The current crisis hadn’t quite reached us yet, but it loomed. I thought he needed to know that Bob Robertson was not a loner but a conspirator.
The trick would be to deliver this news convincingly but without revealing that I’d found Robertson dead in my bathroom and, breaking
numerous laws without compunction, had bundled the cadaver to a less incriminating resting place.
When I turned the corner half a block from the Porter address, I was surprised to see lights on in several houses at that late hour. The chief’s place blazed brighter than any other.
Four police cruisers stood in front of the house. All had been parked hastily, at angles to the curb. The roof-rack beacons of one car still flashed, revolved.
On the front lawn, across which rhythmic splashes of red light chased waves of blue, five officers gathered in conversation. Their pos­ture suggested that they were consoling one another.
I had intended to park across the street from the chief’s house. I would have called his private number only after concocting a story that avoided any mention of my recent exertions as a dead-man’s taxi service.
Instead, with a helpless sinking of the heart, I abandoned the Chevy in the street, beside one of the patrol cars. I switched the head­lights off but left the engine running, with the hope that none of the cops would get close enough to see that no keys were in the ignition.
The officers on the lawn were all known to me. They turned to face me as I ran to them.
Sonny Wexler, the tallest and toughest and softest-spoken of the group, extended one brawny arm as if to stop me from rushing past him to the house. “Hold on, stay back here, kid. We’ve got CSI work­ing the place.”
Until now I had not seen Izzy Maldanado on the front porch. He rose from some task that he’d been attending to on his knees, and stretched to get a kink out of his back.
Izzy works for the Maravilla County Sheriff’s Department crime lab, which contracts its services to the Pico Mundo police. When the body of Bob Robertson was eventually found in that Quonset hut,
Izzy would most likely be the technician meticulously sifting the scene for evidence.
Although I desperately wanted to know what had happened here, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t swallow. Some gluey mass seemed to be ob­structing my throat.
Trying unsuccessfully to choke down that phantom wad, which I knew to be only a choking emotion, I thought of Gunther Ulstein, a much-loved music teacher and director of the Pico Mundo High School band, who had experienced occasional difficulty swallowing. Over several weeks, the condition rapidly grew worse. Before he had it diagnosed, cancer of the esophagus spread all the way into his larynx.
Because he couldn’t swallow, his weight plummeted. Doctors treated him first with radiation, intending subsequently to remove his entire esophagus and to fashion a new one from a length of his colon. Radiation therapy failed him. He died before surgery.
Thin and withered-looking, as he had been in his final days, Gunny Ulstein can usually be found in a rocking chair on the front porch of the house that he built himself. His wife of thirty years, Mary, still lives there.
During his last few weeks of life, he had lost his ability to speak. He’d had so much that he wanted to say to Mary - how she had al­ways brought out the best in him, how he loved her - but he couldn’t write down his feelings with the subtlety and the range of emotion that he could have expressed in speech. He lingers now, regretting what he failed to say, futilely hoping that as a ghost he will find a way to speak to her.
A muting cancer seemed almost to be a blessing if it would have kept me from asking Sonny Wexler, “What happened?”
“I thought you must’ve heard,” he said. “I thought that’s why you came. The chief’s been shot.”
Jesus Bustamante, another officer, said angrily, “Almost an hour ago now, some pusbag sonofabitch plugged the chief three times in the chest on his own front porch.”
My stomach turned over, over, over, almost in time with the revolv­ing beacons on the nearby cruiser, and the phantom obstruction in my esophagus became real when a bitter gorge rose into the back of my throat.
I must have paled, must have wobbled on suddenly loose knees, for Jesus put an arm against my back to support me, and Sonny Wexler said quickly, “Easy, kid, easy, the chief’s alive. He’s bad off, but he’s alive, he’s a fighter.”
“The doctors are working on him right now,” said Billy Munday, whose port-wine birthmark, over a third of his face, seemed to glow strangely in the night, lending him the aura of a painted shaman with warnings and portents and evils imminent to report. “He’s going to be all right. He’s got to be. I mean, what would happen without him?”
