There was a shoe box on the bureau top, full of correspondence that looked carefully picked through. Drawers were open. A pair of rubber gloves was draped over the top one and the chair was pushed out as if someone had just gotten up from it. Sam Barrera's work, halffinished. Maybe it was possible that even Barrera got the creeps, alone in a dark house, going through paperwork with a dead man right next to you on the bed. Maybe even Barrera had to take a Corn Pops break from that kind of work.
I didn't throw up. I somehow made it all the way back down the stairs, back into the kitchen where Barrera was still eating, one hand holding the .22 flat against the tabletop.
"Can I sit down?" I asked.
Barrera examined my face, maybe saw that I wasn't doing so hot. He waved at the stool opposite his.
I sat, took a few breaths. "I take it you haven't called the police."
Sam lifted his right ear just slightly, like God was telling him something. "Blanceagle's been dead two days. He can wait another few hours. Now I'm going to ask you what I asked Erainya: What's your business with Blanceagle? With Les SaintPierre?"
I stared at Barrera's cereal bowl, the little gold ball bearings in the white grease. My stomach did a somersault.
Barrera said, "Try some. It'll help. Corn products are good."
"No thanks. Erainya doesn't have any business with Blanceagle. I'm on my own."
"On your own," he repeated.
I nodded. Sam shook his head and looked sour, like his worst assumptions about human nature had just been confirmed.
"Tell me everything," he ordered.
"And then we'll see."
I told him the basics. Sam asked a few questions— what did Jean look like, what exactly had Les Saint Pierre told Milo Chavez about his plan to force Tilden Sheckly's cooperation. Twice Barrera dug out handfuls of dry Corn Pops from the box and ate them, one pop at a time.
When I was done talking he said, "I've already spoken with Detective Schaeffer at SAPD. I'll talk to the Hollywood Park police. You were never here tonight. You are not working on this anymore."
"Just like that."
"Tell Mr. Chavez he'll have to do the best he can for his artists. Tell him Les SaintPierre will probably show up on his own sooner or later and there's no problem with Tilden Sheckly as far as you can determine."
"And that Santa Claus is getting him a nice tricycle for Christmas."
Barrera frowned at me. He flexed his fingers and the gold rings rubbed together with a sound like seashells.
"This thing with the singer, Miranda Daniels," he said. "This is a sideline. Forget it. You think it has anything to do with SaintPierre disappearing, you think a guy like Tilden Sheckly would waste his time with murders over a recording contract—" Barrera paused. "You don't know what you've stepped into, Navarre. I'm telling you to step back out."
"There're some shipments going through the Indian Paintbrush," I said. "Something from Germany—big heavy cylinders. Blanceagle said the arrangement has been going on for about six years. Les SaintPierre found out about it from Julie Kearnes, who probably got it from Alex Blanceagle. Les threatened to expose the business to keep Sheckly from pressing his claims on Miranda Daniels. Les miscalculated—either how bad the information was or how violently Sheck would react. Now Les has disappeared and the two people who helped him get his information are dead. How am I doing?"
"Not well," Barrera said. "Shut up."
"You spoke to Alex Blanceagle at least once before— he told me another investigator had been poking around. You were in Austin Saturday night arguing with Julie Kearnes after I knocked off surveillance. At the time she wouldn't cooperate? she shooed you out of the house with a gun. By Sunday night, after I'd rattled her too, maybe after she'd gotten some calls from Sheck's people, she was scared enough to set up a meeting with you in San Antonio. Somehow Sheck found out about it. Julie still didn't trust you so she came armed, without any information written down. She got to your rendezvous a little early or you got there a little late and she got shot in the head.
You got there, found a murder scene, and decided it was safest to drive on by and ask questions later. Who are you working for, Sam? What is Sheckly hiding that's worth killing people?"
Barrera stood up slowly, checked his gold watch. "Gather your stuff. Go home and stay there. I'm going to call it in."
"You've got five fulltime operatives just at the San Antonio office, fifteen more regionally. You've got a dozen national clients subcontracting investigations through you. If you're here in Blanceagle's living room yourself, taking trips up to Austin to argue with Julie Kearnes in person, this has to be big. Something your friends on the Bureau lined up for you, maybe."
" Your other option is that I turn you over to some of the agencies involved."
"Some of the agencies?"
"People far out of your league, Navarre. They could make very sure you stay quiet.
They would also have some hard questions for Erainya Manos about the way The Widower's Two it Step 169
that you're operating. We could be looking at a revoked license for her, a guarantee your application never comes up for review. That's all before we bring in the D.A."
"You'd be such a bastard?"
Sam looked at me dispassionately. There was no implied threat. It was a simple multiplechoice test.
"All right." I started to gather up my money, my burglar's tools, my photos and paperwork. I stuffed it all into my backpack. My fingers didn't work very well. My stomach still felt fluttery, warm.
