At nine Monday morning Ernest delivers ten grand cash to a bondsman for a hundred-thousand-dollar bail bond. The judge accepts Ruth’s argument that as a mother and a teacher with no criminal record I pose little flight risk, but she points out that allegedly there was a gun involved. I’ve been in jail fifty-six hours and my clothes are wrinkled, my hair smells of weak shampoo and my attitude is bad. But the hole in the top of my scalp itches, healing up nicely.
At eleven-fifteen Ruth and Jason the hunk and I walk out of the jail into the hot Los Angeles morning. There are more cameras and reporters than I’ve seen since O.J. Ruth’s office has called every reporter she knows, and many that she doesn’t. I’m beginning to understand how celebrities feel and I like it.
Bradley and Jordan walk beside me, Ernest trails, and I carry baby Kenny, who smiles and bubbles and grunts.
Ruth has given Fox News the privilege of hosting me in return for their airing her full statement, so we make our way through the booms and mikes and the cables and the cameras and the shouted questions bouncing off us like hailstones. There’s a Fox uplink van with a podium and microphone set up directly in front of the Fox News logo.
Ruth steps onto the plastic milk case that Jason has set behind the podium. Ruth is five feet tall, in shoes. She angles the mike and waits for the reporters to quiet down.
“When I first visited the Franklin middle school classroom of Suzanne Jones two years ago, I didn’t imagine that I’d be defending her from the most egregious, false criminal charges that I, in thirty years of practicing law in this city, have ever seen. Now I have that dubious honor. Last night L.A. Sheriff’s deputies arrested Suzanne on suspicion of stealing, at gunpoint yesterday evening, a car from Ivy restaurant. There were two witnesses to this theft. Both witnesses recognized and identified the armed robber as Allison Murrieta. Allison Murrieta, as you know, is a colorful local criminal to whom Suzanne bears little resemblance. In the Sheriff’s Department’s haste to arrest Allison Murrieta, they’ve spun their wheel of fortune and the needle has landed on Suzanne Jones-mother of three, award-winning schoolteacher in L.A. Unified, a former teacher of the year. I’ve seen bad arrests, but this is the first-place winner. I’m sure the district attorney won’t file on this, but if he does, we look very forward to our day in court. But why should you believe me? Use your own eyes and explain to me why the L.A. Sheriff’s can’t tell a brunette from a blonde, or a dangerous felon from a fine and decent citizen. Suzanne, come up here.”
I step over to the mike still holding Kenny. My arms are getting tired and I realize I’m out of shape for holding him, and what a poor mother I’ve been the last few weeks. I’ve always loved lugging around my children.
I keep my head high and look out at the crowd. “This is all a big misunderstanding but thanks for being interested and coming out. Jail is a rotten place, so don’t get falsely arrested on a Friday night ’cause they won’t let you out until Monday. I can’t talk about the case because Ruth will kill me but I’m sure they’ll just drop it when they learn the facts. I’m so relieved that I can go back to my family and my job. I don’t have to run anymore. These last few weeks have been a nightmare for me and my family. I never knew how richly blessed my life was until it was almost taken away.”
I manage a tired smile as I hold up Kenny for a moment, then step away from the podium.
Ruth hops back onto the milk crate for questions.
After lunch we go to Ruth’s office in Century City. We’re twelve stories up, receiving steaming triple espres sos produced by an elaborate copper machine in Ruth’s suite and served by one of her secretaries. The suite is cream-colored everything, except her desk, which looks like Honduran mahogany, and the art on the wall, which are silk screens from Warhol’s animal series and some very nice Hockney lithographs. There’s a glass table with magazines on it and on top is this week’s People with Allison’s masked face on the cover.
When the secretary leaves, Ruth sighs deeply, punches a remote control to open a window and takes a pack of cigarettes from her desk. She offers me one but I decline.
She sits behind the desk, looking hard at me. She’s still looking hard at me as she lights her smoke with one of those long windproof fireplace lighters that is basically a flamethrower. She sets the lighter on the desk, slides a yellow notepad over and takes a pencil from a thick glass holder. Beside the pencils is a small box that looks like a speaker, and she turns it on. The smoke drifts into the box.
“Talk to me, Suzanne.”
“Where do I start?”
“With why you drove a stolen car to a Merle Haggard show.”
“Fastest way to get there?”
“Ruth-relax. This is all simpler than it looks.”
