Willow Ridge

Willow Ridge

by Gary Phillips



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Willow Ridge by Gary Phillips

In A World Of Bikers, Meth, And Overdue Mortgages. . .

All the miles. All the blood. All has led him here. Looking for a place to hole up, O'Conner--with nothing to his name but a failing motorcycle, a gun, and uncollected debts--lies low in the last place he thought he'd end up: the suburbs. But Willow Ridge, once an exclusive gated community, is now tarnished and crumbling. Ordinary citizens cling to their worthless homes while society's outcasts--and O'Conner is no exception--creep in to fill the gaps.

One Man's Got Nothing Left To Lose. . .

O'Conner's style has always been more shoot-and-run, but this time he stays, getting involved with the Ridge's residents--discovering criminal behavior can happen anywhere. Homeowners dangle at the ends of their financial rope, gangs clash over Willow Ridge territory, housewives set their sights on him, and O'Conner is thrust into an inescapable tangle of passion, betrayal, and violence. When all-out war breaks out between the Mas Trece and Vandal Vikings gangs, fueled by treachery shockingly close to home, O'Conner is forced to make life-or-death decisions about his newfound neighbors. The American Dream is in flames. . .and he wonders if he'll still be standing when the smoke clears.

"Gary Phillips is my kind of crime writer." --Sara Paretsky, New York Times bestselling author

Praise For Gary Phillips

"Honesty, distinctive characters, absurdity and good writing--are here in Phillips's work." --The Washington Post

"Gary Phillips writes tough and gritty parables about life and death on the mean streets. . ." --Michael Connelly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781461838807
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.50(h) x 5.00(d)

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Copyright © 2012 Gary Phillips
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7582-0385-4

Chapter One

The fourteen-year-old Kawasaki KZ 1000 motorcycle sputtered again as he came off the 215 Freeway. He could feel in his lower legs at least two of the four pistons slap, that is, knock against the sides of the engine's cylinders. This caused the frame to shudder.

A small eddy of gray smoke rose from the tailpipe. He'd bought the motorcycle at a police auction in Tempe, Arizona, for $545; that was the majority of the 750 in cash he'd had on him. O'Conner had hoped to make it one way to the Bay Area on the oil burner, with a few planned stops along the way to bulk up his war chest. The last time he'd been north, a job he'd run had gone wrong. But O'connor had managed to get out whole, and there were no immediate enemies left up there from back then.

The rider had been aware the piston rings were in need of replacement in the bike when he purchased the machine. Now he could barely get up a medium-grade hill, having to ride on the shoulder of the highway, lest he get run over. There was no getting farther on the bike.

The Kawasaki idling roughly, he put his left foot on the ground and looked down on the lights among some darkened structures. He frowned, realizing this wasn't an artificial oasis of gas stations and Stuckey's-style roadside restaurants for the weary traveler. Below, in the near distance, was a large oval-shaped area, which, he surmised, was a planned community, a subdivision housing tract out here in the Inland Empire.

O'Conner checked the luminescent face of his watch. It was past one in the morning, and he'd been going at it steadily since nine this morning. Only one stop for coffee and a microwaved machaca and egg burrito at three that afternoon. Shifting into second, he coaxed his failing machine a little farther along the road. Soon with his headlights he saw a sign indicating a turnoff for Rose Saffron Avenue. This would take him down to the housing tract, he hoped, as he took the veering ramp. He doubted he'd find a motel, as those types of facilities wouldn't be allowed within sight by the upright and uptight taxpayers who populated these sorts of places.

The lawns would be cared for, and the backyards populated with propane-powered, shiny barbecue grills. Of course, the overhanging bougainvillea would be trimmed just so. There would also be a plentiful number of kidney-shaped swimming pools O'Conner assumed. He almost sneered at his imaginings of such banality.

Naturally, there wouldn't be a back room to rent for a night, but then, certain niceties of polite society made no never mind to him. He'd manage. He always did.

