Chapter Seven

“Don’t mean the maid’s gonna let you in.”

Kiss him goodbye for me. 

 A nice epitaph after shooting someone in the back and leaving him for the vultures. I’ve never known love like that. Don’t know if I’ve ever known love at all. Well, maybe that’s not true. Just not that deepdown spooky love that makes you want to end it for all time or die trying. Now Beebe was on the run with a phone that wasn’t hers and a red-hot-barreled-gun.  

“How you know it was her?” Willie was being reticent.  

“She sent the text.” I told him.  

“How you know it was her?” 

“Who else would’ve or could’ve sent that?”  

We were rolling hard down Normandie. Looking to hang a right on Beverly as soon as it came in sight. We couldn’t hear the sirens any longer. A fast getaway. As fast as a little, red Toyota would allow.  

“Could be anybody.”  

“You wanna live in that world, fine. But the thing is, we gotta try and put some things together. Strings some things along, at some point. The thing that makes sense is that we know them to be together.” 

“But why would she shoot him?” 

It was as good a question as any. Beverly came up, and I made the turn, and took it down to Larchmont and hung a left, looking to get lost in the leafy shades of Hancock Park. Probably a dumb move on the surface, but hiding in plain sight, right. Neighborhoods like Hancock Park are quiet, with wide streets where my truck would look like any other landscaping vehicle. We didn’t quite look the part, but maybe we were painters or swimming pool guys who forgot their gear. Either way, we looked out of place and were banking on rich folks’ obliviousness. 

I pulled the Toyota under a giant elm on the corner of  4th and Hudson, where the two streets bent into all the leafy greenness of overhanging elm and sycamores. I shut the truck off and Willie and me looked around. Quiet it was. Dark now, with sepia streetlights buzzing.  

“So, she shoots him in the back?” Willie continued the train of thought from decades ago. “For some fucking fancy marble? Don’t make no motherfucking sense?” 

“Cause we’re on the outside of this.” I told him. “It never makes sense until you get on the inside of things.” Acting like I’d been privy to that vantage point before.  

“You can park in the neighborhoods and look at the pretty houses, that don’t mean the maid’s gonna let you in.”  

“That’s nice.” Nodding. “Some fucking street poetry right there.”  

“Outsider poetry.” Willie corrected me. “You always bringing it up, like you know that thin line and you fear it. But you above it, all the same.” He was looking at a guy on his bike roll by us.  

“I don’t know if it’s nothing but a fascination.”  

Big Willie seemed to understand that and nodded. “So, she shoots him for the marble before she even gets it.”  

I nodded. “Maybe she shoots him for the phone.”  

“Her only way to get to the marble.”  

Willie and me sat with that figuring. Maybe, just maybe we were getting somewhere. Scratching away at surfaces. Sooner or later, we’d get to China.  

“What’s so special about that fucking marble?” Willie asked.  

“I don’t’ know.” I thought about it. “Erik…”  

“What?” 

“He said something there at the end.” Rummaging through those seconds of half-breaths and half-words. “Something about jewelry.”  

“Something about jewelry?” 

“Well, he said the word jewelry.”  

“That’s it?” 

A woman went by, walking a dog. She was in her early fifties, wearing some sort of tennis outfit. That certain skirt with the certain top that they wear. A lidded-cap on her head and white sneakers. The dog was one of those ubiquitous French bulldogs. The tennis-lady didn’t pay us any attention. Just on her nightly stroll, in her safe neighborhood. 

“I think so. It was hard to make it out, you know.” I looked at Willie. 

He kind of cut his eyes at me and said, yeah. We sat there and listened to the nightly, neighborhood white noise. Both thinking, what now. Then one of us, or both of us said something. 

“Should we take the thing to get looked at?” 

Where to? Back downtown to the Jewelry District? Going back Westside didn’t seem the logical choice. “Them two dudes would be looking for us, for sure.” Willie pointed out. 

Merchant and Larsen. Two dead bodies we were in the vicinity of, and nothing to shield us from them put a few text messages and a smooth, flecked stone. We were kids at play, not even able to see the cars coming to get out of the way.  

The Toyota cranked up without remonstration. Japanese toys were the joints you wanted to play with the most. They never broke and they always listened. Did what you told it and never backtalked.  

Whatever. We were going back downtown.  

Down to Rossmore to Wilshire, thru Koreatown and that old, bawdy stretch of silent-era-money-buildings. Thru MacArthur Park and the detritus strewn stretch of Alvarado. Where they sold everything from fake IDs to mannequins to tacos to crack cocaine. Whatever you needed was in that park and on that lane. I lived right down the street.  

I hooked a right down Alvarado. 

“Where you going?” Willie asked.  

When he didn’t get an answer, he figured it out when we pulled up to the light at Pico. “They know where you live, man.” Was all he said.  

He was right, but we kept rolling that way anyway. Maybe the thought of being staked out was better than the monotonous existence I had before. It was the action that had seeped its way into my blood and there was no going back. 

A left, on Pico and then a right on Alvarado Terrace, and even older money in those historical-marker mansions on that short stretch. A small, park across the street belied the grandeur. Just a little, strip of a thing. Some grass and a foundation where a gazebo used to be. Not much else. Check out the tattoo on that guy’s neck under those trees. He’s for sure up to no good and hasn’t a care in the world for the social significance of those mansions. What’s he got in those pockets? 

I slowed the Toyota to a roll; turned around at the end of the road and parked along the curb of the park. No parking in front of the mansions. The man under the trees wasn’t rolling solo. A couple other tattooed dudes stood under the trees with him. They clocked us but didn’t make a big deal about it. The truck was left idling just in case.  

Big Willie eyed the trio under the oak trees. “Neck tattoos.” He looked at me. “You know these motherfuckers are crazy, right.”  

“I’m thinking, what do they know that I don’t. Spent my whole life looking for jobs. Going from one to the other, never learning a trade. Doing this, doing that, just enough to pay the rent. Thinking one day, I’d just make a million dollars.” I had to smile at that, and shake my head. “Win the lottery or some shit.” 

There was a guy laid out in the park. Right in the middle, in the grass, his bare belly rising up like a small hillock. Drunk as the day is bright. There were some kids playing in a sandbox not far away, a woman on a bench watching them play on a stone dragon. 

“But you gotta play to when the lottery.”  

“Play them numbers.” Willie added.  

“Some people figure it out sooner than others.” I nodded at the dudes under the trees. “They got a good bead on things, you think. Feel like they got it all figured. Got a solid life plan.”  

Big Willie looked at the dudes under the trees. “I used to have one.”  

“What happened to it?” 

He held up his hands in acquiescence. Hands with long enough fingers to reach back in time and touch the nothingness, but couldn’t touch a slippery blade.  

“You know how I met her?” 

Willie looked at me quizzically. “Jackie?” 

I nodded. “She was in a ditch on the side of the road.”  

Big man didn’t dare touch that. Best to let a man run it down the line. Give him space and let him get to it in his own time. .  

“Those dudes are Salvadorean, no doubt.” I said instead.  

“Good bet, with the neighborhood and all.” 

“That cop Larsen.”  

“You think that motherfucker has TB?” 

“I don’t think people get that anymore.”  

“Lung cancer?” 

“Maybe just a cold.”  

“What about him?” 

“He knows this neighborhood. Or the people that live in it, at least. Wonder what he knows about East Hollywood?”  

“You got his card, you gonna ask him?” 

One of the dudes moved out from under the trees, looking our way, the guy with the neck tattoo. He had a look of menace in his eyes.  An almost hunched over feeling of energy about to burst from a pocket of injury.  

“I’m just saying, East Hollywood and Pico-Union ain’t far from each other.” I looked away from the cholo, thinking he might think he won the stare-off and would find someone else to mad-dog. “But what’s in-between?” 

“Koreatown?” 

“That and Filipinotown.” 

“Historic Filipinotown.” 

The neck tattoo guy was still standing just outside the shade of the trees. His boys were acting unafraid and uncaring. It took a lifetime to learn that kind of vibe. How old were they? Early twenties?  

“Where someone just put up a new apartment building.”  

Big Willie thought about that. Not too hard though, he was eyeing the neck tattoo guy, which I was wishing he wouldn’t. “That dude that Jackie worked for.”  

I nodded, looking at the mansions. “How much you think one of these costs?” 

It forced Willie to look away from the park. “I don’t know, a few million at least.”  

“Real-estate in L.A.”  

“Ain’t cheap.”  

We rolled away from Alvarado Terrace, taking a right on Pico and drifted downtown, leaving the park to those kids with mean-eyed stares and confident dispositions.  

“You ever been in one of those jewelry spots?” I asked Willie as we passed the convention center at Fig and Pico. “Cause those motherfuckers are like Fort Knox. You can’t just walk up in there looking for an appraisal.”  

“Unless you delivering food.” Willie mused.  

We stopped at a burger joint on Hill and 8th. I had to park the Toyota down the block and go in. I came out with three bags. One for the job and two for Willie. I couldn’t think about eating. I don’t why. Maybe because I still held the image of Jackie’s head flopping down those concrete stairs and the notion of filling my stomach curdled with open necks.  

The Jewelry District was three blocks down Hill. Right across from Pershing Square was the heart of it. Circuits running back in on themselves. There was something bringing us back in a loop.  

I’d parked the Toyota at a meter just west of 5th. This area of Hill was busy with folks, mostly middle eastern, running stones and shiny metals. There were middle-aged guys with goatees out on the sidewalk smoking white cigarettes and genuflecting with their hands. There were street-folk looking for food in trash cans and picking up butts in the gutter. Big Willie finished his third burger and fries and sucked down a large vanilla milkshake. There were some fries left in the bag and he offered them to me. I declined. He gave them to a dude dragging a big speaker behind him, jamming out the ubiquitous Tupac track. The man wasn’t dead. Just get out on the streets in L.A. and you’ll feel him on every corner.  

I don’t think Willie knew the dude with the speaker, but maybe he did. He seemed to know a lot of people down here. That Death-Row shit was booming in our ears. The speaker guy was on the corner, eating the fries from the greasy-bottomed bag.  

“This don’t seem weird to you?” I asked Willie. 

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and burped. It smelled of onions and mustard and dead rats. “That every motherfucker you see down here has a bluetooth speaker the size of a car?” 

They were everywhere. Competing turntables, mobile and lithe, ready to scream for attention. “No, I mean, back down here again. Same block, same square. Like something’s pulling us back.” I looked at my phone. Nothing. Yet. “Seven o’clock at night.  

“Maybe.” Big Willie gave it some thought. “That thing with Brenda in the parking lot. Something bout that ain’t sitting right.”  

“Like what?” 

The big man’s chin moved side to side, slightly. “I don’t know. Them Armenians own that lot, right.”  

“Do they?” 

“That’s why Brenda went there. Some kind of extraction point.”  

“Extraction point?”  

Willie shrugged. “Something about those tunnels, too.”  

I nodded. “One of them leading right there.” I pointed to the high-rise on the corner of Hill and 5th. “But there’s something bothering me about this whole area. Some story in the news maybe.”  

“The news?” As if mentioning it was like bringing up some dead ritual.  

“Yeah, you remember something about some jewelry snatches? Some dudes running game down here. Following people and ganking their briefcases.”  

Willie seemed hooked. “That do sound familiar.”  

The felt-bag was in my hand. I’d taken it out of my pocket at some point and hadn’t noticed until now. “What’s that got to do with Armenian and Salvadoreans and Filipinotown?” 

“Maybe them Feds would know.” Willie pondered.  

I looked at him. He returned the gaze. I told him I’d go in the high-rise alone. Didn’t think they’d let a dude with no shoes in a building like that. He didn’t argue but wasn’t too happy about missing out.  

Walking into 515 Hill Street was easy. Security was lax to say the least. Two dudes in black suits with guard-cards that were there to just answer questions mostly. I didn’t ask any and followed a group of about five people to the elevators with the bag of food I was delivering. There was a reason I bought so many burgers. Wasn’t even sure what floor to go to, so I just followed the other passengers. The ding for the seventh floor sounded and I jostled my way out to a hallway with three others. Two women and a guy with a ponytail. I followed a woman wearing an evergreen jumpsuit. One of those Dickies things, stiff but comfortable looking. She looked over her shoulder at me, wondering what I was doing. I gave her smile as she buzzed a door. The whole hall was nothing but offices with bulletproof glass. Men and women behind counters with jeweler’s eyes, peering at refinement only by appointment. The girl in the Dickie’s jumpsuit was buzzed in and I followed her. She held the door open for me and smiled. They get a lot of food deliveries. I must’ve looked the part. That delivery-boy’s gaze of always looking up. Up towards the top, from the bottom of the well.  

“Is that for Buddy?” The girl in the jumpsuit asked. 

Startled that she spoke to me. “Uh, yeah.” I handed her the bag of food.  

She kept the smile on her face and took the bag. “Thanks.” 

I stood there for too long, scoping the operation out. The girl walked behind the counter and put the bag of food down on a counter. There was a man, maybe Buddy, sitting at a small desk with his jeweler’s eye, examining what looked like a diamond. He had on a worn black suit; a size too big for him and had a black yarmulke on his head. He didn’t notice me lingering. The girl still had her back to me. 

“I was wondering…” I took the felt bag from my back pocket. 

The girl in the jumpsuit turned around. Maybe Buddy didn’t look up from his stone.  

“Could you guys take a look at something?” I asked the girl. 

A pained look came over her olive-colored face. “We only do things by appointment here.”  

“I know, I know. I was just wondering if this worth anything.” I had the marble out in the palm of my had.  

