Bird Dog: A Car Noir Thriller

Bird Dog: A Car Noir Thriller

by Philip Reed

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)

$6.50

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671001650
Publisher: Pocket Star
Publication date: 06/01/1998
Series: Car Noir Thrillers Series
Pages: 307
Product dimensions: 4.18(w) x 6.73(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

El Jefe and his crew were selling two cars a minute at the LA Auto Auction when Harold looked up and saw her coming toward him, knifing her way through the crowd, her eyes dark with anger. Guys stepped aside, then checked her out from behind, shaking their heads and smiling at the short skirt and killer legs propped on spike heels.

Trouble was, Harold had his eye on an '86 Maxima inching its way toward the sign that said, "This Car Being Sold Now." It was a real cream puff, and Harold knew he could slap a hundred-dollar detail job on it and make a grand easy in a week. Nice piece of change for a little hustle.

But now here she was, arriving in front of him, squinting in the blazing October sun and saying, "They told me I'd find you here."

Just like that. He'd never met her before -- officially. But he knew she was Marianna Perado and she worked across the hall from him in Requisitions. He watched her walk back and forth across the office every day, the sight taking his mind all sorts of places it shouldn't go.

"They told me you come here on your lunch hour," she said, her voice cutting through the auctioneer's drone.

"They?"

"Your secretary. I heard you know something about car buying."

"I used to sell cars," he said, glancing toward the Maxima. It was on the block, and El Jefe was about to start the bidding. "Before I got a real job."

She didn't laugh. Instead she paused, breathing hard, and said, "The son of a bitch lied to me."

Harold saw her cheeks were flushed, eyes shot with hatred. Raven hair pulled back. A red gash of lipstick surrounded flashing teeth.

He slipped his hand into his pocket, unconsciously seeking his therapy ball. He used a Hacky Sack ball, kneaded it all day, mashing the beads between his thumb and forefinger. He was on his second therapy ball this month and that wasn't good. The seams had split and the beads were leaking out into his hand. Stress. It was a noose around his neck, squeezing the life out of him.

"You get ripped off or something?" Harold asked. He felt puny beside this woman with her volcanic anger.

"I just wanted a good reliable car...." Marianna began. Then the memory of what happened overwhelmed her. "Fuck," she said, the word hissing from her mouth.

Harold thought of the women he'd seen on the streets of Santiago with a history of violence and death in their eyes. He thought of the night, lying in bed, he'd mentioned his ex-wife to Carmen and had seen the jealousy flooding her face. He had assumed Marianna was Mexican. Maybe he was wrong. But she's from down there somewhere, that's for sure.

The hell with the Maxima, Harold thought, realizing it had always been women and cars -- in that order.

Harold steered the tray toward Marianna across the cafeteria, slow now in the afternoon. As he passed two women talking he caught that word again -- "layoffs." All through the eighties Aerodyne was going gangbusters. Now, overnight, everyone was saying that as soon as 1990 began, so would the layoffs and cutbacks throughout the aerospace industry in Southern California.

"So tell me the gory details," he said, handing Marianna her coffee. She took it black, just like him.

"I feel so stupid!" She suddenly laughed, but not because it was funny. She clenched her hand, driving red nails into her palms.

"Everyone gets taken once. No big deal."

"Three grand! No big deal?"

"Place I worked, they wouldn't even brag about that. They'd take four, five thou easy, on a single deal."

She paused and looked at him as if seeing him for the first time.

"You really do know about these things?"

"I sold cars once, yeah."

"They said you wrote a book...."

"I -- yeah, well. Hired a guy to write it." He took a copy of his book, How to Buy a Cream Puff, from his briefcase and handed it to her. She turned it over in her hands, amazed. Her finger traced his name on the cover as she said it.

"Harold Dodge." She looked up at him, matching name to face. "That's you. I didn't know you were a writer."

