Chapter Fourteen

Where the Motes Dance and the Atoms collide, and the Bones are Wet Chalk.

Our mamas weren’t the same. But our friendship to Jackie might’ve been in the same ballpark. But it still felt as if Big Willie Winsboro could see the floor, and I still had lumber under my ass. I still didn’t know how she ended up with that opal. And I still didn’t know for sure who cut her throat. Some way, or some time, I’d knew I’d figure it all out.  

We took the barrel up to a house in Westwood. The thing had thirty million dollars in it, Willie finally confessed. And we just rolled up into some dude’s garage on Thayer Ave.  

It wasn’t just some dude, though. It was Jasper Hosseini’s house. It was this church-like thing up on a small green hill, but still nestled in the neighborhood. The house was a bonanza of A-frames, with tan stucco walls and redwood shingles. The garage was built on the low part of the small hill. Two, heavy wooden doors that swung up. We put the blue barrel in the back corner of the garage that housed two Mercedes.  

Hosseini didn’t come out to greet us. Or thank us for recovering his money. I wasn’t sure whether we’d recovered it or stole it. Either way, it was above my pay grade. But speaking of getting paid.  

“Flores promised us four-hundred grand.” I reminded Willie as he lowered the garage door. It made a horrible wrenching noise and the big man looked around to see if any neighbors were disturbed.  

“It ain’t Flores’ to give anymore.” Willie looked uncomfortable in this hood. His steps looked like they were on borrowed time.  

“What’s your boss gonna do with thirty million?” 

Big man rankled at that. “You just got a way about you. Thinking we got to a place, but we really didn’t, did we?” 

“What place did we get to? You still holding on to cards. Playing me out. Tell me what kind of place is that, Willie?” I looked at Hosseini’s house. “Some place where you’re just the help, huh. You only allowed in the garage.”  

I thought he might thump me again; put me to sleep, his jaw was rippled and tight. But his nostrils flaring was only a meditative release. “I owe the man something.” Was all he said. He footed the garage door shut.  

“Jackie owe him too?” I asked.  

He looked at me and then glanced across the street at another two-million-dollar home. “Ever see yourself living in a place like that?” 

“If so, she paid in full.”  

Big Willie nodded. “She did.”  

Some brakes toiled to a stop and we both looked out to the street. A dark Crown-Vic came to a stop in front of the house. Johnson and Johnson got out and adjusted their ties and lingered around their government vehicle. Tall Johnson cleared his throat, and some belligerent crow in a eucalyptus tree yelled back at him. Short Johnson had his hands in his pockets, chin tucked to his chest like he was waiting on some paperwork to be filled out.  

“Fuck they want?” Willie asked.  

“They ain’t here to see us.” I told him.  

His head turned towards me and his eyes were crinkled in question. “What?” 

The front door to the A-Frame-a-thon opened and Mr. Hosseini stepped out and waved a hand at the agents, like they were two family members come to visit for Thanksgiving. Short Johnson kept his hands in his pockets, but Tall Johnson smiled a dumb smile and waved back.  

“What the fuck?” Willie was dumbfounded.  

Tall Johnson started walking up to the front door as his partner kind of hung back and pursed his lips at me. “A business man needs partners, I guess.”  

“Motherfucker.”  

“You didn’t know?” 

“Fuck you.” Willie was staring at Hosseini.  

The old Persian didn’t bother to look our way. Maybe his neck was too stiff from the fall he took last night. He looked like he was sucking on a Werthers, waiting for his grandchildren to get here. Hands in the nice pockets of his nice, charcoal slacks.  

“Hey!” Willie raised his voice. 

The agents kept walking up the cement walkway towards Hosseini; who still hadn’t acknowledged the delivery of thirty million dollars. We’d just cut the lawn and needed to go on to the next house.  

“Hey, motherfucker!” Willie bellowed, and that crow in the eucalyptus squawked and took flight.  

The whole neighborhood was tinged in goose-pimples. Every blade of grass in all the front lawns stood straight as light poles. Johnson and Johnson stopped a few feet away from Hosseini, who sucked his caramel and finally looked our way.  

“You working with these two crackers!” Willie accused the man. 

A few more birds took off, not wanting to see a man of means get yelled at in his own neighborhood like that. It was shameful. The FBI agents were thinking the same thing. Looking from us to Hosseini, like, you gonna take that kind of lip from the help. Mr. Hosseini took his right hand out of his custom pocket and held it up. Like that was all he had to do to silence the plebian.  

“You motherfucker.” Willie said it so only he and I could hear it.  

“What’s it for?” I yelled at the Johnsons.  

They both were still looking over at us. Aviator sunglasses on in the bright morning light. The sky was a brilliant, pale blue. “What?” The tall one asked.  

“The thirty million in the barrel we put in the garage.” I yelled.  

Hosseini was looking around for neighbors who might be snooping. Hands back in his pockets. Tall Johnson looked at him. Hosseini shook his head.  

“What kind of land deal you guys in on?” I yelled some more.  

“Motherfucker.” Willie said.  

