She was three cars ahead of us on Highway 60, headed east toward Palm Springs in a white Town Car driven by a guy who looked like trouble. We were in my new Seville STS, Reggie behind the wheel, slouched down in the leather seat, steering with one thick finger. I was almost but not quite sure she had the jewels with her, packed in one of the red Samsonite suitcases I’d seen her escort load into the Lincoln’s cavernous trunk. People think gangsters drive Lincolns to show off their money, and they do, but they also like them because there’s room for multiple bodies in the trunk. Not that the lady was a gangster. That was us. Kind of.
We’d tailed her from the canal- side house in Venice, through downtown and East L.A. Ahead of us to the right, the Puente Hills bulked up in the golden light you get on winter afternoons after the Santa Ana winds have whisked the smog out to sea. With black- and- white dairy cattle grazing on the green slopes, the hills reminded me of an oil painting I’d seen while casing a Santa Barbara museum a couple of weeks before—a plein air vision of SoCal’s vanishing rural past worth $30,000, more than the rolling expanse of portrayed acreage was worth when the painter committed it to canvas in the 1920s.
“What’s the plan?” Reggie said.
I’d explained everything to him the night before. Either he hadn’t paid attention or he was just annoying me now because he was bored. “We’ll play it by ear,” I said, annoying him back.
He turned his shaggy head and gave me a look, half exasperated, half disgusted, that I remembered from years before in St. Louis when he had been the tough mentor showing me, a teenage novice, the ins and outs of our suburban underworld.
Traffic was thinning as we left the city behind, the red needle of the Seville’s speedometer edging up to 80 mph as Reggie kept close but not too close to the Lincoln. I didn’t know much about the lady other than what I’d read in the society pages of a slick coastal magazine where I first saw the pink diamond necklace reproduced on glossy paper, but I appreciated her judgment in leaving for the desert early in the afternoon.
On Friday evenings, the Los Angeles basin is like an ants’ nest that has been stirred with a stick. Whether you are heading north along the coast to Santa Barbara, south to San Diego, or inland to the mountain resorts or desert, every outlet is clogged with cars, fumes, and frustration as swarms of the basin’s ten million inhabitants rush for the exits of paradise.
One of the things about conventional people that annoys me the most is their tendency to do everything at the allotted time. If it is noon, they go to lunch—at exactly the worst moment, when restaurants are most crowded and the wait for tables and food is the longest. If it is Friday and by some unaccountable oversight they have one credit card left that’s not maxed out, then it is time for them to go away for the weekend; they cheerfully edge onto gridlocked highways after work, stubbornly oblivious to the stupidity of their timing. If we had left Venice at 5 p.m. instead of 2 p.m., we would have been part of a hundred- mile- long traffic jam, arriving in Palm Springs with red faces and sparking nerves after a miserable fourhour commute.
Instead, it was clear sailing as we crossed the 57, the 15, and the 215, and entered the Badlands that lurk like a fairy- tale barrier between Los Angeles and the handy Shangri- La of the Coachella Valley. I gave the lady credit for a sense of tradition, too. Instead of hurtling east on I- 10, the soulless highway the monads take, she was following the route old Hollywood rolled along when stars first discovered the charms of Palm Springs in the 1920s and ’30s. Dressed in flannel and furs, they left L.A.’s gray rainy season behind in favor of warm winter sunshine in what was then a sparsely populated wilderness with old Indians trudging down dusty roads between scattered resorts that welcomed the rich and famous with small swimming pools and large drinks. Today the pools are huge, the drinks small, and the valley full of people who will never ever be famous, but an aura of celebrity lingers, locked in by savvy developers and city fathers who named the main thoroughfares after Hollywood royalty. When you pull up to the intersection of Bob Hope Drive and Frank Sinatra Avenue, it’s hard not to feel a little starstruck, if you go in for that kind of thing.
The Badlands take you by surprise. One minute you are speeding along a straight, level road; the next you are in the middle of a civil engineer’s nightmare, narrow highway curving and banking crazily through rugged hills. If you’re used to the route you can go through at 70 mph, but if it’s new to you, the Six Flags centrifugal forces on the steep curves scare most drivers down to about fifty. The tough guy steering the Lincoln must not have been in high society very long. He slowed abruptly as we entered the treeless hills, Galway green after the December rains. Reggie, a talented wheelman, gave a contemptuous snort as he trod on the brakes, keeping pace with the Lincoln.
