Page 48


"What do you think, vato?" Ralph asked.

I looked down at Lillian asleep. With her face relaxed, her reddish-blond hair tousled, and her freckles dark, she looked about sixteen years old. And I should know—I remembered her at sixteen. And twenty. And now· — Jesus. Half my life I’d either been in love with her or convincing myself that I wasn’t. Which made it strange, now I kissed her forehead one more time, then asked Ralph: "Will your mom mind taking care of her for tonight?"

Ralph grinned. "She’ll have her up and helping with the cleaning in no time, vato. You watch."

"Will you stay with her?"

“You look at yourself in the mirror lately, vato?"

“It’s easier if I take it alone from here. And I want Lillian to be with somebody she knows if she comes around."

He didn’t like it. "Take a piece, at least."

“Not where I’m going, Ralphas."

He shook his head. "Jesus, man, you’re a hardheaded hijo-puta."

That’s when Mama Arguello came back in with the tea and smacked Ralph on the arm for bad language. I tried to leave, but Mama Arguello insisted on bandaging my hand first and cleaning my face with a dish towel. She fed me homemade tortillas until my stomach stopped revolting. By the time I got out of her living room it was almost 10 P.M.

"We’ll take care of her for you, Mr. Ralph’s Friend," Mama insisted. “You don’t worry."

Then she went back inside to force-feed Lillian some raspberry leaf tea. Ralph walked me out to the truck.

"Sorry, Ralphas," I said.

He just shrugged. "Eh, man, just means I got to be here when my stepdad gets home. He comes in drunk, I’ll try not to kill him in front of Lillian."

"I’d appreciate that."

"Yeah."

I started the engine, which came out of the stall already bucking mad. Ralph shook his head and grinned.

"Some sorry wheels, man. You even know who you’re going to see?"

"Yeah. The ghost of a father."

I looked back in the pickup bed, where a milk crate full of old files was rattling around. That’s when Ralph’s stepdad drove up, parking his Chevy half on the curb.

“Yeah, well," said Ralph, looking over. "If it turns out to be mine, let ‘me know. I kind of miss the old man."

Then he turned away and headed up the steps of the front porch. I think he locked the door behind him.

61

I almost decided to scrap my plans when I saw t he car in the driveway.

Dan Sheff’s silver BMW was parked crooked, pulled so close to the house that its nose was buried in the thick pyracantha bushes. Someone hadn’t closed the passenger door hard enough to turn off the dash lights. As I got closer I could hear the BMW complaining about the situation with a muffled "eeeee— "

The house’s porch light was off. I tried the black iron handle of the front door and found it securely fastened. At the far end of the house, where the study was, one heavily-curtained window glowed orange around the edges. Otherwise no sign of life.

I took the side path around the house, crouching under hackberry branches and trying not to trip on the uneven flagstones. The poodle in the neighbor’s yard yapped at me once without much enthusiasm. I jumped a short chain-link gate, then did a little searching on the back porch. The spare key for the kitchen door was still underneath the plaster St. Francis on the third step where it had been ten years before.

Inside, the kitchen smelled faintly of banana bread and fresh-brewed tea. The microwave door was open, giving off just enough light to make the copper baking molds and the olive-green counter tiles glisten. I walked down the hallway, turned left into the main bedroom, and found what I was looking for with no trouble at all. The gun was in an unlocked nightstand drawer on the right-hand side of the bed. It was loaded too. No points for safety awareness. I continued down the hall toward the voices that were coming from the study.

Five feet from the lighted doorway, I heard one of the people inside say: "You did the right thing, kid."

The voice belonged to Jay Rivas, my best buddy at the SAPD. That made things just about perfect. The ripped fingernails on my right hand were starting to throb against the bandages. My stomach ached. When I tried to move closer toward the entrance my feet wouldn’t cooperate. I found myself staring at family photos on the hallway wall—daguerreotypes of Victorian ancestors, Easter-egg-colored Sears portraits from the sixties and seventies, a recent panorama from a family reunion. There was a time when I’d imagined my wedding pictures hanging here, maybe even pictures of kids, happily accumulating dust and the odors of Thanksgiving dinners over the years.

Looking at that photo collection now, I felt as if I were holding a hammer to it, about to cause a lot of noise and broken glass that wouldn’t make me feel a damn bit better.

When I stepped into the doorway, Zeke Cambridge was the first to notice me. He’d apparently had a hard day at the office. His black suit was rumpled, his collar loosened, and his tie twisted with the tag side out. His unshaven whiskers made a dark gray sheen along his jawline. He’d been pacing in front of the baby grand piano at the far end of the room, and had already been looking at the doorway before I appeared, as if he were anxiously waiting for someone. I was not the person he was expecting.

A few feet closer to me, Mrs. Cambridge and Dan Sheff sat on the couch, consoling one another. Dan had his back to me, but Mrs. Cambridge saw me. Her hands slipped off Dan’s knee. She stood up. Her bright yellow sundress and Day-Glo plastic earrings seemed absurdly incongruous with her permed-up gray hair, her pearl necklace, her white liver-spotted shoulders, and her morose, weary face. She looked like she’d been the victim of a failed makeover attempt by a much younger woman.

