"I'm trying not to dwell on that."

She shut her eyes. "This isn't your fault. I'm sorry. I don't have a box. I don't even know what things are his."

"Let it wait. His things don't have to go anywhere."

Her expression didn't change, but a thick tear traced its way down the base of her nose.

She tried to stand and couldn't quite make it.

She frowned, looked into her purse, then fished out an orange prescription bottle and stared at the label accusingly.

"How many?" I asked.

"They insisted. I broke a window."

"I remember."

"The doctor said the sedatives—" She stopped, still frowning. "Two pills. I think I took two. I don't remember."

She tried to put the bottle back in her purse and dropped it on the floor instead. "I need to go."

"You're not doing so great. Is there anyone who could—"

"Take me home?" she interrupted.


She looked up at me wearily, her expression a mixture of resentment and plea.

I suddenly realized I had just made an offer.


I had to wake Ines Brandon when we pulled in front of her house on Castano. With some effort, I extracted her from the VW, got her up the five steps, navigated her around the Big Wheel and the street chalk.

Before I could ring the bell on the front porch, a scowling woman opened the door.

"I tell you," she scolded Ines.

The woman's arms were beefy slabs. Her upper body was stuffed into the world's largest black Papal Visit souvenir T-shirt, the faded picture of John Paul II on the front unflatteringly distorted by the bulges of the woman's breasts. Her stubby legs threatened to bust out of turquoise sweatpants and her hair was pulled back in a painfully tight bun. Her feet were bare. Her face was as brutally sculpted as a Mayan pedestal — weathered and wide and flat, designed to withstand several thousand tons. She smelled pungently of cloves. She took Ines' arm and guided her into the house.

"This is Mr. Navarre," Ines mumbled. "I didn't have a box."

The woman cursed at her gently in Spanish, then looked back at me and said in a stern voice: "Stay."

"Arf," I said.

The woman didn't react. She and Ines disappeared down the hallway. I heard the sounds of minor protests, chastisements, orders to take off shoes. Miniblinds were snapped shut.

There was even less to see in the living room than there had been before. Most of the boxes were now taped closed. All the framed photographs had been removed from the end table. The broken window in the dining room had been covered with a piece of cardboard.

The Pope-shirted woman reappeared from the hallway, wiping her palms on her turquoise pants. Her squashed, disapproving eyes zeroed in on me. "Thank you, go."

"You're Paloma?"

The woman gave me a grudging nod, then brushed past and went to the front door. She opened it, looked at me expectantly.

I pointed down the hallway where Ines had disappeared. "You get her to sleep all right?"

"No Ingles," Paloma suddenly decided. She glared at me obstinately.

"No problema," I assured her. Then, still in Spanish, "We had to leave Mrs. Brandon's car at UTSA. The north visitors' lot. It'll be all right for this afternoon, but someone should pick it up by tomorrow morning."

Paloma continued glaring at me, letting me know that nothing could have insulted her sensibilities worse than a fluent gringo.

"Thank you, go," she tried again, in English.

"I bet you're great with solicitors. Those aluminum-siding guys from Sears."

She shoved the door shut, irritated. "You won't go. Why?"

"I'm curious."

"La policia." She scowled. "They were curious. The reporters, tambien. No more. Senora Brandon needs sleep."

"You've been with the family long?"

"Five years. Since Miguel."

"Since Michael was born — their son."


"Is Michael here?"


As if on cue, a whirring toy sound wailed from one of the back bedrooms, then died. It sounded like one of those sparking ray guns.

Paloma's stone face darkened.

"Mira, Paloma," I told her. "I don't mean to pry. I've been hired to take Dr. Brandon's job. I'd like to know how he got himself killed. I don't want to follow in his footsteps."

Paloma's eyes drifted away from me and fixed on the fireplace. She scowled at the bullet holes in the limestone, as if remembering exactly where she had scrubbed, and how hard, and what the color of the water and the soap foam had been afterward.

"We're leaving this place," she mused. "For now, an apartment. Maybe later, out of town."

"And will that return things to normal?"

Paloma made a sound deep in her throat, like stone grinding. "You wish to see normal?"

She grabbed my wrist and tugged me down the hallway, past a closed door on the right, past an open bathroom, to a door on the left that was papered with foldout animal posters from various scholastic magazines.

Paloma pushed me into the doorway and held me there, her fingers digging into my shoulders. I was expecting to see your basic boy's room, like Jem's — buckets of Tinkertoys and Legos, miniature furniture, piles of little clothes and shoes. Everything in primary colors.

What I saw instead were sheets. At least ten of them — white, blue, daisy-patterned, brown — draped waist-level wall-to-wall, covering everything. The cloth sagged in canyons, rose here and there to peaks that were probably chairs underneath. Square outlines hinted of tabletops, a bed. Where the sheet corners met, they were weighted down by heavy books to keep them together. In some places they were tied off or safety-pinned. There seemed to be talcum powder everywhere — sprinkled liberally over the tops of the sheets, gathered in thick drifts where the cloth sagged, hanging in the air with a cloying scent. The room looked like it had been commandeered for a Christo art event.

