Hi there crime fans. I am currently editing my book of short stories entitled Twisted Fates. In the coming weeks I will post some of the stories here, so you can get to read them first. As the title suggests every story concerns murder / redemption and every story has an unexpected twist. In addition the action happens in my home town Los Angeles. The Gardener is set In Canoga Park in the suburban San Fernando Valley. Just about everyone who lives there has a gardener not unlike Rodriguez. Many of the events are true, but as ever, I editorialize for the sake of entertainment.
Rodriguez—not his real name of course—was a man of experience. He called on doors in the rich neighborhood looking for work—honest hard-laboring outdoor jobs, the kind of work a man could take pride in.
An honest man is hard to find, but Rodriguez was such a man, a man of pride and honor. Touring the neighborhood of Canoga Park in his battered gardening truck, he valued customers as friends, seeing their problems and concerns as his own. He prided himself in delivering to his customers, without charge, the little extras that other gardeners would never provide—if a lawn sprinkler was broken, he would fix it; if a bush or tree was growing wild and unsightly, he would trim it. And always, Rodriguez would leave the yards of his valued clients as neat and tidy and sharply manicured as his own. He didn’t have a garden himself, of course; just a rat box camper van he parked on an industrial estate east of De Soto Avenue. That van was so beat up, it was held together with duct tape and prayers. Every time it rained, water seeped in through the roof and collected inside the ceiling. After heavy storms the ceiling bulged downwards black and menacing, threatening to disgorge its putrid contents. On the plus side, it hardly ever rained in Los Angeles; so Rodriguez figured his problems with the ceiling didn’t much matter—besides, the beat up van kept the thieves away. Who would rob a man who had nothing to steal? It was a simple logic that served him well. Rodriguez liked to keep things simple—simple work, simple home, simple life. Then, once he got sick of where he was living, he could just hitch up his pickup to the tow bar and head out into the world, and find himself a fresh place to live.
Rodriguez worked hard at his business, striving to make good in harsh economic times. Work, was a commodity elusive to so many, but for a God-fearing man of commitment, unafraid to toil long hours in the sun, there was always a place to be had in this land of plenty.
Although no longer a young man, Rodriguez had been blessed with the gift of an honest face, a gift from the Lord that had stood him in good stead. How he had mistreated that gift in the past—used it to the advantage of the Devil himself, but no more. The days of evil were behind him now. Now, in this new land of wealth and opportunity, he took each new day as a gift, treating it with care and wonder, trusting that in return he would be delivered safe passage, through the tumult that rang out around him. Rodriguez knew that the future, while by no means guaranteed, could be shaped by the honesty of a man’s sweat and the desire for a better life. Such thinking was the result of a work ethic handed down through generations of his family. Modern times however, had delivered something new and unwelcome, a world out of balance with the sanctity of God and nature, an age tainted by the lure of easy money.
For Rodriguez the modern world was a difficult place. Traditions no longer had any meaning; family had been supplanted by the reign of, men of great cruelty and little understanding—Godless men—men of the gun—the Narcos. They came from the south, from the jungles and the wild arid lands and with them came great violence. The violence was a sickness, an endless disease without respite or cure. In the lands of the south, the infection spread everywhere, no community spared. But the men of the gun could see no further than the here and now. Why care about a future that would never arrive? And now they owned everything—the whole world infected by death and corruption.
As death consumed the southern lands, all who were able joined the exodus north through the burning scrub-filled desert. The journey was terrible, mile after mile of sun-baked gullies and snake infested canyons, watched greedily by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rodriguez knew well of the terrors the desert, just as surely as he knew the terrors of the bad men. The vast scrubland wilderness was disorientating and held many dangers for the unwary. The blowtorch heat very quickly sapped the mind of all reason. Even the strongest of spirits could bare no more than a couple of days in such a place. Without a guide, the journey was impossible. Meanwhile, the Narcos demanded tribute from all who passed. Those who couldn’t pay, or refused to pay, were murdered without mercy.
