"You decided to keep living on your grandmother's property. Those chickens in the coop, the garden — those things require maintenance. Somebody cares about that place."

"Go home, gringo. Quit while you're ahead."

"Zeta's gun — the gold revolver. He left it with you."

The sour smile faded. "Say what?"

"The gun didn't go south with Zeta. He should've ditched it, but for some reason he couldn't throw away that gift from Jeremiah Brandon. He left the gun in San Antonio with somebody — I'm guessing you. The fact that police found it near Aaron Brandon's house is important. You see?"

Mara's eyes darkened to a dangerous shade. "Be careful, gringo."

"'Cause the thing is, Hector, if somebody was to frame Zeta, you'd be in a good position to do it. What with Zeta staying at your place and all, and you doing business with Sanchez's old rival Chich."

"I told your friend in the goddamn Panama hat—"

"Yeah, I know. You told George you'd think about it. All I'm saying is maybe you should think a little harder. Let us hear from you."

Hector studied me for another stanza of Shelly Lares, then reassembled his cold smile. "You'll hear from me, gringo. Now lo siento, eh? I got to do this now to keep appearances."

Then he got up and pushed me off my stool as hard as he could.

I went toppling backward and on the way down managed to connect just about every part of my body with something hard and wooden. I landed with the seat of the stool in my gut, my left leg laced through the spokes. The floor was sticky. A beer bottle cap was pressed into my palm.

Mara stood over me. The crowd was silent, waiting for a fight.

Mara disappointed them.

"Be cool to the homies, gringo," he told me. "Stick around. See how long before they drag you out with the trash."

He grabbed his PalmPilot and walked toward the exit, the old gunshot wound making his gait only slightly stiff. The locos in the corner laughed at my expense.

I got up, dusted myself off.

In the reflection of the hammered tin, I watched Hector Mara getting into his old Ford Galaxie and pulling out of the lot.

When someone humiliates you in a bar, you don't really have a choice. You've got to sit back down and finish your drink, just to prove you can. So I did.

I listened to another Shelly Lares tune. I thought about George Berton, tried to remind myself that George was a big boy who knew what he was doing, and he'd just yell at me for interfering if I called him now. I thought about Hector Mara's initiation to Zeta Sanchez's set until my leg started to ache. I looked at the little red circle the beer bottle cap had bitten into my palm and thought about a hundred other places I would rather be than the Poco Mas.

Then another round of laughter erupted at the locos' table in the back and I decided I might as well add insult to injury.

I grabbed the Budweiser that Hector Mara had refused and went to talk to a girl I knew.


Her name was Mary. The last time I'd seen her, just before Christmas, Ralph Arguello and I had rescued her from an underage prostitution ring by throwing her pimp off the Navarro Street Bridge. Her liberation had been one of the only good by-products from my search for a rich client's runaway daughter.

Mary was wearing tonight what she'd worn back in December, which was a bad sign — partially unbuttoned denim dress, black hose, thick-soled pumps, way too much makeup in an effort to conceal her fifteen years. Her hair poured down either side of her pretty face like slow-motion loops of caramel in a candy bar commercial. Her ankles were crossed and her shoulders tensed as she sat on the young man's lap and watched me walk up to the booth.

I looked at the guy in the porkpie hat. "I need to talk with your lap-warmer for a minute."

Porkpie stared at me, his mouth spreading into a dazed grin, like he'd just gotten a much bigger birthday present than he expected. "That a fact?"

His three friends in the booth watched, waiting for some kind of cue. The one with the Raiders jacket could've been carrying just about anything underneath. I tried not to dwell on that.

I set my Budweiser on their table, then held out my hand for Mary. "That's a fact."

Mary's face was deadly calm except for her eyes, which kept trying to warn me off. She didn't want to come with me, but she knew better than to stay between me and Porkpie. She took my hand, slid off the guy's lap and onto the floor next to me.

"The bar," I told her.

"Hey, chica," Porkpie said. "You figure he'll take a whole minute?"

"Push him off his stool," one of his friends suggested.

The others laughed.

Mary brushed past me, her eyes still trying to give me a warning. I took back my beer and started to follow.

To my surprise, the boys didn't make a move.

I kept walking, the skin on my back tingling, my feet sensitive to any bump or dip in the floorboards behind me.

Mary perched on the stool where Hector Mara had sat, her legs crossed, her fingernails resting upright like talons on the stained oak counter. When I sat down next to her she leaned forward and whispered harshly, "Jesus, Tres. You trying to get me killed?"

"What are you doing out here, Mary? You told Ralph—"

Mary hissed: "Shut up!" then pursed her lips, closed her eyes tight like she was trying to retract the statement.

The skin below her eyes was dotted with extra mascara. Her babyish cheeks were clown-red, her lips pouty and slick with lipstick. "I got a little behind with some payments, is all. Don't make a big deal out of it. Buy me a beer, at least."

"You're fifteen."

She burst into a laugh as brief and violent as her anger. "So? Come on, Tres. You're cool."

"You want me to get you out of here?"

