He unlocked the padlock on the gate above the wash, and slipped inside. Steve Rao’s people had knocked off the city padlock and put on their own, then sent him the key to open it. Hugo Poole took a moment to close the gate. He reached into his pocket, took out his own lock, and placed it on the gate. He stuck Rao’s key into Rao’s lock, tossed them both down the hill into the bushes, and walked on.

He descended the sloping gravel driveway that the city had cut so its maintenance people could come down once a year to remove the tangle of dried brush and shopping carts from the concrete waterway before the rains. He reached the bottom, took a few steps onto the pavement of the river, and stopped to look around him. He could hear the distant whisper of cars flashing along the Ventura Freeway a few blocks away, and a constant dribble of water dripping out of a storm drain and running down the wall a few feet from him.

Hugo Poole’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and picked out four silhouettes in the deeper shadow across the wash. They floated toward him, and Poole tried to pick out Steve Rao’s short, strutting body, but couldn’t.

The one who separated from the others was too tall to be Steve Rao. “What are you doing here?” the voice said. It was young, with a trace of Spanglish inflection.

It was the wrong question. Somebody Steve Rao had sent would know why Hugo was here.

Hugo Poole said, “I’m not here to hurt you. That’s all you need to know about me.”

The heads of the four shapes turned to one another in quiet consultation, and Hugo Poole prepared himself, waiting for them to spread out. There was a sudden, sharp blow to his skull that made a red flare explode in his vision and knocked his head to the side. He spun to see the two new shapes just as they threw their shoulders into him. His head snapped back and his spine was strained as they dug in and brought him down on the concrete.

They seemed to have expected him to give up, but he began to bring his knees into play as he grappled with them. They tried to hold him down on the pavement, but Hugo Poole fought silently and patiently, first separating them, then twisting his torso to jab a heavy elbow into a face. He heard a crack, a howl of pain, and felt his opponent fall away. He rolled to the other side to clutch the second assailant, and delivered a palm strike that bounced the back of the man’s head off the pavement. The man lay still.

Hugo Poole was up on his feet again, sidestepping away from the two motionless bodies. The other four had made it only halfway across the riverbed toward him, and now they stopped with the shallow trench full of water separating them from Hugo Poole.

Poole put his head down and charged at the one who had spoken earlier. The young man hesitated, then looked at his companions, who showed no inclination to help him. They backed away, not from Hugo Poole but from their companion, as though if they could dissociate themselves from his fate, they would not share it. As Hugo Poole leapt the trench, the young man spun on his heel and ran about a hundred feet before he turned to see if he was safe.

The other three interpreted his flight as permission to run too. They dashed to the far wall where the shadows were deepest, and then moved off into the darkness down the riverbed. Hugo Poole turned to see that the two who had been on the ground were rapidly recovering. One was helping the other to his feet, and then they hobbled off together up the inclined driveway toward the street.

Hugo Poole stood in the dim concrete riverbed and caught his breath. The right knee of his pants had a small tear in it; the elbow of his suit coat felt damp, so he looked at that too. It had a dark splash of blood on it from the first man’s nose. He sighed: this was turning into an irritating evening, and it was still early.

Then Hugo Poole saw a new light. It began as a vague impression in his mind that there must be clouds moving away from the moon. Then the light brightened and the impression changed. The light was coming from somewhere down the channel. The wall opposite him began to glow, and then the light separated into two smaller, more focused circles.

A set of headlights appeared around an elbow bend in the channel and came toward him. He was aware that it might be a police patrol car, or the animal control people checking on the coyotes that used the concrete riverbeds to travel across the city at night. Either way, it would be best to stay still. It was especially important not to move if it was Steve Rao.

Hugo Poole stood and watched as the ghostly vehicle drew nearer, its headlights brightening until it pulled up beside him and stopped. Now that the headlights were shining past him, he saw that it was a black Hummer with tinted windows. Someone in the passenger seat used a powerful flashlight to sweep the walls of the channel and the bushes and hiding places up above at street level.

The flashlight went out, the passenger door opened, and a large man with wavy dark hair got out. He wore a lightweight black sport coat and pants of a color that looked gray in the near darkness. The driver got out, and Hugo Poole could see that he was wearing a sport coat too. Almost certainly the coats were intended to hide the bulges of firearms. The driver stood with his back against the door of the Hummer and kept guard while the other man approached Hugo Poole.

The man said, “Sir, are you Mr. Poole?”


“Can you put your arms out from your sides for me, please?”

Hugo Poole complied, and stood with his feet apart so his legs could be checked next. He waited, staring into the distance as the man patted him down expertly, then stepped back. “Thank you very much, sir.”

Hugo Poole said, “You’re an off-duty cop, aren’t you?”

He didn’t deny it. “I’m a friend of Steve’s.”

Hugo nodded and watched the driver open the back door of the Hummer. Steve Rao was perched on the edge of the high seat when the door opened. He was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with a dark windbreaker, as though he were out to commit a burglary. His shoes were half light and half dark, like bowling shoes. He slid to the end of the Hummer’s back seat and then jumped down, smiling.

He looked proud of himself, his eyes and teeth reflecting the distant light from above. “Hugo, my man. Thanks for coming. I hope it wasn’t too inconvenient.”

“You saw?”

Steve Rao looked very serious. “I didn’t have anything to do with them, I swear to God.”

“I didn’t think you did,” said Hugo Poole.

“It’s terrible,” said Steve Rao. “This isn’t even gang territory. The city really has to do something.”

“I’ll write a letter to the Times.

Steve Rao’s grin returned. “You’re still pretty mean, though, aren’t you? You can handle yourself against these young kids even now.”

Hugo Poole did not smile.

Steve Rao gestured toward the two men beside his black Hummer. “These two guys are my solution to that foolishness. You won’t see me rolling around on dirty cement beating the shit out of no gang of kids. I learned that much.”

“I’ll be honest with you, Steve. This night is beginning to wear on my patience. Why did you want to meet me in a place like this?”

“It’s safe and secure.”

“It’s safe and secure up there on the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon, and you can get a cup of coffee in Du Par’s,” said Hugo. “What is it you want?”

Steve Rao began to walk. Hugo followed for about two hundred feet, and stopped. Steve Rao noticed, so he stopped too, and spoke. “I’ve been around for a while now. You know that?”

“I’ve noticed you for about five years,” said Hugo Poole.

“I haven’t been lying around all that time.”

“I’ve noticed that too.”

“I’ve been busy. I’ve been talking to people, making deals, making friends.”

“No flies on you,” said Hugo Poole.

“It’s worked out. I’ve gotten big.” It was a strange thing for a man Hugo Poole judged was about five feet five to say. “It’s time to make a deal with you too.” He glared at Hugo Poole. “I’ve put it off for longer than I should have.”

“I’m listening.”

“I want ten thousand a month from you.”

“In exchange for what?”

“For being able to do whatever you want. For not having to worry. You can go on forever, just like you have

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