During the conversation I sipped my iced tea and subtly moved Garrett's gift off the table, then into my backpack. Out of sight, etc.
When the food came Danny sat with us for a while. We ate Texicali burgers heavy with salsa and Monterey Jack and watched the afternoon traffic speed down South Oltorf.
Dickhead the parrot sat on Garrett's shoulder, holding a tortilla chip in his claw and eating it piece by piece. He hadn't yet learned to dip it in salsa. That would probably take another month.
After a while Garrett said he had to get back to work and Danny said he had to get back to the kitchen. A few raindrops started splattering the patio.
"Nice meeting you," Miranda told Garrett.
Garrett wheeled his chair sideways and the parrot shot its wings out, correcting its balance. "Yeah. And hey, little bro—"
"Say it and die," I warned.
Garrett grinned. "Nice meeting you, too, Miranda."
When we were alone I started shredding the wax paper from the burger basket.
Miranda put her boot lightly on top of mine.
Yes, I was wearing the new boots. Just happened to be in front of the closet.
"Hard to like them sometimes," Miranda said.
"Older brothers. I wish I'd known—" She stopped herself, probably remembering my injunction to Garrett. "Here you drove all the way to Austin to pick me up, spent half your day."
"I wanted to."
She took my hand and squeezed it. "The taping went really well today. I owe that to you."
"I don't see how."
She kept a hold on my hand. Her eyes were bright. "I missed you last night, Mr.
Navarre. You know how long it's been since I missed somebody that much? Can't help but change my singing."
I stared out at the traffic on Oltorf. "Has Les contacted you, Miranda?"
Her grip on my hand loosened just slightly. She had trouble maintaining her smile.
"Why would you think that?"
"He hasn't then?"
"Of course not."
"If you had to get away for a few days," I said, "if you had to go somewhere safe that not too many people knew about, could you do it?"
She started to laugh, to put the idea away, but something in my expression made her stop. "I don't know. There's the show tonight, then tomorrow is free, but then the tape audition on Friday—you don't seriously think—"
"I don't know," I said. "Probably it's nothing. But let's say you had to choose between keeping your schedule and being sure you stayed safe."
"Then I'd keep my schedule and take you along."
I looked down at the table.
I turned over the bill and discovered that Danny Young had comped the meal. He'd written "Nothing" in black marker across the green paper. The Zen waiter.
Miranda turned my palm up so hers was on top.
Raindrops starting pingpinging more steadily, a slow threequarter time against the metal umbrella.
"Anyplace else you need to go in Austin?" she asked. "As long as I got you up here?"
I watched the rain.
I thought about Kelly Arguello, who would probably have some more paperwork for me. She might be sitting on her porch swing in Clarksville right now, clacking away on her portable computer and watching the raindrops pelt the neighbour’s yard appliances.
"Nothing that can't wait," I decided.
Two hours later we were back in San Antonio, in Erainya's neighbourhood. I had promised Jem I'd come by Halloween evening, but it only took Jem a couple of blocks worth of trickortreating to decide that Miranda was the one he really wanted to play with.
She raced him up each sidewalk. She laughed at his knockknock jokes. She showed the most appreciation for his costume. Jem was tickled to death when Miranda offered to be his Miss Muffett.
"She's good with kids," Erainya told me.
Erainya and I were sitting on the hood of Erainya's Lincoln Continental, watching the action.
There was plenty of it in Terrell Hills that evening. The neighbourhood Anglo kids were travelling in twos or threes, dressed in their storebought princess and ninja outfits, their pumpkin flashlights switched on and their plastic jacko'lanterns stuffed with candy. The bubba esque parents strolled a few feet behind, drinking their Lone Stars, talking on the porches, some of the dads with little portable TVs to keep track of the college football games.
Then there were the kids imported from the South Side travelling in groups of ten or twenty, unloaded from their parents' old station wagons into the rich gente neighbourhoods to gather up what food they could. They dressed in old sheets and maybe some smeared face paint, sometimes a plastic dimestore mask. The bigger kids, fifteen or sixteen years old, did their best to cover their hairy arms and their faces.
They let their younger siblings do the asking. The parents always stayed well back on the sidewalk, and always said thank you. No Lone Stars. No portable TVs.
Then there were the oddball loners like Jem. He was skipping awkwardly along in his bulbous homemade spider costume, the black fur coming off on the boxwood hedges and the wire arms flailing and catching on the paper skeletons people had hung from their mesquite trees. By the third block he didn't have much costume left, but nobody seemed to mind. Especially not Jem.
I watched Miranda chasing Jem back down another sidewalk. Both of them jumped over a mesquite that grew flat across the front yard in the shape of a wave.
Jem showed off the pralines and watermelon slice candy he'd scored, then kept running with Miranda close behind.
"Way to go, Bubba," I told him.
