I looked back at the salesman. He was a large man. Flabby large, with arms that had mass but no muscle lines. His face hadn't seen a razor blade or a toothbrush or even a nose hair clipper in a mighty long time. He had a HarleyDavidson Tshirt with cigarette burn holes on the belly.

"Cam's looked better," I said.

Harley grinned. "Some guy's been leaning on him. Some big ass motherfucker—private detective or something. He slammed Cam's head into a wall.

Then last night he came back and did Cam's ribs."

"You saw this?"

Harley leaned closer to me. "Naw, but you know what I told Cam—I said take me along next time. I'll put that dick motherfucker in a vise grip."

I smiled appreciatively.

The slow, distorted power chords of Bad Religion seeped through the glass window of the practice room. Cam nodded his head and the adolescent smiled. Talent under development.

"He'll want to talk to me," I told Harley. "Tell him it's the dick motherfucker."

Harley started to laugh, then he saw I was serious. He scratched his beard. He pointed at me with his thumb and tried to frame a question.

"I don't know about the ribs," I amended. "I just did the forehead. And it was a beer keg. You get prettier bruises with a beer keg."

Harley searched his beard with his fingers a little more. Then slowly he cracked a grin.

He turned and started what he'd been doing before I came in—hanging guitar straps on a rotating display.

"Cam ain't much of a boss," Harley told me. "Be my guest."

I walked into the practice room. Cam was nodding his head and saying encouraging things about the adolescent's Fchord. Then they both saw me.

I winked at the kid and told him to keep up the good work with the Fchord. Then I looked at Cam, whose purplish forehead was turning almost flesh colour. "How you feeling?"

"Got a student," he managed to say.

"He can practice." I turned to the kid. "I bet you know 'Glycerine' already, don't you, Slick?"

The kid got that elated light in his eyes that beginning guitarists get when they actually know a request. He looked down and dutifully began plinking out the Bush song.

"Let's talk," I told Cam.

"Why you think I'd want to—"

"I went to see Alex Blanceagle last night. He looks a lot worse than you do. Jean paid him a visit."

Cam's beady, bloodshot eyes move an inch farther apart. He looked around uncomfortably, at his student, at Harley who was grinning sideways at us through the glass, waiting for some kind of show to start.

Cam put his guitar pick between his lips and spoke around it. "Upstairs. And you ain't gonna fuck with me again, y'hear?"

I held up my hands. Truce.

Harley looked disappointed when he saw we were taking our conversation elsewhere.

Cam led me out into the afternoon heat, then up the stairs and into his place. He headed straight for the refrigerator.

His apartment was about the same size as mine—one main room, closet, bathroom, side kitchen. An unmade twin bed set flush against the south wall was occupied by piles of laundry that still retained the upsidedown shape and crisscrossed texture of laundry baskets, like Jell0 out of the moulds. I counted three guitars in the room— two electrics in open cases on the floor? one black Ovation twelvestring on a corner tripod stand. The coffee table was a Sears appliance box covered with spare guitar tuning pegs and string packets and old Olympia cans and an extra large Funky Bird, the kind with the red hair and the hat and the big butt that bobs up and down. Instead of chairs Cam had guitar amps. The posters on the walls were all from the store downstairs—peeling advertisements of bikini girls showing off the latest thing in mixing boards or speakers or trap sets. The only thing in the room that reflected care and meticulous upkeep was the CD collection. That took up three levels of cinder block and board shelving.

I walked over and looked through the titles while Cam was rummaging for beer. The CDs were all kinds, rock and jazz and country guitarists, heavy on the Eric Clapton and the Chet Atkins and too light on the Blind Willie McTell for my taste. The titles were perfectly arranged in alphabetical order except that the top shelf started with Cam's own releases. I was surprised how many—at least fifteen different CDs. I pulled one.

The cover art was a bad photocopy of Cam's face, with his name and the title

"American Cowboy" and the rest of the liner notes in what looked like Cyrillic script.

Russian? Czech? I checked the other titles. Most were similar foreign releases. Only one was labelled Split Rail Records, dated five years ago and entitled The Best of Cam Compton. Probably went platinum, that one.

Cam opened himself an Olympia and walked over to the bed like he was in pain. He knocked the laundry off and sat down slowly, elbows out, the way you'd lower yourself into an extrahot bathtub.

"Your ribs are taped," I said. "Somebody gave you a talkingto last night."

"What the fuck business is that to you?"

I took the stack of Compton's own CDs and went over to an amp and sat down, facing him. I started flipping through the jewel cases. "Interesting discography. Bulgaria.

Romania. Germany. You must have had some success over there."

Cam studied me warily. His one eye with the bloody ring around the iris was almost closed. His urge to play silent was duking it out with his urge to talk about himself. The latter finally won.

"Good market in Europe," he admitted. " 'Specially since the Eastern parts opened.

Had me a number ten song for a week in Yugoslavia 'fore the country broke up."

"That so?"

