Page 28


Inside the gallery, halfhearted Western swing warbled from a few wall speakers. Somebody had put an old saddle on the table next to the sign-in book. Twenty or thirty people were drifting around the room looking at bad photos of authentic cowboys. One of the guests was wearing a starburst Jerry Garcia tie, clipped with a wrinkled green press pass that had been old during Watergate. He came up next to me from behind the beer keg and quietly belched garlic.

"The beer is free," Carlon McAffrey said, "but these little sandwich things suck."

In one hand Carlon had a spiral notebook pinched between two fingers and a stack of canapés in his palm. He handed me his cup of Lone Star from the other hand so he could shake with Maia.

"Carlon McAffrey," he said. “You’re not Lillian."

Maia smiled. "Likewise, I’m sure."

Carlon nodded. He was nice enough to puff his cheeks out for the next belch, holding it in.

"You hear about your buddy Sheff?" he asked me.

"Somebody made his office into a drive-through morgue last night."

"I heard."

Carlon waited. I looked disinterested. Finally Carlon’s blue eyes detached from my face and made a circuit of the people in the room, looking for new prey.

"Okay," he said. “I’ve seen ranches, I’ve seen cows, I’ve seen Councilman Asante schmoozing it up in back. So far I see nothing worth a headline."

I looked around the corner, into the back room of the gallery. Sure enough, against the side wall, his beer set casually on top of a metal sculpture, Fernando Asante was holding court. He had on an after-hours outfit--black jeans, white silk shirt over his huge belly, a denim jacket with the Virgin Mary embroidered in sequins on the back and on the breast panels. Two plump ladies in satin dresses stood on either side of him. A few businessmen laughed at his jokes. The curly-haired Anglo bodyguard I’d seen at Mi Tierra lounged nearby. He was the only one who didn’t look enchanted to be in Asante’s presence.

What the hell. I gave Carlon back his beer.

"Keep your eyes peeled, Lois Lane," I told him. "I have to go say hello to somebody." .

I looked at Maia to see if she was coming.

Maia looked at Fernando Asante, who was laughing at his own joke and patting the rump of the nearest satin cherub. Then she looked at Carlon, trying to eat canapés out of his palm. She let me steer her toward the back room.

Asante gave me his best gold-toothed smile as we came up. He gave Maia a head-to-toe appraisal and seemed to End her a good risk. When he nodded at his fan club, they excused themselves in unison, all except for the bodyguard.

"Jack," Asante said. "Good to see you again, boy."

He loosened the silver Texas-shaped bola around his neck. He offered me a well-manicured hand to shake.

I declined.

"Councilman," I said. "Hell of an outfit. That jacket weep on holy days?"

He just smiled and shook his head, then leered at Maia. "I like patronizing the arts, ma’am. I always do admire beautiful things."

Maia smiled warmly. “You must be Mr. Asante."

Asante looked gratified. His face just oozed Charming Elder Statesman.

"That’s right, princess," he said. "And you are?"

"Endlessly amused by the tabloid stories Tres reads me," she cooed. "Is it true, the one about you and your secretary in the same pair of underpants?"

Asante’s pupils dilated down to pinpoints. His genitals probably followed suit. Somehow he managed to keep his smile intact.

“I can see Mr. Navarre has been around you a little too long, princess," he said.

Maia leaned close, as if to tell him a naughty secret. "Actually I taught him everything he knows. And if you call me ‘princess’ again I’m going to throw up on your Virgin Mary."

"Speaking of nausea," I said, "I didn’t know you were a fan of Beau’s work, Mr. Asante. Do you know him?"

He wasn’t quite sure who to look at now. He regarded Maia like a dog might look at a snake, trying to determine how dangerous this little thing was. The bodyguard had moved a little closer, just enough to share the gallon or two of Aramis on his chest. My eyes began to tear.

Asante looked from Maia to me. "Why, Jack? You looking for an autograph?"

"Just curious," I said. “I wanted Beau’s professional opinion on some photos I’ve come across."

I waited for a reaction, but I might’ve been talking about the Rangers’ chances in the finals.

A man in a yellow silk shirt and black genie pants came up to us, apologized, and peeled a red sticker off a sheet of labels. He pointed to a photo behind the councilman. "This one, Mr. Asante?"

The photo was about eight by eleven, with Beau’s name scrawled at the bottom. It showed an abandoned ranch house on a hill overlooking the Texas plains. In the nighttime sky behind the house was a bloated full moon and a single meteor streak. In the foreground, rusty iron gates rose up; the name “Lazy B" was arced across the top in black metal cursive. One gate was open and unhinged.

Asante looked back at it lazily. "Sure, son. That’s fine."

The gallery employee marked the picture sold, apologized again, and left.

"Lazy B," I said. “That stand for ‘Bastard,’ maybe?"

Asante ignored me. "Good bargain. I’m told it’s one of Karnau’s best, one of his older shots," he said to Maia. "I always buy something, long as it’s small and priced to sell."

He leered at her like that was a private joke. Then he looked back at me.

