Serpentine Stairs towards Switchback Heaven.
That’s where they took Big Willie Winsboro.
Ronald Reagan Memorial Hospital in Westwood.
It was just around the corner from Hosseini’s. And that’s where I took Beebe, not knowing until later, that’s where the big man hand ended up. Although, I could’ve just looked at my phone. There was a message from Merchant.
Who would’ve thought that Ronald Reagan would be taking care of brown people, though? It helped that police were involved. Feds too. Some of the injured in Barnsdall had been brought over so the G-Men could keep close eye on them. So, when I came dragging Beebe in through the emergency doors, it was like they were expecting us. Merchant and Larsen. Johnson and Johnson. Some of those Salvadoreans in the park. A confluence of cocksuckers. I immediately regretted taking her there.
Beebe wasn’t so happy either. She bitched at me as she was taken away on a gurney. Not wanting to be at a hospital like most sane and well-adjusted people, so she held onto the opal for good luck. The thing’s orbit taking hold. The obsession was beginning. The thing had found a new schmuck. Or was its power different over women. They weren’t as weak as men and it was better for all in the palm of her hand.
I found Willie in a recovery room. Wires and tubes connected and coming out of all the orifices. His skin looked ashen. A grayish purple tone to his face, and maybe some new crevices had appeared in his forehead and around the mouth. But he was breathing. That was good.
“Can you believe this motherfucker’s alive?”
I turned my head to the doorway. Merchant, leaning against the frame.
“Kind of, yeah.” Looking back to Willie. “But it makes you not trust reality, a little.”
“Cause we all saw him take his last breath.”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything else on it. Merchant leaning on his crutch. He looked like he’d taken a shower and changed his clothes recently. I was so tired of talking to this dude.
“They pulled out the paddles on him. Sparked him right back to it.” Merchant shook his head. “Guess he wanted to live.”
Pointing out the obvious was the man’s forte. And it was what ground you down. You wondered if he even knew it. If he knew he had the power of a stump grinder. “You still trying to charge him for Jackie’s murder?”
“We found a Kershaw in them plants out front. You know them fucking elephant ears all out of control, in front of number two?” Merchant scoffed. “Dickhead just dropped the knife there. Prints all over it.” He couldn’t believe what he was saying.
“Took you that long to find it? It was right there all that time?”
“We found it.”
We looked each other in the eyes. There was a wall between us. Not a tangible thing. Just a feeling that we’d never understand much about each other. We were spent saliva to each other. Something to leave on the ground.
“So that’s it.” I asked.
“You brought in the last of it.”
For a split second I thought he was referring to the opal. But he wasn’t. He meant Beatriz Bonilla. They were one in the same. Weren’t they? Just a curious looking stone to put away in evidence. To put in a plastic bag on a shelf so it can be categorized and possibly be recalled later. Beebe would be charged for Erik’s murder. Who in turn would be charged for Jackie’s murder. It all seemed so simple then. It was known from the very beginning. And no one cared about Hosseini are the Armenians. Feds cared about the Salvadoreans. It was clear where the tethers were tightened and drawn.
“Hosseini left town.” I told Merchant.
Merchant took his time with it. “The guy that owns the apartment building.” He sold it well, with a deadpan stare.
“Yeah, the guy that’s got LAPD on the payroll.”
That straightened him up. Got him standing, rather than leaning in the doorway. “Say what?”
“You don’t play the dope well.” I told the detective. “You guys know about Matos.”
Merchant’s eyes narrowed and you could see him going somewhere that could only be touched by him. “She got caught up in that Fed raid.” Holding it all together. “Sometimes moonlighting will get your ass in a sling.”
“She wasn’t working security at an elementary school, man.”
“What the fuck you know about being a fucking cop?”
“You got two that ain’t in the red no more.” I nodded. “Check’s in the mail, right.”
It wasn’t going to get any better than that. It was a dark rift, not a thin blue line. There just wasn’t any room in his mind for someone like me. Someone straddling cracks. A man in-between. Merchant was looking at me like he’d always looked at me. Frustration all over his face. Like he was waiting for me to pick a side. Sides that had nothing to do with the lawful or the unlawful. Sides that had to do with shades and tones of skin color. No one knows where you stand. Not even you. Just what are you, and how did you get here?
I thought of a ditch on the side of a road in Northern Louisiana.
That’s how I’d gotten here.
But why had I stayed?
For that woman in the ditch.