He nodded morosely, like the whole political mess had been a plot to get him off the charts. "Course Germany's always loved Texas stuff—horses, cowboy hats, country music. They cain't get enough of that shit. Sheckly had me touring some honkytonk clubs over there four or five times. Good money."

"Yeah?" I held up the CD I'd been looking at earlier. "What's this—Russian?"

Cam grunted. He was drinking more beer, warming up to the subject. "Fan sent that to me with a real nice letter. Said it wasn't playing right anymore and she loved it, could I please send her a copy of the American original. Goodlooking girl, too."

"You sent it?"

"Couldn't. There is no original. It's a bootleg of one of my shows in Munich. Half the titles in there are boots. Hell, half the titles in Europe. Now you gonna tell me about Alex B.?"

I put the CDs aside. "I came here to help you, Cam."

He stopped with his beer can halfway to his mouth, put the can down. "That a fact?

You get me fired one day, now you're gonna help me."

"Alex Blanceagle was shot dead."

He blinked, kept his eyes closed a second too long. "And what's it got to do with me?"

"He was talking to a man named Samuel Barrera about Sheckly's business. In particular those shipments you've been helping process through the Indian Paintbrush."

Cam put together a smile. He rubbed the bruise on his forehead. "I ain't been close to Sheck for a long time, son. Last help I gave him was signing up with Miranda's band.

Look where that got me. Sheck has some other kind of problem, it ain't mine."

"I know different, Cam. Samuel Barrera's exFBI and he's very good. He'll come talking to you eventually. With something like this he'll have Customs involved, the State Attorney, the D.A. You want my guess, Sheck and his friends know something is coming. They know Les SaintPierre caused a leak and they're plugging up any places where it might've come from—Julie Kearnes, Alex Blanceagle, you. If I were you, I'd be worried."

Cam looked at his beer, thought for about five seconds, then decided to laugh. "Tha's bullshit."

"Ask Alex Blanceagle if it's bullshit."

I opened my backpack and pulled out Cam's .22 Montgomery Ward. I set the gun next to me on the amp.

"You could've killed John Crea, Cam. Not likely, but possible."

Cam looked at the gun and his eye ticked. "What you going on about now? What's that for?"

"I suppose the demo tape's around here somewhere, too. You wouldn't be smart enough to trash it. You think I should give this to the police, Cam, tell them where I found it? I could tell them what idiot it's registered to and how he probably forgot to wipe the inside of the chamber for prints. They put this together with the Julie Kearnes murder, the way that was done, guess who's going to get the blame?"

Under his bruises, Cam got redfaced. He stood up real slow, holding his beer can as if he were about to throw it. "Wait a goddamn minute—"

"When it comes to Sheckly's helpers you're at the bottom of the food chain, Cam. I bet he didn't even pay you—I bet he just knows how to get you riled up, how to put ideas in your head of things he wants done. He's got absolutely nothing to lose, using you, and when people come knocking on his door with warrants for larger problems, you're the first sacrifice he's going to toss out.

Sheckly's got you set up pretty good."

Cam's eyes narrowed. The anger got diffused and tangled up inside him. He lowered the beer can. "And what you think I should do, son—sit there and enjoy the knife in my back? How you think that feels? There's a time not too long ago I's in Miranda Daniels'

corner pretty fierce—even after she got with Mr. SaintPierre. I used to drive her to the Paintbrush every night—nice and friendly. We'd talk about the business. She and me had an understanding. I's gonna look after her? she's gonna be my ticket somewhere else besides here." He waved a hand around at the apartment. "Look to you like I'm getting anywhere?"

"You figure she owes you," I said.

"Damn right."

"You figure the whole world owes you. You got an ego so big you collect your own bootlegs, Cam. Probably autograph them for yourself too. I think your perception of what Miranda promised might be a wee bit twisted."

He took a step forward. "You asking for something, son, you're going to get it."

"Knock it off, Cam. I want to get Miranda extricated from Sheckly, so her deal with Century Records can go through. You could give me the leverage I need to do that."

Cam laughed harshly. "Heard that before."

"You mean from Les?"

Cam shook his head in disgust, walked stiffly into the kitchen, pulled another beer from the refrigerator. "Ask little Miss Daniels. Ask if I didn't tell her, first time she came crying to me about Sheck's contract on her. I figured a Century Records deal, hell, she was going to take me along for sure. We'd be set. I told her somebody wanted to get a little pull with Sheck, all they had to do was look into those shows he's been taping for radio.

Maybe get close to Julie Kearnes, ask Julie to pull some files here and there from the Paintbrush computers, ask her about those trips to Europe with Alex B."

I stood very still. The only sound was the hum of Cam Compton's refrigerator and the traffic on PerrinBeitel. "You told Miranda all this."

"That's what I'm saying."

"And if somebody was to dig where you said to dig—?"

Cam gave me his closelipped smile. "Not like every sound man who's ever worked the Paintbrush doesn't know. Not like the headliner artists don't know, son. It's rankled them for years. Just nobody can prove it. I tell you, what do I get?"