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It is the Summer of Love and Easy Rawlins is contemplating robbing an armored car. It's farther outside the law than Easy has ever traveled, but his daughter, Feather, needs a medical treatment that costs far more than Easy can earn or borrow in time. And his friend Mouse tells him it's a cinch.
Then another friend, Saul Lynx, offers a job that might solve Easy's problem without jail time. He has to track the disappearance of an eccentric, prominent attorney. His assistant of sorts, the beautiful "Cinnamon" Cargill, is gone as well. Easy can tell there is much more than he is being told: Robert Lee, his new employer, is as suspect as the man who disappeared. But his need overcomes all concerns, and he plunges into unfamiliar territory, from the newfound hippie enclaves to a vicious plot that stretches back to the battlefields of Europe.
ALSO BY WALTER MOSLEY
EASY RAWLINS NOVELS
Devil in a Blue Dress
A Red Death
A Little Yellow Dog
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Six Easy Pieces
R. L.'s Dream
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
Walkin' the Dog
The Man in My Basement
Workin' on the Chain Gang
What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace
For Ossie Davis,
our shining king
So it's real simple," Mouse was saying. When he grinned the diamond set in his front tooth sparkled in the gloom.
Cox Bar was always dark, even on a sunny April afternoon. The dim light and empty chairs made it a perfect place for our kind of business.
". . . We just be there at about four-thirty in the mornin' an' wait," Mouse continued. "When the mothahfuckahs show up you put a pistol to the back of the neck of the one come in last. He the one wit' the shotgun. Tell 'im to drop it —"
"What if he gets brave?" I asked.
"What if he flinches and the gun goes off?"
"How the fuck you know that, Raymond?" I asked my lifelong friend. "How do you know what a finger in Palestine, Texas, gonna do three weeks from now?"
"You boys need sumpin' for your tongues?" Ginny Wright asked. There was a leer in the bar owner's voice.
It was a surprise to see such a large woman appear out of the darkness of the empty saloon.
Ginny was dark-skinned, wearing a wig of gold-colored hair. Not blond, gold like the metal.
She was asking if we needed something to drink but Ginny could make a sexual innuendo out of garlic salt if she was talking to men.
"Coke," I said softly, wondering if she had overheard Mouse's plan.
"An' rye whiskey in a frozen glass for Mr. Alexander," Ginny added, knowing her best customer's usual. She kept five squat liquor glasses in her freezer at all times—ready for his pleasure.
"Thanks, Gin," Mouse said, letting his one-carat filling ignite for her.
"Maybe we should talk about this someplace else," I suggested as Ginny moved off to fix our drinks.
"Shit," he uttered. "This my office jes' like the one you got on Central, Easy. You ain't got to worry 'bout Ginny. She don't hear nuttin' an' she don't say nuttin'."
Ginny Wright was past sixty. When she was a young woman she'd been a prostitute in Houston. Raymond and I both knew her back then. She had a soft spot for the younger Mouse all those years. Now he was her closest friend. You got the feeling, when she looked at him, that she wanted more. But Ginny satisfied herself by making room in her nest for Raymond to do his business.
On this afternoon she'd put up her special sign on the front door: CLOSED FOR A PRIVATE FUNCTION. That sign would stay up until my soul was sold for a bagful of stolen money.
Ginny brought our drinks and then went back to the high table that she used as a bar.
Mouse was still grinning. His light skin and gray eyes made him appear wraithlike in the darkness.
"Don't worry, Ease," he said. "We got this suckah flat-footed an' blind."
"All I'm sayin' is that you don't know how a man holding a shotgun's gonna react when you sneak up behind him and put a cold gun barrel to his neck."
"To begin wit'," Mouse said, "Rayford will not have any buckshot in his shooter that day an' the on'y thing he gonna be thinkin' 'bout is you comin' up behind him. 'Cause he know that the minute you get the drop on 'im that Jack Minor, his partner, gonna swivel t' see what's what. An' jest when he do that, I'ma bop old Jackie good an' then you an' me got some heavy totin' to do. They gonna have a two hunnert fi'ty thousand minimum in that armored car—half of it ours."
"You might think it's all good and well that you know these guys' names," I said, raising my voice more than I wanted. "But if you know them then they know you."
"They don't know me, Easy," Mouse said. He looped his arm around the back of his chair. "An' even if they did, they don't know you."
"You know me."
That took the smug smile off of Raymond's lips. He leaned forward and clasped his hands. Many men who knew my murderous friend would have quailed at that gesture. But I wasn't afraid. It's not that I'm such a courageous man that I can't know fear in the face of certain death. And Raymond "Mouse" Alexander was certainly death personified. But right then I had problems that went far beyond me and my mortality.
