Rebel Island Page 2

My father used to relish the island’s history. Every summer when we came here, he’d tell me the stories. To my horror, as I got older, I actually found myself interested in them.

Inconveniently placed near the mouth of Aransas Bay, the island had needled its way into local history like a sticker burr. In the early 1800s, Jean Laffitte had used its treacherous sandbars to lure Spanish ships into the shallows, where they floundered and became easy prey. Laffitte had supposedly buried a treasure here, too, in a grove of live oaks, but if there had ever been live oaks on the island, hurricanes had scoured them away long ago. The only trees now were a dozen palmettos, which according to legend had been planted by Colonel Duncan Bray.

Bray had fought at the final land battle of the Civil War—Palmito Ranch, two hundred miles south. The last irony in a war filled with ironies, Palmito Ranch had been a Confederate victory. Bray considered it the definitive word on the war’s outcome. He planted palmetto saplings from the battlefield on his family’s island, refused to speak of Lee’s surrender or Juneteenth or any of the other new realities. He shot at federal troops who attempted to talk to him about repairing his lighthouse, and he lived the rest of his life in voluntary exile on what he considered the last patch of Confederate soil. The island got its name from him. He wasn’t the last crazy rebel to own the place.

Bray’s house, now the Rebel Island Hotel, was a three-story French Second Empire. It had a mansard roof like reptile skin and cedar-slatted walls painted an odd color that mirrored the sea—sometimes blue, sometimes green or gray. The oldest wooden structure in Aransas County, it had weathered half a dozen hurricanes.

Good karma, our friend Alex had told me, right before he bought the place. At the time, I’d felt like I was watching somebody buy my childhood—nightmares and all.

The lobby smelled of sandalwood and straw mats. Seashells in nets decorated the walls. In one corner, a Latina maid was trying to calm down a guest—a middle-aged blond woman whose eyes were red from crying. Chris the manager excused himself to go help. The blonde was saying something about a gun and her ex-husband. I really didn’t want to know.

A college-aged guy in a UT football jersey came stomping down the staircase with a bottle of José Cuervo and a fistful of limes. He asked an older gentleman reading a newspaper on the sofa if the ferry had already left. The old man said he thought it had. The kid cursed and bounded back upstairs.

Outside, thunder rumbled. The whole building rattled.

“Remind me again,” I told Garrett. “A quiet honeymoon? Way too early for hurricane season?”

“What, little bro, now global warming is my fault?”

“I think the building is charming,” Maia said.

“See?” Garrett said. “Alex! Yo!”

Alex Huff grinned crookedly as he came around the front desk. The hotel owner gave Garrett a bear hug, lifting him out of his wheelchair before setting him back down again. The whole sight was pretty disturbing.

“Damn, Garrett!” Alex said. “Have you gotten taller?”

“Eat me, Huff. You remember Tres. And this is Maia, his better half.”

Alex and I shook hands. He had a grip like a pecan cracker. He hadn’t gotten any prettier in the past few years. His face was scarred from acne. His wiry blond hair and the wild light in his eyes always made me wonder if he slept with his finger in a light socket.

“Yeah, Tres,” he said, pulling me closer. “Need to ask you a favor later, all right?”

That immediately made me wary, but before I could say anything—like hell, no, for instance—Alex’s attention moved on. He gave Maia a hug, admired her third-trimester belly. “Honeymoon, huh? Not a moment too soon.”

“They weren’t gonna take a honeymoon at all.” Garrett wagged a finger at me. “I told Tres, ‘That’s no way to treat a lady. I’ll set the whole thing up for you.’”

“Yeah,” I grumbled. “And then he said, ‘By the way, I’m coming along.’”

Alex and Garrett both laughed like this was a good joke. I wished it was.

Maia squeezed my hand.

“Well, I guess you lovebirds want to see your room.” Alex winked at me. “Garrett’s right next door. I hope that’s okay.”

He ran up the stairs before I could hit him. Garrett cackled and slid out of his chair, then followed Alex, climbing on his hands.

Maia and I got the Colonel’s Suite, a second-floor corner bedroom with a parlor and a bay window looking out at the lighthouse.

The octagonal brick tower was seventy feet tall, so no matter what floor of the hotel you were on, the lighthouse loomed overhead. It dated from the 1850s. It hadn’t worked in fifty years. As a kid, looking up at the glassed-in top, I’d imagined that the beacon light would mysteriously flicker on. It never happened. But I never got tired of watching for it.

“Ow.” Maia dropped the shirt she was unpacking. She sat down on the canopied bed.

I was at her side in about a millisecond. “What is it?”

“Just my back.” She managed a smile. “Relax.”

“Relax,” I said. “I remember that word…like, eight months ago.”

I put my hand on her belly. The baby wasn’t kicking.

“He’s fine,” she said. “Don’t obsess.”

“Coming here was a bad idea.”

