The Night Detectives: A David Mapstone Mystery #6

The Night Detectives: A David Mapstone Mystery #6

The private-detective business starts out badly for former Phoenix Deputy David Mapstone and his old friend Sheriff Mike Peralta. Mapstone and Peralta are investigating a suspicious death involving a young ...

About The Author

Jon Talton

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan, the author of 11 novels, and a former columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton now ...

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Chapter One

The dead talk to me in my dreams. When I wake up, I can’t remember what they said.

 

Chapter Two

It felt wrong from the start.

The man who sat across from us wore a sleek charcoal suit and a starched white shirt with French cuffs. I made the suit for a Dsquared2 right out of the New York Times Men’s Fashion supplement, retail price $1,475. Its perfectly draped cuffs broke over tasseled black loafers that might have cost more than the suit itself. You didn’t see that kind of suit in our part of town, much less when it was 108 degrees outside and this was only the first week of May. Yet he didn’t sweat.

Still, somehow, $1,475 didn’t buy elegance for the wearer, or peace of mind for me.

The suit lacked a tie, which irritated me. I like suits. I am a clotheshorse and they are also handy for concealing my firearm. Today, the rebels wear suits, which are the zenith of great cloth- ing design. Show me a man with stubble and dressed like an adolescent and I’ll show you today’s version of 1950s conformity. Unfortunately, Phoenix weather only allows me to wear suits six months of the year. I looked at his open collar and thought: here was a suit quietly longing for a smart tie to complete it. The man appeared the same way: incomplete.

He introduced himself as Felix Smith, sat before Peralta’s desk, and said he needed our help. We already knew that part. Smith had called the day before, dropped the name of a criminal lawyer who was a friend of Peralta’s, and set up this afternoon’s meeting. I pulled over the second client’s chair and faced him.

“I want you to investigate a suspicious death.”

“Let’s start with the name of the deceased.” Peralta had pro- duced a yellow legal pad and pen.

My partner, who was also not sweating, was in one of his many tan summer suits with a conservative tie. I wore khakis with a long-sleeve linen shirt—this was, after all, Skin Cancer City—but even in the air conditioning, a layer of sweat formed beneath the fabric. In a city where so many people either came to die or, as in the case of illegal immigrants hiking across the desert, died trying to come, I was a native. I was one of the few my age who had stayed or returned. But my body held the DNA of the British Isles and when the temp crept over one hundred five I couldn’t stop sweating.

The only cool thing against my body was the Latin cross by the Navajo silversmith Harrison Bitsue that had belonged to Robin, Lindsey’s half-sister. Robin and I had walked over to the Heard Museum and she had fallen in love with it. So I bought it for her. I didn’t know if Robin was a believer. She would have scoffed at organized religion as she did so many things in the world. But it was all that had come back to me from the medical examiner. I had restrung it on a longer beaded chain and now wore it all the time.

Felix said, “The girl’s name was Grace. Grace Hunter.”

Peralta asked more questions in his familiar deep voice. Each time, Felix gave a short, precise answer. He held a smart black portfolio but it remained unopened. Grace Hunter was twenty-three. He gave her date of birth and Social Security number, both of which we would need for records searches. She had died on April twenty-second, a little more than two weeks previously. The police had ruled it a suicide.

Peralta took notes. I studied Felix Smith and couldn’t shake a feeling of discomfort.

He looked around thirty and his hair was dark and cut short, pushing down on a low forehead. Sitting straight with his hands palms-down on his thighs, his body conveyed strength and self-possession. But he had a nose that looked as if it had been mashed in multiple fights, pocked skin that had ingested too much sun which gave the impression of a flash burn, and the remains of bruises around unsettling, old yellow eyes. Even with his head immobile, those eyes restlessly swept the room.

Joseph Stalin had yellow eyes.

I guessed that his driver’s license identified them as hazel.

He wasn’t as big as Peralta, but he was plenty big. His head was large, about the same width as the muscled-up neck that held it. His hands were large and hard, with big knuckles, and underneath the suit his plank-like shoulders looked capable of violence. The brawler’s face and body didn’t go with the tailored suit and the high-shine, pricey shoes. Unless he was somebody’s muscle.

But maybe I was being jumpy, paranoid. Peralta kept telling me that.

My agitation kicked up a notch when he said where the girl had died: San Diego. I wanted to start nervously shaking my right leg, playing drums with my hands, or leave the room. After the first jump, I made my leg stay still.

“They say she jumped off a balcony. It was from the nineteenth floor of a condo.” His voice was steady, one note above a monotone. Peralta waited several seconds before going on.

“And you don’t believe that…” “No.”

Peralta wrote down the address where it happened. It was downtown, near the beautiful Santa Fe railroad station.

“Who is she to you?” It was the first time I had spoken besides the introductions after he walked in the door.

The cat’s eyes focused on me. After a pause: “my sister.” “Why not Grace Smith?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed and he assessed me, finding me wanting. “She had a different last name.”

