I dropped into the empty seat opposite her. When Julia looked up, I handed her one of my business cards. Neatly thermographed on the front were my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information. She glanced at the card before tucking it under the corner of her venti cup and turning her cellphone face down. “You’re late.”
Magnoliatards—out-of-towers flooding Waco as a result of a popular television program about Waco-based home renovators—had bottlenecked traffic downtown, and as I’d left my office, I’d nearly run down a young couple who thought traffic lights and crosswalks were suggestions. The resulting exchange of hand gestures had delayed me significantly, and I wasn’t in the mood to play. “If you’ve somewhere more important to be,” I said, “then why are you still here?”
Julia stiffened and her eyes narrowed as she examined my face. She flicked the corner of my business card with the tip of one blood-red fingernail. After several seconds, she expelled her breath and said, “Fine. We’ll do this your way.”
She reached into her purse, removed a check already folded in half, and slid it across the table. I disappeared it into my jacket pocket.
“Aren’t you going to look at it?”
The check was either sufficiently large, or it wasn’t. I said, “Schrödinger’s cat.”
She nodded. I was surprised she caught the reference.
Before I could ask how she wanted me to earn the money, Julia said, “My brother and his wife were murdered in El Paso.”
“And you want me to find their killer?”
“No, the police have already arrested someone,” she said. “This is about my niece.”
Waco has its share of quiet coffee shops in gentrifying neighborhoods, but my client had chosen the Starbucks at the intersection of Bosque Boulevard and Wooded Acres Drive—busy, multi-lane thoroughfares lined with fast-food joints and big box stores. The traffic lights changed several times while I waited for her to continue.
“Caroline is four,” Julia finally said.
“Where is she now?”
“With her grandparents—her mother’s parents—and I haven’t been allowed to see her.”
I asked a few questions. Julia provided a few answers. Her older brother Austin had been the first to attend Baylor, had graduated the same semester she completed her freshman year, and had immediately found employment with a local bank. He married the bank president’s daughter the following year. Whether through hard work or familial connections, Austin rose quickly through the ranks to vice president of commercial lending, and his clients had been instrumental in transforming downtown Waco from a ghost town into a tourist destination. His wife Holly, who had never worked at a paying job, was active on the boards of several charitable organizations.
Julia, on the other hand, remained single despite her brother’s best efforts. She supported herself as a librarian in Hewitt, a small community that shared a common border with Waco, and she supplemented her income with a modest monthly check from the trust fund her parents established before their deaths.
Reciting her family history loosened Julia’s tongue, but didn’t explain why her dead brother’s in-laws wouldn’t let her see her niece. When she paused long enough to sip from her venti cup, I asked.
“They want to adopt Caroline,” she said. “They already have some high-priced attorney working on it.”
“David and Donna Exter.”
David Alexrod Exter IV was the most recent Exter to serve as president of Huaco Bank & Trust, founded by his family in the late 1800s to serve the financial needs of the cotton plantations that fueled the area’s earliest economic boom. Unlike competitors, they had never opened branches in the suburbs, relying on old money and business accounts rather than chasing paycheck-to-paycheck working-family accounts.
“They’re living in high cotton,” I said. “They should be able to care for all her needs.”
“I’m sure they can,” Julia said, “but that’s no reason to cut me out of Caroline’s life.”
“What do you think I can do for you that a good family law attorney can’t?”
“I think I would be a better parent for my niece, but I haven’t the money to fight the
Exters in court—if I could find an attorney willing to do battle with them. For now, I just need leverage. I need something I can hold over their heads so they won’t cut me completely out of Caroline’s life.” Julia reached across the table, rested her hand on my wrist, and stared into my eyes. “Find me that something.”
With most any other woman, I would have thought her touch was a veiled come-on, but a careful examination of the look in her eyes revealed that it was an appeal to my masculine desire to ride a white horse to the rescue of a damsel in distress. She offered nothing in return but her deep appreciation and, I hoped, a check that would clear the bank.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“That’s all I ask.”
She drew back her hand, collected my business card and her phone from the table, and opened her purse to store them away. When she did, I glimpsed the grip of a .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol.
“Do you know how to use that?”