I looked at him. “I hope you got more to say than that. You having a seizure?” 

Willie looked at me. “It’s the fucking V.A.”  

“What?” 

“That land is up for sale.” He spit on the ground. “Where Veteran’s Hospital is. All that shit’s for sale.”  

“How you know that?” I asked.  

“It’s all anybody talks about over there.”  

Over there. “You at Veteran’s Affairs much?” 

He shook his head. “7-Eleven.”  

All the loopy-headed, sideways-walking people that come and go from the convenience store, looking for malt-liquor and hot dogs. The things that come out of their mouths are to be ignored. Just put your head down and you won’t see them. I looked from Big Willie to the Johnsons. The short one had his head down. The tall one was saying something to Hosseini.  

“They’re just middlemen.” I told Willie. “What’s this got to do with Jackie?” 

Hosseini and the agents were up there on top of the hill. We were down there by the garage. They were talking, doing their best to ignore us. Just make sure you pick up the grass clippings.  

“Jackie figured out who her neighbors were.” Willie said, out of nowhere.  

“What?” 

Willie turned towards me. “She figured Hosseini was keeping a stable.” He looked up the hill. “Ain’t that right!” He yelled.  

They looked down at us again. This time Hosseini looked nonplussed, shaking his head. Tall Johnson looked annoyed, with his hands on his hips, he nodded at us. “LAPD’s got a warrant out for your arrest. You might wanna break camp and get out of town, I was you.”  

“You was me, huh.” Willie spat in TJ’s general direction.  

“I know, it’s a big stretch, putting myself in your shoes, imagining myself living in a tent in an alley.” Tall Johnson sucked his teeth and shook his head, with this stupid smirk on his face. “But life’s all about what kind of imagination you got. Like can you imagine yourself not living in a tent in an alley. Some people just see the ten feet in front of them. That’s how they get lost.”  

I laughed. Some more crows took flight. “Federal government pays you to sound like a dumbass white man. That’s what’s beyond anyone’s imagination. How you can be out in the world saying and doing the stupidest shit, playing with people’s lives and get a paycheck for it? Cause you’re really bad at what you do.”  

Willie laughed now.  

Tall Johnson’s lips disappeared and he turned towards us. Short Johnson put a palm up, like hold on now.  

“You think I’m bad at what I do.” Tall Johnson managed a forced chuckle. “What is it you’re doing with your life, Elam Mangham? Currently out of work, Elam Mangham.” He took his hands off his waist, getting loose. “Same for Big Willie Winsboro. Wanted for murder.” He looked like he might come down the hill to our level. “Of your own friend. Looks like you’re both doing an amazing job.”  

Short Johnson shook his head. Hosseini looked like he wanted to go back inside. Neighbors were starting to stick their heads out.  

“Again, you’re getting paid to not know a damn thing.” I told TJ. “Shit’s supposedly in your purview, but maybe talk to your partner every once in a while.”  

That stopped him. The tall one looked at the short one. Short Johnson was staring hard at me. “What’s that?” Tall Johnson asked. 

Hosseini said something we couldn’t hear. Johnson and Johnson seemed to listen to him and back off. Hosseini had the front door open and the agents went inside with him. Willie and I stood there and let it happen.  

“Just when I thought we were getting somewhere.” I lamented.  

“Let’s go.” Willie said.  

I was a bit shocked. “What? We’re right here. The end of the line. That fucker can answer for Jackie.” I pointed at the house.  

Willie stepped around me. “He ain’t got nothing to say. But you right, it is the end of the line.” He walked towards my truck.  

Watching him step long and weary towards the stolen Mustang, thoughts of whatever blanched my brain. What now was pushing back. The nexus in the road. It doesn’t matter which road you take. Does it? They both end up in same place.  

Hosseini’s house was quiet. The neighborhood went back to its own business. Willie was getting in the car. His place was known now. Or so he thought. I still didn’t know who killed Jackie Meaux.  

We left Westwood. It was a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Unless you were a millionaire with government friends. So, back down Wilshire we went. Through that beautiful gauntlet of planned palm trees and vast green lawns. Manicured for the dead. Must have been a thousand graves for dead soldiers in that cemetery across from the Fed building. A nice spread to come home to in death. It stretched up towards Bel-Air. A long field of shamrock with hardly a stone to be seen. They were all recessed markers.  

“Pretty place to rest.” Big Willie mused, as we passed.  

Couldn’t argue against that, so I didn’t. We cruised on under the freeway and drove through the Veteran’s center. There was a white church on a hill that was dilapidated and had a chain-linked fence around it. 

“You said the place was up for sale?” I asked. 

“That’s the word around the campfire.” 

“Word on the street.”  

Willie sighed. “Whatever you wanna call it.”  

“Hosseini’s buying it?” 

“What?” 

“He’s buying the land for what? The fed land. The Veteran’s center and all them dead people back there. What’s he gonna do with it all?” 

Big Willie Winsboro looked at me. “What’s it matter?” He spit out of the window.  

The flow of traffic came to a standstill. No one ever knows why this happens. A wreck, people trying to get to the beach, or just too many damn people with cars in a city indentured to rubber and cement.  

