Chapter One (excerpt)
The second I stepped through the front door, her three Chihuahuas exploded from beneath a highboy to charge my boots. Teeth bared—snarling, snorting, snapping—so damn noisy and frenzied, I had to quash the impulse to punt one into the fireplace. I like dogs, but I like dogs with manners. These hellions respected no one, except maybe Aunt Kitty, and truth be told, they didn’t respect her much either.
The second I stepped through the front door, her three Chihuahuas exploded from beneath a highboy to charge my boots. Teeth bared—snarling, snorting, snapping—so damn noisy and frenzied, I had to quash the impulse to punt one into the fireplace. I like dogs, but I like dogs with manners.Dogs and cats ran amok in her small adobe house on the San Ignacio Indian Reservation. She loved her precious pets, her cushion-chewing pooches, her piss-anywhere kitty cats. And no one but her could scold them. “Love me; love my animals,” she insisted. She didn’t go so far as to call them “fur-babies,” but you get the idea.
“Shut up, dammit!” she hollered from the kitchen. But the dogs didn’t obey. They seldom did. They scrambled after me, growling, eyes bulging, lunging at my cuffs, their unclipped toenails scuffling against the linoleum floor.
When I neared Aunt Kitty in the kitchen, they quieted some. The kitchen was off limits and they knew it. Aunt Kitty’s one rule—no animals in the kitchen. “Out,” she said, stomping her foot. But, they dawdled, scenting bacon in the air, and Soupbone, my dog, on my jeans. Finally satisfied, they trotted away stiff-legged, ever the tough guys, flashing mad-dog glares as they left.
“Morning Boy,” Aunt Kitty said. “You know where the coffee is.”
I did. I grabbed a cup and poured from the electric percolator on the counter. It poured thick and strong. Aunt Kitty practically lived on Folgers and menthol Marlboros; she didn’t skimp when she brewed a pot.
She stood before her ancient wood/propane stove in black Converse tennis shoes and a flowery housedress, tending slab bacon in a cast-iron frying pan. She wore an apron. Nobody wore aprons anymore. Strands of silver hair strayed from an elastic tie that cinched her stubby ponytail.
I pulled out a chair at her Formica kitchen table. Nowadays, people might call it retro, but to her it was simply the table. It had been there since the 1940’s, used daily, padding peeking through torn upholstery of a couple chairs. I lowered the news blaring on her Bakelite clock-radio, also a table fixture since Eisenhower was president. The clock hadn’t shown the right time in years.
As a tribal member, she got a monthly casino check and could afford new stuff, but she preferred her old stuff. She’d spend $500 to repair her old fridge, when she could buy new for $400. All her married life, she lived in this dim two-bedroom house with her husband, Aloysius, Uncle Alley. For several years, after my parents were killed, she reared my brother, Wilson, here as well. But Wilson grew, left for school, then took up his own life.
Uncle Alley died fifteen years ago of too much home brew. Sure, he drank too much, but oh, how she loved him. And this was their house, and she couldn’t abide change. She ate her meals solo across from his photo, wishing he could talk to her.
I grabbed the ever-present can of Pet evaporated milk, poured it and sugar into my coffee and stirred. Aunt Kitty handed me a steaming plate of fried eggs, beans and slab bacon. “Tortillas in that bowl, and salsa in that one,’ she said, though she said “sarsa,” because that’s the way older Natives pronounce it in Southern California.
Arthritis be damned, Aunt Kitty, as if still married, made fresh tortillas each morning. While mixing the dough, she forked in lard and splashed in milk, which added taste and texture. She rolled them thin— see-through thin—with an old Thunderbird wine bottle, then lightly blistered them on a cast-iron comal. A tortilla artist, she hummed as she crafted. God love her, she often sent extras home with me wrapped in tin foil.
She brought over her coffee, added milk and sugar, and sat across from me. Steam fogged her cat-eyed glasses; she wiped them on her apron. She’d worn the same style glasses since before my birth. I suspected it was because Della Street, Perry Mason’s secretary, wore them. Aunt Kitty once worked as a cook for Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. She loved all things Perry Mason; read every book, watched every television show many times.
She didn’t have cable, but she had a TV and a DVD player to watch Perry Mason. Oh, she read other crime fiction and especially liked film noir, but her devotion to Perry Mason approached legend.
I was sinking my teeth into tortilla with bacon and beans when she asked, “So how you holding up since Jessica left?”
I stopped chewing to look her in the eyes. Behind her thick lenses, I detected an odd blend of concern and merriment. Always either consoling or cajoling, she seemed to take pleasure in bringing up my love life or lack thereof. I told myself, she just wants to see me happy. But sometimes, I thought, she unveiled a sadistic side.
