7:00 a.m. – I get my car out of impoundment; they don’t charge me; a snafu in the paperwork. The discharge sergeant gives me take-out breakfast; feeling guilty? Mary Lopez left me a message; I reach her at work.
Me: Miss Lopez, it’s Green. You wanted me to call?
M: Yes, I was with my uncle who still lives in the old neighborhood last night for supper and I told them about meeting you. I mean, it was sort of exciting, meeting a PI. Then he told me he’d been contacted by a PI maybe two years ago who wanted to know about me. The guy said it was for a security clearance. He wanted to know about my family, my mother and father, sisters and brothers. My uncle had the card from the detective. I have it here. Says his name is Geraldo Diaz, and his business is in Nogales, Mexico.
9:30 a.m. – My flight lands in Tucson. I drive directly to Tucson Office Center III across from Davis Monthan AFB. Willie had implemented an inventory system which had floundered for more than eight years at a cost to the government of a hundred million; and throughout the giant government infrastructure emanated the call that a Superman walked tall in Tucson. Willie ascribed to this view of himself; fitting his ‘their stupid and I’m smart’ meme, a trait that caused him to dangerously underrate the competition, and even his own customers. So how long before this house of cards crashes down around him?
On the flight I see, ‘WLE Systems Loses Contract’; The Air Force announced the suspension of all contracts with WLE Systems; the contracts were valued at sixty million; there was no comment from the acting President, Bob Cook. Per the reporter, WLE had grown from six to sixty employees in the last year and has openings for another fifty consultants.
10:00 a.m. – I feel the problems; there is no sound, no bustle, no Willie motion-equals-progress activity. I scan the walls; a Willie-style combination of unicorns, black felt paintings and Grazia prints; cubicles, furniture and desktop computers are modern and efficient; a copier hums in a little room behind the receptionist; this was the image layer, the veneer of respectability clients see coming in the door; Willie believes one never got a second chance to make a good first impression; that first impression was as good as it got.
The shell-shocked girl at the front desk asks, What do you want to see Mr. Cook about? I say, the murder of Willie Lopez, of course. She leads me through the empty cubicles to the corner office; Willie’s name is on the wall, but Bob Cook is at Willie’s desk. He is rail thin, fifty-five with dyed-black hair on both sides of a bald pate; he looks like he is normally frazzled, but with an added I-can’t-believe-what-hit-me fear; there are papers everywhere with yellow stickies on each pile; he is searching.
Me: Hoping whatever he had in his head was on paper?
Bob Cook: Ain’t it the truth. I have a feeling the one word to describe the rest of my life is trouble.
Me: I know, I read the paper. What’s going to happen with the company?
B: He controls himself; So, CB, how can I help you?
Me: Look Bob, I want to find who killed Willie Lopez. And I’m not going to help the auditors and creditors tear you apart. I knew Willie pretty well, and I bet he’s led you on a wild ride as you hung onto his coattails. You’ve had a couple days and you probably figured out he had more than one set of books. You’re sure there are debts and obligations you know nothing about, but you can’t find them. Let me guess. Willie used the withholding tax to pay the bills, or whatever, but not the government. You’re scared of the law because they are going to blame you as Willie’s partner, and they will; but what really scares you is hardball lenders where Willie got his money. You’re afraid they’ll think you were his accomplice. Were you?
B: Tears run down his cheeks. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Up until three months ago I thought everything was on the up and up. I was running a business! Willie was skimming the checks. He was running a scam. I think he was going to skip town and leave me holding the bag.
Me: I know you didn’t have anything to do with it, Bob. Help me and maybe we can get you out of this fix. I could be your only hope.
B: Jesus, has it come to that? I sent my wife and kids out of town this morning. I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid to run. I’m afraid to stay.
Me: So tell me about it, Bob. I can help. I will help.
B: You know, it was all so much fun. We were growing, and there was no looking back. Willie convinced me the future was unlimited, that every leveraged dollar would make us rich when we went public. So I didn’t look at what was wrong. Like Willie told me, focus on the positives, on the goal. We made promises and commitments without people, and we hired some really borderline guys to do the jobs. That was okay though, it’s part of doing business. I’d been there before, felt all those normal pressures, and despite the business risks, it was fun. I’m used to big projects and these projects were really big. They had me scared, but it was good scared. It kept my mind off the other things.
Me: What things were those?
B: First it was the financing. These Resource Tap guys are scary. They even scared Willie, and that wasn’t easy. He’d tap-dance around what we were doing with the capital while they were here, and then sigh with a ‘another day of life’ comment when they left. I made believe they didn’t exist, else I’d never be able to do my job.
