Pablo called me this morning; I figured he would. There's some kind of nonsense going on over in Five points — two, three, sometimes four bodies turning up dead every week for the past six. Pablo and the rest of the cops down there . . . hey care. But as long as it's just homeless people and hookers dying, the brass in the City and County Building isn't willing to authorize any more manpower or overtime.

And so far, it's just been homeless people and hookers dying down here.

So yeah, I figured he'd call me soon enough. I don't count as "more manpower" since I'm on the payroll and receive my monthly stipend check, no matter how much or little I do for them. It's small enough that the City of Denver thinks they're getting a good deal. It's large enough that I don't have to worry as much about the talk of furloughs on my day job or covering my mortgage. To be honest, if it weren't for the mortgage, I wouldn't care about the money at all; I contract with them for the insurance.

I'm a little surprised it's taken me this long to call, though. He must have had a lead on who was doing this, and the lead didn't pan out. To hear him tell it, that happens more often than not.

Me? I try not to think about it.

We meet for an early breakfast on Sunday morning at Le Peep's by City Park. It still feels plenty weird talking about murder over skillet breakfasts and morning beverages — several pots of coffee for him, a pitcher or two of Arnold Palmers for me. And this weirdness persists, even though we've been doing this since I was in grad school, even before I started working for the Denver PD. Used to be, when he first made detective, we'd talk about all the different types of crime that went on in Denver. Since he transferred to Homicide a few years back, all we talk about now is murder.

When he's not flirting outrageously, that is.

But I know it's serious when all he says is, "Hey, Andrea . . . thanks for meeting me," as he slides into the booth across from me.

I shrug as I sip my lemonade-laced tea. Even an ordinary person can see he's wound up, working on a deficit of sleep, and not a happy camper. "It's Five Points, isn't it?" I say as I put the glass done. "How much more do you know than I do?"

"How much do you know?" he asks, pouring coffee from the carafe into his mug.

"I've wandered down there three nights in the past week."

He nods. "Then you probably know at least as much as we do." He tries to smile, but in his current state, it looks more like a grimace. "The coverage in the News is typically sensationalized, but the Post has accurate if incomplete information. Your observations probably told you everything else we know. I want to know what you found out that we might have missed."

"Fair enough." We drop the conversation while Liza takes our order and gives us a bit of teasing about having been "dating" long enough . . . and that it's probably time we move in together. She laughs as we simultaneously roll our eyes at her before taking our orders back to the kitchen. What she doesn't know — what Pablo probably doesn't know that I know — is that he's half-hoping our relationship will eventually head down that road. But despite what he hopes — hell, despite what I sometimes hope — we both know the dangers of dating someone you work with. True, my employment with the Denver Police Department is contractual. And it's also true that I only get called in on the awful cases or cases that DPD doesn't want to or can't afford to handle. None of that negates the fact that Pablo is my primary point of contact with the department. He'd be happy enough to set me up with any of the other detectives as departmental liaisons. Hell, even Captain Sanchez himself! But I think he has more than just an inkling of how hard that would be for me.

It had taken a year-and-a-half of almost weekly gentle badgering — and his ex-partner's murder — to get me to talk to him about working for the City of Denver. He knows I'm skittish about trusting people outside my family, outside the People with this secret of mine. Now, I know Captain Sanchez knows all about me and my secret. He's the man who can make things happen. He's the man who gets Ninja what she needs to do her job. He's the man who keeps Andrea's identity a secret. So sure, he knows me . . . but I don't know him.

It's hilarious — and not in the ha ha ho ho way, either — that Pablo just, well, accepts what I do and trusts me to do the right thing. He's never asked just what it is that I do, not even once. It's almost as if he doesn't want to know.

I take another sip of tea, then set the glass down before taking a cleansing breath. This never gets easier, no matter how often I go through this ritual dance with him. But sitting calmly, hands resting easily in my lap with lao gong points aligned, I can convey the information without becoming emotionally attached to it.

"All seven working girls work or have worked for Jimmy T in the past year. All the homeless folks are from out of town; they arrived in Denver in the past four to six months. You guys might know that already. Every single homeless person — ten, by my count — was from back East, New York State . . . specifically, from somewhere near the Capital. Two were from Albany, one from Schenectady, three from Troy, one from Altamont, two from Delmar, and the latest was from Rexford."

He shakes his head slowly. "Andrea, I don't know how the help you do that. Yes, we got the Jimmy T connection and even the fact that the homeless people were from out of town. But to pinpoint it like that? I haven't even heard of some of those towns. I swear to God, you're psychic!"