The Kawasaki putt-putted and stalled once, but he got it restarted and approached a guard booth on its little island, a gate beyond that. This was the main entrance to the development. In the moonlight he could read on a wall in sweeping three-dimensional script the words Willow Ridge. They were so cool, they didn't have Estates or Acres in the title, he noted bemusedly. This area was in the flatlands, so why the ridge bit? But then, he wasn't in the real estate business.

O'Conner stopped, and from the angle he was at, he could discern no light, like, say, from a CCTV monitor, coming from inside the guard booth. He came closer slowly, straddling his bike and walking it, figuring he'd hear a radio or a TV on low, but there was no sound from within, no sudden flashlight beam washing across his form. He peered inside and could tell the booth had been empty for some time. There was a cobweb between the inactive monitor bank and the desk. He drifted closer to the massive wrought-iron gate.

Beyond was a wide street that curved to the right. A few late-model cars and family vans were parked at the curb or in driveways. He could see a light on in the upstairs of a house on one side of the street, and at the far end, a set of lights behind curtains. He counted three porch lights on, as well.

O'Conner cut the dying engine on the motorcycle and put the kickstand down. He swung his leg over, took off his helmet, and walked to the double gate. Though it was closed, he pushed on one half of the gate, and it opened silently on oiled hinges. He paused and listened. Stepping inside and walking forward, he could better see a FOR SALE sign hammered into a not-so-trim lawn. There was other such signage about, as well.

He stopped again at the sound of a scream. Rather, it was a squeal of delight, he determined, and now he could hear muffled voices. He followed the sounds to a two-story modified Cape Cod model with an overgrown lawn, the weeds up to his calves. He strode across the yellowed grass, past another FOR SALE sign posted in the ground, this one with a foreclosed plaque superimposed over the broker's name and logo.

At the side of the Cape Codder he could see in through a tear in a drawn window shade behind a cracked window. Shadowed figures moved about inside what had been the living room, candlelight giving off chiaroscuro-like illumination. Rock music was playing, and the familiar fragrance of marijuana was evident.

O'Conner smiled and withdrew, not worrying about being as quiet as he'd been on his approach. He went back out the gate. A tricked-out 1996 Impala Super Sport cruised along on the access road. The car slowed, its occupants taking in the motorcyclist. There was a nylon equipment bag held in place by bungee cords on a rack attached to its rear fender.

A back window rolled down partway in the Chevy, and a cloud of marijuana smoke billowed out. Spanish-flavored rap music bumped from inside the vehicle. Chronic and their tunes are the universal accoutrements of wayward youth, O'Conner reflected.

He waited, his face impassive. The car went on. O'Conner tried to start the Kawasaki, but the engine had cooled sufficiently that the pistons seemed frozen in the motor block's cylinders. Standing beside the motorcycle and holding on to the handlebars, he pushed the bike inside Willow Ridge.

Stumbling out of the house with the party going on was a solidly built, dark-haired woman in low-cut jeans and a top that exposed her muscled midriff. Giggling, she pushed part of her long hair out of her eyes, catching sight of O'Conner and his motorcycle.

In the diffused light, he couldn't nail down her age, but if he'd been pressed, he would have said she was no more than twenty-five. She put a beer to her lips as they exchanged a look, and he went on down the continuation of Saffron Rose Avenue. A younger man, no more than seventeen, came out of the house and coaxed her back inside. As O'Conner continued, he wondered what else he'd find in Willow Ridge.

Chapter Two

At the corner Steve Brill turned his car onto Larkspur Lane. He'd told his wife, Janey, he wouldn't get so worked up, but he couldn't help himself. Deliberately, he drove slowly along what was once the showcase street of Willow Ridge. This long stretch had been specifically designed by the builder to be a mix of the several styles of homes, and variations thereof, available in their community. From neo-Spanish-Mediterranean to American Gothic, you could take your pick.

He grunted as he sipped his coffee from his travel mug. You could take your pick now, too, he observed sourly. In the yard of one of the few remaining occupied homes on the block, he saw the single mother, Mary, Marci, something like that. She was in curlers, arguing with her teenage son, who was doing his best to ignore her. His backpack held in one hand of his lanky frame, he alternately said a few words to her, then resumed talking on his cell phone to one of his homeys, Brill noted.

