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“Thursday morning like clockwork," he said. "I get paid anyway, man. And your business is with—?"

“Mr. Sheff," I said.

He gave me a quick scan from my Triple Rock T-shirt to my jeans to my deck shoes, which over the years, I admit, had come to resemble a pair of baked potatoes more than footwear. Mr. Impassive was not in awe.

"Which one?" he said.

"Dan."

He didn’t even smile. “Which one?"

Ah. A family with as many confusing duplicate names as mine.

"Junior," I ventured.

If he’d said "which one” again I wou1d’ve had to flog him with my Ray-Bans. Fortunately he just lied to me.

"Not here," he said.

I guess he didn’t expect me to buy it, because he didn’t move. He kept his chest between me and the house as if his chest were an obstacle at least the size of Kerrville.

I glanced over at the BMW.

"Dan’s taking public transportation these days? Or maybe carpooling in the neighbors’ Lexus to save gas?"

“Mr. Sheff doesn’t make appointments at home," he said. “Unless you’re a friend--"

The idea must have amused him. He made a small sound in the back of his throat that either meant he had a hairball or he was laughing.

"He’ll want to talk to me," I said. Then I tried to walk past him.

His hand wrapped around my biceps like a torque wrench. I tried to look suitably impressed, which wasn’t hard. He liked that. The smooth smile came back.

“No visitors unannounced," he said.

I stood still, offering no resistance. "Not a bad grip for a guy who must drive power steering."

“I bench three-fifty cold, six reps."

I whistled. “I drink twelve ounces cold, six reps."

"I mean it, man. You leave now."

I sighed, resigned. I seemed to think about it.

No matter how strong your grip is, it’s always unconnected where the thumb meets the fingertips, and the thumb is the weakest part of the lock. The trick is to twist against it fast enough to break out. It’s really pretty easy, but it looks impressive. I was halfway up the sidewalk before he realized he didn’t have me anymore. He came at me again, but he had a serious disadvantage. He was on the job and I wasn’t. In a bar fight I would’ve thought at least twice about taking this guy on, but even the toughest employees are usually hesitant about cold-cocking somebody in front of their rich boss’s house, at least not without permission. I had no such restrictions. He tried to grab me with both arms. I stepped underneath and flipped him into the gravel.

Then I stepped onto the porch and rang the doorbell, or rather I pulled it—a huge brass chain that would’ve made Quasirnodo homesick, connected to some ridiculously tiny—sounding chimes. As if to compensate, a thunder-lightning combo exploded directly overhead. Raindrops as big and warm as poblano peppers started to fall.

Meanwhile the chauffeur was sitting up, brushing the white dust off his black suit. You’d’ve thought he got flipped every day by the calm look on his face. He just stood up and nodded.

"Aikido?" he asked.

“Tai chi."

“How about that." Then he cleared his throat and looked at the front door. "You mind if I make the introductions, man? I don’t feel like job-hunting today."

"You got it." I told him my name. For an instant his face changed expressions. Then it smoothed over again.

When Cookie Sheff answered the door, the chauffeur told her: “Tres Navarre to see Mr. Dan Jr."

It only took the society matron a few awkward seconds to warm up her best smile. Then she held out her hands in welcome, as if I were late for tea and had been presumed dead.

“Good gracious, yes," she said. "Please come in, Tres."

23

"You’ll have to excuse the house," Cookie Sheff said. “The maid doesn’t come until noon."

Maybe the flagstone floor needed to be scrubbed, or the walk-in fireplace vacuumed. I looked up at the ceiling fans, three stories above. Maybe they needed dusting. Other than that I couldn’t see much for the maid to do.

"Please . . ." Mrs. Sheff said, waving me toward the white leather couch. I opted for a pigskin chair

instead. Cookie perched across from me on the very edge of her seat.

“Well." She slid her withered hands around a half-finished Bloody Mary. “What can I get you?"

Mrs. Daniel Sheff, Sr., had unnaturally golden, unnaturally smooth hair that fit around her head like a Roman helmet. Her bright red lipstick went well over the real boundaries of her lips. Her eyebrows were similarly enhanced. The makeup looked like a waterline that had been drawn at the height of a flood. Since that time, however many decades ago, Cookie Sheff’s face had receded.

She was the picture of aging gracefully—graceful if you didn’t count the kicking and screaming and the surgery. She was also the woman who had been sitting in Dan’s car in front of Lillian’s house last Sunday.

“I came to ask about Lillian, ma’am," I said. "I assume the police have been by already?"

The Bloody Mary froze halfway to her lips.

"Lillian?" she said. “Police?"

“That’s right."

She shook her head, trying to smile. "I’m afraid I don’t . . ."

"That would surprise me, ma’am," I said, “unless you’ve sworn off phones since you were PTA president at Alamo Heights."

