2:30 am Saturday, 4067 NE 12th Ave., near Mason Street:

A blue light glows over the porch of the small house, casting a hue over Spider, who stands sentry in a sleeveless undershirt, his tattooed arms crossed over his chest. Cars creep past and park several blocks away, depositing passengers who gingerly click their doors shut and walk, heads bowed, back toward the beacon light. At the top of the stairs, Spider pats down each customer and, sometimes, collects a $5 cover.

Once inside, visitors walk down a rickety staircase to the cement basement. A couple dozen men and women-all black-mill around in jeans and hooded sweatshirts. In a back room, a tall young man hawks a game of 4-5-6, a variation of craps, at a sunken red-velvet table. No one is playing yet, but the night is young.

China, the bartender, sells $5 cups of cognac, Jack Daniel's and beer from behind a counter. She's in her 40s, at least, and wears giant hoop hearings and a nose stud. One customer persuades her to sell him a quarter-full bottle of Hennessy for $20. When he hurries two women in front of him in line, China scolds, "Be nice to the ladies."

By 3 am, the crowd swells to at least 30-and more revelers want in. Desperate souls kick the front door hard enough to leave boot marks in the white paint-but the music is loud, and Spider ignores the noise. Downstairs, people dance, breaking off when the Jay-Z CD ends. A couple of women sit down to light a joint. A game of dice has picked up steam. The toilet is clogged with feces and paper, so those with full bladders must venture outside to the back yard, a trip that also requires a perilous encounter with Princess, Spider's sandy-blond pit bull.

Nothing particularly untoward occurs that night, and by daylight the house has fallen silent. No violence, no gunshots, no sirens. Two weeks later, however, under threat of eviction, Spider packs his belongings into a truck. Word is, a new club will open soon at a different address, but with the same M.O.

Run out of basements and abandoned buildings in North and Northeast Portland, after-hours clubs-known by patrons as just "After Hours"-have been a part of the city's black culture since at least the 1920s. Their place in history, and continued popularity, are undeniable.

So, too, is their illegality.

Police and proprietors estimate that less than half a dozen After Hours operate at any one time. Although they differ in atmosphere and entertainment, all sell alcohol, in direct violation of state law. They offer recreational vices like gambling, drugs and prostitution-with a cut of the proceeds going to the house. And many eventually have problems with violence.

These sunrise-stalking clubs, hardly a secret in North and Northeast Portland, will receive increased citywide notoriety next month as a murder trial begins in the Multnomah County Courthouse. Twenty-three-year-old Eric Lee Presley, a Woodlawn Park Blood, is charged with the October 2003 murder of Emanuel Mosley outside an After Hours at Northeast 55th Avenue and Jessup Street. The operator of the club, Theodore Johnson, or T.J., has a reputation for running violence-prone speakeasies out of homes in residential neighborhoods. At this particular club, in the basement of a seafoam-green split-level, Spider worked as the bouncer.

The murder trial illustrates the seamy niche occupied by After Hours. These illegal clubs receive little attention from the Portland police until someone gets hurt. That's because police in these busy precincts would rather spend the graveyard shift responding to drunken drivers, domestic disputes and open-air drug sales-crimes that require fewer resources to resolve and often threaten innocent victims. After Hours are also dangerous places for police: unwelcoming tinderboxes that could be sparked by the arrival of a solitary officer. In short, there's an uneasy truce in which cops look the other way and patrons enter at their own risk.

"It's not that we're not concerned about it," says Lt. Harry Jackson, who worked the Northeast Precinct for 22 years before moving to the East precinct last year. "They just don't have the manpower to do that. The people crimes are going to take priority over After Hours."

Despite a history that often ends in tragedy, many black Portlanders defend the After Hours tradition.

"You're talking about a culture going back in the black community coming up on 100 years," says Fred Stewart, 40, a fixture in Northeast Portland who once headed the King Neighborhood Association. "It became a part of the fabric of the inner Northeast community. As long as they're not causing trouble to the neighborhood, they're not a problem."

