Tough Ask

“You have arrived at your destination.”

Normally I like her accent, but today Siri annoys me, I should’ve stopped for coffee. I see two men heading for the staircase to the second story landing.

The Houston humidity is draining my energy. Don’t let’em know you’ve been in town only one day.

At the door to the apartment the larger of the two, an African-American, turns and blocks the doorway, facing me as I approach. He holds up his hand, palm out, and fills his voice with stern authority.

“Miss, I’ll have to ask you to stay back, this is a crime scene.”

He should have known I knew, since I am donning latex gloves. I flash my badge, never break stride.

“Special Agent Nori Hisamoto, FBI.”

I like the surprise on his face, how he jumps aside. Satisfying.

The smell is powerful as I enter. Once you’ve smelled blood in an enclosed space, you never forget it. It is warm inside, making it worse.

There are three people in the room. The victim, in a massive pool of blood, is by the kitchen sink. A dark-haired woman, mid-forties, is squatting by the body. The other suit, standing near the blood pool, turns and faces me.

We measure each other, me waiting for him to ask who I am, he waiting for me to explain who I am. The door-blocker follows me into the room, breaks the silence.

“She’s FBI.”

The detective’s expression doesn’t change. I can’t read it. That’s frustrating, I’m good at reading expressions. Trained in reading micro-expressions, it’s like second nature. Not being able to read him is unsettling. He breaks the silence, a small victory for me.

“Why’s the FBI interested in my case?”

“What’s the nature of the crime?”

“You always answer a question with a question?”

“That bother you?”

“Why would you care?”

“Would it matter if I did?”

The sixth question in a row cracks the ice, I see a faint smile forming on his handsome face. He appears to be Native-American, long black hair a couple of inches past his collar. His eyes are so dark they’re almost black. No hair on his face. He’s six three, two hundred pounds.

I realize there has been a pause as he watches me scan his body. I can feel blood rushing to my face. What is it about this guy?

~ ~ ~

As she scans my body, I scan hers. She’s a beautiful Asian woman, jet-black hair in a bun, green eyes. She’s wearing a black pantsuit. A green blouse matches her eyes. She has the most beautiful neck. It’s alabaster white until she realizes I have been checking her out. Then it turns pink, as does her face.

“I’m Special Agent Nori Hisamoto, FBI.”

“I’ll ask you again, what interest does the FBI have in my case?”

“If you just had this one, I wouldn’t be here. But you have several.”

“And do you have reason to believe they are connected to an out-of-state murder?”

“I go where my boss tells me. Maybe you want to call your Captain.”

I step forward to tower over her, intending to intimidate. She doesn’t flinch. Impressive.

“I don’t just go where my boss tells me. Stay in the background, and we’ll get along.”

I turn, lock my eyes onto Michelle’s, willing her to begin. She’s squatting in the blood surrounding Gabriela’s corpse.

“According to liver temp, she died four to six hours ago. According to her ID, she’s Gabriela Rodriguez, known prostitute. Hello, Agent Hisamoto, I’m Medical Examiner Michelle Corrine, please excuse Ask’s manners.”

“Asks?”

“Agent Hisamoto, let me introduce my rude friend, Askuwheteau Killsatnight, we call him Ask for obvious reasons. The other testosterone in the room is Pete, CSI technician.”

Pete points to a gruesome pile near the body.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“If you’re asking if the perpetrator removed the lower intestines and tried to write a message, then yes, Pete, that is exactly what it is.”

“Oh my God, I’m gonna hurl.”

“Pete, don’t you puke on my crime scene. There’s a toilet down the hall on the right.”

“Cut him some slack, Ask, this is the most gruesome one I’ve ever worked.”

Pete rushes past me, down the hall, gurgling.

Agent Hisamoto calmly walks as close to the body as she can without stepping in blood. She removes a phone from her purse and takes a photo of the entrails. She walks around the body and takes another photo.

She looks up, as if she knows my secret. The calmness with which she photographs an eviscerated body is spooky. I can tell she wants to ask Michelle questions, but, after my warning, is reluctant.

“Go ahead, ask her.”

“Is that ’sj’?”

I look down, see she’s referring to Gabriela’s entrails. Is that an ’s’ and a ‘j’?”.

Michelle says, “I was thinking ‘5j’. Could be an ’s’.”

“Maybe the initials of someone. S.J., just seems like ’s’ makes more sense.”

“Agent Hisamoto, I like the way you think.”

“Thank you, Michelle. You have an idea about the murder weapon?”

“The head is nearly separated from the body, I’m guessing machete.”

“Anything else you see here that might help us?”

Now, I’m pissed. I see in Michelle’s eyes being asked for input, as an equal, appeals to her. Agent Hisamoto just made an ally of my ME.

~ ~ ~

Entering the precinct’s work area, there are two huge whiteboards, made of metal so magnets hold photos. Detectives cluster around a big desk, so all can see the boards. Ask is writing on the left-hand board, which has a timeline. Even though I have only been gone twenty-four hours, Ask can’t help poking me verbally.

“Glad you can join us, Agent Hisamoto, hope you enjoyed your vacation.”

I see they’ve made progress during the day I wasted trying to get out of this assignment. The block of time 3-5 AM is marked ‘murder window’.

At 1:27 AM is a vertical line over the words ‘victim answers call on home line’.

At 5:15 AM it says ‘security cam’, with a line leading to a picture of a car’s license plate enlarged for readability. Under the picture is a driver’s license photo of a Hispanic man. Printed under the mug is: ‘Hector Ruiz’.

On the right-hand board, the leftmost column has the heading ‘VICTIM’ over a picture of the driver’s license of Gabriela Ruiz. The second column has the heading ‘SCENE’ over a picture of the body, with a notation ’SJ? / 5J’ by the entrails.

The third column has the heading ‘SUSPECTS’. The first suspect name is Hector Ruiz. Below it, two more names, Demond ‘Pooch’ Pucher, and, ‘???’. I’ve missed a lot.

There are two detectives present I have not met. The tall redhead has a low bass drawl, “Fifteen minutes is about the right amount of time for the killer to exit the apartment, get into his car, drive by the convenience store where the camera is located. You can see him exiting the apartment’s parking lot.”

The short, stocky, balding detective has a smoker’s throaty rattle, “Just because he exited the premises at the right time is hardly probable cause.”

The four right-hand columns have headings, ‘SUSPECTS’, ‘MOTIVE’, ‘MEANS’, and ‘OPPORTUNITY’ over a grid of lines. Hector Ruiz is ‘ex-husband’, ‘prior arrest for assault with a machete’, and ‘seen leaving scene 15 minutes after murder window’. Demond “Pooch” Pucher is ‘pimp with issues’, ‘prior arrest for murder using knife’, ‘case dropped’, and ‘frequently in complex’. ‘???’ is ‘boyfriend’, ‘???’, and ‘???’.

I know I should keep my mouth shut, but don’t. “So, I guess Gabriela was a hooker?”

Ask turns toward me, glares, turns back, writes the word prostitute under Gabriela’s picture.

It seems like I would learn my lesson, but no. “Hooker with a boyfriend?”

The only one who seems embarrassed about the silence is Henry, the smoker. “We have witnesses from around the complex who’ve seen a tall, dark man slipping into her apartment. No good description.”

~ ~ ~

Although Agent Hisamoto irritates me, I’m determined to remain professional.

