|Product dimensions:||4.24(w) x 6.72(h) x 0.94(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Harold was on the 405 Freeway in the South Bay Curve when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the Buick Riviera moving up behind him. it pulled even with him in the fast lane and he looked over and saw there were four of them, black hair slicked back, Dago T's showing the tattoos on their muscled shoulders. Gangbangers. What the hell did they want? He half expected them to pull out guns and start blasting.
But no, they were smiling. Smiling and nodding, checking out his car and liking what they saw: a Bahama green '64 Chevy Impala SS with a 340-horse engine. The last of the muscle machines. The Buick's driver gave Harold thumbs-up, put his foot down, and disappeared in traffic, glasspacks rumbling. That's life in LA, Harold thought, realizing all over again how bizarre this city was.
He had lived here his whole life until he was forced to leave the country last year because of a couple of murders he didn't commit. Now, he was back to straighten things out. Repair the damage he had done to Vikki's life, and his own, and -- who knows? -- make some nice money in the process. He'd planned it out while living in Chile and, from there, it seemed like it'd be a piece of cake. But now that he was back on the restless streets of LA, he had that edgy feeling again, the feeling that here, nothing was a done deal. Everything was up for grabs.
He took the Hawthorne Exit and began the climb into the Palos Verdes Hills to Vikki's house. Twenty minutes later he parked next to the gates to the big house, under the jacaranda trees dropping purple flowers on the quiet street.
Vikki was in the garage, bending over the engine of an Austin Healey Mark III with a FOR SALE sign in the windshield. He was tempted to stand there and admire this view of her, but the last thing he needed was to have her turn and catch him at it so he cleared his throat and said, "Don't see many of those anymore. What is it? A '62?"
Her face came out from under the hood and she stood up, staring at him, realizing who he was and not liking it at all, and finally said, "The hell do you want?"
"I'm Harold Dodge. I met you --"
"I know who you are."
She held a 12 millimeter box-end wrench, her muscled forearms smeared black to the elbow. There was nothing, he thought, quite as sexy as a woman with grease on her hands and a chip on her shoulder.
"Problem with those" -- Harold nodded at the Healey -- "you could never balance those S.U. carburetors. Thing runs okay, but it won't idle."
"That's why I swapped them out for Webers," she said. "Only an asshole would run one of these with S.U.s. And it's not a '62, it's a '63."
He realized that she thought he was testing her, seeing if she really did know cars -- and obviously she did -- so he let that subject die, paused, laughed apologetically, and said, "You've changed since I saw you in Chile last year."
"I guess I had to, didn't I?" she said, pushing back a strand of blond hair with an ungreased patch on the back of her wrist.
Harold could see her breath coming fast, chest rising and falling under the denim shirt, blue eyes shining like polished chrome. She reached into her breast pocket and lifted an unfiltered cigarette out of the pack and straight up into her mouth. The cigarette, with one small grease mark, bobbed unlit, as she talked.
"One day I'm leading the good life -- your basic high-maintenance woman. I mean, hey, my husband owns the biggest car dealership in LA, so I'm loaded, right? Then my husband disappears -- I don't know if he's dead or alive. Suddenly, it's up to me to provide for this mansion on the hill. Four grand a month in mortgage. Plus I find out my husband was up to his ass in debt, and it looks like I might lose everything -- I mean everything -- so, yeah, I guess maybe I have changed."
Harold felt this scene wasn't going well, not at all like he pictured it, so he said, "Maybe I can help."
Her hands stopped, lighter halfway to the unlit cigarette: "There's only one thing you can tell me that will help. Where's my husband?"
He paused, wanting to make it easier, but finally just said, "In the morgue, up in Santa Barbara."
That stopped her cold and he could almost hear her thinking, So he really is dead then. He really is dead, and in that moment he saw the attitude fall away like a mask and she was fresh and vulnerable and very beautiful.
A phone began ringing inside the big house and she said, "I'm sorry," and pushed past him and disappeared inside. Through the door he could hear her voice, unsteady as she said, "Yeah, it's still for sale -- a '63 Mark III with a rebuilt engine. I'm asking seven grand, but make me an offer."
