Santos's debut novel will hit shelves March 31

He curled up on the couch. The room was now on its side and felt quiet and cool. The leather couch smelled like money, and the entire house hummed as if vast machines toiled in the basement. This whole job, airport or casino or whatever, really had been too good to be true. Of course, the signs had been there.

 

Excerpt from chapter ten of Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Z. Santos.  Excerpted with permission from Arte Público Press.

 

Chapter 10

 

Charles was hungover, and the road to his new house snaked up the side of a mountain, so his first act in the house might be puking in the toilet. If he could wait that long.

 

Salazar had given him the house keys last night in the office, but he had crashed at Lou's.

 

When he went back to the trailer to grab his suitcases, Lou was drinking beer and watching TV. Charles sat down to have a quick one. Then one turned to two, turned to three, turned to Lou and Charles bonding over how much Diana Salazar scared them. The beer was thin and yellow, and the cop show they watched was boring. Perfect. All of Charles’s DC friends, those who still spoke to him, only talked about politics. He needed a dumb night with a crate of piss beer.

 

Charles’s stomach churned. He was unshowered and almost late for work. This road was torture. He was up the side of a mountain just outside of downtown Santa Fe. Juniper and mesquite trees hung low over the street and buckled the asphalt. The houses themselves were set behind adobe courtyards, and Charles had no way to tell if this neighborhood was run down and abandoned or ancient and luxurious.

 

When his phone rang, he knew it was his wife Addie without even looking at the screen. Charles answered, put the phone on speaker and placed it on the console next to him.

 

“Hey,” he said. “I’m driving. What’s up?”

 

“Calling to see how it went yesterday,” Addie said. “You got so excited, then I never heard anything.”

 

“You haven’t seen the headlines? Things are blowing up.”

 

“Yeah? I didn’t notice anything, but I’m glad something’s up. You were worried the gig was all over.”

 

“I think this is going to work out for me,” he said. “There’s a ton going on. I don’t even know where to start.”

 

“I’m glad you’re happy. You driving to work?”

 

“Dropping my stuff at the new house first.”

 

“I got my tickets,” she said. “I’ll be there next Friday.”

 

Her voice was neutral, waiting to respond to Charles’s emotion. His silence lasted maybe half a second, but that was long enough.

 

“Yeah, yeah that’s good.” He said it loud, as if he could make up for his hesitation.

 

“Things’ll be less crazy by then. I can show you around.”

 

“Yeah, okay. Great, I guess.”

 

Despite her frustration, she was still too generous. Charles knew Addie would work for their relationship, keep sacrificing past all reason. Cold threads of guilt wrapped around his bones.

 

“I really,” Charles paused, “I know this is hard, but this job will be worth it. There are real opportunities here.”

 

As he drove up the mountain, the houses became more spaced out and the land between them more wild and dense with trees and brush. He found the correct street and pulled into a short, gravel cul-de-sac on which there were only two houses.

 

“There’s another thing,” Addie said. “It’s not good.”

 

Low walls jutted out of the narrow, adobe house, like two arms reaching forward in protection. A thick wooden door looked like it opened onto a courtyard. The initial impression it gave was of cloistered luxury. A monastery in Beverly Hills. Charles hopped out of the car and almost left the phone behind.

 

“Babe, I’ve never seen a house like this. It’s out of a magazine.”

 

“Can’t wait to see it, but I have to tell you about your friend Jim Hawley.”

 

The courtyard door had been repurposed from an old church. Through a cross-hatched grill, he could see a spread of cacti and coarse desert grass. In the courtyard, the air smelled dark and fertile with overgrown plant life.

 

The front door was frosted, corrugated glass. Inside, the thick plaster walls were smooth as icing. The ceiling was lined with walnut-brown vigas and the floor was slate, cool to the touch. Charles wanted to caress the smooth surfaces and take it all in.

 

“I’m listening, I swear,” he said. “But this place is unreal.”

 

“Jim was arrested in Syria,” said Addie.

