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FICTION BY WALTER MOSLEY
Six Easy Pieces
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Walkin' the Dog
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
A Little Yellow Dog
A Red Death
Devil in a Blue Dress
A SUDDEN BANGING ON THE FRONT DOOR sent a chill down my neck and into my chest. It was two thirty-nine in the morning. I was up and out of my bed immediately, though still more than half asleep.
I had to go to the bathroom but the knocking was insistent; seven quick raps, then a pause, and then seven more. It reminded me of something but I was too confused to remember what.
"All right," I called out.
I considered staying quiet until the unwanted visitor gave up and left. But what if it was a thief? Maybe he was knocking to see if there was anybody home. If I stayed quiet he might just break the two-dollar lock and come in on me. I'm a small man, so even if he was just your run-of-the-mill sneak thief he might have broken my neck before realizing that Paris Minton's Florence Avenue Book Shop didn't have any money in the cash box.
I slept in an illegal loft space above the bookstore. It was the only way my little business could stay in the black. Selling used books doesn't have a very high profit margin, except for the reading pleasure. Some days the only customers brought in books to sell or barter. Other days I was the only patron, reading Don Quixote, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or some other great novel from sunup to sundown.
Mostly I sold westerns and mysteries and romances. But I rarely read those books. The women's genre wasn't written for a man's sensibilities and popular men's books were too violent.
"Let me in there, Paris," a voice I knew better than any other called out.
"Yeah, man. Let me in."
I hesitated a moment and a moment more.
I opened the door and Fearless Jones strode in, wearing a green suit with a white shirt, no tie, no hat, and dark shoes. The tip of the baby finger on his left hand was missing, shot off in a gunfight that almost got us both killed, and he had the slightest limp from a knife wound he'd received saving my life in San Francisco many years before.
Fearless was tall and dark, thin and handsome, but mostly he was powerful. He was stronger than any man I'd ever known, and his will was indomitable. Fearless wasn't a smart man. A twelve-year-old might have been a better reader, but if he ever looked into your eyes he would know more about your character than any psychiatrist, detective, or priest.
"I'm in trouble, Paris," we said together.
Fearless grinned but I didn't.
"I got to go to the toilet," I said.
I walked back through one of the two aisles of bookshelves that made up my store. Fearless followed me into the toilet, unashamed and still talking while I relieved myself in the commode.
"It was a woman named Leora Hartman," he was saying. "She came up to me at the Soul Food Shack."
"Yeah?" I said. "What about her?"
"You know her?" Fearless asked.
"Oh," he said on a sigh, and I knew I was in deep trouble.
Fearless never hesitated unless he knew that he was going to cause problems for someone he cared for. And that someone was almost always me.
I was washing my hands by the time he said, "She's a good-lookin' woman—Leora. And that little boy was so cute."
"What little boy?"
"She said his name was Son. That's what she said. But come to think of it, that must'a been his name, because even though I think he was part of a tall tale, he was just a child and a child don't know how to lie about his name."
We walked back to the front room of the bookshop. The space up there was furnished with a card table that had three chairs and a sofa built for two. I sat in one of the wood chairs.
"Leora is a pretty woman," Fearless said, following in my wake like a bullet coming after a moth. "Talked like she had some education, you know? And she was refined."
"What you mean by that?" I asked. I had learned over the years that even though Fearless and I spoke the same tongue his limited use of language was often more subtle than my own.
"I don't know really," he said with a frown. "She looked like just a regular girl, but there was somethin' that set her apart too. That's why, that's why I didn't think it would hurt to help her out."
"Fearless, what are you talking about?"
"Leora come up to me with this cryin' three-year-old boy named Son. She told me that his father had left her and that her and Son was in the street on account'a he done taken all her savings with 'im."
"She picked you outta the blue?"
"She said that Son's father is a man named Kit Mitchell. Kit's a farmer from Wayne, Texas. I been workin' for him the last month or so."
"The Watermelon Man?"
