- The Last King of Texas
I fixed my eyes on the road and thought about the red-and-gold cigar seal I'd found in Sandra Mara's bedroom closet. If George had something to tell us, something that would sew up the holes, I swore to God I'd buy him the world's largest Cuban cigar.
We exited on Roosevelt and turned south. The Tower of the Americas swung behind us like a compass needle. On either side of Roosevelt were closed-up car dealerships, their sale banners flapping apathetically. The side streets were dark and deadly quiet.
I must've been driving on autopilot, because the next thing I remember is Erainya shoving me and saying, "Heads."
We'd turned onto the broken asphalt of Palo Blanco. Up ahead, George's well-kept little house was dark. Its porch light was off. Even the carport light George used to showcase his 1970 Barracuda was off.
Next to the curb, a white van idled. Dark shapes of men moved across the gravel lawn.
My insides froze.
We were at the end of the block, still too far away to make out anything more, when the dark shapes melted into the van and its brake lights flared. Doors slammed. The van accelerated away from us.
I stopped in the middle of the street. There was no need for Erainya or me to speak. She got out, trundled Jem from the backseat, and carried him still sleeping to the sidewalk, already fishing for the gun in her purse. I punched the gas. The white van took a hard left on Mission Road and careened out of sight. I tried to match its speed on the turn and found myself skidding sideways, nearly slamming into the gates of the old Catholic orphanage across the street before second gear took hold and fishtailed me forward again.
The van was now a hundred yards ahead, speeding south on the straight stretch of Mission Road. I pushed the VW faster. On the left, the dark wooded boundaries of the public golf course raced past; on the right, picnic areas, sports fields, tiny homes and graffitied bus stops. I tore through two intersections that were mercifully empty of traffic but the van kept pulling farther ahead. I waited until third gear was about to explode, then shifted to fourth. The underbelly of the VW rattled like aluminum foil.
The golf course fell away on the left and the road widened and zigged, aligning itself with the edge of the San Antonio River basin. Fifty yards down on my left, the river made a dark, glittering streak through the center of what was basically a glorified drainage ditch. Lit by moon and city night glow, the grassy earthen walls sloped down from the guardrails to the wide marshy banks, the underbrush fleeced with paper trash from thousands of upriver polluters. I floored the accelerator, slashed through potholes of standing water as the van pulled ahead of me on Mission.
The van turned hard on the Southcross Bridge and crossed the river, doubling back north on Riverside.
I slowed for the bridge, lost some time in the turn, then followed across and up Riverside. I got the VW back into fourth gear, taking the curvier east bank at an insane sixty-five and still losing my prey. Another minute and they would be gone.
For the last time in our sixteen-year relationship, I cursed my VW. The white van swung wide for a right onto Roosevelt. I tried to follow, feeling the arc of the turn getting away from me, the VW going sideways with its own force toward the guardrail, my feet starting to skid back and forth of their own accord like a novice ice-skater's. Then there was the crumple of metal and a tilt in the horizon and the sickening feeling of weightlessness.
I expected sound — a blast or crunch or tear of metal and bones. I was wrong. There was no sound — just free fall, followed by a cold, slick blackness all around me, the feeling of tumbling, of being compressed into a smaller and smaller somersault until something that might've been my spine went snap. Somewhere far away, I heard the rush of a large animal through grass — a rhino, perhaps.
My eyes opened. Through a smear of Vaseline, I saw the river off to my left, a huge orange-and-black beast rolling slowly and convulsively toward it. The thing heaved itself up on end when it reached the bank, poised there as if contemplating a drink, then decided it had just enough momentum to topple forward one more time. It hit the water with a resounding hollow galoosh, the wheels still spinning.
I was afraid to move, afraid any effort might cause what little life I still had to leak out. I didn't want to know how bad off I was.
I stared at the water glistening in moonlight, the dark marsh weeds and bare branches globbed with paper pulp. I smelled like someone had stirred rotten meat into a fish tank and dumped the contents on my head. Far away I thought I heard sirens. Lights of the houses on Riverside blinked on. I watched the upturned back wheels of my VW spin for one rotation. Two rotations.
I decided I was not dead yet. I tried to move my arm. I found that my sleeve was snagged on some kind of bush. In fact, all of me was snagged on some kind of bush. I'd been forcibly grafted onto a large chaparral.
I tried a foot, found it suspended from a branch by a ripped jean leg. Slowly, I managed to extract myself, then to pick the larger gobs of thick wet river garbage off my body. I inspected what I could of myself in the dark and realized with infuriating certainty that I was fine.
I cursed loudly and creatively. That felt good so I did it again.
Fueled by anger and probably a fair amount of shock, I started walking. At least, the police told me I was walking when they found me. I was half a mile or so from George's house. I don't remember talking to the uniforms, or changing into the moth-eaten but dry spare set of clothes the police kept in their trunk, or getting a ride with them back to Berton's.
