I finally get Hood to leave Laguna ahead of me. My legs buzz as I hustle him out the door, and by his expression I can see that I’ve shaved fifty points off his IQ. Don’t worry-it’s temporary.
I confirmed something about Hood today that I suspected: he has a secret. I don’t know what it is. But I know from the way his heart beat against my ribs after the second time-or maybe it was the third, what a blur-that he’s got a secret. It’s big and unhappy and it hurts him to carry it. I love men with secrets. I’m going to figure his out.
Hood is also adorable but I can’t let him see my truck because he’ll wonder how a yellow Z06 Corvette turned into a black F-150 pickup truck pretty much overnight.
So, far back in the long-term parking lot for John Wayne Airport, I find a shiny, almost new Mustang GT for my drive up to L.A. I park beside it, glove up, remove my cold plates from the pickup truck and slide them into my satchel. I strip off the ’Stang plates, and put them in the pickup bed, then fill out one of my photocopied dealer registration slips. I shim my way into the Mustang-no alarm, nice, and I’m figuring no LoJack either, because Mustang buyers are often bargain hunters and LoJack is expensive. Even if the car has LoJack, it won’t start transmitting until the Mustang is reported stolen. And based on the long-term parking and the car’s lack of dust, I’m willing to gamble that I’m good for a few hours. Which gives me plenty of time to get this thing to a LoJack-proof metal building with no windows. I know exactly where to find one.
I tape the registration to the inside of the windshield. There: pretty woman, new car, no plates yet from DMV. The Mustang has black leather, a five-speed manual, three hundred mighty horses under the hood, premium sound. It’ll do 143 miles per hour. The leather smells like heaven, and when I match the ignition leads to the screwdriver, the engine growls to life with a vibration that goes straight through my feet and up my legs to where Hood just was. Mmm. The horses idle as I load in my bags and the backpack, then touch the flank of the black pickup with the back of my hand and say thanks.
Halfway to L.A. Hood calls and tells me to check into the Residence Inn in Torrance. It’s not where they’re going to set up for Lupercio-that will happen tomorrow-it’s just a safe place for tonight. Twenty minutes later I let myself into the room, eat the pillow mint, put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign, then drive the Mustang across town and check into the airport Marriott. The place is so busy nobody will notice me. I can self-park. I don’t have to worry about Hood showing up, wagging his tail. I put the diamonds in the room safe. I’m ready in thirty minutes.
I’ve got work to do.
When I was a girl, my first job was for Kentucky Fried Chicken in Bakersfield. I told them I was sixteen and looked it, but I was barely fourteen. Back then girls were front store-filling orders and taking money-and boys worked back store doing the prep and cooking. I fell seriously in love for the third time in my life then, with a cook named Don. He was an older man, actually-nineteen-and he had a great smile and a nice touch with the chicken and coleslaw. When it was slow, I’d hang out in the back with him and the guys, watch them slide across the slippery floor from the stoves to the cooling racks with the huge pots filled with boiling grease and chicken parts. You wouldn’t believe how slippery a floor can get when it’s layered with grease and flour and eleven secret herbs and spices. One big slip backward and a pot would end up dumping on someone’s face, but Don and his buds just careened around the kitchen like ice skaters, hefting the pots onto and off of the burners right on time, slamming and locking down the lids. Then when the chicken was cooked, they’d reach over the pot and release the pressure valves, which would explode in a deafening hiss as the steam shot all the way to the ceiling, and of course there was the story of the valve that broke off and went through the cook’s head, killing him right on the spot, and Don said it was true, but you know, he might have just been trying to impress me.
Ruby was the manager, and she was usually in a good mood even though her sons were in Tehachapi Prison and her husband had a bad heart. She’d go out and get us Taco Bell for our dinner because we all ate so much K FC we got tired of it, though I still think their original recipe chicken and coleslaw are particularly good. Anyway, Ruby rocked, and knew I was fourteen, but then corporate KFC sent us Victor and Ruby trained him and we tolerated his little yellow smile. He set his hand on my fanny once and I let it go, then he did it again a few days later and I turned and slapped him once hard, but none of it mattered because corporate fired Ruby like we knew they would and Victor became the new manager. When they announced it, the whole crew quit and took Ruby out for steaks and too many drinks at the TGIF, and it really was a Friday and we really were thanking God we didn’t have to work for that prick Victor.
So I rob KFCs pretty much every chance I get.
