Shoot / Don't Shoot jb-3, страница 1часть #3 серии JOANNA BRADY
Shoot / Don't Shoot
( JOANNA BRADY - 3 )
J. A. Jance
Lying hot and sleepless in the narrow upper bunk, nine-year-old Ceci Grijalva knew her mother was leaving long before she left, long before the outside door opened and closed. When it did, Ceci pulled back a corner of the sheet that served as a curtain and peered out at the weed-infested yard that separated their dingy duplex f mm the one next door. Moments later, Serena Grijalva’s pilfered grocery cart, stacked high with dirty laundry, rattled past the window toward the pot-holed gravel track that passed for a street inside the dreary complex known as Esperanza Village.
Hope Village. Even a little kid could tell that the name was a bad joke. Hopeless was more like it.
Ceci dropped back on her thin mattress and lay there hot and miserable. Back home in Bisbee where they used to live or down in Douglas with Grandma Grijalva, the weather would be cooler now. But not here in Phoenix. Peoria, really. The way her mother had talked about it, Phoenix was one huge, magical city—a wonderful place. Ceci had discovered that it was actually a bunch of places—Phoenix, Glendale, Peoria, Sun City. She could never tell where one stopped and another began, although the kids who had always lived there seemed to know—and they made fun of Ceci when she didn’t.
Phoenix was hot. And the cooler didn’t work. Even when it was running, it didn’t do much good, and it smelled awful—like something green and moldy. Ceci hated that smell.
She lay on the bed, tossing restlessly. The knowledge that her mother was gone kept Ceci awake while her little brother, Pablo, snored peacefully in the bottom bunk. Out in the living room she heard the steady drone of the unwatched television set. Just before she left, Serena had turned on the TV.
She always did that. Ceci knew the blaring television set was a trick. Her mother thought if the kids woke up in the night and heard a mumble of voices from the other room, they’d think Serena was out there watching a program when in reality she’d probably been gone for hours, leaving the two children alone. Again.
Finally, careful not to disturb her brother, the sleepless child pulled her rosary beads out from under her pillow and climbed down from the top bunk. Clutching the beads close to her chest, she tiptoed out into the living room and turned off the TV.
There was no lamp in the sparsely furnished room, and Ceci didn’t bother to switch on the overhead light. With the room illuminated by the street‑light on the corner outside, she made her way to the sweat-stained armchair one of Serena’s pickup‑driving boyfriends had dragged home from a pile of unsold refuse after a Sun City estate sale. Moving the chair close enough to the window to see out, Cecelia curled up inside it. This was where she sat and waited when her mother went out late at night. This was where she sat and worried. And even though she tried to stay awake, she sometimes fell into a fitful sleep. Once Serena had come in and found her there, but usually Ceci managed to rouse herself. Serena’s cart clattering back through the yard would give the child enough warning to turn the TV set back on and scurry into her bed.
Ceci sniffed the air. Serena had been gone for some time, but the heavy scent of her perfume and hair spray still lingered in the room. Ceci shook her head. Even though the grocery cart had been full of dirty clothes when Serena left the house, Ceci wasn’t fooled. The laundry was only an excuse—almost as much of a trick as the blaring television set. If washing clothes was all her mother had in mind, she could have used the laundry room right there in the complex. For that one—the one next to the manager’s apartment—she wouldn’t have needed hair spray or perfume.
Serena always said that the machines in the Esperanza Village laundry room weren’t any good. She refused to use them, claiming that the clothes never came clean enough, and that the dryers were too slow. That’s why she always took the laundry four blocks down the street to the WE-DO-YU-DO Washateria. Ceci may have been only nine, but she understood that that story wasn’t the truth, either. Not the whole truth. The real answer lay in the business next door to the laundry—a place called the Roundhouse Bar and Grill.
