8

Ludovna came down the street with his date, right hand resting high on her ass before slipping down and up under her skirt long enough to feel the slide of nylon on both legs. His arm was around her shoulders as they went into a restaurant, and Marquez waited until they were at a table in the corner and he could see a waiter opening a bottle of wine.

“You’re good to go,” he told Cairo, and Cairo slid onto his back at the curb and shimmied under the front of Ludovna’s Cadillac. He attached a GPS unit to the engine block, taking his time with the battery pack. He was still under the Cadillac when the waiter returned to pour more wine.

The rain started again as Ludovna and the woman stood up from dinner. When they walked outside Ludovna draped his coat over her narrow shoulders, and rain soaked through his shirt and blew against his face, but he didn’t seem to care or be worried about that or anything else. He held the woman near his chest and sheltered her body as they walked to his car. He was half bald, the remaining black hair slick in the rain, his eyes checking the sidewalk ahead, checking his car, cars passing on the street, checking everything.

Marquez watched them pull away in the Cadillac, an Escalade, an ‘04, last year’s model. He drove toward his Land Park house but stopped at a bar on the way.

“The night is young,” Marquez radioed.

Cairo had run the Cadillac plates and gotten the name Sandy Michaels and a Ventura address for the owner. The digital clock on Marquez’s dash moved toward midnight. He could see the Cadillac under a light in the parking lot and thought about Raburn’s story of Ludovna and the treble hook. Shauf drove up, and he watched her get out and walk up to his truck. She got in on the passenger side, and they talked in darkness.

“My friend Cheryl in administration called me today,” she said. “She told me a story about Bell that might explain why he’s been all over us.”

“Must be a good story to call you on a Sunday.”

From her tone it didn’t sound like it was going to be a happy story, at least not for Bell. Marquez glanced over at her. He’d probably sat through more surveillances with Shauf than with anyone else in his years with the SOU. It was still less than a year since her sister had died of cancer, and, though she seemed like she was doing better, there was still a quiet to her that filled the cab at times.

“This happened the day before Thanksgiving,” she said. “A kid showed up with a pizza delivery for Bell at headquarters. You know how Chief Baird doesn’t like anything brought in, so Bell’s pretty snippy about it when they tell him his pizza has arrived. He’s got to stop what he’s doing, writing a memo to God or whatever it was, and leave his office and tell the pizza kid he made a mistake. So he comes down the corridor and tells this kid he didn’t order any pizza, and what’s more would never order pizza to headquarters. But the kid checks the name again and hands Bell the tag. Pizza is from Bell’s wife. She called it in and sent it there, or so the kid insists.”

“Bell’s wife sent him a pizza?”

“Right, and that’s what Bell can’t figure out. He doesn’t even like pizza.”

Shauf’s face turned in the darkness. She was getting to the punch line, and the streetlights reflected her smile. But in her face he saw her anger at Bell.

“The pizza kid has one of those candy-cane striped shirts and a hat. I wish I could describe him like Cheryl did, but anyway he’s a pimply-faced college kid, and Bell asks, ‘What kind of pizza?’ The kid goes, ‘This kind,’ and opens up the box. He’s a process server, not a pizza guy, and he’s got divorce papers from Bell’s wife. He hands them to Bell and says, ‘Enjoy your lunch.’”

Marquez felt bad for Bell as he listened to the rest. Bell had stood there reading, making no attempt to hide what it was about, and according to Shauf’s friend he didn’t move for twenty minutes.

“Hard story,” Marquez said.

“Well, don’t forget all those times he went somewhere with his wife and then chewed our asses for working through the weekend and wasting overtime dollars.”

Marquez remembered Bell coming in Monday morning after a weekend in Aspen or LA, having gone to some party at the Getty Museum, remembered one Monday morning in particular when Bell had flown back early from LA. With his wife, Bell did things that were complete fantasies for Marquez and Shauf on their salaries. More than a few times Marquez had walked out of Bell’s office angry, but he’d never begrudged Bell his lifestyle and forgave him his need to talk about it. He read it as Bell’s desire to look like something he wasn’t, but the truth was, Bell’s wife made the money. No one working for Fish and Game made any more than just enough to get by. The Bells lived in a big house in Sacramento with a wide lawn and a huge garden that went two lots deep in the back. Among the roses were a circular brick pavilion and a koi pond lit with underwater lights that threw soft colors into the water.

