Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 20, 2011
AT EASE in his comfortable North Valley home, Pierce brushed his chin with a palm, raising the irritating rasp of a five-o’clock shadow. The house lay silent, disturbed only by his knocking around in the den and the ticktock of the ornate wind-up clock resting on the mantelpiece. Overhead lights off, a reading lamp cast a soft pool of light, rescuing the room from darkness. He longed for the mellow smell of pipe tobacco, but he’d given up the vice last winter after a suspected TIA, a transient ischemic something or other.
Ensconced in his favorite recliner, he picked up a book from the coffee table and inspected it closely. His latest novel. His third. Just delivered from the publisher this morning. In a rare moment of brutal honesty, he silently admitted the most impressive thing on the cover was his name: John Pierce Belhaven. A good cognomen for an author, it rolled off the tongue and lent gravitas to the banal title Macabre Desserts. Although too egotistical to confess being a hack, in moments such as this he silently acknowledged he was no James Lee Burke. Whenever he attempted the Louisiana writer’s soaring, poetic passages, they ended up as muddy puddles of worthless ink. What was Elmore Leonard’s rule number ten? Leave out the parts nobody wants to read.
His next book would be the bleeding edge… as the younger set would say. And they would be right. His best writing to date. Possibly his signature work. A mystery like the others, the plot taking shape in his brain solved a real puzzle. One that had plagued Albuquerque for years. A scandal involving the theft of millions and the death of a respected attorney. A mystery only he could solve because he had a leg up on the competition. Years ago in his capacity as a utility company executive, he’d uncovered a crucial clue but hadn’t understood its significance until he researched this new book. He drew a deep breath as if pulling on a forbidden meerschaum. This new work would carry him from humdrum to bestseller. And his interview with Wilma Hardesty on KALB-TV—aired that very afternoon—put the world on notice he was reopening the moribund Voxlightner case with a hard-hitting exposé leading directly to the killer. All it would take was a little more investigating. Connect a few more dots, and he would be able to cut the Gordian knot.
He reached for a tumbler resting on the lamp table beside his chair and inhaled the rich aroma of Ballechin single malt before savoring its smooth, nutty, slightly honeyed taste. This new book he was laboring over would set them on their ears down at SouthWest Writers, make them sit up and take notice. He would rigorously guard against going pedantic, one of his weaknesses. Solid prose and startling action. That was the approach for this budding masterpiece. He quelled an urge to rush to his office on the other side of the house to riffle through the growing file of research on the case.
A noise from the garage brought him out of his chair. He glanced at the clock. Ten thirty-four. Who could that be at this time of night? Melanie? He shook his head. His daughter was home in Grants with her odious husband. Nor would his estranged son Harrison deign to show up at his door, probably not even to pick up his inheritance, should Pierce condescend to leave him one.
He placed his new book on the coffee table and walked to the interior garage door. As he arrived the gas-powered lawn mower roared to life.
What the hell? John Pierce Belhaven twisted the knob and stepped from his kitchen into hell.
IF THIS was the year of the Arab Spring, this morning’s Albuquerque Journal neglected to mention it. The international lead story—above the fold—reported the bombing of the government quarter in Oslo and the subsequent murder by gunfire of sixty-nine youth activists of the Labour Party by a native Norwegian terrorist.
The below-the-fold story told of the death of local author John Pierce Belhaven in a garage fire mere blocks from my home. What snagged my attention was that the terrorist attack in Norway took place today, well today Norwegian time. The local tragedy occurred two nights ago local time. Our paper reported foreign events faster than local ones.
Paul strode into the kitchen where I sat at the table, munching an english muffin slathered with cream cheese and dusted with ground black pepper. He brought with him the aroma of his shower. He was using a new aftershave lotion…. Axe, possibly.
He halted at the sight of me. “Whoa, Vince, I was gonna fix omelets.”
The rest of the world called me BJ. This young man, my companion and the love of my life, preferred Vince, a pet name derived from my family moniker of Vinson.
“My stomach wouldn’t wait. By the way I know why we heard all those sirens Wednesday night. Garage fire down the street.”