“It cost a couple people their lives.” I reminded him. “That matters, motherfucker.”  

That motherfucker snapped Willie out of whatever gloom he had blanketed himself in. He looked over at me, again. “I know it matters.” Was all he had to say.  

“Back there at Hosseini’s, you said something about Jackie figuring out who was living next to her. What’d you mean?” 

“Think about it. She’s working that building downtown. It wasn’t the only thing Hosseini had her on. You know what I mean?” 

I didn’t, and let it ride through my silence, like I was thinking about it. Which I was. Jackie was working other angles for her boss. Okay. What angles? 

Willie was telepathic all of sudden, nodding with my unseen mental tasks. “Assholes coming and going, carrying shit in briefcases. Shit like diamonds and opals.”  

“She knew about the robberies.” I said.  

“Well, she had too, if she was working security in that building.”  

“But she knew the Salvadoreans were ripping certain people off.”  

“She was good, she would know that.”  

“She say anything to you about it?” 

Big Willie made a face, like, what’d you think. We inched along Wilshire. The old, rundown, church stood vigil off to our right. It was something out of an old Western. A sanctuary on a hill. Maybe it was some old set miles away from Gower Gulch.  

“Pretty sure she knew what Erik and Beebe were about.” Willie looked out at the church and seemed transfixed by it. “That Erik had to be the one that brought that stone to Ed’s attention.”  

“What?” I hit the brakes, barely avoiding rear-ending an Audi. “Why would he wanna get rid of the thing?”  

Willie shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he was in a tight spot and needed two-grand.”  

I shook my head. “I don’t think so.” Working it out in my head. “Dude was obsessed with the thing. He wouldn’t wanna get rid of it.”  

Willie and I ruminated. Sitting in traffic, not really knowing where we were going. Back to the Jackie’s building. Back to his alley. All of it Hosseini’s anyway. Even that church was Hosseini’s soon.  

“Beebe.” Willie finally said.  

Cars finally started rolling and things opened up to more than a crawl. I pulled the Mustang into the 7-Eleven parking lot. It was packed with cars at this time of the morning. Ten o’clock. The only spot open was a perpendicular place out near the sidewalk. Big Willie was out of the truck and stretching before I could turn the key. He was smiling too. The sun hitting him in the face.  

I got out of the car, giving him a wary look. “You alright?” 

He took a deep, long breath of piss and vagrancy. “Yeah.” Was all he said.  

“Good to be home, I guess.”  

We hadn’t been away all that long. But in L.A. your neighborhood is your neighborhood. Even a convenience store can have the smells of home.  And it was definitely a happening spot. Every spot filled in front of the place. People walking in out and Willie’s people loitering outside. Veterans and all sorts of folks living in the outdoors, in the sunshine.  

We walked toward the entrance and I eyed the cars lined up in front. One of the cars looked familiar. A Crown Vic. Not the Feds though. We knew where they were. No, it had to be Merchant and Larsen. Hanging around, knowing where the man lay his head.  

“Hold up.” I blurted, standing in the middle of the parking lot.  

Willie looked over his shoulder at me, but kept walking.  

My eyes went towards the store. There was a lot of people inside and it was hard to tell if the detectives were in there, buying donuts and coffee.  

“Willie.” Trying to stop him, just for a second.  

“What?” He finally stopped.  

I nodded towards the Crown Vic.  

Big Willie gave it a gander. Then immediately looked inside the store. He didn’t see them in there either. He shrugged and kept walking.  

I went in after him.  

Merchant and Larsen were not in the 7-Eleven. Maybe it was some other plain clothes cops buying coffee and donuts, or whatever mystery-meat they slap on a bun at ten o’clock in the morning. Which a bunch of construction workers were going to town on. The store was filled with yellow hardhats and orange work vests. Men with hard looks working a site across the street, on the corner of Wilshire and Barrington. A new apartment high-rise. An all-glass thing, reflecting blue sky to the multitudes.  

They all looked at Willie like they knew him. All giving him knowing nods and the big man giving them back. He moved through them, towards the back of the store, opening one of the cooler doors and grabbed a big fruit-punch Gatorade. I stood near the front door, not really wanting anything in there. I stepped outside and a wrinkled, old-prune of a man asked me for a dollar. He was hanging out by the trash can. His fingers were black, like he’d plunged his hands in million cans just like it. He had a greyish-yellow beard and lines on his face that went all the way back to the Sumerians. There were no dollars to give him. Just a card to be swiped that one guards with their life. I just shrugged and mumbled at the guy and moved on past him, like a had some better station in life pulling me away.  

When, in fact, I didn’t. Not much separated me from that man. There are a million hairline cracks in the trillions of miles of concrete we’ve built. It’s a miracle if you stay top-side and… 

A LAPD patrol car had pulled up right in front of the mustang. Okay, lots of cops stop at 7-Elevens. But the two cops that got out of that car were familiar to me.  

Martinez and Matos.  

