“Not if they dumb.”
My man was right. There was a tunnel behind that gun-metal-gray door. A hallway, really. Lit up by fluorescents, a waxed cement floor stretched out in front of us for at least two hundred yards. Both of us peered down the walkway. None of the lights flickered. Some neat, metal tubing ran along the ceiling and walls.
“Where you think it goes?”
Big Willie Winsboro’s eyes moved around, getting his bearings. “Maybe across Olive. Over to the Biltmore.”
Seemed absurd. But maybe the hallway went in that direction and that long of a distance, but I couldn’t fathom the reason for it. Employee parking, maybe.
“Prolly one that stretches across to Hill, too.” We stood in the open door and looked across the lot and saw another door on the other side. “To them jewelry spots. Tunnels all up under downtown. Everybody knows it. Heard about it, anyway.”
They were stupid stories. Tales about the Spanish encountering Lizard people living in tunnels and catacombs. All urban legend. Some guy high on peyote in the 30’s got snake-oiled into believing all that shit existed. Somehow that enters the public domain of local mythos. We’re all rubes for a fantastical story.
“Lizard people, right.” I smirked. Raised eyebrows from Willie was all you get. He believed the stories. “Come on. You believe that shit?”
“Why not?” Willie took a defying stance. “You believe in God?”
“I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist. Too scared to go that far, thinking one day it all might be revealed, or something, but that’s just running scared, I guess.” I took a breath, not knowing what might come out my mouth next. “Maybe that’s what I believe in. Fear.”
“Same shit.” Willie looked bored now. “Whatever moves your guts. Makes you queasy, nervous, butterflies, that’s God.”
He was so sure. Confidence about the enigmas of the universe always made me wary. It always made me think I wasn’t paying attention. That I was missing something. That it was all right in front of me and my head was shoved too far up my own ass.
Willie wasn’t trying to convince me. He seemed okay with operating in ambiguity as well. We stepped out of the doorway and the door slammed shut like a bank vault closing. Dust kicked up under some of the cars. The place was quiet except for a weird thumping noise coming from above.
Back up top we found out where the thumping was coming from. A concert stage had been erected on the far end of the lawn and folks were slowly filling it up. A record erection. Or we’d missed seeing the stage before going into the garage. Willie and me eyed each other in our peripherals. Clues might be falling by our wayside.
It was some kind of EDM show. There was a woman with short, yellow hair behind some turntables and music consoles. She was pumping out the music, bringing in the moths of throbbing beats.
Some security goon walked up to us. He had on a black uniform and a black ball cap and wore a gun on his hip without a gun clip in it. He had a tooth pick in his mouth and looked Willie up and down like he was familiar looking.
“Fuck ya’ll niggas doing walking out of a parking garage?” He had his hands on his hips doing his best small-town sheriff, wiggling that toothpick around his lips with his tongue.
“We like to walk up inclines.” I told him. “It’s how we get our exercise. Beats humping through malls, you know what I’m sayin.”
Security goon looked at me like I was speaking Greek. “You can’t just walk up in there though. You gotta drive.”
“How come you don’t have a clip in that gun?” Big Willie asked the goon.
Security dude looked him up and down again, not really scared of his size. “Company don’t let us carry live ones.”
“Why carry a gun then?” The big man pushed.
The goon spit his toothpick out at our feet. “Nigga move on out a here.” He swept his arm up, shooing us away.
“What you supposed to do with it?” Big Willie kept at him. “Guess if you pull it and point it at some drunks, they might get scared and do what you tell em.”
I stood very still, thinking maybe the man was a rule breaker. Maybe he carried a clip somewhere just for mouthy occasions like this. But he kept his cool and only rested his palm on the pommel of his sidearm. He smiled at Willie.
“I be telling em, man, what if they ain’t drunk and intent on doing some harm. What I do then, throw the motherfucker at em?” He flashed some gold teeth and shook his head. “They ain’t hearing it though. They talking about insurance or something.”
