Hood doesn’t have to figure out what to do with Lupercio because I already have.
I call Guy and tell him I changed my mind. I’m ready to sell the diamonds. I’ll call back tonight at ten to arrange the meeting.
And I know what he’s going to say when I call: I’ll come to you.
Meaning Lupercio will come to me.
Then I call my friend who works for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, a secretary who’s been there twelve years and knows things. I had her son at Franklin five years ago, nice kid, a curious mind. I tell her about my friend Guy. I describe him in some detail. I put him into the department hierarchy above Hood, but not so high up he’s deskbound. She listens, says she’ll think on it. What I think is, she’ll be able to help.
Now I’m at the Sunset Tower Hotel because it used to be the Argyle and I loved being close to the ghosts of movie stars, I loved the stainless steel and the deco mirrors, the cast-iron palms around the pool and the great view of the city. That’s all gone now, except the views, but it’s a five-star property. Hood’s got no idea where I am. I may lure him here later tonight if everything goes right, feed him a couple of room service martinis and give him a bath in the silver tub.
I’ve already made my arrangements for Lupercio, and now it’s time for a nighttime jog. I run up one side of the Sunset Strip and back down the other. It’s nice to be blond and not look like Suzanne or Allison. I feel free. I run past the Whiskey and the Rainbow and the Jaguar dealership I’d love to hit someday, past the Viper Room and the sidewalk where River died, past Hustler Hollywood and the cigar shops and boutiques and sushi bars all lit up under huge billboards flashing tits and ass for movies and TV shows and booze and clothes-man, the models look about Bradley’s age.
Around me on the sidewalks are the people the ads are trying to sell to: couples walking close, single guys and dolls tracking each other down, some working girls, young queers with their cute walks and old ones with their cute dogs. I can smell the need in the air, in the mix of perfume and cologne and the exhale from the Armani store and car exhaust and meat smoke from the grill at Kings Road. Some of it comes from me.
I get some looks and this is good.
I get more looks an hour later in my almost new black Pontiac Solstice, which puts out two hundred and sixty horses and two hundred and sixty pound-feet of torque from a turbocharged four, though the steering is vague. I got it down in La Jolla on my way back from Valley Center earlier today. It was easy. I chose a good restaurant, watched this chick park her cute little car, let her get inside, then called the restaurant to say there was a black Solstice in the lot with the headlights on. When she came out to solve the problem, keys in hand, Allison introduced her to Ca~nonita. She told me she’d seen me on TV up at her boyfriend’s place in L.A. Later I cold-plated it so there’s no reason to pull me over.
Superior Wrecking & Salvage is east of L.A., way out by the riverbed, dead automobiles stacked ten high, mountains of them rising from the flats along the Orange Freeway. Around it are rock quarries and billboards. My friend Phillip owns the place and he’s showed me a few things and turned the keys over to me for the night, no questions asked, just two thousand dollars cash for his generosity. If anything happens, I’m a trespasser.
The office is in a metal building that reminds me of Angel’s staging place for his cars. The lights are off in the front of the building where the customers lean against an old counter and deal with Phillip’s employees. Behind the counter are two large cubicles, and down a short hallway is the inner sanctum, Phillip’s personal lair.
I sit at his desk. I’m Allison but without the mask. Phillip has disarmed the security alarm system, as I asked him to. For a moment I watch the bank of video monitors built into one wall. There are twelve screens in all, four rows of three across, each a live feed from the security cameras positioned around Superior’s eight fenced acres. Most of the ground lights are on, per my request. The wrecking yard glows in the night, steel and paint and chrome vibrant in the floodlights. Even the rust seems bright. I never knew there were so many different shades of it. The cranes hover over the automotive bodies like undertakers. There are four of them, and their big engines are all idling against the night, another arrangement Phillip has made at my request.
I dial. Guy answers and I tell him where to meet me. I tell him not to let the activity in the yard bother him. He says he’s on his way. He sounds pleasant and sincere.
I like that.
