- The Last King of Texas
"Tres, why were you at that place tonight, talking to Hector?"
"You know him?"
She poked at her lip, then looked at the greasy spot of lipstick on her finger, wiped it on her knee. "I see him there a lot. Sometimes with Chich. Week ago he was in with this big guy with a beard and ponytail and shit — looked like a big-time dealer. Scarier than Chicharron."
She nodded hesitantly. "I didn't mess with them. The Sanchez guy was all talking about his wife, looking to find her. And the other guy, Hector, he was saying like, 'This ain't going to get you nowhere, man.' I wouldn't have talked that way to Ponytail, the way he looked."
When we got to the address on Jefferson Drive where Mary's friend lived, Mary insisted on going in by herself.
She got out of the car, then turned and leaned back in. "Hector's badder than he looks, Tres. I think you should watch it."
"What makes you say that?"
"He nearly killed this other guy I saw him talking to in the Poco Mas. Couple of weeks before. A white guy."
My throat tightened. "Who?"
The porch light of the house came on behind Mary and she said, "I gotta go."
I reached over and caught her wrist gently. "This Anglo. Describe him."
"Chunky. Dark hair. One of those orange tropical shirts. I don't know."
"You hear a name?"
"Maybe that was it."
A woman called Mary's name from the porch and Mary winced apologetically. She leaned all the way into the car and gave me a sticky kiss on the cheek. She smelled of at least three different kinds of cheap perfume.
"Call Ralph," I told her.
She tried for a smile, then trotted up the sidewalk to meet her friend. With her back turned, without the conscious effort in her walk, she almost looked fifteen. I pulled away from the curb, hoping the wind would push the scent of her perfume away.
I woke up Thursday morning in a sweat, shaking off dreams of Erainya looming over me, chastising me for not holding a Taurus P-11 correctly.
When I opened my eyes, the only one looming over me was Robert Johnson. He sat on the window ledge above the futon, the morning sun cutting across his face and making his whiskers glow like fiber-optic threads.
"Row," he announced.
"I know, I know. Breakfast."
At the magic word, he did a trampoline dismount from the window to my stomach to the floor, then showed me where the kitchen was.
Once I'd served him his Friskies, properly fried with cheese and taco meat on a bed of flour tortilla, I started some coffee and eggs for myself and pulled down the ironing board to make a call.
The answering machine was flashing again. I had no memory of the phone ringing the night before, but that was not unusual for Tres Navarre, zombie sleeper. The first message was from my mother, letting me know that everything was fine, though she had not in fact seen her insignificant-other Jess since the night they'd argued and if I wasn't too busy, did I want to go to an art opening tonight? The second was from George Berton. George said he was sorry for not returning the calls from me and Erainya last night but he thought he might have something and he wouldn't be reachable today. Could we meet him at his house tonight?
I called George's number. Sure enough, he wasn't reachable, though his answering machine did give me a great recipe for sopa de ajo.
I sat down at the kitchen counter with my coffee and eggs and my stack of essays. I put on some early B.B. King to help me concentrate. This was my day to grade.
As I ate, I read the first paragraph of the first essay four times. I made one mark in the margin that said Good point. B.B. sang about his woman and his guitar. Robert Johnson ate his Friskies taco noisily.
I looked at the phone.
"To hell with it."
I went back to the ironing board and called SAPD. Ana DeLeon's number in homicide rang five rings, clicked, then a man's voice said, "Kelsey."
I tried to contain my excitement. I told Kelsey who I was and asked for DeLeon.
"She's not here right now, Navarre. She's getting her beauty sleep. You want to send her flowers or something, I can give you the address."
"It's about the Brandon case, Kelsey. It's important."
"So talk to me."
I tapped my red pen on the essays. "She's going to want this information, Kelsey. I mean today."
"I'm not hearing anything important yet, Navarre."
I told him about my evening at the Poco Mas, about the connection between Del Brandon and Hector Mara.
Kelsey was quiet long enough to write the information down. "Mary what?"
"Ramirez, maybe. Or Rios."
"There's about five surnames in the family. I don't remember. You can try the sister's address and the friend's. There's no guarantee she'll be at either place." "Assuming it's worth looking. Fifteen-year-old witness, a runaway who'll do anything for a few bucks. Probably drunk when and if she saw anything — Hector Mara with some white guy with a B name and you planted the idea the name might've been Brandon. Even a public defender will laugh his ass off."
I didn't like admitting that he was right. "Substantiate the link another way."
"You don't think we've looked at Hector Mara? We spent the day together on Tuesday, Navarre. You don't think we've looked at Del Brandon? We had Del down here days ago — him and three of the best Jewish lawyers money can buy. They knew the drill, made it pretty clear we wanted to stick any shit to Del, we'd have to mix it with superglue."
I looked down at my unfinished eggs, pushed them away. "Just tell DeLeon. Mara's the key. Break him the right way, he'll talk."
"Damn, Navarre, let me write this all down. Can I share your pointers with the other guys down here in homicide? Is that okay?"
