HEART OF THE WORLD
(Eleventh in the Carlotta Carlyle series)
St. Martin's Minotaur
It was as bitter a January morning as New England could spew. Gray clouds blocked the weak sun like heavy curtains and I smelled snow that had yet to fall, an unseen edge of white in the icy sky. Numb gloved fingers tugged my scarf so high it touched the tip of my nose. Breath fogged the air. Cold. But the exterior iciness was nothing compared to the chill I felt inside.
The apartment building at 47 Orchard Court Road was wedged tightly between two taller buildings. A dingy street, Orchard Court Road. No orchard, no courtyard, the pretentious name all that remained of some past glory, or more likely, a come-on for the unwary buyer or desperate renter.
I checked my watch, then shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my parka. Six-thirty and barely a glimmer of pale sunlight. Sunshine would have been a relief, cutting the edge of the cold. Snow would have been a relief. Anything but the endless gray and the bitter cold, cement parking lots staring at stunted trees, everything shaded in grays and browns, as though all the color had seeped out of the city along with the warmth.
Mission Hill isn't Boston's finest neighborhood. Split by Huntington Avenue with its battered green trolley cars, stretching south to Jamaica Plain and east to Roxbury, it's at best working-class poor, at worst subsistence housing. It's hard to park in Mission Hill. Too many abandoned wrecks, some immobilized by the infamous Denver boot. After circling the area for twenty minutes, I'd found an iffy slot for my battered Rent-A-Wreck across the street from the housing project and trudged uphill. Whether the car would still be there when I returned was a question best to ignore.
I blew out a breath, raising another cloud of steam, and considered when it might have been, that elusive last time I'd been warm. Two nights ago, in bed, when problems had seemed contained and controllable, the usual work dilemmas, a due diligence for a small insurance firm, a store clerk who might or might not have a hand in the till. I'd been debating what kind of car I could buy with considerable urgency and limited means. And arguing with Sam Gianelli, who's been a source of joy and consternation in my life for years.
I'd been in bed, blissfully warm but not asleep, when he'd entered the room with hardly a squeak of the floorboards. He'd removed his shoes at the front door, a thoughtful act, perhaps. Isn't it odd how you can read any motive into any act when there's hostility as well as attraction? Given the hour, I'd read deceit: Sam didn't want me to realize how late he was coming to bed, didn't want me to wake. If he'd been deliberately noisy, I'm pretty sure I'd have found an unkind reason for that as well.
Face it, the past month or so the only place Sam and I have been comfortable with each other has been in bed. That's always been our strong suit, the meshing of bodies, the pulsing rhythm of stimulation and release. Chemistry. Who knows what sparks that thing between men and women that brings them together in the night?
The phone call had interrupted a long-standing yet oddly silent argument. At least it was a silent argument on my part; maybe Sam never thought about it at all. I mean, how can you tell? It bothered me all the time what he did for a living, if you can call working for the Mob a living. Once he'd talked to me openly about getting out. Once, he'd tried to make a clean break. But when his father got sick, he knuckled under and went back to being Daddy's bright-eyed boy. Maybe that's what he would always be, never my companion, always his father's son, and I didn't think I could live with that. And I wasn't sure I wanted to live without it. So, really what could I say?
If he were a teenager, I'd have said,
Where've you been?
If he were a teenager, he'd have said,
Lawyer friends always tell me not to ask the question if I don't want to hear the answer. I guess that's why instead of arguing about the big thing, the great white whale of our on-again, off-again relationship, we wind up arguing so viciously about the small things, and maybe that's what we'd keep doing until the small things drove us apart. Again.
Monday night, the phone interrupted us and I was momentarily grateful for it, despite the lateness of the hour.
I recognized the voice straight off, but it spoke such rapid-fire angry Spanish that I had to tell Marta to slow down twice before I could follow the flow. It's not that she doesn't speak English, it's that she won't. Not to me.
Lemme me talk to her, right now. Her voice was slurred and rough and I thought she'd been drinking again. Sam raised his eyebrows and muttered something under his breath.
