An hour later I’m standing in Angel’s shop up in Phelan. Phelan is in the desert north of L.A., not far from Interstate 15. Angel is the man who taught me how to steal cars and what to do with them once they’re mine.
Here in Phelan they’ve got black sky and nice stars but not much else. The shop is made of metal and has no windows, which defeats the popular LoJack device. I can hear the wind knocking against the panels. Angel is doing a walk-around on the Mustang, nodding, clicking and sending pictures and text messages with his phone. Demand is high. Angel is always selling. He might have sold the thing already for all I know.
“Thirteen,” he says.
“Thirteen seven fifty, and no higher, Suzie.”
“Fine, fine, fine.”
“Where will you send her?” I ask.
“Mexico. I have a buyer waiting. Someone who prefers American. You’ve always had good instincts for the right car.”
A loaded Mustang GT is a thirty-two-thousand-dollar car new-drops to twenty-five if you sell it low-mileage to a private party. Angel will take it from here: pay me, replace the VIN with a clean one, forge counterfeit title and registration, remove LoJack or any other antitheft devices and transport it by truck to a Tijuana leather shop for custom upgrades, where it will change trucks and be taken south to Mexico City, maybe Sinaloa, maybe Puerto Vallarta or Cartagena or Bogot'a. Angel will be paid in dollars. Since the airlines got tough after 9/11, roughly one million American drug dollars a day journey by car through Tijuana to points south. A day.
So the narcotraficantes have plenty of cash on hand. For the Mustang Angel will get about twenty-two grand. The cartel guys who buy them aren’t getting a steal, but they’re getting something they can’t buy legally in the United States. One reason that Angel’s stolen cars are so popular in Mexico is that suspected drug heavies are banned from spending money here in the States, a law originally passed to keep them from financing “dream teams” of lawyers for their defense in U.S. courts. What narcotraficantes get now is a court-appointed defender. But they can always get a VIN-switched Beemer, Benz, Porsche, Jag, Ford, Chevy or Chrysler from Angel. In most corners of the world, money talks.
Angel pours us each a shot of reposado tequila, offers it to me on a varnished wooden tray. It’s a ritual of ours.
We sip and I stare at the Ford. It’s a bitchin’ ride-honestly aggressive, capable, fun just to look at.
“Angel, I might want to move some diamonds.”
“Oh.” He frowns. He studies the car, then me. “There’s Jason.”
“I won’t deal with him.”
Angel nods. One of the many things I like about Latin men is that they understand that many things in life are fated and final and beyond discussion.
“They’re beautiful, Angel. Gem quality-the best. One is two carats and close to perfect. They’re unbelievable. Retail is four hundred and fifty. I’ll take forty and there’s five in it for you.”
“Ten percent is top dollar. But let me see.”
I thank Angel but I don’t like the look on his face. He’s a strong man with broad shoulders and chest, a lion’s gut and a high, back-sloping head blessed with thick silver hair. He dresses beautifully. His face is all crags and he’s got a smile like a sunrise. We were us for a while, but we both knew that wouldn’t last long. Mostly we were business. Angel charged me five hundred dollars to show me how to steal my first car. Later, when I’d learned the craft, he had a custom slide-hammer made just for me, a little shorter than the usual ones and the handle a little thinner for hands my size. I rarely sell a car to anyone else.
But I see no sunrise in Angel’s face right now.
“Does this relate to the diamond broker in the body shop?”
“A terrible thing.”
“I wasn’t involved. I was lucky.”
“I’ve never had good luck with diamonds,” he says. “They seem to have minds of their own. But an automobile, it always goes where you steer it. Speaking of this, come with me.”
We walk past some very choice American cars-two loaded Escalades with twenty-inch shoes and big meat, two Suburbans with more of the same, a Mustang GT, a black-on-black GM Yukon and a genuinely beautiful custom cobalt blue Denali XL that actually makes certain parts of me tingle. The paint and chrome gleam in the fluorescent lights and each one seems smug with its own secret behind the heavily tinted glass. Customers love heavily tinted glass.
