Six Easy Pieces: Easy Rawlins Storiesby Walter Mosley
Easy should be living a contented life, with steady work as senior head custodian of Sojourner Truth High School, and a loving family. But happiness is as elusive for Easy as smoke in shadows. Easy's the man folks seek out when they can't take their problems to anyone else. Trading favors and investigating cases of arson, murder, missing persons, and false… See more details below
Easy should be living a contented life, with steady work as senior head custodian of Sojourner Truth High School, and a loving family. But happiness is as elusive for Easy as smoke in shadows. Easy's the man folks seek out when they can't take their problems to anyone else. Trading favors and investigating cases of arson, murder, missing persons, and false accusations, it's hard to steer clear of trouble. Easy walks the line in this must-have collection from bestselling, award-winning author Walter Mosley.
Despite the repetition, readers who missed these meaty, powerful stories in their paperback debuts will gobble them up at one sitting.
"[The Easy Rawlins mysteries are] at once exotic, and believable . . . memorable . . . and morally complex." The Wall Street Journal
"Mosley . . . a writer whose work transcends the thriller category and qualifies as serious literature." Time
"Mosley’s skill in rendering the time and place of his novels brings to mind the inevitable comparison to genre masters such as Hammett and Chandler . . ." San Francisco Chronicle
Read an Excerpt
From Six Easy Pieces
Easy," she said, and then the phone rang.
Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe the phone rang, and then Bonnie called my name.
Bright sun shone in the window, and the skies were clear as far as I could see. There was a beautiful woman of the Caribbean lying next to me. From the living room, early morning cartoons were squeaking softly while Feather giggled as quietly as she could. Somewhere below the blue skies, Jesus was hammering away, building a single mast sail that he intended to navigate toward some deep unknown dream.
It was one of the most perfect mornings of my life. I had a steady job, a nice house with a garden in the backyard, and a loving family.
But I was nowhere near happy.
The phone rang again.
"Easy," Bonnie said.
"I hear it."
"Daddy, phone," Feather yelled from her TV post.
Her dog, Frenchie, growled in anger just to hear her say something to me.
Jesus stopped his hammering.
The phone rang again.
"Honey," Bonnie insisted.
I almost said something sharp, but instead I grabbed the receiver off the night table.
Ezekiel is my given name but I never use it. So when that deep voice came out of the phone, I stalled a moment, wondering if it was asking for someone else.
"Ezekiel?" the voice said again.
"Who is this?"
"I'm lookin' for Raymond," the near-bass voice said.
"Mouse is dead."
I sat up, pulling the blankets from Bonnie's side of the bed. She didn't reach for the sheets to cover her naked body. I liked that. I might have even smiled.
"Oh no," the voice assured me. "He ain't dead."
"No." The voice was almost an echo. There was a click and I knew that the connection had been broken.
"Easy?" Bonnie said.
I put the phone back into its cradle.
"Easy, who was it?"
Bonnie pressed her warm body against my back. The memory of Raymond's death brought about the slight nausea of guilt. Add that to the heat of the woman I loved and I had to pull away. I went to the window.
Down in the backyard I saw the frame of Jesus's small boat on orange crates and sawhorses in the middle of the lawn.
"It was ...a woman I think. Deep voice."
"What did she want?"
"Oh. She didn't know he was dead," Bonnie said in that way she had of making everything okay with just a few words.
"She said he was alive."
"I don't think she knew. It was more like she was certain that he couldn't be dead."
"That's just the way people think about him," Bonnie said.
"No. It was something else."
"What do you mean?"
I went back to the bed and took Bonnie's hands in mine. "Do you have to leave today?" I asked her.
Jesus's hammer started its monotonous beat again.
Feather turned up the volume on Crusader Rabbit now that she knew we were awake.
"I know you got to go," I said. "But..."
"I dreamt about my father last night."
She reached out and touched my cheek with her palm. Bonnie had work-woman hands, not callused, but hard from a long life of doing for herself and others.
"What did he say?" she asked me.
That was her superstitious streak. She believed that the dead could speak through dreams.
"He didn't say a thing," I said. "Just sat there in a chair on a raft in the water. I called out to him four or five times before he looked up. But just then the current started pullin' the raft downstream. I think he saw me but before he could say anything he was too far away."
Bonnie took my head in her arms and held on tight. I didn't try to pull away.
We sat down to breakfast at nine o'clock, two hours after I was supposed to be at work. Jesus had taken Feather to school. After that he was going to work four hours as a box boy at Tolucca Market on Robertson. In the late afternoon he'd come back home and read to me from Treasure Island. That was our deal: he'd read out loud to me for forty-five minutes and then discuss what he had read for three quarters of an hour more. He did that every day, and I agreed to let him drop out of high school.
Jesus wasn't interested in a public school education, and there was nothing I could do to light a fire under him. He was smart about things he cared for. He knew everything about grocery stores because of his job. He worked there and did gardening around our neighborhood to afford his boat dreams. He liked carpentry and running. He loved to cook and explore the beaches up and down the coast around L.A.
"What are you thinking about?" Bonnie asked.
We were holding hands under the table like schoolchildren going steady.
"Juice," I said. "He's doin' pretty good."
"Then why do you look so sad?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's that phone call."
Bonnie leaned closer and squeezed my hand. "I'm going to be gone longer than usual," she said.
"Maybe three or four weeks. Air France is having a special junket around western Africa with black political leaders and some European corporate heads. They need a French-speaking black stewardess who can also speak English. They'll need me on call for special flights."
"Oh. Yeah." It felt like she was punishing me for feeling bad.
"I told you that I'd have to be gone sometimes," she said sweetly.
"That's okay," I said. "Just don't go believin' it when one'a those men says that he wants to make you his queen."
Hundreds of children were assembled in front of Sojourner Truth Junior High School when I arrived three and a half hours late.
"Mr. Rawlins," Archie "Ace" Muldoon said, greeting me on the granite stair of the main building. Short and balding, the little white man doffed his White Sox baseball cap in deference to his boss me.
