"Drive hard, Joe. Mary Ann's blue again, so I want to be home by ten."
This from the boss, Will. Will Trona, Orange County Supervisor, First District. Mary Ann is his wife.
"Talk while you drive. Are you carrying?"
Will was on edge again. Lots of that lately. He sat down beside me like he usually did. Never in the backseat unless he was in conference. Only in the front, where he could watch the road and the gauges and me. He loved speed. Loved coming out of a turn with his head thrown back against the rest. He'd always ask me how I did it, go that fast into a turn and keep the car on the road.
And I always gave him the same answer: "Slow in, fast out," which is the first thing they teach you about curves in any driving school. A good car can do things most people think are impossible.
In fact, it was a good house. More than good. I know because I grew up in it. Will's my father, kind of.
"First stop is the Front," he said, checking his watch. "Medina's finally peeking out the windows again."
He talked without looking at me. Leaned back his head, eyelids half down, but his eyes moving. He usually looked like he was disappointed with what he saw. Like he was judging it, trying to find a way to make it better. But there was also something affectionate in his expression. Pride of ownership.
Will reached down between his feet and snapped open his leather briefcase. He took out the black calendar, set the briefcase back on the floorboard, then started scribbling with a pen. He liked to talk while he wrote. Sometimes it was to himself, and sometimes it was to me. Growing up with him since I was five, working nights for him since I was sixteen, I've come to know when he's was talking to me or talking to himself.
"Medina's getting a second chance. He registers five hundred illegal aliens to vote, they tell a Times reporter that they're illegals, but they're allowed to vote in a United States election. Allowed to, because Medina told them they could. And they all voted for me, because Medina told them to. Now, what am I supposed to do with that?"
I'd already thought about it. I checked the rearview as I answered. "Distance yourself. Five hundred votes isn't worth the scandal."
"That's shortsighted, Joe. Meanspirited and stupid is what it is. I get the whole Latino vote thanks to Medina, and you think I should toss him overboard? Who taught you to treat your friends like that?"
Will's always teaching. Testing. Revising. Arguing it out. Saying things to see how they sound, to see if he believes them or not.
I've learned to see some things Will's way. Other things I'll never learn. Will Trona made me what I am, but even Will can only do so much. I'm less than half his age. I've got a long way to go.
But one thing Will taught me is to make up your mind fast and put the whole weight of your being behind that decision. Instantly. Later, if you have to change your mind, put all your weight behind that decision. Never be afraid to be wrong. Will hates only two things: indecision and stubbornness.
So I said, "You need the Latino vote to carry the First District, sir. You know that. And those votes won't go away. They love you."
Will shook his head and wrote again. He's a handsome man, good build, strong in the neck and deep in the chest, with hands that got strong and dark working summers in construction, helping himself through school after Vietnam. Black hair combed back, gray on the sides, blue eyes. When he looks at you it's the same expression he gets in the car, head back a little, almost sleepy, but the eyes are alert. And if he smiles, the lines of his fifty-four years frame it in a way that convinces people that he knows and likes them. Most of the time, he does.
"Joe, pay attention to Medina tonight. Mouth shut, eyes open. You might actually learn something."
Mouth shut, eyes open. You might actually learn something.
One of Will's earliest lessons.
He closed the calendar and slid it back into the briefcase. Clicked it shut. Looked at his watch again. Then he leaned against the headrest and lowered his eyelids halfway and watched the white middleclass boulevard of Tustin become the barrio of Santa Ana.
"How was work today?"
"It's always quiet in there. Until there's a fight or a race riot."
By day, I'm a deputy for the Orange County Sheriff's Department. I work the Central Jail Complex, as do all new deputies. I've worked the jail four years now. Another year, I'll qualify for reassignment to patrol and start becoming a real cop. I'm twentyfour years old.
I became a deputy because Will told me to. That's what he was, until he got elected supervisor. Will told me to become a deputy because he thought it would be good for me, and because he thought it would be useful for him to have a "kickass son" in the sheriff's department.
