- The Last King of Texas
I drove northwest on I-10 until the real estate developments and strip malls began falling away to the natural topography of the Balcones Escarpment — crumpled folds of land thickly covered with live oak and prickly pear. Just inside Loop 1604, the UTSA campus rose from the woods in an isolated cluster of limestone cubes. The area around it had begun to urbanize over the last few years, but occasionally in the early morning you still see deer, armadillos, roadrunners at the edges of the parking lots.
I'd lived in the Bay Area for ten years before moving home to San Antonio. My California friends would not have called this a particularly beautiful place. Those brave enough to visit me in Texas complain of the boring vista, the oppressive storm clouds that frequently rolled in, the harsh flat prairie ugliness. I try telling them that it's a matter of perspective, that San Francisco is like a Monet — any idiot can appreciate it. San Antonio, on the other hand, takes time, patience. It's more like a Raymond Saunders, put together with muddy strokes and scraps of handwriting and broken stuff. But it's beautiful, too. You just have to be more perceptive.
Of course my Bay Area friends counter that, by my logic, all the truly perceptive Mensa types should be living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, appreciating the completely subliminal beauty there. At that point in the argument I usually order more tequila and tell my friends to screw themselves. I turned onto Loop 1604 and drove across the dusty access road to the north entrance of campus. I parked in the faculty lot and tried not to feel strange about it.
After twenty minutes filling out paperwork for the provost's secretary and the dean's secretary and the campus police lieutenant's secretary, I was back in the late Aaron Brandon's office — my office.
The hole in the window had been covered with clear plastic tarp. Odds and ends and half-burned essays from the floor had been heaped onto the desk. Unfortunately, many of the essays were still readable, thus gradable. I sat down in the black leather chair. Outside, the spring morning looked glazed behind plastic. The picture of Aaron Brandon with his wife and child had been replaced upside down on the desk.
My graduate medieval seminar started in three hours. I began sorting through my predecessors' files — syllabi, lecture notes, grade sheets, highlighted readers, personal effects. It didn't take long to learn what belonged to Brandon and what belonged to old Dr. Haimer, the office's original occupant. Haimer's materials were the tried and true and dusty — the General Prologue, Gawain, the Wakefield plays. Brandon's syllabus, as I anticipated, tended toward the flashy and gory — Crusade narratives, miracle plays, fabliaux. The Middle Ages according to Stephen King.
I'd stacked about a foot of paper into two piles, Brandon and Haimer, when I hit a thin folder labeled RIDERWORKS stuck to the back cover of Brandon's Riverside Chaucer.
Inside was an eight-by-ten photograph of Aaron with father Jeremiah and brother Del. All three stood on the running board of an old-fashioned carousel. Jeremiah must've been in his sixties by the time this shot was taken, not long before his murder. His hair had turned greasy white, his face thinner with age, but his eyes still glittered with the same fierce intensity. I tried to imagine this man making advances toward a seventeen-year-old married girl named Sandra Mara-Sanchez, and I decided with a cold certainty that Jeremiah Brandon would've been capable of it.
The brothers Del and Aaron looked strikingly similar to each other but hardly like Dad at all. None of the three men looked particularly happy.
Under the photo was a Xerox copy of an article from a Texas business journal, dated three years ago. The story announced that a settlement had been reached between the IRS and a drill-bit manufacturing company in the Permian Basin. An insider at the company had tipped IRS investigators about cash transactions the company owner was conducting with wildcatters. A sting operation had been launched. Once caught, the owner had bargained his way out of jail time for tax evasion by agreeing to massive fines and relinquishing control of the company to a board of directors made up of other family members.
I read the article again. I looked at the photo.
When knuckles rapped on the door, I closed the folder and set it aside.
Professor David Mitchell looked better than he had the day before — his jeans and dress shirt freshly pressed, white sideburns trimmed, face hinting at a good twelve hours of sedative-assisted sleep. He sawed a piece of paper against his thigh.
"I've asked my secretary to delay her," he told me. "We have about five minutes."
He looked behind him nervously, then came all the way in and closed the door. "Ines Brandon."
"Aaron's widow. She's here?"
Mitchell sighed. "Mrs. Brandon needs to collect some of her husband's things. I wasn't sure how you'd — Perhaps we could talk in the hall?"
"Talk about what?"
He stared over my shoulder for a few seconds, then shook his head, coming out of his reverie. He held up the folded paper in his hand. "I'm sorry. The first report from Ms. Manos. You've seen it?"
"Have a seat."
"But—" He pointed behind him. "You're sure?"
I waved him toward the student's chair.
Mitchell checked his watch. He sat down reluctantly, probably remembering what had happened the last time he sat there, then unfolded Erainya's report and frowned at it. "Ms. Manos seems to be urging us to end the investigation."
