- The Last King of Texas
The habit proved hard to break once Ralph became a successful pawnshop king. Today, he would still move into the offices of acquired shops for a few weeks, to get a feel for the land, he claimed, and then move to another apartment or rental house. He had several homes in his name, several more in other names, but none of them were his home. He traded in and out of living quarters with the same kind of rootlessness the items in his pawnshops experienced.
Ralph's inseparable possessions were few.
This week he was living in the old Broadway Apartments in Alamo Heights. The units were dingy blocks, with narrow, perpetually shaded courtyards smelling of chinaberries and Freon and damp earth. The metal window frames had not been replaced since the Johnson administration. It was a place you could drive past a thousand times and never notice, which is exactly what appealed to Ralph, I was sure.
I paid off the taxi driver and walked through the courtyard of the nearest building. On the sidewalk, a couple of Anglo boys in striped shirts and corduroy shorts and paper Burger King hats were fighting over a Mr. Potato Head. There were fiesta leftovers scattered across the ground — colored eggshells and confetti from busted cascarones. A Night in Old San Antonio T-shirt was hanging over somebody's wall AC unit.
Ralph answered the buzzer at number five. He looked relaxed, his braid over his shoulder, his green Guayabera pulled sideways so his buttons made a diagonal line, his slacks wrinkled, his boots nearby on the carpet, and his feet in black socks. His glasses were in his shirt pocket, so his eyes again had that large, dark look that made me think of a night animal — a raccoon or a possum, something cute and silent and vicious.
"Come on in, vato."
The place had obviously come furnished. Brown shag carpet, white plastic furniture in seventies outer-space mod, an old Sony TV, a walnut veneer bookshelf that was mostly empty. The kitchen smelled like beer and fresh tamales and copal incense — three of Ralph's essentials.
I followed Ralph into the living room. The sliding-glass door was open and the small back porch was ringed in stone, furnished with an enormous jade plant and a hibachi grill, on which two pieces of flank steak were grilling. Ana DeLeon sat on the stone wall, drinking a glass of red wine and watching me approach. She looked beautiful. Her short black hair was cowlicked on one side. She wore black leggings and one of her white silk blouses, untucked, the top two buttons undone to reveal the inward curves of her breasts. She was barefoot.
She said, "Tres."
Ralph said, "I'll get you the Barracuda keys."
He left for the kitchen.
"You didn't return my calls," I told Ana.
The steaks hissed. Music started up from Ralph's boom box inside — the bright guitar and basso of a ranchera,
"I don't owe you, Tres."
"That's right," I agreed. "No special privileges."
"It wasn't smart — you and me."
I let the idea hang between us until Ana's anger started to crumble. "No," she decided. "That's the easy way out. The truth is I feel bad. But what happened out in Sabinal—"
"You won't have to live with it, Ana."
Ana stared into her wineglass. "I suppose my judgment is no better. I don't think I can explain to you why I'm here, Tres. Or explain it to myself." She met my eyes. We had a silent conversation that lasted about five seconds and told me all I needed to know. There was no anxiety, no concern for career, no real desire for an explanation. Instead I recognized that kind of fractured heat — that reckless energy I had glimpsed in a few women before, and on a few very lucky occasions, seen directed toward me. But not this time.
"I'm sorry," Ana said.
The fact that she meant it, that she wasn't just being polite, hung awkwardly between us.
"SAPD won't hear anything from me."
She pursed her lips, nodded. Then the smell of bay rum intensified behind me. Ralph handed me a Shiner Bock and a set of car keys.
"Back lot, vato. I got a couple of Chich's boys to touch up the paint and wax it for you."
Ralph went to the hibachi grill and squeezed a lime over the flank steak with a wide arcing gesture like a priest using a censer.
He winked at Ana. "Quiet neighbors here, chica. I could like it."
She smiled. "You'd have to get better furniture."
"Don't need much," Ralph said. Then, out of nowhere, he quoted a stanza of Spanish love poetry — a few lines about a woman who fills a man's every empty room.
I looked at him. "I didn't know you read Neruda."
Ana fixed her eyes on the hibachi flames.
Ralph chuckled. "Can't survive on American Gladiator alone, vato."
We sat lined on the wall, Ana, Ralph, and I, drinking and listening to the ranchero music and the sizzle of flank steak.
"I got another one in the refrigerator," Ralph told me. "You want to stay, vato — it isn't every day the King cooks."
"Thanks. I should go."
"I'll walk you out." Ralph stood and fished for something in his pocket, then stopped, grinned at himself. "Ana's going to keep me from smoking, vato. How long you think that'll last, eh?"
"I'm not a betting man."
"But hey — you understand, vato, she ain't really here, right? She's never here."
"Of course," I agreed. "I understand that. See you, Detective."
Ana nodded silently, locking eyes with me with an intense message I couldn't read. Maybe I didn't really try.
Ralph walked me to the door. He patted me on the shoulder, smiled reassuringly.
