Chapter Seventeen

Serpentine Stairs towards Switchback Heaven.

Ronald Reagan.  

That’s where they took Big Willie Winsboro.  

Ronald Reagan Memorial Hospital in Westwood.  

It was just around the corner from Hosseini’s. And that’s where I took Beebe, not knowing until later, that’s where the big man hand ended up. Although, I could’ve just looked at my phone. There was a message from Merchant.  

Who would’ve thought that Ronald Reagan would be taking care of brown people, though? It helped that police were involved. Feds too. Some of the injured in Barnsdall had been brought over so the G-Men could keep close eye on them. So, when I came dragging Beebe in through the emergency doors, it was like they were expecting us. Merchant and Larsen. Johnson and Johnson. Some of those Salvadoreans in the park. A confluence of cocksuckers. I immediately regretted taking her there.  

Beebe wasn’t so happy either. She bitched at me as she was taken away on a gurney. Not wanting to be at a hospital like most sane and well-adjusted people, so she held onto the opal for good luck. The thing’s orbit taking hold. The obsession was beginning. The thing had found a new schmuck. Or was its power different over women. They weren’t as weak as men and it was better for all in the palm of her hand.  

I found Willie in a recovery room. Wires and tubes connected and coming out of all the orifices. His skin looked ashen. A grayish purple tone to his face, and maybe some new crevices had appeared in his forehead and around the mouth. But he was breathing. That was good.  

“Can you believe this motherfucker’s alive?” 

I turned my head to the doorway. Merchant, leaning against the frame.  

“Kind of, yeah.” Looking back to Willie. “But it makes you not trust reality, a little.”  

“Cause we all saw him take his last breath.”  

I nodded, but didn’t say anything else on it. Merchant leaning on his crutch. He looked like he’d taken a shower and changed his clothes recently. I was so tired of talking to this dude.  

“They pulled out the paddles on him. Sparked him right back to it.” Merchant shook his head. “Guess he wanted to live.”  

Pointing out the obvious was the man’s forte. And it was what ground you down. You wondered if he even knew it. If he knew he had the power of a stump grinder. “You still trying to charge him for Jackie’s murder?” 

“We found a Kershaw in them plants out front. You know them fucking elephant ears all out of control, in front of number two?” Merchant scoffed. “Dickhead just dropped the knife there. Prints all over it.” He couldn’t believe what he was saying.  

“Took you that long to find it? It was right there all that time?” 

“We found it.”  

We looked each other in the eyes. There was a wall between us. Not a tangible thing. Just a feeling that we’d never understand much about each other. We were spent saliva to each other. Something to leave on the ground. 

“So that’s it.” I asked.  

“You brought in the last of it.”  

For a split second I thought he was referring to the opal. But he wasn’t. He meant Beatriz Bonilla. They were one in the same. Weren’t they? Just a curious looking stone to put away in evidence. To put in a plastic bag on a shelf so it can be categorized and possibly be recalled later. Beebe would be charged for Erik’s murder. Who in turn would be charged for Jackie’s murder. It all seemed so simple then. It was known from the very beginning. And no one cared about Hosseini are the Armenians. Feds cared about the Salvadoreans. It was clear where the tethers were tightened and drawn.  

“Hosseini left town.” I told Merchant.  

Merchant took his time with it. “The guy that owns the apartment building.” He sold it well, with a deadpan stare.  

“Yeah, the guy that’s got LAPD on the payroll.” 

That straightened him up. Got him standing, rather than leaning in the doorway. “Say what?” 

“You don’t play the dope well.” I told the detective. “You guys know about Matos.”  

Merchant’s eyes narrowed and you could see him going somewhere that could only be touched by him. “She got caught up in that Fed raid.” Holding it all together. “Sometimes moonlighting will get your ass in a sling.”  

“She wasn’t working security at an elementary school, man.”  

“What the fuck you know about being a fucking cop?” 

“You got two that ain’t in the red no more.” I nodded. “Check’s in the mail, right.”  

“Fuck you.”  

It wasn’t going to get any better than that. It was a dark rift, not a thin blue line. There just wasn’t any room in his mind for someone like me. Someone straddling cracks. A man in-between. Merchant was looking at me like he’d always looked at me. Frustration all over his face. Like he was waiting for me to pick a side. Sides that had nothing to do with the lawful or the unlawful. Sides that had to do with shades and tones of skin color. No one knows where you stand. Not even you. Just what are you, and how did you get here? 

I thought of a ditch on the side of a road in Northern Louisiana.  

That’s how I’d gotten here.  

But why had I stayed? 

For that woman in the ditch.  

Jackie Meaux.  

I stared at Big Willie Winsboro. “You think he’ll make it?” He was breathing okay, it seemed.  

“Hell yeah.” Merchant was glad to put away the heaviness of our constructs. “Motherfucker was resurrected. There’s purpose behind shit like that.”  

Shit like what? But I didn’t ask that out loud. “You a religious man?” 

The cop’s face scrunched up. “Maybe.” He wasn’t quite sure. 

“Where’s your partner?” 

He gave me a look like it was none of my business. “That cough finally put him down.”  

“Put him down?” 

Merchant shook his head. “He just laid up.” He looked at Willie.  

We stood there for three or thirty minutes without saying anything. Merchant limped out of the doorway on his crutch. 

“How’s your ass feeling?” I asked at his back.  

He was half-way down the hallway when he said. “Better than yours.” it floated on an echo into the room.  

I stuck around for a few hours after Merchant left; roaming the halls and visiting the dead. Well, not really visiting. Lingering just out of reach of the Feds and LAPD. They had the Salvadoreans they brought in under heavy guard. They weren’t letting anyone see Beebe either. There was a little nurse-chatter about the Salvis. Something about La Pantera Rosa not being amongst the bedridden. He got away. Didn’t surprise me. Guys like that live to fight another day. No doubt that was why Hosseini skipped town. If the Feds and the Armenians couldn’t get him, then they’d take the money and run.  

I left the hospital at the point of exhaustion. Hadn’t slept in a couple of days and the period was at the end of its sentence. There was nothing left to do. The what now had reached its adieu. The whatever would have its day.  

So, I went home. To that little, sardine can in Pico-Union. Those goons weren’t in the park across from those ancient mansions. Maybe they got rounded up, or they took to the mattresses, knowing there’s a target on their backs, but they weren’t out there. I parked the Mustang along the curb of the park, in front of those houses called Alvarado Terrace, and let the warmth of the day settle in. Staring at those houses. A row of mansions all built around 1903. You know the story. White people dig in the earth and discover old dinosaur bones liquified into black sludge. A great lube for combustible engines. The rest is just history and money. White people build big houses and draw the lines around their fiefdoms. It’s all about property.  

That’s what I’ve learned.  

But boundaries are imagined, and people walk across them every day. And mix and mix and mix. And there’s nothing you can do about it, no matter how privileged you are. So, go ahead and back yourself into a corner, put up your dukes, and ready to fight for whatever trash you deem your bloodline. 

I fell asleep in the car. Dreaming about lines in the sand, big as Louisiana ditches. Banging on metal woke me up. There was Small Johnson with a hand flat on the hood of a stolen car.  

Speaking of white people in corners.  

I stuck my head out of the window. “Shouldn’t you be at Barney’s Beanery, celebrating?” 

He kind of smiled and squinted in the sun. “I missed you at Ronald Reagan.”  

“Did you?” 

“You almost made it.” Small Johnson, whose real name was Tommy Guenther from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, nodded towards a place my apartment might be. His dress-collar was too bright and stiff to look on at this hour. It was abrasive and uncool at this hour. It was noon. Or somewhere where shadows stuck close to the body.  

“Fuck you want?” I got out of the truck and leaned against the door.  

He shrugged and put his hands in his pockets and looked at one of the houses across the street. “Thought you might wanna know where Hosseini is.”  

I didn’t. But I was interested in one thing. “Why would you wanna dime your benefactor out like that?” 

Tommy Guenther squinted even more. “That’s a deal Bonner made, not me.”  

Bonner. Tall Johnson. “Tell LAPD you willing to buck?” 

“They got nothing on him and he’s left their jurisdiction.”  

“Nobody’s got anything on him, really.”  

“You do.” He looked at me. “So does your pal, Willie Winsboro.”  

I looked at him with upturned lips. Playing it hard, but knowing where this was going. “I recall you and Bonner being there when that barrel of money was dropped off.” 

Guenther scoffed. “Speaking of LAPD. They found four bodies at a dumpsite down near Long Beach.” He let that sit. “Word is the site manager is talking.”  

And there it was. Aiding and abetting murder. Short-hairs time, and maybe forever. I hoped I hadn’t blinked a hundred times before I said this. “Fuck are you talking about?” 

Tommy wasn’t buying anything I had to sell him. “Your buddy Willie will wake up, and I doubt he’ll implicate you, but that lot attendant has been talking about a little, red Toyota truck.” He tapped the hood with his ring finger. “And there was a Mustang that was reported stolen from a storage facility in Torrance the attendant can put eyes on.”  

“Say I give myself up.” I folded my arms in defense. “Start singing about you, Bonner and Hosseini.” 

“To LAPD?” Guenther looked amused.  

“Thinking your higher-ups would like to know their hitched up with the Armenian Power.”  

Tommy Guenther, a.k.a Small Johnson, stepped from in front of the car and leaned on the side of it with me. “How you plan on getting that meeting?” He asked.  

“I don’t know. Stand outside with a sign, holler and stomp around with the rest of them protestors.”  

That made the Fed laugh. “That’s funny.”  

“Is it?” 

“You wanna know how Hosseini and Bonner got all chummy?”  

Of course, I did, but I didn’t know we were all chummy. Guenther and me. One and half crackers shooting the shit in the shadow of old, white money. MS-13 territory now. White boys better watch out. I asked him how, but it was just more questions that made me trust my skepticism when it came to chumminess and Feds. 

“Who you think’s out there with those homemade signs most days?” 

They were out there most days, it seemed. On the corner of Wilshire and Veteran. Carrying signs saying something about freeing Iranian prisoners. Waving Iranian flags. Made sense. Most of Westwood was Persian owned.  

“Hosseini connected to those folks?” 

“He brokered a deal for those people not to be moved off that corner. Bureau brass was ready to call in some favors from LAPD to move them, less than civilized like. Hosseini came in and worked something out.”  

Worked something out. “That’s some serious weight.” I mused. 

Guenther nodded. “Man moves in some serious circles.”  

“So why you here, man? Serious Circles is halfway to Israel by now. Man’s untouchable.”  

Tommy the Fed shook his head slightly. “You and your boy touched him. That’s why he’s on the run. And if Willie wanted to talk… now that would be something.”  

“’You just said he wouldn’t.”  

Guenther shrugged. “Hosseini doesn’t know that.”  

“What’d you want from me?” 

Tommy Guenther smiled at me. His teeth were as white as his collar and I didn’t dare look at him longer than I should. 

Eventually, I walked home to my studio apartment with that rec-center-blue carpet and cigarette-yellow walls and slept for twenty hours. And when I was awakened by the Tejano music next door, I went outside to smoke a cigarette I didn’t have. I looked around for butts in the sidewalk cracks like a proper street fiend, but there was an old Salvadorean lady out there sweeping the broken concrete clean. I hadn’t smoked in years. Had no idea what I was doing out there, other than looking for a fog to cover my anxiousness. A familiar beat came bumping down the street. But it wasn’t a Honda Accord’s doors rattling up the block but a white 64’ El Camino. Built at the beginning of time to last. It idled down the street like an albino alligator, cruising for carrion. The driver wasn’t familiar to me. But the guy in the passenger seat looked like La Pantera Rosa. Not such a rosy complexion now, though. He looked pale. Although, it could’ve been the brightness of the interior reflecting off his skin. The El Camino stopped abreast of me, in the middle of the street. The driver had on dark sunglasses and a black windbreaker buttoned up to his neck. He leaned over and turned the music down, then looked back at me and nodded. I looked passed him at Flores. He nodded too. For a split-second I thought we were all just being good neighbors, milling out mellow motions on another blue-skied day, but the driver had to go and ruin it by placing a Glock 22 on his window seal. I looked over at the old lady sweeping the sidewalk, but she was minding her own business and making her way in the other direction. I walked over to the El Camino, making my way over to Flores’ side, thinking about where the MP9 was in my apartment.  

“Missed you at Barndall Park.” Flores looked bored.  

“You weren’t the only one.” I told him.  

“I know, saw you talking to that Fed yesterday.” Like it was nothing to flaunt his omnipresence. “You should get in the back.” His head gestured towards the bed of the El Camino.  

“You think I dimed you out to the Feds?”  

Flores looked at me, straight-on. “I know you didn’t. But you should get in the back. We’re gonna go for a ride.”  

“A ride where?” But I already knew. Flores and Guenther were on the same wavelength. Maybe even on each other’s speed dials. Bonner had Hosseini and his partner had Flores. The sick games men play. Tall versus Small.  

“You already know, motherfucker. Get in the back.” Flores’ eyes went all angry. 

“Get in the back, bitch.” The driver waved his Glock at me, seeing now that his black windbreaker had a Raiders logo on the chest. 

