South Phoenix Rules: A David Mapstone Mystery #5

South Phoenix Rules: A David Mapstone Mystery #5

A handsome young New York professor comes to Phoenix to research his new book. But when he’s brutally murdered, police connect him to one of the world’s most deadly drug ...

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 ...

Read an Excerpt


The August heat in Phoenix has a color. It is not red or orange or any searing hue that could be imagined by you or me or Dante, even though this earthly inferno clocked in that day at one hundred fourteen degrees, the reading on a thermometer safely in the shade at Sky Harbor International Airport and the temperature reported across the radio by announcers sitting in air-conditioned studios. On the pavement, under the midday sun in a city where we all longed for the night, a ground temperature sensor would show one hundred forty degrees, and the cloudless sky was the color of bleached concrete.

It had been a dreadful summer, another record-breaker, and that was before one of the two gasoline pipelines that feeds the autopia that is America’s fifth most populous city ruptured. The fireball that consumed the errant backhoe and its operator was only the start of the trouble. Gas stations ran dry. People started classic hoarding behavior, topping off their tanks any time they saw a station with supplies. It made the shortages worse. The newspaper carried stories about price gouging. It reminded me of an article I had read, saying that MI5, Britain’s security agency, has a maxim that society is “four meals away from anarchy.” This was especially true in a city so dependent on driving, so isolated, so based on complex systems in such an unnatural place to sustain four million people. A vibe of barely contained panic could be felt.

By the second week of the interruption, people followed tanker trucks, hoping they carried a full load and were on their way to a filling station. The county was stockpiling gasoline for uniformed units. Guys like me, we had our county credit cards. We had to do the best we could—with the rule that we had to return the vehicle on full. I wish the deputy who drove the car before me had been so mindful of the regs. The fuel gauge of my unmarked Ford Crown Victoria showed an eighth of a tank. That day I seemed lucky as I drove out of Maryvale on Thomas Road, headed downtown. Half a block ahead, I saw a long tanker turn left into a gas station. I pulled in behind the truck, landing third in line for one set of pumps, although not close enough to get the shade of the overhang. The plastic bottle of water that had been frozen at nine a.m.—Lindsey and I kept a dozen in the freezer along with the gin during the summer months—was now completely thawed, yet was still cool. I took a last swig.

It was a typical corner station and mini-mart, a squared-off building along a wide avenue of other homely boxes. Twelve lanes crossed the intersection. Two other corners had abandoned gas stations, their remains fenced in. The fourth corner held a check-cashing outlet. Campaign signs clustered on each corner, including one of the wide Peralta Sheriff signs he had been using every election. Peralta was in white, along with a white star, against a blue and red field. Next to it was a sign for his primary opponent, with the subtitle: Stop illegal immigration! The primary would come and go, but the immigrants would come, no matter the condition of the economy. How many had died in the desert this year? Last count: one hundred twenty. None of the Anglos in Phoenix took notice.

At the gas station, the cars quickly lined up, then spilled out onto Thomas. Horns honked. Nobody ever used to honk in Phoenix.

A white Dodge van edged up behind me. Inside were a pretty Anglo mom and a little girl with curly hair. They were in the wrong part of town, but, hey, I was a cop. They’d be safe. My gaze lingered in the rearview mirror and I smiled.

It took away the nastiness of the morning, where I had backed up a uniformed deputy as we evicted a family from their home. The scruffy lawn ended up littered with furniture, clothes, and brightly colored children’s toys as we looked on. It’s not my job. I was officially the historian of the Maricopa County Sheriff ’s Office, but I’m also a sworn deputy. Everybody’s work had changed since the real-estate crash sent the local economy into a depression. Anyone could have seen it coming, anyone except the majority of Phoenicians who made their living off the growth machine. A columnist in the Arizona Republic repeatedly warned it was unsustainable; he was pushed out of a job. Even law enforcement was a victim of the worst government budget cuts in the state’s history. So Peralta made me work uniformed shifts, serve warrants, and now throw a family out of its house. My pile of cold cases grew higher. “They can wait,” he said.

So I sat there, sweating even though the air conditioning was on high, and smiled at the mother and her little girl waiting behind me.

Then the gun fell.

It clattered to the cement loud enough to be heard inside the car. I made it for a Glock 17, black and blocky, just like many cops carry. My pulse shot, making my temples throb. My hand automatically went to the Colt Python .357 magnum in the Galco high-ride leather holster on my belt.

The kid reached down and picked it up as if nothing more than a crescent wrench had fallen out of his pocket. He slid it into the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back and covered it with his T-shirt. He was maybe twenty, Hispanic, with close-cropped black hair and long limbs. His arms were black with tattoos, and he had bracelets on one wrist. He also had four friends. They were in the car ahead of me, a tricked-out, low Honda. I wondered how they all had fit inside. In front was a blue Chrysler PT Cruiser with another four Hispanic men. One was tall, his muscles showing out of a white wife-beater, the back of his shaved head bearing an elaborate tattoo with two large ornate letters and a line of script below it. This was gang territory and I had parked right in the middle of a meeting. They stood agitated around the cars, brassy banda music loudly pouring out of the Cruiser. They were waiting for the gas to flow.

