I slid the cilantro off the knife blade and into the pot. The cebollas were already grilled and the sour cream was ready. Strips of fried corn tortilla were in a bowl to the side, ready to be stirred in.
I wiped off my hands.
"And while you were on the phone—" I prompted.
Mother shrugged. "All right. I did ask if there were any openings in the English department."
I looked down longingly at the big knife I'd been using.
"Well, really, Jackson. He was very helpful."
Only my mother calls me by my first name and lives. She likes to put me in my place next to the first two Jackson Navarres—my father and my grandfather. The third in a long line of hopeless males.
The phone rang. My mother tried to look surprised and failed miserably.
"Good Lord, who could that be?"
I bowed to the inevitable and said I'd get it. Mother smiled.
I took the phone out onto the deck next to the hot tub, picked up the receiver, and said,
A moment of surprised silence on the other end, then a fatherly voice said, "Now this isn't Tres, is it?"
I told him it was. He laughed and gave me the standard kneehightoagrasshopper reminiscences about how long it had been and how glad he was I'd gotten out of puberty. I said I was too.
"Your mother told me you were job hunting," he said.
The Widower's Two it Step 31
"Yeah, about that—"
I wanted to apologize for my mother thinking that college teaching jobs grew on trees and fell when ripe as soon as one's parents made phone calls to old friends.
Before I could, Professor Mitchell said, "I made your appointment for eleven o'clock Saturday. It's the only day we're all available to interview."
I hesitated, then closed the glass door to the kitchen to shut out the pool game and the TV.
"Your mother's timing was perfect as usual," Mitchell said. "Big stirup in the department, the hiring committee just forming. So happens I'm on it. Eleven o'clock.
Will that time work for you?"
A polite no would've done just fine. Sorry, my mother's just meddling in my life again and I have a very bright future in private investigations. I kept waiting to hear myself say no. I watched through the glass door as Carolaine came on the television again, this time for a newsbreak.
Maybe what made me weaken was Carolaine's face. Maybe it was a week with almost no sleep, doing surveillance, minding a fouryearold. Or the fact that whenever I closed my eyes now I saw Julie Kearnes in her '68 blue Cougar, people with white rubber gloves picking fragments out of her hair with tweezers. When I finally responded to Professor Mitchell I didn't say no. I said, "Eleven o'clock Saturday. What the hell."
My mother's voice came on the upstairs phone line. She sighed and said, "I've died and gone to heaven."
Professor Mitchell started laughing.
The good news Tuesday morning was that Gladys the secretary was able to negotiate a lunch meeting for me with Milo Chavez. Actually, Milo was meeting with somebody else, but Gladys figured it might be okay if I dropped in for a few minutes—seeing as there was a homicide to talk about and all.
The bad news was that lunch would require money.
I tried the ATM on Broadway and Elizabeth but it played stubborn with me. It told me my checking balance was insufficient for the minimum twentydollar withdrawal. I tried for a cash advance from credit. Somewhere in New Jersey, the people at VISA laughed long and hard.
Plan C. I called my old friends at Manny Forester & Associates. By ninethirty I had three subpoenas Manny's normal errand boys had been unable to serve. By eleven o'clock I'd found two of the invisible men, dropped the papers at their feet, and gotten away with no more than a few cuss words and a steak knife waved in my face. Not my idea of fun steady work, but at fifty dollars a subpoena it wasn't bad emergency income.
The third delivery was for a repeat customer—William Burnett, a.k.a. Sarge. I served process on him at least once a month thanks to Manny Forester's zealous efforts on behalf of Sarge's wife and creditors. Sarge just kept on smiling and lighting his cigars with the subpoenas, moving from downtown bar to downtown bar. He and I were to the point now where we took turns buying each other beers every time I tracked him down.
He'd tell me all about his days in the coast guard down in Corpus Christi.
Thanks to Sarge's stories and the hospitality of the Cantina Azteca I was thirty minutes late for lunch.
When I finally got to Tycoon Flats on North St. Mary's, the tables in the burger joint's courtyard were filling up with college kids from Trinity and lunchhour businessmen. It was overcast and humid. Heavy kitchen smoke drifted through the mesquite trees into the laundry lines of the unpainted houses behind the restaurant. The whole neighbourhood smelled like welldone bacon cheeseburgers.
Milo Chavez wasn't hard to spot. At a green picnic table halfway across the courtyard sat 350 pounds of human boulder, neatly packaged in fiftytwoinch pleated gray trousers and a white dress shirt that had probably been customtailored from most of a hot air balloon. He wore gold accents from his stud earring to his Gucci loafer buckles.
His hair was newly razorcut to a thin black stubble, which made his coppery face seem even more huge. The Latino Buddha, with fashion sense.
Sitting across from Milo was an older Anglo man who was trying to impersonate a navy pilot. I might've fallen for the pressed khakis and aviator's glasses, but the leather flight jacket was overkill. His mouth was too soft, his grayblond eyebrows a little too twitchy and nervous for a navy man.
He was frowning and holding out his fingers in Cat's Cradle position and speaking to Milo in low but insistent tones. I caught "I will not" several times.
