It is said by many people in Houston—assistant district attorneys, convicted felons, and even his office secretaries—that when Clyde Wilson issues an invitation, it is not just an invitation. “Lemme buy ya a cuppa coffee,” the lanky 69-year-old private investigator will say, or “Les go smoke a cigarette.” This offer, delivered in a voice as rich and as resonant as that of a country preacher, is not really an offer but a message, and the message is that Wilson has something you need to see. Usually it is a file containing what he considers to be the goods. What Wilson does next depends on what you do from that moment on. If you fess up after seeing the evidence, more than likely he’ll ease up. If, on the other hand, you refuse what could loosely be described as his kindness, God help you.

“I don’t like to see a guy who acts like the epitome of propriety when he’s dirty as hell,” Wilson snarls from behind an ever-present plume of cigarette smoke. Call it a pet peeve or a personal philosophy—either way, it has placed Clyde Wilson at the center of many of Houston’s grandest scandals for decades. When, in the sixties, the trustees of the University of Houston suspected their school was being corrupted by homosexuals and student radicals, they hired Clyde Wilson to snoop around. When, in the seventies, Ash Robinson wanted someone to investigate his errant son-in-law, John Hill—the case that culminated in Joan Robinson Hill’s high society murder, immortalized by Tommy Thompson in Blood and Money—he turned to Clyde Wilson. When, in the eighties, the board of Hermann Hospital believed some of its own members were abusing the hospital’s charitable trust, they went to Clyde Wilson for answers. So did Galveston’s Moody Foundation, when someone was stealing from within. When the State Bar wanted someone to go after flamboyant personal-injury lawyer John O’Quinn, Wilson was its hired gun; when sensational revelations demolished Sylvester Turner’s mayoral ambitions last fall, the man responsible was Clyde Wilson. For more than thirty years, Wilson has served as the city’s most public of private investigators.

Owing to his accomplishments and his aggressively unpretentious manner—he favors cowboy boots and jeans, curses extravagantly, and has a habit of removing his glass eye as an icebreaker—Wilson has been rewarded for his success with a place in an august class of Houston eccentrics. Like bewigged consumer watchdog Marvin Zindler, ditsy social doyenne Carolyn Farb, and irascible trial attorney Joe Jamail, Wilson has become a beloved figure. He is beloved because he is proof of Houston’s most powerful myth: You can be yourself and still get to the top.

But Wilson proves something else about Houston that belies another of its most cherished myths. This is, after all, a city that has always prided itself on its tolerance and its openness, from the breadth of its opportunities to the accessibility of its elite. If you believe in the myth of openness, you might also believe that Houston is a place with fewer secrets, that there are fewer alternate narratives behind the headlines, fewer skeletons in the closets of its most prominent citizens. Clyde Wilson, of course, knows differently, and it is as the historian of this hidden world that he exerts his power. He knows all too well that the man who knows the secrets can do just about anything he pleases.

Most of the time the pace of Wilson’s west Houston headquarters is amiably active—there is always time to share a doughnut and coffee, to coax one of the recalcitrant parrots from its perch in the reception area or his office, to study the clippings and memorabilia that give this semi-converted ranch house the feel of a small-town museum. But when the subject of Sylvester Turner comes up, the mood shifts from harmless eccentricity to menace. The fire that burns in his wood stove even on warm days seems to glow brighter, the cigarette smoke grows thicker, the ceiling fan that revolves incessantly is rendered more ineffective. Wilson’s Sunday-in-the-hammock body language vanishes as he takes an anti-Turner tip over the phone, leaks it to reporters, and then uses the shredder for an incriminating fax. Even now, half a year after Wilson’s old friend Bob Lanier won the nasty runoff campaign that prevented Turner from becoming Houston’s first black mayor, Wilson is keeping up his attacks. “Sylvester Turner is a state legislator,” Wilson growls. “He’s in Austin making laws we have to live with.” Even though his lawyer has advised him to stop speaking publicly about Turner—litigiousness is in the air—Wilson just can’t help himself.

