Stephen J. Cannell

Vertical Coffin

VERTICAL COFFIN: A term used by SWAT teams to describe any threshold. When clearing a house, police are most vulnerable to gunfire while passing through doorways.



They swung wide off Trancas Canyon, thirteen bikes clutching down to make the turn; high-octane Harley engines growling loudly, tearing an ugly hole in the still afternoon. Right ear down, one by one they all finished the turn and straightened up on the Pacific Coast Highway, the old Camino Real. They were ten miles northwest of Malibu, hurtling along the four-lane, timing their moves to roar around slower-moving traffic. Thirteen Harley V- twins in formation. Metal locusts growing larger and more dangerous as they swarmed, the two-second rule be damned.

They called Emo Rojas 'Maniac.' He was prez, so he was out front, riding point. Emo's giant shoulders reaching high to grab polished ape hangers that stretched like chrome wings over his black Harley Softail. His four- stroke roared angrily: intake, compression, combustion, exhaust. A growling black-and-silver she-devil.

Next was the ride captain Darren Zook, called 'Goat' Big, with sleeveless black leathers and arms from Gold's Gym. Hard to tell where his arms stopped and the vest began-he was that black. Outrageous wraparound, chrome- rimmed darks hugged his square face like clip-on bug filters.

Behind Goat was Jabba the Slut. She'd arrived just minutes before the ride, patched in club colors. An American flag do-rag wrapped her head while ink-black shades the size of welders' goggles hid her porcelain-white face. She was club treasurer and had the ride money, so she rode third. Bulging biceps and man-sized thighs straddled the 95 V-twin of her yellow-and-black Screamin' Eagle Deuce; scuffed boots thrust forward on highway pegs.

After Jabba the Slut came the two-by-twos. Blam-Blam, on a chrome-and-black Harley Super Glide. A tub of guts in too-tight leathers with vibrating love handles. Next to him was Drill-Bit, then Johnny Bravo and Pebbles, Wart and Shooter, Mean Mike and The Rooster.

Then came Chooch and Shane Scully. Since they were not patched members of the club, only guests, they rode last: tail-gun charlies. Chooch on Emo's backup bike, a red Harley Fat Boy with a dry clutch. Shane rode Swede Petersen's modified Road King. They came out of Trancas Canyon at the end of the line, completed the turn and accelerated, hurrying to close ranks, bunching tight again, until they blocked both southbound lanes like scurrilous outlaws-riding four across, lane splitting, the throaty animal rumble of all that horsepower redefining them, the exhaust; a self-induced steroid.

You could see awe and revulsion in the eyes of the Sunday drivers they passed. The beach crowd in their SUVs looked over and saw thirteen thugs on custom choppers with mean-looking, radical fork rakes. They saw the head wraps and greasy leathers and quickly looked away. The club patch-the colors-rode their leathers defiantly. Across the shoulder blades in a death font was their name: IRON PIGS. Under that the logo: a fierce warthog with curling tusks and fire blowing out of its nostrils. The bottom rocker said 'California.'

Only the baddest club in the state was allowed to wear a bottom rocker. In the eighties that was the Hell's Angels. Then the Mongols blew in and changed all that. They shot a few Angels, ripped the bottom rockers off the dead bikers. The Mongols said you wore the California patch at your own risk. It had been the rule ever since. All bikers knew that if you were caught by a Mongol with a bottom rocker under your colors, you were dead. Mongols alone wore the patch.

Mongols, and of course, Iron Pigs.

The thirteen riders snaked down PCH. The Pacific Ocean glittered on the right, the Malibu Mountains dressed in dry, beige summer colors framed the left. Finally they turned on Mulholland Highway, climbing into the hills. Now the roar of bored pistons and straight pipes bounced off mountains, pinging loudly in the granite canyons. Another left turn off Mulholland took them to Las Flores Road, the hawgs slowing as the road wound dangerously. The late afternoon sun glinted off polished chrome and lacquered paint. A few people heard the deafening rumble and came out of their houses to watch them pass. Then up onto Puma Road, two-by-two, a growling metal centipede making its way slowly along the narrow highway.

Shane looked over at Chooch and saw him grinning. Hard not to feel the rush of all that energy and power. They were nearing the end, rolling in, loud and dangerous. Around the corner, up ahead, was a biker hangout high in the Malibu Mountains.

They rounded the last curve and saw The Rock Store. The parking lot was full. Almost a hundred bikes lined up like soldiers at parade rest, all dressed right, leaning on metal kick-stands. Mostly, it was American iron, Harleys and Indians, with a few Japanese rice-burners. The Rock Store was Mecca for Southern California bikers. It was the high church-hawg heaven.

Maniac pulled in and, one by one, the Iron Pigs backed their bikes into a line, then shut them down. Silence filled their ears, laid tight against their skulls. Goat dismounted and turned to face the Pigs.

'Ride captain buys the beers,' he said. A cheer was followed by a round of vicious insults.

'I got your ride money, Goat. Right now, you couldn't buy a Hoover Street hooker,' Jabba the Slut scoffed. Then she threw a canvas bag full of cash at him. The Iron Pigs whistled and hooted.

Chooch and Shane climbed off their borrowed bikes. 'I'll buy you a beer if you don't tell your mother,' Shane whispered, instantly realizing he sounded like a Boy Scout at a truck stop.

'I own you now, Dad,' Chooch teased. 'If I tell Mom about this, you'll be in honey-do jail until Christmas.'

'You gotta take a few chances in life,' Shane grinned, and threw an arm around his son's shoulder as they all walked toward The Rock Store.

Shane heard a bike start up and looked around just in time to see Jabba the Slut pulling out on her custom Softail. Then he remembered she said she was on the mid-watch and had to get to work. She deep-throated the yellow-and-black Harley, roaring down the road, laying rubber, kicking ass on her way back to L. A.

'I wonder what she looks like under those goggles and do-rag?' Shane pondered.

The Rock Store had been a stagecoach stop in the early 1900s. Ed and Veronica Sazko owned it since the sixties. They made it into a convenience store. The rock foundation was responsible for its name. Two old red- and-white gas pumps sat out front dinging off the gallons like antique slots. In the seventies, the Sazkos had added a dining room and bar. They'd sold one hell of a lot of beer since then. Most L. A. bikers eventually hit the Rock Store. Everybody from Jay Leno to old-time, bee-in-the-teeth Harley roughnecks hung there. Shane, Chooch, and the remaining Iron Pigs found three open booths, crowded in, and drank beer as the roof shadows grew long, stretching across the porch into the dirt yard. The place started to clear out by seven. By seven thirty most of the Iron Pigs had left. Maniac, Goat, Chooch, and Shane hung on stubbornly, not wanting the ride to end. Alexa was in Chicago at a police convention so Shane and Chooch were spending some guy time together. Maniac and Goat took off their head wraps and the cool biker handles disappeared with them. They were back to being Emo and Darren.

Chooch was explaining the Wing-T offense he quarterbacked at Harvard-Westlake High School, finger painting plays on the table using the moist condensation from their beer cans. Emo watched closely as the play was diagrammed on the sawed wood.

'Don't you run any options off that formation?' Emo asked. His overdeveloped shoulders and muscular build made him look like a linebacker, but Shane knew he'd once played quarterback at Cerritos Junior College.

'Yeah.' Chooch drew another play as he talked. 'You can fake to the halfback, coming across like this; or do a

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