“Only Sharks Eat.”
Big Willie didn’t toss the gun. He kept it in his palm for most of the ride to the westside. At some point along the 10 he shoved the Smith & Wesson into his sweatpants pocket and looked out at the heads of palm trees passing by, with the occasional steeple of a Spanish stucco church piercing through. Palm trees and churches and streets stretching out along a dark blanket of penlights.
We got back to West LA around midnight. Willie had to check his spot. Make sure no one had come along and jacked his shit. I idled the Toyota down the alley, rubber crunching pebbles, and we saw his tent there still on the cement landing. Big man got out and went into his tent and didn’t come back out. I waited for fifteen minutes and decided he’d gone to sleep. There was no sleep for me, though. Just no way it was happening.
So, a left on Wilshire, out of the alley. The 7-Eleven there was doing okay business at this hour. A few zombies shuffling around outside, looking for hot dogs and forties of O.E. I cruised on past and made my way back through the malaise of remembered wars and forgotten footsteps. Past the V.A. and under the 405 and into Westwood.
There were lights on in the Federal Building. You didn’t know if they just kept some lights on for show, or there were agents in there burning the midnight oil. But I had a hunch and I followed it.
I pulled the Toyota into a parking lot along the eastern edge of the building and shut it off, and waited.
Took about twenty minutes before somebody in a suit came walking out with their hands in their pants pockets.
One of the Johnsons.
Short Johnson came striding towards the red Toyota, his head down, no jacket and his sleeves rolled up. “What’d ya say, Mangham?” His eyes were slits, but his mouth was curved up in one corner.
“What’d you guys do in there this late, play blackjack until something juicy comes over the wire?”
He nodded and the smirk grew tight. “Something like that. What brings you to our lovely parking lot at this hour?”
It was something out of a movie. There were lines coming to us, written by some unseen hand, clacking away at a keyboard, relishing the pulp in the back of his or her throat. Characters on a page, was all we were.
“Seemed like a good rest stop.” I looked around at a few cars parked in the lot. Blue sedans and black SUVs. “Thought I’d stop, take a piss.”
“Make sure not to drip on government property. There’s a hefty fine.” Short Johnson was a night person. He was comfortable in the dark.
I smirked back at him. “What’d you know about those jewelry robberies downtown? Bout a year ago.”
If it was possible, Short Johnson’s eyes squinted even more. “Jewelry robberies? Like jewelry stores?”
My face gave him a dead look. Like, don’t fuck with me on this. “Like those Salvadoreans following marks out to Orange County and Chatsworth and all over the Southland, ganking briefcases for their content.”
That straightened the agent’s back and brought his hands out of his pockets. “Sounds like you’ve been rooting around some cellars.” He crossed his arms over his chest. The smirk gone to seriousness on his face.
“You could call it that. More of a parking garage.” I told him.
Short Johnson looked at me with a strange interest now. “A parking garage. Interesting. I thought you had something there for a second. You started out great.”
“What’d you know about those robberies?”
He shrugged. “You need to talk to LAPD about that. Were there homicides?”
“Stop fucking around.”
Short Johnson put his hands back in his pockets and leaned over to look at me in the Toyota. “You think I’m fucking around. Look at me. Do I look like that at all?”
He had a point. The man was born serious. You couldn’t be a kook to be on Edgar’s payroll. Or could you? “But you’re playing me right now and I don’t appreciate it.” I told him.
He seemed to consider that. “I’m not playing you. I’m just not sure what you’re asking. Those robberies were in the news. You’re saying Salvis did them. Like MS-13 connections?”
“That’s what I’m saying. You and your taller partner, come charging us up earlier today about Armenians and Salvadoreans sucking each other’s dicks and now you wanna play like what I’m talking about don’t mean shit to you. It’s a difference twelve hours makes in an agent’s day, but I’m guessing the difference is slight.”
Short Johnson straightened up again, hands still in his pockets. The taller partner remark, burrowing its way into his ego. A cheap shot, but this conversation was going nowhere. Sometimes you have to do some wounding to get anything done.
