The battered black guy in the Cowboys jersey had disappeared when I went back through the empty joint. I picked up the only purse I saw and a custom cue case with CJW embossed on it. Outside, Carol Jean leaned against the fender of the El Dorado, looking sweetly befuddled, the tip of her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated, twirling her cue like a demented majorette.
"Took you long enough," she said, not looking at me. "I would have gone with that big black dude. But he didn't ask."
"A piece of luck, sugar."
"What the hell happened in there, anyway?" she asked.
"Sounded like a bomb or something."
"Something," I said. "You got wheels?"
"Nope. I came with Vernon, but he jumped in his pickup and took off like a spotted-ass ape."
"How about money?"
"Baby Joe sent you, huh?" Carol Jean said as she dangled the twenty from her crimson nails.
I nodded as I dug out another one, then handed it to her. "Listen, kid, carry your ass over to that telephone booth across the street," I said, "and call a cab."
"Shit, man, I can get a ride."
"I'll just bet your sweet ass you can," I said, "and that's probably a better idea anyway. Go home to the hubby, lie like a Navajo rug..."
"A Navajo rug?"
"Complex but serene, simple but beautiful," I explained.
"Are you on drugs, man?"
"Just high on life," I said, "and happy to be alive."
"At your age you should be."
"Listen," I said, slightly miffed, "just keep your head down for a couple of months. I'll tell the cops I missed you, and you tell them you were at home watching soap operas."
"That bad, huh," she said, then finally stopped twirling to look at me.
"Let's just say that Mr. Long lost his head," I said.
"Jeez," she whispered. "Anybody get hurt?"
"Hey, next time you want to take off, at least talk to Baby Joe first. He's a little miffed about the teeth and the tits."
"Things change," she said as she broke down and packed her cue. "But never quite enough," she added sadly, then just as quickly grinned brightly, as lively as a baby chick. "Is that what you do for a living? Find people?"
"Hard times, people, lost dogs," I said as I lit a cigarette.
"Want to see these puppies, old man?" she asked, smiling as she cupped her new breasts.
"Not right now, sugar," I said, "I've got a headache." Carol Jean squealed with laughter. It sparkled like a wire behind my eyes. She pranced out of the parking lot, then across the highway, where she stuck out her thumb. The first passing pickup smoked its tires stopping to give her a ride.
Truth is, I would have liked nothing better than to rest my weary head on her firm young chest. Maybe it would wash the image of the dead man out of my head. But I knew better. Nothing ever really washed the images of the dead away, not tears, or time, or whiskey. At eleven, I'd seen my father on the floor of his den, the top half of his head demolished by a Purdey double-barrel. Some years later, but not long enough to suit me, when I was stuck in a muddy front-line trench in Korea near the end of the war, everywhere I looked, everybody looked dead. Except the dead don't blink. So I finished the cigarette, ground the butt into the settling dust, walked across the road to the dirtier convenience store, stashed the bindle behind the toilet tank, bought a couple of beers, then went back to the empty joint to call the cops, preparing myself for their serene complexity.
Of course, it wasn't that simple. Absolutely nothing in Texas had been simple yet. The bartender had revived and disappeared, and I didn't want to be in the office, so I dialed 911 from the pay telephone in the parking lot. When the dispatcher answered, I told her that there had been a shooting at a place called Over the Line. "Again," she immediately said as if she were a regular, then asked for my name and the details.
I thought about lying, wiping my prints and heading for Montana— but elk season was probably over and it was too late to catch the brown trout run on the Upper Yellowstone—so I decided against running. I had too much invested in Texas now.
After several hours of the usual cop rigmarole, most of it done by rote because everybody knew Billy Long was headed to no good end, I wound up in a small gray office filled with the inevitable paperwork clutter of a cop's life in the limestone fortress of the Gatlin County courthouse across a messy desk from a large, paunchy man with tired gray eyes and an even more exhausted suit.
"Mr. Milodragovitch, I'm Captain James Gannon, chief of detectives for the Gatlin County Sheriff 's Department," he said in some sort of gravelly East Coast accent, "and I've got some good news for you. We found the bartender at homeѿone Leonard Wilbur—and when we sobered him up a little bit, he verified your story."
"I can go home?"
"They're typing up your statement right now," he said, ignoring me. It was clear Gannon was a street cop disguised as a deputy sheriff and that he wasn't ever going to answer a question. "There's a couple of things bothering me. Maybe you can set me straight."
"I feel a little more cooperative now," I said. "Your deputies pushed me pretty hard."
"They're just kids and they've covered a lot of confused and bad calls at Billy Long's place," Gannon said, but it didn't even border on an apology. Then he rubbed his worn face. "Well, sir, I'm a bit concerned about the fact that we couldn't find the bulk cocaine that Long was cutting. Not even with the dogs. We found the cut stuff. But not the other."
"I wouldn't know anything about that, Captain."
"And then you wouldn't let my boys go through your vehicle without a search warrant..."
"Which they got very quickly."
"Well, things move pretty quickly in a small county down here, and in spite of urban sprawl, this is a very small county," he said, sighing, "but you know what your refusal says to me?"
"Well, sir, to me it says 'ex-con' or 'ex-cop.'"
Gannon knew exactly who I was, but it was easier to play his game. "I was a deputy sheriff a long time ago," I said, "up in Meriwether County, Montana. And I held a private investigator's license up there for a long time and I'm duly licensed and bonded in the state of Texas."
"Oh shit," Gannon said, shaking his head in mock surprise.
"You're the guy who owns the bar at the Blue Hollow Lodge? How the hell did you ever get a liquor license with your record? Hell, the Gov did it for you, didn't he?"
