Milo shook his head. "I need SaintPierre's clout. I can't do it on my own."
"You don't believe me."
I shrugged. "Somebody once told me my problem was thinking too small—that I should just take a chance and throw myself into the kind of work I really liked, the hell with what people said. Of course that advice got me a knife in the chest a week later.
Maybe you don't want to follow it."
Milo's eyes traced a complete circle around the room, like they were following the course of a miniature train. When they refocused on me, his voice was tightly con
trolled, angry. "Are you going to help me or not?"
"The Century Records deal is that important to you?"
Milo made a fist. "You don't get it, do you, Navarre? Right now Miranda Daniels is making about fifteen hundred a gig—that's payment for the whole band, if she's lucky.
She has minimal name recognition in Texas. Suddenly Century Records, one of the biggest Nashville labels, says they're interested enough to offer a developmental deal.
They give her money for a demo, thirty days in the studio, and if they like what comes out of that, she's guaranteed a major contract. That would mean over a million dollars up front. Her price per gig would go up by a factor of ten and my commission would go up with it. Other people in the industry would suddenly take me seriously, not just as Les SaintPierre's stepandfetch it. You have any idea what it's like having somebody dangle that possibility in front of you, and knowing that a jerk like Tilden Sheckly could screw it up?"
I nodded. "So what's our deadline?"
Milo looked down, unclenched the fist, rubbed his hand flat against the desktop.
"Miranda's master demo is due to Century next Friday. I've got that long to get the recording redone and to figure out a way to keep Sheck quiet about this forged contract. Otherwise there's a good chance Century will renege on their offer. Ten days, Navarre. Then, if all goes well, maybe I'll take your advice. I'll ask Miranda to let me represent her and let the rest of the agency go to hell."
There was a knock on the door. Gladys stuck her head in and said that Conwell and the Boys were here for the five minutes Milo had promised them last week. They'd brought a tape.
Milo started to tell Gladys to send them away but then changed his mind. He told her they should come on down.
When she closed the door again Milo said, "Unsolicited demo tapes. I could build a house out of what we've got in the back room, but you never know. I try not to blow people off."
He pushed the money back to me.
"Just ask Gladys for the files on your way out—she'll know what you mean. It's some background material I put together, stuff you would need to know."
"You assumed I would stay on the case."
"Read the files over. And it's about time you met Miranda Daniels. She's playing at the Cactus Cafe in Austin tomorrow night. You know the place?"
I nodded. "Julie Kearnes' death isn't going to make you cancel the gig?"
My comment might as well have been a sneeze for all it registered. "Just come check Miranda out. See what the fuss is about. Then we can talk."
I didn't protest very hard. I dropped the roll of fifties back in my bag and promised to think things over.
When I was at the door Milo said, "Navarre."
Milo was staring through me, into the hallway. "It'll be different this time. It's not like—it's not like I feel good about the way things happened back then, okay?"
It was the closest he'd ever come to an apology.
I nodded. "Okay, Milo."
Then Conwell and the Boys were pouring in around me, all grins and new haircuts and coats and ties. Milo Chavez switched moods and started telling the musicians how glad he was they could drop by, how sorry he was that Les SaintPierre was out of town.
I heard the easy laughter of the meeting all my way down the hall.
On my way out of the office Gladys gave me a thick gray mailing envelope and told me to have a nice day.
The chances of that happening went down considerably when I got outside and noticed Tilden Sheckly's black truck still in front of the agency. Sheckly himself was across the street, reclining in the passenger seat of my VW bug.
The afternoon was so humid the metal on the cars steamed. With the convertible top up, my VW would be about as comfortable as a pressure cooker. The fact that Sheck had probably been waiting there for a while cheered me up.
I walked around to the driver's side but didn't get in. Sheck was reading a book that I'd left on the floorboard. He'd taken off his Stetson and his denim jacket and set an S & W
revolver on the dash.
"I know the cars look alike," I sympathized. "But yours is the one with the pin stripes."
Sheck smiled up at me from his book, my book.
I knew a kid in third grade who liked to set living things on fire with no warning. One minute you'd be sitting there laughing with him about the latest episode of H. R.
Puffinstuff and the next he'd be holding a match to the shredded newspaper in the class guinea pig cage. His face never changed—small bright eyes like pilot lights, a wide friendly smile that was totally disconnected from his brain. He looked so sweet the teachers tolerated him right up to the day he poured gasoline in a sandbox full of kindergartners and tried to set it ablaze.
Sheck's smile reminded me a lot of that kid.
He hefted my book of medieval drama. "You really understand this muck?"
He turned a page, then tried to read aloud a few lines from the Wakefield Cain and Abel.
