He lifted me to my feet and shoved my chest against the car. He stayed right behind me. Frank and I both looked at Elgin, who was now grinning evilly, holding up a generic
.38 with a ducktaped grip.
"I suppose you got a license for that?" Frank asked me.
"Never seen it before."
"He had it," Miranda muttered. Then with a little more certainty: "He had it." She hugged her arms, doing all her pointing with her chin. When she spoke again her tone was almost apologetic. "Elgin, you put it in the car. I just saw you."
Elgin laughed a little too nervously. He waved the .38 in no particular direction. "Come on now, Miss Daniels. You know better—"
"It's called a throw down," I told Miranda. "You're not telling these guys anything they don't know."
"But I saw him." Her tone was soft but obstinate, like a child describing an invisible friend.
We were all silent. There were a lot of possible scenarios we could take from here.
Most of them I didn't like worth a damn.
Elgin looked at Frank for some backup. I couldn't see Frank's face but from Elgin's reaction I'd say the backup was not forthcoming.
"I swear to God—" Elgin started.
"Jesus," said Frank. Disgust in his voice.
He put me back on the pavement, not so hard this time, and told Elgin to watch me, if he was up to it.
Elgin came over and glared down at me silently. He pointed the .38 casually at my spine. Then he put his boot on the back of my neck and kept it there.
I decided to keep my mouth shut. Sometimes I'm capable of it.
Frank took Miranda back to the black Festiva.
I had a great view of the VW's left rear tire. The treading was getting worn. A car drove by on the highway, slowed down to look, then kept going.
Frank's field radio was telling him something.
After a while Frank came over and told Elgin, "Talk to me for a minute."
They walked away from me. I didn't hear the first part of their conversation until Elgin protested something.
"Bullshit," Frank said, a little louder.
The conversation got too low for me to hear again, but it was clear that Frank was less than thrilled with Elgin. He didn't even call him "sir."
Finally Frank came up to me and undid the cuffs. He got me on my feet.
"Get back in your car."
I did. Miranda joined me, trying very hard not to look at anything. Her scarf had loosened and slipped around her neck and her hair was a tangled black mesh from the wind.
Elgin stared at me angrily for a minute, then caught Frank looking at him and retreated toward the Festiva.
"I apologize for this," Frank told me. "Simple mistake."
"Great," I said. "Tell me about it while I dig the asphalt out of my nose."
Frank shook his head.
"And if I want to make a complaint with the Avalon County Sheriff's Department?"
Frank looked at me blandly. "You don't."
When we drove away Elgin and Frank were just starting to have a collegial conversation, sitting on the hood of their car and yelling at each other. My side began to feel a little bit better.
Then Miranda started crying.
The Les SaintPierre Agency had gotten in the spirit of the season. Somebody—I was betting Gladys the receptionist—had put a clump of pumpkins on the front porch and a ristra over the door. I wondered if Milo Chavez would dress in costume and hand out candy to the wouldbe recording stars who visited. Somehow I doubted it.
Miranda made it all the way up the steps of the old Victorian before sinking down, without explanation, onto the porch. I set her guitar and her overnight bag by the door, then sat next to her.
It was one in the morning, finally cool enough to be pleasant. I didn't feel pleasant.
Most of my body weight had drained into my hands and feet. The only thing keeping me awake was the persistent pain in my jaw and my side.
Miranda must've been operating on even less sleep than I was. She sat with her upper body listing back and forth, like she was correcting her balance on a ship. She'd stopped crying a long time ago but her eyes were teary.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I just couldn't believe about Elgin. He and his wife—she's a cousin to Ben French, my drummer. They came to some of my father's parties. Elgin seemed like a gentleman."
"A gentleman," I said. "Like Tilden Sheckly."
It came out harsher than I intended.
Miranda leaned back until her shoulders touched the wall. She stared across the street at the dark turrets of the Koehler Mansion. "And if I hadn't been there?"
"It's lucky for me you were. Frank and Elgin wanted to give me something to worry about besides Tilden Sheckly's business."
She circled her arms around her knees. She'd taken off her boots in the VW and now her toes stuck out from beneath the folds of her denim skirt. She dug them in, over and over, like she was trying to gather up more of the hardwood porch.
"Sheck was talking to me tonight," she said. "Before all that mess with Allison. He asked me about moving out to the mansion."
She put her head back and closed her eyes. "He lives in this old hunting lodge out behind the Paintbrush—got about six million rooms in it. Sheck offered me a whole wing to myself and free time at the studio. Ain't nothing like Silo in Austin, but still.
Sheck said I'd be closer to the action that way."
She opened her eyes and kicked me lightly on the shin. "It's not what you think. It would be like an artist colony."
She looked at me uncertainly, like she was hoping against hope that I'd agree. An artist colony, conveniently down the hall from Tilden's bedroom, I bet.