“Okay, say they were Salvis. How’s it connect to the Armenians?”
“Who owns that parking lot under Pershing Square?”
“What?” A confounded look on the agent’s face.
“There’s tunnels down there that connect to the Biltmore and the Jewelry building on Hill.”
Johnson knew this. I could see it in his eyes. But he still played his game. “What’re you talking about?” His eyes going back to slits.
“Those people, those jewelry people that were targeted, they all came out of that building.”
I let out a long breath through my nose and shook my head. “You’re either dumb or on a short leash. Maybe I should talk to your boss.”
“Yeah, the taller one. Where’s he? At home in bed, hand full of his wife’s ass. You…” I nodded his way. “You’re here, doing what? Trying to run some poor schmuck in circles. Good day’s work, huh.”
Short Johnson sighed and looked tired and bored. Some nobody in a beat-up, red Toyota was giving him guff and wouldn’t get out of his driveway. “What’d you have? Really? That’s what you have to look at.” He told me.
I almost reached to my back pocket for the stone but caught myself and thought about what he said. What did I have? Three dead bodies he wasn’t mentioning. He knew about Jackie, but what about Erik Agassi and Brenda. If he did know he was playing a good dummy game. Doing it so well, it made you wonder what cards he was holding back.
“Three dead bodies.” I decided to take the plunge in the deep end. “That’s what I got.”
Short Johnson took his hands out of his pocket, real slow-like, and looked around the parking lot. It was such a surreptitious move that it made me take a look as well. No one was around. Just a looming government building, with all the imagination of a single-cell organism in its design.
“You want to watch what you say right now.” He told me. “Whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, you don’t want to admit anything to me.”
“Admit? Admit to what exactly?” I leaned my head to get a better look at what he was really trying to say to me. “Just what was the point of that bar visit? You guys just wanna talk some shop to two dopes just out of jail?” I watched him shift weight from one leg to the other. “Is that the FBI nowadays?”
“Fuck off.” I cranked the truck up. “You got some kind of skin in this Armenian/Salvadorean game and you think about mentioning it to two fuckers who’ve just lost a friend and got nothing to lose, what’d you think’s gonna happen?” I put the truck in reverse.
Short Johnson put a hand out on the roof of the Toyota. “Who’s the third one?”
That stopped me. I put the truck in park, but kept the thing running, and looked the agent. “You know about Erik Agassi?”
“It’s all over the wire.”
He shrugged. It was all over something, that was for sure. The police were investigating Erik Agassi’s death. Murder. “Better be sure Merchant and Larsen will find you.” Short Johnson told me. “Who’s the third?”
I shook my head. “A woman named Brenda. Some street granny, that used to be tied up with the Agassis, from what I can make out.”
“Brenda…” The name struck a chord somewhere in the agent. A strum in his belly that moved his legs again, shifting his weight.
“You know her? Kafesian, or something like that, her last name.”
His eyes went as wide as they could. Still slits with nothing to see between them but black irises. “Kafesian. You sure of that?”
“Mean something to you?”
“Maybe.” And he left it at that.
I sat there; and he stood there, and we looked at each other. We could hear cars roll by on Wilshire. I was tired of talking to this dude. He wanted nothing to do with me. But who would walk, or drive away first?
I put the truck in gear.
“Kafesian is a name that comes up in few files. Old files. From the nineties.”
Old files from the nineties. Just what was he telling me? “What old files?”
Short Johnson shook his head. “Armenian business back in the day. When they were first getting started in L.A.”
“What about em?”
The agent shrugged and looked at a watch on his wrist. It was a digital thing, with one of those, thick, black, rubbery wristbands. “Listen, I’m not sure what you knew this morning and what you know now, but these are dangerous folks. If I were you, I’d think twice about whatever you’re getting yourself into right now.”
Dangerous folks. It made me wonder where the man was from. Some small town in Iowa or Nebraska. Probably from a long line of lawmen. Staunch people with corn in their teeth and toes made of steel.
“What’d you think I’m getting into, exactly?”
“Trouble.” He said, immediately and then turned and walked away.
