"I'm still not hearing any answers."
"Are you willing to keep working for me?"
"I've worked for a lot of lawyers, Milo. You know what I hate about it? They always have to test you. They give you one small corner of a case and wait to see how you'll handle it. Sometimes that caution works out okay. More often it leaves you operating with a dangerously incomplete picture and somebody winds up hurt. Seeing as we've known each other for fifteen years, seeing as we've been down this road before, I figured we'd be skipping the test stage. I guess I was wrong."
Milo tapped his fingers. "All right."
"All right, what?"
"I made some calls about you over the last week, after you agreed to look at Julie Kearnes."
"Calls," I repeated. "What kind of calls?"
"Roger Schumman, for one. He said you did nice work—said you threw a loan shark through his office window extremely well. Manny Forester had good things to say, too.
Seems you know how to get discreet results with skip traces. He said if all his thugs had Ph.D.s maybe they'd be as reliable as you."
"You called for references. On me."
Milo shrugged. "It's been a long time since San Francisco, Navarre. I figured you'd turn out to be good at this kind of work. I was glad to find out I was right."
"No more tests, Milo. What's going on?"
Milo started to say something, then stopped. He tapped his fingers. "Les isn't in Nashville. He's been missing for over two weeks."
I took a plastic knife, reached over, and cut off half of the uneaten cheeseburger in Milo's basket. "And you haven't told the police, even after what happened to Julie Kearnes?"
"It's not that simple. Les—" Milo searched for the right phrase, something legally neutral. Finally he gave up. "Les screws up a lot. He's eccentric. He drinks, he has some other bad habits. Sometimes he'll go off on a binge for a few days and we'll have to cover by saying he's out of town, like we're doing now. I can't be sure—"
"Has he ever been gone this long before?"
Milo shook his head. "But still—" His voice trailed off in disappointment, not buying what he was about to say.
"You think his disappearance might be connected to the missing demo tape," I said.
"And the gunshots at John Crea. Now Julie Kearnes' murder. You think it might all be part of a package—somebody pissed off because of this deal you're working on."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"The wife hasn't reported Les missing?"
The look of distaste on Milo's face told me Mrs. Saint Pierre was not his favourite subject. "Let me tell you about Les SaintPierre and his wife and the police. About six months ago, the last time Les took off, Allison went to Missing Persons. You know what they told her? "
I ate some cheeseburger. I waited.
"They told her Les was already missing. For seven years. Seems a former girlfriend had the same problem with him disappearing, reported Les and forgot to let the police know when he'd come home. The Bureau never bothered to follow up, take him off the rolls. Can you believe that?"
"It's been known to happen. MPB is flooded with domestics that are resolved ninety percent of the time before they're even assigned."
"Yeah, well. This time Allison isn't in any hurry. Les joked from time to time about running away to Mexico.
Allison figures maybe he finally did it and she's not crying any tears."
"We're not talking just Missing Persons this time, Milo. Homicide is going to want to talk to Les. You've got to tell them."
Milo pulled on the back of his neck. "It's more complicated than that, Navarre. It's one thing for our clients to think Les is eccentric—that he slips out of pocket for a few days now and then. That his wife reports him gone after a fight or whatever. People can give him some slack there because he's Les SaintPierre. But the minute somebody hears a rumour he's honesttoGod missing—that I'm looking for him, that it's just Milo holding down the fort—"
He raised his hands off the table. "I need to find Les. Quickly and quietly. And I don't have time to shop around for help."
"You know how to flatter a guy."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a money roll only Milo could've carried without his pants bulging obscenely—fiftydollar bills wrapped as thick as a Coke can.
"Your boss doesn't like the case, we can cut out the middle man."
"No," I said. "I don't have my own license. At this point it looks like I might never."
"That's just as well."
"I told you, I'm thinking about getting out of this line of work."
Milo put the cylinder of money sideways on the table and rolled it in my direction.
"You're going to look into Kearnes' murder anyway, Navarre. You couldn't put down something that happened on your watch—I know you better than that. Why not let me pay you?"
Maybe I felt like I owed him. Or maybe I was thinking about how long I'd known him, off and on since high school, always reconnecting with each other at the least opportune moments like bad acoustical echoes.
Or maybe I'm kidding myself. Maybe what swayed me more was that roll of money—the prospect of paying my rent on time for once and not having to borrow gro
cery money from my mother.
I heard myself saying, "What exactly do you want me to do?"
The Les SaintPierre Talent Agency was a gray and maroon Victorian on West Ashby, across the street from the Koehler Museum.
Even without a sign in front you could tell the old residence had been converted for business. The powercolour combination, the uniform blinds on the windows, the wellkept but totally impersonal landscaping, the Texas flag windsock hanging on the empty front porch—it all screamed "office building."