A few minutes later I’m seated high up in the cab of one of the power-operated electromagnetic cranes, a seven-thousand-pound capacity Ortlingauer that Phillip bought used two years ago. Its monstrous diesel engines idle throaty and deep and I can feel the rumble through the very thin padding of the steel cab seat. The power of these machines is intoxicating. The yard buzzes with sound and light.
Phillip has positioned the crane right inside the fence that separates the yard proper from the small parking lot in front, just like I asked him to. And right here where I sit in the crane cab, he’s left the yard lights off. The parking lot lights have their backs to me, so it’s dark right here, the only valley of darkness in the entire yard. Anyone looking at me from the parking lot would have the lights in his face.
I spent an hour with Phillip earlier today, relearning how to operate the big machines-the push-button controls and the joystick and most important the servomotors that control the electricity to the magnet at the end of the huge cable. They’ve haven’t changed much since Great-uncle Jack’s days-the basics are the same.
Now I sit almost fifteen feet up in the cab, the Plexiglas side panels open for air. The fence is almost directly below me. I can see the empty access road. In the distance I can see the opposing rivers of freeway lights-the headlights oncoming fast and white and the taillights streaming red and away. I’ve hung my satchel on one of the steering levers because the cab floor is grimy with oil and dirt. Ca~nonita is in the bag, reloaded, although right now I don’t think I’ll be needing her tonight. I’ve got Hood’s shotgun propped up beside me in case all hell breaks loose and I feel the need to contribute.
The shotgun reminds me that one night in a rainstorm a band of Cahuilla Indian raiders stole a string of ten horses from a meadow near Joaquin’s camp. They would have taken beautiful Jorge and the other outlaws’ mounts, too, but these lucky animals had spent the night under tarps in camp, which is where Joaquin always kept his most valued personal possessions. The stolen horses were all good strong quarter horses, well bred and healthy. Joaquin had worked hard to steal them and he was furious. In the morning he and Jack and two more of their gang easily tracked the hoofprints across the wet meadow and down a Butterfield stage road, then for miles along a game trail that led him into the rocky hills at the base of Thomas Mountain. It took them almost half a day to get there.
Looking through the thick madrone and manzanita, Joaquin could see Indians and horses in a corral. There were twenty in all, and half were his. But instead of a small band of raiders, Joaquin saw an entire village. There were women grinding acorns on the high stones and sewing skins and washing clothes in a spring. Children played in the dirt and the men made arrows and spears. He counted thirty able-bodied men. He watched for a while, then motioned for his gang to follow him away.
When they were out of earshot of the tribe, Joaquin told his three men that it would be a sin to kill thirty Indians over ten horses but a greater sin to surrender such fine animals to savages. He looked at his men. Writing in his journal, he said that Jack looked crazy, Jes'us was drunk already, and Juan was “a fearful worm” (my translation). Joaquin wrote that he removed his finest wool jacket from one of the mule packs, brushed it out and slipped it on. He set his best rifle behind the pommel-not the “friendly” little Plains rifle from the saddle scabbard but a full-length Hawken Mountain rifle he’d won from a deputy marshal in a card game way up near Clovis the summer before. He took a single deep swallow of Jes'us’s whiskey.
Then he spurred big black Jorge off toward the Indian Village.
Joaquin wrote that he cantered straight into the village with the rifle across his lap, his head high and a scowl on his face. I know from pictures that he was a handsome man and that he wore his hair long, and I can almost picture the look-the arrogance and menace and hint of the prankster and the very fine riding coat that would make you respect him and want to agree with him. You’d want to see things his way.
When they’d surrounded him, Joaquin spoke to them in a simple version of their own language, which he’d picked up from a Cahuilla cowboy he’d worked with near what is now Palm Springs. He told them that he had come for his horses. If he did not return with them, his army would come back to the village by morning and shoot every man they could find. And, of course, claim his horses. He had come to get his animals, and to save the village.
He watched as six of the senior braves huddled and discussed. He urged his horse into a tightening circle around them, looking down impatiently, the long barrel of the Hawken gleaming in the afternoon sun, and as I picture the scene I see the buttons of his coat catching the sunlight, too, and I hear the heavy clomp of the horse on the ground and I can see the warriors glancing back at him up on that big black animal, thinking, Maybe we should give this fucker his horses back.
