"That's right, Bear."

"Man, this girl is hot. We're talking about 'Tell Me Something,' right here on your country station, KJ97."

I clenched my fists and kept walking. It was the fourth time I'd heard the song that week, and I didn't even listen to country stations. Never do an investigation for a singer, especially an investigation that goes bad. I'm sure I'll be sixty years old riding in a department-store elevator someday and the Muzak version of "Billy's Senorita" will come on, and I'll see the blood and hear the shots in that warehouse all over again.

We pushed by a couple of ladies who were asking the soundman for freebies. Ralph Arguello was waiting for us just between the tips of the Boots. He was still in his milky suit, the black shade overlays on his glasses giving the impression that someone had shot him cleanly and bloodlessly through the eyes. He gave me a cross-thumbs handshake. "Glad you made it, vato. I had to listen to one more pinche redneck song, I was going to shoot somebody." Then he sized up Ana DeLeon. "Long time, chica."

"Not long enough."

He spread his hands. "She loves me, vato. We got to excuse the lady's broken heart."

"Fuck you, Ralph," DeLeon said.

The last time I'd heard someone say that to Ralph, in a barroom on South St. Mary's, the resulting scene had not been pretty. This time Ralph's razor stayed in its sheath. Ralph gave DeLeon his standard demonic grin.

"Sure, Ana." He held up his pinky, touched between his eyes, then pointed toward DeLeon's head. "But we know, eh?"

DeLeon said, "Let's get to business."

I agreed.

Ralph said, "Chicharron."

"You know where he is?"

Ralph looked at me.

"Of course you do," I corrected.

"Hector's salvage yard. Hector's dead, guess who's minding the store, tying up some loose ends before the cops come by. And taking whatever he can get."

"First," Ana cut in, "we need to lay some ground rules."

Ralph turned his palms up. "Such as?"

"I'm only here to watch. I hear anything worth following up on, I'll do so later, legally. I'm not condoning anything illegal. I'm not participating in anything illegal."

"Then you'd better wait in the car," Ralph said evenly. "That's legal."

"Not good enough. And unless I have to, I don't have a name."

"She's my girlfriend," I explained helpfully.

Ralph looked back and forth between us. He chuckled. "Okay. You a little paranoid, chica?"

"I want to find out what I can," DeLeon told him. "I don't intend to lose my job."

Ralph chuckled again. "Ana, chica, you think cops don't do this shit all the time? I know a detective — the brass have known for years he's associating with the Mexican Mafia. He gets the busts on their competition, uses intermediaries, does business with people worse than me. Nobody can prove shit. You should see the car this guy drives to work, man. I know another guy—"

"There's always scum at the bottom of the barrel," Ana interrupted. "I'd expect you to know them all. You don't know the majority of the SAPD and you don't know me."

I'd never seen Ralph take words like that so calmly, but he just smiled. "She's fine when she's mad, vato. Ain't she?"

I suggested, "How about we go?"

The Miranda Daniels song ended, and KJ97 started raving about the Vince Gill number coming up. Ralph looked over at them with distaste. "Yeah, vato. Let's go. Your car or mine?"

I glanced at Ana. "We go with Ralph, you're liable to see him do something illegal."

"I'll make some U-turns, chica."

"And he'll smoke," I warned her. "Not Marlboros, either."

"On the other hand," Ralph said, "that sweet little Miata of yours only got two seats, Ana. Right? Guess somebody could sit on my lap."

"Don't look at me," I objected.

Ana DeLeon looked back and forth between us.

"I have no intention—" Then she faltered. Moral dilemma.

Ralph grinned, waved with a flourish toward the curb where his maroon Cadillac El Dorado was parked in a red zone.

"The road to hell is paved with that shit, chica," he consoled. "Right this way."


The U-Best Scrap Yard on Southeast Military was a fine example of Early Apartheid architecture. Razor wire topped the fence. Sheets of corrugated metal lined the inside of the chain link so you couldn't see in to contemplate stealing the proprietor's countless riches. Dandelions choked the base of the fence and the sidewalk glittered with broken beer glass.

Beyond the entrance, narrow lanes twisted between mountains of electronics scraps, broken appliances, car fenders, road signs from defunct businesses. Sitting in folding chairs by the gate were two large Latino men who resembled lounging sea mammals. They were playing dominoes on a three-legged card table.

"Mira, affirmative action," Ralph said. "Yard used to belong to this gringo named Sammy L. He retired, sold the place to Hector, now it's an equal-opportunity fence spot. Hector got North Side kids, West Side kids — whatever. Didn't tell the kids what to steal — just took anything they brought. Paid by the pound, I hear."

Ralph's tone was disdainful, like this was a business arrangement seriously below his caliber.

As we watched, a couple of kids strolled out past the human walruses. One kid was Anglo, the other Latino — both about sixteen, both thin and hard-bodied, greasy hair and baggy clothes. Both were counting money from wads of cash.

"Looks like somebody's still minding the store," Ana DeLeon said. She opened the back door and got out. We followed suit.