The two patrolmen that cuffed Willie and I on the curb and eventually hauled us downtown. A squirming in my gut made me think of the man’s black fingertips back there, rummaging through what I had left of any intestinal feelings.  

Coincidence is just a word. And this area of West LA is no doubt their beat. But the timing is conspicuous. And that Crown Vic was still there and no plain clothes cops in sight. Martinez and Matos were both looking sheepish. Like they were there for someone specific, but didn’t want them to know that.  

Real subtle.  

They ambled towards me, or the store; couldn’t quite tell. I moved to my left, where I young man was selling flowers. He had a nice set up, selling to the all the young white people, fresh out of UCLA and USC, living in the neighborhood.  

Martinez and Matos eyed me and entered the store.  

Strange. There’s a stolen car right there. They parked right in front of it. Not to mention they had us on the curb just yesterday morning.

I stepped past the shimmer of red and purple and yellow and orange of the flower set-up and walked towards the alley that led back to Jackie’s building and where Big Willie Winsboro lived. The way was silty with loose pebbles. An alley that hadn’t been re-paved in years. Potholes everywhere. It sloped down towards Texas Ave and even further down to Santa Monica Blvd.  

The crunch underfoot was deafening. So quiet.  

Down near Jackie’s building, I stopped. Willie’s tent wasn’t where it was supposed to be. A few more steps and, you could see why. Someone had ransacked it and left it in shambles. The tent and all of his possessions strewn across, and down the alley. It looked like good police work. Or so, those ham sandwiches would tell you. If they have a piece of paper in hand from a judge, they can litter as much as they want. Societal rules don’t apply.  

Being a good human being is out of the door as well. You cease to be one when they think you’ve committed a crime. Especially murder.  

I stood there, looking at the man’s entire life, carelessly thrown across a concrete gully in West Los Angeles, and wanted more for the man. Wondered if someone like me was doing enough.  

“Your boy could use a house cleaner?” A voice to my right said.  

Could tell it was fucking Merchant, right away. He was standing in the walkway of Jackie’s building, with Larsen, a crutch in his right armpit. Motherfucker was still coughing up bits of his lungs. Good for him.  

“You gonna give him a ticket for littering?” I turned towards the two dicks. “Tough job you got here, throwing trash around in alleys.”  

Larsen spit brown phlegm in my direction. Merchant had that stupid mustached-smirk on his face. “Unfortunately, that’s most of what this job is, sifting through trash, looking for more trash. The steamier the better.”  

“Glad you’ve accepted your lot in life.”  

“Have you?” Larsen asked, with a wet, popping sound in his throat.  

“I don’t know. Tell me what that lot is. You motherfuckers are the life coaches.”  

Larsen’s mouth tightened and he looked over at his partner. Merchant liked the life-coach line, you could see it in his smirk. Feeling loose because they had the upper hand, and pretty damn sure their prey was near. He limped closer, using the crutch. 

“Surprised your up and about.” I told him. 

Merchant gave a slight shrug. “Just a flesh wound and I got a big ass.” He paused for laughs. There were one. Then he proceeded to be a cop again. “Good start would be to keep walking, let your boy take the fall for all this.” Merchant said. “We like him for your friends murder.”  

I looked at Merchant long and hard. Avoiding looking at the wretch Larsen. “What kind of motive you putting on him for it? What’s he get out of killing his best friend?” 

Merchant finally glanced at his partner. “Look at this fucker, talking about motive, like everybody who’s ever watched a fucking Law & Order.” He shook his head.  

 Larsen agreed with a muffled cough. “Lay of the fucking land, these days, motive don’t amount to much, when you’re making a case.”  

“These days?” I looked at Larsen like he was a dog with worms under a carport. “It’s always been that way for a black man.” Merchant was inching closer. “When have you ever needed a fucking motive to shoot us.”  

“Us?” Merchant was surprised.  

I shot him a hard look.  

Gunshots went off somewhere.  

Three, four, five shots. Then six and seven. Sounding like they were coming from up near Wilshire. Merchant and Larsen started moving in that direction. Larsen pulled his piece and shuffled up the alley. Merchant doing his best with the crutch. I went ahead.

The 7-Eleven parking lot was swarming with folks. Construction dudes and nine-to-fivers all breathing heavy and looking back towards the store. An electric lilt quivered through everyone. Merchant and Larsen pushed through and I followed, through the double doors, inside the store, the clerk leaning over the counter looking down an aisle, towards the back of the place.  

Martinez and Matos had their guns drawn, two hands on metal, arms straight as arrows, standing in back aisle where all the coolers were. Their gats weren’t smoking but you could smell charcoal and sulphur. An odor that ate away at your nose hairs.  

Big Willie Winsboro was up against one of the glass cooler doors. Slumped but sitting up, kinda. He had four bullet holes in him. Three more had shattered glass behind him. A golden energy drink was all over the floor, mixed with red.  

Nobody said anything for a long time. We just listened to Willie breath. A rattle, they call it. Death rattle. It’s more like a crinkling sound. Like a piece of paper being scrunched up and opened back up and flattened out on a table.  

A man’s life. A white piece of paper on a table.  

