Dan snorted, like that was a good joke.
"Downplay things," he echoed.
I leaned forward and picked up the picture of his dad. The silver frame must’ve weighed ten pounds. It was just about the coldest thing I’d ever touched. "Only child, right?"
"If you don’t count my fifteen cousins."
"And they’re all dying to inherit a piece of the business," I suggested. "Must be tough on you."
"What the fuck do you know about it?"
His shoulders slumped; the anger in his face loosened up into melancholy.
It was time to change tack.
"What did Beau Karnau say to you yesterday, Dan?"
I’m not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. I’ve never seen a man turn molten red so fast. Dan was on his feet and if the desk had been any narrower he would’ve had his hands on my throat. As it was he just leaned toward me and shouted.
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" he spat.
Kellin had come up next to me to monitor the situation. I decided it was time to stand up, slowly and calmly.
"Look, Dan, I want to find the lady, that’s all. You want to help, great. You want to tell me Beau Karnau got a lift from the gallery in somebody else’s silver BMW yesterday around one o’clock, I don’t have time to argue with you. Lillian might not have that kind of time.
Dan stared at me. I couldn’t tell whether his expression was incredulity or outrage. For a minute we were all totally still, listening to the thunder.
Then Dan shut down almost as quickly as he’d blown up.
"Lillian," he echoed. The red trickled out of his face. He slid back into his chair with one long exhale. "Jesus, I need a drink."
Maybe jesus wasn’t listening but Kellin was. He took away the orange juice and replaced it quickly with a tumbler of bourbon. Instead of drinking it, Dan pressed the glass against his cheek like a pillow and closed his eyes.
"Beau called me," he said finally. "He wanted—some money: He said Lillian had made his life difficult by leaving, that he needed a few thousand dollars as a loan."
"Why you?" I asked.
I waited. Dan moved the bourbon to his lips.
"Things weren’t always smooth between us—Lillian and me," he said into the glass. "Sometimes Beau helped me get things back on track. Flowers, telling me her plans, that kind of thing."
"The crazy sentimental fool," I said.
Dan looked up and frowned. "Beau is all right. He’s been Lillian’s friend for years. He would never do . . .anything to Lillian, nothing bad."
I’m not sure who he was trying to convince, himself or me. judging from his tone of voice I don’t think he succeeded either way.
“So you agreed to see Beau yesterday," I said.
Dan looked up at me and said nothing. The rain was dying down. Lightning flashed, and I counted almost to ten before the thunder. Dan scowled as he drained the bourbon from his glass.
Afterward he looked up at me in surprise, as if I’d just appeared there. He seemed to ask himself a silent question, then nodded. He brought out a square leather account book from the desk.
"How much?" he said.
I stared at him.
"I’ll hire you, asshole," he said. "Lillian said you did this for a living, this . . . stuff. I’ll pay you to find her. How much?"
I felt a little slimy just for being tempted, but I shook my head. "No."
"Don’t be a prick," he said. "How much?"
I looked at Kellin. Kellin stared back, his face about as expressive as Sheetrock.
"Look, Dan," I said, "I appreciate it. I promise you I’ll find her. But I can’t take your money."
Then I turned to leave before I could change my mind. "Navarre," he called after me.
I turned around in the doorway. From across the room Dan looked about ten years old, dwarfed behind his father’s huge mahogany desk, drowning in oversized maroon robes, his blond hair in disarray as if Dad had just come by and tousled it.
"You know what it’s like," he said. “Living in the old Man’s shadow, I mean? You know about that, at least."
It was some kind of peace offering, I guess. Looking back, maybe I should’ve taken it.
"Like you told me," I said, “we don’t have shit in common."
Kellin walked me to the door, where Mrs. Sheff was waiting to see me off. That brilliant hostess smile must’ve been sitting in a glass in some other room, because when she spoke she hardly opened her stern little mouth at all.
"Mr. Navarre," she said, "I would highly recommend that you avoid my household in the future unless you are invited."
"Thank you for the hospitality, ma’am."
I stepped out onto the front porch. The rain had stopped and the clouds kept rolling south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Ten minutes from now there would be nothing left of the storm but bent trees and wet cars drying in the sun.
"I care deeply about my family," Cookie told me. "I have a sick husband and a very dear son to look after, along with the reputation of the entire Sheff family."
"And a rather large construction firm."
She gave me the slightest sour nod. "I will not allow our family, or our friends, to be dragged through the mud."
"One question, ma’am," I said.
She just looked at me.
"Are you normally a spectator at your son’s fist-fights?" I asked. "Somehow I would’ve thought you’d fight them for him."
For a woman of good breeding, Cookie Sheff did an excellent job of slamming the door in my face.
I waited almost two hours on the shoulder of I-10 South with no company but my AM radio before Dan’s BMW sped by at a leisurely eighty-five miles per hour. By a combination of good luck and bad traffic, my talk-show host and I managed to keep up with Mr. Sheff as he headed toward downtown.