I checked the news article. “Forty-eight eighteen.”
“I’ll admit you’re more neighborly than I am, but how do you know who lives four blocks down the street?”
A minute later he plopped a bowl of instant oatmeal on the table, apparently abandoning the idea of an omelet. “I know him from SouthWest Writers.”
Paul joined the professional writing association a year ago when he got his master’s in journalism from the University of New Mexico and decided a membership would provide him some valuable contacts. He was probably right, although I never considered journalism as writing until he pointed out that’s exactly what it was.
“Can I see the article when you’re finished?” he asked.
After I commandeered the sports section and handed over the rest, his voice startled me out of a story about the Lobo baseball team.
“This can’t be right.”
“Uh.” I refused to be distracted.
“Vince.” He shoved the newspaper in front of me. “I didn’t know Belhaven well, but I know one thing for sure. He wouldn’t repair his lawn mower. He’d have the kid who mowed his lawn do it or else buy a new mower.” He paused. “The rest sounds right. Belhaven would probably spill gas all over himself and somehow manage to light it up. But I’m telling you… he’d never even try it.”
“A klutz, huh?”
Paul nodded. “You could say that.”
“I’ll tell you what I can’t believe. This happened two days ago, and Mrs. Wardlow hasn’t broadcast the gory details all over the neighborhood.”
Gertrude Wardlow, the septuagenarian widow living across the street, was a retired DEA agent and the grande dame of our local neighborhood watch. But I had no gripes coming. She’d saved my bacon a couple of times when suspects tried to bring grievances to my home. More importantly she’d warned me Paul was in trouble when a gang kidnapped him a few years back.
“Can I assume you smell a story?” I asked.
“I smell a rat. But you’re right, I’m going to look into it. Who do you know in the fire department?”
I gave Paul the name of the AFD Arson Squad commander I’d worked with a couple of times. “And you can call Gene Enriquez if you want to know if there’s a police case working.”
“You call Lieutenant Enriquez, okay? He’ll talk to you. You’re the confidential investigator, not me.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Way I figure it, an investigating journalist is simply a confidential investigator without a license.”
Gene, my old riding partner at APD, oversaw homicide. I needed to touch base with him anyway. The powers that be kept threatening to promote him, but he didn’t want to become an administrator. Such a move would put him out of the “action,” he claimed. The last time I talked to him, he was seriously considering retirement.
I PARKED my white ’98 Impala in my reserved spot in the lot at Fifth and Tijeras on Monday morning and took the back stairway to my third-floor office. As usual, I paused a moment to look down on the open atrium hollowing out the core of the office building before pushing through the door labeled Vinson and Weeks, Confidential Investigations. I’d taken the time to stop by the North Valley Country Club for pool therapy before driving downtown to the office. In May of ’04—while I was still an APD detective—I exchanged gunfire with a suspected murderer during an arrest attempt. I got him in the head; he nailed me in the right thigh. Ever since that event, I hit the water now and then to keep the leg from stiffening. Swimming was also how I kept my thirty-nine-year-old carcass reasonably fit. I’d first met Paul poolside while doing my therapy. He’d worked as a lifeguard to put himself through college.
Hazel Harris Weeks, the office manager and a key cog in our organization, sat at her desk performing some of her magic on the internet when I came in. A whiz at locating people electronically, she was my late mom’s best friend and now my business partner’s wife.
She glanced up. “Gene called. Mayor’s office and an assistant DA phoned. Slips are on your desk.”
“What does the mayor want?”
“Didn’t deign to impart that information. ADA wants to arrange for you to testify in the Haggens embezzlement case.”
“Charlie?” I asked.
“Police station picking up a couple of jackets.” She meant her husband was at APD Records picking up info on either clients or adversaries.
I sighed and walked into my private office. I could get a lot more done if I didn’t have to drop everything and testify in court. That had been my lament from the time I was a Marine MP, lo those many years ago. Some things never change.
