“I apologize, Suzie,” says Angel.
“I’m a big girl.”
He hands me the black sack and I put it over my head. Immediately I feel myself becoming Allison. A blind Allison. Of course the hood makes me think of Hood.
“It’s okay, Angel,” I tell him. My breath is hot under the heavy fabric. Solid black. I can’t even see a twinkle of oncoming headlights. “I know how these VIPs can be.”
“It’s necessary for both of you.”
“I said it was okay.”
“Please tie the strings behind your head.”
Last I saw we were in Angel’s Tundra pickup truck, the loaded one with the big V-8, headed south on Interstate 5. Now blinded, I can still feel him pulling over to the right lane, which puts us in place to pick up the 710 south toward Long Beach. But for the life of me I can’t tell if we’ve merged south or not. I hate this blindness.
So here’s the deal: Angel talked to the smartest, toughest-to-get fence in L.A. and told him about his friend Laura and my parcel of beautifully cut gem-quality diamonds. Angel has worked with him twice before and he says this man is dependable and professional. He is interested. He is not known for paying high but he understands quality. His name is Guy. Angel says he’s a man who will “buy and sell anything,” but I can’t tell if Angel is speaking with respect or denigration.
Guy’s five conditions for meeting me were: I am to arrive in the company of Angel and only Angel; I will be hooded for the last half hour of the journey to the meeting place and for the first half hour of my journey from it; I can bring no cameras of any kind, especially a cell phone camera; I will be checked for recording equipment; and I will not be allowed to be out of sight of Guy or one of his associates, including trips to the bathroom.
I asked Angel if I could arrive with a.40-caliber derringer in my purse and he said that Guy would have no problem with that, though I might want to declare it before the pat-down.
It’s almost midnight now, Friday, two nights after Lupercio used a LASD transponder signal to track me to the Gray Fox Cabins in Arrowhead. I can’t begin to explain how Hood’s betrayal and/or stupidity broke my heart. My mother used to describe my heart as “that little wooden thing in your chest,” but wooden or not it broke when I saw that device stuck to the chassis of my Sentra.
The first thing I did when I got away from my video session in Marina del Rey was pull over and check for homers. I was surprised to be treated as if I were stupid. I guess Hood had one of his buddies attach it while I was upstairs in the safe house trying on sunglasses. Safe. Right. Safe for whom?
I haven’t talked to Hood since except to cuss him out from Arrowhead. I’m afraid to call him because I’m afraid he’ll act dumb. It infuriates me when people act dumb. The best explanation Hood can give me is that he is not in league with murderers, but his bosses are. And all that really says is that Hood is incompetent and his superiors are without souls. So piss on all the brutes. You bet I know Heart of Darkness. I read it when I was fifteen at continuation school, working nights at Taco Bell and pregnant with Bradley. I was rereading it a few months later because I didn’t quite get what he was saying about race and power the first time. It was on my bed stand the night I shot Bradley’s father through the butt cheeks with the twenty-two. Some blood mist got on the cover and by the time I got around to wiping it off it had dried and stuck. I don’t think any of that was symbolic but I’ve never forgotten it.
So I slide down low and lay my head back against the seat and bump along in Angel’s Tundra-nice truck, Toy ota does a good job on the suspension, which is firm but nimble, and the lumbar support is just right though I can’t enjoy it slumped down like this-wondering if we’ve gotten onto the 710. But the hood is truly blinding so I finally just give up and try to breathe slow and shallow because it’s hot in here, even though I sense Angel, always the gentleman, adjusting the AC vents to blow directly at me. Slowly, going by feel, I move my GPU from the right-side waistband of my jeans-hidden by my loose blouse-to the seat.
“You could have made me happy, Angel.”
“I was too old and saggy and temperamental.”
“But I would love to be young again, with you,” he said.
“That’s what you say to all your hotties.”
“It won’t be too much longer, Suzie. Be comfortable. You didn’t bring something unnecessary like a cell phone with a camera?”
“Of course not.”
“And the derringer in the purse?”
“It’s in there. You said-”
“It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll make sure Guy knows.”
“I hate people who think they’re important.”
“His privacy is our privacy. It benefits all of us.”
“I really don’t like this hood, Angel. I’m claustrophobic. It makes me feel trapped and I hate that even more than people who think they’re important.”
“It won’t be long.”