In the guy’s defense, the Town Car isn’t nearly as agile as the Seville.
With only 210 horses and weighing almost 5,000 pounds, it’s underpowered and tends to wallow in normal highway curves. It must have felt like a roller coaster with elastic bolts as it careened through the Badlands. Of course, the hills put some strain on the Cadillac, too—about as much as a politician feels pocketing a brick of hundreds for a favor that will slip his mind as soon as the cash has been converted to scotch and companionship. The Caddie held the road like it was on a rail, 300- horsepower Northstar engine quiet as a wooden top spinning on a wooden table. I still missed the DeVille that I had lost on our last job down in Newport Beach—the consequences of which we were hiding out from in Venice—but I was starting to love this car, too. Midnight blue, with $2,000 worth of chrome wheels and an artist’s touch in its sleek lines, it was a beautiful piece of machinery to look at. More important, it accelerated like a rocket and handled at 120 mph. I liked knowing I had a getaway car that gave me a realistic chance of actually getting away, and that if the cop caravan and TV crews caught up with me, I would at least be branded into the public’s memory behind the wheel of the
classic American success car. The boulevards of Southern California are jammed nowadays with German and Japanese luxury cars that cost twice as much as Cadillacs and hold their value better, but the American car retains an aura of happiness and well- being that mere economics can’t dispel. Whether you are pulling up in front of a club on Saturday night or church on Sunday morning, you have to like yourself a little bit if you are driving a Caddie.
When we dropped down out of the Badlands onto the flat road below Banning, the lady’s driver tried to reinflate his ego by pushing the Town Car past ninety. As the Seville’s needle edged up toward a hundred, Reggie glanced over at me, bushy eyebrows raised.
“Drop back a little bit but stay with them,” I said. “If there’s CHP, they’ll tag the Lincoln and we can slow down.”
“If you say so.”
I had no interest in being stopped by the highway patrol, but I didn’t know what hotel the lady was staying at so we had to stick close. The Lincoln flashed past the 111 turnoff, which meant they weren’t going to Palm Springs proper but to one of the resort cities farther down the valley. Fifteen minutes later, their big right- turn signal blinked once at John Wayne Boulevard and we followed the Town Car up the swoop of the exit ramp. Half an hour later, we were turning into the elegant entrance drive of the Oasis Palms Resort in Indian Wells, passing between two fountains that mocked the desert with sparkling geysers.
The front of the hotel was U- shaped, with wings thrusting forward on either side of a loop at the end of the curving entry drive. There was a massive, modernistic porte cochere at the base of the U, a semicircular shed roof sheathed in copper that slanted down from the bulk of the creamcolored building. Beneath it, guests with gold cards committed themselves to the tender mercies of tip- hungry bellboys and valets who hauled their luggage off on gleaming carts and whisked their limos away to precious parking spots. The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the biggest golf event of the winter season, was being held that weekend at the Indian Wells Country Club across the street, and the place was crawling with the kind of people who shell out to spend hours sweating along fairways in expensive sports clothes for the doubtful privilege of watching people in even more expensive sports clothes hit little white balls into widely spaced holes. The country club was part of the desert’s celebrity past, built by Desi Arnaz in the 1950s, patronized by Ike, Dick, and Arnold. The famous photo of Nixon moving his ball during a Pro- Am tournament was taken on the ninth hole, half a mile from where we sat idling in the Seville. The only reason I knew the Seville was idling was because Reggie hadn’t turned the key. There was no discernible noise or vibration from the eight- cylinder engine, its three hundred horses waiting like an army in ambush, silent and powerful. Carlos Rodriguez, one of the top pros, was getting the royal treatment as he climbed from his silver Mercedes sedan several cars ahead of us, bellhops competing with one another to carry his clubs into the lobby. The Lincoln was right behind Rodriguez’s 420 SEL, but no one was paying any attention to it. We were two cars back from the Lincoln.
After a couple of minutes, while Rodriguez was still signing autographs for admiring members of the alligator- insignia set, the driver of the Lincoln got out with a lethal look on his face. He was a white guy in his late twenties or early thirties dressed in gray loafers, tight gray slacks, and a soft supple black leather jacket that looked like it had put a thousand- dollar ding in the lady’s total asset account. He was lumpy and awkward, with the deformed muscle bulges of a guy who has slammed a lot of iron on a lot of cell blocks, but he looked like a fast mover all the same. As he stalked over to the valet desk, springy on small feet, the lady opened the passenger door and emerged gracefully from the Town Car.
