/ Language: English / Genre:det_crime / Series: Jordan Poteet

Distant Blood

Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott

Distant Blood

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

-Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Accidents will occur in the best-regulated families.

-Charles Dickens, David Copperfield


Mortal fear is knowing you've been poisoned. I sagged against the fine oak paneling, agony vying with numbness for control of my body. My heart raced with the knowledge that it was pounding its last rhythm, like the beat of a runner's shoes against the road as he surges toward the finish line, toward blessed rest. Bile rose in my throat and I swallowed, trying to steady my breathing. I slid down to the floor, dizziness and nausea washing across my body like an obscene tide. I tried to cry for help and my throat felt dead. Raising one leaden arm, I managed to focus my vision on the blurred figures in the room.

And blinking, saw murder done before my eyes.

Step back with me two months.

My name is Jordan Poteet, and I'm the library director for the small Texas town of Mirabeau. This sometimes quiet hamlet lies on a crook of the Colorado River in the rolling countryside between Houston and Austin. Mostly the houses are tidy, the flower beds edged with a draftsman's precision, the street loud with the laughter of playing children. But don't be fooled by Mirabeau's tranquillity. I've been back home for a little over a year and the past months have shocked me to the core of my being. I've seen death, and suffering, and loyalty, and love the likes of which I'd never known. But finally, my life had mellowed into a fairly easy ride-easy despite dealing with my mother's increasingly severe Alzheimer's and the unnerving fact that the man I forever thought was my father… wasn't. And just when I thought I'd sailed into relative calmness, ordering my life into a semblance of normalcy, my biological father, Bob Don Goertz, upset my boat. By issuing the invitation from hell.

My girlfriend Candace Tully did not react in the way I'd hoped.

“Of course you're going,” Candace said, brushing my hair out of my eyes.

We sat on the back-porch swing, sipping wine and watching the evening slide into purples and oranges as the sun set brilliantly against the hills. The loblolly pines were etched in darkness as light fled below the horizon.

“I am not going to this stupid reunion. All those people are Bob Don's family, not mine.” I gulped at my wine. I can be as stubborn as a government mule when I set my mind to it and I could feel my brain encasing in concrete recalcitrance.

“Jordan. I think you could show Bob Don some consideration.”

I hate it when Candace is entirely reasonable. Especially when I'm trying my darnedest to be difficult.

“I know. I don't want to hurt his feelings. But going to his family reunion; I'd feel like a total freak.”

“You're his son, Jordan. He's proud of you. He wants you in his life and he wants his family to know you. That's not unusual.”

“No, the unusual part is I didn't know he was my father for the first thirty-odd years of my life.” I stood and paced out to the yard.

The house, with my family relocated out to the horse farm we'd recently acquired, had taken on an air of abandonment and desolation. The garden, usually thick with tomatoes and other vegetables, lay barren. Empty wire circles and wooden stakes stood in forlorn disuse. Flower beds, denuded of blossoms, looked fashioned of lunar soil, bereft of life.

I missed the gentle swish of the broom while my mother, her mind rotted with Alzheimer's, moved back and forth across the porch, caught in an empty repetition that was only broken by taking the broom from her hands. I missed my sister's gentle nagging and teasing as she attempted daily to dictate the course of my life. I missed my nephew Mark's energy and sarcasm, his reliance on me that I never appreciated until he'd moved out of the house. My family was only a few miles away, but it felt as though they'd voyaged to the other side of the planet.

“There's nothing that we can do to change how you found out about your parentage,” Candace reminded me, grinding away in reasonable mode. “The Goertzes are your family as well.”

“I have a family, thank you kindly,” I said. “I feel no burning need for a bunch of new relatives. Lord knows the ones I have are trouble enough. If I want to shimmy up unexplored branches of my family tree, I'll call a genealogist and ask for the bastard discount rate.”

Candace came up behind me and tapped me firmly on the shoulder. I turned to face her. God, she was everything I had ever wanted, with her kind smile, logical mind, thick chestnut-colored hair, and intelligent lake-blue eyes. She was nearly too petite for a tall fellow like me, but strength radiated out of her and I'd always been drawn to it like metal to magnet. She stood on tiptoe, put her hands on my shoulders-her signal for a kiss. I leaned down and pressed my lips to hers. When the tender embrace broke, she cupped my face in her hands and gently pecked at my closed eyelids. Her palms felt warm and soft against my face.

“Jordan,” she breathed softly, “these people are part of you. They will want to know about you and you will want to know about them, even if you don't believe that right now. Go. Meet them. Otherwise, you're always going to wonder if you don't. And Bob Don-”

“I know. It's important to Bob Don. But as much as he's done for me, I still find it hard to think of him as my father. I mean, to say it aloud, to see him in my daddy's place-”

“He's not trying to replace your father,” Candace whispered, her breath soft against my chest. I'm sure we made quite a gossipmongering sight for the neighbors, locked in this long cuddle. Not that I cared. Talking to her, holding her this way, felt far more intimate than our ardent lovemaking had. I'd been scared of the deepening closeness between us, but I'd resolved not to let fear turn me away from Candace.

“He could never replace my dad,” I answered, resting my chin in her soft-smelling hair.

“He doesn't want to. But he wants to be a father to you- he's not trying to be a clone of your daddy that raised you. Don't you see the difference, hon?”

“No. I've just been fitted for my emotional blinders.” I leaned back and smiled down into her face. “I'm just being stubborn. It's my specialty.”

“Yet I still love you.” She punched me in the shoulder. “You know Bob Don's wanted to claim you as his own son for years. Give him the chance, Jordy. He didn't have a choice in not acknowledging you.”

Yes, he did, I thought bitterly, but I kept this most selfish musing to myself.

Candace continued: “He did everything that he thought was best for you. He let you grow up in a healthy, loving home. He could have made you a pawn, used you against your own parents. He never would have been hurtful. Give him this, please. Think-think of what you might lose if you don't try. He's your biological father. He matters.”

“The things I let you talk me into.”

She nestled close to me and I felt her face smile against my chest. “It's just 'cause I love you.”

“Will you go with me? Don't leave me alone with the Goertzes. I don't know how delighted the rest of his family will be with the new bastard son.”

“Of course. So it's settled?”

“Yes.” I nodded, smiling.

She kissed me again, with fervor, and ran her fingernail deliciously along the bare skin of my arm. “Then let's go upstairs.”

She took my hand and we retired to my bedroom. I lost myself in her, in the warm tangle of her arms, in the delectable slide of skin against skin, the soft wonder of her lips against mine.


“An island? Your uncle lives on an island?” I lowered my fork (replete with a goodly chunk of my sister's chicken-fried steak) back to my plate.

“It ain't a big one, Jordan, but it's all his.” Bob Don Goertz beamed witii pride. “Uncle Mutt's done real well for himself. He gave me the seed money for my car lots.”

“Uncle Mutt?”

“His Christian name's Emmett, but when me and my brother and my sister were little we couldn't say Emmett- we said Em-mutt. It got shortened to Mutt.”

“Do you have an Uncle Jeff to go along with this Uncle Mutt?”

Bob Don guffawed. “God, you're funny, son!”

I could recite the Magna Carta and he'd think it was amusing. I don't like it a bit when he starts edging the pedestal over for me to climb up on.

“Naw, no Uncle Jeff. But they're all just gonna love you, Jordan, I can tell already-”

“I'm sure.” I was more than willing to let the assembled Goertzes devise their own opinions about me. I certainly planned on forming my own judgments regarding them. “And how did-excuse me-Uncle Mutt acquire this island?”

“Won it in a poker game.”

I managed to keep hold of my fork, but barely. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my big sister Arlene hovering, pretending to wipe down a table. I'd had a grueling day running the Mirabeau Public Library, and I'd offered to take Bob Don to lunch. Of course I picked the Sit-a-Spell, the downtown cafe co-owned by my sister and Candace. To be seen dining elsewhere in Mirabeau would have been to invite retribution the likes of which I cannot imagine. Of course, Sister isn't exactly kind-minded toward Bob Don. He would forever be the man who nearly ended our parents' marriage. If I told her I was accompanying Bob Don to visit his uncle who'd won offshore real estate while gambling, she'd have a conniption fit.

“I hope I won't be expected to play poker wim him. I don't believe I could ante up.”

“Oh, Uncle Mutt doesn't gamble much anymore. Says he's older and wiser. Plus it's harder for him to hold his cards since his middle fingers got shot off.” Bob Don popped a potato pancake into his mouth and chewed with a grin.

“Shot off? During a poker game?” I asked faintly.

“Oh, no. That was over a woman. A fellow caught Uncle Mutt in bed with his wife.” Bob Don seemed amused at this family trait.


“And his ex-wife.”

I swallowed my food-untasted. The rough edge of the fried meat left a burning trail down my throat. I coughed and gulped water. “Uncle Mutt was in bed with this man's wife and ex-wife-at the same time?”

“Yeah. Uncle Mutt's always had what you'd call a fair amount of energy. I always figured I got my initiative from him.”

“I sincerely hope you're referring to selling cars, Bob Don, and not bedding women.” I prefer not to dwell overmuch on the sex life that my mother and Bob Don shared.

“Oh, yeah.” He quickly tucked into his green-bean casserole. (It was what Sister termed “the fancy kind,” made with fried onions and mushroom soup.) He never wanted to talk about his relationship with my mother either, except the never-ending litany of how he had loved her. I wondered if he still did. And as for Bob Don's wife Gretchen-well, her husband's emotional investment in my mother couldn't be comforting.

“And just how old is Uncle Mutt now?” Considering Bob Don was in his fifties, Uncle Mutt could hardly still be giving new meaning to simultaneous orgasm.

“Oh, he's around seventy. Still got a lot of gumption. 'Course he's not the oldest member of the family. That'd be Uncle Jake.”

“Older brother to Uncle Mutt?”

“No, he's Uncle Mutt's uncle. Sort of. You see, Uncle Mutt's daddy, Thomas Goertz-he was my granddaddy- he had two wives. The first was named Mildred, and she was my grandmother. Uncle Jake's her bachelor brother and he's nearly a hundred now. Anyway, Jake always lived with Papaw Tommy and his family. Mama Mildred had two children with Papaw Tommy, then she died in the flu epidemic in 1918. Papaw Tommy remarried-we called his second wife Mama Claudia-and she was mother to Uncle Mutt and Aunt Lolly.”

“Aunt Lolly?” I felt the need for a scorecard and resisted the urge to jot notes down on a napkin.

“Uncle Mutt's younger sister. Her real name's Louisa, but we all call her Lolly. She's widowed, so she takes care of Uncle Jake.” He picked at his food, suddenly ill at ease. “Aunt Lolly's sweet, but she's gettin' nuttier than a pecan tree. I don't think she'll be able to take care of Uncle Jake too much longer.”

“But”-I counted on my fingers, retracing the convoluted Goertz family tree-”Jake's not really Lolly's kin, right? He's the brother of her father's first wife, right?”

“Yep. But Uncle Jake was forever part of the family, even after his sister died.” Bob Don appeared horrified at the suggestion Uncle Jake be turned out from the hearth simply because his sister had been dead for nearly eighty years. “And then there's the twins, Philip and Tom-except they don't look alike, ain't that a kicker?-and then your aunt Sass and your cousin Aubrey-”

I held up my hand. “Please, no more. I'll chart the tree when I meet the clan.” If the Goertz family history was as twisty as it sounded, I'd need the services of a genealogist whose hobby was contortionism. I smiled at Bob Don. “I'm sure they're all fine folks.”

He snorted. “Well, I guess I love 'em. But I'm particularly partial to Uncle Mutt. He's my favorite. Aside from you.”

I smiled. I could see now just how much this reunion meant to Bob Don. He was proud of being my father and wanted to share his happiness with his loved ones.

I couldn't help but wonder-would I have invited him to a family reunion of my mother's kin? I wasn't exactly trumpeting from the rooftops that my surname should be, by all rights, a little further up the alphabet. He took more pride in me than I did in him-after all, he'd known I belonged to him since the day I was born. He'd had thirty years to get used to the notion; I had barely a year. It's still not enough time. But shame at the thought that I was treating Bob Don unkindly colored my face.

“As long as Uncle Mutt doesn't challenge me to cards, I'll be fine.”

“He won't. Probably. Of course it's a bit hard to foretell exactly what Uncle Mutt's going to do-” The further misadventures of Bob Don's kinsman were delayed by the arrival of my sister, setting big bowls of banana pudding crowned with vanilla wafers on the table. If you've never had this, it's God's own treat.

“I don't think we'd ordered dessert quite yet.” I smiled. Sister favored me with a wry scowl.

“On the house.” She plopped a third bowl down and scooted into the booth, next to Bob Don. “Gretchen says that y'all are heading out to a-family reunion soon.”

Sister never took the news of my paternity very well. I believe she's grateful to Bob Don for his many kindnesses to us, but his new position in my life rankles her. You don't like to regard your adored little brother as a constant reminder of your own mama's unfaithfulness. I'd become a symbol of my mother's imperfections.

“Well, yes, Arlene, I have asked Jordan to come with me to my family reunion in July. I'd really like for him to know his Goertz relations.”

Sister smiled a smile that said, He already has a family, thank you kindly. Fortunately Bob Don lacks a Berlitz book for Sister's various eyebrow raises and gleaming stares, so he plunged on in happy ignorance. “I'm just so pleased that he's decided to come, 'cause everyone's gonna be thrilled to meet him.”

“Sister-” I started, but she didn't let me finish.

“I just don't know if July's a good time for Jordan to be away from the horse farm,” she said airily.

“Why? Has Mark forgotten how to shovel manure?” Let me be the first to say how minimal my contributions to the horse farm are. I modernized the software; I did most of the hiring, although most of the folks working there stayed on when my nephew inherited the farm from an old family friend. I told Mark he could not spend any of the large amounts of money bequeathed to him. (That part I particularly enjoyed. Mark is fourteen and I love telling him no. Uncle's rights, you know.) “I imagine, Sister, that the farm will not slip into a crack in the earth if I'm gone for a few days.”

Sister framed her lips in a familiar combative stance when her eyes widened and I saw Candace gesturing to her from the kitchen. “Just a sec,” she muttered to me, and retreated to the roiling steam to consult with her partner.

“That girl is just never going to cotton to me.” Bob Don twirled his spoon in the creamy pudding. Disappointment curdled his normally kind features into a frown.

“Sure she will. If I can get along with Gretchen, you can get along with my sister.” I tapped my finger against the back of his hand. I don't touch Bob Don often (and no, I don't know why) and he brightened with a smile.

“Well, son, I'm glad to hear you and Gretchen are mending fences.”

“Yes. It's been much easier since we cleared the minefields away.” I stuck a spoonful of pudding and cookie into my mouth, not really wanting to discuss Bob Don's wife Gretchen. I'd made as much peace as possible with that woman, all for Bob Don's sake. He had the easier reconciliation to make; after all, Sister wasn't a crazily mean bitch. Tidying up my discord with Gretchen required the patience of a saint, which I fortunately have. Usually. Okay, occasionally. At least during leap years.

Sister returned to the table, toying with her blonde pony-tail and smiling like the grin had been pasted on with fancy glue. She sat down next to Bob Don and squeezed his arm in affection. I tried not to choke on my pudding.

“I think this reunion idea is just wonderful,” Sister purred. “Bob Don, of course you should get Jordan to go. Far be it from me to suggest otherwise. And Jordy, it's just absolutely necessary that you bond with your Goertz kin-folk. After all, they're your people, too.”

“Are y'all nipping cooking sherry back there?” I craned my neck for a better view into the kitchen. Candace ducked out of sight, presumably to go flour a chicken for frying. I suspected my butt'd been dusted as well. I narrowed my gaze at Sister, who replied with a cherubic smile. (The last angel to sport that grin was Lucifer immediately before he took the down elevator.)

“Jordy, your hypersuspicious mind is certainly one of your least attractive assets.” Sister sniffed. She patted Bob Don's arm. “I know that I've not always been-entirely kind to you, Bob Don. I'm sorry. I'm gonna work on that.”

He patted her arm back and gave her his warm smile. “I appreciate that, Arlene. After all, we're all family now.”

“And it's so important for us to keep that truth foremost in our minds,” Sister concurred. She sounded like a United Nations ambassador working the floor.

“I believe I've had enough sugar for today,” I said, clunking my spoon in my scraped-clean pudding bowl. I'd hoped for a summit between Sister and Bob Don, but this smacked of backdoor diplomacy.

“So when do you leave?” Sister asked brightly.

“Not soon enough for you, apparently,” I teased. “Would you like to go pack my bags for me?”

“One just can't ignore opportunities like this, Jordy,” Sister said, then coughed with a sidelong glance at Bob Don. “I mean-a chance to meet your long-lost family.”

“Or a chance to escape from your currently existing relatives,” I parried. Sister has never advocated sudden mood swings. I, of course, relegated her attempt at detente with Bob Don to consideration of my long-wounded feelings.

More fool I.


The first letter arrived in early June. it lay nestled, like a snake in high grass, among the inevitable bills, a long, funny letter from my college roommate now living in Nashville, and a men's-health magazine brimming with advice I gleefully ignore. I thought at first it was just a card of some sort, noting only the Corpus Christi postmark and wondering who the hell did I know down on the coast.

I sat at the kitchen table, still laughing from my friend's letter, and pulled the card out of the envelope. I dropped it immediately when I saw the blood.

A dried X of crimson gore splattered the front, obscuring a cartoon cat's knowing leer. The envelope fell nervelessly from my hands. My stomach churned.

I gulped a couple of long, steadying breaths, then retrieved a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer. Using them, I pried the card open-the paper resisted for a moment, because the blood gummed the edges closed. Redness lined the missive, like the dark signature of the devil. I saw first the preprinted salutation on the card: THINKING ONLY OF YOU. A scarlet spatter scored the wish. On the other side of the card, letters cut from a magazine spelled out a cheerless message:




I sat for a long while, breathing through my mouth, reading the hateful words again. Cursive, dainty letters formed the PROVE and they looked incongruous in the hurtful context. Bile rose in my throat, along with a hard, burning anger. I balled my hand into a fist.

Stay away bastard.

The phone rang, jarring me out of my reverie. I scooped the receiver up with a shaking hand. “Hello?” My own voice sounded dank and rheumy, as if I'd just surfaced from some deep darkness.

“Hey, son, how you?” Bob Don's voice revved along, probably fresh from having closed a sweet deal on a fine preowned vehicle. “Hadn't talked to you in a couple of days and I missed you. What's up?”

I swallowed hard during his flurry of words. My heart pounded in my chest, and when I spoke, my voice cracked on my first assurance that I was well. “Doing fine. How are you?”

He regaled me with a funny story about one of his salesmen that normally would have had me laughing com-panionably. Instead I forced a weak titter. He asked about Mama and I answered I'd been out to the horse farm and she was well. The dance of words, meaningless to me at the moment, continued until I could stand it no more.

“Bob Don, let me ask you a question. Did you tell the rest of your family about my coming to this reunion next month?”

“Oh, sure, son. I weren't hardly gonna surprise them with you and make everybody uncomfortable. I told Uncle Mutt I was bringing you, and my sister Sass, and I'm sure they've informed the rest of the folks. You're big news to the Goertzes. Everybody's real eager to meet you.”

“I see.” I stared at the blood-smirched card. Someone had not taken the news of my arrival kindly.

“That's all right, isn't it?” Bob Don sounded concerned. “Son?”

“Yes, of course it is. I just wondered.”

“Well, I'm so looking forward to the reunion. I can't wait to show off my boy.”

Pleasure and pride laced his voice, and I smiled despite myself. I glanced back on the obscenity on the kitchen table. “I'm looking forward to meeting them, Bob Don.”

We made small talk for a while, and he invited Candace and me to dinner the following Friday night. I hung up the phone and turned back toward the table.

I resisted the urge to destroy the card. I got my camera, snapped a couple of pictures of the perverse mail, and carefully slid the card into a plastic Baggie. Telling Bob Don would upset him no end, and I felt furious at the idea of being warned off the reunion by someone so cowardly they veiled their hate in blood and anonymous threats. I stored the card carefully in an antique wooden box in my room, loath to eye it again. I stared down at the shut box and imagined the evil on the other side made the carved lid tremble, ever so slightly.

I wondered who might hate me so, sight unseen.

Two weeks later, rich hickory smoke perfumed the air as Bob Don flipped steaks on his backyard grill. Gretchen had flown on her broom to Brenham to visit her aunt and Can-dace was having dinner with her folks. We were bache-loring dinner together, but I had scant appetite for blood-rare steak and a loaded, buttery baked potato, fluffed with salt and pepper. My secret admirer had mailed me good wishes again.

The second bit of correspondence was more direct in its threat. He or she had opted for another mass-market greeting card, the kind that women buy for other women on birthdays, dripping with sexual innuendo. A handsome blond fellow leaned against a column, bare belly rippling with muscle, jeans faded and strategically torn. Vanilla frosting was lightly smeared across his well-defined chest and gut and his puckered lips held a small, lit candle. The inside, preprinted message said


The outward message, though, was of greater interest. The man's visage had been carefully sliced in an X with a razor, and inside my well-wisher had pasted in stolen script:


Cold chilled my bones. I could never be handsome enough to be a model, but the fellow on the card was lanky, a thick-haired blond, and green-eyed-like me. I couldn't imagine that the hate-mailer had gotten lucky in choosing a countenance and coloring like my own. And the vandalism on the card had been minutely done, careful to preserve some semblance of the model's face.

This person knew what I looked like.

Thickness coated my throat. My glance had gone to my windows, my door. Were they watching me now? Did they know my face, or was it a lucky guess based on Bob Don's own looks? I checked again for the postmark-this time it was Beaumont, much further up the long, curving Texas coast from Corpus Christi. So my admirer traveled, or had an accomplice. I sealed the second harassing missive in another Baggie and stored it with the first. And spent a long, sleepless night, listening to Candace's soft breathing in the darkness.

I hadn't told a soul.

Now, watching Bob Don cheerfully grill dinner, the soft voice of the Rangers baseball announcer chronicling a home game, the chirp of crickets in the trees, the hate felt far away. I sipped at my Shiner Bock and listened to the soporific drone of the bugs, singing away their short lives.

“Earth to Jordan,” Bob Don boomed out after I'd been idling moments away in my own world. I looked up at him with surprise.

“Something's got you out of gear, son. The Rangers ain't losing that badly.”

I smiled. Son. Despite my ambivalence about Bob Don as a parent, I have to admit the endearment had a nice ring. When my father died from his bout with cancer and my mother forgot who I was, I'd thought son would be a word dropped from usage in connection with me. But here was Bob Don, ready to pick up the reins. Ready to love me like a father, like the one I'd lost. I stood suddenly and walked through the smoke wafting from the grill.

“You and Candace crossways?” he asked my back.

“No.” How, how to do this? “I need to ask you a question. Is anyone in your family considered-dangerous?”

“Good Lord.” He blinked at me with honest surprise. “What on earth would make you ask such a thing?”

I felt torn about revealing the poison-pen letters. Part of me wanted him to know, to tell me I didn't have to go to the reunion, that he'd find out who was terrorizing me. Another half of me wanted to entirely ignore the epistles, not give in to the foul bullying they represented. But I was swimming into unknown waters here, and I needed to know where the sharks lay.

I ran my tongue along my lips. “I just would like for you to answer the question, Bob Don.”

“I will, when I know why you're asking.” He swallowed another long swig from his Shiner longneck.

“I'm just wondering if everyone in your family is going to be delighted by my presence. There could be some resentment against me. After all, I'm somewhat of an unwelcome addition.”

“Why unwelcome? They're just going to love you-”

“If you say so,” I interrupted, cutting off his extrovert's flow of words and tasting my beer. I'd been giving some thought as to why I-as the newest member of the Goertz family-might merit vituperative messages. And I'd concocted a theory. “Uncle Mutt's rich, right?”

I asked this while Bob Don was in mid-gulp and he nodded his assent. “Yeah, rolling in it.”

“Are we talking millions here?”

“Mutt's probably worth about ten million or so.”

Ten million. No wonder someone didn't want another claimant to the family fortune around.

“And he's in good health? Not expected to kick off anytime soon?”

Bob Don gave me a long, measuring stare. “I don't like where this conversation's heading. I hope you want to go to meet my family because it matters to us both, not to hit Uncle Mutt up for cash or get on the beneficiary list.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” I hemmed. “Not at all, Bob Don. It just occurs to me that some of your relatives might not be overly thrilled at another potential heir.”

He didn't answer me immediately, the smoke from the grill framing his face in the dusky light. He turned and ministered over the steaks, piling the two thick cuts onto a plate. “Nearly let these burn,” he muttered to himself. “And why don't we eat out here? It's a nice evening and the mosquitoes ain't so bad.” In counterpoint to this comment, the blue haze of his bug zapper brightened and an electric hiss announced the demise of another of our bloodsucking friends. “Why don't you get the taters?” he asked.

I went back inside, wondering why he was dodging my question. I fetched the warming potatoes from the oven, sliced them open in a cloud of fragrant steam, and slathered them with butter, sour cream, and chives. I retrieved the salad I'd made earlier from the fridge, grabbed a bottle of ranch dressing, and piled all on a tray, along with plates and silverware.

When I returned to the patio, Bob Don was staring toward the purplish horizon, watching the dying light play along the branches of the loblolly pines and the live oaks that dotted his expansive backyard. The air felt warm and wet from an afternoon shower, but we're tough about humidity in Texas. He didn't even glance back at me when I began to unload the fixings.

“I hope you're hungry, Bob Don,” I began, '”cause we sure got us a mess of food here. I'm hiking my cholesterol just looking at it.”

He turned to me then and I could see an alien sadness coloring his face. I say alien because I'm not sure I could ever understand the emotions that painted that particular expression. He looked like a man who's gotten every gold piece in creation, only to see it all turn to brass in one dreadful second. I turned back to setting the table.

“Son, I love you.” I was still unloading the tray and I didn't look up again. A twitchy discomfort arrowed through my body and I felt my face tighten.

“I haven't said them words to you in a long time. Not since after we-after you found out about me.” He'd murmured them in an intensive-care hospital room after taking a bullet while saving my life from a vicious killer. I'd held his hand, and like a little boy, I'd cried. But since then the topic of his paternal feelings for me had been avoided, a maelstrom to be carefully circumnavigated.

My mouth felt dry. I stared down at the jumble of torn lettuce, quartered tomatoes, and sliced onions in the salad bowl. The smell of the steaks had set my mouth watering, but I couldn't swallow past the dense block in my throat.

“It's okay,” he murmured. “You don't have to say nothing. I know you still have trouble seeing me as your father.”

I coughed past the blockage and glanced up at him. “Bob Don-”

“It's just that you coming to this reunion, God, it means the world to me. And I don't want you scared off by some idle worry that my people are gonna think that you're just gunning for Uncle Mutt's money. But after the past year we've had-getting to know each other, you letting me into your life more-I just want us to be able to acknowledge each other. To say publicly that we're father and son.”

I clanged silverware down on the table. My stomach, grumbling anxiously a moment ago for meat and potatoes, quieted like a hushed baby. I didn't look at him and I didn't know what to say. I wasn't ready for this, not yet. Not yet.

“You're sure keeping quiet. That's not like you,” Bob Don finally said.

“I-I don't mean to be quiet. You've just given me a lot to think about.”

He touched my arm, as gently as he might a baby's, and I glanced into the full want in his face. His voice was hoarse, rasped raw by emotion. “You're my child. I can never, ever regard you any other way now. I see so much of myself in you, of your mother-”

“And my father. My-other father,” I interjected quickly. My real father, I'd nearly said, and bit the words off just in time. But the reality was, as far as the dictates of biology went, Bob Don had claim to that particular title.

He lowered his arm. “Yes, of course. You've got his kind streak. Most of the time.” He sat down and began to slice into his steak. “Sit down and eat, Jordan, before your supper gets cold.”

I took an uncomfortable seat. I was evading his demand, but he had neatly skipped past my question. I considered telling him about the cards, but knowing Bob Don, he would have insisted I stay put and out of any potential harm's way. I wasn't about to be skittered off by a sick threat. My own curiosity gnawed at me as to why someone was going to such careful trouble to frighten me off the family tree. If I pressed him for details on who in the family might be dangerous, I might need a reason to justify my queries. For now, I decided to keep my own counsel.

We ate in silence. The meat was meltingly tender, the potato creamily smooth and peppery, the salad crisp, but it all tasted like cardboard in my mouth. My bones felt like they were trembling inside the bag of my skin. I had been avoiding publicly acknowledging Bob Don for over a year, and he was going to force the issue. No pun intended.

I chewed a chunk of meat, my appetite fading. Why wasn't I ready? I snuck a glance at him, scooping out the buttery innards of his baked potato.

Because he wasn't my daddy. He was a nice man, a kind fellow with a big heart, but he wasn't the man who raised me and taught me and spanked me when I deserved it and hugged me when I didn't. He wasn't Lloyd Poteet, and he could never be. You cannot erase twenty-odd years of fatherhood with an announcement of true paternity. You can't push your daddy's memory deeper into the grave by turning to all folks you know and saying, “This man is my real father.” It's not possible. If our hearts are homes, some rooms can't be rented out once the occupant dies.

Thankfully, Bob Don abandoned the subject and we ate the rest of our meal with the drone of the baseball game on the radio as our companion. We drank beer and we talked of the weather. He did not tell me family stories and I did not ask him to. He did not mention again that I was his child. He exhausted his collection of Aggie jokes and I made myself laugh through them all. But I felt a creeping, unfamiliar misery nestle in my chest.

I was saying goodbye to him in the den when Gretchen returned from visiting her aunt.

“Hello, hello,” she chimed as she came through the kitchen door. She gave her husband a cheek kiss and favored me with her uncertain smile. I've sometimes wondered if the long years of drunkenness wiped the memory of how to truly smile from Gretchen's mind. Her grin is half grimace and it never settles correctly into her face. “Did you boys enjoy y'all's dinner?”

“Yes, it was great,” I croaked, coughing for no reason. We made an odd tableau in this den: the very scene where a wasted Gretchen had brayed out her hatred of me, blaming me for her long years of inebriation, and finally the truth that I was Bob Don's bastard. His precious bastard. The times I came to this house, we did not linger in this room, as though its walls still held the faintest stain from her venom. It was still the spot on earth where my world unraveled for all time.

“Did you have a nice visit with your aunt?” I asked her.

She blinked at my inquiry-kindness from me was suspicious. “Yes, we did. Poor old aunt's not getting younger. But it was nice to see her.” She patted Bob Don's arm and I saw genuine affection light her face.

“I'll be going, then. Thanks for the dinner, Bob Don.” I feared for one long, unmerciful moment that he was going to mention his desire to claim me as his son; surely he had discussed this with Gretchen. Hadn't he?

He simply shook my hand. “You're still planning on coming to the reunion, aren't you?”

“Of course,” I assured him. I saw the corners of Gretchen's eyes crinkle in consternation, then her smile- her offish, odd smile-slid into uneasy place on her face.

I wished them good night and drove home, peering into the rural darkness. A blanket of stars unfurled above my head as a wall of clouds pushed onward toward the Gulf, clearing the sky of its low haze.

Gretchen hated me-or at least she had once. Could she be behind the cards? If I never became a part of Bob Don's family, I could not trespass on her territory. I imagined her hands smearing blood across a card, razoring a printed face, pasting letters with malice.

It scared me that I could easily see her hands busy with such work.

Two days before the reunion.

“I'd really prefer you not go,” I murmured into the soft spill of Candace's hair. She smelled of flowers, and of lime from the ceviche she made for dinner. Moonlight played along our bare bodies as we cuddled in bed.

“Why don't you want me there?” Her tone was measured, which meant I might be in trouble.

“Because it's going to be complicated enough, sweetheart. I think I need to face the Goertzes on my own.” I fib best when not having to look directly into Candace's face, and I examined the top of her head with intense concentration. As if knowing my thoughts, she shifted in my arms to turn her blue eyes straight on my face. I hazarded a smile.

“Is that it?”

“Yeah.” I kissed the top of her forehead. I could hardly say, I'm getting vicious hate mail from someone in the family who doesn't want me around. And I don't want you to be in danger. So stay home. That wouldn't work- Candace would be bodyguarding my butt all the way to Uncle Mutt's island.

“Strikes me as odd,” she mumbled against the tender flesh of my throat, “that you don't want to acknowledge Bob Don as your daddy, yet you're bound and determined to go to this reunion. Meet his family, let them meet you. If that's not acknowledgment, I don't know what is.”

I swallowed as she began to play her fingers through my hair. Her other hand began a slow exploration of my chest, grazing a nipple and sending a shiver through me. I didn't speak. “So what's up, Jordan? I suspect you're not telling total truth here.”

“Listen, darling, it's nothing to be concerned over, I just think it might be best if you didn't go.”

She ran her fingernails across my chest, in a sensual tippy-toe that left me holding my breath. She lingered near the nipple again, and grabbed with sudden force. I winced.

“Honesty time, hon. What's going on?”

I pried her hand off from its death grip. She kissed me quickly in apology. So I told her about the cards.

“Sweet God.” She sat up in bed. “That's a crime, Jordan. We're calling the police.”

I touched her shoulder. “No, we're not. I don't want Bob Don to know about this.”

“Let me see these cards,” Candace demanded. I retrieved them from their hiding place, and carefully using a cloth, she read them. She stared at the bloodstained greeting card with disgust, and shook her head at the mutilated model.

“This is god-awful sick,” she finally murmured. “And just why the hell weren't you going to share this problem?”

“I knew you'd freak. And I didn't want you to worry. Now you see why I don't want you to come-”

“And why do you want to go?” she demanded. “Why put yourself in danger, babe? If you don't want Bob Don for a father-and you can't seem to decide-” She ended in a shrug and gestured at the hate mail. “Why not stay away from this-this-psychopath?”

“I don't scare easy,” I said with a bravado I didn't feel, “and I'm not going to be warned off by idiotic pranks like these cards. I want to know why now-why is someone so determined to keep me from the reunion? Why?”

“Curiosity may kill more than cats,” she cautioned. “If you're going, I'm going with you. You'll need someone to watch your back.”

“You sound like a bad cop show.”

“I'm not joking, Jordan. I'm not letting anyone hurt a hair on your head.”

I blushed at the intensity of her words, which was somehow more revealing than our casual nakedness in bed. And I knew better than to argue. “Okay, fine. As long as you stay out of trouble.” My blood ran cold at the thought of Candace near anyone who could send such missives, but we'd moved past the point of debate-I saw the stony set of determination in her face. “And not a word to Bob Don. I have my own plan for dealing with this sicko.”

“Tell me,” she murmured.

So I did.


I wondered if any passing motorists would render aid if I leaned out the car door window and screamed.

“-and that's when I decided Sass and I would not only be sisters-in-law, but be best friends,” Gretchen continued. “She was just so kind to me, and chock-full of marital advice when Bob Don and I got hitched.”

“Lord knows she should have been,” Bob Don muttered. “Sass'd been married often enough. I half thought she was gunning for the world record for times down the aisle.” Even his normally jovial temper seemed strained by the long drive.

It was not an auspicious start to our family reunion. Mostly in that I did not want to be reunited anytime soon with my loved ones in this car, much less make the acquaintance of a whole passel of new kinfolks. For all his enthusiasm for this trip, Bob Don seemed itchy. Gretchen's paean to his family irritated him, and he'd snapped more than once at his wife. Candace was strangely quiet, offering no relief from the ongoing Gretchen monologue. Gretchen appeared determined to sparkle all the way to Uncle Mutt's home. Not even the stars in the sky glitter quite that long.

I don't mean to complain. Honestly. But my stomach had started roiling at the idea of being introduced to a bunch of complete strangers (although they were technically blood kin) and tension gripped my limbs. I wanted Bob Don's family to like me and accept me-but at the same time I wanted not to care about their reactions to me. I tried not to reflect overmuch that at least one of them seemed inordinately displeased that a stray sperm of Bob Don's had ended up sentient, blond, and breathing.

A final card had arrived the day before, a last-ditch effort to avert my arrival at Uncle Mutt's. I had not even shown this one to Candace; it would have scared the bejesus out of her. At the moment the card lay safely contained in a bag in my suitcase, along with its fellow couriers of hate. I could nearly imagine a faint throb of evil emanating from the car trunk, like a telltale heart.

The card's designer had intended comfort; the front of the greeting, in flowery script, said IN DEEPEST SYMPATHY. Open it and you saw the rest of the sentence, hacked from magazine letters: FOR


I wish I could say a cold shiver raced through me when I read those words; it seems the normal reaction, and I pray for normality in my life. But at this last, most bitter missive, I felt only a numb disbelief that someone hated me so. What crime had I committed, aside from the accident of my birth? (A crime I could hardly be judged and hanged for.) I'd spent the rest of the day in a quiet funk.

I had not rallied for this morning's drive to the coast. Bob Don's sudden silence, Candace's odd detachment, and Gretchen's prattling hadn't improved my mood. She rarely veered from discussion of her sister-in-law and she made no useful announcement, like “How's Cousin Herbert enjoying life outside the insane asylum?” If I wanted to identify my torturer, I would have to play investigator. Again. And people believe I go looking for trouble?

The landscape unfolded past us as the Cadillac raced toward the coast. The gently rolling hills of pastureland fenced in idle herds of Red Brangus and Santa Gertrudis cattle, grazing in the heat. We stopped at the brown-mustard-colored grocery store in tiny Swiss Alp for Dr Peppers. We arrowed through the heart of Czech Texas. In Schulenberg and Hallettsville I saw bumper stickers written in Czech next to bumper stickers that advised me to love or leave America. We headed south on Highway 77, and as we approached Victoria the pasturelands gave way to the flatness of the coastal plain. In Victoria, an old Texas town that seems to have every new fast-food restaurant imaginable, we turned south onto Highway 87, bulleting through small towns like Placedo and Kamey. As we continued through Calhoun County one side of the road seemed thick with an unfurled skein of bush that never quite ended; the other side of the road was charcoal dark farm soil. An empty railroad track ran parallel to the road, as if from a forgotten time. Oil pumps, the eternal symbol of Texas, moved in languorous thrusts near the road. The July air grew perceptibly denser with humidity as we headed south.

Port Lavaca, which guarded Lavaca Bay and its bigger parent, Matagorda Bay, came up quickly, a sleepy, salty hamlet. Port Lavaca works too hard to be a pretty town; most of the businesses seemed industrial, the eateries cheap, and old, hand-painted signs for last winter's local elections still stood in forlorn disuse. Bob Don insisted on stopping at a colorfully painted Mexican restaurant that looked like a botulism testing site but had marvelous home-style food, prepared by a chattering grandmother who scolded Bob Don in Spanish for not visiting more often. After our meal, we drove further out on the jutting chunk of Calhoun County and headed down Highway 1289 toward Port O'Connor. The land here was hardly coastal looking-tilled flatland, tall grass, horses and cattle grazing, profusions of thick bush. I rolled down the window and could smell the barest tinge of salt. We drove over marshy areas, with signs that said NO FISHING FROM BRIDGE. Old men and boys, black and white and brown, sat inches from the sign, watching their lines dangle in the water with the patience of statues. They did not even look up as the Cadillac rumbled past.

Fishing is the main reason for Port O'Connor's existence (aside from target practice for hurricanes-Carla nearly destroyed it in 1961). Every other billboard seemed to advertise the county's best fishing guide or a boat stall for cheap rent.

“We'll do some fishing,” Bob Don promised me. Of course, I thought, that's what fathers and sons do.

He pulled into Port O'Connor proper, stopping near the main beach-a very narrow one-and pulling into a small but well-kept driveway for a little cottage. The other homes around it looked full of vacationing families.

I craned my neck out the window to see the brackish, greenish water of Matagorda Bay. Gulls swooped above the beach as screaming children hurled bread in the air in delight. The birds were white-breasted and gray-winged. A cloud of them cawed and wheeled as two children further down the beach lured them with new treats. A sailboat plied past and I saw a pretty girl in a bikini lean against the boat's railing as though she were unimaginably bored.

“I'll fetch Rufus,” Bob Don grumbled, opening the car door and slamming it shut with extra effort. He stormed toward the cottage. Gretchen was firmly locked in I'm trying my best mode and she pivoted toward the backseat with a frighteningly energetic smile.

“Y'all are just going to love Sass!” she assured us for the nth time.

“I love her already.” I smiled through clenched teeth.

“Jordy,” Candace admonished me. She patted the back of Gretchen's beringed hand. “I'm sure that we'll all get along like houses afire.”

“I'm so excited. They don't know about my recovery. At least, Bob Don hasn't said anything to them about it.” Gretchen lowered the vanity mirror and, after rummaging in her purse, primped with powder and lipstick.

I watched the back of her permed gray hair as she ministered to herself. The hardness of my heart toward her softened a bit. I won't pretend that Gretchen and I have had an easy relationship. And I couldn't easily drop my suspicion of her. She was the one who'd viciously and drunkenly informed me of my parentage during one of her binges. She'd also gotten involved in a pathetic scheme to ruin my reputation, which I could have sued the hell out of her for, but had never mentioned again, out of consideration for Bob Don. Since she'd come to work for me at the library as a volunteer (Bob Don's idea, certainly not mine), we'd made forays into healing the breaches between us. She'd sobered up. I tried not to step on her toes too much in developing a relationship with my new father. But she resented me and I resented her, and the process of learning kindness toward each other was slow and difficult, like wading through beachside rocks without turning an ankle. Nothing said I ever had to like or love Gretchen-those were emotions I found it impossible to associate with her-but civility, for Bob Don's sake, was a reachable goal. As long as she had no role in sending me hate mail, we could get along fine.

“Gretchen,” Candace said softly, “you look fine. Don't worry so much about powdering your face. You look pretty.” I wasn't the only one making an effort to be kind.

“Why, thank you, Candace sweetie.” Gretchen smacked her lips together once to even her lipstick. “I know a young lady like you-someone from a more refined background- is going to appreciate the Goertzes.”

I chose not to take that comment as a slam toward me, but as more of Gretchen's interminable butt-kissing. Candace doesn't need to worry about money, so she's higher on the food chain than I can ever hope to evolve. Unless I win the lottery.

Gretchen snapped the mirror back into place with an authoritative air. “Candace, I'm so glad you're here. You can show Jordy the ropes of dealing with quality people.”

I saw Candace tug at her top lip with her pearly front teeth, quelling a rejoinder. I operated under no such restrictions.

“Thank you, Gretchen, but I know which fork to use. I'll manage just fine around people with nicknames like Sass and Mutt.” Not a worthy kindness, but I was on edge and not feeling charitable.

“See that you do, Jordan. I know that Bob Don thinks you poop French vanilla ice cream, but I know how sharp-tongued and boorish you can be. It's not classy, and I don't want you to embarrass him in any way.”

“If he was ashamed of me, Gretchen, he wouldn't have begged me to come.”

“He didn't want your feelings hurt, Jordy. I'm sorry to tell you that, but how would you have felt if you knew he'd gone off to a family reunion and not included you?”

“Just fine,” I retorted, but I didn't elaborate. How would I have reacted? I had been the one keeping Bob Don at an arm's length, not publicly acknowledging him as my father in our hometown, politely accepting his help and his money with my mother's nursing and his business advice with our new horse farm. He'd been longing for decades to be a father to me, loving me from afar, keeping his pride for me locked firmly away in his heart. He'd given me the key and I'd yet to use it.

“Just mind your manners,” Gretchen said.

“I will. And practice what you preach.” My irritation with Gretchen felt nearly physical. What did Bob Don see in this woman? How could he have loved my mother-a kind, funny, intelligent woman-and also love Gretchen, whose bitterness was as palpable as heavily worn perfume?

“Both of you, please behave,” Candace chided.

“She started it,” I announced childishly.

Gretchen didn't have time for a return volley. The door swung open and Bob Don settled his big frame back into the Cadillac's plush leather interior. In the rearview mirror I could see his scowl. I saw a lanky older man head from the cottage toward a marina a half block away.

“Rufus is getting the boat ready,” Bob Don said. “Grab your bags and we'll walk down there.”

“Who's Rufus?” Candace asked.

“He's an old friend of Uncle Mutt's that would probably be a dead wino if it wasn't for Mutt.” Bob Don turned and grinned at us. “He's Uncle Mutt's charity case. I figure Rufus's about seven bricks short of a load, but he's awful loyal to Mutt. Mutt keeps him in food and Mogen David and that makes him happy.”

“Poor Rufus.” Gretchen clucked. “He really needs to address his alcoholism. He has never admitted that he had a problem.”

“He asked how you were, honey,” Bob Don said, the humor out of his voice. “I told him you were sober now and he said he was right disappointed to lose a good drinking buddy.”

It was well-intended, but not the right compliment to offer. I saw a wave of pain crest across Gretchen's face, but she set her lips in a half smile. She worried one comer of her mouth with a lacquered nail, as if to keep her optimistic grin firmly in place. “He'll just have to drink on without me, sweetheart. Those days are behind me forever.”

I coughed, not meaning to, and Candace flashed me a look of complete annoyance. Bob Don and Gretchen chose to ignore my gaffe completely. I ducked down in the seat, embarrassed.

“Of course you are, darlin', and I'm so proud of you.” Bob Don squeezed Gretchen's shoulder with unexpected tenderness. “We all are, aren't we, kids?”

“Yes, of course, Gretchen.” Candace patted the back of Gretchen's shoulder.

“I'm happy for you, Gretchen,” I managed. It was true. I was happier for Bob Don because his life had been an unceasing hell while Gretchen eyed the bottle's bottom. But despite the untenable chasm between her and me, I didn't wish her dependence on anyone. I couldn't imagine what existence would be like for someone continually drunk or continually wanting to drink. Life was made to be lived, not stumbled through.

“Thank you,” Gretchen murmured, her eyes averted from us all. She glanced up through the window. “Oh, there's that Rufus with the boat. I hope there's no wine on his breath this early in the day.” Her voice shook, like the palmetto fronds in the quickening gulf wind.

The fishy, salty smell of Matagorda Bay pervaded not only the little speedboat but Rufus Beaulac as well. He was a leanly tall, grizzle-faced man, with a scarred lip and red-rimmed, muddy hazel eyes. He spoke with the rolling cadence of the Cajuns that live in southwestern Louisiana and far eastern Texas. He helped us with our luggage without comment, eyed Gretchen with suspicion, ogled Candace, and didn't flinch when Bob Don introduced me as his son.

A long gaze went up from my worn loafers, my jeans, the untucked batik print shirt Candace had given me from one of her recent shopping sprees (she's one of those women who like to dress their men), and lingered longest on my blond hair and green eyes. I felt like he was surveying my face for flecks of family.

“For God's sake, Rufus, don't stare at the boy,” Gretchen muttered. “You do have some manners left, don't you?” She worked her hands into fists, a death grip on her purse.

Rufus ignored her. “Mutt said you were bringing your boy. Just surprised to see how much he favors you. I fig-gered that you'd had some kid off n a nigger woman.”

“Rufus!” Gretchen gasped. “What a thing to say!” Bob Don blushed deeply. I was unsure if Gretchen was shocked by Rufus's racial slur or the suggestion that Bob Don would have had a black mistress.

“Well, I couldn't figger why else he ain't owned up to him sooner, Gretch.” I saw her cringe at the diminutive use of her name.

“I don't mean no disrespect to the young feller.” Rufus offered me a grimy hand, which I shook with disguised reluctance. If Rufus portended things to come, the weekend was shaping up to be even more of a trial than I anticipated. I surveyed his face carefully, wondering if he was the letter sender. He didn't seem the type for idle threat or subterfuge; raw physical action would be Rufus's forte.

“It's nice to meet you, Jordan. Look like your daddy when he was the young whip.” His eyes traveled back to Candace and his distorted lip rose in a smile. “And ain't you got a pretty petite here.” He bowed to her with mock solemnity. “Rufus Beaulac at your service, chere.”

“Delighted, Mr. Beaulac,” Candace said diplomatically. “If you don't mind, I think we'd like to get over to the island as soon as possible. I'm sure you can understand that Jordan's rather anxious to meet his new relatives.”

I didn't know she was such an accomplished fibber. She squeezed my hand, a silent message: We'll get through this.

Rufus laughed, showing tobacco-stained teeth and unhealthy gums. “I ain't so sure they're anxious to meet him, miss.” He favored me with another discolored grin and turned his attention back to the boat. We boarded, my own heart thudding in my chest.

We cruised away from Port O'Connor at the lip of land, and toward the middle of Matagorda Bay, racing away from the elongated barrier island of Matagorda, now a state park and wildlife refuge. I kept looking around for one of its famous whooping cranes, but I didn't see any diving through the summer sky. The islands that gird South Texas are thin, like emaciated fingers of land pressing against the coast. The water was a little rough and dark.

Racing toward Sangre Island felt like approaching an alien shore. I wasn't sure what my role was supposed to be here: tourist, invader, or immigrant. I didn't acknowledge the possibility of victim. I watched Bob Don laugh and cajole with Rufus as the boat shot across the choppy gray water. What did Bob Don want from me during this visit? Act as a devoted, dutiful son? It wasn't a role I was sure I was prepared for. I knew how to be Lloyd Poteet's son; being Bob Don's was playing a part that made me awkward and unsure. And Rufus's teasing suggestion about the questionable welcome awaiting me didn't imbue me with confidence. It didn't sound like the collective Goertz arms had opened to enfold the lamb that had wandered from the flock. Yet Bob Don seemed sure-at least when we were back in Mirabeau and he was talking me into this fool expedition- that his people would embrace me as he had.

I tried not to dwell on the hate mail. It couldn't-I hoped-speak for an entire family. I suspected there was one bitter apple in the barrel, riddled with worms. The others might be crisp and fresh and faultless. After all, Bob Don was a fine man and surely he was more representative of the Goertzes than my secret pen pal.

Gretchen sat, unusually silent, watching the unfolding white wake the boat made in the rocky bay. Candace held on to my arm and appeared a tad seasick. I asked if she was okay. She nodded. “Never liked boats much, and they don't like me.” I took her damp fingers and laced them through mine.

The trip was short; perhaps twenty minutes. I saw the island-barely a mile long, if that, and some indeterminate width that wasn't much greater. Most of the lip of the shore seemed to be grayish sand, and there was a scattering of oak and palmetto trees. I could see a swath of beach, crowned with modest dunes and tall saltgrass. Sangre looked like a midget barrier island that hadn't quite made it out to sea, unlike the mighty stretch of Matagorda Island. Toward one end of Sangre a large, rambling house stood, uncompromisingly Victorian. I marveled that a hurricane hadn't reduced the old house to memory-Matagorda Bay's residents lived on an edge, each and every summer. More than one killer storm had screamed ashore along this section of the coast.

Rufus veered the boat out a bit from the island and gestured toward the empty bay north of the island, opposite the mansion. “That's where they went down.”

“Who?” Candace asked, yelling above the roaring motor and the whistling wind.

“The Reliant. Went down fighting.”

“A Confederate ship?” I asked. “I thought most of the naval action along the coast during the war was up near Sabine Pass.”

Rufus shook his head. “Well, the Confederates built a fort on Matagorda Bay and made the timber look like big guns to bluff the Yankees, but that ain't here no more. Reliant wasn't a Confederate ship. Reliant was one of the five battleships in the original Texas Navy, back when Texas was fightin' for independence. Went down fightin' a Mexican ship. That's how the island got its name. Sangre means blood in Spanish.”

“Rufus, this is a distasteful story. Surely-” Gretchen attempted.

He paid her no heed. “Survivors from the Reliant got to the island. The Mexicans”-he pronounced it Messkins – “captured them and cut their throats, right there on the sand.” He gestured from where the sunken wreck lay to a sliver of beach on the north side of the island, with a dock protruding. He kept his hands so little on the wheel I wondered how he steered. “But Mutt tells the story lots better than I do. You should ask him.”

I stared out at the watery spot Rufus Beaulac had indicated. Somewhere beneath those whitecapped waves the shell of the Reliant rested, its broken hull serving as an empty coffin to God only knew how many boys and men that had dared to defy the Mexicans. Then I glanced again at the beach where Rufus indicated the massacre had taken place. Those poor sailors-they had never lived to see the Republic of Texas born, the admission to the Union, the bonds of brotherly ties shattered in the Civil War, then the pain of Reconstruction.

“Anyone ever dive down there?” T called to Rufus. He stared at me with frank horror.

“Hell, no! With all them dead boys? Who'd want to go down there?”

I started to mention that any human remains would be long gone. “It could be fascinating-” I started, but Rufus crossed himself with a practiced hand and looked at me with reproach.

“You a ghoul, boy,” he said. “You got more to worry about than those dead sailors.” He turned the boat away from the watery grave and aimed it toward the island. I felt a sick unease tug at my heart. You got more to worry about.


A tall, lanky man and an older woman in a flowing, robelike dress waited for us as we pulled the boat up to a dock. The man had a thick shock of blondish-gray hair, high cheekbones set in a broad, German face, and watery blue eyes. There was no mistaking the familial resemblance between him and Bob Don. An unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth and he had his narrow hands set on thin hips, watching us expectantly.

The woman was older, in her sixties at least, and she held a small Chihuahua up to her cheek as though it were a puppet. She, too, had the Teutonic countenance I had come to think of as particularly Goertzish, but a warm, gentle smile softened her face. As the boat grew closer she took one of the Chihuahua's tiny paws and waved it in greeting. The dog looked bored with this social nicety and squirmed uncomfortably against the lady's bosom.

Gretchen wiggled fingers at the welcoming party, but tension crinkled her eyes and Bob Don frowned for a moment before replacing his grimace with a grin.

I glanced at Candace. I hoped I didn't look as petrified as I felt. She gave me a hopeful, warm smile. I did my best to return it.

Rufus leaped out of the boat and moored it to the dock. The khaki-clad man didn't offer to help; instead, he lit his cigarette with a battered Zippo lighter and peered at me through the feather of smoke that crept past his weathered face.

We disembarked and I helped Rufus pull our luggage out of the boat. Bob Don shook hands with the man.

“Hey, Cousin Tom. How you doing?” Bob Don was using what I called his “sales pitch” tone: friendly, slightly cajoling, hinting that he'd love to do nothing more than listen to you talk the whole day long. It had moved any number of new and used cars off his lots.

Cousin Tom didn't seem swayed by it. He exhaled a plume of sour smoke and said, “Well, don't you got yourself an entourage this time, Bob Don. How do, Gretchen?” His voice was deep and raspy. He nodded toward Gretchen, who clutched Bob Don's arm and put on her party smile.

“I'm fine, Tom. Hello, Aunt Lolly, how nice to see you!” Gretchen chirped.

Bob Don leaned down and kissed the lined cheek of the lady with the dog. She giggled with glee and kissed him back with a resounding smack on the cheek.

“Bob Don, so good to see you. You, too, Gretchen,” she added with a considerable drop in enthusiasm. She wielded the Chihuahua into Bob Don's face. “Give Sweetie a big oP kiss!”

Bob Don opted instead to pat the tiny critter on the head. I couldn't blame him, as Sweetie's tongue draped out of its mouth in the summer heat.

“Oh, you'll hurt Sweetie's feelings! And him being a blood relation!” The woman, whom I now supposed to be Bob Don's aunt Lolly, frowned and cradled Sweetie in her arms. Tom rolled his eyes in exasperated impatience. Gretchen coughed. The dog was a blood relation? Perhaps I wasn't the only surprise on the family tree.

“Are we the first ones here?” Gretchen ventured to break the sudden silence.

“Not hardly. Everybody else is already up at the house. Uncle Mutt's in rare form. Be warned.” Tom's eyes locked on me in the same calculated scan that Rufus had performed back on the coast. “This him?” His voice hadn't gotten any friendlier.

“Yeah, it is,” Bob Don said, smiling genuinely for the first time in a couple of hours. 'Tom, this is my son, Jordan. Jordan, this is my cousin Tom Bedrich.”

I extended a hand and Tom took it in a macho death grip that went beyond firm. I squeezed back for all I was worth. “Well, you look enough like a Goertz. I guess.” His pale blue eyes went to Candace and a smile touched his lips. It was a grimy grin and I didn't like it one bit. However, I told him I was pleased to meet him.

“And, Jordan, this is my aunt Louisa Goertz Throck-morton. Aunt Lolly, this is my son Jordan.”

Aunt Lolly surprised me with a deep curtsy. “I am honored to make your acquaintance, my dear boy.” She sprang back up, brandishing the dog. “And this is Sweetie, who in a previous life was your great-uncle Charles Throckmorton.”

“Uhhhh-” was the only response that came to mind. My mama didn't raise no social morons, though, so I ignored her announcement about her husband's reincarnation. “It's a real pleasure to meet you, ma'am. Hi, Sweetie,” I improvised, patting the dog's head.

“Oh, my dear, you must call me Aunt Lolly. Everyone does.”

“Okay. Aunt Lolly, Tom, this is my girlfriend, Candace Tully.”

Tom took Candace's hand with considerably more enthusiasm than he had mine. “Pleasure to meet you. Do you go by Candy?”

“Never voluntarily,” Candace said politely.

“Then Candace it is. A lovely name for a very lovely lady.” Tom suddenly seemed aware of his disreputable appearance, dragging a hand across his dirty, worn polo shirt. “Y'all have to forgive my clothes. I've been puttering around the island all afternoon. I didn't mean to be the official welcoming committee, but I saw the boat coming over. I was just heading back to change.” During this monologue his eyes went from Candace back to me. I steeled myself to get stares for the next couple of days. I refused to let myself be rattled and I just gave Tom a noncommittal grin.

I tried to imagine him slicing letters from a magazine to construct pronouncements of hate, or smearing blood across an innocent greeting card. Tom I could see doing it; Aunt Lolly I couldn't. She seemed ditzy but basically harmless.

“Well, welcome to the family, Jordan. Let's get y'all settled.” Tom grabbed Gretchen's bag and headed toward the house.

“Would you like to carry Sweetie, darling?” Lolly asked Candace. My own sweetie smiled and took the dog, holding it close. One stray paw touched Candace's left breast, and Lolly smirked.

“Oh, Sweetie! He was just that awful when he was Charles. Bad, bad boy!” She waggled a finger in her pooch's face, who eyed it with utter disdain.

Candace smiled politely in agreement, deferring to Aunt Lolly's more cosmic knowledge, and shot me a look of desperation. I was too busy shooting one at Bob Don, who just smiled and shrugged.

We followed Tom, like sheep listing after a herder. I don't think Sweetie got a chance to grope Candace again.