"Hey, Ace. What's happenin' here?"
"Fire in the metal shop bungalow."
"But that's down on the lower campus. Why they wanna evacuate up here?"
"Mr. Newgate." That's all he needed to say. Our principal, Hiram Newgate, was the source of all discord and wasted energy.
"Rawlins, I want to talk to you," Newgate said from the entrance hall. It was as if Archie conjured him up by saying his name.
"What about, Hiram?" I called back.
Newgate's lip curled into a snarl at my disrespectful tone.
He was tall and scarecrow-thin with cheekbones that were almost as high as his eyes. He would have been ugly if he didn't have perfect grooming, bright white and immaculate teeth, and clothes bought only in the finest Beverly Hills stores. That day he was wearing a shark-gray jacket and slender-cut black slacks.
He was looking good but I had outdone him. I was dressed in one of my best suits; off-white linen with felt buff shoes, brown argyle socks and tan shirt that I kept open at the collar due to the nature of my job,which was supervising senior head custodian.
I liked dressing up because of my background, which was poor and secondhand. But it also gave me a secret pleasure to see Newgate look me up and down, comparing my clothes to his.
"Where have you been?" the jade-eyed principal asked me.
I shrugged, not having enough respect for the man to lie.
"That's not an acceptable answer."
"What's the fire report, Archie?" I asked my custodian.
"Fire captain's down in the yard," the small man said.
"Mr. Rawlins," Principal Newgate sputtered. "I'm speaking to you."
"Sorry, Hiram," I said as I walked away. "But I'm late and there's going to be a lot of paperwork around this fire."
"What?" he exclaimed. He probably said a lot more, but I touched Archie's arm and we went quickly toward the stairway that led down to the lower campus.
The metal shop bungalow was slightly scorched when the firemen arrived. They had reduced the building to splinters by the time they were through.
It was a strange vision for me. A burnt and shattered building surrounded by white men dressed in red. They were all young and grinning. Outside the nearby chain-link fence were dozens of men and women among the displaced students all of them black or brown staring wide-eyed at the demolition. I could feel my heart thumping and my hands getting hot.
A fireman approached us. He was hatless and haggard, no older than I, but he looked to be ready for retirement. He was making his way toward us with a deliberate and tired gait.
"You the principal?" the old-looking fireman asked. His gray pupils were watery, almost white.
"No," I said. "My name is Rawlins. I'm the plant supervisor."
"Where's the principal?"
"Mosta the kids're on the upper campus. He's makin' like a general on his horse up there, keepin' the troops from deserting."
That got a laugh from the fire captain. He reached out to shake my hand.
"Gregson," he said. "I'm the shift commander. Looks like you got a problem here."
I glanced at the poor colored people looking in at those uniformed marauders. I wondered if Gregson and I saw the same problems.
"It's arson," the fireman continued. "We found a scorched gasoline can under the building. It's a pretty sophisticated incendiary smoke bomb."
"They set it off with people in there?"
"Weren't you here?" Gregson asked me.
"I was late today."
"Oh. Well, somebody pulled the fire alarm and then set off the device, or maybe they set it off and then pulled the alarm. Maybe someone else saw the smoke but I doubt it; the people in the classroom hadn't even seen it yet. They pulled the alarm on the wall of the janitors' bungalow."
I borrowed some lined paper and a pencil from one of the students, through the fence, and took down all the information: Gregson's phone number, the police number to call to give information to the arson squad, and the names and numbers of the forms I had to fill out. He told me that an inspector would show up in the afternoon. All the while the firemen prowled around the shattered building, using their axes just in case some embers still burned.
I went up to Principal Newgate's office after that. I detested the man but he was still my boss.
"I'll buzz him, Mr. Rawlins," Kathy Langer said.
Everything about her was brown except for her skin: eyes, hair, dress, and shoes. She was a young white woman, a new transfer to Truth. Hiram's secretaries were always new, because they never lasted very long. He was always complaining about how they filed or typed. The last one left because he yelled at her for forgetting to put three sugar cubes into his coffee.
"It's Mr. Rawlins," she said into the phone. Then she looked up at me and said, "Just a minute. He's finishing a call." She smiled when she saw me looking at her drab clothes. It was the kind of smile that had gotten many young black men hung down South.
"No," she said as she inclined her head, showing me her throat. "Some guy who's been calling. I think it's personal business."
A moment later the buzzer sounded and she said, "You can go in now."
I hadn't been in Newgate's office for a few weeks and was surprised at the change in decor. I suppose the shock showed on my face.
"What?" Newgate said. He was sitting behind a beat-up ash-blond desk.
"What happened to all your fancy furniture?"
When Newgate became principal, he had brought expensive ebony wood and teak furniture with him. Along with the carpeting, his office had looked like a rich man's den. Now the floors were bare, the desk looked to be due for disposal, and his books and papers were in stacks along the walls.
"I bought a new house," he said. "I took the furniture for the living room."
"Why didn't you tell me? I coulda come up with a decent desk and some shelves." I knew the answer to my question before I finished asking it. He didn't want to ask me for anything. I was too uppity and confident for him to request my help. It's not that he had a problem with my color; Newgate wanted everybody to treat him like the master.
"What do you have on the fire?" he asked.
The principal paled visibly. "While the students were in class? They could have been killed." He was talking to himself more than to me. "That's, that's horrible."
"I don't think anybody coulda been killed," I said. "Fire captain told me that even though they used a gasoline can it was pretty much just a smoke bomb."
"A kid's prank?"
"Naw. He said the bomb was very professional-looking."
Newgate and I stared at each other for a moment. "What do you think, Mr. Rawlins?"
What I thought was that Hiram Newgate had never asked me what I thought about anything. But what I said was, "I hope that it's just a one-time thing. Not some kind of craziness."
"What do you mean?"
"I wish I knew."