I shake my head in response. "I just listen, Pablo. People talk among themselves when they think they're alone." I shrug. "I assume you're looking for something more than just listening at this point."

"You assume correctly."

I nod and look out the window toward City Park. It looks like today will be another typical spring day: sunny, with pleasant enough temperatures that it will be easy enough to tell the natives from the tourists. The Denver natives will be in shorts and shirt sleeves, and the tourists will be in long pants and jackets. And the fierce winds will start blowing off the mountains beyond Golden by mid-morning. The bud-covered branches of the trees across the street are already beginning to sway gently.

"They're not related, you know," I say without turning. "Did your people run any DNA analysis on the homeless people?"

Being in a half-meditative state as I am, his surprise is palpable. I resist the urge to smile.

"Hey, homeless people, Andrea. DNA analysis costs money, and homeless people aren't worth that kind of money." There's anger in his voice, too. He hates anybody getting killed, he hates not knowing who did it, and he hates not having the resources to do his job of finding the culprit.

Hmm. Well, he does have me there.

"And why the hell do you think they're not related?"

At that, I do turn back to him and smile. "As I said, Pablo, I listen. I listen in many places and in many ways. None of it will hold up in a court of law, though." Then I lose the smile. I never can manage a smile when delivering the hard news.

"The girls are Jimmy T's doing. Oh, not directly," I say, holding up a hand to forestall any response. "We both know he'd never let his hands get dirty like that. The best description I can give you at the moment of the killer is dark as a shadow, tall and bulky, walks slow and . . ." Sometimes it's hard to translate what my eyes around town see. "Maybe limping or shambling."

At least one set of eyes had seen him return to Jimmy T's safehouse out near Lowry, but that will be a little more difficult to explain to Pablo. As I said, he's never asked exactly why I needed the Supers Insurance; he's never asked about what talents I have beyond the public record of my martial arts training. That alone — the martial arts training — is enough to get even an ordinary person to register with the City and County. After all, technically, my hands and feet are deadly weapons. Sometimes, when I'm in a particularly good mood, that makes me laugh. Mostly, it just annoys me.

"Now that I know what, or rather who, I'm looking for, I should be able to get you your connection to Jimmy T, and your people can take it from there. The other . . ." I sigh with a bit of relief when Liza comes over with our breakfasts.

"You lovebirds need anything else?" she asks as she puts the skillets on the placemats in front of us, a happy grin on her face.

A matched set of rolled eyes is her answer, and she laughs. "I'll be back in about ten with more coffee and tea for you." She sashays back to the front counter where she and Gracie, the other early morning waitress, are filling salt and pepper shakers, rolling silverware in napkins, and doing other generic prep work. George and Miranda will be arriving soon to help with the full house Le Peep's gets every Sunday morning.

"The other . . ." Pablo prompts.

I eat several forkfuls of food before answering. "You know how New York is. Back in the 90s, Giuliani cleaned up the City by busing all the homeless people out of town. The police were arresting and jailing people for minor offenses. Yes, crime dropped, and it was a more tourist-friendly, cleaner town. And it got him re-elected. Well, the whole state is that way regarding the Unfortunates. I think the only Unfortunates, the only mutants in New York State, are the ones who are actually in New York City. And they hide themselves very, very well." I laugh without humor. "Most counties north of Westchester either bus the less obvious mutants out of state or bus the really obvious ones down to New Jersey. If they don't outright kill them."

If I ever get upset about Colorado's policy on mutants — and I do regularly — I just remember that New York is even worse. At least here, only the most offensive-appearing Unfortunates from the metroplex are set out to Commerce City, although offensive is a pretty subjective term. That doesn't mean people out here are more tolerant of mutants than elsewhere. It just means that the Denver-Boulder area has always been more willing to leave people alone if they aren't causing trouble. Yeah, Unfortunates are shunned, but they aren't usually killed out of hand. But to be somewhat fair to New York, the Supers with less honorable intentions do tend to congregate there. Still . . . it doesn't seem right.

I finish off my glass of tea and our more from the pitcher before continuing.

"We're both too young to remember when Denver was viewed as a safe haven for the gay population back in the late 80s and 90s. It was never the Mecca that San Francisco was, but queer folks flocked here. Of course, I spent most of the 80s and 90s overseas, so I only know what I've read . . . what I've learned from talking to people, what I've learned by listening." I give Pablo a half-smile. Even a decade into the new millennium, there are probably more queer folks per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. outside of San Francisco. And truthfully? Per capita, we might even have them beat.

