“That’s the ballsiest son-of-a-bitch move I’ve seen in a while, mister. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t. You just put, yourself in so much deep shit you don’t even know."
"Let’s go see about getting you that raise," I suggested.
The front door was painted white, with a bathtub-sized piece of beveled glass in the center. Lubbock led me through into a spacious entry hall, then left to a pair of double oak doors and into a private study. Some where along the way he must’ve pressed a security buzzer with his foot, but I never saw it.
Things were going very well until the guy behind the coat rack clicked the safety of his gun off and stuck a few inches of barrel in my neck.
Lubbock turned around and repossessed his .38 Air-weight. He never stopped grinning. The man behind me stayed perfectly still. I didn’t try to turn.
"Good afternoon," I said. “Is Mr. White at home?"
"Good afternoon," the man behind me said. His voice came out smooth as honey over a sopapilla. "Mr. White is at home. In fact, Mr. White is about to kill you if you don’t explain yourself rather quickly."
I put my hand over my shoulder, offering to shake.
"Jackson Navarre," I said. "The Third."
I counted to five. I thought that was it. I started to make peace with Jesus, the Tao, and my credit card agencies, then I heard the safety click back on. Guy White took my hand.
“Why didn’t you say so?" he asked.
“Would you pass me the Blue Princess, Mr. Navarre?"
Guy White pointed with his trowel to the flat of baby plants he wanted. I passed them over. For his gardening ensemble, White had changed into a newly-pressed denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Calvin Klein jeans, huaraches on his perfectly tanned feet. He’d traded the 9mm Glock for pruners and trowel. Shadows from the brim of his wicker hat criss-crossed his face like Maori tattoos as he knelt over a five-foot plot of dirt, digging little conical holes for his new babies.
Next to me on the hot stone bench, a jar of sun tea Guy White had brought out with us ten minutes before was already dark amber. Sweat was starting to trickle down my back. My butt felt like a fried tortilla. I looked longingly at the nearby patio, shaded with pecan trees, then at the swimming pool, then at Guy White, who was smiling contentedly and humming along with the drone of the cicadas and not sweating at all.
I’d liked him better when he was holding a gun on me. “I’m quite excited about these," he told me. He broke one plastic container off the flat of plants and turned it upside down to shake the roots loose. “Do you know about gardening, Mr. Navarre?"
"It’s not my specialty. That’s some kind of verbena?"
“Very good. "
"It was associated with sorcerers in medieval times."
White looked pleased. "Is that so?"
He carefully placed the verbena into its new home and patted down the dirt. The little clusters of flowers were cotton candy blue. They matched Mr. White’s ensemble perfectly.
“This is the first year the Blue Princess variety is available," he explained. “From England. It’s only being offered commercially in South Texas. Quite an opportunity."
I wiped the back of my neck. “You always do your planting in the middle of the afternoon?"
White laughed. When he sat back on his heels I realized for the first time what a large man he was. Even with me sitting and him kneeling we were almost eye eve.
“Verbena is a hearty plant, Mr. Navarre. It looks delicate but it demands full sunlight, aggressive pruning, well-drained soil. This is the best time to plant it. Many people make the mistake of pampering their verbena, you see—they’re afraid to cut the blooms, they over-water or overshade. Treat verbena with gentleness and it mildews, Mr. Navarre. One can’t be afraid to be aggressive."
“Is that your business philosophy too? Is that the way it was ten years ago?"
Not a wrinkle marred Guy White’s face. His smile was the smile of the Redeemed, of a man with no troubles in this world or the next. "I think, Mr. Navarre, that you may be operating under some faulty assumptions."
I spread my hands. “It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe you could set me straight?"
“If I can." His digging had uprooted a six-inch earth-worm, and when White stabbed his trowel into the dirt it cut the worm neatly in half. White didn’t seem to notice. He removed his leather gloves and took a long drink from his glass of ice tea before speaking. “I had nothing to do with your father’s death, my boy."
“I feel better already."
White shook his head. "I’m afraid if you’ve inherited Sheriff Navarre’s stubbornness there’s little point in our talking."
“He made your life uncomfortable for several years. There are plenty of people who still say you got away with his murder."
White pulled his gloves back on and started troweling the second row of Blue Princess. Under the shadow of his hat brim, his pleasant smile didn’t waver at all. "I’ve been the convenient answer for many criminal questions in the past, Mr. Navarre. I’m aware of that. "
"In the past."
“Exactly. Would you hand me the 19-5-9, please?"
“The fertilizer, my boy, next to your foot. You may not know that in recent years I’ve done my best to give back to the community. I’m pleased to be thought of as a good citizen, a patron for many causes. I’ve been actively cultivating that role, and I much prefer it to the undeserved reputation I had in my younger days."
"I’m sure. Murdering, drug dealing—hardly the sort of thing you can talk about at the Kiwanis Club."
