- The Last King of Texas
"I told him to tell DeLeon. Kelsey didn't seem to think they could do much to establish the connection."
"He may be right."
Two feminine hygiene commercials played through.
"You worked with Kelsey before—"
"Before I got demoted," Ozzie supplied. "Yeah. Kelsey used to be on city vice. I was county gang task force. We crossed paths."
His voice was less than enthusiastic.
"You trust Kelsey?"
Ozzie worked his mouth like he was tasting the question. "This guy you saw with Hector Mara, the guy with the black fingernails and the trench coat. You know who that was?"
"Kelsey told you that?"
"No. I'd been hearing things about Hector Mara buying heroin from a guy named Chich Gutierrez. I guessed."
Ozzie didn't seem to like that. "By himself Chich would be nothing — a joke. Look at the way the guy dresses, for Christ's sake. But the fact that he's always compared himself to Sanchez, always tried to act that bad... it makes him unpredictable. Chich goes the extra mile to prove he's got what he hasn't got, you know? You chew on an inferiority complex like that long enough, it turns you dramatic."
"Two nights ago, Del Brandon told me Zeta Sanchez had been trying to move heroin through RideWorks back in '93. Del said that's why he was so anxious to push Zeta out of the business. You ever hear anything about that?"
Ozzie's eyes fixed on the woman in the low-cut evening dress. She was weeping and the doctor was comforting her. "You wanted to know how I got demoted. You going to get sore now if I tell you the truth?"
He sighed, then rested his head back in the pillows. "Fall of '92, I started having some ideas along the lines you just described. I figured you take a guy like Zeta Sanchez, with connections to the gangs, big-time access to the heroin pipeline, you put him together with a guy like old Jeremiah Brandon who's got a ready-made distribution network — things are going to happen. You use the carnival circuit, you could move a good amount of stash pretty much anywhere in the nation with very little trouble. So I started asking around."
"And something went wrong."
He looked over at me, anger simmering in his eyes. "About the same time, there was a big internal affairs bust going down. Some of the deputies working at the jail were smuggling in drugs for the prison gangs. Others were getting paid to look the other way. Sixteen deputies were fired. Five criminally prosecuted. A few higher-ranking people in the department were implicated, too, but there wasn't enough proof to fire."
"You were one of the ones implicated?"
"Forced reassignment. Three scumbag cons came forward and fingered me. Guys I had never even heard of, but you can bet your ass they all knew Zeta Sanchez. They got reduced sentences for their cooperation. I went down in the departmental housecleaning. After that, nobody listened to me much on the subject of Zeta Sanchez and RideWorks."
"There was no truth to the allegations against you?"
"I'll pretend you didn't need to ask that question."
On the television, two men in cardigans were lighting each other's cigarette. Ozzie flicked his thumb against his forefinger, mimicking them.
"You think it's still happening?" I asked.
"What — smack running through RideWorks? Del Brandon couldn't think his way off one of his own merry-go-rounds, kid. He couldn't handle something that big."
"Hector and Chich were worried about Zeta Sanchez coming back to town. Del Brandon was too. He was also real worried about his brother Aaron, who was reading articles about how to sic the IRS on your relatives to take over a family business. Maybe Del and Hector and Chich got together and killed two birds with one stone — framed Sanchez for Aaron Brandon's murder."
Ozzie laughed. "Mr. Navarre."
"You really want to get Zeta Sanchez off the hook, don't you?"
"I don't think he killed Aaron Brandon. Call me old-fashioned. I think that means we should look for whoever did."
"Guys like Zeta Sanchez — you can't go soft for them. They're Attila the rat."
"Attila the what?"
Ozzie held up the TV remote and punched the volume down to zero.
"Something from when I was a kid in the fifties, down in Harlingen. I never told you this story? My mom was a waitress, worked a lot at night so she wanted to get me a pet. Only she couldn't afford a dog or anything, so she came home one night with these two dime-store rats — the little kind, one black and one white."
"Yeah. Only we found out pretty quick they weren't both males. A week went by and they had a litter of little pink things, looked like grubs. My mom said we'd have to drown them, but we never did. They grew into gray adult rats, then had babies and pretty soon the babies had babies. I woke up one morning and the original two rats were gone. Nothing left but little patches of hair in the wood shavings. Their kids had eaten them. My mom didn't know what to do. The rats kept having babies, and eating them, and eating the weaker adults. Most horrible time in my childhood, waking up every morning and dreading to look in that cage, wondering what I'd find. Finally, there was only one rat left — he must've been fourth or fifth generation — and he'd eaten all the other rats. This fat, mean little fucker had made a bed out of their fur. I'm not kidding you. I named him Attila. My mom said we had to let him go, that Attila was big and mean enough to survive in the world, so we let him loose in the alley."
"That's pretty intense for a young kid."
