- The Last King of Texas
He was wearing jeans and a red shirt with parrots on it. His unruly mat of black hair was flat on one side.
He drew his .38 from his side holster. This time I didn't stop him. He said, "Get the hell out of my chair."
"Wearing your gun in the bathroom with Rita. You're inviting embarrassing accidents."
"Get out of my chair."
"There's another right there. Sit down."
Del Brandon had apparently been hoping for terror.
He shifted uneasily, squeezed the gun's grip a few times for reassurance. "I warned you."
"You sure did, Del. Now sit down and put away the gun. We need to talk."
"What makes you think you can just—"
"Sit down," I repeated.
He seemed to be thinking of options. Apparently he couldn't come up with any. His gun hand sagged. He lowered himself into the chair across from me.
"Hector Mara," I said. "I was about to look him up in your personnel files but maybe you could save me some time. You got him listed under M for Mara or H for heroin?"
Del's face paled. "What?"
"You remember. Hector Mara. The guy you were arguing with at the Poco Mas a couple of weeks ago."
"I wasn't—" Del's eyes tried to latch on to something in my face, some toehold of doubt he could push up from. "Who told you that?"
"That would be smart," I said, "telling you."
"It isn't true."
"Of course not, Del. So set me straight."
Del glowered at the empty desk. He seemed to have forgotten he was holding the .38, which would've been all right if it hadn't still been pointed at my gut. "Hector Mara does some accounting work for me from time to time. But I wasn't at that bar. I don't go there and you should know why. My father died there."
"Accounting work," I repeated. "Hector Mara. The bald veterano with the snakes tattooed on his arms. He's your accountant."
Del licked his lips. "Sometimes — you know. We deal mostly in cash. It's a hassle to just drop it in the bank."
"Mara launders money for you through his salvage yard."
"I didn't say that."
Del had developed this cute little tic in his right cheek that was doing a 2/4 beat — DUM-duh, DUM-duh. It made me laugh.
"You know Ozzie Gerson, Del?"
The tic kept up its little rhythm.
"Deputy," he mumbled. "Used to give my dad a hard time."
"Ozzie Gerson told me you weren't smart enough to find your way off a carousel, much less run heroin out of your company. Was he right?"
His face slackened to putty. "Wait a goddamn minute. You got no right to talk about me that way. Ozzie Gerson..."
His voice trailed off. He sat there on the visitor's side of his desk, suddenly staring at nothing. His shirt was mis-buttoned, longer on one side than the other — probably from his armed restroom encounter with Rita. Looking at Del Brandon, I felt tired.
"Forget it," I told him. "Let's talk about your brother. You and he had been arguing over the company, right? Watch your muzzle, Del."
Del managed to focus on his .38, which had been slowly tilting its little black eye up toward my forehead. Del frowned, like he was wondering where the gun had come from. He clunked it on the desk.
"Aaron and me always argued," he told me. "Doesn't mean I shot him. You can ask the police — I got an alibi."
I whistled. "An alibi."
Del didn't seem to catch the sarcasm, if indeed sarcasm was something Del ever caught. With some effort, he hauled himself out of the chair. He drifted over to the file cabinet, rummaged around until he came up with a bottle of Chivas Regal, still in the little purple sack. Then he came back over and sat down.
"Stuff gives me gas like you wouldn't believe," he grumbled. He uncapped the bottle and took a long hit.
I braced myself.
Del's eyes watered immediately. He tried to rub his nose off his face, then blinked at me through the tears.
"You want to know about Aaron?" Del sloshed his bottle around, pointing at things in the office. "Aaron never wanted this damn company. Growing up, me and him, Aaron could always figure the numbers faster. He could've worked the deals, no problem. If he'd shown even a little interest, Dad would've handed him the whole company, shut me out. I'm sure of that. But God forbid Professor Aaron should ever get his collegiate hands dirty. Never wanted to touch the business. Me, I had a hard time learning the ropes. Dad used to beat the shit out of me when I'd screw something up. 'Why can't you think on your feet like Aaron?' Then he'd get pissed off that Aaron wasn't around, and he'd beat the shit out of me some more for that. I took thirty years of that kind of crap for Aaron and me both, because I was the one who was always in the office. So you tell me — who deserved this company?"
"You, Del," I sympathized. "Obviously you."
"Damn right." Del took another swig of liquor. "Even then Dad didn't leave me the whole business. Couldn't bring himself to cut out Golden Boy completely. RideWorks was split sixty-forty, with me named president. But there were ways to get around that."
As if to demonstrate, Del shifted in his chair, grimaced, then glared accusingly at his Chivas bottle. Brandon: the very name connotes charm and grace.
"You were saying?" I prompted.
"How you got the whole company for yourself."
