There was no anger in his voice, no violent edge.

He turned and walked with easy confidence across West Ashby, back to his truck. He didn't even bother to holster the S & W.


I got home around sunset, changed into exercise clothes, and ran through the basic stances, five minutes each, then twenty minutes of silk reeling exercises.

Afterward I lay on the floor until the sweat started to dry and the airconditioning felt cold again. Robert Johnson climbed up onto my chest and sat there, staring down at my face.

"What?" I said.

He yawned, showing me the black spots on the top of his mouth. His breath was not pleasant.

I made our standard dinner—Friskies tacos for him, chalupas for me. I showered and changed, then drank a Shiner at the kitchen counter.

My green neon KMAC wall clock read sevenohfive. Erainya Manos would still be at the office, typing up the daily client reports. The professors at UTSA would probably be in their offices too, preparing for night classes or yawning as they waded through bad under graduate essays. I tried to imagine myself in either place. I couldn't quite do it.

All I got in my head was a cartoon vision of me as Wile E. Coyote, my toes clinging to two different icebergs, doing the splits as they drifted farther and farther apart. In my hand a little wooden sign that read yikes!

I looked at the thick gray envelope that was propped up by the sink. The maroon words LES SAINTPIERRE TALENT were printed in the upper righthand corner. No return address, just like there'd been no number on the business card. You either knew what you needed to know to get in touch with Les SaintPierre or you didn't merit the infor

mation. Cocky.

I opened the envelope and started to read.

On top of the stack, on a piece of yellow legal paper, Milo had brainstormed all the personal facts he knew about the missing talent agent. The list was surprisingly short.

Date of birth April 8,1952. Place of birth unknown, somewhere near Texarkana, Milo thought. High school in Denton, a year of formal music training at North Texas State before SaintPierre had dropped out and joined the air force toward the end of Vietnam. In '76, he'd started his music industry career as a songplugger for a large Nashville publishing group. He'd been partially responsible for the surge in Texas music that had happened over the following few years—the birth of the Austin City Limits TV show with its videotaped studio concerts, the rise of Willie Nelson and the other Outlaws, the sudden interest in places like Luckenbach and Gilley's and Kerrville. Les had been a confirmed bachelor until three years ago, when he'd met Allison Cassidy in Nashville. He and Allison now lived in Monte Vista, not far from the agency's office.

On the back of the page was a list of Les' favourite bars and hangouts in San Antonio and Austin. That list was more extensive.

Underneath the legal paper was a portrait studio photo of the God of Talent Agents.

Les SaintPierre looked like a cross between Barry Manilow and an amateur prizefighter. His mouth was a colourless Cupid's bow and his eyes were dark and soft.

Maybe the unsuspecting could even mistake them as sensitive. His nose had started out as a fine thin triangle but had obviously been broken at least once. His neck, his cheekbones, and his brow were all a little too thick, a little too Neanderthal for Manilow.

His hair was short and greasy and thinning and his shirt was open to reveal a chest that was robust enough but pale and hairless and somehow hollow looking. There was a slightly haggard look to his face, and a dangerous quality, too—the kind of omnivorous hunger you see in drug addicts and car salesmen and lowrated talk show hosts.

I skimmed through the rest of the package. A copy of Les' management contract with Miranda Daniels, a copy of the allegedly backdated agreement between Tilden Sheckly and Les, a list of present clients and how much the agency had grossed in commissions in the last six months—just over a million dollars all together. There was a rundown on the last dates Les had personally sold and the last people he had spoken with. Tilden Sheckly and Julie Kearnes were among them.

The last person who'd seen Les SaintPierre was the lady who watered his plants. Les had walked out of his house on the morning of October twelfth, told the horticulturist to lock up on her way out, then vanished into thin air. Neither of his two cars ever left the garage.

Milo had formulated a list of twenty or thirty people Les had antagonized over the years. Tilden Sheckly's name was on top. Several other names were famous country singers. There was no list of Les' friends.

I checked my watch. Still happy hour. I put the gray envelope and a wad of Milo's money into my backpack and headed out to make some friends in the service industry.

Seven bars and a dozen tipmeandmaybe I'llremember something encounters later, I wasn't much wiser than when I'd started. I told everybody I was an old friend of Les' trying to track him down. The bartender at the Broadway 5050 complained that Les had an unpaid tab of $230. The manager at Diamond Rodeo said Les was a bloodsucker but for God's sake I shouldn't tell Les he said so. A singer named Tony Dell at La Puerta told me a great story about how Les had once left him stranded in Korea doing an eighthouraday sweatshop gig that had almost driven Dell to suicide.

Dell said no hard feelings and if I could get a tape to Les he had some great new material. Everybody agreed that Les hadn't been around in the last couple of weeks.

Nobody seemed too concerned about it and nobody warmed up to me much when I told them I was Les' friend.

It was full dark by the time I pulled in front of the SaintPierres' Monte Vista mansion—a threestory white stucco wedge with a halfacre front yard, twocar garage, and just enough lit view around the side of the house to confirm that there was a swimming pool and a tennis court. I rang the doorbell for five minutes.