Down on Fourth Street, not far from the jail where I work, there's the Hispanic American Cultural Front. It's Jaime Medina's outfit. HACF does good things‹distributes money and goods to the Hispanic poor, offers scholarships and stipends for needy students, expedites immigration, shelters families in crisis, all that.
But because of this misunderstanding about when Medina's almostcitizens could vote, the DA is considering closing down the place on charges of conspiracy and election fraud. They raided the HACF building last week for records. Frontpage picture of guys in suits lugging cardboard boxes to a van.
Will shouldn't have been going there, with an investigation pending. And he's good friends with the DA, Philip Dent‹one more reason to keep his nose clean while the investigation played out. But Will also represents Medina's district on the Board of Supervisors, a district you can't win without the Hispanic vote and Hispanic dollars. Another political pinch, one of the thousands in any supervisor's life. Sooner or later he'll have to take a stand, because, as Will taught me early on, politics is action.
"Joe, Jennifer is going to have something for us. While I'm talking to Jaime, put it in the trunk and lock it."
I turned left off the boulevard, checking the mirrors again, looking out at the Zapateria on one corner, the bridal store on the other with all the whitelaced mannequins in the window. I studied the cars behind us, the people on the sidewalk. I was a little nervy myself that evening. Something in the air? Maybe. Maybe nothing that obvious. Even with the windows up and the air conditioner blowing you could hear the Mexican music jumping from the Discoteca. A polka on mescaline. A darkfaced man in a white cowboy hat and boots stopped at the curb to let us turn, maybe recognizing Will Trona's car, maybe not, his face a walnut deadpan that had seen everything and was no longer impressed by any of it.
Then into a dirt parking lot in the shade of a huge pepper tree, facing the back door of the HACF headquarters. We stepped into the pleasant heat and Will, dressed in his usual trim dark suit and carrying his leather briefcase, led the way in.
The back doors were locked so Will rapped hard.
"Open up, Jaime! La Migra!"
The door cracked open, then swung all the way.
"As usual, you're not funny," said Jaime. He was a slender young man with stooped shoulders, tortoiseshell eyeglasses and khaki trousers that looked two sizes too big. "The racists raid me and you run away."
"So now I'm back. Let's do business. I'm in a hurry."
Medina turned and walked down the hall, Will following, then me.
They went into the office and Jaime shut the door behind them, acknowledging me for the first time with a hurried nod as the door shut. I'm used to being ignored, prefer it. With a face like mine, you don't want people paying attention to you. One of the first things Will taught me was that people were far less eager to gawk at me than I thought they were. He said that most people were afraid to even look. He was right. That was nineteen years ago, when he first took me into his home.
I went down the hall, through a set of saloon doors and checked the work room. There were six stations: desk, phone, stacks of papers, and three chairs at each for clients. American flag on one wall, Mexican one on the other, travel posters, soccer posters, bullfight posters.
No clients since the raid.
No workers since the raid, except Jennifer, the assistant director under Jaime.
"Good evening, Miss Avila." I took off my hat.
"Mr. Trona. Good evening."
She came over, offered her hand and I shook it. She's a blackhaired beauty, thirty, divorced with two. Smooth fingers. Wearing a man's white cotton shirt tucked into her jeans, small waist, nice straight shoulders, black boots. She changed to an apple red lipstick a few months back, after a year of cinnamon brown.
"Will must be here."
"They're in Jaime's office."
She looked past me down the hall, just a reflexive glance, then walked back to her desk. Jennifer is taken with the boss. This is one of the many secrets I'm not supposed to know. The world is layered with them.
She said, "That thing for you is over by my chair."
"I'll get it, thank you."
It was a U.S. Open tennis bag, a big black one with a blazing yellow ball on it. Heavy. I carried it back out to the car and set it on the asphalt while I disarmed the alarm and opened the trunk. Then I set it in and spread a blanket over it, locked the trunk again, set the alarm.