Jumpsuit girl pursed her lips and shook her head slightly. But her eyes went to thing in my hand and something flickered in her eyes. She stepped forward with worry at the corner of her mouth. She leaned against a display-case-counter filled with gold and silver jewelry and gems of all cuts and colors. “What is that?” She asked.  

Shrugging. “It’s what I’m trying to figure out. I was hoping you guys could take a look at it.”  

“Let’s see.” Buddy held out his hand without looking up at me.  

I handed the marble to the girl and she handed it to Buddy. He looked at it; rolling it between his fingers. “Some kind of glass eye.” He said, finally looking at me. 

“That’s what I was thinking.”  

Buddy gave me a discerning look over his bifocals. He turned the nebula in his fingers. Something in his eyes showed knowing in them. Some flicker of light. Maybe it was the too bright fluorescents above, playing sterile tricks. But it seemed like he knew the thing that was in his hand.  

“Where’d you get this?” He asked. 

“Family heirloom.”  

Buddy looked at the girl. She looked at him. They were suspicious. They moved ahead accordingly.  

“Family heirloom.” Buddy nodded. He looked at it under his jeweler’s eye. “Looks like an opal.”  

I looked at the girl. She kept her face a stone. “An opal, huh.” I was wary, knowing they knew the stone.  

Buddy turned the marble around, scrutinizing it. “Yeah, but you don’t often see them designed like this.”  

“Like what?” 

“As glass eyes.”  

“You’ve seen it before.”  

They were both surprised by my question. Some sort of leap they thought plebians couldn’t take mentally. Or I was too sensitive to the level of scrutiny in the room. But there’s a manner built into this world. One of set places and thought patterns. 

Buddy stayed very still. He didn’t look at his assistant. If that’s what she was. The girl in the green Dickie’s jumpsuit. She was motionless as well. “I have never seen this before, no. But I’ve heard tell of it.” He held the stone in the palm of his hand.  

“What’s it worth?” 

He eyed me over his glasses and frowned. “Maybe two thousand dollars.”  

“Two thousand?” The two words rushed from my mouth without hesitation. “Why all the fuss?” I asked no one in particular.  

“What fuss?” Buddy seemed interested in something, finally. 

I shook my head and frowned my own damn self. “Maybe there isn’t any.” I stepped up to get the marble back from him. 

But Buddy had his own intentions and kept the thing in his hand. “How did you come by this stone, if I might ask?” 

“You asked it. But I don’t have an answer for you, Buddy.”  

The old Jew looked at me like he was surprised I knew his name, but then looked at his apprentice and gave a slight nod. The girl in the jumpsuit made no gesture that she was sorry or worried about anything. An envious place to inhabit.  

“You have no idea how you came into possession of this thing?” Buddy still held the marble in his palm.  

“I do know this, but I don’t think it’s any or your business.” 

“Well, maybe it is, sir.” Buddy began. “If you came by this by less than desirable means.”  

“Less than desirable means, huh.” I looked at the white-bearded man. “What’s the most desirable? Digging for it myself? Putting my hands in the hard dirt and pulling it out myself. And who’s at a loss there?” 

“Mother Earth.” The girl in the jumpsuit finally spoke.  

Buddy cringed. “Jesus Christ.” 

I almost cracked a smile but the urgency for seriousness overruled everything. We all looked at each other with a tiredness only city-living could provide.  

“I’d go to the police, if I were you.” Buddy said. “Being in possession of this is not good.” 

“How so?”  

“It’s a stolen item.”  

“Well, you’re currently in possession of it.”  

“Would you like for me to take possession of it?” Buddy asked. “I can take the steps to get it in the right hands.”  

“What hands would those be?” I stood over the counter, teetering on my tiptoes, ready to run, but I wasn’t letting that stone go. “You’ll call the cops as soon as I leave, so, I don’t think those are the right hands.” I glanced at the girl. “Somebody in this building get robbed?” 

Furtive glances between Buddy and the young lady in the jumpsuit. Bingo. I snatched the marble from Buddy’s palm. He had a look on his face as if I’d struck him. I cringed this time, not wanted to harm an old man. But he was just startled at a hand from the bottom reaching up, and taking something from him. 

“Out on the streets, some guys were doing jobs. Following guys with briefcases. Snatching whatever was in them.” Putting the marble back in its felt-bag.  

“Some Latino dudes, right?” The girl in the jumpsuit, suddenly interested.  

“Ed.” Buddy said with an exacting tone. 

He was looking at her but she didn’t return the gaze. She was looking at me for some reason. Like she wanted more information and thought I had it.  

“Yeah, I think so.” I put the bag in my back pocket. “That’s what I read, anyway.”  

“You read this where?” Buddy chiming in. 

“On my phone.” It made me remember it. I checked my pocket to see if it was still there. It was. I took it out to see only a notification for a social media app, and put it back in its pocket.  

“They caught the guys, right?” Ed again. 

“You think they stole this off a jeweler?” I asked Buddy, patting my backside. In my peripherals I could see Ed checking me out.  

He had a resigned look on his face. “Or a courier.”  

“You guys know all this though.” I looked from him to Ed. They gave each other wary glances. “You know exactly who it belongs to.”  

Buddy sighed and pulled his jeweler’s eye down over one eye. “Ed, you should call security.”  

Ed’s eyes cut downward and then up at me. She’d had her phone in her hand. I hadn’t noticed, maybe it was there the whole time, it looked so nestled and apart of her palm. She swiped her thumb up and I began to move. I don’t think her heart was in it. I made it to the door and into the hallway and halfway to the elevator before a guy with black cargo pants and black polo shirt and a utility-belt came striding my way from the other end of the corridor. Gave him a nod and a pursed lip smile and hit the down button on the elevator. The man had gun holstered on that belt.  

“Sir.” He said.  

Looking over at him, the security guard seemed unsure of whether he was talking to the right guy. “You gotta come with me.” He had a hand out.  

“Do I?” Giving him a confused look. “I just delivered some food, I’m leaving.”  

He had on black combat-boots and looked unsure. He looked back over his shoulder, quickly, toward the hallway, as if it could help him.  

The elevator dinged.  

Some more jewelry workers crowded in towards the door. The security guard stood there looking at me as people moved in between us and the elevator door slide open. I got in with five or six other people. What could he do, I was leaving?  

Down in the lobby the two security dudes paid me no mind. Too busy eating their own dinners. McDonald’s bags in front of them. Slipping out in the crowd, out on to Hill, felt like a cool breeze. 

But it then the heat creeped in. Up from all the concrete like a paved-over swamp. The truck was still parked where I’d left it. Willie was not. There was a ticket on the windshield. Parked in red zone.  

I grabbed the ticket and looked around for Willie. He’s not an easy human to miss. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It was dark now. Lights were lit up everywhere and there seemed to be less people on the streets, but still an energy that kept you from sleepiness. I got in my truck and cranked it up, thinking of few places Willie might have gone.  

Chapter Six

“A Waffle and Two Wet Noodles.”

She didn’t give up any goods though. One tough Filipino chick. Holding it down in a lonely office in the Valley. So, we were back in the red Toyota, waiting to follow Andrea somewhere.  

“You text them back?”  

Them. Whoever had Jackie’s phone.  

“I did. Nothing yet.”  

“What’d you text em?” Willie said with half a glazed donut shoved in his mouth.  

To tamper down the strip-mall-blues we’d hit up the shop next door to the real-estate office. Star Donuts. There’s never a really good name for a donut shop. But every strip-mall has one, as if they knew, whoever develops that soul-sucking urban planning, that you’d need a donut just to make it through their site.  

“I told em it was the cops and they needed to give up, we had the place surrounded.”  

Big Willie shoved a bear claw into that maw he called a mouth. His lips where gleaming with glaze. “They might just buy that.” He laughed. “Coming out with they hands up. Nobody but an old lady and grocery cart out on the sidewalk.” 

The sugar had gone to his head.  

“She’s right, you know.” I nodded toward the strip mall. We were across the street, parked along the curb on Ventura. “We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.”  

“Nobody does.” He finished another glazed and washed it down with chocolate milk. “We all just throwing shit against the wall, hoping it stick.” 

Spaghetti again. 

Men are waffles. Women are spaghetti. But Jackie was a waffle. And the two men looking through her past were just wet noodles.  

“Just like sitting here, waiting on this one to lead us somewhere.” He pulled his shirt up and wiped his mouth. “Where she gonna take us? Filipinotown for some fucking adobo.” 

“What’s your beef with her?” I was watching a man rolling tires down the sidewalk. Two at a time towards a dirty tire-shop next to the strip-mall. “Or is just Filipinos in general you don’t like?” 

Big Willie smacked his lips. I had the windows rolled down. My man was kind of ripe. But no one said anything about it. Just upturned nostrils would do. “Loyalty to your boss in a matter like this, she ain’t no friend of Jackie’s.”  

“What’s she supposed to do, two bums off the street come bumping through?” The dude was steady rolling tires on the sidewalk. “I think you got something else you need to work out.”  

The big man was side-eyeing me. Something about that bum remark wasn’t sitting well with him. An old Latino man went by, pushing an ice-cream cart, the bell ringing over the rush of traffic. The tire guy rolled used rubber around him, giving him a nod.  

“What I need to work out, huh.” He had a toothpick between two fingers, working it in a molar. “You got everything wrapped up tight and ready to go, huh. Ain’t nothing nagging in the back of yo head? I’d say I’d like to meet a motherfucker like that. Pick they brain for all the secrets to the universe.”  

“What’d you wanna know?” 

That got a smirk and half a scoff. Andrea left the office around four-thirty. She got into a champagne-colored Prius, that new-fangled mirage of a Toyota, and headed east on Ventura.  

“There’s that fucking color again.” Willie pointed out.  

We were following another car, again. Twice in one day. We weren’t’ even qualified to do this type of thing. This thing that detectives get a license for. Private investigators, right. You need a certification for this type of work. It’s impossible not to ask yourself the question a hundred times a day, just what the fuck am I doing. What the fuck am I doing tailing cars with a shoeless man named Willie? 

That Prius took us all the way down Ventura to Studio City and into that valley of squeezing mayhem. It’s a tight fit of a gorge that connects the Valley to Hollywood, and Studio City being the runoff of its industry. 

The Industry.  

That’s what they call it. Factories come in all shapes and sizes and concepts. But their gaits are all the same. Big lumbering fellas that wear cowboy hats and six-shooters and light matches off five o’clock shadows. Hollywood just happened to get the likeness right. American industries are all the same. White men swaggering.  

So, through the gorge on the 101, down into Hollywood, and yeah Willie was right, straight into Historic Filipinotown. Andrea parked her car along Temple and walked casually into a massive, new apartment complex. One of those things that takes up a whole block. A jagged thing made of glass and graphite.  

“What’s she parking on the street for?” Willie asked, as I pulled the truck along the curb on Temple.  

We were on the other side of the street, watching Andrea enter the building. Not much was going on over here on Temple Ave. It was a quiet pocket just outside downtown. A brand-new building that stuck out like a sore thumb in an old, forgotten hollow. Which made you wonder about gentrification and the sociological conundrums that come with plopping down new developments in hoods like these.  

“What’s the rent run in a place like that, you think?” Big Willie thinking the same thing.  

“In this neighborhood…” I shrugged. “What’s the walkscore, you know?” 

“The what?” 

“Nothing.”  

“What’s a fucking walkscore?” Willie really wanted to know. 

I sighed, thinking why’d I ever open my mouth. “I don’t know, it’s like a way to measure what’s in the neighborhood. Coffee shops, restaurants, bars and bookstores. Shit like that you can walk to.”  

“Huh.” The big man looked around. “Not much around here, but downtown right there. Echo Park, Dodger Stadium.”  

That’s the way it went. If you were to move into a suspect neighborhood, what cool hoods were at least near you. “You thinking about getting a place?” 

Willie looked at me like I was problematic at least. “I live in a tent in a alley. Think I got extra cash laying around to put down a deposit.” He fumed a bit. Pushed air out of his nose. “Panhandling pays well, you think.”  

“I didn’t know you panhandled.” I told him. “But I guess you’re right. I wouldn’t give up living on the westside either.”  

“I ain’t putting my hand out, motherfucker.” The man getting a little warmed up. “But you thinking I wanna live in a tent the rest of my life is troubling.” 

“You never know why folks are on the streets. Could be a choice for some.” I eyed the building, avoiding any kind of glare from the man.  

“When wouldn’t it be a choice?” Willie shifted and the whole truck moved with him. “You think one thing ain’t connected to the other. It’s all one long, string going back to the beginning, ain’t it. You here holding on to that rope, just like everyone else, hoping on hope it keeps you in good mind.” 

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I reached for it and saw in the side mirror Andrea coming out of the apartment building. I was having trouble getting my phone out of my pocket at that angle.  

“Freedom got a cost. Don’t it?” Willie was still blabbing about life on the streets. He hadn’t seen Andrea. “They selling that anyway.”  

“You see her?” 

“What?” 

I got my phone out finally, but was looking over my shoulder at Andrea getting in her car. “She’s getting in her car.”  

Big Willie turned to look over his shoulder. “She don’t live here then.”  

Maybe, maybe not, but she was on the move again and could possibly lead us to her boss. I looked down at my phone as the brake lights lit up on Andrea’s Prius. “Shit.”  

“What?” 

The phone in my hand and the Prius in the side mirror felt like the weight of the world was in-between the two things. A crafty thing for such a monstrosity. Let it go, I told myself. Let it all go.  

“Jackie’s phone wants to meet.”  

Willie looked at the phone in my hand, searching the text, moving his eyes along the words, then back to the Prius moving away, down Temple, towards downtown. “Can’t we do both?” He asked. 

