ALSO BY WALTER MOSLEY
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
A Little Yellow Dog
Devil in a Blue Dress
Walkin’ the Dog
Workin’ on the Chain Gang (nonfiction)
Copyright © 2001 by Walter Mosley
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
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First eBook Edition: March 2010
ALSO BY WALTER MOSLEY
Dedicated to Clyde Taylor
and Manthia Diawara
MY USED-BOOK STORE had been open for just about a month when the police showed up. I hadn’t called them, of course; a black man has to think twice before calling the cops in Watts. They came to see me late that afternoon. Two well-built young men. One had dark hair and the other sported freckles.
The dark one wandered around the room, flipping through random books, looking, it seemed, for some kind of contraband.
“Where’d you get all these books, son?” the other cop asked, looking down on me.
I was sitting in my favorite swivel chair behind the makeshift table-desk that I used for book sales and purchases.
“Libraries,” I replied.
“Stole ’em?” the dark-haired cop asked from across the room. There was an eager grin on his face.
“Front’a each page marked discarded,” I said, editing out all unnecessary words as I spoke. “Library throws away thousands of books every year.”
I reached for a paper folder at the far end of the table, and the cop standing over me let his right hand drift toward his holster. I removed a sheet of paper and handed it over slowly.
“This letter,” I said, “is from the office of the head librarian downtown.”
The freckled and frowning cop used his left hand to take the letter from me.
I was put out by the roust but not surprised. The police weren’t used to a Negro in Watts going into business for himself. Most black migrants from the South usually got jobs for the city or did domestic work or day labor. There were very few entrepreneurs active among us at that time. That’s why I had asked Miss Ryan, assistant to the president of the county library system, for a letter of explanation. She had written the letter on official letterhead, addressed “To whom it may concern,” stating that any library book marked discarded was no longer the property of the library and could be disposed of in any way that the current owner saw fit.
Upon reading this the officer’s hand moved away from his gun. “The law says that you’re supposed to post business hours clearly on the front door,” he said, letting the letter fall back on the table.
There was no such ordinance, and I knew it, but I said, “Yes, officer. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
I felt no rancor toward them. Being challenged by the law was a rite of passage for any Negro who wanted to better himself or his situation.
I HAD OPENED my nameless bookstore on Central just down from 101st Street. It was the only one of its kind for miles. I carried everything from Tolstoy to Batman, from Richard Wright to Popular Mechanics. No new books, but a used book is just as good as a new one as far as the reading goes.
At first I was scandalized by the thought that a library would discard a book, but once I realized the possibilities for business, I made the rounds of every library in L.A., carting off almost two thousand volumes in just over three months. Then I paid first and last month’s rent on a storefront that was down the street from a Holy Roller church called Messenger of the Divine.
My friend Fearless Jones helped me throw together some pine shelving and I was in business. I bought magazines two for a nickel and sold them at twice the price. I traded one book or magazine for two of equal worth.
Business wasn’t brisk, but it paid the rent and utilities. And all day long I could do the thing I loved best — reading. I read Up from Slavery, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Mein Kampf, and dozens of other titles in the first few months. Whole days I spent in my reclining swivel chair, turning pages and drinking Royal Crown colas. Every once in a while I’d have to stop in order to sell an encyclopedia to proud parents or a romance to a woman who needed more than her husband had left at the end of a hard day’s work. I had a whole army of little children helpers who’d sort and alphabetize for comic book privileges and maybe a free taco now and then.
For a solid three months I was the happiest man in L.A., in spite of the cops. I had a checking account, and for the first time in my life I was caught up on my bills.
But then Love walked in the door.
It was a cloudless day in October, the year was 1954. It wasn’t hot or cold outside, but her dress was definitely a summer frock, white with a floral pattern. The thin straps lay loose on her brown shoulders. She didn’t seem to be wearing anything under that dress — not that she needed to. The sunglasses had been pushed up to the top of her head, nestled in the big, floppy curls she’d had done at some beauty shop.
Her face is what scared me. It was too wide to be pretty and too flat to be handsome, but she was beautiful anyway. I wanted to feel my cheek rubbing up against hers.
The last time I’d felt like that about a woman I almost got killed. So the fast beating of my heart was a coin toss between love and fear.
“Is Reverend Grove here?’” she asked me in a breathy voice.
“Reverend William Grove. He preached with Father Vincent and Sister Thalia.”
The skirt came down to the middle of her knees. Her legs were bare and her ankles were bound with thin straps of white leather snaking up from delicate sandals.
“I don’t know any Grove,” I said, forcing my eyes back to her face.
The name had some meaning to me, but it felt so distant that I thought it must be someone from long ago, maybe from down in Louisiana. Certainly not anyone this beautiful girl and I would both know.
She looked around the room, twisting at the waist to see for herself. She had a figure made for that kind of movement. Her eyes lit on a burlap curtain that hung over a doorway.
“Where’s that go?” she asked.
“My back room,” I said. Then it came to me. “You must be talking about the Messenger of the Divine.”
“Oh yes. Yes.”
The hope in her voice brought me up out of my chair. She moved toward me. Her hands reached out for me.
“They had a place look like mine down the street,” I said. “But they moved out. Must be two months ago now.”
“What?” Her face went blank.
“Moved,” I said. “Went away.”
“I don’t know. They moved out in the middle of the night. Took everything. All that was left was an empty space and a few paper fans.”
I was sad to make my little report because now there was no reason for her to stay and twist around. I realized that I had spent a little too much time lately wrapped up in books. I had the notion that I should go out to the Parisian Room that night.
Just then the young woman leaned backward and then crumpled forward, into my arms. As I stood there holding her steady, the fear fled my heart. At close quarters her scent was floral, but it was also sharp, like the smell after lightning strikes.
“You got some water in the back?” she whispered.
I nodded and led her through the heavy burlap curtain to the back room and put her on my cot. She was mumbling and crying.
“Are you okay?” I asked, perching next to her.
“Where did they go?”
I couldn’t find the words to hurt her again.
“What am I gonna do?” she cried, turning her head, looking around in the dark as if the room might somehow transform itself into the church she sought. “Reverend Grove is the only one who can help me now.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking, even then, that I didn’t really want to know.
“I have to find William. If I don’t —” She broke off in tears. I tried to console her but she was bereft.
After a moment or two I heard the front door to the store come open. She heard it too and took in a quick breath. Her fear made me wary again. I rose up and went through the curtain to the store.
The man standing there was a study in blunt. His hairless head was big and meaty. The dark features might not have been naturally ugly, but they had been battered by a lifetime of hard knocks: broken nose, a rash that had raged and then scarred over the lower left side of his face. His eyebrows seemed to be different sizes, but that might just have been the product of a permanent scowl.
“Wherethegurl?” he said in a tone so guttural that for a moment I couldn’t make out the words. “Wherethegurl?”
He was about six feet tall (I’m only five eight), but he had the chest and shoulders of someone who should have been much taller. He was a volcano crushed down into just about man size. His clothes were festive, a red Hawaiian shirt and light blue pants. The outfit was ridiculous, like a calico bow on an English bulldog.
“I don’t —” I said.
“Wherethegurl, muthahfuckah!” He had the build of a fireplug but moved like a cat. He had me by the arm and in the air before I could invent a lie.
“Where is she?” He looked around the room and saw that the burlap curtain was the only exit besides the front door. He threw me at the curtain, and I tore it down falling into the back room. He came in right behind me, looking at all the corners and then at the bed.
My eyes were on him.
“This your last chance,” he said, threat heavy in each word.
I dared a glance at the bed and saw that it was empty.
“I don’t know, man,” I said as bravely as I could. “She come an’ asked about a church used to be around here. I told her that they were gone. So then she said she had to go to the bathroom.”
I gestured with my hand. He saw the door and flung it open with so much force that one of the hinges ripped loose from the wall. All that was revealed was a lidless commode and tin sink.
“Where is she?” He dragged me to my feet with one hand.
“She must’a gone out the back, man. I don’t know.”
I think he slapped me, but I’ve been hit by blackjacks that had more give than his fingers. The taste of salt came into my mouth and the lightbulb on the desk multiplied into a thousand stars.
“Wherethegurl?” a parrot somewhere said.
“She must’a gone out the back,” I repeated.
“I’ll kill you, niggah, no lie.”
He slapped me again and I tried to think of what I could say to save my life. But I didn’t know anything, not even the frightened woman’s name. I decided that, since he was going to kill me anyway, I would go out bravely. For once I would be as brave as my friend Fearless. I had never stood up to a bully in my life. So at least this one last time, in a back room in Watts, Paris Minton would show some backbone. Fuck you, asshole, was on the tip of my tongue.
“Please don’t, brother.” My trembling words betrayed me. “I don’t know nuthin’.”
He slapped me again. My head turned around so far that I was sure my neck had broken.
“You a dead man,” my attacker said.
A child’s voice squeaked, “Mr. Minton, you okay?”
“Who’s that man?” another child screamed.
I fell to the floor, noticing as I hit that my killer wore leather sandals on bare feet. As I lost consciousness I thought that if a man was going to kill me, he should at least wear grown-up men’s shoes.
“MR. MINTON? Mr. Minton, are you okay?”
It was a man’s voice. A familiar voice. There was concern, not mayhem, in the words. I opened my eyes and saw Theodore Wally, the clerk from Antonio and Sons Superette next door. He was a young man, but his face was ready for old age. It was medium brown and soft with fleshy weight around the eyes.
“Mr. Minton?” he asked again. “Are you okay?”
I didn’t answer because I was preoccupied with the miracle of my survival. The killer, I figured, was still human enough not to want to murder children. When he saw them he decided to spare me. I lifted my head, and a pain as sharp as Fearless Jones’s bayonet traveled the length of my spine.
“Help me up,” I said, fearing that I was paralyzed.
The little shopkeeper pulled as hard as he could and I sat up. When I got to my feet the pain was even worse, but I could take steps without falling.
“You okay, Mr. Minton?”
“Why don’t you call me Paris, Theodore?” I said, angry at the world.
“I don’t know. It’s the way I was raised, I guess.”
“You call Freddy at the hot dog stand Freddy.” A wave of pain crashed in my head. I almost lost my footing, but Theodore held me up.
“You okay? You want a doctor?”
“No. But thank you. Thank you. How come you came in here?”
“Those kids, Elbert and them. They come in the store an’ said you was dead, that a big, ugly man killed you.”
“Where the kids?”
I tripped over the downed burlap curtain going through the doorway from my back room. When I got outside the sunlight made my eyes feel as if they were going to explode.
“You okay, Mr. Minton?” a too-tall-for-his-age eight-year-old cried.
“Okay, Elbert. Okay. You see him?”
“That man that hit you?”
“Uh-huh.” The pain from the sun was so great that everything was tinged in red. I wondered if that meant I was bleeding inside my skull.
“He drove a blue car like my daddy’s, only it was a light blue and it had horns.”
“What kinda horns?”
“Like the cows in the movies.”
I fell to my knees and threw up, hard. The boys skittered away, but Theodore knelt down and held me by the shoulders, then helped me back to my back room.
“You should go to a doctor, Mr. Minton.”
“I just wanna sleep, Theodore.” They were the truest words ever spoken. “Do me a favor and pull the shades and lock the door. And put up my closed sign. Please, Theodore.” I added the last two words because I was a transplanted southern boy who learned manners before he knew how to talk.
Theodore moved quietly around the bookstore pulling down the dark yellow shades. I turned out the lamp on the desk and then lay down on my cot. The back room had no windows and so became very dark. When I heard the front door close I made a powerful effort to stand. At first I thought I might throw up again, but the urge passed. I staggered to my desk and let myself down on one knee. It was an old maple desk, heavy and cramped. I only used it to store and stack papers. Store and stack and secret away a .38-caliber pistol on a ledge behind the center drawer. It was Fearless’s gun. I held it for him when he was between apartments. It was in my possession in that capacity when he was sent to jail.
For the first time I lamented Fearless’s incarceration.
They had arrested him for felony assault on three crooked mechanics, convicted him on a lesser charge, and given him the choice of paying five hundred dollars or spending nine months as a guest of the county. He opted for the fine but had no money to pay and so asked me for a loan.
“I’m sorry, Fearless,” I said through the visitor’s grille at the county jailhouse. “But, man, I just can’t do it.”
Fearless’s lean, dark face didn’t show the disappointment I know he must have felt. He had put his life on the line saving mine eight years earlier, but over the years since then, I had risked my own skin many times for him — and I was no war hero the way he was.
Fearless was the kind of person who attracted trouble. He didn’t know how to look away or back down. He couldn’t even spell the word compromise. Whenever he called me, I didn’t know if we were going to get drunk at a party or get jumped down some dark alley.
To protect my interests as a businessman, I decided to cut my ties with probably the best friend that I ever had.
“Okay,” he said. “I understand. But you know them men did me wrong, Paris.”
I CHECKED to make sure the pistol was loaded and took off the safety. Then I climbed into the bed with the gun under the covers next to me. I didn’t fall into a deep sleep but instead drifted on the edge of a nervous doze.
WHEN I FELT a feathery touch against my forehead I feared that it was a rat, that I was dead and he came in from the alley to eat my flesh. The thought of food caused me to writhe from nausea, and when I moved I felt her flowery dress.
I knew it was her. That was my kind of luck. The kind of woman I wanted most, the kind of woman I should stay away from at all costs, that’s the woman who I will awaken to from a slumber that might have been death.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I could barely see her in the darkness.
“Does it hurt much?”
“Like a toothache set in a broken jaw.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching out to touch my brow again.
“What’s your name?”
“Elana Love. What’s yours?”
“Paris Minton. Paris Minton.” The repetition was my attempt to extricate myself from the trouble in that room. But I wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was she.
“That’s a nice name.”
“How did you get back in here?” I asked.
“I never left,” she said. “When Leon came in I looked for a back door, but I didn’t see one, so I squeezed in behind the file cabinet and waited until he left. I was going to run out, but then that other man came in.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I thought you might be mad that I didn’t help you against Leon.”
“Who is this Leon?”
“Leon Douglas. We used to see each other before they sent him to jail. He was in for armed robbery and attempted murder, but a lawyer got him out.”
“What did you do, cheat on him or something?”
“No,” she said in a flash of anger. “I broke it off with him before he robbed that store. I told him that no love was gonna make me live with a criminal.”
“Maybe he didn’t like that.”
“He thinks I have somethin’, but I don’t have it. I don’t, but he won’t believe me.”
“But Reverend Grove knows where it is?”
“How did you know about him?” She was suddenly wary. “Oh, yeah. I told you.”
“Does he?” I asked. For some reason talking made me feel better. I sat up.
“Reverend Grove. Does he have what Leon wants?”
“Uh-uh,” she said, but I wasn’t sure that I believed her. “I told Leon that he did though. I was seein’ William for a while back there, and I thought he could help me against Leon. But when the church was gone I didn’t know what to do.”
Silence brought back the awareness of pain. I didn’t care about Grove or Leon either. I didn’t care what they were hiding or looking for.
“Why are you still here?” I asked.
“When you went outside I looked for a back door, but there wasn’t one, and where could I go anyway?” she asked. “Maybe Leon’s waiting around outside somewhere.”
The thought of that killer lurking outside my door made me queasy again.
“How did he know you were here?”
“He made me come,” she said in a pained tone. “He told me to come in and get his property from William or else he was gonna break somebody’s neck.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I got that.”
“You have to help me, Mr. Minton.”
“I can go to the market next door and use their phone to call the police,” I offered.
“No. No, not the police.”
“Why not? He’s threatenin’ you and he almost killed me.”
“Leon has a lot of friends,” she said. “Even if he gets arrested, he’ll send somebody after me, and maybe you too.”
“Me? Honey, I don’t know either one’a you. All I was doin’ was sittin’ here mindin’ my own business.” I thought of Fearless then, of how he was always saying how he was minding his own business when all hell broke loose.
“But now that he’s seen you, he might think that you’re in this with me.”
“In what? I don’t even know you.”
Elana reached out and touched my chest then. It might sound like a silly gesture, but when a woman like that lays hands on you, it’s hard to ignore.
“Listen, honey,” I said, despite my thrumming heart. “You’re gorgeous. I only meet a woman like you about once every five years or so. But when I do, somebody always ends up wantin’ to kill me. And you know I could find me an ugly girl, be half as happy, but live ten times as long. I don’t want anything to do with you or your boyfriend or your ex-boyfriend. So please, go back out the way you came and shut the door behind you.”
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough to see the struggle in her face. She wanted to convince me, to make me her protector but couldn’t quite figure out how.
“I don’t even have bus money. If I go out there alone he could kill me,” she said.
That was my downfall right there. I took pity on her the way I did time and again with Fearless. I came to a compromise in my head even though I knew that what I should do was throw her outdoors.
I made it to my feet and said, “Okay, I’ll give you a ride wherever you need to go to get away, but that’s it.”
ELANA DIDN’T COMPLAIN when she saw me pocket the .38.
“Might as well go out the back,” I said. “I mean, he’d probably be covering the front. Does he have any friends?”
“He was with two friends.” Elana sounded defeated. I clearly wasn’t the protector she needed.
“What’re their names?”
“What difference do that make?”
“Well, let’s go out the back door,” I said. My head was still light and my stomach was churning. I swallowed once and gazed at a piece of wall with a cabinet handle screwed on at just about waist height. The reason that Elana hadn’t found her way out was that my back door was almost invisible. It was just a rectangular slat that swung on three rusty old hinges.
My red Nash Rambler was parked against a salmon-pink stucco wall that ran the length of the alley separating the houses on the residential street behind. There was no sign of Leon, his horned car, or his nameless friends. Elana slid into the passenger’s seat and laid her head against the window. She was a picture-perfect damsel in distress.
If I were Fearless Jones I would have run headlong into the fray, taking any blows and doing anything to protect her. But I didn’t believe that even Fearless would have stood long against Leon Douglas.
I started the motor and we slid off into the afternoon.
“Where to?” I asked.
She rattled off an address on a street named Hazzard.
“It’s off Brooklyn Avenue in East L.A.”
I WAS CUTTING left and right on side streets, making my way east, looking up into my rearview mirror from time to time. We’d driven for more than five minutes in silence.
“What does this Leon guy want from you?” I asked.
“You don’t want to get involved, remember?” she said.
“Have it your way, honey. All I thought was that maybe I could give you some advice.”
“The only thing anybody could give me is manpower or money. Either that or Leon Douglas is gonna kill me.”
I looked over into the side mirror and saw the flash of a powder blue Chrysler with horns on its grate as it swerved, aiming to cut me off.
“Shit!” I hit the brakes, narrowly avoiding the collision. He banged into a parked car at a wide angle, blocking the street. I hit the gas and drove up onto the sidewalk. The lawns on that block were small hills leading up to the little homes. I put deep ruts across three of these lawns, fishtailing as I went. As soon as we cleared Leon, I cut a hard left back down to the street. Once on the asphalt, I gunned the engine and we took off. I would have felt good about the maneuver except by then Leon had straightened out also. He was barreling down on us.
I careened left, scraping an oncoming Ford. Leon did the same thing. Then I heard something that sounded like a chicken bone breaking.
“They’re shooting at us!” Elana cried.
I made three more wild turns. Shots popped off at irregular intervals. There were no cops anywhere.
“Take the gun outta my pocket!” I yelled.
Elana wasn’t slow. She didn’t resist or think or pretend that it was too much for her. She just jammed her hand into my pocket and rolled down her window.
A bullet ricocheted off the side of my door.
I made a right turn and Elana leaned out, taking four fast shots at the rampaging bull of a car. I had turned onto Edison, a warehouse street with very few pedestrians. I remembered, too late, that most of the side streets off it were dead ends, so I couldn’t afford a turn. We were on a straightaway with only two bullets left.
“Did you hit anything?” I shouted.
“I don’t think so.”
The Chrysler was coming on strong for three blocks, four, five. I swerved and banked to pull around cars ahead of me. Leon matched me move for move. After Leonard Street the bull slowed. By the next block there was smoke from the car’s hood. They pulled to the curb soon after that.
I almost fainted when I realized we’d survived.
I turned onto Hooper and headed downtown.
“Where are you going?” she asked me, the steely calm of her voice in deep contrast with my racing heart.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
After half an hour or so we came to an underground parking lot on Flower. It was expensive, thirty-five cents an hour, but I wanted to be careful now that I had a killer on my trail. A killer with whom I had just been in a running gun battle in the streets of L.A.
I reached out to Elana Love and said, “Gun, please.”
She looked down at the pistol in her hand and considered a moment before handing it over.
We went to a small diner called Guardino’s on Hope. It was a nice place with an Italian flair. Larry, the owner, liked me and Fearless because we’d come there on double dates and buy big dinners with fancy wines for our girls. Fearless could eat antipasto all day if you’d let him.
“Paris,” Selena Karsky said in greeting. She was Larry’s girlfriend, bottled blond and fifty. She still looked good though. “Where’s Fearless?”
“He went away,” I said.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Is he coming back soon?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. He got a job outta town.”
“You must miss him.”
“More every day.”
Selena took us to a booth in the dark corridor of the restaurant. Of the eight booths, six already had customers. All of them were white, and a few gave us surprised looks.
“We’re not too hungry, Selena,” I told her. “Just beers, mine-strone, and an antipasto plate for two.”
“Okay,” she said, smiling.
“Friend of yours?” Elana asked when Selena was gone.
“She smiles and serves me spaghetti and seats me even though some people complain. I like her okay.”
“Why did you bring me here?” Elana asked.
“Because I’m a fool.”
“If I had sent you away instead of offering you a ride, none of this would be happening. I’d be sleepin’ off my lumps, and you’d be all snugly with Mr. Douglas.”
My words made her uncomfortable, which was just fine by me.
“So,” I continued. “Tell me about Leon and why it’s his business to kill me.”
“Are you going to help me?”
“No. I’m gonna help myself. You got Frankenstein and his brothers stakin’ out my store. If I don’t do something, I’ll either lose my business or lose my life. You know I don’t like either one’a them choices.” I spoke in a whisper that had all the weight of a shout.
“What could you do?” Her sneer reminded me that she had witnessed my humiliation under Leon’s threats and violence.
“Go to the cops for one thing.”
That wiped the smug off her face.
“No, don’t,” she said.
Elana Love struggled with the truth. It was all caught up with lies and fears. She couldn’t tell me everything, but she had to let up on something or I’d blow the game.
“Leon had a cellmate in prison. A man named Sol Tannenbaum. Sol was in for embezzlement, but, you know, he wasn’t a criminal type, never even been in jail. Leon’s tough. He promised Sol that he’d protect him. But Sol had to give him something.” Elana stopped a moment.
“It was a bond. What they called a bond of deposit. It was issued by some bank in Switzerland.”
“How much?” I asked.
“It was ten thousand francs, about two thousand five hundred American dollars.”
“So? What does all this have to do with Leon?”
“Sol didn’t have the bond in jail. He set it up so that I got it from his wife.”
