- The Widower's Two-Step
I looked at Miranda. "You could stay here. Ralph is right—he and I could take care of it for you."
Miranda flushed. Anger seemed to be burning the marijuana slowness out of her eyes.
"I'm coming. Just tell me where we're going."
Ralph straightened up in his chair so he could take out Mr. Subtle, his .357 Magnum.
He clunked it on the table and said, "Dessert."
The night sky was bright with thunderclouds and the air smelled like metal. The raindrops were infrequent, warm and large as birds' eggs.
Ralph pulled the maroon Cadillac in behind the VW on the north side of Nacogdoches, about half a block down from the entrance of the storage facility.
He met us by the chainlink fence of the sulfur processing plant. The wind was whipping around, pushing Miranda's hair into her mouth. Her white Berkeley Tshirt was freckled with rain.
"Bad," I told Ralph.
Across the street the gates of the floodlit facility were open crookedly. Sheck's huge black pickup truck was just outside. The security booth was empty? Milo's green Jeep Cherokee was parked at a fortyfivedegree angle across the entrance, its fender crunched against the booth's doorway and its driver's side door open. If the guard had been in the booth, he would've had to crawl over Milo's hood to get out. From this angle I couldn't see the yard between the two buildings.
Monday night. Traffic along Nacogdoches was light. What cars there were turned into the industrial parkway before getting to our block. Two blocks down, five or six teenagers were waiting at the VIA bus stop.
Ralph looked at the yard. "No cover worth shit. Chavez, man—stupid ass isn't worth saving."
"You can back out," I said. "No obligation."
Ralph grinned. "?Mande? "
I nodded my thanks, then looked at Miranda. She was hugging her elbows. Her brows were knit together. On the ride north she had managed to shake off most of the effects of the laced pan dulce, but she still had a withdrawn, slightly puffedup demeanour, like a very cold parakeet on a perch. She shifted her weight onto one leg and lifted the other boot behind her knee. "What can I do?"
I think it was meant to sound brave, gung ho. It came out plaintive.
I got out my wallet and gave Miranda one of Detective Gene Schaeffer's cards, which I'd had the unhappy fortune to collect on many occasions.
"You can stay here if you want," I told her. "Be our anchor. Ralph has a cell phone. You hear any trouble, any shots, call that number and ask for homicide, Gene Schaeffer.
Insist on talking to him. Tell him where we are and what's happening and tell him to get on the phone with Samuel Barrera and get down here. We're giving them probable cause to enter. Do you have all that?"
Miranda nodded uncertainly.
Ralph looked at me, produced his fallback gun, a Dan Wesson .38, and held it toward me. "I know what you're gonna say, vato. But I got to offer."
"I'll take it," Miranda said.
She did, gingerly. She held the gun correctly, pointed it down, unlatched the barrel and rolled it, checking the cylinders. She closed it and looked at me defiantly. "I'm not being an anchor." Then to Ralph, "Take your own damn cell phone."
Ralph laughed. "This lady's all right, man. Vamos."
He got out Mr. Subtle. We crossed Nacogdoches and walked toward the gates, staying close to the fence.
By the time we got there rain was coming down heavy enough to make a highpitched pinging against the corrugated metal roofs of the storage buildings. In the yard were the same two freight boxes that were there that afternoon, but this time they were attached to semirigs with the motors running. One loadingbay door was open. No one was on the dock, but looking underneath the first truck we could see long shadows from two pairs of legs on the other side—men talking between the trucks. One of them wore jeans and boots. The other had slacks, dress shoes.
I turned to Miranda. "Last chance."
But it was already happening too fast. Ralph knew when to take advantage, and he knew there wouldn't be a better chance to close some distance. He went right, walking quickly toward the cab of the truck. I moved left to the side of the building and began jogging toward the first loading dock. Miranda followed me.
The gunshots came when we were almost to the dock. I was running forward before I fully registered what I had heard. Two shots, both incredibly loud, from inside the warehouse, followed quickly by two shots from the right, behind the first truck. Those had been almost as loud—the report of a .357. Ralph had taken advantage of timing again.
We met Ralph under the loading dock, where metal slats had been laid across from the cement to the truck bed. The dock was only about five feet high. We had to crouch to avoid being seen from inside. Ralph had his gun out and was shaking his head, whispering Spanish curses and looking mildly displeased. Behind him were some lowpitched groans, almost muffled in the rain and the truck engines.
" Cabrons tried to get smart. One of them might live, I think."
I looked under the truck. On the opposite side, thirty yards away, the man in the slacks and the Tshirt who had been with Jean Kraus in the BMW earlier in the day was curled up on the asphalt, a pistol about ten feet away from him—kicked there by Ralph, probably. The man was making the groans as he tried to stop the bleeding in his thigh.
He was kicking himself along the pavement with his good leg, like he was trying to get somewhere, but he was only succeeding in making small circles. His fingers clutched his leg where the blood was seeping through, soaking his pants and smearing the pavement. He had gone at least one complete circle in his own pool because the blood was on his face and in his hair too. In the outdoor lights the sticky places glistened purple.