 

Charles noticed a pair of high heel shoes by the front door.

 

“Hello?” Addie asked.

 

“I’m here, but what do you mean? Like, Syria Syria?”

 

The shoes were out of place, left behind, but they also looked at home, arranged as if the owner knew exactly where to put them.

 

“Some NGO work,” Addie said. “I’m not sure. Democracy-building stuff, but the Syrians came in, busted it up, accused everyone of spying.”

 

Charles looked down the hall towards the bedrooms. The house was empty. It had to be.

 

“You don’t seem concerned,” she said.

 

“Well, Jim Hawley had a temper. Every campaign he punched a hole in the drywall. Every campaign. He did it to make a point, but it became a joke after the fourth or fifth time he did it. Probably decked a Syrian senator. Do they have senators?”

 

“Charlie, he’s being accused of spying. Everyone else was released, but they’re going to make an example of him. State has threatened to pull the ambassador.”

 

One of the bedroom doors was cracked open a bit, and Charles pushed it open all the way.

 

He felt the ground cut out from under his feet. He knew he was standing, knew he was awake, alive, but this had to be a mistake or a dream.

 

Only a dream, a bad dream, would explain why he was looking at his ex-wife.

 

Olivia pulled the blankets up around her neck. He had awakened her, and she was blinking at him like she was the one seeing a ghost. A bottle of champagne and two glasses, one empty, sat on the nightstand.

 

Olivia smiled. “Well, you’re a little late, dear.”

 

Charles heard Addie’s voice from far away. At some point, he had lowered the phone to his side. He brought the phone back up to his ear. “Sorry, sorry, you cut out on the last part.”

 

“This all just happened,” she said. “But I figured you’d want to know. I thought he was your friend.”

 

Charles and Olivia had not seen each other for more than ten years. He took a tiny step towards the bed, feeling like a lion tamer whose act had started to go sideways. They had met in Chicago when they were both in their twenties. He was working a campaign, and she bartended at the bar near the office.  She hated politics, and he was kind of a stiff. For a few months, it was perfect. Then, it stopped being perfect. She cheated. He cheated shortly afterward. They split, and he almost never thought of her.

 

Finally, he managed a few words to Addie. “Hawley was a jerk. I wouldn’t worry about it. He was probably  drunk and rubbed someone the wrong way. He’ll sleep it off.”

 

Olivia laughed, sat up and smoothed her hair back. She was wearing a black nightgown. “Is that your wife?” she stage-whispered.

 

Charles covered the phone. “Look, I’m really losing you up here. Can I call you

later?”

 

Addie sighed. “You seem annoyed that I took the time to tell you.”

 

“No, no, no. I’m just running late and need time to process this.”

 

Olivia reached for the champagne and poured herself a splash. She offered the bottle to Charles, who smiled and shook his head.

 

“Call me later?” Addie asked. “I want to hear things.”

 

“Definitely. For sure.”

 

Charles hung up feeling guilty.

 

“Welcome home, husband.”

 

He looked down at his phone. “I just got bad news about a friend. A guy I worked with a while back. But I can’t even think about it.” He looked around the bedroom, wondering who else would pop out. “What’s happening right now?”

 

“I’m in bed. You’re standing over there. We’re in a million-dollar house on a mountain.” “I knew you’d say something clever like that. How are you here?”

 

“I’m from here. What are you doing here?” “This isn’t a coincidence.”

 

“Can’t get anything past you.” She rolled her eyes. “I knew you were staying here and I wanted to see you. Then I fell asleep. You’re the one who walked into my bedroom.”

 

He shook his head. “No, no this house belongs to my, to, to…”

 

Charles turned around and walked into the living room. He sat down on one of the couches. His best hope, really his only chance at this point, was if she never walked out of that bedroom. If no one was there. If she was a ghost or, if he was lucky, a tumor chewing through his brain.

 

Then, he heard her bare feet coming down the stone hallway.