It had been a sobering moment when I had tuned into WOAI and hadn’t turned it off immediately. Here it was two hours later, still on. I kept telling myself it was nostalgia for those torturous trips to Rockport with my parents. Surely I couldn’t be interested in this stuff. Surely I wasn’t approaching thirty.
"The problem with this country," Carl Wiglesworth was saying, "is the socialists who are running our schools."
Ah, Texas. For a moment I wished Maia were there. She would’ve gone into the cutest little apoplexy over Carl.
On the way downtown I watched Dan’s taillights from a hundred yards back and thought about my quality time with the Sheffs. First there was the problem of somebody—the cops, the Sheffs, maybe even the Cambridges—trying to downplay things. For some reason, Lillian’s disappearance hadn’t yet gone down as a potential kidnapping.
Don’t worry, she might just he out of town.
No way would Rivas pull that shit on a big-name family without a seriously good reason and a seriously greased palm. If he had pulled back the reins on the investigation, somebody with heavy clout had made it happen.
Then there was Dan. He was lying about Beau. And he wasn’t exactly stable. Maybe it was just Lillian’s disappearance that had gotten to him, but I had the feeling there was more wrong with Dan Sheff’s life than one lady could cause, unless that lady was his mother.
I still needed Dan alone, away from Kellin and a thirty-second Dominion Security response time, to ask him why he was pursuing a relationship that Lillian’s datebook had pronounced dead months ago.
But first, we did our day at the office.
It started at a huge construction site where Basse Road met McAlister Highway—a half-finished strip mall on the grounds of the defunct Alamo Cement Company, right down the street from my mother’s house. Dan pulled in next to a trailer with Sheff Construction’s black and white logo on its side. I looked around at the changed terrain and said:
Of course my mother had told me about the real estate changes in the old neighborhood, even sent me some news clippings from time to time, but still I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.
The Alamo Cement Company had been the largest single piece of private property in Alamo Heights for as long as I could remember. Its front borders along Tuxedo and Nacodoches had been carefully sculpted with acres of trees, trails that nobody ever hiked, and shady groves that were strictly for show behind a square mile of storm fencing. Only if you went around back, next to the Basse Road train tracks, did you see the uglier side of the cement business—four beige smokestacks and a massive wedge of factory, dusty trucks, and freight cars that never seemed to move, floodlights that stayed on twenty-four hours and made the place look like a rocket launch site on a particularly desolate part of the moon. In the center of the quarry the Latino workers lived in an area dubbed Cementville, a collection of shacks so squalid that they could have been directly transplanted from Laredo or Piedras Negras.
Of course hardly any of the wealthy Anglos in the neighborhood ever saw that part. We’d just seen the Cementville kids at school—dirt-poor worker children, dark and hungry-looking, dropped with the greatest irony into the richest public school district in town. They would sit on the steps of the high school, clustered together for protection, surrounded by Izod shirts and new Cutlass Supremes. Ralph Arguello was one of the few who had broken out of the pack by playing football. Most of them had simply disappeared back into the quarries after graduation.
Now, four years after the land had been sold off, only the factory itself had yet to be developed, and it looked like the Sheffs were about to remedy that. The shell of the building and the smokestacks were still there, as were a few broken-down freight cars and trucks, and about twenty odd acres of weeds surrounded by barbed wire. Everything else had already changed. The road to McAlister Highway went right through the old plant grounds past a huge man-made canyon, once the quarry, now lined with million-dollar homes. The shacks of Cementville had been swept away in favor of a golf course, a church, several restaurants. The strip mall Dan’s company was constructing was right in the shadow of the old factory.
Dan got out of the BMW and spent about five minutes talking to the foreman. The foreman talked slowly, going over a blueprint, and Dan frowned and nodded a lot, like he was pretending he understood. Then, to the foreman’s visible relief, Dan got back into the Beamer and left.
"A day’s work well done," I said, figuring we’d be on our way back to the Dominion now.
Only we drove the wrong way—onto I-35 and then south, almost to the city limits, then exited into a war zone of apartment projects. The last time I’d passed them, fluorescent seventies’ daisies had adorned the sides of the buildings. Now it was scrawling neon spray paint advertising the Alacranes and the Diablitos.
"The youth of America is the key," Carl told me.
"When will we stop accepting these deviant lifestyles that are destroying our kids?"
"Go deviance," I told the radio.
Not looking like a tail was getting difficult now. It hadn’t been easy to begin with in an orange monstrosity like mine. But when you’ve covered thirty miles from one side of town to the other, it’s almost impossible. Fortunately for me, Dan seemed about as aware of his surroundings as a dug-in armadillo. Otherwise I might as well have flashed my high beams and waved a lot. We drove through the projects, past a mixture of condemned industrial lots and sickly pastures grazing sickly cattle, toward a glass and prefab office complex that looked about thirty seconds old. It squatted defensively in the wastelands of the far South Side, surrounded first by thick, ridiculously out-of-place rows of salvias and petunias, then on the outside by a more honest ten-foot fence topped in barbed wire. A huge white stylized "S" in a black circle was emblazoned on the front gates.
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