been, and nobody will bother you.”

“Nobody bothers me now.”

Steve Rao stopped and pointed back at the Hummer, where the two off-duty cops were sitting. “See those guys?”

Hugo Poole gave his second sigh of the evening. “Steve, how old are you?”


“When you’re a young guy, just starting out, you have to consider the possibility that the people who were here before you were born aren’t all dumb.”

“What do you mean?”

“You should look around and say, ‘What are people already doing that works? What are people not doing, even though it’s an obvious thing to do? And why aren’t they?’ ”

Steve Rao glared at him again, then resumed walking. “A lot of people are doing this. People have sold protection for a hundred years.”

“Street gangs. They shake down a few Korean grocery stores, a couple of small liquor stores. They ask for just enough so the payoff is cheaper than buying a new front window. The game lasts a few months, until all the gang boys are in jail for something else or dead. Grown-ups don’t do this in L.A. And they don’t use off-duty cops for bodyguards.”

“Why are you saying this shit?” Steve was quickly beginning to feel the heat around his neck cooking into anger. “It’s all shit! Half the rock stars in town have hired cops with them wherever they go.”

“I’m telling you this because I want to do you a big favor,” said Hugo Poole. “That works great for musicians. Cops have to carry guns off-duty, so nobody has to make any guesses.”

“That’s right,” said Steve Rao. “So don’t even think about trying to get out of this. I might as well be made out of steel. Anybody opens up anywhere near me, my cops will drill his ass for him. They got my back. Nobody can do anything to me.”

“That’s probably true,” said Hugo Poole. “But what can you do to anybody else?”

“Anything,” said Steve Rao, but he sounded uncertain.

Hugo Poole said, “Off-duty cops will keep people from killing you if they can, just like they do for rock stars. But they won’t let even the biggest rock stars grease somebody else.”

“We have an understanding.”

“They understand you better than you understand them.”

“They’re mine. I bought them.”

“You’re paying cops money to stay a few feet from you. They can see you make deals, they can hear what you say. When they’ve seen and heard enough, they’re going to arrest you and all of the people who do business with you.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“Steve, these guys know the system. They know that if they get in trouble, you won’t be able to do them any good. The only people who can help them are other cops.” He paused. “You aren’t going to collect any money from anybody, Steve, because you can’t hurt anybody in front of two cops. You just put yourself out of business.”

“Hugo, I always heard you were supposed to be the smartest man in L.A. But this is pitiful,” said Steve Rao. He took a small semiautomatic pistol from his jacket. He didn’t point it at Hugo, just shifted it to his belt. “I want your ten grand tomorrow by five, and then once a month. Be on time.”

“Ask me how I knew they were cops.”

“All right. How did you know?”

“They’re wearing microphones,” said Hugo Poole. “See you, Steve.” Hugo Poole walked down the concrete riverbed, away from Steve Rao.

“You don’t walk away from me,” said Steve Rao. “You wait until I walk away from you.” His voice sounded strained and thin, as though his throat were dry.

Hugo Poole walked on, his pace the same smart stride he always used on the street that kept his head up and his eyes on the world in front of him and let him scan the sights beside him. He had decided that it would be best not to return to the street by the same path he had used to come down here, so he walked on for what he judged to be an extra two blocks before he came to the next ramp built for the flood maintenance people. At the top of the path he had to climb an eight-foot chain-link fence, something he hated to do, but since his suit was beyond repair, he supposed he could hardly ruin it twice.

He swung himself over, dropped to the ground, then walked back up to Radford. Just as he was coming out of the dimly lighted, quiet street toward Ventura Boulevard, he heard the distant pops of four shots in rapid succession, then seven more. They seemed to echo from the direction of the river. As he walked along, he considered the eleven shots. Eleven was a bad number for Steve Rao. The magazines for pistols like Steve Rao’s held no more than ten in a single stack.


Hugo Poole parked in front of the Hundred Proof Bar and slipped a twenty-dollar bill to the bouncer outside the door in exchange for protecting his car from the tow trucks. The frightening late-night clientele of the Hundred Proof would keep the hot-wire artists away. As he walked along Sheldrake Avenue toward the Empire Theater he looked respectable but tired, like the bartender of an intermittently violent nightclub. He wanted to get this suit off. He would get a shower, put on a clean shirt and a new suit, and feel right again. Hugo Poole never wore a tie, because during his formative years he had watched a fight in which a man had been choked out with his Windsor knot.

He walked under the big, ornate marquee that announced EMPIRE THEATER CLOSED FOR RENOVATION. He stepped into the alcove across the terrazzo inlay of 1920s bathing beauties and stopped beside the ticket booth in front. He stared up and down Sheldrake Avenue. Hugo Poole did not simply glance: he took his time, his eyes narrowed to impart sharpness and definition to distant shapes. When he decided he had outlasted any possible duckers-behind-corners or walkers-the-other-way, he took a full turn and stopped with his back against the door to be absolutely sure he had not been followed. He had not. Hugo Poole unlocked the door to the movie theater, opened it, slipped inside, closed it, and tugged it once to be sure it had locked behind him.

He turned. The dim pink glow of the light inside the candy display case let him see the gilded plaster-cast sconces and the ancient painted murals of women who seemed half nymph and half movie star getting out of long antique limousines. Behind them, aimed upward in the sky, were beams from big spotlights. He heard a noise and turned to the carpeted stairway across the lobby that led up toward the balcony.

“Evening, Hugo.” Otto Collins and Mike Garcia came into the lobby from upstairs. They had been waking up the building, doing the evening walk-around, turning on lights and unlocking the inner doors.

“Hello, guys,” Hugo Poole said. He was not about to forget that the easiest way for somebody to kill him was to pay these two to do it here in the theater, but he had already studied them and acquitted them for tonight. Every night he looked at them for signs that they were going to betray him.

Hugo Poole was not watching for nervous twitches and smiling, sweaty upper lips. These were men. They worked for Hugo Poole, and they could be expected to behave with a certain amount of self-possession. What he was looking for was the opposite: excessive self-control. He had seen it come upon serious men when they were contemplating risky behavior. He knew that on the day when he was going to die Mike and Otto would grow cold and distant.

Hugo Poole knew that he was reputed to be a deep thinker, and it was a useful myth to cultivate. He was only premeditative, but to many people that made him seem clairvoyant. He made his way upstairs to the carpeted upper hallway, past the door marked PROJECTION ROOM, opened a wooden door that seemed to be a part of the paneled wall, and went inside.

Hugo walked to his desk and sat down, then glanced at his watch. It had taken him forty-five minutes to get back here from the Valley, and he judged that to be enough time. He consulted the telephone book on the corner of his desk, picked up his telephone, and called the police precinct station in North Hollywood.

He said, “This is G. David Hunter. I’m an attorney under retainer for Steven Rao, R-A-O. He hasn’t shown up where he was expected this evening. Could you please check to see whether he has been taken into custody tonight?” He listened for a moment, then said, “Shot dead? You did say ‘dead’? I’m shocked. When did this

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