"LA, what a riot"
-- Billy Idol, Shock to the System
I deplaned in the middle of the pack of my fellow travelers -- not too close to the front or back of the line. I dropped my book without notice on one of the chairs in the gate for someone to find and walked on in search of my rental car. I'd requested hybrid-electric. It was a small unassuming car. LA was a very large place, and I might have to do a fair amount driving and the extra mileage would be to my advantage. That made it a good choice, but I had a better reason for wanting one.
Electric motors deliver maximum torque at zero RPM. So it would be more responsive than a similar car. It would go from zero to fifty in deceptively short period of time. It would become sluggish after that until the gas engine was up to speed. It used the brakes to recharge the batteries, and since the second law of thermodynamics was still in effect that meant it would stop on a dime. Since it was a small car, it had tight turning radius. In a flat out race, it would lose; but in the urban confines of LA, it would drive circles around a larger faster car.
I made sure to pick up a couple of maps of the city -- a traditional folding map, and a Thomas Guide that would break down the city page by page. Properly armed, I rode the shuttle to my rental car, and drove off in search of William's Air Freight. LAX isn't really a single airport, but a collection of them -- each with a variety of supporting buildings. It had a layout and logic all of its own. I made a couple of false starts, but once I got my bearings I found the place. I collected my package without question or incident, and felt better for having all my tools with me again.
I laid the large map out on the passenger seat for reference, and drove out of the airport and onto the 105. At first I just drove at random, to get a feel for the car and the city. I like to get a sense of the rhythms and patterns of a place ahead of time. I wouldn't want to pick everything up at the last minute. It was stereotypical southern-California weather. It might be cold and wet up in Oregon, but here it was clear and sunny and in the mid seventies. I almost regretted not getting a convertible. I could see why they were so popular here.
On a whim I pulled out the music player and connected it to the stereo. I took a moment to find the track I wanted, and then Billy Idol's Shock to the System began playing. It was from one of his least popular albums -- Cyberpunk -- but I was fond of it. It was written the night of the Rodney King riots, one of the city's darker episodes, but it seemed to fit the city as I drove.
I looped the city, and explored a few random urban areas -- El Segundo, Gardenia, Lakewood. When I finally felt that I was getting my legs, I started looking for a place to where I could sit down, and get something to eat. I found a shining silver diner -- The Blue Moon. It was like something you might have seen in the 30's or 40's. At one time diners like this would have been made from a retired trolley car. Later on, they were just made to look that way. It seemed as good a place as any to break my fast.
In Portland, this place would have attracted more than its share of scenesters. I didn't know what to expect in a city where there were more options to satisfy the scene hungry. Inside they had made a vague attempt to maintain a theme: old magazine articles on the wall, and candy for sale at the cashier. The clientele, on the other hand, were a mixed bag. There wasn't anything obvious that connected them to this place. I ordered breakfast and settled down to business.
I took the map book out and found the page to the area where The Falconer, Vance's garage, was located. I marked that on the map. I marked every hotel and motel I had located in the area. I made note of routes that connected them, and roads to avoid. Then I noted the location of the nearest hospital on the map. I pulled out the phone and started looking up the fire and police stations in the area. I had to be prepared to find, or avoid, them in a hurry. I couldn't do either unless I knew where they were.
The restaurant never became crowded, so there was no pressure for me to move on. I was able to study the maps uninterrupted. A mental image of the streets formed in my head while I slowly ate. I would want to get a look at the area before I did anything serious, but now I could get in and out in a pinch.
At some point you just can't study any more, and you need to put your attention elsewhere while your subconscious continues the process. I closed the maps and put the notebook back in my pocket. I ate the rest of my meal and tried to think about anything but the task at hand. There was a pair of mall-punks making out in the corner booth. They looked like they were in their teens -- probably ditching school to be together.
To those who considered themselves to be the true keepers of the way, mall-punk was an insult. They hated the commercialization of the scene -- their scene. Mall chains like Torrid and Hot Topic made it hard for punk to be thought of as underground. I saw irony in that way of thinking. Malcolm McLaren became an impresario and formed the Sex Pistols to help sell punk fashion at his boutique. Whenever a new social trend comes along, there will always be a following closely behind. I've never seen a scene that was just about the music. There's always a fashion and other things mixed in.
