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By Peter Craig
Read by Kathe Mazur
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It’s been three years since Lydia Carson ran away from her privileged home in West Los Angeles. Just 17 years old, she’s gotten involved with an older man who supplements his income with shady, mysterious activities. One afternoon Lydia finds herself guarding the back door of a house in Topanga Canyon during a shakedown. As murderous violence erupts, Lydia herself becomes a target. She escapes down a creek and through the hillsides to the shore–alone, destitute, and frightened. Her last option is John Link, her blood father, who has just come off a long prison sentence for violent crimes of his own.
Link jumps at the chance to rescue his daughter, but after several days he realizes that her situation is far more dangerous and complicated than he thought. Link is forced to return to his former wild lifestyle in order to protect his daughter, revisiting dangerous former allies and hideouts. In the process, a father and daughter begin to find each other–and the danger that might consume them.
Investigation Report (#CS 1617117)
Reporting Officer: Detective Holcomb
Saturday, December 9, 2000
Shortly after hearing a late local news report on the homicides in Topanga Canyon, Charlotte Villalobos, of Canoga Park, CA, called the West Valley Division to inform detectives of a potentially related event.
On Saturday, December 9, Mrs. Villalobos had been working the day shift as a cashier in a Wal-Mart franchise located at 11334 Sherman Way Boulevard. At approximately 3:30 PM, a teen- age girl purchased a dozen packages of White Box 9mm Range Ammunition, along with duct tape, rope, and bubble gum.
Mrs. Villalobos states that the girl was shivering, scratching her neck repeatedly, and appeared to be high on narcotics. She was denied cigarettes when she refused to produce identification. When another shopper commented on her purchase, the girl replied that her boyfriend was teaching her to use a firearm.
Approximately 5’10" to 6’0", the girl wore a black T-shirt with a scarf, low-riding jeans, and flip-flop sandals. She is de-scribed as having light-colored blue eyes "like a husky," and long black hair.
After paying in cash, the girl stopped beside a young child sitting in a mechanical flying saucer. She gave the boy her remaining change, then inserted a quarter, setting the device in motion.
Subsequent to the call, shell casings recovered at the site on Old Topanga Road have been identified by forensics to be White Box range ammunition.
from A.R.T., Calipatria, 4/10/01.
Waiting at the curb with two loaded shopping bags as her ride approached down Sherman Way, Lydia imagined herself in the shotgun seat of each passing car. Disappearing was so easy. Open a door, plead to a stranger.
She might drop down into a whole new life with some unsuspecting commuter, fall in love on her way out of trouble, lose herself in a whirlwind of gratitude; tell him stories at night, whisper about the miracle of their sudden meeting; then she’d fold his laundry, have his babies, grow old in a weather-controlled rambler out in a bright and treeless subdivision: Anything was destiny if you worked it long enough.
Maybe she’d just turn up dead in a drifter’s suitcase, left in a bus station locker or a rest stop men’s room. Every stranger was his own life-and-death riddle.
“Lydia, oh, Lydia,” she sang softly. “Have you seen Lydia?” She was drifting down deeper into that trancelike state, seeing messages on benches and storefront signs, intended only for her: Injured at home or work? Another bench showed two blurry pictures of runaways, smiling despite their miserable eyes. The bus carried a placard for an upcoming premiere: He has the power to hear what women think. . . . All of it together, jumbled along with windshields flaring brief flashes of sunlight, patterns in the traffic, pedestrians in a suspicious swarm, moving as if choreographed, watching her—it was nearly coming together into a mystical language, a prophecy that she couldn’t quite decipher.
No, no, she whispered. Coincidence is just God’s sense of humor.
It was the sleep dep, she told herself, the sleep deprivation; keep your eyes open long enough and you’ll even see visions in a Wal-Mart parking lot. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept. The days behind her were as cluttered as this boulevard spanning back through light and shade.
