September 11, 2001
He shot out of the driveway, his rear bumper scraping the humped concrete. In his rearview he saw headlights flick on, then the Volvo pulling away from the curb.
No more guessing. Ashby was it.
When he turned onto Los Angeles Avenue, Simi’s major east-west thoroughfare, flags were flying from about every third car. This was a conservative, flag-waving town to begin with; now, with the country on alert, old glory was out of the mothballs. In the clot of traffic he couldn’t pick out the pursuit car. He accelerated up Olsen Road, the southwest artery out of town. He passed the turn-offs to the Reagan Presidential Library and the police station. As he entered the looping ramp for the 23 freeway, headlights came up fast behind him and followed him all the way down the mountain corridor into Thousand Oaks, at one point coming close enough for him to recognize the distinctive, square Volvo grill, and a capped figure at the wheel. He took the curving racetrack-like turn onto the busier 101 freeway, then began varying his speed and making gratuitous lane changes. The Volvo followed his design. Another car would squeeze in between them, then switch lanes or exit the freeway, awarding lucky breaks to his stalker. Ashby didn’t want to lose this guy, he wanted to get a good look at him. It was either a Trackers operative, God knows why—McDonald sore at him from taking too much lip—or a goon working for the county. What other possibilities were there? He hoped it was a new Trackers man stupid enough to use a car without tinted windows and to put up a blind?\about as crafty as traveling in the diamond lane with a scarecrow at your side. Better a clumsy Trackers op than a government mercenary.
He got off the freeway in Woodland Hills. He spotted the Volvo two cars behind him. He turned right on Topanga Boulevard, came to Ceres Street, made another right. He went ten yards, stopped, shut off his lights, got out and stood in the street. He was counting on the driver to see him, to react and then go on by. His pursuer burned, the game would be over. Minutes passed. No headlights appeared. The clown had either lost him or knew Ashby’s destination and circled around to hide in the next block. A Trackers op could get the address from the case sheet on Habib, but the county would have it, too. Finally, he chose to quit the sideshow and focus on finding Habib’s house. He got back into his car, passed a row of modest-sized homes with tidy lawns and well-trimmed hedges, until he came to the number he was looking for painted on the curb.
It was a small white cottage with dense ivy encircling the shuttered windows and the porch. To McDonald, this upper middle-income neighborhood indicated the prison guard had concurrent employment, which meant his stress claim might be apportioned; to Ashby, it simply suggested Habib was smart with money.
Turning up the narrow walk, he kicked a newspaper aside, mounted the porch and rang the bell. Waiting under the dim porch light, the two-note song of the crickets seemed to say not home not home not home. He looked in the window. The light from a hallway poured over dining chairs and a table. Papers, possibly mail, spread across the table top. He glanced at his watch. 8:53. Meaningful video becomes a problem after dark; a Trackers operative keeping Habib under surveillance would have called it off more than an hour ago. But on this upside-down, history-making and catastrophic day, it was an AOE Investigator, not a claimant, who was under surveillance.
As he stepped off the porch, he looked back to the street to make sure he wasn’t being watched — not that he could really tell — then slipped around the side of the house, and quietly unlatched a chain link gate.
He was in a narrow yard enclosed by a six foot wooden fence. Window blinds in the back door were parted and he could see to the other end of a lighted hallway. Down the hall a door was open on what appeared to be a bedroom. He heard music playing.
He knocked three times.
Waited, then tried the door.
Unlocked, it fell open.
It crossed his mind this might be someone else’s house, a relative or friend’s; it was not uncommon for a panicky claimant to give out a wrong address. But Ashby was convinced the Lebanese had told the truth and did live here. It also stood to reason that Habib, an ex-cop who had been threatened, would have a gun and be prepared to use it. Ashby would be a fool to go barging in. But overriding his practical fears he wanted to refute McDonald’s depiction of him as a wuss. Ashby had long rationalized his own cowardly traits as good common sense. That was changing; a spirit of defiance had taken hold, there was a new lightness in his step, and a will to trespass.
He took a calming breath, stepped inside and called out, “Hello!?”
He was answered by the music, something from Brahms. It came as no surprise that Walter Habib had a taste for the classical. He was civilized, unlike his colleague the gangster Martinez.
He made his way quietly down the hall and into the bedroom. The music was coming from an old white Panasonic radio sitting on an antique dresser. The only furnishings, the dresser, a stripped down bed, a table supporting a small television. He lowered the volume on the radio so that he could hear anyone who might be approaching. Hanging from the closet rack was a bathrobe, a frayed jacket, a few neckties. No shoes were visible and the floor was bare under the bed. It looked as if Habib had packed up and fled, possibly leaving the radio on to give the impression he was at home.