I handed the phone to Willie. “Ask em, when and where.” Cranked the truck up and busted a U-turn in the middle of Temple.  

Willie knew how to text, I assumed. His big fingers having some trouble with smart-phone technology. Then the sound of the swoop came. Message sent. The Pruis up ahead was going under the 110 freeway. We puttered up behind her at a safe distance. Cruising through Hope Street and then Grand, the Prius stopping and parking under some trees in front of a tan building on our right. I pulled over and parked closer to Hill Street and watched Andrea get out of her car and climb some short steps up to that tan building. 

“What’s that building she’s going into?” I asked Willie. 

He was looking down at my phone. “What’s them three dots mean?” 

“They’re typing something.” 

“Who?” 

“What’s that building she’s going into?” 

“County board of supervisors.” Willie didn’t even look behind him to check. “Person on the other end of this is typing.” He figured it out.  

“What’s she going in there for?” I pondered.  

“They say meet em at Barnsdall Park in thirty.” Willie held up the phone.  

That’s what the text said. I blinked and looked from the phone in his hand to the rear-view, knowing that cutting bait with Andrea had to be done. “That’s what, fifteen minutes away?” 

Willie didn’t answer. He just waited for me to make a decision. Something I wasn’t very good at. My whole life a waiting game, for things and people to come to me. Not much going in that regard.  

“She may be in there awhile.” I mused.  

“She might be at that.” Big Willie almost whispered. 

“Fuck it.” I cranked the Toyota up and took a right on Hill. “What’d you think the odds are it’s our favorite couple meeting us in that park? 

“Who else would it be?” Willie didn’t know what to do with my phone. He held it like it was a stick of dynamite, not wanting to damage it.  

I grabbed it from him before it exploded in his hand. “Somebody with heavier hands.”  

“Slitting throats ain’t heavy enough for you?” Willie looked at me. 

He had a way of making you feel like every question you asked could be a dumb one after all. “Knives are for pussies.” Feeling like that was good comeback.  

“Easiest way to get stabbed, don’t pay them cowards any mind. Or think that whatever they pointing at you is some bullshit.” Willie had thumb in one of his nostrils, digging for gold.  

“Advice from a learned man of the streets, no doubt.” I didn’t bother to look at him, keeping my gaze straight ahead, turning the truck onto 1st Street and going back under the 110, and taking a right on Beaudry.  

There was a burnt pinkness in the sky now. The sun was just on the other side of some high-rises that bordered downtown. The air smelled of diesel fumes and dogshit. Big Willie Winsboro flicked his thumb out the window. One booger dart coming your way.  

“You like to point shit out like that.” He stated.  

“I’m just amazed at your acumen.”  

“My acumen?” 

“I think you’re right about most things.” I looked over at him.  

We went under the 101 and took a left onto Sunset. Traffic wasn’t too bad. Willie sighed, looking at a Burger King as we passed it. The man was hungry. Maybe hangry. But I didn’t think we had time to stop for a Whopper. Guess those donuts weren’t enough.  

“What I been right about?” He asked, in his certain timing of things. Just when you thought the convo over.  

My mind went blank as a sheer cliff cramped in on our left. Sunset Blvd was a street with many faces. It curled and cut through the city like an exacting worm. Burrowing its way from El Pueblo De Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean, with the confidence and imagination of a creature that knows the world in which it finds itself. A secret subterranean warp in space that only a few humans ever feared to tread.  

“This whole thing you been right about.”  

“You saying anybody know anything right now is wild.” Big Willie chuckled. It sounded like a train track in the distance. “We going, right now, to meet some people that got Jackie’s phone. Maybe they slit her throat, maybe they didn’t. We don’t even know what the lady did for a living. We can’t even find her boss.” He wasn’t laughing any longer. “Ask me, we ain’t right about anything on this.”  

“It’s a little early, don’t you think, to be so hard on ourselves.”  

We took the bend at Alvarado doing fifty and bleating voices came from the crosswalks. The sky was a deep fuchsia. Cigarette smoke and piss were in the air. Also, the electric slackening of Saturday night lay like a layer of translucent fog all along Sunset.  

“We can get caught slippin on thing like this.” Willie said. 

“You have some experience?” 

“What kind you hoping for?” 

“I’ll take whatever you got.” 

Sunset turns into Hollywood Blvd if you go straight enough and then Barnsdall Park is on a corner in a flash. There’s a thin strip of a parking lot out front on the Hollywood entrance. I parked the Toyota there and took a deep breath. 

“You gotta gun?” Willie asked.  

“I don’t know. Check the glove box.”  

He did. Nothing but papers in there. Parking tickets and mechanic receipts.  

“Guess not.”  

“What now?” 

Something popped off somewhere. I flinched. Willie looked over his shoulder. Could’ve been a gunshot or a firecracker. Two more pops. No, they were gunshots. We both got out of the truck, looking up the hill of the park. There were a handful of other cars parked in the lot as we stood there listening. Someone came stumbling down a concrete stairway that led up the hill. Two people, now. A young couple probably out for a stroll. Their eyes were wide with adrenaline and unpacked flight. They saw us and beelined for a black Rav 4.  

I put my hands up and stepped toward them. “What’s going on up there?” 

The man stopped. He was a white guy with lots of dirty, messy blond hair. “Somebody’s shooting up there.” He ran towards the car. His girl already in the passenger seat.  

They were out on Hollywood Blvd by the time Willie and I were taking the stairs. We ran into more people fleeing. More wide eyes and open mouths, gleaming and puffing in the dusk. An off-white tinge in the west made it hard to see anything but movement. Barnsdall was a plateau. You went up a set of stairs on the side of hill and then at the top the thing flattened out. There was a grove of trees straight ahead. An open lawn stretching out toward a white-line on the horizon.  

Willie was huffing behind me, I thought, my own breath in my ears was all I could hear. We both paused on the plateau, sucking oxygen. The darkness in that tree grove pulling us along.  

We didn’t say anything to each other. Maybe because we were out of breath, or words would only fail us, or give us away at this point. We moved under big pine trees, slow as we could, thinking someone could be lurking in the gloom still. Someone with a gun. 

Pine needles crunched under our feet.  

Something moved at our eleven.  

“Hey!” I yelled before thinking.  

More dark movements and then nothing. It seemed to disappear down the other side of the plateau and I was running after it before thinking. I tripped over something. The toes of my right foot catching a rock or a fallen limb, and then going tumbling over in the dirt and pine needles. It took me a minute to get my bearings after rolling around. Seeing Willie standing about ten feet away, recognizing that was the direction behind me.  

“You tripping over bodies now.” He said, not asking if I was alright, and immediately feeling shame for thinking of myself before a possible dead body.  

I got up and looked behind me for phantoms going down hills. Nothing. I stepped over to what I’d tripped on. I got out my phone for the flashlight. There was a notification on the screen.  

A text that read: “Kiss him goodbye for me”. 

Laughter burst out of my mouth. Willie looked at me. I couldn’t see his expression in the dark and I was quite happy with that. Managing to get the flashlight working on my phone we looked at the body on the ground.  

“That’s him.” Willie said.  

Who was him? “Erik.” I pointed out.  

“What the fuck’s so funny?” Big Willie asked.  

The phone was still in my hand, lighting up Erik’s back. I was still laughing apparently. He was face down in the dirt and pine needles and spit-away gum. But he wasn’t dead yet. He moaned and moved a bit. I moved the flash along his shiny back. He was wearing a silver, satin jacket, with a Raiders logo embroidered on the back.  

“Jesus Christ.” I lamented. The laughter was all gone.  

“Nice jacket.” Willie said.  

“You a Raiders fan?” But Willie didn’t bother to answer.

I moved the light a long three little, neat holes. Some red had seeped out into the silver thread. Erik Agassi groaned and tried to crawl, but he had three bullets percolating somewhere in the back of his lungs.  

Police sirens bleated too far away.  

Crouching over Erik to hear whatever he was muttering, caused my legs to cramp up. He was heaving something about Beebe. Yeah, we know. She shot you in the back and then sent a love letter via text. One last blurb of love. I got closer and could smell Erik’s breath. It smelled of rotting teeth and cigarettes. He was mumbling deathly shakes but managed a word or two about jewelry. Which made no sense to me.  

“We should kick rocks.” Willie urged. “Less you want nother body on your belt.” 

Erik was gone. Just like Jackie. Two dead and nothing but footsteps and police sirens to show for it. No, information is not free. Darkness under those trees was all we had. That and a strange marble. Jewelry indeed.  

“Let’s go.” I stood up and felt light-headed and flimsy-legged and didn’t know if the world was for me anymore.  

Chapter Five

“Fiefdom of Swaggering Dread.”

“What you mean, or something like that?” Willie asked. “The man’s name who owns the building.”  

We’d left the spare bedroom and Jackie’s apartment all together. It was like leaving a dungeon during the Inquisition. Sweet oxygen and sunlight at last. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. The place was as quiet as a catacomb.

“I never know if I’m saying shit right.” We were standing where it all began. “Pronouncing things correctly.” We both looked down the stairs. Down to the street and that big fig tree.  

“Hosseini.” Willie trying out the man’s name. 

“You never seen the man around here?” 

“What he look like?” 

Some older Middle Eastern man, I told him. He couldn’t remember if he’d seen the man or not. He didn’t come around much. Even though he lived over in Westwood, the man rarely visited his property. Some tenant upstairs collected the rent, made sure to do just enough maintenance, so the place still stood on its kindling legs and didn’t collapse or burn. Borderline slumlord tendencies. The slums of Brentwood.  

“I got an idea.” I told Willie.  

We went upstairs to the second floor and knocked on number eight. The unit on the far end of the building, facing the alley. Willie and me, standing there on the hallway landing, looking at the white stucco building across the way. There was a big stain that looked like a person’s head or something.  

“Jesus.” Willie smirked.  

“You Catholic?” 

He shook his head. “They be seeing him in places, though.” 

The door opened before I could complete a thought about it. A man stood there wearing a white, golf-shirt and shorts. A nice tan on his legs and arms. His hair was immaculate. Almost a pompadour. But his face was a little red and puffy from drink. His eyes streaked slightly with dehydrated vessels.  

He asked if he could help us. I couldn’t think of the man’s name.  

“I’m Elam, this is Willie. We’re… friends of Jackie’s.”  

The man’s brow went slack, and his eyes bulged. “Oh man, I’m so sorry. I’m Cliff, man.” He put a hand out and we shook. Willie was leaning on the railing and gave the tan man a knowing nod. It was just as good as a handshake and more sanitary. Cliff invited us in but we both balked. It was subtle thing between the both of us. The thought of Jackie’s stained couch kept us in the thrall of the white reflection of the building next door. We only had some questions.  

“That’s fucking terrible.” Cliff shook his head. “I can’t believe that shit, man. I mean, what the fuck? How does this shit happen? On the Westside? Jesus Christ.” He stood in the doorway of his apartment with such unworried energy.  

It was shocking to see a man so comfortable with the thought that violence would never touch him, no matter how close it got to him. He had a forearm up on the door frame, so agreeable in the face of two strange men digging into death.  

“Jackie told me you managed the building.”  

Cliff blinked and looked at me. He’d been studying Big Willie behind me. The man didn’t care about him and it bothered him, I could see. Or the big man was ignoring him for some personal reason. An unseen beef between the two men. A weird energy flickered back and forth between them. 

“Y-Yeah.” He nodded. “She was always on time, man. Never had any problems with her.” Like we were some credit lords come home to roost.  

Willie shifted behind me. “Never had any problems, huh.” He huffed and you could feel the heat of his breath.  

Cliff nodded, curtly. “Yeah, she was a great tenant. She was here before me, even.” He looked away from Willie.  

“She had a relationship with the man that owns the building?” I asked.  

That kind of caught him off guard. But his brow raised in thought. “Yeah, I think so.” Nodding his head. “He told me she was rent controlled. No one else in the building had that.” He shrugged. “I figured since she’d been here so long…”  

“What’re you a golf-pro or something?” Willie out of left-field.  

Cliff didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, I’m up at Bel-Air golf club.” He looked at both of us with a pause in his breath. “You guys golf much?” 

It was a question only a man like that would ask. A man so comfortable and oblivious to his surroundings that he thought his reality was everyone’s reality.  

“We don’t golf, bruh.” Willie told him.  

How he knew I didn’t golf, was interesting. But he was right, I didn’t. Maybe it was just a general knowing of yours and others stations in life. A sense of positioning in systems and a lack of interest in the frivolous.  

“Well, yeah, it’s not for everybody.” Cliff pursed his lips, then opened his mouth to defend his chosen profession and then thought better of it, but then couldn’t help himself. “But I’ll tell you, it’s a beautiful game, once you give it a chance, you know.” He nodded. “Once you get out there and smell the fresh air and move your limbs and compete.”  

Smell the fresh air? Where exactly would that be? The man was a salesman. Not a very good one, but he was a huckster along his shoulders and mouth. A smile that split open wide to white teeth. A perpetual bachelor in the land of fit, hungry wives.  

“What about those two in number two?” I shifted gears. “Erik and Beebe.”  

A glitch. A blink. Something was not quite computing. Cliff looked from me to Willie, back to me. “You guys… I’m not sure what… What’s going on here?” He straightened up. His forearm came off the doorframe. “You guys are just friends of Jackie’s?” 

“That’s right.” Willie stated.  

“The cops, um… the cops are handling this, right?” 

“You talk to em?” I asked. 

“The cops?” The man might’ve been insulted by the question. 