"I'm not, really. Like I said, I hired a guy to write it. I was the subject expert. I sold Fords for Joe Covo down in Torrance years ago. Before he got the Matsura dealership. Was a closer too."

Her eyes widened. She touched his wrist.

"That's where I went! Joe Covo Matsura!"

She sat back and folded her arms across her white translucent blouse. He saw lace underneath. The place she touched on his wrist was glowing.

"Good old Joe," Harold chuckled. "Lotta the salesmen down there were from the old school. Pinky rings, white shoes."

She giggled. "Soooo obvious."

"He used to have the salesman get your keys, you know, to check your trade-in. Then he'd throw them up on the roof."

"What? So --"

"Right. You couldn't leave. You had to make a deal. So that's rule number seven in my book -- always bring a spare set of keys. So they can't hold you hostage."

She threw her head back and laughed. Her exposed throat flashed white.

"How funny!" Marianna looked at him with that look -- he had answers. He didn't just understand. He had answers.

She leaned forward and touched his arm, higher up now.

"I'd never have gone there, but it said in the ad 'five hundred dollars below wholesale.'"

Harold smiled but kept silent. She caught the smile. "What?"

"Nothing. Go on."

"No, you were going to say something." Leaning forward, looking at his lips, waiting for more answers.

"They say five hundred below retail -- ah -- wholesale," -- he was getting flustered now, calm down -- "then they get you in the selling rooms and push the protection plans, the detailing contracts, the extended warranties. Everyone knows those things aren't worth the..." He saw her face tighten. "You didn't --"

The blood rose in her face again.

"He said he'd throw it in for free. When I saw it in the contract he said, 'Hey, I said it was free, didn't I? Don't worry about it.'"

Harold picked up the documents she offered and pretended to be reviewing the figures. But he was looking for something else. Ah, here it was on her credit ap: "Age: 28... Marital status: Single." His stomach tightened. He touched the therapy ball in his pocket.

"I just want my trade-in back," she was saying when he calmed down enough to listen again. "I want to dump that Japanese piece of shit I got and just get my old car back again."

"You want to unwind the deal."

"Yes!" He put things in a way that showed he could control them. Unwind the deal. That's exactly what she wanted. "Can you do it? I'll pay you or --"

"Or --" He raised his eyebrows insinuating, then laughed. "Okay, let's not get into that." She laughed, too, then was serious, searching his face.

"The salesman I had, what a slime. But you know how these bastards operate. Don't you? I mean, you wrote a book."

"I hired a guy to write it for me...." He hid his indecision behind a sip of coffee. "But car dealers -- they're not like other businesses. Once you sign on the dotted line, you're locked in. But, tell you what, if you want, after work, we'll go down to Covo's, raise hell, see what we can do."

Her face flooded with relief. "Thank you, Harold."

Then she touched his arm again, and he knew he would think of her that night as he fell asleep in his pathetic little room. And he'd think of her the moment he woke up the next morning.

Harold was having trouble with his gate pass. The plastic card was frayed and wouldn't fit into the slot. He was leaning out of the window of his GMC C2500 pickup with Marianna sitting beside him trying not to watch his awkwardness.

"Thing's an antique," he said, showing it to her as the gate finally opened and they drove through and out onto the street. "It wears out, they lay you off. Figure it's cheaper than replacing it." He hesitated, then laughed, ah-ah-ah in descending notes. She smiled at his laugh -- it was like he talked his laugh.

"You think the layoffs are coming like they say?" she asked.

"I keep hearing that. You never know."

"What'll you do if you get laid off?"

"Go to Chile."

Said for effect. Silence, driving sounds.

"Chile?"

"It's a great country. They know how to deal with their problems down there. Drug dealers, man, Pinochet rounded them up, put them on a boat out in the ocean, then torpedoed the damn thing."

"Stop it."

"Seriously." Pause. "Where you from?"

"Sherman Oaks."

He smiled. She was playing with him.

"You know what I meant."

