"Hello, Liz."

"You don't know what it meant to get your call." Liz took the oversized man in a fierce embrace. When they finally let go, both of them swiped at tears. Liz's voice was a half inch from breaking as she said, "Hearing your voice after all this time was as close to heaven as I've been in a long time."

"I'm glad I had a reason to call."

"You don't need a reason. Not now, not ever." Which was good for another hard

A few minutes later Liz pried Brent away from his Frisbee game. "Stanley says to tell you his being here is a last-minute thing."

"Why doesn't he come tell me himself?"

"There's some big mystery about the two men he came with." Liz walked him down to where the cottonwoods anchored the riverbank. Some of the trees were older than the state. Liz stared out at the meadows and the rushing water with a tragic expression.

"What's the matter?"

She hugged both arms tightly around her middle. "Stanley was pastor of our church. The year I was appointed church treasurer, I discovered he was stealing to support a secret gambling habit."

"Oh boy."

"I didn't know about the gambling, of course. Just the missing funds."

"You turned him in?"

"I didn't have to, which I still count as a tragic blessing. I had to testify at his trial, though. That was the only time in my entire life I ever took sleeping pills, making it through that week. I went to the prison afterward and asked his forgiveness." Liz swallowed hard. "He came by the office once, you know, doing that AA thing."

Brent nodded. "Making a list of the ones we've wronged and meeting them face-to-face."

"It was about three years ago. I hadn't laid eyes on him since." Liz shook her head. "My husband and I thought the world of Stanley. It was good seeing him walk through my door tonight. Real good."

Brent wished he could focus entirely on what she was sharing. But he had an ex-con's fear of trouble. "Did he say anything about those men?"

"Only that the request came from somebody he couldn't say no to, and they've been asking questions around town about you."

"Are they cops?"

"Stanley didn't say. They claimed they're here to observe you, whatever that

"That doesn't make any sense. What do they think I've done now?"

Liz shook her head. You want my advice?"

Above him, the bare winter branches trembled. "Always."

"Don't let them get you alone."

* * *

Soon after his release, Brent had made the rounds of Austin's regional theaters. The early roles had been unpaid walk-ons, with theaters that wanted him for the scandal value of showcasing a genuine Hollywood has-been. For some people, it might have been a bitter humiliation. For Brent, it was acting.

Later, Brent appeared in Romeo and Juliet at the Austin Playhouse. He did Copenhagen at the University of Texas. Music Man at the Austin Musical Theater. He did two commercials. He did one-liners. He held no hope of ever making it back to Hollywood. As his former agent told him the one time they spoke after his release, Hollywood studios were not in the business of second chances.

He took what he could get because he loved acting. Going to prison had not quenched his thirst for the lights.

Brent's favorite stage was the Zachary Scott Theater on Toomey Road. The place might have less history than some of the others, but it was a wide-open house with room for newcomers' explosive enthusiasm. They had treated him oddly at first—some with resentment, others awe. Brent took two small one-line roles and thanked them sincerely for the chance. He was respectful of a first-time director in well over her head. He made no suggestions unless asked. He stayed sober. He refused liaison offers from both women and men and ignored how some labeled him the village eunuch. Slowly but surely, he earned his place as one of the gang.

Liz and her late husband had shared a passion for the theater. Every other month they had flown to New York and gorged on Broadway. Since losing her husband, Liz fought her solitude by actively supporting all the local theater groups. She nurtured talent wherever it arose. Even in the heart of a former felon.