Willie and me just looked at him. He got uncomfortable and changed his demeanor. Looked at us like we were selling magazines. Like we were hocking Jehovah’s Witness literature.  

“Yeah, they questioned the whole building. What about it?” His chest was puffed up.  

“They tell you who found her?” Turning my nose up at the man made me feel just a bit better. 

He didn’t seem to notice. “You found her.”  

I nodded toward Willie. Cliff’s Adam’s apple went way down and back up. “I’m sorry, man.” He looked down again.  

“What about Erik and Beebe?” 

My pocket buzzed.  

“What about them?” Cliff growing defiant.  

Big Willie folded his arms. Cliff didn’t flinch but he blinked like something had flown into his eye. “You playing, man. You talk to the police, they probably asked you the same question, right. You told them what? Everything they needed, huh. You good a citizen, right, help the police with whatever they need.”  

The golf-pro grimaced at Willie. “You think I’m a blue-lives matter guy? I could care fucking less about cops. They asked me about Erik and Beebe. You know what I told em?” His eyes went from Willie to me. “I told them they’d been out here before about them.” Nodding, getting into it, now. “Yeah, a couple times. She’s yelling. Everybody in the building can hear it. Somebody called the cops, not me, thinking he’s putting his hands on her. Maybe he is, I don’t know, but by the time the cops get here, he’s gone.” Cliff takes a breath, checks Willie’s temperature and keeps going. “Another time, they show up and they don’t answer the door. Cops are down there with fucking assault-rifles. For a fucking domestic disturbance. You fucking kidding me. Fuck cops.”  

A quick glance over the shoulder at Big Willie. Okay, it’s a start. “What’re they into? Coke? Meth? Pills?” I asked.  

Cliff shook his head. “Could be all of it. I don’t know. But when they got the place, they were quiet as mice. Like they were hiding from something. Then it boiled over, I guess.”  

“What makes you say that? Hiding from something?” 

Cliff backed up somewhere inside himself. His eyes became hooded and warned. He shook his head again. “I don’t know. Just a vibe you get.”  

“A vibe, huh.” Willie grumbled.  

“Who the fuck are you guys, again?” Cliff could only take so much from the peanut gallery. He was gritting his teeth, not quite shaking his head. We were acting like cops, but had no right in his mind to impersonate them. 

“Take it easy.” I put a hand up and looked him in the eyes.  

“Don’t do that shit.” He ordered. 

“We Jackie’s friends, man.” Willie still had his arms folded, leaning, almost sitting on the railing. “You think the cops gonna put it all together, find out what happened?” 

“What, you guys private investigators?” He looked us both up and down. Some privileged switch going off in him. “You’d need a license for that.” 

“We’re just trying to find out who killed Jackie.” I told him. 

Cliff shrugged and tilted his head. He looked over at the Jesus on the wall. The wall was bright, now. The sun lighting it up like a white backdrop. Cameras are just the around the corner. We’ll all be stars soon. You just wait and see.  

“Look, man.” He looked at a watch on his wrist. One of those things that holds all the secrets to the universe in it. “I gotta role. Got some lessons to teach. You guys… I hope you find what you’re looking for.” He took a breath. “I really do. It’s fucked up, I know…”  

“Know where we can find Erik and Beebe?”  

He sighed and looked at me. “If they’re not downstairs, man, I don’t know.” He looked at his watch again.  

I remembered my phone had buzzed and took it out of my pocket. There was a text notification. An unknown number saying “Who the fuck is this?!!” 

Looking up at Cliff and then over to Willie. Big man could see the excitement in my eyes. “Okay.” I said, and stepped back from Cliff in the doorway. “What about the guy that owns the building? Hosseini?” 

“What about him?” 

“You think he might know where they are?” My mind was split between two worlds.  

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Cliff looked at his smart-watch again. “Look guys, I really gotta go. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more, but I don’t know, maybe…” He shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe you should let the cops handle this.”  

He couldn’t even look at us. His eyes went from the white wall of the neighboring apartment to his watch. We were interlopers into his grass society. We had stumbled out to his long, green fairway from the bushes and he was shooing us away. He was staring at Willie’s bare feet now. We both had stepped away from the man to give him space. To give the affect like we were leaving. But it was awkward and we couldn’t find our bearings. Too much green.  

“You get the feeling that dude’s like a cat?” Willie asked. 

We were standing down on the sidewalk on Barrington. Under the big fig tree that was doing its best to remind civilization that it was allergic to its industry.  

“I get a feeling, alright. I just don’t know which way the wind is blowing with that cat.” I glanced up the stone steps, waiting for Cliff to come down and get his car out of the garage. “What was that shit with the cops?” 

“White folks like to talk that shit about cops, but deep down they know they can count on em.” Willie was looking the other way, down Barrington towards Texas. “Maybe we should get your truck.”  

I looked at him. “Follow him?” 

Big Willie didn’t have to nod. He just returned the look.  

Cliff finally came down the stairs and we were waiting for him in my red Toyota truck circa 1988. It had three hundred thousand miles on it, but it was a tight, little metal thing that would never breakdown. We were down a few car lengths, double parked under the trees. Cliff didn’t see us as he backed his Beamer into Barrington and zoomed up to Wilshire. I followed him with no zoom.  

Wilshire curved back and forth through the Veteran’s Center. A hospital on your right and barracks on your left. Zombies walking around everywhere. An old dilapidated church stood out on a hill.  

“You ever hangout at that 7-Eleven back there?” Willie asked. 

“No, not really.”  

“Most of the motherfuckers asking for hot dogs come down from the V.A.” His knees were crammed up against his chest. “I don’t think they being helped over here.”  

I didn’t know what to tell him. Free health care was free health care. It was a better option than most get. It was more than I had. But I wasn’t shell-shocked either. Battered by dirty bombs and murky combatants in the sand. I hadn’t made those decisions, so I kept my mouth shut for once.  

Staying well behind Cliff was easy. When we went under the 405 we must’ve been two hundred yards behind him. The Federal building came up on the right. A monolith of lack of imagination. A twenty-story ode to bureaucratic muscle massaging, overlooking a field of buried souls that they equally lauded and didn’t give a shit about. The Veteran’s cemetery slid in green and wide-open on our left. Rows and rows of death on the battlefield. Cliff hooked a left, on Veteran. We barely made the light and cruised well behind him all the way up to Sunset and took a right. Tall eucalyptus trees leaned over the curves on Sunset. A nice Sunday drive, if you’re ever inclined. But we took an immediate left on Bellagio and began a twisted follow through switchbacks and snake-trails that make up Bel-Air. Mansions built on top and on the side of every hill. No stone goes unturned when folks have money and want to be above and away from the rabble. We lost Cliff around a few of those turns. But we were able to keep getting glimpses of his dark Beamer until we almost ran up on him.  

I caught his red taillights as he pulled into a hidden driveway at the bottom of a hill and slowed down just in time, pulling under the canopy of live oaks, lucky the road widened in this area.  

“This ain’t the country club.” Willie pointed out.  

“No, no it isn’t.”  

We strained to look through the trees. There was a tennis court on the other side. At the bottom of someone’s property. The sound of a car door slamming could be heard, but we couldn’t see Cliff’s car from where we were under the trees. We could hear birds above us on the branches and then a voice out on the court. Something scratchy saying a name that didn’t register. Maybe Cliff’s last name. Something like Landon or Landau. Then we could see movement through the trees, out on the tennis court. The man with the scratchy voice was just a series of movements behind leaves and bushes. The upper half of Cliff came into view through a break in the foliage. He’s saying something, his voice barely audible. The scratchy voice says something back. They go on like this for a minute. Through the hole in the forest, Cliff looks nervous and fidgety. The man with the scratchy voice might be angry, it’s hard to tell behind that blanket of green. Finally, the back and forth stops and Cliff disappears again and a car door slams and his beamer backs out and zooms out of view.  

I didn’t crank the truck up and pursue right away. Willie was giving me some side-eye.  

“You gonna go after him?” He asked. 

“He’s going to work, right.”  

“Up at the country club.”  

“But he had to make a stop first.” I looked at Willie. “Who lives here, I wonder, he had to drop by before work and tell some tales out of school?” 

“Somebody with some money.” Willie opined. “But that man, Hosseini, thought you said he lived in Westwood.”  

“You thought he’d go see him.” I frowned. “Me too.” I cranked the truck up. “Maybe we should go see him.”  

“You know where he live?” 

“No.” I put the thing in drive. “But I know where his office is.”  

“Oh word?”  

It was out in the valley. Sherman Oaks. My red Toyota puttered up through the Sepulveda pass and down to Ventura Blvd. The office was tucked into a little, strip mall along Ventura. Strip-malls galore. One looks like another in that flat land of weird vibes. The Valley is where all the movie and TV people go to take pride in not living in Hollywood. It’s its own fiefdom of swaggering dread.  

In the corner, scrunched in between a burner-phone store and a donut shop was a real-estate office with white stenciling on the glass door. P&C Real Estate. Nobody knew what the P or the C stood for. The woman working the front desk didn’t know and didn’t care that you thought answering that should be a part of her job. Her name was Andrea, and she had a tiny flag of the Philippines sticking out of the penholder on her desk. She told us that Mr. Hosseini wasn’t in, and she hadn’t seen him in over three months. But if we wanted to wait, we could speak to one of the agents shortly. Which was just line. There was no one else in that office.

“Speak to one of the agents about what?” I asked her.  

Andrea wasn’t too keen on Willie’s bare feet on her blue, rugburn carpet. She had one nostril hitched up to high-heaven and didn’t care if we saw it or not. She had on a dark-blue pantsuit and sat straight as an arrow in her chair.

“About any property you’re interested in.” She was chewing gum and popping us toward death by annoyance.  

“What kind of properties?” Seemed like a good question to ask, but all I was doing was clamoring. Clawing my way toward some juvenal understanding.  

Andrea stopped chewing her gum for a second. It hung there on her tongue like a grey marble. She had this shrewd look on her face, like she was measuring her time against her effort. Was it even worth the words for these two fools? 

“Mostly residential.” She sighed. “But there are a few commercial properties we can show you, if you’re in the market for that kind of thing.” She knew we weren’t and her pursed lips gave her away.  

“What kind of commercial properties?”  

She looked at me with hooded eyes that looked like a wolf’s, way back in a forest somewhere in the wilds of Canada. Again, with the wariness in her temple veins, asking the pertinent questions to herself. What were these poor ass motherfuckers doing in her office, asking these dumb questions? 

“You know. We know.” Big Willie had been standing behind me, off to my right. “We ain’t looking for no real-estate. Ain’t nobody can afford anything in this state anyways. Even you.” He casually flipped a long, finger her way. Andrea flinched. “We just looking for Hosseini. Where he lives in Westwood would be cool.”  

A little gal behind a desk, she might’ve been, but she wasn’t intimidated by us. “I can’t give that information out. Are you crazy? Some guys walk in off the street and say, hey, where’s the owner live, I’d like to pay him a visit, give me his home address.” She looked from Willie to me back to Willie with cringing eyes. “You guys that dumb?” 

Willie started rubbing his feet on the carpet. A tick started up around Andrea’s left eye. She probably took pride in keeping the place clean. She reached for the phone on her desk. “I’m calling the police.”  

“You look like somebody that would call the po-lice.” Willie told her. He was stepping around the office, picking up things off other empty desks. Picture frames, staplers and pieces of loose white paper.  

“That’s right, big boy. No shoes, no service in this joint. So, if you don’t like it, you can talk to em soon as they get here.” Andrea had the phone cradled in her neck, dialing numbers like some Mary Kay sales-lady. “Cause, I don’t need all this in my day, right now. Ya’ll are messing with the wrong lady.”  

We’d crossed this lady’s Rubicon and I didn’t feel like breaking my own record of being arrested two times in one day. “Let’s go.” I told Willie. 

Willie shrugged, like he’d taken his shot and it was no sweat off his balls. We were at the door when I turned for one last barb. “You happen to run into Mr. Hosseini, can you tell him we came out here about Jackie Meaux?” 

Andrea put the phone down. “Jackie? What about Jackie?” 

Willie and I looked at each other. “Oh shit.” Willie lamented.  

“What?”  

“Jackie was killed last night.”  

“What?” Andrea searched our faces. “What happened?” 

“Maybe you should finish dialing that number and ask them.” Willie was rude. 

It hit me all wrong. The tact he was taking. There was no need for it at this point. We’d already used a last, cheap effort. And it had worked. No need to dig ourselves deeper into mineshaft of moral misdeeds. He was overcompensating. But why? 

“That’s what we’re trying to find out.” I told her.  

Andrea’s nose scrunched up. “You guys are private investigators?” 

“We look like that to you?” Willie asked. 

He was still pushing back on her for some reason. Maybe he was tired or hungry. Or maybe he didn’t like little, feisty Filipino chicks. Maybe he was harboring a deepdown, spooky hate for women. Maybe that wasn’t anything new. That was the string that held all these fragile egos together. The false tether of control over smaller things.  

Men.  

“You look like two assholes that need jobs. Not to mention showers and shaves and shoes. And maybe a place to live besides an alleyway or some matchbox apartment you can barely pay for in some hooded-up neighborhood.” Andrea was done with us.  

And that’s the perpetual cycle. Men being dressed down by women and taking it personally. Communication is key, they say. But when all you hear is impeachments, the buildings just burn up around you.  

“What happened to Jackie Meaux?” 

I told her everything but the being arrested part. Which was a big chunk to leave out but she seemed smart enough to gather context clues and never let the shrewdness leave from her face. 

“She was friend of mine.” Andrea looked down at her desk.  

