- The Last King of Texas
"We'll visit again tomorrow," I heard Chicharron say. "If you have any brain left by then, you will be wise and use it for me."
As I went under, someone's voice muttered, "A shame."
Might have been my voice.
Then footsteps receded and the closing metal doors clanged shut like an earthquake.
I had a series of nightmares. In one my mother's house was on fire, and she was urging me and her muscular troop of Marlboro men to bucket-brigade armloads of knickknacks out the front door. My mother kept running back and forth down the sidewalk, her silk kimono on fire at the edges, imploring us to work faster. I would hand a basket of glass paperweights to the guy next to me, then a roll of Dia de los Muertos posters, then some Ghanaian burial masks. I was in the doorway and the fire kept intensifying until finally the knickknacks were being handed out to me by guys whose arms and legs were on fire and whose skin was melting from their faces.
Then I was on the playground at Jem's new school. I was frantically searching for Jem, but all the little kids looked exactly the same — little pastel polo shirts and khakis, black hair and brown skin, all with the face of Michael Brandon. My eyes opened. The sky was dark. I focused on a fuzzy patch of yellow — my old chum the streetlight.
Other senses kicked in. I could smell dried urine and sweat and cigarette smoke. I was lying on something soft and bumpy — the broken-down couch in the vacant lot. I was covered with a blanket. Without much effort I turned my head and got a view of the street.
It looked like West Commerce, or one of the side streets around there. Two wide lanes, one way, moderately busy traffic. The warehouse where I'd been dragged the last time I was conscious rose to the side, a green cinder-block wall with a heavy door in the middle and a dumpster at the corner. Across the street was an old craftsman house, boarded up and ringed with cyclone fencing, vacant lots on either side. The street and the sidewalk glittered with broken bottles and syringes.
One of the young men who'd kept watch over me earlier was at the curb, dealing into a brown Chrysler. The young man collected cash, slipped something from the pocket of his jacket to the driver, then retreated to the lamppost and lit a match and a cigarette as the car pulled away. The next customer didn't take long to pull up, or the one after that. It was about the same frequency as the drive-through at Burger King.
A voice closer to me called over to the guy on the street. It asked, in Spanish, how the supply was. The guy answered: "Twenty dimes, five large."
The voice nearer to me said, "Bueno."
The speaker was probably leaning against the wall of the building, not two feet behind me.
A pager went off. At first I thought I was imagining the sound. Then Porkpie walked into my line of sight.
He was wearing the hat with a different ensemble today — baggy jeans, army-green-and-maroon shirt, leather bike-grip gloves, air-pump spaceman shoes. He checked his beeper and then took out a tiny cell phone, unfolded it, made a call. Meanwhile two more punks drifted in from down the street, shook hands with the dealer at the street-lamp, then walked over to the dumpster and hung out, talking casually, lighting each other's joint. Traffic continued down the street. Sometimes cars pulled up to the curb. Most just drove by.
I was lying not ten yards from a public street, doped to the gills, and nobody was paying me any mind. If anyone even noticed me, they probably figured I was just a wino, some derelict the punks had allowed to crash in their outdoor office. I wondered that no police cars went by, that they didn't rush in and find me and break up the dealing. But I knew better. If a police car had been anywhere close, signalmen armed with cell phones up and down the surrounding blocks would've been on to the threat instantly. Beepers would beep a warning code. The stash would get ditched in the dumpster and the kids would vanish down the side streets and I'd either get dragged back in the warehouse or, more likely, killed and left for the police to find — doped up and murdered, just another victim of another deal gone bad. Probably make an interesting feature on page A12, former sheriffs son OD'ed and killed at a West Side drug spot. The drug business would be back in swing on a different corner before my blood had even soaked into the stinking fabric of the couch.
Porkpie kept pacing back and forth. He glanced at me occasionally, but the fact that my eyes were open didn't seem to bother him. For all I knew my eyes had been open for days, glazed and useless while my brain had checked out. I tried to wiggle my toes, got excited when I felt the fabric of my socks against them. I tried to move a knee. I couldn't do that. My arms were dead weight. My head throbbed. I swallowed, then ran my tongue back and forth in my mouth, got a sensation like licking a sand castle. I was not going to leap up right away and tackle anybody. But at least I could form the idea of doing so. The detective as philosopher.
I wanted to kill them all. I wanted to shove Porkpie's state-of-the-art cell phone down his throat.
Another car slid down the block and pulled over — a blue Impala, '83, pretty badly banged up. The car windows were tinted and the interior pitch-black. The dealer disengaged himself from his two friends at the dumpster and took a wary step toward the Impala, his hand in his black coat.
The guy in the passenger's seat cracked open his window. "Azul rife! Y que?"
Old-style cholo greeting: The Blue rules. What're you gonna do about it?
The dealer and his friends relaxed. All flashed a hand sign at the Impala. The dealer walked toward the car's back window, which was just now rolling down. Then the dealer's black coat exploded like an air bag.