"Guatemala." Staccato, her accent coming out.

"Ah." It was how he acknowledged answers. "Beautiful country. But I've got this thing about Chile. They've got great beer down there. It's so good you can even drink it warm. And the women -- I dated Pinochet's daughter if you can believe that."

"I can't."

He shot a look at her, surprised, then the laugh again, "Ah-ah-ah."

"Are you a bullshitter, Harold?"

"Aren't we all?"

"Yeah, but it's been a while since I heard a line like that. Pinochet's daughter? Give me a break."

She relaxed into the seat and let the city slide by, heading over the La Cienega Pass with the South Bay in front of them. She liked not driving, not worrying about the little stuff, letting her mind wander and just watching things around her -- the October-brown hills studded with oil rigs, a jet low overhead, heading into LAX.

And after they got through at the dealership, then what? Last week she'd told Kathy, "I've had it! Men are such pigs!" That was because of David. He'd shown up the night before, gave her a quickie, borrowed some money, then split. As she watched him leave she noticed he'd parked in the half-hour parking space out front. Pig.

"Just give me some rich older guy, and leave me alone," she'd told Kathy. Here he was. Strange how sometimes life gave you exactly what you asked for. And how, when you got it, you weren't sure you really wanted it after all.

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, feeling the truck cab throb around her. The sleep juices began to rise up into her brain, narcotic-like, and broken images appeared in her mind: Pancho jumping on her bed that morning, licking her face...David pulling his pants on, grinning, proud of himself...the files she'd been sorting that afternoon...the new Matsura Accell back in Lot C...

Then for a moment, she went to a place she'd never been before, dark and warm, letting herself go and not asking questions, not demanding to know where she was going and who she was with.

The truck stopped. She woke up.

Harold was signaling for a left into the dealership. Across the street, the salesmen in their white shirts and ties leaned on the hoods of cars, shooting the breeze, waiting for some sucker to walk onto the lot -- some sucker like her. She looked at Harold, who was touching something in his coat pocket, waiting for traffic to clear so he could make the turn.

Vito Fiorre was closing a librarian from Long Beach when he saw them walk on the lot. He could see past the librarian to the demos in the showroom where the floor whores were hustling walk-ins and be-backs. It was great to finally have the new 1990 models on the lot; 1990 -- that sounded weird.

Vito saw she had a guy with her this time. Stocky, graying hair and beard, mid-forties, business suit. Who the hell was he?

"If you're including it for free, why does it have to be in the contract?" the librarian was asking. Her finger shook as she pointed to the number on the paper in front of her.

"Ruth," he said, teacher now. "How can I make it any clearer? It doesn't matter what I put here -- nine ninety-five or two million dollars -- we took care of you on the back end. So don't worry about it. Okay?"

They were in the showroom now, the suit bending down to Joe's secretary, speaking, smiling. The PA popped to life, "Vito Fiorre, customer on the floor."

"I want you to take the warranty out of the contract and retotal it," the librarian was saying.

"Sure, and then we'll be here all night. Look, Ruth, I go into the boss again, I'll look like the backside of a horse going north." He waited for her to laugh. She didn't. "I'd like to come down but there's just no room. We dropped our pants on the first pass. Tell you what, I'll get you a protection plan -- gratis -- not even list it on the contract."

"I don't want a protection plan. I want the car without any --"

"Ruth, please, you're not gonna find these models on any other lot. That's why they're going for two grand over sticker." He couldn't take it anymore. He suddenly shoved back from the desk. "Excuse me one second. Okay?"

On the phone in an empty salesroom he fingered the gold chain on his wrist, waiting for Sharon to pick up. Come on. Come on. Come on. She was so friggin' slow. The suit was looking in the window of a new Integra now, talking, laughing. Sharon picked up.

"Who's the guy with her?"

"Didn't say. Just a friend, I think."

"You think. Great. I think he's a DMV investigator. What's she want?"

"She has a question about her contract."

