Milo mumbled, "Sorry I missed you last night. I heard you made friends with Cam Compton."
"Somewhere in San Antonio," I said, "there's a big and tall store with a bronze plaque inscribed to you."
Milo frowned and looked down at his outfit—rayon camp shirt, black slacks, oxblood deck shoes that made mine look like poor country cousins. His braided gold neck chain would've hunchbacked a lesser human being.
"You have to get all your clothes custommade," he said, "you might as well get them made nice. Some of us can't just throw on yesterday's jeans and Tshirt, Navarre."
I checked my Triple Rock Tshirt for stains. "I have two of these. What was the crisis that came up last night?"
Miranda kept singing. She opened her eyes every once in a while to glance up nervously at the control booth, like she knew how she was sounding. She looked like she was singing her heart out—taking huge breaths from her diaphragm, scrunching up her face with effort when she belted out the words, but none of the energy of the night before was coming through the speakers. The first engineer tilted his head a little more and said, "I told you she was miked wrong. You and your damn V87s."
The vice principal grunted. The second engineer tapped at the computer monitor a little more.
Milo pointed left with his thumb. We moved a few steps toward the door? just out of earshot from the studio guys.
"Tell me you've decided to help us out," he insisted.
"What happened with you last night?"
He scratched the corner of his mouth, found some invisible particle that displeased him, rolled it in his fingers and flicked it away. "I had a great day. I called around, gently explaining to people that maybe I wasn't exactly sure where Les is. Several major clients bailed. The cops were thrilled. They were about as excited as I thought they'd be. As soon as they get through yawning I'm sure they'll launch a massive manhunt."
Milo glared at me accusingly.
"Honesty is next to godliness," I consoled.
"Then I got a call from our accountant. Not good."
"How not good?"
The two engineers were arguing now about the isolation qualities of wide compression mikes.
"Does she have to sing with the guitar?" the monitor tapper pleaded.
The vice principal shrugged, keeping his eyes sternly on the imaginary detention hall below him. "Lady said she felt more comfortable that way."
The other engineer grumbled. "Does she sound like she's comfortable? "
Milo kept staring forward. "Apparently Les hasn't been telling me everything. Some of the commission checks haven't been going into the main account. A few days ago one of our checks for some equipment rentals bounced. There are also some creditors I didn't know about."
"Bad enough. The agency costs fifteen thousand a month to run. That's barebones—phone bills, transportation, property, promo expenses."
"How much longer can you keep afloat?"
Milo laughed with no humour. "I can keep the creditors at bay for a while. I don't know how long. Fortunately our clients pay us? we don't pay them. So they don't have to find out right away. But by all rights the agency should've folded at the start of the month.
Les had made arrangements to pay our bills then and there's no way he could have."
"About the time he disappeared."
Milo shook his head. "You had to put it that way, didn't you?"
Miranda strained her way through another verse.
"Look," one of the engineers was saying, "it's a Roland VS880, okay? Pickup isn't the problem here. You don't need the goddamn digital delay if she's singing it right, man.
The lady's a cold fish."
"Just try it," the vice principal insisted. "Put a little through her headphone mix, see if that warms her up."
Finally I told Milo about my last two days.
Milo stared at me while I talked. When I finished he seemed to do a mental countdown, then looked out the Plexiglas again and sighed.
"I don't like any of that."
"You said Les joked about running off to Mexico. If this plan he had to get Sheckly was dangerous, if it went bad—"
"Don't even start."
"Stowing away funds from the agency, pulling deceased identities from personnel files—what does that sound like to you, Berkeley Law? "
Milo brought his palms up to his temples. "No way. That's not—Les couldn't do that. It's not his style to run."
Milo's tone warned me not to push it. I didn't.
I looked back down at Miranda, who was just finishing the last chorus. "How bad will all this affect her?"
Milo kept his eyes closed. "Maybe it can still work. Silo's been paid through next week.
Century Records will need some heavy reassurances, but they'll wait for the tape. If we get a good one to them on time, if we get Sheckly off our backs ..."
Miranda finished her song. The sound died the instant she stopped belting it out.
Nobody said anything.
Finally the engineer asked halfheartedly, "Do another take? We could try to feed her just the basic tracks. Move the baffles around."
Miranda was looking up at us. The vice principal shook his head. "Take a break."
Then he leaned over the console and pushed a button. "Miranda, honey, take a break for a few minutes."
Miranda's shoulders fell slightly. She nodded, then started slowly toward the exit with her guitar.
Milo watched her go out the black curtain.
"You wanted to talk to her," he mentioned.
"Go ahead, first door on the left. I'd have to be positive with her. Right now that's not possible."
He turned and concentrated on the recording console like he was wondering how hard it would be to lift and throw through the Plexiglas.
