- The Last King of Texas
"Doesn't mean I've read everything the Victorians ever wrote. Like some people I could name."
George grinned. "I spend enough time waiting around for you, I need long novels."
Having taken the book as a gift, I couldn't very well throw it at him. I said thank you. Then we closed up the house and walked back out to the VW. I had the convertible top down and the night had cooled off pleasantly, smelling like rain. We drove south from Palo Blanco onto Jefferson. The business strip was bright with car dealership lights and taqueria neon, the air rich with blooming mountain laurel from every South Side yard.
I waited until we turned onto S.W Military before broaching the subject of our dates. "So — Jenny."
George smiled. In the nighttime illumination his skin glowed like whipped butter. "Don't get nervous on me."
"I'm just wondering why I'm the one dating her. I had you and her figured for a pair a long time ago."
"She's worked at the title office since before Melissa died, man. Going out with her would be like going out with my sister."
"But why me?"
He laughed. "Is it that bad a favor? Didn't you say Jenny was nice? Don't you guys joke around every time you come over?"
"And you think she's pretty?"
"Sure, George. It's just—" I stopped. "Who's your date?"
Berton wagged his hand, palm down — the burned-on-an-oven gesture.
"Jenny's got this friend. Ay que rica. Seen her at Jenny's house a few times and I started asking about her — like is this girl single or what? Jenny said yes, and maybe she could set me up but it had to be a double and it had to be with you. So here we go."
"Jenny said me specifically?"
"Don't ask me why. I reminded her what an ugly bastard you were, unlucky with women, but she still said she wanted to give it a go."
"Who's her friend?"
"Wait 'til you see her, man. Not that Jenny is a pig or anything."
"I'll tell her that. 'George said you weren't a pig.'"
We drove a few more blocks, listening to the wind crinkle the cellophane on George's bouquet.
"I talked to Ralph Arguello this afternoon," I said.
George raised his eyebrows, looked over.
I told him how I'd spent my afternoon.
George slid a cigar from his shirt pocket. "Wish somebody had clued me in sooner. I spent all day talking to some very pissed-off Latinos, all the radical groups I knew of, a couple more I got from a buddy at La Prensa. I'm talking about people who spend all day field-stripping AK-47s and reading Che out by Braunig Lake. Complete wackos. None of them gave me anything on the UTSA bombing. Nobody knew any new players in town. Nobody targeting the local campuses. Nobody even knew the name Brandon."
"So you buy the personal vendetta story? Sanchez came back with an old score to settle, decided to finish off the Brandon brothers the way he finished the dad?"
"I talked with an ATF guy I know. They've already passed on the bomb investigation. FBI likewise. Officially, they're still standing by to advise, but basically they're turning it back to SAPD. Bomb is too obviously a local make. The hit looks personal. They like Sanchez for it just fine."
"You don't sound convinced."
George lit his cigar, puffed on it thoughtfully. "Hector Mara running heroin, huh?"
"Ralph suggests being careful," I said. "It's usually a good idea."
We turned north onto I-10 and skirted downtown, finally exiting into the palatial dark hills of Monte Vista. The sound of the wind and engine died sufficiently for conversation.
"Maybe we should listen to Ozzie," I continued. "Just tell the University what they want to hear — that the murder had nothing to do with them and their faculty is safe. We could close out the case and bill them for a day's work."
George looked over, his eyebrows raised.
"Nah," we said together.
We turned onto Mulberry and rode west, heading toward the address George had given me for Jenny's condo.
George's cigar smoke collected in front of his face each time I changed gears, then evaporated as I accelerated again. His eyes squinted almost shut.
After a while I noticed that he seemed to be muttering to himself — counting, or praying maybe.
"You all right?"
He removed the cigar, licked his lips, then laughed. "Yeah, fine."
"No. Just thinking — you know this is my hundredth date? You think I should get a door prize or something?"
"You keep track of every date?"
"One hundred exactly. You mean since—"
"Since Melissa. Yeah."
I opened my mouth. Closed it again. Nope. Don't ask, Navarre. Remember, this man liked his closet closed.
Berton said, "You really want to know?"
Another block, then morbid curiosity got the best of me. "I heard — it was some kind of accident, right?"
George touched the tip of his cigar to his mouth. His tilted hat brim swamped his face with shadow. "We were camping up by Garner State Park, way up in the hills by the Frio River. At dawn 'Liss was still asleep in the tent, so I figured I'd go down to the Frio to do a little fly-fishing. This was our first vacation since I'd gotten out of the service, you know? A little time to get away, we figured. I came back to the tent about noon and found her."
