Page 36

"And here I thought you’d been crying," I yelled into the refrigerator. "Your eyes are just red from looking at price tags."

"Serves you right," she said. "And this is for you."

She produced a yellow plastic Solo Serve bag from under the futon, then pulled out an extra-large T-shirt that said “WELCOME TO SAN ANTONIO" on the front in neon colors was a depiction of San Antonio’s one claim to heavy metal history: Ozzie Osbourne urinating on the Cenotaph in front of the Alamo.

"It spoke to us," she said. "It just screamed ‘Tres’. "

"It’s lovely. How do you say ‘She-devil’ in Mandarin?"

I guess I looked suitably angry. Maia walked up, pressed against me, and kissed my chin. "Okay, you’re forgiven now."

"I’m forgiven?"

She smiled. "Show me the Riverwalk, Tex?"

Neither Carlon McAffrey nor Detective Schaeffer were thrilled to hear from me, especially since I answered most of their questions with "I don’t know," or promises to call them back in the morning. My right ear hurt from the insults by the time I hung up, but I was otherwise intact.

After the week I’d had, it was difficult to find clothes without blood or Mexican food on them, but I still declined to wear my new T-shirt to the Riverwalk. Maia just smiled, enjoying her revenge as I searched the dregs in my closet. Robert Johnson played kamikaze, dive-bombing my clothes from the kitchen counter every time I made a pile. Otherwise he was no help as a fashion consultant.

By sunset we were driving south on Broadway, into downtown, Maia looking like several thousand dollars and me looking like spare change. The streetlamps were just coming on and the sunset was longhorn orange when we walked down the stairs of the Commerce Avenue Bridge into the crowds on the Riverwalk.

Take away the glitz and tourist dollars and the Paseo del Rio is basically a deep trench that winds through the center of downtown San Antonio. just south of East Houston, the river gets diverted from its course and makes a huge lowercase "b," looping all the way east to the Convention Center, then back past La Villita to Main, where it reconnects with itself.

Put back the glitz and the tourist dollars, and even a native has to admit it’s pretty impressive. Tonight the air was warm and the mariachi music was everywhere. Colored lights reflected off the murky green water and made the river look festive despite itself. About a hundred thousand people were strolling the flagstone banks past the fountains, stone bridges, and pricey new restaurants.

The kitchen smoke of ten or fifteen different cuisines drifted up past the yellow and green patio umbrellas. Tourists with cameras and souvenir sombreros, basic trainees on leave, rich men with high-priced call girls, all happily stepping on toes and spilling drinks on each other. This is what a San Antonian thinks of when you say “river." I remember how much trouble I had reading Huck Finn as a child, trying to imagine how the hell that raft made it past all those restaurants and crowds, in water only three feet deep and thirty feet across, without anybody noticing the stowaway slave. Maybe that’s why I became an English major—sheer confusion.

Maia held on to my hand so we didn’t get separated. In one of the rare moments when there was enough room for us to walk side by side she pointed at the river and said: "I want to eat on one of those."

A dinner barge went by—a huge red shoe-box lid with an outboard motor. Fifty tourists smiled and raised their margaritas from the white linen tablecloth. The waiters looked bored.

"No you don’t," I told her.

The operator in back turned the outboard just enough to avoid an oncoming barge from a rival restaurant by a few inches.

“Do they ever collide?" Maia shouted at me over the crowd.

"Only when the operators are bored, which is most of the time."

Occasionally people fell in too. My father used to keep a record of how many drunk tourists he’d personally fished out of the river working the Fiesta duty. I think he stopped counting at around twenty-three. I was surprised how many of the older restaurants had closed. The Union jack umbrellas of Kangaroo Court were still up. Jim Cullum’s Happy jazz Band was still swinging at the Landing like the 1920s had never ended. But almost everything else had changed. We settled for a riverside table and a mediocre plate of nachos at a place simply called La Casa. I should’ve guessed we were in trouble when I saw the name. I knew it for sure when I asked for Herradura Anejo and our waiter told me they didn’t carry that kind of beer. Fortunately the people watching was better than the food.

A group of blue-haired women in evening dresses and summer minks went past, trying very hard to look glamorous while the sweat was trickling down their necks. A family of Goodyear blimps stopped long enough to stare jealously at our nachos. Two nuns in full black regalia and fluted hats ran by, screaming in German, followed closely by a group of very drunk and very naked pinheads, followed closely by the SAPD beat patrol. The crowd opened and closed around the chase. A few people laughed. Then more drinks were ordered and life went on.

"Is it like this every night?" Maia asked, clearly impressed.

"Saturdays it usually picks up."

"I should hope so."

Before it was full dark we headed back toward the white tower of the Hilton Palacio del Rio. Ten stories of balconies looked out over the water, most of them lit up and overflowing with partying college kids. The main bar at river level was doing a brisk business tonight despite the entertainment, three scruffy musicians falling asleep into their microphones over a very slow rendition of "Amie."

When we got to lobby level I’d been planning to bribe the concierge anyway. It was just a bonus that I found an old high school chum behind the desk. Mickey Williams took one look at me and gave me the warm greeting I’d been expecting.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" he said.