She glanced away and read the smudging ink on her palms, an amnesiac’s grocery list—9mm, duck tape, twine, s.rounds, Winchester, die!!!—and it seemed now a message from another lifetime. She understood. Spent as she was, she still knew that she was carrying the evidence: Out of all these magazines, at least a few rounds would pass through skin and bone and wind up in a coroner’s office or an investigation file. And one of these bullets, down somewhere in the boxes and bags, was meant for her. “Lydia the tattooed lady,” she sang, laughing suddenly at the thought—she was carrying the receipt for her own execution.
The car pulled up.
Three men were pressed together with jostling elbows into the small backseat, while in the front her boyfriend, Jonah, patted his lap. She sat down onto his legs while he was midstream in an argument: “. . . and when was the last time I broke a promise to either of you?” He tossed back a few boxes, and the car filled with the sound of loading magazines.
By the shady window, the sweaty white kid complained that he was carsick and might throw up. Jonah told him to be professional. This group hadn’t put in much work together, and Lydia worried that if he puked on someone, he might set off a gunfight at close range.
Two of the men, Iván Vasquez and Patricio “Choop” Miramontez, had been jumped into a West Side clique long before they were shaving and now earned mercenary cash as bodyguards. Iván was still as lithe and rubbery as a boy, with his shirt off and “El Salvador” tattooed in block letters across his hairless chest. He had a freckling of pink scars across his arms and collarbone where he’d once been sprayed with buckshot through a security door. Choop, his counterpart, drove the car—a short, broad-faced, broad-shouldered Chicano who rarely made a sound. He had Aztec symbols on his forearms, the pachuco cross, and the word “Kanpol” on the back of his fist, now gripping the wheel.
Neither of these men had much love for the two Valley dealers who tore open the boxes and parceled out magazines. One was Chase Sullivan, a disheveled kid with a goatee and oily hair in his face. In an oversized hockey jersey and shorts that hung to the bright snarl of tattoos on his calves, he seemed less like a gang member than the head of a gangster’s fan club. The other was Cully, the carsick dealer from Canoga Park, a short-breathed, heavyset man who still managed to wear oversized pants. With his shaved head and eggshell complexion, he looked like a gargantuan baby. He whined that his gun didn’t take these “cheap-ass nines.”
“Cully, I thought you had a nine millimeter,” said Jonah.
“Nah, I said it a hundred times already. It’s a Ruger P89 and it’s got an interchangeable barrel. But I lost the other one.”
Iván sighed and shook his head.
“So I need thirty-Luger ammo.”
“You ain’t going to find Luger ammo at a motherfucking Wal-Mart,” said Chase.
“Then I’m useless. I got two rounds.”
Shifting his weight beneath Lydia, Jonah dropped the mags from two gray handguns, then handed each back for Iván to reload. Cully was still fretting that the ammo was garbage, some of it looked scratched; and he argued with the others about whether or not brass could rust. When Jonah took back one loaded gun, he hugged his arms around Lydia and placed it into her hands, breathing beside her ear.
She whispered, “I don’t know what to do with that.”
With his lips against her neck, he said, “There’s no safety. You just pull the slide. Got to have your finger right on the trigger—square. Hit it. No more problems.”
His breath tickled her ear, and his lowered voice reminded her of that soft-spoken quality that had once been so surprising and attractive. When she’d first met him, his green eyes always fled away, toward the floor; his smile was quick and bashful; he withheld so much energy in public, until suddenly, in a private and heated moment, he could explode with a torrent of words—an urgent, intense speech. But what Lydia now recognized was the terrible stillness he showed when he was making plans.
It amazed Lydia that in a car full of loud and rowdy thugs, Jonah should wind up seeming the most dangerous. He wasn’t tough or streetwise like his bodyguards. He came from a rarified, wealthy family, raised on both sides of the border, a mix of old-money Mexican and new-money Anglo. There was something about him like a lost and rumpled prince, wearing his nice clothes badly, a silk shirt untucked and sweat-stained. He paid for this support in the car; but they were loyal, Lydia knew, mostly because of this specific quality—the sense that he could, at any moment, do something far outside what anyone had considered. A ghoulish problem solver, he was meditating now; she could feel his heartbeat against her back.
