The Rise of The Team
Tim Rierden and Ginger Rierden
1. The Beginning: South Gate, California
I live in South Gate, California. It’s part of Los Angeles. South Gate is California’s version of Compton for brown people. Things happen here—some good, some not so much.
“Jacqueline, someone is in the house.” It’s Mamá. “Jacqueline, wake up.”
She gently closes her hand over my mouth; she looks at me through eyes wide with fear. My baby brother, Roberto, is sleeping like a log next to me. Did you know that babies snore?
I hear it: a footfall and a creaking floorboard at a time when nothing is supposed to be creaking. I know every sound this old house can make. I’ve spent years finding every loose floorboard on my way to the fridge at one in the morning. More recently, sneaking out to be with friends, all done with stealth, total silence so that Mamá will not hear. I only fool myself. I have a real mama. The kind who hears everything, sees everything, and knows everything I do. She just lets me think she doesn’t know what I’m up to.
“There it is again, Jacqueline!” Mamá whispers.
Roberto sleeps as she takes her hand away from my mouth, her eyes darting left and right. Her breath comes fast, and my heart is now pumping like mad. She carefully picks up Roberto. He does one of those baby snorts but is back asleep in seconds. She rolls off the bed silently and moves toward the window.
I touch her hand and whisper, “Mamá, I’ll call nine one one and get the police,” as I reach for my IPhone, my most prized possession. I clutch it, and just as my thumb moves over the home button, the charger cable tightens and the phone slips from my hand, bouncing off the nightstand and landing with a hard and loud thunk on the worn wood floor.
The bedroom door shatters at the frame. A masked figure charges through the destroyed entrance in a flash. I instinctively roll off the bed. I land in a heap on my elbows and knees and scrabble like a crab under the bed. Pop, pop, pop. I know the sound. I know it too well. All of us in South Gate know that sound. Pop, pop, pop. Except when you’re in front of the gun, it’s more like boom, boom, boom.
“I got you now, chiquita!” an angry male voice yells as the bullets tear through the mattress and the walls of my bedroom.
One shot hits the floor in front of my face, scattering wood shards like shrapnel into my eyes and mouth. My ears are ringing, and I smell the acrid odor of burned gunpowder. I hear someone yelling.
“Juan Antonio, stop! Wrong house! The ones we want live next door. Cops are coming,. Get out, amigo, rápido.”
The wrong house! I’m nearly killed by a gangbanger who can’t read street addresses. The intruders run like the cowards they are, laughing, cursing, and kicking our furniture and possessions out of their way. All I hear is crackle, crackle, crackle as their shoes crush through the broken pieces of our belongings—and sirens.
“Mamá! Mamá!” I yell. No answer. I’m filled with fear. “Mamá, Mamá!” I want to get out from under this bed, but I’m trapped, caged by fear. I do something I don’t usually do: I yell in Spanish. I’m not ashamed of being brown. I love my heritage, but I’m an American, and my mama is Mexican, and sometimes she only hears Spanish. “Háblame, por favor.” Silence.
The sirens are coming closer. I can’t move. If I stayed here, nothing would change. I could hide under this bed, and nothing would change. I want to stay here. Wood splinters from the floor cover my face. I brush the splinters and some tears away. I know as soon as I crawl out, my world might be gone.
I’m only fifteen. I’m still a little girl. Why is this happening to me and my family? I clutch my crucifix hanging around my neck, pray, and cry.
The wail of the sirens is just outside now. Screeching tires, car doors slamming shut, heated voices shouting urgent orders. Darts of red and blue light jet through my window to dance and play off the walls and floor of the room. I roll to my left as I hear the front door crash open and more people invade our home. In the shadows I see a small, crumpled silhouette lying against the wall, motionless. The cops are here, but it’s too late.
“Mamá. Mamá!” I barely get the words past the enormous knot that forms in my throat. I cannot control the tears now. “Háblame, por favor.” I begin to sob, and sorrow surrounds me like a cold, wet blanket.
The light comes on. Through tear-filled eyes, I can see a distorted image of my mother’s back. She’s on her left side, curled up on the floor, head down, knees pulled up to her waist with something tucked away in her middle. I see bloodstains on the back of her pink pajama top, three small smudges of red spreading over her top like blooming roses.
Someone enters. I see two black shoes, shiny as mirrors, slowly walk to Mamá. A hand wearing a black glove reaches out and touches her shoulder. She does not respond. The gloved hand rolls Mamá slightly, and I hear its owner speak.
“Oh God! Sergeant! Sergeant Washington! Down here! We’ll need a bus—fast!” the man with the gloved hand yells.
I don’t get it. Why would anyone need a bus? We need the medics. For just a moment, I’m distracted thinking about this. When I come back to reality, I let out a cry that has been tied up inside me for too long. It startles the man with gloves and black shoes. He moves fast. The mattress is lifted off the bed and thrown aside. Brightness floods through my dark sanctuary. For the second time tonight, someone is pointing a gun at me.
“Are you okay?” Black Shoes asks as he lowers his gun. The bare-bulb ceiling light is hard on my eyes, and I squint at him. I cannot speak. I have no voice. I just nod my head, fold my arms, pull my knees up to my chest, and rest my left cheek in the puddle of tears on the bullet-scarred wooden floor.
“Can you slide out or should I move the bed for you?” he asks as the gun goes into its holster.
I breathe deeply and start to pull myself together. I inch toward the side of the bed away from Mamá. It’s quiet now. The sirens have stopped their urgent cry. There are now many people in the house, but they step softly and speak in hushed tones. The lack of noise is surreal and wrong. Something is way out of whack. That’s when it hits me. Where’s Roberto? He should be screaming like crazy right now. My mind races: Did those creeps take him? Has he been kidnapped? I wonder. Those kinds of things happen around here.
My thoughts collide with panic and anger. I’m stricken with fear, guilt, and sorrow. I’m confused and afraid. I look back to my Mamá lying motionless on the floor, and I get it. All the emotion, everything I was feeling, is drained from me—instantly removed in a violent gush of pain. I convulse on the floor under the cold, bare light. The harsh light of a devastating revelation.
I start to shake so much that Black Shoes thinks I’m having a seizure or something. A tall ebony-skinned woman comes in. She has three gold stripes on the blue sleeve of her uniform. She looks at Black Shoes.
“Whaddya got?” she asks Black Shoes in a flat, uninterested tone.
He looks at her and then turns his head and looks down toward Mamá and then me. The woman officer follows his gaze. I can see it in her face. She’s not a stranger to the street or what happens here. This is not new to her. She has seen the worst. She’s probably hard as a rock, but she melts anyway. Her shoulders drop, and she exhales as if someone just punched her in the stomach. She moves toward me and drops down on one knee.
“What’s your name, honey?” she asks.
I can barely utter a response. I’m so numb now with pain and fear that I can hardly remember my name. “Jake. My name is Jake,” I weakly reply, reassuring myself that I’m still alive. She reaches for me. I flinch and pull back. She backs off a little.
“Jake, I’m going to take you out of here. I’m going to pick you up and carry you out. Promise me you’ll keep your eyes shut.” It’s a command, but it’s given in a kind way. I know she cares and wants to help.
I move carefully to her. She slips her hands under my arms, and in one motion we’re up and moving quickly to the demolished doorway.
I don’t keep my promise. I look.
Just before we leave the room, Black Shoes rolls Mamá onto her back. There wrapped in her arms, his head tightly tucked under her chin, is Roberto. His red T-shirt clings tightly to his tiny body. That’s when I know for sure. His T-shirt was white when we went to bed.
My world is gone.
2. Boise, Idaho
“Dotty, Detective Lash is coming in this morning. Please do me a favor and don’t tip him that I’m ready to rip his head off for that stunt he pulled last night. Can ya do that?”
“Sure thing, Lieutenant. How ’bout some decaf? You’re a little wired this morning,” Dotty recommends.
“Oh, no. Let’s just maintain this level of intensity until the detective and I have our little chat.”
“LT, just remember: it hasn’t even been a year.” Dotty calls him by his nickname, a short version of lieutenant.
“It hasn’t been a year, and I offered Lash time off with pay. I offered him counseling at department expense. He turned it all down, let the pressure build for ten months, and then he decided to go out and nearly beat the life out of a drug dealer last night.”
The lieutenant pauses, looks out the window, and considers the many years he and Nick Lash have worked together. He holds a full cup of hot black coffee in his right hand. In his left is the report Lash filed last night after the incident. The security DVD from the garage was in the file too, but LT has to fill in the audio track.
The lieutenant has seen Lash in action.LT’s thoughts wander as he recalls what he witnessed on the DVD this morning. His memory lets the silent images play as his imagination adds the missing sound track.
“You six men there. Police officer. Hands where I can see ’em,” Lash orders as he moves in an angular pattern into the parking garage, his right hand seeking his sidearm.
The lieutenant can see as Lash carefully watches the motions of the men, his weapon drawn, loaded, cocked, safety off.
“Hey, home skillet, we ain’t doing nothin’. Why don’t you just take your white-bread butt downtown, and write some parking tickets,” one of the men seems to say, and the others --- well they just laugh.
“You’re a real comedian. All jokes aside, gentlemen, do as I say or this will not go well for you,” Lash warns as he moves to a position that places all six suspects in a small group for his front-sight picture.
The comedian speaks again. “You do the math, five-O. It’s six to one. I don’t think this is going too well for you,” the comedian says as he strikes a defiant posture and moves toward Lash.
Lash smiles. “You’re right. I could use better odds.”
He moves so quickly that the front sight of his pistol isn’t off the men for more than half a second. Lash brings his hands close to his body, chambers his right leg diagonally, and uses his core muscles to drive his right foot into the comedian’s jaw. An impressive stream of blood and several teeth jet from the funny man’s mouth as he reels backward and slams into a parked car. The funny man gives Lash a dazed, startled look and drops like a bag of cement.
“That’s better. Five to one now.” Lash grins. “Get on your knees, hands behind your heads, and interlace your fingers!” Lash orders loudly, and the thugs do what he says as if they’re a synchronized unit. Still lying on the garage floor, the comedian groans and spits out another tooth.
The kicker was when Lash looked right into the security camera and shrugged. Whaddya gonna do?
The lieutenant smiles inwardly and returns to his conversation with Dotty. “He didn’t even try to make it look righteous. He didn’t read the purps their rights. He didn’t call for backup when he knew he was in over his head. He just drew down on six guys, picked the meanest one, and beat him into oblivion. Even the other gangbangers were scared stiff. It’s the first time I actually have a solid testimony from some punks against a cop. Lash really crossed a line this time, and it’s on video. I’m not sure I can stop what’s bound to happen, but I want him to know what he’s done.”
“I know, LT. I know what I did,” Nick Lash says from the doorway.
He takes up most of the space in the doorway. “I know it was a screw-up. I know it was a bad call,” he admits in his clipped but deep baritone voice. As the lieutenant snaps around to look at the detective, Dotty flashes Lash a secret smile.
“Not here. In my office, now!” the lieutenant orders.
All six foot five of Lash moves like a scolded schoolboy going to the principal’s office. LT is not a small man, but Lash towers over him.
Mike and Sulley, Dotty thinks and chuckles. Except LT has two eyes.
Lash, a former marine and Navy SEAL, had worked in the Ada County sheriff’s office for ten years since leaving the military. His straightforward, no-BS style of law enforcement frequently rankles his bosses. He is reliable, smart, and, when needed, ruthless. He cuts corners when corners are created to slow him down, but he had never violated someone’s rights until last night. This was not going to be pleasant.
3. Los Angeles, California
“What’s her name?” the social worker asks the sergeant.
“Jake. Actually, it’s Jacqueline Maria Palomera. At first I thought she was a boy, a little boy. Turns out Jake is a girl, a nearly sixteen-year-old girl, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. Her birthday comes up in a few weeks. Hell of a birthday present,” Washington says.
The social worker allows a pause to linger between them and then looks at the sergeant. “You mean she’s tough-looking, like a boy?”
“No, she’s little. About four foot ten and maybe seventy-five pounds soaking wet. She pulls her hair back so it looks short. I picked her up and carried her out of the house last night like she was a ten-year-old,” the policewoman clarifies.
“I heard about the shooting on the news while I was driving in this morning. Any leads?”
“Typical responses for that neighborhood—nobody saw a thing. Nobody heard anything. Two punks open up on an innocent family, and no one wants to stick his neck out,” the cop says. She finally starts to feel the weight of what she’s seen and heard. Washington lets out a deep sigh and takes a seat in the social worker’s office.
The social worker looks at Washington. “Coffee?” she asks. The sergeant nods. “Any family? Anyone we can contact?” the social worker asks as she prepares two cups.
“We can’t locate her father. He vanished two years ago. Jake says there might be a distant relative in Boise, Idaho. Here’s the only number she has for her. The name is Maribel Sanchez.” The policewoman passes a slip of paper to her friend and continues. “I can’t stand the idea of putting her into the foster-care system. She’s almost sixteen. She’s really bright. She skipped fifth grade and went right to middle school. Even so, there’s no chance she’ll be adopted. It’ll just be two years of moving from home to home until she’s of age. She’s tough, but that’s the last thing she needs.”
“What about you, Grace?” the social worker asks the cop.
“You got a short memory, girl. I tried that once and learned my lesson the hard way,” Washington responds, a little too harshly.
The social worker holds up her hands in mock surrender.
“I do remember, but this is different. Sounds like you two seem to have made a connection,” the social worker persists.
“Maybe, but let’s try Boise first. If that doesn’t work out, we can look at different options. I don’t know if I’m ready for that again,” Washington confides.
“I hear ya. I know it was tough with Mia, but Boise? Boise, Idaho! Can’t we get sued for child abuse if we send her there?” the social worker chides.
The sergeant laughs. “I needed that. It’s definitely not the big city. Maybe that would be a good thing though,” she reasons.
“Yeah, whatever happens in Boise, Idaho?” The two women chuckle. They let off some steam and finish the paperwork that will get Jake on her way to Idaho.
4. Boise, Idaho
“BLUES! Oh good God, LT, not BLUES,” Nick Lash pleads.
BLUES is the Boise Learning Unit for Exceptional Students. It is perceived as the school district’s dumping ground for kids with problems.
“That’s it. The chief deputy and the sheriff both want you out of sight for a while. It’s that, or take a long vacation without pay,” the lieutenant says, pointing a menacing-looking finger at Lash.
“BLUES is no place for someone with my level of experience. That’s the kind of place you send someone who is a hazard to the public,” Lash retorts, instantly regretting his words.
“Thanks, Nick. I’m glad you see it my way. The principal, Doug Garrett, is looking forward to meeting you tomorrow at nine o’clock. Don’t be late.”
“How long?” Lash asks in resignation, hands on hips and snorting air through his nose like a caged bull. He knows there is no appeal from this sentence.
“I’m thinking thirty days. The resource officer who was assigned to the school is on leave. You can replace him until he gets back. Now get out of here. I’ve got work to do,” LT says and dismisses Lash with a wave of his hand.
5. South Gate, California
I guess I can understand why this is happening. I should have lied and told them I had family here. Sergeant Washington got me out of the foster home and brought me to her house until I leave for Boise. It’s crazy, but right now she’s my only family; she’s my only hope.
I hear the sergeant but have to really force myself to move. I don’t want to do this.
She comes over and puts her hands on my shoulders. Her strong, loving grip gives me a little strength. I stare out the window, wondering what the world is planning for me. I instinctively reach up and clasp the small crucifix dangling by a gold chain around my neck. I hear the sergeant’s voice; it’s very far away. Jesứs, María, y José, give me strength, I pray to myself.
“Jake, I have no idea what you’re going through, and I’d never pretend I do. Time will help ease the pain. What’s happening today will let you say good-bye, but that won’t mean you’ll ever forget,” Washington says.
The tears come again as they have for days now. The tears come in waves like the cascades of water arching over and crashing onto a rocky seashore. They are unstoppable, and each wave seems to wash a tiny drop of pain away from me and let it go. There is an ocean of pain inside me. I stand, turn, and bury myself in her embrace. We’re both crying as we head out the front door.
“Jake, put your seat belt on,” Washington tells me as she starts the car.
We pull out of her neighborhood and head down Alameda Street. Wilson Park is on my left. I like to go there and watch the skaters.
I let my thoughts linger over the memories. Mamá, Roberto, and I would sometimes take sandwiches and sit on the grass and enjoy the sun and just being outside. It was a sanctuary. A place we could go and get away from the chaos and terror that frequently came to our street. There’s a big playground in the park, and I would hold Roberto in my lap, and we’d swing. He’d giggle and scream in delight, and Mamá would tell me, “Not too high, Jackie; he might pee.” We’d all laugh.
Mamá never called me Jake. She thought it was a street name and got mad anytime she heard it. Actually, it was a nickname I got because of a teacher at Jordon High School. It was Mrs. Gralenski. She was taking roll the first day of computer applications class and mispronounced it.
Teddy Jimenez was sitting next to me and poked me in the ribs. “Oh, so now you’re Jake-waleen. Did you change that on your green card?” He got an elbow in the gut for that.
“Oops, I messed that up. It’s a typo. Jacqueline. Jacqueline Palomera,” she said.
I put up my hand and rolled my eyes at Teddy as everyone laughed.
“I’m really sorry, Jacqueline. If I mess it up again, I owe you a homework pass.” She smiled.
I had the best relationship with her from then on, but the nickname stuck. It was Jake-waleen for about two days among my friends as a joke. Then it just got shortened to Jake, and well, that was it.
Mrs. Gralenski’s classroom became my home away from home. I would go there anytime I wanted a place to work and think. She was at school early in the morning, and she always stayed as long as we needed her after school. Many times, we’d eat lunch in her room. The crowd became so large that the custodians complained we were making a mess and that we needed to stay in the lunchroom. Mrs. Gralenski got the principal and cafeteria workers to agree to make us bag lunches that were easier to clean up.
Computers, Mrs. Gralenski, and I were made for each other, even though her last name was Polish, she really understood the Hispanic culture and the way we live in South Gate. I took every computer class offered at the high school before I was a junior. I went on to help Mrs. Gralenski create a coding class. Now, I don’t know where I’ll finish high school or if I’ll ever be able to work with computers again.
We turn left on South Gate Boulevard. It’s not far now. We pass Estela’s Beauty Shop where Mamá worked sometimes. The shop is closed in her memory, and there’s a white cross made of flowers in the window. I can’t help but let go of the gusher, and I sob.Washington squeezes my hand. We drive for several blocks, passing the stores and shops where Mamá and I used to go. Would I see them again? I didn’t know. We turn onto Bulis Road, go about two blocks, and then we turn into Abbey Memorial Park. Washington pulls up to the curb in a spot reserved for us.
“Jake, your mama was loved by many people. I spoke to so many of her friends last night at the service. You have many souls praying for you right now,” Washington says to me.
I look out of the car window and see what must be at least a hundred people gathered near an awning not far away. I see Father Gomez, our priest, standing silently, and yes, he is looking my way, waiting. His kind eyes and gentle ways are very important to me. I am not über religious. I wonder why things like this happen to people like Roberto and Mamá. Stupid! Bad things happen to good people. It’s the way of the world.
That whole night is just a blur to me now. Why didn’t God save them, protect them? But I know God did not do this. Men did this. Bad men. Men who will probably never be caught for what they did. I do not blame God, but I thank him for Father G.
I unlock my seat belt and open the car door. It’s time to say good-bye.
6. Los Angeles, California
“Juan Antonio, I just got the word. The cops have your name and are looking for you.”
A twenty-something citizen of Mexico, Juan Antonio Hernandez had been working for the drug cartels for about three years. He had recently been forced to make a lifesaving career change.
Juan made a slight miscalculation regarding how much calcium to cut into a kilo of cocaine which resulted in the total loss of the drug’s value. This, in turn, caused Juan Antonio’s personal value with his bosses to drop. Juan was being hunted by the drug gang. Now they had given him up to the police as the shooter who killed a mother and her baby.
If Juan Antonio goes to jail, the gang knows just where to find him. This is an old trick: the crooks use the police to help them do their work. In the meantime, Juan Antonio has found lucrative employment stealing Japanese-made cars off the streets of Los Angeles.
Juan Antonio leaps from his bunk in the back of the garage. He’s surrounded by stolen cars and parts.
“I knew they would do this. I have to get out of here,” Juan laments.
He begins to gather his small inventory of personal belongings and stuff them into a threadbare duffel bag.
“It’s how they work, mi hijo. They use the cops to help them track people down so they can kill them. They do it even if the charges are fake.”
Juan thinks about this and remembers his cousin’s fate. The cartel had caught him skimming money off pot sales. He ran, and they tied a fake murder charge to him. The cops caught him and sent him to San Quentin. He was knifed in the shower by ten guys. That’s not happening to me, Juan thinks.
Pee Wee Cruz, Juan’s new boss, breaks his reverie. “I know a guy in Idaho. Boise, I think. He runs a good shop and is always looking for talent. I’ll call him now and see if he needs any help. We might even be able to move some inventory. You could deliver it for me.” Pee Wee plans in typical thug style: I do a favor for you and --- you do one for me. “And remember, mi hijo, the murder charge you’re looking at isn’t fake,” Pee Wee says, as if he’s reading Juan’s mind.
Juan Antonio regrets that he told the older thief everything about that night in South Gate. He is now in the man’s debt.
“I know, Jefe. It was a mistake that will haunt me forever,” he says with little remorse.
“Then think of this as a new start, a chance to begin fresh somewhere. It will work out well, Juan Antonio. You get a new home, and I get a new connection in Boise. What do the gringos call that? Ah yes: a win-win situation.”
Both men laugh and consider their futures. Juan Antonio considers that this man will give him the phone number and address of his friend in Boise. After that Juan will have no use for Pee Wee. He may have to bring their short business relationship to a permanent end.
7. Boise, Idaho
The jet hits the runway hard. At least, I think it’s hard. This is the first time I’ve been in an airplane. I’ve tried to work this out. I could have stayed in Los Angeles, but that would have meant foster care for at least two years. I still would have had to move and change schools. I don’t know if this is a better choice. Washington and I talked it through. I wish she could have kept me, but that wasn’t an option as long as I have family willing to take me. So here I am in the potato capital of the world.
I leave the plane with a flight attendant. She’s become a new friend. At first she thought I was too young to travel alone. We both laughed when she found out I would be sixteen soon.
We leave the plane through a covered bridge. I almost go out the door that leads to the tarmac. My new friend guides me.
“That’s the ramp, Jake. This way to the terminal,” the flight attendant tells me. She smiles, and I’m pretty sure that she is amused that I have no clue.
The bridge slopes uphill, and I drag my little wheeled carry-on through the long, metal box. It’s a busy place. Men with wheelchairs come for old people. Bags are being stacked for passengers to collect as they leave. A man and woman in blue blazers with gold bars on their shoulders and shiny wings on their chests come down the bridge, and my new friend greets them.
“Hello, Captain Tullo,” she says to the woman.
“Hi, Kelly. All done for today?” the pilot says to my flight attendant friend.
“Nope, coffee and a Cinnabon, and then we’re going back to LA with you,” the flight attendant says.
“Great! I like having our top people in the cabin. See you soon, and grab a roll for me, please,” she says and hands Kelly a ten-dollar bill.
We continue our walk up the hill. The drab metal box opens into a bustling sunlit room. The people waiting for the flight to Los Angeles are sitting in rows of seats, working on computers, reading newspapers, and sipping coffee from someplace called Java Moose.
We go to the main hall. Signs overhead guide us to baggage claim, ground transportation, and other gates. There are restaurants, shops, and even an art gallery. It’s like you fall out of the sky and land in a mall somewhere.
Pictures about places to go in Boise and Idaho hang on the walls. Skiing, horses, rafting, and camping seem to dominate. I’ve never skied. I’m afraid of horses or any animal bigger than a cat, and I can’t swim. Maybe this wasn’t such a hot idea after all.
“Hola, Jacqueline. Jacqueline, over here! Over here!” I hear my cousin Maribel yelling as we come to the security gates.
I see her waving both hands, holding a little sign with my name on it, and jumping up and down like a crazy woman. She has to jump because she’s not much taller than I am. She’s slim and attractive with long jet-black hair. She has an infectious smile and joyful eyes. She is only two years younger than Mamá, but she seems ageless—young and alive with hope and strength.
“Is that your cousin?” the flight attendant asks.
“Yes, that’s Maribel,” I say and smile.
“Okay, then. Take care, Jake” She gives me a quick hug and heads to the escalator.
Airports are weird places. You make friends quickly with people you’ll probably never see again. I guess in some ways that’s life—only faster. I turn to see my cousin. This relationship will last longer. My heart soars as I race to greet Maribel.
“Jacqueline, I’m so glad you’re here.” She wraps her arms around me, almost smothering me. These are the arms of a family member I’ve not felt in so long. It’s different than the embrace of a stranger, even Washington, who’s no stranger to me now. I lean into her and hold on as if I’ve found something precious that I had lost.
Things stir inside me. Joy, guilt, sadness all combine at once. I don’t know how to react. It’s then that I sense it, smell it. It’s Happy, the same perfume Mamá used to wear. I pull her close and bury my face in her jacket and inhale memories. For just a moment, time stands still and I’m with Mamá again. Maribel eases me away, yet she still keeps me close and holds me with her comforting gaze.
“I tried to get off work for the funeral, but there was no one to cover for me. I’m so sorry, chica.” Something awakens in me, a memory, but I’m not sure what it is.
“It’s okay, Maribel. Sergeant Washington told me you tried. We got the flowers, and I put them on Mamá’s grave. They were beautiful.”
Maribel’s eyes fill to the brim and we embrace again, saying it all without words.
“Okay, we have a million things to talk about, so let’s get your bags, and I’ll take you to your new home.”
That’s just a weird thought, but I go with it. We hold hands and head to the escalator. Maribel talks constantly about the city, the schools, the kids in her neighborhood and so on. She is younger than Mamá, but even younger still, in a way I can’t be sure about. She radiates joy, energy, and power. I love just being next to her. Things are looking up.
We stop at the baggage claim to get my two little suitcases. It’s an amazing place. There are these giant, round shiny things the bags ride around on. People stand and watch as the bags go in circles like a parade. Each bag with its own little claim tag hanging on it. I giggle to myself. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was some sort of amusement park for luggage. The bags shoot out of the ceiling and slide down a ramp to the round turny-thing.
“It looks like fun. I wonder if I could ride it,” I say, and Maribel laughs.
“Yeah, you can ride it, but first you’d have to ride in the baggage compartment of the plane,” she says and gives me a squeeze.
My stuff falls out of the ceiling, slides down the ramp, and starts to circle around to us. Standing right next to us is a woman with a puppy in one of those travel crates. It’s a weird feeling when you realize that everything you own, every possession you have in the world, everything you’ve acquired in nearly sixteen years fits into a space smaller than a dog box. That’s me, that’s my stuff, and I am in my new home.
Sometimes I wish I could put my heart in a little box and send it away. I’d put a claim tag on it and come back for it later, or not. Somewhere there must be a place where broken hearts are stored like lost luggage at the airport. My heart will never heal. I am alone. I’m surrounded by people I don’t know in a place I’ve never been. Even Maribel, though she’s family, is unknown to me. I have no familiar places to go to. I have no familiar faces to see. I am lost. I feel so very small.
8 Boise, Idaho
“Oh that’s just total BS, bureaucratic stuff, you know what I mean!” García says, tongue in cheek.
Lash snorts and spills some coffee. “Yeah, I know what you mean, and you’re right.”
“You? At BLUES? Talk about the wolf among the sheep. LT is nuts!” García condemns but quickly gets a curious look on her face.
Lash laughs but then notices his partner’s expression. “What? What are you thinking?” he asks the five-foot-three Latina whom he would trust with his life.
“I’m thinking I have some downtime because my partner was reprimanded.” She turns a scorching gaze at Lash, and he grimaces in pain. “And so, I get to spend a little time with my buddies at the auto-theft task force.”
“ATTF, huh? What’s up with that?” Lash asks and pours more caffeine.
García reaches into her case and pulls out some reports. “Over the last seven or eight months, the rate of car theft in the county and surrounding area has really exploded.”
“Yeah, I know. I get the same reports you do,” he agrees, uninterested as he takes a bite out of a doughnut.
“But there’s one little thing the daily briefings haven’t included, at least not yet,” she tells him.
“And that would be what?” Lash questions.
“The kind of cars. They’re mainly imports, almost always Japanese,” García reveals.
“High-end stuff? You talkin’ about lawyers and doctors living without a Lexus or an Infinity, that sort of thing?” Lash queries.
“Yeah, sometimes, but a lot of them are just run-of the-mill Hondas, lots of Hondas and Nissans, really—pretty much just ordinary cars. When you start to break it down further, you get a list of specific models. The Honda Civic is really high on the list,” she adds.
“So this is a highly targeted theft ring,” Lash observes.
“It’s almost as though they’re filling orders for buyers, orders that have already been placed and paid for,” García says.
“Well, even if they’re doing something like that, the cars are still stolen. They’re going to show up somewhere on some department’s hot sheet. Even if they get chopped, those VIN numbers may still surface. Maybe they’re being sold offshore. Any reports like that?”
“Good ideas, Nick. I’ll check it out and let you know. But what I was thinking was that a couple of your new charges at BLUES are on the ATTF watch list,” she says.
García opens her small notebook and reads to Lash, giving him the names of two students at BLUES who are on the auto-theft task force’s radar.
Well, maybe this will be more interesting than I thought, Lash considers.
Just as they finish trading information, LT walks into the break room.
García greets the boss. “Morning, LT.”
“Detective García, good morning. Your request for temporary assignment to the ATTF has been okayed. Just don’t get too comfortable over there. As soon as Wyatt Earp here,” LT says, nodding toward Lash, “is out of the doghouse --- you’re both back on gang intervention.”
“Got it. LT., Lash, and I were just talking about that. Some of his new friends at BLUES are on the ATTF’s list. Maybe we can work it from both sides?” she suggests.
“I’m good with that. Just be sure you two don’t start some sort of freelance operation, okay?” LT says.
“I’ll run everything past Dax. Won’t make a move without his blessing,” she assures LT. Dax is the head of the auto-theft task force for the sheriff’s department.
LT nods his approval and turns his attention to Lash.
“Detective Lash, don’t you have somewhere to be? We wouldn’t want to be late for the first day of school, would we? Might get you on the wrong side of the principal.” LT smirks.
“You are enjoying this way too much, LT,” Lash grumbles.
“We make Ada County safer for you to live, work, and play, Detective. That’s our motto. So head out to BLUES and make it safer for the future of Idaho,” LT says in total deadpan.
García snorts coffee out her nose, trying not to laugh. Her long black braid whips from side to side as she tries to control herself.
A hot epithet boils to the edge of Lash’s lips, but he keeps it contained as his face reddens and ears burn. Lash grabs his newspaper and the morning’s briefing and storms out the door to his car. He looks back to see García’s broad smile, red painted lips, and beautiful brown eyes.
“Adios, Wyatt. Paga los platos rotos,” she says in her fake Mexican accent.
He smiles, shakes his head, and waves to her over his shoulder and heads for his car and BLUES.
9. Boise, Idaho
My school in South Gate wasn’t brand new, and it wasn’t pimped out with the coolest stuff, but this place is a dump! Why did I do this to myself?
We pull up to the building with a big sign on it that reads “Boise Learning Unit for Exceptional Students, Administrative Offices.” There are four buildings on the campus, if you can call it that. They’re weird looking. They look as though someone took enormous tin cans, cut them in half the long way, painted them blue, and tossed them on the ground. Some of the students are sitting around outside one of the buildings. A crooked, weather-beaten sign tells us it’s the Technology Center. As we get out of the car, they look at me as if they’re sizing me up. They’re a bunch of creepers.
“Maribel, are you sure we’re at the right place?” I ask as a huge jet roars right over our heads. BLUES is located on a corner of the Boise Airport. Planes come and go all the time. Right now, I wish I was on one of them.
“Yes, Jacqueline, this is the place,” she confirms, looking as disappointed and shocked as I feel.
“Why would they send me here? Why can’t I go to a normal high school?” I plead, really starting to regret coming to Boise.
“I’m not sure, chica. Let’s go talk to the principal and see if we can make a change. I’m sure there’s a reason,” she tells me.
I like it when she calls me chica. Mamá used to do that, but something strange stirs in me when I hear it now. Maybe it’s just hearing it from someone other than Mamá.
We walk into the office and everything changes. It’s really clean and open. The sun provides natural illumination from skylights in the ceiling. The curved shape of the building is really kind of cool when you’re inside. There are about five people working at high-tech computer stations. The secretary looks up and smiles as we approach her desk.
“Hi there, I’m Miss Knowles. Welcome to BLUES. May I help you?” she asks in a nice voice. I like her already.
There are no walls until you get to the principal’s office in the back, and even that wall is made of glass so you can see through. On the other side of the glass is Mr. Garrett. I know his name from the placards posted on the walls around the workspace.
“I’m Maribel Sanchez, and this is Jacqueline Palomera. She’s here to enroll in your school,” Maribel says to Miss Knowles with a little trepidation in her voice. She gives me a motherly squeeze around my shoulders. I always have to remember this is new to her. She has never raised a kid, let alone a teenager.
“Yes, Mrs. Sanchez, we’ve been expecting you,” Miss Knowles says cheerfully. She turns to her computer. I recognize the dialog box she opens as she types an IM into her computer. I see Mr. Garrett, the principal—get up, wave to us, and head our way. That’s dope! They’re all wired. I’m starting to notice some things about this place. There are very few cables and cords hanging off the workstations. Everyone has an iPhone and iPad plugged into their laptops or desktop computers. There are telemetry antennas built into the ceiling. These people live in The Cloud.
As the principal comes through his glass door, everyone stops what they’re doing, gets up, and comes over to meet us. The principal introduces himself to us and then introduces the rest of the office staff.
We’ve met Miss Knowles. The others are the vice principal, Mrs. Castro; the attendance and records secretary, Mrs. Weller; our counselor, Mr. Cordell; and a really big guy who seems out of place and not too sure about what he’s doing, Nick Lash, Detective Nick Lash from the sheriff’s department. He is our resource officer, whatever that means. He doesn’t seem like much of a resource. He doesn’t express the same enthusiasm the others do about my being here. I don’t believe he wants to be here, and I’m not sure he wants me to be here either.
“Jacqueline, it’s great to have you at BLUES. Were you in shock when you drove up?” Mr. Garrett asks, reading my mind.
“Well, yeah. It wasn’t what I expected,” I stammer.
“That’s the usual reaction. These old buildings were used to house an air force unit, which explains the blue color. They’ve left, but the buildings were donated to the city. We used them to build this school. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but we have what counts on the inside,” he tells us in a reassuring tone.
“But Mr. Garrett, why is Jacqueline here? This seems like a school for students who have… well, who have some issues,” Maribel asks the question that has been hanging over me since we got here.
“Mrs. Sanchez, let’s go to my office, and I’ll explain the district’s decision to place Jacqueline here.” He waves us toward his office.
10. Los Angeles, California
“Juan Antonio, you’re all set, hombre. Romero is waiting for you. His shop is just outside Boise in Caldwell, Idaho.”
“Excelente, Jefe. What am I driving?” Juan asks.
“I have a nice, new Mercedes Sprinter for you, and it’s loaded with lots of things Romero wants. It’ll be like Christmas morning when you get there, mi hijo.” The chief thief regales his subordinate.
“Ah, sí, Jefe, and I’ll be Santa Claus,” Juan says to Pee Wee, his boss, and they laugh. “Now, where do I find Romero, and what is he paying for this prize?”
“Juan, the truck and parts are all hot, but I put legal plates on the truck. Obey the laws, watch your speed, and you’ll be okay,” he says as he takes the keys from his pocket and hands them to Juan Antonio and continues. “The truck is too small for the weigh stations, so you can use the interstate highways without a problem. Here is Romero’s cell number and address. The phone is a burner. He changes cells every few days, so the number won’t be good for long. He’s going to send forty thousand dollars in cash as soon as you’re there and another forty thousand dollars in two weeks. He gets to keep the van since he’s doing us a favor by hiding you,” the man says with a knowing nod.
“This is a great thing you’re doing for me. I won’t forget it,” Juan Antonio says begrudgingly.
The older thief eyes him hard. “Nor will I forget you, Juan. I’m not doing this for free. I expect you to pay me back with connections and information. Romero has a huge operation. I want to make it mine. When that happens, you and I will be rich beyond our wildest dreams,” Pee Wee says, slapping Juan on the back and laughing a robust laugh.
Pee Wee is short and fat, and he’s nearly bald, but what little hair he has hangs in oily strands from his brown pate. As he laughs, the fluorescent lights in the shop glint off the three twisted gold teeth in the front of his mouth. They protrude from his maw in different directions like some cheap Halloween prop.
“I understand. I really do,” Juan says cautiously.
The old man does not see the blow coming as he turns his back on Juan Antonio Hernandez. The large wrench cracks the back of Pee Wee’s skull, and he is instantly unconscious. Juan secures the man’s hands and feet with electrical wire and drags the body to a vat of acid in the back of the shop. They use acid to erase the identification numbers on parts. Now it will erase a problem for Juan. He uses an engine hoist to raise the body and move it over the vat.
The body slowly descends into the forty gallons of sulfuric acid. Bubbles begin to form. Gas rises, and Juan must cover his mouth and nose with a bandana to keep from inhaling the noxious fumes. As Pee Wee’s head reaches the caustic mix, his eyes open as he gasps for air. Juan releases the chain from the hoist. The man’s mouth fills with acid, and he’s silenced. The chain’s weight drags the body to the bottom of the vat. It boils and steams as the flesh disintegrates. It will be gone in hours. The muscle and tissue will take a day or more. The bones may last for a week. Juan finds a hose and pours water into the vat. It reacts with acid to intensify and speed the process.
“So long, Jefe. Thanks for everything,” Juan says as he laughs and turns off the water. The vat is now in a roiling boil of destruction.
11. Boise, Idaho
“So is that the new student?” Liz asks as she closes her book.
She and the others watch Jake and Maribel go into the admin building. The four students, Liz Olsen, Alberto Contreras, Will O’Brien, and José Torres—The Team, as they’re known—are sitting out in front of the computer-sciences building, or the Nut Hut, as the students call it. Computers, science, and math are the main reasons BLUES exists.
The students at this school excel in three things: math, information technology, and behavioral problems that get in their way or, more accurately, get in the way of teachers not adept at working with exceptional students. The Nut Hut houses the computer-science and IT courses.
“Hey, TB, are we taking sixth graders now?” José jokes.
The others laugh, noting Jake’s size. TB is Liz’s nickname. All the students on The Team have nicknames.
“I hear she’s some sort of IT pro from California,” Liz contributes and gets up from the steps leading into the Nut Hut.
“If she’s so pro, what’s she doing here?” Will asks. He doesn’t really care about the response as he pounds away on his laptop.
Will focuses on the new app he’s creating. Like most of the students at BLUES, Will’s home life is not good. He used to say it was dysfunctional. Now he just says it sucks. Unlike a lot of the students at BLUES, Will’s family has money. He just doesn’t want any of it. He makes his own way by creating and selling computer apps online. He’s prolific. In the last three years, he has sold over fifty different apps to Apple and Google. Besides being brilliant, Will is also consumed by oppositional defiant disorder. He doesn’t deal well with authority figures—thus his placement at BLUES.