The Narcos were bad men. But, Rodriguez was a bad man himself. He had done very many evil things in his life. Every day he had prayed, hoping the days of evil would come to an end. No matter how many candles he burned, no matter how many men of God he consulted, his fervent prayers went unanswered. But, as the long dark years grew ever shorter, his belief in salvation grew stronger. Then, one day, as if by some miracle, the epiphany finally came—a miraculous realization—a transcendent feeling filling every part of his being. It was as if God had reached out to him, telling him that if he moved forwards into a virtuous life, his past sins would be redeemed.
He trusted that the redemption, he had prayed for so long, had now finally reached down to him from the heavens. His prayers answered, Rodriguez followed the quiet directions of his savior, obeying without question as the sacred voice of his conscience, told him he should discard the trappings of his sinful past and move forward through the desert, so that he might dedicate himself to a more simple life. At first, Rodriguez hardly dared believe that his prayers had been answered, but as the days passed, the whispered words of encouragement became ever clearer—until at last, he could resist their guidance no more. The time was now, or not at all.
Rodriguez moved with care, heading North through Tamaulipas to the town of Reynosa. It was a place where a man of means could make a crossing—for a fee. He crossed the Rio Grande into Hidagloo Texas; then dumped his delivery truck ten miles northwest in Mission, and bought a used Chevy pickup for cash from a downtown lot, right next to the expressway.
He took the long drive north on the 35 through San Antonio and Fort Worth, before meeting up with Highway 40 just west of Oklahoma City. The 40 took him across country, through the big, wide-open spaces of the Texas panhandle. He travelled through New Mexico, and on through the desert night into Arizona, and the mountainous wilds of Southern California. Rodriguez was ever vigilant. He took care with his speed and skirted through the backcountry, to steer clear of nosy cops. When at last he emerged through the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains and saw the City of Los Angeles stretching out before him, he realized that finally, after his long years of purgatory, he had found a place where he could disappear; indulge himself in the pursuit of God’s work and allow the tainted past to fall away.
There were many immigrant gardeners in the West Valley, but Rodriguez distinguished himself through hard work and honesty. He established a clientele calling door to door. He took his time, allowed the good word to spread and pretty soon he had more clients than he could handle. He would never get wealthy from his work, but his needs were met and a man could never want for more than that.
Of all the gardens that Rodriguez tended, the garden of the widow Hammond was his favorite. The widow was a kind white-haired lady of advancing years. She always had many things to say, and while Rodriguez did not understand everything she told him, he could tell from her happy smiling face and kind tone that she had a good soul. Working the widow’s flower-filled garden always gave Rodriguez a good feeling.
One day however, whilst he was toiling in the widow’s garden as usual, Rodriguez had the most unusual feeling that he was being watched. He paused for a moment, catching his breath. He flipped his lawn rake and pulled trapped leaves from the teeth. As the hot sun twinkled down through the leaves of the ornamental plum tree, he sensed it again—inquisitive eyes watching his labors. Rodriguez drew his shirtsleeve across his work-moistened brow and shot a look at the widow’s house. Widow Hammond had the jalousies shuttered tight as usual, closing out the heat of the day while she absorbed her steady diet of Tele Novella soap operas.
Then he saw her—staring at him out the side window of the neighbor’s house; a little girl no more than ten years old. Rodriguez leaned on his rake and gave her a smile. The widow’s neighbor was a mean-faced cop who worked shifts. Whenever he was home, he always shot Rodriguez the stink-eye. The guy was best avoided. If Rodriguez ever saw the neighbor he just threw himself into his labors and ignored him. But now, as he smiled at the young girl Rodriguez realized that in all the many months he had worked for the widow, he had never seen the girl before. His face creased with a sudden sadness. The girl should be out playing with her friends, not stuck inside—especially on a day as beautiful as this, with the sun shining and the world alive with birdsong and flowers.
