"No. It's all right."

Ozzie studied my eyes, seemed to be satisfied I wasn't in immediate danger. "Couple more shots, then. Never like to leave before I'm fifty-fifty on the hits."

He stepped back to the table, began reloading.

"I guess you didn't recognize her," I said.

Ozzie glanced over, frowning, then turned his attention back to the gun. "Recognize who?"

"Ines Brandon. Sandra Mara. When she was at the river with me, when they pulled out the VW."

Ozzie finished loading the second chamber. "No. No, I didn't. I saw Sandra maybe once or twice back in the old days. She looked a lot different then — longer hair. Dyed black, I think."

"Four men were all shot by one gunman — Aaron Brandon, then Hector Mara and George Berton, then Del Brandon. None of them fought back, except maybe Hector. None of them expected this guy to be their assassin."

"Argues that it could've been a woman."

"Except I know where Ines was the night Del was killed."

Ozzie prepped the gun for firing, but lowered it and sighed. "Chich Gutierrez, then. I told you, kid. You can't figure gang-bangers like that."

"Attila the rat."

His eyes glistened like ice over his smile. "Absolutely. Let them beat it out of Chicharron, once they haul him in. Or give them Sandra Mara if you really want. One of them will have the answers."

The nausea was starting to fade. I managed to get back on my feet. "A girl at the Poco Mas told me about a guy Hector Mara was arguing with a few weeks ago — big Anglo guy, dark hair, she thought his name was something like Branson."

"Del Brandon."

"That's what I thought too. Now I'm not sure."

Harold Diliberto had just about reassembled the .357, but the magazine wasn't going in right. It was jamming on something. Harold was listening to us with half his attention, trying to get the gun working with the rest, and his IQ divided by two projects yielded some pretty small numbers.

"Chich had an insider with the police department," I said. "I wondered if it was Kelsey."

Ozzie turned toward the target, examined it placidly. "Who's paying you to speculate, kid? UTSA isn't writing any more checks for this investigation." Ozzie was right. I could've left it alone. Instead I kept wondering aloud, watching Harold's hands as they refitted Gerson's .357.

"Del Brandon wasn't smart enough to run heroin through RideWorks by himself. He didn't have the steel to set up his dad's murder, or his brother's, or anybody else's. He must've had somebody behind him telling him what to do, a silent partner. I'm thinking this silent guy went to Jeremiah Brandon first, back in '92. He had a great idea — use talent from the local gangs to help run drugs through the carnival circuit. Only Jeremiah wouldn't have anything to do with it. When Mr. Silent got insistent, Jeremiah flexed a little muscle and ruined this guy's day job. Mr. Silent held a grudge. He figured RideWorks would be a whole lot easier to profit from with somebody stupider at the helm. He helped set up Jeremiah's murder, told Del exactly how to do it. When the dust settled, he told Del how to pressure Hector Mara into the heroin deal. Later, when Aaron Brandon came back to town and got a little too hard to control, it was Del's partner who killed him and framed Zeta Sanchez. How does that sound so far?" Ozzie had lowered the gun, apparently not happy with the sight. He made one more adjustment, lifted the rifle again. "I'd rest your mouth, kid. You're still weak."

"Hector Mara must've found out the gunman's identity. Or maybe Hector had known all along and hadn't been brave enough to do anything about it. After Aaron Brandon was murdered, Hector got scared for his sister. He started talking with George Berton. Hector had two keys of Chich's heroin which he'd been planning to use as a getaway fund for himself and his sister. George persuaded him to bring it over instead, use it as evidence against Del. Unfortunately, Hector's partner got wind of what was happening. He went to Berton's house to take care of things. He wanted to leave two corpses, but he screwed up. Chich's men moved in a little faster than he expected, or maybe it was a little harder to kill George than he'd figured. The gunman retrieved the heroin for himself, killed Mara, but he left Berton alive, a loose end. The gunman figured Chicharron was good for the murder, but he couldn't wait around hoping that George would die before he ID'ed his shooter. Besides, Del was getting nervous. As dense as he was, Del was starting to realize he'd be the one on the spot if his partner cut out. So Del started talking to the police — not yet giving away his partner, but it was only a matter of time. So the gunman killed Del. Then he decided to cut his losses, take a little vacation with his winnings."

Ozzie laughed. "You definitely need to be out of the sun, kid. Let's ride back together."

"Not with you, Ozzie."

He still hadn't fired. Diliberto clicked the .357 magazine into place and was frowning back and forth between us like he wasn't exactly following the conversation.

Ozzie's pale eyes stayed on me. "What are you saying, kid?"

"I'm saying I'm not going anywhere with you because you might get a little trigger-happy, the way you did with George Berton. That social cannibalism you talked about, Ozzie? Attila the rat? The end product isn't Hector or Del or even Zeta. The end product is you. Point the .357 at him, Harold. Now."

Harold, God bless him, did not hesitate. Like everything he'd ever done for me, he did it with unquestioning loyalty and the same completely good-natured incompetence.

Ozzie swung the Remington toward Harold's chest and Harold fired first — nothing. A click, a jammed load. The deer rifle blew a hole in Harold Diliberto's gut and flung him into the door and sawhorses.