Me: What changed three months ago?
B: It was that stupid alcoholic brother of his, the lawyer, you know. He cheated their mother by having her sign a power of attorney and selling her house out from under her. When she found out, it killed her. She had a stroke and died the next day. Willie was livid. When he found him, his mother’s money was spent and Danny was living under a bridge in LA. But ever the good brother, he puts him into rehab and pays off a fifty grand debt to some really aggressive gamblers. The kicker is that, as far as I knew, Willie didn’t have any money. He lived hand to mouth from the company. He paid those bills from our checkbook. But we needed the money to survive, and it looked like the fifty grand would sink us.
Me: He had nothing? What was he planning on skipping out with?
B: I think he stole a lot of money, but it was in an account he couldn’t touch.
Me: So how did he get the money?
B: He took the next hundred grand outlay from Resource Tap, money that was fully committed and went downtown to one of those brokerage firms where he had an account. You know how Willie always thought he was brighter than anyone else, how everybody was stupid, except Willie? He used to sit in here and watch CNBC and say, ‘if that idiot can make money trading futures, anybody can.’ He’d have had a better chance going to Desert Diamond Casino. I went with him. I had to leave when it was down to ten grand, I couldn’t take it. When he left he was another ten grand in debt. He came in here telling me he’d been cheated. For the first time I got the guts to tell him he’d been stupid. I think he agreed with me.
Me: So what did he do?
B: He got more money from Resource Tap. I don’t know how. The VC guys used to come in and glad hand. They didn’t come after that. And they stopped showing up at Wilmot Station. Willie was scared; I don’t know why.
Me: So who would know why? Did he tell his wife?
B: Esme? No. Maybe his girlfriend.
Me: You’re kidding. Willie’s only been married two years.
B: That’s Willie. She was screwing him before he got married, and the day he got back from his honeymoon, she was screwing him again. She was his administrative assistant. He name’s Valerie Heintz.
I tell him thanks and that I will keep in touch. He says he’s moving out of the house today and has taken an apartment under another name. Though he is deathly afraid of the IRS, it seems federal prison may be the safest place to be.
10:30 a.m. – When I exit the parking lot heading north, a white Grand Am pulls out behind me. I make a few turns before getting to 22nd Street and the car stays with me. I pull into Gus Balon’s; the Grand Am slows; the driver speeds off when he realizes I am looking at him. He’s a good-looking young man with a butch haircut, wearing a blue suit and dark tie; has to be a cop. Was he looking for me, or does he have WLE staked out? I am raising the first bite of my omelet [$9] to my lips when Jesse Wallace slides into the other side of the booth; she waves for a coffee.
Me: Dudley Doright tell you I was here?
Me: Forgive me, you’re too young. The cop who followed me, did he tell you I was here? I paused; No, that’s a stupid question, of course he did. What I want to know is what he was waiting for at WLE?
J: You have a way, Green, of not being able to keep your nose out of my business. You’re interfering and I don’t like it.
Me: So, how’re you doing with my license plates?
J: They’re working on it. You didn’t expect a priority.
Me: No, I’m thankful you’re doing it at all.
J: I haven’t done it yet. And if you don’t get out of my way, I may never do it. Then, How was your hotel in LA last night?
Me: It was okay. It’s what I need to do to prove I’m serious about finding Willie’s killer. She tries to look indignant. Detective Jesse, I’m on your side.
J: You’re trying to do my job around me.
Me; No, I’m trying to care about Willie. You’ll never regret helping me.
J: I already regret it. She stands. I’ll be seeing you, Green.
11:30 – I stop at Mike and Karen’s for lunch and conversation about the old days, including Willie, but they have nothing to add to what I know.
3:00 p.m. – Valerie Heintz’s Placer Avenue is upscale with progressively more expensive homes marching up the hill, each with its own picture perfect view of the Catalinas. I search for 8028 until the street cuts through an outer wall to a small cul-de-sac with a single adobe shack; new homes rise above a wall on the backside of the property. There are three junker cars in the yard and the detritus of possibly human life spread throughout. A new Camry is parked by the front door. I step on a broken doll as I exit my truck.
Valerie Heintz is not beautiful, there has been too much peroxide under her bridge for that, but she is pretty in the way of bleached blonds at cowboy bars; and the hard light of day brings out the wear and tear of thirty-five years of hard living. She’d appeal to the aging Willie Lopez, but why would he appeal to her?
Valerie: What can I do for you?
Me: Ms. Heintz, Ms. Valerie Heintz?
V: No other..
Me: I’m CB Green, a friend of Willie Lopez, and I’m investigating his murder. She swings the door with her full weight behind it; I defend my foot.