No Les. No Mrs. SaintPierre.

I went back to the VW and sat, pondering a next move. The night clouds darkened and turned the texture of cedar bark. The grackles gave way to the quieter drone of the crickets.

In the yellow dash light I ran my finger around the pages of Milo's handwriting, looking for nightclubs I hadn't yet visited. My finger kept coming back to one in particular.

What the hell.

I drove north to see if Tilden Sheckly still wanted to buy me a beer.


I came over the rise of San Geronimo Hill and saw the Indian Paintbrush below. The whole expanse of metal building was lit up stark white like some kind of giant UFO

hangar. Its twentyfoothigh trademark neon wildflower blinked one petal at a time, then flashed all at once.

The road sign out front said TAMMY VAUGHN TONIGHT! Underneath, in smaller letters that obviously hadn't been changed in a long time, it said MIR NDA D NIELS EVERY SAT.

Apparently Tammy Vaughn had some draw. The gravel lot was almost full and a line of trucks and cars was still snaking in from the access road. Inside the lot, parking attendants jogged around trying to give directions. Waistdeep clouds of shiny dust were rolling through the crisscrossed headlights.

After parking the VW, I made my way to the ticket window and through an entrance corridor that smelled like a cattle chute. A bouncer in a Confederate flag Tshirt stamped a little green star on the back of my hand and sent me on into the main hall.

The place was not small.

A lightgauge bullet shot from the entrance probably would've fallen short of the neon beer signs mounted on either side wall. The ceiling would've been a long shot too.

Along the back wall was an empty stage about fifty feet wide and five feet high.

Speakers the size of coffins hung from the ceiling, cranking out canned music that sounded vaguely like Alabama.

The bar stretched out for a good forty yards, manned by an army of bartenders in matching red Western shirts. Some of the bartenders were busy filling orders. Most were not. I walked downstream until I found a particularly boredlooking woman whose name tag read Leena. I ordered a Shiner draft and a shot of Cuervo.

"Sheck around tonight?" I asked.

Leena started to make a distasteful face, then froze, suddenly wary. "You a friend?"

"Sheck's got friends?"

Leena smiled. "Amen to that."

I told her I was a talent buyer putting together a promotional and I was hoping to run some demos past Sheck. I had no idea what I was saying and neither did Leena, but she was more than willing to point out Tilden Sheckly. He was forty yards away at the edge of the dance floor, arguing heatedly with a redheaded woman in a skyblue jumpsuit.

"I wouldn't count on him being available anytime soon," Leena told me. "Simulcast rights."

"How's that?"

She nodded again toward the lady in the jumpsuit. "Tammy Vaughn's manager. She's going to demand some rights to the radio broadcast. She'll blame the booking agency for overlooking that when they signed the contract. Sheckly's going to tell her tough shit. Tammy will end up playing the gig anyway because she needs the exposure.

Here comes the contract."

Sure enough, just at that moment Sheckly produced a piece of paper and held it in the woman's face, like he was inviting her to find any line that supported her demand. The manager brushed the paper away and kept arguing.

"Every damn week," Leena told me. "He'll spend half the night arguing with her, the rest of the night trying to get in her pants."

"Suppose I just left a note in his office," I said.

"Upstairs annex, past the bull ring, next to the studio." She pointed toward the double doors, far off to the right, where the neon bullrider was flickering back and forth on his neon bull. Leena leaned across the bar, gave me a friendly smile. "Now you're gonna have to buy another drink, honey, or I need to quit talking."

I told her thanks, put a dollar in her pitcher, and got up to leave.

Leena sighed. "The night goes downhill from here."

The bull riding arena was dark. Seventeen or eighteen empty rows of seats sloped down toward the circular pit. Nothing there but some red plastic barrels, rodeo clown props, two metal chute gates on the north wall hanging open apathetically. The dirt was scarred and streaked from the last round of boot heels and hooves that had pounded through it. Nobody had raked since then. Sloppy.

A man and a woman were sitting in the top row, arguing about somebody named Samantha. When they saw me they stopped, annoyed, and got up. They moved their conversation back into the dance hall.

The noise of the music and the crowd sounded tinny and far away, like it was echoing from the bottom of an oil tanker. I walked around the perimeter of the arena to a metal door with a sidebar and a white sign that read EMPLOYEES ONLY. I looked for an alarm wire. None. No surveillance camera. I pushed the door open.

Inside was an empty office with cheesy walnut panelling and pink carpeting. There were three metal desks. On the wall were framed posters of Tilden Sheckly's The Widower's Two it Step 65

washedup Bgrade artists, Julie Kearnes among them. There was plenty of blank space on the wall for Miranda Daniels a few years down the line. Probably several others, too.

Two doors led out of the room, left and right. The left one said STUDIO and the right said SHECK. I looked for surveillance equipment on the SHECK door and found none.


The handle turned.

One look at the layout of the office and I was tempted to close the door and try coming back in again, just to make sure I was seeing correctly.