Authors: Gregg Hurwitz
The locksmith a few blocks down didn't even give me the chance to lie to him. He was a burly man with a bottlebrush mustache and an indistinct accent. "I not can copy for you. Our blanks not are thick enough, bro." He rolled the r in "bro," infusing it with an / sound.
"I don't actually need it copied."
"Unlawful-to-duplicate key require seven-pin key blank. Illegal to have seven-pin key blank, bro." A massive eyebrow contorted suspiciously, pinching his right eye. His name tag, which read ASK ME, MY NAME is: RAz!, didn't match his apparent gravity. "You are cop?"
"No, I'm not a cop."
"You not can lie about, you know."
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm a cop."
Raz eyed me, then smirked. "Listen, bro. Perhaps I get seven-pin key blank from Canada? Perhaps I copy, but it will cost extra, eh? The risk for illegal."
"I actually don't need it copied. I was hoping you could just tell me what kind of key it is."
He sighed, indignant, then knocked the key against the countertop. "It is good key, pure brass, not cheap alloy."
"I just found it. It was my stepfather's. What do you think it goes to?"
He screwed up his mouth, his mustache arching like a displeased caterpillar. "I have to guess, I say post-office box."
"You want to copy, you come back here."
I shook his warm, oversize hand and came away with his business card. I said, "I promise, bro."
Crime-scene tape had been strung across the smashed-through garage door of the run-down little house in Culver City, and bullet holes pockmarked the soft wood of the facade. I'd parked a few blocks away and come over on foot, feeling safely anonymous in the thickening dusk.
I kept to the far side of the street and walked past the house, keeping my head down and my pace swift. In the footage I'd watched on the hospital room's TV, the reporter had positioned herself by the front walk where the yellow tape had come unmoored and was fluttering provocatively.
I went around the block and came back, pausing behind an empty van. The parked vehicles appeared to be empty, and I spotted no one lingering or watching the house. I wasn't surprised that the media had decamped after shooting their soft leads last night. But no ongoing surveillance from the cops? That pretty much confirmed that the terrorist story sold to the press was the flimsy cover I'd suspected it to be.
I remembered a lesson I'd learned in another life on the bleached-white tundra. Liffman's Rules: When you don't know what to do, wait longer.
It was a fairly busy street, so I walked to the corner gas station, drank a cup of dense coffee, and returned to see if anything had changed. As I turned the corner, a police car appeared, slowed a bit in front of the house, and continued on its way. They were making a cursory show of keeping an eye on the place, at least, but it still hardly felt like a terrorist watch. I wondered who made those decisions and at what level.
I stuck my hand in my pocket, clenched it around Charlie's key. I'd checked it at the five closest post offices, starting with the one for the house's zip
code. The key was appropriately sized for the P.O. box locks, giving me a stab of excitement each time it slid home, but it had refused to turn. Even if my locksmith bro had guessed right, there were countless other P.O. Box 229s in Los Angeles, let alone the country.
To figure out whatever Charlie wanted me to know, I wasn't sure what else I could do. Besides break into a crime scene.
Back in my hiding spot behind the van, I realized that I was balking because I was scared. This just wasn't the kind of thing a reasonable person did. But nothing about this situation felt reasonable.
I walked briskly up the sidewalk toward the house, timing my arrival with a break in traffic. I slipped through the crime-scene tape blocking the gaping hole the Jeep had made when it had blasted through the garage door, and I crouched in the silence, listening for shouts or approaching footsteps. I heard nothing but the drip of a faucet in the rust-stained sink, rats moving in the walls, the sound of my quickened breathing. By ducking under that tape, I'd crossed a line. In the dark quiet, the danger seemed suddenly more tangible.
After ten minutes, or twenty, I rose and poked around the garage, careful to keep back in the shadows. Several jars on a warped shelf held dried industrial glue. A jackhammer tilted in the corner, its red handle gleaming. A few oil-slick wrenches beneath a dusty workbench, a stack of National
Geographies near the step, a faded plastic sandbox on end. I knew it was a rental even before I pushed through the creaking door into the empty interior.
I stood in silence, listening to the sounds of the house. A groaning pipe, a tired floorboard, a loose shutter. There was literally no furniture. A plastic McDonald's cup in the sink. Grease-spotted wrappers in the tipped-over trash bucket. Empty drawers on top of the stove, refrigerator shoved out from the wall--the search had been thorough.
I stepped into the living room. Beams of yellow from the streetlights shot through countless bullet holes, skewering my body as I passed through.
In the tiny bathroom, the medicine cabinet had been torn from the wall and thrown into the tub, bits of mirror twinkling in the faint light like gems. The folding closet doors in the bedroom had been ripped back on their hinges, one of them snapped, and a few items of clothing dumped on the floor. An army-green sleeping bag lay bunched in the corner, as if to make as little an intrusion on the square of dusty carpet as possible. As if Charlie had wanted to curl up there and disappear.
I paused in the doorway, the loneliness of the life lived here settling into my bones. Even if the Service had cleared the place out, it was obvious that Charlie had lived like a squatter. Like someone biding time. Until what?
I walked over and straightened out Charlie's sleeping bag, then lay where he'd slept. A neighbor's porch light glowed through the vertical blinds. The low vantage and the room's bareness added to a feeling of purposeful desolation. As if he were punishing himself for something. As if he didn't believe he deserved more than this.
The tiny den across the hall was empty, the closet bare, save for an attic hatch. I pulled myself up and peered around the crawl space. I could see where numerous boots--law enforcement?--had stamped through the blanket of dust.
I dropped down and hurried back into the garage, flattening against the wall to the side of the blown
out garage door. With a finger I drew a line in the dust on the lids of the glue jars. And again on the top cover of that stack of National Geographies. I forced myself to wait to see if there would be another police drive-by. It seemed an eternity, but finally the car materialized, slowed, drifted off.
