Fourth of July morning, Will Stirman woke up with blood on his
He'd been dreaming about the men who killed his wife. He'd been
strangling them, one with each hand. His fingernails had cut
half-moons into his palms.
Sunlight filtered through the barred window, refracted by lead
glass and chicken wire. In the berth above, his cell mate, Zeke,
was humming "Amazing Grace."
"Up yet, boss?" Zeke called, excitement in his voice.
Today was the day.
A few more hours. Then one way or the other, Will would never have
to have that dream again.
He wiped his palms on the sheets. He shifted over to his
workspace—a metal desk with a toadstool seat welded to the
floor. Stuck on the walls with Juicy Fruit gum were eight years'
worth of Will's sketches, fluttering in the breeze of a little
green plastic fan. Adam and Eve. Abraham and Isaac. Moses and
He opened his Bible and took out what he'd done last night—a
map instead of a Bible scene.
Behind him, Zeke slipped down from the bunk. He started doing waist
twists, his elbows cutting the air above Will's head. "Freedom
sound good, boss?"
"Watch what you say, Zeke."
"Hell, just Independence Day." Zeke grinned. "I didn't mean
Zeke had a gap-toothed smile, vacant green eyes, a wide forehead
dotted with acne. He was in Floresville State for raping elderly
ladies in a nursing home, which didn't make him the worst sort Will
had met. Been abused as a kid, is all. Had some funny ideas about
love. Will worried how the boy would do when he got back to the
Will looked over his map of Kingsville, hoping the police would
take the bait. He'd labeled most of the major streets, his old
warehouse property, the two biggest banks in town, the home of the
attorney who'd defended him unsuccessfully in court.
He had a bad feeling about today—a taste like dirty coins in
his mouth. He'd had that feeling before, the night he lost
Exactly at eight, the cell door buzzed open.
"Come on, boss!" Zeke hustled outside, his shirt still unbuttoned,
his shoes in his hands.
Will felt the urge to hurry, too—to respond to the buzzer
like a racetrack dog, burst out of his kennel on time. But he
forced himself to wait. He looked up to make sure Zeke was really
gone. Then he slipped Soledad's picture out from under his
It wasn't a very good sketch. He'd gotten her long dark hair right,
maybe, the intensity of her eyes, the soft curve of her face that
made her look so young. But it was hard to get her smile, that look
of challenge she'd always given him.
Still, it was all he had. He kissed the portrait, folded it, and
tucked it into his shirt.
Something would go wrong with the plan. He could feel it.
He knew if he walked out that door, somebody was going to
But he'd made a promise.
He put the Kingsville map in the Bible, and set it on the desk
where the guards were sure to find it. Then he went to join Zeke on
After chow time, Pablo and his cousin Luis were hanging out on the
rec yard, trying to avoid Hermandad Pistoleros Latinos. The HPL
didn't like Pablo and Luis getting all religious when they could've
been dealing for the homeboys.
Luis tried to joke about it, but he still had bruises across his
rib cage from the last time the carnales had cornered him.
Pablo figured if they didn't get out of Floresville soon, they'd
both end up in cardboard coffins.
Out past the guard towers and the double line of razor wire fence,
the hills hummed with cicadas. Lightning pulsed in the
Every morning, Pablo tried to imagine Floresville State Pen was a
motel. He came out of Pod C and told himself he could check out
anytime, get on the road, drive home to El Paso where his wife
would be waiting. She'd hug him tight, tell him she still loved
him—she'd read his letters and forgiven the one horrible
mistake that had put him in jail.
After twelve long months inside, the dream was getting hard to hold
That would change today.
He and Luis stood at the fence, chatting with their favorite guard,
a Latina named Gonzales, who had breasts like mortar shells,
gold-rimmed glasses, and a wispy mustache that reminded Pablo of
"You want to see fireworks tonight, miss?" Luis grinned.
Gonzales tapped the fence with her flashlight, reminding him to
keep his feet behind the line. "Why—you got plans?"
"Picnic," Luis told her. "Few beers. Patriotic stuff, miss. Come
Pablo should have told him to shut up, but it was harmless talk.
You looked at Luis—that pudgy face, boyish smile—and
you knew he had to be joking.
Back home in El Paso, Luis had always been the favorite at family
barbecues. He held the piñata for the kids, flirted
with the women, got his cheeks pinched by the abuelitas. He
was Tío Luis. The fun one. The nice one. Wouldn't hurt
That's why Luis had to shoot someone whenever he robbed an
appliance store. Otherwise, the clerks didn't take him
"No picnic for me," Officer Gonzales said. "Got a promotion.
Won't see you vatos anymore."
"Aw, miss," Luis said. "Where you going?"
"Never mind. My last day, today."
"You gonna miss the fireworks," Luis coaxed. "And the
A hand came down on the scruff of Luis' neck.
Will Stirman was standing there with his cell mate, Zeke.
Stirman wasn't a big man, but he had a kind of wiry strength that
made other cons nervous. One reason he'd gotten his nickname "the
Ghost" was because of the way he fought—fast, slippery and
vicious. He'd disappear, hit you from an angle you weren't
expecting, disappear again before your fists got anywhere close.
Pablo knew this firsthand.
Another reason for Stirman's nickname was his skin. No matter how
much time Stirman spent in the sun, he stayed pale as a corpse. His
shaved hair made a faint black triangle on his scalp, an arrow
"Compadres," Stirman said. "You 'bout ready for
Luis' shoulders stiffened under the gringo's touch. "Yeah,
Stirman met Pablo's eyes. Pablo felt the air crackle.
They were the two alpha wolves in the gospel ministry. They could
never meet without one of them backing down, and Pablo was getting
tired of being the loser. He hated that he and Luis had put their
trust in this man—this gringo of all gringos. He felt the
weight of the shank—a sharpened cafeteria spoon—taped
to his thigh, and he thought how he might change today's plans.
His plans, until Stirman had joined the ministry and taken
He calmed himself with thoughts of seeing his wife again. He looked
away, let Stirman think he was still the one in charge.
Stirman tipped an imaginary hat to the guard. "Ma'am."
He walked off toward the basketball court, Zeke in tow.
"What's he in for?" Gonzales asked. She tried to sound cool,
but Pablo knew Stirman unnerved her.
Pablo's face burned. He didn't like that women were allowed to be
guards, and they weren't even told what the inmates were doing time
for. Gonzales could be five feet away from a guy like Stirman and
not know what he was, how thin a fence separated her from a
"Good luck with your new assignment, miss," Pablo said.
He hoped Gonzales was moving to some office job where she would
never again see people like himself or Will Stirman.
He hooked Luis' arm and headed toward the chapel, the rough edge of
the shank chafing against his thigh.
"Like to get a piece of that," Zeke said.
It took Will a few steps to realize Zeke was talking about the
Latina guard back at the fence. "You supposed to be saved,
Zeke gave him an easy grin. "Hell, I don't mean nothing."
