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Inside the fans whir and the paper curtains sway and rattle.

I move quickly to the red backpack, unzip the main compartment and look inside. For being worth four hundred and fifty thousand dollars at your local Zales, the parcels are small and trim. The gemstone papers are the size of business cards, white and crisp and held together with rubber bands. Each is lined with lint-free blue gem paper. The contents of every paper is handwritten by the grader. The diamonds are loose and brilliant. Most are half-carat, a few smaller and several bigger. One is a mondo two-carat beauty that takes away what is left of my breath. Most are round-cut, but flipping through, I see some marquises and pears and squares. In this light I cant judge quality. Im looking down at scores of marriage proposals, engagements, anniversaries, Valentines Days, apologies and seductions-and thousands of hours of sex, guaranteed by these stones. Im looking down at treasures found in dark, filthy Transvaal mines, plucked by slaves whose only rewards will be poverty and early death. No wonder theyre so valuable.

Great job, Allison. You figured it right.

I stash the parcels and zip up the backpack, sling it over my shoulder and stand. Everywhere I look theres either paint or blood, and I can smell them both. I palm Ca~nonita and quickly tour the battlefield, walking fast and not stopping.

The two dead gunmen beside me are Asian Boyz. God knows how many holes in them.

The next two are Mara Salvatrucha-MS-13-an L.A. Central American gang so ridiculously violent the FBI has an entire task force dedicated just to them. These are the guys with the machine guns. MS-13 always has good weapons because the U.S. supplied the Salvadoran con tras for almost a decade and most of the hardware is still down there. So they bring it back up here. These dead Salvadorans are small-bodied men, young, their arms covered with MS-13 tats.

The two dead gunmen fifteen feet away are Asian Boyz.

Farther in are two more MS-13.

Now Im to the dead guy I saw first, the one who never had time to get his painters mask off. Hes Asian. The mask has slid to one side. He looks about sixteen years old. I have a special affection for sixteen-year-old boys. Hes been shot up badly, which means the Salvadorans probably got themselves killed by using all their ammo on a car painter.

I stop for just a second and look back on the trail of bodies and blood.

You dont have to be a cop to read this mess. First, the Boyz changed the meeting time from one A.M. to earlier, sometime during regular business hours. Why? Just basic security, to keep desperate Barry from trying something stupid. Barry tries something stupid anyhow-he brings his payment as agreed, but hes cut in some Salvadorans to cancel his debt the permanent way, and probably save himself a few diamonds. Barry comes to the Boyz alone and they retire to the office and close the door. A minute later MS-13 arrives in the big white van. The Salvadorans dont know anything about an office, so two of them just go straight to the heart of the matter and start shooting up the painter. Two of the Boyz take them out, but two more Salvadorans-the smart ones with the firepower-come up from behind and the Boyz go down. Then the last two Asian guns try to come in quietly from the office. They even take a second to lock the front door, figuring theyll trap the invaders. They make their appearance with Barry in tow, and between two machine guns, the combat 12-gauge and a machine pistol, everybodys dead in four seconds.

I think about taking their cash but realize that if the cops see this event like I do, its case closed and nobody knows anything about diamonds.

This is one crime scene where Im not leaving my card.

I cross myself as my great-uncle Jack taught me to do and begin a quick prayer for the dead men. A place where ten men have just been killed has a chopped-off kind of feeling. Like frayed rope, a whole bunch of ends. I believe that God hears prayers but generally doesnt answer.

Im almost to Amen when I see light slowly advancing through the lobby hallway, then through the side windows.

Very faintly, over the whirring of the fans and the incessant rush of cars on the freeways, I hear a vehicle stop in the parking lot.

My heart is pounding hard as it falls, an acknowledgment of disaster.

But my plan is simple.

If its the Sheriffs, Ill have a lot of explaining to do.

If its Asian Boyz, theyll use a key and come through the front door and Ill go out the side window the way I got in.

