TWO MEN gazed down at the sleeping youth sprawled across the mattress. The older, his pleasant features blemished by a glint of cruelty in his dark eyes, smoothed silver wings of luxuriant hair at his temples before handing over a number of $100 bills to a young Hispanic almost as handsome as the boy on the bed.
Now fully clothed, Silver Wings exuded the authority of a player, of someone who counted. “Fucking beautiful. How old did you say he is?”
“Eighteen. Barely. Know that’s older’n you usually like. But he’s a rare one, no? As linda as a woman and as macho as a man. He took care of you, huh?”
Silver Wings rubbed his eyes as if remembering the last hour. “Fantastic. Must have worn himself out. Does he usually go comatose?”
“Ah, that is the drug. He claims he gets a bigger bang by charging up. But you benefit as well, no?” He eyed his companion. “He is yours for $25,000.”
Interest flickered and died. “Tempting. But my household isn’t set up for that kind of arrangement. I prefer to call when I feel the need. Even if that means sharing him.”
“You don’t take him, then we move him south.”
“South? To Mexico, you mean? Juárez?” That wouldn’t be too bad. El Paso was a short hop, and Juárez lay just across the border.
“At first, but then we gonna trade him up.”
Silver Wings understood the human trafficking language of trading up, but it was unusual to move members of the “family” out of country these days. “In Juárez? Sounds more like trading him down.”
“¡Órale! There’s some big money in Juárez. But a bigwig in the Middle East went apeshit over the kid’s pics. He wants him. And for a lot more than twenty-five. I only give you that price to let you know how much we ’preciate your help.”
“Middle East, huh?” Silver Wings licked his lips. “Put off that transfer while I see if I can work something out.”
“Two days. Then I gotta move him. You know, easier to ship him overseas from Mexico than from the States.”
Silver Wings’ voice hardened. “You can do better than that. Give me a week to reorder my life. I’d like to visit him a couple of times. Usual fee, of course. That gives you reason enough to hold him here.”
“Okay, but not no more’n a week. I got people to answer to, you know.”
“I’d like him again tomorrow night, but it will have to be late. I have a dinner meeting.”
Hispano lowered his head. “As you wish. All you gotta do is call me.”
Silver Wings left the motel reluctantly. What would take place in that room now that they were alone? Just thinking about it raised a bead of sweat on his upper lip.
His mind returned to the offer he had received. The boy was expensive, and the economy was still struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2008… but it was only money.
Monday, August 9, 2010, Albuquerque, New Mexico
I PARKED the Impala in front of my detached single-car garage and sat for a moment trying to figure out the cacophony on the radio. I’d failed to reset the station after Paul and I went for a rare game of weekend golf at the North Valley Country Club. Paul Barton was the sun in my sky, but I still struggled to understand my companion’s taste in music. Now something called “Alejandro” by a gal proclaiming herself to be Lady Gaga committed assault on my classical-music-loving ears. As I switched off the noise and stepped from the car, a high, uncertain voice snagged my attention.
“Yoo-hoo, Mr. Vinson. BJ!”
Mrs. Gertrude Wardlow, the late-afternoon sun catching in wayward strands of her white hair, waved at me from the foot of her driveway. She had lived in the white brick across the street for as long as I could remember. Mrs. W. and her husband, Herb, had been with the Drug Enforcement Administration from the time it was formed in 1973 until their retirement. Some ten years ago, Herb passed on to his reward—an urn on his widow’s mantelpiece. I walked out to meet her in the middle of Post Oak Drive.
“I’m so glad I caught you.” She fiddled with frilly lace at the neck of her lavender blouse. “A man on a Harley has been driving up and down the street. He stopped at your place twice. Rang the bell and then rode off.”
No doubt she was recalling the time when two thugs on another motorcycle attempted to gun me down. When she’d yelled to distract their murderous attention, they shot up the front of her house, scattering her husband all over the carpet.
I touched her shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m not involved in any gang disputes at the moment. Not that I know of, anyway.”
Her smile turned impish. “That was an interesting day, wasn’t it? I just thought you should be aware someone was trying to contact you.”
“Thank you, Mrs. W. I’ll be on the lookout.”