Mickey was the closest human equivalent to the Pillsbury Doughboy I’d ever come across. He had no skin pigment to speak of, and his hair was so yellow it was almost white. He was big all over, an over-inflated kind of big, and although he looked soft, in our days at Alamo Heights I’d seen plenty of high school fullbacks bounce off Mickey’s body without leaving a mark. I’d never quite gotten up the nerve to poke him in the stomach to see if he would laugh. I had a feeling he wouldn’t.

Mickey had also dated Lillian for a brief time when we’d broken up our senior year. Until I’d stolen back her heart. Or, rather, until I’d stolen Mickey’s pickup. Lillian’s very brief flirtation with kicker dancing in general and Mickey in particular had come to an abrupt halt when they’d had to walk halfway home from the Blue Bonnet Palace in Selma.

"Mickey," I replied, grinning.

He looked at me suspiciously. His pasty face flushed red. Then he tried his line again: "What the fuck are you doing here?"

"Came to see you, old buddy."

He looked behind him. Probably he was checking for the hidden camera.

"Go away," he said. "I like my job."

"Come on," I said, "that was a long time ago."

"I didn’t work for a fucking year after that time at Maggie’s."

Maia smiled, not having a clue what we were talking about. I shrugged as innocently as I could.

"How should I know Ms. Pacman could pick up so much momentum going down one flight of stairs?"

Mickey appealed to Maia. "Fucker destroyed three booths and nearly killed the general manager."

"I didn’t make you push it."

" ‘Just tip this up while I look for my quarter,’ " he quoted.

I shrugged and took out two fifties. I put them on his desk.

"I’ll get out of your way as soon as you tell me which room Mr. Karnau’s in tonight."

Mickey stared. I smiled and set down another two fifties. Mickey looked down very briefly. "You want the keys too?" he said.


"Karnau," said Mickey. "Room 450. Books that suite every weekend, pays in cash."

He slapped the keys into my hand. "And, Tres, you fuck with me—"

I smiled. "Would I do that?"

"Shit." Mickey shook his head like his job was as good as lost.

We watched the door to 450 from the service closet at the end of the hall. The door stayed put. The freshly vacuumed maroon rug in the hall outside was devoid of footprints.

Then somewhere around the corner at the end of the hall another door opened and closed. The man who walked across the hall and into the stairwell was wearing jeans and a striped Baja shirt with the hood pulled up. He was moving briskly.

Maia and I exchanged looks.

“A suite," she said.

"451," I said.

We raced each other down the hall. Maia’s gun was out by the time she stopped at the door. I threw her the keys and pushed into the stairwell, not even sure who I was following.

From the echoes he was about two floors below me, going just fast enough to get the hell out without someone thinking he might be running. I’ll say one thing for my worn-down deck shoes—they’re quiet. I managed to follow him down without giving him reason to speed up. When the blue-striped Baja exited on the Riverwalk level, I was only twenty feet above him. I came out into a service hallway and dodged a fat tourist in a sombrero. I almost knocked a margarita pitcher out of the waitress’s hand as I ran into the bar. The comatose folk trio was now doing the funeral dirge version of Cat Stevens’s greatest hits. Baja Man still had his hood up. He was navigating through the patio

tables outside, heading into the crowds.

I stayed twenty feet back as we moved down the Riverwalk. Baja didn’t look back. The Paseo was so narrow and thick with people I couldn’t get at an angle to see his face. We passed the Market Street Bridge and ke t going toward La Villita. For a minute I lost Baja behind a slow-moving Oompa band. They had "Pride of Fredericksburg” stitched into their green Bavarian britches and painted on the side of their tuba, but they sure weren’t in a hurry to get to whatever performance they had in mind. It’s usually worth the time just to hear German spoken with a Texas twang, but not when you’re chasing somebody. I finally got rude and shoved past. The guy with the hairy white legs and the bass drum almost went into the river.

"Gawdamn scheisskerl!" he shouted after me.

The one with "Johann" on his feathered hat tried to bean me with a handful of funnel cake. From the squeal behind me I assume he hit a nearby call girl or debutante instead. I kept moving.

The music changed from polka to full brass mariachi as we rounded the corner and crossed another bridge, then ducked through an alleyway and into the Arneson River Theater. We had somehow come up on the performers’ side. There was a concert in progress, like there is most nights. The spotlights were on, the band’s panchos were Technicolor, and their horns were well polished. Across the river, the old stone seats of the amphitheater were almost full. Baja stopped for a minute, considering his options. Then he sped up. So did I.

That’s when I made the mistake of running into another old friend. Slamming into an old friend, actually. Carolyn Smith was directing the KSAT mobile camera on its tripod at the wrong moment to catch a particularly enthusiastic crowd response to my favorite tune, "Guantanamera." What she caught instead was my shoulder as I tried to squeeze past. That in itself probably would’ve been okay, but as I kept running forward she stepped back to get her balance and executed a beautiful piece of unintentional tai chi. Her leg went under mine and my foot stopped. The rest of me kept going.


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