H Is For Homicide Page 48

I willed myself to behave casually, assuming an air of nonchalance. What did I have to fear? After all, I wasn't a prisoner, I was Raymond's guest. I could pick up the information for Lieutenant Dolan and then head on home. Granted, I don't usually hang out on gang turf, but I try to be open-minded. There were cultural differences here that I couldn't even guess at, let alone define. That didn't make anybody bad, right? So why expect the worst? Because you don't know what the hell you're doing, a little voice inside me said.

The air was gray with smoke, some of it marijuana, a substance I haven't abused since I was in high school (except for that brief period when Daniel Wade was in my life). The decor, at a glance, consisted of royal blue shag carpeting and the kind of furniture sold on the roadsides across the border in Mexico. (Also in Orange County on Euclid, south of the Garden Grove Freeway.) It looked like Raymond had made an attempt to upgrade the place, covering the entire large wall to my left with smoky gold mirrored tiles. Unfortunately, the tiles had recently been smashed with a kitchen chair, which had been tossed to one side, its chrome legs askew. Most of the glass had been swept up, but I could see signs of blood on the bare wall behind. It wasn't bright red or dripping, but it was clear something frightful had taken place here not long ago. No one referred to the destruction. Raymond showed no curiosity at the sight, which lent support to the notion that he was responsible. Bibianna took it in at a glance but said nothing. Maybe she knew better than to mention the fact. I tore my gaze away.

On the right, the L of a kitchen was visible, every surface in it piled high with used paper plates, beer bottles, ashtrays, empty cans of Rosarito refrieds. The air smelled of cilantro, corn tortillas, and hot lard. Five brown grocery sacks bulged with refuse, grease showing through in big dark polka dots. On one bag, a quicksilver something disappeared from view.

One of the guys at the metal-topped kitchen table labored over a form he was filling out in pencil. His face was dark with frustration. His handgun rested casually on a stack of completed forms, serving as a paperweight. Fleetingly, I wondered if he was an illegal alien filling out fake INS documents. Behind him, daylight poured through a big picture window that cast him in silhouette. In the event of a drive-by, he'd be picked off like a metal bear in a shooting gallery. I heard Raymond call him Tomas, but I couldn't catch the rest of the conversation.

Of the two fellows leaning against the wall, one was wearing a Sony Walkman, a handgun shoved down in his waistband. The other played a hollow note across the mouth of an empty Dos Equis beer bottle. Both bore a passing resemblance to Raymond, and I wondered if they were related - his brothers or cousins. Apparently they all knew Bibianna, but none made eye contact. The two women seemed uneasy at her arrival, exchanging a guarded look.

I wasn't introduced, but my presence generated a sly interest. I was surveyed by several pairs of male eyes, and somebody made a remark that amused those who heard it. Luis appeared again, a Dos Equis in hand. He took up a squatting position, hunkering against the wall, body thrust forward slightly, his head thrown back, staring down his nose at me. There was something arrogant in his bearing, suggesting the se*ual superiority of renegades and outlaws. Whatever his purpose, its effect was to establish his claim on me. The other guys seemed to posture for one another but displayed no plumage.

At the table, an argument broke out among the three who seemed to be speaking some cholo mix of Spanish and fractured English. I couldn't understand a word, but the prevailing tone was quarrelsome. Raymond shouted something I was glad I couldn't translate. The guy with the pencil and paper went back to work with a sulkiness that didn't bode well.

Bibianna, unimpressed with the lot of them, flung her purse in a chair and slipped out of her high-heeled shoes. ’’I'm taking a shower,’’ she said, and padded out of the room. Raymond moved to the telephone, where he punched in numbers with his back half-turned. ’’Alfredo, it's me...’’ He dropped his voice into a range I couldn't hear. From the rear, as he talked, I saw him go through a series of rapid tics, almost like a pantomime or a game of charades.

I thought I'd make myself inconspicuous while I decided what to do next. I looked around for a seat and changed my mind abruptly. Just inside the door, about three feet away, there was a pit bull. I don't know how I'd missed the mutt, but there he was. The dog had a brindle coat with a white chest and white legs. His head was wide and thick, ears uncropped, but tucked in close like a bat's. There was a leather collar around his thick neck with metal spikes sticking out. Was the blood on the wall connected with the dog? A length of slack chain was attached to his collar, extending about three feet, the other end wrapped around the leg of the oversize royal blue couch. The dog emitted a low humming growl while it stared at my throat. Dogs and I don't get along that well in the best of circumstances. I'm hardly ever smitten with a beast that looks like it's prepared to rip out my carotid artery.

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