Sunday, June 24, 2018

The summer sun is creeping back into our picture, here, and the heat along with it. We were given that most merciful of breaks, a rain wave pushing through for a few days.

But it never lasts long enough. Our grass is cheering the rain, every drop a blessing.

I'm glad the tropical wave wasn't more than rain, and I know the people living down south of us were happy even more than we were to have it come through. Water being always at a premium. I remember the first time someone from the Valley (i.e. South Texas if that's unfamiliar to you) who told me they were praying for a tropical storm to come through. And they weren't kidding. The reservoirs are always low and getting lower.

It took me a while to get used to that. I've lived in Texas essentially my whole life, but my family and my summers as a kid are in Louisiana, where a tropical storm or hurricane is always a threat, a killer waiting to drop in unwanted. Over there, there is always rain.

Here, not so much. It's one of the little differences that tell you so much about how people think different just a few miles away from their neighbors.

I realized this summer one of the ways that difference shows up. In south Louisiana, if I see a twenty, thirty percent chance of rain in the forecast, I know there's a reasonably good chance I'm gonna get wet at least once during the day.

Here, this summer at least, and in South Texas every year, a twenty percent chance of rain is something closer to a laughing curse from the weather gods. Because you know you'll be looking at the sky, watching a few clouds roll over, begging them to drop something.

And knowing they're just going to breeze on by.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

(On Notice, part 5)

My dad wasn't the only one I learned things from. My mom has her own ways.

The biggest one is don't let things hang over you. Not that you can do something about.

Problem is, if Rob knew I think he had something to do with Milagra and his sister, no way he was gonna let that just ride along. A big thing, that, hanging there. Waiting to drop on me and Ledonna and the kids.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I asked Rob if he'd ever gone fishing out there by the desal plant. "Milagra brought us some flounder, said she'd caught them over that way. Maybe that's as good a sendoff as any."

He didn't sound at all like he was surprised I'd called him. "Reggie, you know what? I think you're right. When you wanna go? Next Saturday?"

"Meet you at the ramp?"

"Exactly."

Rob wasn't by himself at the ramp that pre-dawn morning. He had his little equalizer, riding high on the belt of his shorts.

And he had a friend along, the security guard from the plant. "This is one of the guys I work with at the desal plant. Reg, meet McCloskey. McCloskey, this is Reggie, we've known each other for years."

McCloskey, just a last name. And a gun, of course. No stainless for him, all black cool kid gun, and he wasn't worried about me seeing it either.

"You guys work together long?" I asked.

"McCloskey got me the interview. We spent some time in tanks together, in the Army back when."

There's not much point in talking about what happened. I'm here, telling this.

And they aren't.

Except maybe why they did it, killed Milagra and Sheila. "It ain't personal, Reggie."

"Can't really get much more personal than your own sister, Rob."

"Maybe she should have thought of that before she took after women, then."

His face stayed hard, the whole time. Except for that moment.

That moment, his eyes went from hard to vicious.

"But we gotta protect the plant, Reggie. That's what they hired me to do, me and McCloskey. I keep the lab reports running the way they need to."

"And him?" I said, pointing at the hard case sitting in the bow.

"He makes sure no one spends too much time around the plant outflows. Especially not anybody fishing or taking samples."

There were half a dozen pilot projects in that plant. A couple universities, a couple big engineering companies. An oil company, and a private water-treatment company all the way from Australia. Each and every one of them claiming, at least in public, that they could solve the water shortage for Texas, now and in the future.

And, looking at Rob and his buddy, one of those companies was shitting in the punch bowl. And that's all it took. One turd floating around and the whole thing would come crashing around their ears, lawsuits, the EPA, whoever, they'd shut down everybody until they could figure out who was responsible for whatever Rob and McCloskey's bosses were putting in the bay.

And here Milagra and I come in. We'd been in and out of every one of those units, I'd been there three times this month alone. What do you think happened when they realized she was sitting out there in a boat every weekend?

Maybe if I was a different man, I'd have tried to figure out which unit it was. Which company had pooched it for all of them and was scrambling now to cover up until the music stopped.

Too bad I'm not that guy. The only thing I cared about was getting back to Ledonna, nice and safe and sound, and leaving nothing hanging over me when I got there.

There's something else I learned from my momma. It happened when they put those signs up in her favorite fishing spot. She didn't stop fishing there, though she did stop going more than two or three times a week.