This is Wilson unleashed. It was Wilson who decided that Turner should not be mayor, and it is Wilson who has now decided that Turner should be obliterated from the Houston landscape. Perhaps because of the driven side of his nature (“You can’t control Clyde Wilson” is a truism among those who know him well), perhaps because of the dark side of his character (the one that declares that the qualities we detest in others are those we fight most furiously in ourselves), perhaps because Sylvester Turner turned down his offer for coffee, Wilson has launched a full-scale attack against a man he has never met.

When Channel 13’s Eyewitness News aired its first investigative report on mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner last December, most Houstonians didn’t realize that Clyde Wilson and his far-reaching network of tipsters and news outlets were behind it. Most believed simply that inveterately hyper investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino had somehow stumbled upon the scoop of the mayor’s race. A week before the runoff between Turner and Lanier, Dolcefino took to the air with a report linking Turner to an old $6.5 million insurance scam. On film, a young man named Dwight Thomas nervously denied knowledge of the affairs of a man named Sylvester Foster. The owner of a chain of hair salons, Foster had hired Sylvester Turner to draft his will—just after he was indicted for credit card fraud and three days before he disappeared in an alleged boating accident. Dwight Thomas had reason to look nervous; he was identified as Turner’s roommate, and he had been named the trustee of Foster’s estate. Dolcefino’s report continued with Turner, wearing a campaign T-shirt and vehemently denying any connection with Foster except for his legal duties. Dolcefino’s report was innuendo rather than proof, but the subtext was clear: Either Turner was hopelessly naive, or he was a gay crook, keeping up appearances with a wife and child while living in another house with a man. The story was astounding and impeccably timed. Turner, a graduate of Harvard Law School, had come from nowhere to knock incumbent Kathy Whitmire out of the race and appeared to be headed for victory.

Overnight, the story cleaved the city in two. Turner-leaning whites quietly made plans to switch their votes, while many blacks, Turner-leaning and otherwise, vocally descended on Channel 13, charging racism. Just after a boycott of the station (which is number one among black viewers) was organized, just when it looked as if Lanier would be blamed for the Turner smear, Wilson came forward—on Channel 13, of course—and confessed that he had leaked the story.

As Wilson operations go, this one was relatively simple, requiring only a brief but blisteringly effective use of his fabled network of contacts. Several weeks before the runoff, a private investigator who had once worked for Wilson had passed on some information he had obtained while investigating Turner on another matter. Wilson already knew from a source in Turner’s campaign that Turner had a history of not paying his bills—including his Harvard loan—on time. When the investigator reminded Wilson of the old Sylvester Foster insurance fraud scam they had handled, in which Turner had drafted the will, the candidate’s fate was sealed. Clyde Wilson wanted Sylvester Turner out of the picture.

Wilson’s next step was, therefore, exposure. Channel 13 was the likely vehicle. The station and the investigator go way back: Wilson is old friends with Marvin Zindler (to whom Wilson leaked the Hermann Hospital Estate scandal); he has starred in one of anchorwoman Shara Fryer’s “Up Close and Personal” interviews; Wilson was hired by weatherman Ed Brandon to save him from a blackmailer who was accusing him of sexual assault—a rescue that resulted in substantial publicity for both men, including revelations about Brandon’s cocaine addiction. In other words, Eyewitness News and Wilson were made for each other. Both reflect Houston’s fundamental looniness. To carry out his plan, Wilson related the story of the insurance scam to Dolcefino and told him how to get investigative reports from the insurance company. Then, the media did the rest: Turner’s reputation was compromised, and Lanier won the election. Turner was left to consult libel attorneys and to take every public opportunity to call Wilson a racist. Finally, in a weekly newspaper Wilson made allegations about Turner that infuriated the legislator; Turner called him to complain. During their conversation, Wilson extended his standard invitation for a cup of coffee—and, of course, a look at his file. Turner refused and the war was on.