Will gritted his teeth.
Boy doesn't know any better, he reminded himself.
More and more, Zeke's comments reminded him of the men who'd killed
Soledad and put him in jail. If Will didn't get out of Floresville
soon, he was afraid what he'd do with his anger.
He was relieved to see Pastor Riggs' SUV parked out front of the
chapel. The black Ford Explorer had tinted windows and yellow
stenciling on the side: Texas Prison
Ministry——Redemption Through Christ.
guards only let Riggs park inside the gates when he was hauling
stuff—like prison garden produce to the local orphanage, or
delivering books to the prison library. The fact the SUV was here
today meant Riggs had brought the extra sheet glass Will had asked
Maybe things would work out after all.
Inside the old Quonset hut, Elroy and C.C. were hunched over the
worktable, arguing about glass color as they cut out pieces of
Will let his shadow fall over their handiwork. "Gonna be ready on
Elroy scowled up at him, his glass cutter pressed against an opaque
lemony sheet. "You make me mess up this halo."
"Should be white," C.C. complained. "Halo ain't no fucking
"It's yellow," Elroy insisted.
"Make Jesus look like he's got a piss ring around him," C.C. said.
"Fucking toilet seat."
They both looked at Will, because the picture was Will's design,
based on one of his sketches.
"C.C.'s right," he said. "Can't have the Savior looking less than
pure. Might disappoint those kids today."
Elroy studied him.
He could've snapped Will in half, if he wanted to.
He was a former wildcatter with arms like bridge cables, serving
forty years for second degree murder. His foreman had called him a
nigger one too many times and Elroy had punched the guy's nose
through his brain. The left side of Elroy's face was still webbed
with scars from the white policemen in Lubbock who'd convinced him
to give a full confession.
"You done shown me the light, Brother Stirman," Elroy said, real
sober-like. "Can't disappoint those children."
C.C. tapped the stained glass until it split in a perfect curve
along the crack. "You both full of shit. You know that?"
Elroy and Zeke laughed.
C.C. was a nappy-haired little runt with skin like terra-cotta. He
could talk trash and get away with it partly because Elroy backed
him up, partly because he was so scrawny and ugly his bad-ass
routine came off as funny. He also worked in the maintenance shop,
which made him indispensable to Will. At least for today.
At ten o'clock, the buzzer sounded, signaling all trustees to their
jobs, the rest of the inmates back to their cells. Pablo and Luis
arrived a minute late, completing the flock.
Pastor Riggs came out of his vestry. They all joined hands for
Afterward, the Reverend went back in the vestry to write his
sermon. The trustees settled back to their work, getting ready for
the juvies' visit at one o'clock.
Will wrote notes for his testimonial. Luis and Pablo got out their
guitars and practiced gospel songs in that god-awful Freddy Fender
style they had going. Elroy, C.C. and Zeke worked on the stained
The panel would show Jesus in chains before Pontius Pilate. It was
supposed to be finished by the time the juvenile hall kids got here
from San Antonio, so they could hang it behind the preacher's
podium, but the trustees knew it wouldn't be ready. Pastor Riggs
had agreed they could work through lunch anyway. He'd seemed
pleased by their enthusiasm.
Two civilian supervisors showed up late and plopped folding chairs
by the door. One was a retired leatherneck named Grier. The other
Will had never seen—a rookie, some laid-off farmhand from
Floresville probably, picking up a few extra dollars.
Grier was a mean son-of-a-bitch. Last week, he'd talked trash to
Luis the whole time, describing different ways HPL was planning to
kill him. He said the guards had a betting pool going.
Today, Grier decided to pick a new target.
"So, C.C.," Grier called lazily, palming the sweat off his
forehead. "How'd you get two Cadillac jobs, anyway? Gospel
and Maintenance? What'd you do, lube up your nappy ass for
C.C. said nothing. Will kept his attention on his testimonial notes
and hoped C.C. could keep his cool.
Grier grinned at the younger supervisor.
Reverend Riggs was still in his vestry. The door was open,
Grier wasn't talking loud enough for Riggs to overhear.
"Good Christian boy now, huh?" Grier asked C.C. "Turn the other
cheek. Bet you've had a lot of practice turning your cheeks for the
He went on like that for a while, but C.C. kept it together.
Around eleven, the smell of barbecue started wafting
in—brisket, ribs, chicken. Fourth of July picnic for the
staff. The supervisors started squirming.
About fifteen minutes to noon, Supervisor Grier growled, "Hey,
y'all finish up."
"We talked to the Reverend about working through lunch," Will said,
nice and easy. No confrontation. "We got these kids coming this
Grier scowled. Continents of sweat were soaking through his
He lumbered over to the pastor's doorway. "Um, Reverend?"
Riggs looked up, waved his hand in a benediction. "Y'all go on, Mr.
Grier. I don't need to leave for half an hour. Get you some brisket
and come back. I'll keep an eye on the boys."
"You sure?" But Grier didn't need convincing.
Soon both supervisors were gone, leaving six trustees and the
Will locked eyes with Pablo and Luis. The Mexicans reached in their
guitar cases, took out the extra sets of strings the pastor had
bought them. At the worktable, Elroy pulled a sweat-soaked bandana
off his neck. C.C. handed him a half-moon of white glass, a feather
for an angel's wing. Elroy wrapped the bandana around one end of
it. Zeke unplugged his soldering iron.
Will got up, went to the Reverend's door.
For a moment, he admired Pastor Riggs sitting there, pouring his
soul into his sermon.
The Reverend was powerfully built for a man in his sixties.
His hands were callused and scarred from his early years working in
a textile factory. He had sky-blue eyes and hair like carded
cotton. He was the only hundred percent good man Will Stirman had
This was supposed to be a showcase day for Riggs. His prison
ministry would turn a dozen juvenile delinquents away from crime
and toward Christ. The press would run a favorable story. Riggs
would attract some big private donors. He'd shared these dreams
with Will, because Will was his proudest achievement—living
proof that God's mercy was infinite.
Will summoned up his most honest smile. "Pastor, you come look at
the stained glass now? I think we're almost done."
The old preacher went down harder than Pablo had hoped.
Riggs should have understood the point of the glass knife against
his jugular. He should've let himself be tied up quietly.
But Riggs acted outraged. He said he couldn't believe everything
he'd worked for was a lie—that all of them, for months, had
been using him. He tried to reason with them, shame them, and in
the end, he fought like a cornered chupacabra. Elroy, Pablo
and Stirman had to wrestle him down. Zeke got too excited. He
smashed the old man's head with the soldering iron until C.C.
grabbed his wrists and snarled, "Damn, man! That's his skull
Pablo took a nasty bite on his finger trying to cover the
preacher's mouth. Elroy had blood splattered on his pants. They
were all sure Riggs' yelling and screaming had ruined the plan. Any
second the guards would come running.
