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East Long Beach. The LAPD is barely keeping up with the neighborhood’s high crime rate. Murders go unsolved, lost children unrecovered. But someone from the neighborhood has taken it upon himself to help solve the cases the police can’t or won’t touch.
They call him IQ. He’s a loner and a high school dropout, his unassuming nature disguising a relentless determination and a fierce intelligence. He charges his clients whatever they can afford, which might be a set of tires or a homemade casserole. To get by, he’s forced to take on clients that can pay.
This time, it’s a rap mogul whose life is in danger. As Isaiah investigates, he encounters a vengeful ex-wife, a crew of notorious cutthroats, a monstrous attack dog, and a hit man who even other hit men say is a lunatic. The deeper Isaiah digs, the more far reaching and dangerous the case becomes.
Table of Contents
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Unlicensed and Underground
Isaiah's crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual. The security screen was made from the same heavy-duty mesh they used to cage in crackheads and bank robbers at the Long Beach police station. The front door was covered with a thin walnut veneer but underneath was a twenty-gauge steel core set in a cold steel frame with a pick-proof, bump-proof, drill-proof Medeco Double Cylinder High Security Maxum Deadbolt. You'd need some serious power tools to get past all that and even if you did there was no telling what you'd be into. Word was, the place was booby-trapped. A cherry eight-year-old Audi S4 was parked in the driveway. It was a small, plain car in dark gray with a big V8 and sports suspension. The neighborhood kids were always yelling at Isaiah to put some rims on that whip.
Isaiah was in the living room, reading emails off his MacBook and drinking his second espresso, when he heard the car alarm go off. He snatched the collapsible baton off the coffee table, went to the front door, and opened it. Deronda was leaning her world-class badonk against the hood, smothering a headlight and part of the grill. She wasn't quite a Big Girl but damn close in her boy shorts and pink tube top two sizes too small. She was pretending to sulk, sighing and sighing again while she frowned at the sparkly things on her ice-blue nails. Isaiah chirped off the alarm, one hand shading his eyes from the afternoon glare.
"No, I didn't forget your number," he said, "and I wasn't going to call you."
"Ever?" Deronda said.
"You're looking for a baby daddy and you know that's not me."
"You don't know what I'm looking for and even if you did it wouldn't be you." Except she was shopping around for somebody who could pay a few bills, and Isaiah would do just fine. Yeah, okay, he did make her uneasy, he made everybody uneasy, checking you out like he knew you were fronting and wanting to know why. He looked okay, not ugly, but you'd hardly notice him at a club or a party. Six feet tall, rail thin, no chain, no studs in his ears, a watch the color of an aluminum pan, and if he was inked up it was nowhere she could see. The last time she'd run into him he was wearing what he wore now: a light-blue, short-sleeve shirt, jeans, and Timberlands. She liked his eyes. They were almond shaped and had long lashes like a girl's. "You not gonna invite me in?" she said. "I walked all the way over here from my mama's house."
"Stop lying," he said. "Wherever you came from you didn't walk."
"How do you know?"
"Your mama lives on the other side of Magnolia. Are you telling me you walked seven miles in the heat of the day in flip-flops with all those bunions growing out of your feet? Teesha dropped you off."
"You think you know so much. Could have been anybody dropped me off."
"Your mama's at work, Nona's at work, Ira still has that cast on his leg, and DeShawn lost his license behind that DUI. I saw his car in the impound yard, the white Nissan with the front stoved in. There's nobody left in your world but Teesha."
"Just because Ira got a cast on his leg don't mean he can't drive."
Isaiah leaned against the doorway. "I thought you said you walked."
"I did walk," Deronda said, "just, you know, like part of the way and then somebody else came and I—" Deronda slid off the hood and stamped her foot. "Dang, Isaiah!" she said. "Why you always gotta fuck with people? I came over here to be sociable, aight? What's the damn difference how I got here?"
It made no difference at all but he couldn't help seeing what he saw. Things different or things not right or out of place or in place when they shouldn't be or not in sync with the words that came with them.
"Well?" Deronda said. "You gonna make me stand out here and get heatstroke or invite me in and pour me a cocktail? You never know, something good might happen."
Deronda looked down at her ankle, turning it to one side like something was stuck to it, probably wondering where Isaiah's eyes were. On her dark chocolate thigh gleaming in the California sunshine or her dark chocolate titties trying their best to escape over that tube top. Isaiah looked away, uncomfortable deciding for the both of them what would happen next. She wasn't his type, not that he had one. Most of his love life was curiosity sex. A girl intrigued by the low-key brother who was so smart people said he was scary. That hadn't happened in a while. He opened the screen.
