I flipped the document into Del's chest. "Won't do you much good in jail, partner."

He tried to grab the front of my shirt.

I intercepted his wrist, forced it down on the Formica tabletop. "Temper," I said softly.

Ines hissed, "Stop it! Both of you."

Del yanked his hand away. "You want to see something from my lawyers, Navarre? You'll get it."

"Del," Ines said. "You have what you wanted. Now leave."

Del kept glaring at me. He folded the papers, pocketed them. "Don't fucking come near me again, Navarre. You understand?"

"Good-bye, Del," Ines insisted.

Brandon shoved the metal chair back, gave me one last drop-dead look, then pushed past the waitress who was just bringing the food. The waitress called after him, "But... sir—?"

I tapped the table for her. "Right here, please."

Ines and Michael and Jem accepted their meals without a word. Low-cal chicken breast salad for Ines. Hot dogs and corn on the cob for Michael and Jem. Del had ordered the Sonora casserole platter with black-eyed peas and buttered squash and enough corn bread to construct a small toolshed. That was fine by me.

At the next table, the older couple sawed into their chicken-fried steaks. The geezer with the cowboy hat looked away quickly when I caught his eye.

Ines poked at her salad. Jem ate his hot dog. Michael sat frowning at his.

"Michael, eat your food," Ines said.

"Not hungry."

"Try the corn. You like corn on the cob."

Michael picked at the corn skeptically.

Jem got halfway through his dinner and announced himself full.

"Tell you what, guys," I said. "I've got some quarters. How about you check out the sticker machines by the entrance. See if you can get me a Betty Boop, okay?"

Jem negotiated for a Felix the Cat, too. I told him he drove a hard bargain. Then I fished out as many quarters as I had and handed them over. I got out of the booth and let Jem and Michael scramble past.

When I scooted back in, I tried to concentrate on Del's Sonora casserole — corn tortilla, cheese, squash, tomato, a hint of salsa and sour cream. Eating was easier than what I needed to say.

"I didn't expect Del," Ines told me. "I wouldn't have brought the boys."

"Why did you sell out?"

She stabbed her fork into the salad. A strip of mirror set into the black wall tiles by Ines' shoulder gave back her reflection, hazy with grease specks.

"I don't want any part of RideWorks," she said. "What's the difference?"

"You really think signing the company over will keep Del silent about you?"

Her hesitation was almost imperceptible. She brought the fork to her mouth, took a bite, only then glanced up. "What are you blathering about?"

"You're Sandra Mara."

She tried to maintain her look of cold annoyance, but something in her eyes spiraled downward. She lowered her fork, arranged it parallel to her plate. "No. I'm not."

At the entrance of the diner, Jem and Michael scrutinized the toy vending machines, looking for just the right investment. Behind them, the second hand on the pink neon bar clock ticked its way between the only two numbers — 4 and 10.

Ines managed a small, bitter laugh.

"You don't know..." she started. "You can't possibly know how many times I've anticipated this conversation. I've imagined facing a cop. Or a veterano with a gun pointed at me. Now I'm sitting across from a pissant private dick who's a closet English teacher and his boss' baby-sitter, and the best I can come up with to save myself is, 'No, I'm not.'"

"I wouldn't call it baby-sitting."

She crumpled her napkin, threw it against the A.l. steak sauce in disgust.

"Well" — her voice dry as a West Texas creekbed— "what now?"

"Wish I knew."

Cheers from across the room. The three Anglos by the window were applauding the waitress as she brought them fresh margaritas.

Ines said, "Tres, I can't lose my son."

"Don't you think I've considered that?"

"The police would find reasons to take him away. If Zeta knew, he'd have me killed. You haven't—"

"Not yet. I wasn't sure until tonight. Paloma has some of your old things, some mementos you meant to get rid of. One of them was a sailor's-head mug. There's three just like it in the farmhouse on Green Road. Something from your grandmother?"

Ines pushed her salad away. "What do you want?"

"Tell me you didn't know about your husband's murder. Tell me you're innocent."

"Why? So your report will be more complete?"

"Come on, Sandra."

"Don't call me that."

"Ines, then. Let me help."

"Zeta will have me killed. Michael will have no one."

"Talk to me. We'll figure it out."


I dropped my fork into the casserole. "You're right. You should be having this conversation with someone else."

I started to slide out of the booth.

Ines said, "Wait."

She studied me, her hands pressed together, fingertips to her lips. She looked like she was weighing a lot of options she didn't like.

"You want to know about Sandra Mara?" she asked. "Let me tell you about Sandra Mara."

She sat forward, tapped the scar on the bridge of her nose. "Sandra Mara got this when she was eleven, trying to fend off her drunk stepfather. She didn't do a very good job. He broke her nose with a beer bottle. If he hadn't scared himself so bad with the amount of blood coming from her face, that would've been her first experience with sex."


