GETTING SERIOUS



    It had rained the night before and the streets were still wet. The sky was mostly cloudy and the air was cool.

    It was a morning in February, 1994, and the airport bus pulled up in front of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a lurch and a hiss of the air brakes. The door swung open and a couple of teenagers bounded down the steps excitedly. There was a pause, and from inside the bus, a man called out, "Watch your step." An old woman appeared at the top of the steps, clutching the railing in one hand and the strap of her purse in the other. She stepped down with one foot, then brought the other foot down to the same step before stepping down again. When she was completely clear, a man carrying a boxy briefcase came efficiently out of the bus and stepped around the old woman. He was in his thirties, prematurely graying, with his hair neatly cut short. He wore a gray turtleneck sweater and black tailored slacks. He was just less than a "big man," a little over six feet tall, maybe 210 pounds, with the upper body mass of a weight lifter, a man who obviously worked out a lot. And, he had the air of a man who was all business.

    His eye immediately caught the knot of people lounging at the front of the hotel, waiting for the bus to unload. It found the fashionably slender woman his own age in an expensive tailored suit. She had medium length black hair with a curl to it. There was no fat on her face to soften the angles of the bones beneath her flesh. She looked like one who had had spent her childhood on a kibbutz, and knew all about the hard realities of life, even though that was long behind her. He fixed his eyes on her. She saw him staring and came forward. "Gus?" she asked. He nodded. "The driver will get your bags in a minute," she advised. He hefted the boxy briefcase and said, "This is all." She turned toward the hotel entrance. "Okay. I'm in the garage."

    "Uh, Wait a minute, babe... Margot?" She winced at "babe," but nodded. He glanced around at the street. "What is this here?"

    Margot was puzzled. "Hollywood Boulevard, you mean?"

    He nodded and walked a few yards to where the bus no longer blocked his view. "Yeah. I heard that would be there." He nodded to across the street. "They got all the footprints and stuff in concrete over there, don't they?"

    "Yeah," she agreed. "The Chinese Theater. It's sort of a landmark, I guess. Been there forever." She watched as he studied the place. His eyes swept across the bunches of tourists in the forecourt, probed the gilded ornate facade, studied the curved rooflines of the building, glanced at the side accesses, noticed the tour bus loading nearby.

    "Where does the bus go?" he asked. "It says, 'Stars homes.' Is that anywhere near your places?"

    "I don't think so," she said. "I think they mostly go to Beverly Hills."

    "Uh huh," he nodded. "Okay."

    She led him to the front door of the hotel, and through the lobby to the hotel garage. As he went, he was not so conspicuous as to turn his head, but his eyes never stopped moving; he took in everything he passed.

        * * *

    In the car, she buckled her seat belt, and groped in her purse for a package of cigarettes. "No." he said without more comment.

    She threw the pack back in her purse. "Jesus. This is gonna be a long project." She started the car.

    She drove, and he sat attentively in the passenger seat, watching the city pass by, getting a flavor of the place. Down Highland to Santa Monica Boulevard, and west on that. Past buildings that were seventy-five years old, some of which still looked respectable, some of which did not. An occasional mini-mall that was a jarring contrast with its older neighbors, and was too young to remember the days when the streetcars passed by this way. A lot of movie service companies -- camera rentals, film processing, studio lights, prop rentals, scenery designers... And some sleazy sex businesses, "Sexual Phrontistory," "Nude Interviews," "Book Circus, Adult Magazines," "Madam Catherine's Dungeon"...

    "Did you take pictures?" he asked. "Four and a half rolls," she nodded. "Like you said, I took the last roll in without taking extra shots just to use up the film."

    "Got them with you?" he asked. "They're at my place," she said.

    "Take me there first. You got a telephoto?" he asked, looking briefly at her. "No." she said, shaking her head.

    "You'll have to get one. Did you find out what day the gardener comes?"

    "His comes on Monday morning, hers comes on Wednesday afternoon," she said.

    "That's tomorrow," he considered. "I'll look at your pictures later. Take me to her place."

    Every time he gave her a command, the corners of Margot's lips twitched as though to give him a smile in return, but not quite. Margot did not like being commanded, but she was awed by Gus, and excited by his presence.

    They went through West Hollywood; at La Cienega they passed out of the sleazy part, and into the trendy part. There were freshly painted little boutiques with cutesy names, and bizarre mannequins wearing extreme clothes in the windows. Bars and restaurants between them slept at that hour. At Doheney, they crossed into the continental, park-lined boulevard of Beverly Hills, mingled with Bentleys and Jaguars. Margot kept an eye out, like a bird watcher, for the rarer species: Ferrari, Mazarati, or Astin Martin. But, no longer was there the commercial bakery at Beverly Boulevard where drivers once passed through a pocket of aroma from fresh baked bread.

    Half-right on Wilshire at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, then through the tree-lined margins of the Los Angeles Country Club leading to that curvy last mile before Westwood. Both side of Wilshire lined with multistory apartment houses. The kind of places with sterile but efficient subterranean parking, and a first floor beauty parlor on the premises, with a swishy and gossipy hair dresser named "Tom." There was also a "Jose" in the parking garage who could take your car out to be gassed, or washed, or tuned up. He could even get you a cab in this town where cabs were unknown. A perfect living space for people with money, but no real family or friends. Paula Barbieri lived in one of these two dozen buildings, and Margot lived in another.

    Beyond the golf course, traffic built up in that hilly windy stretch of Wilshire before Westwood. Where did all the cars come from? There were no boulevards along there. But, by the time you got to Westwood, it was a jam. It was a jam at 11:00 o'clock in the morning, at 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon, and at 2 am. It was always a jam from Westwood Boulevard to the 405 freeway. But, in a miracle of modern traffic engineering, it always moved smoothly. Margot pointed out the more convenient airport shuttle lot that she could have picked him up at if Gus had not wanted the grand tour.

    Duck under the freeway, wind around the margins of the old veteran's hospital, and stop for the light at Wishire and San Vicente. From here, Wishire was a straight shot to the end of the continent, but it was not a conspicuous fact. Ahead, the canyon of the boulevard narrowed in the distance to a notch, and in that notch was the place where sky met sea, but Gus would not notice without Margot telling him, and she did not. A mile farther on was the place, two blocks past Centinella, where Wilshire pauses on a ledge before slipping down to a lower level. From there, the sudden view of the Pacific Ocean ahead is spectacular, sometimes seen sparkling in the sun, but on this day they would turn 700 yards before they got that far. Gus, after all, was there on business, not as a tourist.

    She drove down Wilshire past the residential tower at Barrington, and beside it the supermarket that was disconcertingly anonymous and non-commercial. One more inferred its purpose from the big parking lot in front than from any street-side signs declaring it. Shortly, Margot said, "The next light is Bundy; she's a few blocks up."

    "Oh," he said disappointedly, "I expected more."

    "A quarter mil should be enough for her," Margot snorted. A moment later she turned right, and the two lane street was wide, but thoroughly residential. Here at last, the L.A. trademark palm trees were more than occasional; they lined both sides of the curving street in a regular precession. Slender, eighty feet tall, not a whisker on the trunk, and a ridiculous tiny knot of fronds way off in the sky. One after another, as regular as soldiers at attention, until the street curved out of sight.

    "She's a bitch, huh?" Gus said.

    "Oh, no more than the rest, I suppose," Margot shrugged. "Nicey nice in person, but if you annoy her she'll put a lawyer onto you. She knows the rules.

    "There's a hundred like her in Brentwood. High school sexpots that thought they were hot snatch, and spread their legs for a rich older man. Squirted out a couple of brats, got bored, divorced, and have an annuity for life. They just jog, workout, gossip, play musical beds, and act like homecoming queen. I don't blame 'em if they can pull it off," she shrugged again. "But they're not the hot stuff they think they are. Everything they got came just because they spread their legs. Nothing else."

    He grunted. "In her case, she spread 'em for the black jock. And then she put her nose into his business where it didn't belong."

    "Yeah," she nodded. "We're coming to it; another block."

    "Park when I can see it," he said. "It's good she's nothin' special."

    "Would that make a difference? If she was something special?" Margot wondered with a little surprise.

    Gus snorted, "Not to me, babe. It might complicate the setup. But that's your angle, yours and John's; my angle is strictly the final event. It doesn't make any difference to me; she could be Mother Theresa. Business is business, as they say."

    "Nothin' special," Margot agreed, pulling to the curb; there was only one other car parked in that block, and it was on the other side. The houses were mostly small on big lots with much landscaping. They were left over from the twenties, and had been creative designs in their day, but now only looked ordinary and old. There was a slope to the neighborhood, and in that place it caused the houses on the right side of the street to perch about four feet above the sidewalk.

    "It's in the next block, other side of the street," Margot said. "It's the second house... Well, the second building. The building has two condos, hers is the one on the far side. See that palm tree? First one up from the corner? That's right outside her front gate."

    "Mmm," he muttered. "What's the address?"

    "Eight seventy-five," she said. He saw a couple of people loitering at the corner -- an oriental woman and a young Latino man. They seemed out of place for the neighborhood, and loitering seemed out of place, too. Then he saw a bus stop sign. He looked over his shoulder out the back window, then said. "Look. I'm gettin' out. You go on to a block beyond her place, and wait for me. I'll be a few minutes."

    He got out, she drove off, and he strode up to the bus stop. He waited with the other two, but apart from them. He was there, just 150 feet from Nicole's front gate, and he paced a bit, as though he were impatient for the bus, but really he was looking at different things. How far up Bundy could you see? How far down? He thought he could see that an alley ran behind the condo and came out on this cross street, and the cross street went up a substantial hill just to the east of Bundy. The front of the condo was lavishly overgrown; that was nice. That was very nice.

    It was a big stucco building. It towered over the street, but had no windows that overlooked the cars because of the wall and the foliage in front From the street you could just see the top of a front window, but a person inside could not see you unless they were on a ladder. It was probably two stories, but no driveway. Yeah; hadda be an alley in back for the car. Phony tile along the edge of the roof, but it was just decoration, you could see; it wasn't really a tile roof. Typical Southern California fluff: lots of attention to appearance, little to substance. He looked at the mating condo on the south side of the same building for clues. Yeah; it looked like the damned thing was actually built on a hill. But, the building next door, on the corner was not up high like that... Maybe there was a basement, or something, and the dirt they took out of that they used to put the building up high. He noticed that there was a streetlight within a few yards of her front walk, and worried for a moment. One thing was very clear: Nicole's condo was a massive new building on a street lined with old cracker boxes all the way south to Wilshire. Maybe old cracker box people lived in the old cracker box houses.

    There was a modest flow of cars that went by fairly fast, but practically none parked at the curb. There were these two people at the bus stop, but he hadn't seen anyone walking on the street in the few minutes he was there. He guessed that the two waiting for a bus were servants of some kind, and expected that the residents on this street drove everywhere. That's the way it was supposed to be in L.A.