I sit back in my chair and watch her smoke rise and dip. I look her straight in the eyes.
“About two weeks ago I got a call from a woman claiming to be Allison Murrieta. I have no idea how she got my number. It was the day after the Sheriffs plastered my face all over the TV, telling everyone that Lupercio Maygar was after me. She had seen all that and she said she wasn’t going to, and I quote, let that vicious thug kill you. I told her I could handle my own problems and she laughed. She asked me if I needed anything-a car, some cash for living on the run, maybe a good gun. I said I didn’t need anything, though I did make a crack about a Cadillac STS being the car I’d most like. I’m a car girl.”
Ruth exhales hugely, more smoke than you’d think a small woman could get inside her. The smoke lingers upward then changes its mind and hurries down into the box. She steadies the yellow pad with her cigarette hand, writes something with the other, fixes me again with her clear brown eyes.
“Of course I figured it was a hoax,” I said. “A few days later she called again. Same voice. It was evening. The night before, the real Allison Murrieta had robbed a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the night before that, a Burger King. She talked about them, about this old guy who had some kind of seizure at the BK, and her gun going off accidentally. She had details you wouldn’t have gotten off the news clips of those robberies. You know, stuff you’d have to be there to know-what the old man’s wife did, and what the surfers smelled like, how when she’s wearing that mask it cuts down her peripheral vision which really bugs her but she has to have it and the crystal-she said it’s a Swarovski-adds a little bit of class. She made the mask herself, she said.”
Ruth doesn’t write much. I blather and she studies me and scribbles something, then she studies me some more.
“Why did she call?”
The espresso is extremely good. It makes me want to stand up and run around, maybe pull a gun and rob someone, just for the pure joyful rush of it. But I sit still and answer.
“Same reason, I guess-she wanted to know if there was anything I needed. I said no. She said if she knew where I was she might be able to provide some ‘meaningful security’ for me. I refused to tell her where I was. I think she wanted to tell someone about the crimes she committed. So, she talked.”
Ruth scribbles, underlines something. “Then?”
“She called me again a day or so later. Said she wanted to know how I was doing. I was wishing she wouldn’t call anymore but I was also kind of getting to like her. She said she had a feel for Lupercio, thought she’d catch up with him soon. I said, ‘What-you’re not looking for him are you?’ And she laughed and said, ‘You’re damned right I am.’ She said I’d enjoy my freedom even more when I got it back again. Said she had a kick-ass eighth-grade history teacher and loved him. Then she hung up.”
“Did she scramble her voice?” said Ruth.
“No. It was natural. A woman’s voice, no accent that I could tell. A mature voice, but not an old one. Smooth, calm.”
“Good. Go on.”
“The day after Lupercio got smashed up in his car, I left the hotel late afternoon-”
“The Sunset Tower-to buy a few things then go see Ernest and the boys. They were down in Huntington Beach. I bought a blouse and jeans at a boutique on Sunset. When I came out, Allison Murrieta was leaning up against my Sentra.”
Ruth looks up from her pad. She opens a drawer and slaps a green glass ashtray to the desktop. “Describe her.”
“I had no idea who she was. Five feet five or six, one-thirty. Curvy but stout. She wears a wig for the robberies. Her real hair is short, straight and has a red henna job. Her eyes are brown. Good skin. On TV, the mask makes her face look wide, but her face really is wide. She has high cheekbones and pretty lips and chin. She’s attractive. Sexy attractive, not girl-next-door attractive. She was wearing a workout suit and athletic shoes. She had a leather satchel over her shoulder. I can tell you I could see her every day, talk to her all the time, and not see Allison Murrieta in her-they look so little alike.”
Ruth stares at me. The pencil is poised but unmoving.
“She said, ‘I’m Allison. Get in. Let’s talk.’ She flashed that little white gun. I’d never had a gun brandished at me and it’s a very chilling thing. I wondered if she was going to do something violent and flamboyant to me, but I kept thinking that I was better PR for her alive than shot up. Anyway, I had my key out so I opened the driver’s door and hit the unlock. We sat in the car for a few minutes. She was wearing the new Tommy Hilfiger scent. She told me that she’d seen Lupercio the night before, crushed to death in a car. She didn’t say she’d done it, but it was implied. She seemed unfazed. She said I could go back to my family, go back to work. She took a plastic Blockbuster bag out of the satchel and handed it to me. I looked in-it was heavy with bills and some change. I gave it back. I told her I didn’t need it, didn’t want it.”
