THERE ARE DAYS IN a man’s life when he looks in the mirror and recognizes all the losses he’s experienced. Lost opportunities. Lost dreams. Lost lovers. Lost friends. Most of all, his lost youth. It was one of those days for me.
The deadline for my third book was looming, and I should have sat myself down at the computer and got some work done. Instead, I showered, wolfed down some breakfast, gassed up the Mustang, and headed east into California’s low desert and the city of Palm Springs.
The city’s cemetery once sat on the outskirts of town. Now it sat like a verdant island in a sea of gated communities. It had been a while since I last went there, but I found the grave of my former wife, Robin Anderson, without problem. I laid flowers next to the headstone that recorded the short twenty-six years of her life, then sat down and remembered, concentrating on the good times, not the bad times. After an hour or so, I drove out into the desert and up into the foothills to where I had scattered Matt’s ashes years before. Matt Banyon, a bear-sized man. Ex-cop, private eye, good friend. I opened two beers, poured one onto the thirsty earth for Matt, and drank the other myself. And remembered some more.
Then I left.
It was dark by the time I reached Ocean Beach, San Diego’s small beach community and throwback to the 1960s. I thought about turning down Newport Avenue and having some machaca con huevos at Margarita’s, the only local Mexican restaurant that served food the way I remembered it when I was working down south. Instead, I returned to my small bungalow and pulled the Mustang into the driveway. I was putting my key in the front door when I heard a voice.
I didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. The voice was soft, with a sensuous huskiness reminiscent of a young Lauren Bacall. The kind of voice you don’t easily forget, even years after the last time you heard it.
“Jo,” I said, “what are you doing here?”
She looked the same. Same blonde hair kept short out of habit. Rich cobalt eyes that could turn to blue ice in a second. Cold as Ice Rice was her nickname when I met her five years before. She even dressed the same as the first time we met, tight denim jeans and just-as-tight blouse, revealing a figure well-honed through exercise.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Joanne Rice said.
“I need a friend to talk to,” she said. “We’re still friends, aren’t we?”
No other word stabs deeper into the heart than friend when it refers to someone with whom you were once intimate. Friend. Might as well just call us colleagues or acquaintances. Why not put a Russian spin on it and call us comrades?
“Sure,” I said. I unlocked the door and held it open for her. “Come on in.”
Jack must have been asleep on the couch. When he heard the key in the lock, he had geared himself up for dinner, only to see a strange woman walk in. Jack, a long-haired, orange tabby of unusual size, now stood with his back arched, fur standing, and large eyes flaring.
“Stand down, Jack,” I said. “It’s okay. She’s a friend.”
Again, that word.
“You have a cat?” Jo said, surprised.
“Everyone needs somebody to love,” I muttered, my tone a little too harsh. I softened it and said, “A couple years ago, I found him crying on my door step, drenched by a hard rain. He was just a little kitten then. So small he could sit in my hand. Look at him now.”
“Looks like you feed him well.”
“If I don’t, he might try to kill me in my sleep.” I leaned down and Jack jumped onto my shoulder. “Let me give him dinner. You don’t want to be around him when he’s hungry. Drink?”
“Please,” Jo said.
“I’m having Scotch,” I said. “It’s been one of those days. Wine for you?”
“I could use a Scotch,” Jo said, “for the same reasons.”
I poured two stiff drinks, added ice, and left Jack happily munching his dinner in the kitchen. Jo was standing at the bookcase, holding a familiar hardcover tome, and flipping through its pages. She held it up.
“So, you’re a rich, famous author now,” she said.
“An author, yes,” I said. “Not so famous and not—” I gestured around the small living room. “—so rich.”
Since the last time I saw Jo, I had published two books—one on America’s proxy wars in Central America in the 1980s, the other on the war with Iraq, Operation Desert Storm. My publishing contract called for a third. That was the one I should have spent the day working on, but hadn’t.
“I read this one,” Jo said, holding up the Central America book. “It’s good. Haven’t read the new one yet.”
“You don’t have to,” I said. “You were there.”
I handed Jo her drink and she made herself comfortable on the sofa. I sat on a lounge chair across from her.
Jo rubbed her right leg, remembering. “Yes, I was,” she said. “Are they selling well?”
I shrugged. “A lot of Americans don’t want to hear the truth about the policies we had in Central America in the ’80s, or what really happened in the Gulf War. But they’re selling well in Europe.”
“Are you still reporting?”
“I still do some freelance work for the newsweekly. I’m also teaching some journalism classes at a local community college.”
We sipped our drinks and looked at each other uncomfortably. Finally, I asked the question we were both thinking.
“Jo, what are you doing here?”
She dropped her eyes and bit her lower lip. After a moment, she said, “You know Frank was murdered.”
Frank Crane, Jo’s husband. The man she left me for four years before. I watched her for a second or two, letting the news sink in. Then I shook my head.
“Two weeks ago,” Jo said. “It was in the newspaper and on TV.”
“I don’t pay much attention to the local news,” I said. The local newspaper wasn’t worth reading, and the local news stations were all happy talk between former beauty queens and failed actors. “What happened?”
