The next evening on TV Hood saw the pictures and video of Allison Murrieta posing with the death car. She sat astride the heap with her knees up and her boot heels hooked into the wreckage, braced on her hands like a cowgirl on a corral. There was smeared blood on the tip of her chin.
Dave Boyer explained that the images he was about to show would be accompanied by a scrambled voice-over supplied by Allison earlier in the day. The voice sounded to Hood just like the one that Boyer had played for the cops at the task force meeting seventeen days ago:
“Hi, Dave, Allison Murrieta here. I’m sure you have the video clip and images I made up for you and I hope you have it on-screen. So your viewers know, Lupercio Maygar is dead in this car. I’m sorry the police couldn’t find him first but they’ve had ten years to do it. This man murdered two brothers down in Valley Center, and those two cops in Bakersfield. Frankly, I’d had enough of him. This city doesn’t need him. Now Suzanne the schoolteacher can go back to work without being hunted down by a killer. And by the way, sorry to the surfer in Huntington Beach-hope your ear is okay, honey. It was an accident! Get tubed and vaya con Dios!”
Earlier in the day Hood had seen Boyer hustling down a headquarters hallway toward the sheriff’s office. With him were an assistant sheriff, Wyte, two lieutenants and Marlon. Hood was not asked to attend, but Marlon briefed him afterward. He told Hood to watch Boyer’s news show that night and to expect a call when the Allison story was over.
After a commercial for sleeping pills, Boyer was back with video links to three guests-a UCLA law school professor named Mark Tice, UCI professor of social ecology Kimber Wells and Los Angeles Times media reporter Josh Steiner.
Hood picked at a burrito from the corner taquer'ia as he watched the experts.
BOYER: “Professor Tice, give us a briefing here-what exactly are we looking at in legal terms?”
TICE: “The first thing I noticed was that the woman-whoever she is-does not admit to anything criminal. I’d say she’s looking ahead to her day in court. Incidentally, counting the killings that this woman alluded to, Lupercio Maygar was suspected in sixteen Southland murders but never charged.”
BOYER: “Professor Wells, just how possible is it that this woman is a direct descendant of the notorious outlaw Joaquin Murrieta?”
WELLS: “Virtually impossible, Dave. We’re not even sure that the legend of Joaquin Murrieta is based on a true character. True characters, more likely.”
BOYER: “But, men being men and outlaws being-”
WELLS: “Right, Dave. If there was a Joaquin Murrieta-and some historians say there were actually three ‘Joaquins’ hunted down by lawmen-then he certainly could have helped conceive a child.”
BOYER: “If she’s not a descendant of Joaquin Murrieta, then who is she, Professor Wells?”
WELLS: “I think she may be co-opting that legend to fuel her alter ego and help justify her actions. It’s also possible that she’s very ill. Schizophrenia with a delusional subset and episodic violence. I’m no psychia-”
BOYER: “Josh Steiner, what’s your take on this?”
STEINER: “I don’t know who she is, but people are fascinated by her. She’s had a hundred inches of ink here in the Times. She’s racked up almost three hours of television coverage over the last three months-that’s right here in a tough media market. She’s gotten the cover of both the L.A. and Orange County weeklies, scores of write-ups and pictures in community newspapers, half a page in People and a fat paragraph, with picture, in Time. We’re getting letters about her every day. Personally, as I go about my everyday living, guess what people are talking about? Allison Murrieta, that’s who. After this thing with Lupercio Maygar, we’ll see Allison get even hotter.”
BOYER: “What are people saying, Josh?”
STEINER: “Most people love her. She’s half Catwoman and half Robin Hood. She’s a superhero with a ’tude. She’s mysterious. She’s beautiful-”
BOYER: “Well, I see you love her-”
STEINER: “She donates to charity! But you know what people really love? This woman takes the victimization that happens in our fear-driven, consumer lifestyle, and she turns it into power. If you ask a hundred people if they’ve ever wanted to express their frustration by swift, decisive action, every last one will say yes. Allison Murrieta turns anger and frustration into something dramatic; she expresses it.”
TICE: “She expresses it through criminal violence, Josh. We’ve seen her commit felonies on TV. That’s a real gun she brandishes-just ask Trent Brown, the surfer she refers to. These are real crimes against real people and real property. I did some rough calculations earlier today. Based on her robberies caught on camera, and the cars she’s allegedly stolen at gunpoint, not counting the vigilante murder of Lupercio Maygar-if Allison was convicted and given minimum recommended sentences, she’d be looking at one hundred and sixty years in prison.”
BOYER: “If she doesn’t stop robbing and stealing, do you think Allison’s going to hurt or kill someone innocent, someone who just happens to be out picking up some KFC for the family?”
WELLS: “It’s inevitable that-”
TICE: “I agree with Kimber.”
STEINER: “Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons people are so fascinated by her.”
BOYER: “Will she stop?
TICE: “I hope so.”
WELLS: “She enjoys it too much.”
STEINER: “She won’t stop. She loves the action and the attention. I guarantee you that she’s watching us right now. She thrives on us just like we thrive on her.”
