2

“Are you going to work late tonight?”

I looked up to see Posadas County Sheriff Martin Holman standing in the doorway of my office. The little digital clock on my desk said 5:53 P.M. and that didn’t seem particularly late to me. It was certainly too early for the sheriff to feel solicitous, unless he figured it might earn him another vote.

And as usual, no matter what the hour, Holman’s clothes looked as if they were fresh from the dry cleaner’s. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the barber and manicurist following at his heels like trained spaniels.

“Why?”

Holman smiled and held up a hand. “I just wondered if you wanted to go get some dinner.”

I pushed the deposition I’d been working on into the pile of papers on the right side of my desk and dropped the pen on the desk pad. “Are you a bachelor tonight?”

Holman grimaced and nodded. He stepped over to the left side of my desk and picked up a magazine that lay on top of the detritus. “She has a Republican Women’s dinner of some sort. ‘Meet the candidate’s wife night’ or some such. I wasn’t invited.” He thumbed through the magazine and I saw his left eyebrow lift. He glanced up at me and held the magazine so I could see the cover.

“You into canoeing now?”

I pushed away from the desk and stood, hitching up my trousers. “Used to do some with the kids years ago. When I was stationed in North Carolina.”

“Not too many rivers around here.”

“No, there aren’t. The thought had crossed my mind to travel some.” I shrugged.

Holman dropped the magazine on the desk. “Somehow I can’t picture you in a canoe.” Neither could I, but then again, maybe my belly would keep the center of gravity low. “If you’re looking for a hobby, why don’t you come play a round of golf with me sometime?” He held up an index finger. “Now there’s a hell of a game.”

“It would be, the way I’d play it.”

“Good exercise, no matter what.”

“So is eating. I was planning on going to the Don Juan after a bit. That suit you?”

Holman made a face. “Do you have to eat that stuff morning, noon, and night?”

“Yes,” I said. “I do.” I headed for the door, picking up my Stetson on the way. “Without green chili, there is no point in hobbies of any kind. Life stops.”

Holman followed me with a sigh.

The Don Juan de O?ate restaurant, one of the few truly memorable things about Posadas, New Mexico, was nine blocks west of the sheriff’s department…or, as Sheriff Marty Holman was fond of calling our office when he wanted the county legislators to fork over more money, the “Public Safety Building.”

As I idled the county car down Bustos Avenue, Holman drummed his perfectly trimmed fingernails on the passenger window sill. “Did you see the Register today?”

“Yes. In fact, it’s in my briefcase here.” I lifted my elbow so he could reach the paper if he wanted it.

He shook his head and said, “Did you read the editorial?”

“I read the whole paper. Right down to the last want ad.”

“That’s right. I forgot that you do that. So what did you think?”

“Politics is not a hobby I’m considering, Martin. But most of the newspaper’s endorsements made sense.”

“Ah, most, you say,” and he grinned as if he’d sprung a clever trap. “I was half expecting them to come out in favor of Estelle.”

I shook my head. “Not likely.”

“Why not?”

“Not in this century, Martin. She’s a woman, she’s under thirty, she’s college educated, she’s a Mexican…how many more reasons do they need?”

“And you’re not going to publicly endorse, are you?”

“No. And not privately either, for that matter.”

Holman chuckled and then frowned. “If I win, do you think she’ll quit the department?”

“I would hope not. But that would probably depend more on you than on her.” I turned at the intersection of Twelfth Street and Bustos, then bumped the patrol car up into the restaurant’s parking lot. Half a dozen cars were parked helter-skelter. Leaning against the building near the west entrance was Wesley Crocker’s overloaded bicycle.

Holman saw it as well. “Jesus,” he said. “Now there’s hobby for you, Bill. Pedal one of those things from Alaska to Argentina. Or L.A. to New York.”

