A Taco to Die For

The United Plastics Convention was the first business trip Cathy and I had ever gone on together. The timing was good. The kids, nineteen and seventeen were out of school and all too enthusiastic about the prospect of five days on their own.

“No problem if you wanna have some friends over but no kegs, no raves and no police, and I want things spotless when we get back. I’ve got spies everywhere.”

“Chill pops, I’ll limit it to a hundred and it’ll be BYOB.”

“Very funny.”

Cathy, who’s an Orthopedic Surgeon, hadn’t had five consecutive days off in over a year, and my company, Precision Plastics Injection Molding had me handcuffed to a desk, six days a week.

The convention was a week of networking swizzle sticks, dispenser caps, CD-jackets and state of the art, high-tech, dildos. The movers and shakers were all there, and expected your company to make a showing. I handed out Buccaneer appetizer swords by the thousands. My customers weren’t going anywhere. They were all on long-term production contracts. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that crap. The highlight of the convention was a forty-five minute concert by a well known sixties-artist who looked seventy, and who lip-synced every song between the same plastic sales jokes we heard every year.

“What’s the difference between a swizzle stick and a dildo? You use the swizzle stick, and your wife uses the dildo!”

This year, I decided to make a marketing change. I had the same mid-isle location, the same fold-out, booth-in-a-can, convention display, and the same statue of David, pissing Mai Tai’s into one of my key-customers, plastic cocktail cups. The line was always ten-deep by mid-afternoon. The marketing coup I created was hiring a platinum blond, female bikini-model and an Adonis stud to work the booth. They were both well spoken; working on MBA’s and did modeling gigs on the side. Thank you internet and collegepartypals.com. Could they be more qualified? Cathy thought it was a great idea, “Why not, it frees us up for a few days!” Their job consisted of handing out cards, brochures and topping off David every half-hour. Customers don’t go to trade shows to buy a damn thing, and every buyer and seller at every trade show from electronics to automotive to plastics to musical instruments from LA to Vegas to Branson knows it. Networking? A huge crock of shit, maybe applied in the pre-computer, pre-telecommunication era, maybe the roaring twenties? Buyers and sellers go for a good time, and a hall pass, and a vendor tab, and a name badge that gets them into hospitality suites with shrimp cocktails and a hosted bar.

“What’s the $400.00 withdrawal at 11 p.m. on the corporate ATM?” I’d ask a sales rep.

“Those crazy bastards at Silico dragged me to Spearmint Rhino. What am I supposed to say to a two-million dollar account who’s been talking lap dances all afternoon?

The convention was always held in mid-June and naïve mid-westerners like us expected sun-soaked days, hot sand, picturesque sunsets and early morning strolls on the beach with Cappuccino’s and shorts and bikinis. June turns out to be the worst weather month in California, at least along the coast. It’s called June-gloom and it’s precisely that. A marine layer, thicker than a London fog rolls in around six in the morning and “burns-off” around two, leaving a muted yellow egg yolk for a sun that wouldn’t put a burn on a red-headed, freckled five year old. The beaches are cold, the water’s brown and the only bikini’s you’re gonna see are in the Hollywood strip-clubs ten miles to the east. You think “Yea, but I’m still gonna ride some waves!” Not unless you’re wearing a full-body wetsuit, with booties and a hood. Unlike the east coast, that gets the warm waters of the Gulf Stream; the California coast is the pathway for the Alaskan current; it’s not tropical, it’s not aqua blue, and if the water temperature rises above 65, it’s considered warm.

No problem, our first day out, we did what all tourists do in LA; head to Hollywood. First stop, Hollywood Boulevard, glamour, glitz, stars on the sidewalk, Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Wax Museum.

Turns out Hollywood boulevard is the homeless, twelve to eighteen-year-old, pierced, tattooed, panhandling, Sid Vicious look-a-like capital of the world. We got there early and saw two kids in Mohawks peeing on Ronald Reagan’s star. Broad daylight piss and run.

We did lunch at Spago; Cathy bought a purse at Coach on Rodeo Drive. We ate chili at Barney’s Beanery in the afternoon, and saw the Plimsouls for an early show at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard.

