Monday, August 9, 2004
The longest three days of Clark Shealy’s life began with an expired registration sticker.
That was Clark’s first clue, the reason he followed the jet black 2005 Cadillac Escalade ESV yesterday. The reason he phoned his wife, his partner in both marriage and crime…well, not really crime but certainly the dark edge of legality. They were the Bonnie and Clyde of bounty hunters, of repo artists, of anything requiring sham credentials and bold-faced lies. Jessica’s quick search of DMV records, which led to a phone call to the title holder, a Los Angeles credit union, confirmed what Clark had already guessed. The owner wasn’t making payments. The credit union wanted to repo the vehicle but couldn’t find it. They were willing to pay.
“How much?” Clark asked Jessica.
“It’s not worth it,” she replied. “That’s not why you’re there.”
“Sure, honey. But just for grins, how much are we passing up?”
Jessica murmured something.
“You’re breaking up,” said Clark.
“They’d pay a third of Blue Book.”
“About forty-eight four,” Jessica said softly.
“Love you, babe,” Clark replied, doing the math. Sixteen thousand dollars!
He ended the call. She called back. He hit Ignore.
Sixteen thousand dollars! Sure, it wasn’t the main reason he had come to Vegas. But a little bonus couldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, the vehicle came equipped with the latest in theft protection devices, an electronically coded key supplied to the owner. The engine transmitted an electronic message that had to match the code programmed into the key, or the car wouldn’t turn over.
Clark learned this the hard way during the dead hours of the desert night, about two thirty. He had broken into the Cadillac, disabled the standard alarm system, removed the cover of the steering column, and hot-wired the vehicle. But without the right key, the car wouldn’t start. Clark knew immediately that he had triggered a remote alarm. Using his hacksaw, he quickly sawed deep into the steering column, disabling the vehicle, and then sprinted down the drive and across the road.
He heard a stream of cursing from the front steps of a nearby condo followed by the blast of a gun. To Clark’s trained ears, it sounded like a .350 Magnum, though he didn’t stay around long enough to confirm the make, model, and ATF serial number.
Six hours later, Clark came back.
He bluffed his way past the security guard at the entrance of the gated community and drove his borrowed tow truck into the elegant brick parking lot rimmed by manicured hedges. He parked sideways, immediately behind the Cadillac. These condos, some of Vegas’s finest, probably went for more than a million bucks each.
The Caddy fit right in, screaming elegance and privilege—custom twenty-inch rims, beautiful leather interior, enough leg room for the Lakers’ starting five, digital readouts on the dash, and an on-board computer that allowed its owner to customize all power functions in the vehicle. The surround-sound system, of course, could rattle the windows on a car three blocks away. Cadillac had pimped this ride out fresh from the factory, making it the vehicle of choice for men like Mortavius Johnson, men who lived on the west side of Vegas and supplied “escorts” for the city’s biggest gamblers.
Clark speed-dialed 1 before he stepped out of the tow truck.
“This is stupid, Clark.”
“Good morning to you, too. Are you ready?”
“All right. Let’s do it.” He slid the still-connected phone into a pocket of his coveralls.
They were noticeably short, pulling at the crotch. He had bought the outfit on the spot from a mechanic at North Vegas Auto, the same garage where he borrowed the tow truck from the owner, a friend who had helped Clark in some prior repo schemes. A hundred and fifty bucks for the coveralls, complete with oil and grease stains. Clark had ripped off the nametag and rolled up the sleeves. It felt like junior high all over again, growing so fast the clothes couldn’t keep up with the boy.
He popped open the hood of the wrecker, smeared his fingers on some blackened oil grime, and rubbed a little grease on his forearms, with a dab to his face. He closed the hood and walked confidently to the front door of the condo, checking the paper in his hand, as if looking for an address. He rang the bell.
Silence. He rang it again.
Eventually, he heard heavy footsteps inside and then the clicking of a lock before the door slowly opened. Mortavius Johnson, looking like he had barely survived a rough night, filled the doorway. Clark was tall and slender—six-three, about oneninety. But Mortavius was tall and bulky—a brooding presence who dwarfed Clark.
He wore jeans and no shirt, exposing rock-solid pecs but also a good-sized gut. He didn’t have a gun.
Clark glanced down at his paper while Mortavius surveyed him with bloodshot eyes.
“Are you Mortavius Johnson?”
“You call for a tow?”
Mortavius’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. The big man glanced at the pocket of Clark’s coveralls—no insignia—then around him at the tow truck. Clark had quickly spray-painted over the logo and wondered if Mortavius could tell. Clark held his breath and considered his options. He would have to surprise Mortavius, Pearl Harbor–style, with a knee to the groin or a fist to the solar plexus.
Even those blows would probably just stun the big man momentarily. Clark would sprint like a bandit to the tow truck, hoping Mortavius’s gun was more than arm’s length away. Clark might be able to outrun Mortavius, but not Mortavius’s bullet.
“I left a message last night with the Cadillac dealer,” Mortavius said.
The Cadillac dealer. Clark was hoping for something a little more specific. “And the Cadillac dealer called me,” Clark said, loudly enough to be heard on the cell phone in his pocket. “You think they’ve got their own tow trucks at that place? It’s not like Caddies break down every other block. If everybody could afford Caddies, I’d go out of business.”
