Chen Man Cheng once said that if your movements were refined enough you should be able to practice tai chi in a closet. He never said anything about doing it in a jail cell.
When I rose to meet the new day with my usual exercise routine, my head was pounding, my stomach was empty and sore, and my mouth had swollen to the size of a small cantaloupe. The stink of old urine and semen from the bunk mattress had rubbed off on my clothes. My tongue tasted like Robert Johnson’s food dish. In short, I was looking and feeling my best as I started my first set.
"What the fuck is that?" my cellmate said.
One of his parents had obviously been a Weimaraner. He was incredibly thin and desperate-looking, with splotchy skin and a face that was almost all nose. He hunched over in the top bunk, staring down at me with a pained smile. He wheezed when he spoke.
Maybe I could’ve moved my mouth enough to respond to his question, but I didn’t try. It was taking all my concentration just to keep from falling over or throwing up. After the first set he lost interest and laid back down.
“Goddamn nutcase," he wheezed.
By the time I started my low form routine I’d managed to work up a good sweat. I’d like to say I felt better. The truth is my mind was just clearer and more able to appreciate how screwed up things really were. We had the talented Mr. Karnau, whose photographs, even if they were poo-pooed by the art world, were still fetching ten grand a month from certain interested patrons. It seemed a lot to pay for an original Karnau, unless the shot was one the buyers didn’t want publicized, and the payment was blackmail money to protect—say—some illegally contracted construction jobs worth millions. Then a little payoff, a little abduction, maybe a little murder, started looking cost-effective. And Beau had started this line of work last year about the same time Lillian had demanded out of their business. Back then Beau had gotten sufficiently violent to warrant a restraining order. Now that Lillian wanted out of the business again, she had disappeared altogether.
We had the dashing Mr. Sheff, who seemed eager to lead his company to greatness as soon as his mother combed his hair and tied his shoes. I couldn’t see a nineteen-year-old Dan initiating the Travis Center scheme ten years ago. I could barely see a twenty-nine-year-old Dan carrying on the family tradition now by fixing the bidding on the new fine arts complex. Nevertheless, he’d lied to me about Beau, had just about gone apoplectic when I mentioned the name, and he certainly had a strong desire to claim Lillian as his territory months after Lillian started having other ideas. Either Dan Jr. or someone else in Sheff Construction--his mother, or maybe Garza acting on his own—had arranged Karnau’s payment, then Lillian’s kidnapping, then Garza’s desperate search for whatever it was they wanted so badly. And Sheff Construction wasn’t in this alone. There had been two people cut out of Karnau’s blackmailing photo, and two copies of it in his portfolio, which meant somebody else was getting Karnau’s bill too. Maybe that somebody was getting pissed at their partners in Sheff Construction. Maybe that’s why Eddie Moraga came back to work last night dead.
But there were too many maybes.
All night long I’d been dreaming about Eddie Moraga’s blue T-bird, except it was me behind the wheel, or sometimes Lillian. She would look at me and say: "I’ve been saving this for you, Tres. " Only one answer made sense to me about why Lillian disappeared when she did, and why Garza would want to ransack her house, her gallery, then my apartment. Lillian had given me something for safekeeping, something I’d inadvertently given away.
I finished tai chi about the time the guard brought breakfast.
I tried to eat powdered eggs from a plastic tray. The pain in my mouth was so bad with every bite I might as well have tried chewing on staples. Above me the Weimaraner seemed to be nuzzling his breakfast to death. I held up the rest of mine and he snatched it instantly.
When I heard the metal gate buzz at the end of the hallway and two pairs of shoes coming my way, I figured Rivas was coming to gloat. Maybe he’d found some sadistic friend to bring along this time. I put on my best mean and stoic look, tried not to drool out of my busted mouth, and stood to face them.
It was worse than I had imagined. When the guard slid back the door I was standing face-to-face with my mother. She instantly grabbed my cheeks for a kiss and sent a wave of hot lava from my gums all the way to my toenails.
"Oh, Tres," she said, "I’m sorry."
Through tears of pain I managed to nod.
Mother had come prepared. Her vanilla essence was so strong it even dissolved the stench of the cell. She’d pulled a colorful Guatemalan patchwork cloak around her to ward off the institutional green. She was wearing so much Mexican silver jewelry I imagined she could’ve hidden several metal files in there without arousing much suspicion. Fortunately I dicdn’t need to find out. She stood there, sadly shaking her head. Then she said: "Let’s go home."
Still dazed, I shuffled out behind her into the light and bureaucracy of the Bexar County jail Annex. Three or four pounds of paperwork later, they brought us into a conference room that was empty except for a table and four chairs. In one of those chairs was Homicide Detective Gene Schaeffer, looking as sleepy as he’d sounded the first time I’d talked to him on the phone five days ago. In the second chair was a fifty-year-old incarnation of a Ken doll, dressed in a summer-weight white Armani suit.
"Tres," my mother said, looking at the Armani Ken doll, "this is Byron Ash. Mr. Ash has agreed to represent you."
