“We’ll call her Allison Murrieta because we don’t know who the hell she really is,” said the captain.
His name was Patmore, and he was leading an interagency task force briefing on the armed robber Allison Murrieta. He stood in a Sheriff ’s headquarters conference room beside a television screen on a stand, with a remote control in one hand and a laser pointer in the other. There were cops and deputies from all over Southern California, FBI, even a popular Channel 4 reporter. It was Monday morning and already ninety degrees.
Hood sat in the back of the room holding a cup of coffee on his knee. Marlon had put him on the task force because they needed bodies and Hood could take the hours out of his patrol schedule. Overtime was always good. Marlon seemed fascinated by the masked robber.
Patmore cued up a series of stills of Allison’s face, taken from a video of her robbing a Taco Bell up in Van Nuys.
The first thing Hood thought was that Allison seemed to be hamming it up for the camera, then when Patmore rolled the whole video clip Hood realized she really was hamming it up. She was enjoying herself, pointing a big barreled derringer at the video shooter, who backed up squealing like a teenager on a thrill ride. Then Allison whipped the gun back at the clerk, who smiled big-eyed as he stuffed the bills into a plastic Taco Bell bag. The other clerk looked uncertain how she should react to all this, then she grinned. Christ, thought Hood, is this what it takes to entertain people anymore?
The second thing Hood thought was that Allison Murrieta looked like Suzanne Jones.
He lifted his coffee and sat back. He studied the shape of her body and her face, comparing it to what he’d seen the day before down in Valley Center. I caught you checking out my legs and just about everything else. True enough, Hood thought, which gave him some pretty clear images to work with. He wondered if Allison’s hair might be a wig. He tried to imagine her with Suzanne’s brown waves and no mask. Look at the jawline, he thought, and the forehead and the tip of her chin-what do you see?
Well, he wasn’t sure what he saw.
He remembered that Suzanne Jones had pretty hands, but Allison Murrieta wore gloves.
Patmore was saying that she was suspected of thirty-four armed robberies of various southland retail businesses in the last eighteen months, good for over twenty-five thousand dollars. In addition she was suspected of four Auto Trader scams where she set up marks dumb enough to bring cash to buy used high-end cars, such as the one up on Laurel Canyon over the weekend. These jobs had gotten her another ninety-six thousand dollars. Patmore said that Allison Murrieta had also stolen at least twenty-two high-end vehicles for the so-called export market, which meant the cars were sold whole-usually out of country-instead of chopped for parts.
“We know this because she’s left her card in place of twenty-two very fine automobiles,” Patmore said. “And God knows how many more of her cards blew away, or maybe she just ran out and had to get more printed up. In our estimation those vehicles have gotten her something in the ballpark of one million dollars. So she’s doing okay for herself. We’ve got reason to believe she’s lifting plenty of Toyotas and Fords, too, but she only brags about the high-end stuff. Oh, here’s the card she leaves.”
He clicked the remote, and the screen almost filled with an enlargement of Allison Murrieta’s card. It looked like a standard rectangular business card, but the paper was pale pink and the writing was a graceful black cursive:
YOU’VE BEEN ROBBED BY
HAVE A NICE DAY
“Ten years ago, we’d have been all over the print shops, but now anybody can make these with a PC and a printer,” said Patmore. “The card stock you can get at the big office stores.”
Next he ran another cell-phone video, of Allison Murrieta holding up a Huntington Beach Blockbuster. This time the clerk-a big boy with a bad complexion and his hands in the air-froze and backed away from the cash register. Allison Murrieta jumped the counter and bagged the money herself. The boy was backed against the far side of the employee pen, and when Allison turned her attention and gun to him, he slumped unconscious in a dead faint. She said “Shit” quietly, then straddled the kid and tried to slap him awake. The video shooter actually stepped forward to the counter to get the shot, and Allison wheeled and aimed the cavernous barrel of the derringer straight at the camera.
For just a second Hood clearly saw the imminent death and destruction that nobody in these videos except the big boy seemed to be aware of. Even Allison Murrieta looked like she was acting out a part. The clerks were supporting cast.
But Hood knew how quickly things could happen. That was the first lesson you learned in Anbar province. So you had to change the way you drew conclusions. You had to see every moment of silence as an explosion or a burst of gunfire, every quiet alley as an ambush, every piece of roadside clutter as an improvised explosive device, every helpful citizen as a suicide bomber. Allison Murrieta didn’t know any of that. The clerks didn’t either, except maybe the boy who fainted. Which was why, Hood thought, somebody was due to get killed at one of her stickups. It was a wonder it hadn’t happened yet. Then, Allison Murrieta would turn from a popular televised news bite into a murderer, and some outraged citizen or off-duty cop would take her down in the middle of one of these performances. Or try to. Hood figured the derringer was at least.40-caliber by the diameter of the twin barrels.
