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Authors: T. Jefferson Parker

Silent Joe (31 page)

BOOK: Silent Joe
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The last was a snapshot of Will sitting in a Jeep, his Ml6 on his lap. He was looking away from the camera. I noticed how he held the gun, tightly and away from his body, with the muzzle pointed down. Like it was going to strike at him. And I thought of how uncertain Will had always been around firearms, how they always looked wrong in his hands, even when he was a sheriff's deputy. I thought of Will introducing me to the department arms instructor when I was ten, so I could begin learning the basics of safety and marksmanship—things that a thousand other father’s taught their sons on every weekend of the year. Guns, I thought: one of the few things that scared him.

I put the pictures back in the envelope and closed the flap, then slid under the bundle of letters because love is stronger than war.

Next was a small empty turtle shell, painted white with red letter across the carapace. The letters said DEKEY! I looked through the frog’s leg holes, then the rear ones, holding it up to the sunlight coming through the window. Inside, the shell was smooth as the curve of a tablespoon. Will had never told me about the turtle.

I set the small shell behind the love letters, out of my sight. I'd had enough of things that used to be alive and now were not.

Sparky smiled.

The love letters lay intact, safe, well-read.

Item five was a folded sheet of white paper with a mini audiotape inside, and the following notes made in Will's handwriting:

Rup to Millie per B. convers. of 5/02/01:

1/22/01—25

3/14/01—25

4/07/01—35

Windy Ridge see att. tape made 5/12/01

I played the attached tape. There were ten seconds of hiss, then some pleasantries that didn't sound real pleasant. When those were over, this:

Gruff Voice, male:
Okay, Milky, to business. It's the usual spot

Cautious Voice, male:
Got it.

Gruff:
It's better you don't send her.

Cautious:
Let me handle it my way.

Gruff:
Can't tell you how important Thursday is.

Cautious:
Might be some problems with this whole thing.

Gruff:
What in hell would those be?

Cautious:
Basic security. I don’t know. Just a feeling.

Gruff:
The biggest problem would be a red light Thursday.

Cautious:
Don't worry.

Gruff:
I hate it when people tell me that. Always means trouble. Just do your job, Milky. You want to blubber and whine, do it to your wife.

Cautious:
Yeah, yeah. We'll talk.

I listened to it again. I recognized Rupaski's rough old voice. Milky. Millie was Dana Millbrae—Will's sometime friend and sometime foe on the Board of Supervisors. The B of line one was Bridget Andersen, Millbrae's secretary, and one of my father's very secret friends.

The conversation itself had almost certainly been caught by an intercept and recorder installed on Millbrae's office telephone line. I knew about that intercept and recorder because I'd installed them one Saturday while Will lounged in Millbrae's empty reception area, his feet up on Bridget's desk, reading a magazine. Will supplied the intercept device. I didn't know where he got it, though I had an idea. All it took was an electric drill, a couple of brackets and four screws. I mounted a micro-recorder to the back of Millbrae's center desk drawer. I hid the mike in the mass of cables running up through the cable hole on the desktop. Then ran a line to the intercept. Any voice would start the recorder running, and the intercept relayed both parties of the call onto tape. Took about twenty minutes and Will said
slick. That's for Bridget, son. You just did a good thing for the Bridge.

That was the last I'd heard about it, until now.

I thought about Bridget, a fortyish, handsome woman who had been Millbrae's secretary for all of his six years as a supervisor. She was extremely shy. Widowed. When I installed that tape recorder back in February of this year, I assumed that Bridget would be the operator, but I had no illusion that the tap was for her benefit and not Will's.

The next item was a letter-sized envelope, unsealed. Inside were two receipts for $10,000 cash donations from Will Trona to the Hillview Home for Children. Will and Ellen Erskine had scratched their signatures on the bottoms.

The last thing on the dinette table was another envelope. This one wasn't sealed either, and I couldn't feel or see anything inside. I opened it and shook out two strips of eight-millimeter-film, each containing twenty frames in sequence. They looked like identical photographs of the same thing: Reverend Daniel and a woman. He had both hands loosely around her neck, thumbs supporting her jaws. He was looking down at her slightly, his face up close. His expression was dreamy, looked like he was getting ready to kiss her, although he may not have been. She looked up at him with her eyes open in an expression of conditional surrender. She was young, black-haired and dark-skinned.

The room they were in looked like one of the hospitality suites above the lounge at the Grub.

I recognized the woman from the newspaper and TV stills: Luria Blas. She had the same big clear eyes as her little brother, Enrique.

I got up from the table and went into the backyard. The sun was getting high and there was a breeze that almost cleaned away the smog.

I sat on a bench by the orange tree and looked at the sky. A squirrel ran along the power line above me and I watched her shadow cross the grass. Then another, smaller one.

I wanted my mommy, too. So I called her and we talked and made date.

Bridget Andersen told me it wouldn't be good to be seen with me. We set up a noon meeting at a park up in the Orange hills. I was early so I found a picnic bench in the shade and sat. I smelled the sagebrush and listened to the cars hissing on the avenue far below.

Bridget, brightly blond with big dark glasses, parked and walked toward me. Blue skirt and heels, white blouse, a purse over one shoulder. She smoothed her skirt with her left hand as she sat down across from me. She looked uncomfortable with herself, like she often did. Like she didn’t know what to do with the fact that she was attractive. When she took off her glasses I saw that her stunning, ice-blue eyes were shot with pink.

"What? Didn't the eyedrops get the red out?"

"Not all of it, Ms. Andersen."

