"That's all the abuse you get for now, dollface. Muchas gras and talk to you later."
I was in East Hollywood now, which had always served as the industrial back lot for the glitzy Hollywood that tourists searched for in vain at Hollywood and Vine. East Hollywood was home to prop shops and postproduction facilities. It was where wanna-be starlets rented rooms in buildings of decayed glamour and rode the creaky elevators with immigrant families whose vision of the future was no less intense because it was dreamed in Armenian, Thai, Russian, and Spanish.
Latino men lounged on the street corners, signaling with two fingers to passing cars. Crack for sale. I shook my head and kept driving. In front of me, a brown truck pulled to the curb by a large apartment building and honked. In response, black-clad women streamed out the front door, clutching plastic bags and change purses. The driver hopped out and threw open the doors to his truck, oblivious to the traffic backing up behind him.
I groaned and craned my neck to signal Chevalier to wait, but he had swerved and kept going. I cursed the vehicular gods that had stuck me in traffic behind Armenian Home Grocer. It wasn't really Home Grocer, of course, those pretty peach-and-green-colored trucks that delivered food you ordered directly from the Internet. But the concept that had been such an innovation to harried Americans was old news in this ethnic hood. In unmarked brown trucks crammed floor-to-ceiling with fruits and vegetables, pita and fresh herbs, drivers careened up and down narrow side streets where immigrants retained the vestigial memory of haggling at outdoor markets. Armenian Home Grocer didn't charge for delivery either. With traffic hemming me in, I had little choice but to watch the driver hand over scallions and curvy purple eggplants, feathery dill, and new potatoes. The women milled on the sidewalk, muttering "che, che," "no, no," when he tried to sell them something extra.
Finally I saw an opening and pulled out.
Five minutes later, I stopped at a decrepit heap of a building surrounded by a cyclone fence. The place was old, dating back to the 1920s, I guessed, from the white arches and pillars. Fissures had made crazy-quilt patterns in the plaster, and here and there, chunks had fallen out to expose the lathe beneath. All the windows and doors were boarded up with plywood and festooned with yellow emergency tape. If I were fifteen and trying to get as far away from Rose Bowl Landia as possible, I might end up here too. But only if I had a death wish. With its eyeless holes where windows should be, its cracked adobe defaced by gang graffiti, and its jagged piles of plaster and glass, the building struck me as a malevolent and grinning skull.
When Vincent Chevalier walked up, I shivered in aversion. Nothing good could come from going in there. I punched in the cell phone again and got through to George Bovasso, the morning city editor, who had finally finished his cafeteria bacon and egg whites and ambled downstairs to the third floor. I explained where I was and told him to start worrying if he didn't hear from me soon.
"That was my editor," I told Vincent Chevalier, clambering out. "I was just giving him the address. He's going to call the police if he doesn't hear from me in an hour."
I scrutinized him as I spoke, watching his eyes for flinching, for turning away, for any tick or twitch or wolfish quickening that would tell me to turn back. I found none. If I refused to crawl inside the squat, I might lose the best story I had run across in a long time. I had done what I could to check out my companion, to leave a trail, and to alert the proper authorities. I had to take a deep breath, plunge off that cliff, and hope the bungee cord didn't snap.
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