We walked up and past the stretch of dunes, heading toward the main house. It stood on the barrier flat of the island, grassy and weedy with plants. Wildflowers-rosy salt-marsh morning glory with arrowhead leaves, a bed of bluebells, a wooden post twining violet with butterfly pea- made bright explosions of color. Grasses of different varieties sprouted along the path leading up to the house, much of it knee-high. Not far from the house was a large greenhouse, where I could see even more plants profusing. A well-maintained porch wrapped around the entire big, white house, with wicker furniture so guests could sit and enjoy a cooling breeze off the bay.

Bob Don gestured toward the greenhouse and spoke to Rufus. “Jake and Mutt pottering away?”

Rufus shook his head. “Not much lately. Mutt's too busy for hobbies and Jake's feeling a little peaked.”

“Mutt needs a new hobby,” I heard Lolly mutter.

As we went up the steps, I thought: Here we go. Your life's never going to be quite the same again. You'll never think of family quite the same again. I half expected that if I glanced over my shoulder, I'd see Mama and Daddy, standing by the dock, waving goodbye to me. I was a Poteet-I would always be a Poteet-but none of that would matter to these folks. I would be a part of whatever strange collective history the Goertzes had formed, the intangible web of love and hurt that binds families together.

An attractive young woman, dark-eyed and dark-haired, greeted us in the front entrance. She gave a hearty kiss on the cheek to Bob Don and a tight, affectionate hug to Gretchen. “Aunt Gretchen, you look wonderful!” I could see the happy light in Gretchen's face; had she heard that often from the Goertzes when she was lost in her alcoholic fog? Even before Bob Don could introduce me, the young woman was already kissing my cheek.

“Jordan! It's so great to meet you! I'm your cousin Deborah Goertz.” She held me at arm's length for a moment, eyeing me critically. “And isn't it a shame we're kin? You're just too cute.”

Embarrassed, I managed to laugh and introduced Can-dace, who was then treated to another warm Deborah reception-a kiss on the cheek and a cheery hug. “And Bob Don didn't tell us you had such a pretty girlfriend. I'm so glad you're here. There's not many folks around our age. Except Aubrey, who I swear acts like he's sixty anyway. Old fuddy.” Her voice, warm and sweet like caramel, could reduce men to abject slavery. I liked her immediately and could tell Candace did, too.

“If you are quite done being the Welcome Wagon, Deb,” Aunt Lolly intoned, reproof in her voice, “perhaps you'd show Jordan and Candace to their rooms. Bob Don and Gretchen, y'all are in your regular room at the end of the hall. Why don't y'all get settled and then join us down here for cocktails? Then we'll all get acquainted and eat.” She patted me on the arm, smiled wanly at Candace, and glided from the room like a spirit. Only the vague smell of her cit-rusy perfume declared she'd been in the room.

Deborah made a wrinkled face at her aunt's departing form. “Speaking of old fuddies-she needs a little more sugar in her diet.” She grabbed Candace's bag. “Follow me, troops.”

The stairway she led us up was dark, in stark contrast to the glaring summer light outside. The banister was heavy and worn by several decades' worth of sliding palms. The stairs bent at the second floor, then bent again to rise to the third. The house must be older than I originally thought, built perhaps in the last century. The floor, the walls, the stairs all held an enclosing permanence that felt choking. It was not an airy house and an invisible denseness pressed against my skin. Deborah kept up a line of patter all the way up the stairs. “So you've already met Tom and Lolly- anyone else yet?”

“Rufus,” I answered.

“Ah. Uncle Mutt's marionette. Rufus is okay, but he's not one of the world's great thinkers.” Deborah paused at the second-floor landing, one hand on an ornate orb of wood on the staircase. “And have you made the acquaintance of Aunt Sass yet?”

“No, but we've heard quite a lot about her,” I answered.

“You can't hear about Sass-one has to experience her.” Deborah's grin was wry, but I thought I detected a flicker of pain across her features. “Aunt Sass glues this family together.”

“Blood can be as sticky as glue,” Candace offered unexpectedly. A quick glance told me she was studying Deborah intently, perhaps to see if the mention of blood rattled her.

Apparently it didn't. “Isn't blood what holds a family together?” Deborah shrugged. She sauntered up the steps; I figured she'd misinterpreted Candace's comment.

The third floor held several bedrooms-Deborah indicated her own guest quarters were down the hall, and Aunt Lolly's room was here as well. “She likes to be close to heaven,” Deborah observed while opening a door and gesturing us inside. “Here's y'all's digs. Hope they're comfortable.”

The room was nice, furnished with antique pieces and a braided navy-and-gray rug. Some undetermined wild-flower-lavender in shade-stood in a vase. A mirror, one crack scarring its surface, sat mounted on the wall like a diseased eye. A window opened up to a view over the bay. A small bathroom and large closet completed the room.

“I hope you like it. This is a room I used to stay in when we'd visit when I was little. I asked Uncle Mutt to give it to y'all special. I wanted y'all to feel welcome.” She smiled warmly.

“Thanks very much,” I said. “I'm sure we'll be really comfortable, Deborah.”

“We want you to be, Jordan,” she said softly. “I mean, I'm sure this is very odd for you. It's odd for us, as well. The family, I mean.” A sudden grip of inarticulateness made her flip her palms up, then down. “I don't have the words. I'm so very fond of Uncle Bob Don. I just am glad to know you've found him. I know he'll be a wonderful father to you.”

My throat felt tight. Found him. Wonderful father.

“You didn't tell us what you do, Deborah. Jordan's a librarian, and I run a little restaurant in Mirabeau. How about you?” Candace stayed close to me, watching my new cousin.

“Oh, I'm a nurse. In Corpus Christi. But I do get to visit Uncle Mutt and Uncle Jake a lot here at the house. Aunt Lolly I can do without.” She grimaced even at merest mention of her aunt's name.

“Nursing must be very rewarding work,” Candace proceeded. My tongue felt stapled to the roof of my mouth.

“Oh, it is. Listen, I need to get a few things done before cocktails and dinner. It's not dressy. Come as you are.” She started sidling for the door. “I am really happy to meet you both-”

“Deborah, listen,” Candace interrupted. “Would it be too much trouble for me to get my own room? I'd feel better about being here if I wasn't sleeping in Jordan's room, what with meeting his family and all for the first time.”

A prickle of anger contracted her eyes for a moment, as if Candace's request was a personal jab. Then her face softened and she said, “Of course. Bob Don had just said that y'all were quite the item, so I assumed-forgive my bad manners. There's an extra room at the end of the hall, Candace, and I'll make it up for you.”

“Oh, please, don't go to any trouble, Deborah. Point me in the direction of the sheets and I'll do the work.”

“Don't be silly. For a nurse, making a bed with fresh sheets is second nature.” She rubbed Candace's arm kindly and gave me another smile. “I'll see y'all downstairs for drinks. Tom makes a mean margarita, if you like 'em tart.” Deborah left, closing the door behind her.

“I like her,” I said, sitting down on the bed.

“I like her, too,” Candace said, “and it worries me no end.”


“Because right now I don't want to like any of these people.” Candace sat next to me and draped her arms around my shoulders. “Because one of these people is sending bloodied letters to my baby. I don't want to trust any of them until we know who that is.”

“We're not sure it's someone here on the island,” I offered.

“Then who else? Someone who's not at the reunion doesn't want you here? That makes no sense. And I'm not letting you out of my sight until I know who that is.”

I smiled at her determination to protect me from harm. I'm six feet two, a hundred and eighty pounds, and exercise regularly-Candace doesn't even come to my shoulders. But I pitied the fool who crossed her.

“If you're not letting me out of your sight, hon, why'd you ask for your own room?” I stretched out lazily on the bed, allowing myself to relax for the first moment since setting foot on Sangre Island. I ran a hand down her spine.

She squirmed away, playfully slapping my hand away. “First, I don't give a crap about appearances. But second, whoever's terrorizing you-”

“They're not terrorizing me, I'm not scared of that fool,” I interjected.

She forged ahead. “-will be watching you like a hawk probably, looking for a way to strike at you. Me being down the hall gives us another vantage point to watch over your ass. When you're in your room, that hallway is mine. No one's going to get near your room without me knowing.” She swatted said ass when I stood and reached for her.

“So you're baiting the trap with me and just me, while you watch from a safe distance?” I teased.

“Something like that.” She pressed herself into my arms. Her breath was short and she began to trace a fine web of delight on my back with her fingertips.

I kissed her, and the world seemed far away. I wished this house was empty and it was only the two of us alone on this island, surrounded by the comforting arms of the sea. And that we'd never heard of Goertz millions, gore-speckled letters, or murdered sailors on a beach.


I thought I'd seenGretchen wandering out from the house toward the scrubby trees that freckled the island, but I wasn't quite sure it was her moving in the shadows of the branches. Tired of feeling like I was hiding away from my new kinfolks, I felt vast relief when Deborah knocked on our door and offered to escort us downstairs. She'd fixed up a room for Candace, just as promised. Her hug and her reassuring smile were so welcome, I felt a pang of guilt for harboring any suspicions about her being my hate-mail fiend.

We sauntered downstairs quickly to find that the promised cocktail hour had just begun. I had thought that the rest of the family might have come knocking on our doors to meet me, the latest curiosity, but they'd minded their distance. I felt miffed that even Bob Don had not been about, to play kind introducer, but he and Gretchen had both absented themselves. Perhaps my arrival was not such a big deal after all, but at my family reunions, the family actually tended to gather.

“Feel like the Christian heading toward the lions?” Deborah joked as we went downstairs. Candace laid a hand on my shoulder, behind me on the stairs.

“A little,” I confessed.

“Don't be fretful,” Deborah counseled. “I mean, as families go, we're not so”-she paused, casting about for the correct adjective-”bad. I guess. I suppose I'm just used to them. Ignore them if they get tiresome.”

Or threatening, I silently added. I put my smile firmly on, wiped my damp palm on my khakis, took Candace's hand, and followed my cousin Deborah into my great-uncle's large den. I realized I wasn't exactly sure how she and I were cousined. She'd referred to the infamous Sass as “Aunt Sass”; there must be another sibling of Bob Don's that Deborah was daughter to.

It was a handsome room that spoke of an interesting mind. Books lined the walls, many worn with use. A collection of globes lay scattered around the room, so that the world always seemed in easy reach. A stag's head crowned a stone fireplace and its glassy eyes surveyed the assemblage. Drawings of old ships, with careful calligraphied notations, hung next to the stone fireplace. A reproduction of a Republic of Texas battle flag hung in framed honor near the window, complete with singed bullet holes. Bob Don and Gretchen were talking with Tom in the corner.

We entered the room as Tom nonchalantly announced “Deb's gone to fetch them”-presumably in answer to a question of Bob Don's. I wondered if this was what a foster child dumped into a new family felt on his terrifying first day. I could practically sense their communal gaze hone in on me.

Go ahead. Look me over. Candace's other hand closed around my arm. I knew she meant well, but for a moment I wanted her to stand away. These people would be my kin and I needed to face them alone. Which one of you charming folks sent me letters?

A man who had to be pushing one hundred sat bent in a wheelchair, eyeing me with undisguised curiosity. Another man, in his mid-forties, lounged in a chair, a glass of iced tea by his side. He looked remarkably like-but not identical to-Cousin Tom, and I deduced he must have been the other twin-Philip-that Bob Don had alluded to back in Mirabeau.

The silence held for an awkward interval, then Bob Don began earnest introductions. “Well, everyone, this is my son, Jordan, and his girlfriend, Candace.” He came and squeezed my shoulder with a reassuring hand. “Let's get the introductions started. Where on earth is Uncle Mutt-”

“Right here, Bob Don.” A tall, fit-looking fellow, in his early seventies, but radiating the vigor of a man half his age, strutted into the den. His hair was solid gray and still thick. His eyes were a piercing green, and he riveted them on me as soon as he entered. Bob Don made a beeline for him, real happiness lighting his face.

“Goddamn, Uncle Mutt, you look good.”

Uncle Mutt extended his right hand and I could see it was mutilated-the middle two fingers were cleanly gone, giving his hand the look of a claw. Bob Don enclosed the three-fingered hand in a warm handshake that quickly transformed to a back-pounding hug.

“Bob Don, you goat. Still got that car lot you're wasting your time with?”

Bob Don laughed and I figured this was an old, standing joke between them. “Still selling most of the cars I can, Uncle Mutt.”

Uncle Mutt coughed dryly. “Best damn investment I ever made.” He shot a pointed look toward the lounging man I assumed to be Philip Bedrich. “As opposed to some other ventures I could name.” Tom's twin fidgeted, averting his eyes from the rest of us. I felt a spike of tension jolt the room, and Aunt Lolly stifled a nervous titter.

Mutt nodded at Gretchen. “How do, Gretchen?”

“Fine, Uncle Mutt, I'm fine.” She smiled around at the gathering. “I've been sober for nearly a year now. We wanted to surprise y'all.”

“I'm sure surprised,” the old man in the wheelchair cawed.

“Aunt Gretchen! How wonderful!” Deborah abandoned pouring margaritas at the bar and embraced Gretchen in a hug. “Oh, I'm so pleased for you!”

Gretchen hugged back, and tears of happiness filled her eyes. I glanced away, back toward Uncle Mutt.

He studied me with a frank stare. “So this is him? So this is your surprise boy, Bob Don?”

My face flamed red, I'm sure. Bob Don stiffened. “Yes, sir, this is my son, Jordan. Jordan, this is your great-uncle Emmett.”

Uncle Mutt moved to me, eyed me, and then embraced me in a fierce bear hug. He clapped me hard on the back. I didn't really hug back. “Lord, son. Welcome to our family. Tickled to death to have you here.”

“Hello, Mr. Goertz,” I said when he released me, my usually laid-back rasp sounding stiff and formal. “Bob Don has told me all about you.”

“Only believe the stories that make me sound studly.” He took my chin in his three-fingered hand and examined my face closely. I didn't flinch away. “Goddamn it, you're a Goertz all right. Got my daddy's eyes, you do, and that thick blond hair.” I twitched and he released my chin, patting me on the cheek. “I know Bob Don's real proud of you and it's a pleasure to have you in the fold. Welcome to our family, son.”

“Thanks, Mr. Goertz.”

He grinned. “Don't call me that. I'm Uncle Mutt. And I'm mean as a junkyard dog when I get riled, so mind your manners.” He seemed accustomed to barking out orders and comments without being crossed. After giving my face another long appraisal, he offered his good hand to Can-dace.

“My goodness, boy, you can pick them. What's your name, sweetheart?”

I quickly introduced Candace and saw the same glint of appreciation in Uncle Mutt's eyes as I'd seen in Cousin Tom's. Apparently the Goertz men were roosters. As if I hadn't already known that.

“Honey, if you're as smart as you are pretty, this boy's made the choice of a lifetime.”

Candace blushed. Really. The woman who'd been a continual rock, who seemed unflappable by all the ups and downs of our lives, went red as a beet. She ran a fidgety hand through a lank of brown hair. I wasn't sure if she was flustered by the magnitude of the compliment or by the whole lifetime suggestion that lay underneath Uncle Mutt's accolade. Or maybe it was simply Uncle Mutt himself-his presence in a room was overwhelming. No wonder he'd been such a legendary ladies' man. So much for Candace being on guard.

“If Jordan's destined to look like you when he's older, then I'll have made the smart choice.” Candace offered her best belle smile. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Philip Bedrich make a mock-gagging motion.

Uncle Mutt guffawed, squeezed her hand, and punched me lightly in the shoulder. “You got you a live wire there, boy! All right, I stand apologetic and corrected, Miss Can-dace.” He took me by one arm, Candace with the other, and introduced me to the rest of my new family.

“And this is my nephew Philip Bedrich,” Uncle Mutt indicated the loosely lounging fellow on the couch. “Don't give him money.”

Philip Bedrich colored at the gibe, but gave me a weak smile. “Uncle Mutt's a bully, but he's our bully. You'll soon grow used to his little tirades.” He didn't have the physi-cality evident in his twin, Tom-he wasn't heavy, but his body was rounder, softer, and his indolent pose on the couch appeared practiced. His clothes looked expensive, but not in the best taste-a showy gold necklace adorned his throat, and his shirt was designed for a younger man. A slow, languorous drawl oozed from his mouth when he spoke. I shook Philip's hand; his palm felt flaccid against my skin.

“I met your brother already.” I turned to indicate Tom, but he'd left the library.

“Aren't you lucky?” Philip laughed dryly. “Tom rarely opts to socialize with the rest of us. We're not smart enough for Mr. Scientist.”

“Scientist?” I asked.

“Tom's an oceanographer. Spends days talking with fish.” Philip sipped at his drink.

“Don't act so envious.” Uncle Mutt jabbed Philip in the shoulder and turned back to me. “Philip's my special project right now in the training camp of life. He's hit the bankruptcy court so often-”

“For God's sake, Uncle Mutt! That's private business.” Philip's face colored with anger and I felt embarrassed for him. I resolved not to share any secrets with Uncle Mutt. He apparently served as the family megaphone.

“Ain't no private business involving my money in my house,” Uncle Mutt declared. “We're all going to put our heads together to get you out of your mess, Philip.”

I happened to glance over at the centenarian in the plush leather chair; a wry smile accentuated his many wrinkles as he watched the exchange. His spotted, palsied hands wrapped around the head of his cane and his eyes glittered with intelligence.

“Thank you, I don't need anyone's help.” Philip glared at Uncle Mutt.

“That, Philip, definitely remains to be seen.” Uncle Mutt steered me away from the fuming Philip and toward the gentleman by the fireplace. Aunt Lolly scurried to him and plopped Sweetie on top of the light cotton blanket that covered his legs.

“Get that goddamned rat-dog off me, Lolly!” the old man bellowed. His voice reminded me of nails raking down a chalkboard. Aunt Lolly ignored his request. She stroked the old man's head absentmindedly and he flinched away in annoyance. She leaned down and hollered in his ear, “Uncle Jake! This here's Bob Don's boy and his girlfriend!”

“Goddamn it, Lolly!” Uncle Jake bellowed back, pressing fingers defensively against the cup of his ear. “I ain't that deaf. I can see clearly who Jordan and Candace are.” He offered me an arthritic hand. “How you, son? My sister Mildred was your great-grandmother.” He jabbed a finger toward Mutt and Lolly. “They ain't her kids, though. Praise God.”

Lolly slapped Jake's shoulder playfully-but a little too hard for my liking. She scooped up the offended Sweetie in her arms. “Uncle Jake likes to remind Mutt and me we ain't his blood kin. But we do all the takin' care of him that he needs. He forgets how kind we are sometimes.” A vinegar tone lay underneath her honeyed voice.

“Hmmph,” Uncle Jake said, but he huddled down in his chair. Aunt Lolly crossed her arms, imprisoning Sweetie, and smiled beatifically at him. I took a step back-a sudden dislike of Lolly Throckmorton surged through me. Her bullying tone toward the old man riled me. Her sugary but hard-edged voice reminded me of a candied apple-with a razor hidden in it.

“Well, well, well,” a voice sounded behind us. I turned and saw a tall, buxom woman in her early fifties standing in the library entrance. She was resplendently attired in a brightly flowered blouse with white jeans. Her hair was dyed a dark auburn; her bright blue eyes were ringed with mascara. Under the makeup her face resembled a softened version of Bob Don's. She came forward and pecked Bob Don on the cheek.

“Hello, brother.” She favored Gretchen with a smile bordering on distasteful. “Gretchen, darling. Don't you look lively today?” Her smile rested on me. “This must be my new nephew.” She extended a hand. “How do you do, Jordan? I'm your aunt Cecilia Goertz.”

I shook her hand and introduced Candace while Gretchen trilled, “Sass, honey, I've been telling Jordy all about you and he's just so excited to meet you.”

“Yeah, I can see he's all atwitter over making my acquaintance.” She gave Candace a dismissive glance-one woman boldly appraising another-and turned her attention back to me.

“So you going by Goertz again, Sass?” Philip Bedrich called from his couch. He sipped at his iced tea and sucked on the lemon, letting the rind drop back into the glass. “After all, you do have a plethora of surnames to choose from.”

“You'll probably need to borrow a good name when you go bankrupt again, Philip. I'll loan you one with a good credit rating.” Sass, like the others, gave my face and my body an unwavering assessment. “You got all my brother's best features, honey. Did you get any of his brains?”

Bob Don laughed. “Hell, he got your nerve, Sass. Just keep prodding him; he can take care of himself.”

I wasn't anxious to get into a battle of repartee with Cecilia Goertz; she obviously had a nimble wit. Her eyes stayed locked on me as I fidgeted on my feet. One polished nail rested against her chin, tapping, and I imagined it running along an envelope's seal, securing a message of hate inside.

“Where's Aubrey, Sass? I want him to meet Jordan and Candace,” Uncle Mutt said.

“I don't know. Gettin' in touch with his inner child or some such garbage.” Sass sauntered to where Deborah Goertz stood by the drink cart and poured the last of the margaritas into a glass. She sipped and hummed appreciatively. She glanced over at Gretchen. “Where's your pick-me-up, darling? Thought you'd be parched after your long trip.”

Gretchen beamed with pride. “I'm sober now, Sass. I haven't had a drink in nearly a year.”

Sass ran a tongue along her lips. I watched her watch Gretchen. Apparently no congratulatory message was forthcoming from her sister-in-law.

“We're all very proud of Gretchen,” I ventured. Gretchen started in surprise but said nothing.

“I'm sure you must be.” Sass went over and kissed Gretchen lightly on the cheek. “I hope it won't bother you if the rest of us drink. I'm stone dry, darling.”

“Of course not,” Gretchen assured her, but I saw her gaze light on the glimmering bottles on the drink cart for the briefest of moments.

Sass smiled thinly, then wiped her fingers along Gretchen's cheek where she had kissed her. “Sorry. I shouldn't sip at that delicious margarita, then kiss you. I wouldn't want a trace of alcohol touching you, darling.”

Gretchen didn't flinch. She turned away after a moment and asked Bob Don for a Dr Pepper. He hurried to pour her soda. Uncle Mutt broke the embarrassed silence.

“All right, everyone get your drinks and let's unwind before dinner. I got an announcement to make.” Uncle Mutt's glare went to every face in the room.

“Announcement?” Aunt Lolly murmured to Sweetie. “How exciting.”

She didn't know the half of it.

“Where are the kids?” I asked Aunt Lolly after fifteen minutes of idle conversation with my new family. Silence crashed down like a curtain falling unexpectedly on actors in mid-scene.

Aunt Lolly paled and a hand fluttered near her throat, smoothing out her skin. “Kids? What kids?”

“Well, at every family reunion I've been at, there's always lots of kids underfoot…” I became aware of the uncomfortable quiet holding sway in the room. Uncle Jake coughed. The fleeting sense of acceptance and comfort I'd started to feel from the Goertzes wisped away like smoke.

“Did I say something wrong?” I finally managed.

Aunt Lolly offered a fatuous smile. “Oh, no, honey, not at all. You see, Deborah's not been able to keep a man, and the twins are both divorced. And Aubrey, well-” She didn't elaborate. “Tom has a couple of kids”-she fixed a baleful eye on him-”but he doesn't have much contact with them, do you, Tommy? Not a good idea, is it?” She took a long, slow sip of her red wine.

Tom Bedrich didn't appear rattled by his aunt's jeer. “No, Aunt Lolly, I don't. I'm not sure how that's any of your concern, though.”

Abashment colored my face. “Listen, Tom, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have raised the subject.”

“Would you bring young'uns around this crowd?” Uncle Jake asked, drawing his blanket tighter around his legs. “I sure as hell wouldn't. Foulmouthed and ornery they are- and I don't mean kids.”

“Anyone got a mirror for old Jake?” Philip murmured from the safety of his chair.

“Well, maybe you and Candace will marry and have kids,” Aunt Lolly offered. She blew a puckered kiss at Can-dace, who stood talking with Deborah. “And then you can bring them to the island for a visit. Wouldn't that be grand?”

Deborah excused herself, and I saw a hot light of anger pulse in her dark eyes. Aunt Lolly rocked back on her heels, as though she'd scored a point in a child's game.

The gathering had thinned: Sass had departed in search of her son, Bob Don and Mutt had excused themselves for several minutes, and Gretchen had gone for a predinner stroll. I pardoned myself from the crowd and headed up to my room.

Candace might have planned to play bodyguard all weekend, but I believed in the direct approach. I'd fetch the profane epistles I'd received and produce them at the dinner table. Make a stand, and make it early. Whoever my correspondent was, let him or her know immediately that I wasn't going to be cowed. If the rest of the family was as shocked as I hoped they'd be, I'd smoke out the culprit early. And get on to the business of fitting in.

Fitting in? I stopped with my hands on the stair, halfway toward the third landing. Did I really want to do that with this clan? I liked Deborah and Mutt and felt ambivalent about the rest. But for Bob Don, I would have to make the effort. I didn't delve into analyzing what my attitude meant toward my relationship with him.

I began climbing the stairs again, but paused as I heard voices whispering below in urgency: “Don't walk away from me! I'm telling you, you better do something now. Now!”

Aunt Sass.

“Don't be silly. He's not a threat.” A voice I didn't know, male, younger, calm, with a slow rasp of a drawl not unlike my own.

“If you blow this-”

I stayed still, not daring to move, chastising myself for eavesdropping.

“You're overreacting, as usual. You've got way, way too many emotional triggers.” The man's voice sounded weary, as though he'd repeated this conversation before with Aunt Sass.

I emboldened myself and thudded my feet along the stairs, turning and heading down to the second-story landing. Aunt Sass stood frozen there, talking with a young fellow around my age. He had brown hair, with the trademark Goertz blue eyes. A band of freckles across his nose invested his face with a boyish air. His countenance looked oddly familiar, in the way that an actor sometimes will on the late show. You know you've seen him before but you can't place him.

I greeted Aunt Sass with a nonchalant smile that suggested that I hadn't heard a word of her demanded murmurings to the young man. “Hi, Aunt Sass. You're sure you don't mind me calling you that?”

“Of course not, honey. You're my brother's boy, after all.” Her lipsticked smile worked itself into broadness. “And I want you to meet your cousin. This is my son, Aubrey Keller. Aubrey, this is Bob Don's long-lost boy, Jordan Goertz.”

Aubrey flailed my hand with an intense grip. His smile lasered me. I was under a mortar barrage of enthusiasm. “Jordan! Absolutely great to meet you! Welcome to the family.”

I returned his handshake with a little less verve-after all, I wasn't fueled by a nuclear reactor, and Aubrey apparently was. “Thanks, Aubrey, it's nice to meet you, too. But, Aunt Sass, my name's not Goertz. It's Poteet.”

“Poteet? You're not using Bob Don's name?” Her eyes narrowed and her voice fell back to a whisper.

“No, I'm not,” I answered, trying not to sound defensive. Not acknowledging Bob Don, I realized belatedly, might seem boorish to my new relations. I pressed onward. “My name's always been Poteet and I just decided to keep the one I grew up with. Seemed easiest.”

“Of course.” She smiled again and I wondered if joy ever evoked her grin. Aubrey's smile seemed warmer if a tad saccharine. I wondered again where I'd seen him before.

“Excuse me, I need to wash before dinner.” I pardoned myself and went up the remainder of the stairs. I didn't tarry to find out who Aubrey and Sass were arguing about-but an unpleasant tickle at the base of my spine suggested it might be me.

I'd secreted the heinous communications in an interior lining of my suitcase. I retrieved them and carefully placed them in the inside pocket of my seersucker jacket. I brushed my teeth and combed my hair. Whatever big proclamation Mutt had planned would be eclipsed by my announcement. I wasn't about to be intimidated by bloodied Hallmark cards. I'd teach these folks to try to bully Jordan Poteet.

Or, perhaps, I reflected, I wouldn't have to make the accusations myself. If I told Uncle Mutt what'd been happening, he'd explode and he could play bad cop. He'd even be more likely to spot the culprit than I would. The Goertzes were obviously much more likely to be browbeaten by Mutt than by me. I congratulated myself on the excellence of my idea. Unless they were one of those families that stuck together through sick and sin. Probably not, given the sniping over cocktails.

I headed back downstairs, to find that the gathering in the den had spilled out onto the wraparound porch, where the family watched the setting sun turn the Gulf waves molten with light. The den had emptied, except for Rufus Beaulac lolling in a chair, drinking beer and watching a Rangers baseball game on a huge television.

“Where's Uncle Mutt?” I asked.

He waited until the batter swung and missed before he answered. “Off in the kitchen, helping the cook.” He giggled. “Yeah, he's probably helpin' her slice and dice and julienne-fry. Can't hardly lose no more fingers, can he?” Rufus was either well on his way to inebriation or fancied himself damn funny. His comment produced a gale of laughter, but only from him.

“And which way's the kitchen?”

He gestured with the beer can. “Go back through the entrance hall, the big dining room, then to your left. Kitchen's back there.”

I followed his directions, ambling through rooms full of antique furniture, all arranged with a careful eye to give the entire house the rough ambience of a hunting lodge. The dining room was large, as befitting houses of its era, and I gently pushed on the service door that led to the kitchen.

I saw them before they saw me-Uncle Mutt talking softly, his voice cajoling, his hands on the soft shoulders of a young woman who was stirring food in a pot. She leaned slightly back against him and laughed at his whisper.

“No, Emmett,” I heard her say clearly, her voice a sweet bell. She could not have been over twenty-five. I could not see her face, but her hair was long and ebony, tied back in a ponytail.

He laughed quietly and whispered again, rubbing his palms against her smooth hips. I could imagine the heat of her body. She laughed, leaning her head back against his shoulder as he wrapped both arms around her.

I stepped back out of the kitchen, an intruder in a private moment, letting the door ease back into place. Uncle Mutt murmuring sweet nothings to a woman a third his age? No wonder this family was so god-awful tense. And I thought I knew, with a blush, exactly what his momentous announcement might be.


Supper was excruciating. Not that the food was bad; hardly so. The pork tenderloin was tender and delicately spiced, the green beans freshly steamed and brimming with flavor, the marinated carrots chilled and tangy, the salad crisp, the wines Texas-made, dry and flavorful.

But I expected a family dinner to be convivial, a chance to laugh and hear time-honored stories that are customarily retold at these gatherings. The web of love that meshes a clan together should shine at these moments, even when relatives sometimes don't always get along.

The reunions on my mother's side of the family were long, joined moments of happiness in my memory: good food, restless play with my cousins, jolting laughter from the adults. When I'd attended Poteet reunions, my cousins and I would often be convulsed in laughter, remembering some anecdote connected to Uncle Bid or Aunt Pearl or Cousin Maggie. The stories were never new, and therein lay their charm. You learn a lot from a family's laughter.

The Goertzes were not one for familial chortles. The clink of fork against plate remained the dominant noise. I wondered if my own presence caused this recalcitrance; after all, I was like some rare zoo specimen to these people, an actual love child. Bastardis Goertzis , a rare genus and species, I told myself, sure to be labeled and catalogued. This oddity had teeth, however. After seeing Uncle Mutt's tender embrace with his cook, I'd opted to produce the letters myself to the gathering. Sated with food and wine (as no one seemed to be picking at their dinner much-they gobbled like wolves), my admirer might be off guard. After dinner, then, I resolved. I permitted myself a smile, which Aunt Lolly swooped on like an owl on a field mouse.

“Something funny, Jordan?” she purred, her fork idling in her salad. Her eyes fixed on me, bright and disturbing.

“No, not at all.” I smiled back. Bob Don glanced at me, so I broadened my grin. “I'm just happy to be here.” I took refuge in a fortifying sip of wine.

Lolly, sitting next to me, rubbed the back of my hand. “And we're all happy you're here, too, dear.” Her lips narrowed in a malicious grin. “Such a nice, successful boy. You may restore my faith in this particular generation of Goertzes. Deb and Aubrey have been disappointments, haven't you, sugars?”

I had no words to respond to her rotten prod at my cousins. She'd been downing red wine steadily-I wondered if she was a mean drunk. Aubrey and Deborah, sitting together on the other side of the long table, both glared at Lolly. Sass, like a tigress, leaped to her son's defense, claws bared for battle.

“Aunt Lolly, I hardly think it's fair to label Aubrey a failure. He's a published author-”

“That psychobabble claptrap?” Lolly snorted. The sweetness that had characterized her earlier ramblings was gone, replaced by sourness. “The only amazing thing is that people lay down money to be analyzed from a page. Especially by someone who never attended medical school. Aubrey, dear, don't get me wrong, we're all tickled you got your cute little book published, but don't you think it's time you got involved in Uncle Mutt's business?”

“Leave the boy alone, Lolly,” Mutt grunted, digging into his tenderloin. Lolly apparently was immune to the power of Mutt's charisma. I wondered how she could dismiss Aubrey's advice as psychobabble when she thought her dog was her husband reborn. I didn't know Aubrey had penned a book, and searched my memory for his name; I wondered if we had his text at the library. I opened my mouth to ask him the title, but didn't get a chance.

“I'm not really interested in investment portfolios, Aunt Lolly,” Aubrey said. I sat, waiting for the next platitude, but he stared down at his plate, prodding a green bean with intense concentration. I suspected this was an old battle.

Aunt Lolly tired of him and moved on to her next subject. “Candace, dear, do you know any eligible bachelors? We're waiting still on Deborah dear here to settle down and become an honest woman.”

Why is Lolly so bitter? I wondered. Tired of being Jake's caretaker? And why don't they just hire a nurse for him instead? Why put the burden on Lolly?

Candace attempted a salvage. “Aunt Lolly, I'm sure a woman as pretty and smart as Deborah can find her own dates.”

Deborah flashed a brief smile at Candace and then turned her grin toward Lolly. “Lolly-remind me, when was your last date? Was that when the astronauts returned from the moon? Or when Columbus sailed by?”

“Ladies,” Uncle Mutt rumbled, “let's be nice.”

Lolly smirked at her niece. “You have to understand, Jordan, I raised Deborah after her father murdered her mother and then killed himself. She and I just love each other to pieces. We like to tease. Don't pay her any heed.” She sipped at her Cabernet-she was the only one who'd opted for red wine with dinner-and then ran a speck of tongue along her thin lips.

After her father murdered her mother? No wonder Bob Don hadn't offered much family history. I swallowed the lump of meat in my mouth and glanced around the table. Deborah quivered with suppressed anger, staring at the remains of her dinner. She did not speak. Bob Don stared at Lolly with smoldering fury.

“Leave my brother's name out of this, Aunt Lolly,” he said. His own brother was a killer? I felt dizzy. Candace bit her lip and I saw her touch Gretchen's shoulder in support. Gretchen flinched, as if burned by her touch.

“Lolly, what's gotten into you? That's enough.” Uncle Mutt tapped his finger against the linen, scowling at his sister. Lolly didn't even favor him with a glance-she seemed determined to make dinner a wicked affair.

Deborah stared into her wineglass for a long, thoughtful moment, then glanced back at me. I felt the tension rise a pitch in the room, as though an untalented violinist had taken bow to string.

“Leave Deborah alone.” Sass decided to run her own brand of interference. She pushed her plate away from her and downed a heavy gulp of Scotch-not her first of the evening. “Watch what you say, Lolly, or Aubrey will make you the most interesting chapter in his new book.”

“New book?” Lolly asked, her voice momentarily dulled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw both Uncle Mutt and my cousin Tom stiffen. Philip studied his plate as though the secrets of the ancients lay exposed there.

Aubrey looked stricken and he wadded his napkin into a ball, his fingers making quick, explosive jerks of anger. He attempted a vague smile. “It's just a follow-up to my earlier book, slightly broader in scope.”

He sounded like a blurb from the book catalogues I received at the library. Practiced patter, perhaps not too dissimilar to the snippets of advice he continually offered.

“Slightly broader, oh yes,” Sass continued, her voice rising, the s in her assertion a long hiss. “Broad as a barn. It's all about families, won't that make it ever so much fun? And guess which family he's going to scribble about?”

“I cannot imagine our family,” Lolly bristled, “offers much grist for Aubrey's mill. We are eminently normal, aren't we, Mutt? Always have been, always will be.” She seemed amused; I didn' t get the joke.

Uncle Mutt made a huffing sound. “Goddamn it, Aubrey, why don't you turn your spotlight on someone else?”

“Mom's mistaken. I'm not writing about this family in particular,” Aubrey retorted. “I'm not writing a gothic, for God's sake.” No one laughed. Outside, I could hear the cawing of the gulls as they ferreted the surf for their evening meal.

“Hah.” Sass laughed. “Grist for the mill, that's right, Aunt Lolly. We'll see.” She poked at Aubrey with a brightly taloned finger. “Can I suggest some chapter headings, baby?”

“I think you've had quite enough Scotch for tonight, Mom.” Aubrey's voice cooled. “Maybe you should call it a night.”

“Yes, Sass,” Gretchen chimed in. I couldn't miss the pain coloring her voice. Her buddy and idol was drunk and behaving badly. I wondered if Sass was an uncomfortable mirror for Gretchen.

Sass carefully set her glass down on the spotless white tablecloth and refilled it with a defiant splash. “Oh, not yet. You'll get a special chapter now, Gretchen. The recovered drunk. We're all so proud of you.”

“You're the one acting like you should be in a twelve-step program,” Tom shot bitterly from the end of the table. “What the hell's gotten into you?”

“Oh, I just am so proud of my boy. I want you all to know what a big success his next book is going to be, isn't it, sweetheart? Write a really big one and you'll hardly need your mom anymore, isn't that right?”

Aubrey's face tensed in anger, his brow furrowing hard. “Mom, don't-”

“Yes, Gretchen shall have her own chapter, unless she falls off the wagon, in which case she'll get two. And of course Philip and Tom each merit a chapter for a thorough discussion of just how different twins can be. Or are they?” The twins reacted differently: Philip with an indulgent smile and Tom with a frosty stare.

“Let's not forget Uncle Jake. How about a chapter on old farts who don't do a single kind thing in their lives?”

“Write about yourself, then, Miss Sass,” Uncle Jake retorted, unshaken by Sass's swipe.

I felt an acrid taste creep into my mouth. Something was terribly wrong here. This wasn't teasing, either from Lolly or Sass. This was verbal flogging, pure and simple. And the rest of them appeared to endure the whip. I couldn't see for the life of me why.

Perhaps Sass saw the revulsion on my face. “Bob Don and Jordan certainly rate a discussion, don't you think, dear? The long-suffering father and the unsuspecting son. It's so charming. Perhaps they can join you on Oprah when you tour for the book. Brothers and bastards, that makes for a good episode.” She laughed at her own joke. “Brothers. Rich, isn't it, Bob Don?”

“Stop it.” Lolly sipped at her red wine again. “You're terrible. You're making me feel ill with all these histrionics.”

“Are you quite done, Cecilia?” Bob Don asked, his voice low and implacable. “Just hush now, you're drunk and you're embarrassing yourself terribly. You and Aunt Lolly both should be ashamed of how you've acted this evening.”

I glanced down at Uncle Mutt; after all, he did seem to be the family patriarch and I expected a thundering fist on the table to demand dignity and decency at dinner. He sat back, rubbing one cheek with his disfigured hand. He didn't seem inclined to stop Sass's rave; I wasn't even sure he was listening to her; he seemed lost in his own world of thought. I'd abandoned all plans to produce the hate mail; the time was inopportune, and the tension in the air already smothering.

At least one of us tired of the tirades. Deborah dabbed at her lips with her napkin, murmured “Excuse me,” and stood. Sass watched her and I saw her face darken in regret. “Deb, hon, I'm sorry-” Sass began, then her voice faltered.

Deborah had not taken three steps toward the door when Lolly's words struck like a child's stone, cruelly thrown.

“And of course, we can't forget our darling Deborah. While you're compiling chapters, Sass, you should add a whole book of them for Deb. There's simply so much ground to cover with her. Let's see, Aubrey could talk about the family ingrate, or the family basket case, or the family embarrassment-or the family slut.” And for one brief second Lolly's eyes lit on Gretchen. I saw her smile crookedly for a moment, then she returned her gaze to Deborah. My cousin stood by the door, her fingers trembling in anger on the knob. Her dark eyes glowed with pure hate.

“Stop it!” Aubrey bellowed. He stood and poked a finger into Lolly's face. “How about your chapter? The family tyrant? We're not little kids you can bully anymore. Or the family nut? Sweetie isn't anything but a dog. He's not Uncle Charles come back to life, you pathetic witch.

Because why on earth would Charles come back to vow? The tortures of hell have to be preferable to your company.”

Lolly simply smiled back at him, her grin brittle with rancor. She drew a quivering hand along her brow.

Uncle Mutt finally spoke. “Stop it, Lolly. You, too, Aubrey, and Sass, if you make another sound I'll cut you out of the will.” Uncle Mutt didn't need to yell; the tone of his voice carried its own thunder, and the squabblers fell quiet. Sass pressed fingertips to her eyelids and I wondered if she was already regretting her drunken outburst.

“Aubrey, write all you want about dys-whatever families. I don't give a green shit. But I forbid you to write a word about anyone sitting at this table. You understand me, boy?”

Aubrey stared back at our great-uncle. “Who's playing the family bully now. Uncle Mutt? You can't tell me what to do in my career-”

Uncle Mutt exploded. “Y'all are like a bunch of kids bickering amongst yourselves-unruly, contentious little brats.” I took umbrage at being called names-I for one had not raised my voice or done one thing untoward. But I kept my silence. “And now I got to tell all y'all how to act before I leave the room.” He stood and stared down the table at the upturned faces, and for a moment I didn't doubt we resembled children-we all hung on his words. “And I'm leaving the room forever.”

Silence fell like the guillotine's blade. I heard the hollow, whispering shudder of Aunt Lolly breathing hard next to me. Her rasp grated on my nerves and I glanced back at her; her skin was pale as bone.

Mutt let the quiet play itself out. His gaze carefully came to rest on each of our faces. He gave me a long, considered look of sadness and I felt a thickness coat my throat.

“I'm a dead man, you see,” Uncle Mutt announced. A moment of absolute hush was followed by a guffaw from Aunt Lolly. I can't say she had a hearty titter; but rather it was a giggle of sick disbelief. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, her fingers trembling.

No one else laughed. Deborah sagged against the door.

“What the hell are you talking about, Emmett?” Uncle Jake wheezed. He sat, looking crumpled, in his chair next to Uncle Mutt. The older man put one withered hand over Mutt's, as though to say, Don't joke with me, son.

“Y'all know I ain't one to mince words. I been to the doctors in Houston. I got brain cancer, and it's spreading. I got maybe a few months, that's all. And I ain't gonna have all of y'all bickering and sniping the last time we're together while I'm alive.”

I felt shock and distress at this announcement, but I hadn't known Uncle Mutt my whole life-these people had. I glanced across the table at Bob Don-his face was ashen. I wanted to reach out to him in reassurance, but he was too far down the table. I kept my hands folded in my lap.

“Oh, God, Uncle Mutt-” Bob Don tried, but couldn't speak.

“Oh, Uncle Mutt, no-” Aunt Sass finally seemed speechless; the back of her hand was pressed against her lips and she shot a wild look toward Aubrey, who remained mortally silent. Next to me, Aunt Lolly began to cry. I took her hand, not knowing what else to do. She leaned against my shoulder. She was a spiteful old witch, but she was losing her brother-I couldn't help but sympathize with her.

“Why didn't you tell us before? How long have you known?” Tom Bedrich asked, his voice unchanged.

“For a while.” He smiled at his family. “Now, now, Lolly, don't cry. Y'all needed to know, so I've told you.” Lolly ignored his calm plea for strength; her nails practically dug into my neck as she shuddered with grief.

“What doctors? Where did you go in Houston? We can get a second opinion-” Deborah tried the next level of denial, but it didn't work. Her voice sounded like a weak child's whisper.

“Naw, honey, I been everywhere. I can afford second opinions from every doctor in Houston. I'm plumb MRI-ed out. It ain't gonna change nothing. I just hope God takes me before my mind starts slipping away.” He glanced at Lolly. “As is, I might lose my sight eventually from it. If I last that long.” He then smiled thinly and looked younger than his years. I couldn't help but admire his bravery in light of the circumstances. Mutt was everything Bob Don claimed-a real pistol. If he was afraid of dying, his family would not see it now. The only fear in the room seemed to be our own.

There was a long hush, broken only by Lolly's racked sobbing. She finally pulled away from my shoulder, her face damp with tears. “You'll come back to me, Emmett. I know you will. Just like Charles did. Maybe you'll be a nice kitty for me, or a bird that sings pretty. Promise me you'll come back to me, won't you?”

Uncle Mutt watched his sister with sadness. “I don't know, Lolly. I think I'm nearly ready for a rest. I don't got any complaints about my life-but maybe a little more time would have been nice. Just a little more.” He cleared his throat. “I told Rufus and Wendy already-”

“You told your help before you told us?” Aunt Sass exploded. Her face reddened in anger. “I can't believe you told that drunken coonass and-”

“Quiet!” Uncle Mutt bellowed. He leveled a hard glance at Sass. “You just hush about them, Sass. Rufus and Wendy have been wonderful to me. They live here, they see me every day. And not everybody at this table can make the same claim.”

Sass wasn't daunted, and she ignored Bob Don's plea to calm down. “Oh, so we don't live on your stupid island, we don't get as much consideration as the hired help?” I couldn't tell if anger or grief-or a combination of both- fueled her voice.

“I've known Rufus for fifty years. He's my oldest friend-”

Sass gulped at her Scotch. I saw her hand tremble. “Blood's thicker, Uncle Mutt.” Is it? I wondered. No one had embraced him. They all seemed frozen.

Sass continued:. “And then to put that little tramp-”

Uncle Mutt's fist thundered down on the table. “Hush! I won't have you talking about Wendy that way! Shut up right now!”

“Mother,” Aubrey ventured quietly, “I think we all need to take a rejuvenating, deep-lung breath, don't you?”

“Aubrey,” Sass said slowly, covering her face with her hands, “be quiet or I will slap the tar out of you. I don't want a rejuvenating breath. I don't want to deep-lung anything. Shut up.”

“Oh,” Lolly moaned. “Y'all stop bickering. I feel sick.” Philip got up and murmured to his aunt; no one else seemed overly alarmed by Lolly's illness-I wondered if she was the clan hypochondriac. Or perhaps they were too stunned after Mutt's showstopper announcement or no one felt particularly kindhearted toward her after her vicious monologue. I was bothered, though-Lolly's hand was pressed to her chest and she kept blinking, as though trying to clear her vision.

“I'm sorry, Lolly. I shouldn't have made it a shock to you-” Uncle Mutt stood. “Wendy!” he called.

The young woman who had been in the kitchen with Uncle Mutt ventured out into the dining room. I hadn't seen her since we started eating-the superb dinner had been set out on the sideboard buffet-style, and we'd all helped ourselves. But there was no doubt that she would have heard Sass's nasty comments.

She was stunning. Not in the casual way that some women are pretty-but in a knock-you-down-dead level of beauty, the kind of loveliness that a man might see just once and remember for decades. She was Vietnamese-her eyes brown and softly almond-shaped, the brows naturally delicate, her skin perfect, her hair a long, dark lank that framed her impeccable face. Her lips were razor thin, but strangely erotic. She wore a simple T-shirt dress, with a stained apron. She didn't look at Sass, who glared at her with undisguised dislike.

“Lolly's not feeling well. Would you help get her up to bed?”

“Of course, Mutt,” Wendy answered. Her voice wasn't a musical one-but steely-strong, determined, intelligent. She glanced at me as I stood, supporting Lolly.

“I'll help you-” I offered, and Lolly moaned, collapsing against me-and vomiting. I didn't have time to react; the warm, sour effluence splashed over my clothes. Her hand struck the table, hard and spasmodic, and her wineglass tumbled over, spreading a stain as red as blood across the immaculate linen. I quickly lowered her to the floor, turning her on her side so she didn't choke on her bile. When the spasm was done, she tried to gasp an apology but couldn't. Deborah pushed me out of the way and knelt by her great-aunt. She elevated her aunt's head and yanked open Lolly's blouse and pressed her fingers against the older woman's chest. I cradled Lolly's head in my lap.

“Call 911! Hurry!” Deborah ordered. Wendy dashed for the phone. “Help me here, Jordan. Loosen her clothing, keep her head up. It's going to be okay, Aunt Lolly.”

“We're on an island, Deb. Remember?” Sass said softly. She turned to Mutt. “Surely you've got a first-aid kit…” Mutt nodded and hurried into the kitchen.

I watched, stunned while Deborah cleaned the bile from Lolly's mouth. Lolly jerked spasmodically, murmuring, “Oh, my sweet Charles, oh my God, oh, Deb, you get away from me…”

“Now, Aunt Lolly, you're gonna be okay, you're gonna be okay-” Deb reassured her, but her eyes came up to mine and I saw a glint of panic behind the calm, professional facade. Heart attack. Maybe, her lips moved. I felt my own chest shudder. Tom, kneeling behind me, rose and rushed to Jake. They spoke softly, quickly, and then Tom bolted from the room.

“I know CPR.” Candace knelt beside us.

“We're not to that point yet,” Deborah whispered. “I'm an RN. Let's get her comfortable, see if we can calm her…”

I glanced at the others. Gretchen pressed against Bob Don, his arms wrapped around her. Philip and Aubrey stood together, stunned into stony silence. Sass stood apart, near the window, as though Lolly's condition might be contagious. Uncle Jake wavered on his cane, staring at Lolly with a mixture of shock and sorrow.

“Oh, God, oh, Charles, oh, where's Sweetie…?” Lolly Throckmorton moaned. “Oh, my blouse is open. Everyone will see my bra. Oh, dear.” Her hands painted figures in the air above her, pleadings with her fingers. Candace closed her hands around Lolly's and held them tightly.

The thudding of feet heralded Tom. He stumbled into the dining room, shock on his face, a pill bottle in his hand- and waved it back and forth.

“It's empty,” Tom panted. “It's gone. Where's the extra bottle, Uncle Jake?”

“No, that can't be.” Uncle Jake coughed. “It can't be gone-that's the only bottle.”

“What on earth-?” I began.

“Digoxin,” Jake called to Deb and me. “It's my heart medication-Tom thought it would help-”

“No, it won't. Too unpredictable,” Deb said. Lolly stopped breathing; I felt the shudder of her back against my knees. I moved back and Deb began the ritual of CPR.

Uncle Mutt and Wendy ran back into the room at the same time, her announcing that the Coast Guard was on its way from the station in Port O'Connor, him lugging a small satchel with a red cross on the side. He dumped the contents of the case open, fumbling madly through them, as though his sister's salvation lay among the scattered medications and bandages. I saw his hands shake above the spill.

“Do something!” he screamed at Deborah, who still concentrated on Lolly's still form. She did not look at her uncle and she pressed hard against Lolly's chest, counting out her own cadence to keep her aunt alive.

But the end came quickly. Louisa Goertz Throckmorton heaved and turned red. She spasmed and fell back against the floor, as though drifting into sleep.

I heard Gretchen murmur, “No. Oh, no,” behind me, and perhaps she was the next to realize that it was over. I felt numb to the bone and reached for the back of a chair to stand. I became aware that I reeked of Lolly's vomit.

Surprisingly, Aubrey helped me up, as though I were an old friend. A smile of disbelief played along his face.

Uncle Mutt kept repeating “No, no, no” as though it were some incantation to turn back time. Wendy drew close to him and took his hand. I looked over at Bob Don; he stared back at me, shock twisting his features into an empty glaze.

Deborah and Candace still worked feverishly over her, Deborah leaning on Lolly's chest. Only when Candace touched her shoulder and said, “I think she's gone,” did Deborah stop and listen to the silence in the throat and the chest. Despite the unpleasantness that had passed between them at dinner, Deborah began to cry softly over her aunt's body.

I sank into ray chair. A horrific quiet, like the still of the grave, permeated the house. It was as though we were all frozen into place. Except for Torn Bedrich, who quickly set down the empty Digoxin bottle as if it scalded his skin.

Nobody who has not been in the interior of a family can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be. -Jane Austen,



“You're suggesting murder?” Calhoun County Lieutenant Victor Mendez tented his fingers and looked at me. I felt a hot flush creep up my skin. “And just why would anyone want to kill Mrs. Throckmorton?”

“I'm not sure she was the target. I might have been.” My throat felt like dried papier-mache; I coughed and took a hard gulp of water.

Justice of the Peace Tricia Yarbrough, sitting behind Uncle Mutt's desk, frowned. “And why would anyone want to kill you, Mr. Poteet?” She was a good-looking woman, in her late fifties, chubby, with smart brown eyes and reddish hair laced with a shock of gray. I thought she seemed a tremendously good listener.

Lieutenant Mendez, Judge Yarbrough, and I sat in Uncle Mutt's private office, near the back of the sprawling house. Mendez and Judge Yarbrough had quickly appropriated the space from the stunned and grieving Mutt to get each of our statements. I was the last one to be questioned and apparently the first to suggest foul play. At least, that's how I read Mendez's expression-interested but slightly scoffing. Yarbrough seemed a tad more concerned.

Mendez was only a bit older than me, clean-cut, with night-dark eyes and rapidly receding hair. Otherwise, his face was boyish, a bit unformed, like a pudding that hadn't quite set. He was one of those men who never quite seem to shed their baby fat-some morsel of youth remains eternally on their face or frame. He was professional, to the point, and I felt thoroughly intimidated by him.

Not to mention my own emotional state at having had Aunt Lolly die right next to me. I should have been trembling and incoherent; instead I felt a vast numbness seep into my pores, anesthetizing my muscles, dulling my mind.

I realized suddenly, I hadn't answered Tricia Yarbrough's question.

“Mr. Poteet? Judge Yarbrough asked why would someone want to kill you.” Lieutenant Mendez decamped his tent of fingers and instead settled back further on Uncle Mutt's sofa. Yarbrough tapped her nails against the glass covering Uncle Mutt's desk.

“I've been receiving threatening cards ever since I agreed to come to this reunion,” I said, producing the cards and laying them on the desk in front of the justice of the peace. Mendez got up to eye them as well. I let them look through the malicious missives in silence. Mendez carefully handled them with a handkerchief, easing them out of the protective Baggies I kept them in.

Tricia Yarbrough made a choked noise of disgust.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Mendez finally mumbled. He leaned back from the cards, as if their hate was contagious. He glanced up at me. “Any idea who's been sending these?”

“A member of the family is my guess. But I don't know who.”

“When I questioned your father-Bob Don Goertz, right?” Mendez rustled through his notes and I nodded. “He said he'd brought you here to meet the rest of your family for the first time. So you've never seen any of these folks before, right?”

“That's correct. I discovered last year that… Mr. Goertz and my mother had an affair and I was… the product. We've been getting to know each other and determine whether or not-whether I could accept him as my father.” My chest tightened. What the hell was wrong with me? I'd never spluttered while talking. “I believe someone in the family isn't very happy about me being recognized as a member.”

“Why would that be, Mr. Poteet?” Yarbrough asked.

“Please, call me Jordan.” Her face didn't waver, so I reckoned she'd keep relations nice and formal. “Anyway, look at this place. Uncle Mutt's loaded to the gills-his net worth is around ten million or so. I think someone's unhappy with me being a potential heir.”

“Ten million would be a lot to spread around the family anyway,” Mendez mused. Yarbrough gave him a sharp glance.

“Yes, it would be. If Uncle Mutt is of a mind to be equitable.”

“And killing you would make Mr. Emmett more equitable in dishing out the funds?”

Mr. Emmett? “I don't know.” I shrugged and rested my fingers against my eyebrows. “All I know is someone doesn't want me here. And my aunt died, unexpectedly, right next to me.” I lowered my hands, but I didn't look at Mendez or Yarbrough.

“If you feel you're in danger, Mr. Poteet, we can get you off the island,” Yarbrough said softly. “I've asked the others to all remain here at the house until our investigation's complete.”

“Thank you, but no. I'd prefer to remain with my-with Bob Don. I think he'll need me now.”

Mendez leaned forward. “You know, the lady might've simply had a heart attack. She'd just been told her only brother was terminally ill.”

I nodded. “And Uncle Jake's medication being gone? I suppose he'd just conveniently run out? It's digitalis-based. Doesn't that cause heart attacks?” I knew next to nothing about medicine, but I could connect Digoxin with digitalis.

“Even so-could be suicide. I understand Mrs. Throck-morton wasn't entirely stable.” Mendez sounded bored.

“Good Lord, Victor,” Yarbrough said. “I've known Lolly Throckmorton for years. She wasn't crazy.”

“She seemed to have serious mood swings,” I offered. “When we arrived, she seemed rather happy, in good spirits. But at dinner, she was belligerent, even abusive to the family.” Neither blinked at my announcement. “Still, to kill herself, in front of her family? That seems wrong.”

“I've ordered an autopsy.” Judge Yarbrough spoke after a moment's silence. “We don't have a medical examiner here in Calhoun County, so I'll have Lolly's body shipped to Austin. We could have the results by tomorrow.”

“And if poison's involved? How quickly could we know?” I challenged.

She shifted in her chair, perhaps a little uncomfortable with my directness. “Toxicology tests take longer to get- sometimes up to ten days. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Like Lieutenant Mendez says, poor Lolly may have just had a heart attack.”

“You said you'd known her a long time, Judge. Did you ever know if she had a heart condition?”

Yarbrough tugged at her bottom lip. “No. She never mentioned one. But I didn't know before tonight that Mutt-Mr. Goertz-was ill either. The Goertzes aren't a family to broadcast their private lives.” I detected a tinge of-pain? sadness?-in her voice, then she became all business again. “You said the deceased vomited on your clothes. We'd like them for analysis as well.”

“Of course.” Stomach contents, I thought. So she's not dismissing the possibility of poison. But I wondered how her apparent knowledge of the family might color her view of the case. Yarbrough looked tough and professional, though.

Mendez shifted gears. “So you're new to this family. Any impressions of them? What kind of people do they strike you as?”

I fostered a smile. “You both obviously know the Goertzes. How many people in your county are worth ten million dollars?”

Mendez didn't return my smile. He leaned back in the creaky leather sofa. “Just answer the question, please, Jordan.”

His use of my first name suddenly changed the air in the room-and I felt the need to vent and was glad Mendez had picked up on my frustration. “Fine. Something's wrong here. First I get these abusive letters. Then I get to sit through a dinner that's so thick with tension it's practically on the menu. Lolly verbally attacks the entire family, Mutt tells us he's dying, and Lolly drops dead.” I shook my head.

“I keep thinking this family isn't exactly knit together right. Something's off in the weave, so to speak. And Uncle Mutt-”

“Mr. Emmett's done lots of good works for folks in this county,” Mendez interrupted. His expression hardened. “There's no need to cry murder until we get the autopsy results. I assure you, if someone's murdered his sister, we'll find out who did it.”