¿Sabes qué hora es, Marta?
I don't need you telling me anything, not what time it is, and certainly not how to take care of a daughter. She muttered something under her breath, too, and of course I heard it, and it was distinctly unflattering, something about the red-headed bitch, which is what she often calls me.
Why don't you call back when you sober up? My hand was moving the receiver away from my ear when I heard an increase in volume along with a change of tone.
Por favor, I must talk with her. I need her to — She promised me.
Marta, Paolina isn't here. It's Monday night. Look in her room.
The woman's called me before when she's forgotten where her daughter is. Once she'd scared the hell out of me when Paolina was sleeping over at a girlfriend's and Marta'd forgotten all about it.
She's not here.
Did she leave a note on the refrigerator?
What you think? I'm too drunk to know where my daughter is? Always, always, she says she'll be with you when she isn't here.
The conversation slid downhill from there, down a steep and ugly slope. I'd slept that night convinced that Paolina was visiting Aurelia or Heather or Vanessa or anyone of a number of girls I'd heard about or met, a classmate at the local high school, certain I'd have been informed as usual if my "little sister" had skipped school. Tuesday morning, before seven, I'd made fruitless calls to the girlfriends. Then I'd gone to the high school and found that the man charged with tracking down AWOL students was himself AWOL, and Paolina hadn't turned up for classes Monday at all.
Now it was Wednesday, Wednesday, for chrissake, and I was jumping every time my cell phone rang, nervous as a cat. All my paying jobs had been put on hold, my argument with Sam was simmering, and I was out in the cold at 6:30 A.M., determined to strike before my elusive target could leave for work.
Josefina Parte was the name I was looking for, and I found it, a battered tag, J. Parte, under a mailbox that read 4C and showed the scars of a recent crowbar assault. I rang the bell and waited in a pocket-sized vestibule maybe ten degrees warmer than the frigid outdoors. No response. I rang again.
Through the pebbled half-glass of the interior door, the stairway was narrow and steep. I could see it if I shaded my eyes and slanted my glance sideways. A direct stare brought only my own reflection, a pale oval of a face, wide-apart hazel-green eyes, slightly crooked nose. It was the eyes, I thought, that showed it most, the effect of two sleepless nights. The glass grayed my face, leaching the color from my skin and hair, and I had a sudden vision of myself grown old. A glance at my shoulder told the truth; my hair was still flamboyantly red.
If I lived on Orchard Court Road and someone rang my bell, I might not answer it either. Not if I wasn't expecting a friend or relative to drop by. Good news probably didn't climb to the fourth floor often, and Josefina Parte might have long since stopped expecting it.
Josefina was the aunt or possibly the great-aunt of one Diego Martinez, and it had taken me a while to trace him, because juveniles who aren't registered in the system, who live with people who have different last names than their own, who go to a high school in an area they have no business going to, can be hard to find. I wasn't planning to bust Diego for lying to the Cambridge school system. He wasn't a crook or a bail jumper. I wasn't going to get paid for finding him. He was the current boyfriend of my little sister, Paolina, and she'd been gone for three days, possibly five. Two nights and a day had passed since Marta had needed the girl to babysit for her younger brothers and so noticed that she was inconveniently missing.
I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth. I was running out of places to look for my sister. I didn't know what I'd do, where I'd go if Diego wasn't there, if she wasn't there with him.
The inner door of the Orchard Court building had a lock that wouldn't have taken more than a minute to pick, but I punched other doorbells first, to see whether some foolish tenant would buzz me in sight unseen. There's usually somebody, a kid home alone, an elderly woman eager for conversation. The vestibule didn't have the usual intercom, so no one could inquire who was there. No one bothered to look, but the buzzer sounded. I pushed my way inside. The door was heavy.
The stairwell — you couldn't call it a lobby — smelled of grease and disinfectant and rotting rubber mats. The wallpaper was peeling at the joins and defaced with gang grafitti.
A door opened above and a low voice yelled,
Forgot my key, I answered.
Thanks a lot.
