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Authors: Lynn Hightower

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BOOK: Fortunes of the Dead
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“Okay, now, you just broke my heart. Tell him not to toy with my affections. And give me Rob's address.”

Ray looked at Van with something like panic. “I'm not sure we should do that.”

“I promise not to hurt him,” I said.

I left Common Grounds with the warm and charitable feeling one gets when one helps to feed the hungry children of the world. Ray and Van and I parted on good terms, and we exchanged promises; they would get in touch if they thought of anything that might be helpful, or saw anything out of the norm at Cheryl's apartment, and I would keep Van in mind if I found myself with an overpowering urge to spend one lost night with a much younger man.

I also left with the address of Cheryl's ex-boyfriend and confidant, Robert Little. He lived on Rosemont Garden, a block down from the Rosemont Baptist Church. Van had written the street address on my hand when I said I needed to write it down to remember it.

I decided to drive out, hoping Little would be home. I was wondering about my client—Miranda had not expressed any animosity toward Cory Edgers, which, under the circumstances, seemed a little off. She'd described Cheryl as bookish and introverted, something of a loner—the exact opposite of what Van and Ray told me.

So who was lying? On the surface, Miranda, as the sister, was likely to know Cheryl better. But Cheryl and Miranda were stepsisters, thrust upon each other in disharmony. And Cheryl did have a battered basketball under her bed, giving credence to Van and Ray's version. It would be interesting to see what the ex-boyfriend had to say.

Robert Little lived in a smallish, snug little house that was made of Whitestone, from Kentucky quarries. A tiny yard was enclosed by a white picket fence that stood no more than two feet tall. There were no cars in the narrow driveway. I parked in the street, opened and closed the short wood gate, and rang the bell. My only answer was the staccato bark of a smallish dog, and the scrabble of doggie toenails on the door.

C
HAPTER
S
IX

The Los Angeles branch of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is on South Figueroa, and as usual, Wilson McCoy had to park in the underground garage. The morning sunshine was neon yellow, and as oppressive as the lighting in a pool hall. There was no humidity to speak of, unless you count ocean breezes, which couldn't be felt on South Figueroa anyway.

Wilson was early; most business in L.A. did not start until after ten. He had a nine
A.M.
appointment with Vaughn Chesterfield, the assistant to the Special Agent in Charge.

For an ATF agent, Wilson was amazingly laid back. But then, Wilson was that rare creature, the California native; third generation at that. His parents had long since abandoned Los Angeles for San Francisco, where his mother made huge sums of money as a broker. His father taught spatial geographical analysis at Berkeley, and his grandmother lived in the valley. His grandfather had passed on several years ago and resided in an urn at the Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills location, no more than ten yards from Lucille Ball's burial slot. Wilson had no doubt his grandfather was happy there—he was always crazy about Lucille Ball.

The California blond jock aura dropped away from Wilson when he walked. His limp was impressive. It had been years since the Waco holocaust put him in the hospital and rehab for over seven months; years since his leg lost nerve, bone, flexibility, and strength. He knew one of the four ATF agents who was killed while trying to serve a warrant on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, and has no regrets about being involved. That he considers himself one of the lucky ones is what he tells people when they bring it up. He doesn't feel lucky, but hell, it sounds good, and keeps people off his back.

Wilson passed through the glass doors into the high rise office building, took an elevator, and headed left for the ATF offices. He passed his ID card in front of the mechanical censor outside the door, glanced up at the cameras trained on the hallway and smiled. The receptionist buzzed him in and gave him a laconic wave. Like many L.A. residents, she didn't really spark until noon.

It was an effort, but Wilson managed to smile rather than grimace when he said hello. Today was a bad day for pain, a repercussion from yesterday's excursion wandering the hills between Valencia and Lake Elizabeth, thirty-five miles northeast of the city, but still in Los Angeles County. He'd walked for miles uphill, at dusk, in order to confirm a cache of ten MAK-90 firearms buried under an old galvanized water trough. As hoped, the trough was right where it was supposed to be—rusting away on a small horse ranch that had been abandoned so long the stalls were marked by nothing more than a collapsed tin roof, the house reduced to cinder block foundation.

