“Fine woman you have,” White remarked.
I said nothing.
Alex hovered behind his boss. He kept a respectful distance, but near enough to hear every word.
White accepted a glass of champagne from a waiter. He held it up, studying the bubbles as if trying to remember the taste, but he didn’t drink. “What did your lady friend expect, Mr. Navarre, bringing Titus Roe to me? Did she believe I would turn him in to the police?”
“My fault,” I said. “I have trouble sometimes, thinking like you.”
“You lost someone close to you once, Navarre.” White’s eyes were as glacial blue as his daughter’s. “As I recall, you took revenge.”
He was right. White knew many things about my past that I’d prefer he didn’t.
“That wasn’t cold-blooded murder,” I said. “And I didn’t get someone else to pull the trigger.”
White smiled. “I understand Ralph Arguello. If you believe I gave him the gun because I did not want to do the killing myself, then I think I understand him better than you.”
“You’re a bitter old man.”
He gazed across the lawn. Madeleine was down there in a red evening gown, a crowd of young men trying to gain her attention. She was ignoring them, staring up at me with a baleful look.
“I understand people, Mr. Navarre,” White told me. “We only have two choices ever. To act, or fail to act. We feel better when we act. I have confidence Ralph Arguello is a man who will feel very good tonight.”
“And if Titus Roe isn’t the man who killed your son?”
“Oh, he isn’t,” White said. “One look at him, and I was certain of that. But if there’s anything to be learned from him, your friend will find it. After that, let him get some satisfaction from vengeance. Titus Roe is worth nothing.”
“The women Frankie murdered,” I said. “Were they worth nothing, too?”
No change in White’s eyes. No remorse. My comment wasn’t even worthy of anger.
“My son didn’t mean to kill anyone. He had trouble controlling his passions. I was much like him when I was young.”
“A monster, you mean?”
“Think what you like, Navarre. It doesn’t change the fact that some people are expendable. It’s always been so. My son’s life was worth more than any of the women he took.”
Took. In the back of my mind, behind the cloud of anger, I found it an interesting choice of verbs.
“Frankie wasn’t like you,” I said. “He was broken inside. You knew exactly what he was doing to those women, and why.”
“One thing about a terminal disease, Mr. Navarre. It makes you quite conscious of wasting time. If you’ll excuse me—”
“What about your daughter?” I asked.
Down below, Madeleine was hard to miss in her swirl of red velvet, her blond hair and her angry expression. At the moment, she appeared ready to punch a young man who was trying to tell her a joke.
“Is she worth as much as your dead son?” I asked.
White set his champagne on the marble railing. His fingers trembled with rage. “I’ve done more to protect her than you can possibly know.”
“Protect her from whom? Her own family?”
“Fortunately for you, Mr. Navarre, tonight is about keeping up appearances. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have guests to greet. But be assured. When I find the one responsible for my son’s death, I will not be handing over the gun to someone else.”
He gestured at Alex to follow, then made his way carefully down the steps, where a city councilman was waiting to greet him.
Before Alex could leave, I took his arm.
“Where’s the Secret Service?” I asked. “They weren’t outside when we pulled up.”
He smiled. “I made a few calls. I explained about Mr. White’s party. Some of Mr. White’s friends applied pressure. It was agreed surveillance on the night of Mr. White’s party would be pointless. They could spare us for twenty-four hours so as not to embarrass a man of Mr. White’s stature while he entertains his guests.”
“You think of everything.”
I watched Mr. White hobble down the stairs, leaning on his silver cane. “This party was your idea, too, huh?”
Alex shrugged, trying to look modest, which immediately ruined his resemblance to Frankie. “As you heard, it’s important for people to see that Mr. White is still in charge.”
“No,” I said. “I think it’s important for you that they see firsthand how weak and old he is. And they see you walking behind him, directing him, calling the shots.”
“I help as much as I can.”
“And when the old man dies, there’s Madeleine. Marry her off to the right man, and the dynasty could be on a solid footing again.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“Unless she doesn’t want to.”
“Choices,” Alex said regretfully. “We never really get to control our own choices, do we?”
“I hope they find your corpse floating in the river someday.”
Alex clapped me on the shoulder as if we were old friends. “If you’ll excuse me, Navarre. As Mr. White said, tonight is about appearances.”
I MET MAIA AT THE BOTTOM of the landing.
She was watching the party guests circulate across the lawn, chatting and drinking and pretending they weren’t freezing their asses off.
“Why do I keep listening to you?” she asked.
“My intoxicating charm,” I guessed.
