Joe travels to Cabos san Lucas, Mexico, in search of Hector Romero, a former lover of Sophie’s. He tracks Hector down at the lobby bar of Los Cabos Royale resort, where they have a heated conversation. Afterward Joe scales the dunes to Sophie’s former beach house in search of an alias for Johnson Sagebrush.
Excerpt from Episode 9
The house stood on the side of a hill that rose up from the dunes. Similar high-end homes occupied the surrounding hills. Sophie’s old house had two floors, a tile roof, and floor-to-ceiling windows across the back. A pool deck area overlooked the ocean.
I had half expected the home to be dark; many around it were, but bright lights shone in Sophie’s place, and on the ground floor a person walked from room to room behind plate glass windows.
Sanjay had learned that the shell company that bought Sophie’s house had flipped it two years later to a Graham Whitaker. The house was part of a gated community with an unlisted phone number. I had guessed that my best chance to meet Whitaker face-to-face was with an old-fashioned knock on the door.
As I climbed the dunes to get closer the going got tougher. Fine grains of sand, whipped by the wind, stung my face. I grabbed at sea grasses that clung to the dunes. The terrain changed from dune to hillside, and I ran into rocks, cactus, and native shrubs. At the top a six-foot concrete wall formed the back edge of the pool deck. I reached for the upper edge of the wall and heaved myself high enough to grab the lower railing of the patio barrier.
Large potted plants and four palm trees framed the deck area. The wind rustled the leaves and made ripples on the water in the pool. Behind me the waves crashed and rolled up the beach. I clambered over the rail, crept halfway to the house, and crouched behind an outdoor bar.
The ground floor was one great room, with the kitchen and dining area on the left and a living space to the right. A woman stood in the kitchen leaning against a counter, talking on a cell phone. She wore slacks, a sweater, and had short gray hair. A man sat reading a book in a big chair in the living space, his legs resting on an ottoman. He wore a sweatshirt, running shoes, and had reading glasses. They had left the sliding doors open, and the soft sounds of a Steely Dan song carried out to the patio.
The woman continued to talk on the phone as she watched a coffeemaker on the counter. She closed the flip phone and put it down; then she poured coffee into two mugs and walked into the living space. She handed a mug to the man, leaned to kiss him, and sat in a nearby chair.
Lurking outside the windows, watching the older couple, I felt like a peeping Tom. Climbing the dunes had been harder than I expected, but I had made it that far, and they seemed harmless enough, so I pressed forward.
I stayed in the shadows and walked to the side of the house. A narrow strip of smooth gravel stones separated it from native foliage. I walked along the strip of gravel, past two central-air units, and came out to the front yard. From there I crossed the small lawn, climbed two steps, and looked at the front door—no doorbell. I knocked twice.
After twenty seconds of no response I knocked again. A shadow moved behind the glass at the side of the door.
“Who is it?” said the man.
“Joe Robbins. I’m a neighbor.”
I waited in silence. The lie was an attempt to induce him to open the door.
“Just a minute. Be right there.”
Footsteps walked away. After a short interval they returned. A dead bolt clicked and the door opened. The man stood about six feet. He had removed his reading glasses and wore a windbreaker with his hand in the right pocket.
He hadn’t worn the windbreaker in the back room, and his hand looked funny in the pocket, as if he held something.
“Sorry to disturb you,” I said.
“We’ve been coming here for years, and no one’s ever knocked on the door at night.”
“Let’s take it easy,” I said. “I’m going to raise my hands.” I lifted my arms until my hands were face-level, palms forward.
“Sorry I lied. I’m not a neighbor.”
“You have dirt on your hands and a lump on your forehead. I figured you weren’t here to borrow sugar.”
Whitaker seemed calm, which gave me comfort; he wouldn’t casually shoot me or accidentally pull the trigger.
“As I said, my name is Joe Robbins . . . and you’re Graham Whitaker.”
“How did you know my name?”
“The Internet.” It felt like I was standing in front of a rattlesnake trying to avoid making a stupid move. “You want to take the gun out? It will shoot straighter that way.”
Graham pulled the gun from his pocket and pointed it at me. It looked every bit a serious pistol, large-caliber.
The final episode of Hill Country Siren will be published here on June 2.