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"Oh,. man, " he said, “you didn’t live there. You didn’t go to Heights with your shoes covered in it. We lived in it, vato. Mother of God, my old man’s lungs collapsed because of this shit. It’s lime powder, man, pure lime."

It took a minute for that to register.

“As in the stuff they make cement from," I said. "Okay, vato," he said, trying to lead me to what he was thinking.

“Couldn’t that be any construction site?"

Ralph laughed and started repacking his desk.

"You goddamn white collars. No, man, who mixes cement on site? That much lime only comes from the factory."

As usual, the answer was something under my nose, something I’d lived next to most of my life. When I put it together I almost couldn’t believe how ridiculous the idea was, which probably meant it was the truth. Ralph and I looked at each other. God knows I didn’t have much to smile about. All I’d probably learned was where to find the body of the woman I thought I loved. But I looked at Ralph grinning like a fiend and I started smiling anyway.

"It’s pretty slim, man," I said.

"It ain’t goin’ to get any fatter, man," Ralph said. "You got to jump on it."

"Goddamn Cementville," I said.

Ralph grinned. "There’s no place like home."

58

The sign on the fence outside the factory said " Sheff Construction—Keep Out."

There was no movement inside the barbed wire. No trucks, no lights in the broken windows of the old factory. Ralph and I sat in his car for a while and just watched while the Cadillacs went by, old men going to the golf course, women going to shop Albertson’s and SteinMart. The new subdivision, Lincoln Heights, had its own private security, and after the same patrolman drove by us twice, real slow, Ralph and I decided it was time to move on.

“Tonight," I said. “I can’t do anything until then without being seen by half the North Side. Neither could they."

Ralph followed the security car with his eyes until it was out of sight. "How you know who ‘they’ is, man?"

"One way to find out."

As if he were reading my mind, Ralph reached into his backseat and produced a cell phone. I dialed a number I had memorized from Lillian’s datebook and got an answering machine.

“I’m thinking about visiting Cementville," I said. Then I hung up.

Ralph started the Lincoln and pulled it into traffic.

"You got the right person, they got to move her tonight," he said. "Or at least they got to look."

“Yeah."

"You want some backup?"

I started to say no, then I decided not to be hasty.

“I’ll call you."

Ralph nodded, then handed me a card.

“Two numbers," he said. "Cell phone and beeper."

“A beeper?"

Ralph grinned. “Hey, vato, the doctor is in."

When Ralph dropped me at home it was early afternoon. Several hours until dark, when I could actually do something. Rather than go crazy watching Robert Johnson run circles around the living room, I took my sword and walked down the street to the edge of Brackenridge Park.

The cicadas were the only thing stirring. Nobody was stupid enough to walk over a block in this heat, much less exercise in it. I crossed Broadway and jogged over to the Witte Museum where the old iron gates of the Alligator Gardens were hanging off their hinges. One of the less successful tourist attractions in San Antonio, the Gardens had seen ticket sales to the public schools drop off dramatically after the alligators had eaten a few hands off the trainers. Then the place had faded into obscurity and eventually closed. The gates were easy to climb, though, and the dried basin where the gators had been kept made a perfect shady tai chi surface. I did an hour and a half of high stance until I was sweating and about to pass out from the heat. Then I rested for a few minutes and did another two hours of sword. By the time the sun started going down, I had cleared my mind and worked the kinks out of my body. I knew what the plan was.

I bought some provisions from the Lincoln Heights Albertson’s, then I drove down to Vandiver and traded cars with my mother. More or less. Actually she’d taken her Volvo somewhere so I had to leave the keys to the VW in her mailbox and hot-wire Jess’s truck. With luck he’d need to run for beer between TV shows and would find it missing long before I could get it back to him. My evening was starting to look up.

Jess’s monstrous black Ford must’ve known I was not wearing the obligatory Stetson and boots required to ride such a beast. It bucked and kicked all the way down Nacodoches until I pulled it over into the scrub brush on Basse, just behind the old freight entrance to Cementville.

“Whoa, Nelly," I told the truck.

The engine shuddered resentfully and died. just as well. Another few blocks like that and I would’ve had to shoot it anyway.

I waited outside the fence for a couple of hours. What I was lookin for didn’t materialize. I ate an Albertson’s deli sandwich. I had some terrible Italian bottled water. On this side of the old factory there were fewer high-priced new homes, which meant there were fewer nervous security guards. After dark, traffic died down to almost nothing. Nobody seemed to care about me and my semi-stolen truck.

It was full dark when the Sheffs’ cherry-red Mustang passed me and slowed down a quarter mile up the road, right outside the old loading docks. I couldn’t see the driver very well when he got out. He unchained the gates, got back in the Mustang, and drove through.

I was about to drive back to the Albertson’s pay phone when I noticed the cargo holder by the stick shift. No chance, I thought. I opened it anyway and found Jess’s deep dark yuppie secret. The real cowboys would’ve laughed him off the open range if they’d known. Suddenly liking Jess more than I cared to admit, I picked up this cellular phone and dialed Ralph’s number.