“Ours too.”  

She looked up at me. “Funny, she never mentioned you two.”  

Bam. One more for the road.  

“What did she mention?” I was too used to not being mentioned to take that shot personally.  

Maybe I was a little more evolved than my new friend Willie. Or maybe we were playing two different games. Or maybe there’s just too many maybes.  

Andrea shook her head. “I don’t know, whatever friends talk about, you know.”  

“Funny, she never mentioned you, either.”  

She pursed her lips again. “Compartmentalization. She was good at it.”  

Waffles. Somebody told me that once. Men are like waffles and women are like spaghetti. Men like to put everything in their rightful place and women are never ending, infinity loops, always swinging back to the things you thought were settled.  

“She had to put stuff in boxes, I get it.” I was ready to go. The strip-mall-blues were coming on strong. “We’re just looking for which ones to look in.”  

Andrea slouched a bit in her chair and seemed to sit back. “You guys don’t know what the fuck you’re doing do you.”  

Chapter Four

“Not if they dumb.”

My man was right. There was a tunnel behind that gun-metal-gray door. A hallway, really. Lit up by fluorescents, a waxed cement floor stretched out in front of us for at least two hundred yards. Both of us peered down the walkway. None of the lights flickered. Some neat, metal tubing ran along the ceiling and walls.  

“Where you think it goes?” 

Big Willie Winsboro’s eyes moved around, getting his bearings. “Maybe across Olive. Over to the Biltmore.” 

“The Biltmore?” 

Seemed absurd. But maybe the hallway went in that direction and that long of a distance, but I couldn’t fathom the reason for it. Employee parking, maybe.  

“Prolly one that stretches across to Hill, too.” We stood in the open door and looked across the lot and saw another door on the other side. “To them jewelry spots. Tunnels all up under downtown. Everybody knows it. Heard about it, anyway.”  

They were stupid stories. Tales about the Spanish encountering Lizard people living in tunnels and catacombs. All urban legend. Some guy high on peyote in the 30’s got snake-oiled into believing all that shit existed. Somehow that enters the public domain of local mythos. We’re all rubes for a fantastical story.  

“Lizard people, right.” I smirked. Raised eyebrows from Willie was all you get. He believed the stories. “Come on. You believe that shit?” 

“Why not?” Willie took a defying stance. “You believe in God?” 

“I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist. Too scared to go that far, thinking one day it all might be revealed, or something, but that’s just running scared, I guess.” I took a breath, not knowing what might come out my mouth next. “Maybe that’s what I believe in. Fear.”  

“Same shit.” Willie looked bored now. “Whatever moves your guts. Makes you queasy, nervous, butterflies, that’s God.”  

He was so sure. Confidence about the enigmas of the universe always made me wary. It always made me think I wasn’t paying attention. That I was missing something. That it was all right in front of me and my head was shoved too far up my own ass. 

“Maybe.”  

Willie wasn’t trying to convince me. He seemed okay with operating in ambiguity as well. We stepped out of the doorway and the door slammed shut like a bank vault closing. Dust kicked up under some of the cars. The place was quiet except for a weird thumping noise coming from above.  

Back up top we found out where the thumping was coming from. A concert stage had been erected on the far end of the lawn and folks were slowly filling it up. A record erection. Or we’d missed seeing the stage before going into the garage. Willie and me eyed each other in our peripherals. Clues might be falling by our wayside.  

It was some kind of EDM show. There was a woman with short, yellow hair behind some turntables and music consoles. She was pumping out the music, bringing in the moths of throbbing beats.  

Some security goon walked up to us. He had on a black uniform and a black ball cap and wore a gun on his hip without a gun clip in it. He had a tooth pick in his mouth and looked Willie up and down like he was familiar looking.  

“Fuck ya’ll niggas doing walking out of a parking garage?” He had his hands on his hips doing his best small-town sheriff, wiggling that toothpick around his lips with his tongue.  

“We like to walk up inclines.” I told him. “It’s how we get our exercise. Beats humping through malls, you know what I’m sayin.”  

Security goon looked at me like I was speaking Greek. “You can’t just walk up in there though. You gotta drive.”  

“How come you don’t have a clip in that gun?” Big Willie asked the goon.  

Security dude looked him up and down again, not really scared of his size. “Company don’t let us carry live ones.”  

“Why carry a gun then?” The big man pushed.  

The goon spit his toothpick out at our feet. “Nigga move on out a here.” He swept his arm up, shooing us away.  

“What you supposed to do with it?” Big Willie kept at him. “Guess if you pull it and point it at some drunks, they might get scared and do what you tell em.”  

I stood very still, thinking maybe the man was a rule breaker. Maybe he carried a clip somewhere just for mouthy occasions like this. But he kept his cool and only rested his palm on the pommel of his sidearm. He smiled at Willie. 

“I be telling em, man, what if they ain’t drunk and intent on doing some harm. What I do then, throw the motherfucker at em?” He flashed some gold teeth and shook his head. “They ain’t hearing it though. They talking about insurance or something.”  

Willie nodded. He knew the man’s plight. The working man just trying to get some bullets in his gun. Everyone could relate to that.  

“I feel you. But maybe you don’t want that on your conscious either, whether you can put a bullet in somebody or not.”  

Security goon’s brow rose at a good point made. “For sure, for sure.” He nodded his head and put his hands together, one palm over the other’s knuckles.  

Big Willie put a fist out and they pounded. “Ya’ll have good one, aight.” The security looked at me briefly and moved on to hassle someone else. 

“Fucking jobs, man.” Willie said, watching the goon go.  

“How’d you know it would go that way?” 

“What you mean?” 

“The gun thing. How’d you know he wouldn’t get butt hurt about it?” 

“Butt hurt?” Willie shrugged. “Looked like something he wanted to chop up.”  

The man hadn’t looked that way to me. It was starting to shape up that way. Everything was a bit off-kilter. Nothing looked the way it looked. You couldn’t count on what your eyes were giving you.  

“We should get back westside.” I looked past the lawn filling up with young, opened-eared, pill-swallowers, to the center of the square. There was something over there I wanted to take a look at. Something we’d passed on our swift walk in.  

“Where you going?” Willie asked after me.  

It was some kind of engraving. Another kind of art installation. Permanent though, stretching out along a low concrete wall. It was a quote by some, long, gone writer. Talking about newsboys hollering about a trunk murder and bribery and some USC football player pulling off a bank heist. Prophets in the city and the desert. A Grand Guignol of a city if there ever was one.  

Willie was reading the thing, mouthing the words as his eyes moved along the etching. When he finished, he looked back at the concert. “Ain’t much changed.”  

Especially what the scribe had to say at the end, after he’d laid out what seemed like a horror show, was his appreciation for the place and the inextricable machinery that binds you to this place. Making it impossible to leave. Making it impossible for the thought to even gain weight in your soul. 

It’s your home whether you like it are not.   

The blue line was at Pico and Flower. It took you all the way to the ocean. We got off at Bundy, about three miles shy of the Pacific. Willie and me didn’t talk at all on the train. Both of us looking out at too many palm trees and garbage strewn hills. At big metal cranes towering over new developments, multi-use things where people can shop and live without breathing a lick of smog. We walked Olympic to Barrington. It took us about thirty minutes to get back to Jackie’s building, walking slowly up the steps to the first-floor landing. Yellow police tape warded off nosy neighbors and widowed friends.  

“Ain’t nothing in there for you.” Willie was behind me, leaning on the railing, one leg up on the top step and the other leg straightened on a lower step. “What I’m saying, it just a black greasy spot now. Won’t do you no good to see where she was.”  

I nodded. “Okay.”  

He sighed and walked past me, into the alley, finally home.  

Yellow police tape is anything but bureaucratic. It’s just a symbol to let you know death is looming on the other side. I didn’t even tear it going in. Willie was right. It was just a dark spot on a couch. Dried blood that had turned maroon in the evening light. A greasy spot that smelled of metal and mustard. I didn’t stay long in the living room. Cruising her pad, I found nothing out of place. She was a neat freak. She was in the military. No, not the military. Somewhere on the edges of that. A soldier for sure, though. A mercenary for hire. Working for some security firm. Whatever she did, did this to her.  

I sat on the couch, next to her greasy spot and waited for the grief. 

But it never came. 

Only anger crept in.  

Frustration and mystery reigned. Lived in my gut and stayed away from my head and my heart. Nothing could touch those two things, locked up the way they were. It was an eerie feeling sitting there in the gloom of friends remains and feeling no emotion except for one. Rage will hollow you out into rotten log. Years of trying to stuff tendrils of blown dreams into it, waiting for the sun to harden you back to life is rote stuff, and all you find yourself doing is sleeping in the wetness.  

And dreams do still come to you. Moving through the swamp of sleep, are memories and flashes looking to be put away. The mind can only handle so much. Space needs to be made. So, in rolls the fog through the hanging moss and there was Jackie Meaux.  

I never dreamed of people I knew. Always nameless faces. People to meet in the future, perhaps. Or just plain old me at different junctures, unrecognizable in the back of the mind. Projections of oneself run amok. But that was Jackie in a ditch on the side of the road. Could be me as her, I guess, but she was there looking at me in a dream, and all I could do was stop and stare.  

She said something to me. Sitting there in the brown toilet water of a dugout drainage system. It was some other language though. Some pigeon French they speak down there in the natural diggings. Cajun, creole, whatever you wanna call it.  

“Ki sa ou ap gade, nonm?”  

It was a question, I think. 

Her hair was an explosion of nappy vines. It had never looked like that before. In the waking hours she’d always had it flat against her scalp. In this place, it reached out and seemed woven into the trees behind her.  

“What?” I asked her.  

Jackie’s eyes were bloodshot, and she had her knees out of the water and her forearms resting on them. “Pa gade mwen konsa, nonm.” 

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I told her.  

I stood in the middle of a road. A two-lane blacktop, gone grey and crumbly with potholes. A dark greenness was everywhere. In the trees and kudzu that grew like Sacramento walls all around. 

“You never did.” Jackie plucked a water moccasin out of the dirty water around her.  

“Put that thing down.”  

“You scared of snakes. Fuck, I forgot.” She held the black, rubbery thing up to her face. It flicked its tongue to her lips.  

“What’re you doing out here?” 

“You don’t remember shit, man.”  

The snake wasn’t a snake anymore. It was some sort of long root she put in her mouth and chewed on for a few seconds, and then she spit out a yellow stream of juice that kept its color and coiled in on itself in the tan water.  

“I can’t argue.” I told her. 

“You never did.”  

“Lots of nevers.”  

“Pa nan plas sa a.” 

Something or someone was standing over me. I couldn’t feel out where I was. It was dark and the world was still swirling with sub-conscious intents. A line of wakefulness and dream kept me sunken in place. But there was something or someone looming.  

“Fuck you doing?” A voice asked.  

My eyes wouldn’t open.  

“Wake up, man.” The voice was familiar.  

Then a light when on. The click of it made me flinch and jumpstarted my eyelids. There was Big Willie Winsboro by the door, his hand coming away from the light switch. The lamp on the other end of the couch gave out an amber light.  

“Falling asleep at a crime scene would be a cop’s wet dream.” He looked at the spot next to me on the couch. “They got them ideas that have motherfuckers coming back, whacking off to it and shit.”  

I sat up. My neck was all fucked up. “I didn’t touch my dick, I promise.”  

Willie stepped away from the door and stood in front of a big, flat screen mounted on the wall. He looked down at the loom rug under his feet. The dark, wooden coffee table in the middle of the room. The exercise bike over by the sliding glass door. A tall plant in the corner with giant, flat leaves.  

“Wonder what they do with all this shit.” He pondered.  

The logistics of death was too soon to think about. But there it was. Out there to worry about now. “She have a will?”  

The big man looked down at me. “Wouldn’t you know that?” 

“I’m her lawyer?” Sitting up further, putting my elbows on my knees.  

“You her best friend.”  

“Was I?”  

The look Willie gave me was expressionless, but it expanded the emptiness in me. It spread out in my stomach like a black hole, sucking in all the despair.  

“You look around?” He asked. “Maybe she left something that says something like that. Something about next of kin, I don’t know.”  

“You look around, yet? You got a key don’t you?”  

We stared at each other for a minute. It got us nowhere. Then the front door opened and a Vans-clad foot stepped in; and a body of a what looked like a man realizing the lay of the land, froze, pulled his foot back, said “ohp”, and shut the door.  

“What the fuck?” I blurted out. 

Willie was frozen too, looking at the door. I got up and went to the door and flung it open. Footsteps down the stairs. Maybe Willie was behind me, I don’t know, I didn’t look. But there I was, plunging into the night.  

Something moved to the left, at the bottom of the stairs, headed south along the sidewalk on Barrington. Down by that big fig tree where Willie and I sat earlier, I could see a figure running toward Texas Ave.  

Whoever he was, he had a good lead. A hundred yards at best. Just before he got to Texas he hopped in a car and the little sedan shot past me, up to Wilshire and was gone. I grabbed for my phone again, steady taking down plates, not that I had a way to run them, just a fan of too many dime novels. But it was too dark to make any digits out. The car was some kind of Toyota, I thought. An old thing from the early 2000’s. A relic now in the industry of hybrids and sports utility. I trudged back up the sidewalk and Willie was out by the big tree in front of the steps.  

“Toyota Corolla.” He said. “Champagne.”  

I was out of breath and didn’t bother to answer. Big Willie didn’t mind. “I think that’s the girl’s car.”  

“What girl?” 

“That girl you saw on the steps.”  

“Beebe?” I remembered her name finally.  

Willie nodded. 