Back inside I got a magazine from the lobby, then rolled a chair into the hallway and sat outside Jaime Medina's office.
Medina: You've got to talk to Phil Dent, man. . . .
Will: I know him, Jaime. I don't own him.
Medina: Right . . . that's not your job, my . . . friend. . . .
Jennifer walked past me, fresh with scent, and leaned into the office without knocking.
"Coffee, beer? Hi, Will."
She whisked by me without a look, then back again a minute later with a couple of mugs in one hand and a carton of milk in the other.
She went into the office. Will muttered something and all three laughed. She came out and shut the door and looked at me like I'd just gotten there.
"Anything for you, Mr. Trona?"
"Nothing, thank you. I'm fine."
She walked past me and back to her station.
I spread the magazine across my knee but didn't look at it. My job is to watch and listen, not read. Mouth shut, eyes open.
I heard the traffic on the boulevard. I heard the air conditioner hum. I heard a car go by with a subwoofer that you could feel in your chest. I still felt a little wrong about things, but I didn't know why. Maybe it was just Will's mood rubbing off on me. I often catch myself adopting his feelings. Maybe because he adopted me as his son. I heard Jennifer dialing a telephone.
Medina: There's all that tobacco settlement money, man . . . like a billion plus you're‹
Will: That billion isn't mine, it's the county's, Jaime. I can't hand it over in a pillowcase. Didn't the ninety help?
Jennifer: Get Pearlita.
Medina: Every bit helps. But what am I going to do when it's gone? Sit and watch this place go straight to hell? We need the money for operations, Will. We need it for job training, for lawyers, for food, man, we need it for . . .
Jennifer: Okay, okay. Yeah, he's here right now.
Medina: . . . we can't even do anything when some poor pregnant Latina gets run over and killed a block from her apartment. We can't do anything when a Guatemalan kid gets shot to death by fascist Newport Beach cops. We're handcuffed, man, dead in the water.
Will: It's awful what happened, Jaime. I know it is.
Medina: Then help us find a way to help them, Will.
I heard Jennifer put the phone back in its cradle. She turned my way but I didn't look up from the magazine.
Will: You helped me find Savannah, so maybe Jack will take care of you. And the Reverend will put in a good word for you and the Front. I have already.
Medina: We need more than good words, Will.
The office door opened. Medina, face pinched, led us down the hall and shook hands with both of us at the back door. Jennifer walked us outside, left the door open behind her.
Will gave me a nod. I went to the car, started the engine and hit the air conditioner. I could see them in the side mirror, Will in his dark suit and Jennifer in her jeans and boots and crisp white shirt, standing in the light of the open door. They talked for a while. Will set his briefcase on the asphalt.
Then he shook her hand like Will's shaken a million hands: an openpalmed reach and clinch, the left hand coming forward to enclose yours while he leans his head back in a posture of welcome and possession as he smiles at you.
"I love you," she said.
I couldn't hear anything over the air conditioner, but it was easy to read her apple red lips.
Will reached into his pocket and handed her the money that I'd counted, rolled and rubberbanded for him, about the size of a halfsmoked Churchill: just a couple of grand to help out some of her friends.
"I love you," he said back.
We drove out of Santa Ana and into Tustin. Will directed me to Tustin High School, had me pull up alongside the tennis courts. Not much tennis action by then, just two of the courts being used.
"Joe, fetch that tennis bag out of the trunk and take it over to the middle court. Leave it on the bench."
When I got back we sat in silence for a minute or two. Will checked his watch.
"What's in the bag, Dad?"
"Is that an answer or an order, sir?"
"Reverend Daniel at the Grove," he said.
The Grove Club is never called the Grove Club by its members, just the Grove. It's hidden in the south county hills, off the 241 Toll Road, then up a winding private drive and past a gate staffed by two armed guards, usually moonlighting deputies. You can't see the Grove from any public road. A canopy of enormous palm, sycamore and eucalyptus trees obscures aerial views. It has never been pictured in a newspaper or on the TV news.
