Jim had managed to sweet-talk Jean out of another burst of anger at his latest misadventure, but it was still a relief to get out of the apartment and head for Wilbur Hunt's hangout. After a few wrong turns because they had only the vaguest directions from Stevenson, they managed to find what looked like the right place. The Beachcomber's Shack sat on a small, palm tree-clogged lot, wedged between a car dealership and an old motel heavy on glaring pink neon and plastic flamingoes. They parked in the lot around back, then walked up a bamboo-shaded sidewalk to the front entrance. "Nice place," Pete remarked.
Jim wasn't so sure. There was so much plant life crowding the front of the building he could barely see the entrance. The whole place looked like a perfect haven for snakes, muggers and stray snipers. "I guess."
Pete smirked at the uncertainty in Jim's voice. "Atmosphere, partner. It's called atmosphere."
"I'd call it a place in sore need of a machete."
"It's supposed to look like this."
"If you say so."
"It is . . . see that?" Pete pointed to a pool where a giant goldfish swum lazily among water lily pads. "The water's nice and clean, the fish is healthy, and if you look real close, you can see that all the plants around the edge of the pond are in planters. Somebody's working very hard to make this place look like nobody's taking care of it."
"Since when do you know so much about gardening?"
Pete smiled mysteriously and didn't answer. He swung the front door open. "After you," he said with a flourish.
Jim walked in cautiously, unsure what to expect after such a wild and wooly exterior, but as his eyes adjusted to the interior, he found they were standing in the lobby of a fairly ordinary restaurant and lounge. Dark woods, short-napped red carpet, leather-trimmed captains' chairs, candles flickering in small red hurricane lamps on each table in a relatively small dining area. Most of the tables were occupied. "There's Hunt," he said.
They waved off an eager hostess armed with menu's and made their way to the back of the restaurant to a corner booth, where a thin, balding man of about forty sat with his arm draped around the shoulders of a blonde who didn't look old enough to be drinking the margarita sitting in front of her. He didn't notice their arrival until the girl stiffened and sat up a little straighter. Jim gave Pete a wry glance. Even in soft clothes, he knew they both screamed 'cop'. "Wilbur Hunt?" Jim asked.
Hunt squinted up through the haze of his cigarette. "I paid them parking tickets last week."
"We're not here about any parking tickets, Mr. Hunt," Pete said, "but we would like a few minutes of your time."
Hunt whispered something in the girl's ear. She nodded, then scooted to the edge of the booth and climbed out in front of Jim. He stepped back to give her room, but she still managed to brush against him ever so slightly. As he got an up-close and personal look at the false eyelashes and powder caking her face, he adjusted his impression of her age upward by about a decade and a half. She simpered at him, then sauntered away toward the lounge.
"Don't mind Misty. She's, uh, the friendly type, you might say. Please, gentlemen, have a seat." Hunt waved expansively at the naugahyde bench seat. "How may Wilbur Hunt assist you?"
Pete waited to let Jim slide into the circular booth first, but Jim shook his head. The hinky feeling he'd picked up walking through the jungle out in the parking lot had followed him inside, and he wasn't about to let himself get trapped in the back of a booth. Pete didn't look too pleased, but Jim ignored Pete's unspoken rebuke. You're not the one getting chased and shot at, partner. Pete slid in with a barely audible resigned sigh, and Jim perched himself on the end of the bench.
"Your pal looks a little nervous," Hunt said to Pete as he jerked a thumb toward Jim.
"He's, uh, claustrophobic."
Jim didn't deny it.
"Yeah, I got an aunt won't even ride in elevators, she got it so bad. But enough chitchat. Is there some reason two cops are interrupting my dinner date?"
"Who says we're cops?" Jim asked. Something about Hunt was rubbing him in all the wrong ways. They'd checked him out before heading out here, but he was clean. Still . . .
