I picked it up. Little glittery shapes—diamonds, squares, stars—floated through the liquid inside the plastic ring, sluggish and sterile.
Behind me Brent Daniels said, "You're up."
I closed the cabinet.
When I turned Brent was trying his best not to notice what I'd been doing. He fingered the edge of the shower curtain.
His hair had dried, and his face was cleanshaven. Except for the eyes, he didn't look like a man who'd been drinking as heavily as I had.
"Miranda called," he told me. "Said Milo was going to be mixing for the rest of the afternoon and did I want to pick her up early. I could, or—? "
"I'll drive up."
Brent nodded, like it was bad news he'd been expecting. He gestured behind him with his chin. I followed him out into the apartment, which was just big enough for the two of us.
Brent opened a cabinet above the little refrigerator and retrieved a bag of flour tortillas and a can of refried beans.
My stomach did a slow roll. I shook my head no.
Brent shrugged and cranked up the hot pad. I stared at the picture that was taped inside the pantry door—a black and white of a woman with short brunette hair, a slightly moonish face, an almost uncontainable smile, like she was being tickled.
Brent tensed, looked around to see what I was talking about. When he realized I meant the picture he relaxed.
"No. My mother."
"You were how old?"
He knew what I meant. "Almost twenty." Then, like it was something he was obliged to add, something he'd been corrected on many times, "Miranda was only six."
Brent threw a tortilla directly on the hot pad. He watched as it began to puff up and bubble. The tortilla was probably old and flat but after a minute on the grill it would taste almost as good as fresh. The only correct way to heat a tortilla.
"Willis might not be too happy with you driving to pick Miranda up," he speculated.
"But you don't mind."
He flipped the tortilla. One of the air bubbles had cracked open and the edges had blackened.
"Maybe I will take some," I decided.
Brent made no comment, but got another tortilla out of the bag.
"I don't mind," he finally agreed. "Dad ..." He trailed off.
"He's got an unpredictable temper, doesn't he?"
Brent was staring at the picture of his mother.
" 'Billy Senorita,' " I said. "The only song Miranda wrote herself—it was about your parents."
Brent stirred up the refried beans. "The fights weren't as bad as that."
" But scary to a sixyearold."
Brent stared at me. He let a little anger burn through the dead ash. "You want to think about something— think how Willis feels, hearing that song every night. Put him in his place, all right. Worked like a charm."
I did what Brent said. I thought about it.
Brent added a little pepper and a little butter and salt to the beans. When they were smoking he spread them on the flour tortillas, folded them, and handed one to me. We sat and ate.
I stared out the side window into the tractor shed. An enormous orange cat was sleeping on the seat of the rusty John Deere. A couple of doves were in the rafters above. My gaze shifted over to the ceiling above me.
"What's up there?" I asked.
"Attic now. Used to be the sewing room."
Brent looked at me, a little resentful that he had to say anything else. "Maria."
I turned my attention back to my bean roll.
"I want to tell you something," I decided.
Brent waited, not concerned one way or the other.
Maybe it was his passivity that made me want to talk. Maybe the midday whiskey hangover. Maybe it was just easier than telling his sister. Whatever it was, I told Brent Daniels pretty much the whole story—about Sheckly's bootlegging, about Jean Kraus, about how people that were in a position to give information on Sheckly's business were disappearing, either by choice or not.
Brent listened quietly, eating his bean roll. Nothing seemed to shock him.
When I was done he said, "You don't want to go telling Miranda all this. It'll kill her right now. Wait for her to finish her tape."
"Miranda may be in danger. You too, for that matter.
What was Jean Kraus arguing with you about—that night at the party?"
Brent smirked. "Jean, he'll argue about anything. That don't mean he's going to kill me and my family."
"I hope you're right. I hope Les doesn't bring you folks the kind of luck he brought Julie Kearnes. Or Alex Blanceagle."
Brent's eyes started collecting shadows again. "Miranda doesn't need this."
"But you're not concerned. You don't worry about Les making problems for you."
Brent shook his head slowly.
He was a hard person to judge. There could've been a lie there. Or maybe not. The weathered face and the years of hardness covered up just about everything.
"Tough for me to let somebody in here," he said finally. He stared off at the rough red walls of the apartment.
I sat there for another few seconds before I realized he'd just told me to leave.
By the time I picked up Miranda at Silo Studios, another promised cold front had edged its way south and stalled, pressing humid air and gray clouds over Austin like a sweaty electric blanket.
The folks seventy miles north in Waco were probably cool and comfortable. Then again, they were in Waco.
Milo Chavez was too busy to speak to me. He and one of the engineers were glued to the sound board, listening in awe to the new vocal tracks Miranda had laid down over the last two mornings.
"Fifteen takes," Milo mumbled to me. "Fifteen goddamn takes of 'Billy's Senorita' and she blew it away in one try this morning. My God, Navarre, losing that first demo tape was the best thing that ever happened to us."
