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A Flower in the Desert
By Walter Satterthwait
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1992 Walter Satterthwait
All rights reserved.
That October, the weather couldn't decide what to do with itself. Some days it arrived gray and bleak and pensive. Ponderous leaden clouds leaned overhead, their bellies slumped against the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; polar blasts of wind sent stiff black leaves blindly scrambling down the streets. People were bundled up in parkas and mufflers, and when they met, on the Plaza, along the sidewalks, they kept their shoulders hunched and their hands in their pockets, and through clenched teeth and fixed smiles they blew hurried little puffs of vapor at each other.
Other days, the weather arrived sleek and sassy. The air was warm and it had a glitter to it, and a fizz. Only one or two clouds trailed across the taut blue sky, each fluttering brilliant white from the shoulders of the mountains like an aviator's scarf. Sun-besotted, people stood around wearing summer slacks and summer skirts and grins that were grateful and a little bit guilty, the grins of children who had pulled a fast one on their parents. They licked ice cream cones and they sipped sodas and they were very vocal about the wonderfulness of the climate, and in their voices you could sometimes hear a hint of self-congratulation at the wisdom they had shown in choosing to live here. In its own way, perched as it was in the high desert, Santa Fe was an island; and in our own way we all shared an islander's narrow pride of place.
There had been, a few weeks ago, some snow. Not much here in town, only a few uncertain flakes, quickly gone. But from my office window, sitting with my boot heels propped atop the sill, I could see it lying up there along the sunny ski basin, a fine bright dusting of confectioner's sugar configuring the ridges. I was sipping a soda myself, a Dr Pepper, and I was wondering, as I often did, how Rita was doing.
When someone knocked at the door, I felt a tiny flicker of annoyance: reveries weren't supposed to be interrupted. But reveries don't pay the rent, and I swung my feet off the windowsill, swiveled around, parked the can of soda on the floor beside the chair, and called out, "Come in."
He made his entrance by opening the door, stepping in, and then pushing it shut behind him with an easy effortless grace, as though he'd been shutting that particular door behind him, effortlessly, all his life. In his midforties, he was tall, maybe an inch taller than I was, which put him at six feet three in his black cowboy boots. He was wearing neatly pressed gray cavalry twill trousers, a snug black snap-button silk shirt, and a gray suede jacket that looked soft enough to spread on bread. He had narrow hips and broad shoulders and the physical self-assurance of a bank manager with a black belt in karate. His thick black hair was wavy, his big brown eyes glittered, and his smile was bright and white and probably insured. He looked like your basic Hollywood heartthrob. Which is exactly the way he was supposed to look, since that was exactly what he was.
"Mr. Croft?" he said, and his voice was the same rich baritone that had once or twice rumbled from the speaker of my television.
"Roy Alonzo." The introduction was unnecessary, and he knew it, and that may have been why he smiled a man-to-man smile as he strode gracefully across the room, his arm outstretched. He hit his mark on the far side of the desk and I stood up and we shook hands across the desktop. I caught the faint scent of something that someone on Madison Avenue had probably described as bracing, or manly. "I know I don't have an appointment," he said, "but I wondered if you could spare a few minutes of your time."
"Of course," I told him. "Have a seat."
He stepped back, lowered himself gracefully into one of the two clients' chairs, gracefully tugged up the knees of his trousers, and sat back, gracefully crossing his legs, right ankle over left knee. The cuffs of the trousers rose far enough along the sides of his boots to display the elaborate custom stitching in the supple leather.
I sat down. I have what might be a curious reaction to these movie and television stars. We get a fair amount of them floating through Santa Fe; some of them, preferring our oxygen to the assorted carcinogens of Los Angeles, have built homes here. Whenever I meet them, I feel for a moment as though they were somehow more real, more substantial than I. Sitting opposite Roy Alonzo, it seemed to me that it was he, up till now a tiny figure strutting across a cathode ray tube, who was three-dimensional and alive, while I had abruptly become merely an image, black and white and two-dimensional, flickering on a flat silver screen. I suppose that I found this fairly irritating.
Alonzo, his arms resting gracefully along the arms of the chair, looked around the room and then turned to me with another smile, this one wry and self-amused. "You know," he said, "I probably shouldn't admit it, but this is the first time I've seen a real private detective's office."
I smiled back. "Not like the office on 'Valdez!'?" "Valdez!" was the name of the private-eye series he'd starred in. Once a week, as Rick Valdez, he had plowed a bare-knuckled path through clutters of thugs and clusters of commercials, stopping along the way to pick up Significant Clues and distressed damsels with attractive overbites.
His smile became a grin. "No. It's a lot cleaner."
"This is only Monday."
He laughed a rich baritone laugh that was perhaps a bit louder, and lasted perhaps a bit longer, than the remark deserved. Possibly he was nervous. Or possibly he was trying to convey the notion that he was nervous. Actors can do that.
He looked around the office again, the big brown eyes thoughtfully narrowed.