Harold stood there in the silent garage, smelling the gasoline and carburetor cleaner and thinking how, when he had last seen her, she was a California blonde -- a bimbo, really -- not his type at all. But she wasn't perfect anymore. She was angry and banged up and even aged a little bit. And that changed everything. A woman like this he could go for.
Besides that, it was great to find a woman he could talk cars with.
From the outside, Vikki's house looked like a damn palace. But as Harold moved inside from the garage he saw the rooms were empty, the furniture sold for cash, he assumed. Even the chandelier in the dining room was gone, the wires taped off and dangling. Blocks of mismatched paint on the walls showed where pictures had been, depressions in the carpet where furniture had stood. Room after room, stripped and abandoned like a stolen car.
He found Vikki in a room at the top of the stairs. The shelves lining the walls were bare except for a few framed photos that had fallen facedown in the dust. She was leaning against the window frame, finally smoking the cigarette, looking out at the ocean, wind blowing the tops off the waves and the mountains of Catalina like ghosts over the horizon of the Pacific. Harold noticed that little lines were appearing around her eyes now that she was, what, maybe thirty, thirty-three. But she still looked great. Hell, she'd probably look great for about another two decades.
She turned away from the window and straightened, her eyes raking him. "So okay. So you're after the money, right?"
"You want money for telling me about Joe. You're like those private detectives, or those lawyers that keep calling. You're after a cut of the insurance money."
"I -- look, I'm no lawyer -- i.e., I hate those bloodsuckers."
"Then why'd you come back?"
"I have some family problems to take care of. My dad's sick and...well, I figured it was time to tell you."
She was staring at him, maybe wondering whether to believe him, so he continued the little speech he'd heard in his head so many times: "Lot of crazy stuff happened last year. I screwed things up pretty bad. So what I want to do is straighten things out."
"Straighten things out? Excuse me, but I don't really think you can straighten things out. And for you to even propose it is the most asinine thing I've ever heard."
Harold knew she had to say those things. So he took it, listening to wind outside and watching the anger in her face. Then he softly said, "I can't explain why it happened. My ex used to say, 'You've got a storm around you.' She's right. But I'm doing my best to put that behind me now. And I don't know where else to start but here, with you, telling you what I know."
It probably wasn't his words, but it might have been the feeling behind them that dissolved the anger in her eyes. He took a step toward the door.
"You gotta understand -- it screwed up my life too. Hell, I almost wound up in prison. So I had to let things cool off first. So now you know. Sorry I couldn't say anything sooner.
When she didn't speak, he said, "Well, good luck," and slowly walked out the door.
He was in the hallway when he heard her voice, without the anger now, say, "Harold?" He paused, stepped back inside the room.
"I need your help." It hurt her to say it.
"You know, don't you? You know what happened to Joe. How he was killed and..."
"Not everything --"
"But enough. So if there's a problem, with the insurance, with the police, you could help. See, I don't have time for problems now because I'm very close to the end."
Don't jump at it, he told himself, trying to look like the offer took him by surprise.
"I'll make it worth your while."
"How could I take money for something like this?" Man, he was really pushing it now. But the offer should come from her. He had figured she'd never go for it otherwise.
"I could give you a percentage of the insurance money -- say, five percent."
He had been hoping for ten. But what were we talking here? Five percent of a half mill? That was still a nice chunk of change.
"And I'll give you another five percent on everything else."
"What else is there?" Harold said, trying to keep his face blank as he thought, This could be better than I thought.
"I want Joe's dealership. Way I figure it, what belonged to Joe belongs to me now. Eddie Fallon, he was Joe's general manager. After Joe disappeared Fallon filed suit claiming he and Joe were actually partners. He's running the dealership now."
"I countersued saying it was willed to me. Now it's stuck in the courts. But I found out that Fallon and Joe were into something, before he was killed."
She took down the one picture still hanging on the wall. Behind it was a small safe, unlocked. She reached in and took out a folder stuffed with computer printouts, handwritten notes.