Redhaired Elgin Garwood was ten feet closer to us. He was very dead. A .357 round had eaten a fistsized chunk out of his chest, just to the left of his sternum. He was staring at the sky and rain was running off his forehead. His 9mm was still in his right hand.
My ears roared. I tried to think but the engines and the rain and the afterecho of gunfire made it impossible. Inside the warehouse, an argument was going on. More groaning. Was it possible they hadn't recognized the gunfire outside as a separate problem? Maybe the echo inside the building . . .
A carload of high school kids drove by on Nacogdoches, oblivious, grins on their faces, heavy metal music blaring.
I held my breath, then popped my head up for a brief look into the warehouse.
A twosecond snapshot—Tilden Sheckly and Jean Kraus arguing. Sheckly with a gun stuck in the waist of his pants. Kraus' Beretta in his hand. The apparent subject of the argument, a mountain of wounded human being on the floor in front of them. Milo Chavez, the soles of his very expensive shoes pointed toward me, one hand clutching at his shoulder, maybe his heart. A single line of blood ran away from his body, stopping after two feet to seep into and around a legalsized document that Milo had apparently dropped, then continuing.
I ducked back down and pressed my back against the cement wall of the loading dock.
I closed my eyes and tried to memorize the placement of things.
When I opened my eyes again I was looking at Miranda. Her face was pale, her hand pressed lightly over her mouth. She was staring under the truck, watching the man kick a circular path through his own blood, watching the other one with the hole in his chest, the one who had brought his wife Karen to Willis' parties.
She started shaking.
"Get the hell out, Ralph." I grabbed the cell phone from him, then, with much greater hesitation, traded it with Miranda for the .38 Wesson. "You just killed a cop. An Avalon County deputy, but still a cop. Miranda goes too—Miranda makes the call to Schaeffec, neither of you were ever here."
Ralph's face hardened. The lenses of his glasses gleamed solid yellow. He rubbed his thumb along the safety catch of the .357. "That's too bad, vato."
"No," I said.
But I couldn't stop it. Ralph crouched just low enough for the shot. The muzzle blast flared, illuminating the underside of the truck. The man who had been kicking a circle in his own blood stopped kicking. A new red pattern, less circular, began seeping into the asphalt around his head.
I counted three very long seconds. Miranda crouched next to us, stone still. Her face had the dazed, unhappily sated look of someone who was just realizing that she'd overdone it at the banquet table.
Ralph turned to me, gave a very small, cold smile. "Ain't standing in no lineup for Milo Chavez, vato. Lo siento."
Then he was gone, Miranda whisked into his wake and pulled along willingly or no, and I didn't have the luxury of thinking.
There had been a third shot. Jean Kraus would be coming out.
It had been almost twenty years since I fired a gun. I moved five feet to the left and turned, lifted above the lip of the loading dock just enough to see and fired a round toward the roof, roughly in the direction Sheck and Kraus had been standing. Sheck was still there, but now partially crouched behind a large wooden crate. Kraus was twenty feet closer to the entrance. When I fired he almost fell over himself backtracking. I didn't have time to notice if Milo was still breathing.
I ducked and moved toward the side steps of the loading dock.
I yelled, "Sheckly! Two men are down out here. The police have been called. We've got about three minutes to work this thing out."
Miranda and Ralph had disappeared through the gates. There were no sirens. Yet.
A huge drop of rain caught me on the nose, forcing me to blink. Inside it was silent until Sheckly let out a strained noise, a poor imitation of a laugh. "You just don't give up, son, do you? You think I'm gonna stop to sign ole Milo's papers right now I'm sorry—I'm a little busy."
I was at the top of the steps now, my body flat against the wall just outside the entrance.
"You wanted Chavez shot?" I called. "Was that your idea? If I was you, Sheck, I'd put some distance between myself and Kraus right now."
I crouched, looked in, and nearly got my head shot off anyway. Kraus had targeted effectively. I fired back stupidly, ineffectually into the air and ducked around the corner again. My hand was already numb from the recoil. The smell of primer was in my nose.
God, I hate guns.
In my third snapshot look I had noticed a few new things. There were rows and rows of large cylinders stacked upright just behind Kraus. Each was about seven inches in diameter and five or six feet high, wrapped in brown paper and capped on either end with plastic, like huge canisters for architects' drawings.
The other thing I noticed was Sheckly. He had been standing again, making no attempt to find cover. And he wasn't staring at the entrance, looking for me. He was staring at Milo Chavez's chest. Chavez's hand had fallen away from the shoulder and was now limp at his side. That was not good.
Jean Kraus called out, "There is nothing we can't discuss, Mr. Navarre." His voice was collected, genial, a little too loud to be trusted. "Your friend needs a doctor's attention, I think. Perhaps we should call a truce."
"Go on, Navarre," Sheckly called. "Get out of here."
"Let's discuss it," I called. "Like Kraus says. Did he tell you about the thirteenyearold French boy he killed? Kraus discussed his way out of that one real well. I imagine he'll do the same here—get safely to another country and leave you with the wreckage and the bodies, Tilden. How does that sound?"