Eight acres of scrub and savannah, a pasture and paddock, a pond, a stream, avocado, lemon and orange trees loaded with fruit.
The main house is for me and my three sons, and-at least for now-Ernest, father of the third. There is also a barn and four small cottages spread across the property for my friends. I’m never sure exactly who’s here and who’s not, but I’ve got good friends and watchful neighbors so it doesn’t really matter.
I bought this place six months ago, a year after I committed my first armed robbery-a Starbucks. It’s way off the beaten path. The whole compound was a filthy “fixer” with plywood for windows, insane derelicts cooking meth in the barn and rats nesting in the old mattresses. You could smell it before you got out of your car.
Across the stream is one Indian reservation and across the road is another, so when you drive in here you see how poor those people are, you see the junked appliances and broken-down cars and the trash and the burn piles and the grubby kids. You just want to keep driving, which is what most people do. Those big casinos you see out here now, they don’t aim much of that slot machine cash down at the poor. No, they sponsor this group and contribute to this cause, and they give lots of money to politicians who can help them; they have swank ads on TV, but how come the rez looks so bad once you leave the casino? Ask them that.
I like the natives. There’s a couple of big bad braves-they’re brothers, actually-who live across the stream. Gerald and Harold Little Chief, I kid you not. Eighteen and nineteen. They’re bikers. They keep an eye on my place when I’m gone, and I keep an eye on theirs. Once I saw some kids breaking into their garage so I called the rez cops. A week later the brothers brought over a minibike for my boys. They’d made it. It was a beautiful little thing, with a two-and-a-half-hp Briggs & Stratton and chrome shocks and a flame-red-and-yellow paint job. Gerald and Harold looked funny standing there at my back door, these two huge guys with a minibike between them, and Harold takes the bandana off his head and bends down and wipes a smudge off the handlebar then puts the bandana back on and picks up the minibike, must weigh a hundred pounds, and holds it out to me with two steady hands like it’s a puppy or a box of long-stemmed roses.
So anyway, my place came cheap and we’ve been working our asses off to clean it up ever since.
Some of the down payment came from my L.A. Unified School District Credit Union, where most of us teachers bank our small paychecks, maintain our checking accounts and, if we can hack our jobs long enough, take out loans for the overpriced and often crummy L.A. homes we can afford. Some of my down payment came from my early stickups: McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Blockbuster, Sav-on, Payless Shoes-anybody whose signs I got sick of looking at. But most of it came from the cars I learned to boost and sell: grand theft auto beats armed robbery any day. You can pick up a gun and risk your life for a thousand bucks, or you can steal a good car and make thirty grand without encountering another human being. And the high-end stuff, man, it’s just beautiful material to work with.
Valley Center is just an hour and forty minutes from L.A., if you know when to make the drive. I get to school early and stay late, and when I’m home here I’m happy to be an hour and forty minutes away. When I retire, it’s going to be to an even bigger compound, with serious acreage, horse trails everywhere, a giant wall around it and a drawbridge-I’m serious about this bridge-so I can say exactly who gets in and out.
Like right now. The dogs are already barking because here comes C. Hood up the long dirt road. It’s the only road in. I watch him through the Zeiss binoculars I shoplifted from a Big 5 Sporting Goods store. It’s Sunday, I’ve been home for exactly six hours, I’ve had four hours of sleep, two showers, one orgasm, and now dressed in a nightshirt I’ve got to deal with the long arm of the law.
He’s not in uniform, but his face is unmistakable behind the aviator shades. I thought he’d show, but I didn’t think it would be this soon. I’ve got the hot pickup stashed out in the barn and the gems locked up somewhere that nobody knows about but me.
I watch him get out, glance at the “No Trespassing-Violators Will Be Prosecuted” sign. He looks at the gate, then in my direction, and I know what he sees is mostly trees.
“Who is it?” asks Ernest. He’s sitting at the redwood picnic table in my big dining room wearing red swim trunks, bouncing baby Kenny on his knee. Ernest’s big padded Hawaiian hands look like a life preserver around the baby’s middle.
“You were right.”
Hood pushes the gate open and starts back to his car. The noon heat comes off it in waves. I wonder why he’s driving this sweet black ’86 IROC Camaro, and I figure they won’t give him a county slickback because he’s too junior. But they’re letting him play plainclothes.
