Marcus froze when he heard the clack-clack-clack of hard-soled shoes on concrete, coming his way. He dropped to his knees behind the hedge and peered through the rangy mass of jagged-leaved foliage as green and shiny as plastic. As the woman stepped into the orange glow of a streetlight Marcus clenched his fists. Goddamn, it was Stephanie all right, done up in a loud red business suit and skinny heels, tapping out her position like Morse code. A skirt and heels? How the hell did she plan to do the hack dressed like that?
It was just like her. Not that she’d ever done it before. But was it really a surprise?
Marcus looked at his phone, a cheap cardboard burner. Nearly 11. They should be finished already. He’d already punched the hole for the new circuit breaker and stripped the ends of the red and black wires. But the panels were useless without the inverter and battery Stephanie was carrying. They peeked out of a brown paper shopping bag that swung from her hand by a pair of flimsy fiber handles. Where anybody else could see them too.
The rusty metal ladder beside him shook a little. Marcus looked up. Kennesaw tossed a length of wiring down from the roof. She was done with her part of the job too.
He grabbed the ends of the wires and looked down the street to the bus stop. He couldn’t see him in the dark, but Che would be there, waiting in the shadows. They’d discovered these were the perfect places for standing watch. A person could hang out in the wide open for hours at a bus stop in LA without attracting attention.
The squeak of old brakes, close by, broke through the white noise of the city after dark. Headlights lit up Stephanie in her red suit like Christmas. Her long, thick black hair shone in the artificial light. A white sedan was coming around the corner. It slowed and pulled up next to her. On the door, a private security company logo bristled blue and black, with stark bars and sharp edges. Stephanie turned to speak to the driver. Marcus felt his heart kick into high gear.
He looked up to the roof. Kenn had made herself scarce. Good.
Back at the car, Stephanie was tossing her hair over her shoulder in a gesture Marcus couldn’t quite translate. The guard opened the car door.
No! He wasn’t going to let this happen. Not now. They’d come too far to have it all go to shit now.
Marcus shoved tools into his messenger bag as he pulled it over his shoulder and launched himself through the shrubs, shouting, “Hey you, vostikanutyun! Who gave you the right to be in mi barrio?”
The guard looked at Marcus, then at Stephanie, then back at Marcus again. He was a heavy man, sagging with age, carnitas, and boredom.
“I said this is my neighborhood,” Marcus shouted. “Get out of here, you cheap-ass rent-a-cop!”
He waited for the big man to complete his turn. When they were finally face to face and only half a block separated them, Marcus took off, headed in the opposite direction, away from Stephanie and Kennesaw. Away from Vance Elementary School, where a breaker box hung wide open, and two illegal solar panels sat poised and ready for installation on the roof, wires dangling.
The big man moved faster than he expected. Marcus only glanced at Che standing hands-in-pockets-innocent on the corner, as he turned left on San Pedro Street, legs pumping hard. He ran all out for several long city blocks, scampering across empty streets without checking for traffic. Realizing he was nearing Little Tokyo, he turned again, away from the direction of city hall and police headquarters.
Behind him he could hear the heavy, erratic thumps of the older man’s footsteps beginning to falter. The guard may have been an athlete once, but he was long past his glory days. He fell farther and farther behind. The longer they ran, the farther behind he fell.
Marcus’s lungs were bursting and he could taste blood at the back of his throat. Now that he had some distance, he began to look for somewhere to dump the evidence. It would be far worse to be arrested with the tools in his bag. Just past an auto parts store where a single fluorescent tube flickered in weary syncopation, Marcus spied an unlocked dumpster and slipped into the shadows. Standing in the dark between dumpster and wall he stood very still, listening for anything: the security guard, PowerTroops, or just plain vanilla cops.
He began emptying tools from the messenger bag, moving his hands with care so metal objects didn’t clank against each other. Wire cutters. Conduit punch and die set. A whole set of screwdrivers. The brace and bit.
The sound of big vehicles suddenly exploded up the street. Marcus froze. He squeezed in behind the dumpster and watched one, two, three black SUVs with the ChaseEdison logo on the doors grind past. They were gone in a moment, but Marcus remained still, watching, waiting. The guard must have called it in to the power company.
