Dripping, dripping and dripping.
I was thinking, maybe Willie was armed when Martinez and Matos shot him. He’d shot those Armenian goons just a few hours ago in Long Beach. What had he done with the gun? If it was on him then M & M were golden. But they were more than likely golden anyway. Willie was wanted for murder. Just the wrong one. So, maybe it all works out in the end, anyway. Whatever that means to anyone.
But what about that gun?
He’d taken two off those Salvadorean fools downtown. Okay, say he dumped the one he used at the dump. There’s still another one to account for. Another one of those MP9’s. Maybe it’s in the truck. Can’t go back up to the 7-Eleven now. Not with all that jazz going on.
I stepped down the walkway of Jackie’s building, not really knowing where I was going, but feeling the pull of her apartment. Wondering if she had any guns stashed anywhere. Thinking I’m going to need one if the plan swirling in my head was worth its weight. Some birds were singing in that big, fig tree down on Barrington, and Jackie’s door was slightly ajar. Now, you’re trying to recall too many things at once. Things that happened a long time ago. Like maybe ten or twelve hours ago. So many had come and gone. The yellow, police-tape was sagging. Walk softly and carry a big stick, some puffed-up, mustachioed, American-magnifico had said. But what do you do when you don’t have the big stick?
You go in blindly, with not a care in the world. It’s how the plebians do it. The ones that never slurped from the money river. The ones with the street views.
I nudged the door with the toe of my shoe. The light was on the living room and the sound of shuffling feet could be heard.
“Yo.” I said.
The shuffling stopped.
The door kept opening, slowly. The hinges made a grating sound. And old wooden thing on rusted metal had been the same door to that apartment since it was built in the late 60’s.
A head popped out of the kitchen. Cliff. “Hello?” He said, like he lived there.
“Fuck you doing in here?” Stepping into Jackie’s place.
“Elam?” Cliff came out of the kitchen, fully. He had a small notepad and a pen in his hands. Had on slick pants and short-sleeved-polo, tennis shoes and that good hair, reticulating like Hokusai waves. A crooked smile on his face, to allay any suspicions you might have about any skullduggery he might be involved in.
“What’re you doing in Jackie’s place, man?”
His smiled broadened and his shoulders came up an inch. “It’s uh… not really her place anymore and I have to make an inventory of the abode, as some might say.” He looked around and finally shrugged. “S’fucked up, man.”
“Most of it’ll get sold off, you know. We can make a profit on something.” He eyed me. “Losing a tenant and all.”
Ah yes, profit. You know the name of the game. The world keeps turning. People die but profit lives. Who are you to question that? Some golf-pro with an oblivious side hustle. All in the name of carving out space. Owning dirt. It meant that much to them. And people were always in the way, occupying it. You just had to move them. Move them by whatever means. If blood was spilled, all the better. It was good for the soil.
“That didn’t take you long.” I looked at the fake watch on my wrist. “It’s been what, a day?”
Cliff’s mouth was open, but no words came for a few seconds. “Well, you know… I mean, it’s just…” He shook his head. “I’m just doing what I’m told.”
We both looked over at the blood stain on the couch. It smelled of rotting maple in that living room. “What you gonna do with the couch, put it on Facebook marketplace? There buyers for second-hand furniture where folks have been murdered on them?”
Cliff blinked and his cheeks reddened. His nose was almost purple. He shook his head searching for an answer. “What the fuck, man.” Was all he could come up with. But thinking way back somewhere in his wet-brain that it was a good idea.
“What’d you gonna do when Hosseini ain’t got nothing left for you?”
“You think you might know too much?”
The magenta-nosed golf-pro was flummoxed. Maybe he was drunk. At eleven-o’clock in the morning. Probably nothing new for him. “About what?” He shook his head. “We already talked about this, Elam. This thing with Jackie, man… I don’t know.” His eyes were troubled and his mouth went all pouty.
That was the second time he’d said my name. A forced familiarity. A game men play. We look you in the eye and shake your hand too tight and say your name. It’s a falsity of character that really burns your guts. Jackie Meaux played golf. It was something she didn’t really talk about. She’d probably played with Cliff a few times. She played for what reasons most people start playing. To be perfect. Her clubs were in the living room, in a corner by a desk. Off to my left, a little behind Cliff and to his right.
I stepped over there, the golf-pro watching me, and grabbed whatever numbered iron. It wasn’t the driver or the putter. I knew that much. Maybe it was the seven-iron. Pulled it out in one smooth motion and swung it at Cliff’s head.
