“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.
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.”
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.