Surprisingly, Dan looked better than I’d seen him in days. He was freshly showered and dressed—his blond hair gleaming with gel, his khakis creased, his white Ralph Lauren button-down neatly starched and tucked in. Only his miserable expression hadn’t changed. Jay Rivas stood behind Dan. Rivas looked better than I’d seen him in days too, though for Jay that didn’t mean much. He was sporting brown double-knit slacks and his usual silver and turquoise belt buckle and a white polyester shirt so thin that his armpit hair and the lines of his undershirt showed through. The real fashion statement for me, though, was the side-holstered 9mm Parabellum, the same kind of gun that had drilled holes in Eddie Moraga’s eyes.

The second disk, the one that had been taken from the Hilton over Beau Karnau’s dead body, was sitting casually on top of a Country Living magazine on the coffee table, next to an untouched plate of banana bread and a pot of tea. Dan was staring at the CD, but he was so engrossed in his own thoughts I think he would’ve stared at anything. Nobody else seemed to be paying the disk much attention.

Jay patted Dan Sheff’s shoulder roughly and said again: "You did the right thing."

Then Rivas saw me out of the corner of his eye. He registered my face, then the .22 in my unbandaged left hand. His hands stayed where they were, one on Dan’s shoulder, one hooked in his belt about an inch away from the handle of the Parabellum

Dan was the last to notice me. When he finally looked up he didn’t seem very surprised. He spoke as if we were continuing an old conversation.

"I told them about my mother. They had to know."

The Cambridges both looked at me intently, not saying a word. Even Rivas was silent.

Dan glanced at each of them, frowning when he realized he was no longer the center of attention. Everybody else kept looking at me, at the single-shot Sheridan Knockabout I was holding.

"I’m going to set this right." Sheff tried to put some steel into his voice. "I don’t care if it is my mother. I—I called Lieutenant Rivas. I’ve told him everything."

My own voice sounded papery. "Must be a real load off your conscience. I suppose the lieutenant suggested you talk with Lillian’s parents. Rivas wanted to be present, of course."

Dan sat up a little straighter. "My mother lied to them about Lillian. She tried to keep the police away. She might have even taken Lillian herself. She lied to me and I can’t—I can’t just—" He made it that far without taking a breath, saying each sentence with the intense concentration of a toddler trying to stack blocks. Then his composure dissolved. He shut his eyes, his nostrils dilated, and he curled himself inward until his forehead was resting on his knees. He let out a quivery sound, like he was trying to match his pitch to a tuning fork.

He cried for about a minute. Nobody comforted him. Very slowly, Rivas let his hand slip off of Sheff's shoulder.

"You’re breaking and entering, Navarre," Rivas said. It was the most calm, reasonable tone I’d ever heard him take. Somehow that didn’t comfort me any.

“You’re holding a gun in somebody else’s house and there’s a police officer present. I’d be very careful if I were you. Fact, unless you shoot real well with your left hand, I’d set that gun down on the carpet before I said another word."

"Tres," Angela Cambridge said gently, "if you care for Lillian—"

Zeke Cambridge told his wife to be quiet. The banker’s watery eyes were staring intently at my forehead. Maybe he was imagining a bullet hole opening there.

Dan sat up. I could see him slowly stacking those mental blocks again, trying to get control over his face, his emotions, his voice. Finally he wiped his wet cheeks with the base of his arm so forcefully he left scratches from his gold watchband. “Go ahead, Navarre. You’re here to get even with me, this is your big chance. Tell them how stupid I was. I thought I could handle Garza, then Karnau—"

"I’m not here to talk about your mistakes, Dan."

"I put Lillian in danger and probably got those other people killed and all the time my mother was—she was telling me—" He faltered, looking at Mr. Cambridge.

"At least believe me that I didn’t know. If I’d known about her—about her and the mob—"

Mr. Cambridge’s cold expression didn’t change.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, son."

"Absolutely," I said. “Don’t be too hard on your mother, either. Her biggest mistake was confiding in the wrong people, Dan. Like you are."

Dan’s blond eyebrows knit together. His body was swaying just slightly, counterclockwise, like he was magnetically correcting for true north. "What are you talking about, Navarre? Lillian’s parents deserve to know what’s going on. It’s my responsibility to tell them."

He turned toward Zeke Cambridge for support. Cambridge offered none. Dan looked away, eyes a little hungrier. It reminded me of the time I was eight, watching a javelina die in the woods and wondering if skinning the ugly thing would finally merit a positive response from my dad’s impassive face.

"He can’t give it to you, Dan."

Dan looked at me, puzzled.

"Approval," I said. "Somebody to pat your head and give you permission for what you did and tell you how proud they are. Mr. Cambridge can’t give you that. Go ahead, Lieutenant, tell Dan he did the right thing a few more times. Call him ‘kid.’ He needs the safety net."

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