“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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.