She grinned. "The guys in Nashville that smell smalltown money a mile off. They promised A1 all kinds of stuff for me—recordings, promotion, connections. Nothing ever happened except I showed A1 how grateful I was a lot. I thought it was love for a while. Eventually he decided I'd become too expensive. Or maybe his wife found out. I never knew which. I got left in Nashville with about fifty dollars in cash and some really nice negligees. Stupid, huh?"
I didn't say anything. Allison drank more beer.
"You know the bad part? I finally got up the courage to tell somebody in Nashville that story and it was Les SaintPierre. He just laughed. It happens a hundred times every month, he told me, the exact same way. The big trauma of my life was just another statistic. Then Les told me he could make it right and I got suckered again. I was a slow learner."
"You don't have to tell me any of this."
She shrugged. "I don't care."
She sounded like she'd said it so many times she could almost believe it.
"What happened with the agency?" I asked. "Why did Les decide to push you out of the business?"
Allison shrugged. "Les didn't want somebody bringing him back to earth when he went really far out with an idea. He didn't know when to stop. Most of the time, it turned out well for him that way. Not always."
She shook her head, noncommittal. "It doesn't really matter. Not now."
"And if he doesn't come back?"
"I'll get the agency."
"You sound sure. You think you can keep it afloat without him?"
" I know. Les' reputation. Sure, it'll be tough, but that's assuming I keep the agency.
The name is worth money—
I can sell it to all kinds of competitors in Nashville. There are also contracts in place for publishing rights on some hits that are still bringing in money. Les wasn't stupid."
"Sounds like you've been looking into it."
Allison shrugged. Slight smile. "Wouldn't you?"
"You must've run down his assets, then."
"I've got a pretty good idea."
"You know anything about a cabin on Medina Lake?"
Allison's face got almost sober. She stared at me blankly. I told her about the probate settlement from Les' parents' property.
"First I've heard about it."
But there was something else going on in her head. Like something that had been bothering her slightly for a long time was now coming to the forefront. I looked at her, silently asking her to tell me about it. She wavered, then looked away. "You have a plan, sweetie?"
"I thought I'd head out there. Check things out."
I regretted my answer as soon as I said it.
Allison tottered to her feet, held up her beer to check how much was left, then smiled at me. "You'd better drive. I'll navigate."
Then she began that job by trying to locate the front door.
Allison was quiet for the first half of the trip.
She'd complained bitterly before we left about me making her a thermos of coffee rather than tequila, then making her change clothes into something more utilitarian. I'd found a pair of Carolaine's drawstring Banana Republics and a crewneck pullover in the back of the closet. They fit Allison well. Once we got going, she curled into the passenger's seat of my mother's Audi with her knees on the dash and her face behind the coffee mug and a pair of my mother's purple sunglasses she'd pulled out of the glove compartment. For a while she made occasional "uhh" sounds and I thought she was going to be ill, but once we got out of the city she began to perk up.
She even decided to come with me into the tax assessor's office when we got to Wilming. Wilming was a small county seat consisting of an American Legion Hall and a Dairy Queen and not much else. The assessor's office was open Saturday because it was also the post office and the grocery store. After successfully scoring the deed and the last five years of tax records on Les' property I had to grudgingly admit that having the subject's wife with me, the subject's pretty blond wife, had helped expedite matters somewhat.
When we got back in the car Allison poured herself more coffee and said, "Gaah."
"It's just strong," I said. "You're not used to Peet's."
She shuddered. "Is this like Starbucks or something?"
"Peet's is to Starbucks what Plato is to Socrates. You'll appreciate it in time."
Allison stared at me for about half a mile, then decided to turn her attention back to the tax assessor's documents and the coffee.
She flipped through the paperwork on Les' cabin. "Bastard. Two years ago he changed the billing for the tax statements so they wouldn't come to the house. Exactly when we got married."
"He wanted a place you didn't know about. He might've already been thinking about getting away someday, leaving himself an exit route."
She made a small, incredulous laugh. "What's this billing address in Austin? A girlfriend?"
"Probably a mail drop. A girlfriend would be too risky."
"Bastard. You think you can find this place?"
I shook my head. "Don't know."
We had the exact address for the cabin but that didn't mean much at the lake. Most people had their address registered as a mailbox along the main highway, and there would be hundreds of those, all plain silver, many of them with incomplete or weathereddown numbers. Even if we found the right box it wouldn't necessarily be near the cabin. Most likely that would be a mile or two down some unnamed gravel road, the turnoff marked only by wooden boards displaying the last names of some of the families that lived that way. Often there was no sign at all, no way to find someone out here unless you had wordofmouth instructions. If you could avoid the notice of the locals, Medina Lake wasn't a bad place for a missing person to hide out.
