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Whispers

Page 18


Some of my Mexican employees didn't have green cards. Some others were working on expired cards.


After I settled up in court, I decided to play it straight from then on. I made up my mind to hire only Mexicans with valid work cards. And if I couldn't find enough of those, I was going to hire U.S. citizens. You know what? I was stupid. I was really stupid to think I could stay in business that way. See, I can only afford to pay minimum wage to most of these workers. Even then, I'm stretching myself thin. The problem is Americans won't work for minimum wage. If you're a citizen, you can get more from welfare for not working than you can make at a job that pays minimum wage.


And the welfare's tax-free. So I just about went crazy for about two months, trying to find workers, trying to keep the laundry going out on schedule. I nearly had a heart attack. See, my customers are places like hotels, motels, restaurants, barber shops ... and they all need to get their stuff back fast and on a dependable schedule. If I hadn't started hiring Mexicans again, I'd have gone out of business."


Frank didn't want to hear any more. He was about to say something sharp, but Tony put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently, urging him to be patient.


"Look," Garamalkis said, "I can understand not giving illegal aliens welfare and free medical care and like that. But I can't see the sense in deporting them when they're only doing jobs that no one else wants to do. It's ridiculous. It's a disgrace." He sighed again, looked at the mug shots of Bobby Valdez that he was holding, and said, "Yeah, I know this guy."


"We heard he used to work here."


"That's right."


"When?"


"Beginning of the summer, I think. May. Part of June."


"After he skipped out on his parole officer," Frank said to Tony.


"I don't know anything about that," Garamalkis said.


"What name did he give you?" Tony asked.


"Juan."


"Last name?"


"I don't remember. He was only here six weeks or so. But it'll still be in the files."


Garamalkis stepped down from the platform and led them back across the big room, through the steam and the smell of detergent and the suspicious glances of the employees. In the front office he asked the secretary to check the files, and she found the right pay record in a minute. Bobby had used the name Juan Mazquezza. He had given an address on La Brea Avenue.


"Did he really live at this apartment?" Frank asked.


Garamalkis shrugged. "It wasn't the sort of important job that required a background credit check."


"Did he say why he was quitting?"


"No."


"Did he tell you where he was going?"


"I'm not his mother."


"I mean, did he mention another job?"


"No. He just cut out."


"If we don't find Mazquezza at this address," Tony said, "we'd like to come back and talk to your employees. Maybe one of them got to know him. Maybe somebody here's still friends with him."


"You can come back if you want," Garamalkis said. "But you'll have some trouble talking to my people."


"Why's that?"


Grinning, he said, "A lot of them don't speak English."


Tony grinned back at him and said, "Yo leo, escribo y hablo español."


"Ah," Garamalkis said, impressed.


The secretary made a copy of the pay record for them, and Tony thanked Garamalkis for his cooperation.


In the car, as Frank pulled into traffic and headed toward La Brea Avenue, he said, "I've got to hand it to you."


Tony said, "What's that?"


"You got more out of him quicker than I could have."


Tony was surprised by the compliment. For the first time in their three-month association, Frank had admitted that his partner's techniques were effective.


"I wish I had a little bit of your style," Frank said. "Not all of it, you understand. I still think my way's best most of the time. But now and then we run across someone who'd never open up to me in a million years, but he'd pour out his guts to you in about a minute flat. Yeah, I wish I had a little of your smoothness."


"You can do it."


"Not me. No way."


"Of course, you can."


"You've got a way with people," Frank said. "I don't."


"You can learn it."


"Nah. It works out well enough the way it is. We've got the classic mean-cop-nice-cop routine, except we aren't playing at it. With us, it just sort of naturally works out that way."


"You're not a mean cop."


Frank didn't respond to that. As they stopped at a red light, he said, "There's something else I've got to say, and you probably won't like it."


"Try me," Tony said.


"It's about that woman last night."


"Hilary Thomas?"


"Yeah. You liked her, didn't you?"


"Well ... sure. She seemed nice enough."


"That's not what I mean. I mean, you liked her. You had the hots for her."


"Oh, no. She was good looking, but I didn't--"


"Don't play innocent with me. I saw the way you looked at her."


The traffic light changed.


They rode in silence for a block.


Finally, Tony said, "You're right. I don't get all hot and bothered by every pretty girl I see.


You know that."


"Sometimes I think you're a eunuch."


