- The Last King of Texas
"You have a five-year-old now. Nobody's making you a new identity this time."
"Give me a one-night head start."
She tried to get up, but I caught her wrist.
Our eyes locked.
"What is it to you, Tres?" she demanded.
"People leave things behind by accident," I said. "But not you. Not that journal. Not the photograph George must've found."
She tugged against my grip.
"You left a trail," I said, "because you wanted to. You run again, you'll just leave another trail."
"You said it yourself, Ines. You don't get away without a fight. You haven't had yours yet. Turn around and face what you left behind, take the consequences. Or you can run away again, talk tough about how you're somebody new, somebody who doesn't need help. If you're somebody new, then maldicion. You and Sandra Mara would've gotten along just fine."
Her eyes flashed murderously. "I won't risk my child. You can't promise Michael will be safe."
"Look at your son. Tell me he's safe right now, in that cave he's been making."
"God damn you," she whispered.
"Nobody can guarantee Michael will be safe, Ines. You might as well realize it here, where you've got some friends."
"I — I can't, Tres. I wish—"
The sound of little sneakers hushed her. The boys crashed into us, showing off their spoils. Their arms glittered with holographic stickers.
I let go of Ines' wrist and forced a smile. I complimented Jem on his Felix the Cat. The waitress brought our check and left us with a few more admonishing comments about what nice boys we had.
Michael climbed onto his mother's lap. He was a little large for the task, but he just about managed a fetal position. He tucked his head against Ines' chest and began picking at a silvery low-rider decal on his wrist.
"I want to go home," he mumbled.
Ines stroked his hair. Sweat had plastered it into curls over his ears.
"We will," she promised. "It'll be like a sleep-over. In the new apartment. And tomorrow—"
Michael turned his face into her bright shirt, rubbed his nose back and forth, then looked up at her again. "No. Home."
"You took it down, I bet," he muttered. "You said you wouldn't."
Ines' hand closed over Michael's on her chest. Her mouth began to tremble.
"Michael," I said. "We're inviting you and your mom over to Jem's house, kiddo. You can have your sleep-over there. What do you think?"
Curled against his mother, Michael just looked at me, his eyes as pale blue as his murdered father's.
Jem, however, perked up instantly. He started filling Michael in on all the games they could play once they got into his room.
"Sweetheart—" Ines interrupted hoarsely.
But Michael didn't want to hear her. He was too busy listening to Jem's descriptions of Sega-Wonderland. The little frown didn't leave his face, but he kept his eyes on Jem.
I glanced at Ines. "If you can't beat them..."
She closed her eyes for one second, two. When she looked at me again, I couldn't shake the impression that her irises were dark, fractured prisms.
"Perhaps just for tonight," she said.
Jem and I rode together in the Barracuda, leading the way back toward Erainya's. Every few seconds, I checked the rearview mirror. Each time I was surprised to find Ines' headlights still behind us.
As we drove, Jem told me how super-funny Michael was. Jem wanted to make a sheet cave like his.
"I don't know if that's the best idea, Bubba."
Jem disagreed. He told me how cool Michael's setup had been inside.
He said Michael had been trying to make the cave bigger and bigger, so that someday he would never have to come back out again. Someday, Michael would close up the entrance and just disappear. It hadn't worked out that way, but Jem still figured it was a great plan.
"I don't know, Bubba," I told him. "I think maybe Michael's mom was right to take down the sheets."
Jem was unconvinced. He said that, according to Michael, that wasn't even his real mom. His real mom had disappeared down the sheet cave years and years and years ago. That's where Michael had been going — following his mom into the dark.
Plans were discussed. Erainya cursed and slapped the air a lot. Jem and Michael were sent off to play video games. Ines was force-fed a platter of Greek food to make up for the dinner she hadn't eaten, then browbeaten into taking the main bedroom.
While Ines was changing clothes and the children were playing in Jem's room, Erainya broke out a Heineken and the keys to her gun cabinet.
"You," Erainya said to me. "You go home."
I insisted on checking the boys one more time.
Through his bedroom doorway, I watched Jem sitting at his PlayStation, engrossed in a 3-D jungle with flying, basketball-dribbling dinosaurs. Michael wasn't participating. He sat cross-legged a few feet behind Jem, a stack of Jem's old Nickelodeon magazines and toy-store circulars by his side. Michael was cutting out the pictures with safety scissors.
I drove slowly all the way home.
Back at 90 Queen Anne, I stared reluctantly at the phone for several minutes, then called Ana DeLeon's work number, got her voice mail.
I left a cryptic message — I had new information, I might be able to share it soon, but first we needed to talk. Preferably over another pitcher of margaritas. DeLeon didn't call back.
I called Brooke Army Medical Center. No change in George's condition. Then I lay down on my futon and burned my eyes out reading The Woman in White. By page 200, I still couldn't fall asleep.
Maybe it would've been easier if the Suitez family across the street had had another party and lulled me with the familiar sounds of Freddy Fender or Narcisco Martinez. Or if Mrs. Geradino's Chihuahuas had yapped at the moon. Or if Gary Hales' upstairs TV had blared out a John Wayne movie on the night-owl theater. These noises I could've dealt with. But not dead quiet on a Saturday night in San Antonio.
