"Avalon County homicide couldn't detect its way out of a cascaron, Milo. They're just trying to rattle you."

"They're succeeding."

I told him about my afternoon—about the autopsy files from Frank, then about the warehouse address I'd visited on PerrinBeitel.

"I know that place," Milo said. "This is good, isn't it? The RIAA guy, Barrera—he'll need to move on it now, right?"

"You ask Barrera, he'll tell you nothing's changed. There's still no evidence, no probable cause for a search. Just the fact I saw somebody there who I didn't like isn't enough. Barrera's willing to hold out another few years if it means strengthening his legal case."

"I've got until Friday," Milo muttered. "And you're talking about years."

"Barrera's technically correct," I said. "There's nothing they can move on in what I've found. At least not right away."

"Technically correct," Milo grumbled. "That's just great."

"We'll figure out something," I promised.

"And Les?"

That one was harder to sound confident on. "Consider him gone. For good."

Milo was silent, probably trying to formulate some kind of B plan. When he spoke again his voice was strange, tightly controlled. "I'll need to talk to Miranda. If we're going to have to come clean with Century when we bring them the tape, I need to talk to my client about strategy. She needs to know the risks. Maybe—"

"I'll bring her by later tonight," I promised. "It'll take a couple of hours."

"My office at nine," he suggested.

"Okay. And Barrera is good, Milo. The people he is working with are good. They will eventually put Sheckly's ass in a sling."

The other end of the line was deadly calm.


"I'm fine," he said.

"Let it go, Milo."

"All right."

"Your office at nine."

Milo said sure. As he hung up he was still speaking, muttering unhappy and angry thoughts. I had the feeling I was no longer part of the conversation.


Mendoza Street ran along the eastern edge of the San Fernando Cemetery. On the lefthand side of the road the graveyard's chainlink fence tilted and bowed at irregular intervals, like a football team had been using it for blocking practice. Evening ground fog had thickened on the cemetery lawn, diluting the tombstones and the air and the trees into one grayish smear.

On the right side of the street was a line of box houses with brightly painted wood slat siding and burglar barred windows and worn tar shingle roofs. The yards were squares of crabgrass, some gravel, some display areas for broken furniture and tires.

There were no kids in sight, nothing of value on the porches, no windows open, few cars parked on the street except those that had been stolen from other parts of town, then stripped and abandoned here. There were plenty of those.

Number 344 was a turquoise onebedroom in slightly better repair than the houses around it. Ralph's maroon Cadillac and a babyblue Camaro were in the driveway.

The front yard was white gravel, decorated with bottle caps. The burglar bars on the screen door and windows were painted white and shaped like ivy, though they were so ornate and thick they reminded me more of a fused curtain of bones.

I rang the bell and stood on the porch for about twenty seconds before Ralph answered the door, midlaugh. Somewhere behind him I could hear Miranda laughing too. The smell of mota smoke wafted out the door.

"Eh, vato." Ralph's glasses shimmered yellow in the porch light.

He stood aside to let me in.

The living room was bare except for one brown couch opposite the window. The interior walls were stark white and the floors hardwood and several bullet holes in the ceiling had been imperfectly spackled over. Driveby souvenirs from the house's previous owner. Ralph had gotten the place cheap because of that.

Through an archway I could see Miranda sitting at a dining table across from another woman. They were both laughing so hard they were wiping away tears. Miranda was still dressed as she had been this morning— in jeans, boots, and my Tshirt. Her face had more colour, though? her posture was a little less weigheddown. The other woman was a young Latina with long coppery hair and a bright yellow dress that showed lots of leg. She wore black pumps and silver earrings and makeup.

When the women saw me they both smiled.

Miranda said my name like it was a pleasant memory from twenty years ago.

The other woman got up and came to give me a hug. "Hey, vaquero."

She kissed both my ears, then stepped back to appraise me.

"Cally," I said. "How you doing?"

"Asi asi." Then, still in Spanish, "You've got a nice lady here."

I looked at Miranda, who was still smiling and wiping her eyes. There was only one lit joint in the room—in Ralph's hand—but there were assorted munchies on the table—bags of tortilla chips, a steaming canister of Ralph's homemade venison tamales, a plate of Ralph's special pan dulce—the kind with the green flecks in the icing. Uhoh.

Ralph saw my expression and spread his hands. "Everything's cool, vato. Just relaxing, doing the grief process, right?"

I stared at him.

Ralph shrugged, turned to Cally. "Eh, mamasita, let's go out back, get Chico to take you home."

Cally said goodbye to Miranda, gave her a hug, then kissed me one last time. Ralph gave us an amused grin, then led his lady friend out the screen door.