Sometimes, on weekends, Ceci and Pablo would go along with Serena to do the wash. Usually the two children would be left on their own in the laundry while their mother went next door to get some change. That’s what she always told them—that she was going for change—even though Pablo had pointed out the change machine right there beside the soap machine. Once Serena disappeared into the bar, she’d be gone for a long time—for hours. When she came back, her hair would smell of cigarette smoke, and her breath would smell like beer. By then Ceci and Pablo would already have removed the clothes from the dryers, folded them, and loaded them back into the waiting cart.
Often it would be late afternoon or even early evening by the time they started the four-block walk home. Ceci and Pablo would be hungry—grateful to munch on whatever treats Serena happened to bring out to them from the bar—potato chips or peanuts or even hunks of tough beef jerky. Sometimes a nice man from the bar would come find them and bring them hamburgers with real french fries.
Chances were, as Serena pushed the cart along, she would be singing or giggling or both. She never really walked straight after she’d been inside the Roundhouse for an hour or so. Ceci would spend the whole trip home praying to the Holy Mother that they wouldn’t meet any of her friends from ‘hoot along the way.
Sitting in the stifling living room, waiting for her other to return, Ceci Grijalva felt incredibly lonely. She missed her father. Even though her mother and father used to fight a lot, she still missed him. And she missed her grandmother, too. The happiest hours of Ceci’s life had been spent at the rickety table in her Grandmother Grijalva’s tiny house watching the old woman make tortillas. Grandma was blind, from something Ceci could never remember, something that started with a g. But even blind, the old woman’s practiced hands still remembered how to make tortillas—how much flour and water to put into the bowl, how to pat the soft, white dough into perfect circles, how long to leave them on the hot griddle, and how to pluck them off with her thumb and finger without ever getting burned.
Waiting for her mother to return, Ceci ached for the comfort of her grandmother’s ample breast and wondered if and when she and Pablo would ever see their father’s mother again. Serena had said they might go down to Douglas at Christmastime, but Ceci didn’t see how that was possible. Douglas was more than two hundred miles away. They didn’t have a car. Two hundred miles was too far to push a grocery cart.
Blinking back tears of loneliness, Ceci fingered the beads that lay in her lap, the ones she usually kept hidden under her pillow. Grandmother Grijalva had given her the string of black beads last year when she made her first communion. Nana had told Ceci that saying Hail Marys would help her feel better, no matter what was wrong. In the months since Ceci’s mother had left her father and brought the children to Phoenix, Ceci had often used the hidden beads to put herself to sleep, slipping them out from under the pillow only after the lights were off and her mother had left the room.
Ceci didn’t really need to hide them from her mother. Serena was sort of a Catholic, even though she hadn’t been to mass since they moved. The real problem was Serena’s mother, Ernestina Duffy. Nana Duffy, as she liked the children to call her. Nana Duffy was a Baptist, Ceci could never remember what kind, and she was always telling Ceci and Pablo that the pope was evil. Ceci didn’t believe it.
“Holy Mary, mother of God . . .” she whispered. As the beads slipped through her fingers, Ceci’s eyes grew heavy. Gradually she drifted off into a troubled sleep. Only this time the return of her mother’s clattering grocery cart didn’t wake her. Pablo did. He was standing in front of her in his underwear, fr
“How come you’re sleeping there?” he demanded.
Ceci’s eyes popped open. It was morning. Where the street light had glowed hours before, now bright late-summer sunshine filled the window. She shifted stiffly in the chair. The foot that had been curled under her was sound asleep. As soon as she moved it, needles and pins shot up her leg.
“Where’s Mom?” she asked.
Pablo turned on the TV set and squatted in front of it. “I dunno,” he said. “Maybe she already went to work. I’m hungry.”
“She isn’t here?” Ceci asked.
Pablo didn’t answer. When the needles and pins went away enough so Ceci could walk, she limped into Serena’s bedroom. There was no sign of the laundry basket. Hurrying to the back door, she looked outside. The grocery cart wasn’t where it belonged, either. Dismayed, Ceci realized her mother had never come home from the WE-DO-YU-DO Washateria.
Ceci felt sick, but there was no phone in the ‘ house; no way for her to call someone and ask for help. She did the only thing that seemed reasonable tit the time.