"Not bad," I commented. "They'd pronounce the T Eee. Like Eee am wondering what this guy is doing in my car."
Sheck patted the driver's seat. "Come on in."
"I make it a policy not to sit next to people with guns."
He seemed to notice the revolver for the first time. "Oh, hell, son. Give this old man a handle—see why I carry him around."
He picked up the gun by the cylinder and offered me the stock.
"You're supposed to empty the chambers first, aren't you?"
Sheck laughed. "What perfect world do you live in, son? Just take the damn gun."
He shrugged, then put the .41 back on the dashboard. "I'll be sorry when the revolver is history. Everybody nowadays is hot for semi auto, got to have a twelve round magazine. Truth is this old man never got a chance—finest damn revolver ever made.
You know what it is?"
"Smith & Wesson M58," I said. "M & P style."
Sheck nodded approval. "You're a gun lover."
"I know guns," I corrected. "I don't love them much."
That statement apparently made as much sense to Sheck as the Middle English. He tried to interpret it, failed, then decided to keep talking.
".41 calibre round was perfect evolution, you understand—all the punch of a .44 with the velocity of a .357. This is the kind of gun your dad carried on the force back in the seventies. You know why they canned it?"
I said I didn't.
"Police were firing hot loads with it, full Magnum capability. The muzzle blasts were scaring all the lady cops." He laughed. "Then public relations started thinking the citizens would get mad—cops with Magnums blowing away all those helpless victims of society down in the barrio. A damn shame."
"What do you want, Mr. Sheckly?"
Sheck put his finger in the book and closed it, like he'd be coming back to it in a minute.
Maybe he wanted to see how things worked out with Cain and God.
"I's just curious what kind of stories your compadre's been telling you. I figured you'd be walking out of there with a big retainer and a bigger load of horseshit."
"Why exactly did you figure that?"
Sheck glanced to his right and smiled, like there was somebody there he wanted to share the joke with. "Come on, son. Old Milo'd love to think I'm the boogey man causing his every little problem."
"Every little problem. You mean like Miranda Daniels' producer getting shot at, her demo tape stolen, Julie Kearnes murdered—those kinds of little problems?"
Sheckly kept smiling. "Hell, son, I ain't the one who decided Miranda needed a national deal. You understand Century Records only wants her, don't you? The rest of the band—those boys don't stand to get nothing from this except a handshake. You want to know who's angry enough with Milo Chavez to cause some problems, you just think about that goddamn Century deal."
"That's funny," I said.
"You keep saying Milo. Les is the one with the agency. Is there some reason you're not worried about him?"
Sheck's smile didn't waver at all. "All right. Let me ask you about that. If Les SaintPierre is so allpowerful smart, what makes him hire a threehundredpound wet
back to sell country music to redneck bars? That make any business sense to you?"
He raised his palm. "I'm serious now, not trying to be mean here. I just don't get what was going through Les' head. I sure as hell wouldn't be out of town as much as he's been, leaving Gordo in charge. I'll deal with anybody I need to? don't get me wrong. But there's club owners a lot worse than me, they see Chavez coming—" He shook his head regretfully. "That kind of thing's gonna really hurt Miranda's job prospects."
I looked at the blue S&W on my dashboard.
"Mr. Sheckly, it's hot out. The only airconditioning I've got in this convertible is called
'fourth gear.' I'd like to get moving."
"I'm just telling you, Tres—I worry about my friends the Danielses. Willis and me go way back. I care about his daughter doing all right. This agency's charging ten percent for booking, old Les is gettin' forty more for management. For fifty percent of my career, if I was Miranda, I'd expect a damn sight better service."
"And you're the better service."
"I hear you did wonders for that other girl you sponsored—the one in the swimming pool."
Sheck let out air between his teeth. "You could do yourself a favour right now and forget whatever horseshit Chavez's been feeding you. I'll do right by Miranda. You think some spic lawyer's gonna play straight with you about that? You think your daddy would be arguing against me here?"
I counted to five. "Sheck—you like Sheck, right?"
"Honest, Sheck—I appreciate the concern. The thing is, the only load of manure I've come across today has been dumped in my passenger seat. I'd like it out of here."
Sheck's face darkened but his eyes stayed as bright and colourless as highoctane fuel. "That was a mistake, son. I can overlook one mistake. When I was younger I thought I was hot shit, too."
"Are you going to get out of my car?"
Sheck put my book back on the floorboard. He took his revolver off the dash and got out of the car.
"I thought to level with you, Tres, because I knew your father. I never had any beef with him? I don't see any reason to have one with you. You want to talk, come on out to my place some night. I'll buy you a beer. But you get yourself tangled on the wrong side of the barbed wire when it comes to Miranda Daniels, I'll eat you for lunch."