I was just folding the prints to fit in my pocket when keys rattled in the studio’s front door lock.
I moved to the door of the framing room and listened. Two steps, a moment of stunned quiet, then Beau Karnau cursed under his breath. He kicked something that shattered. A ceramic skull in a pink sombrero came skittering to a. stop at my feet and grinned up at me. When I came out into the doorway Beau was standing with one lizard-skin boot planted on an over- turned podium, surveying the damage. His balding forehead was bright red and yellow. It matched his silk shirt beautifully.
I cleared my throat. He cleared about three feet, straight backward.
“Ah!" he said. Out of some reflex he grabbed his ponytail and pulled it like a ripcord.
When he recognized me he didn’t exactly relax, but his face shifted gears from sacred shitless to pissed. For a minute I thought he might charge me.
“What the fuck—" he said.
“You were expecting the maid?" I asked. “Looks like you had quite a morning rush."
“What the fuck are you doing here?" he said, louder this time.
“Who did you think I was just now, Beau? You damn near wet your boots."
His eye twitched. "What the hell do you think, Mr. Goddamn Smart—ass? I come back from lunch and you’ve wrecked my place. How should I act?"
“Like you know better," I said. "Like you’re ready to tell me what it’s got to do with Lillian."
Beau swore at me. Then he made the mistake of coming up and pushing my chest.
“Where the hell do you get off--"
Before he could finish the sentence he was sitting down. From the tears in his eyes I’d say his balls connected with the stone floor pretty hard. I put my foot on his left kneecap and pressed down, just hard enough to keep him sitting.
He said: “Uhm."
“Lillian is missing," I said. “Now I find out her studio is trashed."
“My studio," he said. He packed a lot of hatred into those two words.
I put a little more pressure on the knee.
"Jesus!" he yelled. “You break into my goddamn place, you assault me, you blame me when that little princess runs out on you—leave me the hell alone!"
“Lillian never made it to Laredo, " I told him. “I don’t think she ever planned on going. What I’m trying to decide now is if she really left a message Monday morning or if you lied to me. I need to know that, Beau."
I give him credit. Beau didn’t scare easily. Or at least he wasn’t scared of me. His neck veins were so purple I thought they’d explode, but he kept his voice even.
"Believe what you want," he said.
“What were they looking for, Beau?" I gestured at the ruined artwork all around us.
“I don’t have a clue," he said. "Nothing."
I took out one of the photos I’d found and dropped it on his chest.
All I saw in his eyes was his opinion of me, and I already knew that.
"So it’s a cut-up picture," he said. “Your girlfriend does photo-collages. You expect me to get excited?"
He said it a little too fast, like it was an answer he’d practiced in the mirror many times, just in case he needed it someday.
"I expect some real answers," I said. “Like why did Lillian decide to leave the gallery?"
I waited. Beau’s face was tightly controlled, but the pressure on the knee ligaments must’ve been pretty bad. Little sequins of sweat were starting to pop up all over his forehead.
"When I was starting," he said, almost under his breath, "I didn’t have shit. You know that? Not wealthy parents, not college, nothing. Lillian had everything, including ten years of my time. Now she’s just giving up. The hell with me. The hell with years trying to build up a name in the business. You want to know why she’s leaving, you’re asking the wrong person, asshole. I stuck with her; you didn’t. If you ask me, it’s a little late to show up now and decide you’re her goddamn protector."
We stared at each other. judging from Beau’s expression, I had the option of breaking his kneecap and finding out nothing more, or letting him up and finding out nothing more. Maybe I was having an off day. I took the photograph off Beau’s chest, then I let him up. Beau got to his feet warily.
I looked around the ruined gallery, then picked up a skeleton trumpet player from the floor, dusted him off, and tossed him to Beau. He missed the catch. The unfortunate musician landed between Beau’s boots and broke neatly in half.
“A man without friends should get a deadbolt," I suggested. "I have a feeling, when these people visit you again, they’re going to lack my charm."
Beau kicked the broken statue away. Under his breath he said: “I have friends, asshole."
I saw the next line coming, so we said it together:
“You’re going to regret this."
“That was good," I said. "You Want to try it in harmony now? I’ll go up a third."
His next riposte was just as creative: “Fuck you."
“You artistic types," I said admiringly. Then I walked out, closing the door carefully behind me. Without looking back I strolled across the plaza, around the corner of La Villita Chapel, then turned into a side alley. Even at midday, the shadows under the old villas and live oaks were deep and easy to hide in. I had a great view of the front and rear exits to the gallery. I leaned against the cool of a limestone wall and waited to see what would happen.
