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Chapter One

It was always night in the Hillcrest Club, one of those Southern California cocktail lounges with the red vinyl booths, artificial plants, Formica bar, and no windows. Anyone coming in off the street, no matter what time of day or night, had to stand in the doorway blinking either fierce sunlight or blinding neon out of his eyes for a good 30 seconds before he adjusted to the greasy lighting inside. If you didn’t like who you saw coming in, you had enough time to duck out the exit by the rest rooms before he could spot you. The door led to the parking lot by the entrance ramp to Route 163. It locked automatically from the inside so that you couldn’t come in that way — you had to walk around the side of the building along a narrow concrete path. This arrangement made it a long shot that your car would be recognized by a wife, secretary, or neighbor if you needed a few fast shots before 8:00 a.m. It also made the place perfect to soak in when you didn’t want to run into creditors without notice.

It was always night in the Hillcrest Club, one of those Southern California cocktail lounges with the red vinyl booths, artificial plants, Formica bar, and no windows. Anyone coming in off the street, no matter what time of day or night, had to stand in the doorway blinking either fierce sunlight or blinding neon out of his eyes for a good 30 seconds before he adjusted to the greasy lighting inside. If you didn’t like who you saw coming in, you had enough time to duck out the exit by the rest rooms before he could spot you. The door led to the parking lot by the entrance ramp to Route 163. It locked automatically from the inside so that you couldn’t come in that way — you had to walk around the side of the building along a narrow concrete path. This arrangement made it a long shot that your car would be recognized by a wife, secretary, or neighbor if you needed a few fast shots before 8:00 a.m. It also made the place perfect to soak in when you didn’t want to run into creditors without notice.

It was late afternoon and I didn’t think I was avoiding anyone in particular. I owed the phone could bucompany $80 and my landlady twice that, but I wasn’t worried about them sending anyone around to collect. I was working on forgetting the dead man I had left behind me that morning and the mess I had made over the weekend while trying to trace one Herman Villez in Tijuana. I wasn’t expecting any more excitement when the front door of the Hillcrest Club swung open and two figures were silhouetted against the feral brightness of University Avenue.

One of them must have weighed in at 250 and was tall enough to have to duck the door frame. They both wore nice suits. People with nice suits don’t often drink at the Hillcrest. They had followed me from T.J., but I didn’t know that. That’s probably because I’m not really as bright as I like to think I am. All that business with the cops had distracted me on the ride back up.

I kept drinking my beer and resumed my conversation with Bananas — a 67-year-old, shell-shocked Anzio vet and a pleasant drunk — a great guy to talk to when you didn’t have anything in particular to say and felt like saying it.

“Why is it,” I asked him, “that every joint like this one in San Diego County has plastic ferns? I mean anything will grow in this part of the country, even in the dark, choked by alcohol and tobacco fumes. Why phony plants? You tell me that.”

The old man smiled a gummy smile and said the only thing I’d ever heard him say in the three years I’d known him, the only thing anyone had heard him say — as far as I know — since Anzio. “God bless America,” he intoned, “nickel and dime.”

That was Bananas’s act. His entire act except for holding out his thumb and forefinger horizontally when he wanted another shot of Kessler. More often than not he made as much sense as anyone else in that place.

As I was agreeing with Bananas, I noticed the two guys who had just come in sidle down the bar toward me. A San Diego Gas and Electric worker on the barstool next to mine decided it was time to take a leak. The taller guy, sleek black razor-cut hair, Wayne Newton mustache, and knife scar at the edge of one eye, occupied the vacated seat. He turned and spoke to me in quiet Spanish, smiling like we were old friends. He looked vaguely familiar, but we weren’t old friends. I had a nagging suspicion we weren’t going to be new friends either.

“You are a very nosy cabrón,” he said. The smile he wore was like a cellophane bag that was making it hard for him to breathe.

I didn’t say anything, no gems came to mind.

“Very nosy, much huevos, eh? You must be tough, such a curious little cat. You are tough, eh?”

“Just who in hell are you?” — a reasonable question, I thought — “or would that be telling?” Actually, I now recognized both him and his partner as the pimps I had seen around Coahuila. I noticed his friend had maneuvered himself toward the rear door and was pretending to study the jukebox.

“I asked you if you were a tough guy.” His smile was history now. I was quickly trying to figure why a Tijuana pimp who looked like Conan the Barbarian in a Pierre Cardin suit and his sidekick would follow me across the border and pick a fight in a San Diego bar, but nothing added up. Okay, they weren’t pimps.

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