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Authors: James Crumley

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BOOK: The Final Country
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“You first,” she said suspiciously when I offered her the straw. She looked ten years older, the fine bones almost visible through the clear skin.

I did my line, then offered her the straw again. She leaned over the mirror, sighed so hard she almost blew the coke away, then went through the line like one of those vacuum cleaners Eldora had accused me of peddling.

Sissy Duval licked her finger, wiped up the residue, and rubbed it on her gums. “Oh fuck,” she murmured, “where’d you get this shit?” Then her senses came back to her with the rush. “Sorry,” she said softly, “none of my business. Jesus, I don’t even remember your name. And why the hell are you looking for that sweet-cheeked dead bastard?”

“Just call me Milo,” I said. “Actually, I’m looking for an old friend of his, Enos Walker.”

“Jesus, don’t be looking for Enos,” she said, grabbing her arms as if cold. “He’s not looking for me, is he? He’s a bad one… and it seems to me that Enos is in prison up in Oklahoma.”

“Not anymore.”

“What the hell you want with him?”

“He was involved in a shooting yesterday, and my life would be a lot simpler if I could find him.”

“Not for long,” she said. “Enos used to be the kind of old boy didn’t mind hurting people. And I don’t expect prison did much for his attitude.”

“I noticed,” I said. “He was looking for your former husband. And somebody named Mandy Rae.”

“Amanda Rae. That little bitch,” she said, looking dreamily into the past. “She was the worst of that bunch. A fair to middling country singer but a wild-ass redneck girl. Hell, she was the only one of us who always carried a gun. But I haven’t run with that crowd in years. Last I heard about her must have been ten, twelve years ago. Or more.”

“What was she doing then?”

“I saw something in the paper,” she said, “or maybe on the news. She whipped out a pistol and took a shot at some old boy in a beer joint out on the Bastrop highway. Didn’t hit him, as I remember. She was a hell of a shot with a rifle, though. Christ, out at the ranch one afternoon — back when we still had a ranch — I watched her knock down a running buck at two hundred steps with an open sighted .30-.30. Cut his strings with a neck shot. Little bitch could shoot a single hair off a frog’s ass.”

“You mind if I ask why you call her a little bitch?” I asked.

“Why you think, cowboy?” She spat, then smiled. “You wouldn’t have another line of that fine shit, would you?”

“You wouldn’t have a picture of this Mandy Rae?”

“I think I’m gonna like you,” she said, her phony smile nearly knocking ten years off her face. “You be chopping, I be looking.” Then she pranced drunkenly around the bar and up the stairs.

Since I had already done enough, I chopped a single line for Sissy, finished my beer, slipped the bindle under the ashtray — I didn’t think she’d be cleaning off the bar this afternoon — then got another beer out of the small refrigerator behind the bar. As she started down the stairs, I picked up the straw and made snorting sounds.

“Couldn’t wait for me, huh?” she said, then handed me a publicity still of a sleek blond woman with a photo credit, Albert Homer, and a local address stamped on the back. I shrugged like a cokehead, a gesture I knew all too well. “This is all I could find,” she added, her eyes darting to the long line shining on the mirror.

“And why was she a little bitch?” I asked, still holding the straw.

“She was fucking Dwayne,” she sighed. “Hell, everybody was fucking everybody back in those days — before AIDS — but I caught them one Sunday afternoon up at the ranch. She was on all fours with his skinny dick up her ass, and the little bitch just grinned over the teddy bear tattoo on her shoulder blade at me. Like she knew I wasn’t into that shit, like she could lead the bastard off by his dick any time she wanted.” Sissy glanced at the straw again, then fixed herself another vodka.

“This Mandy Rae have a last name?” I wondered.

“Not that anybody knew,” she said. “She just showed up one day with Enos Walker and twenty keys of pink Peruvian flake. They paid cash for a place up in Gatlin County and set up a network of college kid dealers. They had a steady supply and obviously some protection, so she was everybody’s favorite lady for a while.”

“You sure you never heard a last name?” I asked, still holding on to the straw.

Sissy thought for a moment, her eyes on the shining straw. “Quarrels,” she said finally. “Seems like I remember somebody making a joke ‘bout that — Amanda Rae Quarrels with herself…”

I held out the straw. “How did your husband die?”

