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"I think my two pair beats your....whatever that is," Brian regarded Rome's cards with disdain.
Rome scowled, jiggled his shoulders, then grinned. "Born to lose, man. You want an I.O.U?"
"Nah, but it's your round on the brews, cuz," Brian tipped up the last of his beer.
Rome slid into his flip-flops and scuffed his feet across the smooth concrete to where dusk hid his Evo. Under Monica's influence, Agent Markham had unwound enough to let them attend that particular Customs auction. It was Rome's pride and joy. He reversed back to where Brian was standing in the doorway. "Corona then?"
"Whatever's on sale," Brian took a few steps out and leaned on the wall. The concrete was still sun-warm. It had been 70 degrees earlier, a perfect L.A. winter's day.
Rome revved the motor while caressing the fully erect handbrake and wiggling his eyebrows suggestively at Brian. The wheels started to smoke. Rome released the brake and peeled out, roaring with laughter while his engine just roared.
Brian shook his head and said, "idiot" affectionately. He sauntered to the far side of the parking lot where the weedy star jasmine would cover the scent of Rome's burning rubber. The gathering dark was pleasantly cool. Brian unconsciously scanned his surroundings. The residential side of the street was quieting down; the business side was already as silent as a cemetery.
In a blink of time, Rome had gone so native that Brian sometimes had to remind himself that Rome had never lived here. Los Angeles was to Miami like night was to day, but it had the undercurrent of action that Roman constantly craved. Rome hadn't let his earlier anger at Brian ruin a chain of sunny days. He'd call Brian from every cool restaurant, beach or club he discovered and his enthusiasm was like a big Pacific wave.
He hadn't mentioned Dom again. Brian would still catch him watching though, scanning faces in crowds, checking mirrors obsessively in the cars. But then Brian had caught himself doing the exact same thing. Brian wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for, but he never found it anyway.
Rome watched Brian, too. Brian would catch him staring at odd moments, over the hood of a car, at the end of a race, even while grocery shopping. He would scan Brian's face as if he was looking for something specific and his eyes held concern that he never voiced. Brian always tried to be present for Rome, but he found himself thinking more than once that it was less a city of angels than a city of ghosts. He saw them everywhere.
Dom had the right idea, Brian thought. Never slow down. If you never slow down, nothing can ever catch up.
Why had he done this? Dom had asked that, why are you doing this to me? And it would have been easy, easy and at the same time impossible to say then, "You, because of you." Because even if he saw the ghosts of Sergeant Tanner, Jesse, Johnny Tran and Mia every single day, it was still worth it. To drive down a street and remember the time that he'd driven down it with Dom. This place was the last place that he'd stood next to Dom and shared that warm, bright moment of perfect understanding. So staying here was worth the ghosts. Somehow.
Brian scratched the back of his head, ran his fingers through his hair until it stood on end, like a sweaty blond 'fro. All of a sudden, the evening seemed too quiet. Even the constant hum of the freeway tapered off for a second. Brian scanned the street, feeling the maddening prickle of someone's eyes on him. His eyes tracked for movement, but there was none, the street was hushed, waiting. He was under a streetlight; he realized suddenly. He'd make a good target.
Brian took two long steps backward out of the light and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. He abruptly felt stupid; who was he going to call? What was he going to say? But he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching him.
“Dom?” He projected this so it wasn’t a yell, just a louder-than-average voice. The silence grew. Somewhere a distant cat yowled and in a second, normalcy came crashing back down. He was being stupid. No one was watching.
In the relative quiet, the growling hum of the Evo was audible from half-a-dozen blocks away. Obviously, the cute girl working the counter at their local bodega was taking the night off. Or Brian had been mooning around in a parking lot for longer than he’d realized.
Brian leaned proprietarily on the Camaro, waiting for Rome. Something was still off, but he pushed it aside. Rome would come back, they’d hang out for a little while longer then go grab some food, find some fun. Go to a club in the Valley, maybe. Brian tried to brush away the last tentacles of paranoia.
Something was still weird though. Something sounded weird.