I parked the patrol car with its nose facing Bustos Avenue and got out. Holman walked across to the bicycle and scrutinized it. “Look at all this stuff,” he said, pointing at the side packs and front duffel bag. Crocker’s heavy navy surplus coat was folded over the seat. “Probably everything he owns.” He knelt down and looked at the back tire. “Only flat on the bottom,” he said. “I sure as hell would hate to have to push that thing.” He grinned at me. “I haven’t seen a bike like that since the Norman Rockwell covers on the Saturday Evening Post.”

“Looks like something out of about 1950,” I said.

“Columbia Roadmaster,” Holman said with authority. “That’s what they called ’em. It’s probably worth some money to a collector.”

We went inside and Holman wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”

“They’re burning some pi?on in the fireplace, Martin. It lends ambiance. They probably prefer to call it ‘aroma.’”

“Shit, smells like they should clean their chimney.”

Shari Chino saw us standing in the foyer under the ugly velvet painting of Don Juan de O?ate, his helmet shimmering against a background of gaudy purple and black. If the don had known that he was going to be remembered that way, he might have drowned himself in the El Morro pool up north, instead of carving his paso por aqui on Inscription Rock.

Shari hustled over. “Two for dinner?”

I nodded, but Holman saw an opportunity. He painted on his best public relations smile and handed Shari one of his campaign cards.

“Appreciate your vote,” he said.

“Do you want your usual table, sir?” Shari asked me, deftly sliding the campaign card into her apron pocket without a glance. That was one vote for Estelle Reyes-Guzman. Holman kept smiling. She led us back to an isolated alcove whose tinted window faced Twelfth Street.

“I’ve lived in Posadas for thirty years,” Holman said as we settled into the fake-leather-upholstered booth. “Don’t ask me why, but I have. How come I don’t have a ‘usual table’ anywhere, except home?”

“One of the very few advantages of living alone,” I said.

Holman leaned forward quickly and dropped his voice to a husky whisper. “And that’s another hobby you should take up, Bill. Chasing women. Think of what that could do to spice up your life.”

“Make it very short, probably,” I said. I was about to add something else when Shari Chino arrived laden with chips, salsa, water…and Wesley Crocker walking escort at her elbow.

She set things down and sidestepped Crocker with a nervous glance. Maybe in the short time he’d been in the restaurant, she’d seen all of him that she wanted to see.

Crocker beamed at her and reached out to touch her on the elbow as she disappeared around the partition. He turned the smile on us and surprised me by revealing a well-kept set of false teeth. Earlier on Highway 17, the teeth must have been riding in his coat pocket. Then he extended his hand to me. His grip was hearty but no knuckle duster, and his hand was a hell of a lot warmer than it had been a couple of hours before.

“Gentlemen,” Crocker said. “Good to see you again, sir.” Holman was looking askance, his eyes taking in Crocker’s road-worn coveralls, scuffed boots, and knit scarf. Crocker held his cap in both hands, and I saw that his hair was cut about an inch long uniformly around his skull, like the burdock cut I used to inflict on my two sons when they were little squirts.

“Your choice of restaurants was superb, sir. Just superb. And such a nice young lady running the place, too.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. The cigarette machine is by the cash register.”

He grinned and I knew he’d found it long before he’d sampled the food. “Thank you, sir.”

“By the way, this is Sheriff Martin Holman.” The good sheriff did his best not to look stricken, and Wesley Crocker shot his hand across the table to pump Holman’s.

“Wesley Crocker,” the traveler said. “I saw one of your campaign signs west of town. Yes, I did. Best of luck to you.”

“Thanks,” Holman said lamely. He didn’t dig for a business card.

Crocker held up a hand. “I’ll leave you two to enjoy your dinner. I just wanted to say thank you again.”

I nodded and Crocker disappeared around the partition.

“Who the hell was that?” Holman asked.

“He belongs to the bike outside,” I said. “I picked him up earlier this afternoon a few miles west of town. We put the bike in the trunk and I gave him a lift. It’s tough pushing a flat tire.”