It took a minute for the name to sink in. Then I raised my eyebrows. "Lord Byron," formerly of the King Ranch, probably the most high-profile corporate lawyer in South Texas. It was said that when Byron Ash sneezed, the price of oil fell and state judges caught pneumonia. My mother would’ve had to mortgage her house just to pay his consultation fee. I looked at her in amazement. For some reason, she didn’t seem at all pleased with her accomplishment. In fact, she seemed almost sour.
"I’ll explain later, dear," she muttered.
Ash smiled slicker than Texas crude. "We were just discussing this unfortunate incident with Detective Schaeffer, Mr. Navarre. And although criminal law is not my specialty, it would seem to me—"
He turned that smile on Schaeffer, started talking, and fifteen minutes later I was a free man. I’m not sure exactly what happened. Ash established that I was not at present charged with anything. Certainly I was not under suspicion in the Eddie Moraga homicide. The Sheffs had decided not to press charges against me for trespassing. Therefore I could not be held. Ash used the word "liability" a lot. Schaeffer made a lame admonition for me to "stay available for questioning? I made a lame promise to "stay out of police business." Rivas never showed up.
Mother took one arm, Byron Ash took the other, and we walked outside onto the steps of the Annex. The morning sky was overcast and a hot wind pushed dried pecan leaves across the sidewalk like little canoes. The scent of advancing rain hung in the air like aluminum. I’d never smelled anything so good.
I didn’t think it was possible for me to have any more surprises that morning. One dead body, almost two including myself, breakfast in jail, and a high-priced lawyer shaking my hand just about filled my quota. But when I spotted Mother’s Volvo, where she’d illegally parked it on North San Marcos, most of my internal organs folded into a slipknot and pulled themselves taut. Byron Ash strolled down to the Volvo, shook hands with the woman waiting there, said "No problem," then strolled away.
My mother sighed. "I asked her to wait."
For a minute I stopped thinking about images of the dead and started wondering whether my fly was unzipped, whether I’d washed all the blood out of my hair in the cell sink. My mother pushed me forward, like she used to do in junior school cotillion dances. I felt absurd and awkward, mostly stunned.
Maia Lee gave me a dazzling smile.
"I almost thought you’d make it a whole week without me, Tex."
Maia looked great, of course. She was wearing all white silk—blazer, blouse, and pants—and her skin glowed like hot caramel. Her hair was tied back in a rich brown ponytail. As usual she wore no makeup or jewelry, and when she smiled you could see why she dicln’t need any.
I opened my mouth to say something, but all that came out was mumble. I think it would’ve been mumble even without the busted mouth.
"Don’t try to talk, Jackson," said my mother.
Maia’s eyes glittered. She touched my jaw lightly with her fingertips. There was no pain, but I flinched. Slowly, her smile dissolved. She took her hand away. I wasn’t used to people being glad to see me. My look was probably harsher than it should’ve been. I was in pain. I was angry. I resented the way it felt to see her again. I didn’t like the way my eyes kept drifting down to the cut of her blouse against her collarbone. Maia’s face closed up.
"After our talk I got concerned," she said. "I had some vacation time coming. It wasn’t a problem. When I couldn’t find you at your apartment—"
She nodded at my mother.
I looked at Mother, who folded her Guatemalan cloak over her arm and sighed.
"Tres, I just wish . . ." Mother let that statement hang, as if I should be able to complete it myself. "You remember Sergeant Andrews, of course."
I nodded, not really remembering which ex-boyfriend that was. Maybe Andrews was the one who had dated my mother for a few months after her divorce, before she had exploded into full Bohemian. As I recall, he’d shown up one night with roses and a couple of T-bones and found her burning patchouli incense over a spread of Tarot cards. He never came by much after that.
"Sergeant Andrews was good enough to call me."
Mother made it obvious that some people had not been.
"Ms. Lee insisted on helping. She suggested Mr. Ash."
Mother was resentful. Maia had interrupted a perfectly good maternal rescue operation and now Mother was obliged to stand apart from her, avoid eye contact, and do her best to look hurt. She crossed her arms and hugged her silver and Guatemalan prints tight.
If Maia noticed, she ignored it. She met my eyes again and tried to make her tone light as she spoke. "So," she said, "here I am."
All three of us feeling wonderful, we rode north on McAlister toward my mother’s dentist’s office while the rainstorm came through. After ten minutes my mother, never one for prolonged silences, tried to break the ice.
She put on a cassette of Buddhist chants.
"Chinese mysticism is so fascinating," she told Maia. "I’ve been studying it for years, off and on."
Maia had been staring out at the rolling live oak forests along the highway. She pulled her eyes away and smiled absently at my mother.
"I’ll have to take your word for it, " she said. "Is there a good place to get huevos rancheros on the way, Ms. McKinnis? I’m afraid I’m starving."
I could almost see my mother cringing closer to the driver’s side window. We listened to the windshield wipers for the rest of the drive.
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