Cully said, “We got a whole trunk full of rifles and shotguns, and she only gets this fucking range ammo. Your bitch fucked up, Jonah. I’m not even going to fire up there.”
“Hey,” said Lydia, pushing her tongue through her gum and snapping it.
“So don’t fire,” Jonah said.
“Hey, excuse me,” Lydia continued.
“Then I’m just going to conserve my ammo, dog. It’s like fifty cents a bullet anyway.”
Iván said, “Fifty cents a round, you better be in love.”
“Excuse me!” Lydia yelled over the chatter.
Cully glanced over at her, frowning. A loose bullet dropped onto the floor.
“Listen,” said Lydia, pausing as she blew a small bubble and popped it. “You don’t know me very well, so this is just, like, I’m telling you my boundaries. Okay? Please don’t call me a bitch.”
Cully’s mouth hung open. Iván and Chase hunched down and squirmed, like pigs at a trough, trying to find the loose round on the floor.
Cully finally replied, “Who are you all of a sudden?”
“I’m asking you politely.”
“What is this star attitude now? Just get the right fucking bullets next time.”
While Iván and Chase were combing the floor, Lydia and Cully faced each other across the car. She raised her voice over the din to say, “If I made a mistake, tell me in a businesslike way, all right. Without calling me a bitch.”
“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” he said, making a puppet with his hand.
“Fine,” said Lydia. She turned and crossed her arms over her chest, staring out the window for the rest of the ride, still flinching and whispering her side of the argument.
They drove deep into the canyon, coiling upward beneath mountains of scrub and yellow grass, to the end of Old Topanga, where the house sat in a dark recess beneath a cluster of crooked oaks. With brittle and discolored shingles, blankets nailed over the windows, it was the eyesore in the depths of a hippie enclave. The yard was piled with old doors and fence planks, and a narrow garage seemed built from years of accumulated trash.
As Jonah slid out from under her, he told Lydia to go around the back of the house and make sure that no one tried to slip out. He joined the line of men, swaggering across the street, while Lydia stayed in the car with the gun on the seat beside her. Once the five men reached the ragged front yard, they noticed that Lydia was still waiting. Jonah slapped his hands onto his pants and stormed back.
“I’m not going.”
“Lydia. Somebody’s going to see you here.”
“Fuck this. I’m not going in there with somebody like that.”
“That fucking chemo-case over there. I’m not doing shit unless he apologizes.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, Jonah. He called me a bitch like ten times. To my face. I don’t have to take that kind of shit from people. He can get his own fucking bullets.”
Jonah sighed, then stomped back and negotiated for a few minutes with Cully, who went limp, as if a puppeteer had suddenly dropped his strings. Then Jonah dragged him across the street, holding his elbow, and told him, “Just say it and let’s go.”
Cully rested his gun on the closed canvas roof and leaned through the driver’s door into the deeper shade. “I’m sorry I called you a stupid skank bitch.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?” said Lydia, covering her face.
“Listen,” said Jonah. “You two work this out—now. Or I’m going to shoot you both and throw you into a ditch together.”
Cully’s mouth twisted side to side, until finally he murmured, “Sorry . . . bitch.”
“What are you, four?” said Lydia.
Jonah shoved Cully away, then leaned into the car. He spoke in his lowered but heated voice. “Lydia, he’s just here to do a job. Okay? Are you going to throw a temper tantrum for every idiot in the world?”
She folded her arms over her chest, stared out at the empty neighborhood, and said, “I don’t see why I should help if nobody fucking respects me. What am I even going to do in there anyway?”
With his face stern, he said, “Lydia, get out of the car. Now. I’m not going to discuss this with you right now. Pick up the gun and do what I tell you, or we’re all going to be in worse trouble here.”
Listlessly, she put on her leather backpack, picked up her gun, and moved to the side of the house, past trash cans swarming with flies, where Jonah hissed at her and told her to guard the back door, mumbling other directions that she couldn’t follow.
