Page 26


I stared at her. When I swallowed, it felt as if I were back in the dentist’s chair, someone’s big awkward hands rearranging my mouth, sending muted but persistent jabs of pain down the nerves of my jaw. “Do you think that would matter now?"

She lowered her eyes. Her voice grew hard around the edges. "I think it should. Lillian has had her own life, Tres, and she can create her own problems. You’re both grown-ups now. Maybe you should start thinking about it that way."

"Grown-ups," I repeated. "So why the hell are you following me around like my damn mother?"

I guess I deserved it. At least the coffee had cooled off a little before she threw it in my face. Then, since there wasn’t really any place to go to get away, Maia walked out the back door and sat down on Gary Hales’s patio. I took a long shower and changed before I went out to apologize. I put the ceramic road-trip statuette on the table and sat across from Maia. We both stared at it. The two skeleton lovers grinned back at us from the front seat of their little orange car. A few blocks away the ice cream truck went by, playing a warped rendition of "La Bamba."

“This is hard," I told Maia. "I’m sorry."

Her eyes were only a little red. I could almost convince myself it was just from the sleepless night.

She forced a smile. "I liked you better with the busted mouth."

"You and half of Texas," I said.

I noticed Gary Hales looking out his bedroom window at us, his face so drooping and soft with amazement it seemed about to melt off. I waved. After another minute of silence Maia picked up the statuette and turned it around. The skeletons in the convertible kept grinning, grotesque and shiny white.

“If you’re· right, somebody wants this back very badly," Maia said. "And not just for the artistic quality."

"So let’s assume the obvious."

"Yes."

I let her do the honors. The statuette hit the pavement. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find inside when the ceramic car cracked open. At first I didn’t see anything but clay. Then I nudged it with my toe and the back seat broke neatly open along a crack as thin as a piggy bank slot. Maia picked up the small silver disk by the edges and held it up to her eye, looking through the hole like a monocle.

"Don’t suppose you have a CD—ROM drive?" she said. When I heard the slovv shuffle of my landlord’s feet I looked up.

"I reckon you’ll be cleaning up that mess now?" Gary Hales asked mildly.

"I reckon," I said.

32

"Bats?" I said.

"Bats," said my half brother Garrett.

"I’ll admit," I said, "it’s a word I often think of when your name comes up."

"I’m not shitting you, little bro. You have to see this. It’s fucking unreal."

I covered the receiver and looked over at Maia.

"How’d you like to take a little road trip?" I asked her. She stared at me. "What?"

"Just to Austin. My brother wants to show us the sights."

Maia’s arms folded. "How many ‘no’ reasons do you want? Detective Schaeffer wants you in town, your car stands out on the road like a neon advertisement, you’ve been shot at and almost run over—"

I uncovered the receiver.

"We’d love to," I told Garrett.

"Cool," he said. "You remember what the Carmen Miranda looks like?"

"That would be kind of difficult to forget."

"The bridge at eight, little bro."

Instead of terminating my life, Maia compromised with me. She agreed to go to Austin; I agreed to let her rent a car for the trip. By early afternoon we were heading north on I-35 in a brown Buick so nondescript it was almost invisible. Maia kept having to honk at people to keep them from drifting into us on the highway. By the time we passed Live Oak I was convinced we were not being tailed.

"I would’ve preferred a white Cadil1ac," I protested.

"Asshole," she said.

When we hit Selma I discovered that the universe as I knew it had come to an end—the old Selma Police Department building had been turned into a bar and grille. For decades the terror of all motorists wanting to drive above fifty-five and a half mph, the town had finally cashed in its speed trap reputation for tourist dollars. The sign out front promised free appetizers with any proof of moving violation. And that was only the first surprise. The 1-35 corridor was almost nonstop developments now. There were outlet malls where cow pastures and ranch houses had once been, fast-food restaurants in knolls once filled with barbed wire and stands of mesquite trees. As we moved along the edge of the Hill Country I found myself less and less sure where I was. Even the few remaining cattle along the side of the highway looked confused.

When we stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant I remembered on the San Marcos River we found the place had closed four years ago. So we settled for a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and a billboard of Ralph the Swimming Pig in the park across from Wonder World. Paddleboats went by on the river; a few unambitious wet suit divers braved the ten-foot-deep green waters; Ralph the Swimming Pig and Maia kept looking at me.

"You haven’t told me what you’re thinking," Maia said.

I chewed on my bread and cheese and watched the river. It had taken me a few minutes to realize why I felt so bad being here again. Then I’d remembered that time with Lillian, Christmas break, when we’d gotten stupid drunk and gone skinny-dipping around midnight just a few yards upriver from here with a band of coked-up bluegrass players. The water had been so cold our lips turned purple. I remembered Lillian. Then I looked at Maia, sitting there in the sunlight, her eyes almost gold. The part of my mind that was trying to put the facts together felt like it was threading a needle with a pair of cooking mitts on.

