6:00 a.m. – I run two miles with minimal bleeding from a stitch I stretched last night; I change the dressing.
7:30 a.m. – I have a heart-stop sausage and cheese omelet [$14} at Gus Balon’s with Anzi B and we talk about his grandchildren.
11:00 a.m. – Home for half-hour nap.
12:30 p.m. – Late lunch [$21] at Hidden Valley Ranch.
5:00 p.m. – Chicken noodle soup from a can.
5:55 p.m. – There is a scratching at the door followed by a phlegmy cough and a soft thud; I open it to Willie Lopez. His body sprawls across the door jamb; his blood pools on the tile; steam rises as a cold breeze sweeps into the house. I try to lift him, but he is too heavy and my stitches pull painfully. I feel for a pulse; nothing. His face is marked by fists, his right eye swelled shut. There is blood on the front of his shirt, the seat of his pants, down his left leg and pooled in his left shoe; the scent of blood and urine is overpowering. I follow the bloody footprints, a thin black line connects each; a wavy line of blood leaves a twisty trail left of the foot prints as he crab-walked his way to my door. The black Caddy is an inch from the garage with its door open; the front window is down; the white leather of the driver’s side seat is coated in blood. I turn down the radio. Willie’s black address book is open to a page sprinkled with a fine mist of black; there is my name and address with five stars next to it and a notation PI. In the blood on the seat is a tarnished jewelry hasp. Using a pencil, I pry it out; it is a half-inch wide cross-linked gold chain, the expensive kind Willie liked; the links are stretched before the chain broke. A bloody handprint on the concrete says he stumbled. Inside, I note the chain cut an already scabbed over line across his neck.
6:10 p.m. – I call the cops and tell them how to find me. I open the windows to clear the odor. I cover Willie with a blue tarp from the garage.
6:20 p.m. – I fall into my recliner and pull up the past. Over twenty years the things I know about Willie Lopez have become ephemeral, and if I touch them, they burst like bubbles; but Willie ticks through his list of hanger-on friends and stops on me before he plunges over the edge to oblivion. It isn’t the first time he’s made me the friend of last resort.
Fifteen years ago I hired Willie as the inventory manager for our maquiladora manufacturing plant in Nogales, Mexico. Willie, according to one of the stories of his life, had gone bankrupt in the used car business in Tucson, which followed, time-frame indeterminate, a forced bankruptcy by the IRS of three bars he owned in LA. This checkered past was interspersed with manufacturing jobs like moorings to stabilize his life after fate’s fickle finger took him down. Willie knew manufacturing. I ignored the red flags, and Willie cut through the bureaucratic crap and got the product out the door; his bull-in-a-china-shop approach was his biggest asset. But Willie was a handful to manage; I was constantly smoothing the feathers of my peers; there was no middle ground, you were with him or against him. To my surprise, Willie lasted three years; he broke the logjam of production with an ever-present belligerence in English and Spanish. He was blustery and bragging, aggressive and pugnacious, and loyal in a what’s-in-it-for-me way. Willie knew more than you did about anything, had more courage than you did, played better tennis and took more chances. He was a puffer fish among the sharks of business; but in the real world Willie was a low-level employee in a giant corporation barely cognizant of his existence. With a little patience Willie could have grown, but when Willie was poised to reach a higher rung of the ladder, he threw in the towel and went somewhere else to start at the bottom again.
Outside work Willie indulged a rich fantasy life. Most days, after working from five to five, he drove from the Mexico plant to the Smuggler’s Inn in Tucson before seven. The dark bar disguised the worn hems and cheap bagging polyester suits as he ensconced himself at his table centered off the dance floor. The waitress served his tall seven-and-seven with a splash and a twist, as if after fifty years of smoking he could taste the difference, but it was the persona. As the night wore on, Willie’s entourage grew as he held a passive court from his tiny table, dispensing favors and drinks as required by his position, a big fish in a small pool. Willie attracted a group of hangers-on and pretty girls; secretaries, sheet-rockers, red necks and managers curried the favor of the sultan. Willie made himself the touchstone on which they hung their after-work life [it would take a million words to plumb the why of it]. Willie always finished his night the same way, blowing smoke down the hall of mirrors that comprised his life; and while the bar was still crowded, the limo driver came to his table, talked briefly and then took him home; it was Willie’s avoiding a DWI, but its purpose was to cultivate the sultan persona by letting his neighbor play a part in the ongoing drama of Willie’s life by picking him up for free at the end of his shift.