“Even if it was a family member?” I asked.

“Especially if it was a family member,” Yarbrough interjected. “Thank you for your statement, Jordan.” She gathered her papers up and rattled them into order.

Mendez stood and gestured toward the cards. “I'd like to keep these for evidence.”

I nodded. “And I'll bag up my clothes for you.”

“Let me know if you get any more threatening messages, Mr. Poteet,” Mendez said. The interview was over.

I stood to leave. “One question-are y'all going to tell people my uncle's dying?”

Mendez's eyes met mine and I saw sadness in them. “Mr. Emmett's business is his own. Not mine, as long as he's not breaking the law.”

“Absolutely,” Yarbrough chimed in. Real pain flashed across her face briefly, as though news of Mutt's death was a physical prod to her. I wanted to ask Tricia Yarbrough what Mutt was to her-but I didn't.

I dabbed my tongue on my dry lips. What I was about to say might make me a traitor in Bob Don's eyes, but I couldn't hold my silence. “Tonight-at the dinner table- Aunt Lolly mentioned there'd been another murder in this family. Years ago, Bob Don's brother killed his wife. Did you know?”

Mendez's expression told me he hadn't. Yarbrough's told me she had. Neither commented-I saw Yarbrough give Mendez one of those I'll tell you later looks.

Dismissed, I left the room feeling just as ill as when I'd arrived. I went upstairs, pulled off my sour-smelling garments, donned a robe, and hurried back downstairs to the front porch. One of Mendez's investigators bagged my clothes and gave me a receipt for them. I could see a dark body bag being loaded on the Coast Guard helicopter. Lolly.

Mendez came up behind me. “One of my men will be spending the night here, Mr. Poteet.” He gestured toward a compactly built officer who stood near the porch swing, all spit and polish. “You let Deputy Praisner know if you need anything, all right?”

“Of course.” I paused. “Your leaving an officer here overnight suggests maybe you don't think Lolly's death was of natural causes.”

“Don't conjecture so much, Jordan. Leave that to us.” Mendez turned abruptly and went back inside. I stood for a moment, watching the helicopter in which they'd placed Lolly's remains.

Deputy Praisner fixed a baleful eye on me. I bade him good night and went back inside, desperate for a shower. As I passed Mutt's study I could hear his voice raised in anger, followed by Tricia Yarbrough's calm alto. Mendez spoke a few indistinct words, then Mutt railed again. I headed up the stairs, suddenly and tremendously tired.

On the way up to my room, I stopped by Bob Don and Gretchen's room-everyone had turned in for the night, dulled with shock over Lolly's death. I knocked. I heard someone shuffling out of bed and then the door opened a hair.

“Son,” Bob Don said, opening the door and stepping outside. He eased the door shut behind him, but not before I saw Gretchen curled into a fetal ball under the covers. “How you?”

“I'm fine. Okay. How are you?”

“Holding up.” He gestured at the shut door. “Gretchen's awful upset. You can imagine.” He shrugged. “Just can't believe that Lolly's gone. Just can't believe it.” His voice shook. “And Uncle Mutt's dying-” He didn't finish his sentence.

He almost looked like a little boy, his usually perfectly big-styled blond hair a messy mop, his blue eyes baggy with restlessness. I reached out, awkwardly, for him. I pressed my fingers against the fabric of his pajama top, feeling the roundness of his broad shoulder beneath. Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. That was from some old poem about family, wasn't it? “I am so sorry, Bob Don. So very sorry.”

He touched the back of my hand with his own. “Thanks, son. It means the world to me that you're here. I'm so grateful.”

I wanted to tell him about my conversation with Mendez-about my fears, about my suspicions, about the hateful diatribes I'd received in the mail. But I couldn't, not now. His grief was too fresh to bear further wounding. Morning would be here soon enough. And I still reeked of Lolly's puke.

“Uh, do you want to talk?” I offered. I did not reach out to him often, but I could hardly be reticent now.

“I need to get some rest,” he muttered, and broke away from my grip. “I'll see you in the morning, okay?”

“All right. In the morning.” He retreated to the bedroom and shut the door. I stared at the doorknob, listening to the quiet of the old house. My imagination made me hear a footfall along the darkened hallway, and I hurried to the stairs, to the comfort of my own room and a long hot shower.

From my bedroom window, I listened to the waves lapping across the bay. The helicopter had risen like a gargantuan bug several minutes ago, arrowing toward land. Moonlight silvered the water, making the wind-gusted swells resemble trenches of metal. I thought again of those brave Texans aboard the Reliant, their ghosts entombed beneath the waters. I felt isolated.

I wondered, for a brief moment, if this was how someone surrounded by a moat felt if they didn't have a key to the drawbridge.

A knock rapped at my door and I murmured, “Come in.”

Candace came in, bedecked in cutoffs and a T-shirt from the Bonaparte County Fair. She looked absolutely adorable in them and I felt a grin, for the first time in hours, tug at my mouth.

“Hey.” I kissed her softly. “How you?”

“Okay. Awful tired. How are you feeling, sweetie?”

“Don't use that word, please.” I shuddered.

Candace clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, my God. Sorry.”

I wanted to go a few minutes without thinking about Aunt Lolly. Horribly selfish of me, but I'm only being honest. I tried lightening the conversation. “Look at you, running around kissing boys at midnight. It might be a family scandal. You might get your own chapter in Aubrey's book now. And whatever would dear Aunt Sass say?”

She brushed a tendril of her chestnut-dark hair off her face. “I don't care what that old biddy says. What a terribly cold woman she is, Jordy.” She sat down cross-legged on my bed. “Her own aunt dies and she hardly changes expression.”

I shrugged. “People show grief in different ways. You want to stay with me tonight after all?”

“Is that how you show grief, mister?” She smiled, then frowned. “Oh, God, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. How are you really feeling, sug?”

I lay down on the bed and she cradled my head into her lap. I closed my eyes. “I don't know what I should feel. Bob Don seems shocked, Gretchen's acting devastated. I know that Lolly was my great-aunt, but she came into and left my life in a matter of hours. I don't feel sad so much as shocked. She was pretty awful to Deborah.”

“Yes, she was.” Candace gently stroked my hair. “She didn't strike me as a happy woman.”

I groaned. “Poor old thing.”

“So you think she just had a heart attack?” Candace's voice was measured.

“I don't know. The medical examiner'll tell us, I suppose.” I explained to her about Lolly's body being shipped to Travis County for autopsy. I closed my eyes again, trying not to picture Aunt Lolly struggling, her face turning purple with the effort to draw breath. “If she just had a heart attack, why is a deputy spending the night on the island? They're certainly treating it as a suspicious death.”

“You aren't the least bit curious? I find it decidedly odd that Uncle Jake's heart medication was gone and Aunt Lolly has a sudden heart attack,” Candace said. Great minds do tend to think alike, cliches aside. I didn't answer and she thunked me on the forehead with her finger.

I decided to play devil's advocate, just as Mendez had done. “Maybe we shouldn't see murder everywhere we look. She'd just been told her brother only has a short time to live. Besides, why would anyone want to kill that poor old lady? She wasn't right in the head, as mean as that sounds. She couldn't have been a real threat to anyone, Candace.”

Candace was quiet for a moment. “I don't know. It just bothers me. Jake seemed awful surprised that all his medicine was gone.”

“Okay, let's say someone did poison Aunt Lolly. Who? Why? It seems to me far more likely that she died over shock brought on by Uncle Mutt's announcement than that someone slipped her a Digoxin overdose. And why wouldn't the rest of us be sick? She ate and drank everything that we did.”

“That's not true,” Candace said. “I think she was the only one who had red wine. Everyone else had white wine or beer or hard liquor. Except Gretchen. And Aubrey, who made such a big deal about being a nondrinker. And me. He and I both drank mineral water.”

I bit my lip in thought. “You're right. I wonder if the police know that-”

“They took what was left of her dinner and put it into an evidence bag,” Candace said bluntly. “I saw diem. Unless they were just foraging for leftovers. And they'll have her stomach contents to analyze-”

“This is insane,” I said. “She can't have been poisoned. It's just too crazy. Plus, wouldn't she have been stricken a lot earlier?”

“It might not have affected her immediately,” Candace argued. “I don't know how long it takes a medication like that to affect someone. Neither do you.”

“I did ask the justice of the peace-who seems rather friendly with Uncle Mutt-about how long it takes to get toxicology results. She didn't even blink when I asked.” I rubbed my eyes, weary. “If Lolly was poisoned, the police'll find out. And then we'll all be questioned till we're blue in the face.” I stood up, leaving the warm comfort of her lap. The breeze through the window felt as gentle as an angel's kiss.

“Of course, maybe Lolly wasn't the target.” Candace continued talking to my back. “Did you tell the police about your Hallmark cards from hell?”

I related my conversation with Victor Mendez to her. Candace snorted. “So he's not making a move until he knows for sure whether or not it was natural causes?”

“It's not an unusual course of action, sweetheart.”

“The hell it's not. You've gotten death threats. What's wrong with this man?”

“He's investigating a potential murder in possibly the wealthiest family in the county.” I shrugged. “I imagine he doesn't want to make any mistakes. Period. Assuming there's a link between my letters and Lolly's death is a fair jump on little evidence.” I turned back to the window, watching the maze of stars shine over the bay.

I couldn't get Lolly's purpling face out of my mind. I had seen death before, by violence, and I know its signature- the eyes dimming of light, the curl of the lip in shock and dismay that the final moments are here, the pallid wetness of the tongue in the open cave of the mouth.

I wondered what Uncle Mutt thought of his little dramatic moment now.

Candace stretched and crawled off the bed.

“Good night, sug. Get some sleep. I'll be watching your room from down the hall.”

“I know you fancy yourself as the new Emma Peel, Candace, but you need sleep, too. I'll be fine. I won't be able to sleep if I'm worried that you're not getting any rest.”

I kissed her tenderly, reveling in the warmth of her lips against mine. Someday I would be dead, like Lolly, and whatever afterlife awaited me might not include the gentle pleasure of a kiss. I broke the embrace and nuzzled the top of her head.

“I love you, Jordan.” Her voice was low against my chest, her lips a gentle motion against my T-shirt.

“I love you, too. I think I'll go down to Mutt's library and find me a book. I completely forgot to pack one. I'll stay up and read awhile.”

She slipped off toward her end of the hall while I tiptoed down to the staircase. The house was dark; the family had called it an early evening. I saw rods of light beneath doors, so I knew not everyone slumbered, but we were all modestly tucked in. I did not hear the sound of grieving from any room, and I shivered.

The library was poorly lit, one lamp casting an inadequate glow from a side table. I felt a bit like an intruder, so I didn't turn on the ceiling lights. Plus, I didn't want to disturb the taciturn Deputy Praisner on the porch.

I moved toward one of the bookcases, running a finger along the volumes. Nearly everything seemed to pertain to either Texas history or true crime. The latter category lacked any appeal, given the day's events. But I paused, looking down the spines of an entire shelf. Uncle Mutt had amassed a rather fearsome collection of murder and mayhem. I turned back to the history offerings. I began thumbing through a thin biography of the Republic of Texas's second president-and my hometown's namesake, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar. “Hello, Mirabeau,” I muttered to myself. “Reading about you should knock me unconscious.”

A voice boomed from a corner chair, “Mirabeau Lamar? He was a right sorry man.”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I reached over and flicked on another table light. Uncle Mutt sat in a plush leather chair, a glass of brandy nestled in his hand. I realized he'd been sitting silently in the near dark.

“Sorry, boy. Didn't mean to startle you.” Uncle Mutt's voice was low and raspy. “But Mirabeau Lamar was a turd. He would've killed ever' damn Indian in Texas with a snap of his fingers. Only smart thing he ever did was build the Texas Navy.”

“Oh, you didn't startle me,” I lied. “I just didn't realize that you were there.” I thumped the Lamar biography against my hand, suddenly at a loss for words.

“You may borrow the book, Jordan,” he said softly.

“I-I-” I realized my entire vocabulary had deserted me. I swallowed. “I didn't mean to be poking about in your library, it's just I forgot to bring anything to read with me and I couldn't sleep and so I…” I trailed off.

“Oh, for God's sake. You act like I'm radioactive, boy. You want to sit down and have a brandy with me?”

“Uncle Mutt-Mr. Goertz-I'm really sorry about your sister. I don't want to intrude on your grief. And I'm so sorry that you're sick…” My voice evaporated into the dark air.

“You're not intruding, son. And I told you not to call me Mr. Goertz. I'm your uncle, so you call me Uncle Mutt.” He mouthed his brandy, rolling the liquid in his cheek before swallowing. “I don't figure we've done much to make you feel comfortable.”

My God. He'd lost his sister tonight. He'd told his family he was dying. And he was concerned for my comfort? I wasn't sure if I felt touched or puzzled at his priorities. But then, I didn't know what a dying man's priorities were. “Please don't worry about me, I'll be fine. I'm sure I'm still a shock to y'all.”

“We've faced far worse shocks as a family, trust me. And it ain't healthy for a dying man to sit in the dark, thinking about his death or anyone else's. So you'll have a brandy with me?”

“Sure.” I sat in another comfortable reading chair, facing him across a low coffee table. He fiddled with glasses at a side bar and returned, handing me a snifter with a generous dose of brandy. He kept his face slightly averted as he offered me the drink. I could see his eyes were rimmed with red and soft with grief. I glanced away, not wanting to embarrass him. Men don't want other men to see them mourn.

I swirled the amber liquid in the glass and sipped cautiously. My tongue burned and an agreeable sensation began a slow exploration of my limbs.

“Good, ain't it? It's French.” Uncle Mutt grinned.

“It's very good,” I said. I wouldn't know good brandy from bad, but it certainly wasn't making me feel worse.

“You think maybe your library could use these books?” Mutt gestured at the shelves. “I ain't gonna need them when I'm dead.”

“That's very generous of you.” I surveyed the depths of my brandy, took another hefty gulp, and when I looked up, Mutt was staring at me intently.

I glanced away in discomfort and he spoke. “I know. I'm sorry, son. I haven't seen you in a long, long time and I just can't get over how much you remind me of other folks in our family. Ones that ain't here with us no more.”

“Long time? But you've never seen me-”

“That's not entirely true. You see, Jordan, your father and I are about the only half-normal people in this bunch. And when you came along, Bob Don needed someone to unburden himself on. That was me.” He paused and watched the brandy in his glass. “I've known about you since the day you were born.”

“Bob Don never told me you knew.”

“Your father's not a man to admit that he needed a kind shoulder. Many years ago, Lolly and I visited him in Mirabeau. We went to a junior-high baseball game, Mira-beau versus Smithville. You played shortstop. You didn't have a particularly good game, and your team lost, but Bob Don didn't care. I could tell he was nearly bursting with pride, just to watch you.”

My throat felt heavy. The brandy burned a pleasant trail to my stomach. “I remember that game. Smithville stomped us, and I was fit to be tied. You and Aunt Lolly were there?”

“Sure were. Lolly didn't know about you, though. She just thought that Bob Don and I, being men, couldn't go three days without attending a sporting event.” He chuckled softly. “Oh, Lord, Lolly didn't want to be at that game, kept asking when it would be over. But if she'd known Bob Don's son was playing on that field, you couldn't have moved her off those bleachers with a bulldozer.”

“Good Lord.” Further words escaped me. I closed my eyes, recalling the game with the intensity of disappointment that only kids feel. I'd missed a key grounder, struck out twice, and when I'd made it to third base, the next batter had choked with bases loaded and suffered the final out of the game. The walk to the dugout felt like miles. My face had burned not only with the spring sun but with the humiliation of loss.

I never would have dreamed that blood relations I knew nothing about were watching me that entire time, like visitors from another world scrutinizing a primitive race. I gulped at my brandy, which sent a long finger of fire down my gullet. I'd felt a stranger in this house-but Uncle Mutt had seen me play ball. He'd known the truth about my parentage longer than I had. He'd been Bob Don's one confidant.

I opened my eyes. Uncle Mutt smiled. He had, behind the bluster, a kind face.

“You're sure there's nothing they can do for you?” I heard myself asking in a strained voice. “The doctors aren't always right.” I did not add my father who raised me had succumbed to cancer, and the physicians had been unerring in their diagnosis and prediction of his death.

He dismissed my hopes with a wave of his brandy glass. “Jordan, I'm dying. There's no two ways about it, son. My time's come and I don't begrudge the fates their due. I sometimes wonder if I won't go blind, won't lose my sense of smell, won't go crazy. I ain't in a lot of pain yet, but when it comes, they can let me have a little of the morphine. I'm hoping I'm dead before it gets too bad.” He sipped again. “I figure I've had a good life. I just wish Lolly hadn't gone first.”

“I'm so sorry.” I didn't know what to say, and the words sounded like an empty apology. I know from my own experience: conveying sympathy is one of the world's hardest tasks. How many times had people oohed their pity for my mother's condition, meaning well, but instead raising a bitter hackle within me./ don't need your sympathy or your pity. I need my mother to be healthy again. And no one can give me that. “I'm sorry I didn't have the opportunity to know Lolly better, Uncle Mutt.”

He rubbed at his forehead, as though massaging the memories. “I loved her, even when she could be a trial. She was stubborn, and sometimes she and Deborah clashed. But she loved this family, and she'd have done any duty we asked. I can't believe she's gone. She must've hid her heart condition the way I've kept quiet about my cancer. It would be like a Goertz.”

I listened to the bass ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner before I spoke. “Do you know why the deputy's staying the night here?”

Mutt made a hissing grunt. “Dadgum fool justice of the peace. She's got to order an autopsy, she says, 'cause Lolly's death was suspicious since Jake's medication was missing. Tricia Yarbrough had the gall to suggest-ever so gently-that maybe Lolly took her own life. Ridiculous!”

“I'm sorry, Uncle Mutt.” I could think of no other comfort to offer. If he didn't care for Tricia's suspicions, he certainly wouldn't cotton to mine. I'd gotten the distinct impression Tricia Yarbrough cared about Uncle Mutt, but he didn't seem to return the feelings-at least not right now.

“My sister died of a simple heart attack. And I probably sent her over the edge, being all dramatic in announcing I'm sick. Christ.” He massaged the bridge of his nose, not looking at me. “Christ.”

“If she was sick,” I ventured carefully, “maybe that'd explain why she was in such a… mood at dinner.”

He glanced up at me, quickly. “Yes, you're right. Normally Lolly would never say the hurtful things she said tonight. It was entirely unlike her. She was devoted to this family.”

“She seems not to have cared for Deborah,” I murmured. I took quick refuge in a sip of brandy.

“Oh, Lord. Deborah lived with Lolly after her parents died, and that was a terrible mistake. Two women, both all eaten up with grief-they turned on each other, instead of supporting each other. A closeness between those two was just not meant to be.”

His thin lips compressed and he quickly moved to defend his sister's memory from his own description. “I wished you could've known Lolly better, too. She was a individual, that's for sure. Her and that damn dog of hers. She wasn't always quite that way. Lolly was a pistol in her youth, a lot of fun, a sweet girl. But Charles was her whole life, they never had young'uns, and when he died-it wasn't long after Deb had come to live with them-part of Lolly died. I think it was the chunk of the brain that must govern reason.” The remark might sound cruel, but I knew he didn't mean it that way. It was a bald statement of fact, the kind I sensed that Uncle Mutt prided himself on. “Lord knows she took mighty good care of Uncle Jake.”

“He seems rather independent still,” I said.

Uncle Mutt sighed. “Oh, Lord, you can't keep Uncle Jake down on the farm. He's a lively one. Stays busy with his hobbies and got more pen pals than I can keep track of. Seems his specialty is gettin' into trouble. We had him in a nursing home for a while, but he wouldn't ever let the lady residents or the nurses alone. It just got easier to bring him on home and let family take care of family. We've always believed in that.”

“It sounds very noble.”

He nodded at me approvingly. “I don't want to sound caustic after poor Lolly dying, but I'm glad you're coming into the family, Jordan. We need some fresh blood. Jake and I ain't long for this world. And sometimes I ain't holding much hope for the next generations. Look at Aubrey; he's so boring he tapes the Weather Channel.”

“They're not so bad, I'm sure,” I said.

“Hell, I know. But what I say about the whole lot, it's the truth. And those damned hounds are all after my money.”

“Your money?” I asked.

“Good Lord, boy.” He laughed. “Did you think I inherited this island? Hell, no. I won it. I've worked damned hard my whole life. I made enough money for rich folks as an investment counselor I ended up rich myself. You can't hang out around the Texas wealthy without some of their pennies and luck landing in your pockets. I got money out the ass, not to sound crass.” He laughed at his impromptu verse. “And those turkey vultures are circling hard.” He gestured toward the ceiling-and our sleeping relatives-then downed the rest of his brandy. He kept the glass's edge balanced against his lip, his eyes shut in exhaustion.

“If you're worried about me, I'm no vulture. I don't want any of your money. I don't have a claim on it.” My face felt hot with indignation. I wanted to say: Look, Uncle Mutt, someone's tried to scare me off, maybe because of your damned money. I opened my mouth to tell him about the letters, but the words wouldn't come. I liked being with him, talking to him, listening to the cadence of his voice.

“You got as good a claim on my fortune as anyone else. Maybe better-you ain't irritated me yet. And I gotta give some hard thinking to my money now that Lolly's gone.” He shrugged. “I'm sure the folks upstairs realize by now there's one less heir to squabble with over the loot.”

The force of his words hit me like a delayed drug reaction. I nearly dropped my drink. “That's a horrible statement to make after your sister dies.”

“Well, I'll be damned. You got some gumption. I figured you might not have much after I heard you were a librarian.”

I set my brandy down on the table. “And I might have thought you were a no-good, lazy gambler after I heard you won this island in a poker match. But I shouldn't pay any heed to stereotypes.”

He laughed again. “God. I bet you were a little toot as a teenager. Did you have you some fun?”

I tried not to be thrown by the twists and turns that seemed inherent in any conversation with Uncle Mutt. “I guess I did. I was a pretty good kid, though.”

“Sure is a pretty gal you've got with you. She good to you?”

“Yes, sir, she is. She's about the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Well, there's nothing like the love of a good woman.”

His eyes grew wistful. “I won't get none of that after I'm dead. You probably only get lovin' in heaven and I'm hell-bound for sure. Only attention I'll be gettin' is the old devils poking me with their pitchforks.”

I wanted to inquire about what existed between him and Wendy Tran, but I didn't. I felt less an intruder in this house now-or at least in Uncle Mutt's congenial presence-but I didn't feel as though I could ask frank questions such as are you sleeping with a woman young enough to be your granddaughter? Just not done, you know.

I started to tell him how Candace and I met when a slight bump came from the direction of the half-closed library door. Uncle Mutt raised his hand, gesturing me to continue talking, and began tiptoeing toward the door. I hesitated only for a moment, then continued, feeling self-conscious: “Well, Candace was my assistant when I started at the library, but she doesn't work there anymore. She bought a cafe along with my sister Arlene and they run it together-”

At that point Uncle Mutt yanked the door open. Philip Bedrich nearly fell into the library, tottering for balance. He pulled his bathroom robe close about him.

“Ooops,” Philip managed to sputter. “Sorry, Uncle Mutt, didn't realize anyone was in here. I was just on my way to the kitchen-”

“You know where the kitchen is, Philip.” Mutt's voice sounded stern and reproachful.

“Well”-Philip took a conciliatory step into the library- “I thought I might get a book to read. I couldn't sleep, thinking about poor Aunt Lolly, so I-well, hello, Jordan. I didn't know you were down here.”

“Right.” Uncle Mutt coughed. “I don't approve of eavesdropping on private conversations, Philip.”

“I should say not,” Philip agreed. “And if I see anyone in this house sticking an ear to a keyhole, you can be sure I'll tell them you don't condone such behavior.” That bandage loosely applied, Philip turned a beatific smile on me. “How kind of you, Cousin Jordan, to offer solace to Uncle Mutt. I don't mean to interrupt your visit, let me just fetch a book.”

“You should be careful sneaking around, Cousin Philip,”

I offered dryly. “There's an armed cop on the porch. He looked like he might have a twitchy trigger finger to me.”

Philip ignored my jab, sidled to the bookshelves, and began a detailed perusal of the offerings. Uncle Mutt regained his seat. “The books on personal responsibility are on the upper shelf, Philip. Reading those should cure your insomnia.”

If the barb stung Philip, he didn't wince. “I actually wish I had more time to read all these books on Texas history. It's a fascinating subject. Has Mutt given you his lecture on the ill-fated Reliant, Jordan? It can keep one entertained for, oh, just countless hours upon hours.” Philip didn't seem concerned about sucking up before any new wills were drafted.

“Little asshole,” I heard Uncle Mutt whisper, rolling his eyes. I glanced over at Philip-and saw him, deftly, pull a book from the folds of his robe and slide it back into its place on the shelf. I didn't let my gaze linger as he glanced back at me.

“Ah, here's a good one.” Philip waved a nondescript tome; I could see knights on the cover. “A nice book on European history. That'll do the trick.” He drew close to Uncle Mutt. “You holding up okay, Uncle? Anything I can do?”

“I'm fine, Philip, thanks for your concern,” Uncle Mutt answered, his voice tight. “Go on to bed, get some rest. I don't mean to be short with you. I'm just tired.”

“I know,” Philip said, his voice a bit softer. “Get some rest, Uncle Mutt. Good night, Jordan.” I ignored the slightly snide tone his voice had taken in bidding me farewell. Philip didn't like me one bit, I surmised.

Uncle Mutt was silent until we heard the soft tread of Philip's footsteps on the stairs. “I'd best get to bed, Jordan. I got to go into Port Lavaca tomorrow and start the arrangements for Lolly's funeral. God, I didn't think I'd be burying anyone else before me.”

“Would you like me to go with you tomorrow?”

A soft smile touched his face, and for one terribly naked moment I saw my own face in his. “No, Jordan, but I appreciate the offer. Maybe you can keep my relations from robbing me blind while I'm gone.”

I didn't want the conversation to end quite yet. “Did Lieutenant Mendez say anything more about-about the investigation?”

Mutt shook his head. “Just have to wait on the autopsy, he says.” His eyes narrowed at me. “Why? You know something you ain't sharing, son?”

“Yes.” My voice sounded miserable. I told him about the cards, the vicious messages they'd conveyed, and my discussion with Mendez and Yarbrough.

Mutt didn't speak, his hands cupped before his face. I felt desperately afraid I'd driven myself out of his budding affections. He took a bracing breath.

“Are you suggesting-to the police-someone wanted to kill you and killed my sister by mistake?”

“I don't know. If Lolly didn't die by natural causes-I might've been the target. Would anyone want to kill her?”

“No. No. There is no murderer in this family. No, son, no.”

“Uncle Mutt-”

“If anyone's killed here tonight, it's me. Breaking the news like that. I couldn't be subtle. I had to be as loud as a fart in church. I brought on Lolly's heart attack.”

“You can't know that, Uncle Mutt. Don't do this to yourself.”

He didn't speak for a full minute. “You've met the family now. Who do you suspect of sending you those cards?”

“I don't know.”

His mouth worked, but no words came out. “I want to see these letters.”

“I gave them to Lieutenant Mendez.”

“And I want to know why the hell Lieutenant Mendez didn't inform me about the threats to a member of my family. I believe I'll phone him now. I'll do that from my office. Good night, Jordan.”

“But, Uncle Mutt.”

For the second time that evening, I was dismissed from a conversation. “Good night, Jordan.” His scowl softened.

“Get some sleep. And rest assured no harm will come to you while I live in this house.”

“Good night,” I said. “I'm just going to pick out another book, in case I don't like this one.” I proffered the Lamar biography. “After all, like you said, he wasn't much fun.”

He grabbed me into another of his bear hugs, his breath warm against my neck. I felt his shudder of exhausted grief, the sadness he wouldn't truly share with any of us. He released me without a word and left the den.

I didn't dawdle. I went straight to the bookshelf to see which volume Philip had so secretively and dexterously replaced. The book, Bitter Money, was notched carefully back into the heart of the true-crime section.

I remembered Bitter Money being a best-seller ten years ago: the lurid tale of a noted New York financier who'd murdered his socialite wife. It was the kind of torridly written saga that was the literary equivalent of driving slowly past a fatal car collision. I opened the book and scanned the copy on the inside of the jacket.

Yes, of course. The eminent banker had poisoned his wife of thirty years. With a deadly overdose of her own digitalis-based heart medication.


My dreams were unkind. In the darkness of night and slumber, I swam through the shattered hulk of the sunken Reliant, the current piloting me along. I drifted, breathing the murky water like air, among the tattered corpses dressed in makeshift uniforms. One revolved toward me in the ebb of moving sea and I saw with horror the decaying face was Uncle Mutt's. I jerked away from the sight, and the corpses began to close around me in an icy fellowship. I could see their faces clearly now-a misshapen Deborah; Jake, his countenance pecked by fish; a one-eyed Sass; and worst, a Bob Don who looked like a demon from some nether region, the lower half of his face rotted away. His arms stretched out to me in an obscene embrace, and I roused from the nightmare with a shudder.

I felt the momentary disorientation of waking in an unfamiliar place, then remembered where I was and the contorted look on Lolly's face as she died. I was thirsty, but a small boy's fear held me and I didn't want to get up from the bed to venture into darkness. I suddenly missed my parents very badly. Finally I fell asleep again, the bedding wrapped around me like a shroud.

I awoke with the sun. Rather than concentrate on my disturbing dream, I set my mind to replaying Philip stealthily replacing that book about digitalis poisoning among its less meaningful colleagues. Had I made a mistake? What if I'd spotted the wrong book? But I didn't think that I was wrong. I thought dear Cousin Philip might have some serious explaining to do, but I had no proof. Borrowing a book wasn't a crime.

The first rays of dawn shot through my window, and with no Candace to snuggle up to, the bed seemed a cold place. I pulled myself up, donned a pair of shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and stumbled down to the kitchen in search of caffeine.

I wasn't the earliest riser in the house. I found Wendy bustling about in the kitchen, getting ready to prepare a large breakfast for the family. Food always seems so inextricably linked with death; I remembered vast buffets of food brought by neighbors when my father died… but there were no neighbors on Sangre Island. Did anyone else share this family's grief? I knocked timidly on the door I'd already opened.

I had met her very briefly last night, but we'd hardly exchanged more than hellos. “Good morning, Wendy. I don't want to disturb your work, I just wanted to get some coffee…”

“Oh, hi, c'mon in,” she said. Her voice sounded tired, as though she hadn't slept well. I saw she'd already poured herself a large cup of cream-laced coffee and a cigarette sat burning in an ashtray, a plume of smoke rising from its cin-dery end. “Did you sleep okay, Jordan?”

“Not really.” I started looking in cupboards for a cup. Wendy quickly produced one, an old-fashioned big white mug. She filled it for me, offered me cream and sugar. The rich, comforting smell of French roast wafted over me like airborne nectar.

“The beach is beautiful in the morning, if you're of a mind for a walk. And this is one of the nicest times of the year to see all the wildflowers,” she said. I wasn't sure if that was a polite way of ushering me out of the kitchen, but I didn't want to leave.

“Thanks, but if you don't mind, I'd like to stay here and drink my coffee.”

“Suit yourself.” Wendy sat back down at the table, took a long draw off her cigarette, and sipped at her coffee. She regarded me with frank eyes. I remained quiet, sipping at the hot brew. She hadn't seemed inclined to engage in idle conversation, but since I'd made myself comfortable, she deigned to speak.

“Hard day for Mutt ahead.”

“I think he has harder-and fewer-days ahead,” I pointed out.

Wendy stared down at her coffee. “Each day brings us one day closer to our deaths. He's not going to think much about his own problems today. Dying people still grieve.” She shook her head and took a long draw on her cigarette. I thought her too young to have such a dark outlook; but I had no idea where life had taken her. Her journeys might have been far tougher than mine.

“He's a good employer?” I kept my voice neutral.

“The best. He's been a kind friend to me, and I will miss him terribly when he's gone.” She stubbed out her cigarette and quickly lit another. “I don't usually chain-smoke, but these aren't usual days.”

I studied her over the rim of my coffee cup. She puzzled me. She didn't speak with a noticeable Vietnamese accent, and she didn't have an easy Southern drawl like the rest of the household. I'd wondered if she was from one of the hundreds of Vietnamese families that had settled in fishing towns along the Texas coast.

I ventured forward with dark humor: “I guess not. An illegitimate son turns up, the family patriarch announces he's terminally ill, and his sister dies. If this is usual, get me the hell out of here.”

She didn't grin and I saw her face was vacant of the wear of laugh lines. Wendy Tran suddenly struck me as a woman who would smile sparingly.

“I'm curious,” she asked. “Just why are you here? Bob Don says you're his son, but you don't seem to act like a father and son yet.”

“We're not quite there yet.” I stirred my coffee.

“I figured he hadn't acknowledged you before because you were too embarrassing to him.”

“You must not know Bob Don well,” I countered. “He's a very fine man.” I felt a quickening anger fill my face. How dare she sit in judgment of Bob Don? “I'm here because I do care about Bob Don. He asked me to come, so I did.”

Wendy didn't comment immediately, but got up, refilled her cup, and offered the pot to me. I shook my head. “I seem to have hit your sore spot,” she observed without further comment. I had an uncomfortable feeling that said sore spot had been filed away for future reference.

“I take it you don't care much for Mutt's family,” I bludgeoned back in response. I shouldn't have felt ticked at her, but I did. She glided back to her chair and sat down, curling one leg beneath her.

“It doesn't matter what I think of the Goertzes. They're Mutt's family, he's my employer.”

“My charming aunt Sass wasn't kind toward you last night.”

“Sass drinks too much, and what she does is of no concern to me.” Wendy poured a dollop of cream in her coffee and watched the milky swirl for a moment before destroying it with a vigorous stir of her spoon. “Do you think I would pay one bit of attention to anything that woman says?”

My personal opinion was that Wendy would not forget a single utterance against her; even if her implacable face never gave a moment's reaction. I didn't venture that opinion, however. I glanced up to see that she was carefully studying my face, as though cataloguing each individual element in it. She caught my eye and didn't blink or look away.

I took a comforting sip of coffee. “How long have you worked here?”

“About a year. I was working as a cook for a caf6 in Port Lavaca and I hated it-it was a disgusting, greasy place. Mutt came in one day, had my meat loaf for lunch, and offered me a job on the spot.”

“Are you from the coastal bend originally?”

“No. From here and there. I wandered around a lot as a kid.” She stood. “If you don't mind, I need to get breakfast started. I've got biscuits to make and Jake likes his orange juice fresh-squeezed.”

“Sure,” I said, taking the hint. I quickly refilled my coffee and left Wendy to her work. I found the study deserted and used the phone to call Sister.

“How's it going?” was her first question.

I explained the night's events, interrupted only by Sister's occasional “oh my Lord.” When I was done, she sputtered, “Well, when do y'all get to come back home?”

“Don't know. Depends on what the autopsy shows. I can't figure it out, Sister. The authorities here know Mutt Goertz, know his family-and seem to think that maybe something's up. I can't put my finger on it.”

“Come home,” she said immediately. “They can't possibly think you had any involvement with this, you don't even know these folks.”

“Sister, I can't. Bob Don needs me and anyway, none of us can leave the county until the autopsy results are back. So says the justice of the peace.”

“This wasn't a good idea,” Sister blurted. “I knew it wasn't.”

“You were all for me coming here-” I fumed. “At least, you were after you and Candace confabbed in the cafe.”

“Well-” She sounded shamed. “Candace told me that Bob Don's uncle was awful wealthy, and we decided it couldn't hurt for you to get to know him…” Her voice trailed off.

“Sister. I can't believe this!”

“Oh, for God's sake. We didn't mean any harm. We just figured it was just as easy to love your new family if they were rich instead of poor. Don't get your drawers in a knot. And be mad at me, don't be mad at Candace.”

I promised her I'd call back soon, assured her again we were all fine, and hung up. Good Lord. I'd thought Candace had unblemished motivations in encouraging me to take this trip. She and I were due for a little chat when she arose this morning.

I ambled out to the porch. I heard a voice-unmistakably Uncle Jake's raspy whine. At the corner of the wraparound porch to the left of the front door, Aubrey had settled Uncle Jake down into a high-backed wicker chair. Or at least I thought Jake was settled down. No sooner did I step out onto the porch than Jake whacked at Aubrey's white-trousered leg and bellowed, “Goddamn it, Aubrey, let me be. You're fixing to give me a spell.”

Aubrey wasn't put off by a smack with a cane. I saw he was also holding the bereaved Sweetie close to his cheek, and he cuddled the hapless Chihuahua closer. “That's okay, Uncle Jake. Give in to your anger. You've lost your primary caretaker-,”

“And I'm about to lose the most irritating relative God gave breath to!” Uncle Jake poked at Aubrey again. “I don't want to hold Sweetie right now. And I don't want to get in touch with my wounded self or whatever blather it is you're spouting. I want you to leave me alone!”

“That's it, Uncle Jake. Vent. Then breathe. Then vent again.”

“Aubrey.” I came up and gently touched his shoulder. “Let's not get Uncle Jake excited. He's got a heart condition, remember?”

“Yeah! And no medication!” Uncle Jake added. “Are you trying to shove me into the grave, Aubrey?” He palpated his hand against his chest, as though suffering from the vapors.

“Uncle Jake's heart condition,” Aubrey answered icily, “is that he's forgotten what it is to have a heart!”

“Thffffffffffffft,” Uncle Jake replied, with his lips and tongue and dentures.

“Uncle Jake, you always hurt those who try to help you.” Aubrey crossed his arms, squeezing Sweetie protectively. The little dog's eyes rolled.

“Aubrey, you're a pain. Let me sit here and enjoy the morning. I probably got fewer than a thousand of 'em left to savor. You ain't helping my mood, 'cause I didn't sleep well.”

“Sleeplessness is common in a loss like this,” Aubrey said. “Especially when one is in denial of grief. Why, if you'd just let yourself cry, Uncle Jake, you'd dream with the angels.”

“Somebody gonna be acquiring angel wings real soon,” Uncle Jake replied.

“Listen, y'all!” I demanded. They glanced at me with real surprise. “Aubrey, why don't you go get Sweetie some breakfast? I'm sure he's feeling lonely for Lolly and I know he'd respond to you paying him lots of attention.”

Aubrey mulled over this new opportunity for therapy, murmured a polite “What a wonderful suggestion, Cousin Jordan,” and retreated from the porch, the unfortunate Sweetie in tow.

“Well, ain't you a smart one,” Uncle Jake chortled. “Better that damn dog than me have to suffer Aubrey's foolishness.” He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Oh, that plumb wore me out. I'm feeling a tad peaked. Do you think you could go fetch me some orange juice, nephew?” His voice had taken on a whine I freely admit to not caring for. But I wasn't about to deny an old man his morning pick-me-up. Even if I suspected his use of an endearment toward me was just to propel me faster toward the kitchen.

“Sure, Uncle Jake. I'll be right back.” I ducked back into the house, found Wendy hadn't started on the juice yet, fixed it myself with fresh oranges, and brought a glass back to Uncle Jake. He snatched it from me as soon as I handed it to him.

“Took you long enough,” he snapped, downing half the glass in a long swallow.

“Well, those oranges don't squeeze themselves,” I responded, a bit peeved. I don't mind doing jobs for folks, but I at least like to be appreciated. I reminded myself that Aunt Lolly had nursed Jake and that he needed watching over.

Uncle Jake watched me over the pulp-smeared rim of his glass. His eyes were a dark hazel, framed with sagging flesh. His mouth worked as he wiped the bits of orange from his teeth with his tongue. His face was gaunt and narrow; I thought he must have been loose-limbed and athletic in his youth. “You ever in the military, boy?”

“No, sir.”

“I'm a World War One vet. Whaddaya think of that, huh?”

“It's very impressive.”

“You know what it makes me, boy? Hard to kill.”

I blinked and leaned against the railing. “Excuse me?”

“I'm a tough old fart. Don't forget it.”

“I certainly won't. Is there a reason why you're assuring me of your indestructibility?”

“God. Now you sound like that clown Aubrey.”

“Sorry. I'm just trying to follow the path of your conversation.”

He snorted. “Just setting the record straight. Now that Lolly's gone, and Mutt'll be gone soon, I ain't gonna go into no dadburn nursing home. I got years ahead of me still. And I done made enough sacrifices for this family.” He glanced off toward the horizon, as though to reassure himself that Death wasn't charging forward to claim him early, having already scooped up Lolly. I shivered and he saw it, his eyes appraising me with cold calculation.

“You lived here with Lolly, is that correct?” I asked.

“Yep. For the past four years. Before that, we lived over in Corpus Christi.”

“I'm sure Mutt will want you to stay here,” I said reassuringly.

I could understand his fear. I have my own horror of nursing homes, from the time when my grandfather was forced into one. Our visits to him were painfully brief; a stench of guilt pervaded our family every time we stood and tried to make small talk in his dormitory-like room. We felt suffocated there; but what we felt could have only been a fraction of his suffering. He had loved and given and provided to us for his entire life, and the last years of it were spent rooming with a toothless crazy man from La Grange. My grandfather ate food cooked by other people; watched TV with folks he'd never seen before; spent his nights staring at the ceilings, lonesome for his own kin. Hi, you're sick and old and we don't need you anymore, so in you go to the human junkyard, Papaw. I hate those goddamn places.

“Hell. Him gone, Lolly gone, Sass and Bob Don'I stick me in a nursing home faster than you can spit.”

“There's plenty of money, Uncle Jake. Maybe they could provide you with a live-in nurse.” And why haven't they before? Why did that burden fall on Lolly when Mutt could easily hire a nurse for you? I kept my musings to myself.

“They ain't gonna do me no favors.” Uncle Jake stared out at the whitecaps dancing across Matagorda Bay. “Always thought I'd be the first to go. 'Less Lolly went and killed herself.”

“You think Lolly committed suicide?”

He shrugged. “Can't say that to Mutt-who wants to figure that their baby sister killed herself? But she was slowly going crazy, getting as nutty as a fruitcake.”

“I don't understand.”

He squinted at me in the morning brightness. “Hell, boy, were you deaf last night? Didn't you hear her lay into most of the family?”

“I thought-”

“What? That she was just meaner than eight acres of snakes?” He shook his head in silence. “Lolly never cottoned much to Deb or Gretchen, that's true. But as of late, she'd started turning on the whole family. Talking crazy, talking wild. Never made no sense. She used to kid about that dog being Charles come back to her, but I think she'd truly begun believing it.” He stared off at a bird swooping low over the bay. “That's a brown pelican-watch him dive!” The pelican suddenly swooped into the water, swallowed its catch, and flapped back into flight. Jake watched the bird with pleasure. “They nearly died off in the Sixties round 'bout here. But they're survivors, just like old me.”

I steered the conversation back toward Lolly's eccentricities. “You said she was getting less stable. Were you afraid she might take her own life?”

He watched the brown pelican soar toward the beach. “Well, Lord no, not really, else I would've said something to Mutt.” But he didn't look at me while he made this statement.

“I suppose you wouldn't have any reason to keep quiet if you were afraid for her,” I said softly.

He harrumphed. “Listen, sonny. Lolly was a right pain, but she took care of me pretty good, and she was family. I didn't want to see nothin' bad happen to her.” He coughed. “But now that she's gone, I just gotta make sure that I ain't stuck in no home. People die in those places, and wouldn't surprise me none if I got another good ten or eleven years to live. Long as Mutt takes the time and sets aside the money to make sure I'm cared for, and that none of them dadburn relations of mine can touch that money or dump me someplace I don't want to be, I'll be as fine as frog hair.” He smiled at me and there was little joy in his grin. “You're a nice boy, ain't you? Put in a good word for me with Bob Don and maybe Sass.”

“Of course.” I found myself suddenly wanting to be free from Uncle Jake's company. His tone of voice lingered between cajoling and threatening. I'm not cowed easily, but a malevolent air hung about the old man-in the devious sparkle of his eyes, the creaky grin, the discolored teeth. God, what kind of care did Lolly give him-his dentures really needed a good scrubbing. I stared back into his murky eyes and wondered if I'd caught a glimmer of thought: Get the mail I sent you, boy? I blinked. My imagination was running rampant.

“I'd surely appreciate it.” Downing the rest of his juice, he handed me the empty glass. “You think you could fetch me some more of that?”

“Sure,” I answered. “You want anything else?” He shook his head, and I turned to leave.

I paused at the door. “Can I ask you a question, Uncle Jake?”

“I reckon.” He peered up at me, shading his eyes with his palm.

“Your heart medication bottle was empty when Tom found it. Were you running low? We need to be sure we get you some more Digoxin.”

“I appreciate the concern, Jordan, but you don't got to worry. Mutt's getting the prescription refilled while he's in town today.”

“Oh, well, good. I guess you have to keep a careful eye on how much Digoxin you've got left.”

“Nah,” he huffed. “I just left that up to Lolly. She brought me the med'cine, my only job was to swallow. Now, how about that juice? A fellow gets parched sittin' out here watchin' the water.”

“I'll get you your juice,” I said, “but if you don't want anything else, I think I'll take a turn around the island.”

“Don't go,” Jake said. His voice came close to imploring. “This island ain't made for wandering about. I always think it has a smell of death in the air.”

I froze by the door. “Isn't that a little melodramatic?”

He gestured toward the spit of sand by the dock. “You see that beach? That's where them Mexicans slaughtered them boys.”

“Slaughtered boys?” I heard my voice ask.

Jake smiled with the glee of a natural-born gossip. “Yeah. Right down there. When it became obvious the Reliant was sinking, the Texan captain stuck all the youngest crew members-most of 'em just teenagers-into a dinghy and sent 'em onto the beach. The Mexicans corralled them after the Reliant had gone down and cut those boys' throats, every last one.” His eyes glimmered at the thought. “That's why they call this island Sangre. For blood. They said the blood ran so thick on the beach you could hardly see the sand.”

I suspected the account was an exaggeration, but I felt a cold tremor at the image. “That's horrible.”

“Whoever told you,” Uncle Jake wheezed, “that this island was a nice place?”

“Speaking of death,” I began, “what about what Aunt Lolly alluded to last night? That Deborah's father killed his wife, then himself? Bob Don never mentioned that his brother was a murderer.”

“Would you?” Jake snapped. “God, you're dense.”

“I'd tell my son,” I snapped back. My time with this unpleasant old man wore my nerves thin.

“Well, we ain't like you.” Uncle Jake turned back in his chair to stare out at the beach. “You gonna fetch that juice or not?”

“Uncle Jake. Please tell me-”

“No.” He glared back at me. “No, boy. Any of this family's shame ain't your concern. If you think it is, you best get off this island and never come back.” And Jake Zimmerhanzel turned his back on me, to watch the eternal ebb and flow of the sea.

Breakfast was a far more subdued meal than dinner, and I felt sick relief when the final fork clinked against the last plate. Sass-whose hangover was apparent in her tired face-apologized for her sharp tongue the night before (“I behaved terribly, and I'm sorry”). She tried desultory chitchat, but when Aubrey shepherded the conversation toward his theories regarding group convalescence from emotional trauma, she shushed him-and everyone else stayed quiet. Wendy obviously knew how to cook to Texan tastes: migas (eggs scrambled with salsa), crisp bacon, hash browns, grits topped with a decadent amount of butter, and homemade biscuits as tender as a poem. I was horrified at my appetite, considering the tragedy of the past day. But I was hungry and saw no point in pretending that I wasn't.

Candace didn't make an appearance, and I felt unease at her absence. Gretchen, who looked as if she'd hardly slept, saw that I was disconcerted. She assured me she'd checked on Candace, who was sleeping late. Bob Don took a seat next to me, gently squeezing my shoulder in greeting. I wanted to ask him about Uncle Jake's statements, but couldn't-this was neither the time nor the place.

The only noise for a long while was the murmurings among the family, the ping of fork against china, the soft slurping of coffee. I watched Uncle Mutt survey the gathering, like a lord eyeing his serfs. A palpable sense of control flowed from him, and his eyes were now clear and unmarked by weeping. He'd lost his sister, he was dying himself-but he seemed hewn of rock, stable in any tempest that might arise. I felt the force of his own personality intruding on the edges of mine. No wonder he was the undisputed patriarch. I found myself unable to look at him for long. A glance told me he was watching his kin and I wondered if he was divining which of them-if any-might be responsible for the threats mailed to me.

“Is that deputy still here?” Sass asked, idly buttering a biscuit.

“Yeah. I offered him some breakfast, but he declined. Never heard of one of them Praisner boys passing up a meal,” Uncle Mutt answered.

An embarrassed silence followed. Couldn't blame him, seemed the unspoken sentiment. After all, we might have a mad poisoner in the house. The thought, even if hanging in the air above our heads, didn't seem to dent appetites.

Bob Don sat next to me during the meal, but he didn't respond to my icebreaking overtures. I felt a sick worry stick my heart. What was going on with him, with this family?

“I'm heading into Port Lavaca this morning,” Uncle Mutt announced, “and I'm going alone. I got to see to Lolly's funeral arrangements. She asked in her will to be cremated, and to have her ashes scattered into Matagorda Bay. I'm going to have a memorial marker put up for her in the family cemetery here on the island. We'll have the service as soon as we get her-remains back from the Travis County coroner.” Mutt wiped his mouth thoughtfully with his napkin. “I assume you'll all stay for the service.”

“Now, Uncle Mutt, none of us brought funeral clothes,” Sass admonished.

“You gonna head all the way back to Houston, Sass? Hell. Wear what you brought. Lolly didn't stand on ceremony. Ain't gonna make a bit of difference to her.”

“Uncle Mutt,” Sass replied, one sculpted eyebrow raised, “there's a wrong way and a right way to do things. It would be disrespectful for us to scatter poor Aunt Lolly all looking like a bunch of beachcombers. We'll all need to head into Port Lavaca to get some clothes-”

“Sass, you've always worried about every meaningless thing under the sun. That's how you acquired so many husbands,” Mutt said. Sass opened her mouth to retort-I saw a clear glint of indignation in her eyes-but she opted for diplomacy.

“Sorry, Uncle Mutt. I know you've got plenty on your mind as is, and I didn't mean to speak harshly.”

He softened as well. “If y'all want to go into town and buy black clothes or whatever, feel free. But that'll keep till I get back.”

“Why can't we go with you, Uncle Mutt? Or take the other boat?” Deborah asked plaintively. “I agree with Sass, we want to look nice for poor Aunt Lolly's funeral-”

Poor Aunt Lolly? After the verbal beating Deborah had suffered at her aunt's hands? I watched my cousin cast her eyes down toward her plate. Her fork trembled as she poked at the remains of her eggs.

“Because I said so, Deb. You can go into town later.” He stood and walked out of the dining room, hollering at Rufus to make sure the boat was ready for him to take.

“Well!” Sass exploded (safely, after Uncle Mutt had left and could be presumed to be all the way down to the beach). “If this don't beat all. Uncle Mutt is obviously becoming mentally impaired due to his unfortunate brain cancer. One only wonders what other dreadful lapses of judgment await us.” She drummed long, painted nails on the tablecloth, watching as Wendy began clearing away the dirtied plates. “Of course, why don't we all retire to the study to discuss the matter? I'd prefer not to debate family issues in front of Mutt's domestics.”

“Honestly, Sass, don't be such a rotten snob,” Bob Don snapped, real irritation tingeing his voice. “Excuse my sister, Wendy. She must've left her manners on the mainland.”

“I don't pay her any heed, Mr. Goertz,” Wendy answered primly, removing the plates from in front of Deborah and me.

“You'll have to soon, sweetheart,” Sass purred. “Changes await us all.”

Wendy ignored the jab and went into the kitchen, noisily dumping the flatware in the sink. She didn't return.

“Sass, you should be ashamed!” Bob Don stormed. I believe Bob Don to be one of the most even-tempered men I know, but anger colored his cheeks. “Why do you loathe that poor girl so?”

“I wonder,” Aubrey offered delicately, “why you'd take up for some stranger and attack your own sister, Uncle Bob Don? Perhaps you've got some unresolved childhood rivalries you'd care to discuss?”

Bob Don gave that comment all the consideration it deserved. He kept his gaze firmly on his sister. “Well?”

Aunt Sass would say no more in the dining room, but she herded Bob Don, Aubrey, Philip, Gretchen, and me into the library. Tom had never appeared for breakfast and Deborah had joined Uncle Jake on the porch. I suddenly realized this gathering smacked of a family powwow and unease burrowed into my bones.

Sass shut the library doors and peered through the gap to be sure she wasn't being overheard. She whirled back to face her brother. “If you can't see that little tramp is about to unzip Uncle Mutt's fly, you're blinder than a fence post.”

“Oh, Sass dear, I think you might be overreacting just a teensy little bit,” Gretchen said.

Sass stared at her sister-in-law like Gretchen had just leaned over and spat on her patent-leather shoe. “Gretchen, honey, I know you've been in a stupor the past several years, but now's the time for unblurred vision. That little whore is after Uncle Mutt's money, and it's just clear as day that she's gonna get it if we don't stop her.”

“I think you're overestimating Uncle Mutt's affection for Wendy,” Bob Don said in a tight voice, “and I'd thank you not to speak to my wife that way.”

I recalled Uncle Mutt's warm embrace of Wendy, her soft laughter as she leaned against his shoulders, the air of intimacy that surrounded them. Apparently Sass had witnessed a similar scene, or suspected amour between lord and cook.

“That's okay, Bob Don,” Gretchen quickly said, eager to make peace. “Sass didn't mean anything by it, did you, hon?”

Sass smiled. “Of course not, sugar. We're all just tickled pink over your recovery. I'm so proud of you I could bust.”

I pressed my lips closed. After all, I had no designs on Uncle Mutt's money; it was none of my business. But I would not want to see Bob Don's inheritance threatened. I'd tell him privately what I'd seen between Wendy and Mutt; I wouldn't give Sass the satisfaction. Dislike for her boiled up in me; how did Bob Don and she spring from the same gene pool?

Sass sat and crossed her legs demurely. “Now let's get back to the problem at hand-Wendy.”

“She's no doubt searching for a father figure,” Aubrey volunteered, “and what we need to do is replace her Electra-complex attraction to Uncle Mutt with-”

“Aubrey, hush,” Sass said, the voice sounding automatic. I could see the pattern: Aubrey speaks, Sass shushes. Not a bad system, if it worked.

I silently took a chair. I thought that Sass convened us all to talk about Lolly's death; but my great-aunt wasn't even being mentioned. I couldn't say, with clarity, that grief permeated this house. Oh, Gretchen looked devastated, Bob Don seemed dulled, but the others-it was almost as if Lolly's death were a minor incident of the weekend, as unfortunate as a broken fishing reel.

“Mother.” Aubrey didn't surrender easily. “All I'm saying is find Wendy someone else to target. Shift her sights off Uncle Mutt.”

“Wonderful, darling, are you volunteering?” Sass rolled her eyes. “I suppose not. Regardless, Wendy doesn't want Mutt as a man.” She examined her polished nails. “She wants his money.”

“I don't think she's the only one overly worried about money,” I blurted. I didn't have any undue affection for Wendy, but watching Aubrey and Sass connive over Mutt's cash made me queasy.

“Well, well, well.” Sass pursed her lips into a wicked grin. “Long-lost son finally shows his true colors. I wondered how long it'd be until you were sticking your hand in the till.”

Bob Don started to defend me, but I stepped willingly into the line of fire. I don't take abuse. “Listen. I don't give a crap about Uncle Mutt's money. I don't have any claim on it. I may be a blood kin but I certainly don't have the years and years of having a relationship with him that y'all do. But he's a grown man, and what he does is his business. Not yours. Doesn't he deserve a little happiness in the last months of his life? Are you worried about his heart or his wallet?”

The battle lines drawn, Sass clicked her nails against the silk-soft leather. “I don't need some recently discovered offspring of my brother's telling me what is and isn't my business. I don't care what Bob Don says, you're not family. You're a stranger.” She turned to her brother, who was staring at her slack-jawed.

“Oh, Sass, no,” Gretchen mewled.

“I wouldn't be very inclined to claim you as kin, ma'am,” I retorted, my anger getting the better of me. “You've been nothing but damned unpleasant since we got here. You've been snide to Gretchen, sharp to your brother, and downright hostile toward me.”

“Why should I be kind to you?” she demanded. “All you want is to take from me and mine. Why on earth has Bob Don not produced you until now? Why hasn't he shown you off until now? How marvelously convenient that he waits until Uncle Mutt's dying. How sweet of Bob Don to conjure you up out of thin air. A trump card, a nice, handsome young heir who can stake a claim to part of the family fortune.”

“Uncle Mutt knew about me,” I answered. Anger sharpened my voice into a whisper. “He knew about me for years. He told me so last night. So I'm not a trump card, I'm not a son of convenience for Bob Don.”

The shock on Sass's face went to her bones. Her mouth worked as she stared at me, rummaging for a snide reply.

“Sass.” Bob Don's voice was behind me. “You have crossed every line of decency. What the hell has possessed you? You apologize to my son immediately!”

“Fat chance.” She stood and took Aubrey's arm. “Let's go for a walk, son.” Mother and son exited, Aubrey looking bewildered, Sass not meeting my eyes.

“Son”-Bob Don's voice was low-”I am so, so sorry. I don't know what's gotten into Sass. She's obviously distraught over Aunt Lolly's death.”

“Distraught, my ass,” I muttered bluntly. “She's just mean as a water moccasin. Have you seen her shed one tear over Lolly?”

“That was unforgivable.” Gretchen seized my arm and turned me toward her. “How dare you speak to Sass that way?”

“Me?” I choked. “Get real, Gretchen! She's had it in for me since the moment I set foot here. I even overheard her and Aubrey talking about someone being a threat. I'm sure they meant me. All they care about is their precious inheritance!”

“That's not true!” Gretchen said. “Sass is one of my oldest, dearest friends!”

“Is she more important to you than your husband?” I yelled. “Good Lord, Gretchen. She's just accused Bob Don of using me, of being underhanded, of calculating how to get his hands on money she considers hers. And you're defending her?”

“I should have known we shouldn't have brought you around people of quality,” Gretchen said coldly. “You ruin everything you touch, Jordan. You turn people against each other. Just like you did Bob Don and me.”

“Don't you blame me for what the bottle did,” I snapped, and she slapped me, once, hard, before storming out of the room.

I rubbed her palm print, standing red against my cheek. Good God, what had just happened in this room? Bob Don stared at me as though I were a stranger.

