I sat on the sofa and went through the mail. Bills. A letter from Tom and Sally Kearnes in Oregon and a pix of their new baby girl. The note said Can't wait for you to see Andrea! Love, T & S. I stared at the pink wrinkly face. Then I placed the photo and letter upside down on the coffee table.
I did a quick sweep of the back rooms. No messages on the answering machine.
Nothing to look at in the garbage can except moulding coffee grounds. The only thing interesting was on the top shelf of Julie's bedroom closet. Buried under a down comforter was a twotone brown suitcase like you'd see in a vaudeville act.
Inside on top were photos of Les SaintPierre. There was Les drinking beer with Merle Haggard, Les accepting an award from Tanya Tucker, young Les in a wide collared pink shirt, big curly hairdo, lots of polyester, standing next to a similarly dressed disco cowboy who was probably famous once but whom I didn't recognize.
Underneath the photos were lots of men's clothes, packed more like someone had been emptying drawers than picking things for a trip. It was all socks and jockey shorts. Or maybe that's what Les SaintPierre wore when he travelled. Maybe I'd been going to the wrong vacation spots.
I put the suitcase back.
In the den a green, hungrylooking parrot was sitting on its polished madrone branch.
He told me I was a noisy bastard and then went back to scratching ravenously at his cuttlebone.
I found some pistachios for him in the kitchen. Then I sat down at Julie's IBM PS/2 and stared at a dark screen.
"Dickhead," the parrot croaked. He cracked a pistachio.
"Pleased to meet you," I said.
The corkboard behind the computer was cluttered with paper. There was a dogeared picture of Julie Kearnes as a young fiddle player, her auburn hair longer, her body slimmer. She was standing next to George Jones. There was a more recent picture of the Miranda Daniels Band with Julie in the forefront. The photo was surrounded by concert reviews clipped from local papers, a few sentences about Julie Kearnes' fiddle playing highlighted in pink. One frontpage feature from the Statesman entertainment section showed just Miranda Daniels, standing between a standup bass and a wagon wheel with a fake sunset backdrop behind her. The title boldly announced: "The Rebirth of Western Swing: Why a new breed of Texas talent will take Nashville by storm."
A smaller corkboard to the left was more downto earth. It displayed $250 check stubs from Paintbrush Enterprises, also Julie's schedule and hourly pay scale for several jobs she'd taken through Cellis Temps in the last few months to make ends meet—basic word processing and data entry for an assortment of big corporations in town. Whether or not Miranda Daniels was going to take Nashville by storm, it didn't look like Julie Kearnes had been in any immediate danger of becoming affluent.
I looked through Julie's floppy disks. I opened the horizontal cabinet and took out a thin stack of mildewed blue folders. I was just starting to look through one labelled
"personal" when the front door opened and a man's voice said, "Anybody home?"
Jose tiptoed into the study, smiling apologetically, like he needed to pee real bad.
He looked around at the decor and said, "I had to see."
"You're lucky I didn't shoot you."
"Oh—" He started to laugh. Then he saw my face. "You don't really have a gun, do you?"
I shrugged and turned back to the files. I never carry, but I didn't have to tell him that.
Jose unfroze and began looking around the room, picking up knickknacks and checking titles on the bookshelf. The parrot cracked pistachios and watched him.
"Dickhead," the parrot said.
I gave the bird some more nuts. I believe in positive reinforcement.
On a quick look, Julie's "personal" file seemed to deal mostly with her debts. There were plenty of them. There was also some paperwork from Statewide Credit Counselling that suggested Julie had entered into debt negotiation about two months ago. The house, the parrot, and the '68 Cougar she was murdered in seemed to be her only assets. It looked like she had two mortgages on the house and was about one of Sheckly's pay checks away from becoming homeless.
I started Julie's IBM, figuring I'd do a quick check, take the hard disk with me and look at it more leisurely later on if anything seemed of worth.
There was nothing of worth. In fact, there was nothing at all. I sat there and stared at an empty green screen, a DOS prompt asking me where its brain had gone.
I thought for a second, then turned off the machine and pried off the casing. The hard drive was still in its slot. Erased, but not removed. That was good. I wrestled it out, wrapped it in newspaper, and stuck it in my backpack. A project for Brother Garrett.
"What is it?" Jose asked.
He'd come up behind me now and was peering over my shoulder, fascinated by the open computer. The cologne was intense. The parrot sneezed.
"Nothing," I said. "A lot of it. Somebody has tried to make sure there's nothing to be found on Julie Kearnes' computer."
Jose said, "It must've been that man who came over."
I stared at him. "What man?"
Jose looked exasperated. "That's what I was talking about outside—the man who came over Saturday night. You said you knew about him."
"Wait a minute."
I did a mental checklist. Saturday night, the night before I'd confronted Julie myself.
There hadn't been any man. I'd pulled standard surveillance, methods even Erainya couldn't have found fault with. I'd watched the house until elevenohfive, which had been lights out plus thirty minutes. At that point you can figure the subject is down for the count. I'd chalked Julie's tires, on the off chance she'd go somewhere during the night. Then I'd driven home for a few hours sleep before heading back to Austin at fourthirty the next morning.