I stared at Big Willie Winsboro. “You think he’ll make it?” He was breathing okay, it seemed.
“Hell yeah.” Merchant was glad to put away the heaviness of our constructs. “Motherfucker was resurrected. There’s purpose behind shit like that.”
Shit like what? But I didn’t ask that out loud. “You a religious man?”
The cop’s face scrunched up. “Maybe.” He wasn’t quite sure.
“Where’s your partner?”
He gave me a look like it was none of my business. “That cough finally put him down.”
“Put him down?”
Merchant shook his head. “He just laid up.” He looked at Willie.
We stood there for three or thirty minutes without saying anything. Merchant limped out of the doorway on his crutch.
“How’s your ass feeling?” I asked at his back.
He was half-way down the hallway when he said. “Better than yours.” it floated on an echo into the room.
I stuck around for a few hours after Merchant left; roaming the halls and visiting the dead. Well, not really visiting. Lingering just out of reach of the Feds and LAPD. They had the Salvadoreans they brought in under heavy guard. They weren’t letting anyone see Beebe either. There was a little nurse-chatter about the Salvis. Something about La Pantera Rosa not being amongst the bedridden. He got away. Didn’t surprise me. Guys like that live to fight another day. No doubt that was why Hosseini skipped town. If the Feds and the Armenians couldn’t get him, then they’d take the money and run.
I left the hospital at the point of exhaustion. Hadn’t slept in a couple of days and the period was at the end of its sentence. There was nothing left to do. The what now had reached its adieu. The whatever would have its day.
So, I went home. To that little, sardine can in Pico-Union. Those goons weren’t in the park across from those ancient mansions. Maybe they got rounded up, or they took to the mattresses, knowing there’s a target on their backs, but they weren’t out there. I parked the Mustang along the curb of the park, in front of those houses called Alvarado Terrace, and let the warmth of the day settle in. Staring at those houses. A row of mansions all built around 1903. You know the story. White people dig in the earth and discover old dinosaur bones liquified into black sludge. A great lube for combustible engines. The rest is just history and money. White people build big houses and draw the lines around their fiefdoms. It’s all about property.
That’s what I’ve learned.
But boundaries are imagined, and people walk across them every day. And mix and mix and mix. And there’s nothing you can do about it, no matter how privileged you are. So, go ahead and back yourself into a corner, put up your dukes, and ready to fight for whatever trash you deem your bloodline.
I fell asleep in the car. Dreaming about lines in the sand, big as Louisiana ditches. Banging on metal woke me up. There was Small Johnson with a hand flat on the hood of a stolen car.
Speaking of white people in corners.
I stuck my head out of the window. “Shouldn’t you be at Barney’s Beanery, celebrating?”
He kind of smiled and squinted in the sun. “I missed you at Ronald Reagan.”
“You almost made it.” Small Johnson, whose real name was Tommy Guenther from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, nodded towards a place my apartment might be. His dress-collar was too bright and stiff to look on at this hour. It was abrasive and uncool at this hour. It was noon. Or somewhere where shadows stuck close to the body.
“Fuck you want?” I got out of the truck and leaned against the door.
He shrugged and put his hands in his pockets and looked at one of the houses across the street. “Thought you might wanna know where Hosseini is.”
I didn’t. But I was interested in one thing. “Why would you wanna dime your benefactor out like that?”
Tommy Guenther squinted even more. “That’s a deal Bonner made, not me.”
Bonner. Tall Johnson. “Tell LAPD you willing to buck?”
“They got nothing on him and he’s left their jurisdiction.”
“Nobody’s got anything on him, really.”
“You do.” He looked at me. “So does your pal, Willie Winsboro.”
I looked at him with upturned lips. Playing it hard, but knowing where this was going. “I recall you and Bonner being there when that barrel of money was dropped off.”
Guenther scoffed. “Speaking of LAPD. They found four bodies at a dumpsite down near Long Beach.” He let that sit. “Word is the site manager is talking.”
And there it was. Aiding and abetting murder. Short-hairs time, and maybe forever. I hoped I hadn’t blinked a hundred times before I said this. “Fuck are you talking about?”
Tommy wasn’t buying anything I had to sell him. “Your buddy Willie will wake up, and I doubt he’ll implicate you, but that lot attendant has been talking about a little, red Toyota truck.” He tapped the hood with his ring finger. “And there was a Mustang that was reported stolen from a storage facility in Torrance the attendant can put eyes on.”
“Say I give myself up.” I folded my arms in defense. “Start singing about you, Bonner and Hosseini.”
