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Authors: Michael Nava

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BOOK: The Death of Friends
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“Henry,” Chris said, “I want you to meet Bay. Bay, this is my friend, Henry, I’ve been telling you about.”

“Hi,” she said, extending a hand. “It’s nice to meet you. Chris is always talking about you.”

“Hi,” I said, awkwardly shaking her hand.

“I’m going to get a beer,” Chris said. “You want one, Bay? Henry?”

He was gone before either of us could answer. Bay had the fresh, shiny prettiness of the children of the rich; pink and gold skin, white, even teeth, her blue eyes clear and unclouded. She wore loose jeans and a heavy cable sweater, frayed a bit at the sleeves and the collar. They were the clothes someone wore to hide extra weight, but I could see it in her rounded cheeks and the hint of a double chin. Cruelly, I wondered what Chris saw in her besides a ticket to normality.

“So,” I said, patronizing her, “you’re a junior somewhere?”

“St. Clare’s,” she said, smiling a bit, taking my measure. “Why do law students feel so superior? My dad’s a lawyer. It’s nothing to be proud of.”

I liked her for that. “You don’t think so? Why?”

She shrugged. “Think about it, Henry. What do lawyers actually do except make money at the expense of other people’s misery?”

“I guess that’s why we feel superior.”

“Chris said you had a sense of humor.”

“If you have such a low opinion of law students, why are you engaged to one?”

“He’s different,” she said. “Don’t you think so?”

I told myself to be careful. “Different? I’m not sure what you mean.”

“He’s not mercenary,” she said, “and he’s not arrogant and he’s not boring.”

“And you’re in love with him,” I said, drink getting the better of discretion.

“Hopelessly,” she said, not altogether ironically.

“Is that from a movie? It sounds like something Claudette Colbert would say about Clark Gable. ‘I’m hopelessly in love with him.’”

If she detected the mean-spiritness in that remark, she didn’t let on. She laughed and said, “You’re funny, Henry.”

“No, just sort of drunk.”

Just then, Chris reappeared, carrying three cups of beer. “Here you go,” he said, handing them out. “You two getting along?”

“I like Henry,” Bay announced. She took a delicate swallow of her beer and wiped her lip with her sleeve.

Chris glanced at me and said, “Good.”

Some vintage Supremes came on and people started dancing. Bay grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s dance, okay? I’ve been cooped up in the library all week.”

“What about me?” Chris said.

“You, too,” she said. “Come on.”

We pushed our way to the middle of the yard and started dancing together. Her moves were fluid and uninhibited, as she turned now toward me, now toward Chris, hips swaying, breasts bouncing. Her face was flushed, and beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. She pushed her heavy hair back from her face and grinned at me. I felt awkward and self-conscious as I tried to keep up with her while staying clear of Chris, who bobbed up and down between us. After a few minutes, I shrugged and left them at it. I watched them from the edge of the yard. She danced toward Chris, who danced back at her. I could see from the way their bodies moved what they were to each other, and whatever fantasy I had entertained about Chris and me was dispelled at that moment. I went inside.

I found some people in the kitchen playing a drinking game that involved long strings of law Latin and a fifth of tequila. I was drunk when Bay caught up with me at the front door.

She tugged at my sleeve and said, “You’re not leaving, are you? We hardly got to talk.”

Her face was flushed and her eyes bright with drink.

“I thought you wanted to dance,” I said.

“Chris got hijacked by his Moot Court partner,” she said. “Stay and keep me company.”

“You must know a lot of the people here.”

“His other friends are so dull,” she said, grinning. “You’re not dull.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because you’re gay,” she said, merrily, and then her face went an even deeper red. “Oh, God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Even drunk, my guard went up, and I tried to pass it off as a joke. “The antonym for dull is exciting, not gay.”

“I’m sorry, Henry. I say stupid things when I’ve had too much to drink.”

I shrugged. “It’s not a secret. Did Chris tell you?”

“He knew I wouldn’t care,” she said. “I have lesbian friends at school.”

“It’s all right, Bay,” I said, zipping up my jacket.

“Don’t go. You’re the only one of Chris’s friends I’ve met that I like. So naturally, I humiliate you. I feel awful.”