“I thought you broke up with Leon before he got sent up?”
“He asked me for a favor. An’ maybe I didn’t exactly tell ’im that we were through.”
“And so you took the bond and…”
“I gave it to William to hold it for me.”
“I thought you said he didn’t have it.”
“He didn’t think he did, that’s what I meant,” she said. “I didn’t tell him what it was or anything. It was just in a whole bunch of papers I left with him for safekeeping.”
Selena came with the beers and a basket of white bread.
When she was gone I asked Elana, “Why didn’t you keep the money with you?”
“Not money,” she corrected, “a bond. After Leon got sent to jail I was having trouble making my rent, and I didn’t wanna take a chance and lose it if the landlord changed the locks and took my stuff.”
“But couldn’t Grove go through your papers, find the bond, and cash it in?” I asked reasonably.
“No,” she said as if talking to a fool. “It was made out to Mr. Tannenbaum. Only he could cash it. That way everybody was covered. I couldn’t get the money and neither could Leon if he got out before Sol. He didn’t though. Leon told me that Sol got out on good behavior last week.”
“So you think Reverend Grove went to this Sol guy an’ got him to sign over the bond?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied, looking down into her beer.
“ ’Cause William don’t know he got the bond.”
I knew she was lying. Why would she tell me the truth?
“Why didn’t you go to find Grove yourself?” I asked. “And take the bond to Sol for him to sign it?”
“I didn’t even know that he was out of jail,” she said. “And even if I did, he would’a been a fool to sign it without Leon’s say-so.”
“There’s something else I don’t understand. You said that Leon was in for armed robbery and attempted murder. How’s he gonna get out anytime before twenty years?”
“Leon had a bad lawyer. He was sure that if he got a new trial he could beat the charges.”
“So now you sayin’ he didn’t do the robbery?”
“He did it all right, it’s just that they didn’t have no evidence.”
“Uh-huh. And the bond was gonna pay for the new lawyer?” I was trying to make some kind of sense out of her story, but it wasn’t easy.
“Yeah. Leon told me that he told his lawyer that he could pay him a thousand dollars when he got out. He was gonna use the bond for that.”
“And now he needs the money to pay his lawyer?” I asked.
Elana nodded. “Otherwise the lawyer’ll drop the case an’ he’s back in jail.”
“I’m sorry, honey, but your story still don’t add up,” I said. “Here you tell me that you’re close enough to Reverend Grove for him to store your things, but you don’t even know his church’s address.”
“I knew where Messenger was” — there was acid on her tongue now — “I knew that William had cleared out too. But I needed to get away from Leon. The church store was padlocked, so I told him that your place was the church office. That way I could leave him outside and get away through the back.”
“Why wouldn’t he just come in with you?”
“Because he’s out on bail waitin’ for his new trial and he don’t wanna get that revoked.”
“Out on bail?” I said. “How much was that?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t go to the hearin’. All I know is that the judge turned over his conviction and set bail. I told him that the people in the church would call the police if he caused trouble. He said he’d wait ten minutes, but I guess he didn’t trust me.”
“No kiddin’? So all that shit you said about lookin’ for Grove, that was just actin’?” As I said the words I realized that I was no more a match for Elana Love than I had been for her boyfriend.
“Maybe I already knew the church was gone, but I really was scared. You saw Leon. You can’t blame me for tryin’ to get away.”
“Here you are, hun.” Selena appeared with our soup and antipasto on a wide, cork-lined tray. She set the plates out in front of us and stared admiringly at Elana. “You’re a beauty.”
“Thank you,” the siren said.
“Are you an actress or model?”
“No,” she answered. But there was something else. The way her eyes moved and her body twisted, a whole volume of mystery passed from her to the waitress.
When Selena was gone I said, “So tell me something.”
“Did Leon have money from that robbery? Is that what he’s after?”
She shook her head again. “They let him out of jail today and he was at my door an hour after. All he said was that he wanted his bond.”
I wrapped a slice of salami around a semi-sour gherkin and popped it in my mouth. I chewed for a while, enjoying the loud crunching in my ears.
“I didn’t mean to get you into trouble, Mr. Minton. I was just looking for a way out.”
I took Elana to that restaurant instead of putting her out on the street because I wanted to know about the trouble I had fallen into. I had found out a few things, but they didn’t help much.
“So what do you intend to do now?”
“I don’t know.” She made a gesture of hopelessness with her hands, but I had learned by now not to trust when she was acting weak.
“What about that place on Hazzard you wanted to go before? You wanna go there?”
“Are you going to help me?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t go back to the store because of Leon. That’s where he’d go for sure.”
“We could go to your place,” she suggested.
“I live at my store,” I said.
“But there’s a motel down at Venice Beach take us. It’s cheap and there’s the ocean outside. The waves help me think.”
“Let’s go there.” She reached across the table and laid her hand over mine. And damn if my fingers didn’t curl around hers.
THE MUSSEL BEACH INN was half a block up from the water, perched on a small hill. You couldn’t see the ocean in the darkness, but you heard and smelled it just fine. I left the sliding doors open because of a false sense of security I had. I mean, Leon wouldn’t find us at the beach if he searched for seven years.
The lights were down and the linen curtains were waving in and out from our little cement patio. Every now and then the moon appeared in a curve of the flowing fabric.
Elana told me that she was from Georgia, that her mother had brought her to live in L.A. when she was only twelve. But then, just three years later, her mother moved to Jackson, Mississippi, with a merchant marine who later abandoned her.
“She left you on your own when you was just fifteen?” I said, sounding more concerned than I actually felt.
“We didn’t see eye to eye, my mama and me,” Elana said rather callously. “And anyway, I had a boyfriend I was livin’ wit’ when she left.”
I said that that was sad and tried for a kiss, but she turned away before I got there.
Leon, she said, was a strong arm and a robber. She worried that Sol Tannenbaum had to give up part of his life savings for his thuggish protection. That’s why she left him. She wasn’t going to be a moll or an accomplice. She needed a man who was going to be sweet and gentle.
I didn’t believe a word she said, but that didn’t matter. I told her that my mother raised me as a gentleman. “A gentle man,” I said before launching another kiss. That one missed too.
It was late, and there was no immediate danger. She was a young woman, and I was the young man who had just saved her life. I couldn’t see where a kiss was out of line.
“I’m too upset to do that, baby,” she said after my third awkward attempt. “Why don’t we try an’ get some sleep. I’ll feel better tomorrow.”
The only vacancy the motel had was furnished with two single beds. I could see that I was destined to sleep alone and so crawled under the covers of the one nearest the window.
“Aren’t you gonna take off your clothes?” she asked.
“I won’t look.”
“I wish you would. You might see somethin’ you like. But I’m not taking off my pants until I know that I won’t have to run any minute with some killer on my ass.” I wasn’t really afraid, but I had my car key, money, and Fearless Jones’s pistol in my pockets. I wanted all of that close at hand.
She made a little humming sound and then got under her bedclothes. She did take off her dress, but I couldn’t see anything because of the blankets.
“G’night,” she said softly.
I switched off the lamp on the night table next to my bed, closed my eyes, and concentrated on the sound of the waves. After a while my mind began to drift.
In the reverie my thoughts kept returning to Fearless Jones.
Fearless Jones. Tall and slender, darker than most Negroes in the American melting pot, he was stronger than tempered steel and an army-trained killing machine.
I learned just how deadly he was one night after a big rainstorm in San Francisco. I was coming down a dark street dancing to the jazz I knew I’d be hearing soon. When the cops stopped me, I guess I must have been a little too cocky. They didn’t like my attitude and were correcting it with their nightsticks when Fearless showed up to meet me. He jumped in the middle of the fracas as if he were still under Bradley fighting the Germans hand to hand. He disarmed both men and beat them to their knees.
He would have let it go at that if one of the cops hadn’t put a knife in his thigh. After that there was no hope. One cop fell unconscious, facedown in a pool of water. The other, the one who stabbed Fearless, well, his windpipe busted.
Fearless still had a small limp from that knife wound. There’s never a day that goes by I don’t wish that I’d taken the beating and Fearless had missed the whole thing.
But for all that he was a killer, Fearless was a good man too. Too good. He was generous beyond his means. This generosity often led to trouble that I got pulled into. Loan sharks and wife-beating husbands, con men and shady landlords. Fearless brought me into conflict with every kind of lowlife and thug. And I am not a courageous man.
Maybe that’s why I had Fearless on my mind instead of the sensuous curves of Elana Love. I was scared, and Fearless was the only person I really trusted. I considered going to the police about Leon, but the cops were an iffy bet at best. Maybe somebody had reported the shoot-out. Maybe, if they couldn’t find Leon, the cops would decide that I shot at myself. There was no way that I could rely on Elana telling them the same story she told me. And if they got me into an interrogation room, I’d confess to anything they said.
No, I couldn’t go to the police. And I wouldn’t go to Fearless either. In the morning I’d take Elana anywhere she wanted to go and then I’d go on vacation for a few weeks, maybe down in San Diego. I had enough money for a holiday. And by the time I returned, Leon would either be back in jail or on easy street. Either way he wouldn’t be worried about me.
With that decision made I dozed off, but I didn’t relax. In my dreams someone was chasing me through the main library downtown. I ran from room to room with my unknown pursuer close behind. I knew that in one of the books there was written the secret of my success and salvation, but I couldn’t stop to search for it for fear I’d get caught and drown in the waters outside the Mussel Beach Inn.
“Paris.” Her lips were touching my ear.
I tried to jump, but her arms were around me. Her breasts were heavy against my back.
“I thought you said —” I started to say.
“Shhhh,” she whispered. “What you got down here?”
I heard the zipper from under the blanket and then I felt the silken warmth of her hand.
“Dang,” she said in what I knew was real surprise. “I could use three hands on you.”
There are no two lovers alike. Every man and woman has different needs and pleasures in bed. I’ve always known this. It’s part of the reason that I have so much anticipation the first time with a new woman. But that night I realized that everybody is different with every new love they meet. Coming together with Elana made me into a new man. I was jumping through hoops I hadn’t known were there. Elana gave me pleasure in places I never associated with sex.
Together we were like an overripe peach, just dripping with sweetness and sticky with love. My orgasms were so strong that I didn’t even feel the ejaculations. But they were in no way superior to the feel of her teeth at the back of my neck.
From a worried sleep to passionate love to a deep slumber she took me. The ocean was crashing, and the cool air drove me deeper into the blankets. At the first moment of consciousness I was smiling and placated. But then I began to sense that I was alone.
Morning light was coming through the wavy curtains. Elana was not in my bed and neither was she in hers. The bathroom was empty. My pants were strewn in the middle of the floor. My wallet was laid open, emptied of cash. The .38 was gone too.
She hadn’t taken the five-dollar bill that I keep in my shoe. I always thought it would come in handy if I was mugged late one night and had to pay for a taxi ride home. I never imagined that a mugging would come in the form of sex. And, as much as I wanted to be mad, as much as I was mad, I still appreciated the way she had robbed me. At least I did until I realized that she had also stolen my car.
The blacktop lot to the motel was completely empty. It was ten A.M. and I was marooned in Venice for no reason other than I was a fool.
I took a bus directly to the Bank of America branch on Normandie. I made a withdrawal, which took a while because I was closing out my account, and carried my money back home.
THERE WAS no crowd, and so I figured the fire must have happened either the night before or early in the morning. Whenever it happened it must have raged, because there weren’t ten books out of over three thousand that survived the blaze. My storefront rental was razed to the ground. Only the metal fixtures and the extra thick wood of my desk and filing cabinet left any vestige of the life I had been trying to build.
I wept like a child. The tears ran down my cheeks, and my hands hung down. I stood there in the middle of the blackened lot that had been my future, quivering from the diaphragm.
“Mr. Minton.” It was Theodore Wally from the Superette. He was standing at my side ready to catch me in case I were to fall again.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It was a fire last night,” the old-faced youth told me. He seemed almost as upset as I was. He might have even shared a tear or two with me. “The fire inspector came and asked me questions about you. I told him what happent yesterday. I hope that wasn’t bad.”
“What am I gonna do now?” I moaned. “That was everything I ever owned.”
“Your insurance’ll pay for it, won’t it?” Theodore asked hopefully.
“Insurance? Man, I didn’t have no insurance.” I laughed a little too loudly.
“Can I do something for you?” Wally asked. “Anything you want.”
“Did the inspector say anything about the fire?”
“He said suspicious. Suspicious.”
I didn’t need to ask him any more questions. Wally went back to the store and brought me a Royal Crown cola and a ham sandwich. I sucked on the bottle and inhaled the odor of my life gone up in smoke.
MILO SWEET’S bail bonds,Tax Filing, and Financial Advising office was on the fourth floor of a warehouse building on Avalon. At that time an illegal poultry distributor occupied the ground floor, so there was the general odor of chicken shit and grain feed throughout the upper rooms.
Milo’s office had a frosted glass door with black letters stenciled at the top:
LIFE INSURANCE AGT.
I was never sure if that was the old sign or if Milo purposely had it printed to mislead creditors and others who might have held a grudge or a marker.
The room was maybe twenty feet wide and ten deep. There were three windows across the back wall and a desk on either side of the room. Wooden filing cabinets filled in the spaces between the windows.
“Hello, Mr. Minton,” Milo’s secretary, Loretta Kuroko, said from the desk on the right. She’d been Milo’s secretary since his lawyer days. She stayed with him after he’d been disbarred, imprisoned for three years, and then when he went through a series of professions. She was a hostess when he had been a restaurant owner, a bookkeeper when he’d tried car insurance sales. Even in Milo’s brief stint as a fence Loretta answered his phone and ran interference with the fiercest of clients.
They had never been lovers as far as I knew, and that was odd because Loretta loved Milo and she had a kind of perpetual beauty, thin and elegant with no wrinkles or lines. She was Japanese-American, a victim of America’s little-publicized Japanese internment camps during World War Two.
“Loretta,” I replied.
“Hey hey, Paris,” Milo growled from his desk to the left. He sat in a haze of mentholated cigarette smoke, smiling like a king bug in a child’s nightmare.
Milo was always the darkest man in the room, except when he was in the room with Fearless. He was taller than I but not six feet. He had big hands and long arms, bright white eyes and teeth and the complexion of polished charcoal. His short hair was always loaded with pomade and combed to the right. He knew the definition of every word in the dictionary and every once in a while managed to beat me at a game of chess.
“Milo,” I hailed. “How’s it goin’?”
“Must be good for somebody, somewhere. Must be. But don’t ask me where.”
I sat down and submitted to the scrutiny of those bright eyes.
“What’s wrong, Paris?”
“Who said anything was wrong?”
“Your eyes is red. Your head is hangin’. You don’t have a chessboard or a book under your arm, so you must be here on bidness.” Milo paused and looked a little harder. “And if it’s bidness you here for, it can’t be for you because if it was, you’d be in jail and callin’ me on the phone. It ain’t tax time, and you sure don’t make enough money to need financial advice. So if it ain’t you, then it must be Fearless.” Milo enjoyed reading between the lines. He was good at it, I had to admit that. “But you refused to come up with his fine before, so now something must have changed. That means I was right in the first place and you are in trouble. So, what’s wrong, Paris?”
“Believe me, Mr. Sweet, you don’t wanna know. I got to get Fearless outta jail and I got to do it fast. Will you help me?”
“I ain’t no bank.”
“You’re not a German insurance salesman either.”
Milo didn’t bother to answer that swipe. I put a stack of five one-hundred-dollar bills on the table and then placed a twenty crosswise on that.
“It’s all I got,” I apologized.
“You expect me to spring him for just twenty?”
“I’ll pay the rest in four weeks’ time.”
I had done work for Milo in the past. Asked a few questions, come up with an address or two on bail jumpers, but it still burned him when he felt that he was being had.
“I can’t do it, Paris,” he whined. “It would set a bad example.”
“I’m not tellin’ anybody, Miles.”
“Can you at least make it thirty?”
“They burned down my store, man,” I said. “They took my money and my car and burned down my goddamn store.” My voice cracked and I had to blink hard to shut down my tear ducts.
Milo began rapping his knuckles on the desktop. His look changed. It was no friendlier, but the animosity was now aimed at some unknown perpetrator.
“Why?” There was pain in Milo’s voice.
“I don’t know, but if I don’t do somethin’ soon, they might burn me down too.”
“Shit, Paris. What did you do?”
I pondered his question. I had asked it a hundred times of Fearless Jones. I couldn’t believe the trouble he’d get into and all he would say is, I didn’t do nuthin’, Paris. I was just mindin’ my own business. But what had I done? How could I have avoided Elana Love and Leon Douglas?
“I’on’t know, man. Maybe God looked down and saw all the shit I done got away wit’ an’ decided to mete out my punishment just when things started to get good.”
“Amen,” Milo said. “Amen to that.” He shook his head and smiled, then he looked at his watch. “It’s too late to get him out today. I’ll drop by the courthouse on my way home and make the arrangements, but we have to go get him tomorrow mornin’. Where you gonna sleep tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“Loretta,” Milo called across the room.
“Yes, Mr. Sweet?” she replied.
“Pull out the cot. Paris is gonna be our watchdog tonight.”
AT FIVE-THIRTY, when Milo and Loretta went home, I started going through the phone books of L.A., looking for Love. I found four listings. I called the numbers, asking for Elana, but of the two that were still connected there was no clue. The two that had been disconnected were an Alvin Love in Santa Monica, which I doubted would be fruitful, and an E. E. Love on Twenty-eighth Street.
I lay back and read the newspaper after exhausting the phone book. Then I had a notion. In the phone book there was only one Tannenbaum. The first name was David, not Sol, but his address in East Los Angeles was the same one Elana had given to me the day before, on Hazzard. We’d been headed to his house when Leon and his friend tried to run us down. I considered dialing the number, but then I held back. One thing I was sure of: surviving Leon Douglas was going to take more subtlety than a call announcing how smart I was.
I turned out the lights at about nine. Milo’s canvas cot was no more than a stretcher held aloft by crossed sticks of oak at either end. I lay there, the wounded soldier, the man who never asked for war and wouldn’t benefit from its outcome.
Up until that moment I had been going on reflex: running and hiding. But on that stretcher, in that coffin-shaped room, with only the occasional squawk of a dreaming hen to break the silence, I decided what I needed and what I had to do. It didn’t matter that I was small and weak or even that I begged for my life when that man was slapping me. None of that mattered because that bookstore was what made me somebody rather than just anybody. Burning down my store was just the same as shooting me, and somebody would have to make restitution for that crime.
LORETTA WAS in at eight o’clock exactly. I made coffee for her in the little kitchenette that they had built in the closet.
“Nine years with Mr. Sweet and he never even bought me a coffee,” she said, smiling at me.
I had put away the folding cot under the kitchenette counter and returned all of the phone books. Loretta went to her desk and started working immediately. I sat at Milo’s desk, thinking how lucky I was to have friends.
Milo shamed me with his generosity. Here I was trying to bail Fearless out of jail, but there was no kindness to it. I needed his protection and peculiar kind of smarts.
Fearless wasn’t a bright man, at least not in straightforward thinking. He only read at a sixth-grade level even though he had finished high school. A child could beat him at checkers two times out of three. But Fearless could survive in the harshest environments. He could tell you if a man was going to pull out a gun or cry. You could fool Fearless Jones sometimes, but he always seemed to make the right choices when the chips were down. And he had eyes in the back of his head.
But the best thing about Fearless was the attribute he was named for; he didn’t fear anything, not death or pain or any kind of passion. That’s why women loved him unconditionally. Because he wasn’t afraid of their fire.
MILO CAME IN at ten-thirty, but he didn’t even sit down.
“Messages?” he asked Loretta.
“Nothing to look at,” she said without looking up.
“Come on, Paris,” Milo said.
I followed him out the door into the strong smell of chickens.
Milo drove a green Ford Fairlane with bright chrome details. It was a fine car to ride in, but I missed my red Nash Rambler. I thought about going to the cops over the car theft, but then I worried about what they’d find and what Elana would say if she were caught.
We arrived at the county jail downtown half an hour later. Milo had set up the release by phone, so all we had to do was go to an oak-framed window that was the only opening in a huge wall facing an empty chamber on the basement floor of the county courthouse and jail building. A small white woman with gold-rimmed glasses sat on a high stool on the other side of the window ledge.
“Dorothy,” Milo said in greeting.
“What is your business?” the woman asked, as if she’d never laid eyes on the ex-lawyer.
“Fine for 63J-819-PL48C.” Milo handed over my money, and Dorothy counted it.
Without jotting down a note or looking up a file she said, “Have a seat. Someone will be with you in a while.”
At the far left end of the huge plaster wall there was a small bench, just large enough for one big man or two smaller ones. Milo and I sat side by side. I could still see the window from where I sat. Dorothy sat there placidly staring out on the empty floor.
It was a surreal experience: the bench made to fit Milo and me, the empty room, the robot bureaucrat, and a big clock the size of a cargo plane’s tire above us on the wall. Eighteen minutes after we sat down a man appeared from across the hall. He must have come out of a door, but I didn’t see it open or close.
He was a white man in an all-purpose suit made from a rugged material. He wore a white shirt but no tie and carried a worn leather satchel. There was a large bunch of keys hanging from his belt.
“Mr. Sweet,” the man hailed when he came within five feet of us.
“Follow me.” Mr. Kavenaugh turned and marched across the empty space.
There was a door there. I hadn’t seen it because it was painted the same light green color as the wall. Even the door knob was painted. We went into a hallway with a low ceiling and walls that felt like they were closing in. The hall went for quite a long way. There were no more doors or decorations. These walls were a darker green. The floor was green too.
Finally we came to a dead end. There was a door there. This door opened onto another hallway. This underground lane had many twists and turns, but it too was doorless and without marking. At some point the hallway widened and we found ourselves in a largish room with a door on the opposite side. Warden Kavenaugh, a ruddy and unpleasant-looking man, knocked on this door. When no one answered the knock, Kavenaugh muttered something sour and then began trying the hundred keys on the lock. After about twenty, finally one fit.
We came into a hall that was all metal, like a chamber in a battleship or a submarine. It too was painted green. I felt as if we were far below ground even though we’d only gone one floor below the surface of the court building. There was another door. Kavenaugh knocked on this one, and someone did answer.
“Captain?” the unseen sentry said.
“Kavenaugh,” Kavenaugh replied.
The door came open and we were in a large, sun-filled room, not in the bowels of the Earth. I was disoriented by the sunlight and high ceilings. The man who opened the door wore a dark blue uniform complete with a pistol in a leather holster. He was white, hatless, twenty, and pitifully acned. His only duty seemed to be waiting at that door. It was all very odd.
Kavenaugh pointed across the room and said, “There you are.” He took a sheaf of papers from his leather satchel and handed it to Milo.
“Good luck,” Kavenaugh said. And with that he turned to go back the way we had come.