I knew what the mayor wanted. There was a vacancy on the civilian police oversight board, and he was considering appointing me. Ambivalent about the situation, I was in no hurry to talk to him. To sit in judgment of people I’d served with—even though that was six years in the rearview mirror—didn’t seem appropriate. On the other hand, as an ex-cop, I understood the life they lived minute by minute every day. Something else I needed to check with Gene.
Ignoring the mayor’s call, I scheduled my testimony on the embezzlement case with the ADA before dialing Gene’s private number. Our phone conversations, although increasingly rare, followed a pattern. Brusque greetings and catching up on domestic affairs before getting down to business. Given Gene’s family of five children, most afflicted with the dreaded teenage condition, he talked a lot more than I did. Today was no different. After he filled me in on Glenda and the brood, I brought him up to date with news of Paul and me. Once everything was covered, I asked if there was a police investigation of the Belhaven death.
“You mean the writer toasted in his garage? Why? Should there be?”
“You know the answer to that better than I do, but Paul’s convinced something’s funny. Claims Belhaven wouldn’t have attempted to repair a lawn mower or anything else. He wasn’t a hands-on type of guy.”
“We’ve had that feedback too.”
“So you’re looking into the death?”
“Like usual, we’re satisfying ourselves everything’s on the up and up… unless the medical investigator declares it an accidental death.”
“Paul wants to write a story on it.”
“Have him touch base with a detective named Roy Guerra. He’s handling it for us.”
I NO sooner left a message on Paul’s voicemail providing him Detective Guerra’s name and contact information than Hazel waylaid me with a background check on a Dallas man being considered for an executive position by a local mortgage firm. That would take the rest of the day and half of my tomorrow, but this was the bread and butter of our business. Novels and films romanticizing the lives of PIs—as they called us—were so far off base as to be laughable. Still, the vocation pleased me. I nursed no inclination to bail on the agency and live off the Microsoft-spawned trust fund my schoolteacher parents thoughtfully left me.
Midafternoon I heard Paul’s familiar voice in the outer office. Hazel’s delighted rejoinder hinted I might be relieved of my current task, at least momentarily. My office manager-cum-surrogate mother—although totally perplexed by my gay life—nonetheless loved Paul as much as she did me. After a hug and a once-over from Hazel, he came through the doorway to invade my private space, and a welcome incursion it was. I never tired of looking on his handsome features.
“Hi. Am I interrupting anything?”
“Nothing uninterruptable,” I quipped. “Come on in.”
“I talked to Detective Guerra. We’re meeting here later, if that’s okay. Thanks for getting the contact for me.”
“Pleased to do it. What did he say?”
“He has reservations about Belhaven’s death, and I added to them.”
“Couple. I found out Pierce was interviewed on TV the afternoon he died. The interviewer quizzed him about his new book, and his answers might have cost him his life.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked as we moved to the conference table in the corner of my office.
“He writes—or wrote—mysteries. Fiction. But according to the interview, his next book was going to be based on an actual event. Do you remember the Voxlightner blowup a few years ago?”
I nodded. “A big scandal. I was still at APD, so it was probably late 2003 or early ’04.”
Paul flipped out a notebook and clicked his ballpoint pen. “What do you remember about it?”
“Gene and I weren’t assigned the case, so I just remember bits and pieces. One of the local lights, a guy named Barron Voxlightner, and a fellow named Stabler found acres and acres of mine tailings in Arizona that tested positive for commercial grade silver and gold. All they needed to do was extract the precious metals and sell them.”
“Sounds like a sure thing,” he said.
“That’s what everybody thought. The whole town wanted a piece of the action. The money poured in. People went crazy.”
Paul checked his notes. “I take it they formed a company called Voxlightner Precious Metals Recovery to do the project.”
“Right. They took VPMR—as it became known—public and raised fifty million.”
“That’s a lot of dough.”
“Absolutely. And yet the bottom fell out within six months. It turned out the tests were rigged. The tailings were worthless. But before the hammer fell, Voxlightner and Stabler vanished, and the lawyer exposing the fraud was murdered. The thing was never solved.”