That was how I met the Willie who was important to the ambiance of the bar; more important than the bartender, more important than the good-looking guys around him. This was the Willie the first time I met him there. He was the center of attention; the waitresses fawned, everyone called him Willie. I was young, I was impressed. He called over the pretty girls to dance with me, more than willing to take credits for any favors they might bestow. And this Willie used his friends by identifying their current misfortune; he not only felt their pain, but often caused it as he reigned supreme by displaying the wondrousness of his life. For a brief period I was in awe of the importance of Willie Lopez, a carefully constructed awe. Willie was happy as the potentate of the small tribe from which he could bestow inclusion, or cut you out. With his targeted drink-buying and small-time pimping, he gained your esteem instead of your money. But like all things cheaply bought, that esteem tarnished easily.
I learned about Willie in dribs and drabs viewed through the chinks in his armor left by the daily conduct of normal life. I helped finance his next business and watched it grow from a safe distance. I was best man at his marriage [second?] in Reno to a Canadian girl less than half his age. I watched his business mushroom in a year to thirteen million, then fall apart in a week when the house of cards, built on stiffed creditors, bad debts and unhappy customers, crumbled to the ground. I heard about ex-wives and ex-kids, about debts to the IRS, about bad business judgment.
Willie was an in-your-face guy, a man it was hard to be around more than an hour at a time. He was always testing the envelope of friendship, then backing off, like a wild animal trainer. He was a guy better remembered than experienced, but I liked Willie, even after he stiffed me for a five thousand dollar loan, a lot of money at that time; I figured he’d pay it back one day when he was in the chips. But that was in the past, and, as I learned, Willie’s never paid for yesterday’s debts with today’s assets; he didn’t think that way.
I hear that Willie is again moving up in the world. He’d landed a Sunday filler right-leaning talk show on a station in Tucson, a tiny Rush Limbaugh in an unbelievably tiny pond. He preached high morals and pro-family life, and he had plans to run for Congress as if the lineup of skeletons in his closet were Halloween decorations; and Willie was again mixing with higher life-forms, used-car dealers. Willie always had great plans, a predecessor to the new-agers who believe that dreaming about a thing is equivalent to working for it. Willie’s dreams had that quality of twenty percent effort and eighty percent wishful thinking; but he could make you think that other eighty percent was in his grasp.
Willie lived off-and-on with a woman I know, Carrie, whenever he was down on his luck; but Willie thought her too old to be seen with though she was fifteen years his junior; he couldn’t reconcile Carrie with his blinders-on ever-youthful view of himself. And conservative, family-values, political mover-and-shaker Willie Lopez, before he married for the fourth or fifth or whatever time, charged Carrie’s MasterCard to the max to upgrade his computer and tried to stiff her with the bill. Now, three years later, he used his debt to enact a cruel vengeance; he made her come to his house every month to pick up the paltry minimum, even as his financial status soared. Whenever his character cracked, the mean little man that showed from beneath wasn’t pretty.
Willie’s new company provides consulting services to the Air Force and defense-based businesses that dot the Tucson landscape. He is wheeling-and-dealing to build another house of cards company as he takes a last shot at the big time. He wants me to buy in on his new future, but I opt out without giving a reason. The next time I see him, about nine months ago, he is in a new bar, Wilmot Station, again in the seat of power, this time with his adoring new wife, Esmerelda, and the fawning guys and girls at whose youth he laps; but it is a punctured facade, badly constructed and poorly worn; Willie Lopez at sixty-seven has played out his hand in my life.
I learned a lot about Willie Lopez by watching him, by sharing friends, by sharing enemies. His built-up artifice and reality became so intertwined, I was at a loss to know where the real Willie Lopez began, or the paper-mache Willie Lopez ended; but that was what Willie intended.