“Henry, Red, bring Pooch in. Hector’s coming voluntarily; me and the FBI will question him.”

Ok, not exactly professional. She brings out the worst in me.

“Agent Hisamoto, like your coffee black?”

“Why don’t you call me Nori, Detective Killsatnight.”

“Why don’t you call me Ask, Agent Hisamoto.”

Her surprising laughter is so feminine it arouses me. Damn it, Ask, get hold of yourself.

“Okay … Nori … are you ever going to tell me why the FBI is interested in this case?”

“Well … Ask … a part of our time is spent analyzing crimes from around the country. We look for patterns locals might not notice. One of the parameters used is volume, more crimes than normal, they send rookies out for those.”

“Rookie?”

Her cheeks flush again, so arousing, as she searches for a response. She seems uncomfortable around me. Is that because she feels it, too?

“Well, I am starting my second year so not a rookie anymore, but you know how it is.”

Why are we talking about personal stuff? Thank God, Cindy save’s me.

“Ask, Hector’s in Room Three.”

“Thanks, Cindy.”

“Detective Killsatnight, I do have a question I must ask.”

“I thought you were gonna call me Ask, Nori?”

“Detective Killsatnight, why have you not disclosed the fact you knew the victim?”

I can’t breathe. Is the room spinning? How the hell did she know about Gabriela?

“You alright, Detective Killsatnight?”

She asks as though she cares, but her eyes twinkle with joy at my discomfort. Damn FBI. My bad for thinking she’s human.

“I’m going to interview Hector Ruiz, Agent Hisamoto, if you would care to join me, feel free. If not, I could give a shit.”

~ ~ ~

Detective Killsatnight turns away from me so crisply I imagine a snapping sound. I guess he’s going to pretend he didn’t know the victim. I’m on to something. Wow, he walks fast; I’m getting a workout keeping up.

All these interview rooms are alike, heavy desk, wooden chairs, two-way mirror. Hector offering Ask his hand with a huge smile is a little different. He doesn’t seem nervous about being in this situation, although he seems disappointed Ask doesn’t shake hands.

“Hello, Detective, I am Hector Ruiz.”

“I know who you are, dip-shit, sit down.”

I got Detective Killsatnight worked up, maybe I’ll just hide over in this corner, keep my mouth shut.

“No need to be rude, Detective, I came voluntarily. I done nothing wrong. I got nothing to hide.”

“Where were you Monday morning from 3 until 5 AM?”

“Hell, what do you think? I was in bed asleep.”

“Alone?”

“Yes, alone.”

“Does your place have a security system?”

“What? Why’s that matter?”

“I’m asking the questions. Does it, yes or no?”

“No.”

“Does your building, or neighborhood, have security cameras?”

“I don’t know. How would I know? Why’s that matter?”

“If we can find evidence you were home, then you have an alibi. If not, you don’t.”

“Alibi for what?”

“Murder.”

Gotta give the guy credit. If he murdered her, he is very good at acting innocent. He’s not even squealing for his lawyer. The way Ask treated him, he should be nervous, but I don’t see it.

The sound of the door slamming, on Ask’s exit, surprises me. Damn he moves fast.

“Do you have any questions for me, Miss?”

~ ~ ~

I didn’t mean to slam the door. Why am I so pissed? That guy kept his cool, didn’t give off the vibe of a killer. What the hell is wrong with me?

Her shoes are scraping gravel on the parking lot before she catches up with me. This is a nightmare. She skids to a halt, looking very frightened, as I spin around. At last. She is human. She reacts.

“What the hell do you want now, Agent Hisamoto?”

She refuses to cow. Stands taller, meets my eye. Stares. As though she thinks I know what the hell she wants. Getting closer to her doesn’t seem to fluster her either.

“What!”

My scream causes only a very slight flinch; damn this lady is tough. Still just staring at me, waiting. I know if I walk away she will be in my shadow, no point in that.

“If you wanna know something, ask me.”

“I already did.”

Of course. Gabriela. She wants to know about Gabriela. Gabriela is none of her damn business.

“It’s personal, none of your business.”

“Ask, please, take a deep breath. Think. I am an agent of the FBI. Trained to notice details. Notice things like how you knew where the restroom is in an apartment you just entered. How you never examined the entrails, too painful to look at. So, I figured out your secret. Think this through. I have to ask these questions.”

“It’s personal, none of your business.”

“This is a murder investigation in which the lead detective knows the victim and fails to disclose it. Put on your detective hat for a minute and think. I have to ask, and you have to answer. What I don’t have to do is tell anyone else if your answer doesn’t compromise the case. We all have shit in our lives we want kept private. Trust me… please?”

Her green eyes are luminous. Intoxicating. Why do I believe I can trust her? I can’t trust anyone. No one is trustworthy. Everyone looks out for themselves.

She’s not that quick, I make it to my car before she can interfere. Inside, doors locked, feels safer. Good thing I checked the rear view mirror before backing up. She is standing behind the car, not far from the bumper. When I rev the engine, she just makes a point of crossing her arms and staring.

~ ~ ~

Surely, he won’t run me over. He’s not that type of guy, can’t be. I read people well, I couldn’t be that wrong about him. Complicated, yes. Evil, no. I can see he does want to run me over, is having trouble controlling himself. Please don’t piss yourself, Nori.

The car engine stops. The door locks pop up. My panties are still dry. All good things.

Around the car, fast, don’t want him to start up before I’m in. Inside it’s quiet, dust motes swirling in Houston’s morning sun. His head is on the steering wheel, can barely make out his voice.

“Gabriela Rodriguez. Been hooking since she was fifteen. Same old story, abused by her dad, runaway, few choices. She was a good kid. Got herself pregnant, had a little boy about a year ago. Thought I saw an imprint in the blood by her side. Impression of baby’s ass in diapers. The bastard took her kid.”

“Ask, why didn’t you just disclose you knew her? You afraid you would need to recuse yourself? It’s personal for you and you want revenge, that it?”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“What what’s like?”

“Being me.”

Well, that’s hard to respond to. My training doesn’t cover that. Guess I’m just going to have to wing it.

“What does that even mean, Ask?”

“I don’t let people in. We’re only having this conversation because you have my ass in a sling.”

“Well, okay, you’re private. Me, too. I get that.”

“Bullshit. See, that’s what I’m talking about. You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Damn it, Ask, I don’t read minds, although I’ve been accused of it. I can’t know what you don’t tell me.”

“You knew I knew Gabriela.”

“I mean I can’t know what’s inside your head, smart-ass.”

“You’re what, Japanese-American? You ever notice people you just met, judging you based on the slant of your eyes before you even say a word?”

“Of course. So, what. You a poor, little oppressed red-skin?”

Whoa, that struck a nerve. Damn, he moves fast. Just by straightening up, he made me flinch, hope he didn’t notice.

“Look, Ask, I know we don’t know each other. I know you have no reason to trust me. I know it’s corny to just say you can trust me. But, you interrogate people all the time. Get lied to by criminals all the time. What does your gut tell you? … Trust me.”

His eyes are like tiny ball bearings. Surely he wouldn’t attack me. Why did I say red-skin? Nori, you’re an idiot.

“So … the baby, is it yours?”

“No.”

“The boyfriend column on the murder board, that you?”

“Probably.”

Crap. One-word answers. He was opening up. I bet that’s rare. I’m out of my depth here.