On the other side of this room was a long wooden table behind which sat two uniformed men. Behind the guards was a cage that contained about a dozen men of all races and ages. Some smoked, a few hunkered down on their haunches, resting against the flat and black iron bars. There wasn’t much fraternizing among these men. They were a footstep away from freedom and had no time for small talk.
“Paris!” someone shouted. I saw him then, Fearless Jones, his hands reaching out to me, his smile cut in half by a metal slat. The guard said something to him, but that didn’t stop him from reaching and smiling.
When we arrived at the table Milo produced a long sheet of paper from the sheaf Kavenaugh had given him. It was covered on both sides in tiny print. There were red and black seals on the document, making it look official. He placed the paper down between the guards and said, “Tristan Jones.”
One of the guards, a man with a red and chapped face, picked up the sheet and pretended to read. His partner, a handsome rake with black hair and a pencil-thin mustache, stared hard at me.
“We had to chain him hand and foot just to get him down here,” the red-faced man said.
Milo did not reply.
“Waste’a money to pay his fine,” Red Face continued. “He’ll just be back in a week.”
Milo lifted his chin an inch but gave no more recognition to the man’s advice.
“Niggers always come back,” the guard said in one final attempt to get a rise out of us.
Milo was quiet and so was I. For some reason these men didn’t want to let Fearless go. He’d done something. Not something bad enough to be held over for, but something. If they could get Milo to blow his cool or Fearless to start ranting in his cage, then they could make a case to refuse release.
Seeing Fearless reminded me of a dozen times I’d seen him hard pressed and unbowed. In a Filmore District flophouse, bleeding and in terrible pain from the cop-inflicted knife wound, he said, “It’s okay, man. Just gimme a few hours to sleep and I’ll be fine.”
I saw him face down three men who had gotten it into their heads to disfigure a pretty boy who had taken away a girl they all wanted. The men threatened to cut Fearless too. “Maybe you will,” he said to them, “and then again, maybe you won’t.”
Fearless was more free in that iron cage than I was, or would ever be, on the outside.
I met Fearless in San Francisco after the war. His dress uniform was covered with medals. Around him were three young ladies, each one hoping to be his friend that night. I bought him a drink, saying that it was because I respected a soldier when really I just wanted to sit down at the table with those girls. But Fearless didn’t care. He appreciated my generosity and gave me a lifetime of friendship for a single shot of scotch.
“Fuckin’ four-F flat-footed fools,” a snaggletoothed white man was saying to me through the bars. “They get mad when a black man’s a hero ’cause they ain’t shit.”
The rake gave the white prisoner a stare, which was answered by a clown’s grimace. When I nodded to the white con, he smiled in answer, Nuthin’ to it.
Fearless was released from the cage. His irons were taken off. From under the table the rake brought out a gray cardboard box and handed it to Fearless.
When the guard pointed at a pen and a stack of forms, Milo spoke up.
“You should check your property before signing the release, Fearless.”
“Aw, that’s all right, Milo,” Fearless said in that careless friendly voice of his. “Why they wanna steal my paper wallet? Wasn’t no money in it in the first place.”
“Check anyway, son.”
MILO LEFT US in front of the municipal building. I was wearing the same black slacks and loose yellow shirt I had on when Elana Love dropped in on me — the only clothes to my name since the fire. Fearless wore gray pants and a black silk shirt with two lines of blue and yellow diamonds down either side of the chest. As I said before, I’m a small man, five eight and slim. Fearless is tall, over six feet, and though he’s slender, his shoulders warn you about his strength. He’s also a good-looking man. A group of passing black women attested to that with their eyes. Even a couple of white women glanced more than once.
But it wasn’t just a case of simple good looks. Fearless has a friendly face, a pleasant openness that makes you feel good. If you look at him, he’ll nod and say good day no matter who you are.
“Fearless,” I said.
“Before you say anything, Paris, I have to have me a cheddar cheese omelet, pork patty sausages, and about a gallon’a fresh orange juice. I got to have it after three months under that jail.”
“Momma Tippy?” I asked.
“They ain’t nobody else,” Fearless said, grinning.
Momma Tippy had a canvas enclosed food stand on Temple Street not twelve blocks from where we stood. In normal times we would have driven there or at least taken the streetcar, but, finances the way they were, we walked.
Fearless limped slightly, but he could walk at a fast clip. On the way, he regaled me with tales from the county lockup. He told about the man he had to beat to be left alone and about the guards who didn’t like him because he never got bothered or upset.
“I tried to tell ’em that I was a soldier,” Fearless reasoned. “That I knew how to take a order if I was in the stockade. But somehow they was mad just ’cause I wasn’t sour and moody. Can you believe that?”
Momma Tippy, a small nut-brown woman from Trinidad, served up seconds and thirds for Fearless at no cost because she felt bad that he had been locked up in a cell.
“M’boy didn’t deserve it,” she said. “Dey always be takin’ ’em. N’you know it ain’t right.”
After commiserations and eggs, Fearless reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.
“I know you need me, Paris,” Fearless said in an unusually somber tone. “And whatever it is I’m’onna help ya. ’Cause you know I got it.”
“At first I was mad that you didn’t pay my fine. But then I was talkin’ to Cowboy —”
“That white dude said about me bein’ a war hero.”
“The one at the courthouse?”
“Yeah. He asked me if you owed me money, and I told him no. Then he asked was we related or if I had ever pulled you outta jail. I didn’t tell ’im ’bout them cops — that’s between us an’ them dead officers. But I started to think that over the years you done helped me again and again and I just kept on takin’ like some kinda dog can’t do for himself.” Fearless pointed a long finger at a spot over my head. “And that’s wrong, man. You don’t owe me to pay my bail. Uh-uh. So from now on it’s even Steven. I’m’a help you and pay you back, and the only time I’ll come to you is for a good meal or a good laugh.”
It wasn’t true. Fearless couldn’t stay out of trouble. But still, I was the one who was wrong. He proved that by forgiving me.
I told him about Elana Love and Leon Douglas.
“Damn, that’s some costly lovin’,” he said when I was through. “So you worried that they still gonna be after you?”
“That, yeah, but I also need to build back my store. I mean, damn, I didn’t do nuthin’. Dude kick my ass then shoot at me down the street. Burn down my store. He got to pay money for that.”
Fearless was looking down at his hands. He didn’t nod to agree with me or say anything at all.
“What you thinkin’ ’bout, Fearless?”
OUR FIRST STOP WAS the Bridgett Beauty Shop on LaRue. Layla Brothers, Fearless’s last girlfriend before he got arrested, worked there fighting the kinks out of black women’s hair. She seemed happy to see Fearless, though she hadn’t even written him a card while he was in jail.
“You know, honey,” she said unashamedly to my friend, “I been goin’ out with Dwight Turner, and he’d’a got jealous if I started writin’ letters back and forth to you.”
Fearless didn’t seem to care. “We need some wheels, Layla,” he said. “Do you mind if we use your car?”
“ ’Course not. Here.” She took the keys from her purse. “What you doin’ after?”
“Well,” Fearless hesitated, “Paris and I might need the car for a couple’a days.”
“That’s okay. I can use my mama’s car. But you got to sleep at night, don’t you?” Now that Fearless was out of jail, Dwight Turner wasn’t even a consideration.
“Paris’s place burnt down, and you know I don’t have no apartment. So until we get some business done, we bound at the hip.”
Layla was taller than I with skin the color of unburnished brass. Her long hair had been dyed gold. She was prettier than she made herself, buxom and thin. She looked at me with a sneer that tried to be a smile and said, “I ain’t that greedy.”
Fearless laughed and touched her elbow.
He said, “I understand, babe,” then walked off with me and her keys.
LAYLA’S CAR WAS a big Packard. The pink sedan had a straight eight engine that guzzled gas at the rate of ten miles a gallon. We cranked down the windows and lit up Pall Mall cigarettes. Fearless had a perpetual grin on his face, and I was pretty happy too. It had been an act of will for me to leave him in that jail cell, mind over matter. I knew when we were driving that we were supposed to be together, rolling along like two carefree dogs with the wind in their faces.
The Tannenbaum house was just off Brooklyn Avenue in East L.A., the once-Jewish neighborhood that was being repopulated by Mexicans. The house was a smallish yellow job. With two floors and six windows facing the street, it had a few bushes but no trees. The lawn was lovely, however, green and manicured.
“Nice place,” Fearless said as we walked up the concrete footpath to the door.
“Any place is nice if it got walls and don’t smell like smoke,” I said.
“Any place is nice if it ain’t got bars an’ it don’t smell like piss an’ disinfectant,” Fearless corrected.
I knocked on the door, wondering what kind of lie I could use on whoever answered. I expected thirty seconds at least before anyone showed. But the door swung open immediately. A tiny woman wearing a white blouse like a man’s dress shirt and a long flannel gray skirt stood there. There were spots of blood on the blouse.
When she saw our faces she was petrified. An elderly man lay on the floor behind her dressed exactly the same as she was, only the skirt was a pair of trousers instead. There was blood coming from the side of his head and also from his left shoulder.
“Leave us alone!” the woman cried, trying to push the door closed. “Don’t kill us!”
“What happened?” Fearless asked. He held the door open against her feeble shove and took a step across the threshold.
“I called the police,” the woman warned.
Fearless hesitated a moment, no more, but in that delay I realized that jail had hurt him.
“Go away!” the woman cried.
Fearless was already kneeling down over the man and peering into his pained face. I came to his side. I mean, I couldn’t very well run when I had brought us to that door. At any rate, Fearless had the keys to Layla’s car, and running on foot in L.A. is like bullfighting in a wheelchair.
“Get me something to put under his head, Paris,” Fearless said.
Behind me was a parlor of some sort. I grabbed the cushion off of a couch while Fearless said to the woman, “I need a bandage, something to stop the bleeding.”
“Please don’t kill him,” she cried.
Fearless grabbed her arm, forcing her to look down into his eyes. “I’m not gonna hurt him, but he might bleed to death if you don’t bring me a bandage or sumpin’ to stop the bleedin’.”
“Oh,” the woman uttered. “What should I do? What should I do?”
Looking around for an answer, her eyes lit upon me.
“Go get the bandages, lady,” I said.
“Oh. Oh yes.” She scurried along, slowed by the long skirt, through a door that swung open and back.
“Who are you?” the man was asking Fearless as I shoved the cushion under his head.
“Are you here to rob me?”
The man turned his head to me and asked, “What about him?”
“That’s Paris,” Fearless said. “He’s a friend.”
The pale man nodded in relief.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“They came to take the money,” the man said to Fearless. “They vanted to, but I said no.”
“Here it is! Here it is!” Mrs. Tannenbaum said, rushing through the swinging door. In her hands was a small white pillowcase.
“Take it, Paris,” Fearless snapped. “Put some pressure on that shoulder.”
“Why did they do it? Why did they do it?” Mrs. Tannenbaum was chanting. I didn’t like her color. It was way past Caucasian on the way to chalk.
“They were trying to rob you?” I asked Sol.
“They vanted the bond, the money.” There was a dreamlike quality to his voice. He was going into shock.
He reached up and grabbed Fearless by the fabric of his silk shirt.
“Don’t let them rob Fanny,” he said.
“It’s a bet,” Fearless said.
“Oh God,” the wife cried.
Sol shuddered and tried to rise, but the pressure I was putting on his shoulder restrained him. The pain of the exertion made him wince, then he passed out.
There was a grim look on Fearless’s face. I knew from experience that that meant trouble for someone.
“He’s dead,” Mrs. Tannenbaum said simply and quietly. A whole lifetime of dread ending with a hush.
“Police!” a man’s voice commanded.
I tried to think my way back to the bookstore when it was still standing, but there was no escaping the hand that caught me by the shoulder and flung me to the floor.
“WHY DID YOU KILL Sol Tannenbaum?” Sergeant Bernard Latham asked for the fourteenth time.
“All I did was try and stop the bleedin’, man,” I said. Then I squinched up my face, preparing for the blow. But that time he didn’t hit me.
“Tristan confessed,” Latham said instead. The sergeant was a blocky-looking specimen. He was like the first draft of a drawing in one of the art lesson books I sold in my store. Block for a chest, squares for the pelvis, and cylinders for legs. A cube for a head. The only thing that humanized him was a protruding gut.
“Confessed to what?”
“He said you did the stabbing.”
“I don’t think you understand, Paris,” Latham said, pretending that he was my friend. “If he says that you did it and testifies to that, you get the gas chamber and he goes free. We don’t believe him, so what do you have to say?”
“Whatever Fearless says,” I replied.
“Whatever Fearless says. If he said I did it, then okay, let’s go to court.”
Latham’s backhand was in great form. He could have gone pro. His blow reopened the cut that Leon Douglas had made in my mouth the day before.
A knock came on the door of the eight-by-eight gray room that the East L.A. cops used for questioning. Another white policeman stuck his head in. I was sprawled out on the painted concrete floor. Latham was deciding between a kick or another backhand.
“They want him for the lineup, Sergeant,” the head said.
When the sergeant didn’t answer, the head asked, “Should I tell them you need a few more minutes?”
It had to be a nightmare. Nobody had luck this bad.
“No,” Latham said. “We want him walking for the lineup. I can work on him some more after that.”
With that he lifted me by the shoulder and brought me to another room where a variety of black men about my size were milling around. A couple of them registered shock when they saw my face.
“Just goin’ on ugly, you the one to pick,” one man in a brown T-shirt and green pants said.
We lined up against a blank wall. A severe light came on, and we stood there. A few seconds grew to a minute. One minute became three. The light went out, and we were led from the room.
Latham came up to me, and I remembered his promise to work on me after the lineup.
It had to be a nightmare.
“Come on,” a small uniformed cop next to the sergeant said in a loud, officious voice.
“I wanted to talk to him a little more,” Latham complained.
“This man is under the authority of this precinct, Sergeant. When you arrest someone in Hollywood, you can have a shot.” Obviously Little Big Mouth didn’t like the sergeant.
I followed him to a large room that was cut in two by a metal grate. On the other side of the grate were large metal shelves with cardboard boxes stacked in them.
A door to my left opened. A lanky police officer walked in, followed by Fearless. My friend was glowering until he saw me. Then he smiled.
“Hey hey, Paris.”
I sighed in response. He knew how I felt. His jaw was lopsided from some heavy questions they asked him.
I looked around for Latham, but he was nowhere to be seen.
“All right,” the cop who accompanied Fearless said. “You guys can go now. But we know where you live.”
I had given them my address but neglected to say that the building had burned down.
A man from behind the grate brought our confiscated belongings to the window. There wasn’t much. Twenty-nine dollars in my wallet, the keys to Layla’s Packard, and Fearless’s empty paper wallet.
We went out through the door where Fearless had entered and then to a door that led to the street. It was a side door, so it was fortunate, or maybe unfortunate, that they saw us.
“Gentlemen,” she called from down the street.
At first I didn’t know who it was. I saw two white women with a big white man, that was all.
“That’s the old man’s wife,” Fearless said. He waved at her and took me by the arm.
A thought crossed my mind: for seven dollars I could catch a bus to Frisco and get a room for two dollars a night until a dishwashing job came through. It was the thought of a job, though, that reminded me of my bookstore.
“Come on, Paris,” Fearless said. “I gave my word.”
The women approached us. One was indeed the old woman who cried so hard over her dead husband that she couldn’t tell the arresting cops that Fearless and I were not the attackers. The other woman was taller and awkward looking, somewhere in her twenties. They were accompanied by a big, dumpy-looking guy who wore black slacks with a white shirt that wasn’t tucked in very well. The pale skin around his chin was blue, though I would have bet that he had already shaved for the second time that day. He was taller than Fearless but soft looking, shaped something like a bowling pin. His big hands were worth looking at; the fingers were long and held out straight, making his hands resemble those of a stroke victim.
But he was not paralyzed. He shrank back, clutching those hands to his chest when we moved to meet them.
“I’m so sorry,” the elder woman said. “I saw what they did to you. I’m sorry.”
“We’re sorry about your husband, ma’am,” Fearless said gallantly.
“You the one who looked at me in the lineup?” I asked.
“Both of you,” she said. “They kept trying to make me say that you were the ones who attacked Sol. One of them was tall like you,” she said, looking at Fearless, “but he had a bigger face and dead eyes, and he wore a cowboy hat.”
“A cowboy hat?” I said, thinking about the horns in my side mirror.
The old woman nodded. “When I said no, they told me that you would never be able to hurt me again. I was afraid that they were going to kill you.”
“Are you all right?” the younger woman asked. Her homely face made her concern seem that much more sincere.
“We have to go,” the man said, putting his discomfort into words.
“No, Morris,” the older woman said. “I have to talk to these men.”
“You don’t know them, Aunt Hedva. The police said that this one just got out of jail.”
“Didn’t my Sol just get out of prison?” the diminutive woman asked.
“That was different,” Morris said. “You don’t know them. Why were they even at your house?”
“We were makin’ the rounds,” I said. “Askin’ some’a the older white folks if they needed a gardener, and we stayed to try and save his life.”
The younger woman said, “Hedva told us that these men helped Sol.”
“Be quiet, Gella,” Morris ordered. “For all you know they could all have been working together.”
The sloppy man looked at us then and flinched, not, I thought, because he was ashamed of treating us like we were invisible but instead because he realized that we really could have been in on it with the man who stabbed his uncle.
Morris didn’t seem to fit with the women. He was right there, and scared. They were someplace else altogether, like characters from a romantic novel who found themselves in a fast-paced crime story.
It’s not that the two women were cut from the same cloth. No. Gella and her aunt were as much opposites as people of the same race can be. The younger woman was tall and lean. Her ears and nose were large and so were her lips. Every movement she made was executed in two operations. If she reached out to touch her aunt’s shoulder, her hand would make it half the way, stop, and then go the final distance. If she spoke, first she’d lift her head and open her mouth, then she’d lower her chin and do it all over, ending with whatever she had to say.
The older woman was short and round with small features. She had beadlike eyes and almost no lips. Her motions were quick and accurate. I had misjudged her earlier in the day. It was the shock of seeing her husband bleeding that had made her scared and confused.
“We have to go now,” Morris said to the women.
It was almost as if Fearless and I weren’t there on the corner. As if our dark skins somehow blended with the dusk and whisked us away.
“These men did not hurt us,” Hedva said, still involved in the earlier argument. “What they say is true. They saved Solly’s life.”
“Saved his life?” I said. “The cops told us that he was dead.”
“No.” Hedva shook her head. “Not dead. He’s in the hospital. They can’t wake him up, but he’s still alive.”
“Which one of you is Fanny?” Fearless asked.
“I am,” Hedva said. “That’s what they called me when I was a child.”
Fearless nodded, staring straight into the older woman’s face. She was his charge now. Fearless would never forget that Sol, lying bleeding on the floor, had instructed him to protect Fanny from being robbed.
“Well, I’m glad it turned out all right.” What I wanted was to break up our little powwow and get on with the business at hand. Sol wasn’t dead, but he could still die. I wasn’t dead either but, the way my luck was going, staying alive had become a long shot.
“Can I help you?” the older woman asked. “Something to make up for what they did?”
“No thank you, ma’am,” Fearless said out of reflex. “But can we do anything for you?”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Tannenbaum,” I interjected, “but my friend here and me don’t have anything to help with. We don’t even have our car. If you and your family could give us a ride back to your place, at least we could get that.”
“Of course,” Fanny assured me.
“There’s no room,” Morris, the bowling pin, said. “I have boxes in the backseat.”
“You can put them in the trunk.” Fanny waved her hand dismissively. I’d’ve bet it wasn’t the first time she treated him like that.
“No,” Morris said sternly. It might have been the first time that Morris stood up on his hind legs. Fanny’s small eyes widened an eighth of an inch.
“I, I have a spare in the trunk,” Morris said. “There’s no room.”
“I can take them,” the younger woman said. “I drove my car from home.”
“I forbid it!” Morris shrieked.
He took a step toward her. She shrank back a half step. Morris grabbed her by the arm, and Fearless tensed up. I was afraid we’d be right back in jail, but Fanny saved the day.
“Get your hands off of her,” she commanded.
Morris clenched his fist hard for a moment, then he let his wife go. He locked eyes with me. I could see his rage at being forced into line by a woman. He muttered something and then stalked off down the alley.
“I’M GELLA, the younger woman said on the way to the car. “Hedva’s niece.”
“Paris Minton,” I said. “And this here is Fearless Jones. Thanks for takin’ us.”
Gella smiled and looked away. She was shy and near ugly, but there was something fetching about her awkwardness, something that made your hands feel that they wanted to reach out to make sure she wouldn’t fall or get lost.
Gella drove an assembly-line prewar Ford. It was painted black and didn’t even have a radio installed. A spare machine, it was spotless and unadorned. Fearless and I sat in the backseat, while Fanny and her niece rode up front in silence. It was only a short ride, ten or eleven minutes. On the way we passed many white and turquoise and blue little houses, all sporting neat lawns and white cement driveways. It was around six o’clock, dinnertime for working people. Through many windows and open doors, you could see brown-skinned and some white-skinned people eating at family tables.
A few men were standing out in front watering the grass, or maybe lugging a trash can. Any man that saw us drive by stopped what he was doing and looked. That’s because Los Angeles was still a small town back then, and most residents were from the country somewhere. They treated their surroundings as familiar and friendly, and they wanted to know who was driving on their street.
There I was swallowing the slow trickle of blood from the cuts inside my mouth, being driven through a blue-collar paradise. I had the irrational notion that I could just ask that gawky white woman to stop the car and I could open the door and walk out into a peaceful life, leaving the trouble I was in behind. But before I could speak up, we were pulling into the Tannenbaum driveway. Layla’s pink car was still parked at the curb. Fearless was there next to me, pressing his swollen jaw. There was no escape.
When we were all out of the Ford, Fearless went up to Fanny and shook her hand.
“I promised your husband that I wouldn’t let anybody rob you, Mrs. Tannenbaum,” he said. “So if you need me…”
Fanny looked up at Fearless with an expression that many women had for him. There was trust and hope and even faith in that gaze. Gella and I exchanged worried glances.
“Have you eaten?” Fanny asked us.
“Why no, ma’am,” Fearless said.
“Hedva,” said Gella.
“I have to go home.”
“Go on then, I’ll call you.”
“But…” Gella let the word hang in the air, obviously meaning that Fearless and I were the reason she could not leave.
I didn’t blame her. Her uncle had been stabbed, she had just been to the police station, her husband was angry and scared enough to have raised his hand to her. And then there we were with our disheveled clothes and bloody faces, looking like thugs.
“Go home to your husband,” Fanny said flatly. “I’m fine.”
“But…” Gella said again.
Fanny raised her voice and fired words in a language I did not understand. The meaning was harsh though — that was evident by the lowering of the younger woman’s gaze.
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” the girl said. She looked at us and hunched her shoulders in an apologetic sort of way. Then she went to her car and got in.
As the engine turned over, Fanny said, “Come in, gentlemen.”
We followed her through the front door we’d been to earlier that day. This time we were ushered in with a smile.
