"Ah." She slapped the air next to her ear, but she did it listlessly, like her heart really wasn't in it today. She was wearing a pullover black shirt and dark slacks, which meant something was up for tonight. Erainya only forgoes the standard Tshirt dress when she knows she's got some crawling or running or breaking in to do. "Just leftovers.
Some kibbeb. Dolmades. Spanakopita. There's a little melitzanosalata—what's . . .
eggplant salad, I guess you'd say."
Erainya's first language was English, but every once in a while she likes to forget how to translate something from Greek. She says thinking in Greek clears her soul.
Jem raced to the bedroom to get his sneakers. When he disappeared down the hallway Erainya said, "You thought things over, honey? About the job?"
"I'm thinking. I have an interview lined up. For a college position."
Erainya gave me the black eyes. "I thought you couldn't stand the idea of a dusty office and a tweed suit."
"Maybe that was sour grapes. Nobody ever offered me a dusty office and a tweed suit."
Erainya slapped air. "Not that I care—not like I want you back if you won't work right.
I'm not losing my license over you being an idiot, honey."
"Sam Barrera speak to you again?"
"I don't know nothing about Sam Barrera's cases and I don't know nothing about what you're doing on your time off, you understand that?"
Erainya glared at the dishrags. "I'm not going to let that ouskemo tell me what to do, neither. Maybe he's got some friends in a lot of places. He doesn't own me."
I nodded. We were quiet, listening to Jem throw toys and other large heavy objects around his bedroom, apparently looking for just the right fashion statement footwear.
"Be good to know some background on a guy named Tilden Sheckly," I said. "About some shipments he's been processing through his dance hall, especially any connections he might have in Europe. Like for instance if your friend in Customs knew anything—what's her name?"
"Corrie. I didn't hear any of that."
I agreed that she hadn't.
Jem came back wearing purple Reeboks. He showed me how the heellights flickered when he bounced up and down. He'd also put a Casper the Ghost mask on his head with shafts of his thick black hair sticking out of the eyeholes. I told him he looked great.
Erainya started loading up her purse while Jem told me about what his Halloween costume was going to be. The costume apparently had nothing to do with the Casper mask. He told me how many hours and minutes were left until six o'clock Sunday, when he was going trickortreating. Then he told me about the movie he was taking me to—something with marsupials that transformed into cosmic warriors.
Erainya packed her cassette recorder, her Mace canister, her obligatory box of green Chiclets, and five Kleenex folded into triangles. She deliberated over her key chain, rubbing her thumb on the little gold key that opens her gun cabinet.
Then she looked up and realized I was watching her.
Her eyes turned hard as obsidian. She stowed the keys in her purse and zipped it.
"Is two hours going to be enough time?" I asked.
I tried to keep my voice casual, disinterested. Erainya responded the same way.
"Sure, honey. Fine."
Jem gave up explaining the virtues of outer space marsupials to me. He climbed back onto a stool at the kitchen counter and started colouring a picture of Godzilla.
"The Longoria case?" I asked.
Erainya hesitated long enough to confirm it. "It's nothing, honey. Don't worry about it.
I'll just be able to run some checks faster while Jem's out with you."
Jem coloured a red halo around Godzilla's head, focusing his energy into the tip of his marker with a level of concentration no adult could match.
She cut me off with a look. When she spoke she addressed the top of Jem's head.
"Don't you waste time worrying about the wrong person, honey. I can tell you all about it next week when you're back at work."
I didn't answer.
Erainya muttered something in Greek that sounded like a proverb. She sighed and put her purse on her forearm.
"I'll meet you back here by nine. And no damn candy at the theatre, huh?"
Jem complained a little about that, telling her we always got Dots and Red Vines, but he knew better than to push it. He just shut his mouth and let his mother rewrite the rules as ridiculously unfair as she wanted. That's a lesson everybody learns eventually with Erainya.
After the movies I dropped Jem off at Erainya's house and flipped a coin, Compton or Blanceagle. I was half hoping the coin would land on its edge and I could go home.
Instead it came up Blanceagle. I headed out for the address I'd seen on Alex's driver's license, 1600 Mecca.
Mecca Street, like its namesake, is a place most people only get to once in their lifetime, only with the help of Allah, and only after many tribulations. Once you do find the road, it twists illogically through the Hollywood Park subdivision, disappearing and then reappearing, following what was once a creek bed through the rolling hills just inside Loop 1604.
I took 281 North and gave myself up to the hajj as soon as I exited, praying that someday I'd find Alex Blanceagle's house.
Hollywood Park was showing its age since I'd been there last, almost ten years before.
The pseudoranch houses that lined the streets were now more weathered, the lawns that had been grafted with fruit trees and turf grass now regressed in spots to the original scrub brush, mesquites, and cactus.
On most blocks the pristine look of affluent Gringo land had given way to more downtoearth realities— plastic daisy pinwheels in the yards, porches overflowing with tricycles, windsocks, political signboards, pumpkins, and paper skeletons.