He had to move fast. He turned back to his bag and tossed tools into the dumpster as quickly as he could. He was noisy now, but that couldn’t be helped. Ratchet wrench. Electrical tape. Two small, black circuit breaker switches.
Marcus paused when he came to the set of lineman’s pliers. They were Kenn’s, a gift from her father, the electrician who’d taught her to build lamps and wind motors as a kid. At 12 years of age, she’d served as apprentice to him when he’d completely rewired their house and installed the solar panels that had taken them off the grid. He’d given Kenn his best set of pliers as a gift when they were done.
With ChaseEdison PowerTroops on Marcus’s tail, they had to go too. Marcus had to hope she would understand. And maybe he could come back for them later. Garbage pickup didn’t happen every day, not even downtown.
The two jailbroken ipods at the bottom of his bag, he kept. Technically, they weren’t illegal, and he might need them for their street value. There was no telling when he’d get back home.
Once everything was buried safely in the dumpster along with used air filters, burned-out headlamps, and other automotive detritus, he stepped out onto the empty sidewalk.
“Stop! Stop or I’ll shoot!” A man’s voice echoed through the urban canyon of concrete, steel, and bulletproof glass.
Marcus’s knee twitched involuntarily with a moment’s hesitation. He spun around to see the same security guard barely a block behind him. Public schools didn’t have armed guards, not anymore. They couldn’t afford it. Right? He raced down the alley and out of the man’s line of fire, never hearing a shot. When he popped out onto the next street, Marcus pushed his legs to please-for-god’s-sakes carry him a little bit farther.
He needed to find a place with a crowd big enough to melt into. Marcus glanced up at street signs as he ran past. He remembered a nightclub that used to be nearby. He’d been there a few times back in the bad old days. If it was still there, he’d fit in, dressed in faded black jeans and a thick, brown hooded sweatshirt under a denim vest. The vest was a dumpster find, a crisp, black jean jacket, salvaged from behind a dorm at UCLA. Marcus had ripped out the seams that held the sleeves in place, tearing the stitches one by one with a bare razorblade. In the club, he’d look like any other sweaty, wild-eyed, strung-out pingler.
About a block from the club Marcus forced himself to slow to a casual stroll. The guard was gone, but he kept an eye out for PowerTroops. He wandered in and around small pockets of people on the sidewalk. As he drew closer to the club his heart recalibrated itself to the rhythm of the thunderous beat pounding in hypnotic four-four precision. On the roof of the nightclub a row of five old, broken-down solar panels teetered on spider’s legs. They looked as if they might crumple next time the Santa Ana winds blew through. Marcus shook his head at the memory of what might have been and walked into the club.
Just inside the first door—frosted glass overlaid with a thick metal grate—he was stopped by a beefy Samoan with a lazy left eye who patted him down noncommittally, then grunted and returned to her former position, arms akimbo. He went through a thin plywood door. Marcus made it only three steps along the dank corridor before he was stopped again, this time by three willowy young women wearing too little clothing for a cold January night. They were arguing in a flirty, singsong way with a tall, stooped white man on the other side of a metal grate in the wall. The man’s long, brown mustache poured down the sides of his face into oily, gray-brown masses of wiry hair that hung past his collarbones. He nodded evenly at the women and waited for them to pay their cover charge.
Marcus was still breathing heavily. He could almost taste the nightclub air, thick with cigarettes, weed, pingle, and booze, settling ever deeper into his lungs.
The women were telling a story about a friend who was supposed to be meeting them, who had all their cash and would pay their cover charge as soon as he arrived. It was a plausible story, one that the guy behind the grate wasn’t supposed to believe but that would give him an excuse to let them in because they were, at least in their own minds, so damn hot. While they bickered genially, Marcus picked lint out of his pockets and tried to slow his ragged breathing. He reached up and ran a hand through his short hair and found it dripping with sweat. His heart still pounded in his ears. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head.
The three young women turned on their heels suddenly, two of them in unison after the first, and flounced past Marcus back toward the entrance. They held their noses and chins high. “Pervert,” the first muttered to her friends, who twanged in sympathy like tuning forks ringing with high-pitched sounds of reassurance.
Marcus stared at the man with the long mustache as he slid one of his ipods under the grate.