Three feet from the bedroom door was a small triangular opening in the sheet tent. A toy ray gun lay on the carpet next to an empty plastic Lunchables tray and a Toys "R" Us circular with all the coupons cut out.

Paloma pushed past me and managed to lower herself enough to scoop up the trash.

"Miguel," she grunted. "Ahi."

Nothing moved.

Outside the bedroom windows I could see the backyard — about twenty feet of grass, a barbecue pit, swing set, pecan tree. In the corner a wooden garage was topped with a second-story apartment. The day was sunny, but it felt miles away outside the gloom and the powder and the dust.

"Miguel!" Paloma called again.

This time sheets rustled in the corner. A little spherical dent appeared in them, slid toward the entrance, then emerged at the opening as the head of a five-year-old boy.

If I had not known he was half Latino, I never would've guessed it. His skin was paler than mine, paler than damn near anybody's. His eyes were blue like Aaron Brandon's, his hair reddish like his mother's.

He was wearing a T-shirt and underwear and nothing else. He peered up at me with mild curiosity.

"Miguel," Paloma said, "this is Senor Navarre. Senor Navarre is a college teacher like your papa."

Michael seemed to be trying to reach some conclusion about my face, as if he weren't quite sure if it was real or a pretty good mask.

"Hey, Michael," I said.

"This is my cave," he informed me.

"I can see that. It's a real nice cave."

Michael suddenly developed a keen interest in picking the skin off his knuckle.

"He needs to clean it up," Paloma grumbled, but not like she expected any action.

"What's with the powder?" I asked.

"It's fog," Michael said to his knuckle. "Makes you invisible."

"That's good," I said. "But just in case they get through, you zap them, right?"

He snatched his ray gun, gave me an upward glance.

Paloma receded in the doorway and gestured for me to follow. I told Michael I'd see him around.

The last I saw of him he was digging the muzzle of his ray gun into his bare knee.

"This," Paloma said, "is normal."

It took me a few steps before I could speak. "Since his father's death?"

"Before. Since the fights. Now will you go?"

We stopped in the living room, Paloma once again holding the front door open for me. Her face seemed even more compressed, her eyes almost slits, her mouth flattened into a hard amber line. The irreverently stretched Holy Father smiled up at me from Paloma's shirt, one papal eye bigger than the other.

"I'll go," I promised. "But the apartment in back, above the garage — is that yours?"

She stiffened.

"You were the witness — the one who ID'ed Zeta Sanchez for the police."

"Madre de Dios, if you don't leave now—"

I didn't make her finish the threat. I said good-bye and went out to my car. When I looked back, Paloma stood motionless in the doorway — her eyes dark, her face hard and impassive, as if she'd turned back into red Texas granite. I couldn't blame her for that. Anything as soft as human flesh could never have supported the weight of the Brandon household.


Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes necessity is just a mother.

All the way back to the University, I brainstormed ideas for the graduate seminar, knowing I would have just enough time to stumble into the classroom with none of Brandon's backlogged papers graded and no prepared lecture notes. I kept trying to come up with some brilliant game plan to make a good first impression. At ten past one, sitting on a table in front of eight graduate students in HSS 2.0.22, I was still without that plan.

"So." I tried to sound enthusiastic. "I thought we'd start by going around — tell me your names, a little about yourselves. Ask whatever you want about me.

Who wants to start?"

No hands shot into the air.

I waved encouragingly toward a couple of mid-fiftyish women by the door. They were crocheting from a shared bag of pink yarn.

"You ladies?"

They introduced themselves as Edie and Marfa, escaped housewives. Marfa told me she wanted to read some medieval romances. Edie smiled and gave me the eye.

"Ah-ha," I said. "And you, sir?"

The elderly man cleared his throat. He wore a mechanic's jumpsuit and a buzz cut. "Sergeant Irwin, USAF, retired. I'm still in this class because the military is paying every penny, and so far I'm damn glad of it."

I thanked him for sharing, then waved toward the next man — a young Anglo in a Men's Wearhouse Italian suit.

He looked up from his organizer long enough to say, "Brian. I run a small carpeting business and I'm probably going to drop the class. Don't mind me."

Behind Brian was Gregory, the giant radish mail boy who delivered pipe bombs.

"Always nice to see a familiar face," I told him.

Gregory mumbled something. He didn't meet my eyes.

Next to him sat two guys in Nirvana T-shirts and jeans and plentiful chains clipped to their belt loops. Simon and Blake. They asked me how it was hanging. I asked them how they'd come to choose a medieval literature class and they shrugged and grinned like Class? We're in class?