Mission Road (Tres Navarre #6)

Chapter 7

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“He’s on speed or something. We mentioned sending him back to Missouri and he went ape-shit on us. I know you were in SWAT and all . . .”

The young detective’s eyes were pleading. His voice verged on panic, which played Kelsey just the right way.

Kelsey smiled like a sadist anticipating a bar fight. “Miss Lee, if you’ll excuse me.”

The moment he was out of the room, Maia moved around DeLeon’s desk and read the note on her corkboard.

White——Timing is wrong.

Santos—ME——retired

2107 Dunbar

864-9719

Maia simply could have memorized the information—she was good at that—but some instinct made her peel the note off the board, along with the photo of Lucia DeLeon and Etch Hernandez.

This is crazy, she decided.

But she slipped the photo and the note into her coat pocket. She moved another picture to cover the blank space—the photo of Ralph and Ana and their baby at the zoo.

Another wave of nausea swept over her, leaving her shivering and weak-kneed against the sergeant’s desk.

Last night, she had come so close to telling Tres what was wrong with her. Now he was on the run, protecting a murderer.

Damn him.

She should’ve left Tres where she found him, tending bar in Berkeley. The most impetuous thing she’d ever done: slipping a business card across the bar to a guy she barely knew, just because he had beautiful green eyes and a smile that doubled her heart rate.

You might make a good investigator, she’d told him. Give me a call.

Fifteen years later, her judgment was still rotten. She’d quit her job in San Francisco, moved to Austin to be closer to him, left everything behind. She would do anything to help him. But when it came to making responsible choices, he was hopeless.

Ralph Arguello embodied everything Maia resented about Tres’ hometown—dangerous, suffocating roots that had been pulling Tres away from Maia as long as they’d known each other. She’d almost lost him once before, when he’d first moved back to Texas. Now, when she needed his full attention more than ever . . .

If she’d told him the truth last night, what would he have done?

An explosion of voices from the cubicle area brought her back to the present.

“Hell—he’s got my—”

“Damn it!”

Sounds of scuffling, something heavy thrown against a cubicle wall. Then a bruised and bloody elf, now armed with the young detective’s Glock, burst into the office, Kelsey and two other detectives close behind.

Maia’s reflexes were slow. Before she knew what was happening, the elf was behind her, his arm clamped around her waist, the gun at her throat.

“Back off!” the elf screamed at the cops. “Back the hell off!”

The elf’s breath was sour and warm against her cheek. The muzzle of the Glock dug under her jaw. But at that moment, Maia was more scared of Kelsey. He had his pistol trained on the suspect, just an inch to the right of Maia’s ear. She saw no thought of negotiation in his eyes. No concern for her safety. He was hesitating only because he wanted a nice clean shot.

Maia grabbed the elf’s arm around her waist. She dug her thumb into the acupressure point at his wrist.

He screamed, his muscles loosening from the shock to his nervous system.

She drove her elbow into his ribs. He buckled forward and she rammed his head into the desk. He crumpled to the floor, the gun clattering onto the carpet.

The cops went slack-jawed.

“Gentlemen,” she said shakily. “If you’ll excuse me . . .”

They parted for her like a bead curtain.

Halfway through the homicide division, Kelsey caught up with her. “Counselor.”

His face was a beautiful shade of pomegranate. “What was—how did you . . .”

She took a shaky breath. “We have no further business, Detective. If I communicate with my client, I will advise him of our conversation.”

Kelsey looked at her as if reappraising her value. He rubbed the old scars on his fingers. “I didn’t tell you the deal, Miss Lee. Forty-eight hours.”

“Until?”

“Until the DNA test results from the Franklin White case are made public. Until we release the fact that Ana got shot because she was about to name her husband as prime suspect.”

“You wouldn’t.”

His expression stayed deadly serious. “This time Monday morning, Counselor. Navarre has that long to bring me Ralph Arguello. After that, believe me, I won’t have to worry about bringing Arguello to justice, or anybody who’s helping him. Guy White will take care of our problem for us.”

Chapter 4

RALPH AND I SPENT A COLD SLEEPLESS NIGHT WITH SOME transients under a bridge on West Main.

The homeless guys decorated a Christmas tree with beer cans. They roasted pecans over a trash can fire, tried to remember the words to “We Three Kings” and kept asking Ralph if he had the DTs because of the way he was shaking.

I tried talking to him about Ana and the Frankie White case. I told him Ana would be okay. We had other options besides running from the police.

I might as well have been talking to the transients’ shopping cart.

Ralph stared into the flames, every once in a while muttering the Rosary in Spanish, as if trying to draw ghosts out of the heat.

THE FIRST TIME I’D MET RALPH was also my first real experience with Frankie White. We were all juniors at Alamo Heights High School. Ralph got jumped by three Anglo linebackers outside a convenience store because he’d flirted with one of their girlfriends. I was on the football team, too, but I never liked unfair fights. I jumped in on Ralph’s side. He and I kicked some ass. One of the linebackers happened to be an overgrown blond preppie named Frankie White.