The other man picked it up and turned it over in his hands. “Inocente?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s completely clean,” Marcus said. He found old ipods sometimes while dumpster diving, and Che had taught him how to jailbreak them. Pop open the back to expose the motherboard. Flip this switch, solder that wire, and you’d remove all the old files along with the GPS, DRM, and crappy bloatware. Now you had treasure in the palm of your hands: several gigs of untraceable, untrackable, unblockable, and un-fucking-findable-on-any-network virgin storage space. Getting into this nightclub shouldn’t cost so much, but it was all Marcus had, and he needed to get off the streets now.
The man slipped the ipod into his shirt pocket, and Marcus held out his fist for the electronic tattoo, flinching when it zinged the back of his hand. It must have been so easy to fake it back in the old days when they only stamped your hand with ink. So easy, in fact, that Marcus wondered if the stories he’d heard were true. With the electronic tattoo, security could send a drone the size of a binder clip across the room to scan you and see if you’d paid. These electronic tattoos couldn’t be faked. Not yet, anyway.
Marcus made his way down a long passage, dark walls damp with hope, fear, and lust, emerging into cacophonous, frenetic safety. In the center of the room bodies twisted up, down, side to side. Some moved to the beat of the music, others to their own internal rhythm. Men and women held court at the edges of the dance floor, drinks raised like liquid scepters. In the farthest corners, groups huddled in threes and fours, furtively sucking on e-cigs laced with pingle. Settling into a dark corner where he could keep an eye on the entrance, Marcus leaned against the wall. He pulled the disposable cardboard burner out of his vest pocket and sent a three-digit text to Che’s number to report that he was in the clear. Then he began to wait.
If everything had gone right tonight, he would have finished the Vance Elementary hack with Stephanie and Kenn at least 15 minutes before the guard had shown up. Then they would have split up, stepping out of the foliage five minutes apart, walking away in three different directions. That’s what should have happened. Che would have hung around for half an hour to make sure no one followed them and nothing happened to the solar panel. Right now, they should be meeting up at the bar in Echo Park to celebrate as usual.
The guard hadn’t been a surprise. LA Unified still sent low-rent security around to the schools from time to time, but they could be handled. It was the ChaseEdison SUVs that had him worried. PowerTroops responding to the scene meant something very different.
He had to consider worst-case scenarios. If Kenn had been caught at the hack, there would be one kind of hell to pay. Che had been far enough away from the action that he couldn’t be implicated. Stephanie was the real problem. It wasn’t just that she’d been carrying the inverter and battery. The worst was that she was a lawyer. If she’d been caught, she was probably trying to talk her way out of it right now, which would screw things all the way up.
Marcus felt his brain spin forward, unraveling with the force of its own weight like a yo-yo in the hands of a toddler. He began counting slowly backward from 100 to calm himself—a trick he’d taught himself to survive taking tests in school. He hated taking tests.
A tap on his shoulder and Marcus jerked hard, startled from his thoughts. A half-finished analog joint wavered in the air in front of him, pinched between the thumb and forefinger of a tall, thin man in tight, black shorts and fishnet stockings. His mascara-smudged face bobbed up and down vacantly, out of rhythm with the booming bass. He was leaning heavily against the wall. Marcus shook his head, but the hand remained there, and the grimy face kept moving up and down, up and down. Finally, Marcus took the joint, staring into the dying ember at the end. He watched successive edges of the paper turn from white to red to black to gray as the joint burned its way down toward his fingers.
A woman shouted loudly into his other ear, “You gonna smoke that?” He felt the warm moisture of her voice against his cheek. Marcus handed her the joint and began counting backward again. He was unaware that his lips were moving and he had sprung a leak of sibilants and dental stops.
He jolted forward when his phone vibrated against his chest. The text simply gave the five-digit all-clear code that meant that everyone had checked in and they were all okay. Which meant it was time to get to the bar in Echo Park and find out why the hell everything had gone wrong tonight.
Marcus began to make his way toward the door, slipping sideways through amoebic knots of warm bodies that briefly subdivided then rejoined as he passed.