"I ain't sayin' that you'd turn me in, Ray," I said. "But the cops know we run together. If I go down to Texas and rob this armored car with you an' Rayford sings, then they gonna know to come after me. That's all I'm sayin'."
I remember his eyebrows rising, maybe a quarter of an inch. When you're facing that kind of peril you notice small gestures. I had seen Raymond in action. He could kill a man and then go take a catnap without the slightest concern.
The eyebrows meant that his feelings were assuaged, that he wouldn't have to lose his temper.
"Rayford never met me," he said, sitting back again. "He don't know my name or where I'm from or where I'll be goin' after takin' the money."
"And so why he trust you?" I asked, noticing that I was talking the way I did when I was a young tough in Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas. Maybe in my heart I felt that the bravado would see me through.
"Remembah when I was in the can ovah that manslaughter thing?" he asked.
He'd spent five years in maximum security.
"That was hard time, man," he said. "You know I never wanna be back there again. I mean the cops would have to kill me before I go back there. But even though it was bad some good come out of it."
Mouse slugged back the triple shot of chilled rye and held up his glass. I could hear Ginny hustling about for his next free drink.
"You know I found out about a very special group when I was up in there. It was what you call a syndicate."
"You mean like the Mafia?" I asked.
"Naw, man. That's just a club. This here is straight business. There's a brother in Chicago that has men goin' around the country scopin' out possibilities. Banks, armored cars, private poker games—anything that's got to do wit' large amounts of cash, two hunnert fi'ty thousand or more. This dude sends his boys in to make the contacts and then he give the job to somebody he could trust." Mouse smiled again. It was said that that diamond was given to him by a rich white movie star that he helped out of a jam.
"Here you go, baby," Ginny said, placing his frosty glass on the pitted round table between us. "You need anything else, Easy?"
"No thanks," I said and she moved away. Her footfalls were silent. All you could hear was the rustle of her black cotton trousers.
"So this guy knows you?" I asked.
"Easy," Mouse said in an exasperated whine. "You the one come to me an' said that you might need up t' fi'ty thousand, right? Well—here it is, prob'ly more. After I lay out Jack Minor, Rayford gonna let you hit him in the head. We take the money an' that's that. I give you your share that very afternoon."
My tongue went dry at that moment. I drank the entire glass of cola in one swig but it didn't touch that dryness. I took an ice cube into my mouth but it was like I was licking it with a leather strip instead of living flesh.
"How does Rayford get paid?" I asked, the words warbling around the ice.
"What you care about him?"
"I wanna know why we trust him."
Mouse shook his head and then laughed. It was a real laugh, friendly and amused. For a moment he looked like a normal person instead of the supercool ghetto bad man who came off so hard that he rarely seemed ruffled or human at all.
"The man in Chi always pick somebody got somethin' t' hide. He gets shit on 'em and then he pay 'em for their part up front. An' he let 'em know that if they turn rat they be dead."
It was a perfect puzzle. Every piece fit. Mouse had all the bases covered, any question I had he had the answer. And why not? He was the perfect criminal. A killer without a conscience, a warrior without fear—his IQ might have been off the charts for all I knew, but even if it wasn't, his whole mind paid such close attention to his profession that there were few who could outthink him when it came to breaking the law.
"I don't want anybody gettin' killed behind this, Raymond."
"Nobody gonna die, Ease. Just a couple'a headaches, that's all."
"What if Rayford's a fool and starts spendin' money like water?" I asked. "What if the cops think he's in on it?"
"What if the Russians drop the A-bomb on L.A.?" he asked back. "What if you drive your car on the Pacific Coast Highway, get a heart attack, and go flyin' off a cliff? Shit, Easy. I could 'what if' you into the grave but you got to have faith, brother. An' if Rayford's a fool an' wanna do hisself in, that ain't got nuthin' to do with what you got to do."
Of course he was right. What I had to do was why I was there. I didn't want to get caught and I didn't want anybody to get killed, but those were the chances I had to take.
"Lemme think about it, Ray," I said. "I'll call you first thing in the morning."
I walked down the small alleyway from Cox Bar and then turned left on Hooper. My car was parked three blocks away because of the nature of that meeting. This wasn't grocery shopping or parking in the lot of the school I worked at. This was serious business, business that gets you put in prison for a child's lifetime.
The sun was bright but there was a slight breeze that cut the heat. The day was beautiful if you didn't look right at the burned-out businesses and boarded-up shops—victims of the Watts riots not yet a year old. The few people walking down the avenue were somber and sour looking. They were mostly poor, either unemployed or married to someone who was, and realizing that California and Mississippi were sister states in the same union, members of the same clan.
