"I think your uncle would be proud of you."
She smiled. There aren't many times I see the likeness between Kelly Arguello and her uncle. I see it when she smiles. Though, on Kelly, thank God, the smile doesn't have the same maniacal edge.
She leaned out for one last curl of honeysuckle that hung over the window. "Okay.
Enough for now. There's a cooler on the porch. Get that Shiner Bock."
"You want a light beer instead?"
I took the Shiner. Kelly drank a Pecan Street Ale. We sat on her wooden porch swing while she booted up a little blue portable computer, then started copying the information I had so far on Les SaintPierre.
The laptop beeped unpleasantly. She cursed, held it aloft by the screen, resettled herself so her bare feet were pulled up under her, then put the computer back in her lap and hit the delete key several times.
"New toy?" I asked.
She wrinkled her nose, rabbit style, and kept it that way for a few seconds.
She nodded. "I told him I was saving up for one. Next thing I know he's bought it for me. He's always doing that."
"He's just upset you got all those scholarships. Had his heart set on paying your way through college."
"Probably he'd beat up my professors if they didn't give me straight A's."
"That's not true," I insisted. "He'd pay to have them beat up."
She didn't look amused. She kept typing, squinting as she tried to read Milo Chavez's handwriting.
"Lo hace porque le importas, Kelly."
She acted like she hadn't heard me.
"You want all the paperwork on this guy?" she asked. "Like last time?"
"Get his marriage certificate. DMV. Credit. He's also got an air force record. We can at least get his date and nature of discharge on that. Check the tax rolls, especially deeds, building permits—"
"Basically everything," she summed up. She flipped through some more papers, gaining confidence in the task until she hit the personnel files from Julie Kearnes'
computer, all seven pages worth. "Whoa."
She scanned a few lines, looked up at me wideeyed. "What the hell?"
"Part of our problem. This guy might be a vanisher."
She nodded slowly, trying to decide whether she should pretend she was following me or not. "Yeah?"
"Let's say you were into something dangerous."
"I don't know. But you know you're going to be making some enemies and you want to leave yourself an escape hatch. Or maybe you're just unhappy with your life anyway and you've been planning to skip for a long time, then something bad comes up and you figure the time is ripe. Either way, you want to disappear off the face of the earth for a while, maybe forever. What would you do?"
Kelly thought about it. It can take law students a while to turn their training around—to look at the illegalities that are possible rather than the legalities. When they finally start thinking in reverse, though, it's scary.
"I'd start constructing a new identity," she decided. "New ID, new credit, completely clean paper trail. Maybe I'd butter up somebody who had access to employee files for some big corporations, like these."
She scanned the printouts more closely. "I'd look for somebody deceased who was about my age, somebody who died far away from their town of birth so their birth and death paperwork would've never met up. I could order their birth certificate from their home county, get a new social security number with that, then a driver's license, even a passport. That about right?"
I nodded. "A plus."
"People really do this?"
"A couple of hundred times a year. Hard to get figures because nobody ever advertises success."
"Which means—" She started to recalculate the job I was asking her to do. "Holy shit."
"It means we have to narrow the field. We have to find the most likely candidates from those files who might make viable new Les SaintPierres—males in their late forties who were born out of state and died fairly recently. There shouldn't be too many. Then we have to find out if any of those dead folks have requested new ID paperwork in the last, say, three months."
"That could still mean five or six names to track. And even then we might miss him. If he really did disappear."
"How long do we have?"
"Until next Friday."
She stared at me. "That's impossible. I'll have to get down to Vital Statistics today."
"Can you do it?"
She raised her eyebrows. "Sure. I can do anything. But it's going to cost you."
"How about dinner?"
I plinked the rim of my beer bottle. "Kelly, your uncle owns a very large collection of guns."
"What—I can't ask you to dinner?"
"Sure. I just can't accept."
She rolled her eyes. "That's such bullshit, Tres."
I stayed quiet and drank my beer. Kelly stuffed the personnel files back into the folder and returned to typing. Every once in a while the fragrance of clipped honeysuckle would drift across the porch, a strange smell for midOctober.
I pulled five of Milo's bills from my backpack and handed them to Kelly. "You run into any unusual expenses, let me know." "Sure."
She dug back into the folder and pulled out Les Saint Pierre's photograph. "Yuck."
She tried to shape her expression like Les'. She couldn't quite get the eyebrows right.
Across the street a businessman stumbled out his front door and spilled coffee on his tie. He lifted both arms in a Dracula pose and swore, then walked more carefully toward his BMW. His duplex looked like it had been built in the last twelve hours—all white aluminium siding and the lawn still made up of little green squares that hadn't grown together. The house next to his was an old red shack with a store on the side that sold ceramics and crystals. Austin.