“The girl you didn’t see on the steps.” I said to him.  

Willie didn’t react to that either. “You think champagne’s a good color for a car?” I don’t think he wanted me to answer that. “I never understood the color. It’s like puke-green. Why would you want that as a color for anything?” 

“You think that was Erik back there?” Wondering if he shit his pants when he saw Willie standing in the middle of the living room. “Knowing the cops wouldn’t have locked a door if their lives depended on it.”  

“Locked doors ain’t that favorable for them.”  

“What would he want in Jackie’s place?” 

“Maybe them cop theories are right.” Willie leaned against the fig tree. “They like to come back and smell the panties.”  

I stepped past him and went up the steps, two at a time, feeling my chest expand, getting used to the rush of air and exertion. It’d been a while since the body moved more than at a walk. But it felt good to stir the blood up. I couldn’t tell you what I was looking for, but I went in ransacking the place anyway. Jackie’s place wasn’t hard to give a toss. She didn’t have much. She lived light. Her kitchen was spare. Nothing in the fridge would give most people a sad feeling in their gut, but I lived the same way, and could understand she probably ate a lot of take out in her car or at work. Wherever that was. I called her a friend but I obviously didn’t know her that well. Her cabinets were mostly bare. A few plates and bowls and glasses and coffee cups. A can of refried beans and crushed tomatoes. Some utensils and Ziplocs in drawers. In her bedroom was a bed on a wooden frame, low to the ground. A small dresser and two nightstands. Her closet wasn’t full of clothing like you’d think. A woman would have a couple of closets to fill. No, she had a handful of shirts and slacks. Jeans and t-shirts. That was it. I went through the dresser. Socks and underwear and shorts and workout clothing. Nothing hiding under the panties. Sorry, Erik. Please come back so we can discuss. I went back to the closet and looked for shoes. She had a small rack that held a pair of running shoes and some high-tops. Both Nike. There were no kind of flats or business-casual shoes. That was weird. There was a black box deep in the corner, in the dark. A safe. I pulled a cord and an uncovered bulb lit up the closet. For some reason it looked strangely placed. Like it’d been moved or slid around in there. I kneeled down and gave it a gander. There was number pad and a lever-knob you turned once the right code was entered.  

“You know the code to get in that thing?”  

I jumped. Fucking Big Willie Winsboro was light on us fucking feet. Shook my head at him and looked at the number pad wondering maybe if I knew the code though. “You know it?” 

“Didn’t even know she had a safe. Never been back here.”  

Looking over my shoulder at him curiously. “Not even to the bathroom?” 

Willie shook his head. “Just the kitchen and the couch. Watch a little Judge Judy while I eat a sandwich.”  

“Judge Judy?” Giving him a quick crinkled eye and then going back to the number pad, think of numbers, dates mostly. Hyphened numbers that mean something to people. Birthdays and anniversaries.  

Then it occurred to me, punching numbers on the pad before I could even finish the thought in my head. The thing made a slight tone, and I tried the lever, and it gave to the left and the heavy door opened.  

“Shit.” Was all Willie had to say.  

“Shit is right.”  

“What was it?” 

I looked back at him. “My birthday.”  

The big guy didn’t say anything. Didn’t even ask what the date was, just kind of nodded like it all made sense. All of it. From the very beginning when he’d uttered those first words that Jackie was dead, he seemed greased and ready to dive down the water slid, like he’d been in that exact place before. Unflappable is what they call it.  

He was waiting for me to peer into the safe. Find out what was in it. He wasn’t afraid of what we might find. Again, he was too comfortable for my taste. Mix in a little caution into your cup of adventure.  

It was dark in that little box. I wrangled my phone from my pocket. There were no notifications. No texts or messages from apps trying to pull me into their algorithmic fire. A tinge of sadness rolled through me.  

No one loved me. Not even the internet.  

I swiped up and hit the flashlight and pointed the phone to the innards of Jackie Meaux’s safe. I could feel Big Willie leaning in. Smell his breath. A mix of garlic and licorice. I almost gagged. There was nothing in there but a black, velvet pouch and a manila envelope. I didn’t reach in for them right away. Instead, turning on my heels to see if Willie saw what I saw. He did.  

Booby-traps came to mind. Putting your hand in a box and feeling pain caused for pause. The high-handed enemy. A test of humanity, right. We’ve all been here before. At the late-night reading of things.  

“It’s just a safe, man. You already opened it.” Willie could read minds.  

A short, clipped breath came out of my mouth and the pouch was in my hand. Diamonds, some kinds of jewels were in there. I could feel something rolling around in there. Uncinch the top and look in.  

There was a marble of some kind in the pouch. A big marble. She collected marbles, Jackie Meaux. Kept them in her safe. It was another thing I didn’t know about her. Another strange thing she kept away from people. That dream of dirty ditches lingered.  

“What is it?” Willie asked.  

I just handed him the bag. He looked in briefly and then poured the contents of the pouch in his hand. The thing that lay in his palm was the biggest marble I had ever seen. It was smooth and had the colors of a nebula. Yellow and brackish green and burnt orange and magenta played against a backdrop of pinpointed black.  

“What is it?” My turn to ask.  

Big Willie rolled it around in his palm. “Some kind of polished gem.”  

Stating the obvious can only get you so far. “No shit.”  

He ignored me. Rightfully. “Wait.”  

I waited. He examined the thing like a proper jeweler. All he needed was the loupe lens. 

“Something weird on this.” Willie had tilted his head and cringing a bit.  

“What?” 

He made a funny face. Like he had an answer but was afraid it would sound too off the wall to actually verbalize it. Things in your head have a special echo and when you let it out in space it becomes a different thing.  

“Looks like an eyeball.” 

“What?”  

“Look.”  

Willie handed the thing back to me. I was still on my haunches and took the thing. My phone’s light still on, I turned the marble in my hand. There was a dark spot like an iris. I could see that. And around it was a swirl of all the colors. Something that could be an iris. Maybe.  

“A glass eye?”  

Willie shrugged. “Expensive if it is.”  

“Kind of ornate too.”  

The big man ignored my shot at the vocabulary hall-of-fame and took the marble back and put it in its pouch. “Erik and Beebe looking for this.” He gave the pouch back to me. “Maybe they even killed Jackie for it.”  

“You think they killed her?” 

“She was on them steps.”  

“But where was her man?” 

“Sneaking into somebody else’s crib.” Willie’s bottom lip sagged downward. “Maybe the motherfucker’s a B&E man.”  

“I think he was in here before tonight.” I looked down at the safe. “Looks like somebody was trying to get into this thing.”  

“He kills her looking for the marble.” Willie was playing it out.  

But we were amateurs. Or maybe it was just me. He could be leading me. It had that feel. Like he was feeling me out, wondering when I’d take the lead. Or it was all paranoia and trusting anyone seemed a sucker’s game now. 

“This thing worth all that?” I hefted the pouch in my hand.  

“Either it is or isn’t. People die over dumb things all the time.”  

Big Willie Winsboro the Wise. The sagest mother on the planet. You only get that kind of philosophical insight by living in alleyways and walking around barefoot like a Hobbit. There was something to be said for shirking societal constructs.  

“This don’t look like dumb to me.” I told him, hefting the pouch. “This looks like motive.” It felt good to say, like I was spouting a line that I’d memorized late at night, hoping the cameras in the morning would be kind.  

“Looks pretty dumb to me. Slitting a woman’s throat for a glass eye.” Willie looked bored. “Thing can’t be worth that much.”  

Maybe he just wanted to get back to his tent. Maybe he was lamenting the loss of kitchen access. No more Judge Judy for a while. Maybe he was just tired. It had been a long day of blood and cops and scabbed over legs and spooky parking garages.  

“It’s worth something to somebody.” I was saying the obvious things; not sure why any convincing had to be done. “We just need to find out what it means to them.”  

Big Willie nodded. “Thinking about this thing I asked you earlier.” He looked me in the eyes. “About what you knew about her work. What she did for living. You didn’t seem to know, really. Jackie worked for some security firm. But what does that mean? What security firm? You know?” 

I didn’t know. There was another bedroom. The apartment was a two-bedroom. What she needed two bedrooms for was beyond me. Maybe just more space and if you could afford it in this town, why not. I stepped across the hall to the other room. There was a burgundy futon along one wall and a desk with a nice office chair along the opposite wall. There was a small filing cabinet next to the desk. The desk was bare except for a lamp and a penholder. There was a computer cord coming up from a socket in the wall, then end of it resting on the top of the desk.  

“She had to have a laptop, right.”  

Big Willie had shuffled into the doorway of the other bedroom. “You say so.” He was losing steam.  

Looking around the room brought more spareness. The closet in that room held some blankets and coats and some winter clothes. “Somebody’s got that and her phone I bet.”  

“You tried calling it?” Willie reached in his pocket and took out a little flip phone.  

It looked like a Hot Wheel in his massive hand. He flicked it open and pushed buttons. I didn’t express any surprise over the man having a flip phone this day in age. To each his own. He put the phone up to his ear. I imagined I could hear the ringing. 

Willie frowned and snapped the phone closed. “Voicemail.”  

I pulled my phone out and navigated to Jackie’s number and called it. It rang four times before an automated voice pushed you to her voicemail. She didn’t have a personal greeting. That seemed strange.  

“Same.” I looked at Willie and down to my phone and sent Jackie’s phone a text.  

“You texted it?” 

“Whoever has this phone, we should talk.” Repeating the text sent.  

“If they smart, they keep quiet.” Willie surmised.  

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’re dumb. I mean, my man just tried to walk in on us. They seem desperate and we got something they want.” I held up the pouch still in my hand.  

“How they know we could get in the safe?” 

“They have to assume.”  

“Not if they dumb.”  

The sage street scholar at it again. Four words that could get you in a lot of trouble if they weren’t true. But we’ve come to trust in the dunces of the world, whether wrecked with wantonness or not.  

“Dumb people make assumptions that land sometimes.” I stepped over to the filing cabinet next to the desk. “Especially those whacked out on meth. Motherfuckers can be wily when you ain’t looking.”  

Willie nodded like somebody was finally speaking his language. He watched me as I went through Jackie’s filing cabinet. Pulling out folders and looking through paperwork, like I knew what I was doing. 

“What you looking for?” Willie had perked up a bit.  

“Looks like security contracts.” I told him, thumbing through the papers. “Looks like Jackie worked for a company called Night Hawk.” Flipping through sheets of legal language. “Night Hawk Securities.”  

It meant nothing to either of us. Just a filling in of a blank. A huge blank for people who called another a friend. “What kind of security company?” Willie asked.  

“Jewelry stores.” I put one folder down to rifle through another. “Most of these are contracts for places downtown.” Bubble popping somewhere in the back of my head.  

“Damn.” Was all Willie had to say. 

“The guy that owns this building…” The bubbles were building into a buzz. “You seen him around, right?” 

Willie shrugged and shook his head and poked out his bottom lip.  

“Dudes name is Hosseini, or something like that.” Plopping folders down on the desk.  

“What about him?” 

“His name is on some of these contracts.”  

Chapter Three

“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.  

These folks.  

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. 

“Sounds nice.”  

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.  

“She did?” 

“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.  

“What?” 

“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.  

“Motherfuck.”  

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.  

“Underground parking?” 

“Subterranean.”  

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.  

“Who?” 

“Armenians.”  

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.”  

“Me too.”  

He opened the door.  

Chapter Two

“They don’t need that to do anything.”

So, I say there was a girl on those steps.  

And everyone else calls me crazy.  

“You sure she was down there?” Big Willie was sitting across from me in some holding cell downtown.  

They had us in a small metal room with six other dudes of similar shades. All of either blending in or clashing with the piss-yellow-paint on the walls. The place smelled like it’d been submerged in a Louisiana swamp for forty years.  

“Pretty sure.” I told the man taking up one of the metal benches on the wall, leaving three presumed criminals to huddle in a corner together, wondering whether they’ve ever seen a man this big. 

“Pretty sure.” He echoed me.  

I just nodded at him and looked at one of the men in the corner, trying to play it cool, like he’d chosen to stand where he was. He had a tattoo on his forearm of a cross, with 1915 etched along the vertical shaft.  

Armenian. 

He pretended not to listen to Big Willie and me. The others were a rapt audience. So, you notice when someone’s not laughing at your jokes.  

“So, you ain’t that sure.” Willie prodded. 

“I’m sure.” I looked him in the eye. 

They were dark ponds that held primordial gossip from the dawn of time. You could see all the way back to the Big Bang if you stared long enough. But that way lay madness. So, I looked away. 

“Anybody else see her?” 

“How would I know that?” 

Big Willie blinked like a giant feline. It was unnerving and I had to look away again. The Armenian dude cut his eyes away again.  “You didn’t see nobody else walking around?” He asked.  

There probably was. There’re always people on the sidewalks, taking strolls. But no one pays attention like that. Shrugging and shaking my head was working. The big man was intent on not taking the wrap. Me too.  

“I guarantee they don’t like us for this.” I told him. 

Another dark look from the man told me he was thinking that maybe I was passing and drinking the white man’s Kool-Aid would get you killed. “Maybe not you.” He confirmed it.  

The Armenian smirked but still didn’t look my way.  “Did you?” 

“Did I what?” Willie’s voice plucked out your heart all on its own.  

“Give em’ a reason to like you for it?” I was beating around a large flaming bush.  

Being coy was stupid thing to choose with this man. He was not some flame-out living on the streets. He wasn’t some wet-brain looking to jaw your ear off about chem-trails and cattle mutilations. He was a serious dude with all his faculties.  