The high-caliber shot launched him off his feet into a reverse jackknife, the back of his coat shredding away in a spiral of blood and fabric. He hit the ground just as a shotgun blast from the Impala's open passenger window slammed into his friends by the dumpster — scouring metal and brick and bodies with buckshot. Someone shrieked. Porkpie dropped his phone and ran. He made it over the fence at the back of the lot in two moves.
Then it was quiet except for the sound of two men in misery by the dumpster. One of them kept crawling around, screaming. The other just twitched. The dealer never moved. The dumpster and warehouse wall behind them were freckled with blood and shot.
Ralph Arguello stepped out of the passenger's-side door of the Impala holding a high-powered over-and-under Mossberg. Erainya Manos came from the driver's side, her .38 up next to her ear. Another guy I didn't recognize got out of the back. He carried the snub-nosed .45 automatic that had just drilled the hole in the dealer's chest.
The round lenses of Ralph's glasses glinted in the yellow streetlight like coins. He planted his boot on the chest of one of the guys who was still alive, then lowered the shotgun muzzle against the kid's face. Erainya snarled: "No!"
Ralph glanced back at her, had a brief staring battle, then raised the shotgun and made a golf swing with the barrel against the kid's face hard enough to roll him over. Erainya jogged over to me.
Her hair was a mess. She had red lines on her arms like junkie tracks. Her face was made up even gaunter and darker than usual. She was dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans. She passed very effectively for a strung-out user, a washed-up prostitute maybe, a woman like a hundred others who might visit this spot regularly.
She crooned, "Oh, honey." I'd never heard her sound so kind.
Then she got her arms around me and lifted me up. I was maybe seventy-five pounds heavier than she, but Erainya dragged me all the way back to the car. I could see Ralph, training his shotgun lazily on the wounded second man. The gang-banger's face looked like a rust-eaten car hood — most of his left cheek scoured to blood, his left eye ruptured and the irreplaceable fluid dribbling down his cheek.
Ralph's helper, the man with the .45, was busy stripping the dead young dealer of his heroin.
Erainya got me in the car. Within seconds I was wedged between her and the man with the .45 and Ralph was in the driver's seat, speeding us silently away from the West Side. We heard a siren behind us, a long way off.
When Ralph spoke his voice was so taut with anger I hardly recognized it. He said, "Mi pendejo rife. Y que?"
"Nobody passes a boosted red Barracuda in S.A. without me knowing about it."
Ralph spoke somewhere in the darkness. "Fuck Chich, he thinks he can pull that shit in my town."
"I suppose I had nothing to do with this operation," Erainya griped.
"No offense, senora. You handled it pretty good for a gringa."
Erainya called Ralph some names in Greek. Ralph defended himself in Spanish. I knew neither could understand the other. That was probably just as well.
"I love you both," I mumbled. "Now shut up."
Astoundingly, they did.
I drifted to sleep to the sound of the Impala engine. Sometime during the ride, I think I recalled the mysterious .45 man, whom Ralph called Freeze, being dropped off. Freeze patted me on the shoulder and told me that for another hundred, he'd be happy to drill anybody for me any day.
The next time I woke up I was lying flat, staring at bare cedar rafters and an old ceiling fan. When I tried to move, cot springs clinked and clunked like a broken music box. The fan wobbled precariously.
A thickly accented woman's voice said, "Hol' still, damn it."
Dr. Janice Farn hovered over me, giving me a view of curly white hair and bifocals and the Calvin Klein fedora that Aileen the cow had once driven her hoof through.
I started to say something, but Farn cut me off. "Hol' still and shut up."
I had no recollection of arriving where I obviously was — the Navarre family ranch in Sabinal — but I held still. And shut up. Dr. Farn's hand dabbed at my face.
"Had to cut a little to get at the infection in your cheek." Her breath smelled distinctly of Jack Daniel's — not surprising, knowing Farn, but not a smell you wanted on someone who was giving you urgent medical attention.
Farn must've been past eighty, tough as beef jerky, a widow and a large-animal vet who'd leased most of her neighboring wheat fields to the Navarre family for as many years as I could remember. Now in her retirement, Farn no longer made house calls unless it was for a sick cow she really cared about. I supposed I should feel honored.
We were on the back gallery of the ranch. The early morning air was bleeding through the screens. Outside, ground fog was turning the yellow huisache trees into hazy sketches. Charolais cows drifted across the pasture. The old white water tank rose in the distance. The hay shed. Past that, a hundred acres of stunted Texas wheat just turning from green to gold. Pastoral.
Farn finished stitching me up, then checked the dilation of my eyes and the IV that she had attached to my arm. She yelled into the next room, "Arguello!" Ralph came in, holding a snifter with my father's name, JACK, printed on the side. Ralph's hair was freshly washed and unbraided. It fell in a loose fan of gray and black. With his huge white shirt untucked he looked like one of the apostles, one of the very bad ones.
"Looking better, vato."
"Better than what?" I managed.
Farn closed up her kit, scowled down at me. "Yer lucky as hell. Be all right — hell of a headache for a few days, soreness all over. The drugs they gave you are going to leave you with the shakes, some nausea. Heroin mixed with some kind of prescription sedative, near as I can figure. You might black out once in a while."