Now to Plunder the Turks
Some guy from the old country had an opal. Nobody knows how he got it. But there were mythical tales that followed him. Stories that went back to the Ottoman Empire. Some son of a son of a Sultan’s son, a red or a bloody one, fleeing wholesale killing of able-bodied men. Port of call: Los Angeles. Circa 1925 and the fleeing man is no longer so fleet of feet. He’s settled in a little enclave called Glendale. He’s met a girl from that same patch of Western Armenia that is Turkey now. They have a few kids and he’s still got that opal stashed away in a cigar box. He can’t seem to part ways with it.
Forward twenty-five years and it’s 1950. Our fleeing man is more of a root-man. Stretching out his tentacles now as a grandfather. He has a rug shop. Persian rugs he sells to the Hollywood crowd and aging oil-magnates. He starts buying up tracts in Glendale. The family is growing. He’s got six grandkids. The newest one is a girl named Brenda.
Buying up land can lead you down a byzantine path. The people you meet, the deals you make with them, the circuitous nature of bureaucratic leaps and bounds, makes strange bedfellows. And Los Angeles is the proverbial melting pot. And our man knew how rugs worked. America was one big rug, shake it out and see where the dirt landed. That was this new city he lived in. His home for thirty years now. Where all the refugees lived. And it didn’t matter what you were running from. Nobody in this city ever asked.
Now the opal was a family heirloom. He gave it to a son who gave it to a daughter. The thing had lost its Ottoman luster. It was just a colored stone now. They had rugs and land to sell. The stone sat in a box.
Until Brenda meets a guy in 1970.
His name is Michael Flores. Or Miguel to some. He was 18th Street. Coming up in the sixties, his parents immigrated in 59’ when he was thirteen years old; he was a supreme B&E man. He’d learned it as a kid in El Salvador and just parlayed it into the massive sprawl of L.A. It was the perfect place for a young teenager with a stiff boner for women’s underwear, and whose parents were less than watchful. They both had jobs working during the day. Housekeeping and landscaping, respectfully. Miguel was supposed to be at school, but his parents were sun-uppers; leaving well before the kid knuckled crust from his eyes. He was an only child, which was rare in their community. Maybe it explained his bentness. Having to fix his own breakfast and get himself to school was boring. The thing that excited him was the creeping. He was invisible. Why not revel in it?
They were living in Rampart Village then and he’d take the bus that ran on Virgil up to Los Feliz. Primetime burgle spots. Lots of lush homes with nobody around during the middle of the day. Lots of fancy underwear to sniff. He liked the frilly laced-ones the best. Way better than his mom’s granny-panties. Crossing over Los Feliz Blvd into Griffith Park was his mistake, though. That hood had a security guard in a golf cart roaming around looking for peeps just like Miguel.
He got popped at thirteen. But he got lucky as well. The responding patrol officer was a dude named Estevez. One of the first Hispanic hires by the LAPD. He took a shine to the kid, Miquel, and cut him a break. He knew what it was like to grow up brown in this city. He even gave the kid a ride home.
Which got him noticed in other ways.
The 18th Street boys were up and comers. And they recruited liberally. Getting into houses was their forte. It’s how they made most of their dough. So, when they saw Estevez dropping off young Miguel Flores, they beelined on over to talk to the boy.
Rampart was their little village. But the boy was hitting up prime locations and they thought that rather industrious. So, they co-opted him. Jumped him in on his fourteenth birthday and leaned on him to grow up and stop sniffing panties and graduate to theft.
Most of the work was loose cash and jewelry. Hock the shit in pawn shops in their hood and no one was ever the wiser. Miguel was a big earner. His parents still thought he was going to school. He was flush with cash. He needed a girl to spend it on.
Then one day on Shannon or Prestwick or Carnavon Way (they all looped back on each other, it was hard to tell which one you were on), Miguel was in a white adobe thing, with Spanish tile, with a white fence he just hopped over, and he came across something that notched a segment in his mind. And he was never the same.