There were two cars already parked at the bottom of the hill in front. One was a tan Volvo wagon. When I met Milo on the sidewalk he was staring at the other— a glistening black pickup truck that looked like it had been converted at great expense from a semi rig. It had wheels just shy of monster size, tinted windows with security alarm decals on the corners, orange pin striping, mud flaps with silver silhouettes of Barbie doll women on them. The cab looked like it could sleep four comfortably.
Milo said, "This isn't my day."
Before I could ask what he meant, he turned and lumbered up the steps.
Inside, the Victorian was all hardwood floors and creamcolored walls. A staircase led up from the main foyer. The double doorway on the right opened into a reception area with a couple of wicker chairs, a mahogany desk, a fireplace, and a Turkish rug. A very big Anglo man in his early fifties was sitting on the edge of the desk, talking with Gladys the receptionist.
When I say very big and I'm standing next to Milo I have to correct myself. This guy wasn't like Milo, but he was big by any other definition. Tall and barrelchested. Thick neck. Powerful hands. He had the build of a derrick worker.
Despite the heat he wore a denim jacket over his white shirt, new blue jeans, black Justin boots. He was twirling a Stetson on one finger while he talked.
When he saw Milo, his smile hardened.
Milo walked placidly to the desk and picked up a stack of mail. He didn't look at his visitor. "Fuck you, Sheckly. You know my name."
"Hey now—" Sheckly spoke with the twangy, hard edged accent of a GermanTexan, someone who'd grown up in the hill country around Fredericksburg, where many of the families still spoke a brand of cowboy Deutsch. "Play nice with me, son. I just dropped by to see how things were coming along. Have to make sure you're doing right by my girl. You remind Les about that contract yet?"
Milo kept flipping through his mail. "Les is still in Nashville. I'll tell him you dropped by.
The contract's right next to the toilet where he left it."
Sheckly's laugh was a rich chuckle. He kept twirling the Stetson. "Come on now, son.
You want to dispute our agreement, you've got to put me in touch with the boss man.
Otherwise I'm expecting Miranda in the Split Rail studio come November first and I'll tell you what else—you send Century that demo and I'll send them a copy of my contract, see if they want to sink their money into a girl who's gonna bring their legal department a mess of business."
Milo opened another letter. "You know where the door is."
Sheckly got up from the desk slowly, told the receptionist, "You think about it," then started walking out.
In front of me he stopped and offered to shake. "Tilden Sheckly. Most people call me Sheck."
Up close, it looked like all the unnecessary pigments in Mr. Sheckly's face had drained into his tan, which was dark and perfect. His eyes were so bleached blue they were almost white. His lips had no red at all. His hair had probably been thick and chocolaty at one time. It had faded to a dusty brownishgray, uncombable tufts that looked like clumps of moth wings.
I told him my name.
"I know who you are," he said. "I knew your father."
"Lots of people knew my father."
Sheck grinned, but it wasn't friendly. He looked like I'd missed the joke. "I suppose so.
Most of them didn't contribute as much as I did."
Then he put on the Stetson and said goodbye.
When he was gone Milo turned to Gladys. "What did he mean, 'think about it'?"
Gladys said Sheck had offered her a secretarial job with a fifty percent pay raise. She said she'd turned him down. She sounded a little wistful about it.
Milo stared at the space on the desk where Sheck had been sitting. He looked like he was contemplating putting his fist through the mahogany. "You do those calls yet?"
Gladys shook her head. She launched into a long story about how some club owner in San Marcos had called and complained that Eli Watts and His Sunrisers had torn up the hotel room he'd rented for them and now he wanted the agency to pay the damages. Gladys had spent her entire morning trying to smooth things out.
I thought the desk was going to get it, but slowly Milo's meaty fists unclenched. He mumbled something under his breath, then led me down the hall and into his office.
Everything in the converted parlour had been custom made for Milo's comfort—two massive red leather chairs, a halfton oak desk with a twentyoneinch computer monitor and a candy bowl the size of a basketball, bookshelves that started as high as most bookshelves stopped and went all the way to the ceiling. The only thing small was Milo's rosewood Yamaha acoustic in the corner, the same guitar he used to bring on our drunken college road trips into the Sonoma wine country. There was still a crescentshaped dent near the sound hole where I'd thrown a beer can at Milo and missed.
I sat across the desk from Milo.
On the right wall were framed pictures of Les Saint Pierre's past and present artists. I recognized several country stars. Nobody recent. Nobody I would've considered huge.
Prominently displayed in the centre was a photo of the Miranda Daniels Band—six people at a bar in a honky tonk, all facing out toward the camera and trying to look casual, like they lined up that way every night. Julie Kearnes and Miranda Daniels were shoulder to shoulder in the middle, sitting up on the bar with their cowboy boots crossed at the ankles and their denim skirts carefully arranged to show some calf.