Moments later, Stefan eased open the screen door and entered a small kitchen. He could see immediately that the place was occupied. Or had been very recently. Two plates and a few utensils in the dish drainer. A dishtowel tossed haphazardly across the counter. Using the towel as a glove, he opened the refrigerator and found a quart of skim milk and a small bottle of orange juice. Several containers of yogurt. There were only two other rooms. An empty living area, furnished with Peachtree Spa matching sofa and love seat and glass-topped coffee table, and a bedroom that appeared to have been vacated in something of a hurry: bedclothes strewn about, closet hanging open, hangers scattered across its floor.
And suddenly, just over his left shoulder, he felt a presence.
“Tommy?” Stefan spun around, goose bumps all up his back and a chill on his neck.
But of course that was ridiculous. Still, every hair on Stefan’s arms was standing up. Next to the bed, he spotted the phone. Like a hotel phone, it had a red flashing light that indicated a message had been left. Following the instructions adhered to the face of the phone, Stefan called in and was told by an electronic voice messaging system that there were “one new messages, eighteen old messages.” He dialed the code instructed and immediately heard Colin’s voice, shouting and distorted with anger. “Suzie, what the hell
? You sick bitch! What the fuck is wrong
with you?” Then, abruptly, a dial tone. The electronic voice announced the date of the call to be the day before Tommy had been shot. The old messages were just hang ups.
Stefan sat down on the bed, pondering the phone for a few minutes. He could only presume that Suzie had vacated the cabin before Colin had left his angry message. Without checking out too, because he didn’t believe Barbara Parks had been lying. She had seemed too pleased with herself. So, that meant two O’Connor women were missing. And nobody seemed to find their absence remarkable.
Stefan searched the cabin again, as thoroughly as he could, but still found nothing. He was carefully relocking the screen door when a big hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
He ducked and punched. Another big hand grabbed his fist and held his arm. He tried to swing his elbow into his assailant and found that arm twisted behind his back. He kicked, and a big knee pushed him hard against the side of the cabin.
“If you don’t settle down, Mr. Sanchez,” said Agent Evans into his ear, “I’ll have to tie you up.”
* * * *
“Just answer me this.” Stefan brushed paint dust from the front of his dark cotton shirt. “Do you plan on following me everywhere?”
“I overheard a report that someone was sneaking around back here, and somehow I knew it was you,” said Evans.
“Sneaking? I knocked. There wasn’t an answer. I was about to go home when you jumped me.”
Evans looked Stefan up and down. “You fall down again?”
Stefan followed Evans’s gaze to his muddied knees. “Guess I’m a little clumsy. What do you mean overheard?
“On my police scanner,” said Evans, as if everyone had a police scanner and it was only natural that they be listening to it.
“Oh, right, your police scanner. Well, I just came out here to talk to Suzie, and now I’m going home. You wouldn’t happen to know where she is?”
“I wasn’t even aware that you knew Suzie O’Connor,” said Evans. “Didn’t she marry Colin after you’d left?” He didn’t wait for Stefan to answer. “I suppose you weren’t aware that the Peachtree Spa now employs trained security guards on this property twenty-four/seven. I am familiar with some of their legal histories, and I think you’re lucky I caught you first. Have you had lunch?”
Evans’s gaze went over Stefan’s head to the parking lot and road beyond. “I think I saw a place out by the main highway.”
“That tourist trap? All they serve are salads at twenty bucks a pop.”
“Better than a bullet in your back,” said Evans cheerily. He had his hand between Stefan’s shoulder blades, pushing firmly, and Stefan was annoyed to discover that he’d been pushed halfway back to his rental car before he dug in his heels.
“Thanks, but I’m not hungry.” He planted his feet and crossed his arms, fully aware that he probably looked like a four-year-old refusing to go to bed.
Evans looked a little surprised. Stefan imagined the agent wasn’t used to people saying no.
“I’ll meet you at the house, okay?” said Stefan. “I’ll drive straight back there.”
Evans grinned incredulously. “Do you get away with this in Los Angeles?”
“Get away with what?” Stefan took out his cigarettes and lit up. “Sure. Why not? In LA people mind their own business. Makes life simpler, you know.” He dug his car keys out of his pocket. “So I’ll see you there.”
