The song finally came to an end. The applause was loud and appreciative. Over at the picnic table with the winecoolersipping Century reps, Milo Chavez was looking confident, pleased. He'd even managed to get one of the reps to crack a smile.
I looked back at Sheckly. "You wanted to level with me the other day. Let me return the favour. Samuel Barrera thinks you're as bad as your European friends. When he takes them down you're going to go down just as hard."
Sheck raised his eyebrows placidly. "How's that, son?"
"I don't think you're a killer, Mr. Sheckly. I don't think Julie's and Alex's murders were your idea. I think you're a mediocre black marketeer who let things get out of control.
You let some greedy professionals take over your operation and crank it into high gear. Now you're scared. You're out of your league and your local people are getting nervous. I think a year from now Jean Kraus is going to be sitting in your office, calling the shots. Either that or he's going to be long gone and you're going to be left with a very large mess where Avalon County used to be. Your friends decide Miranda's caused them any of their present troubles, you think you can really keep her out of the cross fire?"
Onstage Robert Earle and Miranda had slowed down the pace again. Keen was taking the lead on Brent's song, "The Widower's TwoStep," which Robert Earle obviously knew well. It sounded strange coming from him, though, with an edge of quirky dark humour that made the tragedy in the song seem unreal. It was now just another mymommadiedandmyhounddogwent toprison country song. I didn't like the way it played.
Over at the bar Sheckly's friends had recongregated with a few new recruits, all waiting and watching for some sign to come in for the kill.
Sheck's face was dark. He hadn't looked at me while I spoke. He was concentrating on Miranda again, but not with any pleasure. He reached up and dabbed at the edge of the bandages on his cheek. When he finally spoke his tone was forcibly light and completely unnegotiable.
"Don't press your luck no more, son. You hear?"
It wasn't a threat. It sounded as close as Sheck could get to earnest advice. It was also very definitely the end of the conversation.
As I left, Tilden Sheckly's buddies flowed back around the table. They tried their best to reconstruct the joking atmosphere they'd had before—popping new beers, lighting cigarettes, talking in loud voices at my expense. Their boss smiled stonily, looking nowhere in particular, like the majority of his mind had already checked out for the evening.
Robert Earle and Miranda were harmonizing onstage. Couples were slowdancing.
Milo was entertaining the Nashville bigwigs with funny stories and a new round of wine coolers.
I nodded amiably to the Bexar County deputy on my way inside. My birthday Budweiser was empty. One down, twentynine more to go.
At the break I stood outside the entrance of the bar, watching the occasional headlights go down the road. Tilden Sheckly and his friends had left long ago. About fifty other people had arrived, many of them excited when the tickettaker told them Miranda Daniels was in the house. Nobody got particularly excited to see me at the door. Nobody asked for an autograph.
A few minutes after the canned music began, Miranda appeared at the entrance, followed by a cadre of smiling cowboys. She thanked them and begged off drink offers until they finally drifted away. Then she came over to me, smiled, and circled her arm through mine.
Without speaking we started down the hill toward the Helotes Creek Bridge. After a hundred yards, the night closed around us. The sky was still overcast but in the south the reflection of city lights made a dull shine. We stopped at the bridge.
Miranda went to the metal railing and leaned against it. I joined her. We were about eye level with the tops of the stunted mesquite trees that filled up the dry creek bed below. You couldn't see much, but you could smell the wild mint and anise, steamed into the air by the warm day.
"Milo said it sounded good," Miranda mused.
"It sounded great."
Miranda didn't have to lean too far to press against me. "He doesn't approve of you, does he?"
"Robert Earle Keen?"
She bumped against me, playfully. "Milo. I thought he was your friend."
"He's worried about your record deal. You've got a lot on the line and Milo's afraid Sheckly's going to ruin your chances. He's unhappy I haven't found a way to get Sheckly to lay off yet."
She ran her hand along the metal rail until it met mine. "That's not all, is it?"
"No. Last time Milo and I worked together—there was a woman. It took three or four years before we could speak to each other again after that. He's probably afraid I'm getting distracted again, with somebody he's got a stake in."
"Are you?" There was a warm, husky undercurrent in her voice.
I stared into the mesquites. "We should probably talk about that. We should probably talk about why you decided it would be useful."
It was impossible to see her face in the darkness. I had to read her momentary silence, the sudden absence of her hand and her side against mine.
"What?" she asked.
"You said it Friday night—it looks like you're along for the ride. Everybody worries about taking care of you because they're sure everyone else is going to mess up the job. You cultivate that kind of dependency pretty well— it's gotten you a long way."
"I don't ..." Her voice faltered. It sounded compressed, still slightly playful, like she had crossed over the line in a teasing game and was just starting to realize the person yelling "stop" really meant it. "I'm not sure I like the way you're talking, Mr. Navarre."