"You still worrying. Don't, vato. It's all cool. Chich Gutierrez got so much heat on him now, he ain't going to have time or energy to fuck with you and me no more."
"Tell me something. How long you been impressing women with Pablo Neruda?"
Ralph looked surprised. "Ain't the poetry, baby. It's the whole package, you know? Why — you got a woman in mind?"
He grinned at me, and then, when I didn't answer, waved and let the door close — shutting off the music, the dinner smells, the sight of Ana DeLeon so completely I had the feeling I was the one who'd never really been there.
The following morning, Ines Brandon, Michael Brandon, and I stood at the entrance to the Bexar County Jail. Ines had stopped at the top of the steps, her fingers wrapped around the metal railing as if she hoped it would keep her stationary.
"I don't know if I can do this," she told me.
Days of worry had left her face drawn, her eyes underscored with shadows. It wasn't the legal problems. Those were working themselves out. Thanks to the lawyers Erainya had recruited by cashing in favors, and Ines' cooperation with investigators, Assistant District Attorney Canright had apparently decided that bringing charges against a widowed mother who'd assumed a false identity for her own protection and that of her small son was not high on his political agenda.
The main battle was yet to come, and it wasn't legal.
"You're not alone," I told Ines. "You've got two studly guys for backup, remember?"
She gave me a weak smile.
Her hair was unwashed, tied back in a stiff ponytail that looked like the tip of a calligraphy brush. She wore rumpled black pants and a loose black denim shirt, both streaked with white dust. No makeup, no perfume. Nothing to indicate she'd slept, eaten, or changed her appearance since I'd seen her the night before for a pep talk.
Little Michael, by contrast, had received his mother's full attention. Ines had dressed him in gray slacks, a newly ironed white button-down, a man's red-and-blue tie, probably his father's, that hung well past his belt. She'd made sure Michael's shoes were tied and his face scrubbed. Only his hair had resisted her ministrations. Michael's cowlicks had sprung back with an unruliness that reminded me of his uncle Del's.
The three of us stood on the jailhouse steps long enough for a silent prayer. Finally Ines put her hand on Michael's head, then took a deep breath. "Let's go."
We walked into Visitors Receiving, through security to the room with the divided Plexiglas wall and the green chairs and tables.
The room was fuller than it had been on my previous visit. There was a large pasty blond woman talking to a skinny African American man on the other side. A young Anglo woman with two babies — one under arm and one in a chest-pack — was chastising her incarcerated boyfriend about somebody named Casey. The boyfriend's dazed expression mirrored the babies' perfectly. Ines and Michael and I went to space "B" in the middle. There was one empty chair. None of us took it.
The longest five minutes in the universe followed.
Ines tried to smooth out Michael's hair with her fingers and didn't have much success. Her breath was shaky. Michael did small twists from his waist, swaying back and forth. He kept his eyes on the cement floor.
The large blond woman next to us vivisected her electric bill. The baby in the chest-pack on the other woman was making frustrated "ehh, ehh" sounds, kicking tiny feet at Mom's kidneys. The boyfriend seemed pretty upset about this person Casey.
Finally the prisoner's entrance buzzed open.
Zeta Sanchez emerged in his orange prison scrubs and plastic sandals. His gold eyes zeroed in on Ines and stayed there as he walked toward us. His face was impassive. The beard had been shaved away, and his bare chin looked strangely pale, vulnerable. He'd cut himself shaving. One cheek sported a bandage, and that small bit of first aid seemed ridiculous next to the other damage on his face — the stitched and swollen lip, the fading black eye. Zeta came up to the Plexiglas and sat on the table's edge. The guard at the door looked like he was thinking about walking over, telling Sanchez to use the chair, but he apparently decided against it.
Sanchez laced his fingers over his knee. "Sandra."
Ines took in Sanchez with the same horrified fascination as a crime-scene novice taking in her first corpse. Her hands stayed on Michael's shoulders. Michael twisted his left thumb, seeing if it would come off.
When Sanchez failed to get a response, he looked at me. "Professor. What you told me on the phone true?"
"Talk to her, Zeta. Not me."
The golden eyes burned into mine, trying to find a challenge.
He looked back at Ines, turned his palms up in his lap, meditation style. "You got something to say to me?"
"You're shorter than I remember," she muttered.
Zeta's mouth spread into an uneasy smile.
"What you think I should do to you, Sandra? Huh? Tell me that."
His voice was thin, taut, dangerously dry. The fact that he kept smiling didn't help at all.
The strength in Ines' body seemed to be channeling down to her hands — into the fingertips that stayed on Michael's narrow shoulders. She said, "I'm tired of being scared of you."
Zeta laughed. "Don't get tired yet."
"That person you married seven years ago, Anthony — that was a different woman."
"Looked like you, Sandra."
She raised one hand and made a fist. "How long would it have lasted, Anthony? How long would you have put up with getting nothing from me? How long before you hurt me? If we'd had a child, Dios me libre, how long before you hurt him, too?"
Zeta ran a knuckle along his jawline. He seemed vaguely surprised to find his beard gone.