He was only halfway through the crowd when his burner buzzed with a call. He pulled it out of his pocket and checked the number. They’d assigned codes early on so names would never appear on their phones. Marcus was number five. Che’s number, four, glowed on the screen. Marcus pressed the phone firmly against his ear. The sound quality on these cheap cardboard models was crap.
“You okay?” he said.
“I’m fine. Did they make you?” Che asked.
“No problem. I got away.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You’re the only one of us they’ve got a file on.”
Everything Marcus could say to explain how he knew he was safe—he’d outrun the security guard easily, the PowerTroops had passed by without seeing him at the dumpster—was something he couldn’t say on a phone that wasn’t secure. “Trust me. I’m okay. What about you and everybody else?”
“We’re good. All of us. It’s time to get home.”
“I thought we’d meet up.”
“Probably better not tonight.”
“But you saw what she did,” Marcus said.
“Looked to me like she had everything under control.”
“No way! You saw…”
Che interrupted. “I saw you do something that could have made the situation a whole lot worse.”
“I’m in the clear now,” Marcus said. The guard hadn’t ever been all that close. “Everybody else is too, so let’s all focus on getting home safe tonight.”
Marcus felt his belly clench up with disappointment. They all needed to sit down together and figure out how and why PowerTroops had shown up. And somebody needed to set Stephanie straight. She couldn’t show up so late next time, not dressed like that, with the inverter and battery in plain sight. “We’ve got to focus on planning the next hack,” Marcus said.
“Dude, watch what you’re saying. These phones aren’t secure,” Che said. “I know!”
“Tonight, just get yourself home. Alone.”
Marcus squeezed the phone a little tighter in his hand with frustration. The cardboard gave a little too much under his damp fingers. He didn’t need Che to tell him to watch for a tail, and he knew perfectly well how to lose one.
“Also, you’ve got to destroy your phone. Tonight. You know the drill.” “Whose idea was that?” Marcus asked. “It was hers, wasn’t it?”
“No,” Che said. “It’s what we need to do.”
“Without comms, we can’t plan the next hack.”
“We’ll figure it out. We’ve done it before.”
“It took almost two weeks to get back together the last time,” Marcus said. But the last time there hadn’t been PowerTroops. If they didn’t get to their next hack quickly, any one of them might get scared and leave the collective.
“Dude, you saw what’s in the streets tonight. They could be GPSing any of us already. Right now, you need to destroy your phone and get yourself to safety.” The line went dead.
Safety. That was the heart of the problem. The Fuel Cell had set out to change the world, and you couldn’t do that without taking some serious risks. Too much playing it safe would be worse that being caught by the cops. Safe was the same as surrender.
Still, Che was right about the PowerTroops and GPS. As Marcus made his way through the crowd he tore the cardboard phone open, pulling out gray paper padding and dropping it to the floor to be trampled by dancers as it hit the ground. Sliding out of the frosted glass door and onto the street, all Marcus held in his hands were a couple of small circuit boards, an LCD display, and wires.
Walking the city sidewalks, he bent and broke up the last chunks of plastic and metal cellphone parts with his hands. When he came to a garbage can he sat down on the curb. He looked up and down the street, but he saw no one. Dropping the last of the electronics on the sidewalk, he ground them under the heel of his black, thick-soled Doc Martens. He gathered up the fragments and tossed them into the trash. It was tempting to keep the battery. That could be reused, and it was only the size of a quarter. Could they GPS a battery? He flipped it into the garbage can too.
Vance Elementary would have been the 15th school that the Autonomous Fuel Cell collective had taken off the public electrical grid. What was left of the public grid, anyway. Most people had power for 24 hours on most days. Then there would come the days when the lights across a chunk of the city would go out. Maintenance issues, ChaseEdison always said. Old infrastructure that needed repairs. Repairs that would take a few days before they could round up the materials and skilled workers needed. It seemed like lately, the patchworks of blackouts and brownouts were happening more often, and the power stayed out longer.
It was when the lights went out that you could discover who’d bought into the new private grid. Their electricity never went out. One time when the public grid went out across a wide swath of the San Fernando Valley, Marcus had biked up to Briar Summit in the Santa Monica Mountains and counted the small number of homes and businesses twinkling like stars on the vast, black valley floor.
