"I'll introduce you to Sam Barrera, make sure he cuts you a fair deal."
"Price would be higher than that, son."
"Somebody's already kicked in your ribs, Cam. You think you can afford to wait around for a better offer?"
Cam's smile dissolved. "Get the fuck out, then."
"You should talk to me, Cam."
He went across the room, retrieved his .22 from the guitar amp. He held it lazily in my direction, never mind the chambers were empty.
There wasn't much more I could say.
I opened the door. The heat immediately sucked into the room around me, along with the traffic sounds and the smell of exhaust.
As I left, Cam Compton was standing in front of his music collection, his .22 wedged in his armpit. Cam was examining one by one the stray CDs I'd taken out, using his grubby Tshirt to wipe the front of each jewel case before he put it back in its proper place.
That night it took more than a little self convincing to get myself out of the house, away from the possibilities of a simple chalupa dinner and my medieval drama book and maybe even some sleep, to drive out instead to the address Miranda Daniels had given me—her family ranch house near Bulverde.
It had been less than a year since an inheritance case had taken me out that direction, but I was amazed by the urbanization, how much farther I had to go to start smelling the cedars and the fertilizer.
San Antonio grows in concentric layers like a tree. It's one of the few ways the town is orderly.
My grandfather rarely went farther from downtown than Brackenridge Park, unless he was looking for deer to shoot. My mother used to think Scrivener's fabric store on Loop 410 was the edge of town. In my high school years the outermost boundary of the known world was Loop 1604, and even inside the loop it was still mostly tracts of live oak and cactus and broken limestone.
Now I could drive past 1604 and halfway to the village of Bulverde before I was ever out of earshot of a convenience store.
The sky behind me was city grayorange and ahead of me rural black. Just above the hills, the full moon made a hazy white circle behind the clouds.
I exited on Ranch Road 22, a narrow twolaner with no lighting, no posted speed limits, plenty of curves, and nothing on the shoulders but gravel and barbed wire. A killway, my dad would've called it.
In my goreloving adolescent days I used to pester the Sheriff to tell me about all the traffic accidents he'd handled on little ranch roads like RR22. He usually said no, but one night he'd gotten drunk enough and fed up enough to tell me in graphic detail about a particularly nasty headon collision. He told me murder scenes were nothing compared to car accidents, and then he went on to prove it. I never asked to hear any more of his work stories.
I swerved once to avoid a dead deer. Fence posts and mile markers floated into my headlights and out again. Occasionally I passed a billboard advertising a new housing development that was about to be built—CALLE VERDE, FINE LIVING FROM THE 120's. I bet the folks who'd moved out here for a retirement in the country were pleased about that.
The 7Elevens and H.E.B.s would be coming in next.
The turn for Serra Road was unmarked, despite what Miranda had told me, and it wasn't much wider than a private driveway. Fortunately I could see the Daniels' party all the way from RR22. A quarter mile or so across a dark pasture, lights were blazing in the trees and a fire was burning. There was the distant hum of music.
I bumped along Serra Road with rocks pinging into the wheel wells of the VW. The air was the temperature of bathwater and had a strange mix of smells— manure, wood smoke, gasoline, and marigolds. One more right turn took me over the cattle guard of the Daniels' property.
Their front yard was a full acre of gravel and grass. A dozen pickup trucks were parked around a granddaddy live oak several stories tall and hung from root to top with white Christmas lights. One of the pickup trucks was a huge black affair with orange pinstriping and silver Barbie doll women on the mud flaps. I wondered if there could be two such trucks in the world. Not with my luck.
The house itself was low and long and white, with a front porch that stretched all the way across and was now spilling over with people. Willis Daniels and his standup bass were the centre of attention. He and a small bunch of grizzled cowboy musicians, none of them from Miranda's group, were burning their way through an old swing number—Milton Brown, if my memories of my father's 78 collection served me right.
All the players were drunk as hell and they sounded just fine.
Smaller clumps of people were gathered around the property, drinking and talking and laughing. Half a dozen were throwing horseshoes by the side of the house, their light provided by a line of bare bulbs strung between a mesquite tree and a toolshed. Some women in dresses and boots and lots of silver jewellery were gathered around a campfire, helping blearyeyed kids roast marsh mallows. All of the pickup truck cabs were dark and closed but not all of them were vacant.
Next to the oak tree two men were talking—Brent Daniels and my buddy Jean.
Brent was wearing the same dingy checkered shirt and black jeans he'd been wearing the last three times I'd seen him. They weren't getting any prettier and neither was he.
His black hair looked like dayold road kill. He was shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot.
Jean wore a dark blue linen jacket, slacks that were a little too tight around his middle, a white collarless silk shirt, black boots, and a silver bracelet. His hand was clutching Brent's shoulder a little too firmly and he was leaning close to Brent's ear, telling him something.
When Jean realized somebody was watching their conversation he cast around until he found me. He locked his fierce, indifferent little eyes on me for a second, finished his statement to Brent, then pulled away and laughed, patting Brent's shoulder like they'd just shared a fine humorous story. Brent didn't laugh. He turned angrily and walked toward the house.