There was a hornets’ nest under one of the shingles and a confused cricket somewhere in the shadows, and she was distracted by the way the sleek, bluish drones squeezed in and out of the narrow space. She hovered by the trash cans, taking a lipstick case from her back pocket and scooping up powder with her pinky fingernail. After a bump of speed in each nostril, rubbing them as they burned, she crept past an open gate into a narrow backyard.
Five boys were wrestled together on a downhill plot of dirt rimmed with weeds and ivy. She was suddenly terrified to be holding a gun. The boys moved chaotically; there seemed to be only one rule to their game: Whoever picked up the chewed Nerf football had to remain on his feet as long as possible, while the others grabbed, scratched, shoved, tripped, kicked, and finally piled on top of him. They hollered and cursed and drove each other into the ground in a fray of ripped cargo pants and bloody knees. One boy, probably ten years old, lay on his back, exaggerating the pain of a wounded hand, dying in simulated slow motion, until he noticed Lydia and sat up, clearing the dirty locks from his eyes.
Lydia blew a bubble and peeled it off her lips. In the churning dust, one by one the other boys stopped playing.
Slowly Lydia moved into the yard with the gun lowered, speaking in a tone for small children: “Okay, hi, kids—I promise everything is going to be fine. There’s some grown-up business going on in the house and everybody is going to be just fine. Everybody’s going to keep having fun out here.”
Her voice shook, and she worried that she would startle the children. Instead, they reacted as if she were an ineffectual babysitter, fanning out around her, shouting questions and asking to see her “gatt.” One boy, while pinching blood from a gash in his elbow, said, “Dang, that gun is tight. Where’d you get that?”
“No, no, no. Everybody just be real chill, okay. Sit down. I want everybody to sit here in a circle—okay? This is a real gun and it’s really dangerous.”
The boy with the bleeding elbow continued moving toward her, and another two dashed over to peek through the sliding glass door.
“Wait! No. What did I just say? You two—away from the door. I told you to sit down. I’m serious.”
A tiny, freckled boy cocked his fingers and made firing noises that blew spit around his lips, and another said, “My mom’s boyfriend has four guns. I could go get one right now and kill everybody here.”
“I’m not kidding,” said Lydia. “This isn’t make-believe. I’m seriously sketched out and everybody better sit down. Let’s go. On the ground.”
“I could get his Smith and Wesson and shoot through a plate of steel.”
“You’re such a loser, Joey. Your mom wouldn’t let you—”
“Like you know, fag.”
“You’re the fag.”
“Please, let me see it! Please. Please! I just want to hold it, I won’t shoot it.”
Two of the boys rushed at her, trying to grab the gun, and Lydia backed away, gasping, holding it into the air as they jostled against her. She raised her voice sharply and said, “No. Stop it. Don’t test me. All of you go sit over there in a circle. I’m going to count to three and if you’re not all sitting—”
“—then I’m going to pistol-whip you, you little brat. Now—a circle, right here. One.”
The freckled boy shot more imaginary rounds with his finger, then dove onto the ground and rolled like a commando, rising back up and pelting her with a guttural barrage of make-believe grenades. Lydia grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him down. “Good, you sit there—now the rest of you, right here. Take your fucking meds and sit right here. We’re going to get in a circle on the ground, just like we’re all back in reform school. Let’s go—we’re going to go around the group and talk about our feelings.”
“My mom’s boyfriend lets me shoot his guns all the time. I killed a coyote.”
“Well, that’s terrible, kid. Hideous. No one should kill anything. Now—Simon says sit down. Two. I’m counting now. This is the real thing. If I get to three, I’m not responsible for anything I do.”
“Just shoot something!” A towheaded boy with a crew cut leapt up and down with frustration. “Shoot anything!”
Three boys now sat Indian-legged in the diminishing dirt clouds, chattering over each other: “Kill Teddy’s dad.”—“A-ha-ha-ha-ha.”—“Teddy, your dad is a criminal.” “At least I have a dad, homo.” “Shoot that tree. You’re not going to get in trouble for shooting a tree!”
