Lupercio walked along the stream that ran behind Suzanne Jones’s property. He had a fishing rod in one hand and a container of worms in the other. A straw cowboy hat shielded him from the sun. The small bass in the stream were easy to catch and toss back, and he did this while he picked his way upstream watching the Jones compound.
Across a small tan meadow there was a main house, a detached garage, a barn and four small casitas. They were all painted soft pink, except for the red barn. There was a grassy swale between the buildings and an enormous oak tree in its center with two rope swings hanging side by side from a low branch and three wooden picnic tables in the shade. The paint on the buildings was fresh, and there were flowers in beds alongside the house and garage.
A teenaged boy in a trucker’s cap roared up a half-pipe on his skateboard, caught air on the free fall and extended his legs at the last minute to crunch down, keep his balance and zoom up the opposite side. The skate run had two half-pipes and a couple of vertical walls and a slalom course. It looked homemade. It was painted putty gray, and it crawled with a snake’s nest of spray-painted graffiti that Lupercio, once fluent in all the languages of the L.A. taggers, couldn’t make much sense of. Over the years, the skateboarders had stolen the old gangland swirls, then the advertisers had stolen them from the boarders. At first it had surprised Lupercio that the style of a full-on, leave-or-die turf tag you might find in Compton could show up a year later on a TV commercial for teenagers’ skateboard shoes. Now the boy flew up the half-pipe for the third time and wiped out. Lupercio watched him hit then roll down the last few feet and sit for a second panting in the ferocious heat. The boy looked at him because he knew he was being watched, then sprung up, fetched his board and started in again.
From the shore of the pond another boy, half the size and age of the first, was fishing. His movements were relaxed but practiced, and when he flung the lure out and up, it sailed through the air and plopped halfway across. Then he stood still for a moment and let the lure sink before reeling it in a few feet at a time. Then he’d wait again. Over and over. Lupercio recognized the patience of the fisherman because he had it, too.
When Lupercio hooked another fish, the little boy looked at him. Lupercio waved and the boy waved back. Lupercio let the fish go, set down his rod and stood for a moment pretending to enjoy the summer day, his back to the Jones property and a hand resting on the long handle of his machete.
A while later he saw the Hawaiian come outside with a baby in his arms. Dad used a hose to put water in a plastic wading pool on a patch of grass, then he turned off the hose and got into the pool with the baby, who screamed with happiness. Lupercio smiled at the big man in the little pool because he looked like an infant.
Lupercio hooked another small bass and played it for a minute, then flipped the rod up and toward him, and the fish sailed through the air and into his hand. He pulled out the hook and dropped the fish back in the water.
Finally the woman came out. She wore a brief brown swimsuit with an open white blouse over it, sandals and a floppy red hat. Lupercio wondered why anyone with such beauty would choose to be a criminal.
Suzanne came down the back deck steps and strode across to the pond. Her face was hard to see at this distance and shielded by the hat. She stopped beside the dock and watched the larger boy ride his board. The boy upped his speed and his bravery to impress and frighten his mother.
She watched, apparently not frightened. Then she walked over to the other boy, knelt down beside him and watched him fish. Suzanne said something to him and the boy said something back, but Lupercio couldn’t hear the words. He could see the similarities in the shapes and shadings of their bodies-the straight shoulders and long limbs and light brown hair. The older boy was black-haired and thickly built. Three sons by three men, thought Lupercio. Ara~na. Spider.
A minute later she walked back to the plastic pool, took off everything but her swimsuit and climbed in with the Hawaiian and the baby. She took the infant and sat down cross-legged with her back to the man, who ladled up the water in his hands and spilled it onto her shoulders. He kissed her neck.
The heat was too heavy and soon everyone had gone back inside except the young boy, who continued to fish the pond. He hadn’t had a strike in over an hour but he still seemed keenly interested in what he was doing. The boy changed his lure for the fifth time. Lupercio saw that he could either kill them all and then search for his diamonds, or he could come back another time when they were gone. The trouble was that Suzanne Jones would likely fence his jewels soon, and this opportunity would be lost forever.
Then the young boy reeled up his lure to the rod tip, turned and started across the meadow toward Lupercio.
Lupercio watched the boy approach and the distance between them shorten, and he rapidly weighed cause and effect and made up his mind what he would do.
The boy was slender and dark-skinned and his eyes were gray. “How do you catch the fish?”
“I mean bait or a lure?”
Lupercio picked up his Styrofoam cup of worms and handed it to the boy, who lifted the lid and pried through the earth with a finger.
“These look good,” said the boy.
“They are good.”
“You don’t have a bobber. How do you see the strike?”
“By feel. The small fish are brave and confident. You can feel them take the worm if it’s hooked right.”
“Teach me how to catch them,” said the boy.
“They’ve stopped biting in the heat,” said Lupercio. He lifted his hat and wiped his forehead as if to prove this, then set the hat back in place slightly higher up, enjoying the new strip of cool. “And I have to go home now to my family.”