“What the fuck?!” Merchant finally yelled.  

Martinez and Matos looked around and lowered their guns.  

“Why’d you shoot him?” Merchant asked.  

The patrol officers just looked at each other, spooked.  

“Huh?” Merchant pushed. “What’d you shoot him for?” He moved in between them, closer to Willie. “He have a weapon?” 

Martinez raised a hand in Willie’s direction. There was a Gatorade bottle near his right hand. “He wasn’t complying.”  

Matos backed him up. “We asked him to get down on his knees.” She looked at me. “He wouldn’t listen.”  

“So, you shot him five times.” I pointed out.  

They all looked at me.  

“Fuck!” Merchant yelled.  

The patrol officers didn’t even flinch. They holstered their guns and stood there.  

“He wasn’t complying.” Larsen cut in. “Didn’t he threaten you in anyway?” 

Martinez and Matos exchanged a furtive glance. “He said some things…” Matos started. “Talking shit.”  

“Talking shit?!” Merchant’s mind was blown.  

Matos shook her head and looked down at her feet. “He wasn’t backing down.”  

“Sir, we had no other choice.” Martinez implored.  

“Cause your job depended on it?” The patrol officers both shot quick looks my way. “Or your life?” 

“Fuck does that mean?” Larsen hacked out the words through a grumbling cough.  

“I don’t know, ask Hosseini.”  

Both Martinez and Matos’ flared and the skin on their faces tightened. Bingo. Bought and paid for. You could feel their heartbeats from where they stood. The money wasn’t enough. It’s all just a trick.  

“Ask who?” Larsen looked at Merchant.  

But he was kneeling down in front of Willie, with his back to us. I stepped over and did the same. Merchant stood up and backed away. Big Willie wasn’t really present. Barely breathing, looking off somewhere above us into the ether. Where the motes dance and atoms collide, bringing about the white light. A different white light than that of the Southland. 

“Who the fuck is Hosseini?” Larsen chirped.  

“Shut the fuck up.” Merchant told him. 

“What?” Larsen again.  

I put my hand on his leg, like, hey man, I’m here. Someone is here with you. His eyes trickled down to me. What was I to him? Some stranger who drove him around one last time until his death.  

Or drove him to it.  

“I’m sorry.” Was all I could say.  

Big Willie Winsboro blinked and shuttered. Merchant cursed again. Larsen was still trying to find out who Hosseini was. I stayed, crouched in front of Willie until I couldn’t feel my legs any longer. Ambulances came and more cops. Merchant and Larsen became busy with directing traffic in out of the 7-Eleven. Cops upon cops upon cops. Internal Affairs bigwigs came down the cop pipe. But no sign of the feds. Probably too busy counting their money. Hosseini hoping his place in the middle passage would still keep him unseen.  

I wandered out of the store and through the parking lot and down the alley again and found myself picking up the detritus of Willie’s life. A person cleaning up and alleyway wasn’t something you would see every day. Other than those looking for aluminum cans to recycle, most of the time alleys in L.A. are defacto dumps. Need a second-hand couch or mattress, just cruise the alleys on the Westside and you’ll find the choicest hand-me-downs. You need a tent for a family of six? What about a sweet Coleman cooler? A black futon? Or a braided rug, or some Japanese lanterns? I did my best to gather everything and lay them on the fallen tent. The futon I just left off to the side, near a dumpster, for someone fresh out of one of the midwestern or southern states to fill their bachelor or studio with. The mattress too. It was a pile of someone’s life. Sitting in and alley in West LA. That’s all that was left of Big Willie Winsboro. All he had to show for his life. My eyes were wet and started dripping. It came then. Every word and puzzle in my mind dissolved into a loose flowing of letting go. Muscles were loose sinews and bones were wet chalk.  

Let it all go, man. Just let it all go.  

So, the mantra goes. 

Say it a million times a day and maybe a notch of change in you will happen. Maybe a cool breeze will come along in your favor, to cool the brow. A little less worry and little more thankfulness.   

But why let go now? Why when people have died and you’ve done nothing for them but gather their belongings? There were still questions to be answered and people to be fucked with.  

Chapter Thirteen

A Nice Letter Home to Mama.

And chill the fuck out, I did. All the way down to the bottom, again. No, not again. It can’t be again, if it’s a place you never left. It’s just a place that you exist in. A plain of being. Down there. That’s where you are. At the place where nothing exists. If nothing can exist. A notion to boggle the mind. Because that’s where it all started. At a place a human mind can’t fathom. A sleep where the subconscious knows no tales.  

This time I didn’t dream of any friends. There was no Jackie in the mud, on the side of the road. There was no one. No one there but me. And even that was something loosely based on me. An ego untethered. A braided rope, unstrung. You forget about will, in a place like that. The will to do something. Like live. Heartbeats run on their own accord.  

Eyes open involuntarily.  

Still in that corridor. But nobody else was around. Those Armenian goons weren’t lying around with you. Funny. That’s damn funny. But not funnier than the storage unit to my left being empty. The blue, plastic barrel was gone. A clean-up crew called Big Willie Winsboro.  

