The rest of the block was lined with closed tiendas and burglar-barred homes. Crisscrossed telephone lines and pecan tree branches sliced up the sky. The only real light came from the end of the block across the street — the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. Its Moorish, yellow-capped spires were brutally lit, a dark bronze Jesus glaring down from on high at the Poco Mas. Jesus was holding aloft a circle of metal that looked suspiciously like a master's whip. Or perhaps a hubcap rim.

At the entrance to the cantina, I was greeted by a warm blast of air that smelled like an old man's closet — leather and mothballs, stale cologne, dried sweat and liquor. Inside, the rafters glinted with Christmas ornaments. Staple-gunned along the walls were decades of calendars showing off Corvettes with bras and women without. The jukebox cranked out Selena's "Quiero" just loud enough to drown casual conversation and the creaking my boots must've made on the warped floor planks.

I got a momentary, disapproving once-over from the patrons at the three center tables. The men were hard-faced Latinos, most in their forties, with black cowboy hats and steel-toed boots. The few women were overweight and trying hard to pretend otherwise — tight red dresses and red hose, peroxide hair, large bosoms, and chunky faces heavily caked with foundation and rouge designed for Anglo complexions. Long neck beer bottles and scraps of bookie numbers littered the pink and white Formica.

On a raised platform in back were two booths, one empty, one occupied by a cluster of young locos — bandannas claiming their gang colors, white tank tops, baggy jeans laced with chains, scruffy day beards. One had a Raiders jacket. Another had a porkpie hat and a pretty young Latina on his lap. The girl and I locked eyes long enough for Porkpie to notice and scowl.

Then I recognized someone else.

Hector Mara, Zeta Sanchez's ex-brother-in-law, was talking to another man at the bar.

Mara wore white shorts and Nikes and a black Spurs tunic that said ROBINSON. His egg-brown scalp reflected the beer lights.

Mara's friend was thinner, taller, maybe thirty years old, with a wiry build and a high hairline that made his thin face into a valentine. He had a silver cross earring and black-painted fingernails, a black trench coat and leather boots laced halfway up his calves. He'd either been reading too much Anne Rice or was on his way to a bandido Renaissance festival.

A line of empty beer bottles stood in front of the two men. Mara's face was illuminated by the little glowing screen of a palm-held computer, which he kept referring to as he spoke to the vampire, like they were going over numbers. I climbed onto the third bar stool next to Mara, and spoke to the bartender loud enough to be heard over Selena. "Cerveza, por favor."

Mara and the vampire stopped talking.

The bartender scowled at me. His face was puffy with age, his hair reduced to silver grease marks over his ears. "Eh?"


He squinted past me suspiciously, as if checking for my reinforcements. Hector Mara just stared at me. Huge loops of armhole showed off his well-muscled shoulders, swirls of tattoos on his upper arms, thick tufts of underarm hair. He had an old gunshot scar like a starburst just above his left knee. The vampire stared at me, too. He clicked his black fingernails against the bar. Friendly crowd.

"Unless you've got a special tonight," I told the bartender. "Manhattan, maybe?"

The bartender reached into his cooler, opened a bottle, then plunked a Budweiser in front of me.

"Or beer is fine," I said.


I made the "okay" sign, dropped two dollars on the counter. Without hesitating, the old man got out a second beer and plunked it next to the first. I was tempted to put down a twenty and see what he'd do. Instead I slid one of the Buds toward Hector Mara.

"Maybe your friend could go commune with the night for a few minutes?" I suggested.

Mara's face was designed for perpetual anger — eyes pinched, nose flared, mouth clamped into a scowl. "I know you?"

"I saw Zeta today."

Mara and the vampire exchanged looks. The vampire studied my face one more time, memorizing it, then detached himself from the bar. He flicked his fingers toward the cholos in the back booth and they all lifted their chins. The vampire walked out.

I watched him get into the white Chevy van and drive away.

"Yo, gringo," Hector Mara said, "You got any idea who you just offended?"

"None. Much more fun that way. Although if I was guessing, I'd say it was Chich Gutierrez, your business partner."

Mara's eye twitched. "Who the fuck are you?"

"I was at that party you threw yesterday out on Green Road. The one where Zeta blew a hole in the deputy."

Mara's eyes drifted down to my boots, then made their way back up my rumpled dress clothes, my face, my uncombed hair.

"You ain't a cop," he decided.


"Then fuck off."

He pushed the beer back toward me and returned to his PalmPilot, started tapping on the screen with a little black stylus. On the jukebox, Selena segued into Shelly Lares.

I looked at the bartender. "Donde esta the famous spot?"


"The place where Zeta Sanchez killed Jeremiah Brandon."

The bartender waved his hands adamantly. "No, no. New management."

He said it like a foreign phrase he'd been trained to speak in an emergency. Mara pointed over his shoulder with the stylus. "Second booth, gringo. The one that's always empty."

