4:00 a,m, – I run 4 miles in under 40 minutes and eat yogurt and granola [$12] at Starbucks at the airport.
6:00 a,m, – The flight to LA is two hours late and my car rental is not ready; the drive is very slow.
11:00 pm – I am three hours late to the Morgan Stanley offices in Hollywood; parking costs seven dollars for the first hour. I take the elevator to the top floor.
Mary Lopez: It’s no big deal, nothing happens on time here. It makes me wonder how we ever get anything done,
Hers is a modulated Ivy League voice. Mary is taller than Willie and California-thin, but has his round face. She is dressed in a short pinstriped skirt that wants to ride up her butt, and a matching jacket cut high at the waist; a white silk blouse billowed out from a more than god-given bosom; the woman is almost beautiful, and not quite attractive. Her office overlooks the Hollywood Hills with rental pictures on the wall with her MBA from Wharton Business School. Mary Lopez is going places, smart, female and Hispanic. If I am across from her at a bar, I know she is exciting, LA exciting. She gets my attention; and I like her from the git-go.
M: You mentioned my father on the phone, Mr. Green. You must know he died this past weekend.
Me: Yes, Miss Lopez, please accept my condolences. I knew Willie for twenty years. He died outside my door. I’m a private investigator, Miss Lopez, and I want to find out what happened to him.
M: Call me Mary; So who’s footing the bill? Esme?
Me: No bill. As I said, I knew Willie a long time, but I don’t think I really knew Willie. I want to know what it was about Willie that brought him dead to my door. So I want to know what you told him last week. I want to know why a forgotten daughter goes to Tucson to warn a father who abandoned her.
M: He didn’t abandon me. He abandoned my mother. She was a very possessive woman, and Willie was a man who could not be possessed. One day he was gone. It took me twenty years to find him.
Me: How long were they married?
M: They weren’t married. It would have been a common law marriage except that Willie forgot to divorce his first wife. We didn’t know about her until Willie was gone.
Me: How did you find out?
M: I was eight years old when I got a phone call. Some woman named Rose wanted Willie. She said he owed her money, but when she called him at work he was no longer there. Ours was the only number she had. She said she’d gotten the dentist’s bill on her son’s teeth and she wanted Willie to pay for it, like he promised. At the time it was a big shock to me, but over the years I’ve become more understanding.
Me: In what way?
M: You know, it’s been forever ago, and my mother still cannot stop talking about it. Willie had screwed half the women on our street. Didn’t matter if they were married or not. Probably some of the little bastards I grew up with were half brothers. After he left, my mother wouldn’t talk to the women. I moved her out of West LA so she could get on with her life. My father was a born philanderer, Mr. Green. It was in his genes, like it’s in mine. Unlike my father, I don’t intend to inflict my lack of control on a spouse or children. But I understand what drove him.
Me: So how did you get connected up again?
M: A little serendipity. I was out of college and looking for an upscale used car. I’d started working here, so I cruised the lots looking for the best buy. It seemed like good fortune, the company was named Lopez Autos, like karma. I found a car I liked. So you know how the routine goes. They take away your keys to test drive your trade-in and you’re stuck. I couldn’t get the right deal, and they wouldn’t let me have my keys; nothing overt, but a constant assault of good cops and bad cops. I demanded to see the owner. I said maybe I’d get a discount because of my last name. The sales guy said I was in luck. He called a number from the phone of our prison cell. He used whatever code words they established so the owner could walk in and start the final level of ratcheting. I knew who he was as soon as he walked in. It shocked the hell out of him. It’s not like you can’t see him in me. There I was, and Willie did one of his usual stupid magnanimous gestures, the type he can’t afford. He gave me the car for my trade-in. The salesman was really pissed.
Me: A reunion.
M: Yes. He took me to supper, and then to some bar where he had his own table and everyone knew his name. So I was wined and dined and fawned over. He took my number and said he’d call to get together and discuss old times. She reads my face, Yeah, he never called. So I called him every couple of months but we never got together. A couple of years later, after success has blighted my life, he calls me for dinner. He needs money because the IRS is after him again. It was more than I had, but I lent him ten thousand. He skipped town.
Me: So how did you two hook up again?
M: It’s that goddamn serendipity again. Three months ago I was in Tucson for a client and I saw an article about this company installing systems for the Air Force. His picture was on the front page of the business section. You could have knocked me over with a feather. So I got the phone number from the yellow pages and we had dinner. And like I expected, he didn’t mention the ten grand he owed me, despite the fact that he was in the chips. I gave him my number and we parted.
Me: Still friends?
M: As much as you can be friends with Willie. You probably have other friends like that. You don’t know why you like them, or even if you like them, but you really do. Well I didn’t much like Willie, but I loved him for being my father. Think how much I’d have loved him if he’d been a real father to me.
Me: You knew his parents and his brother, didn’t you? She nods. How did they manage to keep his secrets?
M: Anger; I can’t forgive them. They were his facilitators. He told them what to say and they didn’t cross him. I haven’t talked to them since I left high school. Willie was a man who could rationalize any behavior, and his entire family seemed to have the same ability. Still, my anger seems sort of childish now since they’re all dead.
Me: So why did you go to see him last week?