Anybody else will likely head for the nearest window for a look inside, just like I did. Which means Ill get the door keys from one of the dead men closest to the lobby and sneak out the front door if they climb in.

I run to the lobby and crawl to the counter. Theres a side window facing the parking lot, and I see an old black Lincoln Continental parked midway between the Escalade and my Corvette. Big old thing, opera windows and fender louvers, armored with chrome, seventy-eight or nine. Mint condition. Its lights are off and theres nothing moving inside. I can just make out the shape of someone in the drivers seat.

Asian Boyz, I figure-the Boyz do love their rides.

I scuttle back down the hallway on my hands and knees. When I hit the high bay, I stand and run straight for the window. Im through the opening and crouched outside on the walkway in less than ten heartbeats.

I climb over the safety railing and drop six feet down to the dark ground.

Im away from the light now. Im underneath the world.

And a good thing because I hear the catwalk above me vibrate then stop. Vibrate then stop.

Someones coming my way. Slowly.

I curl up in the darkness next to the building. Looking up through the perforated steel of the catwalk floor, I can see the dark outline of someone approaching. He moves smoothly. He stops at the first window, but hes not tall enough to see in.

A kid?

But when he jumps and locks his hands on the window frame and pulls himself up to the level of the opening, I get a better look. Hes a very short, compact man. Dark hair, flat-top, straight up. Hes not Asian. He effortlessly holds himself up. I can see his head moving left and right, then back again. Hes got on jeans, cowboy boots and a red-and-tan plaid shirt. Theres about eighteen inches of scabbard fixed to his belt and tied to his leg like a gun-fighters holster-a small machete with a handle double the size of a regular one. For swinging two-handed, I figure.

He drops lightly to the catwalk and comes my way, stops right above me, and seems to look off in the direction of the freeways. Then he pulls himself up to the second window. I watch his right shoe find a hold against the wall, then flex, then follow the rest of him as he vanishes through the window.

I give him a full minute, then unfurl and run for the parking area.

I remote the door lock from thirty feet away, then the trunk. Without probable cause cops cant inspect what isnt in plain sight, and thats why you need a car with a trunk.

I swing up the lid, fling in the backpack and slam it shut.

A few seconds later the engine roars and Im burning rubber away from Miracle Auto Body with my middle finger in the air, which is a childish thing to do, but I havent felt so relieved in a long time, oh man, you just cant know what it feels like to pull off something like this and see ten dead people in a place that would be happy to make you the eleventh, and Ive never felt more alive than right now, just so thankful and grateful that Im not lying back there full of bullet holes but right here with a backpack full of diamonds and almost a full tank of gas.

I hit the brakes when I see the Sheriffs patrol unit pulled over to the side of the dark road, but its too late.

In the rearview I watch him pull out and hit the lights, and Im cursing really fucking bad as I drive onto the dirt shoulder and slam the tranny into first and punch the kill button. I put my gun under my seat. I unplug and slide the police band radio under the passenger seat, too. Then I turn on the interior light as a courtesy, roll down my window, dig my CDL and registration from the center console and watch him approach in the sideview mirror.

Tall guy, slender like a boxer, light hair, alert. His summer-weight uniform looks tailored because they dont design them for guys that skinny.

Hes got a Maglite in his left hand, but his right hand is free, and I see him look at my plate and reg sticker on his way by. He stops away from the door and looks at me.

Evening, maam.

Evening, Deputy.

In a hurry?

No. Just a fast car.

This the Z06?

Five hundred and five bhp at sixty-three hundred rpm. Just about scalp you in second.

Where are you going?

Home if you dont mind.

Drinking tonight?

I dont drink.

He nods and stares at me. I need your license and registration for the vehicle.

He steps up and I hand them over. His badge says C. Hood. C. Hood steps back and turns the flashlight on them. The registration will pass a visual from a deputy every time. It wont fool a document examiner with the right tools. The drivers license is genuine, and its bearer-Suzanne Elizabeth Jones, SEX: F, DOB 12/26/1976, 5-9, 135, BR N and BR N-has never had a ticket or been arrested. Shes a good girl.

