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"There’s nothing here," she whispered. She got up and moved on.

When I followed Maia into the bedroom she was shining her flashlight on Lillian’s white wicker baby carriage. It was lined with red gingham and filled with rows of antique porcelain dolls. Ever since junior high, that carriage had been in Lillian’s bedroom wherever she lived. I remember feeling nervous the first time I’d kissed her on her bed, looking over her shoulder at all those little porcelain eyes.

“It’s my mother’s." Lillian had laughed, biting my ear. "Family heirloom, Tres. I can’t get rid of it."

I touched the gingham blanket. There was a small bundle tucked underneath. I brought it out. Ten letters postmarked from San Francisco, each carefully refolded and placed back in its envelope. Before I could put them away, Maia took the stack, noticed the address, then dropped them lightly back into the doll collection.

"So that’s what happened to all my stamps," she said.

She shone the flashlight right in my eyes as she turned away. I tried to believe it was an accident.

After a few minutes in the bathroom, Maia found a cigar box full of assorted junk—door handles, rubber bands, costume jewelry, and a rather large diamond engagement ring.

Maia held up the ring and examined it. Finally she said: "Can I assume you didn’t mail this too?"

I stared at it, wondering how many years I would have to work for something like that, assuming I ever got a job. Maia’s expression was tightly controlled, but from the cold fierceness in her eyes I guessed she was pondering where on my face she might most effectively embed the engagement ring.

It was a strange feeling, sitting on Lillian’s bathroom floor, having a stare-down with my former lover by the light of her pencil flashlight. Then the police siren sounded. It was a few blocks away and probably had nothing to do with us, but it reminded us where we were. Ten minutes later we were back in Maia’s Buick, heading out of Monte Vista.

I said nothing except to direct Maia through town until we were crossing the Olmos Dam. Then I said:

"Wait. Pull over."

Maia frowned. She looked at the narrow road that sloped off a hundred feet into the Basin on either side.

“Pull over where?"

"Just pull over."

I got out and leaned against the hood of the Buick, which was only slightly warmer than the air. Tonight there was no storm coming through. It was clear and orange with light pollution, with the only visible stars right at the top of the sky. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to be here again, without even the defense of a tequila bottle, but I wasn’t ready to go home either, wherever the hell that was. Maia got out of the car, uncertain at first what to do.

She sat down next to me, followed my gaze. "I used to look at the stars out in the countryside, after my father went away."

Went away, she still called it. I tried hard to imagine her as a six—year—old child, crying as her father was dragged away by the Red Guard for reeducation. I tried to picture her as a teenager, before she’d been reeducated herself by her English-speaking uncle, then taken to America, leaving the rest of the family to suffer the consequences. But it was the opposite problem I had with Lillian, who I always saw in the past. With Maia, I couldn’t imagine her any other way than she was now--sensual, adult, as carefully polished as teak wood.

"In my home village outside Shaoxing," she continued, smiling sadly, "there was this huge old plum tree I used to sit in. I’d look up at all those millions of stars and envy them."

“Yeah," I agreed.

She shook her head. "No. I envied them because there were so few. I used to dream about being in such a small population, being alone and silent like that, with a few glorious centimeters between you and the next person. You don’t understand what a billion means unless you’re Chinese, Tres, and you don’t appreciate zero."

I wanted to argue. I stared at Maia’s face, watching her force herself not to cry. I thought about death and absence and memories as foggy and sore as a tequila hangover. Even stone sober I couldn’t figure out why I’d come home, but I thought I appreciated zero pretty damn well. Before Maia could stand up and walk away, maybe for good, I put my hand on the back of her neck very gently and pulled her forward.

The dam was nearly deserted, but I think two cars went by before I opened my eyes again. The second one passed with the horn blating, someone yelling insults at us that faded into the dark with the taillights. Maia’s eyelids were still wet on my cheek. She didn’t say anything, but guided my hand under her blouse, up her back. Her skin was cool. My fingers traced her spine all the way to her shoulder blades, then undid her bra with a single twist.

Her laugh was shaky, the end of a silent crying spell.

"You must’ve been a terror in high school," she said into my ear.

"I’m a terror now," I said, but it was muffled.

I held her underneath her blouse and slid down into the smell of amber and the taste of salty skin, thanking God and Detroit for the wide smooth hood of the Buick.

37

Around 1:30 in the morning, the only light in San Antonio was from streetlamps, stars, and my landlord’s TV. Looking upstairs at the one blue eye in Number 90’s paralyzed face, I wondered what was on television at this time of morning that was so interesting. Or maybe, since Gary was half-asleep all the time, he didn’t need to be all asleep any of the time. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

I’m not sure whether I felt worse or better with Maia leaning up against me, her arms around my waist as we walked to the front porch. I simply didn’t care at the moment about anything except lying down on my futon and going comatose.