"Now, now," Hunt said. "Don't try to kid a kidder. But hey, if that's the game you wanna play, I'll go along. I got a clear conscience, having paid them parking tickets last week, so if you want information, I might have it. I might not. But fire away. I always cooperate with my local law enforcement agencies."
Jim caught Pete's silent I bet, but Pete assumed a casual air. "Okay, Mr. Hunt. We're cops and we have a few questions. Do you know a man named Edward Douglas?"
"Guy blew himself up on a boat couple weeks ago? Yeah, I knew him."
"We weren't what you'd call busom pals or nothin', but I knew him okay. See, I run a fuel station out at the edge of the Marina. He was a regular customer."
"Did you see him the morning he got killed?"
"Yeah. Filled his boat for him, wished him good sailing and all that. Then I heard the news." He suddenly leaned forward and jabbed his finger in the air. "But hey, it wasn't my fuel what did it. I run a clean operation, and the Department of Weights and Measures just did one of their inspection acts, you dig? Not the day before Douglas went blooey. Besides, he didn't use my fuel that day. Just had me check the oil level. I already told some dick from the sheriff's office that."
"Yeah, that's the guy."
Jim raised an eyebrow. If Ericsson had already talked to Hunt, he wondered if they were wasting their time. But Pete seemed bent on continuing the conversation, so Jim settled back a little and let him continue to take the lead. Considering the way sparks seemed to fly between him and Hunt, it might be better to fade into the woodwork for a while.
"I'm sure you run a completely above board operation," Pete said. Jim caught the dry sarcasm, but it went right over Hunt's head. "Back to Douglas, was he a good customer? Pay his bills on time?"
Hunt took a drag on his cigarette, then carefully ground out the stub in a glass ashtray shaped like a crab. "I don't like to speak ill of the dead or nothin' but no, he wasn't exactly the best customer I ever had. Especially toward the end. He was full of hot air and promises but not a lot of cash, you know what I'm sayin'? In fact, he left me with a fuel bill for a couple hundred bucks that I guess I'll just have to eat. Customers like him I can live without."
A waitress came by and asked Pete and Jim if they wanted anything. Pete said no, but Jim had a sudden craving for a cup of coffee. All this talk of fuel had brought back the aftertaste of the gallon of diesel he'd swallowed this afternoon.
"Douglas ever say why he was delinquent?" Pete asked after the waitress departed.
"Ah, he was a gambler," Hunt said. He shook another cigarette out of a pack and lit it. He seemed to relax a bit. "Anybody around here knew that. I knew it, too, and if I'd had the intelligence of a box of rocks I would have refused to sell to him. But go figure."
"He have a favorite place to go?"
"Oh yeah. The Royale Casino in Vegas. He'd spend a weekend out there, then come back all swelled in the head, dropping names and actin' like he was the King of Siam."
"What kind of names?"
"Oh, anybody you can imagine. He pulled slots next to Frank Sinatra, or danced with Raquel Welch. Like either of them ever hang out in a two-bit casino on the far end of the Strip. But aside from tall tales, ol' Eddie, he was harmless. I think he was kinda lonely, you know? Like he didn't really know how to make friends, so to cover up for it he'd invent these wild stories to impress people. Like he didn't have a life, so he made one up. Nah, Eddie was just what he was. A small-timer with too much time on his hands who didn't like the company he had to keep when he was alone. Some guys bury it in booze; he buried it in gambling."
"You ever go with him to Vegas?" Jim asked.
Hunt looked surprised, as if the paneling on the walls had suddenly spoken. "Nah. I didn't really do much with him socially. But you hear things, being in my position."
"What else did you hear about Douglas?" Pete asked.
The guard seemed to come back up. "I dunno. Things. Half the stuff people say ain't worth it's weight in barnacles. Just rumors and gossip, mostly."
The waitress approached with Jim's cup of coffee. Hunt watched her place it before Jim. Jim very carefully kept his eyes down as he poured in some cream and sugar. Hunt took another deep drag on his cigarette. Jim stirred the coffee lazily. We got all the time in the world, buddy. He took a sip, winced, then set it back down to cool. All the time in the world.