“To LAPD?” Guenther looked amused.
“Thinking your higher-ups would like to know their hitched up with the Armenian Power.”
Tommy Guenther, a.k.a Small Johnson, stepped from in front of the car and leaned on the side of it with me. “How you plan on getting that meeting?” He asked.
“I don’t know. Stand outside with a sign, holler and stomp around with the rest of them protestors.”
That made the Fed laugh. “That’s funny.”
“You wanna know how Hosseini and Bonner got all chummy?”
Of course, I did, but I didn’t know we were all chummy. Guenther and me. One and half crackers shooting the shit in the shadow of old, white money. MS-13 territory now. White boys better watch out. I asked him how, but it was just more questions that made me trust my skepticism when it came to chumminess and Feds.
“Who you think’s out there with those homemade signs most days?”
They were out there most days, it seemed. On the corner of Wilshire and Veteran. Carrying signs saying something about freeing Iranian prisoners. Waving Iranian flags. Made sense. Most of Westwood was Persian owned.
“Hosseini connected to those folks?”
“He brokered a deal for those people not to be moved off that corner. Bureau brass was ready to call in some favors from LAPD to move them, less than civilized like. Hosseini came in and worked something out.”
Worked something out. “That’s some serious weight.” I mused.
Guenther nodded. “Man moves in some serious circles.”
“So why you here, man? Serious Circles is halfway to Israel by now. Man’s untouchable.”
Tommy the Fed shook his head slightly. “You and your boy touched him. That’s why he’s on the run. And if Willie wanted to talk… now that would be something.”
“’You just said he wouldn’t.”
Guenther shrugged. “Hosseini doesn’t know that.”
“What’d you want from me?”
Tommy Guenther smiled at me. His teeth were as white as his collar and I didn’t dare look at him longer than I should.
Eventually, I walked home to my studio apartment with that rec-center-blue carpet and cigarette-yellow walls and slept for twenty hours. And when I was awakened by the Tejano music next door, I went outside to smoke a cigarette I didn’t have. I looked around for butts in the sidewalk cracks like a proper street fiend, but there was an old Salvadorean lady out there sweeping the broken concrete clean. I hadn’t smoked in years. Had no idea what I was doing out there, other than looking for a fog to cover my anxiousness. A familiar beat came bumping down the street. But it wasn’t a Honda Accord’s doors rattling up the block but a white 64’ El Camino. Built at the beginning of time to last. It idled down the street like an albino alligator, cruising for carrion. The driver wasn’t familiar to me. But the guy in the passenger seat looked like La Pantera Rosa. Not such a rosy complexion now, though. He looked pale. Although, it could’ve been the brightness of the interior reflecting off his skin. The El Camino stopped abreast of me, in the middle of the street. The driver had on dark sunglasses and a black windbreaker buttoned up to his neck. He leaned over and turned the music down, then looked back at me and nodded. I looked passed him at Flores. He nodded too. For a split-second I thought we were all just being good neighbors, milling out mellow motions on another blue-skied day, but the driver had to go and ruin it by placing a Glock 22 on his window seal. I looked over at the old lady sweeping the sidewalk, but she was minding her own business and making her way in the other direction. I walked over to the El Camino, making my way over to Flores’ side, thinking about where the MP9 was in my apartment.
“Missed you at Barndall Park.” Flores looked bored.
“You weren’t the only one.” I told him.
“I know, saw you talking to that Fed yesterday.” Like it was nothing to flaunt his omnipresence. “You should get in the back.” His head gestured towards the bed of the El Camino.
“You think I dimed you out to the Feds?”
Flores looked at me, straight-on. “I know you didn’t. But you should get in the back. We’re gonna go for a ride.”
“A ride where?” But I already knew. Flores and Guenther were on the same wavelength. Maybe even on each other’s speed dials. Bonner had Hosseini and his partner had Flores. The sick games men play. Tall versus Small.
“You already know, motherfucker. Get in the back.” Flores’ eyes went all angry.
“Get in the back, bitch.” The driver waved his Glock at me, seeing now that his black windbreaker had a Raiders logo on the chest.
All had on was a faded blue Batman t-shirt and black UCLA basketball shorts. Barefoot and fancy free.