A sudden screech of tires grasped Rodriguez’s attention. The sharpened instincts of a past age caused him to turn rather quicker than he would have liked. He saw that it was the cop neighbor returning home. Rodriguez turned quickly away, raking the widows lawn with renewed energy.
A car door slammed. Then came the sound of footsteps on concrete, advancing across the neighbor’s forecourt—not going inside the house—but coming across the yard towards him.
Out the corner of his eye Rodriguez caught sight of a looming figure, just stood there, watching him, hands on hips. He ignored the figure for as long as he could, but the man didn’t move. At length, after much consideration, the neighbor called out across the fence.
“My name is Rodriguez.”
“Whatever mongrel name you wanna use it’s all the same to me. Get your self over here I want to speak to you.”
For lesser sleights, Rodriguez had killed very many men. Again, he leaned on his rake and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“I saw you eyeballing my house. You see anything you like?”
“I like hard work and minding my business.”
“I just bet you do. Well, that’s real fortunate, because that’s just the way we like things here in the good old U. S. of A.”
Rodriguez said nothing, just nodded so slightly his head hardly moved at all.
The neighbor smirked. He raised his hand, pantomimed a thoughtful look then wagged an emphatic finger, “You know what, now that I think of it, there is something that you can help me with, if you got time in your busy schedule that is.”
Rodriguez raised his chin, his lips pursed slightly. “You need help?” he asked.
“I got a problem with my lawnmower. There’s fifty bucks in it for you if you can get it working.”
Rodriguez raised his eyebrows. Fifty was a lot of money just to fix a lawn mower. “I can take a look at it for you,” he said.
The neighbor smiled then. He had a lot of teeth; they were real shiny. Rodriguez leaned the lawn rake against Widow Hammond’s ornamental plum tree and stepped over into the neighbors yard. The neighbor led the way to the garage and popped the electronic opener. The big metal shutters ground upwards slowly, revealing an obsessively ordered space packed with tools of every description. Many of the tools hung ready on wall racks whilst high-stacked chests offered the unseen promise of more. In the centre of the garage, there was an old model Nissan Maxima in sun faded gold; but there was something more—the smell. It hit Rodriguez right away before the door was even fully opened. It was the smell of the old days—the stink of death was everywhere. Rodriguez paused in the doorway and said, “I cannot fix your mower.”
The neighbor gave a snort. “The hell you can’t Pablo. You ain’t even taken a look at it yet, have you?”
Rodriguez said, “For many long years my life was filled with sin, but I trusted in the healing powers of redemption and my sins were forgiven.”
The neighbor laughed. It was a nasty little laugh filled with contempt, “Sounds like bullshit to me. I had you pegged from the outset Pablo. I knew the second I laid eyes on you, you were wrong. But I been watching you see, every time you come by, eyeballing my property like you want to cut yourself a piece of it. Is that what you want Pablo? You want to slice yourself of a piece of my action?”
Rodriguez paused thoughtfully. He half turned to look at the neighbor and when he did, he saw the gun straight away. He eyed the gun, looked into the neighbor’s eyes, but said nothing.
The neighbor flashed his shiny teeth. “Yeah, that’s right, you take a good look at that gun. You see that? That is the .45 calibre reason you are going to do just exactly as you are told, and just so as you know, I got myself nine hollow points inside just itching to hear your sass. You ever see what a hollow point can do to a man, huh?”
Rodriguez said nothing.
The neighbor gesticulated with his gun. “Get moving. Walk on through into the kitchen and sit yourself down. You and me are going to have ourselves a little heart to heart.”
Rodriguez walked very slowly towards the doorway at the back of the garage and entered the house. The doorway opened out into a gleaming white kitchen. There were very many electrical appliances on the counter tops and all kinds of fancy cooks knives stuck deep in wooden holders. In the middle of the kitchen there was a black granite breakfast counter surrounded by white bar stools.