“Sucker-punched the wrong kid outside the bar,” she said, taking it with shaking hands. “That was always Dwayne’s style. Fuckin’ kid grabbed a sweet sixteen double-barrel out of his pickup, and let Dewey have two loads of quail shot — one in the guts and one in the face. Took him a long, bad week to die.” Then Sissy sighed again, snorted the line, and smiled at me. “You got a suit and tie, cowboy?”

“Sure,” I lied. If it was important, I could find a tie.

“Pick me up about eight? A fund-raiser for some political turd.”

“Be my pleasure,” I lied again, finished the beer, and headed for the door, listening to the rattle of ice in a heavy crystal glass across the empty desert of the living room. But I didn’t shut the door all the way and I waited at the edge of the parking lot. I gave her a minute, then went back. But a tall, older gentleman in a tailored suit and a fifteen-hundred-dollar toupee beat me to the door. Bobby, I assumed. The old man had his finger on the doorbell as I walked up behind him.

“Can I help you, sir?” the old gentleman drawled.

“I forgot to leave Mrs. Duval my card,” I said.

She came to the door with a cordless phone in her hand, confused to see both of us standing there. “I’ll call you right back, honey,” she said. “I promise.”

“I’ll just leave my card on the bar, Mrs. Duval,” I said, then hustled around Bobby as she clicked the telephone off. I left one of the cards with just my name and cell phone number, grabbed the bindle from under the ashtray, and heard her whimper, “Wait.”

“See you later, ma’am,” I tossed over my shoulder.

“Please,” she hissed.

“Who was that?” Bobby said as I hurried past them.

“Bobby, what the hell are you doing here?” I heard her say as I stepped slowly down the steps. I also heard her punch a button on the telephone and the beeping as it redialed. “Go get a drink or a suppository or something,” she said, then, into the telephone, “Oh, not you, honey. It’s that damned Bobby Mitchell littering my front porch again.” Then Sissy’s drunken laughter echoed through the cedar shrubs and the river willows that screened her condo from the street noise.

Something about Sissy’s voice when she said “honey” into the telephone bothered me all the way out to Blue Hollow, bothered me all through my shift behind the bar, distracted me even when Betty Porterfield stopped in for a cup of coffee on her way to the emergency vet clinic where she handled the night shift.

“Not much of a vacation,” Betty said as she lifted her coffee cup. Her blue eyes were softly smudged as if she hadn’t slept well that day, and wisps of her light red hair mixed with strands of gray drifted aimlessly across her freckled forehead. She brushed it back tiredly.

“Not much,” I agreed. “We never seem to have much fun when we try to talk about things. Or get much talking done either.”

“Is that my fault?”

Our silences had been louder than the constant wind or the slap of the shallow waves on the beach.

“Is that my fault?” she repeated.

“I don’t know,” I had to admit, then changed the subject. “You heard what happened yesterday?”

“I told you this PI stuff was going to get you in trouble,” she said.

“You don’t happen to know a Sissy Duval, do you?” I asked, ignoring her gibe.

“Sissy Duval? Jesus, I never ran with that crowd. Not much anyway,” she said quickly. “They were too wild for me. But I knew them. Why?”

“She’s about my only connection to Enos Walker,” I said lamely.

“Who’s he?” she asked, then looked away.

“He’s the guy who tussled with Billy Long when he got shot,” I said. “If I could find him before the cops do, it might save his life. And me a lot of official grief.”

“You know, Milo,” she said, the corner of her mouth lifted in a wry smile, “you don’t owe this Walker guy anything. And we had a better life when you were retired.”

“Maybe you did,” I said, “but I didn’t. I’m too young to be that old.”

“Why don’t you drive out to the ranch after you close? I’ll fix breakfast when I get home,” she said softly. “I’d like to work this out, honey.”

It flashed through my mind that women called men “honey” in a different tone of voice than they did women. But I was thinking about the photo credit on the back of Mandy’s picture, so once again I begged off the late night drive out to the ranch. “I’ve got one more lead to follow in the morning.”

“I wish you could hear how silly that sounds,” she said, suddenly flushed with anger, her lower lip trembling. “Why don’t you just admit you hate this place and carry your sorry ass back to Montana?”

“Thanks,” I said. “Since I moved my sorry ass down here to be near you.”

