Cactus Heart: A David Mapstone Mystery #7

Cactus Heart: A David Mapstone Mystery #7

In this prequel to the popular David Mapstone mysteries, author Jon Talton takes us back to 1999, when everything dot-com was making money, the Y2K bug was the greatest danger ...

About The Author

Jon Talton

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan, the author of 12 novels, and a former columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton now ...

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Chapter One

Throughout history, the desert has been a place of trial, penance, and hard-won revelation. God lives in the desert. But Satan does, too. In the American West, conquistadors and cowboys were tested, and often broken, by the desert. Its vastness hid no cities of gold. Its implacable heat and drought were hostile to the white man’s crops and cattle. Even as the frontier disappeared, the Sonoran Desert remained a wild and unknown place, the home of strange gods, a waterless world of danger and mystery.

But now it is the turn of the third millennium, and the desert in this far corner of the Far West is air conditioned, irrigated, and comfortably crisscrossed by interstate highways and transcontinental air routes. It is the prosperous, high-tech engine  of the New Economy. Even the Indians are in business. It is a playground for beautiful people: a tan, happy place of endless second chances and easy redemption. Sometimes, late at night after Lindsey has fallen asleep, I wonder if we can change the order of things so easily. But it’s the kind of thought that’s gone by morning.

It was the third week of November, the best time of year in Phoenix. The days were mild and sunny, the nights wrapped in the enchanted dry clarity that made the mountains stand out blacker than the dark sky. Although the tourists and snowbirds were arriving in force, traffic didn’t seem too bad. Arizona State University had a good shot at the Rose Bowl. The  newspaper even seemed to take a holiday from the day-after-day recounting of drive-by shootings and rapes and drug murders. It was the time of year when you could almost forget the noonday heat of July and say, yes, this is paradise.

I was in-between cases, having just uncovered new evidence in a thirty-year-old jewelry store robbery, which, for the moment, satisfied my boss, Maricopa County Chief Deputy Mike Peralta. That’s what I did: researched unsolved crimes that had fallen into the memory hole of the law-enforcement bureaucracy. They called me a consultant, but I also carried a deputy sheriff’s star. A year ago, I had been teaching history at a university in San Diego. But that was a year ago. Now I was back home in Phoenix, a place I never thought I would be again, living in the stucco house just north of downtown that had been built by my grandparents. Now it was just home to me and too many books and, sometimes, Lindsey Faith Adams.

On Monday night, the Peraltas took us out to a big Mexican dinner at the Tee Pee, and then downtown to America West Arena, the “Purple Palace” the locals called it, where we watched the Phoenix Coyotes squeak by Toronto, 3-2. Peralta had been trying hard to become a hockey fan since the NHL had come to town and the Suns had traded Barkley. And he had been looking longingly at the new ballpark next door for the Diamondbacks. But this night had also been business: Several times during the game, he had buttonholed a county commissioner or state legislator sitting nearby, or had been glad-handed by a moon-faced Republican fund-raiser. Peralta denied that he wanted to run for sheriff next year.

After the first period, Peralta and I made a food run—Sharon wanted a carrot-and-celery pack and Lindsey craved nachos. But on the way to the concession stands we nearly collided with Bobby Hamid coming out of the men’s room. Bobby Hamid is one of the nastier scumbags in the entrepreneurial world of Phoenix organized crime, and when he barely avoided slamming into us, I caught something scary and primal in his eyes. Then he dropped back into character and smiled, as comfortable as the black Halston suit he was wearing.

“Chief Peralta,” he said. “And  the history professor, Dr. Mapstone.”

Peralta put on his cop face, something that had its own frightening aspect, all beefy jowls and black eyes perched atop a two-hundred-fifty-pound frame. “Come to blow up the build- ing, Bobby? Fight the jihad for your Arab brothers?”

Bobby Hamid chuckled. “Always the bigot, Chief Peralta.” He seemed like a man chatting at a cocktail party as the spec- tators passed on either side of us, laden with food and Coyote memorabilia. He was moussed, manicured, and did not look like a hockey fan, even in Phoenix. “As  you well know, I am   a Persian who is now an American citizen, and as Dr. David Mapstone knows,” he smiled mockingly at me, “Persians are the inheritors of a great and ancient civilization, and we have a very complicated history with the Arabs.”