“Ask, they are canvassing the complex, looking for the boyfriend. You’re gonna have to disclose, you know that right?”

“Get out.”

“Ask …”

“Get out.”

His eyes are terrifying, I’m convinced. I’m just clearing the car door as he backs up.

~ ~ ~

Every face I see this morning seems afraid, I must look angry. Hell, I am angry. Why the hell did I think I could open up with her? The anger is good, it will keep everyone at distance where they belong. Cindy looks like a deer caught in headlights.

“Demond Pucher is in Room Two, Sir.”

Sir? Cindy hasn’t called me Sir, ever. Maybe I should get pissed more often, get a little more respect.

As I enter the room, it’s obvious this interview is going to be combative. Pooch is tense, drumming his fingertips on the table, glaring.

“I ain’t saying nothing without my lawyer. You’re wasting my time.”

“Okay. Smart move. Now nothing you say till he gets here can be used in court. You can just confess and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Confess to what?”

“Killing Gabriela.”

“I ain’t killed nobody. If I did kill somebody it sure wouldn’t be her. She’s a moneymaker.”

“Was.”

“What?”

“Was a moneymaker.”

“Oh. Yeah. Too bad. I kinda liked her.”

“She was killed with a blade. You’ve been arrested before for using a blade on someone’s throat. You can understand why you’re here.”

“Cept I didn’t do it. And I ain’t got my lawyer here, so this don’t count. So, I’m gonna make your day. I’m gonna confess. I confess you’re an asshole.”

“Where were you Monday morning from 3 until 5 AM?”

“I was asleep.”

“Where?”

“In my bed.”

He didn’t know why I was standing with my thighs against the edge of the table. I love the look on his face after I slam the table into his midsection. He can’t seem to breath, that’s too bad. Waiting for him to catch his breath is the best part of my day so far.

“You can’t do that, asshole. I got rights.”

“This don’t count, remember?”

“I was working. I’m a working man and three to five is the middle of my day. I was over in Evergreen Park. There’s at least three of my bitches will tell ya.”

“She had a kid you know. Who would take a kid? You want me to be your friend. Tell me who would take her kid.”

“I’ve decided to exercise my right to remain silent.”

~ ~ ~

I don’t even make it to the coffee before Cindy intercepts me. “What did you do to Ask yesterday?”

“Do to Ask? I didn’t do anything to Ask.”

Her look of disbelief is so exaggerated it’s comical. Except I did do something to Ask, so it’s not funny. I turn my back on her to get a cup. Red is up next. His Texas drawl is so thick and pronounced I have trouble making out what he says.

“The hell you do? Hit on him?”

“What? No, I did not hit on him. I didn’t do anything to him.”

“Now that is some bullshit right there. Might make you a honorary Texan, shoveling bullshit like that.”

“I don’t know what his problem is, but it has nothing to do with me.”

“I take it back. No honorary Texas citizenship for you. Just repeating your bullshit to a trained dee-tective like me ain’t gonna cut it. You run outta here chasing his ass. Next thing ya know, we’re all in danger. You done something.”

“What do you mean we’re in danger?”

“You think you know him? You don’t know him. You’ll stay clear if you’re smart.”

Ask’s voice bellowing from the squad room reverberates. “Huddle up!”

He has marker in hand, ready to update the murder board.

“Red, what y’all find at Hector’s place?”

“At first, we thought the place was ransacked. More careful observation leads us to the conclusion he packed in a hurry and vamoosed.”

“Well, did you find anything at all I can write on this damn board?”

I see what Red meant. Everyone in the room is afraid. They’re all armed with Glocks and Sigs, and they’re cringing like nerds in the jocks’ locker room. Hell, I’m never afraid, but I am now.

“If you mean did we find a bloody machete, then the answer is no. I put the crime scene techs on it. They might find something interesting.”

“You put out a BOLO on his car?”

“Of course.”

I am nervous to talk, but somebody has to say it. “Maybe we should be looking for the baby.”

His eyes turn on me like pinpoints. Everyone else in the room seems to hold their breath, as though speaking up is suicidal. Damn, he is scary; they might be right.

“What makes you think we aren’t looking for the baby?”

“So we are? Canvassing the apartment complex, asking about sounds of babies crying? Checking street cams for people with babies? Going all out?”

I know from the total silence the answer is no. People are staring at me open-mouthed as though I just poked a grizzly bear with a stick.

Ask glares for a second, takes a deep breath, turns to Red. Mister Slow-motion Talker can move fast after all; Red’s halfway to the door. “On it.”

~ ~ ~

Nori was right. I shoulda thought of focusing more on the baby. Maybe my feelings for Gabriela are throwing me off. Well, I got both Red and Henry focusing on it, and Henry has the help of the Uni’s. He was one of them for fifteen years. They would run through walls for him. So, I’ve done what I can about the baby.

Hiding here at my desk ain’t gonna help. Snap out of it, Ask.

Shit, here she comes. It’s like I adopted a stray dog. Everywhere I go, she follows.

“Ask, you okay?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Rather than staring at your desk, why don’t you come over and stare at the murder board with me?”

“What, you lonely?”

“Funny. You are one hilarious guy. Just sit here and study your desktop, I got work to do catching this bastard.”

I wouldn’t let any of my guys talk to me like that. Why do I let her? It’s not because she’s FBI. Maybe it’s that ass; it sure looks good in that pantsuit. Wonder if it moves around like that when she’s not so mad? I’ll follow far enough to let her know it’s my idea; close enough to watch her butt.

“Okay, so now we are staring at a murder board, Agent Hisamoto. Everything up there, we wrote up there. Did I forget to write the killer’s name, maybe?”

“Shut up.”

“What did you just say to me?”

When she turns those green eyes on me, I realize it’s not just her ass that draws me. Her eyes shine like emeralds. She’s pissed, but her eyes are wet, gleaming in the glare of the florescent lights. No, not emeralds, wet green marbles.

“Why do you think we even make the murder boards, Ask? You made it for a reason. Or did you just arrange all this information because when you were rookie, it was required? If I sit and stare at it, the information takes shape. I thought you could help, but if you’re just gonna make fun of me, go away.”

Is she crying? No, she’s tough as shit, she ain’t crying. She’s just passionate.

“Sorry.”

“What?”

Why the hell did I apologize? I never apologize.

“I didn’t hear what you said, Ask.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Would you repeat it?”

“No.”

The slight smile on her face is irritating. Maybe it’s better I just stare at the board, too.

When she jumps up, it surprises me. She writes the word ‘baby’ under Gabriela’s picture. She circles the words ‘ex-husband’ and then draws a line from the circle to ‘baby’. She sits back down. We stare a long time. I don’t see any shape to the board, but don’t mind staring at it with her.

She talks softly, more to herself than me, “The ‘sj’ has got to be important.”

Red’s voice rings out from the door as he enters the squad room, “Found it!”

I snap out of my reverie, and ask the obvious question, “Found what?”

“The baby. She was in the same damn building. Apartment on the first floor. Lady named Washington, Louisa Washington, had her all this time.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“I would never shit you, Ask. Henry is taking her into room three.”

Red notices Nori, notices her wet eyes. He pauses. Looks at me with raised eyebrows.

She stands up, walks to the board and writes ‘found in same bldg’ by the word ‘baby’. Sits back down.

Red shrugs. “Ask, when you’re ready to interview her, she’s in room three.”

“Agent Hisamoto is going to interview her.”

