- The Last King of Texas
"Fine," Gregory said. "Package, too."
The package hit the table with a muffled clunk. It was a manila bubble-wrap mailer, eleven by seventeen, dinged up and glistening at both ends with scotch tape. It had a large red stamp along the side that read INTRACAMPUS DELIVERIES ONLY.
While Professor Mitchell shooed Gregory out the door, DeLeon and I were staring at the same thing — the plain white address label on the mailing envelope, AARON BRANDON, HSS 3,11. No street address or zip. No return. A computer-printed label, Chicago 12-point.
I remember locking eyes with DeLeon for maybe half a second. After that it happened fast.
DeLeon put a hand on Professor Mitchell's shoulder and calmly started to say, "Why don't we go—" when something inside the package made a plasticky crick-crick-crick sound like a soda bottle cap being twisted off.
DeLeon was smaller than Mitchell by maybe a hundred pounds, but she had him wrestled to the floor on the count of two. I should have followed her example.
Instead, I swept the package off the desk and into the metal trash can. Nice plan if I'd been able to get to the floor myself. But the trash can started toppling. First toward my face. Then toward the window. Then it went off like a cannon.
In the first millisecond, even before the sound registered, the force of the blast frosted a huge ragged oval in the glass, then melted it in a cone of metal shards and yellow ribbon and flames, ripping through the wall and the mesquite outside and shredding the new leaves and branches into ticker tape.
I was on my butt in the opposite corner of the office. My ankle was twisted in the walnut armrest of Aaron Brandon's overturned chair and my ribs had slammed against a filing cabinet. There was an upside-down pothos plant in my lap. Someone was pressing a very large A-flat tuning fork to the base of my skull and my left cheek felt wet and cold. I dabbed at the cheek with my fingers, felt nothing, brought my fingers away, and saw that they glistened red.
Except for the tuning fork, the room was silent. Leaves and pigeon feathers and pages from essays were twirling aimlessly in the air, curlicuing in and out of the blasted wall. There was a fine white smoke layering the room and a smell like burning swimming-pool chemicals.
Slowly, DeLeon got to her feet. A single yellow pothos leaf was stuck in her hair. She pulled Mitchell up by the elbow.
Neither of them looked hurt. DeLeon examined the room coolly, then looked at me, focusing on the side of my face.
"You're bleeding," she announced.
It sounded like she was talking through a can and string, but I was relieved to register any sound at all. Then I heard other things — voices in the plaza below, people yelling. A low, hot sizzle from the remnants of the blasted garbage can. I staggered to my feet, brushed the plant and the dirt off my lap, took a step toward the window. No more pigeons on the ledge. The bottom of the garbage can, the only part that wasn't shredded, had propelled itself backward with such force that an inch of the base was embedded in the side of the oak desk. Distressed voices were coming down the hall now. Insistent knocks on neighboring doors.
Mitchell's eyelids stuck together when he blinked. He shook his head and focused on me with great effort. "I don't — I don't..."
DeLeon patted the old professor's shoulder, telling him she thought he was going to be okay. Then she looked at me. "A doctor for that cheek. What do you think?" I looked out the hole somebody had just blasted in a perfect spring day. I said, "I think I'll take the job."
The bomb-squad guys were a laugh a minute.
After barking orders to the campus uniforms and kicking through the rubble in their storm trooper outfits, sniffing the trash can and measuring lug nuts and screws and other metal fragments that had embedded themselves several inches into the concrete window frame, the squad decided it was safe to stand down. They threw Gregory the mail boy into an office down the hall for questioning by the FBI folks, though it was clear the poor kid knew nothing about the bomb and was already rattled to tears at the thought of his werewolf essay being blown to Valhalla. Then the squad relaxed in the hallway with their Dr Peppers and let lesser individuals take over the investigation.
"Same as that'n last year," one of the storm troopers said. "You remember that kid?"
A blond guy with a sergeant's badge clipped to his belt took a noisy pull on his soda. "Blew off three of his fingers, didn't it?"
"Four, Sarge. Remember? We found one of them later, under the bed."
They all laughed.
Another guy mentioned the lunatic they'd caught last month trying to drop TNT-filled Ping-Pong balls off the Tower of the Americas. He reminisced about how the perp would've blown a hole in the sergeant's crotch except Sarge was such a good catch. Hilarious.
I was sitting in a student desk about thirty feet down the hallway. I would've been happy to move farther away and leave the squad to their fun, but there was a paramedic patching up my face.
The narrow mustard-colored corridors of the Humanities Building were overflowing with SAPD, campus police, ATF, UTSA administrators. With everybody bustling around and the bomb-squad guys hanging out in their flack suits, I had the distinct feeling that I'd been dropped into the Beatles' yellow submarine during a Blue Meenie invasion.
One of the bomb-squad guys glanced down the hall to where Ana DeLeon stood talking with Lieutenant Jimmy Hernandez, the SAPD homicide commander. "Always thought DeLeon'd be a blast."
Another said, "Dyke. Forget it, man."
The sergeant cupped his crotch. "Just hasn't met the right kind of pipe bomb yet."