"Like what?"

"She didn't say. Just asked for you and --"

"Okay! Okay?" He put down the phone. He considered rewriting the librarian's contract. But this was one for the book. He pictured his initials next to the final price in the little leather book in Joe's desk drawer. It was how they kept track of the amount over sticker they sold cars for. Besides, Joe had posted an extra two bills to anyone who moved the last Integra, 'cause then he could call Cincinnati and order up another dozen or two. Maybe he'd just let Madame Librarian think it over while he handled the suit.

"Vito Fiorre," he said, hand extended, friendly but ready for anything. He shook hands with the girl, like he remembered, overripe but still hot. He turned to the suit, shook his hand, thick fingers hard to close around, and the eyes a cold gray. Cheap suit, Aerodyne badge clipped to his shirt pocket. Who was this guy?

"Okay, so you love the Matsura and you brought your friend in here to buy one too." Vito followed it with a laugh. She didn't join him. In fact, he saw something happen to her eyes.

"Not exactly," she said slowly.

"Okay. I'm out of guesses. What's up?"

"You said you'd give me five thousand for my Escort if I traded in," she said.

"Sounds right...I can't remember what we actually wound up giving you."

"Well, I'll help you remember. You actually wound up giving me two thousand. When I asked you about it you said you were going to take care of me on the back end."

"If I said that, I did."

"No you didn't."

"Wait a minute. What are you saying here?"

"I'm saying you lied to me, and ripped me off for three grand."

Vito paused, as if trying to formulate an answer to such an outrageous accusation. A picture of her in bed flashed into his mind. A cat -- she was probably a real fighter in the sheets. Why was he going for a slut that was ten pounds overweight? Because she was hot, that's why.

"Marianna, you've caught me completely off guard. I don't know what to say here. I mean, in good faith I helped you purchase the car you said you wanted. Now you're accusing me of -- of -- I really think you owe me an apology."

Vito looked back and forth between the faces. The suit still wasn't talking. Just watching with those gray eyes.

"Bullshit!" she spat at him.

"Now look here. If you have a complaint, I want to hear it. If you just want to insult me --"

Harold finally spoke: "She wants you to unwind the deal is what she wants."

Vito turned to him, "Who're you? Her father?"

"It doesn't matter who I am."

"If I'm dealing with you it damn well matters who you are."

"A friend, okay?" Pause. "Marianna described the whole thing to me and it's clear what you're doing. For the most part, that's your business. But you ripped her off to the tune of about three grand. So unwind the deal and we disappear -- no questions asked."

Vito was nodding, a little amazed at this guy -- this suit from Aerodyne. His eyes didn't blink when he spoke. He was a pro. Definitely a pro. Vito felt real anger rising. He pictured himself taking the ashtray on the table and pushing those gray eyes back into the guy's head.

Instead he matched the delivery, sitting back, forcing himself to appear relaxed.

"I'm curious. What do you think we're doing?"

The suit looked away, then back. She was watching him now, getting off on it. Power was a turn-on for women.

"You got a major TO operation here -- prospect won't buy you turn him over to the next salesman...and the next, till you break him down. Right?"

Vito shrugged, uninterested, so Harold kept rolling.

"The front-liners make water, over there you hide it in bogus service warranties, protection plans --" Harold paused and pointed to the computer guys pounding out contracts in one corner of the office. "You promise a price, then the contract comes you take two to three grand extra per deal. Not bad for a little fast talk and a few lies."

The guy had this way of talking, he'd open his thick hands, palms up, as if it were all so very obvious. Vito glanced at the ashtray -- a heavy old glass one. It'd feel nice in his hand. He let the silence grow. That drove most people bananas. They hate it when you don't say anything.

"You're from the DMV."

"I'm just a friend helping a friend."

"Everything you say is strictly bullshit. Okay? We sell cars -- we make a profit. We're in business. Am I supposed to apologize for that? Of course we use computers. Everyone does these days."