Fearless and I received thirteen thousand dollars apiece after we were involved in the shootout that maimed his baby finger. With my money I bought and refurbished a building that had been a barber's shop. When I was through I had a new used book store. I also bought a used Ford sedan and put a few hundred dollars in the bank with a solid two percent interest rate.
Fearless got houses for his sister and mother at thirty-five hundred dollars a go, bought a fancy car, and spent the rest on a good time that lasted about three months. After that he sold his car to pay the rent and took on a job for a man selling counterfeit Texas watermelons. Counterfeit, inasmuch as they came from the seeds of the green-and-white-striped Texas variety of melon but they were grown in Oxnard on the leased farm of a man I only knew by the title of the Watermelon Man.
The Watermelon Man hired Fearless to harvest his melons and put them on trucks that he had fitted with Texas license plates. Then he would send his fleet of six trucks into Watts, where they would sell the giant fruit on street corners, telling everybody that they were getting genuine Texas melons. Texans believe that the best food in the world is from down home, and so they spent the extra nickel for this prime commodity.
"So the woman was the Watermelon Man's wife?" I asked.
"That's what she said. She was his wife and the boy was his son. The whole time we talked, Son was cryin' that he wanted his daddy. You know he cried so hard that it almost broke my heart."
"When did you meet her?" I asked.
"I just told you—the other day."
"You never saw her with this Kit?"
"Uh-uh. I didn't even know that he was married."
"So then how'd you know that she really was his wife?" I asked, wondering at the endless gullibility of the deadliest man in L.A.
"Why she wanna lie to me?" Fearless replied. "I didn't even know the lady."
"Maybe because she wanted to find Kit for some other reason," I suggested. "Maybe he owed somebody some money, maybe he's in a jam."
"Yeah." Fearless ducked his head. "Yeah, you right, Paris. Maybe so. But when I saw her and heard that boy cryin', I was just so sure that she was the one in trouble."
"And she wanted you to bring her man back?" I asked, worrying about what my deadly friend might have done.
"No," Fearless said. "All she wanted was to know if I knew where to find him."
"And did you?"
"No. That's why I believed her story."
That was when I should have stood up and shown Fearless the door. I should have said, No more, brother. I have to get back to sleep. That's because I knew whatever it was he saw in her story was going to bite me on the backside before we were through.
"Why?" I asked beyond all reason.
"Because Kit hadn't shown up to work at the gardens on Monday. He wasn't there Tuesday neither. His drivers all came but he never showed. I wasn't surprised. The last couple'a days out there he kept talkin' about some big deal he had and how he was gonna make a whole room full'a money."
Fearless shook his head.
"Did anybody call him after he didn't show up?" I asked.
"Nobody knew his number. And we really didn't need him. You know I was the one loaded the trucks anyway. And I never liked the fact that he was pawnin' off those melons like they was real Texas. When he didn't come in on Wednesday I called it quits."
"And when did Leora come to you?"
"Day before yesterday."
It was Monday morning, so I asked, "Saturday?"
"No . . . I mean yeah."
"You want some coffee, Fearless?"
He smiled then, because coffee was the signal that meant I was going to hear him out.
MY KITCHEN WAS AN UNFINISHED BACK porch furnished with a butcher-block table and a twelve-foot counter that held three hot plates, a flat pan toaster, and an electric rotisserie oven. I boiled water and filtered it through a cheesecloth bag wrapped around a five-tablespoon mixture of chicory and coffee.
"Damn, Paris," Fearless said after his first sip. "You sure can make a cup'a coffee taste good."
The back wall of my kitchen was just a two-ply screen. It was the tail end of summer and not too cool. Moths and other night insects were bouncing off the screen, trying to get at the light. A thousand crickets hid our words from any spy that might be hiding in the darkness.
I sat up on the table while Fearless leaned his chair against the wall.
"What about this Kit?" I asked.
"Like I said, Paris. The boy was hollerin' and cryin' for his daddy. I felt bad for him. Leora said that she didn't know what to do, so what was I supposed to say?"
"That you don't know where the man is," I suggested. "That you wished her luck."