That got a few more guffaws.
DeLeon was a lot closer to them than I was, but she gave no indication that she'd heard. Neither did the lieutenant.
An evidence tech came out of the blown-up office. He went over to the bomb-squad sergeant and compared notes. I.E.D. Improvised explosive device. A metal pipe joint packed with solid oxygen compound and a few common household baking ingredients, some nuts and bolts thrown in for extra nastiness, a nine-volt battery wired to the package's flap — designed to break circuit when the package was opened. Instead it had broken prematurely on impact with the desk. The whole thing had probably cost thirty bucks to make.
"Gang-bangers," the sergeant told the evidence tech. "Solidox — real popular with the homies. Simple and cheap. Half the time they blow themselves up making it, which is all right by me."
Detective DeLeon was still talking with Lieutenant Hernandez. Another plainclothes detective came up behind them and stood there silently, unhappily. He was about six-one, Anglo, well dressed, looked like he ate rottweilers for breakfast.
DeLeon gestured in my direction.
Hernandez focused on me, recognized me with no pleasure, then said something to the rottweiler-eater. All three of them started down the hall.
"'Scuse me," DeLeon told the bomb squad.
A few riotous comments appeared to be dancing on their lips until they noticed Hernandez and the big Anglo guy flanking her. The squad managed to contain their humor.
When DeLeon reached my paramedic she asked, "How's he doing?"
"I can talk," I promised.
DeLeon ignored me. The paramedic told her I'd be fine with some painkillers and a few stitches and some rest. DeLeon did not look overjoyed.
Lieutenant Hernandez stepped forward. "Navarre."
His handshake delivered about sixty pounds per square inch into my knuckles.
Hernandez was a small oily man, hair like molded aluminum sheeting. He did his clothes shopping in the Sears boys' department and his wide brown tie hung down over his zipper. Despite his compact size, the lieutenant had a reputation for hardness matched only by that same quality in his hair.
He released my mangled hand. "Detective DeLeon tells me you dunked the bomb. She says you did all right."
DeLeon was scribbling something on her notepad. When she noticed me looking at her, her thin black eyebrows crept up a quarter inch, her expression giving me a defiant What?
"Detective DeLeon is too generous with her praise," I told Hernandez.
The big Anglo guy snorted.
Hernandez shot him a warning look. "DeLeon also tells me you're considering the teaching position. May I ask why?"
A sudden pain ripped through my jaw. The EMT told me to hold still. He dabbed some bandages onto my cheek. The sensation was warm and numb and far away.
When I could move my mouth again I said, "Maybe I resent being blown up."
Hernandez nodded. "But of course you're not under any impression that taking this job might afford you a chance at payback."
"Teaching well is the best revenge."
A smile flicked in the corner of Hernandez's mouth. The Anglo guy behind him studied me like he was mentally placing me in a bowl with the rottweilers and pouring milk on me.
"Besides," I continued, "I was assured the case was already in good hands."
DeLeon's eyes met mine, cool and level. You almost couldn't tell she'd just been through an explosion. Her makeup had been perfectly reapplied, her hair reformed into severe black wedges, not a glossy strand out of place. The only visible damage to her ensemble was a two-inch triangular slit ripped in the shoulder of her pearl-gray blazer.
"This incident changes nothing, Mr. Navarre."
The big Anglo said, "Should fucking well change who's in charge."
Hernandez turned toward him and held up one finger, like he was going to tap the big guy on the chin.
"We are in charge, Kelsey. We as in a team. We as in — you got problems with the way I make duty assignments, file a complaint. In the meantime" — he waved at DeLeon — "whatever she says."
DeLeon didn't skip a beat. "Get with Special Agent Jacobs. Cooperate — whatever she wants on the bombing. Help canvass, get statements from everybody who's handled packages on campus, negative statements from everybody who hasn't. I want timing on the delivery of the package correlated to the time of the shooting. I also want statements from every student in every class Brandon has taught this semester."
Kelsey grunted. "The Feds'll take a pass. You know goddamn well—"
Hernandez said, "Kelsey."
"So I'm just supposed to piddle with busywork while we let that scumbag Sanchez sit out there?"
"Kelsey," Hernandez repeated.
Kelsey's eyes were locked on DeLeon's.
Lieutenant Hernandez's voice broke in as soft and sharp as asbestos. "Are you capable of acting as secondary on this case, Detective?"
After three very long seconds, Kelsey reached into his shirt pocket, took out a ballpoint pen, held it up for DeLeon to see, and clicked it. Then he turned and left.
"One big happy," I noted.
Hernandez's aluminum hair glittered as he turned toward me. "While I'm in charge, Navarre, you can depend on it. You need to speak to anyone concerning the Brandon homicide, you will speak to Detective DeLeon. My advice, however — teach your classes, stay safe, and stay out of her way."
"Two pigeons and a lot of fine essays died in that blast."
Hernandez sighed. "Let's do a story, Navarre. Let's talk about a time one of my top people advised me to — say — de-prioritize a lead."
Hernandez stared at me until I supplied a name. "Gene Schaeffer?"