Big Red Tequila (Tres Navarre #1)

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05.03.2019

I tried Lillian’s studio and got Beau Karnau instead. At first he pretended not to remember me. Finally he admitted that Lillian was not in.

“When do you expect her?" I asked.

“Day after tomorrow."

I was silent for a moment. “I don’t think I got that."

“Yes you did, " Beau said. I pictured him smirking—it wasn’t a pretty image. "She went on a buying trip to Laredo, left a message on the studio machine this morning. I might add it’s the least she can do after stabbing me in the back like she’s doing."

“Yeah, you might add that, mightn’t you?"

“The least she can do. Drops everything in my lap, thinks she can actually make a living—"

He had more to say but I put the receiver down on the ironing board. He might be talking to himself for hours before he figured out I was no longer there. When my mind started aching this bad I knew it was time to abuse my body instead. I put on running shorts and a Bay to Breakers T-shirt, then headed down New Braunfels toward the Botanical Center. The really hot part of the day was yet to come, but after two miles I was drenched in sweat. I found a little stand that sold coconut paletas and bought one, letting the icy chunks of fruit slide down my throat as I sat in the shade of a pecan tree near the entrance to Fort Sam Houston. I stared across at the army base, wondering if Bob Langston was in there somewhere, laughing about a prank call he’d made to me last night. I hoped that was the case.

When I got back to Queen Anne the phone was dead from being off the hook so long. Evidently Beau had finally got tired of his own voice. I put the receiver back in the cradle.

I did push-ups and crunches, then decided to tackle cleaning the kitchen. The memory of Bob Langston lived on in the fruit keeper of the refrigerator, where several black bananas had turned into oblong mounds of mush. He’d also left two sandwich bags filled with some kind of meat slices, congealed in what I assume had been a barbecue sauce. Not even Robert Johnson was interested.

The place was looking almost clean by that evening when the phone rang.

“I’m very close to being pissed off," Jay Rivas said. “In fact, I’m downright perturbed, Navarre."

"I’m not a qualified therapist," I warned him. “Maybe there’s some kind of inferiority complex for incompetent bald fat men with large mustaches."

"Or maybe there’s some kind of asshole who keeps smearing his shit all over town where I have to step in it."

I sighed. "Do you have a point to make, Jay?"

He blew smoke into the phone. "Yeah, kid, I got two points. First, yesterday evening you assault a young man whose family is heavyweight on the Chamber of Commerce. Said young man will not press charges, otherwise you and I would be having this chat in person right now. Second, I hear about you digging for information on a ten-year-old murder, bothering people who have better things to do than help you come to terms with your fucking manhood."

I counted to five before answering. "You’re talking about my father’s murder. I think I’ve got a right to know."

“You had a right to know ten years ago," Rivas shot back. "Where the fuck were you when it mattered?"

There were a lot of things I wanted to say to that, but I waited. Finally Rivas swore under his breath.

“Look, Navarre, let me save you some time. On the record, nobody can prove who whacked your old man, okay? You’re not going to get the goddamn case files, but if you did, that’s what they’d tell you. Off the record, it’s no big secret. Your dad spent the last two years of his life putting thumbscrews on the mob in Bexar County. It’s one of the few things he did well. The mob finally hit back. Nobody can prove it; everybody knows it. That’s the short and shitty truth, and after all this time nobody’s going to do any time for the killing. So unless you got some indisputable reason why this case needs to be looked into again, which you don’t, and the goodwill of the SAPD, which I promise you you don’t, then you lay off. Go marry your high school sweetheart and get a nice job teaching college somewhere, but stay the hell out of my sight."

He hung up.

I stared at the wall for a while, seeing Jay Rivas’s face. I thought about Lillian’s sudden trip to Laredo, the way our reunion wasn’t quite going as I’d planned, the way Maia Lee had sounded on the phone, and the way people kept sending me these loving phone calls. When I put my fist through the Sheetrock, I missed the stud by less than an inch. I think it surprised me more than it did Robert Johnson. Clearly unimpressed, he stared up at me from his nest of freshly unpacked clothes on the futon. I checked for broken knuckles.

“Ouch," I told him.

Robert Johnson got up and stretched. Then he showed me the kind of sympathy I was used to. He left the room.

11

Yielding to Robert Johnson’s hungry cries Tuesday morning, I walked to Leon "Pappy" Delgado’s grocery on the corner of Army and Broadway. The rest of the block had gone up for lease years ago, but it restored some of my sense of universal justice to see Pappy’s Christmas lights still blazing around the pink doorway of his dilapidated adobe storefront.

My father, always suspicious of any store larger than two thousand square feet, had been a patron of Pappy’s for years, but since I had spoken no Spanish when I left San Antonio and Pappy knew little English, we had never said a word to each other beyond "Buenos tardes".

He was amazed, maybe a little suspicious, when I started talking to him en Espanol. He rubbed his paddle-shaped nose, perplexed, then gave me a crooked grin.

