Chapter Eleven

“Cosmic Liquidity wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey”

The cops had all cleared out. Leaving behind trampled elephant ears and a commotion of dirt all over the walkway. Some dutiful officer had put up more yellow tape around the entrance to number two, but it looked hastily done, stretching between two large philodendron plants in front of the door. Here marks a murder; or a cop who got shot in the ass by a murder suspect.  

I lingered, looking at the mess that civil servants could make. The smell of jasmine floated off the fence to my left.  A white fence that had seen better days. It sagged in loping dunes and was covered in dark, green vines. It was a disconcerting mix of the senses. Such a sweet smell infiltrating all the chaos. Such was this city. A maelstrom of sweet smells and dirty bodies and pulverizing ambitions.  

The door to number three was slightly ajar and a light from inside shot a shaft out across the trampled elephant ears. I could hear the wood floors creaking inside. The woman who’d stuck her chin out to yell at the invaders was moving around in there, I thought. But why was her door open? Nosiness brought me closer to the opening and inside three people could be seen, shifting about through the crack in the doorway. The woman and two men. Two men that were familiar to me. Hosseini. And the bald guy from Pershing Square that probably killed Brenda. Agassi. 

Hosseini and Agassi were in close proximity to each other, cavorting in hushed towns, but vehemently. Agassi seemed pissed and Hosseini rubbed his neck and seemed to be trying his best to calm the man down. The woman had moved out of view. I craned my neck to find her in the opening of the door when I was reminded of the bump on my head.  

It was a thud at first. A deep thudding on the back of my head. And then another blow and pain shooting down the back of my neck. And then blackness, again.  

Another dream. You think they would’ve knocked all the subconscious out of me by now. And it was one of those that you don’t remember. But you awake with just enough to know something was being worked out. Some deep cataloguing going on. Down so deep that the ego must never be aware of its goings on.  

Voices were what brought me to the surface.  

“Think that motherfucker is dead?”  

“I don’t fucking know. I don’t fucking care. We should just leave him here. Cops be back any second now. What the fuck we even doing here? This is fucking stupid, man.”  

“If he’s dead, why we here?” 

“Why we even here, is what I’m saying?” 

“Mr. A told us to wait until he came to.”  

“That’s the story and we’re sticking to it. Cops show up again, that’s what we tell them.”  

There was no answer to that last bit. Mr. A. Agassi. My eyes seemed to be shut without me having to shut them. They felt swollen and my nose felt like a pancake. Everything bulging and out of place.  

“There it is.”  

My eyes slit open and I was sure I heard them make a noise like splintering wood. A blood-crusted cracking.  

“He awake?” 

There were two of them. Both bald-headed. You can’t have hair if you’re Armenian. Must be the case. The way you keep your membership. And tattoos. You gotta have tattoos. These two wore all black and had nine millimeters in their belts, belly-side. They looked professional. Stood straight and looked down at me like they only wanted to extract something from me and then they would kill me.  

The one on the left had a thin beard. The one on the right was clean shaven. Both had round faces. You eat well when you’re gangstered up.  

“What now? The one with the beard asked.  

The clean-shaven one took a piece of paper out of his back pocket. He had a grocery list written down. He looked at it like he had trouble reading in front of the class. He even cleared his throat.  

“Jesus Christ.” The man with no hair on his face put the piece of paper back in his pocket. “I could’ve remembered that.”  

“What?” the bearded-one asked.  

Clean-shaven shook his head. “He thinks we’re fucking morons.”  

The one with the beard only raised his eyebrows, unable to fight the accusation. “Well, what’d he want us to ask him.”  

Beard looked away from his partner and looked at me. “Where’s the stone?”  

I wasn’t sure I could even open my mouth. Someone had hit me over the head and surely kicked me in the face. My teeth felt like rubble. How to speak through a mouth full of broken rocks? 

But I managed. “What stone?” All the same.  

“Yeah, what stone?” The bearded one followed up.  

The clean-shaven one looked at his partner like they both needed new jobs far away from each other as possible. “Jesus-fucking-Christ.” He reached back to his pocket again and took the note out and looked at it and shook his head. “It doesn’t fucking say.”  

I started laughing. It hurt my face to do so, but the joy of secret-knowings nudged the pain into a corner.  

“Fucks he laughing for?” The bearded guy asked.  

Clean-shaven guy sighed and looked jittery, knowing the cops would be back any minute. Or would they? Had they tracked down Ed? And weren’t their hands full with cop-shooting Beebe? And why had Agassi left these goons to ask one question?  

I was still laughing when I puked. It was then that I realized that I was sitting on a couch in some apartment I didn’t recognize. The upchuck went all over my shirt and lap and some of the couch and rug on the floor.  

The two goons jumped back.  

“Aw man.” The clean-shaven one exclaimed.  

“Oh god–” The bearded one said before vomiting himself. All over the Persian rug they were standing on.  

“Fuck!” The other one said. “Awww, man.”  

The front door to the place flew open.  

The cops! 

No.  

Big Willie Winsboro! 

He had awoken, with a gun in his hand. It was that piece he’d taken off those Salvadoreans downtown. The bearded one was closest to the door, but he was still bent over, upchucking. Big Will kicked him in the face, and I had to grin at that. His foot made a flat, suctioning sound and the bearded one’s head snapped back in an odd manner and he fell over like sack of onions.  

Clean-shaven took a step back and went for his piece at his waist.  

But Willie’s gun was already pointed at the man, and he stepped in close and fast and put the muzzle right on the man’s nose. His next move was just as quick and smooth; reaching with his free hand taking the man’s gun from his belt and now he had two guns pointed at the man. 

I looked around, finally. The place we were in seemed to be the lady who stuck her head out and yelled at everyone. The place I’d just been peeping. Where Hosseini and Agassi were confabbing. Where’d they go with the lady, I wondered.  

“You alright?” Willed asked over a shoulder.  

At first, I didn’t think the question was addressed to me, then it slowly dawned. My head and face felt like a burden. A thing to put aside and forget about until it felt different. Or didn’t feel like it weighed six thousand pounds.  

“I’ll live.” I said, like a real tough guy.  

Big Willie kept his eyes on the clean-shaven one. The bearded one was out for the count, laying in his own vomit.  

So was I, kind of. I tried to sit up. It took me about thirty minutes, but I managed without my eyes bulging out of my head. “These two are looking for a stone.” I told Willie, sitting on the edge of the couch, feeling the wetness of my puke on my chest and lap.  

“A hot rock.” Willie grinned.  

“The police have it.” I told him. 

The big man’s head jerked slightly. “Really?” 

“I’ll tell you about it later.” And I stood up, feeling alright, but lopsided like a Mookie Betts bobble-head.  

“What about this fool?” Willie flicked the muzzle of his gun against clean-shaven’s nose.  

The bald man didn’t blink or seem to even breath. One cool customer. Known in his hood to have guns pointed at him on the regular.  

“Leave him.” I took a step towards the door. “Anything else and he’d need it written on a post-it-note.”  

Big Willie kept his gun on the man and moved towards the door with me. Clean-shaven looked at me with a tough, steel-eyed stare. The gun didn’t bother him, but my words screwed hooks into him.  

I stopped in the doorway and looked at his partner on the floor and then up at him. “Why’s your boss want that stone, so much?” 

The clean-shaven man’s lips frowned, and he shook his head, slightly and he shrugged. Just a thug. A goon with a piece of paper in his back pocket. Given a gun and will travel to the Westside from Glendale to knock some heads. A flash of empathy moved through me. A certainty of which side of the tracks we lay on might’ve tied us together in cosmic liquidity. A second only. Then it was gone with an obtuseness in both of our thoughts of the future. What now? Or whatever. Those were the only plains we lay in.  

“Make sure you clean this place up.” Willie told him, for some reason. 

“Fuck you.” Clean-shaven spit.  

Big Willie stopped. And stepped back toward the man and smashed the butt of the gun in his right-hand against the man’s nose. It made an awful wet, popping noise and the man’s eyes closed immediately and he fell to his right, like another sack of onions. I hoped the lady could use them. For a soup, maybe. 

The big man looked back at me with raised eyebrows. “You can’t leave em standing, podjo.”  

Podjo. Alright, we were partners now. But there were still secrets out there in the ether between us both.  

“You got some duds I can change into?” Looking down at the upchuck on my shirt and pants. 

He did. More oversized jorts and a Kobe Bryant jersey. The Minnesota throwback white. I didn’t have the shoes to pull it off. Then again, nobody could pull that off but the Mamba.  

There were lights on inside Cliff’s apartment. I knocked on the door. Willie and me stood there for a minute or two, waiting. I knocked again, pulling my jorts up. Nothing. The cops hadn’t come back yet. Maybe they never would. We couldn’t seem to get away from this building. A black hole. Deforming and collapsing everything we thought we knew or wanted to in the span of a lifetime.  

“They in there.” Willie said.  

“Maybe they left to go get a drink.”  

“Them men don’t drink.” He reached past me and pounded on the door. It shook the whole building, made of popsicle sticks and cotton candy.  

“Cliff drinks.” I pointed out.  

“Maybe him, but men like Hamed like to keep they minds clear. All the time. Working angles and such.” 

Hamed. “Agassi too?” I asked.  

He shrugged.  

“You know him too?” 

He shook his head. “I don’t know the man.”  

I couldn’t tell if he was lying. “That how you stop seeing angles? Too much Old Milwaukee?” 

Big Willie looked at me and a tug came into the corner of his mouth. He had both the guns in each of the large pockets of his jorts. “You ever see em?” 

“What? The angles?” I didn’t have to think about it. “No. I just jump in the lake and sink or swim.” Then I did think about it. “Or sit on the beach and watch others.”  

“Same shit.” Willie said.  

“Is it?” 

“I don’t know your life or what’s in your head.”  

“I don’t either.” I reached up and rubbed the back of my head. It felt like trying to caress a boulder. “Maybe too many licks to the head today.” I wondered what I looked like. Some creature from the muck come to knock on your door at night. 

“You been getting hit over the head every day?”  

I looked at Willie and he was smirking. I felt myself chuckle, but the roll through my chest felt far away. “Seems like it.” And the smirk turned into pain. The feeling of being able to carry on this line of innocuous man-lamenting had roots stretching back to the beginning of time. We were trapped in casual loops of DNA. Thousands of years of constructs.  

But what now? 

First things first. We had to break the black yoke of this place again. It was strange that the cops hadn’t been back. Maybe they had caught up with Ed and had their hands full with Beebe, who had the stone on her. I told Willie this.  

“Why’d you give it to her?” 

“She told me some story.” I shook my head, cobwebs brushing away. “Sounded like…” I looked Willie in the eyes. “Sounded like she was abused as a kid.”  

Big Willie shook his head. “You a sap.”  

“What?”  

“How many women you met with a story?” Big man putting emphasis on story.  

We were walking towards the alley now, squeezing between the dumpsters and a Toyota Corolla, finding ourselves in the alley once again.  

“How many women have I met that were fondled and raped as kids?” Stopping and looking at the man in the eyes again.  

They alleyway was deserted. What time was it? I checked my phone. It was still in my pocket. There were some notifications on it that I had missed. I eyed them, forgetting about the time.  

“It’s a story you hear a lot, I know.” Big Willie pulled his jorts up.  

I pulled up my jorts, thinking about pieces of rope. There was a message on my phone from Jackie’s number. It was a couple of hours old. Beebe still had her phone. Did she get something off before the cops confiscated it? 

“You keep using the word story.” I was in-between two worlds. “Makes it seem like you ain’t a believer in them.”

There was another message from a number I didn’t know. I looked up from my phone at Willie and caught him just as he was shrugging. He didn’t say anything because of some memory fidgeting in the back of his head. He was looking down at the broken concrete. Years of layered pavement, cracked and broken with potholes of all sizes. Yet, here and there green weeds stretched up through the cracks. 

“Everybody’s got they own story.” Willie finally said. “Maybe everybody’s is true, I don’t know.” He kicked some pebble around. “But if everybody’s is true. Who’s is false? Ain’t nobody telling lies out there then? You know that ain’t fucking true.” 

He could’ve been right. But I wasn’t sure what point he was arguing. And why die on that cross now? Something personal lay like a blanket over his words. I let it go and looked back to my phone.  

Going back to the message from Jackie’s phone.  

It read: “I swallowed it, don’t worry.” 

I stared at the words for too long. Long enough for Willie to wonder.  

“What?” He asked.  

I shook my head and went to the next message. The one from the unknown number, with a local prefix. It read: “Meet at Vet Park. NOW.” 

“The Vet Park.” I said out loud. 

“What?” 

“Somebody texted me. Some number I don’t know.”  

“Veteran’s Park.” Willie hooked a thumb over his shoulder, back towards Wilshire. “It’s right there.”  

“Whoever it is knows we’re close.” Putting my phone back in my pocket. “Which ain’t a good advantage.” 

“Somebody wanna meet?” Big Willie perked up.  

“It’s just a text.” I told him. “It’d be stupid to walk into something like that.” Thinking out loud. 

“What else we got to do?” 

We. Maybe sleep for one. But the big man had took a nap and now he had his second wind. “Besides we do exactly that. Walk in.”  

So, that’s what we did, we walked in to it, blind as bats and toting two guns. Well, Willie carried them most of the way, until we hit Eisenhower, and then he gave me the Glock he took off the Armenian goon.  

I took it in hand like I knew what I was doing. And maybe I did on some level. A primal sense of weaponry in hand. Just like picking up a bone or a stick. The thing fit right into my thumb and forefinger. It was made to be and extension. It was equally as calming as it was unnerving.  

We walked up San Vincente, until it turned into Bringham and took a right on Eisenhower. All the while, the park was to our right. Stout palm trees in rows. Big Willie said this was the back way in. He knew this because it was his neighborhood. The place he prowled at night. Or during the day. I wasn’t sure. He was still a mystery to me. He and Jackie’s history together bilked me.  

