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I stared greedily out the airplane window, picking out the milestones of my California existence. Over there lay the snaking line of the Harbor Freeway pointing to the Rose Bowl near my house; beyond that, the hills of Los Feliz next to the Hollywood studios that had briefly made my fame and fortune; past that, the congested San Fernando Valley, where half of my cases originated. Then came the broad swath of the 405 freeway, already bumper to bumper with cars heading to the magical mystical lands of Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades and all the other rainbow vales hiding pots of gold for me and all the fools like me in the City of the Angels.
For a moment I recalled my first plane trip. I was a scared ten-year-old, riding a Pan Am Constellation out of Havana to a new and uncertain future in the land of the Yankee, los Estados Unidos de América. Next to me slept my sister, Celia, six years old but having reverted to the comfort of a pacifier from the nightmare of revolutionary Cuba. In front of me sat my father, chain-smoking Pall Malls as he stared out the window, planning his return in triumph as a commando with a Miami exile group. In the aisle seat, my mother fingered the beads of her rosary while she leafed through an issue of Vogue, as though debating whether the secular or the saintly road would be the fastest way back to safe harbor.
Now the little family unit my parents fought so hard to preserve in exile was gone, shattered by time and human weakness.
I had just buried my mother in Miami; my father had died ten years before; and my sister was long ago vanished, lost to the fatal embrace of the Colombian drug trade.
I had always thought of my years in California as a temporary stay, a respite to lick the wounds of my failed marriage and to prepare for my eventual return to the land of Daisy Fuentes, South Beach and libertad. But that day, on that plane, I knew any kind of Florida homecoming was ruled out forever. I had become a permanent resident of the land of failed dreamers, incorrigible con men and vicious vermin of all stripes. And when the landing carriage of the 747 lowered into position and the plane kissed the ground, barely missing the traffic jam on the freeway overpass, I once again fell into the torrid embrace of the Queen of Angels.
I was, like it or not, home at last. But, as I was to learn, I was not quite so free of the past as I thought.
Lisa was waiting for me at the American Airlines departure desk, carrying herself with the same air of august self-assurance that had swayed many a jury into conviction even when the evidence was as shaky as the San Andreas Fault. She was the dark-haired version of the California girl, chestnut hair, steel blue eyes, strong hands ever ready to turn the key of success. She pressed through the crowd of waiting relatives squealing excitedly in a babel of tongues. Grabbing my arm, she gave me a quick peck.
"Sorry about your mom."
"That's all right. She's in a better place," I answered, not yet willing to admit the truth.
Lisa looked nervously behind her.
"Let's go out the back, I already talked to the supervisor," she said, steering me down the hall. She nodded at a middle-aged black woman in a blue jacket, who whispered into a walkie-talkie.
"What's going on?"
Lisa pushed open a service door leading to a vast corridor of orange Day-Glo dividing panels. Just before the automatic door shut behind us, I heard my name shouted out by a TV reporter, a young man with curly hair and mustache, standing by a pudgy Asian cameraman dressed all in black.
"Lisa, wait up. What's the story?" I asked, struggling with my carry-on.
"The media has been waiting here for you all morning," she replied, deftly guiding me through the maze.
"How come I'm the plat du jour?"
"Your friend Armando was killed while you were gone," she said as we entered a round hall with rows of plastic seats stacked all the way up to the ceiling.
"C'mon, this way!" she urged, holding the door open. I realized I had stopped in my tracks, blankly staring at a billboard for an old art exhibit:
"The future is coming! Visions of the New Millennium."
I stepped out of the terminal onto a walkway underneath the shiny wing of a parked jet, catching up with Lisa as she flagged down a passing baggage cart. The young Mexican driver smiled at Lisa, lifted his Mickey Mouse earplugs.
"Miss Churchill? Eunice said for me to take you back to the main terminal."
I jumped into the motorized cart, sat next to Lisa. The driver adjusted his giant earplugs again, scooted away.
"Who did it?" I shouted in shock over the din of the revving airplanes.
"Cops don't know," she shouted back into my ear, the smell of her CK perfume mixing with jet fuel fumes. "They found him in his basement. The place was a wreck."
I recalled Armando's shrine in his Highland Park home, the antiseptic cleanliness of the place, the carefully arranged altars and votive offerings.
"The killer left a message," shouted Lisa again.