Patmore explained that she’d driven a different vehicle for almost every stickup-all stolen and quickly dumped. Of course they’d dusted them for prints and gone through them for hair and fiber, but no prints because of the gloves, and plenty of random hair and fiber that might or might not relate to her.
“I’m going to just let some video run here,” said Patmore. “It’s all pretty much the same. Some is taken off security cameras, some from cell phone cameras. I think what it mainly shows is that this dingbat is going to end up shooting somebody if we don’t get to her first, and the whole deal is going to turn sour.”
Amen to that, thought Hood.
Allison robbed a Pizza Hut. Allison robbed a Starbucks. Allison robbed a Burger King, another Taco Bell, a Subway, a Payless Shoes, a Circuit City and a Radio Shack. She hardly said a word, Hood noted. All you needed was a gun and a mask and people instinctively knew what to do.
Then Patmore cued up a map of greater Los Angeles. It went as far north as Fillmore and as far south as Temecula, and all the way from San Bernardino to the Pacific Ocean. There were red triangles marking the armed robberies and black squares marking the boosted cars.
Hood heard the low murmur rise up from the audience-they were impressed by Allison’s success, by the sheer numbers she had run up. Hood noticed that Marlon was shaking his head in wonder.
“That’s a lot of activity,” said Marlon.
“Maybe you can see a pattern,” said the captain. “Shelly, you do these radius plots for bank jobs, don’t you?”
Hood watched the FBI woman nod. “There’s nothing directional in this one,” she said. “Nothing that looks like a pattern of entry or exit. It’s more round, which usually makes us look at the center. That would be, what, Pomona, Fullerton?”
“Yeah, about that,” said Patmore.
“Did you plot time of day?”
“Right here,” said Patmore. “You’re dealing with the big boys, Shelly.”
Chuckles, scattered applause, one “eee-haw.”
The time-of-day map was just like the first one, but above each red triangle or black square was a date and time.
The roomful of law enforcers went quiet for a moment.
Hood saw patterns, general as they were. The jobs were pulled close to freeways-not hard in greater L.A. Almost nothing at rush hour. Heavy on Saturdays and Sundays, light on Mondays, hardly a Friday at all.
“She knows the traffic,” said Shelly. “She avoids rush hour and likes the weekends.”
“Easier getaways,” said Patmore.
“Look at all the three o’clocks and eight o’clocks she’s pulled,” said Shelly. “Just before, then right after the crush. That’s good timing. Just enough traffic to get lost in.”
Hood remembered what Suzanne Jones said: It’s an hour and forty minutes this time of night, without traffic.
He looked at the time-of-day map. It was a big area, but there were roads all over most of it. Thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of miles of freeways. That was the thing about L.A.-in just two hours, at the right time, you could be way up Highway 395 or Interstate 5 to the deserts north, or just about make the Arizona border to the east, or be sitting in a cantina in Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.
Or be back to your family in Valley Center.
“I’m going to change gears here,” said Patmore. “I brought in Dave Boyer from NBC because he’s… Well, Dave, maybe you should just tell it.”
Hood had watched Dave Boyer on and off for the last five years. Boyer was an affable, wide-faced ex-quarterback for USC. He did mostly local color, human interest and an occasional exotic adventure. Boyer had talked to Hood once about a “young deputies back from the war” story that never aired. Hood always thought he was a good reporter: fair and curious, reluctant to incite fear.
Boyer came up and introduced himself, then pushed a disc into the player below the monitor. Patmore gave him the laser pointer and remote.
“I got this FedEx last Friday,” said Boyer. “From our friend Allison. Let me know if you can’t hear it in the back.”
Boyer pushed something on the remote, then crossed his arms and stared down at the floor.
Allison appeared on-screen, black hair loosened from the usual ponytail, crystal-studded mask in place. She was sitting at what might have been a hotel room desk, visible from the waist up. The window or mirror behind her was draped with what looked like a wine-colored blanket or bedspread. She wore a tailored Western-cut blouse, black satin and long-sleeved, with red piping along the pocket slits and mother-of-pearl buttons. Her earrings were gold hoops. The pendant around her neck looked to be diamonds and rubies. Her gloves were black and shiny enough to look wet. An ivory-handled derringer lay on the desk in front of her.