But they got Riggs tied up with guitar string and taped his mouth
and shoved him, moaning and half-conscious, into the corner of the
vestry. Still nobody came.
Elroy stood behind the worktable so anybody coming in wouldn't see
the bloodstains on his pants. C.C. and Zeke huddled around him,
staring at the stained glass as if they gave a damn about finishing
it. Zeke suppressed a schoolboy giggle.
"Shut up, freak," Luis said.
"You shut up, spic."
Luis started to go for him, but Pablo grabbed his shirt
"Both of you," Stirman said, "cool it."
"We got Riggs' car keys," Elroy murmured. "Don't see
"No," Stirman said. "We do it right. Patience."
Pablo didn't like it, but he got a D-string ready. He curled the
ends around his hands, moved to one side of the door. Luis took the
Stirman sat down in his chair, in plain sight of the entrance. He
crossed his legs and read through his testimonial notes. The
son-of-a-bitch was cool. Pablo had to give him that.
Pablo's finger throbbed where the pastor had bit it. The copper
guitar string stung his broken skin.
Finally he heard footsteps on gravel. The rookie supervisor
appeared with a heaping plate of ribs.
Stirman smiled apologetically. "Pastor Riggs wants to talk to you.
Prison major came by."
"Hell," said the supervisor.
He started toward the vestry and Pablo garroted him, barbecue and
baked beans flying everywhere. The supervisor's fingers raked at
the elusive string around his neck as Pablo dragged him into the
The rookie had just gone limp when Grier came in.
Luis tried to get him around the neck, but the old marine was too
wily. He sidestepped, saw Zeke's soldering iron coming in time to
catch the blow on his arm, managed one good yell before Elroy came
over the table on top of him, crumpling him to the floor, Grier's
head connecting hard with the cement.
Elroy got up. He was holding a broken piece of white glass and a
mess of red rags. The rest of the glass was impaled just below
Grier's eyes rolled back in his head. His fingers clutched his
C.C. slapped Elroy's arm. "What the hell you do that for?"
They stood there, frozen, as Grier's muscles relaxed. His mouth
opened and stayed that way.
Five minutes later, they had his body and the garroted rookie
stripped to their underwear. The rookie was only unconscious, so
they tied him up, taped his mouth, crammed him and Grier's corpse
into the tiny vestry with the comatose Reverend.
Elroy and Luis got into the supervisors' clothes. Grier's had blood
on them, but not that much. Most of Grier's bleeding must've been
inside him. Elroy figured he could cover the stains with a
clipboard. Luis' clothes had barbecue sauce splattered down the
front. Neither uniform fit exactly right, but Pablo thought they
might pass. They didn't have to fool anybody very long.
Elroy and Luis put the supervisors' IDs around their necks. They
tucked the laminated photos in their shirt pockets like they didn't
want them banging against their chests.
C.C., still in prison whites, made a call from Pastor Riggs' desk
phone, pretending he was the Maintenance Department foreman. He
told the back gate to expect a crew in five minutes to fix their
He hung up, smiled at Stirman. "They can't wait to see us.
Damn camera's been broke for a month. We'll call you from the sally
"Don't screw up," Stirman told him.
With one last look, Pablo tried to warn Luis to be careful.
He couldn't shake the image of his cousin getting shot at the gate,
his disguise seen through in a second, but Luis just grinned at
him. No better than the stupid gringo Zeke—he was having a
grand time. Luis threw Pablo the keys to the Reverend's SUV.
Once they were gone, Stirman picked up the phone.
"What you doing?" Pablo asked.
Stirman placed an outside call—Pablo could tell from the
string of numbers. He got an answer. He said, "Go."
Then he hung up.
"What?" Pablo demanded.
Stirman looked at him with those unsettling eyes—close-set,
dark as oil, with a softness that might've been mistaken for sorrow
or even sympathy, except for the hunger behind them. They were the
eyes of a slave ship navigator, or a doctor in a Nazi death
"Safe passage," Stirman told him. "Don't worry about it."
Pablo imagined some Mexican mother hearing those words as the
boxcar door closed on her and her family, locking them in the hot
unventilated darkness, with a promise that they'd all see los
estados unidos in the morning.
Pablo needed to kill Stirman.
He should take out his shank and do it. But he couldn't with Zeke
there—stupid loyal Zeke with his stupid soldering iron.
Thunder broke, rolling across the tin roof of the chapel.
"Big storm coming," Stirman said. "That's good for us."
"It won't rain," Pablo said in Spanish. He felt like being
stubborn, forcing Stirman to use his language. "That's dry
Stirman gave him an indulgent look. "Hundred-year flood, son. Wait
Pablo wanted to argue, but his voice wouldn't work.
Stirman took the car keys out of his hand and went in the other
room, jingling the brass cross on the Reverend's chain.
Pablo stared at the phone.
Luis, Elroy and C.C. should've reached the back gate by now.
They should've called.
Or else they'd failed, and the guards were coming.
In the corner, wedged between the unconscious supervisor and
Grier's body, Pastor Riggs stared at him—dazed blue eyes, his
head wound glistening like a volcanic crater in his white
Out in the chapel, Zeke was pacing with his soldering iron. He'd
done an imperfect job wiping up Grier's blood, so his footprints
made faint red prints back and forth across the cement.
Stirman pretended to work on the stained glass. He had his back to
the vestry as if Pablo posed no threat at all.
Pablo could walk out there, drive the shank into Stirman's back
before he knew what was happening.
He was considering the possibility when Zeke stopped, looking at
something outside. Maybe the lightning.
Whatever it was, his attention was diverted. The timing wouldn't
get any better.
Pablo gripped the shank.
He'd gone three steps toward Stirman when the guard came in.
It was Officer Gonzales.
She scanned the room, marking the trustees' positions like land
mines. Stirman and Zeke stood perfectly still.
Gonzales' hand strayed toward her belt, but of course she wasn't
armed. Guards never were, inside the fence.
"Where are your supervisors?" she asked.
She must've been scared, but she kept an edge of anger in her
voice—trying to control the situation, trying to avoid any
hint she was vulnerable.
Stirman pointed to the vestry. "Right in there, ma'am."
Gonzales frowned. She took a step toward the vestry. Then her eyes
locked on something—Pablo's hand. He had completely forgotten
She stepped back, too late.
Zeke crushed her windpipe with the soldering iron as she tried to
scream. He grabbed the front of her shirt, pulled her down,
Gonzales gagging, digging in her heels, clawing at Zeke's
Stirman got hold of her ankles. They dragged her into the corner
where they taped her mouth, bound her hands. Zeke slapped her in
the head when she tried to struggle.
Pablo just watched.
He was a statue. He couldn't do a damn thing.
Stirman rose, breathing heavy.
"Bind her feet," he told Zeke.
"In a minute," Zeke murmured.
He tugged at Gonzales' belt. He started pulling off her
"Zeke," Stirman said.