I charged into Ozzie; I might've been made of paper for all the impact I made. Ozzie grunted, threw me off, and fumbled to manually load another .243 round. I ran, made it fifteen yards when I heard the bolt action lock. I fell into a sideways roll as the blast turned a chunk of limestone on the ground to dust. Another five feet of blind panic and I hit the edge of the nearest washout — half rolled, half slid into the dry creekbed below.

Another shot cracked the air. I stumbled over river stones like marbles, scrambling to put distance between myself and Ozzie Gerson. My progress seemed insanely loud. My twisted ankle hurt like hell. I reached a turn where the washout joined the creekbed proper and stumbled on.

At a turn in the creekbed a massive live oak levitated against the clay bank on an octopus-shaped tent of roots. I flattened myself against the far side and scoped the ridge, saw nothing. The rattle of my breath was as noisy as a jet. I wanted to curl up inside the hollow underneath the tree and black out, but I knew I would merely be choosing my corner to die in.

Least you changed out of the boxers and the Wild Turkey shirt, part of me said. Better to die in flannel.

The rest of me told that part to shut up.

I forced myself to keep running.

I realized I was heading away from the farmhouse — away from the phone — then realized just as quickly that it didn't matter. Ozzie would expect me to  double back to the house. He'd be able to shoot me before I ever made a call, much less got aid from one. Maybe going in the opposite direction had inadvertently bought me a few minutes.

Ozzie's rifle fired: a whiff of air puffed against my thigh. I launched forward, crashed into deadwood, got up, and kept running.

From somewhere behind me, up on the ridge, Ozzie yelled, "Bad way to play it, Tres. You think I wanted to shoot George? Don't do this. Don't force me like he did, kid."

I could hear him reloading. I staggered forward, around another washout, then another few yards before daring to scramble up the side of the bank and look back. I clung to live-oak roots and lifted my head just over the ridge. In his red-and-white Hawaiian shirt, Ozzie Gerson was easy enough to spot. He was thirty yards away, sideways to me, feeding another round into his rifle. I wondered if the women who gave out leis at the Honolulu airport had nightmares that looked like Ozzie Gerson.

"All I want is what's mine, Tres. You think anybody mourned the Brandons? Or a scumbag like Mara? Your lady friend Sandra, she should be thanking me. I just made her life a whole lot simpler."

Ozzie had the look of a man who was butchering a large animal — cultivating the inner deadness that was necessary to convince himself there was nothing repulsive about the hollowed-out intestinal cavity, the sinews, the exposed ribs. I couldn't double back. Not enough room between us.

The nearest neighbor, Dr. Farn, was a half mile away over an open spread of wheat fields.

I clambered down the ridge, continuing along the creek bank, making enough noise for Ozzie to swing toward me and fire another shot over my head. I could hear him above me now, swishing through the whitebrush. Rocks skittered down the bank. Ozzie cursed as he lost his footing. Then he was up and following again. I'd gained a few feet.

The creekbed continued its labyrinthine turns. The dips and rises and heavy underbrush made visibility low. I crashed over a mound of deadwood and stumbled within feet of a rattler sunning itself on a rock. It didn't even have time to rattle before I was gone.

Twenty yards ahead, I saw the white shell of the old water tower. The tower was a leftover from one of my father's many failed ranch development schemes — a cone of pure lead as tall as I was, lying on its side and rusting in the sun. Just below the cone, in the creekbed, stood another stand of deadwood even larger than the rattler's. I ran to it, shed my shirt and snagged it against the top branch, then scrambled up the ledge to the water tank shell, flattening myself on the ground behind it.

Cicadas buzzed in the heat. A gnat did a kamikaze dive into my nostril. Then I heard Ozzie's steps, very near. Grass scritched. Heavy breathing. I'd hoped for some luck, but he was on my side of the ridge, not more than fifteen feet away, the water tank shell between us. There was no way he couldn't see me.

I heard him lock the rifle bolt into place. Silence.

I waited to be shot.

Instead, I heard more skittering rocks, snapping twigs. Ozzie was slide-climbing down the ridge, toward the shirt on the deadwood.

His voice was aimed away from me when he called, "Come on, Tres. Let's talk."

I scrambled to my feet and pushed. All my strength wasn't much, but the water tank cooperated. It ripped free of its muddy moorings on the edge of the cliff and barreled down the ridge, bouncing once before Ozzie turned and yelled and the cylinder crashed into him with a very satisfying bong. I wanted to believe that Ozzie had been flattened into a redneck tortilla, but his loud curses of pain told me otherwise. I started running, on high ground now.

I could see barbed wire just ahead to the right and past that two hundred acres of Dr. Farn's land, planted with Navarre wheat. Past that, Dr. Farn's farmhouse in an island of pecan trees, and fifty yards farther, the tiny shapes of cars and trucks gliding down the highway. The wheat fields between me and the road would be a killing zone hundreds of yards long with no cover.

As much fun as that sounded, I turned my back on the promise and veered left instead. I ripped through white-brush and cactus, heading back toward the farmhouse.

I bolted forward, tripped over a rusted coil of barbed wire and lost precious time getting my legs untangled. If I lived, I'd need a tetanus shot. When I fell out of the underbrush I found myself once again in the clearing — Harold Diliberto lying collapsed, facedown and unmoving in the weeds, the door-table tilted against one sawhorse like a lean-to. Blood soaked the grass.