“Hi, Dave, I’m Allison Murrieta, as I’m sure you noticed. Love your reporting. I especially liked it when you went to Indonesia and got attacked by the Komodo dragon, but I’m glad you weren’t hurt. I thought the big-wave surfing story from Baja was good, too, how the surfers risk their lives for not much money. I did not care for the La Brea Tar Pits story because I find the pits boring and smelly.”
Her voice was electronically scrambled but understandable. The effect was eerie and B movie at the same time. It was an octave lower than it should be, thought Hood.
“But we’re not here to talk about you, are we? I’ve been watching your network’s coverage of me, as well as the other networks, too, and I want to set the record straight. I am the great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Joaquin Murrieta. Our family tree has been accurately recorded. Joaquin was born in 1830 in Mexico and I was born in 1976 in Los Angeles. I am a physical and a spiritual descendant. He was hunted down and shot dead in 1853. They cut off his head, put it in a jar and displayed it for money in Northern California cities. Two other men were shot and beheaded along with him, because the posse wasn’t sure which one was Joaquin. The posse was led by the so-called last of the Texas Rangers, a guy named Harry Love, of all things. The behead ings were not done purely for profit and cruelty, though there was certainly some profit and cruelty in it. Back then, before widespread photography and refrigeration and fingerprinting, it was common to cut off a dead man’s head so they could ID him later. The man who actually cut off Joaquin’s head was named Billy Henderson, and he was self-admittedly haunted by Joaquin’s headless ghost until the day he died. In every appearance as a ghost, Joaquin told Billy that he would not rest until he got his head back.”
With this, Allison ran a gloved index finger across her throat.
“Think about that,” she said. “What they actually did to him.”
Then she cleared her just-cut throat and shook back her hair.
Hood wondered if it was a wig, and if so, where did you go to in L.A. to get a good one? Or in Valley Center.
“They say that Joaquin’s head was lost in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but this is not true,” said Allison. “It was actually stolen by his great-grandson, Ram'on-or Raymond, if you must-and passed down the generations to me. I have it now and keep it in a cool place where I live. His face is still very handsome, just as the books say he was. Frankly, his color isn’t good. But the main trouble is his long black hair fell out decades ago and now it’s just like black grass at the bottom of a lake. Historians have disagreed on the preservative medium-some claimed it was brandy, others said whiskey, others said medicinal alcohol. I don’t know what it was at first, but I can tell everyone this: Joaquin came to me in a brown liquid that smelled slightly of alcohol and meat, so I switched it out for a premium brand of rubbing alcohol and now he looks a lot better. I was extra careful with his hair.”
History, thought Hood.
A history teacher.
The room was quiet. From Hood’s point of view in the back, he saw dozens of capable and dedicated law enforcers all looking at a TV screen from which a masked outlaw held them to a fascinated silence. It was reality television-a real person with a real gun.
Allison signed off:
“Okay, Dave, I’ve got plenty to say about the way they treated Joaquin all those hundred and fifty years ago, but I’ve also got some cars to boost and some chain stores and fast-food outlets to rob, so I’m going to say good-bye for now.
“Oh, as you know, I’ve been donating a generous percentage of my earnings to various southland nonprofit organizations. The following organizations will vouch for receiving cash donations from Allison Murrieta, unless of course they’ve pocketed the money: the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club, the Olivewood Home for Children in Orange, the Assistance League of La Ca~nada /Flintridge, the Laguna Club, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Project Concern in San Diego, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Amnesty International, the Heart Association and-I love this one-the Los Angeles Police Foundation!
“Now, obviously, you can put this video of me on TV if you want. I might even do a Channel Four interview with you sometime. The public is ready for me. Your ratings will spike. Just let me tell them and you and everybody else out there not to mess with me while I’m working. I get a little nervous sometimes when I’m onstage and that little derringer is loaded and the trigger is light and I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Don’t any of you try to be a hero. Stay out of my way.
“And one last little thing: it’s M-U-R-R-I-E-T-A. Two R’s and one T. I’ve left enough cards behind, so tell your print media friends to get it right. Oh, and my favorite color is chrome. Thanks, Dave.”
She raised the little gun and aimed it at the camera.
Dave Boyer paused the video. Allison aimed at the law enforcement community, her expression hidden behind the ivory-handled derringer and the jeweled mask.
There were murmurs and a few chuckles then someone finally spoke up. “She won’t last another month.”
“She’s lasted a year and a half,” said Patmore.
“Hey, Dave, you gonna run this on Channel Four?”