Then I scurried past the gaping hole to the jack
hammer in the corner.
I touched that gleaming handle.
I searched the slab for any signs of chiseling or new concrete. None. Back inside, moving quickly. A cockroach skittered across the worn-out linoleum, but there was no sign that the flooring
had been peeled back.
I closed my eyes, running through possibilities. I thought about how Frank had installed that alarm
monitor beside his bed so he could sleep knowing it was right there.
Racing back into the bedroom, I tugged the sleeping bag from the corner and ran my hands over the carpet, feeling for bumps in the concrete beneath. Perfectly smooth--it would have had to be or it would've been discovered in the search. In the stripes of light from the blinds, I noted how the carpet edges lifted ever so slightly from the walls in the corner. From this angle I could see that it had been pulled up for about three feet in either direction before being smoothed in place again.
It took a few pinches to get a grip on the carpet, then I peeled it back. It came easily, revealing a floor safe embedded in the concrete slab.
I was breathless. The house had been searched, but no one had bothered to lie where Charlie had lain in his sad little corner, had bothered to inhabit his world of asceticism and paranoia.
The lock in the floor safe took a tubular key. I'd hauled Charlie's key around all day, and it didn't match the safe he'd slept on top of every night. It made me wonder how many more secrets a guy like Charlie had.
I sat back on my heels like a little kid. A muscle car blew by outside, the engine spatter loud through the thin walls. A draft rippled the vertical blinds, making the strips of light roll across my face, the walls, making the room come alive. I felt a surprising calm, the still excitement I used to get
when I read a ball coming out of the pitcher's hand and knew I would hit it before it was halfway to the plate.
I rose and headed into the kitchen. I pulled the McDonald's cup from the sink, reached down through the rotting rubber guard into the garbage disposal. My fingers brushed a magnetic box. I pulled it out, slid back the grimy lid, and held the tubular key to the faint light.
My head buzzing with childish excitement, I retraced my steps, sank to my knees on the tugged
back carpet, and lowered the key into place. It fit snugly, the gears shifting in the floor safe. I blew a breath through clenched teeth. The weighty door lifted silently. Hooked to the inside handle, a rope trailed down into shadow. When I tugged, whatever it was connected to gave surprising resistance. I pulled up the rope hand over hand, not sure I wanted to see what would rise into view.
A rucksack, just like the one Charlie had brought with him into San Onofre. It was full, stuffed so the fabric was taut. I undid the buckles and flipped it over before I could lose my nerve.
Out tumbled stack after stack of hundred-dollar bills, bundled neatly in purple bands.
With $180,000 slung over one shoulder, I walked as casually as I could back toward my condo. The nearest parking space I'd found was five blocks away, not bad considering that it was past nine o'clock and folks had slotted their cars for the night. I paused to glance in store windows and pretended to tie my shoelaces to check if anyone was following me. All these years later and here I was again, edgy as a fugitive.
As I approached the corner mart, a woman with pursed lips confronted a massive man, his rotund form draped with layers of ripped, dirt-blackened clothing. Even the real-estate prices hadn't driven the smart homeless people out of temperate Santa Monica.
The woman pulled a dollar bill from her purse and handed it to him. "Do not spend this on alcohol."
"Absolutely not, ma'am."
His benefactor's Lexus chirped twice, and she climbed in and drove off. He heard my footfall and turned at my approach, scratching his bloated belly. Despite a leonine mess of curly hair and a nose swollen to absurdity from weather and alcohol, he had astute, intelligent features.
His face lit up. "Nick, I'm two bucks shy of a pint."
I dug in my pocket, came up with a few crumpled bills. "Do not spend this on alcohol."
Homer smiled, showing off his true-yellows. The bills disappeared into his pawlike hand.
I'd met him not at the various soup kitchens and shelters where I'd worked but on the street. Homer was one of the stubborn ones, who preferred rooting in garbage cans and sleeping under the open sky. Foolishly, I admired him for that. Working with the homeless could drive you nuts, because you wound up liking the right people for the wrong reasons. But I think I took to Homer-- and my work--because I'd also lived in the awful crush of imposed anonymity. A few times I'd been one bounced check from the street. Homer's wryness about his fate had touched a nerve with me from the start. He was as amused as he was resigned, in on the existential joke. Where I'd fought tooth and nail not to slide over the edge, he'd long ago embraced despair, and that made him a seer of sorts, a guide through an underworld I'd only glimpsed.
But Homer also stood out because, in a community of fragmented minds and souls, he'd managed to keep some part of himself intact. On an outreach shift a few years ago, I'd turned my back on a bulky schizophrenic living out of a park utility shed, and the guy had taken a swing at my head. Homer, who'd followed along with me in hopes of free lunch, had tried to flop on his shoulders but misjudged his jump and landed on a water fountain. The guy rang my bell pretty hard before I recovered and subdued him with the help of a coworker. Homer seemed utterly unshaken by the episode; his only injury was where he'd hit his funny bone on the water fountain's spout. He'd shrugged off my gratitude, but I'd never looked at him the same. Whoever said it was the thought that counts was sure as hell right when it came to going up against a 280-pound schizo off his risperidone.
I hurried into the store, Homer at my heels, and snatched a Los Angeles Times from the stack. "Have you eaten?" I asked.
"If I give you a couple more bucks, will you buy a sandwich?"
He nodded his head.
"Come on, then." I detoured to the refrigerated aisle, and Homer perused the selections with maddening thoroughness. Hacmed watched us closely from behind the counter. "How's an Italian sub sound?" I asked, shifting the cash on my back and trying to move things along.