He laid his hand on the little BOSE speaker like he was consecrating it.
Chavez agreed to let me take Miranda back to S.A. early as long as I got her to her appearance tonight on time. Miranda said she was starving. She suggested lunch on the way back to town. I had a conscience attack and called my brother Garrett to see if he could join us. Unfortunately he could.
When we got to the Texicali Grille we found Garrett at an outside table. He'd pulled his wheelchair under one of the metal umbrellas and Dickhead the parrot was waddling stiffly back and forth on his shoulder. Danny Young, the owner of the Texicali, was sitting backward in the chair across the table.
Danny was a family friend, connected to the Navarres through a network of South Texas kin and nearkin that I never could quite remember.
Many years back Danny had moved his restaurant business from Kingsville to Austin and decided to grant himself an honorary double degree in alternative politics and burgerflipping. He announced that the half of Austin below the Colorado River must secede from the growing yuppiness of the north, so he hoisted a green XXXL Tshirt up the flagpole at the Texicali and started calling himself the Mayor of South Austin. I think Danny's political platform said something about flip flops and salsa and Mexican beer. I'd told him he could annex San Antonio anytime he wanted.
Danny's hands took up most of the top of the chair back. His greying brown hair was pulled into a ponytail and when Garrett said something about Samsung Electronics moving to Austin, Danny laughed, flashing the silver in his teeth.
"Hey, little bro." Garrett waved at me. Then he saw Miranda and said, "Damn."
She was dressed seven hours early for her fifteen minute spot at Robert Earle Keen's Halloween Night Show. She'd chosen a cotton blouse made of big orange and white squares, a black skirt, tan boots, lots of silver jewellery. Her hair and makeup were airbrush perfect. Most of the time I would've called the look too much, too Big Hair Texas for my tastes. This afternoon, on Miranda, it worked for me.
I shook hands with Garrett and Danny.
I started to introduce Miranda but Danny said, "Oh, hell, we've jammed together."
Miranda laughed and gave Danny a hug and asked him how his washboard playing was coming along. Danny told Miranda she'd sounded just fine on Sixth Street last month.
Garrett kept looking at Miranda. He wasn't having much luck getting his mouth closed.
The parrot eyed me cautiously, like he was forming a vague memory of unhappier times, before Jimmy Buffett and ganja.
"Noisy bastard," he decided.
Danny gave Miranda one more hug, then asked us all what we were having. Garrett told him just about everything, especially Shiner Bock. My stomach went into a little gallop, reminding me about the large quantity of whiskey I'd subjected it to for lunch.
"Make mine iced tea," I corrected.
Danny looked at me funny, like maybe he didn't know me after all, but he went inside to place the order.
"The renowned Miss Daniels," I introduced. "My brother Garrett."
Miranda said, "Pleased to meet you."
Garrett shook her hand, looking at me while he did it.
He asked me some silent questions. I just raised my eyebrows.
Garrett gave Miranda one of those toothy grins that makes me wonder if he goes to the orthodontist to get his teeth unstraightened and sharpened on purpose. "Love your tunes."
Miranda smiled. "Much obliged."
"I thought you only liked them," I reminded Garrett. "I thought she wasn't Jimmy Buffett."
Garrett told me to shut up. So did the parrot.
"Here, asshole." Garrett fished something out of the wheelchair's side pocket and handed it to me. It was about the size of a computer disk, wrapped in brown paper and sealed with a black and white peace sign sticker.
When I started to protest, he held up his hands in defence. "Did I say anything? Take the damn disk—it's nothing. Some security programs I thought you could use. Don't even consider it a present."
Miranda looked back and forth between us, a little confused.
"Nothing," I promised her.
"Absolutely nothing," Garrett agreed. "Everybody turns thirty. Forget it."
It was Miranda's turn to open her mouth. She looked at me indignantly.
"I'm hoping somebody will gift me a noose," I said. "For my brother."
"You didn't—" Miranda started to say something else, then realized she didn't know quite what.
Garrett was still grinning. "He's embarrassed. Getting old. Not having a day job yet."
"Or maybe hanging is too quick," I speculated.
"Dickhead," squawked the parrot.
Miranda looked back and forth, at a loss for words. It's a look I've seen a lot from women who find themselves between two Navarre men.
"End of subject," I announced. "Tell Miranda how you're reconfiguring your computer to take over the world."
Without too much more encouragement Garrett started telling us about the bastards running RNI, then about his latest unofficial projects. After a while Miranda stopped staring at me. The conversation swung around to Jimmy Buffett, of course, which segued into Miranda's pending fameandfortune deal with Century Records. Garrett tried to convince Miranda that she could do a bangup cover of Buffett's "Brahma Fear" on her first album. After the second round of Shiner Bocks, Miranda and Garrett had just about worked out the arrangement.