“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.”
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.
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?”
“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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.