Red’s look of surprise is brief. “Whatever. She’s in room three when you’re ready, Agent Hisamoto.”

~ ~ ~

He’s going to let me interview her? I must be imagining things. I turn my head and stare at him. He stares back. The eyes that were scary before are now big and brown. They are mysterious and guarded, but not scary.

I should act like this is no big deal, him asking me to do it. Everyone in the whole room knows it is, but I gotta act like it’s not.

I walk toward room three as though I’ve got this under control. I’m a wreck inside, but I won’t let him know. No way. I stop outside the door of room three, take three deep breaths. That’s better.

When I enter the room, I don’t even say a word; she just starts talking.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong. I was just protecting an innocent baby, is all. What was I supposed to do, just leave it on my porch? That ain’t right. I just done what any good person would do.”

She is African-American, tall, rail-thin, tattooed all over her arms with images of snakes.

“Hold on, hold on, Miss Washington. No one’s mad at you for protecting a baby.”

“Then why did they arrest me? Why did they take Nattie?”

“Calm down. You are not under arrest. At least not yet. If you answer our questions and help us find who killed Nattie’s mother, you’ll be my personal hero.”

I can see her relax. Her body language is not that of someone hiding things. That’s encouraging.

“Secondly, CPS took Nattie because that’s what we do when we don’t know the truth. We don’t know what happened, so the baby goes with them until we do.”

“Okay.”

“You said you couldn’t leave the baby on the porch, right? Did you see who put her there?”

“Saw him from behind. He rang the bell and when I went to the door, I could see him running across the parking lot.”

“Was he tall, short, black, white, fat, thin?”

“He was short, I think, maybe your height or a little taller. He had dark hair down past his collar. Didn’t look black, but I couldn’t tell for sure. The hair didn’t look like it was a black man. He was a little stocky, I guess.”

“How was he dressed?”

“Dark slacks, leather jacket.”

“Did you see what kind of car he got into?”

“No, Nattie started crying, and I realized she needed me. After that, I didn’t look at anything but her. She’s so cute. She was so upset. Is she alright?”

“Did she have much blood on her when you first got her, Louisa?”

“Yeah, her diaper and her legs were covered in it. But she wasn’t bleeding; I checked when I gave her a bath.”

~ ~ ~

This morning I make it to my desk without running into Agent Hisamoto. What a relief; she’s normally in by now. Maybe today will be a good day.

When I see the yellow sticky note on my monitor, I know the good day was an illusion. It says, ‘See me in room two. Official business.’ It is signed formally — ‘FBI Special Agent Nori Hisamoto.’

Well, crap, this can’t be good. I consider leaving, but I see Red staring at me from the break room. His countenance is stone-faced. His face is normally very expressive. Now it’s not, there’s a reason. He read the note.

As I approach room two, I see a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door of the adjoining observation room. She brought the sign from her hotel room; she must really want privacy. I don’t expect to have any; my bet is Red goes in that door ten seconds after I go in this one.

Entering the room, I stop short and stand in the doorway. The room is hostile territory. Every detail supports the impression of danger.

The observation mirror for the room next door has butcher paper Scotch-taped over every inch. She doesn’t trust Red to obey the door tag, either.

She is sitting behind the table, no expression on her face, arms folded in front of her. She is wearing an all-black pantsuit with a white shirt.

On the desk is a portable recorder. She reaches out and turns the recorder on; a red light begins blinking.

This room has built-in recording; she doesn’t need her own. I turn and look up at the room’s cameras. Both have squares of butcher paper taped over them.

She says, to the recorder, not me, “This is FBI Special Agent Nori Hisamoto. The time is 8:15 AM, Wednesday, April 20th …”

That is all I hear as I turn, leave the room, and slam the door in her face. I slam it hard, because I’m pissed, and I want the sound of it on the tape.

I stand outside the door, not sure what to do next. This has got to be about Gabriela. By-the-book Agent Hisamoto is going to get me thrown off this case. I am so mad I stand there vibrating. I turn, re-enter the room, slam the door, lock it, and walk around the table so I can tower over her.

She reaches out, presses the button on the recorder, and says, “Houston Homicide Detective Askuwheteau Killsatnight has returned to the interview room. It is 8:16 AM.”

She does not look up at me. I am so close my thigh is almost touching her elbow. She is staring straight ahead as though I am still standing by the door.

“Please have a seat, Detective Killsatnight.”

~ ~ ~

God, I hate doing this, but he is making me. It’s the right thing to do. He knows it, but his feelings for Gabriela are blinding him. I feel his thigh touch my elbow, not gently. Damnit, Ask, you’re making it even worse doing that. How can I let him know I’m on his side, but I just have to do the right thing?

“Detective Killsatnight, don’t just stand there by the door, please have a seat. You might as well get comfortable; this will take a while.”

I could not be less obvious. Surely he can see I just told him I am going to ignore his intimidation tactic. The listeners of the tape won’t know, don’t need to know.

As he sits, his eyes have that beady look again. I have to expect one-word answers.

“Detective Killsatnight, it has come to my attention that the investigation of the murder of Gabriela Ruiz has been compromised. Do you have anything you would like to volunteer on the subject?”

“No.”

I was right. One-word answers are all I can expect. Well, I trained for this.

“Is it true you were an acquaintance of Gabriela?”

“… Yes.”

Is it true that you were, in fact, having an affair with her?”

“… Yes.”

“Is it true that yesterday, when faced with interviewing her downstairs neighbor, you asked me to conduct the interview?”

“Yes.”

“Was that because you knew she might recognize you?”

“Is that what this is about?”

“Please answer the question, Detective.”

“The answer is no.”

“Really? Please explain to me the reason, then.”

“The reason I asked you to interview her is partially because I thought she would respond better to a woman.”

“Partially?”

“Yes.”

“The other part?”

“I mistakenly thought you were a good agent. Well trained in interviewing techniques.”

“Mistakenly?”

“This interview we are having has convinced me you are as ignorant as a west-Texas armadillo, and maybe as crazy. And, they are pretty damned crazy.”

Well, that was more than one word. I reach out and turn off the recorder.

“Ask, what the hell did you expect me to do? You can’t tell me your emotions are not clouding your judgment on this one. I’m just trying to do the job I’ve been trained to do.”

“My job is to catch the son of a bitch.”

“No, Ask, our job is to put the son of a bitch in prison for life, maybe put a needle in his arm. That won’t happen if the defense finds out you were involved with the victim.”

“So, you expect me to remove myself and sit on the sideline?”

Nori, what have you gotten yourself into? Here I am accusing him of letting his emotions cloud his judgment, and I feel like I’m about to cry. I’m the one getting emotional. They didn’t cover this in training. Think, Nori, think. What is the right thing to do here?

The room was quiet for a while.

“No, Ask, I don’t expect you to sit on the sideline. Here is what I expect. You will reveal your relationship with Gabriela to Red. You will tell him you need to step aside, and put him in charge of the case. You will tell him to continue to work with me. That will all be on the record.

“What will not be on the record is that you and I will continue to meet on the sly. The record will not show any of the help you provide. Any evidence you discover will appear to come from me. Any report I make will not include you.”

“You forgot to leave your recorder running for all that.”

I realize I have never seen him grin before. His huge grin is irritating.