Miranda flashed me a smile. She went after Jem like she'd been doing it all her life. Or all of Jem's, anyway.
Erainya muttered something in Greek.
"What?" I asked.
"I said you look like a Turk, honey. Why so sour?"
She was wearing the standard black Tshirt dress. When I'd asked her why no costume she'd said, "What, I need to look like a witch, too?" Her arms were crossed and she was grabbing her sharp elbows. Her expression was a little softer than usual, but I suspected that was just because she was tired.
Over Erainya's objections, Jem had told me about their flush job at six that morning.
He loves the canI useyourphonesoIcanlocatethisboy'sparents routine.
According to Jem the skipped husband's girlfriend opened the door right away and even offered them a Coke. Erainya had collected an easy day's fee from the wife's lawyer.
"I'm not sour," I protested.
Erainya tightened up her body a little more, extended one finger toward me like she was going to jab me with it. "You got a nice lady with you, next week you get to come back to work with me—what's the trouble?"
Erainya nodded, but not like she believed me. "You had it out with Barrera?"
"He give you reasons why people might be dying over this business with Sheckly?"
"Yes. And reasons why it was over my head."
We watched Jem wiggle his spider arms for the guy at the next front porch. The guy laughed and gave Jem an extra handful of candy from the large wicker basket he was holding. The guy also watched Miranda appreciatively from behind as she walked down the sidewalk. I wondered how much force it would take to fit the wicker basket onto his head.
"Don't listen to him," Erainya said. "Don't let him cut you down."
I looked at her, not sure if I'd heard correctly.
She examined her talon fingernails critically. "I'm not saying you did good, honey, getting involved the way you did. I'm not saying I like your procedures. But I'll say this just once—you should do P.I. work."
It was hard to read her expression in the dark.
"Erainya? That you?"
She frowned defensively. "What? All I'm saying is don't let Barrera treat you second class, honey. Cops make the worst P.I.s, no matter what he tells you. Cops know how to react, how to be tough. That's it. Most of them don't know the first thing about opening people up.
They don't know about listening and untangling problems. They don't have the ganis or the sensitivity for that kind of work. You got ganis"
"Thanks. I think."
Erainya kept frowning. Her eyes drifted over to Miranda, who was racing Jem down the steps of the last porch on the block. "How bad is the girl mixed up with this case?"
"I wish I knew."
"Is somebody going to get hurt here?"
"Not if I can help it."
Erainya hugged her elbows and, just once, kicked the tire of the Lincoln with her heel, hard. "You could do worse, honey."
Jem and Miranda came back at full tilt, Jem running past me and Miranda running right into me, grabbing my forearms to stop herself.
She had a little praline crumble at the corner of her mouth. Sneaking some of the loot.
"Hey," she said.
Jem said he was ready to drive to another neighbourhood now.
A Latino family of twelve walked by, the parents saying pretty much the same thing in Spanish. The father looked emptyeyed, like he'd been driving around since way before sunset. The kids looked tired, the mother a combination of hungry and uneasy, doing her best to skirt her kids around the Bubba fathers with the portable TVs and the little blond kids with costumes that cost more than all her family's shoes put together.
Erainya frowned down into Jem's candy bag, carefully chose a Sweetarts, the sourest thing she could find, and looked back up at me reprovingly.
Then she ruffled Jem's balding furry headpiece and told him to get in the car.
"We ain't going to make it."
Miranda didn't sound concerned, exactly. More like she was getting a taste for tardiness and wasn't quite sure if she liked it or not. She'd never been late to a gig before. Somebody else had always driven. Somebody responsible. No side trips to trickor treat with fouryearolds.
"I thought this was supposed to be impromptu," I said. "Drop in on Robert Earle. Sing a couple of songs. Casual."
"This took Milo about a month to arrange, Tres. Century's got A & R folks coming from Nashville and everything. Milo will not be thrilled."
She tried to fix her makeup again, not an easy task in a moving VW at night, even with the top up. She'd wait until we passed under a highway light, then check her lips in the two seconds her face was illuminated in the visor mirror. She looked fine.
During the next lighted moment I checked my watch.
Nine o'clock exactly. At Floore Country Store, two miles farther up the road, Robert Earle Keen would just be starting his first set, expecting to be pleasantly surprised halfway through by his old buddy, Miranda Daniels. Milo would be pacing by the entrance. Probably with brass knuckles.
We zipped along with the front trunk rattling and the left rear wheel wobbling on its bad disc. I patted the VW's dashboard.
"Not this trip. Break down on the way home, please."
Of course I told the VW that every trip. VWs are gullible that way.
Miranda put away her makeup. She stared out at the ragged black line of huisache trees blurring past. "I like your brother Garrett. I like Jem and Erainya."
"Yeah. They grow on you."
She circled her hands around her knees.
"Thirty," she speculated.
"Hey—" I warned.