"Well," he said, still shaken. "I'm sure that it's just some kid with a problem. If he does something like this again we'll find him."
"I hope you're right."
"I have a doctor's appointment at noon so I'll be out mid-day. If the police come you give them what they need."
The rest of the day was pretty noneventful. No more fires or fire alarms. No plumbing or electrical disasters. It was actually a good day because Newgate wasn't around looking into everybody's business. He bothered the teachers as much as he did the custodial staff. He often walked into classrooms unannounced to make surprise evaluations. That might have been a good idea, but Newgate was rude and rough. He loved Truth more than anyone, but not a soul there cared for him.
That afternoon I was out inspecting the lower yard when First Wentworth called me. First was a small boy, thirteen at the time. Like many of the young children, he spent his summers hanging around the schoolyard, taking advantage of the facilities we offered for daycare. He played caroms and tetherball from ten, when the playground opened, until two, when it closed. After that I let him work with me, moving desks out of the classrooms so that my custodians could strip the floors and seal them for the new school year.
"Mr. Rawlins," he called from halfway down the eighty-seven stairs leading to the upper, older, campus. At least I think he said my name. I just heard his voice and saw him running down the granite steps.
While he ran I continued my inspection, looking into the trash cans on the yard. In one can I found a beaded white sweater that some child had discarded. It was a nice sweater, one hundred percent cotton. It represented a few days' labor out of a poor woman's pay, I knew. But clothes for children are like skin on snakes: to be shed now and then, allowing the new child to emerge.
"Mr. Rawlins," First said when he reached me.
I put the sweater under my arm. "Hey, Number One."
"I don't know what he was doin' over there." First was talking as if we were already in the middle of a conversation. "But I saw him."
"That white man."
"What white man?"
"The one who put that thing under Mr. Sutton's classroom."
"A big red can," the boy said. "I don't know why."
"Why didn't you say anything before this?" I asked.
"I forgot that I saw'im. But then later Mr. Weston said that the school might burn down."
I could have asked him why he came to me, but I knew the answer. I was the only black person on the campus who had any authority. Most of the children came to me with their problems because bill collectors, policemen, and angry store owners were the only white people in their daily lives.
"And it was a white man?" I asked First.
He nodded, looking at my feet.
"Was he wearin' a suit?"
"Uh-uh. Just some pants and a green windbreaker."
"Have you seen him around here before?" I asked. "Does he work here sometimes?"
First shook his head. "No. I mean I seen'im but he don't work here."
"Where'd you see him?"
"It's a boy, a man. You know."
"A young man?"
"Uh-huh, he used to go here. But he graduated an' dropped out." First looked up at me. "Am I in trouble?"
"No, Number One. You did all right. You might have to tell somebody else about it. But don't worry right now. Don't you have a class to go to?"
"You better go then."
I watched the child, who was so willing to rely on my strength, run up all those eighty-odd stairs without a falter.
I called the police station and asked for Sergeant Andre Brown. When he wasn't there, I talked to another policeman; I forget his name. I forget because he was of no help. He told me to come in the next afternoon and file a report. When I said that I thought it might be more important than that, he hung up.
Then I called the fire department. Gregson was out on a call. When I told the operator why I was calling, he told me to call the police.
"All I know is that his nickname was Cousin," I said to Laini Trellmore, Sojourner Truth's registrar.
"Cousin. Hm," the elderly woman said to herself. She looked closer to seventy-five than the age she gave, which was sixty-one. I wasn't the only one to suspect that under her duties as record keeper, Miss Trellmore had altered her date of birth to keep her job past the age of forced retirement.
"Oh yes. I remember now. Douglas Hardy. Oh yes. Trouble from the first day to the last. He was sixteen years old and still in the ninth grade. Oooo. The kind of boy who's always grinning and nodding and you know he just did something bad."
"You got an address for his family in the files?"
The Hardy family lived on Whithers Court off of Avalon. It was a dead-end street that had once been nice. Neat little single-family homes built for working people in a cul-de-sac. But the houses had all been bought up by a real estate syndicate called Investors Group West. They raised the rent as much as the market would bear. The turnover in tenants had a harmful influence on the upkeep of the dwellings and the street. Barren lawns and walls with the paint peeling off were the norm.
The Hardys' home was secured by a screen door frame that had no screen. There was loud cowboy music blaring from inside. I looked for a doorbell but there was none. I knocked on the door, but my knuckles were no match for the yodeling cowboy.
I pulled the door open and took a tentative step inside. It was that step, uninvited into the house of people who were strangers to me, that was the first step outside the bounds of the straight and narrow life that I pretended to. The room had a gritty look to it. Dust on the blanket-covered sofa and dust on the painted wood floor. The only decoration was a paper calendar hung by a nail on the far wall. It had a large picture of Jesus, his bleeding Valentine's heart protruding from his chest, over a small booklet of months. There was no sign of life.
I considered calling out, but I would have had to shout to be heard over the warbling cowboy, and anything that loud might alarm any occupants of that tinderbox home.
I turned off the radio.
"What the hell is goin' on?" someone said from beyond a doorway that led to the kitchen.
A short brown woman hustled in. She was wearing a shapeless blue shift that had white butterflies all over it. The neck of the dress had been stretched out, one side sagging open over her left shoulder.
"Who the hell are you?" she asked, squinting and scowling so that I could see the red gums of her almost toothless maw.
"Ezekiel," I said, remembering the morning caller.
"What the hell do you want?"
"I'm lookin' for Cousin."
Her nose twitched as if she were tied to a post and a mosquito were trying to bite her nose.
I heard a man grunt somewhere in the house. The heavy pounding of footsteps followed and soon a man, not as short as the woman but not as tall as I, came through the doorway. He was wearing only boxer shorts and a yellow T-shirt. His nose, chin, and forehead jutted out from the face as if his head were meant to be used as an axe. His eyes seemed insane, but I put that down to him getting rousted by the woman's scream.
"This man lookin' for Cousin."
