“Don’t mean the maid’s gonna let you in.”
Kiss him goodbye for me.
A nice epitaph after shooting someone in the back and leaving him for the vultures. I’ve never known love like that. Don’t know if I’ve ever known love at all. Well, maybe that’s not true. Just not that deepdown spooky love that makes you want to end it for all time or die trying. Now Beebe was on the run with a phone that wasn’t hers and a red-hot-barreled-gun.
“How you know it was her?” Willie was being reticent.
“She sent the text.” I told him.
“How you know it was her?”
“Who else would’ve or could’ve sent that?”
We were rolling hard down Normandie. Looking to hang a right on Beverly as soon as it came in sight. We couldn’t hear the sirens any longer. A fast getaway. As fast as a little, red Toyota would allow.
“Could be anybody.”
“You wanna live in that world, fine. But the thing is, we gotta try and put some things together. Strings some things along, at some point. The thing that makes sense is that we know them to be together.”
“But why would she shoot him?”
It was as good a question as any. Beverly came up, and I made the turn, and took it down to Larchmont and hung a left, looking to get lost in the leafy shades of Hancock Park. Probably a dumb move on the surface, but hiding in plain sight, right. Neighborhoods like Hancock Park are quiet, with wide streets where my truck would look like any other landscaping vehicle. We didn’t quite look the part, but maybe we were painters or swimming pool guys who forgot their gear. Either way, we looked out of place and were banking on rich folks’ obliviousness.
I pulled the Toyota under a giant elm on the corner of 4th and Hudson, where the two streets bent into all the leafy greenness of overhanging elm and sycamores. I shut the truck off and Willie and me looked around. Quiet it was. Dark now, with sepia streetlights buzzing.
“So, she shoots him in the back?” Willie continued the train of thought from decades ago. “For some fucking fancy marble? Don’t make no motherfucking sense?”
“Cause we’re on the outside of this.” I told him. “It never makes sense until you get on the inside of things.” Acting like I’d been privy to that vantage point before.
“You can park in the neighborhoods and look at the pretty houses, that don’t mean the maid’s gonna let you in.”
“That’s nice.” Nodding. “Some fucking street poetry right there.”
“Outsider poetry.” Willie corrected me. “You always bringing it up, like you know that thin line and you fear it. But you above it, all the same.” He was looking at a guy on his bike roll by us.
“I don’t know if it’s nothing but a fascination.”
Big Willie seemed to understand that and nodded. “So, she shoots him for the marble before she even gets it.”
I nodded. “Maybe she shoots him for the phone.”
“Her only way to get to the marble.”
Willie and me sat with that figuring. Maybe, just maybe we were getting somewhere. Scratching away at surfaces. Sooner or later, we’d get to China.
“What’s so special about that fucking marble?” Willie asked.
“I don’t’ know.” I thought about it. “Erik…”
“He said something there at the end.” Rummaging through those seconds of half-breaths and half-words. “Something about jewelry.”
“Something about jewelry?”
“Well, he said the word jewelry.”
A woman went by, walking a dog. She was in her early fifties, wearing some sort of tennis outfit. That certain skirt with the certain top that they wear. A lidded-cap on her head and white sneakers. The dog was one of those ubiquitous French bulldogs. The tennis-lady didn’t pay us any attention. Just on her nightly stroll, in her safe neighborhood.
“I think so. It was hard to make it out, you know.” I looked at Willie.
He kind of cut his eyes at me and said, yeah. We sat there and listened to the nightly, neighborhood white noise. Both thinking, what now. Then one of us, or both of us said something.
“Should we take the thing to get looked at?”
Where to? Back downtown to the Jewelry District? Going back Westside didn’t seem the logical choice. “Them two dudes would be looking for us, for sure.” Willie pointed out.
Merchant and Larsen. Two dead bodies we were in the vicinity of, and nothing to shield us from them put a few text messages and a smooth, flecked stone. We were kids at play, not even able to see the cars coming to get out of the way.
The Toyota cranked up without remonstration. Japanese toys were the joints you wanted to play with the most. They never broke and they always listened. Did what you told it and never backtalked.