"Tres?"

"Yeah, I know. I just don’t have an answer yet."

She ran her finger along the edge of her wineglass.

"Do you want to hear mine?"

She waited. I kept eating flavorless bread. Maia looked back down at her wineglass and swore under her breath, something about me being a stupid white devil. "Damn it, Tres. Do you think Lillian gave you that statue accidentally? Do you think she didn’t know what would happen when it turned up missing? How can you keep seeing her as just the victim?"

I stared out at the river. “Maybe."

"Maybe," she repeated. "What if, just maybe, Lillian disappeared on purpose? If it were me, once I realized the person I’d been trying to blackmail was really the mob, I’d admit I was in over my head and I’d run like hell. Maybe first I’d send up the only distress signal I could think of—to you. How are you going to know the truth when you see it?"

"The truth." I looked at her. "Maia, I know you’re trying to help. The truth is you’re distracting the hell out of me."

I think I wanted it to sound angry, but it didn’t come out that way.

Maia started to answer, then pressed her lips together. For a moment she looked cold in the sunshine, hugging her knees and curling up her toes under her beige sundress.

“Tell me to go home then," she said.

I looked down. We sat silent for a while and threw bread to some sickly-looking ducks. Sometimes they ate it. Most of the time they just stared at us and let the pieces hit them in the face. No points for intelligence. At the moment I empathized.

"Okay, then," Maia said. "Tell me you’ll come back ."

The paddleboaters laughed. Ralph the Pig grinned at me. I looked at Maia’s sad half smile and listened to the devil talking on my shoulder. I was chasing ghosts through a town I barely remembered, dealing with people I could barely see through emotional scar tissue. Maia could be right. I’d only made things different for the worse. And a beautiful woman was offering me escape from the first twenty years of my life. It would’ve taken a stupid man to tell Maia Lee no.

"No," I said.

Maia just nodded. She gave me a hand and pulled me up.

We looked at each other for a minute. Then she turned and headed toward the car.

I beaned a mallard with the last of the bread. He stood there for a minute with the same dazed expression I probably had. Then he honked and went skittering into the San Marcos River like he’d seen a ghost.

33

Around eight we pulled into the Marriott parking lot off Riverside in Austin and walked down to the water. You could barely see the city because of the sunset. Town Lake was a half-mile sheet of corrugated silver. Beyond it, behind a few wooded hills, downtown blazed with a dozen mirrored office buildings I’d never seen before. About the only things that looked the same as in 1985 were the red dome of the Capitol and the white UT tower.

The cement underside of the Congress Avenue Bridge echoed with chatters from a few million bats and only slightly fewer sightseers. When I spotted Garrett, he’d just pulled his wheelchair up to a newly erected plaque that honored the "bats of Austin" and was staring with distaste at the army of camera-toters. His tie-dyed shirt was stretched a little tighter these days and he’d gone almost completely gray, but he still looked like the love child of Charles Manson and Santa Claus, minus the legs.

"Man," he said, by way of greeting, “this is worse than fucking Carlsbad. They’ve discovered this place."

We shook hands. Garrett looked at Maia for a moment longer than he needed to, scratching his beard. Then he nodded.

“Last time I was here," he said, "it was me, couple of Hell’s Angels, three kayakers, and a lady with a poodle. Now look at this shit."

He led the way down the grassy slope, waving gnats out of his face and running over as many people’s feet as he could. Maia and I followed a few yards back.

"That’s—" Maia started to whisper. She looked at me, then at Garrett’s rainbow-clad back.

"Yeah, my half brother."

"You didn’t mention—"

"That he’s so much older than me?"

Maia glared at me.

"We got about five minutes," Garrett called back to us. He swung his chair around and squinted up at the top of the bridge, where the stone arches made a honey-comb of little caves. "Then the little peckers start coming out thicker than pig shit."

A line of retirees was standing in front of us, watching the bridge with binoculars. When we sat down on the grass knoll I found myself staring at a row of old butts in pastel prints. I exchanged looks with Garrett. He grinned.

"Yeah," he said. "Kind of gives you a different perspective of the world, doesn’t it?"

Maia sat down between us, her left arm pressing against mine just slightly, very warm. She smelled like amber. But of course I noticed none of that. She put her other hand on Garrett’s armrest.

"So, Garrett," she said, "Tres tells me you can break into high security networks with half your RAM tied behind your back."

Garrett laughed. He had more teeth than any human being I’d ever known, most of them yellow and crooked. Maia smiled back at him like he was Cary Grant.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***