Chapter Fifty-two

“You think there’s a connection between Jimmy Martin and Ricky Suarez?” Nardelli asked.

“If Kate is right, somebody spooked him,” I said.

“How does a blue-collar construction worker like Jimmy get involved with a probable gangbanger?” Kate asked.

“It’s not so much the gangbanger as it is the gang,” I said.

Nardelli explained. “There are two Hispanic gangs in town. The Cholos work the southwest side of town along Southwest Boulevard, and Nuestra Familia operates in Northeast.”

“Which is where Jimmy lives,” I said. “Cesar Mendez runs Nuestra. Suarez probably belongs to him.”

“Most likely scenario,” Nardelli said, “Jimmy bought drugs from Mendez and stiffed him. Mendez finds out that Jimmy is at the Farm and sends Ricky to deliver a message, maybe even kill him.”

“A message, maybe, but kill him, I doubt it. This isn’t the state penitentiary where a guy can walk into the shower and come out on a slab and no one knows anything about it. And, with all the open spaces, Ricky couldn’t touch him without half a dozen correction officers coming down on him.”

“So Mendez sacrifices Ricky. He’s got a dozen more just like him,” Nardelli said.

“The price is too high on a hit like that. Mendez can’t take the chance that Ricky would make a deal and trade his life for Mendez’s life.”

“What then?”

“I don’t know. Let’s ask Ricky,” I said.

I stepped down from the ambulance, my knees giving out as my feet hit the ground. I descended slowly, like I was melting, eyes clenched and my head floating in brain fog until my knees and hands touched the ground. My body was playing out the fundamental law of physics that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I’d pushed far enough and hard enough that it pushed back, calling an all stop.

“Or not,” Lucy said.

They talked about me as if I weren’t there, Nardelli asking questions, Lucy and Kate explaining, Nardelli saying “Hell of a thing” and “He’s no use to anybody like this,” Kate volunteering to take me home, and Lucy saying she didn’t think so. There was nothing I could do, no point in trying to get up until the moment passed, no reason for Lucy and Kate to help me until I could stand on my own.

“Okay,” I said when I could open my eyes and my head began to clear.

Lucy hooked her arm under mine, and I made it to my feet. “Welcome back.”

“Good to be back. Let’s go see Suarez,” I said, the words fighting to get out of my mouth, one syllable crashing into the next.

“That train has left the station, and Nardelli and the superintendent are the only ones on it,” Lucy said. “I’m taking you home.”

My legs were still equal parts jelly and jam, and the rest of me was doing a slow-motion version of twist and shout. The only thing missing was a robotic voice assuring me that resistance was futile.

Joy met us at the front door, Lucy handing me off with a sad smile like I was a favorite uncle who’d had too much to drink at the family reunion. Roxy and Ruby swarmed around me, jumping and scratching my legs, indifferent to my condition as if to say Don’t make your problems our problems. I couldn’t and wouldn’t, sliding to the floor and gathering them in my lap.

“Thanks for leaving me a message,” Joy said, when the dogs lost interest, having smelled my breath, nipped at my nose, and allowed me to scratch their bellies.

She sat on the floor across from me, her head tilted to one side, her sweater hanging off her shoulders, billowing. Though she ate with gusto, she had struggled to put enough weight back on, and no matter what size she wore, it always looked too big.

“I’m sorry about yesterday. I knew you would be worried, and I should have called.”

“It’s okay.”

“And I’m sorry about Kate. I don’t know what to tell you. She just showed up.”

She let out a long sigh. “You never knew my mother. She died of breast cancer when I was a teenager. I remember sitting around the dinner table with her and my father and my brothers. Once she knew she was terminal, she talked about what would happen to my father after she was gone. She knew he’d be no good by himself, that he wouldn’t be able to take it being alone. She’d look at him across the table, pointing at him with her fork, and tell him it was fine with her if he could find someone who would take him.”

“What did he say?”

“He’d laugh and say thanks a lot, but since he’d fooled her into marrying him there wasn’t much chance he’d get that lucky again.”

“Your father was a wise man.”

“Yes, and my mother had more wisdom. She was right about him. And I’m right about you.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re like my father. You’re no good alone. So it’s okay with me. Whether it’s Kate or someone else.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just hugged her until I felt her tears on my neck. She pulled away, wiping her nose.

“So, tell me what’s happening on your cases.”

She was letting me know that she wasn’t hiding or walking away, that our home was my refuge and she was, in the truest sense of that tired cliche, there for me, making me feel at once grateful and shabby.

“I solved one case today, but it wasn’t one I was working on.”

She boosted me off the floor, spotting me as we climbed the stairs. I told her about my day, leaving nothing out while we undressed, showered, and fell into bed.

“The boy from the gang who was at the Farm,” she said, “you think he works for this Cesar Mendez?”

“I’d bet on it.”

“And you think Mendez is also looking for Brett Staley?”

“You’re two for two.”

“And you said that Jimmy Martin and Nick Staley are friends and that you think Brett Staley helped Frank Crenshaw buy the gun he used to kill his wife.”

I rolled over on my side, propped on my elbow. “Don’t stop now. You’re on a roll.”

She gave me a smile, the first real one I’d seen in days, and stroked my face with her palm. “Then they’re all connected, Frank Crenshaw, the Staleys, Jimmy Martin, and Mendez. The question is how? Figure that out, and you’ll be home in time for dinner tomorrow night.”

She kissed me on the cheek and turned off the light. I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, my eyes adjusting to the dark, the final spasms of the long day bouncing me from the inside out, my brain clear enough to know that her last question was the right question, but too muddled to hazard an answer. I reached for her hand, squeezing it beneath the covers.

“How was your day?”

“Go to sleep. We can talk about it tomorrow.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

“You never did, but that’s okay. Even a blind squirrel gets lucky and finds an acorn now and then.”

“A blind squirrel? Really?”

“I read it somewhere. No shut up and go to sleep.”