“My brother gave it to me,” she said, not quite answering my question.
“She was packing heat?” Millie asked. Millard Wayne Trout—“Millie” because his family still called his grandfather “Millard”—operated Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings, and with every part of his body but his face and his hands covered with tattoos, served as his own walking billboard. We were sitting in his place eating Lip Locker double-meat cheeseburgers and Oriental fries from Kitok while Alice Frizell, a wisp of a tattoo artist he’d hired several years earlier, etched a starburst around the belly button of a college-age blonde.
My office was in the room behind Millie’s. Across the hall from Millie’s, in front of an empty office that had once housed a finance company too legitimate for the neighborhood, was Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. All of us had been given sixty days to relocate before our building was demolished to make room for new construction, a project financed by Huaco Bank & Trust.
“Remind me again why a librarian needs a handgun.”
“Said her brother insisted.”
Millie grunted around a mouthful of cheeseburger and listened as I told him why Julia Calloway Poe had hired me. When I finished, he said, “She wants you to get something on the Exters. What does she think you’ll find?”
I had no idea, but I had sorted through enough metaphorical hampers over the years to know that everybody had dirty laundry. Finding out just how much and just how dirty the Exters’ laundry was would keep me occupied until my client’s advance ran out. “I thought I would pay a visit to the house first, see if I can catch a glimpse of the little girl at the center of this mess.”
I waited until banker’s hours the next day, when I was certain David Exter would be in his office and his wife would be home with their granddaughter. Only she wasn’t. I knocked on the door of their Tudor Revival on Austin Avenue and soon found myself facing a diminutive Hispanic woman in black slacks and crisp white blouse who explained that the lady of the house was away.
“Will she be home soon?”
“She didn’t say.”
I folded a hundred-dollar bill around my business card and held it out to her. “Will you call me when she returns?”
She hesitated a moment and then made the money and my card disappear into one of her pockets. “Don’t hold your breath. Mrs. Exter packed several suitcases and took the Escalade. Mr. Cheese drove.”
“Where would she—?”
I didn’t finish my question because the door closed in my face was unlikely to answer.
I headed downtown and parked on the street in front of Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. Lester motioned to me through the plate-glass window, so I joined him inside. He had taken over the business decades years earlier when a disgruntled client emptied a shotgun in Macdonald Pearson’s face, and he was looking worse for wear every time I saw him.
As soon as I stepped through the door, Lester showed me an eviction letter that duplicated the one I’d received a few days earlier. “I’m too old for this shit,” he said. “Quimby’s made an offer, so I’m selling out at the end of the month. I’m not writing any new bonds, and Quimby has his own muscle, so—”
Lester let the sentence hang, but I knew how it ended. He wouldn’t have any more work for me, and we both knew there were lean months where the only thing that kept me in business was collecting one of his bail-jumping clients.
I thanked him, shook his hand, and wished him good luck in retirement.
As I stepped out of the side door into the hallway that led back to my office, he offered, “If there’s ever anything you need.”
I stopped and turned back. “You ever do any work for the Exter family?”
He snorted. “Family like that don’t need a bail bondsman. Any problem they ever had they could pay their way out of.”
“You ever heard anything?”
“Only what I read in the paper.”
Waco only had the one—and it was shrinking—so Lester read the same paper I read.
“Of course,” he continued, pausing a moment as if considering whether to share the thought that crossed his mind. “I know a guy was fresh out of the academy when he stopped Mrs. Exter about three a.m. She’d been driving down the middle of Austin Avenue, weaving from curb to curb. He was planning to issue a DWI when she blew a one-point-six—that’s a class A misdemeanor—but he was talked out of it when a commander happened by. The next morning he found an envelope stuffed with hundreds slipped under his apartment door. He works private security now."
Later that afternoon, David Exter pushed open my office door, stepped inside, and flipped one of my business cards onto my desk. I didn’t get up.
“Maria gave me your card.” Exter wore a bespoke blue pinstripe suit over a red silk tie and a crisp white shirt. Silver threaded his hair at the temples. The only thing out of place was him in my office. “She said you stopped by the house and asked about my wife.”
“What did you want to see her about?”
“Actually, I was looking for your granddaughter.”