In the floodlit backyard, Chico of the yellow pirate bandanna and the easily kicked balls was working on a halfassembled Shelby. Ralph kept the car out there just for his grunts—sort of like the block table for kids at the doctor's office. Chico stopped messing with the fuel pump and quickly wiped his hands when Cally and Ralph came out.

I sat across the table from Miranda and turned the plate of laced pan dulce around.

"How many?"

Miranda blinked very slowly. "Two? I don't remember."


My face was apparently good enough to warrant another laugh. She held her hand over her mouth, quivered silently for five beats, and then did a little snort on beat six.

"I guess I shouldn't ask how you're feeling," I ventured.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I just—it feels good to laugh, Tres. Cally's so nice. Ralph is really lucky."

"Sure," I said.

"Have they been together long?"

I hesitated. "Actually they're more like business partners."

Miranda frowned. She reached for another pan dulce before I moved the plate.

"Better not," I said.

"Oh—right." She went for the bag of Doritos instead, examined the plastic edges.

"Ralph and Cally told me not to be mad at you. They talk about you pretty highly— said you usually knew what you were talking about, even if it wasn't fun to hear."

Outside, Ralph had finished giving Chico his orders. Ralph tossed him a set of car keys, then swatted Cally's behind by way of farewell. She grinned, then followed her yellow bandannaed chauffeur around the side of the house, out of sight.

"I spoke to Allison today," I said.

Miranda smiled ruefully. "My best friend in the whole world."

I told her about Allison moving out, about the addresses we had tracked, about how I had some new information on Brent's murder.

Miranda tried to pull her expression together, to anchor herself on my words. Her attention disintegrated quickly.

There was a small hole in the upper corner of the Dorito bag, much too little to get a chip through. The problem was too much for Miranda's stoned sensibilities. Finally she started breaking up chips inside the bag with one finger, getting them small enough to fit through the hole.

My story faltered to a stop.

Miranda looked up, probably wondering why the sound of my voice had gone away.


"Milo wanted to see you tonight, to talk strategy. Maybe I should call him, tell him tomorrow would be better."

She processed those words.

"Milo wants—" Her voice trailed off, like she was just remembering that name. "My brother is dead and Allison's leaving town and Milo wants to talk about Century Records.'"

A car engine started in the driveway. Seconds later the headlights of the babyblue Camaro slipped through the livingroom window, over the couch and across the livingroom table, then disappeared down Mendoza Street.

Miranda moved a small piece of tortilla chip across the table with her finger, like it was a checker. "We should talk, Tres. Before we see Milo."

"I know."

"The things you said last night, the way you made me out. . ."

The screen door screaked open and Ralph came in alone.

I turned back toward Miranda. "Like I said, tomorrow would be better. I'll call Milo."

"Pinche Chavez," Ralph put in. "This lady need help it ain't going to come from his sorry ass."

He looked at Miranda. She rewarded him with a faint smile.

I walked to the phone. Ralph sat where I had been sitting and helped himself to the tamales. As he pried off the canister lid a cloud of steam and cumin and spiced meat smells mushroomed up. He pulled out three of the tamales and began unshucking them. He told Miranda not to worry about a thing. We'd be taking care of her.

Gladys answered the phone at the agency office.

"Milo in?" I asked her.

Gladys sounded like she was shuffling furniture, or maybe moving quickly into another part of the office.

Her tone was low and urgent.

"He's out," she whispered. "You mean you don't know—"

"What do you mean, out?"

Our questions crossfired and tangled. We both backtracked and waited.

"Okay," I said. "Tell me what happened."

Gladys told me how Milo had cancelled his dinner meeting with an important client, then stormed out of the office. He'd thrown his pager on Gladys' desk on the way out, telling her "Don't bother." He'd said he had some business to take care of. Gladys had been worried enough to check Milo's desk, which she'd been forbidden to do but which she apparently knew well enough to notice what was missing—the handgun Milo kept in the middle drawer. She had just assumed, me being the most disreputable person Milo knew, no offense of course, that he'd gone somewhere with me. Gladys was about to tell me something else, something to justify her prying, but I cut her off.

"How long ago?"

"Ten minutes?" she said, plaintive, apologetic.

I hung up and looked at Ralph, then at Miranda.

"What?" Miranda said.

"Milo just left the office with a gun," I said.

My words took a while to impact, and even when they did the effect was dull. Miranda's brown eyes slid down to my chin, then my chest, then to her own hands. She pushed the Doritos away. "You know where he's going?"


"He's trying something dangerous. For me."


Ralph ate, looking back and forth between us. His expression had all the depth of someone watching a barroom TV program. When he finished his tamale he wiped his hands and then spread them, a hereIam gesture.

"Maybe so," I agreed.

Ralph slowly broke into a grin, like I'd given him an answer he'd been expecting for days.