If her father were alive, Christina Martinez knew, he would not approve of her riding in this car, through these unfamiliar neighborhoods, with these three men. She looked out the window. The green Mitsubishi made its way down Beverly Boulevard, but not in Hollywood. Here the street stretched through the Los Angeles outskirts of Montebello and Pico Rivera, past the East L.A. sheriff's station, past billboards in Spanish scrawled with graffiti, past check-cashing shops, liquor stores, taco stands, and men wearing long sleeves to cover their tattoos. This was a warm Tuesday in August 2009, and the moon was bright.
Christina, who was 20, called the men in the Eclipse her friends, but they were hardly more than acquaintances. She had hung out with them a few times, and they knew her boyfriend, Kilo, whom she had been dating for two months. She had spent much of this evening with Kilo at the home of his cousin, in Bellflower, north of Long Beach. The three men had stopped by, but mostly stayed outside.
When it came time to go, Kilo stayed behind. The men offered to give Christina a ride home. She accepted, because rides were not easy to come by, and because she'd accepted rides from the driver before. Christina and her son, Alexander, only a year old, lived with her mother, farther north in Lennox, next to Los Angeles International Airport. To the west was the beach. On the way, the men said, they might walk on the sand and smoke a little weed.
Christina was small, not even five feet tall. Even with the front seat pushed all the way back, she fit comfortably in the back, behind the driver. She wore shorts, Kilo's black T-shirt, and Etnies, size 5 ½, with pink E's on the sides. She had dark hair, freckles, arched eyebrows, piercings beneath her bottom lip, and a star tattooed on her right shoulder. She carried a white backpack with cow designs, along with a small red bag with a turtle print. Inside were her makeup, Social Security Card, zebra-printed sunglasses, and a marijuana pipe.
The Mitsubishi turned east. Christina realized: They were headed away from the beach. They stopped for gas, some cigarettes, and two Arizona iced teas. Then they headed east again.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
No one answered. Lil Wayne spewed from the stereo.
Christina felt a twinge of uncertainty, but she let it pass. Maybe the men had another stop to make before turning west toward the ocean.
Her dad, she thought, had not been so different from these men. Her father had been in the Lennox gang. Christina was his first daughter and he was strict. He had not allowed her to cut her hair, and the rule was the same for her mother. Women, he said, should have long hair, and at one point, Christina's reached so far down her back that she could sit on it. Her father did not let her go to parties. He did not even let her walk down the block alone. She had to stay inside and do homework and her chores.
But she rebelled, cutting her hair despite her father's wishes, dying it purple, orange, red, and yellow. She thought she was smart enough and tough enough to do whatever she wanted, go wherever she wanted, and ride with whomever she wanted.
To Christina, growing up in Lennox didn't seem as scary as outsiders might think. Her dad had carried weapons, and he'd known whom not to cross. He died when she was 18. She didn't talk about her dad much, but she missed him. Sometimes, she dreamed about him.
The driver of the Mitsubishi was Jose Miguel Ayala, 27, also known as Mike. She knew Mike always carried a knife. It had a royal blue handle. But Mike had been almost fatherly. They had even worked together. Not long after her father died, Christina had become a promoter of raves and other musical events, and she brought Mike into the business. Christina liked the hard-driving rave parties, featuring electronic, trance, happy hardcore techno, and house music. She had met Mike through mutual friends, and had recommended him to be a promoter, too. They passed out fliers in Hollywood and around Los Angeles. Sometimes they earned $500 apiece for a weekend of organizing and promoting. Mike called Christina by her rave name, "Candy," and sometimes he called her his "daughter." She called him "daddy." Mike drove her to run errands more than once. He had even spotted her a few dollars when she needed them.
But Mike could be intimidating. He took everything personally. Any little argument, she knew, could set him off. Just recently, for instance, she had gotten into a silly quarrel with Kilo — she couldn't even remember what it was about. They had all been at the home of Kilo's grandparents in El Monte. Mike, who lived in El Monte too, was at the house, and he took Kilo's side.
"This is between me and my boyfriend," Christina said at the time.
Mike flared. He yelled at her. "You have to leave," he said. "Leave my 'hood now!"
Christina ignored him and stayed. She and Kilo argued some more. But Mike insisted that she leave. He threatened to hurt her if she didn't, and she finally called her mother to come pick her up.
Christina saw Mike afterward, and they didn't speak. Now, five days later, at Kilo's cousin's house in Bellflower, when Mike offered to take her home after a stop at the beach, it seemed his way of letting their disagreement go. If he was ready, Christina thought, so was she.