Whether Wilson saved the city from a corrupt administration, as he asserts, or unfairly smeared the career of a promising black leader, as Turner’s supporters insist, remains to be seen—Sylvester Foster, discovered alive in a Spanish prison, has just been extradited back home. Still, a much larger secret was exposed by Wilson’s involvement in the mayor’s race: Houston’s preciously held belief that it is a city free of the racial tensions that have divided other cities was summarily debunked. Clyde Wilson had struck again.

What kind of people are you, really?” Clyde Wilson asks, passing his gaze over his audience. “How many of you have ever stolen anything?” When only a few hands drift into the air, Wilson snorts and volleys: “It’s very obvious that I’m talking to a roomful of thieves and liars.”

The audience titters, partly from embarrassment and partly from absurdity. Today Wilson is speaking on the stage of Temple Beth Yeshurun, addressing the combined sisterhood of seven congregations. Even in his good gray suit, he looks out of place. He is virtually the only man in the room, and at six feet two, he stands a head taller than almost everyone in this well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-jeweled audience.

After being introduced as “our intriguing speaker,” Wilson hooks an elbow onto the podium and launches into his stock speech, and if it is a little worn from wear, no one seems to mind. He tells the audience how, while chief of security at Tenneco during the seventies, he rescued five of the oil company’s employees held hostage in Ethiopia. He tells them about the 1984 Campbell murder case, in which he used female operative Kim Paris to lure a young man into confessing that he murdered a prominent Houston couple at the behest of their daughter. Finally, Wilson tells them how he found Marla Maples’ love nest in Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza by befriending a hotel maid loyal to Ivana. “That’s how we hung Donald out to dry,” he says.

The stories might not pass the most stringent truth-in-advertising test—Kim Paris has not gone to Hollywood, as Wilson asserts, but to far less glamorous St. Louis—but they are true enough that the women fall under Wilson’s spell. Sure, they seem a little uneasy when Wilson tells an off-color joke and a little startled when he dumps on soon-to-be-deposed chief of police Elizabeth Watson (“Get a good police chief who’s got some guts in him!”). But that edginess just confirms their notion of what they imagine Houston’s most famous private investigator to be: gruff but charming, a big man with big stories, whose oversized features—the surly bulbous nose and the blue eyes magnified by bifocals—perfectly complete the picture. It’s even okay that Wilson is kind of scary. You see the fear in the way people occasionally hold themselves back just slightly, as they wonder what he might have on them. Still, adulation triumphs in the end. The women reward him with grateful applause and congratulate him on his success; tugging at his sleeve, they remind him of previous meetings he does not remember.

Such appearances make up much of Wilson’s life now. In what he calls semi-retirement, he remains in demand by women’s clubs, breakfast clubs, Rotary clubs, and as a roaster of his equally prominent friends. These tributes to his enormous success not so coincidentally also serve to perpetuate it. He is, to many, a bona fide folk hero: a man who may be wealthy but doesn’t seem at all interested in wealth’s trappings (his fee begins at $100 an hour, but he sometimes works for free); a man who prefers weekends in Wimberley with his wife, Agnes Jane, 7 children, and 25 grandchildren to society-page parties; a man totally without fear, who, according to attorney David Berg, “has a real obsession with righting things.”

This is the persona that Wilson has fashioned for himself, a character shaped by westerns, TV detectives, and boys’ adventure stories. He grew up poor and pugilistic in Austin, a restless, ambitious, imaginative boy who lost his father at seven and, after dropping out of high school, was drafted into the Army at nineteen. Fighting in World War II, he found his rebelliousness tempered by the rigors of combat and his creativity—the gift of gab, a flair for impersonation—perfectly suited to the world of military intelligence. He took his training to Houston in the late fifties and styled himself as something of a Wild West war hero: Sporting a stubby sidekick and a sexy blond operative, he marched into places like Lufkin and ran corrupt civic officials out of town. In Houston he hired shotgun squads to work in dry cleaning establishments to halt a string of armed robberies. When the chairman of Tenneco asked him to rescue five employees who had been kidnapped by Ethiopian rebels, Wilson replied, “No sweat,” and spent months traveling from Beirut to Khartoum to Athens to Cairo, painstakingly negotiating their release. (At one point, Wilson had to prove to the rebels that former Newsweek reporter Hugh Aynseworth was a famous journalist. Since Aynseworth’s clips had been lost on the trip, Wilson showed the rebels Aynesworth’s library card and told them that only the most exalted American citizens could have such privileges.)

