|C O M B A T|
|the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones ™|
|ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2004|
The man's thick, choppy speech reminded me of Governor Jesse Ventura talking. "Who are you?" I asked him again.
"Ortiz," he said. "We last talked — oh, what has it been? — twenty-odd years ago."
I grabbed a wisp of memory. "Ortiz in the MPs? Yeah, Fort Leavenworth. Twenty years. Man, where does the time go? What's up?" Not feeling particularly loquacious, I grasped a paintbrush drying with eggshell white from trim work I'd been doing.
"Aswad just died," he told me. "Remember? Old ass wad?"
"Our sergeant?" I asked. "Where at? How so?"
"Thursday last," said Ortiz. "Iraq, on the outskirts of Baghdad. RPG smashed their Humvee. He and three others burned up inside it. Left as crispy critters."
"Don't you watch CNN? Rocket propelled grenade."
"God damn Saddam." Grinding my molars until my jaws burned, I stood there. A buddy from my Military Police days had been slain in the line of duty. My own mortality seemed threatened a little though I didn't let on to Ortiz. In the next moment, I caught myself wondering why anyone with a lick of sense would enlist in the service for so damn long. Didn't the Pentagon ever retire its career non-coms?
"His burial is at Arlington," said Ortiz. "Ain't that located in your neck of the woods?"
I didn't have to be too brainy to know where this conversation was headed. It didn't bug me, though. How could I refuse an old MP crony? Painting my doublewide trailer's interior didn't rank as a high priority. "Come crash at my place," I invited him. "It's a trailer in a kempt park on the high lip of a phosphate quarry. But you've bunked in less elegant quarters, right?"
"Where are you?" Ortiz asked.
"Fire up your PC and mapquest Pelham, Virginia," I said. "Trailer park is north of town, one mile. When you get here, buzz me from the manager's office up front."
Ortiz laughed. "Afraid I'll drive in and fall into the quarry?"
"No more than those drunks on their ATVs playing chicken," I said. "You still in the MPs, by chance?"
"No-no. I took a retirement a few years back," said Ortiz. "These days I drive a hearse for a local funeral home."
The irony prompted me to quip: "You'll be right at home in Arlington."
"Sad to say, I've never warmed up to the idea of death," Ortiz said all serious. "Especially my own." That surprising existential response threw me for a loop until he added: "Frank, I hate to ask this but I need a favor, too."
"Sure, I do lots of folks lots of favors," I said in an expansive way. "Name yours."
"Over the phone is a bad idea," he said. "One question before I let you go: on that detective deal, are you still in the ring?"
"My license is valid," was my hesitant reply.
"Excellent. We'll knock around old times later. It'll be great."
Holding a dead cell phone in my right hand and a near dried paint brush in my left, I had a crazy thought wondering how much a hearse driver pulled down in a week. Exploring alternate career paths always interested me, even conveying dead people to their final resting places.
The trailer park manager rang me up a few hours later. Ortiz was here. I hopped into my Prizm and drove out to his ramshackle office.
Outside, Ortiz was slouched against a green picnic table. My oblique glance took in the scene. His belt size had expanded eight or so inches but who among us still had our boyish figure? His buzz cut was a clever means not to display much gray but the willow smoke aviator shades were flat out silly.
Waving, I motioned him with my hand through the windshield. He bent over, picked up a carry-on airline bag, and sauntered to the Prizm. The first words out of my mouth when he climbed into the passenger seat and gripped my hand to shake were: "Ortiz, you look like an extra out of Highway Patrol."
"I own all the episodes, too," he said. "On DVD. A geeky kid I know downloads all that media shit off the Internet. All for free, too."
"Kids today are wise beyond their years," I said, layering on sarcasm. "Case in point: that white rap star, Enema."
"Isn't it pronounced Eminem?"
"Whatever," I said. "Will he ever grow up and quit with his whining?"
Ortiz grinned. "His chances, I bet, are better than yours."
"Okay, let's drop it. So, you didn't pack a suit or uniform?" I wryly observed.
Ortiz: "Nope, I can't bring myself to dress up. My day job sticks me in a three-piece monkey suit. I hate every minute of it, too. Hate it. Aswad was a casual operator."