"Mr. Wallingford and I are partners in the motel," I said, calmly, "but I own the bar outright." Travis Lee Wallingford had served half a dozen terms in the state legislature from Gatlin County, both the House and the Senate, both as a Democrat and a Republican, but he was always more interested in inflammatory oratory than detail, and his favorite speech involved an empty threat to run for governor, a position that in the morass of Texas government was usually reserved for a figurehead, rich men or unsuccessful politicians at the end of their careers. So lots of people referred to him as the Gov, and not always in a flattering way. "And in spite of any rumors you may have heard, I don't have a record of any kind. Down here or anywhere," I said.
"Whatever," Gannon groaned dramatically, "you've got too much local clout for me, Mr. Milodragovitch. Just sign your statement and be on your merry way." Then Gannon paused to rub his face again. "Goddammit," he said as he jerked his tie open, "sometimes I wonder why the hell I ever took this job..." Then he buried his face in his hands again.
"You playing on my sympathy, Captain? Good cop and bad cop at the same time?"
Gannon peeked like a child through his thick fingers, then lifted his smiling face. "Hey, it's a small department, everybody's got to cover two or three jobs."
"What the hell are you doing down here?"
"My son-in-law teaches at UT," he said. "I came down here to be close to the grandkids and..."
"Bayonne, New Jersey," Gannon said. "What the hell are you doing down here?" he asked as if he really wanted to know. Even the dumbest cop had to be an actor occasionally, and I suspected that Gannon was far from dumb. "A woman," I answered honestly.
"Ain't it the shits," he said. "Truth is my ex-wife moved down here after the divorce. She followed the grandkids down here, and I tagged along like a piece of dogshit stuck to her shoe. Damn woman took off after twenty-six years of marital bliss..."
"Hell, I've been married five times, and all of them don't add up to half that."
"Look," Gannon said suddenly, taking my revolver and license out of a drawer, then leaned over the desk, clasping his meaty hands together, "can I put it to you straight?"
"Nobody wants to be fucked without a kiss." I had never gotten along all that well with cops even when I was one, so I braced myself for whatever bullshit Gannon had in mind.
"Walker stepped out of McAlester this morning. Served a long jolt for possession with intent to sell and some other shit. Stopped at a bank, probably for a stash of money nobody could ever find, a Lincoln dealership, then drove straight down here, and killed Billy Long. Probably revenge for a coke deal gone bad."
"I didn't see it that way," I said.
"Doesn't matter," Gannon said. "Billy Long's a known slimebag, but Walker's a dead man down here, no matter what. Hell, there's more handguns than cows in this state, and since the governor signed that new carry law, almost everybody's got one concealed on their person. If some hotshot rookie or dipshit civilian doesn't get him, the needle will. And a guy that size, he won't be all that hard to find. He's probably gone to ground down in Travis County. He's got family in Austin. That's his old stomping ground, where he first went into the cocaine business big-time," Gannon said, "and Austin or Travis County, well, they don't give a rat's ass about me. Or my job."
"The sheriff who decided he needed a big-city cop to prepare for big-city crime and hired me to organize his detective division... Well, he died last year," Gannon said, "and this new guy, Benson, he sure enough hates my Yankee ass. He's not about to let me make it to retirement, if he can help it. I may be the most unpopular peace officer in the state of Texas. Hell, if I don't end up in the slam, I'll end up shaking doorknobs until I'm sixty-five, and eating dog food till I die. But if I could put my hands on this Enos Walker skell, I'd be locked until my time is in.
"Because you're freelance and because of your connections, Mr. Milodragovitch, you've got resources I can't touch," he continued, "and you can go places I can't go."
"You didn't see this big bastard in action," I said. "I'm looking forward to spending my twilight years in one piece."
"Which is why you're chasing this nickel-and-dime shit? Runaway wives? Give me a break," he said, waving his stubby arms.
"What's next? Lost dogs?"
"Man likes to keep his hand in," I said. "And, what the hell, once I made ten grand dognapping a stolen Labrador retriever from a bunch of Japanese bird hunters in Alberta."
"Whatever," Gannon interrupted, not interested. "You're not exactly at the height of your career right now, are you?"
"Hey, fuck it, man," I said, trying to smile. "I'm good at what I do. I'm just about the only son of bitch in the world ever repossessed a combine in a wheat field. Drove the pig all the way to Hardin at three miles an hour. Made more money that day than you make in a year. So don't run that career shit at me."
"Right," Gannon said, shrugging. "Look at it this way. Your bar's in my county, not too far down the road. Maybe I'll stop in for a drink someday."
"I hope that's not a threat, Captain," I said, no longer smiling but trying to be polite. I was in the process of laundering the stolen drug money through the bar, and I didn't need even the smallest bit of heat.
Gannon stood up quickly, opened his arms, and grinned. "Jeez, I sure as hell hope it didn't sound that way," he said, moving around the desk. "I sure as hell didn't mean it like that. Just thought that both of us being strangers down here, you might hear something I can use."
"As far as I can tell, Captain, everybody down here is either a stranger or strange." And getting stranger by the minute, I might have added.
"Hell, listen, we'll have that drink anyway. And there's no reason for you to wait around to sign your statement. I'll have one of my boys run it over to you tomorrow."
"Maybe I'll just wait."
"You know, I'm like that. Favors from strangers make me nervous, too," Gannon said. "But we'll tip a few and maybe we won't be strangers anymore."
Then he reached out his broad, thick hand. I shook it as well as I could with my fingers crossed. I still had Walker's hard-timer's breath in my mouth, the dingy stench of prison in my nose, and could still feel the friendly grip of his huge hands on my shoulders.
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