"Yeah. Maybe that's what I should'a did, but I didn't. I told her that I'd ask around, and that if I found him I'd tell her where to go."
"Well, you know I'd been out there in Oxnard most the time. Harvestin' all day and camped out on guard at night —"
"Guard for what?"
"Kit had a lease on the property, but it was way out in the middle'a nowhere. He was worried that somebody'd come steal his trucks. So he paid me seventeen dollars a day to keep guard and pick melons."
A dark shadow appeared at the screen door, about the size of a sparrow. After a moment I realized that it was a bat come to feast on those juicy bugs. The bat bobbled and dipped in the air like an ungainly puppet. But as silly as he looked, I felt that chill again. This time it made its way down into my gut.
"Come on, Fearless," I said then. "Let's go drink our coffee in the front."
He kept talking while I led him back to the sitting room.
"The men drove out in their own cars every mornin'. Most of 'em got there about five-thirty. One of the men was a guy named Maynard, Maynard Latrell. More often than not, Maynard was the one drove old Kit up to the farm. At least on the days he came up."
"So he didn't come every day?"
"Naw. He used to but lately he been takin' days off here and there. But never Wednesday. Wednesday was payday."
I returned to my wooden chair. Fearless slumped back on the couch.
"How would he pick up the money for the day's sales?" I asked.
"He'd go to each truck at the end of the day, count the melons, and take what they supposed to have."
"How'd he know how many melons they supposed to have if he didn't ask you?"
"I give a count sheet to Maynard and he give it to Kit. But Kit was gone since Monday last. The drivers just kept what they collected."
"Why didn't Kit stay at the farm?" I asked.
"He had spent months growin' them melons. He said he was goin' stir crazy and that he was afraid his girlfriend was runnin' around."
"He was afraid his girlfriend was runnin' around but he didn't say nuthin' about his wife?"
"You gonna let me talk, Paris?"
"Anyway, Leora told me where she lived and I said that I'd get a line on Kit. I asked around until I found out where Maynard was, and then I went over to see him."
Fearless sprawled out on the couch. Upset as he was, he made himself comfortable as a plains lion. I was hunched over and at the edge of my seat. That was the difference between Fearless and me. He was relaxed in the face of trouble, where I was afraid of a bump in the night.
"Maynard didn't know too much," Fearless continued. "He said that he used to pick Kit up at a bus stop on Western at four A.M. I asked him if he ever said about anyplace he might hang out. At first Maynard didn't remember, but then he thought about Mauritia's country store on Divine."
Mauritia's was a hole in the wall that sold clothes and beauty products for Negro women. They carried hair irons and skin lighteners, fake fingernails and different brands of makeup designed for various hues of dark skin. I had only been in there once. I remembered that it smelled of coconut and rubbing alcohol.
"So you went to Mauritia's?" I asked, trying to urge him on.
"Maynard said that early one morning a week before, Kit had three boxes and that he had Maynard help him drop them off at Mauritia's front door. So I went over there to see maybe if he worked for them part-time or somethin' like that."
Fearless sat up, took his coffee cup from the floor, and brought it to his lips. He made a loud smacking sound and grunted his approval.
"It's after three, Fearless. What did they say at Mauritia's?"
"They said that they remembered a man looked like Kit come over to their place a couple'a times but that's all they knew. He was just droppin' off for the man usually bring 'em their Madame Ethel's supplies. A guy name of Henry T. Orkan."
My eyes were sore. I had been up until midnight reading To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. I had just gotten to the end of the section on Fourier and Owen when I fell asleep.
"Orkan lives out past Compton at the end of a lane that didn't have no other houses on it. I called up a cabbie I knew and had him drive me out over there for a favor yesterday."
"You mean Sunday," I said.
"Yeah. Orkan is a crazy old guy. He come outta his house with a shotgun cradled in his arm, askin' me what I wanted on his property. It was nutty, Paris, like he was some kinda moonshiner in the back country instead of a man livin' in the middle of a big city."
I knew that Fearless hadn't been afraid of that man sporting a shotgun. Fearless had never been afraid of anything.
