The following is from Ryan Gattis’s novel, Safe. Ricky ‘Ghost’ Mendoza, Jr. is in recovery and working as a safecracker for various government agencies. Ghost wants to live clean but, when the most important person in his life gets into financial trouble, Ghost has to crack a safe and steal drug money without getting caught. Ryan Gattis has won the American Library Association’s Alex Award & the Lire Award for Noir of the Year in France. Gattis lives and writes in LA.
The 710’s good at night going south. Fast. It feels like in no time we’re on the 47 and those harbor lights and cranes are throwing themselves at us, in reds and blues and yellows. I prefer them to the flashing ones inside Bateman Hall. I like them better when they’re still, not moving, not trying to get crazy.
Me and Big Danny, we don’t talk on the ride. Neither of us is the type. He chews gum. I look out windows. It’s what we do all the way there.
Big Danny pulls up on First Street in San Pedro into one of the resident spots that got cleared out for us. He gets the bag with Rooster’s 10 percent, the ninety-two gees, out of the trunk, and we go to the door of the apartment building that’s about to be given up.
Next to that door is a guy smoking. A guy I recognize.
“Gafas,” he says to me. Sometimes people call me that.
“Hector,” I say back.
He puts his hand out, not to shake. To hand me a key. I take it.
It’s wet from his sweating palm, warm too.
Late twenties and already he’s got a belly on him like he’s eight months pregnant. The rest of him’s skinny. Almost twelve years I’ve known of him and he’s never looked this sick, just bloated out. Bags under his eyes from not sleeping. Skin looking a dirty-milk pale from never going outside during the day.
He’s never been the same since he got back from Mexico. I get why too. The work he was doing down there would turn anybody into a zombie.
I mean, even looking at him right now makes me almost chuck my birria up, and all he ever did was tell me a story about barrels
when he got back. Barrels, and what gets put into them.
I tripped out on it. And what’s worse is how it’s stuck to me.
I get nightmares about it. Leya says I scream sometimes in my sleep.
I take some antacids out of my pocket and chew on them. My stomach’s been messing with me lately. Some type of flu prolly.
Me and Hector don’t have time to talk and that’s good with me. The door opens without Big Danny needing to knock.
They’re waiting for us. Four of them. Long Beach is there. Watts is there. Wilmington. And one I don’t recognize too. Santa Fe Springs, prolly. I make a note in my head to check. The others have already been and gone.
We go in and say our hellos the same to all of them, real respectful. The safe’s open, almost full. Seems like it’s three quarters of a refrigerator down there, all big in its spot that’s chiseled into the concrete foundation like a little grave.
I sit at the foot of it, on my knees. I don’t like doing it like this. I never like it, but I do it. I put the money in, one stack after the other until it’ll be almost all flat to the door.
Big Danny’s got my back. In this life, you trust people, but you don’t trust people. Sometimes, you can’t help it. You have to.
And then, it’s about doing it as fast as you can and getting up out of it. My stomach still don’t feel good. It won’t until we leave.
I mean, there’s a lot of juice outside this room making sure this goes right. A lot.
What this is, is the sixth safe I’ve done like this. We do about one a year, sometimes two. It depends. But the looks on faces are always the same when it goes down. It’s a weird feeling being in a room where almost every fool is being professional but still is day-dreaming at the same time.
Thinking about that money, what they’d do with it if they had it all, how good it’d be. It’s like they’re here and not here at the same time.
When I’m done, I test the door to make sure it’ll close. It does, so I lock it. I snap them out of it with that. I put the key in my pocket, for later, to give to Rooster. That’s when everybody starts breathing normal again.
Big Danny wipes for prints and we say our goodbyes one by one and then we go. As we’re walking out, a vacuum goes on. I say bye to Hector on the way to the car and tell him to keep looking after his mother. He just nods.
There’s always that one story. The warning story that happened to somebody that everybody knows, and it keeps other fools from getting the smart idea of stealing.
For stuff like this, it all comes down to this fool named Cuco.
Everybody knows Cuco now. He’s cautionary, a super special example.
What happened was, he used to work for a South Gate crew. Back in the day, he ran a house for them. First it was for pimping girls, but then he moved up to a little spot on the edge of Cudahy and it was mostly drugs, but some guns too.
So this fool Cuco, he gets it in his head one day to rob the safe after everybody’s put their money in the pot. He thinks he’ll do it when everybody’s gone.
This is how Cuco got to be the reason we have to sit people on families and girlfriends now. You know, as insurance until everything’s settled.
