He didn't sound very anxious to hear the answer.
"I don't need a confession," I said. "I know the basics. Les had to go somewhere when he got scared away from his hiding place on Medina Lake. He'd already decided you were a kindred soul—you'd spent time together, you didn't give a damn, you knew what it was like being a shell. You also knew what it was like getting suckered into something by Miranda."
I waited for him to contradict me. He didn't.
" Les came to you and you agreed to put him up in the upper room of the apartment.
Maybe a week and a half ago?"
Very slightly, Brent nodded.
"At some point, Les got drunk. Then he got stupid. He was a pill popper. He thought he recognized something in your medicine cabinet—something cosmetically similar to one of his favourite drugs. He took it and collapsed— diabetic coma. Maybe he didn't die right away. Maybe he stayed in a coma for a while, but eventually you realized you had a dying human vegetable on your hands. Les already had plans, had an identity, had money and an escape and everything he needed to get a new start. A man in his forties, with money and no connections. Les didn't need it anymore, so you decided you'd take it. Brent Daniels didn't have much of a future, did he? And he sure as hell didn't have much of a past. You burned his body in that tractorshed apartment along with Brent Daniels' identity."
Again I could only judge the truth of what I said by Brent's eyes. Nothing snagged in his expression. He let it roll over him, not pulling back, not giving any indication anything was wrong. Or maybe he was just too dazed to let any reaction show.
"That's why Les never collected his fifty grand from the boat shed. He wasn't alive to do it, and you didn't know anything about it. How much did you know about, Brent?
With the keys to Les' new identity, maybe a change of photo or two—you could have whatever you wanted. To make it work, you must have access to at least a few of the late Mr. Meissner's accounts."
"You want to go now?" he asked. It was clear the "you" was actually "we," that he expected somebody to put on the cuffs.
"No," I said.
Brent stared at my beer. He let his shoulders sag down under the weight of the backpack.
Total disbelief. Incredulity. I felt some of that myself, but I still shook my head. I heard myself saying, "You've got ten minutes. Maybe I think you deserve it. A lot more than Les SaintPierre did."
Brent stayed frozen at first. Then slowly, testing the theory, he got to his feet.
"One thing," I said. "One thing I need an answer about."
I drank some more beer before I tried to speak again. Then I met Brent's eyes.
"There's another possible scenario. One I don't want to accept. The scenario where you gave Les those pills intentionally, knowing what they'd do to his alcoholic liver. Les was dead a lot longer than just a day or a few hours—he was dead long enough for you to really put the plan back together. Those septic tanks in the backyard— one of the newer ones had been buried, then dug up again just before the fire. That wasn't just coincidence. It wasn't just holding gray water, either."
"Tell me that's not the way it was. It wasn't intentional."
Brent shook his head. Then said, almost inaudibly, "It wasn't."
He shouldered his backpack a little more firmly.
He met my eyes.
"I couldn't stand to hear those songs sung," he said. "It was a mistake, letting them out.
If I heard them on the radio, Miranda singing them ..."
He closed his eyes so tight he gave the impression of a man about to pull the trigger next to his temple.
"Catch your plane," I said.
It was hard sounding convinced, sounding like it was really the best thing. It was even harder watching him walk away, but I did. The last I saw was his cowboy hat, just before the Latino kid riding on his dad's shoulders stepped into line and started bouncing up and down along the gateway tunnel, waving his arms out to the side like he was an airplane, obscuring my last view of Brent.
The stewardess smiled and rolled her eyes at the skycap with the empty wheelchair next to her. Kids.
I got up and looked down at the beer Brent had bought me, what was left of it. I dumped it in the bromeliads and walked away.
My phone conversation with Professor Mitchell at UTSA lasted exactly thirty seconds.
He offered me the job. I said I was honoured and I'd have to think about it.
"I understand, son." He tried to make his tone not too obvious—that he didn't understand, that he thought I was an idiot for even hesitating. "When can you let us know?"
I told him next week. I told him I had another kind of class to finish up between now and then. He said fine.
After hanging up, I spent a long time staring at the crepe myrtle out the kitchen window. It was a relief twenty minutes later when Erainya did her customary unsyncopated rattattat on the screendoor frame.
When I opened the door Jem laughed and just about launched a twolayer cake into my chest as he came in. Fortunately I caught the cake while it was still in one piece and raised it up, allowing Jem free rein to tackle me.
Robert Johnson mewed a complaint and disappeared into the closet. He probably remembered the last time the Manoses had come over.
Erainya stepped in and looked around my apartment. "So you're still alive. You don't call why—you forget the number?"
Jem was explaining to me about the cake. He told me that we'd have to wait until I really finished my hours to eat it but he'd made it himself with his food colouring kit and I wouldn't believe the colours inside when I opened it up. The outside was forbidding enough—lumpy gray frosting that looked like the product a cement finger painting session, the layers uneven and offcentre so the cake seemed to be leaning away from me on its plate.
