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Bluebird, Bluebird By Attica Locke

East Texas is not the setting I usually associate with a noirish crime thriller, but in Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (named after the John Lee Hooker song), the landscape of her ancestors is a character in itself. The sounds, the smells, the heat of Highway 59 feed into the palpable tension that Locke creates in her characters, both internally and between one another. Reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, she has written a loveletter to her home state, while simultaneously shining a light on age-old issues. Bluebird, Bluebird opens with a suspended Texas Ranger taking on a small-town double-murder case for reasons more personal than professional, and has all the hallmarks of a classic noir: the anti-hero, the complicated women, the moral ambiguity. But in the wake of Charlottesville, the complex relationship between race, justice, loyalty and love portrayed in this novel has never been more timely. This is a noir for the Trump era. JADE HUTCHINSON 

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BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD

Attica Locke

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East Texas is not the setting I usually associate with a noirish crime thriller, but in Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (named after the John Lee Hooker song), the landscape of her ancestors is a character in itself. The sounds, the smells, the heat of Highway 59 feed into the palpable tension that Locke creates in her characters, both internally and between one another. Reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, she has written a loveletter to her home state, while simultaneously shining a light on age-old issues. Bluebird, Bluebird opens with a suspended Texas Ranger taking on a small-town double-murder case for reasons more personal than professional, and has all the hallmarks of a classic noir: the anti-hero, the complicated women, the moral ambiguity. But in the wake of Charlottesville, the complex relationship between race, justice, loyalty and love portrayed in this novel has never been more timely. This is a noir for the Trump era. JADE HUTCHINSON 

Chapter:

One

Shelby County

Texas, 2016

Geneva Sweet ran an orange extension cord past Mayva Greenwood, Beloved Wife and Mother, May She Rest with Her Heavenly Father. Late morning sunlight pinpricked through the trees, dotting a constellation of light on the blanket of pine needles at Geneva’s feet as she snaked the cord between Mayva’s sister and her husband, Leland, Father and Brother in Christ. She gave the cord a good tug, making her way up the modest hill, careful not to step on the graves themselves, only the well-worn grooves between the headstones, which were spaced at haphazard and odd angles, like the teeth of a pauper.

She was lugging a paper shopping bag from the Brookshire Brothers in Timpson along with a small radio from which a Muddy Waters record, one of Joe’s favorites, whistled through the speakers—Have you ever been walking, walking down that ol’ lonesome road. When she arrived at the final resting place of Joe “Petey Pie” Sweet, Husband and Father and, Forgive Him, Lord, a Devil on the Guitar, she set the radio carefully on top of the polished chunk of granite, snapping the power cord into its hiding place behind the headstone. The one next to it was identical in shape and size. It belonged to another Joe Sweet, younger by forty years and just as dead. Geneva opened the shopping bag and pulled out a paper plate covered in tinfoil, an offering for her only son. Two fried pies, perfect half-moons of hand-rolled dough filled with brown sugar and fruit and baptized in grease—Geneva’s specialty and Lil’ Joe’s favorite. She could feel their warmth through the bottom of the plate, their buttery scent softening the sharp sting of pine in the air. She balanced the plate on the headstone, then bent down to brush fallen needles from the graves, keeping a hand on a slab of granite at all times, ever mindful of her arthritic knees. Below her, an eighteen-wheeler tore down Highway 59, sending up a gust of hot, gassy air through the trees. It was a warm one for October, but nowadays they all were. Near eighty today, she’d heard, and here she was thinking it was about time to pull the holiday decorations from the trailer out back of her place. Climate change, they call it. This keep up and I’ll live long enough to see hell on earth, I guess. She told all this to two men in her life. Told them about the new fabric store in Timpson. The fact that Faith was bugging her for a car. The ugly shade of yellow Wally painted the icehouse. Look like someone coughed up a big mess of phlegm and threw it on the walls.

She didn’t mention the killings, though, or the trouble bubbling in town.

She gave them that little bit of peace.

She kissed the tips of her fingers, laying them on the first headstone, then the second. She let her touch linger on her son’s grave, giving out a weary sigh. Seemed like death had a mind to follow her around in this lifetime. It was a sly shadow at her back, as single-minded as a dog on a hunt; as faithful, too.

She heard a crunch of pine needles behind her, a rustling in the leaves blown from the nearby cottonwoods, and turned to see Mitty, the colored cemetery’s unofficial groundskeeper. “They got batteries for them things,” he said, nodding at the small radio while steadying himself by leaning on the concrete stone for Beth Anne Solomon, Daughter and Sister Gone Too Soon.

“You send me the propane bill time you get it,” Geneva said.

Mitty was older than Geneva, nearing eighty, probably. He was a dark-skinned man and small, with two legs thin as twigs and ashy as chalk. He spent his afternoons in the small shed on the property, shooing off stray dogs and vermin. Five days a week he was out here with a racing magazine and a cheroot, watching over the gathering of souls, keeping an eye on his future home. He tolerated Geneva’s particular way of caring for the dead—the quilts in the wintertime, the lights strung at Christmas, the pies, and the constant hum of the blues. He was eyeing the sweets, reaching a finger to lift the foil for a better look. “They peach,” Geneva said, “and they ain’t got your name nowhere on ’em.”

***

The walk down the hill was always harder on her knees than the way up, and today was no different. She winced as she started toward her car, peeling off her husband’s cardigan, one of the last ones in good-enough shape to wear daily. Her ’98 Grand Am was parked on a flat of patchy grass and red dirt abutting the four-lane highway. She didn’t even get her keys out of her purse before she could see Mitty eating one of the pies. Geneva rolled her eyes. The man couldn’t even show her the common courtesy of waiting till she was gone.

She climbed into her Pontiac and eased slowly out of the makeshift parking lot, keeping an eye out for semis and speeding cars before pulling onto 59 and heading north to Lark. She rode the three-quarters of a mile to her place in silence, running through inventory in her head. She was down two twenty-ounce cans of fruit cocktail, eight heads of lettuce, syrup for the soda machine, the Dr Pepper she could never keep in stock, plus a bottle or two of Ezra Brooks whiskey, which she kept under the register for her regulars. She wondered if the sheriff had arrived yet, if the mess that had washed up in her backyard this morning was still there, that girl lying out there all alone. She had a vague worry about what all this might do to her business, but mostly she tried to comprehend what in God’s name was happening to the town in which she’d spent all her sixty-nine years.

Two bodies inside a week.

What in the devil was going on?

