began to feel more enthusiastic about the chase. From New Jersey he could catch flights to lots of overseas locations. Perlman and Sharp ignored him, staring at each other in a virtual telepathy. Both their minds were working out the next steps like a chess player. Finally Perlman nodded his head and looked at the detectives. He smiled his shark’s smile again. “No need for that. Mr. Russell will come back to say his farewell to Theresa Morales.” The smile drained and his face took on an impossibly cruel expression. “We just need to be ready.”

Chapter 34 Joe and his family had two more days in their vacation, and they took full advantage of those days to relax. Doug and Melissa were pleased to have their father back, not to mention their favorite aunt Juanita, Debbie was happy to have her husband with her safe and sound, and Joe’s parents were happy to see Joe yet also counting down to having their quiet routine back soon. Doug and Melissa were high energy guests, delightful but exhausting.

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Joe’s father took Joe and Juanita to his gym – an old style gym, heavy on the boxing and the weights and light on cushy touches. The air smelled of dried sweat and excess testosterone, and all of the equipment showed the effects of time and hard effort. Most of the people there were ex-Marines like Joe’s father, men with bodies that might not be as hard as they once were but that they had every right to be proud of. They were a selfselected bunch; people who didn’t fit in either didn’t come, or didn’t come back. If Joe’s father was worried about taking a Navy man -- or someone who was not only a civilian but also a woman -- to the enclave, it didn’t show. Maybe he viewed it as a test, or possibly he was oblivious. Some of his friends knew of Joe’s service, and a few of them knew some of the more interesting facets of that service. They came over and said hello, shook hands and were introduced to Juanita. Juanita, of course, was a big hit. Many women would have been intimidated by this epitome of the old boys club – she wondered when they’d break out the cigars – but she was used to being a woman in a tough men’s circle. A few of the bolder ones made some interesting if impossibly lurid propositions, which she discouraged with a smile and a roll of her eyes. She ignored a couple of more hostile greetings. A single look from Joe’s father put a stop to them, which Juanita noticed but hadn’t felt she needed. Joe stuck to doing some weights, jump rope, and the speed bag. Juanita followed a similar regime, and had more offers of spotters for her weights than she knew what to do with. Partly for exercise, partly to burn some aggression, and part out of impishness, Juanita talked Joe’s father into assisting her on the heavy bag. He was initially dubious but once she started punching it didn’t take long for him to start crowing. “Damn!” he exclaimed. “This girl’s got a hell of punch!” “I know, dad,” Joe replied, a loose smile on his face. He stood with a few other men standing in a circle watching her, and he wasn’t sure which he enjoyed more – watching Juanita hit or watching the men be impressed by it. “I’ve seen her use it.” “Hopefully never on you,” his father kidded him.

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“Not yet,” Juanita told them while taking a short break. She wiped some sweat off her brow and looked at Joe. “Maybe we should try sparring – they’ve got a ring here.” “Nah,” Joe said with a shake of his head. “I’d hate to explain a black eye to Debbie or my mom.” “You worried about giving her one or getting one?” Joe’s father kidded him. “Hey, dad – you want to see some sparring, you do it with her.” Joe’s father gave him a look, and soon several of the onlookers were volunteering their services in the ring. A few offered their services elsewhere, which Juanita declined with a roll of her eyes and a wicked smile. She focused on hitting the bag. She hit powerfully, anchored by her strong legs and plenty of training. She was no dilettante, and even in this setting where male skepticism about women’s prowess abounded, she made converts. Joe gave his father an I-told-you-so look, which his father grudgingly acknowledged.

Later that morning, Joe’s mother took Debbie and Juanita out to lunch, which was about as opposite an environment as one could imagine from the morning’s gym outing. “So this is what ladies who lunch look like,” Juanita observed, looking around the restaurant. It was, indeed, a quietly elegant little place, with nice tablecloths, linen napkins, and real silverware. The menu was refined; no steaks or burgers on the menu, hard to find any red meat at all, mostly just elaborate salads, some with ingredients Juanita had never even heard of. The other patrons were, indeed, mostly women, in groups of two or four. It was not a place to bring children, and husbands were at best tolerated. The few men present were either gay or had been effectively neutered by age, and were no longer embarrassed at being here.

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“Indeed,” Debbie agreed. She didn’t get much time to take lunches, and the faculty dinners certainly had neither this gender proportion nor general air of civility. “I could get used to it.” “It’s nice in small doses,” Joe’s mother allowed with a guilty smile. “I have a couple friends who I come here with once or twice a month, but some of these women seem to always be here.” She tried to suppress her smile. She had never been a frivolous woman, and meals at fancy restaurants had never been that important to her. She was no more at home here than Debbie or Juanita, and was amused to think about what the other patrons thought of the three of them. They made comfortable small talk. Doug and Melissa were an easy topic, of course, and Joe’s mother caught them up on their recent activities. “I don’t know how you do it, Debbie,” she confessed. “Especially with you working and all.” “Thank God for school,” Debbie exclaimed. “At least they go away for a few hours most days.” She seemed slightly guilty at this admission. Joe was another easy topic. Joe’s mother told some amusing stories from his childhood. “So he was always a hard case,” Juanita said after one story involving a high school football playoff where Joe didn’t tell anyone about a broken forearm he’d suffered in the third quarter. “I suppose you could say that,” she said with a mixture of pride and embarrassment that she’d had to get used to with some of his exploits. “And he was playing both ways, too, so he couldn’t really stay out of trouble.” She shook her head. “Just taped it up and kept playing,” Debbie guessed.

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“Pretty much.” All three women laughed. Debbie told some stories from their courtship, when she was still trying to figure out if he was too warlike for her Quaker background. “Good thing he was so cute,” Debbie cooed happily. Juanita laughed. “We all fall for the cute ones, at least for a while.” She didn’t add to the Joe stories with any accounts of her exploits with him. The conversation meandered. Debbie talked about some of her recent studies, but with a reluctance and a modesty that was not the norm for an academic. She was more likely to brag about her students than about herself. Joe’s mother skillfully extracted details of both Juanita’s family and her love life, of which Juanita had to ruefully admit, with an unself-conscious laugh, was lackluster. “I’m keeping my eyes open,” she insisted. “I think your husband --” speaking to Joe’s mother “-- had a few candidates for me this morning, but I think I’ll keep looking.” Juanita was struck by a sense of not fitting in – with the other patrons in the room, or even with Debbie and Joe’s mother. Debbie was a wife and a mother, with a big house and a literally ivory tower career. Joe’s mother was also a mother and a wife, used to both her husband and her son putting themselves in harm’s way. Juanita was close to her own family, but not the kind of closeness that the Russell’s had. She didn’t know how many people did. The Russells graciously treated her as a kind of member of the family. One could argue that she’d earned it and deserved it, but adopted members are never quite the same as blood. At the end of the day, or rather, at the end of the vacation, she’d go home to her little house alone. Normally she looked forward to that prospect, especially at the end of a shift, but at the moment she was finding it a little daunting. By unspoken agreement, they did not talk about what Joe and Juanita had been up to with Alex Perlman.

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That evening Joe, Juanita, and Debbie went out for a quiet dinner and to listen to some music at a jazz club, while Joe’s parents took Doug and Debbie for a not-quite-so quiet dinner at a pizza place, then took them to a new PG movie they were keen to see. “Oh, yeah, I definitely think we got the better deal out of this,” Joe laughed over a beer at the club. “No doubt!” Debbie agreed. The club was a little off the beaten path, but was far from being a little hole in the wall half-underground. It looked like it had been a supper club at one point, and still served light meals, including a late night menu, but most of the crowd of seventy or so was there for the music. Most of the tables were small, seating no more than four, although larger booths ringed the room for bigger parties or for couples wanting a little more privacy from roaming eyes. A quartet – featuring drums, sax, double bass, and piano -- was headlining. The musicians were generally older. The youngest was the sax player, who looked to be in his late thirties or early forties, and the oldest was the bass player, who could have been seventy, or in his fifties but with a hard life behind him. The other two were in their fifties. All were dressed in white dinner jackets that were clean but well broken-in. “You don’t miss the kids when you’re away from them?” Juanita asked. Joe and Debbie looked guiltily at each other, then back at her. “You do always miss the little terrors,” Debbie agreed. “They’re never really out of your mind.” “But it’s nice to get a break sometimes,” Joe finished for her. “And I have more time away from them than Debbie does.” “I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse,” Debbie told him with a fond expression.

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“Me neither,” Joe confessed. He looked back at Juanita. “It helps when you know the person watching them is someone you can absolutely trust, like my folks.” “Or you, Juanita,” Debbie added. “Definitely,” Joe agreed. He looked up at the stage for a few moments, where the quartet was getting ready to start a new set. “Too bad you don’t live closer.” “You could babysit anytime we wanted to go out,” Debbie daydreamed aloud. “Yeah, that’s an incentive. Besides, you’d get sick of me if I was around too much,” Juanita demurred. “The kids just like me because I’m exotic to them.” Joe and Debbie vigorously disagreed, and assured her they’d all enjoy having her closer. Joe had let her know some time ago that he could always find a place for her in his company, with or without relocation. He didn’t bring it up but it was always out there, something for her to think about when she was having a bad day with stupid department rules or a frustrating case. She enjoyed their company, and their kids’, but she kind of liked these periodic interludes with Joe that alternated danger with the warm embrace of his family. It was nice listening to the music. It was loud enough to make constant conversation unnecessary, but not so loud as to make it impossible. The quartet was tight, and it almost seemed as if they were more playing for each other than for the crowd – no small talk between numbers, no watching the audience, only grudging nods of acknowledgement when the crowd broke into applause. One suspected they’d be jamming together or with other musicians in someone’s basement or garage when they didn’t have a gig. They discussed which of the musicians they liked best. “Drummer,” Joe declared. “I always like the unsung guys that hold things together.”

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“Why does that not surprise me?” Debbie asked drolly, rolling her eyes. “Let me guess: you were a Ringo fan, while everyone else was into John or Paul,” Juanita accused him with a twinkle in her eye. “I actually like George the best,” Joe told them with a straight face. “Better song writer, great guitarist. Bass players count.” He looked proudly at Debbie. “This one is a piano fan. She plays, really well.” “Really?” Juanita asked in surprise. Debbie made a face. “I play, but I’m just decent, not gifted.” She quickly recounted how her parents had started her on lessons when she was six, and she developed a discipline about practice because she wanted to be great. “I loved the sound, the kinds of music it could make. I figured if you hit every key right, at just the right time, in the right way, then making great music would be easy.” She shrugged, a little embarrassed. “Just practice enough, right? Except it doesn’t work that way.” She told them, a little sadly, about a boy in junior high who hated to practice, didn’t even have a piano to play regularly, but when he played, it was like some entirely other skill. “That’s when I knew I wasn’t destined to play piano. I fell out of it my junior year of high school, and didn’t really take it up again until we started seeing each other.” She looked fondly at Joe. “That bar in Georgetown,” Joe recalled with a smile on his face. Debbie laughed. “We had like an hour wait for a table, and there was a piano off to the side of the bar. Joe didn’t know that I played, and teased me that we could get a drink or I could play the piano until our table was ready.” Debbie held up her soda. “As you can see, I’m not much of a drinker, so I took him up on his challenge and started fooling around on the piano. It was like riding a bike – it came right back to me.”