She was as beautiful as ever in a blue wool dress, her hair loosed from its ponytail, falling in a silky sheet down her back. She had a bandaged cut on her face from her gunfight with Roe. She’d arrived at the mansion not realizing she had a two-inch splinter sticking out of her cheek, just below her eye. The bandage made her look a bit like a refugee, a noblewoman fleeing a war, battling to maintain her composure
“Ralph is down there killing a man I delivered,” she said. “If he doesn’t finish the job, one of White’s men will. Tres, you have to get out of here now. With me.”
“I can’t leave Ralph.”
“Ralph’s a criminal. He belongs here.”
“Where would we go, the police?”
She looked like she was contemplating socking me in the gut. Instead, she wrapped her arms around my waist and pulled me toward her.
She was shivering.
The familiar scent of her hair made me wish I could leave with her—head up to Austin and forget everything, especially my old friend in the sauna room with the borrowed gun.
I told her about my day—Madeleine, Zapata, Sam and Mrs. Loomis. She told me about the old scrapbooks she’d looked through in Lucia DeLeon’s garage, the women Guy and Frankie White had casually destroyed, the murder of the medical examiner Jaime Santos, the fry cook Mike Flume who’d had a crush on Ana’s dead mother.
I thought about it all, trying to put the pieces together. The pieces didn’t cooperate.
I tried to stay focused on Frankie White’s murder, to imagine the nightstick that had clubbed him to death, but I kept coming back to what Ralph had told me earlier in the evening—that I had stayed away from Ralph, not the other way around.
I remembered his wedding reception. I’d stood next to Lieutenant Hernandez, watching the newlyweds cut the cake, and I’d heard him mumble, “This is a bad idea.”
As Ralph’s friend, I should’ve risen to his defense. One look at Ralph and Ana and you could tell they were in love. They shouldn’t have belonged together. Their worlds should’ve exploded on contact. But you looked at the two of them, feeding each other cake, and you couldn’t help having a sense of wonder, as if you were watching a juggling act with flaming torches—some impossible number of dangerous variables held aloft without a mishap.
I should have pointed that out to the lieutenant. Instead, I looked at his worried expression and a moment of agreement passed between us. The marriage was a bad idea.
It would never last. The pressure would be too much. Ralph would get restless. Ana would lose her job. Something would go wrong.
But really, those weren’t my objections.
The marriage changed Ralph. It changed one of the constants in my universe, and it made me wonder if I would have to change, too.
Ralph was right. That had scared the hell out of me.
A bitter wind blew through Mr. White’s party. Out on the lawn, guests moved toward the heated pavilion while mariachis belted out a ranchera version of “Silent Night.”
“I have to tell you something,” Maia said. “Something that might make a difference.”
Her tone was like the edge of a thunderstorm. It made my senses crackle. I remembered our conversation in front of the Southtown office, what seemed like a lifetime ago—the desperate look Maia had given me.
“There is something wrong,” I said.
“God, I wish I knew if it was wrong, Tres. Do you remember, a long time ago, I told you about my mother—”
She was interrupted by a woman’s scream. Down on the lawn, the crowd parted. A bedraggled, bloody man had burst from the kitchen’s service entrance and was loping across the property. He wore a torn flannel shirt and jeans, cut pieces of rope dangling from his wrists. Titus Roe.
Several of White’s security men started to converge, but the crowd worked against them. The tuxedoed guests were surging away from the man and White’s goons couldn’t very well muscle their way through. Long before they could close the distance, Roe had reached the back of the lawn and disappeared into the woods.
“I couldn’t do it,” Ralph said.
I looked back and found him standing behind me, his face pale, slick with sweat. He wasn’t holding a gun anymore.
“I know . . . he tried to hurt Maia,” he stammered. “But I told him about the kitchen entrance. I told him to run.”
I’m not sure who was more surprised—Ralph or me—when Maia threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek.
Ralph stared at her blankly. “He didn’t shoot Ana. He convinced me of that. But I knew Mr. White . . . he would’ve had him killed anyway.”
Mr. White, in fact, was standing by his buffet table down on the lawn, glaring up at us. Alex was whispering in his ear. I doubted he was advising hugs and kisses for Ralph.
I decided it was best not to wait for them to come to us.
“Stay with Ralph,” I told Maia. I headed down the marble staircase.
I intercepted White and Alex at the bottom step.
“Inside,” Mr. White ordered. “We need to discuss this.”
“Titus isn’t our guy. Ralph’s convinced.”
“Perhaps I did not make myself clear.”
“You left the choice up to him,” I said. “Isn’t that right?”
White was having too much excitement for his condition. His complexion was turning gray despite the makeup. His breathing was shallow.
Alex put his hand on his boss’s shoulder. “Let me deal with them, sir.”
White trembled with anger. He kept his cold blue eyes on me. “Mr. Navarre, I seem to have been mistaken about your friend. I do not understand him any better than I do you.”