- The Last King of Texas
"And you got married. Again."
"Fuck 'again.' That was Sandra. That wasn't a marriage." She spat the word.
"The law wouldn't see it that way. Del knew that — knew your secret could be used as leverage against you and Aaron in the future. You played into his hands."
Ines was silent.
"After you left," I said, "Del went to Zeta. Del convinced him you'd left town because you were having an affair with Jeremiah."
"It was total fiction."
"Of course. But your husband didn't know that, and the fiction suited Del perfectly. Zeta knew all about Jeremiah's reputation with young women. Del didn't have to do much convincing. Zeta shot Jeremiah. Then Del helped Zeta leave the country. Del inherited Jeremiah's company and got rid of all his competition at once — Aaron, Jeremiah, Zeta."
"We had no idea," Ines said. "Del was horrible, but we never thought he was capable of anything like murder. Aaron — it destroyed him when he learned about his father."
"And Del wasn't even done. Afterward, he hit up Aaron for RideWorks. After all, wasn't that Aaron's side of the bargain? Only Aaron had never counted on his dad being gunned down as part of their deal. So Aaron refused. Del took matters into his own hands again. He stole the company from Aaron in a legal maneuver. That pissed Aaron off. He filed a suit, but the minute he did, Del threatened to expose your identity."
"The police would want to talk to you, of course — a woman who'd fled town with the victim's son and a new identity right after her legal husband had committed a murder. At the very least the investigation would ruin your chances at a new life, nullify your second marriage, make Michael a—" At the look in her eyes, I stopped. I folded my napkin, tossed it over my Sonora casserole. "At worst, it would attract the attention of Zeta and his pals. Del had something to worry about too if the story got to the police, but he must've been fairly sure no one could prove anything on him, especially with Sanchez gone. You, on the other hand, had everything to lose. Aaron had no choice but to drop his claim to RideWorks. How old was Michael at the time? Two months? Three?"
"Two months. We had our first terrible argument, Aaron and I. His father's death was entirely my fault."
"Then Del paid a visit to your brother Hector, who also knew the truth about your disappearance. Del used the same leverage with Hector that he'd used on Aaron — 'Do some business with me or I'll see that your sister gets crucified.'"
"I don't know what Del told Hector."
"Del was just following up on Zeta's good idea — to move heroin through the carnival circuit. Hector arranged the purchases from a friend of his, Chich Gutierrez. Del distributed the heroin, keeping the amounts small so as not to attract too much attention, but large enough to make RideWorks a nice fat supplementary income."
She raised her hands slowly off the table. "I — don't — know. I don't know anything about that."
I looked at the kids. They'd each gotten another plastic egg from the machine and were prying them open.
"You take it for granted," Ines said hoarsely.
I refocused on her. Her face was hard as copper.
"That you can have a child like Jem someday," she said. "Raise him without seeing him shot in the crossfire, without having him go on lookout for the locos at age five. You can be in a place where they don't keep the needles and the baby bottles in the same cabinet, have a spouse who isn't in jail for murder or dealing. You take that for granted."
"I take it for granted you'd kill to protect Michael from your past."
"Oh, you're right. You're absolutely right. That's the difference between me and Sandra Mara. I would kill to protect my son."
"How's your batting average so far?"
Ines shook her head, as if she were disappointed in me. "I won't lie to you. I didn't feel guilty that Jeremiah Brandon got killed, or that Zeta had to flee the country. In fact, I was disappointed Zeta didn't get shot in that barroom, too. I can't say I care much if Hector and Del were moving heroin through RideWorks, either, if it bought me and my son some extra years of anonymity. None of that matters. But you think I killed my husband? Or had him killed?"
"That was my original question."
"You're wrong. Aaron was putting Michael and me in terrible danger — that's true. When Aaron wanted to move back here to San Antonio, I told him it was too much of a risk. Too many people here who might recognize me. Aaron insisted. He had all these ideas about challenging Del — getting back that damn company. He seemed to forget what Del would do if he tried. I was desperate, but I'd never—"
"You wrote those threats to the University."
"I—" She faltered. "All right. Yes. I wrote them. Aaron had brought the first letter home, the one addressed to Dr. Haimer. It wasn't hard. Before I knew it I'd sent six of them."
"You thought if things got unpleasant enough, Aaron would agree to move away again, out of San Antonio."
"There had been two other offers, Tres — one in Iowa, one in Connecticut. Not wonderful jobs, but we should have gone there. We would've been safe there. But Aaron was so damned determined to come home."
"And the bomb?"
"Hector's idea, before we even knew Zeta was back in town. Hector was sure the University police would discover the bomb before it ever went off, that they'd blame it on campus radicals. Hector just wanted to convince Aaron the threats weren't idle. He didn't intend for anyone to get hurt."
