I closed my eyes again, tried to squeeze out the burning sensation in them.

"You look like shit," Lozano said. "I heard about your car, man. You're crazy not letting them take you to the ER."

"I'm fine."

"Like hell," Lozano said. "Look at me."

When I didn't he grabbed my jaw and twisted my face toward his, took a penlight from his pocket and shined it in my eyes. He grunted, put the penlight away, and dug his fingers around my scalp at various points.

"Ouch," I said.

"Relax. My patients never complain." He withdrew his hands. "You start feeling dizzy or nauseous, get your ass to the hospital. Otherwise go home."

"I got to see—"

"Don't even try seeing George, ese. Not tonight. I told Erainya the same thing. Brooke Army Medical Center won't let you close to him even if you go down there. Best-case scenario he'll be in surgery until dawn, ICU for at least two or three days. You want to see him tomorrow, go home and rest tonight."

He made me promise.

"There's one other thing," Lozano said. "Got a message for you from one of the homicide dicks. Lady named DeLeon."


"She said to tell you she couldn't be here tonight. It's not her call. But she also said you should phone her. She said it might be time to talk. That make sense to you?"

"Yeah. Maybe."

The paramedics were now moving a full body bag down the front steps of the house. The crime-scene photographers were wrapping up their work on the peripheries, taking down the floodlights from around Hector Mara's Ford Galaxie where it sat parked at the end of the block. There was still no media on the scene. Just another West Side homicide, I thought bitterly. What's the hurry?

"Whoever did this," Lozano said softly, "these same people have any reason to be pissed off with you?"

I looked at him and didn't see a friend. I saw a whole lot of deaths in his eyes, a whole lot of scalpels cutting impersonally through cold muscle. It was somehow reassuring.

"If they don't yet," I told him, "just give me a couple of days."


Erainya knows best.

She will often tell me this. The fact that it is frequently true does nothing to help my annoyance level.

The next morning I decided she was truly insane. She called me at eight-thirty, succinctly gave me the update that George was in a coma from blood loss, his condition still critical. Then she insisted I stick with our original plans — Jem was going to his kindergarten visit today and by God I was going to take him.

"Jesus Christ, Erainya. George—"

"—is the reason you're taking Jem," she finished. "I'll be down at the hospital. Me and Jenny from the title office already got the rotation list worked out for a vigil, two people at a time. We've already got more help than we need, honey. You and Kelly go tonight, ten to midnight. Just be ready for kindergarten in half an hour."

After I'd growled yes and hung up the phone and spent a few minutes wondering why I'd given in, I realized maybe her request wasn't so crazy after all. Maybe the annoyance she'd succeeded in provoking was better than other feelings I might've been consumed with. Maybe taking Jem to kindergarten the morning after we'd all been up until two, attending the possibly fatal shooting of a mutual friend, was better than anything else I might've spent the morning doing.

By nine Jem and I were driving through Monte Vista in a car that was even more absurd than our situation — George Berton's precious baby, his 70 Barracuda.

That too had been Erainya's idea. After my accident last night, she'd pointed out, I needed a car, a temporary loaner, and Erainya just happened to know where George kept his spare keys. She didn't offer her own car to me. Go figure. I'd never driven the 'Cuda before — never done more than glimpse it while Berton performed his holy rituals under the hood with a chamois cloth and a lug wrench and an oil can.

The car had nothing in common with the VW except color, age, and ragtop. The dash was polished oak. The stick shift and bucket seats were covered in black leather. A gilded Virgen de Guadalupe statuette hung from the rearview mirror. The disc brakes responded to the lightest tap and the monstrous 440 motor purred like a tigress under the shaker hood. I couldn't drive the thing without hearing War's "Low Rider" in my head.

We pulled over at the corner of East Craig and McCullough, outside the private school that swallowed up most of the block. The campus was a series of renovated mansions on a hill, shaded with live oaks, the thick green lawns immaculate. The kindergarten building was a plantation-style carriage house on the corner, directly above us.

Jem and I watched kids on the playground — scampering over the jungle gym, swinging, playing on the monkey bars. The kids all looked happy. The teachers in the yard all looked happy. I felt like I should look happy too but I knew I damn well might start screaming any minute.

"You might like it here," I told Jem. "Nice play structure."

Jem nodded.

He was dressed in khaki pants and a little green polo shirt that made his dark skin glow. His hair was newly cut into a bowl of black. He pressed the creases in the top of his lunch bag over and over. He hadn't said much on the way over — a short treatise on breakfast-cereal toys, a few questions about the Barracuda.

Those questions stopped as soon as George's name came up.

"You ready?" I asked him.

Jem nodded again, with no enthusiasm.

