Page 28

I put the portrait back at the bottom of the box.

I searched for clothes that would fit me, but there were none in the closet. Madeleine’s goons had repossessed my suit, taken my phone, left me nothing but silk pajamas and no shoes, just to be sure I wouldn’t try running anywhere. The only footwear options in Frankie’s closet were a too-small pair of cleats and some enormous teddy bear-shaped slippers—a joke birthday gift, maybe.

I wasn’t that desperate.

I paced across the cold Saltillo tile floor.

Sleep was out of the question.

I tried the bars on the windows, just out of principle. They were fast.

The guard Virgil outside my door was still there all three times I opened it. He said he would not be willing to get me a glass of water. The third time, he locked the door from the outside.

I threw Frankie’s letter jacket over the surveillance camera, just to be petulant, and crashed on what used to be his bed.

I looked up at the exposed oak beams on the ceiling.

Outside, party music was still going, though the sound of voices was getting softer. The bedside clock glared 11:52.

I wondered if Zorro felt like this, trapped in the alcalde’s hacienda. I wished I had a black mask and a sword.

Mostly, I wished I had Maia Lee. If I pretended hard, I could imagine her lying next to me, warming the right side of the bed. I listened for her breathing—that deep sigh she makes sometimes in the middle of a dream.

I thought about her expression at the party. I have to tell you something.

I thought about that a lot.

She had mentioned her mother, who died having Maia. Maia had told me the story only once, and I’d gotten the message that she was not willing to share details. I knew Maia’s uncle had raised her after her father got sent away to a Communist reeducation camp. Her parents, Maia assured me, were not an emotional issue for her. She had never known her mom, never been close to her dad.

Which did not explain why she was thinking about her mother now.

I closed my eyes.

One of the photographs from Frankie’s closet bothered me. It was a fuzzy snapshot of Ralph and Frankie on graduation night, still in their electric blue AHHS graduation robes, drinking tequila in the Skyride at Brackenridge Park. I knew the location because I’d taken the picture. It was the last time I’d seen Frankie White alive.

For reasons that would only make sense to drunken teenagers, we’d bribed the Skyride operator a hundred dollars of Frankie’s money to let us take an after-hours trip above the park.

The Skyride was in its last years of operation. The cables were loose. The motorized winch smelled of burning oil. The Skycar itself, a canary yellow box just big enough for three people and a tequila bottle, had a rusted floor and creaky seats and a door that didn’t quite close. The operator stopped the ride for us at the top, a hundred feet in the air, so we could sway in the night wind and savor the possibility of plunging to our deaths on graduation night. When you’re eighteen, such things sound like great fun.

We talked about the future.

I was going to Texas A&M to major in English.

Ralph and Frankie had a good laugh over that.

Ralph was disdainful of college. He was going to go into business and make millions. In truth, he’d already been in business for years, “finding merchandise” for Alamo Heights students. If we wanted a new Walkman, or a watch, or a James Avery charm bracelet, we knew to talk to Ralph first. His locker had better prices than the mall.

“What about you, Frankie?” Ralph asked. “Dad get you into Harvard?”

Immediately, Frankie’s mood turned sour.

I doubt Ralph paid any attention to GPAs or college admissions, but I’d heard the rumors. I knew that despite Guy White’s sizable bank account and lofty expectations for his son, Frankie had gotten in nowhere. With his grades and his terrible discipline record, he’d graduated only by the slimmest of margins.

“SAC,” Frankie grumbled.

We both stared at him. San Antonio College, derisively known as San Pedro High, had an unfair reputation as the bottom rung on the local education ladder. It was, in our teenage minds, only one step up from a career at McDonald’s.

Ralph burst out laughing. “SAC? What the hell for? You don’t need to work.”

Frankie took another swig of tequila. He shifted his weight and the Skycar bobbed back and forth precariously. “Punishment.”

His face was scary in the dark—pale and brutal, his hair deathly white.

“Man,” Ralph sympathized, “if I had your dad—”

“You’d dump him in a trash can,” Frankie growled. “Yeah, that’d be nice. And you’d still have your mom, too.”

Ralph didn’t say anything.

The night wind smelled of fish spawn and lantana from the Sunken Gardens somewhere below us in the dark. Headlights glowed on McAllister Freeway. A line of traffic was still snaking its way down Hildebrand from Trinity University, where we’d had our graduation ceremony—all the good students who’d stayed for the reception with their families, unlike us.

Guy White had been at that party, no doubt, giving the other parents strained smiles, looking around for his errant son, probably contemplating what punishment he would have to inflict on Frankie when he came home.