“San Francisco," he said. “You talk just like my wife’s brothers now, Senor Tres."

As I searched in vain for Robert Johnson’s brand of food, Pappy told me about his seven boys and two girls. The youngest had just had her confirmation. The oldest was in the Air Force now.

I looked in my wallet after paying for my two small bags of food. It was a sobering moment.

"So what are you doing back in town, Senor Tres?" asked Pappy.

“It would seem," I said, "that I’m looking for a job."

"Always need counter help," Pappy said, grinning. I promised to keep it in mind.

Back at home, I found the list of leads Maia had given me and starred making calls. After an hour on the phone, I had talked to a dozen voice mail services, one receptionist who couldn’t spell my name but was free on Saturday night, and two personnel directors who promised not to throw my résumé in the trash if I mailed it in.

"And you say you’re a paralegal?" the last man on the list asked me. He had graduated from Berkeley with Maia.

"Not exactly."

"Then—what is it that you do?"

"Research, investigation, I’m bilingual, English Ph.D., martial artist, congenial personality."

I could hear him tapping his pencil.

"Maia employed you for what, then—discussing literature? Breaking arms?"

"You’d be surprised how few people can do both."

"Uh-huh." His enthusiasm was not overwhelming.

"Do you have a Texas P.I. license, then?"

"My work for Terrence & Goldman was more informal than that."

"I see—" His voice seemed to be getting farther and farther away from the receiver.

"Did I mention I was a bartender?"

To prove it I started giving him the recipe for a Pink Squirrel. By the time I got to the sugar on the rim he had hung up.

I was taping over the hole in my wall and pondering my limitless job opportunities when Carlon McAffrey called from the Express-News.

"Shilo’s," he said. "One hour. You’re buying."

When I got there at one o’clock the little downtown deli was still packed with businessmen gorging themselves on the pastrami and rye lunch special. The air was so thick with the smell of spiced meats you could get full just breathing it.

Carlon waved at me from the counter. He’d put on at least twenty pounds since I’d seen him last, but I could still recognize him by his tie. He never wore one with fewer than twelve colors. This one had enough pastel to repaint half the West Side.

He smiled and pushed a thick manila envelope across the counter toward me.

“When the mole people start digging they don’t mess around. I got everything, even some copy from the Light. We inherited most of their archival material when they went defunct."

The first thing I pulled out was a picture of my dad, taken the last year he had campaigned for sheriff. Those gray, mischievous eyes stared back at me from under the rim of his Stetson. He had an amused look on his face.

I always wondered how anyone could see a photo like that and willingly vote this man into public office. Dad looked like the quintessential third-grade class clown, only older and fatter. I could imagine him cutting off little girls’ ponytails with his school box scissors, or throwing spitwads at the teacher’s back.

The counter waitress came by. I decided to skip the lunch menu and go straight for Shilo’s cheesecake, three layers thick, any of which by itself would’ve been the best cheesecake in the world. I ate it while I skimmed through the rest of Carlon’s envelope.

There were lots of headlines about my dad’s last big project in office—a multi-department sting operation against drug trafficker Guy White that had eventually gone down as the most expensive failure in Bexar County law enforcement history. According to the articles, the case against White was finally thrown out of court on a ruling of entrapment, just weeks before my father’s murder. Dad won lots of friends on the federal level by telling the press that the FBI had botched the whole operation.

There was an ongoing series of "guest editorials" from the Light written by another of my father’s great admirers, Councilman Fernando Asante. He blasted my father for everything from abuse of police power to poor taste in clothes, but mostly Asante focused on the Sheriff’s opposition to Travis Center, a proposed hotel-tourist complex for the southeast side of town. Back in ’85 Asante was making Travis Center the centerpiece of his first campaign for mayor—pushing the idea that the complex would generate tourist dollars in the poor, largely Hispanic section of the city. My father opposed the project because it would require the annexation of county lands, and more importantly because it was Asante’s idea.

Then there was a report on the fall ’85 election results, which Dad didn’t live long enough to see. The voters showed a healthy sense of humor by voting against Asante for mayor five to one but approving his Travis Center bond initiative by a landslide. Now, ten years and umpteen million dollars later, Asante was still just a councilman and Travis Center was finally complete. I’d seen it from above on my plane’s final approach-a huge bulbous structure, hideously painted pink and red, cutting a gash in the hills on the edge of town like a giant flesh wound.

Finally there were stories about the assassination. There in black and white were all the front page headlines I had nightmares about, plus pages of follow-ups I’d never had the stomach to read. The murder scene, the investigation, the memorial services—all reported on in microscopic detail. Several articles talked about Randall Halcomb, the closest thing to a real suspect the FBI ever discussed in public. An ex-deputy, Halcomb had been fired by my dad for insubordination in the late seventies, then arrested in 1980 for manslaughter. Halcomb was paroled from Huntsville a week before my dad’s murder.