Chapter Five

“Fiefdom of Swaggering Dread.”

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

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

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

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

“You never seen the man around here?” 

“What he look like?” 

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

“I got an idea.” I told Willie.  

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

“Jesus.” Willie smirked.  

“You Catholic?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jackie told me you managed the building.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right.” Willie stated.  

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

“You talk to em?” I asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Erik and Beebe?” 

My pocket buzzed.  

“What about them?” Cliff growing defiant.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A vibe, huh.” Willie grumbled.  

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

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

“Don’t do that shit.” He ordered. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Know where we can find Erik and Beebe?”  

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

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

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

“What about him?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at him. “Follow him?” 

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

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

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

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

“No, not really.”  

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no it isn’t.”  

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

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

“You gonna go after him?” He asked. 

“He’s going to work, right.”  

“Up at the country club.”  

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

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

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

“You know where he live?” 

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

“Oh word?”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of commercial properties?”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”  

“Jackie was killed last night.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men.  

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

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

“What happened to Jackie Meaux?” 

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

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

“Ours too.”  

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

Bam. One more for the road.  

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

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

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

“Funny, she never mentioned you, either.”  

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

“Armenian Diesel Wagon.”

They left us in the bar with that string to hold on to. Tall Johnson made a snide remark about Merchant and Lawson maybe solving the case. He thought he was funny. Always with this leer on his face, like he was in the know and you were just on the other side of his COINTELPRO.  

I tried to get Willie to double back to Union Station, but he wouldn’t budge on seeing some folks in Skid Row. You’d be surprised at how much and often these folks move around.  

These folks.  

They were barnacles on the side of a city-state, whose headquarters was within spitting distance. A literal ivory tower loomed over Skid Row. City Hall had seen an influx of rats lately. They were gracious enough not to name any names. But the spread of the degenerate was in everyone’s nose. It was like those pictures you see of refugee camps. Or a garbage dump on the outskirts of town, filled with sharp-beaked seagulls. A chaotic mess at the beginning of time, where nothing and no one has a name yet. 

Sixth Street and San Pedro was ground zero. Tents all along Sixth and people in the streets, crossing all willy-nilly, not a care in the world for oncoming traffic. Big Willie Winsboro knew where he was going. His bare feet missed all the broken bottles of McCormick Vodka and Mickey’s malt liquor.  

We came to a woman lounging on the curb. Lounging. If you could call it that. She looked like she’d been sitting there for a long time. Picking at the scabs on her legs. Scabs that looked like giant burns, or infected street abrasions. The skin on her legs was dark like Willie’s feet. Years of street soot caked on like cracked mud. Further up, her skin was red.  

“Yo, Brenda.” Willie addressed the woman on the curb. 

She squinted up at him. White lines creased around her eyes. “What’d ya say, say hey Willie.” She laughed and coughed up phlegm. It sounded like a chainsaw starting. “Fucking Big Willie Winsboro.” She spit a brown blob on a spent condom. “Visiting the eastside for however long it’s been.”  

“Been awhile.” Willie agreed. “Maybe couple years.”  

Brenda’s eyes went wide. Even her whites were red. “They say the westside is the best side, but how would I know, stuck in the row.” She looked around and squinted again.  

“That ain’t true. You used to live in Bel-Air.”  

I looked at Willie, thinking it was some sort of inside joke. Some sort of street-dream they all shared. But Brenda’s face softened at some image in the back of her head. She nodded and smiled.  

“Fucking Bel-Air.” She smirked.  

Willie scratched his chin and waited for the memory to fade. “You got any of them old lines still tethered, Brenda?” 

She looked up at the big man, her mouth open, showing surprisingly white teeth. She held up a hand to shade her eyes. She looked at me. “Who’s this fool?” 

“Me?” I cut in, hooking a thumb to my chest. “I’m nobody.”  

Willie looked at me and hooked his own thumb, three feet long, my way. “He’s nobody.”  

Brenda flashed those ivories. “Nobodies I can get with. For sure, a nobody is someone I wanna know.” She looked me up and down with one eye squinted and the fully open. “But I know plenty of nobodies. Maybe too many.” She looked at Willie. “Nobodies coming around asking for shit.” 

“He ain’t asking. I am.” Willie propped a foot on the curb. 

Brenda’s noticed the move and didn’t seem too pleased with it. “You work for this fucker?” 

The big man laughed. Every head within twenty yards turned. “I ain’t worked for nobody ever.” He wiped his mouth with his forearm, then looked at me with pity, knowing that wasn’t true.

It was a look you get used to. They underestimate you is all. You underestimate you. It’s a general self-malaise you settle into, and the world doesn’t stop you. Even the lower depths know your game. I didn’t mind. I just smiled at the brown colossus. “You never made money before?” I asked him.  

