He switched his phone to answering service. He radioed dispatch and put himself in the field. Then he put the car in drive.
He circled Travis Square and parked across the street from San Fernando Cathedral.
The man Etch wanted to see was doing business in front of the cathedral as usual. He was leaning over the portable cooler on his ice cream bicycle, offering a strawberry paleta to the girl who sold T-shirts at the souvenir stand.
At the end of the block, a beat cop was eating lunch on the hood of a pickup truck. A bored security guard lounged in front of the Catholic Family Center.
Hernandez didn’t think they would recognize him. It didn’t matter, anyway. This was his city, his territory. He could talk to an old collar if he wanted to.
He punched a request into his laptop, printed out some information. Then he got out of his car and walked across Mission.
“Titus,” he called.
Titus Roe had been grinning at the T-shirt seller, but his smile evaporated when he saw the lieutenant.
Roe was grizzled and lanky, with a face like crocodile leather—all greasy bumps and hard lines. He wore a red flannel shirt rolled up at the sleeves to show his garden of flower tattoos—marigolds, roses, bluebonnets and cacti.
“Hi, uh . . . sir.”
Roe’s discomfort pleased Etch. He had warned the ex-con never to address him by name.
The T-shirt seller backed away. She was Latina, young and pretty, a little heavy on the mascara and hairspray. Just out of high school, probably, but Etch figured she could still sense the police aura. He was used to this effect on people—like he had some mildly frightening disfigurement that kept others from getting too close.
“I’m an old friend of Titus’s,” Hernandez told her. “Come on, Titus, pray with me.”
He put an arm around Roe’s shoulders and led him toward the cathedral.
Inside, San Fernando smelled of candles and newly hewn limestone. The recent renovations had taken the eighteenth-century mildew out of the air.
Hernandez wasn’t used to the changes. The cathedral had been falling apart before, sure, but it had been familiar—the city’s deepest taproot, an institution a year older than George Washington. Now the sanctuary felt raw, too open, too bright.
Up front, choir members were practicing a Christmas carol for tonight’s Las Posadas celebration. A scattering of parishioners prayed in the pews. Hernandez and Roe slipped into the back row by the sacristy, where a bank of votives glowed.
“I almost had a date, man,” Roe whined. “You know how long I’ve been working on her?”
“Work on her later,” Etch told him.
Roe laced his hands together. “Who you looking for?”
Roe squirmed. “What? I’ve been cooperating, Lieutenant. Shit—you know I have.”
True, Titus had given him some good leads over the years. Once upon a time, Titus Roe had been well connected, one of the busiest, if not best, assassins who worked locally.
He’d done two years in Floresville State for assault, but the only time Etch had a clear shot at busting him for capital murder, he’d let Titus go.
The hit had been a drug lord on the East Side—not exactly a loss to society. By sheer luck, Etch had found the murder weapon, tied it to Roe beyond a reasonable doubt, then set the evidence aside after explaining to Titus that it could come back anytime if he failed to cooperate. Since then, Titus had been a valuable informant.
“The Franklin White murder,” Etch said.
“Aw, hell, Lieutenant. I didn’t have shit to do with that. You think I’m crazy?”
Etch ignored the question. Of course, Roe was crazy. “You got any idea who did it?”
Roe’s eyes drifted toward the front of the cathedral, where the choir was singing “Adeste Fidelis.”
“Um . . . none,” Roe said. “None.”
“People are looking into it,” Etch said. “Last week, Sergeant DeLeon. Now other people are stirring things up.”
Roe’s eyes narrowed. “And?”
“Maybe the person who did the crime should be nervous.”
He offered Roe the slip of paper he’d printed out.
Roe read the information. He moistened his lips, stared at the crucifix above the altar. “Lieutenant . . . what exactly do you want?”
“Loose ends are difficult, Titus. That old gun of yours, for instance—if it should ever be found, come to the attention of the DA . . .”
Titus shivered. “I’m trying to go straight, Lieutenant. If this is some kind of test—”
“It’s absolutely a test, Titus. I need a solution. I need to retire next month, understand? And when I do, your problems retire with me. You’ll have nothing to worry about but selling paletas and dating the T-shirt girl.”
“You can,” Etch told him. “You’ve got no choice. Now memorize that paper and light a candle with it, you understand?”
Etch left him in the pew. When he looked back, Titus Roe was praying almost as if he meant it.
ETCH DROVE NORTH.
He passed Hildebrand, turned into Olmos Park, past Guy White’s mansion on Contour. A mile further into the basin, he passed the wooded ridge above the dam where Lucia and he had once sat talking, the whole city spread below them, bloodred in the sunset.
Cops weren’t supposed to fall in love on the job. They weren’t supposed to break the law, or hate criminals, or kill, either.
Etch had tried to follow the rules.
He’d failed miserably.
After Lucia died, he’d thrown himself into the career track. He made lieutenant, just like she said he should.