“Will you stop? We needed to get away.”

Thunder boomed.

Get away… Right. A sunny vacation. One last holiday before the baby arrived.

Maia scooted up on the bed and tried to get comfortable. Even eight and a half months pregnant, she’d never been more beautiful. Her black hair was thick and glossy. Her eyes seemed to trap the light like amber. “So are you going to tell me about the marshal?”

“Jesse Longoria. Just somebody I’ve run across a few times.”


“And nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing you want to talk about, you mean.”

Outside, rain was coming down in sheets instead of sprinkles. It probably wasn’t sundown yet, but it looked like midnight. On the bedstand, the cranberry glass lamp flickered.

“You know,” Maia said, “if you wanted to revisit your retirement decision—”

“Okay, now who’s obsessing?”

“It’s been what—six months?”

“Six and a half.”

“But who’s counting?”

“That’s entrapment, counselor.”

She smiled. “Unpack for me? Then I could really use a foot massage.”

We didn’t see Garrett, but we heard him next door. As the storm got louder, he cranked up Jimmy Buffett on his boom box. Songs You Know by Heart vibrated so hard against the wall it might’ve been Songs You Know by Braille. There was another sound, too—a blender, I think. Leave it to my brother to pack his own tropical drink factory.

Maia couldn’t take a shower because of the storm, but she spent a long time in the bathroom freshening up. Warm water always made her feel better. Being pregnant, she missed her daily steamy hot bubble baths. She said she would take up that grievance with our kid once he was an adult.

As the storm got louder, so did our neighbors. Some college kids were right above us, stomping and whooping. One of them yelled, “Hurricane party!” Down the hall, a hammer was banging. Maybe Alex and his staff had decided to board up the windows.

I wondered what Alex wanted to ask me. Probably an investigative favor. An employee problem. A cheating girlfriend. Private investigators got everything, which was why I’d quit being one. Well…that was one reason, anyway.

I tried to convince myself Jesse Longoria’s presence on the island was a total coincidence. Nothing to worry about, just like the storm.

If I closed my eyes and concentrated on the music coming through the walls, I could almost ignore the hammering and the rain.

The last time I’d seen Jesse Longoria had been the week of my best friend’s funeral.

January in San Antonio. The grass was crunchy with ice. Frozen cactuses turned to mush in the tiny gravel lawns of the South Side. At San Fernando Cemetery, the sky was the same color as the tombstones.

I’d come to lay fresh flowers on Ralph’s grave. I found Jesse Longoria standing on it, reading the headstone. He wore a black wool overcoat and his customary pleasant smile, as if he could imagine no place he’d rather be on a bitter cold day.

“I missed the funeral,” he told me. “I wanted to make sure he was dead.”

“Get off.”

I expected a fight. I probably wanted one.

Longoria chose not to humor me. He stepped off the grave. “I never got to hunt Ralph Arguello. Shame. I would’ve enjoyed that.”

“You need to leave.”

“Going to blame yourself for his death, too, Navarre? You never had any sense about criminals.”

I was crushing the stems of the marigolds I’d brought. “I don’t murder fugitives in my custody. That what you mean?”

Longoria’s laugh turned to mist in the cold air. “You’re not honest with yourself, son. You knew exactly what would happen to that client of yours, sooner or later. He was no different from your friend here.” He gestured at Ralph’s headstone.

“Where’d you dump the body, Longoria?”

His smile didn’t waver. “If you can’t stop feeling guilty, son, maybe you should find a different line of work. Nobody’s ever stopped me from doing what was necessary. Nobody ever will.”

He strolled away down the line of tombstones. As he passed a child’s grave, he flicked a multicolored pinwheel and set it spinning.

I turned on the nightstand radio. All I could get was a garbled AM news station from Corpus Christi. Tropical Storm Aidan, which forecasters had dismissed as dying, was regaining hurricane strength. Despite Garrett’s assurances that it would veer north—that no hurricane had ever hit the Texas coast so early in the season—Aidan was bearing down on top of us. Ferry service to most locations had been suspended. Power was down in several communities. Evacuation routes were jammed.

“What’s the news?” Maia came out of the bathroom, toweling her hair.

I turned off the radio. “Nothing much.”

Thunder shook the windows. The power blinked out then came back on. Somebody upstairs yelled, “Yeah, baby!”

I stared at the clock flashing 12:01. I was just thinking how useless that would be if I were trying to time the occurrence of a crime, when I heard the shot.

Maia and I locked eyes.

“A board cracking,” I said. “Something slammed into the building.”

“Tres, that was a gun.”

I looked at the bay window, which I’d closed with the storm shutters. I tried to believe the noise had come from somewhere out there, but I knew better. The shot had come from inside the hotel.

Garrett’s music was still playing next door. The college kids were still stomping around upstairs. I’d heard enough gunshots in my life. Maybe if I just let this one go, let a few more bars of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” play through…

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