“You respected him," I said.
White examined his perfect fingernails. “It saddens me when a man of talent is brought down by men with less talent, even if that man is my enemy. It saddens me more when those who are supposed to represent the public interest use my name to cover up their own crimes."
His eyes drifted toward me.
"Asante," I said.
White looked gratified. He refilled his glass from the margarita pitcher. “The more dangerous I appear, the more the politicians have to campaign against. Unfortunately, Mr. Navarre, contrary to popular belief, I’ve found that direct retaliation against such people is most often . . .counterproductive?
There was a knock at the door. White uncrossed his legs. The audience was concluded.
“And now you’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Navarre. Either you will choose to believe me, that I had nothing to do with your father’s death—"
"Or you will not. Nevertheless, my boy, there’s nothing more I can tell you. I have a keynote. address to deliver in exactly twenty minutes."
"Idecided something. “You don’t have it—the other disc ."
White almost played dumb. I could see him change his mind just as he opened his mouth. “No," he said. “I do not."
I tried to stand up, and was surprised to find I actually could.·
“Assuming I believe you," I said, "assuming Asante was Sheff’s partner inside City Hall on the Travis Center project, that still doesn’t tell me who the other side is—the ones who control Sheff Construction."
White gave me a look I couldn’t read. Sadness.
Maybe even pity.
“As I said, my boy, some cages are better left unrattled."
We studied one another. Maybe that was when I had the first glimmering of understanding about where it was all going. Maybe that’s why I chose not to push him any further.
When I left, Guy White was listening to Emery’s rundown of their afternoon schedule--benefits, cocktail parties, an award for good citizenship from a local non-profit. Emery was cleaning another gun as he talked.
Guy White was staring out the sunny windows at his gardens, smiling a little sadly now.
When I looked out my living room window the next morning, Ralph Arguello’s maroon Lincoln sat in front of Number 90. When I came up to the driver’s window the black glass rolled down and mota smoke rolled out. Ralph grinned up at me like a happily stoned diablo.
“Do I know you?" I said.
I didn’t ask why. We drove into Monte Vista on Woodlawn, past rows of dying palm trees that leaned over the boulevard like they hadn’t quite woken up yet. Mansions squatted next to shacks. The signs and storefronts gradually turned bilingual. Finally Ralph looked across at me.
“I’m meeting a guy at eight-thirty," he said.
He nodded. “Business deal, vato. New territory."
We pulled up in front of a dark blue building that had been plopped down in the middle of an acre of asphalt on the corner of Blanco and French. The yellow back-lit sign in front promised "Guns N Loans." At least that’s what it used to say before half the letters had been broken out with rocks.
A tall Anglo man in a wrinkled black suit was waiting at the door, smiling. From the bruises on his face I wondered if he’d been pelted at the same time as his sign. Most of the marks were fading into yellow around his cheeks and neck, but he still had a blue-black knot the size of a pecan over his left eyebrow. The smile just made him look more grotesque.
“Mr. Arguello," the tall man said as we got out of the car. When he swallowed, his Adam’s apple went up a few inches and stayed that way. He shook Ralph’s hand a little too enthusiastically.
"Lamar," said Ralph. “Let’s see it."
Lamar fumbled with some keys. He unlocked two rows of burglary bars first, then the main door. The inside of the pawnshop smelled like cigars and dust. Grimy glass cases filled with guns, stereo parts, and jewelry made a “U" around the back walls. A few beat-up guitars and saxophones had been lynched from the ceiling.
Ralph inhaled, as if to get the full atmosphere of the place into his lungs. Lamar smiled nervously, waiting for his approval.
"Books," said Ralph.
Lamar nodded and went to open the office. I plucked a string on one of the convicted Yamaha guitars. It rattled loosely, like a Slinky.
Ralph looked at me. “Well?"
"Sure," I said, "some lace curtains, a loveseat or two. I can see it."
Ralph grinned. "Ethan Allan, maybe."
“I’m sold. You can do all my shops, vato."
Lamar came back and spent a few minutes with Ralph over the books. I looked at the guns, then watched the traffic in and out of the flop house across the street for a while. Finally Ralph shook hands again and Lamar handed over the keys. Lamar started to leave but on his way out he looked at me, hesitated, then came over. He was so nervous his Adam’s apple disappeared above his jawline. The yellow bruises turned pink.
“I just—" he started. "Hey, man, it just wasn’t necessary. That’s all I got to say."
Then he left.
I looked at Ralph for an explanation. His eyes floated behind his round lenses, impossible to read. The smile didn’t change.
“Loco," Ralph said. “I guess he thought you were somebody else, man."
