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I rolled down the drivers side window and inhaled the dry, sage-scented air. For natural Southern California scenery, few trips are more beautiful than the one to the Mystic Mesa casino, which occupies a premium spot on the Temecu Reservation. At an elevation of nine hundred feet, the combination gambling hall/hotel is nestled about halfway up the boulder studded foothills that peak at Palomar Mountain, home of the world-renowned observatory.
Driving east, I couldnt help but think about my last trip into the back-country. After McGowans death last summer, Id taken his ashes and his favorite car deep into the Sonoran Desert and burned them together in a final, blazing farewell. A strange thing had happened as Id watched the brilliant orange glow of the fire. As the bereaved often do, Id wondered if his spirit really did live on and if so, did he know how much I loved him? Hed answered as clearly as if hed been sitting at my side.
Always and ever.
That was the last time Id heard his voice. Id waited to hear it again, prayed to hear it again. The silence had stretched now for nearly three months. I was beginning to wonder if it hadnt been an auditory hallucination brought on by intense grief and desert heat.
A green road marker ahead snapped me into the present. The small white lettering read "TEMECU RESERVATION, NEXT RIGHT." Just past a ramshackle place called Eds Country Café I made a right onto Mystic Mesa Road. The seat vibrated as my tires rolled over the cattle crossing that marked the western entrance to the reservation. I sped under electric blue skies along smooth black asphalt, hoping I wouldnt get lost. A half mile later I could see this wasnt going to be a problem. The casino complex was impossible to miss, distinguished as it was by a gigantic fiberglass tepee rising into the sky like Disneylands Matterhorn.
I turned at the tepee and pulled into acres of parking spaces filled with more cars than Id been expecting on a Monday afternoon. Instead of letters or numbers, the lot was divided into sections marked by painted metal sculptures of desert wildlife: Jackrabbit, Eagle, Coyote, Lizard. I parked under a cranky-looking coyote, chuckling at the goofiness of the neo-Native American motif.
Following the footpath to the casino, I reviewed what Id learned from David about the murder victim, Dan Aquillo. Thirty-seven-year-old male. Luiseno Indian. Black hair, brown eyes, five-eleven, one-eighty. Statistics onlyI had no sense of the inner man. I was hoping Aquillos girlfriend would remedy that for me today. The casino grounds were beautiful; I felt more like I was going to summer camp than a house of gaming. A man-made stream gurgled over some granite boulders to my right and a high desert breeze rustled the pines overhead.
The tranquil mood vanished as I neared the casino entrance. About a half-dozen men and women stood on the sidewalk, carrying placards above their heads. Each sign was an enlarged photograph of a dark-haired man under the boldface headline: JUSTICE NOW. The photograph of Dan Aquillo was a two-dimensional image, no more revealing than the police report statistics. A couple of the protesters gave me the evil eye as I approached the door. I gave them a sympathetic thumbs-up and they parted to let me in.
I dont know what hit me firstthe flashing lights, the riotous noise, or the adrenaline rush. Swept into the crowds milling past the slot machines, I suddenly felt high, as if Id taken something illegal. The good-time sensation baffled me, since ordinarily I loathe casinos. I hadnt been kidding when I told Dr. Hurston that gambling made me nervous.
Hurston had said that hed lost his last hundred dollars at the blackjack table of Aquillos girlfriend, Trish Brown. I weaved through the milling bodies and scanned shirt fronts, hoping that the dealers might wear nametags. No such luck.
I moved through the casino in a daze, my senses overloaded by lights, noise, and the discordant vibes of the gamblers. Their emotionsnumbness, excitement, anxiety, ecstasy, love, loathingclashed all around me. It was the psychic equivalent of a heavy-metal band, jazz quartet, and full symphony orchestra all tuning up at once. Shaking my head to clear the fuzz in my brain, I kept my focus straight ahead, on the blackjack tables.
I stopped at a game where one of the few female dealers presided. Standing behind the players, I watched her toss cards onto the table with motions as fluid and precise as a dancers. I studied the action for a few rounds and when a seat opened up, I slid in.
Thats when it started. I began to know things. Its an unpredictable gift, an ability I cant force to come about. Nor can I stop it, once its begun.
I knew that the short-haired brunette at the end of the table would lose. In spite of her pretty white smile and positive attitude, I could see her defeat as clearly as if she were wearing it like a dead albatross around her neck. I picked up nothing about the oily-looking man to my left, whose nicotine-stained fingers fiddled with his chips. As for me, it was as if Id already played my hands and seen their outcome.