But why leave me? Because you’re an asshole who took a swing at him with a bat on the word of a two-bit cop.  

My head felt like a rotten watermelon. I got up, I think, and stumbled against a metal wall. It made so much noise, that I thought the police would come. But then I remembered, they don’t come down this far.  

190th and Normandie.  

I hadn’t been out that long. The sun was sitting just above the horizon. I could see it out of that window by the elevator. Looking down, I could see my truck was where I’d parked it by the cinderblock wall.  

The bed was full of Armenian goons and a blue, plastic barrel.  

I yelled, but Big Willie couldn’t hear me. He was getting behind the wheel, ready to drive that carnival of goods to clown-town. More yelling and beating on the window did no good. I hit the elevator button. It took about a month for the thing to bing and open. Another month to get down to ground level and watch my shitty, little Toyota roll out of the gate and take a left on Normandie.  

Curious. A left, on Normandie. The highway was to the right. Where was Willie going with that mess? Heading towards the heart of the Southbay. Towards an entanglement of powerlines and train tracks and warehouses galore. I thought about how I could follow him. Looking around at my surroundings. Vehicles everywhere. Big lumbering things. But there was that Mustang sitting there in front of the pop-up camper.  

I walked over and could hear, right away, snoring from inside the camper. Stepping over to the Mustang I could see the keys in the ignition. A moment of glory, some would call it. God is good, some would say.  

Some would say it was meant to be.  

I would say it was dumb luck.  

That’s where things sit, between chaos and fate.  

I got in the car. Cranked the thing up and pulled the thing into drive and shot towards the gate that was just now closing after Willie had gone through it. I braked and glanced at the rear-view mirror. The gate was motion censored. It had to close first and then re-open. The thing was slow as tar. It started creaking back on itself. Still, no one came running out of the camper. I imagined a bearded meth-head rampaging out with only his whitey-tighties on and a shotgun in both hands. But no, nothing. The gate opened enough and I flew out of there like bats do from Hades.  

Left on Normandie, and I was swerving through cars before I knew it. The Mustang’s accelerator was loose and as soon as you touched it, it surged ahead. Almost a buck every time you tapped it. Sensitive thing.  

There was nothing but big-rigs down this way. The movement of industry. Its bedrock was trucking. Works great on a highway, but on city streets it played havoc with traffic and destroyed pavement. Potholes and train tracks tore up the underbelly of the Ford. I didn’t even give two thoughts to worrying about that meth-head’s ride. Probably should have, but all I had were justifications in my head. Like, leaving your keys in the ignition, just what are you asking for dummy. For a thief to come along. And that’s all that I was. In every aspect a leech.  

My Toyota truck came up at Normandie and Carson. Stopped at a red light. I came to stop behind him and thought about honking but suppressed the urge. I looked around. Did anyone else see this pile of men in the back of my truck? If they did, they chalked it up as a thing you might see in L.A. They were filming shit all the time. You’d see all kinds of crazy shit out here. No telling what you’d see. Jurassic Park jeeps driving on the 405, Whooley-mammoths caught in tar out on Wilshire, folks wearing costumes drinking coffee out of paper cups, waiting for action to be yelled, caught in a perpetual year-around Halloween. Go into any neighborhood in Los Angeles and see the crane lights at night and watch the poets of nightfall work. Watch the people hustle for fame or art or just plain paychecks. But it’s anything goes in a city that pretends for a living. Dreams coming to life become innocuous in the minute details of the making. Bystanders become acclimated to the bizarre and the focus on one’s own life sets in.  

So, a little, red Toyota truck filled with Armenian goons and a blue, plastic barrel, deep on South Normandie gets a just a raised eyebrow and a slight frown.  

The light on Carson turned green and Willie still hadn’t looked in his rear-view. He hadn’t taken me as a thief either. We rolled through and headed towards 228th Street. Willie hit the left blinker at 228th and we cruised along that street until it ended at Avalon and took a right. Then took that to Anaheim and found ourselves in an even more twisted up, corrugate, man-shaped place near the Port of Long Beach.  

There was a landfill tucked into a little corner of a modern industrial port. Where water ways had been dug out in exact angles and concrete poured in fine, rigorous molds. Everything built for large vessels to maneuver easily and ready the spread of goods and services. Bridges had been laid over the waterways and giant, metal power-poles stretched their lines out over the port. The hairs on my neck and arms stood up. A crackling of energy moved in this place. Too much electricity. Too many moving parts. I almost missed Willie pull my truck into the landfill. He took a right onto E 1st Street, and the road flipped back on us. At this point Willie knew somebody was following him. Or someone was behind him doing the same thing he was. Getting rid of bodies. It troubled me that none of them had moved at all. They were just unconscious goons that last time he’d checked. It seemed a severe ending. Bodies left in a dump. What had Big Willie done? 

There were more RVs down here. All along the right side of the road. Older, dustier things that had come to rest in a junkyard, near a landfill. Willie took a right into a wide opening between two, low brick walls. I stopped the Mustang just before the opening, pulling over in front of a blue sign that read: Falcon Refuse Center. 

