Frankie walked into Oak Cliff Substation 4. He was still energized from the brainstorming of the previous night. Just articulating his ideas juiced his incentive to close this case. Theory thrilled him, and cementing his killer to the FBI profiler data at least gave him a foundation from which to work. He was sure now that the killer would strike again, and he knew that just by chance alone, every new crime carried with it an increased probability of an error by the killer. It was simply the law of numbers.
“Hey Nguyen!” Frankie turned in the direction of the Dispatch Officer, who was motioning to him from her desk in the Foyer across from the corridor leading to the conference rooms.
“Yes, officer, what is it?”
“We just got a call from one of our officers. He said he may have a lead for you on the Guerra killing.”
“Holy Smokes! This is too much,” Frankie replied. “I had a feeling when I got up this morning something was going to break. What did he say?”
“He said he has a guy down at the Drive ’N Go convenience store on Hampton. He says the guy may have seen something. He wants you to come down and talk to him.”
“I have to call Maria, Frankie replied, I might need her, she knows those people there.”
Twenty minutes later Maria pulled into the substation. She saw Frankie come running out of the front door, slowing to a quick walk as he neared her car. He motioned her to get out.
“Maria, come on. Ride with me,” Frankie said as she emerged from her car.
“Okay. Let’s go. By the way, where are we going?” Maria asked as she got into Frankie’s car. “You were so excited over the phone you forgot to tell me.”
“Sorry about that. We are going to the Drive N’ Go convenience store on Hampton. Do you know where that is?”
“Sure Frankie, it’s down there near Spring Park. I go there a lot to pick up odds and ends and use the ATM machine when I need quick cash.” Maria replied.
“Where’s Bill?” Maria asked as they turned from Zang onto Jefferson Avenue.
“He is going over the forensic evidence again,” Frankie replied. “He’s hoping that we may have missed something.”
“He seems like a very guarded man,” Maria said. “He doesn’t like closeness much does he?”
Frankie thought for a moment.
“No. He has seen things in his life that most people have never seen, and believe me, things that most people don’t ever want to see,” Frankie answered.
Maria looked at him for a long time, sizing up the gifted cop.
“You like him a lot don’t you Frankie,” Maria said delicately.
“Yes. Yes I do. You know ever since he came to Dallas, I’ve never heard him complain about anything. I mean nothing! Well, except the heat. He is wise in his own way. He knows what he can’t change or control and he, well, just gets into harmony with it. But I also know that I can trust him, without any hesitation. That’s important in what we face every day.” Frankie looked out the driver’s side window, and then turned his head toward Maria without losing his street vision.
“Did you know that he won the Congressional Medal of Honor?”
Maria raised her soft eyebrows in complete surprise.
“No. No I didn’t,” Maria said.
“Yeah,” Frankie continued. “In Afghanistan. He was a Marine. I don’t know all the details. I do know that his unit got ambushed just outside a Marine outpost in the Korengal Valley. They were taking a lot of fire, getting all shot up, and the unit started to collapse. I mean they were taking so much fire that they couldn’t hold their firing positions. Maria, when men are under heavy fire, and the discipline is not there, they tend to bunch together and lose their position. Well, as they started to bunch together, the natural but deadly thing to do, Bill knew the only way out was to call for the choppers to get them out and then beat it back to the outpost. He and another guy pulled rear guard while those who could walk took the wounded out. Well as they were pulling back, the choppers and the Insurgents got to them at about the same time. Bill went back into fire three times to get his guys out of there. He was wounded four times. A week later he celebrated his thirtieth birthday in a hospital at Bagram Air Field.” That was eight years ago.
“Es muy bravado,” Maria said.
“To be sure. But after He got out, and after being a cop in New York, I think Bill Maloney is just not about to let anybody get too close. He told me once when we were drunk. In his classic penchant for understatement he said that people who get near him die. Whether that is out of being protective of other people or to save him from his own pain, I don’t know. He may not even know.”
Maria simply nodded in an understanding way.
“Why so curious doll?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I, well he….I think he’s nice that’s all,” Maria said, a little embarrassed as she looked out her window.
Frankie smiled as he pulled into the Drive ’N Go, and parked his car.
As they emerged from Frankie’s car they saw a uniformed officer standing next to a man sitting on a bench. The man was holding a shopping cart with a pennant displayed from it. He was a tall black man, wearing baggy yellow shorts, red knee socks and a faded blue basketball jersey.
“Hey, Doctah C, Doctah C,” the man said as they approached.
“Do you know that guy?” Frankie asked Maria.