“He’s a fighter,” Sonny repeated.
“Which hospital?” I asked.
I ran to the car that I’d left in the street.
THESE DAYS, MOST NEW HOSPITALS IN SOUTHERN CALI­fornia resemble medium-rent retail outlets selling discount carpet or business supplies in bulk. The bland architecture doesn’t inspire confi­dence that healing can occur within those walls.
County General, the oldest hospital in the region, features an im­pressive porte-cochere with limestone columns and a dentil-molding cornice all the way around the building. At first sight of it, you know that nurses and doctors work inside, instead of sales clerks.
The main lobby has a travertine floor, not industrial carpet, and the travertine face of the information desk boasts an inlaid bronze ca­duceus.
Before I reached the desk, I was intercepted by Alice Norrie, a ten-year veteran of the PMPD, who was running interference to keep re­porters and unauthorized visitors from advancing past the lobby.
“He’s in surgery, Odd. He’s going to be there awhile.”
“Where’s Mrs. Porter?”
“Karla’s in the ICU waiting room. They’ll be taking him there pretty much straight from the OR.”
The intensive-care unit was on the fourth floor. In a tone meant to imply that she would have to arrest me to stop me, I said, “Ma’am, I’m going up there.”
“You don’t have to bust my badge to get there, Odd. You’re on the short list Karla gave me.”
I took the elevator to the second floor, where County General has its operating rooms.
Finding the right OR proved easy. Rafus Carter, in uniform and big enough to give pause to a rampaging bull, stood guard outside the door.
As I approached through the fluorescent glare, he rested his right hand on the butt of his holstered gun.
He saw me react to his suspicion, and he said, “No offense, Odd, but only Karla could come along this corridor and not get my back up.”
“You think he was shot by somebody he knew?”
“Almost had to be, which means it’s probably someone I know, too.”
“How bad is he?”
“He’s a fighter,” I said, echoing Sonny Wexler’s mantra.
Rafus Carter said, “He better be.”
I returned to the elevator. Between the third and fourth floors, I pressed the STOP button.
Uncontrollable trembling shook the strength out of me. With my legs too weak to stand on, I slid down the wall of the cab and sat on the floor.
Life, Stormy says, is not about how fast you run or even with what degree of grace. It’s about perseverance, about staying on your feet and slogging forward no matter what.
After all, in her cosmology, this life is boot camp. If you don’t perse­vere through all its obstacles and all the wounds that it inflicts, you cannot move on to your next life of high adventure, which she calls
“service,” or eventually to your third life, which she assumes will be filled with pleasures and glories far greater even than a bowl of co­conut cherry chocolate chunk.
Regardless of how hard the winds of chance might blow or how heavy the weight of experience might become, Stormy always stays on her feet, metaphorically speaking; unlike her, I find that sometimes I must pause if ultimately I am to persevere.
I wanted to be calm, collected, strong, and full of positive energy when I went to Karla. She needed support, not tears of either sympa­thy or grief.
After two or three minutes, I was calm and half collected, which I decided would have to be good enough. I rose to my feet, took the el­evator off STOP, and continued to the fourth floor.
The dreary waiting room, just down the hall from the intensive-care unit, had pale-gray walls, a gray-and-black speckled vinyl-tile floor, gray and mud-brown chairs. The ambience said, death. Some­one needed to slap the hospital’s decorator upside the head.
The chief’s sister, Eileen Newfield, sat in a corner, red-eyed from crying, compulsively twisting an embroidered handkerchief in her hands.
Beside her sat Jake Hulquist, murmuring reassurances. He was the chief’s best friend. They had joined the force the same year.
Jake was out of uniform, wearing khakis and an untucked T-shirt. The laces in his athletic shoes were untied. His hair bristled in weird twists and spikes, as if he hadn’t taken the time to comb it after he’d gotten the call.
Karla looked like she always does: fresh, beautiful, and self-possessed.
Her eyes were clear; she hadn’t been crying. She was a cop’s wife first, a woman second; she wouldn’t give in to tears as long as Wyatt was fighting for his life because she was fighting with him in spirit.