“Turn off the cartoons, Pepe,” she said. “Get dressed. We’ve got to get ready for school.”
“You never should have gone out with him in the first place,” Lael Weaver Gastone told her thirty-year-old daughter, Rhonda. “You should have figured out from the very beginning that a guy like that would be trouble, and you certainly shouldn’t have married him.”
Holding her hands in her lap, Rhonda Norton examined her tender fingertips. She was so on edge that she had chewed the nails off all the way down to the quick. “How was I supposed to know that?” she asked, trying her best not to cry.
Lael looked up from the thumbnail sketch she was working on. The bar of pastel stopped scratching on the rough surface of the Sabertooth paper.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Rhonda. How dumb can you be?” Lad demanded. “If a married professor starts dating an unmarried undergraduate, you can pretty well figure the man’s a jackass. And so’s the girl for that matter.”
Rhonda Weaver Norton’s cheeks reddened with anger. The tears retreated. “Thanks, Mom,” she plaid. “I always know I can count on you for sympathy.”
“You can always count on me for a straight answer,” Lael corrected. “Now tell me, why exactly are you here?”
Rhonda looked around the spacious, well-lit studio her stepfather, Jean Paul Gastone, had built as a place for his lovely new wife to pursue her artistic endeavors. Rhonda interpreted that cluttered but isolated work space as an act of self-serving generosity on Jean Paul’s part. Lael had always been messy. If nothing else, the physical separation of the studio from the main house would help keep most of that mess localized. That way the main house—a breathtakingly cantilevered mountaintop mansion—could continue to look picture-perfect, as it the photographers from House Beautiful or Architectural Digest were due at any moment.
The place where Lael and Jean Paul lived now was a far cry from the way Rhonda and her mother had lived when Rhonda was a child. She and the free-spirited, starving artist Lael Weaver had lived a nomadic existence that took them from place to place, from drafty furnished rooms to countless roach-infested apartments. This million-dollar-plus architectural wonder was perched on a steep hill-side overlooking one of Sedona, Arizona’s, most photographed red-rocked cliffs. The fourteen-foot floor-to-ceiling windows offered a clear and unobstructed view.
All the furnishings in both the house and studio had been tastefully chosen by someone with an eye for beauty. Rhonda didn’t have to look at any of the labels to know that all the assembled pieces were name brand, as were the clothes on her mother’s back. That was far different from the past as well. Rhonda had spent her school years living with the daily humiliation of wearing the second-hand clothing her mother had bought at thrift stores and rummage sales. She had endured the steady taunts from other children who somehow knew she ate the free lunches offered at school. And she recalled all too well how embarrassed she had been every time her mother sent her to the grocery store with a fistful of food stamps instead of money.
Lael’s life had taken a definite turn for the better. In the last few years, her oddball pastels had finally started to sell. She had met Jean Paul Gastone at a gallery opening when he had stopped by to say how much he admired her work. Now they were married—seemingly happily—and living a gracious and beautiful life together. Rhonda couldn’t help envying the idea of her mother living happily ever after. Too bad things hadn’t worked out nearly that well for Lael’s daughter.
In the course of a long, lingering silence, Lael returned to her sketch. With nothing more to say, Rhonda once more examined the room. She realized with a start that her mother’s studio—that one room, not counting either the private bath or the convenient kitchenette that had been built off to one side—was larger than her entire studio apartment.
She had moved into that god-awful, low-life complex only two days earlier. Already she hated it. But she had come face-to-face with stark economic reality. Rhonda Norton was a newly separated, unemployed woman, with no recent work history and only marginally salable skills. Her university work was sixteen credits shy of a bachelor’s degree with a major in American history, a curriculum that didn’t have much going for it in the world of business. As a consequence, that tiny upstairs apartment facing directly into the afternoon sun was all she could afford. In fact, it was more than she could afford.
Confronted with the obvious dichotomy between her mother’s newfound wealth and her own new-found poverty, Rhonda Norton felt doubly impoverished. And defeated. It would have been easy to give up, to make like Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, and say to all the world, “I will fight no more forever.”