    After a few minutes Gus left the bus stop and strolled up Bundy. He studied the condo behind the palm tree across the street out of the corner of his eye until he got opposite it, and then turned his head and looked thoughtfully for fifteen seconds before going on again. That niche in the front wall by the mailbox; what was that for? He couldn't figure it out. After half a block he found Margot waiting and got into the car.

    "Is it okay?" she asked, trying not to seem excited. "It's like a jungle in there, like I told you. Lots of places to hide..." He winced and wrinkled his nose. She sensed that she had made a gaff, and tried to recover. "I think you'll like the lighting at night."

    "I'll deal with it, babe," he said. "'Course, a lot could happen before the time. She could get it re-landscaped. But, there are possibilities. Do you know her? Can you get a key?"

    "Not right away," Margot frowned. "Maybe something could be developed, but it would take time. She just moved into that place a couple of weeks ago. She could make some changes, but her life is pretty busy right now. She's out of town some. Her family lives down the coast, and sometimes she's jet-setting with OJ."

    "OJ? That's the jock? Her ex?" Gus asked. "Yeah," she said.

    "There's an alley behind her place. I want to see that."

    "I took pictures of it already," she objected.

    "Show it to me in the flesh, babe," he said. "Now."

    She sighed, and maneuvered through the neighborhood to get to the alley behind the condo. He looked that over from inside the car. Then he wanted to see the other place, and she took him to Rockingham. Then, he wanted to travel the route between the two a couple of times, and she took him. He wanted to know if there was only one practical route, and she said that except for alternatives right in the Rockingham neighborhood there was only one way that a person would go: Sunset east to Bundy, and south on that to the condo.

    As they went, Gus gestured to a pile of rubble in the gutter. "I see a lot of those. People just dump their trash in the street in this fancy part of town?"

    "Earthquake repairs," she said. "Mostly an insurance scam. Look at that one; broken up cement from a driveway. Do you think an earthquake hurts a driveway? Everybody's loading up on earthquake claims. A real windfall, if you've got property."

    "Mmm," Gus nodded. "Well, I don't see fallen down houses here, like on TV."

    "The I-10 is out on the other side of Robertson," she said. "But otherwise it was mostly out in the Valley. All of the pictures on TV were out in the Valley. I had stuff in my apartment fall on the floor, and we didn't have power all day. A few things broke, some crystal. But, this junk in the gutters is a scam."

    Gus nodded and said, "Take me to the restaurant."

    * * *

    Margot didn't have to ask what restaurant. She took him to the Mezzaluna. Ultra-modern designer decor, traditional Italian food with imaginative names and descriptions. Sky high prices, to keep out the riff-raff. A tall slender man in an impeccable business suit greeted them inside the restaurant door, and brightened as he recognized Margot. "Lunch?" he asked. "Drinks?"

    "Lunch, Rick," she said. "For two."

    Gus said, "With a view." The only view to be had was of the interior of the restaurant, and Rick seemed to understand. He led them to a corner table where everything could be seen. Ordinarily, a man as convivial as Rick would introduce himself to Gus, but on this exceptional occasion, he acted as though he did not even notice there was a man with Margot.

    "Did John come in?" Margot asked as they walked to the table.

    "He was in last night," Rick nodded. "He called this afternoon. He said he tried to get in touch with you, but you've been out all day. He left a number, I'll bring it in a moment."

    "And, a yellow pages," Gus said. Rick acted as though he hadn't heard, but a few minutes later brought a slip of paper to Margot and a combined white/yellow page directory for the Westside to Gus. While Margo ordered, Gus riffled through the big floppy book, and found the addresses of a camera store and a haberdasher to write on the back of Margot's slip of paper. He asked Margot if she knew of a place to rent a car in the neighborhood, and she did, so he skipped over that research. The waitress didn't quite know what to do with the book when Gus gave it to her, but she tested her resourcefulness, and took it away.

    Margot tried to make small talk at lunch, but none of the topics she wanted to know about were safe: what were his previous experiences? Had he ever had any close calls? What did he think of the setup so far? How would he go about it? And most exciting to her: Could she see his knife? So, she asked about his airplane trip, and how the weather was back east, and had he taken trips recently to any interesting places. At last she said, "I reserved a room for you at the Holiday Inn up on Sunset at the freeway."

    "How far is that from here?" he asked.

    "Just a couple of miles," she shrugged.

    "No," he said. "I saw a dump down on... Wilshire was that? Just before Bundy. I'll try that."

    Margot did not even know there was a motel in that block; it was nondescript and tucked back away form the street. In comparison to the newer shops on Wilshire it was as noticeable as a post-no-bills plywood wall. But Gus had noticed, and he wanted that proximity to the condo. Among their trips after lunch, they would stop in, and Gus would use a bogus Virginia driver's license to rent a room there for a couple of days.

    While they ate, Margot asked Gus about the afternoon's itinerary; he handed her the addresses he had copied, and said, "A camera shop and a haberdasher."

    "What do you want at a haberdasher?" Margo asked. "Hat," he said. "You sure ask a lot of questions, babe."

    "I just don't want you wasting all of your time running from one end of town to the other. I mean, I know the area and... There's a camera shop in Westwood, and there's a hat shop at the Pavilion, down the street from there. I think they have men's hats. You do want a man's hat?"

    "Yeah. Stop at the motel first, and then your place to pick up the camera..."

    Margot was miffed when Gus let her pay for lunch, but didn't say anything about it. There was a vacancy at the motel that Gus wanted, and it was only a few minutes down the street from there to Margot's building. In the underground garage Jose popped out of a little glass walled booth to park the car, and Gus waved dismissively. "You park it; I'm waitin' in the car."

    "Never mind," Margot told the attendant. "I'll pull around the corner." The Latino youth went back to his enclosure, and Margot went further into the garage, found a place near the elevator, and parked. At that time of the afternoon, the garage was dead. There were no sounds of a distant motor, or tires squealing on the smooth concrete floor. There were no people. For the first time since she met him they were away from the sight of anyone else. Here, just the gray concrete, the sterile fluorescent lighting, and a scattering of stowed and lifeless cars.

    "Bring down the pictures you took," Gus said.

    Margot unfastened her seat belt, grabbed her purse, and said, "Uh huh." She considered for a second, then grinned with a little embarrassment, "Oh. There's one thing I was wondering... I don't suppose... you'd let me see your knife."

    Gus recoiled against the door and laughed, "You're one crazy broad, Margot! You think I got it with me? They don't let you get on an airplane with somthin' like that. And even if they did..." He relaxed a little, and reached over to pat her leg. "You're just a broad; you don't know about stuff. But, you're in on the deal." He hesitated, then said, "In this business after you've used somethin', you get rid of it. You buy a new one for every job. This is not amateur hour, babe."

    Feeling chastised, she nodded, got out of the car and went to the elevator. Although she did not make notice of it at the time, she still could feel his hand on her thigh.

    After fifteen minutes she was back with her camera and a stack of plastic envelopes. Gus said, "Took you long enough." She gave him the pictures she had taken, and he put them in his briefcase unexamined.

    "I tried to call John, but we're going to play telephone tag, I guess. The camera shop?" she asked as she started the car. "Yeah," he agreed.

    * * *

    Although it's moved a couple of blocks since, at that time Margot's camera shop was right on the main drag in Westwood Village where there were a few of the original quaint stucco buildings from the twenties still intact, but mostly redeveloped into chrome and glass glitz. Gus put his briefcase into Margot's trunk, and the two of them took her camera into the shop. It didn't take long for Gus to determine that what he needed was a 200 mm lens, and with six rolls of film and tax the bill came to $230. He told her to pay, she objected, but he shrugged and said, "I thought you wanted to be a part of this, babe." She wrote a check.

    They put the lens and camera in the trunk, and Margot drove down Westwood Boulevard. When they passed south of Wilshire the neighborhood changed from "elegant" to "nice." At Santa Monica it changed to "ordinary," and the farther they continued, the older and more run down it became. There were fewer people on the streets down there, and when some were seen they were pasty kids in baggy pants, not the tanned young adults in suits or expensive casual clothes one saw up in the village. By the time they got to Pico, there were hardly any storefronts built since World War II, but surprisingly the traffic on the street still contained a lot of expensive cars. Just south of Pico the reason erupted on both sides of Westwood Boulevard: the Westside Pavilion.

    It was a modern mall, wide across Pico, three stories tall, and as plain as a sheet of freshly rolled steel. Way up by the roof was the name, "Nordstrom," but nothing else on the outside walls. Margot drove across Pico, under a pedestrian bridge way up high, turned right into a parking lot at the signal, and quickly right again to duck into a parking structure. Then down three levels to where she could find a space near garish neon that beckoned to the escalator. Out of the car, up the escalator three flights to the sunlight, then switch to another escalator to go up three flights more.

    They were on a balcony, three stories up, and surrounding a courtyard on the ground level. There weren't many people on any of the levels, and a dismaying number of empty shops. In wide spaces, the vacancies were disguised by some attraction, as a half dozen kiddy rides in one place, but the brutal fact was that less than half the store fronts were occupied. A young nanny -- an Anglo college girl it seemed -- came with a preschooler in tow and dutifully put him in one ride after another, and into each fed a pair of quarters. The little kid seemed to realize that they had come there specifically for his pleasure, and tried earnestly to get into the spirit of the thing. He rode the vibrating race car with it crude engine sounds, the pitching pony, the helicopter that went up and down, and the dinosaur that spun around, but he really just didn't get it. There are so many things that a little kid has to learn in life, and this event was just another daily chore, to try to learn how to enjoy himself as the grownups wanted.

    In one place Gus saw that a wide stretch was occupied by a post office; a desperate measure which investors had persuaded a congressman to take to keep the mall afloat, he presumed. Margot steered him past a McDonalds and toward the Nordstrom's on the other side of a pedestrian bridge. This whole mall experience was like meeting a person for the first time when he was in intensive care.

    Gus paused on the enclosed bridge to look out the full length windows on the north, back up Westwood Boulevard where they had just come down, and to the stucco tower in the center of Westwood Village that he could see from there. And beyond, to the terra cotta plains of the UCLA campus, and farthest of all to the blue gray of the Hollywood Hills, still largely undeveloped at this late date. All that was left from last night's rain was one small puffy cloud off in the distance; it would be warmer tomorrow. He also saw that most of the tables on the bridge were occupied by students with their books, sipping from McDonald's cups. The actual flow of money in this mall appeared to be considerably less that the ambiance implied. Gus was a man who noticed things.

    Leaving the bridge, and entering the third floor of the department store, Gus laughed after he had taken a couple of steps, and waved to the space on the left. "What's this, babe? You've brought me to the bra and panty department. Did you want to get a little something for yourself?" He laughed heartily, and she nudged him on by the elbow, her jaw set. He took a few strides, and then stopped dead, and looked down the rows in bewilderment.

