Here’s how it went down:
Eddie came wheeling the dark green ’75 Impala into the Vons parking lot at what the cops would call an excessive rate of speed. The car listed to the right like a sailboat under a heavy crosswind, leaving behind black marks on the pavement and blue smoke in the air. He missed a stray shopping cart by like six inches. On purpose. If it had been in the way, he’da probably hit it to teach the cart herder a lesson.
He sped up an aisle toward the front doors, both hands on the wheel, eyes on his destination. He drove like he had a purpose, ’cause he did. When he hit the aisle that ran in front of the store, he whipped the car to the left and slid perfectly into place about ten feet from the front door.
Primo driving, dude.
The car rocked to a stop just as Steve came through the automatic doors so fast he had to turn sideways, his hands full of cash. Eddie leaned over and threw the passenger door open. Steve dove in.
He’d barely hit the seat before Eddie stomped the gas pedal and peeled out, adding some more burnt rubber to the pavement and smoke to the air, and left the parking lot the way he came in: at an excessive rate of speed. He took off so fast the door slammed shut on its own.
He kept the pedal to the metal for two blocks, to make it look good, then slowed to just under speed limit and took a right at the next street. Cops don’t look for civilians driving speed limit. They look for bad guys speeding away from the scene. Bad guys stay free longer if they just observe a few simple rules. Those rules boiled down to: don’t look guilty.
Half an hour later and miles away from the West LA Vons, Eddie turned into an alley so narrow the old Impala barely fit. He cruised down the alley and turned left into a small parking lot.
Time to change rides.
They wiped the car down, removed the plates, and walked away. Steve carried the money in a backpack, and since it was only 8:30 PM, it didn’t look out of place for a couple guys to be walking down the street. Even here.
Two blocks from the abandoned Impala, they entered an Albertsons lot and got in a white ’76 Cutlass S. Like the Impala, the car didn’t look like much, but when Eddie turned the key, the engine fired up without a hitch. He drove through the surface streets for maybe fifteen minutes, then hit an onramp for I-10.
Eddie Jones and Steve Wilson. Eastbound and down.
“How much we get?”
Steve turned from watching the lights of the city go by and looked at Eddie. They were still on the 10, somewhere around Pomona, he figured. They hadn’t said much since the Vons job.
“I dunno. Maybe four, five hundred.”
“‘Maybe’? Count it, man.”
He felt his mouth drop open. What? “Dude. It’s like, dark.”
“I know that,” Eddie said, glancing over at him and grinning. His teeth gleamed in the dashboard lights.
Steve stared at him a few moments, then shook his head. “Watch the road. I’ll count the shit when we stop at a motel.”
“How can we stop at a motel if we don’t know how much we got?”
Sometimes, man, Eddie could be so frickin’ dumb. Made Steve wonder why he hung with the dude. Had to be all the bad chemicals Eddie was around growing up in Jersey. Rotted some of his brain cells or something. One minute, he’d be hummin’ along doing just fine. They’d both be on the same wavelength. Then, next thing you know, he’d come up with something dumbass like counting money in the dark.
“Eddie, I can’t count money in the dark.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He leaned forward, turned on the dome light. “There.”
Steve squinted against the sudden glare. “Shit, man, turn that fuckin’ light off. You want a CHiP scopin’ us? It’s illegal to drive with a dome light on, dude.”
The light went out.
“Sorry. Didn’t think.”
“Man, you can be such a fidiot sometimes.” Fidiot was a Steveism. It was short for fuckin’ idiot. “Look, I got a friend works at Vons, okay? She told me, this time of night, they usually have something like five bills in each register. Depends on where the store is and how busy they been, but managers go around and collect money so there ain’t too much in the drawer. I could only do one register, but I got a lot of cash, so I figure they were a little heavy.”
“So we got enough for a room, you wanna get one.”
“Shouldn’t we get out of LA first?”
“Doesn’t really matter, dude,” he said with a shrug. “We’re like miles from West LA. Cops won’t be lookin’ for us here.” He laughed. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll think it was a gangbanger.”
“You wanted ’em to think that, why didn’t we rob a liquor store?”
“’Cause liquor stores are expecting you to rob them, dude.”
It got quiet. The radio was playing low, the sound tinny and muffled from the old speakers. Steve insisted they listen to KROQ as long as they could. No telling when he’d be able to hear it again. Grew up with that station.
He went back to staring out the window. When the idea of leaving first came up, it had seemed pretty good. Eddie had been his partner for a year or so—well, partner-in-crime, not that kind of partner, dude, nopenope—and most of the time it was chill. They’d met in prison, had the same cell. Eddie was in for robbery, Steve for receiving stolen goods. Turned out they had two things in common: their release dates and they were two-strikers.
