“Other than Jo.”

“There’s Axel.”

“Who’s that?”

“Axel Myermann. He’s a guy live up in the hill over Santa Maria. Axel come down and fish wit’ me now and then.”

“Jo ever meet Axel?”

“Yeah. Onceit.”

“Did she like him?”

“Not too much. She said that he had twisted eyes.”

RAYMOND WAS ASLEEP. I reached for his shoulder but before I could touch him he grabbed my wrist. For a small man Raymond was very strong.

“You finished, Easy?”

“If your friends won’t be back for a few days I think you should leave Dom here,” I said. “You wouldn’t want the police showin’ up at Etta’s place and findin’ a suspected murderer.”

“Where we goin’ next?” Mouse asked with a smile.

“I’m gonna strike out solo for a while. You know, quiet like.”

“Okay, Ease. Do what you got to. But remember—I will do anything and kill anyone to keep Jo from comin’ to grief.”

Those words rattled around my mind for weeks after it was all over.

I SPENT THAT NIGHT with Bonnie and my brood. Feather had been reading her first book with no pictures while Jesus put the finishing touches on the hull of his single-sail schooner. Bonnie was reading a French-African journal published in Mali. I made pigtails and black-eyed peas with white rice. There was pumpkin pie in the refrigerator for dessert.

We ate and talked loudly, laughing and making fun. At least the ladies and I did. Jesus was almost always silent. But he had a good time. He loved the family I had cobbled together around him. He’d have done anything for Feather and the way he looked at Bonnie sometimes made me feel like putting my arm around her waist.

They spoke together in Spanish sometimes. Bonnie knew five languages.

She would reach out and touch my arm now and again, somehow sensing that I was giving her up in my heart, that I felt unequal to her black prince. We made love passionately every night. I think she was trying to hold on to me. For my part every moment was precious because I knew that one day soon she would leave me for her throne.

“Ray came by today.”

“What?” all three of them said.

“He’s alive. Etta lied. Our old friend Mama Jo nursed him back to health.”

“No,” Bonnie said. “You’re joking.”

“No ma’am. He walked right up to the front door and knocked.”

“What did he want?” Jesus asked.

There was feeling behind my adopted son’s question. He knew Ray almost as well as I did.

“Nuthin’ much,” I said, but I doubted if either Jesus or Bonnie believed me.

“ARE YOU IN TROUBLE, EASY?” Bonnie asked after we had made love.

“No. Why?”

“It was the way you mentioned Raymond. It was as if you were hiding something by being so simple.”

I turned toward her under the covers. The clock over her shoulder said 11:30.

“He’s got a friend in trouble and I’m the best one to figure it out.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not anymore. I’m just a snoop like. Just askin’ a few questions here and there.”

“Just don’t stick your neck out,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”

“Without me you’d be a queen.”

She kissed my lips and said, “Why would I want to settle for second best?”

I DROVE UP TO SANTA MARIA and looked Axel Myermann up in a phone booth at an Esso gas station. He lived at number five Elmonte Crook.

“What’s a crook?” I asked the station attendant.

“Say what?” He was over sixty but his thick hair was still mostly blond.

“I mean like a street,” I said. “It says here Elmonte Crook.”

“Oh,” the man said. He had the name DELL stitched on his breast pocket. “You mean Elmontey. Some rich old family bought up the land around there and started usin’ different names for streets. Lane and Circle and Way weren’t good enough for ’em so they started with that stuff like Crook and ‘Y’ and ‘U.’ If you got money you could do what you want. Now me, I can’t even get the town to come over and fill in a pothole. I been callin’ every Monday for three years almost. Every Monday and that hole gets bigger every time it rains.”

“Down where I used to live,” I said, “the city once left a dead dog in the street for over two weeks. It was one

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