Black-run After Hours began operating in Portland during Prohibition or shortly thereafter, when African Americans couldn't set foot in many downtown clubs. With the arrival of jazz, they became secondary venues where musicians could play for black audiences after gigs at white-only auditoriums.

Into the 1960s, '70s and '80s, according to police and former patrons, employees of legitimate nightclubs ran illegal speakeasies in their own homes, opening their doors shortly after legal venues closed for the night. Many were known only by the names of the women who ran them: Mary's, Lena's, Mrs. Smith's. An After Hours at the Brothers Free Motorcycle Club at Northeast 22nd Avenue and Alberta Street even had snipers on the roof, police say.

Jan Celt, a white jazz musician who lives down the street from Spider's club, remembers getting just past the door at one of Portland's most famous After Hours: a shack behind the Burger Barn restaurant at Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Shaver Street. "It was glittering," he says, recalling the stream of fancy cars and women with diamond jewelry. "Major money was being spent there at night. I thought it was kind of cool, actually."

When Celt's own neighborhood became the location of an After Hours, he didn't really mind the hubbub. "I don't think we tell people when they need to go to bed," he says.

Even police are nostalgic.

"When I was a young cop, I was fascinated by these places," says Sgt. Kelly Krohn, who worked the North Precinct in the 1980s. "Most of them were pretty respectful. They controlled what went on."

Krohn says the arrival of gang violence put an end to the days of peaceful relations between cops and illegal clubs.

For many observers, a turning point came in October 1997, when several young men-including at least one member of the Kerby Blocc Crips-rolled into an After Hours on the 3700 block of MLK. The club had long been the turf of an older, dice- and card-playing crowd. Troy "Beetlejuice" Ramsey, 21, lost a pocketful of money and, believing he'd been cheated, tried to win it back by brandishing a gun. The After Hours' proprietor, 71-year-old Phillip "Sailor Boy" Robinson, drew a shotgun and, according to police, told Ramsey, "Not here." Ramsey shot and killed Robinson.

Within the past few years, with a resurgence in gang activity, police say violence at After Hours has picked up again. The clubs are often linked with gang associates, like Spider, who cops say is a Crip. Those clubs that try to keep gangs out, police say, nonetheless attract members who want in; the trouble often starts when they get turned away.

"Because they're not regulated, they kind of operate under the radar," says Sgt. Randy Teig, who supervises night-shift officers in the Northeast Precinct. "It creates an environment where these guys can go in and victimize these people and they're afraid to tell us about it. From a public-safety perspective, that's a big problem."

Several recent homicides and shootings have taken place in or near After Hours: the August 2004 shooting of Adam Green and Chailen Burton, at a now-closed club run by Theodore Johnson in a house at Northeast 12th Avenue and Buffalo Street; the December 2003 shooting of Daniel "Geechy" Binns at a club that is still operating at Northeast MLK and Fremont Street, a case that remains unsolved because witnesses are afraid to finger the shooter; the 2002 gunshot murder of Domingo Lee Gonzales, a Crip, outside a now-closed After Hours at Northeast 22nd Avenue and Lombard Street; and the Mosley murder, for which Presley goes on trial next month.

Even though police know where most After Hours set up shop, they rarely shut them down. Police say the reason is simple: The clubs are hard to bust. In most cases, the operators can be charged only with selling alcohol without a license, a misdemeanor. Witnesses, fearful of retaliation, often refuse to file complaints.

Diligent officers can try to snare club owners under chronic-nuisance ordinances-but they have to compile thick stacks of documentation to push the paperwork through. On this busy beat, with more "shots fired" calls than other Portland precincts, police see little incentive to spend their time writing nuisance tickets.

"They know," says Officer John Laws, another veteran of the North Precinct, "that if they're not causing trouble, we just don't have the time to deal with them."