Cali had a three-strike law. Three strikes, you’re out. Or in, as it were. Prison. For life. Steve knew a dude inside, he’d been homeless and unemployed. Stole a package of socks—socks, man—and boom! the judge lowered the hammer, sent homie away for life. No exceptions. Apparently, stealing socks was a real danger to society.
Anyway, that’s where Steve and Eddie were: two strikes. One more, they’d be in there with the evil sock thief. They’d made it a year, working shit jobs for shit pay, sharing a low-rent in Santa Monica, the one-time epicenter for rent control. Every now and then you could still see a sign that said People’s Republic of Santa Monica on a complex. Used to be a lot more of them back in the early ’90s, until they changed things and phased out rent control.
But then Eddie’s mom had called from Toxic Waste, New Jersey, or wherever the fuck he was from, said his brother had this mega-huge tumor and he better get home.
“Why don’t they just, like, take it out?” Steve had said. They were in their apartment, passing a fatty back and forth.
When Eddie answered, it was in that strained voice known to stoners everywhere. “Can’t.” He passed the doobie, his face red.
“Why not? I mean, is it, whaddaya call it, inoperable?” He took the joint, drew a toke.
Eddie expelled smoke with a sound like wind on the high desert. The apartment immediately smelled like road-kill skunk.
Righteous bud, dude.
“Naw, man,” Eddie said, fighting off a coughing fit. “His health care won’t cover it anymore.”
He looked at Eddie, eyebrows up. He was just stoned enough to think there might be a big “?” over his head.
“What?” Eddie said.
Steve exhaled and there was another dead skunk on the premises. “Whaddaya mean they won’t cover it anymore?”
Eddie shrugged. “Something about Obamacare, from what Mom said. Now that you got to have insurance, the companies claim they can’t afford to cover expensive procedures. Or something like that. Fuck I know?”
So, in the infinite wisdom bestowed by righteous bud, they concocted a plan: head east, young man, and rob stores along the way. By the time they got to Jersey, they should have enough money to at least help pay for the operation. And Eddie could see his brah.
It was time to vacate Cali anyway. With both of them looking a third strike in the eye, it was only a matter of time. Steve had been doing crimes since he was, well, old enough to buy good pot and needed the bucks to afford it. He knew he couldn’t stay clean. Working for a living was just too hard.
They quit their jobs, scoped the Vons for a week, then hit the place. It took a little time to find the kind of cars they wanted. Eddie was the wrench, and for something like this he didn’t trust any car made after 1981. And the closer to ’75, the better. No computers. Electronic ignition. Easy to maintain if something broke. Long as you didn’t go for shit like Camaros or Trans Ams, they were cheap, too.
Sounds cool, man. Roll another fatty.
“Oh, one other thing,” Eddie had said that night in his strained pot smoker voice.
“What’s that?” Steve squinted at him through the smoke. Place smelled like Pepe le Pew and his whole famn damily had moved in.
Eddie grinned. “We don’t drive Pintos.”
Like to dropped the joint, it was so damn funny.
Steve woke up when the car jolted to a stop. Funny, he didn’t remember falling asleep. There was drool on the corner of his mouth and his neck hurt ’cause his head had lolled backward.
He rubbed his eyes and looked around. Then shook his head in an attempt to clear out the blur and tried again.
“Where we at?” His voice cracked from sleep.
“San Bernardino, I think. Least, that’s what the last sign said.”
Steve blinked, looked at the building in front of them. A blinking neon sign said O FICF. Scrubby plants, most of them wilted from lack of water, curled and lay at the base of the front wall. The parking lot was dirty, the building discolored.
“Ah, shit no, dude.” It was a No-Tell Motel. A hand-lettered sign taped to the window said OURLY R8S!!!
“What?” Eddie said. His hand was on the car’s door handle. His eyes looked weird in the neon light, like something from a bad acid trip.
Not that Steve would know anything about that. No, really. He avoided acid, but he knew plenty of ’heads. Screwy bunch.
“I ain’t sleepin’ in this shithole,” he said.
Eddie glanced at the building, then back at Steve. “Why not?”
“Lice, dude. Among other things.” He shuddered. “The EPA oughta shut these places down for, like, toxic waste dumps. They’re fuckin’ crawling with bugs and shit.” The thought of lice made his head itch. He’d gotten them once from a seedy place just like this. Yuck.
Eddie stared at him a minute, then looked back at the building. He took his hand off the door handle.
“No shit.” Steve scratched his head.
“Damn. I got lice once when I was a kid. I think everyone in school got them.” He turned the key, switched on the headlights. “So where you wanna stay?”
