I stopped off at the nearby Mexican market to get some dinner stuff. I needed flank steak and some fresh chorizo. The deep, musky chile flavor is incomparable and wonderful. Outside, an elderly couple limped along, the old gal steadying her hubbie as they struggled from the car to the door. I was feeling lonely. My relationship with Margie was going nowhere.
I barbecued some skirt steak with garlic salt and chile powder and was just fixing myself a taco when the phone rang. They'll do it every time.
"Hello?" I answered curtly. It was Mason Stone. Speaking sotto voce, he said Loretta was home, for the first time in days, and she was very stoned. She'd told him she was "going out" again tomorrow and if he didn't like it he could "kiss her ass." That's no way to talk to a rich, handsome husband. He said he told her he wanted a divorce and she slammed her bedroom door in his face. Definitely a dysfunctional marriage.
"So …" he was nearly whispering and it was hard for my old ears to hear, "she usually gets up late and leaves in the afternoon. Shall I call you then?"
"No …" I said. My taco was cooling off, damn it. "I might miss her. I'll park around the corner on Live Oaks Drive after lunch and call you from my car. If it looks like she's gonna leave earlier than usual, call me. I'll leave my cell on." We agreed and hung up.
More important, I realized that I could heat the tortillas and meat in the microwave and they'd be all right. A third Pacifico Clara beer and they'd be even better.
So, another stakeout. Well … that's what you do in this murderous business. You sit on your butt and wait for something interesting to happen.
Too interesting, maybe? I decided to call my police friend, Capt. Ysidro Palafox, and go to lunch. He could advise me as to just how deep was the doo-doo I was about to step in. I called him at home and he wanted Mexican food again. Fine with me. I couldn't get enough of it either.
I met him at noon at La Café Buena and we gabbed awhile and then I told him about the Stone case.
"You WHAT?" Ysidro looked up from his paper plate full of tamales and beans, almost as alarmed as if he just heard they'd canceled his police pension. He held his fork in mid-swing, until I answered.
"Look," I said. "I didn't take the case to go fight drug lords in Calí. I'm just nosing around to see what's up with this guy's Looney Tunes wife . . . see if there's some easy way to pry her loose, you know. Get her to the bargaining table with her ol' man. That's all. She's beautiful, definitely a keeper."
I explained what Mason had told me, his suspicions and all.
Pal shook his head. He kept his brown eyes boring into me. What a handsome Mexican. Ricardo Montalban with muscle. Pal had been an outstanding football player in his youth. An all-state guard. He played with reckless abandon, as they say -- the way I, crime fighter McNabb, did my sleuthing. He was 15 years younger than I, he but we were good friends, with or without my private eye work. Good cop, too, and now Asst. Chief.
He finally spoke again, clearly concerned about his old high school coach.
"I don't get it, Dick," he said. "Why doesn't the poor guy just get a divorce? Send her packing ASAP, get on with his life? Rescuing a druggie is a damn poor way to waste money and energy. Nothing but heartache."
I tried to explain. "Well, they have a couple of boys up north in Foothill School who don't really know what's going on down here. They're just kids, ten and twelve. Mason hopes things can unravel quietly. You know, a sensible millionaire-style divorce, where everybody is terribly decent to each other. 'Amicable.' All that bullshit. He needs to get the goods on her. You know, whether she's a criminal or not."
"Hm" We both munched, I on tacos de carnitas, like mine at home except carnitas are pork. And we both smiled at a couple of cute secretary types carrying trays and looking for a patio table.
"So I guess you're not old till you stop looking, right Coach?"
"Right. And you can't go to jail for what you're thinkin'."
But I couldn't keep my mind off the case for long. I made the mistake of mentioning the mysterious sailboat I'd seen.
Pal lowered his fork and delivered a lecture. "You must avoid those drug guys. If half of what Mason Stone suspects is true, they're killers."
He was scaring me a little, which of course was the point.
"You don't know how close you are to being murdered. Haven't you seen all the drug movies? They're not exaggerated. Drug people have no feelings, no remorse."
He had stopped eating, so he was definitely serious.
He kept it up: "There was a case in L.A. recently in which a little kid survived by hiding in a kitchen pantry. He watched through louvers in the door while some bastard shot the family dog, then shot his older brother while his mother watched and screamed. And then shot her. Then whoever it was left and found the father, who had stiffed him for a large amount of money, and blew him clear off the seat of his car with an Uzi.
"The officers said the house looked like a big can of tomato paste had exploded. "Want some more salsa?"
He offered the container. I didn't.
"So," he went on, "you need to get out of this pronto. I don't want you dead just because somebody's wife has gone bad. If a drug guy does have her under his control, he now owns her, body and soul. Anyone who messes with their little love tryst will be killed in one violent fashion or another."
I thought that was rather nicely phrased, but a bit over-wrought. I decided not to mention the threatening phone call.
"Your Mason Stone is playing some game with this, and you don't want to be part of it," Pal said. "He doesn't know any better, but I do. I want you to turn your information over to the DEA immediately, and get the hell out of the way."
"DEA? Drug Enforcement Agency? I don't want to do that, Pal. Confidentiality, you know."
"Confidentially, I'll call them whether you do or not. You didn't swear me to secrecy. So what's Stone's phone number?"
I sighed sullenly. "OK," I said. "You call 'em. I suppose they'll ride in with guns blazing and save the day." Sarcasm dripped into the remains of my second taco. I took a business card from my wallet and put Mason's number on it.
"I doubt it," he shrugged. "Frankly, I think the whole drug war is a giant screw-up, but it's not my war. My people can't handle it, it's way too big. And Dick, you sure as hell can't handle it. So, are you comfortable with that?"
"Sure," I said unconvincingly.
"I'll buy your next lunch," he said. "You're an old guy on a fixed income. And it may be your last lunch."
"You turkey. . . Nah, next lunch is on me. You still have one comin'. Thanks for the kind words. I guess you're right. I'm still too young to die."
I wondered if Pal really thought I would chicken out. Just because I'd given him Stone's phone number, that didn't mean I was off the case. And yet - my legs felt a little rubbery as we exited La Casa. Blew him off the car seat with an Uzi. . .
Hell with it. Loretta Stone didn't know it, but the next time she left the house, I'd be on her tail.