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ALSO BY WALTER MOSLEY
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
A Little Yellow Dog
Devil in a Blue Dress
Walkin' the Dog
Workin' on the Chain Gang (nonfiction)
Copyright © 2001 by Walter Mosley
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: March 2010
MY USED-BOOK STORE had been open for just about a month when the police showed up. I hadn't called them, of course; a black man has to think twice before calling the cops in Watts. They came to see me late that afternoon. Two well-built young men. One had dark hair and the other sported freckles.
The dark one wandered around the room, flipping through random books, looking, it seemed, for some kind of contraband.
"Where'd you get all these books, son?" the other cop asked, looking down on me.
I was sitting in my favorite swivel chair behind the makeshift table-desk that I used for book sales and purchases.
"Libraries," I replied.
"Stole 'em?" the dark-haired cop asked from across the room. There was an eager grin on his face.
"Front'a each page marked discarded," I said, editing out all unnecessary words as I spoke. "Library throws away thousands of books every year."
I reached for a paper folder at the far end of the table, and the cop standing over me let his right hand drift toward his holster. I removed a sheet of paper and handed it over slowly.
"This letter," I said, "is from the office of the head librarian downtown."
The freckled and frowning cop used his left hand to take the letter from me.
I was put out by the roust but not surprised. The police weren't used to a Negro in Watts going into business for himself. Most black migrants from the South usually got jobs for the city or did domestic work or day labor. There were very few entrepreneurs active among us at that time. That's why I had asked Miss Ryan, assistant to the president of the county library system, for a letter of explanation. She had written the letter on official letterhead, addressed "To whom it may concern," stating that any library book marked discarded was no longer the property of the library and could be disposed of in any way that the current owner saw fit.
Upon reading this the officer's hand moved away from his gun. "The law says that you're supposed to post business hours clearly on the front door," he said, letting the letter fall back on the table.
There was no such ordinance, and I knew it, but I said, "Yes, officer. I'll take care of it tomorrow."
I felt no rancor toward them. Being challenged by the law was a rite of passage for any Negro who wanted to better himself or his situation.
I HAD OPENED my nameless bookstore on Central just down from 101st Street. It was the only one of its kind for miles. I carried everything from Tolstoy to Batman, from Richard Wright to Popular Mechanics. No new books, but a used book is just as good as a new one as far as the reading goes.
At first I was scandalized by the thought that a library would discard a book, but once I realized the possibilities for business, I made the rounds of every library in L.A., carting off almost two thousand volumes in just over three months. Then I paid first and last month's rent on a storefront that was down the street from a Holy Roller church called Messenger of the Divine.
My friend Fearless Jones helped me throw together some pine shelving and I was in business. I bought magazines two for a nickel and sold them at twice the price. I traded one book or magazine for two of equal worth.
Business wasn't brisk, but it paid the rent and utilities. And all day long I could do the thing I loved best — reading. I read Up from Slavery, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Mein Kampf, and dozens of other titles in the first few months. Whole days I spent in my reclining swivel chair, turning pages and drinking Royal Crown colas. Every once in a while I'd have to stop in order to sell an encyclopedia to proud parents or a romance to a woman who needed more than her husband had left at the end of a hard day's work. I had a whole army of little children helpers who'd sort and alphabetize for comic book privileges and maybe a free taco now and then.
For a solid three months I was the happiest man in L.A., in spite of the cops. I had a checking account, and for the first time in my life I was caught up on my bills.
But then Love walked in the door.
It was a cloudless day in October, the year was 1954. It wasn't hot or cold outside, but her dress was definitely a summer frock, white with a floral pattern. The thin straps lay loose on her brown shoulders. She didn't seem to be wearing anything under that dress — not that she needed to. The sunglasses had been pushed up to the top of her head, nestled in the big, floppy curls she'd had done at some beauty shop.
Her face is what scared me. It was too wide to be pretty and too flat to be handsome, but she was beautiful anyway. I wanted to feel my cheek rubbing up against hers.