Because two things happened that day that changed the young man.
First, was the opal.
Second was Brenda Kafesjian.
Brenda was twenty years old and newly married to a family friend twice her age. It was a loosely arranged thing they did in Glendale those days. But this older dude bought a house just over the Golden State Freeway in Griffith Park, for his young bride.
The older dude was a nine-to-fiver. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and Miguel knew that most housewives in this area went out to lunch. It was the rich L.A. way. Lunch with the other wives at some fancy spot, on Vermont.
But he’d miss timed it.
Or was just plain unlucky. Like that day the guy on the golf-cart was rolling around. It was bound to happen.
No, it was the opal’s fault.
He’d never seen anything like it. Never seen anything that looked like the beginnings of the universe. The murky depths of some far-off nebula had pulled him in. He was transfixed. Obsessed immediately. He held it in the palm of his hand and felt what wonder was like for the first time. This city he’d found himself in, this land his parents had brought him to, suddenly seemed small. The sprawl that had enveloped his mind had expanded into unknown parts. And the expansion sent him whirling.
But Brenda ruined it. Ruined it in an even better way. She took his gaze off the cosmos for a moment, as he heard her enter the house through the back door, where the garage was. He quickly put the stone in his pocket and tried not to panic.
At the same time, he was curious. Frozen all the same.
Eventually, she came into the bedroom and was startled. He stood there like a lost dog. A puppy, really. Brenda didn’t scream or gasp. Her eyes went wide and her lips parted. But that was it. Miguel was surprised.
She was bored. And this was the most excitement she’d had in her life. She was twenty years old. Grew up in Glendale her whole life. It might as well have been a suburb. And this kid was lost. She could tell.
Miguel was seventeen and the universe had just opened up to him.
Brenda was bored and this intruder interested her. And he was kind of cute and looking at her in a certain way. More so than her older husband did, anyway. Less of a leer, and more of a fascination. It was enough to start something.
So, they started a thing. Miguel would come over at lunch time and Brenda would be there, waiting on him. At first, it started slow. Maybe too slow for Brenda’s liking. Miguel was shy and had never been with a woman. It was sweet. He was sweet. Brenda began to see a way things could be. Tender and caring and maybe even loving. Pretty soon that’s what she thought it was. Love.
It was love for sure to Miguel. Michael now. That’s what Brenda wanted. She wanted him to go by Michael. She didn’t really give him reason why, she just liked that better. He didn’t care, he’d change his name, his address, his phone number, he just wanted to be with her. And the opal.
Brenda didn’t know he had it. She hadn’t noticed it was missing. She’d put it away and hadn’t thought about it. It must’ve been years since she thought about that whacky looking marble her dad had given her. That thing he said her grandfather brought over from Europe. It meant something to those men.
It meant nothing to her. Just a weird looking stone to put away and be forgotten. Maybe if she had a son one day, give it to him.
Not for Miguel/Michael. He was just as besieged by the Opal as he was Brenda. It was a dual force. A package to juggle in his heart. He kept the stone with him wherever he went. Careful to only pull it out when no one was around.
But Brenda caught him one day.
“Wait. Miguel and Michael, the same dude?”
Willie and I were back in my truck, heading south on the 405 towards the Southbay. We didn’t waste any time in going for the dough. Soon as someone flashed the green, we were toting it for them, no questions asked.
But that wasn’t true. There were plenty of questions.
“You weren’t listening, were you?”
Big Willie was in back of the truck, in the bed, shouting through the sliding window. He decided not to cramp himself up in the cab. “I was, but I was watching them motherfuckers in the dark, some shit just got passed me.”
“Yeah, same dude. Ed and Pantera’s grandpa.”
“Pantera.” Willie scoffed.
“What?” Although, I didn’t think I had to ask.
“This shit ain’t about nothing, is it.”
“It’s about something.”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Two people fucked a long time ago and all the other got out of it was two-thousand-dollar stone.” Willie was frustrated.
So was I.