For some, punk was a political statement. For others it was a means of musical release. The pioneers like Patti Smith and The Ramones were experimenting with the form, or rebelling against the overly pretentious concept-rock of the 70's. When punk crossed the Atlantic it picked up a hard political edge. The Gang of Four were openly Marxist. The Clash wanted social justice. There was no way the scene could support the political messages of Fugazi, and Generation X's poppy riffs without some dissent.
On the street a woman was walking with a plastic tub of roses selling them to passing motorists. That had to be a hard life. Her day would start early in the morning, when she'd go out to the flower market to stock up for the day. Then wrap them in plastic, and stake out some street-corner or walk the roads to sell your wares. There was little you could do to market or promote yourself or your product beyond your presence.
I didn't have to worry where my next meal was coming from, and wouldn't have to for a while. The job had paid well enough and covered most of my expenses. There'd been no rent to pay, or reoccurring bills. The others used their earnings to blow off steam between jobs. The growth of my bank balance was just another way to count the time since I had pulled the trigger on my old life. Now that I was back, it gave me a little cushion to build a life.
I got up to pay the bill. As I approached the counter, the punk girl winked and blew me a kiss -- poking a little fun at one of the mundanes. It is the duty of the young to assume that no one in the world understands them. It would be interesting to track her down ten or fifteen years from now, and see what became of her. In my little fantasy she would have become an accountant. I wondered how fondly she would remember this time of her life.
I got back in the car, and drove until I found a crowded parking lot. I parked in an out of the way a spot where I wouldn't stand out. If anyone noticed me, they would assume I was dealing with my shopping. I pulled out the case from beneath the seat. I wanted to be fully equipped before going any further into unfamiliar territory. First, I extracted a small pouch and strapped it to my left leg.
I had picked these tools based on my needs. Portability and concealability were more important than capacity and power. We traveled as light as possible. It changed what criteria we used for best. My laptop might be half as fast as the top of the line, but it was also smaller than hardback novel. I had once been an avid photographer. I'd had a respectable collection of high-end glass. The digital camera I pulled out now had been one marketed to Asian women. It was about the size of a playing card and a quarter of an inch thick. It would fit in a pocket without betraying its purpose, and was just good enough to get the job done. I had removed the pink plastic highlights though.
I pulled out a knife. It had a skeletal body, which kept the handle strong but light. The blade was five and a half inches long. Among the less pleasant things I learned in my life was that to be effective in a knife fight, you need at least three inches of penetration. A knob was attached to the back of the blade, so it could be opened with one hand, but I never used that. I had loosened the handle just enough so it could be opened with a flick of the wrist. There was a belt clip mounted to one side. I slid it down the back of my pants with the clip out, and the body of the knife against my skin. It would be hard to notice with my jacket off, and impossible with it on.
I pulled out a small holster, and pulled out the gun and gave it a routine check. It was a COP .357, a somewhat unusual weapon. It had the shape and thinness of a semi-automatic pistol, but it was a different kind of beast. I broke open the breach. There were four .357 magnum rounds. All were unfired, each one in a separate barrel arranged in a square. Unlike the traditional revolver where the cylinder rotated, here the firing pin shifted in turn to each barrel as the trigger was released. I could keep it loaded and ready without the threat of accidental firing.
Four shots never sounded like very many, but they would be enough to defend myself. If they weren't, then I was outclassed and another five or six wouldn't make the difference. It was enough to disable an attacker, and get myself away. If I thought I was going into someplace hot, then I'd pick a different tool. I snapped the gun closed and strapped it to my other leg. I reached into the bag and pulled out a speed-loader -- four more rounds that could be quickly inserted. Four should be enough, but I shouldn't tempt fate either. I tucked it in my shirt pocket for easy reach.
Once the majority of the case's contents were stowed on my person, I zipped it shut and tucked it back under my seat. I opened the map to the page I had been studying, and put it on the passenger seat. I drove out of the parking lot and in the direction of the garage. Once I was in east LA, I started to explore in detail. It was an industrial area with a number of warehouses and a few abandoned buildings.