Sam Barrera watched me zip my bag. I wouldn't say he relaxed, but his eyes got a little less intense. He put his gun in his belt, behind his coat. He tilted his head sideways, stretching his neck muscles, and the little shiny black square of hair on top of his head glistened.
"You said six years," he told me. "That's about right. Maybe someday I'll show you my file cabinets, show you how a real case is put together. Maybe I can explain to you what it's like, all that buildup and documentation only to find an informant you've been courting disappeared, then another one shot in the head the day you wanted to interview him. Then to have somebody like you waltz in and act like you own the situation. You're not doing Erainya any favours following this line of work, kid. You're not doing yourself any favours. Go home."
I picked up my bag, got unsteadily to my feet.
"And Navarre—" Sam said, "you didn't find anything. Nothing to indicate Les SaintPierre's whereabouts. No documentation you can't explain."
It took me a second to realize he was actually asking me a question rather than giving me another order. I stared at him until he felt obliged to add, "SaintPierre was supposed to give me some information. It wasn't up there in Blanceagle's bedroom and it wasn't in Julie Kearnes' house."
I shook my head. The only piece I hadn't told Barrera about was the personnel files, and those weren't blackmail material. At the moment they seemed a petty thing to hide, a grudgingly small way to get some revenge on Barrera.
"Nothing," I told him. "I found nothing. Just the way you thought, Sam."
He scrutinized my face, then nodded. When I left, he was just starting to talk to the Hollywood Park police on the phone, explaining to them exactly how they were going to handle his problem.
Milo's green Jeep Cherokee honked in my driveway at ten o'clock Friday morning. I opened the passenger's side door and said, "I don't believe it. She's alive."
Sassy the basset hound sat up on the seat and yawned. Her tongue rolled into a long bologna canoe. She did a little shuffle on her front paws and snorted. Maybe it was a friendly greeting. Maybe she was having a doggie coronary.
"How old are you?" I demanded. "You make a deal with Satan?"
Sassy panted. She turned her head to the left, trying to see me through her one eye that was milky with cataracts. Where the other eye should've been was a sagging canyon of gray crusty fur.
"Sassy's plugging along okay," Milo admitted. "Got an abscess I have to drain every week."
He showed me one of Sassy's silky brown ears that normally would've made a perfect size ten and a half shoe liner. Today it looked like someone had sewn a squeeze bulb into it. Sassy kept grinning and panting as Milo examined the abscess. She turned her head side to side like somebody was calling her but she couldn't figure out from where.
I'd thought of Sassy as old when we'd dognapped her from her abusive former owners in Berkeley eight years ago. By now Sassy must've been pushing twenty. In canine years, she'd been around since the Civil War.
It wasn't easy moving her into the backseat. Imagine a sack of bowling balls with stubby feet and bad breath. When we finally got under way Milo broke out the extra
soft geriatric dog biscuits for her and beer for us. He poured the beer into coffee cups.
We exited Loop 410 on Broadway and headed south listening to Sassy chew. Most of the biscuit fell out the side of her mouth, but she went at it with gusto anyway.
I handed Milo a single typewritten sheet of paper.
He glanced at it as much as he could without losing his beer or running off the road.
"My first report."
He frowned. "Your report? Am I paying extra for this?"
"Erainya Manos is trying to instil me with some nasty habits—following procedures, writing daily reports to clients, stuff like that."
He handed it back to me. "Give me an audio version."
I told him about Alex Blanceagle's murder. Then I told him what Samuel Barrera had said, about the party line I was supposed to give Milo to blow the case off. Sassy was apparently interested. She kept sticking her nose between the seats, trying to slobber her biscuit residue into my beer.
When I finished Milo said, "And you still think Les disappeared on his own?"
"I think it's a strong possibility. I think he was using Julie Kearnes in more than one way. He got her to steal some personnel files from her temp jobs, probably sold her on the idea that they'd be running off together, even brought over a suitcase as a show of good faith. Then he ditched her."
"And she didn't say anything to anyone. Why?"
"She couldn't go bragging about what she'd been doing, helping Les blackmail Sheckly. Maybe she was hoping Les would still come back for her. Maybe she just didn't want to admit she'd been had."
"But you're not certain of any of that."
"That's why I want to look around Les' house."
"You've seen what Sheckly is like, Navarre. Now Alex Blanceagle is dead. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happened to Les."
We drove a few blocks in silence.
Milo could've been right. It would've been a lot easier on Milo to think his boss hadn't voluntarily left him waistdeep in trouble. It would be a lot easier on me to believe Les SaintPierre was just another corpse waiting to be found. Corpses are stationary targets.
Otherwise, if Les SaintPierre had adopted a new identity with Julie Kearnes' help, then even with Kelly Arguello and me working overtime to find him, the chances of tracking him down were slim. The chances of tracking him down by next Friday, when Miranda's demo was due to Century Records, were virtually nonexistent. If Sheckly insisted on his bogus first option contract, there would be no effective way of challenging him. Miranda would go back to Sheckly's stable. She'd become another hasbeen artist waiting to happen.