After exchanging pleasantries, we parted. I mounted the steps to my front porch and paused to enjoy the welcoming aroma of tea roses my late mother planted. No evidence of a note on the door or in the mailbox. That meant the mysterious biker would probably return. I went inside and forgot the matter as I removed one of Paul’s casseroles from the fridge and got out a pan of rolls. I enjoyed their yeasty aroma almost as much as I liked their yeasty taste. Our household mantra was Paul Barton, freelance journalist, whips up gourmet meals; B. J. Vinson, former Marine and ex-cop turned confidential investigator, burns toast.
We planned to stay home tonight and watch an episode of a new gumshoe program on the tube called The Glades. Matt Passmore, the guy who played the detective, was a way-cool customer who Paul claimed should be my role model. I’d no sooner set the dishes to heating than a rumble on the street caught my attention. A moment later the doorbell rang.
I turned off the stove and opened the door to reveal a tall raven-haired Navajo with high cheekbones. It took a moment to recognize the good-looking guy. “Henry Secatero, as I live and breathe.”
His deep voice came up out of his nether regions. “Wasn’t sure you’d remember me.”
“How could I forget the guys who helped me solve a case. Is Jazz with you?” His quick frown told me he was about to deliver bad news. “Come on in.”
We settled in the den with a couple of jiggers of Scotch. He laid what appeared to be a sleeve for a laptop computer on the floor beside his chair and took a sip before speaking. “Jazz is gone.”
“Gone?” My hand tightened on the rocks glass halfway to my mouth. That free spirit was too young and lively to be… gone. “You mean—”
“Naw, not bit the dust. Just disappeared. Poof. And that ain’t like Jazz.”
Jasper Penrod, who’d dubbed himself Jazz as soon as he was old enough, was Henry’s mixed-blood half brother. The two helped me solve a case I mentally called the Bisti Business up in the Four Corners area three years ago.
I rubbed my chin, trying to recall what I knew of Jazz’s situation. “Are you sure? Way I understand it, he spends some of his time on the Navajo Reservation and some in Farmington. Hard to keep track of him.”
“Yeah, he bounces around, but he don’t go outa touch for long. He calls me regular-like. If he can’t reach me on my cell, he leaves a message at the chapter house. I didn’t get worried until I saw his uncle Riley in Farmington and found out Jazz hadn’t called him or his mother either. Been three… four weeks since anybody heard from him.”
“Do you have any idea why?”
“Not sure, but this might have something to do with it.” Henry leaned over and picked up the canvas case. He hesitated after pulling out an Acer laptop computer. “Man, I sure hate to show you this.”
My raised eyebrows probably expressed my surprise better than my spoken “Why?”
“You’ll see a Jazz you ain’t seen before. Hell, I ain’t seen before. You gotta understand. Jazz being like he is—you know, gay and all—it’s not easy for him up in Farmington. When he was growing up, he didn’t mind casual… affairs, I guess you’d say. Until he saw what you and Paul had together, he didn’t believe nobody was out there for him. Permanent, I mean.” Sweat formed on Henry’s upper lip, attesting to how hard it was to talk about his brother’s homosexuality.
I called to mind an image of the uncommonly handsome, unabashedly gay, and friendly-as-a-puppy kid I’d come to admire. All his life he maneuvered successfully in an environment of miners and oil field workers normally hostile to his lifestyle, thanks in large part to the aggressive protection provided by Henry; their Navajo father, Louie; and Jazz’s Anglo uncle, Riley.
Henry drew a deep breath and let it out. “Anyway, he started looking for a steady. Someone he could build something with. And there wasn’t nobody in Farmington. Nobody he could attach to, at any rate. Not on the rez neither. He’d try with this guy or that but didn’t find what he was looking for.” Henry gave an insincere laugh. “Jazz looking like he does, lotsa guys you wouldn’t even expect would go with him for a while. Some might even have stuck, but they wasn’t what he was looking for.” Henry’s face twisted in perplexity. “You want the truth? I think he was looking for another you. He really dug you.”
“There was never anything between—”
He waved a hand. “I know. He told me he offered, and you said you already had somebody. That really impressed him. That’s what he was looking for. A guy who’d turn down an offer because they belonged to him.” Henry ran an agitated hand through thick black hair. “Aw, I’m screwing this up. All I’m saying is he was looking for love. Just like I do, but on the other side of the bed.”
“You’re doing fine. Tell me something. What do you really think about your brother being gay? I know you won’t stand for people picking on him, but how do you feel about it down deep?”
“I don’t understand it. I look at a guy—hell, I look at you—and ask myself what would Jazz see?” Henry shrugged. “He’d see mutton stew while I see cactus. Sometimes I sorta understand when I remember that it’s the same as me looking at a woman. At least to him, it is.”