    "Wait a minute. Look at this. These are all thong panties." He approached studiously, looked down the row of racks, and moved his head to one side to look down the next. "There's no regular panties here, only thong panties," he called to her. He reached out and grabbed at the closest one at the top of the end rack, and closed his fist around the narrow crotch. Margot was unexplainably aghast. "Look at this babe. I'll bet it jams up in your crack, don't it. But, all the L.A. girls go for it. Look, they won't wear nothin' else. Crazy!" He opened his hand, regarded the white nylon band with narrow lace trim, then closed his fingers around it again. Margot's brain went wild. She both knew that there was nothing actually injurious in what he was doing, and felt that it was a grotesque violation of every woman in sight. So brazen, so uncivilized, so unpredictable... She urged him on, but first with the fingers of both hands he restored the shape of the crotch with exaggerated daintiness, let the holder swing back to the rack, then finally let her lead him away.

    A stunning young woman, who could have been a magazine cover girl model, had watched the whole incident agape, but unseen. The moment that Gus and Margot were out of sight, she rushed to where they had been, and as in an unthinking trance, grabbed from the rack the panties that Gus had manhandled, took them directly to cashier, and paid for them.

    This department store had emerged from the manipulative eighties when layouts were mazes of narrow merchandise-crowded aisles, and a customer wanting to go from point A to point B had to bump into a hundred temptations for impulse buying. Here there was one wide artery, clear from one side of the store to the other. You could look across the departments, and knew immediately what was where, then go to that place by a direct route.

    Ahead of the two stood a three foot high glass wall decorated with tubular brass posts and railing that contained a space. Gus wanted to see that, and so rather than go around it, he went to it. It was the escalator well, and Gus looked down into it in a martial stance: his feet apart and 18 inches back from the wall, his hands on the railing a little wider apart than his shoulders. It was two stories clear to the marble floor on the bottom. Margot looked too. On the second floor there was a grand piano and a young man in a suit playing nondescript melodies.

    "Quite a drop," Gus smiled. "That guy over there?" he jerked his head to the right. A glum young man with his back to the well was loitering, half sitting, half leaning against the railing, and his arms folded across his chest. "I could walk by him and stumble. He don't know it, but the way he is right now, he's about twelve seconds from dead. Including the fall. If anybody wanted to do it," Gus shrugged, pushing against the railing, stood back, and walked around the escalator space.

    A little farther, they walked out of Nordstroms and onto a skylighted concourse lined with shops. It was a little more prosperous there than on the first side of the bridge, and there were fewer empty shops. They went halfway down to the end, Margot looking for a hat store she remembered, and when they got there, the windows were lined on the inside with butcher paper and a small sign discretely said, "For Lease," with a phone number. "Damn," Margo sighed.

    "Strike out again, babe?" Gus smiled.

    She turned back toward the escalator and said, "Well, there's men's furnishings on the first floor."

    He took her elbow, and turned her back away from the escalator. She felt the same electric sensation as when he had patted her leg in the garage. "I saw somethin'," he said. She followed him to the other side of the concourse, and down one shop to "Königsberg Cutlery." As they went in the door, he said, "I was tellin' you about that knife I had in the army..." She was galvanized; he was going to show her his knife, after all! Sort of.

    At the counter, an Asian young man lost interest when he understood that Gus just wanted to show the woman a particular style of knife, not really buy it. But, he was courteous in picking through his stock to find just the kind Gus wanted to show. "See, babe. A six inch blade, three-quarters wide, sharp on only one side. A locking blade, not a spring blade..." He tested that it wouldn't close, then showed her how the release worked. "And the point is very important. Not like that one there, curvy. But to a nice sharp point like this one." He tested it with his finger tip." A texture to the handle for a good grip... see this here? Here, heft it. Feel it in your hand." He passed it to her.

    She regarded it seriously, thoughtfully, but inside she felt her heart racing. This was the first tangible indication that what they were doing was real. The reality was in the palm of her hand, and she closed her fingers around it. "Uh huh," she said, squeezing the handle. He saw that her eyes were glazed, staring at nothing in particular as she concentrated on the sensation from her hand. He knew, of course, that the knife had much more significance for her than the clerk could ever guess.

    "You okay, babe?" he asked.

    "Yeah," she nodded blankly.

    Gus took it back from her and folded it up before giving it back to the clerk. "And when you buy it, he'll ask you if you want it sharpened, won't you?"

    "Sure," the clerk agreed.

    "And you tell him 'yes you do,' and then you got yourself a serious knife."

    "Uh huh," she said again. He chuckled at her and led her out of the shop. She shook herself out of that little trance and followed, chagrined that he seemed so to dominate her. But, she'd never known anybody like Gus before, and never been personally involved in an operation as serious as this.

    In a corner on the first floor of Nordstrom's there was a small selection of hats, and she was amused as she saw him try them on. Nobody in Southern California wore a hat, and it was almost more as though he was evaluating movie costumes than actual street wear. He tried one with a floppy brim, and she laughed, "Indiana Jones in the 'Lost Ark.'" He tried a tan fedora with a brown band and a snipped fragment of an orange feather in the band. "Joe Friday in "Dragnet,'" she laughed again. He ignored her laugh and bought the fedora. She was delighted that at least he paid for his own hat, and awed to see the roll of bills he took from his pocket to do it.

    On the way back to the car, he said, "Does she go jogging every day?"

    "If she's in town, and the weather's nice," Margot said. "I guess she probably went straight to the gym this morning, since things were still wet outside. It looks like it'll be nice tomorrow; she'll probably go jogging."

    "What time?"

    Margot sighed, "Well, she'd have to get the kids to school. I suppose it could be any time after 9:00."

    "Okay," he considered. "You pick me up at 7:30, we'll go rent a car, and get up there before 9:00. How about in the afternoon? What does she do in the afternoon?"

    "Most days she goes shopping," Margot said, "or hangs out with her girlfriends. Unless there's an event, like with the kids or somethin' She's very much into her kids."

    "You think she'll be home when the gardeners are there tomorrow afternoon?"

    Margot puzzled at the question. "If she's like the rest, she has the housekeeper there on the gardener's day, and the housekeeper lets them in. But, she'll be picking up the kids, and might bring them right home. I just can't say for sure."

    "How early does the gardener come?"

    "He wouldn't get there before 1:00," Margot guessed, "by 2:00 at the latest." She took Gus to his motel, and dropped him off about 4:00 o'clock.

        * * *

    Gus sat in his motel room for a couple of hours and studied the pictures of Nicole's condo that Margot had taken from the street. After going through the stack once, he began to make notes on the back of each picture to describe the significance to him, and show the relationship to other pictures. After 6:00 he walked down to a delicatessen at Bundy and Wilshire, and had a hot pastrami sandwich on rye at the counter for his dinner. It was quite dark by then, and he went for a stroll up Bundy. He got to the condo at 7:00 o'clock.

    Margot had been right; Gus did like Nicole's condo at night. Even though there was a streetlight almost directly out her front gate, practically none of its light reached back from the sidewalk toward the yard. Once a person left the sidewalk, they were almost in complete darkness. He decided to try for himself, crossed the street and went up Nicole's front walk. He looked around; he could scarcely tell that there were rows of plants bordering the walk. They were only shadows against other shadows. He looked through the gate, and saw that beyond the porch light was on. He noticed the way that the light spilled over the steps, and saw that anything in that shadow was almost completely concealed. He saw that there were concrete walls on both sides of the stairs, and there was an alcove to the right. The left was blocked by a little piece of wrought iron fence. He tried the knob on the gate; it was locked. He saw that there was an intercom and a mailbox nearby, then remembered the recess behind the mailbox. He went there and forced himself into the space. It was utterly dark; he held his hand up beside his face and turned to look at it; he couldn't see it at all. This was just getting better and better.

    He went back to the gate and studied the house; it looked like the front door was way up on the side of the house, not in front like one would normally expect, but he couldn't tell for sure. Above the steps here by the gate, there seemed to be a small front yard on the left. There were some more steps -- three, he thought-- up by the front door, he could see by the porch light. He pulled a steel tape measure out of his pocket and leaned down to measure the width of a tile -- more by feel than sight -- then held the tape up in the feeble light and squinted: eleven inches. This would help enormously in interpreting the photos. He leaned down again and measured the space under the gate: two and a quarter inches. And, the gate opening was 36 inches wide.

    He heard someone coming on the sidewalk. It crossed his mind that it could be a visitor for this condo, but it was a very long shot that such would be. If so, he would just push past the visitor and walk away. It was not. A young man sauntered by 15 feet away, and even though Gus was silhouetted in the gate, the passerby did not seem to notice him.

    Gus put the tape measure in his pocket and left then, went down to the corner. From another pocket he took a stop watch, and started it at the corner, then walked to the alley at a leisurely pace: 47 seconds. He put the stopwatch in his pocket and walked up the alley to Nicole's condo, found his way through the shadows to her back gate, and tried the knob there; it was locked, too. It was just as dark on the back walk as it was on the front walk. It was a perfect setup.

    He strolled the neighborhood for another half hour, and saw that there was practically nobody on the sidewalks, traffic was fairly heavy on Bundy, but light on the surrounding streets. Of course, it was dark at 7:30 in February, it would not be so after daylight savings, but Gus' little walk gave a first impression of the place. He went back to the motel, and studied the photos more.

    At quarter to ten, Gus went out for another walk, and now he saw that the Bundy traffic was light, and there were occasional people out walking their dogs. The lights in most houses were still on. As he was passing across the street from the condo, he saw ahead the silhouette of a tall thin man approaching, with two dogs on leashes. When he arrived at the other man's location, he said, "Uh, excuse me. Could I walk with you for a minute? I'm thinking of buying a place here, and I'd like to know a little about the neighborhood. I bought another place a couple of years ago, and it turned out to be a real party neighborhood, but I wouldn't have known by just looking at it in the day time."

    "Oh, sure." the man said cheerfully, with a decided French accent. "But no parties here. Up on top of the hill, there are a lot of apartments, all the way to Westgate. They have parties up there on the weekends. But, you wouldn't hear them down here. On Bundy?"

    "Yeah," Gus said. "I see you got a couple of dogs. Are there a lot of dogs around here? Do they bark at night?"

    "Oh, yeah," the other said. "Lot of dogs. Little black dog down by the corner barks a lot. In the day, at night. Nobody pays any attention to him. After a while you wouldn't notice him. My dogs don't bark."

    "Do you keep your dog in at night?" Gus asked.

    "Oh, yeah. Most people do. Just the little black dog is out at night. And there's a big Doberman up at the corner..." he looked over his shoulder. "But he doesn't bark. Never heard him bark day or night. I've just seen him through his fence."

