- The Last King of Texas
Kelsey was dressed in khakis and a denim shirt. His ruddy Irish face looked no friendlier than it had the day before.
As we approached the porch steps he said, "You two got some explaining to do."
I looked at Ana. "You want to stomp on him or should I?"
Ana had done away with the red bandanna. Her hair was disheveled. She fixed Kelsey with a look of smoldering hatred. "Go home, Tom."
"What the fuck were you thinking, Ana?"
"Kelsey," I said, "if you really have to, come inside and you can yell at us some more in there. But I need a drink."
"God damn it—" he started, but I was already walking around the side of the house toward my apartment, Ana behind me. After a few steps I heard Kelsey's chair creak.
I was just getting the chilled margarita pitcher from the refrigerator when Kelsey appeared in my doorway. "You're something, Navarre."
I handed a margarita to Ana, who had climbed, a little stiffly, onto the kitchen stool. Robert Johnson was sitting next to her on the counter, his eyes half-closed, mortally unimpressed. I tried to imitate his expression.
"You want a margarita, Detective? I assume you're off-duty."
Kelsey kept his eyes on Ana. "You think Lieutenant Hernandez wants to hear about the company you kept today?"
DeLeon took a sip of margarita, looked up at me with raised eyebrows. "Not bad, Navarre."
Kelsey took a step farther into the room. "You're going to lose your goddamn badge, Ana. What the fuck was that stunt you pulled at the salvage yard?"
"Interesting you heard about that so fast," Ana said. "You and Chicharron got some kind of relationship, Tom?"
"Fuck you. I know Chich from when I was on vice. He's a scumbag, but he knows when to talk."
Ana took another sip of her drink, then scratched the base of Robert Johnson's tail. He lifted his backside farther into the air for her. "What do you think, cat? You think this margarita is good enough to make Kelsey seem like less of an asshole?"
Robert Johnson closed his eyes, pleased by the attention to his tailbone. Ana said, "No, you're right. Probably not."
"I'm not kidding, Ana." Kelsey was just warming up. "If I find anything, anyone who tells me they were coerced into giving you information pertaining to the Brandon homicide—"
"Chicharron file a complaint?"
"You know damn well he didn't."
"Then go home, Kelsey. It's after hours. I don't need to listen to your shit."
Kelsey smacked the drink out of her hand. Robert Johnson disappeared before the first drop of margarita splattered on the counter. DeLeon shoved Kelsey backward.
I started to come around the counter and Ana snapped, "No."
"You're a fucking disgrace, Ana," Kelsey said. "You'd think you'd be a little more careful, try to set some kind of example. What are we supposed to think, for Christ's sake? You screw up, you're screwing it up for every damn—"
DeLeon had a hell of a slap. Kelsey's face jerked to one side with the force of the strike. Ana's ring made a cut on his cheek — a small, bright ruby of blood. Kelsey stepped back, rubbed his cheek, and smiled. "I wish it were that easy. I wish we could go at it for a few rounds and make things better. We can't. You know I'm right."
"Get out," Ana rasped.
Kelsey retreated, turned once in the doorway as if thinking of a final comment, then decided against it. He closed the screen door quietly on his way out.
"I'll get you another drink," I told Ana.
I filled our margarita glasses from my pitcher, came around the counter, and pulled up the stool next to DeLeon. We sat shoulder to shoulder, drinking silently.
When her drink was gone I refilled it.
She stared at Robert Johnson, stroked his fur. I found myself watching her fingers.
"It's too much," she said.
"Being a model for every other damn Latina detective for the next three generations. I won't accept that."
"It's too much," I agreed.
"I have enough trouble being responsible for myself."
She pressed her eyes closed, then held the margarita to her mouth.
We sat there until the Herradura tequila in my special recipe was starting to knit its way into my joints, turning my limbs into giant hot-water bottles. After a while Ana started focusing on the things in my kitchen. She asked about the Bay to Breakers poster on the cupboard door, Jem's watercolor pictures on the refrigerator. I even managed to get a faint smile from her when I told her about my brother Garrett and his postcard from Key West.
She glanced at the half-written lesson plans on the counter. "I'm not helping you get those done."
"Tomorrow. I've got the whole weekend now. I'm still supposed to visit George Berton in the hospital tonight."
"I didn't tell you the truth about Ralph."
I plinked the rim of my glass. "It was a little more than just one date, wasn't it?"
She didn't say anything.
"So... you two used to be—" I searched for the right word. Thinking about Ralph Arguello and Ana DeLeon, no word seemed applicable. In fact, the whole idea seemed so absurd I started to laugh. Or maybe it was the Herradura.
Ana scowled. "Oh, screw you."
"I'm sorry. It's just — I've never seen anybody get under Ralph's skin the way you did today. At least not somebody who lived to tell about it."
"He tricked me," she said. "He left me feeling more betrayed than anybody I've ever known. If I got under his skin — good."
My smile faded. "He really hurt you."