Tonight I was destined to win.
The dealer flicked our cards across the green felt tabletop. I pulled two tens. When it was time to take or decline a third card, the brunette on the end smiled brightly at the dealer, eagerness shining in her eyes.
"Hit me," she said confidently.
In the split second before her top card landed on the table, I foresaw her whole night. A series of losses, just like this one. On my inner movie screen I watched her taking a long car ride with friends, back to wherever home was. She was in the backseat, looking out the rear window at the black highway retreating behind her. I could feel her disappointment.
The jack of hearts landed on her cards, wiping her out. She looked stunned. I was staring at her stricken face when I heard the dealer prompting me.
"How about it?"
I had twenty. Anything higher than an ace would wipe me out. The smart thing to do would be to hold, but now I had a perverse desire not to win
"Go," I said.
She flicked her wrist and the ace of spades flew onto my stack. Twenty-one. So much for altering destiny.
The oily man on my left drew a high card and folded. He got up and nodded to the dealer.
"See you tomorrow, Karen."
So the dealers name was Karen, not Trish. Id sensed this wasnt the one Id wanted, but I had to start somewhere. An eager young man took over the vacated seat. As the new player settled in, I leaned over and spoke to Karen.
"Have you seen Trish?"
She shook her head and began tossing us our cards.
"Trish Brown? Shes off tonight."
There went my primary contact. Now what? I stayed put, deciding to play until I lost a hand. My winning streak lasted for so many rounds that I lost count. By the time I drew a losing card, Id amassed over six hundred dollars. Not bad, considering that I started with a twenty. I scooped up my winnings and made my way toward the back of the casino.
I paused at one of the slot machines, which was being fed a steady diet of coins by a hump-backed woman in an orange cardigan sweater. I knew she was about to win. When the moment came and the machine burst into a spasm of flashing lights and ringing bells, I shook my head. I had to admit it was a little thrilling, seeing this way. It wouldnt go on forever, but I was enjoying it while it lasted.
Using two hands, the woman scooped her coins into a wicker-weave satchel and walked away with a smile on her face. Almost as an afterthought, I stepped up, slipped a coin into the slot, and pulled the handle. Again the machine erupted, this time with sirens on top of the flashing lights and ringing bells. A small mountain of coins piled up in the trough. Twice in a row, the machine had relinquished a jackpot. What were the chances? People gathered around as I scooped up the coins. Added to my blackjack winnings, my take came to nearly two thousand dollars.
I found the cashiers window and read a notice mounted on the wall: Any Winnings Over $1199 Must Be Recorded On a W2G Form. I approached the clerk behind the bars.
"Guess Ill need a W2G," I said.
He was smooth and dark and adorable, with eyelashes like Bambis. He looked too young to be betting, let alone working in a gambling joint.
"Those white forms? Um, I just ran out and Im not sure where to find more. I gotta call my manager. Can you wait a minute?"
I nodded and listened as he picked up a phone and made his call.
"Yeah, this is Mark in the cash cage. Theres a lady here who needs a W2G form and Im all out." He studied my face. "Uh-huh. Id say so. Okay."
He hung up.
"Go upstairs," he said as he pointed past my shoulder, "to the second door on your right. Peter Waletas office. You can get the form there."
I walked up the carpeted spiral staircase and looked out over the casino. Mystic Mesa was funky. It had the homespun feel of a bingo hall but reached for glamour with a few glitzy Vegas trappings, like the mirrored balls hanging from the ceiling. Eyes in the sky, each containing a video camera, I was sure.
I reached the hallway at the top of the stairs. The second door on the right stood ajar and I could hear the sounds of a televised ballgame floating into the hall. I tapped gently the first time. When I got no response I gave the door a knuckle pounding.
The first things I saw were the soles of two large shoes. They belonged to a man, heavy-set but not fat, sitting behind a plain steel desk with his feet propped up. He seemed mesmerized by the football game coming through the small Sony Trinitron on the corner of his desk. His thick black hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail, his Dockers were pressed, and his sage green polo shirt looked new. The game cut to a commercial and he turned to me without smiling.
"Mr. Waleta?" I said.
"Yeah. Youre the one who needs the W2G?"
I nodded and he swung his feet off the desk. He opened the top drawer, took out a stack of forms, and slid the bundle across the desk to me.
"Would you mind taking the rest of those down to that dipshit in the cash cage?" He caught the swear word too late and added, "Sorry, no offense."
"Its okay. Im not that delicate."
That cracked a smile.
"So how lucky did you get tonight?"
"Eighteen, nineteen hundred. Something like that."