There was a line of tents set up along the sidewalk on Bringham, most of them with American flags strung up on the fronts of them. Veterans on the skids. L.A. was one big outdoor living space. Rents were too high. Just buy a tent and enjoy the year around weather.  

That was back on Bingham. Now we’d entered the park off of Eisenhower, through a small opening in a gate that led to a parking lot. It was three in the morning and the lot was empty. We moved across the lot, avoiding the light of the overhead lamps, sticking to the shadows until we found ourselves under those line of palm trees, on dark grass.  

We stood there for a moment and listened to crickets. The place smelled of cut grass and urine. Still, there were cars passing on Wilshire. A slight hum of some generator from one of the Veteran’s Affairs building behind us. The rows of perfectly planted palm trees rolled out like scruffy-haired sentinels in the night. A tank could hide behind the trunks of those things. Anyone or any number of people could be out there waiting. We had our guns drawn, down by our sides.  

A low whistle came out of the row of trees. It bounced off the trees in a lilting echo. A couple of shadows moved out amongst the bases of the palms. Our fingers touched triggers. A voice piped up.  

“We got guns, you got guns. Chill out homies.”  

I couldn’t place where it was coming from. Some shadow out there moved and peeled off from the rest. A band of light from the parking lot lit up a lower body and empty hands upheld.  

The man had on what looked like tan Dickies and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. His neck and head were still in darkness. “We ain’t trying to light the thing up. We just wanna talk.”  

“Who we talking to?” I asked.  

“Name’s La Pantera Rosa.”  

Laughter filled the night. All his homies having a good chuckle. Some inside joke that would hang in the night and haunt the unawares.  

“You guys a little far west, ain’t you?” Willie boomed, and the laughter died.  

The man’s hands went down in front him, his right interlocking over his left wrist. He took a step toward us. The light from the parking lot hitting his face. Black hair short, like a two-week-old buzz cut. A handle-bar mustache on his lip.  

“Look here, big dog. We ain’t in just one neighborhood. This is a big city. Lots to see. We move around as we wish.” 

“Okay, Pink Panther.” I cut in. “What’d you want? How’d you get my number?” 

No one laughed at my translation. But the man in the light smirked. “My sister gave it to me.”  

There were only two guesses. “Beebe or Edwina?” 

We could hear whispers amongst the shadows. Pantera Rosa didn’t look surprised though. “That bitch Beebe ain’t no blood of mine.” He spit in the grass, casual though, not like he was mad at a grave or something.

“You and Ed have the same dad.” I stated, throwing darts into the night.  

That seemed to get the mustachioed man’s interest. “Yeah, we both Flores.” He had his head tilted back, nose in the air, like he was trying to sniff something out about me. We were just dogs in the dust.  

“Ed and Beebe have the same mom.” I was putting it together.  

“Putas, both of em.” He spit again, this time not so casual.

“This some genealogy class.” Willie cut in. “Can’t you do this on the internet? Give your credit card away and find out how you connected to Adam and Eve.” 

Seemed a bit undercutting, but somehow it was the right thing to say. Flores the Panther smiled, showing a gold tooth. “They charge you money to find out what, we all come from Africa.”  

“What I’m saying.” Willie agreed. 

“We all got some fucking Mongolian blood.”  

“Genghis-fucking-Khan and shit.”  

Motherfuckers were friends, suddenly.  

“Neanderthal too.” I put my two cents in.  

But no one acknowledged it in a jocular manner. Willie and Flores both looked at me like I crashed their party. Flores noticing maybe I’d brought some beer though.  

“Right.” Pantera, nodding his head. “Didn’t we kill them off.”  

“Or mated with em.” Willie added, coming around.  

“Huh. Ain’t that some shit.” Flores shook his head.  

Me and Willie kind of gave each other side-long glances. Both wondering what we were doing here. Three o’clock in the morning and talking Genghis Khan and Neanderthals in our blood with Mara Salvatrucha.  

“What did Ed tell you?” Deciding to cut to the chase.  

The was rustling behind Flores. Behind the palm tree trunks there were still shadows at play. At least five men. “I got a question for you.” Flores started. “Why the fuck she getting arrested, homie?” 

“I don’t know.” I told him. “Maybe because she’s snooping around her sister’s apartment while Beebe’s outside shooting a cop in the ass.”  

Flores’ jaw tightened. “She said to find you. That you were the one that knew it all.”  

Knew it all. What did that even mean? “I get the feeling you might know more than I do.”  

“This about that fucking stone?” 

“Why’d you guys steal it?” 

Flores shook his head and let out an audible breath. “Shit was dumb luck, bro.” He seemed done with it. “Thing’s worth, what, two grand. But it put me in with the fucking Armenians, dog.”  

“What’s that mean?” I asked, like a second-grader. 

Flores scoffed. Some shadows behind him laughed out right. “If you don’t know what them motherfuckers are up to, then Ed was wrong about you.”  

“Real estate.” I said, quickly.  

“Chicken dinner.” Flores pointed a gunned-finger at me.  

“What’s your interest. How’d you get in?” 

Some of the shadows were making more noise now. Not feeling the vibe of the question. Big Willie cleared his throat. We still had our guns by our sides. We were sure that the shadows were doing likewise.  

“That’s a dumb question, and you know it.” Flores calmed them down. “We ain’t gonna put our shit out there like that. But the thing is, you double your money when you actually own the property you fucking slang on. You know what I’m saying, homie. Like legitimately holding land is the biggest gangster shit ever. Thems that own mountains and the valleys and the fucking basin, are the true motherfuckers.”  

“Hosseini.”  

Big Willie gave me the evil side-eye again.  

“Who?” Flores asked.  

Me and Willie looked at the Panther with skeptical stares. Then it dawned on me. That strip mall in the valley.  

“You been to a place out in Sherman Oaks?” I asked him.  

That kind of froze everything. Even Wilshire was sans any cars passing. The shadows behind Flores stood very still.  

“Andrea in Sherman Oaks.” Flores stated, and you could see a little pull in the corner of his mouth.  

“You in on that place in Filipinotown?” 

More stillness. We’d hit a sweet spot where Wilshire was this calm, flat lane with nothing moving on it. The palm trees were standing placid with not a hint of breeze in the air. But still metal could and cordite could be smelled.  

“What place?” Flores playing it out.  

“That place on Temple.” I told him. “That brand new place that we saw Andrea walking into.”  

“You been following motherfuckers.”  

“It’s what we do.” Willie told him.  

We were friends again. Both with pieces in our hands, in the night, with the creatures. It all felt fine. With purpose you will travel.  

Flores gave Willie a hard, cold stare. “You talk to that one. You tell her she owes us money.”  

“What’d you need from us?” I asked. “You got some points in a real-estate deal you can’t recover, what’s that to us?” 

“That’s a good question.” Flores was as cool as they come. “But Ed gave me your number for some reason. She’s thinking something, right. Something beneficial. But I’m wondering why you homies still got guns in your hands.”  

Shadow guns moved in on us. We were outnumbered and outgunned, but Big Willie didn’t seem to care. He pointed the MP9 at Flores. His boys moved in closer, all makes of pistols covering us. I still kept mine down by my side.  

“I see five not counting you.” Willie laid it out. “But all I need to do is shoot you and these motherfuckers will blow away like plastic bags.”  

Rumbles in the shadows. Dudes saying the things they say when guns are pointed. But Flores held up a hand. These are everyday things. Guns pointed in your face and all. There were solutions to be gotten too.  

“Ain’t nobody trying get shot today.” Flores told him. “Ain’t nobody afraid to die today, either.” He shrugged. “So, what’s the fucking point?” 

“You need something from us.” I blurted.  

Flores the Panther pointed his finger at me. “You need something from us.”  

“What?” 

“Answers.”  

“What answers?” Willie asked.  

“You wanna know who killed your friend?” 

Willie and me, checking peripherals again. He lowered the Smith & Wesson. Some of those shadows relaxed a bit, but not much.  

“How would you know that?” I asked. 

Flores grinned. Gold flashed and cars started rolling again on Wilshire. Birds were chirping and the scent of Jasmine floated under noses. Just for a few seconds, and then the rush of axil-grease and exhaust fumes came hovering over us.  

“You don’t know Beebe very well, do you.”  

“You saying Beebe killed Jackie?” Willie was on him.  

Flores looked at the big man. “She flashing steel in Barnsdall. That’s what the cops want her for, right? Putting holes in Erik Agassi. Or the cops like you two for that?” 

Willie and me looked full on at each other then. How did he know that shit? Cops on the payroll, maybe. They got eyes everywhere. 

 “Well, the cops got the right one for it, then.” I stated.  

A wrinkle of surprise rose on Flores’ forehead and then quickly flattened into processed information to be used later. The man sure was cool. “Beebe and Ed get arrested on the same night, huh.” He kind of lightly scoffed. “Can’t say I’m surprised.” 

“You sure Ed got caught?” I asked.  

Flores shrugged and stayed mum. Some answers the man wasn’t giving us. “You saying Beebe did Jackie, don’t mean it’s true or any kind of answer, but say it is and you got some kind of proof. What the fuck is it you exactly need from us?” 

Flores just stared at me. His way of looking surprised at a mouthy mixed-race motherfucker. “Armenians owe us money. We want you to get it for us.”  

Jaws would’ve dropped, but we had to keep our teeth grinding at the bit. “What makes you think we can do that?” I asked, full of questions.  

The Panther smirked. “You two pretty resourceful homies. Taking guns off motherfuckers in tight spaces, I here.”  

His boys from Alvarado Terrace. Wonder what kind of slap on the wrist those fellas got. Then again, I didn’t really care. Maybe I should. Maybe I should go over to Alvarado Terrace after all this was over and buy those boys some beers.  

But I knew I wouldn’t.  

“You want, I can take all them guns off your boys.” Willie piped up.  

The gallery behind Flores didn’t like that at all. In fact, I don’t think they even wanted to be under those palms in the dead of morning. Could be passed out in some chola’s arms, belly full of barbacoa and Suprema. Instead, there were here with these two goons, taking insults.  

“They in the right hands.” Flores put a hand up and his homies relaxed some. “But I wouldn’t mind you taking a few more from them Armenians.”  

“What, you ain’t got enough muscle?” I nodded toward the shadows behind him.  

“We work together now. One big happy, you see. But meanwhile they fucking us on deals. We just want what’s owed, you know what I’m sayin.”  

“You need a mediator.” I figured. 

Flores smiled without showing any teeth and nodded his index finger at me. “Ed was right.”  

I shook my head. “How much money we talking?” It was the first mention of it and we could feel the thing changing beneath our feet.  

“Two million bones.” Flores said, flatly, like it was two weeks worth of wages.  

Another look shared with Willie. This guy was shittin’ us. That was the look we both gave each other. Chains were being yanked. How else could we account for the feeling in our sphincters? That feeling of a plug being pulled from a drain.  

“Fuck you.” Willie told him.  

Nobody liked that remark but me. Flores and his shadows were in unison now. I finally pointed the gun at something in the dark. But Willie, in his contrarian way, kept his gun down by his side, making me feel all alone in this strange standoff.  

Where to start? “Two million dollars.” I started. “What’s our take?” 

“What?” Willie looked at me.  

“Ten percent.” Flores said.  

Two hundred thousand dollars. A hundred a piece, if we were being fair. But Willie was still defiant. “Fuck you.” He said again, still looking at me.  

I raised my eyebrows at him. Still with my gun pointed, I was interested in his negotiation tactics. “They just got two million, lying around.” Looking at Flores.  

“Wouldn’t that be easy.” He said. 

“If it ain’t just laying around, we want twenty percent.” Willie stated.  

Flores kind of squinted at him and a curt smile was a crescent on his face. “You want four hundred G’s.” He scoffed. “Get you off the streets, I bet.” He kind of looked over his shoulder and the shadows laughed.  

I wondered how he knew that about Willie.  

“You need us for what?” I asked. “For something you can’t do yourself. Somebody higher up won’t approve. Probably worth twenty percent, I bet.”  

The Pink Panther flowed with the logic and shrugged like it was no sweat off his balls. “Fuck it. If you can get it, you can have it.”  

The peanut gallery behind him rumbled out some rebukes. Flores just held up his hand again and the remonstrations stopped.  

“Where do we find it?” I asked.  

“That’s the hard part, ain’t it.” Flores’ nose snarled up. “Nobody deals in cash anymore. You go into a bar, a corner store, anyplace, they all dealing with iPads and fucking QR codes. Cash is queen. Zeros and ones is king.” He looked around and spit again. “But there’s some fuckers still like dealing in green.” He paused for effect. The man liking his position in life. “Shit on the streets still seem to stay the same.”  

Flores looked at Big Willie like they shared a private knowing. Something to do with rubber on concrete. Feets on the streets.  

“You talking some TV bullshit.” Willie spat. “Ain’t no money train out there.”  

This was all Greek to me.  

“Not talking about no money train.” Flores bit. “But there’s a storage shed down in Torrance ready to be fleeced.”  

“Storage shed.” I repeated. “Just got down there with some bolt-cutters.”  

The Panther raised his eyebrows and shrugged. 

“I’m saying. Send one of your boys.” I nodded at the shadows behind him.  

“They got cameras in this place.” Flores rebutted. “We don’t wanna be seen doing this, remember.”  

“Remind me again, how this gets us to Jackie’s killer?” I asked.  

Flores shrugged and shook his head. “It gets you paid, right. You can do a lot with four hundred G’s, like bail a certain person out of jail.”  

Beebe. If Flores was right about her. If she killed Jackie. “Why would she wanna kill her?” I wanted to see how much he knew. “I don’t get it. What was Jackie to her but a neighbor?” 

Flores gave me a vacant stare. “Who you fucking with?” He asked. “Who you trying to play?” His whole body tightened up. “That fucking stone. That’s what she wanted.”  

“It’s not worth anything, though.” I shook my head, trying to figure it.  

“Something to do with her and Erik.” Flores said.  

“Like what?” 

Pantera la Rosa pursed his lips. His shadows behind him were growing impatient. “That fucking thing is some old Armenian thing. Been in their family, going back to the motherland. Some shit like that.”  

