I said it would be fine with me if she had dinner with Garth at La Margarita. I wouldn't stand in the way. Annie called me some unflattering names and hung up.
Carolaine pulled a cookie sheet out of the oven and said, "Damn."
I think the things on the sheet had been chilaquiles in a former life. Strips of corn tortilla and bacon were curled up and smoking. The cheese was brown and the jalapenos were gray. It smelled pretty bad.
The Widower's Two it Step 23
"Tinfoil on the top," I suggested. "And turn it down to three hundred degrees next time.
That old Wedge wood's like a nuclear reactor in there."
"Damn it," Carolaine said, pushing up her glasses. "I've got to be back at the studio for the noon broadcast."
"Rowww," Robert Johnson complained from the closet.
I looked down at the burned food, then at my clean living room. "You shouldn't have done all this."
"No big deal."
"No," I said. "I mean you shouldn't have done it. You shouldn't keep getting Gary to let you in and setting up house. You don't clean your own apartment this much. It makes me nervous."
She leaned back against the sink and raised her eyebrows. "You're welcome."
I stared out the kitchen window at the crepe myrtle.
Carolaine dropped her hands on her thighs. "Jesus, Tres, what am I supposed to do?
I've hardly seen you this month. You cancel dinner dates on me three times in a row, you leave me waiting outside the Majestic for an hour with two goddamn concert tickets, then I try to do something nice for you—"
"I'm sorry. It's been a hard morning, Carolaine."
Sarcastic smile. "I bet. Still following some woman around Austin. Peeping through her windows with binoculars at night. Poor guy."
"She was murdered."
The smile flickered around the edges, then disappeared.
She listened while I told her the story. She kept her expression soft and sympathetic, but her eyes weren't totally focused on me. They were moving slightly back and forth like they were reading math equations, maybe calculating what the murder meant for my job prospects.
When I was done Carolaine folded her arms. "What did Erainya say?"
"That I was handling it wrong anyway. End of case."
"What did you say?"
After a moment of stunned silence Carolaine looked at her watch. Then she took her purse off the counter and rummaged for something inside. She was trying not to let it show, but I could see the relief loosening up her shoulder muscles.
"So what now?" she asked.
"I don't know. It depends on what Milo Chavez wants."
"You mean you might keep working for him, unlicensed—like the work you did before?"
She said before like it was a euphemism for something one didn't talk about in polite company.
"Maybe," I admitted.
"The last time you did this man a favour it almost got you killed, yes?"
"I don't understand—I don't see why you can't just..."
She stopped herself. The corners of her mouth tightened.
"Say it," I told her. "Why can't I just use my degree and get a real job teaching English somewhere."
She shook her head. "It's not my business, is it?"
"I have to leave, Tres." Then she added without much optimism, "You could come back to the studio with me. We could get takeout, spend the afternoon in my dressing room like old times. It might do us some good."
"I have to call Milo."
The frost set in. "All right."
Carolaine closed her purse, then came up and kissed me very lightly without ever really looking at me. She smelled like baby powder. There were a few freckles on her nose that the makeup hadn't quite covered.
"Sorry I bothered you," she said.
The front door slammed behind her.
Robert Johnson came out of the closet as soon as he heard Carolaine's car start. He looked out the window suspiciously, then gave me a look of death he must've learned from Erainya Manos.
"You want to play Anne Frank when people come over," I said, "don't blame me."
He came over and bit me on the ankle, lazily, then headed for the food dish.
Some days everybody wants to be your friend.
At sunset the sky turned the colour of cooked eggplant. Seven million grackles descended for a convention in the trees and phone wires above the city. They sat there making a scratchy highpitched sound that was probably screwing up the sonar of every submarine in the Gulf of Mexico.
I stood in the kitchen reading the ExpressNews late edition. I had just started on my third Shiner Bock and was starting to get mercifully numb in the extremities.
Julie Kearnes had had the good sense to get murdered on a slow news day. She merited a small story on A12. I received honourable mention for making the 911 call.
The staff writer had done some homework. He wrote that readers might remember Kearnes for her song "Three More Lonely Nights," recorded by Emmylou Harris in 1978, or for Julie's more recent work as fiddle player and backup singer to rising local star Miranda Daniels. The police had no leads in the killing, no murder weapon, no useful witnesses.
The writer mentioned nothing else about Julie Kearnes—none of the immaterial stuff I had learned from following her around town, talking to her neighbours, going through her garbage. For instance that Julie's favourite food was Thai. That she shopped at the same New Age stores my mother liked. That Julie had played fiddle in country bands since she was six but secretly, at night, preferred to listen to Itzhak Perlman. That she drank cheap white wine and owned a parrot.
None of that made it into the ExpressNews—just the fact that Julie Kearnes now had a hole in her head.