Jean leaned back against the oak. He put his heel on the trunk, produced a handrolled cigarette, and began fishing around his pockets for a lighter. He watched me as I walked toward him.
"The steel guitar player."
"It's honest work."
Jean lit his cigarette, nodded. "No doubt. Honest work."
"Why are you standing out here in the dark?" I asked. "Your boss too embarrassed to bring you into the party?"
Jean narrowed his eyes. He mouthed the words your boss like he was trying to interpret them, like he was suspicious he'd just been insulted.
"Sheckly," he decided.
"Yeah—the big ugly redneck. You know."
In the glow from the white Christmas lights, Jean's smile looked unnaturally luminous.
The fierceness in his eyes didn't diminish at all. "I see."
"You did a hell of a job clearing out Alex Blanceagle the other night."
No response. Jean took a drag on the cigarette, turned his head, and blew smoke leisurely toward the porch. The old drunk musicians had launched into something new—an instrumental that sounded vaguely like Lester Scruggs. A couple of women were dosidoing with each other on the sidewalk.
I looked toward the front door. Brent Daniels now stood next to an icefilled garbage can, drinking a beer as fast as he could. Several people were talking to him but Brent wasn't paying them any attention.
"What was that about?" I asked Jean.
He followed my gaze, caught my meaning. "I told Brent Daniels I admired his sister.
Her music. I said I hoped she would tour Europe soon."
"Like Cam Compton used to. Make a nice courier system, wouldn't it? Good cover, touring with a band, with lots of equipment, if you had goods you wanted to deliver to a lot of places in Europe."
Jean blew more smoke. He gave me the crab eyes. "Do you intend to provoke, Mr.
Navarre, or are you simply an idiot?"
"I'm not usually like this," I confessed. "Usually I don't find so many corpses in one week. You usually leave so many?"
Jean smiled coldly. "An idiot," he decided.
He disengaged his back from the tree and was leaning forward to say something when some commotion erupted around the side of the house.
Somebody by the shed yelled "Ohhh!" like he'd just seen a great triple play. A woman shrieked. A crowd of people started to converge around the horseshoe pit. Some were swearing, a few laughing. Willis Daniels' hoe down faltered to a stop as the musicians got up to see what was going on.
A drunk cowboy staggered away from the scene, laughing, telling people what had just happened in a loud enough voice that Jean and I could hear him fine. Apparently Allison SaintPierre had just knocked Tilden Sheckly out cold with a horseshoe.
I looked at Jean.
He tossed his cigarette down in a leisurely way. It bounced off a root and disappeared in the crack between two other roots, then dimmed to a little orange eye. Jean looked up at me and smiled, almost pleasantly this time.
"My boss," he said with satisfaction.
Then he turned and casually walked in the opposite direction, into the dark.
Sheckly wasn't out cold, exactly. Just slightly cooled down.
I nudged my way through the spectators and found him sitting in the dust, his fingertips on his temples and a look of complete dismay on his face. He was dressed in black from boots to shirt. His Stetson lay nearby, knocked from his head. Below Sheck's left eye, the cheek looked like a crosssection of a rare filet mignon. An inch higher and the horseshoe would've blinded him.
An older woman squatted next to him, patting his shoulders and trying to console him.
Her words came out slurred. The margarita in her other hand sloshed at a fortyfive degree angle.
A couple of cowboy types stood on the other side. They seemed anxious to lend the rich man a bandanna, or an arm to lean on, or a gun to shoot Allison Saint Pierre.
Anything he needed.
Sheckly shook his head a couple of times. He dabbed at his ruined cheek with the back of his fist, looked at the blood on his knuckles, and regained some colour in his face. Then he tried to get up and failed. He rallied again, staggering to his feet with the help of the cowboys.
"I'm gonna kill that crazy bitch."
The men murmured agreement.
Sheckly blinked. He stumbled, huge and awkward as a drugged horse.
He scanned the crowd, targeted me briefly, and seemed to make a foggy connection.
Then his eyes kept moving.
Allison SaintPierre was nowhere to be seen, though a few people were looking in the direction of the ranch house and shaking their heads as they speculated about her. I went toward the house.
When I bumped into Willis Daniels on the porch he turned around and grabbed my upper arm and for a second I thought the old man was going to clobber me with his cane. I hardly recognized him. The Santa Claus smile had vanished. His eyes blazed.
His cement coloured hair was flattened into sweaty bangs against his forehead.
He looked disappointed when he saw I wasn't someone he wanted to clobber. At least not at the moment.
"Damn it," he muttered, lowering his cane.
"Allison went this way?"
Willis raised his cane again and shook it at nobody in particular. Then he glared in the direction of the horseshoe pit and began grumbling things about Mrs. Saint Pierre that weren't fit for Santa's elves to hear. I went inside.
Stringed instruments decorated the walls. A couple of kids slept on a Naugahyde couch in the living room while their parents told Aggie jokes and mixed drinks in the kitchen. The door to the first bedroom down the hall was open. A woman I didn't know had passed out on the bed in the middle of a pile of cowboy hats. The door to the second bedroom was ajar and Allison's voice came through in a tone so shaky it made me wince—like an Estring tuned to the point you just knew it was going to snap in the guitarist's face.