This is the domestic part of Angel’s operation, which is different from the high-end German stuff that Angel processes in a warehouse down in San Ysidro.
See, the German cars are more valuable per unit but they’re also a lot harder to steal. If you physically move a Beamer or a Porsche more than a few feet, the systems all lock down-the antilock brakes take hold, the steering fails, the ignition and injectors and electric all go spastic and all you’ve got is a three-thousand-pound paperweight. The only practical way to steal the German cars is with a key or a tow truck. Both work. But keys are difficult to get-although some people leave the valet keys in their glove boxes, which is the first place a thief looks. And a tow truck usually means a broad-daylight lift, which takes time and a partner.
So, for business I steal American. They’ve got lousy security systems that are easy to override and there are more of them to choose from. Angel sometimes has a customer interested only in a specific color or option package, and that’s almost never a problem because when Detroit does something they do it in a big way. Great selection!
But the best part of stealing American is the huge market in Europe and in the Middle East. Those guys know a deal when they see one. Especially in the Middle East. They hate us, but they love paying oil cartel cash for our SUVs and trucks. The Mexicans have the drug cartels and the Arabs have the oil cartels. I have a friend who did a tour in Iraq and another in Kuwait, and he saw American cars with California plates still on them being driven all over the place. The American cars hold up well over there and they’re functional. You try driving a Mercedes SL or a BMW M5 on dirt roads across the Yemeni desert and tell me how far you get. You know how much German air filters cost? But get yourself a Ford Explorer, man, and you’ll make it on time with a decent sound system, the air conditioner still blowing ice, and you’ll get decent mileage, maybe seventeen miles per gallon with the six cylinder. Then you just hose it off and vacuum it out and head to Dubai for a round of golf or some indoor skiing or some gambling at the casinos. Plus, if you show up in an Escalade or a trick Denali XL with the big chrome shoes and the subwoofer pounding like the bass drum in a marching band, it says you kick ass.
So all these American cars will go overseas, and to get them there Angel will load them into containers and truck the containers to the Port of Long Beach. Angel has his system and his people in place. I’ve seen the operation. The port is one gigantic buzzing hive of cargo containers, cranes, trucks and thousands of workers and drivers and longshoremen and hundreds of millions of tons of cargo coming and going every hour. It’s a full-blast throbbing city out there, everything timed out to the minute. In the apparent confusion, which is actually not confusion at all, Angel’s containers get handled by the right longshoremen and they get on the right vessels inspected by the right people. They’re not on the ground for more than a few hours. This is the meat and potatoes of his business because Angel sells twenty American workhorses for every one high-end German stallion.
“I love that blue Denali, Angel.”
He smiles with pride. “It’s better not to look.”
Outside the wind whips and the stars glimmer. And we come to something that’s included in the price for the Mustang. It’s something to get me home, in this case a nondescript white Nissan Sentra. Angel has done a strip-and-run on this car. Here’s how it works: one of Angel’s guys stole it six months ago, stripped it for parts, then ditched what was left of it. The cops recovered the frame, canceled the theft record, and sold it at an auction. Of course the guy who originally stole it is the one who buys it. Back here at Angel’s they put the parts back on the “clean” frame and now they have a car no longer listed as stolen. That’s low-end, pay-the-rent car theft, but everybody needs a simple clean ride that won’t draw attention and won’t come up hot on the DMV check.
“Think about those diamonds,” I say.
“I am thinking about them already.”
“I love you, Angel.”
“As I love you, Suzanne.”
I kiss him on the cheek, and Angel gives me the keys and sends me home safe and secure in my little Sentra, which has a full tank of gas, gets twenty-six miles per gallon and has a paper grocery bag containing fourteen thousand dollars in hundreds and fifties in the trunk.
The eight hundred in the KFC bag is right next to it, weighted down with two rolls of quarters.
It’s payday, man, and I’m still on summer vacation.
I leave my booty and work tools in the room safe at the Marriott, except for Ca~nonita, of course, which I put in my satchel. I shower and trade the loose work clothes for tight jeans and a blue silk tank, and the boots for heels, just in case handsome Hood has ditched his night patrol shift and is waiting around to make sure I’m okay.