He was of the mind that nothing like that would ever happen to him. How long had he been playing golf? No one had ever swung a club at his head. The tip of the club caught him in his right ear. It made a dinging noise and reverberated in my hand. Cliff made a noise too. A slight scream and an ahhhh. He stumbled to his left and used the cough to prop himself up. I turned fully towards him, the club in my right hand, and swung the thing with my left hand helping. The blunt, short end caught him in the mouth. Front teeth shattered with a wood splintering sound.
Cliff fell against the couch, holding his mouth. Blood ran through his fingers. His right ear was red and already swelling. He was whimpering, almost crying. Maybe he’d never felt pain like that. I stood over him and felt not a tinge of remorse. A torturer extracting information. A man in control, finally. Watching the blood flow over his fingers. Enthralled by how much of it there was. Pointing the club at him, Cliff moved further into the couch. “Did you look in the safe yet?”
He mumbled something unintelligible. I pressed the end of the seven-iron into his chest. “You don’t even know what you’re looking for, do you?” I didn’t even know what I was asking, just winging it, feeling like I had a big stick for once. “What’s your boss scared of?” There had to be something that spooked the man.
Cliff had nothing to offer but trembling and tears. He was done. Broken. But broken to the point of uselessness. Some inquisitor. But mentioning the safe started a germ working through the back of my head. I left Cliff bleeding on the couch. A fitting piece of furniture for it. Oh, the blood it had seen.
I beelined down the hall, going into the room on the left and headed straight for the closet. The safe was gone. That was strange and stood me up straight. Made me wonder if it were ever there in the first place. Did I have the wrong room? Did the due diligence and checked the other bedroom. No, it wasn’t in there. I ran back into the living room. Cliff was gone. The front door was wide open.
He was on the stairs when I caught up to him. Stumbling up the steps, leaving a trail of blood. I just followed him. Not wanting to attract attention from the other tenants. But really, I wanted to see where he was going. You forget, in certain moments that people will lead you where you need to go. Cliff made it to his apartment on gangly legs. Drip, drip, dripping. He left the door wide open for me. In the kitchen he slipped on his own blood and lay splayed out on his back for what seemed like minutes. I stood in the doorway, waiting. He eventually got up and made it out to the patio. Lurching towards one of the corners, where a plastic storage container sat. He lifted the lid and reached inside the container and tried pulling something out of it, but whatever it was, was too heavy. I strode over and looked over his shoulder.
Cliff collapsed down to both knees, trying to pull the thing out. How had he gotten it up here in the first place?
“You need some help?” I asked.
He was startled at first. His teeth were a red backdrop set in a strange grimace his face seemed to be stuck in. “It’s the safe.” Cliff managed to say.
“I see that.” I told him. “How’d you manage to get that up here?”
“Had help.” He leaned his arms on the edge of the container. “I don’t know where he is now.” He was breathing through his mouth.
The porch jutted over the alley. I could see where Willie’s pile of things were over the deck’s railing. “When’d you move it?”
Cliff looked up at me. “What?”
Willie could’ve helped him. But what did it matter at this point, if he did. I shrugged the man off. “Can you even open the thing?”
He shook his head slowly.
“What’s in there that Hosseini needs?”
Cliff sat down. Blood was dripping from his lips, the flow of it had slowed down considerably. He was hunched over and exhausted. “I don’t know, man.” He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
The golf-pro sighed. It was more of wheeze. “Can you just leave me alone?” He looked up at me and yelled. “Just leave me the fuck alone!”
“Too late for all that.” I looked up and around to see if other people were out on their balconies. I don’t even know why I cared at this point. “And nobody’s gonna be left alone now.”
He sighed and cried a little. Or it looked as though he might be crying, it was hard to tell. His face was a mess. “She’s dead, man. Just let her rest.”
I don’t know if I hated anyone more than I did him in that moment. That feeling misdirected, I’m sure. But maybe not. It wasn’t all his fault, I know. It was a system people like him had created, that had been infiltrated and turned on its head, and he was lost and grasping for things in the past, like everyone else.
“She’s resting. Believe me. We the one’s that can’t.” I leaned in and punched my birthday into the pad on the safe. “None of this will ever be over. Not really.” I took out some files. Papers in manila folders. That’s what Hosseini wanted, that’s what he’d get.
“It’s just a bunch of paper.”
“Legal documents.” Cliff pointed out.
“Why would Jackie have them?”
“She stole them.”
Why would she steal them? But I didn’t ask it out loud. Cliff wouldn’t have the answer to that. And he was a broken. Sitting there, slumped over with his legs slightly bent in front of him, arms resting on his knees, breathing through his mouth that still dripped blood. His left ear was red and big as a fist. A freakish sideshow attraction. Some carny gone wrong. But if he got himself together, he could walk out of here and someone would want to meet his make-up artist.