"Hilary Thomas is ... different. And it's not just the way she looks. She's gorgeous, of course, but that's not all of it. I like the way she moves, the way she handles herself. I like to listen to her talk. Not just the sound of her voice. More than that. I like the way she expresses herself. I like the way she thinks."


"I like the way she looks," Frank said, "but the way she thinks leaves me cold."


"She wasn't lying," Tony said.


"You heard what the sheriff--"


"She might have been mixed up about exactly what happened to her, but she didn't create the whole story out of thin air. She probably saw someone who looked like Frye, and she--"


Frank interrupted. "Here's where I've got to say what you won't want to hear."


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"I'm listening."


"No matter how hot she made you, that's no excuse for what you did to me last night."


Tony looked at him, confused. "What'd I do?"


"You're supposed to support your partner in a situation like that."


"I don't understand."


Frank's face was red. He didn't look at Tony. He kept his eyes on the street and said, "Several times last night, when I was questioning her, you took her side against mine."


"Frank, I didn't intend--"


"You tried to keep me from pursuing a line of questioning that I knew was important."


"I felt you were too harsh with her."


"Then you should have indicated your opinion a whole hell of a lot more subtly than you did. With your eyes. With a gesture, a touch. You handle it that way all the time. But with her, you came charging in like a white knight."


"She had been through a very trying ordeal and--"


"Bullshit," Frank said. "She hadn't been through any ordeal. She made it all up!"


"I still won't accept that."


"Because you're thinking with your balls instead of your head."


"Frank, that's not true. And it's not fair."


"If you thought I was being so damned rough, why didn't you take me aside and ask what I was after?"


"I did ask, for Christ's sake!" Tony said, getting angry in spite of himself. "I asked you about it just after you took the call from HQ, while she was still out on the lawn talking to the reporters. I wanted to know what you had, but you wouldn't tell me."


"I didn't think you'd listen." Frank said. "By that time, you were mooning over her like a lovesick boy."


"That's crap, and you know it. I'm as good a cop as you are. I don't let personal feelings screw up my work. But you know what? I think you do."


"Do what?"


"I think you do let personal feelings screw up your work sometimes," Tony said.


"What the hell are you talking about?"


"You have this habit of hiding information from me when you come up with something really good,"


Tony said. "And now that I think about it ... you only do it when there's a woman in the case, when it's some bit of information you can use to hurt her, something that'll break her down and make her cry. You hide it from me, and then you spring it on her by surprise, in the nastiest way possible."


"I always get what I'm after."


"But there's usually a nicer and easier way it could be gotten."


"Your way, I suppose."


"Just two minutes ago you admitted my way works."


Frank didn't say anything. He glowered at the cars ahead of them.


"You know, Frank, whatever your wife did to you through the divorce, no matter how much she hurt you, that's no reason to hate every woman you meet."


"I don't."


 


 


"Maybe not consciously. But subconsciously--"


"Don't give me any of that Freud shit."


"Okay. All right," Tony said. "But I'll swap accusation for accusation. You say I was unprofessional last night. And I say you were unprofessional. Stalemate."


Frank turned right on La Brea Avenue. They stopped at another traffic signal.


The light changed, and they inched forward through the thickening traffic.


Neither of them spoke for a couple of minutes.


Then Tony said, "Whatever weakness and faults you might have, you're a pretty damned good cop."


Frank glanced at him, startled.


"I mean it," Tony said. "There's been friction between us. A lot of the time, we rub each other the wrong way. Maybe we won't be able to work together. Maybe we'll have to put in requests for new partners. But that'll just be a personality difference. In spite of the fact that you're about three times as rough with people as you ever need to be, you're good at what you do."


Frank cleared his throat. "Well ... you, too."


"Thank you."


"Except sometimes you're just too ... sweet."


"And you can be a sour son of a bitch sometimes."


"Want to ask for a new partner?"


"I don't know yet."


"Me either."


"But if we don't start getting along better, it's too dangerous to go on together much longer.


Partners who make each other tense can get each other killed."


"I know," Frank said. "I know that. The world's full of as**oles and junkies and fanatics with guns. You have to work with your partner as if he was just another part of you, like a third arm.


If you don't, you're a lot more likely to get blown away."


"So I guess we should think seriously about whether we're right for each other."


"Yeah," Frank said.


Tony started looking for street numbers on the buildings they passed. "We should be just about there."