This one is down in Long Beach. I’ve cased it three different times. I like the parking lot out back and the fact that the entrance is on the side, not facing the main street. No drive-through, which means at least one less set of eyes on you, and no pain-in-the-ass Joe Heroes already saddled up for a chase. I like the quick access to the boulevard and an on-ramp for the 405 a quarter mile east. Two signals, no U-turns necessary. The nearest police substation is two miles away. Fast-food outlets aren’t wired into the cop houses like banks are, and the FBI sure doesn’t come after you, so if you time it right you’re good for eight hundred, maybe a thousand, maybe two thousand bucks. I can use two thousand bucks but I’m doing KFC a favor, too-I truly hope the shortfall will cause corporate to be just a little more careful about who they accept into the management program instead of blowing money on guys like Victor.
It’s dusk now. Most of the dinner business has been done because this is a working-class neighborhood and these people eat on time and get to bed early. They’re more likely to pay cash than to use a card. In the parking lot I check my wig and put on my gloves, then slide Ca~nonita into one side pocket of my black leather vest and my crystal studded mask into the other. I breathe deeply, check my look in the mirror one more time. I can feel Allison Murrieta being born inside me. I can understand her thoughts and hear her voice and I ignore the last little whispers from departing Suzanne. I’ll come back to her. I see Allison now. I see as Allison now.
I move as Allison, head up and eyes level as I count my steps from the car to the door. A family comes through it and I turn away from them and put Ca~nonita to my ear and start blabbing loud like anyone else on a cell phone. When the family passes I get a look inside: a girl and a middle-aged woman working the front, a young Paki and his girlfriend ordering and behind them a couple of brawny dudes who look like longshoremen off shift from the Port of Long Beach.
I put on my mask, throw open the door and aim my gun straight into the face of the biggest longshoreman.
“Hi, cutie,” I say.
“Come on, smile for me.”
He does, so I swivel Ca~nonita to his smaller buddy.
“You too, Hot Rod. Give me a smile.”
His buddy just stares at me.
“Behave yourself,” I say to him.
The Paki man is already backing away with his hands up and his girl is hiding behind him, so I step right to the front of the line.
I point Ca~nonita at the young clerk, then at the woman, then at the security camera behind them up by the ceiling, then safely down at the ground.
“No bullshit, ladies. I’m in kind of a hurry.”
The woman has that indignant look that only a good and honest person can get. She’s disgusted that I would take what belongs to someone else. She’s offended. From the right-side periphery of my vision I can see Hot Rod hitching up his shirttail. It’s exactly what an off-duty cop would do to pull his sidearm-an off-duty cop being my worst nightmare except for two off-duty cops-and all I can do is draw down on him.
“What are you going for, Hot Rod?”
His hands freeze and he looks at me. “Phone. Picture?”
My heart is beating so hard in my ears I can barely hear what he says. And I can barely hear what I say next:
“Just don’t mess with my stickup.”
“No. Not me.”
By then the middle-aged manager and the young girl are chattering away in Spanish and the Pakis are wide-eyed and silent, but the register is open and the girl is downloading the cash into a white K FC bag with the Colonel’s face on it. The woman won’t look at me and she’s muttering mainly to herself, but the girl loads the bag in a quick, helpful manner. I tell her not to forget the rolls of quarters. I see over eight hundred dollars go into that sack. I set one of my cards on the counter.
Less than a minute and I turn to go. Hot Rod has his cell phone camera aimed at me and I brandish the weapon and the bag of money. Cutie steps in front of me then kneels facing the camera. I can’t resist this kind of publicity. So I set a friendly hand on his shoulder-the money hand, not the gun hand-while Hot Rod clicks another two pictures.
I flick a card to each of them.
YOU HAVE BEEN ROBBED BY
HAVE A NICE DAY
“For the next ten minutes the first person through that door gets shot,” I say.
By then I’m heading back to the airport Marriott, the northbound traffic light and the Mustang burning through the fuel which is a feeling I love. But I’m strictly speed limit now. Suzie Jones, citizen, teacher of history. My feet have gone cold and my hands are shaking because all the concentration and calm I force upon myself during a holdup dissolve when I’ve gotten away, body and mind suddenly able to admit what a scary dumb-ass business this is, pointing guns at people you don’t want to shoot while you take someone else’s money. Pulling a job is the best-well, second-best feeling in the world. But the comedown-these jittery minutes when your heart pounds in your eardrums and you can hardly draw a full breath-man, that I can live without. So I do the speed limit and watch the rearview mirror and turn on the news and think about Joaquin because Joaquin makes me calm and proud.