I hung up the phone.
I looked at Robert Johnson, then at the essays.
"I shouldn't go out," I told Robert Johnson.
Smack, smack. Carnivorous head shake.
"You're right. Better me than you." I put my red pen down next to his food dish. "Try to have half of them graded by the time I get back, okay?"
I got my car keys and went out to see a sick friend.
Ozzie Gerson's apartment was everything mine wasn't — modern, stylish, devoid of character. It sat off Thousand Oaks Drive and Highway 281 in a housing development still new enough to have the plastic multicolored pennants flapping out front and the banners that said NOW LEASING and MODEL UNITS and IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU'D BE HOME RIGHT NOW. That last had always sounded like some kind of Zen threat to me.
The neighborhood was about as far from the West Side and the Poco Mas as you could get — wide boulevards cut from the hill country, glistening with Lexuses and SUVs. New upscale strip malls with Starbucks and Le Boulanger, the Texas elements of cactus and limestone and live oak neatly carved down to median strips and parking lot entrances.
Ozzie's apartment was on the third floor of Thousand Trails Villa, overlooking the street. There was a hibachi grill and a pair of muddy police shoes on the landing and a Bexar County Sheriff's Department sticker below the door knocker. I rapped loudly, called out my name, then let myself in.
"Bedroom, Tres," Ozzie hollered. "Take off your shoes and come on back."
I looked down. Three pairs of boots were lined up neatly on a linoleum strip by the door. The rest of the living-room floor was pristine white carpet — not a grease mark or spill or streak of dirt anywhere. I put my present for Ozzie down momentarily, pulled off my boots, and left them next to Ozzie's.
Walking across the living-room carpet was like walking across marshmallow. There was a cream-colored couch and matching love seat placed at a V in front of the fireplace, a neat stack of Handloader and Police Ammo magazines on the glass coffee table next to a vase of fresh-cut bluebonnets. On the mantel were years of photos from Ozzie's ex-wife and two kids in California. The ex-wife, Ozzie'd once told me, was very dependable about sending photos every Christmas, but each one had her in it, too, along with the kids. Every year, Ozzie carefully cut her out with an X-Acto knife and inserted a picture of himself instead. The photos were odd to look at — Ozzie floating between his kids, slightly off in color and size and resolution, overlapping their Christmas Day like some alien beaming in from Star Trek.
The dining room was dominated by a state-of-the-art, polished oak-and-glass gun locker filled with every manner of hunting rifle and handgun. Around it were more gold-framed pictures — Ozzie with my father at our family ranch in Sabinal, standing on either side of a dead buck; a much younger, slimmer Ozzie receiving his detective's shield from my dad; Ozzie with his latest girlfriend Audrey, the large redheaded manicurist who Ozzie swore "had a shot at Miss Texas once."
I walked back to the bedroom.
Gerson was propped up in bed amid enough down comforters and pillows to break a free fall. There were two prescription bottles, a TV remote control, and a can of Sprite on the bedstand. The drapes were open and sunlight flooded in, making the daytime soap opera on TV almost impossible to see.
Ozzie looked pretty good for a man who'd recently come out of the ICU. His color was back. His upper body was bare — Buddha-belly and flabby tits and massive arms swirling in coarse black hair, an old Marines tattoo on his right biceps. His left shoulder was heavily padded and taped, but there was no hint of bleeding. Ozzie's face was its usual brutish slab of pink — a bull's visage, shaved and smiling.
"You ever watch these shows?" he demanded. "Audrey likes them. She tells me they're good — I don't know."
On the screen, a doctor was talking to a woman in a low-cut evening dress. I placed Ozzie's present on the bedstand. "Hope you're feeling better."
His smile widened. He turned the little bonsai plant around. "What's this?"
"A tree. You said you wanted a place with trees."
He laughed. "Nicest fucking gift I've gotten so far. Not counting what Audrey gave me last night. Thanks, Navarre."
"One can't outdo Audrey."
"One sure as shit can't. Pull up a chair."
Ozzie filled me in on his condition — how he'd survived an infiltrated IV and bad hospital food, survived his first phone call from his kids in three years. How he planned on going back to light duty tomorrow over the doctors' objections. Ozzie said he'd be damned if he'd lose field hours toward his next salary review over a scumbag like Zeta Sanchez.
I was almost convinced Ozzie was really doing fine until he tried to sit up and the blood drained from his face.
"Can I help?"
"Nah. Nah." He took a few careful, slow breaths. "How about that medicine bottle though? The bigger one. Yeah. Thanks."
He downed a couple of painkillers with some Sprite, then stared at the TV. After a minute the glassiness cleared from his eyes again. "So. You screwing up the Brandon case yet?"
Ozzie gave me a crooked grin. "Your daddy would kill you. Let's hear what you've got."
I filled him in on the last two days. As he listened, Ozzie's smile faded into a hard line. His eyes drifted back to the television. "You tell Kelsey about Del Brandon and Hector Mara?"