“Armenian Diesel Wagon.”
They left us in the bar with that string to hold on to. Tall Johnson made a snide remark about Merchant and Lawson maybe solving the case. He thought he was funny. Always with this leer on his face, like he was in the know and you were just on the other side of his COINTELPRO.
I tried to get Willie to double back to Union Station, but he wouldn’t budge on seeing some folks in Skid Row. You’d be surprised at how much and often these folks move around.
They were barnacles on the side of a city-state, whose headquarters was within spitting distance. A literal ivory tower loomed over Skid Row. City Hall had seen an influx of rats lately. They were gracious enough not to name any names. But the spread of the degenerate was in everyone’s nose. It was like those pictures you see of refugee camps. Or a garbage dump on the outskirts of town, filled with sharp-beaked seagulls. A chaotic mess at the beginning of time, where nothing and no one has a name yet.
Sixth Street and San Pedro was ground zero. Tents all along Sixth and people in the streets, crossing all willy-nilly, not a care in the world for oncoming traffic. Big Willie Winsboro knew where he was going. His bare feet missed all the broken bottles of McCormick Vodka and Mickey’s malt liquor.
We came to a woman lounging on the curb. Lounging. If you could call it that. She looked like she’d been sitting there for a long time. Picking at the scabs on her legs. Scabs that looked like giant burns, or infected street abrasions. The skin on her legs was dark like Willie’s feet. Years of street soot caked on like cracked mud. Further up, her skin was red.
“Yo, Brenda.” Willie addressed the woman on the curb.
She squinted up at him. White lines creased around her eyes. “What’d ya say, say hey Willie.” She laughed and coughed up phlegm. It sounded like a chainsaw starting. “Fucking Big Willie Winsboro.” She spit a brown blob on a spent condom. “Visiting the eastside for however long it’s been.”
“Been awhile.” Willie agreed. “Maybe couple years.”
Brenda’s eyes went wide. Even her whites were red. “They say the westside is the best side, but how would I know, stuck in the row.” She looked around and squinted again.
“That ain’t true. You used to live in Bel-Air.”
I looked at Willie, thinking it was some sort of inside joke. Some sort of street-dream they all shared. But Brenda’s face softened at some image in the back of her head. She nodded and smiled.
“Fucking Bel-Air.” She smirked.
Willie scratched his chin and waited for the memory to fade. “You got any of them old lines still tethered, Brenda?”
She looked up at the big man, her mouth open, showing surprisingly white teeth. She held up a hand to shade her eyes. She looked at me. “Who’s this fool?”
“Me?” I cut in, hooking a thumb to my chest. “I’m nobody.”
Willie looked at me and hooked his own thumb, three feet long, my way. “He’s nobody.”
Brenda flashed those ivories. “Nobodies I can get with. For sure, a nobody is someone I wanna know.” She looked me up and down with one eye squinted and the fully open. “But I know plenty of nobodies. Maybe too many.” She looked at Willie. “Nobodies coming around asking for shit.”
“He ain’t asking. I am.” Willie propped a foot on the curb.
Brenda’s noticed the move and didn’t seem too pleased with it. “You work for this fucker?”
The big man laughed. Every head within twenty yards turned. “I ain’t worked for nobody ever.” He wiped his mouth with his forearm, then looked at me with pity, knowing that wasn’t true.
It was a look you get used to. They underestimate you is all. You underestimate you. It’s a general self-malaise you settle into, and the world doesn’t stop you. Even the lower depths know your game. I didn’t mind. I just smiled at the brown colossus. “You never made money before?” I asked him.
A couple of bike-cops rolled by on noiseless bicycles. They rode with black shorts and black helmets. Not really doing anything but Sunday riding. Probably would never get off the bike until they circled back to the Art’s District.
“That’s a good question.” Willie looked at Brenda. “Who is this fool?”
Brenda cackled. It was so loud and hearty that everyone else on the block picked up the laughter and it carried itself in a wave up Sixth Street. Two to three hundred open-mouthed vagrants swallowing you whole.
“You come to this toilet for a real reason, or you just like to play with turds?”
“You the turd in this scenario?” Big Willie smirked.
I glanced at Brenda. And then everyone else shooting up and smoking off tinfoil. And then back to Big Willie, like, get this fucking show on the road.
“I don’t think so.” Brenda shook her head.
Big Willie sighed and Brenda flinched. “What about it, Brenda?”
“What about it, Brenda?” She repeated and went back to picking a puss-filled scab on her leg.
“You know any dudes named Agassi?”
Her head jerked up. “Why you asking me this, Big Willie?” She looked like someone had mentioned gold around a pirate.
Big man and me exchanged a look. “Woman we know was killed today.” He let that sit for a second. “You know them cats?”
Brenda shook her head. “I don’t know them cats.”
“You never heard of an O.G. named Agassi?”
She looked at me and flicked a scab she’d picked off her leg at me. “I know Andre.” She said.
