Which leaves me three hours to boost a better ride because I can’t entertain Hood in a Sentra. And I need to hit the Burger King on Reseda Boulevard, which I cased last week and looks very good.
I take a taxi to a long-term parking lot by LAX where I’ve got an arrangement with one of the shuttle drivers who has a nice black GTO in a private corner. I pull out the door lock with the slide-hammer, grab the ignition assembly and go to work on the wires. My heart is not steady but my fingers are.
When I’m done I check my time on the Rolex I bought from Carl Cavore for a grand. It’s got ten diamonds on the dial and a rare mother-of-pearl face that tells me I’m gone in seventy-five seconds, not bad for a history teacher who steals cars only as a hobby.
Ten minutes later I’m at the Pep Boys in San Fernando, where another associate of mine replaces the GTO door lock with an off-the-shelf universal that looks fine. And he pulls what’s left of the old ignition and installs an aftermarket imitation that operates on a regular key. Which means I don’t need a key with a microchip to start my new beauty, just a freshly cut key that costs me next to nothing. The work and parts run me six bills but I’m out in less than fifty minutes because this guy doesn’t fool around.
Then to work. I park on a quiet residential street not far from the BK and I get suited up for the job: wig, gloves, pepper spray on my belt, Ca~nonita in the satchel, mask in my pocket. I’m already wearing the loose trousers and blouse and vest that allow for unrestricted movement in the event I need to run for miles and climb fences to get away from a homicidal maniac. The clothes help disguise me, too. I think a very quick prayer of thanks that the only person in the world who has recognized Allison as me is my own mother. I think I put some doubt in her, however, by questioning the agility of her mind. A little doubt goes a long way.
One of the things that Joaquin liked to do was to work fast, hit three or four remote ranches in one night, steal the good horses and run them up north into the mother lode because that’s where the miners and the money were. Three-Fingered Jack, who rode with Joaquin, used to complain about the thirty-six-hour runs to steal and sell the horses-no sleep, no time to drink or whore or gamble until they’d sold off the horseflesh. In his journal Joaquin admitted to drinking “many gallons of powerful coffee” on his three-day crime binges. He brewed the coffee and carried it in cloth-covered canteens wrapped in serapes to keep it hot and protect the horses.
Jack’s real name was Manuel Garcia. His hand got mangled in a roping accident when he was a boy, thus the finger loss. He was killed alongside Joaquin by Harry Love and his “California Rangers,” and they cut Jack’s three-fingered hand off for ID. The hand was purportedly displayed in the same jar as Joaquin’s severed head, and I’ve seen posters advertising the exhibition of the “HEAD OF JOAQUIN! And the HAND OF THREE-FINGERED JACK!” but there was no hand in the jar I was given by my great-uncle Jack and now keep in the barn down in Valley Center. I miss Valley Center.
Joaquin was credited with stealing roughly fifty thousand dollars’ worth of gold and over a hundred horses. According to his journal it was more like twenty thousand in gold and a hundred and forty horses. Historians said he and his gang killed nineteen men, mostly unarmed Chinese mine workers. But according to Joaquin they killed four, and there is nothing dishonest, boastful or evasive in his own account.
All of which runs through my mind as I park in the lot beside the Burger King lot. The two lots are separated by a hedge of lantana and there’s a nice body-sized opening to let me through.
I stride toward the Burger King, all those nice yellows and reds brightly shining within.
I must have timed out the dinner rush pretty well because the dining room has only a few customers and there’s nobody at the counter as I step up and point Ca~nonita at the young Latina girl whose smile freezes on her pretty face.
A boy with pimples and a French fry basket in one hand stares at me. The girl working the drive-through stops midsentence. A stout older woman with short red hair barrels out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a dirty white towel and glares at me.
I swing the gun on her. “Sit and stay.”
“Right where you are.”
She crosses herself and kneels on the tile while the pretty girl empties the cash register into a plastic take-out bag.
“Double-bag it, please,” I say. “And don’t forget the quarter rolls.”
“Any dye packs, locators, I’d appreciate it if you’d leave them out.”
“We don’t have those.”
“Somebody’s going to get hurt,” says the manager.
“You volunteering, Red?”
Right then the door opens and in wobbles an old couple, the kind you look at and think, Wow, that’s what I’ve got to look forward to if I’m lucky. Mr. Geezer stops, balanced on a cane. He’s nodding. He’s wearing a blue shirt with a green cardigan over it even though it’s a hundred degrees out. Mrs. Geezer has monumental hair, a scowl and heavy-duty therapeutic nylon support hose. She looks at me.
“We will not eat here, Frank,” she says.
The old man regards me with beautiful gray eyes and he smiles, then pivots and places his cane for the turn.
He’s still nodding as he drops to the floor.
The old woman just stares at him.
The pretty cashier gives me the heavy double bags with one hand and the other goes to her mouth. The kid with the French fry basket says, “Whoa,” and the manager suddenly jumps up and looks over the counter. Two customers rush in from the dining room. The front door opens and three teenaged boys shuffle in then stop, bumping into each other.