Next to Mike in the front seat sat Vincent Mendoza, 21, who went by Vince. Christina knew he carried a knife, too. It was silver. To her right in the back seat was Eddie Meraz, 24, whom she knew the least. She had been around him only twice — once at a pool party just days ago, which had been at Vince's house. Eddie had brought carne asada and beer.
Now Christina could see that they were headed toward the hills southeast of Los Angeles. Mike was sweating, driving 50 miles per hour through 30 mph zones in Whittier, past Spanish-style apartment buildings, pick-up trucks and older cars, and homes shielded from the sidewalks by sculpted trees. He drove through an intersection near the mouth of Turnbull Canyon. The road narrowed and wove into dirt hills on the left, past tree branches on the right that hung over the street like claws.
Mike cocked his head. He had an indecipherable tattoo, partly inked-over, on his neck.
"I'm going to have to tie your hands," he said.
"What?" she said.
"Tie her hands," Mike told Eddie.
Christina looked at Eddie, confused. Suddenly, Eddie was holding a rope.
"You're not going to touch my hands," she said, pulling her arms to her chest.
The speed limit had dropped to 15 miles per hour, but Mike paid no attention. The car hurtled past a yellow sign that showed an arrow with a swerving tail, indicating switchbacks. Mike looked angry. Christina did not know why.
Eddie reached for her hands. Christina dodged him. Was he serious? Eddie looked nervous.
Mike told him again: "Tie her fucking hands."
Christina Ivonne Martinez was born in Lennox. Her mother, Monica, was 17 at the time and worked in a Laundromat. Now in her 30s, Monica Martinez still looked so young she was sometimes mistaken for Christina's sister. The large Mexican-American family lived on a 755-square-foot lot owned by Christina's grandparents near Los Angeles International Airport, where planes roaring overhead looked as if they might flatten the neighborhood if they landed too soon. Christina's family used every inch of the lot for their three houses. The gated front house was for her grandparents. The back house was for Christina's aunt and uncle. The middle house was for Christina, her parents, three brothers, and a sister.
Christina's father had worked off and on as a waiter and a bartender. One of her favorite things to do was to sit with him and watch the movies he liked — Scarface. The Godfather. Carlito's Way. She liked Stephen King movies, too, and she was fond of zombies and vampires. Nothing could scare her. When other girls in the neighborhood taunted and threatened her, she stood up to them and cursed back in their faces. Christina might have been small, but she had heart. She would fight back if she had to, but somehow it never came down to that. Despite a few close calls, Christina had never been in a real fight.
Sometimes friends who came to her house said, "You live in the 'hood!" To Christina, the 'hood was home, and it didn't seem so bad. She did not dwell on the drive-by shootings or the gunshot victims who sometimes rolled along the sidewalks in their wheelchairs. Occasionally she heard shooting on her block, but she did not worry about her safety. She knew her father used drugs, but she never saw him do it. She had fond memories of her childhood: going to Six Flags Magic Mountain with her parents; tumbling around in an inflatable jumper in her backyard; taking her first school field trip, to the Lennox Library, where she held hands with a boy.
She had been baptized and confirmed in her grandparents' Catholic faith. They kept a scared heart of Jesus sticker on the front window of their home. Christina didn't go to Mass regularly, but she believed in God and guardian angels. She also believed that spirits lingered on earth, and she thought she was in touch with them sometimes. She adored children, especially her siblings. All three were younger than she was, and she babysat them whenever she had to and gave her mother advice about how to take care of them. Sometimes Christina was more like the mom in the family. When her mother went out, Christina would say, "Okay, what time are you coming home?"
When she became a teenager, Christina loved the feeling of being in love. On her 18th birthday, she moved out of her family home and in with her boyfriend at the time. This maddened her father. They argued, and the rift had not been fully resolved when her mother and sister found him unconscious one morning at the family home. He was overweight and had been taking methadone for drug withdrawal, but it was a stroke at 35 that killed him that morning. Christina did not cry until days later, when she saw her father in his casket.
Similarly, she did not fret when she discovered she was pregnant. She enrolled in a high school for expectant mothers and got her diploma when she was five months along. After Alexander was born, she took good care of him. She did not dwell, either, when she and Alexander's father broke up. She had her way of surviving this life. Keep moving, she told herself. Step by step. Don't look back.
Now what? Eddie was trying to knot it around her wrists.
"She doesn't want . . . ," Eddie would recall saying.
