- The Last King of Texas
"You're going to feel like you been run over on a West Texas highway and left to dry in the sun, darlin', but trust me — you're damn lucky."
"I want some water," I said.
Farn nodded. "Figures. I'll see y'all later."
She was replaced by Erainya, who stared down at me critically. She held a glass identical to Ralph's — one of the Jack snifters.
Ralph took the chair Janice Farn had been sitting in. He propped some more pillows behind my back.
Erainya drained her whiskey, then grimaced. "So, what — you think it's easy to get a baby-sitter for two days? You think Kelly wanted to give up a weekend to mind Jem and our guests while we bailed you out of trouble?"
"Our guests. Jesus Christ."
"Still at my house," Erainya assured me. "Little Michael..." She shook her head. "Poor paidi's never even played Donkey Kong before."
"Can you imagine."
Erainya shook her head again. "Ines isn't too happy, either. She wanted to bolt out the door when she heard what had happened to you."
"Why didn't she?"
Erainya glared at me, giving me a taste of the scolding she had no doubt inflicted on poor unhappy Ines.
"Thank you," I said.
Erainya slapped the air. "She'll stay put for a few more days anyway."
"Long as you keep the television news turned off," Ralph added.
"Never mind, vato. Time for that later." Ralph drained the Jack glass.
I looked into the main house, through the mud-and-log doorway that had been the original front entrance in the 1870s. Beyond the archway, the living room was long and low, dimly lit. A fire was going in the old limestone hearth. Ozzie Gerson and Harold Diliberto, the ranch caretaker, stood looking down into the flames. Ozzie wore a side arm and Harold had a deer rifle nestled in his arm. "Ozzie took early retirement as of today," Erainya informed me. "He says he'll be here as long as you need him. Diliberto says he won't put the rifle down until you tell him to. The old geezer told me anybody tries to get to you out here, he and Ozzie are going to use the tiger traps, whatever that means. I got my doubts about him."
My head ached. I rubbed my temples, discovered that was a major mistake. I tried to drink a little water from a paper cup Ralph handed me.
"I got to be going, vato," he said. "More than a couple of hours out here in redneck country, I start getting nervous."
"We wouldn't want that."
He grinned. "Give me a call when you want the Barracuda back, vato. I'll have it waiting for you."
"There a back way to San Antonio?"
"Old Highway 90. Why?"
"I had to phone DeLeon, tell her what was up."
"No, man. Not about that. That's your call. But Ana's coming out right now. She wants to kick my manly ass for the scene we pulled on Commerce. Some people are never grateful."
When Ralph was gone, it was just me and Erainya, watching the sun come up over the fields, the dew start to glisten on the leaves in the trees, the cows lining up for their daily trek down to the creek. Single file, heifer style.
Erainya stood over me, examining my face skeptically. "I thought we'd lost you, honey. Couple of times in the car, I put my hand on your chest, just to make sure you were still breathing."
I closed my eyes. My cheek had started to tremble. The trembling didn't stop.
"We didn't say anything to your mother," Erainya told me.
"Thank God for small favors."
"I figured it was better she didn't know."
"I've never been so scared, Erainya."
"I know, honey."
"I couldn't move. My arms—"
"I know. Here."
She came closer and helped me drink a little more water. Some of it dribbled out the side of my mouth and down my jaw, my neck, soaking into the collar of my shirt.
I lay back and shut my eyes, opening them again only with great difficulty. Erainya was still there. She had her hand on my chest and her eyes were closed. I let myself drift into sleep.
When I woke up again I was on the leather couch in front of the fireplace. The embers from the morning fire were just barely alive under the ash, and daylight was streaming through the windows.
The roaring of the water pipes in the old house told me that somebody was either taking a shower or locked in mortal combat with the toilet.
Harold Diliberto was still at his post by the fire, his coffee cup and half-empty bottle of bourbon on the mantel. In the crook of Harold's arm was his Remington 700 — the decrepit deer rifle with the bent magazine spring dangling uselessly in front of the trigger.
I looked down at my feet and discovered they were resting in Ana DeLeon's lap. She was leaning back against the couch, her eyes small and dark and her face soft in thought. She was wearing jeans and a baggy black turtleneck. One hand rested on my ankle as if she'd long ago forgotten it was there. The other held the letter she was reading. I thought I recognized the distinctive block print — small, square, precise lettering. Ralph.
I said, "Hello." Ever the inventive conversationalist.
Ana started, looked at me, folded the letter, and put it aside.
"God damn you," she said. "When you're better I'm going to strangle you."
"Not the most loving thing I've heard all week. But close." I looked at Harold.
"How long have you been standing there?"
"It's Tuesday afternoon," he muttered. "They brought you in late Sunday night."
