“We’ll leave then.”
“I don’t think so,” the old man said. “We’ll have you as our guests tonight. And in the morning . . . we’ll talk.”
He turned and walked back toward his crowd of guests, who were getting barraged with a new round of champagne and appetizers, security guards circulating amongst them, assuring everyone they could forget the rude interruption of the escaped prisoner.
I caught Madeleine’s eye in the crowd. She appraised me coldly, then turned back to the crowd of young men who wanted her attention a lot more than I did.
“Quite a show,” Alex told me, amused. He raised one hand, and a heavyset security goon materialized at my right arm. “Virgil will show you to your room.”
I had a feeling Alex would’ve said your coffin with the same good humor.
I looked up at the balcony. A couple of other goons had already found Ralph and were marching him inside.
And Maia was gone.
MAIA DIDN’T WANT TO HOLD THE BABY.
“Just ten minutes?” Ralph’s sister pleaded. She looked like a woman who’d just crawled through a wind tunnel full of baby food. “So I can take a shower? You’re a lifesaver.”
She handed over Lucia Jr., a bundle of grunting, kicking unhappiness, then disappeared down the hallway.
If Maia were in her place, she would’ve headed out the back door and driven away.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Maia told the baby.
“Ah-ba!” Lucia Jr. complained.
Maia wondered if her head needed supporting. No, that was with younger babies. Lucia was almost a year old. She could sit up, use a cup, all of that.
Maia had been reading so many damn baby development books, hiding them in the dirty laundry hamper whenever Tres visited, but she couldn’t remember anything. Law school had been a snap compared to studying babies. Babies made no intuitive sense.
Lucia Jr. kept kicking and squirming.
Maia propped her over one shoulder, holding her by her terry-cloth-covered bottom. She got out her key chain. Babies loved keys. She put Lucia on the sofa and sat next to her and offered the keys.
“Ah!” Lucia went straight for the pepper spray canister.
“No,” Maia said. “Not that.”
She detached the pepper spray and put it in her pocket and Lucia started crying.
“Aw, come on, honey. Look, keys.”
Lucia was having none of it. She wanted dangerous stuff or nothing. She was, apparently, her parents’ child.
Down the hall, plumbing shuddered. Water began to run.
Hurry, Maia thought.
She bought a few seconds showing Lucia the handcuffs she kept in her purse. Lucia seemed to think they tasted pretty interesting.
Maia cursed herself for promising Ralph she’d stop by. The sister was clearly doing fine with the baby. But Maia hadn’t been able to resist. Maybe it was her exhaustion, her frazzled state of mind, but earlier that evening, for the first time, she’d actually come close to liking Ralph Arguello.
THEY’D BEEN STANDING TOGETHER ON THE back veranda of Guy White’s mansion. Without the glasses, Ralph looked older, weathered, like a Native American in a nineteenth-century photograph, staring across a landscape that was no longer his.
“I screwed up,” he said, “cutting Titus loose.”
Maia felt so relieved she couldn’t speak. Never mind that Titus Roe had tried to kill her. Ever since she pulled him out of his Volvo, she’d known he was as much of an unwilling victim as she. She’d been foolish to bring him to White’s house—a sure death sentence. Ralph had spared him. He’d lifted a huge weight from her conscience, and she was completely unprepared to feel so indebted to a man she so disliked.
On the lawn below, Tres was arguing with Guy White, trying to keep the old man and his henchmen from Ralph.
Maia knew Tres would stand in front of a tank if it meant saving Ralph or her.
“Hell of a way for me to repay him,” Ralph said, following her eyes. “Tres kept me going, the last twenty-four hours. I haven’t done shit but cause him trouble since high school, and he still risks his neck.”
“I don’t think Tres would see it that way.”
“Stupid bastard,” Ralph agreed. “Doesn’t matter what I do wrong, he still backs me up. Covered my ass a million times. He makes me nervous.”
Under different circumstances, Maia might’ve found that funny. Ralph Arguello, nervous of Tres.
“Did Roe tell you anything?” she asked.
“He wasn’t going to. Said to go ahead and kill him, knew he was dead either way. Two years, three years ago, I would have shot him.” Ralph leaned against the marble railing, rubbed his face with his hands. “Having a family, Maia . . . I don’t know. First day I held Lucia Jr., it was like part of me went into her. Like she tapped me out. I can’t kill people anymore. Even with Johnny Zapata, I hesitated. I kept seeing my baby. Does that make any sense?”
Maia reached over and squeezed his hand.
At the base of the steps, Guy White was not getting any happier. His men were closing ranks around Tres, like they were about to put him under house arrest.
“You need to go,” Ralph told her. “Tres and I will manage. You gotta get out before White decides you’re his guest, too.”
“I can’t leave you two.”
“Keep searching. Check on the baby for me.” Ralph looked over, and Maia was surprised by the sadness in his eyes. “I’d do anything for Tres. Used to figure he would be the one with the normal life—marriage, kids. I figured he’d have those things and I could kind of enjoy them through him.”