Some dude with a pot gut and mostly bald head was looking out the window of the office as they backed away. He had on a stained wife-beater and baggy sweats. What hair he had stuck up all over and made a foggy halo in the backlighting.
“Let’s scope out like a Motel Six, something like that. Fuck these places,” Steve said, and shuddered again. They’d just avoided a fate worse than death.
“Aren’t those places expensive?”
He shrugged. “Hey, pay twenty bucks for a nasty-ass room, then spend the difference on Rid-X, or pay it right up front for a clean room, dude. I’ll take the clean room anytime.”
They were quiet while Eddie maneuvered through the surface streets and back onto I-10. They crossed over into Loma Linda before they found a Motel 6. All the lights worked and the plantings were green. A good sign. Rooms were forty bucks. Well, for a single.
“You want separate rooms?” he said.
Eddie thought about it. That was always scary. “Yeah. I don’t wanna smell your farts all night.”
Wow. Dude was one to talk. Eddie Jones was, like, the original fart-miester. Hands down. No sense in bringing it up, though.
“Okay,” Steve said. He grabbed the pack from the back seat. “Gimme a minute here, dude.” He counted out some money while Eddie waited. It wouldn’t look good to pay with cash from a backpack. He pulled out enough to pay for two rooms, then handed another twenty to Eddie. “Go find some food, man. I’m starved.”
He watched Eddie drive off, then walked into the lobby. Yeah, a real lobby, not an O FICF. Classy.
“I need two singles, man. Right next to each other, if you can do it. Ground floor.”
The clerk, probably a college kid earning some extra bucks, appeared half-asleep and didn’t even look at him. Just took the money, handed over two keys.
Steve pocketed the keys and walked back outside to wait. This far inland, the night was warm. A dry wind stirred up leaves and litter in the parking lot. The smell of dust was in the air. It tickled his nose, made him feel like he was about to sneeze. Other than that, it felt a little cleaner than the shit he’d been breathing all his life. Hell, they got out of the basin, he might get high from pure air. Wouldn’t that be some funny shit?
Fifteen minutes later, Eddie swung back into the parking lot and Steve jumped into the car.
“Around back.” There were In-N-Out bags on the console behind the shifter. “Good choice, dude. Food of the gods.”
“Yep.” Eddie drove the car around the building and into the back lot. Only about a quarter of the slots had cars.
“There.” Steve pointed about halfway down.
“I see ’em. Chill.”
Eddie parked the car and they gathered in one of the rooms to eat. Steve found the remote and clicked the TV on, then flipped through the channels until he found the local station from West LA. The pretty anchor chick was on, the blonde who always showed some cleavage. Way cool.
“Why are we watching this?” Eddie said.
“I just wanna see if we made the news.”
Eddie shook his head. “You know how many places probably got robbed tonight?”
“Iono. Couple hundred?”
“Exactly. So why would we make the news?”
Steve brushed crumbs off the bedspread and swallowed his bite of burger. Why did Eddie always want to talk when they were eating? “Dude, I said I don’t know. I just wanna see, okay?”
“Okay, okay. Jeez.”
Damned if they didn’t get a report a couple minutes later. Out of all the robberies and various other crimes committed in the greater LA area that night, for some reason they decided the Vons thing made for good news. Another cute reporter chick who looked like she’d been made from the same Barbie doll mold as the anchor—except she was a brunette—was on camera, talking up the story. Yellow crime tape was strung up across the doors and a well-built man in a gray suit moved around just inside. He stopped and talked to another one dressed much like him who had a little bit of a gut.
Whoa. Detectives. How cool was that?
About the time it was all sinking in, they moved on to a big wreck on the 405 that had traffic tied up for miles in either direction. What was so great about that?
Steve ate the rest of his meal in silence. The news went off and the weather came on. Why were there weather reporters in the Southland? How much of a douche did you have to be to want a job telling people it was gonna be warm and sunny?
“Easy money, man,” Eddie said, when Steve brought it up. He crumpled up his wrappers and put them back in the bag. “I’m gonna get some sleep. In the morning, man.”
Eddie shrugged. “Whenever. Check-out time, I guess.”
“Cool. Take a shower, dude. You smell like a locker room.”
Eddie laughed and left for his room.
Steve turned back to the TV. The sportscaster was talking about a golf game. Bo-ring. He watched through the wrap-up, but they didn’t go back to the Vons story. He knew it was stupid, but he felt a little disappointed.
Their fifteen minutes of fame had lasted maybe fifteen seconds.
Then he grinned. What the hell? They were just getting started, man.
