We got married in a thunderstorm. That should’ve been my first warning.
The Southwest Craft Center courtyard was festooned with white crepe paper. The tables were laden with fresh tamales, chips and salsa. Cases of Shiner Bock sweated on ice in tin buckets. The margarita machine was humming. The San Antonio River flowed past the old limestone walls.
Maia looked beautiful in her cream bridal dress. Her black hair was curled in ringlets and her coppery skin glowed with health.
The guests had arrived: my mother, fresh from a tour of Guatemala; my brother, Garrett, not-so-fresh from our long bachelor party in Austin; and a hundred other relatives, cops, thugs, ex-cons, lawyers—all the people who had made my life so interesting the past few decades.
Then the clouds came. Lightning sparked off a mesquite tree. The sky opened up, and our outdoor wedding became a footrace to the chapel with the retired Baptist minister and the Buddhist monk leading the pack.
Larry Cho, the monk, had a commanding early lead, but Reverend Buckner Fanning held steady around the tamale table while Larry the Buddhist had to swerve to avoid a beer keg and got blocked out by a couple of bail bondsmen. Buckner was long retired, but he sure stayed fit. He won the race to the chapel and held the door for the others as we came pouring in.
I was last, helping Maia, since she couldn’t move very quickly. Partly that was because of the wedding dress. Mostly it was because she was eight and a half months pregnant. I held a plastic bag over our heads as we plodded through the rain.
“This was not in the forecast,” she protested.
“No,” I agreed. “I’m thinking God owes us a refund. ”
Inside, the chapel was dark and smelled of musty limestone. The cedar floorboards creaked under our feet. The crowd milled around, watching out the windows as our party decorations were barraged into mush. Rain drummed off the grass so hard it made a layer of haze three feet high. The crepe paper melted and watery salsa overflowed off the edge of the tables.
“Well,” Buckner said, beaming as if God had made this glorious moment just for us. “We still have a holy matrimony to perform. ”
Actually, I was raised Catholic, which is why the wedding was half-Buddhist, half-Baptist. Maia had not been a practicing Buddhist since she was a little girl in China, but she liked Larry the Buddhist, and the incense and beads made her feel nostalgic.
Buckner Fanning was the most respected Baptist minister in San Antonio. He also knew my mom from way back. When the Catholic priest had been reluctant to perform the ceremony (something about Maia being pregnant out of wedlock; go figure), my mom had recruited Buckner.
For his part, Buckner had talked to me in advance about doing the right thing by getting married, how he hoped we would raise our child to know God. I told him we hadn’t actually talked to God about the matter yet, but we were playing phone tag. Buckner, fortunately, had a sense of humor. He agreed to marry us.
We were a pretty bedraggled crew when we reassembled in the old chapel. Rain poured down the stained-glass windows and hammered on the roof. I glanced over at Ana DeLeon, our homicide detective friend, who was toweling off her daughter Lucia’s hair. Ana smiled at me. I gave her a wink, but it was painful to hold her eyes too long. It was hard not to think about her husband, who should have been standing at her side.
Larry the Buddhist rang his gong and lit some incense. He chanted a sutra. Then Buckner began talking about the marriage covenant.
My eyes met Maia’s. She was studying me quizzically. Maybe she was wondering why she’d agreed to hook up with a guy like me. Then she smiled, and I remembered how we’d met in a bar in Berkeley fifteen years ago. Every time she smiled like that, she sent an electric charge straight down my back.
I’m afraid I missed most of what Buckner had to say. But I heard the “I do” part. I said the vow without hesitation.
Afterward, we waded through the well-wishers: my old girlfriend, Lillian Cambridge; Madeleine White, the mafia princess; Larry Drapiewski, the retired deputy; Milo Chavez, the music agent from Nashville; Messieurs Terrence and Goldman, Maia’s old bosses from the law firm in San Francisco; my mom and her newest boyfriend, a millionaire named Jack Mariner. All sorts of dangerous rain-soaked people.
We ate soggy wedding cake and drank champagne and waited for the storm to pass. As Maia talked with some of her former colleagues, Garrett cornered me at the bar.
My brother was wearing what passed for wedding garb: a worn tuxedo jacket over his tie-dyed T-shirt. His scraggly beard and poorly combed hair looked like a wheat field after a hailstorm. His tuxedo pants were pinned up (since he didn’t have legs) and he’d woven carnations through the spokes of his wheelchair.
“Grats, little bro. ” He lifted his plate of tamales in salute. “Good eats. ”
“You congratulating me on the tamales or the marriage?”
“Depends. ” He belched into his fist, which was for him pretty darned discreet. “What you got planned for the honeymoon?”
Right then, my internal alarms should’ve been ringing. I should’ve backed away, told him to get another plate of tamales and saved myself a lot of trouble.
Instead, I said, “Nothing, really. Maia’s pregnant, you may have noticed. ”
Garrett waved his hand dismissively. “Doing nothing for your honeymoon don’t cut it, little bro. Listen, I got a proposition. ”
Maybe it was the joyous occasion, or the fact that I was surrounded by friends. Maybe it was just the fact that it was raining too hard to leave. But I was in the mood to think well of my brother.