The smile turned to stone. "I beg your pardon."

"My mother used to tell me that you could boil every piece of gossip in town down to just seven numbers--Cookie Sheff’ s phone number."

When she spoke again, after apparently swallowing her tongue several times, her voice had all the charm and affection of a drugged bobcat.

“Oh, yes," she said, “your mother. How is the old dear?"

“She looks great."

Her drink was quickly reduced to red ice cubes.

“Tres," Cookie said, taking on a patient, mildly chastising tone, "perhaps it should occur to you that a certain . . . quality of people do not wish their family crises aired so openly."

“Meaning I should’ve called instead of dropping by?"

"Meaning," she said, "that the Cambridges are my very dear friends."

"Soon to be family?"

She looked satisfied. “So you see why perhaps your coming here was not in the best taste."

"I feel just awful, ma’am. Now where is your son, please?"

She sighed quietly, then stood up.

"Kellin?" she called.

Mr. Impassive, already immaculate in a fresh black uniform, appeared instantly from an interior doorway, a full Bloody Mary in hand. He walked like he enjoyed the sound his boots made against the flagstones.

“See Mr. Navarre out, please," Cookie said.

Kellin looked at me and nodded. Maybe a faint smile--permission to kill at last.

Then on one of the balconies above me, Dan jr. appeared, fashionably dressed in a maroon velour housecoat-looking thing. His hair was sticking up on both sides.

I waved at him and smiled. “Dan," I called up. “Thought we might have a talk."

His face compacted. Before he said anything he looked at his mother, who shook her head.

“What the hell do you want, Navarre?" he said.

“To find Lillian," I answered. “You interested or not?"

"Danny," said Mrs. Sheff, “do you think it’s a good idea to talk to this man?"

Her voice was soft, sweet and cold as Blue Bell ice cream. Her tone implied that the right answer was “no," and the wrong answer would probably mean no allowance for a week.

Dan thought about it. Then he looked at me. I angled, letting him see a little of my amusement. That did it.

“Come on in the office, Tres," he said. Then he disappeared from the balcony.

The slight shake of Mrs. Sheff”s head told me there would be a Conversation at the family dinner table tonight. Then she gave me a look that was meant to suggest no dessert for the rest of my life. She took her Bloody Mary and exited up the nearest staircase.

“Come on," said Kellin.

He led me into a smaller room, not much bigger than my apartment, really. Above the fireplace on the right was a recent oil painting of Cookie, minus the wrinkles. Opposite it, on the left wall, was a huge black and  white enlargement of a young Dan Sr. dressed for war—Korea, probably. Directly between them, Dan Jr. pulled out the chair behind an oiled mahogany desk.

Behind him, outside a heavily curtained picture window, a true South Texas storm was raging, brief and violent. I could see my VW on the street, its roof fluttering, threatening to peel off. Small newly planted trees along the sidewalk were bent to the ground.

"Have a seat, " Dan said.

He’d combed his hair but was still drowning in maroon bedclothes. In his hand was a drink that looked like plain orange juice. I sat down across from him and waited.

After a minute of staring at me he said: " Okay. What the hell is it?"

"You know about Lillian."

Either he was a great actor or his anger was genuine. His knuckles curled up white. "I know that you show up, and a day later she’s gone."

"When did you see her last?"

Dan looked at me with red eyes, then looked down at the desk. He ran his hand through his hair and a lick of blond sprang back up like a canary wing.

"You goddamn know when," he muttered. “And you were still there when I left. That’s what I told the police, not that they have a fucking clue. If it was up to me you would’ve been put away by now, Navarre."

"Darmy," I said, "we agree about something."

He made a sound like a bull that’s been zapped with the same cattle prod once too often. "Don’t call me that. And we don’t have shit in common."

"The police don’t have a clue. I agree with that. I didn’t come all the way back to Texas to see Lillian disappear and then watch the police fuck up the investigation, Dan. Think about that."

He didn’t look very convinced. Shadows from the rain crawled across his face along with guilt, frustration, and some other things I couldn’t read. He looked down at a more recent picture of his father on the desk, Dan Sr. the way I remembered him. when I was in high school: a big man in flashy clothes, the football team’s biggest patron, or the cheerleaders’, anyway. That was before he’d come down with his well-publicized cases of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Now, from what Lillian had told me, the old man was upstairs somewhere, silently withering down to a husk while the best and prettiest nurses money could buy looked on.

"There was a time he’d say something and the police would jump," Dan said, almost to himself. "You remember that, Kellin?"

Behind me Kellin said nothing.

"Now . . . shit," said Dan. "They tell me not to get too worried. ‘She might be out of town,’ they tell me. Shit."

I thought about that. "Your mother said the Cambridges want to keep it quiet for a while, downplay things."

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