"You're welcome," I said.

Miranda half sat, half fell back into her chair. She cupped her wrist, rocking back and forth and pursing her lips. Her friend tried to put her hand on her shoulder but Miranda immediately recoiled. "I'm all right, I'm all right."

The manager was not all right. He'd been momentarily stunned by my beer keg routine but now grabbed my upper arm and growled, "That's fucking it\"

He picked up the wall phone. Behind him Miranda's dad and brother insisted they get in this very minute.

"Just hold on now!" Miranda's voice was surprisingly loud.

The manager stopped dialling. Miranda's kinfolk stopped pushing their way in.

Miranda held up both hands like she was preparing to catch a basketball she really didn't want. She looked at me, her mouth trying to form a question.

"Tres Navarre," I volunteered. "Milo Chavez asked me to come by. I saw Cam getting a little out of control so—"

I put up my palms. I couldn't think of a euphemism for slamming someone's head into a keg.

"Am I throwing this guy out or what?" demanded the manager.

"Goddamn yes!" roared Miranda's father.

"Gam nam," mumbled Cam.

Miranda and the blonde looked at each other. Miranda sighed, exasperated, but she told the manager to let it go, told her dad and brother everything was fine and I was probably not a lunatic and please get on out.

Miranda's dad took a little more convincing than that. Miranda had to assure him repeatedly she was fine. She told him I was from Milo Chavez. That did not seem to comfort the old man greatly. Finally he shuffled back out into the club, mumbling prophesies of doom about young men who dressed poorly and carried backpacks.

When the crowd had dispersed, the blonde looked down at Cam Compton, who was still pulling himself into a ball. She looked at me and slowly cracked a smile. "So you're from Milo?"

"Firstclass service at economy prices."

"I'll be damned. Chavez finally did something right. Buy you a beer?"

Miranda looked at her like she was crazy.

Cam mumbled, "Kill you."

I told the ladies, "I'll be right back."

I picked up Cam by his wrists and dragged him outside.

"Very cool," the blonde said as I left the room.

A few people looked down as I dragged the guitarist past the bar and out the door.

Some laughed. One said, "Ole Cam."

Garrett wheeled up behind me and followed me out. "Lovely. I suppose I can write this place off my list, too. You should visit more often, little bro. Jesus Christ."

Once we got out into the Union lobby I deposited Cam sideways on a folding table. He was mumbling some feeble threats and trying to spit the hair out of his mouth.

"Just great," Garrett growled as we went back in. "Jimmy Buffett's at Manor Downs in two weeks. Cam knows the keyboardist. I guess I can pretty much forget that backstage pass now."

I told the manager to get my brother a Shiner Bock.

"Fuck that," said Garrett. "You got any LSD?"

When I returned to the back room, Miranda and the blonde were drinking newly opened Lone Stars and talking.

Their conversation cut off abruptly when they saw me.

"Hey, sweetie," said the blonde. She offered me a longneck and a chair. "Your name was—"

I told her again.

"I'm Allison SaintPierre. I guess you figured out this is Miranda."

Allison SaintPierre. Les' wife. I tried to keep the surprise off my face.

I shook Miranda's good hand. It was soft and warm with no grip at all. "I'm a fan as of tonight."

Miranda gave me a practiced smile. "The first set was off."

"Like hell," Allison said.

They made good foils for each other—Miranda, dark haired, reserved, petite? Allison, tan and tall with straight blond hair and a smile that had no reservation at all. Allison's white tube top and jeans showed off a good figure, almost too curvy, the kind that would've gotten all the catcalls in middle school gym class. I kept trying to think of her as Mrs. SaintPierre. I couldn't quite get my mind around it.

"You've got a name from Chaucer," I told her.

Allison drank her beer, looking at me over the top. Her eyes were green.

"That's a first," she said. "Most guys open with Elvis Costello."

Miranda smiled weakly like she remembered that conversation from every bar they'd ever been in. She also looked like she was used to Allison getting the offstage attention. She sat back in her chair, stared at her drink, and looked relieved.

" 'The Miller's Tale,' " I said. "Alisoun was famous for making a guy kiss her ass."

Allison's eyes looked brighter when she laughed. "Damn straight. I like her already."

"You an English professor, Mr. Navarre?" Miranda asked without looking up. "Milo called you a—what was it?"

" 'A pretty smart armbreaker,' " Allison supplied. She winked at me.

"I'm gratified," I said. "Where is Milo?"

Allison made a face. She was about to offer some unflattering hypothesis when Miranda cut her off.

"He said he'd try to come late if he could. Some kind of crisis at the office."

Allison gave me a cautious look, probably appraising how much she should say. "I guess you heard about the fun we've been having—the potshots, stolen demo tapes, the occasional murdered fiddle player."

"Not to mention your missing husband."

