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"You agreed to talk later," Dan said. "I want to know what’s going on now. It’s my damn company, Mother."

"Actually," I said, "that’s part of the problem. It’s not."

Dan stared at me. Cookie stared at me. Kellin stood behind Cookie with all the emotion of a sideboard, looking at nothing in particular.

"I’d been wondering how Sheff Construction had repositioned itself for the Travis Center deal in ’85," I said. "You were on the edge of bankruptcy, then overnight you were a powerhouse again. Even to your partners who were helping you to obtain the contract, you couldn’t have looked like a very safe investment. I was also wondering how Terry Garza had the balls to push the Sheff family around. After all, he was supposed to be your faithful employee. So I just checked the files on your personal computer, Mrs. Sheff."

Cookie was totally still. Dan swayed a little, looking down at me.

“What are you saying?"

“This isn’t your company, Dan. It hasn’t belonged to the Sheffs since ’85, when your dad had dug a debt hole so big he couldn’t possibly climb out on his own. You were quietly bought out, taken over, repossessed. Then you were used to make the new owner and his partners, maybe the mob, a lot of money on city building contracts. Congratulations, Dan. You’re going to inherit an honorary director’s title, the right to use your own name without getting sued for trademark violation, and if you’re a good boy, a modest yearly stipend. You’re just an employee, like Moraga and Garza. Like your mother."

Outside, the band ended its song. Applause. An announcement about a new case of champagne being opened. Dan Sheff was swaying a little more, like he wanted to fall over but couldn’t quite decide which way. His blue eyes were vacant.

“Mother?" His tone wasn’t exactly angry. It was more pleading, hopeful that his mom might have a speech in her repertoire to cover this contingency. Cookie didn’t offer one.

I pushed the faded pink letter toward her. “As near as I can figure, you told my father only one thing that was true. Sheff Construction was being used. That isn’t Dan Sr. getting rid of Randall Halcomb in the blackmail photos; nobody with Parkinson’s, even the beginnings of Parkinson’s, is going to shoot someone cleanly between the eyes with a .22 on a dark night. It wasn’t the Sheff family that ordered Garza to pay the blackmail, or Moraga to kidnap Lillian so she couldn’t talk. You’re not protecting your son or your husband, Mrs. Sheff. You’re protecting your owner."

When Dan stumbled backward, Kellin was there instantly to steady him. Kellin helped Dan raise the bourbon glass to his mouth.

Cookie was shaking her head. “All I want, Mr. Navarre, is for you to leave. My son is going to inherit his company. He will get Lillian back safely without your help, or that of the police. Then he’s going to marry her."

She could’ve been reading from Dr. Seuss, the way she said it. For some reason that thought made me angry .

“I can’t leave it like that," I said.

Dan started to say something, but Cookie silenced him with a look. Then she nodded at Kellin.

“Good night, Mr. Navarre."

It wasn’t much of a fight. Even if I’d been sober, Kellin would’ve had speed on his side and a score to settle. Two punches connected with my gut. Then I was lying on the Sheffs’ antique kilim rug, looking at the ceiling with a funny warm feeling in my head. I think it was Kellin’s boot.

We went out a side door through the kitchen. Kellin dragged me along at just the right angle so I could admire the Saltillo tiles. The waiter tried to give me back my garbage can. A few of the cooks were telling jokes in Spanish. They got quiet as we went past. When Kellin dragged me around to the front yard I looked up briefly into Fernando Asante’s face. The councilman was just going into the party with his satin-dressed cherubs and a few tuxedoed businessmen. Asante’s bow tie was bright green.

“Leaving us, Mr. Navarre?"

Somebody laughed, a little nervously.

Kellin dragged me a few more feet, then pulled me upright.

"No offense," he said.

Then he introduced my face to the gravel and walked away.

55

I’d been waiting for Detective Schaeffer at his desk for thirty minutes before he came down the hall with his garlic bagel in hand. Schaeffer looked even more tired than usual, like it’d been a busy morning for homicides.

“No time," he said. “Got a stiff to take care of. Want to come along?"

A few minutes later we were heading toward the East Side in an Oldsmobile so brown-wrapper and so obvious that some kid with a sense of humor had spraypainted “THIS IS NOT A POLICE CAR” on the sides, right in English, left in Spanish.

"Only fucking unit available," Schaeffer told me. Somehow, though, I got the feeling he kind of liked this one. We drove down Commerce for a few minutes before he said: “So what’s the occasion?"

“I thought we should talk."

“I said that two days ago."

“And I need a favor."

“Lovely."

He checked with Dispatch. Yes, the wagon was at the scene. They were waiting outside the house. Schaeffer swore, then blew his nose into the huge red napkin that had been holding his bagel a few minutes before.

"Waiting outside the house," he repeated. “Lovely."

“So the smell is inside," I said.

He made a noise that might have been a grudging acceptance. "Your dad was a cop."