Clark smiled. Mortavius did not.
“What company you with?” he asked.
“Highway Auto Service,” Clark responded, louder still. He pulled out the cell phone, subtly hit the End button with a thumb, then held it out to Mortavius. “You want to call my office? Speed-dial 1.”
Mortavius frowned. He still looked groggy. “I’ll get the keys,” he said.
He disappeared from the doorway, and Clark let out a breath. He speed-dialed Jessica again and put the phone back in his pocket. He glanced over his shoulder, then did a double take.
Give me a break!
Another tow truck was pulling past the security guard and heading toward Mortavius’s condo. Things were getting a little hairy.
“I left some papers in the truck you’ll need to sign,” Clark called into the condo.
But as soon as the words left Clark’s mouth, Mortavius reappeared in the doorway, keys in hand.
Unfortunately, he glanced past Clark, and his eyes locked on the other tow truck.
A glint of understanding sparked, following by a flash of anger. “Who sent you?” Mortavius demanded.
“I told you…the Cadillac place.”
“The Cadillac place,” Mortavius repeated sarcastically. “What Cadillac place?”
“Don’t remember. The name’s on the papers in my truck.”
Mortavius took a menacing step forward, and Clark felt the fear crawl up his neck. His fake sheriff’s ID was in the tow truck along with his gun. He was running out of options.
“Who sent you?” Mortavius demanded.
Clark stiffened, ready to dodge the big man’s blows. In that instant, Clark thought about the dental work the last incident like this had required. Jessica would shoot him—it wasn’t in the budget.
A hand shot out, and Clark ducked. He lunged forward and brought his knee up with all his might. But the big man was quick, and the knee hit rock-solid thigh, not groin. Clark felt himself being jerked by his collar into the foyer, the way a dog might be yanked inside by an angry owner. Before he could land a blow, Clark was up against the wall, Mortavius in his face, a knife poised against Clark’s stomach.
Where did that come from?
Mortavius kicked the door shut.
“Talk fast, con man,” Mortavius hissed. “Intruders break into my home, I slice ’em up in self-defense.”
“I’m a deputy sheriff for Orange County, California,” Clark gasped. He tried to sound official, hoping that even Mortavius might think twice before killing a law enforcement officer. “In off hours, I repo vehicles.” He felt the point of the knife pressing against his gut, just below his navel, the perfect spot to start a vivisection. But you can keep yours,” Clark continued, talking fast. “I’m only authorized to repo if there’s no breach of the peace. Looks like this situation might not qualify.”
Mortavius inched closer. He shifted his grip from Clark’s collar to his neck, pinning Clark against the wall. “You try to gank my ride at night, then show up the next morning to tow it?”
“Something like that,” Clark admitted. The words came out whispered for lack of air.
“That takes guts,” Mortavius responded. A look that might have passed for admiration flashed across the dark eyes. “But no brains.”
“I’ve got a deal,” Clark whispered, frantic now for breath. His world was starting to cave in, stars and pyrotechnics clouding his vision.
The doorbell rang.
“Let’s hear it,” Mortavius said quietly, relaxing his stranglehold just enough so Clark could breathe.
“They’re paying me six Gs for the car,” Clark explained rapidly. He was thinking just clearly enough to adjust the numbers. “They know where you are now because I called them yesterday. Even if you kill me”—saying the words made Clark shudder a little, especially since Mortavius didn’t flinch—“they’re going to find the car. You let me tow it today and get it fixed. I’ll wire four thousand bucks into your bank account before I leave the Cadillac place. I make two thousand, and you’ve got four thousand for a down payment on your next set of wheels.”
The doorbell rang again, and Mortavius furrowed his brow. “Five Gs,” he said, scowling.
“Forty-five hundred,” Clark countered, “I’ve got a wife and—”
Ughh… Clark felt the wind flee his lungs as Mortavius slammed him back against the wall. Pain shot from the back of his skull where it bounced off the drywall, probably leaving a dent.
“Five,” snarled Mortavius.
Clark nodded quickly.
The big man released Clark, answered the door, and chased away the other towtruck driver, explaining that there had been a mistake. As Mortavius and Clark finished negotiating deal points, Clark had another brilliant idea.
“Have you got any friends who aren’t making their payments?” he asked. “I could cut them in on the same type of deal. Say…fifty-fifty on the repo reward—they could use their cuts as down payments to trade up.”
“Get out of here before I hurt you,” Mortavius said.
Clark glanced at his watch as he left the parking lot. He had less than two hours to return the tow truck and make it to the plastic surgeon’s office. He speed-dialed Jessica.
“Highway Auto Service,” she responded.
“It didn’t work,” said Clark. “I got busted.”
He loved hearing the concern in her voice. He hesitated just a second, then, “Not a scratch on me.”
“I told you it was a dumb idea,” said Jessica, though she sounded more relieved than upset. “You never listen. Clark Shealy knows it all.”
And he wasn’t listening now. Instead, he was doing the math again in his head. Sixteen thousand, minus Mortavius’s cut and the repair bill, would leave about ten. He thought about the logistics of making the wire transfers into accounts that Jessica wouldn’t know about.
Pulling a con on pimps like Mortavius was one thing. Getting one by Jessica was quite another.