"Why were you away the weekend Aaron was shot?"
"We'd found out Zeta was back in San Antonio. Hector and I were both insane with fear. Hector told me to get out of town for a while."
"—so you couldn't be implicated. Hector was timing a murder."
"No," Ines insisted. The word was a little shrill. "He swore to me. He didn't shoot Aaron."
"God damn you, Tres. Leave it alone."
"Paloma knows," I said. "She was the witness."
"Paloma wouldn't talk to me."
"You must've guessed she was lying about Zeta being at your house that night. But you haven't pressed her too hard on that point, have you?"
Ines flattened her hands on the Formica. "No. I haven't."
"You knew she was lying to protect you. You figured if somebody had to go down for Aaron's death, it might as well be your husband."
"Zeta isn't my husband anymore. Why can't you see that?"
The waitress came to our table, sensed the tension, took a step back. She asked skeptically if we were finished with our food. We said we were. She slowly loaded our plates onto her tray. She smelled of black-eyed peas.
"I'll bring y'all the check." Before leaving, she shot me a chastising look.
"Those are two cute boys over there."
The old couple at the next table had gotten up and were shuffling toward the door. The margarita-drinkers on the opposite side of the room kept doing their best to ensure prizewinning hangovers for the following morning.
Jem and Michael were making a pretty good dent in my quarter supply now. Their pockets bulged obscenely with prize capsules.
"I've told you the truth," Ines told me. "What now?"
"There's still the matter of my friend."
She frowned, not immediately understanding who I meant. That irritated me. "George Berton," I said. "He got himself shot poking around in your past after Zeta Sanchez was arrested. George talked to Hector, then visited your family farm. He must have found a photo of you there, used it to get an ID from the woman at the Poco Mas. He realized that the real story was you, but he didn't know all the details, and he was a little too soft-hearted to put a widow and her five-year-old boy in harm's way. So he set up another meeting with your brother. Probably George wanted to figure out a bargain whereby you could be spared discovery and Hector could give Del Brandon to the police on a skewer. It would've meant Hector getting jail time for the heroin, but this is the guy who'd got himself shot in the leg for you once. Hector would take the fall. Before that could happen, somebody interrupted his meeting with Berton — murdered Hector, almost killed George Berton."
"You're accusing me of that, too? Of murdering my own brother?"
"The police will wonder."
"I don't intend to talk with the police."
"Two people have died. Aaron. Hector."
"Don't you think I know that?"
"That's a lot of blood, Ines. A lot of blood even for a secret worth keeping."
She gazed across the room at her son, watching Michael's every move like she was trying desperately to memorize him. "Are you in love with somebody, Tres?"
The question struck me mute.
Ines raised her eyebrows — a gesture that reminded me powerfully of Ana DeLeon. "Are you?" she insisted.
"I — no." And then added inanely, "I don't think so."
That brought a dry smile. "Safe answer. Love's not the blazing epiphany some people imagine, is it? I didn't realize I was falling in love with Aaron until we'd been seeing each other for two months. When I started to fall out of love with him, the process was just as insidious. Now that he's gone..."
Streetlights on Broadway started to blink on as the sky darkened. The round window behind the 410 bar glowed, the glass liquor-bottle shelves that crossed it making it look like some sort of giant military insignia.
Ines fixed her eyes on the traffic outside. "Aaron so desperately needed to prove himself. He would've destroyed our family, endangered Michael, not even realized what he was doing until it was too late. That was his real inheritance from his father. Aaron and Jeremiah — they were like children. They both took what they wanted. No matter who got hurt. It took me a long time to understand that about Aaron. Hector — I'm not sure I ever understood my brother. To him, I was just some family banner he had to keep from getting trampled. All I'm really sure of now is Michael."
The kids used their last quarters. They began gathering up their loot.
"Don't destroy us, Tres." It was a whisper. Sandra's voice.
From across the room, Jem rolled open a Felix the Cat sticker for me to admire.
Our waitress came out of the kitchen with our check. She took one read of the situation — the boys with their loot, Ines and me still deep in conversation — then knelt down to intercept Jem and Michael before they could start back toward us. She gestured for the boys to climb onto the metal toadstool seats at the dining counter, questioned them about their stickers. Jem and Michael were happy to oblige.
I reached across the table, picked the crumple of packing tape from Ines' sleeve. "You don't have to talk to the police alone."
Her shoulders stiffened. "You said you would help."
"I will. But I can't be silent."
"The only reason I've been talking to you—" She swallowed back her anger.
"Then we'll have to run. Michael and I."
"That won't help."
"I've done it before."