Fanny was five feet tall, tops. Her husband had maybe an inch on her. The house reflected their height with its low ceilings and small chairs. The rooms were tiny, even for me.
She sat Fearless and me down at a round table in an alcove off of the kitchen. The meal came quickly and in courses. We had cabbage stuffed with ground beef, potato dumplings that she called knishes, chicken soup with rice, and chopped chicken livers on white bread. It was all delicious. For me, a man who had faced death twice in the last two days, it was a king’s feast.
After she made sure that we were eating, Fanny made a call. She wasn’t on the phone very long, and when she got off she was weepy and sad.
“That the hospital?” Fearless asked.
Fanny nodded and took a chair.
“Is he okay?”
“He came awake for a little while,” Fanny replied. “They said that he’s sleeping now and shouldn’t have company. Not even me. Not even me.”
“I’ll go down there and wait with you if you want,” Fearless said. “We could just sit outside and wait. If you’re close family, they’ll let you wait all night.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll sleep tonight and go in the morning. But thank you.”
It was kind of quiet after that. Fearless got up and served himself more soup, and I played with my fork, wishing I had a home to go to.
“Your niece didn’t want to leave you alone with us,” I said just to make some noise.
“You’re not white and not Jewish. She’s heard all kinds of stories, and she’s a suggestible girl. But she has a good heart.”
“But maybe she’s right,” I said. “You don’t know us. Don’t you think it’s strange that two black men show up at your door after another black man tries to murder your husband?”
“Stop tryin’ t’scare her, man,” Fearless told me.
“No,” Fanny said. “No, it’s all right. I’m not afraid of you, Mr. Minton. You helped Sol even though I was screaming and yelling. You did too, Mr. Jones. If I would have come on a bleeding man and somebody yelled at me, I would have run away. You went to jail. They beat you. I’m not afraid of you. It would make more sense if you were afraid of me.”
“Why we gonna be afraid of a pretty young girl like you, Fanny?” Fearless asked with a grin.
“Because all I had to do was nod my head and you would be murderers in jail.”
That pulled Fearless up short a second, but then he smiled again.
“Well, I ain’t ascared’a you, and you don’t need to be ascared’a us,” he said. “We wouldn’t hurt nobody like you. It’s like I said, I’m gonna make it my business that nobody else messes with you.”
“How you plan to do that, man?” I said, fed up with how silly they both were. She shouldn’t have been taking strangers into her home, and Fearless was nuts to want to protect somebody he didn’t even know.
Fearless gave me his sour look. For someone else that look could have meant trouble, but it was nothing to me.
“You got a wallet with no money in it,” I continued, “a borrowed car that’s low on gas even when the tank is full, you don’t have an apartment, and my place is burnt to the ground. You an’ me lucky to keep anybody from messin’ with us.”
“Oh my,” Fanny declared.
“It don’t matter about a house, Paris. I’ll find us some place to stay. And I don’t need no money to stand up to some coward wanna be messin’ wit’ old folks. If I have to, I’ll pitch a tent right here in the front yard and take a shovel for my bayonet.”
“Grass salad and earthworm steak, is that what you gonna eat?” I taunted.
“Excuse me,” Fanny Tannenbaum said in a small voice.
Fearless and I both turned our heads toward her. It was an odd thing to realize that we had begun to ignore her the same way that her nephew-in-law had ignored us earlier, the same way that white people had been ignoring us our entire lives.
“Yes, Fanny?” Fearless said.
“You gentlemen can stay here for a few days if you wish.”
I was stunned by that. I had done some traveling in my life. Fearless had been on three continents and then some, but neither one of us had ever experienced that kind of generosity. White people didn’t open their doors to questionable young black men. Hell, there weren’t many black folks I knew that would be so brave, or foolish.
“It’s the least I can do,” Fanny said. “You saved Solly’s life and… and…” — she hesitated and then drew a deep breath — “… and I am afraid to stay here alone.”
“You got your niece and nephew a couple’a blocks away,” I said. I was surprised that she offered us a place to stay, but that didn’t mean I wanted to take her up on the offer.
“That putz couldn’t save himself from walking down a hill,” she said disdainfully.
It wasn’t that funny, but Fearless laughed loud and long.
“What’s that you say, Fanny?” he crooned. “He can’t walk wit’out fallin’ down?”
The old lady started laughing too. She laughed so hard that she doubled over in the chair with her head on her knees. She forced herself to stand, still laughing, and went to a cupboard where she located a pint bottle of peach schnapps. She poured all three of us generous shots in squat glasses. The liquor was strong, and good. We finished off the first pint and put a serious dent in a second.
I was smiling with them after a while, feeling pretty good. So when Fearless said, “Sure, Fanny, we’ll stay here with you,” I didn’t see anything wrong with it. After all, we were already there, and it was after nine; we didn’t have a home to go to, and I still had some questions to ask about Elana Love.
I made a little nod and said, “Well, if we got to go, we might as well be eatin’ good and feelin’ high.”
FEARLESS GOT IT into his head to wash the dishes. Fanny offered to help, but he said that he missed simple chores after his twelve weeks in jail. He’d already explained to her that he’d gotten into an altercation with three mechanics that tried to cheat him. I thought that that would turn the sweet old lady against us, but instead she said, “My Sol was in jail. It’s a bad place where many good men go.”
SHE AND I RETIRED to the sitting room while Fearless hummed and played in the soapy water. Sol had a glass box filled with English Ovals, an imported cigarette. I smoked a few of these while we talked.
“I take it you don’t like Gella’s old man,” I said.
She made a quizzical face that suddenly became bright. “Oh,” she said, “you mean the putz.”
“He’s a coarse man,” Fanny said. “Not rude or foul-mouthed but unfinished, without manners, like a pig farmer or a policeman.”
“You don’t like the cops either?”
The schnapps made conversation easy.
“When I was a child,” she said, “the police, the army, and the pig farmers were our enemies. Morris isn’t bad, he’s just stupid about things. He’s always coming around offering to work on the house, to cut the grass. He’s telling me that he wants to help when Sol” — she sighed and looked to the ceiling — “when Sol was in prison. He’s always telling me he wants to help, but I tell him no. He thinks I’m too old to be bothered with a checkbook or the plumber, but I’m not.”
“What was that he said just before he stomped off?”
“I don’t remember,” Fanny said, but she did.
“Swatted?” I prodded. “Swear?”
“Svartza,” she whispered.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means black, but not in a nice way,” she admitted.
“I would never be bothered with him, but Gella loves him — because he’s fat.”
“That’s true,” she said, widening her eyes as much as she could. “She loves him because he’s so big and fat she thinks that he can protect her.”
“Protect her from what?”
“Her family was from Estonia, like us. Only they moved to Germany after the First World War. Her father, Schmoil, Solly’s brother’s son, was a rich man and smart.” Fanny pointed at her temple to show me the degree of his intelligence. I realized then that she also had had a good share of schnapps. “We left Europe after they moved. Schmoil stayed on and did business. He owned three newspapers but sold them when he saw what was coming. He put all of his money into his art collection and moved it to Switzerland. Then he moved his wife and kinder to Vienna. He thought that they would be safe there.”
“That don’t sound too safe.”
“A wife, a grandmother, three uncles, and seven children,” Fanny said, “and only him and Gella survived. They were all betrayed by a Jew, but my Solly saved Schmoil and Gella.”
“He did?” I said. I found it hard to believe that the little old man I’d seen could have saved anybody.
“When Schmoil and Gella ran, my Sol hired smugglers in Italy to put them in barrels and take them to Africa. Then he bought them passports and brought them here.” Fanny had been whispering, and I could see why. Whatever he did, it didn’t sound legal.
“Wow,” I said. “Damn. That’s a great thing. That why they put him in jail?”
“No. They said he was a thief,” Fanny said sadly. “I don’t know. He sold his tailor’s shop and went to work for those goy accountants.”
“Lawson and Widlow. He went to work for them.”
“If he was a tailor, why’d they need him?”
“He did his own bookkeeping for years, and he went to work for almost nothing. He stayed late every night finishing everything they gave him. He stopped laughing with me, and then one day the police came and take him away.”
“And then,” I said, seeing my opening, “after he was in jail a while, a woman named Elana Love came to your door.”
“You know her?” There was surprise and anger in the old woman’s voice.
“You see, Fanny,” I said, “Fearless an’ me aren’t really gardeners…” I related, more or less, the story of me and Elana Love.
“And this man, her boyfriend,” Fanny asked when I was through, “he’s the one that hurt Sol?”
“I don’t think it was him in the cowboy hat, but he was probably the other one. I’d bet on it.”
“But you will find out because you want the money back for your store,” she said.
“I’d like my store back,” I agreed. “At least I’d like a new place. But like I said, Leon is three kinds of bad. It might not be worth —”
“I will pay you.” It was the kind of interruption that I didn’t mind.
“You don’t have money, Mr. Minton. You will need something.” She got everything right, right down to calling me mister. “Now that Solly’s in the hospital, I have to do something. My nephew is a fool, and Gella is just a girl. I don’t trust the police.… All I have is you and your friend. I heard those men shouting at Solly too. They said they wanted the money he stole.”
“I thought you said he didn’t steal anything?”
“He told those men that they were the thieves. He told them they were gonif and they worked for thieves.”
“You tell the cops that?” I asked.
“I was afraid to tell them anything.”
“So what can I do?”
“You said they were looking for a bond. I gave a bond to that woman. Sol had given it to me. I asked him if it was stolen, and he told me no.”
“And you believe that even after those men came in here after him?”
“Solly would never lie to me,” Fanny said with dignity. “He’s in trouble, but he wants to protect me. I want you to help me find out what kind of trouble he’s in.”
“But I could tell you that right now,” I said. “It’s that bond.”
“No,” she said. “It is more than that.”
“I don’t know. He told me the bond was nothing but in a way that I knew there was something he wouldn’t say.”
“You don’t think Leon came here after the money Sol owed him?”
“He wanted money stolen,” Fanny said stubbornly, “not money owed.”
“How much money we talkin’ about here?” I said. “I mean, what will you pay me?”
“I have one hundred dollars. I will give that to you and then, when you tell me what she says, I’ll give a hundred more.”
“And all you wanna know is why are they coming back after Sol?”
“There’s just one thing,” I said.
“Fearless thinks he can live on air, but we need that money. After what he told Sol, he won’t let you pay us a dime.”
Fanny nodded again and patted the back of my hand.
“Leave me your pants and shirt,” she said.
“Leave your clothes out here when you go to bed. I’ll wash them and iron them in the morning and then I’ll put the money in your pockets.”
Fearless came in only a few moments after the deal was sealed.
“All clean and dry,” he announced. “I stacked ’em in the dryin’ tray though, ’cause I didn’t want to put ’em away wrong.”
“That’s okay.” Fanny was beaming. “I can do that.”
I jumped up then. “But it better wait till tomorrow.”
“Why?” both Fearless and Fanny asked.
“If we wanna protect Fanny, then we got to find out what they came here for,” I said. “And one thing about crooks, they don’t stay in one place too long.”
WE DROPPED FANNY OFF at her niece’s house, which was only three blocks away on Marianna Avenue. It made sense not to leave her at home with Leon Douglas on the loose.
Fanny gave us the keys to her house.
“We’ll call you in the mornin’, Mrs. Tannenbaum, ’cause you know we’ll probably come in late at night,” Fearless told her at the front door. Fearless was a gentleman and would never just leave a woman off at the curb. I wandered up there with him.
Morris Greenspan answered the door.
“What do you want?” he asked us.
“They’re my houseguests, Morris,” Fanny said.
“You can’t come in my house,” he said, somehow taking Fanny’s explanation as a request.
“Then we’ll leave you here,” I said to Fanny.
“No,” Fanny said. “Morris, apologize to my friends.”
“You don’t even know them, Aunt Fanny. They aren’t family.”
“We better be goin’, Mrs. Tannenbaum,” Fearless said. He hated seeing any man get humiliated.
“These men are my guests,” Fanny repeated, looking up at her nephew-in-law.
The glower on the young man’s face was the same when he was eight, I was sure. Sullen and on the verge of a pout, he might have stood there for half an hour before saying hello like a good boy.
“Mr. Minton. Mr. Jones,” Gella Greenspan said as she appeared at her husband’s side. The homely girl and her bearish, sullen husband made an ungainly pair. She took the big baby’s arm. “Would you like to come in for coffee?”
It wasn’t that Gella was any less afraid of us. She was just raised better.
“We have to go,” I said. “Thanks anyway. See ya, Fanny, Morris.”
The sloppy bowling pin grimaced.
“Call me if you need anything,” Fanny said.
“We’ll pick you up in the morning,” Fearless promised.
Then we left the unmatched set of relatives to argue manners and race over coffee and rolls.
I HAD THE ADDRESS of E. E. Love written down on a scrap of paper. Fearless drove us to the Twenty-eighth Street abode. The small, single-story gray house was surrounded by sagging trellises that were heavy with vines of golden roses. There was no light on, no car in the driveway, but still we knocked at the front door.
A big dog came strolling down the street. It was a light-colored, short-haired and meaty mutt that nearly shimmered under a granite streetlamp. I saw him before he saw us. He did an almost human double take and then started barking for all he was worth.
“We better get outta here,” I said.
“We ain’t even got here yet.” Fearless went down on one knee and held out his hand.
The barking dog got braver and braver. Growling and gurgling murder he advanced on Fearless, who for his part looked like a modern-day African saint. The dog snapped and then he sniffed. He pushed his nose against Fearless’s hand, then plopped down on the ground, turning over onto his back to show his belly.
Fearless scratched the dog and then stood up, his new best friend at his side.
There was a black, lift-top mailbox attached to the wall next to the front door. It was stuffed with mail. I pulled out an envelope wedged in at the side. By match light I read the name Miss Elana Love scrawled in purple ink.
“This is the right place,” I said.
Fearless’s dog growled in anticipation. Fearless pushed him by the neck toward the front walk, and the mutt seemed to understand the command. He padded his way to the curb and stood there daring some phantom intruder to try and go by.
I went around the side of the house, testing windows. On the third try I was successful. Once inside I went straight through the gloom to where the front door should have been. It was there. Fearless snaked in, closing the door behind him. I found a lamp on a table and turned it on.
After making sure that the house was empty we decided to separate to make our search. The whole front of the house was the living room. It was just a couch and two chairs with a stand-up maple bar on top of two mismatched blue throw rugs. The rugs were ugly. One had a diamond pattern, and the other was covered in small white dots.
At either end of the living room was a door. One led to the kitchen, the other to her bedroom. Between these two rooms was the toilet.
Elana’s bedroom was simple enough. A single bed with pink sheets and a dresser with a mirror and chair. The window looked out on a fence cordoning off her three-foot-deep backyard. I went through the drawers of the dresser, the closet, the pockets of her clothes. I checked under the sheets and between the mattresses, on the window ledge and under the bed. There was nothing there. Nothing. She had three dresses in the closet and only one pair of shoes.
Fearless and I met in the bathroom. Two towels on a chrome rack, a half-used bar of white soap, and no floor mat. In the trash can there were a towel and a wad of cotton bandages clotted with a good deal of partially dried blood. I poked at the dressing with a handy toothbrush, but Fearless reached in and pulled out the bloody rags.
“Somebody been wounded pretty good,” he said.
“No shit,” I replied.
I went over the kitchen again because Fearless didn’t have the patience to search for anything smaller than an elephant. There wasn’t much to see there either. A jar of instant coffee, white bread, and an open can of condensed milk.
“I bet she only stays here now and then,” I said. “She probably only keeps the place in case her boyfriend of the week has a change of heart.”
“No clothes to speak of, no food,” I said. “And even a blind man wouldn’t have carpet like that under his feet.”
Fearless laughed at that. He was slender, but he had a fat man’s laugh. For a moment there I realized how much I had missed my friend.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get outta here.” I led the way through the kitchen door back into the living room. We were almost out of the door when I stopped.
“What is it, Paris?”
“I didn’t look under the kitchen sink. Did you?”
“I better look.”
“You think she under there?” I couldn’t tell if he was serious or joking.
I FOUND a tin wastebasket beneath the sink drain and dumped the contents out on the kitchen table. There were tiny bits of paper, coated with once-wet coffee grounds, torn from several notes and at least one letter. I pulled up a chair and started sifting through the mess.
I had been working for all of five minutes when Fearless started yawning. “What you doin’, Paris?” he whined.
The letter was impossible to reconstruct in the time I had. It would have probably taken two or three hours, seeing that it was scrawled in small pale blue letters on both sides of at least three pages. To make it even more difficult, the words had blurred from the moisture of the coffee grounds.
The notes were written in black ink on white paper except for one that was written in pencil and another that was written on yellow paper. I concentrated on these two.
Fearless opened the front door and whistled for the dog, who came bounding in like the loyal family pet.
“Hey, boy. Hey, boy,” Fearless chanted from the living room.
I didn’t have to go far to see that the penciled note was a shopping list — scouring powder and Modess napkins were all I needed for that.
The yellow note had San Quentin Prison printed across the bottom. Above that, in black letters, the initials C.T. were printed slantways, along with a phone number that had an Axminster exchange.
There was a phone in Elana’s bedroom, but it was dead, so we let Fearless’s new pet into the backseat and drove toward a gas station on Slauson. I didn’t want to bring the dog, but I didn’t have the time to argue with Fearless either.
I did say, “Don’t you think somebody’s gonna miss his pet?”
“If he had a collar or license I’d take him home right this minute,” Fearless replied. “You know a dog catcher could be givin’ him cyanide tomorrow if we just let him go.”
That was the end of our discussion.
When we got to the gas station I put a nickel into the slot. C.T., whoever that was, was a long shot. But it was the only shot we had.
He answered on the first ring. “Leon, is that you, man?” His voice sounded like a metal file rasping against stone.
“C.T.?” I asked, disguising my voice just in case this rough man ever heard me speak again.
“Who is?” he asked.
“It’s me — Dingo,” I said. I regretted the name as soon as I said it. I was scared stupid.
“Leon told me to call you up. He wanted me to come and get you but —”
“Get me? Man, I could hardly sit up straight.”
“Leon said to come help —”
“You a doctor?”
“I can take care’a you,” I said, trying to make my fake voice sound certain. “I got a brother used to be a medic in the army with me.”
There was silence on the line.
“Why you callin’ me that?”
“That’s what Leon wrote on the paper, man. Ain’t that you? I mean if —”
“When you gonna get here?” he asked, interrupting me for the third time.
“That’s why I called. He wrote down your initials and phone, but I can’t read the address. Clinton sumpin’.”
“Clinton?” C.T. moaned. “Denker, man. Twenty-nine sixty-nine Denker. Super’s apartment.”
“Be right there,” I said in a husky voice that would have fooled even my mother.
“YOU GOT my pistol, Paris?” Fearless asked over the loud barking in the backseat.
“I told you already, the girl stole it.”
“That was my gun she took from you?”
“Yes.” I took the left onto Denker.
“An’ now you want me to walk unarmed into the house of a friend of a ex-con nearly killed you yesterday?”
“He don’t know me, Fearless. I’ll just walk in there an’ tell him I’m Leon’s friend.” Finding that phone number and fooling C.T. had given me a sense of control.
“What if he was the one sittin’ next to Leon when he was chasin’ yo’ ass down the street?”
“Shit.” My fingers went suddenly cold.
“That’s okay, man. I’ll go in first. But you owe me a pistol.”
THE ADDRESS C.T. had given us was a court of apartments at the corner of Horn. We left the dog in the car. The super’s apartment was listed under the name of Conrad Benjamin Till. Whoever designed the court must have been a fan of Minos’s maze. After every two doorways there was another turn. I lost my sense of direction almost immediately.
Most of the apartments were dark, as the next day was a workday. We went past a pair of teenagers having some kinda sex behind a skimpy rosebush. I don’t know if they saw us, but they sure didn’t stop.
NO ONE ANSWERED when we rang Conrad’s bell. No one called out when we knocked. Fearless had brought Layla’s tire iron in lieu of a pistol and used it on the door. The sound of that doorjamb being wrenched open by that twelve-pound tire iron was frightening; loud and whining with reports like small-caliber gunshots now and then. I looked around to see if anyone had turned on their lights; no one had, but that didn’t mean we hadn’t been heard or seen.
Fearless went in first, but I was right on his heels, running my hands along the wall. I didn’t find a light switch, but Fearless snagged the overhead cord and said, “I got it.”
Yellow light flooded the small sitting room as I was closing the front door.
Fearless said, “Dog.”
There on a low, modern couch sat a fresh corpse.
He probably had been darker before all the blood drained out, but he’d always be a light-skinned Negro with brown freckles across his wide nose. His face seemed to belong on a fat man, but he was of normal build. He wore a light-colored jacket, blood-soaked T-shirt, and threadbare jeans. Till must’ve died right after we got off the phone.
I was looking at the dead man, but my mind was working overtime trying to believe that he wasn’t there. I’d happened upon dead bodies before in my life: three children in a car wreck outside of Turner, Texas, the body of a sailor I saw on the shore at the Gulf of Mexico, and there’s been a murdered body or two on the street. I once saw the victims of a double lynching hung from an ancient live oak not two miles from my mother’s home. I’ve seen a good many deaths, but none of them, with the exception of those cops that Fearless killed, had anything to do with me.
I had sought out Conrad Till. And if I wasn’t careful I’d end up just like him.
“The first one’s always hard,” Fearless said.
“When me and my squad’d go out in Germany it was always the first man get killed get to us,” he said in an impossibly calm voice. “Didn’t matter if it was one’a us or one’a them. It’s just that first dead man that reminds you that this is serious business.”
With that Fearless moved to inspect the room. I moved too, his nonchalant bravery having turned my terror into mere heart-pounding fear.
Till’s tan jacket had as much wet blood on it as dry. There was a lot of blood, down on his blue jeans and coagulated in the spaces between the fingers of his left hand. There was also a burned-out cigarette between those fingers. It was as if he’d been sitting there listening to music but then all of a sudden broke out in an attack of bleeding. The blood had come from a wound in the left side of his chest.
We didn’t split up in the super’s pad. I went with Fearless into the kitchen. I forced my eyes to look everywhere, but they didn’t see much. I had forgotten that I was looking for Elana Love.
A doorway from the kitchen led to the bedroom. There was nothing there except a bloody towel in the middle of an unmade bed.
“Let’s get outta here, man,” I whispered to Fearless.
He nodded sagely, and we went back the way we came.
I expected to see the corpse, but not standing up in front of me.
He still looked dead, and that scared me more than his size. I don’t think he expected someone to come out of the kitchen. Maybe he was going for some water to replace all the blood he’d lost.
“Hold it, man,” Fearless said.
The corpse swung his heavy fist, but Fearless leaned back and then pushed the man with the flat of his hand. A variation on that dance step happened again and again. The dead man kept swinging, and Fearless kept pushing off of him as gently as possible.
“You gonna hurt yourself, man,” Fearless kept saying. “Stop it.”
