Kraus' voice came back a little bit louder and a little less genial. He made sure I heard the action on the Beretta as he chambered the next round.
"I have my gun pointed at your friend's head, Mr. Navarre. At present he can still be saved. Throw your gun into the doorway and come into the warehouse and perhaps I will reconsider my options. Do you understand?"
Sheckly said something very insistent in German, an order. Kraus responded derisively in the same language.
Sheck barked the same command again and Kraus laughed. Somewhere very far away there were sirens. The rain kept falling in my face, soaking through my shirt.
"No good, Sheck," I yelled. "Give it up and I'll make sure they listen to you. Let Kraus and his associates be the ones they lynch. Otherwise we're talking multiple murders and Huntsville and a bunch of guys in Luxembourg laughing their ass off about you.
What's it going to be?"
"One—" Kraus started to count.
Milo Chavez managed a noise, a low mumble that might've been a scream if not for weakness and shock.
Sheck barked something else in German and Kraus yelled "Two—" and I gave up hope and came barrelling into the doorway to fire when guns went off.
I remember Jean Kraus raising his Beretta toward Sheck and Sheck drawing his .41
faster than anything I've ever seen and both men firing. Three rapid red bubbles expanded and burst in the back of Kraus' white turtleneck. Kraus lurched backward into a forest of upright CD spools and sent them crashing to the floor. Plastic caps shot off and three CDs spilled out like metallic poker chips, slishing colourfully across the cement. Three.
The aftermath was incredibly quiet. The rain drummed on the corrugated metal overhead. The truck engines hummed. I swear I could hear the rattle of Milo's breath.
Sheck stared at me. His eyes were dull. He wiped the sweat off his lip with the back of his gun hand, took a step back, and stumbled against the crate where he'd been hiding a moment before. There were giant sweat rings like halfmoons under the arms of his denim shirt. One of his boots had come untucked from his jeans. His hat was knocked sideways at a funny angle and he was bleeding—from the scar Allison had given him a few days ago, now burst out of its little squares of tape, and from a streak of blood on his arm, where Jean's bullet had grazed through the shirt, ripping the fabric and a layer of skin neatly away.
The sirens were getting louder.
I looked at Jean Kraus' body in the CDs. He was bent over the tubes of music at a funny angle, his head too far back and his chest too far out. One of the canisters had fallen into the crook of his arm so he seemed to be holding it like an oversized spear.
One leg was folded unnaturally behind him. His eyes were open as black and fierce as ever.
I crouched next to Milo and looked into his face. I couldn't tell anything. He continued to breathe, and to bleed. The wound was in his shoulder, probably no internal organs hit. His eyes were glazed and unfocused.
I looked at Sheck.
He was breathing shallowly, like he was trying to remember how. When he looked at me and laughed, the noise sounded more like a pained whimper, like he was getting something cauterized.
"I can talk, son," he told me. "I'll talk. Hell, I've weathered worse."
As the sirens approached and I tended to Milo's wounds Sheckly paced around the warehouse, kicking at the pirate CDs, laughing and mumbling to Jean Kraus' corpse that he'd weathered worse, like maybe if he said it a few hundred more times he might come to believe it.
Tuesday and Wednesday were a blur. I remember cops, Milo Chavez in the hospital, more cops. I remember sleeping in an interrogation room for several hours, speaking to Sam Barrera and Gene Schaeffer on several occasions and meeting Barrera's nice friends from the FBI and ATF. When I dreamt I dreamt about giving pints of blood over and over and asking for donuts and water and getting nothing but little smiley face stickers that said: I'M A DONOR.
I woke Thursday morning on the futon at 90 Queen Anne, wondering how I got there.
Vague memories started surfacing about a ride in the back of a mustard yellow BMW, someone who smelled like Aramis cursing my father's name as he trundled me out of the car and dragged me up the stairs and tucked me roughly into bed.
I blinked the crust out of my eyes. Robert Johnson was curled around my feet. The TV was on.
I stared at the pretty colours and the plastic faces of anchor people. Slowly the sounds they were making became English.
They were recapping the story of the week, telling me things I already knew. We'd had the second largest bust of pirate and bootleg audio CDs in U.S. history, right here in the Alamo City—$1.5 million netted in cash over the last two days and 350,000 titles by over ninety country artists—all precipitated by a police response to gunfire at a North Side warehouse Monday evening. Three men had been killed before police arrived. One of the victims was an Avalon County deputy who'd apparently been in collusion with the pirates. The other two victims were Luxembourg nationals. A falling out among thieves, one reporter had called it.
Tilden Sheckly, country music entrepreneur, had been taken into custody at the scene and was cooperating with authorities about his connections to the European smug gling ring. He had led Customs officials to three separate warehouses full of merchandise and cash and several boxes of automatic weapons that the ATF claimed were the first shipments of a fledgling gunrunning operation, piggybacking off the CD distribution network. Several recent murders in the San Antonio area had now been linked to the Luxembourg organization and at least one foreign national was still at large, wanted for the slaying of the Avalon County deputy Elgin Garwood. The anchorman showed the wanted man's face—the third man who'd been in Jean Kraus'
BMW—and gave a name I didn't recognize. The murder weapon had been found several blocks away—a .357 calibre pistol, wiped of prints, unregistered.