Thirty minutes later Beau came out the rear entrance of the gallery. He closed up shop and headed across Nueva, still walking like a man with saddle sores. I followed about a block behind. The moment I stepped out of the shade of La Villita the summer air wrapped around my shoulders like a heavy cat. Everything smelled like warm asphalt, and fifty feet in front of me Beau’s shape became watery from the light and the heat.
It wasn’t until he stopped on the corner of Jack White and stood there for a minute that I realized I’d made a mistake. A car I knew pulled up briefly to the curb, the passenger’s door opened, Beau got in, and the car pulled away, heading south.
The VW was three blocks away, hopelessly far. I couldn’t do anything but stand on the corner watching Dan Sheff’s silver BMW disappear down Nueva Street, just another mirage in the midday glare.
I was starting to feel slightly depressed until I got home and saw the police cruiser in front of Number 90 again. Gary Hales, still in his pajamas, was out front, listing backward at about the same angle as his house. He was talking to Jay Rivas and the two uniformed cops, probably telling them how I came and went at all hours and played with swords in the backyard.
Gary shuffled back inside and Jay greeted me warmly as I got out of my car.
“Little Tres," he said. “What a fucking pleasure."
"Jay," I said. "If I knew you were coming I’d’ve half baked a cake."
He motioned toward the house. The two cops hung back under the pecan tree, trying not to sweat out of their uniforms. When we got inside Robert Johnson took one look at our guest, puffed up to twice his size, did a somersault, then ran into the bathroom. I was sorry I hadn’t thought of it first.
“He likes you," I said.
Rivas looked disdainfully at my futon, then decided to stand. I started hunting through my bags for a fresh T-shirt.
"Late night last night, Navarre?" he speculated. "You look like a pile of shit."
I let that pass. I brushed my teeth, splashed some water in my face, laminated my armpits into submission with extra-strength Ban.
Rivas didn’t like being kept waiting. He went over to the wall and lifted my sword out of the rack. He looked at it, snorted, dropped it on the floor. Then he picked up Carlon’s packet of news clippings from the carpet.
“Funny thing, " he said. “Seems like just yesterday we were having this conversation about you staying the fuck out of trouble. But it sounds like you got the monopoly on stubborn and stupid."
I put on a UC Berkeley T-shirt and walked up to Rivas. Calmly, I took the packet out of his hands and put it back on the table.
“You want to tell me about last night," he said, “or do you maybe want to think about it in a cell for a while?"
"You want to tell me what the hell you’re talking about? Then maybe I can be more help."
"Lillian Cambridge," he said.
"You’re deeply in shit."
If he was waiting for me to display mortal terror, he was disappointed.
"You’ll have to be more specific, Jay. I’m usually in deep shit."
"How about this," he said. “Mom and Dad Cambridge expect daughter Lillian for dinner every Sunday night. Lillian’s a good kid. She does that kind of thing. She doesn’t show—she doesn’t answer the phone all night or all yesterday. Worried parents call the police. Seeing as Dad is the president of Crockett Savings and Loan and can throw a few million dollars around, the police tend to take his concerns to heart. Are you following this so far or should I talk slower?"
"It’d be easier if I could watch your lips move, Jay, but keep going."
"We check out her house this morning. It’s been trashed, looks like the lady in question left in a hurry, maybe not under her own steam. Then we find out from the neighbors that an orange VW convertible was parked in the driveway late Monday night. There’s just millions of those still running around town. Little neighbor girl gives a pretty good description of the guy she saw in Miss Cambridge’s house. Little girl’s parents recall this same guy having a fight in front of the house Sunday afternoon. Is this starting to sound familiar?"
"I don’t guess these attentive neighbors noticed anything more subtle, like somebody tearing up her house on Sunday, or carrying her away at gunpoint."
“You got something to say, I’m listening."
"Jesus Christ," I said.
I went to the kitchen and got a Shiner Bock. It was either that or beat the crap out of Rivas. At the moment, a beer sounded more constructive.
"Jay, let me see if I can get through to you on this. I admit I came back to town because of this lady, but are you suggesting I waited ten years and then moved back two thousand miles to abduct an old girlfriend?"
Rivas had one lazy green eye that weighed anchor and drifted astern when he stared at you. It just heightened his resemblance to a hairy reptile.
“You got a temper, Navarre. Old boyfriend meets new boyfriend—sparks fly. Things happen."
I looked out the grimy kitchen window. Outside, the afternoon had officially begun. Warmed up to about a hundred and five degrees, the army of cicadas in the pecan trees had started humming. The two cops were still standing in broad sunlight in my front yard, melting. Every living thing with more brains than them was crawling under a rock or into the air-conditioning to sleep.
Then a second cruiser pulled up. This one said “Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputy" on its side. I had to smile as a big man with flattopped orange hair got out, frowning at the SAPD. My landlord was probably staring out his window too, calmly shitting in his pants.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com