“I’m a black dude standing in a doorway.” Was all he said.  

I nodded. “Fair enough.” 

“You ain’t even asked anything.”  

It was so silent after he said that. It was strange that no one else had anything to talk about. They were hanging on our every word. It was really boring in county lock-up. But you hear so many exciting things go on in these places.  

“Somebody slit her throat.” 

Feet shuffled and musty, armpit hair wafted and shifted around the cell. That underwater, swamp smell deepened and threatened to drown us all.  

Big Willie Winsboro’s head bowed in a knowing nod. “One of them dicks tell you?” 

Shook my head. “When those Laurel and Hardy paramedics were going down the stairs with her.”  

Ear to ear, they say. A deep burgundy smile. The white sheet they had covering her body had flipped up over her head as those two dopes jostled down the stairs. Jackie’s head had lolled to the left, and for brief instance she was looking at me. No one ever shuts the eyes of the dead. She didn’t look surprised at all at being dead. Or, at having a second smile. She looked bored, like she always did. Even in death there was no surprise. Then the sheet slid back over her face, and she was nothing but a ghost.  

“There wasn’t a knife lying around, was there?” 

Willie shook his head.  

One guy, sitting on a metal bench along the back wall, leaned in with the mention of cutlery. He had a mange of curly, black hair on his head and face. Must be a cut-man from way back. Some folks like using knives. Keep an eye on him.  

“They don’t have anything on you, man.” I told Willie. He had a look on his face that said he didn’t believe me.  

“We put the call in, remember.” People don’t like to be reminded of things. “Guilty people usually don’t dime themselves.”  

“They don’t need that to do anything.” Will was right. “They don’t need any kind of evidence to put what they want, where they want.”  

There seemed to be a collective, groan of agreement that rolled through the cell. But still no one said anything. The Armenian dude looked at his Rolex like he had tee-time to get to. Yeah, people still wear em’. 

“They need something else, other than two concerned friends without a murder weapon.” I told him.  

“They can put you anywhere too.” The mangey dude on the back wall said.  

Everyone looked at him.  

He shrugged and looked at me with reefer-weighted eyelids. There was a chalkiness around the corners of his mouth. But then you notice it was just the aridness of his skin. The man had the deep gray of the streets on him.  

“I don’t think you’re wondering, cause you don’t look the type, but they already have.” I looked at him as hard as I could.  

He smirked and bugged his eyes out but didn’t say anything else, keeping his elbows on his thighs, still leaning in for the chatter. But the jibber-jabber stopped when one of the guards came over and called a name out. The Armenian dude didn’t hesitate. He walked over and the guard let him out. Dude’s name was Agassi. Like the tennis player. Not a look over his shoulder as the bull led him away.  

No one said anything for a while. Not that anyone else had anything to say, besides Ashy Larry. But Big Willie was working on something. So was I.  

Like who killed Jackie Meaux. 

She was a friend of mine. My only friend, maybe. In this city, you can find yourself marooned out here all alone. Los Angeles is a great weigh-station in the sky. Lots of trucks and trains going in and out and the only thing that sticks are the weirdos. And weirdos like to be alone. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they meet each other and work out a code of friendship to live by. Some kind of language they can see only in their shared brain waves. Words spoken out loud are just noise. What’s behind all that is what matters. That’s the vernacular you find and roll with. That’s what me and Jackie had, some kind of thing you didn’t have to talk through. Just a knowing. But hindsight being a cliché, maybe we should’ve rethought our arrangement. Maybe we should’ve talked more. Or maybe I should’ve been more curious.  

That wasn’t really how it worked. She had the controls and let you know when you needed to know. A great working relationship for a guy. But I wondered about some things. One wonders about people whether they care for them or not. Not that I didn’t care for Jackie, but maybe I’m more wrapped up in myself than I thought. Everyone’s a narcissist to some extent.  

Next time someone asks you what your friend does for a living, try not to look at them with an open stare that spells out your inadequacies as a friend.  

“She worked for security company.” Big Willie said.  

We were walking down Alameda. I was still trying to figure out why they’d taken us downtown and not to some Westside holding tank. Trying not to take things personally, but with cops it’s always that.  

“Yeah, I know.”  

The big man stopped. We were in front of Union Station. Trucks and trains, remember. All in the white light of Spanish stucco and tile. “You know what security firm?”  

My turn to stop and look upward and pretend that I wasn’t the worst friend in the world. “Who did it, is what I wanna know?” 

“You don’t even know who she worked for, man.” Big Willie shook his head and started walking again.  

“She worked for the dude that owns that building, right?” I followed him. “The building she lived in.”  

“Died in.”  

We walked down a broken and strewn sidewalk and let two words soak in our stomachs until we were queasy with rage and surprise. We went all the way down to 1st and took a right and walked through Little Tokyo. Big Willie eyed a bar with name Far in it.  

“You need a drink?” I asked him.  

The big man stopped and squinted at the neon sign above the door. He shook his head. “I quit that a long time ago.” 

I looked around as if that bar wasn’t the only place I wanted to go right then. “Well…” The awkwardness of men trying to tell each other their wants and needs was an anvil between us. “I need a beer.”  

“They ain’t gon let me in there.” Willie stopped me.  

“Why not?” It was a dumb question. The man had no shoes on, and his charcoal sweatpants had tears and holes in them everywhere. His white hoodie was the same. Both pieces of clothing were dirty with alley scrum.

“Fuck them.” I told him.  

It was a creaky, little dive that used to be some sort of Japanese restaurant at some point. Now it was a hipster dive that served cocktails that took the bartender ten years to make. The dude behind the bar looked up at the tome the door made when it was opened. He looked up; looked down and then back up at us. He was shaking his head and smiling. Willie froze and I kept coming, sitting at the bar, at the very end where it gave into a right angle.  

“My man can’t be in here.” The bartender said, taking a couple of steps toward the end of the bar.  

“Your man, huh.”  

He looked at me with a face that said maybe his family had owned the place since before World War II. He’d finally inherited the family business and was making it his own. Craft cocktails and craft beer and food with the word fusion on the backside. It was the future. He could see it. You could see it in his starched, short-sleeved shirt and bolo-tie. Or maybe I was in the past and wasn’t recognizing the gaze backward. 

“I’m sorry, man. We can’t have homeless in here.” The bartender looked around.  

No one else was in there. The dude was trying not to look awkward about it.  

“How you know he’s homeless?” I asked.  

“He’s got no shoes on, dog.” He pointed at Willie’s feet, who was still standing by the door. “I mean, come on. No shoes, no service. You know the drill. We all know it.” He shook his head again and was still smiling. “Come on, man.” 

I didn’t like him, now. Maybe I hadn’t like him before. Even the dog and man hadn’t bothered me. It was that fucking smile. He didn’t mean any of that shit his teeth were shining our way. A façade of neat dental work and starch.  If was stiff to the touch. Just like one would think. On second thought, he probably didn’t get it dry-cleaned. He probably had his mom lean over an ironing board for him. Probably had a closet full of those crispy American Eagles.  

“You ever been down to Skid-Row?” 

He shook his head like I could never understand his point of view.  

I asked him again if he’d ever been to Skid-Row. “Yeah man, I ride my bike through there every day.” He looked at me, like, take that. 

“You roll through their hood and it’s all good. But when they come through yours it’s rules and regulations.”  

The bartender squinted and blinked like my logic wasn’t there. The door tone went off. Big Willie had had enough and was leaving. Oh well, I tried to think I was doing this for him, but I wasn’t. But two guys in black suits walked up to the bar. They both had sunglasses on. Johnson and Johnson. Big Willie was still standing by the door.  

“Buy you a beer.” The taller Johnson asked, and nodded his head toward Willie. “Him too.” He took his glasses off and looked at the bartender.  

The kid nodded like he knew the Johnson. I let go of his shirt and looked over my shoulder. Willie was wary. The taller Johnson motioned for Willie to join them at the bar. “I’m buying.” The Fed said.  

I looked at Willie and shrugged. He shuffled over, grudgingly and sat down next to me. The bartender didn’t say a word. White privilege wins again. Johnson and Johnson sat down. The shorter one kept his sunglasses on. The bartender placed golden, crystal beers in front of each of us and nodded at the taller Johnson.  

“Eddie’s family has owned this place for sixty-years.” Tall Johnson lifted his glass in a cheers to Eddie. “His grandparents made it through the internment serving miso soup and sticky to Japs who were on our side.” Eddie crawled down to the other end of the bar and gave the Johnson a sheepish look. Japs on our side didn’t seem like his bag.  

Big Willie and me took long gulps on our beers but said nothing. It hadn’t taken much for him to break his sobriety.  

“They let you guys go, huh.” Tall Johnson said. 

“Did they?” I looked the man in his slippery grey eyes.  

“Well, you’re out amongst the living, enjoying a beer.”  

“On your dime.” I took a sip of beer. “I guess there’s different shades of freedom.”  

The man smirked. His partner hadn’t touched his beer. He sat with his back straight and had his hands folded in his lap. They both had haircuts from Great Clips and shaved every day and wore black, leather shoes from DSW.  

“We’re all in some sort of prison, answering to some warden with a hard-on for the brown.” Tall Johnson was having some fun. A few sips of beer and he was ready for take-off. 

“It’s a tradition, the government bending people over.”  

Tall Johnson leered at me and smiled like a humpback whale, showing a silver cap on his incisor. The Fed’s dental plan looked outdated.  

“Nobody can argue that outlook. Specially you guys.” He raised his glass at us.  

We didn’t return the offering of good wishes. We just drank for the alcohol and prayed for the buzz to take the edges off.  

“Us guys.” Big Willie boomed.  

The sound of his voice moved the bartender down at the other end. He’d had head down, lost in his phone. He looked up like fireworks had gone off outside. He scanned the scene for a paper dragon, trying to avoid eye contact with the Komodo in the room.  

Tall Johnson didn’t have a problem looking Willie in the eye. “Listen, everyone knows the knee has always been on your neck.” He put a hand up. “So, to speak. But we’re not here to put any more pressure on you.”  

“Let’s call a spade a spade then, nigga.” Big Willie had taken one sip of his beer but was feeling something. Some chaotic energy moving through the bar. He and small Johnson glared at each other through his sunglasses.  

“That’s not our intent.” Tall Johnson put his hand down and sighed. “We’re here to help you.” He looked at his partner and put his elbows on the bar.  

Short Johnson took his sunglasses off. It’s like they had this all planned out. They’d practiced it in some windowless room in that Fed building in Westwood. A routine that finished with this guy taking his glasses off in a bar and brandishing shit-colored eyes.  

“What’d you know about the girl that lives in the apartment next to Jackie Meaux?” The short one asked, looking at Big Willie and not me.  

Willie and I looked at each other. Somebody should go first. I figured he knew more, living in the alley and all. But I was eager to blurt out my confirmed reality.  

“She was on the stairs, right?”  

Johnson and Johnson shared a side-eye. “So, you said.” The tall one said.  

“What about her?” Big Willie boomed. 

The glass in the front windows might’ve shaken. The bartender creeped back into his little corner at the end of the bar. No one else dared step foot in the place; passing by outside, smelling the waste of money ill-spent.  

“Her and her boyfriend are an interesting couple.” Tall Johnson smirked again. 

The glare on his silver cap didn’t bother the short one. “The girl’s name is Beatrice Bonilla. They call her Beebe.”  

“They?” I asked.  

Another shared side-eye between the agents. “Her dad is a heavy MS-13 O.G.” Short Johnson was all information. “Came to L.A. in the eighties.”  

“And her boyfriend?” Me again.  

“Erik Agassi.” Tall Johnson said.  

Agassi. Shit. The Armenian dude in stir with us. Coincidence is benign. Nothing but atoms colliding. But there was a malignant synchronicity pitching in my ear.  

“What about him?” Big Willie asked. 

“What I wanna know is, are you guys a team?” Tall Johnson switched gears on us. “Spenser and Hawk. Gonna figure this shit out on your own. Along the rim of the law.”  

The beer had gone to the man’s head. Half a glass and the man was looped out around Mars.  

“We look like we got licenses for shit like that?” I asked him. “That why you came in here? To tell us to chill out, you and the LAPD got this.”  

“Meanwhile you two crackers are pushing us for info on some fucking neighbors, when you got all you need.” Big Willie coming in clean.  

“What the fuck do you want?”  

Johnson and Johnson looked at me and then each other. “LAPD doesn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.” Tall Johnson gripped his beer white-knuckle-tight. 

“Back to that.” I looked at Willie. 

I pulled a long gulp off my beer. Willie took another shallow sip of his. We both had satisfying smirks on our mouths. But we should’ve checked ourselves with these two. Their dicks are big and blue and plunging. They come for you guts, those Fed dicks.  

“This guy Erik Agassi.” Short Johnson with and even tone. “His uncle’s a big-time player in the Armenian Power.”  

“MS-13 and the Armenians.” Tall Johnson backed his partner up. “I don’t guess that interests either of you.” He stared at himself in the mirror behind the bar.  

Gangs. Only cops care about gangs. Because they wanna stay the biggest and baddest one in town. “What’s it got to do with Jackie?” I asked. “You telling us they the ones that killed her?” 

“Slit her throat like that?” Big Willie added.  

“You said you saw her on the steps, right.” Tall Johnson raised his eyebrows and gave me a teacherly gaze.  