And he was right too. The man could only swing with his right. He was holding his left hand at a high point on the left side of his chest to keep the blood in. That tactic was not working. The blood cascaded through his fingers, and as the life fluid went, the one-handed fighter started flagging. He wound down like a child’s toy until he was on his knees. Finally he lunged with a roundhouse right that would have clocked Fearless on his left hip if he hadn’t stepped out of the way. The man fell on his face and went back to mimicking the dead.
Fearless quickly turned him over and applied pressure to the wound.
Twice in one day. I should have been at the racetrack. Luck that consistent needed a horse to bet on.
Fearless removed Till’s jacket, T-shirt, and a blood-soaked bandage. He then fashioned a new dressing from the sheet I got off the unkempt bed.
“Let’s get outta here,” I said when he was done.
“We got to call an ambulance,” he said.
The man was on his back on the floor, bare-chested with one arm straight out to the right and the other down at his side. I knew Fearless was right. But if I had been alone, my moral responsibilities wouldn’t have become apparent until I was far away and safe.
We made the call from the phone in a corner of the living room, then hurried out toward the car.
There was a siren blaring somewhere off in the night. The young lovers were gone, and we weren’t far behind them.
THE DAPPLED SUNLIGHT on apricot-colored walls was the most delicate thing I had seen in a very long time. The lilac-scented sheets were soft and light. Even the mosquitoes silently batting against the outside of the window were a feathery tickle in my mind. But mosquitoes led unerringly to the notion of blood, and blood would always remind me of Conrad Benjamin Till.
Someone dragged a chair across a floor downstairs, and a dog barked. The aroma of coffee blended with lilac. I sat up and looked out of the window. There I saw East L.A. with its carob and magnolia trees, its unpaved sidewalks, and tiny homes flocked with children. Pontiacs and Fords and Studebakers drove slowly toward their goals. Brown- and white-skinned people made their way.
“Hey, Paris,” Fearless hailed when I came to the doorway of the kitchen. He was sitting just outside the back door in boxer shorts and a T-shirt on a chrome-and-vinyl chair, drinking coffee from a porcelain cup.
“Good morning,” Fanny Tannenbaum said. She was standing at an ironing board, working the wrinkles out of my pants.
I was in my underwear like Fearless, but I wasn’t embarrassed.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Almost nine,” Fearless and Fanny said together. It was like they were old friends, even family.
I walked into the room and then jumped across the floor because of the low growl to my right. It was the mongrel from the night before, chewing on a big beef bone and warning me to keep my distance.
Fearless got up from his perch and came in to join us. “Shut up, Blood,” he intoned. The dog whimpered and ducked his head.
“I named him after last night,” Fearless continued.
“Mr. Jones told me that I should ask questions to you, that he didn’t explain things so good,” Fanny said.
“He did, huh?”
“Have you found out anything?”
“You know a guy named Conrad Till?” I asked her.
“No. Who is he?”
“He’s a black man, maybe one of the ones who came after you and Solly. Somebody shot him —”
“Oh my!” Fanny cried.
“But he wasn’t dead. We called the ambulance. He’s probably fine.”
Fanny sighed with relief. It had been a while since I’d been around someone who would care about a stranger, even when that stranger might have done her wrong.
“Did you find out why they hurt my husband?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“It’s all so crazy,” Fanny said. She took my pants and folded them. I reached over to take them from her. It was funny, I didn’t mind standing there in my drawers, but I was embarrassed to put pants on in front of her. I turned sideways, and she, sensing my embarrassment, turned to look out of the window.
It felt like there was a sock in the right front pocket, but when I put my hand in there, I discovered a large wad of what I knew was money. Small bills, I figured, that she kept in a can used for household expenses.
“When did you come in?” I asked Fanny.
“Morris brought me over at seven on his way to the bank.”
“Gella’s husband. All the way he’s telling me what I should be doing. I should be careful. I should leave well enough alone. I shouldn’t let whatever Solly’s done get me in trouble. I should tell someone if I know something is wrong. I think he’d give Gella over to the police if he saw her walking on a red light.”
“You don’t like the police, Fanny?” Fearless asked.
“I have seen the soldiers. I have seen them kill. I saw what they did to you. The police are swine.” The vehemence in her voice left no room for argument.
Not that I wanted to argue with her. The best cop I ever saw was the cop who wasn’t there.
The doorbell was three quick high notes, a pause, and then a long tone.
Blood jumped up and started barking. Worry knitted itself in Fanny’s face. I shared her emotion, but Fearless just walked to the front door in his blue boxers and opened it. I went to the kitchen door, Fanny came up behind me.
I couldn’t see who it was, but Fearless knew him.
“Hello,” he said, then he paused and called out, “Fanny, do you want to talk to Sergeant Latham?”
“Uh… um… oh… uh—what does he want?” Fanny asked.
Fearless turned and said something and then turned again. “He just wants to talk, ma’am. I think he wants to know more about what happened yesterday.”
“I guess,” Fanny said.
She and I came into the living room.
Big, blocky, and blond Bernard Latham walked in. He wore a light tan suit that was a bit large even on his frame, designed for quick movement. When I saw him I took a half step backward. That was the fear I’d inherited from his interrogation.
“Did you find out who attacked my husband?” Fanny asked.
“Yeah,” the sergeant replied. “You and your two darkies here.”
Fearless’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness; his fists had a mind of their own. Given the right circumstances Fearless could hit a man so fast that later on, when the man recovered, he couldn’t remember what had happened.
Reluctantly I moved to stand between Fearless and Latham.
“If you have come to my house to insult my friends, you can leave now,” Fanny said.
I liked her more every minute.
“I thought you said that you just met these boys yesterday?” Latham asked.
“They have no place to stay, they saved my husband’s life, and for that you beat them. What else could I do but offer them a bed?”
Latham grinned and chortled. “Maybe they’re in that bed with you.”
“In what?” I asked, me, a man without a paddle or rudder.
“Her husband’s a convicted embezzler,” Latham told me. “He’s all mixed up with the underworld. A real Jew. Good enough that he took the money and covered the trail so well that they could only get him for the tip of the iceberg. But there’s millions missing. They just have to find out how he made it disappear.”
Millions. My brain became a fine screen, filtering out everything but the notion of money.
“That’s a lie, and you’re a liar,” Fanny said in that tone of hers. “Solly told me that he never stole anything, and he wouldn’t lie to me.”
I’d’ve lied to Saint Peter for just a hundred thousand dollars.
“Is that all you have to say?” the cop replied.
Fanny was too angry to speak.
“Maybe you think you can get away with it. But I’m watching you.” He expanded his hands to include me and Fearless. “All of you.”
“Every cop I ever seen been watchin’ me, officer,” Fearless offered. “I once spent three months on a Texas chain gang for spittin’ on the sidewalk instead’a the street.”
“If you could do that, I guess you’d kill for some good money, eh, son?” Latham asked.
“I wouldn’t rob ya,” Fearless replied. “But I would spit on you after you was dead.”
That was the line right there, the line that should never be crossed with a cop. Once you stood straight up and looked him in the eye he had to knock you down, or the whole system would stop working.
The problem was that Latham couldn’t knock Fearless down. He didn’t have backup, and they were in close quarters there in the doorway. I knew from his war stories, and from that dark San Francisco night, that Fearless was trained to kill professional killers hand to hand. If Latham tried to do something, Fearless would do something back, and there was nowhere for a man to run after he’d killed an active member of the LAPD.
I was trying to think of a way to head off the inevitable when Fanny started screaming, “Get out of my house, you Cossack! Get out of here! Out of here!” She ran at Latham, and I leaned back against Fearless.
“Get off ’a me, Paris!”
“You can’t help Fanny if they got you.”
Fanny was pressing to get Latham out of her house, but he didn’t budge.
“I could take you all down now,” Latham assured us. “But I’ve got time. We know the crime, we know the criminals. You won’t be free for long.”
“And where is it you’d take us to?” I asked. The question I hoped would be a buffer between the cop’s stupidity and Fearless’s rage.
“What?” Latham asked.
“You gonna take us to the Hollywood jail?”
Latham’s right eye twitched. That was the whole story right there, that twitch. All I had to do was figure out what it meant.
“If we are not under arrest, then go,” little Fanny said.
Latham took his time staring at her and then Fearless and me in turns. The glare was intended to frighten, and I guess it worked if you consider that I was scared for his life. Finally he left. Fearless stood at the open door, watching him go.
“What do you know about this millions stuff?” I asked our host.
“He made it up,” Fanny said. “He had to. We don’t have that kind of money. And why steal it if not to spend? We don’t have children to leave it to. Why live here?”
“Hmm. Yeah. I don’t know,” I said. “There was once a woman lived down the road from us when I was a kid. She was poor as corn husks, barely kept the flesh on her bones. We all thought that she couldn’t have made more than a dollar a week the way she lived. But she must’a made two, because when she died at eighty-eight they found three thousand silver dollars hid up under her bed.”
“You’re welcome to look under my bed, Mr. Minton.”
FANNY HAD CALLED the hospital before I woke up. They told her that Sol was being given a series of blood tests and X rays and wouldn’t be able to have visitors until the afternoon.
After breakfast I spent a couple of hours on the phone trying to get a line on the Messenger of the Divine church. I called every religious group listed in twelve different counties and every soul that I knew. I wanted to ask Reverend Grove a question or two; like when had he last seen Elana Love and was she driving my red Rambler.
There was a certain urgency behind my search because I was bothered by Latham’s visit. Why had he come? L.A. cops didn’t make friendly visits to warn you that they were watching. They didn’t come to the door unless they were serving papers or making an arrest.
So I went on thinking and calling, fretting and drinking Fanny’s homemade lemonade. She spent the morning baking noodle pudding and making meals for later. She told us that cooking calmed her nerves. We didn’t complain. Both Fearless and I were bachelors, and when a woman came around she did very little cooking — food, that is.
Fearless played catch with Blood. They were completely happy roughhousing and relaxing on the sunny lawn. Since he was just out of the lockup, a day in the sun was heaven for him.
At one Fearless took Fanny and Blood to pick up Gella and go for a drive down to see Sol and maybe let the dog have a run in the park. I couldn’t see where they needed me, so I stayed by the telephone making useless calls.
“Hello,” one man answered.
“Council for the Baptist churches of greater L.A. county?” I inquired in my pretend official tone.
“I was wondering if you could help me find a minister.”
“A particular minister?” the soft-spoken secretary asked.
“A Reverend Grove or a Father Vincent. They’re affiliated with a church called Messenger of the Divine.”
“Never heard of the institution,” he said with quiet distaste. “Doesn’t sound like one of our congregations at all.”
“No Grove or Vincent?”
“What is this concerning?”
“An exorcism,” I said.
“I got a white man locked up in my basement and I wanna see if an old-time Holy Roller can call the devil out of him. That way maybe I can save the world from his evil… Uh-oh, he’s trying to break out of his cage. I’ll call you back.” I hung up and laughed a mean laugh.
Before my venom was through, the phone rang. I had the immediate and irrational fear that somehow the Council for the Baptist churches knew the numbers of the sinners that called them. I let the ringing go on for a while before answering.
“Tannenbaum residence,” I said brightly.
“May I speak to Hedva Tannenbaum, please?” a man asked. He spoke in perfect but not necessarily American English. His tone was haughty, that’s really the only word for it. The words were mannered, but the voice was not.
“Who’s askin’?” I said in response to the voice.
There was a moment’s hesitation and then, “John Manly.” The name didn’t sound right on his tongue.
“Well, Mr. Manly,” I said. “Mrs. Tannenbaum doesn’t want to speak to anyone just now. She’s had a pretty rough time of it the past few days and doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
I was being hard on Mr. Manly for no other reason than that his tone reminded me of the snootiness of the secretary at the Baptist Council.
“To whom am I speaking?” Manly inquired.
“To whom,” I replied, “doesn’t matter. What matters is that Fanny isn’t gettin’ on the phone, so either you gonna tell me what you want or we gonna break off the connection right here and now.” For an instant the image of that bureaucrat sitting at the window of the courthouse flashed through my mind.
“Excuse me? What did you say?” Manly asked.
I realized that, in my anger, I had slipped into the fast-talking patter of my neighborhood. Manly hadn’t understood my brilliant barbs.
“What do you want me to tell Fanny?” I asked, now patient.
“I must speak to her personally. It’s very important.”
“Maybe to you, but Fanny’s got other things on her mind. Does she know you?” I asked.
“What I have to tell her is very important.”
“I’ll give her the message. What’s your number?”
“Tell her now, while I am waiting.”
There were big red-and-purple flowers, shaped like bells, clustered on a bush outside the sitting room windows. A sleek green hummingbird appeared next to one of them. From one to another that hummingbird milked five of those flowers before Manly spoke again.
“It’s about business,” he said. “I’m a real-estate agent. I want to know if she’s interested in selling her house.”
“I don’t think she’s movin’ nowhere right now, but gimme your number and she’ll call ya.”
He finally relented and left a number. It was a Hollywood exchange. “Room three-two-two,” he added.
I hung up and wondered about that number on the way to the window. The hummingbird fled at my approach. I could hardly blame him; when a shadow the size of a mountain looms up above you, you run first and worry about what it could be later on — from the safety of your nest. If you had a nest, that is.
FEARLESS AND FANNY RETURNED at about four. Before I could tell them about the call Fearless started in.
“Paris, it was on the car radio.”
“Conrad Till, that’s what. He’s dead.”
“Yeah. They said about him gettin’ found on account of a, a what you call it, ’nonymous tip. Yeah. Then they said that they took him to Mercy Hospital, but he died in the night a’cause of the wound.”
“He was shot up pretty bad.”
“Yeah, he was. And maybe it killed him too. But you know, I been shot worse than that myself, an’ it didn’t near kill me. I mean maybe he had a weak heart or sumpin’, but I don’t think so. But that’s not what I wanted to tell you.”
“The cop that talked to the newsman. That there they said was Sergeant Latham.”
“Damn,” I said.
“That Latham gets around,” Fearless said.
“What does it mean?” asked Fanny.
“Does Rya still work at Mercy?” I asked Fearless.
“Prob’ly. You know they made her head nurse in the baby section. That’s the kind’a job you hold on to.”
“Maybe we should talk to her.”
“Okay.” With that Fearless went off to the kitchen to call.
“Do you know a guy named John, um, Manly?” I asked Fanny. “Said he was a real-estate agent, but I don’t know.”
“He called while you and Fearless were gone.”
Fanny shook her head at me.
“The only weird thing was he didn’t ask for Sol. It was like he knew that he was in the hospital, at least not here. You sure you don’t know his name? John Manly. Talks all proper like he learned English in another country.”
“What can it all mean?” she quailed.
“He’s probably just what he said,” I reassured her. “He probably got your name off of a mailing list and wants to get your house to sell.”
“I’m not interested,” Fanny moaned. “All I want is Solly home and to get on that airplane.”
“What airplane?” I asked.
“We’re going to Israel,” the old lady said. “We have been planning to go all the time he was in prison. We would talk about it in our letters. Now that he was home we had only to buy the tickets and make our plans.”
I had a thought or two about a convicted embezzler planning to flee the country a few weeks after he got out of stir, but whatever he did, or didn’t do, wasn’t important to me right then. I was angry because John Manly was so rude, because Latham had threatened us. I was getting pretty mad, and anger in my small frame is almost like courage.
“How was Sol?” I asked.
“He opened his eyes. Mr. Jones told him that he was protecting me, and he smiled. But he was still too weak to talk.”
“Was he happy to see you and Gella?”
“Oh yes, very much. He loves that girl as if she were his own daughter.”
“What did the doctor say?”
Fanny’s face clouded at that question. She didn’t want to say the words. I understood. I didn’t want to push her. When Fearless returned we were both relieved.
“I called her, Paris,” Fearless said. “She said that we could meet her on her break at eight-fifteen tonight.”
“Meet her? Didn’t you ask her about Till?”
“No. You didn’t say that.”
“What?” For an instant I was angry, even at Fearless. But that was okay. I had to stay mad so I didn’t fall prey to fear. I was in it up to my neck and scared was an anchor that would drag me down to death.
WE DROPPED FANNY OFF at her niece’s house again.
“Too many people seem to know your address,” I told her. “And none of them would I trust with my grandmother.”
That got a smile from Fanny. She touched my wrist with her short, thick fingers.
“Where to?” Fearless asked when we were on our way.
“To where my bookstore used to be.”
Fearless drove because I wanted to keep my mind free to think us out of our troubles. He stayed on main streets in mostly colored neighborhoods so there wasn’t much of a chance of being stopped by the police.
The sight of the burnt-out lot still tore at my chest.
“Damn, man,” Fearless said. “That’s bad. Why he wanna burn you down like that?”
“I don’t know. But it break my heart to see it.”
We went to the convenience store next door, Antonio and Sons. It was owned by an Italian family, but five times out of six you were likely to run into Theodore Wally at the cash register. Theodore had been a neighborhood kid who used to come into Antonio’s on milk-and-bread runs for his mother. Antonio liked him. He gave him a job sweeping when Theodore was twelve and increased his responsibilities over the years until he was a fixture there. I don’t believe he was over twenty-five, but he looked to be forty going on sixty.
“Mr. Minton,” Wally said. His fleshy face revealed deep concern over my misfortune. “They been lookin’ for you.”
“Hey, Fearless,” Theodore greeted my friend and then answered me. “The fire department investigation man and the police.”
“What they want?”
“The fire might’a been because of gasoline, they said, and they wanna know if you owned that place and if you had the bookstore insured. The police was just askin’, they said.”
Theodore looked worried, so I asked him, “What you tell ’em?”
“I said about the man who hit you. I mean I had already told them before and I thought that they would think it was somebody tryin’ to hurt you burnt down the store. That’s all right, right?”
“That’s okay,” I said. “You right too. If they think somebody was after me, then maybe they’ll blame him for the fire. Maybe they’ll find the motherfucker and put him in jail.”
Theodore smiled uncertainly. He wasn’t a dumb man, but he was very shy, more comfortable with numbers and merchandise than he was with looking people in the eye. Antonio loved him because he was a whiz at keeping books and remembering inventory.
“You remember those Messenger of the Divine folks had the store down the street?” I asked.
“Uh-huh. Yeah. They used to buy two jugs’a High Mountain red wine every Thursday before their meetin’. That was the blood.”
Fearless grinned at that.
“Did you know Reverend Grove or Father Vincent?”
“You know where they went when they left here?”
“Uh-uh. No. But…”
“Dorthea Williams used to go to the meetin’s. She used to go on Thursdays and then some other times too.”
“That’s Dorthea from the beauty parlor across the street?”
“How much these barbecue potato chips, Theodore?” Fearless asked, holding up a big bag of chips.
“Twenty-nine cent, but you could just take ’em, Fearless. Just take ’em, okay?”
I shook Theodore’s hand, but after the usual grip he didn’t let go.
“You need money, Mr. Minton?” the clerk asked me.
“Why? You wanna reach in the register and gimme some?”
“I got some savin’s. I got a little money put away. If you needed to get on your feet…”
“Thanks, Theodore, but I need more than you got to give. But let me ask you somethin’?”
“How come you call Fearless Fearless, but you still call me mister?”
ACROSS THE STREET and down half a block was a small building with a plate-glass window for a front wall. That was The Beauty Shop, owned by Hester Grey and run by her daughter Shirley. There were three chairs set side by side before the window where a black woman could get everything from gold frosting on her hair to application of the newest skin bleaching techniques.
Shirley was smoking a cigarette, and Dorthea, her number two girl, was putting curlers in a woman’s hair. They were all talking loudly.
From outside it was really nice. The three were almost yelling, you could tell by the posture they took to speak. After yelling they’d laugh hard, but you couldn’t hear a sound through the thick glass. It was like experiencing the deep pleasure of music without being able to hear it.
When we opened the door, a brief moment of mirth reached us before the women clammed up. The room smelled of cigarettes and hair spray. It wasn’t a pleasant odor, but it conjured the memories of many a woman I had known.
“Fearless,” Shirley Grey said. “Paris.”
“Afternoon, ladies,” I said.
Both Shirley and Dorthea had big puffed-up hairdos. That was where the similarities ended. Shirley had a lot of flesh with no figure to speak of and a permanent scowl on her face. She thought she was a raving beauty though. She always wore tight dresses that showed more than anyone wanted to see.
Dorthea was an African beauty who had been brainwashed into thinking she was ugly by movies and magazines. She had straight blond hair puffed out like a white country singer and all kinds of costume rings and beads. Her breasts were trussed up in a brassiere that pushed them out like battering rams, and her long skirt was so tight that she walked like one of those Chinese women with the destroyed feet. Still, her face was elegant with deep brown skin and high cheekbones. Her eyes slanted up, and her teeth were as white as the enamel on a new gas stove.
She showed a lot of teeth when she saw Fearless.
“That was too bad about your store, Paris,” Shirley said. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, babe. I came home and it was gone.”
“Where were you?”
“Out bein’ a fool.”
Shirley shook her head and sucked her tooth. She and her mother had lost all the men in their lives. The father ran off with the number three chair girl. Her brothers were both institutionalized, one by the prison system and the other by the armed forces.
“Shirley, can I borrow Dorthea for a moment?” Fearless asked.
We decided while approaching the beauty shop that Fearless would ask for Dorthea. Women were much more likely to say yes to him.
“Can’t you see that she’s workin’?” Obviously Shirley didn’t see it our way.
“Oh, that’s okay,” Dorthea spoke up. “Mrs. Calhoun don’t mind waitin’. Do ya, honey?”
Up until then I hadn’t looked closely at the woman in Dorthea’s chair. She was older and with a stern, strawberry-brown face. She had white-rimmed glasses and hard eyes. Her stern countenance was cause for surprise because it broke out into a big smile for Dorthea and the prospect of her talking with a good-looking man.
“Go on, honey,” Mrs. Calhoun said. “Me an’ Shirley can talk mess without you for a while.”
Before Shirley could object, Dorthea took off her white apron and scooted toward the door. We were right after her.
Outside, the three of us convened at the curb, but I might just as well have been the fireplug as far as Dorthea was concerned.
“What you wanted, Fearless?”
“Did you know them Messenger of the Divine peoples?” he asked.
The light of love faltered in her eyes.
“Did you?” I chimed.
“What’s this all about, Paris?” Now that she was angry she talked to me.
“Dorthea, honey, I don’t wanna fight with you…”
“I ain’t fightin’ I just —”
“I don’t wanna fight, so I’ll cut this short. I need information on them Messenger people because I think it was somebody after them came and burnt down my store. You know I lost everything and somebody got to pay.”
“Them’s religious people, Paris,” Dorthea said. “They wouldn’t do nothin’ like that.”
“I don’t think they did it,” I assured her. “But somebody didn’t like ’em did.”
“Did you know Reverend Grove?” I asked.
“Why should I tell you?”
“Five dollars,” I said.
Dorthea looked left and right, then she said, “You gotta car?”
