Southtown Page 36

’’I know,’’ I said.

’’Second bedroom upstairs. Downstairs, when I was first retired, I thought about putting my PI office in here, you know? But the neighborhood was going downhil then. Bad place for a business.’’

He looked at Maia, who smiled in a daughterly way. If she was anxious about being late for her court date, she didn\'t show it. Patience was one of her great investigative assets, which explained why she was stil dating me.

’’Now they cal the neighborhood Southtown,’’ Sam told her. ’’Look at this traffic. When did the center of town move south again?’’

I needed to get Sam home. I just wasn\'t sure how to do it yet. The gun wasn\'t the hardest part. It was moving the photographs. He would get upset about that.

’’What would you charge,’’ he asked me, ’’for a job like this?’’

’’What job, Sam?’’

He waved at the photos. ’’Finding them. Putting names back to the faces. It\'s bothering me.’’

’’Look, Sam,’’ I said, ’’the folks at the office are worried about you.’’

’’My office?’’

’’Yeah. I-Tech. You were supposed to go in today and sign some papers.’’

’’I\'m retiring,’’ he said.

’’That\'s right.’’

’’Before they kick me out.’’

His eyes showed no hint of confusion just the sadness of a man who knew exactly what was happening to him.

’’Alicia and my doctor have it al planned,’’ he said. ’’I\'m supposed to sel my properties. The money wil pay for this assisted living program. They do studies with new drugs, like on rats. They say it\'s my best shot.

I don\'t want to live with a bunch of people like me.’’

’’Sam let\'s get you home.’’

’’This is my home.’’

Down on South Alamo, conjunto music played from a car stereo. The morning air was heating up, fil ed with the smel of wet magnolia leaves from Sam\'s front yard.

Sam picked up a tintype of an old Latino in a starched shirt, suspenders and a bowler. It could\'ve been Sam\'s grandfather.

Right then, I knew what I would do. I realized I\'d been thinking about it for days.

I wasn\'t excited. I figured I might as wel make myself a T-shirt that said COACH FOR LIFE on one side and KICK ME on the other side. But I knew I had to do it. I\'d never forgive myself otherwise.

I looked at Maia.

I kept looking until I thought I\'d conveyed my question right.

She hesitated, then leaned over and kissed my cheek. ’’I think I\'l strol down the block for a while, gentlemen. Nice meeting you, Mr. Barrera.’’

When it was just Sam and me, I said, ’’You want al of those people found?’’

’’Yeah.’’ Sam studied the old picture. ’’Names to faces, you know? Bothering the hel out of me.’’

’’Big job. Lot of hours, plus expenses.’’

’’I\'ve got money.’’

’’I was thinking more like a trade.’’

He scratched his ear. ’’Like what?’’

’’This house. We split it. I take the downstairs for my office, rent-free. You keep upstairs to live in.’’

He stared at me.

’’But no deal if you don\'t live here,’’ I said. ’’I want the landlord close, in case I have a problem. Plus, you know, this\'l be a private eye agency. I\'l be just starting out. I\'l expect free consultations with you.’’

Sam looked away. A group of col ege girls chatted their way down the sidewalk, heading toward the coffeehouse.

’’We got a deal, Sam?’’

’’Yeah.’’ His voice was hoarse. ’’We got a deal, Fred.’’

’’My name is Tres.’’

’’I know that, damn it.’’

’’I\'ve got to go talk to Maia Lee. You want to come with me, Sam?’’

’’No. I\'l wait here. I like the porch.’’

’’You\'ve got some cereal on your chin.’’

He brushed it off.

When I got to the bottom of the steps, he cal ed, ’’Tres.’’

I turned, surprised that he\'d remembered my name.

’’Cal the FBI for me, wil you? Tel them I\'m going to work at home today. I just got an idea.’’

’’I\'l tel them, Sam. Be right back, okay?’’

He didn\'t acknowledge me. He was too busy rearranging his photos, as if he\'d just figured out how to break the case wide open.

Maia Lee stood across the street, looking in the window of Tienda Guadalupe. She was admiring the folk art devils.

’’The one with the furry butt looks like you,’’ she said.

I told her about my deal with Sam. I got the feeling she wasn\'t exactly surprised.

’’I think I\'l buy that devil to hang on my back porch,’’ she decided. ’’By the neck, maybe.’’

’’I love you.’’

She turned toward me, gave me a long kiss. A family of tourists walked the long way around us. A couple of Chevy-cruising vatos made some appreciative catcal s.

Maia gently pushed away from me. She said, ’’I won\'t ask if you understand what you\'re getting yourself into. I know you better than that. But if you need any help with the legal stuff . . .’’

’’I\'ve stil got a hotshot attorney in Austin?’’

She looked down at the grimy sidewalk, the same brick path San Antonians had been walking since the 1800s. ’’You can\'t get free of this place, any more than Sam Barrera can. I might as wel admit that.’’

’’Where does that leave us?’’

’’Long-distance,’’ she said. ’’I\'ve got to go now.’’

’’I don\'t have a car.’’

She kissed me once more for the road. ’’You don\'t need one, Tres. You\'re home.’’

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