"Well, come on then," he said.
Isaiah sat in his easy chair rereading his emails. He was hoping he'd missed something. He needed a payday case but nothing here was coming close.
Hola Senor Quintabe
I am a frend of Benito. He tell me you are trusted. A man from my work is saying blackmail to me. He say if I dont give him money he will tell INS I no have green card. My son cannot stay for his school. Can you do something to help me?
Dear Mr. Quintabe.
Late at night while I am asleep in my bed, a man comes in and fondles my private areas. I know this for a fact because in the morning my nightgown is all bunched up and I have a funny feeling down there. Please don't tell anyone as I have been ridiculed about my suspicions before. Can you come over Sunday after church?
Isaiah didn't have a website, a Facebook page, or a Twitter account but people found him anyway. His priority was local cases where the police could not or would not get involved. He had more work than he could handle but many of his clients paid for his services with a sweet potato pie or cleaning his yard or one brand-new radial tire if they paid him at all. A client that could pay his per diem gave him enough income to support himself and helped him pay Flaco's expenses.
"Dang," Deronda said, looking into the fridge at the FIJI Water and cranberry juice. "You ain' got nothing to drink?"
"Just what's there," Isaiah said from the living room.
There was nothing to snack on either. Deronda might have thrown something together if she knew a recipe for plain yogurt, some plums, a bag of trail mix with no M&M's, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!, bread with birdseed stuck to the outside, and Cage Free Eggs, whatever the fuck those were. There was a complicated machine on the counter. Stainless steel, big as a big microwave with handles and buttons and a double spigot over a grill like a soda machine. A tiny coffee cup and a little metal pitcher were set on the grill. "Is this your coffee machine?" she said.
"You need a bigger cup."
Isaiah kept reading the emails and tried not to think about Deronda, ripe and juicy as one of those plums. Reluctantly, he kept his Diesels zipped up. Not an easy decision. If he'd had sex with her he'd come home one night to find her three-year-old son tearing up the place while she watched Idol and ate the last few pieces of Alejandro fried to a crispy golden brown. When he told her to keep her clothes on she wasn't so much put out as she was surprised.
"You don't know what you missing," Deronda said, "I be doing some crazy shit."
Dear Mr. Quintabe.
My daughter dint come home for two weeks. I think she is gone with a man named Olen Waters who is to old for her. She need to be took away from him before its too late. Could you get her plese? I can pay not much.
Dear Mr. Quintabe
Two months ago my beautiful son Jerome was shot to death in his own bed. The police said they don't have enough evidence to make an arrest even though everybody knows his wife Claudia was the one that pulled the trigger. I want to hire you, Mr. Quintabe. I want you to bring that bitch to justice.
The living room was cool and dim, soft bands of sunlight and shadow coming through the burglar bars, the place so clean there weren't even dust motes in the air. Isaiah didn't look up as Deronda padded barefoot out of the open kitchen and across the polished cement floor. It had come out differently than he'd anticipated but he liked it. Amorphous shapes of gray and green like a satellite map of the rain forest. Deronda plunked down on the sofa across from him and put her feet on the coffee table. Strewn across the glass were car keys, a cell phone, a Harvard cap, and the collapsible baton.
Deronda spotted a black box under the table. "What's that thing?" she said, like she suspected a booby trap.
"Subwoofer and get your feet off of my coffee table."
"Who went to Harvard?"
"Can I watch TV?"
"Do you see a TV?"
"You ain't got no PlayStation?"
"No, I don't have a PlayStation."
"You need some more furniture."
Aside from the burgundy leather sofa and armchair, there was the chrome and glass coffee table, a lacquered wicker ottoman, a cherry wood end table, and an antique-looking, long-necked reading lamp. That was it unless you counted the floor-to-ceiling bookcase that took up an entire wall. There was a huge collection of LPs and CDs lined up neat as bar codes and an elaborate stereo; Coltrane's sax braying from the speakers, angry and hoarse.
"Can I put another record on?" Deronda said, wincing like she was listening to the garbage disposal.
Isaiah kept his head down and read another email. Deronda was going to ask him something. He'd sensed it as soon as he let her in, looking at him like a baby daddy wasn't all she needed. Passing on the sex had taken away her opening and now he could hear her cheeks squeaking on the sofa as she squirmed around trying to pick a moment. Maybe if he ignored her long enough she'd give up.
"Can I ask you something?" she said.
"Could you maybe like, you know, hook me up?"
"Hook you up with who?"
"Blasé. You all tight with him and everything." She waited a moment before saying, "IQ."
An article had appeared in The Scene magazine titled:
ISAIAH QUINTABE IS UNLICENSED AND UNDAGROUND.
