Page 31


"Now unless you’ve got more questions, let’s go."

We left in Maia’s car. Whatever Gary Hales was watching on television, it must’ve been more interesting than your run-of-the-mill abduction at gunpoint. He never even looked out the window.

I played chauffeur while Red sat in back, his .45 aimed lazily at Maia’s head. We turned off Eisenhower onto that stretch of Austin Highway where the strip malls that hadn’t been abandoned yet housed head shops, heavily barred pawn and liquor stores, beauty salons that still had faded pictures of beehive models in the windows.

Every few seconds I glanced back at Red in the rearview mirror and watched his eyelids drooping. Once, when his chin dipped an inch, I almost made a move. Before I’d even taken my hand off the wheel, the Colt barrel was in my ear.

"Don’t," he said, no sleep in his voice at all.

I smiled in the mirror, then concentrated on the road. It must’ve been 2 A.M. The drunks were starting to stumble out of taverns like the Starz N Barz or the Come On Inn to find their cars to sleep in, preparing to wait out the unendurable six hours until the bars would open again. Bikers clustered in the parking lots, invisible except for the glint of Harley steel and the orange tips of their joints.

"Next left," Red said.

We passed a row of mobile home parks and pulled into one where the plywood sign on the Cyclone fence out front said "Happy Haven." The gravel and strips of corrugated steel and broken patio furniture that littered the courtyard said something else entirely. There were five other cars in the lot, all in various stages of disassembly. The courtyard was lit only by a yellow car repair lamp draped over the branch of a dead elm tree.

I handed the Buick keys to Red, then he and Maia got out first. We walked to the third trailer, a dented white and green metal canister that looked like an oversized hatbox. Red opened the screen door, then waved me inside.

This time I knew something was wrong the instant the air hit my face. It was cold as a meat locker inside, and it smelled just about as bad. Refrigerated animal waste overpowered the other smells of bourbon and cigarettes. It was also pure black except for the yellow square of light from the door we’d opened. Somewhere off to the right, a window unit air conditioner hacked and wheezed to keep the room under sixty degrees. I tried not to gag. Then I went inside and began talking as if there were really someone there.

"Long time no see," I said to the blackness.

Maia followed my lead, then rolled away to the left. I went right and nearly tripped over something soft and wet. As I slid down against the cheap wood paneling on the wall, I could feel a few dozen splinters shooting up into my arm. I made myself not move.

Red was only two steps behind us, but he was in the light now and we weren’t. It only took two or three seconds for him to realize something was very wrong and decide to blow holes in the dark with his Colt. In that time both Maia’s feet hit his kneecap at a ninety-degree angle. The cartilage snapped like celery. Red shot a two-foot-wide hole in the trailer roof as he staggered forward. Before he could shoot again with better aim I got his good forearm in "play biwa" posture. It’s called that because when you twist the two bones of the forearm across each other and keep twisting, they snap with a sound resembling a plucked string on a Chinese lute. At least that’s what Sifu Chen had told me. It sounded more like a percussion instrument to me. Red screamed and dropped the gun. But he didn’t go down until I double-chopped his neck just below the jawline. Then he melted into the shag carpet and started snoring.

Maia was already crouching down in the corner with Red’s .45. She closed the front door of the trailer with her foot. After a few minutes staying absolutely still, listening to the air conditioner whine, I groped up the wall until I found the light switch.

The first thing I noticed when the light came on was the color of my hand. Then the thing I was sitting on. I’d thought it was a waterbed mattress, the way it gave under me, but waterbeds aren’t covered in blue silk and they don’t have white hair. I got up, turned it over, then made a face as contorted as the corpse’s.

Terry Garza was four hours early for our appointment. Blood had flowed out of his neck so freely it had finally blossomed and crusted over into a huge, grotesque rose on his neck. The anticucho skewer that had brought it into bloom still sprouted from the center.

I tried to remind my stomach that it belonged inside my rib cage, not my mouth. It didn’t listen very well. Look someplace else, I told myself. I stared at the flower-patterned sofa Garza had rolled off of, the stripped mattress in the far corner, the three empty beer cans rattling on top of the air conditioner. There was nothing else in the trailer.

Maia unfroze more quickly than I did. Without speaking, she retrieved her keys and purse from Red, then killed the overhead light. With her flashlight and a handkerchief, she started going over Garza’s body, checking pockets, looking at his hands and feet. Garza’s face had a twisted, almost puzzled expression. His eyes stared out the ragged skylight Red had blown in the roof. At the moment Garza looked like he had even more questions than I did.

"Don’t hold your breath," I told him.

Garza held his breath.

If anybody in Happy Haven had heard the shot, or cared about it, we hadn’t had any indication of it so far. Nevertheless, my internal timer was telling me it was past time to leave. I used Red’s flashlight to make a quick check of the kitchen while Maia examined the dead man. Under the silverware tray in the left kitchen drawer was a six-month lease to Terry Garza of Sheff Construction. When I got back to Maia she was looking at a photograph she’d found on the dead man. She frowned when I interrupted her train of thought by showing her the lease.