Philip, who'd been quietly lounging in a corner chair, got up and grinned. “Well, Jordan, you've just had your first family squabble. Welcome to the clan.”


I watched as Philip shut the library doors behind him, that annoying grin still decorating his callow face. I wanted to punch it off. But my temper had already sparked enough fireworks today, and I had fences to mend. And perhaps, terrible questions to ask. I turned back to Bob Don. He stood at the library's door that faced onto the spacious porch, his arms crossed. I came up beside him and watched a small vessel unfurl its sails. The wind caught the boat hard and spray exploded from the prow. I saw a child, puffy in an orange life preserver, lean into the wind on the deck, and I imagined rapture on his face as the wet salt air kissed his cheeks. The boat, off on some voyage of joy, looked like a far more pleasant place to be than this house.

“I'm sorry I spoke to your sister that way. But let's be honest,” I said softly. “It's obvious neither Gretchen nor Sass can stand me.”

His blue eyes crinkled in pain. The past day I'd heard again and again how much his face resembled mine; now I wasn't so sure. I'd grown up being told that I was the spitting image of my mama, with her strawberry-blonde hair and her soft green eyes. But the Goertzes saw lots of Bob Don in me. I wanted to see it, too. I couldn't tell if he was angry with me or not. I watched him watch the sailboats ply Matagorda Bay. The boat with the merry child raced toward the open expanse of the Gulf. For a trice the only sounds were gulls cavorting and the ceaseless wind over the water.

“Sass has always had a sharp tongue,” he finally said, still gazing across the vista. “You couldn't know that. But I expect better from you. I don't expect you to go off half-cocked at the first prod someone gives you.”

“Prod?” I was stunned. “More like a shove toward the edge of the cliff, if you ask me.”

“You don't know Sass. You don't know anything about the hell's she's been through.” His voice tightened like wire on the verge of snapping. “Sass has had a few weeks to get used to the idea that you're my son. You've had over a year to adjust. Do you think it's easy for her?”

“Obviously not,” I retorted. “She feels threatened by me, afraid that I'm going to cut into her share of Uncle Mutt pie.”

“It's not just money, Jordan. You're a part of my life I've kept secret from her for over thirty years, and she's my sister. Do you know who she calls when she's in trouble? Me. Do you know who's seen her through all three divorces and two widowhoods? Me. Do you know she went through a terrible depression once, lost her dress shop, and nearly ended up homeless? I was the one who got her back on her feet. Hell, I helped pay for Aubrey's college till she could pay me back.”

“I didn't know,” I confessed.

“No, you didn't. You can't learn how complicated a family's history is right when you saunter through the door, Jordan. You've got to give it time. None of them are going to accept you overnight.”

I counted slowly, controlling my anger-both at him, for the lecturing tone he'd taken, and at myself, for the blunders I'd made with Sass. When I spoke again, my voice was calm.

“I understand I'm a difficult adjustment for them. Goodness, she has an illegitimate nephew. How horrifically shocking. I'm sure that's comparable to discovering you have a new father.” Anger tinged my words harder than I'd intended, but I was having too much trouble picturing Sass as the victim in today's play.

“You're being awfully unfair, son,” Bob Don said quietly.

“I don't see you getting your morals impugned, or your face slapped,” I shot back. I forced myself to take a breath. “Never mind how she's treating me if she hates my guts. You're her brother, why isn't she being nicer to me out of affection for you? Considering all you've done for her, she's an ingrate.”

“She's not. I love you, son, but I love my sister, too.” He coughed. “I'd appreciate it if you didn't talk to her quite so stridently in the future.”

I swallowed the reply on my tongue. It was one of the few times he'd spoken to me in a standard parental tone. I saw that he'd dug his heels into the family sand. I tapped out a staccato rhythm on the balcony's railing. Arguing was getting us nowhere, and I felt a sudden sharp realization that I didn't like fighting with this man. To continue to bicker was to let Sass win. “Fine. I'll mind my manners.” I locked away the burning question in my heart: Uncle Jake has practically warned me off this island. Care to explain?

“Thank you.” He turned back toward the bay. “Wouldn't it be nice to be out on one of them boats, the wind and the salt spray in your face?”

“Do you want Candace and me to leave?” I asked softly.

He glanced at me in surprise. “Leave? Good Lord, no.”

“I'm not sure how comfortable I'd feel at Aunt Lolly's memorial service. After all, I hardly knew her-”

“Well. I thought maybe you might like to be there for me. Maybe I need you there, son.”

My face colored. “Of course. I just wanted to do whatever you wanted me to. Are you doing okay?” I hadn't even asked how he was feeling this morning, in the aftermath of Aunt Lolly's shocking death, or Uncle Mutt's sad announcement. My lips tightened in shame.

“I'm okay,” he answered me. “And I'd like you to stay.”

“All right,” I answered. I squeezed his shoulder once. “If you'll excuse me, I need to go find Candace. And I promise that if I encounter Aunt Sass, I'll be good. No missile strikes.”

“Thanks, son.” He breathed in the sea air. “I think I'll go find your stepmother, after I enjoy this view a little longer. She didn't have call to slap you, but I know you'll forgive her. Lolly's death has devastated her.” He gestured out at the island. “Shame we've had all this trouble. I could use a little peace and quiet.”

I left him there, the breeze ruffling his hair and his eyes closed against the summer warmth.

I collapsed facedown on Candace's bed. “I think I've forgotten how to be a good son.”

“Good Lord. If that's not the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.” Candace stuck her head out of her bathroom, wiping soap from her face.

I rolled over and stared at the ceiling. “I've hardly given Bob Don a thought since we got here-I've only worried about how I fit in with this crazy family. So I end up having a knock-down with his sister in the middle of a family bereavement and getting my face slapped by my hysterical stepmother. Oh, I'm a class act all the way.”

“You're not famous for your sensitivity,” Candace murmured over water splashing in the sink, “but I still love you.” She came in, wiping her hands with a towel. She sat on the corner of the bed and regarded me critically.

“After Daddy died, and Mama got sick,” I said, keeping my eyes on the swirled pattern of plaster above my head, “I didn't have to worry about being anyone's son anymore. Daddy was gone and Mama was so ill she couldn't care- half the time she didn't know who I was. It felt a little like being an orphan.” Candace's fingers touched my knee. “Then I discovered the truth. It was an entirely new ball game; a man trying to be a father to me and a woman who resented the devil out of me. I couldn't just say, yeah, go ahead and be my dad, Bob Don. It doesn't work that way- being a dad is so much more. I've demanded an awful lot from him, and he's hardly asked any effort from me. He probably knows more about being my father than I know about being his son. Does that make sense?”

“I'm sure it would to the folks who book panels for Oprah,” Candace said, “but you might be overanalyzing just a tad.”

“How so?” I leaned on my elbows to look at her.

“You didn't insist Bob Don fit into some mold to be your father-just that he be patient with you, that you take your own time in accepting him. Isn't that true?”

“Yeah,” I said cautiously. I smelled one of those women-know-best traps that are scattered about any emotional discussion.

Candace began to rub my leg, her fingertips tracing savory patterns on my flesh. I recognized her attempt to settle me down. “I believe Bob Don owes you the same courtesy. You didn't expect him to act like a father immediately, he shouldn't expect you to act like a son immediately.”

“But this isn't immediately we're talking about anymore,” I argued. “I've known for a year. And I still can't entirely see myself in the role of his kid. That's not what my life is.” My life was my Poteet family, my work, my relationship with Candace. I sat up and shook my head. “I don't belong here, Candace. This was a terrible mistake.”

“You let him down a little bit by that fight with Aunt Sass. Okay, big deal. Kids never upset parents? Parents never annoy kids? You and Bob Don have tiptoed around each other for a year; it's about time you acted like a real father and son and disagreed on something.”

I chose not to listen to this line of reasoning. “Let's just pack our bags and go. They won't care if we're at Lolly's funeral or not-no one wants us here but Bob Don.”

Candace's face turned stern. “Spare me this pity wallow, please. If you don't stay, and do right by your own father- and you might call him that occasionally instead of always by his name, like he was just your car dealer-I'll never speak to you again.”


“You're not usually a selfish man, Jordan. In fact, they could probably put your picture in the dictionary next to the definition of generous. But I want you to think about the bigger picture.”

I winced. I hate thinking about bigger pictures. I love to concentrate on small chunks. It makes life so much easier.

She went on: “Bob Don bringing you here to his family- and you agreeing to come-is a real statement about your relationship as father and son.”

“You sound like Aubrey.”

“God forbid. Anyhow-you can't surrender when it gets tough. So far, being Bob Don's son has mostly consisted of him putting you up on a throne and you feeling a little awkward about his adoration. Now the real work begins.”

“You know, I don't need a new dad. My old one was just fine.” I closed my eyes and an image of my father appeared, his arms open for me to run into, pride shining in his face. He always smelled of Old Spice and he could cook wonderful blueberry pancakes on Saturday mornings. I would watch him pour the mixture onto the griddle and giggle when the batter bubbled along the edges, the fragrance of the pancakes heavenly and comforting. When I was old enough he let me turn the pancakes, coaching me through this simplest of acts. When he died in the Mirabeau hospital, the cancer had eaten through him like a miniature shark. I held his hand, my nose wrinkling with his terrible odor of sickness and impending death, and he'd joked he couldn't get any good blueberry pancakes in the hospital, would I fix him a batch and sneak them in? His fingers had felt paper-thin with weakness against my own. I agreed and smiled, determined he would not see my tears. Daddy hated crying. I hated he'd made me cry. I'd gone home, fixed him our special blueberry pancakes, then snuck them back into his hospital room. He never ate them because he never regained full consciousness.

He died two days later, adrift in a delirium of painkillers. I had not been able to eat or prepare blueberry pancakes since-a silent salute to my father's memory.

Candace saw I was lost in a maze of memories. She touched my arm gently and I focused on her face as she spoke. “Was Lloyd Poteet so perfect? Talk about pedestals, Jordy. If Bob Don puts you up on one, you've got your daddy up on the World Trade Center.”

I sat up. “That's not true.”

“I've never, ever heard you mention one incident where your father ever annoyed you. Not one time. Lord knows that's not normal. I wonder if you ever think about anything wrong that he did.”

“I won't betray my father's memory by badmouthing him.”

“You really are a piece of work. How is Bob Don supposed to compete with your perfect father? He can't. He shouldn't have to. Does he have to measure up to Lloyd Poteet for you to care about him? To love him, or acknowledge him fully?”

I stood and rubbed my eyes. “This discussion is pointless. You can't understand.”

“Horse hockey.” Candace crossed her arms. “Stop beating everyone with this poor-little-old-me crap, Jordan. I suggest you just be yourself, let Bob Don be himself, and quit dwelling on your father all the time. You have another father-get used to it.”

“I have a new uncle, too,” I retorted. “I mean, isn't that the real reason that we're here? Do you give a crap about Bob Don, or do you just want me to suck up to Mutt for his money?”

“Jordan! Good God-”

“I talked to Sister this morning. She told me about the two of you thinking it might not be half-bad for me to ingratiate myself with Uncle Mutt so a little of that money'd head my way.”

“Your sister,” Candace said slowly, “felt sick and jealous and scared at the idea of you getting a whole new family. I told her that Mutt was wealthy because it seemed to make her feel a little better. I don't give a rat's ass whether or not you get a cent from him. And I can't believe you think so little of me.” She stormed to her door and opened it. “Would you mind? I'd like to be alone for a while.”

“Candace-” I tried. But I could see she wasn't in a chatting mood. I left.

Like a sulky teenager, I took refuge in my room. The down pillows were soft against my face and smelled pleasantly old. I tossed and turned, wishing I could find solace in a nap. But sleep eluded me as much as deciding on a course of action.

I hated to admit that Candace had a point. But I couldn't easily jettison the memories of Lloyd Poteet as my one and only father. He had been too good to me, too kind, slaving away at a job he didn't care much for to help send me to the best university in Texas. Did I have to besmirch his memory to let Bob Don in? No, I wouldn't. Her argument made no sense. My father had been perfect. He had been. A whirl of memories danced through my head: my father's beaming pride at my graduation from Rice, joy lighting his face when I won a track medal in district competition, his easy grin when I told him a new Aggie joke. I wanted my daddy back, and not to be among these mean-hearted, sniping, difficult strangers who treated me like the plague.

I chided myself for childish silliness.

I heard the creak of a door down the hall and thought maybe Candace was coming to talk again-or to let me apologize. I hated fighting with her and decided to meet her halfway. I opened my door slowly, a crack, to see if it was her in the hall. It wasn't.

Deborah Goertz, on tiptoe, paused before Aunt Lolly's room. I watched her gingerly open the door so it wouldn't creak and duck in quickly, easing the door shut behind her. I wondered why she was prowling so quietly; if she was just fetching some item from Aunt Lolly's room, why bother with stealth? I shut my door to its barest crack and waited.

A few moments later Deborah stepped out of the room, inched the door shut, and rapidly stole down the hall. I counted to ten then opened my own door. No one was taking a nap as far as I knew, so I couldn't imagine why she crept. Unless it was because she didn't want to he heard or seen.

I went to Aunt Lolly's door and nudged it open with my fingers. The door didn't creak; Deborah needn't have worried. I entered and shut the door behind me. I considered locking it for a moment and decided against it; if someone found me snooping in here, I couldn't explain why the door was bolted.

Lolly kept her room ornately decorated. A plush dog's bed with SWEETIE stenciled on the downy pillow sat in a corner, a small water bowl and food dish nearby. On one bureau a box of doggie treats stood, open. I could envision Lolly sitting on her bed, cajoling her precious pet with a treat and giggling with delight when she dropped it and Sweetie jumped in midair. Of course, this was entirely my own conjecture; she might have just dropped the morsel on the floor while Sweetie sauntered over and gobbled it at his own pace. But I thought that Lolly, who did not seem to take much pleasure in other people, and her pet must've shared many happy moments together in this room.

Linen curtains decorated the window, and the furniture looked antique. A side table held a lamp, a worn back issue of Southern Living, and an intercom system-probably to summon her to Uncle Jake's first-floor room if he needed help. A notepad sat by the combination phone/answering machine, with scribblings such as Philip – arrives 2:00 PM, Call Jake's doctor, and Call Aubrey (713) 555-2344.

Photos covered much of the floral wallpaper. Old pictures, their edges brownish with age, mixed in with newer snapshots. There was a photo of a far younger Lolly and Mutt, wind blowing their hair as they leaned against a car that looked like a '40s Ford. Lolly's smile was lazy and sweet, full of promise. She had been a decidedly pretty girl, with darker features than I'd come to think of as being classically Goertz. Mutt looked handsome and tough. I would not have tangled with him in a bar fight; and I'm sure that women found him exceedingly attractive. Sandwiched between the two of them was a handsome woman with lightish brown hair and a merry grin. Their mother, I guessed. I recalled from one of Gretchen's interminable monologues that her name was Claudia and she was from Louisiana, my great-grandfather's second wife. Her teeth were beautiful, framed in a touching smile. She was enjoying a good day with her beautiful children. Why shouldn't she be happy?

A photo next to this contented picture was of a rakish fellow with dark hair and eyes, his hair slicked back and his shirt collar not entirely clean. He did not look like a Goertz or a Zimmerhanzel or a Bedrich; I guessed that he might be Charles Throckmorton, Lolly's deceased husband. He smiled pleasantly, as though having a picture taken for his wife was a right likable chore. My great-uncle. I felt an inexplicable relief that he had not seen Lolly, her face purpling, her chest shuddering. He looked like the kind of man who would never recover from such a deepening shock; he would have held her dying body in his arms and cursed the gods for taking her from him, grief molding an anger that would never relent.

I shook my head; I was filling my mind full of nonsensical fantasies based simply on old photographs. Claudia Toussaint Goertz could have been an unfeeling witch who posed well for the camera and Charles Throckmorton might've been a bear of a man who never showed a glimmer of real affection to his wife. I had to stop inventing stories to go with faces; such flights were stumbling blocks to truth. I glanced back at both photos and found I couldn't shake my initial impressions.

The next picture made me pause. It was yellowed with age, taken perhaps in the early twentieth century. The gentleman's clothes certainly suggested the time of World War I. The face was very much like my own: wide-set, pale eyes, high cheekbones, a lock of heavy blond hair falling across the temple, much like that damnable curl that I could never keep combed back. The jaw was heavier, stronger than mine, and the nose wider, but the smirkish half smile the subject allowed himself was one I'd seen on my own face. I touched my finger to the cool glass that covered his countenance.

This, I felt sure, was my great-grandfather, Thomas Goertz. He had been born over a hundred years ago and he'd died years before I was born. His eyes stared into mine, the arch grin he wore wrinkling the corners. I felt his smile's twin creep into its familiar bed on my face. I let fancy take my mind again; had he had a raspy drawl like mine, one that charmed ladies and befriended a rambunctious rebel like Uncle Jake? He had died, I remembered, when Bob Don was twelve or thirteen. Had he hugged his grandson, dreamed great dreams for him, let him play with his pipe?

I suddenly felt dizzy and I sat on the springiness of Aunt Lolly's cold bed. What on earth was I doing, strolling along this rogues' gallery of photos and inventing stories to go with each picture? These people were my family, but they were also strangers.

It didn't matter that I was Bob Don's bastard child.

Thomas Goertz had died years before I first drew breath. He never would have known me, legitimate or illegitimate. And I knew nothing of him; my childhood had not been filled with amusing or tragic stories about Thomas Goertz. I was composing my own family history for these faces too achingly like mine. I realized, with a soft laugh, that I did not even know what his grandchildren and greatgrandchildren called him: Papaw Tom, Pop-Pop, Granddad, Gramps, Big Daddy, or any of the other mutated endearments I'd heard uttered for a patriarch. I studied his face for a moment and decided I would have called him Pop-Pop. Don't ask me why.

This was stupid. I ignored the other pictures: I could see some were of the twins, Bob Don and Gretchen, Aubrey and Sass, and Deborah, in various ages and stages. Those folks I knew enough about not to linger on. Only two other photos made me pause. The first was a picture of a rather plain young man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, with straw-colored hair and wire-rim glasses. He sat on a stool, food piled up on a table behind him, a beer bottle in his hand; no doubt some family function from years ago. His clothes were of the Sixties (a copper peace necklace adorned his neck) and he did not want his photo taken. His reluctance was obvious, a half sneer marring his mouth as the flashcube detonated in his face. I wondered who he was and why he earned a spot on Lolly's wall. His picture frame was grimed with dust, the others were clean.

The other photo was of a young boy, buck-toothed, perhaps nine or ten, with blondish bangs and a wide smile. His clothes suggested the photo was from the early Eighties. A distant cousin, perhaps.

I looked for photos of Deborah with her dead parents, but I did not see any. There were only two photos of Deborah, one as a skinny but pretty teenager, and another from her graduation from nursing school. Deborah looked miserable in every photo, as if that was the only way Lolly wanted to remember her face.

I gave the rest of the room a cursory glance, wondering what Deborah had done in here. Nothing seemed to be dis-turbed, although I'd never been in the room before and had no point of reference. But Lolly seemed a tidy woman (unless someone had neatened up her room since she died, which appeared unlikely) and no object called attention to itself by being glaringly out of place. Why had Deborah come in? What had she taken? Or had she possibly returned some item?

Feeling uneasily like a burglar, I opened one of the drawers; Aunt Lolly's underwear. This I could not do. I shut the drawer and opened the one below it. Pullovers and sweatshirts. I ran my fingers through the garments, not sure of what I was looking for. Nothing.

The third drawer also offered no items of interest-it was mostly folded-up slacks and shorts, along with an assortment of decorative collars for the well-dressed Chihuahua. I stood, shaking my head. I was jumping at shadows here. Deborah probably had some completely justifiable reason for coming into Aunt Lolly's room.

Then why the sneakiness?

I glanced quickly through her closet. Nothing hung there but orderly rows of dresses, all ironed. I wondered how Lolly's mind could have lent itself to such groomed order while embracing the ludicrous fiction that Sweetie possessed her husband's spirit. Compare that childish confection of fantasy with the hard-edged voice that had dissected Deborah so vengefully at the dinner table. Or the slowly maddening woman that Jake described. What kind of woman had Lolly Throckmorton truly been?

A shelf above the dresses held a menagerie of colorful shoe boxes. A quick exploration of these revealed nothing but paper and worn shoes. She'd had small, delicate feet, befitting the smiling, pretty girl in the weathered photo. The next-to-the-last box I took down contained letters. Lots of them. They were postmarked from Port Arthur, Texas, and the name on the return address was that of Charles Throckmorton and the letters were addressed to Lolly Goertz. The dates on the faded, whisper-thin envelopes suggested this was their courtship correspondence. I felt the sharp distaste of having pawed through someone else's memories, dirtying them, and I did not open any of the letters. I quickly returned the box to the shelf, pushing it back with my fingers, nearly turning the box on its end to boost it up. I was clumsy, though, and the box tumbled end over end, spraying out a fan of old, weathered papers.

I cursed myself and began to gather them quickly, feeling even more like an intruder. The aging paper felt dusty and smooth at the same time, crusted with its presence near the sea and worn with handling. I abandoned sorting the letters, gathered them in a fist, and shoved them back into the box. I stood to replace the box on the shelf and only gasped when I looked down at the ground to see if I'd missed any correspondence.

A couple of stray words, pruned from magazines, lay on the floor. I knelt down on the ground again and began to paw through the box, my breath feeling tight in my chest. I found the first card wedged in a rubber-banded mass of old love letters to her husband.

The card was a festive one, a gaggle of puppies and kittens gathered around a humongous birthday cake. The preprinted message on the inside read: YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE A SPECIAL BIRTHDAY!

Words culled from other sources spelled out an additional wish below: CAUSE IT'S GOING TO BE YOUR LAST ONE

My hands trembled as I replaced the card. A quick survey through the rest of the box provided no further evidence of Lolly's peculiar pastime.

She had been sending me this hateful mail? Why? And what did this have to do with her death? I stood-I had to call Mendez.

That's when the door to Lolly's room opened. Or rather, I heard it open. I'd shut the closet door behind me when I'd come in as a precaution (this makes me sound like a professional prowler, but I did it without overmuch thought) and I jerked my hand back from the closet door as though it were a hot stove. I tried to think of an explanation for what I'd done, and unfortunately, my imagination dried up. I reached for the light pull, thinking that whoever it was might notice that the closet light was on. But the snap of the string and the sudden quenching of the light would be a sure indicator of my presence. I quickly replaced-with careful quiet-the box of letters on Lolly's shelf. I hunkered down on the floor and tried to peep through the narrow crack of the closet door. It was too thin to permit viewing into the room. I cursed silently and listened carefully.

I could hear someone moving around the room with stealth. Had Deborah returned? Gentle footsteps sounded from different parts of the room. I wondered what the reaction would be if I suddenly leaped out from the closet-but I had no explanation for my own presence. I could hardly demand it from someone else. I tried to breathe quietly through my mouth, thirsty for any sound that might tip off the other intruder's identity.

Silence held for a long moment and then I heard a soft, tearing sound, like fabric being gently ripped. The noise lasted about five seconds then stopped. I heard excited breathing-and I would guess that it belonged to a man, sounding deeper and raspier-then hurrying footsteps, the door to Lolly's room opening, then silence.

I pressed my fingertips against the cool wood of the closet door. I decided not to give immediate chase. What reason would I have to confront someone? I bit at my lip and decided to count to ten before creaking open the closet door and getting the hell out.

I didn't get that long. As I reached eight I heard bustling noise come into the room and the closet door swung open hard. Still crouched on the floor, I found myself staring at Wendy Tran's shapely knees.

“And just what do you think you're doing?” she demanded.


Her knees were as gorgeous as the rest of her, cups along the perfect curves of her dark legs. I slowly stood, wondering just how stupid I looked. It's disconcerting to be caught with your whole body in the cookie jar.

“Cat got your tongue?” Wendy moved past me to hang two embroidered, peasant-style dresses on the rack. She smoothed them out with a practiced hand. “Poor Lolly loved these dresses. She got them in Mexico on a trip with Mutt. Well?”

Her sangfroid at my presence in a closet where I had no business made me believe I could fib my way out of my predicament. “If I were Aunt Sass,” I began softly, “I'd probably just say that whatever I was doing here was none of your beeswax.”

Wendy glanced back at me. “I'm sure it's none of my business. But if you think I'm not going to mention this to Mutt, you're mistaken.”

Let her tell Mutt. I'd give him the real explanation later. Good news, Uncle – it was your dead sister sending me psychotic, threatening letters. All cleared up now. Maybe the wrong tack. I decided to bluff until I could think straight and plan a course of action. Smiling at Wendy, I held up my hands in mock surrender. “You've got me. I was snooping, but only sort of.”

“Only sort of?” One perfectly sculpted eyebrow went up.

I weighed my options, which took very little time as I seemed to have very few. Just bolting past Wendy was sure to result in an unfavorable report to Mutt, and I'd have to explain my presence to him-of that I had no doubt.

Spilling every bean I had didn't seem to be an option either; I didn't know where Wendy stood in the odd spiderweb of relationships that seemed to link the various members of this family. She was hired help, but I knew she was also far more.

“Listen, Wendy, I'll be straight with you.”

She crossed her arms, prepared to listen.

“I saw a member of the family sneak in here a few minutes ago. I was curious as to why someone would be prowling around in Aunt Lolly's room, so after said prowler left, I came in to investigate. I was looking in the closet when another person-or maybe the original prowler- came back. I hid in the closet. Whoever it was just left right before you came in.”

She didn't answer for a moment, then she looked at me with her smoke-dark eyes.

“Did you see anyone in the hallway right before you came in?” I asked.

“Maybe. Who'd you see skulking in here in the first place?”

I considered declining-being a tattletale was sure to land me in trouble. But I'd been caught red-handed, so I might as well confess. “It was Deborah. I wouldn't have been suspicious if she'd just walked into Aunt Lolly's room and walked out, but she obviously didn't want to be seen.”

Wendy looked surprised. “Well, it wasn't Deborah I ran into when I was coming down the hall to bring back these dresses. It was your father.”

I went straight back to my room and lay down. Playing detective is damned hard on the nerves. I closed my eyes. This was one of those mornings when I should have stayed in the proverbial bed. In short order I'd been bullied by Uncle Jake, fought with Aunt Sass, gotten slapped by Gretchen, bickered with Candace, spied on Deborah, and been caught sniffing around a dead woman's closet by Wendy. Perhaps I could fit in shooting myself in the foot before lunch, or perhaps I should just make a list of the clan members I hadn't alienated and proceed to tick them off in alphabetical order. Good-that would make Aubrey first.

I sighed and closed my eyes, rubbing my eyelids gently, trying to stem the rising headache I felt. First traumas first. Lolly had been my persecutor-why? What did she hope to gain by keeping me away from the reunion? Why did she hate me so, sight unseen?

I thought of her, snipping words from magazines and forming them into poems of hate, while the affable Sweetie looked on, tail wagging. I shuddered. I'd seen an unpleasant side to my great-aunt at the dinner before she died-the harshness of her tone, the unnecessary humiliation of Deborah, the blatant disregard for propriety as she spilled venom toward her family. Perhaps she was insane. Her odd insistence about her pet being her husband reborn might have been more than an amusing affectation. A cold anger began to course through me. I'd been scared witless by Lolly? It was a tribute to the power of words, wielded by a mad fury.

But why? Even insanity has its root reasons. Why had this woman perceived me as such a threat? And had she menaced anyone else?

Of course, there was the possibility, however remote, that my secret admirer wasn't Lolly at all. Someone could have planted the unpleasant handiwork among the dead woman's harmless love letters. If so, did that mean there was a connection between Lolly's death and the threats I'd received?

Those questions had no easy answers, so I concentrated on what Wendy told me. Bob Don was snooping in Lolly's room. I considered normal, everyday reasons first. Well, she was his aunt, and he had far more reason to be tiptoeing around her room than I did. Perhaps there was a keepsake of hers he'd wanted, or perhaps he was returning something he borrowed. After a moment's reflection, I favored the first explanation. Lolly left no children to squabble over her legacy, but I knew from personal experience family members sometimes helped themselves to particular belongings, without waiting for the will to be read. Perhaps Bob Don retrieved a gift he'd bestowed on Lolly long ago. That made sense.

That ripping noise of fabric I'd heard while he was allegedly in the room, however, didn't bolster that theory.

Or had he known-or suspected-that Lolly was a danger or a threat? I hadn't confided in him about the letters I'd received, but I had told Mutt and Candace. One of them might have mentioned my troubles to Bob Don.

And could Wendy have fibbed? What if she'd seen someone else in the hallway and was protecting that person from suspicion? But why?

I moaned to myself. Once again, as was my wont, I was spinning fantasies out of bare facts and suppositions. All I could say with certainty was that I'd seen Deborah enter and leave the room, that I'd found another piece of hate mail among Lolly's effects, and that I'd heard someone come in and out of that same room when I hid in the closet. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wendy had not said much after telling me she'd run into Bob Don in the hallway, and I had quickly left the room, my snooping career the victim of early retirement. I figured Wendy would fill Uncle Mutt's ear with my misadventure and I'd have to hem and haw my way through an explanation. I'd rely on my defense of having contributed previously to the successful resolution of murder cases.

Great tactic, I chided myself. Such an approach implied Lolly was murdered, and we couldn't know that with certainty. Considering her mental problems, swallowing a lethal dose of digitalis medication by her own hand was still the most likely explanation. Or Mutt was right, she simply had a heart condition she'd kept secret. Perhaps the note to call Jake's doctor was for her own health concerns, not his.

I stood and stared out my window, watching the heavy swells of water in the bay. The wind gusted hard for a summer day and I hoped no hot-weather storm was in the offing. The air felt restless, the breeze more an intrusive brush than a gentle caress. Clouds draped the sky, but they were kind and white, edged with a hint of gray, not threatening. The wind smelled of salt and the ocean's own timelessness.

I wondered when Uncle Mutt would be back and fretted about him. His insistence on going alone to deal with the administration of Lolly's cremation troubled me. One of us should have demanded to accompany him. It was a heavy burden to bear alone.

I stood at the window and leaned against the pane. I could tell Candace we didn't have to worry-my torturer was dead. It didn't lessen the odd grief I felt over Lolly's demise. Instead, I felt like the questions I needed answered had widened and deepened in import. Lolly wrote venom, and Lolly died.

I saw movement on the beach, and from the shade of a palm tree Candace and Deborah strolled idly onto the boat dock. Deborah pointed at the careening gulls that swooped and glided above the waves. I saw Candace shade her eyes with her palm, the wind tousling her hair like a lover's rough caress. Deborah put one hand on Candace's shoulder and I saw them both laugh at some private joke.

I liked Deborah-had liked her from the first moment I met her. I was glad that she and Candace became quick friends. But I still wanted to know why Deborah had snuck into Lolly's room. I couldn't dismiss her presence there as easily as I could Bob Don's. I admit to personal bias.

A knock on the door interrupted my thoughts. I knew it wasn't Candace come to mend fences, so I didn't give a particularly hearty “Come in.”

Aubrey stuck his head in like he expected it to get chomped off. “Hi. Got a second?”

“As long as it's not for getting in touch with my inner Neanderthal, Aubrey.” I sat down and gestured toward a chair. “What's up?”

He ignored my rudeness, settling down with a folder and, to my dismay, a laptop computer.

“Heading off to do some work on your book?”

He smiled. “It's a nice day and I thought it would be good public relations to retire to the porch and woo the muse. Let everyone see that I've nothing to hide-and no one here has anything to worry about-in writing this book about families.” He paused for a moment. “Listen, Jordan, I'm sorry my mom went off on such a tear. She's just very blunt and plainspoken.”

“I like plainspoken, Aubrey. I just think that your mother's having a hard time accepting me into the family.” Hurt flared in his eyes and I tried to soften the blow. “Look, I know I was a big surprise to y'all. But that's not my fault. I'd like to make the best of a difficult situation.”

“Yes, so would I.” He drummed fingers along his computer and his folder of notes. “I know I can irritate people with my theories on human interaction, but I mean well. No one seems to understand that.”

I blinked. Here was Aubrey, who claimed to have anodynes for every emotional trauma, and he didn't have the first clue as to dealing with people. “Aubrey, you can't continually tell folks how to fix their problems. No one wants advice all the time. Sometimes they just want to vent and not be told what to do about their sadness or disappointment. Or anger.”

“Did you read my last book?”

“No,” I admitted. “I'm sorry, if I'd known you'd written it before I came here I would have. Bob Don didn't mention he had an author for a nephew.”

“Well, then, maybe you'll let me donate a copy to your library, and send a signed copy to you? I'd like to, since we haven't gotten off on the best foot.”

Kindness had been a rare treat since I arrived on the island, and I thought: You've judged him too quick, too harshly. But then I-being a terribly bad and suspicious person-remembered the heated whispers I'd heard between Sass and Aubrey on the staircase after my arrival. But if I kept jumping at every conclusion that presented itself, I'd break a leg. I offered my best smile to my cousin. “Of course, Aubrey. I'd be delighted to have a copy of your book.”

“The new one's going to be even better. I'm doing audio-tapes, videotapes, and a CD-ROM to go along with the text-taking therapy and self-awareness into the multimedia age.” He fixed me with a catlike stare that showed him to be his mother's son. “It must have been quite an experience to discover Bob Don was your father. The very idea of it just drips with potential personality destabilization. Such a basic challenge to your identity. Do you think you'd ever care to talk about it?”

So much for cousinhood without strings. Apparently my private life was destined to be a track on a self-help tape from hell. At that moment I forged my plan for dealing with Aubrey and his psychobabble. I would play stupid. After all, I was blond, so my slowness would be expected by those with less developed cerebellums. Aubrey qualified.

I sugared my voice, acting as though I'd suffered a sudden 1Q drop, and gave a slow, vacuous blink. “Well, sure, Aubrey, if you want me to. I'm not sure I'd ever really know how to describe how I felt.” If I'd had gum in my mouth, I'd have popped it. I gestured at the laptop. “You want to take notes with that?”

He was not a clever boy. “Oh, that'd be great, Jordan. How's about now?” He had the laptop open and powered on before I could blink, his hands poised above the keyboard to record my innermost longings and tortures.

“No.” I meandered back toward the window. “Maybe we should talk about how we feel about Aunt Lolly's death, since that's so much more recent a pain.” I did feel pain- and confusion and a sick fear-over Lolly's death and I put the wound into my voice.

“Well, sure, of course, if you like,” Aubrey burbled. I suspected he just wanted to get family members talking for his latest self-analysis project. If we had to start with irrelevant topics, that was a necessary sacrifice to get those jaws moving and emotions flowing.

I sat down. “Was Aunt Lolly very loved in the family?”

Aubrey laughed. “I don't mean to sound cruel. Of course we all loved her. You can still love a dog after it bites you, but you'll never feel the same about it entirely.”

“I got a sample of Lolly's teeth at dinner. She certainly chewed you and Deborah up.”

Aubrey shrugged. “She had a lot of mental problems, if you ask me. The family won't admit it.”

I didn't tell him Jake was already admitting away. “Mental problems? But she was Jake's caretaker.”

A snort was Aubrey's only reply for a long moment; he seemed to be considering his answer carefully. Finally he offered: “Taking care of Uncle Jake could impair anyone's emotional health.”

“So why not just get Jake a nurse?”

“Uncle Mutt wouldn't hear of it. Said family always takes care of family.”

“Yet he hires Wendy and Rufus.”

“True. And I suppose Lolly was happy enough, taking care of Jake. It kept her out of mischief.”

“You didn't like Lolly much, did you? Let's cut to the honest chase here.”

Aubrey rolled his tongue in the hollow of his cheek. “I loved her because you're supposed to love your relatives. But no, I didn't like her much as a person. She didn't like anyone-except Uncle Mutt. And Sweetie, of course. I think she used to have a few friends over on the mainland, but I don't think she'd been doing much with them lately.”

“Did you talk to her often?” I remembered her note to call Aubrey on her pad.

“Sometimes. She'd call Mom and I'd take the message. I've been living with Mom for the past few months.” He seemed embarrassed, as though I might criticize him. Since I'd moved home myself, I wasn't about to tease him for his living arrangements.

I pressed on: “These mental problems you mentioned- did it go along with her fixation on her dog?”

My new cousin smiled slyly. “There's two schools of thought. Some of us believed Lolly had real problems. Others-like Philip and Mutt-think it was all a little charade.”


“Sometimes we wondered if Aunt Lolly was having a big joke on us all-pretending to be just an amusing amount of crazy.”

For a moment my dumb act was the real thing. “You're saying she faked believing that Sweetie was Uncle Charles back from the dead? And any other eccentricities she had?”

Aubrey nodded. “Well, it's one theory.”

“Why? What would be Lolly's motivation?”

“Attention. Power. Aunt Lolly was a control addict from time immemorial. She liked everyone's lives just the way she had arranged them.”

“I still don't understand.”

“If everyone in your family believes you're a little crazy, they go out of their way to accommodate you. They don't disagree with you often, if at all. Everyone views you as a sad case to be coddled.” Aubrey smiled at the shock on my face. “I understand your mother has Alzheimer's. I'm terribly sorry. But wouldn't you say it's true that your mom's condition-her craziness, for lack of a better term, and don't take offense-dictates a lot of how you live your life?”

I didn't answer him immediately. “So Philip thought she was pretend crazy. Who thought she was truly ill?”

Aubrey shrugged. “Me. My mother. Probably Uncle Jake, they had a rocky relationship. And even though Lolly raised her, Deborah has never had a good relationship with Lolly. She's convinced Lolly was sick.”

“But Lolly was taking care of Uncle Jake. If anyone thought she was mentally ill, she had no business being his caretaker,” I said. “Him being at her mercy…”

For the first time Aubrey laughed and I had a sneaking suspicion there might be a likable fellow lurking underneath the sugary platitudes. “Uncle Jake's not half the invalid he appears to be. Sure, he's got the heart condition, but he's very sharp and active still.”

I recalled Jake wielding his cane with youthful vigor. Aubrey might have a point. “So, by acting the family loon, Lolly might've gotten whatever she wanted?”

“But I'm not sure her stakes were very high. Uncle Mutt, of course, indulged her to a fault. She's always had the twins at her beck and call. And although I'm sure you find it hard to imagine, my mother was once devoted to her.” I saw anger flash in his eyes for a moment and I wasn't sure if the emotion was directed at Sass-or at Lolly's memory.

“I'm sorry your mom and I started off crossways,” I said. But I remained unconvinced of this alleged devotion- when Lolly was dying, Sass had stood by the window in frosty observance.

He saw the doubt in my face. “My mother's buried more people that she loved than most ever will. Death's not a stranger to her. That doesn't mean she deals with it well.”

“Death is hard. Always,” I ventured. “Your mother-she kind of blew the whistle on the plans for your book, didn't she?”

Aubrey fidgeted. “Yeah, well, Mom sometimes drinks too much. And shoots off her mouth.” He fumbled for words and didn't quite look me in the face. He tapped idly at his laptop's keys. “My success as an author's been a bit hard on her.”

“Let me ask you a hard question, then. That empty bottle of Jake's medicine-do you think Lolly could have poisoned herself?” I tensed for a retreat, but Aubrey didn't falter. He shook his head.

“Suicide in front of your family would be the ultimate form of control. Will any of us ever forget her now, forget her last moments on earth? I won't, and neither will you. Her death wasn't an anonymous one in a hospital bed while she wasted away from some pernicious disease. She branded herself on our brains, she put our memories in a death grip.” He paused so his fancy words would sink in. “But-there's no reason for someone like Lolly to take her own life. She was too much in love with it, with herself, with the little role she'd carved out in the family. Jordan, if poison was involved, I'm sure she was murdered.” He held his breath, as if deciding whether or not to say more. Finally he shut his mouth and stared at me, his words hanging in the air like a family's ghost.

Temptation put the words she sent me poisonous letters on my tongue, but I didn't speak. I wasn't quite ready to confide in anyone other than Uncle Mutt. Aubrey might actually be okay, but he was as an smooth as an eel's skin and I didn't trust him fully.

“Murdered,” I murmured. “By one of us. It wouldn't be the first time a murder's occurred in this family, would it? Your-our-uncle, didn't Lolly say he killed his wife-”

A rap at the door startled us both. Before I could bid the visitor to enter, Aunt Sass pushed the door open, eyeing me with frank distaste and her son with some surprise.

“There you are, Aubrey. I've searched half the house looking for you. We need to talk.” My presence in my own room was not acknowledged.

“Sure, Mom,” Aubrey said, his voice soft. “I was just having a nice chat with Jordan.” He gave me a sidelong glance, hushing me from continuing my question.

“Well, yes, of course,” Aunt Sass hemmed. She glanced at his laptop and folder of notes. Some of the fire seemed doused in her and I wondered if she'd gotten a lecture from Bob Don as well. Finally she let her gaze drift toward the general vicinity of my face. I didn't smile or look apologetic. “We'll see you at lunch, Jordan. Come along, Aubrey.”

My cousin got up and followed his mother out of my room without a backward glance, clutching his computer and his papers to his chest like a tardy schoolboy. I shut the door after them and sat down on the corner of my bed.

My head hurt. I'd planned on duping Aubrey, but wasn't sure I hadn't been duped myself. He believed Lolly had been murdered. Did he express that belief solely to see people's reactions to the horrifying thought of willful poisoning? He certainly wanted to dissect me for one of his chapters. (I imagined I'd be the case study for “Patient Reacts to His Own Illegitimacy.”) I wondered if for a moment I'd seen the bright and capable man that lived behind the psychobull. Aubrey might be direct on center. Which meant we had a cold-blooded murderer in our midst. But he'd offered no single suspect, and no concrete motive.

He'd clammed up quick enough when his mother entered the room. If he suspected her-he'd never have admitted his own doubts about Lolly's suicide. So did he have another suspect in mind, one he didn't wish to discuss before his mother?

I returned to the window. Candace and Deborah still stood out on the deck, Deborah tossing bread crumbs to the circling, cawing gulls. Candace flung another handful of torn crusts to the flock and they swooped down to scoop up the treats.

Animals always put Candace in a good mood. (I hoped obnoxious scavenging birds fell into the cuddly category, at least for today.) Maybe she'd talk to me and I could apologize-and perhaps make my point of view clearer. I don't like fighting with my love.

I hurried down the stairs and saw no one except Philip lounging in the library. I politely knocked and stuck my head in the door; he glanced up at me with utter disinterest.

“You're not out enjoying this beautiful day?” I asked.

“My aunt just died. I believe I'm allowed to mope.” He looked away from me, rubbing a thumb across his knuckle.

“I'm sorry, Philip. I just looked outside and saw how pretty it was and I'm afraid I forgot myself.”

“It's all right. It's not like you knew her or loved her. Why should you care if she's gone?”

I walked in so he had to look at me. “You're right. I didn't get the time to be close to Lolly. But I'm terribly sorry that she's dead.” I sat on the ottoman across from him, forcing him to either be unusually rude or to look at me. He glanced at me with his blank, bone-white face. “Were you very close to her?”

“Lolly didn't have any kids of her own. She couldn't. She'd tell you about it if you gave her half a chance, like her barrenness was a suitable topic for casual conversation. She just never gave much thought to propriety.” Philip shrugged. “I guess I loved her in the way you're supposed to love relatives.” He glanced at me as though to assure me I did not yet fall into that category. His words were an eerie echo of Aubrey's. “She and I understood each other, we got along. She wasn't like Uncle Mutt.”

I paused for a moment. “He's not exactly shy about sharing one's personal troubles with others, is he?”

Philip shook his head. “Learn from me, cousin.” He made his final word sound vaguely dirty. “Don't ever turn to Uncle Mutt if you're in trouble. He'd just as soon crucify you as help you.” He got up and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee from an elegant silver pot. He didn't offer me a cup.

“I take it you had some financial trouble you needed Uncle Mutt's help with.” I was inching onto shaky ground here. It was none of my business.

“You're a clever boy, to have noticed,” Philip slurped at his coffee and went for the quick diversion. “Tell me, what do you think of our joyful little tribe?”

“Hardly joyful now.”

“No, I suppose not. Lolly dead-I just feel numb.” I heard the creak of leather as Philip settled back in his chair. I plucked a book off the shelves at random and began to page through it.

“Can't stay away from books, huh?” Philip asked. “You probably do make for a good librarian.”

“I try to do a good job.”

“So what're librarians pulling down as salaries these days? High teens? Low twenties?”

I shrugged at the derision in his voice. “It's not an occupation anyone enters for money, Philip.”

“Probably helps that Bob Don is rolling in cash, huh?”

I slowly replaced the book-a biography of Civil War hero Dick Dowling-on the shelf. “Bob Don's a generous man.”

“And I heard Gretchen bragging to Aunt Sass that your little girlfriend's got a mighty thick wallet.”

“And your point is what, Philip?” I turned to face him, my arms crossed.

He dabbed a coffee-stained napkin at his lips, which were oddly red, like a woman's. “Must be difficult, being around folks that got plenty and you ain't got diddly.”

“It doesn't bother me none, Philip. Does it bother you?”

The words jolted him. “I don't know what you mean.”

“I'm just curious as to why you'd take all that guff from Uncle Mutt about your wasteful financial habits. Could it be you really, really need him to bail your ass out of the fire?”

He glared at me with undisguised contempt. “Maybe I do. But at least I've got every right to his money. You don't.”

“I don't want his money-”

“Save it for morons like Gretchen and Bob Don.” He laughed. “You don't fool me for one blessed second. In fact, I'm not the only one who'd like to see some DNA proof or the like that you're really a Goertz. After all, we just got your word and Bob Don's. And while he's stupid as the day is long, even he might be able to cook up a scheme to get his hands on more of Mutt's money.”

I leaned down and seized his collar, yanking his deadweight up from the chair. My strength surprised him-and me.

“Listen,” I said softly to him. “You ever say anything bad about Bob Don again to me, and I'll clean up the floor with your ass. He's not a liar. And neither am I.”

“My, my, physical threats. How very unlibrarianlike of you.” He met my stare with his own, his blue eyes lightless like pebbles in a stream.

“Give it up, Philip.” I turned to leave, tired of his innuendo and threats.

“You're not going to win, Jordan.”

I paused by the door. “Win what? I told you, I'm not after Uncle Mutt's money. Get that through your thick skull.”

Philip stood, straightening his polo shirt where I'd pulled on it and tucking a hand over the heavy, ugly, braided gold chain at his neck. “Don't cross me. It's a real serious mistake.”

“Are you threatening me?” I asked in a low voice. I almost hoped he'd say yes; my fist ached to throw a punch into his sneering face.

Philip Bedrich smiled softly. “Famous last words, cousin. Famous last words.”


I stormed down to the beach, anger cours ing through my marrow. I despise bullies of any sort and I particularly disliked Philip. So much for cousinly accord. He'd struck a sore spot with me and I'd seen he knew so in his beady, damp eyes.

I felt hot shame that Philip might have detected any vestige of greed in my face. I was here for Bob Don's sake; and no one else's. How could I have known that Uncle Mutt was dying? No one-

I stopped dead in my tracks, nearly stumbling over the sand-gritted balloon of a beached jellyfish. Philip implied that I'd come here for the sole reason of cajoling my way into Uncle Mutt's will. But how was I to know his will would be put into use soon? I couldn't. No one knew that Mutt was dying-or did they? Had Philip known? Was that why he was willing to endure Mutt's jabs, knowing that they were destined to end soon? The thought gave me definite pause.

And the hatred that oozed from this family: the venom of Aunt Sass, the callow threats of Philip, the deliberate spite that flowed from Aunt Lolly during her fatal dinner-why? Some force, unseen, warped this family as surely as an inexorable weight warps a support. I self-indulgently had supposed that it was simply me, the unwelcome bastard. But I suspected, despite Philip's baiting, that I was merely a bruise on the mortal wound of this clan. Thank God I had my sweetheart here to help me, to talk to me, to help me understand-

My God. I realized, with a jolt, that I'd brought the only guest to this reunion. Philip, Tom, Aubrey, Sass, Deborah- why didn't they bring their significant others, their Can-daces-to a gathering of the Goertzes? Maybe they knew from experience no fun was to be had on this island.

Why not? After all, the beach where I stood was the site of mass murder. I felt a cringe in my legs as I surveyed the beach, the remains of jellyfish scattered about like victims of a more recent massacre. Did those boys from the Reliant cry and beg for their lives, or did they stare straight ahead as the blades sliced open their throats and their blood ran like a crimson tide? The sand felt seductively warm beneath my feet; I didn't have to dwell on the dark past. The day was beautiful and the relaxing whoosh of the surf reminded me I was supposed to be on vacation, viciousness and death and secrecy aside.

I skirted the littered jellyfish corpses and headed toward the dock. Mutt's second boat, the Little Brutus, bobbed in the waves. He'd taken the boat Rufus had ferried us over in to Port Lavaca.

I could see Deborah and Candace still standing on the edge of the dock-but Candace stood with one hand on Deborah's shoulder, her head bowed with some great weight. She was crying.

Sudden pain nipped at my heart. I can't bear to see women weep, and Candace's rare tears always drain me. I suspected I was the source of her distress and a hot flush of guilt crept up my face. I didn't mean to make her cry. We'd argued, but surely not intensely enough to evoke weeping. My throat dried and I stood still, unsure if I should encroach on her private moment. She might not want my brand of comfort.

She wiped her eyes and saw me. She turned away, toward the bay and the wind. Deborah glanced over at me, a sad look painting her face.

Hell's bells. I walked slowly onto the dock. “Candace? You okay?”

“I'm fine,” she said softly, glancing back at me. “Deborah and I were just chatting and I got a little emotional. That's all.”

I reached out for her shoulder; she didn't flinch away. “I'm sorry.”

“Excuse me,” Deborah murmured. “I think I'll run up to the house and get a Coke. Candace, you're sure you're okay?”

“I'm fine, Deborah, thanks.”

Deborah smiled softly at me, turned, and hurried toward the house.

“She's sweet,” I said, feeling awkward. I looked at Can-dace; she stared up at the vast vault of summer sky. The clouds resembled old, sculpted bone.

“She is kind,” Candace finally said. “I like Deborah.”

“I like her, too.” The topic of Deborah exhausted, I cast about for the words to frame my apology in. “Sugar, I'm sorry I blew up at you. I had no call to say what I did. I'm feeling awkward around these folks, I don't know how to be myself here, and I should have listened to you. I'm really sorry.”

“Are you apologizing to me because I feel bad or because you feel bad, Jordy?” She kept her gaze on the whitecapped waves lapping at the beach. One strand of walnut-brown hair kept whipping around her face and I slowly guided it back into place. The cup of her ear felt warm against my fingers.


She smiled then, the vaguest trace of a grin, and she turned her face into my palm, her breath tickling my life line. I kissed her cheek and she kissed my hand.

“I'm sorry,” I whispered into her soft hair. “I'm a real butt sometimes.”

“I'm sorry, too.” Her voice was whispery and strong, like silk. “I should have told you how I got Arlene on the side of this trip so you wouldn't find out the wrong way. And I shouldn't have used that tactic-it wasn't kind.” She sighed. “You're in such a weird situation with these people, and I just mouth off with my free advice. You've got to decide what your relationship is with your father. I can't tell you what it should be, nobody can.”

“No. You were right. I've pretended far too long that I can just sweep Bob Don under the rug, that he'll be satisfied with only being my friend. I've got to let him be a dad to me.”

She stared up into my face with such tenderness I felt the breath in my throat halt. It's a terrible responsibility for someone to look at you with such love. I didn't deserve her-her strength, her kindness, her forgiveness of my multitude of faults. I specialized in alienating people and raising hackles. I couldn't walk past the anthill without kicking it over to see what ruckus I could raise. I could not be an easy man to love.

One of her eyebrows arched. “Oh, babe, don't give me that look. It wears me out for you to think I'm perfect.”

I blinked to clear my face of any offending expression. “You may not be perfect, but you're the perfect one for me.” I bent down to her. As we kissed, her hands tangled in my hair. I reveled in the gentle scratch of her fingernails against my scalp, the pressure of her arm against my neck, the nip of her tongue against my lips. I lifted her up into my arms.

“My big, tall boy,” she teased, then her tone grew serious. “Do you love Bob Don?” she asked, her voice a thrum against my neck.

The dreaded question, given air at last. “I'm-I'm glad he's part of my life now.”

“Well,/love him. He's a wonderful man. I wish my father was more like him. Kind, generous. You could be a father like him someday yourself,” she whispered in my ear.

“Maybe I will be,” I said.

“Maybe. Now, you put me down, all those folks in the house will be talking. And it's not right we be out here kissing on each other, after poor Lolly's death.”

I set her down gently. “This isn't a house of mourning like any I've ever seen. Deborah, Gretchen, and Uncle Mutt seem upset, but the rest-they seem disconnected. As if they don't believe Lolly's dead. Or worse, that it doesn't matter.” I told her quickly about my conversations with Aubrey and Philip. I did tell her about finding Lolly's letter, but I left out the part about snooping after Deborah and getting caught by Wendy. No need for her to know just how much of an idiot I'd managed to be in one short morning. “I'm not sure dysfunctional's the word for this bunch.”

“I don't understand why Lolly sent you the letters.”

“I don't know what she hoped to gain, either.” I let the bay wind caress my face. “But she's dead now, and she can't hurt us.”

“Jordan-” she began to speak, her upturned face earnest in the bright sunshine. She stopped.

“What? What's wrong?”

She shook her head. “It's nothing. Why don't we go back to the house? I'm sure Deborah's wondering if we've fallen off the deck.”

“Fine.” I took her hand and we began to walk toward the house, my heart lightening ever so slightly, and for the first time since our arrival. The feeling didn't last long enough to savor. Because I saw Gretchen stumbling down from the house, the bottle in her hand glinting like a blade in the fierce summer glare.

“Gretchen?” I ventured. We'd stopped on the path leading back to the house, and Gretchen nearly barreled into us, her gaze concentrated on some inward journey.

“Oh, Jordy. Candace. Hi.” Gretchen awkwardly gestured with the bottle, a Texas vintner's Chardonnay, opened but recorked.

Candace and I were silent.

“Oh, the bottle?” She laughed, a feeble twitter like a bird's. “Oh, this. Yes. This. I was taking it to Tom and Rufus. They're scouring about on the other side of the island.”

“You were going to walk a mile or so to take them a bottle of wine?” I tried not to make my voice sound accusing. I could smell the bitter tang of alcohol on her breath, covered up with the thin camouflage of mint gum. My heart sunk like a stone after its last skip on the water.

She saw the fear in my eyes and swallowed.

“Gretchen. Why have you done this to yourself?”

“Done what? I-I told you, I'm taking this to Tom and Rufus. Thirsty work they're doing. Well, you wouldn't believe me anyway.” Her voice took an edge, like a newly sharpened knife. A sneer, one I had not seen in many months, curled her lip. “You little bastard. You just can't wait to manufacture a lie about me, can you?”

“Gretchen. Let's go sit up in your room, have some coffee and a nice talk-” Candace attempted.

Gretchen surrendered no ground. “No, no. Don't need that. Don't want that. I just want to go for a walk.” She wobbled on uncertain legs. “I don't feel so good.”

I didn't speak. I just took her arm and steered her back toward the house. She stumbled along the first few steps, leaning against me for support. Then she wrenched away, as if I smelled foul and she couldn't bear another whiff. She pivoted and bolted down the path.

I grabbed her arm and she didn't try to wriggle loose. She stood there, penitent, her head cast down in silent shame. Her muscles trembled beneath my fingertips, and her skin felt like a furnace.

“Gretchen.” I kept my voice soft and nonjudgmental.

“Just… just get me up to the house. Don't let nobody see me.” She leaned against me, dropping the wine. It fell onto the soft grass by the path and Candace retrieved it. I watched the liquid-poison to Gretchen's system-roll languidly within the clear shell of the bottle.

We smuggled her into the house, entering through a rear door near the kitchen. Uncle Jake sat in the study, in full view as we tried to ascend the staircase with the stealth of burglars.

“What's wrong?” he called.

“Nothing,” I answered. “The sun just got to Gretchen.”

Uncle Jake didn't challenge us further, but I could feel the weight of his stare against my back.

Bob Don wasn't in their room. I eased Gretchen down on the bed. Her eyelids fluttered and she let out a small moan.

“Gimme something damp,” she begged, and I hurried to the bathroom, rinsed out a washcloth, squeezed out the excess water, and laid it across her forehead.

“I'll go find Bob Don,” Candace said.

“No, don't,” Gretchen murmured, but Candace was already gone.

I am usually a resourceful man, but my limbs and mind felt numb. I didn't want to sit through Gretchen's drunk. I wanted to bellow at Gretchen, but I kept my mouth shut. I sat next to her on the bed, watching the gentle flutter of flesh beneath her eyelids. Slowly those eyes opened and fixed upon my face.

“I don't understand how it happened,” she whispered, her voice barely louder than a sigh. “I didn't want to drink anything. I didn't. Never again.”

“What upset you?” She didn't answer me. Perhaps Lolly's death had nudged Gretchen back toward the demon rum. Seeing her die in front of all of us had been one of the most unnerving experiences of my life. I couldn't blame Gretchen for wanting to dull her own pain, but I felt disappointed in her.

“Gretchen, you don't need booze. We'll go over to the mainland tonight, find an AA meeting in Port O'Connor. You need to talk to folks about why you drank.” At least I assumed she did. What I knew about AA was gleaned entirely from television. I had done little to participate in Gretchen's sobriety other than offering unobtrusive support. I knew, with a keen and sudden tightness, I could have done more.

“Not AA. Not right now. Later.” She put her hand on the cool wetness of the cloth. “I don't understand. All I drank today was a little coffee and then a couple of Dr Peppers. Then-all of a sudden-I felt funny, craved a hit of wine. Couldn't-couldn't help it, Jordy! I couldn't help it!” She began to sob, a deep crying like she'd lost a part of herself that could never be regained.

I surprised the hell out of myself by taking her hand. She clasped my fingers hard. I bent over, whispering, “It'll be okay. It'll be okay.”

“No, no, it won't. He'll leave me. Bob Don said he couldn't take me drinking, he'd leave me if I fell off the wagon.” Dread widened her eyes. “Oh, God damn me for drinking!”

I squeezed her hand and said, “God won't desert you. Neither will Bob Don, or any of us.”

“Why”-she swallowed-”must you be so like him? Why? I can't give him a baby, I never could.” Her words slurred together like voices raised in distant hue and cry. Her drawl slowed and deepened; she almost sounded like a man.

“I'm sorry, Gretchen.”

