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THE TIMES CAME OFTEN when Joe Carver felt like retreating from Los Angeles into the hinterland, maybe the sparsely populated northern plains. But the frequency of these urges meant little. They were weaker and less insistent every time, and by now they were only uneasy instants, like skipped heartbeats. He had chosen to come to Los Angeles, and some choices could be permanent. He couldn’t go back now to some place where just being alive was work. It was as though when he had crossed the California line, he had stepped off a cliff. There was no way back up.
Carver had always been smart enough to know that when he did anything he was choosing to let a thousand other things remain undone, dooming them to nonexistence. But he was also wise enough not to allow himself to waste much time thinking about all of those unborn futures.
Carver raised his head slowly and carefully and peered downward from the cab of the tower crane at the world two hundred and fifty feet below him. The construction of the big ugly office building was going very well. The steel I-beams were being assembled in a rigid Tinkertoy framework very efficiently, and he could see piles of lumber in the yard below him that indicated the next step would be to add to the flooring that had already been laid on the lowest levels.
Carver could evaluate this building’s progress with something of an expert eye, because he had been sleeping here each night for weeks. Large commercial projects like this were the best protected from thieves and vandals, and they were the most comfortable because there were pieces of heavy equipment with cabs for shelter and seat cushions he could use for a bed.
He didn’t like the look of the site tonight. The crews had been accelerating for weeks. Soon he would have to stop sleeping in the cab of the big crane, and that disappointed him. There were other places for him, but they were all inferior to the tower crane. On this site there were high fences with coiled razor wire to keep intruders out, and even if thieves cut their way in looking for tools or building materials, they weren’t about to climb two hundred and fifty feet to find Carver asleep in the cab.
He judged that he would have to find his next place within a week. Once the steel frame of the first few stories was in, there would be an army of carpenters laying down rough plywood floors. He could see they’d already been installing temporary stairs on the nearest corner of the building. Very soon his crane cab was going to lose its remoteness and privacy. He would have to search for houses with for sale signs and empty stores with for lease signs on them. Before he had found the crane, he had slept in the back seats of new cars on dealers’ lots.
From up here, Carver could see the beauty of the city, the long, straight thoroughfares lined with brightly colored signs, the dark shoulders of the Hollywood Hills just above. In the distance he could see the cluster of tall buildings at the city center. He always looked for the tallest, the cylindrical office building he thought of as the Nose-Hair Building, because it looked like a device he’d seen advertised on television late at night for shaving the nostrils. He looked out his window at the streets just below him. Running east-west was Bronson, and north-south was La Brea. From here, up above the lights, he could see every car crawling along below him.
He knew he should sleep now, because he could be here for only a few hours. The construction crew began work at 6:00 each morning, but the crane operator always arrived around 5:15 and spent some time walking around with a cup of coffee and talking to people. Carver supposed he talked while he could because he was alone all day, sitting up here. Carver approved of the operator’s thinking, and he liked him. The operator had photographs taped in his cab, some of them signed to Mitch,” so Carver thought of him as Mitch too. One of the pictures was of a blond woman, presumably Mitch’s wife, and four blond kids who looked a bit like her. There were a few shots of the same kids, one at a time, playing baseball or riding a horse, swimming in a pool behind a suburban house. There were also home-printed digital snapshots of the wife wearing nothingone on a bed, one sitting on the thick arm of an overstuffed couch, one in a showerbut always she was looking right at Mitch’s camera and smiling. Nobody but Mitch ever came up all two hundred and fifty feet to go into the cab, so Mitch must have thought his cab was as private as the inside of his skull.
Carver brought nothing up the ladders each evening but a snack and some water, so he’d had nothing to read but Mitch’s manuals. He’d acquired a fairly clear notion of what Mitch did for a living and had learned how to raise and lower the hook, turn the crane’s boom, and a few other operations. He had originally planned that on his last night here he would move the crane into some odd position and leave it that way, but since he’d started to think of Mitch as a real person, he had become reluctant to give him the creeps.
The construction crew always started to pack up at 3:30 in the afternoon, locking up tools and shutting down equipment, and then left at 4:00. Any time after that, Carver could show up, pick the lock on the heavy chain at the front gate, then the other lock that secured the door to the ladder that led up the mast of the tower to the cab. When Carver was two hundred and fifty feet up in Mitch’s tower crane, he considered himself the safest man in Los Angeles.