Okay. I got in the back of the El Camino, and when the thing roared up to Pico and took a left, and soared all the way to the Westside like Johnny Gold, I knew exactly where we were going. We passed Fox Studios and Hillcrest Country club across the street. A dozen or so groups playing golf. It was a fine day. Like every other day. It made you forget, this town. The silvery light of the Southland obliterates your hippocampus each day into a smile of moving dementia. There’s no other place you’d rather be. Because forgetting is living. How else can you live in the now? Just find where the sun shines and turn up Veteran and head straight towards the Santa Monica Mountains. Right on Sunset. Left on Bellagio and swirl up the serpentine stairs towards switchback heaven. You’ve taken this trip before. But never in the back of a white, El Camino. It was nice. The driver taking his time on the turns, like a nice, family drive up into the mountains. The eucalyptus trees towered over us, their slender leaves waggling like green arrows in the breeze. You could close your eyes and imagine you were in paradise, taking deep breaths and smelling the mint and citrus in the air. The turbo V-8 rumbling through your ears and up your backside, along your spine, could lull you into false hope. But those two dudes in the cab keep your eyes open, because this wasn’t a visit between friends.
The El Camino came to stop under those trees by the tennis court. Big Willie and I had sat in the same place wondering who it was that Cliff was meeting. Guenther had told me outside Alvarado Terrace whose tennis court that was. Agassi. The dude wearing the Raiders windbreaker shut the Camino off and the sounds of California scrub-jays could be heard all around us in the trees.
“I heard you got my money out of that storage unit.” Flores said, through the open passenger window. The fop of a tennis ball could be heard going back and forth on the court.
“We did.” Although Willie had done all the heavy lifting. “Last time I saw it, it was in a garage in Westwood.” I looked over and could just make out two figures through the trees. “But it ain’t there anymore.”
Flores nodded in my periphery. “Now it’s here.”
“That what Guenther told you?”
La Pantera Rosa, who wasn’t pink at all, opened the passenger door and got out of the car. He looked to be favoring his left leg. The dude driving got out of the car too. He wasn’t favoring anything but that Glock in his hand. I got out of the back of the El Camino because the end of a line was near and I desperately wanted to see what it looked like. We three stood there under a mammoth Eucalyptus tree and looked toward the tennis court. The scrub-jays were still chattering and the tennis ball was in a rhythmic twang off the rackets. Two out of three of us had shoes on.
“Anybody else see the irony here?” It was a line I’d heard in a movie. It was something I did when I couldn’t think of anything to say. They just seem to pop up.
Flores and his boy looked at each other over the hood of the car. I was standing at the tailgate, wishing someone would finally get me. “Tennis.” I stated. “Agassi, tennis…” I shook my head. “Forget it.” Resigned to a reality gone rogue.
“It’s a popular name in Armenia.” The dude in the Raiders windbreaker saw me.
Flores gave his boy a nod and they both started towards the little, parking spot where Cliff’s Beamer was parked. Three steps led up to a chain-linked door that went onto the court. I followed but hung back. The tennis court had been built at the bottom of a canyon wall. It was lousy with kudzu overgrowth. The place was dark and green and the feeling of being sheltered permeated everything. Flores was limping for sure. His left leg bothering him as he made it to the gate and lifted up the latch. His driver was standing a step below him, still with that Glock out, when his head exploded all over the chain-linked fence. His body slumped down the steps before I even heard the gunshot echo down the canyon. He was still holding on to his gun as it clacked on the concrete.
La Pantera turned to look over his shoulder with little surprise and then walked out onto the court. Price to pay for admittance. He knew exactly what he was getting into. But there was no way he could be thinking he’d get what he was owed. That shot had come from somewhere along the ridge, hidden in all that kudzu. Agassi was playing a more ruthless game. Assassins in the trees was not the game of checkers Flores was brushing out. I shot up the stairs and onto the court, not wanting to lose any pickings on this fine day.
Agassi was sitting in a chair along a concrete retaining wall, drinking water from a plastic bottle. Cliff was over by a small toolshed putting tennis balls away, pretending not to shit his pants. Both were acting as if no one’s brains were just blown all over the court. Or maybe they were just secure in the fact that they had hound out there in the woods with screaming bullets to protect their backs. Agassi’s gaze finally swept over to us, as if we were there to scape some land for one of his many properties. Flores was breathing heavily, sweat on his brow. I hung back, looking at Cliff. We were more alike in this setting than I thought possible. Both beat-up bystanders lurking on the edges of powerful blades.
“What’s up Arden?” Flores managed.