We passed Woman Hollow Creek, wended our way through some more hills, down Highway 16. The ratio of RVs to cars began to climb.
Allison examined my mother's medicine pouch on the rearview mirror, letting the beads and feathers slip through her fingers. "So how do you know Milo anyway? You two don't seem—I don't know, you're like the Odd Couple or something."
"You know that scar on my chest?"
Allison hesitated. "You're kidding."
"Milo didn't do it. He had this idea. He thought I'd make a good private detective."
The road was too twisty for me to look at Allison's face, but she stayed quiet for another mile or so, the purple sunglasses turned toward me. I missed the noise and the wind and rattling of the VW. In my mother's Audi, the quiet spaces were way too quiet.
Finally Allison laced her fingers together and stretched her arms. "Okay. So what happened?"
"Milo was assistant counsel for defence on this homicide case. His first big job with Terrence 8c Goldman in San Francisco. He wanted someone who could track down a witness—a drug dealer who'd seen the murder. Milo thought I could do it. He thought he'd really impress his boss that way."
"And you found the guy."
"Oh, yeah, I found him. I spent a few days in San Francisco General afterward."
"Milo's boss was impressed?"
"With Milo, no. With me, yes. Once I got out of intensive care."
Allison laughed. "He gave you a job?"
"She. She offered to train me, yes. She fired Milo."
"That's even better. And a woman, too."
"Most definitely a woman."
Allison opened her mouth, then began to nod. "Ah ha. Milo wanted to impress—"
"It wasn't just professional."
"But you and her—"
Allison grinned. She nudged my arm. "I do believe the P.I. is blushing."
She laughed, then uncapped the thermos and poured herself another cup of Peet's.
"This stuff is beginning to taste better."
We skirted the lake for over a mile before we actually saw it. The hills and the cedars obscured the view most of the way around. The waterline was so far down that the clay and limestone shore looked like a beige bathtub ring between the water and the trees.
Medina wasn't a lake you could get your bearings on very easily. The water snaked around, following the course of the original river that was dammed to make the lake, etching out coves and dead ends, each outlet and inlet looking pretty much like all the others. We might've been searching for Les' cabin the rest of the week if an old friend hadn't helped us out.
About a mile past the Highway 37 cutoff, a black Ford Festiva was pulled off on the right side of the road, opposite the lake. The driver's side window was open and a redheaded orangutanlooking guy was behind the wheel, reading a newspaper.
I drove a quarter mile up the road and then Ued around. I waited for a semi to rumble by and then pulled in behind it, following close.
"What are we doing?" Allison asked.
"Keep looking straight ahead."
On my second pass the redhead in the Festiva still didn't pay me any attention, but it was definitely Elgin. He had his head firmly buried in the sports page. Advanced surveillance methods. He'd probably figure out to poke eyeholes in the paper pretty soon.
I quickly scanned the area he was staking out. There were no side roads in view.
There were no mailboxes. It was just a curve of highway around a hill. On the lake side the road fell away in a steep, heavily wooded slope, so you couldn't really see what was down toward the water, but there were some power lines angling in. That meant at least one cabin and only one way to get down there—past Elgin.
"Elgin without Frank," I said. "Not smart."
Allison looked behind us. "What are you talking about?"
I told her about my encounter the night before with Elgin and Frank on the side of the highway, how they'd introduced my face to the asphalt and offered me a very nice throwdown gun. I told her they were probably sheriff deputies, buddies of Tilden Sheckly.
"What shits," she said. "And they're watching Les' place?"
"One of them at least."
"So we're going to go back and whack him on the head or something, right? Tie him up?"
I chanced a look sideways to see if she was kidding. I couldn't tell. "Whack him on the head?"
"Hey, I've got Mace, too. Let's go."
After her performance with Sheckly the previous evening I thought it prudent not to deride her abilities as a headwhacker. I said, "Let's keep that as a backup plan. Get a fifty out of my backpack."
We kept driving, going back as far as Turk's Ice House.
After five minutes of chitchat with Eustice, the blue haired store clerk in the flashy satin shirt, we came to an agreement that the cove we wanted was Maple End and no, Eustice didn't recognize Les from his picture and no, Allison hadn't gone to high school with Eustice's daughter. Despite the last disappointment, Eustice agreed to introduce us to Bip, who agreed to loan us his outboard fishing boat for fifty dollars. Bip and his boat were both large grayish wedges, dented up and grungy, and both smelled like live bait. Bip kept grinning at Allison and saying "whuh!" every time he looked away from her.
I tried to give him warning looks, to let him know he was putting himself in mortal peril, but Bip paid no attention.