It was early morning, the sun just up, behind us. I turned the ignition off and got out of the Mustang and walked around to the entrance. Willie had stopped my truck just inside the place. I stood there looking at the red brake-lights. The smell of refuse filling my nostrils. The sound of seagulls squawking overhead. The hum of industry all around us.  

Big Willie got out of the truck and faced me. He gave me a knowing nod. Like, hey, glad you could make it. Then a head popped up in the back of the truck. And then some more stirring of bodies. The goons were coming to life.  

I found my legs moving towards the truck as the goons got out of the back, like clowns at a circus. They looked dazed and confused but aware of something I wasn’t. I got within ten feet and stopped.  

“What the fuck?” 

Willie looked at me. “Mr. Hosseini.” Was all he said.  

I looked around like a feral dog at a large metal structure; a garage or hangar, with large openings, where you could see massive piles of garbage sitting in the shade of the aluminum roofing.  

“He owns this.” I said, trying to piece anything together, but my mind was a box of missing pieces. Just when I thought I had it all figured.  

Big Willie looked at the four Armenian goons getting their bearings. “The Agassi’s do, anyway.” He pulled a gun from his jorts pocket. That Smith & Wesson MP9.  

Curious. Where had that been this whole time? In the glove box? How do you lose track of such a thing? 

Winsboro raised the gun and fired four shots. Quick. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Four shots to the head. The goons go back to being sacks of potatoes, but with neat little holes in their foreheads and gruesome blowouts in the back.  

The seagulls overhead bolted.  

I was half-crouched over and flinching, backing up. Willie put the gun down and had an indifferent look on his face. “That’s money’s Mr. Hosseini’s.” He pointed the gun at the barrel in the back of the truck. “Armenians owe that for them land deals.” He looked at me. “Them Salvis can’t have that.”  

“So why clip the goons?” I pointed at the muck of organs and bones already in decay at the back of my truck. 

Big man gave his patented shrug. “Said clean it all out.” He looked over at the goons. “Guess they don’t want no loose lips.”  

Or sinking ships. It went back to Beebe and Erik. Family emulsions. Entanglements. Untie the knots that you can and just murder the rest. The big man winked and pointed his finger like a gun at me. Then he put the real gun in the waistband at the small of his back.  

“Hosseini’s the real gangster.” I said, to anybody that would listen.  

Big Willie was nodding, like, yeah man, now you know. But he could’ve told me from the very beginning. But he didn’t. “We should get out of here.” He told me. “There’s dudes here that’ll take care of this.” He pointed to the dead men on the ground.  

“This whole thing’s about property.” I told him.  

“Same as it ever was.” Willie held the truck door open. “You trying to drive, or what?” 

“How’d Jackie get that opal?” 

The big man’s shoulders sort of slumped and he shook his head. He was tired of me. I thought we were friends. It was all just a means to an end. The culmination always having dollars in the hand.  

“We gotta go.”  

Willie would tell me on the road. That big, blue plastic barrel went in the trunk of the Mustang. With two million dollars of cash in it. Or so, I imagined. I never took a look inside, did I.  

“There’s more than two million dollars in that barrel, isn’t there?” 

Big Willie didn’t say anything for a while. He just watched the webbing of industry go by. I steered the car north, taking the 710 freeway to the 405. Willie said he’d lost track of Jackie at some point. Somewhere in Louisiana. Where we were all from. But I didn’t know them back then. Only Jackie, at the tail end. When I was leaving the damnable place. When she was leaving it too.  

But Willie and Jackie had another history.  

“Told you we was down there during Katrina.” He started. 

Down there.  

“But you met Hosseini in Israel.” I cut in, getting ahead of myself.  

“Bosnia. But that ain’t got nothing to with this. That was before.”  

“Jackie met him back then too?” 

Big Willie nodded slightly. “New Orleans was something else.” He looked sad. Palm trees passed and a brilliant blue morning started setting in. Who could be sad in a place like this? The answer, is plenty of people, Jake.  

“I heard.” My memories went back. “I lived up north. Lot of folks came up there. It was tough.”  

“You were in Bastrop.” Willie stated.  

I looked over at him in surprise. “Did I tell you that?” 

Another slight shake of the head. “Jackie mentioned it. She went up there after the flood to see about her dead wife’s grave.”  

The blood stopped pumping in my heart. Or so it seemed. At the same time, my stomach plunged downward and my testicles wailed. The freeway was a white line and that’s all I could concentrate on. A white line in the white light of morning. I tried to swallow but my throat was a broken piston.  

“She never told you that?” Willie asked.  

I just shook my head and gripped the steering wheel and hoped he didn’t see the moisture in my eyes, welling up.  

“She was a soldier too.” Willie kept going. “Well, a merc anyway. From your town. Bastrop.” Willie eyed a sign. “Take Manchester.” He told me.  

Manchester was an exit. I took it, pretty sure I knew where he wanted to go. For once. Roscoe’s. We pulled into the lot. It was eight-thirty by my phone. Willie hopped out of the bed of the truck, all spry, like he was done with the third shift, heading into the weekend. I got out and eyed the trunk.    