I said, "How can I help you, Mr. Alonzo?"
He turned to me and smiled again. The smile this time was sociable and engaging. He had a wide variety of smiles, apparently. Maybe by the time he left I'd get to see all of them. "A friend gave me your name," he said.
"Which friend might that be?"
He shook his head. "Doesn't matter. Someone whose judgment I trust. He said you were honest and dependable."
I nodded. Who was I to argue with such an assessment?
"He also said you were discreet."
"Did he mention brave, clean, and reverent?"
He laughed again, and again the laugh sounded slightly forced. The laughter faded, and he rubbed his fingertips reflectively at the corner of his square chin, and then he looked at me with his eyes narrowed and his brow sincerely furrowed. The preliminaries were over, it seemed, and now we were Getting Down to Business. "Mr. Croft, you know about my wife? My ex-wife?"
"No," I said. "What should I know about her?"
He appeared puzzled. "You don't know about the divorce? The court case?"
I shook my head.
"It was all over the papers," he said. "People did a cover story."
I shrugged. "My subscription ran out."
He stared at me for a moment, blankly, and then he surprised me by laughing once more. The laughter this time sounded more genuine. "Typical, isn't it?" he said, and held out his hands, showing me his palms. "Celeb sees himself, once again, as center of universe." He gave the word celeb a small, scornful spin. For just a moment he seemed like a real person, unaffected and unrehearsed, and I almost liked him. And then, reaching behind his head, he scratched at the back of his neck and he gave me an abashed smile, just the way Jimmy Stewart used to do it. "All I can say is that when you're stuck in the shit, back in L.A., it seems like everybody in the world knows about it."
I shrugged. "Out here in the boondocks, we sometimes miss a thing or two."
"Suppose you tell me about it," I said.
He nodded. He took a deep breath, let it out. "Right," he said. He nodded again. "Right. My wife and I, Melissa, we divorced two years ago. It wasn't an amicable divorce. Melissa wanted everything. The house, the car, all the stocks and bonds. Everything. And she wanted our daughter, Winona."
I nodded neutrally. Something that over the years I've gotten fairly good at.
"Well, her lawyers talked to my lawyers, and hers were a little more bloodthirsty than mine, and the upshot was, Melissa got pretty much what she wanted. Including Winona."
"You say you went to court?"
He shook his head. "Not then," he said. "We settled. Easier that way, all around. I got weekend visitation rights. I used to pick up Winona on Fridays, after school, and I brought her back to the house—Melissa's house now—on Sunday morning."
"Last year I started seeing someone else. Shana Eberle. Not in the business—she designs clothes. A terrific woman. Smart and funny, and caring—really a remarkable person, and she absolutely loved Winona. And Winona adored her. They got along beautifully." He smiled with a kind of mock ruefulness. "Sometimes it almost made me jealous."
I smiled back, my standard-issue smile, and I nodded some more.
He took another deep breath. "Well," he said, "it certainly made Melissa jealous. She called me up one Sunday night and told me to get rid of Shana—'that filthy bitch,' she called her—or I'd never see Winona again."
"Well," he said, "that pissed me off. What right has she got to dictate how I live my life? We're divorced. We're both free agents now. Each of us has a right to see whoever we want to." His baritone had risen to a tenor.
"You explained all that to Melissa," I said.
"Yeah." He smiled bitterly. "I explained all that to Melissa. She refused to listen to reason. She was screaming at me over the phone. Shouting, cursing. She was totally hysterical."
"Why would she react so strongly to this woman?"
"It wasn't this woman, it wasn't Shana in particular. It could've been any woman. Melissa doesn't want me involved with anyone."
He raised his eyebrows and showed me his palms again. "The way she is. If she can't have me, then nobody else can have me either."
"It's you and Eberle she's jealous of, not Winona and Eberle."
He nodded. "Exactly."
"Was she a jealous woman before the divorce?"
He nodded. "It was one of the problems in our marriage. One of the major problems."
"Did you give her reason to be jealous?"
"She didn't need reasons. It's just the way she was."
Which didn't, of course, answer my question. "Who filed for the divorce?"
"She did. But that doesn't make any difference. Not to Melissa. She's not satisfied. She's not happy with stripping me of the house, most of the investments, everything else. She wants me miserable. And she wants me miserable and alone."
I nodded. "So. You refused to stop seeing Eberle. What happened?"
"Phone calls. All week. Every single day. Hysterical phone calls. Vicious phone calls. Either I got rid of the bitch or I'd be sorry. And then, the next Friday, when I came to pick up my daughter, Melissa told me that Winona was sick. She wouldn't let her leave the house. I told her that I could take care of Winona at least as well as she could, but she refused to let her go. Wouldn't even let me see her."
"So you did what?"
"I notified my lawyer. He told me not to worry, he'd take care of it. And then on Monday, Melissa and her lawyer went to the police and accused me of abusing my daughter."
