- The Last King of Texas
I reminded her about the wedding picture I'd seen in her living room. She pursed her lips — maybe a gesture of contrition. It didn't make my thigh feel any better.
"Our marriage was a secret, of course," she told me. "Jeremiah was still alive then — he would've disowned Aaron for marrying a Mexican. Never mind Jeremiah's paternalism for the South Side 'locals.' That didn't include his son marrying one."
"But Del knew you were married."
"He gave Aaron a terrible time about me, but he kept our secret."
"Del doesn't strike me as the type to keep secrets. Especially Aaron's."
She laughed dryly. "Maybe he just didn't have time to tell. Jeremiah was killed a few weeks later."
"And how did Aaron take that?"
"Aaron hardly talked about what he was feeling, Mr. Navarre. Not even to me. But the murder had one good effect — it resolved Aaron on going to UT Permian Basin, to get out of San Antonio. That's what we were doing in the spring of '93. We were getting ready to move. Getting ready to have our first child. I don't know about his brother, but I'm sure my husband never crossed paths with people like Hector Mara or Zeta Sanchez. An acquaintance like that would've shown on Aaron like a bruise, he was so sensitive. In a lot of ways, fragile."
I thought about the papers and lecture notes I'd seen in Aaron Brandon's files — all of them obsessed with the violence of medieval life. I thought of Aaron in the photos I'd seen — a large man, thick-boned, dark-haired, bred from blue-collar stock, a face as dour as his brother's. I tried to think of him as fragile. I said, "When did things become strained between you and Aaron?"
Ines squeezed her palm until it turned mottled. "Christmas — when he went for his final UTSA interview. Aaron insisted on moving back to San Antonio. I hated him for being so stubborn. I hated him for dragging us back to San Antonio. He wasn't ready for the UTSA job or for facing his brother again. But I'd followed him to West Texas. I'd stood by him for five years. I loved him. He was the father of my child and he would've been a good teacher one day. He was learning so much before we came back..."
The winch motor started up again.
I looked at Ines and believed what she said, that this woman had what it took to sustain her husband's career on life support those five years in the Permian Basin, until Aaron had insisted on moving back into his family's orbit, insisted on committing emotional suicide. I found myself growing angry at Aaron
Brandon for that.
And maybe deep down, I was jealous. Maybe part of me was wondering how far I would've gone after graduate school if I'd had someone in my life like Ines Brandon.
Ozzie shouted something. The tow-truck men gave the winch another go. They operated it in short bursts until finally, on try number four, the VW lurched forward. The wreckage of the beast emerged reluctantly out of the muck.
"You were back home in Del Rio the night Aaron was killed?"
Ines nodded. "Michael and I were staying with friends. Paloma called us immediately, but — I still don't remember how I made it back to town safely. I don't remember the drive at all."
"And you'd never heard of Zeta Sanchez before?"
"And never want to again."
"What about justice?"
She slammed her hand against the hood of the police car. The metallic pop was like a hunter's rifle, half a mile distant.
"Justice? Justice is something you get only after your life has gone to hell, Mr. Navarre. It doesn't make anything better. You can criticize me for packing up and running, if you want, but running is the first thing I think of when I wake up in the middle of the night — my son having night terrors down the hall, hiding under a bunch of blankets, crying, calling for his daddy. I just want to run, take Michael, and get the hell away from this place. I want the past to go out with the trash. Do you blame me?"
I watched as the tow truck dragged my upside-down VW onto dry land, the ragtop ripped loose and trailing behind like a mud-stained cape. I found myself thinking about Ana DeLeon in her blue business suit, standing at the window of an abandoned house, looking out over the untended fields of Bexar County.
"Time to pick up the children," Ines said.
For one brief, guilty instant, I let myself fantasize that the words the children had some relevance to my life. Then I turned and trudged back up the slope toward Ines Brandon's car.
The closer Jem and I got to the office, the less Jem spoke. His excitement about the visit to school, his stories about Michael Brandon and the other new friends he'd made started to drain away, replaced by the dread of what was waiting for us back at Erainya's. I had to force myself to turn into the parking lot.
It was Friday, but Kelly was in town anyway, sitting at my desk. She'd washed all the purple dye out of her black hair. Her clothes were black, too — slacks and a tank top and Doc Martens. Her face had the freshly scoured look of recent crying. She was on the phone with some client, telling him there would be a slight delay in our next report.
Jem ran back to his mother's desk and climbed into Erainya's lap. Erainya was also on the phone, talking to the hospital. She looked up and gave me a shake of the head. No change.
Jem put his head on her shoulder and his body went limp.
The toys had been carefully collected off the rug and put to the side in a huge plastic bucket, making the center of the office strangely empty. On George Berton's desk, the Styrofoam hat holder was bald. His paperwork had been removed and added to the stack on my desk.
When Kelly finished her call, she sat staring at the empty space in the middle of the office. Then she looked away, sniffling.