Sometimes he made a game of it: public grid or private? While riding up the streets he’d pick out a business or a home and try to guess which grid it was on from the nonelectrical clues: the appearance of people who lived or worked there, the state of walls and yards.
These days, solar power was more reliable than the public grid, but it was illegal to generate your own power. That, they’d done incrementally. First they’d introduced a fee you had to pay to the local power company so they’d let you install solar panels on your home. Then they’d added a required public hearing for the permit, and scheduled those only once a year. Then they’d hiked the fee so high most people couldn’t afford it. The final blow had been a series of federal laws to “protect critical infrastructure,” and suddenly generating your own electrical power at home was a crime.
The Autonomous Fuel Cell had set out to change that, one solar installation at a time. They built handmade solar panels and installed them in the dark of night, literally fighting power with power. They’d started with public schools, and so far, all of the schools were still going strong on solar. What protected them was the sheer size of the public grid and the magnitude of its slow-motion collapse. Power usage dipped and spiked at irregular intervals all over the city, and it turned out, no one at ChaseEdison paid much attention until they got a complaint. The schools didn’t complain because their electricity was humming along just fine. When the Fuel Cell had realized their solar panels were like the needle that no one knew to look for in the haystack, they’d upped their game, installing the panels as fast as they could build them. Their very first school had been in the far northern reaches of the Antelope Valley. Tonight they’d been in the heart of the city. Would Vance Elementary turn out to be their last hack?
Not if he could do anything about it. Marcus stood up from the curb and headed for the Metro.
He took the Gold Line east. He kept track of the faces and shoes around him, making sure none of them stuck around too long. A tail might change shirts or put on glasses, but they never changed shoes. At the Atlantic Square Station he disembarked and walked out of the station. He paused for a moment and pretended to read the schedule, still watching to make sure nobody was following. When he was sure the plaza was clear, Marcus finally headed for home.
At the top of the hill he took a quick turn up a side road that led to the back of an abandoned Best Western hotel. The front windows of the gray, three-story wooden structure were covered with sheets of aging, warped plyboard, and the entire lot was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. At the southeastern corner, however, one section of the metal links had been snipped apart with heavy wire cutters and the sharp edges wrapped with silver duct tape. Marcus took hold of the taped section and pulled the fencing away with his left hand. As he entered there was a movement behind a small outbuilding to his right, and a woman’s voice hissed, “¿Quien es?”
“Marcus,” he whispered. “Soy Marcus de numero tres-dos-ocho.” “Hola, Marcus. Esta bien. Pase.”
“Gracias, Azusena,” Marcus answered. “Buenas noches.” “Buenas noches,” the woman’s voice echoed quietly behind him.
Marcus shut the door to Room 328 behind him softly, conscious of the hundred or so people sleeping all around him in the squat, resting in preparation for another day of working, hawking, studying, begging, standing in lines. People passed through the building all night, coming and going from a profusion of shifts, usually marked by no more than the quiet click of a doorknob and the squeak of a rubber-soled shoe on linoleum in a neighboring bathroom.
With the three padlocks inside his door locked firmly against intruders, Marcus opened a closet and took a box from the top shelf. He cut through the heavy tape that he’d sealed it with only a few months back. Inside was his entire personal fortune: five jailbroken ipods in a small knitted sack. These, plus the one he still had left from tonight, should be enough to get new burners. He put the sack of ipods in his messenger bag, then placed that up on the shelf where the box had been.
Marcus brushed his teeth, then stripped down to boxer shorts. His cracked, aging Doc Martens he left by the door, keys tucked inside the left boot. He carefully placed his jeans, T-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, and denim vest on hangers in the narrow closet. Then he unrolled the bamboo mat and narrow, flattened cotton futon that served as his bed, spreading his old quilt across it. The futon had once been six inches thick, but was worn down to about half that. The stained mustard-yellow carpet was too threadbare to offer much additional cushioning, but it was enough for Marcus. Silently, he slid in between the quilt and futon and lay down.
* * *
Marcus tightened the strap of his orange messenger bag across his chest. He settled onto the seat of his battered fixie and began peddling down the street. Last night had gone bad, but he was going to make it right. The Fuel Cell needed comms, so he’d get them. Nobody had asked him to, but he’d do it anyway. Sometimes a person just had to do the right thing, even though nobody was watching. That’s how Marcus knew he was a man of integrity.