"Do it!" Mike screamed.
With one hand on the wheel of the Mitsubishi, he reached for his knife with the other. He flashed its blade toward the back seat. Eddie was almost twice as big as Christina. It would have been easy for him to overpower her, but he trembled and fumbled as Christina squirmed and dodged.
Mike pulled over and leaned into the back seat. He placed the blade of his knife on Christina's throat.
"If you don't stop moving," Mike told Christina, "I'm going to fucking kill you." Christina cried. "Why are you doing this to me?"
Of the three men in the car, Christina knew Mike the best. He had grown up in El Monte, a 20-minute drive east of Los Angeles. He looked older than 27, with his haggard face, fleshy jowl, and coarse black hair. He earned his GED through Bassett Adult School, in La Puente, and had taken some classes at Rio Hondo Community College. He was married and had an eight-year-old daughter, but was separated from his wife and had not seen his little girl in four years. For the last two years, Mike had lived with his parents in El Monte, where he contributed $300 a month toward rent. He listed his employer as "Club Chaos," where he earned $20 an hour.
Police reports said it was suspected that Mike was a member of the El Monte Flores gang, one of the largest in the San Gabriel Valley. And Mike had spent much of the last seven years in and out of prison — for burglary, possession of stolen property, possession of drug paraphernalia, driving with a suspended license, drag racing on a highway, and failure to appear in court. He had also been arrested for home robbery and intention to commit larceny, for which he served two years. After his release, he was arrested again for making threats to cause "great bodily injury" and death to his ex-wife and another man. That time, he was sentenced to 32 months in prison.
Christina knew Vince, too, but not as well as Mike. Vince was slim, with a hollowed-out face and a bulging Adam's apple. Vince had also grown up in El Monte, and lived two houses away from Mike, but he did not have a criminal record or any known gang ties. That summer, he had returned from basic training for the US Army at the Fort Knox military base in Kentucky, and was staying with his parents. Vince got into arguments with his dad and sometimes ended up staying the night at the house of his other neighbor, who was Mike's girlfriend. Vince, too, had a girlfriend, Stephanie, from Monrovia, California.
Stephanie was scared of Mike. She thought he became mean when he was high and drunk, and she heard he had given his girlfriend — a friend of hers — a purple eye. Vince didn't seem to have Mike's dark spirit. To her, Vince was nothing but sweet.
Earlier that night, Stephanie had been at Vince's house when Eddie came over. Vince's cell phone rang. Vince had walked away from his phone, so she answered. It was Mike. He was on his way. Mike told Stephanie that he and Vince were going to "confront" a girl named Christina. He told Stephanie not to tell Eddie about the plan. Stephanie considered Eddie a friend. She hung up and suggested that Eddie not get in the car with Mike and Vince. She thought there was "going to be trouble." Eddie ignored her.
Christina knew Eddie the least. He had a buzz cut and a face shaped like a papaya, with a dent that ran from the left of his forehead across the center. He had been a softhearted youngster, to a fault. When the ice cream truck drove down his street playing its tune, his mother would give him $5. His brothers and cousins insisted that Eddie buy their ice cream first, and he seldom had money left for his own. Eddie's mother thought her son didn't know how to stick up for himself.
As Eddie grew, he played clarinet in his junior high marching band. On weekends, he attended meetings at his mother's Jehovah's Witness congregation. Week after week, Eddie put on a suit and tie and followed his mother from door to door spreading The Good News. But Eddie never felt as worthy as his brothers, who went to Cal Poly Pomona and USC and had careers. Eddie dropped out of high school, worked for a towing service, and used marijuana to fit in. On his 18th birthday, he started smoking meth.
* * *
One thing Christina did not know is that there had been repercussions from her argument with Mike, the one she thought was all over. Word of the disagreement had reached Christina's former boyfriend, the father of her little boy, police would report. The baby's father got the impression that Mike had beaten Christina, and the police were told that the former boyfriend vowed to retaliate. Kilo found out. He told Vince, and Vince told Mike. Now Mike thought Christina had put a hit on him. Mike, the police said, wanted revenge.
Before leaving on their ride, Eddie would say later, Mike had gone into the bathroom at Kilo's house in Bellflower and injected himself with meth. Eddie said he watched Mike "slam" it — shoot the drug straight into his bloodstream. He asked Eddie if he wanted to slam, Eddie said. At Narcotics Anonymous, Eddie had learned that slamming was highly addictive. He feared that if he started doing it he would never be able to stop. So he smoked the meth instead.