No star sightings, maybe Ed Begly Jr. coming out of a dry cleaner, but we were driving too fast to call it official. Back to the Airport Hilton and the $21.95 pay-per-view, Porn-Package which lasted thirty minutes. Then it was room service, crab cakes, Champagne, strawberries, and King of Queens re-runs. Not bad, did us both in. I wasn’t schmoozing plastic and Cathy wasn’t reading charts. The kids at home didn’t answer, but day-one is too early to worry about things like that.

Day-two, the same dense fog, but Chucky Kaufman, a long term client on the west coast who buys CD jewel-cases from us in the millions, offered to lend us his Mercedes 600 S-Class Coup for the day.

“Thanks Chuck, why don’t you and Clarise meet us for dinner.” I said as he handed me the keys.

“Cool, let’s do Lawry’s on La Cienega Boulevard at eight. I’ll book the reservation.

“We’ll see you there.” I said and waived as we walked away.

I was casual, in shorts and a melon, Tommy Bahama embroidered silk-shirt. Cathy was doing the full-on LA starlet look: micro-mini skirt, t-shirt halter and four-inch platforms, clutching a randy new, silver and gold, calfskin purse. Yea, it was sixty degrees and we were dressed for Hawaii, but being from the Midwest, any day above fifty feels tropical.

We talked about doing Malibu, Palm Springs, maybe Newport Beach, even San Diego, but the traffic was bumper-to-bumper every direction so we stopped at a Barnes & Noble by the 405 freeway and looked for something about exploring hidden LA.

We’re not foodies and don’t go out of our way to find great restaurants, but we do share a passion for something that’s almost non-existent in the upper Midwest, great Mexican food, particularly tacos! Mid-westernized Mexican cuisine doesn’t make it; of course, there’s gotta be pockets of Tex-Mex creditability somewhere east of the Mississippi, and north of the Ohio, but we never found one. It’s a fast food that can’t be made fast, apologies to Taco Bell and Taco John. A serious taco isn’t made from a pre-cast, corn tortilla shell, with the consistency of a Dorito chip; ground beef is ridiculous, and lettuce and cheese make it a mid-America version of a cheeseburger with crunch; bland, boring and safe.

Cathy went to Medical School in El Paso, and I spent hundreds of hours in Phoenix and LA and all three could be considered Mecca’s for that simple border creation of a grilled corn tortilla that’s topped with Carne Asada, Carnitas, Pollo or Al-Pastor and garnished with onions, cilantro, fresh salsa and perfect Guacamole, and please, no cheese, or it’s Gringo all the way.

We knew tacos, we wanted tacos, and we decided great tacos were our goal for the day. We found them and our lives will never be the same.

The mini-book we purchased was called “LA’s Best Taco Trucks.” A Taco Truck? What sold us was the forward written by one of the nation’s foremost food celebrities, a guy that has a network food show and whose name is on anything food, from frying pans to pizza to bottled salsa. An excerpt read… “in all of my travels through the southwest and Mexico I have never, I repeat never, had taco’s any better than what I found in the four-star trucks you’ll find listed in these pages.” That closed the deal.

Our plan was simple. We would each have a Carne Asada taco to keep it consistent, and we’d keep a scorecard that rated each for the quality of tortilla, meat, salsa and guacamole, and an overall gut rating for the experience.

Synchronicity played a strange hand in the events that transpired because several of the trucks listed hung relatively close to the airport in the Oakwood area of Venice Beach, seven miles north east of the airport. Little did we know that “Oakwood,” sometimes called “servant alley,” or the ghetto by the sea, was a major gang war-zone. White crackers beware!

This is a war that’s been waging upwards of thirty years between the Venice Shoreline Crips; a black gang, and Venice 13, a Mexican mafia gang.

The taco book didn’t mention anything about turf boundaries, or dangerous area’s or blocks to avoid or even sidewalks that were off limits. How could you run into trouble in an area that’s blocks from the beach, near an international airport, where a two bedroom shack, fire-sales at $600,000 plus?