The last part of the article talked about what a pain it was having the SAC parking lot cordoned off all morning for the investigation. It quoted some grumpy students who'd had to park several blocks away from class.
I thought about Julie Kearnes all dressed up nice, fiddle beside her in the '68 Cougar.
I thought about the real downside of surveillance—not the boredom, like most P.I.s will tell you, but the times when the subject starts to become a real person to you.
I drank more beer.
I'd had no luck with the telephone. I'd paged and left messages for Milo Chavez but his secretary Gladys insisted that he couldn't be reached. Milo was somewhere in Boerne, working on a major event. Gladys acknowledged that a major event in Boerne was an oxymoron, but she still said there was nothing she could do for me. Yes, she had heard the news about Julie Kearnes. Yes, the police had been by. Yes, she had left messages for Milo about it. No, she still couldn't reach him. No, reaching Les SaintPierre himself, God of Talent Agents, was out of the question. Why not try back tomorrow?
I thanked her and hung up the phone.
I was ready to turn in for the day. Unfortunately, time and tide and my weekly dinner at Mother's house would wait for no man.
I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror.
"You can do this," I said.
Robert Johnson looked up at me sideways from the leaky faucet that doubled as his watering hole. He offered no words of encouragement.
I showered and dressed fancy—jeans with no holes, my Bay to Breakers Tshirt, my deck shoes, the newer ones that didn't yet resemble baked potatoes.
Then I put the top down on the VW and headed north on Broadway toward Vandiver Street, blasting tinny con junto music from my AM radio all the way through downtown Alamo Heights. When I stopped at the light on the corner of Austin Highway a couple of guys in tuxedoes and Stetsons in the Mercedes next to me looked over and stared.
Once you get to Vandiver it's easy to find my mother's house, even in the dark. You just go down the row of white postWW II houses until you find the pink adobe bungalow with the green porch light. Understated.
Nobody met me at the door so I let myself in.
Mother was burning frankincense tonight. The Christmas lights were blinking in the pencil cactus, and the hot tub out on the deck was bubbling happily to itself, ready for a party. The general theme of the house was Ethnic Eclectic—Mexican curios next to Japanese kimonos next to African burial masks.
Two guys I'd never seen before were playing pool in the dining room. They were about my age. They wore tight jeans and boots and denim shirts with the sleeves rolled up to show their triceps.
They nodded at me and kept playing.
I went down the steps into the kitchen, where Mother and Jess were watching TV.
Carolaine was on, doing an advertisement for the ten o'clock news. She said she'd have the latest on the North Side apartment fire.
"Tres, honey." Mother got up, squashed my cheeks together with both hands, and kissed me. "I hope tortilla soup is all right."
Mother was dressed for Zimbabwe. She had on a multicoloured caftan and a long black shawl. Her ebony earrings were shaped like the stone heads on Easter Island and her forearms had so many silver bangles on them they looked like Slinkys. She was around fiftyfive and looked thirtyfive, tops.
Jess told me howdy and went back to watching the Oilers game. Jess graduated from Heights a couple of years before I did. We played varsity together. I think he was Young Boyfriend number three or four since my mom had gotten her divorce, burned her pot roast recipes, and reinvented herself as a New Age artiste.
"I expect a full report," Mother was saying. "How is Carolaine? We never miss the KSAT news anymore. You should tell her to wear that green dress more often, Tres.
It's very flattering."
I told her Carolaine was fine and no we were not living together yet and no I didn't know when or if we would be. Mother didn't like the "if" part very much. She looked disappointed that I wasn't living in sin yet. She told me she recommended it highly.
"Huh," Jess said. He kept his eyes on the ball game.
Mother went to stir the soup. She added a bowl of boiled chicken and stewed tomatoes to the broth. I came over to the counter and started chopping cilantro for her.
"And work?" Mother looked sideways at me, intently.
"Maybe not so great. I've got one job to finish. After that..."
She nodded, satisfied, then pushed a strand of black hair back over her ear.
Out of habit I tried to spot any sign of gray. There wasn't any. God knows I'd snuck plenty of looks into her medicine cabinet for Miss Clairol and never found anything more incriminating than vitamin E, rosemary essence, and a few healing crystals.
Mother looked at me again and smiled, like she knew what I was thinking and enjoyed it. It was a game she'd been winning for a good fifteen years.
"Well," she said, "I happened to talk with Professor Mitchell at UTSA."
I chopped the cilantro a little harder. "Mother—"
"Please, dear, we were just touching base."
"Of course. It must've been ten years since I did that art show with his wife."
In the other room one of the young rednecks broke a setup and the other one whistled appreciatively. Jess tossed his beer can toward the trash and made it. The Oilers were winning.
"So you just happened to run across Mitchell's phone number in your book."