"Unwind the deal."

"I'm not through."

The guy looked away, as if to say, go ahead and talk, but I'm not going to listen.

"We have a reputation to uphold here. Okay? It's the principle of the thing. I'm not saying we ripped anyone off. I did what she said she wanted -- gave her a sweet car at a super-low price, and took a piece-of-shit trade-in off her hands."

"My Escort's not a piece of shit!" she hissed. A real cat, he thought.

"But since we have a reputation to uphold here, I'm going to do something I ought never to do. I'm going to sell you your trade-in back to you. You want, you can sell it on the street, see what you get for it there."

The guy thought about it, then said to her, "It'll be a hassle -- but you'll get a fair price for it."

Everyone relaxed. Vito let the new mood settle on the threesome, then added, as if it was no big deal, "I'll have them bring your Escort back over from the warehouse. You want to stop by tomorrow morning with a check, you can take possession of it then."

They all shook hands again. Christ, the guy's hand was big. But he probably wouldn't be with her when she came back tomorrow.

He turned back down the hall and headed for the librarian from Long Beach. A voice boomed out of an open office door.

"Vito!"

Vito's stomach tightened. It was Joe Covo, the dealership's owner. He stepped into Covo's office and stood on the huge Oriental rug. He kept it dark in here, sun barely coming through venetian blinds. Music barely audible.

"Who's the guy?"

"What guy?"

"What guy? The guy and the girl. He looked familiar."

Covo was six feet of steel poured into a thousand-dollar suit. He was one of those guys that would look exactly the same way for about another two decades. And he could generate silence worse than any closer on the lot. Just sat there and looked at you till you wanted to slit your wrists.

"Were they prospects?"

"No. He was some nobody. Came in with the girl 'cause she had a question on her contract."

"What question?"

"Joe, I handled it. Okay? What's the problem?"

Joe finally looked away, saying, "LaBounty called. He's coming out tomorrow night."

"Party time," Vito said, a big smile growing on his face.

Joe cut him off. "Not exactly."

"Why not?"

"He's bringing Parker and Bales with him."

"So?"

"So I don't like it." Pause. "I'm hearing things."

"Like what things?"

"Like it's all over. Like it got too big. Like someone got pissed and they're gonna shut us down."

"No way, Joe. They can't do that."

"That's what I heard. And now I get this call from LaBounty. He's comin' with Parker and Bales. What am I supposed to think?"

Vito waited, then timed it just right, hoping to get Joe out of his funk.

"Hey, I got one for the book -- a librarian wants to buy that silver Integra. I'm closing her right now."

Joe looked up at Vito. "You close her. Understand?"

"Okay, Joe."

"Close her. And when LaBounty gets here I'll hit him up for another shipment of Integras."

"I'll close her. Okay?"

Harold started as a Bird Dog for Joe Covo fifteen years ago. He was working his way through night school, getting his degree in chemical engineering when he needed some extra bucks. Joe slipped him a crisp hundred-dollar bill for every sucker he flushed out of the bushes, sent down to the dealership like pigeons to be shot out of the sky.

Joe gave him a loaner with the lot paint still on it: SUPER CLEAN it said across the windshield in big white letters. LOW MILES. That was a good conversation starter. He'd run into another student in the parking lot at City College, or strike up a conversation with someone at the store. Was it really clean? they wanted to know. Not a scratch on it, he'd say. Didn't they turn the odometer back sometimes? Maybe at some places, but not at Joe Covo's. Look at all that rubber on the brake pedal, that's how you tell. But car salesmen are so damn pushy. Not at Joe's they're not. You ought to check it out. Tell 'em I sent you. They'll take care of you.

So the Bird Dog sent the pigeons in, one by one, and the salesmen shot them right out of the sky. They could always spot a pigeon when one showed up and said, "I'm a friend of Abe's." That's what the Bird Dog called himself then. And the salesmen took it from there. And the Bird Dog pocketed a hundred-dollar bill. Not bad for a little fast talk and a few white lies.