The article recounted a number of neighborhood cases but the one that made the tabloids was the simplest to solve. It involved the R&B singer Blasé. During a party someone had stolen his camera, which contained a video of him bent over an ironing board getting pounded from behind by his live-in keyboard player. If the tape got out there'd be more than a scandal. Blasé promoted himself as a heterosexual sex symbol. The cover art on his last album, Can I Witness to Your Thickness, showed Blasé in a thong and priest's collar leading a choir composed of three women in crazy blond wigs and shorty choir robes, their backsides bulging like babies were in there. Blasé received a note that said: My demands will soon follow. Obey them or your transgressions will be revealed and your career will be over.
"The language," Isaiah said. "Your transgressions will be revealed. It's biblical. Were any of your guests religious?"
"Heavens no," Blasé said. He took a deep breath. "But my mother is."
Blasé's mother was a fundamentalist Baptist from a small town in Georgia. When Isaiah confronted her, she told him she was going to use Blasé's camera to take video of the rose garden and got the surprise of her life. After resting and drinking tea made from Valerian root she decided to blackmail her son into abandoning his life of sin and iniquity.
"I am who I am, Mother," Blasé said. "But if I can't accept myself, there's no reason you should."
Blasé was grateful to Isaiah for bringing him to that moment but Isaiah didn't know what he'd done besides read a note. Blasé came out on The Shonda Simmons Show. His record sales suffered but the people who bought them also bought the sex tape available online for $39.95, half the profits going to his mother's church.
"I need Blasé to help me with my career," Deronda said. "He might be gay but he's a celebrity and all I need is a leg up. I mean like, once I'm circulatin' in that uppa level and the shot callers can check out my style up close and personal? I'm off to the big time."
Isaiah could feel Deronda looking at him, waiting for him to say it's only a matter of time or don't give up or some other such nonsense, but he kept his eyes glued to the MacBook. Deronda sulked, this time not pretending. "I shoulda been gone from here a long time ago, much star quality as I got," she said. "I'm an up-and-comer, you know what I'm sayin'? I was born to be a celebrity. I should have the spotlight all over me."
"Spotlight all over you—for what?" Isaiah said.
"What do you mean for what? That Kardashian girl's booty could fit inside my booty and you talking about for what. You know she made thirty million last year?"
Isaiah knew other girls who felt that way. Somehow believing a big booty was like owning real estate or having a college degree, something you could put on a job application.
Alejandro came bobbing and pecking his way out of the hall making little buck-buck sounds and giving Deronda the beady red eye. Alarmed, Deronda lifted her feet off the floor. "You let that thing just walk around in here?" she said.
"You leave him alone he'll leave you alone," Isaiah said.
Isaiah got Alejandro and a recipe for arroz con pollo as payment from Mrs. Marquez. Isaiah didn't like cleaning up the chicken shit but the floor didn't hold a stain and he felt bad about leaving the bird in the garage all day. The other morning he forgot to close the bedroom door and Alejandro roosted on the closet bar and crapped all over his clothes.
"Come on, Isaiah, help me out," Deronda said. "All I need is a leg up."
"A leg up is not what I do."
"You wrong, Isaiah."
"I'm wrong every day," Isaiah said. He closed his laptop, grabbed the car keys and collapsible baton, put on the Harvard cap, and stood up.
"You taking me somewhere?" Deronda said.
"Uh-huh. I'm taking you home."
Boyd parked his truck in the same place as yesterday. He was really nervous but felt ready. Everything he needed was in the lizard-green bowling bag on the seat beside him. Duct tape, rubber gloves, and a boning knife sharp enough to cut see-through slices off a mushy tomato. Also in the bag, a big blue sponge and a water bottle filled with his homemade chloroform.
Boyd worked at F&S Marine, a distributor of Chinese-made marine supplies. The cement-block building was in a bleak industrial zone next to a storage yard for propane tanks and a no-name warehouse with razor wire coiled on top of the fence. The LA River flowed past, the wide green watershed cutting through East Long Beach and emptying into Long Beach Harbor.
Nick Bangkowski, Boyd's manager at F&S, had spiky hair and wore Hawaiian shirts stretched tight across his expanding bulk. Five years ago, Nick was drafted in the second round by the San Diego Chargers. He had a great training camp and was in the running for starting linebacker but a week before the first preseason game he blew out an ACL getting off the team bus.
"I was there," Nick would say after his first six-pack. "I was right fucking there. I had my own locker. I had a jersey with my name on it. I was on the fucking team. I was on the fucking team."