 

Olivia had thrown on a pair of jeans and a white button-up shirt. It was so much preppier than anything Olivia wore back in Chicago. Now that she was out of bed, Charles got a good look at her. She used to have more of an edge. He could see traces of it in her walk. Ten years had turned her into a woman with money.

 

“Oh, I thought you’d be a little happy to see me. A smidge?”

 

“I’ve been working with these people for almost a week, interviewing for two weeks before that. Your name did not come up.”

 

“You’re mad. I get it. You’re mad because we’re both losers.” She made an L out of her thumb and forefinger and placed it on her forehead. “Remember when people did this?”

 

“I’m not a loser.”

 

She laughed and shook her head.

 

“That laugh,” he said. “That little snort you do. It used to sound nice. Do you work for Branch and Salazar? Those are the only people in the state who know me, and don’t give me a sarcastic answer.”

 

“Don’t we all work for him?” She rolled her eyes. “Fine, sorry I didn’t tell you, I’m married to your boss.”

 

“Cody Branch is not my boss.”

 

“Oh, Charlie, you’ve been out here long enough to know better than that.”

 

He curled up on the couch. The room was now on its side and felt quiet and cool. The leather couch smelled like money, and the entire house hummed as if vast machines toiled in the basement. This whole job, airport or casino or whatever, really had been too good to be true. Of course, the signs had been there. Addie’s skepticism. How had they found him in the first place? He had shrugged it all off.

 

“This is stalking,” he said. “Manipulation. You got me this job but didn’t tell me.”

 

She laughed. “Stalking? I mentioned your name to Cody. That’s all. You got yourself hired.”

 

Charles thought of his mother. This was the kind of stunt she used to pull all the time.

 

When she donated stacks of cash to party committees or to PACs in states where Charles had taken jobs, she referred to it as “voting with her pocketbook.” Soon, bald men wearing gold rings were gripping his shoulder and introducing him as Lena O’Connell’s son.

 

“You can’t do stuff like this,” he said. “You’re not allowed to sneak into my life.” “I’m from here,” she laughed.

 

“You could have sent one email. ‘Hey, heard of a gig. Interested?’ But I didn’t even get to decide if I wanted to owe you a favor.”

 

Olivia sat on the couch’s arm, but he stayed curled up on his side.

 

“Look, all I did was give my husband a name. That’s the truth.”

 

She came closer.

 

Charles looked at his watch. “I’ve got to go to work.”

 

“Were you always this whiny? Diana won’t be mad if you tell her we were together.”

 

“I am not doing that.”

 

“You really don’t have a sense of humor anymore. Did you ever?”

 

Charles pushed himself up and looked at her. “Why would you marry that guy? Don’t say money.”

 

She stood up and put on her sunglasses. “Not only a loser but a judgmental loser.” She walked to the door. “If I said he used to be different, would you believe me?”

 

“No. No, not really.”

 

She slipped on her shoes. “Look,” she said, “you could use a friend out here, and I’m a little short on allies myself. I have a show, an art show, at a gallery tonight. It’s my first solo. You can come. I left a postcard on the counter.”

 

“Does he know about our past?”

 

Olivia snorted and opened the door. “Would he hire you if he did?”

 

She grinned, and Charles could almost see a wink behind her sunglasses. Even the smooth way she locked the door behind her dripped with nauseating confidence. Charles pressed his face back down on the couch, the cool leather calmed his stomach. When he wondered if Mr. or Mrs. Branch picked out the color, he went to the bathroom and finally lost all the beer he had drank with Lou.

 

Excerpt from chapter ten of Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Z. Santos.  Excerpted with permission from Arte Público Press.

 

Richard Z. Santos received an MFA from Texas State University. He is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, and his fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in multiple publications, including The San Antonio Express-NewsKirkus Reviewsthe Rumpusthe Morning News, and the Texas Observer. Previously, he was a political campaign operative. A high-school English teacher in Austin, Texas, Trust Me is Santos’s first novel.