Just like that. Like some dime novel G-man. I watched him walk across the parking lot, his hands in his pockets, like he hadn’t a care in the world. He was just doing his job with all the normal fears anyone has at trying to do it well. The world will keep turning. You hear this from an early age. And you know it to be true because one cannot deny the sun’s comings and goings. But there is an emptiness in that knowing. An uncontrollable restlessness that can never be shaken. The only thing one can do is put their hands in their pockets and keep walking forward. I wondered if they taught that at Quantico. Probably not. What was philosophy to them? Or me? But it was helpful, right? Keep moving forward. Only sharks eat.
So, I decided to go back down to Barrington and see if I’d missed anything in Jackie’s apartment and maybe just sit there and stew. Maybe something would come to me. Like magic, something would appear out of thin air and explain the universe to me. Why life? Why death? What did it all mean?
I’d been there three times in how many days? I couldn’t think of how long it had been. Since they carted Jackie Meaux off to the morgue. I wondered if someone would have to identify her body. Who would that be? She didn’t have any family that I knew of. She would go to some potter’s field.
These thoughts were bouncing through my head as I trudged up the steps to Jackie’s building. Guess it wasn’t hers any longer. It had always been Hosseini’s. And he was there, taking a look at his property. Early on a Sunday morning.
At the top of the stairs, a man stood, looking at his phone. His grey hair was tight to his skull and white in the harsh flood light. He had eye-glasses on and they reflected the light of his phone. His pleated shorts looked stiff as a board and his collared, short-sleeved shirt was tucked into them, showing a bit of a paunch in his midsection. He looked like he’d been golfing all day.
I got to within a couple steps of him before he even noticed me. He didn’t speak. Just looked at me, wondering what another person was doing there at that hour.
“Hi.” I greeted him.
“Hello.” He responded, and made no move to make room for me to step past him.
“You the guy that owns this building?”
Hosseini looked up and adjusted his glasses. “Excuse me?”
“You’re Mr. Hosseini, right?”
He lowered his hands, putting his phone away for now. “I’m sorry, do we know each other?”
“Not really, no.” I told him. “I was a friend of Jackie Meaux’s.”
A surprised glint flickered behind his glasses. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing.” He shook his head and looked down at the ground. “I am so… I am so…” He shook his head again. “I don’t know what to say. A thing like this… how does this happen? Why? Who does a thing like this?”
“You talk to the cops?”
Hosseini was caught off guard. The question didn’t fit into his approach. I should’ve been more cordial and sympathetic. Said yeah, life sure is random. But I didn’t feel like I had the time for niceties.
The gray-haired man blinked a few times. “Have I what?”
“They talked to your guy up there, Cliff. Guy that collects rent for you. I figured they must’ve reached out to you by now.” I stood there, two steps below him, his eyeline slightly above mine.
“Excuse me, what was your name?”
“Elam. Elam Mangham.”
Another flicker behind those glasses. Something dawned down around his mouth. He knew me but was playing against it. Some nice game that only landlords and real estate-hawks play. They needed to be higher up to see things. I took a step up and got eye-level with him. You could tell he was feeling crowded.
He stepped back. “I think I… we’ve met, right.” He put his hand out like he was a safe guy. Come on, you can trust me.
I nodded. “A few times.”
Hosseini shook his head in mock embarrassment. We both knew Cliff and Andrea had been in contact with him. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jackie’s good friend. Yeah.” He nodded and looked sad. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, it’s tough, right.” I took the final step and we were pretty close to one another. “Having to deal with a tenant getting her throat slashed. What’s that do to the asking price of things? People in West LA like to rent out murder pads?” I shrugged. “Maybe they do. Land of Manson and all.” I put my hands in my pockets, having learned something about unnerving coolness from Short Johnson.
The man cringed. “Wh-what?”
“That’s why you’re here, right? At this hour. See how bad it is.”
Hosseini couldn’t find anything to say. He just stood there, very still, hoping like a snake in the grass for the buffalo to go away.
“Well, how bad is it?” I asked.
His phone was still in his hand and brought it up to look at it. “It’s pretty bad to be honest with you.”
