Bordersnakes, p.1
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       Bordersnakes, p.1

           James Crumley
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  Praise for James Crumley

  “What Raymond Chandler did for the Los Angeles of the thirties, James Crumley does for the roadside West of today.”


  “Crumley can write scenes that are unique to him. He is the rare writer who uses style, not tricks.”

  —San Jose Mercury News

  “If you like your detective fiction tough and tenacious you will love James Crumley….No one does it better.”

  —Houston Chronicle

  “Crumley is one of the finest additions to the private eye genre….[He] brings to his books…a knowledge and understanding of the American psyche few writers in any genre have managed.”

  —The Buffalo News

  “James Crumley is a first-rate American writer…pyrotechnically entertaining, sexy, compassionate.”

  —The Village Voice

  James Crumley


  James Crumley was born in Three Rivers, Texas, and spent most of his childhood in South Texas. After serving three years in the U.S. Army and completing college degrees in history (BA, Texas College of Arts and Industries) and creative writing (MFA, University of Iowa), he joined the English faculty at the University of Montana at Missoula. He was also a visiting professor at a number of other institutions around the country, including the University of Texas at El Paso, Colorado State University, Reed College, and Carnegie Mellon. His works include a novel of Vietnam, One to Count Cadence, and seven detective novels: The Wrong Case, The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear, The Mexican Tree Duck, Bordersnakes, The Final Country, and The Right Madness. He died in Missoula in 2008.


  One to Count Cadence

  The Wrong Case

  Dancing Bear

  The Last Good Kiss

  The Mexican Tree Duck


  The Final Country

  The Right Madness


  Copyright © 1996 by James Crumley

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Warner Books, Inc., a Time Warner Company, New York, in 1996.

  Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.

  Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN 9781101971499

  ebook ISBN 9781101971529

  Cover design by Megan Wilson

  Cover photograph © Tony Worobiec/Arcangel





  About the Author

  Books by James Crumley

  Title Page



  Author’s Note


  Part One: Milo

  Part Two: Sughrue

  Part Three: Milo

  Part Four: Sughrue

  Part Five: Milo

  Part Six: Milo & Sughrue













  for Martha Elizabeth

  Author’s note

  For reasons of my own, I’ve played fast and loose with the geography of two of my favorite places, West Texas and Northern California, and I beg the reader’s indulgence. Thank you.

  As we climbed out of the plane the automatic runway landing lights snapped off, leaving us in the soft desert darkness surrounding the small field.

  “Castillo, Texas,” the pilot muttered, nervous, removing the dark glasses he always wore for night flying. “Who the fuck lives out here?”

  “Mojados—that’s wetbacks to you gringos—three kinds of drug smugglers, six different breeds of law dogs, and every kind of criminal ever dreamed up,” the guide answered grimly.

  “And over there?” the pilot said, waving his glasses at the smoky, smudged lights across the Rio Grande.

  “Enojada?” the guide said, amazed. “Bordersnakes, man.”

  “Who’s that?”

  “Shit, man,” he finally said, “nobody knows who they are. And nobody with any fucking sense gives a shit.”




  Maybe it was the goddamned suit. Tailor-made Italian silk, as light and flimsy as shed snakeskin. Or maybe my whole new clean and shiny wardrobe looked strange under my battered old face. A thin knit shirt under the suit coat, woven leather loafers—without socks, of course—and a soft Borsalino felt fedora that made me look like a Russian Black Sea summer pimp. Not bad, though, I thought. For a pimp.

  But obviously I had violated more than the dress code in this run-down shithole called Duster’s Lounge, a code that surely included a rap sheet at least two pages long, five years’ hard time, and all the runny, jailhouse tattoos a man’s skin could carry.

  Or perhaps the ’roid monkey leaning beside me on the battered bar fancied himself a fashion critic. He sported winged dragons and skulls on the bulging arms hanging out of his muscle shirt, an oversized switchblade in his right hand, and the slobbery leer of a true critic. Whatever, he played with my left cuff until the switchblade pressed into the soft fabric. For the third time in the last two minutes.

  “What the fuck you doing here, old man?” he muttered in a downer-freak’s growl. “What the fuck?”

  I hadn’t even had a sip of my beer yet, my first beer in almost ten years. I tried to turn away peacefully again, smiling tensely without speaking, but the big jerk recaptured my cuff with the point of his knife. Goddamned Sughrue. He’d love this shit. But he wasn’t here. As far as I knew, he could be dead. But what the hell, I heard him think, nobody lives forever. Gently, I slipped my cuff free.

  “Kid, you touch my suit with that blade again,” I said calmly, “I’m going to shove it up your ass and break it off.” Maybe he’d think it was a joke.

  At least he laughed. His voice broke like an adolescent’s when he brayed. He honked so loud and long that the steroid acne across his shoulders threatened to erupt. Somewhere in the dim bar, this kid had an audience.