Paul’s face assumed a thoughtful look. “When I was a kid, I thought anyone called Voxlightner was royalty.”
“The patriarch of the family, a man named Marshall Voxlightner, was a bigger-than-life legend. An oilman from Hobbs, he moved to Albuquerque and built a big place in the Ridgecrest neighborhood after he retired.”
“Yeah, they call it the Castle. I remember reading the guy set up a charitable trust after he retired. Named it after himself and his wife. The Marshall and Dorothy Wellbourne Voxlightner Charitable Foundation.”
“They’re both dead now,” I said.
Paul had done some research. “He is, but she’s still kicking. Lives at Voxlightner Castle. Reclusive, they say.”
“You know the family history better than I do. Did they have other children?”
He consulted his notes. “Just a daughter named Lucinda. She married a Virginia real estate developer and lives back east.”
“So there aren’t too many Voxlightners running around New Mexico,” I said.
“Unless you include Pierce Belhaven. His mother was a Voxlightner… as was his wife, a distant cousin. She died in 2006 of lung cancer.”
Hazel stuck her head in the door, her flinty gray eyes softening as they settled on my companion. “There’s a Detective Roy Guerra out here asking for Paul.”
Paul looked at me. “We can use the conference room if you’re busy.”
“You’ve got me curious. Show him in, Hazel.”
A stereotypical South Valley boy strutted through the doorway. Five nine, around one seventy-five, black eyes, black hair. I knew without being told he was bright, brash, and a womanizer to his core. I pegged him at about thirty, a year older than when I made detective.
He clasped my hand without waiting for an introduction. “Hi ya, Mr. Vinson. Heard lots about you from the lieutenant. You’ve got a rep around the station.”
I couldn’t help responding to his grin. “Probably a rep for getting my ass shot off.”
“But you got him,” he said.
I assumed he referred to my murder suspect shootout. “But it shouldn’t have happened.”
The impish grin grew. “If it hadn’t, I wonder who’d be running homicide now, you or Lieutenant Enriquez?”
I came right back at him. “The lieutenant. He’s a better cop.”
“For one thing, he didn’t let himself get shot.”
Roy laughed. “I guess he didn’t.” He turned to Paul and offered a hand. “Hi, guy. I take it you’re Paul. Always good to have a face to go with a telephone voice. We gonna hash this over with Mr. Vinson, huh? That’s aces, man. Get another viewpoint.”
“BJ,” I said. “Call me BJ.”
“Okay, I’m Roy.”
He took a seat with us at the small table in my private office and went over what he knew of the death of Pierce Belhaven. The author was found dead in his charred garage when a neighbor saw flames and called the fire department. It appeared Belhaven had been repairing his gasoline-powered lawn mower. Somehow he’d gotten himself covered in gasoline, which inexplicably caught fire and roasted him. The mower was close to the pilot light of the water heater in the garage. When Roy finished I asked if he bought the accidental death theory.
“I’m acluistic at this point, but I have my doubts. From all I can find out, the old boy wouldn’t have picked up a wrench. Hell, he wouldn’t even have picked up the gas can. And why do it at ten thirty at night?”
“Ten thirty’s a pretty specific time fix,” I said.
“That’s about the time the neighbor reported it. And the fire hadn’t really got started good.”
“Just enough to fricassee Pierce,” Paul added.
“Anyone else in the house?” I asked.
“No one,” Roy answered. “But a crapload of people have keys and the code to the alarm system. Harrison—the son—was estranged, but Melanie—the daughter—was on speaking terms with him. She’s married and lives in Grants.”
“An estranged son, and he still has keys? How estranged?”
Paul answered. “Pierce wouldn’t talk about it much, but the way I got it was they fell out when Pierce put a stop to his marrying a girl back in high school. His son was of age, but the girl wasn’t. The girl got so despondent her folks moved away.”
“How old is Harrison?”
Roy waggled a hand back and forth. “Thirty-seven, thirty-eight.”
“That’s a long time to hold a grudge,” I said.