It couldn’t tell if was talking about the actual apartment or the situation he found himself in. “She worked for you.”
Looking up at me, Hosseini seemed to remember something. “Did she tell you that?”
Strange question to ask a friend. It made you think that maybe you weren’t a friend. “She mentioned it.”
“Just what did she mention?” He didn’t seem as fragile with his phone held up.
“Just that she worked for some security firm.” I feigned unknowing. But not much. I didn’t know a great deal.
The man frowned and shuffled his feet. Too close for comfort, possibly. Physically and figuratively. “Yes, she organized the security for some of my properties.”
“Like that building on Hill in downtown?”
We’d maneuvered around each other, my left to his right, so that Hosseini’s back was to the stairs. He looked at his phone as if it would give him the answers he needed in this moment. It didn’t seem to have them.
“H-how do you…” Hosseini trailed off, adjusting his glasses. “What is this all about?” And he took a step back and teetered for a moment and fell.
He disappeared, it seemed, in a folded grasp at the railings. I took a step forward as if to help him. But it was too late. Hosseini was tumbling down the concrete steps. “What the fuck?” I said, out loud. The man rolled all the way down the steps like a slinky. It seemed to take anywhere between thirty minutes to an hour. I heard a chuckle behind me and jumped a little, startled.
Big Willie stood there, yawning and rubbing his belly. “Who’s that?” He asked.
I looked at him and then back down the stairs to Hosseini. Did that a couple times, back and forth until my neck hurt. “Guy that owns the building.” I finally told him.
I just nodded and sighed. Hosseini had stopped rolling and now someone had to go down there and check and see if he’d broken his neck. A feeling of supreme tiredness had worked its way into every muscle.
“You didn’t push him, did you?” Willie asked, with a smirk on his face.
“Did you see me push him?”
The big man rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Seeing is believing, right?” He looked down the stairs. “You think he dead?”
What was it about this spot in the world, and this man standing in it, that brought about the expiration of things? These steps were lethal things. Jacob’s Ladder in reverse.
I told Big Willie I didn’t know and started down the steps to see. Mr. Hosseini was crumpled up under the big fig tree. I could hear him moaning and felt relief uncoil in my stomach.
“You okay?” I asked.
Hosseini was laying on his right shoulder. His legs were splayed out; his left leg over the right. He moaned and murmured. I crouched down. There were some sprinklers spraying the sidewalk cracks. They were in a flower bed attached to the building next door. Water was draining down the sidewalk, getting Hosseini wet.
I put my hand on his shoulder and moved him gently, with the intention of rolling him over. He crooned in pain.
“Where does it hurt? Your neck?”
“I think everything hurts.” Hosseini managed a whisper.
“You think you can move?”
“I wouldn’t move him.”
It wasn’t Big Willie’s voice. I looked up from Hosseini and saw Merchant with one hand on his waist and one stretched out against the fig tree. His right foot propped up on one of the tree’s protruding roots.
“Jesus Christ.” He scared me. “You need a fucking whistle or something, sneaking up on people like that.”
“You see me directing traffic?” Merchant had a resolute look on his face.
“Where’s your partner?”
“He likes to get his beauty sleep.”
“Funny, doesn’t seem like it’s helping that cough any.”
“Is that funny?” Merchant came off the tree to stand straight. “You think pushing old men down steps is helpful?”
“Maybe.” I looked him square in the eyes. “If in after doing so, they give up the goods you want.”
Merchant smiled at that. He like the tough talk. That was a language he could palaver in. Some mook talking shit and was sure to slip up and find himself in the deep end. His next move was to rub his hands together.
“Just in time then.” The detective looked over at the stairs to see Big Willie coming down them. “You guys fast friends now?”
“He lives in the alley, remember.” I told him.
“Yeah, remember?” Big Willie stopped about three-quarters of the way down and leaned his butt against the railing. He gave me a cold look.
“I remember.” He nodded at Willie. “You been back there all night?”
Willie put his eyes on Merchant. “In the alley?”
The cop looked at him like that was a stupid question.
“Yeah.” Was all Willie had to say to that look.