Lots of legends sprouted up around him. One was that he became an outlaw because a group of Anglos raped his wife and made him watch. Another was that he became an outlaw because his brother was hanged for stealing a horse he didn’t steal at all. Another was that Joaquin became an outlaw because he was whipped. I have his leather-bound journal so I know what’s true and what isn’t. The journal itself is only eighty-one pages long because he died when he was twenty-three. The pages are small, yellow and brittle. The handwriting is neat but fading. The journal won’t last forever, just as Joaquin’s head will not. They rest next to each other in a secret room in my barn in Valley Center.
Interestingly, all three of those legends are true, and they all took place on the same day outside of Coloma, California, in 1849. Gold had been found at Sutter’s Mill. In the Sierra foothills you could pick it right off the ground, pan it right out of the rivers and streams. Talk about a rush.
Joaquin had a claim and a camp with his wife, Rosa, and his brother, Jes'us. Joaquin was nineteen years old. My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was a beautiful woman-a girl, really, just seventeen-and like Joaquin she was educated at a Jesuit school down in Ala mos, Mexico. She was three months pregnant on that day outside Coloma.
They were panning the creek, doing well. Their claim was legitimate, too, because the foreign miner’s tax-which pretty much made it legal to shoot non-Anglos mining for gold-wasn’t enacted until 1850.
It was July and I know it was hot because I spent a July up near Coloma camping with Bradley a few years ago, just to pay my respects to Joaquin, and to get the feel of the place where his life was shaped. I told Bradley a little about Joaquin, but not too much. The sky was a beautiful turquoise blue and most afternoons we saw wispy cirrus clouds blowing toward the mountains.
This is how it went down: six young Anglos rode into Joaquin’s camp with their guns drawn, yelling that Jes'us’s horse belonged to them. They were drunk. Joaquin writes in simple, clear Spanish about being held at rifle point and tied to a tree, then watching Jes'us “struggle and strangle” (my translation) at the end of a rope slung over an oak branch and pulled taut by all six of the men. They lowered his boot toes to the ground then yanked him up, lowered him to the ground again then yanked him up again. They laughed. Finally they hoisted him up and watched him die. Joaquin wrote about the horsewhip that “drove fire” into his back-six powerful lashes that would bleed and fester for weeks-and how the men “obliterated” the camp and found their tiny bags of gold flakes taken from the stream. And he wrote finally of the sounds of Rosa’s screams against the bandana she was gagged with, the grunting of the men, and the bucking and whinnying of his tethered horse, Jorge, “as if he could understand.”
I’ve stood on that ground. I’ve slept there. It’s a quiet place, mostly pine trees. But the oak tree where they hanged Jes'us is easy to find-it’s the only oak tree by that stretch of the stream-and it’s got plenty of good stout horizontal branches. You don’t hear much but jays during the day and crickets at night. You might see a squirrel or a lizard, maybe a deer flitting between the trees. It’s like nothing ever happened. Nature forgets history just like we do-something I often tell my students. Bradley and I panned the stream and got some trace, but that was all.
By the time I get to the Hapkido Federation studio in L.A. my nerves have settled and I feel focused. I’m in time for sparring with Quinn and some other black belts. Quinn was the one who taught me this method way back in Bakersfield before he moved south to the city.
In case you don’t know, hapkido is a deeply vicious martial art-you break bones and dislocate joints and gouge eyes and crush windpipes and smash testicles in about the time it takes to unlock a car with a key fob.
Of course for sparring at the black-belt level you have to control yourself, and your whole body is padded to the max-head protector, mouthpiece, cups for the guys, even pads for your feet and hands.
You can’t believe the adrenaline-driven clarity that settles over you as a six-foot, 190-pound hapkido warrior bows to you, then flows into his fighting position and waits for you to attack. You see every shift in his balance, every tiny feint, every flicker in his eye. You know when his breathing changes. Then all hell breaks loose. A two-minute round never seems to end. And the second you get tired is the second that someone lands a fist to your solar plexus or a foot to your head.
I go six rounds. At the end of the session I’m bent over and breathing hard and I can hardly hold myself upright to bow to Quinn before I head for the locker room.