“Fuck,” Peralta said under his breath and stalked away. I followed him.

Behind me I heard Bobby: “Call me sometime, Dr. Mapstone.

We must discuss history.”

The first time I had met Bobby had been in an interrogation room when we were trying to link him to a pair of murders, a kidnapping, and a million dollars in drug money. He and his lawyer had dismissed us like a bothersome business annoyance. Now the whole thing encouraged Peralta to buy himself an extra beer.

After the game, though, Peralta was almost celebratory as we spilled out onto the street and walked west on Washington Street toward the county government complex, where we could park for free. The night was as good as it gets in the desert: cool, dry, and magical. We spread out, me and Peralta up ahead smoking cigars and talking work—the Harquahala Strangler killings still went on and he said he felt further from an arrest than when they began three years before. Lindsey and Sharon Peralta walked a quarter of a block behind us.

I had known Mike and Sharon for twenty years, long before he was chief deputy in one of the nation’s largest counties and she was the most popular radio psychologist on the West Coast. But it was harder for Lindsey. Peralta always seemed awkward around her, always the boss, uncomfortable that I was dating one of his deputies, even if she was the best computer braino in the department. And Sharon, with her nonjudgmental judgmentalism, disapproved that Lindsey was ten years younger than I. At the corner of First Street and Washington, we waited at the light for Sharon and Lindsey to catch up. I looked back at Lindsey fondly. Walking long-legged and insolent with her black jeans, black, shoulder-length hair and tiny gold nose stud: my young-old soul, my dark star. Peralta looked back with me, and I could tell he was about to say something. Then I looked ahead again to see, over Peralta’s shoulder, a man with a large brick in his hand. The man was walking nonchalantly out from an alley toward a black Mercedes idling in traffic at the light.

The man with the brick was an Anglo, maybe around twenty, with an odd-looking blond buzz cut and wearing heavy black boots and a ratty Suns T-shirt. He had that lean, hard-muscled look that is created in the weight rooms of state prisons. At first I didn’t put it together, but Peralta’s face tensed and he pushed past me. Just then the man heaved the brick into the passenger window of the Benz, and two more figures ran out from the alley. A lot of things happened at once. The car window shattered and a woman screamed with a surprised, high-pitched keening. I could see two young women in the car, which jerked forward maybe two feet and stopped again. The guy with the buzz cut reached in the passenger side and pulled a blond woman halfway out, hitting her several times in the head.

“Get out of the car, you bitches!” he shouted.

Another man, a Latino with extravagant tattoos on both arms, was on the other side of the car, yanking open the driver’s side door, while a third man, his skin gleaming black against a white T-shirt, brandished an Uzi machine pistol. I think a car honked. The light changed and the rest of the traffic sped away. Peralta had his gun out.

Peralta walked deliberately to the Benz and cracked the Anglo in the back of the head, dropping him unconscious onto the pavement. He aimed the automatic at the two men on the other side of the car and said, in a conversational voice, “Die, assholes.” It wasn’t exactly the way they teach you at the academy to identify yourself as a peace officer, but what the hell. With his left hand, Peralta produced a pair of handcuffs that I applied to the guy on the ground. The other two men watched us with the eyes of animals caught in a trap. The guy with the Uzi squinted toward Peralta. Tattoo cursed in Spanish. My knees felt noodley.

“How progressive,” Peralta said. “A multicultural gang.” “Sheriff’s deputies! Lay down your weapon!” It was Lindsey off to my right. She was in a combat crouch, gripping the baby Glock 9mm she always carried in her backpack. I had never seen Lindsey draw down on anyone before. This was the same woman who had spent yesterday morning lying next to me in bed, legs entangled in mine, quietly reading my dog-eared copy of Dante while I went through the Sunday Times. Now she chambered a round with a decisive snap of metal on metal. “Put down your weapon!” Her voice was a tense half-octave above normal.

