in San Antone.

'I go, 'Mobbed-up, like with the Dixie Mafia?'

'He goes, 'They're taking down rich marks in a card game, then messing up their heads so they can't report it. What I'm saying to you, gringita, is there's a lot of guys out there scared shitless and full of guilt with their bank accounts cleaned out. That ought to be worth my charges as well as something for me to visit my family in Guadalajara.'

'I go, 'All you had to do was show up at your plea. You would have been out of it.'

'He says, 'I had a bad night. I slept late. I didn't get paid on that last card-game score, anyway. Those guys deserved to get jammed up.''

When I didn't respond, Temple picked up a crumpled ball of paper from the wastebasket and bounced it off my back.

'Are you listening?' she said.


'This is how it works,' she said. 'They bring the mark into the card game, at a hunting or fishing lodge somewhere up in the hill country. The mark wins two or three nights in a row and starts to feel like he's one of the boys. He even knows where the house bank is. Then three guys with nylon stockings over their faces bust into the game. Of course, one of the guys in a stocking is the thinking man's goon, Cholo Ramirez.

'One by one they take the players into the basement and torture, and execute them. The mark believes he's the only one left alive. By this time he's hysterical with fear. He tells the three guys where the bank is. They clean it out and tell him one guy in the basement is still alive, actually a guy who was decent to him during the games. They take the mark down the stairs and make him fire a round with a nine-millimeter into the body that's on the floor. So now the mark is an accomplice and can't tell anybody what he saw.

'A week or two goes by and the mark thinks it's over and nobody will ever know what he did. Except he gets a call from a greaseball who tells him he gave away the mob's money and he either writes a check for all of it or he gets fed ankles-first into a tree shredder.

'Cholo Ramirez says they got one guy for four hundred grand and bankrupted his business.'

'The guns had blanks in them? They were all in on it?' I said.

'Gee, you were listening all the time,' she said.

I looked at the tops of the oaks ruffling in the breeze on the courthouse lawn. The clock on the courthouse tower said 8:51.

'The only reason I told you the story is it'll never see the light of day. The kid Cholo stabbed dropped the charges and Cholo's home free again,' Temple said. 'You going to take Wilbur Pickett's case?'

'I think I ought to stay away from this one.' In the silence, I could feel her eyes on the back of my neck.

At nine o'clock I walked downstairs, out of the cool lee of the building into the sunlight, then up the shaded sidewalk past the steel benches and the Spanish-American War artillery piece on the courthouse lawn. The wood floors inside the courthouse gleamed dully in the half-light, the frosted office windows glowing like crusted salt. I walked to the elevator cage in back and rode up to the jail and stepped out into a stone and iron corridor that was filled with wind blowing through the windows at each end.

Wilbur Pickett lay on an iron bunk in a barred holding cell, his shirt rolled under his head for a pillow. His shapeless Stetson hung from the tip of one boot like a hat on a rack. Gang graffiti had been scorched onto the ceiling with cigarette lighters. The turnkey gave me a chair to carry inside, then locked the door behind me.

'I took his watch, but I didn't steal no bearer bonds,' Wilbur said.

'What'd you do with the watch?'

'Dropped it in the mail slot of the County Historical Museum,' he said.

'That's brilliant.'

'I allow I've had smarter moments.' He sat up on the bunk and started flipping his hat in the air and catching it by the brim. 'I ain't gonna be riding in that prison rodeo, am I?'

'I can't represent you.'

He nodded and looked at the floor, then brushed at his boot with his hat.

'You don't want to take sides against Deitrich's wife?' he said.

'Excuse me?'

'Her boyfriend got killed in Vietnam. She went through a bunch of guys before Earl come to town. Ain't no secrets in a small town.'

I felt the blood rise in my throat. I stood up and stared out the window at the old Rialto Theater across the square.

'It looks like you've got everything figured out. Except how to keep your hands off another man's property,' I said, and instantly regretted my words.

'Maybe I ain't the only one that's thought about putting my hand where it don't belong,' he said.

'Good luck to you, Wilbur,' I said, then called for the turnkey to open up.

After the turnkey locked the door behind me, Wilbur rose from the bunk and stood at the bars. He pulled a folded and crimped sheet of lined notebook paper from the back pocket of his khakis and handed it to me between the bars.

'Give this to my wife, will you? We ain't got a phone. She don't know where I'm at,' he said.

'Okay, Wilbur.'

'You don't know her, do you?'


'You got to read it to her. She was born blind.'

When I got back to the office, Kate, my secretary, told me a man had gone inside the inner office and had sat himself down in front of my desk and had refused to give his name or leave.

'You want me to call across the street?' she said.

'It's all right,' I said, and went into my office.

My visitor's head was bald and veined like marble, his seersucker suit stretched tight on his powerful body. He was bent forward slightly in the chair, his Panama hat gripped tightly on his knee, as though he were about to run after a bus. He turned to face me by plodding the swivel chair in a circle with his feet, and I realized that his neck was fused so he could not change the angle of his vision without twisting his torso.

'Name's Skyler Doolittle, no relation to the aviator. I have been a salesman of Bibles, encyclopedias, and Fuller brushes. I won't deceive you. I have also been in prison, sir,' he said, and gripped my hand, squeezing the bones.

His eyes were between gray and colorless, with a star-tied look in them, as though he had just experienced a heat flash. His mouth was pulled back on the corners, in either a fixed smile or a state of perplexity.

'What can I do for you, Mr. Doolittle?' I said.

'I seen the picture of this fellow Deitrich in the San Antonio paper this morning. That's the fellow cheated me out of my watch in a bouree game. I didn't know his name till now. I come to get my property back,' he said.

'Why are you coming to me?'

'I called over to the jail. They said you was the lawyer for the man done stole it.'

'They told you wrong.'

He glanced about the room, like an owl on a tree limb.

'This fellow Deitrich had a trump card hidden under his thigh. I didn't find that out till later, though. That watch belonged to my great-great-grandfather. You'll find his name on that bronze plaque at the Alamo,' he said.

'I wish I could help you, Mr. Doolittle.'

'Ain't right. Law punishes a poor man. Rich man don't have to account.'

'I can't argue with you on that.'

I waited for him to leave. But he didn't.

'What were you in prison for, Mr. Doolittle?' I said.

'I stole money from my employer. But I didn't burn down no church house. If I'd done something that awful, I'd surely remember it.'

'I see. Can you walk down to my car with me? I have to run an errand.'

'I don't mind at all. You seem like a right nice fellow, Mr. Holland.'

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