“Yeah. That’s Tin Can Dan,” Maria said. “He’s a street forager. I know him well. One of my students did a lifestyle project last semester. He’s one of many of the people who collect discarded junk form the curbs of the neighborhoods. These guys are interesting. They take the technological flotsam, the tin cans, the aluminum, the cast off wood and metal and they recycle it for cash. That’s how they make their living. They’re kind of like nomads. They have their own established territories, and cruise through the neighborhoods collecting things that home renovators and litterers toss away. They take what people think is trash and garbage, collect it and exchange it for what money they can get.
“Hey Dan ”Maria said. “How goes it?”
“Hangin’ in therah, hangin’ in therah. But, ya know, someone been collectin’ in my zone.”
Frankie looked quizzically at Maria, and she returned a smile.
“What up, Dan?”
“It’s like I been tellin’ da offisah Doctah C. Someone been collectin’ my stuff. Das not right. Dis is my territory, my stuff,” Dan said gesturing with his hands.
“Peep me Dan, Peep me. Was’ you thing herah?” Maria knew Dan would respond if she spoke in his patois.
“Well it’s like I been tellin’ da offisah herah,” Dan repeated, shuffling his feet while he munched on a burrito. “A few weeks ago, I was bringin’ my wheels up Hampton Street and I seez dis guy come out da ravine. You know, da ravine down derah.” Dan pointed to the ravine that went under the Hampton bridge and pointed to the east where the ravine snaked its way to the north side of Spring Park. “He come out da ravine wid a large bag over his shoulderah. He got into his wheels you dig? And headed out of herah. I was comin’ cross da bridge when I saw him. I was hollerin’ at him, ya know. Hollerin’ at him dat dis my stuff. He jus keep on a goin’, din’t stop. Dat ain’t right Doctah C. Evahbody know dis be Dan’s zone. Dis be Dan’s zone. I went and checked it out. Dat ravine? It was clean Doctah C, it was clean. Wadn’t nothin’ derah, no cans, nothin’.”
“Dan,” Maria said as she pointed to Frankie. “Dis is Frankie Nguyen, from the police. He be cool. Blow what you know.” Maria said as she gestured to Frankie. Tin Can Dan looked at Nguyen, then at Maria, and then back at Nguyen. His eyes were large and focused. He returned his eyes to Maria and nodded.
“What kinda’ wheels did he have Dan?” Maria asked.
“Chevy van, Chevy van,” Dan replied. “ It was kinda dahk red and cream colad. It had a bent laddah in da back. Der’ was some writin’ on it, uh, lemme see.” Dan closed his eyes and shook his head, like he was an eight year old in a spelling bee trying to remember a word. “It said somethin’ wid a tree, somethin’ wid a tree. Maria looked at Frankie.
“Mark Three?” Frankie asked
“Yeah, das what is was,” Dan replied.
“Any mas Dan?” Maria asked.
“Damn, I can’t remember no mo,” Dan muttered.
“Did you get a license number Dan?” Frankie asked
“No sir, no sir I din’t,” Dan said as his eyes shifted to the ground.
“Das’ no problem Dan,” Maria said as she patted Dan on the shoulder. “Did you peep dis’ guy?”
“No Doctah C. Sorry to say I din’t. But, it ain’t right. It ain’t right. Why he collectin’ in my zone? Evahbody know dis be my zone. No one from herah would do dis.”
“Dasa fact,” Maria gently replied. “No homeboy would do you dat way.”
“When was this Dan?” Frankie asked
Dan looked quizzically at Frankie Nguyen, and then at Maria.
“It’s cool Dan,” Maria said.
“It was da day aftah July da fowth,” Dan said.
“When abouts?” Maria asked.
“It was jus’ bout noon, I spect”, Dan said. “See, I always comes ’round herah ’bout noon. I comes up Hampton, and den I comes to dis stow, get some food, some fo me and some fo da dawgs. You know, derah be lahs a dawgs ‘round herah dat get thrown away. It’s a shame Doctah C. Dese dogs dat get thrown away, left behind by people. Dey don’t care. But da dogs got to live too ya know? I love dese dogs. Dey ain’t got nobody, and I ain’t got nobody, so I take’s care of dem. I feed dem when I can. Well, dat’s another thing. I always feed dis little ol’ dog in da ravine. Well he was gone, he was gone. And da ravine? Why it was clean, clean, clean! I hope he din’t hurt dat dog. He’s a good ol’ dog. Never hurt nobody, jus wants to be fed, jus wants to be loved. Why do people do dat Doctah C?”
“No se bro,” Maria replied. She opened her purse and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. “Dan, here,” She handed Dan the money. “Go store side and get some chow fo dat dog. He be back Dan. You get him on da med side, Okay?”
“Thanks Doctah. C. Thanks,” Dan said as he took the money and went into the store.
Maria watched Dan as he went into the store and then looked at Frankie.
“Maria,” Frankie said, “I need to check out that ravine.”