I took the first few miles of the 241 at ninety miles an hour. The electronic marquee said "Take the Toll Road‹Because Life is Too Short!" The marquee was the only light out there in miles and miles of dark hills. Just a couple other cars in sight.
Politically, Will fought all four of the toll roads because‹although the public has to repair them, maintain them, and pay exorbitantly high tolls to drive on them‹they're privately owned. The profits go into the pockets of the Toll Roads Agency. TRA sounds like a public outfit, but it's not‹it's a consortium of extremely wealthy developers who are raising buildings along the toll roads before the asphalt is even dry. In south Orange County, you can watch half a city go up overnight.
There's more to the story. The TRA guys got the State Assembly to stop maintaining certain state highways in Orange County. The highways go unrepaired and unimproved through the year 2006, which guarantees customers for the toll roads because the unrepaired highways are dangerous and clotted with traffic six hours a day.
Anyway, Will lost that battle but was half glad that he did, because you can drive seriously fast on the spanking new toll roads. We use them all the time, due to Will's hatred of traffic and love of speed.
Once I got past the first toll plaza I opened her up past onetwenty and Will leaned over to get a good look at the speedometer, then sat back.
He chuckled. "Yeah, Joe."
Six months ago Will and his fellow supervisors voted themselves a car allowance increase of two hundred percent, which allowed him to lease a BMW 750IL. The stock engine gets 330 horsepower out of 12 cylinders. It's a good car, fast but not quick, wakes up at sixty, stable at 160 mph, corners beautifully for a big sedan. Off the line it's not going to blow your hair back‹a Saleen Cobra clobbered me at a traffic light last week.
"Ah," he said quietly. "This feels good."
I pushed the throttle through the kickdown switch and the car hesitated for a fraction of a second, then barreled up to onethirtyfive, then oneforty. This model was built with a kill switch at 155 mph, but Will had me install a Dinan Chip to override the governor. The chip also brought the horsepower up to 370. Will likes to listen to the muffled shriek of that engine under full acceleration, and so do I. When the German horses are running hard, nothing beats them for an honest ride.
"Son, sometimes I wish this road was ten thousand miles long. We could just drive for hours. Away from the Grub. I loathe the Grub."
Grub, for Grove Club‹Will's contraction. He checked the time again.
"I know," I said.
Even though he loathes the Grub, the boss is a member because he needs to be a member. As a man who isn't afraid to piss on the flames of free enterprise for the occasional good of the county, Will Trona is not Grove material.
But as a politician who votes himself a stupidly expensive car to be driven at criminal speeds on semiworkrelated business, he becomes Grove material.
Obviously, as the supervisor of the powerful first district, he helps run the government, and the government can influence the business interests that dominate the Grove, so the Grove needs Will, too.
Will told me he pays two grand a month membership dues, all of which is covered by patrons. Dues for public servants are "nominal" because no honest one can afford the usual costs of membership. Most of the money goes into the Grove Trust, then into its Research & Action Committee, a nonprofit 527 Organization that operates free of both the FEC and the IRS.
Every year the trust coughs up several undisclosed millions for the causes and lobbies it thinks are vital to its interests. Its interests are profit and power. But they're interested in more than those things, too. Last year, for instance, the Grove Trust donated $60,000 to the Hillview Home for Children. That's enough for two midlevel salaried positions, for one year. I think highly of Hillview, and the struggle they go through for money. Hillview was where I spent most of the first five years of my life.
Two offduty deputies logged us in and raised the gate. The Grove sat one mile in, tucked in a valley between the hills. It's an enclosed hacienda style building, built around a large courtyard. The rounded archways of the colonnades are brick and adobe, wrapped by purple bougainvillea. The courtyard gardens and fountain are illuminated by recessed lights, and they glow from a distance like an emerald wrapped in tissue. The building itself is kept mostly dark on the outside.