“The police found his body dumped in a field,” Jo said. “It was set on fire and burned beyond recognition. They had to identify him through dental records. The autopsy showed he’d been tortured before he was killed.”
Jo’s voice was calm and matter of fact. That wasn’t unusual for a woman who had been a military police officer in the army and a combat veteran. It was, I thought, unusual for a recently widowed wife.
“I’m sorry, Jo,” I said. “If I’d known I would’ve tried—”
“No, Peter, no.” Jo waved her left hand at me, showing there was no wedding ring on her finger. “It was over between us. I don’t think there ever was anything to begin with. I started divorce proceedings last month and moved out.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “It’s the same old story, Peter. Frank wasn’t the man I thought he was, not the man he portrayed himself as in public. There was a poorly concealed parade of other women. I was just his blonde, blue-eyed combat-wounded, war-hero trophy wife. Emphasis on the blonde and blue eyed.”
It took me a while to realize what she meant, then I said, “You mean Frank was a racist?”
She nodded. “I knew he had very conservative views when we got married,” she said. “So what? So did my father, the general. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to him. But after we got married it became clear he had some pretty extreme views. Including the submissive role of a trophy wife.”
“What about the police, Jo?” I asked. “Do they have any leads?”
Jo took a long drink and held out the empty glass. “Could I have another?”
I went into the kitchen and poured her another. She drank half of it at once.
“Leads?” I repeated.
“As far as I can tell,” Jo said, “their prime suspect is me.”
A sheepish smile flirted with her lips, then vanished. She shook her head.
“I’m sure that’s just SOP,” I said. “Spouses and family members are always immediate suspects. You were an army cop. You know that.”
“I know,” she sighed.
“They can’t possibly think you tortured Frank, killed him, then dumped his body and set it on fire,” I said. “You’re fit, but Frank was a big guy.”
“They don’t,” she said. “They think maybe I hired someone.”
I looked at her and said nothing.
She shook her head. “No,” she said, “I did not hire someone to do it, Peter. I didn’t love Frank anymore, but I didn’t want him dead. I just wanted him out of my life.”
Jack finished his dinner, sauntered into the living room, and jumped onto my lap. He turned circles a couple of times, slapping my face with his thick, lush marmalade tail, then lay down and glared at Jo.
“I don’t think your cat likes me,” Jo said.
“He doesn’t like anyone,” I said. “He’s very territorial. Growls and howls at anyone or anything that comes near the house. Never goes out. It’s like he remembers what it was like when I found him.”
“A cat with PTSD?”
We looked at each other, each sharing the other’s knowledge of the nightmares we shared.
“Was Frank involved with anything that might have led to his death?” I said.
Jo said nothing for a while. Then she said, “I don’t know for sure, Peter. Maybe.”
“What about your friends? I mean people who knew you both?” Jack stopped glaring at Jo and purred as I scratched his ear.
“All our friends were Frank’s friends,” Jo said. “And I don’t trust them.”
“Because I think, maybe, Frank was involved in something—something big—and his friends might be part of it. You’re the only person I felt I could turn to.”
I tried hard to ignore the thoughts in my head, angry thoughts about running back to the lover she dumped for a richer, more powerful man. Taking a deep breath, I forced them back down into the black hole from which they came. I’d been down that road of misdirected resentment before. It was a wrong way street and one I didn’t want to travel again.
“Something like what?”
Jo finished her drink again and held out her glass. I lifted Jack off my lap and placed him on the couch next to Jo. “Take care of the lady, big guy,” I said. “That’s an order.”
When I returned a minute later, Jack was kneading Jo’s lap.
“I think he’s getting used to me,” she said.
“It’s the Scotch,” I said. “You smell like me now.”
“Why do you call him Jack?”
“After Kerouac,” I said. “I read him growing up.”
“I think he’s a Maine Coon,” Jo said, checking Jack’s paws and the white fur beneath his face.
“Maine Coon,” she said. “They were bred to mouse in cold New England winters. You can tell by the long fur, the fur on the bottoms of his paws, and this white ruff. And his size. Maine Coons grow for four years rather than two like other cats.”
“You know cats?”
“We had them when I was growing up,” Jo said. “My mother’s passion, not the general’s.”
I sat down again. “Back to the question, Jo. Something like what?”
“Frank had an office in our house,” she said. “An office no one ever entered except him. Not me, not our house cleaner. When he died, I had to hire a locksmith to open the door. There was a wall safe I had to have opened, too.”
“Just papers. Bonds and legal stuff.” She paused and took a drink. “Then I found another safe hidden under the carpeting and had the locksmith open that. There I found something.”
Jo shook her head. “I need you to come to my house and see it,” she said. “To make sure I found what I think I found. You’d know. I know you would.”
“I—don’t know what I can do for you, Jo.”
“Please, Peter, I need your help,” she pleaded. “I think somehow Frank … I think Frank was mixed up with Nazis. Not those skinhead neo-types you see on TV. Real Nazis. Like from the Third Reich.”