"Well, that's the same reputation we've got in the Unfort community. Those who can almost but not quite pass for normal know they'll at least be ignored here. There are enclaves all over the city, a few up in Boulder, some out in Jefferson County, one or two in Arapahoe County." I shrug, then continue to eat. This isn't anything he doesn't already know. And he can add two plus two and come up with four.

"So someone else is killing the Unfortunates, using Jimmy T's activities to hide their own," he says, brown eyes angry.

"Got it in one, Chief."

"Well, that would explain why every lead I track down turns into a dead end. And why do you insist on calling me 'chief'?'

"Exactly. And I do it because it tickles me to tease you," I say, repeating the same line he always gets when he asks that question while grinning at him. "A girl's gotta have a little fun every once in a while, you know."

He pretends to throw his fork at me, then laughs. He has a great laugh when he lets himself relax enough to actually laugh. All too quickly, though, he's sober again.

"There isn't anything I can do about the Unfortunates, Andrea."

I've come to know him well enough over the years that it isn't necessary to read his aura to know he's angry and frustrated. And he's just plain tired of being told to ignore any crime where an Unfortunate is a victim. There isn't much I can say to make that any better.

"They've got me. I do what I can. I'll handle it."

"Don't get yourself in trouble over this, Andrea. You work for Denver. Denver says to leave them be."

I think the look I give him might have been called predatory. "I know what Denver says. I know where the line is. But there are things I can do." At the look on his face, I add, "Most of those things are completely legal. And the ones that might not be strictly legal and morally right. Plus, Denver would have a hard time proving I had anything to do with them."

That doesn't really satisfy him, but Liza returns just then with his second pot of coffee and my second pitcher of tea and lemonade. After she leaves to seat a group of college kids who look like they've been partying all night, I continue.

"If your dead homeless people are just homeless people — assumed to be normal homeless people by the City — then both of us are well within our rights to eliminate the threat. And involving me does nothing to upset the bean counters."

"Good thing homeless people don't rate DNA testing," he says sarcastically.

"Sometimes it isn't necessary to spend a lot of money to get just for those who've died," I remind him.

We finish our meal in companionable silence as the restaurant starts filling up. I still have nearly two hours before my traditional 9:00 Sunday morning call with the family in Flagstaff, so I'm not in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. Sometimes . . . sometimes, it's nice to just pretend to be an ordinary person for a while. Of course, Pablo is highly observant for a normal person — it's what makes him such a good detective, I guess. He notices my mood.

"Penny for your thoughts."

I grin at him. "They're worth considerably more than that, Señor Garcia." I shrug as I look around the restaurant. "I was just thinking that sometimes pretending to be normal is nice."

He looks confused. "Isn't that what you do at your day job?"

"Nope. At my day job, I'm working very hard at not being . . ." My eyes dart around the room again, then meet Pablo's as I shrug. "Well, you know."

He nods. "Ah. Right." He understands; we've talked about the similarities between my day job and his undercover assignments back when he was working Narcotics and Vice. Someday . . . someday, he's going to ask what exactly it is that I do. I've been thinking about how I'll answer that question since I first realized we'd become friends. I don't think I'll know how to answer it until he asks. Even then . . . Well, even then, I think it might be hard to explain.

Liza brings us the check; it's my turn to pay, so I pull out my debit card and hand it over to her.

"How soon do you think you'll have something for me?" he asks while we wait for Liza to run the card through her magic money machine.

"Hard to say . . . two, maybe three days." I could give him the address now, but I need to find a human who can describe Jimmy T's thug. Lining up my ducks in a row and all that. It isn't like the thug has been particularly careful. Pablo only needs a starting place; then he can pull the threads that will tie it all back to Jimmy T. It will be nice to get that creep out of circulation for a while. Not that there aren't plenty of others around town, but one less is one less.

Plus, I want to take care of my half of the problem: whoever is killing the Unfortunates.

"Okay. Dinner on Wednesday?" he asks just as Liza returns for my signature on the credit slip.

She half giggles, half snickers as I add the tip and sign the paper. As expected, Pablo and I roll our eyes at her.

"Someday, that joke is going to wear thin, Liza, my dear," I say, handing her the slip.

"Someday, Miss Smarty Pants, it's not going to be a joke," she responds as she snatches the paper, then flounces off to file it away in the cash register.

"If this wasn't my favorite breakfast spot," I say as we both stand to leave, "I'd suggest we start going to the Egg Shell."

