"I’m okay, " he croaked.
Then I looked back up and saw the door open, a familiar face in the portal.
“I wish I could say the same," I said.
With the light behind her, her hair looked disheveled, like straw. She was wearing an old T-shirt and black sweatpants smeared with paint. I couldn’t see her face well, but she was moving slowly, like a sleepwalker.
Kellin hadn’t even changed out of his black chauffeur’s outfit. He got onto the ladder first and guided Lillian down onto the rungs,. cradling her with his body so she wouldn’t fall. It took them a long time to descend to the catwalk.
"Thank God," Ralph whispered. He said a prayer to the patron saint of acrophobics, then crept around to one side of the roof house while I crept to the other. We waited.
Lillian started talking as they approached, but it didn’t sound much like her. She giggled, then spoke in a low voice. Kellin shushed her the way you would a child. I made a silent promise to force-feed Kellin whatever the hell they’d doped her up with.
Then they were at the doorway, close enough for me to catch Lillian’s scent—her perspiration, the way her skin smelled on a hot night. Maybe that’s what tripped up my timing.
Whatever it was, Kellin froze. It should’ve been over when Ralph stepped around, bringing the .357 over his head. Instead, Kellin pushed Lillian into him, then knocked Ralph’s arm away. It’s hard to send a S &W Magnum flying; it’s not exactly a light gun. Nevertheless, it flew.
"Lillian said something like “Whoops” as she toppled into Ralph. Only Ralph’s sheer terror of falling back into the stairwell kept them both on their feet.
The .357 skittered across the tar and came to a stop somewhere in the shadows off to my left. I stepped out and immediately had to duck Kellin’s right cross. So much for the surprise factor.
I didn’t think he was carrying, but I couldn’t give him time to pull a weapon. Kellin stepped back and I stuck to him like glue. That’s the most disconcerting thing about fighting a tai chi opponent: you step back, they step forward; you advance, they retreat; you swing right, they disappear to the left. The whole time they’re only a few inches away, but you can’t connect a punch. And they touch you almost the whole time—there’s a hand on your shoulder, maybe, or fingertips on your chest, feeling exactly where the tension is, where you’re going to move next. It’s very annoying.
"Motherfucker," Kellin grumbled.
I let him swing at me for a while—missing. We moved across the roof, into the water, back toward the roof house, back into the water. Meanwhile Ralph got Lillian down the stairs—that was all that mattered. And Kellin was losing his cool.
“Get your goddamn hands off me," he yelled.
A left uppercut. I wasn’t there. I kept moving with him, waiting for the right opening. It was going fine until I fell for a feint so obvious Sifu Chen would’ve kicked me out of class for missing it. Kellin was learning his lesson. He jabbed right, got me to turn, then turned with me and embedded his left fist in my kidneys with the force of a twenty-pound champagne cork. With a few seconds preparation, it is possible to compress the chi in your diaphragm and take a hit like that with almost no pain at all—if I’d had a few seconds. Instead I went down, just managing to hook Kellin’s leg as he stepped back. He joined me in the dirty rainwater.
We were both flat on our butts for a moment, cursing, but unlike me Kellin wasn’t cradling a hot bowling ball in his intestines. By the time I stumbled to my knees he was on his feet and running.
I wiped the roof sludge out of my eyes and looked back at the door to the stairwell. No Kellin. just an empty doorway. I heard Lillian’s giggles echoing from somewhere down below.
Wait a minute. Feet banging on metal.
I turned. Kellin was just reaching the far side of the catwalk. My body was telling me to stay doubled over, to curl up in the rainwater and take a nap. Instead, I forced myself to get up and follow.
I didn’t have Ralph’s phobia—not until I stepped onto the catwalk and it started bouncing up and down, creaking under my weight. Below there was nothing but five stories of blackness. The smokestack loomed out of the void, white and huge; its diameter was big enough to house a tennis court. Above me it rose another five stories like some massive antiaircraft gun. Kellin was only a few feet up the ladder now. He seemed to be having trouble with his right ankle.
I made it across. The concrete sides of the smokestack were surprisingly smooth and cold. The ladder rungs were wet. Kellin was breathing hard above me, still cursing. His hand was about two rungs below the bottom of the door.
I didn’t know why he wanted back in that room. I just knew if it was more important to him than lighting over Lillian, I couldn’t let him get there.
I got his ankle, the right one, as he was pulling himself into the doorway. He kicked back, reflexively, and I twisted, using his own kick to bend the joint. He screamed. It would’ve been perfect if I hadn’t lost my balance.
For an instant I was hanging on only by my left hand, my feet dangling freely over nothing at all. My other hand let go of Kellin, then grabbed for a rung. I scraped against concrete instead. I felt my fingernails rip. I was watching the Tower of the Americas tilting sideways in the distance, wondering why it was like that. I wondered if that revolving restaurant at the top of the Tower was still open, the place my dad used to go for his birthdays. I was also thinking what an inane final thought that would be. Then my foot found a rung. Kellin could’ve kept me out of the doorway easily if he had been there. He wasn’t. When I pulled myself into the tiny cement chamber he was limping off to the left, toward a milk crate full of hanging files that was sitting on the floor next to another metal door. On top of the files was a revolver.