“What’d Brenda get?” Willie asked.
I couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. That’s how these things work. It’s always right there in front of you.
“What’d Jackie get?”
Willie was silent. It just wasn’t that easy.
Miguel and Brenda’s story didn’t stop there. Well, maybe it did for Brenda, but for Miguel it kept running down a line that trebled with a neurotic mirth. Even after they were found out. Even after the Armenian Power beat Miguel. Beat him so badly that he lost his left eye. He still couldn’t stop with the stone. Brenda’s family didn’t even know he had it. The beating wasn’t about that. It was about Brenda. It was about her infidelity. Her waywardness with a wetback.
It started a war.
You’ve seen it before. Going all the way back to the Bronze Age. Cities on the Mediterranean on fire. Over love, we’re taught. But romantics teach us that. A vast conspiracy to make us gooey inside. They like to sugarcoat the past. They are always the winners. And the winners do dastardly shit. Like pop people’s eyes out and call it a price to be paid for a territorial beef. The Salvadoreans didn’t even know the Armenians laid claim over Los Feliz. They’d had their run-ins on the Avenues, but East Hollywood was thought to be a no man’s land in 1975. So, they laid waste to one another.
The Armenians won and claimed East Hollywood.
The Salvis regrouped and reloaded. Their influx in the Eighties put them in spaces in LA that made East Hollywood and Glendale not matter much. With the Mexican Mafia backing them, LA was theirs.
So was the opal. But nobody knew. But Brenda and Miguel. They both knew. Brenda didn’t until Miguel started putting the thing in his empty socket. At this point, they hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years. It’s 77’ and the dust had settled, but Miguel was still lurking. Peeping was his game. He could never stop doing it. He creeped with his knew eyeball. Looking in on places in his old stomping grounds. Drunk on Boone’s Farm he would creep Griffith Park. Going deeper and deeper into the serpentine streets. Sometimes going astray, finding himself on dirt paths that led into caves and an old zoo. At night, with the animals.
She saw him one day around dusk. At the old zoo.
“You ever been up there?” Willie asked from the bed of the truck.
We were just south of LAX. Cruising now that we made it through the traffic near the 10 freeway. “Where?” I asked.
“That old zoo up in Griffith?”
I nodded without saying anything. Big Willie wanted to talk about it, I guessed. “Some weird-ass shit goes on up there.”
Now he had me. “Like what?”
“I don’t know, I just heard some shit.”
“You never been up there?”
Just what the fuck did that mean? Not really.
“What’s the shit you heard?” I looked at him in the rear-view mirror.
“Rituals.” Was all he said.
“You look spooked.” I told him. And he did. He’s eyes were somewhere out in the ether. “What kind of rituals they doing up there? Animal sacrifices?”
He looked at me in the rear-view. “You heard about it?”
“Everybody has. Don’t mean any of its true. It’s just a spooky place for people to hoist their fears onto.”
Maybe that’s what drew Miguel to it. He was attracted to the spooky. The spooky places that no one else would go. The places on the margins. Like himself. The weird ones that no one looked at. The ones that were ignored.
Brenda saw him, though. Out walking her dog one evening. Dusk was a fine turquoise vapor moving through the hills. She shivered when she saw the shape moving toward her. Something about its gait. She knew it by heart.
The dog started to bark. It was some mutt her husband brought home one day. Something crossed between a terrier and a hound. He had a deep bellowing howl. Brenda had stopped in the middle of a fogged-out street. And the man that she once knew came creeping out of the mist.
The man she once called a lover had a strange new eye. It seemed to swirl towards her out of the murk. She let the leash go and the dog pounced. Miguel swung his bottle of BF and missed, but it spooked the pooch, and it ran down the street to be lost in the fog.
Brenda stared at the man, having fallen, sitting there in the middle of the street. A sad sight. She hadn’t seen him since he lost his eye. This poor man, mumbling incoherently, maybe not even recognizing her, was like some piece of a dream she might remember years from now in a low fit of recalled decisions. Decisions better left alone. Decisions better left on a foggy street.