Whatever. We were going back downtown.
Down to Rossmore to Wilshire, thru Koreatown and that old, bawdy stretch of silent-era-money-buildings. Thru MacArthur Park and the detritus strewn stretch of Alvarado. Where they sold everything from fake IDs to mannequins to tacos to crack cocaine. Whatever you needed was in that park and on that lane. I lived right down the street.
I hooked a right down Alvarado.
“Where you going?” Willie asked.
When he didn’t get an answer, he figured it out when we pulled up to the light at Pico. “They know where you live, man.” Was all he said.
He was right, but we kept rolling that way anyway. Maybe the thought of being staked out was better than the monotonous existence I had before. It was the action that had seeped its way into my blood and there was no going back.
A left, on Pico and then a right on Alvarado Terrace, and even older money in those historical-marker mansions on that short stretch. A small, park across the street belied the grandeur. Just a little, strip of a thing. Some grass and a foundation where a gazebo used to be. Not much else. Check out the tattoo on that guy’s neck under those trees. He’s for sure up to no good and hasn’t a care in the world for the social significance of those mansions. What’s he got in those pockets?
I slowed the Toyota to a roll; turned around at the end of the road and parked along the curb of the park. No parking in front of the mansions. The man under the trees wasn’t rolling solo. A couple other tattooed dudes stood under the trees with him. They clocked us but didn’t make a big deal about it. The truck was left idling just in case.
Big Willie eyed the trio under the oak trees. “Neck tattoos.” He looked at me. “You know these motherfuckers are crazy, right.”
“I’m thinking, what do they know that I don’t. Spent my whole life looking for jobs. Going from one to the other, never learning a trade. Doing this, doing that, just enough to pay the rent. Thinking one day, I’d just make a million dollars.” I had to smile at that, and shake my head. “Win the lottery or some shit.”
There was a guy laid out in the park. Right in the middle, in the grass, his bare belly rising up like a small hillock. Drunk as the day is bright. There were some kids playing in a sandbox not far away, a woman on a bench watching them play on a stone dragon.
“But you gotta play to when the lottery.”
“Play them numbers.” Willie added.
“Some people figure it out sooner than others.” I nodded at the dudes under the trees. “They got a good bead on things, you think. Feel like they got it all figured. Got a solid life plan.”
Big Willie looked at the dudes under the trees. “I used to have one.”
“What happened to it?”
He held up his hands in acquiescence. Hands with long enough fingers to reach back in time and touch the nothingness, but couldn’t touch a slippery blade.
“You know how I met her?”
Willie looked at me quizzically. “Jackie?”
I nodded. “She was in a ditch on the side of the road.”
Big man didn’t dare touch that. Best to let a man run it down the line. Give him space and let him get to it in his own time. .
“Those dudes are Salvadorean, no doubt.” I said instead.
“Good bet, with the neighborhood and all.”
“That cop Larsen.”
“You think that motherfucker has TB?”
“I don’t think people get that anymore.”
“Maybe just a cold.”
“What about him?”
“He knows this neighborhood. Or the people that live in it, at least. Wonder what he knows about East Hollywood?”
“You got his card, you gonna ask him?”
One of the dudes moved out from under the trees, looking our way, the guy with the neck tattoo. He had a look of menace in his eyes. An almost hunched over feeling of energy about to burst from a pocket of injury.
“I’m just saying, East Hollywood and Pico-Union ain’t far from each other.” I looked away from the cholo, thinking he might think he won the stare-off and would find someone else to mad-dog. “But what’s in-between?”
“That and Filipinotown.”
The neck tattoo guy was still standing just outside the shade of the trees. His boys were acting unafraid and uncaring. It took a lifetime to learn that kind of vibe. How old were they? Early twenties?
“Where someone just put up a new apartment building.”
Big Willie thought about that. Not too hard though, he was eyeing the neck tattoo guy, which I was wishing he wouldn’t. “That dude that Jackie worked for.”