I tried to read Milo's face, but there was nothing there except Milo's standard sleepy, almost bovine calm.
Of course that didn't mean anything. Milo had looked calm when he'd run into me at Mi Tierra the week before and told me about the demo tape problem that might lose his agency a milliondollar contract. He'd looked calm at our high school senior party when he'd shoved Kyle Mavery's face into the sour cream dip for making snide comments about Chavez's parents having green cards. He'd looked calm in college after we'd just been shot at by a Berkeley house owner whose neglected dog Milo and I had decided to liberate. He'd even looked calm two years after that when he was fired from his first job at Terrence &c Goldman Law Offices, after Milo's brilliant idea for tracking down a material witness had landed me in the IC unit at San Francisco General. After many years of onandoff friendship, I still could never tell when Milo was about to crack a joke or erupt into violence or convince me to do something dangerous and stupid that would sound, coming from Milo, like the sanest course of action in the world. Hanging around him for any length of time did not rate highly on the Tres Navarre funometer.
I plopped down with my Shiner Bock longneck and my basket of curly fries next to the pilot. I flicked him a salute. "Permission to come aboard?"
The pilot stared at me. "Who the hell—"
Milo gave me a slight shake of the head. "Tres Navarre, meet John Crea. Miranda Daniels' producer."
"Exproducer," Crea amended.
"Pleased as punch." I looked at Milo. "I've been calling you since yesterday morning, Chavez. I'm beginning to feel unloved."
Milo raised his hand, then returned his attention to Crea. "You can't walk away from this, Johnny. You going to give up your ten percent of the final project?"
Crea laughed. His eyebrows twitched. "There isn't going to be any final project, Chavez. You're talking about fifty more hours in the studio by next Friday. Only spec time. That's crazy. Even if I wasn't fed up with the fucking redneck scare tactics—Jesus, did you see the bullet hole, Milo?"
"Les is working on things," Milo promised.
Crea stabbed the picnic table with his middle finger. "If Les is working on things I want to know why he's unreachable while I'm getting shot at. Where is the son of a bitch?"
"I told you. Nashville. The developmental deal with Century—"
"The developmental deal is history. I came here to see Les, and some money, and some serious signs that I'm going to get protection." He glanced at me briefly, snorted.
"I don't see anything like that. I've got other things to do, Milo. Adios."
John Crea got up, straightened his jaw and his aviator glasses and his flight jacket, and left in a wake of Old Spice. He did it so fast I forgot to come to attention.
Milo stared at his food, then at mine. He reached over, appropriated the largest fry in my basket, and began uncurling it meticulously between his massive fingers.
"He dresses almost as snappy as you," I said.
Milo's features move slowly if they move at all. You pretty much have to rely on his eyes. Now they were dark and concentrated. Angry.
"Johnny used to manage Mel Tillis," he told me. "They did a show once on an aircraft carrier, the whole road crew got those flight jackets. It kind of went to Johnny's head."
"What was he talking about just now?"
Milo ate the smallest bite of fry. "More trouble with Miranda's Century Records deal.
Sunday night somebody took some potshots at Crea as he was coming out of the studio, around midnight. He heard a pop, pop, took him a few seconds to realize it was a gun. Police came, found a slug in the doorway, said they'd get right on it."
"A sniper. Like with Julie Kearnes. Thanks for telling me."
"I was meaning to, man."
"Sure. Right after you got through laying flowers on Julie's grave."
Milo gave me a bland look. "Kearnes made my life hell. She stole from us. What do you expect me to do— cry?"
"No. I wouldn't expect that from you. But Julie Kearnes didn't steal your damn demo tape, Milo."
I told him about my last few days of surveillance, up to and including my falling out with Erainya, and my feelings that maybe I'd be looking for some other kind of work in the nottoodistant future.
Milo finished dissecting and eating the curly fry. He produced an individual Wetwipes packet from his pocket, ripped it open, and began wiping the grease off his fingers carefully, cleaning under his nails. I caught the scent of lemon.
"I'm sorry, Navarre. Is that what you want to hear? You want to cut loose from this and leave it to the police, nothing's stopping you. Les and I will figure out something."
Milo's black eyes drifted back toward me. "What was that?"
"You and SaintPierre aren't figuring out a damn thing, Milo, and your problem is bigger than a missing demo tape. People are getting shot at here? one of them is dead.
What the fuck is going on?"
He gave me the look of a bull that was just a little too sleepy to charge. "You know who Les SaintPierre is, Tres? Every artist that's come out of Texas since 1980, Les has either booked their dates or managed them or both. Miranda Daniels isn't the first artist he's gotten flack for stealing from her local sponsors, for taking her to the big league.
He's handled worse."
"Why am I not convinced?"
Milo put his hand flat on the picnic table. He drummed his fingers slowly, one at a time, like he was making sure they all still worked. "I like this job, Navarre. It's not just legal commissions, you know? I'm starting to sell my own dates at fifteen percent. Miranda Daniels gets the Century Records deal, people are going to start knowing my name."