    "Any other dogs right around here?" Gus worried.

    "Well," the Frenchman considered. "Oh, there's a new one over there..." He gestured to Nicole's condo. "Very proud Akita. I've seen him through his fence a few times, and heard him bark once."

    "At night?"

    "Never at night," the other said seriously, "He must be in at night."

    "How about security? Do you ever see police cars on the street, patrolling?" Gus asked.

    "Oh sure, all the time, here on Bundy. Not so much up on top, but down here I see them all the time."

    "How often is that," Gus wondered. "Every day? Every month?"

    The Frenchman though about it for a moment. "I guess every two weeks or so."

    "Well then," Gus brightened, "It sounds like this is a pretty quiet stretch. Pretty safe, no crime. You don't seem worried out here at..." He held his wrist up to the streetlight. "At 10:23 at night. Do you do this every night?"

    "Oh sure," the other said. "Every night at the same time. Rain or shine. I live over by Westgate, and leave every night at 10:00 sharp. To take my dogs out. Never varies."

    "And you are actually here on Bundy for... about five minutes?"

    "Yeah. I guess," the Frenchman said. "Then I go back on Dorothy. Some time there are parties there in the apartments, up on top. But no crime. Very safe. And, I have my dogs."

    "Nice dogs," Gus smiled in the dark. "Thanks for you help." He went on past the Frenchman, up to Montana, west to Gretna Green and down that toward Dorothy again. On Gretna Green, he saw another dog walker on the other side of the street and crossed over to pass him. "Howdy," Gus said as he passed.

    "Hi," the other acknowledged in a decidedly unfriendly tone. Gus kept on going. He walked up the alley behind the condo again, and came down Bundy past the front for a last time, now assessing the exact point where a passerby would be in a position to see the front gate, and with his stopwatch, how long a walker would be able to see it. As he was doing this, the porch light at Nicole's condo went off. Gus decided that it was enough for him, too, and walked back to the motel, and went to bed.

    * * *

    On Wednesday morning, Margot was pounding on Gus' door at 7:30 sharp, and he was ready for her. Quite unlike the day before, it was clear and sunny. They went down to the car rental place on Santa Monica Boulevard, and Gus rented a new black SUV. They drove to his place, stashed Margot's car, and she drove the SUV up to San Vicente. Margot figured that Nicole would come from her condo up Bundy to San Vicente, so Gus had her park on San Vicente west of Bundy and facing east, where they could watch. Gus put the telephoto on the camera and asked Margot to be sure she had her dark glasses.

    The first woman came jogging toward them, and Gus said, "Oh, for Christ sake; I don't believe this." A woman of about 30 with a sleek and perfect body, and wearing a white spandex jogging suit was waiting on the median, for the signal to cross Bundy. Bzzt; he took a picture of her through the car window. When it was time she came ahead, and he watched; as she passed, he said, "Her God damned cheeks are hanging out. She's practically naked. Anywhere else she'd get arrested."

    Margot was amused, and said, "There's another two." Sure enough there were two more women, as perfect as the first, jogging across Bundy toward them.

    Bzzt. "Just somethin' for the boys," Gus said. "They won't believe it. That one in pink must shave her pussy. There's practically nothin' covering her."

    "That's Brentwood," Margot chuckled.

    "It's a God damned meat market," Gus said. "And our score is one of these? Well, I guess she'll bleed like any other when she's stuck."

    It was fifteen minutes before another pair of joggers came by. And then a man, and shortly later a solitary woman. Margot and Gus waited and watched. A little after nine, a brunette with curly hair in a tan jogging suit came -- in the shadows, she almost looked nude. She was slightly exotic; some people took her for Russian, some for Jewish, but she actually was Armenian. She did not cross the street when the signal gave her the chance. Instead, she stayed at a light pole, squatted down on one leg, and with the other leg straight behind her gripped the pole while she flexed the bent leg. It was the posture that her "personal trainer" had taught her. "This may be something," Margot ventured.

    After three minutes another brunette, but with straight hair, features European enough to satisfy a DAR membership committee, and wearing cutoff jeans and a thin white top tied above her bare midriff joined her. (Margot was surprised, and had expected a tiny Asian.) The two women chatted, but they showed no interest in crossing Bundy and jogging toward Gus and Margot. "Yeah," Margot considered. "I think this will be it. Oh! There. Coming up Bundy."

    Gus made a quick adjustment to account for a subject jogging in the morning shadows, then Bzzt, bzzt. "Is that her?"

    "That's her," Margot said. Bzzt. Bzzt.

    Gus waited until Nicole got onto the median in the sun, then took a couple more pictures. Nicole was wearing a blue spandex jogging suit, her hair was conspicuously blonde, and she moved with the body language of one in authority. If the others that Gus had seen rated "10" for their figure, Nicole rated a "9"; her legs were particularly well formed. Bzzt. "She looks kinda tough through the lens," Gus said. "Mmm," Margot agreed.

    The three women formed up in a row, jogged in place and when the signal changed, came across the street, and down the median toward the black SUV. Gus took several more pictures, the last one through Margot's open window, and right past her, while she looked straight ahead, and pushed her head back into the headrest. He said, "Put on your glasses," and got out of the passenger door. He went to the back door, got in, and told Margot, "Go around, pass 'em, and wait ahead of 'em for them to pass." Margot started the car, proceeded through the maneuver, and as she was driving west on San Vicente past the joggers, Gus took two more pictures. Margot parked a block ahead, and Gus took three more as the women passed.

    That part of San Vicente has big houses on the north side of the street and the Brentwood Country Club on the south, so there is no use for parking spaces, and Margot had virtually unlimited choice. At that hour of the day, the morning commute was past, and she had wide latitude for maneuvering, too. Gus wanted Margot to go to the next break in the median, and make a U-turn there, but pause in the median while he got head on pictures. It was a chancy maneuver, since the women would be jogging straight at them, and they could very well notice. But they were gossiping as they ran, and they might not. Whatever happened, Gus would have his pictures.

    Margot did it perfectly; she was 70 yards ahead of the joggers when she stopped. Gus took three pictures, and said, "Wait..." Margot was getting nervous, they would surely see what Gus was doing. Bzzt. "Wait... When you make the turn stop at the curb as short as you can." Margot was getting panicky now, the women were getting close enough to recognize, so they could recognize Margot. Bzzt. "Go!" Gus said. The car lurched into the turn, and swung to the curb. One of the brunettes turned her head to look, but by then Gus was back away from the window. Nicole was in the middle of the three, chattering to the woman on her right.

    Gus waited until the trio was a few yards past, then got out of the right side door, and took a picture over the car roof. He dashed to the median and took three more of the women receding into the distance, and also got in his last shot two women who were coming toward him. He got back in the front seat, and said, "How long will it be before they're back?"

    "I dunno," Margot shrugged, "Could be five minutes, could be half an hour."

    "I got pretty good of the front and back, but a profile is tough with her between the other two broads," he mused. "We'll wait."

    "I think Cici saw us," Margot said.

    "Tough shit," Gus shrugged, "as long as she didn't recognize you. If you think anybody is close enough to recognize you, turn your head away. The dark glasses don't disguise you from the side, you know." Margot nodded.

    In a couple of minutes the two that Gus had seen approaching when he was on the median arrived, and he watched them pass, two abreast. Then he saw that when they got beside the coral tree they went to single file. Looking closer he saw that there was a path worn in the grass that was most pronounced beside the tree. "Move up to the tree," he told Margot, after he had relocated to the back seat. He figured that he had a chance for an unobstructed profile when the trio jogged past the tree single file. But, this was closer than Gus wanted to be; a person passing the tree was only thirty or so feet from him in the car. He changed to the 85 mm lens. And, they might hear the shutter. He backed away from the window, and would take pictures from about the middle of the car.

    They had to wait about 15 minutes, but then Nicole and her friends came jogging back again, not talking among themselves any more. Gus waited for his chance, then got two pictures of her unobstructed profile as she passed the car, moved up to the window, got another one from the rear quarter, and stuck the camera out the window a few seconds later to catch the three as they were again forming up three abreast.

    "I think Cici saw you again," Margot said, a little worried.

    Gus didn't seem to hear her. "I get a better idea through the lens," he mused. "Fair strength in her legs; if she was wearin' hard shoes, her kick could be a problem. Weak in the upper body, in the arms. Fair in the abs, fair in the neck. About 130 pounds, I'd guess. Long hair could get in the way. She looks kinda cocky through the lens, but I guess I would have figured...."

    "What," Margot chuckled, "nothing to say about that expensive boob job?"

    "Her boobs don't figure in it, babe," he said with annoyance. "Okay. Take me up to the Village and let me out. Park a block ahead, sit on the passenger side."

    They did that, and Gus loitered in front of the church on San Vicente while he waited for the three woman to get to his location, and he changed film while he waited. He had the telephoto again, and started taking pictures when they were still a hundred yards away. He kept on taking them until they stopped at the signal, and then crossed, and then one of the brunettes gestured to him, and the other two looked at him too. Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzt. He kept taking pictures, and they knew he was. Nicole gave him the finger, and the three kept on jogging past, strutting now as they went. Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzt. Gus never took the camera from his face, and the women did not realize that they did not know more about him than that he was an ordinary sized man in dark slacks and a green knit shirt. In that furious spate of picture taking, he exposed a whole roll more.

    Gus watched the three women disappear in the distance down the median, and then he set off down the sidewalk to find where Margot had parked. When he found her, he laughed. "I let them see me; they'll be chattering all day about the man who was takin' pictures of 'em. They strut around in public naked, what the hell do they expect. They're lucky they don't get raped."

    "It's Brentwood, Gus," Margot said.

        * * *

    He wanted to take the film to a "One Hour" photo lab to get the pictures developed and printed. She suggested one right there in the Village; he wanted one farther away. They went down on Santa Monica Boulevard, he consulted the yellow pages at a telephone booth, and found a photo shop near there. Then he wanted to scope out an un-prosperous motel a couple of miles from the condo, for when he came back to town on subsequent trips. She took him down to Olympic, and they saw a place there that suited him. He would come back to L.A. several times during the planning for the job, and each time he would stay there. He would establish a pattern of paying in advance, and leaving in the middle of the night. When he did so at the end, it would not seem the least suspicious.

    "Did you meet John," he asked when he had settled the motel question.

    "Last night," Margot said, "at the restaurant. He wants for the three of us to get together. How about tomorrow morning?"

    "Yeah, that's good," he considered. "Got to get together with John. Where?"

    "I dunno," she said, "some restaurant, coffee shop...?"

    "Naw," he said dismissively. "We got to talk. Is there a park? Somewhere without hoodlums?"

