"Milo's doing all right."

Ralph laughed. "Isn't he the one almost got you killed out in San Francisco?"

"That's one interpretation."

"Yeah. You remember that shit we used to drop in water in chemistry class? What was that—"


"That's it. Boom, right? That shit is you and Chavez, man. I can't believe you're talking to that pinche bastard again. You thought about that offer I made you earlier?"

"I wouldn't be into it, Ralphas. I got enough worries."

Ralph blew a line of marijuana smoke against the window. He shook his head.

"I don't get you. I been trying since high school and I still don't. You push a guy off a smokestack ten stories up"

"Special circumstances. He was going to kill me."

"You break some pendejo's leg just because an old lady asked you to, for no money."

"He was ripping off her social security checks, Ralphas."

"Now you work for Chavez when you know he's going to fuck you up, man. Then I offer you five hundred a week easy, doing the same kind of shit, and you tell me you're not into it. Loco."

Chico had been quiet so far. Now he turned his head slightly and said, "Fuck him."

I looked at Ralph.

Ralph took another toke. "Chico's new."

"I got that."

Chico kept his eyes on the road, left hand on the wheel, and huge right arm draped along the top of the bench seat. He had LA RAZA tattooed in very small letters on his deltoid. His hair was covered with a yellow bandanna, tied in back, piratestyle.

"Fuck him," he said again. "What you need his pansy ass for, man?"

Ralph smiled at me. "Eh, Chico, this guy's okay. I saved his ass from some shitkickers in high school."

"You saved me?"

"Yeah, man. You remember." Then to Chico: "Changed his life, man. Became this martial arts badass. He's good."

Chico grunted, unimpressed. "Guy I knew in the pen did tae kwon do. Kicked the shit out of him."

We kept driving.

Pawnshop Number Fourteen was in a fiveunit strip mall just off Hillcrest, sandwiched between the Mayan Taco King and Joleen's Beauty Shop. Number Fourteen's bright yellow marquee said WE BUY GOLD!!!! The windows were painted with pumpkins and witches and smiling cartoon dollar signs that didn't quite go with the burglar bars and the shotgun displays aside.

A gallery ran in front of the mall, covered by a metal awning held up by square white posts. Leaning against the posts outside Number Fourteen were two young Latino guys, maybe seventeen, both in black jeans and Raiders jackets. They would've made good fullbacks if they'd been in school. Sitting on the sidewalk between them, leaning back on his elbows, was a much skinnier kid who'd evidently done his clothes shopping with the fullbacks. On all of them the clothes were huge and baggy, but especially on the skinny guy. The three of them looked like a family of elephants who'd gotten a group rate on liposuction.

Ralph and Chico walked up to them. I followed.

None of the kids moved, but the skinny one in the middle smiled. He had the pointiest chin I'd ever seen, with a little spiky tuft of adolescent beard at the tip. It made the lower half of his face look like it had been fashioned out of a stirrup.

"Boss man," he said. "?Que pasa?'

Ralph smiled back. "Vega. You want to take your Chiquita’s here and play somewhere else? You're cramping my business, man."

I got the feeling Ralph and Vega had gone through this a couple of times before. They looked at each other, both smiling, waiting for something to break.

What broke was our new man Chico's patience. He detached himself from Ralph's side and said, "Fuck this."

He walked up to the skinny kid and lifted him by his jacket with one hand. Maybe that would've been impressive if the kid hadn't weighed ninety pounds, or if Chico hadn't planted his legs apart and given Vega a beautiful opportunity to knee him in the balls.

Vega's knee was mostly bone, and what he lacked in weight he made up for in ferocity.

As he kneed Chico, Vega's face tightened and his teeth clenched so hard his tuft of beard almost touched his lower lip.

Chico grunted, dropped the kid, then doubled over and started turning around in slow motion. Chico's face was the same colour as his bandanna. One of the fullbacks kicked him from behind and Chico went sideways onto the asphalt groaning: "Mierda, mierda."

I looked at Ralph. "He's new."


Vega adjusted his baggy clothes and sat back down, smiling again. He rubbed his little beard and told his buddies what a big tough pachuco Chico was. They laughed.

"Oh, man," said Vega, "you had some customers come by today, Boss, but they didn't look like a good type of people, right? We told them no way. We're looking out for you good."

About then a scrawny grayhaired man shuffled out of the pawnshop, looked at Ralph a little fearfully, and started apologizing in Spanish.

"Mr. Arguello, I swear I didn't know they were out here. I chased them off twice already."

Then the old man started waving a rolledup newspaper at the three kids, halfheartedly telling them to go away. Nobody paid him any attention. The kids were looking at the .357 Magnum Ralph was now holding.

"You know, vato," Ralph said to me casually, "used to be you had just La Familia coming to you. Least they were adults, right? Now you've got these pinche kids, think just because they can beat up their math teacher they got a right to protection money.

Sad, man. It's really sad."

Vega looked at the gun in Ralph's hand like it was a big joke. "You gonna shoot me, Boss Man?"