He worked against criminal lawyer Percy Foreman and for the district attorney’s office to try to nail Candace Mossler, who was accused of murdering her rich husband with the help of her nephew Mel Powers (both got off). He worked for the Harris County grand jury to clean up theft in the Port of Houston (which resulted in few indictments but a precipitous drop in pilferage and big headlines for Wilson). He matched wits with Joe Jamail, bugging the bedroom of a carnival owner’s daughter and recording her postcoital revelations about a jewel heist.

Wilson liked to say that he wasn’t afraid of anybody, from street punks to the rich and powerful to his own clients. In 1984 he boasted to prominent Vinson and Elkins attorney A. Frank Smith that he could crack the Hermann Hospital Estate case in a day—and did so by ambushing the prime suspect in a lunch meeting at the Warwick Hotel and then extracting a confession by bluffing about the scope of his investigation. Later, when Wilson’s research showed that some of his own clients had also used the hospital’s charity fund for their own gain, members of the board told him to back off; instead, Wilson took his work to the district attorney and started investigating them. He turned on Galveston financier Shearn Moody, Jr., too. Employed by the Moody Foundation in 1986 to look into financial abuses, Wilson deemed scion Shearn to be a guilty party and turned over his info to Galveston and Houston prosecutors as well as to the U.S. and state attorneys general. These are the kinds of stories that have given Wilson a cinematic aura, so much so that he once refused to option the movie rights to his life unless Robert Mitchum played him.

Still, if he was a little vain, a little overly entranced with seeing his name in print (“Clyde’s deal,” snaps competing investigator Bobby Newman, “is that the only bad publicity is his obituary”), well, it was part of the package, it added to his charm. A sure sign of his success was his roast in 1987, held at the River Oaks Country Club. Three district attorneys—two former, one current—paid tribute, along with former governor Mark White. Media stars Shara Fryer and Marvin Zindler were there too, as well as hotshot trial attorneys Tom Alexander and Joe Jamail. The speakers joked about Wilson’s elastic ethics, his gift for impersonating law enforcement officials, his passion for the spotlight. When Jamail took to the podium, he told the joke of the evening: “‘You think all these people want to be here?’” Jamail quoted his friend Wilson as saying. “‘I’ve got something on all the bastards.’” Then everyone roared, the way people do when the truth catches them by surprise.

Amanda, how are ya?” Clyde Wilson asks his latest captive. “Ya wanna cuppa coffee? Coke? Glass a whiskey?” Amanda, a round woman with salon-styled hair and an outfit adapted from Mademoiselle—studded jean jacket, blue-and-white striped stretch pants, and a blue-and-white blouse, contrasting red lipstick and nails—declines the offer. In fact, she hardly gives him a glance as she takes a seat at the head of a conference table, facing him from a distance of about eight feet. To her left is her lawyer; to her right is her former boss and his accountant. Wilson’s son Tim, an investigator in the firm, operates a video camera adjacent to the table. No one looks at anyone else. Everyone, including Amanda, feigns boredom.

This meeting represents a mop-up operation. Over the past four years, Amanda had stolen about $199,000 while serving as a bookkeeper at a small real estate firm. Her boss, a short, anxious man, had assumed she had stolen only a few thousand dollars, but Wilson had correctly predicted the damage would come to about $200,000. (“If you can steal a little, you can steal a lot,” Wilson explained.) Confronted with the evidence, Amanda confessed immediately and without remorse; she is a young woman from a well-known Houston family whose husband could not help her maintain the lifestyle to which she was accustomed. Hence, she stole pin money—enough to make her car payment, buy clothes, and redecorate her house. She has since submitted an affidavit attesting to her theft, but it is Wilson’s standard procedure to get the confession on videotape.