"The hell are you?" Rinaldo asked me.
"Cousin's in trouble," I said.
"The fuck he is," Rinaldo said.
"Watch your language, boy," Toothless Mama said.
"The hell are you?" Rinaldo asked again. He balled his fists and levered his shoulders to show off a ripple of strength.
"He knows a man who tried to burn down the junior high school," I said. "Somebody saw them together "
"Who?" the woman asked.
Ignoring her, I kept on talking to Hatchet Face. "...if I don't see me some Cousin I'm just gonna give the police this address and let you shake your shoulders at them."
Rinaldo's eyes got crazier as he woke up. He seemed torn between attack and flight. He was fifteen years my junior, but I felt that I could take him. It was Mama who scared me. She was the kind of woman who kept a straight razor close at hand.
"Cousin didn't start that fire," Mama said.
"How would you know?"
"He was here with us."
"Where is he now?"
Mama and Rinaldo exchanged glances. They were afraid of the police. They had good reason to be. All black people had good reason to be. But I didn't care.
"Tell me or I'll go right down to the precinct," I said.
"He live on Hooper," Rinaldo said. He blurted out an address.
"Okay," I said, and I took a step backward. "I'ma go over there. If somebody calls him and warns him off I'm sendin' the cops here to you."
Rinaldo gave his mother a sharp look. Maybe he wondered if he should try to kill me. I took another step back. Before they could decide on an action, I was out of the door and on the way to my car. Rinaldo came out to watch me drive off.
"Who is it?" a voice asked after I knocked.
"Are you Cousin?" I asked.
There was a pause, and then, "Yeah?"
"I'm John Lowry. Rinaldo sent me."
When he opened the door, I punched him in the face. It was a good solid punch. It felt good but it was a stupid thing to do. I didn't know who else was in the room. That crouching, slack-jawed man might have been a middleweight contender. He could have had an iron jaw and a pistol in his pocket. But I hit him because I knew that he had something to do with the fire at my school, because Mama and Rinaldo set my teeth on edge, because the police didn't seem to care what I did, and because my best friend was dead.
Cousin fell flat on his back.
The room was painted a garish pink and there was no furniture except for a single mattress no thicker than a country quilt.
"Get up," I said.
"What I do to you, mister?" he whined.
"Why you try'n burn down the school?"
"I didn't burn nuthin'." Cousin got to his feet.
He was an old twenty. Not smart or mature, just old. Like he had lived forty years in half the time but hadn't learned a thing.
I knocked him down again.
"Hey, man!" he yelled.
"Who's the white man you were with?"
"What white man?"
"You want me to kick you?" I moved my right foot backward in a threatening motion.
"What you want from me?"
"The man put that bomb under the metal shop at Truth."
Cousin's skin was a deep, lusterless brown. His jaw was swelling up. He passed his hand over his head from fear that I'd mussed his hair.
"You the law?"
"I work for the school."
"Man named Lund."
"How you spell it?"
"I'on't know, man."
"What do you know?" I asked in disgust.
"Roke Williams. Roke run a crap game down Alameda. Lund work for the man sell him p'otection."
I drove to a small building on Pico and Rimpau. All the way I was wondering why a man in organized crime would be setting a bomb at a Negro junior high school. I wondered but I wasn't afraid and that was a problem. If you go up against men in organized crime, you should at least have the sense to be afraid.
There was a weathered sign above the front door of the building. If you looked closely you could make out the word Hettlemann and, a little farther down, rings. I had no idea what the building used to be. Now it was a series of sales and service offices rented out to various firms and individuals. On the fourth floor was a block of offices run by a man named Zane. They did bookkeeping and financial statements for small businesses.
The three flights of stairs was nothing for me. For the past few months I had cut down to ten cigarettes a day and I was used to the vast stairway at Truth.
When I opened the door on the fourth floor, I came into a small room where Anatole Zane sat. Zane, by his own estimation was a "...manager, receptionist, janitor, and delivery boy..." for his quirky accounting firm. He hired nonprofessionals who were good with numbers and parceled out tasks that he took in for cut-rate prices.
Jackson Blue was his most prized employee.
"Mr. Rawlins." Zane smiled at me. He got his large body out of the chair and shook my hand. "It's so good to see you again."
Zane did my year-end taxes. I owned three apartment buildings around Watts and had the sense to know that a professional would do a better job with the government than I ever could. I had introduced the modest bookkeeper to the cowardly, brilliant, and untrustworthy Jackson Blue.
"Good to see you too, Anatole."
"Jackson's in his office doing a spreadsheet on the Morgans."
I went through the door behind Zane's small desk. There I entered a hall so narrow that I imagined the fat manager might get stuck trying to make it from one end to the other.
I knocked on the third door down.
I heard the screech of a chair on the floor and three quick steps across the room. Then there was a moment of silence.
After that, a quavering voice: "Easy?"
A door down the hall opened up. A bespectacled Asian man stuck his head out. When I turned in his direction, he jumped back and slammed the door.
"Come on, Jackson," I said loudly. "Open up."
The door I had knocked on opened.
If coyotes were black, Jackson Blue would have been their king. He was small and quick. His eyes saw more than most, and his mind was the finest I had ever encountered. But for all that, Jackson was as much a fool as Douglas "Cousin" Hardy. He was a sneak thief, an unredeemable liar, and dumb as a post when it came to discerning motivations of the human heart.
"What the fuck you mean scarin' me like that, Easy?"
"You at work, Jackson," I said, walking into his office. "This ain't no bookie operation. You not gonna get busted."
Jackson slammed his door.
"Shut up, man. Don't be talkin' like that where they might hear you."
I sat in a red leather chair that was left over from the previous tenants. Jackson had nice furniture and a fairly large office. He had a window too, but the only view was a partially plastered brick wall.
"How you doin', Jackson?"
"Fine. Till you showed up."
He crossed the room, giving me a wide berth, and settled in the chair behind his secondhand mahogany desk. He avoided physical closeness because he didn't know why I was there. Jackson had betrayed and cheated so many people that he was always on guard against attack.