For some reason, at that moment, I didn’t think there was any money in it. The idea of storing money in a barrel in a storage unit in the Southbay seemed a ridiculous heap of missed opportunity. Washed money didn’t seem to be a gangster’s problem. Banks weren’t that exclusive. 

I wanted to hear more about Jackie. We sat down in a booth by a window and watched the cars on Manchester. Inglewood was alive and moving. What day was it? I looked at my phone, again. It was Sunday, and no one had bothered me yet.  

“You hear from your girl?” 

We were waiting for our food, sipping coffee and water. “Beebe?” 

“You still thinking I killed Jackie?” 

The waitress came with our food. Waffles and fried chicken and brown gravy. The smell of it wiped our minds for a split second. The waitress didn’t smile or say anything, knowing it was the food that mattered.  

“Merchant thinks so.”  

“What’d you think?” 

“Why would Merchant think so?” 

“That’s what you think?” 

I drenched the waffle in syrup and cut into it and forked a big bit into my mouth and started chewing, looking at Willie, across from me. He’d done the same thing, but had skewered some chicken and gravy as well with his waffle.  

“Me thinking has got me in this place and this time.” I held up a forked piece of chicken. “Not much to show for it.” 

“You too hard on yourself.” Willie told me.  

I scoffed up waffle and had to wipe my nose with a napkin. “I was thinking I hadn’t been that hard on myself these last few years. Thinking maybe I hadn’t pushed myself enough.” I looked Willie in the eyes. “You ever get that feeling?” 

“You can get to feeling complacent. Everyday being the same and all, out here.” He took a long sip of water. “You miss the weather in Louisiana?” 

He caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought about weather in a long time. Much less Louisiana. “Sometimes. Sometimes I miss sweating.” I smirked.  

Big Willie smiled too. “Just stepping outside is all it can take sometimes.”  

And like that, a warmth started spreading in my chest. Thinking of beads of sweat on the forehead. Cloying t-shirts and the feeling of being underwater. “Swamp-ass. I do not miss swamp-ass.”  

Laughter came rumbling out of the big man. He even showed some teeth. “I know that’s right.” He chuckled. “Give me that dry heat, any day.”  

In this tiny moment, we were friends again. All of the future moments were still up in the air. But this moment was good. “I miss the trees, though.” I pondered.  

Willie nodded and chewed his food, no doubt thinking of tall pines and moss-covered cypress trees.  

“Winsboro.” I stated, flatly.  

He looked up from his mess of gravy and waffles and fried chicken, but didn’t say anything, letting me play it out. “I been to that town. We played them in basketball.”  

“I’m from Epps.” Willie started. “I-20 goes through there. Take the exit, go south to Winsboro, north to Epps.” 

“Poverty Point.”  

“Yeah. Them Indian mounds.” He slurped some coffee. “Grew up, right down the road from em’.”  

Dirt mounds built four thousand years ago by Native Americans in that region. The Mound Builders. Some of them built in the shape of animals. One shaped like a massive bird. It was eroded now, covered in manicured grass. Awe-inspiring all the same.  

“We used to go there when I was kid.” I mused.  

“Who?” Willie asked. “You and your parents?” 

Me and my parents. Guess you could say that. “My grandparents used to take me.”  

“Your grandparents white?” Willie asked.  

Strange question. But maybe if you were wondering. Wondering about the shade of another man’s skin. It’s a thing on planet Earth. As long as we can see in color. We’ll know what sets us apart. Always.  

“They were.” Was all I felt I needed to say. 

Big Willie caught the drift. People passed away, eventually. Especially old people.  

“What about your parents?” 

“What about them?” 

“It’s like that, huh.” Willie produced a toothpick from somewhere and started poking his teeth.  

“We trying to get to know each other, now.” Thinking ploys can only get you so far. “Little late for that shit.”  

“I forgot.” Willie was on to me. “You got an aversion to friends.”  

“That what this is?” I took a long sip of water. “Me and you trying to be friends. Maybe you’re right, I don’t know much about it, but you ain’t been all that forthcoming when it comes to the openness of friendship.”  

“Guess you can hold on to hope that somebody’ll be there when you taking your last breath.”  

“Never given it much thought.”  

A car honked at another car out on Manchester. Inside, Roscoe’s was getting crowded. Arteries calling out for stoppage. “I hadn’t either, for a long time. Living one job to the next. Walking tightropes. Not really caring about shit, cause you think you bad as shit. Not really noticing how you getting through it all is because you got people next to you. Helping you through it.”  

“That’s a nice letter home to mama.”  

“Ain’t it.” Willie smirked at me, not buying the cynicism I was selling. “But my mama’s long, gone and sounds like yours is too.”  

“What’re you saying? We’re stuck with each other?” 

Big Willie chuckled and turned the toothpick over in his mouth. “You can pick your nose and you can pick your friends…” He stopped, looking at me to finish.  

“Just don’t wipe your friends on the couch.”  

“We had the same mama.” Willie held his water cup up for a toast.  

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.