Read an Excerpt
"Could you please tell your kid to be quiet?"
The guy standing in front of my park bench looked like he'd stepped off a Fleetwood Mac album cover, circa 1976. He had that Lindsey Buckingham funhouse-mirror kind of body--unnaturally tall, bulbous in the wrong places. He had the 'Fro and the beard and the loose-fitting black martial arts pajamas that just screamed mod.
He was also blocking my camera angle on the blue '68 Cougar across San Pedro Park, eighty yards away.
"Well?" Lindsey wiped his forehead. He'd walked over from his tai chi group and sounded out of breath, like he'd been working the moves too hard.
I checked my watch. If the lady in the Cougar was going to meet somebody, it should've happened by now.
I looked at the tai chi guy.
A few feet to my left, Jem made another pass on the swing set, strafing Lindsey Buckingham's students as he came down. He made airplane sounds at the top of his lungs, which was a lot of lungs for a four-year-old, then pointed his toes like machine-gun barrels and started firing.
I guess maybe it was hard for Lindsey's folks to concentrate. One of them, a short ovoid woman in pink sweats, was trying to squat for Snake Creeps Down. She ended up rolling on her rump like she'd been shot.
Lindsey Buckingham rubbed the back of his neck and glared at me. "The kid on the swings, dumb-ass."
I shrugged. "It's a playground. He's playing."
"It's seventy-thirty in the morning. We're practicing here."
I looked over at Lindsey's students. The pink ovoid woman was just getting up. Next to her a little Latina lady was doing her moves nervously, pushing the air with her palms and keeping her eyes tightly shut as if she was afraid of what she might touch. Two other students, both middle-aged Anglo guys with potbellies and ponytails, lumbered through the routine as best they could, frowning, sweating a lot. It didn't look like anybody was achieving inner tranquility.
"You should tell them to keep their feet at forty-five degrees," I suggested. "That's an unbalanced stance, parallel footing like that."
Lindsey opened his mouth like he was about to say something. He made a little cough in the back of his throat.
"Excuse me. I didn't know I was talking to a master."
"Tres Navarre," I said. "I usually wear a T-shirt, says 'Master.' It's in the wash."
I looked past him, watching the Cougar. The lady in the driver's seat hadn't moved. Nobody else was in the San Antonio College parking lot.
The sun was just starting to come up over the white dome of the campus planetarium, but the night cool had already burned out of the air. It was going to be another ninety-degree day. Smells from the breakfast taqueria down on Ellsworth were starting to drift through the park--chorizo and eggs and coffee.
On the swing set Jem came down for another run.
"Eeeeoooooowwww," he shouted, then he made with the machine guns.
Lindsey Buckingham glared at me. He didn't move out of the way.
"You're blocking my view of the parking lot," I told him.
"Oh, pardon me."
I waited. "Are you going to move?"
"Are you going to shut your kid up?"
Some mornings. It's not bad enough it's October in Texas and you're still waiting for the first cold front to come through. It's not bad enough your boss sends her four-year-old with you on surveillance. You've got to have Lindsey Buckingham in your face, too.
"Look," I told him, "see this backpack? There's a Sanyo TLS900 in there--pinhole lens, clear resolution from two hundred yards, but it can't see through idiots. In a minute, if you move, I might get some nice footage of Miss Kearnes meeting somebody she's not supposed to be meeting. My client will pay me good money. If you don't move I'll get some nice footage of your crotch. That's how it works."
Lindsey scratched some sweat droplets out of his beard. He looked at the backpack. He looked at me.
Jem kept swinging higher and shouting louder. His skinny brown legs were pinched into an hourglass shape by the swing. When he got to the top he went weightless, silky black hair sticking up like a sea urchin, his eyes wide, his smile way too big for his face. Then he got a look of evil determination and came swooping down on the tai chi students again, machine guns blazing. The OshKosh B'Gosh Luftwaffe.
"Don't suppose you guys could move your class," I suggested. "Nice place over there by the creek."
Lindsey looked indignant. "'What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.'"
I would've been okay if he hadn't quoted Lao-tzu. That tends to irritate me. I sighed and got up from the bench.
Lindsey must've been about six feet five. Standing straight I was eye level with his Adam's apple. His breath smelled like an Indian blanket.
"Let's push hands for it, then," I said. "You know how to push hands?"
He snorted. "You're kidding."
"I go down, I move. You go down, you move. Ready?"
He didn't look particularly nervous. I smiled up at him. Then I pushed.
You see the way most guys push each other--hitting the top of each other's chest like bullies do it on television. Stupid. In tai chi the push is called liu, "uproot." You sink down, get the opponent under the rib cage, then make like you're prying a big tree out of the ground. Simple.
When Lindsey Buckingham went airborne he made a sound like a hard note on a tenor sax. He flew up about two feet and back about six. He landed hard, sitting down in front of his students.
On the swing, Jem cut the machine guns midstrafe and started giggling. The ponytail guys stopped doing their routine and stared at me.
The lady in the pink sweats said, "Oh, dear."
"Learn to roll," I told them. "It hurts otherwise."
Lindsey got to his feet slowly. He had grass in his hair. His underwear was showing. Standing doubled over he was just about eye level with me.
"God damn it," he said.
Lindsey's face turned the color of a pomegranate. His fists balled up and they kept bobbing up and down, like he was trying to decide whether or not to hit me.
"I think this is where you say, 'You have dishonored our school,'" I suggested. "Then we all bring out the nunchakus."
Jem must've liked that idea. He slowed down his swing just enough to jump off, then ran over and hung on my left arm with his whole weight. He smiled up at me, ready for the fight.
Lindsey's students looked uncomfortable, like maybe they'd forgotten the nunchaku routine.
Whatever Lindsey was going to say, it was interrupted by two sharp cracks from somewhere behind me, like dry boards breaking. The sound echoed thinly off the walls of the SAC buildings.
Everybody looked around, squinting into the sun.
When I finally focused on the '68 blue Cougar I was supposed to be watching, I could see a thin curl of smoke trailing up from the driver's side window.
Nobody was around the Cougar. The lady in the driver's seat still hadn't moved, her head reclined against the backrest like she was taking a nap. I had a feeling she wasn't going to start moving anytime soon. I had a feeling my client wasn't going to pay me good money.
"Jesus," said Lindsey Buckingham.
None of his students seemed to get what had happened. The potbellied guys looked confused. The ovoid lady in the pink sweats came up to me, a little fearful, and asked me if I taught tai chi.
Jem was still hanging on my arm, smiling obliviously. He looked down at his Crayola-designed Swatch and did some time calculations faster than most adults could.
"Ten hours, Tres," he told me, happy. "Ten hours ten hours ten hours."
Jem kept count of that for me--how many hours I had left as an apprentice for his mother, before I could qualify for my own P.I. license. I had told him we'd have a party when it got to zero.
I looked back at the blue Cougar with the little trail of smoke curling up out of the window from Miss Kearnes' head.
"Better make it thirteen, Bubba. I don't think this morning's going to count."
Jem laughed like it was all the same to him.