V: I’m not talking to you. I’m not talking to anyone.
Me: I shove and she falls back into hallway, Hey, there’s no law says you got to talk to me, but you could try not breaking my foot in the bargain. I pulled her up; I’m sorry, but I need your time. I’m one of the good guys.
V: She plays the coquette; So where’s your white hat?
Me: It’s in my car. Can we talk?
V: The decision is on her face. Sure, come in. I was brewing a pot of coffee.
The interior of the house has been totally refurbished, the furniture is leather and expensive, the carpet a muted gray. The pictures on the wall were tasteful, except for Willie’s obligatory unicorn on black velvet.
V: From the kitchen, The out-of-place picture is from Willie. I haven’t the heart to take it down and burn it. He had some awful taste in art. Have you seen the office? I nod. Bet you’re wondering why the dump on the outside. I shrug. I own it. It was left to me by my father, four years ago when he died. He held out against these developers for a better price, so they built it around his acre. Even when he said he’d meet their price, they said no. So he junked it up on the outside to get back at them. I’m doing my part.
Me: So, what did Willie think of that?
V: Revenge. Yes, there’s a sentiment Willie understood. He even brought over his own junk to trash it up more. Willie knew how to hold a grudge. There were no kind bones in Willie’s body; he was a taker. The only time he ever gave was when he was showing off. One on one, he wouldn’t buy your lunch, but any group larger than four, and he had to be the big shot; he’d wrestle you to the ground for the check to show how magnanimous he was.
Me: I didn’t think Willie knew anyone with your vocabulary.
V: Don’t let my English fool you; I’m a country girl who went to Cal, but I can’t get the goddamn horseshit off my boots or out of my hair. So why was I an administrative assistant? Because I wasted ten years doing nothing with my life. I wanted a forty hour a week job to see if I was up to it. WLE was my second job and Willie was pretty easy to work for, but he kept hitting on me. Then one day I said to myself, ‘why not?’ and from there I got this great view of the business from my back. He was a regular Viagra-kid, popping them like candy. I thought he’d go from a heart attack. I was surprised he lasted as long as he did. After he got married, he told me Esme was a once-a-weeker, so I helped him out, you might say. It wasn’t that much fun, but then it wasn’t that much work either, and Willie rewarded me well. But Willie, he was a user, the kind of person who consumes other people like Kleenex. I had no illusions; I was passing the time for both of us. My problem was I learned a lot more than was healthy about the business. Now I’m closing up the house and getting out of here.
Me: Where will you go?
V: As far as possible to get away from whatever Willie got himself involved in.
Me: What was that?
V: Do you really have to know? It could get you killed.
V: Okay, I’m finishing in the bedroom, we can talk while I pack.
Two large suitcases are empty on the bed; her folded clothes are stacked in orderly piles around them.
V: Willie always talked a good game, like he alone understood and everyone else was a dummy. Like my father, Willie never gave the devil his due, and because of that he’s been on the run since he was a child. Some pop psychology; you can’t get that screwed up overnight. The one thing I never understood was why anyone would give Willie their money. He was so obviously a shyster. There was one thing for certain, once Willie ran anything long enough, there were bound to be operating problems, and he had a ton of them. Even his life had operating problems. But I’ll say this for Willie, he never looked back with regret, he kept running trying to keep ahead of the posse.
Me: Who was in the posse?
V: You probably heard about the venture guys. When Willie lost a load fixing up his brother Danny, he went and gambled away the VC guys next infusion. I don’t know how, he was too embarrassed to tell me, but it had to be a lulu. Now that could have finished the business and these boys would have done him some major harm, but Willie compounded the problem by getting too smart by half. He gets these two hookers, friends of Esme’s out to Wilmot Station. He ties them up with the Russians for a wild foursome party in a hotel. They’re both married, loosely, but not that loosely. Willie was in the next room videotaping the entire thing. The next day he has them both in the office for a closed conference and he shows them the film. He tells them he needs immediate cash, no questions asked. He tells them if anything happens to him, he’s got the tapes stashed away and they would go to their wives, and their bosses. It’s not going to take them long to figure out it might have been me he gave them to.
Me: So that got him killed?
V: You don’t say much, do you? I must be talking too damn much. I wait. You know, you can’t run from your past. Willie didn’t understand that, but I do. Three weeks ago these two guys show up, Manuel and Manuel. They never gave their last names. They came to Wilmot Station one night. Willie looked like he was going to pee his pants. They sat down like they owned the place and said, cool as could be, ‘Hey, Willie, long time, no see. I hear our little investment is about to pay off. Not like Vancouver this time, eh?’ After that, they hung around all the time. Then last week, we’re at the bar with the two Manuels, and who walks in but our Russian pals, first time since the little extortion. Well, past meets present, and lo and behold, they’re great friends. So there with Willie they talk about how he’s going to make them all rich, or else. It was Russian revenge, letting Willie know that they were at least as dangerous as he was.