"Raped," he said. "Then murdered — chopped up with my camping ax."
My hand tightened on the wheel. "George—"
"'S'okay," he said. "Really. Seven years later, you know, and it's okay. But..."
"They ever catch who did it?"
He shook his head. "They suspected me for a while — I couldn't blame them. But it still keeps me awake at night — the fact that this monster got away. That and the guilt. I'm not careful — it's like one of those balloons of coke the drug mules swallow to get across the border, you know? I'm always wondering if it's going to pass through my system eventually or maybe upture, explode my heart."
I looked over at him, met his eyes briefly in the streetlight, looked back at the road. What do you say to a story like that — sorry?
George sat up and tried to lighten his tone. "So anyway... now you know, huh? A hundred dates later. Maybe this'll be the special one."
He smiled frailly at me, looking suddenly, as we passed under another streetlight, like a very old man, someone who'd come from 1962 the hard way. Jenny's condo building was a new high-rise behind Trinity University, designed for young professionals or students with rich daddies. It was the kind of place where the condos cost as much as the older two-story homes around them but with half the maintenance and none of the charm.
We buzzed Jenny's number in the lobby. Ninety seconds later she came down the elevator alone.
"I'll be," she exclaimed. "Two handsome men! Hey there, stranger!"
She squeezed my arm, noticed and decided not to comment on the new facial scar, then decided to get a little bolder and fold herself around my elbow.
Jenny was a nice-looking woman — maybe twenty-seven, her skin so smooth and shining with health it looked like air-mattress plastic. Her hair was floofy blond, teased to the consistency of cumulus cloud, and her dress just as light — willowy white layers of cotton. The only things of any hardness about her were her black boots and her large earrings shaped like fish skeletons.
George fiddled with his flowers. "Where's your comadre?"
"Oh." Jenny sighed, brushed her hand against my chest. "Ana's on her way down. Her pager went off right when you buzzed and she had to call the office. She's always — well, here we go."
The elevator doors opened again. The woman who stepped through was about five-nine, a dark-skinned Latina. Her red sleeveless dress was mid-thigh length and showed off well-muscled legs and arms. Her black hair was wedge-cut at the jawline and done in bangs on top — a style that might have made another woman's face look babyish, but not hers. Hers was serene, softened with amber and blue highlights but not enough to dilute the stern set of her eyes and her mouth. She came out of the elevator trying to fit something into her small black purse.
She looked up and gave us an economic, careful little smile, took two steps, then took another look at me and froze.
She continued forward, her smile a little more forced. As she got closer I could see crisscross abrasions under the makeup on her cheek.
"George," Jenny said, "Tres, let me introduce Ana."
"Ana," I repeated, greeting Detective DeLeon for the third time that day.
"Nice to meet you."
The ride to the restaurant was a long one.
Not that I had to avoid conversation with Ana DeLeon. The detective and George were isolated in the backseat by the wind and the roar of the VW engine, but in front Jenny was bending my ear about her day, her week, her month. She must've been used to people tuning her out, too, because she double-checked my attentiveness with annoying frequency.
"And so I was telling George we shouldn't be using a check-writing service," she said. "There's really just four of us at the title office and that didn't justify the cost, you know?"
"And so I started doing the bills myself and we saved so much money. I just went to this seminar on Peachtree and I mean I can't understand how I got along without it. I mean you must have to do that kind of thing with Erainya's agency, right?"
And so forth.
I liked Jenny. Intelligent. Good sense of humor. George was right that she and I joked around whenever I visited his title office. But the mean-spirited truth was I had nightmares about the man Jenny would marry, what he would look like after thirty years. I pictured him sitting in his easy chair with the game shows on and his nose buried in a magazine, a bright-faced geriatric Jenny standing over him chirping about her day and his responses of "uh-huh" that were once politely upbeat now reduced to inured grunts. It was not an image I wanted to have in my head on a first date.
When we got to Los Barrios the dinner rush was in full swing. The restaurant's green exterior walls were floodlit, its pink neon sign glowing. The surrounding two blocks on Blanco were lined with cars and people crowded into the brick entryway.
"You can sometimes find parking in the back," Jenny advised. "This place has gotten so busy since it expanded it's unbelievable, even on a Tuesday night. You know?"
She was right about the parking. We were able to wedge the VW between two Cadillacs in front of a house halfway down Santa Rosa. I held the door as George and Ana extracted themselves from the backseat. As DeLeon passed me she whispered, "Great car."
I made a snarly face at her but she'd already brushed past and was asking Jenny something about her shoes. George helped me put the top up on the Bug as the first splatters of rain started falling.