A couple of hookers stood on the corner of North Alamo outside a vacuum cleaner repair shop. The hookers had seen better days. Something about their garish makeup, the black stockings and yellow dresses, the drug-enhanced fiery smiles — that display in front of the grimy windows filled with aging Hoovers and Electroluxes — there was probably a joke in there somewhere, but tonight it seemed a little too pathetic to make.

I took a right on Jones.

The buildings were dilapidated warehouses, long and low, nothing on the horizon but palm trees and the blinking spikes of radio towers.

We followed the old Southern Pacific tracks past the Brewery Art Museum, then over the river and right on Camden. The address we wanted filled the 300 block. A dimly lit sign out front said RIDEWORKS, INC., with the R and the W drawn like roller-coaster loops. Underneath, smaller letters proclaimed: KING OF THE SOUTH TEXAS CARNIVAL BUSINESS.

At the near end of the lot was a long portable building, facing in toward a cement yard fenced off by ten-foot-high chain link. Beyond that was a corrugated-metal warehouse the size of a small airplane hangar. Lining the side of the street, four insanely tall palm trees cut black silhouettes against the sky at gravity-defying curves, like Dr. Seuss trees.

I pulled across the street from the yard gates. A single light glowed behind the white-paned side window of the RideWorks office. One floodlight on a telephone pole threw a yellow oval of illumination on the closed hangar doors of the warehouse. Other than that the place was dark. Several cars lined the side of the street next to the warehouse — a Pontiac, an old Chevrolet, a Ford double-wide pickup.

Jem stuck his head over the front seats.

"They make rides?" he asked me excitedly.


"Can we go in?"

"Not right now," Erainya said. She was watching the buildings, getting impatient. "Honey, if you were thinking we could just..."

She stopped. We both focused on the same thing — the tiny flame of a lighter flaring up in the cab of the pickup truck across the street. The flame briefly illuminated a cigar, shadowy red jowls, the brim of a cowboy hat. Then it flicked out, replaced by the fainter glow of the cigar tip.

Before I could comment, a new set of headlights cut in directly behind us, coming up Camden. Del Brandon's red Fiat convertible glided up to the RideWorks gates and stopped.

"Someday, honey," Erainya told me, "I'm gonna decide whether you got the best timing in the world or the worst."

Del Brandon got out of his sports car. He looked the same as he had that afternoon, storming out of Ines' house — same greasy wedge of gorilla hair, same yellow shirt, now snagged on a side-holstered gun. His face was large and washed out and marked with a terminal heartburn scowl.

He looked warily at my VW.

Then the Fiat's passenger's-side door opened and Del's companion got out. Erainya said, "Mother of Jesus."

Del's friend was a boulder of a man with incongruously girlish hair — tight blond cornrows curled up at the bottom and tied off with little blue rubber bands. Bo Peep on steroids. His facial features were thinly applied to a block-shaped head — his eyes shallow, dull dents; his smile an accidental mark. Gray running clothes. Height maybe six-five, density three or four tons. I didn't see any gun, and I didn't have any illusions that it mattered. Bo Peep was not a man who would bother with, or be bothered by, weapons smaller than a ballista. They were both still staring at us when the cigar smoker in the truck opened his cab door and called, "Del."

In the sudden illumination of the dash light, the man in the truck appeared weathered and dour, maybe sixty years old, rough and thick as a granddaddy oak. He resembled any number of Texas ranchers from here to Brownsville, his mouth mostly lower lip and cigar.

The rancher planted his boots on the street, glowered in our direction, then walked toward the sports car, where Del and Bo Peep were waiting. The three men stood together, looking at us. They didn't talk. That was a bad sign. It meant they had no disagreement about us.

"Are they going to show us the rides?" Jem asked. He was bouncing now, a well-placed fifty pounds on bad shocks, and the VW was bouncing with him. The three guys across the street didn't frown at us any less.

"Maybe we should drive on," I suggested.

Erainya opened her door, got out, and leaned across the car's roof. She hollered, "One of you guys Del?"

"Or," I mumbled, "maybe you have another idea..."

The three guys glanced at one another.

Del Brandon stepped forward. "Who's asking?"

"Who's asking? Come on, honey. You want to come closer, see we aren't monsters or anything?"

Something about the way Erainya talks — I've seen it a dozen times and I've never quite gotten the magic of it. It makes even the most hardened guys red around the ears. They check their zippers, check that their ears are washed, try to remember if they ate a good dinner. They get uncomfortable and deferential. Erainya immediately becomes the hard-assed mother from the Old Country they never had.

Del walked toward us, stepping carefully through the dark maze of crisscrossed railroad tracks. He stopped about five feet away from my window. From there, he could probably see Erainya's face, Jem's pressed against the glass behind me, my face in the driver's window. If Del recognized me from our brief encounter at Ines', he didn't let it show.

"What'd you want?" he asked.

"Look, honey," Erainya told him. "I didn't know you had another deal to take care of tonight. It's just I thought you'd be expecting me."