Willie nodded. He knew the man’s plight. The working man just trying to get some bullets in his gun. Everyone could relate to that.
“I feel you. But maybe you don’t want that on your conscious either, whether you can put a bullet in somebody or not.”
Security goon’s brow rose at a good point made. “For sure, for sure.” He nodded his head and put his hands together, one palm over the other’s knuckles.
Big Willie put a fist out and they pounded. “Ya’ll have good one, aight.” The security looked at me briefly and moved on to hassle someone else.
“Fucking jobs, man.” Willie said, watching the goon go.
“How’d you know it would go that way?”
“What you mean?”
“The gun thing. How’d you know he wouldn’t get butt hurt about it?”
“Butt hurt?” Willie shrugged. “Looked like something he wanted to chop up.”
The man hadn’t looked that way to me. It was starting to shape up that way. Everything was a bit off-kilter. Nothing looked the way it looked. You couldn’t count on what your eyes were giving you.
“We should get back westside.” I looked past the lawn filling up with young, opened-eared, pill-swallowers, to the center of the square. There was something over there I wanted to take a look at. Something we’d passed on our swift walk in.
“Where you going?” Willie asked after me.
It was some kind of engraving. Another kind of art installation. Permanent though, stretching out along a low concrete wall. It was a quote by some, long, gone writer. Talking about newsboys hollering about a trunk murder and bribery and some USC football player pulling off a bank heist. Prophets in the city and the desert. A Grand Guignol of a city if there ever was one.
Willie was reading the thing, mouthing the words as his eyes moved along the etching. When he finished, he looked back at the concert. “Ain’t much changed.”
Especially what the scribe had to say at the end, after he’d laid out what seemed like a horror show, was his appreciation for the place and the inextricable machinery that binds you to this place. Making it impossible to leave. Making it impossible for the thought to even gain weight in your soul.
It’s your home whether you like it are not.
The blue line was at Pico and Flower. It took you all the way to the ocean. We got off at Bundy, about three miles shy of the Pacific. Willie and me didn’t talk at all on the train. Both of us looking out at too many palm trees and garbage strewn hills. At big metal cranes towering over new developments, multi-use things where people can shop and live without breathing a lick of smog. We walked Olympic to Barrington. It took us about thirty minutes to get back to Jackie’s building, walking slowly up the steps to the first-floor landing. Yellow police tape warded off nosy neighbors and widowed friends.
“Ain’t nothing in there for you.” Willie was behind me, leaning on the railing, one leg up on the top step and the other leg straightened on a lower step. “What I’m saying, it just a black greasy spot now. Won’t do you no good to see where she was.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
He sighed and walked past me, into the alley, finally home.
Yellow police tape is anything but bureaucratic. It’s just a symbol to let you know death is looming on the other side. I didn’t even tear it going in. Willie was right. It was just a dark spot on a couch. Dried blood that had turned maroon in the evening light. A greasy spot that smelled of metal and mustard. I didn’t stay long in the living room. Cruising her pad, I found nothing out of place. She was a neat freak. She was in the military. No, not the military. Somewhere on the edges of that. A soldier for sure, though. A mercenary for hire. Working for some security firm. Whatever she did, did this to her.
I sat on the couch, next to her greasy spot and waited for the grief.
But it never came.
Only anger crept in.
Frustration and mystery reigned. Lived in my gut and stayed away from my head and my heart. Nothing could touch those two things, locked up the way they were. It was an eerie feeling sitting there in the gloom of friends remains and feeling no emotion except for one. Rage will hollow you out into rotten log. Years of trying to stuff tendrils of blown dreams into it, waiting for the sun to harden you back to life is rote stuff, and all you find yourself doing is sleeping in the wetness.
And dreams do still come to you. Moving through the swamp of sleep, are memories and flashes looking to be put away. The mind can only handle so much. Space needs to be made. So, in rolls the fog through the hanging moss and there was Jackie Meaux.