Soon Joe gave the Bird Dog a job on the lot, and his nickname stuck. And the Bird Dog told bigger lies, and made larger bills, and put his college plans on hold. He began to acquire a taste for gold, and for paying in cash, and for bragging about his lies. The Bird Dog was so good that Joe made him a closer in the F & I room. Customers were led down the hall to Finance & Insurance, where Harold was waiting for them behind a big desk. He was famous for hitting home runs -- loading contracts with everything from cheap alarm systems to detailing contracts no one ever used. And the customer always signed. Sure, they signed. It was the fastest way to get the hell out of there.

But one day the Bird Dog looked up from a contract and saw the sweet face of his grandmother. It wasn't his grandmother, because she had died a dozen years before. But it was enough like her so that he read the numbers on the contract and began to think what they would do to her. Then he looked at the "Super Clean!" "Low Miles!" car she was about to drive away in. And he decided he didn't want his gramma -- or anyone's gramma -- driving around in that piece of shit. At that price.

And the Bird Dog helped the pigeon fly away.

Harold took gramma down the road to Don Kott's Chevrolet, picked out a nice runner for her, and wrestled the salesmen for it. And she drove away happy. When he returned to the dealership Joe was waiting for him. Joe called all the salesmen together outside under the perfect California sky, the sunlight glinting off their gold watches and white shirts and oiled hair, and he told them what the Bird Dog had done. The Bird Dog went soft, he said, and everyone laughed. The Bird Dog let a pigeon go, he said, and everyone laughed. The Bird Dog was a sucker, he said, and laughed. And then he fired Harold right there in front of them all as an example.

The Bird Dog knew he would be punished or fired. But he hadn't allowed for the power of public humiliation, for twenty-five guys looking at him and snickering and saying to each other, "Weak asshole." And so he turned to Joe Covo and said only one thing before he left: "You shouldn't have done that."

Harold sold his gold watch and rings and picked up his former plans to become a chemical engineer. But he never forgot what happened on the car lot that afternoon, never forgot how it felt to be told "you're fired" in public. It made him mad. So mad he couldn't think about it directly. The only way to lose the anger was to think of gramma out there somewhere, driving a cream puff at a grand under wholesale.

Harold sat at the table in Denny's as if he were preparing for surgery. He inspected the silverware, straightened the napkin, aligned the menu, and, after the waitress took his order for the skillet omelet, said, "I want two glasses: one with ice only, and one with water. Salsa on the side and extra napkins."

Marianna watched everything he did, half amused. He hadn't even looked at the menu. He was a regular here, this Denny's with LAX-bound jets practically landing on the roof. A regular at Denny's, for Christ's sake.

"I travel a lot, for my books," he was saying, still straightening things on the table, preparing for the meal. "I spend a lot of time in greasy spoons."

She nodded. "What's water?"

His face showed bewilderment, then understanding, remembering what he'd said at the dealership.

"Car salesman talk."

"But old Vito almost wet his pants when you said it."

"Wasn't that something? I made a guess, got lucky."

"You were bullshitting again."

He just laughed: ah-ah-ah. "I remembered how they work things there. The rest was just a guess."

"But it did the trick. You got me my Escort back."

"Yeah, well..."

"No, really. Thanks. Thanks, you're sweet."

She thought he was blushing. How could a guy so cool in the dealership turn into a marshmallow an hour later?

The water glasses arrived and Harold began some sort of ritual, pouring small amounts of water over the ice, stirring it. He jumped, surprised, then took the beeper off his hip and read the number.

"Sorry, gotta return this call," he said, sliding out of the booth. "I'm selling a couple of cars."

"A couple?"

"I buy them at auctions, put a hundred-dollar detail job on them, and turn 'em around."

