Dan was nowhere to be seen, but on one of the upper balconies that looked over the living room, Cookie Sheff was laughing at the mayor’s joke. Tonight her luminous blond hair was bigger than ever. Her makeup would’ve worked just fine with 3-D glasses. She had decided on wearing a black sequined evening gown that was probably supposed to look alluring but just made her angular body look like it had been constructed from Tinkertoys.
I headed for the side office where Dan and I had last talked. When I looked up again Cookie had noticed me. I smiled and waved. Except for the makeup, the color drained out of her face. Then she excused herself politely from the mayor and left the balcony.
The office door was locked. I took out a piece of laminate from my pocket. Ten seconds later I was inside. Dan wasn’t there either. Lillian’s parents were. The Cambridges cut short their conversation and looked up as if they were expecting someone else. Sitting behind Dan Sr.’s desk, lvir. Cambridge looked weary. He was hunched over into a pale triangle of light from the desk lamp, staring up at me over bifocals. Mrs. Cambridge stood next to him, holding tightly to her own wrists. She’d been crying.
“God damn you," said Mr. Cambridge to me. He started to get up, hands straightening his tuxedo.
“Zeke—" murmured his wife. She came toward me, her hands trembling a little. “Tres—"
I guess that’s when she saw the look on my face. She hesitated. But Lillian’s mother wasn’t one to be stopped long by a derelict’s expression and the smell of liquor. Tentatively she touched my arm.
"Tres, you shouldn’t really, dear—I mean, things are so complicated right now. You shouldn’t—"
"God damn you," Zeke Cambridge said again. “Don’t you ever stop?"
He swept some knickknacks from the top of Dan Sr.’s desk onto the floor.
We glared at each other. It didn’t feel like much of a triumph when he looked away first. He was tired, old, distraught. I was half-drunk and I didn’t give a damn. Mrs. Cambridge held my arm a little tighter.
"How are things complicated?" I asked, trying to see straight. My eyes had started burning and I wasn’t sure why. “Lillian’s missing, nobody’s doing shit about it, and, you’re sitting in the private study of the woman I’d vote Most Likely to Abduct Someone. How is that complicated?
Zeke Cambridge scowled. His huge gray eyebrows came together.
“What the hell are you talking about, boy?"
“Please, Tres," Lillian’s mother said.
The door behind me opened. Cookie stormed in, followed by my friend the chauffeur. Kellin was almost smiling. I don’t think he would’ve waited for permission this time before killing me if Zeke Cambridge hadn’t raised his hand.
"Zeke, Angela," Cookie crooned, “I’m so sorry. Kellin, see this person out immediately."
“Wait a minute," Mr. Cambridge said. “First he explains himself."
"Tres." Lillian’s mother was almost pleading now.
“There’s been a murder. Mr. Karnau, Lillian’s partner. The police are very concerned that—"
"The police." Zeke Cambridge spat the words out. "If the police had handled things correctly, this son of a bitch would be in jail by now."
The silver-framed photo of Dan Sr. was the only target left on the desk for Zeke Cambridge’s anger. He slapped it away with the back of his hand.
Everyone was quiet. When Lillian’s mother tried to speak, Cookie cautioned her with a shake of her head.
“Mr. Navarre," said Cookie, very carefully, “I believe I asked you to stay away from my home. I do not appreciate you disturbing my party, breaking into my house, and bothering my friends. Especially now. If you do not leave immediately, I will call the police."
I looked at her. Her eyes were as blue as her son’s, only much smaller and a thousand times harder. They looked past me, as if they’d frozen onto one particular point in the distance decades ago and couldn’t be bothered with anything closer.
“You afraid I might give them a slightly different take on the situation?" I asked.
Zeke Cambridge was watching Mrs. Sheff now, his anger getting diluted with confusion. He said: "What the hell is the son of a bitch talking about, Cookie?"'
Out in the main room, the band blazed into a hyperactive version of “San Antonio Rose." Somebody did his best drunken “yee-haw" into the microphone. I felt disoriented, like someone was spinning me around for pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
Mrs. Cambridge took my arm again. She spoke with the same kindly tone she’d used on numerous Thanksgivings to plead for peace at the dinner table.
“Tres," she said, "there’s really nothing you can do. Please don’t start this."
Her face looked blurry to me. She was crying.
“What did Rivas tell you about Lillian’s disappearance?" I asked her. "Or did the Sheffs even let you talk to him?"
Cookie sighed. “That’s enough."
Kellin knew better than to grab me this time. He just came and stood next to me, relaxed, alert, arms ready. I ignored him and kept my eyes on Cookie.
“Where is the future son-in-law?" I said. “He and I were just having a nice chat about Randall Halcomb over a couple of beers."
“You leaving?" said Kellin. He sounded pleasant enough. Somehow, though, I got the feeling he really wanted me to say no.
