We had to wait for our table. The foyer was full of couples in evening wear, families with children, some college kids. Through the arched interior windows you could see into the restaurant's different sections, each crammed with diners. The decor was nothing fancy — plastic tablecloths, pseudo-Aztec art, fake plants, cheap wood paneling. The smell, however, promised great things.

While we waited we were again spared the problem of communication by the rockin' svelte sounds of Rod "the Rod" Rodriguez and his electronic mariachi band. Rod was doing a number somewhere between "My Way" and "Gracias a la Vida" — kind of a black velvet, Hammond-organ-salesman sound with a Tijuana twist. A couple of young drunk women were dancing. There were quite a few dollars in Rod's jar.

We finally got a booth in the oldest section of the restaurant, the part that had once been a Dairy Queen.

George grinned nervously and called Ana DeLeon "princess" and insisted on ordering for her — the chile relleno. DeLeon allowed the order to stand, though she didn't look dazzled by George's manly charge-taking. Jenny had a long conversation with the waitress about different sauces and finally decided on the green enchiladas, only with red sauce, and refried beans rather than borrachos,and no MSG in the rice and a couple of other changes on the clauses and subparagraphs of the menu that probably should've been initialed when it was all agreed on. I ordered the quesadillas, regular, with a kid's order of cheese enchiladas on the side.

Jenny looked across the table at me, her fingers lacing a cradle for her chin.

"A kid's order?"

"For Robert Johnson."

Jenny frowned. "Who?"

"A hungry mouth to feed at home."

She thought about whether she wanted to follow up on that, apparently decided it might spoil the evening. She turned to DeLeon. "So, girlfriend — tell them what you do."

DeLeon glared at her.

Jenny glanced at me meaningfully, preparing me to be impressed. "Jenny," DeLeon complained.

George sat forward. "What? What do you do?"

DeLeon shot me a warning look. "I work for the city. It's nothing."

George waited for more. Jenny nudged DeLeon but she nudged right back. "It's not that interesting," DeLeon promised. Then to me, coolly, "What about you, Mr. Navarre? How do you come to know George?"

"George and I work together."

She frowned, trying to make a connection. "You mean with the title company?"

She would've run George's name through TCIC, of course, just to make sure she wasn't going to be socializing with a felon. That's standard procedure for any cop who dates. But the system wouldn't necessarily have told her about George's less reputable line of work.

"George is a private investigator," I told her, smiling.

"Like Tres," Jenny put in, hoping to impress.

DeLeon stared at George, who was still grinning nervously. She looked back at me and mirrored my amused little smile. "How nice. Must be fun work."

George shrugged. "Better than what I did before. Police work."

DeLeon raised her eyebrows, nodded cool encouragement. "Oh?"

Just as George was about to explain himself, the food arrived. I thought we'd been saved. Jenny found a few small faults with her specialized order, and then the rest of us had to do the obligatory "Yum" comments and make remarks about how many doggie bags we would need.

I put Robert Johnson's to-go order aside and admired my entree.

Los Barrios is one of the few restaurants that does quesadillas right — making the cornmeal into thick, triangular pastries, deep frying them with the cheese and slices of poblano pepper inside. Crispy and spicy. Heaven, once you put a little garlic chimichurri sauce on top. I concentrated on the food, on my excellent margarita, on the blissful momentary silence.

Then, just as Jenny was about to redirect us toward some innocuous new topic, DeLeon said, "You were saying something about police work, George?"

She had a good voice for interrogations — detached yet encouraging, almost big-sisterly.

George dabbed his napkin against his mustache. He'd taken off his Panama hat and his hair glistened in neatly Bryl-ed rows. "Used to be in the Special Police. Air force."

"Really," DeLeon said. "I considered SP."

Berton jerked his head back. "You were in the air force?"

"One tour, spent mostly at Lackland. Decided against reenlisting and went to college instead."

"I'll be damned." He looked at me, amazed.

"They have women at Lackland these days," I confirmed. "I've seen pictures."

He blew air, looked back at DeLeon. "Well, princess, don't cry for missing SP. Damn near killed me, that job. A lot of my friends got out and went straight into civilian police work, you know, because it's all they could do. Not me. Way I see it, to survive in police work you've got to have some kind of overactive testosterone problem."

Jenny was silently moving her lips as if she were trying to jump-start her voice to break in.

"Damn good quesadillas," I said. "Anybody want some?"

Jenny yelped, "Yeah!" a little louder than she needed to.

DeLeon told George: "Go on."

George shook his head. "Most of the cops me and Tres have met on the job — back me up here, Tres—"

I smiled at him, then at DeLeon, who smiled back.

"—most of the cops get high on the authority thing, the boots and the sunglasses, you know? The detectives are even worse — complete hot-shit complex. They treat P.I.s like dirt. Am I right, Tres?"