"Did he tell you where Kit was?"
"At first he was all cagey, but when we got to talkin' he warmed up. He told me that Kit just showed up one day with a receipt for the boxes of beauty supplies. He dropped by after that pretty regular for two weeks, and then he didn't come anymore. But he had got a number for Kit, though."
"So this Orkan is a beauty product distributor?" I asked.
"I guess he is. That place'a his looked like a shanty down at the Galveston shore. No paint on it and all lopsided and messy." Fearless shrugged. "I called the number Orkan gave me. A woman name of Moore answered. I asked her about Kit and she said that she wouldn't talk on the phone but that I could come by if I wanted to."
"Why didn't she want to talk on the phone?"
"Superstitious I guess. You know country people's scared'a all these machines they got today."
"So you went there?"
"It was a big old ramblin' house. Must'a had a dozen tenants or more. They told me that Kit had taken a room on the top floor, but that he hadn't been back there since the first day he didn't come in to work."
"Wait a minute, Fearless," I said. "If Kit got a room on the top floor of a rooming house, then how could he walk out on his wife and child?"
"That's what I went to know from Leora," he said. "I went over to her apartment and asked why didn't she know that Kit had another place. But she said all she knew was that Kit had been away at his watermelon farm. So I told her where he had been stayin'." Fearless hesitated again.
"What?" I asked.
"The funny thing was, all she had was a room and a half. And Son wasn't there with her. She said that she left the boy with her mama, but you know, Paris, there wasn't even one toy or buildin' block on the floor. It wasn't like a child had ever been in that house."
"Did you say somethin' about that?"
"No. I didn't even think about it really. Later on I did but right then I was just doin' what I promised I would. After that I went down to Marmott's on Central and listened to Lips McGee and Billy Herford until almost midnight. Then I went home. I didn't think about Leora again until my landlady Mrs. Hughes told me about the cops."
"Cops? What cops?"
"They was askin' about me and if anybody around there had ever heard of Kit Mitchell. They told her not to tell me they were there, but Mrs. Hughes likes me so she was waitin' by her door for me to get in."
"What do the cops want, Fearless?" I asked, sounding more like a doubting parent than a friend.
"I don't know, Paris. But it don't sound good. I mean, she said that they were in suits, not uniforms, and they called themselves detectives."
My mind slipped into gear then.
"Why'ont you go upstairs and take my bed, man? I'll sleep down here."
"No, Paris. I don't wanna put you out your bed."
"Just do what I say, okay? Go on upstairs. I'm going to want to talk to you more about this thing with the Watermelon Man, but we should wait until we're both sharp. You get a good night's sleep and we'll get into it again in the morning."
WITHIN TEN MINUTES I COULD HEAR my friend snoring. He had spent three years on the front lines in Africa and Europe during the war, but he claimed that he slept like a baby every chance he got.
"Me worryin' about them big shells and bombs wasn't gonna help nuthin'," he'd said one drunken night. "But a good night's rest meant that I was sharp when I had to be."
Many a day I had curled up on the front sofa and slept for hours, but not that early morning. Fearless didn't know what those cops wanted, but that didn't matter to him. All he needed was a corner to sleep in, and if in the morning he had to pull up stakes and leave California he'd do that, looking forward to a new life in Seattle or Memphis or Mexico City.
Fearless was sleeping the sleep of an innocent man but I couldn't get that chill out of my chest. I wasn't guilty of any crime, but just being in the house with a man wanted by the police put me in a state of high anxiety.
At four I turned on the lights, pulled out the dictionary, and looked up random words. Leaf lard was the first one I lit on. That meant lard rendered from the leaf fat of a hog. Leaf fat, I read, was fat that formed in the folds of the kidneys of some animals, especially the pig.
I liked looking up words in the dictionary. It calmed me, because there was no tension in the definitions. Definitions were neutral: facts, not fury.
When the sun came up I went down to the corner to buy the L.A. Times from the blind man, Cedric Jarman, who sold papers near the bus stop. I knew that Fearless would sleep late because of the time he got to bed, so I sat on the front porch and read the dreary news.