And she didn't bring what she caught there home with her. "Reggie, you know how bad that shit is?"

"How's that, Momma?"

"They won't ever be able to dredge those bayous again. All these decades, they come in every spring and clear the channel, and now ain't nobody ever gonna do it again."

"But you can still go in there and catch the fish, have the fun of doing it."

"Damned straight. I ain't gotta eat them fish, all I need is a picture."

I went to the library after that, to look up what Momma was talking about. Turns out, there's places all up and down the Gulf Coast where the old time chemical companies dumped decades worth of shit into the channels and bayous. Mercury, arsenic, lead, stuff that'll eat your skin and make your balls shrivel up to the size of sunflower seeds. They can't dredge it up because if they disturb it, all that stuff will come out of the gumbo mud and pollute the rest of the system.

Yep. There's a lot of those places, bayous, sloughs. Big enough to take a boat into, if you want.

Places no one's going to be touching the bottom of for centuries. A real shame, what people leave behind them in places like that.

Friday, June 22, 2018

(On Notice, part 4)

Hundreds of square miles and I run into people wanting to talk.

Get the boat unloaded, and that save point Milagra set is blinking at me. Ten miles to run, clear channel, why not? Worst thing to happen is I go out there, get a good long look, turn the urns loose, and haul ass back to the ramp.

If you've ever seen a chemical plant from the water, you know what Milagra's fishing spot looked like. White tanks, scaffolding, a forlorn dock looking like it's about to fall into the water and give up the ghost for good. An outflow where the brine came back into the bay and another one where the freshwater came along with it.

Half a dozen other boats fishing that fresh water return, and I'm sitting here wondering just what it was I thought I'd see. "You ain't a tv detective, Reg. Pack your shit and make for the ramp."

Which is what I was getting ready to do when the plant security boat comes running up alongside. "You're not supposed to be fishing in this area, Mister."

I didn't say the obvious, that there wasn't a fishing pole within sight. "I'm just enjoying a day on the water."

Guy tried to get out and into my boat. Too bad I'd already fired her up. And couldn't quite hear what he had to say.

I did see him jump on his phone as I left. Since I still had the urns to deal with, I headed straight down the channel, rather than back to the ramp.

Turning Milagra and Sheila's remains loose was the easy part. I couldn't think of anything to say, not that hadn't already been done to death at the funeral, but I could, and did, sit there with the motor off, letting the current do its thing.

Then I fired up and headed back to the ramp.

Funny. Rob was waiting there for me. I guess I knew then who his buddy at the plant had called.

I didn't do anything different than I'd have done if he hadn't been there. Tie off, walk to the truck and back the trailer down the ramp. Load up, pull the boat dry, set the straps and pull the plug to drain her.

The whole time, he's sitting up there in his truck, watching me do the work. Only time he makes a move is when I'm getting read to get back in the truck. Then, he pulls up next to me and climbs down. "Hey man, got what you need done?"

Whatever the plant security guy had told him, I figured the least I could do was not to open my mouth and wonder why he hadn't helped me get the boat on the trailer. "Yeah, it's done."

He hitched his pants up, and something flashed at his belt. He must have noticed me looking. "That? Oh, that's just my little equalizer." Rob pulled his shirt up enough for me to get a good look. Little stainless steel revolver. "I figured if I'm gonna be running the boat, I might as well get me a little shark gun to go along with it."

Uh-huh. Sharks, fools running around on the boat dock. Whatever. "You want me to unhitch here?"

"Nah, you're going back by the house anyway, right? I'll just follow along behind you."

"Sounds fine to me. I'm gonna head on out, get back to Ledonna sometime before she starts ringing the phone."

He nodded, then stepped in closer. He let me close the door, but stepped in to grab the door before I could close the window. "Guys at the desal plant said you'd run the boat up there."

Yep. And now I was starting to wonder who had more interest in this, Rob or the people at the plant. "Just an accident. Milagra'd set the gps save point, and I didn't clue in to where it was taking me until I got there."

He grinned, easy, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Funny how accidents happen, ain't it? Kinda like Sheila. I'd hate for any more accidents to happen, Reg, you were never much of a boater."

The clock on the dash was counting down time. After noon, going on one. Plenty of time to get this thing back to Rob's house. If I didn't let him accidentally talk me into doing something that made me run late, like go to lunch or stop at a bar.

"Gotta be safe, Rob. That's my way, like it always has been. You gonna follow me?"