The cop turned to me. “What about you?”
“Was I in the alley all night?”
Merchant just deadpanned me. “Yeah man, were you in the alley all night crawling through dumpsters looking for scraps? Couple people called animal control complaining about racoons.” Still, that departed look on his face.
“You calling us rodents?” Willie asked. “Cause raccoons ain’t rats.”
“You live in an alley motherfucker.” Merchant popped back. “What you wanna be called?” And there it was.
The man with the badge kicking up dirt, drawing arbitrary lines. The police, the DeFacto protectors of the social order. When the lines get blurred in natural, humane progression, they’re there to tell you about the past. The good ol’ boys yapping and wrapping folks on the head, telling them about the good ol’ days.
“What you wanna be called?” Willie came back. “Uncle Tom?”
Merchant came off the fig tree, stepping up on the root and coming down onto the sidewalk, his right hand resting on the holstered piece on his waist. “You wanna come at me like that motherfucker, we can go deep in a motherfuckers past and see just where each of us is coming from.”
Two motherfuckers in a sentence. Now it was getting serious. I stood up from my crouch. Hosseini was still laying there, whimpering. It was two o’clock on a Sunday morning and the party was just getting started.
It was quite for a few seconds. Barrington was empty of any traffic. The sprinklers had shut off.
“Man, them cop therapists are the best.” Willie looked at me. “Always thinking they somebody’s daddy.”
“Maybe you could use one. You the one living in a alley.” Merchant snapped back. Going back to ol’ reliable.
Big Willie chuckled. It was a surprising sound. It kind of rumbled out across us like a low thunder. Something that might be far off and maybe you didn’t need to worry about right now. But that’s what I was worried about, when it would finally roll in.
“Is that how it works? You gotta suck dick to stay off the streets?” Willie had his arms folded across his chest. “Maybe I’m alright after all.”
“Depends on your disposition.” Merchant turned to me again. “So, you got a partner that’s got your back. Was he there with you at Barnsdall Park tonight? Cause if he was then he might be sucking some dick in county soon. You to?”
“What happened at Barnsdall Park tonight?” I asked.
Merchant sighed and shoulders sagged for a half second. It’d been a long day for all and for a half second, we all shared in the weariness. But those moments don’t last on the thin blue line.
“Erik Agassi was found dead.” Merchant looked from me to Willie then back to me. “Stabbed seven times. Lucky him.”
Willie and I looked at each other in mock surprise. “Wow.” Was all I said.
“Somebody saw a red Toyota pick-up truck. Real shitty, hunk-a-junk in the parking lot down there on Hollywood Blvd. Ain’t that what you drive?” Merchant was eyeing me with a bored look.
I nodded. Hosseini had managed to move over on his back and was looking up at Merchant at an upside-down angle. The detective looked down at him. “Who is this cat?”
“Muhammad Hosseini.” I told him. “He owns this building, and others.”
It was hard to tell from the light of the streetlamps but it looked as though the skin on Merchant’s face went tight as a drum. “You’re kidding me.” He crouched down over Hosseini; put a hand on his shoulder with a light touch. “You call an ambulance?”
“You think he needs one?” I asked. “I think he might be alright.”
“Jesus Christ.” Merchant muttered. “Your thinking, is it getting you out from under three, possibly four murders?”
“You thinking I murdered anyone, is that helping you find out who murdered Jackie Meaux?” I pressed in closer. “Or do you still like us for her?”
Merchant eyed me, and then turned his attention to Hosseini and went through a list of soft questions about the man’s health. The gray-haired man answered the questions in hushed tones. He seemed alright, maybe even ready to try and move.
“You know the man owns a building downtown, right Merchant?”
He asked Hosseini if he wanted to file assault charges against anyone present. The man looked at Merchant, upside-down, like he didn’t know what he meant. The detective asked him again if he wanted to file assault charges. Again, Hosseini seemed confused. He’d fallen backwards, no one had put a hand on him.
But a cop was giving him an option.
Willie and I exchanged a glance. It was a shared look of knowing. Knowing what things weren’t afforded to us in this world.