She fired up a menthol with a Zippo lighter, inhaled, and wheezed a little cough as she blew smoke. I razed her often about her smoking. But it’s funny how some smokers go unravaged, while others die at 40 of lung cancer. Even at 84, she was surprisingly healthy and nimble. Part of her secret; she kept busy. Now that it was spring, she hoed weeds every day. Some joked she’d sit, hoe in hand, waiting for a weed to dare poke its head. But she also took a morning shot of special homemade tonic concocted from medicinal herbs raised in her garden. I tasted it once. Yuck!
She waited for my answer to her Jessica question. I shrugged. “I’m doing OK,” I said.
“So why did she leave?”
I thought, come on Aunt Kitty, do we have to? She was entering gloomy territory. She was prying into business that wasn’t hers. But, I guessed, we were too close for me to be indignant. Still…
I didn’t spill. “I don’t know. She just left.”
My dad started calling me True when I was three or four years old. I guess I was born a habitual bullshitter. He’d counter my whoppers with: “Now, now, tell it true. Tell it true.” The nickname stuck.“True,” she said, drawing out the syllable. “It’s me. Aunt Kitty.” My dad started calling me True when I was three or four years old. I guess I was born a habitual bullshitter. He’d counter my whoppers with: “Now, now, tell it true. Tell it true.” The nickname stuck.
She inhaled on her cigarette, her cheeks indenting, her leathery skin close to the bone. A small mole perched above her lips and a couple of black hairs sprouted from it. When she talked they waved hypnotically, like a conductor’s wand.
“I don’t know, she just left,” I said.
Aunt Kitty sighed, exasperated. She just wouldn’t let go. “What did she say? She had to say something.”
Now I was the one to suck in air. I looked away, mumbled softly. “She called me Sad Boy.”
“Yeah, she said I was too sad for her. She needed distance because I was sad all the time and I was bringing her down. She wants laughter, not sorrow.”
She squinted her eyes into a question mark, finished her cigarette, snuffed it in the copper-top ashtray with a bean-bag bottom. “Sad Boy…” she said, her brows arched.
Then her phone clanged, loud. The dogs barked. She hurried into the living room to the small table next to the plaid couch that faced the fireplace. I knew the phone well—rotary-dial, black, heavy, the kind of phone used as a murder weapon in old movies.
I could hear her muffled voice, but couldn’t make out what she said.
When she returned, her jaw had slackened, her eyes vacant; all traces of merriment replaced by dismay.
“What?” I asked.
“Un-fucking-believable,” she said. Aunt Kitty rarely cussed.
“So tell me.”
“This seems impossible …”
“Come on, tell me!”
“Last night, in Bossie’s driveway, Indigo’s boy, Squirmy was shot and killed, and Candy was shot in the head too.”
“She’s alive, but in intensive care with a bullet in her brain. Bossie was at the hospital all night with her.”
My heart sank. Candy was my sister Amber’s daughter. A sweetheart. I surfed with Candy now and then.
Aunt Kitty barked: “You need to go. Andale pues! Your Aunt Bossie is asking for you. She’s home from the hospital, waiting.”
* * *
Yellow crime tape cordoned off a vintage Camaro parked in the circular drive in front of Aunt Bossie’s sprawling house. I pulled up, shut down my truck and clambered out. Just a few minutes after 9 a.m., but the sun’s rays already stung. Crows roughhoused overhead; songbirds warbled bubblegum tunes like nothing was wrong. My Ropers crunched in pea-gravel as I approached the taped-off car. It was a 1969 Z-28 with rear spoiler, lustrous gray with black racing stripes, restored to better than showroom condition.
Morning sun jitterbugged in the deep-wax finish. But dried blood, the color of carmine, splattered a Pollock painting inside the windshield. More blood clotted the black leather seats, the simulated wood dash, the four-on-the-floor Hurst shifter. Even several feet from the car, I recoiled at the residual stench. Maybe my imagination made it worse, but the car stank of carnage, thick and sour. Squirmy must have shit himself when he got shot because I could smell that as well.
Human blood unhinges me. I looked away, focusing my watery vision on the nearby xeriscape—Southern California natives: Cholla, prickly pear cactus, lilac, white sage, gray-green agave, and more—planted in a sandy bed rimmed by river rock on the other side of the car.I swallowed against a wet heave. My gut somersaulted, saliva pooled at the back of my throat. Human blood unhinges me. I looked away, focusing my watery vision on the nearby xeriscape—Southern California natives: Cholla, prickly pear cactus, lilac, white sage, gray-green agave, and more—planted in a sandy bed rimmed by river rock on the other side of the car.