I nodded, looking at the mansions. “How much you think one of these costs?”
It forced Willie to look away from the park. “I don’t know, a few million at least.”
“Real-estate in L.A.”
We rolled away from Alvarado Terrace, taking a right on Pico and drifted downtown, leaving the park to those kids with mean-eyed stares and confident dispositions.
“You ever been in one of those jewelry spots?” I asked Willie as we passed the convention center at Fig and Pico. “Cause those motherfuckers are like Fort Knox. You can’t just walk up in there looking for an appraisal.”
“Unless you delivering food.” Willie mused.
We stopped at a burger joint on Hill and 8th. I had to park the Toyota down the block and go in. I came out with three bags. One for the job and two for Willie. I couldn’t think about eating. I don’t why. Maybe because I still held the image of Jackie’s head flopping down those concrete stairs and the notion of filling my stomach curdled with open necks.
The Jewelry District was three blocks down Hill. Right across from Pershing Square was the heart of it. Circuits running back in on themselves. There was something bringing us back in a loop.
I’d parked the Toyota at a meter just west of 5th. This area of Hill was busy with folks, mostly middle eastern, running stones and shiny metals. There were middle-aged guys with goatees out on the sidewalk smoking white cigarettes and genuflecting with their hands. There were street-folk looking for food in trash cans and picking up butts in the gutter. Big Willie finished his third burger and fries and sucked down a large vanilla milkshake. There were some fries left in the bag and he offered them to me. I declined. He gave them to a dude dragging a big speaker behind him, jamming out the ubiquitous Tupac track. The man wasn’t dead. Just get out on the streets in L.A. and you’ll feel him on every corner.
I don’t think Willie knew the dude with the speaker, but maybe he did. He seemed to know a lot of people down here. That Death-Row shit was booming in our ears. The speaker guy was on the corner, eating the fries from the greasy-bottomed bag.
“This don’t seem weird to you?” I asked Willie.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and burped. It smelled of onions and mustard and dead rats. “That every motherfucker you see down here has a bluetooth speaker the size of a car?”
They were everywhere. Competing turntables, mobile and lithe, ready to scream for attention. “No, I mean, back down here again. Same block, same square. Like something’s pulling us back.” I looked at my phone. Nothing. Yet. “Seven o’clock at night.
“Maybe.” Big Willie gave it some thought. “That thing with Brenda in the parking lot. Something bout that ain’t sitting right.”
The big man’s chin moved side to side, slightly. “I don’t know. Them Armenians own that lot, right.”
“That’s why Brenda went there. Some kind of extraction point.”
Willie shrugged. “Something about those tunnels, too.”
I nodded. “One of them leading right there.” I pointed to the high-rise on the corner of Hill and 5th. “But there’s something bothering me about this whole area. Some story in the news maybe.”
“The news?” As if mentioning it was like bringing up some dead ritual.
“Yeah, you remember something about some jewelry snatches? Some dudes running game down here. Following people and ganking their briefcases.”
Willie seemed hooked. “That do sound familiar.”
The felt-bag was in my hand. I’d taken it out of my pocket at some point and hadn’t noticed until now. “What’s that got to do with Armenian and Salvadoreans and Filipinotown?”
“Maybe them Feds would know.” Willie pondered.
I looked at him. He returned the gaze. I told him I’d go in the high-rise alone. Didn’t think they’d let a dude with no shoes in a building like that. He didn’t argue but wasn’t too happy about missing out.
Walking into 515 Hill Street was easy. Security was lax to say the least. Two dudes in black suits with guard-cards that were there to just answer questions mostly. I didn’t ask any and followed a group of about five people to the elevators with the bag of food I was delivering. There was a reason I bought so many burgers. Wasn’t even sure what floor to go to, so I just followed the other passengers. The ding for the seventh floor sounded and I jostled my way out to a hallway with three others. Two women and a guy with a ponytail. I followed a woman wearing an evergreen jumpsuit. One of those Dickies things, stiff but comfortable looking. She looked over her shoulder at me, wondering what I was doing. I gave her smile as she buzzed a door. The whole hall was nothing but offices with bulletproof glass. Men and women behind counters with jeweler’s eyes, peering at refinement only by appointment. The girl in the Dickie’s jumpsuit was buzzed in and I followed her. She held the door open for me and smiled. They get a lot of food deliveries. I must’ve looked the part. That delivery-boy’s gaze of always looking up. Up towards the top, from the bottom of the well.
