Miranda looked about twentyfive, her hair dark and shoulderlength, just curly enough to look tangled. Petite body, almost boyish. An unremarkable face. In this shot she was smiling, looking out the corner of her eye at Julie Kearnes, who got caught midlaugh.

With the air brushing you almost couldn't tell Julie was older than Miranda.

The two good old boys on their right were in their sixties. One had a trimmed white beard and a healthy belly. The other was tall, with no body fat at all and thinning, greasy black hair. The men on the left were younger, both The Widower's Two it Step 45

in their forties, one with longish blond hair and a thick build and an Op Tshirt, the other with dark curly hair and a black cattleman's coat and black hat and a scowl that was probably supposed to be James Deanesque but didn't quite make it. The cattleman looked quite a bit like Miranda Daniels, but twenty years older.

On the wall behind the picture was a pale square halo that told me the band's photo had superseded somebody else's whose picture had been slightly larger.

Milo followed my eyes to the photo on the wall.

"They're not important," he assured me. "The old fart with the white beard is Miranda's dad, Willis. The guy in the Wyatt Earp outfit is her big brother, Brent. You know—knew—Julie. The thin greasy one is Ben French. The burly surfer reject is Cam Compton."

"Miranda's brother and her dad are in the band?"

Milo spread his hands. "Welcome to Hillbilly World. Funny thing is, until about two years ago Miranda was considered the w?talented one in the family. Then Tilden Sheckly, the lovely human being you just met, took an interest in her."

"Sheckly is part of your problem."

Milo reached for his candy bowl. "Butterscotch or peppermint?"

"Definitely butterscotch."

He threw me a roll of midget Life Savers, then took two for himself. "Sheck owns that big honkytonk on the way to Medina Lake, the Indian Paintbrush. You know the place?"

I nodded. Anybody who'd ever driven toward Medina Lake knew the Indian Paintbrush. Plopped next to the highway in the middle of several hundred acres of rock and dirt, the dance hall looked like the world's largest portable john—a white corrugated metal box big enough to accommodate a shopping mall.

"Paintbrush Enterprises," I speculated. "The company who's been sending Julie Kearnes biweekly deposits."

Milo stared at me. "Do I want to know how you got access to her bank account?"


He cracked a smile. "Sheck is known for promoting pet acts. Usually pretty younger women. He lets them open for his headliners on weekends, sometimes gets them into his house band. Sooner or later, he gets them into bed. He manages their careers for fifty percent of the profit, milks them as long as he can. Once upon a time that was Julie Kearnes. Julie acted like a good girl, so even when she stopped bringing in crowds Sheckly kept her on the payroll—doing his spreadsheets, designing promotionals, occasionally opening for somebody. Miranda Daniels was going to be Sheckly's next project. Then Les signed her out from under Sheck's nose."

"And Sheckly still thinks he owns her."

Milo nodded.

"And you and Les disagree."

Milo unwrapped his Life Savers and dumped them in his mouth. He brushed his hands, slid out the side drawer of his desk, and produced a legalsized document.

"You heard Sheckly mention a contract just now?"

I nodded.

Milo slid the paper across to me. "Before we signed Miranda Daniels, Sheck had all kinds of plans for her. He was going to put her first album out on this little regional label he owns—Split Rail Records. He was going to tour her around small clubs in the States and Europe, be her sugar daddy. He probably stood to make about a quarter of a mil off her. Miranda stood to make shit—minimal sales and no national exposure.

That was Sheck's plan, only he never put anything in writing. Probably he couldn't imagine Miranda'd be crazy enough to cross him.

"Then Les signed her away from him. Sheck screamed and hollered but there wasn't much he could do. The band was mostly Sheck's old protégés—Julie, Cam Compton, Ben French—but there wasn't much they could do either. They went along with the new arrangement. It wasn't until Les got Century Records interested in hearing Miranda's solo demo tape that Sheckly suddenly waltzed into our office with that.'"

The Widower's Two it Step 47

I scanned the document. It was a poorquality photostat of an agreement dated last July, signed by Tilden Sheckly and Les SaintPierre as Miranda's manager. All the legalese seemed to boil down to one main promise: that Tilden Sheckly would have first option on any performances or recordings by Miranda Daniels for the next three years.

I looked at Milo. "This means Sheckly could veto the deal with Century Records?"


"Is the contract valid?"

"Hell, no. Les screamed bloody murder when he read it. It's a forgery, the oldest bluff tactic in the book. Sheckly's just trying to scare away a potential buyer and Les wasn't about to fall for it."

"So what's the problem?"

"The problem is it's a very effective bluff. Major labels are skittish about new talent. To prove the contract invalid Les would have to go to court, make Sheckly produce the original document. Sheckly could delay for months, drag things out until Century lost interest in Miranda or found another place to sink their money. The window of opportunity for a deal like this shuts pretty damn quick."

"And Les isn't around to challenge it."

