So I’m down in Little Saigon, Orange County. The people here aren’t likely to know Suzanne Jones and there’s a nice little hotel on a side street built to look like a French one in old Saigon.
Hood needs time to set his trap and I have things to do.
First I get my hair cut short and dyed light blond. I tell the stylist to brush it back and let it fall where it falls. It’s chaos. Good. Sometimes a girl needs a change.
I meet in the afternoon with Quang, a jewelry maker and acquaintance of mine. We sit in the back of his shop on Bolsa with the front doors and the security screen locked tight and the OPEN sign turned out. Quang chain-smokes and when he smiles his face creases with wrinkles and smile lines. He’s been hit by armed robbers twice in the last four years and he won’t open up for anybody who doesn’t look right. Lots of the Vietnamese businesspeople keep their cash in floor safes right on the premises just like their parents taught them back in Vietnam, which encourages armed robbery. They’d be better off with their profits in banks but there’s no convincing them of that.
I sketch out a setting for Ernest’s ring, which will be an eleven-stone bolt of electricity on gold. Gold, because it looks so good against his dark Hawaiian skin.
Quang smokes and smiles and nods.
I draw a masculine silver ring setting for Bradley’s half-carat diamond, which will be mounted inside a crescent of lapis cut in the shape of a wave.
I sketch out a broad, flat fish with a trail of dorsal diamonds that will hang from Jordan’s neck. Both the fish and the chain will be brushed stainless steel, built to last.
Quang suggests a simple ring box for baby Kevin’s third-carat diamond, which I can set on his dresser until he’s old enough to wear something valuable. I think briefly of having Quang affix the stone to the grip of a teething ring but this seems gauche.
I ask Quang to set the two-carat whopper as a ring for myself, something shameless in platinum.
For Hood I draw a pendant shaped like an H, studded with smaller third- and half-carat diamonds, totally dope. And it will ride with ’tude around his neck because the chain hole is in the left vertical bar of the letter. I’ve got no idea how I can give him this without him questioning where I came up with the money to buy such a thing. I don’t think he still suspects me of having something to do with the Miracle diamonds, but I can’t be sure. Hood is honest and he blushes and I can read him like a book but he holds things back, too. He’s smart.
Quang smiles and nods and smokes and pokes at a little calculator so old the figures on the keys have worn off. When he turns it around to me the charge looks right but I haggle anyway and get him down a few hundred. I think of Guy and how he tried to rip off my diamonds. I’m all but sure he’s a cop and that he’s running Lupercio. I’m still furious about that but I’ve pushed it to the back of my mind. I pay Quang half his fee in cash. The other half will be in diamonds, due on delivery.
One week, he says.
In my Rendezvous Hotel suite in Little Saigon I put on my work clothes and check that all my tools are in order. I don’t put on the wig or mask.
I know I can’t publicly contribute to my favorite charities in a Sentra, so I find a very nice Escalade in a South Coast Plaza parking lot and use the slide-hammer that Angel had made for me. It fits my hands perfectly and it’s got torque galore. I hate ripping out the lock assembly of a fancy newish car, but I love fancy newish cars so what am I going to do?
I’m southbound on the 405 in less than a minute, wig on and the AC blasting because it’s late August and I run hot when I work. I work on the wig, saving the mask until the last minute.
The Laguna Club is just a preschool but it’s got good people running it and they always need money. They helped out a friend of mine once by keeping her son an extra fifteen minutes a day. Not for just one day either, but for an entire school year. So I’ve given them four thousand dollars over the last year, and I’ve got another four thousand in a large clasp envelope beside me here in the Escalade. I should mention that this Escalade has the big V- 8 in it, 345 hp, and it handles very well. It’s also got twenty-two-inch chrome wheels that retail at $2,995 if you can believe that, and of course a navigation system, a rearview camera and a DVD player. It’s kind of garish-bling on wheels-but it’s got attitude and it hauls butt.
I’ve timed it right at the Laguna Club because the staff is escorting the students up from the playground and the parking lot is filling with the cars of parents who are there to pick up their kids. On goes the mask.
I gun the Escalade into the lot, stand on the brakes and yank the steering wheel hard left.
The tires scream and smoke and the moms and dads scatter. They stare at me. Some of them realize who I am but they don’t know what to do-it’s like seeing Jesse James walk into your bank: Do you dive for cover or say what’s up, Jess?
Then from the clubhouse marches a very angry young woman in a red Laguna Club T-shirt.
I hurl the envelope through the open window and it lands at her feet.
“Allison Murrieta says thanks!”
In a screech of tires and white smoke I’m back to Coast Highway. Here, I slow down and pick my way to Interstate 5 south of Dana Point. Mask off, then on again.
At the Project Concern headquarters in San Diego I just walk in and set five envelopes on the receptionist’s desk.
