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Still the only light was the pink glow under the bedroom door. I stuck my head in slowly, half expecting her to be curled up under the covers. An unmade bed, a half-open underwear drawer, but no Lillian.

An uncomfortable burning sensation started building strength in my chest.

I checked the back room, then the kitchen. A small AM radio was talking to itself on the cutting board. The sinkful of dishes wasn’t surprising in itself, but they’d been scrubbed and never rinsed.

Possibilities started occurring to me that I didn’t want to entertain. I checked the front door again, then the windows for signs of forced entry. Nothing obvious, though very little would’ve shown up on tie scuffed and scarred doorjamb, and the window latches were woefully easy to work open. The stereo equipment was untouched. The answering machine had been turned off. No messages to replay. Computer disks and files were strewn around her desk, but no equipment seemed to be missing. Someone had been looking for something here recently in a messy fashion, but it could easily have been Lillian. I checked for toiletries in the bathroom and looked in her closet. No signs that she’d packed for a trip, but no definite proof that she hadn’t.

Then I heard the clump of skates on the hardwood floor behind me. One of the Rodriguez children rolled into the bedroom doorway and grabbed the doorjamb to steady herself. She had stringy hair and small dark eyes, glittering as she looked at me. She was wearing a red and white striped dress with teddy bears on it.

I must have had a startled look on my face. She giggled. as I was still trying to frame a question when she skated back toward the front door, letting out a happy squeal as if she expected to be chased. She turned at the door and looked back, grinning mischievously.

“Do you know Lillian?" I asked, still in the bedroom doorway.

I’m not great with kids; I can’t handle the eerie resemblance they bear to human beings. She cocked her head like a curious dog might.

"You’re not the same man," she said.

Then she was gone, the screen door slamming behind her.

Now what the hell had that meant? I should’ve followed the child and asked her more questions, but the idea of chasing a group of prepubescents on roller skates down the sidewalk in the dark was more than I could handle just then.

Maybe she was talking about Dan Sheff. The neighbors would have seen him here many times, no doubt. Or maybe she’d seen someone else come into the house. I turned and stared at Lillian’s bed. The burning feeling got stronger in my chest.

"Wait for tomorrow morning," I told myself.

Maybe she had decided to stay an extra night in Laredo; maybe she was on her way back right now. I pictured her coming home and finding me in her house uninvited, or learning that I’d questioned the neighbors on her comings and goings. The "I was worried" argument wouldn’t carry much weight with a woman who had recently accused me of trying to control her affairs.

I weighed that against the unlocked door, the unread mail and newspapers, the ha1f-washed dishes. I didn’t like it. On the other hand, it wasn’t totally out of character for Lillian to leave any of those things in her wake. I locked the front door behind me.

The thunderstorm was directly overhead now, but there was no rain, just churning dry electricity. The Rodriguez children had finally abandoned the street. Exhausted as I was, I still couldn’t face the idea of going back to Queen Anne and trying to sleep. I drove back to the Olmos Dam, then parked the car where there really wasn’t a shoulder and sat on the edge of the drop-off with my bottle of Herradura, my feet dangling above the treetops.

I watched the storm move south for almost an hour. I tried not to think about where Lillian was, or about my earlier soiree with Red and Tattoo, or about the package of clippings on my father’s murder. It felt like there was a huge slow spider crawling back and forth inside my head, trying to connect those things with tenuous, unwelcomed threads. Every time something started taking shape, I took another drink of tequila to wash it away.

I’m not sure how I got home, but when I woke up early Wednesday morning the ironing board was ringing. I yanked it down from the wall and fumbled with the receiver. ·

"Hola, vato, " the man on the other end said, then he insulted me rapidly in Spanish.

I rubbed my eyes until the walls came into focus. It took my brain a second to switch languages, then I placed the voice.

“That doesn’t sound like a real hygienic position, Ralph," I said. "Haven’t you guys heard about AIDS?"

Ralph Arguello laughed.

"So I heard right," he said. "You’re back in town and speaking Espanol, no less. How the hell am I supposed to insult you to your face now?"

If there had been a spider in my head last night, this morning it felt like the thing had crawled into my throat and died. I sat on the floor and tried not to throw up.

“So how’s the pawnshop business, Ralphas?"

I’d known Ralph since varsity in high school. Even then he was a con man of epic proportions. He’d once stolen the coach’s pickup truck and sold it back to him in a different color, so the legend went. About the time I went off to college Ralph had started buying pawn-shops all around the West Side, and by the time I’d gotten my BA, I’d heard rumors that Ralph was worth a million dollars, not all of it from honest loans.

“How do you feel about visiting my side of town today?" Something in his tone of voice had changed. It made me wish I could concentrate more on his words without the pounding in my head.