Robert Johnson had no insomnia worries. He'd curled up happily on my crotch, closed his eyes, and proceeded to increase his body temperature by a hundred degrees.
I stared at the ceiling. I counted the inches that the moonlight advanced across my wall.
I thought about the ventilator in George's hospital room, about Zeta lying in his jail cell, looking out olive-green bars at more rows of olive-green bars, his eyes empty and maybe his thoughts just as hollow. I thought of Ana DeLeon the night before, in those few moments when the ice in her demeanor had melted. Mostly, I thought about Ines and Michael Brandon.
Finally I slid Robert Johnson as gently as I could off my crotch. I got up and dressed — black sweats, black T-shirt, black Nikes, a fanny pack with a few select tools.
The rumble of the Barracuda's engine seemed obscenely loud in the nighttime quiet. I headed down Broadway, past a group of low-rider Chevies in the Lions Club lot, a few teenagers smoking and talking outside Taco Cabana, the usual late-night crowd at Earl Abel's Coffee Shop. Otherwise, the town had shut down. I drove south, under I-35, past Southern Music, then turned right on Jones. Unless Del Brandon had another nighttime transaction under way, I planned on resolving some unanswered questions tonight. If possible, I also planned on finding something I could use to nail Del Brandon's fat ass to his Super-Whirl. RideWorks looked closed up, even the office. There were no cars on the street.
I parked at the gates, got out of the car, and was just examining the chain and padlock when headlights swung onto Camden behind me, about fifty yards back. The obvious didn't occur to me — that I should get back in the Barracuda and get the hell out of there. Instead, stupidly, I squandered five or six seconds watching the white van pull up alongside the Barracuda. Before it had even come to a stop the side door slid open and five Latino men unloaded. One was Chicharron — still a Child of the Night in his black leather and silver, his trench coat conveniently covering the damage Ralph's fan-throwing practice had done to his arms. The self-confident burn in Chich's eyes told me he'd coked himself up just enough to make this encounter enjoyably bloody.
His four friends were the teenagers I'd met at the Poco Mas — Porkpie, with the hat and loose-cut cholo threads, his Taurus P-11 drawn with no preliminaries this time. The other three formed a right flank — all smooth young faces and wispy black beards, jeans, white tank tops, expensive sneakers. I focused on little differences — one had a hairnet. One a gold nose ring. The third held a length of bike gear chain. No visible guns except for Porkpie's. Not yet.
"I hear you're a professor." Chicharron smiled at me with what looked like artificially pointed teeth. "For a teacher, you learn slow."
I said nothing. With Porkpie's Taurus trained on me, there didn't seem much point, I chose to stay standing, back to the gate, arms free, George's car between me and them.
Chich kept smiling, measuring me. He wouldn't be sure if I was carrying a gun or not, if I were alone or not. He'd want to be sure my situation was really as hopeless as it looked, that I'd truly been stupid enough to drive out here on my own, unarmed.
He gestured toward the Barracuda. "Nice wheels."
"A nice guy used to drive them."
Nosering cracked his knuckles. Hairnet and his friend with the gear chain both glanced over at the vampire, waiting for a signal.
"Funny," Chich said. "I start asking around, I didn't have no problem finding some people wanted to hurt you. Maybe we do you, then we go looking for your friend Ralph."
Porkpie said, "One round. Chest."
Chich held up his fingers for patience. His smile widened.
"You scared of the odds?" I asked him.
My only chance was to keep it close-range, keep them thinking I was a nothing job — blood sport. And then hope like hell to surprise them. The private eye as moron.
Porkpie chambered a round.
"Nah," Chich said. "Get him in the van."
The news that they preferred me alive failed to comfort me. It only meant they preferred the bloodstain to be somewhere of their choosing.
Hairnet and Bikechain went around either side of the Barracuda. Nosering pulled a blackjack. He opened my passenger's-side door, stepping onto the seat like it was a doormat.
Chicharron leaned against his van and watched. Porkpie's gun kept making a warm spot in my gut.
I had no intention of waiting to be surrounded on three sides. I stepped toward the hood of the Barracuda to meet Bikechain. He was the least prepared, his hands committed to the chain, probably thinking he would garrote me while I was busy with the others. Before he could change his strategy I feinted a punch at his face, forced his hands up, then shoulder-butted him in the sternum with my full body weight. I turned and ducked as his friend's blackjack slashed air next to my ear. I grabbed the blackjacker's pierced nose between my thumb and forefinger and yanked. The blackjacker screamed, dropped his sap. I dropped the bloody nose ring, then rolled the guy with the hairnet over my shoulder and onto the pavement.
I retreated, stepping over Bikechain, putting my back to the RideWorks gate, now fifteen feet away from the Barracuda. Porkpie's gun was still aimed at me. Chich was still smiling.
The guy who'd had the nose ring was making a hand-tent around his face, blood striping his chin and speckling his white T-shirt. The guy with the hairnet was getting up off the street. Bikechain limped forward, rewinding the chain around his fist. He scraped the gear links across the Barracuda's red paint job, then kept coming. His friends were close behind.