It looked like a cross between a safari hunter's tent and a Hard Rock Cafe. A huge zebraskin rug took up most of the floor. A mounted tiger's head glared at me from the wall behind the desk. The ceiling was decorated with deer antlers like stalactites. On the east wall a padlocked gun display glowed from inside, showing off all sorts of rifles and shotguns. On the west wall an identical case was filled with musical instruments—a fiddle, two acoustic guitars, a black electric. I looked closer at the instruments. The fiddle had Bob Wills' name on it, set in motherofpearl.
I went to the desk.
After five minutes rummaging I hadn't learned much. The few personal records Sheckly kept were all done by hand, scrawled in a thirdgrade cursive with all the b's and d's slanting backward and none of the i's dotted. He was a doodler? little stars and curlicues adorned the margins of his notes.
Sheck had been making some calls recently about a trucking company he owned that had apparently been losing stock value. He also had notes on phone calls he'd made with Les, among other agents, discussing the terms of various deals with performers scheduled to play the Paintbrush. As Leena the bartender had indicated, there were several notes about managers and agents protesting Tilden's unstated rights to his radio broadcasts of the headliner shows. Apparently the artists got no percentage of the syndication money and had no say over the mix or content of the show that was recorded.
There were also airline receipts for trips to Europe dating back several years—mostly to Germany and the Czech Republic. Some were made out to Tilden Sheckly. Others to someone named Alexander Blanceagle. On two of the itineraries from early last year Alexander Blanceagle was listed as travelling with Julie Kearnes. I took those.
Last was a folder with a schedule of artists' names next to dates they had performed over the last two years. Some of these names had checks, some stars. There were no notes about Miranda Daniels. No pictures of Les SaintPierre with dart holes in his forehead.
I walked back into the main office and tried the second door, the one labelled STUDIO.
It opened easily.
The room on the other side was about twenty by twenty, brightly lit, and completely quiet. The walls and ceiling were white acoustic tile, the floor tan industrial carpet.
Clumps of boom microphone stands stuck up here and there like oversized toothpick sculptures. The left wall was covered with milk crates, towers of expensive stereo equipment, and speakers all stacked together haphazardly, many topped with collections of old McDonald's soda cups.
Against the right wall was a tenfootlong mixing board. A man sat sideways next to it in a battered easy chair, turning control knobs and listening through Walkmanstyle earphones.
He was oddly built, muscular but gangly, his face angular and goofylooking with freckles in a raccoon pattern across his nose and ears that, if not pinned back by headphones, would have made perfect little radar dishes on the sides of his head. A standardissue Hayseed. The only thing not comical about him was the bulge under his beige windbreaker, right about where a shoulder holster would go.
He was most definitely drunk. A nearempty bottle of Captain Morgan's sat next to him on the console. His eyes were heavylidded and his fingers were having trouble with the sound board controls.
I stepped into the room.
When Hayseed finally noticed me, he took a few seconds of blinking and frowning to decide I wasn't just another stack of musical equipment. He brought the easy chair into upright position and spent some time trying to connect both his feet to the floor. He got his hands working, groped up the side of his head until he found the earphones and removed them.
"Evening," I said.
He looked at me more closely and his ears turned red. "Goddamn Jean—"
He said Jean the French way, the Claude Van Damme way.
I was about to correct him when he stood up and began staggering toward me, reaching for the now exposed black butt of his gun with one unsteady hand.
That pretty much decided me against the diplomatic approach.
I met Hayseed halfway across the room and heel kicked him in the shin to take his mind off the gun. He grunted, stumbled forward one more step, his hands moving down instinctively toward the pain.
I grabbed his shoulders and forced him backward. When he tipped over the side of the easy chair, his knees went up and his butt sank and the back of his head hit the mixing board. The equalizer lights did a crazy little surge. His bottle of Captain Morgan's toppled over, speckling the controls with rum.
Hayseed stayed put, his arms splayed and his knees up around his ears in hogtie position. He made a little groaning sound in his throat, like he was showing displeasure at a very bad pun.
I extracted a .38 revolver from his shoulder holster, emptied its chambers, threw gun and bullets into a nearby milk crate. I found his wallet in the pocket of his windbreaker and emptied that, too. He had twelve dollars, a driver's license that read ALEXANDER
BLANCEAGLE, 1600 MECCA, HOLLYWOOD PARK, TX, and a Paintbrush Enterprises business card identifying him as Business Manager.
I looked at the mixing board. Rows of equalizer lights still bounced up and down happily. A bank of CD burners and digital disc drives were daisychained together, all with beady little green eyes, ready to go. There were six or seven chunky onegigabyte cartridges scattered across the board. I picked up the earphones Alex had been wearing and listened—country music, recorded live, male singer, nothing I recognized.
Behind the chair was an unzipped black duffel bag filled with more recording cartridges and some microphone cords and a bunch of paper folders and files I didn't have time to look through.
Blanceagle's groaning changed pitch, got a little more insistent.