A couple of bike-cops rolled by on noiseless bicycles. They rode with black shorts and black helmets. Not really doing anything but Sunday riding. Probably would never get off the bike until they circled back to the Art’s District.  

“That’s a good question.” Willie looked at Brenda. “Who is this fool?” 

Brenda cackled. It was so loud and hearty that everyone else on the block picked up the laughter and it carried itself in a wave up Sixth Street. Two to three hundred open-mouthed vagrants swallowing you whole.  

“You come to this toilet for a real reason, or you just like to play with turds?”  

“You the turd in this scenario?” Big Willie smirked.  

I glanced at Brenda. And then everyone else shooting up and smoking off tinfoil. And then back to Big Willie, like, get this fucking show on the road.  

“I don’t think so.” Brenda shook her head.  

Big Willie sighed and Brenda flinched. “What about it, Brenda?” 

“What about it, Brenda?” She repeated and went back to picking a puss-filled scab on her leg.  

“You know any dudes named Agassi?” 

Her head jerked up. “Why you asking me this, Big Willie?” She looked like someone had mentioned gold around a pirate.  

Big man and me exchanged a look. “Woman we know was killed today.” He let that sit for a second. “You know them cats?” 

Brenda shook her head. “I don’t know them cats.”  

“You never heard of an O.G. named Agassi?”  

She looked at me and flicked a scab she’d picked off her leg at me. “I know Andre.” She said.  

“Andre.” Big Willie repeated.  

“Yeah, big forehand that guy.” She made a swinging motion with her arm.  

Willie had no idea what she was talking about. His face looked like the smell of the row had finally hit his nostrils. A mix of feces and rotting flesh.  

“She’s talking about the tennis-player.” I pointed out, immediately feeling that the obvious was never to be pointed out.  

Big man nodded like it was coming to him, but it wasn’t.  

“All baseline, that guy.” I told Brenda. 

“You know tennis?” She asked. “You look like you’d know tennis. I used to play all the time. Had my own court. Walk down to it every day and swing away.” She smiled. 

“Sounds nice.”  

Brenda looked at me like I’d said the opposite. “It was alright. Got a little crowded up there, all those trees.” 

I glanced at Willie and shook my head.  

“I ain’t talking about no tennis player, Brenda.” Big Willie back on track. “Talkin bout them trees that were crowding you in.”  

She jerked her head sharply his way and wiped off some blood oozing from her leg. “Eucalyptus trees.” She nodded. “They have a certain smell.”  

Skid Row was its own Tower of Babel. There were folks talking all around us and none of it seemed to make any sense.  

“Brenda…” Willie leaned in further. 

“I don’t know them motherfuckers no more.” She said to him. “Everybody knows that.” 

“You don’t stop knowing motherfuckers like that.” Willie told her.  

Brenda used to be a Kafesjian. Brenda used to be somebody else. Somebody that lived in a house up in Bel-Air. Like Willie said. She lived up in those leafy hills where the roads don’t make sense. Bending back on themselves and up and around in a foreign dream logic. It’s a magical place to visit. You wonder what it’s like to live there. You wonder what it’s like when they finally get sick of you and run you out. You wonder if it’s the streets or nothing else. A fine line. Razor sharp. Life is a string of barbed-wire stretched between two high-rises. She lived up there with some other Armenians. She married one. She was one. They don’t care what you do for a living in Bel-Air, as long as you got the dough. Brenda’s husband owned a string of markets in East Hollywood. He made money. They lived large. But you need protection when you start making money in East Hollywood.  

“That where Agassi comes in?” I asked Willie, as we walked up Sixth and busted a left on Main, feeling the yolk of Skid Row slough off of us. The big man having filled me in on some of Brenda’s history.

“She wouldn’t say would she.”  

But he had plenty to say about Brenda.  

“Why wouldn’t she?” 

Big Willie raised a finger at a dude across the street. Some guy on one of those rental bikes still in the rack. He was using as an exercise bike. Shirt off, his brown chest and shoulders sheening with sweat. He raised a salute to Willie.  

“You know that guy?” I asked a lot of stupid questions.  

“I know a lot of people.”  

“I’m seeing that.”  

We walked past Hotel Cecil. Everybody knows it now. It’s just another place when you walk by it on the street. There’s no bad Juju pushing out to meet you. Just an old building on an old block in Downtown LA. Right on Seventh and you forget it was ever there.  

“Used to live down here.” Big Willie said.  

“I don’t live too far.” I told him. 

“Pico-Union. I know.” 

More walking. We didn’t talk for a spell. All the way up to Grand before things continued.  