All had on was a faded blue Batman t-shirt and black UCLA basketball shorts. Barefoot and fancy free.

Okay. I got in the back of the El Camino, and when the thing roared up to Pico and took a left, and soared all the way to the Westside like Johnny Gold, I knew exactly where we were going. We passed Fox Studios and Hillcrest Country club across the street. A dozen or so groups playing golf. It was a fine day. Like every other day. It made you forget, this town. The silvery light of the Southland obliterates your hippocampus each day into a smile of moving dementia. There’s no other place you’d rather be. Because forgetting is living. How else can you live in the now? Just find where the sun shines and turn up Veteran and head straight towards the Santa Monica Mountains. Right on Sunset. Left on Bellagio and swirl up the serpentine stairs towards switchback heaven. You’ve taken this trip before. But never in the back of a white, El Camino. It was nice. The driver taking his time on the turns, like a nice, family drive up into the mountains. The eucalyptus trees towered over us, their slender leaves waggling like green arrows in the breeze. You could close your eyes and imagine you were in paradise, taking deep breaths and smelling the mint and citrus in the air. The turbo V-8 rumbling through your ears and up your backside, along your spine, could lull you into false hope. But those two dudes in the cab keep your eyes open, because this wasn’t a visit between friends.  

The El Camino came to stop under those trees by the tennis court. Big Willie and I had sat in the same place wondering who it was that Cliff was meeting. Guenther had told me outside Alvarado Terrace whose tennis court that was. Agassi. The dude wearing the Raiders windbreaker shut the Camino off and the sounds of California scrub-jays could be heard all around us in the trees.  

“I heard you got my money out of that storage unit.” Flores said, through the open passenger window. The fop of a tennis ball could be heard going back and forth on the court.  

“We did.” Although Willie had done all the heavy lifting. “Last time I saw it, it was in a garage in Westwood.” I looked over and could just make out two figures through the trees. “But it ain’t there anymore.”  

Flores nodded in my periphery. “Now it’s here.”  

“That what Guenther told you?” 

La Pantera Rosa, who wasn’t pink at all, opened the passenger door and got out of the car. He looked to be favoring his left leg. The dude driving got out of the car too. He wasn’t favoring anything but that Glock in his hand. I got out of the back of the El Camino because the end of a line was near and I desperately wanted to see what it looked like. We three stood there under a mammoth Eucalyptus tree and looked toward the tennis court. The scrub-jays were still chattering and the tennis ball was in a rhythmic twang off the rackets. Two out of three of us had shoes on.

“Anybody else see the irony here?” It was a line I’d heard in a movie. It was something I did when I couldn’t think of anything to say. They just seem to pop up.  

Flores and his boy looked at each other over the hood of the car. I was standing at the tailgate, wishing someone would finally get me. “Tennis.” I stated. “Agassi, tennis…” I shook my head. “Forget it.” Resigned to a reality gone rogue.  

“It’s a popular name in Armenia.” The dude in the Raiders windbreaker saw me.  

Flores gave his boy a nod and they both started towards the little, parking spot where Cliff’s Beamer was parked. Three steps led up to a chain-linked door that went onto the court. I followed but hung back. The tennis court had been built at the bottom of a canyon wall. It was lousy with kudzu overgrowth. The place was dark and green and the feeling of being sheltered permeated everything. Flores was limping for sure. His left leg bothering him as he made it to the gate and lifted up the latch. His driver was standing a step below him, still with that Glock out, when his head exploded all over the chain-linked fence. His body slumped down the steps before I even heard the gunshot echo down the canyon. He was still holding on to his gun as it clacked on the concrete.  

La Pantera turned to look over his shoulder with little surprise and then walked out onto the court. Price to pay for admittance. He knew exactly what he was getting into. But there was no way he could be thinking he’d get what he was owed. That shot had come from somewhere along the ridge, hidden in all that kudzu. Agassi was playing a more ruthless game. Assassins in the trees was not the game of checkers Flores was brushing out. I shot up the stairs and onto the court, not wanting to lose any pickings on this fine day.  

Agassi was sitting in a chair along a concrete retaining wall, drinking water from a plastic bottle. Cliff was over by a small toolshed putting tennis balls away, pretending not to shit his pants. Both were acting as if no one’s brains were just blown all over the court. Or maybe they were just secure in the fact that they had hound out there in the woods with screaming bullets to protect their backs. Agassi’s gaze finally swept over to us, as if we were there to scape some land for one of his many properties. Flores was breathing heavily, sweat on his brow. I hung back, looking at Cliff. We were more alike in this setting than I thought possible. Both beat-up bystanders lurking on the edges of powerful blades.  

“What’s up Arden?” Flores managed.  

Arden Agassi. He looked like the guy in county lock-up with me and Willie. But he didn’t have any tattoos. He had the requisite bald head, but he had a lanky frame from seeing many days of light leisure. And he was definitely the guy in the lady’s apartment that was arguing with Hosseini. But who was the guy in jail with us? I could feel the kudzu moving out there on the ridge. The hairs on the back of my neck rising up. Looking over my shoulder through the chain-linked fence, all I could see was a vast wall of green; the light breeze causing a wave effect in the foliage.  

“Miguel.” Agassi picked something off the end of his tongue and flicked it away.  

Miguel Flores. Like his father. Two families that went way back. Armenians and Salvadoreans in the land of the sun. “Where’s my money?” Flores asked, not really giving a fuck about history of families.  

Agassi squinted. “What money?” 

Flores looked over his shoulder at me. That’s my I’m here. To bear witness. “The money in that blue barrel.” I croaked. “We found it in a storage unit down in Torrance.”  

The Armenian didn’t seem surprised by any of this. Hosseini had hit him up already, no doubt. “Curious place, isn’t it.”  

Flores and I didn’t know who he was addressing. We looked at each other and flickered our eyebrows. “The storage spot?” I finally asked. 

“It was my brother’s idea.” Agassi began. “It was bait. Trying to lure you down there.” He looked at Flores. “But you didn’t take it. Pretty neat play, I’ll give you that. Sending those two down there.” He looked at me. “What was your promised percentage?” 

“Twenty.” I almost yelled it. Flores didn’t bother to look at me. Hoping on hope that somebody would honor an arrangement. Maybe somebody would get paid. At least walk away with something. And immediately I felt a twinge; a tug from a discorporate hand on my shoulder. A cold touch from friend already forgotten.  

“Twenty percent of what, exactly?” Agassi asked.  

Flores looked confused. “Two mil…”  

“This is why you’ve failed, Miguel.” Arden told him. “You don’t treat people with the proper respect.” He nodded my way. “The man’s cut would’ve been a few million more than that.” He had his legs crossed and brushed something off his white shorts.  

La Pantera gave me a mystified look. “How much was in that barrel.” He asked me.  

I didn’t really know exactly. Just what Willie had said, offhandedly. “Thirty million.” Saying it anyway.  

“What?” Flores’ mouth was left open. The number didn’t make sense to him and he looked back at Agassi. “Bullshit.” He shook his head. “You keeping thirty million in a barrel down in a storage unit… no.”  

Agassi uncrossed his legs and pressed his hands to his thighs and stood up. He had a crooked smile on his face. “As opposed to two million?” He laughed, sounding like a crow with laryngitis. “I told you, it was ruse put together by my brother.” His head turned towards the kudzu ridge.  

His brother was the sharpshooter out there. But what was he doing in county two days ago? He got himself arrested on purpose. Or he was arranged to be put in there. “You and your brother are twins?” I asked. 

That got a sharp gaze from Agassi. He’d taken a few steps toward Cliff and had stopped in his tracks. “You’ve met him, then.”  

“In county lock-up two days ago.” I told him.  

The Armenian raised his chin in recognition. “Bonner.” He stated. “He wanted to know what you and your gorilla knew.”  

Gorilla. The man could be hated enough. He accepted it and reveled in it. He stared at me, wanting me to challenge him. This was all he had left in life. He had everything else. Now, he had to entertain himself. Pull the strings and watch them dance.  

“Why you so afraid of him?” I asked.  

Agassi blinked. “Afraid of whom?” 

“Big Willie Winsboro.” 

“Who?” Agassi was in no way convincing in his naivety. “Oh, the big black man who lives in the alley.” He turned and continued walking towards Cliff, who was standing by the toolshed, still putting tennis balls away. I wondered why he was there. I was a golf pro, right?

“You know he lives in the alley behind that building Hosseini owns. I saw you there last night, arguing in that lady’s apartment.” That stopped him again. “What’s that lady to you?” 

Agassi seemed to slump over a bit. Only the weight of family can do that to a body. Albatrosses around necks and such. “Yes, you were lurking out there. Where is the stone, Mr. Mangham?” 

“Probably in some bedpan at Ronald Reagan.” I told him.  

His eyes narrowed into slits. “I got the fucking thing.” Flores blurted. We all looked at him. Even Cliff. “Just a fucking marble.” He held it up between his thumb and forefinger. The sunlight reflecting more than that. “Tell that motherfucker out there to take his barrel off the back of my head, if you want this.”  

“It would be rolling my way before your body hit the court.” Agassi told him.  

Flores nodded and put his hand down. “I just want the money that’s owed to me.”  

“On the place in Filipinotown.”  

“Motherfucker…” Flores’ couldn’t comprehend why the man was playing it this way. Like all of this was news to him. Agassi nodded and walked over to the other side of the toolshed. Our gazes followed him over there and saw the blue, plastic barrel for the first time, tucked in the corner, hidden by the shed.  

“Well, if you’ve come to collect, you’ve come to collect.” Agassi motioned to Cliff, who hopped to it, going over to the barrel which one on the other side of the tool shed, and dragging it out to the center of the court.  

Flores and I were standing just on the other side of the net. Cliff was out of breath and staring at the barrel and the job he’d done dragging it over to the center. Agassi had followed him and stepped around to take the lid off the thing. “By all means.” He smiled, holding the lid up. 

We couldn’t see inside the barrel from where we were standing. About twenty feet away. Flores looked at me. I looked at him. This was all very strange. A bag-man-meet-up on a tennis court in Bel-Air. And Agassi was no bag man with that twin out there with a scope on us. I shook my head. Cliff was looking at the Armenian for a cue. He gave it with a slight nod and Cliff kicked the barrel over.  

It fell over and rolled a bit. Paper poured out of the opening and twitch fibers moved in our legs. The money is loose! Gather it up! Our loins were speaking to us. Our stomachs had dropped.  

“Shit.” Flores yelled.  

I moved too. But only up to the net when the paper flying around turned out to be something other than cash. Cut-up pieces of paper. Old newspaper and white printing paper, cut into small pieces. A strong breeze kicked up and flicked the paper into a tiny whirlwind. Confetti in the wind.  

Flores had walked up to the net and stood in the barrage of dry pulp. But there wasn’t a look of surprise on his face. Only anger. He stared at Agassi from across the net. “Motherfucker.” He stated, again.  

“I told you it was ruse.” Agassi reiterated. “A set-up. You have to wonder how you heard about such a thing. A barrel of money in a storage unit in Torrance. Absurd.” He kind of scoffed.  

An important thing to point out, how we all get lead astray. Dollars to donuts it had something to do with family. And La Pantera knew it. He was gritting his teeth, not looking at Agassi any longer. He watched the swirl of monopoly money meander itself all over the tennis court. He sort of smiled, or grimaced, and shook his head. “Fucking Ed.” He said.  

“What?” I was still present and looking for answers for some reason.  

“Ed.” He looked at me. “She got it from Beebe who got it from Erik.” He shook his head. “Motherfucker. Should’ve known those tweakers were just bait.” He turned his attention back to Agassi. “But that’s how you roll, huh Arden.” 

“Excuse me?” He was watching the paper swirl. 

“Erik was your son.” 

Agassi thought about it, a flicker of something in his eyes, like, was he my son? “He had his own path.” Was all he had to say about that dude. 

“All this shit for some family heirloom.”  

“Which you still have.” He looked over towards the ridge.  

Flores remembered he still held it in his hand. He opened his fist and the opal rested in his palm. He tossed it in the air, caught it as it came down. Agassi watched it closely go up and down and land with a soft thwap. “You got nothing to give me for it and gun to the back of my head.” The Pantera started. “I should just give it up, huh.” He looked at the stone in his hand. “I don’t get it. My old man…” Flores shook some memories back into their caves. “What the fuck did he ever see in it?” 

“Glory.” Agassi croaked, and left it at that.  

“Fuck does that mean?”  

Agassi smiled. How can one explain something like that? A trinket really, passed down through generations. Stolen maybe, at times and lost in others. The fact that it still in someone’s hands and not buried deep in the earth is a wonder. Its extraction is some sort of human glory in itself. If digging in the earth for things you deem precious is not just an arbitrary construction, then yes, it is sublime.  

“It means that you haven’t the capacity to understand it.” Agassi had his hands in his pockets, waiting for something. Pieces of paper were still circling about. He glanced furtively towards the ridge behind us.  

“Yeah, maybe you’re right.” Flores said and tossed the marble onto the court. It made a tinkering sound, bouncing into all the fake cash, and disappearing. Then he turned around and faced the kudzu, wanting to see his death coming.  

