The Zozobra Incident



Artist: Maria Fanning

THE ZOZOBRA INCIDENT


By Don Travis

PROLOGUE


South of Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Sangre de Cristos to the north and the Jemez Mountains on the west stood like massive mute sentinels. An unforgiving sun high in the cloudless sky bleached the desert landscape brown and turned Interstate-25 into twin ribbons of glistening black tar. The white four-door Impala barreling down the highway pushed the speed limit--not enough to attract the attention of passing cops but sufficient to clip a few minutes off the hour's drive to Albuquerque.
A blue Mustang convertible closed the distance quickly and then paced the white car. When the Chevy began its long descent down the steep slope of La Bajada into the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the Ford muscled past in a burst of speed. Suddenly, it swerved right, catching the front fender of the Impala and sending it hurtling toward the sheer drop-off beyond the shoulder.


CHAPTER 1

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Swimming therapy at the country club had put me behind schedule, so I rode the elevator instead of taking the stairs to the third floor of a downtown landmark building on Fifth and Copper NW. I paused on the landing outside my office to frown at the gold lettering on the door. There was a scratch in the flowing “C “of the sign reading: “B. J. Vinson, Confidential Investigations.” I liked that better than Private Investigator. It had a less sleazy connotation.
I turned the knob and walked inside. “Hazel, somebody scratched—"
My guardian of the outer chamber, a plump, gray-haired warden who thought she was my mother, put a halter on my tongue simply by holding up a pudgy white hand. “You’re late, BJ. Your first appointment’s already here.”
“I didn’t know I had an appointment. Who is it?”
Her broad mouth compressed into a thin line. Her fleshy jowls shook. “Del. He’s waiting in your office.” Hazel Harris loved me dearly, but she did not approve of my lifestyle. And Del Dahlman was definitely a part of my lifestyle. Or had been.
I blinked slowly. “What does he want?”
A shrug jiggled her matronly frame. “No idea. I met him in the lobby on my way in. He claimed he had an emergency, but didn’t condescend to share it. ‘Confidential,’ was all he’d say. If you’re lucky, it’s his law firm’s business. Even if it is, you’d do well to show him the door.”
“Now, Hazel—”
“Don’t flash those apple green eyes at me, Burleigh J. Vinson. That man’s already hurt you enough.”
“What do you expect me to do? You said he’s in there waiting for me.”
“Deal with it.”
I opened the door to my inner office, unprepared for the emotional wrench that almost paralyzed me at the sight of the man who had once shared my life. Although Albuquerque is a small town type of city, I had seen him only occasionally at a distance since our break-up a year ago.
“Good to see you, Vince.” Del called me Vince because no one else did.
Somehow, I found the strength to accept his handshake before dropping into my chair. If he shared the same emotional wrench, it wasn’t apparent. He wandered the room examining the Gorman and Bierstadt originals and the Russell reproduction. He no doubt recognized them as part of my late father’s western art collection. They had hung in my house for the three years he shared it with me.
Del settled uninvited into one of the leather chairs opposite my desk. The scent of his after-shave—he still used Brut—wafted across the room and triggered unwanted memories.
“Nice digs.” His voice brought me back from the edge. “I was surprised to hear you’d become a PI. I always heard it was a tough business to break into.”
“It was slow going for a while, but it helps to have cop friends refer business.” Del only indulged in small talk when he was nervous, and although that piqued my interest, it wasn’t enough to sustain it. “Look, you should take your business elsewhere. I don’t care if it is Stone, Martinez, etc.”
“It’s Stone, Hedges, Martinez, etc. However, I’m not here to throw some of their money at you.” He paused, obviously expecting me to ask why he was here. I didn’t bite. After studying his buffed fingernails a moment, he spoke again. “You must think I’m a shit.”
That one, I couldn’t pass up. “A spineless shit.”
“Touché. But we were good for one another, weren’t we? It was so perfect we should have known it couldn’t last.”
“Maybe you can rationalize it that way. I can’t.”
Del stirred uncomfortably in his chair. The fact he didn’t walk out the door told me he was here on a matter of some importance, at least to him. “You know me, I’ve got to have some action, and I wasn’t getting it from you.”
“Christ, I nearly died.”
Two years ago, a bullet had almost severed the artery in my right thigh while I was trying to apprehend an accused murderer. I’d been an Albuquerque police detective at the time.
“I know.”
“You couldn’t put up with the bloody bandages and the festering wound and the poor sap struggling to make it to the bathroom on time.”
The reflexive denial in his eyes died. He nodded. “Yeah, that, too. I’m not cut out to be a nurse.”
“We had a nurse, Dahlman.”
“Yeah, during the day, but not at night.” His eyes flicked to mine as he tried to muster a smile. “You’ve picked up the weight you lost. God, you look good enough to eat. Short-sighted of me, I guess.”
“Not really. You’d lose your tan if I showed you my scar.”