M: Wait, let me finish my little history first. I found out about Willie’s first wife, Rosa, so I went to meet her. I was thirteen. She has a son, Chuck, who was seventeen. He’s a real looker, you know what I mean? He was bright too, an A student. Well I started hanging around him, like the tagalong little sister I never got to be as a kid. He was real nice about it. I really respected him. That’s why I became a student, like him. We’ve been good buddies ever since. He’s now a defense lawyer in San Diego and doing very well. I guess he got the right genes, since he’s no philanderer. He’s got a lovely wife and kids, and a really clean reputation. He’s running for a city counsel this year. Well, he called me last week and said he’d heard, he didn’t tell me where, that there was a contract out on Willie, maybe from the Mexican hoodlums from the past. He said they were drug runners and it was serious. They were going to break some bones. We decided I had to go to Tucson to tell Willie. That’s really all there was to it.
Me: What did you think of Esme?
M: I didn’t like her, and she didn’t like me.
Me: Why wouldn’t she like you? She’d never seen you before. She didn’t know who you were.
M: I don’t know why, but as soon as she opened the door her eyes narrowed and she said, ‘What do you want?’ Not who are you, or how can I help, but what do you want, with icicles hanging off the word you. It was like she knew who I was.
Me: Then what?
M: Willie came to the door. He was surprised but he gave me a hug and introduced me to Esmerelda. Suddenly she was little Miss Nice, but I could see her mind working. I don’t think she has nice thoughts.
Me: Was Esme with you when you told Willie about the gangsters after him?
M: No, she left us in his office off the kitchen. She closed the door, and Willie and I talked. When Willie got up to get me a coke, I heard Esme’s shoes on the kitchen floor. Willie didn’t hear. Me, I don’t like women who don’t trust their men, even when they’re as untrustworthy as Willie.
12:30 p.m. – Why am I looking for the inner Willie? I want to know that people have real cores, that they are not merely the layers of an onion around an airy and forgotten or no longer existent center. I’ve learned that no man can know what another man thinks, but if I peel away the layers of my life, I want to think there is a core human being of whom I’d be proud. But maybe there are only layers, and we are our layers, and there was never meant to be more.
I get a hotdog from a street vendor, and a diet pepsi.
On the road a Ford Explorer pulls out of a parking spot and stays three cars behind me. I run a light and turn down a side street. The little Mexican speeds by, stops at the next intersection; his eyes lock onto my car in his rearview mirror; I turn back onto the main drag and am gone.
3:00 p.m. – I meet Colin O’Brien in his LA office; I worked for him in the pre-PI days; we shake hands and go to the bar on the first floor of his building.
Colin: So what’s this Judy tells me about you being shot, twice?
Me: Not much to it; once being too brave, the other being too uncautious, both dangerous attributes.
C: So, Judy says you’re in love, mate; that you took one of those bullets for her?
Me: Judy talks too much. He waits. Her name’s Becky Tomay. She the head of an organization called the Golden Plots, the largest mystery writing organization in the West.
C: I know. Jocelyn and I were at the awards banquet last March. She sold a mystery manuscript a year ago. It’s going to be published in a couple of weeks.
Me: Well, tell her congratulations. My case for Mary Mastern taught me a lot about the publishing industry. I know how hard it is to get published.
C: It was a trial, but it keeps her busy and we’ve met some lovely people, including your Becky, though we didn’t know she was yours at the time. That said, Jocelyn is very interested in the story behind Bob Mastern’s posthumous gift of five million to the group. So she was researching and, lo and behold, who’s name do we find in the article …
Me: So you’re leading me on.
C: No, I’m here with a mission, and your call made it happen all the earlier. Jocelyn wants me to invite you, and young Miss Tomay if you’d like, to our house to tell the whole story. She has a scrapbook with all the articles from the time Mastern was killed through to one she found last week saying the true story has never been told. She wants that story.
Me: I’ll do the best I can. But, right now, tell me about Resource Tap.
C: He opens a file. It’s mostly newspaper clippings; but I called my bankers and a few acquaintances who have received funds from Resource Tap. CB, they ain’t nice guys. First thing, the funds are Mexican money, some of it stolen from IMF loans by politicians, and the rest drugs. They’ve invested almost six hundred million in various companies and have had a few big winners, but no one knows how much they’ve made. A couple of the losers were biggies, for all the normal reasons like competition, wrong product, you name it. But at least one, a start-up called e-profit.com was a sham. Three college kids put together an idea, a good idea, started the business and grew it for six months. They got ten million from Resource Tap to grow it to a hundred million and go public. Then through a series of phony companies, they bought non-existent services, consumed the funds and went bankrupt. It sounds naive of them to think they could get away with it, but they were bright kids. They stole only eight million; the other two million was properly wasted to muddy the water.
Me: How were they caught?
C: This is a rumor, but I think it was started by the Resource Tap guys, to make sure this didn’t happen again. I mean, what good is if for a loan shark to break your legs if nobody knows he did it? So, the Resource Tap guys hired a Mexican PI to follow the money trail deeper than the bankruptcy courts would go. He found fake companies, fronts owned by these kids. And the cops found the kids at the address of one of these phony companies, tied up back to back with piano wire, tortured with a knife, and then shot in the head.
C: Jocelyn’s got your Tucson number. I expect she’ll call in a couple of days, so don’t get yourself killed before she talks to you.
6:00 p.m. – I am cruising in the middle of a pod of cars doing about eighty on the way to the airport when a cop pulls me over; the cops says, he clocked me doing eighty in a seventy zone. I say I was going with the flow of the traffic; he says, that’s what you think. He tells his boss I need overnight accommodations; in the drunk tank. When he closes the cell, he says, Jesse says hi.