The maintenance area wasn’t much more than a hallway. It was only about six feet deep, but lengthwise it curved around with the circumference of the smokestack, ending in a metal door ten feet down on either end. The fuse boxes and metal cables along the inner wall were probably once used to light up the “ALAMO CEMENT” signs on the sides of the stacks. There was also some bedding on the floor, an open wicker picnic basket, some clothes scattered about.
Kellin heard me behind him and turned. His uniform was covered with sludge and white dust from the side of the smokestack. His short-cropped hair looked like a Brillo pad that had just been used. And his face, for once, was anything but impassive. I suddenly realized that he was much older than I’d first thought—closer to fifty than thirty. He was pointing the gun at me now. You can never be faster than a squeeze of the trigger, no matter how fast you can hit or kick. I knew it, he knew it. I wasn’t stupid. I smiled and spread my hands, admitting defeat. He smiled back at me.
Then I kicked the .38 out of his hand.
The shot went past my left ear and tore a chuck of concrete out of the wall. The gun landed in the corner. For a second Kellin looked amazed at how stupid I had been, right before I pulled him forward and flipped him onto the concrete on his back, hard.
I’ll give Kellin credit. He got up.
My right hand was starting to get sticky from the blood. The ruined fingertips throbbed so bad I was afraid to look.
“Is the lady of the house in?" I asked Kellin, who was now backing up to the exit.
He wiped the grime off his forehead with the back of his hand, then glanced over at the gun. He smiled at me.
"No offense, man," he said. "But you don’t know shit about what’s going on here."
"Fill me in."
He shook his head. "I was there," he said, still smiling almost pleasantly. "With that stupid shit Halcomb we set up for the fall. I was driving. Pretty damn funny watching Randall plow that fat fuck into his front lawn. Your face, man--"
He started laughing. Then he went for me, figuring I was disoriented.
I was. Tai chi would’ve demanded that I use his own force to send him into the wall behind. I didn’t. I pushed back—force against force, a totally incorrect approach. Kellin was obviously appalled. At least he looked that way when he went out the door. His hands kept reaching for something, but there wasn’t anything there. There was no sound at all until he reached the bottom and even then nothing much—a faint metallic clap like the echo of a snare drum, nothing nearly as loud as my heartbeats.
I sat down on the blankets. I wrapped my bloody hand inside one of Lillian’s old T-shirts. I needed to get out of there. Instead I sat and stared out the door. I must’ve gotten up and looked around after a while. I remember looking through a few of the files in the milk crate, learning all about the real owners of Sheff Construction.
All I really needed to do was look in the picnic basket. There were a few slices left, wrapped in a linen napkin and smelling wonderful. Obviously fresh baked today. The lady of the house had not been in. But she’d sent some banana bread.
It was a long ride to the West Side in Jess’s pickup truck. The engine was bucking resentfully, my hand was bleeding, Ralph was still shaking from acrophobia too badly to drive, and Lillian was sandwiched between us mumbling lines from Dr. Seuss. So far she had not recognized either of us, but she seemed perfectly happy to go for a ride.
After her second complete and flawless recitation of Green Eggs and Ham, Ralph and I looked across at each other.
"Hijo," he swore.
"Yeah," I said.
I tried to force my mind not to think about what I’d learned up there in the Alamo Cement smokestacks. It didn’t work. By the time we pulled up in front of the Arguello family home off McCullough, I’d put it all together and I was trying like hell to deny that the pieces fit. But they did.
Mama Arguello was quite possibly the shortest, widest person in the world. She was standing in the doorway, the entire doorway, when we drove up. Her faded plaid dress barely managed to contain her awesome cleavage. Her hair was pinned up in a black wedge; her eyes, like Ralph’s, were hidden behind thick prescription glasses. The fact that her hands were covered in flour didn’t stop her from grabbing Ralph by the cheeks and dragging his face down to kiss hers.
“Ay," she said, “is my boy in one piece? An amazing thing."
Then she came to hug me. Maybe she remembered me from high school. I’m not sure. I think she would’ve hugged me anyway. Her neck was bristly and smelled like chocolate. Then she hugged Lillian, who giggled. Mama Arguello looked at Lillian again, more critically this time.
"Ay," she said, "what kind of drugs are these?"
I showed her the family-sized bottle of valium I’d retrieved from the smokestack.
She scowled, gave it back to me, and asked me to read the label. I did. Finally she announced her remedy:
"Raspberry leaf tea."
Then she was gone.
Ralph and I got Lillian to lie down on the plastic-covered couch. She was frowning now, yawning, starting to look around in confusion. I decided to take that as a good sign. I sat and spoke to her for a minute while Ralph used the phone. He had some friends who were extremely interested in retrieving his car for him, especially since it was right next to a beautiful red Mustang that just needed some new tire valve stems. Then I used the phone. I called and asked Larry Drapiewski a favor. When I came back I stroked Lillian’s hair until her eyes closed and she started snoring lightly.
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