“Oh, Jesus, don't be. I wanted his baby to grow inside me. Never could. Not meant to be, my mama said. She said God knew I'd make a lousy mother. God doesn't give babies to drunks.” Her eyes stared past my shoulder, riveted to the arabesque swirls on the ceiling. “Now Bob Don's got you, he's got his child. I don't got nothing.”

“You have your husband, Gretchen.”

“He'll leave me-” she sobbed, then hiccuped loudly. She covered her mouth with her fingertips and belched softly, a tear running down her cheek. Fear made her body as rigid as a board.

“He won't leave you. I won't let him,” I soothed. “Now, how much did you drink?”

She swallowed. “One whole bottle, and part of another. I snuck it out of the bar. I drank it up here. It made my mouth all cold, so I wanted to get warm. I decided I wouldn't- couldn't stay in the house. So I wanted to go to the beach, on the other side of the island. I could drink down there, yes I could. Maybe take a swim. A long swim…” She closed her eyes again, her breathing labored, her words mumbled. “I used to swim down there, when I was younger. Tom told me the sand's still soft. I used to swim there with Paul. We'd watch the egrets fly. We'd laugh at them clowning around in the shallows, scaring up fish.”

Her memories seemed as delicate as old lace. “Who's Paul?”

Her eyes were distant. “I thought I saw him again last night.”

“Who? Paul? Who is he?”

She shook her head.

I held her hand and didn't know what else to do. “And you don't know why you drank?”

“I was drunk before I knew it,” she muttered, absently rubbing her eyebrows. “I'm sorry I hit you this morning. I lost my temper. Stupid of me.”

I released her hand and walked over to the vanity, where a glass of Dr Pepper sat in its puddle of condensation. Some soda, its color lightened by melting ice cubes, remained in the bottom. I sniffed at the glass. Nothing. I sipped cautiously, rolling the liquid in my mouth. I went and spat the mixture in the sink just as Bob Don came in, followed by Candace and Aunt Sass.

Sass took one look at Gretchen. “Oh, dear. Drunk again.” She said it without malice, but also without pity. Pain stiffened Bob Don's face. Gretchen turned her face away into the comfort of her pillow, her shoulders hunched.

“Not exactly,” I said softly. “Her soda's been laced with Everclear. Someone set Gretchen up to drink.”

Bob Don convened an unlikely war council in Aunt Sass's room. Gretchen was napping off the wine, calmed and reassured by Bob Don that he wasn't bailing out of their marriage. Sass, Candace, Bob Don, and I sat on Sass's unmade bed. I kept a fair distance from Sass. I don't believe either of us had forgotten the harsh volley we'd exchanged after breakfast.

The room, even being one Sass occupied only as a guest, already bore her indelible imprint. Clothes lay haphazardly on the floor and across furniture, dropped where she'd shed them. Earrings lay in scattered profusion across a side table, and a forest of cosmetics bottles sprouted before a mirrored vanity.

“I hate to say it, Bob Don,” Sass began, after a hesitant glance toward Candace and me, “but she could have spiked her own drink and just claimed that she didn't mean to get drunk.”

He nodded. “But I don't believe she'd lie.”

“Alcoholics fib if they want to drink, hon. Remember that second husband of mine.” She glanced again with discom-fort toward me. “Aubrey's daddy was a heavy drinker. Very heavy. I know how hard it's been for Bob Don.”

I said nothing. Her own imbibing last night had been of epic proportions. And I was no more comfortable with seeing Aunt Sass's pain than she was showing it to me. “I think her soda was laced. She was too miserable at the thought of Bob Don finding out she'd drunk.” I tugged at the corner of the comforter. The room felt stifling hot, despite the gentle circling of the ceiling fan overhead. The air smelled of Aunt Sass's perfume-sweet and slightly smoky, like a singed rose.

“So we're left with the idea that someone spiked her drink,” Candace said. “Why would someone want to get Gretchen drunk?”

“To hurt her,” Aunt Sass answered immediately. “If she's worked so hard to stay sober, like Bob Don says, nothing would hurt her more than to tank her up.” She reached for her brother's hand. “Honey. I'm so sorry. I feel so bad for her.”

I couldn't forget the slightly sneering tone that Aunt Sass had used yesterday when Gretchen announced her new sobriety. Perhaps I misinterpreted. Or perhaps Sass was just sporting her kindest face for the sorrowful moment.

“But why?” Candace persisted. “Who'd want her off the wagon?”

“Maybe there's no motive but meanness.” I stood and went to survey the beautiful bay from the window. The ocean offered no sign of a returning Uncle Mutt. I wanted time to speed up so we could leave this island. Lolly's corpse had been removed, but a pervading sense of death still itched at my skin, like a tendril of smoke.

“I don't understand, son,” Bob Don said to my back. I faced him.

“Meanness,” I repeated. “There's more tension in this family than kindness. Someone could have tampered with Gretchen's drink just out of sheer cussedness.” I” avoided casting accusing eyes toward Sass.

“Granted, getting Gretchen inebriated would hurt her,” Sass countered, “but I don't see anyone here wanting to inflict that pain. I don't want to pick another fight with you, Jordan, but I've lived with a drunkard myself. I hate to play devil's advocate, but it's much more likely that Gretchen poured out that booze than any mysterious gloved hand with an ulterior motive.”

“You're right,” I said, and she blinked. “I would agree with you. Normally. But I've seen how hard Gretchen's fought for her sobriety, and I don't believe she'd toss it away on a whim. Either something upset her so badly she drank, and she doesn't want to tell us, or someone spiked her Dr Pepper.”

“Uncle Mutt terminally ill, Lolly dead, now this.” Bob Don shook his head. “Bad, bad days for this family.”

I, unknowing, proceeded to make them worse.

“Who's Paul?” I asked. Bob Don studied the brightly stitched rug on the floor. Aunt Sass conducted a careful examination of her flawless fingernails.

“Am I talking to myself here? Gretchen mentioned someone named Paul, thought she saw him last night.”

“Then she was drunk last night, too,” Sass said in a colorless tone. “Paul was our younger brother. He's dead. He was Deborah's daddy.”

“Oh.” The alleged murderer and suicide. “Were he and Gretchen close?”

Bob Don stood and walked out of the room. I felt a familiar pang that suggested I was tasting my own shoe leather.

“Yes, Jordan, they were. Once,” Sass answered, watching the doorway where her brother had retreated. “Paul was Gretchen's first husband.”

Bob Don had withdrawn to his own room to care for his wife. Candace claimed a headache. And I didn't feel like lingering in Sass's domain any longer than necessary. I took to the porch with a tall glass of Dr Pepper, ice, and a lime slice.

The stalwart Deputy Praisner no longer stood sentry there. Instead, I saw a bored-looking young female deputy tossing pebbles off the dock. The sunlight glittered against the gun in her holster.

I sipped at my drink and considered the latest anthill I'd kicked over.

Odd, the minutiae you unearth around the roots of the family tree. I'd never known that Gretchen was previously married, much less to Bob Don's own brother. The Goertz family Christmas must've been extra festive the year that Bob Don and Gretchen exchanged vows. Marrying your sister-in-law-the surest way to drive two brothers apart.

I sucked on my lime, dumped its scraggly crescent back into the ice, and poured the rest of my soda over it. The sun felt warm on my face and the breeze was cool and fresh. I was at the coast-I should have been happy and relaxed. Instead I felt the pulsing rhythm of a nascent headache and a homesickness for my dull, plain family. No announcements of terminal illnesses at the dinner table, no gasping deaths on the dining-room floor, no drunken stepmothers sobbing out their sobriety. Only the gentle nagging of my sister about my latest misadventure, the repeated requests of my nephew to go horseback riding, the silent perambulations of my fading mother around the furniture at our new house, where she always seemed bound on some dear and secret journey. The Poteets were downright dull compared with the Goertzes. I preferred dull.

“You stare out at the ocean any longer, you'll go mad,” a voice observed. My cousin Deborah leaned against the white wood of the porch and smiled thinly at me.

“Madness fits here.” I spoke without thinking, hoping I hadn't offended her. She simply shrugged.

“Aunt Lolly.” She sighed. “I can't quite believe that she's gone. I keep expecting her to round that corner, chirping at Sweetie to come cuddle in her lap. Or hollering at me for some imagined crime.” Deborah stared out at the ocean, watching the great, mothering waves sliding across the sands.

I said nothing, enjoying the companionable silence and the whoosh of wind and water. I waited for her to talk; I guessed she wanted to voice her burdens. Her fingers drummed a regular beat against the wooden rail of the porch, a metronome for her nerves.

“I don't want you to get the wrong idea about Lolly and me.” Deborah kept her gaze firmly on the expanse of water.

“I take it y'all didn't get along.”

She hung her head over the porch railing. “Oh, it's so complicated.”

“Hey, I'm the illegitimate kid. I'm the personification of complicated.”

It garnered a tense laugh from her. “You know Lolly took me in when my mother died.” She made no reference to her father.


“Well”-Deborah ran a hand through her thick, dark hair and seemed to cast about for the right words-”that wasn't my decision. Had I my druthers, I'd have gone to live with Uncle Mutt. I've adored him since I was little. But he didn't want a child underfoot then; he was the fast and easy bachelor. So Uncle Mutt, in his grand role as patriarch, dispatched me to live with Aunt Lolly. It was kind of an arranged marriage, y'know? Neither of us were very thrilled.”

I thought about how badly Gretchen wanted a child. “Bob Don and Gretchen didn't offer to take you in?”

“No. Aunt Gretchen was… still drinking.” Deborah shook her head. “She wouldn't have wanted kids anyway.”

The child of her ex-husband. I could understand why. Gretchen, Bob Don, his brother Paul-untangling that web would take time if I relied on Gretchen and Bob Don to speak up.

“Why was Lolly not a good match for you?”

“Because family propriety matters so to Lolly-perhaps more than it should.” She still referred to her aunt in present tense and I wasn't heartless enough to correct her. “Brian and I weren't anything more than stains on the Goertz name to her.”

“Brian?” I asked.

Her jaw worked for a moment, reining in strong emotion. “My brother. My little brother. He's dead, too.”

“Oh, Deborah, I'm so sorry.”

Her eyes filmed with tears, but she quickly blinked them away. “You'd have liked him real well, Jordan.”

“I'm so sorry,” I repeated. I make for a lousy comforter.

“Don't listen to the lies they tell,” she stormed with sudden fury. “Because they do lie.”

“Who's they?”

“This whole goddamned family.” Anger reddened her face and she grasped my hand, her trimmed nails digging furrows in my skin. “They'll tell you my dad murdered my mother and then went off and killed himself. But he didn't. He didn't.”

I took both her hands in mine. Her skin quivered against my touch. I saw now she was too mad to cry. Fury contorted her face into a vengeful grimace.

“Do you want to tell me what happened? What's the truth?”

She didn't look at me; she stared back out at the lapping bay as she talked. “My mother-when I was just six, and Brian was only two-was found shot to death. In my father's studio. Her face had been blown off.” She stifled a shudder. “My father went missing. Later we-I mean Uncle Mutt-found a note that my father had left. He said he'd shot my mother, then snuck out here to Sangre Island and walked into the ocean. He said he was sorry for what he'd done and couldn't live with himself anymore.”

“Uncle Mutt found this note?”

She nodded. “It was taped to the door of the house. The family had gathered here for my mother's funeral. He left the note-and then vanished.”

“And you don't believe your father killed your mother?” I didn't mean for the question to sound so heartless, and I squeezed Deborah's hands in support.

“Would you?” She looked at me with tearless eyes. “My father was an art teacher, Jordan. A sculptor. He worshiped my mother's face. She met him when she was one of his regular models. Sculptors don't destroy works of art. If he was going to kill her, it wouldn't be shooting her in the face.”

Her reasoning seemed wishful to me. Why should an artist lurk on a higher moral plane? And I'd known painters who'd obliterated canvases with no hesitation. But to contradict her would be cruel. “I take it the rest of your family didn't agree with your reasoning.”

“No.” Her voice cracked. “Do you know how that feels? They didn't want to talk about it. They didn't want to acknowledge that something as distasteful as a murder had happened in our family. Tight asses, all of them. But Bob Don was kind to me, and Tom-he was really kind to Brian. Aubrey was good to him, too.” She paused to draw a restoring breath. “The Goertzes personify the delightful combination of German immigrant stiffness and Old South propriety. You just don't have murderers in the family. It's simply not done. So everyone closed together in a tight circle and pretended it didn't happen. They pretended my parents didn't matter because they died in a distasteful way.” Bitterness scored her words. I couldn't speak; I watched her bottom lip quiver with anger.

She continued: “Aunt Lolly considered Brian and me as nothing but pockmarks on the family skin. She had a warped sense of family honor. What Dad did-what she thought he did-was unforgivable. And Lolly definitely believed that the children were liable for the sins of the father.”

“Was she just horrible to you and Brian?” I asked.

Deborah shrugged. “She never laid a hand on either of us. But everything we did was wrong, a further embarrassment to the family name. As if Brian and I were defective, being the children of 'a woman who let herself get killed and a man too cowardly to face up to what he did.' “ Her voice mimicked Lolly's sugary tone. “Those are her words, not mine.”

I thought of the sick mind that could punish children for an unproven act of a parent. I could imagine her hating me now, with precise clarity-the end result being a vicious cycle of mail sent my way. Don't punish the wayward bachelor. Punish his wayward sperm instead. Make the bastard pay for the crimes of the sire. Acrid dislike for Lolly surged in me. Who the hell was she to sit in judgment of me? Or poor Deborah?

Had she treated others the way she'd treated the two of us? The sharp edge of her hate might have turned back on her. I saw her gasping, purpling face again and, coldly, could not muster much pity for her. I did not feel like an honorable man at that moment.

“The police accepted this suicide note?” I ventured.

“Yes. But Dad's body was never recovered, there was never a sense of closure.” She laughed, and it was a sickly, ragged sound. “Brian used to be sure that our father was alive somewhere, working to clear his name. Like The Fugitive.” She glanced out again toward the bay that had swallowed her father.

“If it wasn't your dad-who would have had a motive to kill your mother?”

Her mouth worked, as though restraining unbidden words from speech. “I don't know. Her name was Nora. Did you know that? You had an Aunt Nora.”

I shook my head. “It's a lovely name.”

Her mouth tightened. “I know my dad wasn't a murderer. Please don't listen to the others. They're wrong, wrong as can be.” She fostered a weak smile. “Your uncle Paul was a good man. I think you and he would have liked each other real well.” The pain of her loss was nearly tangible; I could imagine her reaching out and giving her sadness a loving stroke.

“I'm sure we would have.” I smiled back at her. A sudden thickness sat in my chest. “I wish you could have known my dad. And my mom, before she got Alzheimer's.”

“But you've got another dad now. Lucky boy,” she murmured.

“I guess. Yes,” I managed to say. She saw the doubt in my eyes.

“Oh, don't feel funny about it. Count yourself blessed. If Lolly could have been another mother to me after I lost mine-I would have given anything to have a relationship like that. I needed a mom, and a dad. You've got a second chance, Jordan. Bob Don's the kindest man I know. He was so good to me after my folks died…”

“You sound like Candace,” I cajoled, trying to lighten the gloom that had enveloped us both.

“I assume you and Candace mended fences,” Deborah offered after a long silence.

“Yes, we did. We try not to stay mad at each other.”

“Look, I've had so little luck in my life I always spot it in others. Know that you're fortunate. I like Candace. She's got a spark to her.” Deborah's voice was small.

“She's a pistol,” I agreed.

“She's lucky, too. Good-looking fellow like you.” I felt the easy weight of her arm against mine.

I didn't blink and kept my eyes firmly focused on the crashing foam. Thoughts of Greek tragedy and four-fingered babies flashed through my mind and I admit to wondering, for the briefest of moments, exactly what the incest laws of Texas were. Not that I was about to wade into my own gene pool.

My face, never a subtle instrument, betrayed me.

“Oh, my Lord.” Deborah giggled. “You don't think I'm flirting with you, do you?” Her eyes were bright with mirth for the first time since we'd begun this rather sad conversation. I think, sad stories told, we both felt the need for human touch. We took refuge in teasing each other.

I grinned, feeling utterly foolish. “Of course I didn't think that. It's just I'm not quite used to thinking of you as my cousin yet.”

“Hmmm.” Her voice was a lascivious alto. “And what if I wasn't your cousin?”

Okay, we were back on suspiciously come-hither territory-not my comfort zone with lovely women who share common ancestors.

“Then I'm sure we'd be friends,” I ventured. Right answer. She rewarded me with a beautiful smile. Her heavy burden of sadness seemed vanished, at least for a few minutes. “Surely you don't talk this way with Aubrey.”

“Aubrey? No. Aubrey is too wrapped up in his spirituality and holisticness and what all else to show much interest in romance.”

“He's too busy solving everyone else's problems, I guess,” I said.

“Odd that he's that way. He was such a wild boy. Thank God for Aunt Sass's sanity he straightened himself out.”

“Aubrey? Wild?” The description didn't match my prudish cousin.

“Oh, Jordan, I keep forgetting you're not exactly privy to all our soiled family linen.” She drew back slightly and a strand of hair whipped around her face. The shape of her eyes was very much like Bob Don's and for one peculiar moment I wanted to reach out and take her hand and ask, Tell me something I don't know about Bob Don. Tell me something only another Goertz would laugh at. Make me feel like I belong here. I want to know him better than I'm ready to admit. But I didn't speak.

“I don't want to be seen as a gossip,” she said.

I shook my head. “You're right. I don't know these people and I wish I did. Tell me. Tell me whatever you want about them.”

She gazed out again at the sea. “Well, Aubrey's had a tough time. Stepfathers aplenty, none of whom ever gave a rat's ass about him. He turned bad as a kid-or maybe rancid is a better word. He ran away from home when he was fifteen and was gone for two whole years. Sass nearly went out of her mind. He showed up again at her house, skinny as a rail, high on dope, but wanting to come home and clean up his act.” She shook her head. “The men in this family tend to vanish at times. At least Aubrey came back. He never told me what happened to him.”

“You really care about Aubrey, don't you?”

She nodded. “After Brian died-I nearly had a breakdown. It was so hard to lose him, and Aunt Lolly was devastated, even though she'd never been real sweet to either of us. Aubrey took care of me. He was my best friend. Maybe that experience strengthened his interest in helping people. I hated it when he ran out on all of us. I hope you never have anyone you love walk out of your life that way, Jordan. It's God's own pain to deal with.”

I didn't explain to her that I had known that very pain. My best friend Trey, a brother to me, had turned and walked out of my life years ago. He had left his wife and son behind-who also happened to be my sister and my nephew. I had hardly seen my friend again when he died at my feet, bloodied with bullets. There is no way to retrieve that lost time. The thought of Trey-of his death-still stung me.

“Can I ask a tough question, Deborah?”

Deborah nodded.

“Do you know if Bob Don and your father were close?” I asked. I had a sudden, heavy feeling that maybe Bob Don and I shared a sad experience; that of our brothers having turned tail and disappeared from our lives, without a trace. Trey had not been my blood brother, but he'd been the closest substitute I had.

“Close? They hated each other's guts.” Deborah tugged again at her lip. “Brotherly love was not their forte. At least that's what Uncle Mutt told me. I'm sure it was because they both loved Gretchen. But it shouldn't have been that way. They were just two wonderful men who just didn't understand each other.”

“So what was the deal? Gretchen was married to your dad first, they divorced, then Bob Don married her? You've got to admit that's a little weird.”

“Little weird is a phrase that's never done our family justice. The whole dirty story is-” and she was cut off by a scream from the direction of the greenhouse. It sounded horrible, fueled by a man's last breath. Deborah moved faster than I did, sprinting past me and off the porch. I followed. The scream cut off abruptly as I vaulted to the ground.


I rushed after Deborah. Another choked scream sounded from near the elaborate greenhouse I'd noticed on our arrival. I saw the deputy look up from her reverie on the beach, and I waved arms at her. She ran toward us. I passed Deborah and broke through the clumps of saltgrass and wildflowers near the greenhouse to find Tom Bedrich kneeling over Aubrey, one hand raised to administer a punch to Aubrey's already bloodied countenance.

“Tom! Stop it!” Deborah hollered. She darted around me and seized Tom's arm.

His lean face contorted in anger and for one moment I feared he'd strike her. I lurched forward and pulled her away.

“He's trying to kill me!” Aubrey bellowed. “For God's sake, get him off me!”

I yanked at Tom's muscled arm; he didn't want to surrender. 'Tom,” I said, keeping my voice even. “Let him go now. It's over.” I tightened my grip and pulled up, just to show I'm stronger and tougher than the garden-variety librarian.

Tom finally stood, shoving Aubrey away as if he were rotting garbage. Aubrey scurried and sat down hard. Deborah knelt by her cousin, critically examining his contusions. She glared up at Tom. “You want to tell us what made y'all come to blows?”

Tom's watery blue eyes didn't waver from Aubrey's face. “No.”

The deputy-I could see BERTHOLD inscribed on her name tag-slowed to a jog, her hand on her holster. “What's the problem here, folks?”

Tom hardly looked at her, staring down at the ground.

Aubrey wiped blood from his nose and muttered something under his breath.

“Well, gentlemen?” The deputy inched closer to Tom.

“It's nothing. Just a family disagreement.”

“Oh, you always throw punches during disagreements?” Ice edged the deputy's voice.

“I'm not hurt,” Aubrey amended. “Look, ma'am, we were horsing around. It just got out of hand…” His voice drifted off and Tom didn't answer.

“You want to press charges against this fellow?” Deputy Berthold jerked her head toward Tom.

Aubrey shook his head. “No. Of course not. It was stupid of us to fight.” A gleam lit his eyes, though, that I didn't believe the deputy could see.

“I don't want to hear about any more trouble.” Berthold frosted us all with her stare. I hadn't even done anything and I felt guilty. “I'll have to report this to Lieutenant Mendez. Anything odd happens here, he hears about it. You two going to behave now?”

Both men nodded, like recalcitrant schoolboys. Berthold fixed them with a baneful eye, turned, and headed toward the house. Twice she looked back to glare.

“Ooooh,” Aubrey muttered, “authority figure. Think she's got a dominatrix set at home?” He grinned at Tom and I saw a thin smear of blood along his teeth. Tom glanced away from his cousin in disgust.

“You know, Tom,” Deborah said, helping Aubrey to his feet, “no one is remotely impressed with this silent he-man crap you've perfected to an art. A very cheap art. What the hell's the matter with you?”

“Nothing,” he answered.

“Aubrey?” I asked. I turned his jaw toward me. He had a busted lip and a cheek guaranteed to bruise up colorfully, but otherwise he appeared okay. “What happened here?”

Aubrey-to my surprise-stammered for a moment, then took a long swallow. Deborah and I waited. He flicked a tongue across his bloodied teeth and lip before he spoke. “Dear Cousin Tom just didn't respond to my latest advice. I guess I irritated him.”

“That's no excuse.” Deborah slapped Tom on the arm; he didn't flinch. “What the hell's wrong with you?” she asked. “Aunt Lolly dead, this house in an uproar, and you pull this stunt?”

“Sorry,” Tom mumbled.

“Good Lord, wait till Aunt Sass gets a load of this-” Deborah began, and Aubrey jerked away from her gentle touch.

“Goddamn it, I'm not some puny kid that has to go hide his face in his mama's apron! I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Aren't I, Tom?” Aubrey shouted. It seemed an odd comment in light of Tom's whaling of him; but now was not the time for semantic analysis. Aubrey's voice cut the air in cold fury. I stepped between the combatants.

“Aubrey, go get cleaned up and calm down,” I said. “I'll have a talk with Tom.”

“You made a serious mistake, Tom. Real serious. Why don't you ponder it for a while?” Aubrey said. He spat blood. I saw dark hatred color his face.

“C'mon, trouble.” Deborah took firm hold of Aubrey's arm and hauled him toward the house. He shot one last venomous look toward Tom before leaning on Deborah's shoulder.

I regarded Tom with a disapproving glare. “You resorted to punches because Aubrey laid some of his greeting-card psychology on you?”

Tom poked the inside of his cheek-unshaven and covered with blondish fuzz-with his tongue and didn't meet my eyes. Finally he looked at me and said, “Keep your nose out of my business, Jordan.”

“I see. You're sticking to the role of the silent, moody relative, right? Now that you've had your tussle for the day, I assume drinking heavily and composing bad poetry are next on the agenda.”

“Now you're sounding like Aubrey.” Tom shook his head.

“Definitely don't throw a punch at me, Tom. I'm a lot meaner and tougher in a fight than Aubrey ever thought of being.”

He surprised me by laughing. “Meaner than Aubrey? Nope. Under all that sugary concern for his fellow man, Aubrey's a conniving little bastard.” He paused and met my gaze directly. “Sorry. No offense intended.”

“Oh, Tom.” I shook my head with an indulgent smile. “Surely an educated man like you can arm himself well in a battle of wits. Bob Don claims you're smart. Are insults just not your specialty?”

“No. I have better things to do with my time than trade barbs with you.” Tom turned to leave.

“Wait a second.” I grabbed his arm and he stopped. A hint of ire fired his pale eyes and I released his arm. “What other responsibilities demand your attention? Staring out at the sea?”

“I prefer my own company, Jordan. And after you've been around this crew awhile, you might, too.”

“Indulge me. Why does Aubrey hate you?”

“Why do you care?”

“I'm more than a little curious about the rather peculiar relationships pervading this family, now that I'm a member.”

“Then take some familial advice, cuz. Curiosity isn't a Goertz virtue.” His mouth set in vexation and his cheeks reddened. “In fact, curiosity kills.”

“Kills who? Lolly?”

He jerked away and headed off past the greenhouse and down the path. I saw him rub his knuckles against the side of his cutoffs and I realized, with a twinge in my gut, that he was wiping Aubrey's blood off his hands. With as much concern as if he were wiping away water or soda.

Tension infected this family like a deadly strain. Now it had erupted into open violence. Distaste burned in my throat. Just as soon as Aunt Lolly was decently scattered, and I'd done my duty to Bob Don, we'd be off and I'd never have to set foot on this godforsaken island again.

I watched Tom leave. Damn it, I wanted to like him. I thought with his education-Bob Don mentioned he was an oceanographer-Tom and I would have lots in common. Apparently not. He vanished around what Bob Don had called a secondary dune, a sand dune that becomes isolated on the barrier flat, behind the main dune ridge. To me it looked like a small hill, covered with vegetation. Probably he was seeking refuge for when Aunt Sass found out what he'd done to her darling baby angel. I let that consideration die a natural death; Tom wouldn't flinch at anything Sass said. He wore his silence like a snail wears its shell, conveniently attached for retreat.

But Tom could be prodded from that armor with the right ammunition. Aubrey's bloodied face offered proof. The question was, what weapon did Aubrey wield?

I headed back to the house, lost in my own musings, and therefore nearly fell flat on my face. J tripped over a shovel lying near the greenhouse. I mentally chided Rufus for not cleaning up properly. The shovel was in reach of either Aubrey or Tom, had the fight escalated. I picked up the implement myself, knocked the clots from its blade-and noticed sand mixed in with the mud and clay. The dirt smelled vaguely sulfurous. I finished cleaning the shovel and tried the greenhouse door. It swung open.

The greenhouse looked much bigger on the inside. It was elaborate, divided up into four sealed compartments for different levels of warmth and humidity. Plants of all shapes and sizes grew in heady profusion-roses, flowers of many colors, growing foliage that looked common from the mainland but that I couldn't recognize. I found what looked like another room for tools-locked, oddly enough-and set the shovel down.

I wandered toward the back of the greenhouse and found Aunt Sass sitting before a beautifully growing rosebush in one of the compartments. She seemed lost in thought and I paused for a moment, not wishing to disturb her reverie.

She sensed my presence, though, and glanced at me uncertainly, then returned her gaze to the flowering roses. My whole body tensed. Her dislike for me felt as constant as the unending breeze. And I felt tired of being continually defensive. I'd decided to let Bob Don be a father to me-I had to make peace with his loved ones. Might as well tackle the most difficult project first.

I went and sat on the bench next to her, my fingers reaching out for the delicate petals of the rosebush. “This is a really cool greenhouse.”

“It's Jake and Mutt's pride and joy. They're both big on plants.” Her voice was carefully neutral, but at least she wasn't leaving at the sight of me.

“I don't suppose I could interest you in a peace treaty?”

She fidgeted. “I need to go find Aubrey-”

I interrupted her excuse to tell her about the fight outside the greenhouse she'd just missed. I thought for sure she'd bolt to the house to comfort her son. Instead she stared into the unfolding depths of one of the roses.

“And you took up for Aubrey?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

She gave me a crimped smile. 'Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” The ceremonial bows out of the way, I let out a sigh of relief. “I don't know what he said to set Tom's fists flying. Has your cousin always been so short-tempered?”

“No,” she answered after a pause. 'Tom's a slow burn. That's what worries me.” She didn't elaborate for a moment, then added, “Aubrey has an annoying habit of finding someone's weakness and prodding it to see what happens. Then they blow up at him and he offers his pop psychology as an antidote. It's his worst feature.”

“Tom's retreated. I wish I could say he was licking his wounds, but I don't believe Aubrey landed a punch.”

One of her eyebrows arched and she permitted herself a smile. “Don't underestimate Aubrey. Oh, yes, he can sound like a complete jackass when he decides to play the amateur Freud, but he's a tough boy. He's overcome a lot.”

“He didn't seem too cowed by Tom,” I offered. No need to mention Aubrey's spitting-cobra impersonation to Sass. I decided a change of subject was in order. “How's Gretchen feeling?”

“I checked on her a minute ago. She's resting. I'm afraid she'll have a rotten headache when she wakes up.” Sass touched a rose stem and breathed in the flower's perfume. “It'll be worse for a while, now, won't it? Her craving for liquor?”

“I don't know. I would imagine so. I don't think it ever entirely goes away.” I wasn't going to pretend to understand the seduction of alcoholism. I enjoyed a beer or a glass of wine on occasion, but to have an unquenchable need for a beverage-no matter how good it made you feel-was a thirst I didn't understand. The why of Gretchen's drinking was not a question I'd pondered for any amount of time. I should have.

“You knew her when she was drinking?” Sass asked.

“Oh, yes. In the worst way. She was the one who informed me that Bob Don was my father. I hadn't known before then. She was stinking drunk and yelled the news out at me.”

Aunt Sass stayed silent for a long moment. “That's a terrible way to find out such a”-she stumbled for the appropriate word-”revelation.”

“Yes, it is. It was followed by a rather tearful explanation from your brother. I didn't want to believe him.” Gretchen's words, then his words, had slid into my heart like an ice pick gracefully inserted between my ribs.

Silence again. Aunt Sass's lips, red and full, twitched slightly, unaccustomed to holding her words at bay. “He'll be a wonderful father to you, if you'll let him. But if you ever hurt him, ever disappoint him, I'll see that you're sorry for it.”

“Why are there so many threats flying through the air in this house?” I asked, my voice surprisingly mild. “Should I be afraid of you, Sass? I know you don't care much for me.”

“I don't know you. I'm not sure that I want to.”

“Why?” I ventured. I felt suddenly that the spiderwebs of subterfuge were trembling in the building breeze of truth. She and I were on honest ground.

“You're a mistake,” she said softly. “I don't mean to sound cruel, but it's true. My brother had an affair with a married woman and it was horrible for him. Your mother should have stayed in her own bed, with her own man. How she could seduce Bob Don, get herself with child-a son, no less, exactly what Bob Don has always wanted and prayed for-and then blithely go back to her husband and raise Bob Don's child like it wasn't even his? And deny him having diddly to do with you all those years? It's sick and it's selfish and it's mean-hearted.”

Heaviness pressed against my chest. “You don't even know my mother. She was the greatest mother anyone could ask for. It's awful easy to sit in judgment of a stranger.”

“Maybe. But my brother has never excelled at picking the right women, and I can't help but think she was a sorry excuse for a person.”

I stifled the fury I felt. Finally I spoke: “I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that Aunt Lolly's death has you terribly upset, and I'll just pretend I didn't hear that garbage.”

“Don't you patronize me. I know exactly what I'm saying. It's just the truth that you don't want to hear.”

“I don't have to listen to this crap,” I said, brushing past her. She seized my arm with surprising strength and brought her mouth close to my ear, like a lover whispering an endearment.

“If you're not going to let him be a father to you, just leave his life. Get out. Don't you think he's been tortured enough already? You've been the carrot dangled in front of him for years, the great reward. Maybe he could get on with his life if he knew what your intentions were.”

“You make it sound like I'm marrying him.” I didn't look at her face.

“It ain't that different, sugar. You're either gonna be a big part of his life or not at all. There's not any middle ground for you to stand on and dither.”

“I don't see how this is any of your concern.” Now I looked at her and saw the strained smile on her face.

“Oh, honey, it is. Because next to Aubrey, no one matters more to me than my brother. And I'm not about to sit knitting while you stomp all over him.”

“I'd never want to hurt Bob Don!”

“Every day you keep him at arm's length hurts him. Every day you call him by his right name instead of Dad hurts him. Every day you try and overanalyze what his being your daddy means-and you are just the bookish sort that'd fret till you're blue-hurts him. Now that I know about you, you aren't gonna hurt him no more.”

I took a steadying breath. “I see where Aubrey gets his penchant for dispensing unsolicited advice. You don't know beans about me and yet you've decided to sit in judgment.”

“All I need to know,” she hissed, “is that you have one of the kindest men in the world chomping at the bit to be your father, and you ain't letting him. And it's hurting him bad. I can see it in his face.”

“He seems fine to me.”

“I've known him a lot longer than you have, Jordan. I care about him, which you apparently don't.” A slight sneer played its way onto her face. “What is it he calls you- Jordyl What a childish nickname. It suits you.”

“If you're done?” I challenged.

“He told me this morning. He took a bullet for you. He nearly died for you.” Her words felt like slivers of ice against my skin, even in the summer heat. “He laid his life on the line for you, and you still can't decide if he's worthy enough to be your father? Fuck you, the decision's easy. You're not worthy to be his son.” She pushed past me, her shoulder setting the roses quivering as she grazed the bush, and stormed out of the compartment. I heard her slam the main greenhouse door a few moments later.

I stood watching one of the rose petals drift to the floor, lost from its fellows.

I went back to the house, easing the door shut behind me. My throat ached and I wondered if I'd screamed at Sass without realizing it. A cold languor filled my limbs despite the heat of the day.

Part of me wanted to run up the stairs, find Bob Don, ask him if anything his sister spat was true. It couldn't be. I wasn't that unthinkingly cruel, and my mother certainly wasn't the conniving slut. Sass was only looking at one side of a very difficult and painful situation. Overanalyze? Not me. No way.

Of course Bob Don knew I cared. When he'd gotten shot saving me, my mother, and my nephew from a deranged killer, I'd stood by him at the hospital, admitted he was family, worried and fretted over him. I wasn't a callous man.

And as soon as he got home from that hospital, you carefully slotted him into a place in your life where you demanded nothing of him and he could demand nothing of you. Isn't that called sweeping the dirt under the rug? Damned inconvenient new father. Let's just pretend we have eternity to decide if he ever gets a chance to be more to you than an embarrassment, or a debt unpaid.

The voice spoke in my ear, like a miniature devil tittering on my shoulder, urging me to mischief. No. No. I wasn't hateful, I had just been confused. Shocked. Afraid.

I looked up from the floor and saw Uncle Jake watching me from the library, his eyes sharply focused. A book lay open on his lap, and eventually he simply nodded at me and went back to his reading, his finger tracing a path through the prose.

I wavered between retreating to my room, burying my head in a good book in the study with Uncle Jake, or seeking out some private enclave on the island, away from prying eyes, sharpened tongues, and nagging consciences. The last option beckoned alluringly. I went into the kitchen, found it empty, and grabbed a can of Dr Pepper from the refrigerator. I popped the top and took a long swallow, keeping my eyes closed as the sugary coldness gushed down my throat.

You're a mistake. What a sick woman Sass was, hiding behind alleged concern for Bob Don. And after I'd kept her son from getting pummeled and offered her the olive branch of peace. I heard the kitchen door swing open and shut and I turned.

No one stood there. Odd. I moved to the door, opened it, and peered out into the dining room to see who I'd frightened off by my simple presence in the kitchen. Nobody.

I eased the door back, feeling a disquiet tug in my gut. Probably just Aunt Sass scrounging for lunch and withdrawing when she'd seen me. No problem, as far as I was concerned. For one moment I felt like I wasn't alone in the kitchen; but the only noise was the hiss of my own breathing. I'm letting that woman rattle me, I assured myself, and opened the back door into bright sunshine.

I jumped down the stairs and wended my way past the greenhouse. Rufus puttered inside, whistling tunelessly and sipping at a root beer. A radio warbled an old Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn duet about a Louisiana woman and a Mississippi man. I didn't want to hear one stanza about star-crossed lovers.

“I put up that shovel for you.” I paused for a moment in front of the greenhouse.

“What? Uh, sure, thanks,” Rufus mumbled.

“You ought to be more careful with your tools, Rufus. I nearly tripped over it out here.”

Rufus blinked at me. “What the hell are you talkin' about, Jordan?”

“That shovel I left propped by your toolroom door. Didn't you see it?”

“No.” He rubbed his scraggly chin with a begrimed hand. “I don't leave my tools lying around. They'll rust out in the rains we get all the time.”

“Oh. Well, someone else must've left it.”

“There weren't no shovel when I came back here.” His gaze left mine and he busied his hands above a table cluttered with junk and plant cuttings.

“Well, whatever. Where's a good place to go for a walk?”

Now Rufus Beaulac looked at me and his eyes narrowed. “What you want to go amblin' around for?”

“Why wouldn't I? It's a beautiful day.” I didn't add I wanted to escape the tension in the house, the unease that had smoked through the rooms even before Lolly's death-and my own sick feelings of remorse. “I need some exercise.”

“You want to help me dig up some flowers for Lolly's service? That'd give you plenty exercise.”

“Listen, Rufus, I'd be glad to help you after lunch. But right now I just want to know is there a good walking trail along the island. Is there or isn't there?”

“Little hot for wanderin' around. And we got enough trouble without you headin' off just to get lost, yeah.”

He doesn't want me exploring this island. Annoyance tinged his words, more than if I was simply a pest.

“I guess I'll just find my own path. Thanks.” I pivoted to leave.

“This ain't no resort,” he answered rudely. “There's a kind of path that goes above the beach. Don't stray from it. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths around here.” He smiled a bleak grin. “They got a real taste for college-boy flesh. Ain't nothin' a cottonmouth likes more than sinkin' their fangs into some idiot too overeddicated to know better than to stay away from what ain't his business.”

“Snakes? On an island?”

“Yeah, they'se some here. They're all over Matagorda Island, too. You be careful, serious, Jordan. The cotton-mouths like the sides of pools, ditches, anyplace they'se a little water. You set careful foot there, hear?”

“Yes.” I absolutely hate snakes and tried to keep the tremor from my voice.

“And the rattlers-you hear that buzz, you step light, yeah? They like thick clumps of weeds and grass where they little mouse friends live. You get bit, we got maybe just enough time to get you to Port O'Connor. Maybe.” He grinned, his gums looking discolored in the faint light of the greenhouse.

“Thanks for the warning,” I retorted, hurrying off before further horrors could be suggested. Rufus might be full of it, I decided. I had never heard of cottonmouths on offshore islands, but what did I know? Maybe he just wanted to put me off walking around the island, where no one could keep an eye on me.

Pure and simple, Rufus didn't want me snooping around Sangre Island. I resolved to find out why.

The path-and I use the term rather loosely-Rufus described was the one we'd taken up from the dock on the beach, little more than grass worn away, sand mixed with crushed shells. Littler dunes, engulfed in the fleeting beauty of colorful wildflowers and matted with hardier, twining plants, lay behind the main dune ridge. The flatlands behind the ridge were grassy and thick with shrubs. The wind was a constant companion, bowing all in its path.

I walked down the trail, well past the empty dock. When was Uncle Mutt due back? I felt with him gone, the family was hardly more than an unsupervised classroom, ready to erupt into anarchy.

The wind surged, cooling my skin and easing the smothering humidity. Long strands of cloud stretched across the formerly empty sky. My clothes had started adhering to my skin uncomfortably during my latest exchange with Aunt Sass and I pulled my T-shirt's fabric away from my back. I didn't let my eyes stray far from the path, just in case Rufus was correct about snakes. I hate snakes. Really and truly.

I pulled a pair of sunglasses from my shorts pocket and donned them. The path became entirely a figment as I reached a small bend out of sight from the house. The shore here was sandy, dotted with beached shells. I watched a small crab, pale, skitter from my approach and vanish into a burrow. With the house out of sight, and the only sound my own breathing and the hard whisper of the wind caressing Sangre, I could imagine myself miles away from any people. It might make a good place for sunning with Can-dace. But the idea of lounging in the bright summer air didn't seem appropriate with poor Aunt Lolly dead and with so much unresolved between Bob Don and me.

I peered and puttered for a while, then climbed up a slide of sand and high grass into the scrubby flatland. Sand kissed everything. I wandered for a while, listening to the distant caws and cries of the seagulls-and keeping my ears open for any rattling noises. Profusions of groundsel shrubs, small plants, saltgrass, and a rainbow of wildflowers covered the land. A colony of stubby, dark-barked huisache trees, not quite as tall as my head, swayed in the quickening breeze. Black mounds of sprawling Macartney rose-I'd been told it once served as living barbed wire on area islands-dotted the land. Its bloom seemed already past, and Bob Don had warned me about the briar's pesky thorns.

I breathed in the air of isolation. The island was rough in its beauty, but I could see why Mutt put up with all the difficulties of living here: having to import most of his potable water, horrendously expensive electrical service, the inconvenience of always being a boat ride away from civilization. The quiet, the beauty, were worth it all.

I walked through a thick motte of live oaks. The air felt moist and stifling. Mosquitoes swarmed and I slapped at my neck and legs repeatedly, cursing myself for not having the foresight to douse thoroughly with repellent. No help for it now; I pinched my lips together and forged ahead.

I found a small clearing near what I would have guessed was the island's center. It opened up from a precut path, lined with thickets of saltcedar trees, that would have been far easier to take than the way Rufus pointed me. Silly old toot. I saw an old, wrought-iron fence squaring off a section of land. Tombs stood cluttered within the fence's borders, most of them aboveground in the boxy marble style of interments I'd seen in Galveston and New Orleans. Wild spurts of grasses and small, pointed bursts of Spanish dagger separated the stone monuments. I unlatched the gate and opened it. The creak of its hinges sounded eerie in the hushed wind, almost like a human cry.

The first mounds were marked with a standard stone tombstone: HERE LIE TWO CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS, KNOWN ONLY TO GOD. NOVEMBER 1863. The marker appeared much more recent than the graves themselves, added at a later date. I wondered if these men died in the actions in Matagorda Bay when Union general Nathaniel Banks launched his major offensive against the Texas coast. Matagorda Bay had been in the thick of the fighting. Another memorial, this one a spire of Hill Country granite topped with a decorative anchor, was IN MEMORY OF THE CREW OF THE TEXAS SHIP RELIANT. LOST IN BATTLE, 1835. NO doubt the memorial owed its existence to Mutt's fascination with the past.

I found myself wondering how this island had stayed out of government hands, remaining in private fortunes. I'd heard of the federal government seizing islands in the Matagorda area, condemning the homes and kicking off families that had been there for generations. Too little to bother with? Not of strategic importance? I thought of the dead men in the sunken hull of the Reliant, off the coast. Had they thought this island mattered? Had they watched it as their boat cracked and sank, a refuge out of their reach as the Mexicans closed in, cannons roaring? I had studied Texas history as a boy and knew that neither side offered the other much clemency when captives fell into enemy hands. The massacres of Goliad and the Alamo did not encourage kindness toward the foe. The butchered boys on the beach of Sangre Island served merely as another reminder of the casual cruelty of war.

I strolled past other graves and tombs. Apparently someone had lived on Sangre since Texas became a republic, for there were additional memorials. One family, the Merciers, seemed to have held the island the longest. I squatted before their tombstones, running my fingers over their weathered inscriptions.

The back corner held Goertzes. A simple, elegant tomb, topped by an angel reaching toward heaven, was marked NORA JEAN GOERTZ. 1940-1972. Fresh wildflowers, newly picked, rested below the inscription. Next to it was another marble tomb, this one with a small statue of a boy, apparently caught wandering along a beach, barefoot, with a basket of shells in his hand, BRIAN RILEY GOERTZ. TOO BRIEF A TIME. 1970-1982. I ran my fingers along the inscription TOO BRIEF A TIME. Here also, fresh flowers lay against the engraved stone. I thought of the brightly smiling, bucktoothed boy in the photographs in Lolly's room.

In the corner, an even rectangle was neatly staked out, awaiting the shovel and the marble. Lolly's memorial. Rufus or Uncle Mutt must have come out and already marked out the plot. And perhaps left fresh flowers on Brian's and Nora's graves.

Voices drifted toward me, coming closer from down the path. I circled the tombs, feeling like a trespasser, keeping the stone blocks between me and the new visitors. The thick growth of saltcedars hid them from my view. I didn't decide to hide among the dead until I heard one of the voices was Philip's, ranting in hot anger.


I hunkered down in the dense grasses that divided two of the older tombs. I prayed there wasn't a fire-ant mound nearby, but none of the pests had invaded the territory of the dead. I did manage to scrape my elbow good on a corner of Nora Goertz's tomb and winced at the sudden, sharp pain. I didn't have much time to inspect the wound. Philip's baritone carried toward me on the never-ending wind, another softer voice answering his. I lay flat in the tall grass, not daring to peer around the monument. My choices were few.

And what are you going to do if they spot you? Claim you're sunbathing? In a graveyard? I didn't have a clue. I decided not to fret until the problem presented itself.

I inched my face around the corner of the tomb and saw them stroll past the saltcedars: Philip huffing along, followed-surprisingly-by Wendy Tran. He appeared angry; she seemed fidgety. Even at this distance I could see her glance around nervously, as though expecting unwanted visitors.

They stopped at the gate to the cemetery. Philip mopped his glistening forehead with a raggedy handkerchief. Wendy stopped and crossed her arms. She said something I couldn't hear and looked back over her shoulder. I ducked my head behind the tomb. I couldn't see them, and they, I hoped, hadn't seen me.

“I'm not gonna keep you long,” Philip said. “Lunch'll wait. You got the money?”

“Of course not. I need more time, Philip.” Her voice sounded tight and controlled. I wondered if she was quite as placid as she acted in the comfort of her kitchen.

“I don't have much time myself, darlin'. I can't be waiting on you to work your magic if it's gonna take all weekend.”

“Philip. Mutt's not here today. I can't get the cash from him if he's gone arranging his sister's funeral. No one planned for Lolly to die.”

“Maybe someone did.” Philip spoke so softly that I could barely hear him. Sweat stung my eyes, blood stuck dirt to my elbow, and a mosquito roosted on my bare calf for lunch; but I didn't dare move. I could feel the thud of my heart against the earth.

Wendy didn't answer immediately, and for one sinking moment I thought I'd been spotted. “That's a horrible thing to say. Poor Lolly.”

“Yeah, right.” Philip snorted.

“She was your aunt.”

“Yeah, and what was she to you, sunshine? Just an old lady who wouldn't get out of your way.”

Silence held sway again and I wondered if Wendy had left, insulted at Philip's implication. When she spoke, her voice was as cool as the stone of the tombs. “You just talk to hear the sound of your own voice, Philip.”

“You cooked the food, sunshine. She died at the dinner table. Don't they always look hard at the chef?”

“She had a heart attack. That's it.” Wendy's voice rose.

“Yeah, she had a heart attack and Uncle Jake's heart medication is missing.”

Obviously I wasn't the only one pondering that fact. Wendy rushed into the momentary hush. “For God's sake. Jake used it all up. You know how he snivels for his pills.” The mosquito cocktailing on my blood was joined by an after-work gang of his fellow bugs. I bit my lip and kept myself still. If I moved overmuch, or made too much noise, I would be detected-by two people calmly discussing the possibility of murder. I allowed myself one slow, open-mouthed breath. The smell of the island-the salt of the air, the mixed perfumes of wildflowers, the hint of pollen, the subtle rank of my own sweat-filled my nose. I willed myself not to sneeze.

“You ain't exactly been weeping and wailing since Lolly died,” Philip said.

“And I suppose you wanted to come out here to dig her grave with your own grieving hands?” Wendy paused and I watched an ant wobble curiously toward my face. I tried not to imagine a diamondback slithering through the grasses and encountering my body like a big speed bump that would have to be surmounted.

Philip didn't answer Wendy, and she continued: “Play nice, Philip. Do you want me to help you or not?”

“Oh, sunshine, it's definitely in your best interest to help me out. Hate to see an eclipse happen to my sunshine, you know that's bad luck.”

I waited for another one of Wendy's characteristic pauses to greet this statement, but she wasted no time: “Don't even think of threatening me, Philip. You don't have the money to write that check-so to speak.” She laughed, a long, brittle giggle. I had never heard her laugh before and her coldness chilled my skin, even in the humid heat. “I've got to go fix lunch for the family. I'll let you know when I've gotten the money. Until then, leave me alone and let me do my job.”

“Wendy-do it well. You'll be amply rewarded.” Philip sounded as though the words tasted bad in his mouth.

“You needn't worry. But I don't want you talking to me again unless it's to ask what's for dinner. I'm sure that won't arouse anyone's suspicions.”

“Oh. And is anyone suspicious?” His voice held a nasty tone.

Another Wendy lull held, then I heard: “I found Jordan snooping in Lolly's closet this morning. Him I find suspicious generally.”

“What the hell was he doing there?”

“Being a sneak. I don't like the way he's ingratiating himself with Mutt.”

“Goddamn luck, Jordan would resemble the old coot. And I caught the bastard buttering up Mutt last night in the library. Uncle dear's taken a liking to him. Jordan's nothing but a smug little shit. I can't have him interfering, sunshine.”

“Well, nothing you can do about him.”

“The hell I can't,” Philip rumbled. Four words to halt your breathing, trust me.

I waited until I was sure they'd left. No way I was venturing back down the path they'd come. I wasn't risking that they'd stop to confer or plot or argue-and I'd stumble up behind them, a falsely amiable mask set on my face. Burrs in my hair? Out doing headstands in the meadow. Grass stains up and down my entire body? Slid into home during the softball tournament being held on the other side of the island. I am not a skilled liar-usually-and I didn't want to manufacture a story.

Instead of returning the way that I came, I decided to support the fiction that I'd been exploring the whole island. So I continued my trek across Sangre, to the side closest to the mainland. Here the ground seemed a bit damper, with thickets of honey mesquites, bright freckles of lavender Texas vervain, fuzzy violet coast mistfiowers, and the yellowish-green spotted horsemint speckling the land. I held my arm away from my body-the scrape was messy and I didn't want to get blood on my clothes. I found a rough trail, probably worn by Rufus or Tom on their island perambulations, and headed back for the house.

I stumbled along the trail, found one shady spot to sit, and eased to the ground. I figured I couldn't beat Philip and Wendy back to the house, so I might as well saunter in late. I wouldn't want them to wonder if I was lurking near their private confab.

I forced myself toward calm. I closed my eyes. Wendy was chiseling money out of Uncle Mutt for Philip. I assumed she'd nab a percentage for her services. So the affectionate scene I'd witnessed between Wendy and Mutt in the kitchen was part of her ruse to wile away the cash from my uncle.

Poor Uncle Mutt. He'd been thoroughly duped. The look on his face as he'd cradled Wendy in his arms had been one of unmitigated bliss, reflection on a lifetime of remembered joys. He'd held Wendy as tenderly as if he were still a young man. And he didn't have much time left for the physical pleasures-

I blinked. Uncle Mutt was dying. If Philip needed money, why didn't he just ask? And why, if unwilling to ask, didn't he wait for the few months Uncle Mutt had left?

Either Philip suspected he wasn't likely to benefit from Uncle Mutt's will, or there was another time pressure on him for cash. Uncle Mutt had referred repeatedly to Philip's business ineptitude. I supposed that once again Philip had bottomed out and Uncle Mutt refused to line the coffers. I decided it was time, if possible, to learn more about Philip's business ventures. He was from Corpus Christi; I should start my inquiries there.

Dealing with my uncle was another matter. Uncle Mutt might easily believe Philip was up to no good, but would he accept Wendy's involvement in these machinations? I had no proof-and no idea how Wendy planned to pry the funds from Uncle Mutt's wallet. It depended on how much money was at stake. A few hundred? A few thousand? A million? I blew out exasperated breath. My stomach rumbled. I stood and headed back toward the dock.

Time to see what Wendy had cooked up for lunch. I'd have preferred to know what she was concocting for my unsuspecting great-uncle.

I don't have a career in espionage awaiting me. I snuck in the front door, thinking Wendy would be occupied in the kitchen. Wrong. She spotted me entering the house. She was setting the table in the dining room and she raised a perfect eyebrow at me-me. with my dirtied clothes and bloodied arm.

“Good Lord. What happened to you?”

I shrugged. “I was exploring and I took a tumble down a dune. I scraped my arm on a shell or something. I'm okay.” As soon as I manufactured this fib I thought: Shouldn't you have a little more sand in your hair? And clothes? And in the wound?

Wendy didn't appear to notice my relatively sand-free state. She examined my arm critically. “We've got a first-aid kit in the kitchen. I'll clean that up for you, or I'll find Deborah. She'd probably be insulted if I didn't let her exercise her vocation.”

“I'll tend to it myself,” I blurted. This woman made me uneasy. Wendy was no cowering servant girl from a Victorian novel. The coldness of her laugh, the educated way in which she spoke, the assurance she showed in dealing with Philip-it was a combination that didn't lend itself to domestic duties. And I'd detected concern in her voice for my injury. Who was this woman?

Her perfect eyebrow arched again. “Unless you're limber enough to kiss your elbow, you can't tend to this. Here, sit down.” I waited while she fetched the first-aid kit. She cleaned the wound, tsking as she did so. “That's a big scrape, Jordan. You want to be careful and keep it disinfected.” I watched while she spread medication across the skinned arm and taped bandages to it. Her touch was surprisingly tender.

“Thanks,” I said as she finished. “I'll try not to be such a klutz.”

She closed the first-aid kit with a click and regarded me with curious eyes.

The phone rang, and she sighed. “Probably another person calling to offer sympathy for Lolly's death. I think everyone in Calhoun County must be worried over Mutt.”

“It's nice to be liked,” I offered.

She shrugged. “He's important. I don't know if that's the same as being liked.” She answered the phone softly, explained that Mutt was unavailable, and began to make sympathetic assurances into the receiver. After a few moments she thanked the caller, jotted down the name and number, and hung up the phone.

“All that concern for the living,” she said, half to herself. She glanced up at me. “They don't worry about the dead.”

“They're beyond worry,” I offered. The words rang horribly callous to me and I blushed.

“You're right. We can only help the living. That's a favorite saying of Mutt's.” Her gaze seemed locked on some faraway object, and I felt the unintended sting of her words. Bob Don was living; the man I called Daddy was dead. My mother was dead, too, although she maintained an illusion of life by filling her lungs with air and pumping blood through her veins. But the thoughts that wandered through her brain were homeless and ill-formed, and her memories were warped and unplayable, like a vinyl record album melted by the sun. It wasn't life.

We can only help the living.

Wendy saw pain in my face and gracefully changed the subject. “I'm afraid lunch isn't fancy-salad and sandwiches. It should be ready in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I'll just go get cleaned up.” I excused myself and sauntered up the stairs; a backward glance told me Wendy eyed me speculatively, as though she found the story of my injury doubtful. Had she and Philip seen me in the grass and just played a joke on me? My name had come up rather abruptly, and I hadn't spied on them the whole time to see if they'd spotted me.

I paused on the stairs. I could feel the weight of Uncle Jake's stare on my back. I glanced over my shoulder; he was watching me with the cool glare of someone who has seen a lot of pain in his life.

“Your daddy's upstairs, I believe,” he said softly.

Oh, God. Had he heard the venomous argument between Sass and me? The greenhouse, after all, was his favorite haunt. I wasn't eager to have my problems become fodder for this family's discussions.

“Thanks. Maybe I'll go talk to him.” I could think of no other answer to offer.

“Think that'd be a good idea, boy. Fathers and sons shouldn't be so far apart.” He thumped an arthritic hand against the pages of his book; his fingers curled like a talon. “Your father had a hard enough time with his daddy, don't make history repeat itself.”

“I think history always does repeat itself,” I said. “We seem to make the same mistakes, over and over again.”

“This family. This island. Yes.” Jake's eyes glittered with the hard light of truth. “You're a perceptive boy.”

An unaccountable shudder ran along my spine. Creepy old man, sitting in the library like some warped oracle. I wanted to be away from him.

“See you later, Uncle Jake,” I said, and scurried up the steps. I could feel the weight of his incessant stare on my shoulders, as dreadful as the gaze of a dead orb.

Instead of going to my room or to Bob Don's, I headed to Candace' s. I knocked on her door. Her voice, strained, bade me wait a moment; then I heard the sound of a toilet flushing, and water gurgling in a sink. She opened the door with a damp washcloth pressed to her chin. Her skin was pale and her eyes had trouble focusing on me.

“Hey, what's wrong?” I asked. She turned and sat on the bed. From the bathroom I could smell the faint, sour odor of vomit.

“Oh, I'm okay. I ate a snack that didn't agree with me. I'm fine.”

All the talk of poison made my heart stop at the mention of distasteful food. “You sure? I'll get Deborah to take a look at you-”

“No, I don't need Deborah. I'll be fine, really. It's nothing. Just let me lie down for a bit.”

“Wendy's fixing lunch. How about some soup, sugar?”

“Uh, no. I'm really not hungry.” She rubbed her eyes and sighed.

“What'd you eat?”


I took her hand. “Eat. What did you eat that made you feel queasy?”

“It's really nothing, Jordan, I wish you wouldn't conduct the Spanish Inquisition over this. I think I ate some bad cheese or something. I'm fine.” She lay down on the bed and noticed my bandaged arm for the first time. “What happened to you?”

I closed her bedroom door. Candace doesn't approve of me sticking my nose into other folks' business and I didn't want to admit to my recent exploration of the island, my discovery of the graveyard, and the conversation between Philip and Wendy. So I told her the same story I'd fed Wendy.

“Good Lord. Well, be careful.” Candace covered her eyes with her wet terrycloth veil, but her tone of voice let me know she was staring at me right through the cloth. Women can do that, you know. “Maybe you shouldn't traipse around this island alone.”