Alberto watches Jake walk into the admin building. “Who knows what she’s doing here? One thing for sure, she must have some sort of problem,” he says, and they all laugh and nod in agreement. He continues. “And her size. She’s just small for her age, so give her a chance. Some people are like a big bomb in a little box,” Alberto contends.
“Be perfect for you, Li’l Fats,” Liz chides. Using her book, she taps Alberto on his head, which is three inches below hers.
“God, Liz, you really can be such a Total Bi—”
“Now, now children, let’s not rip each other a new one. We’ll find out who and what she is soon enough.” Will acts as a referee to the others.
“Thanks, Professor. Guess we owe her a chance to prove herself,” Liz concedes.
“We all had to do it. I remember my turn,” José says.
“Who says your turn is over, Super-Mex?” Liz confronts him and pokes him in the chest with her book.
“God, Liz, you are such a Total Bi—”
“Enough! Liz, quit living up to your nickname. What’s bothering you anyway?” Will demands.
Liz throws up her hands, tosses her book on her backpack, and walks away to a far corner of the courtyard; Will follows her.
“José, quit living up to your nickname? Don’t you know it has racial connotations?” Alberto mocks.
“Alberto, I don’t find my nickname offensive. As a matter of fact, I feel cheated when it’s not used. The adjective super defines one as very large or powerful. That fits me to a T, don’t you think, old boy?” José returns the joke with a fake English accent. The two laugh and watch Will trail after the tall, slender blonde.
“He’s stuck on her,” José observes.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I think he just cares a lot for her, and that ain’t easy, patrón,” Alberto says.
“Like you say, he just cares. But she gets really hard to deal with. I’ve only known her since we’ve been here. Didn’t you go to middle school with her? What was she like there?”
“Yeah, she’s always been different. I mean, with her looks and brains, you’d think she’d be the full package, but not our Liz. She was the one who ate lunch alone in the English room so she could read. She was a teacher’s assistant or office aide, so she could do her homework for her online math courses, and she worked at the library after school as a volunteer. She never got involved in any sports, debate team, robotics team, nothing. She’s always been a loner. She seems to like being alone,” he tells José. Alberto and José watch as Will moves near Liz and starts to talk to her.
“So how did you get a nickname like that, Total Bib?” Will asks as he finds Liz alone in the morning shade on the west side of the Nut Hut.
“Don’t know. Just lucky I guess.”
He moves a little closer, hoping she won’t pull back like she usually does.
“Books. I love books. It’s short for Total Bibliognost. It’s a joke. I look like a total babe, but I’m not. I’m a Total Bib. Some people say I hide behind books.”
“There was this guy. I worked with him in the library. He tried to…well, you know, and I didn’t let him. He gave me the nickname, and the other students thought it was funny. So I’m TB. I know it wasn’t what he meant, but that’s what he told everyone. I guess it could be worse,” she demurs.
He senses a wound, some damage, something she’s hiding. They’ve known each other since they’ve been at BLUES. He’s tried to befriend her, but she won’t go there. He waits, because he knows there’s more. He looks at her, and she looks away; her crystal-blue eyes are unable to meet his gaze as she speaks to him.
“Maybe you’ve noticed that I don’t have great people skills, Will. I’m not like you and Alberto. Sometimes I can’t tell what others mean or are feeling when I look at their faces. I don’t get jokes the first time I hear them. Sometimes I laugh when I should be crying and cry when everything is all right. Do you hear what I’m saying, Will?” she asks, still unable to look him in the eye.
He’s confused and tries to hear what she’s telling him. Then he gets it. His expression changes, and he is suddenly filled with a mix of guilt, sadness, and a flood of compassion.
Liz silently looks at him with a mixture of desperation and frustration in her eyes. She sees the change in his face but is unable to understand it.
“How long have you known? I mean how long have you known you’re…you’re—” he starts.
She interrupts his thought and looks away.
“How long have I known I’m autistic? I guess all my life. I could never bring it up with all the problems my family had. A school psychologist discovered it when I was in fourth grade. It was when things really started to change at my house. He told my mom, and you’d think he said I had leprosy or was a vampire or was a Justin Bieber fan or something like that.”
They both laugh and get closer. Will looks into the most beautiful eyes he’s ever seen. Liz feels Will’s fingers pass through her golden-blond hair. It’s smooth as silk and runs to the middle of her back. Her scent is lavender, and she presses her face to his chest. He gently cups her head and holds her for what seems like an hour.
She closes her eyes. For the first time in a long time, she has let someone touch her. She opens her eyes, moves slowly away, and sees him. She needs to speak but is unable to do it with his eyes on hers. She looks away.
“I never knew about the report, but I heard the arguments. My parents had fights—bad fights—over it. Dad wanted to help me. Mom denied it as if she thought it was her fault and never wanted to hear about it again,” Liz says and then pauses. She bites her lower lip to try to stop the tears and continues.
“I found a copy of the report a year later when I was going through my dad’s stuff after he killed himself. That’s when I finally understood. He didn’t kill himself because of me, but my problems added to his stress. There were fights over money and drinking and drugs and jobs, but the ones I remember are the ones about me. Mom left when I was in seventh grade. I guess I thought that was my fault too. It made me afraid to trust anyone. Everyone I trusted left me. I’m not right, and other people know it. Whatever makes me different makes others avoid me.”
She stiffens a little, moves a little farther from Will, and something truly important happens. She looks into his eyes, holds his gaze, and speaks.
“I’m not that way, Will. I’m not a hater. I’m not a snob or a whack job. It just seems like I am,” she says and then laughs a nervous laugh. “I don’t like being alone all the time, but I can’t keep friends. People get to know me a little, and they don’t want to be around me. I want to understand what others think and feel, but I can’t, and I don’t know how to change it, Will. I just don’t know how. You guys are the only people who don’t leave me,” she confesses.
He puts his arms around her, and she lets seventeen years of fear, hate, desperation, and relief pour over his shoulder. Finally, another person knows who she is. He feels her tears soaking through his shirt. She sobs as she clutches him. Suddenly she stops. She gulps a few breaths of air and pushes his embrace away. She stares at the ground and steps back and regains her composure.
He’s not alarmed. He stands straight, breathes deep, and takes her into his heart.
“I get it. We’re your friends. We’ll be here for you. Just let us be here for you. Trust us, Liz,” he comforts.
She nods her head, unable to speak through her emotions.
“Einstein was autistic,” he says.
“That doesn’t help much,” she sniffs, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
“Daryl Hannah is autistic, and she’s a hot blonde too,” he coaxes.
That brings a smile.
“I feel better. Will, please explain it to the other guys. I don’t want them feeling sorry for me.”
“Feel sorry for you? We’ll probably all be working for you someday,” he says, only half-jokingly.
12. Caldwell, Idaho
Juan Antonio Hernandez stops at the gate and reads the sign aloud, “If the pit bulls miss you, the hollow points won’t! No Trespassing!”
He slowly pulls through the gate and into the lot of RJ’s Junkyard Jungle. Three very large, angry-looking men appear from the shop and walk toward Juan Antonio, who is still in the truck. One man with muscular arms and long black hair draws his finger across his throat in an unmistakable gesture. It is Frankie, the number-two man at the junkyard. He wants Juan to shut the engine off. He is carrying a bat.
They know. They know all about what I’ve done, Juan thinks and considers slamming the truck in reverse and getting out of there.
The driver’s side door is ripped open, and Romero Juarez stands there grinning. Juan sees the pistol in Romero’s belt and thinks it’s all over.
“Amigo, Juan Antonio, bienvenido. Welcome to Caldwell,” the gangster says as he offers his hand. Juan Antonio nearly pees his pants.
“Jefe, gracias ¿Cómo estás?” Juan acknowledges as he shakes Romero’s hand, gazing into his face.
Romero Juarez is a hard man. He’s just over six feet tall, well muscled, and fit for his age. He might be thirty. He might be forty. There’s no way to tell. Tattoos cover both arms and his neck. Some he received in his youth while in jail in Mexico. His black hair and mustache are groomed perfectly. He has a long scar coursing across his left cheek from his jaw to just below his eye. And his eyes—his eyes are deep and dark and cold.
“Bien, turn off the truck and hop down. What wonderful new toys have you brought us, my friend?” Romero asks as Juan sighs in relief.
Juan notices that Romero keeps the pistol handy, and Frankie hasn’t put down the bat.
“I have many things for you, and you know this truck also is yours, patrón,” Juan says as graciously as possible.
“Yes, Juan. That was the deal. Your boss is a very generous and valuable friend. Have you spoken to him lately?”
“No, Seňor, he changes his phones all the time. I may have a bad number,” Juan says.
“I’m sure he’s concerned about you and this shipment getting here safely,” Romero questions, looking Juan straight in the eye.
“I need to try him again. I’ll let you know what he says.”
“I’ll try to reach him, too. Stuff happens, mi hijo. He’ll turn up soon, I’m sure,” Romero says, grins, and gives Juan an unsettling nod of the head. “Let’s go, amigos. Let’s get this truck out of sight and unloaded,” he commands, and his team moves fast.
13. Los Angeles, California
“Charles twelve, control,” the radio in Grace Washington’s squad car crackles.
“Control twelve,” she acknowledges dispassionately.
“Twelve, detective forty-one requests you contact him via landline regarding an open case.”
“Roger that. Show me code six at a hundred thirty-ninth and Northwood,” she tells the dispatcher.
Washington pulls into Gonzales Park to call the detective on her cell phone. She parks but leaves the car running as she unsnaps the seat belt and steps out to stretch as she talks.
“Jensen,” the voice in Washington’s ear announces.
“Hi, Detective, this is Sergeant Washington. You wanted to speak to me?”
“Sergeant, yes, we have a name in the Palomera double homicide. You’re on the list for follow-ups. Does the name Juan Antonio Hernandez ring a bell?” the homicide detective asks.
“Man, that really does, but I just can’t…wait a minute,” she says as she cups the phone, pulls her small notebook from her shirt pocket, and thumbs through it.
She places the phone back to her ear. “Yes, Juan Antonio Hernandez. I interviewed him six weeks ago regarding a bust at a coke lab in South Gate. We caught him walking away just after the joint drug task force hit the place. He fit the description of a player we got from a witness. He was clean, so we had to let him go,” she lamented.
“That fits! We have information that he messed up a cocaine deal and had to run. He left some real pissed-off drug dealers at that house. Now, I don’t know how this fits in, but an informant places Hernandez’s finger on the gun that killed the Palomera family. No motive, nothing but hearsay, and this informant is linked to the cartels. I thought you’d like to know. I heard you have a special interest here.”
“Thanks, Detective. I do have an interest. This guy hasn’t been on my radar since that interview, but I will be asking around. If I get anything, I’ll call you,” she confirms.
“One other thing, Sergeant. Since he ran into problems with his drug buddies, Juan Antonio moved on to boosting cars for Pee Wee Cruz. We found what was left of Pee Wee last night in his garage. He was dumped in a vat of acid.”
“Oh jeez,” Washington says as she cringes and imagines the mess.
“We’re not a hundred percent sure it was Pee Wee because there was only about ten percent of him left, but we found a bloody wrench on the ground, and guess whose prints were all over it?”
“Juan’s,” Washington answers.
“You got it. We also found Pee Wee’s cell in his office. He had made several calls to a number in Boise, Idaho. The Boise number is out of service now. It’s probably a burner. That’s all we have to go on,” the detective concludes.
“Thanks, Detective. Please let me know anything else that turns up. If I get a sniff of Juan, you’ll be my first call,” she says.
“Thanks, Sergeant. Stay in touch.”
Washington reads between the lines and asks herself questions:
A known informant who is linked to the drug cartels turns this punk over. That means this is a setup. Maybe. Someone wants this thug associated with the murders of Jake’s mother and brother. Maybe. But why? It could mean he knows things, things my friends in the joint drug task force would really like to know. Maybe. If I find you Juan, maybe we can make a trade. Maybe I trade you your life for some information. Maybe.
She looks at her watch, hits the home button on her her phone and dials a number.
14. Boise, Idaho
Mamá used to tell me that good judgment comes from experience. What she didn’t tell me is what I’m learning now. Experience comes from bad judgment.
“That’s it? That’s the only reason Jacqueline can’t go to a normal school?” Maribel protests in disbelief at the reasons Doug Garrett is giving her as he winces at her use of the term “normal school.”
“It’s Miss Sanchez!” she insists, showing her displeasure. Her cell vibrates, and she sends the call to voice mail without looking at who it’s from.
“Sorry, Miss Sanchez, Jacqueline was involved in a documented infraction of Internet policy. For a student planning on a college career in IT, that shows poor judgment,” the principal counsels.
“I didn’t do it to hurt anyone or mess anything up. I did it on a dare,” I confess.
“A dare,” he says, eyes widening, head tilted. “You hacked the school’s computer system and rewrote the software program so that every time a teacher entered a grade that equaled an F, it would be scored as an A. You did this on a dare? How long did it take you to do it?”
“Well, uh, fifth period started at one thirty-five, and Teddy dared me a couple of minutes later. I had it done before we did our wrap-up at two twenty-seven. I don’t know, maybe forty minutes,” I admit with a hint of pride I can’t hide. Maribel just stares at me. Mr. Garrett is frowning in disapproval.
“Forty minutes. Forty minutes to do something—or maybe I should say undo something—that a college-educated computer engineer took months to put together,” Garrett says.
I see a smile just lurking in the corner of his mouth. “I didn’t do it to mess things up. I did it to show Teddy I could do it,” I tell him.
“Well, that may be, but how did you get caught?” he asks me.
“I went to my computer teacher, Mrs. Gralenski, and I told her.”
“Why didn’t you just go back in and fix it?” Mr. Garrett asks, truly interested.
Now I’m embarrassed.
“The encryption program closed my back door. I tried to fix it, but I couldn’t get back in on the computer I was on. The program recognized me as a threat and planted a cookie that locked me out, so I just confessed. I knew they needed that system working, and that was the fastest way to get it back up, Mr. Garrett. Like I said, I didn’t do it to hurt anyone.”
“That’s what I thought, and you’re still in the right place, Jacqueline. This school is made for you,” the principal contends.
“I’m in what? The right place? I’m at the school for troublemakers. And may I ask you both a favor? Could you please call me Jake?”
Garrett looks at Maribel for an okay. She nods a confused approval.
“Why Jake? Is that some sort of street name? We really try to get people away from that sort of thing around here, Jake,” Garrett tells me.
I tell the story about my nickname, and the principal and Maribel get it. It’s a piece of me I need to hang on to.
“Well, this place could be a great help to you, Jake. This school focuses on two things. Our students are juniors and seniors, who excel in math and information technology. We work out the other core curriculum through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, our state’s online classroom.” He turns his attention to Maribel.
“Yes, Miss Sanchez, we do have some students who have issues with the traditional high-school setting, but here they can work without limits. It is remarkable how few discipline problems we actually have.”
“You may call me Maribel,” my cousin says. I can sense she feels better about this school.
“Great. That fits our rather informal approach to the educational hierarchy. We don’t get caught up in titles, and around here the students and staff just call me G,” he tells us.
Maribel may feel better, but I don’t. This place still seems wrong for me.
“Ladies, it’s not uncommon for students to leave BLUES as college-bound candidates and interns for companies like HP, Dell, Intel, and Micron, not to mention the dozens of software design companies that are in Boise. This place could be your first step toward your dreams, Jake. What do you say? Want to take it?”
I’m about ready to say no, but he cuts me off.
“Before you decide, let’s take a walk and see what the school looks like from the inside.”
Maribel and I look at each other. She smiles. I take a deep breath. We follow G and head out to see what BLUES is all about.
15. Caldwell, Idaho
Romero’s phone rings. He slips it from the holder on his belt and just listens. He never says anything at first when someone calls him. His crew knows this. If he did talk first, it would tell them something is up.
The number-two man, Frankie, speaks to his boss. “We have the Acura NSX moving. It looks like he’s headed downtown. We checked, and there are all sorts of things going on tonight.”
“Like what? Where could he be going?” Romero considers the different parking situations.
“The historical museum is doing a fundraiser. There’s a show at the Morrison Center and a hockey game at CenturyLink. All kinds of stuff going on.”
“Okay. Follow and keep your distance. This is a big one, mi hijo. If he goes to CenturyLink or Morrison, that means valet parking, and that’s a problem. If he goes to the historical museum, we have a much better chance,” Romero tells his right-hand man.
“Hey, Jefe, guess what?”
“What, Frankie?” Romero plays along.
“Billy is working at the CenturyLink arena tonight. In this town, the Steelheads are like the Redwings in Detroit. They’re royalty,” Frankie says, showing he knows where his players are.
“Then let’s hope this guy’s a hockey fan, Frankie.” Romero laughs, ends the call, sets the phone on the table in his shop, and calls for Juan Antonio.
“Juan, we’re on, amigo. Frankie has a real find for us. This could be a big pinch. What do you know about the Acura NSX?” he asks his newest accomplice.
“The NSX. Honda built them and sold them under the Acura brand name in the states. They were superchidos in the nineties and are still a real hot piece today. They’re bringing it out again, and the new one is even hotter. I’ve never lifted one though. They’re hard to find.”
“Juan, Frankie found one. You and I are going to see if we can make it ours,” Romero says.
He looks at the table. It’s covered with some very expensive electronic instruments. Romero carefully selects what he’ll need. He loads a small bag with specialized tools for stealing cars.
Thirty minutes later, Romero’s cell signals with an incoming call. “Juan, answer that. Don’t say anything, just listen,” he orders.
Juan picks up the phone and touches the talk button on the screen. It’s Frankie.
“Patrón, it’s the hockey game. Billy tried to follow the guy but lost him in the crowd. You’ll need a Steelheads jacket and black cap. Let you know later how it goes with Billy. If I don’t call back, forget this one.” Frankie closes the connection.
Juan sets down the phone. “What did he say?” Romero asks.
“It’s the hockey game. He says you’ll need a Steelheads jacket and black hat. What does that mean?”
“Steelheads are the hockey team. Guess this guy is a fan. Frankie has his own guy on the inside. He always watches the valet parking for us and tips us when something is up. He’ll keep track of the driver until we’re ready,” Romero explains to Juan and continues. “Here’s how this works. We take the delivery truck down to an alley about a block away from the CenturyLink. There ain’t no cameras around there, so we’re safe. I get the car, and you’re ready in the alley with the truck. This has to be muy rápido, Juan. We don’t drive a car like this across town. We grab it and stash it. Then we drive away like we have a truck full of pimientos verdes, sí?”
“Sí, Seňor. I’ll be ready,” Juan says.
Juan realizes he left out one important piece of information. He didn’t tell Romero that Billy lost sight of the driver inside the arena. He’s just about to say something but then stops. This is Frankie’s guy, he thinks. So if it all falls apart, it’s Frankie’s problem. He decides to stay quiet.
The two men load the truck, check the fuel, and head for the arena in downtown Boise. The game starts in one hour.
16. Boise, Idaho
“Where did you say you got this car, Dax?” Ginger García asks Detective Xan Gonakis.
Gonakis is head of the auto-theft task force. Everyone calls him Dax. The two are seated in an unmarked squad car parked in a lot across the street from the Grove Hotel and the CenturyLink arena.
“A local doctor friend of mine. He asked if he could help with the car-theft problem. He’s the president of one of the local JDM car clubs. They’re into Japanese cars. Some of his members have been ripped off, and he wants to help us.”
“What’s JDM?” she asks.
“Japanese Domestic Model. These guys love the cars from the Land of the Rising Sun,” he tells her.
“So this car, an Acura NSX, it’s real expensive, right?” she asks.
“Yeah, I think this one is valued around a hundred thousand dollars.”
“So this friend just comes up to you and says, here take my hundred thousand dollar car and go catch bad guys. Why don’t I have friends like that?” she quips, more than a little impressed.
“Well, it’s more for window dressing than anything else. It has a GPS tracker with an ignition cutoff function. Our job is to be sure it doesn’t make it out of the garage,” he admits.
“These guys know what they’re doing, don’t they?” García asks, noting his frustration.
“Best I’ve ever seen. They’re like ghosts. You never see them coming. Nothing on security tapes, no witnesses. They just walk up, get in, and drive away as if they own the cars.”
“How many thefts do you think they’re responsible for?”
“It’s been down from 2003 and 2004. We were seeing four hundred to five hundred a year back then. Maybe more. It really slacked off because we got better, but now, in the last eight months, we’re seeing those big numbers again.”
“You think these new guys are responsible? The higher rate of theft is because of a gang, a focused effort?” García pursues his thoughts.
“Yes, but it isn’t just the number of thefts. The real disturbing thing is what happens to the cars after they steal them. We haven’t recovered one, not one single car,” he says, with a little respect in his tone.
“So they’re chopping them up, right, just selling off the parts?”
“Maybe, but we usually come up with something after a while—an engine block, a frame, some part with a serial number on it. With these guys, there’s nothing. It’s like they’re magicians. They make the cars disappear!” he complains and pounds the steering wheel.
“Shipping. They’re shipping the whole car somewhere else,” she concludes.
“I don’t know. I gotta believe somehow we, or some other agency, would have caught them. Think about it. That many cars, ten cars per transport truck. That’s a lot of trucks moving hot cars. No way they’ve gotten away with that, no way!” he insists.
“Then what are they doing? What do you think?” she asks.
Curiosity is building like a fire in her. García rarely meets crooks smarter than her or her colleagues.
“Either they’re hiding them somewhere near here, which makes no sense because they want to make money, or—” he pauses.
“Or? Yeah, I’m waiting,” she begs.
“Or they’re completely changing the cars somehow so we can’t track them, and they’re just driving them wherever they want,” he says.
“Not sure. They’re smart guys. Right now they have a system that’s working. We just have to get into their heads and force a few mistakes. Maybe tonight we’ll get a break,” he says as the car’s radio comes to life.
“One, we’re in position. The uplink from Japan is working,” the call comes from the surveillance team, telling Dax and García that they’re receiving the signal from the car’s GPS locator.
Dax picks up the mic. “Okay, unit two, now we wait.” He says little, because it’s too easy for their radio communications to be heard by people who shouldn’t hear them.
García’s cell rings, and she hits the screen fast. “García,” she says breathlessly.
“It’s Cassidy. I was followed by some kid in a valet’s uniform after I got out of the car. I lost him and ditched the jacket and hat. I went back to the garage, and sure enough, he was there. The crooks have an inside man,” the deputy advises.
“That figures, these people are a step ahead—maybe two,” she says.
“Maybe three. I got a picture, sending it now. If they’re here, they have to be getting ready somewhere around the arena,” Cassidy contends.
The picture reaches García’s phone. She quickly checks it and then gets back to Cassidy.
“Okay, I got the image. We’ll look around. I’ll call you back.” She looks to Dax. “That was Cassidy. Here’s an image.” She activates Bluetooth on her iPhone and syncs with Dax’s iPhone.
He studies the first picture taken of a member of the gang they’ve been tracking.
“Good work, Cassidy! Let’s see if we can get an ID,” he says aloud and makes a call. “It’s Dax. I’m sending a picture to you now. See if you can tag this lump for me.” He brings up the image and shares it with the deputy on the other end of the phone.
“Got it, Dax. Be back to you ASAP,” the deputy confirms.
“Cassidy thinks they’re getting something ready around the arena. What do you think?” García asks.
“He’s right on. A thief can’t drive that car very far. It’s too easy to spot. Let’s take a look around. We have time to kill. The game just started.” Dax puts the police car in gear, and they start to look for anything suspicious.
“So how would you steal it?” she asks again.
“You have to get it out of the garage. That means you have to get in, start it, and drive it past the valet station. We know they can get past the valet, so that just leaves getting in and starting, and I bet these guys won’t have a problem with that.”
“Okay, you’re out of the garage. Now what?”
Dax considers this as he scans the streets and parking lots around the arena. The CenturyLink is connected to the Grove Hotel at the corner of West Front and South Capitol. The pair of detectives begin driving in a grid pattern around the arena and hotel.
“So I’m out. I come out on Front Street and have to go west, like we are now.” Dax lets the streets and traffic flow guide him. “But I don’t want to stay out here. I want to get to cover.” He talks to himself through the steps.
“What sort of cover, Dax? Another parking garage—a storage unit maybe?” García questions.
“Maybe. That’s a good idea. Just park it for a while, but I think they want to move it fast,” he says as he turns left on Ninth Street.
“So what then? A tow truck, a flatbed tow truck,” she says excitedly.
He looks at her and smiles. “No, a truck, but not a tow truck. A delivery truck of some sort. A box truck. You know, like something you rent from U-Haul. A truck chassis with a big box mounted on it. It has to be totally nondescript so it draws no attention, but it can’t look out of place either,” Dax says.
He nods in approval of his own interpretation of García’s idea. They turn left on West Broad Street. They’ve been combing the streets for an hour so far.
“Keep your eyes open. The game isn’t over for a while. I bet they will use the traffic to distract us. They’ll be tucked away in the shadows somewhere,” he directs.
“I’m looking,” García confirms as they pass restaurants and shops and cross Eighth Street.
They stop at South Capitol for a red light. The arena and hotel are a block away to their left. The light turns green, and they cross the street. García sees it first.
“There, in the alley next to the music store.” She points as Dax slows the car to a crawl and pulls over to park on the south side of the street.
“Here,” he says, handing her a pair of binoculars. “See if you can get a tag.” He begins to type the vehicle description into the computer.
“I see an Ada County plate, the number is King Paul two two three four seven, that’s K P two two three four seven. I don’t see anyone in the cab,” she reports.
“Can you make out the lettering on the side?” Dax asks.
“It says Sawtooth Restaurant Supply. No phone or address, though. That’s wrong. You want to use a truck like that for a moving billboard,” García insists.
The computer search responds. “Looks like we have a valid plate. It comes back registered to RJ Enterprises in Caldwell,” Dax informs García.
“Give me a phone number,” García requests.
Dax relays the number to García, and she dials it.
“Not in service.”
“That’s more like it. Let’s take a closer look, Detective García,” Dax decides as he calls Dispatch. “Control, this is Sam four. Show us code six at West Broad and Capitol,” he reports to the county dispatcher from the car’s radio.
“Sam four, roger,” Dispatch acknowledges.
“Let’s roll up on them. Keep your eyes on the cab,” Dax advises García. They both check that their weapons are loaded with the safeties on. He turns into the alley and shuts the car’s lights off.
Romero sees the unmarked police car pull into the alley with its lights off. “Juan, we have company.” Both men are in the back of the truck and can clearly see the cops through the front window. Romero pulls the truck’s remote control from his pocket and locks the doors.
“Set the deadbolt lock on the rear door and get down on the floor. When they see it’s all locked, they’ll leave,” Romero hopes aloud.
Dax pulls up within inches of the big van. He puts the car in park but leaves it running. “We stick together, clear the cab, and check all the doors,” he tells García.
“Right, I’ve got a light,” she says.
The two detectives ease out of the car with weapons drawn. Dax approaches the cab first. García shines her flashlight through the windows.
“I’ll try the door,” Dax tells her. He pulls on the handle. “It’s locked. Let’s go to the other side.”
“Quiet, Juan,” Romero whispers and reaches for his pistol.
García follows Dax. “This door is also locked,” he confirms.
“Guess that just leaves the back,” she whispers.
They head to the rear of the truck and its door. García quietly opens her radio mic to the small transmitter in her jacket pocket.
“Control, Sam four. Show us code six-george with a possible stolen vehicle. Advise team members on IM of our position,” she says.
The radio call tells the dispatcher that the two detectives are checking out a truck that may be stolen and involved in gang activity. The IM, instant message, will go out to the ATTF team members over their cell phones.
Romero stays low and listens carefully. He moves toward the back of the truck where Juan lies on the floor. The holster Romero uses has room for an extra magazine of ammunition. As he draws the pistol, the extra magazine becomes loose.
García focuses the light on the rear door of the truck’s large box. She looks at the big lever that secures the door to the frame. She turns to Dax and gives him the two-finger signal pointing at her eyes. She wants him to look at something. Dax moves in closer to see what she’s spotted.
“Dax, no lock,” she whispers in warning, pointing at it. He nods in understanding. The door should open.
Romero eases the pistol from its holster. The extra magazine of ammo catches the front sight of the gun and tumbles from the holster. It clatters across the floor of the empty truck. The noise shatters the brittle silence.
García removes the safety from her pistol. She places the flashlight in her left hand and rests her right hand on top to brace her firearm and keep the light where she wants it.
Romero clicks the safety off his pistol. He points the loaded weapon at the base of the door, keeping his finger off the trigger.
Dax clicks the safety off his weapon and aims it midway up the door where García’s light shines. He reaches out and grabs the handle. It’s two guns versus one.
Dax pulls hard. The lever rotates, and the door shakes and rattles but doesn’t move. He pulls again. He pounds the door to break it free. Nothing. It holds fast. It’s locked from inside.
Juan cringes and moves away from Romero, hoping the cops get him first.
Romero puts his finger on the trigger and gets ready for a gunfight.
Dax pulls again with everything he has. Nothing. The door won’t budge.
Dax gives the door one last exasperated try.
“Locked, it’s locked too. It’s just a parked truck. We need to get back to our post. The game is going to be over soon,” he surrenders, knowing something isn’t right.
He and García breathe a sigh of relief. They safely holster their weapons and head back to the car.
Romero holds a slightly shaking hand up to Juan, signaling silence. “Shhh, Juan, they’re leaving,” Romero whispers. The police car pulls away, and he slips the pistol back into his waistband holster. He bends over and picks up the extra magazine while wiping the sweat from his brow.
“That was kinda close, boss,” Juan states the obvious as he gets up from the plywood floor of the truck. He’s bathed in sweat and wants desperately to breathe some fresh air.
“Yeah, but we need to get moving.”
Romero looks out the front of the truck to be sure the coast is clear and watches as the cops move away in their car. “The game is going to end soon. You understand what we are going to do?” he questions his minion.
“Yes, I wait for your text. As soon as I get it, I get the back open and use the cab controls to extend the lift. I wait one minute and then start the truck. As soon as I see you, I start rolling slowly. Once you’re in the back, I retract the lift, and you’ll get the door, sí?”
“Sí, mi hijo. You do all that perfectly, and we’re in business,” Romero assures. “There’s one more thing, Juan—the changes we talked about, you remember, just in case,” he checks with his assistant.
“Ah, sí, Seňor, I remember. You want to do that now because of the cops?” he confirms.
“Yes, Juan, let’s take care of it now. Just in case, okay?”
“Okay, I’ll get it done in five minutes or less,” he promises, and he and Romero bump knuckles and shake hands.
Romero gets out of the truck and starts walking to the arena. He carries the Steelheads jacket and puts the hat on to cover his face from the prying eyes of security cameras. He’ll wait until the last minute to put the jacket on.
Back in the police car three blocks away, Dax’s phone rings. He checks to see who the caller is. “This is Dax. What do you have for me, deputy?”
“The image you sent, we got a positive ID from the DMV database and NCIC. The guy’s name is Billy Kelly. He has priors for grand theft auto and street racing. He’s currently on probation,” the deputy reports.
“Okay, good work, thanks,” Dax says and hangs up.
“We got an ID on the guy at the arena. He’s a car thief. Call Cassidy. Tell him to keep an eye on that guy. He may be planning to pinch the NSX, or he may lead us to someone else,” he instructs García.
“Okay, what about the car?” García asks. She’s really concerned about the expensive two-seater.
“I’ll have unit two move into position now,” Dax responds and reaches for the mic. “Two, this is unit one. Move into position now. Rover has a possible suspect.”
Rover is Cassidy’s radio handle. Cops all have some sort of radio handle so they can’t be identified away from work.
“Okay, one, we’re moving now,” unit two surveillance confirms as they move to a point from where they can observe the exit to the parking garage.
Cassidy’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He touches the Bluetooth receiver in his ear. “Cassidy,” he responds.
“It’s García. Dax wants you to keep close to that guy you took a picture of. His name’s Billy Kelly, and he has priors for GTA. Unit two is moving into position now.”
“Okay, I’m moving now. Call you when I have him in sight,” Cassidy says.
The hotel has two ways for cars to get in and out. On foot, however, there are many ways to get into the parking garage. Romero passes by the valet parking, which is on the corner of Front and Capitol. He continues north along Capitol and ducks into the public parking entrance. There’s no one in the ticket booth.
As Romero enters the garage, he puts on the jacket. From a distance he looks just like the man who parked the NSX. He heads up the ramp. Just as he passes the puncture strips that prevent people from driving out of the entrance, he drops a bag of lead weights on the lever that activates them.
Unit two doesn’t notice him. He’s just a late fan on his way to the big hockey game. They expect a threat from inside the arena and are focused on the exit. The security cameras record his movements but cannot record his face.
García’s phone rings.
“It’s Cassidy. I’ve got Billy Kelly. He’s at the valet’s desk. I think his night is over. There’s got to be someone else coming,” he observes.
“Why do you think that, Cassidy?” she asks.
“Because he’s too relaxed. He’s getting ready to retrieve cars when the game gets out. I can tell because he’s talking to the other valet drivers, and they’re passing out the keys. The guys who have been there the longest get the cool keys. You know, Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes. The other guys get what’s left over. He’s thinking about tips, not stealing a car,” Cassidy surmises.
“I’ll buy that. Hang on a second,” she says and turns to Dax. “Cassidy wants to pass on Billy Kelly for now. Says he’s getting ready to get cars and tips, not steal ours.”
“Okay, send him back to the Acura and have him stake it out,” Dax decides, and García nods.
“Cassidy, go back to the NSX and keep an eye on it,” García advises.
“Okay, on my way. Next time I work with you, I’m wearing my running shoes,” he chides. He hurries back to the second story of the parking garage. It’s a big hotel. He’s at least four minutes away from the car.
Romero checks the parking garage carefully. He sees the NSX parked about fifty feet away. The sun is going down, burning shades of orange and magenta into the evening sky. He takes a moment to admire the sunset and stays in the shadows of the garage. He’s alone for now, but in about five minutes, the place will be full of people leaving the hockey game. He knows he will have to get past two obstacles to steal the car.
The first is the car’s antitheft system. From all the pictures Billy sent him, Romero can’t see that anything special has been done, so the factory-installed system is all there is. To defeat that system, he has an electronic key. Once inserted into the door lock, it will hunt for a code that the car’s computer recognizes. Once he has that, he can open the locks and start the car.
The second obstacle will be the car’s radio transmitter that tells any cop in the area where the car is. That’s the tricky part. He knows the radio frequencies the transmitter’s use. He has a small jammer that will mask his location. The problem is that it only works for thirty minutes, and if the cops are watching the car, they are already tuned into the frequency. When he jams it, they’ll know the car is being stolen.
Oh well,este es mi momento, he thinks, pulling his hat down as he moves toward the car.
“Unit one, this is two. I have a male moving toward the package. Ah, no, it’s okay, it’s just Rover. The package is safe. Rover’s moving it,” the cops in unit two confirm as they watch a feed from a camera they placed earlier. Cassidy misses the transmission because he’s in the stairwell of the garage, and the signal is blocked.
Cassidy hoofs it up to the second story of the garage. As he strides up the steps to the second-floor entrance, the final horn sounds in the arena. The Steelheads win three to two. The celebration starts, and the fans head for the doors.
It’s pandemonium! As the parking garage fills with fanatics, everyone is high-fiving, hugging, and guzzling beverages carried out from the arena. Nothing is moving except the fans, and they’re in no hurry. The fans clog the arteries of the parking garage. The sounds of victory reverberate, echo, and permeate the concrete structure.
Car horns begin to blare, and everyone puts on their emergency flashers, which gives the place a weird amber-disco luminescence. Some people try to start up and go, but it’s no use. This place has become party central. Banners and flags are waving. Fans are running through the gridlock, smacking their clapsticks and high-fiving everything and everyone in sight.
Cassidy opens the door from the stairwell, and he is instantly hugged by a good-looking Steelheads fan, which distracts him for a moment. Breaking away, he sees the total tohubohu and then nearly has a heart attack. The Acura NSX is gone!
“One, this is Rover. The package is missing. Repeat. The package is missing,” he practically yells into the radio. He hurtles himself into the parking garage through the throng of exuberance and toward the down ramp that leads to the exit.
“Damn! Two, get to the exit and block it. Don’t let any cars leave the garage. Rover, where are you?” Dax demands as he throws the car in gear and slams the accelerator to the floor.
“I’m running to the exit ramp. Cars are stopped, lined up, trying to get out. The place is out of control. He’s got to be in here. I’ll check every car,” Cassidy declares over the radio.
“One, this is two. We saw Rover get into the car and drive it away. What is going on?” the detective in unit two demands.
“This is Rover. I’m running through the damn garage, not driving. I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t me, you idiots!”
Dax interjects, “Okay, everyone take a breath. We have him. He’s got to be in the line of cars waiting to get out.” Dax tries to refocus the team. “Cassidy, proceed down the ramp from the top. García and I will come up from the street. Two, stay in the car in case he runs. Let’s do this right!” Dax orders.
He turns on the red-and-blue flashers defining his car as official and parks just out of the traffic flow by the garage’s exit. García jumps out and races to the exit ramp.
“We should call for backup!” García yells over her shoulder, and Dax nods.
“Two, call Dispatch, and let them know what we’re doing. Tell them we’re code six. We have a possible GTA. Alert Boise police and get us some backup,” he orders. “And, two, what’s the radio signal from the car telling us?”
“Yeah, we just checked it. It’s off the air. No signal right now. Might be because of the garage.”
“Not likely,” Dax says to himself. “Okay, two. Cover the exit. We’re going in.”
Dax runs to catch up to García. She moves like a cheetah, and he has to run at full speed to catch her.
“I’ll take the driver side. You go up the passenger side. Weapons in retention,” García directs, meaning that their weapons will stay holstered but ready to fire.
“I have the radio. You have the light,” Dax confirms, and she nods. The two cops start up the exit ramp with the cars between them, their hands on their pistols.
The parking garage has curved ramps, so the detectives can only see a few cars ahead. As they move, they visually check the people in each car to be sure the thief hasn’t taken hostages. They search car by car. As they round a bend just above the first level, they see Cassidy.
“Sam four, Dispatch,” Dax’s radio crackles.
“Sam four, go ahead,” he responds.
“Boise police just sent a report about a small sports car leaving the Grove Hotel parking garage through the entrance on Capitol. They are trying to find the car at this time,” the radio operator reports, and it all becomes clear to Dax.
He looks at García. “We’ve been had, Cassidy, come on!” Dax yells. He waves Cassidy and García to the exit as he turns to run. The three cops race to their car and jump in.
Dax puts the car in gear and drives to the corner of Ninth and Front Streets.
“What just happened?” García asks.
“He took the car out the entrance. We were focused on the exit, and he took the car out the entrance. We’ve been totally played!” Dax erupts and uses every vile epithet in his lexicon to express his anger. He cools, quickly resuming his professional demeanor.