He lifted his dark brows.
"You got photo I.D. and a Social Security number? Well need to see both before you can collect."
I stepped forward and put my open wallet on Waletas desk. He flipped through my ID cards, nodding slightly. When he got to my P.I. license he looked up.
"No shit. Come to think of it, mind if I ask you a few questions?"
* * * * *
Peter Waleta took a hard look at my P.I. license, folded my wallet shut and handed it back to me. I could see in the casino managers dark eyes that hed shut something else, as well. An open mind, perhaps.
"Questions about what?" he asked.
"William Hurston. The man who was arrested here night before last." I put my wallet back in my purse and spotted a pack of sugarless gum at the bottom. I fished it out and held it up to Waleta. "Want some?"
He shook his head. He had the air of a man who did not trust easily. I unwrapped a piece and popped it into my mouth, aiming for a casual, non-threatening impression.
"Who you working for?" he asked.
"Im not working for anybody just yet. Thats why Im asking questions. I want to get your take on the guy."
"I already made a formal statement to the police. Once is enough." He turned back to his football game.
"Informally, can you just tell me if Hurston was a trouble maker or a problem of any kind? His attorney wants me to investigate the case, but if Hurston has a reputation around here, I wont do it. Simple as that."
It appeared that the Vikings were mowing down the Packers like grass in summer. When the umpire signaled second down, Waleta returned his attention to me.
"So the defense attorney sent you."
"Nobody sent me. I came on my own. To see what I could find out about Hurston before I agree to join the defense team."
The Packers safety intercepted the Vikings ball and began making a hell of a run down the field. The noise of an angry crowd filled the room. Waleta grabbed the remote and muted the sound.
"Like I said, Ive already talked to the police. Id like to help you out, but without an attorney here I dont think its such a wise idea. Im sorry." He was gentle but firm, handling me the way you might turn down a girl scout hawking Thin Mints.
"Can you just tell me if Hurstons one of those guys whos rotten inside but charming on the outside? Because when I spoke with him this morning he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. Pathetic, but nice."
"Ill go with the pathetic part," Waleta said.
"You know him, then."
He watched the TV, ignoring my comment.
"I wonder," I said, "could a pathetic man do the kind of damage that was inflicted on Dan Aquillo?"
Waleta pointed the remote in my direction, his dark eyes flashing.
"Dont go there, okay?"
I held up my hands in mock surrender.
"Sorry. Please dont mute me."
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
"Can you just tell me if Dan Aquillo knew Bill Hurston?"
He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at me.
"This is beginning to sound like official-type questions."
"No, not at all. Im just trying to get a sense about Hurston. Because if Dan ever mentioned that Hurston was an asshole or a problem or something like that, then Im off the job, period. Let someone else take up the cause of the sleazeballs, thats what I say."
My eyes were drawn to the muted television set. In a precognitive flash I saw the final score. I was definitely having one of those nights.
"Packers have got this one," I said, "twenty-one to twenty."
"Yeah, right. Dream on. So youre one of them emotional Packers fans, huh?"
"A branch of my family lives in Wisconsin, so I follow the team. But Im not particularly invested."
"Well, thats good, because theyve got fifty-three seconds to pull off a miracle." Waleta leaned his bulky body back. His chair squeaked in complaint. The Vikings tried a sweep to the right but the running backs feet slipped on the pulverized turf. Loss of three yards. Waleta shifted uncomfortably. "You know, I would like some of that gum, if you dont mind."
I fished the pack out of my purse and tossed it onto his desk.
"Keep it," I said.
"Thanks." He unwrapped a piece and chewed thoughtfully for a minute or so.
"You promise this is just between you and me?" he asked.
"Yeah, I promise."
"Okay. I didnt know Hurston personally, but he ran up some debt awhile back and was about to be cut off here. Dan and I were partners in the casino, so we discussed it. Like I said, I didnt know Hurston personally but I knew he was trouble. I was you, Id turn the job down."
"Thanks for the advice. And--" I held up the stack of W2Gs "for the tax forms."
"No problem. So how much was it you won tonight?"
"Eighteen hundred something," I said again.
He dug in his back pocket and came up with a slim black wallet. He fished out a hundred-dollar bill and held it out to me.
"Sounds like youre hot. Go win some more."
I stepped forward and took the Ben Franklin from his fingers.
"Why, thank you," I said with feeling.
"Dont mention it."
It looked like an expansive gesture, but I knew that Waleta was counting on his hundred dollars to shut me up and lure me back to the game tables, where he hoped Id play until the house recouped some of my winnings. I walked to the door and when I reached it, turned back.
