Driving out of that parking structure and onto the street filled me with elation. Sure, I was in a stolen car but it was my stolen car. No more begging for rides, or taking a bus or taxi. I had my own wheels, and they weren’t attached to a bicycle.
After a few minutes of driving the engine’s tone evened out, and it burbled happily. The Comet felt a bit strange to drive. The hood was so long and flat I had trouble judging when I needed to stop, and even though the bucket seat was comfortable I could feel every bump in the road through my ass.
I tried not to stress out about the STPD cruisers I saw. The only way they’d know the car was stolen was if someone reported it. From how much the parking had cost me, the Comet had been sitting there for almost two weeks. The odds that the owner was going to come looking for it in the twenty to thirty minute window before I made it to Hondo’s shop seemed pretty low.
Before I knew it, I was pulling onto Lyle Street and then stopping in front of the closed gate of Gonzalez Automotive Restoration. It was still too early and Hondo wasn’t in the shop yet.
It didn’t seem like a good idea to park my newly-stolen car on the street. Maybe that was just paranoia. For all I knew it’d be weeks before the Comet was missed.
There was a thump of the roof and I turned to see Flattop standing beside the car on the driver’s side. He smiled as he took in the car. I caught a whiff of coffee through the open window. Of course he’d seen me pull up from across the street at the Ball and Bean.
“What have we got here? Did you pop your cherry, Mack? This is an unusual choice.”
“Yeah, there’s a story there. Can you open the gate? I want to get it off the street.”
“Sure,” Flattop said.
He unlocked the padlock and slid the gate open. I eased the Comet inside, carefully parking it beside the Javelin in the yard. Flattop slid the gate closed behind us.
“Get the plates off. No cop’s going to check the VIN if it’s sitting in the yard without plates.”
I used my little flathead screwdriver on the front plate, while Flattop removed the rear. The plates went into the dumpster in the yard. With that done, the stress was off. The car would be mine.
“You missed Manny,” Flattop said. “He seemed pretty worried about you, but I told him you were a big boy and could handle yourself. He left your bag at Guillem’s.”
“Well I’m still alive, anyway,” I replied. “It was an interesting night.”
“Come on, my coffee is getting cold. You can tell me while I drink it,” Flattop said. He locked up behind us and we crossed to the Ball and Bean.
We dragged Flattop’s table a bit farther away from the clusters of old men and sat down. Guillem was on his game and as we sat down he placed two new cups of coffee in front of us.
“Thanks, Tio,” Flattop said.
Guillem nodded his acknowledgment and looked at me. “Food?”
“Sure. Thanks, Guillem.”
“Da nada,” he replied and disappeared back into the shop.
We spoke in low voices, and it took me a good ten minutes to fill Flattop in on the previous evening. I told him about the trip through the tunnels, the Hip showing up with Circe and the subsequent gunfight.
“Damn!” Flattop said. “That’s crazy. The cops showed up and this dude just paid them and they left? After you were shooting it out under a bridge?”
“That’s what it looked like. I didn’t see what happened, but something changed hands. Pete said he was a good cop, because he stayed bought.”
“Cops are dirty, but that’s something else. Who is this guy? Have you seen his job, or any of his titles?” Flattop asked.
I was really beginning to trust Flattop. Both of the LSS guys, actually. Even so, sharing what Pete had said about his past didn’t feel right.
“No, he’s hiding all of that. He knew who Gato was, though.”
“I’ve got to meet this cat,” Flattop said, leaning back in his chair. “Maybe making payoffs is a skill. It’d be nice to not have to worry about the pigs any more.”
“He might come by today. Said he was going to try to find a weakness to exploit with the Hip.”
“Boom! That shit you stepped in just turned to gold, Mack. Whoever the fuck this dude is, he’s serious.”
Pete definitely was that, but I wasn’t as positive about the whole thing as Flattop. The old man had been pretty clear that he’d changed his name because he wanted out. He’d also implied that the rest of them were out, too. What help would they be versus Magnus and his goons? Defending his home and his girlfriend wasn’t the same as making an aggressive move against the Hip. In short, I was skeptical.
“Yeah, we’ll see I guess.”
I drank a lot of coffee that morning. The night hadn’t been a restful one. After my second coffee Flattop left me there, promising to tell Hondo about the Comet and get him started on clearing the VIN. It wouldn’t be free, of course—nothing was—but he’d cut me a deal. Once that was done I could get a Registrar to bind plates to me.
Out of curiosity I had asked about insurance. No one had mentioned it.
“Insurance? For a car in the shadows? Never. It’s way too expensive for us. They can’t refuse us service, but they can make it real expensive.”
That brought up the question of what would happen if I got in an accident and I was the one at fault.
“They can sue you, but most peeps in the shadows don’t have any assets. Usually they’re shit out of luck. If you hit a gangster, that’s another story. Then things get a little more street.”
With the caffeine buzzing through my veins, I sat in the sun and nibbled on Guillem’s snack food until the taco shack started to set up for lunch. Guillem had stashed my backpack behind his counter. Manny had restocked it with a full ounce.
I set up beside the shack, nodding to John through the glass and started spamming Customer ID. The crowd definitely wasn’t as thirsty as they had been. As I’d sat at the table munching, I’d been thinking back on the work of people I’d hardly paid attention to back in LA. Guys like Tim Ferriss and Gary Vaynerchuk. I was stuck in a cycle, one where I was doing everything wrong.
