Chapter Twenty-eight: One Click
The sound was just something that should not have been there. Metal on metal, a rub and then a stop. Metal on metal. Lolo opened her eyes, jumped a little and then froze. The handle of the door had turned, maybe only a millimeter, but it had turned. Someone inside the rest of the house had tried to open the door. Her door to her room. The unused door. The locked door that guaranteed her privacy.
She held her breath, listening. A footstep, maybe someone shifting feet out in the hallway of the rundown bungalow. Her sofa, her bed was against that door, forming a barricade. Shaking, she pressed her phone's button, and turned it around to shine its light on the door handle. She saw the tiny movement as the handle moved back to its stationary position. As quietly as she could, she rose from the couch, blankets wrapped around her, and turned on the one light in the room. It was five-forty-five in the morning.
The handle of the door clicked again, and again. Lolo went to her closet, got a sweatshirt from its hanger and put it on. "Go away!" she shouted. "Get away from my door or I'm calling the police!" She thumbed 911 on the phone just as someone hit the door hard, knocking the plastic ruler she'd glued to the door frame off onto the floor. The lock held, but looked askew.
"911. What's your emergency?"
"Dolores Vega, I live at 1406-B Timber Street, someone is trying to break into my sleeping room! They tried the lock, then slammed the door to push it in. I'm alone and unarmed! Please help!"
"Officer has been dispatched and is on the way. Stay on the line."
"Okay. Oh! They just slammed against the door again, and the lock assembly on the door is giving!"
The line went dead; Lolo looked at the phone like it was a personal betrayal. Now what? What do I do? Think! She ran back to the closet, pulled out her suitcase, began throwing all her clothes into it. It was a big suitcase, the one she'd used when she and Tom had had their infrequent stolen weekends on his business trips. Everything fit in there. If I get through this, I won't leave my stuff behind. But where should she go? Women's shelter? Bus stop to get out of town?
Do I call one of my co-workers for help? Not a good idea, most of them were already resentful of her success on the showroom floor, and the ones that weren't -- how would their wives feel if the flashy Mexican lady showed up on their doorstep before dawn? Oh, Tom, what have you left me with?
Lolo had met Tom at the Chevrolet dealership not long after she'd moved from Los Angeles. He was buying a car for business trips, wanted one with good gas mileage, but comfort for long driving days. He was just a customer, just another customer until she'd looked into his eyes to see if she was wasting her time, or if he was serious about buying a car. He wasn't thinking about the car. He was looking into her soul at her. Extending his hand, he said, "I'm Tom Melton. Pleased to meet you, Dolores."
How can you be seduced by a handshake? she'd thought. And dismissed it as he walked out the doors without buying a car. Goodbye, Mr. Tom.
A few days later, he'd been back. "I just don't know if that car is right for me. A little too 'compact' for my long legs. What's the next size higher up, and do you know the specs on it, too?"
"Of course. Would you like to try this one on for size? Not quite the gas mileage, but not bad, either. It has lumbar support options for the front seats, making it a little more comfortable for long distance driving. I think the best thing about it is the acceleration, though. You push the pedal down and see a performance peak for a mid-size car." She'd waited for his next expression, that would tell her whether or not he would buy.
"Could we do a test drive?" he'd said, not looking at her, but at the gauges on the dash.
No, don't go there. Instead, she'd said, "Sure, let's go."
They'd walked out to the lot and found a silver sedan, got in. She pulled the car out into traffic on McHenry and took Pelandale to Highway 99. On the on-ramp, she let her rip. The car accelerated like a dream. Pressed against the back of the passenger seat, Tom said, "Oh, that's good."
She knew even then that he wasn't talking about the car. They exited the highway at Kiernan, and she parked and let Tom take over the test drive. She'd thought he'd get back on the highway and speed, but instead, he took McHenry back to the dealership, switching lanes when necessary, matching the flow of traffic. After he'd parked the car in its place, he turned to her. "I like this car, I think." He looked into her eyes, her soul, again. "I believe I'll be back."
There were three days that she'd thought about him, three nights that she'd dreamed about his eyes and his face, and much more, and then he'd showed up again, bought the car, and asked her out to lunch.
And that was that. Within days, she'd sold him the car, become his mistress, and he'd become her best friend, better than anyone she'd ever known. There hadn't been any reason to make new friends, not when she found Tom; she had no interest in making any other friends, not really. He was all she needed, all she wanted.
Cowering in the shitty sleeping room, jammed clothes into the suitcase, Lolo skittered across the room into the bath, swept all the cosmetics into the pouch pocket of her sweatshirt, and tossed them into the suitcase, too. Where are the cops?
One thing Tom had left her with: his family. She dialed Gloria's number. "Gloria, please be up. Please answer."
"Lolo?" Gloria's voice answered. "What's up?"
"Gloria, I'm sorry, I didn't know who to call, someone's trying to break into my room, I've called the cops, got cut off from them, ohhh, they hit the door again, they're going to break the latch of the door --"
"I'll be there as soon as I can, just a few minutes. Do you have any way to block the door?"
"My sofa is against it, that's all."
"Get down low, and put your back against the sofa to keep it from moving. I'll be there, I'll be there! Don't hang up!"
