Laura Lippman

In Big Trouble

The fourth book in the Tess Monaghan series, 1999

Despite the San Antonio map at my side, helpful friends, and my own impeccable memory, chances are I got some things wrong about the place I consider my second hometown-out of plain carelessness, or because I exercised a novelist's prerogative to make stuff up. Don't blame: John Roll, or any of my Texas in-laws, particularly Carolyn Fryar, who are all awfully good sports about the crazy woman their son married; Rick Casey of the San Antonio Express-News, who stopped to answer my questions even as he was fending off (unrelated) death threats; Bob Kolarik, also of the Express- News, who has been reading my novels longer than anyone; or Caitlin Francke of the Baltimore Sun, who didn't once laugh at my pathetic Spanish. I am also indebted to Joan Jacobson, Lisa Respers, Peter Hermann, the Gosnell-Branch clan, the denizens of DorothyL and La Luzers everywhere, particularly those girls and boys who liked to dance at Los Padrinos and the Bonham Exchange, drink at Mel's and the Liberty, then eat at Earl Abel's and Taco Cabana. (And no, Jeannie, I haven't forgotten Rolando's Super Tacos, but I'm still mad about them closing on Sundays.)

A note about music: While the band described within these pages is wholly a product of my imagination-I have yet to hear a Stephen Sondheim tune set to salsa rhythms, although I would certainly like to-dozens of musicians contributed a private soundtrack that created an instant cantina in my Baltimore office. They include Hal Ketchum, Brave Combo, the Mavericks, Alison Krauss, Emmy Lou Harris, the Dixie Chicks, Johnny Reno and the Sax Maniacs, Willie Nelson, Flaco Jimenez, Ruben Blades, the Texas Tornados, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Perpetrators, and as always, Nancy LaMott and Elvis Costello.


A sign hangs next to the cradle of Texas liberty, reminding visitors that concealed firearms are not permitted on the grounds.

She stops and examines this as if it were new to her, although the sign has been posted for several years now. 'Don't bring your gun to the Alamo,' she intones, to see how it sounds out loud, then laughs, startling a little boy. ('Mama, that lady is talking to herself. Mama-') Don't bring your gun to the Alamo. A nice phrase, but it doesn't make the cut. She won't record it in one of her little notebooks, the ones where she keeps her lists of first lines, fragments of poems, names for everything. Names for bands, names for songs. Names for the children she'll never have and titles for the memoir she'll never write, although her story packs some shock value, even in these jaded times. Oprah would need a whole week to get it all in.

Within the walls, it's like being in a shallow dish-azure sky above, the taller buildings crowded around, dwarfing the Spanish mission, which isn't very big to begin with. She walks through the gardens, noting the placement of each plant, each bench, each sign. Change is not to be tolerated. She picks up a cup with a little electric blue raspa juice inside and drops it in the trash, as fastidious in her own way as the Alamo's keepers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. It is a shrine, and not only to Texas liberty. A shrine to her, to them. She even brings the same breakfast every time-two barbacoa tacos, coffee, an elephant ear, and the Sunday paper. She gets the pastry, while the tacos are for him, her own holy ghost.

He had been the first to bring her here, although she later learned she had not been the first he had brought here. Important distinction. Nor would she be the last, as it turned out. 'Ever had breakfast at the Alamo?' he had asked her that first morning when they finally pulled away from each other, eyes bright, bodies limp, the cheap pearls of her broken necklace rolling beneath them, pressing into their flesh, so her skin was beaded like the white gown she had worn earlier. When everything was over, when she was banished from his life and had nothing left, she still had those words. 'Breakfast at the Alamo.' She knew others would be charmed by them as she had once been charmed.

And she began to see how a former lover's tricks could be appropriated and turned against him.

It was only a matter of time before the two of them showed up one Sunday with different, unwitting partners. She caught his glance across the courtyard, held it tight. The young woman with him had tried to see where his gaze had strayed, but he grabbed her hand and retreated. He had a horror of scenes, of anything ugly and public.

She didn't. That was her power. He had never shown up again, hadn't dared, and Breakfast at the Alamo became her exclusive property. Her signature, her trick of the trade, her trade for the trick. Rolling toward the warm body next to her on a Sunday morning, eyes still closed, mouth closed, too, so as not to inhale too much of the sour smell that strangers brought to one's bed. 'Hey, darlin', ever had breakfast at the Alamo?'

Breakfast at the Alamo. Now that was a great name for anything-a band, a memoir, a betrayal. It was on all her lists. The world was full of poetry. Pick up a menu, for example, and there was 'Shaved Meats, Piled High.' That was going to be volume one of her unwritten memoir. She also liked the sign that had hung next to the Tunnel of Love at the old Funland amusement park: 'C'mon Scaredy Cat, Let's Go Through.' Of course, you had to be 'this tall' to ride that ride, according to the grinning elf who stood next to the entrance with his measuring stick. By the time she was tall enough, Funland was long gone, its fixtures sold at public auction. Goodbye Scaredy Cat. And goodbye elf, you smug little S.O.B., with your measuring stick and your smirk for all those under five feet.

So she found her inspiration in the headlines and the rack cards, from the days when a sleazy tabloid king had owned one of the local papers. SEWER BOY STILL MISSING. GUNNED DOWN PREGNANT CAT FIGHTS FOR LIFE. GLUE DOG ON THE MEND. LITTLE GIRL IN BIG TROUBLE. TRUANT SAYS, 'LET'S RAPE CHRISTY'S MAMA.' 10,000 TOENAILS AID IN CANCER FIGHT. These, too, went into her little notebooks.

The lists had been something else they had done together, her gift to him. Sudden thought: Had he stolen those, as she had stolen Breakfast at the Alamo? Did he carry a notebook like hers, impress his new girls with the music of everyday life? No, he wouldn't make a list with anyone else, she was sure of that. Because he was better than she was. That's why she loved him still. That's why she hated him.

She works slowly through the paper and her elephant ear, savoring both. As always, she saves the society pages for last. It's skimpy this week, not much going on. Pretty soon the fall parties will start and that will change. Everyone who's anyone is on the circuit from Halloween on, especially now, with this stupid All Soul Festival. She used to be an anyone.

She closes her eyes, enjoying the sun, which has finally begun to relinquish its summer-tight grip on the city. It feels good. It feels good just to be alone. A few days ago, the flaws of the latest man had surfaced all at once, the details swimming into focus, the way a photo's image takes shape in a pan of developer. His pores were too large, his eyes the wrong color, his ties the wrong width. He wasn't tall enough. They were never tall enough, no one was tall enough. He didn't have the guts to go through with it. Another list to keep and maintain, a catalog of defects that always began and ended the same way: Not him.

But you don't have to be with someone to have breakfast at the Alamo. Actually, it's better alone. As long as she stays in the gardens. She doesn't like the buildings-the Long Barracks, the high-ceilinged souvenir shop where she once coveted the blue and white Alamo dinnerware. The buildings are cold as crypts, chilled by the horrible memories they hold. Places can remember, too. But here, in the garden, beneath the hot, healing sun, the soil has forgotten all the blood it has known. She wishes she could forget. She wishes she could remember. Wake up, Mommy. Wake up, Mommy.

'Tienes suenos, pobrecita?'

The voice makes her start, and the barbacoa tacos tumble to the ground from her lap. Tienes suenos- Are you sleepy? He uses the Spanish reluctantly, at her insistence. But it's so much

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