I left Cliff there on the deck and headed back up the alley, with those files under my arm. The ambulances were gone. Most of the cops too. A couple of patrol cars were parked in spaces and the 7-Eleven was yellow-taped up. That guy working the flower stand was still trying to sell his beauties. He was looking at me. He gave me a nod. I nodded back, but he kept his gaze on me.
I walked over.
“I saw you with the big man.” He started. “Willie.” He had his hands in his navy-blue Dickie’s jacket. “Cops shot him.”
Maybe the man was in shock. He needed to talk it out. I didn’t feel like I had the time. I stood there not wanting to be rude. “Yeah, I know.” Nodding.
“When they took him out…” He looked around. Cops were still about. “They had the thing over his mouth.” He made a hand gesture that didn’t help explain anything. “I thought he was dead, but why would they be giving him oxygen and shit.” He shook his head. “You know, when they’re carting him out on the stretcher, they had that little oxygen mask on his mouth.” He mimed the placing of mask on a mouth.
“I don’t know.” I shook my head, looking around for cops, not wanting them to see me. Maybe Merchant and Larsen had told them to keep an eye out for me.
“I seen you with him.” Flower guy said. “Thought you should know, you know.”
I turned and walked to the mustang. There was a note on the windshield. I snatched it quick and looked around. Then looked at the note.
It read: “Look at your fucking phone!!” The handwriting was in cursive. Must be Merchant. Notifications of missed calls from Merchant. A text message from Merchant: “Your boy is Lazarus! Motherfucker’s breathing. Where are you!?”
There was another missed text message. From Jackie’s phone. Fucking Beebe. “we need to meet…” Was all it said.
Lower case and ellipses. Good bet it wasn’t her texting. Good bet it was her sister. Or her brother. And if the latter was the case, then he was looking for his money. For some reason, I found myself grinning. Maybe, just maybe I knew how to fuck with some people.
First things first. A run out to the valley was in order. Merchant and Larsen and Big Willie could wait. Beebe, Ed and La Pantera Rosa and the whole MS-13 crowd could wait. But not Hosseini. That motherfucker could not wait. Up Wilshire and the 405 to Sherman Oaks. What day was it today? Would the office even be open? If it weren’t, would there be someone burning the weekend oil? I checked my phone. It was still Sunday. Midday coming down into the orange, dusty haze of the valley. A right on Ventura and there was that little strip mall.
P&C Real Estate.
There was that god-awful, champagne-colored Prius parked in front of the place. Early bird gets the worm. So, they say. To motivate the masses. But worms only burrow into your stomach and eat you from the inside. I parked next to the hybrid and gathered the files and walked into the real-estate office.
Andrea was not happy to see me. She looked like she was looking forward to lunch. Getting ready to leave, thinking about where she was gonna go. Then in walks this ambiguous mess of a man who hasn’t showered in a few days.
“You know we have a security firm that comes out at a moment’s notice.” She put her hand on a landline phone. “Just gotta call them.”
I nodded. “That’s good customer service.”
“This is a real-estate office, not a cell-phone company or a coffee shop.” Andrea pointed out.
“It’s a real-estate office.” Widening my eyes like a true buffoon. A buffoon with a cracked smile and a twinkle in his eyes. “Then maybe you can help me with something.” I plopped the files on her desk. Her Filipino flag fluttered. Andrea didn’t say anything. She just looked at the folders. Then raised her eyes up to my face and affected boredom. Her hand was still on the phone.
“You said Jackie was your friend.”
She swallowed and blinked. “And she was yours.”
I nodded. “You know what the code to her safe is?”
Andrea was flummoxed. “What?”
“The code to her safe.”
She shook her head. “How would I fucking know that? Or care?”
“My birthday.” I told her. “That’s the code you punch in that so many people couldn’t figure.”
“Well, good for you.”
I pointed at her, very casually. “No, it’s good for you.”
“How so?” She was so sure of the question not coming back on her.
Pressing my finger down on the files. “Good for you because these files were in Jackie’s safe.”
Andrea was playing it all the way down the line. Her nose crinkled up and she shook her head, barely noticeable. Like, just what is this creature hollering about. But there was wariness underneath.
She picked up the phone.
“Because you’re the one that gave these files to Jackie.”
The phone clacked back down on its cradle. She blinked and cleared her throat. “Excuse me.” Her voice didn’t even have her back.
“How else would Jackie have these in her possession?”
Andrea shrugged. “How should I know?” She looked passed me, out of the front windows toward Ventura Blvd. “She was as close to Hosseini as anyone.”
“So, Hosseini gave her these files?”
Another shrug. “You think I’m privy to everything that man does? Also, please leave. Now.”