He laughs as we walk to the door. "You know we'd wind up with the same problem no matter where we go. We're both entirely too adorable to simply be coworkers, you know."

I punch his arm gently. I learned long ago that my strength is no match for most normal folks. "You know, you could pretend to be my gay cousin or something."

That gets him laughing even harder. "Sure, and you could start wearing flannel shirts and Birkenstocks, and we'll both join the gay chorus. I'm sure we'll be very convincing."

I, too, laugh. "No, we wouldn't, but we'd have a great time. I love to sing, you love to sing . . . and both of us are pretty good at it."

"Keep thinking those crazy thoughts! I'll see you on Wednesday. Las Delicias?"

"Where else? See you then, Chief!"

He mutters something under his breath that I pretend not to hear as he turns toward the parking lot and his car as I head south on York Street with a smile on my face.

* * *

Late that night, dressed in what I have laughingly started to call my "superhero costume," I stand silently in the dark shadows of an alley in the Five Points neighborhood: black shirt, black bolero vest, black pants, black deerskin boots with soft, silent soles . . . and my staff. I listen and watch — the cats are very helpful tonight, feeling more vigorous with the coming of spring, I suspect — in the alleys and abandoned buildings where most of the homeless gather.

As hard as the City tries, they've never been able to eradicate the poverty and crime in this neighborhood. It's much too close to the city center to make them comfortable. It's bad for the tourist trade. They've turned LoDo, Lower Downtown, into a thriving hotspot for yuppies and tourists, with its nightclubs and fancy restaurants. They built Coors Field for their no longer quite-so-new baseball team, the Rockies. They proudly highlight the enlarged and transplanted Elitch Gardens amusement park and the new aquarium. It galls them they can't do the same thing to Five Points.

What the City has never understood is the nature of these areas. LoDo had been home to warehouses, shipping companies, and train yards when nearly everything shipped by rail. Now, only Amtrak stops at Union Station. Half the station has been turned into a restaurant, now that only two trains a day stopping from the east and two from the west. With barely a handful of people coming or going by train each day, Amtrak doesn't rate much space. Union Station had been part of the ghost town of LoDo even when planes still flew out of Stapleton. By the time Denver International had been completed, so had the renovations of Union Sation and the rest of LoDo.

Five Points is different, though. People live here; they always have. The poorest, often homeless people, true. But people are more challenging to move than dust and empty packing crates. Sure, there are other neighborhoods of poor and disenfranchised people, but none of them are adjacent to the central business district. The Five Points neighborhood is not the sort of image Denver wants the world to see when tourists come to call. However, the people who run the City of Denver are still part of the City of Denver. They don't have the kind of cojones people back east have . . . to forcibly make people move. This isn't an image they want to portray either. It certainly makes their political lives more complicated.

I'd be lying if I said I cared . . . about the politicians and their careers, I mean.

So, they try to ignore the whole area. It's a strange part of town; it always has been. When the tiny town of Auraria had been engulfed by the growing city of Denver, where the perfect north-south grid of Denver streets crashed into the perfect diagonal grid of Auraria, Five Points was born.

There are grand old buildings here that developers would love to turn into B&Bs, homes for the wealthy, museums, and tourist attractions. Maybe some of the buildings are haunted, just like people claim. I've never met a ghost or sensed any qi emanations that don't belong to a person, animal, or part of nature, so I can't say one way or the other. I haven't seen any of my People's Spirits, not even on Halloween when the veils fall, and it's most likely for me to see any of it. Hell, I haven't even seen my own guardian Spirit in so long that it's just a distant memory. Some people want to believe the stories about haunted buildings, and that's fine. And if the ghosts exist, as long as they don't cause problems for me, that's fine, too.

Tonight, there's too much activity in one of those grand old buildings, one that's abandoned and should be empty. I can feel the energies of the three people in the building from where I stand nearly a block away; that's how strong they are. The two cats in the structure show me there are two terrified people — they seem to be teens, a boy and a girl — on the third floor under an ancient bed covered in tattered sheets. The other is older, though it's hard to tell how much older through the cat's eyes. Perhaps he's around my age. Even from a block away, his aura seethes with hatred and malevolence.

All three of them are mutants, Unfortunates.

Damn. We do not need Eaters in this town. Even if he followed the mutants out here from New York, they're in my town now and under my protection. Will he stop just killing those of his own kind from back East, or will he start attacking the people of Colorado who've taken refuge here from other parts of the country? Who's to say?

Right. I'm the one to say, and I say no. There won't be any more killing for him, not on my watch.