"What was that?" I screamed back.
The parking valet drove forward Lisa's gleaming black BMW, purring like a big cat after a warm meal. I was sliding into the passenger seat when the obstinate TV reporter from before charged out of the terminal. Lisa stepped on the gas and we hurried out to Century Boulevard, past the rows airport motels, fast food palaces and massage parlors. Giant billboards hawking Japanese cellular phones, cameras and TVs loomed over us like the eyes and ears of an invisible stalker.
"The murder book's on the floor," she said.
I picked up the three-ring binder holding the photographs, reports and sketches gathered by the investigators on Armando's case. I blanched when I saw the pictures.
"Sorry, I should have warned you," said Lisa, negotiating around a stalled semi on Aviation.
My stomach heaved. I had read how the Aztecs and others followed the grisly practice of skinning a man alive but I had never seen the actual results -- much less on someone I had known and loved.
"My God, what kind of monster are we dealing with?" I gasped, knowing there can never be a satisfactory answer for the evil that haunts us.
Lisa shifted into fourth at the 405 overpass, threw a quick glance in my direction, momentarily pressed a caring hand on my knee.
"At least the poor bastard was dead before they did it."
She grabbed the steering wheel with both hands, cutting in front of the line of cars exiting for Santa Monica.
"We think," she added.
I stared dumbly at the pictures, unable to believe that the only person who had given me some measure of comfort and guidance during my harrowing climb up from self-destruction would have fallen prey to this painful, ignominious death.
Where are your gods now, Armando? What good were they?
"What did the killer say about me?"
Lisa glanced quickly in my direction, almost feeling sorry for my pain, then shifted into fifth, cruising at eighty-five down the Mulholland grade.
A handwritten note in black letters, half English, half Spanish, burning with contempt.
The last of your warriors is dead.
You have no more defenses, Charlie Morell.
The next time Yemayá wanes I will skin your hide.
I will see you in the tomb of Oyá.
There followed a crude drawing of a bow and arrow and an nsibidi hieroglyph of the Abakuá santería sect of Cuba. I held the note paper up to the lemony light.
"Is this what I think it is?"
She nodded. "Preliminary DNA tests confirmed it. Son of a bitch filled up his fountain pen with the old man's blood. What do the symbols mean?"
My eyes drifted, focusing somewhere in the vicinity of the Santa Susana range at the far end of the valley. I took a deep breath, my words bitter fruit in my mouth.
"The bow and arrow is the sign of Ochosí, the hunter warrior of santería. The other signs mean this body is dead, this whole country belongs to me."
"Why would he write listen to me at the end?"
"Oyeyemí? That's not Spanish. That's Yoruba, from West Africa. It means son of Ochosí."
We drove in silence into the packed lanes of the 134 freeway, heading for Pasadena.
"Let's go to the house," I said.
"That's where I'm taking you."
"No, Armando's house. I have to see it."
Armando's house was his treasure and his shrine, both to the glory of his religion and the memory of his wife, Josefina. Short, overweight, half Mexican and half Puerto Rican, she was working as a clerk in Van Nuys Superior Court one day when she saw me drag myself into her courtroom. I was depressed by the roller coaster of my life after the Ramón Valdéz case, my subsequent fifteen minutes of fame and the inevitable crash to earth. She made a wisecrack or two about her judge, a blathering sourpuss nicknamed Thundering Thurman, then invited me to a barbecue that weekend at her house in Echo Park.
I still don't know why I found my way to their small Spanish home by the lake, whether I was only looking for another beer and a meal I wouldn't have to cook or whether some other force drew me there for my own good. A handful of their friends had gathered around the carne asada on the grill, which gave off huge clouds of spicy smoke. I said hello, grabbed a Corona from the ice chest and walked through the open French doors to the enclosed backyard. Even in my alcoholic haze I noticed that some of the trees were beribboned, like flirty girls for a party, and that a flock of piebald chickens pecked eagerly at the corn: on the ground behind a wire enclosure. How quaint, I thought, fresh eggs in the city. But, where's the rooster?
"They are not laying hens," said a warm, Cuban-accented voice at my elbow. "They're for sacrifice."
I turned to a man of medium height, with wide green eyes, aquiline Spanish nose and the pale pink complexion of upperclass Cubans. He smiled knowingly, as though he had already heard and answered my question before it was uttered or even imagined. Dressed all in white, from his shoes to the little santería skullcap he wore sideways atop his shiny bald pate, he seemed a friendly priest of some arcane religion -- which off course, he was.
