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"I don’t—" he started to yell.

Then he just stopped and stared at me. He brought his fingers to his temples and started making little circles with them.

Maia said: "Mr. Karnau? It would be best if you talked to us."

He focused on her, dazed. Then his face hardened.

"You sound like a fucking lawyer," he said finally.

Maia tried a smile. "I’m not representing anyone."

That made Beau laugh, a shrill little sound.

"Wonderful," he said. "That’s all I need."

He picked up the ceramic steering wheel and threw it back at me. "I don’t have shit to say to you. And I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about."

I looked at Maia.

" ‘I’m not representing anyone,’ " I repeated. "Great line. Opened him right up."

Maia shrugged.

Carlon was sitting behind the owner’s desk, chewing slowly on a canapé. He was using one of Beau’s unmatted prints for a beer coaster. His blue eyes reminded me of a buzzard’s—the way they look on while the bobcats are finishing up a carcass, hungry, patient, highly interested.

"So where’s your dad’s murder come in?" he wondered.

Beau’s forehead turned maroon. "Who the fuck is this?"

"We’ve got a lawyer," I told him. "And we’ve got an entertainment writer from the Express-News ready to go for your jugular. What I suggest, Beau, is you just answer yes or no when I ask you something. You tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about one more time, I’ll make sure Carlon here spells your name right in the Sunday edition. Got it?"

Beau decided to stand up. I planted another red hand print on the side of his face. He sat back down, in slow motion. His head bent down into his hands.

"I’ll kill you," he mumbled, without any conviction at all.

"The photos on the disk," I said. "They show the same thing as the cut-up prints in your portfolio—a night meeting in the woods, three people, something that happened between them bad enough to warrant ten thousand a month in blackmail."

I think he nodded. It was so slight I could hardly tell.

I picked up some of the money on the desk. "The 7/31 payment was due today, but there’s a lot more here than ten grand. And Dan must know you’ve lost one of the disks. I’d say you made a deal to sell him the other. You close your accounts and run; he gets insurance that the photos are out of circulation. Only you stalled him tonight. Maybe that’s why he hit you."

"Fuck off. "

"I’ll take that as a yes. Where the hell is Lillian, Beau?"

Beau was shaking slightly, his head in his hands. It took me a minute to realize he was laughing. When he looked up his eyes had turned into puffy slits.

"You’re a fucking joke," he said. "Still playing her goddamn protector."

My throat tightened. "You want to explain that?"

"She’s real good at that—getting people to protect her. I tried it for years. Sheff tried it. If you’re lucky maybe she’s dead and buried, Navarre. Maybe that’s where she is."

Maia had a hell of a grip. It was only her grip on my elbow joint that kept me from disassembling Karnau’s face. She held me in place until my forearm started losing circulation.

Then she leaned close to my ear. "Come on," she murmured. "Enough."

We left Beau collapsed in his director’s chair, still shaking like he couldn’t control his body. I took the bag of money.

We walked past the frowning owner in the yellow shirt and the genie pants, down the metal stairs, and into the parking lot of Blue Star where the black-dressed men were opening another bottle of champagne. It wasn’t until Maia took my hand that I realized how hard it was clenched.

We walked Carlon to his car—a new turquoise Hyundai parked in the loading zone with a fake police light on top. He took a silver flask off the front seat, drank half, then passed it to me.

"Remind me to put you back on my Christmas list, Navarre. I don’t ever want you pissed at me."

I sampled the stuff and grimaced. I stared at him.

"Jesus. Big Red and tequila?"

He shrugged. "Breakfast of champions, Navarre. You gave me the recipe."

"You ever thought about growing up, Carlon?"

Ee snorted. "Highly overrated, man. I’ll wait for the video."

I offered Maia the flask. She shook her head.

"Now tell me the story." Carlon stopped just short of rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I’ve got a gallery review to write."

“No story, " I told him.

Carlon looked dazed, as if he were translating the two words. Then he laughed. "Right."

I stared at him.

"Wait a minute," he said. "You bring me out here so I can see a high-profile businessman making a payoff to the guy who’s blackmailing him for—what, ten large a month? You bring up Lillian. You bring up—" He paused, then smiled very slowly as he made the final connection. " Shit. You said Eddie. That corpse the mob drove into Sheff’s office wall. Eddie something. And you tell me no story?"

He laughed. I didn’t.

“Twenty-four hours," I said.

"What the fuck for?"

"Lillian’s in this somehow, Carlon. Publishing anything might kill her."

He thought about that for a bit. "What else do I get?"

I was tired and irritated. I stepped a little closer to him, then picked up his Jerry Garcia tie with two fingers and admired it.

"My name back on your Christmas list," I reminded him.

Carlon hesitated. He was breathing so shallow now I couldn’t even smell the garlic. His pale blue eyes looked at me steady, calculating. We could’ve been doing a business deal.

Finally he shrugged. "Like I said before, I’m just trying to help."

I nodded, swallowed the taste of Big Red tequila out of my mouth, and threw the flask back into Carlon’s car. "I knew that, Carlon. I knew that."

