The Devil Went Down to Austin - By Rick Riordan

Chapter 1
Lars Elder looks like a banker the way I look like a private eye, which is to say, not much.

He was waiting on the porch of my family ranch house, flicking a switchblade open and closed, a computer disk and a can of Budweiser next to him on the railing.

Lars' hairline had receded since I'd seen him last, but he still sported the earring, the Willie Nelson beard. His shirt, vest, and jeans were faded to the colours of a dust storm, and his eyes gave the same impression - dry and turbulent.

"Tres," he said. "Thanks for coming."

"No problema."

What I was thinking: The Navarre family banker drinking beer at ten in the morning is not a good sign.

Lars closed his knife, looked out toward the wheat fields.

Fifty yards away, past the tomato garden, the ranch caretaker was putting hay into the cattle feeder. Harold Diliberto stopped to watch us, his pitchfork suspended, dripping straw.

"Harold showed me the work you've been doing inside," Lars said. "You've been spending a lot of time out here."

"Some," I admitted.

I tried not to feel irritated, like Harold had betrayed a confidence.

Truth was, I'd been out at the ranch every weekend since the end of April - scraping old paint, filling in the spreading cracks in the original section of the house that had been my greatgrandfather's

homestead in the 1880s. I'd neglected both my jobs in San Antonio, ditched the cell phone, dropped out of my social life with little explanation to my friends.

"Place was overdue for some maintenance," I told Lars. "You ask me out here for the Home Beautiful tour? "

He didn't smile. "Talked to Garrett recently?"

"Maybe four, five months ago."

"But you'll see him soon. You're teaching that summer class in Austin, aren't you?"

Another surge of irritation. "British lit, for six weeks. May I ask how the hell you know about it?"

Lars brought the switchblade up like a conductor's baton. "Look, I'm sorry. I had to talk to you before you left. You know what Garrett's been up to?"

"You mean like Buffett concerts? Smoking pot?"

"His programming project."

"Must've missed it. I tend to phase out when Garrett talks about RNI."

Lars winced, like I'd just told him the price of an expensive gift. "Tres, Garrett isn't working at RNI anymore. He quit over a year ago."

I stared at him. My brother had worked at the same software company for sixteen years. He practically ran the place, took all the days off he wanted, had a retirement package.

"Got himself involved in a startup company," Lars told me. "That was two years ago - spring of '98. Then last year, May of '99, he decided he couldn't keep working both jobs anymore. Garrett just left RNI - no severance, no benefits."

"Not possible."

"He's working the startup with Jimmy Doebler."

I studied Lars' eyes, tried to tell if he was joking. Apparently, he wasn't, and beer for breakfast started sounding like a good idea.

Last I'd heard - maybe three years ago - Jimmy Doebler and Garrett hadn't even been speaking to each other. When they were speaking, they got along about as well as electricity and gunpowder.

"You're sure?" I asked him.

Lars picked up the computer disk, handed it to me. "Some files - things I was able to find on the Internet. They're calling themselves Techsan Security Software. Three principals in the

company - Jimmy, his wife Ruby, and Garrett. They've been designing an encryption product. The betatesting started in January."

I wagged the floppy. "It's news to me. Why the dossier, Lars? What's your interest?"

He rubbed his beard with his knuckles.

"I've known Jimmy and Garrett for a long time. I was around when Garrett - " He faltered. "Well, you know. I was around for the bad times. But when I called Garrett last week, I'd never heard him sound so bad. He and Jimmy are fighting again. Jimmy and his wife have separated - all because of this company they've started. I asked Garrett how they were holding up financially. He just laughed. The last few days, he won't even return my calls. I thought maybe you could talk to him."

I looked over the split rail fence, down the pasture toward the woods. The Charolais were grazing in the dry bed of Apache Creek. The water tower glistened gray. *

I thought about the hundreds of times I'd watched the sun come up over the Balcones Escarpment from here, the topography like an onion, layer upon translucent layer - my first hunting trip with my dad, a dozen Thanksgiving