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Death was driving an emerald-green Lexus. It pulled off the street, passed the four self-service pumps, and stopped in one of the two full-service lanes.
Standing in front of the station, Jack McGarvey noticed the car but not the driver. Even under a bruised and swollen sky that hid the sun, the Lexus gleamed like a jewel, a sleek and lustrous machine. The windows were darkly tinted, so he couldn't have seen the driver clearly even if he had tried.
As a thirty-two-year-old cop with a wife, a child, and a big mortgage, Jack had no prospects of buying an expensive luxury car, but he didn't envy the owner of the Lexus. He often remembered his dad's admonition that envy was mental theft. If you coveted another man's possessions, Dad said, then you should be willing to take on his responsibilities, heartaches, and troubles along with his money.
He stared at the car for a moment, admiring it as he might a priceless painting at the Getty Museum or a first edition of a James M. Cain novel in a pristine dust jacket—with no strong desire to possess it, taking pleasure merely from the fact of its existence.
In a society that often seemed to be spinning toward anarchy, where ugliness and decay made new inroads every day, his spirits were lifted by any proof that the hands of men and women were capable of producing things of beauty and quality. The Lexus, of course, was an import, designed and manufactured on foreign shores; however, it was the entire human species that seemed damned, not just his countrymen, and evidence of standards and dedication was heartening regardless of where he found it.
An attendant in a gray uniform hurried out of the office and approached the gleaming car, and Jack gave his full attention, once more, to Hassam Arkadian.
"My station is an island of cleanliness in a filthy sea, an eye of sanity in a storm of madness," Arkadian said, speaking earnestly, unaware of sounding melodramatic.
He was slender, about forty, with dark hair and a neatly trimmed mustache. The creases in the legs of his gray cotton work pants were knife-sharp, and his matching work shirt and jacket were immaculate.
"I had the aluminum siding and the brick treated with a new sealant," he said, indicating the facade of the service station with a sweep of his arm. "Paint won't stick to it. Not even metallic paint. Wasn't cheap. But now when these gang kids or crazy-stupid taggers come around at night and spray their trash all over the walls, we scrub it off, scrub it right off the next morning."
With his meticulous grooming, singular intensity, and quick slender hands, Arkadian might have been a surgeon about to begin his workday in an operating theater. He was, instead, the owner-operator of the service station.
"Do you know," he said incredulously, "there are professors who have written books on the value of graffiti? The value of graffiti? The value?"
"They call it street art," said Luther Bryson, Jack's partner.
Arkadian gazed up disbelievingly at the towering black cop. "You think what these punks do is art?"
"Hey, no, not me," Luther said.
At six three and two hundred ten pounds, he was three inches taller than Jack and forty pounds heavier, with maybe eight inches and seventy pounds on Arkadian. Though he was a good partner and a good man, his granite face seemed incapable of the flexibility required for a smile. His deeply set eyes were unwaveringly forthright. My Malcolm X glare, he called it. With or without his uniform, Luther Bryson could intimidate anyone from the Pope to a purse snatcher.
He wasn't using the glare now, wasn't trying to intimidate Arkadian, was in complete agreement with him. "Not me. I'm just saying that's what the candy-ass crowd calls it. Street art."
The service-station owner said, "These are professors. Educated men and women. Doctors of art and literature. They have the benefit of an education my parents couldn't afford to give me, but they're stupid. There's no other word for it. Stupid, stupid, stupid." His expressive face revealed the frustration and anger that Jack encountered with increasing frequency in the City of Angels. "What fools do universities produce these days?"
Arkadian had labored to make his operation special. Bracketing the property were wedge-shaped brick planters in which grew queen palms, azaleas laden with clusters of red flowers, and impatiens in pinks and purples. There was no grime, no litter. The portico covering the pumps was supported by brick columns, and the whole station had a quaint colonial appearance.
In any age, the station would have seemed misplaced in Los Angeles. Freshly painted and clean, it was doubly out of place in the grunge that had been spreading like a malignancy through the city during the nineties.