Our first stop was Pepe’s Taco Truck which was parked a block off the main intersection of Venice Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue. We parked close and waited in a line with seven people in front of us. We each ordered a Carne Asada Taco. They were $1.50 each, and wrapped in aluminum foil. We walked back to the car and ate on the hood.

“Holy shit that was good!” was all I could say between four bites which is all it took.

“Mmmmm, Ahhhhhhh, ohhhhhhh,” was Cathy’s response.

They were 10-for-10 in every category: hand-made tortilla (ten), citrus marinated, grilled skirt steak (ten), fresh pico de gallo salsa (ten), and spicy, guacamole (ten), total gut rating (ten plus)

“That was clearly the best taco I’ve ever eaten in my life,” Cathy said wiping a smudge of guacamole off her left shoulder.

“If we don’t get mugged this is gonna be fun. I don’t know, but I’d say we’re in a barrio? Is that possible this close to the beach? I’ve never seen so much graffiti. All I can say is… Joker (who had his name tagged everywhere) must own the block,” she continued.

“Don’t worry honey; you’ll see what gentrification does to any market where the real estate is well situated. This isn’t like Over-the Rhine in Cincinnati, that’s never gonna be gentrified. We’re talking palm trees, movie stars and a mean, annual temperature of 72 degrees. Screw June-Gloom, New Years Day is all that matters. In the Midwest, on any New Years day, cars are connected to an engine warmer, and the streets are curbed in four-foot snow drifts, and the forecast is for three more months of the same. In California, the Rose Bowl is always sunny and in the mid-seventies.”

“Well, at least this car’s built like a tank, probably bullet-proof, so I’m in, if you’re still in,” she replied.

“That’s my baby, but that guy was eye-raping you back in the line,” I said, as I pulled back into the street.

“I know, it creeped me out; maybe I should of worn sweats and tennies,” she said.

“According to On-Star, we’ll find Tijuana Tico’s truck two blocks down Oakwood which is only .4 miles from here, hang a left on Venice and then left on Oakwood. It should be parked near several warehouses,” she said.

It was about 1:30 p.m. and we found Tijuana Tico’s truck which was parked on Oakwood Avenue near several large, industrial warehouses covered in graffiti. There was a construction crew on the street tearing up the right side of the road, so we pulled into one of the warehouse lots; careful to park several spots away from other cars. It was about a hundred yards to the Taco Truck so I pressed the remote auto-lock and we walked to the end of the line which was ten customers deep. Must have been a Duke University soccer team playing nearby because several of the young Hispanic men were wearing Duke jerseys and baseball caps.

“Dos Carne Asada Tacos por favor,” I tried in my best Spanish.

“Two beef tacos, everything?” he replied, apparently not anxious to teach Spanish with a line that was still ten deep.

“What’s everything?” I asked.

“Cilantro, onions, hot sauce and guacamole,” he replied.

“Is it HOT, hot?” I asked.

“Yes, very!” he replied.

“Okay, no hot sauce, but everything else,” I said.

These were also $1.50 and wrapped in the same aluminum foil.

We walked back to the car for another hood-fest. While we stood together eating the tacos, two men in Duke Jerseys approached out of nowhere and asked if we knew where Pepperdine University was? They were each carrying a rag and before we could react, they grabbed us both and put the rags against our noses and mouths and everything went black.

When I woke, both my arms and legs were tied behind a chair and my mouth was covered with a strip of duct tape. Cathy was next to me, awake in the same condition, crying. We were in a large cement-walled room with no windows and a solitary bulb hanging from the ceiling. A man, maybe mid-forties sat across from us behind a heavy industrial table. He was well dressed and wearing expensive leather loafers and a black silk-shirt, tailored to his slim torso. A Sony lap-top was open on the table in front of him. He had already emptied my wallet and Cathy’s purse.

My mind was racing, “Oh my God, I can’t move, Cathy, the kids, Oh my God!”

Who are these men? Where are we? What the hell. We’ve been kidnapped. Jesus Cathy, Oh God.”