The crane was more important to him tonight than before. Today Carver had seen some of the men who were hunting for him. They were the ones who nurtured the growing fortune and nasty reputation of Manco Kapak. Carver had been eating lunch at Farmers’ Market when he had seen five of them, moving along a narrow aisle single file like a trade delegation from the Republic of Hell. They moved stiffly, because the guns they carried under their sport coats or in the waistbands of their pants were uncomfortable and made it hard for them to bend.
There they were, stiff-walking through Farmers’ Market between the juice bar and the toffee place. They moved up the aisle in a slow, deliberate side-to-side gait, and Carver stayed at his table near the doughnut counter, watching. The front man, one of the redheaded Gaffney brothers, would mutter Excuse me” or Behind you” to the people ahead of them in the aisle. Whenever he did it, the person would turn to glance and see the five of them coming on. The bystander would be visibly startled, then compress his body against the side of the aisle as though it were a herd of bulls moving past him.
Carver knew they were searching for him, and that someone must have seen him at Farmers’ Market and rushed to call them. But he was sure now that none of them knew him by sight. They were just relying on tips and descriptions from informers. Carver turned away, got up, and moved up the long, narrow aisle between bins of fruit and shops full of jars of hot sauce or cheap luggage. He turned between the L.A.Beverly HillsHollywood souvenir shop and the chocolate shop to get to the aisle beside the open area where the stalls sold pizza and Chinese pork buns and Mexican tortas, and finally made it to the Cajun gumbo stand, then made a left turn into the corridor that emptied into the parking lot. He made his way quickly onto Fairfax, where people moved in and out of shops that sold Russian souvenirs while cars blocked the street waiting for parking spaces.
He walked a few blocks north, then went in the front door of Canter’s Delicatessen and out the back door to the alley and on to the next street. Carver backtracked a few blocks south to Wilshire Boulevard, then down Wilshire to the La Brea Tar Pits. The park was pretty, it was full of people who didn’t want to hurt anybody, and it was pleasant as long as he watched his step and avoided the new places where tar was seeping up through the lawn. He kept going and went into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Carver spent his first moments in the museum thinking about his predicament and sitting on a series of smooth wooden benches placed in the centers of rooms full of paintings. But after only a few minutes, what Carver was watching was the array of women who had come to see the paintingslong-limbed and blond, or short with hair black as shoe polish. When he had arrived in California, he had noticed immediately that the most beautiful women in the worldthe best of every race and countrywere roaming the malls, beaches, and clubs of Los Angeles, more common than sparrows. He had known instantly that to be anywhere else was to be in exile. Learning this truth had been the start of his trouble. He had gone to too many nightclubs, bought too many bottles of overpriced champagne, made himself and his cash too visible.
He had become a fugitive, a man who slept on a construction site, because of a simple misunderstanding. One night a month ago, Manco Kapak had been robbed of a considerable amount of cash. This had not been a robbery of one of his businessesthe dance club on Hollywood Boulevard he owned, or the strip clubs in the Valley, or any of the shady enterprises the cash from those places made possible. The victim was Manco himself. He had been carrying a canvas bag with Friday night’s receipts to put in his bank’s night deposit drop and been held up by a lone man.
Manco Kapak had sent men to ask the people who made a habit of trafficking in information whether they’d noticed a lone man, newly arrived in town, who seemed to be spending an unusual amount of cash. These people in turn put out the description of what was wanted to their networks of spies and tattlers. Apparently, what had come back through the middlemen was the name Joe Carver. After that, Carver had begun to hear that somebody had been asking for him. After about the third time, he’d also heard who it was and why.
He knew how it had happened. People must have interpreted his generosity as a natural overflow of sudden, unearned wealth. The truth was that Joe Carver had never robbed anyone in his life. He had simply done what anyone might have done when he had come to any new city. He had gone to clubs to meet women, and he had spent freely.
When Carver looked out the window of the crane, everything below was beautiful, even the endless streams of headlights and taillights on the freeway, the white coming toward him and the red flowing away. There were colored neon splashes and swirls on the fronts of businesses and soft yellow-pink pools of light marking the grid of streets. He could see police helicopters circling a distant patch of dark green trees. Now and then a cone of light would shine down from a helicopter’s belly and illuminate a little circle of green.
He was sitting in the crane operator’s seat, watching the lights of a fire truck weaving up Beverly Boulevard, when he saw two big SUVs arrive at the gate of his construction site. They were both Hummers, both black. From above they looked like two small, shiny black boxes, all squared corners. He couldn’t see the passengers because the windows were tinted, but they couldn’t be anyone he wanted to meet. The Hummers were stopped at the curb right outside the gate. They had an intention, and he sensed it had to do with his construction site. While the crane was a wonderful hiding place, it was not a good place to be cornered. He stood, opened the door, and stepped onto the platform.