I snapped the holster secure and decided to let things be. Maryvale, Scaryvale. The onetime suburban dream had turned to linear slum and the daily shootings usually didn’t even make the newspaper. The tanker driver slid down out of his cab. He set out orange traffic cones around the massive two-trailer rig. I tried not to imagine a scenario where it exploded here. Next, he slid on thick gloves and used a hand-held bar to remove the heavy steel covers embedded in the concrete that led to the underground storage tanks. They clanged loudly. After pulling out a long pole to measure the tanks—a pointless exercise considering the station was dry—he finally began inserting pipes into the ground receptacles, then towed a heavy hose, connecting the tanker and the tanks.

The driver was short and broad-shouldered, with a wide, red-bearded ruddy face, and arms covered with tats. Inked flames shot up his neck—I hoped not indicating a death wish, given his profession. A snakeskin design that completely covered one exposed upper arm made room for an eagle and the words “Aryan Brotherhood, Florence Arizona.” Strapped to his hip was a holster holding a blue carbon steel revolver. Perfectly legal in Arizona, unless he was a felon—and we had legislators who would fight for that right as well. He eyed the Latinos and they stared back at him. The connecting of pipes continued, followed by some work with dials and levers, and the driver walked back to the end of the tanker. He pulled out a red hardpack of Marlboros and lit up.

Safety first.

After taking a deep drag, he let the smoke drift out into the sunlight as he kept the cigarette hanging from his lips, folded his massive arms, and stared at the Latino kids. The revolver sat heavily on his belt.

Until then, the lane on the other side of the pumps had been empty. Now a sparkling black Cadillac SUV drove in, facing me. It had hubcaps like scimitars. They kept revolving after the vehicle came to a stop. Doors opened and five young black men stepped out into the heat. Unlike the Hispanics in their jeans and wife-beaters, they were dressed in the long-short pants that make a man look like a giant infant. None of them looked like a baby. The closest one was taller than me and as wide as a mature tree back east, with skin the color of almonds. He ran his credit card, tugged on the gas hose, stuck it into the tank, and nothing happened. He called over to the tanker driver. The white man took another drag and showed him the finger. The black guy returned what must have been a gang sign and the Hispanics noticed.

A raised concrete island maybe three feet wide and the gas pumps separated the two groups.

Now the representing began: rival gang signs, elaborate walks toward each other only to be halted momentarily, profanities in English and Spanish. Along with this, I counted four guys raising their shirts to show firearms. Hip-hop was cranked up to compete with banda. More black guys appeared from another car that had parked behind the SUV: two, no, another three. All were waiting with desperate empty gas tanks, already jumpy, no doubt psychopathic, and full of tribal grudges, but they might move on if they could just fill up. They hadn’t noticed me sitting there in a sedan that screamed “Unmarked Police” with my deputy’s star on my belt, along with the Colt Python and one Speedloader with six extra rounds. Gasoline smells penetrated the cab of the car and a fresh sheet of sweat covered me. The Aryan tanker driver looked on impassively, finished his cigarette, and tossed it away from the vicinity of the flowing petroleum.

It was going to be a bad day all day.

I looked back at the mom, who was chatting on her cell phone, not seeming to notice the menace a few feet away. The little girl appeared more knowing, staring at the lethal theater ahead of her. I could call for backup, but people would be dead by the time the first police unit arrived. I could step out and show my badge, be the “peace officer” that Peralta once taught me, but there was no peace, not in this part of the city, not at this moment. At this moment, I should have been plotting what Peralta called a “tactical solution”: which asshole I would take down first, hard enough to get the attention of the others; which assholes I would shoot, in order of their likely capabilities, if things turned to gunplay.

But, I realized, I had more assholes than I had bullets.

Peralta has said I’m good in a crisis, for an egghead. Yet my lungs throbbed with fear. The reason was simple: outside of this wide intersection of hell, I had never had more to live for. If representing turned to violence, I had no good options, only one risky hope. One hope—for me and the little girl and everybody who would go up in the conflagration that would result that hot day. I wondered for a nanosecond if the young cops even knew the term any longer. I unhooked my badge and slipped off the holster. I untucked my dress shirt, rose up in the seat, and slipped the Python uncomfortably into my slacks behind my back. If representing turned to violence, there was only one response: South Phoenix Rules.

I filled my lungs, reached for the car door, and started to open it when the tanker driver ambled over, unhooked his hose, and miraculously the gas pumps started to work.


Part One: The Sweet Season

Chapter 1

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 Viad Tower 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.

“No, don’t!”

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.

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