We went back to Ralph’s new office, a cheaply paneled closet with a window AC unit, two metal folding chairs, and an unfinished particle—board desk. Ralph sat down and started looking through the drawers.
“You always do property deals in under five minutes with no paperwork?"
Ralph shrugged. “Details, vato. That’s for later."
He fished out a half-empty bottle of Wild Irish Rose and a few .38 rounds, then a stack of ragged manila folders. When he was satisfied there was nothing else, he sat back in his chair and smiled at me.
"Okay," he said. “So tell me about it."
“What do you want first? You’ve got your choice of three murders, blackmail, several pissed-off policemen—"
Ralph shook his head. “I know all that. I mean the Chinese woman. Tell me about her."
I stared at him for a few seconds. I guess I’d forgotten who I was talking to. Ralph would’ve heard just about everything that had happened to me over the last week. He’d know about the dead bodies, the heat, the people I’d talked to. But the question about Maia took me off guard.
I must’ve looked pretty irritated. Ralph laughed.
“Come on, wzto. All I want to know is this--are you still looking for Lillian or aren’t you? ’Cause if you’re not, that’s cool. I can take you home and save us some trouble."
"And if I’m still looking?"
He thumbed through the stack of manila folders. The action sent puffs of dust up in front of his face. He kept looking at me. “Is that a yes?"
"That’s a yes."
He shook his head, like I’d made a bad business decision. "Then this is between you and me. A couple of people came up to me over the last two days, telling me about this guy that turned up dead, this pendejo Eddie Moraga who took Lillian that Sunday."
"You’ve been sitting on information for the last two days?" I tried to keep my voice even.
Ralph leaned forward and spread his hands on the desk, palms up. "Hey, vato, every time I come to see you, I find the Man there. Or you’re with him. It kind of cuts down on the quality time I want to spend with you, you know?"
I nodded for him to go on.
"Okay, so first I talk to this guy, old friend of Eddie’s. He’s pretty shaken up about it all being in the papers Friday morning. So fifty dollars later and he says, yeah, he talked to Eddie on Monday night. He was all alone at this bar down on Culebra, talking about this hot date he’d had the night before. A date, vato, like this rich white girl would go out with him."
I couldn’t talk. I was remembering a rapist I’d brought down for a client of Terrence & Goldman two years ago, a rapist who’d talked about his "dates" with his victims, two of whom later turned up in garbage cans.
Ralph must’ve thought that through too. He’d been on the streets long enough. He looked at my expression.
"Hey, man," he said. He probably wanted to say something consoling. He shifted in his chair. "Like I said, if you were with this other lady, I could have just walked from this, vato. This isn’t easy shit—"
"Keep going. "
For a minute we both stared at the bottle of Wild Rose, almost tempted. Then Ralph sighed. “Yeah, anyway, so Eddie was talking about coming into some money from this lady. I don’t know, man, maybe not like she was paying him, maybe he was just making a joke, like he was getting paid to take her away for somebody else. Anyway, Eddie said that this lady was a fire-eater, like you couldn’t turn your back on her or she’d either steal your shit or kick you in the balls. That’s what he said. And check this out, vato: He said they went to this place he knew, a construction site he worked at, real intimate?
I shook my head. “There’s only a few thousand of those, Ralph."
“No, man," he said. “I’m not finished?
“Like I said, some other people talked to me. Some people who like a low profile. Keep that in mind."
I thought about Ralph and his .357 Magnum. “Low profile like you?"
"More than me, vato. These people, they’re in the car business, you know?"
“As in chop shop? S.A., second highest auto theft rate in the country?"
Ralph shrugged. "I wouldn’t know, vato. But I wouldn't tell these people they’re in second place, man. It might offend them."
Ralph nodded. “So anyway, I ask around about this green Chevy Eddie’s supposed to drive. His friend tells me it’s a ’65, fully restored. So I think, sure, the police are just going to find this Chevy sitting around on the streets after a week."
“So your friends just happened to come across it, strictly legit. "
“They were about to paint it white, man." Ralph’s frown told me he didn’t approve of the color choice.
“So I told them to wait awhile, leave it like it is."
“And how was that?"
He looked at me, grinning again. Then he took out a brown paper bag from his pocket and poured the contents onto the desk. White powder. I didn’t even have time to misread it as cocaine before Ralph shook his head.
“No, vato, check it out."
I looked closer.
"It was all over the wheel casings, man. The outside was washed off but it was caked on thick inside. You know that rainstorm that came through last week?"
I smelled it. I tasted it. It seemed to be powdered rock.
Ralph shook his head, disappointed.
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