Marianna nodded, then watched as Harold went to a pay phone in the corner. She could hear him talking to someone on the phone, saying, "No, it's got the twin side-draft Webers. They started using them in '84," and lost interest. She looked around the restaurant, dreamy. There were two cops in a corner booth, a salesman by himself, a black guy with a white woman having a fight. This was Harold's hangout.

"So what's water?" she asked him as he eased himself back into the booth, glancing at notes he'd written on a three-by-five index card.

"What you told me, the way they quoted high up-front figures, used the computer to generate contracts. They were creating water. They inflate the early figures they give you verbally -- DMV fees, transport fees. Then they hide the profit in legitimate items like service warranties -- i.e., they launder the monies."

"I.e., they're ripping off suckers like me," she said, waiting to see how he took it. He smiled.

"I talk funny, don't I?"

"Yes, Harold. But you're sweet, so don't worry about it."

"I think I like that."

She saw the waitress picking up their food from under the heat lamps, then timed it just right, covering his thick hand with hers and squeezing.

"Are you married, Harold? 'Cause if you're not I want you. If you are we're going to have an affair."

Kim saw him as soon as she stepped out onstage, building his house out of five-dollar bills on the runner. The hotter the dance, the bigger the house got, till there was fifteen, twenty bucks there -- a big tip for a short dance. When the girls saw Harold on the runner, they gave it everything, then danced over and collected it in their G-string.

She hadn't seen him in here for a while. Must have been on the wagon again, or tied up in one of his damn books. He got busy he didn't come around much. And she missed him. Missed his money, missed the loopy talks they had.

She was doing it to "Brown Sugar," her favorite, the twinkle lights throwing shards of color on her breasts and hips as they glistened from her work. She danced it just for him, right over him, giving him everything from the deep wild place where all the good dancing and the good sex came from. She didn't know how to get to the deep wild place all the time, but when she did, she let it pour through her like a river.

Her body was on fire now and everyone in the place knew it. Broken-down old guys in dark corner booths looked away from the other girls. Steve behind the bar glanced over while drawing a beer, and a pair of vice cops stopped watching their mark. Everyone knew Kim was the best.

She was still beautifully flushed when she sat down beside Harold. Her breasts were glowing with a fine moisture, her breath heavy. She tossed her hair like a mane.

Harold's thick finger pointed to his house of bills. "You won the house," Harold said. "The whole damn house. You practically burned it down. Want it now or later?"

"Now." She stood up and offered herself.

Harold gathered up his bills and put them in her G-string. His hand lingered, brushing her pubic hair, feeling the swell of her vagina opening up somewhere out of reach of his fingers. He pulled out while he still could.

She sat down again. His face was flushed. He was so cute when he was like this. She thought of their times in bed; he touched her with respect and love and strength. He knew women.

"Got a favor," Kim said.

"Right now, you can have any damn thing you want from me," he said, wiping his forehead.

"It's Pam. She's been on the street the last three nights. Help me find her, would ya?"

"Pam." He said it not as a question, but to stall.

"Don't say you don't remember her. The redhead."

"Redhead. Oh-oh."

"What?"

"Linda, my ex-wife, was a redhead. Just when I got used to the color, she left me. Swore I'd never touch another redhead."

"So don't touch her. Just help her. Steve's got her a place. But it's not open till Friday. Till then he said she could sleep in the back."

Harold thought about it. Then, as if to explain his hesitation he said, "I met someone today."

"Then what're you doing here, tongue hangin' out on the runner?"

"I just met her is all. She's petite, like I like them. Black hair, a little heavy maybe but --"

Kim slapped him, harder than just playful. "Be an angel. Help me get Pam."

Harold's truck headlights found Pam in the parking lot of the Oceanview Motel on El Segundo, some black guy hitting on her, offering her some free coke if she'd step into his car and give him a little curbside service. Oceanview -- shit. No one had ever seen the ocean from here. No one who stayed here had ever even been to the ocean.