“This is unbelievable. I leave the car for, what, fifteen minutes to check on that Billy creep, and they pinch it. These guys aren’t just good. They’re lucky too,” Cassidy says.
“This time of night hardly anyone was coming in. Everyone was leaving. Told you they were smart,” Dax says, the anger in his voice palpable.
“Don’t kick yourself. It was my idea,” Cassidy consoles.
“I thought it was the right idea, too,” García adds.
“He’s got a five-minute head start. Where’s he going?” Dax asks out loud and picks up the mic for the radio. “Control, Sam four, any more news from Boise PD about the car?” he asks in frustration.
“Nothing, four, except the sighting of another car heading east on Broad Street, but the description was different. It was a black sports car, not red,” the dispatcher reports.
“Four, roger,” Dax replies.
“Dax, under street lights, a red car might look black,” Cassidy offers.
“And that truck, the one we checked. It was a food delivery truck, but it was parked outside a music store off Broad Street. There aren’t any restaurants around there, Dax,” García says.
The pieces fall together. “Call Dispatch, have all units head to the music store at Capitol and Broad and find that truck,” he tells García.
He speeds onto Ninth Street with back tires smoking and lights flashing and takes a sharp left on Broad like a stock car racer. Cassidy actually tumbles across the back seat.
Romero rounds the corner and sees the truck. The lift is down, and the truck is moving about five miles per hour.
“Perfecto, Juan,” he says out loud as he eases the car onto the lift. He signals Juan by flashing his lights, and Juan raises the lift. Romero drives the car into the big box on the back of the truck, and Juan retracts the lift. Romero jumps out of the front seat of the NSX and closes the rear door of the van with the remote control. Like magic, the car has disappeared. Romero latches the deadbolt lock on the rear door, and jumps into the right seat of the truck.
“Juan, mi buen amigo; that was perfecto. Take a right, and we’ll get to Myrtle Street and then over to Broadway and the interstate. Did you pull the signs off the side of the truck?” he asks.
“Si, boss. They’re sitting in a Dumpster covered with spray paint,” Juan confirms.
Romero nods and smiles as he removes the Steelheads jacket and hat and tosses them in the back.
“Well, what do you think? How do you like our little system, Juan?”
“Jefe, this is incredible. This is the coolest idea I’ve ever seen,” Juan says as he puts on the signal and turns right on Sixth Street.
“This is nothing. Wait until you see what we do with this car,” the master thief says.
“The intersection’s clear. Do you see the truck?” García asks Dax over the wail of the sirens.
“No. Call Dispatch, give them the description and tell them it’s from Sawtooth Restaurant Supply. See if we can get some help from the state police,” Dax directs as he turns right on Sixth Street.
“Look, about two blocks ahead turning on Myrtle. Is that our truck?” García asks, excited that they may have caught the thieves. Dax hits the accelerator.
“Romero, cops behind us coming up fast,” Juan says, clearly shaken.
“Juan, it’s cool. This isn’t the same truck they looked at before. You removed the signs and switched the plates. If they stop us, we just picked this truck up from the big tire store on Front Street, okay? It was getting new tires and brakes. I have the receipts in the logbook right here, mi hijo, relax.”
“I should know by now. You think of everything, Romero. You are always a few moves ahead,” Juan says.
The three detectives come screaming up behind the truck. “Crud, that’s not it. It has a Utah plate on it, and no writing on the sides. It isn’t our truck,” García says in total dejection.
“Get pictures of the plate number anyway. I don’t want to stop them right now because we have to keep looking,” Dax says with an equal amount of glumness in his tone.
They turn east on Myrtle and speed away, hoping to catch a glimpse of the car or that delivery truck heading to Interstate 84.
17. Boise, Idaho
I can see the beauty in many things that most take for granted. The golden ratio holds me mystified. I see the science, the math, and the daily beauty in simple things most people just pass by. But I’m having real issues finding the beauty in going to BLUES. Why am I such a freak?
“Chica, are you ready?” Maribel calls for me. “It’s time to go to school.”
This is my first day at BLUES. This is also her first day taking a kid to school. I’m not sure who is more nervous.
“Yes, Maribel. I’m ready. Let’s go,” I say. There’s heaviness in my heart and a foreboding tone in my voice. She senses it.
“Chica, it will work out, tranquila. This place will be good. I feel it,” she says as she places her hands on my shoulders.
I nod a weak signal of submission.
“Okay, let’s do this,” she says and gives me a big hug. We head out the door, and I’m on my way to my new school.
“So what’s your first class?” she asks me as we drive down Broadway Avenue.
I flip open my binder and check my schedule for about the hundredth time.
“I have advanced computer skills first period and then AP chemistry, and third period is the course from MIT, the class where we get to design and create apps,” I say as Maribel sneaks a peek at me over her shades.
“It sounds amazaballs!” she says as she looks at me sideways from behind her shades.
She’s been reading teen slang dictionaries on the net. I try to stifle a giggle.
“That’s a good thing, sí?” she asks.
“Si, mi hermana. It’s a very good thing,” I say, and we laugh.
She tenses up a little and looks out the windshield.
“I’m not your sister, Jake, but thanks. I do love you very much,” she says, and I know she means it.
“You’re like the big sister I never had but always wanted,” I tell her and reach over to take her hand.
“Okay, mi hermanita, from now on we’re sisters, sí.”
“Sí, sisters for life, Maribel,” I say, and we have big smiles on our faces as we pull into the parking lot at BLUES.
“So you have everything you need?” Maribel asks me.
“Yes, I’m ready. See you at three.” We get a quick hug in, and I hop out and walk toward the Nut Hut.
18. Boise, Idaho
As Jake walks to her first class at BLUES, Nick Lash is seated in the office. His phone rings.
“Lash,” he says efficiently.
“Nick, it’s García.”
“Hey, kemosabe, que pasa?” Lash says, cheering up a little at the sound of his partner’s voice.
“Lots! I spent last night chasing some ghosts,” she says.
“What ghosts? What do you mean?”
“Nick, these auto thefts are being done by some very smart people. They snatched an über-expensive car last night as we were watching. We had them, Nick. Had them cold, and they got away clean! I feel like a fool.”
She’s angry and ready to open up a can on some car thieves. He hears it in her voice. He knows she hates to lose, but he has to take at least one jab to try to loosen her up.
“Are you kidding? You and Dax and Cassidy got snookered?” he asks.
“Don’t rub it in. It’s really ugly around here this morning,” she tells him.
“I imagine LT is all hot and bothered. Guess that’s a good reason for me to be out of there today, huh?” Lash says.
“Oh yeah, you’re in a nice, cozy little place today, but it could be getting a whole lot warmer very soon.”
“And why would that be, Detective García?” Lash asks.
He hears her take a deep breath. It’s almost as if she’s sucking the air out of his lungs.
“There was a punk involved in the theft last night—Billy Kelly. Seems he’s an alumnus of BLUES. Graduated last year. Cassidy spotted him last night. I did some checking, and he’s tied into the crowd that slams Japanese cars, the JDM scene. They like to customize the Japanese cars. He’s a computer whiz, but he’s having problems finding a job because of his record for car theft,” she informs Lash.
“I could see how felony convictions might be a detriment to gainful employment,” Lash agrees and continues. “How does this upstanding citizen’s record affect me, Ginger?”
“Well, I thought it might be interesting if you started asking some questions, doing some classroom observations, maybe seeing if Mr. Kelly has any friends who are still there. You know, police work. You do remember police work, don’t you, Detective?”
“Oh yeah, that question-and-answer stuff. I remember that class from the academy. And where would you have me start, detective junior grade?” he says, reminding her as to who has seniority.
“Don’t be an asshat, Lash. I’m trying to get you back into LT’s good graces.”
“Okay, okay, sorry. What do you need?” he asks in surrender.
“Check the parking lot. See if there are any Japanese cars that have been slammed. Then check out the owners. I bet the school has some students who are helping the customizers. Let me know what you find out. I feel really bad for Cassidy and Dax. I want to do something to help out, okay?” she tells Lash.
“Okay, I’m on it. I’ll check it out and let you know what I find. Give me an hour or so,” he assures her.
“Thanks, Nick. I really miss you. Did LT say how much longer?” she asks.
“Maybe two weeks, maybe less. I’m ready to get back, though,” he admits.
“What about the assault charges the drug dealer filed against you? Any word?” she asks, hoping not to hit a nerve.
“Well, there’s some good news there. Seems that the security cameras have the guy I punched and the others making drug deals just before I got there. That’s probable cause, and I was within my jurisdiction to apprehend. The county attorney offered all the punks a deal to drop the charges against me and the department for a shorter sentence. They took it, so I’m off the hook,” he tells her.
“Yeah, I heard about your film test. You have someone watching over you, Nick,” she tells him.
“We both know who it is,” he says with sadness.
“Yeah, we both know,” she says and tears up. “You call as soon as you check things out. I’ll be waiting.” García closes the connection before she loses it.
Lash sets the handset down on the phone and heads out to the parking lot. The morning is glorious. Lash stops walking and lets his thoughts ramble for a moment as the sun warms his face, and he breathes in the cool, mountain air.
It’s been nearly a year now. A year since he lost his wife. She was driving to work on a morning like this. It was a beautiful morning, but in the day-to-day world, it was just routine like any other morning. Jena Lash was just driving to work. The stoplight turned green as she heard the siren. She checked her mirrors, saw nothing, and crossed into the intersection. She looked left in time to see the stolen car slam into her. The doctors said she died instantly.
The thief escaped because the officers chasing him stopped to help Jena. The stolen car was a Honda. Lash has been looking ever since.
Now he sees something that interests him as Alberto Contreras is pulling into the lot.
Whaddya know? Look what the cat dragged in, Lash thinks. Alberto is driving a Honda Accord. It’s not new, but it looks fantastic. It is definitely slammed. Lash decides to just go and talk to the guy.
Alberto, still seated in his Accord, looks into the rearview mirror and sees the resource officer coming toward his car. This guy is huge, he thinks. Alberto heard about the NSX through the grapevine, and he figures this isn’t going to be a friendly meeting. He grabs his bag and swings out of the low-slung car.
“Good morning, I’m Detective Lash, the resource officer. I don’t think we’ve ever met,” Lash says cordially and extends his hand as he approaches Alberto.
“Good morning, Officer. I’m Alberto, Alberto Contreras.” He shakes Lash’s hand.
“Good to meet you, Alberto. I was admiring your car,” Lash says, which isn’t totally a lie.
Lash is a car guy from way back and still owns a vintage 1969 Chevy Camaro. The car is therapy for Lash. It is in a constant state of repair, or as Lash puts it, restoration.
“Oh, thanks. Yeah, I’ve put a lot of work into it,” Alberto offers, feeling a little weird that a cop is checking out his ride.
“I noticed the Work Meister wheels. I thought about those for my Camaro. I like the five spoke design like the old Crager SS, but I wanted something lighter. You think they’re pretty good?” he asks. He’s not a cop anymore. Now he’s a gearhead.
“Oh yeah. They’re awesome, totally balanced and really light. I wouldn’t roll with anything else,” Alberto swears.
“What else have you done? I mean this is an older model, but it looks great, Alberto,” the cop continues the friendly chatter.
Alberto is confused. Cops checking for the right identification numbers, cops checking his ID to be sure he belongs here, even though he was born in the United States and barely speaks Spanish, cops making sure his car is registered correctly, but a cop talking car mods with him—never happened before.
“Well, it’s a 1990 Accord LX. I got the European version of the Si-R motor, but it’s all legal,” he assures Lash.
“Relax. Cars are something I leave to the owner. I have some sketchy stuff happening with my ride. I’m sure not going to pick yours apart,” he confides.
“Sketchy stuff? Like what?” Alberto probes.
“I’ve got a three twenty-seven with a single stage right now. No turbo charging, all motor,” Lash reveals.
“Three twenty-seven in a Camaro…that’s a small block. About four hundred horsepower, right?” Alberto asks in amazement.
“On a good day, maybe. Mostly the thing is in pieces in my garage. What else is happening with your ride?” Lash asks, more than a little interested now.
“Yeah, so I have the Bisimoto springs and retainers with the stage three cams. I put in the rear disc brake conversion, full body coil overs on the suspension, Bisimoto V2 header, and the Mu Project sway bars. Then I topped it off with the Greddy full exhaust and a nice JDM headlight kit.”
Lash has no clue what Alberto just told him. Lash nods in understanding anyway, going along for the ride. Nick peeks into the interior of the car. He sees a set of racing seats and one serious stereo system but no steering wheel. “Okay, how do you drive the thing?” he asks, truly amazed.
Alberto turns and shows him his backpack. Strapped to it is a beautiful wood grain and titanium steering wheel. “Best way to keep someone from taking my car. They can’t steal what they can’t drive, right, deputy?”
“Well, that’s for sure,” Lash says with some true respect. “But what if they bring their own?” he asks.
“It’s all custom keyed, and I can change it daily. It’s better than an alarm system. I mean, guys just walk away when they see it. Other stuff is easier to steal,” Alberto says.
“Very cool. I like it, and it’s right out of a race car,” Lash agrees, thinking how nice that would work with his old Chevy. “And your paint, it’s perfect!” Lash says as he looks at his reflection in the root beer-brown, metal-flake paint job.
“That’s not me. I can do some engine and suspension stuff. I’m really good at the computer apps. You know the ECU programming. That’s how I pay for most of this, but for paint and body, I go to RJ Enterprises in Caldwell. They are the best in the area for fabricating,” Alberto reveals as the morning bell rings.
“Well, you need to get to class, and I need to get to work. I just wanted to let you know how much I admire your car. Thanks for talking to me, Alberto.” Lash bumps fists with his new gearhead buddy and heads to his office.
As Alberto heads away, Lash takes out his notebook and begins writing. He jots down two thoughts as the most important: Alberto’s skills at programming something called an ECU and the name RJ Enterprises in Caldwell. He also makes a note to get that removable steering wheel for his Camaro. He takes out his cell and calls García.
19. Boise, Idaho
I’m not afraid of meeting people. Okay, that’s a lie. I have an instinctive feeling that most people are up to no good, so I avoid them. I read a book once about everyone having their own agenda. I guess I’m the same way, so maybe people are avoiding me too.
As I walk up to the Nut Hut, there are four students standing outside—three guys and a girl. They’re watching me. I decide to just find out what’s up.
It’s easy to spot the alpha male, the leader. He’s a white guy who looks smart and dresses in that sloppy, preppy way. I ignore him and speak to the girl.
“Hi, I’m Jake,” I say. I feel like an idiot. I put my hand out. People in my old hood do not do that. I’m trying too hard. Then something weird happens. She looks away from me like I’m the worst thing she’s ever seen.
“Hi, I’m Liz,” she says and takes my hand. But she still doesn’t look at me. “This is Alberto, José, and Will. Guys, this is Jake,” she says. Finishing the introductions, she raises her gaze and looks at me.
Will picks up on it and comes closer. “Hi, Jake, welcome to BLUES. Where are you from?” He shows about as much interest in me as Liz does. These are really weird people.
“South Gate. It’s south central LA,” I say, trying to get a rise out of him.
“Sounds like a tough place.” He studies me a little more closely, finally taking some real interest in me.
“Can be. I guess it’s like anywhere. It’s inner city. They like to keep track of us brown people, you know,” I say, provoking him a little.
“Yeah, I get that. Same here. They like to cage the tigers. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what color your stripes are. We all get to see both sides,” he says, including the others in the conversation with a nod.
I’m impressed, I think. He doesn’t let the race issue go too far. There’s more going on here than I figured.
Alberto and José step in and meet me. “Bienvenida hermanita, welcome to BLUES,” Alberto says with some affection. The South Gate connection isn’t usually lost on Hispanics.
“Gracias, muchachos. At first I wasn’t sure about this place, but I sorta like it already.” I show Alberto a quick smile.
“You know computers? What’s your specialty?” José asks.
“Apps. I have a thing for making apps. I like to do systems analysis too.”
“Systems analysis? You’re a hacker?” Liz accuses almost vehemently.
“I like to say I’m a fan of technology.” They all laugh. I’m pretty sure they get it.
“So how’d you end up here?” José asks. “I can’t wait to get out of here and go to Cali,” he says.
“Well—” The bell rings, and we have to go. “Gracias, Virgencita,” I say to myself. My new friends seem okay, but you never know.
Everyone has their own agenda. No need to tell them everything on the first day.
We go into the Nut Hut, and I sit down. People are checking me out. Just like the rest of this place. What’s inside the ugly old buildings looks nothing like what’s outside.
The Nut Hut is a bright, colorful place with natural light coming in from above. There are at least fifteen separate workstations with PCs and Macs. There are two Promethean boards in the main classroom and two conference-style rooms in the back where smaller presentations and instruction can be conducted. These rooms are full of tech gear, too! I see at least three carts full of ChromeBooks lining the wall of part of the room set up with couches, overstuffed chairs and lots of pillows. This place is high performance and high tech. When you’re creating, you need a place to chillax.
“Good morning, everyone,” Miss Goldwasser, our teacher, greets us. “We have a new victim joining us today,” she says with a smile and looks in my direction. I blush. “Jake, please stand.”
“I am standing,” I say, and everyone laughs, including her. They’ve all noticed my height, or lack of it. I stand up, but that doesn’t change much, and I look around the room. There are about ten of us total, including the four I met outside. It’s a small class, and I really like that.
“Jake comes to us from South Gate, California, and has the kind of skills I’m sure you all will admire. Welcome, Jake. I’m sure you’ll feel like one of the gang very soon.”
I’m greeted with a few thumbs-up and lots of smiles and nods.
She continues, “Good. Now back to work. The certification test is about a month away. Many of you worked at the assignments over the break, and the last progress report shows most of you ahead of schedule, except Alberto.” Chuckles and grins break out around the room.
“But, Miss G, I’m on it. I just get distracted so easily sometimes,” he objects.
“Yeah, I know you get distracted by car parts on Craigslist, and I get distracted by shoe sales on Zappos. Multitasking can be a real burden. You complete the Excel lessons today, and maybe I won’t take my scissors to your connection cable for programming those ECUs during school hours.”
“What ECUs? What programming?” he asks, feigning innocence.
“Alberto!” she says, incredulous. “Okay, Alberto, you’ll like this,” she tells him. She has a PhD in computer science and decides to show Alberto what that means. She moves to her classroom computer station.
One of the big screens comes to life, and some program called Zombie starts to run. I’ve never heard of it. All of a sudden, Alberto’s library of files appears. I can’t figure it out because it’s moving so fast, but I can tell the files are or were encrypted.
“Uh oh, Alberto,” Will says, smiling.
“You’re a dead man, compadre,” José chides.
“Does anyone recognize this code?” she asks.
“Uh, yeah. Okay, okay! Take it down, and I’ll finish those Excel assignments this morning. Take it down, take it down before everyone here memorizes it, please, Miss G. Please, please don’t let Zombie eat it,” he begs. She turns off the screen.
“Ah, I only got about forty lines of it,” Will complains.
“I got it all on my iPhone,” Liz chides.
“Well, I did leave out a few critical lines of code. Alberto, have you learned a lesson here?” Miss G asks.
“Yes, get my work done before I mess around and don’t mess with you,” he acknowledges.
“No, Alberto! Clear your cache memory before leaving your workstation. Never leave your secrets where others will find them.”
Everyone just breaks down and laughs.
She is a teacher, I decide.
“Okay, get to work. I have to get Jake started, so I’ll be with her if you need anything,” she directs.
Everyone turns to his or her respective workstation and assignment. Doctor Goldwasser heads my way.
This place doesn’t feel like a school. It feels so different. It feels so real. There are no classroom rules posted. There is no attendance or assigned seating. There doesn’t need to be. Then I understand or begin to understand. These people have a job to do. Maybe that’s the difference. They see an opportunity here. They see what’s in it for them. They’re not wasting their time writing haiku.
“So, Jake, the students in this class are working toward their certificates in software applications for Microsoft and Apple through Boise State University. It’s a means to an end for some and just another step for others. When they complete it, they will be able to get work right out of high school. Some will do that. Others will be going on to college or taking other paths. What our students do with what they learn is up to them. Right now, I need to know what you know. You’re going to take an assessment that will tell us what you know about the most popular applications and what you need to learn. From there, we’ll design your course and get you ready for the test next month. Sounds good?” she asks.
Her Mona Lisa smile gives me confidence. There’s pride in it also. She’s very proud of this school and the work she does.
“Sure, I need to concentrate. May I sit toward the back?” I ask.
“Of course. Here’s your username and password. You can change the password when you’re in the system,” she says and hands me a small card with the information on it. We walk to a lone station. I sit down and login.
“Doctor Goldwasser…” I begin.
“Call me Miss G, please,” she tells me.
“Okay, Miss G, the equipment in the back of the room is awesome,” I say, noticing the computer gear in the next room through an open door.
“Yes, you’re very observant. That door shouldn’t even be open,” she comments with a frown. “Too many whiz kids around here.” The frown turns into a smile.
“You’re using Cisco hardware. I thought HP was on the cutting edge.”
“It says Cisco on the cases, but don’t judge a book, or server, by its cover, Jake. I assure you, you’ve never worked with equipment like this before,” she tells me with a confident smile.
I pick up the mouse, look at the keyboard, and stick my head under the table. “Everything’s wireless!” I gasp.
“Everything, Jake. No cables, no weird harmonics, no way to patch things together,” she confirms.
“You have to have a pipe running at least eighty megs per second for something like this,” I say, astonished.
“Well, actually, one hundred fifty works better. I have two hundred, but who’s counting,” she says with a wave of her hand and a little smirk.
“And all with the eight oh two point eleven N standard, of course,” I add.
“Of course! But we’re getting ready for the upgrade next year,” she adds.
I smile. I like her. “I like your accent. It’s exotic,” I say.
“I like your accent, too,” she says, and I giggle.
“Yeah, I guess we all have one. It depends which side of the conversation you’re on,” I say, looking at her green eyes.
“Israel, I grew up in Israel. If you don’t move from home by puberty, you get to keep your home accent, no matter what language you speak,” she says, answering my unasked question. “But time to get to work. Login, follow the link in your Gmail account, and do your very best for me.”
“Can I listen to music?” I ask.
“We don’t have many rules, Jake. If that’s how you roll, then that works for me,” she affirms. I put in my buds, get my tunes playing, click on the link, and go for it.
20. Caldwell, Idaho
It’s morning. The plain white delivery truck is secured inside the big shop at Romero’s junkyard. The tailgate is open, and the lift is down. There’s a car sitting on the lift, and it’s under a cover. Romero’s team of thugs gathers round as he pulls the cover off the car.
“Where did you get this piece, Romero? Esta muy padre!” One of the crew exclaims as he is shown the Acura NSX.
“But, patrón, how do we move this piece?” another one of Romero’s men asks.
They all know this car is different. It isn’t like most of the other cars they’ve stolen. Those cars were common and easy to hide. The NSX is very unique.
“Okay, this is a move into something bigger, compadres. These high-end cars will bring us a lot more billetes! We still keep our main business, but when we get a chance to move a car like this, we take it, sí?” he asks but not really caring what anyone else says. His greed and ego are driving him now.
“Si, Jefe, but how?”
“Leave it to me. It will take some doing, and we’ll have to prepare it differently. It will take a little more time, but we can do it. It’s still the same swap. It just has to be a little tighter, a little cleaner,” he assures his gang. “We’re moving it tonight to the new garage in the back of the property.”
“Frankie has an idea that will make this thing invisible. Be here at midnight,” he orders his men. They start to clear out of the shop and go to work around the junkyard.
“So, Frankie, what do you think?” Romero asks his main man.
“I was surprised you even tried it, boss,” Frankie says.
“Why? You had it all lined out for me,” Romero contends.
“Yeah, but when I told you Billy lost sight of the driver, I figured you’d skip it and try again later,” he offers.
“What? You never told me that, Frankie! You never said Billy lost track of the mark,” Romero argues, the temper rising in his tone.
“Romero, I told you over the phone. I told you Billy lost the guy, and I’d call back if he finds him. I swear, patrón, I told you,” Frankie pleads, knowing what Romero is capable of.
“There was one call I didn’t answer and which Juan did. It might have been a mistake. Maybe he didn’t understand how important that was,” he says, looking Frankie in the eye. Frankie shakes his head slowly.
“If Juan answered, then he knew, boss. I made sure I was clear. He’s very ambitious. I can sense it. He wants things, and he doesn’t want to wait his turn,” Frankie says, affirming what Romero has been thinking.
“Okay, okay, Frankie. You’re probably right. He doesn’t know it all yet, and we’ll not tell him everything. Keep him close. Let him have a piece of the parts business and the salvage stuff. Let him work the crusher on the other lot so he thinks we trust him. Just enough to make him think he’s on the inside,” Romero says, and Frankie nods in approval.
“Did you get that one?” Cassidy asks García.
The two are staked out near RJ’s Junkyard Jungle, trying to get pictures of the people working inside.
“Yeah, I got some real nice head shots for his court appearance.”
“What’s up anyway? Why the stakeout?” he asks.
“Lash gave me some intel he got from a kid at BLUES. The Jungle is owned by RJ Enterprises. Seems RJ Enterprises is also a fabricator that the Japanese car crowd uses. The name came up last night when we checked out a delivery truck near the arena. Kind of a coincidence, don’t you think?” she quizzes.
“Let me walk through this. A truck registered to RJ Enterprises shows up near our crime scene but is gone after the theft. A kid at BLUES says that he uses RJ Enterprises to work on his car, and you’re calling it a coincidence. I don’t see it, Ginger. It’s kinda thin,” he says.
“I know it’s thin. LT says it’s transparent. He didn’t think this was a good idea until I told him something else,” she says.
“What? What else did you tell him?”
“Remember last night when we came up on that white truck, the one turning on Myrtle?”
“Yeah, Dax almost hit it. It didn’t match the description of the rig you two checked out before, so we let it slide, right? It had a Utah plate and no markings,” he says, leaving an unasked question hanging in the air.
“It fit the description of the truck Dax and I saw parked behind the music store. It just didn’t have any signs on it, and the plate was different. Signs can be removed, and plates can be switched,” she tells him.
“Then what? Come on, give, I’m dying here,” he protests.
“So I ran that Utah plate this morning, and it came back expired,” she says, just feeding him a little bit more.
“You’re going to make me ask. Okay, I’ll bite. Who does the plate belong to?”
“It belonged to a 1991 Toyota Tundra pickup truck. So I followed the truck’s identification number, and guess what?” she continues to bait him.
He pauses, thinks, and then smiles. “The truck ends up at RJ Enterprises, but how?” he questions.
“It was wrecked. It was involved in an insurance scam in Utah and later sold at auction with a salvage title. The thing was totaled,” García says.
“I see your connection, but that’s still really thin. I mean the plate could have been stolen anywhere along the line,” he challenges.
“Maybe, but the paperwork shows the truck was sold with the plates on it. I called the Salt Lake City Auto Auction, and they verified it.”
“How can they be sure?” he asks, his cop mind in high gear now.
“Because they have a picture of the truck the day they sold it,” she hands him her iPhone with the picture on it.
He studies the photo for a moment and hands the phone back to García.
“So a plate from a wrecked truck that was purchased by RJ Enterprises shows up on an unmarked delivery truck a couple of blocks from our crime scene. Another delivery truck, registered to RJ Enterprises, had just left the same crime scene. Coincidence?” He smiles at her with admiration.
“Must be ghosts, huh, Cassidy?”
“Ghosts,” Cassidy says, looking her in the eye. García smiles a crooked little smile and arches her eyebrows.
“You know what they say, Cassidy. Once is a fluke, twice is coincidence, three times is criminal activity. We have RJ Enterprises coming up on the radar three times in the last twelve hours. What do you think?” she asks.
“Take more pictures. Do we have any intel on the company?” he pushes on.
“Not a scrap. No trouble anywhere. They do it by the book. Even got a Chamber of Commerce award for supporting youth sports last year. Soccer, I think.”
“Real smart. Stay clear and run your legal business just like you’re supposed to. But what if they are just a legal business?” he worries.
“Then they have nothing to worry about, and the only loser is you after you buy me another white chocolate mocha from the Java Hut over there,” she says.
Cassidy groans, gets out, and heads to the coffee shop.
“What do you think?” Romero asks Pilar as she turns and looks toward the street.
The light from the sun highlights her and contrasts her figure. He looks closely at his wife. He enjoys what he sees. She is slender, tall, and moves like a dancer, like a cat. Her long dark hair hangs silky and shimmers like a curtain of polished onyx. She exudes an aura of command and control. She is the queen. She is also Romero’s alter ego and the registered owner of RJ Enterprises.
For all of Romero’s rough edges, he knows how to cover his trail. The major assets of his empire are in Pilar’s name. If he goes down, she still has control. He is careful to keep her clear of the dark side of the business. But she knows all.
“Cops without a doubt. Can’t tell what flavor. They’ve been circling for over an hour, taking pictures. What should we do?” Her tone is solid, fearless.
“Be sure our cameras are on but not recording. I don’t want any tape if they decide to rush the place. And tell the guys that we aren’t doing that late job tonight.”
“Okay. Let’s have everyone get new phones and check in with you,” she tells him and kisses his cheek and hugs him. “And what about the NSX?”
“We’ll slip it into the back of the shop and keep it out of sight. Frankie found the radio tracking system and disabled it. No one can find that car now. Chill, they have no reason to come here,” he counsels.
It’s the tenor of his voice, a tone. She senses a tremor in his words. She senses fear.
“What reason would they have for staking us out? We must have made a mistake somewhere, Romero.”
His face reddens. She immediately regrets her words.
“Pilar, we did not make any mistakes!” he roars at her. After his discussion with Frankie, he knows that may not be true now.
She backs away from him. His temper is legendary. “Romero, how can it be that the cops show up the day after you pinch the most expensive car we’ve ever had? Maybe it’s a trap.” She has to calm him.
Romero is brooding now. He paces, avoiding eye contact with Pilar. He’s angry with himself and begins to question taking the Acura.
“Maybe I’ll think about it.” He takes a deep breath. “The cops were checking the truck out last night. They saw both license plates—the one from Utah and the Idaho plate. The cops probably took pictures.”
The hairs on the back of Pilar’s neck stand up as a chill runs through her. She alone knows where those plates came from. The trail should be cold by now. Some doubt creeps into her firm resolve.
“I’ll take care of it. These things are building up, Romero. The close call last night. The cops outside today. This all started when Juan Antonio showed up, and now I can’t get ahold of Pee Wee. We owe him some big bucks, and he hasn’t called. When has he ever given us more time on a payment?”
She pauses and places a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “We need to be careful for a while,” she insists.
Romero reaches up to her hand and covers it with his. He knows she’s right, but he has to sell the NSX as fast as possible. His anger recedes as he starts to consider his options.
“You’re right, Pilar. We’ll just take it easy for a few days until the cops lose interest. No. I’ve changed my mind. We’ll make the switch tonight, but just Frankie and his crew. Tomorrow, send Juan to the scrap yard and tell him he can go home when he finishes there.”
She nods in agreement, but something is biting at the back of her mind.
21. Boise, Idaho
Nick Lash enters the Nut Hut for the first time since he’s been at BLUES. What he sees amazes him. Several students are working independently at a furious pace on some sort of assignment. They are engaged and on task. The students are each seated at their own workstations. The large room is open and airy. The light is indirect and easy on the eyes, yet warm, filling every corner. Skylights invite the sun into the building. There are plants in the windows and artwork on the walls, and it’s very quiet except for the clicking of the keyboards.
He notes that each of the students is listening to something. He sees the earbuds or headphones each is wearing, and he remembers back to grade school when he tried to listen to the World Series over a small transistor radio and got caught. That was a big deal then. Oh, how the times have changed! These kids are wired differently—figuratively and literally.
“Detective, good morning. What brings you to our little world today?” There is no trepidation in Miss G’s tone.
Lash doesn’t know what it is. Women like Cynthia Goldwasser and Ginger García just intimidate the heck out of him. They are small, but they are also extremely formidable. He knows García could put him in the hospital if she wanted to. He isn’t sure about Goldwasser’s physical skills, but he knows she is a mental powerhouse.
“Morning, Dr. Goldwasser.”
“We don’t do the doctor stuff around here, Detective. The students need to respect us for what we offer them, not for our titles,” she corrects him.
“Sorry, I see what you mean. Please call me Nick,” he agrees and starts to wonder if he has offered these students any reason to respect him. “I want to do some observations and maybe speak to a couple of students. We have some concerns about the students being involved in the local car scene.”
“Oh, that. Well, that would be Alberto. We had more students into that last year. Alberto is the only real gearhead we have this year,” she says, pointing to the young man Lash met earlier that morning.
He laughs inwardly at her use of the term gearhead. “He’s it? I thought it would be a big deal,” Lash says, a little confused and relieved at the same time.
“We have a couple of wannabes like Mario Morales and Ken Traber, but Alberto is the only real believer. Cars are expensive, Detective. Customizing cars is way out of reach for most of our kids. Alberto makes it work because he has some marketable skills. He does computer programming for his friends.”
“You mean those ECU things?” Lash asks.
“So you’re a car guy too?” she notes.
“Not like Alberto. I’m totally old school—Detroit muscle, big motors, nothing fancy, just horsepower. Today it’s just as important to be able to drive a computer as it is to drive a car.”
“Well, Alberto is probably the best source, but he gets a lot of money from the car crowd, so don’t expect him to tell you everything, Nick,” she says, looking at him over the top of her glasses, past a veil of midnight black hair framing her Mediterranean complexion, and the greenest eyes he’s ever seen.
Lash moves about the room looking at what the students are doing and is dumbfounded by the level of work that is taking place. If he didn’t know he was in a high school classroom, he’d swear he was over at Micron or Microsoft, watching a bunch of people doing software development. He stops by Alberto’s workstation.
“That’s some intricate stuff you’re working on,” he says. Alberto is startled and quickly clicks an icon to bring up the Excel applications he’s supposed to be working on.
“Yes, we’re getting ready for a big exam next month,” he says.
“Well, I was referring to the other stuff. The car stuff for the ECUs,” Lash points out.
Alberto just hangs his head. Lash leans over and whispers into Alberto’s ear, “No worries, Alberto. Do what you need to do, but get your schoolwork done, understand?”
“Sí, I’m done with what Miss G wanted. I need to get these ECUs ready for Friday, Detective,” Albert replies, almost choking on his own words.
“Friday? What’s up on Friday, Alberto?” Lash knows he just struck gold.
“Ah, nothing.” Alberto can barely speak.
“Well, let’s see. It’s Tuesday, and you need to get the programming done, so that means maybe a car meet on Friday. And those ECUs must have customers waiting. Now, I don’t want to mess up your tidy little business, Alberto, so let’s just trade out. I forget about the ECUs for now, and you let me know where the meet is.”
Alberto nearly has a seizure.
“Seňor, I can’t tell you that. I’d be—” Lash grips Alberto’s shoulder firmly, silencing him.
Nick is standing behind Alberto. He leans forward and places one large hand on each side of the keyboard Alberto is working at surrounding the boy. He moves close, coercively close to Alberto who is staring directly at the screen in terror. He sees Lash’s hard expression reflected on the monitor staring right back at him.
Lash becomes the cop and speaks in a hushed tone with a hint of a threat lurking at the edges. “You just send me the coordinates from your GPS. Text them to me. No conversations, no public meetings. I just need to get more intel on the JDM scene, understand, Alberto?” Lash slips one of his cards under the keyboard.
“Sí, esta bien, I get it. But you have to keep this quiet. There are some really bad people involved in these meets. If they find ou—”
“No one is going to find out, Alberto. I just want to check it out and see what’s up.”
“Okay, I’ll send it later this afternoon.” Alberto palms the business card and carefully pockets it, hoping no one sees what he’s doing.
Lash straightens up and looks around the room. He notices another student quickly turn away and adjust his chair. Maybe Alberto isn’t the only car guy here after all.
Lash makes a mental note of the student’s face and heads back to his office. He walks the fifty or so yards briskly, enjoying the morning sun and fresh air. He enters the admin building and pours a fresh cup of coffee just as his phone starts ringing.
Now what? He moves to his desk and picks up the handset.
“Lash,” the senior detective answers his phone at BLUES. His baritone voice exudes power.
“Detective Lash, this is Sergeant Grace Washington from the LAPD. Good morning,” she says.
“Morning, Washington. Have we worked together before?” Lash works his memory to recall her name.
“No, Detective. I do have some information that may be important, and I wanted to share it with you since you’re the resource officer for BLUES,” she confides.
Crap, even LAPD knows I’m a school cop now, he thinks. “Okay, whaddya got, Sergeant?” he asks, about three quarters interested.
“Three months ago, there was a shooting in South Gate. An innocent woman and her son were shot by mistake. It was a reprisal killing by drug gangs. They had the wrong address and came in blasting,” Washington says, dropping the first bomb on Lash.
“South Gate can be pretty rough. We get a lot of refugees from there. Most are just moving through, but a few stay,” Lash says.
“Yeah, well, you got one staying with you and maybe another one you don’t want. The family was the mother and brother of Jacqueline Palomera—she goes by Jake. You know her?” Washington questions. Her tone masks her feelings for Jake.
“I have met her, but I don’t know much about her. Sergeant, I’m on temporary assignment here. I haven’t had time to connect with all the kids.”
Washington’s head drops to her chest. She pulls a couple of deep breaths. She was hoping that in a smaller community, Jake might be in a safer situation. Now she finds that the nearest police support is some temporary cop who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Jake.
“Detective, we believe a perp named Juan Antonio Hernandez has taken up residence in your fair city, or near there, and is probably involved in his favorite pastimes of drug dealing and car theft. We like him for the Palomera killings and maybe one other.” She drops bomb number two and hopes to spike his interest.
Lash’s eyebrows raise, and his hearing suddenly becomes much more acute.
“Well, that’s more intriguing than truancies and smoking in the boys’ room.” Lash is now totally engaged in the conversation.
“Hernandez may have offed his boss, Pee Wee Cruz, here in LA just before heading your way with a load of stolen car parts. Cruz was a car-theft king and may have found out about Hernandez’s involvement in the shootings. He may have used that to force Hernandez to mule the stolen parts. We went through the computers in the dead guy’s garage. It pointed an arrow toward Boise and a delivery there.”
“Any intel regarding the location of the delivery?” he asks.
“No, all the accounts are numbered. No actual names or addresses associated with them. We’ve tried to break the code but no luck so far.”
“Can you send me what you have so we can get our auto-theft task force working on it?”
“Yes, I can send you all we have so far,” Washington responds.
“Sergeant, why did you contact me?” Lash asks, noting the weird method of communication the LA cop is using.
“Yeah, a little out of channels, I guess. I already spoke to an officer at your ATTF, a Detective García. She recommended I call you. I have a special interest in Jake Palomera. I want to be sure she’s looked after. We have some history,” she confides.
“Okay, I’ll keep an eye on her. What can you tell me about her?” Lash is totally engrossed now.
Washington goes on to explain how she met Jake. She explains that Jake is very talented, highly intelligent. She leaves nothing out. If she could have had Jake stay in LA, she would have.But, she just didn’t have the courage to take in another foster child.