Methodically, she goes through the checks, separating those signatures she forged from those she traced, anxiety apparent only in the way she occasionally sucks on her upper lip. The only other sounds in the room are the squawking of Wilson’s cockatoo and the squeak of his office chair as he shifts restlessly.

Outside of extracting confessions, this bread-and-butter stuff holds little interest for Wilson anymore. These days he leaves most of the footwork to the ten investigators who work for him. He springs to life only when Amanda finishes her taping. Wilson then excuses all of us except Amanda and her lawyer. Ten minutes later, when Wilson’s client reenters the room, they are gone.

Wilson presents him with a deal for making restitution: Amanda has agreed to pay the money back in monthly installments over ten years. The client throws up his hands. “Automatically, I want to say no,” he says, adding that because of the slow payment schedule he’ll lose even more money in lost interest.

Wilson immediately backpedals; he has another deal in reserve. “I already said no for you,” he says, and then presents deal number two: a large lump-sum payment now, with a note for the rest paid over five years. Amanda’s parents will cosign the note. The client agrees, and Wilson prepares to take the case to the district attorney’s office, where he will ask for, and get, a probated sentence. “I make my own deals,” Wilson says.

He always has. For more than thirty years, he has been true to his renegade persona, structuring his business to suit himself, making and breaking the rules as he went along. Just as important as solving cases is maintaining his far-flung network. Wilson learned in the military that an investigator is only as good as his sources, and he built his life on that advice. From the beginning, he cultivated the press, the police, and lawyers, especially the young prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, whom he often presented with completed investigations they could take to the grand jury. “He gets ‘em by the ying-yangs,” says Harris County DA Johnny Holmes. Wilson developed a reputation for flamboyance, but he also created a business based on white-collar clients—oil companies and large corporations like Continental Can that could pay handsomely—that gave him the cachet (and access to society clients) other investigators lacked. Then he put it all together. He took his corporate clients to meet his friends, who happened to be judges; he courted reporters by leaking scandals when he knew that the publicity would be advantageous to his clients. Over time, he created a hidden world that flourished on information. And always at the center of that world was Clyde Wilson. He became not just an investigator but a consummate fixer.

Houston’s complex wiring is exposed in Wilson’s office, providing a view of the city that few are usually allowed. Here it is possible to learn whether there might be any partiality shown by the judge in the upcoming Sakowitz-Wyatt trial; which television station executive will soon be departing and why; how the lover of the most famous kept woman in Houston funneled money to her; where the deposed leader of an out-of-state charitable organization is hiding out; how Mark White agonizes over his financial troubles. Cases overlap and feed into one another, like one enormous interlocking memory board. A thief Wilson had apprehended suddenly interests him anew, for instance, when the person winds up living a few blocks from a family victimized by a brutal unsolved murder.

Wilson seems almost reassured by such ongoing coincidences. They validate the existence of that hidden world in which he thrives. He evaluates the mayhem with a professional’s practiced eye (“It’s an interesting case, not an exciting case,” he says of the thief-turned-murder-suspect), affecting the experienced investigator’s pose that he is not really surprised by anything. What’s most important is that every day he gets to play the role he has chosen for himself, that of avenging angel. A friend shuffles in, begging Wilson to help him get a son moved from a public psychiatric hospital to a private one. A client calls, hysterical, saying she has unwittingly signed away the deed to her house to borrow money to finance a rock video. The parents of a young man who vanished after going out for coffee want Wilson to hold a press conference to announce his disappearance. A woman calls from Deer Park to say that she has the evidence to solve her husband’s murder (“I think it was a hit, and I know who hired it done”). A well-known businessman calls to confess that the man who burglarized his office also found some sexually compromising videotapes and now wants to be paid off.