Arden Agassi. He looked like the guy in county lock-up with me and Willie. But he didn’t have any tattoos. He had the requisite bald head, but he had a lanky frame from seeing many days of light leisure. And he was definitely the guy in the lady’s apartment that was arguing with Hosseini. But who was the guy in jail with us? I could feel the kudzu moving out there on the ridge. The hairs on the back of my neck rising up. Looking over my shoulder through the chain-linked fence, all I could see was a vast wall of green; the light breeze causing a wave effect in the foliage.
“Miguel.” Agassi picked something off the end of his tongue and flicked it away.
Miguel Flores. Like his father. Two families that went way back. Armenians and Salvadoreans in the land of the sun. “Where’s my money?” Flores asked, not really giving a fuck about history of families.
Agassi squinted. “What money?”
Flores looked over his shoulder at me. That’s my I’m here. To bear witness. “The money in that blue barrel.” I croaked. “We found it in a storage unit down in Torrance.”
The Armenian didn’t seem surprised by any of this. Hosseini had hit him up already, no doubt. “Curious place, isn’t it.”
Flores and I didn’t know who he was addressing. We looked at each other and flickered our eyebrows. “The storage spot?” I finally asked.
“It was my brother’s idea.” Agassi began. “It was bait. Trying to lure you down there.” He looked at Flores. “But you didn’t take it. Pretty neat play, I’ll give you that. Sending those two down there.” He looked at me. “What was your promised percentage?”
“Twenty.” I almost yelled it. Flores didn’t bother to look at me. Hoping on hope that somebody would honor an arrangement. Maybe somebody would get paid. At least walk away with something. And immediately I felt a twinge; a tug from a discorporate hand on my shoulder. A cold touch from friend already forgotten.
“Twenty percent of what, exactly?” Agassi asked.
Flores looked confused. “Two mil…”
“This is why you’ve failed, Miguel.” Arden told him. “You don’t treat people with the proper respect.” He nodded my way. “The man’s cut would’ve been a few million more than that.” He had his legs crossed and brushed something off his white shorts.
La Pantera gave me a mystified look. “How much was in that barrel.” He asked me.
I didn’t really know exactly. Just what Willie had said, offhandedly. “Thirty million.” Saying it anyway.
“What?” Flores’ mouth was left open. The number didn’t make sense to him and he looked back at Agassi. “Bullshit.” He shook his head. “You keeping thirty million in a barrel down in a storage unit… no.”
Agassi uncrossed his legs and pressed his hands to his thighs and stood up. He had a crooked smile on his face. “As opposed to two million?” He laughed, sounding like a crow with laryngitis. “I told you, it was ruse put together by my brother.” His head turned towards the kudzu ridge.
His brother was the sharpshooter out there. But what was he doing in county two days ago? He got himself arrested on purpose. Or he was arranged to be put in there. “You and your brother are twins?” I asked.
That got a sharp gaze from Agassi. He’d taken a few steps toward Cliff and had stopped in his tracks. “You’ve met him, then.”
“In county lock-up two days ago.” I told him.
The Armenian raised his chin in recognition. “Bonner.” He stated. “He wanted to know what you and your gorilla knew.”
Gorilla. The man could be hated enough. He accepted it and reveled in it. He stared at me, wanting me to challenge him. This was all he had left in life. He had everything else. Now, he had to entertain himself. Pull the strings and watch them dance.
“Why you so afraid of him?” I asked.
Agassi blinked. “Afraid of whom?”
“Big Willie Winsboro.”
“Who?” Agassi was in no way convincing in his naivety. “Oh, the big black man who lives in the alley.” He turned and continued walking towards Cliff, who was standing by the toolshed, still putting tennis balls away. I wondered why he was there. I was a golf pro, right?
“You know he lives in the alley behind that building Hosseini owns. I saw you there last night, arguing in that lady’s apartment.” That stopped him again. “What’s that lady to you?”
Agassi seemed to slump over a bit. Only the weight of family can do that to a body. Albatrosses around necks and such. “Yes, you were lurking out there. Where is the stone, Mr. Mangham?”
“Probably in some bedpan at Ronald Reagan.” I told him.
His eyes narrowed into slits. “I got the fucking thing.” Flores blurted. We all looked at him. Even Cliff. “Just a fucking marble.” He held it up between his thumb and forefinger. The sunlight reflecting more than that. “Tell that motherfucker out there to take his barrel off the back of my head, if you want this.”
“It would be rolling my way before your body hit the court.” Agassi told him.
Flores nodded and put his hand down. “I just want the money that’s owed to me.”