She explains to Lash that five years earlier, she opened her home to a teenage girl caught up in tragic circumstances. It went well for about a year. Washington came home one afternoon to find the girl hanging in her room from a rope she had rigged up over her closet door. The note she left made it clear that she could not live with the pain anymore. No amount of talking or counseling would help the girl. She just had to end it, now. Washington was devastated.
“When Jake came along, I saw the same opportunity to help, and the same opportunity for hurt. I just couldn’t do it, Detective. I’m worried about her safety. Do you get it?”
Lash is speechless for several seconds after she finishes her story. He has no words. Finally he finds his footing. “I’ll keep more than an eye on her. I’ll watch her like a hawk. García and I will keep her close. Send me what you have, and we’ll get on it. If this Hernandez is in with the people I think he might be in with, it could be the break we’ve been waiting for, Sergeant,” he says.
“I just sent it to your e-mail, Detective. His record and an old photo. I included the stuff from his juvie file that is supposed to be sealed. You need to see everything about this one. He’s bad news. Stay in touch.”
“You’ll be with us every step, Washington,” he promises and hangs up.
Lash notes the time—nearly lunch. He opens his e-mail and checks the info on Juan Antonio Hernandez. His sheet of offenses is long and filled with many violations of the California Criminal Code. Lash sends a copy of Juan’s photo to the printer and forwards the file to García and Dax.
He gets up, grabs the photo off the printer, and strolls out to the parking lot as the bell rings. Students leave the buildings. Some head to the small cafeteria, but most head for their cars or the cars of friends to make a run to the fast-food stops near the airport. He sees Jake. She exits the Nut Hut and moves to the parking lot. Alberto is close behind. They go to his car. He opens the door for her and then gets in the other side.
Well, well, Jake has a friend, Lash thinks as he gets into his unmarked squad car to follow the couple.
22. Los Angeles, California
Knock, knock, knock. Hard knuckles on a hard door. He’s seated behind the large desk. He removes his reading glasses, stands, puts on his expensive Italian suit jacket, and speaks.
“Come,” he says, and another man enters the lavishly appointed office that looks out at the Pacific Ocean from west Los Angeles.
“We have found him,” The Man says gravely.
“Where?” the Italian Suit asks.
“Boise, Idaho. We have people there. Should I have them take care of it?”
“No, the car thief he killed was one of my sister’s relatives. This is personal. This man, his name?”
“Hernandez. Juan Antonio Hernandez.”
The Italian Suit strokes his chin in contemplation.
“This man asks to be made an example of. I will do this personally,” The Suit says.
“Car or plane?” The Man asks.
“The plane might be a little too hightone for Boise. We’ll drive and then go to Vegas afterward for a little relaxation. Get the cars ready. We’ll leave tomorrow morning,” The Suit orders. The Man nods without speaking and backs quickly out of the room and closes the door.
23. Boise, Idaho
Love, what a hoax. I’ve seen people who believe they’re in love. It goes on for a while and then falls apart. All I know for sure is that everything I’ve ever loved has been taken away from me. Love is for idiots. Love can only hurt.
“Where are we going for lunch?” I ask as Alberto eases his car onto Orchard Street and drives us north.
“We have a McDonald’s that looks like the old ones from the sixties. You know, the golden arches coming out of the building. I really like it, and it’s sort of a gearhead hangout,” he tells me as he turns left on Victory Road, heading west.
“Yeah, I moved here to eat Happy Meals. Don’t you people have any local places that are unique to Boise?” I ask, a little disappointed that my first lunch date is ending up at Mac’s Steak House.
“There are lots of those. The best ones are downtown or by the university. The traffic is tough at lunch, but I’ll take you on the weekend when we have more time.”
He thinks I’m offended. I pick up on it and feel a little ashamed. He’s trying to be a friend—maybe more—and I’m putting him down.
“Hey, I’m sorry. Mac’s is perfect, and anywhere we go in this car is okay with me,” I say, knowing I’m overdoing it a little now. I have no skills with boys.
“No, really, we can go downtown. I don’t think we can make it back before the bell, though,” he tells me. I can see he really wants to impress me.
“Let’s do Mac’s today and maybe something special this weekend. Okay?” I try to use an assuring tone.
“Deal,” he says.
He reaches over and squeezes my hand and turns north on Cole Road.
I’m not ready for this. Glad I have my shades on so he doesn’t catch the surprise in my eyes. Just to be sure, I turn my head to the right and glance outside. He’s still holding my hand, and that’s okay with me. I look into the mirror on my side and see two cars behind us. One is a car I recognize from the school parking lot, a student’s car. The other is for sure an unmarked police car. Spotting cops and gangbangers is a survival skill I developed years ago. I avoid both if I can.
“There’s a cop behind us,” I say as naturally as commenting on the weather.
“I know. It’s Detective Lash from school. He’s probably just heading to lunch like we are,” Alberto observes as he lets go of my hand, reaches over the dash, and turns on his radar detector.
“Do you like him?” I ask. “I mean, I’ve seen you talking to him.” I place my hand back on his shifter so he can find it.
“He’s a car guy. He has some POS old Chevy Camaro he messes around with. We talk cars, that’s all,” he confides.
“What’s a POS Camaro? Is that some real hot car?” I am totally clueless.
Alberto nearly snorts; he’s laughing so hard. “No, chica, a POS is a piece of…of…ah…” he stammers, trying to find the right word or a substitute for it.
“Oh, okay, I get it. So it’s a piece of stuff,” I say, trying to help him out. He laughs louder.
“Sí, Jake, a big piece of stuff,” he adds. He finds my hand and gives it another squeeze.
I see the McDonald’s coming up on the other side of the interstate bridge. It is cool. It does look like the old ones, and there are all sorts of sweet cars parked around it and coming and going. Some of the drivers honk and wave to us as they recognize Alberto and his car. I have to admit I’m liking this—liking it a lot. We enter the drive-through.
“What do you want, Jake? It’s on me today,” Alberto says.
“You’ll laugh,” I tell him.
“No, I won’t. What do you want?” he persists.
“I want a Happy Meal with a cheeseburger and a Coke, please,” I say, waiting for the criticism. It doesn’t come.
“Welcome to McDonald’s. Would you like to try a chicken-bacon wrap today? May I take your order, please?” the metallic voice says from the menu board.
“No wraps. Could we please have two Happy Meals with cheeseburgers and Cokes?” Alberto asks.
“Is everything on the screen correct?” the voice asks.
“Looks good. Thanks,” Alberto says, and we head to Window One to pay.
“You didn’t have to do that to make me feel better,” I say.
“Do what?” he says in total deadpan.
“Order a Happy Meal just because I did,” I say. I feel a little anger rising in me now. I think he’s mocking me.
“I always get Happy Meals,” he says, looking at me without laughing.
“Do not,” I challenge him as we pull up to Window Two and get our drinks.
The girl goes back for the little houses that shelter our lunch, so we wait a minute—a long, silent minute.
“Why do you get Happy Meals?” he asks.
I’m suddenly off-balance. I have to think up an answer. Luckily, the window opens, and he has to take our lunch. He hands a box to me, and we look for some shade to park under.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he persists. “Why do you like Happy Meals?”
I decide to tell him the truth.
“It was for my little brother, Roberto. I would get them for the toys and apple slices. It was fun to give him mine. It made him very…well, happy,” I confide.
I’m now on the verge of tears. Why the hell did I tell the truth? I should have just made something up. But I feel safe with Alberto. Maybe that’s why I can speak this way to him.
“Where’s your little brother now? Still in South Gate?” he asks. He seems concerned, seeing that I’m getting choked up.
“Yes, he’s still there with my mama,” I turn to look at him. “Alberto, they were killed there in a gang shooting. I lost my whole family there.” My eyes water.
I drop the toy from the Happy Meal back into the box. I take off my glasses to wipe my eyes. I look at Alberto and see my pain in his eyes. We move into each other’s arms. I cry a little but not like I used to. It’s time, like Washington told me. It never stops hurting, but time lets you make peace with the loss, lets you find a place for it in your life.
“I’m sorry, Jake. I didn’t know anything. Really. No one knows anything about that,” he assures me.
“I don’t talk about it, Alberto. I have nightmares, and sometimes I wake up screaming. I want to get that night out of my head, but I don’t want to forget Mamá and Roberto. Can you understand that, Alberto?” I ask. I hope I don’t scare him away.
“Yes, Jake. I wouldn’t want to have those bad memories taking the place of my mother and brother,” Alberto sympathizes.
I want to change the subject to something we can smile about. I gently move away, wipe my eyes, and replace my glasses.
“Okay, your turn. Why do you order Happy Meals, Alberto?” He blushes and waits a moment to answer.
“I have four nieces and two nephews. When I visit, they expect gifts. So I invented El Tio Al’s treasure chest,” he says.
He reaches over and opens the storage console on the dashboard of the car.
“Que Padre! Alberto, this is wonderful. You have forty or more prizes in there!”
“Forty-one now,” he says and drops a Minion into the mix of gifts.
I laugh, feeling really good and light as a feather. “Make that forty-two,” I say as I toss my Minion onto the pile.
We laugh, our hands touch, and suddenly, like the strike of a bolt of lightning, our lips are together, our tongues are touching, and we’re grabbing at each other and don’t want to let go. There’s pulling and touching and kissing and hugging. Finally, we run out of breath, and it ends.
My hair is tousled more than usual. My glasses are fogged up and sit crooked on my nose. I feel like a million volts of electricity just went through me from my lips to the tips of my toes. I sit on my side of the car, not sure what just happened. Alberto is silent, staring straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles white.
“We need to get back to school,” he says and starts the car.
I put my hand on his, which is resting on the gear shift.
“We need to talk about what just happened.”
“What did just happen?” he asks, not sure how to react and respond. He pulls his hand away.
“We kissed, Alberto. But it wasn’t one of those weak little I-want-to-get-to-know-you kisses.”
“Then what was it?”
I’m a little disappointed, because it was special. Then, I realize he’s as scared as I am. Of course, this is all based on my very limited experience with guys.
“That was the real thing, Alberto.”
“We need to think about this, Jake. I mean, I want to get to know you and everything.” He thinks about what he just said and laughs. “You’re right. That wasn’t a get-to-know-you kiss. It’s new for me, Jake.”
I cover his hand on the shifter with mine as he puts the car into gear and say, “It’s all new for me too, Alberto.” I smile at him.
He’s beaming and nodding his head. We burn rubber out of the parking lot. “Jake, you want to go to the car meet on Friday?” he asks.
“What’s a car meet?”
“Just a bunch of gearheads getting together to talk cars and maybe race a little.”
I know what car meets are. The boys in South Gate are world famous for some of the biggest and fastest meets. There’s racing, fights, guns, and always police sooner or later. I don’t want to go, and I don’t want Alberto going either, but it isn’t my place.
“I’m spending time with my sister, Maribel, Alberto. We’re getting to know each other. Why don’t you skip the cars and come have dinner with us?” I try.
“Ah, chica, I have to help some of the guys with their ECUs, the little computers I reprogram. They’re paying me, so I have to be there. It’s okay. Maybe next week, huh?” he says, letting me off the hook.
“Yeah, maybe next week.” I hold his hand, listen to the music, put my head back in the seat, and find some real peace for the first time in a long while.
24. Boise, Idaho
“Tamir, it’s astounding. I’ve never seen scores like this before,” Cynthia Goldwasser reports to her colleague.
“What’s the possibility she’s a plant or some sort of phantom?” he asks.
“Nil. I believe she’s the real deal.”
“What assessments did she take?” he asks.
“I gave her the Microsoft pretest for all the popular applications. She finished it in about fifteen minutes. Most college students take an hour. She aced it! I gave her the course post-test, which is tougher than the actual certification test, and she scored perfect on it too!”
“How long did it take her to complete that test?” he asks.
“Oh, it was a struggle. She spent almost twenty minutes on a test most students don’t complete during the two-hour time limit,” Goldwasser says.
“Then what did you do?”
“That’s why I’m calling you. I overstepped. I was so intrigued that I gave her the level-one battery. She passed with the highest score that I have ever recorded.”
“I see that. The scores just came across my screen. She scored higher than you, Cynthia,” he notes with some delight.
“Don’t get too light-headed about that. I want permission to begin a level-two assessment. I believe she may be a special find.”
“Permission granted,” Timar Pardo, the top man at Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Agency, says. “Be sure to follow all our protocols. I understand your enthusiasm, but remember, she is a young woman, and from what you tell me, she is not politically motivated at all. She is essentially just a bright star who follows her own orbit. Proceed with caution, Cynthia.”
“Understood, I am excited about her. I may have to endear myself to her with some gifts. She comes from a humble home,” Goldwasser indicates.
“Whatever you need, Cynthia. Like I said, follow protocol, and we’ll be in the clear. Just don’t make any waves in the pond. Others are watching closely. We would not want to lose Miss Palomera to the opposition,” he cautions.
“I’ll be in touch. Thanks,” she says.
25. Boise, Idaho
“I can’t get past it. We photographed every inch of that place and every person coming and going from the Junkyard Jungle for the past two days. Nothing, nada, zilch! If they’re players in the car thefts, they are totally cool about it,” García reports to the other officers present.
Dax picks up her thread. “Cassidy and I looked at all the video and still photos, and you’re right. They’re clean. This looks really good, Ginger, but we just don’t have anything we can use to get a warrant and go inside the lot.”
Everyone is uncomfortably silent.
“It’s numbers!” Lash finally throws out.
“What, whaddya mean?” García questions.
He looks around the room and sees a bunch of dejected cops waiting for something. “Well, for example, we know how many cars are missing with no trace. That’s a flag. We’re missing the method they’re using to move the cars, right?”
“Yes! We’ve been unable to figure that out, Nick. That’s why we’re all so frustrated,” Dax says. He throws a report book across the room, crosses his arms, and stares at Lash.
“Okay, Dax. I’m not pointing fingers, but here’s my point. Every car in the United States becomes a number from the day it’s made until it’s scrapped out in some salvage yard, right?”
“Sure, vehicle identification numbers, invoice numbers, license plate numbers, lots of numbers, so what?” Dax asks, intrigued.
“So we need some people who can move numbers around and find the numbers we’re missing,” he offers.
“You have any ideas?” Dax asks.
“I do. I’m going to have to get some civilian access to the NCIC and DMV databases in Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, and here too,” he requests, suddenly realizing what he wants.
Dax studies Lash closely for a moment. “Detective, I can give you the access information for the DMVs. These days, anyone with a credit card can get about the same information we can. NCIC is another matter. That’s federal. I don’t have the authority to grant access to it.”
Lash considers this. “Okay, how about García and I screen all the requests going to NCIC? We’ll put them through using our names and ID.”
“Just who are these civilians?” Dax asks.
Lash smiles and glances toward García.
“Oh, no way!” she says, wide-eyed in disbelief.
“I’m telling ya’, I know what they can do. They’re geniuses,” he reassures the others.
“Who are these geniuses?” Dax inquires.
“Where have I been banished to for the last thirty days, Dax?” Lash responds with his own question.
“No way, Lash!” he objects.
“That school has more computing power than Boise State, and the people there know how to use it,” Lash argues.
“Okay, well, sure. I’ll just throw open the gates to the nation’s crime database to a bunch of malcontent teenagers who all have behavioral issues as well as IQs higher than my weight, which is considerable,” he states, contemplating his middle-aged girth.
“It’s just an idea. They’re brilliant, and they love a challenge. At least the ones I’ve met do,” Lash says, thinking he’s hit a dead end.
The room is silent again as Dax paces and trades glances between the stolen car board and Nick Lash. He stops, and his gaze settles on Lash.
“How many students, and how much time?” Dax asks.
“If their instructor agrees, there will be only five students involved. If they can’t develop a plan in two days, then I’ll pull the plug. I don’t even know if they’ll work with us on this. Those people are in that school for a reason, and it ain’t because they’re dumb,” Lash adds.
“García, you up for this?” Dax asks, looking at her for reassurance.
Ginger García bites her lower lip and thinks. She glances at Lash, sees the resolve in his eyes, and then looks to Dax. “Absolutely. If forty-eight hours gets us closer to cracking this thing open, then I’m all in.”
Dax gets pensive and looks back at their crime board showing hundreds of stolen cars and very few leads. He particularly looks at the picture of the NSX, for which he feels responsible. “Okay, you two are being freelanced, starting now. Keep us in the loop, and we’ll see where we stand at the close of business on Thursday,” he commands.
Nick Lash touches the “call” button on his iPhone. Stephanie Knowles answers. “Boise Learning Unit for Exceptional Students, how may I direct your call?”
“Steph, it’s Lash. Could you connect me with Cindy Goldwasser, please?”
26. Boise, Idaho
Mamá always told me, “You’re known by the company you keep.” That never made a lot of sense until now. I like my new friends. I like my new school, but I’m not sure I like this new situation.
“So that’s what we’re after,” Ginger García tells us.
“Let me try to get my head around this,” Will interjects. “You need us to build an algorithm that will sort and compare thousands, make that hundreds of thousands, of vehicle identification numbers from five different states, auto auctions, car dealers, and salvage yards. Then reduce the list down to any numbers that duplicate, or just appear to be suspect somehow. Do I understand the basic structure of the issue?” he asks.
I see Lash looking at García for help.
“Yes, Will. We’re trying to locate several hundred, possibly thousands of stolen cars,” she explains. “The thing is, none of these cars are showing up anywhere. This means—”
“Which means,” I pick up García’s train of thought and go with it, “the thieves are hiding the cars, more accurately, masking them somehow. They’re hiding them in plain sight, right, Detective?” I state more than ask.
I notice García and Lash trade looks again and smile.
“Okay, Detective Jake. What do you think they’re doing?” García asks.
“Hey, don’t hang that on me. I have a rep to protect,” I tell her.
That breaks the ice a little, and everyone laughs.
“Sorry, Jake. No harm intended, chica,” García says.
She does it with an exaggerated Mexican accent, and I laugh because I know we were both born in the United States.
“Yeah, you’re about as Mex as a slice of apple pie, Detective,” I kid her.
Everyone laughs again.
“Well, first off, you can call me Ginger, and this is Nick,” she tells us with a nod toward Lash.
“Ginger? How does a fine Latina get a name like Ginger?” José jumps in.
“My papa was a chef. I have two sisters, and we all got named after seasonings. I’m Ginger, and there’s Saffron and Cayenne,” García tells us.
“Hey, can I meet Cayenne? I’ll bet she’s muy caliente,” Will contends, which draws an angry glare from Liz.
“She’s married and has three kids older than you, mi hijo.”
Will takes in Liz’s stare, lowers his head, and immediately shuts up.
Alberto gives José a light elbow jab in the ribs. The two share a knowing glance and chuckle.
“Back to our problem,” I say, trying to refocus everyone. “We are dealing with a very simple piece of work. The real issue is the databases we have to coordinate. It isn’t a problem of comparing and sorting the cars’ ID numbers. That’s simple. It’s pulling all this data into one pool we can swim in, right, Ginger?”
“That’s a big part of it. But once we get there and can compare the matches, what does it mean? This could be very complicated once we actually have a group of identification numbers to work with. We need that list to start with. What do you think? Are you game?” she asks us.
I look at Alberto, and our eyes meet. Will looks to Liz. She can’t connect. José looks at all of us, waiting. Then something cool happens. Liz stands and steps forward.
“Could you give us a few minutes to talk this over?” she asks García.
Liz is taking the point.
“Sure, we’ll step out. You discuss it. Let us know,” García says.
García and Lash rise and leave the room.
It’s so quiet I can hear the whir of the disk drives.
Will speaks first. “If it gets out, we’ll be person…person…ah, what am I trying to say?” he begs Liz with a glance.
“We’ll be persona non grata. Your Latin sucks, but you’re right. We’ll be total outcasts,” she agrees.
“Aren’t we already outcasts?” José observes, and we all laugh.
“You mean we’d be the outcasts of the outcasts. We’d be so far out there, we’d get our own zip code,” Alberto jokes.
But it’s no joke. I’ve been isolated and shunned in the past by people I go to school with and live around. It’s lonely, and sometimes it can be dangerous. But the challenge this offers is hard to pass up.
“It is a really cool problem to work out. Think about all the code we’d write, and we’ll have to pull together and work as a team.” Will is talking as if we’re going to do this thing.
“Jake, what do you think?” Alberto asks me.
“I don’t like cops. I don’t like gangs. I pretty much avoid it all. But it is a cool problem.” I’m thinking out loud now. “If they can keep it quiet, and everyone agrees, I’ll do it,” I say. “What about you, Liz?” I ask.
She smiles at me and then looks away. “You guys are my friends. I’ve never had seriously good friends. If I’m going to be an outcast, then this is the island I want to be on,” she says as she turns her great smile back on and beams at us.
“Let’s vote,” Will says. We go around the room, and it’s unanimous we’re going to help Lash and García.
“Want me to go get them?” Alberto asks.
“Let them chill for a minute,” Will says. “José, what’s the biggest problem you see here?”
“I think it’s that we’re going to try and tie all these databases together,” he offers.
“Yeah, and they’re all government databases, and we know that means—” Alberto says.
“That means they were all built by the lowest bidder,” Will finishes Alberto’s thought.
Our gazes come together like five cars in a head-on collision.
“They’re cruddy! They’re junk!” Liz exclaims.
“That could be good and bad, a hacker’s dream,” José says.
“Cheap is cheap,” I say, thinking about when I hacked my old school’s system.
“And we’re not hacking. Sorry, Jake, we’re analyzing. We’re going in the front door this time. We have the keys to the kingdom,” Liz points out.
“All right, bring the cops in, Alberto,” Will says.
Alberto opens the door and waves a hand. I stand up and step next to Liz. Lash and García come back in and take seats. We’re all turned with our backs to the workstations and looking at Will in the center of the room.
“We’re all in,” he tells the cops. “But we have a couple of conditions.”
“Okay, what do you need?” García asks.
“Anonymity,” Liz insists. “We do this behind a curtain.”
“Like the Wizard of Oz,” Will adds.
José stands next to Will and says, “But we’re not comin’ out from behind the curtain. We’re ghosts.”
García smiles. She has her own ghosts now.
“We’ve never been here. Don’t know anything about this,” Alberto adds.
“You get it, detectives? We can help, but no one knows it’s us. We are totally off the books,” I say just to get us all on the same page.
“Your involvement in this is totally off the books. And yes, I get it,” Lash speaks to us for the first time. “We’re asking you to work for a law-enforcement agency. That’s not very attractive for a bunch of people who generally revolt against and resist the established authority structure.”
I see García give him a gentle nudge in the ribs. She wants him to chillax.
“Only this time, we’re not asking you to comply,” García tells us. “We don’t want you to follow the rules. We’re asking you to use every skill you have to help us solve this problem. If you have to break some rules, oh well…”
“Know all the rules well, so you may break them efficiently,” I say.
“That’s profound. Who said it?” Lash asks.
“Obama,” Liz chides.
Lash, a little concerned now, looks at García. “You sure about this, Ginger?”
“Gotcha, Nick. It was Dalai Lama,” Alberto reveals.
“Pizza’s on you, Nick,” Will piles on.
Lash gets it and smiles. We’re way ahead of him, and he knows it.
“But before you go, we’ll need a lot of information regarding access to the databases we’re going to use,” I say.
“García has it all. You’ll have open access to all the DMV databases. If you need information from the National Crime Information Center, it has to go through us, but don’t hesitate to ask. We have a short timeline to put this together, so if you have questions, ask,” Lash tells us.
“How short of a timeline?” I hear Will ask.
Lash takes a deep breath and looks at us. “Forty-eight hours,” he confesses.
“Estas loco?” José implores.
“José is right. That’s not enough time,” Alberto agrees.
I think he’s worried about where this might lead and whom it might lead to. He’s really involved in the car scene.
I know Alberto is concerned, but I can’t resist this challenge. “No, Nick’s okay,” I hear myself saying. “We just need to chunk the work.”
“She’s right,” Liz agrees.
I see Lash breathe a sigh of relief.
Liz moves to the computer that controls the Promethean board. “We have two main issues,” she says. She begins to build a flowchart for us on the board. “We have five state databases—Utah, Nevada, Oregon, California, and Idaho—which will feed our main database. Agreed?” she asks, and we all nod.
“Then we have the piece we’re building. It needs a name. Ideas?”
There’s some talk. Mumbling. I hear “The Blue Hole,” from José.
Bad, I think.
Alberto offers, “The Smurf Poo.”
Worse, but funny.
“How about Blues Clues?” Will contributes.
I like it! I really like it, but this dog will have teeth, I think.
“That’s sick! It may lead to some copyright problems, but for now that’s it!” Liz confirms.
“No! Not Blues Clues but Blues Cluz, with a Z,” Alberto says.
“Snap,” Will compliments.
“Oh yeah, wicked bad,” José adds, grabbing Alberto’s hand and doing that weird double-slap-on-the-back thing guys do.
“This is gonna be sick. We divide the work like this. Each one of us takes a state and figures out how to feed the data to Blues Cluz. One of us builds Blues Cluz. Sound good?” Liz asks the group.
“And who gets the honor of creating Blues Cluz?” Alberto asks as he turns toward me.
“That’s a no-brainer. Who’s the total tool?” José says, looking at me.
“Chill out, chaparrito,” I tell him with a smile.
“Okay, that’s it then. We split the states. You build Blues Cluz. Agreed?” Liz asks The Team and looks at me.
“Works for me,” Alberto says.
José follows. “Me too. I’m down.”
“Couldn’t be in better hands and brains,” Will agrees.
I’m silent for a moment. “Thanks, guys. I won’t let you down.”
“No worries. We’re going to do this as a team, as The Team,” Liz says.
She does a little cheerleader thing, wraps an arm around me, and gives me a hug. This is very odd for Liz. Will doesn’t miss it, and he smiles at us.
“Nick, you need to get pizza, and we need to get to work,” García jokes.
“Any vegetarians?” he asks distractedly.
We start to engage. He turns to García. There’s a serious look on his face. It’s weird how some people can move so quickly from one mind-set to another. They walk a safe distance away and turn their backs to us. Now I’m curious. They speak in hushed tones, but I manage to hear part of the conversation.
“I need to tell you before I go—remember that flyer we got from the Drug Enforcement Administration about a month ago?” he asks.
“The one about drugs being smuggled in shipments of car parts?” García confirms.
“That’s it. I was the department’s contact then. They’re sure that the salvaged car parts that arrived in Israel originated here. There were no ID numbers on the parts, but they were able to trace them through the shipping documents.”
“How much coke was in the shipment?”
“Over thirty kilos. The smugglers stashed it in the drive shafts. Pretty clever. The customs officials would never have looked at the parts, except they just happened to have a drug dog at the airport, and guess what? The puppy had to pee. Guess what he peed on?”
They both laugh; I can’t hold it in. A snort sneaks out. García stares at me with that “you’re busted” look. The two cops move to a far corner to continue their discussion. But now I know that there’s more to this than stolen cars.
Away from prying ears, the cops talk.
“That’s just stupid luck. How many times have they missed these shipments coming in?” García wonders aloud.
“About as many times as we missed them going out,” he says.
“I’m getting a weird feeling about it. There may be more to our missing cars than we think.”
“Also, you spoke to Grace Washington, right?” he asks her.
“Yeah, it was all about Jake and this Juan Antonio creep.”
“He may have ties to the drug cartels and be involved with car theft. Just a lot of pieces starting to fall into place, Ginger,” he says.
García frowns and nods in agreement. She turns and looks up into Lash’s clear blue eyes. He stands more than a foot taller than her.
“Barbecue chicken with jalapeños,” she tells him.
“What?” he asks before he gets lost in the gaze of her beautiful brown eyes.
García raises her voice and crosses her arms. The commotion distracts everyone for a moment.
“Barbecue chicken with jalapeños. That’s the kind of pizza I want,” she says.
“That’s not pizza. That’s just so wrong in so many ways,” Lash protests.
“Hey, that’s good stuff, Jefe. Make mine Hawaiian with extra cheese,” José requests.
“Pepperoni,” I add.
“I’m your veg-head. I’ll have mushroom, onion, and red pepper, please,” Liz puts in her order.
“Thank you for saying, please. At least one genius here has manners,” Lash chides.
We don’t hear him. We’re all digging into the problem. This is what we live for—doing something that hasn’t been done. Don’t bore us with everyday applications and stuff anyone can do. Give us a challenge and let us loose. Lash and García continue their conversation.
“I’ll go to Flying Pie for the food. Should be back in an hour.”
“Okay, I’ll keep things going here. Don’t think it’ll be too tough,” she says.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Lash says.
“They’re an incredible group of young people,” García agrees.
Lash nods and leaves the small computer lab. As he moves through the main classroom, he notices someone is watching him. He turns and meets the stare of Mario Morales, a senior and wannabe in the JDM car scene. Lash says more with a glance than most people do with a paragraph. His glance clearly tells Mario that he’s on Lash’s radar. Mario looks away as if he’s seen something foreboding, something dangerous. Lash heads out into the midday sun.
Mario waits for Lash to get to his car and then heads for the door as he makes a call.
27. Caldwell, Idaho
Cars, cars are what these guys are all about—built, bought, or stolen. Mario is driving a vintage Skyline R34 GTR and pulls up alongside the slammed BMW E34 station wagon Juan is driving. The two cars are fantastic examples of the craftsmanship the JDM car crowd savors. Unlike big American muscle cars and the sleek, high-priced metal from Europe, there are no boundaries to the type of car that can be worked into something unique by these mechanics. Sometimes, the more mundane the car’s origin, the better. Mario and Juan park the cars driver’s side to driver’s side in the vacant, urban parking lot on South Ninth in Caldwell.
“Qué pasa, Mario? It’s getting harder to find a place that cameras can’t see into. So what do you have for me?” Juan Antonio asks the driver of the Skyline.
“I’m not sure. There’s something going on at the school. Two cops showed up there today. The usual guy, the big gringo, was there, and he brought a little Mexican deputy chic with him.”
“So what could that mean to us?” Juan questions.
“They had a meeting with Miss Goldwasser and then took five students into one of the small computer labs. One of them was Alberto. I introduced him to you at the last meet,” Mario says.
“You think they’re onto us, Mario?” the thug asks.
“I don’t know. Alberto talks to the big cop a lot. I don’t know what they’re talking about. I think we should chill for a while,” Mario says nervously.
“El Patrón will not be pleased. We need that information you get from the motor vehicles department, and we need the labels you make for us, Mario. He will not be pleased at all,” Juan warns.
“I know. But I think they’re onto something. That big cop sometimes looks at me as if he knows what’s up,” Mario pleads.
“Like he knows something about you or he knows something about us, Mario?” Juan accuses.
“I haven’t even talked to him. He’s never tried to talk to me. He doesn’t know anything about me, Juan,” Mario affirms.
“Okay, Mario. You want to chill for a little while, so I’ll tell the boss. But remember, he gives you that nice ride, and he pays cash for the services you provide. If those services are cut off for a while, he might find someone else.”
The threat is clear.
“It won’t be long, Juan. I promise. I’ll find out what they’re doing and get things going again in a couple of days,” he implores.
“It’s okay, Mario. Don’t worry. You’re probably right to be careful,” Juan says, falsely comforting him.
“Thank you, Juan. Gracias, amigo.” Mario is relieved.
“Mario, who are the students the cops are working with?”
“There’s Alberto. This new kid, Jake Palomera. Then there’s José Torres, Liz Olsen, and Will O’Brien,” Mario says.
“I only know Alberto. Maybe I’ll have a little talk with him and help you find out what they’re doing. He’s got some hot ECUs to deliver on Friday, right?” Juan asks, already sure of the answer.
“Sí, he has four of them. One is mine,” Mario adds.
“Okay, I’ll see what Romero wants to do, but I think I already know. I might need you to ask Alberto to meet you somewhere before Friday. You’ll tell him you have another friend who wants some ECUs programmed. You’ll do that for me, Mario, sí.” It isn’t a question.
“Yes, if that’s what you want, I’ll do it,” Mario says submissively.
Juan nods and smiles. He puts his car in gear, revs the motor, and heads back to the salvage yard. He takes his new burner out of his shirt pocket and calls Romero.
Juan feels as if he’s moving forward very fast in Boise, Idaho. He wants to be Romero’s right-hand man. For that to happen, Frankie must go. That’s what Juan wants. That’s what he wants to make happen. This may be his big opportunity.
Mario sits quietly for a minute, suddenly realizing what he’s just done. He’s made a decision, and now he has to live with it. Mario has always wanted things like cars, clothes, and computers.
He never had much money until he met Juan about two months ago. Juan knows Mario is able to create fake vehicle identification tags using the computers at the school. To befriend himself, Juan bought Mario a special printer and a new computer so Mario could work from home. He also has been providing Mario with some cash on the side. Juan knows Mario is vital to Romero’s operation. Mario’s skills have paid for many things he isn’t even aware of.
Romero now relies on Mario’s fake tags to help cover his trail of stolen cars. Mario doesn’t know what the fake tags are used for. He may not be aware of many things Romero and Juan do, but he is aware of two things—he is in very deep with these people, and now, he is in very deep with Juan Antonio Hernandez.
Mario and Alberto are not close friends, but they’ve known each other for years. Mario now sees the mistake he made and knows there’s nothing he can do to change it. He just sold Alberto out for a car and a few dollars.
Mario sticks his head out the window of the car Romero gave him and vomits down the side of the vintage Skyline GTR.
28. Caldwell, Idaho
Romero broodingly considers the situation and the information Juan has shared and then speaks to his trusted friend. “Frankie, you need to meet this Alberto guy. See what he knows, but be careful. He’s just a kid, and we don’t want to scare him back into the arms of some cop, comprendes?”
“Orale! I’ll be chilling. Do we want to offer him anything? You know he does programming for ECUs. We could throw some business his way,” Frankie says.
“Maybe. It’s your call. Get a feel for him and you decide,” Romero tells him.
This is a huge vote of confidence for Frankie. Romero never allows anyone else to bring people closer to the organization. This is a big opportunity.
“What about a partner? Do you want me to do this alone?” he asks the boss.
“I’ve thought it through. Juan Antonio brought this to us, so he should be there. I know we have doubts, but if he’s to be trusted, we need to check his information. Don’t forget, this Alberto guy may be a plant. If you feel anything is not right, you get out!” Romero directs.
“I will. This may be nothing. The cops are desperate, because we’ve done our jobs too well. They’re asking these school kids to help them. That tells us how much they want to catch us,” Frankie concludes.
“Desperate people are dangerous. If these cops are willing to break rules to get to us, then we have to be ready,” Romero says.
He opens a desk drawer and removes a handgun. Frankie stiffens.
“Take this, Frankie. Use it if you need it,” he says as he offers the Smith & Wesson.38 caliber revolver to his young lieutenant.
“Romero, we don’t carry weapons. I don’t carry weapons. If I get caught with a gun, my probation. Why do you want me to take this?” he asks.
“I’m worried about you. You are my good friend and trusted partner. You are a fiel campaňero. This appears to be a simple meeting, but I have concerns. There are many unknowns. This Alberto guy. Juan’s loyalty. I have a sense for these things. Just take the gun. Put it in your console, put it in your pocket, I don’t care. I just want you to have some protection. It’s a revolver, so if you use it, it won’t leave any shell casings behind,” the older man says.
“Okay, I’ll take it, but I won’t run into any trouble at this meeting,” Frankie contends.
“Have Juan set it up for tonight. Call me as soon as you’ve talked to this man. I mean, this boy,” Romero orders.
“Okay, I’ll get it done,” Frankie responds. He pulls out the cell from his pocket and calls Juan Antonio Hernandez.
Mario feels the vibration from his cell. He takes it from his pocket and looks at the caller ID. He does not like what he sees.
“Hola, Juan,” he responds with little enthusiasm.
“Mario, amigo, you don’t sound happy to hear from me. What’s up?”
Mario sits up and changes his tone. “Juan, I’m just tired. It’s always good to hear from you,” he lies.
“Okay, amigo. I need to talk to Alberto. Can you set it up for tonight?”
“Tonight! Juan, I don’t know. What do I tell him? When I talked to you earlier, you sounded like you were angry with Alberto.”
“I’m not angry. I have some ideas he can help us with. Tell him it’s business. That’s the truth. If he checks out and tells us what we want to know, we’ll send him more work than he can handle. Tell him that and have him meet us at the gravel pit off Wright Street,” Juan orders.
“That’s good. He’ll like that. Do I let him know that you’re worried about the cops?” Mario asks.
“No, Mario. Are you nuts? I want him to think he’s coming to us for a business deal. Part of the deal will be to let us know any information that could help us. If he holds back, we’ll know he’s with the cops,” Juan insists.
“All right. I’ll tell him you want to talk to him about ECUs and business. I’ll call you,” Mario confirms.
“Call me soon, Mario. Romero is waiting to hear,” he warns.
“As soon as I can, Juan.”
29. Boise, Idaho
I study those who have gone before me. I like to read their thoughts and try to learn. I’m in totally new territory here, so I seek wisdom from an unexpected source. She said, “A smart girl leaves before she is left.”
Alberto works on the DMV database for Nevada. He has figured out how to compress the entire list of identification numbers for millions of cars, trucks, and trailers into a compact file that can be uploaded to Blues Cluz. He shares his technique with the others.
“I’ve tried that, but the encryption is all wrong,” Liz says.
“It worked for part of the data, but then the whole thing stalled on me. We’re dipping into wells that haven’t been cleaned in years. These databases are built on technology that’s been around since the last century,” Will adds.
I laugh. It’s true. It’s hard to believe that our government is actually running on these worn-out old computer programs. This catches García off-balance because the last century was her century. We have no idea what life without the Internet is like.
“It will take time, but it’s all there, and we can use it. Ginger, can’t we just get all this information from NCIC?” I ask.
“No, NCIC works through the individual state databases on a case-by-case request. We have to do it this way. I wish it were easier, but the states just won’t work together on something like this,” García tells us.
“Then we’re it,” José confirms. “Has anyone considered the value of this program and what we could sell it for?” he adds.
“Spoken like a true capitalist. Jobs would be proud,” Ginger compliments him.
“Long live the king!” Will shouts from his workstation, thrusting his fist into the air as a salute.
We all applaud the memory of Steve Jobs and then just as fast dive back into our work.
I’m at the workstation next to Alberto and notice he’s distracted by the vibration of his phone. He takes it from his jacket pocket and looks at the text message. I grab a peek. Alberto, meet at the gravel pit at 7. More biz for u MM.
He texts back: K I’ll b there.
I want to know what’s up. I can’t just ask him because he hasn’t let me into that part of his life. I have to give him room and respect what he does. I can’t believe I’m even having these thoughts. This is stupid-sick. I’m falling for him.
It’s after six o’clock. The pizza is gone. Alberto stands and stretches. “Hey guys, I’ve got to do something. Okay if I bounce?” he casually asks the others.
“Sure, I think we’re all ready for a break. Whaddya say we stop for now and get started early tomorrow?” Liz offers.
“We have most of the databases ready to upload to Blues Cluz. I have some more tests to run on the program, but I think we’ll be ready by tomorrow afternoon,” I tell them.
“Hey, Will. Could you give Jake a ride home? I’ve got to do some car stuff, and it might take a while,” Alberto asks.