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“We never did get around to that dinner,” Joe point out with a grin. “And I think you walked away with fifty or a hundred bucks in tips.” He and Debbie both laughed at the memory. Debbie looked at Juanita, who was watching them with affection. “What about you? Which instrument?” “Oh, sax, no doubt,” Juanita replied. “It’s like a voice – happy, sad, quiet, loud, but always a little melancholy. It’s got a personality.” “Interesting,” Debbie allowed, looking at the saxophonist on stage and thinking about what Juanita had said. There was something to it, she decided. “Plus,” Juanita admitted, “sax players tend to be interesting people.” She had a wistful expression on her face. “Now we’re getting to it!” Joe guffawed. “It was a long time ago, and I was much younger,” Juanita affirmed, as close to blushing as he’d ever seen. For once, Joe truly saw her not as the tough policewoman, not as his loyal partner, not even as the good friend, one of the few people he’d entrust not only his life but even the lives of his family, but as a woman. A woman who looked for love, had dates, met good guys and some not-so-good ones, who had romantic dinners and romantic disasters, and who probably still had high hopes for finding true love, maybe having a family. “Sax player, eh?” he murmured, and all three of them sensed that he meant much more by that, and they let it drop. Later in the evening, Joe and Juanita goaded Debbie into taking the stage, Juanita sweettalking the musicians in letting her play a couple of songs. As it happened – and not to

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Juanita’s surprise – Debbie was much better than she claimed, holding her own respectably. “Well, jazz isn’t really my forte,” she demurred after she’d returned from the stage. She gulped a big glass of water, her eyes bright with adrenaline. “Yeah, well, I bet those three aren’t too up on what the IMF is up to these days,” Joe pointed out. “For all you know, their day jobs are teaching at UCSD,” Debbie countered, still smiling. “They could be world-class scholars, or investment bankers for all you know.” “I’ll take that bet,” Juanita said. “Cop’s intuition.” They argued half-heartedly about it for some time, idly speculating about what the musicians might lead when not performing, then turning their attention to the rest of the audience and trying to do the same. This resulted in ever more outlandish stories and much laughter. “I wonder what they make of us?” Joe wondered. “I think it’s pretty clear to anyone that you’re with Debbie,” Juanita said, referring to their obvious affection for each other, as evidenced by the way they looked at each other or their frequent touches. “So what does that make me?” “My lesbian lover?” Debbie hazarded. “Couldn’t you both be part of my harem?” Joe suggested with an exaggerated leer. “Nice try, Joe Russell,” she replied archly. “Debbie, yeah, I could see, but you’re not my type.” “What’s wrong with my Joe?” Debbie asked in mock protest.

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“Ahh, I like them prettier than Joe,” Juanita teased. “He’s been beaten up a few too many times. Too many miles.” “Ain’t that the truth,” Joe groaned, pretending his back hurt. Debbie laid her hand on his forearm. “He’s pretty enough for me, “ she asserted. “Now, Ian would have been just right for you.” “He was pretty,” Joe conceded. Talking about Ian didn’t necessarily make him sad; it helped keep the memory alive. “And he definitely had a way with the ladies.” He didn’t have to mention that the last woman he’d wooed and won had inadvertently led to his death, and to her heartbreak. “I would have been flattered to be with your brother,” Juanita said in an oddly formal tone that, somehow, sounded just right. “And the Russells would have been honored to have you in the family,” Debbie told her. She put her other hand on Juanita’s arm, so that she was touching both of them at once. They all got a little misty-eyed at that, and agreed it was time to call it a night.

The highlight of the following day was a kind of goodbye barbeque that Joe’s parents held in their backyard. Their backyard wasn’t very large, but between that the house they squeezed some twenty guests in. Doug and Melissa were the only children present, which at first they were glum about, but it didn’t take long for them to be agog at some of the stories, swearing, and tattoos the guests had to offer. The male guests were all warriors, of course, long time friends of Joe’s father. They were hard men with a strong sense of duty, who’d all faced battle, lost men, and suffered injuries of their own. They had come through the fire and had emerged, stronger if not

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entirely unscathed by their tribulations. Their experiences had made them hard in many ways, but had also bonded them together irrevocably. Most importantly, these particular friends all managed to retain their sense of sympathy for the underdog, for the people they protected. Their wives were no softies either. They’d suffered through long rotations and postings to miserable bases throughout the world. They’d had to take care of children, their houses, and, in many cases, careers of their own, without as much help from their husbands as civilian wives might demand. By and large, they’d aged well, even better in some cases than their husbands. Their husbands’ long absences and exposure to danger had cost them something too, something they bore quietly or with the support of each other. Debbie knew all about that. Juanita didn’t quite fit in with either group, neither being the male warrior nor the leftbehind spouse. She identified more with the men, sharing their exposure to danger, if in different kinds of venues, yet admired and was somewhat envious of the women’s family duties and ties. Joe’s father tended to the grill, of course, expertly flipping steaks and chicken and with the stub of a cigar in the corner of his mouth. He had a small coterie of self-styled barbequing experts standing around them, swapping stories and exaggerated lies with the ease of people who had killed time on more than one occasion, in situations far more trying than this. Joe’s mother made sure everyone had food and drink, and kept bringing over friends to introduce to Joe and Debbie. They violated normal party protocol by staying together most of the afternoon, rather than mingling. Of course, every so often one of them would have to chase down one of the kids, but that only lasted so long and they soon had a bunch of volunteers to entertain Doug and Melissa.

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Late in the afternoon they sat together on a chaise lounge, content to just relax and be a little island of their own amidst all the conversation. “It’s been a good vacation,” Debbie said quietly. “Except for poor Theresa.” “Yes,” he agreed sadly. “I feel guilty being here. I don’t imagine the Morales are having a fun party.” She rubbed his arm affectionately. “Her killer is dead, and the people who helped him will soon be in jail,” she noted calmly. “None of that would have been possible with you and Juanita. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are having a little party of their own.” They were quiet for a few moments, watching the happy scene around them, surrounded by family and friends who could always be counted on. At times like this, it was easy to believe the world was a friendly place, that men like these and people like Joe and Juanita were no longer needed to protect it. But none of the people present ever forgot how fragile the happy appearances were, how easily a family’s happiness could be shattered, or how things that mattered always needed protecting. It was the kind of thing that separated them from the rest of the world. “Ready to go home, sailor?” Debbie asked, snuggling close in his arms. “Hmm, back to car pools and the kids’ homework assignments?” he pretended to ponder. “You teaching unruly freshmen and arrogant graduate students?” “How about you cutting grass and cleaning gutters?” she shot back. “Pretty soon you’ll be raking leaves, and before you know it shoveling snow.” “The weather is nice here,” he conceded. They thought about life here, a different life. “Yeah, I’m ready,” they said in union, breaking out laughing. They’d been gone long enough, and it was time to go home,

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where they belong and had built a life together. They sighed, and relaxed in each other’s arms. Joe almost didn’t want to bring it up, not right then, but he knew he needed to tell her. “Juanita and I are going to go back up there tomorrow,” Joe said carefully. “We want to say our farewells to the Morales, and to Theresa. I’ll take the red eye instead of flying back with you guys.” Most women might have complained at this last minute change of plans, especially one that meant she’d be the one shepherding their two children on the plane and through the airports alone. Not Debbie; she’d gotten used to the need to be flexible with Joe’s plans, and trusted he had good reasons. She rubbed his arm again, and held her tongue from what she wanted to say, which was that she wanted him to just stay with his own family and not go back to that little town where so much tragedy had already happened. Instead, she just looked at him with a look of love and tried not to let her worry show. “Just be careful, OK?” “Nothing to worry about,” he assured her gently. “We’ll just give our condolences, check on a few loose ends. No trouble.” He pulled her closely and held her contentedly. For once, Joe was going to be wrong.

Chapter 35 Joe and Juanita met the Morales at Theresa’s grave mid-morning. Juanita had suggested they pick up some flowers on the way. Joe was not a big fan of putting flowers on graves. “It’s not like she’ll see the flowers,” he had pointed out. Juanita gave him a surprised look. “If she doesn’t know about the flowers, then she wouldn’t know we’re there, so what are we doing?”

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That had made Joe smile. “Fair point,” he acknowledged wryly. They stopped at a roadside stand and Juanita bought a small bouquet. Joe had let Carlos Morales know he would be there and told him he simply wanted to pay his respects, but Carlos had brought not only Isabella but also Theresa’s parents and the two brothers. Carlos Morales shrugged when Joe indicated he was surprised at the small crowd. “They wanted to meet you,” he told Joe and Juanita. “To thank you.” Theresa’s parents embraced each of them with heartfelt hugs, their eyes wet with emotion. The two brothers grasped their hands in strong handshakes, looking at them with intense eyes filled with unspoken gratitude. Joe wondered if they felt that, as brothers, they should have been the ones protecting their sister. “Thank you for bringing our daughter’s killer to justice,” his father said in a voice unsteady with emotion. “Soon they will all be in jail.” It didn’t sound like jail was his first choice. His wife clung to him but couldn’t take her eyes off Joe and Juanita. Joe shook his head. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” Joe told them. “I did not know her well, but anyone could see she was special.” “She was special,” Isabella said. “Now she can rest in peace.” Each of the Morales made the sign of the cross, and all of them bowed their heads to look at Theresa’s headstone, which was overwhelmed with flowers from well-wishers, including the ones Juanita had brought. The headstone was simple and the dates of her life underscored the theft of a life that had not had enough time. “Mr. Russell lost his brother as well,” Isabella told her family. They looked at Joe with renewed appreciation, letting him further into the survivor’s club into which they had so unfortunately been elected. Joe covertly glanced at Juanita, who silently shrugged her apology for revealing this fact. “We’ve all lost people we love,” Joe told them, thinking of Juanita’s niece. “It’s never fair. All we can do is keep their memory alive.”

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“You did more than that,” Isabella’s younger brother pointed out fiercely. “You brought justice.” Joe looked away. It was a typical Southern California day – sunny, some light haze, nice temperature. The cemetery was not too busy, only a handful of other mourners in sight. If not for the headstone, they might have been in a lovely park, filled with grass and shady trees. It was still lovely, but filled with memories and losses. He thought about his brother Ian, alone in a place much like this in Juanita’s town, and of various friends laid to rest in other places like it. And he thought of various people he’d caused to be buried, some more deserving than others. “Justice is a hard thing,” Joe said, looking back at the brother with a sad smile. “It’s not always easy to know what it looks like. It’s not always what you expected.” The brother looked puzzled, and glanced at his sister and older brother for clarification. Theresa’s mother reached out and took Joe’s hand. “Nothing can ever bring Theresa back, and no one could have protected her from her fate. But you and Ms. Kincaid have put our minds at ease that the people responsible have suffered the consequences.” She looked at Joe and Juanita with her dark, deep eyes. “For that, my family and I thank you.” She kissed his hand tenderly, glancing at Juanita and allowing a small smile. “You will always be our friends.” With that, she was telling them her family was in their debt, and would always be there to help if they ever needed it. Joe and Juanita nodded gravely. They stood there for a few minutes, with the Morales mostly talking quietly amongst themselves, reminiscing about Theresa. Joe enjoyed listening to the stories of Theresa alive, stories that the Morales would hopefully repeat and burnish over time, as he had tried to do about Ian for his own children. In time, Joe indicated to Carlos Morales that he wanted to talk, and he, Juanita, and Morales separated themselves by a few feet. The rest of the Morales clan looked curiously at them, and Joe could tell that Isabella wanted to join them, but she stayed with her family.