Placing the tiny wireless headphone buds in his ears, Marcus peddled away from the curb and headed west, into the city. A cheap, no-name-brand mp3 player hung from the handlebars in a cloth bag he’d fashioned from an old T-shirt with needle and thread. Not as valuable on the market as a jailbroken ipod. He knew the buttons by feel and manipulated them nimbly through the thin fabric as he slipped in and out of slow rush hour traffic.
Music—fundamentally Indian with a hip-hop beat pulsing behind it, embellished with short phrases straight out of 1970s American rock. The sounds of a sitar, flute, electric drums, and guitars, the low burbling of a tabla. The orange and red clouds reflected the last of the morning sunrise, shimmering in rhythm with the music. The music began to fade, then it abruptly stopped. It started up again, this time at earsplitting volume, and faded out quickly. The silence was quickly filled with an irresolute laugh.
“Oh, hey, sorry about that. I nearly spilled my coffee all over the board here. Hope I didn’t blow out your eardrums. But it’s stuff like this that lets you know this is not corporate radio. This is the real thing—real people right here in your hometown. Microradio at its best and, for a few moments there, its worst. It’s about quarter after eight in the a.m. You are listening to Radio Mau Mau on your eastside FM dial at 103.3 FM, and it is time for the Radio Mau Mau news.”
Radio Mau Mau was Marcus’s favorite pirate station. Every couple of months, contractors for the Federal Communications Commission triangulated their signal and shut them down, but within days Radio Mau Mau would set up shop somewhere else in the neighborhood and start broadcasting again, just a click or two up or down the dial. They didn’t let a little thing like rent-a-cops busting down the door stop them. Stephanie and Che could learn something from pirate radio.
“…beautiful music. The kind of stuff that makes you think not only that there might be a god, but that this god might actually love this most deeply flawed creation of his. Or hers!” More laughter.
Marcus had to swerve suddenly as a car came around a corner and nearly sideswiped him. He waved an angry fist at the driver, who probably never saw him.
“…Komisaruk Memorial Legal Collective is trying to track her whereabouts. She was last seen being taken into custody by two PowerTroops, but they can’t find where she’s being held. If you have any information, please contact the collective and give them the deets. Or call us and we’ll pass on the message. Now let’s [shshshshshshsh], then I’ll be back with more Radio [shshshshshshshshshshshshsh].” The station was gone. Marcus turned off the radio and peddled toward the Metro station. He’d be out of range from any pirate stations for a while.
His tires felt buoyant under his feet as he peddled through snarled and sluggish late morning traffic toward Barnsdall Park below the gated community of Los Feliz. As he did, Marcus saw the power pop on in a block of strip malls. Public grid, to be sure.
Most car windows were closed tightly against thieves and the cool January air. Marcus caught snatches of conversation as he passed the few open windows. An argument between a mother and her young son in a rusty, red Chrysler sedan. Peals of laughter from a nondescript white hatchback. A bald man driving a nine-ton Jaguar SUV shouted into the microphone that encircled his mouth like a fallen halo. “Yellow is red, white is blue, and black is black!”
As he rode by, Marcus reached over and ran his finger down the length of the silver SUV, just because he could. The high-gloss finish made a long, satisfying squeal against the pad of his index finger. The driver blared his horn until Marcus was long past.
Barnsdall Park was a crumbling, underfunded municipal arts haven whose Frank Lloyd Wright house had been razed a few years earlier to exterminate a persistent homeless encampment. Marcus locked his bike to a stretch of rent-a-fence at the base of the hill and slipped into the parking lot through a gap. Clambering up the steep slope, Marcus stepped carefully to avoid the chunks of broken cement from a former staircase that had once welcomed visitors to the summit. He knew the place well, having spent countless Sunday afternoons there during high school, tending giant pots of Food Not Bombs vegetable stew and loaves of bread, ladling out free vegan meals to homeless men, women, children, and pets.