Brian pushed himself off the side of the car as Rome’s Evo crested the ridge in a blaze of purple neon. Shit, that was it. Rome’s car sounded weird, strangely even; there were none of the usual pauses in the engine’s drone. A constant high-pitched screeeee covered almost all the normal noise. Brian ran to the street hoping that Rome was just doing some stupid daredevil stunt trying to see how long he could negotiate the hills of Echo Park without ever…
…tapping his brakes.
Brian had run half a block up the hill when Rome passed him and any hope that this was just Rome being a dumbass died. Roman spared one glance at Brian as the Evo slid past. Rome clutched the steering wheel like it was the only life preserver in the entire Pacific Ocean. Brian could see the panic in the whites of Rome’s eyes. His brakes were non-existent then. Brian froze, the sudden realization that there was nothing that he could do to help Roman at this point hit him like a brick.
Rome was spilling inexorably down from the quiet hills of Echo Park into the busy streets of Los Angeles. Brian strained his eyes and his memory trying to think of just what Rome was rolling into. The road was just about to level out under a freeway overpass and if Rome didn’t panic and hit it just right, he could ease down his speed with the sheer force of gravity and turn into one of the many vacant lots down off Cesar Chavez or Glendale with just a little help from his handbrake. If no one else happened to want to use the two or three intersections between here and there.
On pure reaction, Brian started running down the hill. The only thoughts in his head were the words of some long-gone teacher: Objects in motion have a tendency to remain in motion.
Rome was going to make it. He’d guided the Evo through one red-lighted intersection without even garnering a honk. Now Brian could see down to the lot where Rome was obviously headed. Roman was jigging the wheel from side to side in an attempt to slow his momentum, doing the textbook response for what to do when brakes fail on a hill.
When he got past the light on Second Street, Rome took a chance and bowed wide, trying to make the turn into a lot without the benefit of a safe speed. Brian winced. The Evo was pretty bottom-heavy, as befitted a performance convertible, but Brian could easily envision it flipping if Rome tried to cut the turn too fine. He was going to need to set himself into a doughnut as soon as he had some flat ground, a circle where his momentum could safely play out.
He was gonna make it. The last intersection was empty with clear sailing into a weed-strewn vacant lot. Brian pulled himself out of a sprint and took one deep breath of relief.
Of course, that was the moment a Chevy Tahoe plowed into Rome’s blind side.
Brian yelped, stumbled and practically rolled down to the intersection where the Tahoe’s alarm was blaring insistently. The Evo was practically invisible, squashed like a bug between the SUV and the wall of the freeway.
Before he knew it, Roman was pushing himself up over the side of the crumpled Evo. Brian clutched his shoulders helping him ease out over the wreckage. With the press of Rome’s hot back on his chest and the steam and smell of hot twisted metal, Brian found the déjà vu approaching almost toxic levels.
“You all right?” His voice sounded loud in his own ears, but Roman blinked and grimaced like he couldn’t hear Brian.
“Keeeerist!” The other driver couldn’t decide whether he should bellow or scream. “What the fuck was that?”
Rome straightened up and shot a quick sideways look at Brian before curling into an elaborate ‘ahhh, the pain’ pantomime. Brian spared a glance for the Tahoe which looked like it was going to need a new bumper. The Tahoe driver continued, “I’m definitely going to need your insurance information.”
“Sure, whatever,” Brian started placating automatically. Rome was still doubled up. “I think this guy’s brakes just failed. You think maybe he could have a second to catch his breath?”
“You guys street racers?” The Tahoe driver who had a nice suit topped by a $5 haircut, was examining the mesh of decals spidering off the Evo and getting more and more agitated. “I’m calling the cops.”
Brian shared a glance with Roman, who snapped, “You wanna fade, do it.”
Brian felt his anxiety blotted out by hurt. “You should go to a hospital.”
“Sure, whatever,” Rome mocked and then clutched his chest in earnest.
The Tahoe-driving asshole was talking over-loudly into a ridiculously small cell phone. Brian had the sudden vicious urge to yank off Rome’s sideview mirror and beat the guy with it. Spectators were starting to gather in dribs and drabs so he controlled the impulse. Rome had moved into a quick walk-it-off pace in a tight circle. Brian hoped that if he were really hurt he would say.