“I want to kill him,” Frankie mumbled. “I wish to hell—”

“Hey, man.” Ralph punched him in the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. Tres and me will always be around for you, right?”

Ralph looked at me. He knew damn well I was out of the picture. I couldn’t wait to leave town. Even if I’d been staying, Frankie White was the last person I’d want to help.

But the way Ralph talked, you could almost buy into his optimism. He made everything sound so reasonable. He described his business plans, said Frankie could help him out.

Ralph would open some pawnshops. He loved talking to people. He loved hearing their problems and pricing their most precious possessions. How much for a wedding ring? How much for the guitar that was supposed to take a kid to L.A.?

“Pawning is life, vatos,” he said with a grin. “You want to understand somebody, look at what he’s willing to give up.”

Sometimes he would even save his customers’ lives. Front them a little cash, keep the loan sharks away. Even if it was only for a few days, Ralph could do some good while he made a profit. What could be better than that?

I’m pretty sure Frankie heard very little of what Ralph said, but the tone of Ralph’s voice seemed to calm him down. We sat drinking in our rusty Skycar, Ralph and I contemplating the future, Frankie contemplating murder, until the cable lurched and the Skyride started moving again, carrying us down through a hundred feet of darkness toward the end of the ride.


From the wall behind my head, I heard tapping. I wasn’t sure at first, but then recognized the beat. “La Bamba.”


I got out of bed. The knocking was coming from behind a Guatemalan tapestry. I draped it over the bedpost to get it out of my way, then ran my hand over the wall. Plaster and sheetrock. I tapped until I found a spot without a stud.

I went back to Frankie’s closet and got his baseball bat.

What the hell.

I gave the wall a good battering-ram strike, dented it pretty nicely.

The guard didn’t open the door. Maybe he was used to prisoners throwing tantrums. Maybe he was just scared I’d ask him for water again.

The second hit, the aluminum head of the bat went into the wall and ripped through insulation.

The third whack, I felt something give on the other side.

I put my face down at the hole.

From the other side, Ralph’s voice said, “Al Capone’s vault. May I help you?”

I couldn’t see him very well—just a shadow against more shadows. Still, it was reassuring to hear his voice.

“Maia get away all right?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure.”

“So what do you think?”

“Besides the fact that we’re totally screwed?”

“We still got tomorrow,” I said. “Let White get some sleep. I bet the old bastard will be chipper at breakfast.”

Silence. The hole smelled of chalk and dust and mildew.

“I’m sorry, vato,” Ralph said. “What I said earlier, about you being afraid of me and Ana . . . that was out of line.”

“Forget it,” I told him. I didn’t add that he’d probably been right. The comments he’d made were still stinging a little too much.

I knelt next to the hole, waiting for Ralph to speak again.

Then I heard voices outside my bedroom door—the guard and someone else.

I slid the baseball bat under the bed and threw the wall hanging back over the hole. I swung around just as Madeleine White came in the room.

She’d been drinking. I could tell that because I’m a trained detective. Plus she had a half-empty bottle of champagne in her hand, her red dress was slipping off one shoulder and her eyes were half closed.

“You fucking idiot,” she told me.

“Sure, come right in.”

Behind her, my personal doorman protested, “Miss White—”

“Get lost, Virgil.”


She wheeled at him. “Get—the fuck—lost.”

Virgil did the smart thing. He got lost.

Madeleine slammed the door. She stared in my direction as if I was in several different places at once. “What is your friend’s problem, letting that fucker Roe escape?”

“Three fucks since you walked in,” I said. “Even by my standards, that’s impressive.”

She scowled. “What?”

“If you want to know something about Ralph,” I said, “you’re in the wrong room.”

“Don’t wanna talk to him.”

“Why not?”

“’Cause I got the call for you, didn’t I?”

She set her champagne bottle on the nightstand, fished around in her purse, brought out my cell phone.

I tried to take it.

She pulled it away. “You and Arguello—what are you really after?”

“What was the call, Madeleine?”

“First explain why he let Titus go. Then I’ll decide whether to tell you or my father.”

“Ralph didn’t want to shoot an innocent man.”

“Innocent? Bullshit.”

“You saw Roe. You really think he killed your brother?”

She sat down hard on the bed.

The straps of her evening dress fell around her arms. Her newly curled hair was coming undone.

She reminded me of one of those elaborate trick knots—the kind that look seaworthy but come apart when a single end is pulled.

“I don’t care whether Roe did it or not,” she said. “I just don’t want my father pissed.”

There was fear in her voice—the terror of somebody facing down an old phobia, staring into the dark closet that scared her as a child.

“If you mean he’ll take it out on you,” I said, “then I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t say that.”