"One last thing. Hurston said he made a phone call to his ex-wife from his hotel room the night of the murder. Ill trade you this hundred for a look at the phone record."
"Your attorney can subpoena those records, you know."
"I know. But time is money, Mr. Waleta."
He smiled. "Yes, time is money and the Packers have less than a minute to live. All right, you got a deal. This games over, anyway."
I handed the hundred back to Waleta as he walked past and followed him down the stairs. The game room was more crowded as the night wore on, the cacophony of vibes raised to an even higher pitch. Waleta and I dodged customers drunk on alcohol and anticipation. Beneath the din of the ringing slot machines and conversational noise, I heard the PA system piping out a steady stream of moldy oldies. If you want to know if he loves you so, its in his kiss.
"What kind of lousy relationship advice is that?" I shouted into Waletas ear.
"That song. Telling girls that they can know how much a guy loves them by his kiss."
He shrugged. "Sold a lot of records, didnt it?"
True, I thought. No wonder baby boomers were so confused.
At the rear exit, Waleta held the door and I stepped outside. The night air had the kind of chill that let me know summer was on its way out. We stood facing a single-story building with a row of gold-numbered doors. The Mystic Mesa Hotel.
"So this is where it happened." I glanced over at Waleta as we walked toward the main office. His profile was as stony as a Mt. Rushmore carving and he was about as talkative. "I feel sorry for whoever found Aquillos body," I went on. "Jesus, that must have been awful."
He turned and fixed me with a heavy look. Hed seen the body, I knew by his haunted eyes. When we reached the hotel office, he held the door for me.
I heard a familiar sound as we walked in. A television set was mounted in the corner of the room near the ceiling, tuned to the Packers-Viking game. A frowning gray-haired woman sat behind the registration desk, arms crossed over her chest. She was wearing a shapeless floral-print dress that could have fit a woman twice her size.
"Hey, Rosemary," Waleta said.
"Shhh!" She glared at him, her deeply lined face full of menace. "This is an important play."
I glanced at the set. In the time it had taken Waleta and me to walk to the office, Wisconsin had intercepted the ball and tied the score. With seventeen seconds left, the Packers were kicking for the game-winning extra point.
Waleta didnt notice. He walked to the counter and spoke quietly but firmly.
"This lady needs to see some records."
"Hold your horses," she said, without taking her eyes off the TV.
The play went through and the crowd roared. Waleta looked up at the TV. As the final scorePackers twenty-one, Vikings, twentyflashed on the screen, he did a double take on me.
"Son of a gun. You psychic or something?"
"Sometimes," I said.
Rosemary turned away from the television and gave us her attention, a satisfied look on her face.
"Okay. What is it you need?" She peered at me with eyes that looked like theyd seen it all at least twice. I wasnt fooled by the grandmotherly flowered dress. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to get anything by this woman.
"Shes an investigator," Waleta said before I could introduce myself. He looked at Rosemary with an expression that left something unspoken, I wasnt sure what. "She needs the September thirteen phone record for room one-oh-nine."
Rosemary rolled her chair to a computer and tapped the keyboard with her bony fingers. Shed put her gray hair up in a bun, but some of the hairpins had fallen out and the left side was drooping in back.
"You want a copy of this?" she asked.
"If you dont mind," Waleta said.
A dot matrix printer churned out the invoice. She tore it off and handed the track-fed sheet to Waleta. He placed it on the countertop and we scanned the listings.
"This just gives the date and cost of the call," I said to Rosemary. "Do you have something that shows the actual phone number that was called?"
She looked to Waleta, a question in her ancient eyes.
"Go ahead," he said. "The attorneys are gonna get these anyway."
She made a few more keystrokes, printed out another sheet, and handed it over. Again Waleta and I scanned the page. Hurston had made two calls that night. I pointed to the number with the coastal prefix.
"This must be the ex-wifes number. But he also called extension three-oh-three. Is that a room number at the hotel?"
"No," Waleta said slowly, "thats Dan Aquillos extension at the casino."
"So Hurston called Aquillo from his room at eleven-thirty the night of the murder. That doesnt look so great, does it?"
Waleta raised an eyebrow. "I told you Id decline his case if I were you."
The facts were falling into a straight line that pointed directly to Hurstons guilt. But I wasnt getting a straight feeling. I folded the phone record and put it in my purse.
"Maybe youre right," I said. "Is there any chance I could take a look at the room where it happened?"
"That areas out of bounds," Waleta said firmly.