The higher he rose in the department, the more he realized that professional ethics were like Kevlar vests. Cops wore them only because they were required to. They were supposed to be good for you, but what beat cop hadn’t slipped off the damn vest once in a while, just to get rid of the scratchy hot confinement?
Etch vowed never to forget what had happened to Lucia.
He’d do whatever he had to. The truth could never come out.
He drove across the dam and parked downhill on the utility road.
Late afternoon, the sky was dark and cloudy. Cold seeped into the car the moment he cut the engine. Through the trees, he saw the deck of the house, the windows glowing large and yellow like the eyes of an enormous predator.
He got out of his car and opened the trunk.
IN AN ALLEY BEHIND SAN FERNANDO Cathedral, Titus Roe opened his ice cream cooler.
He moved aside boxes of banana paletas until his fingers hit cold metal—the Colt .45 he had promised himself never to use.
He unfolded the paper Lieutenant Hernandez had given him and read the information again. Two addresses. One in town, one in Austin. The car’s make and color, with a license plate. A bad printout of a driver’s license photo and the woman’s name.
He folded the paper and put it back in his pocket.
He looked up at the rose window.
Retirement, he thought. One month and the bastard will stop hounding me.
He decided to start with the local address, go from there.
He muttered a silent apology to God and to the woman he didn’t even know.
ETCH HERNANDEZ UNLATCHED THE LONG BLACK case and assembled the pieces.
He tried the scope, saw nothing for a moment but fuzzy leaves. Then he readjusted the lens and saw Jaime Santos standing on his porch, still drinking his atole and watching the clouds.
How could the old man stand the cold?
Go inside, Etch thought.
But the old man stood his ground.
Santos had sold out an officer. He would be dangerous in court. Whatever happened now was his own damn fault.
Etch murmured Lucia’s name. He was hollow, nothing else inside him except her memory.
He lined the X-hairs on the old man’s chest, and exhaled as he squeezed the trigger.
“ARE YOU SURE THIS TIME?” I ASKED.
“Yeah,” Ralph said from the front seat. “That’s the bastard.”
Nothing is more embarrassing than siccing the mob on the wrong person. Ralph’s eyesight may have been laser-corrected, but thirty minutes ago at the Poco Mas Bar he’d mistakenly identified a burly Latino with a peroxide red buzz cut as one of the thugs who’d jumped him the night before.
We’d unleashed Madeleine White and watched the alleged thug get reduced to hamburger meat over the hood of the limo. The whole time, he swore up and down he didn’t know anybody named Zapata. Finally Ralph realized we’d screwed up.
We left the poor dude sixty bucks for a new shirt, called an ambulance and scrammed.
Now, after three more conversations with my street friends and several twenty-dollar bribes, we were parked across Roosevelt Avenue from Mission San José, watching another burly redheaded Latino order a burrito at Taco Shack #3. The dilapidated look of the place made me wonder what had happened to Taco Shacks #1 and #2. I imagined they were turning into fossil fuel in the sedimentary layers below.
I squirmed in my new black suit.
A hot shower with scented soap and designer shampoo hadn’t changed the feeling that I’d washed myself in grease, using a mobster’s bathroom. My borrowed silk slacks were too tight in the crotch. The shirt collar was stiff with starch. Sitting in the back of the limo with Madeleine White, I felt like I was on my way to the mafia prom.
“Too many people around,” Madeleine said, scoping out the scene. “I don’t want more blood on the car.”
“Sensitive type, aren’t you?” I asked.
She glared at me like she was about to kick me in the face again.
Now that I realized who she was, I couldn’t take her seriously.
I remembered her, all right. Frankie’s little sister.
When I’d known her before, she’d been a ten-year-old kid with a dirty blond ponytail, a shrill voice and painter’s pants decorated with Magic Markers. She always had bruises on her arms from getting into fights with her classmates. She used to sit in the bleachers during football practice and throw tennis balls at me. The coach never had the nerve to run her off because of her dad’s reputation. Frankie called her the Brat.
Now, she must’ve been pushing thirty, but she looked closer to twenty. Proof positive she had Guy White’s genes.
She didn’t stick out her tongue anymore, but her I-hate-you expression hadn’t changed.
“Listen,” she told me, “I don’t care if we draw attention. I’m not the one running from the police.”
I wished I had a good comeback, or maybe just a better way of tracking down Johnny Shoes.
Unfortunately, Madeleine’s plan was the best one we had. She’d said looking for Zapata’s men would be easier than looking for the man himself, and she was right. When it came to moving around and avoiding detection, Zapata was slightly more paranoid than your average Third World dictator.
“What was that martial arts style you used on me earlier, anyway?” I asked her.
Ralph and I exchanged looks.
“Hell,” I said.
As far as I knew, Shen Chuan was the only native Texas martial arts system. It was also a hard damn style to defend against. It was taught in the East Texas piney woods by one extremely good, extremely unconventional sensei.