Chich stood. He wiped his clothes, wiped his mouth. He didn't seem to notice he was smearing blood. Finally he got back into his chair.
Ana said, "Ralph—"
Ralph raised his hand, gesturing for patience. "So, ese, you want to tell us what you been up to?"
Chich crossed his forearms, pressed them against his stomach to stop the bleeding. The gesture didn't hide the fact that he was shaking. "I'll fucking kill you, man."
Ralph checked the revolver's chamber, spun in a round, aimed the gun at Chich's head.
"Me and some of my men," Chicharron started, "we were following Hector around. We were there last night. We didn't kill nobody."
"I'm telling you. Hector and me done business together for years. I had some questions over the last month or so, but I wasn't looking to kill him."
Ralph kept the gun leveled. "What kind of business?"
Chich's look of hatred dissolved momentarily in pain. He chewed his lip, pressed his bloody forearms against the cloth of his shirt. "Jesus, man, put the damn gun down. Four or five years, Hector's been a steady customer — a key or two a month. Mostly black tar."
A kilo of black-tar heroin, depending on how it was cut, how far north it went, could bring anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000.
"Hector moved the stuff through RideWorks?" I asked.
Chich glared at me, then squeezed his eyes shut, rocked a little bit. "You're that asshole from the Poco Mas."
"Answer his question," Ralph said.
"I don't know how Hector moved the smack," Chich said. "I got my suspicions about RideWorks, but Hector's a friend. He pays on time, wants his privacy, I respect his business."
"Which is why you were following him in your white van, why you're here the day after he died, going through his desk."
"Hector'd been doing some strange shit. I was getting a little curious. Last month, he doubled his order — got two extra keys of heroin, wanted it on credit. Man's money's never been a problem before, so I said sure. He's an old friend. But that was four weeks ago and I ain't seen no money yet. Then I see him at the Poco Mas Wednesday night with this asshole—" He nodded courteously to me. "And I'm starting to get a little nervous. Last night, I shadow Hector and watch him make this meet out on Palo Blanco. While me and my boys are waiting, thinking about what to do, boom — gunshots inside. By the time we get inside and check it out, there's two bodies. Mara's dead. Your buddy Berton's bleeding like a pig. Looks like they got in a little discussion that went bad, I figure maybe it's over my stuff. But there's no heroin, no money around that we can see. Then you drive up, and we decide it's best to hit the road. So you tell me. You answer my question — where's my fucking stash?"
Ralph grinned, looked at me. "I ain't happy yet, vato. You happy?"
Chich made a shaky sound that might've been a laugh. "I'm going to tell some of my friends in the big league, Arguello. I'm going to mention that an asshole named Arguello's been threatening me, throwing fans at me. What do you think my friends would do, man?"
Ralph jacked the hammer on the .38. "I think they'd have you replaced in twenty-four hours."
Chich's eyes went blank. "I don't know nothing else."
Ana DeLeon asked, "You see Sanchez since he was back in town, Chich?"
He shivered, trying a little too hard to focus on her. "Once. Nothing to do with the chiva. Him and me were cool. Zeta was just looking for his old lady, you know?" Then Chich looked at DeLeon more closely. "W-wait. I recognize you. You're—"
"This is my girlfriend," I told him. "You recognize her, we're going to have us a problem."
Chich kept looking at DeLeon, probably wondering if he had a card he wanted to play. Apparently he decided against it. "I didn't have nothing to do with Mara getting drilled. That's the truth."
"You're making me sad, ese," Ralph told him.
Chich raised his bloodied hands, placating. Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by footsteps, crunching in the dirt outside. An African American kid, maybe fifteen, stopped at the bottom of the running board and looked up into the shack, surprised to find a crowd. The kid's hair was long and nappy, his eyelids tattooed in blue like an Egyptian's, his clothes ripped camouflage and black heavy-metal gear. He had his hands full of car stereo parts.
Ralph said, "Come on up."
The kid got to the doorway, saw there was no room to go farther, then noticed Ralph's gun. The kid looked at Chich.
Chich mumbled, "This ain't a good time, Paul."
Ralph stepped toward the kid, tapped the stereo parts with the .38 barrel. "The man's right, Paul. How much you figure for all this?"
Standing next to Paul, I caught the distinct smell of aerosol fumes on his clothes. Looking into Paul's eyes I could see where those fumes had gone. His pupils had a bleary but steady glow, as if whatever brain cells still worked behind them had fused into one singular, misshapen energy source.
Paul said, "Twenty-five dollars."
Ralph laughed, then said to Chich, "Big spender. No wonder you and Hector such big leaguers."
From his coat pocket, Ralph took a business card and a few folded twenty-dollar bills and offered them to Paul. Paul dropped his stereo parts instantly and took the money.
"Next time come visit my Culebra location, vato," Ralph told him. "We do you right. In the meantime, hold this."
Ralph handed the kid Chich's .38. "Point this at him and count to a hundred, okay? You remember how to count that high? He moves, shoot him, come find me, I give you a bonus."