“Shit,” the black guy hissed, shook his head and slowly lowered the Uzi to the pavement. We all relaxed just a notch and instantly the two men bolted across the street, running south. I ran after them, kicking in the adrenaline that had been gathering over this very long three minutes. I wished I hadn’t eaten that second chili relleno. I wished I had a firearm. I could hear Peralta yell “get help” to Sharon and then his heavy tread catching up behind me. Lindsey quickly passed me, she was so agile, and about half a block down the street she caught one of the scumbags and leaped on his back. He growled and twisted, throwing her into a wall. I was just about there but he took off. I stopped to make sure she was all right, but she was already up and we were both running again. We  quickly left behind the nice real estate around the arena. The streets became darker, the pavement broken, the buildings forlorn and abandoned.

They ran west on Jackson, then dashed across the railroad tracks and zigged to the north again, past the old warehouses around Union Station. The two suspects weren’t very fast, otherwise I never could have kept up. I lost them past the cone of light of a streetlight half a block ahead. A heavy, metal door slammed. Lindsey grabbed my arm and we slowed to a walk. She nodded toward an old multistory brick building. I gave a little start as Peralta caught up and the three of us stood for a moment in silence under the streetlight. Lindsey silently mouthed “there” to Peralta and he nodded toward the building. “I wish we could still shoot fleeing suspects,” he whispered in a wheeze.

Lindsey pulled a little flashlight out of her backpack. We walked cautiously into an entrance set back from the street. An ancient fire door gave against Peralta’s grip and we stepped inside.

The air wasn’t as stale and close as in an Egyptian tomb. The blackness wasn’t as total as on the dark side of the moon. Peralta started to take the flashlight but was apparently satisfied that Lindsey was holding it correctly, away from her body so  it wouldn’t attract a bullet. We tracked carefully down a hall framed by crumbling plaster and bricks to another door, wood this time, half ajar. Out onto a wood floor in a larger room. The flashlight leaped out onto old cartons, broken loading pallets, a fair-sized rat ambled lazily away from us, we avoided a black widow web. We all stopped and listened. Somewhere water was dripping. I wondered why the hell we didn’t wait for the city cops, but Peralta and Lindsey went ahead.

Just then something heavy fell on me and the momentum drove me toward what looked like a wooden fence, but then   I realized it was a gate to an old freight elevator and I crashed through it painfully and there was no elevator. Behind me, I heard a gunshot, high-pitched, and then several more, deeper blasts. And I had a man on me and we were falling. I smelled his sweat and rancid breath. We dove into the empty darkness and the floor came up suddenly and hard.

Maybe he broke my fall, or maybe I broke his, but we both lay there for a moment, stunned and gasping for breath on what felt like damp concrete. My knee was throbbing and my ankle felt like it was sprained. I swear something slithered across my forearm. I fought panic. I couldn’t see.

Suddenly I felt the air rush of his fist, searching for me.  He swung again, so hard I could hear him grunt, and his fist glanced painfully off my shoulder. I jabbed in his direction and connected with cartilage. He cursed—hijo de puta!—and spat. With my other hand I followed my fist and grabbed onto some hair. He screamed and smashed me in the eye. Instantly, my face was a hot gob of pain. But I didn’t let go. At six-foot-two and two hundred pounds, I was bigger than he was, but he was strong as hell and I was out of shape and scared. We wrestled around ineffectually, stirring up dust and cobwebs, bumping into a wooden barrier. Bumped it harder, harder again, and it collapsed into something beyond with a loud crash.

He broke away and I was alone in the blackest dark I could ever imagine. I was desperate to see him, hear him, even smell him. Nothing but darkness. I kicked behind me into the empty air. I knelt down—God, that knee hurt—and ran my hand in an imaginary circle around me. Stepped right. Stepped left.

Just then I touched his rough forearm and involuntarily drew back. He grunted angrily and I sensed his bulk coming toward me. Strong hands found my throat and pushed me back. I gagged and drove my fists upward, breaking his grip. Then I found his eye sockets and fought dirty. He screamed and shuddered. I drove the fleshy heel of my hand toward his head, did it again, and we lay still in the darkness.

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