I helped him untangle his legs from his ears, then got him seated the right way again.
His clothes fit him like a shortsheeted bed and his once nicely combed hair was doing a little swirly unicorn thing on top of his head.
He massaged his shin. "I need a damn drink."
"No, you damn don't."
He tried to sit up, then decided that didn't feel too good and settled back in. He tried to make some thick, fuzzy calculations in his head.
"You ain't Jean."
"No," I agreed. "I'm not."
"But Sheck ..." He knit his eyebrows together, trying to think. "You look a little—"
"Like Jean," I supplied. "So it would seem."
Alexander Blanceagle rubbed his jaw, pulled his lower lip. There was a little U of blood on the gum line under one of his teeth. "What'd you want?"
"Not to get mistaken for Jean and killed, preferably."
He frowned. He didn't understand. Our little dance across the room might've happened a hundred years ago, to somebody else.
"I'm here about a friend of yours," I said. "Julie Kearnes."
The name registered slowly, sinking in through layers of rumhaze until it went off like a depth charge somewhere far under the surface. Blanceagle's freckles darkened into a solid redbrown band across his nose.
"Julie," he repeated.
"She was murdered."
His eyebrows went up. His mouth softened. His eyes cast farther afield for something to latch on to. Nostalgia mode. I had maybe five minutes when he might be open to questions.
Not that drunks have predictable emotional cycles, but they do follow a brand of chaos theory that makes sense once you've been around enough of them, or been made an alumni yourself.
I overturned a milk crate, shook the electrical cords out of it, and sat down next to Blanceagle. I unfolded one of the airline receipts I'd taken from Sheckly's desk and handed it across. " You and Julie went to Europe together a couple of times on Sheckly's tab. Were you close?"
Blanceagle stared at the receipt. His focus dissipated again. His eyes watered up.
He curled forward and put the hand with the airline receipt against his forehead, the Great Karnak reading a card. He scrunched his eyes together and swallowed and started shuddering.
I'll admit to a certain manly discomfort when another guy starts to cry in front of me, even if he is drunk and funnylooking and recently guilty of trying to draw a gun on me.
I sat very still until Blanceagle got his body under control. One Muddy Waters, two Muddy Waters. Twentyseven Muddy Waters later he sat up, wiped his nose with his knuckles. He set the airline receipt on the arm of the chair and patted it.
"I got to go. I got to—"
He looked at the sound board, struggling to remember what he'd been doing. He started gathering up the one gigabyte cartridges, sticking them in his windbreaker pockets that were a little too small to hold them. I handed him one that kept slipping away.
"You're copying a lot of music here."
He stuffed the last of the discs in his pocket, then made a feeble attempt to clean the drops of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum off the sound board's controls, wiping between the lines of knobs with his fingers. "Sheck is crazy. I can't just—I'm in six years deep now, he can't expect—"
Alex padded his shoulder holster, realized it was empty.
"Over there." I pointed. "Sheckly can't expect what?"
Blanceagle glanced over at his unloaded gun in the milk crate, then at me, suspicious how I'd pulled that off.
"What was your name?" he asked.
I told him. He repeated "Navarre" three times, trying to place it. "You know Julie?"
"I was tailing her the day she got murdered. Maybe I helped it happen by applying pressure on her at the wrong time. I don't feel particularly good about that."
Alex Blanceagle pulled together enough anger to sound almost sober. "You're another goddamn investigator."
He tried to maintain the glare but he didn't have the attention span or the energy or the sobriety for it. His eyes zigzagged down and came to rest on my navel.
He muttered unconvincingly, "Get out of here."
"Alex, you've had some kind of disagreement with Sheck. You're clearing out your stuff. It's got to be in connection with the other things that have been happening.
Maybe you should talk to me."
"Things will work out. You don't worry about Sheck, you understand? Les SaintPierre couldn't do it, I'll take care of it myself."
"Take care of what, exactly?"
Blanceagle looked down at his halfpacked duffel bag and wavered between anger and wistfulness. Maybe if I'd had more time and more Captain Morgan's I could've eventually plied him into a temporary friendship, but just then the door of the studio opened and my stunt double came in.
Jean did look enough like me that I couldn't label Alex a complete idiot for making the mistake. Jean was much thicker in every part of his body, though, slightly taller, his black hair curlier. He was also less comfortably and more expensively dressed—black boots, tight gray slacks, a black turtleneck, a gray linen jacket. It must've been a thousand degrees in those clothes. His left hand casually held a gray and black Beretta that matched his outfit perfectly. His eyes were the same colour as mine, hazel, but they were smaller and amorally fierce as a crab's. Put me on the GNC
highcal highfibre diet and force me to dress that way and I probably would've looked the same.
Jean looked around calmly. He zeroed in on the shoulder holster under Alex Blanceagle's windbreaker, dismissed it, then noticed Blanceagle's full pockets and the duffel bag. Finally he looked at me. That took a little longer.