Everybody was giving me that ogle now. Even Eddie the bartender was cutting his eyes my way. Yeah, I had seen her on those cement steps leading up to the apartment building. About half-way up. She looked all wonky. Like she’d been up all night on that chalk her boy always had her on. Her head in her hands and her elbows slipping off her knees. She didn’t even notice me climb up past her. I’d seen her like that before. Seen more than that over the years. Jackie lived in that spot for fifteen years, but for most, apartment dwelling in L.A. is like hopscotch. They don’t stay in place for long. Grass is always greener in this white light. People are moths. Flittering about for the next bright one. Occasionally though, you come across a black hole. A place that gathers you in with rent control and a good walking score. You can check out but you can never leave. That’s the catch.  

There are other ways of leaving. 

Just ask Jackie.  

Beebe and Erik had been living in the building for at least a year. The cops had been out a handful of times. Domestic rows. Always idled towards tweaking. With sand and grit in the back of their throats they wouldn’t answer the door when the patrolmen knocked. They would go dark and silent and sneak out back windows into the alley and live to fight another day. Sometimes hang out on steps and count the ways they hated each other.  

“Yeah, I did.” Finally.  

“She say anything to you?” Tall Johnson asked.  

I shook my head, wondering if Beebe or Erik were murderers. Using a knife on her. Putting it to her throat and pulling the string. Stone cold butchers.  

“You say anything to her?” The short one asked.  

“I didn’t say anything. She didn’t look like she wanted anything said to her.”  

The Johnsons shared a look. “What’d you mean?” One of them asked.  

“She looked like she’d been up all night on whatever dust her boy finds in the corner of the closets.”  

“You see Agassi around?” Tall Johnson finished his beer and motioned to Eddie for another one.  

Another shake of the head. “Why would they wanna kill Jackie?” 

Eddie the bartender put Tall Johnson’s beer down in front of him and it sounded like someone dropped a bowling ball on the bar. Nobody said anything for a minute. Just trying not to look at each other.  

“That’s what I wanna know.” Big Willie stated.  

The two Feds comported themselves with furtiveness. Secrets tucked into every pocket and limb crevice. They knew things and couldn’t tell them until the right time. The right place. It was no fun playing a fixed game.  

“You see Beebe on those stairs?” Tall Johnson asked Willie.  

The big man tilted his head and grimaced. “Naw.”  

“What about Erik? You see him?” Short Johnson this time.  

Big Willie thought about it. Everyone was on the edge of their seats. He shook his head. “I might’ve saw something when I went past, they apartment, but I ain’t sure. Like, maybe he was in there peeking through the blinds.”  

Johnson and Johnson both put their hands on the bar. “You think he might’ve been in the apartment?” Short one asked.  

Massive shoulder shrug. “He’s always in there peeking through blinds. So maybe, I can’t be sure.”  

For some reason, Eddie hadn’t gone back to his corner. He also had his hands on the bar and was leaning into the conversation. Willie looked at him. “Can I get some soda water, man?” 

The question snapped him back and he picked up a gun and sprayed fizzy water into a glass. “Can I get some ice, man?” Willie asked. Eddie grabbed a scoop and threw some ice into the glass. But he stayed in his spot down by us.  

Everyone looked at him until he caught on and went to the other end of the bar.  

“You like this Erik motherfucker for Jackie’s murder?” I asked the agents.  

Johnson and Johnson looked at each other. The tall one had his lips pursed and crooked like a worm in thought. The short one’s face was a calm pond. This was something else rehearsed. Like fly-fishing, setting the bait is an art in itself. 

What Now for Whatever

Elam Mangham’s best friend has just been murdered, and he and Big Willie Winsboro don’t give a damn about the cops and FBI agents and the Armenians and the Salvadoreans standing in their way. They’re gonna find out who murdered Jackie Meaux if it kills them.

Chapter One: “Cops are fun!”

“She dead, man.”  

Big Willie Winsboro stood in the doorway of a friend. He lived in the alley behind the apartment building. Had a tent set up where he shouldn’t. Or, where most young, white folks had to walk by and pretend it didn’t exist. That’s where he lived. In white postures of inexistence.  

The words to answer him were bound in confusion.  

Big Willie was in the doorway of a friend.  

She was dead.  

The police and the paramedics came. All of them. Every last one of them on the westside careened in at an angle. A caravan rallying against the indigenous; blocking off Barrington and sending all the signals to Brentwood to stay indoors.  

They didn’t know any better.  

You never know until you show up.  

Those policeman and paramedics looked a little surprised when they wheeled Jackie Meaux out on a stretcher and into an ambulance down on Barrington. The paramedics cursed themselves for not parking in the alley, as they stepped awkwardly down the concrete steps that led up to the building. The police looked bored until two dudes in black suits showed up and starting asking questions.  

Feds. 

Big Willie saw it too. He burped and blew it in their general direction. It smelled like a four-day-old 7-Eleven hot dog.  A patrolman with a tag that read Martinez had us sitting on the curb. He didn’t know what to make of any of it. He kept his mouth tight and straight, but his eyes told another story. They kept flittering to a patrolwoman with a tag that read Matos. She stepped over toward Martinez like a vaquero stepping up to a saloon bar. Her thumbs hooked on her belt and twisting on the balls of her feet like some bow-legged ballerina.  

“Some black girl bit it.” Big Willie and I could both hear her over the din of municipal whistles and horns.  She didn’t know we could hear her, and we didn’t tell her otherwise.  

“For real?” He said it fast, Martinez, acting nonchalant, like he didn’t care.  

“You believe that shit.” Not really a question.  

“In this neighborhood.” The man flicked his eyebrows up and down like a switch. 

He was all Red-Bull and twitch fibers. Put that on your application for the academy, make sure your index finger works, and you’re on your way to being a cop in any Ol’ American police department.  

“Fucking West LA.” Matos said it like it was the only known quantity in a nebula. 

“What the fuck.” Her partner agreed.  

Matos finally looked down at Willie and me. We both returned the eyeballing with a bit of eavesdropping-knowledge. She blinked. Oh well, who cares. We weren’t that sensitive. We knew Jackie Meaux was dead.  

Cops are fun.  

Johnson and Johnson didn’t talk to us. They didn’t even look our way. That’s when you know they already know who you are and everything about you. Down to the last toe-nail clipping.  But Big Willie could’ve been off their radar. He hadn’t filed his taxes or clipped his toenails in years. Instead, two LAPD detectives came over to the curb with some well-rehearsed back and forth they perfected a long time ago on some first-year stakeout. Names were Merchant and Larsen. They’d graduated from wearing them on tags. Now they wore ties with ketchup stains and sportscoats with shoulder pads.  The one named Merchant was just a shade lighter than Willie, but his nose was turned up at the big man’s smell. He looked down at his feet that were bare and cringed as Willie scrapped them against asphalt. I thought I saw some sparks fly up but was distracted by Larsen’s deep, troubling cough. It was wet and phlegmy and reminded me of a case of cancer I saw go down once.  

“How do you know the victim?” Merchant was fighting the notion to gag.  

Big Willie smelled like a man who’d been burnt and then buried and then dug up again and thrown in a dumpster. It was something you grew used to, if you were lucky.  

“She’s a friend of mine.” I told the detective. 

Merchant nodded like that’s what he’d expected. There were these questions he’d asked a million times and the answers were all the same. It was nothing but a job now. He looked to Willie. The detective’s nostrils were inflamed, taking things personally. “How do you know the victim?”  

“Friend of mine.” Willie said.  

Larsen coughed again. Some mucus appeared on his bottom lip. He wiped it away with a paisley handkerchief. “You guys friends, I presume.” He pointed at both of us to let everyone know where the delinquents were.  

Big Willie and I looked at each other. I shrugged and he shook his head. We knew the same woman, once.  

“How’d you both come to this place, then?” Larsen asked, swallowing his cough into a wheeze.  

“How’d we what?” Big Willie asked.  

“He lives in the alley.” I hooked a thumb at the big man. “He walked over here.”  

Merchant blinked for a pause. Larsen swallowed again and almost gagged keeping the cough down. “And you what, live in the building. Just checking on your neighbor?” Merchant knew I didn’t live there.  

I told the man that he had my I.D. He just smirked and nodded his head. He looked at his partner and patted him on the back. Larsen coughed all over us. Right in mine and Big Willie’s face. The big man just wiped his face with his catcher’s mitt and sucked his teeth. Not me. I cussed the man into an early grave. Larsen didn’t even apologize. Merchant had walked off, laughing.  

Every other cop in uniform was ready to put me in a back seat.  

Merchant had walked over to talk to those Feds. Johnson and Johnson, we called them. They both had names their fathers gave them, but Big Willie said that all government employees had to change their names to Johnson at some point, to get the pension. He was out of his mind but I went with him on this one. Johnson and Johnson, it was.  

Larsen hung back, wiping his mouth again with that paisley rag. Still not apologizing for giving us both Typhoid. He had more questions to ask before being locked up in an iron lung.  

“Where exactly are you coming from, Mangham?”  

“Where exactly?” I squinted up at him, thinking about another man’s mucus on my face. “Like in time and space, or on a map? Cause the former could be tricky.” 

That got a smile from Big Willie. You could feel it stretching the molecules around us like a taut rubber band.  

“On a map you live in Pico-Union.” Larsen hadn’t the time for physics. “Weird neighborhood, huh.” 

Guy was a goader. “What about it?” 

The detective shook his head and frowned like a frog. “Just a strange spot for a guy like you.”  

There was no argument to be had. He was just making a general observation. Maybe he wasn’t goading. But the man was a cop. He had an angle. A guy like me. A guy like me was a snoop and wanted to see where this was going.  

“Right.” Agreeance is forbearance. “Straight up Mexican hood.” 

“More like Salvadorean.”  

This was true. The man working some MS-13 angle, no doubt. Thinking skin color tells some of the story. Maybe I’m in that neighborhood because of it. Truth is, sometimes the rent is just cheap. I just nodded at the man. Let him know that I was somewhat impressed at his acumen of neighborhood demographics. But also, thinking his assessment of skin tone was what a white man’s would be.  

“You funny, man.” Big Willie bellowed.  

Larsen looked at him and didn’t seem bothered by anything other than the fact that the big man spoke to him. “Why?”  

Willie smiled. Teeth white as Moby Dick. “You thinking he’s Salvi cause he lives in Pico Union.” 

“Not seeing the humor?” Larsen coughed. This time he turned his head at least.  

“It’s funny cause nobody’s saying you a Jew for living in Boyle Heights.”  

I cringed. Larsen blinked and his bottom lip detached from his mouth like a wayward shuttle craft. He lived in Boyle Heights and all those that were in earshot were wondering how Big Willie Winsboro knew that. The cringing was overpowered by laughter. The man was right. It was funny.  

By the time Willie was chuckling, Larsen had walked away, waving a hand like he had a thankless job. “Cops are fun.” Big man, said.  

He lived in a tent in the alley.  

I lived in Pico Union.  

Larsen lived in Boyle Heights.  

Merchant probably lived in Culver City somewhere. 

Those Feds lived in a high-rise on Wilshire and Westwood. 

Jackie Meaux lived in an apartment on Barrington Avenue. 

Or she did. 

Merchant and Larsen were jobbers. They did their jobs, but not before they had a pow-wow with Johnson and Johnson. Those two G-men had slit for eyes and never looked at anything longer than two seconds. Once they’d downloaded from the detectives they walked down to their Crown Vic and busted back to Westwood.  

Big Willie snorted. “Fuck them Feds doing out here?” He looked at me dead-on, like he needed the answer right away.  

I shrugged and said I don’t know. A response I had down so pat that it made a mild annoyance in my gut.  

“You don’t know what she was into?” Big man asked.  

“What she was into?” I didn’t bother to look at him, watching Merchant and Larsen come back our way.  

“You think the FBI just comes out for every black woman killed in L.A.?” Willie wasn’t letting it go.  

“Maybe.” I left him hanging. 

“Some kind of quota for hate crimes, you think?” 

I looked at him finally. His face was something time wanted to forget. But matter don’t play that way. “You think it was hate?” 

Big Willie squinted at me but didn’t say anything. Merchant and Larsen were back by that time, asking more questions. Like why Willie was in Jackie’s apartment in the first place. He explained to them that they were homies. But they couldn’t get their skeptical-cop minds around the dynamic of citizens and homeless folks being friends.  

“So, what, you got a key to her place?” Merchant asked the big guy. 

“She leaves it open when she’s home.” Willie told him. 

“You got a key?” Larsen asked me.  

I nodded.  

“She leaves her door open.” Merchant was leaning with his back against a giant fig tree that was mauling the sidewalk into a volcanic eruption.  

The tree’s leavings were everywhere. Tiny purple dots dusting the sidewalk and cars parked all along Barrington Ave. Those things lined almost every street in the city. Some city-planners sick joke.  

“Anybody could’ve just walked in.” Larsen mused, looking at his partner. 

“Anybody.” Merchant agreed. 

But he was doing a bad job of being coy. His eyes kept cutting mine and Big Willie’s way. As if to say he liked us for it. Cop parlance is fun.  

“What about the girl on the steps?” I spoke up. 

Merchant and Ivory looked at each other. “What girl?” Larsen asked. 

There was a girl on the steps. Those cement steps right behind us, leading up to the apartment building. Yeah, I’d seen her, plain as day. Walked right past her. She lived in the apartment next to Jackie’s. Her and her man. What were their names? Beebe and Something? 

I told them all this. But it didn’t matter. They arrested us anyway.  

Assholes.  

Masculine/Feminine

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-7u92e-111502e

We’re back, after a bit of a break, to talk about how women have impacted our lives. 

In the past we’ve talked about our mother and father and even ourselves. But here, we take some time to explore how we’ve been encouraged and changed by the women in our lives.

Along the way we talk about gender, and bodies that have choices, and this difficult world men have built for women.