I never dreamed of people I knew. Always nameless faces. People to meet in the future, perhaps. Or just plain old me at different junctures, unrecognizable in the back of the mind. Projections of oneself run amok. But that was Jackie in a ditch on the side of the road. Could be me as her, I guess, but she was there looking at me in a dream, and all I could do was stop and stare.
She said something to me. Sitting there in the brown toilet water of a dugout drainage system. It was some other language though. Some pigeon French they speak down there in the natural diggings. Cajun, creole, whatever you wanna call it.
“Ki sa ou ap gade, nonm?”
It was a question, I think.
Her hair was an explosion of nappy vines. It had never looked like that before. In the waking hours she’d always had it flat against her scalp. In this place, it reached out and seemed woven into the trees behind her.
“What?” I asked her.
Jackie’s eyes were bloodshot, and she had her knees out of the water and her forearms resting on them. “Pa gade mwen konsa, nonm.”
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I told her.
I stood in the middle of a road. A two-lane blacktop, gone grey and crumbly with potholes. A dark greenness was everywhere. In the trees and kudzu that grew like Sacramento walls all around.
“You never did.” Jackie plucked a water moccasin out of the dirty water around her.
“Put that thing down.”
“You scared of snakes. Fuck, I forgot.” She held the black, rubbery thing up to her face. It flicked its tongue to her lips.
“What’re you doing out here?”
“You don’t remember shit, man.”
The snake wasn’t a snake anymore. It was some sort of long root she put in her mouth and chewed on for a few seconds, and then she spit out a yellow stream of juice that kept its color and coiled in on itself in the tan water.
“I can’t argue.” I told her.
“You never did.”
“Lots of nevers.”
“Pa nan plas sa a.”
Something or someone was standing over me. I couldn’t feel out where I was. It was dark and the world was still swirling with sub-conscious intents. A line of wakefulness and dream kept me sunken in place. But there was something or someone looming.
“Fuck you doing?” A voice asked.
My eyes wouldn’t open.
“Wake up, man.” The voice was familiar.
Then a light when on. The click of it made me flinch and jumpstarted my eyelids. There was Big Willie Winsboro by the door, his hand coming away from the light switch. The lamp on the other end of the couch gave out an amber light.
“Falling asleep at a crime scene would be a cop’s wet dream.” He looked at the spot next to me on the couch. “They got them ideas that have motherfuckers coming back, whacking off to it and shit.”
I sat up. My neck was all fucked up. “I didn’t touch my dick, I promise.”
Willie stepped away from the door and stood in front of a big, flat screen mounted on the wall. He looked down at the loom rug under his feet. The dark, wooden coffee table in the middle of the room. The exercise bike over by the sliding glass door. A tall plant in the corner with giant, flat leaves.
“Wonder what they do with all this shit.” He pondered.
The logistics of death was too soon to think about. But there it was. Out there to worry about now. “She have a will?”
The big man looked down at me. “Wouldn’t you know that?”
“I’m her lawyer?” Sitting up further, putting my elbows on my knees.
“You her best friend.”
The look Willie gave me was expressionless, but it expanded the emptiness in me. It spread out in my stomach like a black hole, sucking in all the despair.
“You look around?” He asked. “Maybe she left something that says something like that. Something about next of kin, I don’t know.”
“You look around, yet? You got a key don’t you?”
We stared at each other for a minute. It got us nowhere. Then the front door opened and a Vans-clad foot stepped in; and a body of a what looked like a man realizing the lay of the land, froze, pulled his foot back, said “ohp”, and shut the door.
“What the fuck?” I blurted out.
Willie was frozen too, looking at the door. I got up and went to the door and flung it open. Footsteps down the stairs. Maybe Willie was behind me, I don’t know, I didn’t look. But there I was, plunging into the night.
Something moved to the left, at the bottom of the stairs, headed south along the sidewalk on Barrington. Down by that big fig tree where Willie and I sat earlier, I could see a figure running toward Texas Ave.