She eased off the highway, pulling in front of Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a low-slung flat-roofed cafe painted red and white. It had cinched curtains in the windows and a sign out front with a lit-up arrow pointing to the front door. Black-and-red letters advertised BBQ PORK SANDWICH $4.99 and BEST FRIED PIES IN SHELBY COUNTY. She parked in her usual spot, a Pontiac-size groove in the dirt along the side of the cafe, between the building’s wooden siding and the weeds in the open lot on the other side. She’d been in this location for decades, back when it was just Geneva’s, a one-room shack that had been built by hand. The paved parking spots by the gas pump were for paying customers. And Wendy, of course, Geneva’s sometime business associate. Her ancient green Mercury was stationed right in front of the door. The rusting twenty-year-old car looked like a piñata beaten past its breaking point, overflowing with old license plates, iron skillets, two wig stands, old clothes, and a small TV whose antenna was sticking out the left rear window.

The tiny brass bell on the cafe’s door rang softly as Geneva let herself in.

Two of her regulars looked up from their seats at the counter: Huxley, a local retiree, and Tim, a long-haul trucker who stayed on a Houston–Chicago route week in and week out. “Sheriff’s here,” Huxley said as Geneva passed behind him. At the end of the counter, she opened the gate that led to her “main office,” the space between the kitchen and her customers. “Rolled in ’bout thirty minutes after you left,” he said, both he and Tim craning their necks to gauge her reaction.

“Must have made ninety miles an hour the whole way,” Tim said. Geneva kept her lips pressed together, swallowing a pill of rage. She lifted an apron from a hook by the door that led to the kitchen. It was an old one, yellow, with two faded roses for pockets. “It was a whole day with the other one—ain’t that what you said?” Tim was halfway through a ham sandwich and talking with his mouth full. He swallowed and washed it down with a swig of Coke. “Van Horn took his sweet time then.”

“Sheriff?” Wendy said from her perch at the other end of the counter. She was sitting in front of a collection of mason jars, each filled with the very best of her garden. Plump red peppers, chopped green tomatoes threaded with cabbage and onion, whole stalks of okra soaked in vinegar. Geneva lifted each jar one by one, holding it up to the light and double-checking the seal.

“I got some other stuff outside,” Wendy said as Geneva pulled a marker from the pocket of her apron and started writing a price on the lid of each jar.

“You can leave the chow chow and the pickled okra,” Geneva said, “but I got to draw the line on all that other junk you trying to sell.” She nodded out the front window to Wendy’s car. Wendy and Geneva were the same age, though Wendy had a tendency to adjust her age from year to year depending on her audience or mood. She was a short woman, with mannish shoulders and an affected disregard for her appearance. Her hair was gray and pomaded into a tight bun. At least it had been tight last she combed it, which could have been anywhere from three to seven days ago. She was wearing the bottom half of a yellow pantsuit, a faded Houston Rockets T- shirt, and men’s brogues on her feet.

“Geneva, people like to buy old shit off the highway. Makes them feel good about how well they living now. They call it antiques.”

“I call it rust,” Geneva said. “And the answer is no.”

Wendy looked around the cafe—from Geneva to Tim and Huxley to the two other customers sitting in one of the vinyl booths— all the way to the other end of the shop, where food service ended and Isaac Snow rented fifty square feet that housed a mirror and a pea-green barber’s chair. Isaac was a slender man in his late fifties, light-skinned, with coppery freckles. He spoke as little as he had to to get by, but for a ten-spot he’d cut the hair of anyone who asked. Otherwise Geneva let him sweep up a bit to earn the three meals a day he ate out of her kitchen.

The Lord hadn’t made a soul Geneva wouldn’t feed.

Her place had been born of an idea that colored folks who couldn’t stop anywhere else in this county, well, they could stop here. Get a good meal, a little bite off a bottle of whiskey, if you could keep quiet about it; get your hair cleaned up before you made it to family up north or to the job you hoped would still be there by the time you got on the other side of Arkansas, ’cause there was no point in going if you didn’t get way the hell past Arkansas. Forty-some-odd years after the death of Jim Crow, not much had changed; Geneva’s was as preserved in time as the yellowing calendars on the cafe’s walls. She was a constant along a highway that was forever carrying people past her.

Wendy looked at the black faces in the room, trying to figure some reason for the grim mood, the tension running plain. Behind her, the jukebox flipped to another of the fifty tunes it played around the clock, this one a Charley Pride ballad with a gospel hurt on it, a plaintive plea for grace.

For a moment, no one spoke.

To Geneva, Wendy said, “What in hell’s got you so testy this morning?”

“Sheriff Van Horn is out back,” Huxley said, nodding toward the cafe’s rear wall, papered with curling wall calendars—advertising everything from malt liquor to a local funeral home to Jimmie Clark’s failed bid for county commissioner—going back fifteen years. Behind the rear wall was the kitchen, where Dennis was working on a pot of oxtails. Geneva could smell bay leaves soaking in beef fat and garlic, onion and liquid smoke. Beyond the kitchen’s screen door lay a wide plot of land, red dirt dotted with buttercup weeds and crabgrass, rolling a hundred yards or so to the banks of a rust-colored bayou that was Shelby County’s western border. “Brought three deputies, too.”

“What’s going on?”

Geneva sighed. “They pulled a body out the bayou this morning.”

Wendy looked dumbfounded. “Another one?”

“A white one.”

“Aw, shit.”

Huxley nodded, pushing his coffee away. “Y’all remember when that white girl got killed down to Corrigan, they hauled in nearly every black man within thirty miles. In and out of every church and juke joint, every black-owned business, hunting for the killer or anybody who fit the bill they had in mind.”

Geneva felt something dislodge in her breast, felt the fear she’d been trying to staunch give way, rising till it liked to choke her from the inside out.

“And ain’t nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week,” Huxley said.

“They ain’t thinking about that man,” Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. “Not when a white girl come up dead.” “Mark my words,” Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. “Somebody is going down for this.”

Two

Darren Mathews set his Stetson on the edge of the witness stand, brim down, the way his uncles had taught him. For court today, the Rangers let him wear the official uniform—a button-down starched within an inch of its life and a pair of pressed dark slacks. The silver badge was pinned above his left breast pocket. He hadn’t worn it in weeks, not since the Ronnie Malvo investigation, which had led to his suspension; hadn’t worn his wedding ring in as long, either. It, too, was a part of the day’s costume. He resisted the urge to fiddle with it, turning the metal around the ring finger of his inexplicably swollen hand.

He again circled the drain of his single memory past eight o’clock last night: a Styrofoam plate of smoked chicken, a TV tray, a bottle of Jim Beam, and blues on his uncles’ hi-fi. The clink of ice, that first pour, these were the last things he remembered. And the relief, of course, that comes with surrender. Yes, he was powerless over his marriage, step one. Step two, pour three fingers and repeat. Step three, let Johnnie Taylor’s raw vocals take over—his plainspoken masculinity, his claim on the things a man ought to have in this lifetime, including the love of a good woman, her loyalty and willingness to wade through shit creek with him, if that’s what it took to get to the other side. The blue guitar, the amber warmth of bourbon, they floated through the edge of his memory. And then there was nothing but the sudden hardness of the wood on the back porch at his family homestead, where Darren had awakened at dawn.