As Food Not Bombs’s master dumpster-diver, Marcus had brought in more edible potatoes and beans than anyone else. His trick was stubborn perseverance, fishing through the muck of rotting apples, carrots, lettuce, and strawberries, and the decaying slabs of meat and poultry shot through with maggots that filled the dumpsters behind grocery stores and restaurants. Let others prove their manhood by holding their hands over flaming candles or training for triathlons; Marcus would endure the putrefaction of other people’s waste. He’d also developed a knack for finding, repairing, and unlocking small electronic items like radios, cameras, clocks, and mp3 players of all makes and models.
He hadn’t been back in awhile. In that time, it seemed Barnsdall Park had become a dumping ground for aging recreational equipment. Next to the remains of Hollyhock House, five steel swing sets lined up against each other, the last one canted over at an angle so sharp the flap of a butterfly’s wings might topple it. Six rusty chains hung from each frame, the plastic seats warped and faded from the sun. About 30 feet away was a line of nine park benches in equally bad repair, molting brown paint like snakeskins. Marcus was alone in the park except for a few crows screeching heartfelt imprecations at each other. A small orange tabby stared intently at the birds, tail twitching.
He sat down gingerly to test one of the more serviceable-looking benches. When it held his weight, he relaxed onto the bench with a sigh. From where he sat Marcus could see snow dusting the tops of the distant San Bernardino Mountains under blue skies. It was one of those miraculous, clear days in LA that made the city seem almost beautiful. The orange tabby—not much bigger than a kitten—sauntered over and jumped up beside him. Marcus rubbed her behind the ears. The cat lowered herself onto the bench, pressed her back against his thigh, and began to purr, a scratchy, rumbling sound. Marcus lifted his face to the sun and closed his eyes.
He woke with a start. How long had he been asleep? He reached for his phone, then remembered shredding it the night before. The orange tabby was long gone.
He stood up and looked around the park. It was weird there was nobody there at all. Nobody was supposed to be there, so there was always somebody there who shouldn’t be, which was exactly the kind of person Marcus was looking for. Clearly, his electronics dealer wasn’t coming. He jogged down the hill and climbed back on his bike. He’d try Echo Park next. Sometimes his dealer hung out there.
Marcus was making good time on his bike when he spotted a Border Patrol checkpoint two blocks ahead, stopping traffic on the street and sidewalks. Looking white wasn’t the prophylactic against la migra it once had been, and Marcus had a record. He turned and pedaled the other way, taking a roundabout route that got him to a bus stop for the eastbound local. He’d bus it from here, blending into the crowd of riders for the trip to Echo Park. While he waited at the bus stop with a dozen men and women, a steady stream of vendors stopped by offering cigarettes, candy, roasted corn, socks, balloons, stuffed animals, hand-powered water filters, flashlights, respirators, and other necessities of modern life. A middle-aged Mixteca in an aquamarine hotel-housekeeping uniform leaned against a street sign at the bus stop, her eyes closed, snoring softly.
A man with short stumps instead of legs appeared at first to be selling hand-painted wooden icons from his native Ethiopia—a black Saint George in a short afro slaying a green dragon—but he turned out to have a collection of unregistered cardboard cell phones in a box hanging under the seat of his wheelchair. Marcus bargained halfheartedly at first. Then he realized the man was offering him a very good price. He could get new phones for everyone.
Marcus reached into his messenger bag and found the small knitted sack. He used his fingers to carefully draw out one of his refurbished ipods.
The man in the wheelchair turned it over in his hands. “Inocente?” he asked. “Like a baby lamb,” Marcus answered.
“I have to make a call.” He used a green, plastic phone and spoke in a language Marcus didn’t understand. While he talked, the man inspected the ipod carefully, seeming to describe what he saw. Marcus knew a decision had been made when the man put the phone down beside him in the seat of the wheelchair. “You cleaned it?”
“And you’re not some kind of undercover PowerTroop?”
“Hell, no!” Marcus felt his face turn red.
The man smiled. “Is a joke. They never take a skinny kid like you. How many phones you want?”
For three of his ipods, Marcus got six new cardboard cell phones. He still had three ipods left, and the trip to Echo Park wasn’t necessary after all. As the bus pulled in, Marcus walked away, pulling his bike along with his right hand. The orange messenger bag swayed awkwardly against his left hip, clumsy with six new burners and everything they promised for the future.