"What I can't figure out, no offense, is why everybody wants to talk to you."
"You know what I did before this, Navarre?"
Before this. Ozzie-code for the unapproachable subject: Before I got busted back to patrol.
"County gang task force," I recalled. "Seventeen years, wasn't it?"
I knew it had been fifteen, but the mistake pleased him. Ozzie let it stand. "The reason everybody wants to talk to me — I'm the expert on Zeta Sanchez."
Ozzie said the first name Say-ta, Spanish for the letter Z. He looked at me to see if it rang a bell.
"First part of Zeta's story reads pretty typical — dad died young. Zeta was raised by his mom down at the Bowie Courts, claimed a gang when he was twelve. Head of his set by age fourteen. By fifteen he'd started piecing out some West Side heroin action."
Dispatch crackled a call for another unit. Ozzie craned his ear to listen: 10-59 — suspicious vehicle report.
"Over by Lackland." Gerson wagged an accusing finger at me. "Probably some damn P.I."
"You were saying?"
Ozzie frowned at the MDT terminal, then back at the freeway. He took the exit for South Presa.
"I arrested Zeta Sanchez so many times when he was growing up, I feel like I practically raised him. When he was about seventeen he left the small stuff behind — the gang-banging, the drugs — and got a job with Jeremiah Brandon."
"Aaron Brandon's father."
"He made amusement park rides."
Ozzie laughed. "Yeah. You know anything about the carnival circuit?"
"You mean like candied apples? Duck shoots?"
"The carnies are havens for cons. Smugglers. Thieves. Murderers. Grifters. Name your flavor. Jeremiah Brandon did business with all of them. By the time he died, Jeremiah was calling himself the King of the South Texas carnivals. Had the amusement-ride market sewn up all over the Southwest and northern Mexico. And he wasn't just selling rides, kid. Brandon would fence stolen property for his buddies on the circuit, launder their cash, make problem employees go away. A whole network of people all over the country owed him favors. You wanted some goods smuggled out of state, or you wanted to disappear, or you needed to find some hired guns for a quick job, Jeremiah could help. You worked for him, you could make some big money."
"Which Zeta Sanchez did?"
"For a couple of years, Zeta Sanchez was Jeremiah Brandon's right-hand
"A kid from the Bowie Courts."
"Jeremiah always hired from the West Side. He set himself up like a feudal lord down there — bought up the local businesses for his cronies to run, slept with any of the women he wanted to, recruited the meanest talent from the local gangs. Wasn't any accident he was killed at that cantina on Zarzamora. That was where old Jerry held court, bought drinks every night, let his employees grovel to him. He'd lend them money, get them out of trouble — whatever they needed, as long as they remembered who owned them."
"I'm probably being too easy on him. The thing was, King Jerry knew talent when he saw it, and he saw it in Zeta Sanchez. He started Sanchez on simple stuff — arm-breaking, fencing, your occasional murder. Pretty soon Sanchez was flying all over the country collecting from RideWorks' delinquent debtors, bringing back attaché cases full of cash. Brandon was so pleased he gifted Sanchez with a gold-plated .45 revolver for a calling card. Beautiful weapon."
"And they lived happily ever after."
"Until the Brandons screwed Sanchez, yeah. Jeremiah's sons, Del and Aaron — they started getting a little jealous about this upstart Mexican getting so tight with their old man. They decided to sour the relationship, turn Dad against Sanchez. Pretty soon the favors toward Sanchez were drying up. Sanchez and Jeremiah argued more and more. Then a rumor got around that old Jeremiah had been boinking Sanchez's wife, pretty little thing about seventeen, eighteen years old. Wouldn't have been the first time Jeremiah did something like that. Most of his mistresses came from the families he employed. Who'd complain? Like I said, you took Brandon's money, everything you had belonged to Brandon. Sanchez forgot that — forgot he was just hired help."
"And when Sanchez heard the rumor about his wife—"
"Sanchez decided to take a little nighttime drive down to the Poco Mas, have a chat with the Old Man. Jeremiah was at his booth like always, polishing off a bottle of Cuervo, hitting on some chiquitas. Jukebox was going. Place was packed. So Sanchez walks up to his boss, cool and easy, and draws on him — that same damn gold-plated .45 Jeremiah had given him. Empties every damn round into Jeremiah's chest. Hollow-tipped bullets, filled with mercury. Then Sanchez goes to the bar, takes a shot of tequila, walks out. Course by the time we come asking, nobody saw anything. Nobody remembered what the gunman looked like."
"You were at the scene?"
"You ever seen a man with no chest, kid? I mean, hollowed out like a balloon? You don't forget that too easy. I'm telling you..."
Ozzie glanced over in weary camaraderie, his smile pleasant and dead as an open-casket display.
We turned into a worn-down residential area and cruised the streets. Every white person in every yard waved. The Latinos and a few African Americans stared at us. None of them waved.
Ozzie watched the houses go by, his big glassy eyes deconstructing the architecture and the landscapes and the people in the yards with the same dispassionate criticism.
"Not enough trees," he said.
"I couldn't live here. Not enough trees. And all the garages in the front. Makes
for an ugly facade."