He’d had a splinter in his cheek and no idea what had happened to his hand. There was no blood, just bruising above the knuckles and a gnawing pain that wouldn’t let up without four Motrin, but he had clearly made contact with something on the property, something that had hit back hard. The familiar morning-after fog of shame he’d been living in since he and Lisa split had dulled his curiosity, and he’d made no attempt to piece together what had happened. The facts as he knew them: He drank alone and woke up alone. His car keys were still in the freezer, where he’d left them in a moment of spectacular prescience. It appeared he’d hurt no one but himself, and he could live with that. He was damn tired, though, tired of sleeping alone, eating alone, nothing to do but wait: on the results of this grand jury and his wife to tell him he could come home.

“And how do you know the defendant?” Frank Vaughn, the district attorney of San Jacinto County, asked from his stand at the podium.

“Mack has worked with—”

“Pardon?”

“Rutherford McMillan...Mack,” Darren said, explaining. “He’s worked with my family for over twenty years.”

Which is why the night Mack pulled a gun on Ronnie Malvo, Darren made it from Houston to Mack’s house in San Jacinto County in less than an hour. Lisa had begged him not to go. He was off duty, she said. But they both knew there was no such thing. He’d just come off a month on the road, and she was furious that he would so easily leave her again. Darren, don’t. But he left her anyway, flying to Mack’s aid, and now he was a witness in a homicide investigation. He’d been paying for Lisa’s I told you so ever since.

Vaughn nodded and glanced at the grand jurors, local men and women pulled off farms and out of post offices and barbershops, for whom a day at the courthouse counted as genuine excitement— entertainment, even—no matter that a man’s life was at stake. The DA had a storyteller’s instinct for pacing and plot twists, the leisurely parceling out of key information. There was no judge here, only a bailiff, the prosecutor, a court reporter, and the twelve members of the grand jury, who had the solemn task of deciding whether or not to indict Rutherford McMillan for first-degree homicide. Because all grand jury proceedings are private, the honey-colored benches in the gallery were empty. The deck was stacked squarely in the state’s favor. Neither the defendant nor his counsel was allowed to weigh in on the state’s presentation of evidence. Darren was ostensibly here on behalf of the prosecution. But he planned to do what he could to sow a seed of doubt in the grand jurors’ minds. The trick was to do that and keep his job, a risk he was willing to take. He didn’t want to believe that Mack had killed someone in cold blood.

“In what capacity does he work for your family?” Vaughn asked.

“He looks after our property in the county, fifteen acres in Camilla. It’s the house where I was raised, but no one lives there anymore, not full-time, not for years,” he said. “Well, I guess I technically live there now. See, my wife and I are going through a little something, and she asked for space to—”

Objection: nonresponsive.

It’s what he would have said if he were Vaughn, if this were a real trial.

But there was no judge here. And Darren, the former law student, knew he could use that to his advantage, too. He wanted the jurors to get to know him, to be more inclined than not to believe he was telling the truth. He didn’t trust that the badge would be enough, not looking the way he did now. The pits of his dress shirt were damp, and there was a rank funk seeping from his pores. He felt the first roil of a hangover that had been hiding behind the pain in his hand. His stomach lurched, and he belched up something moist and sour.

He’d broken one of his uncles’ cardinal rules: never go to town looking sorry or second-rate or like a man who felt like explaining himself fifteen times a day. Even his uncle Clayton, a onetime defense lawyer and professor of constitutional law, was known to say that for men like us, a pair of baggy pants or a shirttail hanging out was “walking probable cause.” His identical twin and ideological foil, William, a lawman and Ranger himself, was quick to agree. Don’t give them a reason to stop you, son. The men rarely stood on common ground—belying the trope of twins who think with one mind—but for the fact that they were Mathews men, a tribe going back generations in rural East Texas, black men for whom self-regard was both a natural state of being and a survival technique. His uncles adhered to those ancient rules of southern living, for they understood how easily a colored man’s general comportment could turn into a matter of life and death. Darren had always wanted to believe that theirs was the last generation to have to live that way, that change might trickle down from the White House.

When in fact the opposite had proved to be true.

In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.

Still, they were giants to him, his uncles, men of stature and purpose, who each believed he’d found in his respective profession a way to make the country fundamentally hospitable to black life. For William, the Ranger, the law would save us by protecting us— by prosecuting crimes against us as zealously as it prosecutes crimes against whites. No, Clayton, the defense lawyer, said: the law is a lie black folks need protection from—a set of rules that were written against us from the time ink was first set to parchment. It was a sacred debate that held black life as holy, worthy of continuance, and in need of safekeeping, a debate that Darren had been following since he was toddling between their long legs under the kitchen table, when the brothers still lived together, before they’d had a falling-out over a woman. They’d raised Darren since he was only a few days old, and he’d spent his life straddling the family’s ideological divide.

Vaughn cut him off, moving to his next question. “So when Mr. McMillan called you that night, was it as a friend or as a member of the Texas Rangers?”

Objection: calls for speculation, Darren thought.

“Both, I imagine,” he said.

“And do you know why Mr. McMillan called you instead of calling nine one one?”

Lisa had asked the same thing. Sitting on their bed, in a faded SMU T-shirt, she asked why Mack hadn’t called local authorities, why Darren was getting involved at all. Darren had assured her that Mack had called the local sheriff. He was wrong, which he found out too late. But he wouldn’t tell the grand jury that. “I think he felt more comfortable dealing with someone he knew,” he said.

Vaughn’s sandy eyebrows drew together. He was a white man in his midforties, a few years older than Darren, with chestnut-colored hair that was two shades darker than his eyebrows. Darren guessed he dyed it, and he got a sudden and terrible image of Vaughn wandering the aisles of the Brookshire Brothers grocery in town, hunting for Miss Clairol. Vaughn was a government man through and through, dressed plainly in a blue suit and polished tan ropers. He’d been told that Darren didn’t want this indictment, that he thought the Rangers and the state of Texas were making a mistake. And he’d been sniffing out a trick on Darren’s part since they’d first met to prepare his testimony.

“Someone he knew, yes,” Vaughn said, glancing at the jurors. “An officer of the law. But still a friend, wouldn’t you say?”

Darren was careful with this one. “Friendly, yes.”

“Well, you drove up from Houston to help him. Don’t think you’d do that for just anyone.”

“The man had a known criminal on his property.”

“A peckerwood, didn’t Mack call him?”

“After Malvo called him a nigger,” Darren said.

The word, laid plain in court, shot a jolt of alarm through the room. Several of the white jurors visibly tensed, as if they believed that merely saying the word aloud in mixed company might incite violence, or summon Al Sharpton.

