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Atticus Wynn and Rosemary Sanchez, newly engaged private investigators, have seen the dark and violent side of life. Nothing, though, has prepared them for an explosive murder investigation that threatens to tear their relationship apart as they struggle to solve a case that could leave them in prison or dead.
Atticus’s manipulative ex-girlfriend bursts back into their lives wielding a secret about Rosemary’s family that she exploits to force the couple into investigating the execution-style slaying of her lover. The case thrusts Atticus and Rosemary headlong into the world of human trafficking and drug smuggling, while rendering them pawns in Tijuana Cartel captain Armando Villanueva’s bloody bid to take over the cartel.
The Black Song Inside is a vivid crime thriller rife with murder and madness, melded with gallows humor and the heroism of two flawed and compelling protagonists who, if they can save themselves, may learn the nature of redemption and the ability to forgive.
BARTOLO AGUILAR SQUATTED beside a rutted dirt road in the Anza-Borrego Desert, two hours east of San Diego, and savored the emotional and spiritual insanity of the woman who was watching the dying girl spasming in the sand, gurgling and frothing, her bloodshot eyes rolled up in her head so that they looked like a pair of crimson moons.
Bartolo favored dawn in the desert for these birthings. Dusk would work, but there was nothing like the biting crispness of daybreak, the dark sky marbled with orange light, the desert awash in the smoldering winds sweeping off the mountains–like amniotic fluid, bathing all three of them in the warm righteousness of the womb: the unknowing convert, the sacrifice, and of course himself, the man of God.
That this dying birthing had been not the result of careful choice on his part, but rather a fortuitous order from his current employer, Armando Villanueva, made it no less sacred. The Tijuana Cartel captain hadn’t ordered the birthing nor was he aware of Bartolo’s faith; Villanueva just wanted a problem to disappear. He would be furious to discover Bartolo, on divine impulse alone, had brought the woman to witness. Villanueva didn’t understand that the will of the Lord came before worldly duties.
Bartolo had founded his own religion according to three words on an aged and scorched parchment he had carried every day since discovering it squirreled away in an ancient hut next to a jungle-shrouded temple, just before he and his comrades roped the shack’s occupant, a wizened shaman, to his cot and set the hut ablaze. Now, decades later, Bartolo Aguilar was the sole surviving member and self-anointed High Priest of the Church of the Aloned, and it was baptism time.
The dying girl was nothing as a person but everything as a sacrifice, a vessel whose perfect suffering could draw into the light that which hunkered in the shadows of the woman’s soul, of everyone’s soul. The girl wasn’t even worthy of being a floor scrubber in his congregation. She was just another throwaway who’d fooled herself into thinking that a high school dropout, who couldn’t even handle the pressures of the fast-food industry, could earn the respect of drug cartels by allowing herself to be exploited in perhaps the world’s highest-risk, lowest-reward job: drug mule “swallower”.
Her belly held twenty condoms filled with highest-grade heroin. Had she made it to the drop, they’d have given her laxatives and waited until she shit out fifty thousand dollars worth of product, and then paid her only five hundred. But one of those condoms had ruptured. Maybe her stomach acid had eaten through it. Maybe the guy who filled the condoms had been tripping on his own product and fucked up. Didn’t matter. Not to Bartolo. Not to the guy who loaded the condoms. Not to the man who ran the whole thing. Not even to the girl–now.
So the girl didn’t count. Was she Aloned? Certainly, but she had started near the bottom. Died at the bottom. A little tumble like that didn’t warrant membership. To sit in the pews in the Church of the Aloned, you must have tasted the dizzying heights of the exalted, been respected and admired, yet have cast it all away for the basest of reasons, which were, as far as Bartolo was concerned, the hidden truths of everything. Hidden that is, until Bartolo came striding into your life, clutched the nape of your neck, and forced you to stare long and deep into the mirror to see what you could do. Would do. Will do. Are doing. Have done.
The woman was in that most precarious of moments. She was doing nothing to help the girl. That the girl couldn’t be helped was both the least and most critical element.
“She’s dying,” the woman said again, her hands tucked under her armpits as if she were cold despite the ninety-degree desert morning, her feet shifting as if she had to urinate.