Del shook his head slowly, fishing around for some possible explanation. After almost a minute, when I was sure he was going to decide Erainya was bullshitting him, he seemed to come up with an idea. "You mean you're—"

"Sure," Erainya agreed instantly.

Del's large mouth opened, then closed. "Southwest Carnival? The buyer from Arno?"

"I don't want to mess up your deal," she said. "You go ahead with whatever."

Del came a step closer. He peered in at me, then back at Jem. "You've got a kid with you."

I was getting the feeling Del had never scored real high on those standardized achievement tests.

"That's Jem," Erainya agreed. "He's mine. What — you make kiddie rides, you've never seen kids?"

Del held up his hands, immediately defensive. "I'm just asking — I mean, if Arno sent you—"

He faltered, then gestured to where the human boulder and the old rancher stood waiting. "It's just that we didn't—"

"You think you can give us a few minutes afterward?" Erainya asked.

Del shifted, looked back at his two compadres. "It's kind of late."

"My five-year-old, he's still up. You got an earlier bedtime than a five-year-old?"

Del looked chastised. "What kind of unit do you need?"

"I won't know that until we talk."

"You're prepared to do business tonight?" He gestured toward the VW. "You ain't going to haul nothing in this."

"I am always prepared to do business."

Del thought about that, then nodded with a little more certainty. "I'll try to wrap things up. Wait here. You damn near screwed my deal."

"Manners," Erainya warned him.

He held up his hands defensively again, patted the air a few times, then retreated to his two friends.

The men talked. It took some doing, but Del apparently got the old rancher to ease up, to go ahead with whatever business they were planning.

Once the transaction started it went fairly fast. Bo Peep opened the gates and the rancher backed his truck in. The three of them opened the hangar doors and walked out a trailer — about the same size as the truck but twice as tall. We couldn't see much of the amusement ride on the trailer, since it was covered in yellow tarp, but the shape was like a giant tulip.

Once the men got it hooked up, the rancher handed Del a grocery bag. Del sat on the bumper of the truck and counted bricks of cash while Bo Peep and the rancher waited. Apparently Del was satisfied. He gave the bag to Bo Peep, shook hands with the rancher. No smiles anywhere. The truck pulled away with its huge trailer and disappeared down Camden. Del wiped the sweat off his brow, then looked across the street at us and waved big, indicating we should drive the VW in.

Erainya got in and closed the passenger door.

"I want you to notice something, honey," she told Jem. "I didn't lie to that man. Not once."

Del and Bo Peep stood in front of us, their faces yellow and stern in our headlights. As we came in Bo Peep walked behind us, very casually, and closed the gates. We wouldn't be leaving quickly. And we didn't have any bags of cash to offer Mr. Brandon.

"Honesty," I told Jem, "is good in small quantities."


"It's been a crazy day," Del Brandon said.

He opened Erainya's door for her. Jem clambered out first, did a beautiful  tight-end run around Del, then headed for the old-fashioned carousel animals that flanked the steps of the office.

Del raised a finger and said "Don't" about the time Jem launched himself onto the blue elephant's saddle and started bouncing. Del put his finger down, giving up.

I got out on my side and found myself in rock-climbing position against Bo Peep's chest. I looked up into his nostrils. "Howdy."

He receded a step. Gravity stopped pulling my arm hairs toward his body.

Del sized me up, gave Erainya an amused "my-bodyguard's-bigger-than-your-bodyguard" kind of smile. "You want to take a look around the shop?" he asked her.

He led us through the open hangar doors. Bo Peep trailed about twenty feet behind, Jem doing tight fearless orbits around him and asking what PlayStation games he liked.

The tour was quick. Del waved in different directions, said a few words, snuck occasional glances at Erainya to see if bags of money were forthcoming. The corrugated walls of the warehouse were lined with workbenches and machine tools, welding equipment, scrap metal shavings heaped in corners. In the middle of the room were three carnival rides in various states of assembly — a Super-Whirl with the multicolored base attached but the seats scattered around the cement floor like massive wobbly Easter eggs; an eight-armed Spider Rider stripped to just the hydraulic mechanisms; a miniature carousel that looked pretty much complete.

"I can have the two ready in a few hours if I call up some of my boys," Del promised. "The carousel's cash-and-carry."

Del led us over to the Super-Whirl and started pointing out the hydraulics underneath. "Forty-five-degree lift-and-twirl action. Thirty rpms. You don't get any better on a trailer-mounted unit. It's a classic."

Erainya nodded sagely. "How much?"

"Very reasonable. Thirty thousand."

Erainya managed to keep any reaction off her face. I set my mouth hard, thinking about the few people I'd known in my life who dealt in cash amounts that large and were fearless enough to tote it around in grocery bags. None of them were nice people.

Jem had been jumping on the balls of his feet, anxious to try out everything. Finally he broke loose and ran toward one of the disassembled carriage units on the ground. Del lifted his finger, thought about the last time he'd told the kid "Don't," then turned to Erainya instead. "That's not safe."