Wilson's informant had been on the mark. A minimum of digging uncovered the cache—stolen in the broad daylight heist of a UPS delivery truck parked on Ventura Boulevard. The guns were now waiting for the sales transaction to a dealer in Gardenside who would then turn them over to Colombian guerrillas.

Informant Code Number 379S—a hooker who made extra cash as a straw purchaser of Lorcin and Bryco handguns—had been in way over her head. Wilson had caught her with the goods, as she was en route to make a delivery to one of the ubiquitous hives of office suites in Brentwood. Her mistake was giving her real address to the gun dealers when she made her buys. In Wilson's line of work, stupidity kept everyone in business.

Wilson had the paperwork to document the woman's purchase of seventeen handguns in the last thirteen months, one of which had already been used in a homicide in South Central, time to crime less than a year. The serial number had been sanded off, but the lab was able to raise it again with acid etching, and that was the beginning of the trail Wilson had been following. He could nail Code 379S on §922(a)(6) for willfulness to deliver a firearm to a person where possession would violate state law or ordinance (five years); §922(d) for disposing of a firearm to a prohibited person (ten years); and §922(a)(1)(A) for engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license (five years). Ninety percent of the cases Wilson put together were prosecuted. There was no parole for a federal crime.

The informant had two kids, both under six. Wilson had pushed the paperwork through in record time, gotten department approval to use her as an authorized informant rather than to prosecute, and personally moved her into public housing forty miles from where she'd been living. Forty miles was a universe away from her usual contacts and haunts. She was in Riverside now.

She had baked him cupcakes the day after the move. Wilson thanked her kindly, then ate all of them on the way home, a violation of rules that were explicit about what kind of personal give-and-take was allowed between an agent and an informant (none). But he sure as hell wasn't going to say no to her cupcakes.

He would have liked to round up some clothes and nursery books for Code 379S's kids, but that wasn't allowed either—too easy to slide into a personal rather than professional relationship. But there was no reason he couldn't leave a box of things on her doorstep, anonymously, at Christmas—providing she hadn't returned to the old neighborhood, and the old habits. People often did.

It had been full dark by the time Wilson made it back to his car. The quiet of a desert mountain after nightfall was eerie to a man who grew up rollerblading at Venice Beach. He hadn't had to use the flashlight—once he got his bearings he had no trouble finding his way.

The ATF agency begins the process of weeding-out candidates with a written test; one of the major features of that test is spatial analysis. Wilson's advantage came from the four years he'd spent attending college and delivering pizza. By the end of his sophomore year, Wilson could stand outside a six-story building and determine where an individual apartment was located, hit the right stairwell on the first try and go unerringly to the front door. His university years hadn't been a waste after all, no matter what his mother said. When anyone asked Wilson how to get hired on in federal law enforcement, he always recommended a minimum of three months delivering pizza.

Wilson threaded his way through clusters of cubicles until he found his own tiny kingdom. The light on his phone flickered—five messages. He settled himself into his chair in such a way as to take the weight off the bad leg and ease it into the most comfortable position. He watched the orange light at the base of his phone flick on and off.

He was worried about tonight's stakeout. Wondering how he was going to hold up. He'd been pretty much off active field work since he'd come back from Waco, and was grateful no one had taken him off the case. Yet. They hadn't been expecting the paper trail to lead to stakeouts, field work, and Colombian guerrillas.

Assistant Special Agent Vaughn Chesterfield was standing outside his office door, looking like he'd been waiting awhile. Wilson wasn't rattled. He knew he was on time. Vaughn was just up to his games because Vaughn didn't like him. As Wilson heard it, secondhand of course, Vaughn thought Wilson was some kind of beach boy, a California dude, and was of the opinion that Wilson was unfit for the job. Wilson did not think it helped that his mother had named him after her favorite singer in the Beach Boys. He wondered if she had any idea how much trouble this name had caused him. Knowing his mother, she would have done it anyway.

Wilson made the effort to get along with Chesterfield, careful not to say “totally” or “like” or “dude” in front of the assistant S.A., careful to wear very good shoes. His efforts made no impression, but Vaughn was from Connecticut and rumor was he would not be in L.A. much longer. ATF moves people around.