I walk outside and tell the dogs to shut up. They’re big Dobermans and trained well. I stand on the porch. Hood pulls his car into a parking area marked by sections of some old cottonwoods Ernest felled down by the stream. The nose of the Camaro stops just short of the tree trunk. I can hear Merle Haggard singing behind the windows.
Hood gets out and shuts the door and comes toward the house, all elbows and angles. He’s got a little notepad in one hand but I don’t laugh.
“Little bit out of jurisdiction, aren’t you?”
“More than a little, ma’am. I want to talk about last night.”
“Last night, well. Come on up. These dogs bite but only when they’re told.”
“Can you tell them to roll over and wag their stumps?”
“They don’t do tricks.”
Hood makes the porch, looks at me, the dogs, the food bowls lined up in the shade. Hood’s a one-thing-at-a-time guy, thinks he is anyway.
I let him in, introduce him to Ernest and Kenny. Hood and Ernest do the man-stare, but after a long second Hood unwraps his sunglasses and averts his gaze respectfully, then turns his attention to the infant on Ernest’s knee. Kenny burps something and his eyes wobble like loose buttons.
“This will just take a few minutes,” says Hood.
“You guys can have the table,” says Ernest. “I’ll get Kenny ready. See ya, Suze.”
Ernest swings Kenny up into one of his big arms and I watch him walk out. The bottoms and rims of his feet are pale and the rest of him is a splendid island bronze. He’s from Oahu. He’s got a ready smile and a skein of island tattoos across the back of his shoulders. I met him at a luau, where he danced with a spear. You could get your picture taken with the dancers after the show and we got to talking. A spear chucker. Months later, he showed me how he could throw that thing-with unbelievable power and accuracy, for a spear anyway. Then came Kenny.
Hood and I sit across from each other at the long picnic table and he lays it on me: the Asian Boyz, Mara Salvatrucha and diamond broker Barry Cohen. Hood is relaxed, calm and intense. He seems like an old guy in a thirty-year-old body, a pretty damned nice combination if you ask me. He wants to know everything I saw in the area of Miracle Auto Body last night, even the smallest little detail can be a help. I stare past his shoulder to a wall, where I’ve tacked some of my middle son’s drawings and paintings. Jordan. He’s ten and a very good artist.
Hood’s got the cover of his notepad open and his pen in his hand. “Did you see anything unusual, out of place? Put yourself back there. Sometimes things will-”
I nod. “I saw an old Lincoln Continental, once before you stopped me and once after. First time, it was pulled off the road. That count as unusual?”
“Did you see the driver?”
“Just a guy.”
“Where did you see him pulled over?”
“I don’t know. In the dark. Beside the road. Sorry, I’m a history teacher, not a cop.”
“What year was the car?”
“Late seventies. Just before the redesign.”
Hood looks at me with surprise and doubt. He wants all the stats so I give them to him: the Continental was black, and shiny like it was just washed, and the chrome really popped because that was the last of the great Detroit chrome years, and I tell Hood I couldn’t guess the age of the guy inside, just that he had this totally geo-dynamic planed-off flat-top haircut, and of course I know Hood is all over this, he’s thinking bad guy, another one of the Asian Boyz or Mara Salvatrucha, an answer to the mystery of the dead diamond broker but no diamonds. To build intrigue I give the Lincoln driver a cell phone, glad to be of assistance to law enforcement.
“I saw that car go past when I was talking to you,” says Hood. “Slowly.”
I say nothing for a moment. I know Hood’s hot for the Lincoln.
“What was a diamond broker doing with all these bad people?” I ask.
“We don’t know.”
Hood writes slowly and smoothly. I like the way he holds his pen. Then he looks at me for a moment, same look as when I said the car was a late-seventies Continental.
“Last night I was surprised you knew what the yellow Corvette had in it,” he says. “Most people, they don’t know which engine they’ve got.”
“You mean most women don’t know.”
“No, women almost never know.” He’s smiling now. “I didn’t see it parked out front.”
“I won’t park it outside. If I have to explain that, you’re simple enough to hide your own Easter eggs.”
Hood laughs quietly. It’s an old man’s chuckle behind a young man’s smile.
“And you surprised me just now about the Continental, before the redesign. You know your cars.”
“Just the ones I like.”
“Tell me about the Lincoln again. How far away was it from where I pulled you over?”
I tell him a maybe a few hundred yards, but it was dark and late and I was turned around, thinking I’d made a wrong turn but not sure. Hood writes something more in his handy little pad.