Section Eighters they were. Subsidized renters. On the public dole, yet able to move into what was to have been an upscale village. That was how the broker had presented the tract to the husband and wife when they'd decided to move in six years ago.

The kid, looking down at his mother over the top of his sunglasses, yelled a reply to her, then walked off, half dragging his backpack by its straps. She fumed, hands on her hips. The mother pointed and blared her response at her son as he walked away, uncaring and unknowing. Finished for the moment, the woman returned to her house, a modified New England–style cottage model.

As the teen walked toward the end of the block, still talking on his cell, Brill was just behind him on the street. He shifted his focus from the surly high schooler to a man in Levi's and an athletic-type T-shirt, hacking away at the vegetation of an overgrown lawn. He was over six feet, but not by much, and was muscular in a middleweight boxer way. Given his athletic build and the rhythmic ease with which he swung the weed cutter, Brill at first assumed he was younger than he was. But closer now, he could see lines in his face and gray edging into his temples. Sweat made the yoke of his undershirt wet.

"Hello," Brill said as he stopped the car, his passenger window gliding down. "You doing work for the new owner?" he asked hopefully. The FOR SALE sign had been removed from the lawn and leaned on the porch of the 1930s-style Beaux Arts house. This model, he recalled, was said to be based on a home once owned by Lana Turner in the Hollywood Hills. Or so the previous occupant, a car salesman named Arthur Patterson, had boasted at a residents' mixer once.

He had been a fleet sales manager and used to wear his dress shirts, ostentatious cuff links glittering on his wrists, even to go bowling. It seemed like there was no end to the good times then.

"No," the man answered. He'd propped the handle of the weed cutter against his leg and wiped at the sweat on his brow with his palm. He regarded Brill, a hardness coming over his face, then evaporating, like an alligator assessing a distracted crane, then deciding to let it be.

Laying the weed cutter down, he stepped forward. He bent down to the passenger side, extended his hand, smiling. "O'Conner's my name. Call me Connie."

Brill told him his and shook the man's hand. "You just moved in, huh?"

"Something like that." He straightened up. "Well, I wish these weeds would cut themselves, but I better get back to my work ... Steve." He said his name as if it were a foreign sound to him—like being familiar was a new concept.

"Okay, then. Don't work too hard."

"Have a good day."

The man returned to his tool and began executing short, precise strokes of the blade back and forth, back and forth across the lawn, clearing a swath as he went. Hesitating, Brill could see leaning or lying about here and there other gardening implements, such as a bow rake and a large pruning saw. Brill put the window up on his Prius and, clicking the floor shift out of neutral, drove off, eyeing the man in his undershirt as he got smaller in his rearview.

A little over an hour later, O'Conner was raking up his efforts. The harassed mom who had the curlers in her hair had taken them out and had put on her blue matching work pants and shirt. Her name tag read MARCI, and she wore clunky work shoes, too. She also drove past O'Conner but didn't stop, though she appreciated that a man his age was in the shape he was. Nice biceps. Marci Vickers smiled, shaking her head slightly. Flirting with a new neighbor? Didn't she have enough trouble with her school-ditching lunkhead son, Cullen? What was it they taught the kids when Cullen was in preschool? Stranger danger?

She laughed to herself and turned up Bettye LaVette, who was singing "A Change Is Gonna Come" on the car's CD unit, and drove on to her job at the Pearson Plastics plant, sports bottle specialists, in Perris.

That evening back at home, after dinner and after helping their daughter, Millicent, with her history homework, Steve Brill and Jane Grainger-Brill loaded the plates and what have you into the dishwasher.

He said, "Someone moved into the house over on Larkspur. The one that used to belong to the slickster, Patterson, the car guy."

She chuckled as she had a sip of her wine. "Let me guess. This one sells gold on TV."