“I’m going to recline the seat and meditate,” I say. What I do is recline the seat and dangle my GPU down between the door and the seat, then drop it. “Put on the news, would you?”
“What do you think of that Murrieta chick?” I ask.
“She saved an old man’s life, so I admire her. The police will kill her, though. It’s unavoidable.”
I’m sitting on a leather sofa. It’s soft and smells good. When Angel lifts the hood from my head I look up at a beefy middle-aged man sitting on a dais above me. He looks like a cop even though I know he’s Guy, the fence, the man who will “buy and sell anything.” There’s a very long desk in front of him and the desk is littered with computers, monitors, printers, faxes, scanners, the works. The computer cases are made of a brushed aluminum and engraved with an abstract pattern that shimmers like the play side of a CD. The lights behind and above Guy cast long shadows down his face, and though his hair and forehead and cheeks are visible in bright relief, his eyes are hidden.
“Hello, Laura,” he says. His voice is clear and powerful. “I apologize for all the security. Thanks for making it easy. I’m Guy.”
He stands and leans over the desk and extends a hand. I stand and step forward and stretch out my own and we touch fingertips. He doesn’t bend very well and I wonder if he’s injured or just likes making me work hard to touch him.
A black man with a shiny head and a nice suit appears at my side.
“Relax,” says Guy. “This is Rorke.”
“There’s a gun in my bag,” I say. Rorke the dork.
“Yes, the scanner told us that.”
Rorke pats me down, gets close to overly personal but not quite. He wands me. He smells like those men’s magazines that Bradley’s worthless father used to bring home.
“Turn around please, Laura,” he says.
When I turn my back to Guy I can see that this room is elevated-part of a tower, maybe, or built on a hill-and through the high windows the port unfolds all the way to the ocean. Port of Long Beach, or of Los Angeles? In the cold blast of light from the incandescent light banks, the cranes are pivoting and the immense stacks of containers are either growing or shrinking as the megatonnage of goods flood into America or wash back out. My Mustang GT is probably out there in one of those containers, packaged up with more of Angel’s vehicles for sale in the Middle East. I look down on what appear to be miniature trucks but I know they’re actually full-sized tractor trailers filled with all things imaginable. Perfect setting for Guy, I think, the man who will buy and sell anything.
“Thank you, Anthony,” says Guy. “Rorke will take you down for coffee or breakfast while I talk to Laura. Will that be okay with everyone?”
“See you in a while, Anthony,” I say to Angel. “Save me a donut.”
In the darkness to my right a door opens to a neat rectangle of light into which Angel and Rorke pass.
“He has nothing but the highest praise for you,” says Guy.
“He speaks very highly of you, too,” I say.
“The port is fascinating, isn’t it?”
“It makes me feel small and slow,” I say.
“Me too. It’s pure capitalism-controlled chaos. Just barely controlled. I’m sure you know that very few of the containers are inspected, coming or going. Which of course is good and bad. It helps me in my business. It saves me money when I purchase foreign goods. But it may someday allow in a dirty bomb that will blow me and my little world here into eternity. Or an anthrax dispenser. Or ten thousand rabid vampire bats all hungry for blood, bursting out into the night when the container is opened.”
“The cost of freedom,” I say.
“May I see the diamonds?”
I tap my jacket pocket. “We sort of do things together.”
“I understand. Join me up here. There are steps if you go to your left.”
A moment later we’re standing across from each other, on either side of a worktable built off his long curving desk. The desk and table are a dark wood with red tones in it-mahogany, or maybe Hawaiian koa. Ernest has a decorative Hawaiian spear with a koa shaft.
I see an aluminum-cased laptop on the desk, turned away from me to face Guy. It’s got the same finish as the desktops, shiny and brushed. It’s very unusual looking. It’s also identical to the one I saw in the safe house in Marina del Ray. Is Guy a cop? A flush of suspicion breaks over me and for a moment I can’t look at him. I turn and watch the port. I calm myself as the skyscrapers of cargo containers grow and shrink under the powerful lights.
Guy is a large man and he’s tan-an outdoorsman? He’s got a thick upper body but when he brings a chair for me I see that his legs are slightly wrong and he moves slowly. Being from Bakersfield I think of a bull rider who mashed up some discs over the years, or maybe a guy who crashed his BMX bike one too many times.