The door slammed shut in response to my reassuringly female voice and I began climbing the steep stairs. I started hearing voices at the second floor. They grew louder at the third and crescendoed outside 4C. Someone was very much at home or else the TV had been turned on loud to entertain the house plants and keep away the burglars. I raised my hand, about to knock.
Either they were listening to Spanish language TV or they were arguing. I let my hand drop to my side and made no bones about eavesdropping.
It takes a moment for Spanish to land in my head as distinct words and sentences. At first I hear it as a rush of sound, but then something clicks and I'm back in Mexico City where I spent childhood days with my mother's cousins, time stolen from Detroit winters, coinciding not with school vacations but with periods my mother and father didn't get along. I forgot my Spanish when I returned to the States, then relearned it as a cop, specializing in what we called
perp Spanish. Paolina helped me regain some fluency and I needed it. These people weren't speaking slowly. I could distinguish two arguing voices, one male, one female.
Diego, I heard, several times, and swearing, too. I'm fluent in that.
I knocked loudly.
Sometimes I miss the days when I could follow up that authoritative knock with the word,
Police opened doors. It gave people a reason to answer when I asked questions.
I knocked again. A silence had started with the first knock so I knew they'd heard me.
Señora Parte, I said clearly,
please open the door. I just want to talk. I spoke in Spanish. Why not?
The door opened slowly and a young woman peered out through a narrow crack. She had dark hair pulled back into a tight knot and an anxious expression on a sweet earnest face. I got the toe of my boot past the sill but didn't force my way in.
What do you want? she said.
I'm busy here.
I took a business card from my wallet. It said Carlotta Carlyle, Private Investigations. She studied it for a long moment with her tongue fixed firmly between her small teeth and then passed it behind her.
¿Policia? It was the man's deep voice.
So sorry if we bother any of the old bitches in the apartment downstairs.
Señor, I said, raising my voice,
there are no complaints about you.
The door opened to display both of them. He was a thin wiry man with badly pocked skin.
Then what you want? Collect for the church? They can find their own money, sell their gold candlesticks for all I care.
Señora, your nephew, Diego, I need to speak to him.
The man glanced automatically down the hallway to his right.
He's in no trouble from me. But he hasn't been in school the past three days.
You're from the school?
What you care then? The boy's sick. When he's better, he go to the school. Nosy goddamn busybodies. Time I'm his age, I work full time.
I need to talk to him about a girl in his class.
Hah, he do something to a girl?
Señora, I said to the silent woman.
Let me talk to him. She looked stricken, like a deer in the headlights,
her mouth half open.
He's not here. The man gave the door a push, but my foot held it ajar and I wedged myself through.
A girl in his class is missing and he may know where she is. His room's down here?
The single front room was sparsely furnished, ashtrays overflowing on the stained coffee table. A narrow archway led to a corridor.
Diego? You here? I moved quickly.
I already told you — The man moved quickly, too, edging between me and the hallway.
Look, I said,
if he's not here, it's because he's run off with my sister, Paolina Fuentes. You know that name? If he's not here, I'm going to get in your business big time, so it's better for you if you let me see him. I raised my voice, hoping Diego would hear.
Behind the wiry man, in the corridor, I heard a door creak.
Hey. The voice was low and sullen.
Don't you come out of that room! the man thundered.
Josefina finally moved, putting a restraining hand on the man's shoulder. I walked past him to the half-open door on the right-hand side of the hallway.
Hey, the kid said.
What's the deal?
I shoved the door, my eyes flicking from the unmade bed to the narrow chest of drawers. No one else inside the small room. No closet. No place to hide.
Where is she, Diego? I addressed the back of his lanky frame, his dirty white T-shirt and long dark hair.
He turned to face me, an eruption of acne on his left cheek, but that wasn't what I noticed first. His nose was pushed to one side of his face and his left eye was puffy and swollen. Dried blood decorated the front of his shirt.
Jesus, Diego, was she with you when it happened? Where is she?
What is this shit?
You were at a party Friday night, with Paolina Fuentes.
