The south wall, to my right, was still almost full height. Most of the wood had bubbled and blackened, but one upper cabinet had come open postfire, revealing a perfectly intact set of dishes. The paint on the inside of the cabinet was pink. The photo of Brent Daniels' mother had been preserved.

Fires have a rotten sense of humour.

Jay Griffin, the medical examiner for Avalon County, had staked out an area where Brent's cot had been, the place where I'd slept that afternoon. Jay and two other men with white gloves were poking into the ashes with what looked like plastic rulers.

Milo walked back to me from the toolshed, where he'd been interrogating one of the deputies. "You overheard?"

I nodded. I'd overheard. Barred door, from the outside. Clear traces of incendiaries on the outer walls, pooled inside where the windows had been. One victim lying on the cot—perhaps drugged, perhaps already dead. No struggle to get out, anyway. The M.E. had mostly charred bones to work with. Maybe some dental work. It takes a lot to burn a human body. Somebody had gone the extra mile.

I looked out into the fields, unnaturally lit up by the spotlights. It made me feel like I was back in a high school stadium night game, all the shadows long and elastic. Third and ten.

The chickens in the coop were little red feathery lumps—dead from the heat. The woven straps on the lawn chairs sagged in the middle where they'd melted.

Farther out, two rusted, dirtcaked septic tanks leaned against the shed. The new tanks had apparently been

The Widower's Two it Step 317 sunk into the proper places, ready to store gray water for the garden, to make sure the ranch's toilets flushed properly. I'm sure that would've been a big comfort to Brent Daniels, the man who wrote most of Miranda's soonto be hit songs, knowing he'd spent his last afternoon filling in sewage lines.

"Ten gets you twenty," Milo said, "it'll go down as an accident. A suicide, maybe."

On the porch, Willis Daniels was nodding vaguely, grimly, to something the detective was telling him. Miranda had her fingers curled tight against her palms and was pressing them against her eyes.

"They couldn't," I said.

I had already filled Milo in on my latest findings. He had expressed no surprise at the information Sam Barrera had given me, no surprise that the authorities wouldn't be riding to the rescue in time to save his record deal, only a sour regret that Les hadn't gone through with his blackmail plan. I had not told him about my conversation with Miranda.

Milo turned over a charred board with his foot, so the unblackened side of the wood faced up. "One damn signature. All that leverage and all we need is a goddamn signature—not even an admission that Sheck's contract was forged. Just a waiver.

We've got to do something ourselves, Navarre. Friday—"

"You're still thinking about your deadline. After this."

"Come on, Navarre. If Century hears—"

I kicked the board away. It skittered through the wet grass.

"Probably good publicity. Be happy, Milo. You won't have to pay Brent his twentyfive percent for the song rights."

"God damn it, Navarre—"

But I was already walking away. It was either that or take a swing at Milo, and I wasn't the right combination of angry and drunk and stupid for that. Not yet.

I didn't look where I was going.

I pushed through a couple of newspaper reporters who were trying to interview a deputy lieutenant, then halfway to the porch I ran into a burly plainclothes officer who was helping the evidence technician raise a camera tripod.

Before I could apologize Deputy Frank turned around and told me to watch it.

Whatever other angry comments Frank might've been about to make, he swallowed them back like live coals when he recognized me.

"You going to get that, Frank?" the evidence tech said behind him.

Frank looked me in the eye. What I saw in his face was too much information, too many questions that all blurred into something incomprehensible. White noise. His expression was the visual equivalent of picking up a receiver and listening to the shriek and hiss of a modem.

He looked away. "Yeah. Sure."

Then he turned and helped the evidence tech lift the tripod.

I walked up the steps to the back porch.

Willis had just asked a quiet question and the county detective was responding in an equally quiet, gentle voice. The detective had a slick curve of black hair combed almost into his eyes, like a crow's wing glued to his forehead.

"We don't know," he said. "We probably won't—not for a while anyway. I'm sorry."

Willis began to say something, then thought better of it. He glared at the bluepainted floorboards. He looked twenty pounds thinner—most of it taken from his face. The skin around his eyes was unnaturally gray, the wrinkles that ran from the edges of his nose into his moustache and beard so deep his face looked carved.

When he saw me his grief turned into something heavier, something more active.

I walked over to where Miranda sat on the porch railing. She was hugging her arms.

Her carefully curled hair had disintegrated into simple tangles again and her gigperfect makeup job was completely scoured away.

I didn't ask how she was doing.

She only acknowledged my presence by a change in her breathing—a shaky inhale, then a long exhale. She tried to untense her shoulders. Her eyes shut.

The detective was asking Willis a few more questions— When had he left for Gruene Hall that evening? Was he sure Brent had planned on staying home all night? Had Brent had any unusual visitors lately? Had Brent been seeing anyone special? Or broken off any relationships?

At the last question Miranda opened her eyes and glanced over at me. The composure she'd been knitting together over the last hour started to unravel.

Willis wasn't listening to the detective's questions. He was watching me, and the way Miranda was crying. I tried hard not to feel the way the old man's eyes were attaching themselves to my face.

