"Equipment in a horse trailer," I said. "Inventive."
Brent nodded. "Cheaper than a van. Willis got a good deal on it."
We stood there. I wasn't quite sure why Brent was staying to talk. Then I realized that for some reason he wanted me to leave first.
When you've got an advantage, I say press it.
"I was talking to Miranda about your music this morning. She said you wrote most of the songs. Said you were real supportive about her recording them."
Brent hooked his fingers on the door handle of the Ford and hung them there. His expression was hard to read, mostly gruff apathy with maybe a little dry amusement around the edges. With the facial stubble a day thicker I could see that some of the whiskers were coming up white, like his dad's.
"Supportive," he repeated. "That a fact?"
"She seems to think so. You ever try to record on your own? Make it in Nashville?
You've got some nice songs."
That brought the amusement a little closer to the surface. A tic started going in Brent's left eye, like he was trying to smile but was having a shortcircuit problem.
"Ask Les about that," he said. "I'm fortytwo, didn't even start writing—" He caught himself, decided to change tack. "I didn't start writing until about two years ago. Most artists making it—fifteen to eighteen, some even younger. Miranda's barely okay at twentyfive. Les says you're over thirty as an artist, you're pretty much dogmeat."
"Les said that, huh? What is Les—fortyfive?"
Brent ticked his eye a little more. "Guess the rule don't apply to agents."
We both looked out at the highway as another semi roared by at planeengine volume.
Some raindrops were splattering the asphalt noncommittally, once every few seconds.
The wind was slow, heavy, and hot, and the clouds couldn't seem to decide what to do—break up or move in. They made the low hills an even darker green, almost purple.
"How about the rest of the band?" I asked. "Mr. Sheckly seems to think you folks'll be left out in the cold if Miranda's record deal goes through. Anybody besides Cam upset about that?"
Brent lost whatever smile he might've been starting to accumulate. He scuffed his boot on the curb, a small sign of impatience. "Suppose you'd have to ask them, wouldn't you? Julie's dead. Cam's fired. Pretty much leaves Ben French and the family, don't it?"
Behind us a trucker was flirting with one of the Baptist women, calling her Sweet Thing.
She was trying to keep her polyethylene smile in place, talking about how Jesus wanted the trucker to have some coffee and stay awake out there on the road. Her tone wasn't very convincing.
"You got a day job?" I asked Brent.
"Nope. How about you?"
Ah. A hint.
Brent kept his fingers hooked on the door, making no move to open it. I looked at the silvered window of the cab and saw nothing but me, bubbly and smeared in the glass.
"I didn't know better," I told Brent, "I'd think you didn't want to open that door."
Brent looked at his boot, then sideways at the Latino mutt dog, which was now doing tight orbits around the metal poles of the breezeway.
Brent smiled at the little dog.
"You working for Milo?" Brent asked me.
Brent nodded. "You best get at it, then."
He opened the door of the cab and got in, trying not to be too quick about it. I tried not to be too obvious about looking, but there wasn't much to see—just a woman's tan feet crossed at the ankles, propped up on the window in the miniature backseat like she was sleeping back there. She had painted toenails and a little gold ankle chain.
Brent closed the door and was lost behind the window tinting.
The truck pulled out and a big plop of warm rain landed squarely on my nose.
The Baptist lady breathed a sigh of relief because the flirtatious trucker had just left.
She called over to me and offered me a donut. I told her thanks but Jesus would have to find somebody else. All she had left were the jellyfilled variety.
"It's registered," Ralph Arguello told me. He slid into the backseat of his maroon Lincoln with me, then returned the Montgomery Ward .22. Chico pulled the car out of the pawnshop parking lot and headed south on Bandera.
"You were in there all of five minutes," I said.
"Yeah. Sorry so long. My friend at the data entry office, she does all the firearm slips for the pawnshop detail. Sometimes I don't want to wait, she'll do a pre screening for me, you know? Today she was a little busy." .
"You get the owner's name and address?"
"What do you think?"
"I think you probably got his grandmother's maiden name and his favourite flavour ice cream."
Ralph grinned. "Que padre, vato."
When Ralph grins he gives the Cheshire cat a bad name. He makes psychopaths nervous. Maybe it's because you can't really see his eyes, the way they float behind the inchthick round lenses. Or maybe it's the red colour his face turns, same as one of those chubby diablo masks they sell in Piedras Negras. When Ralph grins it could mean he's made an easy thousand dollars or he's had a good meal or he's just shot somebody who was annoying him. It's hard to tell.
He handed me a piece of paper from the front pocket of his white linen guayabera. In Ralph's meticulous, tiny block print it said: C. COMPTON 1260 PERRINBEITEL SA TX
"I got a story about this guy," Ralph offered.
That was no surprise. It was a rare and boring San Antonian Ralph Arguello didn't have a story about.
I read the name C. Compton again.
"Tell me your story."
Ralph produced a joint and started carefully pinching the ends. "Your man Compton works for that kicker palace, the Indian Paintbrush. You know the place?"