“I’m Allison Murrieta,” I say. “And this is fifty thousand dollars for a new water truck down in Ethiopia.”
“Ayisha District. It’s terrible.”
A few weeks ago I read the Project Concern brochure about this dilapidated old water truck that breaks down all the time. It brings water to-get this-seventy thousand people, and when the truck breaks down they go without water. One truck. Of course these people are in the middle of nowhere in Ethiopia or they wouldn’t need a water truck to begin with.
“I was happy you saved that old man,” says the receptionist.
“He was, too.”
“We can’t do anything with this money, Ms. Murrieta. We have to turn it over to the police.”
“Deny those people a new water truck? Honey, talk to your boss. Declare a couple grand. Figure it out.”
“Temptation is good. Now give me the keys to your car. Don’t report it stolen. If you write your number on this card I can tell you exactly where it is. I won’t hurt it.”
I transfer the remaining charitable contributions and my work tools to her Kia and head for the Olivewood Home back in Orange County. Incidentally, the Kia is a very nice little car, firm and peppy for a four-banger, a value car.
One of my students lived at Olivewood before he found a foster family in my district. It’s a place for children who don’t have anyone to take them in when their families explode or dissolve or, in the case of my student, simply disappear and leave the child to be found. His name was Tim and he was a cool kid and the Olivewood people looked out for him.
The trouble with Olivewood is that it’s right next to the Sheriff’s substation and not far from Juvenile Hall, so this corner of Orange is crawling with law enforcement.
I take off the wig in plenty of time. I wait for a Sheriff’s cruiser to pass before I turn into the Olivewood lot and look for a parking place. A Santa Ana Police car backs out ahead of me. I turn the A/C vent straight onto my face and hit Max.
I park and put the envelope in my satchel. I walk through the lobby to the restrooms and lock myself in a stall. The door has a coat hook and I set the handles of the plastic shopping bag over the hook. Inside the bag is ten thousand in cash and a note that says: “Olivewood Home for Children-Allison Murrieta thanks you for all of your hard work!”
On my way back out of the lobby a plainclothes cop holds open the door for me and gives me the cop eye. I smile slightly without making eye contact and I’m very happy to be a blond.
I backtrack to South Coast Plaza, where I leave the Kia and pick up my Sentra. I call the Project Concern receptionist on my way up the 405.
By the time I get up to L.A. it’s sunset and the charitable organizations have closed for the day. The evening is warm and touchable and the sky is layers of blue, black and orange.
There’s something nice about giving thousands of dollars to an organization you believe in. It lightens the heart almost as much as having a two-carat diamond set for yourself. I can’t wait to see that thing on my hand. I stop by the admin building of the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club, then Children’s Hospital, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Heart Association.
I slide the envelopes into the mail slots and walk away. Each has a large sum of cash and a note from Allison Murrieta-I write them left-handed so it won’t look like my own rather graceful cursive script. Of course I’m hoping that the PR departments of these organizations can find a way to thank Allison publicly for at least a portion of the money. If they can’t quite declare the full amount, I understand. Even with my new haircut I’m not insane enough to brave the LAPD Foundation, so I’ll mail the money to them as usual. I only give them small amounts because I know they’ll set it aside as evidence. Maybe they check it for numbers or secret watermarks or something. It tickles me that they have to deal with Allison in this way.
On my way back to Little Saigon I stop in Carson to rob a 7-Eleven. I park on the street, past the entrance. The freeway is a blessed two hundred yards away. I adjust the rearview mirror so I can check the storefront, then I get Ca~nonita ready and clip the pepper spray to my waistband. I get the mask on, the wig right, the gloves snug.
I have to turn to see the police car pulling up behind me.
I drop Ca~nonita into a box of tissues then swing the mirror back in place and the sun visor down. I strip off the wig, mask and gloves and jam them under my seat. I make sure my leather vest covers the pepper spray at my waist. My heart smacks my chest and my breath gets faster. It’s a solo car, one officer getting out now, his flashlight on. He walks toward me, hugging my vehicle to discourage a shooter. I get my purse onto my lap and come up with a mascara pencil, which I now use to touch up my left eye in the vanity mirror on the top side of the visor. When the officer gets to my window I look at him and power it down. He’s a big-shouldered white guy, looks like a weightlifter.
“Good evening,” he says.
“Driver’s license please.”
I drop my mascara pencil back into my purse and dig out my wallet. I give him my CDL, where I have long brown hair. The officer looks at me, then again at the license.
“Suzanne Jones,” he says. “The witness? The schoolteacher?”
He takes my license back to his unit and I can see him on the radio. He’s not sure what to do with me, and his watch commander won’t be sure either. For one thing, I’m not under his jurisdiction as a witness, and for another, I’m not wanted. I’m just a schoolteacher being victimized by a killer. They can even run the Sentra plates, but thanks to Angel the vehicle title is in order and it hasn’t been on the hot list since the cops recovered the stripped chassis months ago.