For some reason, Evans seemed inclined to believe him. Stefan climbed into his car and drove off. In his rearview mirror he could see the agent watching him all the way to the end of the street.
* * * *
Maybe Evans had simply understood that Stefan had no place to go but McDenny House. Stefan entered and found the main rooms apparently empty. Jane must be prostrate again in her own room. Jane’s presence had always so dominated McDenny House, her weakness made the place feel almost deserted. Stefan fetched bottled water from the refrigerator and wandered out to the porch. It too was abandoned and immaculate. Not a trace remained of the beverage glasses, cigar and cigarette ash, or paper plates that had littered it. He wondered if Colin’s crushed roach still nestled among the grass blades around the corner.
“There’s one in every family.”
Stefan brought out his cell phone and tried calling Samantha again. The call went directly to voice mail. He’d never been adept with the tiny buttons on his BlackBerry, but he laboriously typed a message to Sammy and sent that as well.
Then he lit a cigarette and tried not to feel anything. It was a technique he’d grown quite expert at in Los Angeles, but he found Boerne irresistible. Feelings kept sneaking through the cracks. When his phone buzzed and he saw Chet’s caller ID on the screen, he forwarded the call to voice mail. Then he sat down on the swing and buried his head in his hands.
* * * *
“Okay, without telling me the details.” Tommy held up a hand, palm out, as if to ward off those details and the mental picture they might induce. “What is the problem between you and Chet?”
“I promised not to tell anybody.”
“Okay, if you won’t tell me, I’ll ask him.”
“NO! No, Tommy, don’t. It’d kill him. He’s… It’s his mother. She’s fragile. She couldn’t take it if…if people found out.”
Fragile being what they had used to say about the mentally ill.
Tommy’s expression was serious and concerned. “I hear you at night. Walking around. It’s not fair of him to ask you to keep whatever it is to yourself.”
“I love him,” said Stefan before he could stop himself. But God, it was a relief to say it out loud. “Tommy, I…I…”
An arm around him, Tommy whispering into his hair. “I know, buddy. It’s okay.”
* * * *
The sliding glass door opened, and Agent Evans stepped out. “Mr. Sanchez.” He nodded.
Stefan waved his cigarette at the agent in greeting.
Evans approached and perched on the railing opposite the one Stefan occupied. He had a look of purpose to him.
Stefan exhaled smoke. “How was your salad?”
“Delicious, thank you.” Evans folded his arms.
“Hey, I was thinking of going out tonight, if you’re interested? We could cruise the Riverwalk.”
Evans’s mouth tightened. Anyone who had any knowledge of this area knew the Riverwalk boasted a number of gay bars. “I’d rather you waited.”
“For what? I’m not getting any younger,” said Stefan.
“Wait until you’ve gone back to LA, you horny old goat,” said Colin’s amused voice. He came around the corner. His eyes were bright red, his walk was loose and sloppy, hands in pockets, and the look he gave Evans was insolent. “Leave our special agents alone, why don’t you, Stefan?”
He poked at Stefan’s shoulder gently with his knuckles. “Just kidding.”
Stefan could smell the pot clinging to Colin’s clothing, and Evans was giving Colin a measuring look that made Stefan nervous. “Hey, old man, why don’t you and me take a walk?” he said, rising.
“Sure,” said Colin.
* * * *
“Just like old times, Stefan?” asked Colin. They were sitting on the curb in front of the house. Tommy, Stefan, Sean, and Colin had sat out here all in a row spitting watermelon seeds, eating Popsicles, watching girls, for as far back as Stefan could recall. The poured-cement pavers that led from the main sidewalk to the curb bore their initials and child-sized handprints.
Colin had been watching Stefan call Chet with a squinty-eyed knowing expression. “Some things never change, right?”
“I hope not.” Stefan had always assumed that Colin, the tagalong sibling, knew about him and Chet. Though he’d never said anything about it to him directly.
Colin nodded his head as if he understood. “Yeah, time to let it go.”
Speaking of letting it go, thought Stefan. “Colin, I hate to bring it up, but have you spoken to Suzie?”
“Nope,” said Colin, creasing and folding, creasing and folding the knee of his khaki pants, his foot jittering.
“What are you on?” asked Stefan. “Just for the record.”
