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15

Hood spotted her sitting on a bench near the lifeguard station. She wore a Raiders cap and big reflective sunglasses, and had a pink mesh tote at her feet.

He was sweltering inside his Target sport coat but it hid his gun. His chinos were a thick winter-weight cotton and his work boots were suede, steel-toed and heavy.

You look comfortable, she said with pleasant sarcasm.

Its the best I do on an average day, he said.

They headed north up the boardwalk. The air here in Laguna was cooler than L.A. by twenty degrees and he liked the smell of salt water and sunscreen. The gulls keened and the boom boxes throbbed away down on the beach. The ocean quivered silver and green, and the children screamed and splashed in the small, firm waves.

He wants what you have, Ms. Jones. He watched for her reaction to his suggestive words but saw none.

He wants me dead. Because I saw him.

Maybe hes after something more than your life.

Whats worth more than my life if Im dead?

Did you see him again that night? Apart from the three times you told me about?

She looked at him briefly. No, I did not.

Did you see him take anything from Miracle Auto Body?

Take? I was never in that place, Hood.

Because if you were and if you saw something youre not telling me-

Suzanne Jones stopped walking and took his arm, turning him to face her. The river of tourists parted around them, and Hood heard Japanese and French and Tagalog trailing past him.

Ive never even seen this body shop, she said. And I dont take things that dont belong to me. Im a schoolteacher who saw a man. I didnt even know about your crime scene until you came to my home on Sunday. Now my neighbors are being murdered and my son is finding butchered bodies in my barn.

A kid with a skimboard stared at her big-eyed as he walked past.

Lets find a better place to talk, said Hood. Maybe along the water.

They stepped off the boardwalk and trudged across the sand toward the ocean. Hood watched the sand flies scatter as he crunched through a patch of seaweed drying in the sun.

Give me the name and number of the relative you were visiting when I pulled you over Saturday night. Dont say its none of my business.

He punched in the number as they walked. Mary Jones picked up on the third ring and confirmed that her sister-in-law Suzanne had visited her last Saturday night, left around one-thirty in the morning and had not been drinking. Hood thanked her.

Alibi confirmed?

Did you coach her?

She shook her head and said nothing.

Youre telling me the truth, right, Ms. Jones?

Youre the most distrustful man Ive ever met.

He thought of Anbar and the price of trust. Its part of the job, Ms. Jones.

Ive told you nothing but the truth, Charles Robert.

How much of it?

Everything. Christ, youre difficult.

Hood stared down at her as she said this, and he weighed her words and the tone of her words against everything he knew, and he believed them. Unrelated to the fact that she rattled and skinned him, he believed them.

Tell Ernest to keep moving, he said. One place-one night. No ground-floor rooms. Use public places. The more people around the better.

Okay.

The same goes for you.

Yes.

I can offer you protective custody.

Youd have to kill me first.

What I figured. When you left your Valley Center home, did you take your personal phone and address book?

I left it in the computer room.

Its gone.

They looked at each other, midstep. Near the shoreline they continued north. The sand was hard-packed here, and Hood watched the white water chase a sandpiper up the berm. Ahead the tide pools shimmered in the sun and a tall outcropping of black rock stood out against the sky.

Lupercio must think you have the diamonds.

I have no diamonds.

Why are you running?

To protect my family. When Jordan drew the picture, I knew that man was after me. Because of the night before. He wasnt after Harold and Gerald.

He was looking for something in your barn.

Believe me, I know whats in my barn. Im sorry my word isnt good enough for you, Charlie.

Help us set him up, said Hood.

She looked up at him. He couldnt see behind the reflective glasses but her mouth was set firm.

Be the bait? she asked.

Yes. Listen.

Hood stopped but Jones kept walking, swinging the tote in a carefree arc, then looking back at him. She turned and climbed the rocks then crossed a spit of sand and ducked into an archway and disappeared.

Hood trotted after her, scrambling up the rocks and across the sand then ducking through the same arch and finding himself in a small enclosure with rock walls and a wet sand floor.

The white water flooded in and soaked them to their ankles.

What would I have to do? she asked.

Well want you up our way, for jurisdictional reasons. Well pick the place, but youll register yourself and pay the charges, just like you did here. Well set up outside, in the lobby, in the room next door. Well use cameras, mikes, whatever we need. Wed be fluid and lean. The moment he shows, we swarm him.

Who picks up the room charges?

Were trying to save your life for cryin out loud, but well pay for the room, too.

Good. Hows he going to find me?

I dont know, but I think he will. Hes got help-a network, old gangster friends, maybe a DMV connection. If he found you in Valley Center, we figure hell find you again in L.A.

She studied him from behind the glasses then sloshed forward through the receding suds and took his face in her hands and kissed him. Hood stared point-blank at her forehead and the light brown hair curling out from under the cap, and he felt the bill of it touching his own head up near the hairline. He heard the rush of the water up the sand and against his ankles. Hood had never been kissed with such generosity.

I need your help checking out of the hotel, Hood. Due to heightened security.

I understand.

In room 302 he took off his coat and hung it on a chair and sat. She showered and came out in a black slip and stood in front of him, and Hood lost most of what reason he had left. He carried her to the bed. It was like two tornadoes competing for the same trailer park. When they were done he lay on his back with his head over the edge of the bed breathing hard and looking out the curtained window to the upside-down Pacific. He wondered at the path that had led him here but he couldnt see any path at all. Then he was up and herding her back into the bed and truly believing that at this moment he ruled the known world.

Oh, Hood. Charles Robert. Lets hear it for Bakersfield.


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