As Frankie spoke to her, a white Chevy Camaro that had cruised into the parking lot caught her eye. It was jacked up and had gold-plated wheels. Out of it popped a Hispanic man, in his early twenties. He was wearing a lot of gold jewelry, and he strode to the door of the store. Maria recognized the walk and the demeanor. She also recognized the man. She watched him go in. He had not noticed her. Frankie saw her diversion.
“What’s up doll?” he asked.
“I know that guy,” Maria replied. “Look, why don’t you go check out that ravine. I’m going to talk to him.”
“Okay. I’ll meet you back here.”
Frankie Nguyen hopped down into the ravine and began working his way east. He went under the bridge, working his way through the overgrown weeds and the stunted hackberry trees. Sweat was dripping down his face as he surveyed the ravine. There was nothing there except the wrappers from fast food products, an occasional piece of rusted metal, and birds, mostly starlings and a few grackles. After a few minutes he came to a grove of live oaks, to the south side of the ravine and up a steep slope. Just as he was about to ascend the bank he noticed something. It was a tree branch, with a lot of wilted leaves. He picked it up and inspected it. Then he looked around at the trees and brush around him. Even though the leaves were wilted and dry, he could see that they were different from all the leaves on the trees and brush around him. He looked closer, inspecting the shape of the leaves, their form, their texture, and their veins. These leaves looked identical to the one he had picked up at the Guerra murder scene. “He’s been here,” Frankie whispered. Wiping the sweat from his brow he ascended the bank into the live oak grove. As he entered the grove he came to a spot where he could see Spring Park. There, just to the south, he could see the bike path. Beyond it was the swing set where Guerra was found. Given what he had found, the time at which Tin Can Dan said he had spotted the man in the van, and the time at which he and Maloney had been investigating the crime scene, Nguyen knew that the killer had been watching them the whole time. This must have been the way he took to get away, he thought. He must have killed Guerra somewhere else, used the van to haul the body, parked in the parking lot, and dragged Guerra to the swing set. Then, he drove his van to the convenience store, impersonated a forager, got up into this vantagepoint, and watched. He then dropped the branch that he used to wipe out his footprints, foraged his way back to his van, and drove off. He only made one mistake. He didn’t count on Tin Can Dan.
Meanwhile Maria waited for the man to walk out of the store.
“Hey Manuel. ¿Cómo está?”
The man turned to her and smiled. “Dr. C. How goes it?”
“Fine Manuel. How are you?”
“Ain’t got no complaints. Trying to stay cool.”
“How is Angelina and the baby?” Maria asked, trying to segue into a deeper conversation.
“They’re cool. You know how it is,” Manuel hedged.
“Are you coming back to school this fall?”
“ I don’t know Dr. C, got a lot of business to attend to, you know with a wife and kid. I got obligations.” Manuel stood in front of her, hands on his hips, with his weight on one leg, eyes averting her as he looked toward the street. He was dressed in baggy black shorts, and a baggy white tank top that came well below the waist. His hair was buzz cut, and he had two gold chains around his neck. A tattoo adorned his well- developed left bicep. It was a heart, and inside the heart there was writing that said, “Angelina.”
His attitude was pure cool, and his countenance was cocky.
“Manuel, what’s going on out there?” Maria asked as she abandoned the small talk.
“ I don’t got a clue to what you mean Dr. C,” Manuel again deflected the question.
“Manuel, look at me!” Maria commanded. Manuel could feel Maria’s eyes, which had now grown hard, cutting into his space. She compelled him to look at her. He did.
“I ask you again, what’s going on out there? I know you’re a Blanco. You know that Guerra was not killed by the Rojos or any other section. It’s too quiet. If we don’t get a handle on this, people are going to get hurt. Maybe you. You want Angelina to live with that? You want her to grieve like Mrs. Guerra? You want your baby to grow up without a father?”
Manuel was angered by this talk. He took a step toward Maria and poked a defiant finger at her. “Hey! What the hell do you know?” He declared defensively. “You got out. You don’t know, you just pretend to be one of us. You’re only Chicana on the outside. You sold out a long time ago, Gringa!”
Maria returned his gaze with a stare that could have shattered glass. Right now she hated him. It was macho men like him that feasted on young girls, got them pregnant and then threw them away like old clothes for something younger and prettier.
“That’s right Manuel,” Maria said sarcastically. “ I forgot. I’m sellout. Is that what you’re saying? I’m a sellout? My brother was killed so that I could come back and sell you out?” Maria was very angry now as she remembered Hector. She had little tolerance for lame excuses that didn’t ad up.
