H Is For Homicide Page 59

’’Why not Beverly Hills?’’ I asked. At first the idea seemed to unsettle him, but he could see the possibilities. We worked our way up to Sunset Boulevard and headed east, passing the northern perimeter of the sprawling UCLA campus. Just past the Beverly Hills Hotel, I took a right onto Rexford. I found it soothing to cruise along the wide tree-lined streets. This was an area known as the ’’flats’’ of Beverly Hills. The houses were oversize and filled the lots from side to side. All the lawns were green, the shrubs trimmed, gardeners blowing errant leaves down the driveways. Shade trees were planted along the grassy stretch between sidewalk and street, sycamores interspersed with oaks. High fences shielded the backyard tennis courts from sight. Now and then, I caught a glimpse of a swimming pool and cabana. The stoplight at Santa Monica Boulevard was green. I drove the Caddy sedately into the heart of the Beverly Hills shopping district.

Technically, I knew I was skating on thin ice with this drive-down. The only thing I remembered about undercover work from police academy days is that it's against ’’public policy’’ for an officer of the law to participate in the commission of a crime or incite someone to do so. Happily, I wasn't actually an officer of the law, and if it ever came right down to it, it would be Raymond's word against mine. Helping Raymond stage a few fraudulent accidents seemed to me the quickest way to persuade him I was on the up-and-up.

Raymond stared out the window, his manner uneasy. ’’You're never going to find any business up here.’’

’’Want to bet?’’ I had just spotted a late-model Mercedes pulling out of a parking lot in the middle of the block, left turn signal blinking. The car was a four-door sedan, a conservative black with a vanity plate that read BULL MKT. The woman driving was probably forty years old, with a cap of blond hair and big round sunglasses pulled down toward the tip of her nose. I slowed the Caddy, mentally apologizing for my sins in advance. I came to a full stop and politely waved her out. She gave me a quick wave and a smile, showing perfect caps. ’’What are you doing!’’

’’Yielding the right-of-way,’’ I said with innocence. As soon as the Mercedes eased into my path, I gunned the Caddy and rammed the left rear quadrant with a thump. It was just like bumper cars and I felt the same sick charge, half guilt, half thrill. The indentation was nicely placed. The woman shrieked and turned to look at me openmouthed with astonishment.

Raymond was out of the Caddy in a flash. ’’What the f*k are you doing? You pulled out right in front of us!’’ I got out and moved to the front of the Caddy, where I checked the broken headlight and flaking bumper. Not bad. The damage to the other car was six grand at least. The blonde had recovered from her initial dismay. She got out of the Mercedes and slammed the car door. She was dressed for tennis, little white skirt, green-and-white-striped Polo shirt, long, tan legs, little socks with jaunty green pompoms sticking out above her spotless white tennis shoes. The Mercedes's left rear quadrant, recently a pristine shiny black, now sported a dent of substantial proportions, fender crumpled, chrome sticking out like a horizontal antenna. The rear door would have to be pried open with a crowbar. I could see the color rising in her face as she surveyed the damage. She turned and jabbed an angry finger in my face. ’’You f*king asshole! You sat there and motioned me out!’’

’’She did not!’’ Raymond said.

’’She did, too!’’

’’Did not,’’ I inserted to show where my loyalties lay.

Raymond said, ’’Look at my car! We just bought this car and now look what you've done!’’

’’Your car! Look at mine!’’

I put a hand against my neck and Raymond turned to me with concern.

’’Are you okay, hon?’’

’’I guess so,’’ I said without conviction. The neck roll I did was accompanied by a wince.

Raymond dropped his irate manner and substituted an air of studied calm that was more effective in its way. ’’Lady, I hope you got good insurance coverage...’’

The afternoon was marked by Raymond's intermittent demolition derby, surreal in its fashion, depressing in its effect. We backtracked from Beverly Hills into Brentwood, through Westwood, and then south into Santa Monica again. We sought out areas congested with traffic, watched for minor violations, inattentiveness, and lapses in judgment. Raymond kept a meticulous record of each accident we staged - four in all - noting time and location, the other driver's name and insurance company.

The Caddy performed like a first-rate battering ram, sustaining very little damage for the losses we inflicted on other unsuspecting motorists. The victims seemed so gullible somehow, distressed, apologetic, sometimes irate, but usually worried they'd be slapped with ruinous lawsuits. I played my part - righteous and upset, pretending sudden shooting pains in my neck or back - but I couldn't bear to look at them. This was not a kind of cheating I did very well, and I could proceed only by employing the same mental detachment I adopt when I enter a morgue. Raymond, of course, was only interested in filing phony claims for vehicular damage and whatever injuries we could fake as a consequence. His skills at manipulation were honed by long practice.

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