“It's fun. Like a boyhood adventure. I feel like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.” I tried to sound carefree.

She raised one corner of the cloth to fix a baleful eye on me. “You quit being a boy quite a while back, darling. At least I hope so. Your behavior doesn't always support that conclusion.”

“You're no fun.”

“Have you apologized to Aunt Sass?”

“I tried. We were getting along fine until she started chewing my ass out for not letting Bob Don in my life. Like she knows anything about it.” I didn't elaborate on Sass's rather valid reasons for disliking me. I wasn't too crazy about myself at the moment. I walked over to the window- the bay draws you like a magnet, especially if you grew up never seeing water wider than a river or a little lake-and contemplated the ceaseless rhythm of the waves.

A long groan emanated from beneath the wet towel. “Jordan, please. I don't feel good. I don't want to hear you gripe about Aunt Sass just right this minute. Maybe later in the day, so I'll have something to look forward to.”

Candace can be a tad sharp-tongued, but this was a new level of cattiness, even for her. Well, she said she wasn't feeling good and here I was blabbing away.

“I'll let you rest. You let me know if you feel up to any lunch, okay?”

“Sure. Thanks, Jordan. I'm sorry-I don't mean to be snappish. I think I'll just take me a little nap.”

I patted her hand and left her to rest. No excuses now. I went down to the second floor and stopped in front of Bob Don and Gretchen's room. I knocked gently. No answer. I tried the door, found it unlocked, and eased it open. Gretchen lay softly snoring on the bed, one arm thrown away from her body, her small mouth agape. At least she was sleeping off the booze. After she was herself again, we could start to help her.

Help her. The very thought rang alien when applied to Gretchen. She'd been a shrew to me the first few months that I'd learned Bob Don was my father. She'd resented me, belittled me, bullied me, and attempted to blacken my character in Mirabeau.

But she'd changed.

Slowly, as the sobriety took hold, she'd lived her life according to reason rather than rum. She'd had to reevaluate her priorities and her choices. It's easy to make horrendous decisions when you're ablaze with drink. She'd extinguished the fire of her addiction-or at least the blinding, burning heat of her craving-and laboriously rebuilt her life. And, even given our ongoing verbal skirmishes, she'd accepted me.

I wasn't a drunk. I wasn't a terribly bitter person. Why couldn't/change? Why couldn't I shed the anger, the fear, the shock that Bob Don was my father and proceed apace with my life?

Fuck you. You 're not worthy to be his son.

The words still stung like the salt of tears on a childhood cut. Score one for Sass; if God stripped the flesh from my frame right now, He'd find a blackened mark across my ribs. She'd nicked the tenderest part of my heart.

Unbidden, the memory came of Bob Don barreling into my house, smashing in a door to race to my aid, a murderer's gun swinging toward him, the harsh, unforgiving blast of the pistol, the dread crimson blossoming across his big chest, and the stunned light of realization in his eyes as he collapsed to the floor.

You're a mistake.

The mistake, I decided as I watched Gretchen sleep, was letting Sass bully me. No more. I'd stand my ground, and if she didn't like it, tough. I only had to get through Lolly's funeral, and then Candace and I were out of here. I'd never have to lay eyes on Sass or Philip or any of this misbegotten crew again. I'd swim to my nice quiet side of the gene pool and trouble them no more.

I was gently shutting the door when I saw it. A small framed photo, standing on the table by the lamp. It drew me like metal to magnet.

The girl was perhaps twelve years old, the wind whipping her brown hair about her head. The set of the eyes, the determined mouth, the perfect skin-I was sure this was Deborah.

And next to her, Brian, perhaps four years younger, embraced her. He was talking to her, unaware of the camera, his face in profile, dark locks curling about his brow, his nose pert, his cheeks the ruddy red that only Irish blood supplies. He looked happy, laughing with his big sister.

I studied the picture. Gretchen mumbled and stirred in her sleep. I retreated, the picture in my hands, and eased the door shut behind me.

I hadn't finished my conversation with Deborah. The fight between Tom and Aubrey had cut it short. I left the photo in my room and decided now would be a good time to wrap up that talk.

I found Deborah among a tense, quiet group in the kitchen. This was not to be a convivial summertime lunch. Why should it be? With Aunt Lolly dead, Uncle Mutt ill, Aubrey and Tom feuding, Philip and Wendy conniving, Deborah sneaking, Uncle Jake complaining, Sass terrorizing, Bob Don moping, Candace vomiting, and Gretchen drinking-with all that I didn't feel like a party.

Wendy was assembling sandwiches while Aubrey watched, sipping self-righteously on a Coke. Deborah fixed iced tea and Philip nursed a Bloody Mary. All conversation ceased when I walked in.

“Hi,” I offered.

“How's the arm feeling?” Deborah glanced toward my bandage. “Wendy mentioned you took a nasty scrape.”

“I'm fine.” I made my voice sound hearty and forced my smile to its greatest width.

Apparently my fake enthusiasm was contagious. “Cousin Jordan,” Philip boomed, a cordial smile splitting his face. I wondered if the vodka had put it there. “I'm afraid I owe you an apology. I spoke rather harshly to you this morning and I really didn't mean to. We've just had so many shocks lately, I just wasn't myself. My apologies.” He offered his hand.

I hesitated, then presented mine in return. He attempted to squeeze my fingers to bone dust with the fervor of his handshake, but I kept my smile in place.

“I don't have any hard feelings, Philip. I don't expect y'all to just usher me right into the family.” Silence greeted this announcement. “Confession time. I'm not the world's easiest person to get along with, and I know Lolly's death has put a terrible strain on us all. Especially y'all, since you all knew and loved her.”

Sorrowful glances-even from Philip and Aubrey-were exchanged among the gathered, and I sensed for the first time that despite all the travail and difficulties, the Goertzes still saw themselves as a family. Dysfunctional in the extreme, perhaps, but still connected by ties of blood and affection. Not healthy, troubled by some deep tumor within the familial body, but willing to live.

Aubrey turned toward me and I saw the bandage on his forehead and the cleaned cut on his lip. One cheek had bruised beautifully, its colors like a tropical sunset. “I'll apologize right now for my mother, Jordan. She's had no call to treat you the way she has. I don't know what's gotten hold of her.”

I shrugged. “She and I both care a lot about Bob Don. She's worried I'm hurting him. She's probably right. I could hurt him and he'd never tell me. Bob Don and I don't talk real honestly a lot of the time.” I quieted, embarrassed at my sudden rush of confession.

Philip coughed. “Listen, Jordan, Aunt Sass has dealt out enough pain on her own.” He surprised me by putting a protective arm around Aubrey. “She don't got no call to be rough on you, just because she can't come to grips with Bob Don keeping you a secret.”

I fumbled for an answer. “I'm sure Aunt Sass has Bob Don's best interests at heart. Aubrey, I really don't mean to quarrel with your mother. But she lectures without knowing the complete story.” Did she tell y'all he nearly died for me? Did she paint me as an ingrate, an unfeeling bastard? I don't mean to be one. I don't.

“That's a Goertz family failing.” Deborah spoke quietly. “You get accustomed to the endless advice after a while.”

“Is that advice?” I asked, and for one moment there was a dead hush. Then Wendy tittered, and full-scale laughter broke out. Even Philip joined-or pretended to join-in. I felt the slightest bit more accepted. But I couldn't help but wonder what might motivate this new friendliness toward me. I didn't think an upsurge of appreciation for my wit and good manners had conquered their hearts.

I could almost hear Candace chiding me for senseless paranoia.

Lunch was a casual affair, the small group sitting around the big table, eating sandwiches and sipping tea. Uncle Jake joined us, but seemed content to chew and growl occasionally. He opted not to cast his ominous gaze my way. Rufus and Tom did not appear. I said Gretchen was “resting” (no one contradicted my story) and that Candace was feeling a little ill. Bob Don and Sass hurried out past our gathering, coming down the stairs. A lump coagulated in my heart as they left, not glancing toward us or even acknowledging our presence. The quiet seemed thick and I decided to break it. I'd decided to start investigating Philip's business concerns; there was no time like the present.

“What line of work you in, Philip?”

He took several extra seconds chewing his already thoroughly masticated sandwich before answering. “Investments. Of a sort.”

Aubrey pursed his lips. “Of a sort is right. All the wrong sort.”

“Now, Aubrey, be nice. And after I took up for you with Tom.” Philip quickly bit off another chunk of bread and roast beef to keep from elaborating on his trade.

I didn't relent. “Municipals? Money-market funds? You work for one of the big national shops?”

Philip swallowed and took a long sample of his Bloody Mary. He chomped an inch off the celery stalk. If food was his delaying tactic, I could wait longer than he could chew.

“Actually, all of 'em. I serve as an adviser to the wealthy folks along the coast. Help 'em diversify their holdings.”

“Uncle Mutt used to be Philip's biggest customer,” Aubrey offered with a smile. “Used to be.”

“Kindly keep my clientele private, Aubrey,” Philip said. He stuck the mangled celery back in the glass of murky tomato juice.

I nibbled at my sandwich. Now I had a handle on what might have transpired between Philip and Mutt. Mutt invested money, Philip lost or mishandled it. Mutt withdrew his support, Philip needed cash. How much money had Philip lost for Mutt? Surely Mutt was too clever to entrust Philip with much; I wouldn't give him my loose change. I clicked my tongue against the back of my teeth, watching Philip fidget in his chair. Deborah diverted the conversation, broaching that safest of Texas subjects: high-school football. Philip took the lead and proffered endless opinions on the chances of teams along the coast this fall.

Uncle Jake snorted at the new topic. He opened his mouth, as if to speak, then closed it, thoughtfully and slowly. I felt like we'd just been spared the dragon's flaming breath. His eyes met mine for the briefest of moments and I thought his glance said:/ ain 't buying this shit from Philip. Are you?

The discussion of football quickly waned, so I forged into the rough waters. “I have to admit, coming here has been full of surprises. Like finding out that Gretchen was married to Bob Don's brother.”

Deborah fixed a steely gaze on me. “I thought you and I had already covered that story, Jordan.”

“I just wondered why it was never mentioned to me before, by either-”

“It wasn't mentioned because it's a painful subject.” Deborah stood. “I don't really want to talk about anything regarding my father anymore, if you don't mind.”

“I'm sorry, Deborah. I didn't think. It's one of my greatest failings.” I felt blood redden my face. “Candace'll tell you, I always manage to taste my own shoe leather at least once a day.”

“That's not such a bad crime,” Deborah said, her voice softening. The light from the window played along the glints in her hair and I could see the smudges beneath her eyes. She suddenly looked very tired and older than her years.

Uncle Jake, who'd been so unusually quiet, spoke. “I don't see what the big deal is about not talking about Paul. God knows we've exhausted that subject before, it's probably due for a fresh beating.”

“Uncle Jake. It's painful for me to talk about Dad.” Deborah shoved her plate away from her.

“I'd hate to do anything to impinge on your martyrdom,” Uncle Jake replied.

“That's uncalled for,” Aubrey interrupted. “Uncle Jake, you must be feeling tuckered out. Why don't you go take a nice nap?”

“When you've lived as long as I have, Deb, you can bitch about how sad life is. You ain't hardly shed your first tears. Lots more comin' for you.” Uncle Jake coughed, a deep, rheumy noise.

Deborah smiled thinly, her teeth even white stones against her trembling lip. “Uncle Jake, I truly fail to understand why God is taking Uncle Mutt and leaving you around way past your time.”

“Good God, Deborah!” I exclaimed. Philip, Aubrey, and Wendy were stunned to silence. Jake stared at Deborah with bird-bright eyes. He leaned forward on his cane, as if insatiably curious for what she might say next.

“Don't, Jordan,” Deborah said softly. “Don't take up for Jake. You don't know what a sick old man he is. How Mutt and Lolly endure him”-she broke into a strangled sot)-”I don't know. I can't stand to be in a room more than a minute with him, and I'm sick of pretending that I can.”

“Deb-” Jake raised a hand in supplication toward her.

“You're barely kin. So what if you were my great-grandmother's brother? I never knew her. I'm supposed to care about you, your feelings, when you've never shown the slightest regard for another human being in your life? You sit there and tell me not to feel pain. After my dad vanished, and my mom died, and my brother died?” She wiped tears away with the back of her hand. “No one can suffer but you? Wrong, old man. You sour everything you come near.” She stood. “I think I'll go see how Candace is feeling.” She turned and we heard the patter of her feet on the stairs.

Jake did not look at us. He rose, leaned on his cane, and slowly made his way to the dining-room door. He glanced back, showing only his craggy profile, his gaze firmly fixed on the polished hardwood floor. “I shouldn't have read that book on tough love. I've upset Deb. I'm sorry to have ruined everyone's lunch.”

“Uncle Jake-” Aubrey began, but Jake shook his head.

“Bitter old fool. That little girl has no idea how much I really love her.” He turned on his cane and went across toward the study, his movements brittle with age. He eased the door closed behind him.

Aubrey and Wendy quietly began to clear the plates. Philip followed them into the kitchen and I could hear the soft murmurs of their voices.

I am a well-meaning idiot sometimes. If I couldn't heal the rift that'd divided Sass and me, perhaps I could help Deborah and Jake. I crossed to the study door, raising my knuckles to knock.

And held them still when I heard Jake's low, cadaverous laughter, as though he were giggling at some profoundly funny joke.


My head ached, and I felt slightly ill My -self. I didn't relish further talks with a nut like Uncle Jake, and I wasn't about to go chasing around the island to find out what Bob Don and Aunt Sass were doing. So I retreated to my room and lay on the coolness of the cotton quilt covering my bed. I wondered, idly, if Goertz hands from long ago had shaped the quilt. With the crisscrosses of intrigue, lies, and deception that seemed to stitch this house together, the idea that anything fashioned by Goertzes could provide a momentary refuge made me laugh. I stared at the ceiling until my eyes began to feel heavy with sleep. The only noise in the room was the soft rise of my breath, and the counterpoint of the waves of Matagorda Bay crashing into the sand.

I was nearly asleep when my skin prickled and I felt- and I will swear to this until the day I die-a gentle stroke of a finger across my closed eyelids.

I didn't move. I didn't open my eyes. My whole body felt as though it would sink through the quilt if I remained motionless. I waited for the telltale footstep, the hiss of human breath, the creak of a floorboard to reassure me that I'd simply dozed, and while unawares, Candace or Bob Don or someone else had ventured into my room to awaken me.

Silence. I remembered to breathe.

Slowly I opened my eyes. Light, filtering in from the old and faded curtains, held dust motes in its grasp and I watched them spin. My face felt warm and crinkly, sure signs of a summer nap. I'd probably just dozed off and dreamed. I fingered the corners of my eyelids, but there was no sleep grit in them to clean away.

I sat up on the bed, my mind still fuzzy. I hadn't slept well since our arrival, and the unrelenting feeling in this house-of tensions smoldering, ready to burst into crisp flame-made me edgy. Occupied with my own fears about meeting my new family, I hadn't thought objectively about what might be transpiring within these walls. Forces I didn't yet understand warped this family tree.

I scooted so I could lean back against the polished headboard and got comfortable for a long hard think.

Uncle Mutt was dying. My throat tightened at the thought. I'd no doubt that there was much to disapprove of about Emmett Goertz-he was a womanizer, a bit of a dictator, a fellow who'd stake unholy odds in a poker game to win an island. I wondered if he would have obliterated the family fortune if he'd lost that particular hand of cards. But at the same time he had a warmth and a gentleness about him that drew folks to him. For all the acrid dislike that volleyed between the Goertzes, Uncle Mutt avoided the venom. I wasn't sure if it was because of his undeniable charisma or because he held the fat wallet.

And with him dying, a vast fortune tottered above grasping hands. He had no children. He had never married. Assuming that he wasn't leaving his entire wealth to charities or pet causes, surely enough money was available for everyone-from Tom to Aunt Sass-to come into substantial funds.

Assuming, of course, that Uncle Mutt equitably distributed his money. I knew nothing about his will, except that he had mentioned Lolly's death would force him to rethink his legacies. Perhaps he'd intended to leave most to his sister. If so, had the rest of the family known that Lolly stood between them and millions?

Within thirty minutes of Uncle Mutt's announcement to the whole family that he was terminally ill, Aunt Lolly died. By a means that technically could have fallen under suicide. Or, of course, she simply had a heart attack.

But now I didn't believe Lolly took her own life. Aubrey contended that she was either actually mentally ill or dominating her family through her ruse of eccentricity. If she was sick, she might be suicidal. But if she was unrelenting in her need for control, I didn't reckon an egoist like Aunt Lolly would ever kill herself. It would mean ringing down the curtain on her starring role. And leaving Sweetie. Her devotion to her little dog seemed comical when she was alive, but I didn't doubt for a second that it was genuine. Not to mention that her death came along with viciously threatening letters to me, a doping of Gretchen's drink to drive her back to the bottle, and Philip's scam to hustle money out of Mutt. Much seemed afoot.

So, if Lolly hadn't taken her own life, she'd either been murdered or died of natural causes. If her heart couldn't bear the news that Mutt was dying, wouldn't her attack have been far more sudden? I knew nothing about heart seizures, but I supposed she would have keeled over at the news if prone to episodes. Only the autopsy could answer that question. If the verdict was natural causes, then we could continue our mourning-as it existed, and the grief in this house was frighteningly, eerily minimal-and the death-watch over Uncle Mutt could begin again. If murder-there was one less heir to contend with.

A prickle of fear ran along my back. One less heir. And here I was, an unexpected addition to the rank of possible legatees, unwanted, unwelcome. And Aubrey, Wendy, and Philip had already commented on Uncle Mutt's warming reception toward me.

I didn't want his fortune. I wouldn't have turned money away if it came into my hands, but I had come to this island looking for lost parts of myself, not cash. I thought of Uncle Mutt, unseen, unknown, watching me during that long-ago junior-high baseball game. I could picture him standing next to Bob Don in the weathered gray bleachers, shading his face with the flat of his hand while he watched a skinny blond boy pound a fist into his shortstop's glove and shout encouragement to the pitcher. I thought it likely he had silently sent his own cheers to me. And wasn't Bob Don cheering you, too?

I forced my mind back to the issue at hand. With Uncle Mutt gone, I suspected the very heart and center of the Goertz family would be gone, too. I found it hard to envision Deborah dropping in on Philip for a long weekend visit or Uncle Jake calling up Aubrey just to see how his next book was coming. Would the members of this family wander away from each other once the common center of gravity vanished?

Make the leap, I told myself. Assume Lolly was murdered. Who had motive and opportunity? I got up and walked to the window and opened it. The bracing sea breeze wafted over my face, heavy with the smell of salt, fish, and time. I ran down a mental list of motives.

Uncle Mutt. I couldn't see any reason why he'd want his sister dead, and he seemed genuinely distressed and troubled over her death. Besides, he was dying. The concerns of the living were only his for a short while. I thought I could strike him from my list.

Uncle Jake. He struck me as an ornery, demanding, even calculating man, and if Lolly had been poisoned, his Digoxin medication was the likely source of the fatal dose. He would have had plenty of opportunity to amass a deadly amount of digitalis. With Jake, the stickler was motive. He had no reason to wish Lolly dead.

Aunt Sass. My initial dislike for Sass hadn't budged much. She outright hated me for how I'd treated Bob Don and she obviously resented anyone who encroached on what she considered rightfully hers and Aubrey's. My status as newest family member had earned me only loathing as far as she went. And Aubrey had mentioned that Aunt Sass was devoted to Lolly-but I couldn't help but remember the standoffish stance Sass assumed as Lolly lay croaking her last words. Aubrey's claim that Sass was inordinately fond of Lolly might be a diversion from a far more unpleasant truth.

Aubrey. His uninspired platitudes covered a much more subtle mind than I'd initially suspected. And his row with Tom-and the venom that followed-suggested Aubrey had a mean streak that his glib self-help rigmarole belied. He'd survived as a runaway for two years and could no doubt take care of himself. He'd angered most of the clan with his plan to write a book on families, and he was already in violent conflict with one family member: Tom. And I wondered if his devotion to his mother might include doing her bidding, even if the cost was another human life.

Tom. The quietest member of the family had also shown the most violent temperament. His pale eyes made me uneasy with their furtive glances. He would have, I was convinced, beaten Aubrey senseless if Deborah and I had not intervened. His own unwillingness to explain his actions doubled my apprehension. Tom was a tightly reined fury, biding time for release. Had Lolly gotten in his way? He'd brought down the empty bottle of heart medication after her death, placing his fingerprints on it. Were they already there before the tragic dinner? I could almost imagine those cold, pale eyes watching the pills spill into his open palm, measuring out a dollop of death.

Philip. He was at cross-purposes with Uncle Mutt over some failed financial venture, I believed. I needed to know more. And his odd partnership with Wendy Tran to chisel money away from Uncle Mutt only heightened, in my mind, suspicion on him for Lolly's death. Wouldn't one crime naturally link to another within this closed group? Why did he need money nowl Why not simply wait until Uncle Mutt was dead and buried? Even if his alleged mismanagement of Uncle Mutt's money meant he didn't benefit under the will, Philip could hit up one of his more favored relatives for a needed loan. And I could hardly forget that true-crime story of digitalis poisoning, subtly slipped back on the shelf by Philip's own hand. He quickly vaulted to the top of my suspect list.

Deborah. Her quick and easy friendship with Candace, her supportiveness of Gretchen's sobriety, and her openness toward me had won me over. But I'd still seen her sneak into Lolly's room with distinct slyness. Her unwillingness to talk much about her own branch of the family tree's tragic past, her complicated relationship with Lolly, and her row with Jake made me wonder if even darker secrets lurked there. And, my liking for her aside, she was a nurse.

She'd know, better than anyone, the amount of Digoxin needed to silence Lolly forever.

Rufus. I couldn't quite fathom how Rufus Beaulac could have possibly benefited from Lolly's death, but an unquiet thought about him disturbed me. First, he struck me as a man much like a lapdog; he'd do the bidding of whoever he considered, as medieval as it sounds, his master. I'd no doubt that Uncle Mutt's ego was fueled to a degree by Rufus's loyalty. I wondered if when Uncle Mutt found a task too distasteful, Rufus became his errand boy. With a shudder, I envisioned Rufus nodding slightly as Uncle Mutt told him to get rid of Lolly. I didn't believe Rufus would use poison; his methods would be far more direct. Unless, of course, his hands were directed by Uncle Mutt or some other intelligence.

Wendy. I thought her beautiful and dangerous, like a blossoming rose with piercing thorns. One moment she was leaning against Uncle Mutt in the casual caress of a lover; the next she was conniving with Philip to bilk Mutt. I did not like her or trust her, and I could easily imagine her poisoning anyone who got in her way. Also-she had the greatest opportunity. She'd prepared the food we'd eaten. And even though we'd dined buffet style, had she managed to give Lolly a select deadly portion?

Gretchen and Bob Don. Of course I didn't suspect them. While Gretchen had proved in the past she could scheme with the best of them, I did not believe her capable of murder. And Bob Don… the very idea was ridiculous. But they were as inexorably caught up in the wire-edged web of this family's pain as any of the others.

Gretchen's past with Bob Don's brother Paul still seemed a sore wound, and Bob Don's own ignoring of Sass's numerous faults might blind them to further tragedies. I was convinced Gretchen's drunkeness wasn't due to her own failure, but rather to the cruelty of one of our own. I resolved to protect Bob Don and Gretchen from whoever might have targeted them for such vicious behavior. And was that person necessarily Lolly's killer?

Lolly had sent me terrifying mail. Had she terrorized anyone else? If so, had that other victim struck back with annihilating force?

I also weighed the possibility that Lolly wasn't the intended victim. Poison can be used with uncertain aim. What if someone else at the dinner table was the mark?

And even if I dismissed that possibility and accepted Lolly as the target for the digitalis, I had hardly considered the puzzle of opportunity. The family had bustled in and out of the dining room before the meal. Candace claimed only Lolly had drunk red wine, and a fair amount of it. I remembered her arm lashing out in her initial convulsion, spilling her wine across the snowy tablecloth. If Jake's Digoxin pills were the source, the capsules could have been opened and emptied into Lolly's wine. But when? If Lolly's dinnertime cocktail was consistently a red wine that no one else touched… I needed to ask some hard, hard questions. Someone had the time to dope her wine, or her food.

I rubbed my temples. My theories were all well and good, but they were more insubstantial than the ocean spray that scented the air. I didn't have proof and I didn't have a clear path to follow to a suspect. And no confirmation that Lolly had even been murdered. If it was foul play, no doubt the police here would catch the murderer. After all, it had to be one of us. And while they completed their investigation, we might all be stuck on this island a lot longer than anyone had planned-trapped with a murderer cold enough to kill within his or her own family.

I decided to check on Gretchen and found her in her room, drinking a large glass of ice water.

“Can I come in?” I asked. She didn't answer but closed her eyes and placed the cool glass against her forehead. I ventured inside her room, shutting the door behind me, and stood before her bed.

“How do you feel?” I asked. She sat on the edge of her mattress and didn't look at me.

“Gretchen?” I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice. Her earlier, pain-filled confession made me more patient than my hair-trigger temper generally allowed. I didn't want her to hurt any more.

“Bob Don said you think someone spiked my soda with alcohol.” Her tone was colorless and flat.

“Yes. Unless you've changed your story about what happened.”

“No. Not at all.” She rubbed her cheek with her hand, as though stinging from an invisible slap. “I don't know why anyone would slip me a mickey, though.”

I chose my words carefully. “Although no one here seems willing to admit the possibility quite yet, I think Lolly was poisoned.” Gretchen's head jerked up, shock lighting her eyes. I continued: “If someone here was cruel enough to kill her, spiking your drink for a laugh wouldn't be hard to imagine.”

She stared at me. Darkness bagged the skin beneath her eyes. She absently rubbed the hollow of her throat. “But the family always wanted me to be sober. What's the point of derailing me?”

“They can't derail you. Not if you don't let them.” I sounded like Aubrey, but I didn't know what else to say. Meaningless advice works-at least to assuage the giver's guilt.

The ploy didn't play. Gretchen answered me with a hard smile. “You're being awfully nice. I guess it's easy for you to feel superior to me right now.” Her voice had taken on an unpleasant edge I was all too familiar with.


“I can see the goddamned pity in your face, Jordan. You're just looking at me like I'm a worthless drunk all over again.”

“That is about as far from truth as you could wander, Gretchen. I've been worried about you.”

She shook her head and stared again at the window and its bright canvas of sky. “How could you worry about me? After all the bad blood that's passed between us?”

“I don't know. It's not like you and I have ever been close. And we may never be. But I know how hard you've worked for your sobriety and it pisses me off beyond belief that anyone would casually shove you toward the bottle.”

“We never have been close,” she murmured, echoing my words. She tented her hands before her face, hiding her eyes from me, breathing in her own breath. “Do you know how much I loved Bob Don when I first met him? How painful it was not to be with him?”

“Because you were married to his brother?” I asked.

“No, Jordan, because he wore too much plaid,” she snapped. My heart lifted a little-she still had a sense of humor, albeit twisted. I didn't answer. I only laughed softly. She laughed, too, but an undercurrent of deep sadness cooled any frivolity in her voice.

She continued: “Yes. And Paul wasn't a good man. He was… empty inside. I don't know how else to describe it. Deborah would never speak ill of him-she's kept only the kind memories of her daddy. But Bob Don was so different from Paul.” She lowered her hands and tears glimmered in her eyes. “I thought if I could be with Bob Don, I'd never do anything to ruin it. And when I'd divorced Paul and married Bob Don, I was the happiest woman alive. Until the booze stole my life.”

I remembered once when Bob Don had told me that Gretchen drank because she suspected someone mattered more in his life than she did-that person being me, his secret son. Now I wondered if there wasn't another reason, locked in the meshwork of relationships between Gretchen and the Goertz brothers.

“So why did you start to drink, Gretchen?” A terrible question, finally asked.

Her lips, pale and clean of her usual makeup, trembled. “What does it matter now? I drank. I craved it and I drank my fill, every day, for years.” She stood and crossed to the window. She laughed, a low, throaty chuckle. “I'm amazed my liver's still with me. Remember the bad flu epidemic several years ago? I got terribly sick, and I still drank. Bob Don had to put me into the hospital in Austin. He didn't want everyone in Mirabeau to know how bad off I was. Protecting my reputation, which was like holding rainwater in a leaky barrel. I probably should have died then. I didn't. I got a second chance.”

“And we're not going to let anyone take that away from you.” I reached out-very tentatively, like petting a spider-and touched her shoulder. She flinched at my fingers.

“I promise you, Jordan, I'm not lying. I'm not. I didn't intend to drink. I didn't spike my own soda.”

“I believe you. And we're going to find out who messed with you.” She heard the anger heating my voice.

“I don't need you to be my knight, little boy.”

“Did you know Lolly was screwing with my head?” I don't know why I felt the need to share my own sorrows with her, but I quickly related the story of the vicious hate mail I'd received.

“You didn't say how you knew it was Lolly,” she finally said. Her shoulder trembled under my touch.

“I found another hate letter in her closet.” I had forgotten that explaining how I knew my torturer's identity would mean confessing to searching Lolly's room.

“She was a rotten bitch,” Gretchen said. Her voice sounded like she was uttering a prayer. “She hated me for hurting Paul. He was her pet, her joy. She never had children of her own and she loved Paul like he was hers. Strange, because God knows no one else could abide him. She could never forgive him for what he became.”

She glanced over her shoulder at me, one stray lock of grayish hair dangling in her forehead, and I saw then that she must have been a strikingly pretty girl. Her beauty was only an echo now, though, distorted by time and the havoc she'd wreaked upon herself. I wished she would answer my question as to her drinking trigger from so long ago. I tried again.

“So why'd you start drinking? Paul's positive influence?”

She searched my face; for what, I didn't know. “I-I don't want to discuss this anymore. I can't-”

“Can't? Why?” I stiffened. “Does it have to do with Bob Don?”

“Playing detective again?” She ventured a half smile.

“You needn't bother on my behalf. And as far as whoever spiked my Dr Pepper, I plan to track down that particular skunk myself.”

“You might need a little help.”

“I might. But my brain's not so pickled I can't figure out who's screwing with me.”

Her mouth set in a fierce line, and from my own experience, I nearly felt sorry for whoever had dared to tangle with Gretchen. Revenge was her best dish.

I wanted to talk with Deborah again, but she was napping in her room and I didn't disturb her.

Candace still felt unwell and lay on her bed, paging through an old issue of Southern Living. I offered to bring her up some lunch, but she said she'd had a glass of tea and some crackers and felt better. I left her to her magazine and went in search of Bob Don.

I found him alone on the porch, sitting on the swing. The bright chain that connected the swing to the porch ceiling squeaked quietly as he rocked back and forth. I stood in the doorway, watching him, this man who'd come in and completely capsized my life in the rough waters of truth. The breeze from the bay, blowing with greater force now, ruffled his hair and he looked like a little boy, forlorn without his playmates. I came and sat next to him. We rocked quietly for a moment.

“I just talked with Gretchen. She's awake and feeling somewhat better,” I offered.

“I know. I took her some water to drink earlier.” His voice sounded soft, as usual, but it lacked the sharp edge of persuasion he always used to close his deals. He sounded exhausted; he sounded angry. I suspected his ire was directed not only at me, but at the terrible situation we were locked in.

We creaked along for a while, not talking. He did not-or would not-look at me. I stayed quiet, hoping the hush would force him, a dedicated extrovert, to speak. But he stayed intractably mute. I'd committed the wrong; the first words in the treaty would be mine to write.

“I'm sorry if I upset you by asking about Paul. I had no idea it was a tender subject with you.”

He moved his khaki-clad legs back and forth, the squeak of the swing his only answer.

I forged ahead. “I meant no harm, and I hope you're not mad at me.”

“I expect it. You always poke your nose in where it don't belong.”

Bitterness wasn't his standard reply. I knew he must be terribly upset and I resisted my natural urge toward sarcasm. “That's not entirely fair, Bob Don. You can't expect me to be around your relatives and not hear about some dirty family linen you'd just as soon I not know.”

“Jordan, you could find dirty linen if it was burned and buried beneath the clothes hamper. But I don't want you playing detective here. Not with my family.”

“What are you worried I'm going to find out about?”

“Nothing. I just don't want you getting hurt.” His voice quavered on the last word.

I grabbed his arm. “What do you mean, get hurt?”

He covered my hand with his own. “Son. I brought you here because I love you and I want my family to know I have a son I love. I want them to see you and know you and maybe in time love you like you were always one of us.” His mouth tightened. “Every holiday with them, every reunion, I felt like something was missing because you weren't here. I'd watch Aubrey and Deb and Brian tear the paper off their Christmas presents and I couldn't even tell them you existed. Never got to watch you unwrap a gift. Never got to give you a toy.” His voice choked. “It left a mighty hard hole to fill.” He cleared his throat. “But I didn't bring you here so you could go snuffling around the family garbage like an old hound dog. This isn't one of your little hobby cases-”

“Excuse me?” I managed to sputter, anger coloring my face. His gaze held mine like a vise.

“I don't want you poking around here. As soon as Uncle Mutt gets back, and that justice lady says we're free to go, you and Candace are leaving. You're right. There's no need for you to stay for Lolly's services. Y'all can take my car back to Mirabeau. This ain't got a thing to do with either of y'all.”

“Yes, it does,” I parried. “Lolly threatened me.” His face drained of blood. I explained about the scarred greeting cards.

“Christ a'mighty,” he finally gasped. “How do you know it was her?”

“I snooped in her room,” I answered. “Were you snooping in there, too? Wendy says you were.”

The color that had evacuated from his face surged in an angry return. “I don't know what she's talking about. But like I said, nothing here's got anything to do with you.”

“Being here,” I said slowly, “has everything to do with me. And with you. You were the one who begged me to come here, begged me to give your family a chance. You want me to be a Goertz, but you don't want me around when the going gets tough.” I could not keep the edge of anger out of my tone. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Oh, so now you're a Goertz.” Sarcasm was a stranger to his voice. “Just because there's trouble brewing and you can't keep your hands out of it. It never seemed to matter much to you to be a Goertz just because you were my son and it might matter to meT

“I can't be your son if you don't trust me. Now I've been threatened, and the woman who tried to scare me away from this reunion is dead. I find out you married your brother's wife, and that said brother killed his second wife and himself. I think something's off here. And I think you know a hell of a lot more than you're telling, Bob Don. How am I supposed to be a son to you if you don't trust me?”

“Maybe you ought to trust me when I say it's none of your goddamned business.” He stood. “If you ain't gonna act like my son, then I guess you don't have to listen much to me. But I think it'd be best for all concerned if you and Candace left.”

I kept my voice steady. “Contradiction doesn't suit you, Bob Don. First you wanted us to stay for Lolly's funeral, now you're bound and determined to get us off the island. Why the change? What are you afraid I'll find out?”

His lips, dried by the sea breeze, twitched into a lean, hard smile. “I'm not afraid of anything. I just want you to go. This trip wasn't a good idea.”

I should have kept the heat I felt close to me, away from him. But I didn't. “Bullshit. You can't screw around with my head this way, Bob Don. You want me to come here, put my neck on the chopping block with your family, and now that you're concerned I'm going to find out some dirty secret of yours, you want to pack me off. Either I'm your son, or I'm not. Finding out something unpleasant about you isn't going to change the way I feel-”

“You feel? How do you feel about me?” He thrust the words in like a sword.

I fumbled for the swing's chain, steadying myself against it. “I care about you. I respect you. I want you to be happy. I just-”

His words cut through my litany of meaningless syrup. “You don't love me, Jordy. You don't love me like a son should love a father. And you never will.”

“You haven't given me time,” I started meekly, but I stopped as he stared into my face. Pain, direct from the heart, made his features tremble.

“Time? How much time do you need? You've had over a year, with us seeing each other nearly every day. I've saved your life once, nearly at the cost of my own.” I felt the heat of Sass's accusation against me in his voice. “I've provided a nurse for your mother so you and your sister don't have to slave away day and night. I've been there for you in thick and thin. And I'm sick, sick of being kept an arm's length from you like I was a goddamned leper.” His voice broke with emotion, and he clumsily wiped an arm across his eyes. When he looked at me again, he was flush with hurt and he jabbed a finger toward my face.

“Either I am your father, or I'm not. For all those long years I wanted to be your daddy. I couldn't. And maybe those empty years mean I never can be. If that's true, I'd just as soon cut my losses and go on. Pretend once again I don't have a son.”

“All those years you wanted to be a father?” My voice sounded like a stranger's, riddled with its own hurts. “Why didn't you ever step forward, then? Why'd you let me live for years thinking I was a Poteet?”

He shook his head, his expression hard. “Oh, no, you don't. You ain't gonna lay this on me, Jordan. I did as your mama asked-”

“Bullshit!” I hollered. Pain I didn't recognize had me in its grip. I felt like I'd been endlessly prodded by a bully who finally faltered and I was flailing back. “You could have done what you wanted, never mind my mother! You could have claimed me as yours! You let my whole life be a lie-”

“I let your life be normal!” he roared. “With a mama, and a daddy who loved you, and a sister! I let you have it all while I had nothing but a drunken wife and all the pain God could give a man.” He glared at me with eyes too much like my own. “You think you know what hurt is? Poor, poor Jordan. So you found out you got the wrong daddy, and you've had a tough year. Hell, I've had thirty tough years, watching you and never being able to reach out to you-”

“Your choice!” I snapped back. “That was your choice.”

He lowered his arm, tired of pointing. “Yes, fine. If you want to play it that way-my choice.”

“You chose not to be my father. And now you want me to choose to be your son-” Anger wobbled my voice. I saw Aubrey watching us from the safety of the gardens. When he saw me see him, he turned and fled.

“I am choosing to be your father, if you'll let me.” Bob Don lowered his voice. “But now you have to go, Jordan. You get out of here. Or you and I never speak again.” His hands closed into fists and he could barely speak. His lips tightened into a vicious frown.

I managed to form words with my bone-dry mouth. “I don't respond very well to emotional blackmail, Bob Don. I don't like ultimatums.”

For a moment the only sound was the rush of the waves on the beach below us. “I don't like doing my damnedest to be a father to you and being made to feel like a redheaded stepchild. You've made it quite clear you think you don't need a dad. I won't trouble you anymore. Get your bags packed and go, then. Take my car. Gretchen and I'll make arrangements to get back to Mirabeau.” Fear played along his face. He glanced away from me, toward the front door.

I shook my head and took his arm. I kept my voice soft. “Stop this. Just stop it. You don't want to push me away. I know you don't.”

“What I don't want is to hurt anymore about you, son. I wish you'd never found out I was your father. Then you could have stayed the ideal son in my mind. I never would have sullied my picture of you with a real person.”

We'd sparred with the truth that lay between us for the past year. I had tried to reconcile the lie my life had been. He had tried to father me past the thirty years we hadn't shared. His abandoning the quest to integrate us into a family seemed completely out of character. I stood my ground.

“I don't believe you. Tell me what it is you don't want me finding out.” My mind nimbled over the possibilities. “Is it about whatever might have happened between you and Paul and Gretchen all those years ago? Or why Sass is such a terror? Or why Tom seems to hate the rest of this family? Or whatever happened to Deborah's parents? Or what Wendy might be up to? Or is it some dirty secret of Uncle Mutt's?”

His eyes were blue steel on mine and I realized, sickeningly, that I'd completely miscalculated. Bob Don meant business, and in the worst way. “This isn't Mirabeau. You are here by invitation, boy, and that invitation has just been revoked. As soon as Mutt gets back, you go. You leave here. If you don't, I knock you out and dump you on the boat back to the mainland myself. Whether or not you and I are still father and son-and the whole concept kinda seems a joke right now, since you won't show me a dog's consideration- will depend on what happens when I get back to Mirabeau.”

Anger coursed into my face; I could feel the blush deepen my skin. Hurt forked my tongue into a weapon. “I haven't exactly behaved like the model son? I'm sorry to disappoint you. But that's inevitable when you stick me up on a pedestal so high I can't even see you or the ground. You haven't treated me like a son; you've treated me like a pathetic charity case, like I'm some mistake you've got to make up for.” Sass's cruel words rang in my ear. You're a mistake. “A mistake. Is that how you view me?”

“Your mama was sharp-tongued, too, when she got riled,” he muttered.

“And what's that shit?” I barked. “I'm sick of these little insights into my mother's character you seem compelled to offer me. Do you think I don't know her? I spent a hell of a lot more time with her than you ever did!”

“That wasn't my choice. I loved her,” he said through gritted teeth.

I shook my head. “It still amazes me she cheated on my father with you. I can't quite picture it. Maybe it wasn't the grand passion you've painted. Maybe it was two or three quickies in the toolshed. God knows there aren't any other witnesses to back you up. Maybe I am a mistake, then. Maybe my mother wasn't anything to you but a convenient piece of ass and all I am is you not having a rubber in your pocket when you got a bad itch to fu-”

He stepped forward then, quickly, and slapped me across the face. The force of the blow was not hard, but I rocked back on my heels, my hands groping for the swing's chain. Shock and surprise lit his own eyes, and as I rubbed my stinging cheek I saw the hand he'd struck me with quaver.

“Jordan-” he croaked.

“You hit me,” I said, my voice shockingly mild.

“No.” He shook his head. “I won't have you talk about your mama and me that way.”

“I don't want to hear the same old litany, Bob Don. You made your feelings clear just now.” A sharp stabbing pain lanced my heart. Oh, what had I done?

He stepped forward, remorse etched in his face. I wanted to hit him. I wanted to hold him. I wanted to turn away and pretend that this terrible exchange had never taken place. Instead I looked past his shoulder to see two boats roaring across Matagorda Bay toward Sangre Island.


I stumbled up the stairs of the creaky house. I went to Candace's room and rapped quickly before stepping inside. Candace glanced up from her magazine. She didn't look so sickly; a bit of color had returned to her face. Her eyes widened at my expression.

“Uncle Mutt's on his way back. With the police. If they need to talk to us, we'll talk. Otherwise, get your bags packed, we're going.”

“Going? Going where?”

“Back to Mirabeau. Bob Don's made it abundantly clear that we're no longer welcome here.”

She dropped her magazine. “What are you ranting about? And what about Aunt Lolly's funeral?”

I didn't bother to hide the anger heating my blood. “The man who provided the sperm to create me is no longer interested in my company. He doesn't trust me, and I can't be a son to him, Candace. He doesn't want us at Lolly's service. You thought he'd need us, he doesn't, believe me.”

I tossed one of her carry-ons onto the bedspread and reached for her book bag. “Where's your stuff? We can be gone in an hour or so, if the cops don't need further statements from us.”

“Wait a minute! Hold on, ace.” She took the other bag from my hands. “Tell me what's going on.”

I started, sounding like a recalcitrant child disavowing his own blame in a schoolyard squabble. “He's all bent out of shape because he thinks I'm snooping around his precious family. And now it's become pretty obvious that he's not going to trust me with whatever haunts him here and I don't believe he ever loved my mother and I'm sick of him trying to tell me what kind of person she was and-” Hot shame silenced my torrent of words. I felt roiling nausea churn my guts. I turned from Candace and hurried into her bathroom. I knelt before the open toilet right before lunch made an encore appearance.

When I'd quit retching, I spat the sourness out of my mouth. I clenched my eyes closed and leaned against the porcelain bowl. There are not many moments in a man's life when the quiet, comfortable fabric of his existence unravels in a long, painful thread. I'd had my share: the damp-smelling funeral parlor where my grandfather lay in the quiet of his coffin and I had my first look at human death; the dark, rainy morning the doctors told me with their fixed expressions of professional disappointment that Daddy was dying and they could do nothing; the faultlessly beautiful night in Boston when the phone call came from Sister that my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's; the vengeful, drunken slur of Gretchen's words when she told me I was Bob Don's bastard. I felt the wrenching tug at my heart that this was another such moment. I'd laid open the anger, frustration, and pain I'd nursed so carefully, treasured so well, against Bob Don and my poor mother. I'd suggested their love-and I should have known better of them both-was nothing but physical pleasure, Bob Don was a callow cad, and my mother-my beloved, smart, funny, unpredictable, kindhearted mother-no better than an easy lay.

If I had decided to be mad, it was in the sense of insane.

I spat again into the toilet. Candace had followed me and, without speaking, rinsed a washcloth and applied it to the warm spot where neck met back.

“You've been urping, too,” I said by way of casual conversation. “Maybe I've caught whatever you've got.”

She rubbed the cool comfort of the cloth against my neck and splayed her fingers into the short hair on the back of my head. “I don't think so. Can you tell me what happened, honey?”

I retold the tale, not shying away from my own culpa-bility in the stupid exchange. Candace listened, and when I was done, she rubbed her eyes with her fingertips.

“Oh, Jordy. Please don't do this to him and to yourself.”

“Do what?”

“If I have ever doubted you and Bob Don are blood kin, that doubt has to be gone. Y'all are so much alike it's not remotely funny.”

“Great. Now you, too. Listen, I don't want to hear a lot of psychobabble about this, Candace. Can't you just tell me I'm right and agree with me, for once, that Bob Don and I do not a family make?”

“Loving you doesn't mean sharing your brainwave pattern,” she answered, not unkindly. She mopped at my lips with the wet washcloth. “Maybe we should all breathe a sigh of relief this finally happened.”


“You're arguing. It might be healthy. Like I said before, you and Bob Don acting like a real father and son is long overdue.”

I stood and went to the sink. I ran water into my cupped hand, slurped it into my mouth, and rinsed the ick from my gullet. I spat back into the sink and stood to look at the woman I loved.

“One of your most annoying traits, Candace,” I said with a calm I didn't feel, “is that you always talk like you're some special seer. Like God pointed you and you alone to the flowchart of my life. That you know what everyone ought to be doing or thinking or saying to each other. And that if folks don't follow your advice, you can peer into that crystal ball you keep stashed away from the rest of us and foresee the onrushing doom. God, I'm tired of that!”

“Jordan, don't yell at me.”

The calm tone of her voice grated like fingernails raking a chalkboard. “I will yell, thanks. I will yell my throat raw if I feel like it. I have spent the past year trying to get used to the idea of a car salesman that I never liked much being my father. Of my mother being an adulteress. Of living the rest of my life in a little town that I love, but that offers me very few career choices. And watching my mother slide down into dementia. You know, those aren't fun things, Candace. Disney hasn't designed a ride around those little activities quite yet. And now I've gotten to meet my new family. And what a fucking thrill that's been!”

She was silent.

“I don't like to whine. Truly I don't. But I am tired, sweetheart.” My voice dropped and my head felt light. “I am tired of feeling like I've got to adopt Bob Don just because maybe he didn't wear a rubber thirty years ago-”


“-and because you keep telling me I need to give him a chance. No, I don't. There is no law, legal or moral, that says I have to give him the time of day. I don't need another father. I buried my father already. I would just as soon leave now, like he wants. I'm tired of being treated like a pariah here. I'm tired of feeling like I must apologize for who or what I am. And I'm so mad at him, at my mother, I can't even think straight. I said rotten things to him-and a part of me meant it.”

“Are you done?” Her words were soft. I felt my fury begin to subside.

I stood and leaned against the towel rack, feeling more tired than I believed possible. “No. Yes. I don't know. Please, can't we just get out of here?”

“Fine, we'll leave.” She turned soundlessly away and began packing. She folded shirts and walking shorts with cold precision, not looking at me. Finally she spoke: “I have to say you surprise me-I never thought you'd run away.”

“There's a difference between running away and acknowledging you've had enough,” I answered. She didn't look at me, briskly packing her belongings.

I had never spoken so harshly to her before. But I felt the sudden weight of weariness that I'd tried to ignore for months crash down on me. My relationship with Bob Don seemed finished, and with an icy idleness, I wondered if the same could be said for Candace. The thought jolted me and I forced it toward the back of my mind. I helped her in piling clothes into her bag. Neither of us spoke.

We didn't get a chance to finish stuffing the luggage.

Aubrey knocked on the door and opened it, barely waiting for an answer.

“Y'all gotta come downstairs. Mutt and the police are here.” He ran a trembling hand across the sheen of new sweat on his forehead. “They got the autopsy results.”

“It was a heart attack,” Uncle Mutt said in a low, soft voice. “Lolly had a heart attack.”

Silence greeted this announcement. I sat on the couch, sandwiched between Candace and Deborah. The air in the study felt old and heavy, like air from a tomb recently opened. My hand wandered to Candace's and I took hers in mine. Sweat slicked her palms.

Sass and Aubrey sat on the other couch, with Bob Don and Gretchen. Sass stood. She held hands with her son.

“Uncle Mutt. At least it was quick.” Her voice quavered. “The poor dear didn't suffer much.” As I listened to Sass speak I watched Bob Don. He would not look at me, instead concentrating on comforting Gretchen. She pressed her face into her fists and didn't respond to her husband's touch.

“When will we have her… body back for the service?” Sass asked.

Tricia Yarbrough, the justice of the peace who'd visited us before, and Victor Mendez exchanged glances. Finally Judge Yarbrough spoke. “Not quite yet, Cecilia. I've ordered further toxicology tests on Lolly's body.”

Ice trenched Mutt's voice. “That's ridiculous, Tricia. The coroner said heart attack, what else is there to know?”

“The coroner also said Lolly had no signs of heart disease. There's no reason for her heart to have given out the way it did.”

“Sometimes these things just happen…” Sass ventured.

Mendez cleared his throat. “Judge Yarbrough thought there was sufficient reason to call for the additional toxicology tests. Considering Mrs. Throckmorton's heart was healthy-and there was digitalis-based medication missing from the house.”

Mutt stared hard at the authorities. “I hope you're not implying my sister took her own life. She would never do such a thing.”

Tricia Yarbrough pursed her lips. “I'm sorry, Emmett. Truly I am. But I have no choice. We've got to know what killed her.”

“And if Aunt Lolly had no cause to commit suicide?” I piped up. Glares arrowed in on me.

“For God's sake, the woman was half-crazy,” Deborah said matter-of-factly. “I'm sorry to be so blunt, Uncle Mutt. But Lolly wasn't balanced. She had no business taking care of Uncle Jake and being entrusted with potentially dangerous medications.”

“Lolly was eccentric, not crazy. There's a real big difference, Deb,” Mutt boomed. “My sister would not take her own life.”

“If they find digitalis, and she didn't commit suicide, Uncle Mutt, that's not going to leave many attractive alternatives,” I said.

“Stay out of this, Jordan,” Mutt said. “You don't know what you're talking about.”

“She was threatening me,” I said. Candace's hand tightened against mine. I glanced at Victor Mendez, who stood near the study door. I explained quickly to the family about the malicious cards I'd received, and told Mutt that I'd found another vicious note in Lolly's closet. “I'm sorry, Uncle Mutt. But you can't tell me sending those cards was the act of a balanced mind.”

“Holy hell,” Uncle Jake murmured. Uncle Mutt's face reddened with ire.

“No. Lolly would not do such a thing. She would not. Someone planted that card in her closet, Jordan.”

A hush fell over the room. “Why?” Sass finally asked. “Why would someone frame Lolly for scaring Jordan?”

“I don't know!” Mutt snapped. He ran a hand through his hair, grief painting its rictus on his handsome face. “This ain't happening. It was a heart attack, for God's sake! She didn't kill herself and she wasn't murdered.”

“Uncle Mutt, please, be reasonable,” Philip said. He began to pace back and forth before the windows as he spoke, like a lawyer delivering eloquent summation. “We have to quit kidding ourselves that Lolly was entirely sane. She very well might have ended her own life.”

Mutt sank into a chair by our couch. Deborah reached out to embrace him. He leaned against her and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. His face reflected his misery. “I don't understand. Why would she try to frighten Jordan away from our reunion? She said she was excited about meeting him. And why, why kill herself?”

Philip knelt before Mutt. “I'm so, so sorry, Uncle Mutt.”

I couldn't remain silent. “Philip,” I managed to croak. “Why don't you explain what I saw last night when you and Mutt and I were in the library.”

Tricia Yarbrough and Victor Mendez had remained silent during this exchange. I'd felt their eyes wander from face to face, lingering a moment, perhaps weighing us each on some internal measure of guilt and complicity. Now I felt Mendez's dark eyes rivet on me as I tried to find my voice again.

Philip stared at me. “Excuse me? I don't know what to explain because I don't know what you saw.”

“I saw you replace a book on the shelves. A copy of Bitter Money.” I blinked at Mutt and Mendez and my voice strengthened. “It was a best-seller several years ago-an account of the Maggie Mason murder case. Her husband poisoned her with digitalis-based medication.”

Mutt bolted to his feet, grabbing Philip by his shirtfront. “What? Any truth in this, Philip?”

Philip paid Mutt no heed; rather, he fixed a saucy smile at me over his uncle's shoulder. “I have no idea what Jordan's talking about, Uncle Mutt.”

I stood, releasing Candace's hand, and went to the shelf where I'd seen Philip return the book. My heart sank as I saw the slot was empty; the book mat had been next to Bitter Money leaned into the space like a weary companion.

“The book is gone,” I said, feeling my spirits sink.

“If it were ever there,” Philip snorted.

“And why would he lie, Mr. Bedrich?” Victor Mendez finally spoke. I was used to far more vocal police officers, but Mendez seemed the sort to observe and analyze, not interfere.

Philip tried to shrug, but Mutt kept his shoulders in a steely grip. “Answer the man, Philip,” Mutt demanded.

“I don't know why Jordan's fabricating this tale. We don't know him at all. He's a stranger.”

Bob Don spoke: “I can assure you all Jordan is no liar.” Throughout this tribute Bob Don kept his gaze firmly on Victor Mendez. Gretchen glanced toward me with red-rimmed eyes.

“I didn't slip any book back on the shelf. The idea is ridiculous.” Philip patted Mutt's hand, as if begging for release. Mutt eased his grip and Philip took a step backward. “If I was going to borrow the idea of poisoning Aunt Lolly, I wouldn't return the book. I'm not stupid. I'd destroy it, like I would any evidence against me.”

“You sound like a seasoned professional at this,” Can-dace said. I suppose I hadn't alienated her entirely if she could still spring to my defense. “And as you point out, Philip, the book is missing.”

“You might not want to destroy the book, if Uncle Mutt or someone else who spends time in this study would notice that it was gone,” I said. I wanted to search the shelves for the copy of Bitter Money, pulling volumes off in a frenzy. But I didn't. I forced myself to a calmness I hadn't had with Bob Don or Candace.

“Mr. Goertz? Would you notice if a particular book was gone from here?” Mendez asked. He stared at Philip, who decided to quit glaring at me and now studied the pattern on the antique rug. The glibness faded from his face.

“Hell. Uncle Jake and Lolly read more true crime than I ever did. I don't recall the particular book that Jordan mentions. I might not notice. But Uncle Jake might.” Mutt leaned toward Jake. “Uncle Jake? You know this book Jordan speaks of?”

Jake sat enthroned in a deep leather chair that looked ready to swallow him. He glared at Philip with undisguised loathing. “Yes, we had a copy of Bitter Money. I clearly remember reading it and Lolly read it as well. I don't believe we ever got rid of the book. It should still be here.”

“So where is it, Philip?” I demanded.

“How the hell should I know?” Philip snapped. But his eyes had acquired a cunning look that made my spine tense. “And if I returned the damned book, why would I get rid of it later? No logic required to make accusations here. Jordan, you don't make sense. Not a surprise, though.”

“Maybe you'd get rid of it,” I said, “if you thought I'd seen you slip it back onto the shelves. Missing, it can't be dusted for fingerprints.”

“This is insane.” Philip stormed toward me, but Mendez intercepted him. “Okay, fine, look at me. Motive and opportunity, right, isn't that what all criminals need? I don't got either. Why would I want Lolly dead? You need a motive, asshole, and I don't have one. I loved my aunt.”

I didn't think Lolly was half as loved as some kin proclaimed her to be, but I kept my mouth shut. Jake prodded Philip with his cane.

“You're a liar,” Jake hissed. “I know you didn't love Lolly. You ain't got love for nothing in your heart but green and silver.”

“This from a man who snarls at little children,” Philip shot back, but his voice had transformed. He sounded desperate, cornered. “What the hell would you know, old man?”

“Lolly told me,” Jake pronounced. “She was afraid of you. Of what you'd do to lay your hands on your inheritance just a tad sooner.” Uncle Jake whacked at Philip again with the cane, incisively and hard. Philip fairly jumped back.

“Mr. Zimmerhanzel.” Victor Mendez stepped forward, and I wanted to say: About time. Are you going to let them snipe at each other? Of course you are, Lieutenant. You might just learn something.

Uncle Jake's eyes blazed at the young officer, who didn't seem the least bit cowed by the old fellow's malevolent glower. “You're wasting our tax money. Are you gonna arrest Philip or stand there and let the grass grow?”

“You seem awfully eager for an arrest to be made, Mr.

Zimmerhanzel. Why is that?” Tricia Yarbrough crossed her arms.

“Because Philip's guilty as sin,” Jake retorted. “He stole money from Mutt before, and I don't see Jordan's got any reason to lie about what he saw in this library.” He poked the air with his cane. “You're the law. It's your job to exact justice. If you won't, someone else will.”

“I don't abide vigilantes in my county, Mr. Zimmerhanzel,” Mendez said, and for a sick moment I thought I saw a light of amusement in his eyes as Uncle Jake postured as the family avenger.

“Uncle Jake! I can't believe you're turning on me this way,” Philip managed to utter. Jake studied the ornately sculpted handle of his cane.

Mendez didn't relent on Jake: “Why did you think Mr. Bedrich wanted to get his hands on an inheritance? Is he a beneficiary under Mrs. Throckmorton's will?”

“Him? In Lolly's will? Fat-ass chance.” Uncle Jake laughed. A finger of dislike crept up my spine. “I think she planned on leaving everything to Deborah, Aubrey, and Tom.”

Deborah stiffened next to me in obvious surprise and I saw Tom, who'd so far kept his tongue, jerk from staring at his brother to staring at Uncle Jake. Candace leaned an arm behind me to touch Deborah's shoulder, and my cousin twitched nervously. Aubrey didn't visibly react.

“She couldn't. She wouldn't,” I heard Deborah whisper.

Jake laughed at the reaction his announcement caused. “But that ain't the real money in this house. Old Philip's after Mutt's money. He needs it bad to pay off his gambling debts. He done hit me up already for a loan. Those fellows who break legs ain't inclined to wait until Mutt here kicks off.”

“I do not have gambling debts,” Philip argued.

“Not what Lolly said!” Jake retorted.

“That makes no sense, Jake. Why kill Lolly, then, if he should've tried to kill… me…” Uncle Mutt collapsed into a chair. Wendy knelt solicitously at his side. He breathed heavily for a moment, then stared at his nephew.