I opened one of the files. “See, your signature is on all these, though.” Picked up a piece of paper to show her. “And you were friends with Jackie Meaux.”
She looked down at her desk.
“Right?” I prodded.
“What’s to say she didn’t steal them?”
“Could be, but I think you gave them to her.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Cause you were back-dooring Hosseini.”
She began to hear a buzzing. Don’t ask me how I knew that. It got quiet and all you could hear was a low moving of machinery out on Ventura. A dulling hum of things we don’t have to do anymore.
“You need to leave.” Andrea picked the phone back up.
“We followed you that day, you know.” I told her.
“What?” She stopped, phone midway between receiver and ear.
“The other day. When was that?”
“Saturday.” She stated. “Yesterday.”
“Right, you’re here on a weekend.” I looked around the office. “It’s just you, huh. One lady show. No other employees.”
That scared her. But not in the way I wanted. It was a physical thing. She was all alone in this office with me. A man. Bigger than some. And with wilder ideas than most. No telling what he would do.
I put a hand up. “I’m just saying, you work a lot. Maybe the compensation plan leaves a little bit to be desired. Maybe you carved something out for yourself.” I watched her closely, still holding the phone. “And Jackie.”
Andrea’s eyes did a little thing. Don’t know if it quite registered, but it was noticed. A softness was let in. “You followed me…”
“To that building in Filipinotown.”
“Right.” She put the phone down, yet again.
She gave me a keen look. “What do you think?”
“You go over to that building for what?” I was throwing things around. “Then go downtown to the county board of supervisors.” I shrugged. “What’s that all about?”
Andrea looked disturbed now. Threatened for real. I didn’t want to be there. Bullying a woman in a real-estate office. A big, bad man doing his duty to keep things the way they should be. It wasn’t the way.
I put my hands up. “Look, I don’t want anything other than to know what happened to my friend.”
“Yeah, you said that before.” She’d steeled herself. “And I think I might have said this before. She never mentioned you to me.”
Andrea had her own knives. I didn’t feel so bad about us then. This situation of menace. “You guys that close, then?”
A personal question she wasn’t quite ready to answer. “We were friends, I told you that.” She looked furtively away.
“That came up with a scheme.” I told her, looking at the files on her desk. Knowing what she meant when she said she was friends with Jackie. It was different. Something I could never touch.
“You think Hosseini cares?”
“I don’t know if he does.” I thought about it. “But I plan to make him hurt.”
“Why?” Andrea had a nice stank-face going.
“Are you kidding?”
She pursed her lips and gazed again at Ventura Blvd. Cars going by. People on bikes and street folks pushing shopping carts. “What’s your plan?” She asked without looking at me.
I always hated job interviews. Probably because I never endeavored to have a plan. A foreseeable future besides two weeks and then a paycheck. Never thought about moving pieces in my head, ahead of time. But what did I have there to hurt Hosseini? What was in those files that he wanted so badly? Had Cliff go into her apartment and take the whole damn safe.
“The stone.” I said out loud.
“Oh, Jackie didn’t tell you?”
Andrea gave me a look. Somewhere between fuck you and go fuck yourself. I told her about the opal in her safe. About the Agassi’s and the Bonilla’s and Flores’. About the spooky pull of this opaque nebula in the palm.
After I was done, she looked at me, finally. “She never told me she had it.”
“Still don’t know how she got it.”
Andrea thought about that for a moment. “I think I know how she got it.”
That surprised me. “How?”
She leaned across the desks and picked up the files and began thumbing through them. “The Agassi’s have… invested a lot of money in the company.”
“Flores’ have too, so I hear.”
She cut her eyes up at me. She nodded. I certainly did get around. And those Salvis hadn’t lied to us. “So, what? That’s your angle? Expose him for taking money from gangsters?” She gave me a pitying look. “How do you think things get done around town?”
“You think the people of LA don’t care about that shit?” I asked her. “Maybe they don’t.” Thinking about it. “But somebody will want to write about it, to fill space. And a whole lot of people will click on it, cause they got nothing else to do.”
Andrea gave that some thought. “You an internet expert?”
“It’s a story.”
She seemed resigned to agree. “Yeah, maybe. You would have to make sure Hosseini’s name is in it somewhere.”
Now she was scheming, and that’s all I needed. “You can go tell him that.” Nodding at the files. “I’ll need those back.”
There was a pause and I truly thought she had me. She could just keep them and know I couldn’t physically take them from her. A silent agreement had been made. She’d seen it back deep in my eyes.
But she slid the files over. The money she was sloughing off the man meant too much to her. “What proof do I offer him?”
“Tell him I know who has the opal.”
“Why would he care?”
“He probably doesn’t.” I told her. “But someone else might.”