At twelve-thirty I pull into the crowded Residence Inn self-park, find a space and park.
An old black Lincoln pulls up behind me at an angle, headlights on high beam. The thought races through my mind that I’m about to die.
I slam the Sentra into reverse and floor it. The car jumps backward about a foot before crashing into the Lincoln’s formidable front end. While my front tires scream and smoke, I know that the Sentra doesn’t have the strength to budge the Lincoln.
There are cars on either side of me and a hedge of oleander in front. In front of the oleander is a concrete tire block and behind it is a chain-link fence. I throw the car into drive and floor it straight ahead over the block. I aim the Sentra between the shrubs and into the fence. I hear the rip of metal on metal, and I see the right headlight burst in a bright shower of safety-glass shards, and I feel the awful stretch of the chain-link fence as it slows the Sentra almost to a stop. It’s like getting stuck in a spider’s web. Then I feel the fence weaken and see it collapse over the front of the Sentra, and suddenly I’m accelerating and the uprooted metal fence posts are shooting sparks as I drag them along each side of my car. Then I’m under the fence and past it and in the rearview mirror I see the fence posts skidding and the chain link bouncing to a stop, and I am thinking, This is a miracle, but the big black Lincoln suddenly barrels through the mess toward me. Willpower is no match for horsepower.
I gun it out of the parking lot and onto Hawthorne Boulevard before I realize I’m running on a blown front tire. At fifty miles an hour the Sentra is shimmying so hard I can barely hold the wheel, then it zigs hard right and all I can do is follow onto the first side street, which leads to another side street, then another, and it’s all tract homes and driveways and streetlights and Father in Heaven I never thought Allison Murrieta would die in the suburbs.
I pull up curbside, get Ca~nonita and sling the satchel over my neck and one shoulder as I walk across a neat front yard. It’s dark and still. I throw my CFM heels in a rose bed. Then I jump a side fence and pray there’s no Dobermans or rotters or pit bulls waiting.
I’m across the dogless backyard in seconds. I can hear the Lincoln idling on the street near my Sentra. Then I’m over the back fence and across the adjacent backyard to another side fence and fast over that one, too, and dogs are barking now and some of them sound real close but I’m on the sidewalk, one street over from where Lupercio is maybe still parked and scratching his flat-top and figuring what to do. Hustling across the front yard, I can see that Lupercio’s got a fair way to go to bring that Lincoln around to me. It’s a long street, families sleeping, alarm clocks set. And as soon as I hear or see an approaching car, I’ll cut back through more yards the same way I got here. Then I’ll make it back to the boulevard, where the people are. My heart is pounding painfully hard as I ease into my runner’s pace, get the satchel balanced evenly and tell myself that I might have to run until the sun comes up in order to make it through this night alive.
I look behind me and see no one.
God bless this long Torrance street. And the next one, which takes me back toward Hawthorne, which is where I need to be. I finally hit my rhythm-my heartbeat and my breathing mesh-and I stretch out my stride a little more and remember what a pleasure it is to run barefoot down a sidewalk on a summer night.
I look behind me and see Lupercio.
Not in his Lincoln, but running after me. His short legs work like pistons and his plaid shirt is tucked in and the machete in his right hand flashes in the streetlights.
I cut across a front yard, over a fence, through a backyard, over a fence into another backyard, then leap another side fence and find myself one full street closer to where I started.
When I turn I see Lupercio advancing through the shadows, as if he’s matched my every footstep with two of his own.
The new street is older and not as generously lit as the first two. The trees are larger and the sidewalk is narrower and I can hear the tap of Lupercio’s boots behind me. I stretch out my stride again, get my knees up higher, eating up longer and longer bites of ground, but I can tell without looking back that he’s closing in. I pass a living room lit behind the blinds, a “Security Solutions” sign poked in the middle of a lawn, a trike on a walkway leading to a front door.
I run harder.
I don’t need to look back. The boots are hitting faster than my bare feet and this is the time to live or die.