The bartender mumbled halfheartedly about the change of management, then retreated to his liquor display and began turning the bottles label-out.

"The D.A.'s going to prosecute," I told Mara.

"Big surprise."

"They figure ten to ninety-nine for shooting the deputy, life for Aaron Brandon's murder, maybe federal charges for the bomb blast. Quick and easy. That's before they even consider the Old Man's murder case from '93."

"Hijo de puta like you gonna love that."

"And who am I?"

A stripe of green neon drifted across Mara's forehead as he turned toward me. His eyes burned with loathing. "Reporter. Got to let those nervous gringos see the right headline, huh? Mexican Convicted for Alamo Heights Murder."

I pulled out one of my Erainya Manos Agency cards, slid it across the counter.

"What if I thought Sanchez was framed?"

Mara's bad-ass expression melted as soon as he saw the card. He looked from it to me. "The guy in the Panama hat."

"George Berton."

Mara pushed the card away, then leaned far enough toward me so I could smell the beer on his breath.

"I told your friend," he hissed. "I said I'd think about it. All right? Don't push me."

I tried to stay poker-faced. It wasn't easy.

"Sure," I said. "I was just in the neighborhood. Thought I'd check back."

Mara sniffed disdainfully. He gestured toward the back of the room and the screen of his PalmPilot flashed like mercury. "You see the locos in the corner? No, man, I don't mean look at them. They'll think you want trouble. Those are Chich's boys. His younger set. You think I'm going to sit here and talk friendly with them watching us, you're crazy."

"Make small talk. Were you in this place the night Jeremiah Brandon got shot?"

"I—" Hector looked down at the bar. "No. I missed it. Most righteous thing that ever happened in this place."

"I can understand why you'd think that."

"Oh, you can."

"The old man had an affair with your sister."

"Affair, shit. Raped, used, sent Sandra away when she was so shamed and scared there wasn't no choice. Like a whole bunch of girls before her. I never even saw her — not a good-bye, nothing."


"You don't know about hard. Now you need to leave."

"Tell me about Sandra."

Hector Mara hefted his PalmPilot. "I got a salvage yard to manage, gringo. Books to balance. Don't help when the fucking police keep me tied up the whole day, neither. Why don't you leave me alone?"

Hector tried to ignore me. He started writing.

I drank my beer. Behind us, Shelly Lares sang about her broken corazon.

"Was Sandra happy married to Sanchez?"

Hector's PalmPilot clattered on the bar. "Chingate. What the fuck you want, man? Why do you care?"

"I like annoying you, Hector. It's so easy."

Hector stared at me.

I pointed my bottle at him and fired off a round.

"You fucking insane, gringo."

"Tell me about your sister and I'll leave."

Hector glanced across the room. The men at the tables were bragging about greyhound races. One of the locos at the back booth laughed and the pretty Latina squealed in protest. They didn't seem to be paying us much mind. Hector Mara curled his large brown fingers into his palm one at a time.

Tattoos of swords and snakes on his inner arm rippled. "You want the story? I claimed a rival set to Zeta Sanchez when I was fourteen. Chich Gutierrez, he was one of my older vatos. We were a shitty little set but we thought we were bad. Then one night Zeta and some of his homeboys cornered me at the Courts, said I could die or switch claims. If I switched, I could tell them where to shoot me."

"Your leg," I guessed.

He nodded, traced his fingers over the scar tissue above his knee.

"I did that for one reason, man. I looked at Sanchez and I knew he had the kind of rep I needed for me, my family. Once I was down with Zeta, I got respect. My kid sister Sandra got respect. People left her alone. That was important to me, gringo. Real important."

Hector looked at me to see how I was taking the story so far, maybe to see if the gringo was laughing at him inside.

Apparently I passed the test.

"Sandra wanted to be a poet," Hector said. "You believe that? She never claimed no girl posses when we lived in the Courts. Couldn't stand up for herself. Me claiming Sanchez was all that saved her. Then when we were about sixteen, our mom got busted for dealing. Me and Sandra moved out to my grandmother's place."

"The property on Green Road."

Mara nodded. "For a couple of years I had this stupid idea maybe Sandra was going to make it. Farm life. New school. Perfect for her. She never got into trouble. Made it all the way through high school. Even started college before Zeta got interested in her, you know — in a new way. Zeta decided it was a good match."

"And was it?"

Hector turned his beer bottle in a slow circle. "Zeta was old-fashioned. Didn't want his wife going to college. But he was good to Sandra. Looked out for her."

"You believe that?"

More silence. "She and Zeta would've worked things out, wasn't for the Brandons. After the Old Man caught her, she didn't have no choice but to take his money and run. Sanchez would've killed her for what she did, her fault or not. But, man — it could've been different for her. She almost made it out."

"And you?"

"What about me?"

"Did you make it out?"

Hector smiled sourly. He dabbed his finger in the circle of sweat at the base of his beer, smeared a line of water away from the bottle. "I'm a man. Ain't the same for me."