“How much was there?”
“Maybe a thousand. I really just glanced at it. She put it back in the satchel and said, ‘Suzanne, you can say no to money but I know you can’t say no to that.’ She nodded at this Caddy STS parked right next to me. It was black and beautiful. I remembered that joke I made to her the first time we talked and I thought me and my big mouth. ‘Drive it tonight,’ she said. ‘Go out and celebrate. You deserve to. It’s not stolen, it’s borrowed. Leave it with the Tower valet when you’re done with it and I’ll take care of the rest. I’ll make sure this pathetic heap gets back to your hotel.’ She called my Sentra a pathetic heap.”
“And what did you do?”
“Ruth, I thought about it. I loved the STS, I’ll confess to that. But I also saw that Allison really wanted me to take it. I wondered if it was just to make her more colorful, make her seem more like Robin Hood. If it was something she’d tell the press about, and exploit. I also believed that it was a borrowed car, because I figured if she’d stolen it, she’d be proud, right? But mainly, I felt that if I turned the car down she’d feel disrespected and then get angry. I thought of the gun. There was an underlying threat from the gun-at least in my mind. So I agreed to take the car.”
She grinds out the butt in the green ashtray, getting every last little ember.
“You were afraid to defy her?”
“Afraid of the gun?”
“Who wouldn’t be?”
“Why didn’t you report this to the police?”
“Later, I almost did. I had my cell phone in my hand to make the call. But Allison Murrieta hadn’t harmed me. In fact, she had rid me of a killer who was on my tail. She had allowed me to get back to my family and my job. I realized that with one call I could probably have the police staking out the Sunset Tower when she drove the Sentra back there. I couldn’t do that to her. At least, I didn’t. On some level I felt like I owed her something. On another, I was afraid of her. And I also… well, I wanted to touch her fame for a short time, to be a part of it. It’s been exhilarating for me.”
Ruth puts the ashtray back in her desk, dead butt and all. “Suzanne, are you telling me the truth?”
“Whole, and nothing but.”
“Would you be willing to testify on your own behalf, if this were to go to trial?”
“Suzanne, I’ve seen elaborate alibis hold up under cross-examination, but not many.”
“The truth is easy to tell. I’ll stand by it, Ruth.”
Ruth nods, drops the pencil to the pad and sits back. “This won’t get that far, Suzanne. I’ve got an appointment with the DA in about an hour. I’ll outline for him what we talked about. I expect the charges to be dropped by the end of the workday.”
I sigh and look down.
“Do you want to bring a civil suit for wrongful arrest? You could win a pretty nice judgment for the damage to your reputation, the jail time, the usual inconvenience and stress. I’d demand a million dollars and you’d get maybe one-quarter of that.”
“No, thank you.”
“Good. Your decision not to press a civil case will be a large motivator for the DA to fold up and go home.”
Ruth’s secretary came in just then, set a sheaf of papers in front of Ruth, smiled at me and walked back out.
“Here’s a contract, with a substantial fee adjustment because you’re a schoolteacher and I like you.”
“You won’t see the inside of a courtroom on this matter again.”
“I really do truly thank you.”
“Tell me about the deputy. Hood.”
I haven’t said one word to her about Hood. So I tell her. Basically the truth. Pretty much all of it. She listens without interrupting. She makes no notes. She looks down at her hands.
“I had a guy like that once,” says Ruth. “Forty years ago. Haven’t seen him since. I think of him often. I dream about him. In my dreams he’s never aged, and neither have I. I also love my husband.”
“I know the feeling.”
I see that Ruth is thinking about him. She comes out of it.
“Was he suspicious about the car?”
“I told him I rented it.”
Ruth eyes me in a way that makes me glad she’s on my side. Very glad.
“In your presence, did Allison wipe her fingerprints off the interior of your Sentra?”
This is a fastball but I pull it.
“Yes. She had a box of wet wipes in her satchel.”
“Good. Because the DA might try to get fancy on us, say all the prints in the Cadillac are yours.”
“Well, some of them are. And Hood’s.”
“If she wiped down the Sentra, then she would have wiped down the Caddy, too.”
“I would think.”
“So your prints are in both cars and hers are in neither.”
“I don’t know what she did in the Caddy.”
“No, how could you?”