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“Any developments?” Joe asked softly. Morales’ face was impassive. “Curious that you should ask. This morning the two boys – Neugart and Torpy -- were found dead.” “What?” Juanita exclaimed in surprise. “Dead how?” Joe asked, his mind already working the angles. Morales showed no emotion. “They were at Neugart’s house. Both were killed by the same gun, which was found in Neugart’s hand. The police are calling it murder-suicide as of now.” “Interesting,” Joe observed. “What was the time of death?” “Sometime between ten and twelve last night, the coroner is estimating right now.” “Fortunately, we have a bunch of ex-Marine’s who will attest to our whereabouts,” Juanita interjected, not entirely joking. Had she not known where Joe had been, she might have wondered, and suspected Morales might be wondering himself. “Fortunately,” Morales noted without any change in expression. It appeared it wouldn’t have bothered him if they had done it, especially as long as he didn’t have to know it. The two had deserved to die. Joe was impressed with how tapped in Morales was with the local happenings; his own alerts hadn’t been triggered yet, which meant the police were trying to keep the wraps on it. He rubbed his head thoughtfully. “Doesn’t seem their style, though, does it?” Morales was silent, watching Joe and Juanita with veiled eyes. “You don’t think Neugart had the nerve?” Juanita guessed.

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“I don’t know,” Joe said thoughtfully. “I figured him more for the kind of guy who’d try to cut a deal for himself.” Juanita looked at Joe carefully for a few seconds, then turned to Morales. “Any news on Welshbacher and Kovlun?” Morales shook his head. “Many people are very interested in finding them, but still to no avail so far.” He seemed slightly troubled by this. The three of them exchanged looks. “Could be they’re tying up loose ends,” Juanita speculated. “Getting rid of the two guys who could pin something on them.” “Maybe,” Joe said, not sounding very convinced. He looked over at the rest of the Morales, who were now watching them, aware that something had changed in the tenor of their conversation. “Still, I don’t think they’d come after any of your family. It’d be a stupid play.” “The children will all be going back to their own homes,” Morales noted. “And I’ll have Alfredo and Rita stay with me for a few days.” He reached out and shook hands with each of them. “You have my deepest thanks. If there is ever anything I can do for you….” “You’ve done so much,” Joe told him, holding on to Morales’ hand for a second or two longer. “We couldn’t have gotten to the truth without you.” Morales allowed himself the flash of a smile. “Yes, well, I only wish my investments were as fruitful.” He walked away and rejoined his family, and they began to ready themselves to leave. Somehow Joe didn’t think Morales was really too worried about his portfolio.

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“Do you think we need to stick around and try to find those guys?” Juanita asked quietly to Joe, referring to Welshbacher and Kovlun. Part of Joe wanted to say yes, that he wanted to nail everything down and make sure those two got what was coming to them. But he recognized that some of that was simply pride, that the world didn’t need his efforts. “Let the police find them,” Joe decided. “Any way it goes, their lives are ruined. It’s just a matter of time before someone finds them.” Juanita chose to not disagree. She wouldn’t have minded playing rogue with Joe Russell for a little longer; she was never quite as alive. But it was time for her to go home too, to go back to her work and her friends. Isabella Morales broke away from her departing family and approached. “My sister,” she exclaimed, giving Juanita a big hug. “You didn’t think you were getting away without me saying goodbye, did you?” She wiped the corner of one eye. “And you,” she said to Joe. She enveloped him in an equally big hug, holding it for several seconds, until Joe realized that she was crying quietly. “I know,” he murmured, patting her softly on the back. “I know.” Isabella gradually recovered herself and pulled away, wiping her face and glancing back at her family, who scrupulously avoided looking at her. “Damn allergies,” she said lightly. All three laughed, and she walked away bravely, rejoining her family as they walked to their cars. Joe and Juanita took one last look at Theresa Morales’ grave. Joe thought of her as he first had met her – laughing, cheering the world with her smile and sense of life. He’d had enough of lives cut short. “Let’s get out of here,” he told Juanita.

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Chapter 36 Both Joe and Juanita should have realized something was wrong. On a normal day, both of them would have. But on this morning neither did. Perhaps they were distracted by the visit to Theresa Morales’ grave, or perhaps they simply let their guards down, believing the affair was all but over and they were each on their way home. Still, people in their line of work don’t get to relax their guard. The van was parked next to Joe’s car, idling, when there was no obvious reason it had to be there. It did have a sign with the cemetery’s name on its side, but they should have wondered why the cemetery was using a van instead of the more standard SUV or pickup. Or why the windows were tinted. Juanita realized the threat just a half second before Joe did. “Gun!” she yelled as the three men wearing hoods over their faces emerged from the van brandishing weapons. Before either could react, one of the men shot Joe. She heard him grunt and saw him tumble to the ground out of the corner of her eye. “Freeze, bitch,” one of the men shouted at her, training his gun on her, while a second man also had her targeted. Juanita paused for a moment; she doubted that her odds were going to get better, but she saw no move that could succeed, especially with Joe out of commission. She didn’t know if he was dead or merely hurt. Without seconds two of the men had carried Joe into the van, strapping him into a wheelchair, and the third man ushered Juanita into the van as well, all the time under gunpoint. The van took off, with two of the men in the back of the van with her and the unconscious Joe. Juanita was relieved to see that Joe was not bleeding, and the look of puzzlement must have been obvious. “Tranquilizer,” the man who’d shot him told her proudly. “Very strong and fast acting stuff. Oh, excuse me.” He pulled the hood off his face.

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“Carson Perlman,” Juanita said, stating the obvious and cursing herself even more for not anticipating this, given his son’s death and his reputation. “Indeed I am,” Perlman agreed. He waved his gun. “This one doesn’t shoot any tranquilizers. It shoots real bullets, and you’d be real dead if I have to shoot it, so don’t get any funny ideas.” Perlman nodded towards the other man with them, who was pointing his gun at her casually. “I believe you know my associates.” The man took off his hood as well; it was Welshbacher. He grinned evilly at her. “Why don’t you tell us your name?” he said in a civil tone. “I’m going to get tired of calling you ‘you stupid bitch.’” “So I suppose your friend up front is your puppy dog Kovlun,” Juanita said, trying to play it cool. “Give the lady a prize!” Kovlun shouted back from the driver’s seat. “Hey, Tim, give those tits a squeeze and see if they’re real.” “In due time,” Perlman told him, giving Juanita a chill at the implied promise of things to come. “Now – who are you?” “I’m Detective Juanita Perlman,” she announced with a confidence she did not actually feel. “And you are all under arrest.” Perlman and Welshbacher seemed momentarily startled, glancing at each other briefly. They then laughed. “Lady, I don’t know where you are a cop, but it ain’t here,” Welshbacher sneered. “You got no jurisdiction and, anyway, I don’t think you have any way of enforcing that arrest.” He waved his gun for effect. She looked with concern at Joe. “What’s that stuff going to do to him?”

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Perlman looked over at Joe, who was now not only unconscious but also strapped firmly in the wheelchair. Even if he’d been awake and alone, getting out of the chair would have been very difficult. “For right now, he’s just unconscious,” Perlman told her. “Don’t worry – it’s not the tranquilizers that are going to kill him.” He looked at Joe, proud of having trapped him and smug about his implication. Juanita knew for sure then that things could only get worse. She coiled herself to launch, but she realized that Welshbacher was watching her closely. “Give it your best shot, honey,” he told her. “You don’t need both those legs, do you?” Juanita forced herself to stay calm. There would be another chance, she promised herself. She flashed back to a previous time, when she’d been the one strapped in a van, kidnapped by a serial killer planning her gruesome demise. Joe had unexpectedly rescued her that time, after having let both her and the killer believe he’d gone home to protect her family instead of following her. This time, though, she couldn’t expect that Joe would be able to help her, or even himself. It was all up to her. The van wheeled into an underground garage and pulled to a stop. Welshbacher ordered her out, grabbing her arm roughly and keeping a close eye on her, almost hoping she’d try something. Meanwhile, Kovlun maneuvered Joe’s wheelchair out of the van. Juanita saw that the garage was deserted, and she had the sense that the building was not quite finished. There were no lines painted for parking spaces, and several bins of construction debris lined the walls. There was a quiet that suggested no one else was around, not even construction workers. They’d parked next to an elevator. Perlman pushed the button for the elevator, which opened immediately. “You got forty-five minutes, maybe an hour, before this stuff wears off,” he told them. He nodded towards Juanita. “Have your fun but get upstairs before then.” He looked over at Joe. “I don’t want to take any chances once he wakes up.”

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Welshbacher and Kovlun exchanged glances, and Juanita suspected they were amused that Perlman would be worried about Joe, trussed up as he was. “You got it, boss,” Kovlun said in a not-quite sincere voice, and turned his attention towards Juanita. He looked at her hungrily. “C’mon, girl, we better get busy.” The elevator doors closed, taking Joe away from her. She began a mental countdown; she had forty-five minutes to escape these two and rescue Joe. The two each took one of her arms, keeping their guns on her with their outside hands, and led her down a corridor. “Listen, guys, you don’t want to do anything stupid,” she warned them in as calm voice. “I can see Perlman is behind everything here – we can work something out.” Welshbacher opened a door and shoved Juanita inside. He flipped on a light, revealing what was probably meant as a storage room, now bare except for a mattress on the floor. The mattress had seen better days, and Juanita dared not let herself thing about the things that it had had to endure. “The only thing we’re going to work out is your cunt,” Kovlun told her savagely. “We’re going to have a party.” “Let’s get those clothes off,” Welshbacher ordered in a voice thick with lust. She still had no play. They had their guns out and were on high alert. Their growing excitement would play to her advantage at some point; the question was if that point would find her too far gone. Juanita now began to have a better sense of what had happened to Theresa Morales; these two had been no bystanders. “Fuck you,” she replied defiantly, half turning towards them and trying to get a response. Welshbacher backhanded her, and she let the momentum carry her to the ground. She reached for her belt buckle as Kovlun crowded in close. “Pretty soon we’ll be making you beg for us to fuck you,” he told her, warning of worse fates than that.

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As soon as he was close enough she snapped the buckle off and slashed him with the small blade built into it, aiming for his gun arm. “Fuck!” he yelled in pain, falling back. The gun went clattering across the floor. Juanita dove for it. The knife was a good surprise weapon, but it wouldn’t be sufficient to fight these two off, especially not with Welshbacher still armed. She half expected Welshbacher to get off a shot as she grabbed the gun, and did a quick roll, ended kneeling facing them, gun pointed. “Drop it!” she commanded. Kovlun had backed into Welshbacher, who had tried pushing him away but had not gotten clear. The two of them made an easy target; if she shot, she’d hit at least one of them, maybe even get both with the same shot. She saw the fear in Kovlun’s eyes and the calculation in Welshbacher’s. She trained the gun on him. “I said, drop it,” she repeated emphatically. She was fully prepared to kill him if he resisted or delayed. Welshbacher had been a cop long enough to know when someone was bluffing. He slowly lowered his gun, put it on the ground, and kicked it towards her. Juanita had Kovlun lie flat on his stomach with his hands behind his head while she made Welshbacher get on his knees and slowly remove everything from his pockets, as well as a small caliber revolver in an ankle holster. “Jesus, look at you guys,” she told them once she’d collected everything from him. “Kicked off the force just a couple days ago and already running around with guns and handcuffs.” Juanita shook her hand in mock disbelief. She tossed his own handcuffs to Welshbacher. “Hands around the pole, princess.” She then repeated the process for Kovlun, garnering another automatic and handcuffs, and leaving the two of them facing each other handcuffed around the support pole. “All right, then,” she said, squatting near them, holding Kovlun’s automatic loosely in her right hand but not pointing it directly at them. “You two have something I need.”