My eyes sought an antidote to violence. An iridescent green hummingbird sucked nectar from the yellow trumpet flower of a wild-tobacco tree. A blue-bellied lizard posed yoga-like on a river rock. Someone, probably a gardener, raked parallel designs with Zen precision into the white sand. It was nice, but the car reeked, and I needed to get away.
Still swallowing saliva, I toddled onto the tin-covered porch to ring the doorbell inset into the eye of a ceramic-tile roadrunner. Footsteps sounded on the other side of the heavy door, and Rosa, the housekeeper, a chunky Mexican woman in mom jeans and a white blouse, swung the door open. She smiled, but not with good cheer.
“Come in Mr. Roddy,” she said.
I stepped into the tiled entry. I noticed the deer antlers on the entry wall were missing the old Winchester lever-action that usually rested in the antler tines. I followed her into the expansive living room of antique mahogany furniture like you might see in an English manor. Floor-to-ceiling glass ran the entire length of the back wall making the tropical outdoor garden appear indoors. The adobe house rambled in angles like an 1850s California hacienda, forming a square around a courtyard boisterous with plants. A faint odor of smoke from the river-rock fireplace hovered, along with the tang of lemon furniture polish. Rosa led me to my bedraggled Aunt Bossie seated at her round dining-room table.
Aunt Bessie Beddington, everyone called her Bossie, sipped tea from a China blue cup, eating English muffins smeared with lime marmalade. She sat tall, nearly six feet, square-shouldered and straight backed. Her pewter hair, usually seamlessly brushed into a bun, was disheveled. She wore a turquoise terrycloth robe and matching slippers. She had to be in her mid 80s, but still painted her fingernails bright red.
“Sit down, True,” she said over her teacup. “Have some tea.”
A high-backed wooden chair scraped against gleaming terra-cotta tile when I pulled it out to sit. “Do you think I might have a glass of water first?” Bitterness lingered in my throat from the close call I had with tossing my breakfast.
“Rosa?” Aunt Bossie asked.
Rosa went into the stainless steel and granite-top kitchen and reached on tip-toes for a glass from the lowest shelf. She filled the glass in the refrigerator door; walked it over to me. I chuckled. It was a Disneyland glass of Sleeping Beauty, maybe a souvenir from Candy’s youth.
As I drank, Rosa poured tea from an English bone-china teapot so old it would have Antiques Roadshow appraisers fidgeting with their bowties.
“Thanks for coming so quickly,” Aunt Bossie said.
I sipped tea from a formal porcelain cup and detected smoky Lapsang Souchong. Most Indian people I knew didn’t drink fancy tea from fancy cups. Coffee in the morning, but seldom tea, and seldom anything fancier than Lipton’s.
“Lapsang Souchong?” I said.
“What? Oh, yes,” she said, distractedly nibbling at her colorless lip. “Well, we’ve certainly got troubles,” she said.
“What’s the latest on Candy?”
“It’s difficult to say. Doctors think she will live, but long-term brain damage is pretty tough to assess at this point. She’s still too unstable to operate. We have to play a waiting game for now.”
“So what the hell happened?”
“Squirmy was shot and killed and Candy was almost killed in that car out front last night,” she said, her face holding it all in.
She enunciated each word with an exaggerated clarity. Her face sagged with exhaustion and worry, her facial flesh lower more than gravity and age would account for.
With no warning, Pele, her macaw, screeched at full volume and flapped its wings, hopping from one branch of the dried tree in its cage to another. Aunt Bossie’s eyes flicked in the bird’s direction, but paid little heed to its antics. The squawk, loud enough to alarm a jungle monkey, jolted me. I spilled tea on my jeans.
Stark sunlight roiled through a sliding glass door, dumping harsh shadows into the creases of her skin and showing just how bloodshot her tired gray eyes were. She inherited gray eyes from her English father. Her mother was Luiseno from here. In fact her mother and my grandmother were related, which made Bossie my relation. But her father, Phillip, was the son of an English nobleman who immigrated here in the 1880s and built a big house nearby. Bossie grew up with more wealth than most. As a little girl, she had tea parties with real china.
“I didn’t much like that Squirmy boy, but death in your front yard …” Aunt Bossie, said shaking her head. “And Candy, so close to death. You know she’s like my own daughter. I’m at a loss, True. And there’s more. Not five minutes ago, my attorney Miranda called to say forensics found Butch’s fingerprints on the gun. He could be charged with homicide!”
Most women would have talked themselves into tears at this point. But not Aunt Bossie. Her shoulders remained square, her bearing erect.
“Wait. Hold on. Butch? What does Butch have to do with this?”