"You won't see me keeping pets, Navarre. The thing is — every time you look at a veterano like Zeta Sanchez or Hector Mara, somebody who made it through the gang life and got past the age of twenty, you're looking at Attila the rat. You're looking at the end product of generations of truly efficient cannibalism. They've made themselves a bed out of all the weaker ones."
"It's not that simple."
Ozzie shook his head sadly. "What do you hear from George Berton?"
"I'm seeing him later tonight. I get the feeling Hector Mara might be trying to tell him something."
"How do you mean?"
I told Ozzie about Hector's comments at the Poco Mas — how Hector seemed to be considering some kind of offer George had made.
Ozzie thought about that. His eyes closed. They stayed that way for half a minute before opening again. "I got to get some sleep."
"Let me know how it goes with George. You mind getting the drapes?"
I got them. The room dipped into cool darkness. Ozzie turned the television off.
"Thanks for the tree," Ozzie said.
I told him no problem.
"And, Tres — I owe you. Pulling me out of the line of fire the other day. Don't think I've forgotten that."
"It's okay, Ozzie."
"It's not." He shifted, tugged the covers over his bare belly. "It's not. You need anything — you need anything at all, you come find me."
"Thanks, Ozzie. I'll do that."
Gerson mumbled something I couldn't make out.
I left him in the dark, swathed in downy beige comforters, the bedroom quiet except for the ping of carbonation in his Sprite can.
I went into the living room to reclaim my boots.
I wasn't planning on meeting the SWAT team at Hector Mara's farmhouse that afternoon. I just got lucky.
When I pulled over at the Y in the road where Hector's property sat, the shoulder was already crowded with police vans, lights flashing. SWAT members with black flak suits and assault rifles milled around in the road.
With typical April fickleness, the sunny morning had turned into an overcast afternoon — fiberglass-yellow clouds, air as moist and warm as dog's breath. Ana DeLeon and Kelsey were having a chat with a squad sergeant over by the banana trees as I walked up.
"Remembered the reinforcements this time, did we, Kelsey?"
Kelsey pointed at me without speaking, balled his other fist, then gestured to the SWAT sergeant to follow him. The two men walked toward the nearest patrol unit.
"Navarre." DeLeon's voice was weary with the sound of recently jettisoned adrenaline. "What do you want?"
I looked up the drive at the Mara property.
The door of the L-shaped cinder-block house had been busted off its hinges. Several of the windows were broken. SWAT members stood on the porch, a uniformed officer leaning in the doorway writing up a report. There was a similar scene at the white mobile home. They must've smashed open Hector's chicken coops, too, because the fields were now overrun with poultry. Wild bantams were pecking around the base of the apple tree. A Rhode Island Red was perched on a broken tricycle seat. There was even a rogue peacock strolling down the driveway, dragging a strip of pink toilet paper in its plumage.
"Let me guess," I said. "You followed up on my message. Mara was gone."
DeLeon wore a navy blazer and skirt and a cream blouse. In the afternoon light, her face seemed softer, her eyes not quite so severe.
"Don't flatter yourself, Navarre. What got us out here was some work by the ATF. They finished tracing the Solidox in the pipe bomb — got it down to the exact hardware store, got an ID on the buyer from one of the clerks."
"We just got through busting up his mobile home— found some things we missed on the first search. Or maybe they just weren't there the first time — some wiring. A timer."
"Pretty clear, then."
"The one thing we did not find is Mr. Mara."
I pointed toward the cinder-block L. "Can I take a look?"
"Nothing there. We went through it pretty thoroughly."
"May I take a look?"
DeLeon considered, then let her dissatisfaction with me collapse in a kind of tired apathy. "With me present, I suppose."
We walked up the drive, past the peacock, past a couple of uniformed cops complaining about the humidity and the woes of polyester uniforms.
"That friend we spoke about," I told DeLeon. "He could maybe track down Mara. If Mara's still in town."
"I'm not dealing with Arguello."
"You figure Lieutenant Hernandez will give you more time?"
DeLeon kept walking, occasionally slipping on the gravel in her heels. "Not likely."
"Because nothing here points away from Sanchez. It just means Hector was helping him out."
"Something like that."
"Nice and simple," I said. "And it stinks."
DeLeon stopped at the porch. The SWAT team had moved on. The bullet-riddled door lay flat across the entrance like a broken drawbridge.
DeLeon pushed her hair behind her ear, turned slowly, and looked out across the fields.
"You doing all right?" I asked.
She raised her eyebrows, gave me the little head shake women do when they're addressing a man who's acting like a three-year-old. "Just fine. And you?"
I watched two SWAT guys out in the field, trampling Hector Mara's tidy garden. They were kicking the heads off cabbages.
DeLeon smoothed her skirt. "I'm sorry. I'm on edge."