Working in a bureaucracy where the pay scale is low, you tended to hear rumors of who’s having more fun. The Bells entertained quite a lot, and those parties were, or so the rumor went, often thrown to further Bell’s career. For several years Bell worked out every day at lunch, and it always seemed like he was readying himself for some anticipated promotion. He got his hair cut at a beauty parlor, and the manicures were a running joke among wardens. He kept his skin tanned and his uniforms well pressed. In many ways he was the antithesis of a game warden, but not at a summer cocktail party where he could regale a group with tales heard from the SOU or wardens in the field and almost make it sound like he’d been there before he’d been promoted. At those parties where his tan skin and athletic pose suggested a man accustomed to the outdoors, he portrayed the image of an officer on the rise, a man who had it all.

He also worked hard and had kept doing so through the low morale of the budget morass. Few people had advanced much in the last four or five years. The Fish and Game Academy had been shut down, a hiring freeze went into effect, and the department had hunkered down for the ride as the state deficits ballooned. The SOU went from ten to seven to five, now three.

“Cheryl says he went in his office, closed his door for an hour, and then left for the day.”

“I wouldn’t have hung around either.”

It wasn’t that long ago that he and Katherine had a rough couple of years, and she had wanted to separate. He hadn’t realized until much later how numb that had made him.

“I hate him for making this thing with Anna the reason for closing us down,” Shauf said. “I can understand deciding three wardens isn’t enough for the team. It’s not enough. I know it isn’t; you know it isn’t. What I hate about Bell is he has to make us look like bad guys first. We embarrassed the department. That’s the kind of pure bureaucratic bastard he is.”

Marquez was listening but distracted now by a man working his way through the parked cars. At first it seemed he was looking for his car, but now he was stopped alongside Ludovna’s Cadillac.

“Do you see this guy coming across the parking lot?”

Shauf stopped her riff on Bell.

“Where?”

“He just got in Ludovna’s car. He must have had a key.”

The Cadillac lights came on a few seconds later, and the car backed out and started hard for the street. Marquez turned to Shauf, but she already had her door open.

“We go with him. Cairo can stay with Ludovna.”

Shauf went for her van, and Cairo read out the position of the car on GPS. Within minutes they were behind it on I-5 southbound, Shauf quietly calling it out over the radio.

“Lane one at seventy-five.”

Then they were into agricultural land the subdivisions hadn’t yet reached. The Cadillac exited, crossed under the freeway, and went eastbound on a county road. It started showering, and Marquez hit his wipers. The Cadillac lights blurred in the distance, and he went back and forth with Cairo as they figured out that the Cadillac was following a dirt road running between planted fields and a railroad bed.

“We’re trying to figure out where the car is. He went out a road following the rail bed, and his lights are off now. We can’t see him. He may be out there stripping it with a buddy or still driving.”

It was several minutes before Cairo came back. “I’ve got him stationary. You don’t see him?”

“No.”

“He’s about a mile and a half off the road.”

“Hold on, we’ve got lights coming at us, but from farther away.”

“The Cadillac isn’t moving.”

It took a couple of minutes to sort that out. The car stopped, and its lights were small dots out in the dark open fields. Marquez hit his wipers again. He lowered the window and used his binoculars as Cairo guessed that the other car was an accomplice, then cut himself off and said, “Ludovna is outside the bar with the babe. He’s looking around for his car and just pulled his phone like it’s a gun. Who are you going to call?”

“It’ll be the police to report it stolen. This was planned.”

Marquez used his scope and wanted to drive down the access road for a better position but figured he couldn’t risk it. He watched car lights start to move again and went back and forth with Shauf.

“Which car is moving here?” she asked.

“Car number two.” The lights swung away from them. “Turning around.”

“He may have gotten away fast, but he didn’t strip it that fast. So what’s going on?”

Marquez didn’t have an answer, but they were looking at taillights as the other vehicle moved away. He gave them another minute. They were moving fast.

“Let’s go recover our GPS unit,” he said.

He started down the access road. On his right was the elevated railway bed, and fields were planted on his left. About a quarter mile in he saw Shauf’s headlights follow, then ahead, a flash of light, white and quickly orange-yellow, a ball of fire and a low heavy whump as the sound reached his truck. Gasoline. Ludovna’s car burning, the fireball ballooning, then straightening. He knew that the kid who’d brought the Cadillac out here and whoever had picked him up were also watching and would see Shauf’s and his headlights approaching. But their headlights could be anybody, police, someone who saw the fire and got curious, anybody.

He drove fast but knew it was too late. When he got there, flames curled out of the interior and around the roof, the heat like a hand pressing against his face. The burning shell blocked the road and the rain did little to slow the fire. Even with the cold wind and rain, the air was thick with the odor of burning plastic, leather, the stink of paint frying. It illuminated the wet rail bed. With Shauf he watched the car burn and a twenty-thousand-dollar GPS unit with it. Marquez watched the flames and could think of only one reason for Ludovna to have his car intentionally stolen and burned.

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