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“Yeah, and we were about to give it to you,” Kovlun replied heatedly. He lifted his bleeding arm. “You’ll pay for this.” Juanita looked at him calmly, and shook her head. “I don’t think you understand the situation here, Kovlun,” she said. “I need to know where Perlman took Joe Russell, and you’re going to tell me.” Welshbacher regarded her curiously, then smiled coldly. “Shut up, Keith,” he said without looking at Kovlun. “OK, Kincaid – you said you were a cop, so you know the drill. Read us our rights. We’re not saying anything without our lawyer.” Welshbacher knew he and Kovlun were in trouble, but time was on their side. He wanted to see what she’d be willing to bargain as time got shorter. Juanita knew it too. “You’re not under arrest, and you are going to tell me what I need to know,” she assured him. “It’s just a question of how much you want to get hurt before one of you tells me.” She picked up Welshbacher’s revolver and held it in her left hand, again not pointing it at them but threatening them nonetheless. “You’re not going to hurt us,” Kovlun said defiantly, picking up on Welshbacher’s lead. “You’re a cop, you said so yourself. Just get us our lawyer and we’ll work out a deal.” “I should have hit you harder,” Welshbacher told her, his voice full of menace and anger. Juanita looked at them impassively, and at last nodded her head. “You hit like a girl, Welshbacher,” she told him dismissively, refusing to rub her stinging cheek. Then, without any warning, she pointed the small revolver at Welshbacher and shot him in the thigh. “Fuck!” he screamed, as much in surprise as in pain. Kovlun’s eyes grew wide in fear. “Hurts like a motherfucker, doesn’t it?” Juanita said sympathetically. “I’ve been shot a couple times.” She shook her head. “You never get used to it.”

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Welshbacher was breathing heavily. If looks could kill, Juanita would be immediately dead. “You stupid fucking cunt,” he growled. “Your boyfriend is going to die and it will be your fault.” Juanita nodded again, her face impassive, then reached out and shot him again from short distance, this time in his ass. He screamed anew, in fury and pain, and rattled his arms, but Juanita was safely out of reach. “You fucking bitch!” he shouted, his eyes bulging. His face was red, and he was fairly spitting his words. “You better kill me, because if you don’t I’m going to kill you! I’m going to tear you apart!” “Listen,” she said in a calm voice. “You both got a lot of choice parts on you.” She pointed the gun casually at Kovlun, who blanched, then nodded towards Welshbacher, who was now sitting in a pool of his own blood. “Those wounds would heal, but once I start shooting off your fingers or your feet, well, those won’t grow back.” She let her face grow cruel. “And if I shoot off your dicks, I’d be doing women everywhere a favor.” The two men were surprised despite themselves. “You won’t do that,” Kovlun said in a shaky voice, no longer so cocky. “You’re a cop.” “Not here, not today,” Juanita told him flatly, smiling at him with extreme malice. “Your buddy told me that in the van. You know, when he was threatening me with his gun.” She figured Welshbacher was a hard case; despite being shot twice already, he looked like he would gnaw off his hands to get to her if he could. Kovlun, though, was petrified; he was used to inflicting pain on others, but not to receiving it. She figured the fear of the pain would shake him more than the pain itself. “Tell me what I need to know and this will all be over.” In the end, she had to shoot Welshbacher once more before Kovlun cracked. None of Welshbacher’s wounds were immediately life threatening, and she had to be impressed

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with how he held his anger and directed it towards her, his face a mask of fury. Kovlun, on the other hand, grew more terrified each time, and finally gave up when she pointed the gun casually at him. “Enough!” he screamed. “I’ll tell you. Just stop.” Welshbacher snarled at him to be quiet, so Juanita pistol-whipped him savagely. This merely added to Kovlun’s terror, and he starting crying. In tears, he told her that Perlman had taken Joe to the top floor. He told her they’d be easy to find, because it was mostly open space, just the load bearing walls in place. “You better not be lying to me,” Juanita warned him grimly. “If I have to come back here, all this is going to seem like we were playing. I’ll stick this gun in your crotch and blast away.” Kovlun assured her that he was telling the truth, pathetic in his desire to convince her not to hurt him. Juanita stood up. She figured the two of them were safe here for a while, although Welshbacher might pass out soon and would eventually need medical attention. She told Kovlun to apply pressure to Welshbacher’s wounds as best he could, and exited the room, closing the door firmly. She figured she had ten minutes left to save Joe.

Chapter 37 Joe slowly fought his way to consciousness. He had enough experience to know not to give any outward sign of his reawakening. He kept his breathing slow, and his eyes closed, as he simply listened to the sounds around him. It was quiet. He could sense the presence of someone near him, nervously moving around, perhaps working on a Blackberry or a smartphone. It took him some time to parse out that the small noises were all coming from one person; either there was only one person with him, or anyone else there was extraordinarily still. He could hear

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occasional, muted sounds from the outside, mostly sounds of distant traffic, but no talking or other signs of anyone else in the area. He wondered where the other two hooded men were, and what they had done with Juanita. She might be dead by now; he had to assume that she was, and that saddened him immensely. It wasn’t that he felt responsible for her death – she’d made her own choices to join him on this crusade. He just mourned the loss of a good friend and a good person. Joe slowly started to test his ability to move, trying surreptitiously to lift his arms or move his legs. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was quite effectively immobilized; someone had ensured he would be fairly helpless when he woke up. What Joe didn’t quite understand was why he was being allowed to wake. He had concluded that he must have been shot with some sort of tranquilizer. They could have just as simply shot him with real bullets, killing or disabling him at the cemetery. Whomever it was that was responsible for the abduction, they wanted something from him. He just didn’t know what. In time Joe decided that playing possum would gain him no additional information. He opened his eyes slowly and gradually lifted his head. The person with him noticed the motion and put away his phone, picking up a gun in its place. “Welcome back, Mr. Russell,” Perlman said. Carson Perlman had not been at the top of Joe’s list of potential candidates for this attempt, but he’d been on the short list. What surprised him was that Perlman’s ambush had been effective. He quickly realized that the other two masked men must have been Welshbacher and Kovlun, and that did not bode well for Juanita. He further downgraded the possibility she was still alive. If he managed to get out of this, he vowed, he was going to kill them. It was his fault they’d been free to do this; he should have ensured

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that their loose end had been tied up, rather than relying on the police to track them down. He mentally shook his head in frustration. “Not quite back yet?” Perlman asked jovially, mistaking his silence for confusion. Perlman walked to within a few feet from Joe, holding his gun at his side. “How are you feeling?” “I’ve been better,” Joe admitted, staring at Perlman. They were together in a large room. ‘Room’ was probably not quite accurate; it appeared to be an entire floor, still under construction, with the beams showing and only a few of the interior walls. There was a lot of construction equipment scattered around, as if the workers would be returning sometime. Joe suspected their return would not be soon enough to help him. He was seated in a wheelchair, brakes locked. His hands and feet were tightly bound by restraints. Given time and solitude, Joe figured he might be able to work his way free, but neither of those was likely to be afforded to him. He also noticed that the area under and around him was covered by a large plastic tarpaulin. That pretty much spelled out Perlman’s plans for him. Perlman smiled happily and pulled a beat-up metal chair – the only other furniture present – to him and sat down. “Yes, I imagine you have. You’re probably wondering where your partner – Ms. Kincaid, I believe – is. I can assure you that Detectives Welshbacher and Kovlun are entertaining her quite, ah, vigorously at the moment.” Perlman positively beamed his satisfaction at this, and it was easy for Joe to see where Alex Perlman had learned his twisted desires. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Joe cautioned him. “Juanita is pretty good about taking care of herself – and I’d bet on her instead of those two goons.” Joe spoke more confidently than he really felt, but there was a lot of truth in what he said.

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Perlman narrowed his eyes momentarily at being contradicted, then relaxed again. “If you are thinking that Ms. Kincaid will rescue you, I think you are kidding yourself. No one is coming for you -- especially not her.” The two men measured each other for a few seconds. “What is it that you want?” Joe asked, sounding more curious than afraid. “If you wanted me dead you could have killed me back at the cemetery.” “Indeed,” Perlman agreed, his face beaming with pride. “I could have killed you right then. Every second of life you have after that you owe entirely to me.” Perlman’s face lost the smile and grew cruel. “I do want you dead, and I am going to kill you. Make no mistake about that.” Joe raised his eyebrows. “And yet?” Perlman shook his head slightly. “I wanted you to know it was me. I wanted to take the great satisfaction in watching you know that I was going to kill you and not being able to do anything about it.” Joe watched him for a second. A professional would just put a bullet or two in him and be done with it. This need to have the victim know what was coming, and why, was the hallmark of an amateur, or a villain in a James Bond movie. Joe could only hope he had some sort of James Bond ending of his own, although he couldn’t see what that might be, since he had no laser watch or other gadget to help him escape. There was only Juanita, and that possibility was pretty slim. Perlman was stringing it out, perhaps for the pleasure of the anticipation. Joe didn’t want to die, but he didn’t fear it. He loved life, loved his family and friends. But that pleasure came with a duty, and that duty sometimes took him into harm’s way. He’d always known things could end badly, as it appeared this was going to. The high cost of the duty is why so few people could take it on, but Joe believed knowing how he might ultimately have to pay had always made him appreciate the good parts of his life all-the-more.

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Still, he figured as long as he was alive, there was always a chance. Perhaps Perlman would screw up somehow. So, if Perlman wanted to talk, he’d talk. “So here we are,” Joe noted in a conversational tone. Perlman sighed and stood up. He started to pace in a small semi-circle in front of Joe. “You know, at first I thought that I’d torture you to death, just for the fun of it. You killed my son, and I want you to pay for that.” “Your son was killed in prison by some other inmates,” Joe corrected. “Kiddie porn, eh? Bad rap for someone in jail.” Perlman stopped his pacing and gave Joe a hard look. “Let us not kid each other. I don’t know quite how you did it, but I am sure that you are responsible for putting Alex in that position, and as a result you are responsible for his death.” Joe shrugged, neither admitting nor denying his responsibility. Perlman watched him for a second, then resumed his pacing and his line of conversation. “As I was saying, I thought about torturing you, but I decided it would probably be a lot of work and not be very satisfying at that. Plus, as long as you are alive I view you as a threat.” He stopped again and smiled at Joe without any warmth. “You should feel flattered.” “I think I’m blushing,” Joe said coolly. Perlman laughed. “You are indeed a man of some measure. In different circumstances, if you hadn’t chosen to get involved in my son’s life, we might have been friends.” “If your son hadn’t raped and murdered Theresa Morales none of this would have happened,” Joe replied. “But there’s no world where we might have been friends, or even colleagues.”