“On the place in Filipinotown.”
“Motherfucker…” Flores’ couldn’t comprehend why the man was playing it this way. Like all of this was news to him. Agassi nodded and walked over to the other side of the toolshed. Our gazes followed him over there and saw the blue, plastic barrel for the first time, tucked in the corner, hidden by the shed.
“Well, if you’ve come to collect, you’ve come to collect.” Agassi motioned to Cliff, who hopped to it, going over to the barrel which one on the other side of the tool shed, and dragging it out to the center of the court.
Flores and I were standing just on the other side of the net. Cliff was out of breath and staring at the barrel and the job he’d done dragging it over to the center. Agassi had followed him and stepped around to take the lid off the thing. “By all means.” He smiled, holding the lid up.
We couldn’t see inside the barrel from where we were standing. About twenty feet away. Flores looked at me. I looked at him. This was all very strange. A bag-man-meet-up on a tennis court in Bel-Air. And Agassi was no bag man with that twin out there with a scope on us. I shook my head. Cliff was looking at the Armenian for a cue. He gave it with a slight nod and Cliff kicked the barrel over.
It fell over and rolled a bit. Paper poured out of the opening and twitch fibers moved in our legs. The money is loose! Gather it up! Our loins were speaking to us. Our stomachs had dropped.
“Shit.” Flores yelled.
I moved too. But only up to the net when the paper flying around turned out to be something other than cash. Cut-up pieces of paper. Old newspaper and white printing paper, cut into small pieces. A strong breeze kicked up and flicked the paper into a tiny whirlwind. Confetti in the wind.
Flores had walked up to the net and stood in the barrage of dry pulp. But there wasn’t a look of surprise on his face. Only anger. He stared at Agassi from across the net. “Motherfucker.” He stated, again.
“I told you it was ruse.” Agassi reiterated. “A set-up. You have to wonder how you heard about such a thing. A barrel of money in a storage unit in Torrance. Absurd.” He kind of scoffed.
An important thing to point out, how we all get lead astray. Dollars to donuts it had something to do with family. And La Pantera knew it. He was gritting his teeth, not looking at Agassi any longer. He watched the swirl of monopoly money meander itself all over the tennis court. He sort of smiled, or grimaced, and shook his head. “Fucking Ed.” He said.
“What?” I was still present and looking for answers for some reason.
“Ed.” He looked at me. “She got it from Beebe who got it from Erik.” He shook his head. “Motherfucker. Should’ve known those tweakers were just bait.” He turned his attention back to Agassi. “But that’s how you roll, huh Arden.”
“Excuse me?” He was watching the paper swirl.
“Erik was your son.”
Agassi thought about it, a flicker of something in his eyes, like, was he my son? “He had his own path.” Was all he had to say about that dude.
“All this shit for some family heirloom.”
“Which you still have.” He looked over towards the ridge.
Flores remembered he still held it in his hand. He opened his fist and the opal rested in his palm. He tossed it in the air, caught it as it came down. Agassi watched it closely go up and down and land with a soft thwap. “You got nothing to give me for it and gun to the back of my head.” The Pantera started. “I should just give it up, huh.” He looked at the stone in his hand. “I don’t get it. My old man…” Flores shook some memories back into their caves. “What the fuck did he ever see in it?”
“Glory.” Agassi croaked, and left it at that.
“Fuck does that mean?”
Agassi smiled. How can one explain something like that? A trinket really, passed down through generations. Stolen maybe, at times and lost in others. The fact that it still in someone’s hands and not buried deep in the earth is a wonder. Its extraction is some sort of human glory in itself. If digging in the earth for things you deem precious is not just an arbitrary construction, then yes, it is sublime.
“It means that you haven’t the capacity to understand it.” Agassi had his hands in his pockets, waiting for something. Pieces of paper were still circling about. He glanced furtively towards the ridge behind us.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right.” Flores said and tossed the marble onto the court. It made a tinkering sound, bouncing into all the fake cash, and disappearing. Then he turned around and faced the kudzu, wanting to see his death coming.
Agassi was torn. He lost the marble in the swirl of paper, shuffling towards it and looking over to see his twin bring the doom to Flores. He was a rodeo clown dancing about, not sure where the bull would turn. But the shot from the ridge didn’t come. The breeze had picked up and a lawnmower could be heard whirring on another property. The foliage out on the ridge was moving in waves. La Pantera and I stood there for a while, waiting. Agassi still jumbled about behind us, his confetti-ruse in the air all around him, the marble lost again. He could’ve been just another old soul on skid-row, chasing dead dreams. I thought about Brenda and that hard, cement corner she died in. Pretty sure which family member put that bullet in her head. But the reasoning behind it still eluded me.