“Well?” Lael prompted impatiently, dragging Rhonda back to the present and to the real issue at hand.
She dropped her eyes once more. “I’m afraid,” she said softly.
“Afraid of what?”
Rhonda dreaded saying the words aloud, especially since she didn’t think her mother had ever been afraid of anything in her whole life. As far as Rhonda was concerned, Lael had always seemed as brave and daring as the brilliant greens, blues, and reds she was swiftly daubing onto the paper.
“Afraid of what?” Lael asked again.
“Of him,” Rhonda answered. “Of Dean. He threatened me. He told me that if I went through’ with the divorce, he’d see me in hell before he’d pay me a single dime of alimony or give me a property settlement.”
“Oh, hell,” Lael said. “The man’s just pissed because he got passed over for department head and then they shipped him off to that other campus, wherever that is.”
“The ASU West campus is on Thunderbird, Mom,” Rhonda returned quietly. “But he’s not bluffing. He means it. He won’t give me a dime.”
Lael Weaver Gastone was incensed. “If it’s the money, don’t worry about it. He’s bluffing. Jean Paul and I could always help out if it came to that, but it won’t. You’ll see. The courts will make him pay.”
But Rhonda was no longer looking at her mother. She had dropped her gaze once more. “It’s not just the money, Mom. I don’t care about that.” She took a deep breath. “I’m afraid he’ll kill me, Mom.” She paused and bit her lip. “He hits me sometimes,” she added almost in a whisper.
“He what?” Lael asked. “I can’t hear you if you don’t speak up.”
“He hits me,” Rhonda repeated raggedly. “Hard.” A single tear leaked from her eye and slipped down her cheek. “And he told me the other day when I was packing that he’d kill me if I go through with it—with getting a divorce.”
Slowly, without looking directly at her mother’s ace, Rhonda Weaver Norton unbuttoned the top three buttons of her cardigan sweater; then she slipped the soft knit material down over her shoulder. Under the sweater her bare shoulder and back were discolored by a mass of green-and-purple bruises. Lael gas
“You let him do this to you?” she demanded. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
Blushing furiously, Rhonda pulled her sweater back up. “The first two times he promised he’d never do it again, so I dropped the charges. This time I haven’t... not yet.”
Lael tossed the piece of blue pastel in the general direction of her box, then slammed the lid shut. “And you’re not going to, either. Come on. We’ll to talk to Jean Paul. He’ll know what to do.”
He waited until midnight. Not that midnight had any special significance, other than the fact that it was the time of day he liked best—the time when he felt most at home.
He thought about what he was doing as a bridge—a ritual bridge—between the past and the future, between the women who had already died and the ones who soon would. Although he didn’t think of himself as particularly superstitious, he always performed the midnight ceremony in exactly the same way, starting with closing all the blinds. Only when they were all safely closed did he light the candle.
Once upon a time, he had used incense, but his damn fool of a landlady in Sacramento had reported him to the cops. She had turned him in because she thought he was smoking dope in her precious downstairs apartment. That was right after Lois Hart, and he was nervous as hell. When the young cop showed up on the doorstep and knocked on his door, he’d been so scared that he almost peed his pants. He’d managed to talk his way out of that one—barely—but he’d also learned his lesson. No more incense. From that day on, he’ used only candles.
As the wick of the scented candle caught fire, he breathed in the sweet, cinnamon scent. He preferred cinnamon over all the others because they always reminded him of his grandmother’s freshly baked pumpkin pies. Cinnamon candles were easy to come by during the holidays, and he usually stocked up so he wouldn’t run out during the rest of the year.
After setting the burning candle in the center of his kitchen table, he went around the whole house and switched off all the other lights. Turning off the lights slowly, one by one, always added to his sense of anticipation. He liked finishing his preparations in darkened rooms with the only light coming from the flickering glow of a single candle. Everybody always said candlelight made things more romantic. No argument there.