That was before I realized that my futon was already occupied.

I should have known when Robert Johnson failed to scold me at the door. I think Maia sensed it first. She froze with her hand halfway to the light switch even before I heard the snick of the revolver cock.

"Everything on the floor in front of you," he said.

The flashlight beam that hit our faces was from no pencil-thin model. I squinted, blind, and raised my hands. Maia dropped her purse. Her key chain hit the floor like a small bowling ball.

"Okay." His voice was slightly familiar now.

"Kneel."

We did.

“You going to knight us, buddy?" I said. "It’s usually done with a sword."

The air moved. Maybe I could’ve dodged the kick if I hadn’t been so tired and so blind. As it was I just had time to turn my newly corrected teeth to keep them from getting rebroken before our guest’s foot stamped Doc Maarten on the side of my face.

I managed to get back on my knees without crying out. My cheekbone didn’t feel broken, but everything was fuzzy now. The left side of my face was going to look like a rotten tomato in the morning.

"That’s strike one," he said. Then he turned on the lights.

The redhead was holding the Colt .45 in his left hand because his right arm, the one I’d broken outside of Hung Fong’s last week, was in a cast. He looked like he hadn’t shaved or slept or even bathed since that encounter. The lit fuses in his eyes told me that this was a man who’d already pulled the pin and had decided this was as good a place as any to stand until he blew up.

"Tell us what you want," said Maia.

She spoke the way she would to a distraught client, and I waited for it to backfire the way it had with Beau. This time, though, it seemed to work. Red lowered the gun slightly. He kept his eyes on me.

"You know," he said. "And don’t even fucking tell me it’s not here. You don’t want to know what strike two is."

I found myself wondering if his eye sockets could really be that dark blue. His face looked so old and leprous now I started to doubt he was the same man who’d attacked me last Tuesday.

I showed him that I was going for my shirt pocket, then with two fingers extracted the disk Garrett had given me. It had scrambled photo data on it, all right—pictures of Garrett’s last fishing trip with the New Mexico branch of the Hell’s Angels. I threw it at Red’s feet.

"Rough week?" I asked.

“Tres, shut up," Maia hissed.

Now Red had a problem. With only one hand, he couldn’t pick up the disk and hold the revolver at the same time. He pointed the gun at Maia.

“Get up."

He made Maia pick up the disk and come toward him, keeping the Colt .45 aimed at her chest where he couldn’t possibly miss. I didn’t think Maia would try anything, and even if she did I wasn’t sure I’d be in much shape to help, but I paid close attention to her body anyway, looking for any sign she was tensing up. It didn’t happen. She slipped the CD into Red’s jacket pocket, then knelt down again. Red seemed to relax to a temperature just under a rolling boil.

"Okay. You want your tea leaves read now, Navarre?"

"More than once a month is bad karma," I said.

His laugh was more like a brief facial spasm.

"Nobody’s going to break any arms tonight. Nobody’s going to write any fucking messages on my shirt or put their fucking elbow in my face."

“Okay," I said.

I looked at Maia out of the corner of my eye. We came to an understanding. We were both looking for a sign that Red was ready to kill. As long as he kept talking we were all right, but more than four seconds of silence meant he would fire. If that happened we went for him, and one of us died for sure, but maybe not both of us.

“You ever been hit by a black talon?" he said.

"Once almost," Maia said.

"Nasty little fuckers," he continued, looking at me as if I’d said it. Red tried to scratch his face, then remembered he was holding a gun. I think it was only then that I realized he was drunk as well as desperate. So his reflexes would be a little slower. At three feet with black talons from a .45, I wasn’t exactly relieved.

He said: "Once they open up they don’t leave much of your chest cavity, man. Makes a ragged son-of-a-bitch hole. One guy I saw got it from the police, he just screamed until his lungs came out his throat."

I nodded. "Not as quick as bullets through the eyes, then?"

That registered in his face like a cattle prod. He aimed the Colt at my head.

"So we’re going to put things right," he said, as if he were just ending a pep speech to the team. "We’re going to give this back, I’m going to get my ass out of this town, and you maybe get to live."

None of us bought that, not even Red. He shrugged. "If this isn’t the disk, it’s going to be a lot more fun, man. A lot more fun for your lady here."

I stared at him, trying to look cooperative and unimpressed at the same time. The way my face was contorting on the bashed-in side, I probably looked more like Bill the Cat.

"You and Eddie worked for Sheff," I said. "That’s who we’re going to?"

The idea amused Red so much he decided to kick me again, this time in the gut. When I got my face out of the carpet, a few centuries later, I saw one and a half redheads with guns hovering in front of me, smiling.

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