Elam Mangham’s best friend has just been murdered, and he and Big Willie Winsboro don’t give a damn about the cops and FBI agents and the Armenians and the Salvadoreans standing in their way. They’re gonna find out who murdered Jackie Meaux if it kills them.
Chapter One: “Cops are fun!”
“She dead, man.”
Big Willie Winsboro stood in the doorway of a friend. He lived in the alley behind the apartment building. Had a tent set up where he shouldn’t. Or, where most young, white folks had to walk by and pretend it didn’t exist. That’s where he lived. In white postures of inexistence.
The words to answer him were bound in confusion.
Big Willie was in the doorway of a friend.
She was dead.
The police and the paramedics came. All of them. Every last one of them on the westside careened in at an angle. A caravan rallying against the indigenous; blocking off Barrington and sending all the signals to Brentwood to stay indoors.
They didn’t know any better.
You never know until you show up.
Those policeman and paramedics looked a little surprised when they wheeled Jackie Meaux out on a stretcher and into an ambulance down on Barrington. The paramedics cursed themselves for not parking in the alley, as they stepped awkwardly down the concrete steps that led up to the building. The police looked bored until two dudes in black suits showed up and starting asking questions.
Big Willie saw it too. He burped and blew it in their general direction. It smelled like a four-day-old 7-Eleven hot dog. A patrolman with a tag that read Martinez had us sitting on the curb. He didn’t know what to make of any of it. He kept his mouth tight and straight, but his eyes told another story. They kept flittering to a patrolwoman with a tag that read Matos. She stepped over toward Martinez like a vaquero stepping up to a saloon bar. Her thumbs hooked on her belt and twisting on the balls of her feet like some bow-legged ballerina.
“Some black girl bit it.” Big Willie and I could both hear her over the din of municipal whistles and horns. She didn’t know we could hear her, and we didn’t tell her otherwise.
“For real?” He said it fast, Martinez, acting nonchalant, like he didn’t care.
“You believe that shit.” Not really a question.
“In this neighborhood.” The man flicked his eyebrows up and down like a switch.
He was all Red-Bull and twitch fibers. Put that on your application for the academy, make sure your index finger works, and you’re on your way to being a cop in any Ol’ American police department.
“Fucking West LA.” Matos said it like it was the only known quantity in a nebula.
“What the fuck.” Her partner agreed.
Matos finally looked down at Willie and me. We both returned the eyeballing with a bit of eavesdropping-knowledge. She blinked. Oh well, who cares. We weren’t that sensitive. We knew Jackie Meaux was dead.
Cops are fun.
Johnson and Johnson didn’t talk to us. They didn’t even look our way. That’s when you know they already know who you are and everything about you. Down to the last toe-nail clipping. But Big Willie could’ve been off their radar. He hadn’t filed his taxes or clipped his toenails in years. Instead, two LAPD detectives came over to the curb with some well-rehearsed back and forth they perfected a long time ago on some first-year stakeout. Names were Merchant and Larsen. They’d graduated from wearing them on tags. Now they wore ties with ketchup stains and sportscoats with shoulder pads. The one named Merchant was just a shade lighter than Willie, but his nose was turned up at the big man’s smell. He looked down at his feet that were bare and cringed as Willie scrapped them against asphalt. I thought I saw some sparks fly up but was distracted by Larsen’s deep, troubling cough. It was wet and phlegmy and reminded me of a case of cancer I saw go down once.
“How do you know the victim?” Merchant was fighting the notion to gag.
Big Willie smelled like a man who’d been burnt and then buried and then dug up again and thrown in a dumpster. It was something you grew used to, if you were lucky.
“She’s a friend of mine.” I told the detective.
Merchant nodded like that’s what he’d expected. There were these questions he’d asked a million times and the answers were all the same. It was nothing but a job now. He looked to Willie. The detective’s nostrils were inflamed, taking things personally. “How do you know the victim?”
“Friend of mine.” Willie said.
Larsen coughed again. Some mucus appeared on his bottom lip. He wiped it away with a paisley handkerchief. “You guys friends, I presume.” He pointed at both of us to let everyone know where the delinquents were.
Big Willie and I looked at each other. I shrugged and he shook his head. We knew the same woman, once.
“How’d you both come to this place, then?” Larsen asked, swallowing his cough into a wheeze.
“How’d we what?” Big Willie asked.
“He lives in the alley.” I hooked a thumb at the big man. “He walked over here.”
Merchant blinked for a pause. Larsen swallowed again and almost gagged keeping the cough down. “And you what, live in the building. Just checking on your neighbor?” Merchant knew I didn’t live there.
I told the man that he had my I.D. He just smirked and nodded his head. He looked at his partner and patted him on the back. Larsen coughed all over us. Right in mine and Big Willie’s face. The big man just wiped his face with his catcher’s mitt and sucked his teeth. Not me. I cussed the man into an early grave. Larsen didn’t even apologize. Merchant had walked off, laughing.
Every other cop in uniform was ready to put me in a back seat.