He stopped and it was dead out there again on Wilshire.  

“Been in Beebe’s family too.”  

“What’d you mean?” 

“We all got different moms.” Flores looked uncomfortable for the first time. “Pops got around, know what I’m sayin.” 

We did.  

“Shit is fucked up.”  

Then he told us a weird tale.  

Chapter Ten

“Bad Times in Big Easy.”

The dude booked down the alley toward Wilshire. Toward the 7-Eleven. But I couldn’t tell if it was a dude or not, running after him/her/they, with no oxygen in my lungs. Well, it looked like a person with a dark hoodie pulled up over its head and the running gait of a roadrunner. 

I slowed my roll just before getting to the convenience store and went out wide toward a chain-linked fence that surrounded an empty lot across the alley from the 7-Eleven. Which is always strange to see in L.A., an empty lot. A parcel overgrown with tall grass amongst all this concrete. It makes you stop and wonder how it had become forgotten. How it had slipped through the cracks, so to speak. Where were the guys like Hosseini when you needed and empty lot filled? This one right under his nose too. 

There were a few cars parked in the 7-Eleven lot, but they looked like they’d been there all night. There was no one in the streets. No one walking or running up or down the sidewalks.  

I stood there a moment and took in the sleepy scene.  

No way this dude went into the 7-Eleven.  

Could’ve crossed Wilshire and ran into Brentwood. Maybe, just maybe that was a possibility. But the convenience store seemed to beckon. And I wasn’t that far behind him.  

The place was lit up like a lab. They always are. Twenty-four-seven. There was a guy hanging around the trashcan, by the entrance. He had that veteran look. One of those that shuffles down from the V.A. looking for free hot dogs and forties of O.E. Things that he could save in his beard for later. He hit me up for the things on his menu. I told him I’d see what I can do and walked in.  

There was no one behind the counter on my left. Scanning to my right, the place looked empty. Mounted screens flashed through monthly specials. The place was cool with central-air whirling through it. I stood there and perused the rack of DVDs. There was a copy of Streets of Fire on the top rack. The silhouette of Michael Pare holding a shotgun, something in the background having exploded into a ball of fire.  

Still, no one had walked out from the back to man the counter. I remained still and listened. Maybe I heard the scuff of a shoe on polished floor. Heavy breathing, possibly. I leaned to my left and peered down an aisle. Nothing. Inching over a few more feet to look down another aisle and I could see the hooded figure crouched down looking at something in the candy aisle. They’d already hit up the slurpy machine, a plastic cup with a straw on the ground.  

I said. “What the fuck?” 

They looked up, but it wasn’t a he.  

There was a roundness to the face that looked up at me from the Reese’s peanut butter cups in her hands. But her eyes had dark rings under them, and they were set back in caves it seemed, flashing a wolfish yellow. She was kneeling down with the Reese’s in one hand and a phone in the other. She nodded at me, and my phone vibrated in my pocket.  

I just stood there looking at her. Another face I knew. She nodded her head again. Her eyes went to my pocket. I blinked a few times. The whir of cooling machinery lulled us into Narnia. Music was playing overhead. What was it? Some nineties pop shit. Something about keeping it together.  

The girl raised her eyebrows and nodded her head and looked at my pant pocket again. I took my phone out of my pocket. There was message notification. From Jackie’s number. “Wassup”, it said.  

I looked up. “Hey.” I said.  

She stood up and put her phone in a pocket along the leg of her black, workout tights. She pulled the hood from her head and I could see it was Beebe. There was a stud in her nose that sparkled in the bright fluorescents.  

“What up Easy Money?” Beebe leaned over and picked up the slurpy and took a long hit off the straw.  

Easy Money. Okay. I’d bite. “You just shot a cop, Beebe.”  

She smirked and her chest moved with a mirthful scoff. She shook her head. “What else you selling, Easy?” 

I must’ve had a strange look on my face. I felt I did. Squinting my eyes trying to see what horizon she lived on. “That was you in those elephant ears, popping caps in people’s asses.” 

Beebe smiled. “Elephant ears.” She had a sheen of sweat on her upper lip.  

“Why’d you take Jackie’s phone?” Curveball.  

She looked instantly bored. She was on a train that wasn’t making that stop. I wondered where the next one would be. She was vibrating on a feral wave bending towards all out mania. But it’s too easy to a call a woman crazy. To think that she doesn’t have her own reasons. 

“Jackie Meaux.” Beebe said her name like she’s just learned it. “Sorry about your friend.” And she meant it.  

“That why you shivved your boy in the park, cause you were sorry about Jackie Meaux? 

Beebe smiled again, but her heart wasn’t in it. “My boy, huh.” She nodded. “I guess he was.”  

He was. “You getting around. But why you shooting cops? You wanna get caught?” So many questions.  

She shook her head. “I’m not trying to get caught. I’m trying to get mine.” She took another long sip of her Slurpee and we could hear sirens now. Pushing down Wilshire towards de-ja-vu. “I didn’t know that was a cop back there.”  

“Who’d you think he was?” 

Beebe looked at the Slurpee cup and made a stank face and tossed the thing down the aisle. It exploded red and grainy on the shined floor. Strawberry. Still, there was no one behind the counter. Maybe the place was automated now. Everything by touch screens. Avoid the zombies at night with new technology. The way forward is to stay as far away from each other as we can.  

“Did you kill Jackie?” I was thinking of the knife used on Erik.  

Beebe blinked. That was something. Then she pulled the gun from the small of her back. It was a Beretta Bobcat. A little black thing with a walnut handle. She didn’t point it at me right away. Just held it down by her side. Still had the Reese’s cup in her other hand.  

“Why would I kill Jackie?” She asked. 

“To get her phone.” 

That made Beebe laugh. Which made me a feel a little less like I was about to be shot. But not by much. 

“The phone wasn’t what we were looking for.” She fingered the trigger on the gun and finally tossed the Reese’s cups down.  

“You and Erik were looking for something in her safe.” I led her.  

Beebe gave me a sharp look. She seemed focused, suddenly. Her eyes crouching toward prey. 

“What’s so special about it?” 

Revolving lights went by outside. Sirens loud as can be. A couple squad cars pulled into the 7-Eleven lot. I reached to my back pocket, slow as you please, and pulled the felt bag out. Beebe blinked again. She finally pointed the gun at me.  

“You know the combination.” Beebe said.  

“It’s just a fucking marble.” I told her.  

She sort of sneered at me and looked over at the swirling lights outside. “That’s funny. I always thought the same thing, when my cock-eyed uncle came lurching in my room at night. Smelling of canned Tecate burps and Grandma’s Christmas tamales. Whispering in my ear that it’s okay, it’s family.”  

It felt like something she’d wanted to say for a long time. Something she’d had in her head, rolling around until it was perfectly sanded and ready to slip right on out. She looked back at me as two uniformed policemen entered the store.  

She kept the gun on me. “You wanna hand it over, before these peckerwoods fuck it all up for me?” 

Peckerwoods. They were both white, the cops, and they hadn’t entered in a rush or cautiously. In fact, it looked as if they were stopping for a donut and coffee. They were talking casually and making their way toward the coffee when they saw we were watching them. Beebe put the Beretta down real slow and held it close to her leg. I handed her the felt bag. It felt like the thing to do. One of the patrolmen had red cheeks and short, slicked-back, dirty-blonde hair. He stopped at the coffee and looked over at us. His partner, a short guy with olive skin and short, black hair had stopped at the counter, seemed perplexed that no one was manning the station. The one with red cheeks turned our way, a mean look on his face. He craned his neck around and saw the gun at Beebe’s side. He reacted like only a cop could react.  

Going for his gun and calling out to his partner that there were other guns in the room besides their own. And the funny thing was, they’d just stumbled upon us. They’d come in here looking for coffee and donuts. Shirking their jobs, figuring they had enough numbers amongst the calvary, who would notice if they stopped for a little pick-me-up. 

Fucking goons, is what they were.  

The one with the dark hair moved down an aisle to my right, Beebe’s left, with his firearm pointed at us. Red cheeks kept his gun on us and radioed the rest of the crew. They got the perp who shot one of their own.  

But Beebe had other plans.  

She still had the Bobcat pressed against her leg. Red Cheeks was yelling at her to put the fucking gun down. The dark haired one was silently keeping his gun pointed on us. Beebe smiled at me. Nose stud flashing. 

They were going to shoot her no matter what.  

That’s what the smile was for, I think. She’d shot a cop in the ass. He wasn’t dead, but cops seek revenge for lesser things. Don’t they? 

But there was some chatter coming from the men’s shoulders. Static and far away voices telling soldiers to stand down. Suspect to be taken unharmed. You could see the uncertainty in Red Cheeks and his partner. More so in Red Cheeks, who’s nametag I could make out now. Shannon. A proper Irish cop. With a proper freckled finger still on the trigger of his Glock 22. His head tilted towards his com, waiting for further orders, something that might tell him that his superiors were mistaken.  

She still held the gun though.  

The cop with the dark, slicked-back hair told her to put the gun on the ground. Slow. I couldn’t make out his nametag from where I was standing. I looked at Beebe. She was looking at me. I nodded.  

Beebe put the gun down on the ground, real slow-like.  

Everyone breathed surprise. It was like someone pushing the button for oxygen to be pumped back in the room. Pressure in the ears went away, leaving you with fading tones you would never hear again. Flabbergasted as well, that cops weren’t all maniacal murderers. They moved in after that and did their jobs. Probably not all that happy with the directives being handed out up on high.  

“Fucking bullshit.” Red Cheeks told his partner cuffed Beebe.  

“You heard it.” The dark-haired guy said.  

His name was Maxwell. I could see that now, on his nametag.  

“We both did.”  

“Then what?” 

“Still bullshit.” Shannon spat. “Bitch shot a cop. What’re we supposed to do?” 

Maxwell looked over at me after he’d cuffed Beebe and nodded at his partner. Red Cheeks looked over at me. “You okay?” He asked me. 

I didn’t know how to answer that. I just nodded. The room was hot and I wanted to leave. They were going to let me too.  

“Where’s the fucking guy that works here?” Maxwell asked and started to move Beebe along.  

“Motherfucker’s never around at this time of night.” Shannon noted.  

“You know they guy?” 

“Most of the time you just leave money on the counter.”  

“You leave cash on a counter with all these homeless fucks around?” Maxwell asked his partner.  

They began moving with Beebe towards the door. Leaving me behind in the aisle with all the candy bars. Just some pour simp, caught in the crossfire. And maybe I was. In over my head and finally drowning. Flotsam for them to ignore. When they made it to the doors, Beebe looked back at me. There was no sadness or regret on her face, just a knowing in her eyes. Shannon and Maxwell had her gun and the felt bag. They’d store it in evidence.  

Why had that fluttered through my head? 

She’d said something about her uncle. Christmas tamales and Mexican beer and possibly something else. What’d if have to do with the Armenians? She was giving me a signal. A way to find my footing in this maze. But I couldn’t decipher it.  

I finally moved my feet and followed the two patrolmen and Beebe outside. As I reached the door the 7-Eleven clerk walked out behind the counter with a look of confusion on his face and mayonnaise on his lips. He had one hand on his hip and the other hand out, palm up, as if to ask, what’s going on? His nametag said his name was Fahmi.  

Fahmi, Shannon and Maxwell. How would we know one another if it weren’t for these labels our companies make us wear? Our companies. They’re not ours at all.  

Big Willie Winsboro was outside chopping it up with the guy that asked for a hotdog and a forty. I immediately felt shame for forgetting the man’s order. He was the old grizzled vet, with a long, yellow beard and a litany of motherfuckers streaming through his speech. He backed the police, though, telling them they’d done a good job. He knew that girl was up to no good, as soon as he’d seen her walk in the place.  

Willie just nodded the man along as I approached the two. “Didn’t think it would go that way.” He told me.  

I didn’t say anything. The big man had changed clothes. I hadn’t noticed before, down there with Merchant. He was wearing an oversized white t-shirt and black jorts the came down below his knees. He was wearing shoes too. Some Air Jordans, circa 1988.  

“You looking spiffy.” I told him.  

He nodded. His whole essence had changed.  

Hosseini.  

“You just had that shit in your tent, ready to go.” I stated.  

“You don’t think I got a change of clothes?” 

I shrugged. “You walking around barefoot all day.”  

Willie looked at me long and hard. “Fuck you.”  

Fair enough. I walked away from him and his Vietnam-vet friend, thinking about how I didn’t understand him or his tribe and how they didn’t understand me. My lack of tribe and terrible judgements leaving me all alone and nothing to show for it. I went back the way I came. Back down the alley, thinking about Willie and Hosseini. There was a moment down there under the fig tree. Merchant had seen it. Just what was their connection? 

There was an ambulance behind Jackie’s building, still bleating a little, lights flashing up the backsides of the other apartment buildings. Paramedics had Merchant on a gurney, facedown. He had his head turned towards me. 

“Mangham!” He said, loudly enough for the paramedics to stop. “They’re saying it was Beebe Bonilla that shot me in the ass.”  

I told him it was her and tried not to look at his shot-up ass. The paramedics had put a blanket over his bottom half, thankfully.  

“What the fuck was she doing in those bushes, with her sister inside?” Merchant asked.  

“Her sister?”  

“Edwina Flores. She’s in there for what? She won’t say. Meanwhile I’m taking lead in the ass from a creep hiding in some elephant ears.”  

He seemed alright for a guy just shot in the ass. Tough hombre. Maybe I was starting to like the dude. “Edwina works at that building I was talking about; the one downtown Hosseini owns.”  

“You know her?” 

I told him about Buddy and Ed up in that jewelry tower. And then later down on the street with the MS-13 cats. Merchant had risen up on his elbows, the paramedics telling him to lie down, but ignoring them.  

“What the fuck made you go downtown?” He asked, pointedly.  

