“You could've killed us last night in the woods,” Chadwick said. “Why didn't you?”
Pérez let the silence build. The tape had left a thin red rectangle around his mouth that didn't match the square of his goatee. Finally he said, “What happened to the guy I was with—Julio?”
“Dead,” Chadwick said.
Pérez bunched his shoulders, straining against the cuffs. “He was a good man. Had a wife and kids.”
“He torched a building full of schoolchildren. Last night, he shot a fifteen-year-old boy.”
“Julio wasn't going to kill nobody. He was just supposed to pin them down, keep them busy.”
“While you killed me and got away with the girl.”
Pérez shrugged. “You surprised me. Moved too fast.”
Chadwick knew he was lying. Pérez could've had him cold. In the woods. And then again this morning, in the store.
“What about the girl?” Chadwick asked. “You mean to kill her, too?”
Pérez turned hard eyes on Mallory, who instinctively slid closer to Chadwick.
“She belongs with her father,” Pérez said. “I wasn't going to hurt her. I follow Mr. Z's orders.”
“And now?” Chadwick asked.
“What do you mean?”
Chadwick waited until he was sure Pérez wasn't faking ignorance. But his look stayed flat and steady. He really didn't know what had happened in San Francisco during his absence.
“John Zedman is missing,” Chadwick told him. “Presumed dead.”
Chadwick gave him the details, but Pérez seemed to be withdrawing into some memory of his own—some long-ago insult that could still make him furious.
“You son-of-a-bitch.” He struggled to kneeling position, his face beading with sweat from the effort. “You worked it together—you and this nigger bitch, didn't you? You killed him. Now you're gonna pin it on me.”
“Yo, Juan Valdéz,” Kindra said. “You call me ‘nigger' again, I'm gonna tape up more than your mouth. Understand?”
Pérez studied her with contempt, but he didn't try to get up. He looked at Mallory. “They killed your father, and you just stand there? You and that nappy-ass boyfriend of yours—you see what you brought down?”
“I'm going outside,” Mallory said. “I won't listen to this.”
“Yes, you will,” Chadwick said.
Her mouth trembled. She could've been six years old again, accusing a classmate of stealing her dessert.
Chadwick suppressed the urge to let her leave, to protect her from Pérez. Some instinct told him that he needed the two of them in the same room, listening to each other.
“Pérez,” he said, “the person who murdered John is the same person who blackmailed him, the same person who murdered Talia Montrose. I think you came to Texas planning to shoot me, and take the girl back to her father, but you had second thoughts. Something started nagging at you. Something told you I wasn't the right guy.”
“How the fuck you figure that?”
“Because if you didn't have reservations, I'd be dead.”
The fire cooled a little in Pérez's eyes. He sat back on his haunches, still straining against the handcuffs, but as if it were an exercise in frustration rather than getting free.
“I told Mr. Z—when he paid off Talia Montrose, I told him it wasn't her. She knew about the blackmail. She knew who it was. But she didn't have shit for leverage. Real blackmailer was somebody she was scared of.”
“Samuel Montrose is dead. It isn't him.”
“Race.” He turned on Mallory. “That goddamn punk is fractured in the head. I told you—”
“No,” Mallory insisted. “He isn't crazy.”
“You ain't got the sense to see it.”
“You said you would cut him into pieces.” Mallory's voice rose a half-octave. “He brought the gun to school because of you, and got expelled—and then his mom was murdered . . . It's all your fault. You killed her. You killed my father.”
Pérez was laboring mightily to hold his tongue. And, with a small twinge of surprise, Chadwick realized that Pérez did not hate the girl. His eyes were full of disappointment, bitterness, resentment—but not hate. Not the contempt you might show for someone you planned to kill. Pérez reminded Chadwick more of himself, in the days when he argued constantly with Katherine.
“Your dad was good to me,” Pérez said tightly. “I wouldn't hurt him. You think I'm the problem, then I pity you. I couldn't hurt him as much as you did.”
Mallory took a step back, retreating. She ran into the hay bales and sank onto Joey Allbritton's sleeping bag.
“Mallory,” Chadwick said. “Tell us what you were going to say this morning—about the person who blackmailed your father.”
“I wasn't . . .” She looked toward the barn door, as if contemplating escape, but Jones was there, silently guarding the exit. “It's just . . . the Montrose house. Katherine had taken me there before.”
“You mean before the night she died?”
“Twice before that. But the last time, the night she died—that was different.”
“She was depressed,” Chadwick said. “She was about to take her own life.”
“It was more than that.” She was shivering, her breath turning to mist as if all the cold air in the barn were condensing around her. “The first two times, she went there to see her boyfriend, Samuel. I was too young to understand it then, but I remember her smelling good—she would borrow perfume from her mother. She would smell like roses.”