He passed a second bedroom with a single-size bed and a straight-back chair. No towels in the bathroom. A few dishes and canned goods on the kitchen shelves. The refrigerator empty, except for a pint of milk and a block of cheese with a foreign label.
Stepping feather-footed across the hardwood floor into the living room, he came to a small bookcase half-filled with paperback spy thrillers, hardbound books on the Middle East and a few National Geographics. He moved out of the hallway light, took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. He wanted to end this violation of privacy, but, like a binging shoplifter, he couldn’t stop exploring. The papers on the dining table did turn out to be mail; credit card solicitations, a telephone carrier advertising a higher speed DSL.
Switching on a table lamp, he was struck by what he saw on the wall. Framed photographs of men in gray suits, two in white robes and black turbans. Middle Eastern, and from the hairstyles and dress, most of them probably dead by this time. In one photo, an older man, bald, with a beak nose, was shaking hands with Harry Truman, both men smiling effusively. In another, he was sitting at a table, head down on his arms, disconsolate, while a man in a gray frock standing behind him looked on, smirking. In this photo the beak-nosed man appeared to be a fallen official taken prisoner.
A red light blinked from an answering machine, the number 1 displayed on the screen. That could be his call. If not, then Habib had erased his message and knew Ashby was trying to reach him. Or was it a call that had sent Habib into hiding? He lifted the telephone receiver, heard the dial tone and returned it to the cradle. And saw the flier on the shelf under the telephone. He picked it up.
PRAY FOR PEACE -- MOSLEMS UNITE AGAINST TERRORISM
A prayer vigil was scheduled for 8 p.m., Sunday, September 16 at the West Los Angeles Islamic Center in Culver City. They had acted fast, the flier had to have been printed and distributed within the past ten or twelve hours.
Putting the flier down, he snapped to attention at a sudden burst of sound. The radio! Interference had caused the signal to drift. He returned to the bedroom and shut it off. Reentering the living room, he was unnerved a second time.
Someone outside, shaking the door. Once, twice.
Ashby backed into the hallway.
Blood hammered in his ears as he watched a dark shadow rise against the living room window and jerk back and forth, like a crow tugging at road kill. Habib, having trouble with his key? Ashby considered sneaking out the back door and coming around to the front to pretend he had just arrived. There was only one problem with that. The silhouette had moved to include shoulders and a girth too large to be Habib. Ashby crept closer and saw that the screen door had been pulled back. In the next instant, the shadow had jelled into the figure of a corpulent man in a black jacket and black trousers, bent over, his features not visible. Martinez! Who else? Picking the lock, having trouble with his instrument of entry, and standing back to get help from the light.
Ashby took quick stock of his options. Confront him. Beat it out the back. Or hide and see what he was up to. He had the good sense to rule out the first option. As for the second, he didn’t think he could get out quietly. He would hide. He hurried to the hallway closet. The front door banged open. Ashby threw open the door in the hall. It was not a closet! He was staring at a water heater. It was too late to make himself scarce. He turned around and came to the edge of the living room.
Martinez stood near the door, his face half in shadow, his bulbous cheek and wide nose slick and shiny. The stocking cap on his head pushed out his large ears, making them look like mutant flesh growing from his thick neck. He turned more into the light and his eyes danced with reckless pleasure, his mouth was a feral sneer.
“Do I know you?” he whispered.
When the shots exploded Ashby thought Martinez was holding a gun, that somehow he had missed the quick action of his hands. Then he saw the stunned look, heard the gurgling from his mouth, like a drain coming unplugged. Arms flailing, Martinez was falling, fighting gravity, going down slowly. He had been hit from behind, through the open door, the big man an easy mark. When he crashed to the floor, the walls shook, the room seemed to tip. Ashby looked out the window in time to glimpse a lowered car and bucking tail lights. A squeal of tires answered by the yapping of a dog. He knew he could not get out there in time to read a plate on the car, not with Martinez sprawled out in front of him, blood everywhere, not with his own body trembling in fear.
There was another distant banshee shriek of tires and he was afraid they were coming back. Was the shooter the person who followed him here? Had he led the assassin to Habib’s door? He went to the window, saw the car in the distance. Taillights low to the ground. It wasn’t the Volvo. It was unnaturally quiet. Neighbors were not responding. He stepped around the body, picked up the phone, with an unsteady hand punched 911.
