A Wall of Fire
Chapter 1

This story takes place in September and October of 2006

I started out as a private detective using money I'd saved while a cop in Red Hawk, Oklahoma, and then a bequest from Tony and Anna, the uncle and aunt who raised me, made me somewhat independent of fees. I had some money left over after I started my own operation, and found ways to invest it and the inheritance – small ways, but they paid off. By the time I moved to Albuquerque in 1992 I could afford to work as much or as little as I wanted to, as long as I didn't waste money. After I married Cecelia, who had her own money and who turned my haphazard investments into real affluence, I came to work less and less. I spent more time at home with my family than I did working, and that was fine with all of us.

It wasn't that Cecelia ever demanded that I work less. She would have been happy if I made my work full-time, as long as I didn't allow it to overcome my love for and duty to my family. She sometimes worried when I was out all night, or I got into situations where there was a potential for danger, but she never begrudged my work. Nevertheless, I found myself slacking off more and more.

But after we'd been married 11 years, and had a daughter – Darlia – who was nine years old, I found myself, without planning it at all, working more than I had in a long while. I guess it started with "the case of the running husband" in 2005. I'd found the husband, who had indeed run off and wasn't coming back. And suddenly I found myself taking cases. I located the ringleader of a bunch of idiots who'd murdered a gay man just because he was gay. I couldn't take credit for the kidnapped wife's recovery – she had brains and guts and managed to escape, and I was just lucky enough, though I call it providence rather than luck, to be driving by when she came out the window. There was the prostitute I'd saved from her pimp, though I probably didn't save her from prostitution. There was the guy who was using Navajo beliefs to terrorize a guy fresh from the reservation. I'd taken my family on vacation to Red Hawk, and wound up finding a corrupt officer. I did more in a year than I'd been doing in two or three years.

I mentally shrugged my shoulders and pressed on. I'd never figured I had to have so many cases a year, and I'd never figured I had to stay below a certain number either. If I didn't feel like taking a case I didn't. In fact, I never do anything I don't want to do – no one does. The person who confesses under torture to crimes he didn't commit is doing what he wants to do, since what he doesn't want is for the torture to continue. When the choice becomes false confession or the continuation of intolerable agony, pretty much anyone will eventually choose the lie – and though I've never suffered torture, I can't really blame those who bend. I'd do just about anything rather than allow a dentist to poke around in my mouth, though I have to admit my teeth are so good that I've only had to go to the dentist two or three times in my life.

So I do what I want – whether it's working three cases a year, or 13, or 23 ... though since I'm by myself in the office, they'd have to be short and simple cases for me to handle 23 of them in a year. Just now, what I wanted to do was keep on sitting on a comfortable sofa in a nice comfortable apartment drinking Earl Grey. The lady wasn't a client, not yet anyway, but she knew good tea and had offered it instead of coffee – which meant that by my standards she was a pretty smart lady.

We'd tasted our tea, which she'd made a bit stronger than I do. I put in a tad bit more sugar, tasted again, and nodded. "Good stuff," I said, "though I won't add 'Maynard, ' since you're not a Maynard." And I smiled at her.

"No, I'm not." In fact her name was Lucinda Barelas – Cinda for short, she'd told me – and even if her parents had done something really stupid and given her the name Maynard, she still wouldn't have looked like one. Her hair was blonde – naturally as far as I could tell – and she was slender, and her nose was just big and sharp enough that she didn't look like every other slender blonde out there. Whatever Maynard looks like – I always think of Maynard G. Krebs from the old Dobie Gillis TV series – she didn't look like that.

"So," I said, "what brings me here?"

She smiled – thinly, but it was a smile. "It's my ex-husband, Jacob Bestwick. We got divorced last year, and I thought that was that, but the past two or three months he's been hanging around here, spying on me I think."

"Have you thought of a restraining order?"

"Yes – I've gotten one, in fact. But it's not working."

"I suppose whenever you see him around you call the police."

"Yes, and they come – once they actually arrived within 30 minutes. If he ever does more than spy on me, the cops will come in time to pick up the pieces."