“Brenda said enough.” Willie stated.  

“She did?” 

“If they didn’t know exactly where she was, she would’ve said more.”  

“They being, Armenian Power.” Doing my best to follow Willie’s particular brand of Babel.  

He nodded and I felt some pride for myself. “Agassi.” Some contentment with putting puzzle pieces together.  

A left on Grand before I even asked where we were going. Willie said we were going to take the train back to the westside. That’s where all the action was. But there was something bothering me.  

“If Agassi knows where Brenda is…” I stopped walking and talking. 

Right in front of Bezos’ place. It was high traffic. One o’clock in the afternoon and the lunch crowd was millennial and didn’t grow up on bringing sack lunches to school.  

“What?” Big Willie had stopped too. He was looking at the tables on the sidewalk filled with people. Table tops covered with pizza slices and big boxes of salads. People out in the world eating lunch in strange dress.  

“He’s got eyes on her.” I stated.  

He nodded, thinking about it. “You wanna stake her out.” Not really a question but maybe it could go that way if you wanted.  

“Makes sense, right.” I reasoned. “She’ll know how to contact them.”  

“Shit.” Willie shook his head.  

“What?” 

“Why didn’t I think of that.”  

We hoofed it back to Skid Row. It only took us about two minutes on these little scooters strewn around downtown like fallen satellite parts. Seeing Big Willie on one was like being at the circus when the bear comes out on a tricycle. He didn’t wanna do it. We wasted another minute convincing him it was faster. You ditch these things wherever you want. Throw them in a pile of bushes or someone’s front lawn. Leave them in the middle of a sidewalk or a street. Nobody cares these days where you put your stuff. Cause it’s not our stuff. It’s some corporation leasing out everyone’s dreams, anyway.  

Brenda wasn’t in the spot where we’d found her before. Same crowd, same tents and same broken bottles and needles. But no Brenda.  

“What now?” I asked.  

“Motherfuck.”  

We both looked around the jetsam of blanket-shaking in America. Only one of us looked like an anthropologist out on a field trip. All you could make out was ash and blood and the cackling of birds.  

“There.” I said, pointing to the trail of scabs.  

Willie looked where my finger led him. Way up Sixth Street, well past the refugee camp, a little old lady with bad legs stepped gingerly toward Main Street. We’d passed her on the way in; my insistence on a faster work flow almost dooming us.  

“Pershing Square.” Willie stated.  

Pershing Square was blocks away. “You think?” 

He just nodded and we followed. I didn’t dare suggest the scooters again. We walked. But I was still wondering how he knew her destination.  

So, I asked. “Why Pershing Square?” 

“Just a hunch.” Willie admitted. “She ain’t got that much mileage in her and that square is a likely landing. It’s wide open. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”  

It was a long shot that made some sort of sense. What else could we do but follow her? We made some ground and got about fifty yards from Brenda before she crossed Hill Street and stepped into Pershing. The light turned red, and we were stuck on the other side of Hill. We watched Brenda walk up some steps into an unfinished art project. Pershing was some new-age development paused into oblivion. A jagged-edge park with a few palm trees lining the edges. Most of it was wide open with steps leading up to low terraces. 

We lost sight of Brenda behind some blue cubist structure that stretched up about thirty feet in the sky. The light changed and we bolted across the street. Willie, pretty spry for someone his size. Cutting diagonally across the square, we caught a glimpse of her heading into the entrance of a parking garage.  

“Underground parking?” 

“Subterranean.”  

I didn’t know if Willie was correcting me or just reiterating. We quickened our steps and the big man and I started to heave oxygen. Neither of us were runners I presumed. There were folks in the park who looked at us strangely, and there were people in the park who didn’t give a damn. Why look, it’s just two more skittish souls traversing the precious, open spaces made of concrete.  

The entrance to the parking garage was a black gape on the other side of a green area. A lawn that stretched out as big as a football field. Here’s your green space L.A. Have at it. There was a guy in the middle of it all, meditating on a mat. There were other people on mats, doing yoga. The entrance was open. There was no gate or garage door keeping you out. Willie started down the decline. I looked around for cars. There was an entrance from Fifth Street that led into the garage. No cars were coming. Willie was halfway down before I decided it was safe to follow.  

The walls, floor and ceiling were painted the same color blue as the cubist structure outside. “Why the fuck this parking garage?” I asked. “You think she’s got some shit stashed in here?”  

“Parking garages ain’t good for that.” Willie answered. His legs were trembling a bit. “These subterranean ones get locked up after a certain hour, then you fucked.” We rounded a corner looking for headlights. “She meeting someone.” He was certain.  

“Some deep-throat shit.” I said, with a smirk. 