I do remember my reunion with Erainya in George's graveled front yard. She was crouching down, holding Jem, trying to answer a detective's questions and Jem's at the same time.
Jem was still sleepy-eyed, pointing at the house and saying he wanted to see George.
Erainya kept saying, "Honey. Honey."
When she saw me, she closed her eyes for three seconds, muttering some kind of prayer. "Take Jem, honey. Please. Take him away just for a few minutes."
I did nothing.
I was staring into George's front door, into the living room now blazing with light. I could see a left foot — a single white Nike shoe sticking into view. Police were moving around the shoe. Cameras were flashing.
I locked eyes with Erainya. Her glance was black as ever, harder than ever, but starting to erode. Her voice trembled a little when she repeated, "Take Jem for a few minutes, honey. Can you do that?"
I looked at the detective, who nodded. "There's hot chocolate in my car — down there, third one."
I told Jem to come with me, and when he wouldn't or couldn't, I picked him up and carried him.
I found myself hugging him tight, trying to get reassurance from the breaths that expanded his little warm chest, the smell of sleep and child sweat in his rumpled hair. I carried him down Palo Blanco and tried to keep talking in gentle tones so he wouldn't focus on the sound behind us of his mother crying.
Policemen's faces and questions blurred together. At some point Erainya reclaimed Jem. Then I was separated from both of them. A field sergeant came by and took my statement. Halfway through, he finally corrected my understanding of the situation. He pulled me back from total despair with a frown and a matter-of-fact "I thought you knew."
George Berton was not dead.
George's ambulance had been long gone by the time I'd arrived on the scene. The body in George Berton's house, the body SAPD wasn't in any hurry to move, wasn't George's.
The sergeant told me George's condition was critical. And no, I could not leave immediately to see him. The sergeant insisted on taking the rest of my statement, refused to answer further questions, then left me locked in the backseat of the patrol car with the detective's thermos of hot chocolate. I didn't want any hot chocolate, which was just as well. My hands were shaking too badly to unscrew the cap.
I smelled of mothballs and wet garbage. My hair felt shellacked. The throbbing in my head synchronized itself to the pulse of siren light from the unit across the street.
I closed my eyes.
After a few minutes the car dipped from the weight of someone sinking into the front seat.
I looked up expecting to see the night CID detective. Instead I found the Bexar County medical examiner.
As usual, Ray Lozano looked way too nice for your average dissector of dead people. His hair was a huge well-plowed field of black, thick but immaculately trimmed around the edges. He wore a dark blue silk suit covered in a lab wrap. Surgical gloves covered his wedding band and his Swiss Army watch.
Normally Lozano would've been smiling way too much for an M.E., too. But not tonight.
"Hey, ese." He didn't offer his hand, just a very long look of shared anger that glowed like the belly of a furnace.
"Ray," I said. "Lucky call for you tonight."
Under his breath, Lozano swore. "They tell you about it yet?"
I shook my head.
"You want to know?"
"What do you think?"
Lozano looked strange without a laugh ready to burst out. For the first time, he looked his age.
"I can't tell you much about George. He was already en route to BAMC when I got here. As for inside, there's a dead guy named Hector Mara lying faceup in the living room. Any idea why?"
"The shooting was between him and Berton?"
"No. No way. Shooter was a third person. Signs of forced entry on the back door. They lifted half a boot print in the alley. Shooter came in and interrupted Berton's and Mara's conversation. Mara drew a revolver but never got a chance to fire it. Caught one round in the chest, close range, I'm saying a .357."
I closed my eyes, tried to concentrate on my breathing.
"You sure you want to hear this?" Lozano asked.
"We don't have George here, so it's hard to reconstruct the whole story unless—" Lozano stopped, then went on. "Until he gets out of surgery. I know he was shot twice in the back, probably same caliber that hit Mara. My guess, we're looking at one shooter. The guy plugs Mara when Mara draws his revolver, then turns on George. George is armed but he doesn't try anything. I don't know why. The shooter tells George to turn around, or maybe George turns to run. When he does, the shooter fires twice. Berton goes down in the kitchen doorway. Shooter walks back over to Mara, makes sure Mara is dead with a shot to the head, contact wound. Then, for some reason, he doesn't take the same precaution with Berton. Most likely he's scared off the scene before he can."
"When Erainya and I arrived."
"Maybe. The timing is good. This didn't go down very long before you two showed up. Both entrance wounds on Mara were atypical, disproportionately large for the tissue damage and exit wounds. I was wondering about the caliber until I noticed the muzzle imprint on the head wound— erythematous rather than abraded."
"Which means in English?"
"Which means in English a silencer. A .357 semiauto handgun with a silencer. Our shooter came in prepared to do some killing."
"You keep describing one person. One shooter."
"Based on what you saw — the van, multiple people — there must've been more guys at the scene, right? But I'm still saying one shooter went into the house. And why the back-door entry? I don't know. It just seems things would've played differently if there'd been a crowd in the room."