My lucky day.
He comes back and hands me the license.
“Do you need help, Ms. Jones?”
“I’m very well, thank you. I appreciate your asking.”
“This is just a no parking zone here tonight. Street cleaning ten to midnight. Sorry.”
“Is it that late?”
“Yes, it is. Far from Valley Center, aren’t you?”
“Good friends are worth a drive.”
“Thank you for standing up to that guy. You did the right thing.”
I start the car and put it in gear. “Thanks, Officer.”
“Thank you. And have a nice night.”
So I hold up a 7-Eleven down in Huntington Beach instead.
I’m the only customer. The clerk is Indian and quite polite as he puts the bills into a plastic bag. He’s a young man but he wears glasses and he looks over the top of them at my face, then my gun, then my face again.
“You should go,” he says. “The police come here almost every hour.”
I turn just as the door swings open and three surfer dudes spill in-flip-flops and sweatshirts and matted hair. They laugh until they see me coming their way, then they quiet down, bumping into each other as they come to a halt. Their eyes are slits and their Adam’s apples bob.
“Hey, can I like take a picture?”
“Sure, but be quick.”
The clerk comes around the counter. “Perhaps I can be in the picture, too?”
“Get close,” says one of the surfers.
He steps back toward the door, a cell phone out. His buddies and the clerk join me but they’re too scared to get up close so I gather them in. The smell of weed is strong.
The surfers laugh their stoned laughs and I’m in a little bit of a hurry here so I yank one of them in by the hood of his sweatshirt and Ca~nonita goes off.
The roar is deafening.
The surfer dude screams and drops. The cameraman runs outside. The third surfer dives to the floor and scrambles down the aisle on hands and knees, flip-flops jumping off his feet. The clerk backs away from me with terror in his eyes.
I stride to my car, mask off, head up, plastic bag containing maybe a quart of beer or a box of cereal swinging in my left hand. But my right ear is ringing from the gunshot and my heart is racing and my nerves feel they’ve been stroked with a wire brush. Once again I’ve forgotten to hand out business cards. I wonder if it’s a run of bad luck or if I’m losing my nerve.
An HBPD patrol car swings into one of the 7-Eleven lot entrances as I exit another and goose it for the on-ramp.
Back at the Rendezvous Hotel I shower and change and go down to the bar in the ballroom. The Vietnamese dance to an orchestra. Everyone is Vietnamese, not a round-eye in the room except for me. Most of the people here are older and established. They had the means to flee the war and ended up here, where they built a place to remind them of home. They’re good dancers-cha-chas and fox-trots and waltzes. The men are in suits and the women in dresses and the air is thick with smoke. The walls are mirrored.
I’m tired all the way to my bones. I think about my boys and my mom and Hood and almost blowing the surfer’s brains out. Wait until that makes the news. I must have had a tighter grip on Ca~nonita than I thought. I must have been more nervous than I thought. I don’t know. But I do know that luck changes like everything else and I get the idea that Quang should have names and addresses to send that jewelry to in case I’m not able to deliver it personally.
Joaquin wrote in his journal about coming across an old man and his white dog walking the road to Nevada City one day. The man wore clothing that was little better than rags and his shoes were held together with baling wire. Joaquin slowed his gang of bandits and got off his horse and walked along with the old man and they spoke Spanish and the man told him that he had once been rich and now he was poor and rich was better. He said the worst thing about being poor wasn’t hunger or cold but being made to look ridiculous. Joaquin unloaded a bundle from one of the packhorses and in the grass he unrolled it. Inside was a new suit of clothes, a pure woolen suit in black, with a white cotton shirt and a black satin necktie. From another packhorse Joaquin got a new pair of leather boots, black and beautiful. Joaquin loved clothes. The bandits waited while Joaquin used a needle and thread to shorten the pant cuffs. The old man went into the trees and when he came out he was wearing the suit and boots and his chin was up and his eyes looked clear and he was smiling. Joaquin and his men then mounted up and pounded away in clouds of dust and continued on to Nevada City. They gambled and drank and bought women and things. Joaquin bought two new suits. Three days later on the road out of town they came across the old man, hung by his neck from a big sycamore tree, still dressed in his finery. The white dog lay beneath him, baying and growling. A note pinned to the coat lapel said: “This is what happens to friends of Murrieta.”
Joaquin said a prayer for the old man, called the dog and rode away.
When I first read that part of the journal I could feel Joaquin’s luck changing. He could feel it, too, and he said so. He said it was like a dark cloud he couldn’t see but he could feel the way it blocked the sun and made the world a cold place. Thirty days later they shot him down and cut off his head and you know the rest.
