“It’s first-rate.”

“How would you explain the discrepancy?”

“My guess is he came from humble origins but did something good with his life,” Darl said.

“Successful criminals don’t see dentists?”

“Only when the pain makes it imperative. The rest of the time they’re getting laid or huffing flake up their nose. I think this guy took care of himself. So far, I see no tattoos, no signs of intravenous use, no scars on his hands. I think we might be looking at the remains of a cop.”

“Not bad.”

“What happened here says more about the killer than the victim,” Darl said.


“Whatever information he had, he shouted it to the heavens early on. But his tormentor took it to the finish line anyway. You got any idea what he wanted?”

“You ever hear of somebody called La Magdalena?” Hackberry asked.

Darl nodded. “Superstitious wets call her that.”

“Darl, would you please just spit it out?”

The coroner screwed a cigarette into his cigarette holder and put it between his teeth. “Sometimes they call her la china. Her real name is Anton Ling. She’s Indo-Chinese or French-Chinese. She looks like an actress in a Graham Greene film. Ring any bells?”

Hackberry blinked.

“Yeah, that one,” Darl said. He lit his cigarette and breathed a stream of smoke into the air. “I remember something you once said. It was ‘Wars of enormous importance are fought in places nobody cares about.’”


“Deal me out of this one,” Darl said. “It stinks from the jump. I think you’re going to be splashing through pig flop up to your ankles.”


Six hours later, Pam Tibbs and Hackberry Holland drove down a long dirt track, twenty miles southwest of the county seat, to a paintless gingerbread house that had a wide gallery with a swing on it and baskets of petunias and impatiens hung from the eaves. The landscape looked particularly strange in the sunset, like terrain that might have been used in a 1940s movie, hard-packed and rolling and biscuit-colored and notched with ravines, marbled by thunderheads and the reddening of the sky and dissected by lines of cedar fence posts that had no wire on them.

Lightning rods flanged each end of the house’s roof, and a windmill in back was ginning furiously, pumping a jet of water into an aluminum tank where three spavined horses were drinking. A white-over brick wall surrounded the house a hundred feet out, like the walls at the Alamo, the top festooned with razor wire and spiked with broken glass. The wood gates on three of the walls had been removed and pulled apart and the planks used to frame up two big vegetable gardens humped with compost, creating the effect of a legionnaire’s outpost whose defense system had been rendered worthless.

“What’s the deal with this place?” Pam asked.

“Miss Anton bought the house from a secessionist who took over the courthouse about twenty years ago. After she moved in, I think the Rangers were sorry they locked up the secessionist.”

“Miss?” Pam said.

Hackberry was sitting in the passenger seat, his Stetson over his eyes. “It’s a courtesy,” he said.

They parked the Jeep outside the wall, and got out and studied the southern horizon through a pair of binoculars. “Take a look at this,” she said.

Hackberry rolled a folder filled with eight-by-ten photos into a cone and stuck it in the side pocket of his trousers, then focused the binoculars on a rocky flume rimmed by mesquite and scrub oak and willow trees. The sky above the hills looked like green gas, the air glistening with heat and humidity, the shell of an automobile half buried in the bleached-out earth, the metal wind-polished as bright as foil. But the contemporary story of this particular place was written across the bottom of the flume. It was layered with moldy clothes, scraps of plastic tarp, tennis shoes split at the seams, smeared toilet paper, spoiled food, empty water bottles, discarded sanitary napkins, and plastic diapers slathered with feces. A circle of turkey buzzards floated just above the hills, the edges of their wings feathering in the wind.

“She used to be part of that Underground Railroad or whatever?” Pam said.

“Up in Kansas, I think,” Hackberry said. “But I wouldn’t put it in the past tense.”

“You call the feds yet?”

“I haven’t gotten to it.”

He could feel her staring at the side of his face.

“If I can make a suggestion-” she began.

“Don’t,” he said.

“You were a lawyer for the ACLU. That name has the status of whale shit around here. Why add to your problems?”

“Can you stop using that language on the job? I think both you and Maydeen have an incurable speech defect.”

He had stepped into it again, allying his dispatcher Maydeen Stoltz with Pam; they were undefeatable when they joined forces against him, to the extent that he sometimes had to lock his office door and pretend he was gone from the building.

“You don’t know how to cover your ass,” Pam said. “So others have to do it for you. Ask anybody in the department. Your constituency might tell you they love Jesus, but the truth is, they want you to grease the bad guys and not bother them with details.”

“I can’t believe I’m the sheriff of this county and I have to listen to this. And I mean listen to it every day.”

“That’s the problem. Your heart is too big. You need to be more assertive. Ask Maydeen.” Pam took the binoculars from his hand and replaced them in the leather case and dropped the case on the driver’s seat. “I say too much?”

“No, why would you possibly think that?” he replied.

But Pam’s hands were on her hips, and she was obviously thinking about something else. “This woman is supposed to perform miracles? She’s Our Lady of Lourdes out on the plains?”

“No,” he said. “No, I mean I don’t know. I can’t keep up with your conversation. I can’t track your thoughts, Pam. You’re impossible to talk with.”

“What you’re not hearing is that other people know your weak spot. Don’t let this Chinese broad jerk you around. Too many people around here already hate your guts. Wake up. You’re kind to the wrong people.”

“I don’t see it that way. Not at all.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

Hackberry fitted on his Stetson and widened his eyes, letting the moment pass, his face tight in the wind. “When we talk with this lady, we remember who we are. We treat people with respect, particularly when they’ve paid their share of dues.”

“People with causes have a way of letting others do their time on the cross. Tell me I’m full of shit. I double- dare you.”

Hackberry felt as if someone had set a small nail between his eyes and slowly tapped it into his head with a tack hammer.

It was hard to estimate the age of the Asian woman who came to the door. She had a compact figure, and wore dark glasses and a white dress with black ribbon threaded through the top of the bodice, and looked no older than a woman in her early forties. But Darl Wingate, the coroner, had told Hackberry that she had lived through Japanese incendiary raids and the massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops, and perhaps had worked for Claire Chennault’s Civil Air Transport. The latter had overtones Hackberry didn’t want to think about.

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