Willis Daniels' voice was coming from the kitchen window now. He was thanking somebody for coming.
"You asked me to wait," I reminded her.
Miranda nodded, but she didn't say anything.
"If you want to convince me how frightening Allison SaintPierre can be, don't worry about it. I've seen the demo."
I think Miranda blushed. It was hard to tell in the bug zapper light.
"No," she said. "I feel bad now, talkin' about her the way I did. The minute you left the studio I felt bad."
"But you're still uneasy about her."
"I don't know. No. Let's forget it."
The expression on her face told me she couldn't forget it, at least not for more than a few hours. She looked out toward the shed, where moths were starting to gather around the kerosene lamp.
"You don't approve of her seeing your brother," I supplied.
Miranda's expression hardened. "Did you understand about Brent? About what Sheckly said?"
"Only that the words hurt."
She sat up straighter, pushing her back and shoulders and head against the cedar post like she was going to get her height measured. "Maria was Brent's wife. She died two years ago."
The words of the song Miranda had sung the other night came back to me, one of the numbers I couldn't believe Brent could've written. "The Widower's Two Step."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
She accepted the condolence with a shrug. "Maria had diabetes. Juvenile insulindependent diabetes."
The way Miranda threw that phrase out, as casually as a doctor might've, told me the disease's name had long ago become part of her family's vocabulary.
"It wasn't treatable?"
"No. I mean yes, it was treatable. That ain't what killed her, not by itself. She tried having a baby."
Miranda looked at me, hoping I could guess the rest of the story without her having to say it. I guessed.
"That must've devastated Brent."
As soon as I said it I realized what a stupid observation it was. The man was fortytwo and still living in a barn behind his father's house. He didn't comb his hair or shave and he apparently wore his clothes until they rotted off of him.
"For a while there," Miranda said, "Dad had to lock up the guns because Brent was threatening to kill himself. That's what Sheckly was talking about. Even now, I think about Brent with Allison—the way she might let him down—"
Miranda stared at the lantern across the field. "You know that expression—somebody's life is like a country song? That's us. Mother dying, then Brent and Maria—"
"And you?" I asked.
"It's coming." She said it with absolute certainty. "Mine is coming."
A bug zapper is not normally the kind of illumination that helps me decide a woman is beautiful. But when Miranda looked at me I decided exactly that. I'm not talking about cute—the vulnerable little kitten quality I'd imagined in her when she'd been onstage at the Cactus Cafe. There was a kind of quiet stubbornness in her face now that suited her well, a much older, steadier light than I'd seen before.
"Do you—" I stopped. I wanted to ask if Miranda lived here, in the tidy burgundy and blue room I'd seen. I hoped she'd say no, that the room was just a museum to her childhood. I couldn't figure out how to phrase the question and not sound judgmental.
As it turned out I didn't have to. Miranda heard what I was thinking.
"Yes," she said. "I'm afraid I do. Brent—he didn't have much choice about staying here. Me, I guess it's just a matter of laziness."
There were other possibilities, but it would've been meanness to challenge her.
Instead I said, "Why wasn't it a choice for Brent?"
"No medical insurance. Maria's medical bills were skyhigh. If Brent tried to get work, she would've stopped qualifying for government health benefits. They were forced to stay unemployed. That little shack over there is about all they had, and that only because Daddy insisted. Maria accepted for them. Brent would've been on the street first. He's too proud."
I tried to associate the word pride with Brent. It took some effort.
From inside the kitchen Willis Daniels' voice laughed long and hard. He was saying good night to what must've been his last departing guest.
"What did you ask me out here for?" I said again.
Miranda stared at her hands. "Inside—in my room— you didn't understand."
"I guess not. I thought you were asking me to get Allison out of here."
The lights of the last truck headed down Serra Road. As soon as they turned onto RR22, the kitchen erupted with shattering crashing sounds—like somebody sweeping a cane across a counter full of glasses. Willis Daniels yelled four or five obscenities.
Then it got quiet again.
"No," Miranda said, not in response to the noise but like she was merely carrying on our conversation. "I wanted you to take me out of here. I don't give a damn where to."
I pushed the VW a little too fast, rounding the ISPV curves on RR22 at fifty miles an hour. The wind blew around the convertible, coming at us from behind. It undid Miranda's hair from the scarf she'd tied over her head and swept strands of black for
ward so it looked like they were in a desperate race to beat the rest of her face out of Bulverde. She made no attempt to push her hair back.
A hundred yards behind us, a car with cockeyed headlights was following leisurely.
"You know how to get to Les' office?" Miranda asked the question so softly that I almost didn't hear her in the wind.
We'd decided I was taking her to the agency's Victorian house in Monte Vista to spend the night. Miranda knew where the emergency key was. She said Les kept a guest room upstairs for touring artists and she didn't think he would mind her staying there.
