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.