"When did this guy come over?" I demanded.
Jose looked proud. "He banged on Julie's door at elevenfifteen. I remembered to check my clock."
The parrot ruffled his feathers and squawked, "Shit, shit, shit."
"Yeah," I agreed.
When it came to snooping Jose was a pro. He remembered that the visitor had woken up Julie Kearnes at exactly elevenfifteen on Saturday night. He remembered the man going inside and arguing with Julie in her living room for eight minutes twenty seconds.
Jose had seen them through the window. He could describe the guy well—Latino, stocky, well dressed, in his late fifties. Around five feet eight, maybe 230 pounds. His car had been a BMW, goldish colour. Jose gave me the license, though after hearing the description of the visitor I was pretty sure I didn't need it.
Jose apologized that he'd only heard a few lines of their argument when the visitor came storming out of Julie's house. Something about money.
Jose said Julie Kearnes had been holding her .22 Lady smith when she came onto the porch the second time, like she was chasing the guy out.
"She didn't fire it." He sounded disappointed.
I told Jose he'd done a great service for his country and hustled him out the door. He vowed to call the number on his hand if he remembered anything else.
I went back inside Julie's house and stared at the disassembled computer. I looked at Dickhead the parrot, who'd just finished his last pistachio and was now eyeing my nose. Hungry, thirsty, alone.
"Robert Johnson wouldn't like you," I told him.
The parrot turned his head upside down and tried to look pathetic.
"Great," I said, and held out my arm.
Dickhead flew over and landed on my shoulder.
"Noisy bastard," he said in my ear.
"Sucker," I corrected.
When I got to Guadalupe Avenue, otherwise known as the Drag, the sidewalks and crosswalks were clogged with students just getting out of their afternoon classes. The fiveblock stretch of shops and cafes bordering the west side of campus boasted an impressive selection of human flotsam—greying hippies, homeless people and street merchants, musicians and soapbox preachers, sorority girls. Across the street from the chaos, the big peaceful live oaks and white limestone buildings and red tiled roofs of UT stretched out forever, like Rome or Oklahoma City, someplace that had absolutely no concept of limited space.
The Drag probably wasn't the best place in Austin to get some serious thinking done.
On the other hand, nobody was going to bother me sitting on the sidewalk outside the Student Coop with a parrot on my shoulder.
Maybe Dickhead would volunteer a few choice expressions for the passersby. Maybe if I put out a hat somebody would drop coins in it. Meanwhile I could watch time pass on the UT tower clock and think about my favourite dead woman.
Julie Kearnes' finances didn't look good. Reading through them a little closer I could see how much pressure she'd been under. She'd been getting harassing reminders from the bank that held her mortgages, from all the major credit card companies, from a local Musicians' Credit Union.
The debt negotiation she'd started might have helped, eventually, but not if she lost her biweekly pay checks from Sheck because she'd been getting too close to Saint
Pierre. Not if she lost her only paying gig with Miranda because of the Century Records deal. The temp jobs she'd been doing to fill in the cracks wouldn't have been enough to sustain her and pay the debts.
So maybe she'd decided to do some dirty work. Maybe she'd found herself getting crushed to death between Les SaintPierre and Tilden Sheckly and had to play both ends against the middle. Steal a demo tape for Sheckly or go bankrupt. Find some dirt on Sheckly for Les SaintPierre or lose your gigs.
She'd known Sheckly for years, worked in his office for most of that time, took trips to Europe with his business manager. She'd been in a position to find dirt.
Maybe what she'd dug up had been a little too good. Les had disappeared before he could play his hand. Julie had gotten nervous. She'd been pressured by some unwanted visitors over the weekend, including me. Then finally she decided to set up some kind of emergency meeting Monday morning with someone she needed help from but didn't trust. She'd taken her .22, driven to San Antonio, and walked into her own murder.
People get desperate, play in a league over their head, they often get killed. Certainly not the fault of the dashing investigator who'd only come in at the end of Act V.
Maybe. The scenario didn't comfort me any. It also didn't explain the suitcase full of Les SaintPierre's intimate apparel sitting in Julie's closet two weeks after he'd disappeared. Or the man in the gold BMW who knew enough about surveillance to spot me and outwait me at Julie Kearnes' on Saturday night.
On the street, three guys in studded leather coats and green porcupine hairdos walked by smoking clove cigarettes. A group of girls in matching wrinkled flannel, with long tangled hair and bleached white skin, stopped for a minute to ask me if I knew a guy named Eagle.
Flannel in Texas requires a real commitment. Until the cold fronts start coming in, anything except shorts and flipflops requires real commitment. I told them I was impressed. Dickhead even whistled. The girls just rolled their eyes and kept walking.
By seven o'clock the sky was turning purple. The grackles started coming in from the south again and a curve of black clouds slid in from the north, smelling like rain. The last wave of college kids flooded across Guadalupe, dispersing to seek coffee shops or frat parties.
I checked my brain for new revelations on Les Saint Pierre and Julie Kearnes, found I had none, then got up and dusted the street grime off my jeans. I went back to my VW