Now, in the green Mitsubishi, Mike had grown impatient with Eddie's inability, or reluctance, to tie Christina up. Vince reached over from the front passenger seat and punched Christina — hard, several times. Now it was up to Eddie: Be a part of this, or be a punk. Eddie tied Christina's hands in front of her.
Christina didn't move. She could see Vince holding a needle and a syringe. Vince turned to Mike, in the driver's seat. "Where do you want it?"
In her neck, Mike said.
Vince leaned into the back seat and plunged the needle into the left side of Christina's neck, over and over — five times.
Each time, she felt a stabbing pain. She did not know what Vince was injecting. Police would say it might have been insulin. Christina grew nauseous. She was terrified.
Mike turned off the engine. They were in Turnbull Canyon. Eddie pushed Christina out of the car. Mike grabbed her shoulders and steered her away from the Mitsubishi.
She gasped for breath. She coughed, then choked. Her body grew hot, and she began to feel numb. She spat in the dirt.
"Why are you doing this to me?" she asked, again.
Vince and Eddie stood behind her, near the car. Mike clearly was in charge. He guided her toward a steep embankment, almost a cliff. He untied her hands. "If you trust me," Mike said, "nothing is going to happen to you." He put his arms around her. "Do you trust me?"
Was he playing a sick joke? Christina thought.
He pushed her to the ground. She felt a blow to her head.
"You set me up," Mike said.
Another blow. She tried to cover her head with her hands. It felt as if she were being beaten with something heavy. A bat? A rock? It didn't hurt much, because she was numb. She could hear sneakers crunching on the pavement next to her. Another blow to the head. Then a blow to her ribs.
Another to the head. She was bleeding. Her eyesight faded. Her hearing grew muffled. Christina lost consciousness.
Mike was using rock. It was bloody, and the sound made Eddie sick. "All right," Eddie said. "All right." Mike stopped.
Now it was quiet. Eddie could hear no cars as they stood there under the moon and stars.
Slowly, Christina came to. She could not see, but she could hear and feel. She was being picked up by two people, maybe three. She heard someone say, "She's out. She's out." She thought it was Eddie. Then she heard someone say, "Grab her shoe." She thought it was Mike.
Now she felt herself being carried by each limb, and then hurled, like a sack of trash. That was when she realized: She was going over the cliff.
She sensed herself falling. Then tumbling. Then rolling. Over bushes—the branches digging into her back and scratching her cheeks. Over rocks. The hard edges bruising her. Over sticks. The tips tore at her face, arms, legs, and feet. Finally she stopped. She was 20 feet below the road, and on her back. She still could not see.
But she was starting to feel again. She was lying next to a tree. She turned on her side, then on to her knees, and used her hands to push herself up.
Suddenly her vision returned. Mike clambered down the crag.
"You try to kill me, you try to threaten me, and this is what happens," he said. He was behind her now.
She knelt and attempted to push him away. Then she saw his blue-handled knife.
"Just let it happen," he said.
Christina felt the blade against her neck, then ripping her skin. He was slashing her throat. Left to right. One slice cut two inches across, beneath the left side of her chin. It happened fast. The next slice was two times longer, running from her ear line to chin line, and Mike worked harder at this wound, lifting out his knife after at two inches, then thrusting it back in below the initial entry point, creating the shape of a two-pronged pitchfork.
She dropped to the ground and began to gag and gasp for air.
Mike turned and began climbing back up the precipice.
Christina touched her neck. She looked at her hand. It was covered with blood. The blood felt sticky and looked black in the night. She thought her wounds were wide enough that her fingers could slip right inside and touch her vocal chords.
"Oh, my God, I'm bleeding," she cried.
"She's still talking," said someone at the top. It sounded like Eddie.
As Mike climbed, he motioned to Vince, who began to make his way down. Christina could see him holding his silver knife.
Vince maneuvered behind her. Twice she felt him plunge his knife into her neck: two hard jabs, like punches, on the right side, beneath her right ear. More blood spilled out.
Survive, she thought. Keep going. Then it came to her: either I let them kill me, or I pretend that I'm dead. Squeezing her eyes shut, Christina lay still.
She could hear Vince climbing back up to the road. Then she heard the engine start in the Mitsubishi. Tires grated against gravel, then squealed on the pavement.
This story originally appeared at The Big Roundtable. Writers at The Big Roundtable depend on your generosity. All donations, minus a 10 percent commission to The Big Roundtable and PayPal's nominal fee, go to the author. Please donate.
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