I parked the car and followed Will to the entrance, where another offduty cop wrote our names onto his sheet. He was about to ask me my name when I tipped back my hat to let him see who I was. I have notoriety because of this face. It's unmistakable. What happened to it was a big story when I was a baby.
Will led the way into the dining room, shook a few hands. I stood back, folding mine in front of me. An average night at the Grub: half the tables were couples, mostly older, lots of gray hair and diamonds set off by dinner jackets and dresses. Three major developers‹one commercial and two residential. A building industry lobbyist who had formerly served as supervisor. Two assemblymen, a state senator, the lieutenant governor's top aid. A fourtop of venture capitalists. A table of thirtysomething guys made billionaires by the NASDAQ.
We went up the stairs to the lounge, which is a large room with an island bar, billiards tables and booths around the perimeter.
Will took his usual booth. I chose a cue and racked the table nearest the booth, where I could entertain myself and eavesdrop without making Will's guests nervous.
I glanced up at the third floor. I could see the wide burnished staircase and the closed door to one of the hospitality suites. A waiter knocked. Hushhush stuff, up in those suites. Rich men and their dull secrets. I've spent time in all of them.
I got a good break, watched three balls clunk into their pockets.
The Reverend Daniel Alter, dapper and grayhaired, arrived exactly on time. He touched my arm on his way by, but didn't say anything. I watched him shake hands with Will, slide into the booth across from him, then draw the privacy curtain.
The Reverend Daniel runs an enormous "television ministry." The broadcasts originate in his multimilliondollar "Chapel of Light" here in Orange County, and they go worldwide. You've probably seen him on TV. Daniel's sermons are upbeat and optimistic. On his show he sells Christian products‹from compact discs and inspirational videos to Chapel of Light keychains that really light up. The money that floods in is taxfree and no one knows where it goes, not even Will Trona. That's what he tells me, anyway.
Reverend Daniel: Here's this.
Will: Good good.
Reverend Daniel: The bullpen is killing us.
Will: Then score more runs. I got the bag from Jaime.
Reverend Daniel: Do you have her?
Will: I know where she is. But I'm not so sure I trust those people with her.
Reverend Daniel: What could you mean by that?
Will: We'll see what.
Reverend Daniel: You've done a wonderful thing, Will. And Jack's done his part. It's all going to work out.
A long pause then, while I banked the twoball across the felt and into a corner pocket.
Reverend Daniel: I'm counting on you. Let God work this miracle for me through you.
Will: I don't think your God wants to do any miracles for you, Daniel. You've gotten about a thousand too many as it is.
Reverend Daniel: Don't be pissy, Will. I thought this was your kind of thing. Is everything set?
Will: It's been arranged, Dan. Don't worry.
Reverend Daniel: You know, Will, the Lord really does work in mysterious ways.
Then the Reverend Daniel slid back the curtain and they both stepped out. Daniel glanced at the table, then looked at me with his half smile.
"I'd recommend the six," he said. "With plenty of follow."
Will clapped him on the shoulder and Reverend Daniel headed for the bar.
Will checked his watch.
"Let's go, Joe. We're picking up a package, making a delivery, then calling it quits. It's been a ballbuster of a day."
As we left the lounge, the Reverend sat at the bar next to a woman with shiny black hair and watched us go.
The fog rolled in as the night cooled, big swirls puffing in from the Pacific. Par for June. Down at the coast they call it June Gloom. When we got out of the hills and back into cell range, Will's phone went off.
He said, "Trona," then he listened a moment. "You got her, right?"
Listened again, then flipped the phone shut.
"Joe, we've got a package at seven thirtythree Lind Street, Anaheim. Flog this pompous piece of tin and get us over there. Boy, I'll be glad when this day's over."
"Yes, sir." I checked the mirrors, hit a hundred in less than ten seconds. "What's in this package, boss?"
"We're trying to do a good deed."