Jim's theatrics paid off. Hunt relaxed again. He studied the end of his cigarette for a moment, then spoke to Pete. "You gotta understand, this is just stuff I hear. I don't know for sure about any of it. And I ain't gonna testify in no courtroom."
"Last six months or so, word's been going around that Eddie was running some H. Not a lot, just a shipment here and there. He'd sail out, meet somebody, sail back in with it stashed in his boat somewhere, probably the fuel tanks. He'd go out of LA under power, burn up the fuel, do the pickup, stash it in the empty tank, and sail back. What he does if he runs out of wind, I have no idea. But that's just speculation on my part. I don't really know for sure."
"Ever hear who he was running for?"
Jim could almost smell the man's fear as he hesitated. "Word was he was working off his gambling debts," Hunt finally blurted.
"Debts to the casino?"
"Yeah. And maybe some personal debts to the guy that runs it."
"Who would that be?"
Hunt's gaze shifted across the restaurant. He fidgeted with the cigarette, then finally stubbed it out viciously. "Guy could get killed, saying the wrong thing."
"At least four people have already been killed," Pete said softly.
"Long story that you don't need to know," Pete said, still keeping his voice soft. "All you need to know is that we intend to stop this before anyone else gets killed. Anyone."
Hunt got the message, but he still hesitated. He lit another cigarette with slightly trembling fingers. "Okay, okay," he said after a long pull. "Cunetto. And you didn't get it from me."
"Did you tell Detective Ericsson any of this?"
"Nah. Shouda, I guess, but I didn't take to his style, you know. Treated me like he figured I did it. He ain't polite like you two."
Jim looked up in surprise.
"Yeah, even you," Hunt said. "You figured out when to shut up, and I like that in a man."
Jim saluted him with his coffee cup and kept his mouth shut except to take a sip. Hunt laughed.
"One more question," Pete said.
"Good, because my date's gonna get cold."
"You ever see Cunetto around here?"
Hunt's laughter chilled to silence. "Never seen him in my life. And I think it's probably best that you both get outta my booth now."
Pete signaled to Jim, and they both stood up. Jim dropped a dollar on the table to cover the coffee, then they made their way out of the restaurant and into the thicket outside. "Cunetto's sure got him scared," Pete said.
"He has that affect on people," Jim sighed.
Pete patted Jim's shoulder. "Hang in there, Jim. The end's in sight."
Jim looked around the overgrown landscaping. "I still want to know how you know so much about gardening."
Another watch on desk. Jim was starting to feel like he'd grown roots into the linoleum underneath his stool. He had the crossword puzzle in front of him nearly finished, but one last word had him stumped. He was still frowning at the offending puzzle fifteen customer-less minutes later when Pete stuck his head in the door behind him. "Seven, partner. Let's go."
"Hey, what's a six-letter word starting with O and ending in G for 'the beginning of the explorer's dream'?"
"Offing. Now come on."
"Offing . . . it's the last part of the ocean that you can see before the horizon. Big sailor like you oughta know that."
Jim filled in the word and then dropped his pen and stood up. "I don't think that was in any of the Horatio Hornblower books I read when I was a kid."
"That's because he was a Navy guy, not an explorer. If you were like me and read about Captain Cook instead, you would've known that."
"I'll try harder next time."
"Hear anything from Ericsson?" They headed down the hallway toward the break room.
"Not a word."
"Close as we're getting, you'll hear from him. Don't worry."
Mac snared them before they made it to the break room. He had the unfortunate pleasure of switching watches along with them, and the bags under his eyes showed that he hadn't yet managed to rearrange his sleep to match the time change. "Reed, need to see you."
"Do me a favor, grab my lunch outta my locker," Jim said as he handed Pete the key.
"What's on the menu?"
"Terrific." Pete disappeared toward the locker room carrying the key in two fingers like it was already contaminated by the smell.