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Perlman shrugged. “Theresa Morales was unimportant,” he pronounced. “Alex might have indulged in his enthusiasms a little too, shall we say, indiscreetly, but it was still no business of yours. You took it upon yourself to get involved, and you’re going to pay the price.” “So go ahead and kill me,” Joe told him simply, fully prepared to die. There was nothing he could do to escape his confinement, and nothing he could do to talk Perlman out of his plan. He’d be damned if he was going to indulge Perlman in his fantasies about revenge. “I also thought about killing your family,” Perlman continued, his eyes bright as he looked at Joe. “I thought about making you watch me do that. But we get back to the fact that the longer you are alive, you remain a risk to me, and I am a man who does not like to take unnecessary risks.” “Once I’m dead there’s no point to killing my family,” Joe objected, watching Perlman closely. Perlman smiled, having anticipated this objection. “Not a religious man, Mr. Russell? You don’t think some part of you might survive to watch over them?” “I’m not really interested in talking about my religious beliefs with you, Perlman. But I figure any way it goes, killing them doesn’t help you hurt me.” “How do you figure?” Perlman asked, seeming genuinely interested. Joe stared at him calmly and shrugged as best he could given how he was confined. “If we just die, then I won’t know what happens to them. If I go to Heaven, then everything is good and I won’t mind whatever happens. And if I go to Hell, well, whatever you might do to them will just be another torment in an infinite list of torments. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter.”

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Perlman threw his head back and laughed. If Joe wasn’t tied down he could have used that moment of distraction to jump Perlman, but Perlman had ensured there was no chance of that. Perlman recovered himself and looked at Joe with a small measure of satisfaction. “You are indeed a piece of work,” he conceded cheerfully. He pulled the chair towards him and sat in it backwards, his arms draped over the back of the chair. His face grew serious again. “Let me tell you what I have planned for your family.” “You’ll never find my family,” Joe stated flatly. Perlman expected this. He took out a piece of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket, unfolded it, and showed it to Joe. It was Debbie’s profile picture from the Princeton website. “Your wife is quite a distinguished scholar,” Perlman said with mock admiration. “Princeton is not that big a place, and once we find her, we find your children. A boy and a girl, isn’t it?” Joe didn’t let his surprise show. He hadn’t expected Perlman to know about Debbie, much less the children, and certainly not where to start looking for them. But he’d planned for the possibility someone could come after them when he wasn’t there to protect them, and he doubted Perlman was expecting that. He just watched Perlman. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Perlman said with satisfaction. “First, I’m going to pay a little visit to your wife.” He smiled knowingly at Joe. “I’m going to fuck her like she’s never been fucked. I’m going to fuck her ten ways to Sunday. I’m going to do things to her she’s never even heard of. At first I’ll tell her she has to go along with what I want in order to spare your life, but at some point she’s going to realize I lied to her about that, and she’ll feel even worse for falling for it. And when I get tired of fucking her, I’m going to start taking some souvenirs.” He looked intently at Joe. “And they will be pieces she will miss.” Joe remained silent and attempted to appear unmoved, although he was boiling. It might just be bluster on Perlman’s part, but no one could hear such words about his wife and be unmoved. And Joe loved his wife very, very much.

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“In a way, you should thank me,” Perlman mused. “How’s that?” Joe asked skeptically. Perlman smiled. “Because after me, she won’t ever want to sleep with anyone ever again, and no man would want to sleep with her. I’m doing you a favor, really.” “If it’s all the same, I’ll skip the favor,” Joe told him. “Not really an option,” Perlman said happily. “Now your kids.” “I know,” Joe said wearily. “You’re going to kill the kids and make my wife have to mourn them the rest of her life.” Perlman shook his head, pleased with himself. “No. It’s much better than that. I’m going to tell the kids you and your wife don’t love them any more, and just are giving them away. Then I’m going to put them out to bid.” “Out to bid?” Perlman gave Joe a cold stare. “You should know all about pedophiles, after what you did to my son. See, there are lots of them who would pay a small fortune to buy the services of two pristine children their age – especially with a matched set like them. I’ll tell them they need to be very nice to their new parents, do whatever they ask. And the new owners will certainly insist on some things they are not used to.” Perlman smiled at Joe again, a smile meant to make the blood go cold. “But, you know, with these people it’s like buying a new car – fun at first, but after you drive it a while, you get the urge for another new model. So you sell it. Maybe the next owner tries to take good care of it, but its never the same with a used car, is it? And as it passes from owner to owner, it gets

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more and more beat up, the owners are more careless about taking care of it, and eventually it ends up dying in some crack house giving two dollar blow jobs.” “You kind of lost that metaphor somewhere along the way,” Joe noted mildly, trying not to rise to Perlman’s bait. “I think you take my point,” Perlman decided. He paused for a second, studying Joe’s reaction. “You know the worst of it?” “I can’t even imagine what the worst thing in your twisted little head might be.” “I’m going to make sure your wife knows the children are alive, so she’ll spend the rest of her life agonizing over what is happening to them. The people who, shall we say, “adopt” them usually like to stream videos of their performances to their friends. From time to time I’ll send her links to sites where she can watch, just to see how disgusting their lives have become.” He sighed. “Can you imagine anything more terrible? She’ll want to see them, but she’ll be horrified at what she has to watch.” Perlman seemed very pleased with himself. Joe could think of terrible things he wished would happen to Perlman. He didn’t think his kids would ever believe he and Debbie had stopped loving them or had given them away, and he hoped they would be able to keep their hope alive and perhaps escape. He hadn’t been teaching them martial arts for no reason, after all. Besides, he didn’t think Debbie and the kids would be as easy to get to as Perlman thought. Once she knew he and Juanita hadn’t returned from this visit, she might opt to stay at his parents until some of his other friends found out what happened, and they’d be safer in his parents’ community than a politician surrounded by the Secret Service. That neighborhood could fight off an invasion by a small army. Maybe not so small at that. “I should have killed your son myself,” Joe told him, watching the words hit Perlman as he remembered that the fate of Joe’s family had yet to be decided, but Perlman’s son was already dead. “But I guess he died in plenty of pain anyway.”

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Perlman was quiet for a moment. He checked his watch. “We still have a few minutes before Welshbacher and Kovlun come. I want them to see you die. You know, we’re going to put your body down one of the construction chutes, which is going to get filled with more debris this afternoon. Your body will be crushed beyond recognition, and never found.” “I guess I save on the burial expenses then.” Perlman wasn’t pleased that Joe was taking his plan so well. He wanted Joe to be in tears or raging, not sitting calmly at making small jokes. It made him mad, and he had to rein in his anger. After all, he was the one with the gun. He looked at Joe with an expression of genuine puzzlement. “I still don’t understand why you got involved in all this. Theresa Morales was no one to you, hardly anyone at all.” Joe looked at him coolly. “She was someone to her family. To her friends. To anyone who saw her smile, for that matter.” Perlman shook his head. “Most people have families, and there are lots of pretty women with nice smiles,” he replied, eyes intent on Joe. “You are a man of considerable abilities. You are married to what appears to be a most impressive woman. You have children of your own.” Perlman paused for a second, his fury building. “Yet you risked all that for nothing!” Joe stayed calm. He might be risking making Perlman act quicker than he planned out of anger, but if he did lose his temper perhaps he’d make a mistake. “She wasn’t nothing,” Joe continued to goad. “No one is nothing, except maybe people like you who think everyone else is.” Joe shook his head in disgust at Perlman. “I can see how Alex turned out so bad, who he got it from.”

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Perlman’s nostrils flared, and he had to fight back his anger. He waited till he had regained control and smiled at Joe, just to prove his control. “Do you know what a black hole is?” “Oh, God,” Joe complained. “First you bore me about theology, now you’re going to bore me with cosmology? Face it, Perlman, you’re always going to be an asshole to me. Just shoot me and let’s be done with it.” “With a black hole,” Perlman continued, having to struggle to control his anger, “the gravity gets so strong that nothing can escape, even light. Everything near the black hole falls in it forever.” “Let me guess, you’re going to throw someone I care about into a black hole,” Joe needled, seeing that Perlman was getting angry. Perlman had to shrug off a wave of anger. “The thing is, some scientists believe that time slows down as you fall into the black hole, so a second would seem like a lifetime.” Joe knew that Perlman didn’t have that quite right, that even if the observer could survive falling into the black hole time might slow down for any external observer but would appear the same to the unfortunate person falling into the black hole. “Sort of like spending time with you?” “So that is what I think heaven or hell is like,” Perlman pronounced, getting to his point. He leaned closer to Joe so he could make his point more forcefully. “If you die with happy thoughts, you might retain them forever. But if you die in terrible pain or thinking about terrible things, like knowing what’s going to happen to your family -- well, that’s what you’d be stuck with for all eternity. That’d be hell.” He looked very impressed with himself.

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“You dreamed this all up on your own, did you?” Joe ridiculed. “Or maybe you had a psychic help you come up with that doozy?” It was coming to an end, Joe knew. He had pushed Perlman to the edge, and Perlman was going to finally act. Joe had run through his options and concluded there was nothing he could do – couldn’t move his arms or legs, couldn’t rock the wheelchair. Maybe Perlman would somehow shoot one of his restraints, giving Joe a chance then. A slim chance was better than no chance. He prepared himself, most likely to die. He hated the fact that a man like Perlman would be the one to kill him, but it was always men like Perlman who needed people like him to risk their lives coming after them. And he took comfort in the fact that, if this really was the end, someone would eventually come for Perlman. Not him, and unfortunately perhaps not Juanita, but someone. Perlman’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed in fury. He stood up. “Fuck waiting for Welshbacher and Kovlun,” he announced, raising the gun and pointing it at Joe. “They can help me get rid of your dead body. I’ve wasted enough time with you; I have things to do.” He smiled his cruel smile at Joe. “Goodbye, Mr. Russell.” The two shots seemed to take no time at all.

Chapter 38 Two tightly spaced holes appeared in Perlman’s white shirt, immediately staining it red. He fell backward from their impact, and Joe watched the surprise and fury pass over Perlman’s face before life quickly left his eyes. He thudded to the floor and lay inert. Joe kept his eyes on Perlman as the shooter approached cautiously, and Joe was relieved when he saw that it was Juanita after all. He didn’t know how she’d managed it, but she had. She went up to the body, kicked his gun away, and checked his neck for a pulse. Then she looked at Joe with a hugely relieved smile.

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“Those warning shots were a little low,” he told her gravely. “I hit what I was aiming for,” she replied tersely. She came over to his wheelchair and started working on his restraints. “I am sorry, though.” Once she’d worked his right hand free, he started helping Juanita undo the rest of restraints. “For what?” Juanita looked up at him, as she finished releasing the restraints on his legs. “I got nervous. I couldn’t figure out what your play was, and I couldn’t wait any longer.” Joe stood up. He massaged his arms and moved his legs to get the blood flowing. “So you’d been there awhile?” “Long enough. I heard what that pile of shit had planned for Debbie and the kids.” Juanita shook her head in fury. “But when he looked like he was really going to shoot you, I decided I couldn’t take the chance. Were you figuring he was bluffing?” “No, I was pretty sure he was going to kill me,” Joe assured her. “So what were you going to do?” Juanita asked, certain he’d had some ingenious escape plan. Joe shrugged. “Nothing. He was going to kill me, and he would have if you hadn’t come along.” Juanita eyed him suspiciously. “You were expecting me?” “No, I thought you were dead, which I was pretty unhappy about.”