One of the walruses nudged the other as we approached. They watched, sleepy-eyed, their slightly buck-toothed mouths slack under bristly spots of mustache. The guys must've weighed about two-fifty apiece. Their arms were slick, hairless brown slabs; their faces had the apathetic look of men who'd never had to move for anyone.

They barely blinked when Ralph drew his .357. The one on the right didn't even show expression when Ralph pistol-whipped him across the side of the face and sent him sliding to the ground.

The struck walrus slumped there on the pavement, his eyes glazed and stupid, the skin split open in a Z along his cheekbone. Even his blood ran slow, like it too was not used to being picked on.

His friend stayed frozen in his chair, gaping up at us.

I glanced at Ana. Her hands were in her back pockets. Her expression hadn't changed.

Ralph told the walruses, "That's how we say hello, eses. We're going in to talk to Chicharron now. You keep playing your little game, keep an eye on my car. You do anything else, anything stupid, we teach you how to say good-bye.


They stared at us in complete silence, amazed. Then, real slow, both nodded. We went inside.

"That was unnecessary," DeLeon grumbled.

"What's more," I said, "do you really think they're just going to sit still?"

Ralph grinned at me, and with a little discomfort I realized he didn't care in the slightest.

In the center of the scrap yard stood a stilted clapboard office that resembled a henhouse. Its exterior was covered with airbrushed graffiti — faux-cursive names outlined and colored to neon illegibility, scenes of violence and clusters of guns like bouquets, Spanish slogans, gang symbols from a dozen different neighborhoods. The windows were ragged squares made with a power saw. One of them held a large electric wall fan. A running board led up to the uncovered entrance.

Inside, Chich Gutierrez was sitting behind a metal desk, tapping a purple felt-tip pen against some paperwork that fluttered in the breeze of the fan's high-speed setting. Chicharron was sporting the same vampire look he'd had at the Poco Mas two nights ago — ponytail, silver cross earring, black leather boots, black jeans. He'd shed the trench coat in favor of a white tux shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. With a quill pen, the fashion statement would've been perfect.

Instead, there was a .38 revolver on his desk, but Ralph walked in and knocked it to the floor before Chicharron could even register our faces. The room could comfortably hold two. With four of us, the floor sagged. Ralph pointed his .357 at Chicharron. He said, "Get up."

The hum of the fan made Ralph's voice sound submerged. Chich studied us with black eyes. He looked at the gun, then at Ralph.

"You know who I am, Chich?" Ralph asked.


"Then you know to get the fuck up."

Chich's eyes slid to Ana DeLeon. They dismissed her, then focused on me. I smiled.

Slowly, Chich stood.

His face was dead still except for his mouth, which kept twitching at the corners — from fear or amusement, I couldn't tell which. He said, "You going to  make this a small mistake or a big one, Arguello?"

Ralph motioned for him to move to one side. I frisked him, removed two switchblades and a tiny 9mm from his pockets. Ralph found some keys and a cash box in the desk. We threw it all in the corner with the .38.

"You can sit down now," Ralph told him.

Chich sank back into his chair.

"You ice Hector?" Ralph asked.

Chich's mouth twitched. "That supposed to be a joke?"

"You the man in the white van, Chich. You better start telling me some things about last night."

"Fuck off, Arguello."

Ralph moved to the wall fan. He ran a fingernail thoughtfully along the plastic grill, then slid his .357 back in his belt. "I knew a guy once, got his hand stuck in one of those old metal fans. You know the round ones? Nowadays everything is fucking plastic, man. Look at this."

Ralph put his left hand on top of the fan, worked the fingers of his right into the holes of the grill, and pulled. The top wasn't fastened very well and bowed out. On Ralph's second pull, the grill ripped away with a watery zing, exposing the white circular haze of spinning fan blades. Ralph dropped the grill to the floor. He had little bloody lines on the pads of his fingers.

Ana stood in the corner of the room, her black Justin boot resting on Chich's .38.

"Cheap Taiwanese shit," Ralph said. "You think it'd do much damage, Chich?"

Chich tried for a smile. "You're full of it. Fuckin' pawnshop man."

He wasn't so chatty when Ralph picked up the open-faced fan and heaved it at him.

The spinning blades caught Chich's upraised forearms, grinding into him. The sound was like an outboard motor hitting a sandbar. Metal and plastic shuddered and Chich screamed. He lurched backward out of his chair, flailing, cursing, brushing himself violently like he was covered with fire ants, dragging the fan with him, a blade snagged on his tux shirt, the cord ripped free from the outlet. The fan clattered at his feet.

"You fucking lunatic!"

Chich held up his arms. They were ridged from wrist to elbow with smile-shaped contusions, some merely deep welts, a few ripped open and bleeding. Ralph walked over to Ana, smiled at her, then bent down and picked up the .38 he'd knocked off Chich's desk. He pointed it at its owner. "Get up."

"I'm bleeding!"

"That was just an icebreaker, man. Get us through the posturing shit. Now sit in your chair."