The tabby shows that he's just beginning to climb the stairs from the first floor to the second. I run toward the building with greater than human speed, passing several startled neighborhood residents on the way. The rumors and whispers will start before I even reach the old building. But I'm known in the neighborhood, at least by those who most need to know me.

As I approach, I slow and study the qi in and around the building. The three of them are the only people in the house. I thank the cats for their help and suggest they might want to be elsewhere until my tasks are finished for the night. The black cat on the third floor, who's been watching and worrying the teens in a cat-like way, slips silently from the room. Then she purposefully startles the man climbing the stairs as she runs past him. As we pass in the doorway, both cats are incredibly amused by their activities tonight.

Unlike the mischievous one, I climb the stairs as quietly as a gentle breeze across the South Platte River on a summer's day, coming up behind the man just as he reaches the room where the kids are hiding. Reading his aura tells me he's strong. While no real match for me, I can see how he's easily dispatched ten of his own kind. He's crafty enough to have used Jimmy T's murders to mask his own, but it's the instinctual cleverness of a hunter. He doesn't seem to be well-suited to the role of prey.

Gosh, that's too bad.

"You should leave those children alone," I say quietly, just barely loud enough for him and his intended victims to hear, as I settle into a ready stance. "Go back to your special hell in the East, and I won't hurt you."

Hmm, well, probably won't hurt you, I amend to myself.

He whirls around, surprised, and lashes out with hands that end in what appear to be claws. I wonder how he can function outside his appointed task of killing without the use of actual hands.

Blocking with one arm and not needing to be mindful of my strength or speed, I sweep his legs out from under him with the staff. The result is a howling man with at least one broken leg and wrist, writhing on the floor, using some very coarse language. But, somewhat surprisingly, he seems to decide those injuries aren't going to deter him from his mission. He begins crawling across the floor toward the teens under the bed. They'd been shocked into stillness when I'd spoken; now, their fear is getting the better of them. I sense they're trying to find another way to flee from their pursuer.

I sigh and leap over him to stand between him and the teens.

"Now, I did warn you. But you're just trying to make me angry now."

Rather than a blast of qi that will toss him across the room, I use the same force to delicately push him slowly backward toward the door.

"I hate to be cliché, but you wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

He growls more curses, but as he reaches the doorway, he hooks those claws of his into the door frame so any further pushing on my part will have to be more forceful . . . and possibly fatal.

"They must die. I've been told so." Then he laughs, a hideous sound of pure evil. "And been told of Ninja who never kills. I heal and keeps fighting and killing. Ninja not stop me, no."

He stands, just on one leg, as the broken one hasn't quite finished healing, a grin of utter madness on his face.

Wonderful. He's one of those mutants with an accelerated healing factor like mine. And great . . . my reputation is more widespread than I'd like, though I suppose he could have picked up his information by simply listening to the rumors and whispers in Five Points and Commerce City and any of the other places Unfortunates gather. After all, he could have been in Denver for months before he began killing.

Of course, he doesn't exactly have accurate information, either.

"Oh, but Ninja will stop you, yes," I say sadly. "Who told you Ninja never kills? They lied. Ninja just hates doing so. But, oh, yes, Ninja will kill you."

As he puts weight on his previously broken leg and prepares to launch himself at me, I pull qi around me as a shield and move almost imperceptibly for the perfect stance. This time when he leaps, I take a step to the side as I swing the staff, hitting him solidly on the side of the head — at great speed, at full strength — crushing his skull. It makes a sickening sound, and I manage to leap out of the way of the blood splatter. That's not the kind of injury people can heal from.

The shield of qi isn't so much to protect me from him — though it's the sort of thing that would probably do that, as well — but to keep the dissipation of his qi, his death, from hurting so much. It helps. It just doesn't help enough.

If you must kill, Grandmaster Chen had said, do so decisively, quickly, and with mercy.

Still, when I kneel beside the bed to reach a hand out to the youngsters still hiding there, I feel the tears running down my cheeks as I speak. "You're safe now. Welcome home."

They peek out from under the bed, and the girl hesitantly takes my hand.

"Come out, and let me introduce you to some of your new neighbors who'll watch out for you until you get your footing here in Denver."

At least temporarily, I figure the best place for them will be with Old Mama. She's an old Negress — I know, not a particularly appropriate term and even insulting in some cases, but she insists on using it. She knows everyone in Five Points, knows everything that happens in Five Points, and doesn't give a rat's ass — again, her words, and the only wearing she'll abide, too — about the differences between normal and mutant. She's a warm-hearted woman but doesn't take kindly to violence, bullying, or even what she calls "sass talk." The truth is . . . she'd contacted me nearly a week before Pablo had. It's just taken that long for me to untangle the knots of what's been happening down here. It hadn't made either of us happy that another person has died or that the police seemed to be taking a hands-off approach to the problem.