~ ~ ~

Nori is right, that’s what bothers me once I think about it. On our murder board, Hector Ruiz is listed as seen on traffic cam being near the crime scene fifteen minutes after the murder. He also has a prior conviction for threatening someone with a machete. When I interviewed him, I asked him about neither of those things. Sloppy. Nori was right to have me step aside.

She wants to meet in the Japanese Gardens in Hermann park. They are kinda pretty, but the foliage is all Texas plants, surely someone with Japanese ancestry wouldn’t find them interesting.

When I get there, I understand her choice of meeting place. I have to wind my way around to locate her, and it’s a dead end near one of the water falls. No chance of people strolling by on their way to somewhere else, and the sound of the water is loud enough to inhibit electronic surveillance.

She is sitting on a stone bench, looking mesmerized by the water. She doesn’t look up as I sit.

As the silence lengthens, it becomes obvious she is going to make me talk first.

“Agent Hisamoto, uh, Nori, first of all I just wanted to say you were right to force me to do the right thing. I’ve been sloppy on this case.”

Still silence? Well, crap, she could at least nod or something. I might as well get right to it.

“I, and by I, I mean you, of course, since I am off the case, have been interviewing known associates of Hector Ruiz. He has three different dealers working for him that sell meth. They are all pretty freaked out by his disappearance.

“He supplies them with the meth, but one of them, Reggie Mason, is sure that he gets it from his cousin, Salvadore Ruiz. Salvador is a part of the 59ers, a street gang. They are bad news, Reggie ain’t gonna go on record with that information. He’s scared shitless of them, with good reason.”

She finally looks at me and asks, “Did Gabriela use meth?”

“She didn’t use meth, I woulda known.”

“Does Poocher use meth. Maybe provide it to his girls?”

“Not sure, didn’t think of that, I’ll check it out. Just figured since Hector ran, he’s our guy.”

She resumes staring at the water fall, so I do, too. Much more relaxing than a murder board.

~ ~ ~

Him admitting I did the right thing has the ring of an apology, or as close as he will get. Why am I so relieved?

I think, if I am honest, I have been a little sloppy on this one as well. I can’t help notice how close he is, our elbows almost touching. I know I’m not being objective.

“Ask, I went to Louisa again, at her place. Had her show me where Hector was when she saw him in the parking lot. It wasn’t far; she had a good look at him.

“Showed her his photos, there were several in his apartment. A couple were group photos where he could be seen from the side and the back, one in a leather jacket. She felt certain it was the same guy she saw in the parking lot.”

“So he must be our guy. That’s good news.”

“That doesn’t explain the machete, though.” As I say this, I turn to face him. Our elbows touch. It feels like a spark.

“Nori, you alright?”

“Yes, sorry, just thinking about the machete.”

“What about it?”

“Louisa is certain he was empty-handed as he was walking away, and we searched the entire complex thoroughly. No machete, large knife, or ax was found. Nothing that could have done the damage Gabriela suffered.”

“Well, that’s not good. Defense attorneys love inconsistencies.”

He stares at the water with me for a while before he says, “Okay, I got a todo. Gonna check for connections between Hector and Pooch. You’re doing the checking, I’m just a proxy. This is weird.”

“We just need to stay in touch so we can make a case stick. I have to be very convincing when I recount the interviews you did. In fact, I need to talk to the same people when their info is critical, so I can be the one who extracted the info as far as the record is concerned.”

“Okay … do you mind if I stare at the waterfall with you a while longer?”

Shit.

“Yeah, sure.”

~ ~ ~

“Red, would you mind if I made my own murder board?”

“What the hell is wrong with this one, Agent Hisamoto?”

“Nothing is wrong with it. It’s just not the way I do it.”

“This whole pretend-Ask-ain’t-working-the-case gives me the willies.”

“It’s not pretending. Ask is not working the case, period.”

“Yeah, right.”

“You know what a mind map is?”

“That some kinda new-age thing? We gonna need a bunch of computer stuff?”

“Red Stillbeck, I am going to drag you into the twenty-first century. All I need is a large marker board and a bunch of colors of dry-erase markers.”

“We already got two marker boards here and two colors of markers.”

“I am not going to erase the boards Ask made. I am going to do my own.”

“You may be smarter than you look.”

“Is that because I am very smart, or because I look dumb?”

Red’s expression makes me giggle. I am going to assume that when he looks at me with one eye scrunched up and the other one arched it means he approves of my humor. I know a laugh is too much to expect, but I’ll take approval.

“Three colors will be enough.”

“I’ll get it done, pronto. Where you want it set up?”

“Right in front of Ask’s boards.”

His expression tells me he might be revising his estimate of my intelligence.

I go to the bathroom to text Ask, find out how he’s doing with the Hector-Pooch connection. He does not answer.

When I get back to the squad room, Red already has the board set up. It looks like he just yanked one off the wall from another room and leaned it up against Ask’s two boards. It is six by four and he has it standing on end.

Red, Henry, Carol, and Michelle are all standing by the desks with a good view of the board, expectant looks on their faces.

“What the hell, Red? Am I giving a seminar?”

“I don’t wanna be the only one in the twenty-first century.”

“Ha ha. Okay, here is how a mind map works.”

I pick up a black marker, write ‘Gabriela Ruiz Murder’, and circle it. Going around the black circle I write ‘Victim’, ’Scene’, ’Suspects’, ‘Motive’, ‘Means’, and ‘Opportunity’ with a blue marker, circling each one.

Henry says, “That’s the same as Ask’s board.”

I sense a little hostility in the way he asks. That’s natural, Ask deserves his loyalty.

“It’s the same thing, it’ll just be shaped different.”

“Huh?”

“Just watch.”

I fill out my mind map, writing small to be sure I can get it all on the board. When I start connecting words with red lines, the first one is ‘Baby’ on the ‘Louisa’ circle, ‘Hector’ circle, and ‘Scene’ circle, I get my first question.

Michelle asks, “What do the red lines mean?”

“That things are connected.”

“But they’re the same word. Of course they’re connected.”

“It’s all about the shape, you’ll see. Notice how it is starting to look like a vine with lots of branches.”

I begin adding pictures. Photos of Gabriela, Pooch, Hector, the blood pool, the entrails, each gets taped onto the board.

Cindy asks, “Okay, what’s the difference between a dashed line and a solid line?”

“A dashed line means my gut tells me they are connected, but I have no real proof.”

“So, ‘entrails’ and ‘meth’ are connected, but you can’t prove it.”

I step back where I am at the same distance as the others and look at the board.

Red says, “Is this one of those things where you have to blur your eyes?”

“Come on, Red. Use that highly trained dee-tective mind. Suggest a red-dashed line for me. Come on, I dare ya.”

He scrunches up his eyes and squints. I resist the urge to laugh. He says, “Okay, connect the ‘Louisa’ circle to the ‘Hector’ circle with a red-dashed line.”

Henry says, “Where do you get that?”

I am already drawing the line as Red explains, “Why did Hector take the baby to Louisa? He went by two other apartment doors to get to hers. I can’t explain it better than that, if I could it wouldn’t be intuition.”

Captain Sherman walks up, says, “What the hell? We having a party?”

I didn’t notice him approaching. We haven’t had much interaction. The less the better as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to answer questions about Ask. I freeze.

Red bails me out, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation is training us in the use of twenty-first century technology known as mind-mapping. We are learning to see a murder’s shape.”

I am the only one not smiling as Captain Sherman stares at us, then turns and walks away without another word.