“Is that it, Philip? You were gunning for me and poor Lolly got in the way? She took the poison intended for me?”

Philip's assurance finally collapsed. “For God's sake! Listen to yourselves! Uncle Jake-Uncle Mutt-this is me! You think I killed someone? You think I killed one of us? For holy God's sake!” The enormity of their accusations buckled Philip's knees, and he sank down onto the ottoman in front of Uncle Jake. The old man trembled, as if cognizant of the wounds he'd inflicted, then covered his face with his hands.

“Why'd you go and have to do an ornery thing like this?” Jake asked, his voice barely a whisper. He became silent and kept his fingertips pressed against the wrinkled plain of his forehead. “Poor Lolly. Innocent Lolly.”

Tricia Yarbrough cleared her throat. “We still don't know that digitalis was involved. Mrs. Throckmorton could have simply had a heart attack.” She scanned faces: mine, Mutt's, Deborah's, Jake's, Philip's. “Aren't y'all getting a little ahead of yourselves in casting accusations? Anyone here got something they want to share?”

I felt a sick tug in my gut. They're casting accusations because they 're sure the digitalis will show up in her body. Why wouldn 't they just glue their lips shut if they had any real doubt? They're covering their butts.

Philip stared at Jake, still stinging from his uncle's accusation. He then whirled to face his twin brother. “Tom? Tell them, tell them I couldn't do it!”

Tom Bedrich leaned against the corner bookshelf, his haggard face drawn into a frown. “I don't know, Philip. I don't know you anymore. Any of you.”

“You're my brother, for God's sake!”

“That ceased to count for much years ago, Philip.” Tom's voice chilled me, devoid of fraternal affection.

Aubrey interjected, “I don't think any accusations should be leveled at my cousin without an attorney present. Philip, let's get a lawyer here if you're going to be questioned by the police.”

Philip didn't take Aubrey's advice as support. His appeals crescendoed in anger and fear as he jumped to his feet. “I don't need any damned lawyer. Because I didn't do it, and there's no evidence to support a claim that I killed Lolly, or tried to kill anybody.”

I forced myself to speak again, dread making an accommodation in my heart. I was playing every trump card I had, and I wasn't even sure of the game. I wanted to whisk Bob Don out of the study, squire him away to a private room, and shake the truth out of him about whatever demons haunted this family. Instead I forged ahead, exposing the fractures in our family tree. “Philip. I heard you and Wendy talking. Out at the cemetery.”

The quiet in the room was as dense as the quiet of those tombs. Philip glared at me with a shining light of pure hatred. It shone for one sickening moment, then he safely eclipsed it by closing his eyes. Wendy stood from where she'd squatted by the grieving Mutt, an insensate lump to the arguments raging around him.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Wendy said flatly.

“I went for a hike. I was by the crypts when y'all came down there and had a little confab. About getting hold of some of Uncle Mutt's money.”

Wendy laid a possessive hand on Mutt's crown of gray hair. He seemed to hear my words, but he hadn't yet formed a reply to them, looking at me slack-jawed.

“I still don't know what you're talking about, Jordan,” Wendy said.

“I don't talk to Wendy but to say hello and ask what's for supper,” Philip offered, after a quick sidelong glance at his partner in crime. “Why the hell would I be jawing with her out in a goddamned cemetery?”

“So no one would hear or see you,” I replied, determined not to let them evade me.

Wendy shook her head. She reminded me of a chessboard's queen, idly glancing down at a helpless pawn. “Your facility for lying is amazing. But since none of us know you, I don't suppose we should be surprised.”

“Know me? What does anyone know about you, Wendy?” I countered.

My challenge didn't faze her. “Perhaps you'd explain to Lieutenant Mendez and Judge Yarbrough why you were sneaking around Lolly's bedroom this morning.”

She was right about my facility for lying. “I suspected Lolly might be sending me the hate mail. I wanted to find some evidence to support my theory.” The fib slid out of my mouth with surprising smoothness. I closed my mouth before I could elaborate further on my falsehood. I didn't glance at Deborah. Or at Bob Don, who Wendy claimed to have spotted as he exited from prowling the room while I hid in the closet. Until I knew why Bob Don was in that room-what secret did he have? I could hardly ask him about it in this room full of accusing faces.

“And just why did you suspect Lolly?” Wendy continued. Her hand played insolently in the gray of Mutt's hair, like she was stroking a pet. Mutt watched me with stony eyes.

Great. My mind fumbled for an answer.

“Well, I saw how hateful she was to several of you at the dinner when she died-” I began, but then an unexpected ally leaped to my defense.

“I asked Jordan to go into Lolly's room,” Gretchen said, standing on shaky feet, her eyes crimson rings in her face.

“Well, it speaks,” Philip muttered. “Who uncorked the bottle?” Real venom stained his voice.

“Philip, shut up and sit down,” Mutt ordered. Some of the regular steel was back in his tone. Philip attempted a brief scowl but sank onto the ottoman by Uncle Jake. I glanced at Bob Don, who glowered at Philip with undisguised loathing.

“I didn't know then Lolly had been sending those hateful scribblings to Jordan. But after she died, I was so upset, and I wanted a keepsake of Lolly's. I asked Jordan to fetch it for me. It was then that he found the other card that Lolly intended to send him.” Gretchen smiled winningly at Lieutenant Mendez. I had practically forgotten he was in the room. “He didn't tell me about it until this afternoon.”

“What keepsake did you want?” Mutt asked. “I don't like the idea of someone pawing through my poor dead sister's belongings…”

Gretchen raised her hands in mock supplication. “I know, Mutt, I know it's tacky of me. But Lolly told me once she'd kept the wedding photos of my first husband Paul and me, and I wanted them back. I asked Jordan to look for them.”

“Why didn't you fetch the photos yourself?” This, surprisingly, from Deborah. She looked scared to death, her hands folded tightly against her chest, as though ready to shiver in the July heat.

“Probably too fucking drunk to do it herself,” Philip said, and Bob Don launched himself off the couch. I hadn't known he could move quite so fast. For a big man he bolted like lightning. He seized Philip's already much-handled shirt in his hands and shoved his cousin over the ottoman. Philip went down like a fallen oak, splaying out at Uncle Jake's feet and cane.

“Mr. Goertz!” Lieutenant Mendez shouted, pulling Bob Don back. I reached for Bob Don's arm, but he flinched violently away from my touch. I slowly lowered my hand, feeling Aunt Sass's eyes mock me.

“You did it, you spiked her drink. Goddamn scheming punk!” Bob Don pointed down at Philip, who was trying ineffectually to scramble to his feet. Finally Tom assisted him.

“Great,” Philip snapped. “Now you're blaming me for Gretchen's binges.” He glared at the assemblage. “She's hit the sauce again. Dead drunk this afternoon, and Bob Don and Jordan and Sass and Candace would just as soon we all not know.”

“My soda was spiked.” Gretchen leaned against Sass and Sass put a protective arm around her. “I didn't intend to drink.”

“Aunt Gretchen, you should probably avoid confrontation right now. Let's you and I go discuss your relapse,” Aubrey offered, but no one paid him any heed.

“Crooning the same old tired song of the boozer, Aunt Gretchen,” Philip taunted, undaunted by Bob Don's anger.

“Philip. Use your brain,” Gretchen said, her tone eerily calm. “If Lolly was poisoned, someone slipped it into her food or drink. Someone basically tried to poison me the same way. Except with alcohol.”

Silence cocooned the room as the family weighed the implication. I wanted to sink down onto the couch-my head throbbed with tension-but my feet felt coated in concrete.

Gretchen turned to Mendez, a half smile lighting her face. Her lips trembled. “We're not a very nice family, Lieutenant, full of shiftless bums, mean old men, crazy women, and my first husband was a murderer. So where you gonna start?”


We'd each been banished to our rooms as Lieutenant Mendez and Judge Yarbrough continued their investigation and interviews. I could only imagine what game plan their minds had concocted after hearing such poisonous talk. Accusations, counteraccusations, slander, grief, hatred-we all needed to be flown to the nearest tabloid talk show and unleashed on the audience. They wouldn't know what the hell hit them. Or perhaps we could become sponsors for a lozenge company as we screamed our throats raw at each other.

At least Mendez had seen fit to begin his interrogations with Philip, everyone's most likely suspect. I stood against the window, watching the sun begin its decline toward the sea. Clouds surged above the ocean, as dark and foreboding as the fear in my heart. It was as if the weather reflected our moods. The light no longer dappled the waves; the air smelled sour with the rank odors of the sea. The sky, so unsullied earlier, had shrouded itself with heavy black thun-derheads. Rumbles, growing closer, made the wood beneath my feet shiver. If you don't like the weather in Texas- especially on the coast-wait five minutes, because it's sure to change. The Gulf is a cauldron for sudden, harsh storms. I watched as a flurry of boats hurried toward Port Lavaca and Port O'Connor.

The smudge that marked land's end, across Matagorda Bay, beckoned. I wanted to leave and I could not. Yarbrough had declared a quarantine on travel and none of us were daring to break it. Her words had made it clear that while no one was getting their Miranda rights read, no one was above suspicion. And what would flight suggest aside from guilt? Anyone who knew truth in this sordid matter would do well to come forward and not hide it. I wondered if a family as sundered as this one seemed could still cloak each other. The Goertz family huddled together against truth like it was a cold, driving rain.

I felt a sharp tang of fear for Bob Don. He wasn't going to trust me with his secrets; he wasn't going to let me help him.

A knock sounded at my door, softly. “Come in,” I called.

Gretchen entered, shutting the door firmly behind her. “I wanted to see if you're okay,” she said.

“You surprised me. Lying like you did to protect me.”

She didn't answer at first. She sat on the corner of my bed, curling her legs beneath her like a cat. “You and I have to stick together, Jordan. We're the outsiders here.”


She smiled a half smile of shaky resolve. “We're Goertzes, all right, but we're not quite up to snuff. Didn't you hear how hard Lolly was on everyone at dinner? And those are the real family. How do you think you and I ranked in her eyes-the family drunk and the unexpected illegitimate child?” She ran a hand through her permed, graying hair. “We're distant blood-not quite part of the family, but still there.”

“When Lolly was ragging on Aubrey about his book- about the various characters he could discuss-she said the family slut, and she looked right at you.” I sat down next to her on the soft quilt. “Why is that?”

“Jordan, I-” she started, then stopped. “I've caused a lot of grief to this family. I'm sure most of them wished I'd never come along.”

“I'm sure that's not true,” I offered. “Deborah and Sass obviously care about you.”

“Do they? I marry a Goertz and leave him for his brother. I drove a wedge between two men who should have been the closest of friends but who became the most bitter of enemies. I destroyed Paul's life, and Lolly could never forgive me for it. She was always hateful toward me. She told me once it was fitting I was a drunk. I deserved it.”

“You can't feel guilty about leaving Paul. You had to do what was right for you.” I touched her shoulder, and she didn't flinch away. “No one can begrudge you your happiness.”

“Happiness? I've given little joy to myself or to anyone else.” She massaged her forehead, a tired expression furrowing her brow. “Do you know what guilt is, Jordy? Real guilt, the kind that never lets you sleep or eat or think for a long stretch of time. It hovers near your shoulder, like a little devil whispering in your ear.”

I attempted comfort. “You said you didn't give happiness to people. But you made me happy today. When you stuck up for me.”

Gretchen Goeitz looked hard into my eyes. All the old discord between us seemed to have happened a century ago as we sat together on the bed listening to the wind crescendo around us and the first patters of hard rain slammed against the windows.

She took my hand, for the very first time, and her palm felt cold against mine. A thin sheen of damp covered her fingers and they trembled in my grasp.

“You must know. You must know how much he loves you.” Her voice sounded small, like a child's whisper.

“He doesn't want me here. He won't trust me-”

“He's so afraid of losing you. He knows now, what with Lolly's threats against you, her death-he should never have brought you here. He doesn't want you to pay for our sins.”

“Sins?” I leaned in closer to her, our noses and mouths nearly touching. Our voices were mere murmurs.

“Do you love your father, Jordan? Do you?”

I took a long, shuddery breath. “I'm still not used to thinking of him as my father-”

She stilled my talk with her cold fingertips. “Enough analysis. Enough posturing. Enough denial. Push has come to shove. His life may depend on this. Tell me. Do you love him?”

His life may depend on this. Her fingers felt icy against my lips, her palm smooth against my jaw. I pressed my tongue hard against the roof of my mouth. “Yes,” I managed to croak. “Yes, I love him.”

Gretchen closed her hand around my face and for one moment I thought she would kiss me. Her eyes were half-closed and she breathed slowly, her mouth open, her breath smelling of mint gum.

“I want to help him, but he won't let me. Why?” I whispered.

She pressed her lips together and regarded me again with surprising frankness.

“I was afraid-because I'd been such a bitch-you could never love him. Could never accept him. I used to want that, I wanted you never to want him as your daddy. But no more.” She clasped both my hands in hers. “You've got to help me, Jordan. Help me protect him. I don't think I can do it alone.”

“Tell me.”

“You have to promise me. You'll help protect Bob Don. Please.”

I wavered for a moment. “Just what did he do?”

“Promise me!” she insisted.

“I promise. I'll do everything I can to protect him.” I kept my words barely louder than a soft breath. “He and I aren't distant blood, right?”

She shuddered. “Blood again. This has been a place of needless death ever since those sailors were butchered on the beach. I want to leave here and never come back.”

“Tell me.” I squeezed her hands.

Long silences-the ones that last years and graft themselves into your very bones-are the hardest to break. She tensed, like steel had hardened in her arms and legs, and she didn't look at me for minutes. I held her and waited. The outside squall roared and the rain went from drops to solid sheets, enveloping the house in rattles and hums.

“Paul. He killed Paul.” She forced the words out like a dying cough.

“But Paul committed suicide,” I whispered. “That's what Deborah said…”

“Ruled suicide. The body was never recovered.” Now that she'd made the dreaded admission, the words came a little easier. Tears dribbled from the corner of her eyes and she smeared them across her face with the back of her hand.

“Deborah said Paul left a suicide note-left it on the front door. Said he walked into the ocean because he couldn't live with the guilt of shooting Nora. But Deborah's sure her father didn't kill her mother.”

“I am,” Gretchen said. “Oh, I am. Because after Paul killed Nora, he came here to kill me.”

Down the hall, a door slammed, and I heard a sharply angry Deborah bickering with Aubrey that he had to go talk to Mendez next. Aubrey sounded reluctant and morose. Deborah urged him along, and shortly their voices faded down the stairs. Lightning flashed its hard light in my window, and I oddly imagined God taking a snapshot of Gretchen and me clutching each other's hands.

Her tongue flicked over her lips. “There's a taint in every family, something in the blood that can warp any poor soul that gets too much of the bad ingredient. In mine it's loving booze. My brother was a drunk, too. And our grandmother before us, although no one ever wanted to admit it.”

“Yeah. In my family it's being sharp-tongued and nosy,” I whispered back.

She laughed then, briefly, and I felt the first true connection between us take shaky life. I watched her wipe away another tear.

“So what's the taint of the Goertz blood?”

“Silence. And a horrible, horrible pride. The kind of pride that forces an entire family to its knees in its service. A pride that leads to insanity because it shackles you so. Paul suffered from it, and Lolly did, too. That's why they're dead.”

“Tell me what happened.”

She spoke now without hesitation, relieved to have her needed ally. “Paul was an artist, a gifted sculptor. When I left him he quit working. He became terribly depressed.

Mutt and Lolly insisted-Lolly and Paul were always close, they were cut from the same cheap bolt of cloth-that he go into treatment. He met Nora when he started work again; she was his favorite model. They married soon after.” She paused. “Deborah's so like her mother-trusting, kind-hearted, smart, but maybe too book smart. And Nora was sweet. It would have been easy for her to hate me, considering what I'd done to Paul. But she never did. At least she didn't ever show me anything but kindness. I loved her, too, and she didn't deserve such a terrible death.” A sob broke her words and I stayed quiet while she composed herself.

“We all thought Paul was finally happy. Deborah and Brian were born in fairly quick order and he seemed to settle down. He and Bob Don didn't speak-the resentment, the hatred between them went too deep. They'd loved each other once, but no more. My fault.”

“No, not your fault. Their choice,” I said.

She ignored my attempt at consolation. “It wasn't over. Paul started sending me these.” She pulled from her pocket a creased and yellowed envelope, worn with handling. She offered it to me and I carefully removed a card.

It was an old-style greeting, discolored with years. The paper felt coarse but fragile beneath my fingers and smelled of a dusty closet. The cover of the card showed a huge round yellow smiling face, the eternal grin of the 1970s. No text was written on the front, but when I opened the card, I saw the preprinted greeting: YOU MAKE ME SMILE. Scored in faded words beneath the kindliness was an ugly intimation:


I handed her back the card, feeling sick. She slipped it back into the envelope quickly and wiggled her fingers, as if dusting some foulness off her hands.

“My God. Just like the cards I received.”

She swallowed. “It was Paul's sick joke. He sent me others, but I had them destroyed. I never told Bob Don. I knew he'd go after Paul. I just wanted to forget Paul existed. I never thought-” She covered her face with her hands. “I'm so ashamed, I was so foolish.”

“You couldn't know, it's not your fault.” I squeezed her hands. How odd life is. A year ago this woman was my mortal enemy, and now we sat trying to muddle together through a dark and torturous past, united by the love we felt for the same man. Family makes strange bedfellows.

“I know. Hindsight is hell. But whatever was wrong with Paul, Nora couldn't fix. He killed her, shot her in the face.”

“Deborah claims her father, since he was an artist who had sculpted Nora so often, wouldn't kill her the way he did.”

Gretchen shook her head. “Deborah clings to hope. No one wants to believe her daddy could kill her mom. I knew her father better than she did. Blasting away Nora's face makes perfect sense for Paul. Did Deborah tell you he marred or destroyed all the sculptures in his studio after he killed Nora?” The expression on my face answered for me. “Of course she didn't, Jordan. That fact won't support her theory of her father as the wronged victim.”

Another round of thunder rumbled above the roof, but fell faint quickly, and the rain began to ease against the windows. The band of the storm seemed to be passing us.

“Paul vanished after Nora died. The police searched for him. The family gathered here; Deborah and Brian were of course terribly traumatized. Mutt was worried sick about them. I felt terrible guilt, as if I'd robbed those children of their mother. I can't say why. It makes no sense. But guilt and grief don't always have rhyme and reason, do they?”

“No, they don't.” I'd lashed out at Bob Don out of guilt and grief-guilt that I could think so little of my mother, grief that my life wasn't the perfect picture I'd imagined it to be. No sense required.

“He came in the night.” Gretchen's expression went slack as she brought forth the memory, and her hands felt boneless in mine. “I was asleep, thanks to a generous serving of whiskey. I wasn't drinking so hard then”-her voice quavered-”but it was the start of the beginning. Bob Don couldn't sleep, sickened over what had happened. And how the family was reacting. Lolly was nasty to the children, hardly kind at all. Everyone seemed so ashamed of what Paul had done. As though it reflected on the rest of us. How terrible for us to have a murderer on the family tree. No one-except her children, of course, and Bob Don and I- seemed broken over what had happened to poor Nora. She was the victim, not us. As a family, the Goertzes couldn't understand that.”

“You said he came in the night,” I prompted.

“Bob Don couldn't sleep. He had thought if he'd reached out to his brother, mended fences, tried to reconnect with him-well, Nora's terrible murder could have been averted. Isn't that just like Bob Don?”

“Yes.” My throat felt constricted.

“Your father-he went out to walk. Restless, he was. I don't know for certain, but I believe he went to Nora's grave. We'd buried her here. She had no family of her own. Her children were all the blood relations she had in the world. Paul was there-at the cemetery. They fought and Bob Don killed him.”

Coldness fingered my spine. I repressed a shudder. No. I couldn't imagine Bob Don a killer, much less a slayer on the scale of Cain. “No. No.”

“Yes, Jordan. I woke up, feeling sick and needing to throw up. I heard them talking downstairs, heard Bob Don crying over what he'd done. He was hysterical. Paul had a gun, told Bob Don he was going to kill him, then me, for ruining his life. They fought for it, Bob Don shot him through the heart.” She looked away from me. “I wanted to go to him, but I was so frightened. I didn't want to believe it was true. So I went back to bed.”

“You said 'them talking.' What themV

She swallowed again. “Mutt. Jake. Sass. Lolly. They all knew what Bob Don'd done. They all knew Paul was dead, by his own brother's hand.”

“My God. It was self-defense, right? Why didn't they just call the police?”

She shook her head again. “Not this family. Not the Goertzes. Mutt said the shame of Paul being a murderer was bad enough without one brother striking down another self-defense aside. Best, he said, for Paul to have taken his own life. Cleaner that way. The others-had to convince Lolly. She loved Paul so. But even she finally agreed that protecting Bob Don was more important.” Gretchen shivered. “Oh, I've wanted to tell this for so long. And I couldn't. Not even Bob Don knows that I know. I never told him. And he never told me. I guess he was afraid I'd turn away.” She cried then, long, racking sobs, and I held her close, feeling her pain begin a slow drain in the cleansing of confession.

After a few minutes had passed, she eased her breathing and I pulled away from her, to look her square in the face. “So what did they do with Paul's body?”

“I don't know. Buried it somewhere on the island, I guess. Or dumped it out in the Gulf.” Her tears formed curving roads on her cheeks. Her eyes were so red they appeared on the verge of bleeding.

“And no one else knew?” I asked.

“No. The twins were here, and Aubrey, and Deborah and Brian. But they didn't know.”

Did they? It occurred to me if Gretchen could overhear the older Goertzes covering up Paul's death, so could the younger ones.

“Please don't hate your father,” Gretchen implored. “He's not really a killer. He was just trying to save himself-”

“Of course I don't hate him. But I don't understand why the Goertzes did what they did.”

“Their pride. It's their fatal taint. That's why Lolly was so bitter about Aubrey's book at dinner. And why she was so terrible to Deborah and Brian. And why she was so hard on everyone-that damnable pride no one could live up to. At least I never could. Eventually I gave up trying.”

“So why”-I gestured at the hateful envelope Gretchen had produced-”did she send me cards like those? And how could she know that Paul had sent you such threats?”

“I'd shown them to her. After Nora died. She took them from me and said she'd destroy them. And afterward I wanted them gone, I didn't want the police to find any reason for Bob Don to have killed Paul.”

“But you kept one.”

“I kept one.” Her voice was hollow and distant. “Anytime I doubted Bob Don, doubted my love for him-and when you drink you often think you don't need anyone-I have that card to remind me of the price he paid to protect me. I bring it with me, whenever we come to Sangre. So I never, never forget.”

She didn't look at me again, and I sensed that her story wasn't complete-that a final coda to all this misery was missing. I turned her chin back toward me. “Gretchen. What else?”

“Nothing. Isn't that enough?” After a moment's hesitation she regarded me. “Now you see why we've got to protect him. Because we hid the truth, if the investigation into Lolly's death reveals what Bob Don did-there's no statute of limitations on murder.”

“But it was self-defense.”

“Maybe the courts won't see it that way. Regardless, they all hid the truth. They covered up Paul's death and forged a suicide note. Isn't that a crime?”

I cupped my head in my hands. A slow throb coursed from my temples through my head. “God. And you think Lolly's death has to do with this cover-up.”

“I don't know. Yes, probably. Maybe she was going to tell on the family, after all these years, and someone decided to stop her.”

“Why would she tell? She'd be implicating herself as well.” I leaned my forehead against hers. Maybe she truly was going crazy, losing her reason. And crazy people talk. “What else is there to know, Gretchen?”

“I've told you the whole story. You've got to help me protect Bob Don.” She tightened her grip on my arm.

“If Lolly was going to blow the whistle on the rest of the family, why would she attempt to scare me off-using the same method Paul used to terrorize you?”

“I don't know. Maybe she thought it was shameful for Bob Don, who'd already created enough trouble for the family, to have a… bastard. I'm sorry she treated you badly.”

“It seems odd,” I mused. “Why strike at me that particular way?”

“Never mind her, she's dead, she can't hurt us now. But you got to help me come up with a way to protect Bob Don.”

“Gretchen,” I said gently. “I don't know what we can do to protect him. If any of this family conspiracy is connected to Lolly's death, the whole house of cards might tumble down. I'll stand by him all the way, but I'm not sure what you want me to do.”

She blinked. “You're smart. You solve crimes. Surely you can concoct some way to keep Bob Don from getting in trouble.”

I stood, listening to the fading hiss of the ebbing rain. Darkness was falling now and the setting sun was barely a molten hump above the horizon. Clouds formed a shroud across the sky, obscuring the comfort of the stars.

“I'll think of something.” But inspiration seemed as fleeting as the afternoon light.

“Well, what?” she demanded.

“I don't know yet. Give me some time. I can't manufacture a plot out of thin air.”

She swallowed and silently accepted my answer. “I'm glad I told you this, Jordy. I-I knew you loved him. I knew I could depend on you.” She stood. “I got to get back to my room. Bob Don'll wonder what mischief I'm up to.” She surprised me with a quick kiss on my cheek. And then she turned and left, leaving me alone. The open door of my room loomed like a portal to a world of murder and secrets, all the open domain of this terrible house. A feeling of death and guilt thrummed through the air, almost palpable.

And I was supposed to rescue my father from the sins of his past. I sank down on the bed, feeling crushed by the sudden weight of responsibility. Find a murderer and save my father.

I lay on my bed, thinking, staring at the ceiling, trying to slowly piece together a plan.

Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house. -Proverbs 17:13


I must've dozed off. When told your father killed his brother, sleep is a natural escape. While I juggled theories and ideas as to who had murdered Lolly, I kept seeing Bob Don's face hovering above my own, his kind eyes, his gentle smile, his hearty laugh that made you know you were as welcome as could be. I could not see him pressing a trigger, killing his own brother. Even in self-defense.

Was Gretchen lying?

I didn't believe so. But I didn't want to swallow her entire story. My eyes felt heavy and I shut them, for just a moment.

Paws pressed against my heart and I awoke with a start. Sweetie stood on my chest, his tongue lolling out of his mouth with exertion. He stared down at me with enormous and forlorn eyes. Also at loose ends, I knew how he felt.

I sat up, scooping the little dog into my arms, and stood to stare out the window. No more rain fell, but the sky was mottled with dark clouds, like a snake's skin; the next wave of bad weather wasn't far off. The Coast Guard boat bobbed in the waves; Mendez and Yarbrough still blessed us with their company. I am not a superstitious man, but I wondered why this little Texas island served as a nexus for disaster: the shattered Reliant and its valiant men entombed beneath the waves, the massacred boys on the beach, the collection of graves amassed in the cemetery, the lonely marker of little Brian Riley Goertz. TOO BRIEF A TIME, his inscription had read. I wondered if the same tragic air that haunted this island had warped this family somehow, some cold hand reaching beyond its grave to shape human life.

I shook my head and Sweetie wriggled in my arms. I chided myself for this sudden gothic veer in my thinking. Reality was an old warm dog against your skin, writhing to be petted. Attributing bad conduct and human sadness to the island air seemed ludicrous. This was not Shirley Jackson's Hill House. Nothing walked here alone. My sour temperament was my own fault, not that of arcane foulness seeping through the rooms. Holding Sweetie, I went and closed my door.

What brushed your eyelids this afternoon as you slept?

I sat on the bed and set Sweetie on the covers. He chased his tail in a quick, single circle as if assuring himself he was the only pup present, then curled up into a crescent of fur and watched me with his huge peasant's eyes. I scratched the top of his head and his ears lay low with pleasure. I felt a surge of affection for this little dog, not without some surprise. I wondered if Sweetie sat watching his mistress while she composed her missives of hate to me.

Life is odd, I thought. Usually I warred with Gretchen and got along peaceably with Bob Don. Now the situation was reversed and I felt an uneasy soldier. And the battle might be brief. Bob Don sounded ready to proceed in life without the travails of trying to forge a relationship with me. And just how was I supposed to protect him from his own past? The task seemed impossible. And how was he going to react to Gretchen confiding in me? He might well-

The ceiling creaked above me.

I sat very still on the bed. Old houses cry out in the struggle against time, and this one, weathered by sea and wind and rain, was no exception. But that noise had sounded like the distinct pang of weight against old wood.

Another faint scream of a trodden-upon board, then another.

Why on earth was anyone tiptoeing around the attic?

I stood. Sweetie suddenly bolted upright, flung himself off the bed, and scrabbled at the door like the room was ablaze. I inched the door open and he shot out like a jag of lightning. His claws skittered on the hardwood floor of the hallway and he bounded down the staircase.

I eased the door shut quietly. A long minute passed, then another soft footfall from above-away from the wall that held my window, moving toward my closet.

I tiptoed-after all, if I could hear them, they might hear me-to the closet door and carefully opened it. The door swung open on silent hinges. I fumbled for the light cord. Another creak sounded.

A trapdoor occupied a back corner of the big closet. I'd noticed it when I unpacked, in the same abstract way one notices the particular shade of color the walls are painted. I reached toward the trapdoor, wondering if I could feel the weight of another person on the opposite side of the wood. I didn't touch the door, though-I suddenly felt the sharp gnaw of fear. And remembered the ghostly tickle I'd felt against my skin, and the kitchen door that had swung open with no one near. Idiot. No such thing. Ghosts don't exist, and if they did, they wouldn't make boards creak.

Minutes crawled by like hours. I heard someone walk down the hallway, Sass's voice out in the garden calling for Aubrey, a voice raised downstairs in anger that I suspected was Philip's. The sea wind played against my window in capricious gusts. Rain began again, whipping against the window, the striking drops sounding like a child's fingers thumping against the glass.

The attic held its silence.

I tarried another ten minutes, then opened the trapdoor. Disuse made the hinges shriek, and I cringed, waiting to see a face appear in the black doorway. Dust motes danced around my face and I sneezed. No response issued from the darkness, so I unfolded the wooden steps attached to the door and clambered into the attic.

The house was old, but the attic seemed decades older. The air tasted ancient, tinged with time and dust. I realized, with some disappointment, that I didn't have a flashlight to guide my way.

I retreated to my room. I could still hear Aunt Sass braying for Aubrey, like she might holler for a wayward dog. I wondered if maybe Tom had gotten ahold of Aubrey and was busy resolving their unfinished business by beating Aubrey to a pulp.

Or maybe Aubrey had been sneaking around the attic while his mama called for him out in the garden. I watched Aunt Sass from the window, huddled underneath her umbrella. No Aubrey materialized. Aunt Sass'd catch cold if she didn't get out of the storm.

A quick exploration of my room revealed no flashlight, but I did find a candle and matches. I'd hoped as much, since the frequent storms along the coast could result in power outages. I had no idea if the island had its own generator.

I ascended back into the attic, feeling a tad like a male Jane Eyre, wondering if a raving former wife of Uncle Mutt's awaited me in the darkness. Ridiculous. I'd let a goofy, scared dog and my own overactive imagination propel me away from logic. I am always reasonable and I refused to let myself be girded by the most inane doubts and fears.

Why be afraid of a dark attic? You just found out your father killed his crazy brother. And that this whole clan covered it up for years. You should be more afraid of this family. What'll they do to you if they learn you know about their little conspiracy?

Darkness cloaked me. My candle provided meager illumination. The attic was long, running the length of most of the house. I wondered if each and every room offered access to the garret the way my closet did-surely not. But folks made odd architectural decisions in olden days. I decided it might be worthwhile to identify every point of ingress the attic offered.

Forgotten homes of spiders dangled from the rafters, the errant dust the only prey caught in their clutches. The air smelled of the sea. I began moving toward the south side of the house, away from my room.

Boxes and trunks dotted the walls, arranged haphazardly wherever they were deposited. The grime of long memories coated the containers I ran my fingers across. Locks and old tape kept time out. Nothing here that I could see had been disturbed. But someone had been here. If not taking something-perhaps hiding something?

I looked for the signs that any container or object in sight was new. Nothing gleamed as freshly unwrapped from plastic. There was little here that spoke of recent years.

I stared down at my shoes, now smeared with dust. The floor itself was dirty and I should have thought to see if the intruder had left footprints in his wake. I began backtracking along the floor, keeping the candle's gleam close to the boards.

I heard the wind gust against the glass, the rain building. I thought again of Aunt Sass, yelling out in the rain for her son. I felt a tug of concern for her, to my surprise. Perhaps it was easier now to understand her vitriolic reaction to my wavering about Bob Don's status in my life. She knew what hell he'd been through after Paul's death; maybe she felt he needed a new connection of family and I was his best chance, something gone right after the fabric of his old family became irreparably stained.

Then I saw it-a tennis shoe's tread in the grit. Then another. And another, stepping back over the first. The prints stopped at an array of boxes and trunks, outwardly indiscernible from the rest of the Goertz family detritus that clogged the attic. I put the candle close to the cartons, looking for signs of recent contact.

I finally found one trunk where the dust had been brushed away from the clamps. A fat blot disturbed the grit on the floor. I guessed someone had knelt here, and I believed it had been a man-the knee and shoe prints were large, like the Goertz men. I eased the trunk's lid open. It moaned in quiet protest.

Clothes lay in militarily perfect folds, creases still sharp, although the garments themselves smelled musty. I fingered through the stacked shirts and pants.

They were a boy's clothes, long unworn.

A catcher's mitt, a cracked softball nestled in the web of its leather, lay on one side of the trunk. I brushed fingers against the glove. It was silky with wear, softened in the way only a child's sweat will. I had a shortstop's glove with the same feel back home, and I smiled with the memory of it. A baseball cap for the Houston Astros, fitted for a child's head, lay perfectly next to the mitt. The logo was old, the colorful stripes left over from the early 1980s. I remembered it-I'd worn a similar cap myself.

I pulled the cap out carefully. For some reason, I felt compelled to treat these items with reverence, as though I'd unearthed them from a long-buried time capsule. Below the cap was a stack of familiar blue-backed books. I smiled again as I withdrew the top volumes from the stack. The Flickering Torch Mystery. The Secret of the Caves. The Shattered Helmet. All classics from Franklin W. Dixon's Hardy Boys series. The spines were worn with reading and rereading. These books had been loved. This series had been my favorite boyhood reading as well, tagging along on adventures with the intrepid Frank and Joe. I had even bragged once to Sister that when they made a Hardy Boys movie, I'd be the natural choice for Joe. She'd laughed at my arrogance.

These belongings could have been mine.

I put the books back in the trunk. I rooted about in the clothes some more. Finally I found, at the bottom, a V-neck burgundy sweater, the kind every boy is given during some Christmas and naturally loathes. A diamond-shaped monogram of BGR, the G huge and pointed for the surname, was sewn on the right breast of the sweater.

Brian Riley Goertz.

I felt as though I'd just brushed the satin in a coffin and my hand had come away smeared with some noxious substance. I wiped my fingers against my khaki shorts, feeling uneasy.

I groped through the clothes. Either something had been taken from this trunk, or someone wanted to mull over memories of Brian, or-

Someone wanted to hide something, and chose this as their cubbyhole. My fingers brushed through the garments again, and I touched cardboard. Sandwiched between two shirts was a small box, the sort used to store jewelry. It had been taped shut, but I peeled the tape off and opened the box.

An assortment of men's jewelry lay inside. An old elastic watchband snaked its way through two rings. I examined the booty; the watch was an old Timex, and the face of it was smashed. One ring was a simple wedding band with no inscription; the other ring was a college ring, for Corpus Christi State University.

A man's jewelry, secreted among a dead boy's belongings.

This jewelry, then, wasn't young Brian Goertz's. Paul's, perhaps, given to his son? But if so, why pack it away after Brian's death? Unless Deborah couldn't bear to have her father's effects, or didn't want them. The jewelry box seemed an intruder in the trunk of Brian's belongings, and-

Realization shuddered down my spine. A wedding band. A smashed watch. A college ring from the city that was the cradle of the Goertz family. Paul Goertz's body had never been found, according to the family.

This jewelry might be confirmation of everything Gretchen told me. I imagined a dimly lit sculptor's studio in Corpus Christi, Nora Goertz's dead body sprawled across the putty-speckled floor, her face a wet red mess, the smell of gunfire crisping the air. So what then? Paul Goertz turns from the carnage and calmly slips off his watch, his wedding ring, and his college ring before he goes to stalk Gretchen and meet his own death? It made no sense.

The picture seemed all wrong. Maybe not-if he was going on the run, and the jewelry could be used to identify him. Had Paul's mind worked that way? And perhaps he'd removed his broken watch, if Nora had smashed it while fighting for her life. Perhaps.

Or perhaps the family, complicit in their burial of Paul's body to shield Bob Don, stripped the corpse of its jewelry before disposing of it forever.

That made no sense. Did they plan on presenting the watch and rings to Brian one day- here, my boy, these belonged to your disappeared, presumed dead daddy. Wear them in health. No.

Why would the Goertzes save this? It could be found one day, and implicate them all. A slim chance, yes, but why even take the risk?

I thought for a minute. No easy answer reared its head.

I emptied the rest of the trunk and found nothing else that piqued my interest. I ran my fingers along the trunk's lining, but no mysterious catches or bumps to indicate hidey-holes presented themselves. I leaned back on my heels and sighed. An armor of falsehoods covered this damn family, an unyielding barrier I'd have to blast my way through to get to the protected core of truth.

I stood and hurried down the length of the attic, looking for other entrances. I found one. Over Candace's room, at the other end of the house. Damn. She was probably out and whoever came up here took advantage of her absence. I walked slowly back toward the trapdoor leading to my room, feeling an odd coolness descend on the attic, as though the outside rain robbed the air of its July heat. I knelt again by Brian's forlorn trunk.

What happened here? A strange heat kindled in my heart, as though I could reach past time and death to touch my cousin's hand. My father killed your father. I'm so sorry.

My fingers brushed the trunk's surface, and as if in answer, a chill blasted through the attic, freezing me to the spot. Iciness prickled my skin through my T-shirt and walking shorts. I kept my head bowed, stunned by the sensation, not daring to look up.

Because I was certain that if I did, I would see a young boy standing there, shimmering in the light, insubstantial as air, with silvered, blank eyes.

No, I chided myself. You and your stupid imagination.

So I raised my head. And there he stood, not six feet away from me, the boy in the photographs, wavery in the dust motes. He wore bright summer clothes. A dark elongated bruise marred his pale throat, like a long purplish smudge. He reached a hand toward me, palm up. A strand of seaweed clung to his thumb. I saw bitterness and hate well in his angel's face. Then he disappeared.

I trembled. The cold deepened for a few long moments, then vanished as though a window had been opened and warmth readmitted to my world.

I wiped a shaky hand across my eyes. I hurried about my business with thoughtless precision. I quickly-very quickly-repacked the trunk, with the exception of the jewelry box, which I stuck in my pocket. Then I sealed the trunk and stood and retrieved my still-lit candle. I warmed my hands over the bright, hot flicker. They shook above the little flame.

I retreated back down to the relative safety of my room, rapidly folding up the access door to the attic, wondering if anyone would comment if I nailed it shut.

I walked back into my room, closed the closet door behind me, and set the candle down, extinguishing its flame with a hard breath. Rain lashed against the windows, the storm's second wind fiercer than its first. Thunder cracked the sky and the firmament of the floor quivered a little with its force.

My hands still shook and I turned the hot-water tap on full blast, running the water over my fingers. I felt numb. A litany to reassure myself of my sanity began to chant its way through my mind: You do not believe in ghosts. You have never believed in ghosts. Your imagination has kicked into overdrive. It was a spooky-looking room, so you imbued it with the qualities you expect in a movie with a web-shrouded attic. The past couple of days have been hell on you mentally, so you just manufactured this little fantasy of a ghost boy for a distraction. You saw nothing. You saw only what your imagination produced for you. You must get a grip on yourself, Jordan. For God's sake.

I washed my face and used the toilet, then soaped my hands and face again. I bit my lip hard to feel the sharp reality of pain. The water felt like life against my face. I dried with a towel and stared at myself in the mirror. In the calm fluorescent light of the bathroom, my hand resting on the cool of the sink, the attic seemed far away. And seeing the daily trappings of grooming-the basin speckled with flecks of whiskers from my morning shave, my toothpaste tube dented in its middle, a bottle of aspirin with its cap not set quite straight-all this ebbed my fear and the first fingers of doubt massaged my beating heart. The cold, the vision of the boy-I'd no doubt manufactured it all in my shock.

It was nothing more. Time to deal with the pressing issues at hand. I pulled the jewelry box from my pocket and decided to hide it among my own clothes, until I decided on a course of action.

I stuck it under a Rice sweatshirt I'd brought for the cool nights that breezed across the coast, even in summer. And heard the crinkle of plastic in one sleeve as I shoved the box underneath the shirt.

I hadn't been the only one sneaking around the house. Nestled in my sweatshirt was a bag full of green pills. The delicate letters on the capsules identified them as Digoxin.


“These aren't mine.” I tossed the bag on the table in front of Victor Mendez. “And I don't know who planted them in my room. How about dusting them for prints?” I don't usually bark out suggestions to law-enforcement officers on how to do their job, but fingerprints equaled reality-something I desperately wanted to deal with instead of long-buried family secrets and imaginary children lurking in attics.

If Mendez noticed the tremor in my voice, he gave no sign. Instead he stared at the medicine. “You're saying someone purposefully hid these in your room?”

I resisted my natural urge toward sarcasm. My friendship with Mirabeau's own police chief had taught me that investigators often repeated what a witness told them, to be sure they had the story right. I nodded. “Yes, sir. I found them just now, hidden in one of my sweatshirt sleeves.”

From a corner chair Philip Bedrich glowered at me. “Well, Mr. Mendez. Finally something you can't accuse me of.”

“That's not true,” I answered mildly. “I don't know when the pills were stashed in my room. You had as much opportunity as anyone else.” I marveled at how controlled my voice sounded, considering the events of the past hour.

Philip shook his head. “This whole comedy of errors is bullshit. Why would I stick pills in your room?”

“I don't know, Philip. I don't know why you do half the things you do.”

“You don't understand,” he muttered. Mendez ended our cousinly concord with a wave of his hand. He slid the bag of pills into a second container, an evidence bag. “You”-he pointed at me-”outside. You stay here, Mr. Bedrich.”

“Like I've got places to go? With the rest of my family thinking I'm a murderer?” Philip mumbled. He ran a hand across his thinning hair and a look of sick worry crossed his features. I suspected the iron facade was starting to buckle; he didn't seem to have the moral fiber to endure a solitary siege. I couldn't imagine what it was like to face a police investigation without my family's support.

I did not envy him the loneliness he was bound to feel.

Mendez guided me onto the veranda. A strong, salty breeze gusted in from the water. The sun had vanished below the horizon. Clouds blotted the night sky, settling close to earth; I felt I could reach out and tangle my hand in their clammy heaviness. The wind off the Gulf was wet. The rain didn't seem to bother Mendez. He stopped by the swing where Bob Don had slapped me and regarded me with frankness.

“Why does so much in this case keep coming back to you, Mr. Poteet?” He shook the evidence bag in front of my face. I saw for the first time how young he looked; surely this was not his first homicide. But perhaps he was more accustomed to the murders of everyday life: the husband slaying the battered wife, the teenaged gang member blasting his rival into early oblivion, the careless drunk mowing down a pedestrian in her path. Lolly Throck-morton's death was the end result of a lace of complex interrelations that offered no simple answers. I wondered how Mendez's first write-up of this case would read. I didn't envy him his job.

“I don't know why. Someone here doesn't like me, or believes I might be easy to frame.”

“Why would someone want to frame you for Mrs. Throckmorton's murder?”

“I imagine to avoid prosecution,” I said mildly. “Doesn't that seem reasonable to you?”

“But why you, Mr. Poteet? You're a stranger to most of these folks, blood relation or not.” “Strangers are the best scapegoats. Less guilt that way for the perpetrator.”

“Give me another reason, Mr. Poteet. I don't think you're being entirely honest with me.”

He was not a stupid man and I had underestimated him. Lord only knew what body language my worn-out form was speaking. I made myself uncross my arms and look as open as possible. “Listen, I don't have another reason. Unless it's some of my relations have taken a serious dislike to me.”

Mendez tented his cheek with his tongue. “Yes, I can see they have. Why is that?”

“There's a lot of money at stake in this family. My uncle Emmett is terminally ill and he's worth millions. I don't think another potential heir is a particularly welcome sight.”

He unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it into his mouth. “You and Philip don't particularly get along.”

“We don't.”

“Maybe you'd like to see him sweat.”

I shook my head. “I've known Philip only a day. I don't like him particularly, but not enough to stir up trouble against him. It's worth neither the time nor the effort. I don't have a whole history of resentment against him.”

Mendez chewed, watching the scudding clouds darken the night. No star glimmered, not even one to wish on. “You see anything else unusual around here?”

Aside from my dead cousin's ghost? I shaped my answer carefully, not wanting to betray the fright I'd felt upstairs. I didn't want to see the inside of whatever mental-health facility the Matagorda Bay area offered. 'Tom and Aubrey got into a fistfight. Deborah and I had to separate them. Someone, I believe, spiked my stepmother's drink with booze because she's an alcoholic and they wanted to end her sobriety. Aubrey upset the family when his mother announced he's writing a new book about screwy families. I already told you Wendy and Philip planned to chisel money out of Uncle Mutt.”

“Anything else?” Mendez was no fool; he'd spotted the pause in my speech, the flicker in my eyes as I remembered my experience.

“No, nothing else-except-”

“Yes?” Mendez prodded.

“I thought I heard some sneaking around in the attic.” I had to tread carefully here; I wasn't yet decided what to do about Paul's jewelry I'd found. I didn't want the world crashing down around Bob Don. Mendez watched me, unblinking.

Seeing ghosts. And protecting someone who killed, a devilish voice chirped in my head.

I know he would not have killed except in self-defense, an angel murmured in response.

The storm loudened and I waited for the boom of thunder to pass before answering. “Is there anything else?”

“We'll need to get your prints tomorrow. Don't be offended. We have to have everyone's.”


“My officers and Judge Yarbrough have returned to the mainland.” He didn't look at me. “Unless you're so eager to give us your prints, you want to come into the sheriffs department tonight.”

“Odd that the police are gone.” I kept my voice neutral. “I think you'd want to complete your interrogations, make an arrest.”

“I don't have any evidence yet, Mr. Poteet. I have only the word of you and your kin, and some of the stories don't quite agree yet. We're waiting on the toxicology results. And I'm not insensitive to Mr. Goertz's feelings. After all, this is a house in mourning.”

“Deference to the rich man? I'm a little surprised at you.” I couldn't hide my bitterness. A murderer strolling free in this house and Mendez played local politics.

“Mrs. Throckmorton could have taken the pills herself. That possibility still has not been eliminated. Mr. Goertz has finally admitted that his sister wasn't always quite balanced in her actions.”

“Oh, I'll bet he finally has acknowledged that little fact. I suppose it's less embarrassing than having another murderer in the family.” I stepped close to Mendez, close enough to smell the mint gum on his breath. He tensed, resenting the intrusion. I didn't care.

“You know my uncle Paul killed his wife.” Anger had fueled my words too quickly; I didn't want to dwell on the horrors that had followed poor Nora's murder. “It seems to have shamed the family thoroughly.”

“Paul Goertz killed his wife. His family didn't kill that woman. They shouldn't feel shame.” But a light in his dark eyes told me his own clan might've reacted very similarly.

I had no answer for him.

Mendez went in to conclude his talks with Philip, and I heard him call to Uncle Mutt, sitting solitarily in the kitchen. Uncle Mutt stormed past me and didn't give me a second glance. Philip sat sunk down in his chair, his hands cupping his face. I felt an unaccountable pity for him; he looked like a forlorn lump. Tom was nowhere to be seen. Didn't his own twin even believe in him?

I went upstairs. Time to start investigating Philip Bedrich a little more closely.

I found a phone in Lolly's room and dialed Itasca Hue-bler's home number back in Mirabeau. Itasca's my main assistant at the library and possibly one of the great ferreters of information ever known to man. I could almost picture her scooping up her maroon phone receiver (she's a big Texas A amp;M supporter) and sandwiching it between her jaw and shoulder.


“Itasca, it's Jordan.”

“Hey, sugar. How you enjoying your vacation?”

I didn't want to get into the sordid details of the weekend. Itasca was sweet, but she loved to gossip. “Fine, just fine. But I was wondering if you could see clear to doing me a favor.”

“I live for these moments, Jordy,” she teased. “What's up?”

“I'd like to check up on a fellow named Philip Bedrich. He's an investments counselor of some sort, and he's trying to get me to invest some money with him. I can't exactly do a little research on him while I'm here, because he's staying at the same house. Could you call the SEC, see if he's registered with them, and see if he's got any kind of record?”

I could hear her scribbling down the information, and I spelled Philip's name for her again. “All right,” she asserted, “I'll give 'em a call and see what I can see.”

I gave her the number where she could reach me, thanked her, and hung up. Poor Philip. Itasca was relentless.

I stood to leave and that's when I noticed the feathers caught in the wicker of Sweetie's bed basket. White down fluttered in the wooden weave surrounding his pillow. I leaned down and pulled the feathers away-there was the beginning of a tear on the pillow's side.

I'd heard cloth-or something similar-ripping when I'd hid in Lolly's closet-when Wendy had asserted Bob Don was in the room. But I hadn't been able to identify what had been disturbed.

I upended Sweetie's pillow. A long gash tore open the pillow's bottom, and the downy innards had been disturbed. I sat thinking for a long moment, then got up in search of Candace.

“Are you still mad at me?” I asked from her doorway.

She lay curled like a cat on her bedspread, her eyes half-lidded in sleep. The thought of her being in the proximity of a coldly conniving killer was enough to frost my blood. I didn't want us still bickering.

She smiled. “No, I'm not still mad at you.”

I sat down next to her on the bed. “I'm going crazy here. Arguing with Bob Don in the middle of all of this madness is rotten, and then having a spat with you-”

She touched a hand to my lips. “It'll all be over soon. I think the police suspect Philip. He just looks guilty.”

I ran a hand along her hip and she closed her eyes. I wanted the comfort of lovemaking, but I knew celibacy was the order of the evening. Instead I softly kissed her hair and she ran a gentle hand along my cheek.

“I love you,” I murmured, “and I'm sorry I was a jerk.”

“Jordan, I love you, too. Even when you're a jerk. I'll try not to dispense so much advice. Sometimes I tend to want to tell you what to do instead of just listening a little.”

I kissed her cheek again. It was warm, but not with fever. She smiled at me. “If you and I can mend fences, you and Bob Don should be able to.”

Tightness locked my throat. Gretchen had confided in me. I wanted to tell Candace what I'd learned about Bob Don, but I didn't dare. Not yet. There was no sense in putting her in harm's way. “Bob Don and I aren't setting new records for bonding. Why can't we just go on with our lives without hurting each other? God, I'm tired of this.” I moved to the window.

“If I give you advice now, are you going to explode?”

“No. I'm done with that.”

She leaned against my shoulder. “Try something for me. Put yourself in his shoes. He didn't want to abandon you. He did what he thought was right. And he did that knowing that your mother might never have told you the truth about him. He turned and walked away because he wanted to spare you all the pain.”

Outside, the storm throbbed like a colossal heart. I listened to its roar and beat. “But I couldn't have done that, Candace. I couldn't have just walked away from my child. Turn heel and flee. He watched me. He watched me grow up and never came close, never tried.” I swallowed and my eyes stung with repressed anger.

Candace pressed a palm against my back. Sorrow tinged her voice. “Because to try would have been to ruin your life. You were just a little boy. His distance was a gift to you then. Let him come close to you now.”

I rubbed my forehead with the heel of my hand. “And he doesn't want me again. He's made that clear.” Yet Gretchen wants me to save him. From his own family? I can't.

“He's a stubborn goat, same as you. Because he believes you don't want him as a dad. Now listen, Jordan. If you let him walk away-if you walk away-it's going to leave a terrible hole in your life. You and he both deserve better.”

“But I-”

She stilled me with a kiss. When she spoke her lips were soft against my own. “Don't judge him so harshly. It's hard to know what you would have done in his shoes.” She hugged me and her throat warmed against my own.

I held her, feeling the heat of her, the soft bellows of her lungs setting the pace for my own breathing.

“I told Gretchen that I love him.”

She hugged me tighter. “Then why don't you go talk to him again?” She caressed my face with her fingertip.

“Yes,” I said softly. “I think I will.” I stood, and paused at the foot of her bed. “Were you in your room late this afternoon? When the storm kicked back up?”

She shook her head. “No. I went down to the den and watched television with Deborah.”

So my prowler would have had access to the attic through Candace's room. And Candace provided an alibi for Deborah. I knew Sass was in the garden when I heard the footfalls. And I didn't believe Uncle Jake spry enough to navigate a trapdoor and steps; plus, there was no sign of his cane in the dust. At least three I could scratch off my most-likely-to-be-skulking-about list.

Maybe after I talked with Bob Don, I needed to go examine the shoe selection in this house and see who wore a particular tread.

I found Bob Don in the television room on the ground floor. The TV was tuned to the Weather Channel and the perky meteorologist described the rapidly moving tropical depression surging up toward Texas. Hurricane season had not kicked into gear, but we were due for an onslaught of rain and wind.

Rufus Beaulac lay slumped in the leather recliner I knew was Uncle Mutt's regular roost. A beer tottered in his loose grasp.

“Hi, Rufus,” I said. “Would you please excuse us? I'd like to talk to my father alone.”

Bob Don's head jerked up at the label I'd used. Rufus flashed a look of annoyance. “Just as I was gettin' comfortable.”

“Sorry.” I didn't budge.

Rufus roused himself from the recliner. He regarded Bob Don with a smirk. “No good drinkin' buddies round here since Gretch sobered up. Sass is a snob and the twins don't drink near enough.” A faint hint of malice colored his words, and I wondered for a moment if his had been the hand behind Gretchen's drunkenness.

“You go and get a head start, Rufe,” Bob Don said, “and maybe I'll join you in a few minutes. I could use another shot of bourbon in the worst way.”

Rufus regarded me with his murky hazel eyes and his scarred lip formed a crooked smile. “Later, boys.” He saluted, ambling out of the room. I shut the door behind him.

“I don't much like him,” I announced.

Bob Don kept staring at the television, watching a report on a forest fire in Oregon. “I don't think you much like anyone.”

I came and sat on the couch next to him, tendering a foot over the hard borders separating us. “That's not true.”

“Maybe not. You actually referred to me as your father. Rufus doesn't know the honor he's received.” Sardonic was not Bob Don's usual style of repartee and he stumbled over his own words.

“You are my father,” I said softly.

“Accident of biology, just like you said.” He stared at the televised inferno.

“True of every child, though, isn't it?”


I tentatively touched his arm, and a cascade of images from the past year flooded past my eyes: Bob Don lying in the hospital after taking a bullet intended for me, his blue eyes bright with pain; Bob Don standing over my other daddy's grave, telling me in a soft voice to realize the good fortunes in my life; Bob Don pleading with me to give Gretchen a volunteer job at the library as he subtly tried to knit us into a family; the hurt look in his own eyes after he'd slapped me on the porch. I grabbed the remote from his hands and silenced the television.

“I made a rotten mistake. I felt so angry when I found out that you were my biological father and I wanted to punish you, I suppose, for being part of the conspiracy of silence.”

He turned reddened eyes toward me. “Don't blame your mother. She did what she thought best-”

“She did what she wanted. She wanted to save her marriage. She wanted to protect my sister. She wanted you out of her life. I don't blame her any more than I blame you. I don't want to blame anyone anymore. I just want-” My voice broke, and he waited in the sudden silence.

“I just want you to be a father to me. And a friend.” The words came in a rush, as though I'd been holding them in my mouth for months, sampling their unusual taste.

He didn't throw his arms around me. He didn't whoop for joy. “Why now? Why the change?”

I couldn't admit to him that I knew he'd killed his brother. Not now. Perhaps not ever. I took one of his hands in mine; his was large and warm and every finger was cal-lused from the hard work he did on his property on the weekends, ridding himself of the stress of the car dealership. And no doubt, the stress I'd inflicted on him over the past months.

“Because I need a dad. And I need to be your son.”

“But you already had a father. You told me you didn't need another.” His voice was hushed. I couldn't blame him for not accepting my turnaround immediately. I'd dithered and railed too long for him to risk the hurt of me changing my mind.

“Candace has pointed out to me that I've tended to put my father on a pedestal. One does that with the dead sometimes.” But not in this family, I silently added. “Daddy wasn't perfect. If he was, he would've saved some money so that we weren't in such dire straits when Mama got so sick.” I shrugged. “He was a good man, but he wasn't an ideal man. Only I made him that way.”

Bob Don was silent, staring at my hand clasping his. His pale face might've been carved of ivory.

The memory rose to my lips before I could stop it. “When I was twelve, I stopped confiding in Daddy. I'd come home from school one afternoon and told him”-I smiled a little at my folly-”that whenever I looked at my English teacher-she was a beautiful young woman named Pamela Guenther-my pants hurt because they got too tight because my talleywhacker got hard.” Bob Don didn't smile, but I thought I saw a brief, flitting bit of mirth in his eyes. I continued: “Daddy took all this quite seriously and sat me down and gave me the sex talk. He was very kind and factual and told me I had nothing to be ashamed of.

“That night, Daddy and his poker buddies had their weekly game at our house. They played out on our enclosed porch when the weather was nice, and it was a beautiful night. I'd come down to say good night before going to bed, and Mama asked me to take the men a tray of beers. So I did.

“I came out and began setting the beers down and-they could hardly keep their laughter in. I'd set the last beer in front of Royce Collins and he said, 'Hey, Jordy, your pants hurtin' you these days?' I froze. And then Bertram Wells asked me, 'You gonna be the teacher's pet, Jordy?' They all exploded in laughter. Daddy couldn't even look at me. Lucas Behr informed me that if I put grease on Captain Tal-leywhacker and stayed out of school, maybe my pants wouldn't hurt me so bad. And they all laughed again, and the sound drifted past our porch screens and across the whole neighborhood.” I stopped for a moment. Bob Don squeezed my hand tightly.

“I'd never felt such deep humiliation in my life. I laughed along, because that's what you do to be one of the guys, backing away from them with the tray. I wanted to kill Daddy for breaking our confidence. He saw something in my eyes and just stared down at his hand of cards. The others laughed and wished me a good night. I'm sure they didn't mean harm; it was their way of acknowledging me as a growing man. But I'd told Daddy a secret I wanted him to keep, and he hadn't kept his mouth shut for a whole five hours. Maybe I was a hypersensitive kid. But it hurt, all the same, and Daddy should have known how I'd react. That night, lying in bed, I decided the only people I could ever entirely trust again were Mama and my best friend Trey.”