“Maybe later today when it’s not so hot?”
“No, never mind. We’re going to the movies today. Sunday afternoons. I just remembered.”
Lupercio smiled inside. “Then some other time. Keep the worms. Put them in the refrigerator and they’ll stay alive for days.”
The boy looked at him. “I’ll pay you for them.”
The boy pulled a wallet from his back pocket. It was smooth leather, and new, and Lupercio read the name embossed across the back: Jordan.
Jordan tucked the worm cup under one elbow, took out a dollar and handed it to Lupercio.
“Thank you,” said Lupercio. “When you feel the hook move, set it. Even at the slightest movement, set it. If you’re not sure, set it. You’ll be surprised.”
Jordan nodded, then turned and walked back across the meadow.
Lupercio watched him go, understanding that he had just determined his own fate. He had revealed himself for the diamonds. He’d always believed that he would die in the pursuit of something beautiful but never imagined his death would begin with a boy trying to catch a fish.
When the family drove away at four in a red Yukon, Lupercio rose from the shade of the greasewood trees alongside the stream.
He had a good feeling about the barn and decided to search it first. Two hours was plenty for the barn, the house and the garage, so long as you had a feel for where to hide things. Lupercio had that feel from years of hiding his own earnings-the cash and dope and jewelry and stolen everything that he’d spent a lifetime amassing and protecting.
He picked open the padlock, slid the heavy rolling door aside just a little and slipped in. He found the lights. He saw the pickup truck and had an even stronger feeling that this was where she’d put the gems.
He had just put his hand on the green latex painter’s gloves in his pants pocket when the door thundered open to a bright sky and two men appeared in the doorway silhouetted by the orange sun.
They walked toward him. They were young and even bigger than the Hawaiian, with long black hair and faces that looked chipped from stone. Indians from the reservation, thought Lupercio.
Their hands were empty and then they weren’t. Shiny blades appeared. They moved apart, putting some space between them as they advanced. The sun was behind them and Lupercio still could not see them clearly.
“Suzanne hired me to do landscape maintenance,” he said.
“So you sneak into the barn?” said the big one.
They came out of the sunlight and Lupercio truly saw them for the first time.
“Put up your hands,” said the big one. Lupercio guessed him at six feet four, two-ninety, maybe three hundred pounds. The other was bigger. They were both very young and Lupercio felt relief.
“She told me to use these tools,” said Lupercio, nodding to the far wall, on which dozens of yard tools hung on hooks in pegboard. He raised his hands and looked down at his boots, humbly.
“You know her number?” Big asked Bigger. “We could call her.”
“I don’t know her number.”
“Then let’s just chain him up and wait,” said Bigger. “If Suzie hired him, fine. If she didn’t, we’ll tie him to the truck and drag him through Indian country. You ever had your ass dragged through prickly pear?”
“No,” said Lupercio.
“It’s the worst thing there is.”
“I’m a gardener,” said Lupercio. “Why do you need knives for a gardener? I ask you to be reasonable. I would like to do my job because I need the money. I have identification in my pocket. You can hold it until Suzanne comes back. And I can work.”
Bigger stepped closer to Lupercio, and Big went behind him. With one huge hand Bigger flipped his knife closed and slipped it back into the scabbard on his belt. Out came his wallet on a chain, then the wallet went back into his pocket but without the chain. Bigger stepped toward Lupercio to bind him.
“My identification,” said Lupercio. He stared into Bigger’s eyes now and lowered his right hand toward his pocket deliberately but not quickly.
“Leave it where it is,” said Bigger.
In a flash of steel in sunlight Lupercio popped the machete out of its breakaway scabbard and cut off Bigger’s right hand at the wrist. Then he pivoted left and swung the weapon in both hands across Big’s belly, high and deep enough to feel the tip scrape vertebrae as it passed through. Following the blade Lupercio completed the circle and augured down on his short strong legs then jumped and brought the machete straight down through the top of Bigger’s head with the sound of an ax splitting a log. Bigger collapsed, but Lupercio held tight to the long handle and braced his foot on the man’s face to pull the weapon free; then he spun again and brought the blade down with all of his considerable strength onto the fallen brother’s neck. The steel cleanly split the big column before bouncing sharply off the concrete floor in a rooster tail of blood.
For a moment there was no sound but his breathing and the weakening splashes of blood on cement; then Lupercio searched the barn and the house and the garage and found no diamonds.
From the house he took jewelry so that this whole mess would look like a burglary gone wrong, but he knew that Suzanne Jones would instantly see it for what it was. He took a battered leather address book from a desk in a room full of books.
Lupercio was an optimist, though as he made his covert way back to his car he admitted his problems: the police would soon be crawling all over this place, Suzanne Jones would clear out and try to sell the diamonds very quickly, the Bull would be angry.
All that, and the boy could identify him.
But throughout his eventful life Lupercio had found that chaos is opportunity. He made his plan as he drove the dirt road toward town.