Carver began the long climb down. The tall mast of the crane was divided into a series of gratelike floors connected by ladders. Each ladder led to a platform below, and then another ladder to the platform below that. Up above two hundred feet the world was dimly lit. There were few bright lights higher than the streetlamps, and even those were aimed downward at the ground. Until he reached that level, Carver would be difficult to see. He descended ten, twenty, thirty, forty feet, still hidden by darkness. He prepared himself for the run into the shadows. He lowered his right foot to the bottom step on the sixth platform and looked down at the two black Hummers, trying to see who got out of them.
The doors didn’t open. The first Hummer swung wide into the left lane, and then hooked right so it was going head-on when it rammed the gate on its right side, where the chain and padlock held it. Even from up in the air, Carver could see the chain snap and fly wide as the gate swung open.
The second Hummer followed the first through the open gateway and onto the construction site. The vehicle stopped and two big men got out and pushed the gate shut again. One of them tipped a hundred-gallon drum onto its rim and rolled it against the gate to keep it shut while the two Hummers turned around to face the street.
Carver was shocked. He had been trying to descend and slip off into the darkness, but there were already two of Kapak’s men with their shoes on the ground inside the gate. In a moment there were five. Carver had underestimated these people. They shouldn’t even know which side of town he was on tonight, but here they were.
The five men began to fan out across the lot, keeping forty or fifty feet of open space between them. They advanced in a line, scanning for him and keeping straight so nobody got more than a step ahead into the line of fire. Their pace made it look to Carver as though they might arrive at the base of the tower crane just about when he did.
Carver stopped and lay on the platform to peer down through the steel grating. He could see the men as they approached, stepping into the overlapping pools of light near the main steel structure and the tool sheds and the high stacks of wood and steel. He recognized the same five men he had seen at Farmers’ Market: the Gaffney brothers, easy to spot because of their red hair and paper-white skin; Voinovich the Russian, because he was taller than the others; and Corona and Guzman, because they had brown skin and shiny shaved heads and necks that were tattooed with filigree script.
Carver was glad he hadn’t descended any farther. He saw the Gaffney brothers reach the base of the crane, where the huge steel structure was bolted to its concrete slab. Carver waited until he could see they had stopped and were walking away. Then he moved to the ladder to climb back toward the cab. His foot slipped off the first rung and made a clang on the iron grate floor that resonated in the quiet night air.
A shot whistled through the floor grating he was standing on, and then three more shots. Carver held himself flat against the nearest strut. There were more shotstwo, then four in a rapid volley. Some bullets hammered solid pieces of steel in the frame of the crane, and others pinged as they grazed the steel grating and whistled off into the dark sky.
Carver climbed steadily, and the next few shots were less accurate, but they came from four or five directions. All the men seemed to be shooting at him now. He climbed faster so there wouldn’t be time for a well-aimed shot. Carter kept looking upward to verify that the triangular pattern of struts going by were really registering movement, and at last he reached the top and scuttled into the crane’s cab.
He sat in the operator’s seat for a few seconds, simply holding himself still and feeling grateful for the steel seat beneath the leather padding, waiting for more gunshots. When he didn’t hear any, he looked out the window of the cab to see where the men were. They were still down on the site, but they had stopped to confer. It occurred to him that the reason none of them was shooting might be that they hadn’t seen him get into the cab. They must believe he’d been hit and was lying on one of the lower platforms dead or dying.
Carver waited. Maybe they’d declare victory and go away. He stayed low but moved his head close to the window and looked down. He could see the five men were moving again. This time they were walking toward the steel frame of the building, preparing to climb the temporary staircase that had been erected along the near side. If they got up to the top floor, they’d be almost beside him and could fire at him through the cab windows.
He was trapped. He had no more than a minute or two to do something to preserve his life. He stared straight ahead, through the windshield of the cab. From where he sat, his eyes were aimed out along the seventy-five-yard horizontal arm of the crane. Along its underside, he could see the trolley on rails that held the cable and the hook, a piece of steel the size of a man.
He glanced out the side window at the five men moving toward the stairway that led up onto the skeletal building, and then he looked straight ahead again at the arm of the crane. Right before him was the control console of the crane, a black, sloping surface full of switches and dials and levers and knobs. His hours reading the manual and comparing the pictures with the controls had made them familiar. His hand reached out for the toggle switch that said master power,” and he flipped it.