Lydia grabbed the towhead and yanked him across the yard, making him sit with the others. Finally the fifth boy drifted over and joined the circle. “There! Motherfucking nap time!” she shouted with her teeth bared. The stress was in her shoulders and fingertips and there was a jolting motion in her chest. She started to cough violently; the kids waited patiently, suddenly intimidated by the hint of illness. “Everybody put your heads down. Maybe you don’t take me seriously, but don’t make these guys mad.”
The freckled boy raised his hand, his body twisted down in the dirt.
“What?” Lydia asked.
“Are we hostages?”
“No, you’re not hostages. I’m just guarding the door—you’re just—we’re just all going to sit here and stay out of the way.”
“You should definitely kill Teddy’s dad. He’s a dick.”
From inside the house, beyond a dim sliding glass door, Lydia could hear scooting furniture, shouting, and splintering wood. The freckled boy blurted out, “Have you ever shot anybody?”
“No,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. Her palms were damp with sweat, and she wiped them on her shirt.
Past a patio of loose bricks, through the glass door covered with reflected trees, she could see movement as if in shallow water. She turned back to the boys all lounging in the dirt. She said, “It’s just money. It’s always money—it’s my boyfriend’s business.”
“I’m your boyfriend,” said the one with the gouged elbow. They all laughed as he grabbed the crotch of his loose pants.
Just then, a shot fired, louder than a cherry bomb, and all the boys leapt to their feet. There followed the sound of kicked bottles, breaking glass, a woman’s muzzled scream.
When a shot burst through the glass door, the boys dashed for cover, sliding downhill and behind the trees in what seemed to be a planned evacuation route for any broken window.
Lydia headed toward the door. She could see into the dim living room beyond the punctured glass, where a woman was sobbing, a noise so strained that she sounded like a suffering mule. Coming through mounted speakers, a CD was playing an interminable guitar solo with an occasional hailstorm of bongo drums, and it took Lydia a moment to realize that the other, more erratic percussion of banging was coming from the kitchen, where Jonah’s men were dumping out drawers and tearing through the floorboards.
On the sharp crust around the glass door there hung syrupy droplets of blood, which expanded into a sprayed trail along the walls, across the floor, and into a saturated arm of the couch. The woman sat just below this bloodstain, with her hands duct-taped together, braying in pain with a strip across her mouth. Lydia slid the door open, dropping more chips of glass, and, once inside, she saw the woman’s mangled bare foot: the two smallest toes blown off, and blood welling up and leaking down to the floor. The room smelled like burning skin and hair. Up three steps to a short hallway, a shirtless man lay facedown, his twisted arm blocking the kitchen door. Blood pooled beneath his forehead and spread in the grout between the Spanish tiles.
Lydia was numb.
She wanted to say the woman’s name, but she couldn’t remember it. Probably in her mid-thirties, the woman already had eroded cheeks and witchlike features from years of glass pipes and needles. She wore only an oversized T-shirt stretching over her lap. Over the patch of duct tape, her eyes were sick and raw, and her nose was straining for air.
Stepping casually over the body between the kitchen and hallway, Jonah appeared with his gun at his side. He had a wet paper towel and was trying to rub a stain off his pants. Quietly he said, “Okay, you’re here. Take the tape off her mouth. She needs to remember where this shit is or she’s going to lose another little piggy.”
Lydia’s hands were trembling so badly that she couldn’t grab the edge of the tape, so Jonah tore it loose, leaving a streak across the woman’s mouth.
“Don’t start getting paranoid again,” he said to Lydia. “Focus.”
Lydia nodded and said, “I swallowed my gum.”
The woman shouted, “Teddy! Run! Run away, baby! Get out of here!”
“I didn’t know we were doing this at a fucking day care center,” said Jonah.