If was good question. More of a land mine set to unravel all of your intentions. All of the secret things you were coveting. Merchant was a good cop. He knew how to untie knots. Maybe you could learn something from him.  

“Yeah, what made you go downtown?” A phlegm-filled voice came floating out from under the covered parking of Jackie’s building. Larsen lurking under there, stubbing out a cigarette. A deep, coughing fit followed.  

“You smoking motherfucker?” Merchant pointing out the obvious in condemnation; not mentioning his vampire-like entrance. 

Larsen ignored him. “What made you go downtown, Mangham?” He walked out from under the overhang, scuffling between two cars, flicking a butt into the alley.  

“They know about Brenda?” A voice boomed.  

Big Willie had come down the alley, hands in his jort’s pockets, carefully avoiding potholes, walking differently in those Air Jordans. Keeping them clean. He seemed like a different dude all together.  

“Brenda Kafesian.” Larsen acknowledged. “They found her dead, shot in the back of the head in a parking garage below Pershing Square.”  

“She was a friend of mine.” Willie said, looking at me.  

She was a friend of mine was a refrain caught in both of our throats. Some kind of bond as well. His fuck you forgotten for now.  

“How’d you know her?” Merchant asked, still up on his elbows on the gurney.  

Big Willie gave him a look, as if to say, fuck off. But he didn’t say those words. He just shrugged, like he’d done all day, as if the world’s weight were nothing but a gnat.  

“Just from the streets.” He told the detective.  

“Like Hosseini?” Merchant with a karate chop to the neck.  

We could all see Willie working the angles in his head. The look on his face was just this side of cool. He looked passed Larsen, at the paramedics and patrolmen moving along the walkway of the building. Something moved above us on the fenced in patio above. Cliff creeping. Maybe another figure up there, scuffling about as well.  

Hosseini.  

Guess his neck was alright. Maybe one of the paramedics already checked him out.  

“I know the man from around here.” Big Willie got around to answering the cops. “Put a little dough in a man’s hand every now and then. He’s a nice guy.” 

A nice guy. Larsen, Merchant and I may have repeated the same three words in our heads. How much dough was put in his hands? This is how you turn on your friends. Through constant paranoia. It serves cops well. But Willie was doing his part to cause incredulity. 

“That’s what they said about Erik Agassi, too.” Larsen lied out right. 

We all looked at him as such too.  A liar. Even Merchant had a slight raise in an eyebrow. Couldn’t believe the sweat-tactic he was using at the is particular moment and this particular time.  

“I think we like Beebe for that.” Merchant said to anyone listening. “You think she thought he was a good guy.”  

Larsen’s head snapped toward his partner so fast he forgot to cough. He glared at him for a minute, blinking, working his tongue in his mouth, in search for words to say to his brother in arms.  

“All of this is active.” He finally said to Merchant. “We’re still pursuing every active lead, partner.”  

Paranoia worked both ways. 

“What’s the girl inside saying?” Merchant was moving along. Playing the thing out in front of us all.  

Larsen looked uncomfortable. I mean, more than usual. He remembered his tuberculosis and began heaving up parts of his lungs. All of us except his partner took a step back. Even the paramedics were concerned.  

Then we could hear a commotion. A lot of rustling of boots on concrete and some sharp, curt, raised voices. The movement of limbs through space. A mad rush, building off somewhere out of sight. Like a vortex pulling us in.  

“What the fuck’s going on?” Merchant asked anyone.  

Larsen lurched toward the walkway of the apartment building. A patrol officer that looked a lot like Matos came running into the alley.  

“Matos!” Merchant yelled.  

“She’s on the run!” She rushed between a parked car and two dumpsters, and passed Merchant on the stretcher, headed down the alley, intent on some kind of counter measure.  

“Wha-what the fuck?” Merchant tried getting up from the gurney. Two paramedics rushed towards him. He grimaced in pain. “Matos!”  

But she was gone, down the alley, toward Texas Ave. Larsen beelined down the walkway. I found myself following him through a passel of uniformed bodies. Larsen asking what the fuck happened. Some voice, one of the patrol officers, was complaining about not having enough eyes on her. There were at least fifteen cops in the walkway. There were other voices competing with his. Boots scuffling on concrete. You could feel a push towards Barrington.  

Larsen was yelling and hacking at folks. I caught sight of Martinez through the kitchen window. He had his thumbs tucked in his utility belt and his forehead was wrinkled. He looked around the kitchen and then looked up and we locked eyes. His eyebrows went up, like, ain’t this a circus.  

“What the fuck happened here?” Larsen managed to get the attention of one of the officers.  

His nametag read LUI and he looked about as put together as anyone could in this chaos. “I’m not quite sure, sir.” He shook his head. “There were two stationed inside with her, I don’t know what happened.” 

“Who was with her?” Larsen asked.  

Lui paused, not wanting to be the snitch. Larsen didn’t reassure him. He just stared daggers at him. “I think it was Martinez and Matos, sir.”  

Larsen coughed and looked through the kitchen window. Lui stood there and glanced my way, and then wandered off with his brethren, to kick up dirt and possibly protect and serve. Larsen turned his head towards me and frowned like he was annoyed that I’d followed him into the mire. The mire of police work. That seemed like any other job where people were just throwing things against the wall to see if they stick. It was the noodles that slid off the wall that no one ever wanted to see or deal with.  

“She can’t get far.” I told Larsen. “They’ll get her.”  

“What’d you know about her?”  

I shrugged. “Check with your partner. I told him everything.”  

“Sometimes stories change when you tell them to different people at different times. Memory is a bitch that way.” He pointed to his gurgling chest. “Tell me.”  

I told him, exactly what I told Merchant, leaving the marble out.  

“And Jackie Meaux was head of security of this building downtown?” Was the question Larsen thought pertinent here. “She had to have known Edwina, right?” 

That just got a shrug from me. But Larsen was working through something in his head. He forgot about coughing, again, and turned to face me. “Come on, let’s work this thing out.” Like we were pals, suddenly. “Edwina had to be the inside man. So, to speak.”  

“Could be Buddy was.” I told him. 

Larsen cringed like he already trusted the old Jew, making me think Larsen had some belief in the Torah. “I don’t’ know what he’s gain would be in setting up his clients like that. After a while the kickbacks wouldn’t be enough to offset the decrease in clients once the word got out, he was Shanghaiing rocks.”  

Shanghaiing. He seemed to have a good bead on the jewelry biz. I looked down at him like he was some contorted and sick worm burnt up in a house fire. Paranoia flying through my head like a dog frisbee. Should I leap up and grab it? Or get my head shot off in the process. My eyes shot up toward Cliff’s apartment. He and Hosseini up there mixing cocktails and laughing at the plebians.  

“Who you got identifying the body?” Throwing a curveball at Larsen.  

“What?” 

“Jackie Meaux’s body. Doesn’t a next to kin need to identify the body?” 

Larsen cringed again and shook his head. “I’m not sure why you’re asking.” 

“Who’s taking care of her funeral?” 

Larsen shifted his eye-glasses around. “When’s the last time you slept?” 

I’d fallen asleep not too long ago. In Jackie’s apartment. But I didn’t tell him that. Didn’t tell him about that dream of her on the side of the road. Her in a ditch, looking wild and inconsolable.  

“When’s the last time you slept?” I countered, instead.  

Larsen brushed cigarette ash off the sleeve of this tweed sportscoat. He looked hot in it, in fact, beads of sweat had popped up on his hairline. He had a thin mustache as well. A right of cop-passage maybe. He looked like Doc Holliday at the end of his days, without the quick draw, or the Val Kilmer quips.  

“So, the sister is the finger man.” Larsen sighed, and plowed ahead. “But what’s it got to do with the Armenians?” 

“Who says it does?” I almost told him about the opal. 

“Don’t fuck with me, Mangham.” Larsen growled. “This whole fucking mess is Romeo and Juliet out the wing-wang. Sooner or later coincidence is fact.”  

Cop logic. He couldn’t make accurate assumptions without all the knowledge. That opal was going to show up in police evidence soon.  

“They had a glass eye.” I told Larsen.  

He blinked at me and coughed a little. He put a dark handkerchief to his mouth. Had he been using that the whole time? “What’re you talking about, Mangham?” 

He was using my name more. There’s power in a name. Using it to sow familiarity. To get you to let your guard down. Maybe it was working. Along with a weariness from lack of sleep and just plain rest.  

“One of those robberies the Salvadoreans pulled netted them a glass eye made of opal.” I told the detective. “I think they were targeting it. Maybe all the other robberies were just a build-up to it.” I shook my head. “It’s not even worth that much.”  

“How do you know this?” Larsen wiped his mouth and put the cloth in his back pocket.  

I told him about the building downtown and its owner and everything I’d blabbed to Merchant. I didn’t think he was even aware Hosseini was upstairs, or took a fall down those stairs. I’m sure his partner would tell him.  

“How do you know about this stone?” Larsen asked.  

“It was in Jackie’s safe.”  

Incredulity waxed across Larsen’s face. His mouth lay open and his eyes seem to be trembling. “When?” Was all he could muster.  

“This morning.” I looked up at Cliff’s door and thought, was that this morning. What time was it now?  

“After or before?”  

Jackie died.  

“After.”  

“You trespassed on a crime scene.” Larsen’s mouth grew rigid around the edges. He was serious too.  

Maybe he would arrest me. The thought of sleep dampened the anxiety of going to jail again. But the man didn’t have the energy. He needed me. I’d just given him a huge information dump.  

But what now? 

“How did she get the stone?” I asked. And I could tell it was something Larsen had been thinking about, regardless of civilian protocol.  

“She worked in that building downtown.” He stated.  

I nodded. “I don’t know if she worked in it, but she saw to the security of it.”  

“Who’s got the thing now?” Larsen asked. “You have it on you?” 

Behind the detective a door opened to apartment number three. A middle-aged woman with dark hair and olive-colored skin stuck her head out and yelled at everyone. Saying this was twice in twelve hours. She was livid, raising a hand, as if to shoo all of us away. The woman had a slight middle-eastern accent.  

I stared at her a bit too long and she caught me in her snare. Maybe she thought I lived there and was the cause of all this mess. Her eyes zoomed in on me and she froze me with her rage.  

Apartment living, right.  

Larsen turned towards her and put his hands up and told the woman to calm down. Then you could hear the cacophony of other doors opening. The squeaking of hinges and movement of air in screen compressors. Other heads leaned over the walkway above. Other voices asking what was going on. Soon the officers that were left behind to secure the scene had their hands full with public relations.  

I didn’t see if Cliff or Hosseini came out. But then again, they already knew what was going on. I slipped off back to the alley as soon as eye contact was broken with the woman in number three. But wondered about her. I’d seen her a few times and Jackie had told me once, that she was someone to Hosseini. Not exactly a friend or an acquaintance. But something else.  

Big Willie was over by his tent. The paramedics had taken Merchant off in the ambulance he said. Cops went down the alley. It was kind of quiet back there now.  

“You wanna drink?” The big man asked.  

Looking around to see if he was talking to me; thinking there was no way water was under the bridge already. “What you serving?” 

He invited me inside his tent for thirty-two-ounce cans of Old Milwaukee. The inside of his abode was nicer than I would’ve imagined. Which was something I hadn’t put a lot of thought into. It was a big tent. Probably big enough for a family of five. Willie had a queen-sized mattress in there with a black futon and a massive circular, braided rug in the middle with red, yellow and blue bean-bags taking up the center. A plastic Japanese lantern hanging down from a loop at the top of the tent, lighting up the place. Incense burned on a nightstand next to the mattress.  

“Jesus Christ.” Was all I had to say as I sat down on a plastic milk-crate with a small felt-pillow as a cushion.  

“What?” The big man asked.  

Shaking my head, I said nothing. Men allow each other the space not to explain their astonishment at one another. We know the rituals and try to stick to them. But there are some of us who are still saps.  

“This is nice.” I told him.  

Big Willie nodded and handed me a beer from a red, Coleman ice-chest, filled with ice and beer and what looked like sandwich fixings and an orange juice bottle.  

“Lived in worse places.” He stated, with a bit of a forlorn frown on his face.  

“Out in the open, I presume?” 

He nodded and slurped from his Old Milwaukee.  

“How do you really know Hosseini?” I asked in a hushed town. “And Jackie?” 

Willie let out a heaving breath through his noise because his lips were pursed together so tight, they seemed to turn white. He put his beer down on the closed Coleman and reached over pulled a photo from a backpack.  

It was an old glossy thing that was produced in some long-ago red room. Back when taking pictures was an artform. Not something you clicked on your phone to entice followers. It was a picture of soldiers. Or what looked like soldiers. Men and women, mostly men, in military garb, holding assault rifles and looking bemused and tired. In it you could make out the faces of Jackie Meaux and Willie Winsboro.  

I thumbed the photo and looked at it a long time. It had the feel of being taken somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. Two places of the times. Where young ones go for sport of for country. But there was something else, along one edge of the frame that gave it another vibe. Maybe not the middle-east at all, but somewhere at home, where palms trees exist too. The thing a had a mercenary vibe.  

“Where is this?” I asked. 

“New Orleans.”  

Jesus Christ.  

“Katrina.”  

Big Willie didn’t so much as nod, but take a deep breath in, so as not to drown in gulping memories he usually kept at bay.  

“You guys work for Blackwater?” 

The big man motioned with widened-eyes that it was at least close to the truth. Some contracts you sign with silence rather than blood.  

“You knew Jackie before me.” I stated. A realization that plucked me out of space and time. “Of course, you did. Why else would you be doing this?” 

“She never forgot me.” Willie took a sip of beer.  

I looked at the picture one last time and handed it back to him. He looked at it long and hard. “New Orleans was bad. We’d try to stay on dry land if we could. The Quarter was the best, but walking around there was like a free-fire zone. We were supposed to be there for looting and what not. But shit, man, we did most of that ourselves.” He shook his head. “Bad times in Big Easy.”  

“You guys were in other places.”  

“We were in Bosnia and Isreal for a while.” He thought about saying more but cut himself off.  