"Erainya would love to keep taking your money. She's just trying to be clear with you. The State Licensing Board takes a dim view of investigators who churn cases, string clients along for more hours than necessary. If the police are right, UTSA has nothing to worry about. Brandon's murder was some kind of personal matter between Aaron and the man who killed him, Zeta Sanchez. Sanchez is a former employee of the Brandons. He might've murdered Aaron's father back in '93. If that's all true, you may wish to discontinue your investigation."
Mitchell's frown deepened. "The death threats, son. The bomb—"
"—could've been sent by Zeta Sanchez."
Mitchell studied my face. Apparently I didn't do a good job looking convinced.
"You don't believe that," he decided. "The letters started coming before Dr. Brandon was even hired. You know that."
"One letter came to Dr. Haimer. A month or so later, six more like it came to Brandon, then the bomb."
Mitchell rubbed his jaw. "You're saying someone could've copied the style of the first threat."
"It's possible. When did Dr. Haimer report it?"
"He didn't. He merely threw it in his file cabinet with all the other hate mail. Dr. Brandon came across it when he took over the office, but he didn't report it to us until after he received the second and third letters, addressed to him. That was the first time we knew we had a credible threat. That was in February, about five weeks into the term."
"So conceivably, anyone who saw that first letter to Haimer could've decided to copy the style and continue the death threats. A person who was after Aaron Brandon for another reason might've found the UTSA controversy a convenient cover."
"This man, Zeta Sanchez, would go to such trouble?"
"Doesn't seem likely," I admitted. "But the police already have a lot of other evidence pointing to Sanchez."
Mitchell shook his head. "The only people who could've seen that letter were University people, Tres. If something happened as you described, I can't imagine it was done by a—" Mitchell faltered.
"You want us to keep looking into the matter."
"I want Ms. Manos to look into it."
"That's what I meant."
Mitchell smiled faintly, checked his watch again. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather—"
"One more question." I pulled out the eight-by-ten carousel photo, held it up for Dr. Mitchell to see. "You know these men?"
Mitchell shook his head. "Aaron's relatives?"
"This one is his dad, Jeremiah. The other is Del, Aaron's brother. You ever seen the brother around campus? Maybe visiting Aaron's office?"
"Not that I recall. Why?"
I was thinking about whether to mention the business journal article when someone else knocked on the door. Professor Mitchell looked at me with a silent warning. He mouthed the words: She's drunk.
"It's okay," I promised.
Mitchell looked dubious, but he got up and opened the door. He stuck his head outside, mumbled something to the person waiting, then turned and said to me by way of reassurance, "I'll be just down the hall."
He was replaced in the doorway by Ines Brandon.
Today she wore jeans and an army-green silk blouse with a basket purse slipping off one shoulder. Her red-brown hair was tied back in a stubby ponytail. When she saw me, anger filled her like compressed air. "I don't believe this."
"You say that with such joy."
"Put it away," she demanded.
When I didn't immediately get her meaning, she walked to the desk and tore the photo of the Brandon men out of my hand.
She ripped the photo in half, carefully aligned the halves, and ripped them again, letting the pieces flutter to the singed carpet.
"It's away," I said.
There was a leaden quality in her eyes, as if the thoughts beneath were moving sluggishly. "Get the hell out."
"Can't. I've got a class in three hours."
Her hands worked into the smallest possible fists. "You came into my house. Now you're sitting at my husband's desk. You goddamn prying—"
"Mrs. Brandon — I work here."
"I don't give a—"
"As an English professor."
Her thin black eyebrows knitted into tilde marks.
She looked uncertainly around the office — the hole in the window, the scorched papers, the stacks of files I'd been sorting through. "I thought—"
"I told you I was a P.I. That's still true. So happens I'm also—"
"You're Aaron's replacement?"
Ines Brandon studied my tie. She looked at the upside-down family photo on the desk. The woman in it looked nothing like her — hair longer, lighter-colored; body ten pounds heavier and healthier; her smile sincere and warm.
"You can take whatever you need," I told her. "I'm sorry."
Ines Brandon's fingers touched the glass over the photo, trailed to the edge of the desk, and slipped off. "Everybody's sorry," she said.
She swayed, then sank into the chair that was, fortunately, right behind her. She curled forward, pinching her hand over her eyes. Her purse tumbled into her lap.
The office got intensely quiet. The plastic on the window ballooned inward with the breeze. The mesquite rustled. Outside the door, two male voices approached and then receded down the hallway.
Ines' fingers massaged small circles at the corners of her eyebrows.
When she focused on me again, her eyes couldn't target quite right. "Your name was Navarre?"
"Tres Navarre. Yes."
She mouthed the word Tres a few times, let out a sour laugh. "The third. How perfect."