Agassi was torn. He lost the marble in the swirl of paper, shuffling towards it and looking over to see his twin bring the doom to Flores. He was a rodeo clown dancing about, not sure where the bull would turn. But the shot from the ridge didn’t come. The breeze had picked up and a lawnmower could be heard whirring on another property. The foliage out on the ridge was moving in waves. La Pantera and I stood there for a while, waiting. Agassi still jumbled about behind us, his confetti-ruse in the air all around him, the marble lost again. He could’ve been just another old soul on skid-row, chasing dead dreams. I thought about Brenda and that hard, cement corner she died in. Pretty sure which family member put that bullet in her head. But the reasoning behind it still eluded me.  

Eventually Flores limped off the tennis court, and I wasn’t far behind him. We left Agassi and Cliff there to sift through needless paper and varnished stones. While Flores lumbered down the steps to the El Camino, I paused and looked into the ridge of green overgrowth. Where had the shooter gone? Or was he still out there, gone to boredom in the Bel-Air hills. The El Camino came to life like an old, sleeping dragon. He didn’t even look up as he backed the beast out into the street, leaving me and his headless compatriot in the dust.

I moved up into the ridge along little pathways, losing myself in the kudzu, finding grape vines here and there. Switchbacking up the ridge, I came to a little spot where a bench was hidden behind a big sugar bush. I sat down and could see the tennis court through small openings in the bush. There was an empty shell in the dirt. Some boot prints. It was really quiet. No sirens could be heard. Folks minded their business in these hills. I sat there and sniffed the lemonade berry bush that was all along the ridge. Then I saw the Agassi twin down by the tennis court, pulling Flores’ man up the three steps. He took the dead man’s Raiders windbreaker off and gave it a look. He was holding it up with both hands, giving it a good gander, seeing some blood on it and shrugging, then putting it on and dragging the man onto the court. 

I almost threw-up, but I didn’t.  

There was a path that went down to Chalon, on the other side of the hill that put you down by a golf-course. Part of Bel-Air Country Club. Bellagio ran along its western side and I just walked it down to Sunset and then to Veteran, and made my way back to Ronald Reagan. It was a Tuesday afternoon and the place was quiet. The personnel at the front desk looked at me as if I needed medical attention and I was in the right place. No, I told them, I was here to see about some folks who had it far worse. But Beatrice Bonilla and Willie Winsboro had both checked themselves out against medical advice. Beebe probably had some help. Her sister Ed, no doubt, being the bridge to Flores getting the stone. I wondered if they knew that it was tossed into memory on a tennis court just a few minutes north of there. Probably didn’t care. Just glad to be done with the thing. Which was a sentiment I could relate to. But there was always something unfinished.  

I walked down to Wilshire and made my way back to Barrington, stopping for a moment near that dilapidated church on the hill, on government land. The structure had a chain-linked fence around it, but there was an opening along the eastern side that some zombies had made, but something about the place was just sad. It was something to look at and not touch. It would get knocked down eventually, if someone like Hosseini had his way. But it’s the way of the west. You see it all the time in this city. There’s not much for remembering. Empty lots don’t have much shelf-life. Build something new, please and let us forget. It’s a blissful place to live if you give into it.  

The 7-Eleven was quiet and I walked through it towards the alley, not thinking about hot dogs or malt liquor. Big Willie’s tent and every other belonging was nowhere to be found. Someone had come along and taken that futon. Maybe Willie had come along, his first stop after the hospital. But I searched up and down the alley to no avail. No Big Willie Winsboro. So, I went back up to Hosseini’s building and shoved my way into Jackie’s place for one last look. There was nothing in there. The place was cleaned out. Cliff had done his job. Bastard. Nothing in that apartment but giant, dust dunes on the wooden floor where the couch used to be. I walked the place like a landlord on loan. Looking at empty rooms like they were someone’s future rather than sad rooms for ghosts. Jackies bedroom closet had been emptied. What would they do with her clothes? Goodwill probably. Then the thought of where Jackie’s body would finally lay, pulverized my thoughts. I’d asked Larsen a thousand years ago, who would identify her body, and he never answered me. Did she have a will?  

Out of that empty apartment ready for rent and up the steps towards Cliff’s place. His door wasn’t even locked. I stepped in and went straight for the patio to that far corner where the safe was still sitting.  

Finally found Big Willie Winsboro down in Skid Row. He looked alright for a man who’d just had three bullets removed from his torso. He’d lost some weight and his jorts hung half-way down his ass. But I don’t think that was much of a fashion change. It taken me about two weeks to track him down. The thought of him going back to Skid Row only entering my head when a nightmare about Brenda woke me up at three o’clock in the morning. Images of dark tunnels and brains along the walls still lingering when I parked the Toyota at a meter along 6th and Los Angeles. Willie was sitting in the same place we’d found Brenda; along the curb on 6th just before San Pedro. His bare feet in the gutter, not caring about the broken glass and needles and human feces. It was a hot day and he had no shirt on and you could see the pink, puckered marks on his chest and stomach where the bullets came and went. He looked up at me and spat out yellow juice from the licorice root that was in his mouth. His face a little gaunt and ashen. But still a miraculous healing human being. 

“Been looking for you.” I told him. “Hospital said you checked yourself out.” I shook my ahead in astonishment.  

“Ronald Reagan.” He snorted. “You believe that shit?” 

Sure, I thought, he was the governor of California once. So was Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’d be a hospital named after him shortly. “They took everyone there. Makes sense for the Feds.”  

“You still talking to them Janssen motherfuckers?” 

I shook my head. “I looked for you in the alley. What’re you doing down here?” Looking around at all sorts of folks living filthy and free.  

Willie tilted his head towards the sky and closed his eyes, letting the sun wipe away guilt and regret and all that lay there waiting for sleep. “Seemed like a good spot to be.” His eyes still closed. “I owed it to Brenda, at least.” He opened his eyes and looked at me.  

It made sense in some street level dharmic way. “The man that killed her is still walking about.” I told him. 

“Why’d they kill her?” Willie asked. 

“The opal.” Shaking my head. “She let it go. Let Miguel keep it. Let herself go. I don’t know.” And I truly didn’t. 

“That fucking marble.” He spit more yellow juice on the blackened street.  

“Yeah, that fucking marble.” Agreeance is fertile.  

So many things that were still bothersome. “What about Merchant? He still fucking with you?” Big Willie took the root from his mouth and ran his tongue over his teeth, and it occurred to me why he was down here in Skid Row.  

“No.” Shaking my head. “Haven’t heard from him.” I told the big man about what Guenther laid out to me, the four dead down in Long Beach. “I don’t know if they put it together or even care. Small Johnson got what he wanted… what’s it matter now?” 

“Just a game white people play.” He stuck the root back in his mouth. “But Hosseini got away.” He smiled like he had cigar in his mouth.  

“You like the man.”  

“Respect him maybe. Maybe.” He thought about it. “Motherfucker, all he really had to do was move away.” He raised his eyebrows. “I mean, shit, the man just went on vacation after all that.” He shook his head. “Gotta give it to him.”  

I looked at Willie a long time. “How you know he left?” He was in the hospital when Beebe and I went by his place.  

Winsboro squinted up at me and smiled. “What I heard, anyways.”  

Heard from whom? But I didn’t ask. I knew. The man was still somehow tethered to Hosseini. Committed murders and served as supreme bag man. Now they were both hiding out. Fuck em’. They are where they belong. Willie here and his master wherever he was. I found one, I’d find the other. Because I didn’t bother telling the big man what I’d found in Jackie’s safe.  

It had a false bottom. A flash drive with spread sheets. Laying out all of Hosseini’s properties and finances. Jackie was good at what she did. Whatever that was. Security and spreadsheets and gathering of lost stones.  

But what now? 

Hosseini would have to be at one of these places on Jackie’s sheet. Willie didn’t have to help. And I’d lied to him anyway. Didn’t tell him that Merchant helped me out. Jackie didn’t have a next of kin, so he had me come in and identify her body. She’d also made out a will that was in that false bottom. She wanted to be cremated. I had the remains in a small wooden box some kid had made in shop class. Maybe that kid was me. I asked Big Willie if he wanted to take a drive out to the Palisades.  


“You never went out there with her?” 


We took the 10 west until it veered into a tunnel heading north on the 1. I still had the Mustang. No one ever came looking for it. Made me wonder what the previous owner was into. We hung a right up Temescal Canyon and another right on Sunset and back through a neighborhood of million-dollar houses. It was a sleepy place on a plateau that ended at a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There was bench out on a grass precipice. We sat out there with the box of ashes between us.  

“Damn dog.” Was all Willie could manage.  

“I know, man.”  

Blue on blue on white.  

“Shit, man.” Willie took a deep breath. He looked at the box. “She wanted her ashes out there?” He nodded his head at the Pacific. 

“I don’t know. Her will didn’t say anything like that. Just said she wanted to be cremated.” The ocean was a flat sheet of pale electric. The horizon was a hard white melting of nitrogen into water.  

Willie didn’t say anything for a while. Neither did I. Jackie was there in-between us. Then the nag took over. “How’d you get to be a mercenary?” I asked him. “You blowing out your knee and all in college. Couldn’t’ve made it in the army after that, right?” 

With the licorice root in his mouth, Big Willie Winsboro just smiled at me.  


Chapter Sixteen

Nobody Wants to Die in Louisiana.

That someone else was the person that wanted the opal the most. But I had to find the stone first. Assuming LAPD didn’t have it, I had to arrange a meeting. Someone had texted from Jackie’s phone. It had to be Beebe just out of jail. I couldn’t figure it any way else.  

I texted her back. “Where do you wanna meet?” 

Barnsdall Park.  

Her killing ground.  

It made me wonder if she was in her right mind. If she ever was. Women are crazy, right. Hysterical homilies running through their heads. Men unable to decipher anything coming from their mouths. But I was trying not to get stuck in that whirlpool of thought. Beebe Bonilla had made it this far. She had her own story. And she’d been smart and wily enough to get into this position. I couldn’t go in blindly.

Big Willie had put the Smith & Wesson in the glove box of the Camaro. I had to believe that she wouldn’t be alone. Regardless of how La Pantera Rosa felt about Beebe, there was money on the table. I waited until dark and parked two blocks down on Kenmore and walked in with the MP9 at the small of my back. Creeping up the western slope like I knew something about being a stealthy soldier. The hill was mostly manicured, so the going wasn’t too tough. I reached the plateau with most of my breath still intact.  

Crouching down, I could make out a group of people in the lined trees. Same spot where Erik got got. I counted six guys, plus Beebe, Ed and their older brother. Money is thicker than diluted blood lines. They were all strapped and ready. Beebe hadn’t said a word about being alone. Or to come alone. But they had to know I wasn’t carrying that barrel of cash up those steps from the parking lot.  

Unless they thought Big Willie was with me.  

I was still crouching there on the western edge of that great, flat lawn when I saw a flash of something. It was more like a gleam. A catching of the sepia park-lights hidden in the trees over there, further to the left of where I’d marked Beebe. A dark shape was moving along a bush. The gleam shimmered again, and I knew what it was. Who it was.  

A badge on a chest.  


But no Martinez. Could be he was down in the parking lot, waiting to escort me up. Wonder if Hosseini knew his pet pigs were drawing paychecks from MS-13? They just shot to kill a man. For the real-estate tycoon. Was Hosseini’s reach more Byzantine than I thought? Was he working Martinez and Matos against Flores? Pink Panther wasn’t that naïve. He’d know what dirty cops were like. Which means they’d have to know about Big Willie. But not about the money. They didn’t know it was in Hosseini’s garage. I stayed crouched there for a long time. Waiting. Watching. It’s what I did best. Seeing it all go by. The world spin, and the people come and go. Out along the edges. Never touching and never being touched by it. A place I knew well. A good place for inertness. Waiting for the world to come to you. They don’t tell you to live your life that way. They tell you to grab it by the horns. Be the aggressor. Be a go-getter. I hadn’t lived my life that way. I’d stayed back, crouched along the edges, just like now. Anxious for what the night will bring. Crouched and gawking for the hawk to pounce. And the world didn’t let me down.  

A bright light hit the row of trees.  

A beam from above.  

A deep thwapping could be felt in the chest and the tops of the trees were swaying. A helicopter with a search light. Everyone looked up. I did for a second, and then watched the search light hit the group in the trees.  

Matos was the first one to disappear. Down the hill towards the parking lot. But came right back up, trailed by dudes with bulletproof vests that read FBI. The vatos in the trees ran in the other direction, but there were more FBI agents rambling up the southside of the plateau. They were boxed in.  

Then somebody started shooting. 

I don’t know who it was that shot first. But the Feds opened up and it was nothing to be happy about. Things were blurred with movement and gun smoke. I didn’t dare move at first. Frozen in my crouch, it was happening so fast. Trying to keep my eye on Beebe. But I lost track of her. The frenzy became too much, and I had to move. Down the side of the hill that I’d come up and around to the parking lot. Slow, slow, slow. Keeping my head down and crouching between the few cars that were parked in the lot. Sporadic gunfire could be heard. Peaking over the hood of a Kia Soul. There’s a guy with the government’s acronym stenciled on his back. He’s carrying an assault rifle. He’s lingering under the sepia lot light. The last one, left behind from the staging point. His back was to me, and his head cocked up, looking at the hill. He was missing out on the action. Maybe that’s why he didn’t see the dark figure slithering down the hill on the north side of the park. Not using the concrete stairwell but snaking through the trees.  