"That looks like the place," Frank said, pointing.


The address on Juan Mazquezza's Vee Vee Gee pay record was a sixteen-unit garden apartment complex in a block largely taken over by commercial interests: service stations, a small motel, a tire store, an all-night grocery. From a distance the apartments looked new and somewhat expensive, but on closer inspection Tony saw signs of decay and neglect. The exterior walls needed a new coat of stucco; they were badly chipped and cracked. The wooden stairs and railings and doors all needed new paint. A signpost near the entrance said the place was Las Palmeras Apartments. The sign had been hit by a car and badly damaged, but it hadn't been replaced. Las Palmeras looked good from a distance because it was cloaked in greenery that masked some of its defects and softened the splintery edges. But even the landscaping, when scrutinized closely, betrayed the seediness of Las Palmeras; the shrubs had not been trimmed in a long time, and the trees were raggedy, and the jade shrubs were in need of care.


The pattern at Las Palmeras could be summed up in one word: transition. The few cars in the parking area reinforced that evaluation. There were two middle-priced new cars that were lovingly cared for, gleaming with fresh wax. No doubt they belonged to young men and women of optimism and were signs of accomplishment to them. A battered and corroded old Ford leaned on one flat tire, unused and unuseable. An eight-year-old Mercedes stood beyond the Ford, washed and waxed, but a bit worse for wear; there was a rusty dent in one rear fender. In better days, the owner was able to purchase a twenty-five-thousand-dollar automobile, but now he apparently couldn't come up with the two-hundred-dollar deductible part of the repair bill. Las Palmeras was a place for people in transition. For some of them, it was a way station on the upward climb to bright and beckoning careers. For others, it was a precarious spot on the cliff, the last respectable toehold on a sad and inevitable fall into total ruin.


As Frank parked by the manager's apartment, Tony realized that Las Palmeras was a metaphor for Los Angeles. This City of Angels was perhaps the greatest land of opportunity the world had ever known. Incredible quantities of money moved through here, and there were a thousand ways to earn a sizable bankroll. L.A. produced enough success stories to fill a daily newspaper. But the truly astounding affluence also created a variety of tools for self-destruction and made them widely available. Any drug you wanted could be found and bought easier and quicker in Los Angeles than in Boston or New York or Chicago or Detroit. Grass, hashish, heroin, cocaine, uppers, downers, LSD, PCP.... The city was a junkie's supermarket. Sex was freer, too. Victorian principles and sensibilities had collapsed in Los Angeles faster than they had in the rest of the country, partly because the rock music business was centered there, and sex was an integral part of that world.


But there were other vastly more important factors that had contributed to the unchaining of the average Californian's libido. The climate had something to do with it; the warm dry days and the subtropical light and the competing winds--desert and sea winds--had a powerful erotic influence.


The Latin temperament of the Mexican immigrants made its mark on the population at large. But perhaps most of all, in California you felt that you were on the edge of the Western world, on the brink of the unknown, facing an abyss of mystery. It was seldom a conscious awareness of being on the cultural edge, but the subconscious mind was bathed in that knowledge at all times, an exhilarating and sometimes scary feeling. Somehow, all of those things combined to break down inhibitions and stir the gonads. A guilt-free view of sex was healthy, of course. But in the special atmosphere of L.A., where even the most bizarre carnal tastes could be indulged with little difficulty, some men (and women) could become as addicted to sex as to heroin. Tony had seen it happen. There were some people, certain personality types, who chose to throw everything away--money, self-respect, reputation--in an endless party of fleshy embraces and brief wet thrills. If you couldn't find your personal humiliation and ruin in sex and drugs, L.A. provided a smorgasbord of crackpot religions and violence-prone radical political movements for your consideration. And of course, Las Vegas was only one hour away by cheap regularly scheduled airlines, free if you could qualify as a high-rolling junketeer. All of those tools for self-destruction were made possible by the truly incomprehensible affluence. With its wealth and its joyous celebration of freedom, Los Angeles offered both the golden apple and the poisoned pear: positive transition and negative transition. Some people stopped at places like Las Palmeras Apartments on their way up, grabbed the apple, moved to Bel Air or Beverly Hills or Malibu or somewhere else on the Westside, and lived happily ever after. Some people tasted the contaminated fruit, and on the way down they made a stop at Las Palmeras, not always certain how or why they'd wound up there.

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