Henry can’t let it go. He says, “It helps if you look at it with your peripheral vision.”

~ ~ ~

Looking at Nori’s murder board makes me uncomfortable. There is no timeline anywhere. I keep wanting to push it aside so I can see the timeline on my board.

“Nori, what the hell good is this brain map if it has no timeline?”

“It’s a mind map. You said that just to irritate me.”

“Your irritation level is not important. What’s important is a timeline. How the hell do you expect to solve a murder without a timeline?”

“If you’re still focused on just timeline, you’ll never solve it. Let’s review what we know as fact.”

She begins holding up fingers, one by one, as she list conclusions.

“One: Hector was seen leaving the scene fifteen minutes after time of death — so he either did it or was involved. Two: Hector took Nattie from the pool of blood to Louisa, and Nattie had blood on her — so Hector was definitely at the crime scene after Gabriela’s death. Three: Hector did not have a machete with him, and we have been unable to find one near the scene — so he didn’t kill her.”

“Please tell me you didn’t just logically and methodically deduce who did NOT kill Gabriela.”

“Quit being cute. I just confirmed that Hector is the key. He has the answers. He has got to know who did it, even if he didn’t witness it.”

“I can’t help being cute.”

The way she tilts her head is funny. Like she heard an odd sound. She’s the one that’s cute, not me. I like that my irreverence put a little smile on her face.

Before she can retort, Red’s voice booms out from the door, “Bingo!”

I look up to see Red dragging a hand-cuffed Hector toward the interview rooms.

When I glance back at Nori, she has a huge smile. I’m smiling like an idiot, too.

But, her smile fades. “Oh. You can’t interview him. I have to do it. Sorry.”

~ ~ ~

As I walk toward the interview with Hector, I am not thinking straight. I know because I should be laser focused on Hector; instead, I can only seem to dwell on the fact that Ask was just flirting with me. I need to get a grip.

“Good work, Red. I would like to have you in the room during the interview, I think Hector is scared of you. But I need to go pee first. Feel free to intimidate him while you wait.”

“He should be scared of me. Take as long as you like; we’ll discuss the life expectancy of an asshat in prison.”

I don’t even need to pee, but I try anyway. The routine of washing my hands calms me. Hector knows who killed Gabriela, I just know it. This is why you wanted to be in the FBI, Nori. Focus.

Before I go into the interview room, I veer and enter the observation room. I watch Hector as Red walks around him in a circle, pontificating as only Red can. I realize two things. One: I can do this, and two: I like Red a lot.

I enter the room talking, “Red, tell me you didn’t!”

Red freezes and stares.

“Oh, thank God, I thought you were serious when you said what you were going to do to him.”

Red grins. Hector doesn’t.

Hector says, “I didn’t do it. I swear. Get this guy away from me.”

I shut the door. I sit, staring at Hector the whole time.

“Red will do what I say, won’t you Red?”

“Sure.”

“Red, please quell your destructive impulses and stand behind me. But, don’t leave the room, I might still need you.”

“I got constitutional rights.”

“Yes, of course, that’s why Red controlled himself. You did see the doc about your impulse control didn’t you Red?”

“I skipped a session, but I’m okay … I think.”

“Hector, listen. There are times in your life when you are at what I call a cusp. When you are at a fork in the road, so to speak. Trust me when I tell you these next few minutes are going to determine the next few years of your life.”

Hector’s Adam’s apple bobs, and I hear a loud gulp.

“If you didn’t kill Gabriela — and I don’t believe you did — then you have a chance at staying out of prison. If you know who did kill her — and I believe you do — then that’s your ticket.”

“You don’t understand my problem.”

“That’s true. So let’s play a game.

“Before we start, you should know I’m a human lie detector. You can’t fool me. I’ll know if you lie.”

Hector looks terrified. I hear Red emit a throaty chuckle, his way of confirming.

“The game’s called truth or prison. The rules are simple. I ask a question, you give an answer. If you tell truth, I ask another question; if you lie, you go to prison. You don’t get a mulligan, one lie, go to jail. Most of the answers will be yes or no, it’s easy.”

“Shouldn’t I have a lawyer here?”

“You could, but then his lies would be on you. You ever know a lawyer that tells the truth?”

“Uh … no.”

“Truth, good, I think you’ll be good at this game. Next question, are you willing to play the game without your lawyer here?”

“Uh … yes.”

“Truth, way to go. Hey Red, could you step to your right a little? You’re throwing a shadow on his pyramidalis nasi. I need to see both it and his corrugator muscle clearly or we might send an innocent man to jail.”

Red says, “Do I really got to move? I don’t care if he goes to jail.” But then he moves to my right side.

“Next question. Take a deep breath and think. This one’s important. Do you know who killed Gabriela Ruiz?”

“I do, but before you ask me, I can’t tell you or I’m dead.”

“Did you pick Nattie out of Gabrilea’s blood and take her to Louisa?”

“Yes.”

“Were you there when she was killed?”

“No.”

“Did you know she was dead before you went to her apartment?”

“Yes.”

“Then why did you go there?”

“I had to open her up.”

“You cut her open and wrote a message with her guts?”

“Yes, but I can’t answer any more questions. I played your stupid game. If I say any more, I’m dead. Send me to prison if you gotta, but I ain’t saying no more.”

~ ~ ~

Ask is gone when I go back to write on my mind map. I find an orange marker and decide orange stands for proof that I can use in court. I add the notes I learned from Hector.

I sit back on the edge of the desk and stare at the map. I let my mind go, let it wander so my sub-conscience will process. I find myself thinking of Ask flirting with me. At least I think he was flirting. He called himself cute, for crying out loud, that’s got to be flirtation because he ain’t cute. But he is handsome, in a rugged kick-your-ass kinda way. I’ve got a type.

Suddenly it hits me! Gotta love the sub-conscience, sometimes it’s smarter than rational thought.

Not ’sj’. Not ‘5j’. Not a ‘j’ at all.

I step up real close to the pictures of the entrails and suddenly it’s as plain as day. The smear left by Nattie’s diaper touches the top of the entrails. The second character was originally a ‘9’. When Hector lifted Nattie, he collapsed the top of the ‘9’ and made it look like a ‘j’.

So, either ’s9’ or ’59’.

That’s it. I get the notes I wrote after our first conversation by the waterfall. There it is. Ask told me Hector had three dealers that sold meth and it was thought they got it from a gang called the 59ers.

I am so excited I start texting a message to Ask. Then I notice the time. It’s close to 11 pm. We’re supposed to meet at the waterfall again in the morning. I can wait to tell him.

Maybe.

~ ~ ~

She beat me to our meeting place, that’s a first. When I step around the bushes, she jumps up from the bench smiling, another first.

I am feeling mixed emotions. Her behavior would indicate something is up; maybe she has good news about the case. But, I also feel good about my appearance making her smile, maybe too good. I am used to keeping people at arm’s length, but I find I want her closer. Unsettling.

“It came to me while I was studying my mind map. You won’t believe it. I was just letting my sub-conscience go, and bam, it hit me. You’re not gonna believe it …”

“Whoa, slow down, Nori, slow down. You’re gonna spring a leak.”

“It’s the break we’ve looking for … what?”

“Slow down. Sit. Talk at regular speed. I like it when you talk at a normal pace. It enhances communication.”