But what about the opal? She’d forgotten all about it. It was a family heirloom, after all. Could she reach right over and pluck it out? Just take it out of his socket. It was hers, after all. Brenda stood there for a long time, staring at the Miguel’s choice. The choice to fill a hole inside him. Fuck it, she thought, he can have it.
She left him there in the street.
“What happened to the dog?” Willie asked.
The Normandie exit was coming up and I moved to the right lane. “Yeah, what happened to the dog? That’s a good question.”
You could feel Willie give a harumph back there. The whole truck shook with his dismissal of sarcasm. “So, Miguel ends up with it. How’d the Armenians get it back then?”
“That’s where Erik Agassi comes in.”
That’s right. Miguel Flores was just a sunken wet-brain, nearing the end of his rope, when he looked up one day and had three children by three different women. It was the late 80’s and this he was sure of – three kids by three different women.
A Michael and an Edwina Flores, and one that didn’t take his name, Beartiz Bonilla. The one that hated him, Beebe. The other two he was okay with, he thought, but his brain was mush, so it was hard to tell what people thought of him. His own kids. The mothers didn’t care for him, that was for sure.
But it was Beebe that bothered him.
When she was a kid, her mother referred to Miguel as her uncle. Too ashamed to admit their intimacy. It bothered him, but it didn’t. He got to see her, occasionally. Usually when she was sleeping. He didn’t remember much else. Just looking in on her as she snoozed. During parties. There were always people over there. The other two kids, he got to see, but he had to take the stone out of his eye. The mothers of Michael and Edwina said it was too freaky, they didn’t want to scare the kids. So, he kept it in his pocket and wore an eye patch.
But with Beebe, he could be himself. She didn’t know any better. She was too young and asleep.
“Thought you said this was about Erik Agassi?” Big Willie cut in.
“It is.” I nodded, and stopped the truck at the light on 190th.
When Beebe hit her teen years, Miguel wasn’t doing so well. He was in out of urgent care for all manner of ailments. But mostly it was for his liver. Failing him after all that gut-rot-malt-liquor.
Beebe was in junior-high, and her best friend was kid a named Erik. The went to Thomas Starr Middle-School together. Half-way mark between Glendale and Rampart Village. They were thick as thieves, some would say. From the first time they met, the two were mucking it up about the macabre. They were both into whatever was on the fringes. Anything to do with the strange and off kilter. They discovered Lynch and Cronenberg at cemetery screenings. They lurked in dingy coffee shops, listening to the Smiths and reading Jaime Hernandez.
Erik first saw Uncle Miguel on a Sunday. One of those BBQ’s that Beebe’s mother always threw. A lot of beer drinking and rabble-rousing. A person could get overlooked on any given Sunday over at Beebe’s mother’s house. Like Beebe’s uncle, who Beebe thought was her dad all along. She told Erik this early on, that her mother thought she was slick, but Beebe knew Miguel was her father. Erik never understood how she knew that, but she did. But he was agog with that glass eye in Uncle Miguel’s face. Just as beguiled and hoodwinked as Miguel. The stone was consuming. You couldn’t take your eyes off of it. It agitated and spun you about until nothing seemed right without the opal.
And on one of those Sundays Erik struck. He’d been planning and scheming in his mind to do something nice for Beebe. He would take that glass eye from her father and it would be there’s forever.
Erik had a plan.
It wasn’t much. It wouldn’t take much. Miguel was always fall-down drunk. It’s be easy to sneak up on him when he was passed out and pluck it out.
So, that’s what he did. Easy like Sunday morning.
The man was passed out in the alley, like he was want to do on Sundays. Erik always thought it strange that Beebe’s mother let the man come around. If Beebe was right, and Miguel was her father, maybe it did make sense. Or didn’t. Anyway, everyone was always so half-in-the-bag, no one really noticed the man anyway. But when he approached the man lying there between two dumpsters, something was different.