“Sois usted estúpido,” Maria replied. “Listen to me. You’re young and arrogant and you think you’ll live forever. But you’re wrong. These streets will chew you up and spit you out without even a burp. Look around you, there are people working hard to make a life for themselves, and their ninos y ninas. You come into my class? Why? Just for kicks? Are you after the girls, Manuel?” The anger spilled out, Maria couldn’t stop herself from crossing the line. She went for the jugular, his manhood.
“Are you a man because you have a fancy car and wheels? Will you get them pregnant and abandon them when you are bored with them? Usted hay los huevos grandes?”
This insult to Manuel’s manhood made him furious. Maria had attacked his honor. Given the macho code that permeated male Hispanic culture, he could not back down. He grabbed Maria by the shoulders and pushed her against the wall of the store. Her head bounced off the brick wall, and she was groggy. Manuel placed his face close to hers, eyes against eyes, and spoke in a clear measured tone, like he was talking to a mannequin.
“Don’t you fuck with me Dr. C! Maybe I want to be like Guerra. Maybe I want to live in fancy house, have lots of money, get respect and be a big man. I’ll tell you, yeah, there’s shit gonna’ go down soon, lot’s of shit. You think it matters who killed Guerra? It don’t matter. All that matters is that there’s a vacancy in the hotel, and there are lots of homeboys who need a room. Maybe one is me.” Manuel loosened his grip on Maria, shoved her again for good measure, and backed off. He turned and walked to his car. As he got to the door he turned to look at Maria.
She looked at him, her hard eyes had softened, coated with an absolute sense of failure.
“Manuel,” she said quietly. “Does that room have space for Angelina?”
He just shook his head and got into his car. Starting the engine, he peeled out of the parking area and fishtailed down Jefferson.
Manuel drove off just as Frankie climbed up from the ravine. Maria walked over to his car to meet him.
“Did you find anything out?” she asked.
“Yes.” He showed her the branch with the dried leaves and explained what he had discovered. He opened his trunk and pulled out a book on the trees of Texas. He took one of the leaves and began thumbing through the pages.
“Ah, here it is,” he said with pleasure. “It’s a Chinese Pistachio. You don’t find too many of them around here. They’re an ornamental, you see lot’s of them in wealthier neighborhoods.”
“That fits your theory Frankie. You thought the killer was mobile, not from Oak Cliff,” Maria said.
“Right. But still, the question is who and why did someone from an upscale neighborhood in a beat up Chevy Mark Three van come into Oak Cliff and kill Julio Guerra, and probably Juan Cortez and Luis Hernandez? I mean what’s the connection?”
“Could it be drugs?” Maria asked.
“I don’t know, could be. The gangs have extended their drug trade into north Dallas since the light rail system was built. Anyway what happened with you?”
“Oh, I tried to find out something, and I did, but not the way I had expected,” Maria shrugged.
“What did you find out?” Frankie coaxed.
“There’s going to be trouble, but I think it is going to be internal within the Blanco ranks. I don’t know when, but soon I think. People are tense.”
“Well, hopefully we can get this thing wrapped up soon,” Frankie said, trying to be positive.
“I hope so Frankie. But now I think the gang situation and the killings are on different plates.”
“The Slingshot Effect?” Nguyen asked.
“Not exactly. I think everybody knows the killings are not gang related. It’s more a question of a leadership vacuum within the Blancos, and a scramble to see who gets to replace Guerra.” Maria suddenly got the compulsion to look at her watch. Then she snapped out of it. “I need to drive by my office downtown.”
Frankie dropped Maria off at her car at Substation 4. As she drove to her office at Central College downtown, she couldn’t shake off her encounter with Manuel, and how imprisoned he was in the street culture. This was the fine line she walked as an anthropologist, trying to be objective and bias free in her assessment of cultural life, yet that clinical approach was hard to swallow in her own cultural back yard.
She even lectured about this problem in her classes. What was the role of anthropology?
Was it just to document, record, and analyze culture? To what end? Was anthropology just a scientific curiosity, or should that knowledge be put to work to solve social problems and help people? She had always argued the latter, at least in the abstract setting of a classroom. But now, right now, she felt helpless. There was nothing she could do for Manuel. Nothing in her books, or her lecture notes could stop was going to happen with the Blancos. Still, there must be something she could do.
She was tired as she turned on the light in her office, turned on her computer, and logged on to her college e-mail server. She scrolled through several irrelevant messages, until she came to one entitled: “Killings Three”. She opened it, and stared at it. She read it, and her heart nearly flew from her chest. It read:
I am a weed whip
Do you understand?
I’m the Lawn Man
There was more:
Dr. Contreras, I know you and you’ll soon know me.
Let’s see how smart you are, Miss Harvard PhD
I know about the killings of those bean dips three
You’re one of them and you can’t pass
Stay away from my yard or I’ll fix your ass.