  I checked a group of glassy-eyed young men of several races, sporting bloody new tattoos on their arms and military haircuts, who had surrounded two pitchers of thin, bitter beer and one professional woman old enough to be their grandmother. Fort Bliss, I guessed, and the first payday pass of basic training. A half-dozen Sneaky Pete day-drinkers occupied a couple of other tables in the decrepit joint at the desert end of Dyer Street. No problem there. Then I saw the big kid’s audience at the shadowed edge of the dance floor: two beefy guys showing lots of ink who could have been tired electricians, unemployed roughnecks, or ex-cons. I addressed them politely.

  “Excuse me, gentlemen,” I said loudly, “perhaps this vermin belongs to you?”

  The beefy guys made a mock glance over their broad shoulders, then turned wide gap-toothed grins at me. Several day-drinkers chugged their beers and slithered out like greasy shadows. The bartender sidled into the cooler. Then the biggest hunk of beef stood up, laughed, and hitched up his greasy jeans.

  “Truth is, sir, Tommy Ray, there,” he said, still grinning, “he don’t much belong to nobody. Seems like the best part of the kid ran
down his momma’s leg.” Then he paused and glanced at his pal. “Unfortunately, that’d be my momma, too.”

  “Sorry to hear that,” I said, then turned back to the bar to reconsider my new life and wardrobe. And other pressing matters. Such as: why had I brought my ancient bones and new wardrobe into this particular bar on this particular October day in El Paso, Texas? Ten years without so much as a beer, and there I was about to die before I even had a sip of the Coors longneck sweating in front of me.

  So I took off my new hat and reached for the beer. Tommy Ray giggled like a fool and missed my cuff this time when he tried to pin it to the scarred bar with the blade, saying, “What was it you were going to do, old man?” Then he raised a double tequila with the other hand, chugged it, and tossed down a small draft beer to douse the flames.

  While he had his head tilted back far enough to stretch his thick neck, I slapped him across the face with the hat and hit him in the windpipe as hard as I could with my right fist. Which should have been hard enough. I’d come into my middle fifties sober and solid. I ran, I pumped iron, and worked the bags, heavy and speed, three times a week. I was still six-foot and two-twenty, with a rock-hard Milodragovitch head. But this kid, like many kids these days, was a monster. Maybe only six-three but a solid two-eighty, with a chin like a middle-buster plow. Even bigger than his big brother. And he stood between me and the sunlight. Grinning.

  I cut an eyebrow with a jab, hoping to blind him, then wrapped my right fist in the soft hat and hit him in the face with three straight rights that didn’t faze him, didn’t even make him stop smiling.

  Then I hooked him in the gut. Big mistake. My wrist bent and nearly dislocated. So I grabbed the beer bottle and smashed it against the slimy brass footrail. My first beer in years spattered across the dry wood floor and deeply stained my beautiful new loafers. Maybe the beer would cover the blood. Sure as hell, I’d have to cut this kid just to get out the door; and as much as he deserved to be taken out of the gene pool, I didn’t want to be the one to do it. About the time I stopped drinking, I also decided that I’d seen too much death in my life, much too close.

  Tommy Ray stepped back into a crouch, his close-set eyes bunched so tightly I might have poked them out with one finger. But his eyelids were probably iron-hard, too. He waved the blade in front of his belt, then rushed me, clubbing at my head with his left and trying for an underhanded sweep with the right. But I caught his left on my shoulder and blocked his sweeping arm with my forearm, a pair of shocks I felt all the way to the bone, then I rolled out, raking the broken bottle across his chest.

  Tommy Ray stopped long enough to look down and find his right pectoral, complete with the strap of his muscle shirt and his nipple, flapping off his chest. Then a sheet of blood flowed across his ribs.

  In his dazed pause, I meant to drive the beer bottle into his face, then run, but his big brother stepped between us, and the pal pinned me from behind, wrapped me almost gently in his arms. “Easy, old man,” was all he said.

  “Goddammit, T.R.,” the brother said, taking the knife from him, “you fucking asshole.” Then he turned to me, grabbed my wrist with one hand, and jerked the beer bottle out of it with the other. “Ah, shit, man, I’m sorry. The fuckin’ kid’s got the IQ of a spit-warm beer. But he’s my little brother. He’s just funnin’ you…”

  “Gut strokes are not funny, buddy,” I said.

  “I can see how you might feel that way,” he said sincerely, “and I really am sorry. I should’ve stopped this shit before somebody got hurt…”

  “Hurt?” the kid growled as he tried to press the flap of flesh back to his chest. “The son of a bitch cut my fucking tit off, Rock!”

  “You ain’t hurt,” his brother said, laughing calmly. “We’ll just sew the fucker back on. Good as new…”

  Which was the last thing I heard. Tommy Ray slipped to the side and launched a long, slow, looping right hand over his brother’s broad shoulder. The fist looked as large as my head and it crunched into the side of my face with a sound like a melon thrown off a speeding truck. I sure as hell wished I had found C.W. Sughrue before I decided to fall off the wagon in this particular wreck.


  When I came back to some semblance of consciousness, I found myself still facing afternoon. Late afternoon. The same day, I dearly hoped. The shadows of the rough, prickly mountains that split El Paso like a primitive, sacrificial dagger had only reached the hard-packed parking spaces in front of Duster’s.

