We were robbing the Cow Town on Harbor Boulevard. It’s a big, barn-shaped steak house with a split-rail fence in front that does a land-office business on Father’s Day, the third-richest day of the year for most restaurants. All evening, circus acts of like-faced families had crowded in the entrance making the silly jokes that have no meaning to outsiders, young and middle-aged adults taking their fathers and grandfathers out for a meal that showed appreciation, but proved independence. The restaurant had closed at midnight and the last back-slapping, toothpick-chewing customers were gone by twelve-thirty. Most of the employees were gone, too. There were five people inside: the manager, the cashier, two dishwashers and a busboy.
The restaurant had an L-shaped parking lot that lay in front and along the left side of the building. Two junkers and two modest sedans were parked in the side lot. The dishwashers rode together. A chain-link fence overgrown with flowering honeysuckle vines ran along the back of the parking lot and building, continuing across the rear of an overgrown field on the far side. The blacktop alley between the fence and the back of the restaurant was just wide enough for a garbage or delivery truck to squeeze in. Beyond the fence were the backyards of little stucco houses where lower-middle-class citizens were sleeping in their sagging, lower-middle-class beds, oblivious to life’s infinite possibilities.
Crouched against the back wall of the restaurant in the shadow of a wooden partition that screened the Dumpster, I took a deep breath, inhaling the vomit smell of restaurant garbage along with the perfume of the white and yellow flowers cascading down the fence. It was ten after one, very early in the morning on Monday, June 21, 1995. One of the Mexican dishwashers would be wheeling the last load of half-eaten baked potatoes and gnawed bones out into the dark alley any minute now. The locked back door he would come out of was on the other side of the partition, which extended at a right angle from the building.
The alley was dark because Switch had swung by two nights before, on his way back from selling a guitar in Laguna Beach, and clipped an inconspicuous wire, deactivating the light above the service door. The first night a back light is out, it makes them nervous. They are a little bit careful, slightly on guard. By the third night they are used to it—people fall into ruts that quickly. At the same time, there is no way they’ll get an electrician out to find the problem in just two days. Even if the day manager sees the night manager’s note and feels like reporting the problem to the maintenance contractor, the electrician will be busy or lazy or drunk and won’t be able to get there until the following week.
Reaching under the Dumpster, I pulled out a paper bag containing a polyester ski mask, a pair of brown jersey gloves and a heavy .38-caliber revolver. When I pulled the mask over my head, the adrenaline meter dilated, sending a flush of exhilaration through my branching nerves and blood, filling me with the happiness of the crime. Exhilaration solidified into confidence as I weighed the gun in my hand. It was a Smith & Wesson model 10, blued carbon steel with the four-inch barrel, the same basic double-action six-shooter used by thousands of highway patrolmen and beat cops around the country in the years before they were seduced by the glamour and superior firepower of semiautomatics. At nine and a half inches and thirty-two ounces, it wasn’t the easiest gun to conceal, but it was reliable, accurate and big enough to scare the shit out of people—which is what you want. If they are scared, you don’t have to hurt them. And it could be concealed. I’d carried it in and out of many interesting places, tucked in my belt beneath an aloha shirt or sport coat, walked past security guards and cops with a nod and a smile.
It wasn’t a fancy pistol, but it had become a talisman for me. I had carried it on every job we’d done in California and gotten away clean every time—no shots fired, no harm done. I was sure this job would go smooth, too. We’d be in and out in ten minutes with seven or eight thousand dollars for our trouble.
The bolt on the inside of the door snapped back and I moved forward to the end of the partition. The alley glowed. The big trash can clunked across the threshold and squeaked over the asphalt. As the dishwasher came around the end of the six-foot-high barrier, I pointed the gun at him and held my finger to my lips. He froze, that look of wonder they get illuminating his face. They wonder if it is really happening to them. They wonder why they ever left the place they came from. I think they wonder, briefly, if they are on TV. I motioned with my hand and the dishwasher moved out of the light from the propped open door, into the darkness of the enclosure.
He shook his head.
“That’s okay,” I said. “No hay problema. No hay peligro si hace que yo digo. Comprende?”
“Sí,” he said softly.
You have to know some Spanish to do stickups in Southern California. I couldn’t think of the word for trash can so I motioned with the gun and he pulled the gray rubber container into the Dumpster enclosure.
“Adalante, por favor,” I said, motioning with the gun again. “Silencio.”
Across the alley, my partner came out of a niche where the flower-covered fence jogged around a telephone pole. He’d covered me from the shadows on the off chance of a cop checking the back of the restaurant at closing time. The cop was rated an off chance because I knew from a few minutes research in a newspaper database at a nearby library that the restaurant had not been robbed in several years, and cops get lazy like everyone else.
Beneath his ski mask, Switch had a mobile Irish face that could change from tough to sly to jolly and back again in the time it took him to shake hands with a potential customer. At six feet and 240 pounds, he was two inches shorter than me and about fifty pounds heavier. Half the extra weight was fat, but he was solid underneath the padding. I wouldn’t have entered him in a long-distance race, but he could pivot in a flash and slam an opponent with a punch like a mule’s kick. He grew up in a city neighborhood around the corner from a gym with a boxing ring. While most of the would-be fighters I knew were practicing strip-mall karate, Switch was wearing out heavy bags, developing his body shots. He still sparred at a gym in Long Beach. Boxing was one of the few things other than guitar playing and Mexican women that I’d seen him stick with for more than a year or two at a time.
His first father-in-law called him the “notorious job-jumper” and didn’t mean it in a nice way. He’d had something like a hundred jobs in his twenties and early thirties, everything from Fuller Brush salesman to cable sports announcer. His long economic adolescence had been hard on his marriages and credit report, but it came in handy for us now. He’d moved west fourteen years before, in the early 1980s, and his knowledge of the cash flows and operational details of Southland businesses was a valuable resource.
Switch glanced back and forth as he transported his bulk across the alley on the balls of his feet, a sawed-off shotgun held inconspicuously along his right thigh. There was no traffic on the side street, no activity on the lot, and the three of us entered the back door of the restaurant in conga line formation. Switch closed and locked the door behind us.
Excerpted from Criminal Paradise by Steven M. Thomas. Copyright © 2008 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.