"Back at Leavenworth, he was," I agreed. The Prizm padded up and over a speed hump, one of a slew slabbed across our skinny fairways to enforce the 10 mph max limit. "I've never strolled through Arlington Cemetery. Have you?"
"Once many, many moons ago," said Ortiz. "I visited JFK's grave. It's a grim place. Grim."
"What's it like to chauffeur around loaded coffins?" I had to ask him.
He put on a thin grin. "I don't get a lot of lip about it. In truth, I seldom ruminate about it. On hot stultifying days the formaldehyde fumes give me vertigo. Sucking on sourballs makes my ears pop and that helps. The week after Christmas was a bitch. Dopes with a suicidal bent were inconsiderate enough to shoot out their brains. I did two, sometimes three wakes a day."
"Well, I'm wearing a suit to Aswad's ceremony tomorrow."
"Suit yourself," said Ortiz. When I didn't smile at his shabby pun, he slid off the retro-aviator shades to expose red-veined snuff-colored eyes. He'd been crying or drinking or both really hard.
The next day at Arlington Cemetery temperatures never climbed out of the teens. Walking from the Prizm across crisp frozen grass, we joined the set-faced clan huddled underneath a funeral canopy. Sergeant Aswad's coffin was a baroque brass urn centered on green felt cladding a cafeteria table. The Army, footing the bill, had incinerated his already half-charred corpse. Ortiz at my elbow muttered: "They sure went all out for his send-off, huh?"
It was cold. Shudders clanged my ribs off my spine bone. The red wool sweater under my navy blue dress jacket proved a joke. Going hatless, the only two there like that, was supremely stupid. We stood there resisting the temptation to stamp our feet and promote circulation.
A short man built as a walrus without the tusks in a chaplain's attire waltzed to the rostrum. His platitudes bored me enough to stare off and size up the visible flank to the Pentagon. It was monolithic, sooty gray, and ugly. I'd worked out of its bowels for a three-week security detail on a Black Project, something real hush-hush about developing anthrax antidotes. After my stint was up, I caught a cargo plane back to Leavenworth but not before I was briefed to never speak of what I'd done. Sometimes the Federal Government got too paranoid for its own good.
Taps was tooted on one of those high-tech bugles with the audio file chip embedded in it. I could have played it. While the twenty-one gun salute was fired, goose bumps crawled up my back. A tight knot tied up in my throat. I recognized it to be patriotism and liked feeling it.
Only a young girl of about fifteen was crying for real. For what it was worth, my heart poured all of its sorrow of the sorry day on her. Even with her back to me and slim hands with long fingers over her face, I sensed an elegance and beauty about her.
Ortiz read my thoughts. "That's Melissa," he said in a low growl. "She was Sergeant Aswad's daughter. He became a dad a little late in life. Her mom's dead. A drunk center-punched her car."
"Christ," I said. "How old is Melissa?"
"Fifteen," said Ortiz. "She looks like she's eighteen or nineteen, though."
With nothing better to say, I wondered: "Who's in charge of her life?"
"Well, Frank, that sort of segues into the favor I was telling you about over the phone," said Ortiz.
A fist of fear socked the bottom out of my guts. "You're looking at me for adoption material?" I gushed out.
Snorting in disbelief, Ortiz said, "Hardly. She's already got a foster dad. Me."
Embarrassment and relief hit me making for what must have been a funny look on my face. "Wait up a second until they're out of earshot," I said as the funeral-goers filed out. "Now, spill what you want from me."
We watched the procession marching to the mausoleum to seal up Sergeant Aswad's mortal remains for all eternity and a day.
"It's simple and straightforward," said Ortiz.
"Well, right now from where I am, it's clear as mud," I said.
"Melissa has been staying with my sister. She lives on Braddock Road. I didn't lay out everything to you about her mom's death. After the smashup, the drunk driver got up apparently unhurt and bolted for the border. Police have his name from the license plate and prints they lifted off the steering wheel."
Again, I didn't have to be too brainy to anticipate his thinking. "Except they haven't seen hide nor hair of him and you figure that I can go tree him."