"There’s a lot going on right now, Ralph. Maybe we cou — "

“Yeah," he interrupted, "I heard about Lillian, and I heard she’s out of town. This isn’t exactly a social call."

I waited. It didn’t surprise me that Ralph knew all this, any more than that he’d known I could now speak Spanish. Ralph could just drive through town and news would cling to him the way lint clings to velvet. Still, the mention of Lillian’s name woke me up fast.

"Okay," I said finally. "What is it?"

“One of my girls just showed me a purse she found out on Zarzamora a few nights ago. It’d been run over a couple of times. The driver’s license says ‘Lillian Cambridge’. "

16

By the time I parked the VW on the curbless street in front of the Blanco Cafe, my hangover had been replaced by a colder kind of nausea. I was afraid I’d go completely numb with it if I didn’t keep moving.

A sign inside the grimy window of the cafe read "Abierto." I stepped over two emaciated brown dogs that were snoring in the doorway and went in.

The air inside was thick, lubricated with the smell of peppers and old grease. It was only seven-thirty in the morning, but at least twenty men crowded the counter along one side of the tiny room to wolf down steaming fried migas and black coffee. Huge waitresses, their hair the color of chorizo, were shouting at each other in Spanish. They carried plates the size of hubcaps four at a time from the kitchen. It was the only place in town I knew where you could get a meal two plates wide that cost under three dollars.

Some of the men at the counter looked over at me, their brown eyes sleepy, slightly annoyed when they saw I was a gringo. Then they went back to their migas. Only one person was sitting away from the counter. At a yellow Formica table in the back corner, under a huge black velvet painting of a Mayan warrior, Ralph Arguello was drinking a Big Red. He was grinning at me.

“Vato, " he said, then motioned for me to come back.

If John Lennon had been born Hispanic and then overfed on buttered gorditas, he would’ve looked like Ralph. His hair was long and tangled, parted in the middle and tied back in a ponytail, and his eyes were invisible behind the sheen of his thick round glasses. Ralph’s face was as round and smooth as a baby’s, but when he smiled, there was a demonic glee there that made men nervous.

Ralph dressed more expensively than Lennon ever had, though—today he was wearing a white linen guayabera that almost managed to hide his belly and a gold chain around his neck so thick you could lock up a bicycle with it.

He held out a meaty hand. I shook it.

Then he sat back, still grinning. His black eyes swam around beneath several inches of prescription glass. Maybe he was looking at me, maybe at the stack of business papers in front of him. I couldn’t tell.

When he spoke it was in Spanish.

"You remember jersey and those other pendejos came after me for slashing their tires?"

I was thinking about Lillian, about her empty bedroom lit up the color of blood. I wanted to scream at Ralph to get to the point, but that wasn’t the way he worked. He talked in circles and you just had to hang on for the ride.

I sat down.

"Yeah," I said. "They came at us outside Mr. M’s, didn’t they, right after school."

"Us?"

He laughed—a small, sharp sound like a cat’s sneeze.

"You could’ve walked," he said. “Never figured out why this scrawny white boy was stupid enough to back up my Mexican ass against four redneck linebackers."

"I knew someday you’d be rich and famous," suggested.

"Damn right. "

“And there were only three of them."

Ralph shrugged. “That’s what I said. Ain’t that what I said?"

He shouted at the waitress for two more Big Reds. Then he leaned forward and put his elbows on the table, his smile gone. I caught the distinct, heavy smell of bay rum on his clothes.

"So last night," he said, "I’m talking to this girl who owes me some . . . back rent, you know?"

I nodded. Ralph paused while a waitress clunked two sweating soda bottles in front of us.

“And this girl says she’s low on cash but she’s come across some credit cards maybe I can use. I tell her maybe so. Then I see the name on the cards and it rings a bell. I think about you."

Ralph spread his hands in a “what could I do?" gesture.

"She’s a good lady, this friend of mine, but you know, sometimes she needs encouragement to stay honest. So we talk for a while about how she really found this stuff, but it seemed to me like she was telling the truth—out on Zarzamora like I said."

Ralph put the wallet on the table. It was a Guatemalan billfold, now stained and muddy, embroidered with blue and green trouble dolls. It was Lillian’s. Ralph took out several credit cards, then her license. Lillian’s face stared up at me from the yellow Formica—a bad picture, washed out and unfocused, but it still captured her lopsided smile, her amused multicolored eyes.

"Was there any money?" I asked.

Ralph shrugged. "Cash evaporates fast with this lady friend of mine; you know how that is. But yeah, I think there probably was."

“Then the wallet wasn’t stolen. She dropped it, or somebody dropped it."

“Vato, billfolds full of credit cards and money don’t sit very long in the middle of the road. Especially my side of town. Couldn’t’ve been dropped too long before my friend picked it up—a little before midnight on Sunday, say."

“Could you find out anything else?"

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