Miranda was lying on a cot with her forearms over her face and her knees up. She peeped out briefly when I wrapped my knuckles on the open door, then covered her eyes again.
I came in and set my backpack on the little round table next to her. I took out my bag of Texas French Bread pastries and a .22 Montgomery Ward pistol. Miranda opened her eyes when the gun clunked on the table.
"I thought you could use some breakfast," I said.
She frowned. When she spoke she exaggerated her drawl just a little. "The croissants put up a fight, Mr. Navarre?"
I smiled. "That's good. I wasn't sure you'd have a sense of humour."
She made a square with her arms and put them over her head. She was wearing a cutoff white Tshirt that said COUNTY LINE BBQ on it, and there was a small oval of sweat sticking the fabric to her tummy where the guitar had been. The skin under her arms was so white that her faint armpit stubble looked like ballpoint pen marks.
"After the last few mornings I've had in the studio," she said, "you've got to have a sense of humour."
"Hard to get the sound right. The engineers were saying something about the microphones."
Miranda stretched out her legs. She looked at her feet, then kicked her Jellies off with her big toes. "It's not the microphone's fault. But that ain't what you're in here to talk about, is it? I'm supposed to ask you about the gun."
I offered her a chocolate croissant. She seemed to think about it for a minute, then swung her legs onto the floor and sat up. She shook her head so her tangly black hair readjusted itself around her shoulders. She moistened her lips. Then she bypassed the chocolate croissant I was holding and went straight for the only ham and cheese.
Damn. A woman with taste.
She nudged the .22 with her finger. Country girl. Not somebody who was nervous around guns. "Well, sir?"
"It's the gun somebody used to shoot at John Crea. I found it in the thirdfloor garbage bin at the parking lot next door."
Miranda tore a corner off her croissant. "Somebody just left it there? And the police didn't—"
"Hard to underestimate the stupidity of perps," I said. "Cops know perps are stupid and they try to investigate accordingly, but sometimes they still underestimate. They overlook possibilities nobody with any sense would try, like using a .22 Montgomery Ward pistol for a hundred yard shot and dropping the gun in the garbage on their way to the elevator. Police are thinking the shooter must've used a rifle and carried it away with him and ditched it somewhere else. That's what a smart person would do. Most people who get away with crimes, they don't do it smart. They do it stupid enough to baffle the police."
"So—you taking the gun to the police?"
"Eventually? After what happened to poor Julie Kearnes, shot the exact same way—"
I shook my head. "Poor Julie was killed by a professional. Whoever left this was an amateur. Similar incidents, both people connected to you, but they weren't done by the same person. That's what I don't get."
"If I could help—"
"I think you can. You know Sheckly a lot better than I do."
Her expression hardened. "I don't know him that well. And no, he wouldn't have anything to do with this."
"Somebody's trying to make things difficult for you since you started courting Century Records. You have any theory?"
Miranda took a bite of my ham and cheese croissant. She nodded her head while she chewed. After she swallowed she said, "You want me to admit Tilden Sheckly is a hard customer. Yes, sir. He is. He's got a bad temper."
She shook her head. "But Sheck wouldn't do those things. He's known Willis, shoot—he's known all the families in Avalon County for a million years. I know what people think, but Sheck's always been a gentleman with me."
She looked up at me a little tentatively, like she was afraid I might contradict her, might ask her to prove it.
"If he's such a great guy," I said, "why did you sign with Les SaintPierre?"
Miranda pressed her lips together, like she'd just put on lipstick.
"You heard of that lady who played out at the Paintbrush a few nights ago, Tammy Vaughn?"
"I saw her."
Miranda raised her eyebrows. Apparently she hadn't figured me for a country music fan. I liked her for that.
"A year ago," Miranda continued, "Tammy Vaughn was where I am. She played mostly local gigs—South Texas, Austin. Mostly dance halls. Then she got a good agent and signed with Century Records. They're the only major label with a Texas office, did you know that? They've started paying attention to the talent down here, picking out the best, and sending them on to Nashville. Now Tammy's playing for fifteen thousand a night. She opened for LeAnne Rimes in Houston. She's got a house in Nashville and one in Dallas."
"And Sheckly can't do that for you."
"My dad's barely paid the mortgage on his ranch for as long as I can remember. He does contracting all day and music all night and he won't ever be able to retire. We won't even talk about Brent. The idea of being able to help them out..."
"You're telling me it was just the promise of money?"
She thought about that, apparently decided to be honest. "No. You're right. I signed with Les because of the way he talked, that first time we met. Something about Les SaintPierre—you can't just tell a fella like that no. Besides, Sheck or not—sometimes you have to make choices for your career. You don't always get to make everybody happy."