“Right across the street.”
“Take me around the block then.”
We got into Layla’s Packard. Fearless drove and I sat in the back.
“What you wanna know?” Dorthea asked.
“Do you know Grove?”
“Yeah. William. He from Arkansas. He came in as Father Vincent’s head deacon, but after just a year he was so popular that he forced Vincent into semiretirement and took over the whole ministry even though they say he ain’t really ordained. That man can preach. He make you feel like he’s God and you the only one he care about.”
“But he took the church away from the pastor was there?” Fearless asked.
Dorthea nodded. “Brought in his own deacons and everything.”
“Did you know a woman around there called Elana Love?” I asked.
“What about her?” She certainly did, and she didn’t like her either.
“Did you know her?”
“She was all over William. I mean, sometimes they’d go in the back while Vincent was deliverin’ the sermon for him. It was just sad the way they was.” Dorthea curled her lip the same way that Shirley had.
“Did they do anything but sermons there?”
“What you mean?”
“Anything illegal?” I was thinking that the church had something to do with the money or bonds or whatever and maybe Dorthea had heard about it.
She said, “No,” but there was something else on her mind.
“Come on, Dorthea. Ten bucks.”
“You won’t tell?”
“Swear,” I said, drawing an X across my heart with my finger.
“Brother Bigelow from over there sold me a pearl ring one time for fifteen dollars. It was a real nice one. He said that he got stuff like that sometimes and that if I knew ladies in the beauty shop wanted some good jewelry cheap, I should bring them to him.”
“Did you?” I asked.
“Uh-uh. It’s one thing just buyin’ a ring, but I didn’t want to be a fence.”
Fearless turned to her and smiled.
“Good girl,” he said.
She would have beamed at any compliment he gave.
“Why did the church move away?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Really. But it was all of a sudden. One day they was just gone. Everything. You remember.”
“Do you know where they went?”
Dorthea looked me in the eye. She was measuring me.
“Why should I tell you, Paris?”
Before I could think of a lie Fearless said, “You can tell me, honey.”
“Well,” she said. “I like you, Fearless, but I wanna see my money before I say anything else.”
I counted out five wrinkled one-dollar bills followed by a five.
“They was in Compton three weeks ago, down on Alameda somewhere. At least that’s what I heard.”
“You know the address?”
“Uh-uh. But you could find it if you looked.”
“When do they have meetings?”
“Every night they can.”
Fearless pulled up in front of The Beauty Shop and parked.
“Is that it?” Dorthea asked.
“You know how we can find Elana Love?”
“That bitch? No.”
She grabbed the handle and opened the door, but before she could exit, Fearless reached out for her shoulder.
“You wanna go to Rackman’s tonight?”
Looking at his hand, Dorthea said, “Yeah.”
“Paris and me gotta do somethin’ at eight, but I could be down to get you by ten-thirty.”
“You could pick me up at the Charles Diner on Eighty-ninth. I’m supposed to see my sister there.”
They lingered for a moment, him looking at her and her looking at his fingers, and then she climbed out. Fearless watched her Chinese shuffle into the shop before he drove off.
“Man, don’t we have enough to do without you makin’ dates in the middle?” I asked.
“I been in jail for three months, Paris. You know I’m starvin’ for what Dorthea can feed me.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, yeah.”
“Where’d you get that money?”
“That money you give Dorthea.”
“Borrowed it from Milo.”
I could see in Fearless’s eyes that he knew I was lying, but he didn’t press it. That’s the kind of friends we were.
RYA MCKENZIE WAS a stern young woman with close-cropped hair and walnut-colored eyes. Her skin was the color of forest shadows, and her judgment was swift. If she didn’t like you, you knew it and stayed away, but if she was your friend, you’d never want for anything that she could provide.
She kissed Fearless and shook my hand, greeted us both with brief hellos, and then led us from the nurses’ station for pediatrics to a small room furnished with a long, rickety table that supported a coffee urn, three boxes of sugar-glazed doughnuts, and a small stack of paper cups and plates next to a jumble of disposable utensils made from wood.
“When did you get out of jail?” Rya asked Fearless when we were all seated on folding chairs.
“Yesterday. Paris paid my fine.”
“So what kinda trouble you in then?” she asked me.
“Conrad Till,” I said, as blandly as I could manage. It was nice to see her disapproval turn into something wary.
She half rose from her squeaky chair and looked around for spies.
“What you got to do with that?”
“Conrad was a friend of a woman I need to find. His name came up when I was lookin’ for her, and then I heard he’d died.”
Fearless nodded, going along with my half-lie. He had a philosophy about lying. It’s okay as long as you ain’t hurtin’ nobody, he told me one drunken night. Matter’a fact a lotta times a lie is better’n the truth when the whole thing come out.
“I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout no foul-mouthed murdered man,” Rya said.
“You say he’s foul-mouthed,” I said. “But the evenin’ papers said that he never regained consciousness.”
“So they said. But you know you cain’t believe all that you read in no papers.”
“Did a lotta police come?”
“No. I mean there was cops in when they first brought him. But they left. Then that one officer, that Sergeant Latham come in. He went to talk to Till, and then, a little while later, Ginny Sidell found him dead.”
“They talked?” I asked, just to be sure.
“Conrad Till was awake and cussin’ two hours after they brought him in. That’s when Latham come.”
“What did Till die of?”
Rya looked away at a blank wall and said, “Heart failure.”
“He had a heart attack?”
“That’s it? A man comes in shot and they say he had a heart attack?”
“Heart failure,” she said, correcting me. “That’s what always kill ya. That’s how we know. A truck could hit ya and your spleen be in your lap, but you still ain’t dead unless your heart stop.”
She looked at me with her walnut eyes. Fearless checked out the clock on the wall.
“Is somebody going to investigate the death?” I asked.
“I mean, if everybody’s talking about it…”
“Everybody around here got a real job, Mr. Minton. Real jobs and apartments and mouths to feed. Conrad Till was just a year outta prison, an ex-con with a bullet in his chest, found after an anonymous call.”
Fearless didn’t have a job or an apartment or kids to feed. She wasn’t talking about him though.
“Thanks, Rya,” Fearless said. “We really appreciate it.”
“You better watch out where you stickin’ your nose, Mr. Jones,” Rya warned. “Some people might get you all caught up in somethin’ you can’t get out of wit’ a fine.”
“Baby,” he said. “If I was to worry about me gettin’ pulled down under the trouble I see, I’d be in my bed from mornin’ to night. Man wanna kill me or put me in prison, he’s welcome to try it. But, you know, I draw from a deep well, deep as a muthahfuckah.”
It was the profanity that clued me in to how serious Fearless felt. He rarely cursed, almost never in front of women. But when he did, you knew that he meant business.
“YOU KNOW we killed him, Fearless,” I said on the drive back from Mercy. Blood was pacing impatiently in the backseat.
“How the hell you figure that?”
“He was hurting but not dying when we left him. It was the report from the hospital that brought Latham into it. He probably knew that Till was Leon’s buddy. And you better believe that he was the cause of Till’s demise.”
“Why you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the questioning got outta hand. Maybe there’s somethin’ we don’t know about Latham. I mean he’s a Hollywood cop, so what’s he doin’ down near Watts and East L.A.?”
“Man, Paris, you got us into a real mess here.”
“I didn’t get into no mess. Mess just fell right on top’a me. I was sittin’ in my store readin’ a book.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But you could’a walked away. Could’a taken that five hundred dollars you used to pay my fine and started a new store somewhere.”
He was right. There I was bound up with murder and arson and even in trouble with a maybe crooked cop when I could have walked away. Could have but couldn’t anymore. I was no hero but I was stubborn, and, anyway, my five hundred dollars were gone.
“I’m sorry, man. Sorry I didn’t get you outta jail before you went in. Sorry I got you thinkin’ you gotta stay with me. I fucked up, man.”
Fearless stretched out his right hand while keeping his left on the wheel. I clasped it.
“You my friend, Paris. An’ this mess ain’t so bad. I was in a war eight thousand miles from home with white men talkin’ German in front’a me an’ white men talkin’ English at my back. They was all callin’ me nigger. They all wanted me dead. You know I wasn’t scared then, baby. This ain’t no more bad than a night with a girlfriend like to bite.”
THE CHARLES DINER was a night haunt. They didn’t have live music, but they had waitresses and drinks. The Charles was the place you went if you didn’t have the cover charge in your pocket. Fearless and I double-parked out front, and he ran in.
While waiting I tried to screw up the courage to do what I knew had to come next. I knew from experience that Fearless could be gone for a few days once he was off with a woman. He’d lose track of time, and how could I blame him? Ninety days was a long time to go without love, even for me.
I watched the blinking neon sign that lit up the old-time diner. The facade of the restaurant was made to look like a train car detailed in chrome. Now it was a place for the end of the night, when jukebox tunes would do. Thousands of people passed through those doors every week. Working people and gangsters, women looking for love or money and men looking to throw love or money away. You didn’t go to the Charles to see old friends; no, the Charles was where you went to seek out somebody who wanted to help you with your problem, somebody who wanted to give you something or take what you had to give.
“Hey, Paris.” Fearless opened the driver’s side and leaned in. “Dorthea got her own car an’ she don’t mind drivin’ it. So you take Layla’s, and I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon at Fanny’s.”
“You know Dorthea ain’t gonna let you go that quick.”
“Cross my heart, Paris. This is just for the night, baby. Tomorrow we got ground to cover.”
“Okay,” I said. “But take this dog anyway. Just in case you get stuck, I don’t want to have to take care’a no dog too.”
I eased in behind the wheel and we shook hands.
“You better take this,” I said, handing him four five-dollar bills and five ones. “Just in case you need somethin’.”
“Hey, Paris. Thanks, man.”
Fearless went around to the passenger door, opened it, and said, “Come on, boy.”
Blood jumped out with a quick bark.
I sat behind the wheel a few minutes after Fearless and his dog were gone, wondering if I would make it through the night without getting killed. A car behind me honked its horn, and I slid away from the curb, prodded by that unknown driver, into the night.
I DROVE UP and down Alameda Boulevard until about twelve-thirty, finally finding the storefront by intuition instead of a sign. I’d seen the darkened windows twice on my evening reconnaissance, but both times they didn’t make enough of an impression for me to look closer.
On the third pass I stopped and got out. Up close the drapes were a deep red. As soon as I saw the color I knew that it was the Messenger of the Divine. The curtains were drawn completely across the windows, but looking down past the sill I could see a thin band of light. Pressing my ear against the crack between the double doors, I could hear men talking; talking, not proselytizing, praying, or preaching.
I went around the side of the block. There was no alley behind the row of stores. That meant that whoever was in there had to come out on Alameda. I moved Layla’s car down the block and sat low in the seat, not wanting some cop to nab me for loitering.
It was a long wait. There was a chill in the air, and my shirt provided little to no warmth. Whenever I got cold up north I remembered New Iberia, my home. We didn’t live in the town. My mother and I were country. Our road was a dirt path only fit for feet or horses’ hooves. We lived in a shack made from tin and wood, cardboard, mortar, and tar paper. There was a brick oven that burned anything and a floor paved with small stones. There were three rooms, and we fit that place like a hand in a glove. In the summertime it was as hot as you could take it. It did get cold in December, but I still remember Louisiana for the heat. I loved it. As far as I could walk in any direction there were colored people, colored people and no one else. When I was a child I knew that the white people lived somewhere, but I rarely saw one in my daily routine. Our store owners and undertakers and carpenters were all black. So were our tailors and dressmakers, our butchers, bakers, and milkmen.
Everybody was poor, but nobody starved. We partied on Saturday nights and praised the Lord for our babies on Sundays. We worked hard when we had to and took it easy when there was a chance. A lot of colored people tell me that they hate the South; Jim Crow and segregation made a heavy weight for their hearts. But I never felt like that. I mean, lynchings were a terrible thing, and some of those peckerwoods acted so stupid that they embarrassed the hell out of you sometimes. But I still loved the little shack I shared with my mother. I’d have still been there if it wasn’t for one terrible event.
That event was learning to read.
I entered school at the age of six. It was a country schoolhouse with two teachers and four rooms. They broke us up among the classrooms according to size at first, and then they shuffled us around depending on ability. The fourth room was for study; children went in and out of there at the teachers’ request. On the first day I heard Miss Randolph read a story, and I knew that books were my destiny, not writing or teaching or inventing spaceships, just reading and reading and reading some more. I could pick out a simple sentence based on the knowledge of a dozen words by the end of the first week. By the age of eight I was alone in the fourth classroom, reading everything I could. I read the Bible and the dictionary and every newspaper I could. I read every book in our whole neighborhood by the time I was fifteen.
There was a library in the white part of town; coloreds couldn’t go inside. For a while I would go there and sit out front on the bench they had, rereading old books like The Hinkley Reader and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One day the librarian, an old battle-ax named Celestine Dowling, came out and asked me what I was doing.
“Readin’,” I said proudly.
“Really,” old Miss Dowling said.
“Yes’m,” I replied.
“I don’t believe you,” she stated.
I didn’t know what to reply to such a rude comment, so I sat tight and quiet.
“Read me a sentence,” she ordered.
There is nothing worse than the snows of May, I read from a story called “Minnesota Snows.”
Dowling frowned and said, “Go on.”
I read the first page and then the second. I read all the way through the story. I had read that book many times and so did not skip or stutter hardly at all.
When I was through, Miss Dowling said, “Come on with me.”
She led me through the big double doors of the library into a large room that was at least twenty feet high, lined to the ceiling with shelves that were packed with neat rows of books. I remember my heart catching. I forgot how to breathe altogether. I had no idea that there were this many books in the whole world. There was a big oak table in the center of the room with fancy chairs around it. There was a podium with a proper Webster’s open to some page. The dictionary I’d read was just a small abridged thing that contained words a child might need to know.
“This is the library,” the librarian said.
I nodded and gulped.
“Close your mouth, boy.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said finally. “I never seen nuthin’ like it.”
“Of course you haven’t,” she said. “And do you know why?”
“Because I never been in here before?” I asked, not understanding the question.
“No,” she said from some Olympian height. “It is because this is a white library. And no matter how much you know how to read, these books are not meant for you. These books were written by white people for white people. This is literature and art and the way our country is and should be. There will be no library card for you, so you can stop sitting out in front. You have seen as much of this building as you ever will.”
The impact of her words brought tears to my eyes. I was thirteen, but, like I said, I’ve always been small. I looked up at Celestine Dowling, and she seemed pleased to see me cry.
“Go on now,” she said.
I went home in tears. My mother asked me what was wrong, but I was too sad to say. I cried that night and all the next day. Celestine Dowling had broken my heart out of a meanness that I couldn’t understand. Why would she hate me for being able to read well? I wasn’t hurting her. I would have been glad to check out books from the back door or window. I wouldn’t’ve treated those books badly.
All of the happiness flowed out of me then. For months I moped around. I made money reading contracts and warranties for my neighbors, but every time I’d read a line I’d remember the high shelves of that country library.
By the time I was seventeen I was on a train bound for San Francisco, not because I wanted to vote or was afraid of being lynched. I left because a man told me one night that in California black folks could go into any library they wanted. They could get library cards and check out books from here to Sunday.
It was cold in Frisco, but I read a book a day in the first year. Libraries still make my heart race. There is nothing like a book.
“I understand you, sir,” a voice agreed.
I smiled in my doze, thinking that most people thought I was crazy when I told them that story. A door closed and I was jarred awake. Three men stood in the shadows down the street in front of the curtained church.
Some more words were spoken, but I didn’t understand them. This made me think that I had given meaning to the words I heard in my sleep. Through the darkness I could tell that one of the men was white and the other two were black. One black man was well built, wearing a white suit. He laughed and slapped the white man on the shoulder. That was William Grove. I remembered him going into the church with all of the deacons shaking his hand as he went past. The other black man seemed to be older. He also wore a suit, but it was shapeless, fitting the man like the everyday uniform of a night watchman or usher.
The white man was powerfully built too. That’s really all I could tell about him, except that he seemed to have some kind of foreign accent. They talked briefly, and then a dark-colored sedan drove up. The white man got in, and the sedan drove off.
I crouched down as the sedan went past. When I rose partway up again, the black men were still talking.
They talked for a while more, and then Grove walked away down the street. The older man used a key in the front door to the church and went in.
I had brought myself to the edge of that minefield by asking a couple of good questions and by perseverance. But every step from then on was laid out for a better man than I was. So I sat there trying to will myself up the evolutionary ladder from man to superman. But when I got out of that car, there was no cape dragging behind me, only a tail between my legs.
I NEEDED TO RELIEVE my bladder, but I was scared. In a car I was an even match for Leon Douglas; on foot gawky Gella Greenspan had about equal odds to kick my ass.
I knocked on the church door, braced by the cold air and the possibility of finding a toilet. I was standing there for quite a while before a baritone voice asked, “William?”
“It’s Tyrell Lockwood,” I said, loud and clear.
“What you want?”
“I came to speak to Reverend Grove.”
“It’s three in the morning,” the opera voice informed me.
“It’s very important,” I said. “About a woman named Elana Love.”
There was a moment of silence, and then the lock snicked and cracked. The door came open and a frosty-headed older gentleman looked at me with a deeply furrowed brow.
“What about Sister Love?” he asked.
“She hired me to find you, said it was somethin’ important she had to say.”
“What?” His features were African Negro with very little other racial influence. Based on his facial structure you would have expected his skin to be dark, very dark, but instead it was fifty-fifty, coffee and cream.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “But my business is with Reverend Grove. I spent the whole night driving around trying to find this place and I got to go.”
“I’m Vincent,” the man said warily. “Father Vincent la Trieste. At one time I was the minister of this congregation.”
“May I use your facilities, Father Vincent?”
There was a moment when he might have refused me, but then he stepped back, allowing me in.
I had only seen the Messenger of the Divine church once, about a half year before. The landlord brought me around because I was making noises about renting a place and the Messenger was behind on the rent for the second month in a row. Mr. Anderson, the landlord, brought me in on a Tuesday afternoon when there was no one in the place. The room I entered with Father Vincent was exactly the same as I remembered. Plush red drapes on all four walls. Folding walnut chairs set in rows before an oak podium that was edged in gold and jet. There were hymn books with cardboard covers lined with royal blue felt on each seat and a huge, rough-hewn cross propped on its side and leaning against the draperies behind the podium. It was almost an exact replica of the room I had seen on Central. I would have taken the place after Anderson showed it to me, but the church came up with the rent, and I ended up taking the storefront down the street.
In the corner there were three chairs set at a wobbly pine table with three glasses, each one almost empty of red wine, and a tin ashtray full of butts set in the center.
“Through there,” Vincent said, gesturing at the wall.
“What?” I asked.
“Through that door,” he said in an exasperated tone. “The toilet.”
There was a short hallway that led to an old-fashioned toilet that had a pull handle connected to a tank on the wall above. As nervous as I was, urinating afforded me great relief and pleasure. I leaned a hand against the wall while I did my business, exhausted from the past few days of pressure.
I poked my head out of the john, noticing a half-open door a little farther on in the back. In that room I spied a table strewn with watches, jewelry, and 35-millimeter cameras. There were two console televisions with round screens against the far wall and a fur coat of some kind hanging on a nail in the back door.
I snaked my way back to the bathroom, flushed the toilet, and then returned to my host.
“You look familiar,” he said when I returned.
“I used to work part-time for the bookstore near to your church when it was on Central.”
“Where is she?” Vincent asked me.
I pulled out a chair from the rickety table and sat.
“She came to me looking for Grove. Like I said, I worked near to where you used to be. She come in there askin’ ’bout where she could find the reverend.”
“You said she was kidnapped?”
“She told me that if I could find Grove, she’d give me five hundred dollars. So I said I’d help out. Only when I started drivin’ her, a man attacked us and took her away. He chased us. Big motherfucker. You know, I fought him, but he laid me out. Before he did though, she screamed at him, called him Leon.”
“Leon Douglas?” he whispered.
“She didn’t yell his full name.”
Vincent took a chair for himself. He was staring hard at me. I wasn’t scared though. He was an old guy, sixty or more, and I always felt comfortable if given the time to roll out a lie. I’m good at lying. My mother always said that it was because of all those lying books I read.
“You lyin’,” Vincent said.
“Why you say that?”
“Why would she trust you? Why she gonna offer you good money like that to find William?”
“She didn’t trust me completely, that’s why I don’t know why she wanted you guys. You know, I’ve done some findin’-people work for Milo Sweet, the bail bondsman.”
“Why you believe her? Did she pay you anything?”
“Man, the curves on that woman and the way she moved ’em, damn, five hundred dollars was the least she had to offer.”
“You go to the law?”
“No.” I made eye contact with the holy man as I said so.
I shrugged, looked at him again, and then said, “If she offered me five, there had to be more, and if I went to the cops, there was no chance of being paid a dime. What I figured was that I’d find the reverend and see what was what.”
Vincent held out his hands in a show of helplessness. “I haven’t heard from Sister Love in more than two months, and I don’t know anything about any money. All I do is God’s work. I spread His word.”
Like a boxer getting on his bicycle and putting out the jab, that was Vincent. I had staggered him with my information, and all he could fall back on was his everyday con.
“Well, if you can’t help me…” I stood up.
“But I could ask Brother Grove,” Vincent offered.
“Maybe I should ask him.”
“Maybe,” the canny man of God replied. “If you got here five minutes earlier, you would’a seen him. But he’s gone now, won’t be back for a few weeks.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Church business, in Tulsa.”
“Oh. Well I guess that’s that.”
“But he’s gonna call me. When he gets there he said he’d call. I could ask him then.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should just go to the police.”
“Better no,” he said.
“Let me ask William first. Maybe he could shed some light on it. I’ll tell you what, you go home and get some sleep, and when I talk to William sometime tomorrow night, next mornin’ at the latest, I’ll call you.”
I thought about sleeping in that lilac-scented, apricot-colored room. It sounded pretty good. I mused on that for a few seconds, pretending that I was thinking about Vincent’s selfless offer.
“Call you by ten day after tomorrow,” he added.
“All right,” I said, nodding. “All right. But I’ll have to call the cops if you don’t call me by then. You know it’s a crime not to report a crime.”
Vincent was scanning the tabletop until he located a short pencil and a paper matchbook. He took the nub and said, “Tell me your number.”
I gave him the Tannenbaum phone number.
“What’s the address?”
“Why you need my address?”
“Well, uh, we might have to run over there or somethin’.”
“No, uh-uh. You just call me. Call me by ten day after tomorrow.” I stood up.
“We could use the address too,” he said with no apology or excuse.
“I’ll give you what you need after I talk to Grove.”
I had a question in mind, and it must’ve shown on my face.
“Something else?” he asked.
“Why did you pull up your red skirts and run from the old church so fast?”
Father Vincent blinked twice but said nothing.
“I mean,” I continued, “you ran outta there in the middle’a the night. The landlord came around askin’ everybody if they knew where you’d gone.”