I don’t know how I saw her, but I knew who it was right away.  

Somehow, she’d escaped again. Beebe Bonilla, the artist. She had a knack.  

The FBI agent didn’t see her coming until it was too late. But he did see her. Raised his gun, then his head whipped back and he crumpled like a drunk.  

Perfect headshot. She was a stone-cold killer.  

Beebe walked towards me, stepping over the agent. I stayed down, but she knew I was there, behind that Kia Soul. Then remembered the two guns and pulled them and stood up straight. She was about twenty feet away and smiled at me. Her gun down by her side.

“Where the fuck you been?” Beebe asked.  

I looked around, trying to find words to answer her, and shook my head instead. “I been around.” Saying finally.  

Beebe kind of giggled and looked around. “Where you got that money stashed?” 

She didn’t even blink. Didn’t even care if I was packing. Maybe she didn’t even think I had it in me. To pull a gun on her. To shoot a person, much less a woman. Point blank range when all the world was looking for her.  

“It’s in a garage in Westwood.” I told her.  

Now she blinked. Maybe she didn’t have me all that pegged. “Westwood?” Her mind was turning like those blades on that helicopter still thwapping above us. Slashing its spotlight every which way.  

“Fucking Flores.” She shook her head.  

“Which one?” 

Beebe shot me a glare. “A garage in Westwood, huh.” She nodded. “Your boy not around to carry it.”  

“Matos tell you she and her partner shot him down in a fucking 7-Eleven.” I wanted to spit, but my mouth was dry.  

“It’s good to die close to home.” She looked around. Probably thinking she wasn’t that far from home. “Where’s this garage in Westwood?” She asked.  

“You know where your old landlord lives?” 

That confused her. She blinked some more and got all fidgety. Her fingers started moving over the gun at her side. “Hosseini?” She asked, but her uncertainty was like a hidden dagger.  

“Who you think called in the calvary?” 

It made sense to Beebe. A flat slate of recognition laid out calmly on her face. She nodded, slightly. “It’s always good to have some white friends.”  

“Is that what Persians are?” 

“I don’t know what the fuck a Persian is.”  

“Your friend all the same.”  

“Hosseini?” She spat. 

I just stared at her. My hands still lingering behind my back. I was surprised she hadn’t said anything. It was such an odd gesture to be frozen in. She probably knew what was at the small of my back. Maybe she wanted me to go for them. A duel. A duel in the police spotlight.  

“You lived in his building.” 

Beebe grimaced. “That was Erik, man. He worked that deal out with Hosseini. His dad and shit.” She looked over her shoulder.  

The action was all back there. No more gunshots could be heard. The night bird was still circling. The spotlight hit the parking lot and we both ducked down. Beebe coming around the car to crouch down with me.  

“The Agassi’s wanted that opal back.” I said, leaning my back against the Kia, feeling pain in my bent knees.  

“Erik wanted that.”  

“The opal?” 

“Yeah. When he found out Jackie had it, next door, shit man, he fucking nutted in his fucking pants, man.”  

“He killed her.”  

“Been trying to tell you.”  

The nightbird circled away from us and seemed to take all the oxygen with it. There was just dust left to breath. “Why’d you kill him?”  

“He was…” She shook her head and looked towards the entrance of the parking lot. Cars kept on rolling by on Hollywood Blvd. They were used to helicopters in the sky. It’s a big city. Lots of things happening. “You know why.” She looked at me and all the hardness in her eyes went away. There could’ve been regret in there somewhere.  

“He killed Jackie Meaux.”  

“For that fucking opal.”  

I sat down on my ass. Knees up, gun biting into my lower back. I took it out and Beebe didn’t seem to mind. “People get killed for less.”  

“Where’d you park?” Beebe sidestepped my forlorn flippancy.  

“Couple blocks down.” I pointed East.  

“Think we can make a break for it?” 

And there it was. I could feel the slotting of things. A slight nudge in a new direction. The taking over of a role that someone else had held for some period of time. A new man. A new job. She needed a new Clyde. But to what end? A hail of bullets in Arcadia. Some dumpy town in Louisiana. Not even a town really. Just a gas station. A stop-over crowded with pine trees and wide ditches that could be confused as bayous if you were counting them.  

Nobody wants to die in Louisiana.  

Beebe Bonilla didn’t wait for me to answer. She just got up and ran for the exit of the parking lot. And I found myself following her. But my heart wasn’t in it. I don’t know if it was old age or what. Just couldn’t be following women around anymore. Not like that. Had I ever? Yes, to a certain extent with Jackie. One day you look up and find yourself in a strange city. Los Angeles. And wonder why you’re here. Why you stay here. Cause you have one friend. And one friend only. So, where else are you going to go? Making friends is so hard when you get older.  

Beebe was out on Hollywood Blvd at this point. Running down the sidewalk with a strange gait. LAPD was nowhere to be found. A tacit agreement with the G-Men. The Armenians were nowhere to be found. Tacit agreement with the G-Men. The Salvadoreans were going down. Made sense who was more Anglo. As much as I wanted to point her towards Hosseini and let her rip, it wasn’t the move right now. Going into this meet, I thought it was, but the man had the FBI on speed dial.   

What now or whatever. The magnificent malaise again. You chose one or the other. You care or you don’t care. Both have consequences. I caught up to Beebe. She’d turned left on Kenmore and she was slowing down. Something was slowing her down. She had a hand to her lower back. 

“You okay?” I asked, weakly, out of breath.  

Beebe stopped and looked back at me. “I think somebody shot me in the ass.”  

I looked at her butt. It was a nice butt. It was too dark to see anything but the round shape of things. We kept trudging along. That helicopter was still circling the hill behind us. Finally, some cop cars came racing down Hollywood Blvd. None of them paid any attention to us. Watching that nightbird in the air. It was their beacon.  

The Camaro was where I’d left it. Nobody cared about a stolen car, either. We both hopped in and headed away from Hollywood Blvd. It wasn’t until we cut down Normandie and hit Beverly that I was able to breathe again. Wasn’t even sure where we were headed but breaking that yolk of Barnsdall sure made the air thinner and crisper. I had the windows down and cruised down Beverly with some Zam-Rock playing. Witch playing No Time. I was feeling loose. At the end of something. Still had no idea where we were going, but it felt good somehow. Or maybe I did know where we were going and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.  



Beebe hadn’t said anything since we’d gotten in the truck. Thought for sure she’d have something shitty to say about my wheels. She was just propped on her left hip, lips pressed together like angry fault-lines.   

“You still got that opal?” 

 “Yeah, I swallowed it before your boys squeezed me.”  

I blinked. My boys. “Matos was just going through the motions, huh.”  

“She goes back with us a ways, but yeah, she had no choice. That fool Martinez is a fucking dope.”  

She goes back with us a ways. We hit a bunch of green lights and cruised all the way down to Rossmore without seeing a cop car. “Who posted your bail?” 

“Who you think?” 

I didn’t have to. Her sister, Ed, had slipped out of the dragnet. She’d probably gotten word to her brother, La Pantera Rosa. “You swallowed the stone?” Going back to that. 

“Still waiting to shit it out.”  

Um, okay. I guess we’ll just ask Hosseini if she can use his bathroom. We took a left on Rossmore and burned down towards Wilshire. Not rubber, but exhaust. That Camaro had been built in a different time. But nobody notices in Smog City.  

“That all you care about?” She asked. 

“It’s an heirloom a certain family might want back.”  

“Agassi.” She spat. 

“How did Erik lose the stone?” I asked.  

“What?” She blinked, and a tear rolled down her cheek. 

I stayed silent, watching the road, afraid to look over in the chance that I might glimpse a shade of compunction from her. Too late. The plomo had poisoned her. She was in full on remorse mode. Flipping through the rolodex of years in her mind’s eye.  

“I did love him.” She finally said.  

Still didn’t have any words for her. Moments like that make you think if answers aren’t your thing. Forever caught in the curve of the question mark. It’s a comfortable place to be. Answers have the flatness of finally meeting nothing. What’s there left after the solution? 

“There was at time…” She started and stopped. “There’s always a time, right.”  

We cruised passed the tar pits and LACMA on our right. Right across the street was an art installation. Concrete, freeway dividers, stood up lengthwise. Captain America painted on one. The Kirby Cap. JFK and Reagan on other dividers. Nelson Mandela with his arms crossed, smiling.  

“I don’t know.” Beebe was still ruminating. “It’s always good in the beginning. Then you stop caring when the hurt comes in.” She shook her. “Stupid shit. Petty shit. Dumb-ass resentments.”  

“What stupid shit?” Just making conversation. 

“That stupid fucking stone.” She made a face like she needed to fart. Shifting her body, a little to ease it out. “I used to hide it from him, at first, just to fuck with him. Why though?” She shook her head. “That thing ain’t nothing but poison. Why’d I play with it like it was some secret we could keep?” 

The gauntlet of Beverly Hills came up and we caught some red lights because there’s one every ten feet. Proceed slowly through this ville. Take a gander at all the wares. We’ll even sell them to you if you got enough dough.  

“It might come in handy for you, finally.” I told her.  

The car shifted slightly, as Santa Monica Blvd came up. “What’d you mean?” Beebe asked.  

“Just worry about shitting it out.” I told her, and wondered about how that would go with a bullet in her ass.  

So was Beebe. A grimace carved over her face and she put a hand on her shot buttocks. “I can’t feel it.” She murmured.  

The light turned green, and I wheeled a left onto Santa Monica, and we rolled through Century City. New money usurping. But that was decades ago and nobody really cared. They were just tall, glass buildings gleaming at night.  

“You can’t feel your ass?” 

Westwood coming up, and the Los Angeles California Temple on the left. Its golden statue on top, waiting for a western turn towards the Pacific with the second coming of Jesus. A horn ready to blow for saints in the latter.  

“Where the fuck are we going?” She asked. 

I looked forward and cranked the steering wheel to the left, just missing a line of cars parked along the curb. “We’re going to get your money.” I told her.  

“What money?” She asked. 

A right on Westwood all the way up to Wilshire and another right. “What’d you mean, what money?” I asked Beebe.  

“My butt feels weird.” She stated.  

It took a minute to turn left on Westholme. Car zooming by. Hosseini’s house came up on the right at Thayer and Le Conte and I pulled up to the curb in front and stopped.  

“This is it, huh.” Beebe pointed out. 

“This is it.”  

“I need to take a shit.”  

 “Just in time.” 

Beebe’s feet touched the ground gingerly. She had an arm over my shoulders, and she winced, her face a wrinkled plain of agony. “It was Ed’s idea.” 

We started for Hosseini’s front door, slowly. “What idea?” 

“To have Buddy take a look at the thing.” We made it up the concrete walk and I rang the doorbell. “Maybe it was worth something we thought. Get something for our pain, you know.” No one had answered the door yet. Beebe motioned to sit down on a white bench a few feet to the left of the door. She sat down, leaning over on the cheek that had no bullet lodged in it. “Our pain.” She scoffed. “That’s how she sold it to me. She didn’t get what I got. That’s for sure.” Beebe Bonilla looked out at the lawn and nodded toward something. “You got the right house, Easy Money?” 

Turning to look over my shoulder, I saw a for sale sign.  

P & C Real Estate. 

His own fucking company.  

There were big windows to the right of the front door. Peering in them didn’t give you the impression that Hosseini had moved. Furniture was still there. Everything looked like people were still living there. Since this morning. They couldn’t have moved that quickly.  

But they could’ve left.  

Leaving Beebe on the bench, I ran down to the garage. There were no windows on the garage doors. Along the side, that faced the house, was a door that wasn’t locked. I opened it. Cars were gone and the barrel of dough too. Splitsville, U.S.A. They put the house up and would sale everything in it. As is. Fucking Andrea. Played me like a mandolin.  

I walked back up to the house. Beebe was in the bushes, popping a squat.  

Chapter Fifteen

Dripping, dripping and dripping.

I was thinking, maybe Willie was armed when Martinez and Matos shot him. He’d shot those Armenian goons just a few hours ago in Long Beach. What had he done with the gun? If it was on him then M & M were golden. But they were more than likely golden anyway. Willie was wanted for murder. Just the wrong one. So, maybe it all works out in the end, anyway. Whatever that means to anyone.  

But what about that gun?  

He’d taken two off those Salvadorean fools downtown. Okay, say he dumped the one he used at the dump. There’s still another one to account for. Another one of those MP9’s. Maybe it’s in the truck. Can’t go back up to the 7-Eleven now. Not with all that jazz going on.

I stepped down the walkway of Jackie’s building, not really knowing where I was going, but feeling the pull of her apartment. Wondering if she had any guns stashed anywhere. Thinking I’m going to need one if the plan swirling in my head was worth its weight. Some birds were singing in that big, fig tree down on Barrington, and Jackie’s door was slightly ajar. Now, you’re trying to recall too many things at once. Things that happened a long time ago. Like maybe ten or twelve hours ago. So many had come and gone. The yellow, police-tape was sagging. Walk softly and carry a big stick, some puffed-up, mustachioed, American-magnifico had said. But what do you do when you don’t have the big stick? 