Pam's frizzy red hair shot out above thin little-girl shoulders. Light blue dress hugging her growing breasts and falling down on her hips so nice.

Harold angled the truck up next to them and hit the power window.

"Pam!"

Maybe he could scoop her up and get the hell out of here. What was he doing here anyway? One minute he's minding his own business in a strip joint, the next he's rescuing hookers.

"Pam! Get in here!"

She looked over, eyes not focusing on him -- just another guy in another car yelling get in! Right now she was warming to the idea of some free coke.

"Sorry, honey, I'm busy." She turned back to the black guy, skinny and tall, turquoise bracelet falling loose on his long arm.

"Go get her," Kim said, pushing Harold.

"You get her."

"She won't listen to me. Go get her."

Harold leaned out the window. "Pam! It's me, Harold! Get in here!"

She started for the cab.

"The fuck you goin'?" The black guy yanked her back by the arm.

Kim pushed Harold again.

"Go get her."

"All right!" he said, and got out of the truck, came around into the headlights thinking, this guy sticks me, I'll wind up with my head in a puddle. Engineer Slain in Motel Tiff. Fitting end to a shitty life. And just when I found someone I like.

"Hey you. Lemme talk to you," Harold said to the guy.

"Got nothin' to say to you, man," the guy whined, falsetto. "I'm being with my lady right now."

"We can talk here, we can talk at the station. Have a nice long chat there," Harold heard himself say. He pulled his wallet, flipped it open to his Aerodyne ID. Just flashed it. Just for the effect.

"County juvenile investigator," he was saying, almost laughing inside, laughing until he imagined the guy pulling a knife or a sneaky little gun from his boot. "You don't want to get mixed up in this."

"You try and take her," the guy said, jabbing a finger at Harold, "I'm gonna mess you up, motherfucker."

"Easy," Harold said, taking one step back and reaching behind, up under his coat, as if for a gun in his waistband, a move he learned as an MP in South Carolina. He spent the whole time fighting rednecks who thought Californians were soft-brained beach boys. Harold hated the water. Always had.

"Get in the car, Pam." She was staring, surprised. "Get in the fucking car! Now!" She started moving. The guy stood there, telling Harold all the things he was going to do to him. But he didn't come for Harold. That was all that mattered.

The door opened on Harold's stuffy little one-bedroom, the heat of the day trapped stale inside. It was a low duplex on one of those streets where everyone fixed their cars out front, throwing the empty oil cans in the gutter. Cheap new condos on one side, a trailer court on the other. Eight lanes of the 405 somewhere up above, traffic moving through the night.

Kim stood in the cramped living room and looked around. Shelves everywhere, packed with books, paper, envelopes, a postage machine. Sheets over the sofa and chairs. Then the noise hit her -- ticking. Lots of ticking. There were clocks all over the place. Ticking.

"I do these insurance losses," Harold said to explain all the clocks. "Pick up some nice things every once in a while. Got a big buy tomorrow. Radiators."

He opened the refrigerator. "Want something? I could make some eggs or something. They're good with salsa."

Harold took off his jacket and hung it on the back of a chair.

"You don't have a gun," Kim said, looking at his broad back, empty above the waistband.

He laughed. "I hate guns. Scare the shit out of me."

She giggled. "You're such a liar, Harold."

He was facing her now, smiling, arm up in the kitchen archway. "I'm a bad boy, aren't I?"

"I don't know. Are you?" She began unbuttoning her dress.

"You don't have to," he said, watching her.

"What if I want to?" She kept popping loose the buttons, still in that fake flirty talk she used in the bar.

"It was just a favor. I do favors for people, I don't expect nothing in return."

"Harold, honey, it's awful hot in here." She let the dress fall down around her and stood there naked. Naked on stage, with eighty other guys ogling her, was one thing. Naked here in his apartment all alone with her was another.

He was amazed how tight his voice sounded when he said, "Does that mean you don't want any eggs?"

Copyright © 1997 by Philip Reed

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