"He's your friend. You don't want to hear it."
"Ralph is my friend," I agreed, "in spite of things that sometimes make me want to lock the door when he comes over, or not answer his phone calls. Some of the things I know about Ralph—"
I stopped. Ana didn't seem particularly surprised by what I was saying, but I reminded myself somewhere under the tequila buzz that I was talking to a homicide detective.
"Why do you keep him as a friend?" she asked softly.
"Because he's the most fiercely loyal person I've ever met. In some ways, he's also the most honest."
She made a sour laugh. "Honest."
"Ralph never lets me get away with anything. I get deluded, Ralph is the one who brings me back to reality every time. Ralph is never anything but Ralph. No pretense."
"For six weeks he convinced me he operated a retail chain."
"His pawnshops. They are a retail chain."
She gave me a withering look. "And what do you call the rest of it? Throwing electric fans at people. Pistol-whipping them. Where the hell does that come from — that side of him?"
It was my turn to be silent.
Ana swirled her drink. Between us, on the counter, Robert Johnson had his feet tucked under his chest and his eyes closed and his motor on full outboard purr. Life was good with Ana DeLeon's fingers in your fur. The bastard.
"You must've guessed he had that side," I told her. "You're a detective."
She scowled. "But he didn't — Ralph wasn't like that. Intense, sure. Kind of crazy. Relentless when it came to having fun. Like everything was on fire all the time with him. He kind of — he took my breath away. But violence..."
She stopped herself, searching my face. I think she realized she couldn't explain to me what she was thinking. She was probably right. Ralph as a lover of women was not something I wanted to understand. Especially not with this woman.
"I can see why Ralph would be loyal to you," she said.
"Are you insulting his intelligence?"
She smiled thinly. "No. You two have some things in common."
I got a sudden intrusive image of Ralph outside the U-Best Scrap Yard. He was grinning, checking out his newly washed Cadillac, his thick glasses circles of gold.
Ana looked at her empty glass. "Never mind. The tequila is talking."
"Let it talk. This week sucked."
She leaned toward me, clicked my glass with hers. "Amen."
We were shoulder to shoulder again, the way we had been this afternoon in my living room when she'd introduced me to my make-believe girlfriend. Maybe it was the similarity in scenes, or the killer margaritas, but the next thing I knew I was leaning toward her and kissing her — tasting lime and triple sec, my vision reduced to her temple and a sweep of glossy black hair.
We touched at the mouths only. Our arms stayed where they were — mine, at least, too paralyzed by disbelief to take further liberties. Finally, when I felt dizzy from oxygen loss and the margarita buzz that mixed very well with the scent of Ana DeLeon, she put her hard, long fingers gently on my chest and pushed me back.
She blinked slowly, sleepily, pulling her lips inward as if to reclaim them. She shook her head, then laughed as if she'd just caught herself doing something extremely silly.
"Mm-mm," she mumbled. "Not a good idea."
"You want to try again, just to be sure?" I was astonished my voice still worked.
She was still close enough that when she turned her head and sighed, her breath made a cool path across my arm. "No — listen, I need to go. You need to go visit your friend George."
"Really, Tres. I've got to."
Deliberately, slowly, she slid down from the stool. She retucked her T-shirt into her jeans, brushed off her denim shirt, pushed the strands of hair out of her eyes.
"I'll call you tomorrow," she said. "About the Brandon case."
"You'll let me know if Ralph calls?" she asked. "He won't call me."
"I will. If he's speaking to me."
She reddened just slightly. "Good night."
When the sound of her car engine faded down Queen Anne, drowned out by the sounds of conjunto music from the Suitez party across the street, I looked at Robert Johnson, who was still sitting on the counter. His eyes were contentedly half-closed and his fur still raked into furrows from Ana's fingers. He was purring.
"Don't gloat," I told him.
Then I went to get the margarita pitcher and see about emptying the damn thing.
My body refused to get drunk. At least not drunk enough to forgo visiting Brooke Army Medical Center later that night. Definitely not drunk enough to handle the sight of George Berton.
Kelly Arguello was waiting for me outside the private room. We relieved two of George's friends from the Elf Louise program, then took their still-warm and very uncomfortable chairs next to his bedside.
No nonrelatives should've been allowed in George's room, of course, but the nursing staff seemed to have caved to Erainya and Jenny's vigil plans as docilely as George's friends had. Two of us would be with Berton at all times until he woke up — if he ever did.
Kelly and I watched the lights on the bedside monitors, the glow from nighttime fluorescents reflecting on George Berton's Bryl-ed hair, the moisture that was crusting around his unblinking eyelids. His chest rose and fell with the ventilator's beat.
George looked like an insect half-chrysallized — small desiccated patches of his old self just barely recognizable under white swells of bandages, tubes, tape, and sheets. The skin of his face, what was visible beneath the breathing apparatus, looked thin as rice paper, streaked with capillaries. His hands lay at his sides palm up, curled, and motionless.