Eventually Flores limped off the tennis court, and I wasn’t far behind him. We left Agassi and Cliff there to sift through needless paper and varnished stones. While Flores lumbered down the steps to the El Camino, I paused and looked into the ridge of green overgrowth. Where had the shooter gone? Or was he still out there, gone to boredom in the Bel-Air hills. The El Camino came to life like an old, sleeping dragon. He didn’t even look up as he backed the beast out into the street, leaving me and his headless compatriot in the dust.
I moved up into the ridge along little pathways, losing myself in the kudzu, finding grape vines here and there. Switchbacking up the ridge, I came to a little spot where a bench was hidden behind a big sugar bush. I sat down and could see the tennis court through small openings in the bush. There was an empty shell in the dirt. Some boot prints. It was really quiet. No sirens could be heard. Folks minded their business in these hills. I sat there and sniffed the lemonade berry bush that was all along the ridge. Then I saw the Agassi twin down by the tennis court, pulling Flores’ man up the three steps. He took the dead man’s Raiders windbreaker off and gave it a look. He was holding it up with both hands, giving it a good gander, seeing some blood on it and shrugging, then putting it on and dragging the man onto the court.
I almost threw-up, but I didn’t.
There was a path that went down to Chalon, on the other side of the hill that put you down by a golf-course. Part of Bel-Air Country Club. Bellagio ran along its western side and I just walked it down to Sunset and then to Veteran, and made my way back to Ronald Reagan. It was a Tuesday afternoon and the place was quiet. The personnel at the front desk looked at me as if I needed medical attention and I was in the right place. No, I told them, I was here to see about some folks who had it far worse. But Beatrice Bonilla and Willie Winsboro had both checked themselves out against medical advice. Beebe probably had some help. Her sister Ed, no doubt, being the bridge to Flores getting the stone. I wondered if they knew that it was tossed into memory on a tennis court just a few minutes north of there. Probably didn’t care. Just glad to be done with the thing. Which was a sentiment I could relate to. But there was always something unfinished.
I walked down to Wilshire and made my way back to Barrington, stopping for a moment near that dilapidated church on the hill, on government land. The structure had a chain-linked fence around it, but there was an opening along the eastern side that some zombies had made, but something about the place was just sad. It was something to look at and not touch. It would get knocked down eventually, if someone like Hosseini had his way. But it’s the way of the west. You see it all the time in this city. There’s not much for remembering. Empty lots don’t have much shelf-life. Build something new, please and let us forget. It’s a blissful place to live if you give into it.
The 7-Eleven was quiet and I walked through it towards the alley, not thinking about hot dogs or malt liquor. Big Willie’s tent and every other belonging was nowhere to be found. Someone had come along and taken that futon. Maybe Willie had come along, his first stop after the hospital. But I searched up and down the alley to no avail. No Big Willie Winsboro. So, I went back up to Hosseini’s building and shoved my way into Jackie’s place for one last look. There was nothing in there. The place was cleaned out. Cliff had done his job. Bastard. Nothing in that apartment but giant, dust dunes on the wooden floor where the couch used to be. I walked the place like a landlord on loan. Looking at empty rooms like they were someone’s future rather than sad rooms for ghosts. Jackies bedroom closet had been emptied. What would they do with her clothes? Goodwill probably. Then the thought of where Jackie’s body would finally lay, pulverized my thoughts. I’d asked Larsen a thousand years ago, who would identify her body, and he never answered me. Did she have a will?
Out of that empty apartment ready for rent and up the steps towards Cliff’s place. His door wasn’t even locked. I stepped in and went straight for the patio to that far corner where the safe was still sitting.
Finally found Big Willie Winsboro down in Skid Row. He looked alright for a man who’d just had three bullets removed from his torso. He’d lost some weight and his jorts hung half-way down his ass. But I don’t think that was much of a fashion change. It taken me about two weeks to track him down. The thought of him going back to Skid Row only entering my head when a nightmare about Brenda woke me up at three o’clock in the morning. Images of dark tunnels and brains along the walls still lingering when I parked the Toyota at a meter along 6th and Los Angeles. Willie was sitting in the same place we’d found Brenda; along the curb on 6th just before San Pedro. His bare feet in the gutter, not caring about the broken glass and needles and human feces. It was a hot day and he had no shirt on and you could see the pink, puckered marks on his chest and stomach where the bullets came and went. He looked up at me and spat out yellow juice from the licorice root that was in his mouth. His face a little gaunt and ashen. But still a miraculous healing human being.