Nick gave Boyd all the shit work. Unplugging the filthy toilets, greasing the forklift chains, picking up the beer cans and used condoms in the parking lot, and inventorying the thousands of interlock switches, hex cap screws, piston pins, and crankshaft bearings. Boyd whined but never got mad, even when Nick kicked him off the bowling team. "I've got to cut you, Boyd," Nick said. "Ron's back from vacation and he averages what, one seventy-five? On a good night you barely break a hundred."
"What about Maxine?" Boyd said. "She bowls worse than me."
"Well, yeah, score-wise but she's got tits out to here. She's good for morale."
"But I want to bowl too."
Nick clapped Boyd on the shoulder, something he'd never done before. "I know you do but there's a tournament coming up and you don't want us to lose, do you? How about it, Boyd? Take one for the team? Everybody'll love you for it, what do you say?"
The night of the league tournament Nick stayed at the office and had a few Budweisers before heading to the bowling alley. He was in the parking lot getting into his Altima when Boyd tiptoed up behind him like a cartoon cat and hit him with a six-and-a-half-pound boat anchor wrapped in a burlap bag.
"How about it, Nick, take one for the team?" Boyd said, whomping on him again and again.
Everybody at F&S thought it was a mistaken identity thing or a pissed-off husband. Nick was known to screw around with the housewives at the bowling alley. Nobody suspected Boyd. He was weird and semiretarded but he wouldn't hurt anybody. Maxine went to visit Nick in the hospital. She said he looked like a bag of raw hamburger and didn't remember who she was. Boyd signed the get-well card.
The bell rang. Boyd nearly jumped out of his skin, stretching his neck looking for the girl. Where are you, Carmela? Where ARE you? You better be here, you better be here. Come on, Carmela, BE HERE.
Carmela was with a group of her friends. She was wearing a short denim skirt and a white top, her hair in the long braid. Boyd was relieved, afraid she might have changed it. She took her time, sending a text, laughing as she read a text, laughing as she showed it to her friends, and laughing as she sent another text.
"Hurry up hurry UP!" Boyd shouted. "What are you DOING? Go home already. Jesus Christ, GO HOME." Carmela finally broke away from the group, waved goodbye, and walked toward the street. "Okay," Boyd said, "this is it."
Isaiah lived in Hurston, a small neighborhood on the western edge of East Long Beach, two minutes from the LA River and two and a half from the 710 Freeway. He took Anaheim, driving through the area Snoop had rapped about in The Chronic, his rhymes the most notable thing about the area. Block after block of strip malls, liquor stores, auto body shops, beauty salons, discount dentists, and weedy empty lots.
"For real, Isaiah," Deronda said. "I need to change my social standing. I need to change my cultural environment. I need to change my address."
Deronda was eighteen when she was crowned Miss Big Meaty Burger at a BMB restaurant in Culver City. A TV reporter from Channel 5 was there and Deronda got seven seconds of screen time on the morning show. Her name and picture appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram and people came over to see the plastic tiara and the red-and-gold Big Meaty Burger sash.
She was interviewed on KHOP. The DJ asked her if she did anything special to keep her donk fresh and was she naturally thick or did she have to work at it and when was the last time she had some icing on that cake. The highlight of the whole experience was an actual photo shoot and getting her picture featured on the BMB advertisements. The ads showed a giant triple-decker burger dripping burger juice. Deronda was looking over her shoulder, her smile wide and inviting, her cheeks gleaming like polished mahogany and split down the middle by a DayGlo-pink bikini. The caption said:
THE BIG MEATY BURGER
You Know You Want Some
At the time, Deronda thought this was it, her launching pad. Somebody must have noticed her and seen her charisma and potential but nobody called, there were no more interviews or newspaper articles, and after a few months BMB changed the girl on their advertisements. Deronda stayed hopeful. Something was bound to happen, how could it not? Celebrity was her dream, her destiny, and somehow that made it okay, even sensible to do just what she'd been doing. Getting her hair and nails done, partying with Nona and them, and watching Jersey Shore and the Housewives of Atlanta and Bad Girls and Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the Housewives of Orange County and The Bachelorette. She made ends meet stripping at the Kandy Kane wearing nothing but the sash and tiara. Deronda's father, a supervisor at Metro Transit for twenty years, urged her to find a new direction and stop frittering her life away but Deronda only got more stubborn and determined to wait for that white-hot bolt of lightning to come ripping out of the sky and blow her up large.
"Don't you want to get out of the hood?" Deronda said.
"I don't know," Isaiah said. "Maybe."
"Maybe? Shit, that's crazy. I mean like, if I had your profile I'd be a brand by now."
Isaiah turned off Anaheim onto Kimball.
"This ain't the way to my house," Deronda said.