Exter’s gaze traveled around my office before once again settling on me. There was barely enough room for me and him and his appraising gaze. “Julia hire you?”
I didn’t respond, but I didn’t need to.
“She’s a fine young woman,” Exter said, “but she has no idea what she’s getting herself into.”
“Julia just wants to see her niece.”
“She’s better off not,” he said. “She can’t take care of the girl.”
“How hard can it be?” I meant it as a rhetorical question, but I really had no idea. My wife had disappeared with my son when he was near Caroline’s age.
Exter reached into his jacket and removed a leather breast-pocket wallet. As he opened it and began removing crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, he asked, “How much will it take to convince you to stop whatever foolishness Julia’s hired you for?”
My client’s retainer check had done little more than make my house payment and pay for the Lip Lockers and Oriental fries I’d shared with Millie the previous day. So, enough for a security deposit and first- and last-month’s rent on a new office would certainly tempt me. I pushed back my chair and stood. “I’d rather you leave.”
Exter slid the crisp bills back into his wallet and drew out a hundred-dollar bill that had been creased twice shortways. When he dropped it next to my business card, I remembered where I had last seen it. He said, “Don’t expect any calls from Maria. ICE picked her up an hour ago.”
With that, the banker vacated my office. I followed as far as the hall—a distance of three steps—and watched as he strode down the hall. Millie stepped out of his tattoo shop, saw Exter’s back as the outside door swung shut, and he turned to me. “What did he want?”
“To buy me off,” I said, “or to threaten me.”
I caught my client coming out of the Hewitt Public Library at the end of her workday. She wore a loose-fitting beige blouse, coffee-colored straight-leg slacks, and matching-colored flats, all of which masked the hourglass figure on display when we’d first met. Her hair, pulled back in a simple ponytail, completed the look. Even though I had not called ahead, she did not seem surprised to see me. She seemed hopeful. I was leaning against my car, and Julia stopped a few feet from me. “You have something already?”
“Mrs. Exter has taken your niece out of town, and Mr. Exter has suggested I cease my inquiries.”
The hopeful expression slid from her face. “I expected as much. The two attorneys I tried to hire returned my retainer after speaking with him. They claimed conflict of interest.” She held out her hand. “You here to return yours?”
“I can’t,” I told her. “I already spent it.”
She lowered her hand.
“Is there someplace we can talk?”
She rented a one-bedroom flat in the Brookside Apartments just off of Hewitt Drive, only a few miles from the library, and I followed her there. Once inside, she poured tall glasses of peach tea while I circumnavigated the kitchen/dining/living room. The room was sparsely but tastefully furnished, and a digital picture frame graced one end table, the photographs changing every ten seconds. After Julia handed me one of the tea glasses, she stood next to me and identified her parents, herself and her brother as children, her brother and his wife, and her niece. She had no photos of the Exters, but I hadn’t expected any.
My client paused the rotation and tapped a finger against the photograph on the screen. Her brother and sister-in-law were holding Caroline, but Austin was not looking at the camera. His attention was focused on something or someone over the left shoulder of the photographer.
“I took this the weekend before they went to El Paso.”
“Looks like your brother was preoccupied.”
“I think he was in over his head.”
I turned to Julia. “Excuse me?”
“Austin told me he didn’t want to go.” She restarted the photograph rotation. “He said his father-in-law insisted.”
“What was he supposed to do there?”
“Meet with one of the bank’s clients.”
“In El Paso? Why would someone from El Paso bank in Waco?”
“Is this the same conversation where your brother gave you the gun?”
“No,” she said. “He did that a year ago, about the same time he stopped introducing me to his unmarried business associates. He said he wasn’t a good judge of character and that I would be better off finding my own dates.”
“And are you?”
“I’m still single, Mr. Boyette, so what do you think?”
I had no appropriate response, so I sipped from my tea glass.
I hadn’t bothered to ask about the murder of Austin and Holly Exter because Julia had not hired me to look into the circumstances of their death, but on the drive back to my office I became curious. Once seated at my Macintosh, I did a quick internet search and found several articles about their murder, none of the information of much value. According to local news media, Austin and Holly’s deaths were the result of a robbery gone wrong, and the Mexican national El Paso police arrested had her wedding ring set and his Rolex watch in his pocket. I’d worked enough cases over the years to know the police had held something back, but I had never worked a case in El Paso and knew no one there.