Whoever he was, he had a good lead. A hundred yards at best. Just before he got to Texas he hopped in a car and the little sedan shot past me, up to Wilshire and was gone. I grabbed for my phone again, steady taking down plates, not that I had a way to run them, just a fan of too many dime novels. But it was too dark to make any digits out. The car was some kind of Toyota, I thought. An old thing from the early 2000’s. A relic now in the industry of hybrids and sports utility. I trudged back up the sidewalk and Willie was out by the big tree in front of the steps.
“Toyota Corolla.” He said. “Champagne.”
I was out of breath and didn’t bother to answer. Big Willie didn’t mind. “I think that’s the girl’s car.”
“That girl you saw on the steps.”
“Beebe?” I remembered her name finally.
“The girl you didn’t see on the steps.” I said to him.
Willie didn’t react to that either. “You think champagne’s a good color for a car?” I don’t think he wanted me to answer that. “I never understood the color. It’s like puke-green. Why would you want that as a color for anything?”
“You think that was Erik back there?” Wondering if he shit his pants when he saw Willie standing in the middle of the living room. “Knowing the cops wouldn’t have locked a door if their lives depended on it.”
“Locked doors ain’t that favorable for them.”
“What would he want in Jackie’s place?”
“Maybe them cop theories are right.” Willie leaned against the fig tree. “They like to come back and smell the panties.”
I stepped past him and went up the steps, two at a time, feeling my chest expand, getting used to the rush of air and exertion. It’d been a while since the body moved more than at a walk. But it felt good to stir the blood up. I couldn’t tell you what I was looking for, but I went in ransacking the place anyway. Jackie’s place wasn’t hard to give a toss. She didn’t have much. She lived light. Her kitchen was spare. Nothing in the fridge would give most people a sad feeling in their gut, but I lived the same way, and could understand she probably ate a lot of take out in her car or at work. Wherever that was. I called her a friend but I obviously didn’t know her that well. Her cabinets were mostly bare. A few plates and bowls and glasses and coffee cups. A can of refried beans and crushed tomatoes. Some utensils and Ziplocs in drawers. In her bedroom was a bed on a wooden frame, low to the ground. A small dresser and two nightstands. Her closet wasn’t full of clothing like you’d think. A woman would have a couple of closets to fill. No, she had a handful of shirts and slacks. Jeans and t-shirts. That was it. I went through the dresser. Socks and underwear and shorts and workout clothing. Nothing hiding under the panties. Sorry, Erik. Please come back so we can discuss. I went back to the closet and looked for shoes. She had a small rack that held a pair of running shoes and some high-tops. Both Nike. There were no kind of flats or business-casual shoes. That was weird. There was a black box deep in the corner, in the dark. A safe. I pulled a cord and an uncovered bulb lit up the closet. For some reason it looked strangely placed. Like it’d been moved or slid around in there. I kneeled down and gave it a gander. There was number pad and a lever-knob you turned once the right code was entered.
“You know the code to get in that thing?”
I jumped. Fucking Big Willie Winsboro was light on us fucking feet. Shook my head at him and looked at the number pad wondering maybe if I knew the code though. “You know it?”
“Didn’t even know she had a safe. Never been back here.”
Looking over my shoulder at him curiously. “Not even to the bathroom?”
Willie shook his head. “Just the kitchen and the couch. Watch a little Judge Judy while I eat a sandwich.”
“Judge Judy?” Giving him a quick crinkled eye and then going back to the number pad, think of numbers, dates mostly. Hyphened numbers that mean something to people. Birthdays and anniversaries.
Then it occurred to me, punching numbers on the pad before I could even finish the thought in my head. The thing made a slight tone, and I tried the lever, and it gave to the left and the heavy door opened.
“Shit.” Was all Willie had to say.
“Shit is right.”
“What was it?”
I looked back at him. “My birthday.”