The moment I stepped through the open doorway, Karla came to me, hugged me. and said, “This blows, doesn’t it, Oddie? Isn’t that what young people your age would say about a situation like this?”
“It blows,” I agreed. “Totally.”
Sensitive to Eileen’s fragile emotional condition, Karla led me into the hallway, where we could talk. “He got a call on his private night line, just before two o’clock in the morning.”
“I don’t know. The ringing only half woke me. He told me to go back to sleep, everything was fine.”
“How many people have the night line?”
“Not many He didn’t go to the closet to dress. He left the bedroom in his pajamas, so I figured he wasn’t going out, it was some problem he could handle from home, and I went back to sleep… until the gun­shots woke me.”
“When was that?”
“Not ten minutes after the call. Apparently he opened the front door for someone he was expecting - “
“Someone he knew.”
” - and he was shot four times.”
“Four? I heard three to the chest.”
“Three to the chest,” she confirmed, “and one to the head.”
At the news of a head shot, I almost needed to slide down the wall and sit on the floor again.
Seeing how hard this information hit me, Karla quickly said, “No brain damage. The head shot was the least destructive of the four.” She found a tremulous but genuine smile. “He’ll make a joke out of that, don’t you think?”
“He probably already has.”
“I can hear him saying if you want to blow out Wyatt Porter’s brains, you’ve got to shoot him in the ass.”
“That’s him, all right,” I agreed.
“They think it was meant to be the coup de grace, after he was al­ready down, but maybe the shooter lost his nerve or got distracted. The bullet only grazed Wyatt’s scalp.”
I was in denial: “Nobody would want to kill him.”
Karla said, “By the time I dialed nine-one-one and managed to get downstairs with my pistol, the shooter was gone.”
I pictured her coming fearlessly down the stairs with the gun in both hands, to the front door, ready to trade bullets with the man who had shot her husband. A lioness. Like Stormy.
“Wyatt was down, already unconscious when I found him.”
Along the corridor, from the direction of the elevators, came a sur­gical nurse dressed in green scrubs. She had a please-don’t-shoot-the-messenger expression.
THE SURGICAL NURSE, JENNA SPINELLI, HAD BEENONE year ahead of me in high school. Her calm gray eyes were flecked with blue, and her hands were made to play piano concertos.
The news that she brought was not as grim as I feared, not as good as I would have liked. The chief’s vital signs were stable but not ro­bust. He’d lost his spleen, but he could live without that. One lung had been punctured, but not beyond repair, and none of his vital organs had been irreparably damaged.
Complex vascular repairs were required, and the physician in charge of the surgical team estimated that the chief would be in the OR another hour and a half to two hours.
“We’re pretty sure he’ll come through surgery good enough,” Jenna said. “Then the challenge will be to prevent postoperative com­plications.”
Karla went into the ICU waiting room to share this report with the chief’s sister and Jake Hulquist.
Alone in the hallway with Jenna, I said, “Have you swung both hammers, or are you holding one back?”
“It’s just the way I said, Oddie. We don’t soften bad news for the spouse. We tell it straight and all at once.”
“Like a hurricane,” she agreed. “You’re close to him, I know.”
“I think he’s eventually going to make it,” Jenna said. “Not just out of surgery but all the way home on his own two feet.”
“But no guarantees.”
“When is there ever? He’s a mess inside. But he’s not half as bad as we thought he’d be when we first put him on the table, before we opened him up. It’s a thousand to one odds that anyone can survive three chest wounds. He’s incredibly lucky.”
“If that’s luck, he better never go to Vegas.”
With a fingertip, she pulled down one of my lower eyelids and ex­amined the bloodshot scenery: “You look wrecked, Oddie.”
“It’s been a long day. You know - breakfast starts early at the Grille.”
“I was in with two friends the other day You cooked our lunch.”
“Really? Sometimes things are so frantic at the griddle, I don’t get a chance to look around, see who’s there.”
“You’ve got a talent.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s sweet.
“I hear your dad’s selling the moon.”
“Yeah, but it’s not a great place for a vacation home. No air.”
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