"What you doin'?" I asked.
He held up what looked like a hand-typed manual. It had a cheap blue cover with IBM and BAL scrawled in red across the bottom.
"What is it?"
"The key code to the binary language of machines."
"Computers, Easy. The wave of the future right here in my hand."
"You gonna boost 'em or what?"
"You got a wallet in your pocket, right, man?"
"You got some money in there?"
"What you gettin' at?"
"You might even have a Bank Americard, am I right?"
"One day all your money gonna be in this language here." He waved the manual again. "One day I'ma push a button and all the millionaires' chips gonna fall inta my wagon."
Jackson grinned from ear to ear. I wanted to slap him, but it wouldn't have made a difference. Here he was the smartest man you could imagine, and all he could think about was theft.
"Roke Williams," I said.
"Niggah was born in the alley and he gonna die in one too. Right down there offa Alameda."
"Who runs him?"
"Was a dude named Pirelli, but he got circulatory problems."
"Kinda like. A bullet through the heart. Now it's a man named Haas. He's a slick bita business run his people outta the Exchequer on Melrose."
"How about a man named Lund?"
Jackson squinted and brought his long thumbs together. "No. Don't know no Lund. What's this all about, Easy?"
I told Jackson about the smoke bomb and Cousin.
When I finished he said, "So? What do you care about all that, man? It ain't your house."
"It's my job."
"Your job is to make sure that the toilets don't smell and that the trash cans is emptied. You not no bomb squad."
I remember trying to dismiss Jackson's argument as some kind of cowardly advice, but even then there was a grain of truth that made it through.
"Maybe not," I said. "But I'm in it now."
"You better bring some backup you wanna tango with Haas."
That reminded me of Mouse. He had been my backup since I was a teenager in Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas. Mouse was crazy, but he was always on my side.
"I got a call this mornin', Jackson. It was a woman with a deep bass voice "
"She ask you about Mouse?"
"How you know that?"
"She called me too. Three days ago. Said she was lookin' for Raymond."
"What you say?"
Jackson became wary again. He scratched the back of his neck with his left hand and looked off to his left. When he saw that there was no escape route, he turned back to me. "I don't want no trouble now, Easy."
"Trouble's over, man. Mouse is dead."
"Like you once told me: you don't know that."
"I saw him. He wasn't breathin' and his eyes were wide. That bullet opened him up like a busted piñata."
"But you didn't go to no funeral."
"Etta carried the body outta the hospital. You know how much she loved him. She probably put him in the ground herself."
Jackson wrung his hands.
"What did you tell that woman?" I asked.
"Nuthin'. I didn't tell her a thing."
"Okay," I said. "What didn't you say?"
"You cain't tell nobody I told, Easy."
"A girl named Etheline, Etheline Teaman."
"What about her?"
"I met her a few weeks back and we started talkin' shit. I told her 'bout some'a the crazy stuff Mouse done did. You know, just talkin' jive. She told me that just before she left Richmond she met a gray-eyed, light-skinned brother named Ray. She said he got in a fight one night, and even though he was small, he put down this big dude with a chair, a bottle, and his knee. She didn't even know Mouse, man. She only moved here from Richmond six months ago."
"Where is this girl?"
"So what? You ain't askin' her to take care'a your kids. She said that she knew a man might be him. That's what you asked me."
"Why didn't you call me about this, Jackson?"
"If Mouse is alive and don't want nobody to know, then I don't need to say a word."
It was Jackson's long silence that bothered me. He turned into a loudmouth braggart after just one beer. For him to have kept quiet about his suspicions meant that something in what he heard made him fear that Mouse was really alive.
And Mouse was a man to fear. He was deadly to begin with, and his heart was unrestrained by any feelings of guilt or morality.
"What you gonna do, Easy?"
"Go out and buy me a tie."
I stopped at the May Company downtown and bought an orange silk tie. It had blue veins running through it and a yellow kite veering to the side as if it had broken its string.
I knotted my tie using the rearview mirror and then drove off to Melrose Avenue.
The Exchequer hotel and bar was a small building wedged between a lamp store and a hospital for the elderly. Lined out on the sidewalk were the aged inmates of that old folks' prison. They sat in wheelchairs and on benches, looking out over Melrose as if it were the river Styx. I turned my head now and again as I passed them, thinking that one day, if I made it through this life, I would end up like them: discarded and broken at the side of the road.
There was one child-sized woman wearing a thin blue robe over blue pajamas. Her sagging, colorless eyes caught mine.
"Mister," she mouthed. Then she waved.
"Yeah, honey?" I crouched down in front of her.
"When you were a boy you were so beautiful," she whispered.
I smiled, wondering if my boyhood was showing in my face.
"Just like your mother," she said.
"You knew my mother?" I asked. Maybe she thought some black maid in the old days was my relation.
"Oh yes," she said, her voice getting stronger. "You're my grandson Lymon."
Her eyes, when I first saw them, were beyond despair, verging on that stare that a dying man has when all hope of life is gone. I had seen many men during the war, shot up and dying, whose eyes had given up hope. But now the old lady's eyes overflowed with delight her white grandson, me, filling their field of vision.
She reached out a hand and I took it. She leaned forward and I accepted the kiss on my cheek. I kissed her gray head and stood up.
"I'll come back a little later, Granny," I said. Then I walked off to meet with a gangster.
The hotel lobby was small and simple. Not elegant or tawdry, but plain. The registration desk could have been a bell captain's station. The rug would have to be changed in a year or less. The only outstanding features were the light fixtures set high up on the walls. They were in the form of nude women finished in shiny gold leaf. Above their heads they held big white globes of light.
"Help you?" the small man behind the desk asked. He was white and bald, about my age which was mid-forties at the time. His eyes, nose, mouth, and ears were all too small for his small head. His miniature features showed disapproval and distrust of my presence. I couldn't blame him. How often did white people see black men in fancy suits in 1964?