Vega wasn't afraid. Maybe you don't get afraid when you're seventeen and you've got your set behind you and you know guns the way other kids know skateboards.

On the other hand, I didn't like the way Ralph was smiling. I'd seen Ralph use a .22 like a staple gun on a guy who'd touched his girlfriend in a bar. Ralph had been smiling the same way as he stapled the guy's palm flat against the wooden counter.

"We got guns," Vega said. "Like in the middle of the night. Outside your house, right?"

Chico was on his hands and knees now, taking noisy breaths and mumbling that he was going to kill them.

Vega looked down and said, "Good dog."

That got another laugh from his fullbacks.

Ralph was perfectly still, frozen. I figured I had a few seconds before he made up his mind what part of this kid's body he was going to blow a hole in.

"You three need to leave," I said.

Vega looked at me for the first time. "Who's this, Boss Man? This your girlfriend?"

Before Ralph could shoot, I grabbed Vega's ankles and pulled. The kid went back off his elbows and hit his head on the cement edge of the stairs. I dropped him just as his fullback buddies realized they needed to act.

I don't often use Ride the Tiger. Usually you don't get opponents attacking the way a tiger does, from above. As the first kid jumped me I slid into bow stance and swept my arms up in a circle, my right hand rolling against his chest and my left hand against his leg. He flew over me like he'd been bounced over the top of a spinning wheel. I didn't look behind to see how he landed on the asphalt of the parking lot.

The second kid tackled me from the side. I hooked his baggy jacket, turned my waist hard, and flipped him over my knee. He landed on his butt with a muffled crack.

By the time I saw Vega move out of the corner of my eye and saw the flash of metal and I turned, it would've been too late.

There was a click.

The kid was propped up on one elbow, a long knife in his hand, the tip frozen six inches away from my thigh. Ralph was kneeling next to him, smiling calmly, the muzzle of his .357 pressed hard into Vega's eye. Vega's head tilted up at the same angle as the barrel, as if he was looking into the eyepiece of a telescope. His free eye was twitching violently.

"The man put you on the ground, ese," Ralph told him amiably. "You got any sense, that's where you stay."

The three of us stayed frozen for a couple of centuries. Then, finally, Vega's knife clattered against the pavement. "You're dead, Boss Man. You know that?"

Ralph grinned. "Twenty or thirty times, ese."

Ralph took Vega's knife, then stood up and put away Mr. Subtle. I looked around. The guy I'd knocked on his butt was still on his butt. He was staring at me. His eyes were watering and he was tilting sideways, trying to get away from the pain. The guy I'd thrown into the parking lot was trying to stand up, but it looked like his left shoulder was glued to the pavement. I think maybe his collarbone was broken.

I got the kids to their feet and started herding them out of the lot.

They shuffled down Bandera, Vega shouting back at me that they knew where I lived and my family was dead. I called after Vega that his buddy would need a doctor for the collarbone. Vega shot me the finger. His eye was still twitching from the cold, oily nudge of the .357 muzzle.

When I came back to the front door of Number Fourteen, Chico was sitting on the sidewalk, trying not to throw up. He looked up at me resentfully.

"Lucky shot," I said. "I thought you had him."

The old man with the rolledup newspaper was trying to explain to Ralph that everything was fine and he would have it under control from now on. He looked nervous.

Ralph grinned at me and brought out a clip of money and peeled off a few bills.

"Least I can do, man."

The going price for beating up teenagers was two hundred dollars. A lot more expensive than a few .357 rounds. I gave the money back to Ralph.

"No thanks."

Ralph shook his head in amazement. "So you wouldn't be into it, eh, vato "

He laughed. Then he turned and went into Number Fourteen to check on business.


There are definite disadvantages to teaching a fouryearold to tell time. As soon as I walked in Erainya's front door at six that evening Jem looked up at me from the diningroom table, pointed at his Crayola Swatch, and told me I was late. We now had only thirty minutes before our movie started at the Galaxy. He didn't want to miss the previews.

He scooted out from the table and rushed toward me. Instead of our usual fulltackle hug he screamed "Watch!" as he ran, then proved how well he'd been practicing his moves by landing a flying kick in my crotch.

There are also disadvantages to teaching a fouryear old martial arts.

I wiped away a few tears and limped with him into the kitchen, assuring him he was learning the basics just fine.

The kitchen smelled like burnt fila and garlic. It always smelled like Erainya had just been cooking, though I'd never actually caught her doing it. I suspected she'd snuck an entire sweatshop full of Greek cooks back from the old country and kept them locked in the basement when she had company over. Of course this was the same woman who'd shot her husband, so I'd never gotten the courage to actually check her basement. No telling what or who else I'd find down there.

Erainya handed me a threesection paper plate loaded with Mediterranean food. It was so thickly covered with Saran Wrap I couldn't tell exactly what was underneath the wrap. I only knew it was food because Erainya handed me a plate like that every time I came over. Apparently my uncertain employment status hadn't changed the ritual.

"Just in time," I said. "I was beginning to think I might have to go shopping this month."