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“Yeah, I’d have been unhappy too,” she agreed wryly. She looked at him with an unconvinced expression on her face. “You were just going to let him kill you?” Joe made a face at her. “It’s not like I had much choice.” Joe nodded towards the wheelchair and the restraints. “He had me tied up pretty good there.” “So you really couldn’t do anything?” Juanita asked skeptically. “You really needed my help?” “Absolutely,” he assured her. Juanita desperately wanted to believe him. He had always treated her like an equal, always was respectful, but somehow she still felt she needed to earn his respect, and wanted to repay him, for saving her life. Still, she was finding it hard to believe that the great Joe Russell had truly needed her help. “Uh-huh,” she commented noncommittally. Joe looked at her carefully. Her face had a welt from where Welshbacher had cuffed her; it was already red and starting to swell. “Speaking of getting killed, what did you do with our two other friends?” He reached out and touched her cheek gingerly. “That looks like it must have smarted.” Juanita grimaced, and shook her head. “I’ve had worse.” She quickly recapped, in dispassionate tones, what had happened with her captors. Joe listened closely, showing no reaction until she’d finished. Then he shook his head. “Pretty damn impressive,” he complimented her. He gave her a curious look. “Shot them while interrogating them, huh?” “Just Welshbacher,” she clarified. “Uh-huh,” he replied. “While they were handcuffed.” He whistled and shook his head again. “Man, I must be a worse influence on you than I thought.”

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Juanita wasn’t sure if she was being teased or criticized, or both. “It had to be done,” she pointed out tersely. “I know,” Joe agreed softly, almost sadly. He was, in fact, sad about what she’d had to do, and at the fate she’d narrowly avoided. He thought for a long moment, looking at Perlman’s body. He looked back at her with a meaningful expression. “You know, we could probably explain all this…” She caught his drift. “But it would be tricky,” she finished for him. She gave him a curious look. “What did you have in mind?” They wrapped Perlman up in the tarp he’d so helpfully left for them, making sure some of the blood made its way onto the floor. Before wrapping him up, Joe had Juanita wipe her prints off Welshbacher’s revolver, put it in Perlman’s hand, and squeezed off a shot so there would be powder residue on his hand. She also used Kovlun’s gun to shoot two unnecessary rounds into Perlman, just to establish that both guns had been involved. Joe retrieved Perlman’s phone and the printed page about Debbie. Then they dumped the body down the chute. They left Welshbacher’s and Kovlun’s automatics outside the door to the room where Juanita had left them, pocketing the clips, ejecting the round from the chamber, and wiping their prints off. “OK, boys,” Joe announced, striding in the room with Juanita right behind. “We’ve made a deal with your boss.” Kovlun was stunned to see them. Welshbacher might have been as well, except he was a little too far gone to display much reaction. He stared at Juanita with impotent fury, while Kovlun looked anywhere except at Juanita. Joe tossed the keys to the handcuffs a couple feet away from them. “Ms. Kincaid and I are leaving now, but Perlman wants to see you upstairs.”

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The two former cops looked at each other blankly, wondering what this unexpected turn of events meant for them. Kovlun cleared his throat. “Tim here needs medical attention pronto.” “If I were you, I’d hold off on getting the medical care right now,” Joe advised, “because I think your boss is going to tear you some new assholes. But it’s up to you about whether you want to make him wait.” He shrugged, as if it was of no concern to him what they did. Then he and Juanita exited, quickly exiting the parking garage and taking a discreet observation post down the street. Joe called 911, and pretended to be a concern citizen making a report of three suspicious men entering the building, and of hearing gunshots from the top floor. “Hurry,” he urged. “I think they’re still in there. Then they waited; within five minutes sirens screamed and several squad cars pulled up outside. It took another fifteen minutes for an ambulance to arrive, and within ten minutes after that Kovlun was escorted into the back of a squad car in handcuffs, while Welshbacher was taken out on a stretcher. Joe and Juanita noticed that his arms were handcuffed to the side railings. “Do you think the police are going to buy it?” Juanita asked. Joe shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Their guns killed Perlman, and it looks like his gun shot Welshbacher. It makes a pretty good theory of the crime that they had a falling out. Sure beats trying to claim some unidentified woman overpowered two armed guys, made her way up to where Perlman was, and killed him.” Juanita smiled triumphantly at him. “But looked good doing it,” she insisted. Joe had to agree, smiling brashly at her. In point of fact, Welshbacher and Kovlun were eventually convicted, not only of Perlman’s murder but also of Theresa Morales. Kovlun had been so terrified by Juanita that he got religion, spilling everything he knew about their deals with Perlman and their

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role in Theresa Morales’ death. Of course, he blamed the others for most of what happened to Theresa, especially the final events that killed her. He continued to insist he had no part in killing Perlman, but never brought up Juanita or what had happened in that room. Welshbacher eventually recovered from his wounds, in time to be able to walk, with a cane and a slight limp, but he got the death penalty and served out his time on death row. But all this took several months to run its course. “What now, Joe?” Juanita asked Joe as they started walking away from their post, after the police show of force had dissipated. They were only a mile or so from the cemetery and needed to retrieve Joe’s car. “Back to your folks?” Joe shook his head doggedly. His lips were tight. “This was my fault.” “What do you mean?” Joe looked away, at nothing in particular. “I assumed that Welshbacher and Kovlun would be on the run, not trying to take another crack at us, and I really underestimated Perlman’s reaction to his son’s death.” He shook his head, angry at himself in a way Juanita had never seen in him. “I let myself think about going back to my family instead of making sure things were taken care of.” Juanita put her hand on his arm reassuringly. “Hey, I should have spotted that van at the cemetery,” she admitted. “We both should have. But we didn’t. It’s nobody’s fault, or its both our faults, but what’s important is that we’re still standing, and they’re not.” She was still not quite sure if he was mad at being caught by surprise, or annoyed she’d broken up whatever escape plan she still felt certain he must have had. “Only thanks to you,” he pointed out. “I don’t mind so much getting myself in trouble, but I put you at risk. It was dumb luck that they went after me when I was with you

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instead of, say, Isabella Morales. If it had been anyone else, that person would be dead and so would I.” He shook his head in anger. “But they didn’t and you’re not,” Juanita told him fiercely. Joe wasn’t listening to, or not hearing, what Juanita was trying to tell him. “Pop taught me that when you put someone down, make sure the fight is over before turning my back,” Joe brooded. “I didn’t.” “Joe, you know better than to second guess yourself like this,” she scolded him mildly. “It’s over.” Joe shook his head, and looked at her with firm resolve. “I made a mistake of leaving loose ends before, and look what happened. There’s still one more loose end.” Juanita thought for a moment, then looked at Joe. “Sharp.”

Joe used Perlman’s phone to text Sharp to meet them at Alex’s place in thirty minutes, noting tersely “no excuses, no delays.” He figured Sharp would come running, even if getting texts was not how Perlman typically contacted him. Joe and Juanita got there first, parked their car out of sight, broke in the house from the ocean side, and waited. Sharp arrived only a few minutes past the thirty minute deadline. Joe had left the front door unlocked, and Sharp sauntered in, appearing entirely at ease. “Carson?” he called out from the hallway. His voice was unworried. “Carson, where are you?” He made his way to the bar in the living room facing the ocean, as Joe had anticipated, and took out a bottle of Scotch. “Hey, Jerry,” Joe said, revealing himself sitting in one of the big chairs across the room.

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Sharp appeared momentarily nonplused. Then he nonchalantly took a glass and poured himself a double shot. “Want one?” he asked, gesturing with the bottle. “By the way, it’s Gerald, and only to my friends.” “Of whom I find it hard to believe there are many,” Juanita speculated, standing in the hall and blocking any potential means of access that Sharp might have imagined existed in that direction. “Jerry.” Sharp didn’t let his further surprise show. He inspected Juanita thoroughly, holding his glass in the air. He raised it in her direction. “Ah, the mystery woman who has been helping Mr. Russell in his crime fighting crusade,” he said in a mocking tone. “The outof-his league date Noah picked up. The Marshal who rescued Mr. Russell here from our quaint little jail.” He gave her a bright smile. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.” “Let’s keep it that way,” Juanita decided. “I don’t figure you and I are going to have any kind of ongoing relationship.” Sharp studied her carefully, trying unsuccessfully to parse out any hidden meanings in Juanita’s words. He tried to rattle her. “I see by your face that you like it rough,” he told her, not letting the leer show on his face, but it was there anyway. “You want to play rough, Jerry, we’ll play as rough as you want,” she assured him coolly. “Thing is, I don’t think you’ve got the stones for it.” Sharp continued to look at her steadily for a long few moments. He was used to dealing with tough and ruthless people, and to holding his own with them, and he was good at hiding his reactions. She was some fierce, he had to admit. If Perlman and his associates were still around to help, it would be fun to break her. Somehow, though, he didn’t think that was in the cards. He turned his attention back to Joe. “So I take it that Mr. Perlman will not be joining us?”

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“No, Perlman won’t be taking any meetings for the rest of the day,” Joe told him. “Or tomorrow, or the day after. Any day after, in fact.” Sharp took a short drink of his Scotch and raised an eyebrow. “Indeed.” “Indeed.” Joe said. “It would seem that Perlman got in a gun fight with his crooked detectives. Welshbacher was shot several times, and Perlman was killed.” Sharp swirled the drink in his mouth, savoring the burn, and swallowed it. “Killed, you say? And you know this how?” “Let’s just say we’re pretty sure Perlman is dead,” Juanita assured him. “Pretty damn sure indeed.” “A concerned citizen called 911 and the police managed to apprehend Welshbacher and Kovlun at the scene,” Joe informed him blandly. “I imagine by now they’ve been booked.” Sharp nodded as he absorbed this unexpected turn of events, showing only professional interest. He was already starting to calculate how Perlman’s death could be turned into his advantage. He was actually relieved, but if Perlman was dead there were a number of things he needed to address, the sooner the better. He could make out quite well if he played his cards right. “A concerned citizen?” he asked at last, looking at Joe and at Juanita in turn, then returning his gaze at Joe. His face showed only professional concern, which is to say, not much at all. “Fortunate for everyone that he or she happened to be near the scene.” “Not so fortunate for Welshbacher and Kovlun,” Juanita observed drolly.

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“No, I suppose not,” Sharp acknowledged with a quick glance in her direction. Welshbacher and Kovlun could rot in jail for all he cared, but he needed to be certain what they might say about him. They couldn’t prove anything about his involvement with Perlman’s more illicit activities – or so he thought – but they could point fingers in his direction that might prove uncomfortable. He needed to at least give them a pretense of caring about their situation, if only to sell them down the river once he had the chance. “I imagine they’ll be needing a lawyer. I should probably make my way to the police station.” He put his glass down on the bar. “Let’s talk for a few minutes,” Joe suggested, not really so much a suggestion as a command. He stood up and walked to the other side of the bar, across from Sharp. Sharp watched him approach without expression. “I would imagine your business in our fair town is over,” Sharp offered, taking the initiative. He nodded towards Juanita. “You and your friend here. After all, all the people involved in Theresa Morales’ death appear to be dead or under arrest.” “So it would appear,” Joe agreed. “But, then we have the little incident with Perlman and his goons abducting and trying to kill my friend and me today.” “You don’t say,” Sharp noted smoothly. “Fortunately they were unsuccessful." He raised his glass towards Joe and made a small toast. “And, it would seem, the wheels of justice have already started turning for them, in its own way, of course.” He smiled genially and took a drink. “We were thinking about Neugart and Torpy,” Joe said, changing the subject and watching for Sharp’s reaction. Sharp’s face stayed unruffled, although he was very surprised. “Indeed, another tragic ending.” He shook his head regretfully. “Still, I always thought they were bad influences

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on Alex. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if what happened to Ms. Morales was at their instigation.” He let himself appear troubled by this. “Funny. I had the impression they pretty much followed Alex’s lead,” Joe countered calmly. Sharp shrugged easily. “Who can ever know these things? I would think that the important thing for you is that they are now dead.” “I didn’t know them well,” Joe allowed, “but I didn’t see them as the murder/suicide sort.” “People do unusual things when they are in such highly stressful situations,” Sharp said. “As I said, who can ever know?" He paused, then theatrically raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “You aren’t thinking that Welshbacher and Kovlun had anything to do with their deaths, are you?” “We gave that some thought,” Joe allowed. “But we decided that the ‘solution’ was a little too elegant for them, or for Perlman.” Sharp watched Joe, and took another drink to buy some time. He took another glimpse at Juanita. She walked over and took a seat on one of the barstools. He politely offered her a drink, which she not so politely declined. “It almost seems like maybe someone talked them into it,” Juanita suggested. “Someone very convincing.” She didn’t need to add, ‘someone like a lawyer.’ Sharp studied each of them in turn, looking thoughtful. “You could never prove anything,” he said at last, stating not defiantly or admitting any guilt but as a simple statement of fact.