I would have plenty of time to regret that later. But that afternoon, with the rain coming down, I listened as Garrett told me his idea.
He got to the cemetery at sunset, drove around it twice to make sure there was no surveillance. He doubted there would be, but he’d learned to be paranoid.
The sky was blood red. Corpus Christi Bay glowed like metal on the forge. The old cemetery had iron gates and limestone markers, the oldest worn smooth by storms and Gulf winds.
He found the graves with no effort: one large, two small, lined up cozily on a knoll, enjoying the million-dollar view. Like they come to watch fireworks, he thought.
He knelt and ran his hands along the names, as if that would erase them.
The top of the smallest tombstone was lined with seashells: a cockle, an Easter oyster, a blood ark. He’d spent years collecting shells like these along the Texas coast. He’d dug them out of the sand, let the ocean wash them clean, held them up to the sunlight and admired the pattern of their veins.
Had the child liked seashells? He didn’t know.
He’d never even met them.
The mother’s obituary picture had run in the newspaper. Her smile had seemed so familiar, the dates of her birth and death. Cold had gripped him as he realized what he’d done.
He’d caused this. And now there was no way to bring them back.
The only thing he could do was make amends. If he had the courage.
He took something from his pocket: a tiny sugar skull, grinning and blind. He crushed the skull and dropped it on the mother’s grave.
A flash from the bay caught his eye—a rich man’s yacht coming in for the night. The afternoon had been beautiful, as unexpected as yesterday’s storm. Forecasters were optimistic about a nice weekend. The bad weather was supposed to skirt around them. But he knew better. A bigger storm was on the way.
He watched the yacht disappear behind the fishing piers. The Texas coast had always protected him. However far he roamed, he always came back here, putting his feet in the water, hoping it would wash away his t
But maybe not this time.
Sunset. He had to catch the evening ferry.
He took one last look at the tombstones, lined up so peacefully, long evening shadows pointed toward the sea. Then he turned to leave. The island was waiting.
For a guy who was rumored to have killed six men in cold blood, Jesse Longoria looked downright pleasant.
He stood on the dock of Rebel Island as if he’d been expecting us. A jovially plump Latino in his mid-fifties. Smile lines crinkled around his eyes. He wore a gold A&M college ring, a navy blue summerweight suit with his U. S. Marshal’s badge pinned to the lapel and a satisfied expression as if he’d just enjoyed a stroll with a beautiful woman.
“Tres Navarre,” he said. “If I were you, I’d get back on that boat. Now. ”
Wind buffeted the dock. Maia was supervising the hotel manager taking our bags off the ferry. Garrett was setting up his wheelchair. We’d just endured a twenty-minute ride from Aransas Pass through choppy seas and I was tempted to throw up on the marshal’s shoes.
“What brings you here, Longoria?” I asked. “Collecting seashells?”
“I don’t need your interference, son. Not this time. ”
Thunder crackled over the Gulf. Storm clouds were piling up, turning the air to a wet stew of salt and electricity.
The hotel manager lumbered over with our bags. He stopped when he saw Longoria’s hand resting on his sidearm. “Uh, problem, gentlemen?”
“There was,” I said. “Two years ago. Never found the body, did they, Longoria?”
The marshal’s eyes glinted. “I heard you quit detective work. ”
“Sure. Didn’t you get an invitation to the retirement party?”
He stepped so close I could smell the lemon starch sweating out of his clothes. “Who hired you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Longoria. I’m here on my honeymoon. ”
I pointed behind me. Maia and Garrett were just coming up the dock—Maia eight and a half months pregnant, Garrett a bilateral amputee.
Funny, Longoria didn’t look too convinced by my honeymoon story.
“Hey, Marshal,” the hotel manager said. I tried to remember his name. Chris Something-or-other. He was a former pro surfer, tan and well-built, but I doubted he’d dealt with many conflicts worse than deciding what kind of beer to buy on the mainland. “Mr. Navarre isn’t—I mean, they have a reservation, sir. They’re friends with the owner. ”
Longoria seemed to weigh his options. The ferry was already pulling out for Aransas Pass. The next boat wouldn’t come until tomorrow afternoon. That meant he could shoot me, throw me off the dock or leave me alone. I’m sure the first two options had their appeal.
“Bad storm coming,” he told me. “I’d make it a one-night honeymoon and get off this island. ”
Then he turned and headed toward the hotel, the first few splatters of rain making buckshot patterns on the boards at his feet.
“Old friend?” Maia asked.
“Something like that. ” I looked at Garrett accusingly.
“Hey, little bro, you can’t blame me for that. Is there any place in Texas where you don’t stumble across some cop you’ve pissed off?”
He had a point. Besides, there were plenty of other things I could blame my brother for.
We followed the hotel manager up the clamshell path toward a place I had sworn never to revisit.
Rebel Island was a mile long. Most of that was a thin strip of beach and cordgrass that stretched north like a comet’s tail. The southern end was half a mile wide—just big enough for the lighthouse and the rambling old hotel that had once been home to the island’s most infamous owner.