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Under my feet, Tito started making wet, half-conscious grunts.

"And?" Ralph asked.

"That’s it. "

Ralph waited, smiling.

"Shit, man," Carlos pleaded, "a friend told me about it. I don’t know."

Ralph’s next shot took out a healthy chunk of concrete in front of Carlos’s left foot. By sheer luck, none of the fragments killed anybody.

"You’d better tell me about Eddie," Ralph suggested. I thought I was hearing beer pouring off the tables from the broken bottles. Then I saw the stream coming out the bottom of Carlos’s jeans.

"Jesus, man," he said. “Eddie’s ex-Air Force. He’s a construction worker. What the fuck else do you want?"

I handed Ralph the photos of suspects from Larry Drapiewski's files. Ralph glanced at them, then held them up for Carlos to see, one at a time, leisurely.

"Which one is he?" Ralph said.

Carlos looked, then shook his head, almost reluctantly. “No, man. None of these. He’s about twenty-six, crew cut, kind of light-skinned. Tattoo. Heavy on top, you know? Pumps iron. Drives a green Chevy. Eddie’s here most nights by this time, man. I don’t know where the fuck he is."

Tattoo. Construction worker? Wait a minute. I tapped on the bar to get Carlos’s attention. "

"This tattoo," I said. “About here, eagle and a snake?"

Carlos glanced over at me, then nodded, very slowly.

“Que padre," said Ralph. "Now how about the story?"

Carlos addressed Ralph’s gun as he talked. "Eddie comes in Sunday night, I don’t know when, late. He’s got this girl by the arm, kind of skinny but good-looking, sort of blond hair. And she’s stumbling like she’s really wasted, so Eddie jokes with us that she’s got to go puke. She had jeans and a black shirt on, nice tits. So they go back to the Porta-john and he waits for her to come out. The pay phone’s right over there, you know? So he makes a call. Says to us he can’t stick around. But the funny thing is this lady kicks Eddie on the shin as they’re going back to the car, and we all start laughing. Then he sort of slaps her, you know, cuts her across the eye with his ring, and they get in the car. That’s it."

He said it matter-of-fact, like it happened every night at Tito’s. I swallowed. Maybe I would’ve gotten more emotional, but something about Ralph and that .357 kept me cool and sober.

"How did the girl act?" I asked. "Besides wasted."

Carlos looked at me like the question was in Japanese. "Her? Shit, I don’t know. Like they always act, you know? Pissed off, I guess—arguing, hitting him."

Instead of using my stool on him, I said: "Did it cross your mind she might be in trouble?"

He almost laughed at that, then he remembered the gun.

"With Eddie every lady’s in trouble," he said. "She didn’t scream or help or anything, man. Nothing like that."

"Did Eddie have a piece?"

Carlos looked helpless. "I didn’t even think about it, man. I don’t think so. I know he carries sometimes. He does some work for some friends of his sometimes; that’s what I hear."

“What friends?" Ralph said.

"I don’t have any idea, man. That’s the truth. He just said—yeah, he said one thing. That he had to get up early tomorrow, ’cause the lady had to make a phone call for him. That’s it, man."

Monday morning, when Lillian had supposedly left her message with Beau about Laredo. I pictured her making it with a gun pressed against her neck. I pictured Beau not giving a damn.

That’s when I heard sirens in the distance, coming from downtown. Ralph yawned. He slid off his stool. Then he stretched his arms leisurely and put the gun away.

"You see Eddie," Ralph said, “tell him he’s been dead since Sunday. Rigor just hasn’t set in yet."

Lydia Mendoza had finished her last song, but nobody changed the tape. We walked out to the parking lot in silence, then we disappeared down Durango in the maroon U-boat. On the dashboard, the tip of Ralph’s joint hadn’t even gone out yet.

After a few minutes I said: "You know this Eddie?"

He shook his head. “You?"

I nodded. "I had to kick him in the balls outside Hung Fong."

Ralph glanced over at me, impressed. We drove a few more blocks in silence.

"Why would you take a girl you’d just kidnapped to a bar?" I said. "It’d make more sense to get out of sight and stay there."

"You afraid the lady was with him by choice?"

I didn’t say anything. Ralph smiled. "No, man. Guys like this Eddie, they don’t need to make sense. Long as they make a good show."

I thought about that. Then I said: "Just this morning I told a friend of mine in California how you like a low profile, Ralphas. That was before I saw your Annie Oakley routine."

Ralph laughed. "You know how many bar fights and shootings go on in this side of town every night, vato? That was low profile."

"Oh."

Ralph inhaled about an inch of the mota, then blew it out through his nose. We drove for a long time. But when I closed my eyes I saw Tito’s pulverized face, Lillian with a bloody eye, a red cement floor chipped and splattered on. And still Ralph looked out his window, watching the multicolored yards of the South Side and sighing like a hopeless romantic. A romantic with blood on his boots.

"Besides," Ralph said after a while, "I always wanted to be Annie Oakley, man."

We both laughed about that for a long time.