“That’s too much responsibility for me to bear,” she said, then left her coffee, and walked slowly out of the bar. The sad stiff stick of her back told me that once again conversation had failed us. We had moved farther away from each other with each word. Just as we had down at her uncle’s beach house.

We had drifted into a fight that night, as effortlessly it seemed as we had drifted into bed when we were first together. After the usual silence, then the apologies, I had begun to rub her shoulders.

“I just don’t know…” she murmured as we started to make love.

“What? What don’t you know?”

“I don’t know what we’re doing anymore,” she said softly, her voice barely audible above the sounds of the Gulf breeze and the soft slaps of the waves. “I don’t know where this is going, don’t even know if we’re making love or just fucking… or if this is some sort of stupid contest to see who can come last…”

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything, just eased out of her and into my sweats, then out of the house, across the glass-enclosed upper deck, then the long, shallow ramp down to the hard-packed sand of the beach. As I walked along the dark verge of the water, the low waves slipped across the sand, dying with a foaming hiss that sounded like a nest of baby snakes. Out in the Gulf, the lights of the oil platforms and derricks glowed like the false fires of ship wreckers, and the oily tar balls glistened in the scummy surf like the eggs of monsters. Texas, Jesus. What had been in my mind?

When I went back to her uncle’s beach house, perched like a giant spider on concrete legs above the sand, she seemed to be asleep, so I crashed on a lounge chair on the upper deck out of the wind. The next morning we drove back to Austin without speaking.

After Betty left the bar, I was more than glad to listen to the aimless problems of my customers. I could think of possible solutions to their problems, solutions that were sometimes as simple as a free drink and a friendly ear. So it wasn’t until after I had cleaned up, stocked, washed some illegal cash, and- checked out that I had a chance to see if Albert Homer was still at the same place. There he was in the Austin telephone book, still on North Loop, and still in business.

* * *

Homer’s studio sat on a weedy lot behind a ratty pool hall off North Loop within shouting distance of 1-35 North. He might still be in business, but business didn’t look all that lively at noon the next day when I pushed the buzzer beside the front door. Four long separate times. Finally, I heard a door slam and a distant voice from the second floor promising that it was on its way. Darkroom, I assumed, until the young man opened the door wearing a ratty robe over rumpled pajamas. He’d seen better days himself. The long fringe of hair hanging around his thin face hadn’t been washed or combed in several days. Something gray clung to the corners of his scraggly mustache, much as the odor of the early morning joint clung to his night clothes, and the stink of stale beer wafted on his breath.

“We ain’t open,” he mumbled. I showed him a fifty-dollar bill, remembering the good old days when a twenty would have done the trick. “But we could be, man, if you had a cold six-pack, too.”

“Don’t go away,” I said, then headed for the glowing beer signs of a pool hall just down the street.

During the years I had lived in Texas, I’d had almost no cocaine, not many tokes of marijuana, and damn few hangovers. But in the two days since I had the misfortune to run into Enos Walker, it seemed I had been servicing other people’s addictions with my own shaky character: Sissy Duval’s Hooverized nose, Capt. Gannon’s lust for an easy retirement, and now Albert Homer’s hangover. Anything for justice, I thought as I crossed the unmown lot, and the faint chance that I might be able to extend Enos Walker’s wasted life. They say a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. But there is no folk wisdom covering a PI who is his own client. Perhaps because it doesn’t happen often enough to rate a cliché to cover it.

Five minutes later, I watched Homer suck down the first can of Lone Star and crack another one. From the photographs framed on his studio wall, the rack of Frederick’s of Hollywood plus-sized lingerie, and the fake satin bedspread covering the round bed, I assumed that Homer specialized in sexy photos of fat women. It was sort of creepy, but I had to admit he wasn’t a bad photographer, and I couldn’t think of any good reason why fat women couldn’t have as much fun as emaciated models with artificial breasts.

“I’m just guessing here,” I said as I pulled the publicity photo out of a manila envelope, “but you probably didn’t take this picture.”

“Looks like one of my Daddy’s,” Homer said, barely glancing up from his beer. “He passed over seven years ago.”

“You didn’t keep his files, did you?”

“They’re in a storage locker out in Pflugerville,” he mumbled. “About the only thing besides this shithole that survived the divorce. But that fifty won’t buy you shit.”

BOOK: The Final Country
8.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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