And y 'all are both lost to me now, Mama in sickness, Trey in death. When maybe I need you the most. Why did God take you both from me? I stared at the floor, not wanting to look at Bob Don. “Pretty silly to get upset about, right?”

“No, it's not,” Bob Don answered softly. “I'd have been embarrassed, too. And you were a sensitive kid. Everyone knew that. Never could abide much teasing.”

My words came in a gush: “I mean, in the whole scheme of my life, that one night doesn't matter. I still loved Daddy, I still do. He was a wonderful father. But he was as capable of hurting me as anyone else.”

Bob Don reflected for a moment. “Your daddy loved you fiercely. Remember that most of all. But he was a man who did what he thought other people wanted him to do. That poker talk probably went around to sex and he didn't think telling that tale on you was breaking a confidence, he probably thought it was just adding to the conversation. Maybe he was proud of you for becoming a young man.”

I shrugged. “If I ever have a son, I'll never do that to him.”

Bob Don finally smiled. “No, you'll make a whole other mess of mistakes he'll complain about. All part of the package, Jordan.” I didn't answer right away and the quiet hung between us.

“By the way,” I said at last, “that cure Lucas Behr recommended-greasing up Mr. Happy. It doesn't work.”

Bob Don exploded in nervous laughter. “I'll keep that in mind,” he said, color rushing into his cheeks.

“And my pants still hurt me sometimes. Like when I look at Candace.” Bantering. I felt the connection between us take hold. I sent a silent wish toward heaven: I'm not betraying you, Daddy, by taking him into my heart. I know I'm not. Please don't hate me. I glanced at the man who gave me life.

“I'm sorry for the trash I talked earlier,” I whispered. “If I could take them back, I would. I believe you loved my mother. And I know she loved you, too. I'm sorry I suggested it was anything cheap.”

“That was your anger talking.”

“Yes,” I said. Other words failed me.

“I'm so sorry I slapped you. I'll never do it again.”

“That's true,” I agreed. I didn't know how to convey the surge in my heart./ have a father again. The jumble of feelings, of hurt and fright and giddiness I'd experienced in the past year smoothed into a warm, mellow sensation of acceptance. “I think when we get back to Mirabeau, I should let folks know that you're my father. I mean, some folks already know, but they don't speak of it. We can speak of it now.”

Tears braced in his eyes. “Okay.”

“I'll keep the name Poteet, if you don't mind.”

“Whatever you want, son.”

“Son,” I echoed. I glanced, almost shyly, at his face. There is no mark of Cain there. I can't believe this man killed his own brother, even in self-defense. And I'm not going to let anything, anything happen to him. “I suppose if you're going to call me son, I should call you something other than Bob Don.”

He opened his mouth, then shut it again.

“I'd feel a tad odd calling you Daddy,” I ventured. “What did you call your father?”

He smiled, almost as shyly as I had. “I called him Daddy.”

I laughed. “Of course. Why is it Southerners are so unimaginative with nicknames for parents and so imaginative with nicknames for grandparents?” I thought of the photo of my great-grandfather I'd examined so closely in Lolly's room, seeing so much of his face in mine, and my odd intuition that I would've called him Pop-Pop. “Hey. What about Pop?”

“Ain't pop what Yankees call Cokes?”

“Well, yes,” I answered.

He rolled the word about in his mouth, as though tasting it. “Pop. Well, if that's what you want to call me, I guess I'll get used to it.”

I could tell the endearment wasn't entirely to his taste, and felt an unexpected relief he hadn't adopted it immediately in mindless gratitude-perhaps the days of putting me unreachably aloft were over. We could deal with each other as men now. “Well, why don't we try it out and see how it fits?”

“Okey doke,” he finally said, and then spoke for us both: “This kind of all feels funny, doesn't it?”

“Yes. It's a strange family to be joining.”

A momentary flash passed over his face, as though the mention of the rest of the Goertzes cast a dark shadow across this long-awaited moment. “Oh, God, son. Let's all just leave. Just go back to Mirabeau and pick up our lives. There's nothing for us here.”

“But the investigation-”

He snorted. “I don't care what that judge says, there ain't no reason to keep us here. Anyway, Lieutenant Mendez has left.”

“Left? Left us here?”

“Going soon, if he ain't already.” His voice sounded choked. “He seems certain that those toxicology tests are gonna turn up Jake's medicine, or something else. Seems Lolly sending you those cards convinced him that she took her own life, crazy like she was.”

“Crazy's not enough. Why would she kill herself?” He stood and leaned against the den's bookshelves. I didn't relent: “Someone planted a bag of digitalis pills in my clothes. So if the cops searched, it'd look like I had a stash of poison.”

“I heard Mendez and Mutt talking. Mutt told him that's exactly what Lolly would do to make it look like you killed her. Along with the cards. You can see how crazy she was…” His voice drifted off.

Are you protecting a murderer – Pop? “The only thing crazy is that theory. Lolly didn't want me here for some reason, tried to frighten me away, and when that didn't work, poisoned herself with Jake's medication and tried to frame me for the crime? Listen to yourself, Pop. Mutt's influence might make Mendez buy this, but I don't. Why on earth would she-”

His face set. “Don't ask so many questions. Don't-”

“Fine, I won't.” I'd traveled that road before today and gotten nowhere fast. “So you think we can go soon?” Putting distance between us and Sangre Island felt like putting distance between us and Paul Goertz's death.

“Let's hope. Uncle Mutt's calling a family meeting tonight, after he has himself a long chat with Philip. And Wendy.”

I swallowed. I would not want to be in their shoes, facing Mutt's formidable wrath.

Pop leaned against the shelves. He looked weary to the bone. I wanted to go and embrace him, tell him I knew about the family's dark past, but I didn't. He would have to tell me his secret, on his own terms. I could not ford that deep, harsh river for him. He opened his mouth, as if to speak, then closed it firm.

“You probably need to talk to Gretchen, explain how things are between us. I need to go talk to Candace.”

“Okay, son.” He came forward, and awkwardly embraced me in a bearish hug. The thump of his heart thrummed against my chest and his breath, scented with bourbon, was a warm stream against my ear. For all my famed wit and tongue, I had no words. He did.

“I love you,” he murmured; he kissed the side of my cheek, and embraced me again. He released me after another moment and turned away. I watched him leave the den and felt, for one terrible moment, as if I'd stepped off the edge of a precipice. Gravity was not the only inexorable force in the world. Love's just as potent.

I went upstairs to tell Candace I had a father. And to set in motion the most horrifying night of my life.


I didn't find Candace in her room. So I ambled down to Deborah's quarters, thinking she might be visiting my cousin. My cousin. It seemed even more real now that Pop was Pop. I felt light, almost giddy, as though a weight had been lifted from my aching back. The choice to love is frightening, but it's also energizing. I felt like a new man. In many ways, I was.

Deborah, sitting on her bed, saw it in my face. She sat in a dim circle of light tossed by her bedside lamp, perusing a photo album. “You look happy. What's up?”

It seemed wrong to share my good news before telling Candace, so I simply smiled and said, “I let my head soften a tad.”

She glanced at me in puzzlement. “What?”

“Stubbornness. I shed myself of some of it tonight.” I sat on the edge of the bed.

“That's not always a smart move.” She closed the album and tossed it away from her, as if it reeked.

“Deborah. What's going on here?”

“What do you mean?” She evaded my stare, watching the lightning-now nearly continuous-as it illuminated the sky.

“With you and this family.”

She didn't respond for so long I thought she had not heard my softly uttered question. She slicked her lips with her tongue, still not looking at me. Finally she spoke. “I'm just a bad reminder, Jordan.”

“Of what?”

“An unfortunate time for this family.”

“I'm sorry.”

She laughed, a short, brittle, horrible sound. “You're a stranger, and you care more than they do. Think any of these people gave a shit about my mother? Oh, sure, they were sorry as hell she died. Terribly sad, terribly unfortunate, and wasn't she so pretty? They spoke all the right lines in the play of mourning. But I never felt they cared about my mom.” She paused. “Your mom's sick, right? Alzheimer's?”


“Is it bad?”


“But she still draws breath,” Deborah murmured. “My mother's face was blown off. I shouldn't dwell on it, but I do. You can at least hold your mother, tell her you love her, touch her hair. I can only drop flowers on a cold grave.”

My heart ached for her. I didn't know sorrow like Deborah's.

“So the Goertzes were more worried about your dad?”

“Worried? Embarrassed is more like it. Horrified at what was being written in the papers: Paul Goertz wanted for murder.” She licked her lips again and I saw the worn exhaustion in her face. “Ever have a murderer in your family?”

“No. Well, not that I know of.” The lie came easily.

She laughed again, jagged and full of weary sadness. “It's kind of like playing a board game. Rule one: Don't ever pass Go without being reminded your father's a killer. Rule two: Never speak of it to outsiders. You get really good at manufacturing colossal lies. Where's my dad? He travels a lot. Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin. Or he died of cancer, always an easy out.” She closed her eyes. “Rule three: Anyone who breaks the first two rules gets the whole wrath of the family down on them.”

“And wrath is what? Bitchy comments from Lolly? A whack from Jake's cane? A lecture on loyalty from Mutt?”

“You don't understand.” Deborah's voice was a tight wire of anger. “I'm afraid of them.”

“Your own family? For God's sake, why?”

“They-they-”she stumbled. To my shock, I saw fear in her face as dark and deep as a well. “Because-”

A terrible realization nudged against my consciousness. And Deborah's words on the porch what seemed like an eternity ago: Brian used to be sure our father was alive somewhere…

“What happened to your brother, Deborah?”

Her lips tightened into a grieving line. “I told you. He died.”

“When he was about twelve or so?”

“Yes. We also don't talk about it much.” Her voice lowered to the barest of whispers.

“He died in this house, though, didn't he?” I tried not to picture the shade I'd imagined in the attic.

“Not… not in the house. He died down off the beach.”

“Tell me.”

“He… he went swimming. By himself, late at night, when we were all here for a family reunion. He got a cramp, or something. He got caught out in the surf. He drowned.” Deborah didn't look at me.

I blinked, trying to blur away the image of the boy I'd seen in the attic.

“How did you know? Who told you? Bob Don?” she asked.

“No. Gretchen,” I answered automatically. Actually, I saw your dead brother. Wild, ain't it? I can't say he sends his best; he glared at me with bitter hatred. I took a long, shuddering breath. “I'm so sorry, Deborah.”

Her hand clasped mine. “Why do you want to know about Brian?”

The answer, lurking in my heart, was in my mouth before I could even give it form. “My family is a great one for reminiscing. For keeping the dead alive in our hearts, by sharing stories about them, talking about them, letting those who came after they were gone know about them. Ever read Katherine Anne Porter's story 'Old Mortality'? Talks about how dead relatives get built into these amazing legends. I loved that story, because it rang so true to my own family.” I shook my head. “But the Goertzes are strange. They're not like any other family I've ever seen. They don't talk about their dead. I've yet to hear one memory, one anecdote, about anyone in this family who's passed on. Did you all take a vow of silence?”

“No. It's not entirely true. Tom and I care about my brother, still.”


“I know you think he's a hair-trigger temper, but he's a good man at heart. He was always so good to Brian. Tom's sure-” And her voice broke, as though recognizing the betraying tone of confiding in me.

I changed tactics. “There wasn't anything suspicious about Brian's death, was there?”

Her eyes widened in shock. “Of course not. Of course not! There couldn't be, it was only the family that was here-”

“Just like last night? When Lolly dropped dead?” I grabbed Deborah's arms and pulled her close to me. “You don't believe your aunt committed suicide, do you? Or had a simple heart attack?”

She averted her face from mine. “I don't know what to believe. She was a sick woman, you know that.”

“Tell me about your brother. What was he like?”

She broke away from me and fled to the window, leaning her head against the rattling pane. More thunder sounded, counterpoint to the building wind. “Please don't make me talk about Brian. Please.”

I surrendered, realizing I'd rudely overstepped the bounds of decency in pressing her for information. “Deborah, I'm sorry. I don't mean to upset you.”

“Well, you do.” She pivoted and glared at me. “Meaning well, though, I'm sure. You're awfully busy prying into your new family's past. Ever think you might be ignoring Candace?”

I didn't answer her immediately. “Did Candace complain to you?”

“Jordan. She's a wonderful girl and she loves you so. And I know you love her. Why don't you just take her and leave? The police can't possibly suspect you in Lolly's death-”

“They might.”

“Now you're manufacturing excuses. Are you staying for Bob Don's sake?”

“In a matter of speaking,” I answered carefully. I turned to leave. “And if I stay, Deb, it's because, as strange as it seems to me, y'all are family now. And I've never abandoned family in crisis. Never.”

She didn't say anything as I left.

Candace wasn't in her room, and she wasn't waiting in mine either. Damn. I glanced at my closet and, against my will, a prickle of goose bumps raised themselves along my flesh.

Something's up there.

I took a steadying breath. Don't be ridiculous.

“Counting clouds?” a voice boomed behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned to find Philip glaring at me, lounging against my doorway, his arms crossed casually across his chest.

“No, just thinking.”

“Thinking, Jordan? Like about how you can screw me over next?” His face darkened and he spoke so softly I could barely hear him over the gusts hammering against the house.

“I'm not trying to screw you, Philip,” I retorted.

“Oh, really? So you just manufacture these lies about me for idle amusement?”

“I didn't lie about what I saw. Or what I heard.”

His tone harshened, the old cadence of the schoolyard bully. “You don't want to fuck with me.”

“Or what?” I shot back, feeling a creeping weariness set into my bones. “I'm not the least bit afraid of you, Philip. And if you've committed murder, I'm going to see you go down for it.”

“Ah. The big detective,” he mocked. “I don't suppose it ever occurred to you that- if we had a copy of Bitter Money -I looked at it because I saw Lolly die and I recognized the symptoms of digitalis poisoning?”

“I didn't know you were well-read.”

“You can be snide with me all you want, Jordan. But I didn't murder my aunt, and I didn't plant those pills in your room.”

“Even if you didn't kill Lolly, you're trying to steal from Mutt. You-”

“Why don't you use that vaunted brain of yours? Let's say I did return the copy of that damn book so no one would see it. If you and Mutt hadn't been in the library, I wouldn't have had to be secretive. Think about it.”

I opened my mouth and then shut it lest flies nest.

“You suspected Lolly had been poisoned like the wife in Bitter Money, and Uncle Mutt killed his own sister?”

“You're not the only one who might play Holmes.”

“All right, Sherlock. Why would Mutt kill Lolly?” My eyes narrowed. “And why are you suddenly confiding in me?”

“I would never make the mistake of confiding in you,” he snapped. “You jump to too many conclusions and you act way too impulsively. I'm just asking you, before you go off half-cocked again, to sit and watch the cars go by.”

“Cars? You make no sense.”

He grabbed my arm. He was surprisingly strong and yanked me closer to him. I tried to wrench my arm free, but Philip held me in a relentless grip.

“I'm only warning you for Bob Don's sake. I don't think you're really worth sticking my neck out for, but I'm gonna. You're his kid and he loves you something fierce. So just listen to me. Stay out of this goddamned mess, stay as far away from Uncle Mutt as you can, and go home as soon as you're able.” His slow, languorous drawl had speeded to a brisk pace, kept low to a harsh whisper. His eyes were chips of cobalt in the dim light from my bedside lamp and his heavy face resembled smoothed, implacable marble.

“Let go,” I said distinctly, not bothering to hiss as he had.

He released his vise, and an expression of resignation crossed his face. I yanked my arm away.

“Don't lay a hand on me again, Philip,” I said.

“I won't. I won't bother to warn you again.”

A nervous rap sounded from the door frame, and Aunt Sass stood there, watching us both. “Uncle Mutt's called a family gathering. Downstairs, in the library.”

“With Professor Plum and the candlestick?” Philip joked. No one laughed. He turned without another word and brushed past her.

She watched my face, her own expressionless. “Don't tell me Philip rattled you? I thought you lacked nerves. Or feelings.”

“Of course not.” I started toward the door, not willing to suffer her company. She pushed a hand, hard with rings and nails, against my shoulder.

“My brother claims you and he have settled your differences. Says y'all are truly father and son now.”

“And I'm sure it galls you.” I kept my voice low. I wasn't about to let Sass steam me again.

“Make sure it works out. Don't renege on your promise. I don't want to see my brother hurt any more.”

“Yes. Your support is just the kind he needs.” I moved past her.

“And be kind to Gretchen. No one wants her upset and drinking again,” Sass called to my back.

I turned slowly. Her smugness was practically a low art form. I wanted to tell her I knew all about her family's filthy secret and see if she could squirm. But I held my silence as close as a lover. I didn't answer, just looked at her, and eventually she wriggled under my gaze, crossing her arms in discomfort.

“Why do I believe Gretchen drunk and Bob Don unhappy truly wouldn't matter much to you?”

“That's ridiculous.”

“Do you think they don't deserve to be happy?” After all, he killed your other brother. Shouldn't he pay? But I kept my thoughts to myself.

“I declare there's something wrong with you,” she muttered, pushing past me in her own retreat. I followed her down the stairs to the clan gathering.

The study was funereally quiet. It looked like a room that belonged in a far more placid house. Books stood lined per-fectly on the shelves, patiently awaiting interested readers; a crystal vase of lilies stood on a side table, mournfully drooping in shallow water; the television was tuned to a sports channel, muted. Baseball players moved between the points of the great diamond, the crowd celebrating silently as the runners headed home. The collected Goertzes ignored the excitement on the screen.

I found Candace sitting with Deborah on the couch. Tom stood moodily by the windows, close to the hammer of rain pounding the panes. He did not even look at me as I came in. Philip and Sass, my favorites, stood near the fireplace, heads leaning close together. Wendy roamed the room, bringing drinks. Aubrey stood on the opposite side of the room from Tom, watching the assemblage with guarded eyes. Jake sat in his customary chair, staring off into the air, his face creased with sadness. I wondered if he was finally beginning to mourn for Lolly.

Pop and Gretchen stood near the television, talking in hushed tones. Gretchen caught my eye and gave me a shaky smile.

Maybe everything was going to be okay.

Mutt strode into the study. His body seemed tensed and he darted a quick glance around the entire room, as if quickly tallying attendance. “Get settled, y'all.” He went to the television and switched off the baseball game. “Everyone get a drink, if you don't have one. Wendy'll get them.”

Wendy paused in front of me, since nearly everyone else already had glasses in hand. “What do you want?” she asked.

“Beer, please.” I watched her retrieve a cold bottle of Shiner Bock from the study's bar refrigerator. Aubrey, Gretchen, and Candace all declined alcohol. Aubrey poured tall glasses of cranberry juice for himself and Candace. Gretchen opted for a can of diet cola.

“Everyone got their drink?” Mutt asked as Wendy handed me my beer.

“This ain't no party, Mutt,” Uncle Jake huffed. “If you got a point, make it.”

“I do,” he said, and he hoisted his own glass of bourbon in the air. “To Lolly. To her beloved memory.”

Awkward silence filled the air, then a rush of voices murmured in unison, “To Lolly.” We all sipped at our drinks. I felt little enthusiasm for Mutt's toast; it seemed in odd taste, at best. Pop wouldn't catch my eyes; he was busy watching Gretchen, sitting next to him on an antique chaise.

“And where have the police run off to?” Aubrey inquired. He sipped again at his juice and sent a challenging stare over the rim of his glass at his uncle.

'They have not run off, Aubrey. They've left this family to mourn alone, as they should.” Mutt iced his answer with a chilling tone.

“And without completing their investigation,” Philip quietly observed.

“My sister's death is a terrible tragedy. There's nothing to investigate.” Mutt didn't act like he'd heard Philip's aside.

“Cost you a pretty penny, didn't it?” Aubrey said. He took another hard swig of his juice and the look on his face suggested he'd consider spitting it at Mutt.

I sipped my beer and watched Mutt's reaction. He shook his head sadly at Aubrey. “You perplex me, Aubrey. That's just the word for what you do. You nag this whole family to get in touch with their feelings, but as soon as we start expressing grief, you turn up your nose. Do we stink like shit to you?”

“This charade-it isn't grief!” He stared around the room. “Has anyone here cried? Is anyone sorry's she's dead?”

“Oh, Aubrey,” I heard Gretchen murmur. “Don't. Don't.”

“How dare you ask such a question!” Uncle Mutt stormed. “How dare you ask if I'm sorry my sister's dead!” Aubrey didn't flinch.

“Did you gather us here just for a toast, Uncle Mutt?” Tom quietly asked. “Or was there something else you wanted?”

“I-” Uncle Mutt fell silent. I thought-oddly-he was unprepared for the question. Tom sipped at his drink and I saw mud ingrained deeply around his fingernails.

“How generous Jordan is,” Aubrey said. “I see he toasted Lolly. After she sent him those despicable letters.”

“Don't you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk?” Can-dace snapped. “God, Aubrey, you're like an endless self-help tape.” I glanced at her. She was not usually irritable-at least with anyone but me. Her skin looked flushed, and she sipped at her cranberry juice while scowling at Aubrey.

“It's called forgiveness, Aubrey,” I added, before he could lay into Candace. “I forgive Lolly for what she did to me. I'm in an awfully forgiving mood these days.” I didn't glance at Pop, but I figured a hint of a smile might be on his face.

“How fortunate for the rest of us,” Sass observed from her perch.

“Stop this bickering,” Uncle Jake said. He rubbed at his chest, a faint wheeze issuing from his mouth. “Y'all make me tired. Too tired. Tell Lolly to get my pills.”

Deborah stood and hurried to him. “Aunt Lolly's not here, Uncle Jake.” She glanced at Mutt, who also went to his uncle's side.

“Good God, don't all hover,” Jake said. “I'm okay. Just… I'd like to get to bed. Take my pills.” Deborah eased the old man up to his feet, and Tom pushed past Mutt to take Jake's other arm. Sass tried to help, but Jake waved her away. “I don't need a damned parade, Cecilia. Deb and Tom'll manage. Good night, all.” He made an absent gesture of farewell, and the rest of the family bade him a quiet chorus of good nights as he left, propped up by Tom and Deborah.

“Maybe we should call a doctor for him,” Sass suggested.

“Deborah'll take good care of him,” Mutt said. He went to the bar and refilled his glass with a sloppy pour of bourbon. Wendy stood behind the bar, watching him-and us-with arms folded, wrapped in her own silence.

“What'll you do with Uncle Jake now that Lolly's gone?” I asked. “He's been worried you'll ship him off to a nursing home.”

“Hell. I ain't gonna shove poor Jake out on an iceberg, if that's what you mean. Goertzes take care of family. Always family.” He turned back from the bar and I saw he was a little drunk. Mutt favored himself with another big swig of bourbon and raised his glass once more, as though one awkward moment wasn't enough. “Here's to Lolly. Our Lolly.”

The second salute was met with less enthusiasm. I felt fidgety, as though I was sitting through a too-rehearsed play. As the others reluctantly quaffed their drinks I stood for my own toast.

'To other absent kin,” I said, tipping my beer bottle toward Mutt. “To Brian. May he rest in peace.”

The storm intensified outside, or else the sudden, shocking silence in the room made it seem louder.

“Sit down, son,” Pop said from his chair. Gretchen's face paled.

'To Brian,” Aubrey murmured, downing more of his juice. He shifted from foot to foot, as if uncomfortable.

“Toasting dead children is horribly shameful.” That was Sass's contribution.

“You're right,” I shot back at her. I didn't know if it was the beer warming my veins, but I felt sick and tired of the hypocrisy seeping through the rooms.

“I guess you know about the tragedy of Brian,” Mutt answered. “And I don't appreciate you making light of it.”

“I certainly am doing no such thing, Uncle Mutt.” He wasn't the only one who could frost his voice. “I feel sick and sad I never got to know my cousin Brian. I feel cheated. He sounds like he was a great kid.”

“He was.” Sass made a coughing noise. “He was a wonderful, kind boy.”

Philip stared at the floor. Aubrey turned away and downed the rest of his drink. Pop put an arm around Gretchen's slumping shoulders. I glanced again at Sass. To my amazement, she was crying, fat tears rolling along her rouged cheek.

What did you know-the beast could weep. I wanted to say, I'm sorry. I'm sorry he's gone. But I didn't. I said nothing.

Aubrey leaned against the back of the chair Uncle Jake had vacated. “Maybe we should go check on Uncle Jake. Tom might've buried him. You know Tom's been roaming around the island with a shovel?” Aubrey looked excited. His skin was flushed, his eyes wide, and he dragged a hand across his lips. I saw with distaste a ropy string of drool stuck to his hand.

“Shovel?” Mutt said. “What the hell for? Ain't no buried treasures on Sangre.”

“So what is buried here, Uncle Mutt?” Aubrey persisted. I turned to stare at Mutt. Of course. If I could gather suspicions in a matter of days-what of Aubrey, or Tom, or Deborah, who'd had years to think and reflect on the events of that long-ago night?

“Nothing. Nothing,” Mutt said.

I glanced back at Aubrey, just as his eyes rolled and he fell away from the chair. His knees buckled and he collapsed bonelessly, his head striking the rug, his empty glass of juice shattering on the hardwood floor. He gasped in hard breaths and began to retch, moaning.

Sass, Gretchen, Pop, Philip-the whole room rushed to his side, crowding around him, and Gretchen began screaming out for Deborah to hurry back down. Her voice was like a banshee's to haunt one's dreams. Aubrey's face, slick with vomit, turned toward mine as Sass tried to ease him into a more comfortable position. His pupils were huge, like black holes of death.

The broken cranberry juice glass lay at my feet.

Oh, no.

I leaped toward the couch as Candace stood and, cradling her stomach, folded to the floor. I seized her arms in mine and pulled her close to me. Her skin felt clammy against my hands. The thump of her heart against mine seemed thud-dingly slow.

“I'm sick,” she said, and vomited across my back. I grabbed her and headed for the bar sink, shoving Mutt and Wendy out of the way. I fumbled for a glass of water, forced it down her. She threw it back up, over my fingers, shuddering. Okay, maybe vomiting was better, to get whatever filth was in her system out of her. I shoved my fingers into her mouth, doubling her over the sink, and felt another warm rinse of bile cascade past my hand.

“Get some mustard,” I hollered at Gretchen. “Mix it in water.”

Across the room, I saw Philip stand up from kneeling next to Aubrey, a look of disbelief on his face.

Pop rushed to the bar, holding on to Candace's side. I pulled her head back, mopping at her face, screaming at my father to get Deborah. Candace stared up at the ceiling, as though looking for the entrance. Her breath shook.

“No, no,” she gasped. “Jordy! No!”

“Baby, we'll get help,” I said. “You'll be okay.” I glanced at Pop. “Call 911, and get the boat. We've got to get them to a doctor!”

Pop stumbled for the phone.

“Jordan.” Wendy stood behind me, and she stepped around to support Candace's other side. Wendy's face, usually emotionless, was now crumpled with shock.

“Oh, no,” Candace moaned, her damp fingers squeezing mine numb. Hard cramps doubled her over, and I couldn't see her agonized face. “No. Please, not the baby. Not the baby.”


It was over.

I sat on the floor outside of Candace's room, banished for the moment by Deborah. I could hear quiet noises of movement inside as Deborah tended to her patient. Blood- Candace's and that of our child-slicked my hands and I stared at my reddened, trembling fingers. Outside, the wind continued its angry roar, but it was a mere whisper compared with the rage I felt inside.

I didn't even hear Pop approach and kneel down on the floor next to me. He didn't speak, he just wrapped awkward arms around me, ignoring my bloodied state, and I hugged him back fiercely. I thought tears would come, should come, but I felt empty and barren inside. But Pop's hold was comforting, and he smelled like a dad should, of mint and bourbon and sweat.

After a minute he spoke. “How's she doing?”

I managed to speak, my voice not sounding like my usual raspy drawling baritone. It sounded like the voice of an old man. “The bleeding's stopped. She's resting. She's still showing some effects from the poison, but Deb induced vomiting with warm mustard water and she said she thinks she's going to be okay.” I could hardly make my mouth form the next words. “She was pregnant. And she hadn't told me. Our baby is gone.”

“I am so sorry, son, so very sorry,” Pop whispered into my hair.

“The phones?” I asked.

“Still down. The storm-” He didn't finish his sentence.

“Then a boat. We've got to get her to a hospital-”

“Son.” He pulled away and his blue eyes stared hard into mine. “We can't take a boat out in this mess. It should pass soon, we'll get her and Aubrey more help-”

“I can't just sit here!” I bolted to my feet. “We have to get her help! Deborah can't do everything-” I gestured helplessly toward the shut door.

“You listen to me!” Pop grabbed me and shook me hard. “Jordan. Deb has done everything she can. But we can't call for help right now, and we can't risk taking a boat out in this storm. We could swamp in minutes, and what good is that?” He squeezed my arms. “The phones could be back up at any minute. We'll keep trying, we'll get them help.”

I steadied myself. The last thing Candace needed was me hell-bent and foolish. “How's Aubrey? Deb left Candace for a while to tend to him.”

“Not good. He drank more of the poison than Candace did. But he's holding on. Sass and Gretchen are with him.” Pop's eyes teared, and I realized Aubrey mattered a lot to him.

“Oh, Pop, I'm sorry.” I embraced him. “I know you're worried sick about Aubrey, too. I hope he's okay.”

“Sass-said she hopes Candace is all right.” Pop averted his face. “I know you and Sass haven't gotten along. She's just a tad protective of me.”

“I don't want to talk about her,” I said abruptly. “Okay?”

“Gretchen said she'll be up in a minute, she's worried sick about poor Candace.” Pop tactfully changed subjects. “She'd have been up here, it's just that Sass needed more help with Aubrey-”

“I understand, Pop.” I turned from him and leaned my head against the wall. The door opened and Deborah slipped outside. She looked exhausted, dark bags sagging beneath her eyes. Her hands were clean, but I could see the red tinge of blood still on her knuckles and her unpolished fingernails.

“Deb?” I asked. “Is she going to be okay?”

“She's resting, and the vomiting has stopped. The bleeding hasn't resumed. But I don't know what poison was used, and I don't know what else to do. Just treat the symp- toms as I can.” She leaned against the door. “She needs a doctor, Jordan. Is the phone working yet?”

“No,” I said. “And Pop says it's way too rough to risk a boat right now.”

“A rough boat ride might do more harm,” Deborah said softly.

“Can I go back in now?” I asked.

“Yes. But she needs to rest. She needs someone with her at all times, in case the symptoms worsen.”

Gretchen came down the hall then, looking as weary as the rest of us. Her eyes were reddened from weeping.

“Oh, God,” Pop said. “Aubrey?”

“He's still with us. Sass is asking for you, Deb.” Gretchen leaned against her husband.

“I'll go check on him. One of y'all stay with Candace.” She hurried down the hallway. I watched her leave.

“Pop, stay here a minute, would you?” I turned and went into her room.

One lamp was on, and it cast a harsh light across the pallor of Candace's skin. She breathed slowly, and I saw a thin stream of drool issue from her mouth. I wiped it away with a towel by the bedside. Her eyes lay half-open and I brushed her hair back with my hand. She smelled of vomit. I pulled the sheets back and stared at the towel jammed between her legs. Three more, soaked with blood, lay crumpled in the corner. Deb had been in a hurry. I didn't want to think about what might lie inside. Hands shaking, I picked up the towels and moved them into the bathroom. I didn't want Candace to see them.

She had been poisoned and she'd lost a lot of blood. Her skin was cool and clammy to my touch. I brushed her cheek softly and her eyes opened, her pupils huge and dark, the blue of her irises barely circles around the blacks.

“Baby?” I stroked her face with one hand.

“Daddy?” Her eyes shut again.

“No, sweetheart, it's Jordan. I'm here.”

“Oh.” She exhaled harshly, and another cascade of spit oozed from her lips. I wiped it away. “Is the chickory on yet? You know you gotta drink chickory when you're in New Orleans.”

I grimaced. Whatever substance had nearly killed her also painted illusory pictures in her mind. “No, baby, the coffee's not on yet. I'll go make you some, though.”

“Um. Those damn birds sure are making a racket.”

Tears stung my eyes. “I'll make them be quiet, sugar.”

She licked at her lips and shrugged away from my touch. “Fucking birds'll wake up the baby.” A dark flush colored her skin and she bent to her side, retching. The heaves were dry and I held her until they subsided. She rolled back over on her back and grew still, her breathing a little more even.


She sniffed once and didn't answer, slipping into sleep. I sat and watched her for five minutes, dabbing at the saliva that slicked her chin. When her sleep seemed even, I went back out into the hall. Gretchen was murmuring to Pop in a soft, reassuring voice.

“Gretchen? Would you mind sitting with Candace for a minute? She's resting a little more comfortably now.”

“Sure, hon.” She broke away from Pop and regarded me for a moment. Then she surprised me with a fierce hug. “It's going to be all right, Jordy. It will be.” Then she broke away from me and went into Candace's room, easing the door shut behind her.

Pop stared at me with bleary eyes.

“You tell me why. Why would anyone hurt Candace?” I asked.

“I don't know-” he began, and a hard fury seized me. I whirled and grabbed his shirt hard.

“Enough fucking secrets!” I hissed. “I found Paul's jewelry in the attic. I know you killed him.”

His jaw worked. “Wha-what?”

“I know Paul came here after he murdered Nora. He intended to kill you and Gretchen. You killed him in self-defense. And the whole family conspired to cover it up. Y'all forged his suicide note that Mutt found, or pretended to find. Y'all dumped his body somewhere, here on the island or out in the bay-but kept his jewelry. I found it.”

“Oh, God, oh, God,” Pop whimpered. He stumbled away from me, but I didn't release his shirt. I heard the rip of fabric. He stared at me with frenzied eyes.

“I can hazard a guess at what happened here tonight. Aubrey's writing a book on screwed-up families, and God knows he's got himself an unbelievable case study here. Maybe he found out the truth about Paul's death. Maybe someone decided Aubrey knew too much, and had to be gotten rid of, like he wasn't anything more than a fucking insect.” My voice cracked. “And Candace made the mistake of drinking cranberry juice out of the same pitcher. Goddamn it, you tell me who did this.”

Pop sobbed. I eased my hold on his shirt, my heart pounding. If he didn't tell me-

“I don't know,” he muttered.

“You were in Lolly's room this morning. You took something out of Sweetie's bed. Was it Paul's jewelry? Is that where she'd hid it?”

“I don't know what you're talking about, Jordy-”

“You listen to me. If you don't tell me, it's over between us. I will walk away from here, and you'll never see me again. You will be out of my heart and out of my mind.” Words, fueled by grief and anger, poured from me like foulness from a suppurating wound. “I'll even leave Mirabeau. Candace and I will go and you'll never see us again. You tell me what's happening here.”

His entire face trembled. “Oh, God, I never wanted you to know. My brother-my bruh-bruh-” He wept then. He wept like a man possessed by a demon and then shown the face of God. We sank to the floor together in our embrace, his head turned away so I couldn't see his tears. Gretchen opened the door and stared at us. I shook my head at her and she retreated back into Candace's room.

I let him cry, then wiped his face with the bottom of my T-shirt. After his sobs subsided, he stared at the colorful patterns of the Persian rug on the floor. I cradled Pop's heavy jaw in my hands and turned his face to mine.

“I will still love you, no matter what you did,” I whispered. “No matter what. But this isn't going to continue. I'm not going to let whoever's behind this misery get away.” He tried to pivot his face away and I wrenched it back, squeezing hard. “Where does it end? My child will never be now. Candace and Aubrey may die. Lolly's already dead. You tell me who this is.”

“I honestly don't know. Honestly, believe me.” He blinked. “How did you know what I did?”

“Gretchen told me. She's known ever since Paul died.”

His blue eyes, bloodshot, widened. “She knew?”

“Yes. All these years, she knew. And she still loved you.”

He made an unintelligible sound.

“What happened that night? Tell me.”

“I-we were all here. Mutt was beside himself at the thought of a killer in our family. He was deeply worried about Deborah and Brian, how this would affect them. We had buried Nora here 'cause she had no people of her own. I didn't want to believe Paul had killed her. He and I hadn't gotten along since Gretchen divorced him and married me. I'd tried, but he wouldn't. I couldn't help but feel as though Nora's death was somehow my fault-if I'd gotten sense into Paul, or if I'd just stayed away from Gretchen-Nora never would have come into our family, never would have died.” He dragged the back of his hand across his face. “Nora was a fine woman, a good person. She didn't deserve to die like she did.”

“And you went to her grave that night?” I prompted.

He nodded miserably. “I don't know-maybe I just wanted to be alone, apologize to her for the mess I'd created in our lives.”

“What Paul did wasn't your fault, Pop. You're not responsible for his actions.”

He shook his head. “I felt like her blood was on my hands. I couldn't help but blame myself.” A shiver ran through him. “He was there, hiding behind one of the tombs. God, Jordan, the look on his face. Haggard and crazy. He'd stolen a boat from Port Lavaca and come to the other side of Sangre. He had a gun-said he and I had unfinished business. My brother, my own brother.” His voice faded and his eyes went distant with remembered grief. “But it wasn't Paul, it was some stranger in his skin.”

He took a fortifying breath. I squeezed his shoulders in support. “I told him to put the gun down, he and I could settle our differences with fists, like gentlemen. He laughed, kind of crazy like, said he couldn't do that. Had three bullets, he said-one for me, one for Gretchen, the last for himself. So he meant to kill himself, too.” He paused. “Not that it makes what I did no better.

“He told me to stand on Nora's grave. Said it was fitting, my blood could soak the ground where she lay. Said he'd kill Gretchen there, too, if he could. I did what he said. I'm so ashamed. I'd pissed my pants and I stank. Paul laughed at me and he raised the gun. I knew then he truly meant to shoot me.” He touched my jaw. “You know that fear, son, I know you do. We've both been there.”

“Yes,” I managed. “I know what it means to see in another person's eyes that they mean to kill you.”

“He leveled the gun at me. I was begging him not to, that we were brothers. He cocked the gun and I quit thinking-I just threw myself at him. He fired and missed. I felt the bullet go through my hair. I tackled him and we fought for the gun, and I got my hands on it and it went off and oh God there was so much blood and this smell of burned flesh-” The memories weighed too hard on him and he bowed his head.

“Pop,” I said.

“He was dead in my arms. He didn't say a word before he died. I dropped him and I ran back to the house. I was out of my mind. Uncle Jake and Sass caught me out on the porch and I told them what happened. Sass got Lolly and Mutt and told them. Aunt Lolly was hysterical that I'd go to jail, the terrible shame the family was already suffering would just get worse. So Uncle Mutt-he said we'd make it look like suicide. I forged the note. Mutt, Jake, and Lolly did away with the body-I don't even know where it is. Mutt just told me they'd taken care of it. The police accepted the story. And we all thought that was the end.” He sagged against the wall, exhausted now that his tale was told. A vein of lightning blasted the sky and its elfin light played along our faces from the hall's window. “One of them must've taken Paul's jewelry off of him.”

“I think it was hidden in Lolly's room, in Sweetie's bed. Wendy said she saw you there-”

He shook his head firmly. “Then she's lying. I never was in that room.”

I swallowed. “The murderer must be Sass, Mutt, or Jake, then.”

Pop coughed. Misery clouded his face. “But Gretchen found out. You found out. Maybe one of the other kids did, too. I mean, you said that's why Aubrey got poisoned, because he knew something.”

I closed my eyes. Aubrey's cold chatter during the family gathering, idly challenging: You know Tom's been roaming around the island with a shovel?

I hugged Pop close. “Thank you for trusting me. I love you.”

“Son-” he began, but I stood.

“I need to go check on Candace. And Aubrey.” I paused, my hand on the door.

Gretchen sat quietly by Candace, who slept. I watched the gentle rise of her breath and watched Gretchen's fingers laced with hers.

“She's sleeping,” Gretchen said, not looking at me. “She seems better. Deb may have saved her life.”

I went and kissed Candace's forehead. “Will you stay with her while I attend to some business?”

“What-where are you going?”

“I'm making sure no one else gets hurt, even if I have to blow this family apart to do it.” I touched Gretchen's shoulder. “Bob Don's going to be okay. He is.”

“I don't want him to get in trouble for what he did-” she began, and I pointed at Candace.

“See her? That's the price of secrecy in this family. The price of wronged pride. No more, Gretchen. You or I or Pop could be next.”

She gulped. “Yes, of course, I'll stay with her. I'll take good care of her, Jordy.”

“I know you will. Thank you.” I gave Candace a final look before I shut the door behind me.

I went downstairs to Aubrey's room. Deborah stood outside, testing the hallway phone. She slammed it down in disgust.

“Phone still dead?” I asked.

“Yes. Goddamned storm. Goddamned island.” She rubbed her eyes with her hands.

“How's Aubrey?”

“Holding on. He's not conscious and his vomiting has stopped. But his heart rate's slow, and I don't have anything to give him for it.”

“Was it digitalis, like Lolly?”

“I don't know. Some of the symptoms are similar-the vomiting, the clammy skin, the delirium. But I don't think either of them got a dose the size of Lolly's.”

I didn't speak.

“I can't be sure what they were given.” Deborah leaned against the wall. “I need to check on Candace.”

“She's sleeping, and she seems to be resting better. Gretchen's with her.” I took Deb's cold hand in mine. “You've saved her life. Thank you.”

“Oh, Jordan.” Deborah's mouth set in a tight line. “I'm so sorry. So sorry about the baby.”

I swallowed. I had no words.

“I knew-she confided in me. When you saw us out on the dock. She was trying to find the right way to tell you.”

Bitterness welled in me. “Oh, God. She shouldn't have worried about it. She could have just told me.”

“She was concerned about how you'd take the news of being a dad. You were already dealing with so much with your own father. I think she was just biding for a better time.”

“How far along was she-”

“About six weeks. And Jordan, don't be upset with her. Please. She didn't want you to feel trapped.”

“Oh, God, I'm not upset with her.” But a secret place in my heart froze. Why couldn't she just have told me? I was sick of secrets, sick of shadows. Part of me wanted to tell Deborah the horrible truth about her father; let one more secret end here. But I held back. It was a dreadful message to deliver, and I decided those responsible needed to confess their crimes. Uncle Mutt was going to sing like a canary before I was through.

“May I see Aubrey?” I asked.

Deborah nodded. “I'll go check on Candace. Just go on in. Aunt Sass is with him.” She squeezed my hand and went up the stairs.

I rapped on the door. A voice called, “Come in.”

I slipped into the dim room. Aubrey lay under the sheets, a sheen on his flushed face. Like Candace's, his room reeked of vomit, a sickening perfume scenting the air. Aunt Sass sat by his bed, dabbing at his lips with a cloth. She glanced up at me then stared.

“What do you want?” she asked. Her voice was curiously blank, drained of its usual verve and sarcasm.

“How is he?”

“He was hallucinating earlier. Now he's asleep. I don't want to think he may not wake up.” She turned back to her son's form. “Candace?”

“The same. Perhaps not as bad. She didn't drink as much as he did.” I pulled a chair up to the opposite side of Aubrey's bed. Sass watched me for a long moment, then turned away.

I went to his closet-no tennis shoes there. I checked on the other side of the bed, aware of Sass's eyes on me. A scuffed pair of white leather sneakers lay on their sides. I examined the bottom of one; the tread was similar to the print left in the attic's dust.

So Aubrey had been the one sneaking around the attic. And the one who'd hidden Paul's jewelry, and probably the one who took it from Lolly's room while I hid in the closet. So why had Wendy lied for him?

Sass wiped at her son's mouth, although I couldn't see any spittle had formed. “Mutt says we can't take a boat yet. Have to wait for the storm to break.”

“Mutt doesn't run this family anymore,” I said softly, and her hand jerked along Aubrey's lips.

She made no answer, so I pressed on: “Don't you think he's pulled the strings long enough on you all?”

“I don't know what you mean.” Her eyes locked on Aubrey's sleeping, flushed face. His breath seemed a bare whisper.

“If Deborah didn't get the poison out of him soon enough, he'll die. His heart will fail.”

Her glower raked across my face. “Why do you say such horrible things to me?”

“Tell me who did this to him, Sass.”

“I don't know,” she snapped. “If I did, I'd settle the score.”

“Really? You knew Bob Don killed Paul and didn't seem to hold a grudge.”

She exhaled in a long, slow sigh. “Get out of here. I don't know what you're talking about.”

“End this charade now, Sass. Silence has brought this family nothing but pain. It's put Lolly in her grave. And it may put Candace and Aubrey there, too.” At this, she shuddered.

“No, he's going to be okay. My baby's going to be just fine.” She uttered her assurance with a strident tone.

“You know, if you and I were ever on the same side, we could kick serious ass,” I murmured, and she sobbed. I sat as her crying intensified. Aubrey moved restlessly in his doze.

“He knew, didn't he? He found out about the cover-up cooked up between the elder Goertzes to protect Pop for Paul's death.”

Her lips narrowed in answer.

“And someone found out he knew. And decided to shut him up. Except Candace got taken out along with him.”

“I'm sorry about your girlfriend, I hope she's okay-”

“She might be. But she lost our baby.” Sass's face drained of color and she made a noise in her throat. “My baby's lost. Your baby might be lost, too. Is all this worth your silence?”

“I don't know who did this to him. I don't know who killed Lolly.”

“Do you have a suspicion?”

She shook her head. “It could be any of them.”

“What's the bad blood between Aubrey and Tom?”

“I don't know. They always got along fine until Aubrey came back from being a runaway. I think Tom disapproved of Aubrey's mistakes.”

I stood. “I believe I'm going to have a few words with Tom.”

“Maybe-maybe you could just let this alone,” she whispered. “Aubrey's doing better, I think, and I'm sure Can-dace will be fine. You can leave and never come back, and I'll be sure Aubrey stays away and keeps his mouth shut. No one has to know your father killed Paul.”

“And no one has to know you covered it up?” I took a step back. “You're more worried about your own skin than you are about your son's.”

The accusation wounded her and she stiffened. “That's not true.” But her eyes didn't linger near me, or near her unconscious son's face.

“No wonder he ran away.” I headed for the door. “Where are the notes for his book, Sass? His laptop?” I gestured at the empty desk near his bed. “Did they get up and walk away?”

She evaded my question. “What're you going to do, Jordan?” Sass challenged. “Tell your tale to the police? Lead them to Paul's body? You have no evidence. And if you blow the whistle, your father might be tried for murder. Is that what you want? Huh? Answer me!”

I hesitated by the closed door before I turned back to her. “Who said anything about the police, Sass? Mutt's convinced the police to leave us alone. I'm not so sure I'm interested in law as much as justice. I don't need the police for that.”

“Then you're just like the rest of us. No worse and no better. I shouldn't have called you a mistake. You're a Goertz, through and through.” She sank down next to her son and began to stroke his face with hard caresses, as though she could pour her own life's energies into him.

I shut the door on her and her words. Tom and Mutt had questions to answer.


As I went down the stairs, a jab of pain in my own stomach nearly floored me. I realized I hadn't eaten a bite since lunch. I needed to keep up my strength, although eating food of any sort in this house seemed risky. I'd find some canned soup-or other safe comestible-in the kitchen, and fix dinner for myself, Pop, Gretchen, and Deborah. Hell, maybe I'd even fix something for Sass. And perhaps Aubrey and Candace could be helped by food.

I skirted past the voices in the study. I could hear Jake and Mutt arguing loudly. Apparently Jake had been retrieved from his bedroom with all the panic and had found a second wind to bicker with Mutt. I hurried to the kitchen, finding it deserted. I busied myself with pots and pans. Grilled-cheese sandwiches and canned tomato soup should be safe, I reasoned.

My eyes stung; the combo was a favorite lunch of Can-dace's. I tried not to think about her-about the baby-too much. Not out of selfishness. It's just that I didn't want to be crumpled into a fetal ball, too consumed by grief to act. Or avenge.

I didn't have the luxury of remorse right now. The knot I felt in my guts would have to wait for a better time to unravel. When Candace and I could mourn together.

My shoulder blades itched as I worked, as though Sass's words had left a spike in my back. Just exactly how did I propose to bring this poisoner to justice without exposing Pop as a killer? Even though I knew he'd shot Paul in self-defense-or even by accident-the family had conspired to cover the death up as though it'd been the most heinous fratricide ever committed. What if the police and the courts viewed Pop's actions as homicide? By continuing to pry into the past, I might be sending my father to prison.

I emptied the tomato soup-its tanginess nipping at my nose-into a pot and turned on the heat. The soup resembled sour, thick blood and again I fought back thoughts of Candace. Red. Reddish soup, reddish blood on her legs, on my hands. I remembered last Valentine's Day-the scattering of red rose petals on my bed, our laughter at my silly antics, which seemed so far away.

I belonged by her side.

I wondered: if I did nothing, would anyone act? Lolly was dead. Aubrey and Candace might die. And with a mad poisoner in the family, would any of us truly be safe?

I was risking my father's freedom by proceeding with an investigation. But I was letting a murderer get away, scot-free, if I didn't intervene. I slathered butter on bread, stuck cheese in between, and began to grill the sandwiches, the heat from the stove offering a little comfort as the storm continued to rage.

“Smells good,” a voice said behind me. I hadn't heard Tom come into the kitchen. He stood by the refrigerator and fished a can of cola from its depths. He glanced at the makeshift dinner I was preparing. “And very smart, too, Jordan. Cheese and bread and canned soup. Safe and difficult to tamper with.”

“Have you given the subject of poisoning a lot of thought, Tom?” A cold anger threaded through my body as I watched him lounge against the refrigerator. He popped open his Coke and took a long draw.

“Well, Gretchen came down and said Aubrey and Candace seemed to be improving-”

“Candace was pregnant. She miscarried.”

My words struck like a slap. His mouth gaped. “Jesus Christ, Jordan, I'm sorry. Holy hell.”

I moved away from the stove and toward him. “You nearly beat Aubrey to a pulp today. And when you were putting Jake to bed tonight, he mentioned you'd been digging around the island. Is there some connection there, Tom?”

He stiffened and his pale specter's eyes locked on mine. “I had nothing to do with Aubrey's poisoning.”

“Then who did?” Only a chopping block, with a score of magnetically attached kitchen utensils dangling above it, separated us.

“I don't know.”

“Why were you pummeling Aubrey earlier today?”

“It's a private matter between him and me.”

I shook my head. “Wrong. No private matters left, Tom. Not after murder and attempted murder.” My skin felt white-hot as I stared at him. Why wouldn't he tell me the truth? “If you hurt Candace-if you killed my baby-there's no place on earth you'll be able to hide from me, Tom.”

He tensed, his muscles straining like whipcord under his shirt. He was older than me, but tautly fit. “You and I have no quarrel.”

“As long as I stay out of your business, right?”


“If Aubrey lives, do you think he'll continue to be quiet about your feud? Especially if he doesn't know who laced his juice?”

Tom's face blanched. “Aubrey knows how to keep his silence.”

“Rules change when someone tries to kill you. Or tries to kill someone you love.” My voice was barely a whisper, but my words seemed to thunder in my ears. I could feel the war drum of my own pulse, a maddening beat. A connection suddenly formed in my mind.

“That shovel. What have you been digging for, Tom? Buried treasure? Or maybe buried bodies?”

“I don't have to listen to this crap-” He began to turn away from me, and I whirled him back around with a strength I didn't know I had.

“You shit. You knew. You're looking for Paul's body, aren't you?”

Anger darkened his features and I stood there slack-jawed. He jerked his head toward the stove, where a plume of smoke billowed from the pan. “Your sandwiches are burning.”

“Tell me. Tell me what you know-” I barely had time to utter the request before his fist came flying at me. I didn't react soon enough. He clubbed me on the side of the head and I fell, twinkling lights playing about my eyes and the odor of singed cheese in my nostrils.

Tom leaned down toward me, his voice nearly soothing. “Little boys who don't know better get killed around here. I'm not your enemy. Put some ice on your cheek before it swells.” He turned to saunter out.

Not hardly.

I grabbed him before he'd taken four steps, whirled him hard once, and belted my fist across his smirking face. He staggered back and I pile-drived another punch into his gut. His breath whooshed out satisfyingly and his bone-pale eyes bulged in surprise.

“Catch your breath,” I advised him, “and get ready to talk, Tom.”

“You,” he managed, a dribble of blood oozing from his cut lip. “You shit. You made a mistake, buddy.” He launched himself at me, mowing me down in his embrace and tumbling us both against the kitchen's back door. Glass shattered, wood splintered, and as he collapsed heavily against me, every bone in my body cried in agony. Rain, roaring in from the broken door pane, splashed our faces.

I lashed out a kick, catching him in the chest, and he cussed at me with his meager lung power. I scrambled past him, trying to get the advantage by not being pinned against the door. He clawed at my legs, his nails raking down my bare skin. I twisted away, but not quick enough; his pum-meling fists rained down on the back of my head, driving me to the floor. He smashed a hard blow between my shoulder blades-at a spot no doubt marked hit here for maximum pain -and my wind abandoned me. I tasted the grit of the floor, a nasty mix of dirt, salt, and grease.

“Goddamn little idiot,” he huffed from above me. “You fucking think you know what you're doing. You don't.” I couldn't see Tom's face. I didn't dare look. I was too busy concentrating on inching my leg into position.

“You don't want to delve deep here, okay? Otherwise, you end up like Aubrey-”

Keep lecturing me, butthead.

“-or maybe you end up like Brian-”

Oh, shit.

“-and I don't want to have to pound sense into you-”

He didn't get the opportunity. I swung my leg hard, catching him in mid-sentence and off guard, my foot connecting decisively with the tenderest area of the knee. He hollered and collapsed like fallen timber, his body splaying out next to me. I sprang to my feet, my whole body a bruise, and I seized one of Wendy's heavy blades, held above the chopping block by a long magnetic strip. The handle felt smooth and firm in my hand as I tumbled down onto Tom's chest, my legs pinning down his arms and the cool of the blade hovering near his throat. His eyes widened.

“Jordan-” he gasped.

“Shut up for a minute,” I gasped back. “Just shut up.” I let the knife's tip pirouette near his flesh, barely skimming his Adam's apple.

Tom shut up.

I pushed down on his forehead with my left hand, my fingers tangling in his thick shock of hair. My voice was ragged, a stranger's rasp. “Now you listen. Secrets suck. Believe me, I know this. And secrets here have killed my baby and nearly killed the woman I love. So, Tom, you are going to tell me every secret I need to know.” I drew the knife lightly across his throat, tracing a wrinkle.


“Tom. You are standing between me and the person who tried to kill Candace.” I whispered: “And between me and the person who killed my baby. It's not a place you want to be.”

He clenched his eyes shut.

A voice sounded from my throat, but not one I recognized as my own. “I'll cut you to the bone, Tom. No amount of plastic surgery will ever make your face right again. You tell me what I want to know.”

A thick tear rolled from one of his eyes.

I suddenly wanted to cast the knife aside. I felt a violent surge of disgust thrum through my whole body. I had resorted to the basest violence, the most cowardly threats. A sick swell of nausea rolled through me, settling deep in my guts.

“Please.” I coughed.

“It's Mutt,” he breathed, a shuddery whisper. “Mutt poisoned them.”

My breath froze in my throat. Thunder roared. “Why?”

“Aubrey knows Paul died here on the island. Not suicide-”

“How?” I demanded. “How does Aubrey know?”

“Don't know,” Tom gasped. “Claims… he's got proof that Paul didn't commit suicide.”

“What proof?”

“Don't know-Aubrey won't tell me. I got so mad at him I tried to pummel it out of him-but you and Deborah stopped me.” His eyes rolled around, trying to see where I held the blade.

I moved the knife fractionally back from Tom's throat. “And how did you know about Paul's death?”

“Brian told… me he suspected Mutt had lied about Paul's suicide.”

“When did Brian tell you?”

“The day before he drowned.”

“My God. That was fourteen years ago.”


What had Tom said to me after he'd walloped me? Little boys who don't know better get killed around here.

“Brian-” I murmured. “It wasn't an accident, was it? Oh, God, they killed him. They killed that little boy. Only twelve years old. Just like they killed his father.”

“Not they,” Tom managed to speak. “Just Mutt. And Aubrey's protecting him. Or at least he was.”

“You're sure it was Mutt?”

“Can't prove it. Would love to. Before he gets away with it.”

“He won't. There's no statute of limitations on murder.” I threw the knife away; it clattered across the floor. I stared down at Tom with a deep and abiding shame for what I'd done.

“Except death. And I want to nail the bastard before this brain cancer kills him.” Tom rubbed at his throat and eyed me with new respect. “They teach you to punch like that in library school?”

“I never went,” I answered. I stood, staggering away from him. The grilled-cheese sandwiches were blackened lumps in the ruined pan and I hurled them, pan and all, into the sink. The soup had boiled over, leaving a noxious bubbling mass. It, too, went into the sink.

“You and I should be on the same side,” I said to him. He'd pulled himself to his feet. “Why do you want to fight everyone?”

“How am I supposed to know whose side you're on?” he grumbled.

“Oh, for Christ's sake.” I wanted to throttle him. “Do you think I want to protect Mutt if he poisoned Candace?” My head and back throbbed, aching from Tom's fists.

“No. But you probably want to protect your daddy.” Tom lowered his voice. Oh, God. He knows, too.

The kitchen door swung open. “What is that smell?” Wendy asked as she entered, followed by Philip. Both of them stopped and stared at the mess: a damaged back door, smoking pans in the sink, Tom bleeding from his mouth, my face a massive bruise.

“What the hell-” Philip began.

“Get out of here,” I yelled.

“Tom? You okay?” Philip began, ogling me as if I were deranged.

“Get out!” Tom hollered at his brother. Philip stumbled backward, and quickly escorted Wendy from the room. She shot me a look of stunned amazement before the door swung shut.

I waited long seconds, hearing their footsteps retreat. “How do you know it's Mutt? How did he kill Brian? How did he poison Aubrey and Candace? And Lolly-”

“Goddamn it. Do you think if I had the evidence, I wouldn't have turned him in already? I don't have anything but what Brian told me-that Mutt knew his daddy hadn't committed suicide and had buried him somewhere on the island. And that your daddy had helped.”

“Why didn't you say anything after Brian died?”

Tom sank to the floor. “Oh, God. I wanted to. But you don't break the code of silence.”

“Tom, these people don't deserve loyalty like that. You're making yourself accessory to murder.” I didn't know the legal ramifications, but that sounded accurate. And I wanted to scare him.