I was pretty sure she was right about Les not minding. After a while she reached over and squeezed my forearm. Her hand felt incredibly hot in the cool of the wind. "Thank you. You okay?" "Sure. My jaw hurts a little."
Miranda let go of my arm. "I'm glad you took that punch."
"For a while there I thought you were Superman, what with smashing people into kegs and bringing croissants and guns to women in need."
I shook my head. "I got red underwear, though. Want to see?"
She smiled. "Maybe later."
We rounded another curve. The headlights cut a swath across the woods. Light brown ghosts moved behind the cedar trees—deer, foxes, possums. The headlights behind us disappeared, then reappeared, still about a hundred yards back.
When we turned south onto I10 the cockeyed headlights turned with us. Ahead, the clouds glowed above San Antonio.
We were still a few miles inside the Avalon County line when the lights behind us started edging closer. "About time," I said. "What?" Miranda asked.
I slowed down to forty and the headlights started to gain, then dropped back for a while. I slowed down some more.
Finally they gave it up. A red light blinked into existence on the top of the car and the handsiren started. It was a black Ford Festiva.
"What—" Miranda started to say. "Probably nothing," I lied.
"How many beers did you have?" she asked nervously. We pulled over.
I looked in my rearview mirror. The guy coming up on the passenger's side looked like a badly shaved orangutan. He had pale skin, brutish features, and a little tuft of orange on the top of his head. One hand held up a flashlight next to his ear and the other hand was under his wrinkled brown blazer.
The guy coming up on my side was a stocky blond in a turquoise polo shirt and slacks.
He wore a side arm. Both men were staying close to the car, cautious.
"Phew," I said. "I don't think they're carrying a Breathalyzer."
They swept the convertible with their flashlights from about five feet back. The blond guy came up to my window.
Under different circumstances I would've said he had a friendly and open face—big features, red nose, bristly moustache, wide unwrinkled brow with the hatband impression still engraved on it. Your basic Bubba. Nice guy to drink a beer with.
Different circumstances would've been without the suspicious frown on his face and the light shining in my eyes and his left hand resting on his semiautomatic.
"Howdy," I said.
Bubba frowned some more.
The guy with the orange hair came up next to Miranda and stared at her, almost resentfully. "Miss Daniels?"
Miranda looked startled, then seemed to come up with a name she wanted. "Hey, Elgin. How you doin'? How's Karen?"
I looked at Bubba. "Elgin—that's his code name, right?"
"Shut up, sir."
Sir. Nice. The courteous shakedown.
Elgin scratched his little tuft of orange hair, then stepped back from Miranda's window, then forward again. He looked uneasy. Poor guy had been planning a nice easy evening of police brutality. Two on one. No ladies present. Nobody that knew his name. This wasn't in the script.
"You step out of the car, please, ma'am?"
Miranda looked at me for some kind of advice. I smiled. She tried to put that same smile on her face when she turned to Elgin.
"Sure, Elgin. I hope there's nothing wrong."
Elgin got her out of the car. He shone his light in my eyes, then swept it through the back of the car.
"What's in the case?" he asked.
Next to me, Bubba glanced back and sighed. "It's a fucking guitar, Elgin. What do you think?" Then to me, "I need to see a license and the papers on the vehicle, sir."
"You guys want to show me some ID here?"
Bubba stared right through me. "The papers."
"Slow and easy," said Elgin.
I had a pretty good idea what was coming. I reached for the glove compartment, for the insurance papers. I moved very slowly, keeping my hand in the flashlight beam.
When my fingers were just about to the glove compartment handle Elgin swore loudly and drew his 9mm and yelled "Gun!"
Bubba was quick. On the count of one, he had his semi auto in my ear and his other hand around my neck. By the count of five I had been dragged bodily over the car door and slammed into the pavement. One eye couldn't see anything. The other could just make out some fuzzy lights. Something large and hard and sharp was boring a shaft between my shoulder blades. I think it was Bubba's knee. It took him another few seconds to pin down my right arm with his free hand in a fairly decent joint lock. He should've been pressing a little closer to the nerve above my elbow. It's more in capacitating that way. I decided not to volunteer the information.
We stayed like that for a minute, maybe less. I couldn't see or hear Miranda, though every once in a while Elgin would say, "Just stay back, ma'am."
Elgin made a show of searching my glove compartment.
It didn't take long for the warmth and wet of the asphalt to soak through my Tshirt. I think there were some pebbles in my left nostril and my jaw was throbbing again. My neck felt like it had been pried half off with a very large bottle opener.
"You got it?" BubbaFrank demanded.
"Yeah," Elgin said.
"Get up," Frank told me. No sir, this time.