Slowly pushing a gram of weed at a time, that lesson was sinking in. I was doing this wrong. I needed to scale up. Why should I be the one selling this weed? I needed to be more like Brass Lee. My guys should be doing the selling, and my territory should be bigger than a single block.
How could I make that happen? I’d need more cash, more weed and a lot more friends—or at least employees. Could I convince the LSS boys to come in? Maybe. Manny? Probably not. At some point soon he would need to make a decision—either he was going to be gangster, or not. Either way he chose, I’d have to be fine with it.
Time passed as I sold weed on autopilot. Manny had been right—a monkey could do this job. Don’t obviously be selling when the cops drove by. Use Customer ID to find your customers, but if it didn’t work who cared. You could always just do it the old fashioned way.
I’d sold thirteen grams and was pacing back and forth muttering to myself about scale when Hondo walked up at around four.
“Yo. You alright?”
“Hey, Hondo. Yeah, just thinking about how to scale up this biz.”
“Weed? No way you can with your connect.”
That threw me. I’d been doing the math and thinking about how I’d recruit dealers. I could see that it would work. What had I missed?
“Huh? Why not?”
“Think about it, Homes. You’re already charging a premium price, so you can’t raise it. Manny told me how much you bought it for. I’m not in the weed game, but I’m pretty sure that’s not much below retail prices.”
The implications of what he said were obvious. If I was going to add layers of dealers below me, I needed more margin. Even one more layer would be pushing it. I’d have to charge my dealers pretty close to what they’d be used to selling their product for at ‘regular’ prices. I could maybe stretch that a bit by branding the weed and having them sell it like I did, as a premium product but that’d be pushing things. If they weren’t newbies but had regular customers, they wouldn’t appreciate it.
“Shit, so Brass Lee kind of screwed us,” I said.
“Who? Nah, you just at the bottom. That’s how things go.”
“I guess so,” I agreed. Now I’d need to figure out how to get a better deal on marijuana. Was that something Brass Lee could do if we bought more weight?
“I saw your new car. It’s not exactly a classic. You sure you want to keep it?” Hondo asked.
On the short drive across the city I’d started to like the beast. “Yeah, I’m going to keep it.”
“Aight. I’ll make up a new VIN. That’s $150. Once that’s done Miguel can get you plates.”
Manny’s Crown Vic rolled by and he waved at us before he parked. He soon joined us, without his faithful companion Buddy.
“Sup. Where’s your animal?” Hondo asked.
“Mom is warming up to him. She took him to the park with my sister,” Manny said, looking a bit disappointed.
He turned to me. “Bro, what happened last night? No one answered the door when I came by this morning.”
With the taco shack in their low period, we were nearly alone on the sidewalk so I took a few minutes to update both of them on what had gone down. I didn’t omit any details.
“Holy fuck, that’s so bad, Bro. They’re going to come hard now,” Manny said, looking around the quiet street nervously. “They could do a drive-by if they know where we are.”
I started to protest but Hondo beat me to it. “Nah. When you armor up a truck like that, the windows don’t roll down no more. Don’t work for a drive-by.”
They got into a little argument about how obviously the Hip would have another car they could use for drive-bys, but it was just getting stupid.
“Guys, that’s enough. Manny, they don’t know where we are. If they did, they would have already been here. You know Magnus isn’t exactly subtle.”
“Plus it sounds like your boy got a piece of him,” Hondo said. “Maybe he’ll decide he’s had enough getting bent over by Mack here. That’s three times now. When it gets out his rep is going to be in the toilet.”
I had. One of my rounds had made blood spray from his right shoulder. For all I knew it was one of those minor wounds the heroes in action movies would shrug off. Just a flesh wound, they’d say before they killed a hundred more bad guys. Maybe it wasn’t though. Maybe the heavy 7.62mm round had really fucked up his shoulder. I sure hoped so. If it hadn’t and he had shrugged it off, did that make him the hero of this piece?
“Or he’ll decide that the most important thing in his life is to kill us both,” Manny said.
That seemed like the more likely option, but I didn’t want to say that to Manny. He was already freaked out enough.
“Just chill. Pete’s looking for a solution. If he can’t find one it’s not like our plan changes. We lay low and pay our debt to Brass Lee, then we see where we are.”
Manny accepted that, if reluctantly and we got to work.
Several hours passed, sales gradually picking up as the sun set. Manny had been marked as an ally, but was too nervous to pick a spot on the block too far away. His visions of Hipster Assassins had him spooked, so he stayed close. That was fine by me.
At just after seven o’clock a deep blue low rider slowly cruised past the taco shack. There were two people in the front seat. The driver was a black guy with cornrowed hair, his fingers and neck dripping with gold. Around his neck was a blue scarf. A Blade. I couldn’t see the passenger through the glare of a streetlight on the windshield.
The driver scanned the crowd, and without thinking I IDed him. I got a completely blank nameplate, his name hidden. He wasn’t wearing sunglasses and coolly met my gaze. As he pulled up closer, I could see his passenger. Old Pete.
Pete and the Blade exchanged some words, a fist bump and then the low rider drove off and left Pete behind.
Pete weaved through the crowd, approaching me. Clutched in his right hand was a black, tubular case like you might see people use to carry around posters or maps. He had a big smile on his face, his look triumphant.
Once he was close, he drew me out of earshot of the people on the sidewalk. Manny followed us, and Pete eyed him skeptically.
“This is Manny, he’s my partner,” I supplied.
Pete accepted that without comment.
“I’ve got it. We can crush the Hip, but it has to be done tonight.”