6:30 p.m. – The sirens bring me back to the present; alternating flashers color the windows; the cops have their weapons drawn. I introduce myself from the other side of Willie. A short stocky blond patrolwoman with bad skin, name tag Rigsby, steps over Willie’s covered body as her partner secures the premises. She says I should wait in the dining-room until a detective is ready. She lifts the corner of the tarp but does not touch the body. She asks if I killed Willie; I shake my head no and she nods solemnly, but she doesn’t leave the room.
6:40 p.m. – More cops arrive; the lights lend a carnival atmosphere. A cop tells someone to return to their house. I hear the belligerent voice of my red-neck Beverly Hillbilly neighbor across the way, obnoxious, intrusive and nosy. Rigsby and I sit without a word; it’s like listening to the radio, but too jumbled to make any sense of it. I say, Let them know I turned down the radio. My prints will be on the knob. She nods and scratches in her notebook. She is watchful; she knows that the guy who finds the body more often than not put it there; she bends back the flap over her gun and keeps her eyes on me.
7:10 p.m. – Flashlights crisscross the back yard. It’s thirty minutes and no one has seriously looked at the body. What if I am wrong about Willie being dead? A tall thin dark-haired man pokes his head into the open door.
He looks at the cop and speaks at me; Hi, I’m the coroner, Bob Roberts. He says to the cop, Officer, can you remove the tarp? The cop pulls on rubber gloves and lifts the tarp; the smell fills the room. The coroner motions Rigsby to open the sliding glass door.
The coroner is followed by a short very pretty Hispanic woman dressed in a dark gray skirt and matching jacket and a white silk blouse. She says, I’m with homicide, Detective Jesse Wallace. Are you the homeowner? I nod. She asks, You know the dead man? I say, Yes. She continues, It’s going to be a long night. She motions two uniformed cops into the room and asks, Is it all right if we search the premises? I was, until proven otherwise, the only suspect; I say, go ahead.
She whispers to the two men who pull on paper boots and rubber gloves; one heads upstairs, the other starts in the garage. She and the coroner spend ten minutes peering at and prodding Willie Lopez’s inert body and speaking softly while; a third man marks the body’s location and takes pictures. A tech dusts the door know for fingerprints.
8:00 p.m. – Two men bag Willie pack him out. The detective and the coroner inspect the floor, talk some more. He leaves by the door; she sits across from me.
8:15 p.m. – Jesse: Sorry about being late, but there was a pretty nasty accident at Kolb and Speedway. She motions to Willie’s outline and answers my unvoiced question; We tell the uniforms that if there’s no chance to save the victim, don’t touch the body. She takes a tape recorder from her purse. Any problem with this? she asks. I shake my head. Why don’t you start by telling me who you are.
The upstairs cop calls, Got a bloodstained gauze from the master bathroom.
Me: It’s mine. I raise my shirt. Gunshot wound in Portland. Three wo weeks ago. I bumped into the door and split a stitch.
J: You a cop?
Me: No, I’m a private investigator.
J: Her lip curls. So what are you doing here? You work for the dead man?
Me: I’m relaxing, can’t you tell? No smile; I seek sympathy, I’m recovering. This is my townhouse. I come here two or three weeks a year, or at least I used to. This time I’m trying to get well.
J: She scans the room; I didn’t know private heat paid that well. I must be in the wrong profession.
Me: I retired from a real job.
J: Obviously you’re not looking for social security, probably won’t live to see it anyway; all the more for me, and no one will find me entertaining dead men at my door. She scratches in her book.
Me: Willie didn’t look entertained to me, Detective.
J: Sorry, he was your friend. I can forget real people are involved. She ponders a bit; I don’t care for PIs. In this state that usually means bounty hunter. I got one cousin killed by those guys by mistake. You belong to that group? I say, No, Detective Wallace. She says, Christ, we’re almost comrades. Why don’t you call me Jesse. Hey, Jesse … a cop jokes; she grins; And you can call me sir. Back to me; You got anything to do with this?
Me: You mean other than my name being in Willie’s black book?
J: Irritated, So, you did more that turn down the radio?
Me: Look, Detective … Jesse, I’m a curious fellow. I haven’t seen Willie in almost a year, and I didn’t know he knew where I lived. I am thorough. If I did wrong, I apologize.
J: Well, I’m sure we won’t be seeing any more of you if you keep your skirts clean. I keep silent. Why don’t you tell me what you know about Willie Lopez.