We walked up to the white-columned porch of the carriage-house kindergarten building and did a lot of handshaking with a pale blond woman in a willowy dress. Mrs. Something-or-Other. Her name started with T and had about seven syllables and I felt very inadequate when I heard the kindergartners rattling it off effortlessly. She wore a lot of perfume. Jem was mostly interested in her necklace — one of those primary-teacher specials with little ceramic animals and multicolored alphabet letters designed to capture the attention of twenty kindergartners at a time. Even I had an overwhelming urge to fondle it.

"We're so pleased to have you here today," Mrs. T. told us.

She called over a sandy-haired kid named Travis and introduced him to Jem. Thirty seconds later Jem and Travis were in line to play wall ball.

"See you at one-thirty?" Mrs. T. asked me.

"I'm supposed to leave him?"

She smiled patiently, like she was used to hearing that question. "Well, it's better for him, to interact with the children, you know—"

"I knew that."

She smiled some more, then excused herself to go greet another pair of visitors — an ample redheaded woman with an equally redheaded, overweight child.

I stepped back against the fence and watched Jem play. It was the first time I'd seen him with a group of his peers. He'd never been in day care, never had anybody at his birthday parties who was under thirty, yet he seemed perfectly at home. Ten kids were now involved in his wall ball game. Jem and Travis were rewriting the rules so more could play.

"It's hard," a woman said.

I looked over. It was the redheaded woman who'd just dropped off her kid. I tried to match her sympathetic smile. "What's hard?"

"Leaving your child — it's hard, isn't it?"

I opened my mouth, tried to form an explanation about my non-relationship to Jem, then just nodded. The mother patted my arm in camaraderie and drifted away.

I looked over at the kindergarten teacher. She was crouching to talk face-to-face with yet another visitor, a pale child with messed-up hair and an untucked shirt. My stomach twisted when I recognized him. It was Michael Brandon, Aaron and Ines's kid. His mother was standing over him, trying to fix his cowlicks.

Ines wore her usual earth tones — a tan and chocolate quilt jacket over white blouse, khakis, cord sandals. Her ancho-colored hair was tied back in a butterfly clasp.

The teacher tried to coax a smile out of Michael. When that didn't work, she called a kindergartner over. Neither Michael nor the other kid looked thrilled about the pair-up, but Michael reluctantly allowed the boy to lead him onto the playground.

As Michael approached the wall ball game, Jem zeroed in on him and came over grinning. Jem knew a fellow newbie when he saw one. He took Michael's hand and started explaining the rules of the game.

Ines Brandon saw me as she turned to leave. She hesitated, then continued walking.

I followed her down the steps, past a few other parents. Halfway to the curb, I caught her arm.

She turned with a prepackaged smile. "If it isn't the P.I. Don't tell me — you happen to work at the kindergarten, too."

"Whoa. I'm just dropping off."

She pulled her elbow away. "Oh, por favor."

"Seriously. Kid in the green shirt."

I pointed out Jem, who was now whacking the ball against the wallboard. Michael was on his team.

Ines appraised me skeptically. She held up one hand to block the sun, her fingers making shadow bars across her nose. "I'm trying to decide whether you'd rent a kid just to have an excuse to follow me."

"He's my boss's son. And don't give her any ideas about renting him out."

Ines let her shoulders relax just a little, dropped her hand. "I'll assume you're telling the truth. I don't know why. But don't expect an apology."

"My expectations in that department are low. How's your move coming along?"

She gazed past me, toward the playground. "Del was generous — a whole three days to pack. I've leased an apartment on" — she stopped herself — "near Woodlawn Lake."

"Why this school?"

"The public schools in this neighborhood..." She shook her head. "I went through a poor school system like that. No way my son is going to. I want to be out of San Antonio by next fall, but if I can't..."

"What'll you do for money?"

"That's my problem." She tugged the sleeves of her quilt jacket over her wrists. The right cuff had a black smudge on it — maybe mascara. "As long as I find Michael someplace safe."

"Safe." I thought about Michael's sheet cave.

"Exactly. Now if you'll excuse me. It's been a treat, but—"

"You must have a lot of packing to do."


"Packed the sheet cave yet?"

Her eyes heated to the temperature of espresso. She stepped forward, put her hand on my chest, and gave one hard push.

"Basta ya," she hissed. "I've let you into my house twice. That doesn't give you the right—"

"Speak softly," I warned.

From the back fence, Mrs. T., the kindergarten teacher, was watching us, smiling nervously, probably making mental notes for the boys' admissions files. The kindergartners continued to play. Swings creaked. The ball pounded off the backboard in Jem and Michael's game. A little girl at the top of the blue and beige play-structure tower was pounding her feet on the metal, yelling that she was the queen and nobody could get her.

"You don't have any idea," Ines told me. "You don't know what it's like keeping a routine for my son's sake. Getting him up every morning. Getting him dressed and fed. You don't know how hard it was just getting him here today."

"Asking for sympathy?"