"I always wanted to know," I said, grabbing a drumstick from a platter offered by a red-haired little girl, "what do you do with the chickens after you kill them?"
"Eat them, of course," said the old man, laughing at the foolishness of the question. "The gods want only the ashé, the it's time essence of the spirit. Once the animals are slaughtered, time for the feast. What do you think you're having now?"
I stared at the piece of chicken in my hand.
"Funny, it doesn't taste like communion," I said.
He laughed again. "We're not all like Ramón Valdéz, Charlie. He was a devil worshipper. We follow the path of the light. You should come see us sometime."
And with those simple words Armando opened the door to my own forgiveness. No, I did not find salvation at the foot of some ridiculous idol nor did I pledge my soul to an imp from the African forest. I never believed in the literal truth of santería and I still don't. Armando, wisely, never tried to convert me, he did something better -- he made me understand. He explained the numinous role of the saints, the African divinities, how in their totality they represent the whole of man's aspirations and desires and how each god, from fiery Shangó to warlike Oggún and Ochosí, are all subsumed within the Creator, the wise old spirit who breathes life into all of us, who ordained the universe and sent forth his myriad representations to illustrate the many facets of His unencompassable self.
I came to see that in its theological complexity, hierarchical subtleties and accumulated wisdom, santería was as passionate and stirring as the ancient Greco-Roman myths, as enlightening as the unfolding monads of Hinduism. And, in the process of understanding, I also came to find a kind of peace.
My admiration for Armando only grew after I witnessed his reaction to deep tragedy in his own life. One moonlit night returning from a Malibu beach where he and Josefina had gone to leave a prenda, an offering to Yemayá, the goddess of the waters, a Dodge Ram driven by a drunk driver plowed into their old Toyota while they were tooling up Kanan Road. Armando flew out of the car from the force of the collision, landing on a pebbly curb inches away from a thousand-foot-deep ravine. It took firefighters two hours to extricate Josefina from the jumbled remains of the jalopy. She died en route to Kaiser Hospital, with Armando holding her hand, crooning canciones de cuna, Spanish lullabies. The driver of the truck walked away from the accident with a scratch on his forehead.
True to his beliefs, Armando refused to testify in the ensuing trial. In his view the fact that the driver had escaped uninjured was clear evidence that he, in his inebriation, had been an instrument of the gods, who for their own unfathomable reasons had decided to take Josefina away. Fortunately the DA's office was not as open-minded and filed charges of vehicular manslaughter. The driver was sent away for ten years to Soledad to contemplate the consequences of being a tool of fortune.
Armando was in and out of the hospital for more than a year after the accident, undergoing innumerable sessions of physical therapy in between dozens of operations to help him regain his mobility. Never once did he complain, never once did he wish that things might have been other than they were. He prayed, waited and guided others on their own perilous path until the doctors finally gave up and sent him home with only sixty percent mobility.
I represented Armando in the negotiations with the insurance company of the drunk driver, the son of a studio head with very deep pockets and an allergy to negative publicity. With the settlement money, Armando built his little house in Highland Park, on a lot he and Josefina had bought years before. The house became his Taj Mahal, a blue-gray temple of marble and stucco whose only purpose was to honor the memory of his faithful companion. Her pictures were on every wall and in every room he built a retablo, an altarpiece, in her name. Only in the basement, where he received his followers and imparted the teachings of santería, was Josefina's image not present. Yet I always felt that it was precisely down there where she could be felt more strongly, in the heart of a religion that had drawn them together and then given Armando the conviction to go on living without her.
A dusty gray Chevy Caprice which once had been blue was parked against the flow of traffic outside Armando's house, blocking the steep alley. We parked in front, our bumpers butting each other like bucks in a forest glade. I glanced inside the Chevy. Its two-way radio and full ashtray screamed policía for all the world to hear.
"Looks like Kelsey's back," said Lisa.
We clambered up, holding on to the railing to avoid slipping on the white marble pavers leading up the grade to the house.
The yellow police tape at the front had been pushed aside, the door left ajar as though telling the unexpected guest come on in, have yourself a cold one, we'll be right with you. We walked inside.