A search was under way for locally based talent agent, Les SaintPierre. According to Samuel Barrera, RIAA's contracted private investigator and hero of the day, Mr.
SaintPierre was not a suspect in any crime. Rather, SaintPierre had disappeared while acting as an informant for the authorities and was, sadly, presumed dead.
As for Tilden Sheckly, he was a small fish. When pressed the SAPD spokesman confirmed that Sheck stood a good chance of lenient charges if, as promised, he could help authorities in several states and at least three E.U. countries with information on his Luxembourg partners.
I turned off the TV.
I managed a shower, then some cold cereal.
Around ten o'clock I called a friend of mine in the ExpressNews entertainment section and got the rest of the story. The inside scoop in music industry circles was that Les SaintPierre had actually embezzled tens of thousands from his own agency and disappeared to the Caribbean. Some said Mazatlan. Others said Brazil. Many said he'd been working with the Luxembourgians. The agency he'd headed had collapsed over the last forty eight hours, although one of Les' associates, Milo Chavez, had heroically confronted the pirates and blown the whole operation open. Chavez was said to be recovering nicely and putting together a lucrative deal for Miranda Daniels with Century Records. As a result of that, and the good publicity, Chavez had employment offers from several large Nashville agencies. Reportedly with Milo would came Miranda Daniels as a client and a large number of former SaintPierre talent.
Milo had apparently underestimated himself.
According to my friend at the ExpressNews, the Miranda Daniels developmental tape featured strong material and was as good as a surefire gold record. It had a strong buzz going, whatever that meant. My friend expected the deal to go through with Century Records and Miranda to be on the Billboard charts by New Year's. He said the human interest angle really helped— first and foremost the recent tragic death of Miranda's brother, who had written some of her best songs. The murder of her former fiddle player helped too.
"The tabloids are eating this up," Carlon McAffrey told me. "You don't happen to have an in with this Chavez guy, do you? Or Daniels?"
I hung up the phone.
I did tai chi on the back porch until almost noon. Halfway through the long form my muscles started to burn the right way again. The vacuous sick feeling in my stomach faded. Once I got into the sword form I could almost concentrate again. The phone rang just as I was completing the last section.
I went inside and caught it on the third ring.
Kelly Arguello said, "Allen Meissner."
"Get a pen, stupid."
I pulled one out of the crack in the ironing board. Kelly rattled off a social security number, a Texas driver's license number, a flight number.
"Meissner applied for the social security number two months ago," she said, "at age fortyfive. Got his license at DMV two weeks ago, then plane tickets to New York on American, booked for tomorrow. Good trick considering the guy died in '95. Meissner used to be an inhouse auditor for Texas Instruments."
"Holy shit," I said.
"You did say before Friday, didn't you?"
"You found him."
Kelly laughed. "That's what I've been trying to tell you, chico loco. Your client's going to be happy?"
I stared at the flight number. "When was this reservation made?"
"Yesterday. Hey—this is good news, right?"
I hesitated. "Absolutely. You're incredible, Kelly."
"I've been trying to tell you that, too. Now about that dinner—"
"Talk to Ralph."
"Oh, please, not that again."
I leaned down against the ironing board and ran my fingers into my hair. I closed my eyes and listened to the slight crackle of the phone line.
"No," I said. "I mean you should call him."
She spent a few silent moments trying to interpret my tone. "What happened? What'd you two get into this time?"
"You just need to call him, okay? Even better, get down here. Spend a day with him, okay? He needs—I don't know, I think he needs to be reminded you're around. Some niecely influence."
"Niecely is a word?"
"Hey. English Ph.D. here. Back off."
"This is the thanks I get for helping you?"
"You'll do it?"
Kelly sighed. "I'll do it. I'll also come to see you." She said it like it was the deadliest threat she could make. I smiled in spite of myself. "Bueno?" she asked.
"Bueno," I agreed.
It was Friday morning before I spoke to Milo and Miranda again. I never found out how Miranda's things got picked up from the safe house on the South Side—Ralph just handled it somehow. Ralph didn't call me. That told me something.
Milo and Miranda arranged to meet me at the Sunset Cafe for breakfast. Gladys the exreceptionist for the ex Les SaintPierre Agency set up the appointment.
The Sunset Cafe was the kind of place you'd drive right by—an adobe oneroom shack on the ridge rising from Broadway, wedged between an art gallery and an insurance office. Despite its name, the cocina opened early and closed early, serving egg and bacon and came guisada tacos and strong coffee to blue collars. When I pulled the VW up the steep driveway and into the tiny parking lot, Milo's Jeep was already there.
The Daniels' brown and white Ford pickup was also in the lot, minus the horse trailer.