I stop and turn. I point Ca~nonita.
Lupercio stops, too. He’s under a streetlight, fifteen feet away. He angles quickly for the light pole and I fire.
There’s an ear-splitting boom and a loud twang and sparks jump off the streetlight stanchion. I’ve missed him by five feet. All I can think to do is turn and run again. I’ve got one shot left.
So I’m across another front yard and over a side fence but my tank top catches on the top as I go over. The blouse is half ripped off and half hung up. I can hear Lupercio charging as I get the material in one fist and yank it free, but by then he’s half over the fence himself, above me, and I point Ca~nonita at him, but there’s this terrible blur coming at me from above his head and instead of pulling the trigger I pull the gun away just as the top of the fence splits and the machete blade lodges deep and true in the wood.
I hear him cursing, and the sharp squeak of steel caught in lumber. I take the next two fences vault style, with Ca~nonita in my mouth and both hands braced on the fence tops and my arms burning as they push me up and over.
I tumble onto the wet grass of a front yard and I can see the boulevard just a hundred yards away now and I roll and stand and run, digging down for everything I’ve got. I’m drenched in sweat. Running to stay in shape is different than running to stay alive.
When I look behind me I see no one.
I make Hawthorne Boulevard, press Ca~nonita into my pocket and put out my thumb.
The third car pulls over and the passenger window goes down. Two boys in the front, white shirts, ties, young Republican haircuts.
“Do you need help?”
“I need to get in your car. Then I need to make one call, and I need you two guys to wait with me while Triple A comes.”
They look at each other, then the nearest one nods.
Yep, Jehovah’s Witnesses in a five-year-old Malibu. A gift from heaven. I open the door and push aside a bound bundle of The Watchtower and sit.
“Where’s your car, ma’am?”
“Let’s give it a few minutes. There’s a bad person involved. He ripped my blouse. How about donuts? You guys like donuts?”
“Yes, we do. There’s a Winchell’s up here.”
And plenty of cops.
“Perfect,” I say, digging my phone out of the satchel.
Back at the airport Marriott, door locked and chain in place, and reloaded Ca~nonita on the bathroom counter, I sit on the edge of the tub in the dark with my feet in the warm soapy water. There are cuts and splinters all over them and my heels are badly bruised. It hurts.
But my brain hurts worse because I’m trying to figure out how Lupercio always seems to know where I am and I really don’t like the answer I’m getting.
How did he know about Miracle Auto Body? How did he know about Valley Center and Torrance?
Be logical here.
Okay, maybe Amanda, the clerk who checked me into the Residence Inn, was a friend of Lupercio’s. She was a plump redhead who looked about twenty and was reading a Harlequin romance when I walked up to the front desk. You tell me.
Or, maybe someone else at the Residence Inn was a friend of Lupercio’s-a higher-up who could scan the computer for the names of the guests checking in and out. Sure, maybe. But Lupercio is freelance. He works alone. He murdered half of his own gang. So how many friends does he have in how many hotels in a city with hundreds and hundreds of them? You tell me that, too.
I didn’t tell anyone where I was staying. Not Ernest, no one.
Now consider this: Handsome Hood and Lupercio are related by time and space. Hood shows up at Miracle Auto Body; Lupercio is there, too. Hood shows up at my home in Valley Center; Lupercio is right on his heels. Hood suggests the Residence Inn for a good night’s sleep and who should be there waiting for me?
They connect. So, maybe Hood was covering Lupercio at Miracle Auto Body that night. That’s why he rousted me-just in case I’d seen something. Man, did I-and I was dumb enough to tell him all about it. He knew I lived in Valley Center and he knew I’d come back to the Residence Inn. On the beach in Laguna he pretty much accused me of taking the diamonds, so maybe he knew about them all along.
Hood buttered my toast in the Hotel Laguna but maybe the heavy secret inside his heart was that I was about to be killed-no witness to Lupercio that night, no witness to himself. And there’s this, too: If Hood is tight with Lupercio and if he reasons like I’ve reasoned, he knows that I’ve got the diamonds, and he knows I’ll keep them close, in the very possible case that I need to buy my life with them. Thus, close enough for them to find. Then they’ve got no witness and my forty-five thousand dollars’ worth of rocks in their pockets.