"I know it."
"You remember Robbie Guerra—halfback from Heights?"
I had no idea, as usual, where Ralph was going, or where his information had come from, but I nodded. "How is Robbie?"
"He's dead, man, but that's another story. Six months ago we had this nice deal going with a restaurant supply company and some of the places they delivered to. The Indian Paintbrush was one. Every tenth crate set aside, Robbie and me'd pick it up, everybody involved gets a little cut. Compton was some musician or something, but he worked day shifts with the business manager, too, some guy—"
"Alex Blanceagle. Freckles. Big ears."
"—that's right. Anyway, Compton and Blanceagle knew about our deal with the crates, they got their share, everything was suave. Then one night Robbie and me accidentally skimmed from the wrong shipment, okay? It happens sometimes. We came by on the guard's Coke break, like normal, everything looked cool, we started taking these big brown cardboard cylinders off the loading dock. We thought maybe they were full of copper piping or something because they were heavier than shit but we figured hell, goods are goods. Five seconds later we had all these gabachos with guns in our faces—Blanceagle and Compton and two German guys screaming in Kraut. Robbie and me got a talkingto, half of it in Kraut, with guns at our heads the whole time. Blanceagle was all yelling like he never saw us before and telling us we were lucky to walk away alive. So we said chupa me. That was the end of one restaurant supply deal."
Ralph lit the mota and took a long drag. He might've just been telling me about his last birthday party for all the agitation he showed.
"Describe these Germans."
Ralph gave a pretty accurate description of Jean, the man with the Beretta from Sheckly's studio. He described another guy who didn't sound familiar.
"What was in the cylinders?"
Ralph blew smoke. "No se, vato. All those rednecks and Nazis pointing guns at my ass I wasn't going to ask for no peeks. Probably KKK training kits, right?"
We drove in silence down Bandera for a few miles, under the Loop, into a residential area where the houses looked like army bunkers, flat and sunken behind old brick privacy walls and overgrown pampas bushes. There was some fresh gang graffiti on the walls. A phone booth on the corner of Callahan had been pried out of the ground and laid flat across a bus bench. On top of it was a line of empty MD 20/20 bottles that a little shirtless boy was hitting with a stick.
The sky wasn't helping the general impression that this whole neighbourhood had recently been stepped on. A layer of gray clouds was pressing down low, like insu
lation material. The air had heated up again, and now it was just hanging there, stagnant and heavy.
After a few blocks Chico leaned his head back and asked Ralph in Spanish if he wanted to stop by Number Fourteen, since we were passing by. Ralph checked his gold Rolex and said sure. Then he got Mr. Subtle out from under the driver's seat and loaded it. Mr. Subtle is his .357 Magnum.
"The homeboys been making noise," he said. "Pinche kids."
"Number Fourteen," I said. "Catchy name."
"Hey, man, you get over twenty pawnshops, you try naming them all."
He stuck Mr. Subtle in his jeans, underneath the guayabera. Most people couldn't wear a Magnum like that and look inconspicuous. Most people don't have Ralph's girth and his XXL linen shirts.
Chico found a Def Lepard song on the radio and turned it up. Probably still on the Top Ten in San Antonio.
"So," Ralph said, "you see my niece when you were up in Austin?"
"She's doing fine. Good worker, just like you said."
Ralph ticked. "She's going through this con crema phase, man. I don't get her sometimes."
"You know what I mean. She won't speak Spanish. Only dates white guys."
Ralph nodded, shifting a little in his seat. I shifted in my seat. We stared out the windows. He decided to change the subject.
"Speaking of con crema, man, you hanging out again with that cabron, Chavez?"
I hadn't told Ralph anything about the case. Not that that mattered. Ralph had probably found out about my meeting with Chavez the day it happened. Anything that went on within the city limits, Ralph usually knew about it in time to start placing bets.
"Milo's tangled into something, Ralphas. I told him I'd try to help out."
"Yeah." Ralph grinned. "Pinche bastard ever figure out what he wants to be when he grows up?"
I had never been quite sure when or how Milo and Ralph had met. They'd simply always known and disliked each other. All three of us had gone to Alamo Heights, of course, but as far as I knew the two men had never exchanged a word, never acknowledged each other. I'd never been in a room with both of them at the same time. Aside from being North Side Latinos, the two could not have been further apart.
Ralph had come from poverty, from a factory shantytown where his father had died of cement dust in his lungs and secondgeneration natives still kept fake green cards because it was easier than making La Migra believe their nationality. Ralph had made it through high school on the strength of his football playing and cunning and a straightedged razor and the certain unwavering knowledge that someday he would be worth a million dollars. Milo had come from a placid, welloff family. He was one of the few Latinos who had been accepted in the white circles, been invited to Cotillion dances, even had a white girlfriend. The news that he'd toyed with music after high school, then business, then finally persevered through a law degree caused no surprise among his old friends, no excitement. No feeling that he'd tackled insurmountable odds. The fact that he'd changed jobs again, gone into the country music industry, would generate, at best, a few amused smiles.