"It's just about the nicest cake I've ever seen, Bubba."
Jem giggled, then went to find the cat.
In the top of the closet a shoe box moved.
Erainya was still waiting for an answer to her question. She was giving me the lookofdeath treatment, her black eyes bugging toward me and her talon fingers tap ping her forearm.
"I got ten hours left," I told her. "That's about one job. You figure we can avoid arguing that long?"
"It's twenty," she reminded me. "And I don't know, honey. You going to get yourself sidetracked again?"
"Professor Mitchell is probably wondering the same thing."
Erainya frowned. "Mitchell who?"
"I said, yes. I'm willing to finish up. You?"
Erainya thought about it, weighing the pros and cons. "I suppose the Longoria case could've gone better if I'd had a dumblooking guy for a decoy, honey. I supposed there's advantages. Maybe you got a little raw potential. Nothing amazing, you understand. And what about after the twenty hours?'"
Jem came back over with Robert Johnson hanging by his armpits from Jem's hands, Robert Johnson's toes fully extended and the tiny white V on his crotch showing and his face looking like he would die from mortification any second.
Jem looked troubled. "Where's Miranda?"
He'd just made the connection, remembered his trick ortreat partner and remembered that she had some vague association with Tres when she wasn't being Jem's Little Miss Muffett.
Erainya waited to hear an answer to both questions, hers and Jem's. She was chewing on the inside of her mouth, her lips turning sideways.
"Miranda had to go, Bubba. She's going to be a singer in Nashville. Isn't that cool?"
Jem didn't look impressed. Neither did Robert Johnson. Both turned and left. Probably going to play wet kitty/drykitty in bathroom.
"You need anything, honey?" Erainya's voice was softer now, so much so that I had to look to make sure she had really been the one speaking.
She frowned immediately. "What?"
"Nothing. And no. Thanks."
Erainya looked out the window at the afternoon in progress. Gary Hales was in the front yard, watering his sidewalk. Across the street a red Mazda Miata was just pulling up in front of the Suitez house. The Mazda was loaded so heavily with cardboard moving boxes that the trunk was halfopen, precariously fastened with a crisscross of cords. Allison SaintPierre looked across the street, trying to make sure she remembered which house was mine. Last time she was here she'd been drunk.
Erainya and I exchanged looks.
"It's not that."
She did a backhand slap in the air. "Ah. I'll wrap the cake in Saran Wrap. Maybe it'll keep."
Knowing how Erainya applied Saran Wrap, I had the feeling the cake would keep several centuries.
I went outside.
Allison saw me coming and sat on the hood of the red Mazda and waited. She was holding a backpack—my backpack, the one I'd left with the maid at her Monte Vista house.
Allison was already warming up her head shake as I walked across Queen Anne Street. By the time I got to her she was going pretty well with it.
"What is this?" she demanded. She held the backpack up by one shoulder strap.
"A very old backpack," I said. "A souvenir. I figured I didn't need it anymore."
She sighed through her nose. "I mean what's in it, sweetie. You lost your mind?"
"It's Les' money," I said. "Or part of it. He forgot the stash, we found it. I figured you're right—some of it should go to you."
Allison's eyes couldn't quite get a fix on me. They were wandering around the space where I was, not really seeing. She looked sloppy today, movingtime sloppy— her hair pinned up and her Tshirt streaked with old cobwebs and her legs below her cutoffs scraped and smudged with dirt. Her face was etched with tiny white wrinkles like cracked glass.
"You're just giving me twentyfive thousand dollars," she said, incredulous.
"Twentyfour thousand three hundred," I corrected.
"I know." She'd counted. The fact that I had too made her even more incredulous. "Is this because—"
I shook my head. "It's not because of anything. I know what Les' estate looks like. I know that his name isn't going to be worth as much as you hoped. The court is going to be paying off his debts first, and I doubt there's going to be much for you. You're broke."
That didn't seem to answer her question. She knew all that already. She kept staring at me, mad now.
"So give this to the judge, like you said," she said.
"I don't know the judge. I know you."
She finally lowered the backpack. She still looked angry. "Exactly."
A car went past. Behind me Gary Hales' watering hose sprayed across the cement and droplets thudded into the grass. He must've been busy watching us. His aim was off.
"Still going back to Falfurrias?" I asked.
"You sure you want to know?"
We locked eyes. I looked away first.
"Damn you." She was shaking her head again now, trying to stay angry but with a tiny smile starting to form.
"You've got to go and keep the damn door open, don't you? You've got to give me just enough to think that maybe all men aren't complete shits. Why the fuck did you do this?"
"Think about Les," I suggested. "There's still a strong case."