He picked up almost immediately.

"Annie get your gun," I said.

The line was silent for a moment. “Give me ten minutes." Ralph hung up.

Exactly eleven minutes later the maroon U-boat slid to a stop behind the truck. Ralph stepped up to the shotgun window and leaned his head into the cab. "Nice wheels, vaquero. You chewing Red Man, yet?"

“The gun rack wouldn’t fit on my VW."

"No shit."

Ralph had changed into work clothes—Levi’s and a loose black shirt, untucked. I didn’t need to ask what he was carrying underneath. I pointed out the red Mustang up ahead, now dark and silent just inside the chain-link fence. Ralph nodded.

"Meet you up there," he said. Then he disappeared. By the time I got out of the truck and followed the fence up to the gate, Ralph was crouched in a patch of wild cilantro. He had his straight razor in one hand. In his other hand were four severed tire valve stems. He held them up, grinned, then tossed them through the fence. We watched the old factory for a while—the weed-covered shipping yard, the storage silos, the grimy windows with most of the glass broken out. The only thing moving were the fireflies. They were everywhere tonight, pulsing off and on in the hackberry bushes around the fence like defective Christmas lights. Ralph nudged my arm. We watched the yellow cone of a flashlight, aimed from the factory roof, slide up the right side of one of the huge smokestacks and illuminate a metal rung ladder that led up to the wraparound catwalk just below the red “O” in ALAMO. The light clicked off abruptly.

I could hear Ralph swallow. "There’s a small maintenance room up there where they wired up the sign," he said. “I think."

His voice sounded like it was closing up all of a sudden. I couldn’t see much in the dark, but I could’ve sworn he was turning pale.

"Ralphas?"

“Heights, man. I can’t handle them."

There was a quivery tone to his voice that might’ve been funny under other circumstances, like Ralph trying to imitate somebody who was really scared. But you don’t laugh at your friend’s phobias. At least not when your friend is holding a straight razor.

"Okay," I said. “We’ll deal with it when we get there."

"Shit, vato, I didn’t think—"

"Forget it, Ralphas. Any other chained gates between her and there, you think?"

Ralph showed me a small but wickedly sharp set of metal cutters. His grin came back slowly.

"Not anymore, vato."

Minutes later we were crossing the train tracks under the shadow of the factory walls. The ground was littered with dried globs of cement, old railroad ties, scrap metal, dry sage grass—none of it conducive to sneaking around in the dark. It was my turn to be embarrassed. When I stumbled the second time Ralph had to grab me by the shirt to keep me from sliding face first into a quarry pit. The sound of the loosened gravel skittering into the hole echoed off the building like a standing ovation. We froze. No sounds, no light from above. Ralph’s childhood memories came through. He found a set of metal doors around the side of the building that were standing wide open. What moonlight there was fell in a square over the bottom steps of a spiral stairwell. We went inside.

“This goes to the roof," he said. "I guess—yeah, there was talk about saving the old smokestacks for a restaurant or something. You could store something up there for a long time and none of the workers would think to bother it."

I looked up at the rickety stairwell.

"You okay with this?" I whispered.

"Don’t ask, vato. Just start climbing. "

By the way every creak and groan of the staircase echoed around as we ascended, I figured the interior of the building must’ve been one massive chamber, stripped to a shell when the plant shut down. I gave up counting steps when I got to a hundred. I gave up counting missing bolts that were supposed to secure the stairwell to the wall when I got to one. More I didn’t want to know.

Somehow Ralph stayed behind me. After what seemed like a thousand years we came to a door that was open to the roof. I stepped out and immediately flattened my body against the wall of the roof house to avoid making a silhouette. Ralph crawled out and sat down, breathing heavily.

“I’m not getting up," he said. “No way."

The view was tremendous—to the south, the lights of McAlister Freeway snaking through the darkness of the Olmos Basin, then emptying into the hazy glow of the downtown skyline. The buildings there were all lit up gold except for the stark white Tower of the Americas, the proverbial needle in the haystack. In the opposite direction, Loop 410 made a glittering curve of hotels, malls, singles apartment complexes around the North Side--"Loopland" as it was not-so-affectionately called. Beyond that was the dark rise of the Balcones Escarpment, and more storm clouds rolling in. Ralph was not impressed. He sat cursing the horizon quietly in Spanish.

After being in the dark of the building, the moonlit roof was easier to see across. A few yards away to the south, the tar had sagged and caught a sizable lake of rainwater from the last storm. It had almost evaporated after several days in the sun, but not quite. There was still enough moisture around the edges to track footprints—at least one set, leading toward the edge of the roof. From there an old steel catwalk spanned thirty yards of empty space to the ladder on the side of the smokestack. About one story up, the ladder dead-ended at an oval door that resembled a submarine hatch. The door was ajar, with light seeping out from behind it. I looked at Ralph, who was either invoking God or preparing to throw up.

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