One of the braves turned and smiled and led him to the corral. Joaquin watched as two of the men entered and began cutting away the horses in question. Looking down on the warriors in the corral, Joaquin saw that they were having trouble separating the animals, then he saw that the other four men had drifted toward the big boulders where their weapons lay.
The men in the corral looked to the other braves, clearly waiting for them to act.
Joaquin watched more of the male Indians easing toward the rocks for their weapons. It was going to be thirty on one.
He spurred his mount into the corral, which sent the horses scattering and the two braves jumping out of the way. He raised his rifle in one hand.
“No! All of the horses! All of the horses or my army will slaughter you by morning!”
He raised his Hawken and fired into the air, which sent the quarter horses running and the Cahuilla horses fleeing in fear and the tribe scurrying for cover.
An arrow pierced his saddle as Jorge pressed the horses down the trail. Of course, that was the arrow in the box that Great-uncle Jack led me to in the storage area. The arrowhead isn’t very sharp because the Cahuilla didn’t have the best rock to work with, but it did penetrate a very tough saddle. I keep it hidden with Joaquin’s head down in Valley Center.
The trail leading through the thick madrone was narrow and the horses had no real choice but to follow it all the way down the mountain slope to the old stage road, and from there, tired but settling, they followed Joaquin and Jorge back to the camp beside the meadow.
The Cahuilla braves never came to claim their rightful horses. Joaquin broke camp late that night and followed the moonlight north toward the dusty town of Riverside.
Just after midnight a car comes up the road and turns into the Superior parking lot. It’s a big old black Lincoln Continental Town Car, the same year and model as the one that chased me out of the Residence Inn parking lot. The parking lot lights are good and strong, but all I get from the windshield is reflection. Then the driver bears right and begins to circle. When he comes at me, the lot lights blast the window straight on and I see the trim, dark face of Lupercio, up close to the steering wheel, peering over the top, scanning slowly left to right.
He looks toward the office lights and the Lincoln rolls forward and right, following his line of sight.
I glance at the shotgun.
I look at the push buttons and levers on the cab console before me and I remember Phillip’s voice: Use enough muscle… These things aren’t delicate, they do what you tell them just like a car or a horse… Remember to undershoot the hoist when you go to place it… it always looks on target because it’s so much smaller than the target… In daylight I use the end of the boom to line up the magnet and the car, but at night you can’t see the damned thing… Don’t push the servo with a load in the air or you’ll lose it… The guys here do that for fun sometimes, drop a Suburban or a Hummer from full up, like an earthquake when it hits…
I’ve bet that Lupercio will park in the darker third of the lot, which is underneath me, where Phillip has left the yard lights off. It’s a nice little pocket of darkness, an easy walk to the inviting lights of the office and away from the brightly lit part of the yard where the cars are stacked high and the cranes idle like snoring dinosaurs.
The Lincoln eases into the dark patch of the parking lot but goes right through it. The car hesitates as if Lupercio is going to park, then he slowly continues to the exit and turns onto the access road. I watch his taillights grow smaller and closer together. They vanish.
Ten minutes later he’s back. This time he cruises the parking lot in the opposite direction, brushing up close to my crane as he enters the dark patch. I look almost straight down on the roof of the Lincoln and I feel like a god up here in the dark sky, a patient and cunning god. But again he passes through. He stops in front of the office, and although I can’t see him through the glare of the lights on the Lincoln’s windows, I can imagine him squinting hard at the invitation before him, at the partially opened door and the play of light coming from the rear.
Suddenly the Lincoln reverses. I’m confused for just a second; then I understand: Lupercio doesn’t want to take his eyes off of the office. My lucky day. He backs into the darkness below me and swings parallel to the fence.
The tranny clunks into park.
… Use enough muscle…
The Lincoln idles. I can smell the exhaust up here. The headlights die. The second I hear the engine shut off I press forward hard on the control lever and the big electromagnetic hoist lowers through the sky, straight and true on its heavy cable. I hit the servomotor button and feel the massive charge as the generator comes to life, sending wave after wave of current to the magnet hoist.