There were only a few buildings that looked like they could be residential. Occasionally there would be a bar or small restaurant. I doubted many would notice a new face around. I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket. I pulled it out and looked at the number. It was the one I called when I talked to Ray's roommate. I shunted it off to voice mail. I didn't need to deal with Ray checking up on me.
I made note of the one-way streets, and any obstructions on the sidewalks or the road. I took pictures of the intersections and any major landmarks. I worked slowly from the outskirts of the neighborhood in -- avoiding the block with the garage entirely. I only wanted to expose myself to them once, so it would be last place I went. I never paused -- that would draw attention to myself. Whenever I'm in a place where I don't belong, I've learned the trick is to act like I have every right to be there.
When I finally exhausted all of the surrounding territory, it was finally time to scope out the garage itself. I put the camera on the dash, and set it to take a picture once every couple of seconds. I'm not quite sure who needs a feature like that in real life, but it's come in handy for me a couple of times. Modern gadget culture makes it so much easier to be a spy -- or a stalker.
It was time to put on my game face. I changed the way I drove to be slower and more hesitant. I became the lost business traveler. I pulled into the driveway of the garage. The sun was behind me -- so the camera would have a good view, but would be harder to spot. I stepped out of the car and did my best to look unassuming and lost. I had been taught not to look like a victim. Look forward, do not hesitate, keep my shoulders square, and my hands out of my pockets. I tried to break every one of those rules. I walked in timidly.
"Hello?" I called out.
A man came out from behind a car. He was carrying a large wrench. He was well muscled and wearing a tank top stained with grease. I had to bite my tongue to keep in character. He looked like something from a Robert Mapplethorpe photo. I doubted he would have appreciated the comparison to homoerotic art.
"Can I help you?" He wasn't as practiced at looking intimidating as the bouncer at the RadSkull, but he did a serviceable job. The shop is well maintained, as clean as a working garage can be. Tools that were not in use were back on the wall. No matter what these guys may have been into they took themselves seriously. The shop had three cars that were being worked on, as far as I could see. All were classic, nothing younger than the mid-sixties -- two were Falcons, the third was a Cougar. Against the back wall were a row of doors. Storerooms and offices I guessed. Off to the left was a staircase that went to the second floor. I presumed the living space was up there.
One door was open, I spied a man who fit the picture of Vance I had been given. He was standing and looking down at his desk, like one would if they were looking at a map or a chart with his knuckles on the desk. When he heard us, he looked out to see what was going on, and closed his door. I couldn't tell if there was anyone else in with him, but he didn't want anyone looking in.
"Yeah," I tried to sound nervous, "I got turned around back there, getting off the freeway. I'm looking for my motel. Can you tell me how to get back to," and I gave him the name of the intersection of one of the motels on my list.
He snorted and gave me a few quick instructions. I wasn't a scenester. I didn't have an interesting vehicle worth his time. What use was I really? I thanked him, but he had already turned back to the car he had been working on. I got back in my rental and drove off.
I headed in the direction of a nearby motel -- The Matador -- but not the one I had asked directions too. I couldn't be sure he wouldn't remember which one I had mentioned. The barest minimum of effort had been made so that the one-story motel couldn't be called a dive. I stopped in the room just long enough to drop off my bag and case. I had errands to run. I needed food, office supplies, and had some pictures that wanted printing.
The prints wouldn't be hard, but would take time. The self-service kiosk at a drugstore wouldn't suit my needs well. I had taken more than a hundred pictures, and I wasn't going to figure out which ones I needed. I would just print them all and look at them later.
I found a camera store and gave them the memory card from the camera. Even with professional equipment, I was told to come back in an hour. In the mean time, I bought my office supplies, and ordered a pizza. I could eat it hot or cold, and whatever I did not eat that night would keep till morning. I am normally ready for a meal when I come back from an op.
I eventually remembered to check my phone to see if Ray had left a message. There was one message -- the first that had been left on this phone.
"Yeah," Ray's message went. "I been thinking. I should head down there, to help you there. There ain't nothing up here."