When we hit the Tustin city limits Will's phone rang again. He answered and listened. Then he said, "Things are lining up. I'll do what I can do, but I still can't turn coal into a diamond."
He flipped the phone shut, sighed.
We were almost into Anaheim when he dialed out.
"Looks like we'll be there on time," was all he said.
It was an apartment backing an alley in the ugly part of Anaheim. Will told me to park in the alley. It was so narrow another car couldn't get by unless we moved. There was a row of carports to our left, and to our right a cinderblock wall wild with graffiti. Not a creature stirring, just the fog easing along.
"Be unfriendly," he said. Which is what he said if he thought there could be trouble, or if he just wanted me to intimidate people.
Will stood behind me as I knocked with my left hand, my right up under my coat lapel on the grip of one of the two fortyfive Automatic Colt Pistols I usually carry.
"Yes? Who is it?"
"Open the door," I said.
The door cracked. A woman's face, fat, squinting until she saw my face, then her eyes opened wider.
I pushed past her and stepped inside. Her hands were empty and there was no movement behind her, just the sound of a TV.
She looked at my face, then I gave her a look at what was under my coat. Her eyes moved from the gun to my face, then back again. Trapped between two horror shows. She raised her hands slowly, deciding to look at the floor.
The apartment smelled of bacon and cigarettes. Bedsheets for curtains, carpet worn to the padding, padding worn to the plywood.
"I don' know anything about this, mister. They say come and watch a girl, I come and watch a girl. I don' know‹"
Will, then: "Be calm, seņora. She's okay, son. Where are they?"
She nodded toward the bedroom. "She here. He no here. Watching television."
"Stay put," I said to her. "What do I do, Boss?"
"Go get her."
The girl stood up from the floor when I walked in. She was small, blonde, pale. Blue jeans and a Cirque de Soleil Tshirt, white sneakers. Twelve years old, maybe.
She studied my face. Children will do that sometimes, just stare. Often, they'll make a face, sometimes cry. Sometimes they run. I saw her eyes go afraid and her chin tremble.
"I'm Savannah," she said very quietly.
Then she stepped forward and offered her small, quivering hand. I shook it. I pulled the brim of my hat down a little more, to help her.
"How do you do?" she asked.
"I'm not sure. Please come with me, though."
She slung a Pocahontas backpack over one shoulder and led the way out.
Going back down the stairs to the alley, I held my hand over the handle of my weapon. Will held the girl's hand.
I opened the passengerside doors for them and waited while Will took her backpack off, strapped her in, adjusted the shoulder restraint for her small frame, showed her how the armrests tilted out of the seat back.
Of all the things that he is‹husband, politician, agitator, manipulator, dreamer‹I can forget that he is a father, too. An adoptive father, maybe the most generous fathers of all.
He had his hand on her shoulder, talking quietly, one foot dangling out the open door.
Headlights swerved toward us and I heard a car engine down the alley in front of me. No hurry, no threat, probably a renter heading for his carport.
"Sir, let's get going."
I heard another car coming up from behind, saw the headlight beams crawl up the shiny black trunk of the BMW.
I moved closer to the open rear door. "You should get in the car, Boss."
"I'm talking to Savannah."
I looked behind me, then ahead. Coming the same speed, no hurry, no brights. No problem?
Then both cars stopped. Eighty feet ahead, eighty feet behind. They vanished in a blanket of moving fog, then appeared again. I couldn't tell makes or models, had no chance at all on the plates.
"Possible trouble, sir."
I kicked Will's dangling foot in and slammed the door, got the remote pad out of my pocket.
Car doors opening. The shuffle of feet on asphalt.
In the fogdulled wash of the headlights in front of me I saw three figures moving, growing larger. One tall, two shorter. Long coats, collars up, faces hard to see.
I threw open my door and pulled on the headlights, slammed the door closed behind me and locked everything with the remote.