“Andre.” Big Willie repeated.
“Yeah, big forehand that guy.” She made a swinging motion with her arm.
Willie had no idea what she was talking about. His face looked like the smell of the row had finally hit his nostrils. A mix of feces and rotting flesh.
“She’s talking about the tennis-player.” I pointed out, immediately feeling that the obvious was never to be pointed out.
Big man nodded like it was coming to him, but it wasn’t.
“All baseline, that guy.” I told Brenda.
“You know tennis?” She asked. “You look like you’d know tennis. I used to play all the time. Had my own court. Walk down to it every day and swing away.” She smiled.
Brenda looked at me like I’d said the opposite. “It was alright. Got a little crowded up there, all those trees.”
I glanced at Willie and shook my head.
“I ain’t talking about no tennis player, Brenda.” Big Willie back on track. “Talkin bout them trees that were crowding you in.”
She jerked her head sharply his way and wiped off some blood oozing from her leg. “Eucalyptus trees.” She nodded. “They have a certain smell.”
Skid Row was its own Tower of Babel. There were folks talking all around us and none of it seemed to make any sense.
“Brenda…” Willie leaned in further.
“I don’t know them motherfuckers no more.” She said to him. “Everybody knows that.”
“You don’t stop knowing motherfuckers like that.” Willie told her.
Brenda used to be a Kafesjian. Brenda used to be somebody else. Somebody that lived in a house up in Bel-Air. Like Willie said. She lived up in those leafy hills where the roads don’t make sense. Bending back on themselves and up and around in a foreign dream logic. It’s a magical place to visit. You wonder what it’s like to live there. You wonder what it’s like when they finally get sick of you and run you out. You wonder if it’s the streets or nothing else. A fine line. Razor sharp. Life is a string of barbed-wire stretched between two high-rises. She lived up there with some other Armenians. She married one. She was one. They don’t care what you do for a living in Bel-Air, as long as you got the dough. Brenda’s husband owned a string of markets in East Hollywood. He made money. They lived large. But you need protection when you start making money in East Hollywood.
“That where Agassi comes in?” I asked Willie, as we walked up Sixth and busted a left on Main, feeling the yolk of Skid Row slough off of us. The big man having filled me in on some of Brenda’s history.
“She wouldn’t say would she.”
But he had plenty to say about Brenda.
“Why wouldn’t she?”
Big Willie raised a finger at a dude across the street. Some guy on one of those rental bikes still in the rack. He was using as an exercise bike. Shirt off, his brown chest and shoulders sheening with sweat. He raised a salute to Willie.
“You know that guy?” I asked a lot of stupid questions.
“I know a lot of people.”
“I’m seeing that.”
We walked past Hotel Cecil. Everybody knows it now. It’s just another place when you walk by it on the street. There’s no bad Juju pushing out to meet you. Just an old building on an old block in Downtown LA. Right on Seventh and you forget it was ever there.
“Used to live down here.” Big Willie said.
“I don’t live too far.” I told him.
“Pico-Union. I know.”
More walking. We didn’t talk for a spell. All the way up to Grand before things continued.
“Brenda said enough.” Willie stated.
“If they didn’t know exactly where she was, she would’ve said more.”
“They being, Armenian Power.” Doing my best to follow Willie’s particular brand of Babel.
He nodded and I felt some pride for myself. “Agassi.” Some contentment with putting puzzle pieces together.
A left on Grand before I even asked where we were going. Willie said we were going to take the train back to the westside. That’s where all the action was. But there was something bothering me.
“If Agassi knows where Brenda is…” I stopped walking and talking.
Right in front of Bezos’ place. It was high traffic. One o’clock in the afternoon and the lunch crowd was millennial and didn’t grow up on bringing sack lunches to school.
“What?” Big Willie had stopped too. He was looking at the tables on the sidewalk filled with people. Table tops covered with pizza slices and big boxes of salads. People out in the world eating lunch in strange dress.
“He’s got eyes on her.” I stated.
He nodded, thinking about it. “You wanna stake her out.” Not really a question but maybe it could go that way if you wanted.
“Makes sense, right.” I reasoned. “She’ll know how to contact them.”
“Shit.” Willie shook his head.
“Why didn’t I think of that.”
We hoofed it back to Skid Row. It only took us about two minutes on these little scooters strewn around downtown like fallen satellite parts. Seeing Big Willie on one was like being at the circus when the bear comes out on a tricycle. He didn’t wanna do it. We wasted another minute convincing him it was faster. You ditch these things wherever you want. Throw them in a pile of bushes or someone’s front lawn. Leave them in the middle of a sidewalk or a street. Nobody cares these days where you put your stuff. Cause it’s not our stuff. It’s some corporation leasing out everyone’s dreams, anyway.
Brenda wasn’t in the spot where we’d found her before. Same crowd, same tents and same broken bottles and needles. But no Brenda.
“What now?” I asked.