Almost like magic, a black-and-white pulled up just as the jerk clicked his cell phone shut. The Tahoe driver started in on his version of events in a loud bray. Brian sidled as close to Rome as he could and murmured, “Do we know each other?”
“Dunno, do we?” Rome shot back angrily, then winced and softened. “Nah, better not.”
“You need paramedics?” Brian had shoved his hands in his pockets and they felt uncomfortably swollen and sweaty.
“Be fine, brah,” Rome shook his head slowly. Then he perked up, “Think they’d be cute?”
The cop who wasn’t taking Tahoeman’s statement examined the Evo and gave a low whistle. “That’s a damn shame, man, can you tell me what happened? You need medical assistance?”
Rome reiterated that he was fine, then said shortly. “I was coming back from the bodega and around Kennington, I just had nothing man, no brakes and the long hill ahead of me. All of a sudden, nothing’s working.”
“Yeah, I saw him pass around Lorena.” Brian added. “He had nothing, couldn’t even pause. No time to call 911.”
“So who are you again?” The cop asked, with all the politeness of a person guaranteed an answer.
“Nobody really,” Brian tried a self-deprecating face. “I just happened to be watching.”
“So can we call you as a witness…” The first cop started in a bored tone just as the second one chimed in. “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Brian took a breath and started, “I don’t see why you shou….”
“Hey, man, I thought the same thing. I seen you before, I know it.” Rome had cocked his head to the side and was squinting dramatically. “Are you an actor?”
Brian covered his bark of laughter by clearing his throat. “Guilty as charged.”
Rome was snapping his fingers, “From that commercial, yeah. Yoghurt right…no…”
“Breakfast cereal.” Brian finished.
“Ah, yeah, right.” The second cop bobbed his head. “Good gig, man.”
“Nice work if you can get it.” Rome finished. He reached over the door to work the glovebox open. It gave after two tugs and Rome passed his insurance card over to Tahoeman without a word. He worked his wallet loose and handed his license to the second cop. Brian tried to quell his agitation as the uniform retreated to their car with Rome’s license. Bilkins’ word was good, apparently, because the cop returned Rome’s license without a second glance.
One of the cops said, “We’re gonna have to write you up for failing to yield, but you should definitely file a report if you think you’re a victim of malicious mischief or something. We’ll put the court date a couple a months from now, so if you need an investigation…”
“Thanks, man.” Roman took a deep breath and winced.
The other cop had been watching with one foot on his running board and he called. “You sure you don’t need an ambulance?” He brandished his radio questioningly.
“Ambulance ride is $600.” Rome returned. “Think I’ll get a cab.”
“You gonna stay with him?” The cop asked Brian. Brian nodded. Tahoeman looked vaguely pissed that the cops didn’t seem to be in awe of the damage to his vehicle. He huffed away.
As quickly as it had formed, the crowd petered out. A fire truck pulled up and got waved off, after Brian mentioned that he could just call some buddies for a tow. After the cops left, Rome and Brian found themselves quickly alone. The Evo wasn’t blocking the traffic that was easing anyway. It cast a shadow from the spill of freeway light, looking like a large crushed insect.
“You should go get checked out,” Brian insisted. “Cash isn’t the issue.”
“Later, Bri,” Rome fingered the crushed side of the car. “I’m too pissed off to feel pain.”
“Yeah, unfortunately that doesn’t last.”
The tow truck beeped to a halt in front of them and one of Hector’s many iterations of cousin made sympathetic and disbelieving noises. It seemed like it took a long time, trying to work the remains of the car up on the truck, mostly because few of the wheels would turn.
“So everyt’ing just went?” Hector’s cousin Jorge asked for the third time. “All at once?”
Rome didn’t bother to answer, but Brian nodded. “Looked that way.”
“ No mames? I never hear of that happening before,” Jorge shook his head in disbelief.
Rome shot Brian a significant look but stayed quiet.