Miranda hadn't moved her bare foot. It still rested against my leg. Maybe she was just too tired to notice.
"Your father would disapprove," I speculated.
But my mind wasn't really on what I was saying anymore. I was looking at Miranda, trying to remember the photograph of her I'd seen in Milo's office five days ago. I was trying to superimpose that image, to see if I could remember why I'd found it so hard to believe that Tilden Sheckly would want to own her.
"Les would discourage me, too," she added. "If Les was around."
I saw what she wanted me to say. I tried to sound as convincing as I could. "Les believed in your career, Miranda. He'd've been foolish not to. If he got himself in trouble with Sheck, it was his doing. Not yours."
Miranda examined my face. She relaxed her shoulders a little. "I just get worried. I'll be glad when this business is decided one way or the other."
"I can understand that. Don't do it."
"Don't do what?"
"Move into Sheckly's place. You should move out of your father's and get something of your own, Miranda. But not Sheckly's house."
She looked at me differently then, not tired, not really asking me any question you could put into words. Her foot was still resting on my leg.
I cleared my throat. "Been a long day. You play tomorrow night?"
"At the Paintbrush. Every Saturday we open for the headliner."
I stood to go. Miranda offered me her hand.
I pulled her up but she didn't let go of my hand. We walked to the door, where Miranda retrieved a spare key from behind the mailbox on the wall.
When she opened the door of the agency the smells of freon and fresh flowers seeped out, leftovers from a hot day.
She turned toward me and smiled. "Good night?"
"Yeah." My voice came out ragged.
I wanted to let go of Miranda's hand so she wouldn't realize mine was shaking a little.
She didn't let me.
She moistened her lips. "Maybe—it's sort of uncomfortable, being alone here tonight."
Several different voices were hissing in my ears, Erainya Manos and Milo Chavez and Sam Barrera and a bunch of others—all talking about professional detachment and client loyalty and warning me not to start things I'd regret. Miranda kept smiling and the voices kept getting farther away. With the little reservation I could muster I tried to think of something to say, something polite and witty by way of declining. Instead I mumbled, "Maybe I could just—"
"Maybe so," she agreed.
Miranda's hand tightened on mine. She led me under the ristra doorway and inside.
It was only the fear of meeting Milo Chavez if he came to work in the morning that got me home to 90 Queen Anne Street before dawn. I caught about three hours of sleep before Kelly Arguello's phone call woke me up again.
"Good God," she said. "What's that noise?"
I rubbed the crud out of my eyes and tried to identify any unusual sounds other than the grinding inside my skull. Oh.
"Just Robert Johnson," I told her.
"Are you torturing him?"
Robert Johnson kept making his overworked wench motor noise. I tried to wriggle my foot loose from his front claws. He rolled on his back so he could attack with all four. I rubbed his belly with my toes while he gave my ankle the meat hook treatment.
"Sort of," I said. "I'm late with breakfast."
"You must make a hell of a breakfast."
I tried to get up from the futon. Mistake. I steadied myself on the ironing board, sat down again, and waited for the fuzzy black balloons to go away.
I tried my best to make my brain work while Kelly started giving me the rundown on what she'd found so far about Les SaintPierre.
Once again she surprised me. In the world of government paperwork you can't expect much out of forty eight hours, but somehow Kelly manages. She'd already gotten all of Les' driver's information from DMV—body reports on the Mercedes convertible and the Seville that he'd left behind, his driver's record, previous applications, Allison SaintPierre's record. Kelly had written for the incident report on a DUI Les had received last year in Houston. That would take another week at least.
She had submitted a few tons of requests to the Social Security Administration and various state agencies, looking for any recent papers issued for any of the names from Julie Kearnes' personnel files. We'd been a little too liberal in the weeding process, narrowing down the scope to the six most likely candidates for a new Les Saint Pierre, but even with that many names, tracking paperwork was going to be a nightmare. Kelly planned on following up Monday morning.
"How'd you squeeze DMV so quickly?" I asked.
" No big deal. I told the guy at the desk I was working a grand jury subpoena for the State Attorney's Office. Like that time in San Francisco you told me about. You're right—it works like a charm."
"I wasn't suggesting that as model behaviour, Kelly."
"Hey, what? You want me to put the information back?"
I hesitated. Tres Navarre, the moral example. "They bought the State Attorney line from you, huh?"
"Purple hair and all?"
She sighed. "Jesus, Tres, it's not like I wore a nose stud or anything. I can dress business. I look good in a blazer."
I didn't argue the point.
Kelly went on to tell me about Les SaintPierre's parents' death certificates in Denton County, which had led her to a probate court settlement on their estate, which had in turn given her a list of real estate inherited by Les. He'd received the small family house in Denton and a vacation house on Medina Lake. Kelly had sent requests to Denton County and Avalon County for copies of the assessor's records on both properties.