I aim Ca~nonita at the teenagers while I walk across the room and stand over Mr. Geezer. I kneel down and find his carotid pulse with my left hand, my right still holding Ca~nonita firm on the boys. There isn’t much pulse and his mouth is hanging open some so I figure he’s not breathing right.
“Get down here and CPR this guy,” I say to the wife.
“I don’t know how.”
“Boys, you know how to do CPR, right?”
They mumble and shy away.
“Fuck, what’s wrong with you people? Pretty face, you know CPR?”
“I forgot, I used to know, but…”
“Shut up! Red! Get over here, sister. Your lucky day. And make it quick.”
The manager bursts into the lobby through a windowed kitchen door.
“Do you know CPR?”
“I do not.”
“Watch me. I’m going to show you once. I’m going to explain what I’m doing. Then you’re going to take over. If you make a move on me while I’m breathing for this guy-like if you try to get this mask off or the gun? I’ll come off him and shoot you. Got it?”
“Watch and learn, Red.”
I put Ca~nonita in my left hand, hook my right thumb deep over the old man’s tongue and lift his head back to open the trachea. I explain this to Red, who is nodding quickly. Then I get Ca~nonita in a funny grip so I can use my left hand to pinch Mr. Geezer’s nose shut. With my mouth I cover my thumb and his mouth and give him a nice, slow, even exhale. I taste my breath going into a small cavern that smells mildly of meat. I feel my breath come to the end of the cavern, like blowing up a balloon. I look up sideways to see Red nodding even faster. I count to four and breathe for him again. Red practically elbows me away so she can get in and try it. So I swing around and straddle the guy and join my hands over his firm but oddly thin and light chest. It feels like he’s made of aluminum, like an office blind or a soda can. Down-up. Down-up. Down-up.
“Count seconds, Red. Every other second you press in. One, two, three, four-all the way to twenty. Got it? It’ll keep his heart going or maybe even start it back up.”
“Push on every other count.”
“Then ventilate him, like I just did. Some of the new protocols say to skip this part, but I wouldn’t. Look at this guy. It’s four breaths, twenty pushes. Four breaths, twenty pushes. The damned experts change the ratio every year or so just to confuse people like us. But this can work. Good luck.”
“Yes,” she says, then grabs Mr. Geezer’s nose and swoops down to get him in a mouth lock.
I jump up, swing Ca~nonita in a semicircle and make sure the parking lot isn’t crawling with innocent bystand ers or cops.
And if it were, what choice would I have but to run out through them? I feel as if I’ve been breathing for that old guy for hours, like the whole world has had time to get here and get their cameras ready and their guns drawn and wait for me to walk into the shitstorm. I feel like I’m never going to make it to those swinging doors. I step in that direction. The teenagers part.
I’m too rattled to even hand out my business cards.
But miracle is in the air tonight. The GTO beckons from the other side of the hedge like a burning bush.
Four hundred horses.
And the lot is empty of pedestrians, just a minivan looking for a place to park.
I’m almost to the door when Mr. Geezer coughs and sputters. Red looks at me with pugnacious wonder. Mrs. Geezer throws tears as she silently kneels over her husband with her hands folded under her chin like for a prayer.
Too bad nobody has a camera to show me saving the old man’s life on TV-fame to go with my infamy.
I walk out, palm the gun and shorten my stride. I take a deep breath. Mask off. Head high, back straight, eyes alert.
I know I look right.
I’m a just a hungry consumer with a hard-earned bag of burgers and fries. Maybe even a family to feed. Nobody can stop me.
I can’t even stop myself.
I have just enough time to secure my tools in the adjoining room, shower and change before Hood arrives. Short dress. Of course I brush my teeth.
When he comes through the door I swarm him.
A thick bunch of roses and a bagged bottle of something drop to the floor and I pull him through them toward the bed. I hear the crunch of the stems on carpet and the rattle of the paper bag. Hey, I can drink wine or smell a flower anytime but right now I got Charlie Hood where I want him and no conventional weapon can keep me off him.
It doesn’t last long but after it I’m starved so I take him to dinner in the GTO.
“I have nice friends,” I say. “I choose them on the basis of the cars they can lend me.”
“This have the three-fifty horse?”
“It’s the six-liter, Charles-a full four hundred. Sick torque, and I love that it looks like something my grandmother would drive. No wonder they quit making it.”
“Where’s the Corvette?”
“In for service.”
He’s looking at me with an expression I’ve never seen on him before. Like he’s discovered something and locked it up for safekeeping. Up until now I made Hood nervous or least uncertain but now I wonder if my mother might have got him thinking about my unorthodox girlhood and or that I shot Bradley’s father or that I’ve had more boyfriends than Hood has had dates.
Or maybe he changed his mind about me and the diamonds.
I pick a Persian restaurant on Sunset with private rooms where we can sit on beautiful pillows and eat spicy food and I can touch him. Hood seems gently befuddled by his surroundings and I wonder if it has to do with his time in Iraq. Or, again, if it has to do with me.
“You’re quiet,” I say. “Remind you of the war?”