BOYER: “Mark Tice of UCLA School of Law, you said that Lupercio Maygar was suspected of sixteen murders right here in Southern California. Is what happened to him justice?”
TICE: “Of course not. There’s no process. It’s the worst kind of vigilante action.”
STEINER: “Which is interesting, because ninety percent of the letters and calls we get about Allison are positive. People like her.”
WELLS: “That’s why we have a rich history of outlaw lore in this country. People crave stories. People crave heroes. And villains. Remember the old saying, When the facts become legend, print the legend.”
BOYER: “Interesting. The teacher that Allison mentioned, Suzanne Jones, was nearly a victim of Lupercio Maygar. She had apparently witnessed a crime that he committed. Now she’s free to come out of hiding and return to her family and to work. Any thoughts on that?”
WELLS: “Allison is co-opting Suzanne just like she co-opted Joaquin. She’s justifying herself.”
STEINER: “Sure. Good deeds make good legends.”
BOYER: “When someone finally lifts that mask from Allison Murrieta’s face, who are we going to see? If she isn’t Joaquin Murrieta’s great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, who is she?”
TICE: “I won’t speculate, Dave.”
WELLS: “An out-of-work actress.”
STEINER: “An employee of one of the franchises she loves to stick up.”
BOYER: “Quickly, now-guess her age.”
STEINER: “Late twenties.”
TICE: “Old enough to stand trial as an adult.”
BOYER: “Wig or no wig?”
WELLS: “I think wig because-”
STEINER: “It’s her hair.”
TICE: “It looks real to me.”
BOYER: “We’re out of time. Thank you all. I see the phones are really ringing now. Call back later, folks, we’ll be taking calls on our ten o’clock hour. We want to know what you think. Thanks to our guests.”
Hood finished off the cold burrito and Marlon called.
“I don’t know where she is, sir. I haven’t talked to her in two days.”
“Do you have a number for her?”
“Not a current one, no.”
“I want to bring her in, ask her some questions about Allison Murrieta. This whole thing has gotten out of hand. You’ll help with that?”
“Of course I’ll help.”
“I’ll take some uniforms and collect her myself. I can keep you out of it.”
“No, sir. It was my idea that she’s Murrieta. I’ll face up to that.”
“Make it happen.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Forty minutes later the phone rang again.
“Hello, Charles Robert.”
“I’m perfect. Merle’s at the House of Blues. I got tickets at will call.”
“Pick you up or meet you there?”
“I’m outside your apartment in a rented Cadillac STS. It’s black on black and the leather’s smooth as your cheeks after a shave, Charlie. I kid you not.”
It took Hood a moment to figure how she’d gotten his home address. He looked out the window and saw the car. “You looked in my wallet at the restaurant.”
“You saw the news?”
“Did I ever. I’ve been with my boys almost two whole days. Right now I’m the happiest woman on earth. I’m celebrating and I’m going to listen to Merle and drink. I rented the car, bought a new blue blouse and some tight black jeans for you. Tomorrow we’re all moving back home and things are getting back to normal. Except Ernest and I will have separate quarters from now on. He’s cool with that. I start school Monday. Can you hurry?”
“I need five minutes. Come on up.”
“We’d never get to the House of Blues.”
Five minutes later Hood came down. Before getting into the STS, he went to the driver’s-side window and gave her his best traitor’s kiss.
Merle Haggard looked seventy years old and too mean to die, which Hood figured was pretty much what Merle was. His voice was clear and honest, and his band played the sad old songs with the same lightness and good cheer that Hood had always loved.
Suzanne was beautiful, though Hood missed her brown waves. The new blouse was silk, sleeveless, cobalt blue. She wore a beat-up denim jacket over it and it looked right. She drank four whiskey sours fast then went to seltzer with lime. She kept the beat with a boot toe on the floor and a hand high on Hood’s thigh under the table.
She leaned back and caught his eye, smiling big and innocent, and Hood marveled at all she had accomplished in the last days, in the last months, in her short life.
Hood listened to Merle’s stories of heartbreak and drinking and poverty and prison, and he thought of being young in Bakersfield and how those songs had nudged him toward the right side of the law. The loneliness in them had hit him hardest-the aloneness of the drinker who calls the bar his home, or the con walking to his execution, or the released inmate who can’t get away from his past. Now Hood realized that the songs were also about Suzanne Jones and Allison Murrieta and all people who chase their own histories to the edge of their own cliffs. He saw that stories like these get told over and over because they apply to so many of us, only the names of the characters changing with time.
“You look thoughtful, Charlie.”
“Every once in a while one sneaks in.”
She held his gaze. “I thought about what you said the other morning when I was up in the tree. About us meeting when we were real young, both getting our pictures taken for the newspaper. When you said it I thought it was an unglamorous proposition but I came to like it. Very down-home. Two kids, they fall in love and ride off together. Exactly not what Merle sings about.”
“I never thought glamorously. It’s a fault.”
“Don’t act so humble, Charlie. You’re not that great. Indira Gandhi said that but I can’t remember about whom.”
Hood smiled back but felt a strong sorrow.
A little past midnight he and Suzanne came through the exit. The night was damp and warm, and Marlon and two deputies were waiting.