"Come on, come look, look," Arkadian said, and headed toward the south end of the building.
"Poor guy's gonna blow out an artery in the brain over this," Luther said.
"Somebody should tell him it's not fashionable to give a damn these days," Jack said.
A low and menacing rumble of thunder rolled through the distended sky.
Looking at the dark clouds, Luther said, "Weatherman predicted it wouldn't rain today."
"Maybe it wasn't thunder. Maybe somebody finally blew up city hall."
"You think? Well, if the place was full of politicians," Luther said, "we should take the rest of the day off, find a bar, do some celebrating."
"Come on, officers," Arkadian called to them. He had reached the south corner of the building, near where they had parked their patrol car. "Look at this, I want you to see this, I want you to see my bathrooms."
"His bathrooms?" Luther said.
Jack laughed. "Hell, you got anything better to do?"
"A lot safer than chasing bad guys," Luther said, following Arkadian.
Jack glanced at the Lexus again. Nice machine. Zero to sixty in how many seconds? Eight? Seven? Must handle like a dream.
The driver had gotten out of the car and was standing beside it. Jack noticed little about the guy, only that he was wearing a loose-fitting, double-breasted Armani suit.
The Lexus, on the other hand, had wire wheels and chrome guards around the wheel wells. Reflections of storm clouds moved slowly across its windshield and made mysterious smoky patterns in the depths of its jewel-green finish.
Sighing, Jack followed Luther past the two open bays of the repair garage. The first stall was empty, but a gray BMW was on the hydraulic lift in the second space. A young Asian man in mechanic's coveralls was at work on the car. Tools and supplies were neatly racked along the walls, floor to ceiling, and the two bays looked cleaner than the average kitchen in a four-star restaurant.
At the corner of the building stood a pair of soft-drink vending machines. They purred and clinked as if formulating and bottling the beverages within their own guts.
Around the corner were the men's and women's rest rooms, where Arkadian had opened both doors. "Take a look, go ahead—I want you to see my bathrooms."
Both small rooms had white ceramic-tile floors and walls, white commodes, white swing-top waste cans, white sinks, gleaming chrome fixtures, and large mirrors above the sinks.
"Spotless," Arkadian said, talking fast, running his sentences together in his quiet anger. "No streaks on the mirrors, no stains in the sinks, we check them after every customer uses them, disinfect them every day, you could eat off those floors and it would be as safe as eating off the plates from your own mother's kitchen."
Looking at Jack over Arkadian's head, Luther smiled and said, "I think I'll have a steak and baked potato. What about you?"
"Just a salad," Jack said. "I'm trying to lose a few pounds."
Even if he had been listening to them, Mr. Arkadian couldn't have been joked out of his bleak mood. He jangled a ring of keys.
"I keep them locked, give the keys only to customers. City inspector stops around, he tells me a new rule says these are public facilities, so you've got to let them open for the public, whether they buy anything at your place or not."
He jangled the keys again, harder, more angrily, then harder still. Neither Jack nor Luther tried to comment above the strident ring and rattle.
"Let them fine me. I'll pay the fine. When these are unlocked, the drunks and junkie bums who live in alleys and parks, they use my bathrooms, urinate on the floor, vomit in the sinks. You wouldn't believe the mess they make, disgusting, things I'd be embarrassed to talk about."
Arkadian was actually blushing at the thought of what he could have told them. He waved the jangling keys in the air in front of each open door, and he reminded Jack of nothing so much as a voodoo priest casting a spell—in this case, to ward off the riffraff who would despoil his rest rooms. His face was as mottled and turbulent as the stormy sky.
"Let me tell you something. Hassam Arkadian works sixty and seventy hours a week, Hassam Arkadian employs eight people full time, and Hassam Arkadian pays half of what he earns in taxes, but Hassam Arkadian is not going to spend his life cleaning up vomit because a bunch of stupid bureaucrats have more compassion for some lazy-drunken-psycho-junkie bums than they have for people who are trying their damnedest to lead decent lives."