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Joe stared at him steadily. “I’m not so interested in the proving as in the knowing,” he told Sharp softly. “And what I think I know about your role in all this I don’t much like.” Sharp returned the stare, his mind racing behind the smooth exterior. He’d been threatened before, and more openly, by Perlman and some of the rough people he did business with. He was good at not letting anyone get any reaction out of him that he didn’t want. “This is all very interesting,” he concluded with as much dignity as he could muster, “but I really need to be going.” “Not quite yet,” Juanita drawled. “Jerry.” Sharp looked at her sharply. “Mr. Sharp, I haven’t spent a lot of time looking into Perlman’s affairs, but it wasn’t too hard to find some, shall we say, irregularities,” Joe said. “Yeah, like payoffs to the two crooked cops,” Juanita clarified. “Indeed,” Sharp said, studying his glass very carefully. Joe leaned forward, putting his arms on the bar. “You know, it’s not so hard to hide things when no one knows you’re hiding something, but once people start looking for something it gets a lot harder to keep it hidden.” “I was just Carson Perlman’s lawyer,” Sharp protested, his heart not really in it. He was more just practicing a line of defense to be used with a less discerning audience. “I certainly don’t know about anything illegal, much less any of the various felonies --” he used the word distastefully “-- that you seem to be most concerned about.” “Jerry, that would either make you a bad lawyer or a crooked one,” Juanita pointed out. “Either way you play it, your reputation is going to be ruined.” “Maybe you’ll go to jail, maybe worse,” Joe added helpfully.

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Sharp looked at Joe, his mind racing to find a way out of this situation. He hadn’t gotten to where he was by giving in under pressure. He tried to act nonchalant, and looked outside at the implacable ocean. It just kept coming and coming, banging against the shore and eventually grinding everything down. Outside the house rocks from millions of years ago had given in and now sat smashed up as sand that beachgoers appreciated, but which the rocks might not have been too happy about. He saw himself as the rock, and he knew the waves were coming for him. Joe watched him try to think his way out of this situation he was in. “You are not going to survive this, Mr. Sharp,” Joe warned him softly. Sharp looked down at the bar, not yet ready to concede. “There are programs like the Witness Protection Program,” he essayed without conviction. “A lawyer in the situation you describe would certainly know things of interest to the authorities.” “The big fish is dead, Jerry,” Juanita told him, “and the little fish are dead or caught already.” “People will be looking at someone to blame, someone who helped perpetuate or at least cover-up the things that have happened,” Joe said softly. “It’s going to get pretty ugly for that person. Probably even hurt their family in the process, just collateral damage.” He shook his head at the ugliness of it all. “Don’t you have a wife, and two young daughters?” Juanita inquired helpfully. Sharp looked at her, raising his eyebrows. “Are you threatening my family?” Juanita shook her head. “I just don’t think they’d like what it is going to come out about you. I don’t think you’d want them to see that.”

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Sharp laughed. He loved his wife, in his way, but it didn’t stop him from having an even prettier mistress. He doted on his daughter, but he knew she’d go to live with her mother when – not if – they eventually got divorced. One can always get more wives and daughters. He shrugged. “Mr. Russell, Carson Perlman is apparently dead, his son had his reputation ruined by the child pornography charges before he was killed, and poor Welshbacher and Kovlun are now apparently under arrest for murder,” he noted, smiling knowingly. “Don’t you think you’ve played all your cards already? I mean, you can’t try to repeat any of those on me, now, can you?” Joe looked back at him gravely. “You don’t want to know what I am capable of, Mr. Sharp.” Joe’s voice was cold as ice, hard as a diamond, and as piercing as a spear. Juanita had to glance over at him. She loved Joe like a brother, respected him more than anyone she knew – and yet, in those words, even she was scared of him. “No, I don’t suppose so,” Sharp conceded quietly, wilting in some almost indiscernible way, losing his pride and defiance like a balloon losing air. It almost wasn’t visible, but Joe and Juanita were watching for it and knew when it happened, perhaps even before Sharp did. He looked down at the bar, not seeing anything. “They called me that night,” he admitted softly, in a voice that didn’t seem to be coming from the same person. Joe and Juanita exchanged quickly glances. “Who did?” Joe asked. “Alex Perlman,” Sharp clarified, his voice even quieter. “I could hear her in the background.” Sharp explained that Perlman had told them that they’d had their “fun” with Theresa Morales, but that she had kept fighting, kept telling them that she’d report them, that they’d go to jail. He and the other two had expected her to be docile and broken, but somehow she just got madder and more defiant. Sharp stopped his story and looked at them sadly. “She was still alive. So I called Welshbacher, told him to take Kovlun and clean up the situation. I thought, you know, they’d talk a little sense into her.”

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“No, you didn’t,” Joe disagreed quietly. He looked briefly at Juanita, thinking about what they’d wanted to do with her. “You knew better. You knew what they might do.” Sharp put his lips together tightly, and nodded grudgingly. “I suppose so,” he admitted in a defeated tone. “Maybe it wasn’t what I intended, but I guess I knew what they might do. I suppose that makes me a monster too.” He looked out at the ocean, shaking his head forlornly. The waves coming for him were bigger than he’d expected, and coming much faster. These two might appear to be civilized people, but he was very scared of them. Sharp was a good judge of character. He was used to convincing people, on all sides of the law, to do what he wanted, using logic, charm, legal arguments, blackmail, threats – whatever it took. Backed by Perlman, he’d been very successful. But he knew now that there was nothing he could do to sway these unstoppable do-gooders. All those years of dealing with Carson Perlman, and these were the two he ended up being scared of. He shook his head absently at the irony of it. “What options would such a person have?” he asked in a small voice, phrasing it in the third person to try to pretend, if just for a moment, that this was all happening to someone else entirely. Juanita looked at Joe, and stood up. Joe stepped back from the bar. “Alex has himself a very nice house here,” Joe noted. He looked at Sharp with a look that could have conveyed sympathy but contained none. “Still, knowing what I know about Alex, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he kept things here that were, shall we say, selfdestructive.” Sharp’s eyes widened, and he finished off his drink. He sighed heavily. “No, I wouldn’t be at all surprised either,” he agreed in a very matter-of-fact tone. He poured himself another drink, three fingers this time, and took a big gulp. “Not at all.” He looked back out at the ocean. “We’re going to keep track,” Joe told him. “If we have to come back to town, it’s not going to go well for you. You understand that?”

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Sharp nodded almost imperceptibly, not looking away from the ocean. A tear slowly navigated its way down his cheek, an unfamiliar journey for both of them. Joe looked at Juanita. She nodded, and they quietly left the house, leaving Sharp behind to his waves.

Chapter 39 Joe called Debbie on their way back to his parents. “Hey,” he said with a casual tone. “You home yet?” “Hello there yourself,” she greeted him. “Yes, we got back an hour or so ago. We’re already unpacked and the kids are out back playing.” She quickly recapped their trip – nothing dramatic, just the usual travel woes. Doug had spent most of the trip on his tablet computer, playing games or watching videos. Melissa got a little fussy the last couple hours, and had ended up on Debbie’s lap for a little while. It sounded nice and domestic, just an average family traveling together. Many husbands would be quickly bored with the small details of her trip, of the silly little things the kids had said or done, but Joe drank them in eagerly. He missed out on too many of those precious times, and had once again come too close to missing out on the rest of their lives. Joe wished he’d have been there with them, that he had been able to slip into the cozy blanket of domesticity that he longed for. Soon, he told himself; soon. “I was expecting you to call earlier,” Debbie noted, her words careful. “Everything go all right?” Questions like this always came up whenever Joe went away. Most of the time the answers were innocuous; sometimes there were even things he could tell her. But not always. “We had a few unexpected complications,” he admitted with equal care. “But it worked out all right in the end.”

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“I see,” she replied thoughtfully, and Joe wondered what she did see, or at least suspect. “Any more…loose ends?” Joe looked over quickly at Juanita, who was scrupulously pretending not to be listening in. “No, they should all be taken care of now.” He noticed Juanita sighed just a little, almost unnoticeably. “I think Theresa can rest easily now, God bless her.” “And you and Juanita are both OK?” she probed, pushing a little more than she might normally have. Perhaps it had been his most recent injury, perhaps it was the cruelty that Theresa Morales had been subjected to, but some part of her knew that Perlman and his cronies weren’t likely to have gone down easily. Joe glanced again at Juanita, thinking about her cheek, reflecting on how close her call had been and how even closer his own had been. They should both be dead, by all rights, yet here they were, safe and sound and soon to go home. “Yeah, sure, we’re both fine,” he assured her with as much cheerfulness as he could muster. “Here, let me put Juanita on the phone.” He quickly handed Juanita the phone, before either of them could demur. He wasn’t sure he could maintain the cheerful tone if he stayed on the phone. Juanita took the phone with a surprised expression, and gave Joe a warning look. “Hi, Debbie,” she said breezily. She confidently reinforced Joe’s story, that all had gone well and they were both looking forward to getting to their homes. She told Debbie how much she’d enjoy seeing her and the kids. “Well, we all loved seeing you too,” Debbie replied warmly, mollified by hearing Juanita back up Joe’s account. “You really need to get out here before too long. They grow up so quickly, you know.” Juanita promised that she would, and gave the phone back to Joe after a warm goodbye. “So I’ll be on the red-eye,” Joe informed her. “I should be home before you wake up tomorrow morning.”

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“I’d like that,” Debbie told him softly, her voice hungry with her desire for him to be at her side, in her bed and in their home. She paused for a second. “Do you think there might be any more, umm, trouble?” Joe didn’t reply immediately, and Debbie didn’t press. The silence filled the air between them, across the many miles, with questions unanswered and answers not spoken. In that moment Juanita could feel the ache Debbie must always have when Joe was away like this, of never knowing if he was dead or in pain, if he would be coming home in one piece or at all. Her Joe had come within a millisecond of dying just a couple hours ago, and Juanita wouldn’t be surprised if in that moment Debbie’s heart froze up just a little. She realized that, when it came to courage, Joe didn’t have a monopoly in the Russell household. “No, it should be fine,” Joe assured her tenderly, and the tension leaked out of the air. They exchanged I-love-you’s and ended the call. Juanita let him drive in silence for a few minutes, watching him. He seemed oblivious, not only to her but to the other cars, piloting on automatic and his mind far away. “Do you ever tell her what happens to you?” she asked at last, her voice low and nonjudgmental. Joe allowed himself a small smile, not taking his eyes from the road. “Sometimes,” he said. “But not always everything.” She watched him for a few seconds. “And is this one of the times you’ll tell her more?” she asked softly “Will you tell her how close you came, we both came?” He looked at her with sadness. “Probably not,” he confessed. He turned his attention back to the road. “It’s not something I could really explain, not in a way she could understand.”