"Oh. Yeah. According to Dad's will, I was supposed to turn over Aaron's share of the profits when the profits showed up. Only I made sure none ever did on the books. After a few years of that, I finally got Aaron's approval to sell. I sold RideWorks to a paper corporation, mine, gave my brother half the selling price — about twenty dollars. Then I bought the company back from myself and kept operating it."
"Cute. Who helped you think up that trick?"
Del shrugged. "Like I told you, Aaron wasn't interested in the business. He didn't deserve it. Me, all I ever wanted was to run this company. I love the rides. A good one, well made—" He shook his head in admiration. "It's the most beautiful thing you'll ever see. Some of the old classic carousels I've been restoring for this society downtown — I'm telling you."
Del picked at the knee of his pants. His face suddenly reminded me of a little boy with the same sad, vacant expression, sitting cross-legged at the entrance of a sheet cave, digging at his knee with a toy ray gun. I didn't like seeing the family resemblance.
"Aaron ever threaten to take the company back?" I asked.
"Nothing that would've stood up in court. You think I was worried enough to kill him over something like that, you're crazy."
"How about Sandra Mara? Were you worried enough to kill her?"
A little color seeped back into Del's cheeks. "What is your thing with Sandra Mara?"
"My thing with her is simple, Del. I've spent a long time doing missing persons cases. I pay attention to the people who aren't around. They're usually the most interesting."
Del scowled. "Maybe my dad screwed her. Maybe it got him killed. She's just a girl. Who cares? She got shipped out of town, just like ten or eleven before her."
"Like ten or eleven before her," I agreed. "Which makes it easy to believe the same happened to Sandra. I'm starting to wonder."
I opened Sandra's journal, read the last paragraph aloud, the one where Sandra got kissed.
Del's face stayed blank. "So?"
"I think that describes Sandra's lover. And I'm having trouble fitting your father into the role."
"Maybe she was screwing somebody else. It happens."
"Maybe. But I'm starting to put myself in your place, Del. That's a scary thing. I'm starting to wonder what it would be like if I hated my dad, and I kept playing the devoted son so I could eventually inherit the business that I loved, and then somebody like Zeta Sanchez moved in on my turf and threatened to cut into my inheritance. I'm starting to wonder exactly what I'd do."
Del's eyes fixed on the wall behind me.
"Maybe I'd stage something," I decided. "A scenario I was sure Sanchez would believe, something that would drive a permanent wedge between Sanchez and my dad. Then I'd make sure Sanchez found out about it. Hell, I'd tell Sanchez myself and offer to help smuggle him out of town when the poor guy got so understandably irate he pumped six hollow-tipped bullets into my father. 'Too bad, Zeta. No hard feelings. Here's your ticket to Mexico. Thanks for handing me the company on a plate.
"Get out," Del croaked.
"Tonight I'm going to compare notes with a friend of mine, Del. I'm hoping that between him and me, we'll have enough to give you to the police in microwave-safe packaging. My best to Rita, okay?"
"Get out," Del said again.
I got up and walked around him to the door. Del made no effort to stop me.
His eyes stayed fixed on the portrait of Jeremiah Brandon behind the desk, the hatred in Del's gaze as he looked at his father a clearer message than anything he'd said aloud.
I walked out through the reception area. Rita's cheap gardenia perfume was still lingering in the air.
You go into conversations with people like Del hoping to shake them up, not quite sure what pieces will fall out of their pockets. Sometimes you pick up little shards of guilt, or surprise, or complicity that can tell you everything. Having shaken up Del, though, the main thing I came away with was the feeling that I'd just bullied a kid. An ugly, obnoxious, fat kid, to be sure. One who would push you off his carousel if you tried to take his seat in the flying teacup. But a kid. In the yard, Del's workers were breaking down the Super-Whirl, forcing its huge lighted arms flat like the carcass of a particularly obstinate bug. I silently wished them luck, then walked out onto Camden Street.
At nine-thirty, I drove to Erainya's house to pick her up for our rendezvous at George's.
Jem came along, too, but this time inexplicably fell asleep in the backseat as soon as we hit the highway.
We drove toward the South Side on the upper deck of I-10, the VW top down, the wind skin-temperature, the lights of downtown receding behind us. Down below, dark little houses sped by, tiny fenced yards, miles and miles of laundry lines, tableaus of beer drinking on back porches, cars with headlights on and hoods up, shreds of heavy metal music.
I filled Erainya in on my day.
She stared straight ahead, her index finger stroking her lip. "Kelly came down today."
"How're things in Austin?"
"She says fine. She's dyed her hair kind of yellow this time. Looks good."
"Ah, the rites of spring."
"She worked the county courthouse most of the morning — got a little bored sitting around the office with both you and George gone."
"She find anything?"
"Turns out Aaron Brandon filed a civil suit against Del about three years ago for control of RideWorks. Aaron claimed Del had swindled him out of his share."
"And it never went to court. Aaron dropped the suit a couple of months after he filed."
Erainya shrugged. "I guess. The question is, what kind?"