Bitter vetch collected at the base of my throat as I recalled how Del had irrevocably ruptured our relationship by bringing a gay hustler named Emilio Prada into our home. His next words revealed his thoughts were paralleling mine.
“I thought you were just being jealous, but you were more insightful than I was. You saw through Emilio right away.”
“He was a gay for pay. Anyone could see that.”
“Anyone but me. He rang my bell too much. Besides, he’s more gay than straight.” Del shook his head as if trying to clear it. “He’s a beautiful son of a bitch.”
“With son of a bitch being the operative axiom. Is he still around, or has he gone back to Mexico?”
“Around…but not with me. In fact, that’s why I’m here.”
My left-brain kicked in. “He’s blackmailing you.”
“You always were quick on the uptake.”
“So what’s the problem? Half the town knows you’re gay. Your law partners know, don’t they?”
“Yeah, we’ve used it to our advantage a couple of times. There’s some gay money in this town.” He scratched his chin. “But knowing it and seeing it splashed across the Internet are two different things.”
“Let me guess. He has pictures.”
“Some very nice ones. I was quite proud when he first showed them to me.”
“And now they’ve come back to bite you in the ass.” I smiled at this quirky turn of fate.
“You may think it’s funny, but it’s dead-serious to me. I need to get them back. Fast.”
“So go find him and wring his scrawny neck.”
“Not so easy. He’s hiding out somewhere. Everything was fine until we broke up, and then he turned nasty.”
“What happened?”
Delbert David Dahlman, Esquire, Attorney-at-law, flushed a bright, vein-popping red. “He…he moved a woman into my apartment.”
I burst out laughing. “Poetic justice.”
“Maybe. Anyway, I gave him a choice. Me or her. He chose her and my pictures.”
“What’s he asking?”
“Five thousand.”
“A modest demand. You’ve given him gifts worth more than that. Like a car, for instance.”
“The five grand is only a confidence builder. He’ll sell me a few photos for that and then come after me for the big money.”
“Crap, man. How could you not see this coming?”
“Love is blind.” He tried to recover his aplomb. “Will you help me?”
“Why not let your firm’s investigators handle it?”
“I don’t want the firm to know. This is in confidence, but I’m up for a full partnership at the end of the year, and this could sink it. I’ll pay you. Just help me out of this jam, okay?”
“Damned right you’ll pay. I’ll bill you like every other client.”
After he forked over a hefty retainer check, I started acting like a professional. “Give me Emilio’s last known address.”
“That would be the Royal Crest, my apartment house.”
“Damn. Do you at least have his phone number?”
“I bought him four cell phones, but he couldn’t hang onto any of them. Kept losing them. The last time, I told him that was enough. I wouldn’t foot the bill for another.”
“So no phone number.”
“Right.”
“How was the extortion demand made?”
“I got a note.”
“Was it in his handwriting?”
“Hard to tell. It was printed. You know, in block letters. Emilio used to go through the newspaper, so I know he can read English. But I don’t know if he can write it.”
“Was the demand note sent through the mail?”
“No, it was dropped off at the apartment house.”
“With the doorman?” Del had a swanky address.
“We don’t have a doorman, but it’s a secure facility. It takes a key to get in the front door.”
“So it was just left at the front door?”
“It was stuck in my mailbox. Somebody jammed the corner of the envelope under the door of the mailbox. That’s where I found it. And before you ask, the boxes are in the front lobby.”
“Inside the locked door?”
Del nodded. “I asked the manager if he let anyone in. He said he hadn’t and claimed he didn’t know anything about the note. I suppose someone could have entered when a tenant went out. Or maybe he sneaked in through the garage when a car was entering or leaving.”
“Does it take a key to exit the front door?”
“No, just turn the handle and you’re outside.”
“Tell me about the people who operate the apartment house. The manager, maintenance people, housekeepers, people like that.”
He gave me personal names when he had them and company names when he didn’t. I laid the list aside to check out later.
“Let me see the note and envelope.”
His mouth tightened. He licked his lips. “I don’t have them. I was so angry I tore them up as soon as I read the note. He didn’t sign the thing, but it had to be Emilio. Nobody else has those pictures. Hell, just go find him and get them back. You don’t need to see the note for that.”
I got in a few more questions before he claimed he had to get back to the office to prepare for court. More likely, he wanted to get away because of my irritation at his stupid handling of the demand note. That was all right; I was almost late for a court date of my own.
Later, as I chuckled my way through the metal detector at the District Courthouse, the deputies operating the security station must have thought I’d lost my marbles. In fact, during my sworn testimony—authenticating some videotapes I’d taken—I had a sudden image of Del’s face as he told his story and almost snorted aloud.
I would have had a hell of a time explaining to the judge why Wilbur Maple’s embezzlement of $100,000 from a charitable trust was funny. Nonetheless, I savored the bittersweet irony of Del’s predicament for the remainder of the afternoon.


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