I knew how they felt because I had been one of them for more than four and a half decades. Maybe I had done a little more with my life. I didn't live in Watts anymore and I had a regular job. My live-in girlfriend was a stewardess for Air France and my boy owned his own boat. I had been a major success in light of my upbringing but that was all over. I was no more than a specter haunting the streets that were once my home.
I felt as if I had died and that the steps I was taking were the final unerring, unalterable footfalls toward hell. And even though I was a black man, in a country that seemed to be teetering on the edge of a race war, my color and race had nothing to do with my pain.
Every man's hell is a private club, my father used to tell me when I was small. That's why when I look at these white people sneerin' at me I always smile an' say, "Sure thing, boss."
He knew that the hammer would fall on them too. He forgot to say that it would also get me one day.
I drove a zigzag side street path back toward the west side of town. At every intersection I remembered people that I'd known in Los Angeles. Many of those same folks I had known in Texas. We'd moved, en masse it seemed, from the Deep South to the haven of California. Joppy the bartender, dead all these years, and Jackson the liar; EttaMae, my first serious love, and Mouse, her man and my best friend. We came here looking for a better life—the reason most people move—and many of us believed that we had found it.
. . . You put a pistol to the back of the neck of the one come in last . . .
I could see myself, unseen by anyone else, with a pistol in my hand, planning to rob a big oil concern of its monthly payroll. Nearly twenty years of trying to be an upright citizen making an honest wage and it all disappears because of a bucketful of bad blood.
With this thought I looked up and realized that a woman pushing a baby carriage, with two small kids at her side, was in the middle of the street not ten feet in front of my bumper. I hit the brake and swerved to the left, in front of a '48 wood-paneled station wagon. He hit his brakes too. Horns were blaring.
The woman screamed, "Oh Lord!" and I pictured one of her babies crushed under the wheel of my Ford.
I jumped out the door, almost before the car came to a stop, and ran around to where the dead child lay in my fears.
But I found the small woman on her knees, hugging her children to her breast. They were crying while she screamed for the Lord.
An older man got out of the station wagon. He was black with silver hair and broad shoulders. He had a limp and wore metal-rimmed glasses. I remember being calmed by the concern in his eyes.
"Mothahfuckah!" the small, walnut-shell-colored woman shouted. "What the fuck is the mattah wit' you? Cain't you see I got babies here?"
The older man, who was at first coming toward me, veered toward the woman. He got down on one knee even though it was difficult because of his bum leg.
"They okay, baby," he said. "Your kids is fine. They fine. But let's get 'em out the street. Out the street before somebody else comes and hits 'em."
The man led the kids and their mother to the curb at Florence and San Pedro. I stood there watching them, unable to move. Cars were backed up on all sides. Some people were getting out to see what had happened. Nobody was honking yet because they thought that maybe someone had been killed.
The silver-haired man walked back to me with a stern look in his eye. I expected to be scolded for my careless behavior. I'm sure I saw the reprimand in his eyes. But when he got close up he saw something in me.
"You okay, mister?" he asked.
I opened my mouth to reply but the words did not come. I looked over at the mother, she was kissing the young girl. I noticed that all of them—the mother, her toddler son, and the six- or seven-year-old girl—were wearing the same color brown pants.
"You bettah watch out, mister," the older man was saying. "It can get to ya sometimes but don't let it get ya."
I nodded and maybe even mumbled something. Then I stumbled back to my car.
The engine was still running. It was in neutral but I hadn't engaged the parking brake.
I was an accident waiting to happen.
For the rest of the ride home I was preoccupied with the image of that woman holding her little girl. When Feather was five and we were at a beach near Redondo she had taken a tumble down a small hill that was full of thorny weeds. She cried as Jesus held her, kissing her brow. When I came up and lifted her into my arms she said, "Don't be mad at Juice, Daddy. He didn't make me fall."
I pulled to the curb so as not to have another accident. I sat there with the admonition in my ears. It can get to ya sometimes but don't let it get ya.
When I came in the front door I found my adopted son, Jesus, and Benita Flag sitting on the couch in the front room. They looked up at me, both with odd looks on their faces.
"Is she all right?" I asked, feeling my heart do a flip-flop.
"Bonnie's with her," Jesus said.
Benita just nodded and I hurried toward Feather's room, down the small hallway, and through my little girl's door.
Bonnie was sitting there dabbing the light-skinned child's brow with isopropyl alcohol. The evaporation on her skin was meant to cool the fever.
