South Phoenix Rules
A David Mapstone Mystery
By Jon Talton
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2010 Jon Talton
All right reserved.
I drove home in the light rain, watching the moisture slowly dissolve the dust that had accumulated on the windshield, then be swept aside by the wipers. The trunk of Lindsey's aging Honda Prelude was full of boxes, and the car rode low in the back. It was late December and cold for Phoenix, in the low fifties, the sky was overcast, and I wore my best suit. Up Third Avenue, the car slipped into the Willo district with its historic houses, big trees, and cooling lawns. Nearly every street had For Sale signs, a vain effort in the real-estate crash. "Willo Block Watch 9-1-1" signs had also recently proliferated in the yards, which irritated me, playing into the suburban stereotype of these neighborhoods. The really lurid crimes all happened out in the newer subdivisions.
I stopped behind a school bus letting out two children who walked east into the block of century-old bungalows on Holly Street. No children live on my block of Cypress Street. When I was their age, the neighborhood was full of kids, but it didn't have a name then. It was just a neighborhood of old houses and we all walked or rode our bikes to Kenilworth School, half a mile away. Rich kids from Palmcroft, poor kids from south of Roosevelt and the rest of us—we all went to the public school. We did duck-and-cover drills and made lifelong friends. Now the children in the neighborhood go to private schools and Kenilworth is all Hispanic and poor.
Turning onto Cypress, I saw the FedEx truck pull away from our house, the 1924 Spanish colonial with the big picture window. The tamale women were working their way toward me. It was the last week of December but I was grateful they were still peddling the homemade Christmas treat. I parked the Honda in the carport, let the boxes in the back be, and waited on the front porch. As usual, the younger woman with the good English approached courteously; the older one, perhaps the chef, stood back. I greeted them both in Spanish and held out fifteen dollars for a plastic bag of tamales. Now I had dinner.
The low sun was cutting through the clouds, hitting the Viad Tower on Central, two blocks away, just right to make it glow. It was the most interesting skyscraper in Phoenix's otherwise drab modern skyline. It was in foreclosure. On the doorstep was a square box addressed to Robin. I took the tamales in first, left them on the kitchen counter, and returned for the parcel. It was heavy. I hefted it up the staircase, past the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and placed it on the landing that led to the garage apartment. The apartment had its own entrance from the alley, admittedly on creaky old stairs. But Robin always came in the front door and used the open walkway that led from the landing, across the interior courtyard, to the south entrance of the two-room pad.
I didn't want Robin living there, even if she was Lindsey's sister. I didn't trust Robin. But Lindsey insisted that she stay; they had been separated for many years before she showed up in Phoenix outside a murder scene one afternoon. Lindsey's stubbornness about this only increased when Robin lost her job. She was a curator for a private art collection owned by one of the most prominent real-estate financiers in the city. The market collapse took down all his risky bets, and he put a nine-millimeter in his mouth. His art collection was seized. The empty shells of the projects he had funded were all over town.
Downstairs I went into our bedroom and slid off the heavy .357 in its holster, placing it in the drawer of the bedside table. Just two months ago I had been pricing gun safes. The drawer would do. I allowed myself a moment's smile: all the years Peralta had teased me about my attachment to what he called "my cannon" in an era where all the deputies carried Glocks. But it was only a moment. I kept the suit on, stared at myself in the mirror too long. Then I went into the kitchen and made a martini. Beefeater gin from the freezer, a splash of Noilly Prat vermouth, olives, stirred—the way Lindsey likes it. I settled into grandfather's leather chair in the office, tempted to read. On the top of my pile was David Kennedy's Freedom from Fear about the Depression years. I left it there. I thought about turning on music. I didn't. Instead I just stared into the house, stared out the picture window, and sipped the liquor. The window usually showed off our Christmas tree. This year we didn't have one.
It was an hour and a second drink later when the front door lock clicked and Robin stepped in.
"Why are you sitting in the dark, Dave?"
I told her hello, told her that she had a package. I didn't like it when she called me "Dave." That was reserved for Lindsey. Robin knew this and sensed my irritation. She shrugged and smiled. She was wearing jeans and a light leather jacket with the shoulders wet from the rain. Her hair shone in the minimal light. She was blond and tan to Lindsey's brunette and fair. Her hair was thick and unruly and it bounced against her shoulders as she walked. Lindsey's hair, nearly black it was so dark, was fine and straight as a pin. They only looked like sisters when they smiled. They shared the same watchful, ironic eyes, blue for Lindsey, gray for Robin. Pretty legs ran in the family.
"Did you hear from Lindsey Faith?"
I let my answer hang in the dark room. "No. There's tamales in the kitchen if you want some."