"Lookin' for Mr. Haas," I said.
"Who are you?"
"You don't need to know my name, man."
The desk clerk ran his tongue up under his lower lip and looked over at a doorless doorway. He nodded toward the dark maw and I went.
"What's up, Rochester?" a white man with big ears asked me. He was standing at the bar.
"Could be your ticket," I said.
While he considered my words, I took a step closer to get within arm's distance, so that if he decided to go for a weapon, I could stop him before he stopped me.
"Fuck you," he said.
"Now that's better," I replied. "Are you Mr. Haas?"
"Who wants to know?"
"Ray," I said. "Ray Alexander. I need to talk some business with the man."
Big Ears wore an ugly, copper-colored iridescent suit. As he shimmered away from me into the gloom of the bar, I wondered if I had gone crazy somehow without warning. Jackson Blue was right; I was way out of my prescribed world there at the Exchequer.
I had fallen back into bad habits.
"Can I help you?"
It was yet another white man, this time a bartender. His words offered help, but his tone was asking me to leave.
"Mr. Haas," I said, pointing toward the gloom.
A shimmering copper mass was emerging. Big Ears came up to me. "Come on."
It was possibly the darkest room I had ever been in that wasn't intended for sleep. A man sat at a table under an intolerably weak red light. His suit was dark and his hair was perfect. Even though he was seated, I could tell that he was a small man. The only thing remarkable about his face were the eyebrows; they were thick and combed.
"Alexander?" he said.
I took a seat across from him without being bidden. "Mr. Alexander," I said.
His lips protruded a quarter inch; maybe he smiled. "I've heard of you," he ventured.
"I got a proposition. You wanna hear it?"
Ghostly hands rose from the table, giving his assent.
"There's a group of wealthy colored businessmen, from pimps to real estate agents, who wanna start a regular poker game. It's gonna float down around South L.A., some places I got lined up."
"So? Am I invited to play?"
"Five thousand dollars against thirty percent of the house."
Haas grinned. He had tiny teeth.
"You want I should just turn it over right now? Maybe you want me to lie down on the floor and let you walk on me too."
Haas's voice had become like steel. I would have been afraid, but because I was using Mouse's name, there was no fear in me.
"I'd be happy to walk on you if you let me, but I figure you got the sense to check me out first."
The grin fled. It was replaced by a twitch in the gangster's left eye.
"I don't do penny-ante shit, Mr. Alexander. You want to have a card game it's nothin' to me." He adjusted his shoulders like James Cagney in Public Enemy.
"Okay," I said. I stood up.
"But I know a guy."
I said nothing.
"Emile Lund," Haas continued. "He eats breakfast in Tito's Diner on Temple. He likes the cards. But he doesn't throw money around."
"Neither do I," I said, or maybe it was Raymond who said it and I was just his mouthpiece in that dark dark room way outside the limit of the law.
The old folks were gone when I emerged from the hotel. I missed seeing the old lady. I remember thinking that that old woman would probably be dead before I thought of her again.
Feather was asleep in front of a plate with a half-eaten hot dog and a pile of baked beans on it. Astro Boy, her favorite cartoon, was playing on the TV. Jesus was in the backyard, hammering sporadically. I picked up my adopted daughter and kissed her. She smiled with her eyes still closed and said, "Daddy."
"How you know who it is?" I asked playfully. "You too lazy to open your eyes."
"I know your smell," she said.
"You have hot dogs?"
"What you do at school all day?"
At first she denied that anything had happened or been learned at Carthay Circle elementary school. But after a while she woke up and remembered a bird that flew in her classroom window and how Trisha Berkshaw said that her father could lift a hundred pounds up over his head.
"Nobody better tickle him when he's doin' that," I said, and we both laughed.
Feather told me what her homework assignment was, and I set her up at the dinette table to get to work on her studies. Then I went outside to see Jesus.
He was rubbing oil into the timbers of his sailboat's frame.
"How's it goin', Popeye?" I asked.
"Sinbad," he said.
"Why you finishin' it before it's finished?"
"To make it waterproof inside and out," he said. "That's what the book says to do. That way if water gets inside it won't rot."
His face was the color of a medium tea; his features were closer to the Mayans than to me. He had deeper roots than the American Constitution in our soil. Neither of my children were of my blood, but that didn't make me love them less. Jesus was a mute victim of sex abuse when I found him. Feather's own grandfather had killed her mother in a parking lot.
"I got a lot to do the next few days, son," I said. "Could you keep close to home for Feather?"
"Can I have a friend come over?"
Jesus turned his attention back to the frame. He could still be a mute when he wanted to be.
I might have closed my eyes sometime during the night, but I certainly didn't fall asleep. I kept seeing Raymond in that alley, again and again, being shot down while saving my life. At just about the same time John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but I never mourned our slain president. The last time I saw Mouse, his lifeless body was being taken to the hospital with a blanket covering his wounds.
Tito's was a rectangular building raised high on cinder blocks. The inside had one long counter with two tables at the far end. Only one of the tables had an occupant. I would have bet the .38-caliber pistol in my pocket that that man was Emile Lund.
More than anything he looked like an evolved fish. There were wrinkles that went across his forehead and down along his balding temples. His eyes bulged slightly and his small mouth had pouting, sensual lips. His chin was almost nonexistent, and his hands were big. His shoulders were massive, so even though he looked like a cartoon, I doubted if anyone treated him that way.
The fish-man had been making notes in a small journal, but when I opened the door he looked up. He kept his eyes on me until I was standing at his table.
"Lund?" I asked. "I'm Alexander."
"Do I know you?"
"You wanna talk business or you wanna talk shit?" I said.
He laughed and held his big fins out in a gesture of apology.
"Come on, man. Don't be so sensitive. Sit down," Lund said. "I know your rep. You're a man who makes money. And it's money makes my car go.
"Mona," Lund said to the woman behind the counter.