"Abusing," I said.
His mouth was grim. "Sexually abusing. Molesting. My own daughter."
I nodded again. Neutrally.
He leaned toward me. "Do you have any idea what it feels like for someone—for your ex-goddamn-wife—to accuse you of something like that?"
"No," I said.
"It feels like shit. Like absolute goddamn shit. Here's a woman I lived with, a woman I loved, a woman I supported, a woman I was still supporting, and she could turn around and do that. It was goddamn sick."
He sounded entirely sincere to me. But sincerity was what, as an actor, he was paid to deliver. "How old is Winona?" I asked him.
He winced. "She turned six in July. She was five when Melissa started all this."
I nodded again. "I did read something about it. I didn't follow it very carefully." I didn't follow it at all. I seldom read about celebrities, and I never read about child abuse.
"Five years old, Mr. Croft. Can you imagine what an accusation like that could do to a five-year-old girl?"
"No," I said. I didn't really want to.
"It was a mess," he said. "Melissa sued to deny me visitation, I countersued for defamation of character. It went on for months. Lawyers, doctors, social workers, judges. A circus. A nightmare. And poor Winona was in the middle of it. Finally, though, the appellate judge ruled that there was no evidence of abuse. Naturally—there had never been any abuse. Anyway, afterward, Melissa went off to South America for a few days, to lick her wounds. When she came back, she picked up Winona and the two of them disappeared."
"Vanished. No one's seen either one of them since then."
"This was when?"
"Middle of August. August the seventeenth. As soon as we knew what Melissa was up to, my lawyer and I hired a private investigator to track her down. He had no luck."
"Why come to me? And why now?"
"Melissa had a sister in L.A. Cathryn Bigelow. Last week, Cathryn was killed. Murdered. I was in New York when I learned about it, and I had to fly out there. While they were investigating her apartment, the police found a postcard from Melissa, a postcard that was postmarked in Albuquerque. All the Santa Fe mail is postmarked in Albuquerque—you know that, right?"
I nodded. "So is all the Albuquerque mail."
"Sure, but we have a house here in Santa Fe. Had a house. It's mine now, part of the settlement, a little place out in La Tierra. But Melissa has contacts here in town. Friends, people she trusts. She doesn't know all that many people in Albuquerque. She was here, in Santa Fe. I'm sure of it. And it's possible that she's still here."
"Has she come to Santa Fe since the divorce?"
"Yes. A couple of times. She stayed at The Cloisters." An expensive guest ranch north of town. "But I've already checked there, and no one's seen her."
"Let's go back a bit. You said her sister was murdered?"
"Strangled." He shook his head. "A horrible thing. A genuine tragedy. I always liked Cathryn. A really sweet girl, one of the world's true innocents."
"Who killed her?"
"Some kind of burglar. A maniac, according to the police. They haven't found him yet."
"They have a suspect?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so."
"You've seen this postcard they found?"
"Yes. A picture of Taos Pueblo."
"What was the date of the postmark?"
"The twenty-third of September."
"Was there a message on the card?"
"Just one line. 'The flower in the desert lives.' And then her signature. Melissa's."
"'The flower in the desert lives'? Does that have any special significance?"
"Not that I know of." He shrugged. "Probably some private thing between Cathryn and Melissa."
I nodded. "So what is it you'd like me to do, Mr. Alonzo?"
He frowned. "Well, that's pretty obvious, isn't it? I want you to find Melissa and Winona, and I want you to bring my daughter back to me."
I shook my head. "I'm sorry," I said. "I can't do that."CHAPTER 2
You're a snob, Joshua."
"The guy was a major asshole, Rita."
"I rest my case," she said.
The two of us were in sitting on the sofa in Rita's living room. From there, as we sipped our tea, we could look out through the French doors and across the patio to the west, where the sun was turning into a plump ripe peach as it glided down the sky toward the distant slopes of the Jemez Mountains.
I said, "From the time he came into the office until the time he left, he was busy auditioning. He was playing a part. He was playing three or four parts."
"Maybe he sensed what a tough critic he was dealing with. Maybe he wanted to dazzle you with his virtuosity."
Above a long, flowing, navy blue skirt she wore a pale blue satin blouse that contrasted nicely with her smooth dark skin and the thick tumble of her hair, as black as a raven's wing. Gone now was the wheelchair in which she'd spent the days of the past three years. In its place, at the end of the sofa, stood a stainless steel walker. Using the walker must have been difficult for Rita, and painful: she never used it while I was around. Whenever I arrived at the house she was already sitting on the sofa, and when I left she was still sitting there.
"First of all," I said, "he made it sound like his ex-wife had cleaned him out when they got the divorce. California is a community property state, just like New Mexico. Either he kept half of what they had, or he gave it away in the settlement. If he gave it away, she must've had something on him."
Excerpted from A Flower in the Desert by Walter Satterthwait. Copyright © 1992 Walter Satterthwait. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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