"What are you doing?"
Gonzales groaned—dazed but still conscious.
Zeke got her pants around her thighs. Her panties were blue.
The phone in the vestry rang.
"Zeke." Stirman's voice tightened.
Officer Gonzales tried to fight, huffing against the tape on her
Pablo wanted to help her. He imagined himself driving the shank
into Stirman's back, coming up behind Zeke, taking him, too.
He imagined the back gates opening, himself at the wheel of the
Reverend's SUV, the plains of South Texas unfolding before him,
Zeke's and Will Stirman's crumpled bodies far behind in his wake.
He just wanted to get back to his wife.
The vestry phone rang again.
"Zeke," Stirman said. "Get off her."
"Only take a minute." He was untying the drawstring of his prison
pants. His hands, arms and neck were pale sweaty animal
Pablo took a step forward.
Stirman's kidneys, he told himself. Then Zeke's
Stirman turned. He saw the shank, locked eyes with Pablo.
"Give me that," Stirman ordered.
Pablo looked for his courage. "I was just . . ."
Stirman held out his hand, lifted his eyebrows.
Pablo handed over the shank.
Stirman walked behind Zeke, who was now in his underwear,
straddling Gonzales' huge bare thighs.
Stirman grabbed his cell mate by the hair, yanked his chin up, and
brought down the shank in one efficient thrust.
It should have ended there, but something inside Stirman seemed to
snap. He stabbed again, spitting cuss words, then again, cursing
the names of people Pablo didn't know, swearing that he had tried,
he had fucking tried to forget.
Afterward, Gonzales lay with her clothes half off, her goldrimmed
glasses freckled with blood. Zeke's body trembled, waiting for a
climax that was never going to happen.
"Get the phone," Stirman said.
Pablo started. The vestry phone was still ringing.
He stumbled into the pastor's office, picked up the receiver.
"Damn, man." C.C.'s voice. "Where you been?"
C.C. said the way was clear. They'd taken down two more
guards—one at the gate, one in the watchtower. The keys to
the armory had yielded five 9mm handguns, a 12-gauge shotgun, and
several hundred rounds of ammunition. Elroy and Luis were manning
the sally port, waiting for the SUV.
Pablo put down the receiver. His hands were cold and sweaty. Some
of Zeke's blood had speckled his sleeves. He took one last look at
the bound supervisor, Pastor Riggs, Grier's body slumped at their
No other choice, he told himself.
He went into the chapel.
Stirman was kneeling next to Officer Gonzales, dabbing the blood
from her glasses with a rag. Zeke's dead arm was draped across her
waist. Gonzales was shivering as Stirman told her it was okay.
Nobody was going to hurt her.
Stirman rose when he saw Pablo. He pointed the shank at Pablo's
chin, let it glitter there like Christmas ornament glass. "I
own you, amigo. You are my new right-hand man. You
understand? You are mine."
No, Pablo thought.
As soon as they got through those gates, Pablo and Luis would take
off by themselves. They would head west to El Paso, as far from
Will Stirman as they could get.
But Stirman's eyes held him. Pablo had blown his chance.
He'd frozen. Stirman had acted. Stirman had saved Gonzales.
Pablo had done nothing.
Pablo clawed at the fact, looking for leverage. He said, "Who are
Barrow and Barrera?"
Stirman's jaw tightened. "What?"
"You were saying those names when you . . ." Pablo gestured to
Stirman looked down at the body, then the terrified face of Officer
Gonzales. "Couple of private investigators, amigo, ought to be
worried today. Now get the SUV."
Eleven minutes later, right on schedule, Pastor Riggs' black Ford
Explorer rolled out the back gate of the Floresville State
Penitentiary, straight into a summer storm that was starting to
pour down rain.
I didn't mind bounty-hunting Dimebox Ortiz.
What I minded were his cousins Lalu and Kiko, who weighed
three-fifty apiece, smoked angel dust to improve their IQ, and kept
hand grenades in a Fiestaware bowl on their coffee table the way
some people kept wax apples.
This explained why Erainya Manos and I were waiting in a van down
the block from their house, rather than storming the front
Our snitch owed Dimebox four grand in cockfighting bets. He was
getting a little nervous about Dimebox's habit of setting his
delinquent debtors on fire, and was anxious to see Dimebox in jail.
He had promised us Dimebox was staying with his cousins. He'd also
promised us Dimebox had a date with a lady tonight, and if we
staked out the cousins' house, we could easily tail him and snag
him in transit.
Six o'clock, the snitch had told us. Seven o'clock, at the
It was now 10:33.
I needed to pee.
I had an empty Coke bottle, but it isn't tempting to use that trick
when your female boss is next to you in the driver's seat and her
eight-year-old son is playing PlayStation 2 in the back. Jem wasn't
supposed to be with us. The rain had washed out his plans to see
the Woodlawn Lake fireworks with his second grade friends. That
left him nothing to do but a boring old stakeout with his
Erainya, with her usual bizarre logic about what was safe for her
child, had weighed the risks of a baby-sitter against Lalu and
Kiko's grenades, and decided to go with the stakeout. Of course,
given some of the surveillance cases we'd worked involving
baby-sitters and day-care workers, I supposed she had a
So we had the soothing sounds of Spyro the Dragon in the back seat.
We had a dark row of clapboard houses and chinaberry trees to look
at. And we had the rain, which had been alternately pouring and
drizzling all afternoon, and was now reminding my bladder of flow
I was about to suggest that we call it quits, that not even the
munificent sum Dimebox's bail bondsman was offering was worth this,
when Erainya said, "We'll wait, honey. He'll show."
The longer I knew her, the more Erainya answered my questions
before I asked them. It had gotten to the point where she could
slug me when I was even thinking about being a smart-ass.
"Little late for a date," I said.
She gave me those onyx eyes—the Greek Inquisition. "Your
payday is Friday, honey. You want a check?"
That I heard loud and clear.
The past few months, since Erainya's archrival, I-Tech Security,
had taken away our last bread-and-butter contract with a downtown
legal firm, her finances had been slowly unraveling. We'd given up
our office space on Blanco. Erainya's high-speed Internet line had
been shut off twice. Our information broker would no longer work on
credit. We were taking whatever cases Erainya could get just to
keep afloat—divorce, workers comp, bailjumpers. The dregs of
the PI business.
I'd thought about making us cardboard signs, Will Sleuth for Food,
but Erainya had slugged me before I could suggest it. I reminded
myself she had more at stake in the agency than I did.
She'd inherited the business from her husband, Fred Barrow, when he
died. Or more accurately, when she'd shot him to death for abusing
her, then been acquitted on murder charges.
This was back before I became a calming influence in her
After the murder trial, she'd disappeared to the Mediterranean for
a year, reclaimed her maiden name and her Greek heritage, and
returned to Texas the adoptive mother of a Bosnian orphan boy.
She'd taken up Barrow's PI business with a vengeance and had become
arguably the best street investigator in South Texas.