“A cock-sized hit of heroin will do that to you,” he said, his voice quiet but ragged, like the sound of saw cutting bone behind a closed door. He stood up, wiped his wet and grimy face with a black-and-white checkered bandanna, and adjusted his sweat-darkened cowboy hat.
“I only came with you because you said there was a way to help her. So what do we do? Why not take her to a hospital. We have to do something.”
“She’s got enough pure H in her now to kill a fucking rhino. There’s a drug you could give her that might counteract that, but I don’t have any. There’s nothing to do but wait until she dies, and then we cut the rest of the product out of her belly.”
“You don’t know that. You’re not a doctor.”
“You can always call 911.” He stepped back and leaned against his white pickup, thick arms crossed over his barrel chest, the old truck creaking with his added bulk.
“Like you’d let me.”
“Sure, I would. I wouldn’t stick around after, of course. You might as well, though. You use your cell phone, and they’ll know you were here anyway. When someone dies during the commission of a felony–your felony–that’s first-degree murder. You ready to ride the needle when it wasn’t even your fault? For a girl who’s going to die anyway?” He let that sit out there for a while.
It’d be easy to reel the woman in later. Give her a few news stories about mules who had survived. Hell, maybe it would be easier than that. The girl might survive the overdose, only to die of dehydration alone in the desert. If the woman saw that story, he would fucking own her. Perhaps she would be his first acolyte. It was time to branch out anyway. Why not start with a pretty woman like this one was? On the outside, anyway. Ugly inside now. A perfect match. The things they could do together. But first they needed to cherish this moment. Worship the girl’s birthing.
“Bullshit. You’d never let me call 911,” the woman said. “You’d be afraid that I’d . . .” She balled her fists and finally looked him in the eye. “That I’d tell them about you.”
He shook his head slowly, grinning when she looked away–probably unable to bear seeing her twin, miniature, distorted selves in his mirrored sunglasses. “I got ten guys,” he said, “All solid citizens, who’ll swear I was chasing tail with them down in Mexicali.”
“You still wouldn’t take the chance.”
“Bigger chance they’d do something to you. For a nothing like the girl, as long as it looks like what it is, they’ll sleepwalk through the motions, then head to the bar early for beers and baseball. That’s why we’re going to wait awhile after she dies to cut her open. So there’s no doubt it was the drug that killed her. But, for someone like you, they’ll break out all the CSI forensics shit to find you. Maybe try to make it go federal. Not worth the risk. Don’t pretend like you haven’t thought of that.”
She flinched. “Wha . . .what do you mean?”
“You see the girl is suffering; you know we aren’t going to do anything.” He patted the pistol in his waistband. “And you haven’t asked about this, because you know the difference. Now we can walk away from it, and only we know that we were ever here. If we put her out of her misery, that’s not manslaughter. It’s murder. No statute of limitations. The rest of your life waiting for the knock on the door. Let’s get it flopping around on the table. She’s going to die, and we ain’t gonna do shit about it.”
“You fuck! You fuck! You fuck! You lied when you told me there was something I could do for her just to get me out here, you twisted freak.”
“No, you’re doing something for her right now.” The priest’s voice deepened and thrummed as though he spoke in synchronicity with something dark and unseen; his westward gaze seemed to stretch beyond her, chasing the darkness around the rim of the world as it fled the rising sun. “You are bearing witness to her end. You are grieving for the loss of her. Is that not doing something for her? Would it be better to let her die out here alone and unmourned with no one to remember? Now, she will be remembered, won’t she? That is something I have given unto you for her. She will be as much in your thoughts as any child from your womb. She will have a mother who wakes screaming with the vision of her lost child still floating before her eyes in the darkness. What better homage to a dead child than a mother’s endless grief?”
The woman gaped at him. “What are you?”
The priest shook his head, his gaze returning to normal, his voice again seeming harsh and whispery and human. “Look, this is just one shit day. You put it behind you. You make up for it by doing good. What good can you do rotting in prison? What good will going to prison do for all the people who look up to you? Trying to do what would make you feel better would just be selfish on your part. You need to look at the bigger picture here. You’ve got to suck it up and do the hard thing.”
