Son of a Gun

an excerpt

Chapter One

"It's really not necessary." Agnes sounded bored. Through the phone, Stefan heard the click of a cigarette lighter, a long inhale, and could evoke from memory the cloud of smoke around nicotine stained fingers as Agnes studied her shiny pink acrylics. "I'm sure they won't care."

"I'd care," said Stefan.

"Where were you going to stay?"

Well, that took care of the first purpose of his call, he supposed. He'd thought he might stay in his old bedroom, though the suspicious male voice that had answered the phone had Stefan rethinking that idea already.

"Jane will put me up."

A silence. Belatedly, Stefan realized that Agnes might take this as criticism. That another woman would do for Stefan what she would not. "She already asked me to stay with them. I didn't want to say 'no.' Under the circumstances," he lied freely, not sure why he always had to mollify Agnes, but always finding himself doing so.

"Oh, I suppose you had no choice," she said, sulkily.

"I'll call when I get in."

"Sure, honey."

Stefan could think of absolutely nothing else to say. So he merely said, "Goodbye mother."

She hung up without replying.

* * *

"Texas?" Ron said, exactly as he might have said "Mars?" "What the hell is in Texas?"

"I grew up there." Stefan shifted the cell phone to the other ear so that he could grab the door handle as his cab swerved wildly through traffic. Stefan had offered the driver a small stipend if he made it to LAX on time.

"You're kidding me." These days it seemed that Ron's voice always reflected a mounting hysteria. "I thought that was just a story your publicist made up. Why, in Christ, go back though? And why now? You're already months past due on that manuscript."

"There was a death in the family."

The requisite polite pause. "I'm so sorry." Another pause. "Not to be crass, Stefan, but how long do you think...?"

"I have my final draft here. Don't worry, I'll get it to you within the week."

"Of course you will." The tiny cell phone receiver was not able to deliver an appropriate level of sarcasm. Stefan was the most lucrative client in Ron Roche's fledgling literary agency, and this lengthy dry spell had probably hit Ron's pocketbook as hard as it had hit Stefan's. It was ridiculous, really. Hemingways and Mailers had dry spells. Minor writers of adolescent crime fiction were supposed to spit the stuff out like hamburger meat from a grinder. Grind. Grind. Presto, another Adventure of the Backtree Boys.

"I've worked out the kinks. There's nothing left but the crying." The cab rocked hard to the left, and Stefan had to grab the door handle to avoid sliding across the seat again.

"Still think you should have taken my advice." Ron's solution to everything was usually young, hungry, and willing.

"Doesn't work for me." Stefan saw that they were pulling up to the curb outside the terminal. "My flight leaves in half an hour, Ron. I've got to go."

"You'll stay in touch?" It wasn't really a request.

"I will." Stefan shut the phone off, wallet out and ready to pay the driver as he leapt from the cab. He'd only brought his laptop and the small overnight bag, which he flung over his shoulder as he ran through the terminal doors. He still had half an hour, but the last time he'd been here it had taken nearly that long for LAX security to pass him through.

A few minutes later, standing in a line watching his shoes, watch, laptop and belt trundling down a conveyor in plastic trays, he shut his phone down completely before dropping it into the tray. After living for seven years in Los Angeles, there was nobody else to call.

* * *

In San Antonio, Stefan emerged from the airport hangar, crisp air conditioning giving way immediately to deep, humid Texas heat. His sparse luggage and light clothing all seemed to gain twenty pounds of wet, his hair sticking to the nape of his neck, and he remembered one of the dozens of reasons he'd had to leave Texas.

"The weather is reason enough."

"Nope. Reason number one. Snakes."

"When was the last time you saw a snake, Tommy?"

"It's the fact that they could show up ANYWHERE. Did you see that blurb in the paper about the assemblyman who found one in his mailbox?"

"I think someone put that there."

"And your point is?"

Stefan gambled on his credit card company's continued leniency and rented a car at the airport. Despite what he'd said to his mother, he had absolutely no idea how his unannounced appearance after such a long absence would be received. He might need a car for a quick getaway. Or maybe even a place to sleep.

He followed the stark clean highways until the rolling hills and genteel old buildings of historical Boerne appeared. Boerne must have been quite a victory for Jane, thought Stefan. Patrick, Sr. would more probably have preferred the state capital.

"Count the Suburbans, Stef. Hey, there's another one."

"That joke was only funny the first hundred times, Tommy."

"Seriously, you'd think oil just bubbled up out of the ground around here. Hey, there's another one."

Tommy's voice, which at times was subtle or even silent, but which always lived in Stefan's head. His muse, he supposed, if there were such a thing. The deeper Stefan drove into the heart of Texas, the louder Tommy's voice became.

"You know, no one ever explained to me adequately, why a nice German would want to settle in Texas."

"A nice German?"

"Imagine some plump German housewife looking out the window of her immaculate kitchen and seeing a SNAKE, Stef."

"Again with the snakes, Tommy?"

"Ach, Herman, ich war nicht kenne das SNAKEs ven ich..." Tommy's talent for mimicry was amazing, his face transforming so that suddenly, Stefan could almost see a middle-aged turn of the century hausfrau, plump arms folded over her white apron.

"Stop. God, Tommy, you're killing me."

Stefan followed the instructions he'd received from the O'Connor's legal secretary and parked his rental car across the street from Boerne's only Catholic church, its single-story moss-covered limestone walls with the old double oak doors, now sentried by Secret Service types. The gravel circular drive was choked with limos and Benz's with government plates.

"Security?" Tommy's soft snort. "A little late, don't you think?"

Stefan showed his identification to one of the men who stood at the door. The men were dressed almost identically, in nondescript black suits, a twisted wire descending into their stiff white shirt collars from earpieces. Wraparound black sunglasses. Tommy would have something to say about them, too.

"Who do they think they are, Will Smith?"

"I think the movie emulated reality, Tommy. Not the other way around."

"Sure. Sure. Hey-" a nod toward one of the agents who stood near the front aisle, next to what was probably the family pew "-that one checked you out, Stef. He your type?"

"Christ, Tommy! He'll hear you!"

The man at the door studied Stefan's ID. Checked it against an extensive printed list. Nodded at the other man, and they let Stefan enter the church and take his place at the end of the line of people making their way past a mountain of flowers and candles surrounding a burnished mahogany casket at the front of the small chapel.

All the way up the aisle, Stefan could hear Tommy in his head. Hear his commentary, sarcastic and amused. So, accompanied by Tommy's presence, he finally stood before the casket, and the shock hit him all at once.

My God, they'd put Tommy into a box.

A moment later, Stefan wondered what he might have said aloud. He'd gone to his knees there. Not that unusual at an open casket Catholic funeral, but he didn't remember having done it and thought it likely that he'd more stumbled and fallen than knelt.

Tommy didn't look peaceful. Aren't the dead supposed to look peaceful?