"What was it like growing up without your mother?" I asked.
Kelly lifted one eyebrow, then looked at me without turning her head. "What makes you ask that?"
"No reason. Just curious."
She stuck out her lower lip so she could blow away the strand of grapecoloured hair that was hanging in her face. "I don't think about it much, Tres. It's not like I spent my childhood thinking I was different or anything. Dad was always around? five or six uncles in the house. Things were just the way they were."
I swirled the last ounce of beer in my bottle. "You remember her at all?"
Kelly's fingers flattened on the keyboard. She stared at her doorway and, momentarily, looked older than she was. "You know the problem with that, Tres? Your relatives are always telling you things. They remind you of things you did, the way your mom was.
You mix that with the old photos and pretty soon you've convinced yourself you have these memories. Then if you want to stay sane you bury them."
" Because it's not enough. You grow up with men, you have to learn to deal with men.
The fact you don't have a mom—" She hesitated, her eyes still searching for some
thing in the doorway. "With a mom, I guess you get some intuition, some understanding and talking. With a bunch of guys in the house, little girl has to take a different tack. Learn sneaky ways to get them to do what you want. Good training for working in law firms, actually. Or working for you."
"Thanks a lot."
Kelly smiled. She looked through the other documents in my packet, found little that would help her, then resealed the manila envelope. She closed the laptop.
"I'll call you as soon as I get something," she told me. "You're heading back to S.A.?"
I nodded. "You want me to tell your uncle anything?"
Kelly stood up so quickly the porch swing started moving cockeyed. She opened the screen door. "Sure. Tell him I'm expecting a dinner out of you."
"You want to get me killed."
She smiled like I'd guessed the exact thing she had in mind, then shut the door behind her and left me alone on the porch, the swing still zigzagging around.
There are two staterun rest stops between Austin and San Antonio, leftovers from simpler times before developers plopped convenience stores and outlet malls at hundredyard intervals all the way down the highway.
I resisted the urge to pull into the first, even though Kelly Arguello's Shiner Bock was working its way through my system, but by the time I'd passed through New Braunfels my bladder was twisting itself into funny little balloon animals. I decided to exit at the second rest stop.
I made such haste parking the VW and shuffling up the steps toward the john that I didn't take much notice of the pickup and horse trailer I'd parked behind.
Nor did I take much notice of the guy next to me at the urinal. He smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and the checkered shirt and the profile of his face looked familiar, but there is no space quite so inviolable as the space between two men at the pee trough.
I didn't look at him until we'd both suited up and were washing our hands.
He clamped his hands on the paper towel a few times, frowning at me. He hadn't changed clothes since yesterday, nor shaved. The bags under his eyes were puffy, like the extra tequila from last night's gig had drained into them.
"Tres Navarre," I said. "We met last night at the Cactus, sort of."
Brent threw away his towel. "Cam Compton's forehead." "Right."
Brent looked past me, out the entrance of the john. I was standing between him and the exit, which made it difficult for Brent to get around me. He obviously wanted to.
Two men having a conversation in the bathroom was only slightly less awkward than acknowledging each other at the urinal. Maybe I should compensate by offering him some Red Man. Mention the playoffs. Bubba etiquette.
"You with Miranda?" I asked.
He looked around, uncomfortably. "No. Just the equipment." "Ah."
He shuffled a little more. I took mercy and stepped aside so we could both walk out at the same time.
The rest stop was doing a pretty good business for a weekday. Down on one end of the grassy oval island the picnic benches were overflowing with a huge Latino family.
Fat men in tank tops drank beer while the women and children streamed back and forth between the tables and their battered station wagons, bringing ice chests and boxes of potato chips and marshmallows. A little dog was doing circles around the kids' legs. The far curb of the turnout lane was lined with semis, the cabs dark and the drivers inside sleeping or shaving or eating, staring at the horizon and thinking whatever it is truckers think.
A local Baptist church had set up an outreach table at the bottom of the bathroom steps. Several perky blondhaired women offered DUI fliers and free pocket Bibles and donuts and coffee. A green poster board sign announcing CHRIST LOVES TRAVELERS, TOO flapped in the humid wind.
Brent Daniels wasn't thrilled when he realized we had parked next to each other—my VW right behind his pickup and trailer.
Brent's rig was a white Ford with brown stripes. The windows were tinted almost pure silver, making it impossible to see inside the cab. The trailer was a onehorse job, brown metal, with the words ROCKING U RANCH thinly painted over in a beigebrown that didn't match the rest of the metal.