    She took him to Palisades Park in Santa Monica on the cliffs overlooking the beach. There were benches, picnic tables, smaller tables where old men played chess or Chinese checkers. A decidedly geriatric crowd in the morning. They walked around the place for a while, and he liked it very much; it was just what he needed. He considered that Margot was really very good at coming up with just the right thing; she was not at all bad for a broad. But, he didn't mention it to her.

    They went to one of the fast food joints in Santa Monica and he chose a trendy vegetarian meal, but had milk instead of soda. He was not conspicuous about it, like some people, but he was quietly concerned with his health At home he went to the gym every day, and worked hard while he was there, but few people knew that he did. He liked to project the idea that he was just naturally a perfect physical specimen.

    When they were done with lunch, they drove back to his motel to visit the trunk of her car. He put the camera and the lens he had used that morning in the trunk, and took from it the hat he had bought the day before and his brief case. From the brief case he took a small automatic camera with a built-in flash, four rolls of film, a dark blue T-shirt, a thin navy blue nylon jacket, a pair of dark rim glasses, and a clip board. He put those things in the SUV and checked his pockets that he had his steel tape measure and his stop watch, then he changed shirts while he stood beside the open passenger door. He wanted to get to the condo at 1:30, and so they had forty-five minutes to kill. He didn't want to pass the time in the Village or near the condo, and so he had her find a parking place on Wilshire. Inexplicably, he did not just invite her into his motel room.

    While they were parked on Wilshire, he got out and put on the jacket, then got back in and put on the glasses. He hung the camera around his neck, and loaded the extra rolls of film into the jacket pocket. The SUV was tall enough that he could put on the hat. "How do I look?" he asked.

    "Weird," she laughed.

    He nodded. "They'll see the weirdness, and they won't see me." He took off the hat.

    This was going to be the most important event on the trip. He might meet Nicole while he was there. If the gardeners or the housekeeper tried to stop him, he would just proceed with what he had come to do. If he encountered Nicole, he would brush by her without a word, and continue until she went inside to call the cops, then he would leave within a minute more. If she caught him as he was finishing, he would use the camera as a weapon, and deliberately take a picture of her face, another of her boobs, another of her crotch... He had no use for such pictures, but it would drive her to distraction to see him doing that. Women loved to show it off, but got nervous if anyone looked. If he encountered Nicole, he would try to say something very brief, and include the word, "Sweety," which he could use later in the spring when he talked to her on the phone to remind her of their earlier encounter. It was part of his deliberate plan to spook her.

    At 1:30 the black SUV came down Bundy and pulled to the curb a couple of lots north of the condo. Gus got out, put on his hat, grabbed his clipboard with a ballpoint pen dangling from it on a string, and set off to where the gardener's truck was parked in front of the condo. Margot drove off with instructions to wait in the alley behind the condo for Gus.

    When he got to the walk, he saw that there were two Latino men, in their thirties, one was trying to start a lawn mower on the upper walk, and the other was nearby uncoiling a hose. Zip, zip, Gus got a couple of pictures through the open gate, and the man at the hose noticed the flash. Gus came forward, and took a couple of pictures of the gate latch, a couple more of the alcove, a couple of the steps. It was a point-and-click camera, and that's the way he used it. He reached in his pocket for the tape measure. He measured the height of the steps, the tread width, the width of the little fence opposite the alcove, the space beneath it, the width of the alcove entrance. He made notes on his clipboard while the gardeners watched and puzzled. Then Gus went up four steps and took pictures of the front of the house and the little yard. The gardeners felt self-conscious as he drew closer and set to their tasks; the lawn mower roared to life.

    Gus plowed ahead, taking pictures as he went. As he encountered the building, he saw the atrium recess and that interested him considerably; he took several pictures of it. He turned and took a picture of the front gate from the house, then he continued ahead. There were three more steps on the upper walk; he took a picture of them. He took a picture of the first floor of the north condo wall, so that he could place the windows; he made a note of the kind of drapes. He made sure there was a picture that showed the location of the porch light in the second floor overhang. And then at last, the front door. A picture from where he could first see it, then turn from that same location and shoot the front gate. Several more of the front door from different positions and angles. Then probe until he found the place where a person coming from the front door could first see the gate, put the clipboard down there, and back off to take pictures of that location from a couple of angles. Behind him, the gardener with the hose had started to wash down the walk.

    When he had passed the front door, he crowded against the wall out of sight of the windows, and changed film. When that was done, he took pictures of the back walk toward the alley, and again toward the front. He got up as close as he could to the north edge of the property and took pictures of the second floor windows, from front to back. He walked along that back walk, taking pictures as he went, down to depression with a door and some windows; he took pictures of those, then more back toward where he had come from. Up a few more steps to the back gate, and photograph that; open it, and take pictures of the latch. He saw Margo waiting in the alley, but paused and changed film again before going to her. He stuck his head in the passenger window, handed her the two exposed rolls and said, "I'm going back through. I'll come out, turn right, go down to the corner, and you'll be there half way to the alley."

    She nodded and drove off. He headed back into the condo, and took a few pictures of the north wall's second story from that vantage, then more pictures of the back walk and its depression. He noticed a small gate at the porch entrance to the back walk. Zip. When he got back to the front porch the gardeners were working as though he were not there. The one with the lawn mower had finished the little front yard and was trying to get the string trimmer going. Gus took a picture from the front door of the porch and now-wet upper walk, and then moved out onto the porch and took a few back of where he had been, and the living room windows; he thought he saw a shadow moving inside. He went quickly down the walk to the front of the building and took a picture of the front gate. Behind him, he heard the front door open, and footsteps approaching. Halfway to the gate he encountered the gardener with the hose, and he tapped him on the shoulder. The dark skinned man looked up with worry.

    "Mil gracias, mi amigo," Gus said cheerfully. The man beamed. Behind, a woman was calling from the porch. Gus turned and saw it was the Filipina housekeeper, he took a picture of her. Then down to the top of the steps, and he took three more in panorama of that little space before the gate from there. Behind him the woman was scolding the gardeners in Spanish. Gus went down the steps, took one more of the bottom of the little fence across from the alcove, then walked quickly away from the condo. Margot was waiting on Dorothy Street, and before he let her leave, he took the last two pictures of her. She had mixed feelings about that; Gus had a way of keeping people off balance.

    After leaving the condo, he had her prowl the place behind a supermarket, and in a dumpster there he discarded the hat he had bought the day before. At the photo shop, they picked up the morning's pictures, and dropped off the three new rolls. "If I were a drinking man," Gus sighed, "I would have a drink now."

    "I'm sorry you're not," Margot said.

    They went back to the motel, got her car, then took the SUV back to the rental place; he paid. He offered to take her to dinner at a family run Italian restaurant, if she knew of any such. She did, but there was a couple of hours to kill, so they went back to the park, and found a bench in the sun to sit on while Gus reviewed the morning's pictures. Now that he had actually seen Nicole, and particularly since she had given him the finger and strutted off so defiantly, his feelings about her curdled. "He laughs best, who laughs last," he thought as he looked at the pictures of her cocky composure. He was particularly impressed with that very one where she was staring straight at him, her jaw jutting and her nose in the air, and giving him the finger. He had turned the camera sideways for that shot, and it was perfectly composed. He'd have that blown up after he got home, and hang it in his apartment. Maybe after the job was done, he'd roll it up and give it to Angelo as a memento of where all his money had gone. He'd probably appreciate that.

    "Get on the phone tonight," he told Margot, "and see if you can figure out where the bitch will be tomorrow afternoon. I want to meet her."

    Margot was aghast. "But, if she knows we're connected, how will I be able to..."

    "No," he waved. "I'll introduce my own self. Just for a minute. I just need for her to hear my voice for a second. I don't care of its a restaurant, or a department store, or takin' the kiddies to the merry-go-round... Any public place where I can come on to her."

    Margot looked a little worried, but said, "Sure. I'll make some calls."

    They had dinner at an authentic family run Italian restaurant on the north side of Santa Monica Boulevard that had been in the same place for 50 years. The founder was an old man now who held modest court in a corner table with his cronies, and beamed occasionally at younger generations of his progeny that bustled around in the place. It was dim inside, a lighted candle in a wax-covered Chianti bottle at every table. The family had accommodated to the realities of the neighborhood, and pizza was their big money maker, but Gus had the veal parmesan, and it was excellent. He was frankly surprised to find a place like it in L.A.

    After dinner they went back to the photo shop, picked up the prints of the afternoon's pictures, and Margot dropped Gus off at his motel. He took an early evening stroll around the neighborhood, and this time saw Nicole's dog nosing around inside the front gate. After evaluating the dog for a few minutes, he went back to the motel, spent the rest of the evening studying his considerable collection of photographs, and making notes about things he had seen that there were no pictures for.

    * * *

    Thursday morning was cool, but bright and sunny. Margot showed up at Gus' motel at 7:30 and found him sitting in the sun on a bench near the office, his briefcase on the ground beside him. He'd checked out already. Their appointment with John at Palisades Park wasn't until 9:00 o'clock, so Margot took him to breakfast at a fast food joint. Gus ate the scrambled eggs, English muffins, and parsley, but left the bacon and hash brown potatoes untouched. "I hope you've got somewhere in mind for lunch that isn't deep fried," he said.

    "Sorry," she murmured.

    They got to the park a little before 9:00 and staked out an end picnic table in the sun-speckled shadows under one of the low wide palm trees that were an alternative for the tall skinny kind on Bundy. Margo sat on the end of the bench and lit a cigarette. Gus made a disapproving sound, and she said, "For Christ's sake, Gus. We're outdoors." He didn't press the issue.

    He wanted her to tell him what she knew about the "black jock and the bitch."

    Margot shrugged, "Well, I guess you know he was a big deal football player. He did more of something than anybody else, but I don't know enough about the game to explain it. He hasn't caught a football in ten years, but he's still got all these fans. Jesus, does he have fans," she said with a flourish of her cigarette. "Wherever he goes, people rushing up to him to shake his hand or get an autograph, calling him 'O.J.' or 'Juice' on the street. They trip over themselves for the chance to play golf with him, even though I hear he's a crummy golfer... They just adore him, and he eats it up. He's been in a couple of stupid movies and some television commercials. He's not an actor, he's a personality. Oh yeah, and he does football games -- background and interviews.

    "Well, like they say out here, 'He believes his own press releases,' meaning he thinks he really is as good as he tells the public he is. I wouldn't be surprised if he's working right now on a plan to package up his own shit and sell it for a hundred dollars a sack. He thinks that his birthday should be a God damned national holiday, like Martin Luther King. It's just after the Fourth of July, and he has this monster blowout at his mansion every year. Invites hundreds of people for a birthday barbecue. The streets are tied up all the way down to Sunset. I mean when Angelo set his sights on bringing down O.J. Simpson, it's like bringing down the Statue of Liberty."

    "That's why he said he wanted a world class job," Gus said with some satisfaction.