“Mr. Moreland, I have to apologize for the rope and tape. I hope we can get through this as quickly as possible so you can get you back to the Plastics Convention and Dr. Moreland, you can return to your practice. As you’ve probably guessed, you’ve been kidnapped. You were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Weren’t those tacos great? I’ve been going for years now and outside of King Tacos in Maywood, Tijuana Tico’s is the best around, of course that’s not fair, you really haven’t had a good taco until you’ve been to Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana. That’s where I’m from. Call me Juan.”

“Let me start by saying I know the car is not yours, we checked the registration. If you did own the car with a bumper sticker that says “Why should I have to dial 1 to get English,” I’m afraid my associates would want to deal with you in an altogether different fashion. As it is, Charles Kaufman should consider where he lives the next time he drives an S-Series around LA with that kind of nonsense on the bumper.

No worries though, the car is gone and we’re going to get rid of that hideous aqua color and go with a factory-black or white look. I can’t believe the Kelly-Blue-Book private party rating is showing a value of $110,000. I would have guessed $145,000, minimum! But that doesn’t concern you; I’m sure Mr. Kaufman has good insurance. The internet these days has made my profession so much easier and frankly much easier on targets… that’s not a good word… how about participants like you. Before we get started, I’m going to have to do something that I’ve never liked, but in the long run, I’ve found that it makes the communication between both parties much clearer.

Cathy’s eyes were swollen red from the tears and fixed in a blank stare, I couldn’t tell if they hurt her. The more I pulled on the rope the tighter it became, I was ready to vomit. She was sniffling hard and blinking nervously.

First, I’m going to ask you if you’re right handed or left. Are you right handed? Please just nod.”

I nodded nervously up and down.

He’s gonna cut my fuckin’ hand off!

“Very good, I’m going to remove your left pinky as a sign of just how serious we are with our intentions. It should be quite painless; we’re going to numb the nerves in your finger so you won’t feel a thing. Well of course, you’ll feel residual pain, but Dr. Moreland will prescribe something decent for this.

We’re not barbarians, and I don’t want to see you in pain any more than you do. We’ll cauterize the amputation and administer an antibiotic,” he said, and then stared at Cathy… “Of course as a Doctor, you’ll want to follow up on the procedure as quickly as possible. I’m going to ask that you cooperate completely or the alternative seal of communication will be significantly harsher. Do you understand? To be blunt, we’re not fucking around. We’re going to take care of business and be on our way, understood?”

I nodded yes.

Cathy was becoming hysterical and trying to scream through the tape.

Cathy, Cathy, I assure you no one can hear you and frankly you’re going to make yourself sick. The sooner we get through this, the sooner you can go back to saving people’s lives; that is what you do isn’t it?” he asked in the tone you would use at a cocktail party.

She shook her head frantically up and down. The tears brought more congestion and she had to blow hard out of her nose. Strands of white phlegm hung over the tape covering her mouth.

“Very well, Bill would you move Mr. Moreland’s chair to the table and place his left pinky on the surface.”

Bill moved the chair to the table and while one of the other men held and re-tied my right arm, Bill put my left pinky on the table and Juan walked to my side and unfolded a cloth package containing a syringe and a vile of anesthesia. He stuck the needle into the vile, extracted the clear fluid, and stuck it into the base of the pinky. After a few minutes he poked the finger and asked if I felt anything. I threw up and Bill had to remove the duct tape so I didn’t suffocate.

“Julio would you please get a wet rag for Mr. Moreland?” he spoke to another tattooed man standing to the side.

He then took a Henkel paring knife and held it up in front of me. I assure you Mr. Moreland, this is razor sharp. I used it yesterday to dice onions. You shouldn’t feel a thing. As soon as I complete the amputation, I’m going to cauterize the wound with this soldering tool,” he said, pulling the pen-like device out of its metal holder, and holding it in front of me.

“Mr. Juan, please, I beg you, if this is about money, I’ll give you anything you want. You don’t have to do this, please… let her go and keep me.”

“Very noble on your part and I’m sure you’re good for the money, but experience has shown me that there is little doubt in our transactions if we seal the communication pact in this manner.”

He looked at Julio.

“Please cover Mr. Moreland’s mouth again. I’m sorry, but this part of the business is non-negotiable.”

Julio covered my mouth with two strips of gray tape.