Paolina? For a while, yeah. Then she left. He sounded angry and puzzled. The way he stood in the doorway was stiff and unnatural, like he had bruises under his thin T-shirt, maybe broken ribs.
She left alone?
That's what I'm saying.
You two break up?
What if we did?
Did she go with a new guy? Is he the one who hit you?
He shook his head. Maybe it hurt to move his mouth. His lips were swollen.
He fell down the stairs, the man said loudly.
Josefina Parte made a noise.
Boy's clumsy like an ox, the man said.
I studied Diego's eye. The injury was recent, more recent than Friday night. The man's reluctance to let me near the boy suddenly made sense. My right hand clenched, but I kept my eyes focused on Diego.
She say anything about running away?
He shook his head again, more slowly.
That's dumb, man, running away.
Was she happy, sad, excited? Different?
Yeah, man, she was different, okay. She was hard, ya know? She was like way into herself, and I don't put up with that kinda shit, ya know? Not from a girl.
That's right. The man's voice again, grating like metal on glass.
You don't take no shit from girls. You don't answer no more questions
Frustration simmered behind my eyebrows. All the time I'd wasted tracking him, for nothing. All the certainty that Paolina's disappearance was linked to his, unfounded. The boy shifted his weight in an attempt to get more comfortable. I could smell the sweat on his body. I looked at the silent scared woman, the wiry lying man, telltale damage on his knuckles, and anger kindled like a flame.
You want to leave here, Diego? I said softly.
You want to see a doctor about that nose?
I could sense the man behind me stiffen, feel the tension rise.
If you want to leave, I'll take you out. I wasn't carrying, but it was no idle boast. I was furious. I wanted to hit somebody, I had the height
advantage, and I'd learned to fight dirty at an early age.
I'll stay with my aunt, Diego said.
You get outta here now, bitch. The wiry man's brown eyes had an edge of yellow when he spoke to me. He looked defiant, almost proud of himself for what he'd done to the boy, and I considered a shot to the nose or a punch in the gut.
Please, just go. Josefina stepped between us.
Walk me out, Señora, I said. She must have thought I wanted safe passage past the wiry man, so she did what I asked and accompanied me through the hallway. Behind me, I heard the sharp crack of Diego's swiftly closing door, and I thought, good for you, boy, keep it shut. Josefina opened the apartment door to dismiss me, but I urged her through it, and spoke in a low voice.
What are you going to do? I said.
She looked at me, her frightened eyes so wide that white showed all around the pupils.
Are you married to that man?
Por favor, she said, shaking her head,
understand. I love him. I love them both.
Your nephew needs a doctor. Otherwise his nose will stay crooked. They'll need to break it again to reset it.
Please. They'll put him in jail.
Where he belongs, I thought.
Diego needs to go to school, I said.
He'll go, he'll go. Tomorrow, next week, soon. You go now.
You make a choice, understand, Señora? You have to make a choice.
What do you mean? I got no choice.
Take your nephew to the hospital. I'll stay until you go. I won't let him hurt you.
I waited for her response in the dingy hallway. The next-door neighbors' alarm clock buzzed, their cat yowled, and Josefina Parte stared at the worn linoleum like she was waiting for the channel to change.
If you choose to do nothing, Señora, I said,
that's also a choice.
Leave. Go away. You make only trouble.
The apartment door opened a crack. The wiry man didn't corne outside, but both of us could hear him breathing. He wanted Josefina to know he was listening.
I'll help you, I said.
Just go away.
It's your choice, I said.
She turned and reentered the flat without meeting my eyes.
I waited, but I didn't hear raised voices much less the sound of physical blows. The wiry man didn't venture into the hallway, so I didn't get to hit him. Instead, on the way downstairs, I made the choice for Señora Parte, using my cell to phone the cops. I told them to send a unit to check out a minor in need of protective services. I told them to use extreme caution because the perp was on the premises. Then I jammed my hands back in my pockets and trudged downhill to my car, thinking I'd hit a dead end, another dead end, the last dead end. Thinking that now I didn't know where the hell else to look for Paolina.
I barely felt the cold.