You go in blindly, with not a care in the world. It’s how the plebians do it. The ones that never slurped from the money river. The ones with the street views.  

I nudged the door with the toe of my shoe. The light was on the living room and the sound of shuffling feet could be heard.  

“Yo.” I said.  

The shuffling stopped.  

The door kept opening, slowly. The hinges made a grating sound. And old wooden thing on rusted metal had been the same door to that apartment since it was built in the late 60’s.  

A head popped out of the kitchen. Cliff. “Hello?” He said, like he lived there.  

“Fuck you doing in here?” Stepping into Jackie’s place.  

“Elam?” Cliff came out of the kitchen, fully. He had a small notepad and a pen in his hands. Had on slick pants and short-sleeved-polo, tennis shoes and that good hair, reticulating like Hokusai waves. A crooked smile on his face, to allay any suspicions you might have about any skullduggery he might be involved in. 

“What’re you doing in Jackie’s place, man?” 

His smiled broadened and his shoulders came up an inch. “It’s uh… not really her place anymore and I have to make an inventory of the abode, as some might say.” He looked around and finally shrugged. “S’fucked up, man.” 


“Most of it’ll get sold off, you know. We can make a profit on something.” He eyed me. “Losing a tenant and all.”  

Ah yes, profit. You know the name of the game. The world keeps turning. People die but profit lives. Who are you to question that? Some golf-pro with an oblivious side hustle. All in the name of carving out space. Owning dirt. It meant that much to them. And people were always in the way, occupying it. You just had to move them. Move them by whatever means. If blood was spilled, all the better. It was good for the soil.  

“That didn’t take you long.” I looked at the fake watch on my wrist. “It’s been what, a day?” 

Cliff’s mouth was open, but no words came for a few seconds. “Well, you know… I mean, it’s just…” He shook his head. “I’m just doing what I’m told.”  

We both looked over at the blood stain on the couch. It smelled of rotting maple in that living room. “What you gonna do with the couch, put it on Facebook marketplace? There buyers for second-hand furniture where folks have been murdered on them?” 

Cliff blinked and his cheeks reddened. His nose was almost purple. He shook his head searching for an answer. “What the fuck, man.”  Was all he could come up with. But thinking way back somewhere in his wet-brain that it was a good idea.  

“What’d you gonna do when Hosseini ain’t got nothing left for you?” 


“You think you might know too much?” 

The magenta-nosed golf-pro was flummoxed. Maybe he was drunk. At eleven-o’clock in the morning. Probably nothing new for him. “About what?” He shook his head. “We already talked about this, Elam. This thing with Jackie, man… I don’t know.” His eyes were troubled and his mouth went all pouty. 

That was the second time he’d said my name. A forced familiarity. A game men play. We look you in the eye and shake your hand too tight and say your name. It’s a falsity of character that really burns your guts. Jackie Meaux played golf. It was something she didn’t really talk about. She’d probably played with Cliff a few times. She played for what reasons most people start playing. To be perfect. Her clubs were in the living room, in a corner by a desk. Off to my left, a little behind Cliff and to his right.  

I stepped over there, the golf-pro watching me, and grabbed whatever numbered iron. It wasn’t the driver or the putter. I knew that much. Maybe it was the seven-iron. Pulled it out in one smooth motion and swung it at Cliff’s head.  

He was of the mind that nothing like that would ever happen to him. How long had he been playing golf? No one had ever swung a club at his head. The tip of the club caught him in his right ear. It made a dinging noise and reverberated in my hand. Cliff made a noise too. A slight scream and an ahhhh. He stumbled to his left and used the cough to prop himself up. I turned fully towards him, the club in my right hand, and swung the thing with my left hand helping. The blunt, short end caught him in the mouth. Front teeth shattered with a wood splintering sound.  

Cliff fell against the couch, holding his mouth. Blood ran through his fingers. His right ear was red and already swelling. He was whimpering, almost crying. Maybe he’d never felt pain like that. I stood over him and felt not a tinge of remorse. A torturer extracting information. A man in control, finally. Watching the blood flow over his fingers. Enthralled by how much of it there was. Pointing the club at him, Cliff moved further into the couch. “Did you look in the safe yet?” 

He mumbled something unintelligible. I pressed the end of the seven-iron into his chest. “You don’t even know what you’re looking for, do you?” I didn’t even know what I was asking, just winging it, feeling like I had a big stick for once. “What’s your boss scared of?” There had to be something that spooked the man.  

Cliff had nothing to offer but trembling and tears. He was done. Broken. But broken to the point of uselessness. Some inquisitor. But mentioning the safe started a germ working through the back of my head. I left Cliff bleeding on the couch. A fitting piece of furniture for it. Oh, the blood it had seen.  

I beelined down the hall, going into the room on the left and headed straight for the closet. The safe was gone. That was strange and stood me up straight. Made me wonder if it were ever there in the first place. Did I have the wrong room? Did the due diligence and checked the other bedroom. No, it wasn’t in there. I ran back into the living room. Cliff was gone. The front door was wide open.  

He was on the stairs when I caught up to him. Stumbling up the steps, leaving a trail of blood. I just followed him. Not wanting to attract attention from the other tenants. But really, I wanted to see where he was going. You forget, in certain moments that people will lead you where you need to go. Cliff made it to his apartment on gangly legs. Drip, drip, dripping. He left the door wide open for me. In the kitchen he slipped on his own blood and lay splayed out on his back for what seemed like minutes. I stood in the doorway, waiting. He eventually got up and made it out to the patio. Lurching towards one of the corners, where a plastic storage container sat. He lifted the lid and reached inside the container and tried pulling something out of it, but whatever it was, was too heavy. I strode over and looked over his shoulder.  

Jackie’s safe.  

Cliff collapsed down to both knees, trying to pull the thing out. How had he gotten it up here in the first place? 

“You need some help?” I asked.  

He was startled at first. His teeth were a red backdrop set in a strange grimace his face seemed to be stuck in. “It’s the safe.” Cliff managed to say.  

“I see that.” I told him. “How’d you manage to get that up here?” 

“Had help.” He leaned his arms on the edge of the container. “I don’t know where he is now.” He was breathing through his mouth.  

The porch jutted over the alley. I could see where Willie’s pile of things were over the deck’s railing. “When’d you move it?” 

Cliff looked up at me. “What?” 

Willie could’ve helped him. But what did it matter at this point, if he did. I shrugged the man off. “Can you even open the thing?” 

He shook his head slowly.  

“What’s in there that Hosseini needs?” 

Cliff sat down. Blood was dripping from his lips, the flow of it had slowed down considerably. He was hunched over and exhausted. “I don’t know, man.” He shook his head. “I don’t know.”  


The golf-pro sighed. It was more of wheeze. “Can you just leave me alone?” He looked up at me and yelled. “Just leave me the fuck alone!” 

“Too late for all that.” I looked up and around to see if other people were out on their balconies. I don’t even know why I cared at this point. “And nobody’s gonna be left alone now.”  

He sighed and cried a little. Or it looked as though he might be crying, it was hard to tell. His face was a mess. “She’s dead, man. Just let her rest.”  

I don’t know if I hated anyone more than I did him in that moment. That feeling misdirected, I’m sure. But maybe not. It wasn’t all his fault, I know. It was a system people like him had created, that had been infiltrated and turned on its head, and he was lost and grasping for things in the past, like everyone else.  

“She’s resting. Believe me. We the one’s that can’t.” I leaned in and punched my birthday into the pad on the safe. “None of this will ever be over. Not really.” I took out some files. Papers in manila folders. That’s what Hosseini wanted, that’s what he’d get.  

“It’s just a bunch of paper.”  

“Legal documents.” Cliff pointed out.  

“Why would Jackie have them?” 

“She stole them.”  

Why would she steal them? But I didn’t ask it out loud. Cliff wouldn’t have the answer to that. And he was a broken. Sitting there, slumped over with his legs slightly bent in front of him, arms resting on his knees, breathing through his mouth that still dripped blood. His left ear was red and big as a fist. A freakish sideshow attraction. Some carny gone wrong. But if he got himself together, he could walk out of here and someone would want to meet his make-up artist.  

I left Cliff there on the deck and headed back up the alley, with those files under my arm. The ambulances were gone. Most of the cops too. A couple of patrol cars were parked in spaces and the 7-Eleven was yellow-taped up. That guy working the flower stand was still trying to sell his beauties. He was looking at me. He gave me a nod. I nodded back, but he kept his gaze on me.  

I walked over.  

“I saw you with the big man.” He started. “Willie.” He had his hands in his navy-blue Dickie’s jacket. “Cops shot him.”  

Maybe the man was in shock. He needed to talk it out. I didn’t feel like I had the time. I stood there not wanting to be rude. “Yeah, I know.” Nodding. 

“When they took him out…” He looked around. Cops were still about. “They had the thing over his mouth.” He made a hand gesture that didn’t help explain anything. “I thought he was dead, but why would they be giving him oxygen and shit.” He shook his head. “You know, when they’re carting him out on the stretcher, they had that little oxygen mask on his mouth.” He mimed the placing of mask on a mouth.  

“I don’t know.” I shook my head, looking around for cops, not wanting them to see me. Maybe Merchant and Larsen had told them to keep an eye out for me.  

“I seen you with him.” Flower guy said. “Thought you should know, you know.”  


I turned and walked to the mustang. There was a note on the windshield. I snatched it quick and looked around. Then looked at the note.  

It read: “Look at your fucking phone!!” The handwriting was in cursive. Must be Merchant. Notifications of missed calls from Merchant. A text message from Merchant: “Your boy is Lazarus! Motherfucker’s breathing. Where are you!?” 

There was another missed text message. From Jackie’s phone. Fucking Beebe. “we need to meet…” Was all it said.  

Lower case and ellipses. Good bet it wasn’t her texting. Good bet it was her sister. Or her brother. And if the latter was the case, then he was looking for his money. For some reason, I found myself grinning. Maybe, just maybe I knew how to fuck with some people. 

First things first. A run out to the valley was in order. Merchant and Larsen and Big Willie could wait. Beebe, Ed and La Pantera Rosa and the whole MS-13 crowd could wait. But not Hosseini. That motherfucker could not wait. Up Wilshire and the 405 to Sherman Oaks. What day was it today? Would the office even be open? If it weren’t, would there be someone burning the weekend oil? I checked my phone. It was still Sunday. Midday coming down into the orange, dusty haze of the valley. A right on Ventura and there was that little strip mall.  

P&C Real Estate.  

There was that god-awful, champagne-colored Prius parked in front of the place. Early bird gets the worm. So, they say. To motivate the masses. But worms only burrow into your stomach and eat you from the inside. I parked next to the hybrid and gathered the files and walked into the real-estate office. 

Andrea was not happy to see me. She looked like she was looking forward to lunch. Getting ready to leave, thinking about where she was gonna go. Then in walks this ambiguous mess of a man who hasn’t showered in a few days. 

“You know we have a security firm that comes out at a moment’s notice.” She put her hand on a landline phone. “Just gotta call them.”  

I nodded. “That’s good customer service.”  

“This is a real-estate office, not a cell-phone company or a coffee shop.” Andrea pointed out.  

“It’s a real-estate office.” Widening my eyes like a true buffoon. A buffoon with a cracked smile and a twinkle in his eyes. “Then maybe you can help me with something.” I plopped the files on her desk. Her Filipino flag fluttered. Andrea didn’t say anything. She just looked at the folders. Then raised her eyes up to my face and affected boredom. Her hand was still on the phone.  

“You said Jackie was your friend.”  

She swallowed and blinked. “And she was yours.”  

I nodded. “You know what the code to her safe is?” 

Andrea was flummoxed. “What?” 

“The code to her safe.”  

She shook her head. “How would I fucking know that? Or care?” 

“My birthday.” I told her. “That’s the code you punch in that so many people couldn’t figure.”  

“Well, good for you.”  

I pointed at her, very casually. “No, it’s good for you.”  

“How so?” She was so sure of the question not coming back on her.  

Pressing my finger down on the files. “Good for you because these files were in Jackie’s safe.”  

Andrea was playing it all the way down the line. Her nose crinkled up and she shook her head, barely noticeable. Like, just what is this creature hollering about. But there was wariness underneath.  

She picked up the phone.  

“Because you’re the one that gave these files to Jackie.”  

The phone clacked back down on its cradle. She blinked and cleared her throat. “Excuse me.” Her voice didn’t even have her back.  

“How else would Jackie have these in her possession?” 

Andrea shrugged. “How should I know?” She looked passed me, out of the front windows toward Ventura Blvd. “She was as close to Hosseini as anyone.” 

“So, Hosseini gave her these files?” 

Another shrug. “You think I’m privy to everything that man does? Also, please leave. Now.” 

I opened one of the files. “See, your signature is on all these, though.” Picked up a piece of paper to show her. “And you were friends with Jackie Meaux.”  