I wonder what I’ll do with Joaquin’s head. I don’t love it but it is rightfully mine and it is my personal history, love it or not. Is it a curse? Is it a blessing? Either way it will belong to my sons after I go. I wonder if it’s time to have the talk with Bradley.
I’ll never forget the talk I got. My great-uncle Jack- Mom’s side-took a liking to me when I was very young. He paid special attention to me. I remember him holding me on his lap, listening to my early words, just sitting and watching me. He read to me. Later I noted that none of his other great-nieces or -nephews or even his own grand-children had anything nice to say about him. But he continued to give me special gifts for my birthday and Christmas. He taught me to dance.
He was a slender, quiet man, silver-haired and dark-eyed. He had been a farrier by trade, which is a person who shoes horses. He had a vertical scar on his forehead, curved as a hoof is curved. He had a mobile farrier service that was successful in the seventies and eighties. He drove all around Southern California shoeing horses. He told me later that he was also a bookie-a “front” as they call them in that business-which is the person who takes the bets. His mobile farrier business made it easy. He drove a junkyard crane part-time because the money was good and his brother owned the wrecking yard. When I was little he’d take me there, let me work the levers and push the buttons of the big crane, let me grab some junkers with that big magnet hoist and put them in the stack. Fun, but all the dead cars made me sad.
One day when I was fifteen and he was sixty-two he took me out for a “driving lesson” in my mother’s 1974 Alfa Romeo Spider. Jack loved cars. I had my learner’s permit, so I could drive with an adult in the car, and we raced all around Bakersfield in the little red roadster and I can’t explain what a joy it was to drive that thing. It was the last year the Spiders had the cool bumpers, and the last year before catalytic converters were required, so it put out 129 very adequate horses. And the four-speed had a short, sweet throw, with a lively clutch. That car stuck to the road like a tick. The air conditioner didn’t work. The door handles kept falling off. Radio? Forget it. Nothing on it really worked, but Jack just sat back and let me blast around, the top down and the wind blowing back his long silver hair. Of course I wasn’t exactly learning to drive because by then I’d been taking my mother’s and several other cars for joyrides for months. I was good. Thought I was.
When we came back I pulled the Alfa into the garage and shut off the engine.
Jack turned to me and put his hand on my knee.
“You are a special child,” he said.
“Thank you, Jack,” I said. “You always made me feel that way.”
He handed me a key with a tag attached. On the tag was an address and a number.
“This is yours,” he said. “My great-great-great-great-grandfather was Joaquin Murrieta. You will come to understand.”
“I wrote a report on him.”
“One night while you slept I told you his story. You were very young but I think you heard me.”
“I remember every part of it, Jack. The wind was blowing that night.”
“It seemed like the right time for an outlaw story.”
It took me a week to get out to that address, what with school and hapkido and my jobs at KFC and Taco Bell. Bradley’s father-to-be drove because he was three years older than me. I was two months pregnant with Bradley. Funny how that first walk across the floor in the morning would leave me queasy back then but the eighty-mile-an-hour Alfa jolt left me wanting more.
The address was a storage facility down in the south part of Bakersfield. I made Bradley’s cute fool of a father wait in the car. The key fit a well-oiled Schlage and got me into unit number 227.
There were two large cardboard boxes, big enough for a microwave or a small TV. They were taped shut. I picked the one on the left, slit the tape with my knife-a beautiful four-inch, walnut-handled Buck I’d shoplifted from Oshman’s Sporting Goods when they refused to hire me one summer. I still carry it in my satchel.
The first box was filled with papers, books, yellowed news clippings, flyers for exhibitions of the head of my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, the outlaw Joaquin Murrieta. There was a leather duster with bullet holes in it, worn boots folded over and stiff with age, a lariat, an Indian arrow. His journal was at the bottom.
In the other box was his head in a jar of yellow liquid. A bit of a shock, even to a knocked-up fifteen-year-old with no discernible sense. I looked at all that hair lilting around near the bottom and the face as dead as a face can get, and I felt that I was a part of this man and he was a part of me.
I didn’t go back there for thirteen years. I took over the rent payments when Jack died.
I moved it all out to Valley Center a year and a half ago. It’s not hard to hide two boxes. The property is big and truly, people don’t see what they don’t want to see.
The Vietnamese are dancing to “The Tennessee Waltz.” I turn and look at the nearest mirrored wall and I see a blonde looking back at me. She looks confident. I take the elevator up to my fourth-floor suite.
I keep thinking of the surfer dude I almost blew away. I can feel the dark cloud that Joaquin wrote about and I wonder if it’s going to pass by or stay right over me, freeze my bones with me still on them.
I call my boys and talk an hour with each, not counting Kenny of course. Ernest is quiet and gentle as always, willing to let me avoid all truth.
I call Hood and listen to him say hello then I hang up and turn off the phone.