|Artist: Maria Fanning|
By Don Travis
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, South of Farmington, New Mexico
A lopsided moon daubed wispy tendrils of scattered clouds with pewter.Glittering pinpricks of muted light smeared the Milky Way while moonshine bleached the barren landscape silver. Sharp-edged shadows shrouded the feet of mute, grotesque gargoyles of clay and sandstone: hoodoos masquerading as monumental toadstools, spheroid stones aping gigantic dinosaur eggs, and eroded clay hills with folds like delicate lace drapery.
A great horned owl soared above the high desert floor, its keen eyes scouring the panorama below. The plumed predator dipped a wing and veered eastward, attracted by the dull metallic shine of a large foreign object. Quickly discerning it represented no culinary opportunity, the raptor flew in slow, ever-widening circles in search of something more promising.
The huge bird’s flitting shadow startled two figures, interrupting their heated argument. Both glanced up quickly. Taking advantage of the moment, the larger man snaked a belt from his waist and slipped behind the other. He whipped the leather strap over his victim’s head, driving him to the ground with a knee to the back. After a short, desperate struggle, the man sprawled in the cooling sand ceased to resist. The violent tremors in his extremities passed, and he lay still.
Panting from his exertions, the killer rose and began the hunt for a suitable crevice to hide the body. It wasn’t difficult to find one in the unstable terrain of these remote badlands. Satisfied his cairn of loose stones and sandy soil blended well with the rest of this weird, other-world place, he turned and plodded toward his distant vehicle.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The telephone jolted me out of my reverie. Hazel Harris, my secretary, aide, and surrogate mother, had left for the day, but the answering service could field the call. Ninety percent of my clients were attorneys, and there weren’t many of them working this time of day. But when the phone shrieked a second time, I glanced at the unfamiliar long-distance number on the Caller ID and caved in to curiosity.
“B. J. Vinson, Confidential Investigations.”
“B. J. Vinson. What can I do for you?”
“What’s this?” a gravely voice demanded. “Some rinky-dink outfit where the boss answers his own phone?”
Curiosity has its limits. Without another word, I dropped the receiver back into its cradle. It usually takes a while to recognize a problem client, but this obnoxious prick had done me a favor by convincing me of it within a couple of sentences.
I swiveled my chair around to return to what I had been doing, savoring the view from the north-facing window of my third-floor office in one of Albuquerque’s historic buildings at Fifth and Copper. I often undertook this ritual before heading home. It was my favorite vista at my favorite hour in my least favorite time of year—about three-quarters of the way into evening on a muggy summer’s day made uncomfortable by the lingering humidity of an earlier quick-moving thunderstorm. Fortunately a more hospitable autumn hovered just around the corner.
The phone intruded again. Determined to cut this guy off at the pass, I snatched up the receiver, but before I could say anything, a loud laugh threatened to burst my eardrum.
“Short fuse, huh? Okay, I can respect that. Look, I’m in Hawaii on business and lost track of the time difference. Sorry to call so late.”
The bastard was pretty good at defusing things.
“Let’s start over, shall we? I’m Anthony P. Alfano. I run Alfano Vineyards in Napa Valley. I’ve got a problem out there in New Mexico, and I think you’re the guy who can help me. I got your name off the Internet. I like your website. It’s a solid professional layout.”
He left me little recourse except to respond gracefully. “Thanks. I assume you checked me out with someone, too.” I exhaled and tried to ignore the feeling I was being manipulated by an expert. “Okay, what’s the problem?”
“My son. He’s missing. Probably nothing serious, but I need to locate him.”
Orlando Selvanus Alfano—was this family Italian, or what?—twenty-one, and a graduate student in history at UCLA, had left on July twenty-second for an extended vacation. He and his traveling companion, another student named Dana Norville, intended to explore the natural wonders of the great Southwest and sample the wares of the local vineyards. Even though they were three days late returning home, the vacationers were still registered at the Albuquerque Sheraton on Menaul and Louisiana across the street from Coronado Mall. Repeated phone messages left at the hotel and on Orlando’s cell phone had gotten no response. The two were going to miss the first classes of the fall semester if they didn’t return immediately.
“I take it the other student—this Dana—is his girlfriend.”
Alfano’s pregnant pause and terse answer raised my antennae. “It’s Dana James Norville. One of those names that can go either way.”
So that’s the way it was. Alfano needed a gay PI to look for a gay son. “Does he? Go either way, I mean?”
His rage was palpable. “Only one way. The wrong way.”
“And your son?”
Instead of the expected explosion, Alfano sighed heavily. “You have to understand something; Orlando’s not queer. Hell, most of us jerked off with buddies when we were kids. We grew out of it; no harm done. Lando’s just a slow developer. He hasn’t come out of it yet, but he will.”
“How about Norville?”
“That bastard’s a dyed-in-the-wool pansy, and he’s contaminating my son.”
I bit my tongue at the sophomoric outburst. “For your information, Mr. Alfano, I’m pretty ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ myself. I think you need to call someone else.”