“How’s Hosseini fit in?” 

Willie’s forehead wrinkled upward. “He an international man of mystery. We met when we were in Israel.”  

Israel. Jesus Christ on a cross. How fucking deep did this thing go? Or was is just ancillary lines intersecting. The whole world a web and let the spiders play. But it still didn’t answer the question. Willie’s answers were just loose shiftings.  

“Is he a go between?” 

“What you mean?” Willie grew interested. He looked at the beer can I hadn’t touched since taking the first sip.  

“A facilitator.”  

Willie nodded. “Something like that.”  

We could hear cars still rolling by on Wilshire. Some feet scuffs and sounds of milling about at Jackie’s building. “A fucking bag man.” I whispered. 

“THE fucking bag man.” Willie added. “The bag is his. He owns it outright.”  

“He a billionaire or something?” 

Incense smoke wafted between us. A cool, grey line drifted out like a long finger, pointing to the west. To the ocean. Go westward, young man. And find all the craven motherfuckers your heart desires. It smelled of burnt cedar.  

Willie shrugged. “I ain’t his accountant. But that building downtown ain’t cheap. The Japanese’ll tell you that much.”  

I had no idea what that meant. What did the Japanese have to do with this? I let it lay there for a second, make him think I was mulling it over. “What, they own all the real-estate down there?” Using context clues.  

The big man gave a slight nod. “Except for a few greedy Persians.”  

“What did you and Jackie have to do with it?” 

Big Willie Winsboro looked uncomfortable for once in his life. Or maybe I was just seeing him from another angle, finally. He took a long swig of Old Milwaukee. “Hatchet men, mostly. Jackie more so than me.” He looked around his tent, as if to say his efforts had lessened recently.  

“Hatchet men?”  

“Muscle, man.” He burped, and it smelled like a compost fire. “Just feet on the ground and birds on a wire.” He was drunk, maybe. Talking in riddles. “It ain’t nothing but about property, man. And you need boots and eyes to access it all.”  

“When did you bow out?” I asked him.  

A dog barked somewhere down the alley. Willie seemed to sniff the air and maybe growl. “I don’t know if it happened that way.” He started and then stopped to dredge up embarrassment. “More of slope where you can’t see the bottom till you there. But the bottom ain’t no blue lake.” He held the Old Milwaukee can up. “That’s for sure.”  

“Maybe it’s an ocean.” I smirked. 

He wasn’t buying it. Willie just looked at me like I was a dumb thing making noise on the side of the road. In a ditch.  

“More like a one of those… what’d ya call em?” Willie used his free hand to make a circle. “Fucking toilet bowl.”  

“You drunk?” 

“Are you?” 

I looked down at the beer can I’d hardly touched. I wasn’t drunk, but I felt like my mind had been stretched out on a table and pinned along the edges for observation. Observed by whom, though? Me? 

“No, but I could use some sleep.” I told the big man.  

“Mi casa es su casa.” He stated and put out his big hand to offer one of his many bean bags to sleep on.  

It was in no way inviting. Tired as I was, I still felt the pull of it all. The rush towards oblivion. Or was it discovery? The tugging back of it all. The carpet being ripped up, to see what was underneath. To find nothing but tossed-away nickels and dust and cockroaches.  

But the pull was there all the same.  

“I think I’m gonna go see what else the cops can fuck up.” I got up from the milk carton.  

Big Willie was half-asleep. Leaning to his left with his eyes half-open. “I wouldn’t trust that fool, Merchant. Ya’ll looking a little buddy-buddy. Motherfucker’s still a cop.”  

Way down deep I could understand that, but we needed help, and the sharing of information seemed to open things up. Besides, Willie had his own game to play. I just nodded and left him in his tent, to dream dreams of commodes and friendly fire.  

Chapter Nine

“Only Sharks Eat.”

Big Willie didn’t toss the gun. He kept it in his palm for most of the ride to the westside. At some point along the 10 he shoved the Smith & Wesson into his sweatpants pocket and looked out at the heads of palm trees passing by, with the occasional steeple of a Spanish stucco church piercing through. Palm trees and churches and streets stretching out along a dark blanket of penlights.  

We got back to West LA around midnight. Willie had to check his spot. Make sure no one had come along and jacked his shit. I idled the Toyota down the alley, rubber crunching pebbles, and we saw his tent there still on the cement landing. Big man got out and went into his tent and didn’t come back out. I waited for fifteen minutes and decided he’d gone to sleep. There was no sleep for me, though. Just no way it was happening.  

So, a left on Wilshire, out of the alley. The 7-Eleven there was doing okay business at this hour. A few zombies shuffling around outside, looking for hot dogs and forties of O.E. I cruised on past and made my way back through the malaise of remembered wars and forgotten footsteps. Past the V.A. and under the 405 and into Westwood.  

There were lights on in the Federal Building. You didn’t know if they just kept some lights on for show, or there were agents in there burning the midnight oil. But I had a hunch and I followed it.  

I pulled the Toyota into a parking lot along the eastern edge of the building and shut it off, and waited.  

Took about twenty minutes before somebody in a suit came walking out with their hands in their pants pockets.  

One of the Johnsons.  

Short Johnson came striding towards the red Toyota, his head down, no jacket and his sleeves rolled up. “What’d ya say, Mangham?” His eyes were slits, but his mouth was curved up in one corner.  

“What’d you guys do in there this late, play blackjack until something juicy comes over the wire?” 

He nodded and the smirk grew tight. “Something like that. What brings you to our lovely parking lot at this hour?” 

It was something out of a movie. There were lines coming to us, written by some unseen hand, clacking away at a keyboard, relishing the pulp in the back of his or her throat. Characters on a page, was all we were.  

“Seemed like a good rest stop.” I looked around at a few cars parked in the lot. Blue sedans and black SUVs. “Thought I’d stop, take a piss.”  

“Make sure not to drip on government property. There’s a hefty fine.” Short Johnson was a night person. He was comfortable in the dark.  

I smirked back at him. “What’d you know about those jewelry robberies downtown? Bout a year ago.” 

If it was possible, Short Johnson’s eyes squinted even more. “Jewelry robberies? Like jewelry stores?” 

My face gave him a dead look. Like, don’t fuck with me on this. “Like those Salvadoreans following marks out to Orange County and Chatsworth and all over the Southland, ganking briefcases for their content.”  

That straightened the agent’s back and brought his hands out of his pockets. “Sounds like you’ve been rooting around some cellars.” He crossed his arms over his chest. The smirk gone to seriousness on his face.  

“You could call it that. More of a parking garage.” I told him. 

Short Johnson looked at me with a strange interest now. “A parking garage. Interesting. I thought you had something there for a second. You started out great.”  

“What’d you know about those robberies?” 

He shrugged. “You need to talk to LAPD about that. Were there homicides?” 

“Stop fucking around.”  

Short Johnson put his hands back in his pockets and leaned over to look at me in the Toyota. “You think I’m fucking around. Look at me. Do I look like that at all?” 

He had a point. The man was born serious. You couldn’t be a kook to be on Edgar’s payroll. Or could you? “But you’re playing me right now and I don’t appreciate it.” I told him. 

He seemed to consider that. “I’m not playing you. I’m just not sure what you’re asking. Those robberies were in the news. You’re saying Salvis did them. Like MS-13 connections?” 

“That’s what I’m saying. You and your taller partner, come charging us up earlier today about Armenians and Salvadoreans sucking each other’s dicks and now you wanna play like what I’m talking about don’t mean shit to you. It’s a difference twelve hours makes in an agent’s day, but I’m guessing the difference is slight.”  

Short Johnson straightened up again, hands still in his pockets. The taller partner remark, burrowing its way into his ego. A cheap shot, but this conversation was going nowhere. Sometimes you have to do some wounding to get anything done.  

“Okay, say they were Salvis. How’s it connect to the Armenians?” 

“Who owns that parking lot under Pershing Square?” 

“What?” A confounded look on the agent’s face.  

“There’s tunnels down there that connect to the Biltmore and the Jewelry building on Hill.”  

Johnson knew this. I could see it in his eyes. But he still played his game. “What’re you talking about?” His eyes going back to slits. 

“Those people, those jewelry people that were targeted, they all came out of that building.”  

“Okay…”  

I let out a long breath through my nose and shook my head. “You’re either dumb or on a short leash. Maybe I should talk to your boss.”  

“My boss?” 

“Yeah, the taller one. Where’s he? At home in bed, hand full of his wife’s ass. You…” I nodded his way. “You’re here, doing what? Trying to run some poor schmuck in circles. Good day’s work, huh.” 

Short Johnson sighed and looked tired and bored. Some nobody in a beat-up, red Toyota was giving him guff and wouldn’t get out of his driveway. “What’d you have? Really? That’s what you have to look at.” He told me.  

I almost reached to my back pocket for the stone but caught myself and thought about what he said. What did I have? Three dead bodies he wasn’t mentioning. He knew about Jackie, but what about Erik Agassi and Brenda. If he did know he was playing a good dummy game. Doing it so well, it made you wonder what cards he was holding back.  

“Three dead bodies.” I decided to take the plunge in the deep end. “That’s what I got.”  

Short Johnson took his hands out of his pocket, real slow-like, and looked around the parking lot. It was such a surreptitious move that it made me take a look as well. No one was around. Just a looming government building, with all the imagination of a single-cell organism in its design. 

“You want to watch what you say right now.” He told me. “Whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, you don’t want to admit anything to me.”  

“Admit? Admit to what exactly?” I leaned my head to get a better look at what he was really trying to say to me. “Just what was the point of that bar visit? You guys just wanna talk some shop to two dopes just out of jail?” I watched him shift weight from one leg to the other. “Is that the FBI nowadays?” 

“Listen–” 

“Fuck off.” I cranked the truck up. “You got some kind of skin in this Armenian/Salvadorean game and you think about mentioning it to two fuckers who’ve just lost a friend and got nothing to lose, what’d you think’s gonna happen?” I put the truck in reverse.  

Short Johnson put a hand out on the roof of the Toyota. “Who’s the third one?” 

That stopped me. I put the truck in park, but kept the thing running, and looked the agent. “You know about Erik Agassi?” 

“It’s all over the wire.”  

“The wire.”  

He shrugged. It was all over something, that was for sure. The police were investigating Erik Agassi’s death. Murder. “Better be sure Merchant and Larsen will find you.” Short Johnson told me. “Who’s the third?” 

I shook my head. “A woman named Brenda. Some street granny, that used to be tied up with the Agassis, from what I can make out.”  

“Brenda…” The name struck a chord somewhere in the agent. A strum in his belly that moved his legs again, shifting his weight. 

“You know her? Kafesian, or something like that, her last name.”  

His eyes went as wide as they could. Still slits with nothing to see between them but black irises. “Kafesian. You sure of that?” 

“Mean something to you?” 

“Maybe.” And he left it at that.  

I sat there; and he stood there, and we looked at each other. We could hear cars roll by on Wilshire. I was tired of talking to this dude. He wanted nothing to do with me. But who would walk, or drive away first? 

I put the truck in gear.  

“Kafesian is a name that comes up in few files. Old files. From the nineties.”  

Old files from the nineties. Just what was he telling me? “What old files?” 

Short Johnson shook his head. “Armenian business back in the day. When they were first getting started in L.A.”  

“What about em?” 

The agent shrugged and looked at a watch on his wrist. It was a digital thing, with one of those, thick, black, rubbery wristbands. “Listen, I’m not sure what you knew this morning and what you know now, but these are dangerous folks. If I were you, I’d think twice about whatever you’re getting yourself into right now.”  

Dangerous folks. It made me wonder where the man was from. Some small town in Iowa or Nebraska. Probably from a long line of lawmen. Staunch people with corn in their teeth and toes made of steel.  

“What’d you think I’m getting into, exactly?” 

“Trouble.” He said, immediately and then turned and walked away.  

Just like that. Like some dime novel G-man. I watched him walk across the parking lot, his hands in his pockets, like he hadn’t a care in the world. He was just doing his job with all the normal fears anyone has at trying to do it well. The world will keep turning. You hear this from an early age. And you know it to be true because one cannot deny the sun’s comings and goings. But there is an emptiness in that knowing. An uncontrollable restlessness that can never be shaken. The only thing one can do is put their hands in their pockets and keep walking forward. I wondered if they taught that at Quantico. Probably not. What was philosophy to them? Or me? But it was helpful, right? Keep moving forward. Only sharks eat.  

So, I decided to go back down to Barrington and see if I’d missed anything in Jackie’s apartment and maybe just sit there and stew. Maybe something would come to me. Like magic, something would appear out of thin air and explain the universe to me. Why life? Why death? What did it all mean? 

I’d been there three times in how many days? I couldn’t think of how long it had been. Since they carted Jackie Meaux off to the morgue. I wondered if someone would have to identify her body. Who would that be? She didn’t have any family that I knew of. She would go to some potter’s field.  

These thoughts were bouncing through my head as I trudged up the steps to Jackie’s building. Guess it wasn’t hers any longer. It had always been Hosseini’s. And he was there, taking a look at his property. Early on a Sunday morning.  

At the top of the stairs, a man stood, looking at his phone. His grey hair was tight to his skull and white in the harsh flood light. He had eye-glasses on and they reflected the light of his phone. His pleated shorts looked stiff as a board and his collared, short-sleeved shirt was tucked into them, showing a bit of a paunch in his midsection. He looked like he’d been golfing all day.  

I got to within a couple steps of him before he even noticed me. He didn’t speak. Just looked at me, wondering what another person was doing there at that hour. 

“Hi.” I greeted him.  

“Hello.” He responded, and made no move to make room for me to step past him.  

“You the guy that owns this building?” 

Hosseini looked up and adjusted his glasses. “Excuse me?” 

“You’re Mr. Hosseini, right?” 

He lowered his hands, putting his phone away for now. “I’m sorry, do we know each other?” 

“Not really, no.” I told him. “I was a friend of Jackie Meaux’s.”  