She was striking in a red satin outfit that could have been pajamas or street clothes. She had the tomboy figure—with subtle curves in the right places—that middle- aged rich ladies get from endless rounds of golf and sets of tennis and laps in country club pools. She had the bored, benevolent air of the West Side wealthy, too, but even at a distance I could see bewilderment behind the façade. She’d know her way around a luxury hotel like a pedophile around a playground, so it must have been her life, not the immediate environment, that had her confused.
Reggie straightened up in his seat as she got out.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”
“I mean about the setup.”
“Run it down again.”
“It hasn’t changed since last night. We let her check in, get the room number, and go in when they leave for dinner.”
“How do we get in the room?”
“I got something in mind.”
“What if she wears the rocks?”
“The gala is tomorrow night. That’s what she brought the necklace for. She isn’t going to wear a quarter million in diamonds to a steakhouse.” The magazine had noted in breathless terms that Mrs. Evelyn Evermore of San Francisco and Bel Air would be honorary cohost of the annual “Diamonds in the Desert” fund-raiser for the Eisenhower Medical Center, “one of the most sparkling events of the winter social season.” I saw the article by chance. A kid everyone called Ozone Pacific who lived in an abandoned building next door to the flophouse where Reggie and I were staying in Venice had showed me the magazine while I was having coffee on the boardwalk a couple of weeks earlier. He was panhandling his way up toward the pier and I gave him a dollar, same as every morning.
“Aw, thanks, Rob,” he said, and gave me the big, bright smile that was his best feature. “Hey, look what I got!”
He pulled the magazine, something called Riviera,
out of an ancient Batman backpack he carried and opened it to Evermore’s picture. The full- page photograph showed her at a ritzy Christmas party in Santa Monica, wearing a scarlet gown and the pink diamond necklace.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Ozone said softly, gazing at the picture.
There was something sad about the guy, beyond being unemployed and homeless. He had to be in his late teens or maybe even his early twenties, but he was still as fascinated as an infant by shiny things and pretty pictures. He had a little pouch of plastic gold coins he played with underneath a palm tree on the beach where he hung out when he wasn’t begging, and a brightly colored photograph of a woman he would never meet filled him with religious awe.
“Sure, she’s beautiful,” I had said to Ozone, even though my attention was locked on the glittering stones fastened around the woman’s slender neck.
I wondered what he would do if he were with us now, seeing her in the flesh in front of the Oasis Palms, looking down pensively at her redsandaled feet.
While I watched her, thinking that, yes, she really was beautiful, she looked up from her thoughts toward a bellboy in a braided maroon uniform who was hurrying toward the Lincoln, pushing a brass- trimmed luggage cart. He was about the same age as Ozone, and he bobbed his head as he passed her.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, ma’am,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder at the biceps behind him.
“Everyone was so surprised to see Mr. Rodriguez,” he said to the driver as he began loading the Samsonites onto the cart. “We didn’t know he was staying at our hotel.” It was a fine point whether he was fawning or cringing, but I could sense his fear from thirty feet away. As he leaned over and stretched to get the last piece of luggage from the back of the trunk, the driver glanced around and then kneed him viciously in the ass, knocking him into the Lincoln’s capacious body receptacle.
“What the hell?” the bellboy squeaked, red- faced and trembling, after he scrambled back out.
“I’ll give you sumpen be surprised at you make Miz Evermore wait again,” the driver said in an expressionless voice. He had a long narrow head, and he barely moved his lips when he spoke. The ones who showed no emotion always worried me.
Rodriguez was graciously signing a last autograph. He looked about thirty- five, in great shape and with a good attitude.
“Who’s he, a movie star or something?” Reggie asked.
“He’s a professional golfer. Favored to win the tournament.”
“Top prize is seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Reggie turned his head and looked at me with his eyes stretched wide open, eyebrows near his hairline. It was the look he used to express surprise. “Why don’t we roll him after the game?”