Vaughn motioned Wilson into a chair facing the desk. Wilson, invariably fair, would be the first to point out that Vaughn was smart and savvy, and the thing he admired most about the man was his refusal to give Wilson special treatment for being wounded in the Waco mess. Wilson thought that showed integrity.

Chesterfield was immaculate in a white shirt and charcoal slacks, and an oddly patterned tie. Wilson would bet money that Vaughn had not bought the tie in California. He wondered how far a man would have to go to find a tie that ugly. Well, Hollywood.

Vaughn sat straight in his chair, as behooves a man from Connecticut. He tapped a finger on the desk. “I'm pulling you off tonight's stakeout.”

Wilson gritted his teeth. He had spent a long time laying the groundwork for what had become a net for a major player. Now they were pulling him off?

“I've put a lot of hours in this, Vaughn.”

“Remember Alex Rugger out in Nashville?”

Wilson blinked. “What?”

Vaughn's face deepened into a webwork of stress wrinkles. “Alex Rugger. From Nashville.”

Wilson wondered what Alex Rugger had to do with anything. Was there some kind of Tennessee connection he didn't know about?

Last night, out in the hills behind Valencia, he had stopped to rest his leg, taking a moment, out in the desert and mountains, just to be still, just to think. There had been a three-quarter moon, and lights from the city created a belt of illumination that had an effect even out there. Wilson heard a coyote, close enough that he'd looked over his shoulder. This far out in the San Fernando Valley, the sky was an open book, with the stars as distinct as streetlights.

It had been like that in Texas, his first night there, before the FBI guys strung the lights, blasted the music, and drove everyone out of their mind.
Waco
. He didn't remember much about the last night, when the fires were burning. He was dead to the world when they cleared the compound of bodies, undergoing his first surgery, then intensive care, then another surgery, the next to the last. The final surgery, what the surgeon humorously called “tweaking,” was yet another two weeks after that.

The recovery time shocked him. He thought for a while there was something else wrong with him, something no one was telling him. He thought that until a veteran agent from Tennessee, Alex Rugger, flew in from Nashville for the sole purpose of sitting by Wilson's hospital bed for a chat. Rugger had appeared in the doorway of Wilson's hospital room, cheerful and curious. Wilson had been edgy and in pain. He had noticed the man favored his right leg when he walked into the room. Wilson thought that if he could just walk and be up on his feet again, he could put up with a limp.

Rugger said
Don't get up, ha
, rolled a well-padded recliner in from the hallway, and pulled a bottle of Jack Daniel's out of a brown paper bag. He settled in, leaving his right leg unflexed. They drank from Dixie cups—the blue-and-white paper ones used in Sunday school classes to serve juice at snack time. Rugger—a thin man in his early fifties, vibrant blue eyes and a face just now showing wrinkles—moved the leg again, crossing it over the good one, and finally seemed comfortable. He had an easy presence, and you knew without being told the details that he liked his job, his family, his whole damn life.

Rugger stayed at Wilson's bedside the whole afternoon telling stories, as if he'd been hired to provide the entertainment. Wilson told Rugger he could have a second career in stand-up. Rugger said only if Jack Daniel's was his official assistant.

Some of the stories weren't so funny, talk of the trade in that shorthand experienced agents develop. Clearly Rugger had done his time in the dark places, but it hadn't marked him, not that Wilson could tell, and seeing this reassured him.

Halfway into the bottle Wilson was as free of pain as he had been since he'd been wounded. He floated in a drug and alcohol induced haze and Rugger just kept filling up the little cups. Wilson had been puzzled for a while, then realized that there had not been a single interruption since Rugger had appeared in the doorway. Not a nurse, not a CNA, no techs, no tests, no blood work, no meds—just Rugger and that bottle of Jack Daniel's. Wilson had been feeling friendship and gratitude toward the man, and now he was enveloped in awed respect. Orchestrating an interval of peace and rest in the midst of hospital chaos, bringing in contraband and serving it in little cups without a backward look—Rugger's presence was deceptively low-key. He was clearly a powerful man.

BOOK: Fortunes of the Dead
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