"What was that all about?" Mac asked.
"He doesn't like liverwurst. What's up, Mac?"
"Come in my office for a minute." Mac settled into his chair and waited for Jim to straddle another chair before continuing. "Just got a call from the D.A."
Jim glanced at his watch. "At 2 a.m.?"
"When you hear this, you'll see why he's up so early," Mac said with a smile. "The Las Vegas PD finally tracked down that helicopter. Owned by Giancarlo Cunetto, flown mostly by his manager, who happens to be his brother Roberto."
Jim couldn't hold back a broad smile. "All right! So does he have enough for a bust?"
"They think so. Based on the strength of your eyewitness placing the helicopter at the scene, and Stevenson's placing it at the Marina, they were able to get a search warrant for the hangar they lease for the helicopter. Prints turned up in all three places match the ones left on your car and on the doorframe at the Owen residence and on the Douglas' boat, and based on that, they got warrants for the whole shebang: houses, offices, casino. They found heroin, bomb-making matériel, you name it. And a .38 revolver that just could be the murder weapon in the Owens case. Ballistics is running it. Both Cunettos are in custody and in the process of being extradited to L.A. County on counts of murder, aggravated assault, assault on an officer, and a whole host of other charges. The D.A. thinks that between the hard evidence of the fingerprints, the heroin, and the testimony of Stevenson, Hunt, and you, they've got a good shot at conviction on all charges, not just the Douglas murder. And of course, the Owens murders are a shoe-in if ballistics come back with a match."
"But Hunt said he wouldn't testify."
"He'll have to. He's being subpoenaed. Besides, as I understand it, Ericsson went out to see him yesterday afternoon to eat a little crow. Ericsson thinks he'll come around, especially now that the Cunettos are in custody."
"Hunt seemed more afraid of Cunetto than ticked at Ericsson," Jim said.
"Well, maybe after sleeping on it, his sense of civic duty woke up. Even if he changes his mind, they'll try to enter his testimony as a confidential informant. The Douglas case doesn't really rest on his testimony anyway."
"Because they found the heroin?"
Mac nodded. "The LA Sheriff's SID unit went back and did a more thorough inspection on the wreckage of Douglas' boat and found traces of heroin in the fuel tank, and in a dead space between the cabinets in the galley and the outer hull of the yacht. And the F.B.I. finally cracked the paper trail in Douglas' books that ties him with Cunetto. But still, one of the big breaks was the helicopter. Jim, you've got that D.A. singing your praises from one end of LA to the other. Even at two o'clock in the morning."
"I didn't do much besides let Cunetto terrorize me for two weeks," Jim snorted.
"The things you do for the job," Mac said with a wink. "Hey, I haven't told anyone about this yet. Figured you'd want to hear it first. So go tell your partner the good news."
"I think I'll call Jean, first. She's getting pretty anxious to get back to our own home."
"I'm happy for you, Jim. Been a tough few weeks."
"Thanks, Mac." Jim gave him another smile, then headed for the phone out in the hallway. He almost dialed his own number, then corrected himself and dialed Pete's. He whistled softly to himself as he waited for Jean to pick up.
He grinned at the sound of her groggy voice. Taking a quick glance up and down the hallway to make sure no one was around, particularly Pete, he lowered his voice to a sultry growl. "What's a gorgeous fox like you doing cooped up in a one-bedroom pit like Malloy's apartment?"
She slammed the phone down. He jiggled the hook a couple times, but she'd truly hung up on him. Serves me right, trying to play a joke on her in the middle of the night. He laughed softly and dialed again.
This time her voice was awake and angry. "Look, whoever you are--"
"Jean, it's me!" he interrupted before she could hang up on him again.
"Jim! What are doing?"
"How ready are you to blow that popsickle stand?"
There was a pause, then she said breathlessly, "Jim, are you serious?"