So it gets late and Cuco’s only there with one other lil fool that he sends out for food, which is never how it should go down, but the little one don’t know any better, so he goes.
After that it’s just Cuco and no combination for the safe, since you can’t be leaving people around it that know how to open it. So this dumbass, he drives a forklift that he’d been hiding down the block into the garage, and he picks the safe up and puts it in a truck he had stashed from before.
I don’t even remember how much was in that safe. Maybe a hundred gees. Not more than one twenty. Low numbers. Nowhere near what we put in now.
But anyway, this fool gets in his truck and drives it over to his girlfriend’s spot and they decide to celebrate there.
Just real quick, you know? Little bit of perico for heisting it right. Never mind that he hasn’t opened anything, hasn’t even got anything real in his hands yet. Or that he didn’t even tie his loose strings up.
Back at the spot, the lil homie walks into an empty house holding a bag of food. Nobody’s there. Not in the kitchen. Not in the back room. And definitely not in the garage.
He saw all the money go into the safe, so he knows something bad happened, but he don’t know it’s Cuco that did it. For all he can tell, somebody rolled in, kidnapped Cuco, and took the safe, so he makes a call.
That lil homie was Hector, the smoker outside, the one with the gut. Being quick for calling got him a good promotion for a while too. Before he got deported back to Mexico anyway.
Like lightning, some hood detectives from various clicks swoop down to see what’s up. Any gang that put money in that safe sent somebody.
They start looking around too. A guy from Bellflower notices how there must’ve been a big truck parked out back in the alley, from the tire tracks in some dust.
What was supposed to be tactical, the garage facing the alley and making it easy to roll up and load or empty the safe and go quick, got shown as a big weakness right then. Especially when there’s a abandoned forklift sitting right there too.
Neighbors get asked about a truck after that, and somebody’s seen one, a moving truck. Word goes out. Everybody tells every-body to be on the lookout.
What the first stop is after that, is Cuco’s girl’s house she shares with her cousin. There’s a truck there fitting the description. And it’s locked too.
So some homies show up with snippers and get that lock off and the truck gets opened. There’s a safe in it. Our safe. With our money.
So those same homies go in the house by the back door then.
It’s locked but that’s nothing to people that want in.
And they come through too. Four of them. And they find Cuco in his girl’s bed since everything ended up getting bigger than one little celebration.
But he’s sorry. He’s crazy sorry. He was just, like, messing with us. Exposing a security problem, yeah. And it’s not like he opened it. Not like he ever could have. So it’s all good, right?
He got told to shut up. The girl got told if she wanted to live, if she wanted her cousin to live, she had to go into that gross-ass kitchen nobody ever cleaned and get the biggest knife she had in there to cut his throat up.
Cuco’s face right then, people say it was like he died a death right there just looking in her eyes, knowing she’d do it to him.
Prolly this’s why it’s not a good idea to be with a girl that hustles. A girl that knows odds. A girl that survives by nature. She’ll do you. If she has to.
And she did too. Of course she did. She got up, went to the kitchen, came back with a knife. When you hear this story get retold, it’s a butcher knife, some six-inch, super sharp thing you can buy from TV.
Man, it wasn’t. It was a small little steak knife. Four inches, if that. One of those thin ones with a black handle was all she had in the spot. Serrated edge with the tip broken off. Wasn’t even clean.
I mean, Cuco tried to run first. But, see, he got pinned down. A knee on the back of the skull will do that to you. And she went into him.
She didn’t look, but she sure stabbed him up. Did it until it bent and broke, that little blade. Right there on the floor. On the raggedy brown carpet with cigarette burns in it, and a patch that turned yellow from bleach put on it years ago.
She got beat after that. Choked. Not just to do it, but to give her a story. For the Sheriffs.
She did time for sorting out Cuco. Voluntary manslaughter. No contest. Mitigating circumstances being that she was a domestic abuse victim and all.
She got time served, plus her sentence reduced to one year at Sybil Brand. Got out in eight months, right before they closed it down due to earthquake damage.
She did that time right too. Kept her mouth shut. Never said nothing to nobody.
Now she’s back in Lynwood, working four days a week at El Paisas on Long Beach. She has a kid. They both get taken care of. She’s doing real good. Staying clean.
I should know too. I still roll through. I still say what’s up to her. Neither one of us ever mentions that I was in the room, that I had to watch all of it, or that I was the one that told her she had to do it. We’ll both be taking that weight to our graves.
From Safe. Used with permission of MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Ryan Gattis.