I’m a little PO’d. He could have checked with me first. I can get my own ride home. Who does think he is? My papa?
“No worries, Liz, and I have room. Okay with you, Jake?” Will asks me.
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” I say and turn back to my screen.
Alberto gets it.
“Hey, Jake, I’m sorry. I should have worked it out with you first. It’s just that something’s up, and I figured you’d be bored,” he tells me.
I know he means it. I can see it in his eyes and by the way he’s speaking. It’s car stuff, and I’m not into it. Maybe I should be into it because he is. I stand and walk over to him and babam, it happens again. We embrace and kiss in front of everyone. This, of course, brings on a wave of whistles, yells, and basically immature reactions from all our friends. It’s great.
“Go do your car stuff. I’ll go home. I have some more things to work out for Blues Cluz. I can do that tonight,” I tell him as he looks into my eyes and smiles.
“If I get done early enough, I’ll get us shakes from Goody’s, okay?” he promises me.
“Strawberry,” I say and give him another hug.
“Strawberry? Who likes strawberry shakes?” he says, rolling his beautiful brown eyes at me.
“You’re right. Make it a strawberry malt. And hey, I heard the cops talking about drugs. There may be more to this than we know. You be careful.” I tilt my head to one side and bat my eyes just a little. I’m getting the hang of this. He liquefies. I own him.
“Deal,” he says. “Thanks, Will.” He waves and heads to the parking lot.
I watch him walk out and turn back to close out my station. Will, Liz, and José are standing and staring at me. I can feel it on my back.
“What?” I say without turning to them.
“We had no clue,” Liz says.
“It just started. I’m still trying to understand it,” I admit to her.
“Looks like you understand it pretty good to me,” José adds with raised eyebrows.
I smile and swivel in my chair to face them.
“Hey, I don’t know what’s happening. I just know that it’s not like anything else that’s ever happened to me,” I tell them.
They all smile. José starts to whistle the wedding march. Liz and I share a knowing glance and a smile. She gets it! Liz knows what I’m feeling. This is a big day for more than one reason. Tomorrow will be even bigger.
They turn and head back to their stations to finish up. It’s weird, but I feel relieved that the others know. I don’t feel like the new kid anymore. I feel like I’m part of The Team. I feel like I have good friends, and for the first time in my life, I know someone who is way closer than a friend. I have to catch my breath.
There’s something else. I see what Blues Cluz is becoming. Writing code, building programs—it’s a lot like baking. You put it all in, mix it together, and turn up the heat. What comes out may be exactly what you expected, or it may be something else entirely. Somehow we have created something that is incredibly powerful.
I will put the finishing touches on it tonight. I will write the code that makes this program run. It’s mine. I designed it. I managed its development. I created this. It’s mine, and it will be more than anyone expected.
30. Boise, Idaho
It’s near seven o’clock on a Wednesday night. The fall sun is setting to the west of the city. The mountains to the east are a study in contrast as light and shadow contrive to paint an ever-changing landscape from minute to minute. The scent is clean and clear. The bold blaze of ruby red sun signals that fair weather may be expected tomorrow.
Alberto turns his car into the old gravel pit just across the street from BLUES. The sunlight has already passed over the quarry. As he descends into darkness, he sees one other car parked in the deep pit. He pulls up next to Juan’s BMW. He sees Juan and Frankie approaching as he parks his car, shuts off the ignition, and gets out.
“Que onda, Alberto,” Juan says as he gets near.
“Hola, Juan Antonio, cómo estás?” he greets.
“Bien, chido, gracias. This is Frankie. I don’t think you’ve met before.” Juan makes the introductions, and they shake hands all around.
“So Mario says you might have some work for me?” Alberto asks.
“Carnal, we are impressed with your skills in programming. Do you know about the event data recorders?” Frankie asks.
“Yes, the black boxes. They gather all sorts of data and contain the history of the car,” Alberto says.
“They also hold the car’s identification information. Do you think you could change it, if you had access?” Frankie asks.
Alberto is smart and street savvy. Changing a car’s identification number is a felony. He has to be cautious here.
“I can work with the ECU data because it’s meant to be changed. The data in the black box is supposed to be read only. I don’t have the kind of software that would let me change it,” he says, playing dumb.
“Well, think about it. If you want some of the recorders to work on, I’ll get them for you,” Frankie offers with a smile.
“Thanks. I can always try, right?” Alberto confirms.
“Sure, but we have another question for you,” Juan steps in. “We have been told that you and some other people at the school are doing some work for the cops.”
“Who told you that? Mario? We aren’t working for the cops.” Alberto objects way too quickly and with way too much passion.
“We know that you and at least four others have been in a computer lab for most of the day. We also know that there were two cops with you. What are you doing in there, Alberto?” Juan asks point-blank with a menacing tone.
Alberto is scared. These two creeps know too much about what The Team is doing. How did they find out? He panics and the words start pouring out.
“It’s a computer program. They want us to build a computer program that sorts vehicle identification numbers. It’s just an assignment,” he tells the thugs.
“That’s nothing. They can do that already. Why do they want your help?” Frankie asks.
Alberto is freaked out. He can’t think about what he’s saying.
“The databases in the different states don’t work together. They want us to bring all the information into one big database so they can sort it,” he tells them.
“Why? What are they after, Alberto?”
Juan pushes in and bumps Frankie aside. Alberto recoils from Juan’s expression, feeling the malicious intent of the man. Frankie comes back hard and shoves Juan away, showing his own domination. Juan is angry now. Frankie doesn’t care, as he sticks a warning finger in Juan’s face and fires a danger-filled look at him. Juan backs down, for the moment.
“Look, Alberto, you’re great with the ECUs. You make good money. Would you like to make more?” Frankie asks, knowing the answer.
“Sure, I’m always looking for more work. I always do a good job,” Alberto agrees. He breathes and feels a little more at ease.
“We can help you with more customers for your programming business. But when we recommend someone, we need to know that person is a solid guy, a compadres, sí. I’m sure you can understand that,” Frankie says in a calm tone.
“Yeah, I get it. You don’t want someone who’s taking money and doing bad work. I really do know what I’m doing,” Alberto insists.
“Good, Alberto, good. So help us, and we’ll help you. What’s the deal with this software you’re building?” Frankie asks.
“It’s nothing special. I just worked on the data from Nevada. I don’t really know how the program works. Someone else built it,” he says. Then he realizes his mistake.
“Who built it, Alberto?” Juan asks. He’s getting impatient and feeling the weight of the pistol in his pocket.
He looks into Alberto’s eyes and knows he won’t get a straight answer.
“Alberto, we have to stop that program from running. You have to help us, amigo,” Frankie insists.
“You can’t stop it. It’s done. And even if you could stop it, the cops already know how to use it, so you’re too late,” he tells them. Alberto is desperately hoping to guard Jake and the rest of The Team.
He senses an opening and tries to make it work. “The cops don’t even know what to do with the information once they get it. They told us that. They’re trying to find stolen cars, but it doesn’t matter if the data makes no sense,” he tells Frankie and Juan.
“What do you mean?” Frankie asks.
“Someone has to figure out what all the numbers mean. It isn’t just matching stuff up. You need to understand what it means. They may never be able to get there,” Alberto reveals.
“Why won’t they get there?” Juan asks.
“Maybe someone can mess up the data or something,” Alberto offers, totally fishing for solutions.
Frankie looks at Juan and then at Alberto.
“Give us a chance to talk about this,” he tells Alberto.
The two men turn their backs and walk away from the teenager. That’s when Alberto sees it. In Frankie’s back pocket, he sees a pistol grip and the outline of a gun. They’re going to kill me.
In that one instant, Alberto quickly and quietly moves to his car. As he gets to the front fender, he pulls his keys from his pocket and hits the remote starter. The Honda fires up. In a flash, he’s in the driver’s seat and putting the car in gear.
Oh, Christ Almighty, get me out of here, he prays as he releases the launch control and opens the valves for the nitrous oxide.
Between the engine noise and the sound of gravel flying from his front tires, Alberto barely hears the crack of gunfire. The first shot shatters his window and just misses his head. The second finds its mark.
The bullet hits Alberto in the left temple. At first he’s disoriented. That’s the beginning, the beginning of the end. The bones that surround Alberto’s brain shield it and protect but can’t beat bullets. As the lead and brass explode through Alberto’s skull, it fractures into lightning fast, vicious, hot fragments. They tear through the prefrontal cortex, and his ability to think and organize is gone. Next, they rip through the hippocampus. His memories are now gone.
With one shot, there is nothing left of Alberto Contreras. His foot comes off the gas pedal, and the car rolls to a stop with Alberto draped over the steering wheel.
“What the hell did you just do? You fool!” Frankie erupts and punches Juan, knocking him to the ground. His pistol goes flying. “You dumb jerk. We’re thieves, not killers. Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“I’ve done a piece of work you missed. I did it because you’re too weak. I’ll tell Romero how you pushed me back and how you tried to make friends with this little snitch,” Juan says as he tries to get up.
Frankie kicks him hard in the ribs, and Juan goes back down.
“You’ll tell Romero nothing. I knew you were trouble the day you rolled in. You had nothing to offer, and you tried to trip me up with that crap at the hotel when we pinched the NSX.” Frankie reaches for his gun.
The motion isn’t missed by Juan. He scrambles on hands and knees to get his pistol. He claws toward the weapon, which is lying in the dirt a foot or two away. Frankie puts his boot over Juan’s right hand and steps down hard. As Juan screams in pain, Frankie kneels down, draws his revolver, pulls the hammer back, and places it against Juan’s head.
“You’re going to tell me everything you’re doing. You’re going to tell me right now, or you’re going for a ride with Alberto,” he orders.
“I’m making money. I’m doing it in ways you’ve never imagined. As soon as Romero put me in charge of the crusher, I started using those parts as mules,” Juan admits.
“Mules? Mules for what, Juan?”
“What do you think? I get it from my old contacts in LA. It comes up from Perứ, and I ship it to the Middle East. The customs cops never look at the salvaged car part shipments. It’s fast, easy, and clean. I never touch the product. I just pack it in the car parts and send it,” Juan says.
“You fool. You’ve got us involved in drugs and now murder. You have no idea what you’ve done,” Frankie says as his finger tightens on the trigger.
“Frankie, I’ll cut you in. Let me show you what I’m doing. It’s safe and really easy. It’s big money, Frankie,” Juan pleads.
Frankie considers this. Loyalties aside, he’s still a crook. The allure of money is too enticing. He lowers his gun. “I’ll take a look, Juan. But Romero won’t like it. He wants a low profile.”
“Then maybe it’s time to start your own operation, Frankie,” Juan tempts.
“Right now, we have to get rid of Alberto. Any ideas?” Frankie backs away from Juan.
Juan gets up and looks for his pistol. Frankie watches him carefully. Finding it, Juan pockets the gun and turns toward Frankie.
“He has a single-stage nitrous system. We’ll drive the car out to the strip. We’ll make it look like an accident, like he was testing and something went wrong,” Juan confidently says.
“All right. Help me move him over. I’ll drive, you follow,” he orders.
The two men move Alberto’s body to the passenger side of the car, and Frankie gets in, careful to avoid the blood. He starts the car and heads out to the edge of town to a place called “the strip.” It’s where the car crowd run their illegal street races. It’s far enough outside the city that the cops only bother to go there on really slow nights. It will be vacant tonight since no meet is going on.
It’s a dark, moonless night as the two-car caravan comes to the strip. They stop, and Juan gets out of his car.
“Drive a little way down the strip and lock up your brakes. Make it look like you lost control. Drive off the side, and I’ll meet you,” he commands.
“Okay, I get it. I’ll make it look like he lost it and went into the ditch. We’ll pull the hose off the nitrous tank and set the car on fire. It should explode and destroy everything,” Frankie concludes. Juan smiles and nods.
Frankie puts Alberto’s car in gear and roars down the road. He grabs the parking brake handle and pulls hard. The rear wheels lock up as Frankie steers toward the right side of the road, onto the siding, and down into the ditch. Gravel and dirt fly as the car plows into the soft earth. It comes to an abrupt stop, crushing the front end against a large rock.
Frankie is dazed momentarily. As the dust settles, he gets himself together, shuts off the motor and then turns the key back to the on position. He starts thinking about identification. He rifles through Alberto’s jacket and pants pockets.
Juan’s car pulls up a few yards ahead, and he jumps out. Frankie finds what he’s looking for in Alberto’s jacket and gets ready to get out of the car.
The jostling is just enough to rouse Alberto. He’s much more dead than alive. In his current state, his body is functioning on pure instinct. He slowly, painfully slides his right hand up to his shirt pocket and feels his iPhone.
Alberto unconsciously puts a bloody, nearly lifeless finger on the home button and then the speed dial for his last call, literally. It rings and rings and rings. Finally, he hears the voice on the recording. Sadness is the last emotion he feels. Alberto’s fire is finally extinguished.
Juan approaches the car and crouches down next to the driver’s-side door and looks inside. Alberto is slumped against the passenger-side door, dead.
“Good job, Frankie. It will look perfect,” Juan says.
“Here’s his wallet,” Frankie says, handing it through the window to Juan.
“Good thinking, Frankie.”
Frankie releases his seat belt, reaches for the door release, and looks up just in time to see Juan pull his pistol. Frankie wants his, but he can’t get to it. It’s in his back pocket. He’s sitting on it. Frankie isn’t used to carrying a gun. Juan is.
“Keep your hands on the wheel. So sorry, Frankie, I had to make an executive decision. I decided I don’t really need a partner, amigo. Adios, carnal!” Juan says and pulls the trigger.
31. Boise, Idaho
The lone sheriff’s patrol car is cruising the back roads of southeast Ada County in the early morning light. The sky is crystal clear as the sun slowly pushes the darkness west. Just a hint of chill lingers in the clean, crisp air, signaling the coming change of season.
The deputy has his window down while he drinks in the wonderful aroma of a pristine environment. He notices a dark shape in the ditch off West Columbia Road. He is on his standard patrol and is heading to Interstate 84 and a coffee break at the Boise Stage Stop. As he gets closer, the shape becomes a car and then a burned-out husk of a car. He flips a switch, and the light bar atop his cruiser erupts in blue and red. He fixes his spotlight on the still smoldering wreck and pulls to a stop about ten feet behind.
“County, this is patrol twenty-seven. I’m out at mile marker four on West Columbia with a possible ten fifty,” he radios to Dispatch, informing them of an accident with possible fatalities.
“Twenty-seven, ten four,” the radio operator replies in a mechanical monotone.
The deputy gets out of the car and walks to the scene, flashlight in hand. He shines the light through the space the rear window once occupied.
“So far, so good,” he says to himself, seeing nothing but empty seats.
He comes up along the driver’s side. The beam from the flashlight dances across the melted dash and skeleton of a steering wheel. It’s then he senses it. It cannot be mistaken—the malodorous scent of burned flesh.
He covers his mouth and nose with his left arm, takes a deep breath, steps to the driver’s door, and shines the light inside. The deputy gags! The driver is slumped over toward the passenger seat. He’s lying across something. The cop extends his right arm putting more light on the body, and he sees that the driver and passenger, now totally unrecognizable as humans, have been practically welded together from the conflagration.
The patrolman frantically reaches for the radio microphone perched on his shoulder with his left hand. As he lowers his arm to speak, he gets a nose full of the stench. His words catch in his throat as he quickly backs away and starts gulping fresh air.
32. Boise, Idaho
I can’t describe it, but I’m having feelings and thoughts that collide and explode in my mind. I’ve lost everything. Now I’ve found everything.
Today I’m worried. No, I’m really scared that something has happened to Alberto. Father G always told us that you can’t live with fear. See it, recognize it, and use it, but never let it control you. I touch my crucifix, bow my head, and pray to be fearless. My fear is still with me. I am not fearless. I am a small, strong, intelligent woman, but I am not fearless. I am many things. I have many facets, but I know fear. I’ve lived with fear. I have fear in my life again, right now, and I don’t know why.
“Maribel, it’s almost seven fifteen. I can’t get ahold of Alberto. He’s not answering my calls or texts. I’m worried,” I tell my sister-cousin.
“Maybe he’s just sick, chica. Maybe that’s why he didn’t come over last night.”
“I have a bad feeling about it.” There is something else, a sense of foreboding, almost like I’m being threatened. It’s real. I can feel it, nearly smell it like the air moving around me.
“I have a bad feeling you’re going to be late for school if you don’t get going. It’s my day off. I’m working around the house today. Take the car. If I need anything, I’ll text, and you can stop by at lunch,” Maribel tells me with a smile.
I decide to take the offer.
“Okay, but if he shows up at school, I’ll bring the car back at lunch.”
“No worries, Jake. I won’t need it today,” Maribel confirms with a hug and a kiss on my cheek.
I take the keys and head to the door. It’s really sunny today, and it’s going to be warm. I put on my Ray-Bans. They’re Wayfarers. Alberto said the shades I was wearing didn’t fit my face, so he gave me a pair of his favorites.
The morning air is still cool and fresh. It feels like silk as it brushes my face. I take a deep breath. Clean, scrubbed, mountain air fills my lungs. It’s like cold water when you’re thirsty. Not at all like LA’s poisonous, polluted mix of gasses. I look down the driveway, over the rooftops, and take in the incredible view of the mountains that surround Boise.
I’m happy here. I belong here, I say to myself with pleasant surprise, as my phone rings.
I pray it’s Alberto. Where is it? I drop my backpack on the driveway and dig in it frantically. Oh yeah, I’ve got my overalls on. It’s in my front pocket. I take a breath, pull it out, and slide the lock with my thumb without looking at the ID—and hope.
“Hi, Jake. It’s Liz.”
I sigh in disappointment. “Hi, Liz. Have you heard from Alberto? I can’t get ahold of him,” I plead more than ask.
“No. Last time I saw him was yesterday when you two were playing tonsil-hockey,” she says with a giggle.
I blush as much as my brown skin allows. “Oh yeah, that…well, it was no big deal.” I try to backtrack.
“Yeah, right, no big deal.” She pauses. “I’m really glad for you two, so no more jokes. YOLO, right?”
“Absolutely, YOLO. Thanks. What’s up?” I ask.
“Just wanted to see if you made progress on Blues Cluz last night?”
“Not only progress, but I think it’s done!” I tell her emphatically.
“That’s epic! You are a beast. I felt guilty leaving it all on your shoulders.”
I know this is hard for Liz. Will gave all of us the low-down. This is a huge step. I’m proud of her, and I’m glad she’s a friend.
“I just went in and went hard. I had the big picture, la foto grande. You’ve been there, Liz. It would have taken longer to explain it to someone than to just do it,” I say.
“I know. You can do or teach, which is faster, right?”
“Right, that’s it. But I got it. I’ll see you in the lab, okay?”
“See you there, Jake. Hey, did Will talk to you?”
I hear it in her voice: fear. I’m not the only one living with it today. Liz has lived with fear too, maybe longer than I have. I want her to lose that feeling. I too want to lose that feeling.
“Yeah, and you and I are tight, you got that?” I reassure.
“Thanks, Jake. See you in a few.”
That’s when I notice it. I missed a call from Alberto. I stare at the phone for a moment. Why didn’t this come through last night? I remember, my phone went dead; I was charging it, so I didn’t hear the ringtone. I don’t use voice mail much, so I don’t check it. I reach out to touch the screen. My hand is trembling as I touch the phone and put it to my ear. I hear a voice I vaguely recognize.
“I decided I don’t really need a partner, amigo. Adios carnal!”
Then I hear the gunshot. Bang! Then nothing.
In an instant, I’m paralyzed with fear. I’ve been here before. I had cowered under a bed, wanting the fear to go away. I ran to Boise, Idaho, to get away from fear. It’s here! It’s found me again, and I sense its smothering, debilitating arms wrapping around me. I throw them off.
Something happens, a stirring deep inside me. I realize something. I feel strength. I feel resolve. I will not hide. I will not run. Blood courses through my veins, bringing me strength. My heartbeat pounds in my chest. I feel something else. Anger! This time, this time, someone is going to pay.
33. Ada County, Idaho
“Can’t miss it. Universal precautions everyone, especially masks,” the lead forensic investigator tells her team.
“County, Frank seven,” the forensic unit commander calls in.
“Seven, county, go ahead,” the dispatcher responds.
“We’re on scene. The deputy was correct. It’s an auto accident. One car, two victims, both are DOA. Looks like a single-car crash with ensuing fire,” the forensic cop reports.
“Do you need backup?”
“No, county has one unit here for traffic control. We’ll need a tow to impound and ten seventy-nine,” the specialist says with a sad tone.
She’s thinking to herself that these had to be young people. This is just a waste. The 10-79 call means they need the county coroner to come and collect the dead.
She and her team start the slow, gruesome task of removing the burned bodies from the charred car. They set up a perimeter, a ring around the car, which will be made smaller as they get closer. They move methodically, taking pictures, putting anything their training says is important into evidence bags. Each specialist works a sector. As it’s cleared, they move closer to the car. After an hour, they’re at the charred shell of the car and what’s left of the two victims.
“This is the part I hate,” one of the forensic people says to her incident commander.
“It’s okay, Sue. The coroner’s coming. He’ll have some help. You can take a break,” the incident commander says.
“No, it’s part of the job. Let’s start with the driver’s side. I’ll get the legs,” Sue says.
As they try to pull the body from the driver’s seat, her worst fears come true.
“Don’t pull too hard, Sue. You know what can happen,” the incident commander says.
“Yeah, I know,” Sue says through her mask.
“Remember, Sue, burned flesh is weird. It’s just like when you toast marshmallows. You can burn the outside and then just pull it off. The soft, hot mushy stuff is just underneath. Burned bodies are the same, kiddo,” the incident commander reminds her.
Sue knows this. It’s why she hates this part of her job.
“Okay, the feet are out. Let’s try to move the shoulders over the console, and we can just slide the body out into the bag,” she directs.
The bag is the body bag from the coroner’s department. It’s leakproof. It lies on the ground just outside the driver’s-side door.
“Okay, looks good. He’s not sticking to the seat,” the other worker tells Sue.
As Sue steps slowly backward away from the car, she trips over the bag. She doesn’t let go of Frankie’s shoes. As she falls, she pulls on Frankie’s legs, trying to steady herself. What’s left of his shoes, pants, and all the skin and burned tissue from his waist down tears from his bones and lands on her as she hits the ground, hard, first on her butt, then on her back.
“Oh, crap! You degloved him from the waist down, Sue!” her incident commander yells as she turns her head away from the gore covering Sue.
Sue is now smeared in burned clothing, skin, and tissue from head to toe. She is mortified and terrified, and her only response is to roll over, lift her mask, and hurl her breakfast all over the crime scene.
34. Interstate 84, Idaho State Line
“So we have him now?” The Suit asks.
“Yes, he left LA and joined up with a bunch of car thieves in Boise, led by Romero Juarez,” The Man responds.
“How do we do this?” The Suit asks.
“Depends, boss. What do you want to happen?”
“This Romero, I don’t know him. Cars are not my strength. Juan Antonio could be a way to get to him, but I need someone to guide us,” The Suit says.
“That would have been Pee Wee.”
“Well, that’s it then, a dead end, a real dead end for Juan. Finish it as soon as possible,” he decides.
“We’ll be in Boise in an hour. We’re booked into Hotel 43, their best suites, Chandler’s for dinner. We’ll take care of business this morning and then be off for Vegas. Are you sure you don’t want the jet?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Get it here. We’ll fly to Vegas. No wives. This is boy’s night out. Set it up for us all, including you. Get Peter to come too.”
The Man’s face turns crimson. His jaw drops, but he recovers quickly.
“How long have you known?”
“Hey, I know what’s up with all my people. If I have to start hiring and firing people based on what they do after business hours, no one could work for me. You take care of business, and I take care of you,” The Suit tells him.
“Thank you, I’ll see to it all,” The Man says.
He closes the privacy window separating the rear of the car from his place in the middle.
35. Boise, Idaho
Lash’s phone sounds off with No Satisfaction from the Rolling Stones. He puts down the morning’s first cup of coffee and answers.
“Lash,” he barks into the iPhone.
“Hey, Nick, it’s Bobby Carson,” the familiar voice intones.
“Bobby, long time. How are you?”
“Great, man. Just sitting out here in LA, soaking up the sun, and trying to keep the beach sand out of my shoes,” he jokes with his old friend.
“Okay, don’t rub it in,” Lash protests.
“Sorry, but I do have some intel for you,” the federal agent offers.
“Ah, intel from the all-powerful DEA to us country bumpkins. You must be desperate,” Lash retorts.
“Just trying to do you a solid, Nick. Don’t think our account is settled quite yet.”
“That’s wrong, Bobby. The slate’s clean. All that Iraq business is ancient history,” Lash says.
He remembers some dark days from the Gulf War when he was the only thing between life and death for Carson.
“Well, then let’s just call it professional courtesy, okay?”
“I’m down with that. Whaddya got?”
“We got a sniff about some salvaged car parts being used for smuggling. They stuff used axles and half shafts with cocaine and bury them under a ton of other parts. Even the dogs have trouble with it,” Carson says.
“I know. We got your alert a few weeks ago.”
“See, you can read. I’ve been telling people that for a while, but they just don’t buy it.”
“Well, I still have my crayons to use for federal reports. So why are you calling me on this fine fall day, Agent Carson?”
“Because, the Israelis, that’s where the parts were found, scraped enough serial numbers off the parts to give us a possible point of origin. Guess what shining city in the sun we believe the parts came from?” Carson says.
“Let me guess. Boise.”
“More specifically, Caldwell.”
“RJ Enterprises,” Lash says.
“Oh, so this is not a revelation. Maybe I should have hoped for a call from you, Detective,” Carson says.
“We heard about the drug shipment but until now had nothing to connect it to RJ, Bobby. We like these guys for auto theft, but right now that’s it. Send me everything you’ve got, okay?” Lash requests.
“Already did. It’s in your e-mail. By the way, we spoke to a friend of yours out here—Grace Washington. You know her?”
“Yes, we’ve talked about car theft, possible gun violence, but not about smuggling. Hang on a second.” Lash pulls over to the curb and quickly thumbs through his notebook. “She gave me the name of some thug. The name is Juan.”
Carson interrupts, “Let me guess this time. Juan Antonio Hernandez, right?”
“Oh, so this is not a revelation,” Lash jabs back. “That’s the name.”
Carson laughs. “She told me the same thing, but now LAPD likes him in two murder cases. The word on the street is he’s running from the cartel and may be working at RJ. Watch out, Nick. Don’t get caught in the crossfire,” Carson warns.
“Thanks, Bobby. I’ll keep my head down. Let me look at your intel, and I’ll get back to you,” Lash reassures his friend.
“All right, Nick. Speak with you soon.”
Lash puts the car back in gear and drives. He silences the radio as his mind rolls through all the possibilities and the simple magic of communication: three cops, three different agencies, and one name. Juan Antonio Hernandez.
36. Boise, Idaho
“Mario, how’s it, amigo?”
The morning sun is in Mario’s eyes as he leaves his house and squints to see what and who is blocking the end of the short driveway.
“Juan, carnal, why are you here?” he asks. Tension grips his chest. His pulse rises. There is already word on the street that something’s up.
Juan, still seated in his car, lifts his sunglasses from his eyes and pushes them into his thick, black hair.
“Oh hey, I just need a little more on that bunch of kids at your school. You know, the ones doing some stuff for the cops,” Juan says.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know much about that deal, bro,” Mario says and starts to sweat.
Juan shuts off the motor and gets out of the car slowly.
Mario looks past Juan’s shoulder and sees a pistol on the passenger seat.
“Mario, I need to know who is working this thing out and how much they know. You’re on the inside. You’re going to get me what I need,” Juan orders.
Mario is visibly shaking right now.
“Okay, okay. I’ll try to get more information—maybe today.”
Juan moves close and gets into Mario’s grill.
“You will get what I need, and you’ll get it by lunch,” he orders. Mario sees something wild in Juan’s eyes. It scares him so badly he nearly lets go.
“Yes, Juan. I’ll have it. Whatever you want, I’ll have it,” he confirms.
Juan smiles broadly. “Carnal, I knew I could count on you,” he says with false appreciation. “I’ll call you at noon,” he says. Juan climbs into his car and drives away.
Mario watches Juan pull away. He turns and walks to his car. That’s when he notices it. His legs are shaking and feel like rubber. He grabs the back of his car to steady himself and takes a deep breath. Mario reaches into his pocket and calls Alberto. The call goes directly to voice mail. He wonders what happened to Alberto and what might happen to him.
37. Caldwell, Idaho
“Pilar, have you heard from Frankie yet?” Romero asks his wife, slamming the office door.
“No. He’s not answering his phone, and none of the others know where he is. Do you think he has skipped out on us?” Pilar asks.
“No way, not Frankie. He’s familia. I have a bad feeling about this. Frankie and Juan were doing something yesterday. I can’t get ahold of Juan Antonio either.”
“Maybe you should call a cop,” Pilar jokes.
Romero laughs but then stops and looks at his wife with a very serious expression. “Maybe I should.” He pulls out his cell from his pocket, enters “Ada County Sheriff” into the search window, and touches go. The number appears, and he touches the link.
“Sheriff’s office,” a woman’s voice informs him. He can hear the muted cacophony of many voices in the background. He’s reached the Dispatch center.
“Yes, one of my employees has not shown up for work today. He’s very reliable, and I wanted to see if you had any reports of accidents.”
“What’s your employee’s name?” she inquires.
“Frankie, uh, I mean Francisco Azarola.”
“Just a minute,” she says as she puts him on hold.
“They’re checking,” he tells Pilar, who has become concerned now.
The dispatcher comes back on the line. Romero holds up a hand to let his wife know he’s talking to the cops again.
“Sir, I don’t have any reports with that name. There was one accident overnight with two fatalities. We don’t have any identification yet, but I can tell you the car involved in the accident was not registered to your employee.”
“Okay, thank you,” he says and hangs up.
“Well?” Pilar needs to know.
“There was a wreck last night. Two people were killed, but the cops don’t know who they are. The car wasn’t Frankie’s.” His mind spins madly. He paces and tries to take it all in. He turns and faces Pilar, his expression hard with worry.
“What does it mean, Romero?” Pilar pleads desperately.
“It means Frankie and Juan are missing, and there are two dead guys in a car. That’s no bueno, Pilar.”
Just as the words are out of Romero’s mouth, the roar of a German engine announces Juan’s arrival. Dust and gravel fly as he slides to a stop outside the office.
Juan Antonio jumps out and heads to the office door. Romero rushes to meet him, opens the door, and charges toward him.
“Where have you been? Where’s Frankie?” Romero demands. He points a menacing finger at Juan’s face, just like a gun.
Juan has been working on this story for a while and has it down cold.
“Jefe, he called me to help him with a problem. We went to meet Alberto, that kid from the school. We wanted to find out what was up to with the cops. Frankie started by talking to him about the black boxes. You know, the little computers that record all the car info.”
“Yeah, so what about them?” Romero queries. The two turn and walk into the office.
“This Alberto kid knows how to reprogram them. It was going to be a surprise for you, Romero. Frankie wanted me along to show this guy we were serious. The three of us talked for a while, and everything was chill. Frankie really got him on our side. Frankie told me he’d bring up the cop thing, and maybe it would be better if it was just him and Alberto. He said I could go, that they would work things out, so I bounced. Why, what’s happened?” Juan asks in a remarkably concerned tone.
“I don’t know. I can’t find Frankie. This Alberto guy, is he the same kid doing the ECU programs for the racers?”
“Yeah, that’s him. He’s muy inteligente. He really knows this stuff,” Juan offers in a conspiratorial tone.
“That’s good, Juan. I’m pleased you’re finding talented people for us. Right now, I want you to get on the street. There was a car crash last night. I want you to find out who died in it. And find Frankie. This cannot be a good thing, Juan.”
“Okay, but I got huge backup at the smasher. If I don’t get over there, we might miss a pickup from the scrappers,” Juan lies.
“I don’t give a hang about the scrap. Leave it! I need to find out what happened to Frankie. I need to know now!” Romero raises his voice and pounds a powerful fist on the counter. “I’ll try to send two guys over to run the machine and do what they can. You were the last one to see Frankie. Get out there and find him, Juan, or find out what happened to him. Understand.” It’s not a question.
“Sí, Romero, I’ll find him. It’s probably no big deal. His phone is dead, he’s found a friend, or he’s hanging out somewhere. I’ll find him,” Juan confirms in a pleading tone, turns, leaves the office, and gets back into his car.
Juan has no intention of looking for Frankie since he knows exactly where Frankie is. Juan is going straight to the salvage yard to make sure his latest shipment is ready for pickup this morning. He’s tired, he’s nervous, he’s distracted, and he totally misses the three black SUVs that pull away from the curb and follow him as he leaves the Jungle.
38. Caldwell, Idaho
“County Three, Dispatch,” the voice resonates through Lash’s car, ruining his homespun version of Bad Company.
“Go ahead, this is Three,” he responds.
“County Two wants you to landline him as soon as possible,” the dispatcher says.
“Three, roger,” Lash confirms.
Lash pulls into a parking lot, puts the car in park, and takes out his notepad. He picks up the cell and calls his boss, the lieutenant.
“Billingsgate,” LT answers.
“It’s Lash. What’s up?”
“You parked, Nick?” LT asks.
“Yes, just pulled over. This sounds like bad news.”
“It is, Nick. I just got a call from the coroner’s office. There was a car crash this morning. One of the students from BLUES was involved.”
“Who? Do you have a name?”
“Yes, Alberto Contreras. Did you know him?”
“Damn. Yeah, he was one of the kids helping us with the computer program,” Lash says as a heavy sigh escapes his lungs.
“I’m sorry, Nick. There’s more bad news.”
Lash wonders how it could get any worse than a young person dying for no good reason. “What?” he asks, not wanting to know.
“There was another victim in the car—Francisco Azarola. Looks like he was driving. Ring any bells?”
Lash considers this and shakes his head as he responds. “Not right off the bat. Has someone talked to Alberto’s mother?” he asks.
“Yes, I just got off the phone with her.”
“Thanks, LT. That’s hard work. Not the kind of thing I’m skilled at.”
“I know. I made sure the family priest was advised also.”
Nick takes a moment to reflect. It wasn’t that long ago he was reeling through the emotions of news like this just dropping out of the sky and crushing you where you stand.
“Nick, there’s more. It wasn’t just a crash. They were both shot, single gunshot to the head. The crash was a diversion,” LT reveals.
“Oh Christ!” Lash breathes into the phone as the wind rushes from his lungs.
Lash closes his eyes and feels the swelling in his throat. He grips the phone so tightly the screen cracks. The questions flash through his mind. Did he get Alberto killed? Did he put Alberto into someone’s sights?
“Nick, I know this is bad, but do you have any ideas about the things Alberto was into?”
Lash reaches deep into his soul, pulls out his cop armor, and puts it on. He’ll grieve later. Right now, he needs to find a killer.
“Nothing that would get him killed, as far as I know. He was into the local JDM car scene. He liked to work with computers,” Lash says, thinking out loud now and remembering the kid and young man Alberto Contreras was.
Lash has to find purchase. He must find a mental beachhead to start this war from. He has to move through this.
Lash clears his trained mind and quickly runs through his mental files, trying to find anything that might lead to an answer, a motive for Alberto’s death.
“Computers, like that program you and García are working on?” LT questions.
“Yeah, computers, cars, wait a minute. This other guy, Francisco. You pull his file yet?” Lash asks.
“No, I’ve been making calls. Hold on,” LT says. He puts Lash on speaker and sits down at his computer.
Lash can hear LT’s fingers working on the keyboard.
“Here it is. Francisco Alva Azarola, a.k.a. Frankie Azarola, a.k.a. Frankie the Key. Nothing major, some street racing, petty theft, vandalism. He was on probation for the racing but nothing like murder,” LT informs.
“I’ve heard about a Frankie from the kids at the school. He’s a car guy. Does body work or something like that,” Lash says. He’s searching his memory for something, something that seems to be nagging at him.
“Let’s see,” LT says as he scrolls down the pages. “He works for a salvage company. Cassidy and García were doing some surveillance of the place, and they got a picture of him there. The company is—”
Lash interrupts, “RJ Enterprises in Caldwell.”
“Oh, you read minds now?” LT asks, amazed.
“It’s the second time this morning that name has come up. I just got a call from the DEA. There’s a smuggling operation that uses salvaged car parts to ship coke. They think RJ might be involved. What do you think about that, boss?” Lash asks.
“I think I need to call the county prosecutor. I think we need search warrants. I’ll call you back. Let García know, Nick.”
Then it hits Lash like a hammer. García, Jake, The Team. He needs to get to BLUES—fast!
“LT, wait, have you told García or anyone at the school about Alberto?” Lash asks, slamming the car into gear and turning on his lights and siren.
“No, haven’t had time, but I can.”
“No, get the warrants. I’ll get to the school. This is going to be really rough,” Lash says.
“It’s already really rough, Nick. I’ll get back to you soon.”
Lash pulls onto Interstate 84 and gets into the passing lane. He’s doing over a hundred miles per hour before he realizes it and lifts his foot before he causes a wreck. Looking for the Vista Avenue exit, he holds down the home button on his iPhone.
“Call,” he says.
“Who would you like to speak to?” Siri asks.
“García,” he says, and the phone starts ringing.
39. Boise, Idaho
I’m shaking. I’m speeding. I’m crying. I’m angry and ready for a fight. I can’t fight by myself. I need help, but I’m going to fight. I’m praying what I think has happened hasn’t!
I pass over the interstate on the Orchard Street bridge and come up to West Wright. I have a green light, look left, and nearly jump out of my seat as Lash, in his squad car, comes careening around the corner, lights flashing, siren screaming. My hands are clamped around the steering wheel, white knuckled. My breath comes in gulps. I slam the gas pedal to the floor and fall in behind him as he makes the left turn with tires squealing. Our two cars streak toward the BLUES parking lot. Lash doesn’t see me until he parks his car. I come racing up behind him and into the parking space next to his.
Our eyes, through the car windows and sunglasses, find each other. The filters hide nothing. There’s a stern look on his face. No, it’s not stern. It’s almost as if I can see past the opaque lenses of his glasses. His face says something else. I see something like fear, but I know this man is fearless. Then I recognize it. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen that look on another cop’s face. Grace Washington’s face just before she plucked me out of my bedroom in South Gate. It’s a hard look, a knowing look, a look of deep, extreme sorrow.
The fight goes out of me but just for a moment. I breathe deeply, open the door, and get out. Lash doesn’t take his eyes off me as he exits his car. I walk slowly but surely around the back of my car and step right up to the big cop. I hold up my iPhone. Lash towers over me. I touch the voice-mail button and turn on the speaker.
“I decided I don’t really need a partner, amigo. Adios carnal!” Bang!
I’ve heard it so many times it doesn’t hurt anymore. I’ve cried so much that I’m dehydrated. I am not afraid. Fear, yes, it’s there, but not terror. Rage—productive, simple, useful rage—is what I feel.
Lash removes his glasses and looks at the phone as if he’s just seen a ghost. His eyes meet mine, and in that moment, I age ten years.
From inside the Nut Hut, García sees us and comes rushing out. The Team follows close behind. She already knows what I’m trying not to believe.
