Read Dead Man's Bones Online

Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

Dead Man's Bones (9 page)

Bean’s Bar & Grill takes up most of an old stone building with a tin roof, between Purley’s Tire Company and the railroad tracks. Every time a Missouri and Pacific train goes by, everything in the place shakes, rattles, or sways, from the dishes on the wooden tables to the cigar store Indian in the corner, the rusty iron wagon-wheel chandelier, the neon-lit jukebox, and the racks of pool cues in the back room.
There are some things you should know about Bean’s. It’s not a good idea to go there if you want to be alone, for you’re bound to see three or four of your best friends, all of whom will want you to sit down at their table. Don’t go there with somebody you don’t want your partner to know about, for somebody else is bound to notice and carry tales; if not, your clothes, saturated with the unmistakable
eau d’Bean’s
blend of beer, tobacco smoke, and mesquite-stoked barbecue fires, will tattle on you. And don’t go for lunch or supper unless you’re willing to load up on carbs and fat grams, since Bob Godwin’s famous chicken-fried steak—smothered in cream gravy, with french fries, fried onion rings, and Texas toast on the side—is totally irresistable. Down-home comfort food, no doubt about it, soaked and swaddled in the sweet, down-home comfort of friends, fun, and familiar music.
Down-home comfort, that’s what I was after tonight, having been rebuffed by Sheila and rejected by Ruby, both on account of love gone wrong. I went into Bean’s, stood for a moment while my eyes adjusted to the agreeable gloom, and looked around. Hark and several of his buddies, gathered around their usual table, motioned me to join them. Bubba Harris, Sheila’s predecessor, now retired to the more docile business of beekeeping, grinned at me from the bar. And at the back of the room, I saw Barry Hibbler, a local real estate broker and a member of the Community Theater board of directors, throwing darts at a poster of a man who had once been our governor and has since somewhat widened his sphere of influence. Barry was with his longtime gay partner, George, who is writing a mystery about an ex-lawyer who opens a florist shop. Both gave me a wave and a mouthed invitation to join their game. Tossing darts at ex-guvs is a favorite sport at Bean’s, and every now and then, somebody comes up with a new poster.
But my eye had been caught by a woman seated in the back corner, with what was left of a margarita on the table in front of her. Alana Montoya looked tired, she looked lonely, and I was glad to see her. I didn’t have the patience for Hark’s horseplay tonight, a little bit of Bubba goes a long way, and George keeps pumping me for background information for his mystery. Anyway, I’ve wanted a chance to get better acquainted with Alana, and I was curious about the bones Brian had found in the cave. She might be able to bring me up to date.
“Hi, Alana,” I said, approaching the table. “I’m China Bayles. We met at Mistletoe Springs Cave—remember? My son Brian found a skeleton out there last week.”
“Oh, sure, I remember,” Alana said with a half-smile, perhaps not altogether welcoming. She was wearing khaki pants and a plain white shirt with the neck open and the sleeves rolled to the elbows, the color attractive against her olive-brown skin. Her long brown hair was pulled back loosely at the nape of her neck and hung in a braid down the middle of her back.
“May I join you?” I asked.
There was a slight hesitation, long enough to be noticeable. I was just about to add, “Or maybe another time would be better,” when she shrugged and said, “Yeah, sure, why not? I haven’t ordered yet.” Her English was strongly accented, and I remembered that Brian had mentioned that she’d grown up in Mexico.
“Thanks,” I said, and sat down. I barely had time to put my elbows on the table when Bob Godwin hustled up with a basket of warm tortilla chips and a crockery cup of salsa. Bob has tattoos on both muscular arms, thick auburn hair, and eyebrows like a pair of fuzzy ginger-colored caterpillars, trading insults with one another across the middle of his face. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones over the words “Recon Marines.” Bob is a Vietnam vet and proud of it. He rides his Harley-Davidson to Washington to visit the Wall every Memorial Day.
“Greetin’s, ladies,” he said affably. “What kin I do you fer tonight?” He put down his load and looked at me. “Where’s yer old man, China?”
“At school, with Brian,” I said. “It’s Dads’ Night.”