Bartolo stopped, luxuriating in the words he would say next, which even now seemed almost like a caress in his throat. A revelation. He now knew who should be his acolytes. Who knew the greatest height of human purpose? Mothers. How easily that purpose could be diverted? Perverted? Bent to the will of the Church of the Aloned? That had to be why the Lord had inspired him to bring the woman, so he would come to just that epiphany. Mothers would be the foundation of his church.
His body alive with zeal, words rolled out–not from him, but from the one true God using him as He should use his prophet–fashioning a lifeline that was a noose around the neck of her old self. “So the question is,” he said, “are you going to throw away a whole life and reputation, and all the goodwill you’ve built up, just so you can feel better? Think of your children.”
The woman collapsed into the sand, sobbing.
How he loved these rare moments when God spoke through him and blessed his desire to step free of the roles society forced him into–to speak the stark truth and watch the comprehension of it rip away the flimsy masks of humanity that society demands people wear.
In these quickening moments, when the convert was accepting the baptism, washing her old self away with the burning tears of the Aloned, he thought of the truth he’d first learned from the old map he’d carried next to his heart as a child soldier for the FARC rebels in the jungles of Colombia. The very same map he carried now.
After a day of dog-trotting through the jungle, or machine-gunning villagers, or dismembering refugees, or beating a man unconscious only to wake him up with a pail of fetid swamp water and start over, or being forced to hold girls down while older boys grunted and thrust atop them, he would sneak away with his penlight–careful to keep his tears, blood, and sweat off the yellowed and wrinkled parchment–and study the ancient map.
Those sessions, hunched in darkness, swarmed by mosquitoes and the cries of the damning and the damned, were when he founded the Church of the Aloned with the certainty that, like the prophets of old, the suffering he’d felt and inflicted had revealed to him searing truths of human instinct that were his burden and privilege to share.
The exquisite nautical and geographical details the long-dead cartographer had so painstakingly sketched held no appeal for him. What riveted him was what the man had scrawled on the other side of the line that marked the end of the known world: Beyond Here Be Monsters.
It was the child soldier Bartolo Aguilar, alone, his body wracked with sickness and exhaustion, his physical and spiritual suffering forging him into something new to the world, who realized the ancient cartographer had inserted an extra word that rendered the whole phrase backward.
Now, immersed in the languid heat of the coming day, ensorcelled by the brilliance of the orange-fingered dawn spreading across the lightening sky, Bartolo looked first at the dying girl, then the weeping woman, and finally, nodding, studied himself in the side mirror of his pickup, his face a blank shadow, his head haloed by the rising sun. Not Beyond Here Be Monsters, but simply Here Be Monsters.
ATTICUS WYNN’S GAZE locked on the distorted twin reflections of himself in Detective Meadows’s sunglasses as he prepared to spur himself toward an action that had, for countless people, led to immediate and violent death.
The two men stood in Atticus’s driveway, facing each other a body length apart. Bloated clouds riddled with darkness, threatening to add to San Diego’s record summer rainfall, bunched and rolled across the noon sky as though something large and better unseen moved restlessly inside them. The moisture and heat conspired to transform the air into the breath of a beast.
Detective Meadows stood spread-legged in a pair of khakis, his palms upturned, fingers hooked. His gray golf shirt bulged across his waist, but his arms and shoulders were humped with muscle. His smile was as unnatural as his gel-spiked hair. “Are you going to help us out or not” he asked. “We’re just looking for some professional courtesy here.”
Atticus, back to the wall of his Spanish-style stucco home, hands jammed beneath his armpits with the thumbs skyward, narrowed his eyes. Professional courtesy? That meant Meadows knew Atticus was a private investigator. The subtext was also clear–tell us what you know or lose your license. What had Claire gotten him into? No way to know but to go with Meadows. Before he did however, there was one ploy he could try. It was risky, perhaps fatal. Like every other African-American man, Atticus’s elders had jack-hammered into him the need to never surprise a cop, and he never had, until now.
Atticus lunged into Detective Meadows’s personal space, his face wrangled into a grin. His hand darted up to clutch and squeeze the tall man’s shoulder as he said, “I’d be glad to help.”
The detective flinched, shoulder flexing under Atticus’s palm, fair-skinned cheeks roaring with redness. Atticus stepped back, hands dangling at his sides. He gauged Meadows’s reaction, expecting threats, a tirade, a freckled fist crashing into his jaw–anything but a conciliatory nod and a thin-lipped grin like a slit in an overripe peach.