“I’m not humiliated,” I replied. All I wanted was to get away.

“Chris will be really upset with me for offending you.”

She was near tears. I looked at her, and an alcoholic sentimentality descended on me. She ceased being the
femme fatale
of my imagination who had stolen Chris away from me. She was two or three years younger than me, just a child in my book, who wasn’t holding her liquor very well, in a roomful of people she hardly knew. I slipped my hand into hers, feeling big and confident and protective.

“Come on, Bay, let’s go dance.”

“You’re not mad,” she said, with transparent relief.

“Not even a little,” I assured her.

We went and danced.

Remembering that first time I met Bay, it occurred to me that I’d just met someone else who reminded me a little of what she’d been like then. Zack Bowen.

My search for Zack had taken me deep into the valley, beyond the ’50s-fantasy suburbs into a dystopian sprawl of faded apartment complexes, warehouses and strip malls featuring fast-food restaurants that offered teriyaki burritos and drug transactions in the parking lots. For the first time I saw visible evidence of the quake, tumbled-down walls, shattered windows, the charred but still smoking remains of a row of stores. Police cars, fire engines and ambulances whizzed by. I drove past a scruffy little park where a bank of news vans from the local TV stations were lined up one after another in front of a tent village. Traffic was heavy and slow, and up ahead there was a police checkpoint where people were being turned around. I inched my way up to it. A uniformed cop stopped me.

“Sir, are you a resident of this neighborhood?”

“No,” I said. “I’m looking for a friend of mine who lives around here.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “from this point on we’re just letting residents in.”

“Is there any way I can just go and check up on him?”

“Sorry,” the cop said, and gestured me to U-turn around his patrol car.

I turned around, drove a few blocks and parked. After consulting my map, I set off on foot to find Zack. I got as far as the block where he lived, where I was stopped again by another cop. His car blocked the street, and beyond it was a mass of people and emergency equipment.

“Sir,” the cop said, “can I help you?”

“I’m looking for a friend of mine,” I said. “He lives on this street at eleven-forty-eight.”

The cop said, “I’m sorry, but we’re not letting anyone in here.”

An ambulance roared by, its siren deafening. “What’s going on?”

“One of the buildings collapsed,” he said. “Not the one you’re looking for. There’re still people inside.”

“But my friend,” I started to say.

“Sir, everyone has been evacuated from this neighborhood. You’re not gonna find him.” While he spoke to me, he waved a news van through. “Take my word for it.”

“Where were they evacuated to?”

“Various locations,” he said.

“Can you be more specific, Officer? I’m really worried about him.”

“Try that little park up on Shakespeare. Then there’s the high school over on Caldwell. Those are your best bets.”

I went back to my car and drove to the little park I’d passed earlier. I spent the next hour picking my way through hysterical children and shell-shocked adults, and then I drove to the high school, where I searched the gym for another hour. I was feeling pretty shell-shocked myself by the time I left there, having given all the money I had, and a pint of blood, to the Red Cross people who were running the place. But I didn’t find Zack. Finally, bone-tired, I gave up, went home and slept for fourteen hours.

6

T
HE EARTHQUAKE DOMINATED THE
front section of the
Times
the next morning, pushing Chris’s murder to a brief article on page 3 of the Metro section that reported that Chris had been “bludgeoned to death” by an “unknown intruder.” The one detail that interested me was that the weapon had not been found at the scene. Zack had told me differently. I called Captain Closet and reached him just as he was leaving for work.

“That’s right,” he said about the missing weapon, then paused. “Do you know what it was, Henry?”

“No,” I said.

“I’m getting a little tired of this one-way street,” he said.

“You wouldn’t have found Chris if I hadn’t called you,” I pointed out.

“If you’re protecting his murderer…” he began threateningly.

“No,” I said sharply. “This is called representing a client.”

“Fine. Then get your information through the usual channels, Counsel.” He slammed the phone down.

I stood there with the receiver in my hand. I’d been thinking about the weapon that Zack had described as a marble pyramid, trying to remember the objects in Chris’s chamber. And then it came to me: a green marble obelisk that had been given to him earlier in the year by the county bar association as an award for being trial judge of the year. He used it as a paperweight. A sick joke. Zack said he’d left it there. Where was it? And where was Zack?