“Sit down.” The neighbor waved the gun in the direction of the bar stools. “Yes, that’s right, you sit down over there and make yourself comfortable.” The neighbor had his back to the garage door. He closed it real slow, then said, “So, what we got here is a real unpleasant case of wet-back labor gone wrong. Now, you might tell me, plead with me even, to say that you ain’t had designs on breaking into this home of mine. But we both know different, don’t we Pablo? You are as wrong as it is possible for a man to be—on the run too I shouldn’t wonder. Am I right? Well, we got laws about that kind of thing in the United States—all kinds of protections. I could ring my friends at the station right now and have them come over and pick you up. I’m betting you got yourself a record that drags all the way back to ass-wipe-Juárez, or where ever the hell you are from. Am I right Pablo?”
“I know what you have been doing,” said Rodriguez quietly.
“The evil hangs in the air.”
The neighbor frowned then, a question rising to his lips. The question hung for long moment before sinking away for further consideration. Finally, he waggled the gun in admonishment and said. “You are some kind of screwball Jesus freak aren’t you? You know what? That is good. I can use that. You breaking into my house like this, I could shoot you dead right now and not have to think twice about it. I am a citizen. I got rights see, protections. You on the other hand you got no rights at all. Now, you can talk God and redemption until you are blue in the face, but there ain’t no one or nobody who sees the look of you who is going to swallow that story down, not for one moment. You are a filthy wetback paisano, who no one’s going to miss.”
Rodriguez said, “I have the answer—the redemption you have long been seeking.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not looking for redemption—”
Rodriguez closed his eyes; his head turning downwards as though he were reciting some silent prayer. When he opened his eyes, the young girl was standing in the kitchen doorway. She was wearing short-shorts and a garish pink t-shirt featuring a buck-toothed cartoon character. The girl looked pouty. She had her arms folded and the beginnings of a scowl creasing her pretty little forehead.
The neighbor saw her standing there and said, “Not now sweetheart, can’t you see I am busy?”
“But I like this one Otto, he makes the garden look nice—it never did before and now it does.”
The neighbor’s eyes drifted to the doorway then quickly back to Rodriguez, “Haven’t you got some cartoons to be watching sweetheart? Why don’t you be a good girl like we talked about?”
“I am bored. I hate cartoons. I want a garden like the lady next door.”
“I will take you to Disneyland. We can go on rides and have ice cream.”
“Disneyland is for babies.”
“The child should be out playing with her friends,” said Rodriguez quietly.
“I can’t remember asking you for your goddamned opinion,” snapped the neighbor.
“Otto doesn’t like me having friends. Do you Otto?”
“Shut up you little bitch. I told you not to call me that name. I told you, didn’t I?”
The girl pulled a face.
Rodriguez watched the rhythm of the neighbor’s eyes. He stepped forward then—Three quick paces and he was there. He let the old instincts come flooding back. He didn’t even try to snatch the gun away—he just attacked. Rodriguez moved in close, hit the neighbor again and again and again until the gun fell to the floor.
The neighbor was on his knees now, his head reverberating from the savage pain of the blows. But Rodriguez was already reaching out a kitchen knife from the wooden block. He jammed his thumb into the neighbor’s eye socket and twisted his skull, holding it very steady. Then, moving with a single fluid motion, he slid the blade home all the way to the hilt. Rodriguez had gained much experience inserting knives into the necks of human beings. He had hoped his savior would spare him the need to commit such actions, but no, here he was again returning to the deeds of his savage past. Perhaps he had been wrong? Perhaps there was no such thing as salvation?
The juddering death took several minutes. Blood pooled. The young girl watched with interest, like she was watching a how to show on the TV.
Rodriguez wiped the knife off on a kitchen towel. “I’m sorry, I killed your father.”
“He wasn’t my father, he was a pervert.”
Rodriguez looked at her—she was chewing gum.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I wont tell anyone you killed him.”
Rodriguez looked at her a long time. He nodded slowly “Are you going to be okay?
She looked up at him, the gum churning noisily. “Are you?”
Rodriguez stared at her. “I have to finish the widow’s garden.”