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Or, rather, not in a way she could deal with, Juanita thought to herself. She let him off the hook and they were mostly silent, each processing their own angels and demons, on the rest of the way back to his parents.

Joe pulled into his parents’ driveway a little before six, and almost immediately his parents emerged. His father was always alert, but his eyes showed combat alertness now, not sure if his home and his family were in danger or not, but fully prepared to take action if they were. His mother hid her concern, but it was there as well. “You’re a little later than we expected,” his mother noted with understated grace. “We ran into a few complications,” Joe explained, “but everything is OK now.” Joe’s father didn’t fully relax. He nodded at Juanita’s cheek, now more swollen and red. “I’m guessing whoever did that looks worse.” “Last I saw him, they were wheeling them away on a stretcher,” Juanita told him truthfully. Joe’s father nodded his approval. “Can you two stay for dinner?” Joe’s mother asked. Joe and Juanita exchanged glances. “We don’t want to be a bother,” Joe said. “We were going to just get our bags, catch a bite at the airport.” Their planes each left around ten. His father waved his hand at them dismissively. “Ah, airport food. A friend of mine brought some tuna over this afternoon, just caught it today. You’re not going to get anything fresher anywhere.” “We’ll grill out on the patio, then you can go catch your flights,” his mother insisted. “Come on inside.” She turned and started to go inside, leaving them no option but to follow.

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Out on the patio, Joe’s father gave them both a beer, and started on the tuna. His mother moved back and forth from the kitchen, setting the table and preparing some sides to go with the tuna. There wasn’t much conversation, other than to note the mild evening and pretty sky. There wasn’t a cloud on the sky, just a gaseous sea of blue to compliment the blue ocean, which, of course, was only a hinted at presence from the house. “So you got into a fight, did you?” Joe’s father brought up at last. Joe noted that he’d waited until one of the times his mom was in the kitchen. He glanced at Joe. “And what were you doing while she was fighting?” Joe’s father was discreet in the utmost and normally would have waited until Joe felt like bringing it up, if ever, but he was intrigued about the details of Juanita’s prowess. Joe probably would have told him the story, or some version of the story, at some point, but usually late at night when it was just the two of them. He didn’t have many secrets from his father. He just didn’t much feel like telling that particular story right now. Joe smiled a little wanly. “I was a little tied up at the time.” Joe’s father didn’t assume he was joking, and his eyes looked quickly at Joe, and he caught the momentarily surprised glance Juanita shot at him. Juanita recovered and smiled broadly. “There were two of them, in fact,” she admitted. She looked at the back door to make sure Joe’s mother wasn’t emerging. “One of them got the first punch in, but that was it.” Joe felt oddly detached. “They also had guns, and they were going to rape and kill her, dad,” he said flatly. “Another guy was going to kill me.” His father looked at Juanita for a moment, and she got the sense that he was more impressed than surprised. He turned his attention back to the grill, carefully turning the tuna over, making sure it was situated just right. “I see,” he replied neutrally at last.

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“I don’t know,” Juanita protested uneasily. “Joe is pretty resourceful. He probably would have been OK anyway.” “Uh-huh,” Joe’s father grunted, acknowledging her comment but not judging it either way. His mother came out with a big bowl of salad in one hand and some sautéed vegetables in another bowl in her other hand. She put them down on the table carefully, noticing the electricity in the air. She sat down and looked inquiringly at the three of them. “Joe and Juanita were catching me up on today,” Joe’s father told her in a matter-of-fact voice. “Seems they had some bad trouble.” “It’s all settled now, Mr. and Mrs. Russell,” Juanita assured them. “We made sure of that.” “She saved my life, Pops,” Joe said absently, looking at nothing in particular. “There was a gun not two feet from me ready to kill me.” He smiled again without any feeling. “They’d already shot me once, with a tranquilizer, but it could just have well been a bullet that time. I got sloppy and it almost cost us both our lives.” He put the beer down, just for something to do. He had a troubled expression on his face, something that didn’t happen very often. “Yeah,” his father agreed gruffly. “It happens.” Not to most people, his mother could have protested, but she didn’t say anything; she just looked at Joe with such love and concern that Juanita felt overwhelmed. Joe’s father watched Joe for a long moment, then over at Juanita. He held her eyes for a long few seconds. Then he winked at her, something that surprised her. “It happens,” he told them simply. “It wasn’t the first time either of you had your lives at risk. You always have to

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expect your enemies are going to win some battles. What matters is that you two walked away and they didn’t.” “I was just lucky,” Joe replied flatly. “No,” his father told him pointedly. He nodded towards Juanita. “You picked the right partner. That’s not luck, that’s a skill. You two make a good team.” He looked back at Joe. “So, is it over now? You’re sure?” In other words, the battle may have been sloppy, but was the war over? Joe paused before replying. Perlman undoubtedly had other associates, both muscle and brains. But Joe was pretty sure Perlman kept his inner circle very close, and that that circle had all been taken care of. Any other Perlman cronies would be busy squabbling over the spoils of his empire and trying to stay out of Nichols’ crosshairs. No one was left who had any interest in the Morales family or him. Joe looked towards Juanita for her opinion, and saw her nod microscopically at him. “Yeah,” Joe admitted with a slow exhalation. A tension that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding eased out of him “It’s all over.” His father nodded phlegmatically, like a commanding officer would mentally file away a field report. He flashed a winning smile. “OK, then. Anyway, I’ll take a lucky win over a skillful defeat any day.” He turned his attention back to his cooking, the subject closed in his mind. “Almost done here,” he announced. “Who wants which?” Joe looked at Juanita, and they shared a smile that conveyed a combination of relief, gratitude, and affection. They all settled down to eat, and the topic of the events of the day did not come up again, nor did the mood dip. Joe’s parents wanted to know about Joe and Juanita’s flights – what time they’d get in, how they would get home from the airport, and other mostly logistical details – and shared with them some praise for things Doug and Melissa had done during the stay. They were obviously enraptured with their grandchildren.

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The setting was peaceful and relaxed, and it was hard to reconcile this atmosphere with the events earlier in the day. All four of them had lived with violence – Joe’s mother more vicariously than the rest of them, but scarring her nonetheless – and all of them knew this was probably only a respite, not a cessation and certainly not a final victory. But they also knew to enjoy the time while it lasted, to take the time to savor being the ones who were still alive. Once they were done, Joe helped his mother clear the table, while Joe’s father immediately set to work on cleaning the grill. Juanita offered to help, but was declined, so she busied herself getting her bags and Joe’s and putting them in the trunk of Joe’s car. Before long, it was time to go. “Mr. And Mrs. Russell,” Juanita started to say, “I just wanted to --” “I don’t know what the deal is with this ‘Mr.’ And ‘Mrs.’,” Joe’s father objected with mock annoyance. “Please, it’s Ernie and Betty.” Not a lot of people called Joe’s father by his first name, Joe knew, but he held his tongue. His mother, on the other hand, offered the use of her first name as casually as a salesman giving out his business card. “Well, I don’t know,” Juanita replied awkwardly. “Please, dear,” Joe’s mother urged. “You’re family to us.” Juanita didn’t know what to say, so she bit her lips while her eyes watered just slightly. At last she nodded her head in agreement. “Ernie, Betty,” she said experimentally. Her face brightened in a smile. “I could get used to that.” Joe’s mother pulled her close in a hug. “You are like a daughter to us,” she said softly in her ear, although loud enough that the two men could overhear and agree with. The hug lasted a long time, and when she was done Joe’s father repeated the act, albeit slightly

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more awkwardly. When he released her he kept his hands on her shoulders, staring her straight in her eyes. “Don’t get us wrong,” he explained. “We love Debbie like a daughter too, and we couldn’t ask for a better wife for Joe or a better mother to our grandkids.” He paused, and looked at his wife, at Joe, and finally back at her with those eyes that had seen everything and which seemed to understand everything. His voice was soft but sure. “But it’s good to know you’ve got Joe’s back, no matter what.” He patted her on the shoulders and stepped back, his face solemn. “I know he’s got mine,” Juanita responded in a voice full of emotion. “We all do, dear,” Joe’s mom noted in surprise. “Like we said, you’re family.” Joe exchanged hugs with his parents, his mother’s much longer than his father’s, as if she wanted to make sure that if it was the last one she’d get, it would be one she would recall every detail of. Then Joe and Juanita got in the car and headed off to the airport, waving back at Joe’s parents like a couple of teenagers heading off on a road trip. Juanita looked back at his parents until they were out of sight, then settled forward in her seat. “Ernie and Betty?” she said experimentally, not sure how those names sounded coming out of her mouth Joe smiled. “You should be flattered. Debbie think it’s easier to call them mom and dad than to call them by their first names.” Juanita had to laugh at that. “Yeah, I think that would be easier. Are you sure I can’t do that?” Joe shrugged. “Too late now. You’d be insulting them now if you don’t use their names.”

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“We wouldn’t want that,” Juanita allowed, getting comfortable. She was suddenly very tired. She let Joe drive for a few blocks without either of them saying anything, a comfortable silence between them filled with memories and thoughts of a future that both of them knew not to take for granted. Joe was thinking about going home, to being with his wife and children, just living a nice suburban life where crises involved late school assignments and soccer game conflicts. He felt he needed a little vacation from his vacation, yet he was ready to tackle some new set of problems at work, although hopefully ones he could solve from the office. He thought, also, about Theresa Morales, and what would have happened to her had he not been there that night. She probably would have been raped that night in the restaurant, but many people survive a rape, horrific as it might be. Maybe she would have been able to go on from that to live a normal life. Or, maybe Alex Perlman would have still targeted her, drawn to her by her indefinable something or mad at her for fighting back, as Joe sensed she would have. Maybe she had ignited an itch in Perlman for murder that wouldn’t have been scratched any other way short of her death. For all Joe knew, Theresa hadn’t been Perlman’s first victim. Perhaps she was always fated to die, and at least he had avenged her in the old fashioned way. All he knew was that, having gotten involved, he could not have walked away, and that Alex and his cabal was now done for good, with the world a better place for it as a result. He hoped Theresa would have approved, but he knew there was no way to really ever be sure. Juanita, too, was thinking of the life she was returning to. No spouse, no children, but plenty of friends, and someday, she hoped, the right guy would come along. She had a job she was good at and one that she believed mattered, just as what she and Joe had done the past few days mattered. She was ready to go home, satisfied she and Joe had done right, and yet scared at how close they’d come to dying. She had to admit, though, that she never felt quite so alive as these times when she and Joe were together, and wondered what that said about her – almost as much as she wondered when the next time would be.

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It was over, Juanita realized with a rush of relief that was almost physical. Bad things had happened – certainly to Theresa Morales – but, at the end of the day, as Joe’s father had said, they’d survived and the bad guys hadn’t. Juanita had been a cop long enough to know how to put the bad stuff behind and move on. Still, though, one thing about the whole affair continued to bother her. Suddenly Juanita turned towards Joe with an impish smile. “So, seriously, how were you going to escape from Perlman?” Joe looked at her quizzically for a moment. He wasn’t quite sure if she was kidding or not, but then he realized that it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that it was indeed over. There might be a next time, but that would be then, not now. Right now everything was as it should be, or would be once he got home to his family. Joe’s face relaxed into a smile, mirroring and reflecting her own, and they grinned at each other like little kids who’d just gotten away with something. They both started laughing. THE END

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