She was wearing a tight black dress that probably looked good on her twenty years before. Now it was just silly, like her brittle blond-dyed hair, her deep red lipstick, and all the putty pressed into the lines of her face and neck.
She waited for a bit, just to show that she didn't jump the minute someone called her name, and then walked over to our table. "Yeah?" the waitress said.
"What's your pleasure, Mr. Alexander?" Lund inquired.
"Scrambled eggs with raw onions on 'em, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce on the side." It was Mouse's favorite breakfast.
The waitress went away to pass my order on to the cook. Lund made a final note in his small journal, and then put the book away in a breast pocket.
"So, Mr. Alexander," he said. "You wanna play cards."
"I'm gonna play cards," I assured him. "I need a little seed money and some insurance against Roke Williams and the cops."
"From what I hear about you, you never buy insurance," the fish said.
"Man gets older he gets a little more conservative, smarter you know."
The fish smiled at me, tending more toward shark than sardine. I took it in stride. After all, I wasn't the moderate custodian/landlord Easy Rawlins, I was the crazy killer Raymond Alexander. I was dangerous. I was bad. Nobody and nothing scared me.
The waitress came over with my eggs. I doused them with the hot sauce and shoveled them down.
"When do I get to see your game?" Lund asked me.
"Tonight if you want."
"We got a garage over on Florence." I took a slip of paper from my pocket and put it on the table. "That's the address."
"Nine-thirty would be too early. But anytime after that." My eggs were gone. I never liked raw onions and eggs before but I loved them right then. "You could sit in if you wanted to."
"Maybe so," he said. "Maybe so."
I went from Tito's to the 77th Precinct.
Sergeant Andre Brown was in his small office. He was the highest-ranking black policeman in the station. And we had developed a sort of friendship.
Earlier that year there had been a gang killing of a student from Truth, and rumblings about bad blood between the gangs. I was able to point Brown in the direction of some bad eggs, making it possible for him to break up the trouble before it flared into a war.
Brown was in his thirties, tall and thin, with a thick mustache and a surprising deep laugh. He was a very clean man. Perfect nails and skin. His office had every book in place and every file in order. His graduation ring was from UCLA.
"Mr. Rawlins," he greeted me.
"Sergeant," I said. "How are you?"
"Fine. Just fine. I hear you had some problems at the school."
"Yeah." I sat down and stretched out my legs across his small office. "Yeah. That's kinda why I'm here."
Brown stood up and closed his door. This was something he'd never done before.
"Before you say anything," he said, "I have something to discuss with you."
"The captain took me aside a few weeks ago and we had a talk about you."
"He told me to watch out for you. He said that you've been involved in some criminal activity and that you have been known to keep company with a hard-core criminal element." He looked at me, indicating that it was my turn to speak.
"I don't know what he said, but I'm no criminal, and I haven't been involved in any crimes," I said. That wasn't completely true, but it was close enough for Brown and I knew it. "It's true that I've known some pretty bad men, women too. If you go out your door down here you're likely to meet some bad folks, cain't help that. But what your captain might have meant is that I used to be in the business of doing favors."
"What kind of favors?"
"People, black people, got all kinds of difficulties, you know that. A kid gets mixed up with the wrong crowd, a car goes missing. Calling the police, many times, just makes something bad that much worse. In that kinda situation I would come in and give a little push. Nothing criminal. Nothing bad."
"Like an unlicensed private detective."
"Exactly like that. But you know I've been outta that business since coming to work at Truth."
Brown smoothed out one side of his mustache with a long slender finger while he peered into my eyes. "Okay," he said at last. "All right. What can I do for you?"
That was my first experience with the second half of the twentieth century; the first time a man, black or white, holding a professional office, had given me the benefit of the doubt. He wasn't running a scam. He wasn't trying to get back at the police department. He simply saw my value and believed in my character.
"Have the kids in the gangs been messin' 'round wit' numbers or some other kinda gamblin'?" I asked.
"Not that I know of. I'm pretty sure not. Last group of kids I busted didn't have five dollars between them. Why?"
"I might know who set that smoke bomb at Truth."
"I won't be sure till tomorrow morning," I said. "The minute I know I'll turn it over to you."
Andre leaned forward in his chair. He was considering pushing me but decided against it. "Okay," he said.
We shook hands as equals, and I went off feeling like a new man. I was walking tall and flush with pride. But in spite of all that I wasn't even certain of my own name.
I went home to make sure that Feather and Jesus were okay, and then I made it back down to Florence. Bernard's Automotive Repair was managed by my oldest L.A. friend, Primo. He lived in the first house I ever owned. I still owned the house, and Primo never paid me a dime, so it was easy to get his keys to the garage for the night.
I unlocked the side door and turned on the radio in the mechanics' office. I switched on the office light and left the rest of the garage in darkness. Then I set myself up in a corner to the left of the door. Between my knees I had a baseball bat. On my lap was the .38. That was eight-fifteen.
In the dark I had time to ponder my situation. There I was, waiting for more trouble than most citizens ever know. I had taken on Mouse's name and I was acting like him. It felt good, way too good. I expected Emile Lund to come in that door and see the light and hear the music. He'd be with one or two henchmen, but I had the element of surprise. I was a fool, I knew I was a fool, and still I didn't care.
Raymond Alexander had been the largest part of my history. My parents were both gone before I was nine. My relatives treated me like a beast of burden, so I ran from them. I fought a war for men who called me nigger. The police stopped me on the street for the crime of walking. Raymond was the only one who respected me and cared for me and was willing to throw his lot in with mine, no matter the odds.
I was sitting in that drafty corner because I didn't want Mouse to be dead. Somehow by using his name I felt that I was making a tribute, even a eulogy, to his meaning in my life.
The iridescent green hands on my watch said 11:03 when the door cracked open. Lund walked in alone. That worried me. If he'd come with a friend, it would have meant that he was cautious. A cautious man is more likely to be reasonable when facing a baseball bat and a pistol.