“Is that for Buddy?” The girl in the jumpsuit asked.
Startled that she spoke to me. “Uh, yeah.” I handed her the bag of food.
She kept the smile on her face and took the bag. “Thanks.”
I stood there for too long, scoping the operation out. The girl walked behind the counter and put the bag of food down on a counter. There was a man, maybe Buddy, sitting at a small desk with his jeweler’s eye, examining what looked like a diamond. He had on a worn black suit; a size too big for him and had a black yarmulke on his head. He didn’t notice me lingering. The girl still had her back to me.
“I was wondering…” I took the felt bag from my back pocket.
The girl in the jumpsuit turned around. Maybe Buddy didn’t look up from his stone.
“Could you guys take a look at something?” I asked the girl.
A pained look came over her olive-colored face. “We only do things by appointment here.”
“I know, I know. I was just wondering if this worth anything.” I had the marble out in the palm of my had.
Jumpsuit girl pursed her lips and shook her head slightly. But her eyes went to thing in my hand and something flickered in her eyes. She stepped forward with worry at the corner of her mouth. She leaned against a display-case-counter filled with gold and silver jewelry and gems of all cuts and colors. “What is that?” She asked.
Shrugging. “It’s what I’m trying to figure out. I was hoping you guys could take a look at it.”
“Let’s see.” Buddy held out his hand without looking up at me.
I handed the marble to the girl and she handed it to Buddy. He looked at it; rolling it between his fingers. “Some kind of glass eye.” He said, finally looking at me.
“That’s what I was thinking.”
Buddy gave me a discerning look over his bifocals. He turned the nebula in his fingers. Something in his eyes showed knowing in them. Some flicker of light. Maybe it was the too bright fluorescents above, playing sterile tricks. But it seemed like he knew the thing that was in his hand.
“Where’d you get this?” He asked.
Buddy looked at the girl. She looked at him. They were suspicious. They moved ahead accordingly.
“Family heirloom.” Buddy nodded. He looked at it under his jeweler’s eye. “Looks like an opal.”
I looked at the girl. She kept her face a stone. “An opal, huh.” I was wary, knowing they knew the stone.
Buddy turned the marble around, scrutinizing it. “Yeah, but you don’t often see them designed like this.”
“As glass eyes.”
“You’ve seen it before.”
They were both surprised by my question. Some sort of leap they thought plebians couldn’t take mentally. Or I was too sensitive to the level of scrutiny in the room. But there’s a manner built into this world. One of set places and thought patterns.
Buddy stayed very still. He didn’t look at his assistant. If that’s what she was. The girl in the green Dickie’s jumpsuit. She was motionless as well. “I have never seen this before, no. But I’ve heard tell of it.” He held the stone in the palm of his hand.
“What’s it worth?”
He eyed me over his glasses and frowned. “Maybe two thousand dollars.”
“Two thousand?” The two words rushed from my mouth without hesitation. “Why all the fuss?” I asked no one in particular.
“What fuss?” Buddy seemed interested in something, finally.
I shook my head and frowned my own damn self. “Maybe there isn’t any.” I stepped up to get the marble back from him.
But Buddy had his own intentions and kept the thing in his hand. “How did you come by this stone, if I might ask?”
“You asked it. But I don’t have an answer for you, Buddy.”
The old Jew looked at me like he was surprised I knew his name, but then looked at his apprentice and gave a slight nod. The girl in the jumpsuit made no gesture that she was sorry or worried about anything. An envious place to inhabit.
“You have no idea how you came into possession of this thing?” Buddy still held the marble in his palm.
“I do know this, but I don’t think it’s any or your business.”