But Darren wanted it made clear: Ronnie “Redrum” Malvo was a tatted-up cracker with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a criminal organization that made money off meth production and the sale of illegal guns—a gang whose only initiation rite was to kill a nigger. Ronnie had been harassing Mack’s granddaughter, Breanna, a part-time student at Sam Houston State, for weeks— following her in his car as she walked to and from town, calling out words she didn’t want to repeat, driving back and forth in front of her house when he knew she was home, cussing her color, her body, the way she wore her “nappy” hair. The girl was understandably terrified. Ronnie was known to shoot a dog for shitting in his yard, to threaten that and more to any black person who came within fifteen feet of the tilting shack he called home. He used to beat up kids in high school, vandalize black-owned farms, yanking up crops and tearing down fencing, and he got arrested once for setting fire to an AME church in nearby Camilla, Darren’s hometown. Ronnie was built like a replug, short and barrel-chested, with a pointy head and thinning hair he hid beneath bandannas. Mack was a seventy-year-old black man who remembered the Klan, remembered huddling behind his daddy and a shotgun, fears of nighttime raids and tales of Klansmen riding up from towns like Goodrich and Shepherd. But this was 2016, and Rutherford McMillan wasn’t having that shit.

“That’s right,” Vaughn said. “A known criminal and, as you say, known white supremacist was threatening the defendant—”

“I don’t know for a fact that Ronnie threatened him.” He looked at the first row of jurors, four men and two women, all white. “But Mark had every right to protect his property,” Darren said. Two of the white jurors nodded.

There were grade-schoolers in Texas who could recite the Castle Doctrine, the state’s “stand your ground” law, as easily as the pledge of allegiance.

Mack’s was a textbook case.

Three

Ronnie Malvo had breached Mack’s property line by cover of darkness, pulling up in a late-model Dodge Charger, hopped up on twenty-inch wheels, likely paid for with drug money. He’d left the engine idling with the lights off, warm air curling up from the twin tailpipes and disappearing like smoke among the steeple-topped pines lining Mack’s little plot of land at the edge of San Jacinto County, the nearest neighbor at least a fourth of a mile down the single-lane road that ran in front of Mack’s house.

Breanna, who was home alone, stepped on the porch of the clapboard cottage she shared with Mack, trying to see who was sitting out there in the dark, watching the house. When she saw the Dodge and Ronnie Malvo’s silhouette in the front seat, she screamed and dropped her cell phone, cracking it in two places. She ran inside and bolted the door, then called her granddaddy from the kitchen phone. From the cab of his ancient Ford pickup, Mack then called Darren as he sped home from a job in nearby Wolf Creek. When Mack pulled into his driveway, his truck blocked Ronnie Malvo’s only way out.

Mack hollered for Breanna to grab his pistol from the house. She came out a few seconds later with a snub-nosed .38 revolver. Mack didn’t know if Ronnie was armed. But pulling a gun on a man was certainly the fastest way to find out.

By the time Darren arrived, the two men were in a standoff.

He’d rolled up to Mack’s place with his headlamps dark, parking his truck under the branches of an old oak tree. Toeing his way up the dirt-and-gravel drive, Darren came upon the following scene: Mack, standing among the junk in his yard, .38 to Ronnie’s head, and Ronnie swearing he was just trying to talk to the girl, saying, “But I ain’t gon’ stand here and let this nigger shoot me cold.” He had a .357 aimed at Mack’s chest, a gun with more ring power than the Colt .45 Darren pulled from his holster. Ronnie seemed exasperated by the foolishness on display. He needed the “old cotton-head nigger” to move his goddamned truck if he wanted him off his property so goddamned bad. Mack told Ronnie to get his “peckerwood ass” in the Dodge first. Spit was flying, foreheads slick with rage.

“Put down the gun, Malvo,” Darren said. “Let’s all get out of this clean.”

“Tell that to the nigger,” Ronnie said, nodding his head toward Mack.

“Which nigger you talking to, Ronnie?” Darren said. “And before you answer, remember one of these niggers is a Texas Ranger who got out of bed for this. I’m not exactly in a patient frame of mind.” The Colt caught light off the front-porch lamp. For a moment, Ronnie looked cornered and scared, but Darren knew that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Ronnie was starting to twitch. Two guns at his head, he was shaking in his biker boots, late to the realization that he’d carried a prank too far, had been called out and made a fool of. Pride was a hell of a thing, and Darren knew men had been shot over far less.

He made a quick tactical shift.

“Mack, drop the gun,” Darren said. Of the two, Mack was the one he figured he could talk some sense into. But he was wrong.

“The hell I will,” the older man said.

“I got this, Mack.”

“I don’t want no trouble, man,” Ronnie said.

Darren could hear Breanna crying on the porch.

“I want this motherfucker off my property,” Mack said.

“Put the gun down, Mack. It’s not worth it.”

“I got every right to protect my property.”

“Yeah, but every minute you holding that pistol brings us closer to a situation I can’t get you out of. Listen to me, Mack. Don’t let him goad you into prison. I’ll get him on trespassing, okay, if you just put down the gun.”

“Don’t care about that,” Mack said, his rheumy eyes glistening. “I want him dead or gone, nothing in between.”

“Just move the truck, and I’ll go,” Ronnie said. “Was just messing with the girl. Ought to be happy anybody wants to look at her monkey ass.”

“Toss Bre your keys, Mack,” Darren said. The old man did as he was told, but he didn’t lower his pistol—what looked like a toy pop gun in his large hand. Darren told Breanna to get in Mack’s Ford and ease it out onto the road, giving Ronnie Malvo a way to get out of the driveway and off the property.

By now, Mack was damn near crying himself, mumbling so that strings of spit gathered in the corners of his mouth. “Got no right coming onto my land, sniffing around my girl. Don’t have to take no shit off a cracker like him.”

Darren felt a shift in Mack’s breathing, which was bullish and on the march. He thought they had but a few seconds before the old man gave in to the rage that was pulling at every muscle in his lean body. “Move the truck now!”

As Breanna ran off the porch to Mack’s Ford, Darren used the distraction to move in on Mack. He reached for his right arm at the wrist, yanking it down in one motion while keeping his Colt trained on Ronnie. Mack cursed but then let go, collapsing onto the patchy grass. Ronnie immediately lowered his weapon. He tossed it through the open driver’s-side window of his Dodge, then jumped into the front seat behind it, moving like his ass was on fire.

Darren capped this testimony by reciting the Castle Doctrine verbatim.

Vaughn bristled. “I’ll handle the law in here, Mr. Mathews.”

“That’s Ranger Mathews.”

“The fact of the matter, Ranger Mathews, is that instead of calling nine one one, the defendant made sure to call a Ranger he knew, a fellow African American who would certainly understand the anger this incident stirred—”

“Objection.” This one Darren said out loud.

Vaughn glared at him from the podium, his right hand grasping its edge so tightly that his knuckles blanched. “Mr. Mathews—”

“I’m a Texas Ranger, counselor.”