"And how’s the job market for you, son? Haven’t given up yet?"

"Actually," I said, "I was wondering if your friends at Sheff Construction could find me some work."

Asante stared. "Pardon?"

"I figure there’ll be a lot of money in this new North Side arts complex you’re planning. Biggest pork barrel since Travis Center, bigger maybe. I also figure it’s a sure thing Sheff will get the contract. That’s your arrangement with them, isn’t it?"

Asante looked at his bodyguard, nodding that he was ready to move on. The Aramis Man came and stood next to me.

"Misinformation is a dangerous thing, Jack." Asante said it almost blandly. "The City grants contracts by anonymous bidding. When we approve a bond package for a new project, we only then look for the right firm--goes through numerous committees and the Chamber. I really have very little to do with it. Does that clear things up for you?"

"Shucks," I said. "No kickbacks or anything?"

Asante couldn’t have smiled colder.

"You know if I were you, Jack," he said, leaning forward to deliver some private advice, "I’d take this young lady back to California. I’d go back where the prospects are better, the life expectancy is longer."

He showed me his gold teeth. Up close, his breath smelled like used motor oil.

"I’ll file that in the proper place," I promised.

Asante took his beer from the top of the statue, nodded politely to Maia. "Good night, Jack."

He walked away with his bodyguard in tow.

Maia raised her eyebrows. She looked like she was about to exhale for the First time in ten minutes when Carlon came up, hands still full, and nudged me with his elbow.

"Okay. Back window, now."

I stared at him.

He kept walking toward the back of the room, not waiting to see if we would follow. When we caught up he was standing on the tips of his huaraches, peering down through a tiny metal-barred window into the alley behind the warehouse.

"Okay," he said, "Dan’s blond, right, drives a silver Beamer?"

“Yeah."

Carlon frowned. "You want to tell me why he’s delivering a sack lunch to Beau Karnau in the alley?"

Maia and I looked out. It took a few seconds for our eyes to adjust to the darkness outside before we saw the two figures, one blond, sitting with arms folded on the hood of the silver BMW, the other a balding brunette, visible because of his stark white tux shirt. Sure enough, Beau was holding a brown lunch bag, shaking it in Dan Sheff’s face like he was unhappy with it.

"Maybe Dan forgot to pack a dessert," I said.

Dan just sat there, silent. In the shadows, I couldn’t see his face, but his body looked stiff, tense with anger. Then, while Beau was midsentence yelling at him, Dan delivered the same haymaker swing he’d tried on me in Lillian’s front yard last Sunday. This time it connected. Beau went over backward and the lunch bag spilled thick green bricks of cash across the alley, into the light from the gallery windows.

“Or maybe he didn’t," said Carlon.

35

After Dan Sheff’s taillights disappeared down East Arsenal and Beau started staggering back through the alley, Carlon paid the gallery owner with the yellow shirt and the genie pants fifty dollars for the use of his office. It was probably the most money the gallery owner had seen all night.

We waited less than five minutes before Beau came in to clean up. His tux shirt was stained and half-untucked from his jordaches, his left hand was cupped over the eye Dan Sheff had just punched, and he was cursing somebody’s great-grandmother. I stepped in next to him and slapped his good eye with my open hand. I probably could’ve just punched him, but I was in a bad mood. The palm strike in tai chi is arguably the most painful attack. It’s a soft strike, the way a whip is soft. Sometimes it takes a layer of skin off. I didn’t want any more stand-offs with Mr. Karnau.

Beau’s cursing cut off in a startled grunt. Now blind, he stopped walking, but I kicked his legs out from under him and kept him going forward, directing his fall into a director’s chair. The chair groaned but didn’t break.

"Shit," said Carlon.

I took the brown paper bag off the floor where Beau had dropped it and spilled the contents on the desk in front of Carlon. The green bricks were stacks of fifties. For a second I thought Carlon would have a coronary. Beau stayed very still, both eyes covered, head down. He sounded like he was struggling to remember the tune of a song. When he finally looked up out of two swollen eyes, he had to stare at me for two minutes before he realized who I was. Blood washed through his face. He thought about getting mad, then seemed to realize he didn’t have the energy for it.

"Great," he mumbled. "Wonderful."

I touched his right eye. He winced.

"Dan decided to charge some interest this time," I observed. "What’s the problem, Beau? Eddie couldn’t

be your delivery boy this time?"

"Tres—" Maia began. I ignored her.

With a pair of rapidly swelling eyes it was hard for Beau to look mean, but he was trying his best. I took the ceramic steering wheel from the broken road-trip statuette out of my pocket and tossed it in Beau’s lap.

"I didn’t plan on it, but it seems I’ve started collecting your stuff. "

Karnau’s face was paralyzed for a moment, then there was a glimmer of recognition.

"What the hell—"

"Beau," I said, "let me give you some perspective here. I have one disk; you have the other. Without both of them, I’m betting you don’t have shit to keep the people you’ve been blackmailing from eating you alive. You want to talk about that?"

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