- The Last King of Texas
"But here you are."
He massaged his belly, sighed. "I love her, you see. I can't give her much — not my body, most nights not even my time. I want to at least give her some peace. She wants to know she didn't get your friend killed with what she said. She gets like this over things."
"What did she say?"
"That she recognized a woman. A woman in the photograph your friend had."
My blood slowed to syrup. "Who?"
"There is a man called Zeta Sanchez. This was a picture of his wife. It was a bad photo, but Mami said yes, it was the right woman. Is your friend healing, mister? I want to tell Mami."
I got up, didn't answer him, then walked down to Mami's pew. I knelt next to her. I could hear a faint tremble in the prayer she was whispering.
"It's okay," I said. "The man you spoke to will be fine. He told me to say thank you. To you and your husband, he said to say, 'God bless you.'"
She shuddered, but kept her eyes closed, still praying.
When I looked back from the doorway, the old man was kneeling where I'd left him, facing the altar now, still five rows ahead of his young wife. They both looked at peace, completely unaware of each other or any purpose other than communion with God.
It was six that evening before I went out again.
I'd promised Erainya I'd pick up Jem from his first formal play date, which Erainya with her usual unorthodox parenting had arranged. Jem had come away from the school visit talking about Michael Brandon, and Erainya had followed up on the dubious assumption that a play date would do both kids some good. I pulled in front of the Brandons' soon-to-be-former home on Castano. A battered blue Camry sat in the driveway. Ines' car wasn't there. The house's front door was open.
I went to the doorstep and yelled hello into the living room. The sound echoed. The brass mezuzah plaque had been pried from the door frame. The fireplace was now sandblasted to unpainted stone, the craters from the gunshots cemented over. The white carpet had been stripped, leaving the floor raw wood with carpeting tacks and glued bits of padding.
I picked my way through the rest of the house. There was a box of Arm & Hammer on the kitchen counter, a yellow sock with a red toe in the hallway closet. The rubble of Legos in the dining room was the only indication that Jem and Michael might've played here recently.
In the second bedroom, only the smell of talcum powder still lingered.
Michael's sheet cave was gone. There was one tiny, crumpled ball of paper in the middle of the floor. I unraveled it — a cutout photo of an artificial Christmas tree from an advertisement circular. I recrumpled the paper and dropped it where I'd found it.
The master bedroom was empty. Out the window, in the backyard, a young Latino guy was coming down the steps of the little apartment above the garage, carrying a moving box. Paloma stood in the doorway above, calling instructions down to him.
The guy with the box stopped as I walked into the backyard. He frowned at me, leaned backward, and balanced the box on his belly. "Mister?"
The resemblance to Paloma was striking. He had the same chunky build, the same dark squashed face. He was maybe twenty-five. Khaki shorts, red Chris Madrid's T-shirt.
I told him my name, and that I had come to pick up Jem.
"Mrs. Brandon took the boys out to get some food," he said. "410 Diner."
"That was nice of her." I looked up at the tiny balcony above the garage door. Paloma was clutching the railing, her arms straight, her face a stone scowl.
"Como esta, senora?"
She looked down at her son. "Juan, don't stand there. Dos mas cajones, eh?"
She disappeared back through the doorway.
Juan took one more uneasy look at me, then gravity decided the matter. He hefted the box farther up on his gut and lumbered down the driveway toward the Camry.
I went up the stairs and ducked through the tiny doorway of Paloma's apartment.
The room was a triangular attic — the ceiling no more than eight feet high at the apex. The window on the back wall looked out onto the alley. Windows on either side of the front doorway gave a good view of the main house, the backyard, the driveway.
Paloma was stuffing wads of newspaper into a box. Next to her on the floor was a line of assorted ceramics. To the left, a few packed boxes were piled on a stripped twin-bed frame. By the front window, a fruit crate was covered with a lace doily and decorated like an altar — framed photos, Native American fetishes, candles.
"May I come in?" I asked.
"You're here," Paloma grunted, without turning around. "I say no, you will still be here."
She wadded up another sheet of newspaper and stuffed it in her box. I knelt to look at the fruit-crate altar. The largest photo, yellowed, showed a younger Paloma with a man. Standing between them were five boys and a girl, their ages ranging from toddler to teenager.
I picked up an object next to the photo — a thin, irregular loop of bone embroidered with lace. "Deer's eye?"
She turned toward me. Her lower lip stuck out, her expression decidedly masculine. Suddenly she reminded me strongly of Winston Churchill. We shall never surrender.
"My children's," she mumbled. "They wore it during their first year. Miguel also."
"To protect the wearer from evil," I said. "That's an old custom."
Her face softened. "My grandmother made it for my mother, from a deer my grandfather shot in 1910. We are an old family."
"These are your children in the photo? Your husband?"
That question seemed to shut down any social progress we'd been making. Paloma looked away, picked up a ceramic goblet. The handle was crudely fashioned in the shape of a dragon. She stroked its wings gently, then wrapped the goblet in newspaper, placed it in the box.