"I was fine until you messed me up. You know them guys—"

As if on cue, Porkpie slid out of the booth. He swaggered in our direction, pushed with needless force past a couple of the older guys at the tables, then came toward me. His friends threw out encouraging comments.

His arms were lean and smooth, his face round. The wispy black fuzz around his chin was the only testament to his graduation from puberty. He walked in an imitation of the joint walk of ex-cons, a gait he had neither the weight nor the muscles for.

"Yo, pendejo, minute's up. Little mama got to put out more better than that for me, man."

He leered at Mary, gestured for her to come away.

"Go back and sit down," I told him.

He gave me vacant eyes, a wide smile, his thoughts already retreating into his chest in a prebattle mode I recognized well. I saw the tension in his left hand, knew that he was about to impress me with a weapon-draw he'd probably practiced in his bedroom mirror a thousand times.

When the switchblade came out of his back pocket, flashing up in an arc toward my nose, I already had the rhythm of the move. My hand followed his wrist, caught it from underneath halfway, then pulled it toward me, dragging his arm across the counter between Mary and me.

Porkpie's armpit slammed against the bar. With my free hand I pressed his cheek down onto the sticky oak, crumpling his hat into a felt wad. My other thumb dug into the nerves of his wrist until the knife clattered free, falling somewhere behind the bar. The old bartender started waving his arms at me, protesting about the new management.

I let go of Porkpie's head and fished the gun out of his huge pants pocket before he could get to it. I flipped him around so he was facing his friends. I had his hand twisted up between his shoulder blades and his own Taurus P-11 pressed against his ear.

His friends were half standing, half crouching in their booth seats. All three had guns drawn — a nine, a .38. The guy with the Raiders jacket had drawn something that looked like a miniature AK-47. Nice kids.

"It's the need to show off," I said in Porkpie's ear. His face smelled like an autoshop. "You got this nice ten-shot and you have to scare me with the switchblade routine first. That won't earn you the big money from Chich."

"Fuck you." His voice was tight as a rivet.

Mary sat completely frozen. So did three tables full of patrons between me and the kids with the guns.

"Tell your homeboys to put their pieces down," I said, a little louder.

Porkpie said, "You're fucking dead"

I looked at the guys across the room. "I heard him say put the guns on the table. Did you hear that?"

Enough time passed for a line of sweat to snake its way between my shoulder blades, for Porkpie to exhale his sour breath on me six times.

His friends put their guns on the table.

I told Mary, "Outside."

"I ain't leaving," she said hoarsely.

The fear in her voice told me otherwise — that she knew who the young locos would take their revenge on once I was gone. I slid off my bar stool and side-walked Porkpie toward the door, his playmates' eyes drilling holes in me the whole ten feet. I waited until Mary was out the door behind me, until I heard her steps crunching over the gravel. She knew my car. I waited until she'd had enough time to find it.

Then I pushed Porkpie into the cantina, toppling him against a table and into the lap of a large woman in red. I backed out the door, dropped the P-11, and ran.

No shots rang out. No one followed. In a way, that just made me more nervous.

Once we were in the VW, driving north up Zarzamora, Mary exhaled more air than I would've thought possible for her small body to contain. "You're a fucker, Tres. Messing me up like that."

"You're welcome, Mary."

"They'll kill me, they see me again!"

"Sounds like a good reason not to see them again."

"You're such a fucker."

"How much do you need?"


Her caramel curls were coming undone in the wind.

"I don't have much. I can give you maybe thirty in cash."

She drew her knees up on the seat and hugged them, a move a larger girl, a woman, couldn't have done. "I don't want your money."

"You wanted fuzz-face's instead?"

"Man, just lay off. Okay? You're not my dad. You're not even old enough."

Her real dad, I knew, had not been old enough to be her dad either, but I didn't bring that up.

We turned on Woodlawn and started east. "Your stepsister still live on Agarita?"

"They kicked me out, man. I don't stay there no more."

"You got a friend to stay with?"

She hugged herself a little tighter. Finally, mumbling into her knees, she gave me the address of a girl she knew near Jefferson High, a girl who was still living with her parents and going to school. "But they put me up already this month. I don't know if they'll go for it."

"They'll go for it. Call your social worker in the morning."

"Social worker don't do shit, Tres. My old man came back three times and she don't do shit, no more than my mother."

"Call Ralph, then. Promise me you'll do that."

Mary mumbled some unflattering and untrue things about why Ralph Arguello liked to help wayward girls. I chose not to respond.

Finally Mary's shoulders deflated. "Yeah. Okay. I'll call him."

We drove back toward Jefferson, into the old neighborhoods of tiled porches and palm trees and once-majestic Spanish homes that had long ago been divided into units, fitted with burglar bars. Their front yard patches of nopalita cactus were carved with gang graffiti on the oval blades. In my headlights the sidewalks and curbs glowed with spray-painted gang symbols. Pitchfork up, one block. Pitchfork down the next. Make a pitchfork hand gesture the wrong way on the wrong block and you died.