"Is that difficult to do?" asked Ortiz. "I've got a little in savings — thank God for a 401(k)'s. Payment for your services is covered. Look. The Aswad girl is devastated by this — well, there's no other words for it — this double whammy. She's an orphan now. We're at our wits end over what to do for Melissa. I mean she sits and cries night and day. My admittedly convoluted hope is maybe catching her mother's killer might provide her some comforting closure."
I didn't know if Aswad intended to, but he'd needled a major nerve in me. My parents had been killed in a similar pile-up. At seven years old, I'd been even younger than Melissa. Rattling through the figures, I gave him my daily rate plus expense before tacking on: "My only condition is she, I'm talking about Melissa, can never know about my involvement. Tell her the police snagged this drunk."
Ortiz shrugged. "Sure, no problem there. Any particular reason?"
"Only that I have my reasons," I said, wondering what the hell they were.
What Ortiz evident turned over to me was slim. A brief at-the-scene police investigative report and an even curter clipping from The Washington Post's crime column. Mrs. Aswad, 43, had been T-boned by the drunk blowing through the red traffic light at Braddock and Guinea Roads in Annandale. She'd been on Braddock, he on Guinea. Time: midnight give or take a few minutes. The weather: cold, crisp, and dark. I shivered at mental images of the wreck.
My morose mood didn't lift after I drove out to the intersection. A makeshift memorial had been erected at the Stop sign. Wilted daisies and weather-corroded portraits of three other victims. I pulled into an empty Methodist Church parking lot and climbed out. Traffic was a continuous stream as I walked against it on the low unpaved gravel shoulder.
Pinched, pale faces above steering wheels had a tunnel vision. Many mopes had a cell phone glued to their mouths and ears. They were far worse than the drunks behind the wheel. Stumble in their pathway and it was too bad for you. Once I reached the intersection, the brassy thrush of traffic filling my ears, I clamped shut my eyelids. No pictures materialized, no leads unfolded. For a scary moment I was lost at sea, baffled where to even start.
I decided to get back to basics. Murder Investigation 101. First rule out the family as suspects. That pointed me at Ortiz only he wasn't wise to it. Hoofing it back to the Prizm, I tripped on a chunky rock and, don't ask me how, managed to hyperextend my right knee. Hobbling while cursing, I fell into the driver's seat. The cell phone had numbers programmed in its memory. One was for Lance Newton, my best conduit back to Fort Leavenworth.
"Yeah, I wanted to attend Sarge's service," said Lance. "We're a little overextended at the moment. Afghanistan, Iraq."
"A little," I agreed. "Tell me about Ortiz."
Lance made a disdainful noise. "What do you wanna know about him?"
"His drinking habits."
"Ortiz swims in alcohol," Lance revealed. "His liver is pickled in it."
We exchanged a few more pleasantries but I had what I needed. It was dynamite, too.
Next I beat hasty tracks over to the Fairfax County police station house erected of tinted glass and shrimp pink brick. The bald, portly desk sergeant smacked his lips studying my PI license but did tell me who the investigating officer was for Mrs. Aswad's traffic fatality. Officer Rowan, a petite brunette with sharp green eyes, happened to be ending her watch, and twenty minutes later I buttonholed her halfway through a side exit.
Her reaction to see my PI license was a stifled yawn. Was I a walking cliché everywhere I went today?
"The lifted print came back as belonging to Mr. Hacker," said Officer Rowan. "The car, totaled by the way, was also registered to the same Mr. Hacker. Do you have new information on the case?"
"Hacker was the driver," I said. "But the smart money here says he had a passenger."
"Nothing else turned up," she said, edging toward the side door.
"Please bear with me," I said. "His name is Ortiz. He plied Hacker with the liquor to plow through the red light. He timed their arrival to coincide when Mrs. Aswad came along on Braddock Road. It was a solid hit. Like always, Ortiz made it out without a scratch."
Officer Rowan was piqued. "Why, Johnson? Motive? What was this Ortiz's reason to arrange such an elaborate murder plot?"
"Ortiz becomes the Aswad's daughter's legal guardian," I said. "They had life insurance and there's a survivor's benefit from his Army pension. He can now control that new pot of cash."
Her tired eyes jumped with sparks of interest. "Can you give up Ortiz?"
"On a silver platter," I replied. "Ortiz has driven his last hearse to put him behind bars, which is as good as death to him."