Juan put the point of the paring knife to the outside of the pinky as Julio isolated the rest of the fingers with his own hand. Juan let the curve of the blade amputate the finger in one quick motion. I didn’t look and I didn’t feel pain but I felt the pressure of the movement. Juan held the soldering pen to the wound and I smelled the acrid scent of burning flesh.

“Very well done Mr. Moreland; you’ll be back on the golf course in no time.”

I blacked out, but Bob or whatever the fuck his name was held an ammonia swab to my nostrils which woke me. I didn’t look at my hand.

“Now, I think we’re ready to complete our business. Many kidnappers go through a lengthy process of demands and negotiation and holding costs and threats and more demands an ultimately a compromise leading to disappointment. I choose to do business in a different manner. I need you to write your social security number and password for your Charles Schwab account and the Fidelity Money Market account which I’m guessing you have since you have a Visa debit card for both. Dr. Moreland I’m also going to need your social and password for the St. Christopher Hospital Credit Union account. Once I have this information, we’re going to do an on-line transfer to our account. We’re also going to make ATM withdrawals on all of your accounts before you leave. I’ll just need the PIN number for each card. I’m going to be very disappointed if we conclude our business with less than $75,000. Will that be a problem?” I shook my head no.

I wrote the PIN number down which was the same for all the accounts including Cathy’s: the kid’s birth years: 9290.

“Good, just let me pull up the accounts and we’ll see what we have. In the meantime, Bob, please take the debit cards and make $400 withdrawals on each.

Mr. Moreland, does the American Express allow for a larger withdrawal? I nodded yes. Please write the number down for Bob. I see you both have cards. Are they separate accounts?” he asked.

I nodded yes. At this point, I knew the value of money. Cathy’s eyes now held a blank stare. For some weird reason, I believed Juan. This was just business. If I didn’t play games, we were gonna walk away from this. I knew the Charles Schwab was around $50,000 and the Fidelity Money Market account was around $75,000. Cathy’s credit union was only a few hundred dollars and she had just rolled a large chunk into a large corporate bond fund. Juan knew his business. He knew you could do balance transfers from money market accounts, but not investment accounts.

We had nine credit/debit cards so no big deal, take the cash advances.

He spent a half-hour on the laptop as Cathy and I waited. I kept turning to look at her. She and I were saying everything that needed to be said. I loved her more in that torture chamber than ever before.

“Excellent, Mr. Moreland, can I call you Jim? It looks like the transfers are confirmed to our bank. As soon as Bob gets back with the cash, we’ll conclude our business. Julio was behind Cathy and rubbed her neck with a fiendish smile.

Juan pulled out a huge handgun from his briefcase and pointed it at Julio’s head.

“You touch her again; I’ll blow your fucking head to Mazatlan.” He said squinting at the pistol site.

Bob walked into the room and laid $4,200 on the table.

“This is all I could get,” he said nervously.

“Bob, are you sure? You know I can go on-line and verify the withdrawals. Is your life worth $200?”

“Boss, this is it, I swear it’s all I could get.” he said nervously.

“Bob, I believe you this time,” Juan replied.

“Okay, Mr. and Mrs. Moreland. Our business for the day is concluded. It’s almost 6:30 p.m. and you’re still in Los Angeles. You’re going to have to trust me on this. We are going to inject you with a general anesthesia, and you’ll wake-up in a different location. No harm will come to you if you follow my directions explicitly.

Are we on the same page?”

Cathy and I looked at each other and then him, and nodded. Very well; I’ll be administering the shot in your neck. You’ll feel a bit of discomfort, but that will pass quickly.

He walked behind me and stuck a needle in my neck.

We woke behind a building in a commercial dumpster near the airport. A 747 was on final approach directly above us. Judging by the sunset we guessed the time to be around eight p.m.

“Should we try and move back dinner with Chuck and Clarise?” I asked.

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K.W. Bowlin

Southern California native. Passion for history, particularly big, ugly battles. Loves all stringed instruments. Never hit a good 2-iron in his life. Writes like a fiend. Married to his best friend, high school sweetheart and crack photographer Mary, and has four fantastic, grown kids and a Lhasa Apso puppy named Coby.

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