“A misunderstanding about the rent,” the elder Holy Roller said. “Anderson made some promises about work that he was gonna do to the buildin’. After a year we told him that we wouldn’t pay, you know, the rent until, uh, he did what he said he would.”
“Hmm.” I pondered his lie. “Only time I ever seen people pull up stakes that fast they were either runnin’ from the law or from a loaded gun.”
“Nuthin’ like that,” Vincent assured me. “Just a misunderstanding is all.”
“All right,” I said, still leery. “You call me when you’ve talked to Grove.”
I turned and walked out of there, feeling in charge for the first time since Elana Love walked in the door. I didn’t look back at Father Vincent. I was sure that he’d be on the phone to Grove as soon as I was gone. But that was okay. I wanted them upset. I wanted them to feel like I felt.
JOHN-JOHN’S ALL-NIGHT HAMBURGER STAND on Slauson was the right place for me. Their hamburgers came with beefsteak tomatoes, Bermuda onions, sour pickles, mustard, mayonnaise, and homemade chili. You had the choice of cheese. My fries always had chili and cheese on them. A strawberry malted for my milk and I was on cloud nine.
The only two things that I was proud of consistently were that I could eat anything and never gain an ounce and that I’m extremely well endowed in the sexual organ sort of way. My manhood was questionable as far as courage or strength, but once in the bed I could out-joust the best of them.
I once thought that all I had to be was slender and sexually imposing and women would love me for that alone. But I realized as time went on that women, though they were often excited by my size, got used to it pretty quickly and were willing to leave me for what I thought were lesser men.
I guess I was thinking about Fearless. He was with a woman right then, and there I was eating a chili burger at four-thirty in the morning.
Sal Grimaldi, the night manager of John-John’s, liked to play chess. He pulled out his small wooden board and sat across from me in the courtyard space that they covered with canvas on a cold night like that. He said that I looked tired and maybe he could beat me.
He couldn’t. Grimaldi was a white guy from outside of Barre, Vermont. He always loved telling me that he had never even seen a Negro until after his twenty-first birthday.
“I mean,” he said more than once, “I knew you guys existed in theory, but seeing a real black man shocked the shit out of me the first time.”
I believed him. Over the years I had come to realize that people who had no experience with each other rarely hated with the vehemence that I had experienced from some southerners. Sal didn’t have any preconceptions about blacks. Because of that he was critical in ways that other people weren’t. He loved to talk to me about how he didn’t understand why Negroes didn’t make more out of themselves.
“I mean, why don’t you guys just go to school and buy the businesses and take over your own communities like the Catholics and the Jews?” he’d ask.
He didn’t believe that racism existed except in the southern fraternities. He was a nice guy, but just like the libraries of the North and South, he had very little information about me.
I BEAT SAL seven games straight. It took until just after nine. He stayed to play out the last game when the breakfast man came in. He wasn’t perturbed at losing to a Negro, and so I felt friendly toward him. Sometimes it’s just a little something that makes a man feel good.
I was exhausted, but I never liked to sleep in the daytime. And even if I’d wanted to take a nap, the only options for a bed I had were the backseat of Layla’s car or the upstairs bedroom at Fanny Tannenbaum’s house. Both of those choices had serious disadvantages. If the police found me curled up in the backseat of a car I didn’t own, they could take me to jail for vagrancy or worse. Fanny’s was no safer; Leon Douglas or at least one of his friends had already been there once.
I went over to a small shoeshine-and-magazine stand on Florence. I hung around there a couple of hours reading Jet magazine and shooting the breeze with a few other men like me, men who were between here and there. For a couple of hours I loitered, joking with those young men. I was free of bookstores and killers and ladies so beautiful that they could make you bleed. It was another world, where there were good laughs and no immediate danger, where nothing was different from yesterday and tomorrow promised the same.
WHEN I PULLED UP in front of the Greenspan house it was almost eleven o’clock. My intention was to take Fanny back home and spend the rest of the afternoon in bed. I was so tired that I wasn’t even afraid of running into Leon Douglas.
Gella came to the door all awkward and timid, ready to run.
“Mr. Minton?” she said.
“I came by for Fanny,” I told the girl. She wore a medium gray dress cut from coarse material with dark gray buttons up the middle. The sagging hem came down to her shins. It was a dowdy dress without style or promise. I couldn’t understand who would make such an ugly piece of clothing, who would sell it, much less walk into some store and decide that this was the rag they wanted to hang on their shoulders.
“She went home early this morning,” Gella said, half grinning, half looking away.
“Morris drove her when he went to work.” She couldn’t help but smile and puff up a little when saying her lard-bottomed husband’s name. “I’m going over there now myself. We’re going to visit Uncle Sol.”
“I’ll follow you,” I said. “Maybe Fearless is over there too.”
“He wasn’t when I called.”
“When was that?”
“About seven-fifteen. I called to make sure that everything was okay.”
Fanny’s husband was just out of prison and in the hospital with knife wounds inflicted by a criminal who was still on the loose — and her niece calls to ask is everything okay. I could see why that old woman turned to Fearless and me for help.
GELLA PARKED in the driveway, and I pulled up to the curb. By the time I got to the front door, she’d had enough time to ring the bell and knock.
“Nice day,” I said while we waited for Fanny to answer.
“What? Oh yes. Yes it is nice.” She pressed the doorbell again.
I could hear the three short notes, then the long tone — then an even longer silence. Gella looked at me, and I tried to look unconcerned.
“She probably in the bathtub or something,” I said.
“Aunt Hedva never bathes in the daytime,” Gella pronounced with all the weight of a hanging judge.
I took out the key Fanny had given me and used it in the lock. When I pushed the door open the girl ran in.
“Hedva! Fanny!” She ran up the stairs in great galloping bounds.
I wandered into the den. For some reason I expected her to be there.
Her foot, half in a blue canvas shoe, was visible from around the cushioned chair.
“She’s here,” I said loudly enough for Gella to hear.
I didn’t move. Gella’s heavy feet hurried quickly to the stairs and down. When she got to my side she froze.
The wail from Fanny’s niece was enough to break anybody’s heart. She threw the chair aside and fell in a heap next to the corpse. There was no question about Fanny being dead. Her small face was a dark blue, and her tongue protruded. She looked like some demented soul from an old Bosch painting.
I moved backward and lowered myself toward the chair. But the chair wasn’t where I remembered it, so I fell to the floor. It didn’t bother me to sit there, flat on my ass.
As I said before, I’ve been around hard times, but the death of that tiny woman who had taken me in without the slightest hesitation hit me hard. It was like I was groggy or something. I crawled over to Gella and put my hands on her shoulders. She rose and we held each other, her for a shoulder to cry on and me so I didn’t fall again.
“What can we do?” she wailed.
“Cops,” I said. “Call ’em.”
She went to use the phone in the kitchen while I remained, silent witness to an old woman’s death. From various windows sunlight poured into the rooms. Blobs of light and hard-lined shadows were everywhere. Birds were singing. Cars going up and down the street made the sounds of rushing wind. There was a mambo band playing on a radio somewhere down the block. I wouldn’t have heard any of it if it weren’t for the silence imposed by death.
Gella came back into the room. When she saw Fanny she fell to her knees again.
“There’s nothing we can do until they get here,” I told her. “Why?” she asked me.
I was looking at her, trying to think if there was an answer in the world to fit that question. My mouth opened and I was about to say something, but I had no idea what.
Just then the phone rang. I went into the kitchen as much to get away from the body as to answer the phone.
“Who is this?”
“I thought you was on your way to Tulsa.” Though my mind was still numb from the grisly death, my tongue was on automatic.
“I had a change of plans,” the reverend said.
“I bet you did.”
“I want to get together and talk to you about our friend.”
“You know the Charles Diner?”
“That’s the place. Meet ya there at nine tonight.”
“I’m in a little bit of a hurry, Tyrell,” Grove said.
“I’m jammed up right now myself, brother,” I said. “It’s nine or nuthin’.” Looking around I saw pieces of glass on the floor near the back door. The little window had been broken in.
“Maybe I could come to your place,” he suggested.
“Not a chance,” I said, thinking that he might never know the favor I was doing him.
There was silence and then, “Nine.”
Grove hung up, but I didn’t. I just stood there with the phone in my hand. I couldn’t believe all the trouble that had followed that woman into my bookstore.
“Was that the police?” Gella asked me. She was so pale that it was frightening to look at her.
“No, Fearless,” I lied as a reflex.
Gella sank into a chair in the dinette.
“When did she come back?” I asked.
“I told you, this morning. Morris brought her.”
“What time was that?”
“Morris was on the way to work at the bank. It was about seven.”
“Did he come in?” I asked.
“No. I called five minutes later. Hedva said that Morris was gone and that she was going to make kugel for you. She sounded upset.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask because I knew I was going to see her for lunch…” She sat there on the verge of tears.
“So that was seven-fifteen?”
“Maybe. About then. What does it matter what time it was?”
The doorbell rang, and I realized that I was about to be arrested for murder. I was so shocked by the death that I had forgotten to run. A dead white woman, and there I was, a black man already suspected in an attack on her husband. I should have run out the back door at that moment, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the strength in my legs.
Gella went to the door. I trailed in behind her. Seven uniformed cops came in and spread out through the lower floor.
“Who are you?” the lead cop, a sergeant, asked me.
“Paris Minton,” I said.
“What are you doing here?”
I tried to think of a reason but failed.
“He was my aunt’s boarder,” Gella said, neatly explaining what for me was inexplicable.
“Where were you when this happened?”
“I wasn’t here last night,” I said. “This morning I was playing chess with a friend over on Slauson, at John-John’s.”
“The chili burger place?” a corporal asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I was playing chess with the night guy. After that I went over to the shoeshine stand on Florence near Central. I got here about eleven.”
“Gino, right?” the corporal asked.
“The night guy at John-John’s.”
“Salvatore,” I said.
“You found her?” the sergeant asked.
I told him the events as they occurred. I guess I was pretty broken up. Not blubbering or even crying but still deeply hurt and sad.
They questioned me, but there was no edge or threat involved. They got my name and looked at my license. They probably called into the station to make sure that there weren’t any warrants out on me. I wondered why Bernard Latham wasn’t with them, but I didn’t ask.
“Why are you living here?” the sergeant asked me. He didn’t need to add a black man with two old Jews.
“My place had a fire.”
“And they just happened to have a room?”
“Fearless, my friend, did Fanny a favor, and so she did us one in return. Anyway, she was scared after her husband was attacked, and she wanted us around to protect her.”
“Her husband was attacked?” The sergeant had four dark brown moles on his face. They made him ugly. “He dead too?”
I gave him a brief version of Sol’s attack, leaving out Elana Love and adding the lie that Fearless and I were gardeners.
“For protection, huh?” the sergeant sneered. “You did a helluva job, didn’t you?”
The questions switched over to Gella after that. She told them that Fanny had stayed at her house the night before, that her husband brought her over early.
“Why was she at your house?” a policeman in a suit asked. “Why didn’t she stay at home?”
Gella said that it was because of the stabbing.
“Then why leave her here when there was no one else around?” the detective asked reasonably.
“She wanted to come,” Gella said weakly. “She would have walked if Morris didn’t take her.”
They asked her about the night before and the early-morning ride to Fanny’s house. They were asking the questions again and again in different ways. That’s the way the cops work; they try and trip you up, make you say something and then say it wrong from another viewpoint.
But because of the shock Gella answered every question mechanically and exactly the same. Her husband, Morris, took Fanny to her house sometime around seven. At seven-fifteen or thereabouts Gella called to see that Fanny was safe. Morris was already gone off to work, and Fanny was making noodle pudding for me and Fearless.
“Where is this Fearless?” the sergeant asked me.
“He spent the night with his girlfriend,” I said. “Dorthea.”
“Where can I find her?” he asked me.
“I don’t know, officer,” I said. “She’s his girlfriend and all, but I don’t know her.”
It was a lie but not that bad. I didn’t want the cops coming down on Fearless before I got to talk to him. That is, if I could keep out of jail myself.
The ambulance arrived soon after that. The attendants came running in, but they slowed down after they saw the body. No mouth-to-mouth or injection was going to save this patient’s life.
A police doctor came and checked out the corpse. After he did that the cops all stood around me. They wanted to see my hands. The doctor looked at my fingers and then measured the length of my hand.
Finally he turned to the sergeant and said, “I don’t think so, no.” The police moved around the house looking for clues or something. They checked the doors and windows for signs of break-in.
They found the broken glass and fussed around but never took fingerprints that I saw.
“Are you staying here?” the sergeant asked me.
“I guess. Nowhere else to go,” I said.
“Lay off anything around the back door,” he said. “Crime scene.”
They asked me more questions without aggression or anger. They seemed more interested in Gella. They kept asking why Fanny left so early. They wondered why she was so frightened when Fanny didn’t answer on the first ring of the doorbell.
She had good reason to be nervous. Those cops had just as much reason to be suspicious. But I knew that Gella would never have harmed Fanny. I saw her fall apart; nobody could fake that. And I could tell by the way they talked to each other that there was a deep love between those women.
Gella went with the ambulance, and the police finished their searches.
I PACED the somber house, taking inventory of the tokens of the Tannenbaums’ life. On their bedroom dresser were more than a dozen photographs in little stand-up frames. Old black-and-whites, and even older sepia-and-whites showing stern-faced, soft-skinned people in dark clothes. Even the children put on frowns for the camera. I didn’t know which one was Sol Tannenbaum, but I recognized Fanny sitting in a high-backed chair, holding a bouquet of lilies. Her face was so sour in that picture that I had to laugh. I knew her well enough that I could see past the pose into the woman who was now dead.
Her rings and bracelets were in a jewelry box. Perfume was a single bottle. One scent was enough at her age. On matching night tables on either side of the bed there were pictures of Gella. Fanny’s photo was a more sedate one of the girl becoming a woman with someone else’s baby in her arms. Sol had one of her in a flaring summer dress, smiling and impatient. I imagined the plain girl was feeling beautiful that night, and she wanted to run away to dance.
Sol’s top drawer had about sixty dollars in bills and change in it. I took the money without feeling like a thief. The money Fanny had given me wouldn’t last long, and I needed cash to keep me and Fearless afloat.
There were papers of many sorts in Sol’s drawers. Mixed in among them were cuff links and thick rings, keys, and a pocketknife. Many of the papers were letters in foreign languages. I made out postmarks from Israel, Germany, and Argentina. There were old newspaper clippings of many things, including a recital that Gella had performed on the violin at a Jewish temple not far away. There was one article, clipped and circled in red, about Lawson and Widlow, the accounting company Sol had worked for. The firm was acting as broker for a French company that was selling an antique collection of jewelers’ tools to a museum in New York. The Cuthbert and Rothstein Museum of the Jeweler’s Art had purchased the eighty-seven instruments that were used to create the crowns of French royalty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The article was a few years old and yellowing. I put it in my pocket and opened the bottom drawer.
There was a clip-loading .38 in its original box down there. The maker’s name was Belson-Teeg. The gun was made from dark metal, and it was well cared for. I checked it out. It was open for business. The safety was off, and there was a bullet in the chamber.
I spent the longest moment thinking about that gun. Should I take it? I wasn’t a good shot, but I knew how to pull a trigger. Since Elana Love had taken Fearless’s piece I felt vulnerable. But if I took Sol’s fancy pistol and the cops found it on me, I’d be in trouble.
Would you rather be in trouble or be dead? The voice that came into my head was that of Lonnie “two-hand” Samuels, my pretend uncle and the number one troublemaker of Avery Island at one time. In his youth he had been on the chain gang twice. The sheriff of our sleepy community always braced Lonnie when a crime had been committed. But Lonnie didn’t do crimes by the time I was twelve. He just spoke out loud about what a man had to do if he wanted to keep his dignity and his life.
Remembering Lonnie’s advice usually made me do the opposite of what he said, because even though I loved my uncle, I knew he had a head harder than cast iron and he never worried about consequence.
“Hello?” a man’s voice called from downstairs. “Is anybody home?”
That made up my mind for me. I put the pistol in the belt under my loose shirt and went cautiously out of the bedroom.
The man I found standing at the foot of the stairs was smaller than I by a head, and that’s short. I could also tell that he was slight of frame in spite of the heavy overcoat he wore. But I didn’t regret my pistol. Even a little man can carry a gun. The visitor’s hands were in plain sight, so I went the rest of the way down to meet him.
“Hello,” he said, looking up at me with an expression too mild to be honest. I mean, here I was a black man in elderly white folks’ house with the door obviously left unlocked, and he didn’t so much as frown. Instead, all he did was ask, “Is Fanny or Sol here?”
“He’s in the hospital and she’s dead,” I said casually.
It’s hard to tell from a man’s face how he responds to terrible news. Sometimes tears are a blind for guilt. But the little man in the big coat didn’t cry. His eyebrows knitted a quarter inch. His lips pressed ever so slightly tighter.
“What happened? What, what happened?”
“Somebody came over here two days ago and put the hurt to Sol. This morning somebody broke in and choked Fanny till she was dead.”
“That’s terrible. My old friend. My old friends.” The little man took the opportunity to sit upon the bottom stair.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Minor,” he said. “Zev Minor. I’m from Estonia. Like Sol and Fanny’s families.” He looked down at the floor and shook his head. Then he looked up and asked, “Could I have some water or something?”
“Yeah, come on.” I gave him my hand to help him stand and led him into the kitchen.
There was an unopened pint of peach schnapps in the spice cabinet. I poured a shot into the bottom of a water glass. Mr. Zev Minor took the glass gratefully. With both hands he poured the pink liquor down his throat. He closed his eyes against the burn and then opened them again to look at me.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but who are you?”
The right question at last.
I put the bottle down next to his glass and said, “My name’s Paris. I’m a friend’a the family’s. They asked me to come stay with Fanny after Sol got hurt.”
“But you say she’s dead?” Zev asked in a mildly accusatory tone. Again the right thing to say. “And where are Morris and Gella?”
“She’s with the police, helping them to find out what happened to Fanny after her husband dropped her off here,” I said, answering both his question and his accusation at the same time.
“Sol is alive though?”
“He got stabbed. He’s in the hospital.”
“Stabbed, choked,” Minor said, rolling his eyes from side to side. “This does not happen to good Jewish people. How can it happen?”
“I know what you mean. They were both good people as far as I knew them. Real people, you know? I mean if Fanny said it, then it was true, no lie to that.”
A light shone in Zev Minor’s eyes. A light that told me he knew what I meant. It brought us together in lamentation.
“I don’t understand. Why did they attack Sol?”
“I don’t know,” I said, only partway lying.
“Didn’t he say? Didn’t he tell you?”
“He was stabbed. Bad. Unconscious in his hospital bed.”
“I don’t know about all that. His eyes are closed, at least that’s what Fanny said, and he ain’t talkin’.”
“I would like to see him,” Zev said. He took the bottle and poured another small shot. “Maybe I can do something.”
I saw no reason to keep Sol’s hospital a secret from a family friend. He was a mild old man who didn’t push or seem worried about hidden bonds. And so I felt bad when saying, “They had him at Temple, but then they said that he was transferred. I don’t know if it was because of his wound or for safety.”
Zev’s eyebrows knitted a fraction of an inch again. He stared at me long enough to ask himself a question and answer it, and then he nodded. He downed his drink and then stood up.
“If you see Morris, tell him to call me,” he said. “Tell Morris and Gella both how sorry I am. It’s so sad. It’s more than sad.”
He walked heavily toward the front door. I followed him, feeling guilty, like I had knocked somebody down and then kicked him for no good reason.
At the front door I said, “Mr. Minor.”
“Yes, Mr. Paris?” I could tell by his voice and his eyes that he was expecting me to give him a way to call Sol.
“Do you have a number I could give Gella and Morris?”
The expectations died in Zev Minor’s eyes, but he didn’t seem bitter.
“Morris knows my number by heart,” Minor said. “Don’t forget to tell him that I called and how sorry I am. Tell him that I will do whatever I can.”
“Where’d you say you knew Sol from?” I asked in a bushwhack sort of way.
“We were from the same town, like I told you,” he said in a whispery tone, “but that was long ago.”
“And he introduced you to Morris?”
“No,” Zev said. “That’s what’s funny. I met Morris only in the last year. We were doing business together, and while we were talking I found out that he was married to Sol’s niece.”
“I thought that Morris worked for a bank?” I asked.
“That’s right.” The tiny man reached out for my hand.
His skin was dry and papery, a little cool.
A few minutes after he left I shuddered, recalling the feel of his onionskin hand on my fingers.
ZEV MINOR’S VISIT faded quickly from my thoughts. I felt sluggish once alone again. The death of Fanny Tannenbaum had hit me hard. She was just an old white woman, that’s what I thought, but she reminded me of the women in my own family. She was strong and brave in the face of people much more powerful than she. She was sweet and comfortable in the company of strange men. Maybe she even sparkled a little while cooking for us and ironing our clothes.
I knew that I should be doing something, but I didn’t remember what.
I went through the library in the den, finally resting my eyes on a book, the title of which I had never seen before. Dead Souls, by Nikolay Gogol. The preface said that it was a Russian masterpiece. I had read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky but never Gogol. The preface went on to say that he wrote about the travesty of serfdom in old Russia. It seemed like those old white people used to own each other at the same time that whites owned blacks in America.
For a moment or so I forgot about my problems and started to read the words of the long-dead Russian.
I suppose that the lock on the front door had been wedged open by the cops, because he just walked on in without rousing me from my reverie. When I sensed a shadow passing somewhere at the edge of my peripheral vision I jumped, screamed, and threw my book all at the same time. Luckily my aim was bad and Fearless had stayed back, knowing how jumpy I could be sometimes.
“Hey, Paris,” he said, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “I give.”
He wore black jeans and a denim jacket of the same color over a gray shirt. There was a watch with a gold band on his wrist and a pair of sunglasses stuffed in the breast pocket of his new jacket.
I wanted to crack wise about his new wardrobe, but the fear that made me jump was deeper than just edginess.
“What’s wrong, Paris?”
“They killed Fanny.”
Fearless and I hadn’t met until we were both full-grown men, but I felt that I knew him as a child, because every once in a while the boy would come out in his face. Loss and disbelief erased any swagger from the sex he had had with Dorthea the night before.
Blood padded in from the doorway and regarded his newfound master.
“Somebody came in and choked her.”
“Where were you, Paris?”
“I was out lookin’ for them Messenger people. Didn’t come in till about eleven. I went over her niece’s house to get her, but Fanny’d already come here.”
Fearless hunkered down on the floor, elbows on his knees, hands propped on either side of his face. Blood licked a hand, but Fearless pushed him away.
“Who did it, man?”
He wasn’t looking at me, but still I only shook my head.
Fearless stood up all at once.
“Muthahfuckah,” he said, and then he grabbed me by the front of my shirt and lifted me from the floor.
He raised his fist, but I didn’t resist. Fearless was one of the kindest men I ever met, but the devil lived in him too. In a rage he was capable of murder. But he had never killed any friend that I knew of.
