Death was driving an emerald-green Lexus. It pulled off the street, passed the four self-service pumps, and stopped in one of the two full-service lanes.
Standing in front of the station, Jack McGarvey noticed the car but not the driver. Even under a bruised and swollen sky that hid the sun, the Lexus gleamed like a jewel, a sleek and lustrous machine. The windows were darkly tinted, so he couldn't have seen the driver clearly even if he had tried.
As a thirty-two-year-old cop with a wife, a child, and a big mortgage, Jack had no prospects of buying an expensive luxury car, but he didn't envy the owner of the Lexus. He often remembered his dad's admonition that envy was mental theft. If you coveted another man's possessions, Dad said, then you should be willing to take on his responsibilities, heartaches, and troubles along with his money.
He stared at the car for a moment, admiring it as he might a priceless painting at the Getty Museum or a first edition of a James M. Cain.novel in a pristine dust jacket-with no strong desire to possess it, taking pleasure merely from the fact of its existence.
In a society that often seemed to be spinning toward anarchy, where ugliness and decay made new inroads every day, his spirits were lifted by any proof that the hands of men and women were capable of producing things of beauty and quality. The Lexus, of course, was an import, designed and manufactured on foreign shores, however, it was the entire human species that seemed damned, not just his countrymen, and evidence of standards and dedication was heartening regardless of where he found it.
An attendant in a gray uniform hurried out of the office and approached the gleaming car, and Jack gave his full attention, once more, to Hassam Arkadian.
"My station is an island of cleanliness in a filthy sea, an eye of sanity in a storm of madness," Arkadian said, speaking earnestly, unaware of sounding melodramatic.
He was slender, about forty, with dark hair and a neatly trimmed mustache. The creases in the legs of his gray cotton work pants were knife-sharp, and his matching work shirt and jacket were immaculate.
"I had the aluminum siding and the brick treated with a new sealant," he said, indicating the facade of the service station with a sweep of his arm. "Paint won't stick to it. Not even metallic paint. Wasn't cheap. But now when these gang kids or crazy-stupid taggers come around at night and spray their trash all over the walls, we scrub it off, scrub it right off the next morning."
With his meticulous grooming, singular intensity, and quick slender hands, Arkadian might have been a surgeon about to begin his workday in an operating theater. He was, instead, the owner-operator of the service station.
"Do you know," he said incredulously, "there are professors who have written books on the value of graffiti? The value of graffiti? The value?"
"They call it street art," said Luther Bryson, Jack's partner.
Arkadian gazed up disbelievingly at the towering black cop. "You think what these punks do is art?"
"Hey, no, not me," Luther said.
At six three and two hundred ten pounds, he was three inches taller than Jack and forty pounds heavier, with maybe eight inches and seventy pounds on Arkadian. Though he was a good partner and a good man, his granite face seemed incapable of the flexibility required for a smile.
His deeply set eyes were unwaveringly forthright. My Malcolm X glare, he called it. With or without his uniform, Luther Bryson could intimidate anyone from the Pope to a purse snatcher..He wasn't using the glare now, wasn't trying to intimidate Arkadian, was in complete agreement with him. "Not me. I'm just saying that's what the candy-ass crowd calls it. Street art."
The service-station owner said, "These are professors. Educated men and women.
Doctors of art and literature. They have the benefit of an education my parents couldn't afford to give me, but they're stupid. There's no other word for it. Stupid, stupid, stupid." His expressive face revealed the frustration and anger that Jack encountered with increasing frequency in the City of Angels. "What fools do universities produce these days?"
Arkadian had labored to make his operation special. Bracketing the property were wedge-shaped brick planters in which grew queen palms,
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