    Margot took a draw on the cigarette, and blew the smoke out quickly. "Well, I'm not saying it can't be done. But, whatever happens, it will be one for the books. The guy is a really big deal. And, friendly as a big dog. Until you really get to know about him, you just can't help but like him."

    "What about the bitch," Gus said, his back to the table, and leaning on it.

    "I'm getting to that. Well, one of the things you find out about O.J. when you get to know him is that he is an incredible womanizer. He'll hit up on anything in a skirt, and won't give up until he's done her -- unless something easier comes along while he's trying."

    "He's a nigger," Gus shrugged.

    "We can't say that out here. We got to say, 'black.' Anyway, I guess he'd take a black woman if she forced herself on him, but he prefers white women. And he likes blondes best of all. And he likes young blondes the very best. So, blonde little Nicole gets out of high school down in Orange County, and she's got a pretty inflated idea about herself, too, so she heads directly for the high rent district and moves in with a friend up here so she can get a job as a waitress in Beverly Hills. Not that she has but that one friend up here, or that she wants to be a waitress, but she wants the chance to jiggle her little ass in front of a rich man. And, O.J. was the first rich man to take a notice. So, she jiggled and he noticed, and they were off to the races. He set her up in an apartment, and she never let him out of bed.

    "Well, O.J. was married at the time and had a couple of kids..." She puffed quickly on the cigarette. "So, Nicole's first challenge was to get him to get a divorce. 'Course, O.J. was out of town a lot, and if Nicole wasn't with him then, she was understanding about stories of his being with other women then. After all, she wasn't married to him at the time, and if he was cheating on his wife, that was her problem. Well, eventually it became too much for Margurite -- the wife -- and they got a divorce. Nicole moved into the Rockingham mansion, and CLUNG to him everywhere. Eventually she got him to marry her, and everything was like a fairy tale; they had a couple of kids, hung out with their rich friends, and entertained a lot. Then he started to stray again..."

    "Hmmph," Gus snorted. "I knew he would."

    "Yeah. Nicole was drifting away from being a high school cheerleader. He told her she was fat and ugly when she was pregnant with his kid. Jesus, she was pushing thirty. And "large head" -- that's what she called him -- seemed to think he should have life-long flings with cheerleaders. So they fought. Now, it happens that O.J. Simpson -- as nice as he seems in public -- is a mean drunk. Sometimes when he got drunk, he wasn't patient with her yammering about his fooling around, and he hit her. Sometimes he humiliated her in public, or in front of her family or friends. Once, on New Year's they had a three-day long drunken argument that started in Hawaii and ended in Brentwood, and he beat her something fierce. She got pictures of the bruises, and he was in the dog house big time. He was staring at his whole career going down the toilet if those pictures ever got to the tabloids. So he reformed -- not about fooling around with other women, but about beating her -- and they went into a period of sort of an armed truce."

    "The nigger beat her huh?" Gus said grimly.

    "The Black," Margot corrected. "Yeah. And then they divorced and he got a new blonde girlfriend, younger than Nicole, and was gonna move to Florida, and Nicole decided she didn't want him that far away, and so she threw herself at him. He dumped the new girl, and they tried to get together again. It's been about nine months now, and it's rocky. He just can't leave the other women alone, and he expects her to live like a nun when he's not around. Go figure." She drew on the cigarette heavily, and blew out the smoke slowly.

    "It sounds like they deserve each other," Gus considered. "A wife beatin' skirt chaser and a pushy broad that can't keep her nose where it belongs. They shouldn't 've crossed the outfit."

    "As I was telling it to you," Margot shrugged, "I wondered if we aren't hitting the wrong one."

    "It's the only way to get 'em both," Gus waved. "And, since I saw her yesterday, struttin' around in public, I got no problem whatsoever with takin' her down. In fact, I'm lookin' forward to it. She had a couple of half-breed kids for him, huh? I'd say that's pretty far down to go just for a cushy life. I got more respect for a Third Street whore."

    Margot lapsed for a moment, and said, "I wonder about the kids..."

    "You wonder too much, babe," Gus said with disdain. "Look. Shit happens. Somebody's mama gets cancer and dies. Somebody's mama catches a stray one in a drive-by. There's grandparents; there's somethin'. Life goes on. This is not about the kids, this is about the bitch that got pushy where she shouldn't have." He considered for a moment, then quietly conceded, "But, if the kids get in the way, or the dog gets in the way or anybody gets in the way..."

    "Yeah," she nodded. "Well, O.J. didn't have to cross the guys just because Nicole told him to, you know."

    Gus shook his head resolutely and spoke in the tone of a warning. "I don't get into that, babe. The jock told everybody, 'My ex made me do it.' So, everybody thinks it was her fault. Everybody's gonna see that if you cause a problem for the wrong people, you're in a world of trouble. Now, if he'd 'a said, 'I decided to do it...' then he'd be playin' golf some afternoon in Appalachia when a rifle shot from another planet would go through his brain. Nice and clean, simple, easy. But, he put her in it. Right or wrong, she's in. And frankly, from what I saw of her up on San Vicente, I wouldn't put it past her. She wasn't bakin' cookies up there."

    His "bakin' cookies" comment annoyed Margot, but she bit her tongue. Then she brightened and she said, "Oh. I think that's John." She twisted out the cigarette butt beneath her shoe.

    Gus turned, looked over his shoulder, and smiled broadly for the first time since Margot had met him. The approaching man was small, dapper in a neatly pressed suit and tie, and came with an air of friendly authority. Gus got up, and met him a few yards before the picnic table; the two embraced, exchanged a few words that Margot couldn't hear, and laughed heartily. Gus resumed his place beside Margot, and John sat across from them. There was a splash of sunlight on the table between them.

    "Jesus, Gus," John said. "It's about time... I was wondering if we'd ever get together again. And here we had to go all the way to the coast to do it. And what a job, huh?"

    "They told me, 'world class'," Gus grinned.

    "And what do you think of this Margot person," John said as though she weren't there. "I'm gonna have to count on her for a lot. She's gonna have to steer the players; I don't know 'em."

    "She's not bad," Gus waved. "She did everything I told her. And she hasn't complained... Much. Yeah, she's okay for a broad."

    Margot glowed inside, but knew better than to show it.

    "You got it planned yet? Are we gonna need a goat?" John asked.

    "Well,... Not if was the obvious way," Gus said. "There's this terrific place just inside the back gate. That walk goes down into a pit, and then comes back out again and goes up a lot of steps to the front porch. Down at the bottom there's some kind of a basement place with windows and a door..."

    "Maid's quarters," Margot said quietly.

    "Okay," Gus continued. "Maid's quarters." Then he looked at Margot puzzled. "She got a maid?"

    "No," Margot said, "a housekeeper. She's a housekeeper type. I think you can figure there won't be a maid."

    "Uh huh," Gus nodded. Then he continued, "I figure if we had a K2 and a way to get her into that, uh, maid's quarters -- get her down there with some kind of a phone call -- the K2 could open the garage door somehow and come down the stairs after she was there, cutting off her escape. She'd be spooked and go through that door, and I'd be there to nail her. The place is like on the moon; nobody to see, nobody to hear. Perfect. But, problems with that.

    "First, I figure that's just not a door she'd be likely to go out. The cops would probably figure it the same way. A second problem is that the place is so damned dark, it'd be hard for me to work, and also the fall guy would step right on her body, and never would find the albatross..."

    Gus made some invisible lines on the table top, as though diagramming his plan, and continued, "Well, the other problem with that one, is that it is not what I call 'world class'. Even if we could hang it on the fall guy, we're still stuck with the fact that we done it in a secret place where there was no danger, and it didn't take any real balls to do."

    "You want something you can put on your resume," John grinned.

    "Yeah, I guess," Gus admitted. "No! I want somethin' they'll build a God damned statue to." They both laughed heartily at that.

    In the distance there was the sound of a kid with a boom box that was passing through the park for no other apparent reason than to disturb the concentration of the several chess players at the tables.

    "So, what if I give you a goat?" John asked.

    Gus thought about it for a moment. "Then, I go to the front gate, and I get bold and rude. There's a little bit of light there, when the porch light is on. The fall guy can see the albatross, but he can't see too much. And, it's tight in there. There's only just certain places he can go, certain places he can step. He can't go right or left from the steps. And, I can put lots of blood in front and in back, in the shadows so's he won't see. He's sure to step in it, then the albatross, a couple of plants he don't find, and maybe a shot at Sicilian amnesia, and down he goes."

    "At night?" John asked.

    "Yeah," Gus nodded. "When the kids are asleep and the dog is inside."

    "Dog?" John said with surprise.

    Gus nodded. "I seen him. Medium size, nosey. If I have to, I can take care of the dog, but I'd rather not."

    "Sure," John mused. "Uh. So, she's in front and you're waiting for her to pass. Why's she in front? Goin' to the gate?"

    "I guess," Gus shrugged.

    "Yeah." John nodded. "Goin' to the gate to let the goat in for somethin'. At ten o'clock at night."

    "Uh uh," Margot said quietly. "That's a new condo. I'm sure she can open the gate with the intercom. She wouldn't have to go to the gate herself to let somebody in, she just pushes a button."

    "I'll take care of it," Gus said with finality. "And I got a K2 at the gate to take care of the goat. So, this is the plan. The goat comes and calls her from the box. The inside button is busted so she's got to come to the gate herself. As soon as the goat is done talking, the K2 grabs him and keeps him away from the gate where she could see him. Then, as soon as she comes past me, I grab her, drag her to the gate, put out her lights, slit her throat, and use her like a faucet to put blood where I want it. Then I come through the gate and finish off the goat, if K2 hasn't already, and plant the stuff. I figure a minute and a half start to finish."

    "Whew," Margot sighed with awe.

    "Yeah," John said with some despair. "There's just a few details. Is the jock in town and alone? Is the target alone? Is she focused, and if so why? Who's the goat? Why's he comin'? What's the albatross? What's the plants left behind? Just some details," John said.

    "That's the setup," Gus smiled back. "All of that is up to you. You just drop her in my arms, and I'll take care of all the rest." Gus looked back over his shoulder at the approaching sound, and everybody stopped talking.

    The kid with the boom box approached; he seemed young enough that he should probably be in school somewhere at that hour, and for all his seeming ignorance of his surroundings, clearly had a chip on his shoulder. John watched with concern and puzzlement as he took a seat at the other end of their table, then got up and went to the boy. Standing beside the seated youth, John put his hand on the other's shoulder, leaned down close, and looked at his evasive eyes. John seemed to be talking to the kid in a fatherly but stern way. The kid was defiant and stubborn, John was patient. The kid turned down the volume on the boom box, but John wasn't through, and kept talking to him... Seemed to be telling him a story about something. The kid looked down to Gus and Margot, and then looked worried; Gus' face was averted, but Margot looked back at him blankly. After a few more minutes the kid got up and took his boom box away from the table; John resumed his seat.