He stepped back, hands out his belt pushing the gun out to flash in the sun again. "Nah man, I can see you're good. I think I'll run on back to the plant, get some paperwork done. Gotta love that overtime."

Yeah, overtime. What kind of overtime you working, Rob? "Take care, man. See you around."

He didn't return my wave, and I didn't let my hand give him the finger like it wanted to. I just eased out onto the highway and let the cruise control keep me well away from the speed limit.

I'd originally intended to stop and re-fill the boat's gas tanks. All things considered, though, I figured Rob could handle an eighth of a tank or so. What with his concern about my safety. And all that overtime he was working.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

(On Notice, part 3)

My dad passed on good things to me. Two of 'em were to never keep a boat, and don't get jealous when you pull up to someone's fancy house.

That first one's pretty easy. Spend enough time in the Texas sun working to pay the bills, and not chasing fish that don't want to get caught is a pretty easy habit to pick up. Not that Ledonna'd give me time to do it, even if I was interested.

Stopping at Rose's for a good deal on someone else's catch is cheaper.

Fixing things for Milagra's family was one of the few times I wished I did have my own boat. Turns out, it was Sheila's boat, in her name anyway. And it had somehow found its way to Rob's house about five minutes after the funeral.

That's when I had to remind myself of my dad's comments about houses. Sheila's brother had given me the address, told me it would be all right, so I punched it into my phone and headed on down the road of a Friday morning. Not at dawn, I wasn't worried about the fish schedule. Most of my time was driving the couple hours down to Matagorda Bay.

"Holy..." I said to the empty truck cab. "How in the hell?" Then I reminded myself I didn't need to know, or care, how a lab tech could afford to pay for the place I was driving up to. On the water on Clear Lake, down where the doctors and lawyers spend their weekends.

I just shook my head. However Rob managed it was his business. The only thing I cared about was getting the boat and getting this job finished.

He'd said he'd be at work, just hitch up and take off.

Yeah. Right. Dude like me pulls up into that neighborhood and pulls a boat out of a yard... I stepped down from the truck and knocked on the door.

"Yes?" The lady of the house answered the door. I remembered her from the funeral, couldn't for the life of me remember her name.

"Yes, ma'am, I'm Reggie Belanger, I'm borrowing..."

"Rob told me last night. What time are you coming back?"

"Mid-afternoon, no later than four or five."

She nodded and closed the door. I guess that meant she knew all she needed, so I headed on over to the truck and the boat.

I was about gone when I saw her waving at me from the porch. She had an urn in her hand, twin to the one sitting in my back seat. I got down again and walked over.

"Take Sheila's with you, too. I don't care for dead people in my house."

I could understand that. So I put the urn next to Milagra's and headed on down the road.

I did call Rob, well, left a voicemail on his phone, anyway. He called me about half an hour later. Once we got through the hello bit, I told him about Sheila's urn. "I'm not trying to get in between anybody. But I figured I'd check before someone came knocking on my door."

"It's cool, Reggie. Happy wife, happy life."

Yep. That figured, the only thing left was to stop and fill up the boat. "So much for a trip to the ballpark." Not that I minded, really. We'd catch up to the Astros in a month or two.

Waiting on the boat tank to fill up, and watching the numbers creep a lot higher than I wanted to think about, that's when I made my fool mistake.

Milagra and Sheila had a gps unit hanging next to the boat's wheel. Rather than wince every time the gas bill roll over, I climbed up into the boat and turned the gps on.

I didn't figure they'd much care where I emptied the urns, so far as it was out in the water somewhere they wouldn't end up as a clump on the beach.

My mistake was looking through the save points on the gps. And then telling myself that, well, I had time, so I might as well run over to Milagra's honey hole. If it was that good a fishing spot, maybe it was good enough to send the ladies off.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

(On Notice, part 2)

There's layers to everyone. Things you don't know, even spending ten, twelve hours a day together.

The funeral was hard. Both together, like the wedding they'd never quite got around to. Cremation after that, Milagra had let it be known often enough she wanted her ashes scattered in the bay. Her mother was the only member of her family that came. Ledonna and I sat up front with her, one on each side so she had people.

Sheila's family all came. Hell, I grew up with her brother Rob, we graduated together. Then he ran off to play with tanks in Germany for a couple years. Milagra had told me he'd been working as a lab tech in one of the plants down on the Matagorda.

Rob came up to me right after the service, right after Mrs. Villareal asked me to be the one to take Milagra's urn out to the bay.