Ralph reached into his shirt pocket, unfolded a thin piece of printed paper, like an oversized receipt. He handed it to Maia.
One glance and she understood what it was, but she was mystified how Ralph got it.
“In Titus Roe’s pocket,” he said. “Gave it to me after I cut his ropes. He wouldn’t tell me who he got it from, but he said I’d figure it out. Said he owed me that much.”
Men were coming around the edges of the veranda now, working their way toward Ralph.
“Take it,” Ralph said. “Figure out who’s left that we can trust.”
Who’s left we can trust.
For the first time, when he used the word we, Maia realized that Ralph trusted her. He approved of her. And when he talked about Tres having a normal life, having a family, he was including Maia as a given.
She didn’t want to leave, but she knew Ralph was right. She had no choice.
She pecked him on the cheek, promised to see his child, and slipped into the mansion as Guy White’s men came to secure their disobliging guest.
THE BABY HAD THOROUGHLY SLIMED UP the handcuffs and was now checking out Maia’s knee, tiny fingers grabbing at the fabric. Her wispy hair was braided and tied with plastic clips. The front of her jumper was stitched with a seal balancing a ball on its nose.
Maia could see the DeLeon family resemblance in Lucia Jr. She looked like her namesake—dark eyebrows knit with determination, as if everything was a challenge, and by God she would beat it.
Part of me went into her.
“You like my dress, huh?” Maia asked.
The baby looked up. Her mouth was open, drooling from intense concentration. Maia traced her finger over the baby’s ear.
Ana had looked like this, in her baby pictures. Maia wondered if Lucia Sr. had sat on a couch with her, offering police paraphernalia to keep the serious little drooler quiet.
“I’m going to have one like you,” Maia told the baby. “I’m in serious trouble, huh?”
The baby watched her lips move, but offered no advice.
Lucia Jr.’s eyes reminded Maia of someone. Not Lucia or Ana or even Ralph. She tried to figure out who.
Maia thought about her picnic with Tres in Espada Park. They had watched a mother and her toddler son walking by the old waterway. The little boy stumbled along, chasing a duck with a piece of tortilla.
“Cute kid,” Maia had said.
Tres nodded, smiling at the boy’s attempt to feed the duck by throwing wads of corn tortilla at its retreating butt. The mother chased after, herding the boy away from the water whenever he strayed too close.
“Count your blessings,” Tres said. “That could be you.”
Maia wasn’t sure why he said that. Maybe because the woman was about Maia’s age, a little old for having children.
Tres and she never discussed marriage, much less having children. But last summer, during a particularly dangerous case, Tres had brought Maia a friend’s child for safekeeping. He had told his friend that she was perfect for the job. Maia had wondered, ever since then, if he’d been trying to tell her something.
Count your blessings. He sounded almost regretful.
Or maybe she was projecting.
“Hard to imagine,” she told him.
The mother and child moved on downriver. The moment passed.
But the next week, Maia forgot to get her birth control prescription refilled. She kept putting it off. She told herself it was just because she was busy.
Two weeks after, she spent the night with Tres. She told herself she wasn’t taking a risk.
She had sworn never to have children. She had sworn when she was nine years old, watching her father weep by a makeshift funeral bier.
Pregnancy itself was far from her worst fear.
And yet . . . here she was.
The faucet in the bathroom squeaked shut.
Maia tried to imagine what Lucia Sr. had felt like, in her position. An unwed mother. She thought about Ana on the day she married Ralph, how happy she’d looked despite the naysayers, the disapproving looks from her police friends.
Maia understood, for the first time, why Ana had fallen in love with Ralph. Whatever else one might say about him, Ralph was present. He was like Tres in his fierce commitment to people. Ralph had been the man in his family since he was an early teen. Maia knew that. It was impossible to imagine him being an absentee father, being an absentee anything.
She stroked Lucia Jr.’s cheek.
Something about the baby’s face still bothered her . . . some resemblance, but before she could give it more thought, Ralph’s sister came out of the bathroom, toweling her hair dry, bringing with her a cloud of jasmine-scented steam.
“Thanks a million,” she said. “I forgot how good that feels.”
Maia nodded. She picked up the baby in spite of her squirming protests and gave her a hug. She kissed her forehead.
“Cute, isn’t she?” Ralph’s sister said. “But hijo, tons of work. You got kids?”
“No,” Maia said. “No kids.”
Maia said her goodbyes. She had another stop to make.
The paper Ralph had given her was still folded into her pocket—a police printout with her name, her address, Tres’ address. Everything one would need to give instructions to an assassin.
It was high time she paid the police another visit.
THE SAPD EVIDENCE ROOM, LIKE MOST that Maia had been in, was a cold basement, perpetually lit by corpse-colored fluorescents. A chain link wall separated the outside from rows of metal shelving, cardboard boxes, trunks and refrigerators.