The night is starless and a half moon resting on its back dangles light over the river. I trot across the railroad tracks and the gravel crunches under my feet. The power lines above me buzz as I stop beneath concrete stanchions acrawl with graffiti vibrating green and red and yellow and blue even in the darkness. I stand and watch. A man waits at the bottom of the channel, down-river. I scan the banks of the channel and the walls of the bridge and the deep-cut shadows beneath the caissons, but I see no one else. I sidestep down the gently angled side of the viaduct.
At first it looks empty. But as I jump from the steep side to the flat bottom of the channel I see a faint gray ribbon winding toward the ocean. It’s no more than a stream and almost invisible as it reflects the featureless sky above.
The man is wearing a Dodgers warm-up jacket. His hands are in the pockets. He studies me as I approach. He has the big torso and short legs of Wyte. I’ve got my Colt Gold Cup.45 in my right hand, out where he can see it. My left hand is empty and down at my side, and Ca~nonita is in the left pocket of my coat.
“That’s a big gun.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I brought high hopes to this meeting. I’m unarmed.”
“Take your hands out slowly.”
“Of course. I like your new haircut.”
Wyte slips his hands out, turns his palms toward me, lowers them. “This is going to be a challenge, trying to make a legitimate business proposition at gunpoint.”
I lower the.45. “Why’s that?”
“It suggests a lack of trust. But that will change. A year from now we’ll be sitting across from each other at the Peninsula, say, or the Edison, sipping single malts and toasting our many successes. I believe in that future. Tonight we’re going to begin something unique, enduring and shamelessly profitable. Do you have a vision of your life at forty years old?”
“By then I want a big solid house, piles of money in the bank, acreage, my boys and a drawbridge.”
“Crocodiles in the moat?”
“Very large ones.”
“You can have them, and more. Suzanne, I can sell everything you can acquire. Everything. I’ve never once paid anyone over thirty-five percent of what I earn but I’ll make you an equal partner-fifty percent each. You’ve shown determination and courage. There’s nothing I respect more than respect.”
Wyte studies me. “I’m getting top, top dollar for all things American. Even our enemies love our cars and trucks and light planes and boats. They love our guns and ammo and our copper wire and our sheet metal and our cigarettes and porn. I’ve got arrangements within the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles that afford me virtually unlimited use of containers-unopened and unin spected except for random radiation scans. Which is fine because we have no intention of exporting nuclear devices unless, of course, you think you can steal one.”
Wyte is smiling. It’s a dry, big-toothed smile but even at night I can see the twinkle in his eyes.
“Suzanne, listen. Because of my connections I know where all this product is. I know who has it and how they protect it. I have security information on harbors, ports, marinas, railway and bus stations, airports and hundreds of Los Angeles County institutions. Hundreds. Consider: when a beautiful new shipment of Mercedes-Benz automobiles comes in by rail this Friday, I know when the yard security will be lax and where the fence can be breached. Or, as we’ve seen, when an unfortunate diamond broker tries to pay off his gambling debts in stones, I know when and where it’s going to happen. You might not ever like me, but you’ll love my information.”
He stops and lifts his nose to the breeze.
“How can you know all that?”
“It’s what I do. I work hard at it.”
“The merchant of menace.”
Wyte sighs and lifts his chin but I can’t tell if he’s sniffing the breeze again or showing me disappointment.
“Why me?” I ask.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He looks up, maybe at the power lines throbbing overhead, maybe at the recumbent moon. When he looks back at me there’s a different glimmer in his eyes, something wild.
“Because you are youth. You are health and strength. You can do things I can only dream of. You can do things you haven’t dreamed of, yet. Suzanne, listen. You have to let go of Allison, quit the fast-food stickups and the publicity. The risk is much too high for the reward. Find a new way to taste your own adrenaline. Don’t contribute to charities-create one of your own, a tax-free shrine to comfort the afflicted and coddle your soul. You must steal more cars. You must also steal motorcycles and personal watercraft. You must graduate to higher-cost items, such as light airplanes and motor yachts. These require more planning and less luck. Let Allison go into history beside her great-great-great whatever he was. Secure her legend by allowing her to vanish. If Allison is never heard from again, she’ll be talked and written about for decades. Maybe longer. The cover of People magazine-that’s a triumph-what more can Allison want? You must continue to be an award-winning schoolteacher and a terrific mom. They’ll want you to go on television to tell the story of your relationship with the outlaw Allison, the killing of Lupercio, your wrongful arrest. This is the real mask that hides you. Let them worship the silent Allison Murrieta. The most powerful stories are told in whispers.”
I hear what I think is a grocery cart rattling down the channel behind me. Wyte looks past me but I can’t tell if he’s curious or expectant. I aim the Colt at his chest, step back and turn my head. The cart glistens dully toward me, more sound than sight. The wheels clatter on the concrete and the loosely jointed steel shivers and clanks.
Wyte’s chest reappears atop my gun sight. “I’ll put my hands up if you’d like.”
This is exactly what he’d do if he had a handgun holstered under his coat and behind his neck.
He watches the cart.