“Now wait a minute.” Anthony Alfano obviously was not accustomed to getting the brush-off. “I know all about you. And except for that—nonsense—you’ve got a good reputation. You can move in both the straight world and the gay world. You’re the one I want. Find my son, Vinson, and send him home to his mother and me.”
“It’s Mr. Vinson.” Might as well set the bigoted SOB straight right at the beginning.
“All right, Mr. Vinson, score one for you. Are you sure you’re gay? You don’t sound it.”
“Does your son?”
“But in your dreams he’s not twisted, right? How about Norville? Am I looking for a flaming queen?”
“Of course, not. Lando wouldn’t hang out with someone like that. No, I’ve got to admit, looking at Dana Norville, you wouldn’t suspect.”
“Then how can you be certain?”
“I did a quick background check on Norville when the two of them started bumming around together, and the guy was clean. But when they…uh, got close, I took another look and found the man Norville had been shacking up with before he latched onto my son.”
“Very well, Mr. Alfano, I’ll look into the matter. I’ll do it for Orlando and Dana, but you’re going to be footing the bills.”
He promised to have his secretary in California call Hazel tomorrow with the credit card information for my retainer and to provide anything else we requested. I asked him to email color photos of the two men. If they were as close as he believed, there would be a few around somewhere. He also gave me his son’s cell and pager numbers.
After hanging up, I tapped my desk blotter with a gold and onyx letter opener fashioned into a miniature Toledo blade. I sighed aloud. The Alfano case had all the hallmarks of developing into a nightmare. Working for attorneys was easier; they understood the process. Private individuals had a warped idea of what a PI did, which was nothing more or less than gathering information. But I was committed, so I might as well make the best of it.
I returned to the visual meditation of the landscape outside my window. As nature’s glow dimmed, man-made lights came alive: amber lampposts, white fluorescents, flamboyant neons, yellow vehicle headlights reflecting off wet pavement, and far in the distance a tiny spot moving slowly across the sky—one of the aerial trams hauling patrons up Sandia Peak’s rugged western escarpment to the restaurant atop the mountain.
By leaning forward, I caught the faint, rosy underbelly of a western cloudbank, the lingering legacy of a dead sunset. Was that what had drawn Orando and Dana to the Land of Enchantment? Spectacular scenery and surreal sunsets? Or was it our rich heritage of Indian and Hispanic art? The two were history majors, and Albuquerque had a long history. It was approaching its 300th birthday, while Santa Fe and many of the nearby Indian Pueblos had longer lifelines.
Beyond my line of sight, the city’s original settlement lay to the west where one- and two-storied adobe shops—some ancient and some merely pretending to be—hearken back to their Spanish colonial roots. Now known as Old Town, it was founded in 1706 by Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdez as the Villa del Alburquerque—some say Ranchos del Albuquerque. In either case, the Spanish colonial outpost was named in honor of New Spain’s Viceroy in Mexico City. The second “R” of the Duke’s name disappeared in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to New Town, located two miles east of Hispanic Old Town, a signal the Anglos had successfully wrested the heart—if not the soul—of the community from its founders.
It seemed as though a similar battle was being waged between Dana Norville and Anthony Alfano for the heart and soul of Orlando. Papa Alfano had given me cell phone and pager numbers for his son. He kept his pup on a short leash—or tried to. Not only that, but the old man had checked Norville out at the first signs of a budding friendship between the two. I’d bet Alfano was accustomed to throwing his weight around, railroading or buying whomever he wanted, including his son. My instinctive dislike of the homophobic bully made me wonder how far he would go to “turn his son around.” Maybe Orlando went on the run to get out from under the thumb of his tyrannical patriarch.
Spinning back to the desk, I went on the hunt for information over the Internet. According to Dun and Bradstreet, the Alfano Vineyards’ net worth was somewhere around $100,000,000. Although California is notoriously anal retentive about releasing it’s criminal records, the Superior Court websites I searched revealed nothing on Alfano, but that only meant he wasn’t a known murderer, rapist, or kidnapper. He would have bought his way out of anything less than that. Orlando, on the other hand, had a sheet in Los Angeles. From the limited information available, it looked to be nothing more than a couple of disturbing the peace charges. Norville’s record was about the same, leading me to believe they had been activists in their early university days. Maybe they met while agitating for some cause or the other. Gay rights? Voting rights?
There was no answer at their room in the uptown Sheraton. Well, no surprise there. The call to the kid’s cell phone went to a message center. I left a callback on the pager without much hope. Things are never that easy.
I had finished dictating instructions for the Alfano contract and was reaching to snap off my old-fashioned, green-shaded banker’s lamp when the telephone rang again. Maybe I’d caught a break. I hadn’t, but the sound of Paul Barton’s baritone sent my energy level soaring.
“You still at work?” he asked.
“Just finishing up. How about meeting somewhere for a late dinner.”
A deep chuckle. “Meet me at 5228 Post Oak Drive NW.”
“Yep. And I have a surprise for you.”
“Let me guess—green chili stew and warm, buttered tortillas. Uh…what’s for dessert?”
“I’ll leave that to your imagination.” He hung up in the middle of a wicked laugh.