"Reggie, how are you?"

"We're ok, man, you?"

Like that. Two grown-ass men who didn't know how to say anything at a time like that. We shook hands, no hugs or anything, I didn't think about it until Ledonna and I were sitting in the car.

"Rob say anything to you?" she asked.

"Say what?"

Ledonna'd kept up more with the girls than I had. Turns out Rob had never much liked the idea of his sister and Milagra together. Or any other girl that Sheila had been with.

"He seemed fine today, though," I pointed out.

She reached over to grab my hand, held it between the seats on top of the emergency brake. I didn't mind the discomfort. "You two are old enough, maybe he's worried about getting to heaven now."

"You calling me old, lady?" I pulled her hand up to kiss it, let her know I was joking. Not about Rob though. "He's never been much for keeping his mouth shut."

"That's why I asked you if he'd said anything. Maybe there's hope for us all."

I don't know. Not after what happened when I took my boat out on the water that weekend.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

(On Notice, part 1)

"This shit's just a job, man."

I agreed with Milagra; riding plant to plant rebuilding hydraulic systems was just a way to pay the bills. Years ago, I'd kept track of the stickers on my hard hat as a source of pride.

Now, I just rolled my eyes every time I had to go through another day's safety orientation.

Milagra had something else on her mind. "How'd the flounder go over with Ledonna?"

"Good, and better than good. She stuffed and baked them, like my grandma used to make, I ate 'til I floundered myself." One of those push back from the table and unbuckle my belt meals. "You keep bringing that to my house and I'm gonna need new pants."

"You oughta come down next weekend, run out with us. We'll have a couple weeks before someone else finds the place I've been catching 'em."

You know it. Too many pros out there every day, gps and radio and all the time and gas in the world to hunt down little honey holes.

"You're not catching them radioactive fish, are you?" Not that I could say anything. Three days a week, you cross over the San Jacinto and you'll see my mother sitting on the channel, right next to the sign warning everyone not to fish in the Superfund site.

"No, dude, I ain't gonna do that to you. This ones in one of the clean areas. Only thing you gotta worry about there is whether the desal plant screwed up their cycle."

The desalination plant was one of the ones on our rotation, a couple hours south on the Matagorda Bay. I hadn't checked in a while, the state kept of a list of the different parts of the bays that weren't safe to fish in, but if you were looking for a place to build a desal plant to pump drinking water from, odds were good you'd go a long way to make sure you didn't accidentally poison your customers.

"Figures. You're parking on that cooling stream they're working on."

The plant wasn't really a production plant, not yet. Pilot projects, half a dozen different tests going on to figure out which was the most economical way to make clean water from the Gulf. You know, for once in their life the state was actually testing something, rather than just buy whichever project lined the most pockets.

This one was a distillation plant, the cooling tower excess, all fresh water from the river, was pumped out into the bay. Real reason, as far as I could tell, was someone realized that they needed to balance the excess brine they produced and fed back into the bay. Otherwise, the commercial shrimpers were going to have a field day with the lawsuits when their feeder system collapsed.

"You damn right. It holds the flounder coming out of the estuaries another three, four weeks later than normal. And I'm just the gal to take advantage of it."

"Ledonna's happy with that. I guess maybe I'll run down there with you. You can catch the fish, and I can drink a beer or two in peace."

"Count on it, buddy. Next weekend?"

"Sounds good. Good luck this weekend."

"See you Monday, Reg."

I never did get the chance to go out with Milagra and her girlfriend, Sheila. Milagra didn't come back Monday.

They found the two of them, their bodies, still in their boat. Three or four
days later. Shot in the back of the head; kneeling in the bow.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

And corollary to a trip out of town, as soon as I got back we ran off to see my dad for Father's Day. So, a busy week away from the keyboard.

I am glad I finished Peace Offer, the timing ended up being perfect to have a nice break and rest my wrists etc. Plus clearing the mind a bit for things away from the world being built.

That one's going to be interesting. I'm not sure it's a classic series open, but it is a view on a world that I had not yet visisted. That's another way of saying that the ending surprised me, leaving the story in a good place but with a clear path forward when I'm ready to catch up to the characters again.

I've a few short stories ahead of me in the next couple of weeks. I tripped over a voice or two on the road home, the radio singing in my ears.

There's this John Prine song calling to me for some reason. I don't have a clue what for, but the siren's wail is there and I've learned to trust she'll have something interesting to show me if I follow the whispers.