"Don't worry, Dave." She rushed up the stairs, disappearing from my view. "Wow, it's heavy," she said. "Maybe it's from Jax." The upstairs door opened and closed, then I heard her energetic footfall crossing above.
Yes, Jax. Her boyfriend. Jax, I liked. He was Hispanic but pronounced his name with a hard "J." I had never heard the name before, but we all have our lacunae—even washed-out history professors like me. Jax Delgado. He had aristocratic features, chiseled chin, and was well matched in the gym-rat physique for Robin. His eyes were full of life and fun—he was one of the few people I had met whose eyes fit that description of "twinkling." He had a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard and now held tenure at NYU. Professor of American Studies, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, his card read. It was enough to rev up my academic insecurities, except that he wore the credentials well, like a working-class kid who had made his own way but not forgotten his roots. I had enjoyed our few conversations.
He was staying in Phoenix to study sustainability. "That'll be a short paper," I had said when he told me this. "We're not sustainable." His eyes had twinkled and he said, "We'll definitely talk. You're one of the few natives I've run into."
I was looking forward to it. You had to rope in and keep the smart people in your life in Phoenix. And he seemed to calm and distract Robin, both of which were needed at this point of everybody's lives.
Now I was toasty. I should have stopped at one martini. Three tamales on a paper plate made dinner, then I grabbed Kennedy's book and went into the bedroom, closing the door. It was only a little past eight, but I felt exhausted, just like every day lately. Yet I knew I wouldn't sleep. The bed hadn't been made in days. I stretched out in it after carefully hanging up the suit. It wasn't fitting quite right. I was losing weight. Maybe if Jax had sent Robin a gift he wouldn't be joining her tonight.
For that, I'd be grateful.
That was the only rub about Jax and Robin. They were very loud when they made love. It had put an end to my winter ritual of sleeping with the windows and the screen doors to the inner courtyard open. Robin was a screamer. My first wife Patty had been one, too. We could never stay in a bed-and-breakfast. Men treasure this attribute, especially when it is genuine, and Robin sounded very genuine, and I didn't want to hear. Some people you can't imagine having sex—Peralta is one. Some you don't want to imagine having it—Robin fit there. So tonight might be quiet.
I opened the book and began to read, cradling it in one hand, letting my other arm stretch across to Lindsey's side of the bed. Herbert Hoover got a bad rap from the history mostly written by hagiographers of FDR. That was true enough. I could have written a book like this. The era was my focus in graduate school. But I didn't write this one. Hoover the great engineer, the progressive, the pain-in-the-ass as Calvin Coolidge's Commerce Secretary. He was elected president and the house fell in. Just like life. Then he was overwhelmed by events, by his own inability to think into the future, and then by his increasing isolation, intellectually and from the people ...
... I felt so isolated sitting in the car at McDowell and Central, stopped at a red light. I needed to pick up Lindsey but I didn't know where she was. Light rail was gone. Central was just a wide highway again, choked with traffic. I looked northwest into Willo and it was gone, clear-cut, covered by gravel. Even the coppery ViadTower was gone. The only sign of habitation was a new, four-story condo complex that looked as if it had been built by scavengers from a junkyard. Somehow all this seemed totally normal but it still made me feel sad. All those historic houses just gone, including mine. I wished the light would change so I didn't have to look at the emptiness.
Robin's scream woke me.
It was not a sexy scream. It was sharp, primal, terror-ridden. High voltage shot up my spine. I yanked open the bedside table drawer, grabbed the Colt Python, and rushed out the door and into the dark living room. She screamed again, called for help. I ran up the stairs with both hands on the grips of the pistol, arms crooked, barrel in the air. When the door swung open I almost brought the barrel down and shot her.
She slammed the door and smashed her body into mine. She was shivering uncontrollably. As we stood on the interior landing, I held her tightly with my left arm, keeping the gun ready and staring at the door. I tried to push her away.
"No, no, don't go back there. Please, no, don't go ..."
She said this as a cascade of hysteric words strung together, as I tried to disentangle myself from her and go to the garage apartment.
I pushed her back on the landing and got as far as my hand on the doorknob.
"No! Please, David! Don't go back there!"
She decisively locked the door, flew back into my arms crying, and I held her tightly until she calmed down.
Robin is slightly taller than Lindsey. We were both completely naked.
We were dressed and the revolver was back in the bedside table drawer by the time the first cops arrived, one a compact young Latino and the other an Anglo woman with her yellow hair in a bun. They regularly worked the beat in the neighborhood. I felt as if I'd been on ten thousand crime scenes, far more than the college classrooms I had taught in, a map of the twin forks my life has taken that I didn't want to think about too much that winter. Too many crime scenes, and this one happened to be at my house, the house I was raised in. And I was just one of the "subjects," as the police would say, at best a "complainant."
