WHAT SHE THOUGHT OF THAT

– I mean, is this how you think partners behave, asshole?

I flicked the blinker and shifted onto the exit ramp.

– We’re not partners.

Jaime folded his arms a little tighter.

– Apparently fucking not. Partners let each other in on the plan. Partners have some trust between them. You think I could get anything done in the industry if I did business the way you do, just giving people half the information and not even telling them the details of what happens in the third act? I could not.

I came off the ramp and took a right.

– Seeing as you’re a complete fuckup, Jaime, I thought it best not to tell you that what I really needed you to do was to get found sneaking around so they’d think they caught us messing with them and not be worrying about us trying to pull something else. Seeing as you have an obvious gift for doing the absolutely wrong thing, I figured that if I told you you needed to get caught doing something suspicious, you’d probably end up in the greatest hiding place known to man. If I’d told you to let yourself get caught, you’d probably still be hiding in some damn storm drain or something.

– Well no shit! What asshole lets himself get caught?

I pulled into the parking lot and stopped.

– How relieved I am to know I was correct.

He looked around.

– What’s this?

– Your motel.

He didn’t move.

– I thought we might go grab a drink or something. You know, wrap party. Kind of review the events and see how the numbers add up.

Soledad opened the door and got out.

– Come on, Jaime.

– Yeah, but.

He looked from me to her and back.

– Well, let’s all go get something to eat first? Yeah?

She tugged his sleeve.

– Come on, little brother.

– Shiiit.

He got out.

– Hey, hey, asshole, so how ‘bout my cash? My ten percent.

I rubbed my forehead.

– I don’t have it.

– Well. What? That’s not cool. I got a hotel bill to pay here. I got to pay for those sheets. Expenses eating my capital.

He pointed at Soledad.

– She got anymore in that shirt?

I looked at her.

– No. That’s all there was.

– Man, you owe. None of this would have worked out without me. You owe. That cash is to pay my talent. This was my project!

I adjusted the Harbor Inn bath towel I’d wrapped around myself when I stripped off my pee-soaked jeans and drawers and dropped them in the bed of the Apache.

– I know what I owe, Jaime. I’ll pay it. Now please, fuck off.

He flapped his arms.

– Yeah, fuck yourself, asshole. Just you better come up with my dough.

He started for the motel.

– C’mon, sis, get my stuff from my room and grab my ride. We can skip the bill. I put it on your dad’s credit card anyway. And he won’t mind. I can crash in Malibu tonight, yeah?

I looked at Soledad.

– You want to ride with him?

She looked at her brother’s retreating back.

– No.

– Should I bother asking if you want to ride with me?

She wiped at a clot of eye snot.

– Yeah.

– So you want to ride with me, or what?

– Yeah.

– Get in.

She got in and slammed the door and Jaime turned and watched as I rolled toward the exit.

– Oh, oh yeah, go on, you two, go have fun. Fuckin’ ditchers! Get rid of me and go do your thing!

He walked behind the truck and we drove slow across the lot.

– Just better get me that cash, asshole! You don’t, know what happens!

I pulled out, Jaime at our heels.

– Cut you, asshole! Fucking cut you!

We drove.

She fiddled with the chrome knob on Chev’s antique truck radio, watching the little red line scan the frequencies, stopping when she found a woman’s voice singing something slow and very sad in Spanish.

She looked through the windshield at the sign announcing the 405 and 110 interchange.

– You gonna take me home?

I stayed lined up for the 405 North.

– Someplace you’d rather be?

She pulled her feet up on the seat and hugged her knees.

– You take me to your home?

I jerked the wheel over, skidding onto the shoulder fifty yards from the split in the freeways. The truck stalled out, headlights spotted on a spider-web of graffiti covering the tall cinder-block wall edging the freeway, traffic barreling past, Spanish song playing on the old speakers.

We looked at each other.

Eyes on mine, she put her head on her knees and started to sing along with the radio. I looked away and stretched my arm behind the seat and felt around and came out with a nine-millimeter bullet like the one that killed her father. I showed it to her.

– Know it?

She stopped singing.

– It’s a bullet.

I set it carefully on the dash, business end pointing at the sky.

– Yeah. In somewhat more detail, it’s a bullet from the nine-millimeter pistol you gave your brother.

She unfolded her legs.

– What?

– Don’t what me. Don’t. Just. Just tell me that’s not a bullet from your gun. Tell me you were never involved with Harris and Talbot and that other hick. Tell me you didn’t drag me into all this shit to make it end like this.

– End like?

I banged the dash and the bullet jumped and fell into the footwell.

– Like this! Like it’s all cleaned up! Like those guys are out of the picture and you don’t have to worry about them. Like! Jesus! Like. You know.

I spread my arms.

– This.

I dropped my arms.

She bent and picked up the bullet and rolled it between her fingers.