"I've got to stop off at Beaumont's," Isaiah said. Beaumont's was a corner store called Six to Ten Thirty. It sold everything from cold beer and microwave burritos to piñatas and Scarface posters.
"You know how they say nothing stays the same but change?" Deronda said. "Where is it? I don't see no change."
"Things can change and still be the same," Isaiah said.
They were coming up on the Capri, a Section 8 apartment complex. According to HUD regulations you could only live there if the value of your bank accounts, stock portfolio, and real estate holdings didn't exceed fifty percent of the median income for the area, which was around forty thousand give or take. There was a long waiting list.
A group of East Side Sureños Locos 13 were hanging on a strip of grass near the entrance, a spot chosen with care. There was a low cinder block wall for cover and banana palms to hide their straps in. A lot of the homies were in county lockup for gun possession. Most of the Locos were in their teens but hard-core killas for real, everybody in uniform today. Baggy shorts, oversize white T-shirts or football jerseys, and a splash of red. A wristband, a cap, a flag hanging out of a pocket. Red was their color.
"Check that out," Deronda said, pointing with her chin at a Loco drinking from a forty-ounce bottle of Miller that looked like pee. "How's he ever gonna be anything but a damn criminal with Locos 4 Life stamped all on his forehead?"
The Locos knew who Isaiah was but threw up signs and talked shit just as a matter of principle. One vato with a hairnet over his bald head was nodding all exaggerated. "This ain't your hood no more, esé," he said. "Drive your fucking ass on." Isaiah looked at him neither afraid nor disrespectful. He'd grown up with some of the OGs but these youngsters didn't care about anything. If you weren't a Loco you were a victim.
Isaiah's cell buzzed. He checked the number and hesitated. Some people were like the oldies you hear on the radio, evoking another time, another place, and who you were back then. The sound of Dodson's voice and the rhythm of his speech stirred up a stew of memories burned black at the bottom of his heart. The last time they'd spoken was at Mozique's funeral but it took a day or two before the burnt taste was out of his mouth.
"Who is it?" Deronda said. "It's a girl, ain't it?"
Isaiah thought about sending the call straight to voice mail but if Dodson wanted something he'd keep calling and maybe show up at the crib. He put the call on speaker. "Hey," he said.
"Whassup, Isaiah?" Dodson said. "It's been a long damn time. I ain't laid eyes on you since we put Mozique to rest. That was a sad sad day, wasn't it? Bad a nigga as he was I always thought he'd die by the sword and what happens? The boy wins the Trifecta at Santa Anita, drives over to Raphael's to buy some weed, and gets hit by an Amtrak train. Just goes to show you, luck beats money any day of the week. You got some luck the money will come looking for you."
Deronda rolled her eyes and said: "Oh no, is that Dodson?"
"Yes, this is Juanell Dodson and judging from the ho-ish quality of your voice you must be Deronda."
"How come you ain't in the joint?"
"I got no reason to be in the joint. My criminal activities are a thing of the past. I'm a legitimate businessman now, not that it's any of your never-mind. Maybe if you focused more on your own sorry-ass situation you might be doing something more productive than booty clappin' at the Kandy Kane."
"You still selling them tired-ass counterfeit Gucci handbags out the trunk of your car?"
"No, I give 'em away free just like your tired-ass counterfeit pussy."
Not in the mood for a ten-minute snap exchange, Isaiah said: "What's going on, Dodson?"
"What's going on is a case," Dodson said. "An opportunity to help someone in need and possibly save a life."
"Oh yeah?" Isaiah said. He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. He sounded condescending but couldn't help himself. He could feel Dodson holding back, wanting to call him an uppity motherfucker with a freakishly large brain.
"The client wants to talk to you," Dodson said. "He's got money, unlike most of your people. I heard Vatrice Coleman paid you with some blueberry muffins she bought at the store."
"I don't have time for another case," Isaiah said.
"Let's meet somewhere, chop this up."
"I said I don't have time."
"I ain't asking you for your time, I'm asking for five muthafuckin' minutes to hear me out."
"I've got to go."
"Go? Go where?"
"Away from you," Deronda said. "He's kicking you to the curb, moron."
"I'll see you later," Isaiah said. As he ended the call he heard Dodson say fuck you, Isaiah.
A white pickup truck was parked in the red zone across from the school. Officer Martinez stopped his cruiser behind it, wondering if the guy didn't see the sign that said NO PARKING IN RED ZONE.
- Winner of the Anthony, Macavity, and Shamus Awards
—The Associated Press
—John Sandford, author of Extreme Prey
- On Sale
- Oct 18, 2016
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Mulholland Books