The night is soft like velvet, smog lifting after a hot day. The sound of engines and horns muffled by residential streets that barely separate the crumbling two-story Victorian from downtown traffic.

Andrew and his crew gather outside, just out of sight. They’re all wearing sneakers, dark pants and LAPD windbreakers over bulletproof vests. The guy in front is called Hulk for obvious reasons — and he’s the one with a 10-pound sledgehammer. Behind him, the rest of the fellas carry pump shotguns, with Andrew bringing up the rear, a pistol in each hand.

They quickly push inside; stairs creak beneath their feet on the way up to the second-floor apartment. With a swing like a major-leaguer hitting a home run, Hulk smashes the sledge into the door, immediately over the dead bolt. One more swing rips the door free from locks and hinges, sending it crashing to the floor.

Inside, there’s a mad scrambling as the crew rushes in, screaming, “Police! Freeze, you motherfuckers! Freeze!”

Andrew and the fellas throw their quarry to the ground and apply the plastic tie-type handcuffs made popular during the L.A. riots, pistol-whipping the resisters into piles of bloody chorizo. Speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, Andrew and his men tear the place apart, stacking bags full of cash, heroin and cocaine, then rush the evidence into a van waiting on the street below.

Chalk it up as the cost of doing business for the dealer. For Andrew, it’s a kick-ass sting, enhanced by some ass-kicking of the “bad guys.”

Except that’s not what this is about.

As the crew makes its exit, Andrew turns to the boss dope dealer splayed out on the floor: “Hey, Pendejo!”

When the bleeding immigrant looks up, he sees a tattooed neck and face looking down at him. Suddenly, he knows he’s not busted. He just got robbed. This is the second time no less that Andrew has picked on this particular dealer, adding insult to injury.

Our friend Andrew blows a kiss at the bound and outraged gangsta on the floor, laughs out loud and exits stage left. Diplomacy has never been Andrew’s strong suit.

Andrew and crew pile into three vehicles and turn onto the freeway. Two four-door, late-model American-made cars serve as rolling barricades, in case the heat catches on and goes after the van. Andrew’s listening in on a police scanner to make sure that isn’t happening. Reaching the destination, the van pulls into an enclosed garage in a lower-middle-class neighborhood that is quickly turning industrial. The two crash cars continue on to a Ralphs supermarket a few blocks away, where the occupants transfer to a new vehicle and car-pool back to the safe house.

Andrew counts out paper towers of fives, tens and twenties. The smack and coke not already packaged in pre-weighed bundles get thrown on a digital scale, then wholesaled out quick. It’s smiles and backslapping all around.

As he’s running down this story for me, Andrew flips carne asada on the barbecue and sips at a wine cooler. The band ? & the Mysterians is playing on the stereo, harmonizing the strains of “96 Tears,” their one hit. The sun hammers down as some of the fellas, kicking back in lawn chairs, throw in a comment or joke. It’s a nice day.

I size up homeboy as he flips the carne. He’s got fine features, green eyes — could be of Spanish or Cuban descent, even Scot or Irish as long as you throw in some Latino cut. He’s put together like a boxer. Healthy without having the bulk you get from weights. A regular matinee idol except for the ink all over his face and neck — original L.A. tribal. The India ink was hand-applied in stages while spending back-to-back summers in our finer penal institutions.

Andrew’s a distinctive individual, but his is not the ideal look for job interviews. “Couldn’t get a job,” he says. “You know the drill. They take one look at a guy like me and that’s it.

“I wouldn’t hire me,” he adds. “Would you? No skill,
no education. I look like what I am.” The criminal record doesn’t help either, and to tell the truth, he hasn’t been that eager to play it straight; the honesty ethic was never properly instilled.

He started stealing as soon as he had pockets to put things in. “Used to do burglary, checks, credit cards, whatever,” he says. “My first robbery was a convenience store, and that was it. I was hooked. Get in, get the ferria, get the fuck out. Fast. Nothing to sell, nothing to carry except cash.”

Problem was, his tattoos began to make most illegal endeavors as impractical as the straightest job. He was just too recognizable. “As I got more and more ink, passing checks and credit cards got harder and harder.” An armed robber would want very much to blend in. Andrew didn’t, and was getting tired of going to jail. And all the risk never netted much. “A store will usually get you a few hundred,” he notes, “plus they got video and all that shit.”

Then, one day, he says, “I started clocking the local tacatos, you know, junkies. They were all picking up from this one border brother. All day every day, he’s taking cash. Lots of cash. Thought about it and didn’t see any downside. Either he shoots me first, or I’m going to take everything he’s got. Right?”

Andrew’s first heist of a pusher netted almost two grand and a handful of heroin balloons to boot. And what was the dealer going to do about it? Call the police?

Moments later, Andrew is playing with his two boys, shooting make-believe guns and rolling in the grass — dying dramatically. He magically resurrects himself to do battle all over again. His old lady stands on the side, slim and strikingly pretty, sporting small tattoos on her hands. She orders the kids to the table, while Andrew and I kick it. He gestures around the yard, points at his girl and the kids. “I’ve always dreamt about this, as long as I could remember.”

Now about 30, Andrew was state-raised. “Never knew my parents. Bounced from foster homes to juvenile hall to the California Youth Authority, right into La Pinta.” He developed a real case of family envy as he watched other prisoners “writing their old ladies and families, getting visits.

“Me? I never had it, but I wanted it,” he says with a soft cholo lilt. “Could never stay on the bricks more than a couple of days before I caught a new case or got violated. Now, man, every day is pretty fuckin’ good.”

Andrew’s house is very much home sweet home, with the yard full of women and kids wearing bright colors; the men taking hits of cold cervezas and wine coolers; the smell of pot hanging sweet and heavy in the air, mixing with the aroma of barbecue.

A heroin addict as a youth, he’s put that behind him for now. He kicked the habit on his own, because he sees 12 steps or any kind of program as a cop-out for the weak. “Sitting in a room of sniveling motherfuckers ain’t for me.”

But there’s something out of place in this scene of contentment, and it’s not just the 9mm stuck in Andrew’s belt, nor the rottweilers circling the yard silently. I narrow it down to Andrew’s eyes. They’re beyond watchful. It’s like he’s always appraising everything around him, always waiting.

That makes sense. Even when he doesn’t have cops to worry about, there’s always the chance, at any given moment, that some burned drug dealer with no sense of humor is going to settle the score for good.

The penalty for hitting a big-time slinger of hard drugs is death — obviously — and not by lethal injection or some other relatively humane method. Nope. It’s got to be bad enough to send a message.

“Anything you care about makes you weak,” says Andrew. “So I don’t care too much — I don’t let myself. That don’t mean I don’t love my old lady and kids. But I wake up every day knowing it’s like my last. Like I’m a dead guy already, and I just got one bonus day with my family.” This guy has learned to live in the present — without any help from a Beverly Hills shrink.

Andrew is once again playing cops and robbers with his boys, going down in a hail of play gunfire, and I’m wondering how long he has until it happens for real. No more magic resurrections. No starting the game over.

I ask him what he thinks his chances are of living to 40. He points a cocked finger at me and says, “None.” He punctuates his last statement with a whispered, “Pow. Gotcha.”

The carne is delicious, the tortillas fresh, the company pleasant. The oldies keep playing, and life is great.

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