“Oh, yeah,” Bob said, turning gloomy. “Me, I ain’t never had no kids, y’know. Jes’ Bud and the goats, is all. Maria’s got six—never figgered I wanted to take on that bunch, though.” Maria Zapata is Bob’s girlfriend and a heck of a good cook. He pulled his order pad out of his apron pocket, brightening. “Y’all jes got lucky. Maria’s fryin’ up a batch of pickled jalapeños. Got cheese in ’em.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said. I nodded at Alana’s margarita. “And I’ll have one of those. Except make mine a single.”
“I’ll have another,” Alana said. She looked around. “Speaking of Bud, where is he? I haven’t seen him tonight.” Budweiser—Bud, for short—is Bob’s golden retriever, and a familiar sight at Bean’s. He wears a leather saddlebag over his back and totes beer bottles and wrapped snacks from the bar to the tables, and cash and tips from the tables to the bar. Sometimes he runs errands for customers to the Circle-K on the other side of the railroad tracks.
“That Bud’s a lazy bastard.” Bob made a disgusted noise. “Can’t get him out of the kitchen when Maria’s here. Allus hangin’ around, beggin’. Loves them jalapeños. Eats ’em like they was Snickers.” He paused, getting down to business. “I got some great barbecue comin’ out of the pit tonight.” He smacked his lips to demonstrate his enthusiasm for this culinary triumph and waited expectantly, pencil poised over the pad.
I weighed the relative merits of chicken-fried and barbecue. It was a tough choice. “Make mine barbecue,” I said finally. “Sausage and brisket, with slaw and beans.” Bob rubs garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper on his brisket and smokes it for ten or twelve hours over mesquite coals in an old propane-tank pit out back by the railroad tracks. He says it’s the mesquite that gives it the unique flavor. I credit the garlic and rosemary.
“Taco salad for me,” Alana said. Bob finished scribbling, stuck the pencil behind his ear, and sauntered off.
“So,” I said, dipping a chip into the salsa, which is only comfortably hot, not searing, like McQuaid’s. “How are you liking it here in Pecan Springs?”
Alana was just starting her second year on the Anthropology faculty at CTSU. As Blackie had mentioned, she’d been hired to set up a program in Forensic Anthropology. The program seemed a good idea to me, since the field is growing fast and there are only a couple of similar programs in Texas. Eventually, McQuaid says, there’ll be a thirty-hour, master’s-level track of courses—some taught by Criminal Justice faculty—in forensic osteology, forensic entomology, forensic anthropology, and criminal investigation, with internships in the Travis and Bexar County Medical Examiners offices that would allow students to gain hands-on experience. When they graduate, they’ll go on to positions in coroners’ offices and police departments in Texas and around the country.
Alana seemed to be giving my question some serious thought, turning it over in her mind as if it were not just an invitation for small talk. “I like living here,” she said finally. “Pecan Springs is pretty and the people are friendlier than they were in Baton Rouge. Some of them, anyway.”
Her smile was lopsided, and I noticed for the first time the hard lines around her mouth and the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. I had thought she was in her middle thirties, but now I revised my estimate upward. A young forty, perhaps. Nearer my age than otherwise.
“When I first came here from Houston,” I said, “it was easy to make friends. People kept inviting me to take part in all kinds of community events. Pretty soon, I had more invitations than I had free evenings.”
“You’re Anglo,” she said flatly, and the bitterness in her tone caught me by surprise. I was embarrassed, too. She was a Latina, but that hadn’t registered as “different” with me. Ethnicity isn’t something I think consciously about, although maybe I should. I’d certainly put my foot into it this time. I could feel myself flush.
Alana saw my discomfort. As if to soften the blunt edge of her remark, she added, with a carelessness that seemed affected, “I was hoping that Texans would be more accustomed to working with Latina professionals.”
“I think they are,” I said. From Alana’s nuanced remark, I gathered that she had encountered some racial bias in Baton Rouge—and here, too. If so, it had probably happened at CTSU, not in Pecan Springs, where Hispanics have always played an important role in the community.
The silence lengthened while she drained her drink and put it down. “What about CTSU?” I asked finally. “How’s it going with the new program?”
