Read Southtown Page 2

Page 2


  The panel would show Jesus in chains before Pontius Pilate. It was supposed to be finished by the time the juvenile hal kids got here from San Antonio, so they could hang it behind the preacher’s podium, but the trustees knew it wouldn’t be ready. Pastor Riggs had agreed they could work through lunch anyway. He’d seemed pleased by their enthusiasm.

  Two civilian supervisors showed up late and plopped folding chairs by the door. One was a retired leatherneck named Grier. The other Wil had never seen—a rookie, some laid-off farmhand from Floresvil e probably, picking up a few extra dol ars.

  Grier was a mean son-of-a-bitch. Last week, he’d talked trash to Luis the whole time, describing different ways HPL was planning to kil him. He said the guards had a betting pool going.

  Today, Grier decided to pick a new target.

  “So, C. C. ,” Grier cal ed lazily, palming the sweat off his forehead. “How’d you get two Cadil ac jobs, anyway? Gospel and Maintenance? What’d you do, lube up your nappy ass for the warden?”

  C. C. said nothing. Wil kept his attention on his testimonial notes and hoped C. C. could keep his cool.

  Grier grinned at the younger supervisor.

  Reverend Riggs was stil in his vestry. The door was open, but Grier wasn’t talking loud enough for Riggs to overhear.

  “Good Christian boy now, huh?” Grier asked C. C. “Turn the other cheek. Bet you’ve had a lot of practice turning your cheeks for the boys. ”

  He went on like that for a while, but C. C. kept it together.

  Around eleven, the smel of barbecue started wafting in—brisket, ribs, chicken. Fourth of July picnic for the staff. The supervisors started squirming.

  About fifteen minutes to noon, Supervisor Grier growled, “Hey, y’al finish up. ”

  “We talked to the Reverend about working through lunch,” Wil said, nice and easy. No confrontation. “We got these kids coming this afternoon. ”

  Grier scowled. Continents of sweat were soaking through his shirt.

  He lumbered over to the pastor’s doorway. “Um, Reverend?”

  Riggs looked up, waved his hand in a benediction. “Y’al go on, Mr. Grier. I don’t need to leave for half an hour. Get you some brisket and come back. I’l keep an eye on the boys. ”

  “You sure?” But Grier didn’t need convincing.

  Soon both supervisors were gone, leaving six trustees and the pastor.

  Wil locked eyes with Pablo and Luis. The Mexicans reached in their guitar cases, took out the extra sets of strings the pastor had bought them. At the worktable, Elroy pul ed a sweat-soaked bandana off his neck.

  C. C. handed him a half-moon of white glass, a feather for an angel’s wing. Elroy wrapped the bandana around one end of it. Zeke unplugged his soldering iron.

  Wil got up, went to the Reverend’s door.

  For a moment, he admired Pastor Riggs sitting there, pouring his soul into his sermon.

  The Reverend was powerful y built for a man in his sixties. His hands were cal used and scarred from his early years working in a textile factory. He had sky-blue eyes and hair like carded cotton. He was the only hundred percent good man Wil Stirman had ever known.

  This was supposed to be a showcase day for Riggs. His prison ministry would turn a dozen juvenile delinquents away from crime and toward Christ. The press would run a favorable story. Riggs would attract some big private donors. He’d shared these dreams with Wil , because Wil was his proudest achievement —living proof that God’s mercy was infinite.

  Wil summoned up his most honest smile. “Pastor, you come look at the stained glass now? I think we’re almost done. ”

  The old preacher went down harder than Pablo had hoped.

  Riggs should have understood the point of the glass knife against his jugular. He should’ve let himself be tied up quietly.

  But Riggs acted outraged. He said he couldn’t believe everything he’d worked for was a lie—that al of them, for months, had been using him. He tried to reason with them, shame them, and in the end, he fought like a cornered chupacabra. Elroy, Pablo and Stirman had to wrestle him down. Zeke got too excited. He smashed the old man’s head with the soldering iron until C. C. grabbed his wrists and snarled, “Damn, man! That’s his skul showing!”

  Pablo took a nasty bite on his finger trying to cover the preacher’s mouth. Elroy had blood splattered on his pants. They were al sure Riggs’ yel ing and screaming had ruined the plan. Any second the guards would come running.

  But they got Riggs tied up with guitar string and taped his mouth and shoved him, moaning and half- conscious, into the corner of the vestry. Stil nobody came.

  Elroy stood behind the worktable so anybody coming in wouldn’t see the bloodstains on his pants. C. C.

  and Zeke huddled around him, staring at the stained glass as if they gave a damn about finishing it. Zeke suppressed a schoolboy giggle.

  “Shut up, freak,” Luis said.

  “You shut up, spic. ”

  Luis started to go for him, but Pablo grabbed his shirt col ar.

  “Both of you,” Stirman said, “cool it. ”

  “We got Riggs’ car keys,” Elroy murmured. “Don’t see why—”

  “No,” Stirman said. “We do it right. Patience. ”

  Pablo didn’t like it, but he got a D-string ready. He curled the ends around his hands, moved to one side of the door. Luis took the other side.

  Stirman sat down in his chair, in plain sight of the entrance. He crossed his legs and read through his testimonial notes. The son-of-a-bitch was cool. Pablo had to give him that.