Roy lifted his shoulders in a lazy shrug. “Some folks hang on to their grudges better’n they do their pocketbooks. Harrison got caught in the Voxlightner scandal. Wiped him out, I understand.”
“How was he involved?” I asked.
“Wasn’t an insider,” Roy said. “But he was close enough to get on the list of initial investors. Put everything he owned in the company.”
“That scam ruined some pretty prominent people,” I said.
“Maybe it was more than busting up a romance. Harrison mighta blamed his father for an investment gone bad,” Roy suggested.
Paul stepped up to answer. “Could be. Pierce told me he made sure his son was able to get in on the initial offering. Mending fences, you know. Harrison took a bigger bite than he should have, and it backfired. Big-time.”
I settled more comfortably in my chair. “The fact we’re talking about an old scandal instead of Pierce Belhaven’s murder must be because you believe there’s a connection. But tell me something, Roy. Why are you willing to discuss an ongoing police investigation with us?”
“The lieutenant says you’re solid. So why not bring in a couple more viewpoints? You’re an experienced investigator, and Paul’s a dedicated snoop. Plus he’s promised not to publish anything without my okay first.”
I shook my head. “That doesn’t wash. You have a whole department backing you up on this.”
The detective flashed a smile. He knew how to use his facial muscles. “Okay, I’ll level. I just made detective a few months ago, and this case could be a hot potato. Noted author pokes a stick in a beehive and winds up murdered. It’s a natural, and I’m hell-bent on breaking it.”
“How about your partner?”
“I don’t have one right now. They’ll team me with someone sooner or later, but I’d like to add a feather to my coup stick before that happens.”
His remark made me reconsider my South Valley categorization. Maybe he had a little native blood running around in his veins too.
“Tell me about Belhaven’s family,” I said. “I remember reading he was a widower. Did he live alone?”
Roy answered that one. “Lived alone but had arm candy… you know, a lover. Sometimes live-in. Sometimes not.”
“Who is it?”
“What’s her story?” I asked.
Roy raised his chin and studied the ceiling as he recited his files from memory. “Hails from Bisbee, Arizona. Supposedly there visiting her family the night Belhaven bought it. She’s around thirty but still taking courses at UNM. School’s what brought her up here, apparently. She does… uh, did secretarial and research work for Belhaven. That’s how they met about six years ago. She answered an ad and landed the job.”
“What makes you think she was his sweetheart?”
“He made it clear,” Paul said. “Even brought her to some SWW meetings. Stuck to him like Velcro.”
“You said she’s thirty. How old was he?”
“Sixty,” Roy said. “A May-December thing. We aren’t done looking into his finances, but it’s pretty clear he was her sole means of support.”
“Anybody else in the household?”
“Not the immediate household, but there’s a yard boy, I guess you’d call him,” Roy said. “Spencer Spears takes care of the grounds. The Belhaven place occupies two lots, so there’s a lot of greenery to be tended.”
“He’d be the one to repair a mower,” Paul put in. “Not Pierce.”
“Tell me about him.”
Roy rubbed his head with the knuckles of his right hand. “Not much to tell. He goes to school part-time. Central New Mexico. Slow-walking a degree in landscaping, I gather. Twenty-seven, single, but they say he’s got women hanging all over him.” His mouth turned down in a frown. “He’s got an assitude.”
“Which CNM campus?”
Roy thumbed through his notes. “Montoya Campus on Morris NE.”
“What’s his background? Does he have a sheet?”
“He’s a local boy. Only sheet’s a juvie. Sealed. But old-timers remember it as a fistfight between him and another guy. Probably got dressed down by a judge and let go.”
“Where was he the night of Belhaven’s death?”
“Jiving at a sports bar. Got there around eight. The thing broke up at closing.”
I thought for a minute, all the while watching Paul’s eager face. This case was important to him, which made my decision easy. “Roy, do you mind if Paul and I look into this Belhaven death? We’ll keep you posted on anything we find.”
Roy beamed. “Go for it. I’ll share what I can.”
Hazel wasn’t going to like me taking one more case that didn’t pay its own way. In fact when I told her to open a file, her first question was “Who’s the client?”