“Well, maybe it is, sir.” Buddy began. “If you came by this by less than desirable means.”
“Less than desirable means, huh.” I looked at the white-bearded man. “What’s the most desirable? Digging for it myself? Putting my hands in the hard dirt and pulling it out myself. And who’s at a loss there?”
“Mother Earth.” The girl in the jumpsuit finally spoke.
Buddy cringed. “Jesus Christ.”
I almost cracked a smile but the urgency for seriousness overruled everything. We all looked at each other with a tiredness only city-living could provide.
“I’d go to the police, if I were you.” Buddy said. “Being in possession of this is not good.”
“It’s a stolen item.”
“Well, you’re currently in possession of it.”
“Would you like for me to take possession of it?” Buddy asked. “I can take the steps to get it in the right hands.”
“What hands would those be?” I stood over the counter, teetering on my tiptoes, ready to run, but I wasn’t letting that stone go. “You’ll call the cops as soon as I leave, so, I don’t think those are the right hands.” I glanced at the girl. “Somebody in this building get robbed?”
Furtive glances between Buddy and the young lady in the jumpsuit. Bingo. I snatched the marble from Buddy’s palm. He had a look on his face as if I’d struck him. I cringed this time, not wanted to harm an old man. But he was just startled at a hand from the bottom reaching up, and taking something from him.
“Out on the streets, some guys were doing jobs. Following guys with briefcases. Snatching whatever was in them.” Putting the marble back in its felt-bag.
“Some Latino dudes, right?” The girl in the jumpsuit, suddenly interested.
“Ed.” Buddy said with an exacting tone.
He was looking at her but she didn’t return the gaze. She was looking at me for some reason. Like she wanted more information and thought I had it.
“Yeah, I think so.” I put the bag in my back pocket. “That’s what I read, anyway.”
“You read this where?” Buddy chiming in.
“On my phone.” It made me remember it. I checked my pocket to see if it was still there. It was. I took it out to see only a notification for a social media app, and put it back in its pocket.
“They caught the guys, right?” Ed again.
“You think they stole this off a jeweler?” I asked Buddy, patting my backside. In my peripherals I could see Ed checking me out.
He had a resigned look on his face. “Or a courier.”
“You guys know all this though.” I looked from him to Ed. They gave each other wary glances. “You know exactly who it belongs to.”
Buddy sighed and pulled his jeweler’s eye down over one eye. “Ed, you should call security.”
Ed’s eyes cut downward and then up at me. She’d had her phone in her hand. I hadn’t noticed, maybe it was there the whole time, it looked so nestled and apart of her palm. She swiped her thumb up and I began to move. I don’t think her heart was in it. I made it to the door and into the hallway and halfway to the elevator before a guy with black cargo pants and black polo shirt and a utility-belt came striding my way from the other end of the corridor. Gave him a nod and a pursed lip smile and hit the down button on the elevator. The man had gun holstered on that belt.
“Sir.” He said.
Looking over at him, the security guard seemed unsure of whether he was talking to the right guy. “You gotta come with me.” He had a hand out.
“Do I?” Giving him a confused look. “I just delivered some food, I’m leaving.”
He had on black combat-boots and looked unsure. He looked back over his shoulder, quickly, toward the hallway, as if it could help him.
The elevator dinged.
Some more jewelry workers crowded in towards the door. The security guard stood there looking at me as people moved in between us and the elevator door slide open. I got in with five or six other people. What could he do, I was leaving?
Down in the lobby the two security dudes paid me no mind. Too busy eating their own dinners. McDonald’s bags in front of them. Slipping out in the crowd, out on to Hill, felt like a cool breeze.
But it then the heat creeped in. Up from all the concrete like a paved-over swamp. The truck was still parked where I’d left it. Willie was not. There was a ticket on the windshield. Parked in red zone.
I grabbed the ticket and looked around for Willie. He’s not an easy human to miss. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It was dark now. Lights were lit up everywhere and there seemed to be less people on the streets, but still an energy that kept you from sleepiness. I got in my truck and cranked it up, thinking of few places Willie might have gone.