ON THE LAST Thursday in March, 1999, Howie Patino stepped onto Alaska Airlines Flight 190 out of Anchorage, carrying a teddy bear with a little ribbon across the front that read,
Howie wore his best suit, his only suit, because he wanted to look like he was “dressed for success.” He also wore, he told me later, a huge smile. “A big, fat, dumb one,” he said. “How dumb, stupid, and blind can a guy be?”
His sleep was peaceful on the trip to Los Angeles. Hardly a hint of turbulence. The guy sitting next to him was no trouble at all, chatting amiably without overdoing it. Mostly Howie slept and dreamed of Rae—Rae in a bathing suit. Rae sitting by the pool and offering him a long, cool drink. Rae making kissing noises at him just like she used to.
Howie woke up smiling when the plane touched down at the Los Angeles Airport as smooth as a swan gliding onto a pond at Disneyland. That was one of Howie’s favorite places. He and Rae had gone there on their honeymoon. He told me that Rae’s favorite attraction was “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” They went on it five times that night, laughing and screaming like little kids.
The sleep on the plane had removed any creeping hint of fatigue, so Howie wasn’t tired when he finally made it to the Greyhound station and boarded the bus. It had all gone so well to this point. Howie closed his eyes and thanked God that he and Rae would be together even sooner than planned.
The trip north, though, took forever.
It was bumper-to-bumper into Westwood and through the Sepulveda Pass. Things opened up a little in Sherman Oaks but tightened again around Tarzana. All the way up, Howie ticked off the towns in his head in a cadence of anticipation: Calabasas and Agoura, Westlake and Thousand Oaks, Ventura and Ojai. Like stepping stones across dividing waters, they were taking him closer and closer to Rae.
It was pure night when the bus finally pulled into Hinton. Moonless. And the town, in its peculiar rustic ceremony, was starting to fold up. Through the bus window Howie saw a few tourists sitting on the outside patio of the Hinton Hotel sipping evening wine and watching the passengers—all three of them—step out into a bit of country California.
The first to alight was Howie, still holding the teddy bear. An older couple sitting at the hotel smiled at him. A good sign. Howie smiled back, snatched his duffel bag from the sidewalk where the bus driver had dropped it, looped it over his shoulder, and started walking west toward White Oak Avenue.
Hinton was both strange and familiar, Howie told me. It seemed, as he got further and further from the town square, unnaturally still. Mixed with the hopeful perfume of orange blossoms and sage, the smell of cows and dry weeds wafted through the air. Howie said later that those were the last smells he remembered, until that final smell, the awful stench of fresh blood that he would mention in the police report.
At White Oak he turned south under an awning of towering eucalyptus trees. It was like walking through a dark tunnel, Howie said, but he knew where the light at the end was—home and Rae, security and warmth. All would be well once again.
When he finally reached the front door of the little house at the end of White Oak, he was dizzy with excitement. He tossed the duffel bag onto the porch and held the teddy bear behind his back as he reached for the doorknob. The door was locked, though, and Rae hadn’t given him a house key when he left for Alaska. This was one of her peculiarities, which Howie overlooked through eyes of love. He wouldn’t be sneaking in for the surprise he’d planned, so he knocked.
And knocked again.
He shouted, “Rae!” and pounded on the door.
No answer. No lights on inside.
He set the little bear on top of the duffel bag and went around to the side gate, finding it padlocked. It had never been padlocked before. Something wasn’t right.
A dog barked in the yard next door.
“Quiet!” Howie ordered as he scaled the wall and jumped into the side yard, knocking over a recycling container. It thudded hard on the walkway, its contents of bottles and cans spilling onto the concrete.
The dog barked louder.
Howie slipped around to the back patio. The sliding glass door was never locked. Never a need for it in Hinton. He would get in that way.
But tonight it
locked. Howie banged on the glass with his fist. No answer from inside.
Okay, so she wasn’t home.
Where was she then? Out with friends maybe. She wasn’t expecting him, after all. He’d caught an early flight because he wanted to surprise her. All this was his own fault, Rae would tell him, maybe at the top of her lungs. That was her way sometimes. He’d grown used to it.
Howie considered his choices. He could grab his stuff and go downtown and have a Coke while he waited. He could see if she was at Sue’s house, and if not, he could ask Sue to make some calls.
Or he could try to get in the house.
With full force, Howie yanked the sliding glass door. The lock snapped, and the door slid open. Later, Howie would say he didn’t realize he had that much strength and speculated that his action might have been due to something more welled up inside him, a part of him he never knew he had, like when a mother suddenly gets the strength to lift an automobile when her child is trapped underneath.
Howie entered the house, found a lamp, and turned on the light.
The first thing he noticed was the sofa and the clothes tossed carelessly on it. Rae was never much of a housekeeper, but this was an out-and-out mess. On an end table was an ashtray with a few cigarette butts. Rae had supposedly quit smoking. Had she started up again while he was away?
Howie stood and listened for a few moments, and not hearing anything, walked down the hall to the master bedroom.
He opened the door and turned on the light.
Someone was in bed. The covers moved and then Rae Patino sat up.
“Rae, didn’t you hear me?”
Her red hair was messy. With a head toss she whisked the strands out of her face and stared at him coldly. “What are you doing here?”
“Tomorrow. You said
“Surprised?” He took a few steps toward her, his arms out for an embrace.
Rae recoiled. “You can’t stay here.”
“Honey, what are you talking about?”
“You just can’t, that’s all.”
“Just leave, Howie.”
“But Rae, I’m
He said it like he had to convince himself.
Rae sighed and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Look,” she said, “you might as well know it now. I’m in love with somebody else.”
It wouldn’t have been any different, Howie said later, if she had stuck a knife in his stomach and carved him like a Halloween pumpkin. That was the moment things started to go fuzzy on him. He was in and out after that, feeling dizzy half the time and plain lost the other half.
He figured a half hour went by as he pleaded with her, cried in front of her, begged her to see someone for counseling. It seemed to him she was, by turns, cold and caring, obstinate and open. He thought there might be at least some hope of reconciliation, if only she’d try.
And then there was the matter of Brian. During the course of the conversation, Howie asked Rae where their five-year-old son was, and she told him he was at Sue’s house, where he loved to visit. It seemed odd to Howie that Brian would be there in the middle of the week, but he paid it no mind. It was more important to talk about their future, the three of them, together.
Howie finally said, “We can all move up there now. I’ve got a place and a good job. They’re building like crazy, and it’s a great place for a kid to grow up.”
Rae was unmoved. “I’m not going to freeze in Alaska, you can bet on that.”
“Rae, please. We need to be together. For Brian.”
When he said that, her eyes seemed to darken. Howie remembered that explicitly. It was like looking into two dead pools at midnight.
“What makes you so proud?” Rae said.
“Proud of what?”
“Brian.” Her voice seemed to spit the name.
“What are you talking about, Rae?”
“I’m talking about Brian, Howie.”
“What about him?”
“What makes you think he’s yours?”
It was the smile on her face then that unlatched a dark door to some unnamed oblivion. Howie’s memories of the next few minutes were short, surreal images, which included that smile twisting her face into a funhouse clown expression, the mockery of it, and her hands clasped behind her head as she lay on the bed as if showing Howie what he would never have again. Then came the blackness followed by the gleam of a blade, a flash almost as bright as a tabloid photographer’s camera, a scream, the red stained sheets, the sounds of a woman sucking for breath, and that final image he couldn’t get away from, that he kept mentioning over and over. “The devil,” the police report stated. “Suspect keeps talking about the devil.”