She stops talking, sits on the bench with her legs folded under her. Her hair is loose today; I didn’t realize how long it is. She is wearing jeans, that’s different. She is wearing a very thin yellow t-shirt that has FBI on it in large black letters, but smaller letters complete the words ‘Funny, Beautiful, Intelligent’.

Tucking loose hair behind her ears, she says, “What?”

I realize I’ve been standing open-mouthed, noticing how sexy she is. So, I sit down on the bench, straddling it, facing her. She spins to face me, still sitting cross-legged.

“Tell me your news, Nori.”

“Sorry, I got a little exited.”

“Take your time.”

“I realized that when Hector picked up Nattie he dragged her butt and smushed the message a little. The top of a ‘9’ got squished so we thought it was a ‘j’. The entrail writing says ’59’.”

“Did you just say ‘smushed’?”

“No, silly, well yes, but what you should have heard is ’59’.” As she says this, she raises her eyebrows and tilts her head, waiting.

It hits me. Crap, the 59ers.

She sees it dawn on me, says, “Tell me about the 59ers.”

“It’s a gang that gets the name cause they originated over on 59th street.”

“They sell meth, right?”

“They got their start in what you might call the protection racket before branching out to selling meth. They charge you to leave you in peace under the guise of protecting you. They have been compared to the Russian mob in the sense that their honor is everything. The impression someone might stand up to them cannot be tolerated. Appearances are everything.”

“So, Hector would be justified if he’s scared of them. That might be why he won’t say more.”

“They have this thing they call ’The Lesson’. They’re famous for it. When they want to make an example of someone, they assign him a humiliating task that they think he can’t or won’t be able to do. If he fails, they kill him only after killing his whole family. In slow motion. They announce a schedule that takes days. They stick to it. Nothing can change it.”

Then, that’s it. We’ve got to get Hector to explain the ’59’. He said he had to go to the apartment to ‘open her up’, those were his exact words. Sounds kind of like an assignment to me. Maybe the 59ers suggested he do it.”

“They don’t suggest.”

She begins unfolding herself, says, “You know what I mean. I gotta go, I’m gonna interview Hector again.”

“You going to the office like that?”

She stops, turns. Three things happen: she puts hands on hips, she poses with back arched, my heart skips a beat.

“You don’t like my tee-shirt?”

~ ~ ~

“Good morning, Hector.”

“What’s good about it?”

“Well, two things. First, Red is not here. That’s good, right?”

“Yes, that’s good.”

“Also, we aren’t going to play truth or prison. I have decided I can trust you. Of course, it helps that I am a human lie detector, but still it’s a good thing right?”

“Yes, I didn’t like that game.”

“There is a down side to this particular conversation, though.”

I see his adam’s-apple bobbing.

“Now I have new leverage. We are going to play truth or 59ers.”

He turns very pale. His mouth is opening like a fish.

“What, that not a game you wanna play?”

“You can’t do this. I want a lawyer.”

“You don’t need a lawyer, Hector. What am I gonna arrest you for, saving a baby?”

“Dumping me on the street is as good as killing me. It can’t be legal for you to do that.”

“Think this through, Hector. You haven’t told me anything about the 59ers, I said that word, not you. If you gave up the killer, then I can help you. But, since you haven’t said anything important, I just gotta let you go. … I hope they aren’t watching your apartment, because that’s where we’ll drop you.”

“But you can’t protect me. Not from the 59ers, not possible. Letting me out in front of my apartment is the same as shooting me.”

I hold up my hands, quieting him. I wait until he has calmed himself. I lower my voice and speak very quietly.

“Hector, you are at another cusp, listen closely. I am here assisting on a homicide investigation. I need to get the guy that killed Gabriela. But, there are other agencies I work with who have different priorities. The DEA for example. They would be very interested if they could get reliable information on the sale of methamphetamine.”

“If I rat on the 59ers, they ain’t gonna care which information it is.”

“True, but wait, it gets better. I also know some U.S. Marshals. You know what they do? They provide new identities for informers and give them a place to live in obscure locations, help you get a job and everything.”

Hector sits up straight for the first time since I mentioned the 59ers, says, “Witness protection? They get you jobs?”

“Yep. You see, felons have trouble finding work, so the new identity would not have a record. You might not like the work, and I bet it wouldn’t pay as well as pushing meth, but you’d be a free man and the 59ers wouldn’t ever know where you were. I wouldn’t even know where you were, the Marshals are very particular about that.”

Hector began to talk. He was quite honest and forth coming.

~ ~ ~

As I enter the precinct, I get a text from Nori. She wants to meet at the waterfall, she’s got good news.

I go in and find her writing on her mind map. She has changed into her normal attire. The pantsuit is dark blue; her hair is in a bun. But, I cannot get the image of the tee-shirt out of my mind. That and her impish grin framed by long hair.

“You texted me, poof, I appear.”

“Oh, you startled me.”

“You have news?”

“Since you are off the Ruiz case, I do not have any news. I just thought we could grab a late lunch.”

She says this with a subtle, almost imperceptible, wink. I feel my pulse race, and it’s not because she has new information about the case.

“Okay, I’ll drive.”

I haven’t even got the car in gear before she’s talking.

“Hector agreed to inform on the 59ers. The guy he knows killed Gabriela. The guy who delivers the meth. Anyone in the gang he’s ever had direct contact with. The whole ball of wax!”

She is squirming in her seat as she talks, like a grade-schooler who needs to pee.

“I called in some markers. Got the DEA and the Marshals involved. It looks like Hector is going into witness protection.”

“He don’t deserve protection.”

“Well, yeah, he’s scum, but he told me who killed Gabriela.”

She expected me to be pleased and act all happy.

“I thought you would like that.”

“I do like that.”

“You’re not acting like you like it.”

“Who is it?”

“Guy named Maurice Eggles. Everyone calls him Eggs.”

“Is he in jail yet?”

“Oh, okay, I get it. You’ll smile when he’s in jail. Don’t worry, we’ll catch him and Hector will testify so he gets his new identity. The guy wears a machete in a scabbard wherever he goes. It’ll have Gabriela’s blood somewhere on it, I bet.”

“If it does, then I’ll smile.”

“What the hell restaurant you taking me to anyway? Where we headed?”

“My place.”

Her squirming ceases. Sitting still, she says, so quiet I can barely hear, “You cook?”

“Nope.”

“You got microwave dinners?”

“Nope.”

“You hungry?”

“Not for food.”

She doesn’t say another word all the way to my place. When we get there, she gets out of the car and takes her hair down as she heads for the house. She beats me to the porch. She seems eager for lunch.

~ ~ ~

I wake up exhausted, forget where I am, hit my knee on the wall by Ask’s bed as I turn to get up.

“Ow. Shit. Don’t you know the bed should be in the middle of the room?”

“Wha?”

“I hit my knee, the bed should be in the middle of the wall, so there’s room to make the bed.”

“Wha?”

“Ask, are you awake?”

“Wha?”

I go pee, thinking about how I can get Hector to help us catch Eggs. Back in the bedroom, I run and jump on the bed as hard as I can.

“Wake up!”

“What the hell? What time is it.”

“2 AM.”

“It’s the middle of the night, go back to sleep.”

“No, silly, 2 AM is for pillow talk.”

“Pillow talk?”

“Yeah, pillow talk. Whisper sweet things in my ear.”

“Oh my God. … You go first.”

“Okay. Did you know that I have hatched a plan to catch Eggs?”