“Then act like one.”

Vaughn knew he’d gone too far as soon as he said it. The women in the front row of the jury box shook their heads at the way he’d spoken to a member of the most revered law enforcement agency in the state. One of the two black men in the second row crossed his arms sternly, rocking a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, a little dagger pointed right at the DA.

“Ask another question,” Darren said, pressing his advantage.

“Mr. Malvo left of his own accord that night, didn’t he?”

“Yes. Malvo threw his weapon into his vehicle and fled the scene.”

Two days later, when Ronnie was found dead in a ditch alongside his property, two .38 slugs in his chest, it was Darren’s incident report that put Mack on the suspect list. He felt responsible for this whole ordeal. A hundred times a day Darren wished he’d never shown up that night, that he’d never led that report. He’d actually paused after typing it up, staring warily at the pages as he pulled them from the printer, knowing that just putting Mack’s name on an incident report, victim or not, was opening a door through which Mack might never return. Criminality, once it touched black life, was a stain hard to remove. But Darren was a cop, so he did his job. He’d followed the rules, and it had landed them all here—a grand jury deciding whether to charge the old man with murder. If indicted, he’d go to trial, a man in his seventies who’d done nothing but work and love his family his whole life. If convicted, he’d be put on death row.

The truth was that Ronnie Malvo was affiliated with one of the most violent gangs in American history, men who ate their own, especially the ones they suspected of betraying them. Darren knew of an Aryan Brotherhood of Texas captain who once ordered a particularly vicious hit on an underling suspected of talking to the cops. They found the nineteen-year-old rumored snitch, strung up by what little flesh was still on his bones, hanging from a fence on a wheat farm in Liberty County. Anybody could have killed Ronnie Malvo, who actually was a criminal informant for the federal government. Darren was the only person in the courtroom, including the DA, who knew this. He was based out of the Rangers office in Houston, and a few months before the Malvo homicide, he’d begged his way onto a multiagency task force that was investigating the ABT with the feds. Of course he wasn’t allowed to utter a word about it, but he knew the Brotherhood had reason to put Ronnie in a bag—if someone had found out he was talking.

“Mr. McMillan was pretty angry that night, wouldn’t you say?”

Darren downgraded it to “concerned,” adding, “He didn’t seem bent on revenge, if that’s what you mean.”

“We don’t want you to speculate.”

“All I can tell you is what I saw, and Mack didn’t shoot anybody.”

Vaughn pursed his lips together. This was off the script, and Darren knew it.

“Ronnie Malvo was shot with a thirty-eight revolver, correct?”

“I did not work the investigation.”

“And why is that?”

“Didn’t get assigned,” he said casually.

“Lieutenant Fred Wilson said you were too close to this, did he not?”

“Yes, Ronnie Malvo was shot with a thirty-eight.” Darren conceded the point.

“And the night you were on his property, you saw Mr. McMillan brandish a thirty-eight revolver at the deceased, correct?”

“Which he didn’t fire.” Darren shifted in his seat. “He just wanted to be left alone, to feel safe in his home. That’s why he had me stay.”

The moment Ronnie ed Mack’s property, revving his engine and churning up a cloud of dirt and gravel, Darren had knelt beside Mack, a man he’d never seen sniffle in twenty years, let alone cry openly the way he did that night, undone by how close he’d come to killing a man. Darren made it clear he could go after Ronnie or he could stay with the man and his granddaughter.

Quietly, Mack asked him to stay.

Darren ended up spending all night on Mack’s front porch, pistol in hand, on the lookout for any pair of headlights that might come creeping by the house. He kept watch till morning clouds rolled in, low and laced rust-red, East Texas dirt reflected in the sky. He kept watch on that tiny corner of the state so Rutherford McMillan could get the night of peace he’d been owed for a lifetime.

Two days later, Ronnie Malvo was found dead behind his own house.

“Which leads to my last question,” Vaughn said, his hands clasped behind his back. Darren saw the teeny-tiniest lift at the corners of his mouth. “You weren’t with the defendant for the next forty-eight hours, were you?”

“I went back home. I went back to work.”

And to Lisa telling him to go back to law school. Just think about it, Darren.

It would be that easy, he knew.

Choose a life she understood and go home.

“That’s a no?”

“No, I wasn’t with him.”

“So you would have no way of knowing if, in that forty-eight-hour time frame, Mr. McMillan left his home with that same gun and went and shot and killed Mr. Malvo, would you?”

“No,” Darren said. A line of sweat was sliding down his right side now. He worried it showed through his shirt, just as he worried that he’d sunk Mack.

Four

“The gun is still missing.”

“Which is why they don’t have a case,” Greg said over the phone.

“You think the good people of San Jacinto County care one whit about the limits of a circumstantial case?” Darren said, pouring out the last of the Big Red soda he’d ordered at Kay’s Kountry Kitchen, across from the courthouse, ignoring for today its indiscriminate use of the letter K—a flagrant act of microaggression, Texas-style— because the cafe was open and close and his hand needed help. As he poured, he made sure to save the ice, dumping pink melting globs of it into a handkerchief he’d found in his glove box. He wrapped the edges of the handkerchief together, then pressed the homemade ice pack across the sore knuckles of his left hand. “Hell, half of ’em probably wished they’d shot him themselves. Ronnie Malvo is what they call grade A white trash, and hatred of them is the last kind still allowed in polite company.”

“Maybe they’ll treat McMillan like a hero, then—spare him an indictment.”

“No good can come from folks out here thinking Mack is a killer,” Darren said, his back leaned against the driver’s-side door of his Chevy truck. “The rules ain’t the same for him, and you know it, Greg,” he said, looking around the tiny town square of Coldspring. It was one flashing light at a single intersection, surrounded on all sides by antiques stores and consignment shops, selling everything from old guns to used cribs and rusted iron Lone Stars set out on wooden porches. Nothing new came or went through San Jacinto County. It was an economy that ran on its own waste.

“This is just the feds trying to protect their investigation,” Darren said.

Greg Heglund faked a wounded sigh.

He was Agent Heglund, actually, with the Criminal Investigative Division of the Houston field office of the FBI. They’d met in that very city years ago, when Darren’s uncle Clayton had gotten him into a private high school in Houston, as nothing in San Jacinto County would ever be good enough for his nephew. Lisa and Greg were the first friends Darren made at the school, from which he later graduated. All three had gone into some aspect of the law, and he and Greg had kept in touch all these years.