“Just the way the people look.”
“I want you to tell me about it someday.”
“Not tonight,” says Hood. “Have a glass of wine.”
“I told you I don’t drink, Deputy.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Like having a cigarette before they shoot you?”
He looks at me then with genuine amusement. I like a guy who can enjoy your joke without having to make a better one. I like a guy whose ears turn red once in a while. Most of all I like a guy who’s got the kind of Man Thing that you can’t fight or ruin or dissolve or avoid-this big blocky clunky Man Thing right in the middle of him. The Man Thing is a nuisance, I’ll admit, and early on I learned every trick in the book for eliminating it. Mom taught me some of them. Grandma some. Girls just learn most of them on their own. The deal is, some men will let you take the Man Thing and dispose of it. They actually think that’s what women want. I’ve got no time for men like that anymore. Because the Man Thing is half of what makes the time shared by a man and a woman interesting. It’s like this dirt track we had out in the Bakersfield desert when I was a kid. It was a little oval and we’d race our bikes around it as fast as we could. It was flat and smooth and level and you could haul ass. But there was one hairy thing about it-a big sharp rock lodged right in the middle of the far turn. It stuck up, pointing back, like a big dull fishhook looking to stab you. We had some bad wipeouts trying to miss that rock. We didn’t always miss. There were stitches and broken bones. Terry Lilley knocked out his front teeth on it. I picked them out of the dirt but they couldn’t fasten them back on. So one day we got together like intelligent human beings and dug the thing out and rolled it off the course. We filled the hole and packed the dirt down hard and rode around that track for a few hours. We made some good time. Very fast. Very smooth. And very boring. So we dug the hole and rolled the rock back into place and buried it just like it was. That’s what the Man Thing does-it makes the race dangerous and difficult and worth running.
And Hood’s got it loud and clear, even in his smile.
“You don’t have to get shot to enjoy a cigarette once in a while,” he says. “The wine makes you peaceful and the smoke makes you calm.”
“But I don’t want peace or calm.”
“What do you want?”
“I can explain by conducting a Socratic dialogue, as I sometimes do with my brighter students.”
“Rather drive a Rolls Silver Shadow or turbocharged Porsche nine-eleven Carrera?”
“Carrera, for sure.”
“El Do or GTO?”
“I’d go Goat.”
“Escalade or Mustang GT?”
“Well, the ’Stang, no contest.”
“Me too. See, Hood, it’s just human nature to want to go fast. And feel it. Feel it. That’s what I want.”
I get up real close to his ear with my mouth, just like that first Sunday he came to my house. I like it here. Now I just have to whisper: “I mean, Charlie, what if a doctor could give you a pill that would give you ten back-to-back o’s but you couldn’t feel each one of them separate and distinct?”
Hood actually thinks about this one. Just the trace of a frown passes over his brow. Even if he’s just acting dumb I still love it.
“What’s an orgasm if you don’t feel it?” he finally says.
“That’s what I’m trying to explain, you Bakersfield hick.”
“You value your hot spots, Suzanne.”
“I know I do. And I know this, too, Hood-I won’t be young very long. I’ll use ’em while they’re usable.”
Mr. and Mrs. Geezer come to mind right then. I see Hood and me fifty years from now as Mr. and Mrs. Geezer and I know that’s supposed to warm my heart but it just plain doesn’t.
“You’re pretty much everything my mom told me to stay away from,” says Hood.
“That’s nice to hear. The old bag ever let you have any fun?”
Hood smiles again, nodding, eyes bright and not quite reckless. I kiss him with feeling and when the waiter comes through the ornate curtain into our little nest I tell him to beat it. He smiles and bows and pulls the curtain tight.
Then it’s just a small underwear adjustment and a pull of zipper and I’m riding Hood right there in the pillows. He looks straight into my face. Soon comes a point when my heart is pounding so loud I can’t hear much else and Hood’s usually sharp brown eyes glaze over, and I’m welded to this guy.
When he finally manages to stand and put himself back together, he turns away so I won’t see. Imagine. His hair sticks up on one side. He excuses himself to the men’s room. His wallet has fallen out and is half-hidden under a lush satin pillow so I look it over, finger the bills-eighty-two bucks. I take out two of the twenties, rub them together, then stuff them back. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I set the wallet at his place on the low table.
A few minutes later Charlie is back with his hair wetted down like Jordan does his before school. Charlie looks proud of himself, like he just got away with something, which he did.
“My wallet,” he says.
“Better count the cash.”
He sits down and a while later we have a dessert made of dates and cream. Most excellent.
Hood has another glass of wine and we don’t say much.
I look at him and he sees I’d like to do it again but he shakes his head no with a toothy smile and raises his fingers in a cross like I’m a vampire or something.
I drive him up Sunset fast in the GTO and blast up into the Hollywood Hills to this turnout I know.
We park and sit in the car just like real lovers, looking down on the city lights with the windows down and the breeze bringing us the smells of the arid hills but not so strong that they interfere with the new car smell, the finest fragrance on earth in my opinion.
I hold Hood’s hand and rest my head on his shoulder.