“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”