I’m back at Franklin Intermediate on Wednesday, a week before the students arrive. It’s good to see the other teachers, meet the new ones, drink a cup of the bad coffee in the lounge. The teachers are fascinated by what I’ve been through-my brush with Allison Murrieta, my bad arrest. But they’re cool about it, too. They cut me a slightly wider swath than usual and I like it.
Even my principal, a hazy and short-tempered alcoholic, seems slightly respectful. He says he likes me with the cropped blond hair, which I take differently than liking the hairstyle. He is an odd man, a bachelor, and he keeps his job because no one can anticipate him.
I’ve got my old classroom back, and I like it. I hang my matted copies of the Preamble and the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address up on the walls.
I set up my 9/11 display, which is mostly before and after photographs of the World Trade Center. I bought them right there in 2004 when I was one of the teacher chaperones for an L.A. Unified eighth-grade pilgrimage to Ground Zero. Some of my students wept as they read the posted notes saying good-bye to loved ones in the rubble. It made me proud that they could feel beyond themselves.
I also set up my usual display on the history of baseball in America, since September is the playoffs and lead-up to the World Series. I’ll show the students part of Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, though to be frank, eighth-graders are more into hoops and extreme sports than guys spitting tobacco juice on the dugout floor. And black-and-white footage tends to put them to sleep.
Luckily, Franklin is a closed and fenced campus and all visitors have to come and go through the office. The office secretary is Wanda and she can be very unwelcoming. By the end of my first Thursday she’s turned away four TV news crews, the Los Angeles Times, KNX and KFWB radio and a freelancer hoping to land a Good Housekeeping assignment. I’m willing to be temporarily famous but you can’t have reporters dropping in on you whenever they want. Ruth is arranging the really big stuff anyway.
By Friday morning the classroom is ready but I still have meetings with the principal and the district and the PTA and the school board and even an LAPD presentation here on gang activity and what to do about it. They claim these meetings are necessary but they’re agonizing beyond description. I wear my sunglasses and stare out the windows and think of Hood under me on the cushions at the Persian restaurant or sprawled on the bed in the Hotel Laguna looking out at the ocean and muttering something about his world being turned upside down. On a notepad I make a short list of the new cars I’d like to boost, which includes the new Chevrolet Silverado with the six-liter V-8 and 10,500-pound towing capacity, Porsche’s naturally aspirated 415-hp GT3 and a Shelby GT-500, which is only a Mustang but with five hundred horses it’s the fastest pony-155 mph-ever built. There are others.
After the last exhausting presentation by an L.A. Unified risk management team-your best defense against on-site accidents is AWARENESS-I make it to my car and screech out of the lot before any reporters spot me.
It’s ninety-two degrees out. My AC needs a freon charge. Driving the Sentra to and from work every day is spiritual punishment for me but that’s the way it’ll be for the next nine months. On my salary I can’t show up at Franklin Intermediate in a Maybach. The Friday traffic on the surface streets is awful. It takes twenty minutes to go three blocks. Ahead I can see the freeway overpass and it is clogged with cars that do not move.
I can’t do it.
I have my needs.
I call home and tell Ernest I’m staying up in L.A. for the night.
I do an hour of hapkido with Quinn downtown, trying to focus but still a little uptight, a little distracted by the last week. I imagine Guy receiving every punch and kick. I’m furious at him for stealing my money but I haven’t figured out how to get it back. Yet. Quinn kicks my ass and sends me out with a throbbing shin, sore ribs and a ringing in my head where he caught me with an elbow. Of course I had my headgear on and my mouthpiece in, but I actually felt my brain hit my skull. Quinn sat me in lotus position and worked my neck and temples until my focus came back, pointing out to me that it won’t go down like this on the street.
I check into the Mondrian on Sunset and call Hood.
“Charlie.” There’s a pause. I figure there might be a few of them.
“How much do you miss me?”
“More than a little.”
“Catch any bad guys?”
“You’ve got me all wrong, Charlie.”
“They kicked me off homicide. I’m back on patrol until I get auto theft. So if Allison keeps up her high jinks I might get a shot at her.”
“I hope you don’t mean with a gun.”
“No, I mean give her a shot at due process and getting her life back together.”
“What makes you think she needs to get her life back together?”
“She needs her life period.”
“She does take some risks.”
“If you just came in and spilled it, hired Ruth to represent you, you might do pretty well.”
Hood is silent.
“What if Allison disappeared?” I ask.
Another pause. The money pause.
“I wondered about that,” he says.
“Say she went away, Charlie. Adios. The public wonders, then they get interested in someone else. You spend some time with me and the boys. Come down to Valley Center on weekends and holidays-you’ll love it there. We have a pond with bass and the neighbors have horses we can ride, just like you used to do in Bakersfield. Ernest is going to be okay with how things are. I’m going to set him up with a dressage rider who needs to experience a real ride. So here’s the deal, Charlie: the deputy and the teacher, who met by chance on the night of one of L.A.’s worst crimes, fall in love.”
Hood chuckles. “Yeah. I thought of all that. Except the dressage rider.”
“What do you think?”
“I won’t do it.”
“It has to do with what I believe in.”
“Tell me what you believe in.”
“I’d like to.”
“Can I come over?”
Hood’s apartment in Silver Lake is like Hood: tall and narrow and neat. It’s an older place, with wainscoting, wall cornices and a high, stamped-aluminum ceiling. The furniture looks cheap and new. He’s got a few books and a bunch of music and Ansel Adams pictures on the walls.