  At least I was in my car, my new Caddy Beast, and I had the steering wheel to help me sit upright. As I did, my loafers and hat fell off my chest.

  “Jesus,” I muttered, “fucking kid musta knocked me outa my shoes.”

  “True enough, man,” came a voice from beside me. “And he got Dancer, too, with the back of your head. Dropped him like a cold dog turd. Then I had to hit T.R. about nine times before he went to one knee.” Big brother held up his right hand. The two middle knuckles were jammed halfway to his wrist, a long deep tooth-cut split the knuckle of his index finger, and his other fingers splayed brokenly from the crooked hand. “Fuckin’ kid always could take a punch.”

  “Where’s he now?” I asked. When I turned to look around, the wobblies resumed residence in my head, so I had to close my eye. The right one. Tommy Ray had sealed the left one for me. Perhaps forever.

  “Police took him to the hospital,” he said. “Maybe they’ll hold him for a while. And with any luck his probation officer will violate him for being drunk. So we’re safe for now.” Then he laughed wildly.

  “Police?” I said. “How long have I been out?”

  “A good bit,” he said. “One of my brothers took the call, wrote it up as a wash, but he left me to keep an eye on you. In case you died. Or something.”

  “Your brother?”

  “Big family, the Soameses, seven brothers,” he said. “Half cops, half crooks, half crazy.”

  “How do you get half of seven?”

  “I guess your head’s all right, man, you ask a question like that,” he said. “Sammy Ray drowned in Grenada.”

  “How’s my eye look?”

  “Hamburger,” he said, “rotten hamburger. Or maybe bloody dog shit. Nothin’ a couple of stitches can’t fix.”

  “Thanks,” I said, “but I meant the eyeball.”

  “Me, too,” he said, then giggled drunkenly. “It’s ugly, but it’s okay. And the socket’s intact. That’s the important part. You’ve probably got a concussion like a barrel cactus. But the eye will be okay. My old man used to box a little. A ranked heavy for a few minutes, before the booze got him. I worked his corner some when I was a kid.”

  “Thanks,” I said, and extended my hand. “Milodragovitch.”

  He waved his bag of bones at me and said, “Rocky Soames. Rocky Ray. It’s a family tradition.”

  “Lost fistfights and suicides,” I said, “that’s my family’s tradition.”

  “Nothin’ you could do about it, man. When T.R. gets behind a handful of downers, somebody has to get hurt,” he said, then grinned. “Usually several somebodies.”

  “Well, fuck it. Next time I decide to have a beer I’ll bring a hand grenade,” I said. I would have grinned back at him but it hurt too much.


  Rocky drove me back to the Paso del Norte Hotel and kindly helped me to my suite. We drew some odd looks as we crossed the lobby, but I crossed some palms, and the looks disappeared. We had plenty of help the rest of the way. After that it was all gravy. A house doctor brought codeine and a half circle of stitches for the corner of my eye. The bellman took my bloody suit off to the cleaners, then fetched coffee for me, a large glass of tequila for my new buddy, and an extra television set to roll beside my king-sized bed so I could see it with my single working eye.

  “Thanks again,” I said to Rocky as he took his leave. “And tell your little brother that I ain’t ever been hit that hard in my whole fucking awful life.”

  “Shit, man,” he
said, “everybody tells him that.”

  I had to laugh. Maybe it was the drugs. A little later, codeine smooth and toweled warm from a hot tub, I slipped naked between cold expensive sheets. I thought about ordering a Scotch the size of West Texas, then knew I shouldn’t drink it without Sughrue, and wondered where the fuck he had hidden from me. And why.


  When I finally found him three weeks later outside a rock-house convenience store in the tiny West Texas town of Fairbairn, we had both changed so much we didn’t even recognize each other. But at least I’d found his hiding place.

  Earlier that afternoon, five hours on the interstate east of El Paso, I decided to take the scenic route and turned south on a narrow paved strip that wound through the dry, scrub-brush foothills of the Davis Mountains. In spite of the barbed-wire fences flanking the pavement, I couldn’t imagine soft-footed steers grazing across the thin grass scattered among sharp rocks. Maybe sheep or goats. But the rusty, four-string barbed-wire fence couldn’t hold a goat. Or even the world’s dumbest walking mutton.

  After thirty minutes on the little highway without seeing a soul—not even a buzzard—I spotted a small herd of longhorns among a patch of thorned brush hopelessly trying to crawl up the genetic ladder toward treedom. When I stopped to stare at the cattle, they stared back, their wild eyes perfectly at home in that reckless landscape, their gaze as rank and rangy as the African breed that began their bloodline. I wondered how the hell those drovers managed to herd these beasts from West Texas to Montana in the 1880s without Cobra gunships.

  Then I began to see people: a welder hanging the blade back on a grader that had been scratching a firebreak out of the stony scrub; two Mexican hands greasing a windmill under a sky swept pale, polished blue by the constant wind; an old woman in a tiny Ford Escort running her RFD route, bringing the mail to the scattered, shotgunned mailboxes along the road.


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