What was different was that the man wasn’t breathing. Snoring like he usually did. Erik looked down at the dead man. What was it that was so different about the man, now that he was dead? Other than he wasn’t breathing?
“Wait, hold up.” Willie blurted, as I turned the truck onto Normandie. “Don’t tell me this shit, dog.”
“Miguel his daddy too?”
“Fuck are you talking about?”
“Brenda’s Erik’s mama, right?”
I shook my head no, but I wasn’t quite sure. Anything was possible in this story, but I didn’t think that was the case. “I don’t know who Erik’s mother is.”
The storage facility came up quick on our left. It was a big warehouse in the land of warehouses. We were in the Southbay. Torrance. Logistics hub just north of Los Angeles harbor. Long Beach harbor, really. San Pedro too. Anyway, it was nothing but flat land and warehouses and Wal-Marts and flames burning at the tops of smokestacks. Industry. Or post-industry. Whatever era we were in, it was still pushing out metal and concrete for miles.
“You really think we gonna find two million dollars in this place?” Willie asked, as I pulled the truck up to a gate.
The entrance had a touch pad and sliding gate. Through the bars we could see a lane stretch out in front of us; RV’s and campers were parked in big parking spaces along the aluminum wall of the building.
“You gotta code?” Willie asked.
La Pantera had given us a code. Willie was standing right there. I didn’t know why he was suddenly without memory. He’d heard all this stuff. How you zone out in the middle of pointing guns at each other? I punched in the code, and the gate started to slide open on creaky wheels. The truck inched forward, and Willie still had questions. “So, how the fuck did the stone end up in a jeweler’s briefcase?”
A good question that I didn’t know the answer to. Which is what I told Willie. He took it in stride as we idled past recreation vehicles. One being a van crossed with a jeep on steroids.
“That’s something I could drive.” Willie stated.
“You got a driver’s license?”
“I don’t even know what that thing is.” I said, to not seem like such an asshole.
“Some kind of off-road van.” Willie pondered.
“You looking to get off the grid?”
“Already there.” The big man sucked his teeth. “Just tired a living in a tent, I guess.”
“It’s a nice set-up, though. I meant to tell you.” Thinking of being a nicer guy only sets in after the quickness of your mouth.
“Living in a alley ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Why don’t you hit your boy Hosseini up?” Back to being an asshole. “Sure, he can hook you up with a spot.” It’s just that easy going back to jabbing. “Him being a land mogul and all.”
In the rear-view, Willie blinked. Maybe the first time to see him flinch. Sort of. “I don’t think it works that way.”
“How are you not for sure, by now?” I kept pressing. It’s the only thing I knew how to do at that point.
“You for sure about anything?”
A good point. Not being any closer to understanding the dynamic between he and Hosseini and Jackie. It was still something in the back of the throat you couldn’t quite clear. How did Jackie end up with the opal, as well?
Flores said to drive around the building to the entrance on the north side. I guessed we were on the south side. We took the drive all the way around. The parking spaces were all full. RVs and campers and even some old buses.
“What’d you think a space like that cost a month?” Willie asked.
I had no clue. “Gotta be cheaper than a studio apartment, that’s for sure.”
Big Willie mumbled something. I found a place to park the truck. It was just along a cinderblock wall that marked the sites boundary with an aggregate company next door. Willie and I walked up to the entrance on the North side. There was a pop-up camper that looked as if it were in use, in a space right next to the entrance. It was popped up, with a black Ford Mustang parked in front of it. I could see Willie looking at it and all of the surrounding, potential domiciles. His mind was working on life upgrades.
I put the code in the number pad next to the door. Two glass doors swung open. Willie and I looked at each other. “You know where you going?” He asked.
“Flores said it was on the second floor.”
We both stepped through the doorway. A hallway stretched out in front of us. Concrete floors and aluminum walls surrounded us. Fluorescent lights above. Maybe every other light was on at this hour. An elevator was on our left and I pushed a button. The thing dinged right away and the metal door slid open. A big freight elevator waiting for us.