"The Cunettos are in custody, honey. We're home free. Or we will be as soon as I'm off shift tomorrow morning. How about it? Ready for a day of wild sex and gratuitous lovemaking in our own home?"
"Oh, I'm sure Jimmy'd let us get away with that," Jean said dryly.
Jim laughed. "Okay, I'll settle for some peace and quiet watching Sesame Street on our own television set. Maybe we'll get really crazy and paint the bathroom."
"Jim, I'm so happy."
"Me, too, baby. Me too. Hey, gotta go tell Pete the good news. See you tomorrow morning."
"I'll be packed and ready to go."
They exchanged I love you's and Jim hung up. He couldn't keep a sappy grin off his face, even when Trevino came around the corner. "Hey, how's it going?" Trevino said in passing.
"Wonderful," Jim said. He fell in beside Trevino. "You on seven?"
"Yeah. Heading for a magnificent flavor-packed can of stew from the vending machine."
"You seem awful chipper," Trevino said.
"Just had a 98 pound load taken off my shoulders," Jim said. He pushed into the break room ahead of Trevino and promptly forgot about him as he hurried over to Pete's table. He punched him on the arm.
"Here he goes again," Pete complained, rubbing the spot. "What have I done now?"
"Nothing. Except go above and beyond the call of duty by living with your partner 24/7 the last two weeks, which torment will come to an end tomorrow." He tapped his hands in a fast rat-a-tat on the table.
"Roberto and Giancarlo Cunetto are currently in the hands of the U.S. Marshals, on extradition to L.A. County for trial on murder charges, drug running, ADW, and who knows maybe even jaywalking and spitting on the sidewalk."
Pete's face lit up. "Congratulations, partner!" he crowed and thumped Jim's arm with a punch of his own. "That's just terrific. Just terrific."
Jim nodded, then sobered as he looked down at the table top. "Too bad it doesn't bring Bobby and Sally back."
Pete's smile faded. "Yeah."
"Ah, listen to me," Jim said, shaking off the sadness. He grabbed his lunch sack and dug out his sandwich. "What's in the past can't be changed. Here's to a safe future." He raised his liverwurst sandwich in a toast.
"To peace," Pete agreed, and nudged his ranchburger from Duke's against Jim's sandwich.
"We'll celebrate in true style tomorrow. We'll have a champagne breakfast, on me."
The champagne breakfast ended up being more of a bacon and eggs and coffee breakfast, with a donut and milk for Jimmy. But from the sparkle in Jean's eyes and the quiet satisfaction in his partner's eyes, Pete knew that none of them would complain that it was scrambled eggs at Biff's instead of caviar at the Ritz. He raised his cup of coffee. "Here's to life as usual."
Jim smiled and raised his own coffee. "And to being able to get out of your hair."
"You were never really in my hair."
"Just your bathroom, your kitchen, your living room, and your every spare moment," Jean giggled.
Pete raised his eyebrows. "There was that, yeah." He grinned.
"Pete, I don't know how we'll ever repay you, but we will. Right, honey?"
Jim nodded. He'd just stuffed a huge bite of eggs into his mouth, so he waved his fork expansively by way of reply.
"Now I finally know how to get Jim to shut up. Stuff his face with eggs."
Jim stopped chewing long enough to narrow his eyes at Pete, but then he grinned and shoved another forkful in his mouth.
"So what's on the agenda for your first day of freedom?" Pete asked Jean.
"Moving!" she said without hesitation. "And cleaning your apartment top to bottom, then cleaning our place, grocery shopping . . ."
"Mowing our yard," Jim added after swallowing. "It probably looks like a jungle by now. And we need to spring Queenie loose from the kennel."
"I hope she doesn't hold a grudge," Pete said.
"Trust me, she does," Jim said. "She'll curl up in a ball and stare at me until I walk over to try to pet her. Then she'll raise her lip and growl. She'll probably do that for about three days."
"Anything you want me to do, just say so. Except for getting Queenie. I don't want her to bite me because she's mad at you, partner."