Rat toenails of a Jack Russell terrier clicked on floor tile as the dog pranced into the kitchen. It stopped at Aunt Bossie’s feet and stared up at her, its stub of a tail wagging.
“Yes, Jane,” Aunt Bossie said, patting her lap and the dog sprang up. She absentmindedly petted Jane Russell, as the dog, oblivious to worries, or maybe because of them, snuggled in.
“Butch got into an argument with his girlfriend and left the house angry. Word is he was drinking up at The Overlook. But he came home around 2 p.m. The cops were here and saw him coming up the road. He tried turning around to make a quiet getaway but they went after him. It wasn’t a high-speed chase or anything, but he was way over the legal alcohol limit, so they arrested him for DUI, took him to Southwest. He’s locked up there right now,” she said.
“Now he may be arrested for shooting Squirmy. But he didn’t do it, True. Of course he didn’t do it. He’s why I need you … you to investigate the situation and free him of suspicion.”
“Sounds to me like you need a lawyer more than an investigator,” I said.
As a former newspaperman you have some investigative experience and you know the locals. And this is an Indian vs. Indian shooting. You know how the cops are.“As I said. I have a lawyer, Miranda Wake, and you’ll be working with her. She’s my regular attorney, and she’s a good one, but I’m not sure how experienced she is in criminal investigations. As a former newspaperman you have some investigative experience and you know the locals. And this is an Indian vs. Indian shooting. You know how the cops are. They aren’t going to do much to exonerate Butch.”
“But Auntie, I’m not a licensed investigator. And I was a photographer, not an investigative reporter. You know I want to help, but I really don’t know how to investigate.”
“We’ve got to try. I’m counting on two things, True. First, I can pay you well. Second, he’s your nephew, your flesh and blood, and I know you will do your best. We can’t stand by and allow him to be railroaded by shoddy police work.”
Aunt Bossie aimed her chin at me, her eyes full of fire. I was beginning to feel her strength, the strength she was known for. For a couple of years, she was tribal chairwoman, when she first came back to the Rez. Her politics were old-school, tough-minded and dogged. But times changed, the casino mentality grabbed the tribe by the throat. Bossie wasn’t anti-casino, but she liked to think before she acted, and the people, short on patience, wanted faster action. She was voted out. Since losing as chairman, she’s been elected to the executive council so she’s still involved in tribal politics, and many continued to listen to her. People still respected her.
“True, I am an old, without much time left.”
“Don’t talk that way …”
“No, no, hear me out. I have money and no need to conserve it. I want my grandson protected. He’s a good boy. A little wild sure, but weren’t we all at that age. To show good faith, I will give you $100,000 to undertake the investigation. I’ll write you a check for $50,000 now, and another $50,000 if you achieve results. Meaning you get Butchie cleared of charges.”
Whoa. That’s a lot of money to turn down. Did materialism affect my judgment? Hell, yes. Oh, I would have done it for free, but I had been lusting after a good deep-water fishing boat for along time, one that could cruise to Catalina and Mexico where the Dorado run, one of my favorite eating fish. I pictured myself at the wheel of a sea-worthy cabin cruiser, eyes peeled for fish signs, nudging up the throttle of the twin diesels, listening to them pound through the light chop.
“OK, Aunt Bossie, let’s do this.”
“Great. We’ll be a great team.”
She reached for a light-brown leather handbag hanging from a chair and took out a checkbook. She flipped it open and with a fountain pen scribbled out a check for $50,000 and handed it to me.
“Miranda will draw up a contract,” she said.
“I am business woman and I pay taxes. I keep things on the up and up.”
I folded the check and put it into my wallet. Our eyes locked and we smiled. She must have been a beauty in her youth. Even today, beneath the wrinkles and skin folds, she had the feline grace of a fashion model. Although bent with arthritis, her long fingers had a delicacy you find on dancers and pianists.
“So tell me one more time what happened last night.”
Gordon Lee Johnson is Cahuilla/Cupeno and lives on the Pala Indian Reservation. A former newspaperman, he was a columnist and feature writer for the Press-Enterprise, covering Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Before that, he studied literature and philosophy at the universities of California at Santa Cruz, San Diego, and Berkeley.
Since leaving the newspaper business, he’s concentrated on fiction. He graduated with a BA from Vermont College in Montepellier, VT, specializing in Native fiction and earned a MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.
His book of newspaper columns called Rez Dogs Eat Beans was translated and published in the Czech Republic. Heyday Books in Berkeley published another book of columns called Fast Cars and Frybread. A book of short stories is scheduled to be published by Heyday in 2018.
He has four kids, eleven grandkids, and lives and writes in Pala.