“You never told me your first name,” I say.
“It’s Charlie. Sorry.”
“You know I’m thirty-two from my CDL. How old are you?”
“Bakersfield High, I’ll bet.”
Hood clears his throat and nods. “How do you know that?”
“It’s something about you. Your ears, maybe.”
“I can’t. But I love Merle Haggard. I graduated from high school in Bakersfield, too. It was Vista West Continuation, where the pregnant girls go. We were the Ga tors.”
I smile at him. This makes him uneasy.
“I think we got offtrack.”
“What else do you want to know?”
“Exactly what happened at Miracle.”
“Can’t help you there, Charlie. Is it Charles?”
Just then my eldest son slams through the door. He’s sixteen but looks nineteen, a beautiful boy. Bradley’s dad was beautiful but worthless. My middle son, Jordan, has a different father than Bradley, and of course baby Kenny’s father is Ernest. It’s all pretty simple. I’ve never married and I’ve named my children after me. Jones. I digress.
“Mom,” he says. He’s wearing a trucker’s cap pulled down low over his long black hair. “There’s nothing I can do with the throttle cable.”
He looks at Hood a beat longer than he looks at most people, including me.
“So, now what?” he grunts.
“So do what you can with it, Bradley. A Ford is a Ford. This is Charlie Hood. He’s a cop.”
“Hi,” Bradley says.
“Hi,” says Hood. “A Sheriff’s deputy, actually- L.A. County.”
“I’m thinking LAPD. When I’m old enough.”
“They need good people.”
“The pedal sucks, Mom,” Bradley says to me. “Can I just go boarding?”
“Sure,” I say. “Thanks for looking at it. You put the new wheels and tires on the Cyclone?”
“Before you even got out of bed.”
“How do they look?”
“The shoes are too small but the meats are sick.”
“Awesome. Thanks, son.”
“Sheriff ’s pay good?” Bradley asks Hood.
“Good as the cops?”
“About the same,” says Hood. “But we get better cars and a little more open road to drive them on.”
“I’m good with large-caliber handguns.”
Hood raises his eyebrows.
“Nice IROC,” says my son.
“Thanks. I bored and stroked it, goosed out another thirty horse.”
“Yeah, first thing I added.”
“I could tell by the sound.”
Bradley hesitates then leaves, letting the screen door slam behind him. A front of hot air floats in from outside. In the sudden silence Hood closes his notepad. I see him looking past me now into the living room, a mess of a place, kind of a Polynesian party room in honor of Ernest. It’s got a very nice tiki bar.
“You’re climbing the ladder pretty quickly,” I tell Hood. “Last night you were a patrolman and now you’re a detective.”
“They moved me up for the Auto Body thing. This week I’m both.”
“Bet they won’t pay you twice.”
Hood smiles and shakes his head.
For about two seconds I wonder if I should say what I want to say. If it takes longer than two seconds to give yourself permission to speak, then your rule book is getting overlong. I hate rules.
“I like the way you look, C. Hood. I like your voice and your attitude. I teach eighth-grade history but I’m nothing like the eighth-grade teachers you had. So I think you ought to hit the road, keep yourself out of trouble. That’s the last time I’ll make the slightest effort to protect you.”
“I’ll do that.”
“You’ll do what?”
“Hit the road.”
“I caught you checking out my legs and just about everything else.”
He looks away.
“I run eight miles a week and do hapkido.”
“It shows. I apologize, Ms. Jones. My first day as a detective I was hoping not to make a complete ass of myself.”
I have to smile at C. Hood. “Be honest with me right now, Charles Robert-that uniform shirt you wore last night, did you have it tailored?”
He nods and his ears actually turn red. I want to lock the doors and jump him but I won’t do it here. My social guidelines are somewhat relaxed but I’d never drag Ernest’s pride through the dirt like that for no good reason. Then Ernest would break Hood in half and that would become another problem I don’t want to have.
“I’d like the name and a telephone number or address for the relative you were visiting last night,” says Hood.
“Nice try at reestablishing your law enforcement control. But it’s none of your business who I was visiting.”
I watch him weigh the options, which are two: arrest me or back down. It’s a mismatch.
I get up and walk over to him and lean in. I touch my nose to the bottom of his trimmed sideburn, about halfway down his ear. And breathe in.
Supermarket soap, drugstore shave cream and Charlie Hood.
Then I turn and walk back into the house, waving good-bye over my shoulder.