“Flores got other plans for us, maybe.” Willie surmising. “Say there ain’t no money up here, or say there is, what’s it got to do with anything?”
“Armenian and Salvadorean bag deals.” I told him, wondering if the man was okay. Thinking maybe he was losing it, or lost it a long time ago.
“They really gonna store money in a storage spot.” Big man was flabbergasted at the thought. “What’s that got to do with Jackie Meaux gettin got? Ending up with that fucking stone? We on a wild goose chase, huh.” The door to the elevator slid closed.
“They want us out of the way, why not just put bullets in our heads?” I asked him. “There’s something down here.”
“Yeah, maybe it’s the bullets in the head.”
“They could do that anywhere.”
“This is anywhere.”
“No.” I looked down the long main, corridor of white aluminum walls and green roll-down doors. “This is nowhere.”
I punched the elevator button again and it dinged and the door slid open.
“Good as place as any.” Willie got on the elevator and I followed.
The deathbox went up with great displeasure. It jerked and groaned and pulled its way up rusty metal ropes and gears. All of thirty feet, to the second floor, where it paused for an hour before opening. We stepped out into a little more darkness than the first floor offered. The was a small window showing the first minuscules of dawn coming.
“What’s the unit number?” Willie asked.
277. It was all the way on the other side of the place, in the darkest corner. Probably on the southeast side. It was one of the smallest units. A five-by-five thing, tucked into the design, an after-thought almost.
The lock on the unit was an old master lock you needed a key for.
“You bring the bolt-cutters?”
A day late, a dollar short. “You pick locks?”
Willie exhaled loudly and might’ve smiled.
The place creaked around us. Metal popping and expanding in the coming of the sun. Big Willie reached over and grabbed the lock and wrenched it off. Just like that. They don’t make em’ like they used to. Or Big Willie Winsboro was just a monster. With a broken silver lock in his palm, like some ancient scarab he dug up in Egypt.
Now to plunder.
I reached down for the handle on the roll-up door and pulled upward. It was awfully loud. A keeling metal sound that pierced the eardrums. At first, we only saw darkness inside. The smell of mothballs and rusted aluminum wafted out to our nostrils. But there was no clothing in there. I took my phone out of my pocket, for the flash light. There were notifications on the screen. A voicemail had been left. I noticed the number. Merchant.
And a text message from Jackie’s number.
“What the fuck?”
“What?” Willie asked.
“Beebe.” Was all I said.
“What about her?”
I turned the flashlight on and pointed it toward the unit. “She said don’t go in that storage unit.” I looked at Willie.
He looked in the unit.
The light was shining on a blue barrel. One of those plastic things. That mothball smell came on like thunder in our noses. Was that the smell of ozone? Disconcerting energies flowed outward and around us.
“Too late.” Willie said.
We stared at the barrel for a good long while. “You think the money’s in there?” I asked.
“Where else would it be?”
“Anywhere but here.”
“That what your girl saying?” Willie nodded towards my phone.
“My girl?” I took a step into the unit.
Big Willie hung back. The barrel was the only thing in the unit. Not that you could’ve fit much else in there. Maybe another barrel or two if you stacked them on top of each other. The ceiling reached at least ten feet above the enclosure.
“People live here.” Willie mused.
“Can’t be that easy.” I said.
“You trust that motherfucker?”
“I don’t trust anybody.”
“That’s a good start.”
Willie looked down the hall. I looked at the barrel and thought about what might be inside. Four hundred thousand dollars for us. One point six for the Salvadoreans. But why keep it in a barrel in storage? Just what were the Armenians doing?
“Looks like the locals are coming out to play.” Willie stated. He was still looking down the hallway.
I stepped over, craning my neck out of the unit to see four men coming our way. They were casting-call rejects. Straight out of central rollcall. Could’ve been from any gang movie from the late 70’s.
“You kidding me?” I asked.
“Sometimes the joke’s on you.”