I suppose it made sense. Lindsey and Robin had different last names, different fathers. Maybe Felix and Grace’s mother remarried. Maybe Grace had been married. I persuaded myself I was being overly suspicious.

I said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

His gaze would have cut me down if it had been a gun.

He produced a photo from his portfolio and slid it across Peralta’s immaculate desktop. It was five-by-seven and glossy. The young woman had butterscotch hair with blond streaks, stylishly cut to hang slightly above her shoulders, large brown eyes, very pretty. She didn’t look anything like him. Great smile and something more, something magnetic. The camera liked her. She liked the camera.

When the suit sleeve and French cuff rode up with his reach, I saw a multi-colored tattoo on his lower arm and almost unstrapped the gun on my belt. I had recently made enemies in the drug cartels and didn’t know if our business was settled.

“This condo.” I studied his face. “Was it hers?” The skin around his eyes tensed. “No.”

I waited and after a full two minutes he talked again. “It belongs to a man named Larry Zisman.”

It sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place it. Smith sensed it, and continued.

“He was an All-American quarterback for the Sun Devils back in the seventies, then he played pro for ten years before his knees were wrecked.”

“Now I remember,” I said. “I never read about this in the newspaper.”

“Funny about that,” Felix replied. “Larry Zisman is a celebrity with a lot of powerful friends.”

“Is he married?” I asked.

“Very.” Felix adjusted one leg and very slightly winced. It was the first time his face had given away an expression beyond tough. The next question was logical enough, but Peralta didn’t ask it. “Note?” Peralta could be more taciturn and economical in his language than anyone I had ever met.

“No. She didn’t leave a note. Nothing. That’s one of the things I don’t like.”

“What else makes you doubt the police?” “She was naked and her hands were bound.”

Now he had my attention for reasons beyond his appearance.

Peralta grunted and I heard his pen scratch along the paper. “It’s a good department,” Peralta said. “San Diego. You need to understand that these things are usually what they seem, however much the loved ones want it to be otherwise.”

I wasn’t sure about that. I had seen botched death investigations, even by good departments.

“I have confidence in you, Sheriff. That’s why I’m here.” “I’m the former sheriff.” Peralta said it without any emotion, then pulled out the sheet with our fee schedule and handed it across to Felix with his meaty hand.

That was another thing that didn’t feel right: “former sheriff.” Until four months ago, Peralta had been the sheriff of Maricopa County for what seemed like forever. Everybody I knew thought he would be sheriff as long as he wanted it, unless he decided to run for governor. I was one of his deputies and the Sheriff’s Office historian. It was good work for somebody with a Ph.D. in history in this or any job market.

But those assumptions had been based on another Arizona, before millions of retirees and Midwesterners had collided with the huge wave of illegal immigration before the big housing crash. It was a bad time to be a Hispanic running for office and Peralta lost, even though he was a life-long Republican. There would be no Governor Peralta in today’s Arizona. He took the defeat stoically. Instead of moving on to any of the lucrative consulting offers that had come his way, or encouraging the feeler to become San Antonio police chief, he set up shop as a private investigator. And here I was, too, as his partner. He was my oldest friend.

Our office was shabby compared with the places Felix Smith must have been accustomed to, based on his suit. We were on Grand Avenue, the bleakest thoroughfare in a city with abundant competition for the title, in what had once been a little motel, an “auto court.” Most of the motel had been bulldozed long ago—Phoenix loved clearing land and leaving it that way. The new mayor was trying to encourage art projects and gardens on vacant lots, but I wondered if the effort would do much good. Robin had found a 1948 post card of the motel: a charming affair with half a dozen buildings, each with two rooms, a swimming pool, lawns, and palm trees. All that was left was the former front office—a small, square adobe with enough room for our two desks, some file cabinets, and places for clients to sit. Except for our comfortable chairs, the décor was spare. Recently, Peralta had added a black leather sofa.

We were barely moved in. Peralta had sprung for a bookcase for me, but I hadn’t put a single volume in it. Boxes of correspondence, all for Peralta, sat behind my desk. Speaking requests for him came almost every day. We really needed a secretary. Behind the office were a bathroom and a storeroom, the latter having been remodeled and fortified by Peralta for gun storage. Robin had named it the Danger Room. We each had a key to it, but it was mostly Peralta’s playroom. A super-sized Trane air conditioning system had been installed.

Outside, sixty-year-old asphalt was the best you got for parking. It was as much potholes and the crumbled remains of petroleum products melted and reformed, summer after summer, as it was a parking lot. A carport next to the office was for our vehicles. Mine barely fit thanks to the size of Peralta’s extended- cab pickup truck. The only other improvements had been a heavy-grade fence with a section that rolled across the driveway to seal things up tight when we were gone and restoring the old motel sign of a cowboy throwing a lariat. The neon was new and blinked happily into the night. And some well-concealed security cameras. We both had made enemies over the years.

