Once the two detectives had satisfied themselves that neither of us had concealed any more contraband about our persons, they let us sit and watch. They ignored us, and spoke with the State Police Investigators when they arrived. Eventually, Reggie piped up, addressing one of these people.
“Excuse me, uh, forensics person?” Three different jump-suited investigators turned around, and Reggie pointed at a man twice his own size, who was examining the linens the corpse had been wrapped in. “I know I’m not on the official force or anything, but is there some way I can examine those clothes before you take them off to the lab?”
“No,” he said.
“None at all?”
The man glanced over at Det. Street, who was comparing notes with Banks. Street looked up and waved her hand dismissively.
“Okay, then,” the man said.
“Royal!” Reggie licked his lips.
The investigator held up the mud and blood soaked rags that the victim had been wrapped in. They weren’t clothes, but rather sheets. They were frayed in several places and, as I’d already seen, stained all over. Originally, they seemed to have been off-white with some sort of purple-ish floral pattern. The pattern was small and linear: it made straight vertical lines from one edge to the other. But the predominant color was still the cream or ivory, or whatever off-white the rest of the linen was under the splatters of blood.
Didn’t we used to have some like that? In Robin’s room? Carla’s voice broke in on my thoughts. It happened occasionally. I didn’t mind it when I was arranging my new living-space. It made me feel less alone, helped the gallery feel more like a home. Here, however, with part of a dead body in front of me, and the stink of death surrounding me, I didn’t want to hear her soft voice. It just felt wrong. I pushed it out of my head.
The look on Reggie’s face told me he saw more than I did. He scrutinized them, albeit at a distance. Perhaps he could smell some clue on them, though the odor of decay was still strong in the area, even to me. To say nothing of the stench from Salazar’s waste lagoons, just upstream (and unfortunately for us, upwind).
“Thank you, sir,” Reggie said after a while. “You’ve been very kind. I think we’ll take our leave of you for the time being. We need to go speak with our client.”
“Did the detectives say you could—”
“Holy shit!” a voice cried from behind us. Everybody turned to see four people with backpacks climbing up out of the stream bed. Clearly, this was the group that Reggie and I had passed on the road two days ago, the activists that Patty had given permission to cross the White’s land. The very group Mike Salazar had tried to make us believe had left the message for Reggie.
“You kids need to stand back,” Banks insisted.
“I’m not arguing with that!” said the tallest of the bunch, a lanky kid with shaggy blond hair and a stubble-only beard. It must take hours of grooming to preserve that unshorn look. I shook my head. When I was his age, protesters grew real beards.
The kids all turned as one to go, but Street stopped them. “Wait, we’re going to have to talk to you.”
“Huh?” one of the campers said. “Why?” She was about four foot eight, with jet black, crew cut hair and eyes the size of lightbulbs.
“Because we need to know if you know anything about all this,” Street said.
“How?” she said, crossing her arms, her bushy Frida Kahlo eyebrow arching on one side.
“Well,” Street explained, “you were camping out last night. You might have heard or noticed something.”
“Dude,” a third kid said from the back, “I didn’t notice nothing but stars last night, know what I’m sayin’?” He began giggling. I remembered the summer of 1967. I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying.
“Totally,” the fourth said, giving him a high five.
“Come on,” Street said. “Stop gawking, let’s all stand over here.”
All four of them claimed they’d been out in the desert, a couple miles away last night. They all swore they’d been without cell phone reception, too. Banks and Street asked them several questions regarding their whereabouts on the relevant dates, which only confirmed that no one we’d spoken to had a solid alibi the night of either child’s disappearance.
“Weren’t there five of you before?” Reggie asked, as they were leaving. “Sam and I passed you on the road the other day, and I could have sworn there was a fifth.”
“Man, there’s, like, forty two of us camping out at any given time,” the tall lanky one said. He’d given his name as Scooter. “Probably hundreds if we were all together.”
“But you four were walking together two days ago across the White’s property,” Reggie said. “With another kid. Tall? Greasy brown hair down to his shoulders? ZZ Top beard?”
“Oh, yeah,” Scooter said. “We had Dave with us.”
“And where’s Dave now?” Street asked.
“Dave’s not here, man,” giggled Steve, the guy who’d been looking at stars last night. I smiled. It was the first time in days I’d actually seen something coming. Banks tittered. Street and Reggie seemed confused.
“Totally,” Steve’s friend Jesse said, slapping him five again. I still hadn’t figured out Jesse’s gender.
“Is he back at the campground?” Street asked.
Everyone stated unconditionally that none of them had seen Dave in a few days. They all seemed tight lipped about the whole affair, but eventually Scooter admitted that Dave was new to the group.
“Actually, the first night we camped here?” Scooter said, “I noticed Dave leave after everyone else had gone to bed. I figured he was just gonna take a piss, but he wasn’t here when we woke up, man.”