"Daddy," Feather called weakly.
I was reminded of earlier times, when she'd shout my name and then run into me like a small Sherman tank. She was a daddy's girl. She'd been rough and full of guffaws and squeals. But now she lay back with a blood infection that no one on the North American continent knew how to cure.
"The prognosis is not good," Dr. Beihn had said. "Make her comfortable and make sure she drinks lots of liquid . . ."
I would have drained Hoover Dam to save her life.
Bonnie had that strange look in her eye too. She was tall and dark skinned, Caribbean and lovely. She moved like the ocean, surging up out of that chair and into my arms. Her skin felt hot, as if somehow she was trying to draw the fever out of the girl and into her own body.
"I'll go get the aspirin," Bonnie whispered.
I released her and took her place in the folding chair next to my Feather's pink bed. With my right hand I held the sponge against her forehead. She took my left hand in both of hers and squeezed my point finger and baby finger as hard as she could.
"Why am I so sick, Daddy?" she whined.
"It's just a little infection, honey," I said. "You got to wait until it works its way outta your system."
"But it's been so long."
It had been twenty-three days since the diagnosis, a week longer than the doctor thought she'd survive.
"Did anybody come and visit you today?" I asked.
That got her to smile.
"Billy Chipkin did," she said.
The flaxen-haired, bucktoothed white boy was the fifth and final child of a family that had migrated from Iowa after the war. Billy's devotion to my foundling daughter sometimes made my heart swell to the point that it hurt. He was two inches shorter than Feather and came to sit at her side every day after school. He brought her homework and gossip from the playground.
Sometimes, when they thought that no one was looking, they'd hold hands while discussing some teacher's unfair punishments of their unruly friends.
"What did Billy have to say?"
"He got long division homework and I showed him how to do it," she said proudly. "He don't know it too good, but if you show him he remembers until tomorrow."
I touched Feather's brow with the backs of three fingers. She seemed to be cool at that moment.
"Can I have some of Mama Jo's black tar?" Feather asked.
Even the witch-woman, Mama Jo, had not been able to cure her. But Jo had given us a dozen black gummy balls, each wrapped up in its own eucalyptus leaf.
"If her fevah gets up past one-oh-three give her one'a these here to chew," the tall black witch had said. "But nevah more than one in a day an' aftah these twelve you cain't give her no mo'."
There were only three balls left.
"No, honey," I said. "The fever's down now."
"What you do today, Daddy?" Feather asked.
"I saw Raymond."
"What did you do with him?"
"We just talked about old times."
I told her about the time, twenty-seven years earlier, when Mouse and I had gone out looking for orange monarch butterflies that he intended to give his girlfriend instead of flowers. We'd gone to a marsh that was full of those regal bugs, but we didn't have a proper net and Raymond brought along some moonshine that Mama Jo made. We got so drunk that both of us had fallen into the muddy water more than once. By the end of the day Mouse had caught only one butterfly. And that night when we got to Mabel's house, all dirty from our antics, she took one look at the orange-and-black monarch in the glass jar and set him free.
"He just too beautiful to be kept locked up in this bottle," she told us.
Mouse was so angry that he stormed out of Mabel's house and didn't talk to her again for a week.
Feather usually laughed at this story, but that afternoon she fell asleep before I got halfway through.
I hated it when she fell asleep because I didn't know if she'd wake up again.
WHEN I GOT BACK to the living room Jesus and Benita were at the door.
"Where you two goin'?" I asked.
"Uh," Juice grunted, "to the store for dinner."
"How you doin', Benita?" I asked the young woman.
She looked at me as if she didn't understand English or as if I'd asked some extremely personal question that no gentleman should ask a lady.
Benny was in her mid-twenties. She'd had an affair with Mouse which broke her heart and led to an attempted suicide. Bonnie and I took her in for a while but now she had her own apartment. She still came by to have a home-cooked meal now and then. Bonnie and she had become friends. And she loved the kids.
Lately it had been good to have Benny around because when Bonnie and I needed to be away she'd stay at Feather's side.
Jesus would have done it if we asked him to, but he was eighteen and loved being out on his homemade sailboat, cruising up and down the Southern California coast. We hadn't told him how sick his sister actually was. They were so close we didn't want to worry him.
"Fine, Mr. Rawlins," she said in a too-high voice. "I got a job in a clothes store on Slauson. Miss Hilda designs everything she sells. She said she was gonna teach me."
"Okay," I said, not really wanting to hear about the young woman's hopeful life. I wanted Feather to be telling me about her adventures and dreams.
When Benny and Jesus were gone Bonnie came out of the kitchen with a bowl full of spicy beef soup.