“You didn’t tell me that.”

“I just did.”

“I mean outside,” Holman said impatiently. “You didn’t say anything about that.” When I didn’t respond, Holman added, “So where’s he headed? Who the hell is he, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t ask him?”

“No.”

Holman looked puzzled, then irritated. “You are so damn close-mouthed sometimes, Bill. It drives me nuts.”

I leaned back and wiped my lips, savoring the heat of the salsa. “I suppose he’s just passing through. When I offered him a lift, I didn’t see that it was any of my business where he was going. He wasn’t breaking the law, except maybe by walking on the wrong side of the highway.”

“Watch. He’s probably got eighty pounds of uncut heroin in those saddlebags of his.” Holman snatched a chip and started to scoop it into the salsa, then thought better of it. He crunched it dry.

I chuckled. “Wouldn’t that be something.”

“Where’s he spending the night?”

“Martin, get a grip. I don’t know. I didn’t interrogate him.” Shari returned and we ordered, Martin Holman predictable as always by ordering fried chicken so he didn’t have to face green chili. I held up a hand as Shari was turning to go. “Did the gentleman who was just here leave his ticket?”

“Yes, sir. Do you want me to just add it to your total here?”

“That’s fine.”

“He bought some cigarettes, too.”

“That’s fine. Just total the whole thing.”

She left and Holman leaned forward, his voice a hoarse whisper. “You bought that guy dinner?”

“Yes,” I whispered back.

“Jesus Christ. Saint Gastner to the rescue. And cigarettes, too?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll bet you ten bucks that’s the last you’ll ever see of that money.”

“It wasn’t a loan, Marty.”

Holman shook his head and looked out the window. Crocker’s bike was on the opposite side of the building, or the sheriff would have been watching his every move.

“I wonder where a guy like that goes. I mean, where he’s going. And why. Why the hell doesn’t he just get a job somewhere? He reminds me of all those bums you see on the street corners in the city-like up in Albuquerque. ‘Will work for food.’ And you know they probably never intend to do an honest day’s work in their lives.”

“Probably not.”

“And you’re not curious about where he’s headed? Who he is? Why he’s just tramping around?”

“No. It’s his life. There’s no law that says he has to stay in one spot and build a nest.”

“Build a nest, shit.” Holman looked across what little we could see of the dining room from the alcove. “Maybe I should just go out and ask him.”

“Spare the man, Martin. He can’t vote in this county anyway.”

Holman knew I was joking but he still managed to look hurt.

“You’ll probably never hear from him again,” he said. “And you’ll never know. I still say he’s probably pushing around eighty pounds of heroin.”

I saw Shari Chino come around the corner. “No doubt he sells a little now and then to finance new bicycle tires. Hell, why not.” I grinned as Shari set a platter down in front of me. “As long as the chili is hot, that’s all that matters. Thanks, sweetheart.”

As the aroma rose to clear out my sinuses, all thoughts of Wesley Crocker vanished from my mind. Martin Holman poked tentatively at his dark, generic fried chicken, then looked wistfully across the table at my masterpiece. “Maybe I should have had that,” he said, always willing to admit his shortcomings.

“Yes, you should have,” I said around a mouthful of green chili enchilada.

“The heartburn would keep me awake all night,” the sheriff said, and he started to pick some of the hard, grease-embalmed skin from a chicken wing.

“It’s worth it.” I knew insomnia would keep me awake most of the night anyway. And that was why, eight hours later when the telephone rang at two in the morning, I was sitting at the kitchen table of my old adobe house on the south side of Posadas, burping the aftertaste of my rich chili dinner and drinking coffee. I picked up the receiver, expecting to hear the voice of the sheriff’s department night dispatcher.

“Sheriff, now I hope you believe me when I tell you I wouldn’t be calling at an hour like this if it wasn’t important.”

I recognized Wesley Crocker’s quiet, polite voice.

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