28

Three hours later I should’ve been asleep on the futon with Robert Johnson snoring on my head. Instead I was crouching outside a chainlink fence in the weeds.

"No accounting for intelligence," I told the cow next to me.

She grumbled in agreement.

Except for my bovine friend and occasional gunshots from the nearby apartment projects, it was quiet. The guard inside the glass doors of Sheff Construction looked about as excited to be here as I was. His mouth was open. He had his feet up on the desk, his face lit up blue from the portable TV on his belly. In the binoculars his name tag said "Timothy S."

I’d circled the grounds and watched for almost forty-five minutes before I was relatively sure that Timothy S. was alone in the building. From there it was easy.

"Cover me," I told the cow.

Two minutes to clip along the base of the fence and roll under, then thirty seconds across the petunias and up to the side of the building. Contact paper on the bathroom window, a small muffled break next to the latch, and a minute later I was inside standing on the urinal.

Once my eyes adjusted to the dark I slipped into the hallway. Down on the left, I could hear Lucy and Ricky having it out on the guard’s TV set. I went right, into a room of work cubicles. On my way through I put a garbage can in the doorway, just in case the guard decided to do something radical like patrol the area. A door in the back said "D. Sheff. " It wasn’t locked.

After a few minutes inside I saw why. Dan had no computer on his desk, no files in the cabinet, no paperwork of any kind except a few dog-eared novels. There was a decanter of Chivas in the side drawer of the desk and a Looney Tunes glass like the kind Texaco used to give with a fill-up. The closet was less friendly: an extra Bill Blass jacket, no matching slacks, and a box of .22 ammunition, no matching gun.

I slipped out of the office and tried another door. This one said "T. Garza." And it was locked, for a few seconds anyway.

Once inside I sat down in Garza’s leather chair, behind his oak desk, and looked at his picture of the wife and kids. An attractive Hispanic woman in her forties, two sons about six and nine. Garza stood behind them smiling, a thin, athletic-looking man with silver hair and mustache, a nervous smile, eyes as dark as an East Indian’s. He was the man I’d seen Dan arguing with in front of the office that afternoon.

His desk drawers were unlocked and the computer terminal was still on. Damn accommodating. At least it seemed that way until I was denied access to every file tried to open.

I studied the dimmed screen. If I were an ordinary schmuck I would’ve spent the next few hours hunting for passwords in Garza’s desk and file cabinets. Instead I took out the disk my big brother had traded me six months ago for a pair of Jimmy Buffett tickets.

"Mr. Garza," I said quietly, "meet Spider John."

Good old Garrett. When my half brother wasn’t smoking pot or following Jimmy Buffett around the country, he made innocuous system extension programs for an Austin computer firm called RNI. When he was smoking pot and following Jimmy Buffett around the country, he made not-so-innocuous programs like Spider john. I never figured out how it worked. Garrett had talked to me about weaving temporary logic webs around command functions until I went cross-eyed.

Finally I’d said: "Give it to me in three words or less."

Garrett gave me one of his toothy grins. "Ganja for computers, little bro."

Whatever it did, when I put the disk in and Spider john’s black web wove across the screen, to the muted tune of "Havana Daydreamin’," Mr. Garza’s computer suddenly smiled at me and mellowed out something considerable. Anything I punched in for a password seemed perfectly groovy now. MICKEY MOUSE, I typed. COOL, it said, and showed me Sheff Construction’s personnel files.

Eddie Moraga was listed on the payroll as a half-time carpenter. No health benefits. No special duties noted, such as abducting women from their homes or intimidating English Ph.D.s in front of Chinese restaurants. Twelve thousand dollars a year. But that wasn’t including a ten-thousand-dollar monthly item labeled “expenses".

A carpenter with an expense account. Not since Jesus, I figured.

I tried to access a description for that field, hit another roadblock, typed EAT ME for a password. Even then the computer didn’t offer much of an explanation for what Sheff Construction expected Eddie to spend his petty cash on, just a familiar address--HECHO A MANO GALLERY, 21 LA VILLITA WAY. The expense account had been drawn on at the end of each month for the last year, in regular cash installments, and was authorized by the man whose chair I was borrowing--Terry Garza. The date for the next withdrawal was marked "7/31." I took out the two cut-up photos I’d retrieved from Beau’s portfolio. They were marked on the back in black pen: "7/31."

I looked up at Garza’s picture.

"Supporting the arts?" I asked him.

Garza’s picture smiled back, looking a little nervous. I typed a few more insults for passwords and started skimming through the Sheffs’ financial spreadsheets. There wasn’t much to look at—very few jobs had been done this year, very little money was coming in. In fact, Sheff Construction seemed to have been surviving until last year on one bread-and-butter contract alone: Travis Center. Hmm.

I looked at the company profits for the last decade. From ’83-’85 there hadn’t been any. Just some fairly massive debts, probably some fairly nervous corporate creditors. Then, almost overnight, the debts disappeared quietly and completely. In their place had been the Travis Center project.

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