I cursed. I did not want or need Ray coming down and interfering. I could not baby-sit him and do this all at the same time. I called his home number, to try and convince him to stay in Portland. When his phone answered, I was asked to leave a message.
"Hey Ray," I said all happy and casual. "It's Quinn. Look I got your message, and I don't think you should come down just yet. I found a couple of leads that say Becks may already be back up there. You are the only one who can check them out. Call me tomorrow, and I can give you the details." I hoped that the lie was enough to keep him put for a little while longer.
The prints, pizza, and the rest of my shopping traveled back with me to the motel. I moved the nightstand away from the wall, and took down the generic motel art. I tore the map from the book and pinned it to the wall. After that I sorted though the pictures for the ones that would represent a route I might take to the garage. I put on the ear bud and selected Dave Brubeck's Take Five and set it to repeat. It is a good piece to plan too. The music snaked in out of that familiar 5/4 rhythm. It was nearly seamless when it restarted.
I highlighted the different routes I had picked on the map. Then I sat down to eat and work on memorizing them. It was a bit early for dinner, but that's the life. I've learned the hard way to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom when I couldn't guarantee when the next time would be.
When I reached the point where I could visualize each path in my head, I turned away. I poured myself a glass of scotch, it was frivolous to have brought the bottles with me, but I hated to waste them. I had no more books to read, so I watched a documentary on the early days of Def Jam records -- they started with the perfect storm of business sense, producing, and talent. It would be hours yet before it would be time to leave. When I finished the drink, I set the alarm and lay down to take a nap.
Sometimes I write a note to myself knowing I'll never need to read it again. The act of writing it down fixes it in my mind. I set my alarm for the same reason. I normally wake before the alarm, regardless of when it would have gone off. Before betraying that I was awake I scanned the room, making sure was as it had been. Satisfied, I got up and turned off the clock and completed the process of waking in the shower. I pulled the dark set of clothing from my bag. My other changes of clothing had each been worn a couple of times, but this was the first time for this set.
The stereotype for night camouflage is a midnight black, but that's a bad choice -- unless I was out in the country, away from any light. The night isn't black. It's grey. Dumas wrote, "at night all cats are grey." So are buildings and streets. Black stands out at night. Not even shadows are pure black. If I wanted to blend in and fade into the background, grey/black was the better choice.
I parked more than a few blocks away so I wouldn't raise any suspicions with the car. I parked it pointing in the direction I thought I would want to go when I got back. If it came down to it, I wanted to be pointed the right direction and not the wrong one. I got out and headed out on my route to the garage. I walked at a fast, but casual pace -- nothing to draw any attention. Occasionally I would see a car, but no other pedestrians. I walked close to the wall, keeping my face out of sight.
As I approached the garage I slowed down, but kept walking with a purpose. I didn't want to rush in. I wanted to see what was coming before I was seen. I made sure to breathe deeply, and keep all of my senses on edge. From the maps, it looked as though there was an alley that ran behind the garage. There was a gap between the garage and one of the neighboring buildings that probably led to it. Taking a risk, I assumed that one of the other gaps did as well, and ducked into one before reaching my target. These buildings were old, built at a time when it would have been uncommon for them to touch. My guess proved to be correct.
I couldn't describe the street as having any single distinct smell, but the alley had the damp decaying smell of garbage left out too long. There was no one in the alley, and no obvious urban fauna. I'm sure there were cats or dogs that patrolled the alley, and definitely members of the order rodenta. None of them were the type to welcome my presence. I moved slowly and deliberately to make as little noise as possible. There were no lights that I could see here in the alley, but skulking was never a welcome addition to a neighborhood.
There was an elderly looking fire escape on the second floor of the garage. The ladder was fully retracted, and out of reach. It would make far too much noise to use it. There were two doors at the back of the building. I had everything I needed to get them open, but I had to assume there was some kind of alarm. What I didn't know was what kind. Given what I'd learned of Vance, I doubted it would be the type that would report back to the authorities. It would be something that came with the place, or that he'd installed himself. Probably a noisemaker wired to a handful of sensors that were connected to the obvious places. So I'd try the non-obvious places.