I look at her and see the “cop’s mask” she wears when things are bad. The message is clear. She’s here for me, but something’s wrong. García’s chest heaves with another deep breath. I can tell she’s trying to hold something back. She blinks once and then twice and a third time, trying to prevent the flood. I see it. I sense it. A quiet, ominous pall spreads from me to her and covers us all.
It’s dead calm. The wind won’t speak. The world stops moving. Traffic is silent, and for a moment, even the frenetic pace of the airport seems to halt.
García lowers her emotional shield. She comes to me. I can feel this sort of slow, cold sensation building in my gut. It’s not a new sensation. My eyes are unblinking.
Her breath is coming faster now. I shake my head and raise my hands, palms toward García in one final, futile gesture to ward off what I know is coming. García steps closer to me. I can only close my eyes, lower my head, and beg. “No, no, not again!”
García’s arms encircle me. I collapse into her embrace and break into pieces.
“I’m so sorry, chica. I’m so damn sorry.”
40. Caldwell, Idaho
“You said you wouldn’t call until noon. Give me a break, man,” Mario whines into the cell phone.
“I’ll give you a break. I’ll break your neck if you don’t tell me what I want to know,” Juan Antonio demands.
“There are cops everywhere. The principal and two detectives just spent half an hour in the computer lab. I don’t know what was happening, but it seemed like there was a lot of pain, man.”
“There’ll be a lot more if you don’t help me right now, Mario.”
“What happened to Alberto, Juan?” Mario pleads.
“Why are you asking me? How would I know?”
“You met with him last night. I set it up. Where is he, and why are the cops all over the place this morning? Damn you, Juan Antonio! Where is Alberto?”
“Listen to me, Mario. All you need to know is that I have business to take care of. If you don’t want to be part of my business, you tell me what I want to know. Who are the students that are working with the sheriff’s department?”
The threat was clear. Juan answered a Mario’s question without answering it. Mario now understood the evil he was dealing with.
“The only one I really know is Jake Palomera. That’s the one doing the big piece of programming. They don’t talk about what they’re doing, so it’s hard to get any information,” Mario insists.
“Okay, so this Jake, where do I find him?” Juan asks.
“Jake’s not a he. Jake’s a she. She lives with her cousin over on Quicksilver,” Mario surrenders. He is filled with remorse, guilt, and fear. He knows now he’s been a Judas goat leading Juan wherever he wants to go.
“A she! Jake is a she. Well, Jake and I are going to have a talk about what she has been up to with the cops. Where on Quicksilver? What’s the address?”
“Wait a minute,” Mario feels trapped. He touches the contacts tab on his phone and looks for the information.He places the phone back to his ear.
“Four two one six. Don’t hurt her, Juan. I swear, if you mess her up, I’ll bury you.”
“Sounds like you’re close. Or maybe you’d like to be close. Tell you what, Mario, as soon as Jake and I have our little meeting, I’ll be sure to fill you in on all the details. So tell me, is she good-looking?” he teases unmercifully.
“Up yours, you creep,” Mario responds.
“Oh, so now you decide to grow a spine. When I get done with her, I’ll come visit you, and we can work out our differences. That work for you, Mario?”
“Yeah, that works. And come ready to pay, Juan. You’ve bought enough trouble, the bill is due.”
Mario looks past the phone and sees García looking his way.
“Maybe I’ll just talk to the cops, Juan!” he says and touches the end button on his screen.
The line goes dead. Juan looks at his phone and thinks about calling Mario back, but he decides against it. Juan is now concerned. Even the meekest of sheep is suddenly growing horns. He feels the tide turning.
The Team, Lash, García, and Jake all start to move toward the Nut Hut. They have a lot to talk about, and none of it involves Blues Cluz.
“Lash, see that slug over there? You know him?” Garciá asks her partner as she eyeballs Mario.
“He’s an Alberto wannabe. He’s been on my radar since day one,” he says.
“I’m going to talk to him. What’s his name?”
“Mario Morales,” Lash says.
“Check for the warrants, huh? This won’t take long,” she tells him and heads toward Mario.
Lash’s right hand slides naturally inside his jacket and finds his pistol. He checks the safety to be sure his weapon is ready. He watches García stalk her prey, and he feels a little sorrow for Mario, just a little.
“Mario, que pasa, mi hijo?” García calls as she walks right up to him, shoves her badge in his face, and gets way inside his personal space.
“Hey, hey, hey! Whaddya want? I didn’t do nothing,” he complains as his arms go up almost automatically in a sign of surrender.
“Who says you did something? You’re acting kinda suspicious, Mario. Something on your mind? Something you want to share with me?” She pushes in closer, moving like a tiger ready to pounce and backing him up against a car. García has him trapped.
Mario has a mustache. He has tattoos on both arms and his neck. He is at least fifty pounds heavier than García and is nearly a foot taller, yet she has him pinned against a car with the power of her stare. Mario is absolutely scared to death.
His gaze narrows as he finds some inner strength. “Something to tell? No, I got nothin’ to say to you or any other cop, and you can’t do this. I’m a student. I’m only seventeen. You can’t lean on me without my parents here.”
He shows a little more than she gives him credit for. This doesn’t faze García.
“A student, huh? What kinda student? You some kinda law student, cuz you know a lot about law for a kid? Why would that be, Mario? How come you know so much?”
“I dunno. I watch a lot of TV,” he replies, fear creeping slowly up his newly grown spine. Crap, she knows, they know. They know I’ve been talking to Juan, he thinks.
“Oh, so you’re a cop-show fan. What do you like, Law and Order, Cops, maybe Criminal Minds? Who were you talking to when I walked up? Maybe I’ll take you in and look at the history on your phone.”
She sees it. Mario’s pupils dilate. He starts blinking rapidly, and he can’t look her in the eyes. He’s hiding something, and it’s on his phone.
Mario is sweating. It’s a cool, autumn Idaho day with a nice breeze moving, yet he’s sweating. She sees the rivulets of stress driven sweat slide down his face. She has him!
“Tell me, Mario. Tell me what you know.”
“Tell you what? I don’t know anything.”
“I’m investigating a homicide. Were you a friend of Alberto Contreras?” she asks. The question has the force of a hammer blow.
“What do you mean ‘were’? I am a friend of his!” Mario says with way too much emotion. He knows what’s coming.
“No, Mario. You were a friend of his. We found Alberto this morning. Dead. He’s dead, Mario, and if you know anything, you’d better tell me now!” she orders.
He buckles at the waist and turns his back to her. He places his arms on the roof of the car, pounds it with open palms, lowers his head, and cries.
“Mario, Mario!” she says, reaching out and firmly grasping his shoulder.
He turns to look at her. His face is wet with tears.
“If you know anything that can help us, tell me. Tell me now, Mario.”
If the tension between them were a bridge, you could drive a truck across it. Their eyes are locked. Mario’s scream pain. García’s look for truth. She comes at him again.
“Mario, he’s dead. This isn’t a TV show. If you’re at all close to this, it can hurt you too,” she warns.
He stiffens and regains some control. García sees it and has to make a decision.
“Okay, tough guy. You don’t want to talk to me now. Fine. Just remember, you had this chance. When it all comes down, I won’t remember this conversation. I’ll crush you just like I’m going to crush everyone who had a hand in Alberto’s death.” She slips one of her cards into his hand and issues one last pledge.
“You have two hours to change your mind. Otherwise, you go down with the rest of them.”
She turns on her heel and walks away, leaving Mario staring at her card and thinking about his options. She knows she could have pushed. She knows she could have taken him in for questioning as a person of interest, but she knows Jake needs her now more than she needs Mario.García knows where to find Mario.
As García approaches, Lash relaxes, secures his sidearm, and closes his jacket.
“Wha’dya think?” he asks, watching Mario move quickly to his car.
“He’s dirty. He knows something, maybe everything, but he’s scared,” she says.
Both cops watch Mario as he pulls out of the parking lot.
“Scared? Of who, you?” Lash prods.
“He better be if he’s smart. No, I can tell. He wants to talk, but he’s afraid of something or someone.”
“I have a hunch,” Lash says.
“It’s this Juan Antonio Hernandez pile of dung, right?” García asks.
“Buddy of mine at the DEA called this morning. Hernandez is a refugee from LA. Got crosswise with the cartel over a drug deal that went south. Might be here looking for a new life.”
García considers this.
“We need to get those warrants and go kick in some doors,” she says.
“I’m waiting for the call,” Lash says.
The two cops know they’re wasting time. They’re avoiding the task they need to take care of.
“Let’s go in and talk with the students,” García says.
Lash draws a deep breath and releases a heavy sigh. When does it stop? Does the pain ever stop? he thinks to himself.
As Lash and García turn, they nearly trip over me. I have been standing right behind them and overheard their conversation.
“Who is this Juan person? Did he kill Alberto?” I plead more than demand.
The law-enforcement officers, the LEOs, trade glances.
“He’s someone we need to talk to,” García says.
“We’ll find him, Jake. I promise. We’ll find the people who did this to Alberto,” Lash says to me, his square jaw set in determination.
I nod and let out a deep heave of air and stress. I’m numb. I don’t feel anything right now, and I’m grateful for that. I move toward García and into her arms. The three of us slowly move to the Nut Hut and the others.
41. Caldwell, Idaho
“What’s he doing now?” The Suit asks.
The thug on the other end of the conversation is sitting in a greasy spoon, eating pie and drinking coffee. He has a view of the auto recycling yard. He can clearly see the huge crushing unit and Juan Antonio. He watches in amazement as Juan maneuvers an excavator, which is fitted with a giant pair of shears, to a waiting car.
“He’s working. He’s taking cars apart,” the thug informs.
Juan goes to work like some kind of sci-fi surgeon, cutting, ripping, and tearing the car into pieces. He’s separating the recyclable metals from the waste that will eventually be shredded into small pieces that can be melted and made into new parts. Juan wields the monstrous machine like a choreographer in some heavy-metal ballet.
The thug takes in the whole place. Stacked all around the yard like surrealistic pancakes are flattened hulks of cars destined for a date with a shredding plant. The thug watches, mesmerized as one machine devours another.
Juan separates the engine and drive train from the car and sets them to the side. He uses the shears to cut the axles off the drive train. These are what he wants. He deftly moves the other parts to pallets for shipping. The remaining, gutted shell is scooped up with the front forks of the excavator and loaded into the crusher. Five more cars will follow it before they are crushed and readied for shipping.
Juan is in a hurry. This is the only car he’ll work on today. He needs the axles to finish preparing his new load of drugs—the last load he’ll send from here. He has one problem, more drugs than axles or time. He’ll stash the rest and take what he can.
“Okay. Keep an eye on him. If he starts loading a truck or car, call us. I don’t want this guy slipping away,” The Suit orders.
“Okay, boss. If it looks like he’s leaving, do I stop him?”
“Yes, just be sure it doesn’t draw attention. I want him and his drugs. It’s payback for Pee Wee and the deal he ruined in LA.”
“No problem. He’ll never see me,” the thug confirms.
The thug finishes his coffee and moves to the door. He knows where he’ll go. Just inside the gate of the salvage yard is a small security shack. It looks like it hasn’t been used in years. It will make the perfect sniper’s nest. If Juan tries to run, he won’t get far.
42. Boise, Idaho
It hurts like hell. The difference is that the fear is missing. I’ve lost Alberto, and I’ve found that I’m not afraid. He opened the doors of my heart, and now he’s opened the window to my soul. Alberto has set me free. I finally know who I am.
We pull our chairs in the middle of the lab and form a circle. It’s a nonstop storytelling session about Alberto and how we remember him.
I go back to our first kiss at McDonald’s. I relive every moment of that car ride. I cry, but I laugh too with memories of joy that come with the pain. I look around the circle; smiles and tears are everywhere. Alberto and I did have something special.
“Remember when he came here. He was the FNG, and we were unmerciful,” Will relates.
“Yeah, and he tried so hard. The funny thing was that he was light years ahead of us in robotics and physics,” José says.
“Physics, you know the story that pops right out?” Liz reminds the others.
“You have to tell Jake,” Will insists.
I’m hanging now. I have to hear this story. I look at Liz with anticipation.
“Okay, so we’re in AP physics for the final. It’s been a really tough class, and Alberto helped all of us through it. We all agreed that he’d be a great addition to The Team, and we were going to tell him after the test,” she says and starts laughing nearly to the point of tears.
“And, and,” I prompt, motioning with my hands for her to continue.
“So we’re in the middle of this exam, and he gets up to sharpen his pencil. He gets up to the sharpener and sneezes,” she recounts and starts laughing again. She’s nearly convulsing now, and José picks up the thread.
“So the room is absolutely silent. I mean it is like a tomb. We’re working on this test like our lives depend on it, and Alberto sneezes, and then he let’s go with the biggest green-cloud fart in the history of mankind,” José says and literally falls out of his chair and is on the floor, laughing. Will takes the ball and runs with it.
“The room clears. I mean all of us—students, Mr. Creech, the instructor, everyone, except Alberto. We were in the hall for what, ten or fifteen minutes?” he asks the others.
“Must have been closer to twenty,” José chimes in.
We’re all in hysterics. I’m painting this imagery in my mind, and everyone else is reliving the event.
Finally, we all catch our breath. Liz has control and tells me the rest of the tale.
“So when we came back in, he was gone. He’d ducked out the side door. We were feeling pretty bad. Then we looked at our tests,” she says with a somber tone, lowers her eyes, drops her head, and cries.
Will rolls over on his chair and moves next to her. He puts an arm around Liz and holds her while she lets it all out. I cry too. But I have to know, so I ask through my sobs.
“So what about your tests? What happened?” I ask, thinking he tore them all up or erased all their work.
“He finished them. He finished them all. We all got perfect scores. He made sure everyone finished in first place,” José says and tears up.
“Later he told us that he felt so bad, so embarrassed that it was the only thing he could think of to make up for what happened,” Will says.
We’re all silent again, alone with our memories. Thinking about Alberto reminds me how fragile this whole deal is, how fast life can end. It can end at any time. Some creep with a gun can take it all away. They can take it and not blink an eye or lose one minute of sleep. That used to scare and scar me. I’m older now. I’ve lived through it. I’ve died a little too. I’m not a frightened little girl anymore. Violence against the ones I love has changed me. Now it makes me angry and empowers me.
“Kindness and consideration for others. That was Alberto. A kind person who was incredibly inventive and intelligent. I’ll always remember him that way,” Miss Goldwasser adds. She’d been sitting quietly, listening to us talk about our friend.
“How about something to drink? Let’s all get out of here and get some coffee or a smoothie. I’m calling a field trip to Java Joe’s, and it’s on me,” Miss G offers, and I’m definitely ready.
“Great idea,” Will agrees, and we all head for the parking lot.
As we leave, I see Lash and García. García has joy in her dark-brown eyes, but it’s tainted with a patina of sadness. Lash smiles, as much as the taciturn cop can. I sense relief also. They know we’re working through it. They can relate. They’re cops. They’ve lost friends and partners. They know death. They’re with us, but they’re not. They’ll be in touch with our feelings, but there’s a distance. There has to be distance.
One of us has already died. Who could be next? I wouldn’t want to be too close to that person. I’m already too close to the first person. I know how they feel, and part of me wishes I could be them.
I hear a tone, and Lash is distracted. He reaches for his phone. There’s a brief conversation. He closes the connection and speaks quickly to García. He looks at me as I walk to the door. I stop. Our eyes meet across the room. It’s a subtle, nearly imperceptible motion, but his nod lets me know he’s on to whoever killed Alberto. I look into those clear blue eyes. I see the hard-set jaw and the chiseled features of a champion. Lash will find him. These cops will be my champions.
43. Caldwell, Idaho
“So what’s he doing?” The Suit asks.
“He’s moving around like he’s on a mission. He’s grabbing parts and putting them in the back of his car. Maybe he’s making a delivery today.”
“What kind of parts?” The Suit asks.
“Ah, looks like half shafts. You know, the axles for front-wheel-drive cars,” comes the response over the phone.
The Suit lowers his phone and looks at The Man. The Man nods.
“Okay, he’s going to make a delivery, but it’s not parts. He uses those axles to mule coke. Keep an eye on him. Once he’s done loading, we move,” The Suit orders.
“Right, he’s alone. No one else there, just Juan Antonio,” comes the report.
“Perfect. We get Juan and his next shipment. Vegas will be a good trip after all,” The Suit says, laughs, and closes the phone connection.
44. Boise, Idaho
“So we’ll have SWAT and Dax and Cassidy?” Lash asks García.
“Yes, they’re all on the way. Dax has the warrants,” she explains.
“Let’s hit the crusher yard first. I got a feeling that our boy will be there,” Lash says.
“Who you callin’ ’boy, Lash?” she chides.
“Don’t get politically correct with me, Detective. I’m not in the mood.”
She laughs. Her cell sounds off, and García clicks it on speaker.
“García, you there?”
“You’ve got air. One bird coming in from the airport. Where do you want it?” he asks.
She looks at Lash to confirm. He nods. “Send him over to the car-crushing yard in Caldwell. We think our suspect is there. This is a welcomed surprise,” she says.
“Will do. Surprises ’R’ Us today. You can pick him up on Tac-two,” LT says.
Tac-two is the department’s secondary frequency for tactical operations.
“Thanks, LT. You coming to the party?” she asks.
“You kidding? Wouldn’t miss it for all the salsa in Texas. And tell Lash I have another surprise for him. I’m going to the Junkyard Jungle with the backup. Let us know when we should move, okay?” he asks.
“We’ll call it. What’s up? What other surprises, LT?” She’s dying to know.
“We have a consultant from LA visiting. Let Lash know Grace Washington is here,” LT informs.
Lash hears the message, and a wry smile comes to his face. García doesn’t miss it.
“He knows now,” she informs the LT.
“Okay, she can put the finger on this Hernandez hood for us. She’ll be a ride along for the Junkyard Jungle takedown. See you two there,” LT says and closes the connection.
“So what is it? What’s between you and Washington?” she asks Lash. García is more than just a little bit curious.
“Honestly, I spoke to Washington about Jake Palomera. Washington was on scene at the Palomera murders. She’s the one who pulled Jake out of the house her mom and little brother were killed in. I respect that. Glad it wasn’t me,” Lash laments.
“I’m down with that. But why is she here?”
“Since I spoke with her last, I know LT has been in contact with her and the LAPD. LT told me he might ask if she could come here to consult. Guess he did,” Lash replies.
García studies him closely and then catches herself. Why do I care who he talks to? Why do I care if he’s talking to some big-city cop? And why do I care if Cynthia Goldwasser’s number is on his speed dial? She thinks.
She knows why. She doesn’t want to think about it.
“Hey, the more the merrier as long as they’re on our side. Get your game on. It’s show time,” he tells her as the crusher yard comes into view. He pulls over so they can get their tactical gear from the trunk of the car.
Lash and García sit quietly for a moment and study what they can. The yard is two blocks away. They train binoculars on it. They see Juan working the big excavator and tearing cars apart, nothing else, nothing suspicious.
45. Caldwell, Idaho
“What’s he doing now?”
“He just closed the door on the back of his car. I think he’s done loading, but he just got back on the machine. Okay, he’s parked it. This could be it,” the lookout relays to The Man.
“He’s done loading,” The Man says to The Suit.
“I’m tired of waiting. Let’s take him now!” The Suit orders.
The Man turns back to his phone and says, “We’re coming. Get ready.”
The Man works his cell and conferences the other crooks in.
“Here’s the plan. We’re moving. We’ll take Juan Antonio. You guys block the entrance to the yard. If he tries to run, block his car.”
“Okay, boss, we got it. We’re the third car, so we’ll block the entrance. The middle guys will block the car,” one of the thugs replies.
“I’ve got eyes on him, too. He’ll never make it past me,” the lookout adds.
Lash and García are at the trunk of their car. They’re parked about two blocks away from the crusher yard on a hill. The trees lining the street make it difficult to get a complete view, but the sound of the excavator is clear in the morning air. As long as the machine keeps growling out its one song, they know where Juan is.
“You ready for this?” Lash asks García.
She slips into her body armor, checks the magazine in her M4 automatic rifle, and pulls a black ball cap over her head. Lash smiles.
“Yeah, I’m ready. Why are you smirking?” she asks him.
“Anyone ever tell you that you look devastating in black?”
“I get that line all the time at the practice range. You’ll have to do a lot better, Detective,” she parries, secretly enjoying the compliment.
“Okay, let’s just do the checklist. Rifle loaded?” Lash challenges.
“Check,” García responds.
“Round chambered, safety on?”
“Round chambered, safety on?”
“Radio, good battery, com-check complete?”
García keys her mic, “Lash, you look devastating in black.”
He rolls his eyes. “All right, that’s enough of that.”
Every cop on the TAC frequency heard her transmission.
García giggles. “Okay, Nick, I’m all set. How about you?”
“Good to go. Let’s saddle up and make the call.”
“Air-One, County Three, ETA, please,” she calls over tac-two on her radio.
“County Three, Air-One is about five miles out,” the pilot responds.
“Five minutes to game time,” García says.
The two cops return to the car and sit silently, listening to the chatter on the radio. A lot of law-enforcement types are getting into position for this. García’s cell chimes. Lash eavesdrops on her side of the conversation.
“García… yeah, Mario, I was hoping you’d call me… okay, okay. Slow down. Hold on a second.” She pulls her notebook from her backpack. “Okay, go ahead…Uh-huh. So this guy was to meet Alberto last night? Did he?…Okay, and this guy works at RJ Enterprises, right…Okay, thanks, Mario. You did the right thing. I’ll check it out and talk to you soon…Right, bye.”
“What was that all about?” Lash asks.
“That was my new BFF, Mario. He has a name for us. Turns out the guy works at RJ Enterprises.”
“What’s the name?”
“I’ll give you three guesses and first two don’t count,” García says.
“Juan Antonio Hernandez.”
García nods her head and smiles.
“Damn, but it’s a really small world.”
“All roads lead to Boise,” García adds.
“And you know what rolls downhill,” Lash says as he pulls out his cell to call the lieutenant.
García arches her eyebrows, and the corners of her mouth turn down. “Hey, listen.”
Lash cocks his head out the window and listens. It’s silent. There is no noise coming from the crusher yard.
A block in front of the two cops, the three black SUV’s pull out of the parking lot they’ve hidden in for the last three hours. In caravan formation, they head to the salvage yard.
“What the hell!” Lash exclaims.
García looks up from her weapons prep and stares in wonder at the black cars. Lash slams the gas pedal to the floor and hurtles them toward the impending fray.
Juan Antonio gets into his car and starts the engine just as the three SUVs charge into the crushing yard. Juan Antonio looks up, his eyes wide, mouth open, and heart rate skyrocketing. The black cars look very government, very DEA. The guy coming out of the guard shack doesn’t. Juan immediately recognizes him as an enforcer for the cartel.
The enforcer is carrying a small but extremely efficient automatic rifle. The thugs block Juan’s exit from the crushing yard. Juan bails out through the passenger side of his car and runs.
“Get him—now!” The Suit yells from the window of the lead SUV. The lookout starts a foot chase. The second SUV follows.
“Run him down,” the passenger in the second SUV orders the driver. They gain ground on Juan. The tires of the big SUV bounce and churn over the rough surface, throwing rock and dirt furiously. It’s a charging bull that has Juan between its horns. The front bumper of the truck is inches from Juan’s legs.
“Floor it! Hit him!” the thug orders, slamming his hand on the dash of the truck.
The crushing yard is built like a city of dystopian dreams. Skyscrapers of crushed cars are stacked like metallic pancakes in neat rows. Juan knows the alleys and back roads of this city.
The thugs don’t.
The front bumper of the truck barely touches Juan. He dives to his right into an alley of rust and ragged metal. A sharp edge of steel bites his right arm. The gash is long and jagged. He screams and bleeds but keeps moving. He has no choice.
“Look out!” the thug passenger yells at the thug driver as the SUV slams headfirst into one of the towering piles of pancaked cars. Air bags blast out from all directions. The metal monolith moans like the old man it is. Groggy and dazed by the impact, the two thugs slowly recover and look through the spider-webbed windshield to see the tower start to twist, list, and begin to fall their way.
“Get out!” the thug passenger screeches at his partner.
And just in time, the two roll clear as the mass of metal cascades down on top of their car, smashing it flat to the ground.
“Hear that? They must have got him,” The Suit calculates.
Somewhere in the yard an engine starts. The lookout, who was on foot, suddenly emerges from the scrap-metal skyline. He is running hard.
“It’s Juan. He dumped a pile on our guys, and he’s coming!” the lookout yells. The cartel assassin retreats behind The Suit’s SUV and gets set for a gunfight.
Out of the rusted ruins, dirt and dust fly. There is the sound of a great machine working, moving, coming toward them. The ground beneath their feet rumbles, transmitting a message of its size. The beast bursts from the towers of twisted metal like an angry behemoth set on a mission of mayhem.
“Holy crap! What’s that?” The Man screams as the biggest forklift he’s ever seen blasts through a pile of cars and comes charging at them.
“Shoot it! Shoot that thing,” The Suit orders.
His men point their automatic weapons at the monster and fire. The Man and The Suit jump out of their SUV in the nick of time.
Brata-tat-tat, brata-tat-tat. In the cool Idaho morning air, the reports from the rifles’ suppressed bursts sound like woodpeckers or some other natural noise.
To Lash’s trained ear the sound is unmistakable.
“Shots fired! Repeat, shots fired! Automatic weapons fire coming from the crushing yard! All available units converge, all units converge!” he yells into his mic.
The SWAT team comes down Caldwell Boulevard seconds behind Lash and García.
“County Three, SWAT command, we’re coming right behind you. Looks like the party started a little early,” the tactical commander says.
The giant forklift slams into the lead SUV and then lifts it off the ground and uses it as a shield against the flying lead.
“SWAT commander, use your vehicle to clear the entrance. Game’s on,” Lash orders as he pulls over to let the supercops pass.
The commander acknowledges and points his armor-reinforced van at the SUV blocking the gate to the salvage yard. The police van smashes into the SUV like a tank hitting a tin can. The force moves the SUV into the yard quickly, opening the path for Lash, García, and a swarm of police vehicles coming from all over the county.
Lash and García come through next. What they see seems totally unreal. A giant lift-truck has an SUV hanging from its forks about ten feet off the ground. The machine is moving like a wild animal trapped in a pen. A bunch of drug thugs are chasing it around and shooting at it. Lash nearly laughs, thinking this looks like something out of a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Sirens sound. Voices yell commands as the SWAT team deploys. The thugs drop their weapons and put their hands up.
Juan sees the cops and pulls the release, letting the truck drop like two tons of bricks. Its load of gasoline gushes from the tank and ignites on the hot exhaust of the SUV. This is the break he needs. As the conflagration spreads, Juan turns the lift truck and heads toward the back of the lot at full speed.
The cops start herding the thugs into a circle away from the blistering fire. Juan isn’t the only one looking for a way out.
The acrid, black smoke swirls and wafts through the air and casts a curtain between the crooks and cops.
The Man lowers his weapon and grabs The Suit’s arm.
“Look! The Beemer—it’s running.”
“Okay, on three we go for the BMW,” The Suit orders.
“Got it,” The Man agrees.
“One, two, three.” The two men jump in Juan’s car. They make it inside. It’s still running. The Man slams the car into first gear and floors it.
“Follow the forklift. He’s trying to get out of here too,” The Suit directs. The Man puts his foot down.
The stiff suspension of the slammed BMW wagon is unforgiving. The two men are bounced, bumped, and banged all over the interior of the car as they try to follow the monster machine over the rutted, potholed, washboard surface of the yard.
Juan then does the unthinkable. He drives the massive forklift through the back fence of the yard and vanishes.
46. Caldwell, Idaho
“Where’d he go?” The Suit demands.
“There! He’s through the fence and going down the hill.” The Man spots Juan in the forklift trying to get to the street.
“Follow him!” The Suit orders.
“County Three, SWAT commander, we have five in custody, but two are heading to the back of the yard in a BMW wagon. We lost sight of the forklift and driver.”
“Roger, command, we’re on it.” Lash turns the cruiser to chase the BMW.
“Where did they go?” García asks.
“There, through the fence,” Lash says as he rounds a pile of crushed cars and sees a flash of sunlight glint off the roof of the BMW. “García, you always wanted to fly, right?” He presses the accelerator to the floor, and the supercharged engine screams.
“Oh Jesús, María y José!” García exclaims. She puts her feet up on the dash to prepare for what she knows is coming.
The BMW wagon is bowling, bouncing, and plowing its way down the hillside.
“Let the cops take him. Let’s get out of here,” The Man objects as he tries to control the car that is now careening down the hill that ends at Caldwell Boulevard, about fifty yards ahead.
“I want that punk. If the cops get to him first, he’ll rat us out. We need to finish him. Then we’ll make a run for it,” The Suit says as the BMW slams the ground hard and jolts the men’s heads against the headliner and windows.
“Jeez, take it easy, will ya?” The Suit complains as the car finds another rough spot on the hillside and bottoms out. He reaches over and grabs his seat belt.
“It’s this car. The thing has no freaking’ suspension and it’s practically dragging on the ground already,” The Man says.
“Crazy Latino car freaks,” The Suit complains.
“You’re a crazy Latino,” The Man says.
“Shut up and drive,” The Suit orders.
The crime bosses finally get to the street and turn right. The wheels of the wagon squeal and find purchase. The turbo-charged engine revs, and the car bolts down the street. The forklift is about two blocks ahead. Juan looks in the forklift’s mirror to see his own car come off the hill in a cloud of dust and turn his way. He has the throttle of the forklift on the floor, but he pushes harder and prays for more speed.
“County Three, stay with the BMW wagon. It’s westbound on Caldwell, chasing the forklift,” Air-One directs Lash and García.
“One, we’re on it,” García says over the radio.
“Oh baby. Hang on, Ginger!” Lash yells over the engine noise as the police car goes airborne and then gravity takes over. It’s a roller-coaster ride. Just like coming over the big hill. García’s butt comes off the seat as her seat belt strains to hold her in place.Cups, pens, paper are all lifted toward the roof as they find negative gravity. It lasts just a moment and wham, they slam into the earth and blast down the hill following the path cleared by the forklift and the Lowrider.
“County Three, this is Air-One. Your subjects are westbound on Caldwell Boulevard. They’re about three blocks ahead,” the chopper pilot reports.
“Roger, Air-One. Stay on the car. The players are in the car,” García directs.
“Will do, Three.”
The Ford Interceptor reaches the pavement. Lash cranks the wheel to the right, and the rear tires scream as smoke rises, and the pungent smell of burning rubber mixes with the clean morning air and permeates the interior of the car.
“Light us up,” Lash orders, and García reaches out and toggles the switches that turn on the blue-and-red strobe lights. The stealthy undercover vehicle is now the most noticeable thing on the road, except for the speeding forklift.
“I can see Air-One about two blocks ahead,” García reports, knowing the chopper will be right above the suspects.
“County Three, state patrol units are paralleling you on the interstate. They’ll be able to meet up in about four miles. Until then, you’re it,” Air-One reports.
“Thanks, Air-One. We have the subject vehicles in sight,” García says over the radio.
The Man and The Suit are so intent on catching Juan that they don’t see the police car coming up hard from behind. The Suit puts the passenger-side window down. He pulls the pistol from his jacket pocket, reaches out the window, and fires at the huge machine.
“Whoa, that’s a game changer. Hit the siren,” Lash says and gets ready to take the BMW out.
The car’s siren blares out a warning that danger is coming—fast.
“Air-One, County Three, shots fired. Repeat, shots fired,” García informs.
“Three, roger,” the pilot says. He relays the information to the other units.
Juan rakes the big lift truck left and right, back and forth across the road to keep the wagon behind him. More shots are fired. The bullets ricochet off the impenetrable steel body and frame of the forklift.
“We’re gonna use a PIT maneuver on the car. I’ll catch him on the left,” Lash tells García.
“We don’t have any backup yet,” García says.
“We don’t have a choice. That idiot’s going to get someone killed. Tell Air-One to stay with us,” he says.
“Air-One, this is Three. We’re going to PIT the wagon. Stick with us in case they run,” she tells the pilot.
The forklift moves right, and the wagon goes left to try to get alongside for a shot.
“Other way, darn it! Move the other way!” Lash yells at the forklift, knowing he can’t be heard.
The monster lift truck comes back hard left to slam the door on the wagon. The car hits the brakes to avoid being crushed. Lash backs off to give them room. The wagon bolts to the right and accelerates.
“This is it,” Lash tells García. She grabs the dash and gets ready for the controlled crash.
Lash drives up on the wagon’s left side and puts his right-front fender next to the wagon’s left-rear quarter panel. The Man sees it happen, but there’s no place to go. He can’t go faster because the forklift is blocking him. He can’t go left because Lash is there. There are parked cars to his right. But, he can slam on his brakes. Just as The Man’s left foot touches the brake pedal, Lash turns the police car hard right.
García’s world slows and everything becomes incredibly clear. As the police car moves right, she’s thrown violently to the left and grabs the door handle in desperation. Suspended in her seat belt, she watches the wagon lose control and start a spin. Every detail of the car in front of her is vivid—scratches in the paint, the cracked windshield, bumper stickers, and the frenzied driver.
There is surprise and fear in the driver’s eyes, and a cruel grimace of anger on his mouth as he cranks the wheel to correct the slide. The wagon moves in a surreal fashion. It’s like watching Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in the Matrix. It’s all in super slow motion. García waits. She looks into the car and sees the passengers spinning away. Suddenly, the speed of everything goes from slow-mo to fast-forward.
The PIT, or precision intervention technique, usually makes the lead car spin away as the pursuit car moves out of the way. Just as Lash drives the front of his car into the rear of the wagon, the wagon’s left-rear wheel loses traction, and the car starts to spin to the right. Usually that’s it, a spin. Not this time.
The instant the wagon starts to spin, The Man stomps the brake pedal to the floor. The right-side wheels lock up and the car flips and starts rolling. It rolls over and over. The car begins to disintegrate. Sheet metal, wheels, and parts fly in all directions as if they’re being ripped and thrown by an unseen force. The glass in the windows explodes like a bomb and moves through the air like crystal shrapnel. The radiator bursts, spewing boiling water everywhere. The driver’s-side door on the wagon explodes open, rips itself from the car, and something catapults out.
The police cruiser races by on the right. The wagon loses momentum. It rolls once more and finally lands right side up. It’s a wreck. It smolders, hisses, and steams with spent energy. The top is crushed. Every surface is dented and damaged. An arm hangs from the passenger-side window. Blood drips from the fingertips.
Lash brakes quickly, looks into the mirror, takes a deep breath, and turns the Ford around. He barrels toward the wagon and stops just a few feet from the destroyed vehicle. He and García take a moment to survey the damage.
Parts of the car litter the road and sidewalk. Dazed pedestrians and shop owners slowly emerge from the spaces they ducked into and watch the cops work.
“Control, this is County Three. We need medical and backup in the four-hundred block of Caldwell Boulevard. We have a single-car rollover with multiple injuries,” García requests as she unbuckles and opens her door.
Lash is already out of the car. García puts a foot out but remains seated and composes herself. She’s never seen a human being become a flying object before.
“Three, roger. Backup should be arriving anytime. We’ll roll the medics.”
“Roger, we’ll be on the HTs,” García advises, telling the radio operator she and Lash are going on their portable radios.
Air-One circles overhead. He can see the state troopers coming from the interstate. They’ll be on scene in about one minute. He didn’t see anyone try to leave the scene. Lash and García are moving. They’re between the wreck and something on the ground. The chopper pilot sees them move carefully to the shape on the ground.
“How is he?” García asks.
“Alive—not conscious but alive,” Lash responds.
“Should I get the first-aid kit?” García asks, looking at the bloody mess that used to be The Man.
“No. Just stay with him. Don’t let him move if he comes to. He might have neck injuries. I’ll check the car,” Lash says and moves toward the destroyed BMW.
Pulling his weapon as he approaches the passenger’s-side door, he looks into the shattered mirror and sees The Suit moving.
“Police. Get your hands where I can see ’em,” Lash orders.
The Suit tries to move. Before the chase, he had time to put his seat belt on, so he wasn’t thrown from the car. He’s able to hang his right hand out the window, but that’s about all he can do.
The pain starts to trickle into his body. “I can’t move my left arm. I think it’s busted.” Lash inches up on the door until he can clearly see The Suit’s left hand. It’s empty.
“Help is on the way. Just so you understand, you’re under arrest.”
The Suit laughs, coughs blood, and then grimaces with pain. The taste of iron and salt fill his mouth. Slowly, he moves his right hand to his mouth. It’s the only part of his body he has control over. He puts his hand to his lips and draws it back. It’s covered in scarlet. The trickle of pain has become a flood of agony. Reality. His lights begin to darken and then fade to black. The last thing The Suit remembers is the state police pulling up.
“Sheriff, what’s the status?” the lead trooper asks.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. We used a PIT maneuver, and the thing just flipped and rolled,” Lash says as he watches the medical team remove The Man from the street.
The Suit is unconscious as the medics extract him from the destroyed car. His left arm dangles like a puppet’s limb. His legs are twisted and broken. His three-thousand-dollar suit is covered in blood.
“He looks pretty bad,” the trooper observes.
“I think he’ll make it to trial. But not too much further,” Lash says.
“Well, it’s going to be a long time before he gets to go for a ride like that again,” the trooper says.
“I’m good for a while too,” Lash offers.
“Talking about rides.” Lash keys his mic and calls the chopper. “Air-One, do you have eyes on the forklift?”
“Negative. I had him westbound on Caldwell Boulevard. When I came back up after securing the crash scene, he was gone.”
“Okay, start looking. We need that guy for a lot of reasons.”
Lash looks at the senior state trooper on the scene.
“If the guy on the forklift is Juan Antonio Hernandez, he’s wanted for a bunch of stuff, starting with murder in LA. García just got a tip, and he may be tied up in a double homicide here,” Lash adds.
“And I thought I was chasing the bad boys. We’ll get this scene cleaned up. You and García can go. Good hunting,” the trooper says and takes charge of the scene.
“García, we’re moving,” Lash calls to his partner as he moves to the Ford.
She runs to their car and jumps in. “What’s up?” she asks as Lash puts the fast Ford into gear and points it west.
“Juan Antonio Hernandez, that’s what’s up. Get a BOLO out on him right now. We’re going to find him—today!” Lash declares.
Ginger García picks up the radio mic and calls Dispatch. “Control, this is County Three with an all-points.”
“Three, I’m ready to copy. Go ahead with your BOLO,” the dispatcher replies.
“All units, be on the lookout for Juan Antonio Hernandez.
A Hispanic male, six feet, approximately twenty-three years old, brown eyes, black hair. Last seen in the vicinity of 400 and Caldwell Boulevard. Probably on foot. May be injured, but is desperate and armed. Wanted in questioning regarding a gunfight today in Caldwell and a homicide in Ada County. Approach with extreme caution, county Three out.”
“County Three, we copy your transmission and will disseminate statewide. Control clear.”