"Bridget. What took you so long to call?"

"I'm slow sometimes. But I finally heard the tape of Millbrae and Rupaski."

"Ah, of course. Your father's bounty."

"I wasn't sure what to make of it."

"Will was."

"Can you explain it?"

She put her glasses back on. "I trusted your father. Can I trust you?"

"I'm here for him, not for myself."

Her gaze was calm and discerning, in spite of the bloodshot eyes. "He trained you well."

Even a dog can keep secrets.

"Look, Joe," she said. "Everybody knew that Rupaski's unofficial bosses wanted to unload the 91 Toll Road on the county because they're losing their shirts on it. You know the cast—Blazak and his developer friends, that ilk. Price? Call it twenty-seven million, round figures. But they needed the Board of Supervisors to approve a county purchase. Three against. Three for it, with Millbrae undecided as of February. Well, the Grove Club Research and Action Committee came up with some funds to influence the right people. Most of it went to the PR flaks, to get the public to see it their way and pressure the pols. Some was soft money for PACs, the usual unregulated bribery. Some of it was not-so-soft. Will smelled weakness in Millie. He was ready."

"He had me put in the tape recorder."

She smiled without any happiness at all. "That was nice work, Joe. You even cleaned up the drill shavings."

"Thank you."

"Rupaski was in charge of the hard money disbursements. Millie's part was put into brown bags and set in a gully, by a bush exactly one hundred feet northeast of the Windy Ridge toll plaza. The bush is a wild buckwheat, to be precise. That was what Rupaski called 'the usual spot.' I know because Millbrae sent me to pick up those bags."

Will's handwritten notes, I thought: dates and amounts. "That's what the taped conversation is about."

"Exactly—another slop bucket, filled up and ready for Millie's pale little fingers. It was the big bucket, too, because the vote was the following Thursday. This was about a month before your father was killed."

"But Millie voted against the sale. He sided with Will."

"That he did."

I remembered the night very clearly. The look on Rupaski's face. The way Millbrae hustled out of the meeting. Will's gloating in the car later, about Millie
voting the sonofabitch down for once.

It took me just a second to figure out what had really happened.

"Oh," I said. "I see."

"Like father, like son."

"Will played the tape for Millbrae before the vote."

"They call it blackmail, Joe."

I thought for a moment. Millbrae getting payola from the Grove Trust Research and Action Committee. Rupaski the bagman. Will with the incriminating evidence. And Bridget making the actual pickups.

"Did Millbrae know you were helping Will?"

"No. Millie thinks everyone loves him as much as he loves himself.'

"Did Millbrae tell Rupaski why he had to vote no?"

"Sure he did. The first thing any politician learns is to pass the blame. Millie's a natural."

"So both of them realized that Will had them over a barrel."

She nodded, studying me. "They were terrified he'd go to the grand jury or to his friends on the Sheriff's. He never would, of course, because that would sink me, and maybe even himself."

"They didn't know that."

"No, they didn't. Will had them good and tight. They even argue about whose phone had the bug on it. I'd pulled out the tape record before Millie started looking."

Bridget took a deep breath and sighed. She looked past me with one of those gazes that see nothing but the backside of thoughts. Then she laughed quietly. "Will drove us out to Windy Ridge the night of the last payoff, before he'd played that tape for Millie. He took the:money out of the bag, put in some sand and rocks, handed the bag to me. delivered it to Millie, per usual. Innocent, loyal Bridget, doing her mule work. I didn't see Millie's face when he opened it, but I wish I could have. Will told me Jaime over at the HACF needed a shot of help. Ninety grand must have gotten them something."

Didn't the ninety help?

Will, I thought. Robin Hood of Orange County. Fine, until it gets you killed.

"Joe, I'd have shot Millie with poison darts if that's what Will wanted me to do. I loved your father."

"I know."

"What did he say about me?"

"He said you had the biggest, meanest heart in Orange County."

She thought about that, and finally smiled. "He liked to cast me against type. I almost got an ulcer, knowing that telephone was bugged."

I could have said that Will told me The Unknown Thing
ran amok
in Bridget Andersen, but I didn't.

She stood up and walked back to her car.

Driving back out of the hills I realized that Rupaski and Millbrae had good reasons to hate my father. Good enough reasons to kill him, too?

I kept my appointment with Dr. Zussman, though I had nothing I wanted to tell him. My heart warmed with even so much as a thought about June Dauer, but she wasn't for Dr. Zussman, or for anybody else. She was for me. So I told him about my years at Hillview and my relationships with Will and Mary Ann and my brothers. Then we talked about the shooting again, and I told him I felt the same as before. He brought up what I'd said about half a coffee cup's worth of remorse and I said that was still a good comparison. He seemed disappointed. He kept asking me about remorse and denial and anger and sublimation. I could tell I wasn't telling him what he wanted to hear. He said he thought I could go back to work in a week. Then it was my turn to be disappointed, and I told him so. He smiled and nodded and we made another appointment.

I spent part of the afternoon alone in the plumbing tunnel of Mod F, just listening randomly, hoping to pick up something useful. I learned about some dope being smuggled in through the staff dining kitchen, and that some of the inmates were passing kites in the chapel on Sunday mornings. Nothing new. Somehow, being locked in that narrow little tunnel made me feel secure. I took the mechanics' sled for a sleighride, and got a good look at a couple of Aryan Brotherhood thugs in the day room, tormenting the Mexican gangster in the cell next door. The Aryans sang one of their racist songs loud, together, saluting with their arms straight out, laughing in between the verses.

BOOK: Silent Joe
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