O is for Outlaw Page 38

I cruised the endless blocks of Sepulveda I'd selected. While this wasn't L.A. at its worst, the route was hardly scenic. There were billboards everywhere. Countless telephone poles intersected the skyline, dense strands of wire stretching in all directions. I passed gas stations, a print and copy shop, three animal hospitals, a 7-Eleven, a discount tire establishment. I watched the numbers climb, from a car wash to a sign company, from a construction site to a quick lube to an auto body shop. In this area, if you weren't in the market for lumber or fast food, you could always buy discount leather or stock up at the Party Smarty for your entertaining needs.

It wasn't until I reached the 800 block in Culver City that I sensed this was Mickey's turf. The H-shaped three-story apartment building at 805 had a rough plaster exterior, painted drab gray, with sagging galleries and aluminum sliding glass doors that looked like they'd be difficult to open. Stains, shaped like stalactites, streaked the stucco along the roofline. Weeds grew up through cracks in the concrete. A dry gully ran along the south side, choked with boulders and refuse. The wire fence marking the property line now leaned against the side of the apartment complex in a tangle of dead shrubs.

I drove past, scanning the nearest intersection, where I saw an electronics shop, a photo lab, a paint store, a mini-mart, a pool hall, a twenty-four-hour coffee shop, two bars, and a Chinese restaurant, Mickey's favorite. I spotted a driveway, and at the first break in traffic I did a turn-around, coming up on the right side of the street in front of 805. I found a parking place two doors away, turned off the engine, and sat in my car, checking out the ambience, if the concept isn't too grand. The building itself was similar to one Mickey occupied when the two of us first met. I'd been appalled then, as I was now, by his indifference to his environment. The sign out front specified studios and 1 & bedroom apartments NOW RENTING, as if this were late-breaking news.

The landscaping consisted of a cluster of banana palms with dark green battered leaves that looked like they'd been slashed by a machete. Traffic in the area was heavy, and I found myself watching the cars passing in both directions, wondering if Detective Aldo was going to drive by and catch me at the scene. The very thought made me squirm. It wasn't as though he'd forbidden me to make an appearance, but he wouldn't be happy if he figured it out.

I started the car and pulled away from the curb. I drove down half a block and turned right at the first corner and then right again, into the alley that ran behind the row of buildings and dead-ended at the gully. Someone had compressed the buckling wire fence so that one could cross the boundary and ease down into the ditch. I pulled in beside the garbage bins and made another U-turn, so that I now faced the alley entrance. I took a minute to grab my fanny pack from the backseat and transfer my key picks, a penlight, my mini-tool kit, and a pair of rubber gloves. I clipped the fanny pack around my waist, locked the car, and got out.

I padded down the walkway between Mickey's building and the apartment complex next door. At night this area would be dark, since the exterior light fixtures were either dangling or missing altogether. A line of gray-painted water meters was planted along the side, real shin-bangers. By straining only slightlywhich is to say, jumping up and down like a Zulu-I was able to peek in the windows through the wroughtiron burglar bars. Most of what I saw were bedrooms barely large enough for a king-sized bed. The occupants seemed to use the windowsills to display an assortment of homely items: cracker boxes, framed snapshots, mayonnaise jars filled to capacity with foilwrapped condoms. In one unit, someone was nurturing a handsome marijuana plant.

Mickey's apartment building didn't have a lobby, but an alcove in the front stairwell housed a series of metal mailboxes with names neatly embossed on short lengths of red, blue, and yellow plastic. Even Mickey couldn't buck post office regulations. By counting boxes, I knew there were twenty apartments distributed on three floors, but I had no way to guess how many flats were the one, and two-bedroom units and how many were studios. His was unit, H. The manager was on the ground floor in 1, A to my immediate right.

The name on the mailbox read HATFIELD, B & C. I decided to postpone contact until after I'd reconnoitered Mickey's place.

I went up the front stairs to the second floor, following the progression of front doors and picture windows that graced each flat. There were no burglar bars up here. Mickey's was the corner unit at the rear of the building on the right-hand side. There was a neat yellow X of crime-scene tape across his door. An official caution had been affixed advising of the countless hideous repercussions if crime-scene sanctity was breached. The gallery continued around the corner and ran along the back of the building, so that Mickey's rear windows overlooked the alleyway below and the gully to the right. A second set of stairs had been tacked on back here, probably to bring the building into compliance with fire department codes. Mickey probably considered this a mixed blessing. While the privacy offered a potential intruder unimpeded access to his windows, it also gave Mickey an easy means of egress. When I peered over the railing, I could see my VW below like a faithful steed, so close I could have leapt down and galloped off at a moment's notice.

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