Detective-2 Brad Ferguson was just as glad that the cameras had stayed outside. He’d got the call about the Vons robbery while at lunch with his partner, D-3 Mike Carlyle. His cell phone rang just as he was taking a bite of his Carl’s, Jr. burger. He’d squeezed the sandwich in reflex and a glop of mustard fell right onto his tie.
His blue tie.
Then, when they got to Vons, it turned out there really wasn’t a lot to go on. Things had been slow in the store, naturally, so no one in the parking lot had seen the car. There was a video image but, just like the one of the perp, it was grainy and out-of-focus. All they could tell was that it looked like an old car, maybe from the ’70s.
Why couldn’t these places invest in quality security systems? They bought cheap-ass cameras that you couldn’t identify your own mother on if she stood three feet from the lens and then pitched a bitch when you didn’t catch the bad guy in less than two hours.
And the mustard spot on his tie wasn’t covered up when he buttoned his gray suit coat.
Being a cop in LA meant that Brad had met all kinds. Try investigating something up around Hollywood Boulevard and you’d see stuff that made The Maury Povich Show look like a gathering of elderly Sunday school teachers. The point being, he knew that the people who worked as cashiers at places like Vons and Albertsons ran the gamut.
The one they’d got was straight out of central casting.
Well, it wasn’t that far from West LA to Hollywood.
She sat in the employee break room, her black hair done up on the back of her head with a few strands escaping around her ears. She had loads of eyeliner on and big hoop earrings. Her eyelashes were long, eyelids covered with metallic-tinted Mascara. She was all of eighteen and popped gum like a truck stop waitress. Petite and pretty, but Brad suspected the air pressure in her head was a few pounds low. Or high, depending on how you looked at it.
He sat down at the table across from her and noticed her gaze went right to his tie. Not much of a first impression. He ignored it and took out his notebook and pen, laid them in front of him.
“Hi,” he said.
She nodded and popped her gum.
He tried not to wince. “I’m Detective Brad Ferguson of the LAPD.”
“Katy Williams,” she said, never breaking stride on her gum chewing.
“Okay if I call you Katy?” Ah, the personal touch.
She shrugged. “Sure.”
He clicked his pen. “All right, Katy. What can you tell me about the guy who robbed you?”
Another shrug. “So, he was just a dude, you know? Kinda long, brown hair, and he was kinda built, but not a hunk, you know? Maybe he was like a surfer dude, but cute? Oh, and he smelled like pot, you know?”
He was pretty sure he was already getting a headache. Right behind his eyes. You know?
“All right. What was he wearing?”
She squinted and looked up at the ceiling. Uh-oh. This could take a while. “So I think it was, like, a blue T-shirt, and he had his cap turned around backward, you know? Like a rapper dude? Shorts that were like brown with pockets on the side?”
He waited for the you know? but didn’t get it. Why did kids these days have to phrase everything as a question? And start their answers with the word so.
“Okay. So cargo shorts and a blue T-shirt with his hat turned backward. Anything else?” Damn. She had him doing it.
“Ummmm.” She drew it out for about five seconds, then said, “Nope. Oh, wait. He had on flip-flops?”
Well that was a big help in Southern California. Probably narrowed it down to five or six million people.
“What about tattoos? Or something on the shirt?”
Pop goes the gum. “Um, lemme think. Maybe the shirt was from Universal Studios, you know? I don’t remember.”
Well, at least she didn’t hurt herself with that thinking thing. He fought the urge to tap his finger on the table and told himself he shouldn’t be that way. Not everyone he encountered on this job was a stupid criminal who needed instructions to put on Velcro tennis shoes or a total airhead in danger of floating off into the smog-filled sky.
Only about ninety-nine percent of them.
He sighed. The cameras had done a better job than this woman who’d stood three feet from the perp. Nice. He reached in his breast pocket, took out one of his cards.
“If you think of anything else, would you call me, please?”
Pop! “Sure.” She tucked the card under the shirt, into her bra. Classy.
“Thanks.” He put his notebook away and stood. Mike was waiting for him at the door, a smile on his face.
“Hey,” Katy said as he got to the door.
She gave him what she probably thought was a sexy smile. “You’re kinda cute, you know?”
He smiled and walked out. Looked like it was gonna be one of those nights.
The news teams were gone, thank God, and they walked across the lot to their car, the standard issue Crown Victoria. They got in, Mike in the driver’s seat.
Brad had to give Mike credit: at least he waited until they were back in the car before he burst out laughing.
“Oh, you’re cute!” he said, his voice high. “I think you’re onto something here, Brad. I mean, she put your card next to her boob.”
He gave Mike a smile.
“Just drive, okay?”
Mike sang, “Bradley’s got a girlfriend,” as they drove off.
Yep. One of those nights.