"I just want a sense of where it happened, is all."
Rosemary was surfing through the channels now, pretending not to listen.
"Tell you what," I said. "Ill give you half of the money I won at the casino tonight if you let me take a look at that room."
"Fifty percent of eighteen hundred is nine hundred bucks." Waletas voice had climbed half an octave. "Are you crazy?"
"Sometimes," I said with a shrug.
He shook his head.
"Sorry, but the cops have got that all roped off."
"Theyve already taken prints and fibers," I said. "Besides, I wont touch a thing, I just want a look."
"For crying out loud, Peter," Rosemary mumbled without moving her eyes from the TV. "Take the money and let her look at the damn room."
I followed Peter Waletas linebacker-sized body past the Mystic Mesa Hotel guest rooms, their curtains shut tight. An occasional wall sconce lit the passageway, leaving dark patches of shadow in between.
"We grew a lot faster than we ever expected to, so were adding a second story to the hotel," he said. "Thats why the area up ahead is roped off."
The passageway ended sharply in an L. Sawhorses strung with yellow CAUTION tape blocked off the wing that continued to the right. A cardboard sign on the middle sawhorse apologized for the construction mess beyond:
PARDON OUR DUST!
I chuckled under my breath.
"Whats so funny?" Waleta asked.
"Oh, nothing. Its just that phrase, pardon my dust. Always reminds me of what Dorothy Parker wanted put on her tombstone."
" Excuse my dust. "
In the dim light of the hallway, Waletas face scrunched in puzzlement.
"This Dorothy sounds weird. She a friend of yours?"
"No," I said with a smile. "She was a writer. Shes dead now."
I stood behind the sawhorse and looked at the wing under construction. The half-finished framing of the second-story add-on was silhouetted in pitch black against the night sky.
Waleta moved the sawhorse a few inches and slipped behind it.
"Watch out for nails," he said. "Theyre all over the place."
I followed him down the dark hallway, weak light from the parking lot the only source of illumination. I studied Waleta from behind, trying to get a sense of him. He swayed slightly from side to side with the lumbering gait of a large man. His aura was calm, almost placid. If he had any troubles, they were buried deep inside. He stopped at the last door at the end of the wing. Room 109.
"Why was Hurston staying in this room, if this part of the hotel was off limits?" I asked.
"Looks like Dan comped him a room last weekend. I noticed there was no charge on that invoice Rosemary gave you. Dan let him bunk for free, I guess, since were not making any profit off these rooms anyway."
"Why would he do that?"
"I dunno. Maybe he didnt want him to drive drunk. Maybe he was giving him a break." Waleta pulled a plastic card key from his shirt pocket and slid it into the door lock. The tiny light on the lock flashed green.
"Was there any sign of forced entry?" I asked.
"Not that Im aware."
"How many of those card keys do you issue for each room?"
Waleta covered the knob with his shirt tail.
"The cops finished taking their prints and pictures yesterday, but you cant be too careful," he said as he pushed the door open.
The room was pitch dark. Waleta reached for the wall switch but nothing happened.
"Shit. Just a second. Wait here."
He walked in and a few seconds later light from the bathroom cast an oblong shaft across the floor.
"Has this wall switch been dead like that for a while?" I asked.
"Dont think so. It usually turns on the wall lamp. Must be burned out or something."
Waleta walked over to a sconce on the far side of the room. He put his hand behind the frosted glass and the light came on.
"Bulb was loose, is all."
I made a mental note of it. Had someone loosened the bulb intentionally?
Light from the sconce made plain a wide bloodstain at the foot of the unmade bed. The drying blood had blackened the brown carpet, crusting the pile into spiky tufts. At the rear of the room, a sliding glass door led to a tiny balcony. The small closet stood open, empty save for a few bony hangers.
I didnt need to walk in. The atmosphere was as charged as a midwestern summer afternoon before a thunderstorm. With just one glance at the bloodstains on the floor by the bed, images began pushing into my consciousness like fresh memories from an unwelcome nightmare.
A darkened form emerging from the closet, raising a hammer over a mans head. Bringing the blunt tool down with cruel force. The body crumpling into a heap. The one with the hammer striking three more furious blows. Bending down, peering at the fallen body. After a time, walking out the front door, hammer in hand.
None of this affected me emotionally. I was an impartial observer, an objective audience. That was good, that meant the channel was clear. I waited for more, but that was it.
"Thank you, Peter. Thats all I need for now."
He switched off the lights, came back out and pulled the door shut with a click.
"For nine hundred dollars? The pleasures mine."