She looked down at her desk.  

“Right?” I prodded.  

“What’s to say she didn’t steal them?” 

“Could be, but I think you gave them to her.”  

“Why would I do that?” 

“Cause you were back-dooring Hosseini.”  

She began to hear a buzzing. Don’t ask me how I knew that. It got quiet and all you could hear was a low moving of machinery out on Ventura. A dulling hum of things we don’t have to do anymore. 

“You need to leave.” Andrea picked the phone back up.  

“We followed you that day, you know.” I told her.  

“What?” She stopped, phone midway between receiver and ear.  

“The other day. When was that?”  

“Saturday.” She stated. “Yesterday.”  

“Right, you’re here on a weekend.” I looked around the office. “It’s just you, huh. One lady show. No other employees.”  

That scared her. But not in the way I wanted. It was a physical thing. She was all alone in this office with me. A man. Bigger than some. And with wilder ideas than most. No telling what he would do.  

I put a hand up. “I’m just saying, you work a lot. Maybe the compensation plan leaves a little bit to be desired. Maybe you carved something out for yourself.” I watched her closely, still holding the phone. “And Jackie.”  

Andrea’s eyes did a little thing. Don’t know if it quite registered, but it was noticed. A softness was let in. “You followed me…”  

“To that building in Filipinotown.”  

“Right.” She put the phone down, yet again.  

“Hosseini know?” 

She gave me a keen look. “What do you think?” 

“You go over to that building for what?” I was throwing things around. “Then go downtown to the county board of supervisors.” I shrugged. “What’s that all about?” 

Andrea looked disturbed now. Threatened for real. I didn’t want to be there. Bullying a woman in a real-estate office. A big, bad man doing his duty to keep things the way they should be. It wasn’t the way.  

I put my hands up. “Look, I don’t want anything other than to know what happened to my friend.”  

“Yeah, you said that before.” She’d steeled herself. “And I think I might have said this before. She never mentioned you to me.”  

Andrea had her own knives. I didn’t feel so bad about us then. This situation of menace. “You guys that close, then?” 

A personal question she wasn’t quite ready to answer. “We were friends, I told you that.” She looked furtively away.  

“That came up with a scheme.” I told her, looking at the files on her desk. Knowing what she meant when she said she was friends with Jackie. It was different. Something I could never touch.  

“You think Hosseini cares?”  

“I don’t know if he does.” I thought about it. “But I plan to make him hurt.”  

“Why?” Andrea had a nice stank-face going.  

“Are you kidding?” 

She pursed her lips and gazed again at Ventura Blvd. Cars going by. People on bikes and street folks pushing shopping carts. “What’s your plan?” She asked without looking at me.  

I always hated job interviews. Probably because I never endeavored to have a plan. A foreseeable future besides two weeks and then a paycheck. Never thought about moving pieces in my head, ahead of time. But what did I have there to hurt Hosseini? What was in those files that he wanted so badly? Had Cliff go into her apartment and take the whole damn safe.  

“The stone.” I said out loud. 


“Oh, Jackie didn’t tell you?”  

Andrea gave me a look. Somewhere between fuck you and go fuck yourself. I told her about the opal in her safe. About the Agassi’s and the Bonilla’s and Flores’. About the spooky pull of this opaque nebula in the palm.  

After I was done, she looked at me, finally. “She never told me she had it.”  

“Still don’t know how she got it.”  

Andrea thought about that for a moment. “I think I know how she got it.”  

That surprised me. “How?” 

She leaned across the desks and picked up the files and began thumbing through them. “The Agassi’s have… invested a lot of money in the company.” 

The company. 

“Flores’ have too, so I hear.”  

She cut her eyes up at me. She nodded. I certainly did get around. And those Salvis hadn’t lied to us. “So, what? That’s your angle? Expose him for taking money from gangsters?” She gave me a pitying look. “How do you think things get done around town?” 

“You think the people of LA don’t care about that shit?” I asked her. “Maybe they don’t.” Thinking about it. “But somebody will want to write about it, to fill space. And a whole lot of people will click on it, cause they got nothing else to do.” 

Andrea gave that some thought. “You an internet expert?” 

“It’s a story.”  

She seemed resigned to agree. “Yeah, maybe. You would have to make sure Hosseini’s name is in it somewhere.”  

Now she was scheming, and that’s all I needed. “You can go tell him that.” Nodding at the files. “I’ll need those back.”  

There was a pause and I truly thought she had me. She could just keep them and know I couldn’t physically take them from her. A silent agreement had been made. She’d seen it back deep in my eyes.  

But she slid the files over. The money she was sloughing off the man meant too much to her. “What proof do I offer him?” 

“Tell him I know who has the opal.” 

“You do?” 

“I do.”  

“Why would he care?” 

“He probably doesn’t.” I told her. “But someone else might.” 

Chapter Fourteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jackie owe him too?” I asked.  

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

“If so, she paid in full.”  

Big Willie nodded. “She did.”  

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

“Fuck they want?” Willie asked.  

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

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

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

“What the fuck?” Willie was dumbfounded.  

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


“You didn’t know?” 

“Fuck you.” Willie was staring at Hosseini.  

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

“Hey!” Willie raised his voice. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Motherfucker.” Willie said.  

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

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


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

“How you know that?” I asked.  

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

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

He shook his head. “7-Eleven.”  

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Willie laughed now.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go.” Willie said.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the word around the campfire.” 

“Word on the street.”  

Willie sighed. “Whatever you wanna call it.”  

“Hosseini’s buying it?” 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She knew about the robberies.” I said.  

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

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

“She was good, she would know that.”  

“She say anything to you about it?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beebe.” Willie finally said.  

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

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

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

“Good to be home, I guess.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” He finally stopped.  

I nodded towards the Crown Vic.  

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

I went in after him.  

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

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

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

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

Martinez and Matos.  

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

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

Real subtle.  

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

Martinez and Matos eyed me and entered the store.  

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

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

The crunch underfoot was deafening. So quiet.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us?” Merchant was surprised.  

I shot him a hard look.  

Gunshots went off somewhere.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck?!” Merchant finally yelled.  

Martinez and Matos looked around and lowered their guns.  

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

The patrol officers just looked at each other, spooked.  

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

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

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

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

They all looked at me.  

“Fuck!” Merchant yelled.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know, ask Hosseini.”  

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

“Ask who?” Larsen looked at Merchant.  

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

“Who the fuck is Hosseini?” Larsen chirped.  

“Shut the fuck up.” Merchant told him. 

“What?” Larsen again.  

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

Or drove him to it.  

“I’m sorry.” Was all I could say.  

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

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

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

So, the mantra goes. 

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

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

Chapter Thirteen

A Nice Letter Home to Mama.

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

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

Eyes open involuntarily.  

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

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

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

190th and Normandie.  

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

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

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

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

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

Some would say it was meant to be.  

I would say it was dumb luck.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seagulls overhead bolted.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d Jackie get that opal?” 

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

“We gotta go.”  

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

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

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

But Willie and Jackie had another history.  

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

Down there.  

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

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

“Jackie met him back then too?” 

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

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

“You were in Bastrop.” Willie stated.  

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

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

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

“She never told you that?” Willie asked.  

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

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

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

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

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

“You hear from your girl?” 

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

“You still thinking I killed Jackie?” 

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

“Merchant thinks so.”  

“What’d you think?” 

“Why would Merchant think so?” 

“That’s what you think?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Winsboro.” I stated, flatly.  

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

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

“Poverty Point.”  

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

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

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

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

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

“Your grandparents white?” Willie asked.  

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

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

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

“What about your parents?” 

“What about them?” 

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

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

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

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

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

“Never given it much thought.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Twelve

Now to Plunder the Turks

Some guy from the old country had an opal. Nobody knows how he got it. But there were mythical tales that followed him. Stories that went back to the Ottoman Empire. Some son of a son of a Sultan’s son, a red or a bloody one, fleeing wholesale killing of able-bodied men. Port of call: Los Angeles. Circa 1925 and the fleeing man is no longer so fleet of feet. He’s settled in a little enclave called Glendale. He’s met a girl from that same patch of Western Armenia that is Turkey now. They have a few kids and he’s still got that opal stashed away in a cigar box. He can’t seem to part ways with it.  

Forward twenty-five years and it’s 1950. Our fleeing man is more of a root-man. Stretching out his tentacles now as a grandfather. He has a rug shop. Persian rugs he sells to the Hollywood crowd and aging oil-magnates. He starts buying up tracts in Glendale. The family is growing. He’s got six grandkids. The newest one is a girl named Brenda.  

Buying up land can lead you down a byzantine path. The people you meet, the deals you make with them, the circuitous nature of bureaucratic leaps and bounds, makes strange bedfellows. And Los Angeles is the proverbial melting pot. And our man knew how rugs worked. America was one big rug, shake it out and see where the dirt landed. That was this new city he lived in. His home for thirty years now. Where all the refugees lived. And it didn’t matter what you were running from. Nobody in this city ever asked.  

Now the opal was a family heirloom. He gave it to a son who gave it to a daughter. The thing had lost its Ottoman luster. It was just a colored stone now. They had rugs and land to sell. The stone sat in a box. 

Until Brenda meets a guy in 1970. 

His name is Michael Flores. Or Miguel to some. He was 18th Street. Coming up in the sixties, his parents immigrated in 59’ when he was thirteen years old; he was a supreme B&E man. He’d learned it as a kid in El Salvador and just parlayed it into the massive sprawl of L.A. It was the perfect place for a young teenager with a stiff boner for women’s underwear, and whose parents were less than watchful. They both had jobs working during the day. Housekeeping and landscaping, respectfully. Miguel was supposed to be at school, but his parents were sun-uppers; leaving well before the kid knuckled crust from his eyes. He was an only child, which was rare in their community. Maybe it explained his bentness. Having to fix his own breakfast and get himself to school was boring. The thing that excited him was the creeping. He was invisible. Why not revel in it? 

They were living in Rampart Village then and he’d take the bus that ran on Virgil up to Los Feliz. Primetime burgle spots. Lots of lush homes with nobody around during the middle of the day. Lots of fancy underwear to sniff. He liked the frilly laced-ones the best. Way better than his mom’s granny-panties. Crossing over Los Feliz Blvd into Griffith Park was his mistake, though. That hood had a security guard in a golf cart roaming around looking for peeps just like Miguel.  

He got popped at thirteen. But he got lucky as well. The responding patrol officer was a dude named Estevez. One of the first Hispanic hires by the LAPD. He took a shine to the kid, Miquel, and cut him a break. He knew what it was like to grow up brown in this city. He even gave the kid a ride home.  

Which got him noticed in other ways.  

The 18th Street boys were up and comers. And they recruited liberally. Getting into houses was their forte. It’s how they made most of their dough. So, when they saw Estevez dropping off young Miguel Flores, they beelined on over to talk to the boy.  

Rampart was their little village. But the boy was hitting up prime locations and they thought that rather industrious. So, they co-opted him. Jumped him in on his fourteenth birthday and leaned on him to grow up and stop sniffing panties and graduate to theft.  

Most of the work was loose cash and jewelry. Hock the shit in pawn shops in their hood and no one was ever the wiser. Miguel was a big earner. His parents still thought he was going to school. He was flush with cash. He needed a girl to spend it on.  

Then one day on Shannon or Prestwick or Carnavon Way (they all looped back on each other, it was hard to tell which one you were on), Miguel was in a white adobe thing, with Spanish tile, with a white fence he just hopped over, and he came across something that notched a segment in his mind. And he was never the same.  

Because two things happened that day that changed the young man.  

First, was the opal.  

Second was Brenda Kafesjian.  

Brenda was twenty years old and newly married to a family friend twice her age. It was a loosely arranged thing they did in Glendale those days. But this older dude bought a house just over the Golden State Freeway in Griffith Park, for his young bride.  

The older dude was a nine-to-fiver. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and Miguel knew that most housewives in this area went out to lunch. It was the rich L.A. way. Lunch with the other wives at some fancy spot, on Vermont.  

But he’d miss timed it.  

Or was just plain unlucky. Like that day the guy on the golf-cart was rolling around. It was bound to happen.  

No, it was the opal’s fault.  

He’d never seen anything like it. Never seen anything that looked like the beginnings of the universe. The murky depths of some far-off nebula had pulled him in. He was transfixed. Obsessed immediately. He held it in the palm of his hand and felt what wonder was like for the first time. This city he’d found himself in, this land his parents had brought him to, suddenly seemed small. The sprawl that had enveloped his mind had expanded into unknown parts. And the expansion sent him whirling.  

But Brenda ruined it. Ruined it in an even better way. She took his gaze off the cosmos for a moment, as he heard her enter the house through the back door, where the garage was. He quickly put the stone in his pocket and tried not to panic.  

At the same time, he was curious. Frozen all the same.  

Eventually, she came into the bedroom and was startled. He stood there like a lost dog. A puppy, really. Brenda didn’t scream or gasp. Her eyes went wide and her lips parted. But that was it. Miguel was surprised.  

She was bored. And this was the most excitement she’d had in her life. She was twenty years old. Grew up in Glendale her whole life. It might as well have been a suburb. And this kid was lost. She could tell.  

