Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chapter Five

I tried to get Mike on the phone again, to let him know I was following the BMW into Compton, but service sucked in this part of town. My battery was circling the drain, so I'm sure that didn't help, either.

Well, no problem there, I thought. At least he won't wonder where you went. He'll probably see it on the news.

My brain, apparently, is a pessimist.

The BMW crawled further into Compton, where it kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. I knew we were in a bad neighborhood when my car blended in quite a bit more than a model-year BMW in Los Angeles. Still, the BMW had dark, tinted windows, and I was riding around in the twilight with my windows down. Damn broken air conditioning.

I couldn't imagine what a 30-year-old white guy from Long Beach would be doing in Compton, much less when it was getting dark outside. Usually, a guy going to the ghetto meant drugs, but something told me that wasn't the issue here. No, he was here for something else, and I'd have to follow him to figure out what.

And the following part wasn't exactly easy. There were few cars on the road as we drove through the residential neighborhoods -- just me and him, really. And though my car might have blended a little better down here than his, it had to become pretty obvious to the guy that someone was tailing him. If he didn't think that, he was an idiot. Still, he made no attempt to speed up or to lose me, so I don't know -- maybe he was stupid. I didn't get the chance to ask him.

I do know that he should have rolled through that stop sign. It was dark enough out now that the BMW's headlights switched on, and I turned on the Beast's, as well. As the BMW slowed to a stop, another, much older BMW shot into the intersection in front of it and slammed on the brakes. Two men got out of the older Beamer, and another appeared out of the darkness on the driver's side. They all had guns, two .45s and a 12-gauge shotgun. One of the guys from the old BMW pointed his pistol in my direction while the other two pulled the white guy out of his vehicle.

"Just stay cool and you ain't gonna get shot," one of the carjackers growled at the white guy, who was on his back on the pavement.

"Please... I need my car. I have somewhere I need to be," the white guy pleaded.

"Shut up and stay down," one of the other thugs warned.

"Hey, you want the Buick, too?" the thug with his gun trained on me yelled.

"Nah. Can't do much with that piece of shit," the one with the shotgun -- my guess, the leader -- said.

"Look, I can pay you," the white guy said, standing up from the pavement.

"Stay cool!" the carjacker with the 12-gauge yelled.

"I have the money right here --"

The white guy reached into his jacket, and the 12-gauge jacker made sure it was the last thing he'd ever do. Even loaded with slugs, the 12-gauge turned the guy's torso into ground beef in a split second. I knew I was next -- no point in leaving witnesses -- so I threw the Beast into reverse and stomped hard on the gas, rocketing backwards even as bullets started flying. One cracked through the windshield on the passenger side just as I whipped the Beast into a wild J-turn and shot down a side street.

* * *

There was no thought of calling the police this time. No thought of reporting this dead body, at least not yet. My only thoughts were ones of survival, fired into my reptile cortex in quick, brutal bursts. Drive. Don't crash. Lose them. I was a witness, and I knew they'd be after me as soon as they could manage it. I pulled out my Sig Sauer and thumbed off the safety as I jammed the gas pedal to the floor.

The Beast was a great-looking car, and it was fast in its day, but its day was almost thirty years ago. The '88 BMW could probably catch it, and the brand-new one could smoke it easily. Worse, these guys had to know the neighborhood a lot better than I did. My only chance was to head directly for the freeway, open the Beast up as much as it would go, and hope they'd give up after we got out of Compton.

I made it to the freeway without seeing another set of headlights. No gunshots, either. As I hammered the Beast up the onramp, I realized that no one was following me, but I wasn't going to push my luck and head back in. No way to tell where the dead guy was headed now anyway. The trail had gone cold as soon as the guy in the BMW had hit the ground.

It should have been time to give up. Nothing was worth this kind of hassle, having all my leads vanish as soon as I found them. And two dead bodies on a case was two more than my limit. But I never said I was smart -- I just said I was big. Now I wanted nothing more than to know what the fuck was going on, and I was going to find out. I'd mentioned earlier that I had other tricks up my sleeve, and I was going to use them.

Problem was, some of them were on the ragged edge of legal. And the other ones... well, they weren't even close to legal at all.

* * *

Quentin lived in a house in Silver Lake that, from the outside, really looked like shit. The lawn was patchy, overgrown in some places and dirt in others. He had a 1986 Chevy Celebrity with a busted-out back window in the narrow driveway and boards over most of the front windows. There were plant pots along the front porch, but most of them were filled with dirt. Only one had a plant in it, a snake plant with brown, drooping leaves. I think it got watered only when it rained.

The house's outside appearance, though, was carefully crafted, or so he once told me.

"The amount of gear I have in here, man -- worth several hundred thousand dollars on the black market. I'd hate if someone thought the house looked too nice and decided to break in to see what I had in here."

Truthfully, I just think Quentin was too lazy to go outside and maintain his property, but whatever. The guy could get shit done, and that's what I needed right now.

I called his cell phone as I drove into the neighborhood. That was protocol. You didn't just roll up on Quentin's house and knock on the door, not unless you wanted to open it to find him waiting with a shotgun pointed at you. Apart from being lazy, Quentin was paranoid as all hell, probably because of the sheer amount of quasi-legal and illegal shit he was up to in there.

"Come around the back door, brother," he told me when I called. "And try to be quiet this time. Neighbor's dog is all sorts of keyed up tonight."

I parked the Beast along the street and locked it, though any truly determined thief could just probably tap on the windshield where the bullets had cracked it and get in that way. I walked through the weeds and dirt to the back fence, carefully opened the gate, and crept toward the back door. The dog Quentin was so worried about was sitting happily on the other side of the chain link, panting and wagging her tail at me. She was maybe twenty pounds on a good day.

I knocked softly on the back door, and it opened almost immediately. Quentin was standing there in a pair of jeans, a Metallica T-shirt, and no shoes. He had a Glock .23 in his right hand, and he looked all around before looking at me.

"All right, man. Get in here. Quick."

You know how some people are insane, but it's kinda cute? Eccentric, I think, is the word. Quentin's about a tick above that -- no longer cute, but mostly harmless, despite the several guns he had stashed around his house.

As I stepped into the crumbling three-bedroom ranch-style house, a blast of uncomfortably chilly air hit me. This was normal for Quentin's place -- he had his air conditioner running 24-7. He'd even strategically placed a couple of window-box units around the house in addition to the central air to help keep some of the hot spots cool. I guessed the temperature was somewhere around 55 degrees, and as a local, I just wasn't used to people keeping their houses this cold. It was like walking through the frozen section at a supermarket.

"So what brings you by tonight, as if you ever just drop in socially?" Quentin asked, closing the door behind me and closing one, two, three deadbolts.

"I need some help tracking someone," I said, holding up Laura Mills' file folder with my left hand.

"Right. How long have they been in the wind?" He asked, taking the file folder and leading me into the living room.

"Less than 48 hours," I said, looking around at the thirty or forty computer towers humming away all the way around the baseboards. It was a bit warmer in this room, thanks to all the working machines.

"OK. Let's see what we can do, here," Quentin said, flopping down on the couch and typing into one of his machines. A huge monitor in the center of an ancient, heavy wooden coffee table flickered to life, and I tried to find some surface to sit on. I was prepared for this to take a while.

Turns out, it didn't even take five minutes. I was just clearing off what appeared to be a footstool to sit on when Quentin looked up from his monitor.

"You feeling lucky?" he asked.

"Not particularly."

"Too bad. Looks like you're headed to Las Vegas."

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