Paul nodded enthusiastically. Chich tensed.
"Good kid," Ralph commented. "See you around, Chich."
We left. Chich was trying to convince the kid that Ralph didn't really mean for him to shoot, not really. Paul was counting aloud.
We walked out the entrance of the scrap yard.
The walruses were back to playing their dominoes. Except for the crusted blood on the right one's face, the bloodstained bandanna he was sometimes using to dab it with, the men didn't look at all different.
They tried very hard not to look up as we walked out, across the street to Ralph's maroon Cadillac, which had miraculously had its windows washed.
"Life kicks ass," Ralph told us.
It wasn't until we were several blocks away that Ana DeLeon pounded her palm against the back of Ralph's headrest, jolting the joint out of his hand.
Ralph cursed. "What's the matter with you, chica?"
"You didn't have to do any of that back there, you asshole."
Ralph couldn't look back at us and stay on the road. He squinted indignantly at the traffic on Zarzamora.
"Draw blood. Play machismo. If you were trying to impress me, you failed."
Ralph's face darkened to a dangerous red. "You think I did that to impress somebody?"
"Either that or you're too stupid to ask questions another way."
Ralph and Ana started cursing at each other in Spanish — the usual names, the usual insults. I considered opening the car door and rolling onto the pavement. I figured my chances of living might be better.
Instead I yelled, "Knock. It. Off!"
The insults died down. Ana held up her hands, then dropped them, like she was throwing her disgust on the floor.
Ralph retrieved his joint, lit up, blew the smoke thoughtfully at the windshield. "De volada."
"Bullshit," DeLeon spat.
"That's how you got to live, Ana. I'm telling you — from the will. You think about things, plan them out too much, do them for reasons like impressing people — shit, you last maybe three days on the streets. You been out too long. You've forgotten."
"The hell I've been out. I've been right there, you shit-head. I've seen your de volada. I see it about six times a week, every time one of the homeboys gets shot to death."
Ralph waved the comment aside. "They froze up — the ones who stay loose, live."
"You see me breathing here, chica?"
"Yeah. And for how much longer?"
"Sour grapes, Ana. You still mad at me for the wrong reasons."
She started to respond. I took her hand and clamped it, hard.
Ana fumed, called Ralph some more Spanish names under her breath. We drove for a few blocks.
"Were you prepared to kill Chich back there?" she asked, more subdued now. Ralph blew a line of smoke.
"You don't get it. I didn't think that way. It wasn't like — okay I'll do uno, dos, tres. I feel what I got to do first and I do it. Then I see what happens next."
"You're saying you can't control yourself."
Ralph laughed, glanced back at me. "Vato, I shouldn't have tried, should I? No point explaining."
I didn't answer. Ana's hand in mine was as tense as a coiled snake.
"Where to next?" I asked Ralph, hoping to steer us somewhere else, someplace that might not lead to a gun-fight in the car.
"I got a few more ideas," Ralph said.
"More ideas like Chich?" Ana put as much disdain into the words as they could hold.
"What?" Ralph growled. "You afraid of finding out more about me, chica?"
"If I'd told you at the start—" Ralph began.
"You would've saved me a lot of time." Ana sank back in her seat and turned her hand so that it was gripping mine. Her fingernails dug into my knuckles.
Ralph's face stayed a block of sandstone for a good five minutes — which is, I think, the longest I'd ever seen him go without emotion.
Then he spoke in a voice that was cut from the same hard material.
"Twenty-eight and a half days," he told the windshield. "That ain't a lot of time. It ain't even enough."
There's just no stopping the momentum of a perfect day.
None of Ralph's other leads worked out. There was no word on the street about who had shot George and Hector Mara. No white vans. Nobody willing to confess. Nobody demanded that Ana kiss me to prove she was truly my girlfriend.
After riding in complete silence back to the North Star Mall Boots and mumbling good-byes to Ralph, Ana DeLeon and I drove back to my place in her car.
It was dusk, and the facade of 90 Queen Anne was losing definition. You could almost imagine the house in its heyday, back in the 1940s, when the wooden trim had been unbroken, the paint new, the bougainvillea clipped around the eaves. It had probably been one of the finer places in Mancke Park — the home of a banker, perhaps, or a prosperous merchant. The only thing that spoiled the illusion was the backward slant of the building, the way it had succumbed over the decades to gravity and bad foundation work. There were many days, like today, when I could relate.
On the curb was a black Honda Accord I didn't recognize, but I didn't think much of it. The Suitez family across the street was throwing a party, as they often did, and there were plenty of cars I didn't recognize. It wasn't until Ana looked at the Accord, cursed, then looked at my front porch and cursed some more, that I noticed Detective Kelsey.
He was sitting alone on the main porch of 90 Queen Anne, sipping a glass of iced tea that had probably been provided for him by my landlord, Gary. Gary is quite hospitable to people who come by to abuse me.