Despite just being called a cactus, I nodded. “Now show me what you came to show me.”
He fired up the laptop and stared at the blank screen as the device went through its booting-up process. “How’d you get his password?” I asked as we waited.
“It’s taped on the back of the computer. Jazz was private… but not secretive, I guess you’d say. I felt like shit going through his stuff,” he added in a low voice. “But I’m glad I did. I found these.”
He handed over the machine. Jazz used aol.com for his email, and Henry went to the Sent section to select a message. “That’s the first one I found. After you read it, scroll up to the next one. Jeez, I need to go for a walk or something while you do that. Okay?”
“Leave the door unlocked. Just come in when you work it off.”
Henry had selected the first email message where his brother responded to a contact from someone named Juan. They apparently connected through a site called nm.lonelyguys.com. Unwilling to switch back and forth between Jazz’s Sent and Trash containers, I searched his My Folders until I spotted one labeled Juan. Upon opening that file, I found messages between the two stretching back about four months and ending five weeks ago, right after they exchanged Skype addresses. The pair started off using Aesopian language, but as time went on, they became more direct.
The first photograph in the email file was a bust shot of Juan showing an attractive, smiling Hispanic on the shy side of thirty with a white blaze in his dark hair. He wore a bright yellow polo shirt. Jazz responded with a photo of himself standing beside the old ’91 Jeep Wrangler ragtop I’d helped him buy during the Bisti case. He wore a pair of walking shorts and a blue sleeveless pullover that clearly showed his six-pack.
Juan responded with a request for a headshot, a close-up to see if he was as “beautiful as he seemed to be.” Jazz’s next photo was a wowser, as I used to say when I was a kid. Jazz qualified as stunningly handsome, and the camera wallowed in it. The half-dozen messages led me right where I feared this was going. Juan’s second photo was shirtless; Jazz matched it. Long before I reached the modest naked and the stark-naked shots, I knew what happened to Jazz Penrod. The internet had swept him into a sex ring. Grateful his brother was out walking off his frustration, I considered my conclusion for a minute before acceptance came. The Jazz I knew was open and honest, and if you couldn’t take him the way he was, he’d write you off. He wasn’t venal. Money had its place, but it wasn’t that important to him.
When Henry returned, I set aside the laptop.
He balked at my conclusion. “No way! Jazz ain’t… whata you call it? Promiscuous. He had sex with guys, but he didn’t spread it all over the place. He wouldn’t go to bed with nobody he didn’t like.”
“Which is why this Juan—probably not his real name—took his time. He reeled Jazz in like a deep-diving trout… playing him and teasing him until he landed him. As soon as Jazz sent his first picture, Juan knew he had a winner. So he played him, feeding him more and more. That’s what the pictures were all about. Getting Jazz to commit deeper and deeper to what he thought was a kindred soul.”
Henry poked a finger at the Acer. “Some of them emails do tell me Jazz was getting to like the guy. When you get to the end of them, you can see where they talked about meeting here in Albuquerque. At someplace called Robinson Park.”
“Then they went to Skype, and we don’t know what they said after that because they were talking face-to-face with cameras and mikes,” I said.
“Where’s Robinson Park?”
“It’s a city park in the southeast section. Lots of big trees. They could sit and talk without being bothered. It looks like he might have come to Albuquerque to meet the guy.”
“That don’t hold water. He wouldn’t go this long without getting in touch with none of us. I’m worried, man.”
I studied Henry. “You know what puzzles me? Jazz once said he wasn’t usually attracted to people who looked like him. You know, black hair, brown eyes.”
“This Juan guy has a big white streak in his hair. Maybe that’s enough to make him different.”
“Maybe. But it’s more likely the butterfly effect.”
“Small things leading to big changes. Juan devoted the time necessary to snag Jazz’s attention. In some of those messages, they talked about what they liked and disliked. But if you noticed, Juan asked, and Jazz answered. And then, of course, Juan liked everything Jazz did. One small step led to another until Jazz finally took the bait and came to Albuquerque.”
Henry bounced out of the chair and stalked the den stiff-legged. “But if it’s what you say, if he’s been tricked into a sex ring, why does he stay? He don’t look all muscled up, but that boy can fight when he wants to. How come he don’t just take to the road?”
He wasn’t going to like my answer, but before I could deliver it, Paul came through the back door and yelled a greeting.