36

It was midnight when Maia and I left Blue Star. Seeing as how neither of us had eaten in six hours and most of the town was closed down, I had to swallow my pride along with three chorizo and egg taquitos at Taco Cabana. At least I didn’t compromise myself enough to try the neon pink chain locations. I drove Maia to the original cocimz on San Pedro and Hildebrand, still a sleepy wooden shack that gave no indication of the million—dollar franchise it had spawned.

"Why is it orange?" Maia asked the cook behind the counter. She had stayed with her habitual favorite, huevos rancheros. The plate was overflowing with eggs and pico de gallo, beans, handmade tortillas, and grease.

The cook frowned, not understanding the question. I tried to explain the virtues of Tex Mex over Cal Mex to Maia. I was feeling contentedly native again when I turned to the confused cook and said in Spanish: "She doesn’t understand why it looks different. I told her it’s more cheese, more lard in the beans."

I tried to get fancy with the vocabulary. The cook yawned.

"Man," he said, "either you’re from California or you’re a fucking Cuban. Nobody says habichuelas for frijoles."

Shamed into silence, I made a mental note of the vocabulary problem and retreated quickly with my pile of tacos.

"What did he say?" asked Maia.

"He said you’ll be quiet and eat it if you know what’s good for you."

We sat under the ceiling fans on the patio and watched the occasional VIA bus grind down an otherwise deserted street. A vagrant stopped for a minute to admire our midnight breakfast. He was dressed in a ragged brown Cowboy Bob outfit complete with bandolera and toy pistol, his eyes unfocused and milky. I handed him my last taco. He grinned like a five-year-old and ambled on.

I was thinking about Lillian, trying to remember how she’d acted and what she’d said the day before she disappeared. But when I called up her face it was blurred with images of her at sixteen or nineteen. It scared me how fast she was dissolving into an old memory again. However much I kidded myself about knowing her, I couldn’t even guess about her last few years. I couldn’t discount the idea that she might be involved in what had happened, maybe deeply involved.

She had asked for court protection against Karnau last year, only to go back into business with him. She’d broken off her relationship with Dan Sheff last spring, then reestablished contact with me a few days later. She had brought me back to town, told me she loved me, given me something people were dying over, then vanished.

I wadded up my taco tinfoil and made a basket in the trash barrel. I tried to focus on translating the mariachi music on the kitchen radio. Maia had evidently been looking at me for a while, following the same train of thoughts. Her expression was soft and resigned.

“We need to know," she said. "You need to see her through somebody else’s eyes, Tres."

She took my hand. I stared out at San Pedro, then gave Maia directions to Lillian’s house on Acacia Street. The conjunto and beer were still flowing at the Rodriguezes’ when we drove past. The windows were lit up orange again. The yelling and the breaking glass inside told us that a spirited family discussion was under way. Maia parked the Buick around the corner, then we walked up the alley and slipped into Lillian’s backyard.

No police tape on the back door, no sign that the police had ever been here. In two minutes we’d worked open a lock on the guest bedroom window and stepped inside. Maia’s ten-pound key chain came in handy once again. Along with a Swiss Army knife, and minicanister of capsaicin, and keys to most of the Western world, she kept a pencil flashlight in her purse for just such an occasion as a friendly B & E. In the thin beam of its light, Lillian’s living room looked about the same as I had left it a week ago—trashed, but not alarmingly so. At least, not alarming to me.

"Yuck," whispered Maia. "Is this normal?"

"Yes," I said. Then reluctantly: "Maybe. I don’t know."

A screen door screeched opened at the Rodriguez place and a puppy yelped as it was shoed outside. Some woman cursed in Spanish: " You feed the damn thing."

Men laughed. The bass was turned up.

"I don’t think you need to whisper," I told Maia. "We could take clogging lessons in here and the Rodriguezes would never notice."

We checked Lillian’s computer first. There was a half-finished spreadsheet for the gallery on file, a few word-processed business letters, a few standard software applications. The only disks on her desk were blank. She had no CD-ROM drive, much less the capacity for creating such a disk. The only thing we learned was that the Hecho a Mano Gallery wasn’t even making enough money to bother recording.

In the corner of the main room was a board and cinder-block bookshelf that dated back to our college days. Maia and I pulled out books on everything from O’Keefe to Christo, unread textbooks with forgotten pressed flowers inside, five or six years worth of Sunset and Texas Monthly, all smelling like mildew and Halston. Finally Maia opened a white photo album and shone her flashlight on the first page. In the little yellow halo of light, Lillian and I stared up at us. I was wearing a tuxedo; she wore a red silk kimono over her black pantsuit, holding a peacock feather. The outfit, of course, had been a gift from my mother, an act of revenge as Lillian and I were preparing to go to my father’s sixtieth birthday party, back in my first year in college. I’d like to say that I remembered the rest of the details about that night. The truth is I didn’t. I looked at my own confident, very young smile, the way Lillian looked up at me with her head slightly tilted toward my shoulder. I couldn’t imagine myself ever having been there. Maia flipped the page quickly—pictures of Lillian’s family, several of us, all old and faded, a few of Lillian’s paintings. Maia closed the book.

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