The hoist crunches onto the Lincoln’s roof and I see the huge circular magnet clamp on. The car shudders. I watch for a door to fly open while I pull hard but steady on the lever to bring up the hoist.
This is my moment of truth. From fifteen or twenty feet off the ground Lupercio can still jump out-if he thinks fast enough and understands what’s happening. Which is a tall order in the dark, with your beautiful prized car suddenly taking flight with you inside it.
But over twenty feet it’s a leg-breaker and he’s trapped and he’s mine.
The Lincoln rises fast into the air. It swings left to right because the magnet isn’t quite centered and the sedan is heavier up front.
Fifteen feet and the door swings open.
Twenty and it’s still open but Lupercio is still inside.
Thirty and I’ve got him.
The car pivots into the faint light of the yard and I can see him through the windshield and he can see me. We’re eye to eye, forty feet apart. I expect him to look like he’s being chased by a bear but he looks calm and unexcited. His window and the window behind him go down.
Then he astonishes me. He slams the door shut and climbs halfway out the open window, clenching the Lincoln’s body pillar with his left arm.
He’s up forty feet now, ten feet above me, and he draws his machete from the darkness inside the Lincoln. What can he possibly do with a machete from a distance like this-throw it?
He drops the blade back and flat over his right shoulder and I think he is going to throw it.
There’s an orange flash and a loud crack above me then the close rip of something hitting my crane hard. The Plexiglas window splinters into snowy perforations, high and right of me. BB’s! He’s got shot shells in the big black handle of his machete, and a way to fire them.
But I’m not hit and he’s sixty feet up. I can see the bottom of the Lincoln as it twists slowly skyward. The struts relax and the wheels droop.
Seventy feet, eighty feet.
It’s a hundred-foot cable.
All the way up now, the Lincoln stops and sways and slowly turns.
My heart’s pounding like distant artillery and I think of the last time I saw Lupercio stalking my Gray Fox cabin up in the mountains.
Then I think of those two Bakersfield cops he killed in my mom’s courtyard and how it could have been Mom and Grandma or Hood.
But most of all I think of Harold and Gerald standing there on my porch with the custom minibike for my boys and how Lupercio turned them into bloody slabs of meat and left them in my barn for Bradley to find.
So I punch the PUSH button and cut the power to the magnet and the car silently detaches from the hoist.
It falls slowly at first. I can’t take my eyes off it. The Lincoln makes a soft hissing sound as it accelerates. The heavy front end tilts downward. Suddenly the car is dropping very fast.
At fifty feet I drop to the bottom of the cab just in case Lupercio has another shotgun shell and the nerve to fire it.
But there’s no blast.
Half a second later I’m up again, my face just high enough to peek over the console and see the Lincoln below me, its nose tucked down and the lighter back end coming around in an almost graceful pivot. It hits the parking lot with a tremendous shearing crunch and the windows explode and two of the doors fly open and the roof buckles. I hear the tinkling of glass and plastic on the asphalt as I jump into my seat and grab the lever to lower the hoist and pick it up again.
Which is when I look up at the hoist and see Lupercio inching along the boom toward me.
He’s got his arms and legs wrapped around it like he’s climbing a tree. He looks calm and unhurried. The machete is clenched in his teeth.
He’s not halfway down the boom yet, maybe fifty feet from me. The only thing between us is the pellet-riddled Plexiglas window.
Yanking on the lever, I raise the boom as high as it will go, which puts Lupercio almost straight up, looking down on me. Then I reverse the lever and lower it. Then I raise it up again. I wait for Lupercio to fall off but he’s tight to the steel struts of the boom and he’s crawling closer six patient inches at a time.
He’s got the machete in his right hand now, with the handle bottom pointed at me and the blade folded back over his shoulder.
This one’s for Betty Little Chief.
And for me.
I lower the Plexiglas window and grab Hood’s scattergun. I push the safety off right where he showed me and raise the heavy thing and sight down the barrel.