A surprised glint flickered behind his glasses. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing.” He shook his head and looked down at the ground. “I am so… I am so…” He shook his head again. “I don’t know what to say. A thing like this… how does this happen? Why? Who does a thing like this?”  

“You talk to the cops?” 

Hosseini was caught off guard. The question didn’t fit into his approach. I should’ve been more cordial and sympathetic. Said yeah, life sure is random. But I didn’t feel like I had the time for niceties.  

The gray-haired man blinked a few times. “Have I what?” 

“They talked to your guy up there, Cliff. Guy that collects rent for you. I figured they must’ve reached out to you by now.” I stood there, two steps below him, his eyeline slightly above mine.  

“Excuse me, what was your name?”  

“Elam. Elam Mangham.”  

Another flicker behind those glasses. Something dawned down around his mouth. He knew me but was playing against it. Some nice game that only landlords and real estate-hawks play. They needed to be higher up to see things. I took a step up and got eye-level with him. You could tell he was feeling crowded.  

He stepped back. “I think I… we’ve met, right.” He put his hand out like he was a safe guy. Come on, you can trust me. 

I nodded. “A few times.”  

Hosseini shook his head in mock embarrassment. We both knew Cliff and Andrea had been in contact with him. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jackie’s good friend. Yeah.” He nodded and looked sad. “I’m so sorry.”  

“Yeah, it’s tough, right.” I took the final step and we were pretty close to one another. “Having to deal with a tenant getting her throat slashed. What’s that do to the asking price of things? People in West LA like to rent out murder pads?” I shrugged. “Maybe they do. Land of Manson and all.” I put my hands in my pockets, having learned something about unnerving coolness from Short Johnson.  

The man cringed. “Wh-what?” 

“That’s why you’re here, right? At this hour. See how bad it is.”  

Hosseini couldn’t find anything to say. He just stood there, very still, hoping like a snake in the grass for the buffalo to go away.  

“Well, how bad is it?” I asked.  

His phone was still in his hand and brought it up to look at it. “It’s pretty bad to be honest with you.”  

It couldn’t tell if was talking about the actual apartment or the situation he found himself in. “She worked for you.” 

Looking up at me, Hosseini seemed to remember something. “Did she tell you that?” 

Strange question to ask a friend. It made you think that maybe you weren’t a friend. “She mentioned it.”  

“Just what did she mention?” He didn’t seem as fragile with his phone held up.  

“Just that she worked for some security firm.” I feigned unknowing. But not much. I didn’t know a great deal.  

The man frowned and shuffled his feet. Too close for comfort, possibly. Physically and figuratively. “Yes, she organized the security for some of my properties.” 

“Like that building on Hill in downtown?” 

We’d maneuvered around each other, my left to his right, so that Hosseini’s back was to the stairs. He looked at his phone as if it would give him the answers he needed in this moment. It didn’t seem to have them.  

“H-how do you…” Hosseini trailed off, adjusting his glasses. “What is this all about?” And he took a step back and teetered for a moment and fell.  

He disappeared, it seemed, in a folded grasp at the railings. I took a step forward as if to help him. But it was too late. Hosseini was tumbling down the concrete steps. “What the fuck?” I said, out loud. The man rolled all the way down the steps like a slinky. It seemed to take anywhere between thirty minutes to an hour. I heard a chuckle behind me and jumped a little, startled.  

Big Willie stood there, yawning and rubbing his belly. “Who’s that?” He asked. 

I looked at him and then back down the stairs to Hosseini. Did that a couple times, back and forth until my neck hurt. “Guy that owns the building.” I finally told him.  

“Oh word?” 

I just nodded and sighed. Hosseini had stopped rolling and now someone had to go down there and check and see if he’d broken his neck. A feeling of supreme tiredness had worked its way into every muscle.  

“You didn’t push him, did you?” Willie asked, with a smirk on his face.  

“Did you see me push him?” 

The big man rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Seeing is believing, right?” He looked down the stairs. “You think he dead?” 

What was it about this spot in the world, and this man standing in it, that brought about the expiration of things? These steps were lethal things. Jacob’s Ladder in reverse.  

I told Big Willie I didn’t know and started down the steps to see. Mr. Hosseini was crumpled up under the big fig tree. I could hear him moaning and felt relief uncoil in my stomach.  

“You okay?” I asked.  

Hosseini was laying on his right shoulder. His legs were splayed out; his left leg over the right. He moaned and murmured. I crouched down. There were some sprinklers spraying the sidewalk cracks. They were in a flower bed attached to the building next door. Water was draining down the sidewalk, getting Hosseini wet.  

I put my hand on his shoulder and moved him gently, with the intention of rolling him over. He crooned in pain.  

“Where does it hurt? Your neck?” 

“I think everything hurts.” Hosseini managed a whisper.  

“You think you can move?” 

“I wouldn’t move him.”  

It wasn’t Big Willie’s voice. I looked up from Hosseini and saw Merchant with one hand on his waist and one stretched out against the fig tree. His right foot propped up on one of the tree’s protruding roots.  

“Jesus Christ.” He scared me. “You need a fucking whistle or something, sneaking up on people like that.”  

“You see me directing traffic?” Merchant had a resolute look on his face.  

“Where’s your partner?” 

“He likes to get his beauty sleep.”  

“Funny, doesn’t seem like it’s helping that cough any.”  

“Is that funny?” Merchant came off the tree to stand straight. “You think pushing old men down steps is helpful?” 

“Maybe.” I looked him square in the eyes. “If in after doing so, they give up the goods you want.”  

Merchant smiled at that. He like the tough talk. That was a language he could palaver in. Some mook talking shit and was sure to slip up and find himself in the deep end. His next move was to rub his hands together.  

“Just in time then.” The detective looked over at the stairs to see Big Willie coming down them. “You guys fast friends now?”  

“He lives in the alley, remember.” I told him.  

“Yeah, remember?” Big Willie stopped about three-quarters of the way down and leaned his butt against the railing. He gave me a cold look. 

“I remember.” He nodded at Willie. “You been back there all night?” 

Willie put his eyes on Merchant. “In the alley?” 

The cop looked at him like that was a stupid question.  

“Yeah.” Was all Willie had to say to that look. 

The cop turned to me. “What about you?” 

“Was I in the alley all night?” 

Merchant just deadpanned me. “Yeah man, were you in the alley all night crawling through dumpsters looking for scraps? Couple people called animal control complaining about racoons.” Still, that departed look on his face.  

“You calling us rodents?” Willie asked. “Cause raccoons ain’t rats.”  

“You live in an alley motherfucker.” Merchant popped back. “What you wanna be called?” And there it was.  

The man with the badge kicking up dirt, drawing arbitrary lines. The police, the DeFacto protectors of the social order. When the lines get blurred in natural, humane progression, they’re there to tell you about the past. The good ol’ boys yapping and wrapping folks on the head, telling them about the good ol’ days. 

“What you wanna be called?” Willie came back. “Uncle Tom?” 

Oh shit.  

Merchant came off the fig tree, stepping up on the root and coming down onto the sidewalk, his right hand resting on the holstered piece on his waist. “You wanna come at me like that motherfucker, we can go deep in a motherfuckers past and see just where each of us is coming from.”  

Two motherfuckers in a sentence. Now it was getting serious. I stood up from my crouch. Hosseini was still laying there, whimpering. It was two o’clock on a Sunday morning and the party was just getting started.  

It was quite for a few seconds. Barrington was empty of any traffic. The sprinklers had shut off.  

“Man, them cop therapists are the best.” Willie looked at me. “Always thinking they somebody’s daddy.” 

“Maybe you could use one. You the one living in a alley.” Merchant snapped back. Going back to ol’ reliable.   

Big Willie chuckled. It was a surprising sound. It kind of rumbled out across us like a low thunder. Something that might be far off and maybe you didn’t need to worry about right now. But that’s what I was worried about, when it would finally roll in.  

“Is that how it works? You gotta suck dick to stay off the streets?” Willie had his arms folded across his chest. “Maybe I’m alright after all.”  

“Depends on your disposition.” Merchant turned to me again. “So, you got a partner that’s got your back. Was he there with you at Barnsdall Park tonight? Cause if he was then he might be sucking some dick in county soon. You to?” 

“What happened at Barnsdall Park tonight?” I asked. 

Merchant sighed and shoulders sagged for a half second. It’d been a long day for all and for a half second, we all shared in the weariness. But those moments don’t last on the thin blue line. 

“Erik Agassi was found dead.” Merchant looked from me to Willie then back to me. “Stabbed seven times. Lucky him.”  

Willie and I looked at each other in mock surprise. “Wow.” Was all I said.  

“Somebody saw a red Toyota pick-up truck. Real shitty, hunk-a-junk in the parking lot down there on Hollywood Blvd. Ain’t that what you drive?” Merchant was eyeing me with a bored look.  

I nodded. Hosseini had managed to move over on his back and was looking up at Merchant at an upside-down angle. The detective looked down at him. “Who is this cat?” 

“Muhammad Hosseini.” I told him. “He owns this building, and others.”  

It was hard to tell from the light of the streetlamps but it looked as though the skin on Merchant’s face went tight as a drum. “You’re kidding me.” He crouched down over Hosseini; put a hand on his shoulder with a light touch. “You call an ambulance?” 

“You think he needs one?” I asked. “I think he might be alright.” 

“Jesus Christ.” Merchant muttered. “Your thinking, is it getting you out from under three, possibly four murders?” 

“You thinking I murdered anyone, is that helping you find out who murdered Jackie Meaux?” I pressed in closer. “Or do you still like us for her?” 

Merchant eyed me, and then turned his attention to Hosseini and went through a list of soft questions about the man’s health. The gray-haired man answered the questions in hushed tones. He seemed alright, maybe even ready to try and move.  

“You know the man owns a building downtown, right Merchant?” 

He asked Hosseini if he wanted to file assault charges against anyone present. The man looked at Merchant, upside-down, like he didn’t know what he meant. The detective asked him again if he wanted to file assault charges. Again, Hosseini seemed confused. He’d fallen backwards, no one had put a hand on him.  

But a cop was giving him an option.  

Willie and I exchanged a glance. It was a shared look of knowing. Knowing what things weren’t afforded to us in this world.  

“I fell.” Hosseini finally said.  

“You fell.” Merchant repeated. “This man right here…” He gestured at me. “He didn’t put his hands on you?” 

Hosseini still lay on his back. He looked at me with a rippling chin. He shook his head, trying to remember what happened. I just stood there, not saying a word.  

“He didn’t touch the man.” Willie boomed.  

Merchant whirled on him but didn’t say anything.  

“I was standing there. The man backed up too far.” Willie added.  

“So, the man felt threatened.” Merchant stated.  

“Is he saying that?” I asked, pointing down at Hosseini.  

“Sounds like you putting words in his mouth.” Willie again. “You gotta witness saying how it went. Two against one.”  

Merchant came up from his crouch and put his hands on his waist. “Two against one, huh.” He smiled. “How you figure?” He pointed to Hosseini and then to himself.  

“You call it in, Merchant.” I told him. “We’ll hang around and see what happens. Give us some time to talk.” 

“About what?” The detective left his mouth open. 

“About how Hosseini here owns a building in the Jewelry District where all those robberies jumped off a year ago.”  

“What robberies?”  

Big Willie shifted on the steps and chuckled. Merchant cut his eyes the big man’s way.  

“Maybe I should think about playing dumb more often, see where it gets me.” I told Willie.  

“Maybe you need glasses, you can’t see where you are and what kind of fucking trouble, you’re in.” Merchant shot back.  

He was impatient. Out at night, all alone, with no back up. Figuring he could pull his phone out and call the calvary, but how long would that take.  

“Or maybe I need a glass eye.”  

Merchant looked at me like I was nuts. What the fuck was I talking about? I was drunk or just tired from doggy-paddling all night.  

“He don’t know what any of this is about.” Willie said. “He’s just pretending to.” 

“If you’ve got something to say, then say it, or I’m taking you both in for assault.” Merchant doing his best at being a cop.  

“Both?” Willie balked.  

Merchant just stared at the big man.  

“That’s gonna be tough all by yourself.” I told him.  

The detective had his hand on his gun and was ready to pull it. With his other hand he reached into his pant pocket and pulled out his phone. It made me think of mine. Had I felt it vibrate earlier? Merchant had a flip phone, just like Willie. He flipped it open. The aesthetic worked better for cops. He kept the phone poised in one hand and the other hitched to gun at his waist.  

“You know those two FBI agents you were talking to this morning?” I asked the detective.  

Merchant had a mustache. It wasn’t much but it was there. He put his phone away and took his other hand off his piece and folded his arms across his chest and stroked the hair on his lip with thumb and forefinger.  

“What about em?” The cop said. 

“When you locked us up and couldn’t keep us, they cornered us in a bar and gave us our walking papers.”  

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Merchant stopped stroking his mustache.  

“Armenians and Salvadoreans.” 

Somehow in that low light you could see the cop’s jaw ripple. But he kept his cool and his mouth shut. Letting me lead the way in my fumbling manner.  

“That’s why they were here this morning. Beebe Bonilla and Erik Agassi. Salvadorean and Armenian.”  

“They’re always working gangs.” Merchant shrugged. “So what?” 

“It’s not working anymore.” I told him. “You want information, you gotta stop acting like it’s old news. It’s only making you look like you’re doing a terrible job. That’s not a good look in this town.”  

“It’s shit we’ve been over before.” Merchant stated. “And fuck you know what looks good in this town?” 

“Those robberies were done by Salvadoreans. Stealing Armenian swag.”  

Merchant blinked. Got him. 

“Hosseini owns that building downtown. The Armenians own the parking garage under Pershing right across from that building. Brenda Kafesian, Erik Agassi, Jackie Meaux. It’s not that hard now.” I eyed Merchant. 

“You’re right, it’s not that hard to connect dots. Mark them on a wall and draw lines between them all you want. Don’t mean there’s any rhyme or reason to them.” Merchant was looking down at Hosseini.  