“Good thought,” I said, “but I’m sure they pay by check or wire transfer.” By the time a valet got around to us, the lady had disappeared through the double doors that opened into the lobby. The Oasis is a four- star, fourdiamond resort, and each door was a massive slab of plate glass, five feet wide by fifteen feet high, trimmed in brass. The tough guy had driven off in the Lincoln without tipping anyone.
“Nice car,” the valet said as he opened my door. “Is it an Eldorado?”
“Seville,” I said. “Eldorados are coupes.”
“Oh, right! I should know that.” He had the blond crew cut and permanent tan of a surfer working through the winter so that he could spend next summer sliding down green waves in the surf between La Jolla and Malibu. “Can I get your name, sir?”
“Peter Blake,” I said, using an alias that I had decided on a few days before. Some criminals use the same alias over and over, which helps the cops if they get interested while investigating a crime or series of crimes. Once they figure out that Andy Anatello is just another version of Anthony Antonio, the element of disguise is lost, while a false sense of security remains. I never used a fake name more than once. There was a driver’s license, a nonfunctional Visa card, and a couple of miscellaneous ID cards with the Blake name in my wallet. The license and cards had cost me six hundred dollars in the back room of a souvenir shop on the Venice boardwalk, but they would be snippets of plastic in a public trash container when this job was over. Which I expected would be soon. With any luck, we would be back in Venice with the jewels in time to catch Leno’s monologue.
My real name is Robert Rivers. Most people call me Rob, a pleasant irony. I tried going straight once—got clean and sober, worked as a carpenter, got married, had a kid—a beautiful little girl we named Sheila. But it wasn’t me. I drifted back.
Being a criminal was my karma, and I wasn’t complaining. The hours were flexible, the money was good, and freebooting was way more interesting than swinging a hammer or sitting on a numb ass in front of a computer screen eight hours a day.
There were some moral issues, for sure, but I’d dealt with most of them. What I did hurt people sometimes, but so did the actions of most other professions, one way or the other. Bankers with their loan- shark interest rates and foreclosures, lawyers with their sharp practices and subpoenas. The worlds of business and government were packed like a college student’s Volkswagen with crooked connivers who, unlike me, topped their sundae of sins with the pickled cherry of hypocrisy. I knew I was a bad guy, and tried to be as nice about it as I could. They thought they were good, which gave them license to be ruthless as hell.
There was danger, too, of course. The claustrophobic specter of prison, where I had spent a couple of memorable years in my early twenties, was a lurking nightmare. I’d been shot at three times, hit once, and I’d killed one person. To be fair, he deserved it.
Did I ever wake up at 3 a.m. horrified at the texture and trajectory of my existence? Sure. But I don’t think that kind of dark- night- of- the- soul despair is unique to stickup guys. Everyone in contemporary society carries a layer of anxiety under their bullshit and bluster. With some it’s fear of getting fired and losing the house in which they’ve invested their identity. Others are afraid that Barbie will find a fatter wallet or a bigger schlong to suck, or that Ken will take off with an intern who wears a thong over skin as smooth as satin. Old ladies are afraid that a less- deserving size sixteen will be tapped to sing the solo in the church choir, or that the neighbor’s daughter will get married first.
“Are you checking in, Mr. Blake?” the valet asked. Built like a compact welterweight who lacked reach but made up for it with inside punching power, he had the outlaw aura common to dedicated surfers, with hard eyes and a marijuana leaf tattooed on his right forearm.
“No, we’re here for dinner,” I said.
“Call us on a house phone a few minutes before you are ready to leave and we’ll have your Seville waiting.”
“Thanks.” I traded him a ten- dollar bill for a claim check. “Take good care of it.”
“You can count on it, sir,” he said, giving me a little salute. “And thank you, sir.”
It’s so easy to make people happy. If I had given him a dollar, it would have been emotionally neutral, a routine transaction. Two dollars would have given his heart a little lift. A ten- dollar bill, which was nothing to me in pursuit of a quarter million, made him happy. It was just a piece of paper, but it put a spring in his step and made him feel a little bit better about himself, his job, and the human race. If a conflict of any kind broke out between me and another guest, he would be on my side.
“Little prick better be careful or he’ll run out of ‘sirs,’ ” Reggie said as the kid wheeled the Caddie crisply out of the line of parked cars, squealing the tires just enough to show he knew where the edge of the power was. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Criminal Karma by Steven M. Thomas. Copyright © 2009 by Steven M. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.