The black-veined clouds felt very close then, their shadows obscuring the rules of the world Atticus knew. In his experience, men like Meadows considered every encounter a confrontation and would have it no other way. What could motivate him to meet Atticus with such a commitment to faux friendliness?
The detective stepped over to his gray, unmarked cruiser; its buggy whip antenna, fastened into an arc like a scorpion’s tail, quivered with the opening of the door. The back door.
“What happened to professional courtesy?” Atticus said.
Meadows held the smile, the tendons in his neck as taut with potential as the power lines overhead. “Regulations”.
“Of course,” Atticus said, walking toward the cruiser. “What other reason could there be?”
An hour later in police headquarters, Atticus had spent forty-five minutes alone in an interrogation room that reeked of ammonia and fear, with no idea whether his wait was to last seconds or hours. He expected that. It’s part of how they break you. The waiting and wondering make you feel powerless even when you know that’s what it’s supposed to do. If it were important, they’d talk to you immediately, right? So it’s probably no big deal. No need to keep your guard up. By the time they finally come for you, you’re desperate to talk yourself out of your situation. And getting you anxious and talking is what interrogation is all about.
In the age of the smartphone, the isolation ploy doesn’t work as well with a cooperative witness like Atticus. But smartphones create problems too. Like trying to explain why you didn’t call your fiancee, who’s also your partner in your PI business, the moment you had a chance. Pondering Rosemary’s reaction, Atticus shook his head.
No way could he actually talk to her. She’d hear the stress in his voice before he finished his first sentence. And what could he say? “Why am I stressed, honey? Well, the cops are questioning me. Why you ask? Well, it’s like this. Remember Claire? That’s right–my ex, Claire. You know, the sister of your former fiance who killed himself after you dumped him? The one who despises you, swore she’d never forgive you. Well, funny thing, hon. Guess what! She’s blackmailing me into helping her beat a murder charge. What has she got on me, you ask? What could she possibly blackmail me with? Oh nothing. Nothing at all. Actually, the person she’s got something on is you.”
He compromised and texted Rosemary, asking her to shoot him as much info as she could on Meadows ASAP.
Meadows shoved the door open and marched in with a man he introduced as Detective Morales, his partner. Morales stood behind Meadows, thumbs hooked in his belt, and smiled vaguely at Atticus. He seemed to be trying for harmless, but stocky and clad in a bright-banded shirt, his dark-skinned face spattered with nodules and pockmarked, black-pebble eyes measuringly cold, and a bald head, he looked like a Gila monster eyeing a wounded rabbit.
Meadows sat at the head of the table and plunked down a tape recorder. “We’re going to play a 911 call. Please tell us if you recognize the voice of the caller or have any idea what she’s talking about.”
Atticus nodded, suspecting the real reason they wanted to play it for him without a hint of what it was about was to keep him from having the chance to guard his reaction. That didn’t worry him. His childhood had trained him to hide his feelings well. The question was how was he going to glean more information than he gave?
“911, what’s your emergency?” the dispatcher said.
“There’s a girl,” a woman said, choking back tears. “She needs help.”
“Is she there with you?”
“No, no, oh God help me. I left her out there.”
“Left here where, ma’am?”
“In the desert. She was dying and I . . .I just left her there. You have to understand! She was already dying. There was nothing I could have done. It was hours ago. She’s dead by now anyway.”
Meadows leaned toward Atticus. Morales seemed to stop breathing, but who can tell with a Gila monster?
Then came the sound of five quick thwacks that sounded like the receiver was being banged against something while the woman repeated “fuck” over and over.
“Listen, ma’am,” the dispatcher said, “you need to calm down and tell me who you are, where you are, and where the girl is. We can send people to give you whatever help you need.”
The woman was suddenly back, her voice tight and venomous. “You can send me whatever help I need? That’s so wonderful. Can you send someone who can tell me how to get my soul back?”
“It’s a very simple fucking question! Can you send me someone who can help me get my fucking soul back, or can’t you?”
“Ma’am, you need to calm–“
“GOD HELP ME!” the woman shrieked.