Me; I disclose the details of Willie’s life; it isn’t all new to her.
J: Who killed him, and why?
Me: No idea. So, how long have you people been investigating Willie?
J: Investigating? Why would you think that?
Me: Irritated; Have it your way, Detective.
J: You’re right, of course. We will have it our way. I’ll appreciate it if you remember that. I make no reply. So why the five stars? The next highest was three.
Me: Willie might put stars next to people who could be of use to him. It’s the way he’d think. He and I weren’t exactly friends anymore, but if push came to shove, I’m the guy he’d go to. Yes, I’d be Willie’s five-star guy.
J: He had one star next to his wife. What’s that mean?
Me: Don’t know, only met her once. Nothing meant by it, but Willie wouldn’t give any woman a star. He wore women, he didn’t trust them. To Willie, women were jewelry, and who counts on their jewelry. Maybe I’m wrong about the stars.
J: You hold the same opinion as Willie Lopez, Green?
Me: Call me CB, and no I don’t. If they don’t have to carry a two hundred pound man out of a burning building, they’re at least equal. When it comes to being thorough, they’re more than equal.
J: Good answer, Green. My husband, George, would rather I was a corporate executive. He doesn’t care for what I do. He calls it dangerous. She smiles. He’s a fireman, and I call that dangerous.
Me: My girlfriend feels the same way about my job.
J: She switches off the tape recorder. I’ll be able to find you when I need you?
Me: Sure? Where are you going now?
J: Downtown to headquarters, start to make heads and tails of this.
Me: Can I hitch a ride downtown. I loaned my truck to a friend.
J: Not getting nosy, are we? I shake my head. She adds, I’m not a taxi service you know.
Me: Okay, I’ll take a taxi.
J: Come on, let’s go.
Me: I call Carrie and tell her I’ll meet her at her downtown realty office. I lock the door behind us. Willie’s car is gone; the yellow tape where it was.
10:00 p.m. – Jesse keeps to the speed limit.
Jesse: Cell phone: Hello. Wait; Bob; What condition was the bullet in? Wait; The other must be buried in the seat.
Me: Is the bullet usable?
J: No, it was splintered by a rib after hitting the heart. A second shot went through a kidney and exited his back. The evidence guys may already have it.
Me: How’d Willie drive with the injury.
J: Coroner said it nicked his heart. He oozed to death. Bob thinks if he’d driven to a hospital, they might have saved his life, fifty-fifty.
Me: It looks like he’d been beaten?
J: Bob thinks he was knocked around by professionals. They broke the fingers of his left hand. Seems like a waste of a good beating to kill him. All in all, we were lucky he didn’t kill someone on the road. Where would you like me to let you off?
Me: At the station is fine. She is suspicious; I have to tell a friend Willie is dead. Don’t want her hearing it on the news first.
10:30 – Jesse parks in front of the police station. A stately Hispanic woman is escorted up the steps by a large man built like a linebacker.
Jesse: I guess the loving wife has arrived? Her tone makes it a question.
Me: I nod, but loving is not the look on Esme’s face; it is irritation, anger, not sadness. At the curb, I say, I’ll be seeing you. She says, I hope not.
12:30 a.m. – I drop Carrie home after an hour of tears and recriminations; Willie wasn’t worth it, but I’d long ago given up trying to figure out women.
12:50 a.m. – I park on the street in case the police come back for more evidence. The smell of blood permeates the house; I boot up the computer and start a file named Lopez … and now I’ve edited the notes and I am done.
3:30 a.m. – I call Carrie to re-fix Willie in my head. She’s known him far longer than I and more intimately. I discuss my notes and scratch her observations in the margins. After an hour we both ran down. I update the file, Sleep comes easier this time.
7:30 a.m. – I run for an hour as I rearrange thoughts about Willie. I haven’t decided yet to pursue the case, but I am feeling committed.
9:30 a.m. – Breakfast [$9] at Balon’s makes me feel better, but the coffee is weak.
6:00 p.m. – Supper [$31] at El Corral.
7:00 a.m. – Drive up to Mt. Lemmon [30 degrees] and hike for two hours, then lunch [$27] at the restaurant.
6:00 p.m. – Use telescope to find Jupiter. I skip supper.