I made a few calls and found a former client who owed me a favor who was in turn owed a favor by a homicide detective in El Paso. Within an hour I received a call from a gravel-voice detective who established his bona fides without revealing his name or rank.
After some initial back-and-forth, he said, “We’re certain it’s a professional hit, but we can’t shake this guy’s story. He’s taking the fall, so there must be something in it for him.”
“He has a wife and a daughter and stage-three lung cancer. He gets convicted, he’ll be dead before we ever strap him into the chair.”
“And his family?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if their standard of living doesn’t improve significantly.”
He didn’t answer directly. He said, “The dead guy’s a banker. Follow the money.”
Following the money led back to Huaco Bank & Trust and the Exter family. Had the Exter family continued living in high cotton thanks to an influx of cartel cash? If so, what message had been sent by killing the bank president’s daughter and son-in-law? Before I could answer my own questions, I heard, “Moe Ron?”
I looked up and saw Millie standing in the open doorway.
“You’re here late,” I said.
“Had a guy visit me this afternoon,” he said. “Said they aren’t waiting to start the demolition. The wrecking crew starts work next Monday.”
“You found a place yet?”
“Looking at a building over on Washington Avenue.” Instead of replacing the old buildings, like the developer was planning to do with ours, the buildings on Washington Avenue were being renovated. “You?”
“I haven’t had time.” I’d had time, I just hadn’t used it. “This case is taking all my attention.”
“Think they’re pushing up the demolition date because of you?” Millie asked.
Knowing whose bank was financing the project, I had no reason to doubt it.
I was uncertain about my next step, so I spent the following morning moving files from my office to my second bedroom for storage until I found a new place. I was back at the office packing a second carload when I received an unexpected phone call.
I had not spoken to Elroy Johnson in years, and he did not introduce himself, but I recognized his voice. “I heard you been asking questions about an incident in El Paso.”
Texas is a big state, made smaller by men like Elroy Johnson. With loose connections to Families in Kansas City, St. Louis, and New Orleans they laundered money, brokered deals with the Mexican Mafia, and shared news of important events across the state. I’d known Elroy since childhood when I’d played high school football with his nephew, and when I was younger our paths crossed more often than I cared to admit. He asked, “What’s it to you?”
“A little girl lost both her parents.” I told him about Caroline Poe Exter and why her aunt Julia had hired me.
“The mother was an accident,” Johnson said. “She wasn’t supposed to be with him.”
“Did he know what he was walking into?”
“You’re saying his father-in-law set him up?”
“There’s a quarter million unaccounted for,” Johnson said. “Someone had to pay.”
I had stepped ass deep into Exter’s dirty laundry and it turned out to be laundered money.
“The Exters have a place on the shores of Lake Palestine,” Johnson continued. “She took the little girl there. She has a bodyguard, an ex-cop, so go prepared.”
“How do you know?”
“Information is my business,” Johnson said. “Make sure the little girl is safe and then get out of the way.”
After ending the conversation, I walked down the hall to talk to Lester Beeson. He was cleaning out his files, and three plastic trash bags were awaiting a trip to the dumpster out back.
“The ex-cop you mentioned the other day,” I said, “what was his name?”
“Cheesebrough,” he said. “Carter Cheesebrough.”
I crossed the hall to the tattoo parlor and told Millie I needed his help.
When we left late that afternoon for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Lake Palestine, Millie left the tattoo parlor in Alice Frizell’s hands. I rode shotgun in Millie’s 1965 Mustang, a car he’d rescued from a junkyard and restored during his limited free time.
Millie parked a quarter mile from the Exters’ lake house and made his way through the tall pines to the rear of the property. I walked up the winding drive, making no effort to mask my approach. I’d barely reached the top step of the veranda when the front door opened. A man built like a Frigidaire stepped out and said, “Who are you, and what do you want?”
I glanced at the Sig Sauer held in his right hand. “You must be Cheesebrough.”