When I show up at her door in the middle of the night with two teens in tow, she just looks me in the eyes — looking for truth is what she calls it — and asks, "Did you get 'em."

"Got one, Mama. Detective Garcia and his crew will get the other one. Might need your help, though."

She nods, then motions for us to enter her tiny house. "You need yourselves some food, children?"

Old Mama isn't nearly as tall as I am, but she's at least three of me wide. She's somewhere between seventy and ancient, and unless you cross her, she's the kindliest grandmother you'll ever meet. The two young Unfortunates seem to be immediately at ease in her presence . . . but then, most people are. They both nod shyly.

"Then come on into the kitchen. I'll fix you up a snack, then you can get yourselves some rest. And you," she says, pointing one of her slightly gnarled fingers at me, "stay put."

"Yes, Mama." One doesn't argue with Old Mama. While waiting for her to show the newcomers where they can sleep and make them some dinner — Old Mama doesn't really know the meaning of the word snack — I do a few qigong meditations. I'm holding myself together reasonably well at the moment, but I'll be hit with the proverbial ton of bricks soon enough. I just want to be at home when that happens.

It doesn't take her long to get the kids settled in the kitchen with food. Now, it's my turn.

"How am I gonna help the police?"

"I know at least two of the girls saw the guy who killed the others, and I know they told you what he looked like." I lean on my staff, an affected stance that seems to make others more comfortable than the taiji stances I find most comfortable. "I can tell the police where to find the man, but they need to follow a trail for the law. You know that, Mama. They need a place to start to get to the end and put him and Jimmy T in jail. They might just need the descriptions from their confidential informant — that's you — or they might need to talk to one of the girls."

She considers it for quite some time. I can hear the teens chatting in the kitchen . . . relieved that they're safe for the moment, not quite believing what they'd seen me do, not wanting to impose on the nice old woman. Finally, Mama nods.

"You tell your police friend to talk to Mama. Now, you go home, Miss Ninja, girl. Even you people need rest. Scat!"

I scat.

* * *

When I walk into my favorite Mexican restaurant on Wednesday, Pablo's waiting for me at a table by the window. "Tu habitual ?" Maria asks as I pass the cash register where she presides each and every night.

"Si. Gracias."

I sit down and drink the entire glass of water Pablo has waiting for me before sliding a piece of paper across the table to him. "That's the address where Jimmy T's staying. He was seen leaving Five Points and arriving at that address with blood-stained clothing. If you need to talk to the girl who saw him leaving, talk to Old Mama. She'll get you connected. Or she can tell you what he looks like. You got the address as an anonymous top." I sound and probably look worn out . . . because I am. Not coincidentally, I had Monday and Tuesday off work. I try hard to do the worst work when I know I'll have a day or two to myself. I spent most of the day on Monday crying when I wasn't practicing taiji. Hell, I'll be honest . . . I was crying during practice, too. And I just practiced all day Tuesday.

I so very much hate having to kill people. Even those that deserve it.

"You look like hell, Andrea," Pablo says. "Are you okay?"

He's concerned, and that almost makes me wish I could tell him things that probably should be kept secret. He's never seen me this recently after I've had to kill someone, so I suppose his concern is reasonable. This has only been the third time; both other times were back in China. I only cried for one day this time; back then, it had been four. It's not that killing has gotten less painful — it hasn't — it's just that I'm a Taijiquan Master now and can even heal my emotional wounds faster . . . to some extent, anyway. Wounds like this never truly heal. I try to smile but only manage a nod.

"Mostly. I'll be fine in another day or two."

"It has to do with . . . your problems in Five Points?"

This time, I manage a smile, although it's rather weak. "In one, Chief."

I can tell just by the look on his face that dozens of questions are rolling around in his head. We're saved just then by Corazon — Maria's granddaughter, our waitress for the evening — bringing over Pablo's carne asado and my beef burritos with extra green chili.

"Problem solved, I'm fine . . . and that's probably all you really want to know, Pablo," I say before starting to eat.

He's quiet for a few minutes as he eats a few bites of his dinner. "Okay, Andrea. I'll let it go for now. But someday . . ."

I know. Someday. I don't say it; I only nod.

© Kelly Naylor