There were no windows that opened on the back of the building, at least not on the first floor. I walked down the side alley past some old oil drums and a garbage can that had seen better days. There was a small window high on the first floor that looked like it might open. It was probably there to provide ventilation and light. It was just possible to imagine squeezing though.
The sill was just below the fire escape. If this window proved to be an unsuitable entrance, I could explore the window above it. That was my second choice, since it would make more noise and I would be easier to see at that height. I tested one of the oil drums to see if it was full enough to be stable without making noise. It wasn't. This was going to have to happen the hard way. The bottom of the sill was just below my grasp. I unstrapped the the pouch from my leg and moved it to my left arm -- so it would be easier to reach.
I took a deep breath and jumped up to grab the bottom of the sill. I was glad this was LA. In Portland it would have been slick with condensation and harder to hold on to. As soon as my hands connected with the sill, I started pulling myself up -- letting the momentum help me. When I could brace my knee on the sill, I reached up and grabbed the bottom of the fire escape. I followed with the other knee and held onto the escape with both hands.
I waited there, letting my arms take most of the weight until I was sure the sill could hold me. I took slow deliberate breaths -- in through the nose, out through the mouth -- until my heart returned to a normal rhythm, and I was sure that no one had seen me. I reached up to the pouch and pulled out a small flashlight. It was about the size of my little finger. Its halogen bulb would shine a very bright light. I focused the cap to a tight beam, and pointed it at the window frame. The molding was old, and beginning to crack. If I wanted to, I could pry it off, pull out the glass, place the sheet on the escape above and get in through the window. Someone would eventually notice, but probably not for days. I'd probably be out of town by then.
I pointed the flashlight in though the window to see inside. There were boxes stacked nearly to the window. Some of them had stamps on the side that suggested they could be Chinese in origin. There were numbers and abbreviations that looked like they could refer to car parts, but that was just a guess based on context. There were more oil drums. I couldn't tell how solid the boxes were, if they would hold my weight or not. Even if I did make it in this way, I doubted I could make it out the same way.
There's always a moment when you are trying to piece it all together when you just wish they'd put out a sign that said, "the key to the front door is under the mat, we will be out for the rest of the week. 2 bottles of milk, no cream." Unfortunately Vance wasn't a trusting idiot, and I doubted there had been a working milkman in LA for decades.
I've learned -- over and over -- that it is best to assume that your opponent knows more about you, than you did about him. I think of him as stronger, smarter, and better prepared. It's a demoralizing way to think about the world, but it was better than the alternative.
The fire escape made a minimum of fuss when asked to hold my weight. I was still debating if I wanted to climb up to the second floor, or start prying off the glass, when I heard steps in the alley. I froze in place -- had I been spotted? I couldn't risk turning to look. That would've drawn too much attention to my face. I put my finger over the flashlight to block the light, but it was still bright enough that the back of my nail glowed red. I held very still to see if they had seen me, or would walk past. I dropped my lids to cover the whites of my eyes and waited.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure walk past and turn in the direction of the back of the garage. I would have to hang here and wait until I could be sure they had gone, and then fall back. If I could be sure they had not gone into the garage, then I could try again. Otherwise I'd need to abort for the evening, and try again later. The figure returned to the alley.
"Who the hell is up there?" A voice hissed.
I was made.
There was little I could do hanging there, aside from be upset with myself. I could try and make it up to the roof and beat a retreat that way. I had no idea what the territory was like and I would be too exposed. I slid my knees off of the sill. If the person had been more conveniently placed, I would have dropped directly onto them. I'd need to wait until I was on the ground before I could confront or attack. I hung for a moment before dropping. I let my legs take the jolt, letting them fold under me.
As I straightened, I prepared to strike -- my hands were away from my body, fingers in a loose fist. I kept my focus on the figure's eyes. If I watched for the signs, I'd be able to know where he would strike. My opponent was between five-five and five-seven. He was wearing a navy pea coat, so it was hard to get a good feel for his weight -- somewhere between one twenty and one fifty. Caucasian, their skin was rather pale, and then I realized I was looking at a female. Her hair was died an unnatural red, with a blond streak. She wore thin wire-rimmed glasses.
"Hello Becks." I said.