Milo held his hand out for the contract. I gave it back. He stared at it distastefully, then folded it and filed it away.

"Les said he had a plan to get Sheckly's balls in a squeeze, something to make Sheck withdraw the contract and do anything else Les told him to do. Les had been spending a lot of time with Julie Kearnes since we took over management of the band. Les said she was going to help him out."


"Knowing Les, I don't doubt it. I warned him to be careful of Julie Kearnes. She'd been working too long with Sheckly? she was still taking his money. Julie was sweet to Les but I saw her other side. She was bitter, shorttempered, jealous as hell. She complained about how Miranda was going to go down the same way she had, that it was just a matter of time. Julie said Miranda should be more grateful, keep Julie around for all her experience once Miranda signed with Century."

He sighed. "Les wouldn't listen to me about Kearnes. They'd gotten pretty close over the last month. I'm not sure how close, to tell you the truth. Then he disappeared. I was hoping if you kept tabs on Julie"—Milo rapped his knuckles lightly on the desk, he scowled—"I don't know what I thought. But it looks like Sheckly got his problems solved very neatly. First Les. Now Julie. Whatever they were planning to do to get Sheck's claws off Miranda Daniels, it isn't going to happen now."

I found myself looking again at the photo on the wall—at the unimpressive face of Miranda Daniels. Milo must've guessed my thoughts.

"You haven't heard her sing, Navarre. Yes, she's worth the trouble."

"There's got to be other country singers around. Why would a guy like Tilden Sheckly get bent out of shape over one that broke out of the stable?"

Milo opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked like he was reorganizing what he wanted to say. " You don't know Sheck, Navarre. I told you he lets some of his wellbehaved artists like Julie Kearnes stick around after they're washed up. One of Sheck's less cooperative girls ended up at the bottom of a motor lodge pool. Freak swimming accident. Another male singer who tried to get out from under Sheckly's thumb was busted with a gram of cocaine in his glove compartment, got three years of hard time. The deputies in Sheck's county handled both cases. Half of the Avalon Sheriff's Department works security at the Paintbrush on their off hours. You figure it out." "Still—"

"Les and Sheck had a history, Tres. I don't know all the bloody details but I know they've been at each other's throats over one deal or another for years. I think this time Les went a little too far trying to twist Sheckly's arm. I think Sheckly finally decided to solve the problem the way Sheck knows best. I need you to tell me for sure."

I unwrapped a butterscotch and put it in my mouth. "Three conditions."

"Name them."

"First, you don't lie to me. You don't withhold anything again. If I ask you for a top ten list you give me eleven items."


"Second, get better candy."

Milo smiled. "And third?"

"You bring in the police. Talk to the wife, set it up any way you want, put the best face on it, call it a silly necessity to your clients—but you level with SAPD about SaintPierre being gone. You have to get his name into the system. I won't poke around for two or three more weeks, then find out I've been failing to report another homicide. Or a killer."

"You can't seriously think Les—"

"You said Julie and Les were getting close. Julie is now dead. If the police start looking around and can't find SaintPierre, what are they going to think? You've got to level with them."

"I told you—I can't just go—"

I got my backpack off the floor and unzipped the side pocket.

It was an old green nylon pack, a holdover from my grad days at Berkeley. It served me well in investigative work. Nobody cares much about grad students with backpacks. Nobody thinks you might be carrying burglar tools or recorders or fat rolls of fiftydollar bills.

I took out Chavez's money and put it on his desk. Then I stood up to leave.

"Thanks for the chat, Milo."

Milo leaned back and pressed his palm to the centre of his forehead, like he was checking for a fever. "All right, Navarre. Sit down."

"You agree?"

"I don't have much choice."

The phone rang. Milo answered it with a "hello" that was mostly growl.

Then his entire disposition changed. The emotion drained out of his voice and his face paled to the colour of caffe latte. He leaned forward into the receiver. "Yes. Yes, absolutely. Oh—no problem. Les, ah— No, no, sir. What if—no, that's fine."

The conversation went on like that for about five minutes. Somewhere in the middle of it I sat back down. I tried not to look at Milo. He sounded like an overwhelmed tenyearold listening to Hank Aaron explain why he couldn't sign the kid's baseball card.

When Milo hung up he stared at the receiver. His fingers wrapped around the wad of money, almost protectively.

"Century Records?" I asked.

He nodded.

"It's getting hard on you."

"I didn't want to run the entire agency, Navarre. We've got seven other artists touring right now. I've got promoters breathing down my neck about deals Les didn't even mention to me. Now Century Records—I don't know how I'm going to hold the deal together when they find out Les is gone."

"So walk away."

Milo seemed to turn the words around in his head. They must have rolled unevenly, like rocks in a tumbler.

"What do you mean?"

"Let the agency collapse if it has to. You've got your law degree. You seem to know what you're doing. What do you need the charades for?"