I turn again for a look at the pusher: a man, hooded in a dark sweatshirt, baggy pants. He’s a hundred feet away. The cart is filled with what looks like grocery bags. It veers left then right as if it has its own mind, and I figure the guy is drunk or acting that way. I look back at Wyte. Hands still up, good boy. I slide my left hand into my jacket pocket.
With the Colt still aimed at Wyte I step back from Cart Man’s path so I can see both of them with a minimal turn of head.
“He’s a bum,” says Wyte.
When Cart Man is fifty feet away I can see he’s a black guy. Maybe Rorke. The cart veers and shakes and rattles.
“Don’t move,” I say to Wyte.
“Move where?” he asks.
Cart Man at thirty feet is still lost inside his hood. The cart makes a racket. At twenty feet it veers right. Cart Man appears to be fighting a bad wheel but he looks at me.
I draw Ca~nonita at him and he stops. “Hands up, Rorke. Let go of the fucking cart. Now.”
I see the whites of his eyes. He takes his hands off the handle and raises them high. The cart starts to roll toward the water, the back end coming around and one front wheel buckling over and over. It picks up speed. I can see it’s going to hit the water about the time it tips over. So Cart Man makes a move for it.
“Daz all my stuff. Everthin’.”
I look at Wyte but he hasn’t budged. Cart Man actually does freeze, like a kid in a game, one foot in the air and both hands extended toward the cart. I’ve got Ca~nonita trained on his dark sweatshirt. The cart rolls into an even tighter turn and goes into the river. But the water stops it. It doesn’t tip over. When I turn back to Wyte I can hear the water lapping against the steel.
“Take off that hood then put your hands back up,” I say to Cart Man.
“But I’m gonna fall.”
“Then put down your foot.”
He lowers his foot to the concrete, then slowly pulls back the hood and I see his matted hair, his sunken eyes, the dark patches of beard. I know that Wyte could employ more than one black man but I also know this guy isn’t one of them. I can smell him. I pocket Ca~nonita.
“Get your cart and get out of here,” I say.
“Yes, ma’am. You sure got the guns.”
He looks at Wyte for the first time, then back at me, then pulls the hood back up and follows his cart into the river. He’s ankle deep when he gets to it. He pulls it out by its front end, leaning back to use his weight. He gets it clear of the water and grabs the handles and looks back once at me then pushes hard into a wobbling walk-run as the lame cart starts veering again.
Wyte looks at me smugly. “Think about my proposal. Take all the time you need. You can use my condo in Maui for a week while you consider. Take your family. Or stay at my home in Mammoth-view of the Sherwins, sunny and light.”
“Nothing in Mexico?”
“I own a casita in Puerto Vallarta, but I’m very sorry, it’s occupied now. Close friends.”
I feel the weight of the Colt that I’ve got aimed at Wyte’s chest. Easy shot. It would make me and my family safer. But I can’t kill him when the scale in my soul says he doesn’t deserve to die.
“My answer is no.”
He cocks his head like a dog toward a distant bark. “No? But why?”
“I have enough bosses. I only do what I do for me. That’s my final answer.”
“I respect it.”
“Slowly take off your jacket and turn around.”
He does. It’s noticeably heavier in the pockets than it should be. He holds it in his left hand as he turns away from me. No back rig. His right hand is still empty and in the open. He looks over his shoulder at me.
I come up behind him, stepping loudly so he knows where I am.
“I have the diamonds,” I say.
“Jacket,” he says. “All three pockets. Forty-five grand takes up some space.”
“Throw the coat away from you, to your left.”
It lands on the channel bottom with a puff of dust. I keep the gun on Wyte as I step to it. The four-by-six manila clasp envelope in the left pocket is taut with used hundred-dollar bills. So is the envelope on the right. And the envelope in the buttoned inside pocket. Two go into my coat pocket and the other into the waistband of my jeans.
From my own jacket I take the twenty-carat parcel of near colorless SI2-clarity round-cut parking lot gravel and toss it on the ground up ahead of him where he can see it.
“You have my number,” he says, looking over his shoulder again.
“Stand right there until I make the railroad tracks.”
“I believe you’ll call me.”
“Believe what you want. Turn back around and stay that way.”
I climb the embankment and jog along the river. The graffiti on the concrete caissons glows softly in the darkness. The last I see of Guy he’s standing down there by the little trickle of the water.
I hop the tracks, cut through the side streets and head for my car, cradled in the night.
I’m just about to put the car key in the door when I hear the sound of a double-action revolver being cocked.
“Don’t move,” says the voice behind me. “Do not move. Do not turn around.”
“I’m LAPD, dumb-ass.”
“There’s a problem with your product, Suzanne. It’s the wrong kind of rock.”
I hear motion behind me then I feel cold steel against the back of my skull.
“To your knees, hands on the ground. Now.”
I do as he says. Rorke. I can smell him, that get-laid cologne he wears. The gun leaves my head. He quickly removes the bulky envelopes. I hear the rattle of a plastic bag.
“Look straight ahead. Do not move.”
The gun pokes the back of my head again. Rorke palms my ass. I feel the bag of money, looped over his wrist, nudging the back of my thigh.
I hear footsteps, long and padded, then nothing but the high-voltage thrum in the power lines and the cars out on First Street.