We turned south on New Braunfels, then left into a neighborhood of matchbox houses and dirt front yards.

“So tell me about it," Schaeffer said.

I’m not sure when, the night before, I’d decided to come clean with Schaeffer. Somewhere around 3 A.M., I guess, when I’d finished picking the gravel out of my face and had been staring at the ceiling so long I started seeing dead faces in the crystalline plaster. Maybe they’d started looking a little too familiar. Or Carlon’s newspaper deadlines had started looking too close. Or maybe I just needed to make Larry Drapiewski and Carl Kelley proud of me. Whatever it was, I told Schaeffer what I knew.

When I was done he nodded. "Is that all?"

"You wanted more?"

“I want to make sure your bullshit filter is operating today, kid. Is that all?"

"Yeah."

“Okay. Let me think about it."

I nodded. Schaeffer took out his napkin again.

“Maybe when I calm down I’ll decide not to kick your ass for being so stupid."

"Take a number, " I said.

I don’t know how Schaeffer drove with one hand and a napkin larger than his face pressed against his nose, but he managed to navigate us through the turns without slowing under thirty and without hitting any of the residents. We pulled up next to a couple of squad cars outside a two-story turquoise house on Salvador. Sure enough, everybody was waiting outside. You could tell the ones who had been inside recently. Their faces were bright yellow. A group of neighbors, mostly old men still in bathrobes, had begun to gather on the neighbor’s porch.

"Someday," Schaeffer snuffled, "I want to know what it is about 11 A.M. that makes everybody want to turn up dead. It’s a corpse rush hour, for God’s sake."

“You got cotton balls or something?" I asked.

"In the glove compartment with the Old Spice."

I made a face. “I’d rather smell the deceased."

"No you wouldn’t. One good thing about sinuses, Navarre. I can’t smell a damn thing. You should be so lucky."

I opted for the Old Spice. I doused two cotton balls and put one in each nostril. When we got into the house I was glad I had.

The victim was an old widow, Mrs. Gutierrez. Nobody had seen her for a few days, according to the neighbors, until the guy next door had gotten worried enough to check on her. The minute he opened the front door he closed it and called the police. I’d seen dead bodies, but usually not after they’d been floating in bloody upstairs bathtubs in one-hundred-degree heat for several days. Mrs. Gutierrez wasn’t easy to look at. I must’ve needed to prove something to Schaeffer. I stayed with him while he went over the scene.

“Suicide my ass," he told the beat cop. He pointed at the slit wrist on Mrs. Gutierrez’s bloated forearm. “You see any nicks on either side of the main cut?"

Just before he left to throw up, the beat cop admitted that he did not. Schaeffer put the dead hand down long enough to blow his nose, then continued his conversation with me.

“No hesitation marks," he said. “It takes two or three tries to get over the pain when you do it yourself. Somebody did this job for her."

He looked at me, for applause, I guess.

“Is this your idea of getting even with me?" I mumbled through the cotton balls.

The idea seemed to amuse him. "Come on, kid. I’ll show you why I drink Red Zinger."

I followed Schaeffer downstairs. He started a pan of coffee grounds burning on the stove to help with the smell of the corpse. If I hadn’t been breathing Old Spice already, it would’ve almost been enough to make me swear off the java too. Then we looked for the window the intruder had forced open. Schaeffer didn’t believe in waiting for the evidence tech. He used a spray bottle of diluted super glue to get the impression of a dried boot print on the carpet by the front door, a hand print on the wall.

“Lesson for the day, kid. The scene doesn’t lie. Went right out the front, probably in broad daylight.

Probably raped the old lady too. I’d bet money."

I didn’t offer any. When Schaeffer decided to go outside for a break, I was only too glad to follow. We sat on the hood of his car and waited for the coroner while Schaeffer adjusted his pants back over his belly. I thought about the way a corpse would look after a week and a half. A corpse I knew.

“So what was the favor?" Schaeffer asked.

"I want the Cambridge case done right," I said. He squinted at the sun coming down through the pecan trees. He said: “That’s not a favor. That just happens."

"But I want some leeway."

Schaeffer stared at me. “Now it’s starting to sound like a favor. What kind of leeway?"

"I want to know what you’ve found out, and I want until Friday."

"Until Friday for what?"

"I don’t want the FBI knocking down Rivas’s investigation just yet. Making people nervous. If Lillian is still alive, I need a few more days to look."

"And if she gets not alive between now and Friday?"

"She’s been gone for a week already. You’re the expert. If she’s not dead yet, what are the chances?"

Schaeffer didn’t like conceding the point.

"Still no deal," he said.

“Then you look," I said. “I’ve tied it to homicide. Take it to the CID chief that way."

“And by Friday when the Feds are into it anyway?"

"I’ll have to make it work by then."

Schaeffer almost laughed.

“What exactly are you expecting to make work, Navarre? From all I can see you’ve been making about as much progress as a pinball. You going to solve this by getting bashed back and forth a few more times?"

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