The phone cut out again. "What the hell?" shouted Lolo. She pressed the On button again, saw that the battery was fading. Why hadn't she noticed that earlier in the day? The phone had been on the charger all night, why did the battery have to fail now?
She frantically unlatched the suitcase, ripped her white heeled shoes out, and wedged them under the front legs of the sofa. That should help. Her hands were shaking, her hair was all over her face, she braced her feet against the dirty carpet and leaned into the sofa. There was another thump as someone threw themselves into the door; the couch moved maybe a quarter of an inch. Lolo pushed back, and the sofa moved back. She kicked the white heels tighter, a stronger wedge.
I've been away from the Church so long, I don't even know how to pray any more. Would God even hear me, after I've been such an unrepentant adulteress for so long? God, if you are there, please hear me, help me. I won't ever commit adultery again, I promise.
It was true. There would never be another man in her life, because there was no more Tom, and would never be another.
There were thumping, running steps in the hall outside her door, and unintelligible shouts -- not English, not Spanish, just incoherent grunts and roars. Are they all on drugs? she thought in a panic.
The door to the outside jiggled. A loud bam sounded, someone hitting the door with a fist. The chair that Lolo now habitually hooked under the doorknob trembled, but stayed in place. She was, in essence, surrounded. It was the first time she was glad of the bars in the filthy windows.
She turned and half-rose, taking a look at the inner door lock. It was shot, the door being stopped only by the couch's back. The cracked door showed a darkened hallway, her room plainly breached. I should have made a run for my car at the very start, but now I can't.
A loud slam announced a kick to her outside door. The deadlock held, though, and there was a shout out in the dark morning just as flashing lights became visible. The sound of feet running. The sound of a man's voice bellowing, "POLICE! Stop, or I'll send the dog!"
A dog, a big dog, barked twice, and then another man's voice came after a knock on the door. "Dolores Vega, are you in there? Are you all right?"
She peeked out a window and saw a Modesto Police officer on the step. "Yes," she called, "am I safe to come out?"
"Yes," he answered. "You can sit in our car while we look around."
She didn't realize she was crying until the tears dripped off her nose onto the front of her sweatshirt. The suitcase didn't fit into the front seat of the police car, so she left it outside the passenger door, and huddled up, her knees against her chest, arms wrapped around them. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you," not knowing if she was talking to the police or to God.
"Did you touch either of the doorknobs that were damaged?" the officer asked her.
"Yes -- I came from work at nine-thirty, I would have opened the door then, and the inner door, not for a while, I tried it to make sure it was secure when I took this room a couple weeks ago, but not since then ..."
"Give me a timeline," he said. "What happened when this morning?"
As she told him what had happened, another officer came around from the back of the house, a handcuffed man being hustled before him, a German shepherd walking beside his handler, looking happier than a kid at Christmas.
The man in handcuffs was carefully stuffed in the back of the other patrol car. The officer with Lolo got out, shut the door, and said something into a radio. The officer with the dog opened the back door and motioned the dog into the car. Immediately Lolo felt the whuff of the dog sniffing at her, and froze, most thankful that there was a grate between her and the buffalo-sized dog.
She heard the two officers talking. "Call precinct, get a search order. That outbuilding is reeking of meth production, and we need forensics out here to take some prints, see who was breaking into Ms. Vega's room from the house."
He leaned into the car. "Ms. Vega, is that your car in the driveway?"
"Yes," Lolo said, tremulously. "Why?"
"All the tires have been flattened."
Suddenly fear left. Her car? "What? I drove home from work at nine-thirty, and everything about that car was perfect!"
"Not now." He looked over his shoulder. "Do you know of anyone who was out to do you harm?"
"No. I'm ... nobody. Just a car salesman, that's all."
There was a roar of a big truck, and the slight screech of tires as a car and an additional police car zoomed onto the street. The truck drove right up onto the curb, flooding the side of the house with light.
Gloria jumped out of the driver's side of the car. The policeman in the car following leaped out to intercept her. "Do you know how fast you were driving in a residential zone?"
"Damn right I do! Do you see my friend's house, where she was in danger? Get out of my way," she bellowed. "Where's Dolores Vega?"
"Here," Lolo said, getting out of the police car. She ran, embraced Gloria. "Please, can I come stay for New Year's a day early?"
Maria emerged from the passenger side, approached a police officer aggressively. "This our friend, she call for help. She gestured towards the big truck. "My son and his helper. We're going to get her stuff out of this rathole so she never has to come back here again."
"Yes, ma'am," the officer said to her placatingly. "We need to take some pictures and get our forensics department here to get some fingerprints -- oh, there they are now."
An unmarked car pulled up and two detectives got out. "Circus season come early, Bob?"
"Don't be a jerk, Merideth. Get your prints and pics and let these folks get on their way."
"I'm not that much of a jerk, Bob. Hey, lady, would you like a cup of coffee?"
Lolo nodded timidly. She took a sip from the cup offered her. "Oh, God, that's good. Thank you."
"You're welcome. Glad you're okay. Let's go, bring the coffee, and you can show me what was happening so I can photograph the scene."