"She would throw all these things away," she grumbled. "Such a waste."
I straightened up as much as I could against the slanted ceiling. Down in the driveway, Paloma's son Juan was trying to figure out how to wedge one more box into the Toyota's trunk.
"Must've been hard," I said, "seeing what you saw the night of Dr. Brandon's murder."
Down below, Juan was looping rope around the trunk lid of the Toyota. Through the shadeless windows of the main house, strips of afternoon light cut across the bare hardwood floors.
When I turned, Paloma was right behind me. She'd moved with a silence I found frightening in a woman so large. There were deep trenches under her eyes, a streak of flour along her jawline.
She took the deer's eye from my hand. "What is it you want, senor?"
"I want to understand what you really saw that night, Paloma — it doesn't make sense to me."
"I do not want to talk to you."
"Someone else fired those shots into Aaron Brandon. Zeta Sanchez was merely set up for the kill."
Her face flattened. "You call me a liar?"
"Nobody else saw Sanchez that night. Nobody else heard the shots. Only you. A man's life rests on what you say."
Footfalls on the steps outside.
"La policia believe me." Paloma said it evenly.
"The police are licking their lips to put Sanchez away. What really happened, Paloma? Why are you willing to lie?"
From the doorway, her son said, "Leave her alone, mister."
I turned. Juan's face was hard. His red Chris Madrid's T-shirt was untucked from his shorts. His fists were balled.
Paloma kept turning the deer's eye around in her thick fingers like a tiny steering wheel. She darted her eyes at Juan and said, "La caja, mijito."
Juan hesitated, then saw the sternness in his mother's expression. He got the box, hefted it, then carried it out, his dark eyes still cracking the whip at me as he passed.
When he was gone, Paloma sighed. "I saw what I saw, senor. Es todo."
"Somebody put two bullets into Hector Mara. If you think silence will keep you safe, it won't."
Her expression hardened. She picked up another ceramic mug, this one shaped like a man's head with a battered blue hat and grizzled beard and a drunken grin. Paloma wrapped its face in newspaper.
"I keep everything, senor." Paloma set the mug in her box, picked up an ashtray. "My children's things. My husband's photograph. Ines' things too, now. Where I go, these things all go with me. Even the bad is important."
She gave me a wary look, as if she hoped but did not anticipate that I would follow her reasoning. "You understand, senor?"
I stared down into Paloma's half-packed box. I took a deep breath, trying to control the desire to kick myself. "Maybe I do, Paloma."
I headed back down her rickety stairs, past her glaring son, down the driveway to George's red Barracuda. I had a meeting to make at the 410 Diner.
Sunset was a good time to hit the 410. The luminous strips of blue and orange sky went well with the neon trim on the nuevo moderne diner. Its long oval windows glowed with light and the bar inside glistened green and black. Even the menu board exuded a kind of oily class — black acrylic inscribed with Day-Glo colors that made the words mashed potatoes & meat loaf seem chic and trendy.
In the main room, booths were molded from enough chrome to refit several '57 Chevy Biscaynes. Along the walls hung neon-laced portraits of Jimmy and Marilyn and the other Hollywood regulars.
By the front window, three middle-aged Anglos were drinking margaritas and talking about a cattle auction. Midroom, at one of the black Formica tables, an older couple ate in silence — the man with grizzled beard and pony-tail, leather cowboy hat, pastel Apache-print Western shirt; his date an enormous pasty woman in a denim dress.
Ines and the kids sat at a back booth. Del Brandon, my favorite person, sat in a chrome chair at the end of the table. Del was talking to Ines, tapping his finger on a set of documents. Jem and Michael were playing with packets of Sweet'n Low.
I grabbed a menu from the waitress station, then slid into the booth beside the kids. "Sorry I'm late."
Jem shrieked with delight and gave me a crushing hug. Nobody else did. Ines' hair was loose around her shoulders, her face washed clean of makeup. She was dressed for moving — jeans, no jewelry, an oversized Fiesta '98 T-shirt with a glistening crumple of packing tape stuck to one sleeve.
Del's Hawaiian shirt and slacks were disheveled. His wedge of black hair had started to crumble. His expression was equal parts anger and weariness. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
"There are children present, Del. Behave. I'm just picking up my amigo Jem. You remember Jem."
Jem waved hello by flapping a Sweet'n Low packet.
Del glared at Ines. "You invite this jerk?"
I picked up the three-page document in front of him. "Something from your lawyers?"
Del tried to swipe the papers.
I kept them away.
The document seemed to be an agreement between Ines and Del. It recognized Del's ownership of RideWorks, Inc., and renounced all future claims by Aaron Brandon's estate. Ines had already signed it. Her signature—
I looked up at her. "Why?"
Del said, "That's none of your goddamn business."
"Tres." Ines looked protectively at Michael, saw that he and Jem were occupied with saccharin and Captain's Wafers. "Del's right," she said firmly. "This isn't your business."