I lift my feet from the water and towel them off. They hurt like hell. I hope there’s nothing stuck in them. I see Lupercio’s machete flashing like lightning above me and then hear the dry bark of the metal splitting wood. Probably would have sounded about the same splitting my arm. I turn on the light and the bathtub water is pink. I hobble into the bedroom and lie down and look at the clock radio. My feet hurt and I want my mother, even though she probably wouldn’t be too happy with me.
If I’m right about Hood and Lupercio then I’m wrong about Hood. It would disappoint me to think that my judgment could be so poor. But I’d rather be disappointed than dismembered. I thought I’d outgrown my attraction for cute losers sixteen years ago when I threw out Bradley’s father for taking his niece to our bed. Before I threw him out I shot his bare ass with a.22 pistol. The bullet went right through both cheeks, left big ugly wounds. Made me feel better. He’s still afraid of me, which should be the natural order of things with guys like him.
But Hood? I hope I’m figuring wrong. I want to be wrong.
It’s late. I can see the gray ellipse of morning coming through the slit in the drawn blinds. I can hear the murmur of L.A. around me and the roar of the jets and the thumping of closing doors and the distant ding of the elevator.
I get Hood on his cell.
“Where are you?”
“Not telling, don’t ask.”
“I’ve been calling all night.”
“My good night’s sleep in Torrance just about got me killed. Lupercio came a few inches from cutting my arm off with that machete. Where were you when I needed you?”
“On patrol. I drove the Residence lot at six o’clock and once again every hour until midnight. I knocked on the door of your room each time. Where were you?”
“Never saw the old black Lincoln?”
Silence then and I wonder what Hood is thinking.
“I got there at twelve-thirty,” I say. “Lupercio pulled in right behind me. I ran through a fence to get away. He didn’t follow me in. He was there, waiting.”
“Goddamn is right. I ran a mile barefoot on streets and sidewalks. I jumped a million fences. Everything hurts.”
“Have you checked your car for a location transponder? That’s a-”
“I know what it is, Hood.”
I can’t tell him how many cars I’ve stolen and driven since Miracle Auto Body, that you’d need a team of confederates just to keep those cars in transponders. This thought brings me a very brief smile. And I also can’t tell him that I checked Barry Cohen’s backpack for a transponder, too-just before I boosted the F- 150 in San Berdoo after I’d lost Lupercio and his lame-ass Lincoln at the signal at Eastern in City Terrace.
“Yes,” I say. “I checked.”
“Got on my back, crawled under and looked.”
“Are you driving the Corvette?”
“You can’t crawl under that car. No. My old Sentra.”
“What about your purse, or a briefcase, or something you carry with you?”
“No transponders that I know of. When could he have put one in place, Hood? I saw him for a total of four seconds that night and we were never less than twenty feet apart.”
“You have to look again. Look everywhere again. They’re small now.”
I take a deep breath and let it out. Can’t believe how tired I am. “Hell’s bells.”
“Did you tell Ernest where you were?”
“I’ll come get you.”
“I don’t know about you, Hood. Every time I see you, Lupercio shows up. Every time I see Lupercio, you’re in the picture, too. That really bothers me.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“Then how did he know about the Residence Inn?”
“Maybe someone you work with-your boss or something.”
“Easy for you to say. But I was the one looking up at that machete. By the way, Lupercio’s got a new hairstyle. It’s a buzz.”
I hang up and call in for my messages. Ernest has called twice with full reports on how the boys are doing. Bradley caught a six-foot barrel at Oceanside, got tubed and came out. Jordan caught four fish off the pier. The dogs are fine. The Sequoia is leaking oil. Ernest misses me.
Hood has called ten times in the last twelve hours. I hear his voice go from gently polite to annoyed to worried to fearful.
Maybe he really is who I thought he was. Maybe I have him figured wrong.
Same way he’s figured me.