“That your idea of sweet things?”

“I noticed it got you to roll over.”

“Well, are you gonna tell me your plan, or are you just a tease?”

“I think we both know I am not a tease. You want some more exercise before I whisper?”

“Oh my God. You are so cheerful it’s making my head hurt.”

“I don’t get laid much. Cut me some slack.”

“Are you going to tell me your damn plan or not?”

“You are so grumpy. Normally, that last position makes men happy.”

“Oh. My. God. Tell me your damn plan!”

“Okay, okay. Don’t blow a gasket. Here’s the deal.

“I am gonna get Hector to call the 59ers and tell’em we figured out the 59 in the entrails. He’ll say that means he completed the assignment. He’ll then say he doesn’t have all the money he owes, but he has some of it. Next, he’ll say he is sure the police are following him, but knows he can shake them by going to someplace — a location we can decide later. That will almost guarantee they send Eggs to whack him.”

“Whack him? What is this, an 80’s movie?”

“Well, what should you call it when someone whacks you with a machete?”

That makes him smile. I like his smile a lot, as it turns out.

He says, “I changed my mind.”

“What?”

“I need exercise.”

~ ~ ~

Since I am officially not on the case, I can’t be with the team as they wait on Eggs to show up.

Eggs probably won’t be alone, but Hector looks like he’s alone — even though he’s not. The junkyard was a nice choice by Nori. Empty vans — all bashed up — are a great place to hide SWAT teams.

She has Hector standing amongst piles of spare parts. He’s visible, but Eggs won’t be able to drive up close to him. There are two SWAT teams within fifty feet of Hector as he stands nervously shifting from one foot to the other. Nori, Red, and Henry are all within a hundred feet.

I am officially not here. Unofficially, I am up in the cab of a crane one hundred fifty feet to the north of Hector. I didn’t have time to check out a rifle, and I couldn’t have justified the need, in any case, since I am not here.

I am glad for my decision about year ago to start carrying a five-seven as my service pistol. It has a twenty round magazine, and I am carrying three spares. God help us all if I need eighty rounds, but it’s better safe than sorry.

The best thing about the five-seven is the velocity of the bullet, twenty-one hundred feet per second. This creates a very flat trajectory, which improves long range shooting. Using a pistol at a range of more than forty feet is crazy, but this is not a normal situation. Knowing of the possibility of using it long-range, I put a laser on it, the only way to aim a pistol accurately at long distances.

I did not tell Nori my plan to be here, she would have objected. Hopefully, all goes well, I do nothing, she never knows.

When Eggs arrives, he is not alone; there are three of them. They arrive in an ancient, but apparently well maintained, Ford Galaxy.

When they exit the car, I know which one is Eggs because of the short machete hanging from his hip in a brown leather scabbard. It is a Bolo machete like those used in the Philippines. The other two bad guys appear to be following his lead.

He instructs the two others to lead him toward Hector. Hiding behind them, he pulls a pistol from his waistband when they are forty feet from Hector. Hector is not looking directly at them, I don’t think he has even seen them yet. There is no way he has warned the SWAT teams Eggs has arrived.

Crap. Nori’s plan is going to backfire. He’s not going to whack Hector with a machete, he’s going to shoot him.

I have to act. I am going to get in trouble for being here, but I have to do something, so I take aim and shoot the left rear tire of the Galaxy.

Many things happen at once. The SWAT teams exit their vans and deploy, aiming their weapons up at me. Nori, Red, and Henry do the same. The three bad guys retreat to the rear of the Galaxy and crouch down.

This is not going well. If I stand up, the odds are high that one of the SWAT guys will shoot me. So I put my laser on the trunk in front of Eggs, intentionally let him see it. He does what I hoped, spins on his heels and shoots at me.

This causes the guns of all the good guys to pivot and point toward the bad guys. I stand up and shout, “Nori,” with my hands raised. When she looks my way I point to the bad guys, hold up three fingers, and then point down, indicating they are low. She glares at me as I hunker back down behind metal.

I see she got the message. I hear her telling the SWAT teams to flank the Galaxy from each direction.

I see Eggs pointing at a path through the wrecks and giving instructions. It looks like they are going to make a run for it. So, I paint my laser on the exact path to which he pointed. He looks up at me, then looks another direction. I paint my laser on the other route he was checking out. I am making it very clear, you move, I shoot you.

They are indecisive too long. The SWAT teams are all over them, bellowing orders to get face down. They do. I realize I wasn’t breathing and take deep, long breaths.

Now my own problem returns to focus. I am not sure what to do so I just stay hunkered down. I see Nori and Red looking up at the cab of the crane. She calls the leaders of the SWAT teams over. They are looking my way as she talks. One of them shrugs and walks away. The other laughs and exclaims, “I didn’t see no guy in a crane.”

~ ~ ~

I learn the pleasant way that when the Houston Homicide Detectives from Near Town Precinct solve a case, they drink, after hours, in the safest place in town, a cop bar.

Red’s drawl is growing on me. Not only do I understand him clearly, I find it exotic.

“So, Nori, I reckon you’ll be headin back to DC, then.”

“I haven’t been told my next assignment yet.”

Henry says, “We got people killing folks every day, you could stay and keep helping us.”

“Aw, Henry, that’s sweet, but it’s not my call. I go where I’m told.”

Michelle has an opinion. “Somehow, I suspect you didn’t play this one by the book.”

“I’m hurt that you think so low of me. How come Ask didn’t come to celebrate?”

She rolls her eyes and says, “He wasn’t on the case, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot.”

Red says, “Ask is hard to forget. I am certain you know where he’s at.”

Michelle finds this interesting. She says, “Reeeaaally?”

Red smirks.

I can’t think of anything clever to say. The best I come up with is, “Shut up. Red.”

When Michelle drinks, her drawl almost matches Red’s. “We gotta talk, girl.”

Henry bails me out. “How did you get Hector to talk?”

Before I can answer, Red pitches in, “She played truth or prison with him.”

Michelle asks, “What is truth or prison?”

Red says, “Well, it involves the irrigation muscle.”

I begin giggling and can’t stop. These guys are funny when I’m tipsy.

“Wait, let me catch my breath, and I’ll explain.”

Michelle says, “I hope the irrigation muscle isn’t what it sounds like.”

Now we are all laughing. I manage not to pee myself and try to explain.

“Okay, here it is. The key was the ’59’ Hector wrote using Gabriela’s intestines.”

Michelle says, “I was there, you said it was an ‘sj’.”

“I was wrong. Hector smushed the top of the ‘9’ when he picked up Nattie.”

Henry says, “Smushed?”

I giggle and say,”That’s what Ask said, too.”

Michelle says, “Reeeaaally?”

“No, don’t get me side tracked. We thought it was ‘sj’ so it had no relevance. When I realized it was a ‘9’, I knew it had to be a ‘5’ to go with it. The 59ers had made Hector gut Gabriela’s corpse and write the message. So, I used the threat of the 59ers as leverage and convinced Hector to play ball.”

Ask walks up to the table, and says, “Y’all started without me?”

Everyone looks at him and then acts embarrassed. Red gets off the stool next to me and goes around the table so Ask can sit by me. Ask gives him the evil eye. Red scrutinizes his beer.

“Does anyone else know the cure for an embarrassing situation?”, I ask.

They all just stare, so I tell them without making them guess. “Tequilla shots for the table. I’m buying!”

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