“You get busted for possession, Colin, it’s going to be all over the papers, you know. Do you really think your mother needs that right now?”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” said Colin. He flipped the dark lenses down over his glasses as if he were shutting a door.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes. Finally, Colin flipped up his lenses and said, “The past couple of years, you have no idea, Stefan. It’s been cops up my ass everywhere I go,” said Colin. “Hey, speak of the devil. Here comes the fuzz.”
“The fuzz?” At the end of the block, a yellow Corvette could be seen turning the corner. Built when US Steel was the market leader and gas was less than fifty cents a gallon. The paint job was perfect; the chrome and rims gleamed. There’d been a time when the roar of that turbo engine coming up a road had had the power to make Stefan hard instantly.
Billy and Charlie pulled the package into the boat.
“What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. I think we should take it to your father.”
The boys were startled then by loud splashing and a shout.
“Hey!” cried a voice. “Hey, get off me!”
“Oh boy, it’s Georgie,” chuckled Charlie.
Sure enough, their chubby friend was hip-deep in the water, duck weed and cattails all around him as he thrashed and splashed.
Laughing, the boys paddled over to help him.
“Gee, you don’t have to laugh at me,” said Georgie, who had a large soggy green lily pad draped over his red hair.
Billy reached over and lifted it off. “What are you doing here, Georgie?”
Georgie looked indignant, though it wasn’t easy to look indignant while soaking wet. “I came to help you,” he declared.
“You going to tell me Georgie hasn’t got a crush on Billy?” Ron had chided Stefan once.
“He might have,” Stefan had said. “But he’ll never admit it.”
* * * *
Chet looked so happy, Stefan almost felt guilty.
“I’m glad you changed your mind,” Chet said, climbing out of the Corvette. “Oh. Hey, Colin.”
Chet looked younger out of uniform and in better shape. In faded jeans and an old blue-and-white baseball jersey, the exact same color as the blue in his eyes. Sleeves pushed up on beefy forearms that Stefan still remembered waking up from dreams of with a wet spot on the sheets.
“Colin, you want to join us?” asked Chet blithely.
“Where you goin’?”
“Out to the shooting club.”
Colin spoke around the cigarette dangling from between his lips. “You don’t get enough of guns at work, Chester Blain? You gotta go shoot in the air after work too?”
Chet set his hand on the hood of the car. His other hand went, as if unconsciously, to the spot on his belt where his service revolver would be. “Something like that. You coming, Stefan?”
Colin watched them get into the car. “The men with bad ties want us to stay in McDenny House,” he called to Stefan.
“Will you cover for me?”
Colin took the cigarette from his mouth and grinned. “Sure, bro. Leave it to me.”
The Corvette’s mufflers belched powerfully at the corner as they peeled out. Stefan watched Colin in the car’s side mirror, his image receding, and asked, “What’s happening with Colin?”
Chet drove like a professional. Both hands on the wheel, ten and two o’clock, eyes front and watchful. He cast a quick glance at Stefan and said, “We’ve cut Colin a lot of slack for his father’s sake.”
Stefan recalled Colin’s shaking hands, his hostile pronouncements about his ex-wife. It wasn’t like the mellow pothead he’d known a decade ago. “What drugs is he into now?”
“I hate to think. Some asshole reporter from out of town once told me he thought Colin and his buddies were meth heads. I set him straight, believe you me. You don’t go around smearing the family of the attorney general of Texas in Boerne.”
“Was it true?” asked Stefan.
Chet’s glance flashed toward Stefan and away. “According to Suzie O’Connor. Rumor has it the family had to pay that woman a lot of money to shut her yap.”
“So where is Suzie now?”
Chet’s jaw muscle worked. “I saw a red Toyota like hers parked out by the Peachtree Spa for a few weeks, but you know how the local gossips can be. Suzie probably couldn’t go to the corner store without hearing every busybody’s considered opinion. I’m pretty sure she moved back to San Antonio, with her parents. You hungry?” He shifted into gear and pulled into the fast lane of the expressway. The rumble of the Corvette’s V8 smoothed out as the car’s acceleration approached a hundred miles per hour.
For years, Stefan had sat, terrified and silent, on the passenger side of this car while Chet tested the maximum velocity he could reach. He shut his lips together, gripped the door handle, and saved his questions for later.