Lund was wearing jeans and a windbreaker, further proof that he was the man who bombed my classroom. I let him take two steps before pressing the gun barrel against the back of his neck.
"Hold it right there, man," I said in a husky, threatening tone.
Lund grunted and spun around, pushing my gun hand to the side. While he was concentrated on trying to disarm me, I hit him in the head with the bat. It was glancing blow and merely slowed him down. I hit him on the nose with the butt of my pistol, and he slowed a bit more. Fear was working its way into my gut because I realized that even though I was using Raymond's name, I'd never be able to inflict the kind of pain that he dished out. I pushed the angry gangster and he fell hard.
"Hold still, fool," I said.
But he ignored me and reached under the windbreaker. He was disoriented, so it was easy for me to kick the pistol out of his hand. He tried to crawl toward the gun, so I kicked him in the ribs. By this time I was getting sick. Nothing seemed to stop Lund. He struggled up to his knees and spat as if that would hold me off long enough for him to get his bearings. Blood was cascading from his nostrils, a high wheeze coming from his throat.
"Stop!" I yelled, but he got up on one foot.
I realized that I could either kill this man or run from him, but that I'd never subdue his spirit. He reminded me of a welterweight I'd seen, Carmen Basilio. That man would take punishment for twelve rounds or more, but he'd always come back, and in the last minutes he'd always win because his opponent was exhausted from waling away at the Italian boxer.
I unleashed a right uppercut that lifted Lund to his feet. Then I hit him with a straight left hand. Mouse would have hit him with the bat, repeatedly. I knew then that I would have to honor my friend in some other way.
Lund was unconscious, or nearly so. His eyes were half open and he was muttering something. I searched him and came up with his black book. I didn't think that it would help me much, but it was all I could get from him.
As I was going out of the door, Lund had gained his feet. He was still wobbly, searching the floor for his gun. I hurried out to the street.
Driving up Central, I pondered my foolish actions. I thought that I'd just flash a gun at the gangster and he'd give me anything I wanted. I forgot about the dark alleys I'd once traveled. Hard men didn't get that way by turning over. Lund would have died before he bowed down to me.
I sat up in my living room, flipping through the pages of Lund's journal. There were multiple entries on every page. Each entry consisted of a name and a two- or three-letter code. At the bottom of each entry there was a date and a dollar amount. Roke Williams had several entries. He was paying Lund at least fifteen hundred dollars a month. Roke must have been making three times that amount. I knew that the gambler lived in a one-room apartment with the toilet down the hall. He made more in a month than most workingmen made in a year, and still he lived like a hermit crab.
One man, Vren Lassiter, had a special notation. In parentheses under his name were the initials "SchP." Lassiter had a minus sign next to his dollar amount. He owed over six thousand dollars.
It wasn't until I was undressed and in the bed, under the covers and almost asleep, that the initials made sense to me.
That was three A.M.
The drive from my house near Fairfax and Pico down to Truth was only twenty-five minutes at three in the morning. Before four I was in the registrar's office looking up the faculty records.
He was living in an apartment building on San Pedro. It was a turquoise and plaster affair, designed to be ugly so that the tenants would know that they were poor.
I knocked on the door of apartment 3g. No one answered. I jiggled the knob and it turned.
He had lied about the furniture. He didn't use it for the new place. His big ebony desk wouldn't have fit through the front door. Hiram Newgate sold everything to pay Vren Lassiter's debt and now he was dead, slumped over on the thin cushions of a cheap couch, a .22-caliber bullet in his left temple, the pistol still in his hand.
I looked around the house. Photographs were spread across the card table in a nook that was supposed to be a dinette. The pictures were of two men, Hiram and a younger, sandy-headed man. They were arm-in-arm, holding hands. In one picture Hiram was laughing out loud.
I searched around for some kind of note, but there was none. I did find a letter though. It was from Lassiter. In it Vren beseeched his good friend to understand that he couldn't help making bets. He tried to kick the habit but he couldn't. And if Hiram didn't help, they'd probably kill him.
I figured that Newgate went to Lund and took on the debt, that Lund threatened the school because he figured out that Truth was more important to Hiram than his own life. Newgate had earned his own private abbreviation: SchP, School Principal.
I put the letter back into the desk and went to the front door. I turned to look one last time, to make sure that there was nothing I left behind. His eyes glittered as if they had moved. I came up to him and stared into those orbs. He was still alive. Paralyzed, but still alive. He saw me, knew me.
"It's gonna be all right, Principal Newgate," I said. I touched his cheek and nodded.
I made the anonymous call to the police from his phone and left. I was out of the neighborhood before the sirens came.
I waited two weeks before going to the 77th Precinct.
"Where'd you get this?" Andre Brown asked me at Leah's Doughnut and Coffee Shop three blocks down from the precinct. In his hand he held Emile Lund's notebook.
"If you found it, how would you know who it belongs to? His name's not in it anywhere."
"I guessed. I'm a good guesser, Officer."
"These are his clients?" Brown asked. He was becoming wary of me.
"Yeah. I guess."
Officer Brown studied me. He was a good study. Nine times out of eleven he would come up with the solution to his inquiry but not that morning.
"I hear they brought your principal back home yesterday," he said. "Some friend of his took him in?"
"Guy named Vren."
"That's an awful thing. Shoot yourself in the head and end up paralyzed for life."
I took a deep breath.
"What does this book have to do with the fire?" Andre asked.
"He's the one set the smoke bomb."
"How do you know that?"
"Read the book."
That night Feather sang us a song she'd learned in school. It was about a sailor lost at sea. He fought sea serpents and snake people and terrible storms. But at the end of the journey, he found a sunny land. And to his surprise, that sunny shore was the home he'd left long long ago.
"I learned it for Juice, Daddy," she said. "'Cause'a when he's in that boat he can sing it and then he could find his way back here."
"Me too, baby," I said. "Me too."
Copyright © 2003 by Walter Mosley
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