“I fell.” Hosseini finally said.
“You fell.” Merchant repeated. “This man right here…” He gestured at me. “He didn’t put his hands on you?”
Hosseini still lay on his back. He looked at me with a rippling chin. He shook his head, trying to remember what happened. I just stood there, not saying a word.
“He didn’t touch the man.” Willie boomed.
Merchant whirled on him but didn’t say anything.
“I was standing there. The man backed up too far.” Willie added.
“So, the man felt threatened.” Merchant stated.
“Is he saying that?” I asked, pointing down at Hosseini.
“Sounds like you putting words in his mouth.” Willie again. “You gotta witness saying how it went. Two against one.”
Merchant came up from his crouch and put his hands on his waist. “Two against one, huh.” He smiled. “How you figure?” He pointed to Hosseini and then to himself.
“You call it in, Merchant.” I told him. “We’ll hang around and see what happens. Give us some time to talk.”
“About what?” The detective left his mouth open.
“About how Hosseini here owns a building in the Jewelry District where all those robberies jumped off a year ago.”
Big Willie shifted on the steps and chuckled. Merchant cut his eyes the big man’s way.
“Maybe I should think about playing dumb more often, see where it gets me.” I told Willie.
“Maybe you need glasses, you can’t see where you are and what kind of fucking trouble, you’re in.” Merchant shot back.
He was impatient. Out at night, all alone, with no back up. Figuring he could pull his phone out and call the calvary, but how long would that take.
“Or maybe I need a glass eye.”
Merchant looked at me like I was nuts. What the fuck was I talking about? I was drunk or just tired from doggy-paddling all night.
“He don’t know what any of this is about.” Willie said. “He’s just pretending to.”
“If you’ve got something to say, then say it, or I’m taking you both in for assault.” Merchant doing his best at being a cop.
“Both?” Willie balked.
Merchant just stared at the big man.
“That’s gonna be tough all by yourself.” I told him.
The detective had his hand on his gun and was ready to pull it. With his other hand he reached into his pant pocket and pulled out his phone. It made me think of mine. Had I felt it vibrate earlier? Merchant had a flip phone, just like Willie. He flipped it open. The aesthetic worked better for cops. He kept the phone poised in one hand and the other hitched to gun at his waist.
“You know those two FBI agents you were talking to this morning?” I asked the detective.
Merchant had a mustache. It wasn’t much but it was there. He put his phone away and took his other hand off his piece and folded his arms across his chest and stroked the hair on his lip with thumb and forefinger.
“What about em?” The cop said.
“When you locked us up and couldn’t keep us, they cornered us in a bar and gave us our walking papers.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Merchant stopped stroking his mustache.
“Armenians and Salvadoreans.”
Somehow in that low light you could see the cop’s jaw ripple. But he kept his cool and his mouth shut. Letting me lead the way in my fumbling manner.
“That’s why they were here this morning. Beebe Bonilla and Erik Agassi. Salvadorean and Armenian.”
“They’re always working gangs.” Merchant shrugged. “So what?”
“It’s not working anymore.” I told him. “You want information, you gotta stop acting like it’s old news. It’s only making you look like you’re doing a terrible job. That’s not a good look in this town.”
“It’s shit we’ve been over before.” Merchant stated. “And fuck you know what looks good in this town?”
“Those robberies were done by Salvadoreans. Stealing Armenian swag.”
Merchant blinked. Got him.
“Hosseini owns that building downtown. The Armenians own the parking garage under Pershing right across from that building. Brenda Kafesian, Erik Agassi, Jackie Meaux. It’s not that hard now.” I eyed Merchant.
“You’re right, it’s not that hard to connect dots. Mark them on a wall and draw lines between them all you want. Don’t mean there’s any rhyme or reason to them.” Merchant was looking down at Hosseini.
The older man with gray hair was still lying on his back. He was breathing heavily but looked like he might want to get up. Merchant told him not to move, and ambulance was on its way. One went by on Wilshire, loud as can be, overpowering all thought. Maybe the next one would stop for him.