His eyes could have belonged to a dead man, they were so fixed. He didn’t seem to be breathing. I hovered there an inch or so over the floor.
Even though I’m often frightened, I have never been afraid of Fearless. I felt such a deep kinship with him that he never scared me.
When he let me go I stumbled but remained on my feet.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“Ambulance took her,” I said. “Gella went with them.”
“What you got?”
I considered my words carefully then. I knew he was close to killing, and I was taught never to point a loaded weapon at somebody unless I intended to shoot.
“Grove called me. He’s gonna meet us at the Charles Diner at nine.”
“He do this?”
“Naw. Naw, I don’t think so.”
“He know who did it?”
Before I could answer, Blood started barking and Morris Greenspan rushed in.
“Blood!” Fearless commanded, and the dog, still growling, stood down.
“Where?” Morris Greenspan asked. He was looking around the room. His eyes stopped on the floor of the den. “Gella said it was in there.”
The big, sloppy man was nearly in shock. His eyes were wide and his voice was strained to cracking. He lurched into the den and looked around, twisting from side to side.
“What happened?” he shouted, and then he fell to the floor just like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. “What happened?”
He jerked and flailed around on the carpet for a while, but I didn’t mind. At least the spectacle distracted Fearless. After a minute or so we helped Morris back to his feet and sat him down in a chair.
“Why would anyone… how could they?” he said, and then he cried in earnest.
It was a deep, mournful wailing with no modesty or shame. He cried from his eyes and nose and mouth. He bent forward in the chair and called out for his Fanny, his Hedva. It was more like a pagan priest who had witnessed the death of his patron deity than a man who’d lost an in-law.
It was a full ten minutes before the lament subsided.
“How did you hear about it?” I asked.
“Gella called me at work from the hospital. She said that they were taking her to the police station to talk.”
“What did she tell you?”
“That Hedva was dead!” he declared.
“Did she want you to pick her up or meet her?”
“She, she… I guess.”
“Then why did you come here?”
“I thought I could do something. I hoped I could do something. I wanted to help.”
“But she’s dead, man,” I said. The anger probably came from my own frustration. “She’s dead, and your wife needs help down at the cops.”
“Leave him alone, Paris,” Fearless said.
Blood growled to back up his new master’s command, but he wasn’t sure if he was growling at me or Morris.
“No,” Morris said. “He’s right. I should go.”
“You better not drive,” Fearless said. “We’ll take you.”
GELLA WASN’T too much better off than her husband. She was sitting at the far end of the long bench in the entrance room of the Boyleston Heights precinct. There were a few others seated here and there. Mostly Mexicans. Mostly women. Waiting for their men, I guess. Nobody seemed happy.
One young woman, she couldn’t have been twenty-five, had four small children running around, a toddler holding on to her skirts, and a baby in her arms. The children laughed and played on the hard floor, explored the area in front of the sergeant’s desk, and watched as three brown men were brought in in chains.
Them chirren is where they gonna be, I could hear my mother say. Ain’t nobody even care ’cept her. An’ look at her. What could she do?
When Gella saw us she went straight to her husband and put her arms around him. He brought his arms around her, but it was more a hopeless gesture than it was a hug. Fearless and I waited for the pitiful embrace to be over, and then I suggested we make tracks.
But before we could get out of there a ranking officer in uniform came up to us.
“Mrs. Greenspan,” the tallish, portly man said. His smile was an amenity, like a blindfold offered before the firing squad. “Is this your husband?”
“Yes. This is Lieutenant Binder,” she said to our assembly.
Binder shook Morris’s hand and looked into his eyes. “Sorry for your loss.”
Morris mumbled something.
“Which one of you boys is Paris Minton?” the policeman asked.
I hesitated and then lifted a finger to indicate myself.
His eyes were peacock blue, his skin tended toward gray.
I was trying to keep my mind on freedom.
“Would you spare me a few minutes?” Lieutenant Binder asked.
He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead he touched my arm and steered me to a small room behind the admitting sergeant’s desk.
It wasn’t a room really, but just a space behind a frosted glass door. Inside were a wooden table and chair. It was a place where the desk sergeant could eat his meal or take a cigarette break.
“Mrs. Greenspan tells me that you happened on her great-aunt and -uncle after they were attacked two days ago,” the lieutenant said.
“Yeah, yeah. We were lookin’ for a gardenin’ job, and then there the old man was, stabbed.”
“Then the old woman invited you to stay at their home?” He had the satisfied grin of a crocodile.
“We needed a place to stay,” I said.
“Because of a fire, I believe the young lady said.”
“Sit down, Mr. Minton,” Binder said.
“No, thank you.”
“No,” I replied.
That was the test. If I were close to arrest he would have made me bend. That’s how it worked: a cop pushed you to the limit but never more unless he could turn a key on you.
“Okay,” Binder said. “Have it your way. I just wanted to ask you a few more questions.”
He didn’t jump right off. First he gauged me with those shiny blue eyes of his. His orbs were so bright that it was hard for me to imagine that there was intelligence behind them.
“What do you think of these Jews?” he asked. He twisted his lips on the last word as if it was a lemon peel in his mouth.
“Like you say, I’ve only been there two days. That whole time the old man’s been unconscious in the hospital. Fanny’s okay, though.”
“Did she get along with her niece and her nephew-in-law?”
“Yeh. Sure. I mean, she thought Morris was kind of a fool. But I guess he kinda is.”
“Do you think that either one of them might have wanted the old Jews harmed?”
Jew turned to nigger in my ears, and I started disliking the cop.
“No,” I said. “No. The girl and Fanny really loved each other. And Morris is more broke up than Gella over Fanny bein’ dead.”
Binder wasn’t really listening. He didn’t really care about the people in this case. But he seemed to want something. He regarded me again with those beautiful but stupid eyes.
“What about Bernard Latham?” he asked.
At first I thought we were experiencing an earthquake. The ground seemed to swell under my feet. I regretted my decision to stand.
“What about ’im?”
“What did he ask you?”
“He wrote it down, man.” I got dodgy, hoping to figure out where these questions came from — and where they were going.
“Don’t get wise, son,” the uniform said.
“He wanted to know why we were at Fanny’s house. He thought maybe we were the ones who stabbed Sol.” I decided to skim the truth off a little at a time.
“Me an’ Fearless.”
“Fearless the other boy outside?”
“Latham brought us here,” I said.
“Who was he riding with?” Binder asked.
I tried to remember. I was handcuffed and in the backseat next to Fearless.
“He was in uniform,” I ventured. “White guy. Pink really.”
“Billings?” Binder asked. “Pullman? Nazareth?”
It’s a mess, Naz, I remembered Latham saying to the cop next to him in the front seat. At the time it meant nothing to me.
“I think I heard him call somebody Naz,” I said.
Binder considered me then. He could have delved deeper into my story, or he could let me go.
“And…,” I said.
“I seen where Sergeant Latham been all over town. I mean I saw in the newspapers that he was interrogatin’ that guy who got shot down in Watts and died over in Mercy Hospital. I just figured that he was on some kinda citywide police unit to be showin’ up all over.” I was hoping that Binder didn’t read all the papers. He probably didn’t. He probably didn’t know any more about that crime than any other citizen.
“What paper did you read that in?”
“I forget. Either the Times or the Examiner. It was just on the counter in a coffee shop I was at. You know I was surprised to see Latham’s name over south when I knew he was a Hollywood cop and I had just seen ’im in East L.A.”
Again those eyes considered me. They probed so deep that I began to wonder what he could have on me. I hadn’t done anything wrong except maybe to take that money from Sol’s drawer. That’s when I remembered the pistol I had hitched up in my belt. They wouldn’t frisk me unless I was going to be arrested, but if they found an illegal, and stolen, concealed weapon on me, prison was right around the corner.
I cursed Elana Love in silence.
“Anything else?” he asked.
He stuck out his lower lip and raised his right shoulder an inch or two. “I don’t know. Maybe something Latham asked you. Something the Jews might have said.”
I counted three breaths and considered my situation. I wanted the policeman to trust me, to think that I was too scared to be anywhere but on his side.
“Latham said that the old man stole some money,” I said. “A lot of it. And they never recovered it even though they caught him and had him in jail.”
“Did the sergeant say that he was investigating the case?”
“He didn’t say, but I guessed he was.”
“Did you find out anything?”
“I asked Fanny about it, but she said that her husband would never steal a thing.”
Binder snorted his contempt and then asked, “What about the niece and her husband?”
I shook my head. “I ain’t really talked to them at all. Morris didn’t like us much, and Gella’s kinda scared.”
Binder frowned, and then he smiled. He offered me his hand, but when I took it he pressed down hard with his thumb.
“If you’re in this, it’s gonna hurt,” Binder said.
“The way you mashin’ on my hand it hurts right now.”
“It could get worse,” he said and then let me go.
“I don’t know nuthin’ more, man,” I said.
The lieutenant smiled and then gestured, telling me that I could go.
I left the police station, thinking again about the Greyhound Bus Company. This time I thought maybe I’d return to Louisiana. A white man would have to look pretty hard down around the colored parishes of southern swamps to find a little black man like me.
THE FIRST THING I did when I got back to the car was to slip Sol’s pistol from under my shirt and shove it beneath the driver’s seat. The Greenspans sat in the backseat on the ride to their home. Morris laid his meaty head against the window, and Gella was wound so tight that she shook slightly, like a palsied old woman. Half the way there Fearless turned around and took her two slender hands into his one big one.
“You gonna make it through this, girl,” he said. “You gonna make it.”
I don’t know how she responded because I was looking in the rearview mirror at Morris to make sure he wasn’t going to start swinging because another man, a black man, was holding his wife by the hand. But Morris didn’t even budge. He was more shattered than my grandfather had been when his wife of sixty-three years had passed.
When we stopped in front of their house Morris stumbled out of his side and fell on the lawn. He got to his feet and strode up to the door like a toddler whose gait changes every three steps. Fearless walked Gella slowly to the door, still holding her by one hand. Morris had worked his key on the lock and blundered in by the time they reached the single stair. Fearless lifted Gella’s chin and kissed her on the lips. When he whispered something, she leaned into him for another osculation and an embrace. He ushered her through the door and closed it behind her.
Back next to me he took the posture of someone waiting for the car to begin moving. I didn’t engage the gears.
“Somethin’ wrong with the car, Paris?”
I didn’t answer.
Fearless turned to me.
“What was that?” I asked.
“With that white girl. Jail so hard on you that you got to take a woman right out from under her husband?”
“What?” Fearless complained. “Naw, man. I ain’t interested in that crooked-nosed girl.”
“You could’a fooled me and about half the neighborhood too.”
“She needed a kiss, Paris. That’s all. A kiss and a kind word. She just lost her family, man. That big bum of a husband don’t care. I just kissed her and told her that I was there. That’s all.”
“And if she still felt bad,” I taunted, “you’d take her up in the bed but still that wouldn’t be nuthin’?”
“Maybe. Sometimes you got to give, Paris. Sometimes a man or a woman needs the opposite sex to say, hey it’s okay. But she don’t mean nuthin’ t’me. Neither do that dumb husband. If he was holdin’ her, then she wouldn’t’a needed me to do it.”
I shifted into first and drove off.
Fearless had a smart heart. He had a brave heart too. When he talked to me like he did about Gella, I never understood, not really, a word.
WE MADE IT to the Charles Diner by nine-fifteen. The place was alive. The girls couldn’t help but move their butts, even if it was just in their chairs, when Big Joe Turner was playing on the jukebox, and the men couldn’t help but watch. At the Charles men dressed as differently as the women did. From T-shirts to tuxedos the fashions ranged. The women sat in groups at the small tables in the great round room while solitary men smelling anywhere from Classic Gent to hard-earned sweat came up and made their offers for a little wiggle on the dance floor in back.
“At the table over next to the plastic palm tree,” the bartender told Fearless when he asked if anyone was looking for Tyrell Lockwood.
A woman was sitting next to him, leaning toward him like a sailboat under a squall.
“Reverend Grove?” I said in greeting. There was only a faint light of recognition in his eyes for me, but I knew him. The minister was the cock of the walk down around Central and 101 when the Messenger had its doors open.
“Get yourself another fizz and park it at the bar, babe. I’ll be there in a minute,” the reverend told the girl.
He handed her a two-dollar bill. She kissed his fingers before taking the money with her teeth. I think she was a pretty girl. She might have been a knockout. But I couldn’t tell. My mind was going over and over the lies and questions I had for the holy man.
His suit was three-button, maroon, and silk. He was a hair shorter than Fearless and more substantial but not portly or fat. He had a full face that was medium brown and diabolical in a mild way. Everything turned up: the almond eyes, the slightly receding hairline, the corners of his smile; all like small horns on a masquerade devil or, more likely, a minister who had studied sin for too long and who was finally overwhelmed by its beauty. The left side of his jaw was a little larger than the right, and that eye was bloodshot, and not from lack of sleep.
“Tyrell Lockwood?” the devil inquired of either of us.
“Me,” I said. “This is my friend.”
Grove motioned for us to join him. A waitress wearing a black T-shirt and a tight white skirt came up. There was a nasty-looking scar that came from the bottom of her chin to the middle of her generous lower lip. On that lip the scar took a left turn and went all the way to the corner of her mouth. It made her look vulnerable, so I looked away.
“Drinks?” the waitress asked in a husky voice.
Fearless looked to Grove, who shook his head slightly. Fearless showed two fingers and said, “Beers.” The waitress went off.
“Where is she?” Grove asked.
“Didn’t Vincent tell you what I said?”
“He said some nonsense about her paying you to find me.”
“Well I found you now, didn’t I?”
The waitress came back. She tried to look me in the eye while serving the drinks, but I looked away again. Fearless gave her something and then tapped the table for her to bring more when the time came. She said thanks, so I supposed he had tipped her nicely.
When the waitress had gone Grove lowered his voice and said, “Don’t try and fool with me, niggah.”
“Don’t fool yourself,” Fearless interjected, his cool certainty bringing doubt to the reverend’s eye.
He gazed over toward the door. Maybe he thought it was foolish to come alone to meet two strangers in that dangerous business. Maybe he recognized that his arrogance didn’t carry any weight outside of his red-draped storefront church.
“You lookin’ for Elana. Elana lookin’ for you. Why?” I asked.
Grove didn’t respond. He was trying to figure out what to do. He spent as much time looking at the door as he did at us. Louis Armstrong was singing duets with Billie Holiday on the box. Fearless stretched out on his chair like a cat. I think he was just enjoying being free.
“She promised me five hundred dollars,” I told Grove. “I already put in my time.”
“I don’t believe you,” the Holy Roller replied.
Fearless straightened up in his chair.
“Leon Douglas.” I spoke Elana’s ex-con boyfriend’s name as if it were a complete sentence. “And a bearer bond. How about that?”
“Do you know where she is?” Grove asked, no longer looking for a way out.
“I might know how to find her,” I said. “But I wanna know what I’m gettin’ into before I take another step.”
“Tell me where she is.”
“No, uh-uh. I put my money on the table, man,” I said. “Now it’s your turn. If you got somethin’ I could use, then maybe we could do somethin’ together.”
“The bond,” he said, his voice changing this time to a breath of air. “It’s worth a lot more than she said.”
“Sister Love was made to lie. Prob’ly half’a everything she told you was a lie,” Grove said. “But she didn’t lie about the bond. She just don’t know. It’s worth ten times what she thinks.”
Using gangster logic I figured he meant a hundred times what she said.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“That’s for me to know.”
“Well how’s this?” I added. “Elana told me that you were the one had the bond. She said that she left it with you, but that —”
“It’s all a lie,” the preacher said. There was the musical note of a sermon in his voice.
“There ain’t no bond?”
“Oh yeah. There’s a bond all right. Damn sure enough. But I don’t have it. I did have it but not no more.”
“All you’re sayin’ is what isn’t and what’s lies and what didn’t happen. What me and my friend here need to know is what is.” I felt confident when Fearless was at my back, smart too.
Grove took me in for a moment or two.
“I remember you now,” he said. “At the bookstore. Vincent told me you worked there, but I didn’t remember the name.”
I nodded and waited.
“Leon,” he said, “sent Elana a letter askin’ her to come see him in prison. She was stayin’ with me at that time but still had her own place.”
“And you didn’t mind her gettin’ mail from an old boyfriend?”
“I saw my fortieth birthday two years ago, son. I know that women go to the bathroom and everything. I wasn’t her first man. I wasn’t her best man. Leon mentioned a thousand dollars in the letter, and so she took a day trip. Three days later we had the note.”
“Tell me about the note,” I said.
“What about it?”
“What country it come from? What’s the face value?”
“Ten thousand Swiss francs,” he said.
I was happy because at least one thing Elana said might be true.
“And she give it to you?” Fearless asked.
“It was new love. She saw in me what a woman wants to see in a man when they first start out.” Grove spoke from experience. “I could do anything at first. But then, when the bank told me on the phone that I had to have proof that I was David Tannenbaum, she saw a little tarnish here and there. I wanted to keep on the good side of a woman like that, so I go down to see the wife — Fanny.”
“You went to the Tannenbaum house?” I asked.
Fearless tensed up and then began his descent into a crouch.
“Yeah,” Grove said.
“That was maybe four months ago,” he replied. “I went there to find out why her husband was in jail, the particulars.”
“Why she wanna talk to you?” Fearless asked.
“I said that I was the visiting chaplain at the prison. I said that her husband wanted me to tell her that he was okay.”
“Why she gonna believe that shit?” Fearless had no love lost for this messenger.
“Her husband forbade her to go up to the prison. That’s why Elana had to go up, to get a letter from the Jew to give to his wife. So all I did was say that he was doing okay and that he was safe and missing her.”
“And what she give you in return?” I asked.
That was the heart of our talk — what Fanny told Grove. He knew it and he knew I knew it. I was riding high on the powerful presence of Fearless and the fact that Grove was a little shy.
“It wasn’t nuthin’,” he said. “She didn’t know a thing.”
“That’s why you ran out on Elana? That’s why the Messenger packed up its drapes and ran?”
Grove took a deep breath, reaching for strength and conviction. “Elana got the bond. No matter what she told you, she got it. You find her, you find the bond. You do that, and you come to me. I can make ten times ten thousand.”
Grove shook his head while looking me in the eye.
“So now what?” I asked.
“I know how to make the money. You bring me the bond.”
“Maybe I should go to the cops,” I speculated.
Grove decided on that moment to stand up.
“Messenger of the Divine is where you could get in touch with me. I might be a little bit scarce the next week or so, but Vincent knows how to get to me,” he said. “Going to the cops might get me in trouble, but it’ll get you boys killed.”
Fearless blew Grove a kiss in reply. I wasn’t feeling so cocky.
The self-proclaimed minister walked away from the table and to the woman who was waiting for him at the bar. Together they went out the front door. I sat there wondering, was there a dollar amount worth my life?
FEARLESS AND I FINISHED our drinks in silence. Then we went toward the door. He was the first one through, and I was just about to follow when someone grabbed me, roughly, by the shoulder. It was the waitress with the scarred lip.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“Why cain’t you look at me? I’m so ugly that you got to be rude?”
I looked at her then. I saw a lovely female face, except for that scar, on a woman not over twenty. Her expression was petulant but sweet; that face had seen some life.
“It ain’t that, sugar,” I said.
I brought a finger to her face, tracing the scar up to her lip. She didn’t move away.
“I wanna kiss that streak. I wanna bite it. But you know I don’t even have a roof or rent for a room. That scar meant that somebody hurt you, so I looked away. I wanted to say somethin’ nice, but what use is a man smooth talkin’ when he ain’t got two nickels to rub together?”
The woman didn’t believe me, but she wanted to. One brow was knitted in anger, but the other one was wide with hope.
“I’m Charlotte,” she said.
“Paris. Paris Minton. You be workin’ here in two nights, Charlotte?”
“I’ll drop by.”
“Sure. I bet.”
“You got a pencil?” I asked her.
She took out her yellow number two and her bill pad. I gave her Milo Sweet’s phone number and said, “You can call there if I don’t show, but don’t worry, I’m comin’ back around.”
“HEY, PARIS,” Fearless said in a shy tone. We were in the car driving toward Milo’s office.
“I just remembered somethin’.”
“I know Leon Douglas.”
“I know ’im, Paris. He went in for armed robbery. But he was in the city jail ’cause he got a fancy new lawyer and a retrial. His cell was just down the hall from me.”
I pulled the car to the curb and turned off the ignition. I put my head on the steering wheel and closed my eyes. The darkness called me toward sleep, but I sat up again and asked, “Why the hell you wait till now to tell me this?”
“I just didn’t think of it. In the can they called him Big Bama ’cause he was from Alabama an’ he was big. I hardly even knew him.”
“So? What do you know about him?”
“Nuthin’. He was smug about bein’ down at the jail. He did a payroll robbery and shot two men. They had him for thirty at San Quentin, but the evidence wasn’t hard. The gun they found on him when he was arrested was the wrong caliber. He did it, but this new lawyer was trying to get the case thrown out.”
“Who’s the lawyer?”
Fearless shrugged his shoulders.
“What kinda dude is he?” I asked.
“Armed robbery, single-handed, two men shot. Three-quarters bad if he can blindside ya. Half bad face-to-face.”
Fearless considered himself and maybe three other people he’d ever met to be full bad: Jacob Trench, Doolen Waters, and, of course, Raymond Alexander. But three-quarters was plenty scary enough for me.
LORETTA WAS SHUFFLING papers on her desk before Fearless and I awoke the next morning. We had decided that sleeping at the Tannenbaum house was too much for either of us, and I still had Milo’s key.
“Morning, Mr. Jones, Mr. Minton.” Our presence held no surprise for her.
“Mornin’,” we said together.
I had let Fearless have the couch because he was just out of jail, and I was still feeling guilty for not helping him sooner.
“When’s Milo due in?” I asked the Japanese passe-partout.
“Soon, I think,” she said. “He has a problem with a client who has to show up for sentencing at three. A friend of yours.”
“Luke?” Fearless smiled. “What’s that boy up to?”
“He was with some friends in a stolen car. He wasn’t driving. He didn’t even know the driver. They had gotten drunk together and were taking some high school girls for a ride. The judge had seen Lucas before and decided to scare him, I guess. He found him guilty but postponed the sentencing. Milo thinks it was just to make Lucas sweat, but if he doesn’t show up, there’s six hundred dollars on the bond.”
Fearless scratched his head. I stifled a yawn. It wasn’t our problem.
MILO CAME IN at around nine. Fearless was taking his dog over to Dorthea to keep for the day. I was reading about Chichikov, the con man protagonist of Dead Souls.
“Hey, Paris,” Milo said. “You gonna have to start payin’ rent you keep warmin’ my couch.”
“I got a problem, Milo.”
“One shot to the temple and problems just go away,” the bailbondsman replied. Then he turned to Loretta. “We hear from Mr. North?”
“No sir, not yet.”