The older man with gray hair was still lying on his back. He was breathing heavily but looked like he might want to get up. Merchant told him not to move, and ambulance was on its way. One went by on Wilshire, loud as can be, overpowering all thought. Maybe the next one would stop for him.  

“If you liked us for Erik Agassi and Brenda, you wouldn’t be here all by yourself, sneaking around at two o’clock in the morning.” I told Merchant. “You’d already have us locked up. Why are you here?” 

The detective took a breath and sighed, long and hard. “Hunch is all.” Merchant crouched down again and helped Hosseini sit up against some railroad ties acting as a flower bed wall. “I thought Beebe might be dumb enough to come back home.”  

“There’s no ambulance coming, is there?” Hosseini asked.  

“You think you need it?” Merchant asked back.  

Hosseini looked around, at me, at Willie who’d come down the stairs and was stretching his back like the sun had already come up, and then finally back to Merchant.  

“I-I don’t… I don’t know. My…my neck hurts a little.” He tried rolling it around and winced in pain.  

Merchant asked him again, if anyone had put a hand on him. Hosseini shook his head, but someone with a cop’s disposition could take it as a gesture of confusion. But the man couldn’t see fully, his glasses had fallen off on the way down. Big Willie brought them over, handing them to Merchant, who gave them over to Hosseini.  

“Th-thanks.” He nodded to Willie. “I know you, don’t I.” 

Merchant and I both looked at Willie, a bit startled. Willie looked possibly put out as well. He was surprised the man placed him. But yeah, maybe he’d seen him in the alley, or knew about Jackie’s benevolence towards him. Or that surprised look on his face was panic.

“I’m in the alley, back there.” Willie told him.  

Hosseini shook his head. “No…no, before that.”  

Before that. Before what?  

Big Willie Winsboro cleared his throat and shrugged. The fig tree seemed to mimic him and its leaves fluttered in a mild breeze above him.  

“What’re we missing here?” Merchant asked, turning on his heels and looking up at the big man.  

“Man might need an ambulance after all.” Willie told him. “Probably got a concussion.”  

Merchant stood up. “Probably…” He cocked an ear toward the building.  

We could hear it too. Shuffling feet at first. And then a door slamming. We all looked at each other. Could be just another tenant coming home from a bar. But we were all poised on the strings of coincidence. The detective took the stairs two at a time. I found myself following him for no other reason than the fear of missing out. I looked over my shoulder and got a quick glimpse of Big Willie helping Hosseini up. There was something there. But put it away for later.  

At the top of the stairs Merchant stopped to take a gander. I came up behind him, heaving. There was a light on in apartment number two. Merchant peered over his shoulder at me.  

“Hunches, huh.”  

He shrugged and walked over to the door. I stayed back, staring down the walkway, toward the alley. The breeze stirred the elephant ears that were planted so haphazardly in a bed in front of the ground level apartments. Merchant didn’t knock. Instead, he lurked near the window, trying to get a look inside. There were curtains drawn though and nothing could be seen. I whispered something about being careful. I don’t know why, but Merchant held up a hand again, to let me know that I was the amateur. What he didn’t know was that I knew this already. I looked down the walkway again, at the alley, thinking that was where the person had come from. The person who made the sounds that we’d heard, that led us to this place, right now.  

I shot a glance over my shoulder. Where were Willie and Hosseini? Still down by the fig tree.  

Back to the walkway and the alley and Merchant still creeping by the window. A floorboard creaked inside the apartment. The detective and I froze. The elephant ears swayed. It was dark in all that green. The light from the apartment gleamed on Merchant. He reached out and knocked on the metal-screen door.  

It was loud. Banging out in the night. A sound that rang us into deafness.  

Merchant had stepped away from the window and positioned himself in front of the door. I still hung back about ten feet, closer to the top of the stairs. There was something about those elephant ears that kept drawing my gaze.  

Something moved over there that wasn’t a plant.  

Before I could yell or scream or croak anything out there was a flash from the foliage. And then a popping sound.  

Merchant grunted and leaned against the door.  

Something burst out of the dark green weeds and bolted down the walkway towards the alley.  

Merchant was splayed against the metal door, reaching backwards, toward his ass. Did he get shot in the ass? I finally moved toward him. 

“Go!” He yelled.  

I stopped. 

“Go after him!” Merchant screamed. “He shot me in the fucking ass!” 

Maybe I should’ve laughed but I was too busy obeying an order. I ran down the walkway towards a gun.  

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 Four

“Not if they dumb.”

My man was right. There was a tunnel behind that gun-metal-gray door. A hallway, really. Lit up by fluorescents, a waxed cement floor stretched out in front of us for at least two hundred yards. Both of us peered down the walkway. None of the lights flickered. Some neat, metal tubing ran along the ceiling and walls.  

“Where you think it goes?” 

Big Willie Winsboro’s eyes moved around, getting his bearings. “Maybe across Olive. Over to the Biltmore.” 

“The Biltmore?” 

Seemed absurd. But maybe the hallway went in that direction and that long of a distance, but I couldn’t fathom the reason for it. Employee parking, maybe.  

“Prolly one that stretches across to Hill, too.” We stood in the open door and looked across the lot and saw another door on the other side. “To them jewelry spots. Tunnels all up under downtown. Everybody knows it. Heard about it, anyway.”  

They were stupid stories. Tales about the Spanish encountering Lizard people living in tunnels and catacombs. All urban legend. Some guy high on peyote in the 30’s got snake-oiled into believing all that shit existed. Somehow that enters the public domain of local mythos. We’re all rubes for a fantastical story.  

“Lizard people, right.” I smirked. Raised eyebrows from Willie was all you get. He believed the stories. “Come on. You believe that shit?” 

“Why not?” Willie took a defying stance. “You believe in God?” 

“I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist. Too scared to go that far, thinking one day it all might be revealed, or something, but that’s just running scared, I guess.” I took a breath, not knowing what might come out my mouth next. “Maybe that’s what I believe in. Fear.”  

“Same shit.” Willie looked bored now. “Whatever moves your guts. Makes you queasy, nervous, butterflies, that’s God.”  

He was so sure. Confidence about the enigmas of the universe always made me wary. It always made me think I wasn’t paying attention. That I was missing something. That it was all right in front of me and my head was shoved too far up my own ass. 

“Maybe.”  

Willie wasn’t trying to convince me. He seemed okay with operating in ambiguity as well. We stepped out of the doorway and the door slammed shut like a bank vault closing. Dust kicked up under some of the cars. The place was quiet except for a weird thumping noise coming from above.  

Back up top we found out where the thumping was coming from. A concert stage had been erected on the far end of the lawn and folks were slowly filling it up. A record erection. Or we’d missed seeing the stage before going into the garage. Willie and me eyed each other in our peripherals. Clues might be falling by our wayside.  

It was some kind of EDM show. There was a woman with short, yellow hair behind some turntables and music consoles. She was pumping out the music, bringing in the moths of throbbing beats.  

Some security goon walked up to us. He had on a black uniform and a black ball cap and wore a gun on his hip without a gun clip in it. He had a tooth pick in his mouth and looked Willie up and down like he was familiar looking.  

“Fuck ya’ll niggas doing walking out of a parking garage?” He had his hands on his hips doing his best small-town sheriff, wiggling that toothpick around his lips with his tongue.  

“We like to walk up inclines.” I told him. “It’s how we get our exercise. Beats humping through malls, you know what I’m sayin.”  

Security goon looked at me like I was speaking Greek. “You can’t just walk up in there though. You gotta drive.”  

“How come you don’t have a clip in that gun?” Big Willie asked the goon.  

Security dude looked him up and down again, not really scared of his size. “Company don’t let us carry live ones.”  

“Why carry a gun then?” The big man pushed.  

The goon spit his toothpick out at our feet. “Nigga move on out a here.” He swept his arm up, shooing us away.  

“What you supposed to do with it?” Big Willie kept at him. “Guess if you pull it and point it at some drunks, they might get scared and do what you tell em.”  

I stood very still, thinking maybe the man was a rule breaker. Maybe he carried a clip somewhere just for mouthy occasions like this. But he kept his cool and only rested his palm on the pommel of his sidearm. He smiled at Willie. 

“I be telling em, man, what if they ain’t drunk and intent on doing some harm. What I do then, throw the motherfucker at em?” He flashed some gold teeth and shook his head. “They ain’t hearing it though. They talking about insurance or something.”  

Willie nodded. He knew the man’s plight. The working man just trying to get some bullets in his gun. Everyone could relate to that.  

“I feel you. But maybe you don’t want that on your conscious either, whether you can put a bullet in somebody or not.”  

Security goon’s brow rose at a good point made. “For sure, for sure.” He nodded his head and put his hands together, one palm over the other’s knuckles.  

Big Willie put a fist out and they pounded. “Ya’ll have good one, aight.” The security looked at me briefly and moved on to hassle someone else. 

“Fucking jobs, man.” Willie said, watching the goon go.  

“How’d you know it would go that way?” 

“What you mean?” 

“The gun thing. How’d you know he wouldn’t get butt hurt about it?” 

“Butt hurt?” Willie shrugged. “Looked like something he wanted to chop up.”  

The man hadn’t looked that way to me. It was starting to shape up that way. Everything was a bit off-kilter. Nothing looked the way it looked. You couldn’t count on what your eyes were giving you.  

“We should get back westside.” I looked past the lawn filling up with young, opened-eared, pill-swallowers, to the center of the square. There was something over there I wanted to take a look at. Something we’d passed on our swift walk in.  

“Where you going?” Willie asked after me.  

It was some kind of engraving. Another kind of art installation. Permanent though, stretching out along a low concrete wall. It was a quote by some, long, gone writer. Talking about newsboys hollering about a trunk murder and bribery and some USC football player pulling off a bank heist. Prophets in the city and the desert. A Grand Guignol of a city if there ever was one.  

Willie was reading the thing, mouthing the words as his eyes moved along the etching. When he finished, he looked back at the concert. “Ain’t much changed.”  

Especially what the scribe had to say at the end, after he’d laid out what seemed like a horror show, was his appreciation for the place and the inextricable machinery that binds you to this place. Making it impossible to leave. Making it impossible for the thought to even gain weight in your soul. 

It’s your home whether you like it are not.   

The blue line was at Pico and Flower. It took you all the way to the ocean. We got off at Bundy, about three miles shy of the Pacific. Willie and me didn’t talk at all on the train. Both of us looking out at too many palm trees and garbage strewn hills. At big metal cranes towering over new developments, multi-use things where people can shop and live without breathing a lick of smog. We walked Olympic to Barrington. It took us about thirty minutes to get back to Jackie’s building, walking slowly up the steps to the first-floor landing. Yellow police tape warded off nosy neighbors and widowed friends.  

“Ain’t nothing in there for you.” Willie was behind me, leaning on the railing, one leg up on the top step and the other leg straightened on a lower step. “What I’m saying, it just a black greasy spot now. Won’t do you no good to see where she was.”  

I nodded. “Okay.”  

He sighed and walked past me, into the alley, finally home.  

Yellow police tape is anything but bureaucratic. It’s just a symbol to let you know death is looming on the other side. I didn’t even tear it going in. Willie was right. It was just a dark spot on a couch. Dried blood that had turned maroon in the evening light. A greasy spot that smelled of metal and mustard. I didn’t stay long in the living room. Cruising her pad, I found nothing out of place. She was a neat freak. She was in the military. No, not the military. Somewhere on the edges of that. A soldier for sure, though. A mercenary for hire. Working for some security firm. Whatever she did, did this to her.  

I sat on the couch, next to her greasy spot and waited for the grief. 

But it never came. 

Only anger crept in.  

Frustration and mystery reigned. Lived in my gut and stayed away from my head and my heart. Nothing could touch those two things, locked up the way they were. It was an eerie feeling sitting there in the gloom of friends remains and feeling no emotion except for one. Rage will hollow you out into rotten log. Years of trying to stuff tendrils of blown dreams into it, waiting for the sun to harden you back to life is rote stuff, and all you find yourself doing is sleeping in the wetness.  

And dreams do still come to you. Moving through the swamp of sleep, are memories and flashes looking to be put away. The mind can only handle so much. Space needs to be made. So, in rolls the fog through the hanging moss and there was Jackie Meaux.  

I never dreamed of people I knew. Always nameless faces. People to meet in the future, perhaps. Or just plain old me at different junctures, unrecognizable in the back of the mind. Projections of oneself run amok. But that was Jackie in a ditch on the side of the road. Could be me as her, I guess, but she was there looking at me in a dream, and all I could do was stop and stare.  

She said something to me. Sitting there in the brown toilet water of a dugout drainage system. It was some other language though. Some pigeon French they speak down there in the natural diggings. Cajun, creole, whatever you wanna call it.  

“Ki sa ou ap gade, nonm?”  

It was a question, I think. 

Her hair was an explosion of nappy vines. It had never looked like that before. In the waking hours she’d always had it flat against her scalp. In this place, it reached out and seemed woven into the trees behind her.  

“What?” I asked her.  

Jackie’s eyes were bloodshot, and she had her knees out of the water and her forearms resting on them. “Pa gade mwen konsa, nonm.” 

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I told her.  

I stood in the middle of a road. A two-lane blacktop, gone grey and crumbly with potholes. A dark greenness was everywhere. In the trees and kudzu that grew like Sacramento walls all around. 

“You never did.” Jackie plucked a water moccasin out of the dirty water around her.  

“Put that thing down.”  

“You scared of snakes. Fuck, I forgot.” She held the black, rubbery thing up to her face. It flicked its tongue to her lips.  

“What’re you doing out here?” 

“You don’t remember shit, man.”  

The snake wasn’t a snake anymore. It was some sort of long root she put in her mouth and chewed on for a few seconds, and then she spit out a yellow stream of juice that kept its color and coiled in on itself in the tan water.  

“I can’t argue.” I told her. 

“You never did.”  

“Lots of nevers.”  

“Pa nan plas sa a.” 