Her answer was almost weary, as if she’d thought about this a lot and didn’t especially feel like going over it again. “It’s slow. The master’s degree was supposed to be approved by now, but the process wasn’t as far along as they told me when I was hired—that, or it’s stuck somewhere in the bureaucratic process. Most of the new courses aren’t in the catalogue yet, and I’ve had a hard time getting the money for lab equipment. It has to come out of the department’s budget.”
“It takes a long time to get a new program through the system,” I said, as Bob appeared with our margaritas, frosty cold and rimmed with salt, a single for me and a double for Alana. “When McQuaid was trying to get approval for the Criminal Justice master’s degree, it took forever.”
That happens, sometimes. Faculty are committed elsewhere, or the program isn’t widely supported. Mostly, though, it comes down to dollars. Every new program—especially when it involves expensive lab equipment and a hiring budget—takes a bite out of somebody else’s funding. I wasn’t suprised to hear that Alana was already fighting budget battles within the Anthropology Department.
Alana reached for her glass and took a solid swig, while I sipped at mine. Somebody put coins into the jukebox and began to play Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” “You call your husband by his last name?” she asked.
“We met when he was a homicide detective and I was a criminal defense attorney,” I said. “It was an adversarial relationship—to start with, anyway.”
a defense attorney? You’re not doing that now?”
“Right,” I replied. “Now, I own a business. An herb shop called Thyme and Seasons, and a tearoom and catering service, with my friend Ruby Wilcox. It’s a lot of work, but a gentler lifestyle. Less competition, less stress. Less money, of course, but money isn’t everything.” I grinned. “The nice thing about plants is that they don’t give you any smart talk. And they don’t start yelling malpractice if you neglect them.”
“People think there isn’t much competition and stress in the university,” Alana said, her face serious. “But it’s not true.”
“I know,” I replied. “McQuaid tells me about what goes on in his department. Sounds brutal, sometimes. It must be even tougher for women, especially in fields dominated by men.”
“Yes,” she said emphatically. “Like anthropology.” Her mouth tightened. I thought she might be going to say more, but she took another swallow of her margarita and changed the subject. “I was hoping that your husband would be available to teach one of the courses in my new program, but his department chair told me he’s teaching only part-time now. He’s a private investigator?”
I nodded. “Investigation is the thing he’s missed most since he left police work and started teaching. He’s not happy unless he’s ferreting something out.” I chuckled. “So far, his cases have run the gamut—from embezzlers to runaway teens to people who doctor their résumés.” I dipped another chip into the salsa. “You grew up in Mexico, I think he told me.”
She was reaching for her glass again, but her hand had frozen in midair. Her eyes narrowed, and I could feel the involuntary tenseness in her muscles, a sudden remoteness. It was as if my words—the mention of Mexico, perhaps—had dropped a curtain between us, and she had disappeared behind it. My question—which she probably connected to the ethnic thing—was obviously unwelcome, and I felt clumsy and tactless. On the other hand, we are who we are, and we’d better get used to it. Alana Montoya was a professional woman, and she’d been around for a while. I would’ve expected her to have grown callouses over the tender places.
She picked up her glass and spoke over the rim, her voice as frosty as her drink. “I came from Cueranavaca. That’s where my parents live.”
“Oh, I’ve been to Cuernavaca,” I said, with a forced brightness. “Such an interesting place. The Palace of Cortes, the Borda Gardens.” I’m sure I had seen other sights, but I couldn’t remember what they were. I fumbled for something else to say. “You got your undergraduate degree in Mexico?”
She looked away, then back at me, her glance veiled and unreadable. “I studied at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City.” She didn’t seem inclined to say more, and the silence, laden with implication, grew increasingly uncomfortable. It must be time to change the subject again.
“Blackie—Sheriff Blackwell—mentioned that you edited an important textbook in forensic techniques.”
A corner of her mouth quirked. “One of my chief claims to fame. The contributors gave me some outstanding chapters, and I added one of my own.” With undisguised pride, she added, “The book just went into another edition.”
Not only a claim to fame, I thought, but a rung or two on the promotion ladder. A strong textbook, along with other publications, can lead to tenure. The Anthropology Department might have hired her on the textbook alone, although there was of course her work at the LSU forensics lab. She didn’t sound eager to talk about her accomplishments, though—odd, for an academic. They’re usually spilling over with news about the articles they’ve published, the conferences they’ve attended, the kudos they’ve received from their peers.

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