We both looked around the jetsam of blanket-shaking in America. Only one of us looked like an anthropologist out on a field trip. All you could make out was ash and blood and the cackling of birds.
“There.” I said, pointing to the trail of scabs.
Willie looked where my finger led him. Way up Sixth Street, well past the refugee camp, a little old lady with bad legs stepped gingerly toward Main Street. We’d passed her on the way in; my insistence on a faster work flow almost dooming us.
“Pershing Square.” Willie stated.
Pershing Square was blocks away. “You think?”
He just nodded and we followed. I didn’t dare suggest the scooters again. We walked. But I was still wondering how he knew her destination.
So, I asked. “Why Pershing Square?”
“Just a hunch.” Willie admitted. “She ain’t got that much mileage in her and that square is a likely landing. It’s wide open. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
It was a long shot that made some sort of sense. What else could we do but follow her? We made some ground and got about fifty yards from Brenda before she crossed Hill Street and stepped into Pershing. The light turned red, and we were stuck on the other side of Hill. We watched Brenda walk up some steps into an unfinished art project. Pershing was some new-age development paused into oblivion. A jagged-edge park with a few palm trees lining the edges. Most of it was wide open with steps leading up to low terraces.
We lost sight of Brenda behind some blue cubist structure that stretched up about thirty feet in the sky. The light changed and we bolted across the street. Willie, pretty spry for someone his size. Cutting diagonally across the square, we caught a glimpse of her heading into the entrance of a parking garage.
I didn’t know if Willie was correcting me or just reiterating. We quickened our steps and the big man and I started to heave oxygen. Neither of us were runners I presumed. There were folks in the park who looked at us strangely, and there were people in the park who didn’t give a damn. Why look, it’s just two more skittish souls traversing the precious, open spaces made of concrete.
The entrance to the parking garage was a black gape on the other side of a green area. A lawn that stretched out as big as a football field. Here’s your green space L.A. Have at it. There was a guy in the middle of it all, meditating on a mat. There were other people on mats, doing yoga. The entrance was open. There was no gate or garage door keeping you out. Willie started down the decline. I looked around for cars. There was an entrance from Fifth Street that led into the garage. No cars were coming. Willie was halfway down before I decided it was safe to follow.
The walls, floor and ceiling were painted the same color blue as the cubist structure outside. “Why the fuck this parking garage?” I asked. “You think she’s got some shit stashed in here?”
“Parking garages ain’t good for that.” Willie answered. His legs were trembling a bit. “These subterranean ones get locked up after a certain hour, then you fucked.” We rounded a corner looking for headlights. “She meeting someone.” He was certain.
“Some deep-throat shit.” I said, with a smirk.
Willie couldn’t see the mirth in my face or place the historical and pop-culture reference. Story of my life.
“I think they might own this parking lot.” Willie said.
Headlights coming up the second set of switchback ramps. We hugged the blue wall. The car was charging hard up the incline. I tried to get a look inside the car. The headlights and the speed were too much to make anything out. Maybe there were two silhouettes: maybe one. A gleam off the hood ornament showed that the car was a Benz. As it shot past us, I got a look at the plate and pulled my phone but fumbled with it too long. A heavy, dark mist filled our noses that smelled of sulfur and shaved metal. Diesel. The thing sounded like tank as it took the corner and prowled up out of that cave.
“I think I know that ride.” Willie pondered, waving his hand in front of his face.
“I think your girl just caught a ride.”
A curious eye came my way. “You see her in there?”
I shook my head. “Couldn’t make anything. But if you know the car and we know she’s down here. Makes sense don’t it.”
Big Willie didn’t have an argument for it. But he still wanted to explore the dungeon under Pershing. The fumes were catastrophic in that car catacomb. We were both busy waving our hands in front of our faces as we made our way to the lowest level. Cars parked here and there, but not many. The lighting was at a dull wattage and a sunken feeling played out in our bellies.
“What now?” My voice bounced through the lower depths.
Willie shrugged. “Whatever, she was probably in that car, for sure.” He inched his way around an old Buick Regal the color of red clay.
“Who was driving, though?” I eyed a sky-blue Chevy Nova, wondering if this is where all the cars from the seventies were being stored. “Somebody was just waiting for her down here, her own personal chariot Benz. Some Armenian diesel-wagon. You said they own this dungeon.”
Winsboro didn’t bother to shrug this time. He had his hands on the far wall like he was feeling for a hidden door. “These lots downtown tricky things.” He was inching towards an actual door made of metal. “They all connected.”
“First off, what?” Maybe it was the diesel fumes tickling non-sequitur parts of his brain. “And what’s that got to do with the fucking Armenians? Fuck’s any of this got to do with Jackie Meaux?”
Maybe the fumes were tickling my ivories as well.
Big Willie stopped at the door and turned to me. “You wanna find the motherfuckers did this shit to Jackie?” He didn’t want me to answer that. “Me too.” He tried the knob on the door and turned and clicked. “She was the only friend I had.”
He opened the door.