    "How did you do that?" Margot asked with wonder.

    "You don't want to know," Gus said ruefully.

    "I gave him some friendly advice," John smiled. "I appealed to his better nature. I told him we were havin' a private conversation here..." He shrugged a concession, "And I told him that the big guy over there has a plate in his head and goes crazy if he thinks somebody is makin' eyes at his girl. Very sensitive about it. And, he can kill in fifteen seconds with his bare hands."

    Margot laughed, and Gus said, "I told you, you didn't want to know."

    They continued to chat for another hour, and that bright spot of sunlight on the table between them drifted east, and got smaller. Margot didn't exactly understand terms like "albatross," "Sicilian amnesia," and "K2," but she guessed, and the more the terms were mentioned, the narrower became her guesses, until she thought she pretty much understood what the men were talking about. The plans were very exciting, but down deep she was worried. Gus was depending on her and John for the setup, and John was depending on her for most of it.

    John wanted Margot to suggest a goat; he had to be put in place quickly so that "by the time" he would seem to be a part of the woodwork. John needed a young man with ambition, but no serious prospects. Somebody independent of his family, without a girlfriend, and living alone. A young guy that was good enough looking that Nicole might plausibly give him a tumble -- just for fun. A guy without any background or story would be best, and if it was somebody Nicole already knew, that would be perfect. Was there anybody like that?

    Margot wasn't sure. She thought that Nicole's friends had gossiped about three guys in their mid-twenties that hung out together in Theodore boutique and at "the wall" at Starbucks. She kind of thought that one of them was black, all three of them were from out of town, and they were just hanging around, ogling the women who jogged by on San Vicente, and waiting for their big break to fall in their lap. She would look into it, and see if any of them would be a candidate to steer to John for a job as a waiter at the Mezzaluna.

    The men wanted to know how Margot was going to develop a contact to give her Simpson's travel schedule. She didn't know yet. They wanted to know if she could get a key to the condo. She would look into it. They wanted to know how she was going to cultivate Simpson sufficiently that she could steal from him the evidence they needed to plant at the crime scene. She had some preliminary ideas, she told them, but in fact she didn't have a clue. Could she develop a mole - somebody close to Nicole that could influence her, and report status? Margot would work on it.

    Although Margot had the status of being John's helper, the reality was the other way around. Almost the entire setup would be Margot's responsibility and John would be pretty much a figurehead. That was okay with Margot. This was an opportunity to prove herself with the organization, and there would be better times ahead. There was a saying among Hollywood actors that you don't get paid the big bucks this time for your great performance, you get paid big bucks in the next picture because of the great performance you do in this one. She figured it was the same with this project.

    At the end, John went his way, and she and Gus went back to their car, past old men playing chess on the picnic tables, and an old woman sitting on a bench, knitting. "Are we gonna catch up with the bitch this afternoon?" Gus asked.

    "I hope so," Margot said. "They're going boutique-hopping this afternoon. No telling where they would be at a particular time. But, when they're done they'll probably go for coffee up in the Village. Nic picked up somebody else's kid early in the week, and so now they're going to pick up her kids this afternoon. She'll be free, and I think she'll go to coffee with the girls."

    "Is the camera still in the car?" Gus asked.

    "Yeah, but I didn't bring any film." Margot said.

    Gus said that he thought that in their travels they had passed a Sears store. She took him to one only a few blocks from the park, and he bought a white dress shirt and a tie. When they got back to the car, he took off his knit shirt and put it on the back seat, and put on his new shirt, rolled up the sleeves two cuff widths, and tied the necktie loosely around his collar. Since Gus had left half his breakfast on the tray, he was ready for lunch, and Margot went just across the street to the parking structure for the Santa Monica Fourth Street Mall. She would take him somewhere for lunch that he would like better than a fast food place.

    Margot parked on an upper level of the structure, and led him to a pedestrian bridge that took them directly to the mall level she had in mind -- no escalator needed. As they walked through the muffled din, Gus stopped in front of a shoe store and finished tying his tie by looking at his reflection in the glass. Margot got close to him and spoke confidentially, "Did I get that right, that K2 would do the goat on the OUTSIDE of the gate?" Gus chuckled. "Isn't that really risky?" Margot wondered.

    "I love it," Gus laughed. "You know the deal, and even you don't believe that anybody would plan a job, out in the middle of the street like that. Nobody else would believe it either. That's part of what makes it perfect. Nobody will believe that professionals with so many other choices in front of them would plan it that way. It musta been the jock went crazy, huh?" he laughed.

    They continued walking and Gus said, "It's not that risky. It's really dark back in there; there's nothin' to see but shadows. And, if you keep the action low, there's no silhouettes. With nothin' to see from the street all you have to do is keep 'em quiet until it's done, and that's a standard thing. It's all over in a minute and a half, and there isn't even any struggling except for about half a minute. You actually got more chance bein' hit by a beer truck crossin' the street."

    Margot's choice was a salad shop -- nothing but salads (and a muffin, if you were so gauche.) You could start with lettuce, romaine, spinach, mesclun, or half a dozen other leafy vegetables. On top of that you could chose, carrots (three ways), radishes, cucumbers, beans (six kinds), jicama, radiccia, asparagus, onions (five kinds in three colors), artichoke hearts, or any of two dozen other vegetables, many of which Gus was unfamiliar with. As they went, he asked, and Margot had a story for each. She had previously taken and read the little brochure at the cash register that explained all of this. At the end there were fourteen kinds of salad dressing, and six kinds of muffins. They ate outside at a table on the concourse. Gus liked it.

    Before they left the mall, Gus stopped at a drug store and bought two rolls of film; he would later only use one, but Gus' philosophy was that it's better to have too much film than too little. While he was there, he saw that there were copies of the "map book" that Margot sometimes mentioned, and he bought one of those for himself; it was surprisingly expensive. He bought a couple of magazines, too. Gus wanted to take pictures of the more distant reaches of Nicole's neighborhood, to set the situation in perspective, so Margot took him on another tour. From the passenger seat, Gus shot a series through the car window of Bundy coming down from San Vicent to Wilshire, then another series across Dorthy west from Westgate. As they explored, they came upon a wooded glen with a creek running through it a couple of blocks west of the condo, and Gus was very interested in that. Margot thought it looked like a place where one could hide, or travel from one part of Brentwood to another on foot and unseen, but she did not comment on those possibilities to Gus. At the end, they took the new film back to the photo shop for developing. The young Iranian clerk was getting to know them pretty well.

    Margot was sure that Nicole and her friends would not show up for coffee before 2:30, and more likely at 3:30 or later. She and Gus went down to Santa Monica Boulevard, and hung out at the public library for an hour or so to kill time. Gus noticed with some interest that the place was in front of the West L.A. Division of the LAPD. That would be the place from which detectives would come to investigate a homicide on south Bundy Drive.

    * * *

    At 2:30, they went up to San Vicente, and Margot found a parking place across the median from Starbucks coffee shop. Gus put the passenger seat into a reclining position, and in that way, he was not visible to anyone passing by unless they came up to the car and looked in the window; nobody did that. Having Gus beside her in that horizontal position gave Margot a funny feeling, and she sure did want a cigarette, but she knew Gus would object. Gus put his hands behind his head and told the ceiling, "Can't have any lose ends, you know. I'll take care of the actual place -- no footprints, no fingerprints, nothin' left behind -- but there's people who might guess..."

    "Like who?" Margot wondered.

    "Well, this pal who set the jock up with the outfit in the first place. The music business guy," Gus said.

    "Oh, yeah," Margot understood. "I think that was Bobby Kardashian."

    "Yeah. Well, this Bobby knows about the jock's problems with the outfit. He had some half-assed plan to take care of the bitch himself. And he screwed up royally. Tried to use some local puisher as a hit man. The pusher double crosses Bobby, then takes a fall for somethin' else, and he's in jail for a long time."

    "I heard," Margot agreed.

    "We got friends in jails," Gus went on, "so we don't have to worry about him talkin'. And what is he but a con, anyway. But, who else would know about the jock and the outfit? There's the bitch, but she's dead, and she's not talkin.' But, do you suppose she's told anybody?"

    "Uh, since she wanted the whole thing to go away, I wouldn't think she told anybody herself," Margot said.

    "Well, while you're working on this, you should keep your ears open to see if it looks like any of her girlfriends know about the jock and the outfit. We wouldn't want people to start talkin' about some other reason for the killin' than that the jock went ape and did it himself. So, if none of her friends know, who else could know?"

    "I don't know," Margot said.

    "It leaves Bobby and the jock himself. And, whoever they might have told."

    "Kardashian is pretty discrete," Margot considered. "But, O.J. is a loudmouth. No telling who he might have told. Though, I've never heard a hint about it from anybody, so if he told somebody, they've kept quiet about it."

    "How about the backup girlfriend?" Gus asked.

    "Paula?" Margot nodded. "I guess if anybody knew, it might be her. The pusher got caught in her car, I heard. If she knew about the plan to get Nicole, then she probably knew the reason. Yeah. I guess she knows."

    "So, as far as we know, all we got to worry about is the jock himself, Bobby, and this Paula. By the time it happens, they gotta wonder if lightnin' couldn't strike twice. If you know what I mean."

    "Yeah," Margot agreed soberly.

    "When you're tryin' to make somebody worry," Gus said, "it's better to be vague. Let them fill in the details from thin air. They always know better than anybody else when they could be hit, and there's a hundred places. You let 'em worry about all of 'em. Nowhere is safe for 'em."

    They chatted about the possibilities of who might suspect that an outsider was involved in the murder, and how to discourage such talk beforehand. He told her that it might be a good idea to create a suspicion about O.J.'s hostility toward Nicole, even before the crime. At a little after 3:00, Gus said it was time to get a cup of coffee. He wanted Margot to go in and take an inconspicuous place in a corner; he would come in a few minutes later and take a different corner. He gave her a magazine to read, in case they had a long wait. A few minutes after she saw him leave, she should leave too, stopping at Nicole's table to assess the results of his interaction with them. She understood, and set off for the coffee shop with her magazine, feeding the parking meter before crossing to the median.

    A little after 3:30, Gus and Margot were at their separate tables inside Starbucks, when Nicole and three friends came swirling into the place like Loretta Young in the opening of her old TV program, acting like the inevitable and innocent center of the world's attention. Chattering conspicuously, the quartet went to get their coffee, and then occupied a large table in the middle of the room, sitting in a horseshoe, facing the door. As Nicole carried her coffee toward the others, Gus left his magazine and coffee cup, and launched himself on a trajectory that intercepted her just as she got to the table. He pulled a chair out for her, and all chatter ceased in mid sentence.