"The funny thing is I don't blame you," I said. "I want to see you make it. You've had a pretty shitty family life up to now—you did what you could to get yourself somewhere.
You figured out ways to keep your dad in check. You got Sheckly to be your standard bearer. You got your brother to sell out his songs to you. When Sheck's patronage became too confining you got Cam Compton to give you information that could shake you free, then you encouraged Les SaintPierre to try a little blackmail scheme. When things started getting scary you figured it might be useful to have me around your finger, so you gave me Friday night. Now you're getting unsure about your chances with Century Records so you're hedging your bets with Sheck again. We're all stuck on you, Miranda. Milo. Sheck. Me. Even Allison. We're all running around tackling each other and treating you like a football, and here you are quietly calling all the moves.
"I don't believe you just said that."
I ran my hands along the metal rail. "Tell me I'm wrong, then."
Far down the hill, a new song started up from Floore's backyard. I could decipher the bass guitar, an occasional fiddle line above it.
Miranda said, "You think that I was with you Friday night just because—" She let her voice twist, fall silent. Everything in me said I should respond, offer an immediate retraction.
A breeze lifted up from the creek bed. It brought a fresh wave of hot anise smell with it.
"I won't let you think that," she insisted.
She folded herself against my chest and pushed her arms under mine, wrapping fingers around my shoulder blades.
"That's not a denial," I said.
She turned her face into my neck and sighed. I kept holding her, lightly. There were little specks of sand in my throat.
I'm not sure how long it was before the Danielses' white and brown pickup truck drove by us on the bridge. It slid down Old Bandera almost soundlessly, riding the brakes all the way, and doubleparked sideways in front of Floore's.
I made my voice work. "Were you expecting your brother?"
Miranda pulled away, letting her hands slide down until they hooked into mine. She looked where I was looking, saw her father fifty yards away, getting out of the passenger's side of the old Ford. The man coming around the front through the Ford's headlights wasn't Brent—it was Ben French, the drummer. The two men walked together into the bar.
A premonition started twisting into a solid weight somewhere inside my rib cage.
Miranda said, "Why—"
She turned and started walking back toward the bar, trailing me behind her.
Willis and Ben and Milo Chavez met us at the corner of Old Bandera, under the streetlight.
Daniels looked haggard and old, not just with drinking, although he'd obviously been doing that, but with anger and a kind of washedout emptiness, the dazed way people look when they're coming off a crest of grief and waiting for the next surge to hit. He leaned on his cane like he was trying to drive it into the ground. Ben French looked equally haggard. Milo's face was dark and angry.
As we took a few final steps to meet them, Miranda's hand tightened on mine.
"I thought you were in Gruene tonight," she asked her father.
"Miranda—" His voice cracked.
"Why are you driving the truck?" she demanded.
Willis stared at Miranda's hand in mine, confused, like he was mentally trying to separate whose fingers were whose.
"Navarre," Milo put in. He nodded his head back toward the bar, willing me to come with him, to leave father and daughter alone.
Miranda's hand stayed fastened on mine.
"What's happened?" Her voice was sterner than I'd ever heard it, impatient.
"There's been a fire at the ranch," Willis managed to say.
"A fire," Miranda repeated. It was a whisper.
Milo kept looking at me, willing me to step away.
"Where's Brent?" Miranda demanded. But her voice was thin now, glassy.
When no one answered at the count of five, Miranda tried to ask her question again, but this time her voice cracked into small shards of sound.
Willis Daniels looked down at his cane, saw that he hadn't yet driven it into the ground, and wiped his nose with tired resignation.
"You'd best drive with your friends," Willis suggested.
Then he turned to go back to the truck, Ben French holding his arm.
The old tractor shed had cracked open like a black eggshell, ^r You could still see huge scars the fire engine had made coming through the gravel and mud, the barbedwire fence it had plowed through in order to get around the back of the house.
All that was left now were three Avalon County units in the front yard, their roof lights rotating lazily, cutting red arcs across the branches of the granddaddy live oak. The medical examiner's car was pulled around the side of the house, parked diagonally over the horseshoe pit.
Around the back of the house a generator whined, cranking out juice for the floodlights that illuminated the sooty wreckage of Brent's apartment. The smell of wet ashes was cloying even from twenty feet away.
Miranda and her father stood on the back porch, talking to a plainclothes detective.
Miranda's face was bleached and vacant. Every few seconds she would shake her head for no apparent reason. Her orange and white blouse had poofed out from her skirt on the left side and wrinkled like a balloon frozen on dry ice.
I looked over what was left of Brent Daniels' front wall. Inside, the hoseddown ashes made a thick, glistening surface, almost a bowl shape. Sticking out of the sludge were lumps, objects—pieces of wood that had miraculously remained unburned right next to large pools of melted metal.