Something or someone was standing over me. I couldn’t feel out where I was. It was dark and the world was still swirling with sub-conscious intents. A line of wakefulness and dream kept me sunken in place. But there was something or someone looming.  

“Fuck you doing?” A voice asked.  

My eyes wouldn’t open.  

“Wake up, man.” The voice was familiar.  

Then a light when on. The click of it made me flinch and jumpstarted my eyelids. There was Big Willie Winsboro by the door, his hand coming away from the light switch. The lamp on the other end of the couch gave out an amber light.  

“Falling asleep at a crime scene would be a cop’s wet dream.” He looked at the spot next to me on the couch. “They got them ideas that have motherfuckers coming back, whacking off to it and shit.”  

I sat up. My neck was all fucked up. “I didn’t touch my dick, I promise.”  

Willie stepped away from the door and stood in front of a big, flat screen mounted on the wall. He looked down at the loom rug under his feet. The dark, wooden coffee table in the middle of the room. The exercise bike over by the sliding glass door. A tall plant in the corner with giant, flat leaves.  

“Wonder what they do with all this shit.” He pondered.  

The logistics of death was too soon to think about. But there it was. Out there to worry about now. “She have a will?”  

The big man looked down at me. “Wouldn’t you know that?” 

“I’m her lawyer?” Sitting up further, putting my elbows on my knees.  

“You her best friend.”  

“Was I?”  

The look Willie gave me was expressionless, but it expanded the emptiness in me. It spread out in my stomach like a black hole, sucking in all the despair.  

“You look around?” He asked. “Maybe she left something that says something like that. Something about next of kin, I don’t know.”  

“You look around, yet? You got a key don’t you?”  

We stared at each other for a minute. It got us nowhere. Then the front door opened and a Vans-clad foot stepped in; and a body of a what looked like a man realizing the lay of the land, froze, pulled his foot back, said “ohp”, and shut the door.  

“What the fuck?” I blurted out. 

Willie was frozen too, looking at the door. I got up and went to the door and flung it open. Footsteps down the stairs. Maybe Willie was behind me, I don’t know, I didn’t look. But there I was, plunging into the night.  

Something moved to the left, at the bottom of the stairs, headed south along the sidewalk on Barrington. Down by that big fig tree where Willie and I sat earlier, I could see a figure running toward Texas Ave.  

Whoever he was, he had a good lead. A hundred yards at best. Just before he got to Texas he hopped in a car and the little sedan shot past me, up to Wilshire and was gone. I grabbed for my phone again, steady taking down plates, not that I had a way to run them, just a fan of too many dime novels. But it was too dark to make any digits out. The car was some kind of Toyota, I thought. An old thing from the early 2000’s. A relic now in the industry of hybrids and sports utility. I trudged back up the sidewalk and Willie was out by the big tree in front of the steps.  

“Toyota Corolla.” He said. “Champagne.”  

I was out of breath and didn’t bother to answer. Big Willie didn’t mind. “I think that’s the girl’s car.”  

“What girl?” 

“That girl you saw on the steps.”  

“Beebe?” I remembered her name finally.  

Willie nodded. 

“The girl you didn’t see on the steps.” I said to him.  

Willie didn’t react to that either. “You think champagne’s a good color for a car?” I don’t think he wanted me to answer that. “I never understood the color. It’s like puke-green. Why would you want that as a color for anything?” 

“You think that was Erik back there?” Wondering if he shit his pants when he saw Willie standing in the middle of the living room. “Knowing the cops wouldn’t have locked a door if their lives depended on it.”  

“Locked doors ain’t that favorable for them.”  

“What would he want in Jackie’s place?” 

“Maybe them cop theories are right.” Willie leaned against the fig tree. “They like to come back and smell the panties.”  

I stepped past him and went up the steps, two at a time, feeling my chest expand, getting used to the rush of air and exertion. It’d been a while since the body moved more than at a walk. But it felt good to stir the blood up. I couldn’t tell you what I was looking for, but I went in ransacking the place anyway. Jackie’s place wasn’t hard to give a toss. She didn’t have much. She lived light. Her kitchen was spare. Nothing in the fridge would give most people a sad feeling in their gut, but I lived the same way, and could understand she probably ate a lot of take out in her car or at work. Wherever that was. I called her a friend but I obviously didn’t know her that well. Her cabinets were mostly bare. A few plates and bowls and glasses and coffee cups. A can of refried beans and crushed tomatoes. Some utensils and Ziplocs in drawers. In her bedroom was a bed on a wooden frame, low to the ground. A small dresser and two nightstands. Her closet wasn’t full of clothing like you’d think. A woman would have a couple of closets to fill. No, she had a handful of shirts and slacks. Jeans and t-shirts. That was it. I went through the dresser. Socks and underwear and shorts and workout clothing. Nothing hiding under the panties. Sorry, Erik. Please come back so we can discuss. I went back to the closet and looked for shoes. She had a small rack that held a pair of running shoes and some high-tops. Both Nike. There were no kind of flats or business-casual shoes. That was weird. There was a black box deep in the corner, in the dark. A safe. I pulled a cord and an uncovered bulb lit up the closet. For some reason it looked strangely placed. Like it’d been moved or slid around in there. I kneeled down and gave it a gander. There was number pad and a lever-knob you turned once the right code was entered.  

“You know the code to get in that thing?”  

I jumped. Fucking Big Willie Winsboro was light on us fucking feet. Shook my head at him and looked at the number pad wondering maybe if I knew the code though. “You know it?” 

“Didn’t even know she had a safe. Never been back here.”  

Looking over my shoulder at him curiously. “Not even to the bathroom?” 

Willie shook his head. “Just the kitchen and the couch. Watch a little Judge Judy while I eat a sandwich.”  

“Judge Judy?” Giving him a quick crinkled eye and then going back to the number pad, think of numbers, dates mostly. Hyphened numbers that mean something to people. Birthdays and anniversaries.  

Then it occurred to me, punching numbers on the pad before I could even finish the thought in my head. The thing made a slight tone, and I tried the lever, and it gave to the left and the heavy door opened.  

“Shit.” Was all Willie had to say.  

“Shit is right.”  

“What was it?” 

I looked back at him. “My birthday.”  

The big guy didn’t say anything. Didn’t even ask what the date was, just kind of nodded like it all made sense. All of it. From the very beginning when he’d uttered those first words that Jackie was dead, he seemed greased and ready to dive down the water slid, like he’d been in that exact place before. Unflappable is what they call it.  

He was waiting for me to peer into the safe. Find out what was in it. He wasn’t afraid of what we might find. Again, he was too comfortable for my taste. Mix in a little caution into your cup of adventure.  

It was dark in that little box. I wrangled my phone from my pocket. There were no notifications. No texts or messages from apps trying to pull me into their algorithmic fire. A tinge of sadness rolled through me.  

No one loved me. Not even the internet.  

I swiped up and hit the flashlight and pointed the phone to the innards of Jackie Meaux’s safe. I could feel Big Willie leaning in. Smell his breath. A mix of garlic and licorice. I almost gagged. There was nothing in there but a black, velvet pouch and a manila envelope. I didn’t reach in for them right away. Instead, turning on my heels to see if Willie saw what I saw. He did.  

Booby-traps came to mind. Putting your hand in a box and feeling pain caused for pause. The high-handed enemy. A test of humanity, right. We’ve all been here before. At the late-night reading of things.  

“It’s just a safe, man. You already opened it.” Willie could read minds.  

A short, clipped breath came out of my mouth and the pouch was in my hand. Diamonds, some kinds of jewels were in there. I could feel something rolling around in there. Uncinch the top and look in.  

There was a marble of some kind in the pouch. A big marble. She collected marbles, Jackie Meaux. Kept them in her safe. It was another thing I didn’t know about her. Another strange thing she kept away from people. That dream of dirty ditches lingered.  

“What is it?” Willie asked.  

I just handed him the bag. He looked in briefly and then poured the contents of the pouch in his hand. The thing that lay in his palm was the biggest marble I had ever seen. It was smooth and had the colors of a nebula. Yellow and brackish green and burnt orange and magenta played against a backdrop of pinpointed black.  

“What is it?” My turn to ask.  

Big Willie rolled it around in his palm. “Some kind of polished gem.”  

Stating the obvious can only get you so far. “No shit.”  

He ignored me. Rightfully. “Wait.”  

I waited. He examined the thing like a proper jeweler. All he needed was the loupe lens. 

“Something weird on this.” Willie had tilted his head and cringing a bit.  

“What?” 

He made a funny face. Like he had an answer but was afraid it would sound too off the wall to actually verbalize it. Things in your head have a special echo and when you let it out in space it becomes a different thing.  

“Looks like an eyeball.” 

“What?”  

“Look.”  

Willie handed the thing back to me. I was still on my haunches and took the thing. My phone’s light still on, I turned the marble in my hand. There was a dark spot like an iris. I could see that. And around it was a swirl of all the colors. Something that could be an iris. Maybe.  

“A glass eye?”  

Willie shrugged. “Expensive if it is.”  

“Kind of ornate too.”  

The big man ignored my shot at the vocabulary hall-of-fame and took the marble back and put it in its pouch. “Erik and Beebe looking for this.” He gave the pouch back to me. “Maybe they even killed Jackie for it.”  

“You think they killed her?” 

“She was on them steps.”  

“But where was her man?” 

“Sneaking into somebody else’s crib.” Willie’s bottom lip sagged downward. “Maybe the motherfucker’s a B&E man.”  

“I think he was in here before tonight.” I looked down at the safe. “Looks like somebody was trying to get into this thing.”  

“He kills her looking for the marble.” Willie was playing it out.  

But we were amateurs. Or maybe it was just me. He could be leading me. It had that feel. Like he was feeling me out, wondering when I’d take the lead. Or it was all paranoia and trusting anyone seemed a sucker’s game now. 

“This thing worth all that?” I hefted the pouch in my hand.  

“Either it is or isn’t. People die over dumb things all the time.”  

Big Willie Winsboro the Wise. The sagest mother on the planet. You only get that kind of philosophical insight by living in alleyways and walking around barefoot like a Hobbit. There was something to be said for shirking societal constructs.  

“This don’t look like dumb to me.” I told him, hefting the pouch. “This looks like motive.” It felt good to say, like I was spouting a line that I’d memorized late at night, hoping the cameras in the morning would be kind.  

“Looks pretty dumb to me. Slitting a woman’s throat for a glass eye.” Willie looked bored. “Thing can’t be worth that much.”  

Maybe he just wanted to get back to his tent. Maybe he was lamenting the loss of kitchen access. No more Judge Judy for a while. Maybe he was just tired. It had been a long day of blood and cops and scabbed over legs and spooky parking garages.  

“It’s worth something to somebody.” I was saying the obvious things; not sure why any convincing had to be done. “We just need to find out what it means to them.”  

Big Willie nodded. “Thinking about this thing I asked you earlier.” He looked me in the eyes. “About what you knew about her work. What she did for living. You didn’t seem to know, really. Jackie worked for some security firm. But what does that mean? What security firm? You know?” 

I didn’t know. There was another bedroom. The apartment was a two-bedroom. What she needed two bedrooms for was beyond me. Maybe just more space and if you could afford it in this town, why not. I stepped across the hall to the other room. There was a burgundy futon along one wall and a desk with a nice office chair along the opposite wall. There was a small filing cabinet next to the desk. The desk was bare except for a lamp and a penholder. There was a computer cord coming up from a socket in the wall, then end of it resting on the top of the desk.  

“She had to have a laptop, right.”  

Big Willie had shuffled into the doorway of the other bedroom. “You say so.” He was losing steam.  

Looking around the room brought more spareness. The closet in that room held some blankets and coats and some winter clothes. “Somebody’s got that and her phone I bet.”  

“You tried calling it?” Willie reached in his pocket and took out a little flip phone.  

It looked like a Hot Wheel in his massive hand. He flicked it open and pushed buttons. I didn’t express any surprise over the man having a flip phone this day in age. To each his own. He put the phone up to his ear. I imagined I could hear the ringing. 

Willie frowned and snapped the phone closed. “Voicemail.”  

I pulled my phone out and navigated to Jackie’s number and called it. It rang four times before an automated voice pushed you to her voicemail. She didn’t have a personal greeting. That seemed strange.  

“Same.” I looked at Willie and down to my phone and sent Jackie’s phone a text.  

“You texted it?” 

“Whoever has this phone, we should talk.” Repeating the text sent.  

“If they smart, they keep quiet.” Willie surmised.  

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’re dumb. I mean, my man just tried to walk in on us. They seem desperate and we got something they want.” I held up the pouch still in my hand.  

“How they know we could get in the safe?” 

“They have to assume.”  

“Not if they dumb.”  

The sage street scholar at it again. Four words that could get you in a lot of trouble if they weren’t true. But we’ve come to trust in the dunces of the world, whether wrecked with wantonness or not.  

“Dumb people make assumptions that land sometimes.” I stepped over to the filing cabinet next to the desk. “Especially those whacked out on meth. Motherfuckers can be wily when you ain’t looking.”  

Willie nodded like somebody was finally speaking his language. He watched me as I went through Jackie’s filing cabinet. Pulling out folders and looking through paperwork, like I knew what I was doing. 

“What you looking for?” Willie had perked up a bit.  

“Looks like security contracts.” I told him, thumbing through the papers. “Looks like Jackie worked for a company called Night Hawk.” Flipping through sheets of legal language. “Night Hawk Securities.”  

It meant nothing to either of us. Just a filling in of a blank. A huge blank for people who called another a friend. “What kind of security company?” Willie asked.  

“Jewelry stores.” I put one folder down to rifle through another. “Most of these are contracts for places downtown.” Bubble popping somewhere in the back of my head.  

“Damn.” Was all Willie had to say. 

“The guy that owns this building…” The bubbles were building into a buzz. “You seen him around, right?” 

Willie shrugged and shook his head and poked out his bottom lip.  

“Dudes name is Hosseini, or something like that.” Plopping folders down on the desk.  

“What about him?” 

“His name is on some of these contracts.”  

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.