He stares at me again and I look out the windshield and sigh. Hes got wheels turning behind those eyes. Someday someone is going to look at me and in their mind theyll put a black wig over my brown hair and a black mask with a crystal on it over my face and Ill be history, like Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Joaquin.

I support Sheriff Whatshisname, I say.

Warm night for gloves, isnt it, Ms. Jones? he asks.

Theyre for driving.

Remain in the vehicle.


A red Porsche 911 turbo goes by eastbound. Beautiful animal. The engine sound alone is enough to get me blushing and bothered. I can lay it off for fifty grand to the right people. Would end up in Mexico City or Caracas or Cartagena, altered and practically untraceable. Then a Mitsubishi Lancer rolls by the other way. Its the second most often boosted car in America, right behind the Caddy Escalade. Its worth only three grand, but theyre twice as easy to steal and ten times easier to sell. Bread-and-butter stuff.

The deputy is back five minutes later, handing me the CDL and registration slip.

What are you doing out here this time of night, Ms. Jones?

I was visiting relatives. Now Id like to get home.

Valley Center. Thats way down in San Diego County, isnt it?

Its an hour and forty minutes this time of night, without traffic.

He nods. Hood. Handsome Hood. Thirty years old, maybe not even that.

Drive safely. You were doing sixty in a forty-five when I pulled you over.

I promise Ill drive more slowly.

Good night.

Hood turns for his car but stops when the old black Lincoln comes past. I flip off the Corvettes interior light, cursing silently for leaving myself momentarily illuminated.

As the black Continental drifts by, the driver studies me. Young or old-I cant tell. His hair shoots straight up from his head, then is planed into a flat-top as black as the extra-long handle of the machete on his belt. Thick neck and a big sharp nose, like a Central American Indian. The red-and-tan shirt is buttoned up all the way, like a school-boys. I dont know why I notice things like this, other than it reminds me of my sons. My scalp crawls.

Hood is back in his unit by now.

I start up the Vette and guide it back onto the street. The Sheriff s cruiser stays put for a beat, then U-turns toward Miracle Auto Body. C. Hood is going to see what I saw. I go easy westbound, come to the signal at Eastern.

The black Lincoln is pulled over to the right and the guy stares at me as I drive by. Big down-turned lips, head shaved on the sides and tapering up to the flat-top. A Mayan warrior, no doubt.

He tries to fall in behind me, but I goose the seven liters and lose him in a roar of beautiful white tire smoke and rich gray exhaust.

I hit Interstate 10 east. Things are too hot for me and Allison Murrieta in L.A. right now so Im going home for a few days.

Not to a hotel, to my real home.

I stop in San Berdoo, park on a side street, take off the Vette plates and slide them into my satchel. I remove both plates from a very sweet black Ford F-150 and drop them down a storm drain. I replace them with a set of cold truck plates then quietly load my stuff from the Corvette-toolbox, suitcase, police radio, backpack with diamonds, etc.-into the bed of the truck.

I can pull a lock and hotwire a stock car in just over a minute. Most dont have alarms, but the few that do will stop when the engine starts up. That can be a long thirty seconds while the horn wails with you inside, and thats where your nerves get tested. You beat LoJack by staging a hot car and waiting for the cops to show. If they dont show in two days, its your car now, baby. People think the Club is insurmountable, but I just cut slots in the steering wheel with my carbide saw and pull the damned Club off. You have to replace the steering wheel at some point, but theyre relatively cheap.

The truck purrs like a kitten and I hit the road for Interstate 15 south. The Vette had over twice the power, but Id been driving it for five days and I get bored after five days of just about any car. And hot cars-even cold-plated ones-get risky.

Im looking forward to seeing my main man and my kids. Its been a while. Or I could stop off and see a friend of mine, give him a cute little diamond to put in his ear.

Right now, though, I just want to get the hell out of L.A.

I love this city, but there are too many dangerous people up here.

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