He finished his speech in a rush, breathless. Stopped jangling the keys. Sighed. He closed the doors and locked them.
Jack felt useless. He could see that Luther was uncomfortable too. Sometimes a cop couldn't do much more for a victim than nod in sympathy and shake his head in sorry amazement at the depths into which the city was sinking. That was one of the worst things about the job.
Mr. Arkadian went around the corner to the front of the station again. He wasn't walking as fast as before. His shoulders were slumped, and for the first time he looked more dejected than angry, as if he had decided, perhaps on a subconscious level, to give up the fight.
Jack hoped that wasn't the case. In his daily life, Hassam was struggling to realize a dream of a better future, a better world. He was one of a dwindling number who still had enough guts to resist entropy. Civilization's soldiers, warring on the side of hope, were already too few to make a satisfactory army.
Adjusting their gun belts, Jack and Luther followed Arkadian past the soft-drink dispensers.
The man in the Armani suit was standing at the second vending machine, studying the selections. He was about Jack's age, tall, blond, clean-shaven, with a golden-bronze complexion that could have been gotten locally at that time of year only from a tanning bed. As they walked by him, he pulled a handful of change from one pocket of his baggy trousers and picked through the coins.
Out at the pumps, the attendant was washing the windshield of the Lexus, though it had looked freshly washed when the car first pulled in from the street.
Arkadian stopped at the plate-glass window that occupied half the front wall of the station office. "Street art," he said softly, sadly, as Jack and Luther joined him. "Only a fool would call it anything but vandalism. Barbarians are loose."
Lately, some vandals had traded spray cans for stencils and acid paste. They etched their symbols and slogans on the glass of parked cars and the windows of businesses that were unprotected by security shutters at night.
Arkadian's front window was permanently marred by half a dozen different personal marks made by members of the same gang, some of them repeated two and three times. In four-inch-high letters, they had also etched the words THE BLOODBATH IS COMING.
These antisocial acts often reminded Jack of an event in Nazi Germany about which he'd once read: Before the war had even begun, psychopathic thugs had roamed the streets during one long night, Kristallnacht, defacing walls with hateful words, smashing windows of homes and stores owned by Jews until the streets glittered as if paved with crystal. Sometimes it seemed to him that the barbarians to which Arkadian referred were the new fascists, from both ends of the political spectrum this time, hating not just Jews but anyone with a stake in social order and civility. Their vandalism was a slow-motion Kristallnacht, conducted over years instead of hours.
"It's worse on the next window," Arkadian said, leading them around the corner to the north side of the station.
That wall of the office featured another large sheet of glass, on which, in addition to gang symbols, etched block letters proclaimed ARMENIAN SHITHEAD.
Even the sight of the racial slur couldn't rekindle Hassam Arkadian's anger. He stared sad-eyed at the offensive words and said, "I've always tried to treat people well. I'm not perfect, not without sin. Who is? But I've done my best to be a good man, fair, honest—and now this."
"Won't make you feel any better," Luther said, "but if it was up to me, the law would let us take the creeps who do this and stencil that second word right above their eyes. Shithead. Etch it into their skin with acid just like they did to your glass. Make 'em walk around like that for a couple of years and see how their attitude improves before maybe we give them some plastic surgery."
"You think you can find who did it?" Arkadian asked, though he surely knew the answer.
Luther shook his head, and Jack said, "Not a chance. We'll file a report, of course, but there's no manpower to work on small crime like this. Best thing you can do is install roll-down metal-shutters the same day you replace the windows, so they're covered at night."
"Otherwise, you'll be putting in new glass every week," Luther said, "and pretty soon your insurance company will drop you."
"They already dropped my vandalism coverage after one claim," Hassam Arkadian said. "About the only cling they'll cover me for now is earthquake, flood, and fire. Not even fire if it happens in a riot."
They stood in silence, staring at the window, brooding about their powerlessness.
A cool March wind sprang up. In the nearby planter, the queen palms rustled, and soft creaking noises arose from where the stems of the big fronds joined the trunks.