I wanted to see their reactions. I wanted to judge whether Allison knew that I knew, whether Miranda had been told. Apparently Milo's communication lines had opened up. Miranda looked pained but not surprised. Allison just smiled.

"He'll be back," she insisted, more to Miranda than me. "I know the asshole well enough to know that. Soon as he's through popping pills and screwing debutantes."

She tried for casual disdain and didn't quite make it.

There was an uncomfortable silence. I drank my beer. Miranda pushed on the blue coolant gel in the bag on her wrist, one finger at a time. Allison got restless.

Suddenly she laughed. She leaned across the table toward me and her hair spilled over her right shoulder in a silky line, like somebody pulling a curtain. The front edge swept across the table until it got caught in a ring of water where her beer had been.

"Screw Les, anyway. Miranda was my discovery. Did you know that, Tres?"

Miranda started to protest.

"I'm sorry, sweetie. It's not often I get the credit for something like that. I've got to brag."

She took Miranda's forearm. It was meant to be a friendly gesture but with Miranda's despondent face the tableau looked more like Miranda was a little girl Allison was about to drag out of the supermarket.

"Tilden Sheckley did one good thing in his life," Allison told me. "He got Miranda a spot at the South by Southwest Conference last spring. I happened to see her The Widower's Two it Step 105

there. We talked for a long time, got to know each other, then I told Les about her.

That's how it all started."

"That wasn't Milo's story," I said.

Allison rolled her eyes. "Why am I not surprised? If you're going to watch out for Miranda, the first place to start is with all those people who want to carve her up. She just won't kick butt for herself."

"Please—" Miranda had already made herself very small in her metal folding chair.

Now she was picking up the edges of her beer napkin as if looking for a place to hide under it.

"I mean it," said Allison. "Miranda needs to tell people that treat her wrong to go screw themselves. Tilden Sheckley, Milo Chavez, Cam Compton—"

"Even your husband?" I asked.

"Especially him. You're the bodyguard now, you can help me talk some sense into her."

"I'm not a bodyguard." I looked at Miranda.

"That's not a big deal—" she started.

"Don't be so sure," Allison said.

I asked what she meant.

Allison gave me a don'tlet'sbullshit look. She was about to elaborate when she seemed to notice for the first time how small the singer was making herself.

Allison tapped a fingernail on the edge of her beer bottle. "We can talk about that later.

Miranda still has a set to get through tonight. There's no sense in bringing up—"

She stopped, apparently envisioning things that were graphically unpleasant, then shook her head. "Just forget it. The point is, I hope we'll see you around a lot, Tres. We could use a few more heads bashed in a few more beer kegs."

The door opened. Miranda's brother stepped halfway into the room and said,

"Everything okay?"

Brent Daniels looked like he'd been treated to more than one drink since my altercation with Cam. His curly black hair was messed up. His checkered shirt was coming untucked. His eyes were focusing poorly and his face had reddened so much that his scruffy twoday whiskers stood out like a real beard.

He scowled at me, like a protective but not very bright guard dog. I smiled back.

"Everything's fine, Brent." Miranda's voice was suddenly hard. Cold.

Brent looked at Allison for a second opinion, then nodded reluctantly, like he still didn't believe it. "About five minutes, then. I'll be taking Cam's leads."

He closed the door.

"My big brother," Miranda explained. She frowned at her beer napkin, then looked up at me. She tried to rework the smile. "I need to start the next set."

"I'd like to talk to you sometime. Maybe now isn't—"

"There's a party at the Daniels house Friday night," Allison offered. "Miranda wouldn't mind—"

Allison looked at her friend to finish the invitation. Miranda nodded unenthusiastically, then met my eyes and made a quiet counterproposal: "We're taping tomorrow morning. Silo Studios on Red River. You could stop by if you're still in Austin."

She sounded like she wanted it to happen. Allison didn't look too pleased. Maybe that's why I said yes.

"What time?"

"Six," Miranda said, apologetically.

"In the morning?"

Miranda nodded, sighed. "We're working spec time. We have to take what they give us."

"What Milo gives you," Allison amended. "Like three hours sleep and gigs in different towns every damn night. I'd love to talk to you, too, Tres. I hope you can make the party."

I said I'd try, then got up to leave.

On my way out I turned. "I like that song, by the way. 'Billy's Senorita.' Did you write it?"

Miranda looked at me hesitantly. She nodded.

"I like the line about roses the colour of bruises. I wouldn't have thought of that."

Her face coloured. "Good night, Mr. Navarre. I'll tell Milo you came by."

For once, Allison didn't say anything.

When the second set started I was wheeling Garrett out the door, trying to convince him everything was just fine and Cam hadn't suffered any permanent damage since it was only his head I'd smashed. Onstage it was just the drummer using brushes on his trap set and Miranda singing a slow one, her voice low and sensual and powerful, the lyrics about lost love. The one time she opened her large brown eyes I was sure she was looking straight at me.