Lights glowed on the console. He tentatively moved the control stick to swing the crane’s long, horizontal armcalled the jib” in the manual, as though this huge machine were a sailing shipslowly to the left, then stopped. The cab moved with the arm, so the movement made him dizzy. He reached out for the winch control and lowered the cable with the hook on the end. As he lowered it, he pushed forward on the control to send the trolley out on the horizontal arm.
The hook descended to the heavily trodden lot and landed in a small explosion of dust. He pulled back on the control and raised it a bit, so it dangled from its cable about a foot off the ground. He reached for the lateral control, and the long, horizontal arm of the crane began to move again. He pushed it farther, his cab turning faster with the arm.
The heavy steel hook on the end of the long cable stayed a bit behind the moving arm. When he stopped the dizzying lateral movement, the cable swung toward the men and the heavy hook swept into their midst. The five scattered, and the hook swung past them and clanged against a horizontal steel girder of the building a story above their heads. As the hook swung back, Carver turned the arm back a little to guide the hook into the gang of men a second time. It narrowly missed Voinovich, who flung himself to the side on the dirt and gravel.
Carver felt the vibrations as bullets banged on the bottom of the steel cab. He could see the five men dancing from one side to another, trying to get a better shot at the glass windows.
Carver glanced beyond them at the streets. By now, cops should be surrounding this area. He could see for many blocks, but there was not a single flashing light coming from any direction. Was everybody around here deaf? The past few minutes had sounded like a war. But this was a commercial neighborhood, and everyone nearby had probably gone home hours ago. Whatever Carver was going to do, he would have to do it alone.
He looked below for the men, but they had scattered. His gaze settled on the two Hummers. He moved the trolley that held the hoist farther out on the crane’s arm, almost the full seventy-five yards, and turned the crane at the same time, so the hook on the end of the cable was in motion again. The men below seemed to understand the meaning of his movement immediately. They abandoned their hiding places, desperate to kill him before he could carry out his intention. They fired rapidly, and he could feel the vibration each time a bullet hit the cab’s steel shell. One shot hit a side window, and glass exploded into the cab.
Carver brushed the glass off his lap, and then swung the big hook again. To his disappointment, it missed the back of the closest Hummer entirely. But before he could readjust the angle, the hook swung back, directly into the windshield of the Hummer parked in front of it. He could hear the bang of the impact and the crash of breaking glass as the hook burst through the windshield and buckled the roof. Carver swung the arm back and saw that the hook was caught on the vehicle. His movement dragged the front Hummer into the back Hummer, crumpling its hood and grille. He activated the winch and raised the front Hummer forty feet into the air, and then lowered it as quickly as he could onto the back Hummer. The hook came free, and the front Hummer rolled off onto its side.
Two men ran toward the gate, sprinting as hard as they could while he moved the horizontal arm backward. As he prepared to swing the hook again, they toppled the barrel and rolled it away, shouldered open the gate, and ran outside and across the street to disappear between two buildings. A moment later, the other three made a dash for the wide-open gate. He tried to move the arm to swing the hook toward them, but by the time he got it moving, they were already across the street. He watched them from his height for a few seconds until they disappeared beyond a building.
He knew a couple of them would be lying in wait for him across the street. The others would make their way around the block to surround the construction site. As soon as he came down from his crane, they’d kill him or try to take him alive and make him give up the money he didn’t have. They knew he couldn’t be armed if he was reduced to defending himself by swinging cars at them with a crane.
Carver sat still in his crane, trying to spot the men moving to positions where they could fire through the chain-link fence into the lot. Then his eye caught a new brightness. From this height he recognized the blue and red flashing lights long before he could hear the sirens. There were two, four, six police cars now, coming fast along Beverly Boulevard. He saw two more appear on Bronson, trying to cut off an escape. He looked for the five men again. This time when he spotted them, they were blocks away, running hard.
He opened the cab of the crane to step onto the first ladder. He looked back once, noticed the three nude pictures of Mitch’s wife taped to the inside of the cab, and hesitated. Tomorrow morning there would be people all over this cabprobably cops, supervisors, all kinds of people. He tore the photographs down, bent them into a little tent shape, set them on the floor, lit each of them with his lighter, and let them burn. Mitch would see the ashes and know what had happened to them. Then he hurried down the ladders to reach the ground before the cops arrived.
He ran to the contractor’s trailer at the edge of the lot farthest from the gate. He picked up a plank and propped one end on the roof of the trailer and the other on the top of the chain-link fence, compressing the coiled razor wire. He climbed to the roof of the trailer, walked the length of the plank, and jumped to the sidewalk outside. In a few moments, he had dissolved into the night.