He follows my eye and says that’s Yosemite in winter and I try very hard not to but I step across the room and put my arms around him. Next thing I’m on the floor looking up at Hood’s face above me haloed by the ceiling lamp. His expression is serious. We’re slightly slower about it than before, there’s some acknowledgment in it, some awareness of a shared history, and it’s good, fantastically good.
Later he brings a bottle of wine and two glasses back to the bedroom. I pull up with the sheet around me and he tells me about the Iraqi man and his three boys shot to death by seven soldiers and Lenny Overbrook trying to take the blame for all of them, just like they told him to. Hood was a NCIS detective and it was his job to figure out what happened, but he was also right there after this shoot-out and he saw six guys running away and this simpleton Lenny wiping down a Russian gun after putting it on the dead Iraqi’s lap. And it came down to Lenny’s word that he’d shot up these four men himself, against Hood’s that he saw six more running away from the house, but Hood couldn’t ID anybody. So he could either take Lenny’s mostly false confession and send him to prison for four murders he couldn’t have committed, or he could let four innocent people get murdered and watch everyone walk away from it. He set the kid free and tried to keep the case open but he got no cooperation up the chain of command and when his tour was done he came home. A sniper’s bullet hit a wall right next to him one day, broad daylight in a controlled zone, and Hood wasn’t sure if it was an Iraqi or a fellow soldier. Hood tells me that that bullet revealed a truth about himself that he wasn’t prepared to face-that he was feared and hated. I think the idea that his own men wanted him dead broke part of his heart, though he didn’t use those words. He couldn’t sleep and he couldn’t eat and by the time he got back to Pendleton he weighed fifteen pounds less than at the start of his second tour, and he was pretty much skin and bones even then.
When Hood is done with the story, or I think he’s done with it, he takes a Bible from the drawer of his nightstand and opens it up where there’s a folded piece of paper to hold the place and I figure it’s time for Psalms or maybe Job, but he hands me the paper and sets the Bible down.
I unfold it and he explains it’s a list that Lenny gave him of the six others-names and ranks all written out in handwriting that quite frankly looks like a third-grader in a hurry.
“I think about that piece of paper sometimes,” says Hood. “Some days I think I’ll call the navy and tell them what I’ve learned. Other days, not.”
“Let it go, Hood. You did the right thing. Our soldiers should never have been there in the first place.”
“That’s not the point.”
“It’s the whole point-it should never have happened.”
“All that matters is what happens. I never thought we should have gone in there either but rules don’t get suspended because of what you think. Murder is the same thing in Anbar as it is in L.A. I know those soldiers were furious and scared. You can’t even believe the pressure that builds up. You’re surrounded by betrayal and ugliness and hatred. The heat and the dust and the blood. It gets into you and you have to do something. For those guys, the four dead Iraqis were that something.”
“That’s why you did the right thing, Charlie. Those soldiers were put into an unwinnable situation and they did the best they could. Your letting them go is your part, Hood. It’s your duty and you’re guilty of doing it, just like they are. It’s the guilt that earns your forgiveness.”
He looks at me. “No. If you make murder okay you make everything okay. And you tilt the world to an angle where you can’t build anything. Nothing.”
“You are not God and you are not your own judge.”
“I am very much my own judge, Suzanne.”
Hood refolds the list of names and sets it back in his Bible. I watch his upper body, the indentation of his backbone and the rounded straps of muscle that run alongside it. He’s got a cool mole and I touch it.
He turns off the light and gets into bed beside me and pulls the sheet up and we’re alone in the near darkness. His voice is just a whisper.
“I’m sorry,” says Hood.
I know there’s no reason to argue with him. Or to deny what he knows. He has seen me. Seen. Hood is Hood and he’s got the Man Thing. Nothing sneaky about him. It’s my turn to whisper now but the words sound so loud to me.
“You can’t prove anything. And your sheriff buddies can’t. And the DA can’t.”
His heart beats faster and harder. I set my cheek against his chest. “Suzanne, there’s guys like Lenny and guys better than Lenny getting killed every day. While you boost cars and stick up minimum-wage workers. That’s disrespect.”
“The war used up all your forgiveness?”
“It used up all my something.”
Hood’s heart is going strong. I put my nose next to his ear, the same place I put it down in Valley Center.
It’s an empty feeling when your love isn’t enough. It’s supposed to be but sometimes it’s not. I know that Hood’s past has shaped him, and that my past has shaped me. These are powerful things. You can enlist in them or rebel against them but in your heart you always know the truth of who you are and you cannot escape it.
I begin to dress in the darkness. I can see Hood’s eyes shining down there, stars in the universe. There have been many needs inside me, some all self and others not all self. Some that take, some that honor and make strength, some simple and some imponderable. But not like this. This is his, mine and ours.
“I thought so. Talk to me.”
I tell him almost everything I know-the building in Long Beach with the swank computers, Wyte’s arrangements with the ports, Rorke, Wyte’s offer of partnership. He says nothing while I talk.
“It’s all in the notebook in my purse,” I say. “His address in Long Beach, a phone number. Descriptions of his place, every detail I can remember, which is a lot. I’m going to leave it on the counter out there. It’s more than enough to get you started. And, Charlie, Wyte doesn’t know that I know. You can surprise him.”
“Did you sell him the diamonds?”
I’m finished dressing. Seems like with Hood I’m always dressing and undressing.
There’s a moment in the near dark when I can just barely make out his shape. I know he’s watching me. I can see the glimmer in his eyes. They look like lights across a vast ocean.
“Good-bye, Charlie. I’m leaving something for you. I’ll put it on top of the notebook.”
“Vaya con Dios, Suzanne.”