"I found this after he -- he left. He was moving cars all over the place. Money too. I can't figure it out. And he had this." She took out a small pistol, a Saturday night special by the looks of it, the light reflecting dully off the blue steel. "He never told me he had this. So he must have been in some kind of danger."
"Okay," Harold said, stepping aside so the gun didn't point at him. Christ, he hated guns.
"And now I'm getting calls."
"What kind of calls?"
"A voice telling me to drop the suit. Or else. And I'm being followed, I think. I've seen a big man, driving a black Suburban."
"Yeah. So maybe you can figure out what Joe was into."
She held out the folder with the papers from the safe. Harold reached for them, but she didn't let go. And he found her intense blue eyes holding his, energy flowing between them.
"These are the only copies. Lose them and we're screwed."
"I'll eyeball them, give them back to you mañana."
She nodded, finally releasing the folder, saying, "So you'll help me then?"
"You have to understand, I'm not like a bodyguard or anything. I just know cars."
"And you know what happened to Joe."
"Not everything....But, yeah, I'll do what I can."
"For five percent."
"Okay then." She almost smiled, and in her eyes, Harold saw a trace of relief. "But priority number one is the insurance. We've got to prove he's dead. If we can't do that, everything else is moot, right?"
Harold didn't quite know what she meant by moot and he had always been intimidated by people who could use the word with confidence, so he nodded noncommittally, then quickly added: "Who insured Joe?"
"TransPacific. Dash Schaffner's the agent. He's got an office off Harbor just south of the 405 in Huntington."
"Tell you what. I got to run an errand first, but I'll meet you there in, say, hour and a half." He thought of something. "Wait till I get there. We better do this together."
It went well, Harold thought, climbing up the slope of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, rising above the LA Harbor. Vikki went for his offer and even teased him with a nice little bonus. But he'd have to prioritize, get his cut of the insurance, then, when he had a little operating money, go after the gravy, poke around at Joe's dealership, see what he was into. Prioritize. Yeah, that was the way to go.
Harold was still climbing, higher on the broad back of the bridge, impressed with the way the Impala's big V-8 performed. There's no replacement for displacement. That's what his old man always said. And he was right. They built cars to last back then, out of steel. Like this horn ring, he thought, glancing down at the words Super Sport stamped into the gleaming chrome. Nice touch.
Looking north, through bridge cables flashing by, Harold saw the incredible sprawl of the LA Basin, the houses and freeways with power lines stretching over the whole damn mess. To the south: Terminal Island, the shipyards, jagged necks of hammerhead cranes looming over docked freighters, cargo containers stacked everywhere like building blocks.
That reminded him...Once he got some operating money he was going to rent one of those cargo containers for a little export deal he'd cooked up. He knew a place he could get TVs and CD players at cost. Load up the container and ship it down to Chile. Sure, they were last year's model. But they didn't know that in Chile. And he could probably move them at a nice profit, make maybe a grand or two for his trouble.
Operating money, he thought, glancing at the folder on the car seat, the one Vikki loaned him with documents about Joe's dealership. What a wonderful sound that had to it. Truth of the matter was, he was in desperate need of operating money (and every other kind of money for that matter). He had just enough dough left for a one-way ticket up here, and a month's rent on a one-room dump over the Club Cheri. That left him about five hundred bucks until he scored. If he struck out he couldn't get back to Chile, back to Marianna and the life they were building together. He had to do it all and keep his ass out of prison for past misdeeds. Talk about putting your back to the wall.
On top of the bridge now, he got that coming-over-the-top feeling you get on roller-coasters, like you were going to sail off into space. And in that moment, with thoughts of money and dreams and women, and all the foolish hope he so often felt, he realized the weather was changing. Far below, the marine layer was creeping back in from the ocean, hazy fingers of fog like a giant hand, reaching over the land. June Gloom they called it. The sight chilled him and made him discard all thoughts of bonus money or cargo containers filled with electronic crap. He was here to help Vikki get the insurance money. Once he got his cut of the money, he'd beat it back to Chile on the first flight out. Yeah, he thought, gliding down the bridge to Terminal Island. For once in his life, he'd take the smart play. The sure thing.
Seconds later he was down into the fog.
Copyright © 1998 by Philip Reed