I put my right hand under my jacket and on the butt of one fortyfive. I turned and looked behind: two more coats emerging through the smoky headlights of their car. I put my left hand on the other ACP, which left me crossing my chest with both hands, like I was cold.
Then a deep, resonant voice from ahead, bouncing off the alley wall and the garages, hard to locate but easy to hear.
"Will! Ah, Will Trona! Let's talk."
Will was out of the car before I could stop him.
"Watch Savannah," he said. "I'll get rid of this dingleberry."
I shut the door on her and stepped after him, but he reeled and hissed straight into my face.
"I said watch the girl, Joe! So watch the girl!"
I stayed back with her but I watched him walk away, blanched white in the crossfire of the headlight beams.
The Tall One stepped forward. I couldn't see much of his face: couldn't even guess an age. His hands were in his coat pockets.
The two guys behind me had shaded to their left, putting me between them and our car, automatic weapons held close up to their coats, barrels down.
They didn't move.
They had us and I knew it and there wasn't one thing I could do right then except stand there and watch.
Will stopped about six feet short of the guy, put his hands on his hips and spread his feet a little.
Words floated back with the engine noise and exhaust. I unlocked the car doors with the remote, reached in and killed the interior lights.
"What's going on, Joe?" asked the girl. "I can't see."
"Say nothing. Absolutely nothing."
". . . hard man to catch up with, Will Trona. . . ."
There was a strange cadence to the voice, an almost cheerful lilt to the syllables. Just a little off, like a second language learned later in life.
Will: "Who the hell are you?"
". . . the girl in the car?"
Will: "You with Alex?"
"You're with Alex." Laughter. "Little shit too scared to show his face, ah?"
Then Will again: "We had a deal. Get the hell out of here."
"Now the deal is this."
The Tall One leaned forward and a sharp explosion cracked through the alley. Will dropped to his knees and bent over.
I yanked open the rear door, jumped in, unbuckled Savannah and shoved her all the way across the seat.
Looking through the windshield I saw The Tall One step forward. I pushed open the far door, climbed around Savannah, dragged her out of the car by one arm.
"What's happening? Is Will okay?"
Pulling on the girl, I turned to see the shining end of the Tall One's hand pointed down at Will. Another hard crack, Will's head jerking once, smoke rising up against the fog and into the glare of the headlights.
"Savannah," I whispered. "Get ready to run! Two honks is me. Two honks is me."
I picked her up and dangled her over the cinderblock wall, then let go. I heard her land, then fast footsteps. The footsteps of the men behind me got louder.
I dropped to the pavement, drew one weapon and slid back into the rear seat of the dark car. The two behind me came fast, machine guns up. They were looking at the wall, where they'd last seen me.
When they got close enough I shot them both. The left one fell hard. The right one shuddered and stopped and unleashed a wild automatic burst that jerked the firing gun back into his own face. Then a clatter and a groan.
Staying low, I backed out and spilled again onto the pavement. On elbows and knees I wriggled to the front of the car, pressing in close to the body panel, gun out ahead of me.
Even in the headlights I only saw shapes: the Tall One, the two others walking slowly toward me. And Will on the ground. Distance off. Perspective off. Everything a pale haze.
Shit, what was that?
The deep voice again: Go see.
I pointed my .45 toward the voices, watched the fog beyond the sights.
I think there's two down, over by the car.
I inched the sights to my left, tracking the voice.
Then footsteps came at me, two sets, close together. Shapes coalescing in the headlights.
I can't see a goddamned thing!
The footsteps stopped.
Shit . . . it's Nix and Luke. Wasted, man. I'm not going in there. . . .
The fog blew open, then closed again. Strange looking men.
I heard the Tall One behind them, and his clear voice cutting through the fog.
Get back here. Now! Move!
The sound of men running, shapes illuminated in the wash of headlights.
Tall One: Get over here.
Nix and Luke are dead over there, man. . . .
I heard two sharp cracks, and two muffled thuds. Then two more shots, as twin orange comets flashed down from the Tall One's hand.