Blanceagle's house was in one of the nicer areas, with halfacre lots and expensive castiron mailboxes and the occasional white splitrail fence. The house itself was a twostory affair, half limestone, half cedar siding, set far back from the road. I parked a block down on Mecca, then walked up the gravel driveway toward the front porch, my backpack in hand.
No exterior lights. Dim illumination from behind an upstairs curtain, more from around the side of the house—kitchen window, maybe. I was almost to the porch before I realized that the front door wasn't really painted black. It was just completely open.
I stood to one side on the porch and let my eyes adjust. Then I moved inside and stood against the wall.
A man's living room, lit only by the glow from the hallway on the right and from the staircase on the left. There were two large easy chairs and a mismatching love seat, all ugly and functional. A bigscreen TV and cabinet of stereo equipment. A bookshelf that was mostly filled with CDs stacked sideways. A bar in the corner. A slidingglass door that led out to a back porch. There was also a strange combination of smells that I didn't like at all—very old cigarette smoke, mildew, dead rat.
I listened. Faint clinking sounds came from down the hallway, from the kitchen.
I should've left right then.
Instead I walked down the hallway, into the kitchen and into the line of fire of Sam Barrera, senior regional director of ITech Security and Investigations. He was sitting behind the butcherblock table eating a gallonsized bowl of Corn Pops and his little
.22 was pointed at exactly the spot my forehead appeared as I came into the room.
There was no surprise on his face when he saw me. With his free hand he put down the spoon and wiped a dribble of milk off his chin. He said, "Drop the backpack. Come in and turn around."
"Hey, Sam. Nice to see you too."
I did what he told me, very slowly. With a guy who'd been a special agent for the FBI for sixteen years, you're better off not taking liberties. Sam came around the table and patted me down. He smelled as usual like Aramis.
He took my wallet. I could hear him rummaging through the backpack, setting things out on the counter, then sitting back down behind the table. His Corn Pops hadn't even stopped crackling.
"Look at me," he ordered.
Sam was wearing a charcoal threepiece and a maroon tie. The gold rings made his right hand almost too chunky to hold the .22. He gave me his standard frown and hard, glassy eyes.
He held up my roll of money from Milo Chavez and showed it to me. Then my studio photograph of Les SaintPierre. Then my business card from the Erainya Manos Agency.
He waited for an explanation.
"I'm a tidge bit curious myself," I told him. "Finding a highprofile corporate dick in somebody else's kitchen, eating their Corn Pops with a spoon and a .22—I don't come across this scenario often."
"I was hungry. Mr. Blanceagle isn't going to need them."
I looked at the ceiling. The smell of dead rat was fainter in the kitchen, but still present.
When the realization finally hit me, it hit hard.
I don't know why some things knock a hole in my gut and others don't. I've seen a dozen dead bodies. I've seen two people killed right in front of me. Usually it doesn't get me until much later, in the middle of the night, in the shower. This time, even without Blanceagle in front of me, even considering I'd only met the guy once, some
thing gave way like a trapdoor under my rib cage. The idea of that poor schmuck being upstairs dead, the guy who'd looked so drunk and pathetic and outclassed at Sheckly's studio who had done me the small favour of calling me a musician to get me out the door—the idea of him being reduced to a rodent smell got to me.
Embarrassing, with Sam Barrera there. I had to swallow a couple of times, press my hands against the bumpy texture of the kitchen wall behind me.
"Two days ago," I guessed. "Shot with a Beretta."
Barrera started, a bit uneasy at my guesswork.
"See?" I said. "You passed up a hell of a trainee."
"I'll live with it. Go look. I'll wait."
It was almost easier than staying there in the kitchen. At least upstairs, if I threw up, I wouldn't have Barrera looking at me.
My feet were heavy on the staircase.
I breathed as shallowly as I could but it didn't help. After only two days dead in a cool house, the smell shouldn't have been this cloying. Somehow, though, every time I smelled that smell it seemed worse than the time before.
Alex was facedown on a queensized bed in the same clothes he'd worn at the Indian Paintbrush. His left limbs were extended and his right limbs curled into his body, so it looked like he was rock climbing. The sheets were in a state of disarray that conformed to his posture, a clump of fabric gathered in his right hand. Fluids had crusted his face to the bedspread. There were flies.
I stood at the doorway for a long time before I could make my feet cooperate. I forced myself to go closer, look for entrance wounds. There were two—a clean round hole in the back of the beige windbreaker, maybe shot from ten feet away, the other in Blanceagle's temple with the edges of the flesh starred and splitting, very close range.
Hard to be sure without stripping him, checking for lividity, but I was pretty sure the body hadn't been moved. He'd walked into his bedroom, somebody behind him.
They'd shot him in the back. He fell forward onto the bed. They came up and finished it off. Simple.
The rest of the room looked fuzzy, like all the light was bending toward the corpse. I tried to focus on the bedstand, the dresser, to look without touching.