In each case, Wilson makes the usual calls. A place is made for the young man in the private hospital (“I’ll call the judge and get him transferred,” Wilson reports to his friend). A banker is found who can lend the woman enough to get her house back. A lawyer is found for the woman whose husband was murdered (“The case might even get you some publicity,” Wilson suggests to the lawyer). He calls his friends at the TV stations, his friends at the sheriff’s office. The troubles vanish, and Clyde Wilson remains the hero of his own tales.

Over a period of months, the unsigned letter made its way across Houston, sometimes mailed, sometimes faxed with glee. Flawlessly typed and formally addressed to the station manager of Channel 13, it castigates the station for allowing Clyde Wilson to devastate the career of Sylvester Turner. It paints Wilson as the minister of a secret empire, a man who has too many cops on a hidden payroll and too much pull with the DA’s office, a man who brags that he can have anyone arrested at any time for any reason. Wilson denies the contents of the letter in their entirety—“There ain’t a word of truth in it, honey”—and he insists, like the toughest kid in the school yard, that it doesn’t bother him at all. “We get a death threat a week around here,” he snaps. But even if the letter lacks evidence for its specifics, it supports the belief of those who have been on the receiving end of Wilson’s tactics that his avenging angel act is phony and that he is really a dangerous man whose definition of what is good for the city just happens to coincide with what is good for Clyde Wilson.

An investigator is by nature a con artist. Because he lacks the gun and the badge of the police, he must rely on his contacts and his wits to get the job done. Friends and enemies alike will tell you that Wilson is a glorious liar, a fact he denies sometimes vehemently (“I am not a liar!”) and sometimes casually (“I have only lied in cases of love and war, and all my cases have been war”) and sometimes carelessly (“I will not admit that I lied to anybody, but if I did lie, I was good at it”). He is a magna cum laude graduate of the old school, where wiretapping was legal and where an investigator could impersonate anyone—even a law officer—with impunity. “There was no Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, or Sixth Amendment,” says one attorney who was close to Wilson in the sixties. “You could do anything.” Still, Wilson’s relentlessness has only rarely landed him in hot water publicly. He has been accused of representing clients on both sides of some high-profile cases, like the Joan Robinson Hill murder (“You can’t work both sides of a case when you don’t get paid by either one,” Wilson declares), and he has also been accused of using illegal tactics. In 1970 he pleaded no contest to government charges of wiretapping on behalf of the Hunt brothers and received a probated sentence, but he got a presidential pardon from Gerald Ford with the help of his corporate contacts. Wilson wastes no time visiting those back alleys of his past. “Our clients are interested in results,” he insists.

Wilson has been immensely successful at persuading Houstonians to forget that the qualities that have made him a folk hero—his dauntlessness, his resourcefulness, his ability to spin an elaborate and convincing yarn—have also been used in that alternate universe where people pay him to destroy the lives and careers of others. In Wilson’s eyes, the two worlds are one—a place where his own moral code rules, where the ends always justify the means. Other people are not so quick to agree. “In Texas we fall in love with these roguish types,” says attorney Valorie W. Davenport, who is now suing Wilson for fraud and conspiracy in the fabrication of evidence. “We forget how dangerous they are.”

Historically, Wilson’s morality has most comfortably meshed with the city’s entrenched powers. In the sixties, when he was a member of archconservative district attorney Frank Briscoe’s inner circle, an insurance company hired Wilson to disgrace one of the first black school board members, Asberry Butler, which he did with a campaign that foreshadowed his war against Sylvester Turner. When the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle were not interested in the results of Wilson’s investigation of University of Houston homosexuals and radicals, he took his material to right-winger Clymer Wright, who published the hyped-up tale of marijuana and sex parties in his ultraconservative newspaper, the Houston Tribune. Despite shrieking headlines and a grand jury investigation, eventually only one noncombative political science professor was run out of town. Clymer Wright asserts he helped Wilson dispose of Sylvester Turner last year.