Smashing through shelves in the bathroom, Cully was hollering that he couldn’t find anything. Jonah snapped his fingers in front of Lydia’s eyes and whispered, “Come on, come on. Wake up. I need you to hold her foot against the couch right there. Hold it still.”
“Jonah, I can’t,” said Lydia, hovering in the center of the room. She barely opened her mouth when she spoke. It seemed as if she were watching the scene unfold from a distance, only half involved; every movement had a slow, underwater quality; even her own voice seemed to come from somewhere else in the room, a few steps behind her, as if a ventriloquist were speaking for her.
The woman leaned back against the couch and said in a bleating, hoarse voice that she didn’t know where anything was hidden.
Lydia whispered, “She’s trapped. She’s just lost.”
“Lydia, listen to me here: This is a worthless human being. Deals to twelve-year-old kids. She could’ve saved her old man over there, trust me. Don’t get caught up in the drama here—this woman knows what she’s doing. She’s got a sick calculator in her head, and she knows exactly how much every finger and toe is worth—right? And it’s not going to add up to the cash she’s hiding.”
He pushed the woman’s head down against the sofa cushions, and she stared ahead with bulging eyes. “Stay there,” he said. Then he reached over and took Lydia’s hand, gently raising her gun and guiding it. “Shhh. Just relax. You’re going to learn this.”
Lydia stayed rigid as he maneuvered the gun toward the woman’s temple. He straightened her arms and locked her elbow, as calmly as if guiding her through a tennis swing, saying, “Now it’s a light gun, so it’s going to kick. Don’t look at me, look at her. She lied to you. Show me you can do this, Lydia. This will change you, baby—this will make everything work again.”
Lydia’s hands were frothing sweat over the trigger as she closed her eyes. Soon Jonah grew tired of waiting, and he stepped back and angled his head and spoke to her with his lips tensed. “Lydia, you’re still here today, with this choice—because of me. Because I love you, and I stood up for you. This is our chance, right now. If we stand together on this, all of us—then you need to be a part of it, so there’s never any doubt. You’re a murderer just for being here—you know that, don’t you?”
The woman was watching Lydia with wide, yellowish eyes.
“Lydia, you’ll never understand my life without this. But I need you, and you didn’t let me lie to you. From the day I met you, you wanted to know everything. Well, here it is. For you. Everything. You’ll never be the same kid again. And you cross that line, baby, and I’ll be right here on the other side, waiting for you.”
The song on the CD player changed and Lydia recognized a drawling ’60s ballad. She began to laugh and cry simultaneously, overwhelmed by the absurd and maudlin song.
Jonah stroked Lydia around her cheeks and forehead, clearing the hair from her eyes, then he pressed his own pistol against Lydia’s face while massaging her back and shoulders like a coach.
“Jonah?” she called, as if in the dark, refusing to look at him as he brushed hair off her ear with the muzzle.
“It’s a marriage, kid,” he said as he pulled back the slide on his gun, still held against Lydia’s cheek. “I’m down on one knee.”
From the kitchen, Iván shouted that he had found the stash, and there were cheers and hollers, and Lydia laughed nervously and looked over at Jonah. “They found it.”
“Yes or no?” said Jonah. He pushed his gun harder against her skin, smudging her face. The woman was closing her eyes now, breathing in tremors, lying just below Lydia’s outstretched arms. “Right here, right now—in this room. The rest of your life.”
Lydia turned and faced him, smiling like a madwoman, breaking into harder tears that warped her face. She said, “Okay, baby, okay. I will. I will.”
Jonah lowered his gun and tilted his head, an expression she’d never once seen from him, softened and affectionate.
- "Rollicking ... An engaging, affecting read ... [about] a father coming to terms with his past and a daughter confronting her demons as they go on the lam."—Publishers Weekly
- "This father-and-daughter tale, recast as a fast-paced thriller, solidifies [Peter Craig's] reputation as a writer with a fresh and vivid point of view. Its theme of family reconciliation will especially appeal to readers who like their thrillers to be about more than just good guys and bad guys."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Aug 2, 2016
- Hachette Audio