Greg was a white guy who ran with black dudes most of his life—played ball, dated black girls, eschewed two-stepping for step shows, the whole bit. All that stopped, of course, the second he joined the Bureau, trading his Jordans for Johnston & Murphys. But Darren didn’t hold it against him. He’d practically taught Greg the art of code-switching, if only by osmosis. To Darren it was balletic sport in which every black man should be schooled. Besides basketball, it was their one true come-up. At Rangers social events, Darren had once or twice professed a love for Vince Gill or Kenny Chesney that he didn’t really feel, had made Lisa twirl along the dancefloor with him. He could tolerate Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, the classic country he grew up around—had an uncontrollable affection for Charley Pride on principle—but blues was a black Texan’s true legacy. He had Greg listening to Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Freddie King long before either of them had heard of Jay Z or Sean Combs. The point was Darren knew he could keep it real with Greg, always. They had it like that.

Greg was not part of the task force that had been tracking the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, detailing their activities in and out of the state’s correctional facilities—including the sale of methamphetamine and automatic handguns, multiple homicides, and conspiracy—but he knew a good deal about the investigation’s ins and outs. Ronnie Malvo had turned state’s evidence a few months back, skirting his own conspiracy charges by agreeing to testify when the time came. He held in his tattooed hands enough testimony to take down several captains of the ABT. If anyone inside the Brotherhood had gotten wind of his plans, Ronnie Malvo was bound to end up dead, one way or another. Darren offered the same assessment he’d been repeating for weeks. “This has the ABT’s name all over it.”

Greg argued the other side. “Two bullet wounds and no carnage? That’s not really their calling card.” He was cautioning Darren not to get too attached to his way of thinking, to remember what standing up for Mack could cost him.

“That’s as circumstantial as the idea that Mack did it just because he owns a thirty-eight.”

“A thirty-eight that’s missing.”

“He reported that gun stolen.” Darren knew it sounded bad.

“He reported it the day before Malvo’s body was found. You know we don’t truck in coincidence down in these parts,” Greg said, playfully drawing out every vowel within reach. “They still think you had something to do with it?”

“Nobody has the balls to say that to my face,” Darren said. “For the record, they’re merely claiming I never should have gone out there that night in an official capacity, given my relationship to Mack. Or they’re saying that I should have abandoned Mack and gone after Malvo in pursuit. But the suspension is also a convenient way to bump me off the task force without admitting that my blackness causes a problem in the field. It gets me away from the ABT.”

“You can’t be the first Ranger to ever have a hit out on him.”

“That supposed to make me feel better?”

The whispers had started shortly after Darren joined the task force. His lieutenant, Ranger Fred Wilson, was reluctant to let him join the task force at first, for reasons he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, put into words without acknowledging the one thing a Ranger never mentions: race. They were Rangers first—and men, women, white, brown, or black second. But Darren didn’t understand how the feds, with the help of the Texas Rangers, could investigate an organization called the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and not mention race. The feds wanted the ABT on drug charges and conspiracy, and Lieutenant Wilson wanted to make sure Darren understood that when he agreed to let him join the Rangers unit assisting the feds out of Houston. “This ain’t some In the Heat of the Night–type deal here, Mathews,” he’d said. “These men are running a serious and sophisticated criminal enterprise, making millions in illegal activity across this state.” All true. But trying to take down the Brotherhood without dealing with the racial hatred at its core was like trying to take a dip in a swimming hole without getting wet.

It was a few weeks after he’d conducted his first interviews on behalf of the task force when Mack called to say that the family house in Camilla—the farmhouse where Darren was raised—had been broken into. Dog feces—and human, Mack suspected—had been thrown at the walls inside and out, and two pistols had been stolen, one a thirty-year-old pearl-handled revolver that had be- longed to his uncle William. That in particular ate at Darren. There were so few things of his uncle’s he had left. Most of his effects, including his Rangers badge and the Stetson he’d retired in, went to William’s son, Aaron, a state trooper who resented the hell out of Darren for using up all the Mathewses’ nepotism with the Texas Rangers before he could. Darren wanted to believe that his degree from Princeton and two years of law school might have made him a star in his own right, but he knew Aaron had a point. If Darren weren’t William Mathews’s nephew, he’d have probably been red over this business with Mack weeks ago. In a way, his uncle was still looking out for him.

The incident was reported and recorded, but on its face it didn’t fit the profile of Brotherhood violence, which leaned heavily on the element of surprise, shed a great deal more blood, and didn’t fool around with warnings and empty theatrics. But Darren’s name had come up on a few ABT websites and in the social-media swamp where white nationalism grew like fungus, a fact Greg now downplayed. “Reports of your imminent death are greatly exaggerated,” he said, reaching for some lightness in the situation and coming up short. “It’s just chatter—rumors, really, nothing concrete. I promise if there was more to it, we’d get involved on our end. You’re perfectly safe.”

“Tell that to my wife.”

Lisa had never gotten over his career choice, the fact that she lay down on her wedding night with a would-be lawyer and woke up years later with a cop. His well-bred wife, who wore St. John every day and pulled her Lexus sedan into the private parking garage of the law firm where she worked, did not understand the compulsion to confront madness or the allure of the Texas Rangers and the five-point star he wore. What is it about that damn badge? It won’t protect you, she said, because it was never intended to. It was never intended for you. She would never forgive him, she said, if he got himself killed.

“Indicting Mack sells their story of a race crime, just some small-time shit as old as time itself,” Darren said. “If rumors get going that Ronnie Malvo was taken out in what looks like a hit, the Brotherhood’ll get itchy, maybe change up routines or shut down operations altogether, which would decimate the feds’ investigation. I don’t think Mack should pay with his life to save their case.”

“Did you?” Greg nally asked. “Help Mack with the gun?”

“Jesus, not you, too.”

“It’s just I know how you feel about Mack...and a guy like Malvo.”

“I’m a cop first.” But even as he said it, he wasn’t sure it was true. This morning he’d already come as close to committing perjury as he could without being escorted out of the building in handcuffs. He just didn’t think a black man should go to prison for pointing a weapon at a guy like Malvo. And maybe deep down he didn’t think anyone should go to prison for shooting a guy like Malvo, either.

“’Cause they’ll come for you, Darren. And I’m not just talking about the job. They’ll indict your ass if they think you covered up evidence.”

“You don’t think I know that?” he said. “I didn’t do anything. And neither did Mack.”

“You so sure? Man messing with his granddaughter like that. If it was the other way around, that alone would have gotten Mack strung up in the old days. Maybe the old man played out a little rough justice of his own.”

“Now you sound like Lisa.”

“I’m not wading into that,” Greg said. “And that’s not why I called.”

Darren shook out the pale blue handkerchief, watching as ice chips fell to the graveled concrete. On the sidewalk in front of his truck, a kid, maybe five years old, was staring open-mouthed at Darren as his mother yanked him and said, “Come on.” Darren, remembering the awe that a real honest-to-God Texas Ranger could inspire in a child, tipped his hat with a smile.

Greg said, “You heard about the trouble up in Lark?”

“I’ve never heard of Lark.”

“Shelby County, just past the western border, tiny little place. I

don’t think it counts more than two hundred people total.”