"You keeping Fred for another day is all we need. Queenie usually tries to eat him when she gets in a snit like this." Jim tried to hide a yawn and wasn't entirely successful. "Sorry," he said. He glanced at his watch. "Honey, if we're gonna get all this work done and still give me some time to sleep today, we better get going."
"No rest for the weary," Jean sighed. She scooted toward the end of the booth and Pete started to get up. "No, no, Pete. Sit and finish your coffee in peace. Alone. Thanks again, for everything," she added. She gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Belay that, woman," Jim growled, pulling her away from Pete. "See if I ever let you live with another man again." He winked at Pete, then grabbed Jimmy. "I'll come by later and pick up Fred."
"Whenever. I kinda like the little guy."
"You can't keep Fweddy!" Jimmy cried. "Daddy, he not keep Fweddy!"
"Don't worry, Jimmy, he's not keeping him forever. Just until I can go get him later today," Jim said. He rolled his eyes toward Pete and sketched a wave.
Pete laughed as Jimmy's high-pitched whines and Jim's long-suffering assurances faded as they made their way to the cashier.
He loved that family with all his heart, but some peace and quiet was gonna feel good.
Jim whistled as he pushed the mower back and forth across the back yard, reveling in the simple fact that he was alive and able to do it. If nothing else, this entire escapade drove home again just how lucky he was. How blessed. He smiled and added words to his song. "Something tells me I'm into something good," he sang loudly over the racket of the mower.
He glanced up as he made the turn at the fence and noticed Larry the Poster Child for Teen Angst staring at him. He grinned and waved and kept mowing. And singing. He even added some doo-wops and sh-booms to it. Larry rolled his eyes and disappeared into his house.
Ah, to be back home embarrassing the neighbor kid. Jim grinned. What a life.
Two hours later, Jim sprawled in his hammock, three glasses of Jean's lemonade to the better, the lawn finished, and Queenie home from the vet and sulking in her doghouse. He shut his eyes, blocking out her reproachful stare and prepared to drift off to some much needed sleep.
Bobby Owens will never feel this kind of contentment again.
The stab of grief hit him out of the blue. So unexpected was it that a sob worked out of his chest before he could stop it.
The pain of losing Bobby and Sally fell on him like a ton of bricks. He flung his arm over his eyes so no one could see the sudden tears tracking down his temples. It didn't make sense. He hadn't even been thinking of Bobby. And he hadn't felt the grief in days, maybe even weeks. But here he was, almost completely undone.
Think of something else . . . think about the Dodgers. . . last night's episode of Hawaii 5-O . . . anything . . . .
But his mind squirreled right back to the images of Bobby and Sally, lying dead in their hallway. And when he tried to shut out their faces, he only saw his own face superimposed, just as dead, just as bloody . . .
"God." He jerked his eyes open. He stared up at the twining branches of the trees above his hammock, listening to his heart hammer.
He recognized it for what it was. Reaction. He hadn't had a spare moment to himself since all this happened. To keep functioning, he had shoved everything to the back of his mind, telling himself to think about it later.
Later had finally become now.
He sat up, almost angrily, and nearly dumped himself out of the hammock. Queenie raised her head with a soft growl at his sudden movement.
Jim looked at his watch. 7:30. He had three hours before he needed to report. Three hours to purge the demons. He wasn't sure it was enough time. He looked around at the immaculate yard. He wasn't sure there was enough time in a lifetime to untangle the mess in his mind.
He took a deep breath and headed to the house to tell Jean he'd be back in a few hours. And to call Mac and tell him . . . what? That he might not make it into work tonight because he was having a nervous breakdown? That would look lovely in his package.
He still had a few vacation days left. He could just tell Mac that some things were still left to get settled, which really wasn't too far a stretch from the truth. If that didn't work and Mac still needed him to come in, well, he'd just spent almost a month shoving things out of his mind. He guessed he could manage to do it again for one more day.