"Well," Jack said at last, "it could be worse, Mr. Arkadian. I mean, at least you're in a pretty good part of the city here on the West Side."
"Yeah, and doesn't it break your heart," Arkadian said, "this is a good neighborhood?"
Jack didn't even want to think about that.
Ludher started to speak but was interrupted by a loud crash and a shout of anger from the front of the station. As the three of them hurried around the corner, a violent gust of wind made the plate-glass windows thrum.
Fifty feet away, the man in the Armani suit kicked the vending machine again. A foaming can of Pepsi lay behind him, contents spreading across the blacktop.
"Poison," he shouted at the machine, "poison, damn it, damn you, damn you, poison!"
Arkadian rushed toward the customer. "Sir, please, I'm sorry, if the machine gave you the wrong selection—"
"Hey, wait right there," Luther said, speaking as much to the station owner as to the infuriated stranger.
In front of the office door, Jack caught up with Arkadian, put a hand on his shoulder, stopped him, and said, "Better let us handle this."
"Damn poison," the customer said furiously, and he made a fist as if he wanted to punch the vending machine.
"It's just the machine," Arkadian told Jack and Luther. "They keep saying it's fixed, but it keeps giving you Pepsi when you push Orange Crush."
As bad as things were in the City of Angels these days, Jack found it difficult to believe that Arkadian was accustomed to seeing people fly off the handle every time an unwanted can of Pepsi dropped into the dispensing tray.
The customer turned away from the machine and from them, as if he might walk off and leave his Lexus. He seemed to be shaking with anger, but it was mostly the blustery wind shivering the loosely fitted suit.
"What's wrong here?" Luther asked, heading toward the guy as thunder tolled across the lowering sky and the palms in the south planter thrashed against a backdrop of black clouds.
Jack started to follow Luther before he saw the suit jacket billow out behind the blond, flapping like bat wings. Except the coat had been buttoned a moment ago. Double-breasted, buttoned twice.
The angry man faced away from them still, shoulders hunched, head lowered. Because of the loose and billowing fabric of his suit, he seemed less than human, like a hunchbacked troll. The guy began to turn, and Jack would not have been surprised to see the deformed muzzle of a beast, but it was the same tan and clean-shaven face as before.
Why had the son of a bitch unbuttoned the coat unless there was something under it that he needed, and what might an irrational and angry man need that he kept under his jacket, his loose-fitting suit jacket, his roomy goddamned jacket?
Jack called a warning to Luther.
But Luther sensed trouble too. His right hand moved toward the gun holstered on his hip.
The perp had the advantage because he was the initiator. No one knew violence was at hand until he unleashed it, so he swung all the way around to face them, holding a weapon in both hands, before Luther and Jack had even touched their revolvers.
Automatic gunfire hammered the day. Bullets pounded Luther's chest, knocked the big man off his feet, hurled him backward, and Hassam Arkadian spun from the impact of one-two-three hits, went down hard, screaming in agony.
Jack threw himself against the glass door to the office. He almost made it to cover before taking a hit to the left leg. He felt as if he'd been clubbed across the thigh with a tire iron, but it was a bullet, not a blow.
He dropped facedown on the office floor. The door swung shut behind him, gunfire shattered it, and gummy chunks of tempered glass cascaded across his back.
Hot pain boiled sweat from him.
A radio was playing. Golden oldies. Dionne Warwick. Singing about the world needing love, sweet love.
Outside, Arkadian was still screaming, but there wasn't a sound from Ludher Bryson.
Luther was dead. Jack couldn't think about that. Dead. Didn't dare dlink about it. Dead. Wouldn't think about it.
The chatter of more gunfire.
Someone else screamed. Probably the attendant at the Lexus. It wasn't a lasting scream. Brief, quickly choked off.
Outside, Arkadian wasn't screaming anymore, either. He was sobbing and calling for Jesus.
Hard, chill wind made the plate-glass windows vibrate. It hooted through the shattered door.
The gunman would be coming.