They strode up the staircase two steps at a time with their Glocks drawn. More cops than you realized accidentally shot themselves with their Glocks. It lacks an external safety. The internal safeties, meant to keep the semi-automatic from discharging if it's dropped, can be disengaged by a slight or accidental pull of the trigger. These two managed fine. They left the door open and crossed to the garage apartment, ordering me to remain in the living room. That was as it should be, but I wasn't used to being on the other side of the yellow tape. For years now, my deputy's badge had been the best backstage pass in town.
I already knew enough. Robin had responded to my initial questions before the first units got there, so I knew the basic information. Now she sat sullenly on the sofa next to me, having regained some of her toughness. But her eyes were still wide and she sniffled every few minutes. Robin was not a crier, much less a "hysterical female," as the dispatchers might have termed her if I had allowed her to make the 911 call. She was wearing a pair of Lindsey's sweat pants and one of Lindsey's T-shirts. I didn't like that. Now I had more questions for her, somewhere shy of a hundred, but I didn't ask. My hands shook slightly and I felt gin and tamales at the back of my throat. I realized I was in a little shock, too.
My cell was still in my hand and I had scrolled to a familiar number. Robin shook her head.
"Don't bother Lindsey Faith," she said. "It's midnight in D.C." I put the phone away.
The Anglo cop strode back through the living room, her black shoes squeaking on the hardwood floor, and then outside. In a few minutes she was wrapping the yard with crime-scene tape. To me, it was an overreaction, but the policing business had changed since I had been a young uniformed deputy. Through the picture window, I saw a few neighbors standing on the sidewalk. It's not as if they had never seen law enforcement vehicles at our house, with both Lindsey and me working for the Sheriff's Office. A couple of years ago, a new neighbor asked around if we were having marital fights, she had seen so many cop cars stop by. We had laughed at the time. But the three hundred block of Cypress hadn't seen this. I counted the people I knew, lingered over some that I didn't. Three couples, one woman alone. Unlike most of Phoenix, Willo was a real neighborhood with plenty of walkers and it was still fairly early, not even ten o'clock.
Then we were getting the initial interview for the incident report. The female officer wrote in a tight hand. Robin did most of the talking. But this was just preliminary: names, addresses, the basic scenario—before the homicide detectives showed up.
They weren't long in arriving. My stomach gave a distinct kick when the first one walked through the door.
"Mapstone. God, I live for the day when I show up and you're in handcuffs. It might happen tonight."
"Happy New Year, Kate." I said it with just enough snark that it hit her but didn't damage any innocent bystanders.
Phoenix Police Detective Sgt. Kate Vare glared at us, hands on her hips. Underneath a PPD windbreaker, she was still compact, pinched, venomous. We had a history.
"Did you get kicked off the cold-case unit?" I smiled.
"No such luck, Mapstone. Budget cuts mean everybody's having to do more. So I have the pleasure of coming to your pile of rocks in the ghetto tonight." She ran a hand through her hair, which she had fried into a red color not found in nature. She was enjoying being taller than me for a change. "You just sit there."
"I want to go have a look."
"No way, sir," she said. "You're involved in this." She smiled widely. I had never seen Kate Vare smile before. "Anyway, you're not even a deputy any more."
I let out a long breath.
"News travels fast around the cop shop," she said, and mounted the stairs.
After she was gone, her partner, a big young guy who might have been nicknamed Moose by my parents' generation, gave me a sympathetic look. His badge was hung around his neck—one of the new ones, made to imitate the LAPD shields. It had a number in the 9000s. It made me feel old: I remembered when PPD badges were numbered in the 4000s.
He cocked his head. "It's okay." I followed him up the stairs.
Outside the wind was waving the tree branches and the overcast sky had been turned into a washed-out pink by the reflected city lights. A few stray raindrops hit my forehead. The air was cool and clean, blowing down from the High Country. Fifteen feet away, the door to the garage apartment was open and all the lights were on. One of the abstract paintings Robin had hung on the wall faced me. It was a pink moon against a green sky. She had bought it at one of the galleries on Roosevelt Row.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, no fucking way!"
Vare charged out of the room, squared her small shoulders, and blocked us halfway. She jabbed a finger into my solar plexus. Technically, I had just been assaulted.
"This is a crime scene, you bastard. I told you to wait downstairs!"
"C'mon, Kate." Moose spoke gently. "Professional courtesy."
Excerpted from South Phoenix Rules by Jon Talton Copyright © 2010 by Jon Talton. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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