She smiled. "Is Garrett right?"

"Hardly ever."

"I mean about the way you feel—that you think you should've settled into a steadier job by now?"

The flashing yellow light that indicated the turnoff for John T. Floore's popped over the hill on the horizon.

"Don't let Garrett fool you," I told her. "Behind the tiedye and the marijuana, he's the most Catholic person left in my family. He believes in moral guilt."

Miranda nodded. "I imagine that's a yes."

We turned left across traffic.

The Floore Country Store sat with its back to the highway, its face to Old Bandera Road and miles and miles of ranchland. A million years ago when John T. Floore opened the place it really had been a country store—the only option for a meal or groceries or a beer this side of an Edsel ride into San Antonio.

The "store" side of the business had long ago become a sideline to the bar and the country music, but a sign above the exit still read: Don't forget your bread.

Tonight the lights of Floore's back acre were blazing. Pickup trucks lined both sides of Old Bandera Road. The limegreen cinderblock front of the bar was even more thoroughly covered with plywood signs than it had been on my last visit. Some advertised beer, some bands, some politics. WILLIE NELSON EVERY SATURDAY

NIGHT, one of them said.

We drove past, looking for a parking space. From the road, Robert Earle Keen's music sounded like random booming and throbbing, a tape played backward very loud.

There was a crowd of cowboyhatted folks at the door.

I doubled back, drove past the farm equipment repair shop, and parked on the opposite side of the bridge that went over Helotes Creek.

Milo had apparently been watching for my car, because by the time we got Miranda's guitar out of the trunk and started walking across the bridge he was already in the middle coming toward us, scowling like the troll from the Billy Goats Gruff.

"Come on," he told Miranda, taking her guitar from me without meeting my eyes.

"Sorry," Miranda tried.

But Milo had already turned and started back toward the bar.

Miranda cleared a path for us pretty neatly. The old man at the door tipped his hat to her. Several people in line backed up to let her through, then had to back up even more for Milo. A greasylooking Bexar County deputy with a greying Elvis haircut told her howdy, then escorted us across the bar room and out the back door.

The twenty or thirty picnic tables in the gravel lot were all jammed. So was the cement dance area. At one of the tables by the back of the building, Tilden Sheckly sat with several of his cowboy buddies. I caught his eye and his standard easy grin as we walked past.

The only illumination on the dance floor was from outdoor bulbs on telephone poles, coloured Christmas lights, and neon beer signs along the fence. Up on the green plywood stage, Robert Earle was singing about bass fishing. He'd gotten a beard and a classier outfit and a bigger band since the last time I'd seen him play.

Miranda turned to Milo. "Where—"

Milo nodded over to another picnic bench by the chainlink fence, about fifty feet from Sheckly, where a few young guys in slacks and white dress shirts were sitting. Not locals. One of them was even drinking a wine cooler. Definitely not locals.

"Just be yourself," Milo advised. "Do the numbers we talked about. Robert Earle's going to start you with a duet on 'Love's a Word.' Okay?"

Miranda nodded, glanced at me, then at the A 8c R men across the yard. She tried for a smile.

Milo handed her over to the deputy with the Elvis haircut. He walked her up to the stage. Robert Earle had just finished his bassfishing song and was announcing over the applause that he'd just found out one of his oldest friends in the whole world was in the audience. He said he surely wanted to invite her up to do a little music.

A spattering of applause started up again, getting a little more enthusiastic when people saw Miranda coming up the steps. Apparently the crowd recognized her.

Milo waited long enough to make sure she'd gotten onstage safely and that her mike was working. Robert Earle started kidding with her about the last time they'd played together—something about eating mescal worms and forgetting the words to "Ashes of Love." Miranda kidded him back. If she was nervous she hid it well.

Milo shot me a quick, disapproving look. He walked past me, toward the table where the important people sat.

I stared at his back for a few seconds, then decided I might as well go inside and buy myself a birthday beer.

The interior bar was a walnut box that amazingly managed to hold the elbows of the bartender and six or seven customers without falling apart. Nobody was in costume, unless you count kicker clothes. Nobody had pumpkins or candy. Beers were displayed in a glass refrigerator case along with thick black wrinkly curlicues that according to one sign were dried sausage. $3.50 per ring.

I bought a can of Budweiser and no dried sausage. I walked outside again. I crunched over the gravel toward Sheckly's picnic table.

Onstage Robert Earle was plucking out an acoustic intro. Miranda was starting to sway. Without a guitar, her hands were loose at her sides, her fingers tapping lightly on the folds of her skirt.

When Sheckly noticed me coming he mumbled something to his lackeys and a round of laughter started up. The skin of Sheckly's left cheek, where Allison had landed the horseshoe, was corpse yellow, stained with Mercurochrome. The cut itself was covered with a line of beige squares that looked like strapping tape.

The man sitting next to him was almost as ugly, even without flesh wounds. He had pale skin, orange hair, a thick unintelligent face. Elgin Garwood.

"Hey, son," Sheck said. "Good to see you."