The entire house had been turned upside down, the white walls smudged with fingerprint powder in a murderous trail that led all the way to the basement steps. Josefina's collection of ceramic knickknacks were smashed into smithereens; the many bookcases had been thrown to the ground, its volumes scattered throughout; the sofa was upended, its cushions ripped to shreds; the beaded Empire lamps were broken into shards; a carpet of debris covered the floor. Worst of all, the pictures of Josefina had been slashed up, the face cut out to leave a mocking, hollow of a headless body.
"I'm sorry, honey," said Lisa, squeezing my hand.
I nodded, not knowing what to say. Just then someone whistled a tune from Oklahoma! and I smelled the acrid scent of low-tar cigarettes.
Kelsey plodded up the basement steps, stopped at the landing as though surprised to see us. He smiled, his sparse ginger eyebrows pushing against his creased freckled forehead, where rested a pair of rimless glasses. Large, round and rumpled, he seemed a bear out for a romp in the woods, hoping to get into some tasty garbage.
"If it ain't the voodoo counselor," he said without a trace of sarcasm. "Let me show you what this animal did."
He led the way down to the basement, his lumbering gait oddly reassuring. The trail of fingerprint powder thickened down the stairwell, the floor stained with reddish brown splatterings of dried blood.
"The call came in Sunday morning, they beeped me at St. James's. Some anonymous tip, couldn't trace the call. Patrolman drove by, saw the back door kicked in, took a look and puked outside. Here you go."
I gagged from the overpowering smell of blood, human feces and urine. Just like in the house, everything in the basement that had been on the walls had been taken down with a vengeance -- the shelves, the sacred objects, the statues of Saint Francis, Saint Lazarus, Saint Barbara, the sacred stones of the orishás kicked out of their tureens and scattered like so many pebbles on a field. Armando's books of divination had been torn up, pieces of hundred-year-old typed paper strewn throughout. In great arching designs on the walls, splatterings of blood, as though a hose of human fluid had been sprayed through the room. In the middle of the floor, the chalk outline of where the body had been found, headless and skinless.
"Jesus Christ," I muttered.
Kelsey stepped around the debris as gingerly as his portly body allowed.
"Whoever did this held one major grudge against the old man," he said. "First he wounded him, then he cut out the old man's tongue. We found it thrown against the wall over there."
Kelsey pointed at an emptied night stand that had contained the ifá's divining boards.
"Then the murderous bastard skinned him, we figure, put the pelt in a bag and cut off the old man's head, also putting it in a bag. The guy was so cold he left behind the box of Hefties. Oh, and he ripped out his heart. And his liver. Something or other must have scared him away. But not before he took a great big dump and spread it all over. Nice dinner guest, huh?"
I heard a sudden gagging sound. Lisa bent over with her hand over her mouth, her face the color of the alabaster floor tile, exerting a superhuman effort not to retch before us.
"Excuse me, I have to go," she muttered in between clenched teeth and dashed up the stairs.
"I know just how she feels, " said Kelsey, shaking his head. "That's why I smoke. Although to tell you the truth, death doesn't smell as strong as it used to. Remember the Hanes case, Charlie? This could be like that."
I glanced at the havoc and I knew it would not be so simple. Richard Hanes was a respected San Marino doctor who one day came home to find his wife, his ten-year-old daughter and his mother-in-law hacked to death. On the walls someone had written, "Baby killers die!"
Hanes claimed he had been receiving death threats since he'd opened up an abortion mill in South Central L.A. But when Kelsey found Hanes had not gone fishing the weekend of the murders but instead had shacked up with his Salvadoran mistress at the Ritz-Carlton, plus that he had taken out a million-dollar insurance policy on the family the month before their death, the motive was all too obvious. In the end a little immigration pressure well applied was enough to get the girlfriend to implicate her médico.
A friendly Pasadena judge appointed me to the case and I was able to negotiate a fifteen-to-life plea very quickly after Kelsey found the deadly chainsaw buried in the backyard of Hanes's office in Arcadia.
"This is not like that," I said, feeling a strange weight pressing down on my chest. "This is not the work of an amateur. This was a professional of death."
"Skip the drama class, Charlie. What you got?"
"This was part of a ritual to capture someone's soul."
"Get off it. You can't capture a soul. Only God can do that."
1 looked at him silently until it finally dawned on him.
"Or the devil," he said, almost to himself.
