27 February 2018

Karen had closed up and was long gone by the time we got back to the store. Next door, Sasquatch Pete’s café was Monday- night quiet. I made a point of backing the truck into a space that I thought he would find amenable. Roosting crows squawked conversationally atop the nearby power lines.

Raúl was trying to persuade me to go with him to a comedy club. ‘Why don’t we head to the Lo- Ball,’ he said. ‘Improv night. We can still catch it.’

I mumbled non- committally as we crossed the car park to the back door of the store. ‘C’mon, come hang with some comedians,’ Raúl went on. ‘They’ll make you feel better about yourself.’

‘Thanks, but I’m not sure I feel like laughing,’ I replied.

‘Not by laughing,’ he said, as we let ourselves in to grab our things. ‘They’ll make you feel better cause they’re all such deadbeats . . . Wait.’

Smoke Over Malibu

Beneath the streetlamp at the other end of the block, the man in black had turned to face his pursuer, long cape fluttering as they circled one another, he the matador and Raúl the bull

Raúl thrust out his hand to stop me in the doorway. He was carrying Burgers in the pet crate, and the dog had started to snarl: a steady, menacing rumble, like a tiny chainsaw. ‘What is it, buddy?’ Raúl whispered.

But for some faint rectangles of streetlight, the store was pitch dark.

‘Raúl . . .’

‘Shh.’ He knelt and set the pet crate on the ground. ‘Burgers? What is it, huh?’

‘At least turn on the lights . . .’

‘Shh!’

I shushed, but heard nothing besides Burgers, still snarling, and the blood pulsing in my ears. And then, a click: the Anglepoise beside the cash register snapped on. Looming over it was a tall, broad dude dressed all in black: black sweater; black cargo pants; black gloves; black balaclava. No, not all in black – he’d accessorised with a fetching yellow fanny- pack.

Chills, multiplying. Something about his quarterback shoulders seemed wrong, as if they’d been padded to make a skinny guy look wide. I could see only his eyes, wide and intense, and his mouth, breathing fast – enough to discern that he, like the outfit, was black. We all stood and stared at each other for what felt to me like a full minute, and I found myself edging bit- by- bit behind my partner.

‘Are you wearing a cape ?’ said Raúl, finally. ‘Hold on: is that supposed to be a Batman costume?’

The dog growled on, but this time the man growled back.

‘Where is it?’ he said, bass in register and threatening in tone.

‘Where is what?’ Raúl replied, apparently unperturbed.

‘The blackbird.’

‘Say what?’

‘The blackbird,’ the man growled again. ‘Marty Kann’s blackbird! Where IS IT? ’

I stuttered quietly, ‘M- Marty Kann?’

‘The fuck are you talking about?’ said Raúl. ‘Where’s our cookie jar, you cosplay motherfucker? And why are you talking like that?’

The man in black narrowed his eyes, stopped growling. ‘Cookie jar?’

That’s when I spotted the papers strewn across the counter behind him – Marty Kann’s drawings, removed from their box and rifled through.

‘Raúl,’ I said, collecting myself. ‘Raúl, just . . . calm down. Now listen, chum. Do you have a gun?’

The man in black took a moment to process the question. ‘Uh, n— . . . Yeah?’

‘He doesn’t have a gun, Lucky,’ Raúl said.

‘He might have a gun.’

‘He doesn’t. Look at him. He’s crapping his pants. He doesn’t have a gun.’

‘Hey,’ said the man in black, piqued. ‘How do you know I don’t have a gun?’

‘Where is it, then? In your utility belt?’

The instant he finished spitting the words, Raúl lunged towards the counter. The man stumbled back, swivelled and made a break for it. In a flash, my partner had rounded the cash register and reached for the antique wooden baseball bat that Bart keeps beneath it, in lieu of an alarm system. The man in black flung open the front door of the store and tumbled into the street, the opening bars of ‘The Star- Spangled Banner’ chiming in his wake. Raúl vaulted the counter and raced after him, brandishing the bat and yelling back over his shoulder: ‘Hey, Sir Lucky – MOVE YOUR ASS GODDAMIT!’

Raúl may be squat, but he moves like Road Runner. By the time I made it to the pavement, he was already halfway down the block and gaining on his prey. I dashed after them, passing Sasquatch Pete as he emerged from his café, drawn outside by the commotion.

The European nobility are nowadays such a feeble, chinless bunch that it’s difficult to imagine us having ancestors formidable enough to earn their titles. Centuries back, somewhere far closer to the fat trunks of our family trees, there were warriors and gifted statesmen. But the last time a Viscount Wonersh excelled himself on the battlefield was at Waterloo – and neither his courage, his stamina nor his selflessness has survived the intervening generations. My legs are long and I can maintain appearances in a sprint, but as soon as the race became middle- distance, I started to flag.

Up ahead, I saw the man in black reach Hillhurst and canter into traffic. Brakes screeched, horns sounded. My lungs were suffering the consequences of twenty- five years’ accumulated tar.

Raúl paused at the kerb, but then the lights turned red and he booked it across the street before I could reach him. I stopped and clung to a lamp post to catch my breath, watching helplessly as he plunged down one of the unlit side streets on the far side of the avenue.

Wheezing, I jogged onward, but I’d already lost sight of them both in the dark. The side street was residential, two pin- drop silent rows of homes animated only by the blue flicker of flatscreen TVs from between venetian blinds. I made it about fifty yards before I had to drop to my knees on someone’s lawn, chest about ready to cave in. As my breathing slowed, I could hear footsteps fast receding, a shout – and then I spotted them.

Beneath the streetlamp at the other end of the block, the man in black had turned to face his pursuer, long cape fluttering as they circled one another, he the matador and Raúl the bull. I tried to cry out to my partner to be careful, but I couldn’t summon sufficient oxygen for the task.

Raúl raised the bat, ready to strike, but he hesitated just long enough for the man in black to get behind him, blur- quick. I heard my friend howl with pain and watched him collapse on the pavement – whump! The clatter of the bat on the concrete echoed like distant gunfire: toka- toka- toka- tok. ‘No,’ I croaked. ‘No!’

I fought my way upright and staggered forward, slaloming with exhaustion. The man in black had vanished into the night, but Raúl was still hollering – which at least meant that he wasn’t dead. He was on the ground when I reached him, writhing in pain and clutching his rear. ‘He stabbed me in the ass!’ he cried. ‘Batman stabbed me in the FRICKIN’ ASS !’

Nearby porch- lights flickered into life, bewildered Los Felizians peering past their door- chains at the unfolding scene. Raúl gritted his teeth as I reluctantly pressed my hand to his butt- cheek, but it came away clean: no blood. My nostrils caught an acrid scent. I sniffed the air. Something was burning.

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