“Yeah,” Darren said, remembering a small cafe along the highway up there, stopping once for a Coke. “I’ve driven through, sure.”

“Well, they got two bodies in the past six days. One a black guy from Chicago, a little younger than us, thirty-five, I think. Seems he was just passing through. Two days later someone pulled his body out of the Attoyac Bayou.”

“Jesus.”

“And just this morning another one washed up,” Greg said. “A local white girl, twenty years old.” Through the phone, Darren heard the shuffle of papers on the desk in Greg’s cubicle. He’d only been with the Bureau a few years and had yet to land a big case, nothing that would make a career. “Melissa Dale.”

“They connected?”

“That’s what I’d like to know. Lark ain’t had a homicide in years, and now they get two in one week.”

“No coincidences, huh?” Darren said.

“Something’s up.”

Darren felt a familiar kick in his bloodstream at the mention of a race killing in the state, a quickening he couldn’t help. “How do you know?”

“I have my spies,” Greg said.

“What’s her name?”

Greg chuckled, enjoying his reputation as a man with a talent for collecting women, especially ones who didn’t mind being collected, which Darren wasn’t sure was a talent at all. “Let’s just say I got a call from someone in the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s office. Shelby County had them do the autopsy on the man.” More shuffling of papers, then Greg said his name. “Michael Wright. Soon as they unzipped the body bag and took a good look, they had a lot of questions for the sheriff.”

“Why’s that?”

“Something to do with the condition of the body. That’s all I could get on the phone.”

“What’s the cause of death?”

“Drowning,” Greg said. “But that just means he was still breathing when he went in. The drowning thing, the sheriff is no doubt going to cling to that, shutting down any other possibility. Nobody wants another Jasper.”

The mention of Jasper, Texas, churned up Darren’s insides, as Greg knew it would. Darren had been a twenty-three-year-old second-year law student in 1998, still grieving the sudden death of his uncle William that same year. He was in a student lounge getting a sandwich between summer classes when the reports of the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. came over every TV screen. Darren never made it to his next class. He stayed there and watched hour after hour of cable news coverage. It was hard to put into words the fury he felt at the fact that someone had literally dragged a black man through a town not a hundred miles from the place where Darren grew up, dragged him till his head came off. He felt ashamed of his country and ashamed of his home state.

But he also felt a hot rage at the students and professors around him, most of them white northerners, clucking their tongues and whispering Texas in a way that suggested both pity and disdain for a land that Darren loved, a state that had made him a gentleman and a fighter in equal measure. It was hard to put any of it into words. So he didn’t try. He simply walked out. By the end of that summer, he’d applied to the Texas Department of Public Safety to be a state trooper, the first step in a nearly decade-long quest to become a member of the venerable law enforcement agency known as the Texas Rangers, the ones who rolled in when local agencies couldn’t or wouldn’t solve a crime. Darren had decided on the immediacy of the only law that mattered to him then: boots on the ground—hand-stitched, preferably, gator or cowhide—a badge, and a Colt .45. The internal scales that forever weighed on his heart tipped in favor of his uncle William. Clayton, the lawyer, when he heard that his nephew had quit law school, said only, “I’m profoundly disappointed in you, son.”

“He was killed first?” Darren asked Greg.

“Pulled out the bayou on Friday, three days ago. Then the girl, washed up a quarter of a mile downstream just this morning.”

Odd, Darren thought.

Southern fables usually went the other way around: a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead. “What’s her cause of death?” he asked.

“No autopsy on her yet. Just the fact that she was found much the same way as the first body. Though there’s some holler about a sexual assault maybe.”

“Why not send an agent up there?”

“Sheriff ain’t asking for one, or any outside help, for that matter, and I don’t have the authority to make that kind of a call.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“Go up there and poke around a bit, see if there’s more to this than the sheriff wants to admit. The Klan or worse. What’d you call it . . . some race shit as old as time? I just think it deserves a real investigation. I know this is the kind of case that made you go for the badge.”

“I’m on suspension, Greg. I don’t have a badge.”

But when he looked down, he saw he was still wearing the five-point star from court, was in his full uniform, in fact. “And what do you get out of it?”

“You mean besides justice?”

“I mean be straight with me.”

“If it’s something real, a bigger mess than the sheriff is saying, some Sandra Bland shit, shit they’re hiding out there, and I get to be the one to call it in, I don’t have to tell you that it could bump me out of this little cubicle.”

“Come on, Greg,” Darren said, frowning at the naked ambition even while he understood it. He’d been miserable stationed at his desk in Houston, offering assists on mostly corruption and corporate crimes. He’d only truly come alive as a lawman when he was living in the true spirit of his title as a Texas Ranger, a man on the range across this great state. Joining the task force had changed his life, but it had put a terrible strain on his marriage. The time on the road is the thing Lisa resented most about the job.

“Something stinks out there, D, and you know it.”

He didn’t know shit, not really.

Except that black men’s bodies don’t come up in rivers like weeds.

“Just give it a day or two,” Greg said. “You don’t get an instinct on something by then, turn around and go home.”

But Darren wasn’t sure where home was these days.

“I’ll do it,” he said.

He already knew he was going, knew it the minute Greg had laid out the scene in Lark. It was his anger about the grand jury and Mack that got him going as well as his resentment of the Rangers for hemming him in.

“And D, keep your head up out there. They got ABT in Shelby County, too.” As if he needed Greg to tell him that. He nodded grimly as he climbed into the cab of his truck and wrapped his sore hand around the steering wheel.

Five

He went by his mother’s first, ’cause he’d been promising her he would. She knew he was staying in Camilla, only a few minutes’ drive from her place, and she knew he was staying scarce. Bell Callis lived on the eastern edge of San Jacinto County, down a red-dirt road lined with loblolly pines and Carolina basswood, their branches licking the sides of Darren’s truck. Through the trees, he could make out the black tar roofs of his mother’s neighbors, the small lean-tos and shotgun shacks in the weeds. Nearby, somebody was burning trash, the sour smoke from which wafted across the front end of Darren’s truck, a familiar scent of hard living. Past a bend in the road, Darren nodded at his mother’s landlord, a white man in his eighties named Puck, who let Bell rent a snatch of land around back of his place. He gave Darren a wave from his front porch, then went back to staring at the trees, which is how he spent most of his days. Darren made a left turn onto the property, then followed the twin tire tracks in the dirt and wild grass that led to his mother’s trailer.

She was sitting on the concrete steps in front of the mobile home, smoking a Newport and picking nail polish off her big toe. She had a beer at her feet, but Darren knew better. The real shit was in the house. She looked up and saw the silver truck carrying her only son, but there was nothing in her drably indifferent expression to suggest that she’d been calling him nonstop for the past four days.

“You look skinny,” she said when he climbed out of the truck.

“Right back at you,” he said.