As they got closer, the four men looked more like bikers, or guys too far on the other side of meth. They had bald heads and one of them dragged a metal bat along the corrugated walls. Armenian power rejects. No doubt watch dogs for the two million that might be in that barrel.
“You Elam Mangham?” The one in front said. He was forty years old or sixty. His face a thousand different creases. His voice cracked like a shattered bottle. He had a Led Zepplin t-shirt on and dirty blue jeans.
“Who’s asking?” Big Willie wanted to know.
“You him?” Led Zepplin asked. “We wanna get the right man. But still, we’ll fuck up whoever’s with him too.”
“You came to fuck some people up, huh?” Big Willie scoffed.
The guys with Led thought it was funny too, and laughed a little amongst themselves. Zepplin was the pack leader though and nipped the laughter in the bud.
“So, which one of you is Mangham?” He asked.
“What’s it matter, if you’re gonna fuck us both up?” I asked.
The guy kind of scoffed and shrugged his shoulders, but he was eyeing Willie, thinking about how big he was, looking a little unsure. “I guess you’re right.” He nodded over his shoulder and they came in with lead pipes and aluminum bats.
Led Zepplin came in grunting, swinging his pipe downward at Big Willie’s head. The big man caught the pipe and the other three came rushing around their alpha. But the corridor was too tight to swing and their pipes and bats clanged off the walls. It was a cacophony of banging metal delirium.
The first guy who made it around Willie came in low, with his teeth gritted and showing, stained brown. He had an aluminum bat and a dingy tank top, showing fully tatted sleeves on his arms. He came in so low that I kicked him in the face. I could see him blink as the toe of my shoe caught him between the eyes. He stumbled and fell and the bat clanged against the concrete floor. His momentum carried him into me, and we went crashing into the wall behind us. I looked up and Big Willie had taken the pipe from Led and had thrown him against the wall. Everything shook and thundered around us.
The other guy that had made it around Willie came charging in. The fourth one was swinging a bat on Willie and connecting. Maybe somewhere on the big man’s shoulder. That’s all I could make out before the third guy was on me.
I shoved the tank-top guy off of me and readied myself. Third guy came in a little more relaxed and balanced. He swung his pipe with alligator arms. He’d done this in tight spaces before. Probably in this very corridor. I tried to duck, but the pipe caught me on the tip of my dome and I could feel my legs wobble. The man grinned and came in closer, raising the pipe over his head, coming in for it.
I fell back and sat down on tank-top’s back, he was out from the kick. At least I got one of them before I went. I could see Big Willie taking blows from a bat and fists to the mid-section from a recovered Led Zepplin.
I leaned to my right side and the pipe clacked against the wall behind me. I threw a right hook, with all I had into the spot between his lowest rib and hip bone. He made a strange sound, like a low, sick whistle. The pipe he was holding clanged against concrete and the string went out of his legs as he grabbed his side. I stood up, pushing off the body of tank-top, feeling okay now, and moved around and shoved the man headfirst into the wall. His neck bent at a weird angle, and he slumped over his compatriot.
I whirled around. Willie had taken another bat away from someone and was using it like Josh Gibson. He’d already cracked Zepplin’s head wide open. The man lay on the floor of the hallway, his mouth open, and eyes wide and protruding from a dent in his skull. It was really something grotesque.
I almost puked.
Willie shoved the bat in the goon’s mouth, who he’d taken it from. The big end, cracking teeth and making an awful suctioning sound. The guy sat down, straight on his ass, and covered his mouth. Blood just poured through his fingers. All you could hear was Big Willie heaving for air and blood pouring on concrete. The guy didn’t make a noise otherwise. The big man raised the bat to finish him.
“Wait.” I stepped to Willie.
He stopped and looked around at me.
“The man’s had enough, I think.”
“You think?” Willie rubbed a giant bump that was rising on this forehead. “What about me, have I had enough?”
“Ain’t one enough?” I nodded towards the guy in the Led Zepplin shirt. I could hear the song Killing Floor. The Howlin’ Wolf one, somewhere in the back of my mind.