"That's often the case, Ms. Barelas. When you've got a whole city to deal with, especially one with as much gang activity as Albuquerque, sometimes other things have to take a back seat."

"Perhaps." She didn't look like she really agreed with me. Nor did her voice sound like I'd persuaded her. "But I'm still scared. That's why I divorced him – he never did hit me, but I thought more than once that he might. He drinks, and when he drinks he gets violent. Before I threw him out he broke a table, and a couple of lamps, and tore up some of my books. I really thought he was going to hit me. And now that he's ... stalking me, I guess, I'm really frightened."

I thought of how Earl had to die in the Dixie Chicks song. There was a line about how Earl "walked right through that restraining order" and put his ex-wife in intensive care. It does happen – a restraining order sometimes does no more than provide another charge for the prosecutors to drop on the guy who violated it without a second thought. "What exactly do you want me to do, Ms. Barelas?"

"Protect me from Jacob – keep him away from me, convince him to stay away."

"Basically you're asking for me to bodyguard you."

"Basically – yes."

"I don't usually do that kind of thing." I find myself saying that a lot. I have my preferences, and a lot of people come to me with something in mind that I don't prefer.

"But you can, right?"

"Yeah, I can." In fact I'd done security for an apartment complex less than a mile away, though that was years ago, before I met Cecelia. "I don't usually, since I prefer to detect, but I can."

"Then I'd like you to do it for me. I can pay you – at least the alimony payments have been regular, and I've got a good job."

"It's not the money that I'm worried about – I'm filthy rich and I could afford to pay you if I had to. It's just that what I like to do and what you want me to do are different things."

"I don't suppose you've ever done anything before that was different from what you like to do."

She had me there. I grinned at her. "Ms. Barelas, I could grouch at you and frown and tell you that's irrelevant, but it's a nice day, and I have no use for so-called men who'll beat on a woman, so I'll be nice about it. In fact, I done taken a notion—" her eyebrows rose at the horrible English, but it's how I talk "—and I'll do it."

"You will?" I could hear the surprise in her voice.

"Yep. Like I said, I taken a notion. I'm like that – I take a notion, and off I go on my white horse banging on dragons' heads with a plastic sword." That was a little too much like Travis McGee's self-conscious cynicism for my taste, but I don't censor my words before I say 'em. I let it slide, and went on. "This notion was that I got nothing else going on right now, and I just might enjoy keeping your ex-husband civilized."

She looked at me for a second, her brows furrowing slightly. "You are an odd man, Mr. Carpenter, but you come with glowing references, and I trust you. Perhaps that's not a good basis for hiring you, since I trusted Jacob too, but I do trust you." She reached for the checkbook that had been on the coffee table the whole time. "How much do you want for a retainer?"

It was afternoon then, and I hadn't let my family know what was happening, and anyway it would be impossible for me to pull 24-hour duty. Even when I was young that would only have worked for a day, and while I'm not old, 41 isn't as young as 21. I offered Cinda a couple of alternatives. "Either you can get a hotel room for tonight – I'll pay for it, since it'll be part of protecting you – or I can try to find someone to fill in. I'll have to get other bodies anyway, if only to provide protection when I can't be here, but it'd probably be easiest if you got a room."

"I'd really rather stay here."

"I understand that. The question is what will work best. Even if I can't find someone who can and will come over on such short notice, I can't be here, not tonight. In a hotel your ex-husband won't know where you are, and won't be able to get at you, especially if house security keeps an eye out – and I know the house guys at a couple of places in town. It'll be a bit inconvenient to pack an overnight bag and go elsewhere for the night, but I'd rather cause you inconvenience than leave you alone."

She breathed audibly for a few seconds, then visibly came to a decision. "I suppose that if I hire a plumber or a carpenter I just tell him what I want, and let him do it without telling him how to fix the pipes or build the cabinets."


"All right, I'll go to a hotel. Why don't you call while I pack?"

I grinned at her. "My thoughts exactly."

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Story tagged with:
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