I slid onto the opposite bench, next to one of the cowboys.

"Surprised to see you here," I told Sheck. "Not minding the shop tonight?"

He spread his hands. "Sunday's my day to get out. I like to see the other clubs, keep tabs on who's playing."

I gestured toward the table of stonyfaced A 8c R men. Milo was sitting with them now, trying to look self assured, smiling and gesturing proudly toward the stage.

"Especially when reps from the record company come looking at Miranda," I told Sheck. "Keeps Milo on his toes, wondering if you'll come over and ruin the night."

Sheck grinned. "Hadn't thought of that."

Elgin was glaring at me.

I gave him a smile. "They let you off surveillance tonight, Garwood, or did Frank just get tired of your clown act?"

Elgin rose real slowly, keeping his eyes on me. "Get up, you son of a bitch."

The other cowboys glanced at Sheck, looking for a cue. Over by the fence, one of the Bexar County deputies on security was frowning in our direction.

"Go on, Elgin," Sheck said lazily. "Go inside. Get yourself another beer."

"Let me call Jean," Elgin said.

Sheck's smile stayed in place but his eyes dimmed a little. The fire sank a little farther back in his skull.

"Probably a good idea," I agreed. "At least your Luxembourg friends are professionals."

Elgin made like he was going to come across the table at me, but Sheckly raised his fingers just enough to get back his attention.

"Go on," Sheckly told him. "Don't call anybody. Go inside and get yourself a beer."

Elgin looked at me again, weighing the pros and cons.

"Go on," repeated Sheckly.

Elgin wiped his nose on the back of his hand. He went.

Sheck looked at the other cowboys and the communication was as clear as in a pack of jackals. They got up and vacated the table too.

Behind me, Robert Earle's twangy cowboy voice had given way to Miranda's piercingly clear tones. The song was just vocals and acoustic, the way she sounded best. She sang back to Robert Earle about why he was leaving her.

Sheck listened, his eyes on Miranda, his face complete concentration. When Robert Earle took over again, Sheck closed his eyes.

"That girl. You know I remember the first time she came up to me. One of the Paintbrush's community dances, the ones we do free for local folks every Wednesday.

She said I should come down to Gruene Hall and give her a listen. Batted those brown eyes at me and I'm thinking—this is old Willis' girl? Little Miranda?" He let his grin spread out a little. "I suppose I went down to Gruene that next weekend expecting to get me something besides a little music, but I heard that voice—you just can't get away from it, can you?"

"Unless it gets away from you."

Sheck's grin didn't diminish at all. "Let's wait for last call on that one, son."

"You don't think Century Records is serious about her?"

Sheckly followed my eyes over to the table of A & R reps. Sheck chuckled. "You think that means anything? You think they won't evaporate faster than gasoline once they learn Les SaintPierre is out of the picture? Once they learn about my contract?"

"So why wait to tell them?"

Sheckly spread his hands. "In good time, son. Let's give Miranda a chance to come to her senses on her own. Way she was talking the other night, 'fore that fool Saint

Pierre woman went crazy on me—it sounded to me like Miranda was figuring out what's what. She knows Les SaintPierre left her in a bad spot. She's looking to cover her bases."

Miranda and Robert Earle's duet came to an end. The hooting and hollering started up.

Robert Earle gave a twisted little smile when he saw the audience's response, then suggested into the mike that Miranda and him better give "Ashes of Love" another try.

Miranda laughed. The couples on the dance floor yelled approval.

"How do you mean, covering her bases?" I asked Sheck.

He spread his hands. "Nothing to be ashamed of, son. Can't blame her. She just reminded me of my offer from a few months back—asked if she was still welcome to move out to the mansion."

"She asked you."

"Sure. I said it might be a good idea, seeing as—" His eyes got that distant look in them again, like somebody had just opened the oven door and let a draft blow past the pilot lights. "Just might be better for her out there, where I can look after her, seeing as Les SaintPierre got her into such a muddle, gave her and Brent and Willis all these fool ideas about where her career should go."

"Fool ideas about how to push you out of the picture."

Sheck nodded. "And that."

I drank my Budweiser. The top of the can smelled like sausage.

"Ashes of Love" went into full swing. Robert Earle's band backed up the vocals with a good beat, bass and drums and heavy rhythm guitar. When the first verse came around Miranda let loose—her voice went up half an octave and about a million decibels to the kind of energy level she'd had at the Cactus Cafe. Her eyes closed, one hand on the mike and the other clenched at her side. Robert Earle stepped back, grinning. He played his guitar and mouthed "Ooowhee." On the now packed dance floor, the audience responded in kind.

It was impossible to have a conversation—not because of the volume, but because it was impossible not to want to watch Miranda.

That was just as well. I wasn't sure what to say to Sheck right then, what to think. I was staring at the lady onstage, thinking about a night a million years ago in a Victorian on West Ashby—in a guest room that had smelled like daisies and freon with a small cool bed and a body I hardly remembered. What I could summon up was lighter than the aftertaste of cotton candy.