“If you liked us for Erik Agassi and Brenda, you wouldn’t be here all by yourself, sneaking around at two o’clock in the morning.” I told Merchant. “You’d already have us locked up. Why are you here?”
The detective took a breath and sighed, long and hard. “Hunch is all.” Merchant crouched down again and helped Hosseini sit up against some railroad ties acting as a flower bed wall. “I thought Beebe might be dumb enough to come back home.”
“There’s no ambulance coming, is there?” Hosseini asked.
“You think you need it?” Merchant asked back.
Hosseini looked around, at me, at Willie who’d come down the stairs and was stretching his back like the sun had already come up, and then finally back to Merchant.
“I-I don’t… I don’t know. My…my neck hurts a little.” He tried rolling it around and winced in pain.
Merchant asked him again, if anyone had put a hand on him. Hosseini shook his head, but someone with a cop’s disposition could take it as a gesture of confusion. But the man couldn’t see fully, his glasses had fallen off on the way down. Big Willie brought them over, handing them to Merchant, who gave them over to Hosseini.
“Th-thanks.” He nodded to Willie. “I know you, don’t I.”
Merchant and I both looked at Willie, a bit startled. Willie looked possibly put out as well. He was surprised the man placed him. But yeah, maybe he’d seen him in the alley, or knew about Jackie’s benevolence towards him. Or that surprised look on his face was panic.
“I’m in the alley, back there.” Willie told him.
Hosseini shook his head. “No…no, before that.”
Before that. Before what?
Big Willie Winsboro cleared his throat and shrugged. The fig tree seemed to mimic him and its leaves fluttered in a mild breeze above him.
“What’re we missing here?” Merchant asked, turning on his heels and looking up at the big man.
“Man might need an ambulance after all.” Willie told him. “Probably got a concussion.”
Merchant stood up. “Probably…” He cocked an ear toward the building.
We could hear it too. Shuffling feet at first. And then a door slamming. We all looked at each other. Could be just another tenant coming home from a bar. But we were all poised on the strings of coincidence. The detective took the stairs two at a time. I found myself following him for no other reason than the fear of missing out. I looked over my shoulder and got a quick glimpse of Big Willie helping Hosseini up. There was something there. But put it away for later.
At the top of the stairs Merchant stopped to take a gander. I came up behind him, heaving. There was a light on in apartment number two. Merchant peered over his shoulder at me.
He shrugged and walked over to the door. I stayed back, staring down the walkway, toward the alley. The breeze stirred the elephant ears that were planted so haphazardly in a bed in front of the ground level apartments. Merchant didn’t knock. Instead, he lurked near the window, trying to get a look inside. There were curtains drawn though and nothing could be seen. I whispered something about being careful. I don’t know why, but Merchant held up a hand again, to let me know that I was the amateur. What he didn’t know was that I knew this already. I looked down the walkway again, at the alley, thinking that was where the person had come from. The person who made the sounds that we’d heard, that led us to this place, right now.
I shot a glance over my shoulder. Where were Willie and Hosseini? Still down by the fig tree.
Back to the walkway and the alley and Merchant still creeping by the window. A floorboard creaked inside the apartment. The detective and I froze. The elephant ears swayed. It was dark in all that green. The light from the apartment gleamed on Merchant. He reached out and knocked on the metal-screen door.
It was loud. Banging out in the night. A sound that rang us into deafness.
Merchant had stepped away from the window and positioned himself in front of the door. I still hung back about ten feet, closer to the top of the stairs. There was something about those elephant ears that kept drawing my gaze.
Something moved over there that wasn’t a plant.
Before I could yell or scream or croak anything out there was a flash from the foliage. And then a popping sound.
Merchant grunted and leaned against the door.
Something burst out of the dark green weeds and bolted down the walkway towards the alley.
Merchant was splayed against the metal door, reaching backwards, toward his ass. Did he get shot in the ass? I finally moved toward him.
“Go!” He yelled.
“Go after him!” Merchant screamed. “He shot me in the fucking ass!”
Maybe I should’ve laughed but I was too busy obeying an order. I ran down the walkway towards a gun.