"We're out of Kleenex," she told me. "Wouldn't you know it?"
I reached over and pulled one of George's silk handkerchiefs out of his drawer. "George would probably say, 'You can wipe your nose on my hanky anytime, chiquita.'"
Kelly laughed brokenly, pinched her nose into the handkerchief. "God, I hate this. I hate this."
She took my hand, squeezed it hard, tried telling me details, lists of things she'd done since she'd gotten in this morning. She told me about her long phone conversations with Jenny at George's title office, about scrambling to find names of George's kin and coming up with nothing. Friends — hundreds of them. But family? The little information anybody could volunteer was slim and contradictory — an aunt in Monterey, a half-brother in El Paso, a niece in Chicago. Nobody really knew. A dead wife, everybody knew.
I let her talk, only cueing into the words occasionally.
Then the doorbell chimed and Ralph Arguello came in.
In the two years I'd worked at the office, Ralph had come by exactly once, on an evening when he was certain Erainya would be out. Ralph knew how Erainya felt about him and he'd always chosen to respect her feelings. At least until today.
Ralph had forgone the usual XXL Guayabera and jeans for a raw silk suit — milk white, with a black bolo and black ostrich-skin boots. Under the loose cut of his jacket he could've concealed enough weapons to arm his own cult.
His hair was braided into a tight cord. His thick round glasses shimmered as he examined the office — Berton's cleared desk, Erainya and Jem. He zeroed in on Kelly's hand in mine, then after a very long half second seemed to dismiss the sight.
"Vato." He acknowledged me.
He picked off his glasses. This in itself was a rare event, and his naked eyes looked huge and dark, as if the lenses had somehow contained them. Ralph might've been close to legal blindness, but his stare revealed a fierceness you never saw through his glasses — an honest warning of the kind of violence he was capable of.
He held out his arms. Kelly went to him, tried for a stiff, perfunctory hug, but Ralph wouldn't let her pull away. He held her until she melted against him in earnest and started crying.
He looked at me over her shoulder. There was one question in his face, a calm demand that I'd seen before and understood perfectly. When?
Back at her desk, Erainya said a few weary "thank-yous" to the ICU nurse and hung up the phone.
She ruffled Jem's hair, then stared across the room at us. Surprisingly, she did not throw anything at Ralph to drive him from the office. She merely said, "Mr. Arguello."
Ralph nodded, acknowledging the truce. "Ms. Manos. Quepasa?"
"You have to ask?"
He shook his head, then disengaged from Kelly. "And you, mi chica?"
"I'll be okay," Kelly whispered.
He gathered the back of Kelly's hair in his fist — a gesture that would've seemed threatening, proprietary, from anyone else. From Ralph, the gesture was still proprietary, but the tenderness and affection for his niece was unmistakable. He let the glossy black hair fall through his fingers, then nodded at me. "Let's talk."
Erainya said, "Wait."
The silent demand in her eyes was as clear as Ralph's. We will not do anything rash. We will not make things worse.
I nodded assent. "It's okay, Erainya."
She closed her hand around Jem's small fingers, hugging his shoulder tight with the other arm. "Honey, nothing is okay," she told me.
Outside, the afternoon was heating up, the air scented with roasting lamb and pepper from Demo's Greek restaurant next door.
Ralph said, "Sorry about your car."
"The car is nothing."
He looked at me dubiously. Ralph knew about me and the VW. He'd known me when I'd first gotten it from my mother, my third year of high school. He'd driven in it with me drunk, sober, in danger, on dates. He'd teased me about it mercilessly while he went yearly from luxury car to luxury car and I continued clunking along in my mother's hideous orange hand-me-down. And he knew that the car had been part of who I was.
"Tell me the score," Ralph said.
He listened while I told him of my last few days.
When I was done he took a joint and a lighter from his shirt pocket and lit up. He took a long toke before speaking. "I don't know much about the chiva business, vato. Some things, I got no desire to learn. But I got some ideas where we can find the guy you want."
"And Chich will happily give us a confession?"
"Shit, no, vato. That we take."
The ferocity in his eyes made me shudder.
Through the office window, Kelly and Erainya were standing by my desk now, talking. Jem was making sure all his toys were still there in the bucket.
"I want to keep things legal, Ralphas."
Ralph stared at me.
"I want DeLeon in on what we're doing," I explained. "I don't want to blow her case."
For once, Ralph seemed at a loss for words.
"Ana, huh?" He flicked some ashes toward the pavement.
"You know her," I said.
"Did you ask Ana about that?"
"She said about as much as you are. You object to her coming with us?"
He shrugged. "You want Ana to come along, vato — good luck. You know the rules of association. How you figure she's going to want to spend time around me?"
I tried to read his tone of voice, failed. "You've got no criminal record."
"On the books — no. You figure that matters?"
"I'll tell her we're going to ask around. She wants any control over the process, she'd better come along."