47. Boise, Idaho
If being in Alberto’s life brought out feelings and emotions I’d never felt before, then his death is doing more of the same. I have to be careful. I have to use my brains and not my emotions. The Team is counting on me. I’m counting on them.
“So what are you going to do?” Liz asks me.
We’ve been at the coffee shop for a while. We’re talked out, I’m cried out, and we’re all exhausted. I know what I want to do and what I need to do. Blues Cluz needs to run. For Alberto, for all of us, we need to run that program but not today. I look at Liz and give her a thankful smile.
“Hey, guys, how about we call it quits for today. I want to go home to Maribel. I want to go to bed and sleep until tomorrow,” I say and yawn. I’m exhausted.
I’m sitting on a couch next to José. He leans over, wraps a burly arm around my shoulders, and gives me a big-brother hug. That’s a new feeling for me, a big brother.
“I’ll drive you home if you want.”
“I’m good. I just need my sister and to be alone for a while,” I tell them. I catch the glances between Liz and Will.
“I’m okay. I’m really okay. I just need some downtime, but I want to hit it hard in the morning. We all need to see that program run. Alberto would want that. Some of his best work has gone into it,” I say.
Heads nod. This is another new feeling. They all care about me. They’ve become more than friends. They are now mi familia.
“I agree. Let’s get an early jump on it. How about seven o’clock at the school?I’ll get the coffee and doughnuts,” Will offers.
“Sí, everyone up and out of bed. Ándale! Seven sharp,” José agrees.
“Works for me. We need to see what we’ve created,” Liz adds.
“Okay, thank you all for being here with me. I’ve never had friends like you before. He’s gone, the hurt is ripping me apart, but you make it easier to take,” I start to bubble again. Is this what it’s going to be like? Every time I think about Alberto, every time I say something about him; am I going to cry?
“Jake, I’ll go with you. You shouldn’t be alone tonight,” Liz offers and puts her arms around me.
I sob, choke it down, and harden up.
“I won’t be. Maribel is there. She doesn’t know about Alberto yet. I need to do this part alone. She’ll be there for me,” I reassure her.
I’m thinking about Maribel now. From the first time she met Alberto, she liked him right away. She was so impressed at his easygoing way and that he would take time to speak with her. She could tell he cared for me. She’s tough and doesn’t give her approval easily. This will devastate her.
“I wish I could do more. I…I just don’t know what to do.” A tear rolls down Liz’s cheek.
“You have no idea what you’ve done for me, Liz. Without you, this would have been the worst day of my life. With you being here, it’s only the second worst day of my life.” I try to smile with my eyes, but bite my lower lip to hold back the tears.
Then I see it. She doesn’t understand. She’s hearing my literal words. Damn, I forgot. She pushes back, cringes, and starts to wail.
“Liz, Liz…it’s okay. I didn’t mean it was a bad day because of you. I meant…I just meant—”
She stops me and then wraps her arms around me again.
“I know what you mean, Jake. For the first time in my life, I know someone else’s pain. You have lost so much and yet you’re worried about my feelings. I’m so selfish and inept. You go to your family, but promise you’ll call me if you need anything,” she whispers in my ear. Her tears wet my hair. Once again, I’m reminded of our precious friendship.
“You are part of my family, and if I need anything, I call you first, amiga,” I assure her. Our embrace is long and full of truths for us both.
“You guys are the best. I’ll see you at seven. Tomorrow will be a big day,” I tell them as we head to the parking lot.
As I sit behind the wheel of the car, my plan becomes clearer. I am living through the stages of grief. I’ve done it before. That doesn’t make it easier or less painful, but I’m not the same person I was before. I’m older. I’m experienced, and in some sad ways, I’m harder, tougher.
Shock, denial, guilt, pain, anger, and bargaining are the stages of grief. I am hurting. I have no guilt. Someone else, someone who’s evil or sick or both is responsible. That’s the person who will pay. I’ve moved very quickly to anger. I will use that anger and something else. I don’t know who did this, but I do have a name and something else that person doesn’t. I have Blues Cluz.
It will do a lot more than Lash and García asked for. It is more than a compiler program. It’s also a search engine, a very powerful, fast search engine. It can sift through the databases we have access to faster than they can tell we’re there, thanks to Miss G and her incredible computer lab.
One other thing: Alberto, my beautiful, smart, wonderful Alberto, created back doors into all the databases so we can update anytime we want. It also means we can search anytime we want. Blues Cluz is a weapon. It’s not a gun or a knife, but it can be used like one. I didn’t create this program to fill that need. I created something we could all look to as an accomplishment. Blues Cluz needed it, but I wanted it to be more, and it is.
I am focused, I’m angry, and I’m determined. I was beaten down before and left helpless and weak. Well, not this time! If you learn one thing in the hood, it’s that second chances are precious. This is my second chance. You can take the girl out of the hood, and a girl from the hood can take it out on you.
48. Caldwell, Idaho
Juan moves on foot. He’s injured, scared, and on the run. He’s ditched the forklift at a construction site behind some other heavy machinery. He’s found a temporary sanctuary. The place appears empty. He scurries like a wounded animal from cover to cover. The injury to his arm continues to bleed. He has patched it and tied it off with his belt and dirty rags. He senses the weariness and the sweet siren song of shock beginning to softly embrace him. That’s when he sees a lone figure in one of the outbuildings.
“Yeah, babe, I have one more delivery today, and I’ll be home. How’s Jimmy?” The conversation emanates from a small storage garage, Juan is now hiding behind.
It’s someone on a cell phone. Juan can hear one side of the conversation. Juan needs a phone and a car. He needs them now. He eavesdrops a little longer and checks the magazine of his pistol. Two rounds left.
“Okay, I’ll stop by the drugstore and get his cough syrup. What’s his fever been like?…Well, that’s better. Give him his teddy bear and keep him cool. I’ll be home in an hour.”
The conversation is over. Juan sees his quarry move about the small garage. He moves quickly to get behind the man. The first blow is to the back of the man’s head. He goes down on one knee. Dazed but conscious, the man reacts, spins, and comes up fighting. The first punch grazes Juan’s face as he pulls back. The second comes hard and fast and connects with Juan’s midsection. The air explodes from Juan’s lungs, and he drops. This guy is a street brawler and has the advantage. Juan scrambles and crawls as he tries to regain his wind.
This guy is coming—steel-toed boots on a hard concrete floor bring death closer to Juan a step at a time. The floor is covered in sand and grit. Crunch, crunch, crunch. The boots come closer. A groan like the sound of a worker lifting a heavy load. It’s a signal. Juan instinctively rolls right.
A heavy sledgehammer lands scant inches from Juan’s head. Concrete shatters, dust flies. Juan knows the next swing will get him. He rolls to his left as the worker prepares what he plans to be the death blow. One chance left. Juan draws the pistol.
Juan remembers the phone conversation he eavesdropped on. This guy has a family, a sick kid, but Juan doesn’t care. He wants to kill him. Hammer Man has the massive mallet raised, ready to strike. He pauses a split second as he sees the gun.
The human knee is a magnificent machine. The femur and tibia meet at this flexible juncture to allow walking, running, and mobility. The patella, the kneecap, is a meeting place for ligaments, tendons, and tissue. It is also relatively round and convex in shape.
A hollow-point bullet has one mission in life. As it strikes a surface, it comes apart. It does this so that it might create as much damage on a human body as possible. Juan uses hollow-point bullets. Juan pulls the trigger.
The round fired from his gun strikes the Hammer Man’s left knee precisely on the kneecap. The bone shatters and becomes dangerous shrapnel itself. The bone fragments and pieces of hot metal to begin moving through the liquid capsule that is the knee’s lubrication system at a fantastic speed. They shred, tear, rip, and burn their way through every tendon, ligament, and sinew of Hammer Man’s knee. The joint is vaporized, but Hammer Man is alive.
Juan moves quickly. The cops will be here soon, he knows, so the guy will make it, maybe. He goes through the Hammer Man’s pockets. Keys, phone, billfold with cash and credit cards. Juan takes it all except the credit cards. Can’t use credit cards. They’re red flags and easy to track. Juan presses the panic button on the key fob. A horn sounds nearby. Hammer Man drives a pickup. Juan locates it quickly, gets in, and drives away.
The air unit, Lash, and García begin a thorough search, starting from the last-known position of the forklift. More than an hour later, Air-One spots something.
“Okay, there’s a construction yard about two blocks ahead of you on your right. I’m seeing, maybe, a big forklift parked in between some other equipment,” the pilot reports.
They’ve driven past this site twice in the last hour. Lash is kicking himself for missing it. “Well, duh! Why park a forklift in a mall parking lot when you can park it around a bunch of construction equipment?” he bellows at himself.
“We all missed it, Nick. Don’t go emo on me, bro,” García soothes.
“You are spending way too much time at BLUES,” he counters. They smile. Lash pulls the car into the lot, and they exit.
“Listen,” he says with a raised hand.
Moaning and screams emanate from an open shop door.
García rushes headlong toward the door.
“Ginger, wait,” Lash orders, but she’s already in the shop. He comes at full speed to back her up.
As he enters, he sees Hammer Man lying in a pool of blood. He’s white as a ghost and starting to lose consciousness.
“Lash, we have to move him fast,” García says.
“Get his legs, careful of the wound. We’ll use the car as a shield. You get his vitals, and I’ll cover,” Lash directs.
Hammer Man convulses in pain as they move to safety. García gets on her radio.
“Control, County Three, we need backup and medical at…where are we?” García asks Lash.
“Tri County Construction, corner of Caldwell and Isaiah,” he replies.
Lash establishes a field of fire to cover García. It’s quiet. There’s no movement. He can hear the huff-huff-huff of the chopper’s rotor blades over his head.
“He’s alive. Looks like he’s been beaten, bad head wound, defensive wounds to the hands, GSW to the leg. I have a heartbeat and respiration,” she observes.
“Looks like Juan’s work,” Lash notes as he walks over and picks up an RJ Enterprises jacket from the forklift.
“This guy is gonna be okay. He needs help, but he’s gonna be okay.”
“Can you get him to talk? Can he tell us anything?” Lash asks.
“I’ll try,” García starts to bring the man back to consciousness.
“Hey, buddy, come on. Can you hear me? If you can hear me, squeeze my hand,” she tells him.
A squeeze, some movement. The injured man groans. “Give me that jacket,” García demands. And Lash passes it to her. García folds the coat and places it under the man’s head. She comforts him with her tone and eases him back to consciousness.
“It’s okay, we’re the police. What happened to you?” she questions.
He’s groggy, probably in shock. She doesn’t want to push it too far because he might have a concussion, and he has lost blood.
“What’s your name?” she asks him. This is more of a test of his level of awareness. Lash found the discarded wallet on the ground in the shop. He pulls it out of his pocket and checks the ID.
Hammer Man’s eyes open haltingly. As the searing pain shoots up his leg and into his brain, he screams. Garciá places her bare hands just above his knee to help slow the blood loss. Hammer Man struggles and thrashes in pain.
“Lash, get the med kit,” she demands.
He already has it and is preparing a tourniquet. He hands her a pair of gloves and takes her place, putting pressure on the guy’s leg. García gloves up and applies the pressure bandage quickly. Hammer Man starts to relax.
“Okay, help is coming. What’s your name?” García asks.
He relaxes a little and speaks. “Matt. That guy hit me and shot me.”
“Yes, Matt. He did, and help is coming. Why did he do this to you?” García asks.
“I don’t know,” comes the stunned reply as Matt starts to piece things together. “I was just calling my wife, and he jumped me from behind and hit me. I tried to stop him, but he kept hitting me. I grabbed the hammer, but he had a gun. That’s all I remember,” the dazed victim reports and starts to slip back into unconsciousness.
García knows she has to keep him awake until the medics arrive. “Matt, Matt, stay with me,” she orders and shakes him gently. He comes back to her.
“Ask him what kind of car he drives and where his keys are,” Lash demands.
“I heard him,” Matt says and continues in a staggered tone. “I drive an F-150 pickup. It’s red, and the keys are in my pocket,” Matt answers.
García searches his pockets professionally and rapidly. Nothing. She looks at Lash and shakes her head.
“Control, this is County Three. We are now looking for a red Ford F-150 pickup with one male occupant. This would be our subject. The truck left our location within the hour, destination unknown,” Lash reports to the Dispatch center.
“County Three, roger. Medics and backup are responding and should reach you in the next two minutes.”
“County Three, roger.”
Lash looks at García as she ministers to the wounded man. She wanted to be a nurse, maybe a doctor. Her family didn’t have that kind of money. She’s ex-military like him. Straight out of high school into the marines. She’s tough. She’s seen death up close. She won’t lose this guy. Her hands work fast and sure. She’s got the wound exposed and is packing it with gauze. Hammer Man might need a new knee, but he’ll see his family today, thanks to her.
“We’re moving, Ginger.”
“We can’t leave him, Nick,” she stands firm. “As soon as we have backup.”
“Juan has a big lead,” Lash pushes.
“We’re not leaving Matt,” she says with emphasis on every word.
Thirty seconds later, the medics come through the gates.
“Now, Ginger, now!” Lash demands.
She looks at him, and he reads her gaze: You get in the car and shut up. I have to deal with this.
A few minutes later, she’s in the car. Lash slams it into gear and blasts out of the parking lot.
“You know where he’s going,” Lash says.
“Yeah, I know. He’s going to RJ. We have to stop him, Nick,” Garciá says as she hits the switches for lights and siren.
“We may be too late. Get us some backup. Tell LT we’re on the way and coming in heavy,” he says and puts his right foot to the floor.
Coming in heavy means “Take no chances. Bring the biggest gun you have.”
49. Caldwell, Idaho
The Junkyard Jungle is a mangled maze of thousands of cars. Pilar and Romero have inventoried them all. This meticulous record system is the key to their business. Today it will become their greatest mistake and the key to their destruction. Inside their computer files are the identification numbers of every car they have ever bought, sold, or stolen.
Juan Antonio Hernandez does not care about business. He does not care about profits or losses. Right now, he cares about survival. He knows he is wanted. The cartel is chasing him. Every cop in Idaho wants a piece of him, so he has to run. To do that, he needs two things—money and a different car. He has neither right now, but he plans to have both very soon.
The main entrance to the Jungle is on Garrity Boulevard. There’s a back gate to the yard just off Forty-Second Street. Juan has a key to the gate, and he uses it now. He gets back into the stolen truck. He moves slowly, scanning the lot for any movement. He knows the reach of the security cameras does not extend to the back of the lot. He drives slowly, looking for just the right place to ditch the red truck. He sees two old school buses and eases the red pickup between them.
He slips out of the cab, quietly closes the door, and creeps around one of the buses. He surveys the path to the shops and main office. It’s quiet. The place almost seems deserted. Juan chooses his path to the office. He knows there are four security cameras watching over the yard. Two are far to his right and not a problem. The other two are the ones he’s concerned about. The cameras gradually rotate from left to right. He waits until he can tell the cameras are moving together. As soon as they begin their sweep to the left, he makes his move.
Pilar is working at her computer in the office. She scans the security monitors out of habit to be sure no one is sneaking in and poaching parts. She notices some movement and stops her work to study the displays. Seeing nothing after a few moments, she goes back to her work. Right now the lot is vacant. She and Romero are the only ones there. He’s in the shop, getting the NSX ready for transport. They found a match for it in Nevada. The wrecked car arrived yesterday, and the guys worked all night to do the swap. Romero gave the men the day off for the effort.
The swap—the crucial tactic to the way Romero steals cars—is old and new school combined. First, Romero and his crew have to steal a car. That’s the easy part. Today’s cars are protected by alarm systems, satellite tracking, laser-cut keys, and keyless ignitions. Romero has purchased, designed, and created devices to defeat all these safeguards.
One thief steals the car, sometimes in broad daylight from a mall or right off the street, while his accomplice waits nearby.
Once they have the car, it needs to be hidden. Romero has used many methods, but the favorite is the “rolling blind.” The crooks hide the car in a truck or in a covered trailer. It has to look like it belongs where it is, like the food delivery truck. His crews are masters at getting a car off the street as fast as possible.
That’s the first step.
Next, they completely change the identity of the car. Not the color or the interior, but the electronic identification. Romero has a car dealer’s license and is allowed to buy wrecks at auto auctions. The thieves take all the identification numbers off a wrecked car and transfer them to the hot car. Fake identification tags are placed where the authorities would look. An acid wash is used to erase the numbers on the stolen car’s engine, and Romero’s crew stamps the new numbers on it.
Finally, the wrecked car’s “black-box” is installed in the stolen car, if it’s working.
Within a day or two, the stolen car is masquerading as a rebuilt car they bought at a car auction. The wreck goes into the Jungle, without any identification numbers on it, and is parted out, creating another flow of cash. The stolen car has vanished. With its new identity, the stolen car is sold as a rebuild, totally legal and totally up front.
This can’t be done without precision and planning. Romero and Pilar know the cars that are wanted, and those are the ones they take. The average turnaround time is seventy-two hours. The average profit is over ten thousand dollars per car.
The local cops look at their numbers of stolen cars. The cops have no clue. This isn’t a local operation. Romero and his men are working over a five-state area, and they also do work for other crews. In Ada County, the numbers are about two hundred to three hundred cars per year.
The reality is much more sobering. In the last three years, Romero and his band have moved over ten thousand cars. It’s a lucrative business, and when it’s tied to their legitimate business, the money is big.
Pilar has found a buyer for the NSX in California. She and Romero are taking a few days off to take the car there. They hardly ever do this, but Romero is heeding her warning. The whole operation is going to chill until they see what the cops are up to. If Romero had listened to her a week earlier, things might be very different now.
Juan comes to the office door, takes hold of the knob, and turns it.
The day is quiet. It’s cool, and Pilar has the windows open. Pilar hears footsteps approaching on the concrete sidewalk. She checks the monitors and just makes out a man coming her way. There are no cars in the parking area, and no one is waiting at the gate. She is immediately on guard. She opens her desk drawer, which contains her pepper spray, and also touches the silent alarm that signals danger to the shop.
The handle on the door turns and opens, and Juan comes in. Neither the expression on his face, nor his disheveled appearance reassure her.
“Hola, Pilar, cómo estás?”
She notes his torn, soiled clothing and what appears to be dried blood, a lot of it.
“Bien, Juan, qué pasa?”
“I was just coming by to see if you guys need any help today. I know everyone is off because of the NSX swap, so where’s Romero?” Juan asks, his eyes darting left and right.
“He’s in the shop with four or five guys, buyers from Colorado,” she lies.
Juan senses the angst in her tone and body language. He knows she’s lying. She and her husband are alone today.
“Oh, okay. I’ll go over and see if I can help, but first can you check my time card?” he asks, moving quickly around the counter and toward her.
Pilar turns her back on him, reaches into the drawer for the pepper spray, and pulls it out of its case. She turns on her office chair, but it’s too late. His fist is in her face. She rockets backward on the wheeled office chair. She’s dazed but still tries to raise the weapon and fire it. He strikes again and again and once more. The spray can falls from her grasp.
She looks up at Juan through eyes that are starting to swell from the beating. Her face is bloodied, she can’t focus, and she is losing consciousness.
“You creep. You piece of crap,” she says and is just able to watch as his fist finds her face once more, and she’s out.
Juan grabs the pepper spray off the floor and shoves it into his right pocket. He moves to the safe and tries the door. It’s open! He takes a knee and prays fast. Juan looks inside and sees the cash box. He pulls it out and throws it against the floor. The box bursts open. He grabs all the bills, not wasting time to count them, and puts the cash in his left pocket. Juan gets to his feet and turns. Romero is standing on the other side of the counter with a sawed-off shotgun pointed at him.
“Juan, amigo, what’s up?” Romero asks, taking in the damage of the office.
The open safe, the busted cash box, and, worst of all, Pilar. Juan knows he’s dead. He has one move.
“Jefe, I’m on the run. I need cash and a car and I’ll be gone,” he says, trying to buy seconds. He knows this man will not let him go.
Romero sees the cash sticking out of Juan’s pocket, and his greed takes over. It’s just the break Juan needs.
“Juan, take the cash out of your pocket and put it on the desk. Then we’ll talk,” Romero directs.
Juan smiles inwardly. He has Romero now. He turns to his right to show Romero the cash in his left pocket. Juan takes it from his pocket as his other hand slips to the pepper spray in his right pocket. He turns quickly, covering the weapon with the money.
“You want your money, Romero? Here it is,” Juan says and throws the bills into the air. It’s a fake. Romero’s eyes follow the cash. Juan points the can of pepper spray at Romero’s face and fires.
Romero sees the stream from the weapon and knows what’s coming. The liquid covers Romero’s face, and he involuntarily inhales. Juan keeps his finger on the button and empties the can as Romero goes down.
Romero’s finger is on the shotgun’s trigger. The gun rises and swings left and right as Romero seeks his target through injured eyes.
Juan hits the floor just as the gun erupts. The window behind Juan shatters as buckshot blasts through it. Juan is up fast. He grabs the empty cash box and throws it at Romero. It connects, and Romero drops to the floor. The gun erupts again, but this time it fires its load into the counter of the office. The gun is empty.
Romero is on the floor. Juan gathers the scattered bills from the floor and rounds the counter. Romero lies temporarily paralyzed on the ground.
“Lo siento, Jefe. I have to go. I know you’ll miss me. But that’s the way it is,” Juan says as he rifles through Romero’s pockets. He finds another thousand dollars, the keys to a car, and more shells for the gun. He looks the keys over carefully. They belong to the NSX.
“Ah, Romero, you put a new ignition in the NSX. This hot little car is ready to go. Looks like I’ll travel in style. So long, Romero. Killing car thieves is becoming a habit,” Juan says as he picks up the shotgun.
He points it at Romero’s head and pulls the trigger. No shot, it’s empty. Romero looks at him but can’t move. Juan flips the gun, grabs it by the barrel, and uses it like a club. Romero is out. Juan opens the office door and runs.
50. Boise, Idaho
Part of me is burning with anger, but I keep it hidden, contained. It’s not the time. Something else is driving me. I find comfort in coldly calculating what to do. I know Blues Cluz can find any car and connect it to the owner, but two elements are unknown. How do I use it to find Juan Antonio Hernandez, and what am I capable of when I find him?
I pull into my driveway, park the car, and shut off the engine. I sit, taking in the stillness of the early afternoon. I’m still, but my mind works furiously. The fresh air wafts through the open windows and soothes me. I suddenly realize that I’m totally exhausted.
I have to tell, I want to tell. No. I need to tell Maribel about Alberto. I need to do this and keep moving. He’s gone. He’s dead, but I can hear his voice telling me to keep moving forward. Ten months ago, I’d be dreading this. Ten months ago, I probably wouldn’t have left the house this morning. Ten months ago, I didn’t have a plan or a clue.
I wish Alberto were here. He had the skill and experience with cars and computers that I lack. I’m in the middle of a circular argument, circular logic. If Alberto were still alive, this wouldn’t be happening. If this wasn’t happening, Alberto would still be alive.
It’s the Woozle effect. I’ve studied it in computer classes. It’s a circular argument, a loop. I’m not following my own footprints around a tree like Pooh Bear and Piglet. I’m looking for something real, something tangible. I’m looking for something dangerous. Alberto is not here. I’m on my own.
I grab my backpack, open the car door, and head into the house. Maribel is on her hands and knees on the kitchen floor, scrubbing. She has her earbuds in and doesn’t hear me. She has it cranked, and I can hear some old-school Latin sounds emanating from her head. She works in rhythm to the beat. I chuckle to myself and put my stuff down. She sees my shadow and turns.
“Hermana, I didn’t hear you,” she says too loudly and takes out the buds.
With no makeup, her long, black hair pulled back and rolled into a bun, and wearing cutoffs and a Che Guevara T-shirt, she looks beautiful. Maribel is a natural beauty. She gets up from her work and comes to hug me. She smells of Pine Sol and Happy, a weird combo.
“Jake, you’re home early. What’s up?”
“Sit down. I have some really terrible news.”
She sits with anticipation in her eyes. I tell her.
A half hour later, I’m back in her arms, and my face is soaked.
“There is no justice for you, Jake. There is nothing I can say to soothe you. You haven’t even had your Quinceañera.”
I gulp air in between sobs. I missed my quince, the celebration of my fifteenth birthday, because I had no home, no family, no one to celebrate with. By the time I got to Boise, I was sixteen. We had a new home to make, and school was starting. My seventeenth birthday is coming soon. My quince just got missed. It just didn’t happen.
“Sis, I have an idea. I don’t have a scepter or a tiara, but I do have something special to give you. It won’t heal you. It won’t bring Alberto back, but it’s something you can hold onto that may bring you some comfort.”
My sister stands and looks at me through tear-swollen eyes. She tilts her head to one side and smiles.
“I love you, Jake.”
“I love you too, Mari.” She walks to her room to get something special.
She returns a few minutes later with a wooden box. It has a delicate carving on the lid. Somehow, I recognize it. It’s small and has a rich, old-world luster to it.
“Jake, your Mamá gave me this years ago. I’ve always kept it in a safe place. I wanted to save it for your wedding day, but I believe now is a good time.”
She sets the old, ornate box on the table between us.
“Open it,” she instructs.
I carefully slide the box closer. The carving on the lid becomes clearer. It’s a horse rearing back on its hind legs, its long mane and tail flying wildly in the wind. It’s almost as if it were alive, ready to jump free and run. I trace its form with my fingers and feel Mamá’s strength radiating from the wood. She used to touch this. It was part of her life, and now it’s part of mine.
The lid is hinged with shiny brass with a small brass clasp on the front to hold it closed. I look to Maribel. She nods. I snap it open and lift the lid. Inside is a dark-blue velvet bag and nothing else. I touch its warm, smooth gentleness. I lift it with the gold-braided ties that secure its opening. It’s odd. It has heft but is also light and airy.
I lay the bag on the table in front of me. I pull the gold ties open and reach into the bag. I feel something. No, many things. Metal. Warm metal. I take them out and place them in front of me.
The afternoon sunlight streaming through our kitchen window illuminates four gold hair sticks, each one about seven inches long with a shimmering gemstone at one end. The sticks are slowly twisted with a point on the end that goes into the hair. They are dazzling, simple, and as elegant as Mamá was.
“She gave them to me for safekeeping when your father left. She was worried. If you were robbed, they would disappear. She always meant them for you.”
“They’re beautiful. They’re so fragile, but they are so strong,” I say.
“You have the hair for them. We just need to work with it,” Maribel says with a smirk.
I laugh. I haven’t cut my hair since that night. It’s just past my shoulders now, but it’s a mess. It’s longer, but I still don’t know what to do with it. I look at Maribel. She reads me like a book. I want to wear these—tonight!
“First, we wash it and then we go to work, chica,” she says with a broad smile, and I clap my hands in joy like a little girl. In this ocean of grief, I’ve found an island of solace.
51. Boise, Idaho
Juan Antonio is hurt. He’s bleeding from the cut on his arm. He has also found an entry wound in his shoulder. Seems The Suit’s aim wasn’t so bad after all. He needs help, and he has no friends right now. It’s time to find a place to hole up and get healed. There’s one place, one person, he believes he can find and force to help him, but it won’t be easy.
Juan has much to think about. He just committed felony robbery, and he may have killed Romero and Pilar. He shot the guy in the construction yard, and the cartel wants him. And then there’s this Jake person. Someone who he’s never met, trying to help the police catch him. Things must change. He checks the contact list on his phone for the address, puts the NSX in gear, and heads for a safe harbor.
Between the melee at the crushing yard, the rollover involving The Suit and Hammer Man’s beating, the sheriff’s department is stretched to its limits. LT wants to be at the Jungle to take down Romero, but he’s tied up at the crushing yard. He has cut the SWAT team loose to cover García and Lash.
“Control, County Three, we’re arriving at the junkyard on Garrity,” García reports.
“County Three, roger. SWAT is about two minutes out.”
“Roger, control. Advise Sam four and five to meet us in the office,” García requests.
“Sam four, Sam five, control, meet the detectives in the location’s office just off Garrity,” the dispatcher advises.
“Roger, control, we have the location in sight. ETA less than a minute,” Cassidy tells the radio operator.
Lash and García are out of their car and moving toward the office as Dax and Cassidy pull up. They get out of their car and draw side arms.
“Nick, the glass. The front window is shattered,” García observes.
The cops hear someone groan from inside. They rapidly move away from the window and get as close to the building as possible. Lash motions for Dax and Cassidy to stay back and make their way around to the office door. The SWAT team is just pulling up.
“County Three, this is Sierra One. What’s your status?” the SWAT commander asks Lash over tac-two. Lash touches the push-to-talk switch on his vest.
“One, Three, someone is inside the office. They sound injured. Looks like the window was shattered from the inside. Let me know when you’re in position.”
“Give us thirty seconds,” the SWAT commander tells Lash as the black-cloaked cops move quickly and efficiently to their starting positions.
The team of nine men split into three groups. One unit goes to Dax, who is now near the front door of the office with Cassidy and using the building as a shield. The second unit rushes to join Lash and García, and the third takes up position around the parking lot, creating a field of fire, covering the others, and ready to engage any shots coming from the building.
“We’re ready,” the SWAT commander announces over the secure radio frequency.
“In the building. Police. Come out with your hands in plain sight,” Lash commands.
Again, a groan from inside the office. The sound of movement and furniture being shoved around.
“We go on three,” Lash relays to the team. He counts down, “Three, two, one, go!” The officers move with skill and deadly determination. It takes them less than a minute to secure the office. Lash and Dax get to Romero. García and Cassidy rush to Pilar. The SWAT team clears the rest of the building. LT and Washington pull up outside.
It’s several minutes before Romero can speak coherently. Pilar is in serious condition and unconscious. The SWAT commander calls it in and gets the medics moving.
Romero is rambling and incoherent. He knows he’s going down, and he wants Juan Antonio Hernandez with him at the bottom but can’t articulate that right now.
“There’s a definite pattern here. Wherever Juan Antonio Hernandez goes, destruction seems to follow,” Lash says.
“But this is different. He’s turned on his boss this time,” García adds.
A voice from outside the office chimes in. “Not so different. He may have killed a brother-in-law of the cartel boss you collared or possibly killed today. He worked for the guy.”
Lash and García trade glances.
“Then there are the other murders,” The unknown voice adds.
“What other murders?” García asks, looking up to see who’s speaking.
The door to the office opens, and two cops enter the room.
The unknown voice continues. “A mother and her baby. LAPD likes Hernandez for those too.” It’s Grace Washington, and standing right next to her is the lieutenant.
“Let me guess. Sergeant Grace Washington.” Lash steps forward to meet her and shake hands.
Two ambulances pull up outside. Now the place is transformed into a makeshift hospital. The crime-scene van pulls in as SWAT is putting away their gear. It is managed mayhem as the six cops step outside to talk.
“Detective Lash, good to finally meet you,” Washington says. “And this must be Detective García?” she asks and extends a hand.
García steps up, looks up, and meets the LA cop she’s heard much about. Washington has at least seven inches over her. She’s thin, lean, and very athletic-looking, like a runner. Her black hair is straight, cut short with pin-up bangs and a single streak of blond on the left side—very big city in every way. There’s an air of toughness, glamour, and simplicity about her that García admires. She sees why Jake likes this woman.
“Sergeant, mucho gusto. Lash speaks very highly of you.” García shares a genuine smile.
“Good to meet you, Detective,” Washington responds.
“Okay, what do we have?” LT asks, moving the conversation along.
“All I was able to get out of Romero is that Juan Antonio busted in and robbed the place. Said he tried to kill him, and it looks like he almost did,” Lash contributes.
“That’s his style. Work for a guy, get close, and then steal from him and try to take him out,” Washington adds.
“What about the mother and baby? How do they fit in?” García asks.
“It was Jake’s mother and brother. That’s how Lash and I got acquainted. I’ve been keeping a line on her just to be sure she’s safe,” Washington says.
“This is all starting to gel. Jake Palomera moved here from LA after her family was killed in a gang shooting. Her boyfriend was found dead this morning, and one of García’s contacts let it out to Hernandez that she was one of the students working on the database that put RJ Enterprises on the map for us.” Lash’s cop mind starts answering questions he hasn’t even asked. “He may be trying to get to Jake to find out what The Team is working on.”
“Or just try to shut her up. He may think this car operation is up for grabs and wants a piece of it,” García says.
“What database and who is The Team?” Washington asks.
Lash takes a hard gulp of air. “They’re a bunch of high-school kids that we are working with to develop a computer program to find stolen cars. Jake’s one of them. They’re brilliant, and I’ve put them in the middle of this crap,” Lash confesses.
García looks to her friend and mentor. He’s suffering, and she never guessed, never even considered it. Her heart breaks. After all he’s been through in the last year, he blames himself for Alberto.
He meets her gaze for a moment and looks away. LT gets it and knows he needs to move them away from this for now.
“Whatever his motive, we all need to be on the same page,” LT contends.
“Where are Jake and the others?” Washington asks, suddenly putting urgency into everyone’s thoughts and actions.
Lash pulls out his phone and hits the speed dial for Cynthia Goldwasser. She picks up on the first ring. García raises her left eyebrow, folds her arms, and looks askance at Lash. Lash catches it and rolls his eyes as Miss G answers.
“Hi, Nick, what’s up?”
“Are Jake and Liz and the others still there?” he asks. She hears concern in his voice.
“No, we all went to coffee, and then the kids went home. I think José, Liz, and Will went to Will’s house. Jake was holding up well, but I think she wanted some time with Maribel. Why? Is there trouble?”
“I’m not sure yet. We have a person of interest in Alberto’s death. He may have been involved in a gunfight this morning. Keep your eyes and ears open, and if you hear anything, call me directly, okay?” Lash says.
“All right. Now I’m worried. Should I go check on Jake and Maribel?” she asks.
“No, we’re on it. Just keep a lookout. I’ll call you back after we check on Jake.”
“Okay, speak with you soon.”
A deputy approaches the group. “LT, we found the truck that was stolen from the construction worker. It’s parked down by the back gate. Keys are still in it. The crime-scene guys are checking it for prints,” the sheriff’s deputy advises.
“Okay. Anything else?”
“Yeah, there’s blood all over the driver’s seat.”
García, Lash, and Washington all trade glances.
“Thanks, deputy. Keep us informed,” LT says.
“Will do,” the deputy says. He heads back to the stolen truck.
“He’s hurt. He’ll try to get patched up. Let’s start there,” LT decides.
“What about Jake? Juan Antonio may know about her from Alberto or Mario,” García warns.
“We’ve got three crime scenes in a two-mile radius. Everything has been stretched thin,” LT says.
“Let me go. I have her address. You can focus on the hospitals and the local doc-in-the-box clinics,” Washington offers.
“That will work. Call us as soon as you’ve seen her. I’ll ask Cynthia to check in on the others,” Lash says.
The cops head to their cars to do their work. Washington pulls up Jake’s address on her iPhone and puts it into the GPS, 4216 Quicksilver, and touches the search key.
“Central, County Three with a BOLO,” García announces.
“Three, go ahead with your alert,” the dispatcher confirms.
“All units, be on the lookout for Juan Antonio Hernandez. Same suspect mentioned in an earlier alert. Suspect may be injured and seeking hospital care. All units respond to their assigned health-care facilities and report back to Central. County Three out,” she concludes.
The announcement goes out to all units and advises those assigned to cover specific hospitals and clinics to check them and report back. If Juan is in a hospital or urgent-care facility in a three-county area, the police will know within the hour. But he’s not. Juan is hiding somewhere the police haven’t considered.
52. Boise, Idaho
Washington drives through the streets of west Boise and finds Quicksilver Lane. The home at 4216 is a pleasant brick bungalow set back from the street on a large lot with a well-trimmed yard. A wraparound front porch is decorated with hanging baskets dangling a multitude of flowers and vines from the eves. Majestically, a large pin oak stands guard in the front yard, providing an umbrella of shade. Its leaves are just showing a touch of color, announcing the changes to come. A wind chime plays a tune the breeze has written.
This is definitely a far cry from the mean streets Jake left behind. Washington is relieved that Jake lives in this sort of world now. The LA cop gets out of the car and starts for the door.
She tries the doorbell; no sound. She knocks, waits, and knocks again. No answer. As she peeks through the front window next to the door, she doesn’t see any movement. She takes two steps down from the porch and follows the stone path to the driveway. A car is parked there. There’s a side door. Washington cautiously approaches and knocks again.
Now she hears something. Music, loud music, and then something else, almost as if someone is banging on the wall. Then a girl’s scream. Washington pounds on the door. The music stops. The house goes eerily silent. Washington is out of her jurisdiction, so she isn’t armed with a gun, but she does have a small Taser in a holster on her belt.
A figure, backlit by the late-day sun, is moving toward the door. Washington can’t make out if it’s male or female. The figure moves quickly, almost running. Moving her hand to the Taser, Washington gets ready for an attack.
The door is ripped open. “Grace, Grace, you’re here!” Jake screams as she flies through the screen door and nearly knocks Washington to the ground. Jake throws herself at Washington and squeezes her with a crushing bear hug.
53. Boise, Idaho
Juan drives the NSX slowly past Mario’s house. The place looks empty. Mario has a carport behind the house, where he works on cars. Juan knows this. It will be the hiding place for the NSX, so he hopes it’s empty. The driveway is vacant. He turns the car around and heads back. He pulls into the drive and creeps up toward the garage. As the carport comes into view behind the house, he sees it’s empty and drives the NSX onto it and out of sight from the street.
Pain blazes up Juan’s arm. It is coming fast and hot now. Blood and other fluids ooze from the makeshift bandage of dirty rags. It’s infected. His injuries need to be cleaned and covered. Juan works the lock on the back door. It’s open. He smiles, thinking how trusting the citizens of Boise are. Fools, he thinks, hoping Mario has a good first-aid kit. A foot to the door closes it behind him. The lock is set, and he begins a search for bandages and anything to clean the wounds. A well-stocked first-aid kit is in the bathroom. Juan finds it and tries to heal himself.
The dirty, stained shirt must be peeled from his sweating body. It sticks to the blood and tissue around the hole created by the bullet. The bullet is still in him. As he pulls the shirt away, skin, dried blood, and pus all resist his efforts. Finally, he takes a deep breath and yanks hard. Any patch made by his own fluids is torn clear. Juan battles an unseen force. The pain is stronger, more powerful, and it throws Juan to the floor.
Bright-red arterial blood spurts from the open wound. Juan gasps for air, struggles to stand as the small room spins. He’s trying to remain conscious. Gauze bandages from the first-aid kit are stuffed into the hole. It stops the blood flow for a moment. He turns his attention to the gash on his right arm caused by the jagged metal in the salvage yard. Here the bleeding has stopped, but the tear is painful, and the whole arm is swelling. He pours antiseptic over it and wraps it as tight as he can in gauze and tape.
The plug of gauze in the gunshot wound is getting damp and turning red. He knows what he must do. He replaces the plug of gauze and heads for the kitchen.
There’s a gas stove in the kitchen. Juan opens a valve, and one of the stove-top burners fires up. Something flat and metal is what he’s looking for as he rummages through the drawers. He finds what he needs—a metal spatula. He places the spatula on the burner.