    She regarded him doubtfully, but put her coffee on the table and sat on the chair he offered. That moment before she sat was fleeting for Nicole, but it was three seconds of hyper-attention for Gus, as he noticed where the top of her head came on him, her shoulders came, where the fingertips of her hanging arm were. He figured her for five foot five and she had small feet. He pushed the chair in for her. Their eyes were locked together now. "Do I know you?" she asked suspiciously, not knowing whether to smile or brush him off. He shook his head slowly, but did not speak.

    "You weren't the guy who was taking pictures of us the other morning, were you?" she said. He didn't make any reply, either with his voice or his movement. He just stared into her eyes.

    "You don't know anything about somebody in a hat taking pictures at my condo yesterday afternoon, I suppose," she said, with a growing feeling of omen. He just stared.

    "Well, who are you?" she demanded with exasperation.

    He raised the hand closest to her from where it hung beside him, grazed his knuckles against the side of her bare arm, and put his hand on her shoulder for a moment. "Just say I'm a fan, sweetie," he said firmly, and smiling slightly at last.

    Nicole was rattled by that, and recoiled a bit. She was about to complain, but he turned and walked toward the door. Nicole called after him, "Fan? Who are you a fan of, me or O.J.?" He did not turn back to answer, and a moment later he was gone.

    The group of women was stunned by the unexpected incident, and for a few seconds, nobody knew what to say, then everybody was talking at once. Cici was particularly impressed with one detail, and said, "He touched her; did you see that? He actually touched her. First on the arm, and then on the shoulder. Did he hurt you? I couldn't tell when he put his hand on your shoulder if he was squeezing you there."

    "No," Nicole said, shaking her head absently. "He didn't hurt me."

    "Well, who is he? What did he want?" another one said. "Do you think he really was the one taking pictures? And why was somebody taking pictures anyway? I wasn't sure who they were taking pictures of, but now I guess it was pretty obvious it was you. I wonder how he knew you were the one who wasn't married."

    Margot came by the table just then, hesitated at the hubbub, and cocked her head quizzically. The third one noticed and said, "Oh, Margot... Did you see that? Did you see that man? Do you know who he is?"

    "Man?" Margot said with some confusion. "I didn't even see you ladies here until I was on my way out. What happened?"

    "This mystery man," Cici said. "He touched her, touched Nic, right here in front of all of us..."

    "Touched?" Margot said.

    "On the arm and on the shoulder." Cici explained. "But he didn't hurt her. We don't know who he is or what he wants."

    "What a man wants?" Margot laughed. "Let me guess."

    "No," another said. "It's not like that; it's spooky. Somebody was taking pictures of Nic jogging, and her condo when she wasn't home yesterday. And then he was here, and he wouldn't say who he was or what he wanted. It seems kinda scary to me."

    Margot considered it for a moment, and realized that in the normal course of events she would make a pitch to Nicole. So, wanting to appear natural, Margot said, "Gosh, Nic. If this is something you want me to have my friends in Las Vegas look into, you let me know, huh?"

    Nicole seemed annoyed by the suggestion. She didn't much like Margot, or want anything to do with her "friends in Las Vegas," but she thought about it for a moment. It seemed remotely possible to Nicole that the mystery man was connected with O.J.'s secret troubles with an east coast mob. Maybe if Margot talked to her friends in Las Vegas, and they agreed to investigate, that would be an indication that the mystery man was not connected with the mob. It seemed to Nicole that one mob would not investigate a problem caused by another mob, if they knew that was the case. "Well," Nicole said. "Maybe you could get me a price for looking into it and taking care of it, huh? I mean I'm not saying I want to have somebody do something, but I'd like to know how much, huh?"

    "Sure," Margot agreed with a little surprise. "I'll get back to you in a day or two. Give me your number..." She took a pad and pen from her purse, and wrote down Nicole's phone number, though she could have gotten it from any of her girl friends. Then she tapped the pad thoughtfully with the back end of the pen. "Oh, there was something I was going to ask you ladies. I got somebody who's asked for a recommendation for a limo service. I don't have much experience myself... Can anybody recommend a good one?"

    "We use Celebrity," Cici said without hesitation. "They're okay, but it's a big corporation, you know and the driver doesn't know you personally. You never see the same one twice. I think Phil says they're cheap."

    Margot looked at the second woman and she said, "Yeah. We use Celebrity, too. Big, impersonal." The third one said they didn't have a regular service, but called a different one every time; she didn't know where her husband got the names.

    Margot turned to Nicole. "How about O.J.? Who does he use?"

    Nicole sighed. "Oh, somebody named 'Dale' something. I don't remember his last name."

    "Is there a company name?" Margot asked.

    "Yeah. Probably, but I don't remember," Nicole said. "I never was impressed. He's okay, I guess."

    Margot clicked her pen without making any notation about Nicole's comments. "Well," she said, "if he's 'just okay' and if the other one is big and impersonal, I guess I'll keep looking. Thanks anyway guys. I'll get back to you in a day or two with a price, Nic. And if I hear anything about your mystery man..." she adjusted the purse strap on her shoulder. "...I'll let you know." With that she left the place, and the chatter resumed behind her.

    In the next few days Margot would make inquiries as to whether there was anyone named "Dale" who owned a small personal limo company. She would find out there was. She would call him, and visit him in South Bay. He would turn out to be a person who knew of Margot slightly -- many did -- and would realize that she would be a good person to please. She took a handful of Dale's cards, and spread them around to up-scale bars and restaurants, like the Mezzaluna, where people owed her favors. In such places they were put on the receptionists podium, and Dale's business picked up noticeably. Later, when she wanted a constant update on Simpson's limo needs, Dale would call her as soon as the reservation had been made. And, at the end he would be wise enough to heed Margot's advice that he find another driver for a certain Sunday night fare, and thereby avoid a lot of questions for reasons she did not specify. But, for now it was just a lead, and she would not confide it to Gus.

    * * *

    When Margot got back to the car, it did not appear that Gus was there, but when she got in she realized he was reclining again, now with the open map book over his face. "What now?" she asked.

    "Get the pictures," he said.

    She started the car, eased out into traffic, and went a block, then said, "I got her phone number."

    "Really?" he said, clearly pleased. He brought the seat to its normal position, and put the map book in his briefcase. He had changed back into is knit shirt, and now grabbed the wadded up dress shirt and tie from the floor at his feet and said, "Get rid of these later." She said, "Okay," and would put the tie out with her trash, but would later shake the wrinkles out of the shirt and put it on a hanger in her closet as a memento. Gus would be furious if he knew, but he never would.

    They picked up the last roll of pictures from the photo shop, and Gus wanted to go to LAX. Margot was sorry to see his visit end, but she'd known all day that it would. It was after four on a February afternoon and already the shadows were long. The freeway traffic would be impossible at that hour, so she took Sepulveda, and it was only slightly better. "Nic is worried about you," she said as she got to Centinella and the grade that goes up to Westchester. "She wants me to get a price for finding out who you are, and getting you off her back."

    "Excellent," he nodded. "She trusts you. She didn't figure that you had anything to do with me."

    "I didn't think she would want me to help," Margot said. "She's always brushed me off in the past. I don't think she likes me much. But, I guess you scared her."

    "Check with John first, but this is what I think you should do," Gus said. "I think she suspects I'm with the outfit, and she just wants to see if your Vegas friends would take the contract. So, you wait about a day, and then get back to her and say that Vegas called back in about an hour and said they couldn't do the job. No explanation. You don't understand it, and you're sorry as hell. It's never happened before. But, they just don't want it. Then she'll figure that means I'm with the outfit, and that's what we want her to think."

    "Okay," Margot agreed. "I'll try it out on John tonight."

    Just after five the sun had completely given up on L.A. for the day, and the cars at LAX all had their lights on. Margot swung to the curb at American Airlines terminal, and Gus was turned in the seat to get his briefcase from the back. "When are you coming back?" she asked.

    "Oh, maybe a month. I've got what I need." He had his briefcase on his lap then with more than 200 photographs inside.

    "Well, it was nice being with you," Margot said wistfully as he opened the door.

    "Yeah," he nodded.

    She lunged impulsively at him then, and kissed him quickly. He tolerated it, but was alarmed. She explained, "Just so anybody who sees us will think it's a natural thing."

    "Uh huh," he said getting out. He stuck his head back in and said, "See ya, babe." And then he slammed the door and was gone. Neither of them would mention that impetuous moment again.

    ETERNALLY THUS

    There is, in Hoboken, New Jersey, a two-story, block-long, old brick building in a part of town that is neither fancy nor a slum. On one end of the first floor is an Italian restaurant, and on the other is a garage. Between the two is a doorway leading to stairs that take one up to a suite of offices. On one end is a door with a pebble-glass pane, and beyond a large waiting room in mahogany and gilt. There are many chairs and a couch for visitors to wait, reproductions of a few classic paintings on the walls, and a desk where a receptionist is stationed by arrangement when there is an event requiring him.

    The office beyond is huge; that end of the building had been rebuilt with trusses to accommodate the span. Still here, more mahogany and gilt, and classic paintings, but not reproductions on these walls. And, the upholstered chairs and couches are covered with the finest fabrics. The huge mahogany desk near the wall with the tall French windows is utterly clear except for a small frame containing pictures of a man's family. It is a seldom visited place and when it is empty -- like now -- there is only the sound of a big pendulum clock on one wall ticking slowly and monotonously. Beyond the windows, snatches of the Manhattan skyline can be seen through breaks between closer buildings. The smell of old cigar smoke and more recent furniture polish is lightly in the air, and there are large decorator ashtrays around the room.

    For all of the old world decor, there are modern amenities hidden. There is a telephone in the desk; a panel on the wall moves to reveal a large screen television, there is a satellite dish on the roof to service it. Spotlights unnoticed in the ceiling can illuminate the paintings on the walls when the place is occupied, and there are jacks around the walls, and telephones and a fax machine in cabinets to plug into them. If the computers are needed they are wheeled in from the anteroom on carts. But, in the usual state, the ticking pendulum clock sets the eternal tone of the room.

    There is one more feature, and it dominates the spirit of the place. It is a framed enlargement of a color photograph that stands alone on one wall; three feet high and two feet wide, grainy because of the exertions of the enlarger. It is a life size picture of a blonde woman in a blue jogging outfit looking defiantly at the camera. It is hung at such a height that her eyes are just where they would be if she were here, standing on this floor. She is staring straight at the lens, her jaw jutting and her nose in the air, and giving it the finger. Eternally, she is thus.

    The man who sometimes sits at that desk could tell you about the picture, but he never does. Those others who visit know, because they've heard by other means. It is a picture of Nicole Brown Simpson, on the San Vicente median just east of Bundy, in Brentwood, California, taken on the morning of Wednesday, February 9, 1994, when she had exactly 123 days left to live.


    Dick Wagner • Van Nuys, CA (5/17/99) NG_546

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