"Chez Garza."

She looked at me, nodded as if I’d said something of absolutely no consequence, then looked back down at the photo.

"Hello?" I said.

"I apologize," she said at last. “Maybe you should tell me more about your father’s murder."

She handed me the photo. It was almost identical to the one I’d seen in Karnau’s portfolio, but in this one, the blond man’s face was turned toward the camera. I still didn’t recognize him. The two missing figures were slightly closer to him. On the back "6/21" was written in black pen.

"Last month’s bill from Mr. Karnau," I said.

Maia starting complaining in Mandarin about my ignorance. "—facial hair fooling you again. Look at the bone structure of the cheeks, the eyes."

I looked more closely at the face of the blond man. It was thin, with deep-set eyes, crooked nose. Cleanshaven and short slicked-back hair. I imagined him with longer hair, curly, and a darker beard.

Suddenly I realized what the blackmail had been about. The revelation wasn’t exactly uplifting.

"Randall Halcomb," I said.

"With his killers," Maia agreed.

38

I got no sleep the rest of the night. At sunrise I was lying on my futon memorizing the ceiling and getting cold from Maia’s breath condensing on my skin. Finally I extracted myself from underneath her arm and got up.

Robert Johnson looked amazed that, for once, I was the first one out of bed. He immediately began playing tackle football with my feet as I tried to walk toward the kitchen. I would’ve cursed at him except I knew he’d curse back loud enough to wake Maia. I stumbled here and there, righting the coffee table, picking up clothes, putting the fallen paperbacks back on the kitchen counter. I struggled into some underwear and stood in front of the bathroom mirror for a while, picking wood paneling out of my arm, then reapplying Mercurochrome to my busted cheek.

"What a looker," I told myself. Robert Johnson stared at me from the lid of the toilet and yawned. I slipped into shorts and a sweatshirt, then did a solid two hours of tai chi on the back porch, starting with the  low stance to shock my muscles into working. After a while the thighs and calves unknotted and I got too sweaty even for the mosquitoes.

I was just starting to feel better when the neighborhood woke up for Sunday. The two pairs of eyes reappeared in the upstairs window across the alley and stared at me through the miniblind slats. The lady next door came out to read her paper on the patio again. This time I hardly warranted a second look. She kept her coffee cup firmly in hand and tightened her terry-cloth robe. Then she smiled wickedly as she let a small herd of Chihuahuas out the back door. For the last half of my set, they threatened me from their side of the fence, yapping insanely and popping up into the air like a tireless row of Mexican jumping beans. Meanwhile their mother read aloud to them from Roddy Stinson, repeating the funny bits.

I tried to be grateful for the challenge to my concentration. Think emptiness, Navarre. Blue water trickling down through your body. Cultivate the chi. This morning, all I cultivated was a headache and the need to pee like a racehorse. I said my silent apologies to Sifu Chen and went inside.

Maia was making the last of the Peet’s coffee. Her hair was blown into a mass on one side of her head, as if she’d been walking on the beach. She was wearing my last clean T-shirt. She looked up, smiled, and for a second burned the images of dead bodies out of my mind. But only for a second.

"You look like hell, Navarre. And you just about wore this poor girl out last night."

"I’m always great in the sack after getting the shit kicked out of me."

"I’ll remember that." She pulled me closer by the elastic of my shorts, then kissed my face. I winced.

" Speaking of last night--" I said.

She smiled, a little sad. "Leave it alone for a while, Tex. Okay?"

I sat down with coffee at the counter, pushed Robert Johnson’s butt out of my face, and stared at the .45 Maia had taken from Red, the stacks of fifties I’d taken from Beau Karnau, the crumpled photo of Randall Halcomb we’d found on Terry Garza’s corpse.

I didn’t like the connections I was coming up with. Ten years ago my father somehow finds out about the scheme to fix the contract on Travis Center. Before he can make it public, the people behind the plan use Randall Halcomb to silence the Sheriff. Then, before the FBI can track down Halcomb, his employers silence him too. Maia and I looked at each other.

"First rule of assassination," I told Maia, "kill the killer."

Maia frowned. "And Beau Karnau just happens to be there with a camera—in a field in the country in the middle of the night. That’s a hell of a coincidence."

I agreed. It didn’t make sense. Neither did the fact that blackmail payments for a ten-year-old murder had only been happening for the last year.

I rubbed my eyes. "We need to know about Guy White. Whether the mob’s really in this, or whether it’s just convenient for somebody to make it look that way. We need to know what the police have on Garza’s murder, and Moraga."

"And Lillian, " said Maia quietly.

I stared out at the crape myrtles. Maia came closer. She put her hands lightly on my shoulders.

"First, you need to eat something," she said. "Then we’ll see about the police."

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