I try to hold the bead right under Lupercio’s chin. Then I pull the trigger. There’s a clanging noise and a bright spray of sparks on the boom ten feet behind him. In a flush of panic I yank the trigger again and miss everything-no sparks, no sound of contact.
I duck down just as his shot blasts through the crane cab. A red-hot needle punches through the top of my scalp.
I take a big breath and jump up to the window, shotgun ready. Lupercio aims the bottom of the machete handle directly at my head. I cover his face with the barrel and pull the trigger.
He seems to accelerate into something red. His face ripples and he lifts from the boom and rolls off it.
I watch him drop through the sky, machete pinwheel ing beside him, all the way to the Lincoln.
He hits the roof with a loud, slightly muffled crack. His head bounces just once, quickly. The machete clangs to the asphalt beside the car and rocks tip to handle, handle to tip quicker and quicker, then settles and stops. The roof metal cradles Lupercio. He’s still as a dropped sandbag.
I’m expecting him to pop up and come after me with his machete but I know he won’t.
I stand for a while in the cab, staring down, reviewing my reasons. My heart feels harder. I understand that an invisible but permanent stain has settled inside me and it will be there until I join Lupercio in the Great Whatever. I see that I have failed to find a diplomatic solution, but the harder I try to figure out what it might have been, the louder I hear these three words: He deserved it. He has paid his price and I will pay mine and you will pay yours.
I’ve never killed a person before.
I leave the crane running, take my shotgun and satchel and climb from the cab. There are two more shells in the magazine of the 12-gauge.
I walk slowly past the Lincoln, not too close, shotgun off safe and pointed at the lifeless man on the roof. There’s a small chance of explosion but the car wasn’t running when it hit and they built those old Lincolns with good fuel shut-off systems.
In Phillip’s office I turn on the parking lot lights that he had left black for me. Then I go to the bathroom and strip off the wig to look at my head in the mirror. There’s a small rip just down from the point of my crown but it doesn’t look too bad. My new blond hair is marbled with red and I dab it dry with paper towels. It burns. Maybe Allison’s wig slowed down the BB. I walk back outside.
It takes me a few minutes to get up my nerve but finally I lean the shotgun against the parking lot fence, march over to the Lincoln and pull Lupercio off the roof. I have to stand on the door frame and pull on his arm and push off with one foot in order to move him. I jump back and he lands on the asphalt with a splat.
He’s close enough to the open rear driver’s-side door that I can crawl into the seat, get on my knees and pull his head and shoulders inside. Then I get out and go around and push him farther onto the seat but by the time I get back inside he’s slumped back to the asphalt. This goes on for a minute or two. There’s blood fucking everywhere. I’m sobbing quietly.
Finally I get a rope from the toolshed and tie it around Lupercio’s chest, under his arms. Dragging him into the backseat of his Lincoln is the single most difficult physical thing I’ve ever done with the exception of giving birth. I throw the machete in after him. I vomit in the darkness over by the fence.
Back in the crane I fire up the electromagnet again and lift the Lincoln onto the tow truck that Phillip left for me. I line up my crushed prize with the big flatbed of the tow truck and set it down with a heavy clunk. Then I shut down the crane, look again at the shot holes in the Plexiglas and wipe the stream of blood from my chin. I’ll owe Phillip for the damage.
Down by the tow truck I take from my satchel the digital camera I stole from Office Depot. I put on my wig and mask. Then I set the trigger delay on the camera, balance it on the roof of a totaled Buick and take Allison’s picture in front of the wrecked Lincoln. It takes me eight shots to get two good ones, where I look victorious and you can really tell what I’m standing in front of, and there’s nothing in the frame that might identify Superior Wrecking & Salvage. I get two shots of Lupercio. I shoot thirty seconds of video, too.
When I’m done I stash the mask in my satchel. I drive the tow truck half a mile down the access road and make a left that leads out to a rock quarry. The night is cool and I can smell standing water. Ahead of me a pit pool glistens flat and shiny as a mirror. I dump the Lincoln.
Fifty minutes later I’m back at the Sunset Tower.