Race is also undeniably a factor, especially for a police force that staffs the North and Northeast precincts with officers who are still overwhelmingly white. (According to police, there are five black cops among 109 sworn personnel in the Northeast precinct; the only black member of the North precinct is the commander.) Although the argument could be made that every social stratum has its version of pre-dawn festivities-frat parties, members-only clubs, raves-After Hours belong to the black community.

"You're kind of the occupier in a way," says Detective Dave Anderson, who worked the North Precinct in the 1980s. "Here I am, this boy from the suburbs."

Anderson remembers the tacit agreements that allowed police to do occasional walk-throughs of several After Hours, including the infamous shack behind the Burger Barn.

"It was almost like a courtesy extended to us," Anderson says. "You'd knock on the door and wait a minute or two. Everybody'd put their pile of money someplace." Although police still cultivate relationships with proprietors, there is a sense that the degree of access has declined.

Fred Stewart says certain impressions in the black community fuel skepticism toward cops' ability to handle After Hours. With a lilt in his voice that lets you know he's (kind of) joking, Stewart describes white officers who "grew up in the suburbs watching Baretta" and dreamt of becoming cops. "They try to act like they understand," he says, "like they know what it's like to be in the 'hood."

Like any nightclub or bar, each After Hours has a distinct personality. The After Hours at MLK and Fremont, located in a building behind a barber shop, is so exclusive that you need the bouncer's cell-phone number to get inside; police say it caters to serious gamblers who've been known to lay down thousands of dollars for a single bet. Though less exclusive, and less high-rolling, Spider's After Hours delivered bare-bones grit and a permissive atmosphere, the ambience amplified by a nervous hint of trouble that hung in the air like smoke.

A mile or so away, in a one-story house on Northeast 25th Avenue, an After Hours called Maze promises a touch of class along with readily available vice. A postcard-sized invitation, which this reporter was handed inside the club, says "Welcome to Maze. Gentlemen Social Club. Ladies Leisure Club. Open 2 am to 6 am."

At 4:30 am on a recent Saturday, Maze's operator, Dana Lamont Washington, 42, opened his door, and with a sweep of his arm, welcomed three new visitors to his subdued living room. A staircase led to a bar in the basement, where every inch of floor was covered in thick shag carpet. Well-dressed men lounged on comfortable couches or leaned against a wooden bar, wine glasses dangling overhead by their stems. A sign on the wall read, "Welcome to Maze," and featured a reproduced photograph of Washington's mother.

Two white women-Crumb-esquely curvaceous and dressed in skintight jeans and rayon shirts-appeared to be looking for tricks. A door to a room with more couches was occasionally closed; the door to another room read, "Private-Keep Out." Throughout the night, the elderly bartender, Chuck, kept a running tally of sales at the bar-and it seemed that the night was a good one. He kept one eye on a television screen showing the view from a camera mounted over the front door. At 7 am, Washington invited his remaining customers to go out for breakfast.

Washington, like many who operate After Hours clubs, has a record. Since the 1980s, he has served at least four years in county jail and state prison for crimes including assault, possession of a stolen vehicle, burglary, robbery, drug possession and identity theft, and he has collected numerous citations for reckless driving.

Spider, likewise, has logged time in county jail or been slapped with probation on more than 20 occasions since 1994; his crimes include identity theft, assault and illegal gun possession. Born Ronald Hamilton, he moved to Portland from Los Angeles in 1994. Among the many tattoos scrawled across his bulky body is the word HOOVER in plain block letters, a reference to a Los Angeles branch of the Crips gang.

Hamilton, 36, operated his After Hours at 12th and Mason for a few months before he left to avoid an eviction notice. The building's property manager, Perry Vanvolkinburg, said he had no inkling of Hamilton's late-night activities until last month, when he received several complaints from irate neighbors. Although Hamilton declined to discuss the matter, he did say he was planning to open a new club in a more industrial location.