Merchant had walked over to talk to those Feds. Johnson and Johnson, we called them. They both had names their fathers gave them, but Big Willie said that all government employees had to change their names to Johnson at some point, to get the pension. He was out of his mind but I went with him on this one. Johnson and Johnson, it was.
Larsen hung back, wiping his mouth again with that paisley rag. Still not apologizing for giving us both Typhoid. He had more questions to ask before being locked up in an iron lung.
“Where exactly are you coming from, Mangham?”
“Where exactly?” I squinted up at him, thinking about another man’s mucus on my face. “Like in time and space, or on a map? Cause the former could be tricky.”
That got a smile from Big Willie. You could feel it stretching the molecules around us like a taut rubber band.
“On a map you live in Pico-Union.” Larsen hadn’t the time for physics. “Weird neighborhood, huh.”
Guy was a goader. “What about it?”
The detective shook his head and frowned like a frog. “Just a strange spot for a guy like you.”
There was no argument to be had. He was just making a general observation. Maybe he wasn’t goading. But the man was a cop. He had an angle. A guy like me. A guy like me was a snoop and wanted to see where this was going.
“Right.” Agreeance is forbearance. “Straight up Mexican hood.”
“More like Salvadorean.”
This was true. The man working some MS-13 angle, no doubt. Thinking skin color tells some of the story. Maybe I’m in that neighborhood because of it. Truth is, sometimes the rent is just cheap. I just nodded at the man. Let him know that I was somewhat impressed at his acumen of neighborhood demographics. But also, thinking his assessment of skin tone was what a white man’s would be.
“You funny, man.” Big Willie bellowed.
Larsen looked at him and didn’t seem bothered by anything other than the fact that the big man spoke to him. “Why?”
Willie smiled. Teeth white as Moby Dick. “You thinking he’s Salvi cause he lives in Pico Union.”
“Not seeing the humor?” Larsen coughed. This time he turned his head at least.
“It’s funny cause nobody’s saying you a Jew for living in Boyle Heights.”
I cringed. Larsen blinked and his bottom lip detached from his mouth like a wayward shuttle craft. He lived in Boyle Heights and all those that were in earshot were wondering how Big Willie Winsboro knew that. The cringing was overpowered by laughter. The man was right. It was funny.
By the time Willie was chuckling, Larsen had walked away, waving a hand like he had a thankless job. “Cops are fun.” Big man, said.
He lived in a tent in the alley.
I lived in Pico Union.
Larsen lived in Boyle Heights.
Merchant probably lived in Culver City somewhere.
Those Feds lived in a high-rise on Wilshire and Westwood.
Jackie Meaux lived in an apartment on Barrington Avenue.
Or she did.
Merchant and Larsen were jobbers. They did their jobs, but not before they had a pow-wow with Johnson and Johnson. Those two G-men had slit for eyes and never looked at anything longer than two seconds. Once they’d downloaded from the detectives they walked down to their Crown Vic and busted back to Westwood.
Big Willie snorted. “Fuck them Feds doing out here?” He looked at me dead-on, like he needed the answer right away.
I shrugged and said I don’t know. A response I had down so pat that it made a mild annoyance in my gut.
“You don’t know what she was into?” Big man asked.
“What she was into?” I didn’t bother to look at him, watching Merchant and Larsen come back our way.
“You think the FBI just comes out for every black woman killed in L.A.?” Willie wasn’t letting it go.
“Maybe.” I left him hanging.
“Some kind of quota for hate crimes, you think?”
I looked at him finally. His face was something time wanted to forget. But matter don’t play that way. “You think it was hate?”
Big Willie squinted at me but didn’t say anything. Merchant and Larsen were back by that time, asking more questions. Like why Willie was in Jackie’s apartment in the first place. He explained to them that they were homies. But they couldn’t get their skeptical-cop minds around the dynamic of citizens and homeless folks being friends.
“So, what, you got a key to her place?” Merchant asked the big guy.
“She leaves it open when she’s home.” Willie told him.
“You got a key?” Larsen asked me.
“She leaves her door open.” Merchant was leaning with his back against a giant fig tree that was mauling the sidewalk into a volcanic eruption.
The tree’s leavings were everywhere. Tiny purple dots dusting the sidewalk and cars parked all along Barrington Ave. Those things lined almost every street in the city. Some city-planners sick joke.
“Anybody could’ve just walked in.” Larsen mused, looking at his partner.
“Anybody.” Merchant agreed.
But he was doing a bad job of being coy. His eyes kept cutting mine and Big Willie’s way. As if to say he liked us for it. Cop parlance is fun.
“What about the girl on the steps?” I spoke up.
Merchant and Ivory looked at each other. “What girl?” Larsen asked.
There was a girl on the steps. Those cement steps right behind us, leading up to the apartment building. Yeah, I’d seen her, plain as day. Walked right past her. She lived in the apartment next to Jackie’s. Her and her man. What were their names? Beebe and Something?
I told them all this. But it didn’t matter. They arrested us anyway.