The big guy didn’t say anything. Didn’t even ask what the date was, just kind of nodded like it all made sense. All of it. From the very beginning when he’d uttered those first words that Jackie was dead, he seemed greased and ready to dive down the water slid, like he’d been in that exact place before. Unflappable is what they call it.
He was waiting for me to peer into the safe. Find out what was in it. He wasn’t afraid of what we might find. Again, he was too comfortable for my taste. Mix in a little caution into your cup of adventure.
It was dark in that little box. I wrangled my phone from my pocket. There were no notifications. No texts or messages from apps trying to pull me into their algorithmic fire. A tinge of sadness rolled through me.
No one loved me. Not even the internet.
I swiped up and hit the flashlight and pointed the phone to the innards of Jackie Meaux’s safe. I could feel Big Willie leaning in. Smell his breath. A mix of garlic and licorice. I almost gagged. There was nothing in there but a black, velvet pouch and a manila envelope. I didn’t reach in for them right away. Instead, turning on my heels to see if Willie saw what I saw. He did.
Booby-traps came to mind. Putting your hand in a box and feeling pain caused for pause. The high-handed enemy. A test of humanity, right. We’ve all been here before. At the late-night reading of things.
“It’s just a safe, man. You already opened it.” Willie could read minds.
A short, clipped breath came out of my mouth and the pouch was in my hand. Diamonds, some kinds of jewels were in there. I could feel something rolling around in there. Uncinch the top and look in.
There was a marble of some kind in the pouch. A big marble. She collected marbles, Jackie Meaux. Kept them in her safe. It was another thing I didn’t know about her. Another strange thing she kept away from people. That dream of dirty ditches lingered.
“What is it?” Willie asked.
I just handed him the bag. He looked in briefly and then poured the contents of the pouch in his hand. The thing that lay in his palm was the biggest marble I had ever seen. It was smooth and had the colors of a nebula. Yellow and brackish green and burnt orange and magenta played against a backdrop of pinpointed black.
“What is it?” My turn to ask.
Big Willie rolled it around in his palm. “Some kind of polished gem.”
Stating the obvious can only get you so far. “No shit.”
He ignored me. Rightfully. “Wait.”
I waited. He examined the thing like a proper jeweler. All he needed was the loupe lens.
“Something weird on this.” Willie had tilted his head and cringing a bit.
He made a funny face. Like he had an answer but was afraid it would sound too off the wall to actually verbalize it. Things in your head have a special echo and when you let it out in space it becomes a different thing.
“Looks like an eyeball.”
Willie handed the thing back to me. I was still on my haunches and took the thing. My phone’s light still on, I turned the marble in my hand. There was a dark spot like an iris. I could see that. And around it was a swirl of all the colors. Something that could be an iris. Maybe.
“A glass eye?”
Willie shrugged. “Expensive if it is.”
“Kind of ornate too.”
The big man ignored my shot at the vocabulary hall-of-fame and took the marble back and put it in its pouch. “Erik and Beebe looking for this.” He gave the pouch back to me. “Maybe they even killed Jackie for it.”
“You think they killed her?”
“She was on them steps.”
“But where was her man?”
“Sneaking into somebody else’s crib.” Willie’s bottom lip sagged downward. “Maybe the motherfucker’s a B&E man.”
“I think he was in here before tonight.” I looked down at the safe. “Looks like somebody was trying to get into this thing.”
“He kills her looking for the marble.” Willie was playing it out.
But we were amateurs. Or maybe it was just me. He could be leading me. It had that feel. Like he was feeling me out, wondering when I’d take the lead. Or it was all paranoia and trusting anyone seemed a sucker’s game now.
“This thing worth all that?” I hefted the pouch in my hand.
“Either it is or isn’t. People die over dumb things all the time.”
Big Willie Winsboro the Wise. The sagest mother on the planet. You only get that kind of philosophical insight by living in alleyways and walking around barefoot like a Hobbit. There was something to be said for shirking societal constructs.