There was banging again, but this sounded different, not something hard against something hard, but soft against hard. The woman’s crying grew fainter, along with the sound of footsteps walking away, and then came the roar of a car engine and the squeal of tires. The tape ended.
“What was that at the end there?” Atticus asked. He hadn’t recognized the voice or had a clue what was going on, which was good, for him at least. For that woman and that girl, the moon was closer than good.
Morales and Meadows glanced at each other. Morales shrugged. Meadows said, “She was calling from one of those three-quarter phone booths. We’ve got a witness who said she went crazy at the end, banging the plastic with her fists, palms, elbows, her head, everything. Then she staggered away crying, got into a car, and drove away.”
“Was she alone?”
“Do you know what girl she was talking about?”
“The question is, Atticus, do you?”
“Not a clue.”
“When was the last time you saw Clarice Rousseau?”
Atticus blinked, paused, blurted too late, “About two hours ago.”
Morales tilted his head, his brow furrowing, a caricature of confusion.
Meadows leaned forward and said, “Took you awhile to remember. Weird, isn’t it?”
So much for not giving anything away, Atticus thought. Damn. He had been foolish to think he could spring a trap laid by professionals, snatch the bait, and spring away unscathed. Now they had him on the ropes, and the way to get off them was by swinging. “I wasn’t remembering. Just found it quite a coincidence that you would ask about her right after the first time I’ve seen her in years. You were following her, huh? Then you followed me. The timing’s about right. You ran my license, pulled my files, and then decided to drag me in here. But you came to see me alone, Detective. Isn’t that a break with your beloved regulations?”
Meadows’s blue eyes were almost as unreadable as his sunglasses were. “Was your meeting with Claire planned?”
“My lawyer said she wanted to see me. I met her there.”
“Why did she want to see you so bad?”
“Claire didn’t really want to see me,” Atticus said, skating the rim of a lie. “She was just hoping I would clean up her mess like I used to.”
“Mess?” Meadows asked.
“She said you guys think she killed her boyfriend, and the Tijuana Cartel thinks she has the drug money her boyfriend supposedly had.”
When the detectives heard “drug money”, their gazes sharpened. Atticus couldn’t tell if he had surprised them or confirmed something they suspected.
“How much money?” Meadows asked.
“You guys don’t know?” Silent stone cop faces was the reply, so Atticus said, “Don’t know. Way she talked, it sounded like a lot.”
“Why come to you?”
“We dated in college. Maybe she thought I was still carrying a torch for her and would be eager to help her out.”
“Will you?” Meadows was poking around, feeling out whether Atticus was a broken-hearted puppet awaiting the return of his puppeteer, a pathetic man who would murder on command for a lover who’d scorned him.
Atticus shook his head. “Seeing her was the best thing that could have happened to me. Now I know I’ve moved on. I don’t wish her any ill, but she’s on her own.”
Meadows’s expression told Atticus that the last line sold it–the jilted lover taking a smidgen of pleasure in his ex’s pain, but not enough to be suspected of being the cause of it. Pettiness can be useful.
“Do you know a Steven Delacroix from Morgan City, Louisiana?”
“No, but I know he’s the victim,” Atticus said. Claire was from Morgan City, but she had never mentioned Delacroix back when she and Atticus were together.
Meadows and Morales eyed him expectantly. When you’re innocent, they expect you to proclaim it loudly and passionately, to anyone who will listen, but to Atticus that felt like begging, and begging he would never, ever do. But show emotion? That he could do, just by cracking open the bottle he kept it in. Instead, he stared into the space between the detectives, keeping his face pleasant and quizzical, knowing that few could bear a charged silence like the detectives had created. Atticus let the moment stretch.
What were the detectives really up to? Too many things from the moment Meadows stopped him in his driveway didn’t make sense. They were too loose with information without knowing what he knew. Like they needed him to know certain things. Could the interrogation be a ruse? If so, why? What did the girl and woman on the tape have to do with the murder of Claire’s boyfriend and the missing drug money?
Atticus knew that despite what primetime TV might say, cops never turn to civilians looking for Sherlock Holmesian feats of investigation. They use civilians as informants, willing or unwilling, knowing or unknowing, pawns pushed into battle with knights, bishops, rooks, and queens. As for the fate of the pawn, that’s on him. It’s a blame-the-victim world.