"What happened to Zeta Sanchez after he killed Jeremiah?"
Ozzie's gaze kept sliding over the lawns and garages. "Disappeared. Word was he ran to Mexico to escape a hit by Brandon's older son, Del, who took over the business. Or maybe Sanchez got hit and was buried in the countryside somewhere. The manhunt yielded exactly nothing. There never was any hard evidence to connect Sanchez to the kill — no shells. No prints. None of the witnesses would break no matter how hard we questioned, not and risk retaliation from Sanchez's veterano friends on the West Side. Sanchez just vanished. Jeremiah Brandon's murder case stayed open — still is, but you know how it goes. Old Jeremiah wasn't exactly a great loss to society. Then about three weeks ago, Sanchez reappeared. Just showed up at the Poco Mas. Walked in after six years like he was a regular guy, ordered a tequila shot, and told the bartender to call some of his old vatos, tell them the 'Z' was back in town."
"And a few days after that, Aaron Brandon, Jeremiah's younger son, was shot to death in his living room."
"That's about the size of it."
"Aaron was an English professor."
"Maybe now. But six years ago? Back then he was snarled up good in the family business. My guess, he was helping his brother Del put a knife in Sanchez's back."
"You got anything more than a guess?"
Ozzie's head jerked back in a silent laugh. "You know what the M.E. pulled out of Aaron Brandon's fireplace last Saturday?"
"Better than that. Hollow-tipped bullets, mercury-filled. Not many sons of bitches ever used that kind of artillery in San Antonio."
"And there's a witness. The professor's wife and kid were out of town but they got this maid lives above the garage. Everybody else in the neighborhood is pretty much deaf old retirees, but the maid heard the two shots, gave a pretty good description of the guy she saw coming out of Brandon's back door just afterward. She made a positive ID on Sanchez in a photo lineup."
"Two shots with a .45, in a quiet residential neighborhood. Sanchez just strolls out the back door and is nice enough to leave a witness. This after he was smart enough to stay hidden since when — '93?"
"Revenge makes you stupid. Thing about gang-bangers, they're smart only in the ways that they're smart. Kind of like academics."
"I'm telling you, Navarre. I know Sanchez. He's good for the murder. SAPD looks where I told them to look, they'll nail his ass. Let's get some food." Ozzie cut across Military Drive and pulled into the parking lot of a Circle K that squatted at the entrance of a particularly bleak subdivision.
When the big-haired cashier saw Ozzie, she rolled her eyes. "Where the hell you been all week?"
"Busy, Mabel. Hot dogs warm? Damn near gave me E. coli last time."
"Oh, the hell they did," Mabel grumbled. "You wish some bacteria'd eat off that extra flesh of yours, Ozzie Gerson."
"Balls." Ozzie went behind the counter and pulled two foam cups from the special cop dispenser.
I kid you not. There is a special cop dispenser. The cups say FOR POLICE USE ONLY.
He tossed me one. "You're honorary today, Navarre. Help yourself."
I got some Big Red. Ozzie went for Pepsi. For police use only. Do not try this at home. We are trained professionals. We know how to pour soda into these special cups.
Ozzie grabbed two hot dogs and offered me one. I declined.
Ozzie began chewing on both of them. He eyed a couple of large Latinos in construction clothes who were buying cigarettes from Mabel.
"What about the pipe bomb at UTSA?" I asked him. "The death threats?"
Ozzie kept chewing. "You mean was that Sanchez? Why not? Solidox bomb is an old gang scare tactic. Lot of the veteranos know how to make them."
"They learn how to craft political hate mail, too?"
Ozzie dabbed the ketchup off his jowls with a Circle K napkin. He kept his eyes on the Latinos at the register, who were now asking for a fill-up on number four.
"I don't know, Navarre. Don't waste your time trying to figure out Zeta Sanchez. He's a gang-banger. He passed the exit for humans a long time ago." "Bullshit."
Ozzie shrugged. "You don't want to hear it, don't. Jeremiah and Aaron Brandon weren't white, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. We'd let Sanchez go on killing his own. Tell me it ain't so."
I tried to control the swell of anger in my throat, the feeling that I was back in my father's patrol car again, arguing social issues until common sense started to bend like light around a black hole. Ozzie was one of the last of my father's generation on the force, the last who could give me that feeling. Maybe that's why I'd kept in touch with Ozzie over the years. A sort of negative nostalgia. Ozzie met my eyes, tried to soften his look of obstinance. "Listen, kid. It's like I told Erainya — leave this murder to the SAPD. All your friend Berton's got to do is dig around UTSA a little, talk to some Mexican activist groups, decide they've got nothing to do with the case and UTSA is safe. And I'm telling you — this has got nada to do with campus politics. UTSA will be grateful, you'll get paid for doing squat, we'll get Sanchez in custody, everybody will be happy."
"Except Aaron Brandon, his wife, his kid."
Ozzie's eyes were the color of frozen vodka. "So the prof had a family. You become a cop, Navarre, you take that reverse gear and you rip it out of your transmission. You don't go backward. You don't think about what you can't change."