It seemed like hours before they got the Evo back up the hill, into the garage and up on a lift, even though it was less than a mile away. Rome was twitching from foot to foot in a way that looked like pain, but his eyes were so sharp and fierce that Brian didn’t have the heart to bring up the doctor again. He concentrated on pulling up the hood which was now ruched and pleated like a singed piece of fabric.
Brian and Rome nearly knocked their heads together in their rush to get a good look under the hood. Roman glanced about for a second, then slid himself, wincing, onto a creeper. Brian scanned the engine anxiously, and Rome whistled. “Come, look at this.” Brian bent down and rocked himself back onto the cool concrete floor.
The undercarriage looked like someone had dragged a rake over it. Brake fluid traveled around the car in steel tubes. Every place the tube needed to bend was wreathed in reinforced rubber. In the Evo, every place that reinforced rubber should have been was now a pathetic little black flower. It looked like several small explosions had taken out all the joints at once. Some tubes hung limp, some were gone completely.
“Did any of the lights go on?” Brian asked softly.
“Everything went dark,” Rome said, just as soft. “All at once.”
“Looks like someone’s fucked with the pressure differential.” Brian pointed “And look at the calipers.”
“What calipers?” Rome blinked.
“Yeah, exactly.” Brian felt his stomach drop. “Someone’s gouged out all their clips. When you burned out like that, you ground them down to nothing.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, faces close together. Brian pointed upward and slowly helped Roman to his feet.
He took a long screwdriver out of his box and prised at the black box that hunched over the firewall mid-engine. The dark metal cylinders and plates made a protective nest for this most important feature of the modern engine. Not the beast’s thumping heart, but its brain. The computer.
Brian peered into the black, plastic housing and grimaced. This time Rome pushed his head so close that for a moment they were cheek to cheek.
“It’s….melted.” Rome whispered after an eternal second.
“Like someone poured acid in it,” Brian sniffed and pulled away. The scent was acrid and metallic, the tiny chips now indistinct.
“But you couldn’t…” Rome paused, thinking. “You’d have to put it in something…”
“…That would melt away.” Brian finished. “As the engine heat built up…”
They both fell silent. This, with the carnage under the car, looked like a very bad trip.
“Someone did this on purpose,” Brian diagnosed.
“You think?” Rome blasted sarcasm like buckshot.
“Who would do something like this?” Brian ran through a quick mental list. He knew he was a marked man in certain circles, but Rome was no angel either. A sick twinge of Johnny Tran’s face in his head made Brian’s stomach tighten.
“Who could is a better question,” Rome returned.
“Yeah, this wasn’t amateur.” Brian said almost to himself.
“No shit,” Rome chewed on his lower lip. “But it’s weird. Someone wants me dead, it’s just awful…elaborate, know what I mean? It’s not going to look like an accident, not with this undercarriage. I mean, a bullet’s cheaper. And lots faster.”
“Maybe killing you wasn’t the point?” Brian surmised. “Not the whole point.”
“Then what? Scare me to death, destroy my car?” Rome’s voice almost broke. “It’s like…”
“Torture,” Brian almost whispered. “Whoever did this knew you. Knew how you drive.”
“But no one knows me here.” Rome chewed on the sides of his knuckles.
“Yeah, well, it still happened,” Brian gestured to the car angrily.
Rome just looked at him. “The way we’ve been looking out, whoever did this would have to be lightning-quick and know just what they were doing. So that’s not a lot of people.”
“I can’t think of anyone.” Brian started. It was sickening to think that someone had been creating quiet mayhem while they’d been playing poker in the dusk.
“Your big friend could do it,” Roman snapped.
“Yeah, but, why?” Brian swallowed. He’d been trying to push the thought away, and he didn’t want to voice it aloud.
“He’s mad, he’s crazy, why not?” Rome stroked the crushed quarter panel of the Evo gently.
“He’s mad, but he’s not crazy.” Brian ducked up to look under the car again. “This isn’t something that he’d do.”
“Brian, you got no fool idea, what that guy’d do.” Rome grimaced. “You’re a cop…”
“…I was a cop,” Brian interrupted.
Roman rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I remember. So don’t let it go to waste. Show me that cop thing.”
When Brian looked blank, Roman made a face. “You got a suspect? Interrogate him.”