He raised the pistol. “What do you want?”
“To talk to Mrs. Exter,” I said. “To lay eyes on her granddaughter.”
“And you are?”
I had no idea how Millie made it through the house so quickly, but he clocked the bodyguard with a punch to the back of his head, and the unconscious man collapsed to the floor. We tied him to one of the dining room chairs and found Donna Exter and Caroline Exter Poe hiding in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet.
Mrs. Exter filled out a Ralph Lauren denim shirt and a pair of dark-wash jeans with a shapely figure that had softened with age. Her golden blond bob had been expertly highlighted, and she had accented her deceptively casual appearance with diamond stud earrings, a Breitling watch, and a diamond solitaire engagement ring worth more than my car. Beside her, Caroline wore OshKosh denim overalls over a pink T-shirt and pink running shoes, static electricity causing her shoulder-length flyaway blond hair to stick to everything around her.
As Mrs. Exter pushed her granddaughter behind her, she stared over my shoulder at the Illustrated Man that was Millie. Every part of his body I had ever seen, except his face and his palms, was covered with tattoos that frightened genteel society.
She said, “Do what you want with me but leave Caroline alone.”
“Collect whatever you think you need,” I told her. “You’re going home.”
While she gathered a few things, I made a call. Someone Elroy Johnson knew would release Cheesebrough from his bonds a few hours after we drove away, and within twenty minutes, I was behind the wheel of Mrs. Exter’s Escalade, with her in the passenger seat and Caroline in her car seat in back. Millie followed in his Mustang.
On the return trip to Waco, I told Mrs. Exter what I had learned about her husband’s business activities and the reason her daughter and son-in-law had been murdered in El Paso. She listened, asked no questions, and after I finished rode the rest of the way in silence.
I was half an hour from Waco when I called Julia to tell her I had located her niece, that Exter had been responsible for her brother’s death, and that she need to meet us at the Exters’ home if she wanted to see Caroline. When we arrived, we found Julia standing in the Exters’ living room, one hand tightly gripping her .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol as she pointed it between David Alexrod Exter IV’s steel-gray eyes.
He sat in an overstuffed chair, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, the knot of his red tie pulled askew, and the top button of his rumpled white shirt unfastened. He had aged since his visit to my office. She wore jeans and a loose-fitting white T-shirt and, without make-up and her hair askew, and looked younger than her years. The nervous tic in her left eye had returned.
“You don’t want to do this,” I said.
“He killed my brother.”
“He didn’t pull the trigger,” she said, “but he might as well have.”
“You do this and you’ll never see your niece again.”
Millie, Mrs. Exter, and Caroline stood behind me. Mrs. Exter stepped around Millie and addressed her husband. “Is it true, what they told me? Did Austin die because you’ve been laundering drug money for the cartels? Because you skimmed some of it?”
Without taking his attention from the pistol in Julia’s hands, he nodded.
“Holly wasn’t supposed to be with him,” he said. “She was collateral damage.”
“Collateral damage?” Mrs. Exter’s voice rose. “She was my daughter!”
Exter said nothing.
“Give me that.” Mrs. Exter reached out and took the pistol from Julia’s hand. “Now go. Take Caroline and go.”
Millie and I hustled Julia and Caroline out through the front door. I had just opened the passenger door of Millie’s Mustang when I heard the first shot. Five more shots followed.
Schrödinger’s cat. As long as I didn’t look back, Exter was both alive and dead, and I wasn’t certain it mattered either way.
I learned later that Donna Exter hadn’t killed her husband, but six shots from Julia’s little handgun perforated him in ways from which he could never recover. Exter spends his days drooling on himself, thinking thoughts no one will ever know, while his wife spends her days incarcerated in the William P. Hobby Unit in Marlin.
A significant amount of money shifted from Huaco Bank & Trust to offshore accounts before the Feds swooped in and took control. Elroy Johnson ensured that some of it made its way back to Caroline and Julia in the form of a trust fund, and Julia left her position with the Hewitt Public Library to raise her niece.
Lester sold his business to Quimby and retired. Millie bought a two-story building on Washington Avenue for his tattoo parlor, and I rent the upstairs from him.
Business is slow.