I sit and remove the parcels of diamonds from the jacket pocket and set them on the black velvet jeweler’s pad that Guy has thoughtfully supplied. There’s a jewel er’s loupe, too. I smile at him.
Starting with the smallest stones I tap them out into discrete groupings. With a fingertip I swirl each group. You can imagine how dazzling they are in the fierce incandescent light beaming down from above. They’ve never looked this good, not even when I danced with the two-carat monster in my Hotel Laguna room. By the time I set this mondo rock on the black pad I can sense Guy trying to keep his breathing deep and even.
“This is the gemologist’s writing on the papers?”
“I’d love to hear the story of how you got them.”
“You won’t hear it from me.”
“I know. I know. I wish our business could be lighter and less formal, don’t you? I’d love to hear the stories behind things. All the tales of how we work and how we steal and how we get what we want.”
“Tales can be testimony.”
“You’re right, of course.”
Guy is staring at the rocks. He reaches out with a blunt fingertip and rearranges them slightly. The newly revealed facets throw back the light in new ways. He uses the loupe, taking his time, finally setting it down to look at me.
“Twenty-five thousand dollars,” he says.
“My heart just broke.”
I stare at him and he stares back. Guy has cool blue eyes and they don’t let on much. I’m not really sure what I look like to him. I’m mad enough to pull my gun and shoot him and I don’t care if it shows.
“Guy, say something better to me. The situation demands it.”
“Laura,” he says, leaning forward confidentially. “These jewels are from the Miracle Auto Body massacre. They are hotly pursued. Everyone knows it. You must.”
“I know they’re worth four hundred and fifty grand at the mall, and forty-five grand to you. Twenty-five? All I can say to twenty-five is the obvious-it’s two in the morning and you are wasting my time.”
“Then in deference to Anthony, and to your valuable time and your skill in acquiring these stones, I offer you twenty-seven thousand, five hundred dollars. I will not pay more.”
I shake my head and look out at the busy port. I think of plenty of things to say, but I don’t.
Guy finally breaks the long silence.
“Laura, you’re new to this. Listen. Let’s say that we do business but you don’t get your price this time. If you sell to me now, I’ll be here for you again. We can build respect. Respect leads to responsibility. We would become responsible for each other. Back and forth. Left and right. Containers going and containers coming. I buy and sell almost everything. You can continue your relationship with Anthony, whatever that might be. I can be an ally and a source for you. There would be times when I hear things that can help you. There would be times when you need something I can supply. I am a man you want to be in business with. I can help your friends. You can put your ear to any door in this city and you’ll never hear an uncertain word about me. Why? Because I make money for everyone around me. If you say no to me now, Laura, you’re closing the door on a secure and profitable future.”
I stare at Guy through this whole proclamation. He’s unflinching. Slowly, he sets a card on the table before me. It’s blank except for a phone number, handwritten in blue ink.
I look down at the diamonds. Even the minor, involuntary movement of my head makes them shine with unpredictable brilliance.
“You can take the diamonds and go. You’re free to do that, of course. If you change your mind, you can leave a message at that number.”
“I can find another buyer.”
“Yes. But really, it doesn’t matter what you do with them now.”
“How can it not matter?”
“Because they don’t belong to you. Do what you want. But the diamonds will come back to me.”
“I fail to see how,” I say.
“No matter what you do, they’ll be revealed. Blood diamonds are always revealed. That’s what makes them blood diamonds, correct? And when they’re found they’ll be brought to me or someone like me. And my offer will be taken because it’s fair.”
“It’s not fair. You didn’t do the work.”
“I’m management and you’re labor.”
I take my time sweeping the diamonds back into their papers. My heart is beating hard and I have this terrible sense of doom and defeat inside me. I hate this man and everything he says because in my heart I know he’s right.
“Fourteen men have died for these diamonds,” I say.
“Not counting the ones who died in the mines, searching them out.”
“How can I take less than what they paid for them?”
“That sounds noble but really it’s just sentimental. The stones are only worth what they are worth.”
“I like them,” I say. “I’ve become attached to them. Maybe I’ll have some set for people I love. Maybe have some set for me. Maybe just enjoy them for what they are rather than selling them. Some things are more precious unsold.”
The look on Guy’s face is authentic disappointment. He exhales softly but keeps his cool blue eyes on mine.
“We all know that Lupercio is going to find you, Ms. Jones.”