Across the wide, divided avenue stretched railroad tracks and an industrial district. It was two miles and a new lifetime away from our old world: Peralta’s palatial suite of offices, and my beloved aerie on the fourth floor of the art deco 1929 county courthouse. No more badge. No more cold cases to solve. After I had left academia—or was I thrown out?—I had taken Peralta’s offer of a job in the Sheriff’s Office reluctantly. I hadn’t even intended to stay in Phoenix. I would be back long enough to sell the house. But I stayed.

It came to seem natural. Deputy David Mapstone.

Then it went away with great suddenness. Much else did, too. “The point is,” Felix said, “I want another opinion. A deeper investigation. I couldn’t think of a better person than the former sheriff of Maricopa County. I want the best. Your reputation is very good, too, Doctor Mapstone.”

Doctor Mapstone. That had been my grandfather, a dentist. I was merely a guy with too many history degrees. Once I had been mildly proud of the honorific. Now, for reasons I didn’t fully understand, it irritated me. Like when somebody other than Lindsey called me “Dave.”

He would be getting the best with Peralta, no doubt about that. Perhaps he was pleased that neither of us was awed by Zisman. I recalled now that Zisman’s nickname had been “Larry Zip” and he had led many thrilling comebacks when he was at Arizona State. But I wasn’t a rabid sports fan or sports historian, and Peralta’s passions were golf and baseball. So we wouldn’t approach this case as hero worshippers. Still, flattery seemed very out of place coming from this rough-looking, expensively dressed man.

“Was she suicidal?” Peralta asked. “No.”

“Bi-polar? Any mental illness? On any anti-depressants?” Spoken like the former husband of a psychologist. “Did she have a history of emotional problems?”

Felix shook the big head sparingly several times. “She was a sweet girl.”

“Did she have enemies?” I asked.

“Of course not.” It was the first time his voice had showed anything other than a careful detachment.

I asked other questions. When was the last time he had spoken to her? Two days before her death. How was she? Everything seemed fine. No change in her voice? Nothing new going on in her life? No. No. His voice grew more taut.

Expanding on my winning interpersonal skills, I continued. “What was she doing in Zisman’s condominium?”

“What the hell business is…?” He stopped himself.

“We’re going to need to know.” This from Peralta’s deep, authoritative voice, before which the toughest cops had quailed. Felix allowed the slightest sigh. “I don’t know. I know what you’re thinking. I didn’t even think she knew the man. She had a boyfriend in San Diego. I can give you his name.”

Peralta leaned back and said nothing. Felix rolled his head and knocked out a kink with such force that his neck emitted a sharp pop and I wondered for a second if he might have injured himself.

He was fine. “Money won’t be a problem.” He floated the fee schedule back across Peralta’s desk.

Peralta tapped his pen against the pad. He didn’t need a case. Sharon, his ex, had made sure he was set up with money for life and his only vices were guns and beer. I did. I was already digging into savings that had never been plentiful. Lindsey had a good job and her paycheck dropped into our joint checking account every two weeks. But I was reluctant to use her money. I had never thought of her money and my money during our marriage, but that was before the annus horribilis we had gone through. Money would be nice right now, but I wasn’t sure I wanted it from this particular case.

“Let me take down a little more information and we’ll make a preliminary investigation,” Peralta said. “After that, I’ll decide if we’re going to continue.”

“Fair enough,” Felix said.

The “little more information” took another forty-five minutes.

Afterward, Felix pushed across a thick envelope. “I hope ten thousand is enough for a retainer.”

My greedy heart leapt. My nervous leg didn’t celebrate by calming down.

Peralta studied the contents. I could see hundred-dollar bills. “I didn’t want to wait for a check to clear,”    Felix said. “I’d appreciate it if you can start now.”

Maybe Peralta nodded, but the man stood. He handed each of us a card with his name and number. No address.

“What’s your line of work, Mister Smith?” “Between jobs.”

Peralta didn’t push the question so I let it be.

Felix shook our hands. He gave me a long, vise-like shake. I gave it back as hard as I could and met his stare full on. If he was packing, my peripheral vision wasn’t good enough to pick it up. “I hope you don’t mind if I also check you out.” Peralta’s voice snapped the moment. “Not a bit.”

Felix pivoted and pulled out a platinum money clip. From this, he handed the big man a driver’s license. When Peralta had written down what he wanted, he gave it back and thanked him.

Felix let the money clip fall into his pocket. “You can’t be too careful.”

He turned and walked to the door. As he opened it, a hot gust from the outside caught his left cuff, raising it briefly. Above the pricey loafer on his foot, I saw something that looked like it was out of a Terminator movie. A lower-limb prosthetic, very high-tech, titanium and graphite. He definitely hadn’t received it through the average health-care plan. I had read about ones embedded with a microprocessor that were worn by wounded soldiers.

When I looked up again, I saw him watching me watching him. The yellow eyes hated me.

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