In typical Ralph fashion, he became friends with both Frankie and me after the fight. I was never sure what Ralph saw in Frankie, but I understood Frankie’s fascination with Ralph. Ralph was completely unintimidated by Frankie’s mobster family ties. No one in San Antonio had ever had the guts to punch Frankie in the face.

Several months later, Ralph invited Frankie and me to dinner at his house for the first time.

The Arguello family lived in a crumbling white adobe cottage on the wrong side of McCullough, ten feet from the train tracks. The skeet club’s shooting range was behind the back fence.

The tiny rooms were packed with a horde of smaller Arguello siblings, cousins and nephews whose names I could never keep straight. The extended family, Ralph informed me, lived with Mama Arguello full-time. Most had dead or missing or apathetic parents.

Frankie White gave me an amused look, like, Can you believe this shit?

Sleeping bags filled the living room. Three dogs lounged on the sofa. The walls were cluttered with family photos and crucifixes and portraits of saints. No air-conditioning. A hundred degrees inside, with a limp breeze pushing the pale yellow curtains. Ralph’s mother stood at the stove, making tortillas by hand and cooking them on a hot plate. She kissed me, though she didn’t know me. She smelled of gladiolas and cornmeal.

If it had been me, at age seventeen, I would’ve been embarrassed by the house, my mother, the way the kids clamored over Ralph and demanded piggyback rides and quarters and arm-wrestling rematches. Especially with Frankie White there, who lived in a mansion and drove his own Mercedes. But Ralph didn’t care. He grinned at the kids, laughed, joked around. He seemed as confident as he had when Frankie and the other linebackers tried to assault him. Nothing fazed him.

At least, not until we went into the backyard to set the picnic table and found his latest stepfather (the sixth) trying to kiss Ralph’s fourteen-year-old cousin. Apparently, it had happened before, because Ralph’s voice turned to ice. “I warned you, pendejo.”

Twelve minutes later, Ralph dumped the battered stepfather half-conscious into the curbside trash can, tossed his suitcase next to him and called a taxi.

Frankie beamed like a kid at his first R-rated movie. “That was hella cool, Arguello.”

Ralph said nothing.

Back inside, his mother screamed, cried, made excuses for the bum she’d married, but Ralph just held her while she pummeled his chest. “He’s no good for you, Mama. I’ll look after you.”

When she argued money, Ralph produced six hundred-dollar bills for the week’s expenses, more cash than I’d ever seen. He told the younger kids to go back outside and set the table. He grounded his fourteen-year-old cousin to the bedroom.

By the time dinner was ready, the family’s happy chaos seemed to be restored. We ate homemade carne guisada tacos and drank Big Red while fireflies blinked across the lawn. Gunshots crackled in the summer air. Every so often a train rumbled by and made the ground shake.

Frankie White enjoyed himself immensely. He kept glancing at the bedroom window, where the fourteen-year-old cousin was watching him.

Ralph’s mother was the only one who didn’t cheer up. She stared at the citronella candle on the table as if she wished the flame would freeze, just once, into a shape she could hold.

That night under the Main Street Bridge, years later, staring at the trash can fire, Ralph reminded me of his mother for the first time.

IN THE MORNING, WE CHANGED INTO clothes from a Goodwill donation box.

We’d already ditched Ralph’s car in an H.E.B. grocery store parking lot, so we hot-wired the Chevy Impala of a former client I didn’t like very much. Then we headed downtown with my .22 pistol, six dollars and thirty-two cents between us, and very little hope of living through the weekend.

I’d managed to grab my cell phone before leaving the house, but we decided to use a pay phone on the corner of South Saint Mary’s instead. I doubted SAPD could triangulate a mobile call. According to Ana they couldn’t even figure out their own e-mail system. But there was no point taking chances.

I called Maia’s number. She was already in town. If possible, she sounded even angrier than she had the night before, when I called to let her know I was a fugitive from justice.

As she told me about her conversation with Detective Kelsey and the note she’d found on Ana’s bulletin board, a pickup full of immigrant laborers cruised past on Houston Street. The driver slowed to see if we wanted work. Ralph shook his head. The truck drove on.

“Tres?” Maia prompted.

“I heard you.”

“You’re protecting a murderer. Turn him in.”

I pinched the collar of my Goodwill ski jacket, tried to pretend the smell of mildew wasn’t coming from me. “The lead on the ME . . . ‘timing.’ What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” she said wearily. “It doesn’t matter. DNA is one of the few things you can’t argue with. That’s all they’ll need to convict.”

Something in her voice worried me. Aside from the anxiety and the anger, she sounded . . . sick. The way she sounded whenever she was forced to face her phobia about boats and deep water.

“Are you okay?”

“Of course I’m not,” she said. “You’re running from the law.”

“Look, Maia . . . Ana didn’t believe the DNA results. You could retrace her steps, find out where she was going with the investigation.”

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