"Eat this," she said.
"I'm not hungry."
"I didn't ask if you were hungry."
Our living room was so small that we only had space for a love seat instead of a proper couch. I slumped down there and she sat on my lap shoving the first spoonful into my mouth.
It was good.
She fed me for a while, looking into my eyes. I could tell that she was thinking something very serious.
"What?" I asked at last.
"I spoke to the man in Switzerland today," she said.
She waited for me to ask what he said but I didn't. I couldn't hear one more piece of bad news about Feather.
I turned away from her gaze. She touched my neck with four fingertips.
"He tested the blood sample that Vicki brought over," she said. "He thinks that she's a good candidate for the process."
I heard the words but my mind refused to understand them. What if they meant that Feather was going to die? I couldn't take the chance of knowing that.
"He thinks that he can cure her, baby," Bonnie added, understanding the course of my grief. "He has agreed to let her apply to the Bonatelle Clinic."
"But why would they take a little colored girl in there? Didn't you say that the Rockefellers and Kennedys go there?"
"I already told you," Bonnie explained. "I met the doctor on an eight-hour flight from Ghana. I talked to him the whole time about Feather. I guess he felt he had to say yes. I don't know."
"What do we have to do next?"
"It's not free, honey," she said, but I already knew that. The reason I'd met with Mouse was to raise the cash we might need if the doctors agreed to see my little girl.
"They'll need thirty-five thousand dollars before the treatments can start and at least fifteen thousand just to be admitted. It's a hundred and fifty dollars a day to keep her in the hospital, and then the medicines are all unique, made to order based upon her blood, sex, age, body type, and over fifteen other categories. There are five doctors and a nurse for each patient. And the process may take up to four months."
We'd covered it all before but Bonnie found solace in details. She felt that if she dotted every i and crossed every t then everything would turn out fine.
"How do you know that you can trust them?" I asked. "This could just be some scam."
"I've been there, Easy. I visited the hospital. I told you that, baby."
"But maybe they fooled you," I said.
I was afraid to hope. Every day I prayed for a miracle for Feather. But I had lived a life where miracles never happened. In my experience a death sentence was just that.
"I'm no fool, Easy Rawlins."
The certainty of her voice and her stare were the only chances I had.
"Money's no problem," I said, resolute in my conviction to go down to Texas and rob that armored car. I didn't want Rayford or his partner to die. I didn't want to spend a dozen years behind bars. But I'd do that and more to save my little girl.
I went out the back door and into the garage. From the back shelf I pulled down four paint cans labeled Latex Blue. Each was sealed tight and a quarter filled with oiled steel ball bearings to give them the heft of full cans of paint. On top of those pellets, wrapped in plastic, lay four piles of tax-free money I'd come across over the years. It was my children's college fund. Twelve thousand dollars. I brought the money to Bonnie and laid it on her lap.
"What now?" I asked.
"In a few days I'll take a flight with Vicki to Paris and then transfer to Switzerland. I'll take Feather and bring her to Dr. Renee."
I took a deep breath but still felt the suffocation of fear.
"How will you get the rest?" she asked me.
"I'll get it."
Jesus, Feather, and I were in a small park in Santa Monica we liked to go to when they were younger. I was holding Feather in my arms while she laughed and played catch with Jesus. Her laughter got louder and louder until it turned to screams and I realized that I was holding her too tightly. I laid her out on the grass but she had passed out.
"You killed her, Dad," Jesus was saying. It wasn't an indictment but merely a statement of fact.
"I know," I said as the grasses surged upward and began swallowing Feather, blending her with their blades into the soil underneath.
I bent down but the grasses worked so quickly that by the time my lips got there, there was only the turf left to kiss.
I felt a buzzing vibration against my lips and jumped back, trying to avoid being stung by a hornet in the grass.
Halfway out of bed I realized that the buzzing was my alarm clock.
It felt as if there was a crease in my heart. I took deep breaths, thinking in my groggy state that the intake of air would somehow inflate the veins and arteries.
"What time is it?"
I glanced at the clock with the luminescent turquoise hands. "Four-twenty. Go back to sleep."
"No," Bonnie said, rising up next to me. "I'll go check on Feather."
She knew that I was hesitant to go into Feather's room first thing in the morning. I was afraid to find her dead in there. I hated her sleep and mine. When I was a child I fell asleep once and awoke to find that my mother had passed in the night.
I went to the kitchen counter and plugged in the percolator. I didn't have to check to see if there was water and coffee inside. Bonnie and I had a set pattern by then. She got the coffee urn ready the night before and I turned it on in the morning.
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2005
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company