Of course Guy saw Lupercio and me on TV. Half of L.A. saw Lupercio and me on TV. I didn’t think someone would use that story to rip me off. Honor among thieves? What a pitiful notion.
“Maybe he’ll pay me a better price,” I say.
“He’s going to kill you and take them. But the diamonds aren’t why he’s going to kill you. You can hand all of those over to him, and a hundred thousand dollars in cash, and give him your beautiful young body, then move to another state, and change your name and your appearance, and he’ll still kill you.”
“Because you saw him. Maybe you described him to the police artist. Or, maybe someone else saw him and described him to a police artist. Maybe. But Lupercio is free now because he doesn’t allow people to see him. I’m not trying to frighten you for yourself or your family. I’m not trying to negotiate with you. I’m not trying for a better price. I can get a better price just by waiting.”
“Can you stop him?”
“He can be influenced.”
“If you get your price.”
“Which is a fair price.”
“In exchange for allowing you to steal my diamonds you influence Lupercio?”
So, Guy is basically what KFC and Burger King and Taco Bell and all those other businesses were when I was a kid-a low-wage employer with a feeble benefits package and the proud ability to save me from terrors that he himself will bring upon me. They’re all poverty vendors with protection rackets on the side. I swear for just a second that Guy looks like that damned Victor they brought in from the East to take Ruby’s job at KFC.
I’m also pretty sure that Guy’s swank laptop is the one I saw on the coffee table in the Marina del Rey safe house. I’ve never seen one like that-not in a store, not in an ad, not in a movie, never. So I think Guy is not only a cop but one of Hood’s bosses. A thought: in Marina del Rey he was downstairs outfitting my Sentra with a locator for Lupercio to follow, while I was upstairs making a video to lure Lupercio into a trap. A fucking cop, helping Lupercio kill the only witness who can put him near Miracle Auto Body that bloody night. And now trying to steal her diamonds for a song. A bad song.
Too bad I can’t tell Hood about it.
It would all be kind of funny, if I didn’t have my life to consider. And the lives of my boys. Ernest, too. Even my students. I teach a mean hour of history to eighth graders for nine months a year, and believe me, they need some tiny sense of the past. They need to know that there was life before cell phones. They need to be relieved of their overstimulated, overscheduled, overamplified, overcom mercialized, overrated, overpandered-to present. But a classroom hour a day isn’t enough to accomplish that, and teaching is not a way for me to get ahead in life. I took this extra job partly for my family, though I’ll admit it was mostly for me. I took it because I was tired of following the orders of corporate drones and compromising with district fools. And I took it because the blood of Joaquin runs through me. It pulls at me like a hand from the grave. I did not become an outlaw to get more laws to live by.
“I’m keeping the diamonds, Guy. Get Anthony back in here. I’m gone.”
“Let me be the first to say good-bye.”
“Say good-bye to yourself. You don’t impress me.”
“I’m not trying to.”
“You don’t have enough balls to impress me. You just rent them from Lupercio.”
He offers me a dull smile.
I stand as Angel and his ward come back through the invisible door. Wise Angel senses disaster.
“May I have a few private words with Guy?” Angel asks.
“Give me the truck keys,” I say.
“Why, Laura? I’ll just be a minute.”
I look at Guy. “I can’t take another minute of this.”
“Of course, Laura. Of course.” Angel hands me the hood.
“Is there a navigation unit in the truck?” asks Guy.
“There is none, Guy,” says Angel. “I can still read a map.”
“Escort Laura to the truck,” says Guy to Rorke. “Confirm Anthony’s statement.”
I give Rorke a hateful stare as I put the hood back on. He cinches up the ties behind my head and I feel the knot go tight. He walks me out with firm pressure on my arm and beeps me in to the truck. He guides me into the passenger’s seat. I’m sure he’s looking at the dashboard to confirm that there’s no screen, and I hope he doesn’t bother to look under the seat for my portable. Thank God it’s small and black. I hear the driver’s door open and the clink of keys as he slips one into the ignition, then closes the door. I hit the door locks and give Rorke a blind wave, then turn on the radio and crank the volume. I give Rorke a moment to get inside and lose interest. A minute later I’ve got my hand around the GPU and I push the current location save button. I’ve practiced this in the dark and I can do it with either hand.
Then I lean my head back against the rest and try to figure out what to do about Guy.