While it heats, he looks for anything to take the edge off the pain. He finds wine and beer in the refrigerator and helps himself. After about ten minutes, he figures the spatula is ready. He slowly removes the gauze from the bullet hole, trying not to start the bleeding again. It’s no good. The blood keeps coming. He’ll have one chance to do this. He wraps a dishcloth around the spatula’s handle, and then as quickly as he can, he slaps the red-hot spatula to the wound and holds it there. He lasts about seven seconds. The wound is cauterized. The bleeding has stopped.
The body responds to trauma in many ways. One is the vasovagal response. As Juan applies the scalding spatula to his wound, his heart rate soars. His body overcompensates by opening his blood vessels to correct the increase in blood pressure. As Juan’s blood pressure drops, so does he.
Juan has been out for an hour, maybe more. He’s roused by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. He drags himself up off the floor and struggles over to the kitchen window. A Honda Accord is coming up to the garage and stopping. It’s not Mario’s car. He doesn’t live alone, Juan realizes.
Expecting a girlfriend, he’s surprised when an older woman gets out of the car. She comes around the Honda and stares at the NSX in her backyard. She shakes her head, turns toward the Honda, opens the rear door, and takes out two sacks of groceries.
Through a haze of pain and shock, Juan is calculating. This should be easy, he thinks.
Climbing the concrete steps to the back door, the woman tries the doorknob. Finding it’s locked, she fumbles with her keys while trying to balance her sacks of food. She slides the key into the lock and turns it. The door squeaks open, and she pushes her way in.
The cast-iron frying pan connects with the back of her head. The force of the blow drives her toward the small dining room. The bags of groceries hit the floor first. A gallon of milk explodes on the hardwood floor. Cantaloupe roll like balls into the next room and the contents of the bags are sprayed in all directions.
Juan prepares to strike again, but she crumbles to her knees. He draws back just as she finishes her swoon, goes prone, and stops moving. The blood from her head wound begins to mix with a broken jar of salsa. Juan laughs, thinking it would make an interesting chip dip.
Juan quickly rolls her over. She’s out but not dead—at least not yet. He drags the woman into one of the bedrooms with his good arm. He looks around the room and sees a telephone. He rips it from the wall and uses the electric cord to tie the woman up. He gags her with a shirt he finds in the dresser. Mario will be home soon. Juan is running out of options.
54. Boise, Idaho
“Any sign of him anywhere?” LT barks into his phone.
“Nothing yet. No sign of him at the hospitals. Airport police are watching closely, but he’s too smart to try that. He’s driving something, and I bet he stole it from Romero. García and I are going to see Romero now. We got a call that he’s awake. I want to get there before he lawyers up,” Lash tells his boss.
“Okay, but no rough stuff,” LT warns.
“Hey, I’ve learned my lesson. Look what’s being sent to BLUES has got me into,” Lash retorts.
“I heard from Grace Washington. She’s going to stay the night at Jake Palomera’s house. We can at least relax on that point. I was able to cut a deputy loose to check on the other students. They’re all accounted for, and their parents know what’s up. We have to find this guy before he does any more damage,” LT says.
“Agreed! We’re arriving at St. Luke’s now. I’ll call you after we talk to Romero,” Lash replies as he parks the car in front of the hospital.
“Good luck, Nick.”
Lash and García head into the hospital, hoping Romero will talk. They’re out of leads. If Romero refuses to tell them what he knows, they’ll be out of luck too.
55. Boise, Idaho—7:00 a.m.
I learned that trying to forget doesn’t work. As a matter of fact, it’s a lot like remembering, so I don’t do it. I’ll never forget you, Alberto, or you, Mamá, or you, Roberto.
“Oh My God!” Liz shouts as I enter the Nut Hut.
“Smoking’ hot, mama,” José blurts before he gets a grip.
Will is simply speechless. He just stands there with his mouth wide open. Miss G is all smiles as she sees the “new me.” I’m in shorts, wearing a clingy pink top I borrowed from Maribel. Wedgie sandals lift my heels three inches higher than usual. I might get a nosebleed being this tall. I’m still trying to learn how to walk on these stilts. My hair has been tamed by Maribel. I wear it high and proud. Two of Mamá’s gold hair sticks adorn my new updo. Grace and Maribel did my face. I’ll need an owner’s manual to be able to retrace the millions of things they did. I never knew being a girl was so complicated.
Liz comes forward and takes my hands in hers.
“You are beautiful. I love your hair, and those sticks are fabulous,” she admires.
“They’re Mamá’s,” I tell her as a tear forms.
“No, no, no. You’ll ruin your mascara,” she tells me and deftly grabs a tissue to capture the offending drops. We laugh.
“I can’t believe it. Jake Palomera, a girly-girl like me.”
“You have a lot to teach me, Liz.”
“Girl, we are going to have so much fun,” she squeaks with excitement.
This is a big moment for us both. I have a friend. Liz has a friend, and now we each have a friend for life. For so many reasons, in so many ways, this is a big move forward for us both. The pain and the anger move away for a moment. I’m here and in this place with my friends, my teacher, and Grace Washington, my protector. I feel invincible. It’s time to get to what I need to do.
“Here’s your morning buzz,” José says as he hands me a latte from Dawson’s Downtown.
“You went to Dawson’s? This is the best! Thanks, José.”
“I know that’s your favorite place. Alberto told me you liked the fair trade idea and that’s why you two went there.”
“That, and the gluten-free pumpkin muffins,” I say.
“I know,” he says as his left hand comes out from behind his back. In it is a small, white paper sack. My pumpkin muffin is inside.
“Oh José,” I say breathlessly. These really are my friends.
“No crying!” He gives me a big-brother hug. “You’ll ruin your eyes.”
We laugh. I turn to see my friends.
“Alberto is here. He’s in our thoughts and our actions, and his ideas are in this program. I know this sounds kinda weird, but when we run this, in a way, it’s going to be a little like bringing him back. Are you ready?” I ask just as Lash, García, Dax, and Cassidy come into the room.
“What do you say? I’m ready to run this program. You guys in?” I ask The Team.
“I can’t wait,” Will says and stands up.
“Me too,” José acknowledges, putting down his cup.
“No time like the present,” Liz adds and puts an arm around me.
“Then let’s light the candle,” I say, naturally moving to the chair where the program’s. exe file is waiting to be opened.
Liz designed it to pull all my code together and make sense of it. This is her forte. She’s like a puzzle master. I look to my left. On the table is her newspaper. Every morning she does the crossword puzzle in ink in the New York Times! I smile and refocus on the program. Once it runs, Blues Cluz will be alive. I poise a finger over the enter key. The seconds weigh like iron on my shoulders. Everyone is holding their breath. I stand and move from the keyboard.
“What? What’s wrong?” José asks.
I turn to Liz and look at someone I never thought I’d be close to. She’s become a person I need to have in my life, a person who is very important to me.
“Liz, you do it. You light the fire,” I tell her.
“Me? I didn’t do anything. You created this. It’s yours. I can’t pull the trigger,” she says.
I step closer to her and put a hand on her shoulder. She tenses but doesn’t back away. I look my friend in the eye.
“Without your ideas and support, I’d never have the drive to do it. You’re the puzzle master. You took all the pieces and put them together. This is as much you as it is me. Do it,” I tell her.She holds eye contact with me. She doesn’t blink. She reaches over, hits the button, and smiles. This is awesome, and I smile too.
José and Will are less concerned with us as they are with the program.
Oh my God, it’s running. It’s running like Usain Bolt,” Will says, nearly breathless.
Okay, that’s random.
“Look! It’s integrating all the databases just as we planned,” José cheers with double fist pumps.
Liz smothers me with her hugs.
The program takes about thirty minutes to load before it’s ready to start doing its thing. Miss Goldwasser has been watching the whole thing from her workstation. The minutes pass.
“No blue screens, no error messages, this thing has legs,” she says with cautious optimism. “Okay, we’re up. We’re online and ready to start putting this program to work. Jake, the algorithm allows us to choose multiple data points, right? What are the parameters? Maybe what, three or four?” Miss G asks me.
“Yeah, but I built in parameters for up to ten data points,” I tell her, a little ashamed that I’m shining my mentor.
She looks over the top of her readers as she keyboards and gives me one of her Mona Lisa smiles. I love her.
“I’m selecting five of the areas detectives Lash and García asked for,” she says, looking around the room for the cops.
“It’s ready. Detectives, would you like to see what some really smart kids can do?” she asks, looking at Lash as she puts the program into search mode.
We all watch as the data fields start to populate with information. It’s incredible. The identification numbers from our five states start to pile up. Once the program goes through all the numbers, we can start sorting out what it all means. It will take at least an hour.
“Jake, you did it! Blues Cluz lives! You ripped some beef, girl!” José yells. The celebration starts.
“No, José. We did it!” I shriek, and we high five, low five, and do some serious struts.
I’m watching the big screen in the room as data flies from one place to another. Nevada, Arizona, Utah,
California, Idaho. All that information is connecting and finding meaning. I look up as Liz and Will embrace in celebration. Then there’s something else. She pushes him back but keeps her hands on his shoulders. She looks at him and pulls him close. They smile at each other and kiss. OMG! Will O’Brian and Liz Olsen, who would have thunk it? Something else to be happy for today.
I’m sitting at a workstation toward the back as usual. I’m channeling the raw data toward my components in the program that ask the what-if, if-then questions. This is the beginning of answering the questions. Numbers are great things. With numbers we explain the universe. With numbers we can speak to each other across the world, maybe across space. For today’s work, we will use numbers to identify cars and people and where their paths cross.
I had a long talk with Washington last night. The discussion was all about Juan Antonio Hernandez. Grace explained why the drug cartel wanted him dead. She told me about the car thief he worked for and possibly killed. I also learned why the Ada County sheriff’s department thought he might be involved in Alberto’s death and why we all could be in danger. She left something out. I don’t know what it is, but you can tell. When someone is telling a story, you know when an important part is left out. I want to know that part. Maybe she’ll tell me more tonight.
The five cops—Washington, Lash, García, Dax, and Cassidy—are all huddled behind me, drinking coffee and talking. I can just make out their conversation.
“Anything else? I mean, we know he lost a ton of blood. Forensics thinks he may have lost a pint or more,” García says.
“If he lost that much, he probably didn’t get out of town. He might even be dead,” Cassidy offers.
“No way. This boy is a survivor,” Washington says.
“Okay, we know he took the NSX from Romero. It was amazing how talkative Romero was last night. He told us everything. How they swapped the identification numbers from the wrecks to the stolen cars. They sold them all over the country. He knows he’s done, but he wants Juan to pay, and Romero is totally torn up about his wife,” Lash says.
“She may not make it. Hernandez really beat her down. The docs have her in a medically induced coma to keep the brain swelling down. She may need some big-time surgery,” García laments.
“Well, Romero invited that dirt bag into their lives. Forgive me if I’m not sorry for her or Romero,” Lash adds.
“You could have a little compassion. These people didn’t ask for this. They’re criminals. They belong in jail, but they didn’t deserve this,” García tells him.
“Ginger, in this world, you get what you ask for. Sometimes it isn’t what you want.” Their eyes engage, trading a simple truth. García has to break away before she breaks down.
Cassidy feels the tension and changes the direction of the discussion.
“So if Hernandez has the NSX, he also has our GPS transmitter, right?” Cassidy asks.
“Romero told us about that. He uses a GPS jammier. Once he gets the car stashed, it’s no problem. His entire shop has the same technology covering it. In his shop, no signals get out, no cell phones, no GPS, no nothing until they find the transmitter on the car and make sure it’s clean,” García tells.
“Romero told us they found the transmitter on the firewall of the NSX and removed it,” Lash adds.
Cassidy and Dax trade glances.
“We didn’t put our tracker on the firewall. We put our unit between the fuel tank and the rear quarter panel on the right side. We needed a twelve-volt circuit to wire the charger into. The mechanics set it up so that every time the rear brake lights go on, our tracker gets a little charge. As long as the car gets driven, our tracker stays charged,” Cassidy explains.
“How long does the battery last?” García asks.
“Maybe four hours on a full charge. It goes to standby after that. It takes it about an hour to get it charged again,” Cassidy says.
“So our NSX is out there with a GPS tracker that might be working,” García says.
“Well, it’s not our NSX. Technically it belongs to Dr. Morse. But yeah, the tracker might still be working,” Cassidy confirms.
“How do we find it?” Lash asks.
“We have to get back to headquarters. I have to get the unit ID from the auto-theft task-force database and then reactivate it.”
“Do you use the standard convention for your activation code?” García asks.
“Yes, my last name and my badge number,” Cassidy responds.
I’m taking notes as fast as the cops are talking, but they don’t seem to notice.
“Why don’t you do it here? You have the best technology in the county in this room,” García says.
I hear Lash’s cell chime, then García’s, and then Dax’s and Cassidy’s. Lash pulls his and looks at the text.
“It’s Dispatch. We have to go. LT thinks there’s a new lead. He wants all of us at the crusher yard to see some evidence,” Lash says.
García rolls her eyes. “We could get on that tracker right now,” she protests.
“Duty calls, Detective. We’ll check it after this. Washington, will you stay here to watch the kids?” Lash says.
“I got it covered. Stay in touch and let me know what else I can do.”
“Will do,” Lash confirms as he and the rest of the cops head for the door.
Seconds later, García is back. I listen and then see something that chills me.
“Grace, I hope not, but you might need this,” she says and hands Washington an Ada County sheriff’s flak jacket.
“Yeah, let’s hope I don’t need this. At least, not here,” Washington confirms. They give each other a quick sisters-in-arms hug. I get a wink and a smile from García, and she’s gone.
“Did you get all that?” Will asks me.
“Most of it. Can you access the main database for the sheriff’s office while I check the vehicle identification numbers on the car?”
“Yeah, as long as García didn’t change her password.”
“I know their convention. Last name and badge number,” I tell him.
“Simple is always better,” he says as he uses Blues Cluz and digs into the police files to try to find the GPS information on the stolen NSX.
“Cassidy said it was in the auto-theft task-force data,” I remind Will.
Will looks at José. “You know what I’m looking for, bro?” he asks.
“I’m there. Anything on the car?” José responds.
Now these two are ten steps ahead of me. They’re playing Blues Cluz like a violin.
“I love this program. So smart, so easy to use,” Will says.
“Stay with the sheriff’s department. Get the activation info. I’ve got Blues Cluz,” José advises.
“I’m there. Here it comes,” Will confirms.
It’s like watching two virtuoso pianists go at it at the same time, keyboards chattering, fingers flying.
“I still really don’t get it,” I utter as I watch what they’re doing.
“Don’t get what?” José asks as he keyboards at light speed.
“I don’t get how this whole ID number swap works.”
“It’s pretty smart. They steal a car like the NSX. Then they go out to the auto auctions and find a wrecked one that’s as close to the stolen one as possible. They take all the vehicle identification information off the wreck and put it on the stolen car. Then they sell the good parts off the wreck and cut the rest of it up for scrap,” he explains.
“So two cars become one, and the stolen car disappears,” I say.
“Exactly!” José confirms.
“That is pretty smart.”
“Yeah, but they still got caught,” Will says as he goes rapid fire on his keyboard.
“Caught and nearly killed,” José says.
I see what they’re after now, and I dig in deeper to the personnel files of the sheriff’s department.
“Blues Cluz found it! RJ just bought a wrecked NSX two days ago in Arizona. They must have the stolen NSX. Do you think they’ve done the swap?” José asks.
“They’ve had time, so let’s say it’s a done deal, but they didn’t find the sheriff’s GPS tracker,” Will says and smiles. “But I did.”
“You got it?” José asks.
“I got the tracker the cops put on the stolen NSX. I’ve got the activation screen for it. What’s Cassidy’s badge number, Jake?” Will asks.
“Hang on, almost there,” I say as I fly through the personnel files of the sheriff’s department. “It’s two one five six.”
Will puts Cassidy’s name and number into the boxes on the screen, and the information for the tracker comes up. It tells us the make, model, and identification number for the car the GPS unit is attached to.
“What’s the identification number for the stolen NSX?” he asks me. I read it off my screen.
“That’s the one. Should I activate it?” Will asks, finger poised over the enter key.
A flood, a torrent of emotion and memories wash over me. Not uncontrolled. A focused force moving me to places I’ve not been. Once a frightened, little girl. Now a confident, talented, tested young woman. Powerful, I am powerful! As far as Juan Antonio Hernandez is concerned, I am the most dangerous woman in the world.
I look at José and then Will with conviction in my eyes. I am going to end this—now!
“Turn it on.”
56. Boise, Idaho—9:15 a.m.
“You should have listened to me,” Juan says to Mario.
Mario is crying, but he can’t answer. His hands and feet are bound. He is gagged and lying on the floor of his bedroom next to his still-unconscious mother. Juan used the same frying pan on Mario’s skull that he used to beat the old woman.
“If you would have given me the information I wanted yesterday, this wouldn’t have happened. Now I have to get rid of you two before I leave. First, I’m having breakfast. Say your last words to your mama while I eat. Oh, I forgot you’re gagged. Oh well, she can’t hear you anyway,” Juan says and laughs as he heads for the kitchen.
He has the shotgun and ammo. He’s sure no one knows where he is. He’s feeling better. The bleeding has stopped, and he’s rested. He has money and his choice of three cars. He’s ready to run.
57. Caldwell, Idaho—9:30 a.m.
The four sheriff’s deputies pull into the crusher yard in Caldwell. LT is waiting for them with several DEA agents. Lash and García get out and walk over to him.
“What’s up?” García asks.
“We found drugs, lots of drugs,” LT tells her.
He takes the four cops over to a DEA van and opens it up. They look in amazement at over thirty kilos of cocaine. Each kilo is wrapped in a clear plastic bag with a sticker on it. Lash looks closely at the stickers.
“It’s Peruvian. How did it get here?” he asks.
“We don’t know. That’s why I called the DEA. Did Romero say anything about drugs?” LT asks.
“No, it was all about car theft and getting even with Juan Antonio,” García says.
“Then this is something new. It might be all Hernandez’s doing. He may be coming back here to get this crap. I’ll post a stakeout just in case,” LT says.
“Good idea, but why bring it here? Why bring it to a salvage yard?” Dax asks. They’re all silent for a moment.
“Car parts,” Cassidy says. They all look at him.
“Car parts? Whaddya mean?” LT asks.
“Car parts. They ship them everywhere. Last month a load of axles was found in Israel, full of coke. We got an alert it may have originated from around here. Maybe this is the place,” he says.
“Cassidy’s right. I got a call from Bobby Carson this morning. This confirms it. Either Romero or Juan or both are trafficking from here,” Lash says.
“I want more security on Romero and his wife. If they’re tied up in this, they might try to skedaddle,” LT orders.
“I agree, but they’re not going anywhere. They’re all busted up. Someone might try to take them out, if they know something,” Lash says.
“Okay, this makes it federal. The DEA can make it happen. Now what about Blues Cluz and the students?” he asks.
“It works! They ran the program this morning, and it will give us everything we need to indict Romero, with or without his confession,” García says. LT shakes his head.
“So it takes a bunch of delinquents with computers to solve a case for us.”
“A bunch of really smart delinquents, LT,” García says.
“All right, really smart delinquents,” he agrees.
“What about Hernandez? Any line on him?” Cassidy asks.
“Nothing. He’s disappeared. Let’s get out there and find him, or whatever’s left of him,” LT directs.
The cops head back to their cars.
“Where are you going?” García asks Dax.
“Cassidy thinks the GPS tracker on the NSX might be working, so we’re going to the station to see if it’s still alive. I’ll call you guys if we get anything,” he tells her.
He’s too late.
58. Boise, Idaho 9:45 a.m.
“There, there it is!” I shout, unable to contain myself. Miss G and Washington come running over to see what all my excitement is about.
“What, what is it?” Washington asks.
“The stolen car, the NSX! We found its GPS tracker,” I say, pumping my fist into the air.
“It isn’t moving,” Liz observes.
“Bring up Google Earth,” Will directs. I do it.
“What are the coordinates?” I ask.
“Forty-three, thirty-eight, fifty-six point zero one north, and one sixteen, fourteen, seventeen point twenty-two west,” he tells me, giving me the latitude and longitude.
I put it into the search window, and Google Earth “flies” to the location. José, Will, and Liz are looking over my shoulder as the location comes into view and focuses.
“Oh snap. Get closer, Jake. I think I recognize that neighborhood,” Liz says, leaning in and pointing to the place she wants to go. “José, does that house look familiar?” she asks.
“The carport, yeah, that’s Mario’s place. What would the car be doing there?” he wonders aloud.
“Let me get this straight. How were you guys able to activate the GPS tracker and find this location?” Washington asks.
“We have access to all the police databases. García gave it to us so we could build Blues Cluz,” I tell her. Miss G crosses her arms and gives me a stern stare.
“So where is this car now?” Grace asks.
“That’s just it. This makes no sense. It’s telling us it’s at Mario’s house,” José says.
“Mario who? You mean Mario Morales?” Miss G asks.
“Yeah, our friend and fellow student. He didn’t come to school today,” I say vehemently.
“He’s into the car scene like Alberto was,” Miss G tells Washington.
Washington’s cop mind is going into overdrive now. She pulls her notebook and writes down Mario’s address from the Google Earth screen. “What’s his phone number?”
José looks it up on his phone and tells her. She notes it and immediately calls Lash.
“Nick, we might have a situation. Jake and the others were able to activate the GPS tracker on a stolen car that Juan Antonio might be associated with. It’s at another student’s house right now,” she tells him and gives him the address. “Yes, yes, I can do that. Okay, I’ll see you there,” she says, as I hear her side of the conversation.
“Jake, I need to go over there and check on this. The others are in Caldwell on their way back here,” she tells me.
“I want to go with you,” I say.
“No, it might be dangerous. Just stay put, and I’ll call as soon as I know something.”
“I can get you there faster than your GPS. Take me with you,” I plead. She thinks it over for a moment.
“You’ll do what I say?” she questions.
“Yes, let’s go,” I say and jump out of my chair.
“Wait, what about us?” Will asks.
“Stay here. We might need more information. If the car starts to move, call me.” Washington gives Will her cell number.
She turns to me with a stern look in her eyes. I’m in heels, and she’s still a foot taller than I am.
“When we get there, stay in the car and keep your phone ready,” she tells me.
This is it. If Juan Antonio is there, he’s finally going to get what he deserves, and I get to see it go down.
59. Boise, Idaho—9:50 a.m.
“Cassidy,” he says, answering his phone. He can hear a siren in the background.
“It’s García. We’re on our way to a house where we think Juan Antonio might be. Check your text for the address.Haul ass, Cassidy,” she implores.
“We can be there in about ten minutes. I’ll call for backup,” he tells her.
“Okay. Washington is on her way too. We’re still on the interstate,” she says.
“Right, see you there,” he says and hangs up.
Dax turns on the lights and siren, does a U-turn on Federal Way, and heads for Mario’s house. Cassidy makes the call for backup. Just minutes after Washington’s call to García, over a dozen sheriff’s deputies and detectives are heading for Mario Morales’s house. Their hope is that this will be the end to Juan Antonio Hernandez’s reign of terror and killing.
60. Boise, Idaho—10:00 a.m.
“Turn left here,” I say, and we head down Mario’s street. “It’s the fourth house on the right, the brick one,” I tell Washington. She slows down, and we crawl past.
“I don’t see the NSX. I wonder if it’s in the garage?” Washington says to me. She pulls our car into a neighbor’s driveway, backs out, and parks across the street from Mario’s.
“I don’t see anyone moving inside,” I say.
“I’m going to take a quick look. Lash and the others should be here any minute. You stay in the car and keep your head down.”
“Shouldn’t you wait? This could be dangerous. You don’t even have a gun,” I almost plead with her.
I’ll be right back. I just want to see if the car is here, and I do have my Taser,” she says, showing me the holster.
She puts the flak jacket on and pulls it tight. She is a fearless woman. She has taught me so much. Washington opens the door and carefully heads over to Mario’s.
I watch as she gets low and keeps the two cars in the driveway between herself and the house. She is catlike, moving up the drive toward the garage.
I don’t know it, but I’m not the only one watching. Juan Antonio just catches sight of some movement outside and steps quickly to get a better view. I notice a window blind barely move in the front. I watch Washington peer over the car closest to the garage. She takes out her cell and moves out of my sight into the back yard.
Juan is waiting.
As she walks to the NSX, Washington hears something behind her. She has her phone in her left hand, ready to call García. She wheels to her right and sees Juan Antonio standing in the back door with the shotgun pointed at her. He’s surprised to see her, and it takes just a moment, but he recognizes her.
“Officer Washington, cómo estás?” he says and smiles.
Her right hand instinctively moves to her belt for the pistol that’s not there. Juan doesn’t hesitate. The shotgun roars. Washington is hit and knocked back into the NSX. She drops in a heap to the ground.
I hear the gunshot. I’m not ready for it. Sounds like that are not normal here. In South Gate, yes. In Boise, no. I look at my phone. It takes a second or two. I grab the door handle, pull it, and race to Washington’s aid. I’m in wedge sandals that I can barely walk in, let alone run. I kick them off in the middle of the street and run barefoot.
I reach the backyard. As I turn the corner, I see Washington on the ground face down. I go to her. I’m oblivious to Juan as he raises the gun behind me. He pulls the trigger. I hear it click and spin around. The shotgun doesn’t fire. Juan looks at it in surprise and then at me. He pulls a new cartridge from his pocket. He’s still groggy, and I have a chance. I run for the street.
Juan tosses the gun, jumps off the back steps, catches me, and slams me into Mario’s car. The wind is knocked out of me, and he has me. He’s dragging me into the backyard as I try to breathe. He throws me on the ground next to Washington and backs away.
“I got you now, chiquita,” he says.
I look at him in horror. That night comes flooding back as I relive each sickening moment. I look into his eyes. Those eyes, those words. Every pent-up emotion, every bit of anger and hate and hurt all surface at once. I know now what to do with it. I know now what I’m capable of.
I jump to my feet. I charge him. He isn’t ready for this and cowers for a moment. I put my head down, my bare feet digging for traction on the dewy grass, and hit him with full force in his chest and knock him off his feet. I rebound like a boxer and then pounce on him like a lioness defending her cubs. I punch, kick, and scratch him.
Juan is a street fighter. I can’t keep this up for long. I need a weapon. Washington’s Taser! I jab a finger into one of his eyes and move fast. I leap to my feet. Juan tries to get up. He’s on one knee, which gives me just enough of a chance. I kick him in the one place guaranteed to take a guy down.
“You little—” he yells at me as he doubles over in pain.
Serious Mexican profanity follows me as I move quickly to Washington. I find the Taser’s holster, flip open the security strap, and pull the weapon from the holster just as Juan’s arm comes around my neck and he yanks me off the ground and to my feet. The Taser falls to Washington’s side. He’s behind me and trying to get me in a choke hold.
“I don’t need a gun or knife to do this. All I need is my bare hands,” he whispers breathlessly in my ear and tightens his hold.
I throw an elbow to his ribs, and he loosens up a little.
“It’s a lot harder than killing a baby and an innocent woman with an assault rifle, isn’t it?” He chokes me harder, lifting my feet off the ground.
“You were the one under the bed, huh, chiquita? Guess I’ll just finish that little job right now,” he says to me and starts slugging me with his left fist while he chokes me with his right arm. “We got the address wrong, but it was still a good time killing your family. Besides, who cares about some old woman and her brats?” he taunts me.
I find a new power and stomp his instep with a bare foot. I want those wedge sandals now. This makes him hurt and mad, and he stops hitting me for a moment and loosens his grip on my neck. I gulp air. I can’t last much longer. I reach back, trying to find his eyes with my new fingernails Maribel glued on last night. I struggle and flail, but he stays just out of my reach.
He’s taller, stronger, and heavier, and the pressure on my throat increases. I can’t breathe. The world begins to get dimmer and dimmer. My life is ending.
Once more I reach back to his face. My hand brushes over my hair, and there they are. I know what to do. I know what I’m capable of. The hair sticks! I pull one from my hair. In one last attempt to live, I drive the pointed end of the stick into the bandage on his right arm that surrounds my neck. I surprise myself. I drive the stick through his arm. Juan screams and lets me go. I jump away but drop to my knees. I can barely breathe. I look at him. He’s holding his arm like a wounded animal. Hate and anger distort his facial features. Blood gushes from the wound.
I’ve hurt him, but I haven’t stopped him. He comes at me again. I have to time this just right. He kicks. I roll away. He’s off-balance. With the last bit off strength I possess, I get to my feet, attack him, and plunge the second hair stick into Juan’s chest. He swings at me and connects. I’m knocked to the ground. He backs away, holding his chest and gasping blood and spit.
The hair stick I jammed into Juan’s chest has found a vital target. A bloodstain spreads rapidly on his shirt around the gold spike that protrudes from his body. The sun glints and sparkles through the precious stone on its end. Thank you, Mamá!
His white shirt is being dyed red, dyed red like Roberto’s pajamas that terrible night. He staggers toward me and falls to his hands and knees. I’m totally spent. I try to get away, but it’s no good.
He crawls over and is on me. He pins my arms to the ground with his legs and puts his hands around my throat. I look into the eyes of the person who killed my family as he is killing me. He squeezes my throat and closes my windpipe. He’s smiling. He’s enjoying this. The light fades. I can’t see anything. All I hear is crackle, crackle, crackle and sirens. Mamá, Roberto, Alberto, I’ll see you soon.
Boise, Idaho, St. Luke’s Medical Center
The heart monitor beeps away at a constant pace. Beep-beep-beep. My neck is stiff, and I can barely swallow. I hurt like crazy. I’m lying on my back, and I have a hard, plastic collar around my neck. The bandages around my ribs make it hard to breathe. It doesn’t matter because I couldn’t take a deep breath if I had to.
Maribel went home to change and take a shower. She was here all night. Washington is in the bed next to mine. She’s sleeping right now. The flak vest García gave her saved her life. Most of the shotgun blast hit her in the chest. She got a few pellets in her right arm, but the docs got those out.
My body relaxes as my mind races to find the connections.
Mamá gave the hair sticks to Maribel long before Juan Antonio attacked us. Maribel gave them to me. The sticks saved my life. Washington pulls me out of the house and gets me sent here. She wouldn’t have been here if she’d never met me.
García gave the flak jacket to Washington. Without it, Grace is dead. The crackle, crackle, crackle I heard when Juan was choking me was Grace using her Taser on him. Without Grace, I’m dead, and Juan escapes.
Lash and García get us involved in designing Blues Clues, and we lose Alberto. Blues Cluz was supposed to help, but it put us all in the path of Juan Antonio Hernandez and then helped us find him. Juan killed Mamá and Roberto, and that’s where I met Grace.
Everything else that has happened has brought me to this point. It’s all connected. It isn’t random. Life does have a pattern.
The door opens, and García comes in.
“Hey, you’re awake. Do you need anything, Jake?”
“I’m okay. Everything just hurts so bad,” I tell her.
“I can speak to the nurses. Get you something for the pain,” she tells me.
“I’m okay for a while. Maybe after dinner so I can sleep.”
“Okay. I just finished at court. Juan was remanded to custody. No bail. He’s never going to see life outside of prison again,” she tells me.
“That’s good. He’s real bad news,” I say.
“What is it, Jake? What’s bothering you?”
“I’m not sure. Washington is okay. I’ll be okay. Juan’s in jail. Why do I feel so empty?” I ask her and start to cry. She comes to my bedside, tenderly wraps her arms around me, and holds me close.
“You’ve been through a really tough time. Think about it. Look at all that’s happened in the last year. You lost your family. You had to move. You found some great friends and then lost the one you were closest to. Then this. Some psycho tries to kill you and Grace. You feel empty? Jake, you’re still in shock. It takes time, lots of time. But look at where you are now. You have The Team and Miss G. You’ve got me. Lash is there for you, too… Well, nothing’s perfect,” she says, and we have a good laugh that hurts—but it hurts in a good way, too.
“Will I feel better soon?” I ask.
“Time, Jake. It takes time. It’s different for everyone. Cops go through this. I went through it a while ago.”
“What happened?” I ask, and then realize I shouldn’t have.
She steps back a little, smooths my hair, and pulls a chair up to my bedside.
“It was just after I made detective. I used to work on the auto-theft task force. We were following a lead on a car theft. Cassidy and I spotted the car in an alley. We called for backup, but before they got there, the thief made us and tried to run. He got in the car and took off. We tried to stop him, but before we could do anything, he ran a red light and hit another car. We stopped to help the driver, but she was already dead. I still have nightmares. I still cry and spend hours in church to ease the pain. I’ve found a place for it. I’ve learned to live with it, but it never goes away,” she tells me.
“I get it, but the lady who died, she wasn’t related to you. It’s different for me, Ginger,” I say.
“No, she wasn’t related to me. She was Nick’s wife,” García says and looks away.
So much pain. So much agony.
“How do we go on, Ginger?” I ask, knowing the answer won’t help.
“Stay close to your friends. Love them and Maribel like they are the only people who matter. Give them all of you, and then give them more. Other people are the only way we go on, Jake,” she says, lowers her head, and cries.
I reach out and touch her. Her hand finds mine, and we share a moment that reaches deep inside me.
“I will. I’ll keep them all close to me all my life. I miss them all so much, the ones I’ve lost and the ones I love.”
“Where are they?” García asks, looking around.
“It’s ICU. No visitors unless they’re family.”
“I can fix that,” she says and then stands, kisses my cheek, and leaves.
Washington starts to waken. She takes a deep breath and exhales. I envy her. I turn my head as far as I can, which isn’t far, and look at her.
“You look like you’ve been hit by a car,” she says.
“Well, that’s interesting because I feel like it was a bus.” And we laugh and then gasp in unison.
“Don’t make me laugh,” she says.
“You have no idea,” I say and hug my own ribs to keep them from moving.
“Jake, you saved my life.”
“You saved mine, Grace.”
“You were supposed to stay in the car, girl,” she admonishes.
“You should have waited for backup,” I counter.
“Guess we both made some mistakes.”
“We both wanted the same thing. Why didn’t you tell me Juan is wanted for killing my family?”
“I was afraid you’d do something stupid like try to kill him,” she says, and we both laugh and moan in pain.
“I guess we don’t need to worry about that anymore. He isn’t getting out—ever,” I say.
“Not ever, Jake. Not ever.”
“He shot you with a shotgun, Grace.”
“He shot at you with an assault rifle, Jake.”
“We’re alive, and he’s going away forever,” I tell her.
“He’s such a loser,” she says.
“Big-time loser. It’s what he gets for messing with strong women.”
“And being a bad shot,” Grace says. We laugh so hard we cry.
A few minutes later, the door opens, and García walks in followed by Lash, Liz, Will, and José.
“How did you do this?” I ask García.
“Hey, family members only, right. Well, meet the family—Liz Olsen Palomera, Will O’Brian Palomera, and José. Well, I guess we really didn’t need to fib about José.”
“Yeah, but we did anyway, because that’s just us,” Liz says, and we all laugh and hug, and I hurt, but it’s okay.
Miss G comes in and smiles. Our teacher, our friend, has something to say. I can always tell. First she comes to me and gently takes my hand.
“Jake, if there’s anything I can do, anything, just ask,” she says, and I know she means it.
“I’m good right now. I’ll need you later, after I get out of here,” I tell her.
She looks at me with the same penetrating gaze I noticed at our first meeting. There is so much to Miss G that we don’t know. She steps back and speaks up.
“I have news and want Jake to hear it with the rest of you. The work you’ve done on Blues Clues has not gone unnoticed. I applied for and received copyrights and end-user licensing agreements. These are all in your names. Have you ever heard of Control Knowledge Group?” she asks us.
“CKG, yes—they’re one of the biggest data collection companies around. They have a lot of connections with the government,” Will says.
“The government, CIA, and the National Reconnaissance Office. These guys are into everything,” Liz adds suspiciously.
“That’s true. They also know a good piece of work when they see it. They want to buy your program,” Miss G tells us.
“How much?” Will asks.
She tells us the number.
My mind races. I can go to college. Maribel can have things she’s always wanted. Alberto’s family will be able to get out of debt and live. It’s Alberto. He’s here. He’s taking care of us all. It’s what he does, what he did, it’s what he’s doing.
“What else? What else do they want for that kind of money?” Liz asks.
“They do want something else. Very good, Liz. You worked the puzzle quickly this time,” Miss G says in admiration.
Liz looks at her. Liz does not think in terms of money or material things. I don’t pretend to know what happens in Liz’s mind. I only know that at certain times, with certain subjects and ideas, Liz is way ahead of everyone. She’s like that with puzzles. She’s like that when we have a bunch of code that doesn’t work. She can see things none of us can see, and she does it without any work. It just happens.
“They want us, don’t they?” Liz asks.
“They want consultants,” Miss G confirms.
“Who are they really?” Liz asks.
“They are a company that watches things for the government.”
“Things like us?” Liz asks.
“Liz, it’s a chance to show people what you can do. It’s college; it’s a career. This is a chance to use your talent. Why not take it?” Miss G says.
“I don’t have a problem with that. The Team designed it. The Team should be available to develop it,” Will says.
“I’m okay with it. I’m worried about these people and what they’ll do with Blues Cluz, but I hate filling out student-loan paperwork more,” Liz says.
“Me too. I’ll be the first one in my family to go to college,” José adds.
I give them a thumbs-up. My neck hurts too much to nod.
“Good. We’ll have a meeting when Jake gets on her feet. You four have done such a great thing. You’ll be on short lists for colleges all over the country,” Miss G tells us.
I yawn. My speech is slurry. My vision is unfocused. We call the nurse. I can’t believe how weak and tired I feel.
“It’s the MEDs, Jake,” García comforts. “Jake, you look rode hard and put up wet. We’ll be back tomorrow,” she says.
I get gentle hugs all around, and so does Washington. They leave, and the nurse comes in with more pain meds and dinner. Thirty minutes later, I finally drift off to sleep. So much has changed—so much good news in the middle of this horror. I can relax, and for the first time in a while, I believe we’re all safe. The Team is safe. We’re together, we’re safe, and our future is very bright.
I roll over, slowly, to take the strain off my broken ribs. I see a little white bag sitting on my nightstand. It’s from Dawson’s Downtown. I know what’s in it: a pumpkin muffin. There’s a note scribbled on the bag: “See you later, pequeňal!”
Miss G sits in her car and touches the home button on her iPhone and selects a number from her favorites list. The call is answered on the first ring.
“Hello, Cynthia,” a man at the other end of the international call greets her.
“Hello, Tamir. It is settled. The problem with the cartel is over. We have the program and the students’ cooperation,” she tells him.
“This is a big investment. I like your plan. We’ll see how it goes. How does this program, Blues Clues, work?” the spymaster asks.
“It’s pure link analysis, but the algorithm these students created is completely unique. I have never seen anything like it. Our services, and the CIA, have nothing close to it.”
“That’s why CKG agreed to buy it for us?”
“Yes, they will use it and perfect it for us.”
“Do we know which school The Team is going to?”
“Not yet. I have to do some research. I’m looking at Stanford, but it’s huge. I would prefer something smaller,” Miss G says.
“That’s because you like to work with fewer students.”
“I do like smaller classes. I’ll know in a week or two. Speak to you then,” she says and closes the connection.
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