DeLeon looked at me, rapt with attention. I took a bite of borracho beans and mumbled, "Yum."

"Really," she said to George. Her beeper went off. She checked the number and said, "Geez."

"What?" George wanted to know.

DeLeon smiled. "It's my work."

"At this time of night?"

She laughed with all the warmth of" rattling aluminum foil. "Well, it isn't P.I. work, George, but it does keep me busy. I've been sort of waiting for word that I could get to this one particular witness, and they just gave me the 'come on in' signal. I should really—"

Berton's fork had dropped slowly to his plate. "Witness?"

Jenny chewed her lip nervously.

DeLeon reached over and patted George's hand. "I hate to cut out, but I should catch a taxi. You remember how it is, George, you get an arrest case and the clock starts ticking for the indictment."

"You're a—"

"Cop, honey. Homicide detective. The hot-shit variety."

"Oh, hey, I didn't—"

She smiled. "Not a problem, George. I sympathize. Really, we should do this some other time. It's been great, and really—" She slid her plate over. "You guys have some chile relleno. Looks terrific."

She gave Jenny a silent, unequivocal order with her eyes, a we need to talk command that made Jenny grab her purse before she even knew she'd done it. "Oh — you shouldn't go alone, I guess," Jenny gabbled. Then to me, "Maybe I should — I could just take a rain check or — you know?"

"Sure," I said.


"Yeah, sure."


Jenny wavered, looking at me apologetically, then saw something she hadn't expected, the beginnings of a smile I'd been trying to suppress.

Her face got a little colder. "Well — maybe another time."

George and I stood and mumbled sureties that we'd all be sitting around the table again real soon, and then the women left to catch their taxi. Rod "the Rod" Rodriguez oozed into the mambo version of "The Long and Winding Road."

George deflated into his seat. I sat next to him and started laughing.

"What the hell are you so cheerful about?" George snarled. "You knew who she was, didn't you?"

"The food is really good," I told him. "Isn't it?"



"Yes, already!"

I grinned, then waved down the waitress and told her to bring two more margaritas for the bachelor master detectives.


After dropping off George that night, I should've gone straight home to bed. Of course I didn't.

The abbreviated dinner date had left me wired. My mind was still spinning from getting nearly blown up and shot at and gainfully employed all in one day. Most of all, I'd allowed myself to slip into case mode. Too many years of missing-persons traces, peripheral work on homicides — training myself to work in forty-eight-hour sprints before the statistical window of success slammed shut in my face.

I decided to swing by Erainya's, see if she was awake. Just for a minute, I told myself. Just to get back in her good graces and promise to be a good little teacher from now on.

That plan changed as soon as I pulled in front of Erainya's house. Her door opened instantly. Erainya stomped down her front steps with Jem in tow and an armful of gear. She was wearing her commando clothes — black drawstring pants, long-sleeved T-shirt, black sneakers. With her black hair, in the dark, she looked like a pale, floating, pissed-off face. Jem was wearing scarlet Rugrats pajamas and new white Reeboks only slightly brighter than his smile.

Erainya let Jem into the backseat of the VW, then lowered herself and her stuff into the passenger's side and slammed the door. "Shoot me if I ever let you out of my sight again."

"Look, about Ozzie Gerson—"

"You ain't been home making lesson plans, honey."

"The call just happened to come in while we were talking and—"

"Wherever you go tonight, you're taking me."

"I'm going home."

"I brought my 9mm. Stop now and I might not use it."

I shut up. Jem squeezed me around the neck from behind and told me he was glad we were going to have fun together tonight. I mumbled my halfhearted agreement, then started the engine.

We did a U on Garraty and headed south through Terrell Hills.

Erainya said, "Full story."

The full story took us all the way to Broadway. Erainya loved it. She asked me where I wanted to go now and when I told her, she loved that even more. She muttered Greek words of disgust all the way to the Hildebrand intersection. Jem asked where we were going.

I glanced at Erainya for guidance.

Having the mother he did, Jem had been on excursions that most kids would've found boring or nightmarish or both. His nap and sleep cycles were completely unpredictable, much like his mother's verdicts on what was safe and appropriate for him. At the moment he seemed happy, ready for anything. The place I wanted to go, however, might not be so kid-friendly.

"He's fine," Erainya promised. "I got to baby-sit you and him at the same time, I can do that. Uncle Tres is taking us somewhere, honey."

"I am?"

"Tell the boy."

I tried for a smile as I looked back at Jem. "You want to see where they make amusement-park rides, Bubba?"

Jem hit the roof shouting hurray.

We continued south on Broadway toward downtown. Jem talked about the latest Sega games. We passed underneath I-35 and into an area of repair shops and used-car dealerships.