Big Willie looked at the man with the dented dome. He took a breath and threw the bat down. Clang. “Fuck em’.”
Yeah, fuck em. They tried to fuck us and failed. We fucked them. That’s life. Fuck or be fucked. But it didn’t feel like much of a code to live by. It left you feeling empty and hungry. Maybe for more.
“What now?” Willie asked.
Whatever, I wanted to say. But the barrel still loomed, all blue and cellulose. Still thinking there was two million in it. Two million in ones. It was a big barrel. I motioned toward the unit and stepped inside again. Willie stood where he was, in the hallway, surveying the damage.
I kicked the barrel. It made a thumping sound and didn’t budge a centimeter. Somebody moaned out in the hallway and then a nasty guttural sound could be heard. Willie eviscerating someone’s stomach with a swift kick. The lid on the barrel was on tight. I managed to pry it open and got my phone out again for the flash. I remembered the voicemail from Merchant. The text from Beebe, saying don’t go in the storage unit.
I went to the voicemail and listened.
Merchant saying they got Ed. She was talking. He knew the whole thing now. The Armenians and the Salvis doing land deals. Hosseini the bagman. He still didn’t know anything about the opal. Maybe Ed didn’t tell him everything. But at the end he had something curious to tell.
Beebe hadn’t done it.
I looked out of the opening of the unit. I could see Willie’s left shoulder and arm. The blue plastic barrel didn’t interest me anymore. I was taking steps before I could think. The body in motion, the mind in stasis. The pipe in my hand and then I was swinging away at Big Willie Winsboro’s head.
It didn’t go the way it was supposed to. I don’t know why I thought it would. But then again, I wasn’t thinking. The big man handled me like he did the rest of the men lying around with bald heads. He took the pipe away and slung me against an aluminum wall. The place shook again.
I didn’t lose consciousness. Willie looked a little woozy. Too many shots to the dome. I felt a little woozy as well. Too many shots to the head. Or body. Or to the soul.
Willie was down on one knee. I was scrunched up against the wall and two of the goons who hadn’t got up from their naps yet.
“Fuck you wanna hit me for?” The big man asked.
“Merchant…” Was all I could get out.
“What about him?” Willie had his right forearm on his bended knee.
“Beebe didn’t do it.”
Big Willie blinked and sighed. “You believe that?”
I didn’t know what to say. Belief was out the door. All I had were voices in my head and on my phone. What was real and what was not, didn’t seem to matter.
“How she get Jackie’s phone?” Willie asked. “Think about it.” He shook his big head, shaking away concussive webs. “Merchant ain’t your friend.”
And he was. Big Willie Winsboro. My friend.
“Shit man, that kid Erik could’ve done it.” Willie kept going. “You believe that cat Flores, it was Beebe.”
“You sound defensive all a sudden.” I pointed out.
“Gettin’ hit over the head with metal objects’ll make you that way.”
“You were there, Willie.”
He looked at me with his lower lip hanging down low. His breathing was heavy and a million beads of sweat had taken over his forehead. “I was always there, Elam.”
And where had I been? That’s what he was implying. Where had I been? When Jackie needed someone the most. She had that bulldog in the alley, though. What did she need me for? She had Hosseini and stolen jewels and crisscrossed families.
“What’d you use?” I asked the big man.
He blinked. “What?”
“What’d Hosseini give you? Can’t be money.” I gestured towards the barrel in the storage unit. “You don’t seem to be in it for that.”
Big Willie wiped his brow with his forearm. “You fucked up in the head, man.” He groaned and stood up. “Paranoid.”
I followed suit, but it took me a good, long while to even sit up. “How’d she get the opal, man?” I was inching my way up the aluminum wall behind me. “You tried getting into that safe, before I showed. You knew she had it.”
He sighed, but kept his mouth shut, instead pushing the air out through his nose, his nostrils flaring. “You need to chill the fuck out.” And his fist shot out and I was gone.
Down the well, into blackness.