Chadwick had a sudden, painful memory of Katherine, the night he picked her up from the Oakland police station—the smell in the car a profane mix of Norma's perfume and heroin smoke.
“The last time she took me,” Mallory said, “that night, she didn't wear perfume. She wasn't excited.”
“Of course,” Chadwick said. “She was clinically depressed.”
“No. That night, Katherine went for a different reason. She said she needed to talk to somebody. She never said Samuel. I think she went to see someone else, somebody who gave her the drugs that killed her.”
The silence was long enough for the tremor to reach every part of Chadwick's nervous system. “Who?”
Mallory took a quick glance at Pérez, making sure he was still bound. “Please—I don't know.”
“Your father's life may be on the line, Mallory. He might still be alive.”
“I know that. Christ, I know that.”
“Tell me what you're leaving out.”
Her eyes glittered with tears—sea-colored, like her mother's, but permanently seared with afterimages no fifteen-year-old should have.
“I don't know,” she pleaded. “Just let me go back to Cold Springs, all right? I never wanted to run. I swear to God, I want to finish Black Level. I need to go back.”
Chadwick looked at Jones. She mimed a push, a silent suggestion that he needed to back off the girl.
“So what now?” Pérez asked. “You kill me?”
Chadwick imagined giving Pérez over to the local deputies—the same deputies who had stopped Hunter on the road years ago looking for a convenient rape suspect. The same deputies who had been known to let illegal immigrants have accidents with doors, stairwells and nightsticks before turning them over to the INS.
Chadwick thought about his other options.
“You bring me in, man,” Pérez said, “you know what's going to happen. I'm gonna have to sell you to the cops. You're gonna have to sell me. You think either one of us is going to get a fair shake?”
“Put the blindfold back on him,” Chadwick told Jones. “The gag, too.”
Jones hesitated only for a moment, then she did what she was asked.
Chadwick went outside, talked to Joey Allbritton, got directions to the kind of spot he needed.
“You get what you wanted from that guy?” Allbritton asked.
“As much as I could get.”
“And you'll turn him in now, right?”
“Thank you, Joey. It was good to see you. I wouldn't mention this to anyone.”
“Good to see you, too, sir. Tell Dr. Hunter I'll come out to help with horse training anytime.”
When Mallory came out, Joey clamped his hand on her forearm.
“Chadwick will take care of you. Chadwick saved my life, okay? Trust him.”
Mallory murmured something, tried to pull away, but Joey held her.
“I mean it, black level,” he said. “Trust him.”
He let her pull away then, and she walked toward the car, stepping gingerly around rocks as if each might be a land mine.
As they drove back down the muddy road, Joey's figure got smaller and smaller, but the rising sun spread his shadow into something enormous on the barn wall.
By eight-thirty, Chadwick and Pérez were several miles away, standing in the middle of a fallow wheat field far from any major roadways. Chadwick stripped Pérez of his shoes. Then he tucked something in Pérez's T-shirt pocket. Only then did he ungag him and cut his arms free.
Pérez ripped off his blindfold. The gun in Chadwick's hand dissuaded him from taking any other liberties.
“So now you kill me?” Pérez asked.
“I advise you to walk that way, toward Fredericksburg. Be careful and polite once you get there. Avoid the local police. I put enough money in your pocket to get new shoes and a bus ticket back to Monterrey. That's where you're from, isn't it?”
Pérez's jaw tightened. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Pérez looked across the wet field, at the buzzards circling over the treetops a half mile east. “How do you know I won't come after you? Or the girl?”
“Because we're even now. And because if you give me your word you won't, you won't.”
Pérez thought about that. He dug in his pocket, pulled out the money Chadwick had gifted him. “You and the girl—you aren't safe anyway. You know that, right?”
“Go back to Monterrey,” Chadwick told him. “Start over.”
“Don't trust her, man.”
“You should hit town by nightfall. Be careful of the locals.”
Pérez looked like he wanted to say more. Then he refolded the twenties, put a new crease across Andrew Jackson's face, and stuck the cash back in his pocket. “Go with God, Chadwick. You'll need the help.”
And Chadwick left him there in the empty field, the turkey buzzards starting to circle above him hopefully.
Jones drove toward Fredericksburg like a tornado.
She swerved from a century oak a few seconds shy of crashing, cut across the edge of a field to reach the next farm road.
“This isn't L.A.,” Chadwick said over the wind.
“I can't believe you,” Jones yelled. “You just let him go.”
Jones punched the accelerator. “He puts a bullet hole in the girl's sleeve, and now I should just forget him. What is that—some kind of bullshit machismo? You try to kill each other, and suddenly he's got honor?”