- The Last King of Texas
The last student, in the far corner by the window, mumbled hello but didn't give a name or any other firm indication of gender. He/she looked like a Morticia Addams drag queen.
"Great." I looked at the clock. We'd managed to burn four whole minutes. "So — any questions?"
After some awkward silence and pencil fumbling, one of the grunge guys, Blake, raised his hand and asked about class hours. Would he still receive full credit for the first three months of the semester even though What's-his-name had gotten bumped off?
"Yes," I said. "Full credit, even from What's-his-name."
That emboldened the others.
Morticia asked if their essays had ever been graded. I said that most of them had been salvaged from the bomb blast and were currently on my desk. They'd be graded soon.
Marfa lowered her knitting needles and asked Brian the carpet salesman if he'd really be able to drop the course. Wasn't it too late in the semester? Brian told her she would need special permission from the dean's office, but he was pretty sure she could get it if she raised enough hell. Marfa looked at me to see if that was true.
I tried to look sympathetic. I wrote down the question on my notepad. "I'll find out. Something else?"
Simon, the second grunge boy, raised his hand and complained that Dr. Brandon had been, well, a psychopath, and was I one too?
Gregory the mail boy broke in. "I liked those stories."
Morticia groaned. "Oh, man, you're nuts. I was all like — I don't want to know how it feels to be impaled, okay?"
I wrote on my notepad, NO IMPALING. "You're talking about the Crusade narratives?"
Several heads nodded. Edie informed me that Dr. Brandon had been obsessed with violence. More heads nodded.
Sergeant Irwin, USAF, retired, raised his hand. "The Marie de France stories. We bought this whole book and only read one. Some of the others aren't quite so, well, offensive. Maybe we could read them."
Edie agreed. She wanted to know if there were some romances in the book, some without werewolves.
"I liked that one," complained Gregory.
Edie and Morticia started to argue with him.
Blake hollered, "Come on, man! It's this guy's first day and stuff."
The grumbling died down. Morticia and Gregory and Edie kept glaring at each other. Marfa was giving me the eye now, wiggling her eyebrows in time with her knitting needles.
"Great," I said again. We'd now ripped through twelve minutes. "I noticed the old syllabus was a little heavy on the gore. Maybe the Marie de France book would be a good place for a fresh start. How about the first three lais for Friday? We'll revisit Bisclavret and move to Lanval and Guigemar."
There was some general mumbled assent.
That gave me an opening to lecture a little bit about Marie de France, about the courtly love debate and the Anglo-Norman world. I kept stopping to ask if my students had heard all this before. They looked amazed. A few of them even bothered taking notes.
I was just wrapping things up when George Berton came in, dressed in his usual sixties leisure clothes and Panama hat. He held Jem by one hand and an enormously full brown paper bag in the other.
I kept lecturing about the difficulties of translating Anglo-Norman alliteration. George and Jem tiptoed around the back of the room and quietly took two desks next to Gregory. Jem waved at me, then pulled a new action figurine out of his OshKosh overalls and held it up for me to see.
George looked at me seriously and pantomimed straightening a tie. My hand started to go up to my collar, then I stopped myself. George grinned.
"Well," I concluded. "That's probably enough for the first day. We'll look at those first three lais on Friday. I'll keep the same office hours as Dr. Brandon. Anything else?"
Edie the housewife raised her hand. "I read in the newspaper yesterday—"
"About the bomb blast," I interrupted. "Thank you, but I'm fine."
"No..." She frowned, as if my assumption that she'd been interested in my welfare had confused her. "I just wanted to ask, is it true you're a private investigator?"
I looked back at George, who was slicing his hand horizontally across his throat, mouthing: No. No.
"It's true," I said.
The class shifted in their seats. Nobody followed up with questions. Nobody asked my trench coat size.
"Well—" I said. "Okay then. See you Friday."
At that, Jem put down his action figure and began clapping for me. The students looked back uneasily and began collecting their things. Jem kept clapping until the room was empty except for him, me, and George. George grinned. "Bravo, Professor."
"What are you guys—"
George held up his bulging paper bag. "Join us for lunch?"
"You want the special or the beef?"
The question was a mere formality. George nudged the Rolando's Special my way, grabbed the came guisada for himself, then leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs at the ankles.
He unwrapped the end of the mega-taco and took a bite, staring thoughtfully across the UTSA patillo.
The white patio tables were abandoned this late in the afternoon, the sunken courtyard quiet except for the flutter of pigeons and the sound of the stone monolith fountain sluicing water off its slanted top into the pool below.
Overhead, reflected light from the water pulsed across limestone pillars, up the two-story roof of opaque plastic bubbles. Lines of wooden slats hung from above like weird, Mondrian stalactites.