Yet she'd never done more than scrape by, no matter how
hard she worked. It was as if Fred Barrow's ghost hung over
agency, jinxing her luck. The old rivalry with I-Tech became
more and more one-sided until I-Tech dominated San Antonio,
while we survived off bounties on scumbags like Dimebox
Lately, Erainya had been taking longer vacations with her
boyfriend. She put off paperwork. She mused through old case files,
which she would close and lock in her drawer whenever I
She'd been one of the two great mentors of my career. She'd gotten
me licensed and bonded, terrorized me into good investigative
habits for the past four years. Whenever I thought of quitting PI
work and using my English PhD to find a full-time college teaching
position, which was about every other week,
Erainya urged me to stick with it, telling me I was a natural
investigator. I had a knack for finding the lost, helping the
desperate. I chose to take that as a compliment.
The last thing I wanted to admit was that I was worried about her,
that I sensed her spirit going out of the job.
So I tried to act excited about watching the Ortiz house.
Erainya polished a .45-caliber bullet. I nibbled on some of her
homemade spanakopita, which she brought by the sackful whenever we
went into the field.
I got tired of PlayStation noises and switched on the radio. We
listened to an NPR interview with an artist who turned roadkill
into paintings for New York galleries. I imagined my mother's voice
scolding me: See, dear, some people have real
mother, one of San Antonio's few card-carrying bohemians, had been
out of town for almost three months now, knocking around Central
America with her newest boyfriend, a chakra crystal salesman who
had ridiculous amounts of money. It was probably just as well she
wasn't around to lecture me on my career choices.
In the back of the van, Jem said, "Yess!"
I looked at him. "Good news?"
Delayed reaction: "Frozen Altars level. Twenty-eight eggs."
Jem kept playing. The rain battered the windows.
Jem's silky black hair was cut in bangs, same as it had been since
kindergarten, but over the past year his face had filled in
considerably. He looked like your typical San Antonio kid—a
something-percent mix of Latino and Anglo; black Spurs T-shirt,
orange shorts, light-up sneakers. You would be hard pressed to
believe that as a one-year-old he had been a Bosnian Muslim orphan,
his parents' mule-drawn cart blown apart by a land mine, his young
eyes burned with God-knew-how-many-other images of war.
"Hard level?" I asked again.
I wanted to tear the game pad out of his hands and fling it into
the night, but hey—I wasn't his dad. What did I expect the
kid to do for endless hours in the back of a van? Read?
"Yeah," he said at last. "The evil panda bears—"
"Honey," Erainya said, her voice suddenly urgent. "Turn the sound
I looked out the windshield, expecting to see some action at the
Ortiz cousins' house.
Instead, Erainya was focused on the radio. A news brief about the
prison break that afternoon—five dangerous cons on the loose.
The Floresville Five, the media had instantly dubbed
them—Will Stirman, C. C. Andrews, Elroy Lacoste, Pablo
Zagosa, Luis Juarez.
"Not a good day for the warden," I agreed. "You see the
Erainya glared at me. "Pictures?"
"On TV this afternoon. Don't tell me you've missed this."
The news announcer recounted how the cons had been left
unsupervised in a religious rehabilitation program. The five had
overpowered the chaplain, killed a guard and a fellow inmate,
driven straight through the back gate in the preacher's Ford
Explorer after stealing several handguns, a shotgun, and an unknown
amount of ammunition from the prison armory. They should be
considered armed and dangerous.
The alarm hadn't gone up for almost fifteen minutes, by which time
the cons had ditched the SUV in the Floresville Wal-Mart parking
lot and vanished, possibly in another car provided by an outside
accomplice. A map of Kingsville had been found in one of the cells,
leading authorities to believe that at least some of the fugitives
might be heading south toward the Mexican border. Police all along
the Rio Grande were on alert. The suspected ringleader of the
jailbreak, William "the Ghost" Stirman, had been serving
ninety-nine years on multiple convictions of human trafficking and
accessory to murder. Prison psychologists described him as a highly
"The Ghost," I said. "He'll be the one wearing the sheet with the
Erainya didn't smile. She turned off the radio, fumbled for her
"What?" I asked.
She dialed a number, cursed. With the storm, cell phone reception
inside the van, especially here on the rural South Side, was almost
She opened her door. The van's overhead light blinked on.
"Got to find a clear signal."
She slid outside in her rain jacket, and waded into the glow of the
only street lamp, where everybody and God could see her.
Since the day I apprenticed to her, she had harped on
me—getting out of the car while on stakeout was an absolute
no-no. You jeopardized your position, your ability to move.
Otherwise I would've peed a long time ago.
I knew only one person she might break the rules to call—her
ENT, Dr. Dreamboat, or whatever the hell his name was, whom she'd
met during a romantic prescription for cedar fever last winter and
had been dating ever since.
But I couldn't believe she would call him now.
I was pondering whether I'd have to shove a cell phone up Dr.
Dreamboat's sinus cavity when the porch light came on at the Ortiz
A heavyset man in a silky black warm-up suit stepped outside.
I tried to kill the overhead illumination, found there was no
"Owe me a quarter," Jem told me, his eyes still glued to his
"Put it on my account."
My "bad word" account was already enough to buy Jem his first car,
but he didn't complain.
I leaned and tapped on Erainya's window.
Halfway down the sidewalk, Dimebox Ortiz froze, staring in our
direction. The rain was drenching him.
You don't see us, I thought. We are
Dimebox yelled back toward the house—his cousins' names, some
Spanish I couldn't catch. He ran for his Lincoln Town Car, and I
gave up on discretion.
"Erainya!" I yelled, pounding on the driver's-side door.
She took the phone away from her ear, just catching the fact that
something was wrong as Dimebox's taillights flared to life and Lalu
and Kiko came lumbering out their front door, their fists full of
things I was pretty sure weren't wax apples.
Erainya climbed in, hit the ignition. "Jem, seatbelt!"
We peeled out, hydroplaning a sheet of water into the faces of the
Ortiz cousins, who yelled plentiful contributions to Jem's cuss jar
as they jogged after us, brandishing their army surplus door
Dimebox's Lincoln turned the corner on Keslake as the first
explosion rocked the back of our van. I looked in the rearview
mirror and saw chunks of wet asphalt spray up from the middle of
the street where our tailpipe had been a moment before.
"Fireworks?" Jem asked, excited.
"Sort of," I said. "Get down."
"I want to see!"
"These are the kind you feel, champ. Get down!"
The twins sloshed after us like a couple of rabid hippos.
Up ahead, Dimebox's Lincoln Town Car dipped toward the low-water
crossing on Sinclair.
A few hours ago when we'd driven in, Rosillio Creek had been full,
but nowhere near the top of the road. Now, glistening in our
headlights, an expanse of chocolate water surged over the asphalt.