She was only sixteen years older than he was, and they shared the same length of bone in their arms and legs—they were lanky, whippet-thin but for the muscle Darren had built up in his torso and legs and the pad of fat around her hips Bell had managed to hold on to when every other inch of her seemed to have shriveled in retreat, bested by time. He’d never met his father. But his dad’s older brothers, William and Clayton, were barely five feet eight inches tall.

In flesh, at least, Darren was all Callis.

“When was the last time you went to the store, Mama?”

Mama never failed to soften her.

They hadn’t met until Darren was eight years old, before which his curiosity about his birth parents had been limited to stories about his father, the more swashbuckling the better—even though Darren “Duke” Mathews hadn’t done much in his nineteen years besides knock up a country girl he’d fooled around with once or twice and then die in a helicopter accident in the last doleful days of Vietnam. His mother had been a curiosity that felt as removed from his real life as the distant Caddo Indian in the Mathews bloodline. She was Miss Callis for the first few years, then Bell when he got to high school and college. But sometime after he hit forty, the word Mama shot out as if it were a stubborn seed lodged in his teeth all these years that had finally popped free.

“I got some sausage and beans on the stove in there right now,” she said, picking up the can of Pearl lager; you could still buy single cans of it at the bait-and-tackle shop next to the resort cabins on Lake Livingston, where Bell worked as a cleaning lady three days a week. “You hungry? Want me to fix you a plate?”

“I can’t stay, Mama.”

“Course you can’t.”

She stood on her bare feet then, waving off the chivalrous reach of his hand. She downed the beer and turned for the screen door to her trailer. “But you’ll stay for a drink, I know that much.” She wobbled a little on the top step before opening the screen door and disappearing inside. Darren followed, entering the two-room trailer, the floors of which were covered in matted putty-brown wall-to-wall carpeting.

“How many you in for today?” Darren said, glancing at his watch.

If it was more than eight drinks before noon, he’d have to take her car keys and walk them down to Puck’s place for safekeeping, a move that both mother and son would resent, albeit for different reasons. “I’m enjoying myself ” was all she said, sinking into the thin cushion resting on top of the L-shaped banquette that lined part of the living room and kitchenette. She was a fifty-seven-year-old woman who’d been an alcoholic most of her adult life, a fact that had confused Darren as a teenager and scared the shit out of him as an adult. Bell lifted a little bullet-shaped bottle of Cutty Sark and sucked on it like a nipple. They sold the little airplane-size bottles for fifty cents at the bait-and-tackle shop, and Bell had them lined up on the window ledge like a loaded clip of rifle shells.

“It’s my day off.”

“What do you want, Mama?”

“You too good to have a drink with your mama?” she said, patting the paisley seat cushion next to her. Her hair was braided into a bun, and there was a bottle of nail polish on the table. She’s going somewhere tonight, he thought.

“I’m on duty.”

“No, you ain’t. Lisa told me so.”

“No, she didn’t.”

It would be unprecedented, Lisa and his mother talking. Bell had not even come to the wedding, was left off the guest list at the insistence of both Lisa and Clayton, who held a particularly rigid dislike for Bell Callis. His uncle William used to give her a little something every month to keep her going, never asking where the money went. But that stopped the day he died. Clayton kept her at arm’s length, forever stiffening at the mention of her name, as if he thought she might yet try to claim Darren one day, come along and try to redo his entire childhood, taking the only son Clayton had ever known. Every year, Christmas was with the Mathewses— Clayton; Naomi, William’s widow; and their two kids, Rebecca and Aaron. Easter was with Lisa’s parents at their second home, in New Mexico. Thanksgiving was with friends, usually Greg and Darren’s extended Ranger family. Darren didn’t think his mother and his wife had ever been in the same room together. The idea that Lisa disclosed his professional trouble to his mother meant either Bell was lying or his wife was a hell of a lot angrier than he thought.

“Won’t be called a liar in my own house, Darren,” Bell said. “I called down to Houston couple of times when you ain’t answer at the Mathews place.” She always called his family homestead by that rather formal title, making clear the line past which she was sure she didn’t belong. His parents had never dated, not in any proper sense of the word, and Duke never brought Bell home. Theirs was a romance of stolen kisses in the woods, her back up against the rough bark of a live oak, Duke dropping her home by nightfall. When Duke died and Darren was born a few months later, Clayton had scooped in within days to take possession of his nephew. “She said you was in a little trouble at work, something about a shooting and Rutherford McMillan, and she didn’t know where you were staying these days, but I seen your truck in Camilla, Darren.”

“We’re just taking a little space, that’s all.”

“Could have told you that one was gon’ be hard to please,” she said, leaning forward to slide her fingers into an open pack of Newports. She lit a fresh one and blew out a burst of smoke. “But you ain’t asked me, did you?”

He hadn’t stepped more than a foot over the door’s threshold. He kept his hat tucked under his arm, the top of his head nearly touching the ceiling. “You were looking for me, and now you got me. So what do you want, Mama?”

“I need you to talk to Fisher.”

“I don’t want to get involved in any of that.”

“But he ain’t been paying me regular. I’m like to starve, Darren.”

“You said you had food.” He glanced at the kitchenette’s two-burner stove and saw the crust of something that had been prepared at least a week ago. The sausage and beans had been a wish, a gesture of the mother she wanted to be.

“Why hasn’t he paid you?” Darren asked, ’cause he knew there was more to the story, always was. Fisher was Bell’s employer at the Star sh Resort Cabins and RV Hook-Up near Lake Livingston. He was also her boyfriend and married to the other maid on the payroll. It was a sad soap opera that Darren didn’t want to deal with.

“He claims I took a hundred dollars out of his wallet.”

“Jesus, Mama, you’re lucky he didn’t fire you or call the sheriff.”

She clucked her teeth, smiling a little as she reached for another bottle on the window ledge. “He ain’t gon’ do that, knowing I got a Ranger for a son.”

“Not a Ranger—not right now, at least,” he said, looking for a way out.

“He don’t know that,” she said slyly. “How much longer they gon’ let you wear that?” She nodded toward the silver badge pinned to his breast.

“They’ll be looking for me if I don’t show up with it by tomorrow.”

“Plenty of time.”

“How much do you need?” he said, because it was easier that way. To do nothing was to invite her petulance, the pout of a grown woman who felt perpetually undervalued and angry about it. She felt the men in her life, especially her son, owed her more than they’d made good on. And despite the fact that his mother hadn’t raised him, couldn’t for years be bothered to send a Christmas card, he, too, felt like he owed her something for his life. He just wasn’t sure what. Today it was two hundred dollars in cash, most of what he had on him.

She took it with little fanfare, tucking it into the pocket of her shirt. “And get something to eat,” he said. “Spend at least fifty of that on groceries.” She might and she might not, she said, reaching for another bottle on the window ledge.

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