Not all of Wilson’s work gets the headline treatment, of course. Over the years, he has quietly checked out the fiancés of the daughters of corporate CEOs, rounded up the runaway children of River Oaks, and served as go-between for former attorney general Jim Mattox’s threats to political opponents. Courthouse records reveal that some cases might have gotten out of hand—in one lawsuit, quietly settled, several of his investigators and an off-duty policeman were accused of falsely arresting and imprisoning the troublesome girlfriend of a longtime, and married, client.

One recent lawsuit spotlights just how far Wilson will go to win a case. In 1987 he was hired by attorney Tom Alexander to assist in a State Bar investigation of John O’Quinn, the high-profile personal-injury lawyer whose multimillion-dollar judgments and controversial tactics were a large thorn in the sides of defense attorneys. By then, O’Quinn had already been reprimanded on charges of ambulance chasing. Around the same time, however, defendants who had lost a huge judgment to O’Quinn and his clients in a stock fraud case hired Wilson to turn up evidence that might get them a new trial.

Wilson found O’Quinn’s driver, a young man named Arvind Tuffley, who, when interrogated, reported that O’Quinn had met with jurors in their homes during the trial and had given them money. Pressed later by O’Quinn’s side, Tuffley changed his story. Tuffley said that he had signed a false affidavit after Wilson had convinced him that the normally peaceable O’Quinn intended to do him harm. Wilson had even put Tuffley up in a hotel room with a shotgun-wielding guard for protection.

When Wilson heard that the young man had recanted, he hustled to the California naval base where Tuffley was stationed, and according to the sworn depositions of several officers there, passed himself off as a representative of the court to get access. Another interrogation ensued, in which Wilson extracted another affidavit from Tuffley. In a hearing before the judge a month or so later, however, Tuffley stated that he had again been frightened by Wilson into telling lies and that the affidavit had been altered after he had signed it. Subsequently, the judge threw the case out, citing no evidence of jury tampering, and wrote a letter reprimanding the plaintiffs for presenting specious evidence. (The State Bar’s investigation of O’Quinn also came to nothing.) Now attorney Valorie Davenport has sued Wilson on behalf of O’Quinn’s former clients in the stock fraud case. But Wilson’s network saved him from possible criminal charges. The Harris County district attorney’s office refused to look into whether he had impersonated a court official to get his results. “Felony lying isn’t a crime,” joked district attorney Johnny Holmes to reporters at the time.

For Wilson, that’s a satisfactory outcome. His is a world built on friendship as much as fear, on secrets kept as much as secrets exposed. It is a safe, cozy feeling to be allowed—and welcomed—into Wilson’s lair; the ordinary person will feel charmed by his wit and protected by his pugnaciousness. To become one of his so-called friends for life is to feel that the road ahead will be smoothed by favors and shielded from harm. To be on the inside is also, in the language of the day, empowering: The information available here is rich and uncut, pure enough to give an amateur gossip the equivalent of an information overdose. Almost everyone has a secret that could cost them and advance someone else.

But once you’ve been warmed by Wilson’s fire, the outside world is chillier. Reputations seem far more fragile and subject to the demands of the marketplace, and Houston seems, in turn, more troubled and treacherous, much less the city of its treasured bighearted myths. The ugly truth makes the place seem smaller than life; most people, after a few weeks in Wilson’s world, would be eager to return to the Houston they knew before encountering him. Wilson, of course, cannot make this return trip, because these darker truths perpetuate his own personal myths. Whether he’s acting as sinner or savior, the secrets keep him in business, they make him famous, they keep his network humming like a chorus of fallen angels.

Lazing back in his office chair, taking a long drag on a short cigarette, he recalls the man whose videotapes—which caught him with one hand having a private moment with his genitals—had been stolen by a thief-turned-blackmailer. An operative had delivered the message: Wilson’s client was prepared to settle this quietly—to spend $150,000 either to get the tape back or to hire a hit man. Not surprisingly, the tape was returned and the client was happy. “Say I call that man and ask for a favor,” Wilson begins. And then he grins and says no more, but his long white teeth gleam beneath his silver moustache.