  Pablo’s finger throbbed where the pastor had bit it. The copper guitar string stung his broken skin.

  Final y he heard footsteps on gravel. The rookie supervisor appeared with a heaping plate of ribs.

  Stirman smiled apologetical y. “Pastor Riggs wants to talk to you. Prison major came by. ”

  “Hel ,” said the supervisor.

  He started toward the vestry and Pablo garroted him, barbecue and baked beans flying everywhere. The supervisor’s fingers raked at the elusive string around his neck as Pablo dragged him into the corner.

  The rookie had just gone limp when Grier came in.

  Luis tried to get him around the neck, but the old marine was too wily. He sidestepped, saw Zeke’s soldering iron coming in time to catch the blow on his arm, managed one good yel before Elroy came over the table on top of him, crumpling him to the floor, Grier’s head connecting hard with the cement.

  Elroy got up. He was holding a broken piece of white glass and a mess of red rags. The rest of the glass was impaled just below Grier’s sternum.

  Grier’s eyes rol ed back in his head. His fingers clutched his gut.

  C. C. slapped Elroy’s arm. “What the hel you do that for?”

  “Just happened. ”

  They stood there, frozen, as Grier’s muscles relaxed. His mouth opened and stayed that way.

  Five minutes later, they had his body and the garroted rookie stripped to their underwear. The rookie was only unconscious, so they tied him up, taped his mouth, crammed him and Grier’s corpse into the tiny vestry with the comatose Reverend.

  Elroy and Luis got into the supervisors’ clothes. Grier’s had blood on them, but not that much. Most of Grier’s bleeding must’ve been inside him. Elroy figured he could cover the stains with a clipboard. Luis’ clothes had barbecue sauce splattered down the front. Neither uniform fit exactly right, but Pablo thought they might pass. They didn’t have to fool anybody very long.

  Elroy and Luis put the supervisors’ IDs around their necks. They tucked the laminated photos in their shirt pockets like they didn’t want them banging against their chests.

  C. C. , stil in prison whites, made a cal from Pastor Riggs’ desk phone, pretending he was the Maintenance Department foreman. He told the back gate to expect a crew in five minutes to fix their surveil ance camera.

  He hung up, smiled at St
irman. “They can’t wait to see us. Damn camera’s been broke for a month. We’l cal you from the sal y port. ”

  “Don’t screw up,” Stirman told him.

  “Who, me?”

  With one last look, Pablo tried to warn Luis to be careful. He couldn’t shake the image of his cousin getting shot at the gate, his disguise seen through in a second, but Luis just grinned at him. No better than the stupid gringo Zeke—he was having a grand time. Luis threw Pablo the keys to the Reverend’s SUV.

  Once they were gone, Stirman picked up the phone.

  “What you doing?” Pablo asked.

  Stirman placed an outside cal —Pablo could tel from the string of numbers. He got an answer. He said, “Go. ”

  Then he hung up.

  “What?” Pablo demanded.

  Stirman looked at him with those unsettling eyes—close-set, dark as oil, with a softness that might’ve been mistaken for sorrow or even sympathy, except for the hunger behind them. They were the eyes of a slave ship navigator, or a doctor in a Nazi death camp.

  “Safe passage,” Stirman told him. “Don’t worry about it. ”

  Pablo imagined some Mexican mother hearing those words as the boxcar door closed on her and her family, locking them in the hot unventilated darkness, with a promise that they’d al see los estados unidos in the morning.

  Pablo needed to kil Stirman.

  He should take out his shank and do it. But he couldn’t with Zeke there—stupid loyal Zeke with his stupid soldering iron.

  Thunder broke, rol ing across the tin roof of the chapel.

  “Big storm coming,” Stirman said. “That’s good for us. ”

  “It won’t rain,” Pablo said in Spanish. He felt like being stubborn, forcing Stirman to use his language.

  “That’s dry thunder. ”

  Stirman gave him an indulgent look. “Hundred-year flood, son. Wait and see. ”

  Pablo wanted to argue, but his voice wouldn’t work.

  Stirman took the car keys out of his hand and went in the other room, jingling the brass cross on the Reverend’s chain.

  Pablo stared at the phone.

  Luis, Elroy and C. C. should’ve reached the back gate by now. They should’ve cal ed.

  Or else they’d failed, and the guards were coming.

  In the corner, wedged between the unconscious supervisor and Grier’s body, Pastor Riggs stared at him —dazed blue eyes, his head wound glistening like a volcanic crater in his white hair.

  Out in the chapel, Zeke was pacing with his soldering iron. He’d done an imperfect job wiping up Grier’s blood, so his footprints made faint red prints back and forth across the cement.

  Stirman pretended to work on the stained glass. He had his back to the vestry as if Pablo posed no threat at al .

  Pablo could walk out there, drive the shank into Stirman’s back before he knew what was happening.

  He was considering the possibility when Zeke stopped, looking at something outside. Maybe the lightning.

  Whatever it was, his attention was diverted. The timing wouldn’t get any better.

  Pablo gripped the shank.

  He’d gone three steps toward Stirman when the guard came in.

  It was Officer Gonzales.

  She scanned the room, marking the trustees’ positions like land mines. Stirman and Zeke stood perfectly stil .