White stabbed his trowel back into the dirt, up to the handle this time. He was still smiling when he looked up, but the lines around his eyes revealed just a bit of frayed patience.
"I want you to understand me, Mr. Navarre. Your father never made my life as difficult as it was after he a died, when I was subjected to all sorts of scrutiny, all sorts of witch-hunters looking for someone to blame for I his murder. I’ve worked for many years since then to build back my position in the community, and I am not anxious to have that position compromised with groundless speculation that should have been put to rest long ago. I hope I’m being clear?"
While White was talking, Lubbock had ambled across the lawn. He was now standing respectfully a few yards away, holding a cell phone and waiting to be summoned forward. White let him wait.
“Do we understand each other?" White asked me, very quietly.
I nodded. "How was it you used to kill your rivals, anyway—bullets through the eyes? I forgot. "
For an instant White’s face froze. Then, slowly, his smile rebuilt itself. He let out his breath. "You really are a great deal like your father, my boy. I wish you luck."
He almost sounded sincere. It wasn’t exactly the response I’d been expecting.
“Maybe you should be trying to help me, then," I suggested.
White ignored the comment. He got up and brushed the dirt off his Calvin Klein’s, then seemed to notice Lubbock standing there for the first time.
"Ah," he said, "now if you’ll excuse me, my boy, I must take this call. Emery here will see you out."
Emery handed Mr. White the phone and nodded for me to follow him inside. I got up from the stone bench.
"Mr. White," I said.
White had already dismissed me. He was chatting pleasantly with his caller about the weather in Vera Cruz. Now he looked back, taking the phone away from his ear.
"just so you understand me: If you’re lying, if you killed my father, I’ll personally mulch you into your own garden. "
He smiled as if I’d wished him happy birthday. “I’m sure you will, my boy. Good day."
Then he turned away, unconcerned, and resumed his phone conversation about the pros and cons of Mexican real estate. He walked into his garden.
Emery looked at me and laughed once. He patted me on the back like we were old friends, then led me back toward the White House.
“Now this I like," my mother said.
She had come over to the apartment around eight o’clock, minus Jess, who was watching the Rangers game. For five minutes she’d commented on my new home’s "interesting Spartan look," sprayed essential oil to cleanse the place’s aura, and looked around halfheartedly for anything she could compliment. Finally she’d spotted the Mexican statuette Lillian had given me.
The minute Mother picked it up, Robert Johnson hissed and backed into the closet again. Looking at the statue, thinking about my last talk with Lillian, I had a similar reaction.
“I think he wants you to have it," I said. “It fits your decor better anyway."
Mother’s green eyes sparkled mischievously. She dropped the statuette into her massive gold lamé purse. "I’l1 trade you for dinner, dear. "
Then we walked down to the corner of Queen Anne and Broadway.
Sad but true. I’d lived in San Francisco for years, gone to Chinatown almost daily, but I’d never found lemon chicken as good as the kind they serve at Hung Fong. Maia Lee would throttle me for speaking such sacrilege, since I’m including her own family recipe in the comparison, but there it is.
The restaurant had doubled in size since I’d been there last, but old Mrs. Kim was still the hostess. She greeted me by name, not fazed a bit by the fact I hadn’t been there in a decade, then gave us our favorite table under the neon American and Taiwanese flags entwined on the ceiling. It was Tuesday night after the dinner rush and we had the place to ourselves except for two large families at corner booths and a couple of guys who looked like basic trainees eating at the counter. Five minutes after we ordered, the tablecloth was buried under platters piled with food.
"Isn’t it odd that Lillian left for Laredo the day after you arrived?" Mother asked. Mother had dressed informally tonight: a brilliant gold and black kimono over a black cotton bodysuit. Every time she reached over the table the gold and amber bangles around her wrists slid down over her hands and caught on the lids of the covered dishes, but she didn’t seem to mind.
"All right, " I said. “So we had a small fight. Not even a fight, really."
I told her about Dan Sheff, hunk from hell. Mother nodded.
"I remember his mother from the Bright Shawl." She waved her chopsticks dismissively. "Horrid woman. Never trust anyone named Cookie to raise a child properly. Now what else happened?"
I shrugged. “That’s it."
She frowned. “It doesn’t sound like anything worth leaving town over."
"Beau Karnau probably had something to do with it. He seems to like capitalizing on emotional stress."
"You just be persistent," she advised. "Here, I’ll read the tea leaves for you."
Actually I’d been drinking beer, but Mother was never one to let technicalities stop her. She poured me a cup of tea, drank it herself, then turned the cup over on a napkin. I could never figure out whether she was playing a game for her own amusement, or whether she really had a system for making sense of the sediment from beverages, but she studied the little brown flecks intently, making meaningful 'hmm' sounds.
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