I didn’t sleep well the night before my rendezvous with destiny. Scared? Hell yes. I kept thinking about gunshots. If a bullet can do what it did to my late wife’s lamp, I thought, think what it could do to my aorta, or any vital organ...
But after some scrambled eggs, toast and coffee, I was confident once again – more or less. I made a thermos of additional coffee and a PBJ sandwich to go, reloaded my .38, put the Sam Brown belt cum pistola on the right front floorboard, and drove away, jacked up by adrenalin and caffeine.
“Put me in, Coach, I’m ready!”(I talked to myself for company, as I so often do.)
Marina del Rey, I thought, here I come.
The drive down the coastal Highway 1 was pleasant, as it almost always is, and I made the same two pit stops I used to make when Helen and I drove to Los Angeles for museum visits or whatever. McDonald’s in Oxnard has clean restrooms, and there are restrooms at the Point Mugu and Malibu beaches. No problem.
I turned off U.S. 10 freeway to take Lincoln Boulevard across Santa Monica and the Venice area. It occurred to me that I was driving awfully slowly. Then I wondered why. Then I manfully admitted to myself that I was scared and wanted a little more quiet time before whatever showdown awaited me.
Reluctantly, I came to Washington Boulevard, and drove to Marina Way and alongside the condominium strip on the west shore of Marina del Rey. Took a deep breath and parked behind the condos in a larger than necessary lot containing... Yep, a black Cadillac.
I got the now familiar frisson of fear. I parked well away from the Caddie and noted the license number this time. Might need it. Sighed heavily and pondered how to go about this.
First, I needed to know which of the eight condos contained Loretta and her slime ball pals. In her conversation with Mason, she had said only “the condos by the harbor.” Luckily, there was only one row matching that description.
I hurried through the lot and around the ocean side of the condos and loitered across the drive in and out of the huge apartment complex.
While keeping my eyes fixed on the condo row, I recalled a fun newspaper story out of these apartments:
A party girl who lived here took a man home with her from a bar for “kinky sex.” He left her tied to her bed, naked and looking at the ceiling, while he ran downstairs for his camera.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember which door in the maze of floors and doors was hers! Regretfully, he gave up and left.
A week later, he saw her back in the same bar, and when he froze in the doorway, she laughed and shouted, “KINKEEEE!!!!”
I came out of my reverie just as the third door from the left opened. I squatted behind a small bush and watched. I was about a hundred yards away, but I was quite sure the man, dressed in dark slacks and a white dress shirt with open neck, was . . . which South American drugster?
Damn, I cursed silently as he hurried around the building and disappeared into the parking lot. He hadn’t looked my way, but even if I’d clearly seen his face . . . which perp WAS he? I realized rather late in the game that I didn’t know Jose from Carlos, having seen them only at a distance, very much like this time!
Not knowing what else to do, I waited for him to come back. When in doubt, wait.
I stewed and steamed for a good half-hour, feeling useless and annoyed with myself for my ineptitude, but came back to life when the stranger returned. He was carrying a white bag that appeared to be from some takeout joint like McDonald’s. OK - lunchtime at the OK Corral bunkhouse.
I resumed stewing for about the time it takes to wolf down a small burger and an order of fries, and was considering breaking into a rear window in the wall facing the parking lot when the door opened again, and two men emerged. They appeared to be in a hurry and hustled back around the corner to the parking lot. Good. I too was in a hurry.
I felt confident that I had the right condo. It seemed extremely unlikely that two dressed-up South American types would pop out of just any old door.
Action was needed, and so I sprinted -- OK, lumbered -- down the drive and up to door 103. Blinds were drawn over the windows, so I stood in front of the peephole and knocked on the door. No response. I pounded on it. Nothing. Pounded a third time, very hard, and yelled, “LORETTA! OPEN UP! IT’S ME, DICK MCNABB!”
She didn’t open right away, but the door of 104 did. I saw another grumpy old bastard staring at me staring at him, and I probably blushed as he asked me to “have a little consideration, for Christ’s sake!” He added, “Try knocking on the glass, you dumb . . .” I think he concluded with the F word, and then he slammed his door shut.
I was about to knock on the glass, sheepishly, when the door opened. Finally, there was Loretta, peeking from behind the door, which was latched with a chain. Her eyes were those of a small, frightened animal, but they were blue and she didn’t look stoned - just nervous. She was cute, all right, if a little wasted away.
“Let me in, please, we need to hurry!”
She unlatched the door, opened it and stood back. She wouldn’t look at me, just stood there, shaking a little, eyes downcast, her expression saying, quietly, “I’m really sorry. . .” So Mason had explained things to her.
I rushed inside and contemplated her frightened self for a moment. A reassuring hug seemed out of order, since I didn’t know her.
“Let’s go, Loretta! Now! We’re in a bad place here, and if those bastards come back . . . ” I shrugged.
It would indeed be very, very bad, probably for both of us.
She understood and said, “Just let me get my things,” and turned away. I grabbed her arm and almost shouted, “YOU DON’T NEED THINGS! YOU CAN GET THINGS IN SANTA BARBARA, LET’S GO!”
My orders were stopped by an insistent knock on the door. What to do? It wouldn’t be Carlos or his men; they would let themselves in.
I peeked out the window and saw that it was a large, goofy-looking young man in a tan security guard’s uniform. He kept knocking insistently while I tried to think.
I yelled, “JUST A GODDAMN MINUTE!”
Loretta’s cell phone rang, adding to the confusion. She started to answer but I tightened my grip.
I said, “It’s probably Carlos, let it go.”
We stood awkwardly while the guy kept knocking and I kept yelling, “JUST A MINUTE!”
Suddenly I realized that if it had been Carlos calling, he’d soon be on his way home to see why Loretta hadn’t answered the phone.
Let it ring, I decided, and told Loretta to let it ring, don’t answer. I drew my gun and opened the door in mid-knock. Remembering the lamp incident, I kept my finger outside the trigger guard but pointed the piece at the wide-eyed young man’s ample paunch.
“Get outta the way!” I shouted, although he was already a yard away. I squeezed and pulled on Loretta’s wrist and she cried out. This wasn’t going well at all, but at least the fat guy started running away.
I switched my tone of voice to pleading and said, “Loretta, please …”
Her cell phone began to ring again. I pulled her through the door. I sensed that she might just collapse in a heap. Damn cell phones. The chaos was getting to me.
“My car’s right around in back and we’ve got to hurry,” I said, pulling her along. “I’m working for your husband. I’m gonna drive you back to Santa Barbara!”
She nodded OK, having little choice, and I pulled her into a jog. Looking quickly around, I determined as we ran that the Caddie was still gone and we puffed up to my car. There was hope.
I opened the passenger door and pushed her in. I started around the front of the car to get in and suddenly it was “Oh shit!” time. Much less hope now. Here came the Caddie. I had read somewhere that the most common last utterance that doomed people make before dying is, “Oh shit …”
To be continued...
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Gene Cates is a Santa Barbara writer, author of a series
of crime novels involving Dick McNabb, private investigator. McNabb is a retired teacher with a craving for excitement -- which he finds.