“I’m looking for John.”
“He isn’t here,” she said. “You have a warrant?”
I shook my head. “I have a client.”
Melita’s eyes narrowed and her head tilted a few degrees to the left, the way she looked when she didn’t understand something.
I told her I had grown weary of internal politics that promoted bad officers over good, so after twenty years on the force I retired to open my own private investigations firm. “Two weeks ago Carter Preston walked into my office.”
She took the news in stride. “What does he want?”
“Your client’s a fool.”
“A fool with a bank account big enough to get me to come to this godforsaken place.” Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers had named the Big Bend area of Texas el despoblado--the uninhabited. That Melita had disappeared into one of the area’s many canyons only a few weeks before her husband’s release from Huntsville had complicated my search. I asked, “Why the gun?”
“There’s a spot a mile down river where it’s easy to cross, so people do. Sometimes they wander into this canyon by mistake. This”--she waved the pistol--“encourages them to keep moving.”
“You can put it down,” I said. “I’m not armed.”
She motioned with the pistol’s muzzle.
I took off my jacket and dropped it to the ground. Then I raised my shirt and turned slowly.
After I lifted each of my pant legs to prove that I did not wear an ankle holster, Melita lowered her weapon. Not bothering with her underthings, she dressed while I tucked in my shirt and retrieved my jacket. As she put the pistol in the waistband of her jeans, she asked, “How’d you find me?”
“I remembered something you’d once said,” I told her, “about going back to your family’s roots if you ever wanted to get away.”
One night, when our relationship was still young and exciting, we had shared family histories. Melita’s traced their arrival in what became the state of Texas back to an eighteenth-century Spanish land grant that stretched across the Rio Grande not far from the modern border of Big Bend National Park. Land of no value to anyone else--despite efforts to sell it to the Texas Legislature when they established Texas Canyons State Park in 1933 and again in 1944 when the federal government acquired the state park to create the national park--the family had retained possession down through the generations.
My family history is less impressive. I am a first generation Texan, born to parents who moved to the state during an oil boom and who couldn’t leave when the boom went bust. All I inherited was a name that had probably been changed by an overworked clerk several generations earlier when a great-great-grandfather new to America presented a surname long on consonants but short on vowels.
Melita directed me into the cabin, where I saw the unmade bed and dirty dishes on the table containing the remains of a meal for two.
“You said John wasn’t here.”
“He left before you arrived.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Over the border.”
“He coming back?”
“He damn well better.”
“Then we’ll wait.” I pulled back one of the chairs, sat, and folded my arms across my chest.
I had been on the job almost nine years when John Keitel and Ernie Galvan walked into Preston’s Diamond Superstore one evening just before closing and tried to leave with several thousand dollars in cash and five million dollars worth of uncut diamonds. Armed with a .38 and a concealed carry permit, Carter Preston shot Galvan twice in the chest while Keitel ran.
Galvan died at the scene. Keitel was arrested less than forty-eight hours later. Charged with robbery and with aggravated robbery, his defense had been perfunctory, emphasizing only that neither he nor Galvan had been armed. Convicted of the lesser charge, Keitel served ten years in Huntsville. Though most of the cash had been found in his apartment, the diamonds had never been recovered.
I had no involvement in any part of the investigation at the time and only knew of the robbery, arrest, and conviction through news reports and random station chatter. Melita never spoke of her husband during our time together--she didn’t wear a ring, hadn’t taken Keitel’s name, and gave no indication she was married until she used her marriage to justify ending our relationship--but Preston had filled in a few gaps in my knowledge when he hired me. I had pieced the rest together on my own, including my unexpected connection to a crime more than ten years in the past.
Melita cleared the table, piled the dishes in the sink, and then settled onto the chair opposite mine. She looked me over.
I was sweating. The walk from my truck over uneven terrain had taken more than an hour. Had I been on horseback or driven an ATV, I might have cut the travel time significantly. I also would have telegraphed my arrival long before I walked around the corner of the cabin, and I would not have caught Melita in the altogether. I said, “You still look good.”
“And I’m still married.”
“There was a time when that didn’t matter.”
“A woman has needs,” she said. “With John in Huntsville, my needs weren’t being met.”
“So you picked up a cop?”
“I didn’t know what you were when I met you.”
“You knew soon enough,” I said, “and you strung me along for another two years.”
“You never complained.”
I never did. “Did you always know you were returning to your husband? Is that why you didn’t tell me you were married?”
“If I had told you I was married,” she said, “and if I’d told you why my husband wasn’t around, what would have happened?”