According to UTSA folklore, the campus had been laid out following an ancient Aztec city design, which put the patillo in the center of the community and the fountain right where the altar would've been. Jem, who had already taken two bites of his kid's taco and pronounced himself full, was now tightrope-walking his Captain Chaos doll around the rim of the pool, right about where the bloody heads of the sacrificial victims would've rolled.
I looked down at my Rolando's Special — a giant flour tortilla stuffed with eggs, guacamole, potato, bacon, cheese, and salsa. Normally it would have been enough to elevate me into Taco Nirvana. Today, all I could think about were sheet caves, the desolate interior of the Brandon home, and the things George Berton wasn't saying.
He'd offered no comment on my morning's activities. Without expression, he read the short article I'd found in Aaron Brandon's desk about the IRS investigation in West Texas, then tucked it into his olive-green shirt pocket along with his cigars. He'd been animated enough talking about my classroom performance, the virtues of Rolando's, the great things Jem had been making with his Tinkertoys, but when the conversation had turned toward the Brandon case, George had closed up.
Not that George didn't sometimes close up about his cases-in-progress. Every investigator does. But after our free conversation last night, his remoteness today made me uneasy.
"The IRS article," I prompted. "Mean anything to you?"
"You mean like was Aaron Brandon interested in drill bits?"
"No, doofus. I mean like was Aaron Brandon getting ideas about turning his brother Del in to the IRS. If so, and if Del found out about it, Del might've wanted to stop him."
"I don't know."
"Okay," I said. "Hector Mara. What about him?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
"I talked to some people, heard pretty much the same thing Ralph told you. Mara's been doing business with Chich Gutierrez — maybe running some heroin, though nobody could tell me exactly how or where or to whom. Maybe Zeta Sanchez coming back would cramp Mara's style. Maybe it would cut into Chich Gutierrez's business. Doesn't necessarily mean Hector and Chich would set Sanchez up for a murder."
"Whatever happened to Sandra?"
George peeled back some tinfoil. "You mean Hector's sister. Sanchez's wife."
"Yeah. The girl Jeremiah supposedly slept with. Whatever happened to her?"
George hesitated. I could see a change in his eyes — a distance that hadn't been there before. "Jeremiah Brandon had a reputation, ese. The young girls who worked for him, or were family members of men who did — Jeremiah liked making them his conquests. He'd always win. Eventually the men would find out, but they usually did nothing. What could they do? If they complained, they lost their jobs. If they threatened, somebody like Zeta Sanchez would come visit them in the middle of the night. Jeremiah had all the power."
"Lord of the manor."
"Something Ozzie Gerson said. Go on."
George stared past me. "Jeremiah would get a girl pregnant, or maybe the affair would just go on long enough where the family couldn't tolerate it anymore — Jeremiah would solve the problem by making the girl disappear. He'd give her a nice wad of cash, put her on the next bus to somewhere, or hand her over to his carnival buddies on their way out of town. She'd be gone to a new life, anywhere in the country. Jeremiah would be on to his next conquest."
"A couple of days before Zeta Sanchez killed Jeremiah Brandon, Sandra Sanchez disappeared."
"Yeah. Suddenly all these trips Jeremiah Brandon was sending Sanchez on — all these collections Sanchez was making all across the country, they started to have a new meaning for Sanchez. His boss had been using that time to get friendly with Sandra."
"Unforgivable. A loss of face like that for a guy like Sanchez — unforgivable, ese."
"Maybe for Hector Mara, too. Sandra was Hector's sister. Jeremiah Brandon used her and threw her away. Hector had as much reason to hate the Brandons as Zeta Sanchez. If Hector needed to get Sanchez out of the way and was looking for somebody to kill for the frame-up, what more logical choice than a Brandon?"
George was quiet for a count of five. "Possible."
"But you've got something else. What is it, George?"
"What do you mean?"
"You started to tell me something a minute ago, then decided against it."
Slowly, George put together a grin. "I'm thinking of a number between one and twenty, Navarre."
George laughed. "Ask me tomorrow. I've got an aversion to talking about leads before they work out."
"It's damn irritating."
"It's exactly the way you operate."
"Rub it in."
We finished eating in silence. George worked on the carne guisada. I got through about half of my special. Nearby some pigeons fought over an old popcorn box while Jem walked Captain Chaos around the fountain, Jem's forearms getting speckled with water.
George crumpled his aluminum foil wrapper into a baseball-sized wad and began flipping it up and catching it.
"At some point we're going to have to talk to the SAPD again," I told him. "You find out anything more about Ana DeLeon?"
George raised his eyebrows, did an overhand catch. "Don't even think about it, Navarre."
"I'm only asking—"
"Yeah, I know." His eyes glittered. "I met your old girlfriend from San Francisco last Christmas — remember? Maia Lee?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"