Clumps of grass, branches and garbage piled up on the metal
guardrail. It was hard to tell how deep the water was. There was no
other road in or out of the neighborhood, even if we could turn
around, which we couldn't with Señor Dee and Señor Dum
lobbing munitions right behind us.
In the PI business, we have a technical term for getting yourself
into this kind of situation. We call it fucking up.
Dimebox's brake lights flashed as he approached the crossing.
"He won't make it," I said, as he revved the Lincoln's engine and
plunged hood-first into current.
Ka-BOOM. Behind us, the low-water-crossing sign splintered into
"He'll make it," Erainya insisted. "So will we."
I started to protest, but she'd already nosed the van into the
The sensation was like a log ride—that stomach-lurching
moment when the chain catches under the boat. Water churned beneath
the floorboards, hammered the doors. The van shuddered and began
Through the smear of the windshield, I saw Dimebox's Town Car
trying to climb the opposite bank, but his headlights dimmed. His
rear fender slid back into the torrent, crunched against the
guardrail. His headlights went dark, and suddenly the Lincoln was a
dam, water swelling around it, lapping angrily at the bottom of the
"Go back," I told Erainya.
She fought the wheel, muttered orders to the van in Greek, eased us
forward. We somehow managed to get right behind the Lincoln before
our engine died.
Our headlights dimmed, but stayed on. I could see Dimebox Ortiz in
front of us, waving one arm frantically out his window. His
driver's-side door was smashed against the guardrail. Water was
sluicing into his shotgun window.
Behind us, Lalu and Kiko were barely discernible at the edge of the
water, watching mutely as our two vehicles were trashcompacted
against the guardrail.
The railing moaned. Our van skidded sideways. The Lincoln's back
left wheel slipped over the edge, and Dimebox's whole car began to
tilt up on the right, threatening to flip over in the force of the
I grabbed Erainya's cell phone, dialed 911, but in the roar of the
flood I couldn't hear anything. The LCD read, Searching for Signal.
The water inside the van was up to my ankles.
"Rope," I shouted to Erainya. "You still have rope?"
"We have to stay inside, honey. We can't—"
"I'm getting Ortiz out of that car."
"He won't make it otherwise. I'll tie off here."
"Honey, he isn't worth it!"
Ortiz was yelling for help. He looked . . . tangled in
I couldn't tell. Nothing but his head was above water.
I looked back at Jem, who for once wasn't focused on the
"Pass me the rope behind your seat," I told him. "You're the man of
the van, okay?"
"I can't swim," he reminded me.
His eyes were calm—that creepy calm I only saw when he tried
to remember his life before Erainya, his thoughts thickening into a
protective, invisible layer of scar tissue.
I shoved him the cell phone. "It's okay, champ. Keep trying
He passed me the rope—fifty feet of standard white propylene.
I didn't know why Erainya stored it in the van. I suppose you never
knew when you'd have to tie somebody up. Or maybe Dr. Dreamboat the
ENT had strange proclivities. I didn't want to ask.
I made a knot around the steering column, a noose around my waist.
Then I rolled down the passenger's-side window and got a face full
I climbed outside, lowered myself into the current, and got slapped
flat against the van.
Up ahead, a few impossible feet, the passenger's side of the
Lincoln was bobbing in the current. I could see Dimebox Ortiz in
the driver's seat, up to his earlobes in water.
I didn't so much walk as crawl along the side of the van.
My efforts spurred Lalu and Kiko into a new round of yelling. I
couldn't make out words. Maybe they were arguing about whether they
could blow me up without hurting Dimebox.
I kept the rope taut around my waist, inching out a step at a time,
not even kidding myself that I could keep my footing. The side of
the van was the only thing that kept me from being swept
The worst part was between the cars, where the water shot through
like a ravine. When I slipped one foot into the full current, it
was like being hooked by a moving train. I was ripped off balance,
pulled into the stream. My head went under, and the world was
reduced to a cold brown roar.
I held the rope. I got my head above water, found the fender of the
Town Car, and clawed my way to the passenger's side.
The Lincoln's shotgun window was open, making a waterfall into the
Dimebox's hands were tugging frantically at something underwater.
He was craning his ugly head to keep it above the water. His face
was like a bank robber's, his features all pantyhose-smeared, only
Dimebox didn't wear pantyhose.
"Can you move?" I yelled.
He pushed at the wheel as if it were pinning his legs.
"Lalu!" he shouted. "Kiko! Push!"
Then I realized he wasn't struggling to get free. He was attempting
to start the ignition. He expected his cousins to wade out here and
give him a jump start.
"You're underwater, you moron!" I told him. "Give me your
"Fuck you, Navarre!" he screamed. "Get the fuck away!"
"Me or the river, Dimebox."
"I ain't going to jail!"
I didn't understand his stubbornness. Dimebox was up on some stupid
charge like assault. He was constantly going in and out of the
slammer, constantly jumping bail, which I guess you can do when
your bondsman is your brother-in-law. We'd bounty-hunted him plenty
of times. I didn't see why he was making such a fuss about a couple
more weeks in the county lockup.
Another metallic groan. The guardrail bent, and the Lincoln shifted
a half inch downstream. My side of the car began to levitate. For a
moment, a ton of Detroit steel balanced on the fulcrum, my armpits
the only thing keeping it from flipping.
"Now!" I told Dimebox. "Over here now!"
"Mother of Shit!" Dimebox lunged in my direction, wrapped his arms
around my neck, damn near pulled me into the car with him.
A few more seconds—an eternity when Dimebox is hugging
you—and I hauled him out the window. The Lincoln seemed to
settle with both of us pressed against it, but I wasn't going to
take any chances. We inched our way back toward the van, the rain
driving needles into my cheeks, Dimebox reeking a lovely
combination of wet sewage and Calvin Klein. On shore, Lalu and Kiko
yelled wildly, brandishing their hand grenades.
We'd just reached the van when Dimebox's Town Car rose on its side
with a huge groan, flipped the guardrail, and crashed upside down
in the creek bed, its body submerged, wheels spinning uselessly in
The guardrail bent like licorice. Our van would go next.
Erainya yelled at me, "Throw them the rope!"
"The cousins!" she yelled. "Throw it to them!"
Only then did I realize that Lalu and Kiko weren't waiting around
to kill us. They wanted to help.
Forty minutes later, after Erainya's van, Jem's PlayStation, and a
bagful of perfectly good spanakopita had been washed into oblivion
down Rosillio Creek, Erainya and Jem and I sat in the Ortiz
cousins' living room, wrapped in triple-X terry cloth bathrobes,
eating cold venison tamales and waiting for the police, who were
coming to pick up Dimebox.
The guest of honor sat on the sofa, stripped to his jockey shorts
and T-shirt, his ankles and wrists tied in plastic cuffs. He kept
muttering cuss words, and Jem kept telling him he owed us
"You okay," Kiko told me, smashing the top of my head with his paw.