“Exactly what did happen,” I said, “only sooner. A cop banging a felon’s wife doesn’t look good.”
”You aren’t a cop now.”
“Your husband could walk through that door any minute,” I said.
“He could,” she agreed, “but he isn’t due back until tomorrow.”
We stared at one another across the table. I don’t know what Melita was thinking, but I was remembering all those nights we’d spent together. I reached across the table and took her hand. She didn’t resist when I stood, pulled her from her seat, and covered her lips with mine. Soon enough we were in the bed with our clothes strewn around the room.
Our sex was hard and fast and left us breathless.
“God, I missed you,” Melita said when we finished. Then she added, “I should have shot you when I first saw you.”
Early the next morning, I heard a motorcycle approaching from a distance, so I climbed from the bed and dressed. Melita remained where she was and watched from under the covers as I sat again at the table.
The motorcycle engine sputtered to silence outside and a moment later John Keitel slammed into the cabin. “They’re offering thirty cents on the dollar, that’s--”
“--a million five,” I said, finishing his sentence.
Keitel turned when he heard my voice. “Who the fuck are you?”
I told him my name, told him I was a private investigator, and told him I’d been hired to find him. I didn’t tell him I was the guy who warmed his wife’s bed for several years while he was in Huntsville and had warmed it again the previous night when he was across the border.
“Who wants to find me?”
“I should have killed that s.o.b. as soon as I got out.”
“He wants his diamonds back,” I said. “I’m pretty sure you have them.”
From the bed, Melita said, “We do.”
I glanced at her. There was something I didn’t understand. “Why does Preston want the diamonds? He’s already collected from the insurance company.”
“That was the arrangement,” Keitel explained. “We were to keep the cash and return the diamonds to Preston after the insurance company paid off. He wasn’t supposed to shoot Ernie. He wasn’t supposed to shoot anybody. That wasn’t part of the deal.”
Keitel continued. If what he said was true, Preston planned to cut the diamonds and work them into his stock, selling the stolen jewels as earrings, engagement rings, and tennis bracelets.
“Ernie and I expected to earn a quarter mill each for one evening’s work.”
“And Preston would net four-and-a-half million.”
Melita said, “He still could if he gets the diamonds back.”
Ignoring her, I asked Keitel, “How did you hook up with Preston?”
Keitel cut his eyes toward his wife and the pieces began to fall into place. Before I could complete the puzzle in my mind, the door slammed open again and Carter Preston burst into the stone cabin, his fist wrapped around a .38, the gun blazing.
Two slugs caught Keitel in the chest, dropping him where he stood, and Preston swung the .38 in my direction. I don’t know if he would have shot me or not, but he didn’t have the opportunity. As soon as the door slammed open, Melita rolled from the bed, retrieved her semi-automatic pistol from the jumble of clothing on the floor, and came up with it gripped in both hands.
He turned at the sound of Melita’s voice, and I saw the look in his eyes when he recognized her. “What are you doing here?”
A single shot dropped Preston.
Melita kept the pistol in both hands.
I said, “This is where I walked in, isn’t it?”
She didn’t laugh. Instead she nodded at Preston’s body and asked, “How did he find us?”
“I told him I was coming here,” I said. “He must not have trusted me to returned with his diamonds.”
I looked at the two dead men and the business end of the pistol still aimed at me. When you sleep with someone, you sleep with everyone they’ve ever slept with, and you’re likely to suffer the same mistakes. Like falling in love. I said, “You used all of us.”
“One way or another,” Melita said as she eased across the room and retrieved Preston’s .38, “but I never expected to see you again. If you play this right, you might walk away.”
Preston’s retainer wasn’t near enough money to cover the world of grief I was in, and he wasn’t alive to pay my final invoice. “So, what’s my play?”
“You don’t try to stop me, I don’t shoot you.”
Melita made me move to the far side of the cabin, and she was careful to keep both guns within easy reach even when she needed her hands to dress.
She retrieved the uncut diamonds, which had been hidden beneath a loose floorboard, tossed them and a few of her things into a backpack, and took a key ring from Keitel’s pocket. I followed her to the doorway and watched her straddle her dead husband’s motorcycle and bring it to life. She pointed the motorcycle toward the border and I continued watching until she disappeared from sight.
Melita Blanco’s heart was el despoblado--the uninhabited. Despite making at least three men fall for her, she had loved none of us.
I walked back to my truck, drove until I had cellphone reception, and parked on the side of the road wondering how long I should wait before phoning the sheriff.