“A man’s been shot dead,” he told the dispatcher. He gave the address. He was instructed to stay on the line. But he hung up, and went over to make sure Martinez was beyond help. The body was still, eyes closed, spittle leaking from the gaping mouth with its horrid half-smile that rictus would preserve. Blood spewing from his wool jacket made patterns on the floor like the wings of a bat. Kneeling down beside the corpse, Ashby bumped up against something hard; a gun inside the dead man’s jacket pocket. He sat back on his haunches, vindicated in his belief Habib was in serious trouble.
But now he was, too.
* * * * * * * * *
What was he doing out here?
The trilling of crickets, the smell of jasmine, pine, damp moss, and an acrid odor he could not identify, dispelled the notion he was dreaming. No dream is this vivid. A blackout brought him here, out into the night, into greater darkness. He shut his eyes and tried to remember. Murky images swirled like fall-out in the glow of the porch light. He had been snooping in that house, something happened, he must have run. And now his feet were taking him back. If only his feet could talk.
He reached the porch and saw the body, and pieces began to fall into place. When Martinez locked him in his murderous gaze, Ashby had wanted to flee. So he did run and now he was back and there was a dead man on the floor. He closed his eyes and relived the explosions, the body tumbling, the house seeming to come down.
He went in, picked up the phone, then waited for more of it to come back.
Wasn’t there a drug of some kind that restored memory? He looked at the light blinking on the answering machine and vaguely remembered using the phone to call emergency. Or did he? It didn’t matter. He would call again. When he pressed nine, it seemed to trigger an alarm. No. That’s a siren he was hearing. He put the receiver down and stepped outside. No one had come out to investigate, but someone had called for help. It must have been him. They would ask. Yes, he would answer.
He stood at the foot of the porch. The siren whooped its approach, then cut off like the scream of an animal downed by a tranquilizer dart. A bright light froze him in a cloud of white. Then an unmarked sedan pulled up, and behind it a black-and-white, turret flashing. A tall, uniformed cop stepped from the squad car and two plainclothes climbed out of the sedan. Ashby positioned himself squarely in the light to let them see that his hands were empty, that he was friendly.
A plainclothes shouted, “Are you the one who called?
He knew now that he did call. Neighbors had ignored the shots and the sirens, no doubt too busy watching TV replays of the spectacle of violence and death back east to look outside and see if the plague had spread to their street.
What was he going to tell the cops? He couldn’t say he was inside the house, a trespasser, like the other guy, the dead one. Peter Ashby, cat burglar. But if he reported that he was outside, where the shots were fired, wouldn’t that also land him in the pool of suspects? He could tell the truth, that he had come to warn of danger, explored the house, saw a man shot and then suffered a bout of amnesia—but who would believe it?
The blue-shirted cop hurried up the walk, a powerfully-built Latino with sharp features and square-cut sideburns, his big-knuckled hand resting on his holster, his belt buckle and badge giving off a polished gleam. Behind him, the older of the plainclothes cops scuttled along, keys jingling in his pockets.
The uniformed officer looked in at the body on the floor. “Is he dead?”
“Dead,” Ashby told him.
The plainclothes cop reached the porch. He was an old seventy with thinning hair and pale features, his sad, blue-gray eyes like recessed jewels inside a needlework pattern of blue-gray veins. He wore a light brown corduroy coat, shirt open at the top to air out a prominent Adam’s apple.
“I’m Lieutenant Bishop, with Homicide.”
“What happened here, Mr. Ashby?”
“The shots were fired from a car. From out there.” He pointed to the street. The words had tumbled out with a certainty he hadn’t expected. The blackouts were only a temporary blurring, he told himself, rebuilding confidence.
“Uh-huh. Did you see the shooter?”
“I’m sorry. It’s dark and I couldn’t make him out. It was too fast.”
It played back in his mind, clearly now. Entering the house. The things he touched. His fingerprints everywhere! The shots! Martinez, smiling as he took secrets with him. He would have to alter events. The police didn’t need to know he was inside the house, or that Martinez was on a mission to silence a co-worker who threatened to expose the county’s criminal partner. The police could be in on it.
Bishop looked back to the street. “He was shot from out there somewhere.”
“And you saw him fall?”
“And you didn’t see the shooter?”
“Where were you when the shooting occurred?”
“Over on the sidewalk.”
“Taking a walk?”
“No. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I was on my way here, I had just arrived.”
From blocks away, a siren shrieked its approach.
“Ah.” Bishop ruminated, a craggy finger rubbing his chin. “Was it a social visit?”
Ashby pulled a Trackers card from his pocket and handed it to the detective.
“No. I’m investigating a Workers’ Comp claim for stress.”