"Save Dimebox's sorry ass. Put him in jail. Kiko not have t'sleep
on the couch no more."
"Won't do you any good, Erainya," Dimebox snarled. "Bounty money
won't help you worth shit, will it? We're both screwed."
"Shut up, Ortiz." Her voice was harsher than I'd ever heard it.
"Don't curse in front of my son."
"Stirman's coming. He's got plenty of friends in the county jail.
You lock me up, you're signing my death warrant."
"I said shut up."
I looked back and forth between them, wondering what I'd missed, or
if my brain was still waterlogged.
Then the name clicked.
"Stirman," I said. "The escaped con on the news."
"I ain't staying in jail," Dimebox said. "You know what's good for
you, you'll run, too."
Erainya wouldn't meet my eyes.
I remembered her reaction to the radio news, the intense, almost
frantic look she'd given me.
"What?" I asked her. "You helped put this Stirman guy away?"
Dimebox laughed nervously. "That ain't the fucking half of it,
Navarre. Not the fucking—"
Lalu whacked his fist against Dimebox's skull, and Dimebox slumped
on the couch.
Lalu grunted apologetically. "Lady wanted no cussing."
I said, "Erainya . . . ?"
She got up and stormed into the cousins' bathroom, slamming the
door behind her.
I turned to Jem, who was paying a lot of attention to the pattern
in the couch fabric. I asked him if he still had his mom's cell
I checked the readout, but the call history didn't help my
confusion. I could make a dozen guesses who Erainya might call in
an emergency, if she were truly faced with an urgent dilemma.
All my guesses were wrong.
The person she'd been so anxious to talk to when she stepped into
the storm wasn't her doctor boyfriend. It wasn't the police, or any
of our regular helpers on the street.
She'd called I-Tech Security, the direct line to the company
A man she'd sworn never to cross paths with again, until one of
them was dancing on the other's grave.
Special Agent Samuel Barrera spent breakfast trying to remember the
name of the ax murderer.
The guy had tortured and killed six illegal immigrants on a ranch
up around Castroville, left their body parts scattered in the woods
like deer corn. What the hell was his name?
Sam had a feeling it would be important in the case he was working
on. He'd talk to his trainee Pacabel when he got to the office.
Pacabel would remember.
The morning was humid after last night's downpour, just enough
drizzle to keep everybody sour-faced, staring at the gray sky,
thinking, Enough already.
Not even Alamo Street Market's coffee and migas were enough
Sam pulled on his jacket over his sidearm.
He left a ten on the table, got annoyed when the waiter called,
"Hasta mañana, Sam."
Like Sam knew the guy. Like they were old friends or something.
What the hell was wrong with people these days?
Down South Alamo, yellow sawhorses blocked the side streets.
Asphalt had come apart in huge chunks and washed away. The sidewalk
was buried in a shroud of mud.
Sam picked his way through the debris.
The last few years, people had started calling this area Southtown.
Art studios had opened up in the old barrio houses, funky
little restaurants and curio shops in the crumbling mercantile
buildings. The changes didn't bother Sam. He liked seeing life come
back to his old neighborhood. But it did make him miss the
His family home at the corner of Cedar was falling apart. He'd
owned it since his parents died, back in the seventies. He hadn't
lived there for years, but he always parked in front of it. Force
of habit. The FOR SALE was up. The real estate agent called him
every day with glad tidings. They had their choice of offers. For
this old dump. Sam never suspected he'd grown up in a Victorian
fixer-up dream. To him, it had just been la casa. Back then,
nobody lived here but the Mexicans, because this was where they
could afford to live.
He opened the door of his mustard-yellow BMW.
The car was getting old. Like him. But Sam kept putting off a
trade-in, irritated by the thought of unfamiliar controls, a
different paint job. Too much to keep track of, when you got a new
He drove north to the field office on East Houston, still thinking
about that rancher whose name he couldn't remember. He'd kept the
six illegal immigrants as slaves, killed them slowly, one at a
time. It had something to do with Sam's present case.
When he got to the FBI suite on the second floor, he walked into
the reception area and found some rookie fresh out of Quantico
blocking his way to the inner offices. "Sir, can I help you?"
Sam scowled. There was a time when he would've chewed out this
asshole for standing in his way, but Sam didn't feel up to it
today. He felt a little off. Preoccupied. "I work here,
Something disconnected in the kid's eyes. It wasn't the answer he'd
been expecting. "You have identification?"
Sam patted his jacket, where the ID should be.
Hell. Was it in the car, maybe? On the coffee table?
Held up from work by a fucking detail.
A couple of agents came out from the interior offices and sized up
Sam. One of them was an older guy—must've been nearing
mandatory retirement. He had thinning silver hair, a big nose
blazed with capillaries. Sam knew him, couldn't quite place his
"Must've left it at home," Sam told the rookie. He felt the
situation slipping away from him. "Cut me some slack."
The agents exchanged looks. By some silent agreement, the
silver-haired one stepped forward. "Hey, Sam."
"Yeah?" Sam said.
"Let's take a walk."
"I don't want a walk."
The old guy put a hand on his shoulder and steered him back toward
"You know me?" the old guy asked.
"Sure," Sam said.
"Pacabel," the guy said.
Immediately, the name slipped around him like a comfortable
"Joe Pacabel," Sam said, confident again. "Sure, Joe. Let me get to
work, will you? Tell these jokers."
Pacabel looked at the floor. Beige tiles, which seemed wrong to
Sam. It should've been carpet. Green industrial carpet.
The other agents were trying not to stare at him.
"Look, Sam," Pacabel said, the words dragging out of him.
"You're a little confused, is all. It happens."
"Joe, my case . . ."
"You've got no case, Sam."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Pacabel's eyes watered, and Sam realized it was from embarrassment.
Embarrassment for him.
"Sam, you retired from the FBI," Pacabel said gently. "You haven't
worked here in twenty years."
Halfway across town, Gerry Far was pulling dead people out of a
He hated this part of his job, but he had to help out personally.
Otherwise his employees would panic. He'd learned that from his
mentor, Will Stirman.
The driver this time was a fruit trucker from Indianapolis. This
was his first run. It was all Gerry could do to keep him from
calling the police.
"Help me with this hombre," Gerry told the trucker. "Jesus,
The smell in the truck was enough to kill—overripe mangos and
excrement and body odor. When they'd opened the trailer, the
temperature inside had been about a hundred and ten degrees.
As he hauled the big corpse over to the incinerator, Gerry did the
math. Fifty-three illegals. Three hundred dollars a head.
Twenty-one had died, but of course they'd paid up front.
The thirty-two who lived would be sold off to Gerry's
clients—sweatshops, labor ranches, brothels—to "earn
credit" for further transportation to Chicago or Houston or
wherever they dreamed of going. In reality, none of them would ever
be allowed to leave. They'd bring Gerry a sale price of two to five
hundred dollars each, possibly more for young women. That was the
beauty of the Stirman system—the illegals paid to get here,
then Gerry got paid again for selling them into slavery. Welcome to
Gerry would have to give the driver his cut, plus a little extra to
calm his nerves. There would be a hefty fee to the guy who ran the
incinerator. Still, Gerry figured he would walk away with ten grand
from this load.
