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The machine clicked and the mechanical voice proclaimed, “End of messages.”

Sigh. No Ramirez. No Brad Pitt. No handsome stranger who saw me in line at Starbucks and looked up my number on the Internet.

I hated Friday nights.

I finished my Diet Coke and hopped in the shower, washing the gym sweat off my sore limbs. I threw on a pair of jeans, a sparkly pink wrap top with little silver sequins, and brand new, totally kickin’ Ferragamo pumps. Which, by the way, had put me in debt (again) but the two inches they added to my 5′1 1/2″ frame were so worth it. A little mousse and blow-dry number to my (mostly) naturally blond hair and I was ready.

Dana picked me up in her tan Saturn and we hopped on the 10. Rush hour traffic had died down, but there were still enough cars on the road to make it light up like a Christmas tree in the early fall dusk. As soon as we pulled into the left lane a blue Dodge Neon grabbed onto our bumper and tailgated us the entire way east to the 405. I looked at the speedometer. We were doing eighty. Only in L.A.

I glanced back to get a look at the driver, but the glare from his headlights was all I saw. I sent him the universal hand gesture for “back off, pal.”

Only thirty minutes, two lewd truck drivers, and one cell-phone-related wreck later we were parked in front of our destination.

Sepulveda Guns and Ammo.

“Um, what are we doing here?”

“Shopping,” Dana replied.

“This isn’t exactly what I had in mind.” I took in the barred windows, NRA posters on the door and homeless person peeing on the side of the brick building. “You sure you don’t want to go to Macy’s?”

Dana shook her head at me. “I need a piece.”

“A ‘piece’? What are you, Clint Eastwood?”

“Last week Rico told the class we needed to think about protection.”

After my “brush with death” last summer, as my overly dramatic best friend called it, Dana went on this self-defense kick, immediately going out and signing up for a class at the rec center. Surveillance and Protection for the Urban Soldier. The instructor of the class, Rico, looked like a cross between Rambo and the Incredible Hulk. I could see Rico needing a “piece.” The thought of Dana handling a deadly weapon was, however, mildly frightening.

“Do you even know how to shoot a gun?”

“Yep.” Dana smiled with pride. “Rico’s been giving me some private lessons.”

Considering Dana’s uncanny ability to pick up men destined for short-term relationships, I could just imagine the kind of “private lessons” Rico had been giving her.

“I don’t know about this.” I eyed the store again. The homeless guy zipped up and began yelling at passing cars. “I’ll buy you a Wetzel’s Pretzel with extra cinnamon sugar if we can go to the Glendale Galleria instead.”

Dana got out of the car. “Come on, don’t be such a wimp. Rico said this place was the best.”

I shrugged. I’d known Dana since we bonded in seventh grade over a shared crush on Corey Feldman circa The Lost Boys. And I knew once she set her mind to something, I could no more dissuade her from buying a gun in North Hollywood now than I could stop her from FedExing Corey her training bra then. Besides, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a can of pepper spray.

Dana clubbed her steering wheel and locked the car with a backward glance at the homeless guy. He was still busy shouting obscenities at a Ford Festiva on the corner.

The bell over the door to Sepulveda Guns and Ammo jingled as we pushed through the NRA posters, prompting all eyes to turn our way. Two homeboys in low-slung jeans and baseball caps were hunkered over an assault rifle in the corner, planning something I so did not want to know about. A tall guy with a greasy blond ponytail and a shirt liberally stained with mustard stopped his inspection of a long-range scope and took to inspecting us, his tiny eyes doing a slow up and down thing.

I suddenly needed a shower.

Dana grabbed my arm and steered me over to the woman behind the glass counter, who wore a nametag that read MAC. She was shorter than me, which put her near the five foot mark, with bushes of frizzy red hair that Carrot Top would be jealous of. And an eye patch. Seriously. A black, Johnny Depp-style eye patch that looked like it should come with a parrot. I tried not to stare.

“What can I do for ya, honey?” she asked, her voice rough with years of cigarette smoke. Or maybe just trying not to inhale the homeless guy stench wafting in through the ancient ventilation ducts exposed in the ceiling.

Dana stepped up to the smudged glass counter and did her best Dirty Harry. “I’m lookin’ to pack.”

I rolled my eyes.

Scary Gun Lady narrowed her good one at us.

“What my friend means,” I jumped in, “is that she’s looking for a starter sort of gun. Something small. And safe. You know, that won’t go off easily.”

Her eye narrowed further and she did a hands on hips thing. “You want a safe gun?”

I think I heard Ponytail Guy snicker behind us.

I looked to Dana for help but she was busy scrutinizing the display case full of deadly weapons. I knew that look in her eyes. It was the same one I got when Dior pumps went on sale. My mild fear jumped up a notch.

“Safe-ish maybe?”

Scary Gun Lady gave me a once-over, her gaze stopping at my sparkly pink top, which, by the way, would have been perfect for a stroll around the mall.

“Honey, you’ve never held a gun before, have you?”

No, but I had wicked accuracy with a stiletto heel. “Nuh uh,” I replied.

She shook her head, her red hair flying around her face like Bozo the Clown’s. Though, in all honestly, my gaze was still riveted to that eye patch. Why we had ventured into the depths of North Hollywood for guns was still a bit of a mystery to me. I mean, they sell guns in Beverly Hills too.

“I like this one,” Dana, said, pointing to a DDA.45 caliber pistol. Neon pink.

The saleswoman did the hands on hips thing again. “Honey, I could sell you that gun. But the first time you pull it out, you know what your attacker’s gonna say?”

Dana and I shook our heads in unison.

“Nothin’. He’ll be laughing too hard.”

Dana nodded solemnly. “Right. No pink.” She straightened up and did her serious face, scrunching her eyebrows together like she was thinking really hard. “See, I’m mostly looking for some kind of protection against those smarmy kinds of guys who hit on you in clubs, and then when you turn them down wait for you to go to the bathroom, then slip you a roofie and you wake up in some stranger’s bed the next day. Know what I mean?”

Mac raised her eyebrows and looked from Dana to me, as if saying, “Is this chick for real?”

“Okay, look. You seem like nice enough girls, and I don’t wanna see you get hurt. How about some pepper spray?”

“What, do we look like amateurs?” Dana asked.

Even I had to agree with the snort of laughter Ponytail Guy let out at that one.

But Dana wasn’t giving up. “Listen, Rico told me you could help me find something. He said you were the best.”

“Rico?” The woman’s face softened and she shifted her defensive posture. “Why didn’t you tell me you knew Rico?” She reached into the glass case and pulled out a silver handgun. “Here, this is what you girls need. A Smith and Wesson LadySmith. Semiautomatic, nine millimeter, rubber grips in stainless finish. Hardly any recoil, but it packs quite a punch and fits in your purse.”

Dana’s eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas. “Can I hold it?”

Gun Lady nodded. Dana picked it up, doing her best James Bond stance. The guys in baseball caps took a couple steps backward.

“There’s also the semiauto, barrel tip.” Mac reached into the case again, pulling out a gun in black. “They’re lighter, easier to load than a LadySmith. The only disadvantage is they don’t retain spent casings. Little harder to explain when the cops show up.” She gave me a wink and a nudge.