I called Milt Harriman’s number.

“Hello,” a male voice, not his, said groggily.

“Is Milt there?”

“He’s at the restaurant. Do you want to leave a message?”

“No, thanks.”

I showered and dressed. As I was driving to Azul, I thought about the weapon again. Trial judge of the year. Chris was very proud of that award. I wondered if the murderer was trying to make an obscure point by using it. All I could think of was that it was some dissatisfied litigant come back to take an ironic revenge. Maybe I’d been wrong not to tell Captain Closet about the weapon. I’d have to think about it.

There was a silver Lexus in the parking lot of Azul. I pulled up next to it, got out and went to the front door. It was locked. I walked around to the alley in the back. The back door was open behind the screen door, and I let myself into the kitchen. It had been tossed around some, but there was no major damage.

“Milt,” I called, entering the main dining room.

It was an elegant room, the chocolate brown walls lit by bronze wall sconces, smallish metal tables scattered across a concrete floor that had been painted deep blue and then lacquered and buffed to a mirrorlike reflectiveness. Off to the side was a small bar. It was from there that a short man in khaki pants and a wrinkled white shirt, dark-haired, handsome and in need of a shave, came out holding a baseball bat threateningly.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Henry Rios. I talked to you yesterday about Zack Bowen.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, letting the bat fall. “Sorry, Henry. We had looters during the riots. You find Zack?”

“I couldn’t even get near his apartment building,” I said. “It was across the street from the one that collapsed.”

“Yeah, I saw the picture in the
Times.”

“I was hoping you could tell me who might know where he is, like family or something.”

He squinted at me. “You look familiar, Henry. You eat here?”

“Once or twice,” I said. “I’m sort of in the neighborhood. I’m surprised you remember.”

“A memory for customers is essential in this business. I have some coffee in the bar, and about a thousand dollars’ worth of broken cocktail glasses. Come on, I’ll pour you a cup. Of the coffee, I mean.”

I followed him into the bar. A big pile of broken glass had been swept up against the wall. He poured two cups of coffee and sat down at the bar with me.

“Why are you looking for Zack?” he asked.

“Did you know Zack had a boyfriend?”

“The way you say boyfriend you must be gay,” he said. “Straight guys choke on the word, if they can bring themselves to use it at all. Yeah, I knew he had a boyfriend. Older guy named Chris. He came in a couple of times.”

I tasted the coffee. It was spicy but good. Sort of like Milt Harriman, I thought, deciding to level with him.

“Chris Chandler was a Superior Court judge,” I said. “Night before last, someone murdered him. Zack showed up at my door to tell me because Chris and I were friends, then Zack split before I could get the whole story out of him. I’d like to find him before the cops do and hear the rest of it.”

“Wow,” Milt said. “You think Zack did it?”

“I never met Zack before yesterday. You know him. Do you?”

“No way, Jose,” he said decisively. “Zack’s a nice kid who’s had a rough life. The only person he ever hurt was himself.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Look, all I care about is that my waiters show up for their shifts, smile pretty at the customers and do their job. Zack’s great that way. I never asked him about what he did before he came to work for me, but after a while you get to know people’s stories.”

“What’s his?”

“He was a street kid. I guess he hustled on the boulevard a little.”

“How did he end up here?”

“Sam Bligh,” he said, pouring me another cup of coffee. “You know him?”

“Nope.”

“Maybe you aren’t gay,” he said, grinning. “Sam Bligh runs Wilde Ride Productions, purveyor of fine gay porn. Somehow Zack got hooked up with him, made a couple of videos, I guess, but didn’t like the life. Sam asked me to give him a job. I started him out as a busboy and promoted him in no time. He’s been working here a couple of years.”

“Are you saying Zack did blue movies?”

He did a slow double-take. “Blue movies? Hello, it’s the nineties, Henry. Porn’s big business and Sam’s like, I don’t know, the Spielberg of gay porn. If Zack did work for him, it was definitely a step up from selling himself on the streets.”

“The Spielberg of porn,” I said, turning that notion over in my head. “Okay. And you hired Zack on his say-so. Why would a respectable guy like you be doing favors for a pornographer?”

BOOK: The Death of Friends
10.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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