Brill smiled, rinsing out a pot. "Doesn't seem to me that's what this guy does. Connie, he calls himself. But I don't think that's what his mother named him."

She regarded her husband. "How do you mean?"

"I think he's squatting."

"What? He was in the front yard, sitting on his lawn chair and drinking beer from a cooler? A pickup truck with a gun rack and the Stars and Bars on the bumper?" She put the casserole dish and its top in the dishwasher.

"Oh no, he's not the Stars and Bars type. Just the opposite. He was cleaning up the yard. Working hard at it, too, 'cause when I drove back by this evening, it was neat and trim."

She put a hand to her mouth in mock horror. "Oh my God. Next, he'll be clearing out the gutters. What a criminal mastermind he is."

"Smart-ass." He kissed her quickly. "But I drive that way every day."

"Yesterday was Sunday."

"Okay, I was jogging on Saturday morning and went by there and didn't see a moving truck. You telling me he could move in on Sunday, and today, Monday, there's no evidence of that?"

"You just said he was doing yard work." She poured more wine for both of them, and they traipsed into the living room, Brill talking.

"You know what I'm saying. There would be trash bags piled up in the driveway or empty boxes, some signs." He and his wife sat on the couch.

"That house has been empty for nearly a year and a half, Steve. Except for those crackheads camping out there for a few nights, till we at least ran them off. Like everything else around here, it's gotta be going for a goddamn song." She lowered her voice. When she swore, she didn't want Millie overhearing her. Their older child,

Doug, a teenager, was out, supposedly studying, but they both doubted it given his middling grades.

"Don't remind me," he groused. Briefly looking at their exposed-beam ceiling, he tried to guess how much their home had depreciated this month. He didn't have the heart to look it up on Zillow, a real estate site with a zip code search function.

"So no car in the driveway?" his wife was saying.

"No." He paused. "But he had gardening tools. Though he could have gotten those from the Home Depot. Or they were left behind."

She trilled her fingers against the rim of her wineglass. "Maybe he's just been sent ahead by someone else to prepare the house."

"Maybe," her husband said with little conviction.


"There's something about him, is all. Doesn't seem like the suburban type—worried about the aphids attacking the azaleas and leaky kitchen faucets."

"Neither did we once upon a time."

He tipped his wineglass to her and had a sip.

"How old is he?"

He made a face. "'Bout my age, maybe a little less." He didn't mention he was envious of the guy for being in better condition than he was. Fuck that.

"Well, you want to call the substation?"

He didn't work up the energy to roll his eyes or sneer. "Right. Maybe a deputy will get out here by the end of next week to see what the Willow Whiners want yet again." As they were aware that's how the Sheriff's Department referred to the residents of the subdivision.

A county unemployment rate hovering several digits above the national average, bar brawls, robbery-assaults, gang activity, and domestic abuse calls—those took priority over squawks about squatters or loud music. Especially with a station that had seen a reduction in staffing due to several factors, the county's budget deficit among them.

"Hell"—he shrugged—"he's cleaning up the place. Maybe he is working for some speculator. Like what 'sher-name over on Ridge Crest."

"Maybe," Jane Grainger-Brill said, doubting this was so, but not sure why.

Chapter Three

Three days later Steve Brill was leaving for work at a later time. He'd had a meeting on Skype with the Houston office, so he was able to do that from home. Now driving past the Beaux Arts house on Larkspur, he saw a SoCal Edison van parked at the curb in front. An orange cone had been placed at its rear bumper by the maintenance tech, who then went up the walkway to the front door. Various tools and testing equipment jangled on the tech's equipment belt as he walked.

Brill wasn't sure how he felt about this as he drove a few more blocks to the side exit of their walled-in community. Restoring electricity to a residence wasn't something a handyman in the employ of a speculator did, unless there were some eager potential buyers—and in this economic environment, that seemed fairly implausible.


Excerpted from THE WARLORD OF WILLOW RIDGE by GARY PHILLIPS Copyright © 2012 by Gary Phillips. Excerpted by permission of DAFINA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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