“Been looking for you.” I told him. “Hospital said you checked yourself out.” I shook my ahead in astonishment.
“Ronald Reagan.” He snorted. “You believe that shit?”
Sure, I thought, he was the governor of California once. So was Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’d be a hospital named after him shortly. “They took everyone there. Makes sense for the Feds.”
“You still talking to them Janssen motherfuckers?”
I shook my head. “I looked for you in the alley. What’re you doing down here?” Looking around at all sorts of folks living filthy and free.
Willie tilted his head towards the sky and closed his eyes, letting the sun wipe away guilt and regret and all that lay there waiting for sleep. “Seemed like a good spot to be.” His eyes still closed. “I owed it to Brenda, at least.” He opened his eyes and looked at me.
It made sense in some street level dharmic way. “The man that killed her is still walking about.” I told him.
“Why’d they kill her?” Willie asked.
“The opal.” Shaking my head. “She let it go. Let Miguel keep it. Let herself go. I don’t know.” And I truly didn’t.
“That fucking marble.” He spit more yellow juice on the blackened street.
“Yeah, that fucking marble.” Agreeance is fertile.
So many things that were still bothersome. “What about Merchant? He still fucking with you?” Big Willie took the root from his mouth and ran his tongue over his teeth, and it occurred to me why he was down here in Skid Row.
“No.” Shaking my head. “Haven’t heard from him.” I told the big man about what Guenther laid out to me, the four dead down in Long Beach. “I don’t know if they put it together or even care. Small Johnson got what he wanted… what’s it matter now?”
“Just a game white people play.” He stuck the root back in his mouth. “But Hosseini got away.” He smiled like he had cigar in his mouth.
“You like the man.”
“Respect him maybe. Maybe.” He thought about it. “Motherfucker, all he really had to do was move away.” He raised his eyebrows. “I mean, shit, the man just went on vacation after all that.” He shook his head. “Gotta give it to him.”
I looked at Willie a long time. “How you know he left?” He was in the hospital when Beebe and I went by his place.
Winsboro squinted up at me and smiled. “What I heard, anyways.”
Heard from whom? But I didn’t ask. I knew. The man was still somehow tethered to Hosseini. Committed murders and served as supreme bag man. Now they were both hiding out. Fuck em’. They are where they belong. Willie here and his master wherever he was. I found one, I’d find the other. Because I didn’t bother telling the big man what I’d found in Jackie’s safe.
It had a false bottom. A flash drive with spread sheets. Laying out all of Hosseini’s properties and finances. Jackie was good at what she did. Whatever that was. Security and spreadsheets and gathering of lost stones.
But what now?
Hosseini would have to be at one of these places on Jackie’s sheet. Willie didn’t have to help. And I’d lied to him anyway. Didn’t tell him that Merchant helped me out. Jackie didn’t have a next of kin, so he had me come in and identify her body. She’d also made out a will that was in that false bottom. She wanted to be cremated. I had the remains in a small wooden box some kid had made in shop class. Maybe that kid was me. I asked Big Willie if he wanted to take a drive out to the Palisades.
“You never went out there with her?”
We took the 10 west until it veered into a tunnel heading north on the 1. I still had the Mustang. No one ever came looking for it. Made me wonder what the previous owner was into. We hung a right up Temescal Canyon and another right on Sunset and back through a neighborhood of million-dollar houses. It was a sleepy place on a plateau that ended at a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There was bench out on a grass precipice. We sat out there with the box of ashes between us.
“Damn dog.” Was all Willie could manage.
“I know, man.”
Blue on blue on white.
“Shit, man.” Willie took a deep breath. He looked at the box. “She wanted her ashes out there?” He nodded his head at the Pacific.
“I don’t know. Her will didn’t say anything like that. Just said she wanted to be cremated.” The ocean was a flat sheet of pale electric. The horizon was a hard white melting of nitrogen into water.
Willie didn’t say anything for a while. Neither did I. Jackie was there in-between us. Then the nag took over. “How’d you get to be a mercenary?” I asked him. “You blowing out your knee and all in college. Couldn’t’ve made it in the army after that, right?”
With the licorice root in his mouth, Big Willie Winsboro just smiled at me.