Spider's mentor, Theodore Johnson, ran some of Portland's most notorious speakeasies during the late '90s and the early part of this decade. He shared his story during a driving tour of Northeast Portland, stopping off at the dilapidated house at Northeast 12th and Buffalo where Chailen Burton and Adam Green were shot last summer.

Johnson, 44, stands a graceful 6-foot-1, swaying slightly in pleated black slacks and a flowing black shirt. Two gold studs sparkle on his left ear. He says he grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood in Northeast Portland, graduated from Benson High School in 1979 and took basic coursework at Portland Community College. In the early 1980s, he tended bar at the Eldorado Club on Northeast MLK, where he received his first lesson on running After Hours from a woman named Cutty. In the 1990s, after attending ITT technical school, he says he got occasional contract work at Intel as an electrical technician.

Johnson began running After Hours in homes he inherited from his grandparents during the mid-1990s. He says he needed the money to help pay for school and take care of his mother. With a wink, he swears he barely broke even. One police report, however, quotes him bragging that he made $900 on a good night.

Johnson says he got out of the After Hours business last year following the shooting of Burton and Green outside his Northeast 12th club; the business just got too hard to control. "Running an After Hours is a hustle," he says. "The wisdom of a hustle is that it's not a career." His new venture is a holistic health clinic operated out of the same home where Emanuel Mosley was murdered. The flier for the clinic promises to address the following needs: "Weight loss, Relaxation, Self Healing, Pain & Grief Management, Eating Disorders, Deep Meditation, Intolerance, Job Performance...Substance Abuse, Racial Discrimination...."

While Johnson has given up on After Hours, he says he has no shame about the business. "It's more of an honorable hustle," he says, comparing it with other shady enterprises like selling drugs or pimping. "You're not hurting anybody."

Most likely to disagree with that sentiment are homeowners and renters who live near After Hours and complain in vain about noise and street fights for months before police respond to an outbreak of real violence. The neighbors near Spider's After Hours, most of whom declined to give their names for fear of retaliation, say they were awoken every Friday and Saturday night by the 2:30 am arrival of crowds of revelers and, later, fights in the street that brought police sirens screaming through the neighborhood. After a recent fight that drew six police cars to the street, one homeowner, who happens to be a U.S. marshal, came out of his house in a Kevlar vest. When another resident asked about weapons, a neighbor said, Spider responded that his customers left their guns in their cars.

Vanvolkinburg, the manager of the property Spider rented, said he heard nothing from neighbors until this March, when someone circulated a flier with his name and number, urging other residents to call and complain about the club. Some residents wonder what Vanvolkinburg expected, renting the run-down house for $650 a month. He says that it's a tough rental market and that if no one complains, he's not going to spend his time fixing up the house. At the same time, he concedes, "They hate me over there."

Under state law, anyone selling alcohol must possess a license and stop serving at 2:30 am.

Theodore Johnson's criminal record is clean, police say, save one complaint for domestic violence in July 2003.

The murder charges against Eric Lee Presley were thrown out last December after a key witness fled to Las Vegas. Only after her arrest later that month was Presley re-arrested and again charged with the 2003 murder.

In 1998, former Police Chief Charles Moose shut down an annual outdoor bash hosted by Daniel Binns in Sellwood Park. In response, Binns led a march on the chief's house. Officers fired beanbag rounds when the marchers refused to disperse.

Not everyone in the black community celebrates the After Hours tradition. Former nightclub owner John Knauls, 74, now operates Geneva's Shear Perfection, a barber shop on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. "Nothing good comes out of it," he says. "There's no positivity at all in those After Hours."

In 1981, two off-duty Portland Police officers dropped four dead possums outside the Burger Barn, a prank many saw as racist intimidation.

In September 2000, the festivities at the After Hours inside the Brothers Free Motorcycle Club abruptly ended when a fire set by a member of the club demolished the building.