"Just listen," she insisted. "You think that was unusual for a girl in the Bowie Courts? My point is, most girls would've fought better. They would've had their own razor blades by then and known how to use them. At least they would've screamed, raised hell with their mother or their brothers, told somebody the truth about what had happened. Sandra did none of that. She was too afraid. She spent the next five years in the Rosedale Library, every afternoon and evening, reading books, trying to avoid going home. By the time she was thirteen, when the neighborhood locas threatened to kill her if she didn't join a gang, Sandra had read Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, fifty other books — but she had no survival skills. She would've died if her brother Hector hadn't joined Zeta Sanchez's set, got himself shot in the leg so his little sister would have the right connections to be left alone."

Jem and Michael had scored their first purchase from the sticker machine. Michael was prying open the plastic capsule while Jem watched impatiently. "You're pretty hard on yourself," I said.

Ines picked a toothpick from the dispenser, rolled it between her thumb and finger. "Sandra Mara couldn't have been a mother, Tres. Her idea of heaven was her grandmother's farm, where she and Hector moved when she was sixteen. No homeboys running through the house. No strung-out mother or drunk stepfather to avoid. Nothing to keep Sandra from losing herself in books. She even got a college scholarship her senior year. But you don't get away from the South Side without a fight. The same afternoon Sandra found out about the scholarship—"

"—was the afternoon Hector brought Zeta Sanchez out to visit," I said. "I read your journal."

Her mouth hardened with distaste. "When you dig into somebody's past, you really dig, don't you?"

"It wasn't hard to find."

Ines snapped her toothpick, flicked the pieces away. "If you read it, you know. Sandra and Zeta hadn't seen each other in two or three years, since back at the Courts, when Sandra hadn't been much to look at. But Zeta looked at her that afternoon, and you know what? Sandra couldn't fight it. Hector couldn't help her. She let herself get claimed. Zeta and Sandra got married two months later. A few months after that, Zeta said, 'You stop college.' Sandra went along with that, too."

"Zeta Sanchez wouldn't be an easy person to fight."

Ines stared at me as if her perspective were shifting, as if she were suddenly aware that I was much farther away than she'd thought. "Maldicion. Always an excuse, eh? Always a reason to give in. You and Sandra Mara would have gotten along fine, Tres. Sandra might've had five or six of Zeta's babies after quitting school, waited for Zeta to get tired of her and leave, or start using her as a punching bag. Sandra saw her mom go through all that. Would've been easy to follow tradition. But that fall while I was at Our Lady of the Lake, something happened that made me want to stop being Sandra Mara."

"You met Aaron," I said.

"I told you the truth. I was in his class that fall. I didn't know Aaron had any connection to Zeta's employer, Ride-Works. I don't think Zeta ever made the connection. He never realized Aaron had been one of my teachers. Aaron was..." She laughed frailly. "Aaron was a lousy lecturer. The other students used to gripe to each other before he came into class each day. Aaron's face would twitch whenever he talked about violent scenes in a book, which of course were the scenes he focused on most. So one time before class, this idiot P.E. major behind me joked that Professor Brandon must've been abused as a child. The other students just laughed. I didn't say anything, but I was furious. I promised myself that I was going to be on Dr. Brandon's side after that. I started going to his office hours, discussing books, having coffee with him in the cafeteria. We understood each other almost immediately. Aaron and I could finish each other's sentences from the first day we talked. By the end of the semester, we'd fallen in love. In the spring, after Zeta had forced me to quit school, Aaron and I still found excuses to cross paths a lot... Things just took their course."

"Aaron got you pregnant in April, and you had to make a choice. You chose to invent a new life."

There were color variations in the deep brown of her eyes that I'd never noticed before — jagged yellow and amber lines, as if her irises too had been fractured in the distant past.

"Sandra couldn't have broken away from Zeta," she said. "Sandra couldn't have protected her child. Weeks before Del ever arranged an ID for me that said I was Ines Garcia from Del Rio, I'd already started thinking of myself as that new person. And I promised myself Ines would do whatever she had to for her baby."

I studied the woman across from me — the fierce sincerity in her face, the disheveled hair, the little crumple of packing tape on her sleeve, and the incongruous explosion of colors on the front of her Fiesta T-shirt.

I tried to reinvoke the chill I'd felt a few minutes before, when she'd first referred to herself in the third person. I couldn't do it. The fact that I'd been accepting her story, starting to understand the way she described herself in two distinct layers, scared me.

"Del knew about you and Aaron," I said.

"Of course. He warned us our lives were in danger if Zeta or Jeremiah ever found out. He was probably right. He offered to arrange a new ID for me, a few other papers, and get me safely out of town. That was easy for Del — he'd done it often enough for his father's cronies. In return, Aaron was supposed to hand over his share of RideWorks when the time came to inherit. What did Aaron care about that damn company? He loved me and we wanted to be together. He agreed. He'd already lined up his Permian Basin job for the following fall, so I disappeared into West Texas to wait for him and have our baby."