“This don’t look like dumb to me.” I told him, hefting the pouch. “This looks like motive.” It felt good to say, like I was spouting a line that I’d memorized late at night, hoping the cameras in the morning would be kind.
“Looks pretty dumb to me. Slitting a woman’s throat for a glass eye.” Willie looked bored. “Thing can’t be worth that much.”
Maybe he just wanted to get back to his tent. Maybe he was lamenting the loss of kitchen access. No more Judge Judy for a while. Maybe he was just tired. It had been a long day of blood and cops and scabbed over legs and spooky parking garages.
“It’s worth something to somebody.” I was saying the obvious things; not sure why any convincing had to be done. “We just need to find out what it means to them.”
Big Willie nodded. “Thinking about this thing I asked you earlier.” He looked me in the eyes. “About what you knew about her work. What she did for living. You didn’t seem to know, really. Jackie worked for some security firm. But what does that mean? What security firm? You know?”
I didn’t know. There was another bedroom. The apartment was a two-bedroom. What she needed two bedrooms for was beyond me. Maybe just more space and if you could afford it in this town, why not. I stepped across the hall to the other room. There was a burgundy futon along one wall and a desk with a nice office chair along the opposite wall. There was a small filing cabinet next to the desk. The desk was bare except for a lamp and a penholder. There was a computer cord coming up from a socket in the wall, then end of it resting on the top of the desk.
“She had to have a laptop, right.”
Big Willie had shuffled into the doorway of the other bedroom. “You say so.” He was losing steam.
Looking around the room brought more spareness. The closet in that room held some blankets and coats and some winter clothes. “Somebody’s got that and her phone I bet.”
“You tried calling it?” Willie reached in his pocket and took out a little flip phone.
It looked like a Hot Wheel in his massive hand. He flicked it open and pushed buttons. I didn’t express any surprise over the man having a flip phone this day in age. To each his own. He put the phone up to his ear. I imagined I could hear the ringing.
Willie frowned and snapped the phone closed. “Voicemail.”
I pulled my phone out and navigated to Jackie’s number and called it. It rang four times before an automated voice pushed you to her voicemail. She didn’t have a personal greeting. That seemed strange.
“Same.” I looked at Willie and down to my phone and sent Jackie’s phone a text.
“You texted it?”
“Whoever has this phone, we should talk.” Repeating the text sent.
“If they smart, they keep quiet.” Willie surmised.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’re dumb. I mean, my man just tried to walk in on us. They seem desperate and we got something they want.” I held up the pouch still in my hand.
“How they know we could get in the safe?”
“They have to assume.”
“Not if they dumb.”
The sage street scholar at it again. Four words that could get you in a lot of trouble if they weren’t true. But we’ve come to trust in the dunces of the world, whether wrecked with wantonness or not.
“Dumb people make assumptions that land sometimes.” I stepped over to the filing cabinet next to the desk. “Especially those whacked out on meth. Motherfuckers can be wily when you ain’t looking.”
Willie nodded like somebody was finally speaking his language. He watched me as I went through Jackie’s filing cabinet. Pulling out folders and looking through paperwork, like I knew what I was doing.
“What you looking for?” Willie had perked up a bit.
“Looks like security contracts.” I told him, thumbing through the papers. “Looks like Jackie worked for a company called Night Hawk.” Flipping through sheets of legal language. “Night Hawk Securities.”
It meant nothing to either of us. Just a filling in of a blank. A huge blank for people who called another a friend. “What kind of security company?” Willie asked.
“Jewelry stores.” I put one folder down to rifle through another. “Most of these are contracts for places downtown.” Bubble popping somewhere in the back of my head.
“Damn.” Was all Willie had to say.
“The guy that owns this building…” The bubbles were building into a buzz. “You seen him around, right?”
Willie shrugged and shook his head and poked out his bottom lip.
“Dudes name is Hosseini, or something like that.” Plopping folders down on the desk.
“What about him?”
“His name is on some of these contracts.”