Boyer turned up his palms in a show of innocence. “Actually, that’s one of the reasons I came here. I, ah… thought you all should see this. I want to keep the lines of communication open between the law and Channel Four. And to answer your question, well, yes, we are going to show it. This is news.”
“You’re just pumping up a delusionary babe with a death wish,” said a burly cop from Whittier.
The woman sitting next to him said, “Yeah, and you don’t know if one word of what she says is true. You really think she’s got a head up in her closet?”
“Yeah, really, Dave,” said an L.A. Sheriff’s detective, “if you get people on Allison’s side and they start thinking she’s cool and cute or something, well, that’s going to make our jobs a lot more difficult. That’s already starting to happen. My kids think she’s cool. You might want to think this one through.”
“We already had it out with the network attorneys,” said Patmore. “Our lawyers said there’s no way to stop them from running it.”
“Show the damned thing,” said a strong, clear voice near the front. Hood recognized it as Captain Wyte’s. “You show it, and I guarantee you that somebody will strip off that mask during one of her jobs and it’ll be over. The citizen hero will get shot, Murrieta will get made, and the LAPD Foundation will need to find new sources of development.”
This got a chuckle.
“We’re going to give you in law enforcement plenty of airtime in response,” said Boyer. “I’m on your side. That’s why I’m here. But this is a good story and people need to hear it. We’re checking facts as fast as we can. We know you’ve got genuine concerns. We do, too. We’ll let the public know that this isn’t cute or funny. My goal? Bring Allison Murrieta to justice without anybody getting shot. That would be a good story for all of us.”
“And bring up your ratings,” someone called out.
“Ratings up, crime down,” said Boyer with a smile.
When the briefing was over, Hood loitered up near the podium to overhear Patmore and the others. Boyer was assuring them that Channel 4 wasn’t about to spin Allison Murrieta as Robin Hood or Bonnie Parker. He had burned a stack of Allison’s CDs to help the cops, and Hood took one.
“Congratulations on making homicide,” said Wyte.
“Thank you,” said Hood. He knew Wyte only by reputation. He was considered bright and cursed. Years ago his wife had died of a rare cancer. She was thirty. Not long after that, Wyte was seriously injured in an on-duty helicopter crash. He came back to work full-time, though limping and deskbound. He rose to gang unit coordinator, and now oversaw crimes against persons, which made him Hood’s distant boss. He seemed fit and strong in spite of his injuries, Hood thought, and looked like he spent plenty of time outside.
“I heard the auto body shop was pretty bad,” said Wyte.
Wyte nodded. “What do you have?”
“A diamond broker tried to pay off a loan from the Wilton Street Asian Boyz, and MS-13 found out. Shot each other dead.”
“Did MS get the diamonds?”
“We think so. Somebody did. We just can’t quite nail that part down.”
“Let me know if I can help,” said Wyte. “I’ve still got some decent sources for MS-13 from my gang days.”
“I appreciate it, sir.”
“The members of Mara Salvatrucha have no fear of us.”
“That’s what I hear. It looks like they underestimated the Asian Boyz.”
“Kyle Ko might help you.”
“I talked to him. Some help, yes.”
“Keep me in the loop,” said Wyte.
In the new detective pen cubicle of which Hood was proud, he called Barry’s girlfriend, Melissa Levery. He offered his condolences and was quiet for a moment while she cried. He explained that he was a junior detective assigned to the case then made an appointment to meet with her.
“Melissa, right now I’d like to clarify one bit of information that will help us very much,” he said.
“The night that Barry died, did he have diamonds with him to pay back gambling debts?”
“Of course he did. That’s why they killed him, isn’t it?”
“What was their approximate value?”
“Four hundred fifty grand if sold retail. Forty grand plus change on the black market.”
“Did you actually see him with them in his possession?”
“Afternoon. He showed them to me. He said that they would buy us back the way we used to be.”
She sobbed again. Hood waited and she hung up.
He thought a minute, then dug Lenny Overbrook’s number out of his wallet.
He dialed the number then punched the OFF button on his cell phone and set it on the desk. Hood couldn’t think of a single good thing that could come of talking with Lenny, but he felt duty bound to call. He picked up the phone and hit redial.
“Thanks for calling.”
Hood let the silence stretch out a little. “You’re a long way from West Virginia.”
“I came to L.A. to see you, sir.”
“There’s nothing you can say that will change anything for the better, Lenny.”
“It will make it better for me.”
“It’s too late.”
“Are you God, sir?”
Hood felt his ears grow hot and the heavy beating of his heart. “Okay.”
He let Lenny set a time and place.