Bishop looked at the card, bit his lower lip, handed it jerkily back to Ashby. The pulps had it right, cops viewed private dicks as a nuisance, as bumbling amateurs. Bishop glanced over to the open door, where Martinez’s legs were visible. A light was on inside now and the shadow of the Latino cop moved on the wall.
Bishop said, “Well, he’s cured of his stress.”
“No, no,” Ashby said. “Not him. Walter Habib is the claimant. This is his house. But I think I know who the dead man is.”
“Raymundo Martinez. Habib’s co-worker. I’m fairly certain that’s him.”
The siren howled over the end of his sentence and hiccupped to a stop. The ambulance had arrived and the commotion was finally drawing people from their houses.
“Did you catch that, Tony?” Bishop called to his man inside. “Ray Martinez? Have you got i.d?” He turned back to Ashby. “Sir, I’m not clear on this. Where were you when he was shot? In your car?”
“No. I was out there on the sidewalk. It was sudden. There were shots and I ducked behind those bushes there.”
“More than one shot?”
“Three. A repeating rifle, I think.”
Two paramedics hurried into the house, trailing behind them, a woman carrying a tripod and camera, a badge hanging from a shoestring around her neck. The younger plainclothes cop broke off a radio communication in the car and walked up to them. Collegiate-looking in gray slacks and a black sweater.
“Deputy coroner?” Bishop asked him.
“He’s on the way.”
The cop inside came to the door, held up a wallet. “Raymundo Martinez.”
Bishop motioned Ashby into the shadows of the porch. “Okay, sir. We’re going to need your statement. But first, since you’re familiar with the dispute that may be the answer to this, do you want to tell me what you think Martinez was doing here?”
“It’s a mystery to me,” Ashby said. The panic of memory loss had faded, but now he was in the middle of a mess and with each untruthful answer he gave, he could feel walls rising around him; white walls in a room at Parker Center.
“But you knew him? This Martinez?”
“I never met him. I had only been given a description. Martinez and Habib are county detention officers at the New Life Youth Center in San Fernando. Habib filed a claim alleging Martinez had been harassing him.”
Bishop glanced away, digesting the information. “Do you think Martinez was paying an unfriendly call?”
“Lieutenant!” the cop inside cried before Ashby could respond. He looked out and held up the dead man’s gun, daintily by the barrel. “Hasn’t been fired.”
Ashby felt his chest tighten. Martinez’s weapon suggested a vendetta. He could tell Bishop that Martinez was a government-approved gang-banger, but they would know soon enough, or, given the LAPD’s record of abuses, maybe they were in on it. In either case, he must get to Habib before they did. Bishop held his gaze on the gun, his face in the wan light the gray color of the gun barrel. He turned back to Ashby.
“And you say you never met Martinez?”
As if Bishop hadn’t heard him the first time, he asked, “Run that by me again. The purpose of your investigation?”
“Martinez had been giving Habib a hard time. Habib filed a claim for stress. He even feared for his life.”
The lieutenant’s eyes widened, pushing deeper grooves into his forehead. “Is that right? Well, now, that’s interesting. Yessir. Very in-tur-esting.” Bishop’s speech had taken on the character of TV’s Columbo, a country constable version. Television had supplied generations of by-the-book cops with color and style, even Bishop, who should have already collected his pension and retired to Idaho. “So you’ve been investigating these two,” he drawled, his saucer eyes expanding even more. “That’s going to be very, very helpful to us, Mr. Ashby.”
Ashby knew now why the wily old cop had made Ashby repeat the conflict between Habib and Martinez: it was to have the key witness clearly spell out a motive for the murder.
Bright lights snapped on inside the house as the police photographer filmed the scene. A man walked past them, carrying a fingerprint kit.
Pulling up his coat collar, Bishop said, “Gettin’ chilly. It’s been a hell of a day. Reminds me of Pearl Harbor. Ancient history to you, I suppose, but not to me. It’s something I’ll never forget. I was out riding my bike when my mother called me inside to tell me about it. We were worried. My dad was in the merchant marines, he was over there somewhere on a freighter. Turned out he was okay.” Bishop gave a shudder and looked off into space. “I’d hate to be back East right now. You can call me lucky. All I got is one down, one report to file.” He touched Ashby on the arm as though he were consoling him for a personal loss. “The media’ll be here soon. You don’t have to talk to them. In fact, it’d be better if they didn’t have your name. I’m going to have a look inside. Then you and me’ll go back to my car and you can tell me everything you remember from the time you arrived here. I’m counting on you to have a good memory.”