Me: So who killed him?
V: Got me, but you mix enough chemicals and something is going to explode. To me it doesn’t matter which one killed him, just that someone thinks I know more than I should. She closes the last bag. You’re looking a little worn around the edges. Anything I can do to ease your mind?
Me: Thanks for the offer, but I’m taken. I hope all goes well for you.
V: If you change your mind, I’m using a friend’s cell-phone for the next week.
5:00 pm – I meet Carrie for supper at [$44] Pasta Palmito; I stop at the Bashas for two sixteen ounce pale ales. She is drinking a coke. I take a big gulp of the beer.
Me: I needed that.
Carrie: Tough day, eh?
We discuss the weather and her daughter and son who both work in Hollywood.
C: So CB, what have you learned about Willie?
I am uncertain of her feelings about his death. They’d known each other more than twenty years, but the three years living together had been more draining on her than Willie who blundered blindly oblivious of his impact on anyone else’s world.
Me: Are you sure you want to know?
C: Hey, I can take it. Maybe I can help you.
I take her through my meetings with Esme and Eduardo, Eduardo’s suspicious actions, and Willie’s diaspora-ed children, Mary and Chuck.
C: There are things we don’t know about a person, but we suspect them. The Willie I knew could be the man you’ve described. I know Willie had a past, but Willie’s past was not part of his present. He was like a golfer who has a half-hole memory, concentrated on where he is now and where he’s going.
Me: It’s how he treated his debts, to me, to Mary, to you.
C: His children were an awful lot like those debts; when they were out of sight, they were forgotten. I saw it in a hundred little ways, but I hadn’t put together what it all meant about Willie. It’s sort of like when Willie didn’t like someone, it didn’t matter how much he might have liked them in the past, all he knew was his feeling in the present. In a way Willie could never look back fondly, never recall when he felt differently from today about anything. Willie was pretty self-centered in his own special moment.
Me: That’s generous of you, Carrie. To Willie we were facilitators for his life, in fact, existing for his benefit alone, since he either didn’t know or care about us other than a superficial how-can-I-use-them-today way.
C: No, you’re being too hard on Willie.
Me: I’m not saying he did it intentionally. It’s the way Willie was. He didn’t try to be like that, but he was.
Me: What can you tell me about how Willie got involved with Esme?
C: That’s not a good memory. What if I don’t want to go there?
Me: Hey, it’s up to you.
C: She considers; It wasn’t all that long ago. We were getting along okay, but maybe drinking too much. Willie was working on becoming the King Tut of Wilmot Station, and the business was starting to soar. He bought a plane, the Cherokee, and told everyone he was on the way up. Being Willie, you know? Well, Willie was also spending a lot of time in his house because the Mexicans had gotten it almost livable. I’d seen Esmerelda off and on for almost six months, you know, on the outskirts of Willie’s little clique. Then one day she’s dancing with him, coming on strong. He stayed at his house that night, then got his stuff out of my house over the next week. Three weeks later they were married. I should have been devastated, but I was sort of relieved, but unwilling to admit it for a while. And it’s been good for my health; a tenth the cigarettes, and I have a drink a week these days.
Me: You’re better off alone.
7:30 p.m. – I take my morning run at night; up to 4 miles in 36 minutes; the temperature is 31 degrees.
9:00 p.m. – On the third ring her answer machine picked up, ‘You’ve reached Becky. I look forward to returning your message. Please wait for the beep.’
Me: Hi Becky, I’m at my townhouse, working on my notes …
Becky: CB, I’m here. What do you mean working on your notes?
Me: Well, you remember Willie Lopez, I’ve talked about him before? There was utter silence at the other end. Willie turned up dead on my doorstep. Someone killed him. Still nothing; Want to hear about it?
B: You’re supposed to be recovering. Leave it to the police.
Me: Seems I’m already involved. The line clicks dead.
Me: The phone rings; Hi, Becky?
B: Yes, CB, I was wrong. I’m sorry. But I sent you there to get better, to be safe.
Me: I know, Becky, but it’s what I do.
B: You’re right, it’s what you do. I know that, but it makes me afraid. I need to get used to it, and I can. I wish I could come right down, but we’re in the final banquet plans.
Me: That’s okay. Anyway, I’m getting prepared for your triumphal arrival.
B: If you’re not alive when I get there, I’ll be pissed. Is that understood?