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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

art478

SEVENTEEN

The Vibrant Produce Company was in downtown LA, in an industrial area off Central Avenue. I crossed the Los Angeles River more than once searching for the place. I found streets with names like Industrial and Terminal, Market and Produce, but it took a while to find Vibrant Avenue.

When I pulled up around noon, there were three guys standing around a dock, eating strawberries. Behind them the warehouse was mostly empty. There were two pallets--one of strawberries, the other broccoli and cauliflower. A forklift was parked beneath the strawberries.

I introduced myself and shook hands with Carlos and Eddie Junior and Senior. When I said I wanted to ask some questions about the produce business, the other two pointed at Eddie Senior. "He's the man," Carlos said. Senior beamed.

"Well, let me ask you this," I began. "Who loads the trailer, you guys or the truck driver?"

"Depends," Senior said. "If he's putting his own load together, he's probably gonna want to load it himself. We'll let him use our forklift if we're not too busy. You know, to rearrange the stuff he bought somewhere else. But if he comes in for a truckload and says 'Give me 22 pallets of strawberries.' We'll load it for him."

"Damn right we will," Junior said. "Soon as he forks over 30 grand."

"Thirty thousand dollars?" I asked.

"That was a couple of weeks ago," Senior said. "They've been coming down." Carlos handed me a big free sample.

"Anybody ever pay cash?"

"Sometimes," Senior said.

"You know what's funny?" Junior said. "It's always the grubby-looking guys that pull out that big wad. I swear to God, you would never guess."

"A lot of money in produce," Senior said.

"You remember the guys who pay cash?"

"We try to remember all our customers," Senior said.

"Any reason there'd be a steel plate in the front of a trailer?"

"Keep Carlos here from driving that forklift right through the wall," Junior said.

"A lot of crazy guys on forklifts," Carlos said.

"You remember two guys who bought grapefruit last week?"

They all laughed. This was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. "Grapefruit in February?"

"Two truckloads," I said. "They paid cash."

Senior shook his head. "Most of the winter citrus comes out of Texas or Florida."

"No," I said. "Right here." I pulled out a photocopy of the invoice for Jesse Lopez's freight and handed it over.

Senior barely looked at it. "This is from three, four years ago," he said.

"It's last week." I pointed to the date.

"You think I don't know my own invoice numbers? Somebody erased the date and typed in a new one. Look." He pointed to the date. Even on the photocopy, you could see it had been altered.

My blood boiled. "Son of a . . . "

"Who?"

"The one who lied to me." Jesse I-don't-know-nothing Lopez. His signature was right on the bottom of the invoice. Received in good condition.

"Let's get to work," Senior said, pointing back to the warehouse. Carlos jumped on a forklift; Junior picked up a stack of papers and walked into the dock's office. "Now what's this about?" Senior asked.

"Nothing to worry about," I said.

"No, no, no," he replied. "I've been in business almost 20 years. I got a name in produce. You ask around. You go to New York, Chicago, any big city. Go to the produce market and they'll tell you I don't ship garbage. Vibrant Produce does not ship garbage. And I don't want somebody else shipping garbage under my name. So you tell me now: what's going on? I got to protect my good name and my son's good name."

"Can you dig up that original invoice?"

"Look, you stop with the questions. I need answers."

"They were smuggling cocaine," I said. "In trucks loaded with grapefruit. They got caught on the road to Chicago."

"Bags or boxes?"

"Huh?"

"The grapefruit. Was it in bags or boxes?"

"Bags."

"String bags?"

"Yeah."

"With a little sticker hanging off?"

"I didn't see any stickers."

"They probably cut 'em off. Baja grabage."

"Huh?"

"Mexico," he said. "NAFTA."

"I don't follow you."

"The free trade agreement. How do you think they get the cocaine across the border? In a truckload of produce. And then they transfer the whole damn load, cocaine and fruit. But they needed an invoice in case they get stopped, so they used one of my old ones."

"Can you find the original?"

"Let me look," he said, and he turned toward the office.

I started to follow, then stopped to call Shelly on my cell phone.

"Trouble," I said when she came on. "Looks like your guy was using a doctored invoice. I don't know where they got the grapefruit, but it didn't come from here."

"T.M.I.," she said. Too much information.

"Problem is, I got Frank Stringfellow to deal with too."

"Apples and oranges," she said, and the line went dead.

I dialed Stringfellow and gave him the news.

"Just take his statement, Nick. Worse comes to worst, we'll put it in office B."

Office B was the one that sat under the intermittent leak. Overnight even the thickest statements could be turned into indecipherable pulp.

I wrote two separate statements. The first, for Shelly, said that it was customary for Vibrant to load shipments onto trucks without the driver's help or direction. And that steel plates were customary in semi trailers to protect from forklift damage.

The statement for Frank Stringfellow was even shorter. No grapefruit had been shipped in February. The invoice used was an old one with an altered date.

"What'd I tell you?" Eddie Senior said when he emerged about 15 minutes later. He handed me an invoice with an identical number. It was from October 1999. The date and the signature at the bottom were the only changes.

I read him the two statements and asked him to sign.

He shook his head. "And then what, testify in court?"

"If they've got your signed statement, there won't be any need for you to testify. It's when you don't sign, that's when they subpoena you."

That brought a smile to his face. "People ever believe that?"

I shrugged. I'd been saying it so long, I almost believed it myself.

"If I have to testify, who pays the airfare?"

"They do," I said, and he flashed that same smile. "Really."

"Why not?" he said. He pulled a pen from his shirt pocket. "I got friends there. See how my son does on his own."

I folded the statements and tucked them away. "You ever do business with a Morales in Chicago?"

"Morales?" he said as if the name sounded familiar.

"He owns grocery stores."

"I know a coupla Morales south of the border," he said. "Here, take some strawberries." He handed me a pint tray. "You hear anything I should know, please call."

We exchanged business cards and said goodbye.

The motel where Lopez said he'd stayed was little more than a mile away. It was a seedy-looking place, surrounded by a crumbling, oil-stained parking lot. There was a row of semi-trailers that looked abandoned, with good cause. Solitary figures were working on scattered tractors, all of which looked beyond repair. The parking lot was littered with oil and anti-freeze containers and engine parts.

The guy who came out when I rang the bell looked like he'd spent his life in the parking lot. His T-shirt was a permanent oil-stained gray. He didn't know anything. It was that kind of place.

I showed him my license. "Any chance I get a look at the register?"

"Not without a real badge," he said.

I laid a 20 on the counter. "That help?"

He held up two fingers. I put down another 20.

He went back through the door he'd come out of, then returned with four thin books. "These don't leave the counter."

"You got a copy machine?"

"You've got to be kidding."

Jesse Lopez's name was nowhere in February or January. But Rudy Valdez had stayed for close to two weeks. There was a handwritten star next to his name.

"Anything you can tell me about this Rudy Valdez?"

"I don't remember nobody," he said.

I reached for my bankroll, but he shook his head. "I never remember nobody."

"What's the star for?"

He winked. "That's what we give all the good students," he said, and suddenly I believed in Jesse Lopez again.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

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