A Spoiled Breakfast

An excerpt from Champagne Cowboys, the new thriller from Tucson author Leo W. Banks

I drove through the neon kingdom of Speedway Boulevard blowing smoke from my six-dollar cigar and listening to the wail of cop sirens.

It was morning in Tucson, the top down on my Ford Bronco, the desert wind in my hair, sun shining, palm trees waving, the walking-dead drug addicts begging with cardboard signs from the sidewalks.

At a red light, a guy with a tat mask and an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips split the lanes of traffic on his bicycle. I could smell him going by.

He was struggling to balance a twelve-pack of Bud Light bottles on the handlebars.

Everybody has dreams. I was rooting for him.

My phone rang. Roxanne Santa Cruz.

"Morning, Rox. Isn't it a beautiful day in the jewel of the Southwest?"

"I wouldn't know. Just got pinged on a bank robbery. Where are you?" Roxy was a minor celebrity in a town that couldn't produce any other kind. She worked as a reporter at KPIN-TV telling the "real story," as the slogan went.

"On my way to breakfast with Cash," I said. "After that we're going to visit Charlie at St. Joe's. He fell off his ladder."

Cashmere Miller sat right beside me. He was a tenant of mine at Double Wide, the trailer park I owned. He had a narrow ghost face. He stared straight ahead, lost in the coffeeless wilderness of early morning.

"I need a favor," Roxy said. "Could you run out to Ash Sterling's house and check on him for me?"

"Right now? I'm hungry, Rox."

"If you're going to the hospital, you're already on the east side."

"You've spent a lot of time with that guy and gotten nothing out of it."

"A war hero comes home from Afghanistan, forms a band of ex-marine thieves and makes a bundle cleaning out rich people's houses? Yeah, I'm willing to work to get that story."

Roxy had told me about her dealings with Ash Sterling.

Once a week for several weeks running she'd been driving out to his house. No notebook, no camera, no hard questions. Just a patient reporter sitting in a man's living room trying to get him to open up.

A rich, dying man. The end was near. Heart failure.

In his initial call to Roxy, Sterling said he'd watched her on TV, admired her work, and wanted her to tell his story after he was gone. He told her of his wartime experiences and a few random bits about his life as a highly successful thief.

But he kept the details in his pocket, and every time Roxy pressed, he backed off.

"Sounds like he just wants a beautiful woman's company," I said.

"Today's different."

"All I want right now is bacon and hash browns."

"It's not that far. I'll make it up to you. Please, please, cherries and all that."

Roxy's voice got me. It was the voice of an angel with an abominable past. Soft, but a touch raspy, a mix of vanilla ice cream and Chivas Regal neat.

I can resist many things, but not that voice.

"All right," I said. "What's different about today?"

"Last night on the phone I told him, 'Look, I'm canceling for tomorrow. I can't keep driving out there and have you clam up on me.' And he said, 'You want to know about that double murder in the Foothills, don't you?'"

The breath caught in my throat. I jerked the steering wheel and swung into the parking lot of a carpet store. A Truly Nolen exterminator truck had been riding my bumper and the driver had to mash his brakes to avoid hitting me.

He sang me a crazy song with his horn.

The roach chemicals can't do those fellows any favors.

Roxy said, "Then he goes, 'Would you like to solve it?'"

"Did he ever mention the Foothills case before that?"

"No. But I was beginning to suspect he was involved. I tried hard not to spill my nightcap and very politely said, 'Why, yes, I do want to solve it.' We set it up for noon today and now I can't reach him. I've been calling and it's straight to voice."

"You think something happened?"

"He sounded really weak. Just see if he's okay. I can make it out there later."

I puffed my cigar and watched the morning traffic zip by. The Foothills murders had been a huge weight on me since they'd happened. The victims were Paul and Donna Morton, close friends of mine.

Roxy and I had been investigating it together and getting nowhere. If Ash Sterling knew something, it'd be our first real break.

"Give me directions."

I drove northeast onto Tanque Verde Road, hit the Catalina Highway, and kept rolling north until all the important cultural landmarks were behind us.

That was another way of saying we'd passed the last Circle K.

Before starting the climb to Mount Lemmon, I hung a right onto an unmarked dirt track, and soon there was nothing on either side of us but open desert.

The Bronco's tires drummed on the corduroy road for three miles until I reached Sterling's earth-colored Santa Fe–style mansion.

It sat halfway up the side of a canyon, perched there by some architectural magic, in multiple sections on different levels, each flat-roofed with pueblo-style ladders leading from one to the next.

The front was rounded and mostly glass. A fieldstone driveway led to the main entrance. I stepped from the Bronco and heard a sharp metallic click.

Cash had pulled out his .45-caliber Ruger and racked a round into the pipe.

It was eight o'clock in the morning, so of course he was carrying.

I said, "You were figuring on trouble at breakfast?"

"Sometimes I hear footsteps on my back trail."

"Hearing anything now?"

"Don't like that front door being open. Rich folks don't leave doors open. Table's tipped over in there, too."

Distracted by my hunger, I hadn't noticed. My breakfast plans had gone to hell.

"All right, then," I said. "What're you waiting for? Go clear the house."

Cash was rehab thin and had rubber legs and a wide-stepping walk. But now he drew everything up tight, the veins in his forearms bulging as he readied himself for the task.

Arms straight down, double-gripping the Ruger, he sidestepped toward the open door.

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