– Web.

She held up the bullet.

– This isn’t from my gun.

She set it on the dash.

I stared at the bullet.

– Well. Good.

She dragged fingers through her hair.

– But if you got that bullet from Jaime, it’s from one of my dad’s guns. And I did drag you into things. And I was involved with Harris and those guys.

I slapped my forehead.

– Awww, man! I knew it.

– Listen.

– This is fucked.

– Listen, goddamn it!

I listened.

She stared out at the spray-painted wall and I listened.

– Web, my dad, he was, he was great. A great dad. But he was a dirty businessman. No, that’s not true. He was a criminal. A smuggler. And I knew. For a long time. And not just almonds. Other things.

An eighteen-wheeler washed past, its wind rocking the Apache on its shocks.

She watched it disappear down the ramp.

– People. Human trafficking.

She went through her clothes.

– I’m out of cigarettes.

She opened the ashtray and found the longest butt she could. She fitted it to her lips and blew through it, then lit it, and the cab filled with smoke.

– Chinese. These people, poor as hell. Poor as. We don’t have a frame of reference. They just want a new life. Or something. Freedom. Or something. I don’t know. They get locked inside a cargo container. Forty, fifty people. Two weeks on the ocean. A chem toilet. Packaged food. Bottled water. Sometimes, their container gets loaded out of sequence.

She cracked a window and some of the smoke drifted free.

– The people who set this up, they try to arrange it so these cans get loaded onto the ships last, at the top of the stacks. In the air. Sometimes something happens. A can gets mixed up, ends up loading in the hold instead of the deck, buried under dozens of other cans. The heat. No air.

She dropped a spent match out the window crack.

– One time that happened with a can my dad had helped to set up. They all died. Forty.

She looked at me.

– And I found out about that. When he started getting sick, I began taking care of some of the business for him, and I found out about that.

She looked away from me.

– But I didn’t. You know, I never did anything. About that. Except I had to talk to him. I. Jesus. It was. He was my dad and he’d been involved in this awful thing and I never. I mean, how was that possible? How did he live? Right? I couldn’t begin to fathom how he could get up and go to work and, and he was still smuggling. After that. Like. So. And I thought, Maybe I’m wrong. I have to be wrong. He couldn’t have done that. He couldn’t have been responsible for those people and let them die and hid it and never had it show. Because he didn’t, you know? Let it show. In himself. I could look at the dates, after I put it together, see when it happened, remember that I was fifteen, remember how there was never a change in how he behaved at home, around me. So I had to be wrong. Because people can’t be like that.

She took a drag.

– So I asked him.

She exhaled through the crack, into the air outside.

– I asked him, I asked him if it was true.

She watched the cigarette burn for a while, got tired of watching.

– And he told me it was. He told me he didn’t do it anymore. That he’d stopped after that. But it had happened. Those people, they come over, they promise to work for someone, pay off the fifty thousand dollars it costs to get here. They become slaves. They go from these miserable lives, to worse. And some die horribly. But he said, he promised, that he didn’t do it anymore. Like that made it better.

A crease formed between her eyes.

– And I told him what I thought of that.

She stuck her thumbnail in the crease and pressed till the flesh around it turned white.

– That night he killed himself.

She pressed harder.

– Which could have been his plan all along. Or not. His note didn’t spec-ify

She looked at the butt in her hand, frowned, rolled the window down a little more and tossed it out.

– He was wrong about that whole blowing through the filter thing. Doesn’t make it any better at all.

She looked at me.

– So where to now?

I started the truck.

I could have told her about her dad’s continued interest in human trafficking. I could have told her what else he might have been thinking about when he wrote that note. But I didn’t much see the point. She was going to know soon enough that he’d broken that promise. And I didn’t feel like being the guy to tell her.

So instead I headed up the 110 toward home.

– I was getting these calls, these guys I knew my dad had a deal going with. He’d gotten involved with these truckers or something. It was a quick thing, I guess. Cash. A lot of it. And Dad, he liked the fast action, so he took it on. And now they called and I told them he was dead and they started freaking out. Threatening to go to the cops and. I don’t know. I should have realized they wouldn’t do that, but I was. Confused. I didn’t. The cops. They would have dug into everything once they found out Dad was involved in that. I mean, these days, post 9/11, any kind of smuggling and I figured they’d dig up his whole life. I didn’t want people to know. What had happened before. I didn’t want them to know I had known. And that I’d confronted him. And what happened after. I.

She jammed the heels of her hands against her eyes and pressed.

I took the interchange to the 10 West, the traffic loop circling, a lone apartment building jutting high enough from its center for me to be able to see into an uncovered window on the top floor, a glimpse of a woman in front of a vanity mirror, rubbing away the day’s makeup.

Soledad uncovered her eyes, looked around.

– Where are we?

I pointed north.