"Zeke, Angela," said Cookie. “You shouldn’t be bothered with this, and I can see that Mr. Navarre is not considerate enough to cease prying. Let me speak to him for a moment."
It might’ve been a hypnotist’s command. Zeke Cambridge stood up without argument, and took his wife’s arm. They drifted out of the room, looking half-asleep, Mrs. Cambridge still crying without a sound. Cookie sat down behind Dan Sr.’s desk. Then, with a look of mild distaste on her face, she waved me to the chair opposite. Kellin and I exchanged looks of mutual disappointment.
"Now, Mr. Navarre," Cookie said. Her tone foretold of restriction, loss of allowance, no TV for a week.
"Perhaps we should have a talk."
“Kellin, I’d like a glass of red wine. I don’t believe Mr. Navarre needs anything?
Kellin hesitated. She looked up at him, cold and expectant. Then he disappeared.
“Before I have you thrown out, Mr. Navarre, perhaps you’d explain yourself to me. Then I have my guests to attend to."
As if on cue, the music outside flared up into a fiddle solo. People started clapping.
“Where is Dan?" I asked.
“My son is not feeling well."
Cookie wasn’t used to being contradicted. For an instant her eyes almost focused on me, as if I was worth considering.
"I can’t make you understand," she said. “You will never be a mother, Mr. Navarre. You can’t possibly appreciate—"
“Try me," I said. “Your sick husband, your years of raising Dan alone. Now here he is at the tender young age of twenty-eight, not quite ready to leave the nest but already, despite your best efforts, deeply involved in the family’s shit. Where did you go wrong?"
She was tempted to get angry but to give her credit, she controlled it. She stared at the photo of her husband on the wall—young Dan Sheff, the Korean soldier.
“I have no idea what your crude comments imply, Mr. Navarre, but I will tell you this. My family means more to me than—" She faltered. "I will not allow you to—"
I’d interrupted a perfectly good chastisement by taking the faded pink envelope out of my back pocket, carefully unfolding the letter, and holding it up.
"You were saying?" I prompted. "Your family means more to you than what—an old lover who got too curious? The burden of betraying him to your husband? The guilt of knowing you got him killed?"
Cookie stared at the letter in my hands. Her harsh expression threatened to melt. Somewhere underneath the cosmetics, I think her cheeks actually flushed. I could see suddenly the remnants of a younger, more attractive woman, one who allowed herself emotions other than disdain. A woman my father might have seen as an interesting challenge.
Then she managed to refocus her eyes on that invisible fixed point in the distance. She corrected her posture.
A row of small black mascara specks appeared underneath her eyes when she blinked. Except for that I would never have guessed there was extra moisture anywhere in her. Her bleak stare and the tone of her voice were as arid as the Panhandle.
“I will not sit here," Cookie continued, “and listen to accusations from a young man who understands nothing about my life."
I folded up the letter and put it back in my pocket.
"I think I understand pretty well, ma’am. You were having a hard time ten years ago. Your husband’s illness was just getting bad; he would be bedridden within a few more years. The business was deep in the red. Your son was away at college. You needed a little affection and my father was there to provide it. He must’ve been refreshing for you at first, before he told you he was about to start investigating your husband’s company for defrauding the city, all because of papers he wouldn’t have found if he hadn’t been sleeping with you."
Before she could answer, Kellin reappeared at the door of the study. He walked over and handed Cookie a glass of wine. Then he picked up the small picture of Dan Sr. that Mr. Cambridge had knocked off the desk. Cookie glanced at it, then looked away. She brushed a strand of luminescent blond hair behind her ear.
“My past mistakes change nothing, " she said, almost to herself. “I have my son to think of. I have done what I can to raise him well."
“To protect him."
"I am protecting him," she agreed tonelessly. "And I will not allow you—I will not allow another—"
She stopped herself.
“Another Navarre to interfere," I offered.
She shook her head slowly, but there was something new in her eyes: resentment. She smoothed the belly of her sparkling evening dress with a withered hand.
“No," she said evenly. "Nothing like that."
I looked at the silver-framed picture of Dan’s father, robust enough when I was in high school to flirt with countless young cheerleaders. Now Dan Sr. was upstairs somewhere, listening to the drip of the IV and the sound of dancing and Bob Wills that was rocking his floor, trying to remember his own name. I’m not sure what I was feeling for him, but it wasn’t pity.
“What the hell is going on?" someone said behind me.
“Danny," said Mrs. Sheff. Her throat sounded like it was constricting. "I thought we’d agreed . . ."
The tux had made some difference in Dan Jr.’s appearance. From the neck down he looked dapper, cleaned and pressed, both shoes tied, a tumbler of bourbon in his hand instead of a Lone Star bottle. From the neck up he looked about the same—bloodshot eyes, sickly pale face, I blond cowlicks slicked only partially into submission..He looked like he was probably more sober than I was now, but that wasn’t saying much.