Miguel was seventeen and the universe had just opened up to him.  

Brenda was bored and this intruder interested her. And he was kind of cute and looking at her in a certain way. More so than her older husband did, anyway. Less of a leer, and more of a fascination. It was enough to start something.  

So, they started a thing. Miguel would come over at lunch time and Brenda would be there, waiting on him. At first, it started slow. Maybe too slow for Brenda’s liking. Miguel was shy and had never been with a woman. It was sweet. He was sweet. Brenda began to see a way things could be. Tender and caring and maybe even loving. Pretty soon that’s what she thought it was. Love.  

It was love for sure to Miguel. Michael now. That’s what Brenda wanted. She wanted him to go by Michael. She didn’t really give him reason why, she just liked that better. He didn’t care, he’d change his name, his address, his phone number, he just wanted to be with her. And the opal.  

Brenda didn’t know he had it. She hadn’t noticed it was missing. She’d put it away and hadn’t thought about it. It must’ve been years since she thought about that whacky looking marble her dad had given her. That thing he said her grandfather brought over from Europe. It meant something to those men.  

It meant nothing to her. Just a weird looking stone to put away and be forgotten. Maybe if she had a son one day, give it to him.  

Not for Miguel/Michael. He was just as besieged by the Opal as he was Brenda. It was a dual force. A package to juggle in his heart. He kept the stone with him wherever he went. Careful to only pull it out when no one was around.  

But Brenda caught him one day.  

“Wait. Miguel and Michael, the same dude?”  

Willie and I were back in my truck, heading south on the 405 towards the Southbay. We didn’t waste any time in going for the dough. Soon as someone flashed the green, we were toting it for them, no questions asked.  

But that wasn’t true. There were plenty of questions.  

“You weren’t listening, were you?”  

Big Willie was in back of the truck, in the bed, shouting through the sliding window. He decided not to cramp himself up in the cab. “I was, but I was watching them motherfuckers in the dark, some shit just got passed me.”  

“Yeah, same dude. Ed and Pantera’s grandpa.”  

“Pantera.” Willie scoffed.  

“What?” Although, I didn’t think I had to ask.  

“This shit ain’t about nothing, is it.” 

“It’s about something.”  


“I don’t know yet.”  

“Two people fucked a long time ago and all the other got out of it was two-thousand-dollar stone.” Willie was frustrated.  

So was I.  

“What’d Brenda get?” Willie asked.  

I couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. That’s how these things work. It’s always right there in front of you.  

“What’d Jackie get?” 

Willie was silent. It just wasn’t that easy.  

Miguel and Brenda’s story didn’t stop there. Well, maybe it did for Brenda, but for Miguel it kept running down a line that trebled with a neurotic mirth. Even after they were found out. Even after the Armenian Power beat Miguel. Beat him so badly that he lost his left eye. He still couldn’t stop with the stone. Brenda’s family didn’t even know he had it. The beating wasn’t about that. It was about Brenda. It was about her infidelity. Her waywardness with a wetback.  

It started a war.  

You’ve seen it before. Going all the way back to the Bronze Age. Cities on the Mediterranean on fire. Over love, we’re taught. But romantics teach us that. A vast conspiracy to make us gooey inside. They like to sugarcoat the past. They are always the winners. And the winners do dastardly shit.  Like pop people’s eyes out and call it a price to be paid for a territorial beef. The Salvadoreans didn’t even know the Armenians laid claim over Los Feliz. They’d had their run-ins on the Avenues, but East Hollywood was thought to be a no man’s land in 1975. So, they laid waste to one another. 

The Armenians won and claimed East Hollywood. 

The Salvis regrouped and reloaded. Their influx in the Eighties put them in spaces in LA that made East Hollywood and Glendale not matter much. With the Mexican Mafia backing them, LA was theirs.  

So was the opal. But nobody knew. But Brenda and Miguel. They both knew. Brenda didn’t until Miguel started putting the thing in his empty socket. At this point, they hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years. It’s 77’ and the dust had settled, but Miguel was still lurking. Peeping was his game. He could never stop doing it. He creeped with his knew eyeball. Looking in on places in his old stomping grounds. Drunk on Boone’s Farm he would creep Griffith Park. Going deeper and deeper into the serpentine streets. Sometimes going astray, finding himself on dirt paths that led into caves and an old zoo. At night, with the animals.  

She saw him one day around dusk. At the old zoo. 

“You ever been up there?” Willie asked from the bed of the truck.  

We were just south of LAX. Cruising now that we made it through the traffic near the 10 freeway. “Where?” I asked. 

“That old zoo up in Griffith?” 

I nodded without saying anything. Big Willie wanted to talk about it, I guessed. “Some weird-ass shit goes on up there.”  

Now he had me. “Like what?” 

“I don’t know, I just heard some shit.”  

“You never been up there?” 

“Not really.”  

Just what the fuck did that mean? Not really. 

“What’s the shit you heard?” I looked at him in the rear-view mirror.  

“Rituals.” Was all he said. 

“You look spooked.” I told him. And he did. He’s eyes were somewhere out in the ether. “What kind of rituals they doing up there? Animal sacrifices?” 

He looked at me in the rear-view. “You heard about it?” 

“Everybody has. Don’t mean any of its true. It’s just a spooky place for people to hoist their fears onto.”  


Maybe that’s what drew Miguel to it. He was attracted to the spooky. The spooky places that no one else would go. The places on the margins. Like himself. The weird ones that no one looked at. The ones that were ignored.  

Brenda saw him, though. Out walking her dog one evening. Dusk was a fine turquoise vapor moving through the hills. She shivered when she saw the shape moving toward her. Something about its gait. She knew it by heart.  

The dog started to bark. It was some mutt her husband brought home one day. Something crossed between a terrier and a hound. He had a deep bellowing howl. Brenda had stopped in the middle of a fogged-out street. And the man that she once knew came creeping out of the mist.  

The man she once called a lover had a strange new eye. It seemed to swirl towards her out of the murk. She let the leash go and the dog pounced. Miguel swung his bottle of BF and missed, but it spooked the pooch, and it ran down the street to be lost in the fog.  

Brenda stared at the man, having fallen, sitting there in the middle of the street. A sad sight. She hadn’t seen him since he lost his eye. This poor man, mumbling incoherently, maybe not even recognizing her, was like some piece of a dream she might remember years from now in a low fit of recalled decisions. Decisions better left alone. Decisions better left on a foggy street.  

But what about the opal? She’d forgotten all about it. It was a family heirloom, after all. Could she reach right over and pluck it out? Just take it out of his socket. It was hers, after all. Brenda stood there for a long time, staring at the Miguel’s choice. The choice to fill a hole inside him. Fuck it, she thought, he can have it.  

She left him there in the street.  

“What happened to the dog?” Willie asked.  

The Normandie exit was coming up and I moved to the right lane. “Yeah, what happened to the dog? That’s a good question.”  

You could feel Willie give a harumph back there. The whole truck shook with his dismissal of sarcasm. “So, Miguel ends up with it. How’d the Armenians get it back then?” 

“That’s where Erik Agassi comes in.”  

“That’s right.”  

That’s right. Miguel Flores was just a sunken wet-brain, nearing the end of his rope, when he looked up one day and had three children by three different women. It was the late 80’s and this he was sure of – three kids by three different women.  

A Michael and an Edwina Flores, and one that didn’t take his name, Beartiz Bonilla. The one that hated him, Beebe. The other two he was okay with, he thought, but his brain was mush, so it was hard to tell what people thought of him. His own kids. The mothers didn’t care for him, that was for sure.  

But it was Beebe that bothered him.  

When she was a kid, her mother referred to Miguel as her uncle. Too ashamed to admit their intimacy. It bothered him, but it didn’t. He got to see her, occasionally. Usually when she was sleeping. He didn’t remember much else. Just looking in on her as she snoozed. During parties. There were always people over there. The other two kids, he got to see, but he had to take the stone out of his eye. The mothers of Michael and Edwina said it was too freaky, they didn’t want to scare the kids. So, he kept it in his pocket and wore an eye patch.  

But with Beebe, he could be himself. She didn’t know any better. She was too young and asleep.  

“Thought you said this was about Erik Agassi?” Big Willie cut in. 

“It is.” I nodded, and stopped the truck at the light on 190th

When Beebe hit her teen years, Miguel wasn’t doing so well. He was in out of urgent care for all manner of ailments. But mostly it was for his liver. Failing him after all that gut-rot-malt-liquor.  

Beebe was in junior-high, and her best friend was kid a named Erik. The went to Thomas Starr Middle-School together. Half-way mark between Glendale and Rampart Village. They were thick as thieves, some would say. From the first time they met, the two were mucking it up about the macabre. They were both into whatever was on the fringes. Anything to do with the strange and off kilter. They discovered Lynch and Cronenberg at cemetery screenings. They lurked in dingy coffee shops, listening to the Smiths and reading Jaime Hernandez.  

Erik first saw Uncle Miguel on a Sunday. One of those BBQ’s that Beebe’s mother always threw. A lot of beer drinking and rabble-rousing. A person could get overlooked on any given Sunday over at Beebe’s mother’s house. Like Beebe’s uncle, who Beebe thought was her dad all along. She told Erik this early on, that her mother thought she was slick, but Beebe knew Miguel was her father. Erik never understood how she knew that, but she did. But he was agog with that glass eye in Uncle Miguel’s face. Just as beguiled and hoodwinked as Miguel. The stone was consuming. You couldn’t take your eyes off of it. It agitated and spun you about until nothing seemed right without the opal.  

And on one of those Sundays Erik struck. He’d been planning and scheming in his mind to do something nice for Beebe. He would take that glass eye from her father and it would be there’s forever.  

Erik had a plan. 

It wasn’t much. It wouldn’t take much. Miguel was always fall-down drunk. It’s be easy to sneak up on him when he was passed out and pluck it out.  

So, that’s what he did. Easy like Sunday morning.  

The man was passed out in the alley, like he was want to do on Sundays. Erik always thought it strange that Beebe’s mother let the man come around. If Beebe was right, and Miguel was her father, maybe it did make sense. Or didn’t. Anyway, everyone was always so half-in-the-bag, no one really noticed the man anyway. But when he approached the man lying there between two dumpsters, something was different.  

What was different was that the man wasn’t breathing. Snoring like he usually did. Erik looked down at the dead man. What was it that was so different about the man, now that he was dead? Other than he wasn’t breathing?  

“Wait, hold up.” Willie blurted, as I turned the truck onto Normandie. “Don’t tell me this shit, dog.”  


“Miguel his daddy too?” 

“Fuck are you talking about?” 

“Brenda’s Erik’s mama, right?” 

I shook my head no, but I wasn’t quite sure. Anything was possible in this story, but I didn’t think that was the case. “I don’t know who Erik’s mother is.”  

The storage facility came up quick on our left. It was a big warehouse in the land of warehouses. We were in the Southbay. Torrance. Logistics hub just north of Los Angeles harbor. Long Beach harbor, really. San Pedro too. Anyway, it was nothing but flat land and warehouses and Wal-Marts and flames burning at the tops of smokestacks. Industry. Or post-industry. Whatever era we were in, it was still pushing out metal and concrete for miles.  

“You really think we gonna find two million dollars in this place?” Willie asked, as I pulled the truck up to a gate.  

The entrance had a touch pad and sliding gate. Through the bars we could see a lane stretch out in front of us; RV’s and campers were parked in big parking spaces along the aluminum wall of the building.  

“You gotta code?” Willie asked.  

La Pantera had given us a code. Willie was standing right there. I didn’t know why he was suddenly without memory. He’d heard all this stuff. How you zone out in the middle of pointing guns at each other? I punched in the code, and the gate started to slide open on creaky wheels. The truck inched forward, and Willie still had questions. “So, how the fuck did the stone end up in a jeweler’s briefcase?” 

A good question that I didn’t know the answer to. Which is what I told Willie. He took it in stride as we idled past recreation vehicles. One being a van crossed with a jeep on steroids.  

“That’s something I could drive.” Willie stated.  

“You got a driver’s license?” 


“I don’t even know what that thing is.” I said, to not seem like such an asshole.  

“Some kind of off-road van.” Willie pondered. 

“You looking to get off the grid?” 

“Already there.” The big man sucked his teeth. “Just tired a living in a tent, I guess.”  

“It’s a nice set-up, though. I meant to tell you.” Thinking of being a nicer guy only sets in after the quickness of your mouth. 

“Living in a alley ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” 

“Why don’t you hit your boy Hosseini up?” Back to being an asshole. “Sure, he can hook you up with a spot.” It’s just that easy going back to jabbing. “Him being a land mogul and all.”  

In the rear-view, Willie blinked. Maybe the first time to see him flinch. Sort of. “I don’t think it works that way.”  

“How are you not for sure, by now?” I kept pressing. It’s the only thing I knew how to do at that point.  

“You for sure about anything?”  

A good point. Not being any closer to understanding the dynamic between he and Hosseini and Jackie. It was still something in the back of the throat you couldn’t quite clear. How did Jackie end up with the opal, as well?  