– I need to make a stop.

– Jaime stole the gun.

She was staring out the window at the gated faces of the businesses along Fairfax.

– I mean, I assume he did. He knew my dad had two. A set of them. Those pistols. They were fancy or something. Dad knew Jaime liked that kind of shit and showed them to him once. After I called and asked if he could help with the truckers and their fucking almonds and he came over, he must have stolen it from Dad’s desk. The one the cops hadn’t taken. The one Dad hadn’t used.

We passed the Silent Movie Theater just before Melrose. Her Grave Mistake on the marquee.

Soledad read it and turned and smiled at me.

– Now that’s funny.

– I was with him at the motel. When I called you to clean up after Talbot. I didn’t take a cab down there. I went with him to meet the guys to make sure Jaime didn’t completely screw things up. I mean, by then I was a little more clearheaded. Fuck. If it had just been a matter of sending the almonds on their way, I could have done that. If it had been legal, I could have done that. But I didn’t know what to do with a load like that. What precautions to take. And Jaime, he’s the only, you know, shifty character I know.

She blew her nose into an already damp Kleenex.

– Except for my dad, I mean.

We crossed Sunset, climbed toward Hollywood Boulevard.

– And he screwed it up. I kept telling him to settle down, we’d pay for the stupid motel room and the food and whatever. But he’d been drinking. And he has to have things exactly his way. It’s like he gets a picture of how it should all work, and if it doesn’t work that way he freaks out. More baggage from our mom.

I took a left onto Hollywood.

– I met her first pimp.

She looked at me.

– Homero?

I stopped at the light.

– The bait dealer.

She nodded.

– Yeah. He and my dad did business sometimes. He introduced Dad to our mom. He’s a scumbag. And there’s a good chance he’s Jaime’s dad. Still.

She rapped the side of her head against the window.

– If I’d been thinking, I would have called him about the almonds.

The light turned green. I veered right and merged into northbound traffic again.

– Jaime did. It didn’t seem to help.

She chewed a nail.

– Not much Jaime does ever seems to help. And he needs so much help himself. He needs something for himself. To make him, I don’t know, to give him some kind of reason. Not that that’s an excuse. The way he treated you that night. Web. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble when I called. But that mess in the room. It would have caused problems. I was still thinking about police. And what they’d find. I wasn’t thinking about. About anything. Except not wanting people to know.

I touched one of the many knots I’d collected on my scalp that last few days.

– Thinking clearly doesn’t seem to have been anyone’s specialty this week.

She nodded, pointed at the twisting road climbing ahead of us.

– What’s in Laurel Canyon?

I took us around one of the hairpins and slid into the left-turn lane for Kirkwood.

– An old man.

We were parked, the Apache pulled half onto the sidewalk to keep narrow Weepah Way open to two-way traffic.

– So, was the story as bad as you thought?

I looked at her, looked out at the sky. Here above the Los Angeles Basin floor, a sheet of stars visible.

– No, not quite.

She leaned forward to join me looking out the windshield and up at the stars.

– Not quite. You must have had some pretty fucked-up ideas about what happened.

I tapped the glass, pointing at a constellation.

– Know what that is?

– No. You?

– That’s Corvus. The Crow.

– Never heard of it. I thought there were only twelve constellations. Like the zodiac.

– No. There are lots more.

– Where’d you learn?

– My dad.

I leaned back and looked at her.

– So on the subject of not thinking clearly, I thought Harris and those guys maybe killed your dad. I thought maybe you knew about it. I thought maybe you made a deal to take care of the almonds for them if they did it for you. Killed your dad for you.

I pulled the towel over my leg where it had fallen to the side.

– Still want to go home with me?

She kept looking at the stars.

– Well, I’m not really in much of a position to criticize you for thinking bad things about me right now, am I?

I put that in my top ten of Most Loaded Questions Ever and ignored it.

She ignored me ignoring it, and moved on.

– You promise to teach me a few more constellations?

– Sure.

She shrugged.

– Then I still want to go home with you.

I put my hand on the door.

– Soledad.

– Hm?

– The reason we didn’t have the truck, the almonds, why we had to get all tricky and, you know, all that crazy shit. That was because Customs was seizing all your dad’s property. So, stuff is probably gonna. You know.

She put her hand to the glass.

– Yeah. I know. Jaime told me outside the inn.

She tapped the glass.

– Is that one?

I looked.

– No. But.

I took her finger and traced a circle on the glass.

– All those, those are Vela. The Sails.

– Huh.

I got out.

– I’ll be back in a few minutes.

She didn’t look.

– OK.

I swung the door back and forth a little, the hinge creaking.

– Soledad, I thought maybe you had killed him yourself. Killed your dad.

She drew her finger around the circle I’d traced.

– You were close enough on that one.

I closed the door and went up to see L.L.

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