Willie couldn’t see the mirth in my face or place the historical and pop-culture reference. Story of my life.  

“I think they might own this parking lot.” Willie said.  

“Who?” 

“Armenians.”  

Headlights coming up the second set of switchback ramps. We hugged the blue wall. The car was charging hard up the incline. I tried to get a look inside the car. The headlights and the speed were too much to make anything out. Maybe there were two silhouettes: maybe one. A gleam off the hood ornament showed that the car was a Benz. As it shot past us, I got a look at the plate and pulled my phone but fumbled with it too long. A heavy, dark mist filled our noses that smelled of sulfur and shaved metal. Diesel. The thing sounded like tank as it took the corner and prowled up out of that cave.  

“I think I know that ride.” Willie pondered, waving his hand in front of his face.  

“I think your girl just caught a ride.”  

A curious eye came my way. “You see her in there?” 

I shook my head. “Couldn’t make anything. But if you know the car and we know she’s down here. Makes sense don’t it.”  

Big Willie didn’t have an argument for it. But he still wanted to explore the dungeon under Pershing. The fumes were catastrophic in that car catacomb. We were both busy waving our hands in front of our faces as we made our way to the lowest level. Cars parked here and there, but not many. The lighting was at a dull wattage and a sunken feeling played out in our bellies.  

“What now?” My voice bounced through the lower depths.  

Willie shrugged. “Whatever, she was probably in that car, for sure.” He inched his way around an old Buick Regal the color of red clay.  

“Who was driving, though?” I eyed a sky-blue Chevy Nova, wondering if this is where all the cars from the seventies were being stored. “Somebody was just waiting for her down here, her own personal chariot Benz. Some Armenian diesel-wagon. You said they own this dungeon.”  

Winsboro didn’t bother to shrug this time. He had his hands on the far wall like he was feeling for a hidden door. “These lots downtown tricky things.” He was inching towards an actual door made of metal. “They all connected.”  

“First off, what?” Maybe it was the diesel fumes tickling non-sequitur parts of his brain. “And what’s that got to do with the fucking Armenians? Fuck’s any of this got to do with Jackie Meaux?” 

Maybe the fumes were tickling my ivories as well.  

Big Willie stopped at the door and turned to me. “You wanna find the motherfuckers did this shit to Jackie?” He didn’t want me to answer that. “Me too.” He tried the knob on the door and turned and clicked. “She was the only friend I had.”  

“Me too.”  

He opened the door.  

Chapter Two

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

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

And everyone else calls me crazy.  

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

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

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

“Pretty sure.” He echoed me.  

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

Armenian. 

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

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

“I’m sure.” I looked him in the eye. 

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

“Anybody else see her?” 

“How would I know that?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Fair enough.” 

“You ain’t even asked anything.”  

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

“Somebody slit her throat.” 

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

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

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

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

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

Willie shook his head.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone looked at him.  

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

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

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

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

Like who killed Jackie Meaux. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know.”  

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

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

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

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

“Died in.”  

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

“You need a drink?” I asked him.  

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

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

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

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

“Fuck them.” I told him.  

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

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

“Your man, huh.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ever been down to Skid-Row?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us guys.” Big Willie boomed.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She was on the stairs, right?”  

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

“What about her?” Big Willie boomed. 

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

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

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

“They?” I asked.  

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

“And her boyfriend?” Me again.  

“Erik Agassi.” Tall Johnson said.  

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

“What about him?” Big Willie asked. 

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck do you want?”  

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

“Back to that.” I looked at Willie. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are other ways of leaving. 

Just ask Jackie.  

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

“Yeah, I did.” Finally.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Now for Whatever

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

Chapter One: “Cops are fun!”

“She dead, man.”  

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

The words to answer him were bound in confusion.  

Big Willie was in the doorway of a friend.  

She was dead.  

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

They didn’t know any better.  

You never know until you show up.  

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

Feds. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck.” Her partner agreed.  

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

Cops are fun.  

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

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

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

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

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

“Friend of mine.” Willie said.  

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

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

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

“How’d we what?” Big Willie asked.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where exactly are you coming from, Mangham?”  

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

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

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

Guy was a goader. “What about it?” 

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

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

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

“More like Salvadorean.”  

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

“You funny, man.” Big Willie bellowed.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

He lived in a tent in the alley.  

I lived in Pico Union.  

Larsen lived in Boyle Heights.  

Merchant probably lived in Culver City somewhere. 

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

Jackie Meaux lived in an apartment on Barrington Avenue. 

Or she did. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.” I left him hanging. 

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a key?” Larsen asked me.  

I nodded.  

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

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

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

“Anybody.” Merchant agreed. 

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

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

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

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

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

Assholes.