Flores said to drive around the building to the entrance on the north side. I guessed we were on the south side. We took the drive all the way around. The parking spaces were all full. RVs and campers and even some old buses.  

“What’d you think a space like that cost a month?” Willie asked. 

I had no clue. “Gotta be cheaper than a studio apartment, that’s for sure.”  

Big Willie mumbled something. I found a place to park the truck. It was just along a cinderblock wall that marked the sites boundary with an aggregate company next door. Willie and I walked up to the entrance on the North side. There was a pop-up camper that looked as if it were in use, in a space right next to the entrance. It was popped up, with a black Ford Mustang parked in front of it. I could see Willie looking at it and all of the surrounding, potential domiciles. His mind was working on life upgrades.  

I put the code in the number pad next to the door. Two glass doors swung open. Willie and I looked at each other. “You know where you going?” He asked.  

“Flores said it was on the second floor.”  

We both stepped through the doorway. A hallway stretched out in front of us. Concrete floors and aluminum walls surrounded us. Fluorescent lights above. Maybe every other light was on at this hour. An elevator was on our left and I pushed a button. The thing dinged right away and the metal door slid open. A big freight elevator waiting for us.  

“Flores got other plans for us, maybe.” Willie surmising. “Say there ain’t no money up here, or say there is, what’s it got to do with anything?” 

“Armenian and Salvadorean bag deals.” I told him, wondering if the man was okay. Thinking maybe he was losing it, or lost it a long time ago.  

“They really gonna store money in a storage spot.” Big man was flabbergasted at the thought. “What’s that got to do with Jackie Meaux gettin got? Ending up with that fucking stone? We on a wild goose chase, huh.” The door to the elevator slid closed.  

“They want us out of the way, why not just put bullets in our heads?” I asked him. “There’s something down here.”  

“Yeah, maybe it’s the bullets in the head.”  

“They could do that anywhere.”  

“This is anywhere.”  

“No.” I looked down the long main, corridor of white aluminum walls and green roll-down doors. “This is nowhere.”  

I punched the elevator button again and it dinged and the door slid open.  

“Good as place as any.” Willie got on the elevator and I followed.  

The deathbox went up with great displeasure. It jerked and groaned and pulled its way up rusty metal ropes and gears. All of thirty feet, to the second floor, where it paused for an hour before opening. We stepped out into a little more darkness than the first floor offered. The was a small window showing the first minuscules of dawn coming.  

“What’s the unit number?” Willie asked.  

277. It was all the way on the other side of the place, in the darkest corner. Probably on the southeast side. It was one of the smallest units. A five-by-five thing, tucked into the design, an after-thought almost.  

The lock on the unit was an old master lock you needed a key for.  

“You bring the bolt-cutters?” 

A day late, a dollar short. “You pick locks?” 

Willie exhaled loudly and might’ve smiled.  

The place creaked around us. Metal popping and expanding in the coming of the sun. Big Willie reached over and grabbed the lock and wrenched it off. Just like that. They don’t make em’ like they used to. Or Big Willie Winsboro was just a monster. With a broken silver lock in his palm, like some ancient scarab he dug up in Egypt.  

Now to plunder.  

I reached down for the handle on the roll-up door and pulled upward. It was awfully loud. A keeling metal sound that pierced the eardrums. At first, we only saw darkness inside. The smell of mothballs and rusted aluminum wafted out to our nostrils. But there was no clothing in there. I took my phone out of my pocket, for the flash light. There were notifications on the screen. A voicemail had been left. I noticed the number. Merchant. 

And a text message from Jackie’s number.  

“What the fuck?” 

“What?” Willie asked.  

“Beebe.” Was all I said. 

“What about her?” 

I turned the flashlight on and pointed it toward the unit. “She said don’t go in that storage unit.” I looked at Willie. 

He looked in the unit.  

The light was shining on a blue barrel. One of those plastic things. That mothball smell came on like thunder in our noses. Was that the smell of ozone? Disconcerting energies flowed outward and around us.  

“Too late.” Willie said. 

We stared at the barrel for a good long while. “You think the money’s in there?” I asked. 

“Where else would it be?” 

“Anywhere but here.”  

“That what your girl saying?” Willie nodded towards my phone. 

“My girl?” I took a step into the unit.  

Big Willie hung back. The barrel was the only thing in the unit. Not that you could’ve fit much else in there. Maybe another barrel or two if you stacked them on top of each other. The ceiling reached at least ten feet above the enclosure.   

“People live here.” Willie mused.  

“Can’t be that easy.” I said.  

“You trust that motherfucker?” 

“I don’t trust anybody.” 

“That’s a good start.”  

Willie looked down the hall. I looked at the barrel and thought about what might be inside. Four hundred thousand dollars for us. One point six for the Salvadoreans. But why keep it in a barrel in storage? Just what were the Armenians doing? 

“Looks like the locals are coming out to play.” Willie stated. He was still looking down the hallway.  

I stepped over, craning my neck out of the unit to see four men coming our way. They were casting-call rejects. Straight out of central rollcall. Could’ve been from any gang movie from the late 70’s.  

“You kidding me?” I asked.  

“Sometimes the joke’s on you.”  

As they got closer, the four men looked more like bikers, or guys too far on the other side of meth. They had bald heads and one of them dragged a metal bat along the corrugated walls. Armenian power rejects. No doubt watch dogs for the two million that might be in that barrel.  

“You Elam Mangham?” The one in front said. He was forty years old or sixty. His face a thousand different creases. His voice cracked like a shattered bottle. He had a Led Zepplin t-shirt on and dirty blue jeans.  

“Who’s asking?” Big Willie wanted to know. 

“You him?” Led Zepplin asked. “We wanna get the right man. But still, we’ll fuck up whoever’s with him too.”  

“You came to fuck some people up, huh?” Big Willie scoffed. 

The guys with Led thought it was funny too, and laughed a little amongst themselves. Zepplin was the pack leader though and nipped the laughter in the bud.  

“So, which one of you is Mangham?” He asked. 

“What’s it matter, if you’re gonna fuck us both up?” I asked. 

The guy kind of scoffed and shrugged his shoulders, but he was eyeing Willie, thinking about how big he was, looking a little unsure. “I guess you’re right.” He nodded over his shoulder and they came in with lead pipes and aluminum bats.  

Led Zepplin came in grunting, swinging his pipe downward at Big Willie’s head. The big man caught the pipe and the other three came rushing around their alpha. But the corridor was too tight to swing and their pipes and bats clanged off the walls. It was a cacophony of banging metal delirium.  

The first guy who made it around Willie came in low, with his teeth gritted and showing, stained brown. He had an aluminum bat and a dingy tank top, showing fully tatted sleeves on his arms. He came in so low that I kicked him in the face. I could see him blink as the toe of my shoe caught him between the eyes. He stumbled and fell and the bat clanged against the concrete floor. His momentum carried him into me, and we went crashing into the wall behind us. I looked up and Big Willie had taken the pipe from Led and had thrown him against the wall. Everything shook and thundered around us.  

The other guy that had made it around Willie came charging in. The fourth one was swinging a bat on Willie and connecting. Maybe somewhere on the big man’s shoulder. That’s all I could make out before the third guy was on me.  

I shoved the tank-top guy off of me and readied myself. Third guy came in a little more relaxed and balanced. He swung his pipe with alligator arms. He’d done this in tight spaces before. Probably in this very corridor. I tried to duck, but the pipe caught me on the tip of my dome and I could feel my legs wobble. The man grinned and came in closer, raising the pipe over his head, coming in for it.  

I fell back and sat down on tank-top’s back, he was out from the kick. At least I got one of them before I went. I could see Big Willie taking blows from a bat and fists to the mid-section from a recovered Led Zepplin. 

I leaned to my right side and the pipe clacked against the wall behind me. I threw a right hook, with all I had into the spot between his lowest rib and hip bone. He made a strange sound, like a low, sick whistle. The pipe he was holding clanged against concrete and the string went out of his legs as he grabbed his side. I stood up, pushing off the body of tank-top, feeling okay now, and moved around and shoved the man headfirst into the wall. His neck bent at a weird angle, and he slumped over his compatriot.  

I whirled around. Willie had taken another bat away from someone and was using it like Josh Gibson. He’d already cracked Zepplin’s head wide open. The man lay on the floor of the hallway, his mouth open, and eyes wide and protruding from a dent in his skull. It was really something grotesque.  

I almost puked.  

Willie shoved the bat in the goon’s mouth, who he’d taken it from. The big end, cracking teeth and making an awful suctioning sound. The guy sat down, straight on his ass, and covered his mouth. Blood just poured through his fingers. All you could hear was Big Willie heaving for air and blood pouring on concrete. The guy didn’t make a noise otherwise. The big man raised the bat to finish him. 

“Wait.” I stepped to Willie. 

He stopped and looked around at me.  

“The man’s had enough, I think.”  

“You think?” Willie rubbed a giant bump that was rising on this forehead. “What about me, have I had enough?” 

“Ain’t one enough?” I nodded towards the guy in the Led Zepplin shirt. I could hear the song Killing Floor. The Howlin’ Wolf one, somewhere in the back of my mind.  

Big Willie looked at the man with the dented dome. He took a breath and threw the bat down. Clang. “Fuck em’.”  

Yeah, fuck em. They tried to fuck us and failed. We fucked them. That’s life. Fuck or be fucked. But it didn’t feel like much of a code to live by. It left you feeling empty and hungry. Maybe for more.  

“What now?” Willie asked.  

Whatever, I wanted to say. But the barrel still loomed, all blue and cellulose. Still thinking there was two million in it. Two million in ones. It was a big barrel. I motioned toward the unit and stepped inside again. Willie stood where he was, in the hallway, surveying the damage.  

I kicked the barrel. It made a thumping sound and didn’t budge a centimeter. Somebody moaned out in the hallway and then a nasty guttural sound could be heard. Willie eviscerating someone’s stomach with a swift kick. The lid on the barrel was on tight. I managed to pry it open and got my phone out again for the flash. I remembered the voicemail from Merchant. The text from Beebe, saying don’t go in the storage unit.  

I went to the voicemail and listened.  

Merchant saying they got Ed. She was talking. He knew the whole thing now. The Armenians and the Salvis doing land deals. Hosseini the bagman. He still didn’t know anything about the opal. Maybe Ed didn’t tell him everything. But at the end he had something curious to tell.  

Beebe hadn’t done it.  

I looked out of the opening of the unit. I could see Willie’s left shoulder and arm. The blue plastic barrel didn’t interest me anymore. I was taking steps before I could think. The body in motion, the mind in stasis. The pipe in my hand and then I was swinging away at Big Willie Winsboro’s head.  

It didn’t go the way it was supposed to. I don’t know why I thought it would. But then again, I wasn’t thinking. The big man handled me like he did the rest of the men lying around with bald heads. He took the pipe away and slung me against an aluminum wall. The place shook again.  

I didn’t lose consciousness. Willie looked a little woozy. Too many shots to the dome. I felt a little woozy as well. Too many shots to the head. Or body. Or to the soul.  

Willie was down on one knee. I was scrunched up against the wall and two of the goons who hadn’t got up from their naps yet.  

“Fuck you wanna hit me for?” The big man asked.  

“Merchant…” Was all I could get out.  

“What about him?” Willie had his right forearm on his bended knee.  

“Beebe didn’t do it.”  

Big Willie blinked and sighed. “You believe that?” 

I didn’t know what to say. Belief was out the door. All I had were voices in my head and on my phone. What was real and what was not, didn’t seem to matter.  

“How she get Jackie’s phone?” Willie asked. “Think about it.” He shook his big head, shaking away concussive webs. “Merchant ain’t your friend.”  

And he was. Big Willie Winsboro. My friend.  

“Shit man, that kid Erik could’ve done it.” Willie kept going. “You believe that cat Flores, it was Beebe.”  

“You sound defensive all a sudden.” I pointed out.  

“Gettin’ hit over the head with metal objects’ll make you that way.”  

“You were there, Willie.”  

He looked at me with his lower lip hanging down low. His breathing was heavy and a million beads of sweat had taken over his forehead. “I was always there, Elam.”  

And where had I been? That’s what he was implying. Where had I been? When Jackie needed someone the most. She had that bulldog in the alley, though. What did she need me for? She had Hosseini and stolen jewels and crisscrossed families.  

“What’d you use?” I asked the big man.  

He blinked. “What?” 

“What’d Hosseini give you? Can’t be money.” I gestured towards the barrel in the storage unit. “You don’t seem to be in it for that.” 

Big Willie wiped his brow with his forearm. “You fucked up in the head, man.” He groaned and stood up. “Paranoid.”  

I followed suit, but it took me a good, long while to even sit up. “How’d she get the opal, man?” I was inching my way up the aluminum wall behind me. “You tried getting into that safe, before I showed. You knew she had it.” 

He sighed, but kept his mouth shut, instead pushing the air out through his nose, his nostrils flaring. “You need to chill the fuck out.” And his fist shot out and I was gone.  

Down the well, into blackness.  

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! 


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.”  


“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. 


“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.”  


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?” 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.  


“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.  


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.  


“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.  


“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.  


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.”  


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?” 


“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.  


“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.  


“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.”