"Do you want to leave?" I asked Miranda quietly, then to the detective, "Can we leave?"

The detective frowned. He lifted the crow's wing off his forehead, then let it fall back into place. He said he supposed there wasn't any problem with us going.

Slowly, Miranda collected enough energy to stand. She steadied herself against the porch beam.

"All right," she whispered. "I can't—"

She looked at the blackened tractor shed, the spotlights. She seemed unable to complete the thought.

"I know," I told her. "Let's go."

"The hell you will."

Willis Daniels' words took even the homicide detective by surprise. It wasn't so much the volume as the acid tone, the suddenness with which the old man stepped toward me.

" You killed him, you son of a bitch." He pointed his cane at my feet and made ready to smash my toes. "It was something you did, wasn't it? Some trouble you stirred up."

Miranda moved a few inches behind me. There was no hesitation, no faltering in the way she did it. It was obviously a manoeuvre that had long ago become instinctive for her.

The detective looked back and forth between us, interested. "You want to explain?"

Willis glared at my feet.

The detective looked at me.

I gave him an explanation. I told him some of the things that had been happening to Miranda since Century Records became interested in her. I told him I'd been hired to find out what I could and that as far as I knew Brent Daniels would've had absolutely no reason to be in the line of fire. I gave the detective my name and number and address and said sure, I'd be happy to talk more.

"But right now," I said, "I'm getting Miranda out of here."

The detective looked at Miranda, then looked at me. His eyes softened just a little. He said all right.

"This is her home," Willis growled.

I found myself stepping toward the old man, grabbing the tip of the cane that he'd raised toward me. The tension along the shaft of wood was uneven, his grip on the other end weak. With not much force I could've taken it away, or thrust it back.

Anything I wanted.

"Tres—" Miranda said.

Her fingers dug into my shoulders with a surprising amount of force.

I pushed the tip of the cane away, lightly.

"Call me whenever," I told the detective.

The detective was reappraising me moment by moment, like I was a tie game in progress. Sudden death overtime.

"I'll do that," he promised.

Miranda's fingers relaxed.

As I walked back down the steps, holding Miranda's hand, Milo Chavez was arguing with one of the newspaper reporters—something about family privacy. I couldn't tell if he was arguing for or against. Deputy Frank was still looking at me, giving me white noise with his eyes. Jay Griffin the M.E. had lifted something long and black and thin from the ashes of the tractor shed and was turning it. In the spotlights the forearm looked sur real, like a piece of black glazed ceramic, nothing that could ever have been part of a human body.


The next morning vendors were selling offerings for the dead all along General McMullen Road. The parking lot of the orange stucco strip mall was lined with battered pickup trucks and delivery vans, all covered with wreaths, crosses made of blue silk flowers, pictures of Jesus, flowery frames empty and ready for the insertion of the beloved's pictures. There were tables of foodstuffs—pan muerte, the bread of the dead, fresh tamales, tortillas, black catand pumpkinand skullshaped cookies.

Dia de los Muertos was tomorrow. Today—All Souls' Day—was just a warmup.

Otherwise we would never have been able to turn into San Fernando Cemetery without getting choked in traffic.

The circular maze of oneway drives wasn't empty by a long shot, though. In every section of the cemetery people were unloading the trunks of their cars—coffee cans of marigolds, picnic baskets, all the things their antepasados would need. Old men with trowels were cutting weeds away from the marble plaques, or digging holes for new plants. About half the graves had already been adorned, several buried so thick in flowers they looked like a florist's waste dump.

The less conventional graves had fake cobwebs covering them, flowers planted in jacko'lanterns, little cloth ghosts dangling from strings on the tombstones. Others were fluttering with ribbons and spinning sunflower and flamingoshaped pinwheels.

"Good Lord," Miranda said.

She was dressed in jeans and her boots and an oversized U.C. Berkeley Tshirt she'd borrowed from my closet. Her hair was pulled back in a clasp. Her face, cleanscrubbed and devoid of makeup, looked pale and younger. She wasn't back to normal by a long shot— about every hour her hands would start trembling again, or she'd suddenly start crying, but there were pauses when she seemed surprisingly stable. She'd even given me a weak smile when I'd brought her huevos rancheros for breakfastinfuton. Or maybe what made her smile was the way I looked in the morning after sleeping on the floor with the cat all night. She wouldn't tell me.

We drove around a huge mound of rocks topped with a lifesized stone crucifix. At the base of Jesus' feet a brown mutt dog was taking a nap. We kept driving toward the back of the cemetery, then circled around.

I was looking for a maroon Cadillac.

I finally found it in the centre of the cemetery.

Ralph Arguello was about twenty yards from the curb, standing over his mother, a large woman in a brown sack dress who was kneeling at one of the graves, planting marigolds. Ralph was easy to spot. He was dressed in his outfit of choice—oversized guayabera shirt, jeans, black boots. His black ponytail looked freshly braided. The butt of his .357 had snagged on the edge of the olive shirt, making it anything but concealed. He was holding a bunch of silver Mylar balloons decorated with pictures of trains and cars.