I cast a last look at the room, knowing that I would never again return there for the hard-earned wisdom of an old Cuban man.
"Let's go back upstairs."
We walked up quietly. Lisa was coming out of the bathroom, the sound of flushing following her out. She was still shaking.
"Sorry," she said. "I'll wait for you in the car."
I nodded. Kelsey and I stepped out to the ragged, dusty yard. The steep hillside behind the house made a sort of natural amphitheater around us, making me feel like an actor in some ancient play whose lines I had forgotten.
"I'll have one of those," I said.
Kelsey shook a cigarette out of the pack, lit it with his Zippo, still engraved with the emblem of his Marine Corps regiment. The acrid smoke rose in thin clouds against the clear sky. A neighbor's dog yelped for a few seconds, then grew still.
"This looks to be part of a ritual of palo mayombé," I said. "Whoever came here was intent on desecrating the shrine to deprive the santero of the source of his powers."
"You lost me. What's this pale-oh stuff?"
"Palo, pah-loh. It's black magic, as opposed to santería, which is white or good magic. Palo was brought to the New World by slaves from the Congo. They worship the devil and all the dark forces. They cast spells, offer protection. A lot of drug dealers are into it to help them with their business. Most Cuban and Puerto Rican hit men too."
"Where you learn all this?"
"Ramón Valdéz. He was a follower of palo."
A black face, filled with rage, the monster created by racial hatred and uncontrollable lust, surged in my mind's eye, then crumbled into dust.
"Ramón is dead, isn't he?" asked Kelsey.
"Rotting in Hollywood Lawn. An anonymous follower paid for the burial."
"So then what's this? Some kind of revenge killing?"
"I don't think so. Whoever did this wanted to get Armando's power."
"You're assuming it's a he."
"Oh, it's a male all right. Although the palero worships Oyá, the goddess of death, mayhem like this is reserved for males. The females poison and cast spells. Besides, he calls himself the son Of Ochosí, the god of the hunt. It's in his note."
"So what's he going to do with all the stuff he took?"
I picked my words carefully, wanting, in my mind, to keep honoring the memory of Armando, if at all possible, in the face of such ignominy.
"The skin, he'll put it on over his own in a ceremony to commemorate his victory."
"And the head?"
"Most likely he'll put it in his cauldron, to rot with everything else, to make Armando's soul his slave for all of time."
Kelsey dropped his cigarette, ground it out with the worndown heel of his battered cowboy boot.
"Tell me something. You don't really believe all this, do you?"
"Michael, it's not my faith that counts. It's the murderer's."
"Well, you better watch out, Charlie, 'cause he's coming after you."
Lisa had turned on the air conditioner full blast in the Beemer, the radio tuned in to the New Age sounds of The Wave. I slid into the cool leather seat, grateful for her car, her perfume, her still perspiring body. She looked at me and almost instinctively we grabbed at each other, craving each other's warmth to fend off the cold-blooded death we had just witnessed. After a few feverish minutes, we pulled away, panting.
"Your place?" she asked.
"Yours. The media will be out at mine."
Lisa backed the Beemer all the way down the hill, spun around in a three-point turn and raced down El Paso. She turned left on yellow at Eagle Rock doing sixty and in seconds we were flying into the on-ramp and down the Glendale Freeway. In what seemed a flash, we were at her building on Holloway in West Hollywood.
She parked sideways in her stall and we dashed to the elevator, glued to each other all the way to her front door. We landed on the Tabriz runner in the hallway, tearing our clothes off right on the floor, the pressing urgency of our flesh too powerful to overcome, ridding ourselves of the stench of death through ecstasy.
Later, in bed, I stroked her silky hair absentmindedly while she napped. The sun came in through the wide plantation shutters, casting the grid of prison bars against her umber walls. A signed Mapplethorpe photograph of a sensuous cala lily hovered over her dresser, the white petals seeming to buzz with the intensity of unspoken questions.
Waking, Lisa moved her long runner's legs under the Ralph Lauren sheets, opened her eyes as she propped herself on her elbow.
"Why you?" she finally said.
"I'm sure I don't know. I guess I'm just going to have to ask him." She glared at me, her eyes full of fear and incomprehension. "When they catch him," I added.
Outside, an ambulance siren howled. I pressed close to her. She sighed and closed her eyes.
Copyright © 1998 by Alex Abella