"Jesus. You can go to the bathroom now, Harold. Thanks."
He glanced distrustfully at DeLeon.
"Thanks, Harold," I repeated. "Take a rest."
He drifted off to do whatever it is drunk recluses do.
Ana squeezed my ankle. "You look like shit."
"Hotel Chicharron — no mints on the pillows."
When I tried to sit up, my head popped painfully back into its original shape. Ana slid my feet off her lap and onto the floor.
I looked down at myself. I was wearing boxers with little polo players on them, a T-shirt with a large Wild Turkey logo, and black socks.
"Whose idea of revenge was this?"
Ana shrugged. "You were like that when I got here. I'm still trying to figure out where here is."
I rubbed my eyes. "Welcome to the Navarre family ranch. Things get rough, I sometimes lay low out here. It's a hard place to get to. Hard for outsiders to come into Sabinal and make any trouble."
"Mmm." Ana didn't say more, but I wondered if she'd met some of our rancher neighbors, any one of whom would've given her more than a little polite trouble if she'd asked for directions.
"UTSA knows you're on sick leave this week," she said. "It's okay with Professor Mitchell."
"Probably has his professors abducted by drug dealers all the time."
"Mitchell should be relieved it was only that. I doubt the University's insurance rating could stand another fatality."
"Damn, you're cheery."
I listened to Harold clink around in the kitchen. I could smell butter sizzling in a frying pan.
"Can you talk about what happened?" Ana asked.
I did my best.
When I was done, Ana said, "Will you press charges against Chich?" Ever the cop.
"If you think it will do any good. But there's something else, before I change my mind. It's about Ines Brandon."
Once I got the truth out, I didn't feel a damn bit better. Apparently neither did DeLeon. She sat silent, staring at the embers in the fireplace.
"I didn't want to tell you," I said.
She flashed me an irritated look. "You want thanks?"
"Michael Brandon's only five years old. I don't want him to be the one who's punished."
"Tres — I already knew."
I stared at her. Vague memories started to form of my conversation with Chich. "Del Brandon."
"Kelsey and I played some hardball with Brandon on Saturday — hauled in one of his employees, man named Ernie Ragan."
"Big guy," I remembered. "Blond cornrows."
DeLeon nodded. "Turns out Ernest is wanted in three states — grand theft auto, agg. assault, rape. If you were him, would you want to be extradited to Mississippi? You ever been to one of their penitentiaries?"
"He decided to deal — give you his boss."
"Ernie would've given us his sweet old mother, we asked him to. So we chatted awhile, then brought in Del. Ten hours of questions, no lawyers. We told Del we wanted to ask him some questions about the murder of Hector Mara, mentioned how very cooperative Ernie had been. His employee in custody, the murder charges — that scared him. Del told us about Sandra Mara — Ines Brandon. Told us the whole thing was about her."
"The prick admit to anything himself?"
"He said he helped Sandra Mara change her name, then he threatened to give her up to keep Aaron from suing for the business a few years back. He says her brother Hector came to see him soon after that, intending to strong-arm him into silence, but they came to terms, decided to strike up a little business. Del admitted that there'd been some smack going through RideWorks, but he pinned the whole idea on Hector. He denied any knowledge of his brother's murder. Or Mara's."
"You can put that into past tense."
"You can put Del in past tense."
My eyelids felt heavy, so I closed them. "How?"
"We didn't detain him overnight," Ana said. "Big mistake."
I thought about a big galoot in a loud shirt, gorilla hair, block face. I tried to remember why I'd hated his guts, but all I could picture was Del's look of pleasure when he spoke about well-constructed merry-go-rounds.
"Del went home about three in the morning Sunday," DeLeon said. "Walked inside and caught two rounds in the chest."
"Like his brother."
"Except a .357, this time. Silencer. Like Mara and Berton. Del's neighbors, of course, saw and heard nothing."
"And the killer's still out there."
"Where's your friend Ines?"
"I don't know. But it wasn't her."
"You are going to bring her in."
"I didn't say I had her."
"Don't insult my intelligence, Navarre."
I rubbed my temples. "Give me some time, okay?"
"Time. Oh, is that all."
A quake started and it took me more than a minute to remember that I no longer lived in California — that it wasn't the ground trembling but me. I heard DeLeon say, "Go ahead and rest."
She put a quilt over me, lifted my feet back into her lap.
"Do me a favor," I said.
"Don't disappear while I'm asleep. People keep disappearing on me."
And she didn't.
Sometime later, I opened my eyes in a haze and she was still there — pensive and beautiful, staring into the fireplace, Ralph's letter in her hand.
I woke up flinching to the popcorn sound of distant gunfire — the ping of bullets on metal somewhere out in the fields.