He was dragging out the last body when his spotter, Luke, ran up,
looking paler than the corpses. "You hear the news?"
"What the fuck are you doing here?" Gerry said. "Watch the goddamn
"Stirman's free. Broke out yesterday afternoon."
Gerry dropped the body he was carrying. "You sure?"
Luke swallowed, held up his cell phone. "I just got the
Luke hesitated. If Gerry had been thinking more clearly, he
might've picked up on the fact that something was very wrong with
the way Luke was acting.
"Just a friend," Luke said. "Wanted to be sure you were
"Where you going?" the trucker called.
But Gerry was already fishing out his car keys, running toward his
He'd always known a life sentence wouldn't stop Will Stirman. Not
after what Gerry had done to him. But damn it—yesterday
afternoon? Why hadn't somebody told him sooner?
Gerry drove toward downtown.
He regretted what he'd done to Stirman. He regretted it every day,
but there was no going back now. He had to go through with his
He ditched the TransAm near the Rivercenter Marriott and caught a
taxi to the East Side. St. Paul Square. From there, it was a short
walk to one of his properties—a place Stirman didn't know
about. Nobody knew about it except a few of Gerry's best guys, like
Luke. Gerry could lay low there for a few days, make arrangements,
then get out of town for good, or at least until Stirman was
The property was an abandoned ice warehouse, a four-story red-brick
building that didn't have anything to recommend it—no
electricity, no water. Just a whole lot of privacy, a good vantage
point from the fourth floor to watch for visitors, and the stash
Gerry had squirreled away—a few days' worth of food,
clothing, extra cash, a couple of guns. Not much. Gerry should've
been more serious. But it was enough to get him started, to make a
He was starting to relax as he climbed the stairs. He needed a
vacation anyway. Maybe Cozumel.
At the top of the stairs, two men were waiting for him in the
A familiar voice said, "Gerry Far. Been praying for you every day,
I-Tech corporate offices looked out over the wreckage of north San
Antonio—streets pulsing with police lights, swollen creeks
turning neighborhoods into lakes. The gray ribbon of Highway 281
disappeared into water at the Olmos Basin. On the horizon, clouds
and hills boiled together in a thick, fuzzy soup.
Sam Barrera said nothing to his secretary, Alicia, about why he was
late. He hoped Joe Pacabel wouldn't call to check up on him.
He stared out at the drowned city, the streets he'd known all his
He wanted to weep from shame.
The first time he'd passed on his medication. One sorry-ass morning
he'd tried to go without the little beige pills and the goddamn
diarrhea they caused. And what had happened? A
So you got confused, he consoled himself. It could happen to
anybody. You were thinking about . . .
Something had thrown him. Something on the television. Sam made
fists, wishing he could squeeze the confusion out of his
Today was Monday. His doctor had only given him until Friday to
make a decision.
It's got to be next week, Sam. I have to insist. Think about it.
Talk to your family.
But Sam had no family. No wife, no kids. His other relatives he'd
had a falling-out with years ago, over something Sam couldn't even
remember now. He'd taken down all their pictures, stuffed them away
in the back of his closet.
He had only his work—his talent for weaving facts into
patterns, making the perfect investigation. And now, at the
unreasonable age of fifty-eight, that talent was betraying
Twenty years since he quit the Bureau . . . Hell, of course it had
He'd gone into the PI business, built I-Tech from scratch, made
himself a reputation.
He reviewed those facts in his head, tried to hold on to them, but
it was like those tests at the neurologist's office—name the
presidents in reverse chronological order, count backward by sevens
from one hundred.
The last month, work had gotten progressively harder. Case files
were now almost impossible for him to understand.
Mornings were better. He tried to finish work early, get home
before afternoon when his mind got cloudy.
But he relied on Alicia more and more. She knew something was
wrong. She'd stopped teasing him about getting absentminded in his
old age. Now, she just watched him uneasily.
Five days to decide.
He stared at his desk—a disgraceful clutter of unread
reports, notes to himself stuck everywhere. The work surface had
once been pristinely organized. Now it was deteriorating into
Across the room, a bank of televisions played security footage from
I-Tech's major accounts, along with news from the three local
The news was all disaster coverage—befuddled weathermen
predicting the second hundred-year flood in four years.
Sam doubted that's what had unnerved him.
Why should he be surprised if the town hit a century mark every
four years? He'd lost twenty years in a single morning. Time was
collapsing around him. Chronology meant nothing anymore.
He got out his Post-it notes and a pen, checked his private line
There was only one—last night, 10:48 P.M. Erainya
The name snagged on his memory as he wrote it down.
The case he was working on . . . but Joe Pacabel said there was no
Erainya Manos said they needed to talk. Absolutely urgent. Sam
would know what it was about.
But he didn't know what the woman wanted.
He stared at her phone number until something on the television
caught his attention—a reporter breaking in, a convenience
store shooting in New Braunfels. Three masked gunmen had fatally
shot a clerk, made away with several thousand dollars. Police were
investigating for a possible link to yesterday's
jailbreak—the Floresville Five. Will "the Ghost" Stirman,
four other wanted men.
A mug shot of Will Stirman filled the screen, and the world shifted
under Sam's feet.
The convict's face was gaunt and hard, like weathered marble. He
had dark, preternaturally calm eyes, and a faint triangle of buzzed
black hair. If Sam didn't know better, he would've pegged the man
as a white supremacist, or an abortion clinic bomber. His
expression suggested the same quiet confidence, the same capacity
for fanatic violence.
Sam knew this man. This was who he'd seen on television earlier.
This was the news that had shaken him.
He reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a crumpled yellow
Post-it note he'd forgotten.
In his own shaky cursive, the note read:
Stirman is free. He'll be coming. I can't go to the
Sam stared at it, then looked at the newer message from Erainya
He picked up the receiver, began to dial Erainya Manos' number,
then hung up again.
He had a bad feeling about this woman.
He had to think clearly.
Sam felt bitterness rising in his throat. It wasn't fair for life
to throw him one more problem. Not now, when he was struggling just
to get by.
But it wasn't Sam's nature to surrender. He never played defense.
The only way to survive was to plow forward, like he'd always done,
right the fuck over anything and anyone who stood in his way.
He would let Erainya Manos do the talking. She would fill in the
gaps. He had become an expert at covering his lapses that way,
letting others talk into his silence.
He couldn't remember why, but Will Stirman was lethal. If Sam
didn't handle this just right, if he didn't stay in control, he
would be destroyed.
He picked up a pen and wrote himself a new note: I'm calling
Erainya Manos. Be careful. I'm pretty sure she's my