A moment later the car reversed with a chirp of rubber and jumped backwards, the bright slash of the headlights sweeping the asphalt. I saw the two men down beyond Will, one of them moving, one not. When the car backed out of the alley and roared down the street on the other side of the cinder blocks I ran.
Will was huddled on his knees, forehead to the ground, arms around his middle. Blood on his head and his clothes and the asphalt. I put my hand on his back.
"Oops," he whispered.
"Quiet, Boss. You're all right."
I ran back to the car and brought it forward. I got Will into the passenger seat. He sat up okay. Wet and heavy. Smell of metal. Blood on my face where his head had rested when I dragged him in.
One of the men that the Tall One had shot was still moving as I guided the big car around him. I tore out to Lincoln Boulevard running the latenight signals, my palm slick on the horn, clumps of fog tearing past the windows.
"You're okay, Will. You're going to be okay."
His head was back on the rest and his eyes were open to the headliner. A dull light in those eyes. Shoulder and shirt and lap full of blood.
"Hang on, Dad. Please hang on. We're almost there."
I hit a hundred southbound. The cars seemed to rocket backwards at us. Will's head rattled when I shot across the lane dividers. Then he leaned forward like he always did, to watch the gauges and me.
"Everyone what, Dad?"
He coughed a red mess onto the windshield and hung forward against his shoulder strap. Taillights rushed by.
I fishtailed down the Chapman offramp, ran three reds and skidded into the UC Irvine Medical Center Emergency lot, smoking to a stop on the ambulance ramp.
Will was slumped against the door. When I ran around and opened the door he fell into my arms and I carried him up the ramp, understanding that he didn't need a doctor.
I slipped to my knees but kept him balanced because it was the only thing I could do for him and I wanted to do it well. Two ER guys were running a gurney down toward us.
Hell is waiting.
I paced the emergency waiting room and the walkways outside, making the calls that needed to be made‹first to my mother, Mary Ann, then to brothers Junior and Glenn.
Those were the hardest calls I'd made in my life, no contest. I couldn't tell them that Will was going to die. I couldn't tell them he was going to live. I blubbered only that he'd been shot, choking out the words.
I drove the car off the emergency ramp and parked it in the lot. The interior was urgent with the smells of blood and leather and the ugly stink of human panic.
Twenty minutes later, an emergency room doctor told me that we had lost Will.
That word was a bullet through my heart. It told me that Will was gone now, and gone forever. It told me that I'd let down the person I loved most on this earth, that I'd failed my primary mission. And on its spiraling, smoking way through my heart and into the night, it told me I would find the people who did this to Will and I would deal with them.
I managed to call my mother and brothers again. To give them the bullet.
Too late, of course. They were already on their way to the hospital.
Against the protests of a doctor and two sheriff deputies, I got into Will's car and drove back to the Lind Street apartment.
Red lights, yellow tape, neighbors everywhere and three blankets with bodies under them. Anaheim PD was on scene. A patrolman marched at my car with a flashlight, waving me away.
I backed out and drove the dark streets and wide empty boulevards looking for the girl. I crawled along at ten miles an hour, honking twice, lightly, over and over. Up and down, going slow, brights on and all four windows down. Come out, come out, wherever you are. The fog was still thick and sometimes I couldn't even see a block ahead. Every few minutes I'd pull over, stop, honk again and listen. Watch.
I finally got Mom on my cell phone and she sounded close to panic. She was at the hospital. They wouldn't let her see him. I did my best to keep her talking and settle her down, told her to call Reverend Alter, then turned my car around for UCI Medical Center just as an Anaheim PD cruiser pulled me over. Both officers were tight, fingering their sidearms as I badged them.
"What in hell are you doing here, Deputy?"
"Looking for a girl."
"Is that blood in the car?"
"Yes, it is."
"Step out, please, slowly. Hands away from your body, Mr. Trona."
© T. Jefferson Parker