Ike was still declaring victory in Korea two years after the war was over. We had halted communism in its tracks, but A-bomb testing continued just in case we had to have a real war with somebody like Russia or Red China. A white woman's body had been found by a hobo in Griffith Park. She had a German-sounding name. There was some flap over a Miss L.A. beauty contestant, something about a Negro heritage that she didn't declare with the pageant officials. The president, a Mr. Ben Trestier, said that they weren't disqualifying her because she was Negro but because she lied. "It is the lie, not the race, that shows she isn't our kind of queen," Trestier was quoted.
"But if she told the truth you wouldn't have let her compete in the first place," I said aloud. Then I laughed.
That's what we did back in 1955, we laughed when we pierced the skin of lies that tried to disguise racism. I'd be down at the barbershop playing cards in a few days, and we'd discuss the fate of Lana Tandy, the light-haired, fair-skinned Negro who tried to be the beauty queen of L.A. We'd laugh at the pageant and we'd laugh at her for thinking she could make it that far. Mr. Underwood, the retired porter, would get angry then and tell us that we shouldn't be laughing but protesting like they were doing down south. We'd say, "You're right, George. You're right." And he'd curse and call us fools.
After I'd made it through the headlines I went back inside.
The new bookstore was larger than the last one I had, the one that my neighbor burned down. The room was twenty feet square. I wandered from wall to wall, serenaded by the cacophony of Fearless's snores while running my fingers over the spines of books.
I had bibles, cookbooks, science fiction paperbacks, and National Geographic magazines. In a special section I had all of the books by black authors that I could find; from Sterling Brown to Phillis Wheatley, from Chester Himes to Langston Hughes, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Booker T. Washington.
I liked touching the stock. It made me feel like I was somebody; not just passing through but having a stake in the world I lived in. People knew me. Customers came to the store and asked my advice on books. They gave me their money and I sold them something of value.
After a while my fingers went across an old copy of Candide. I took it from the shelf and curled up on the sofa again.
I was asleep before finishing the first paragraph.
I DREAMT ABOUT A MAN IN A FARMER'S HAT. The short and stocky farmer was leading me down a long and dark hallway, whispering about money, lots of money. Finally we reached a door.
"Open it up," the farmer said. "Open it up and you will have all the money you'll need for the rest of your natural-born days."
I was trembling, scared to death.
"No," I said. "No."
"But you're right here, Paris," he said, "next to the gold mine. You don't even need a key. Just turn the knob and push it open."
I didn't want to do it but still my hand reached out. When I grasped the doorknob I thought it would burn me but instead it was chilly. The refreshing coolness washed over my body. Feeling more confident I pushed the door open. Green light flooded the hallway. The room was full of money, piles of it. And on the biggest pile sat Lana Tandy, naked and spread-legged, smiling at me.
"Come on, baby," she said. "It's all yours."
My fears melted away and I ran toward her. The door slammed behind me but I didn't care. It wasn't until the money rose up like a wave behind Lana that I realized I was trapped. She screamed as the wave of green slapped against me. I was submerged in millions of dollars, suffocating under the weight of that great wealth.
I struggled wildly against the heavy cash, but it was too much for me. Lana let out a strangled cry. She grabbed me by my shoulders and said, "Paris, help me. Help." She pounded against my chest, but instead of feeling the concussions of her fists I heard a hollow knocking. Even when we were separated by the crashing waves of money, I could still hear the echo of her knocking against my chest. A tide of bills washed over me and I couldn't breathe. I struggled and screamed, realizing that I was about to die. When I stroked down with both hands to propel my head toward the surface, I came awake sitting upright on the couch, gulping air and trembling.
Lana was still knocking on my chest. Knocking on my chest?
The sun was shining into the store through a window set high on the wall. Someone was rapping on the front door for the second time that morning and, also for a second time, I was afraid for my life.
"PARIS MINTON?" a white man in a brown jacket asked.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2003
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company