Once the kids were dismissed, Reggie and I excused ourselves to go talk to the Renards, while Street and Banks finished up with the State Investigators.
“I’m sorry,” Reggie said to Lupé and Jack Renard once we’d reached their kitchen table. “At this point, you can expect another visit from the Sheriff’s office, and probably another arrest.” At this, naturally, the grieving mother broke into tears. Jack looked at us, his face unreadable. Had he been out last night? Had he somehow found Melvin White when the rest of us couldn’t? Had he literally torn the boy limb from limb, in payment for the life of his own child?
“You promised,” Lupé Renard said. She repeated it over and over again. “You promised.” I hung my head, but Reggie fidgeted in his seat, then stood up suddenly.
“Will you all excuse me for a moment? I need to use the restroom.” He gave me a look, and left us. I spent some minutes trying to calm, assure, and comfort Mrs. Renard, but was utterly unsuccessful at it. Despite countless experiences with Carla, my daughter Robin, my own mother, Carla’s mother, and several of my divorce clients, I had not learned the first thing about getting a crying person to stop. Jack just sat there, silently. Eventually, I did what I always do, and started talking about myself.
“I, ah. I just lost my own child. My daughter.” I said. “And my wife, actually,” I added after a silence that was broken only by Lupé’s sobs. “In a car accident. I know that doesn’t give me the right to act like I know what y’all’re going through. But, well, it took me a long time to heal. I just felt, ah, empty. It’s silly but I blamed the car. I actually got mad at that Volvo. It’d been my favorite. We’d— well, you don’t care about that.” Lupé looked at me, brown eyes wide, tears streaming down her face. Jack stared out the window towards the Salazar property with malevolence in his eyes. I dropped my eyes to at my hands.
“Where in hell did Reggie get to?” I wondered aloud, and went looking.
I found him speaking to Sophia Renard in her bedroom. She was very young, and apparently very upset. Her room, like her makeup and her clothes, was very dark. She had done what she could to cover every inch with horror movie posters. Despite her parents’ limited means, she seemed to have a few items of value, including a desktop computer, a guitar, and an SLR camera that actually appeared to use real film.
“He had photos from a vacation under his bed,” Reggie was saying as I drew within earshot. “They looked recent.”
“Yes,” Sophia said. “I took them. Mexico. We went together, his parents thought we were with a school group. Mine did, too.”
“But you went alone. That’s why there are no photos of the two of you together?”
“If anyone had known—”
“It was a secret?”
“A big one,” she nodded. “From his friends. From our folks. He even made me give him the negatives of the pictures I took. How’d you know? About us, I mean.”
“Have you met Sam?” Reggie turned as I walked around the corner. I extended my hand, but she just stared at me from the deep dark wells of her eyes. “He saw you that day when the Detectives were here, remember? You were cutting Melvin’s picture from the paper.”
“Wow,” she said. “You guys are smarter than the real police, huh?”
“Well,” Reggie blushed, then grinned.
At that moment, Jack Renard appeared in the doorway.
“Sophia! What’re you tellin’ them?”
“If ya think I didn’ hear what you said ‘bout Mexico—”
“You two ‘scuse us. I need to talk to my daughter a spell.” The fury in Jack Renard’s eyes burned an image in my brain that stayed with me for hours.
It was only eight o’clock Sunday morning, when normal people were just getting out of bed. Reggie and I, however, were just emerging from the Renard’s trailer. As we left, he turned to Lupé Renard, who was still sitting at the table. Reggie apologized again, but it wasn’t clear whether she heard him.
What had already been a strange day was destined to become stranger still. We followed Street and Banks back to the Sheriff’s office, along with the entire Renard family. Everyone was questioned. By ten, Pat and Patty White had been ushered in. Patty’s face was streaked by a mixture of tears and mascara. Pat’s face was gray as granite. As they left, his eyes fell on Jack Renard, seated next to me. If Jack’s fury at his daughter had been like red coals, then the hate I saw in Patrick White’s eyes was a white hot magnesium fueled flame.
“He said something the other day about not being afraid of you anymore,” I said to Jack. “Any idea what that means?”
“Non, mon ami,” Jack said. “He been drinkin’ a bit lately. Don’ know who his friends are no more.”
“You think of him as your friend?” I asked.
“I tell you, Brown, the Salazar ranch has th’ stink of death.”
Reggie, meanwhile, had his hands full with Lupé, who rather than calming down, was getting increasingly agitated.
“You said you would find him!” She said. “You said you would find our boy. You promised.”
“I- I’m sorry, Mrs. Renard,” Reggie said. “I’ll find out who did this.”
“They are going to get away with this,” she said. “They already have”
“I’ll keep Jack out of prison. I promise.”
“You promised before.” She said.