The last time I'd felt like that about a woman I almost got killed. So the fast beating of my heart was a coin toss between love and fear.
"Is Reverend Grove here?'" she asked me in a breathy voice.
"Reverend William Grove. He preached with Father Vincent and Sister Thalia."
The skirt came down to the middle of her knees. Her legs were bare and her ankles were bound with thin straps of white leather snaking up from delicate sandals.
"I don't know any Grove," I said, forcing my eyes back to her face.
The name had some meaning to me, but it felt so distant that I thought it must be someone from long ago, maybe from down in Louisiana. Certainly not anyone this beautiful girl and I would both know.
She looked around the room, twisting at the waist to see for herself. She had a figure made for that kind of movement. Her eyes lit on a burlap curtain that hung over a doorway.
"Where's that go?" she asked.
"My back room," I said. Then it came to me. "You must be talking about the Messenger of the Divine."
"Oh yes. Yes."
The hope in her voice brought me up out of my chair. She moved toward me. Her hands reached out for me.
"They had a place look like mine down the street," I said. "But they moved out. Must be two months ago now."
"What?" Her face went blank.
"Moved," I said. "Went away."
"I don't know. They moved out in the middle of the night. Took everything. All that was left was an empty space and a few paper fans."
I was sad to make my little report because now there was no reason for her to stay and twist around. I realized that I had spent a little too much time lately wrapped up in books. I had the notion that I should go out to the Parisian Room that night.
Just then the young woman leaned backward and then crumpled forward, into my arms. As I stood there holding her steady, the fear fled my heart. At close quarters her scent was floral, but it was also sharp, like the smell after lightning strikes.
"You got some water in the back?" she whispered.
I nodded and led her through the heavy burlap curtain to the back room and put her on my cot. She was mumbling and crying.
"Are you okay?" I asked, perching next to her.
"Where did they go?"
I couldn't find the words to hurt her again.
"What am I gonna do?" she cried, turning her head, looking around in the dark as if the room might somehow transform itself into the church she sought. "Reverend Grove is the only one who can help me now."
"What's wrong?" I asked, thinking, even then, that I didn't really want to know.
"I have to find William. If I don't —" She broke off in tears. I tried to console her but she was bereft.
After a moment or two I heard the front door to the store come open. She heard it too and took in a quick breath. Her fear made me wary again. I rose up and went through the curtain to the store.
The man standing there was a study in blunt. His hairless head was big and meaty. The dark features might not have been naturally ugly, but they had been battered by a lifetime of hard knocks: broken nose, a rash that had raged and then scarred over the lower left side of his face. His eyebrows seemed to be different sizes, but that might just have been the product of a permanent scowl.
"Wherethegurl?" he said in a tone so guttural that for a moment I couldn't make out the words. "Wherethegurl?"
He was about six feet tall (I'm only five eight), but he had the chest and shoulders of someone who should have been much taller. He was a volcano crushed down into just about man size. His clothes were festive, a red Hawaiian shirt and light blue pants. The outfit was ridiculous, like a calico bow on an English bulldog.
"I don't —" I said.
"Wherethegurl, muthahfuckah!" He had the build of a fireplug but moved like a cat. He had me by the arm and in the air before I could invent a lie.
"Where is she?" He looked around the room and saw that the burlap curtain was the only exit besides the front door. He threw me at the curtain, and I tore it down falling into the back room. He came in right behind me, looking at all the corners and then at the bed.
My eyes were on him.
"This your last chance," he said, threat heavy in each word.
I dared a glance at the bed and saw that it was empty.
"I don't know, man," I said as bravely as I could. "She come an' asked about a church used to be around here. I told her that they were gone. So then she said she had to go to the bathroom."
I gestured with my hand. He saw the door and flung it open with so much force that one of the hinges ripped loose from the wall. All that was revealed was a lidless commode and tin sink.
"Where is she?" He dragged me to my feet with one hand.
"She must'a gone out the back, man. I don't know."
I think he slapped me, but I've been hit by blackjacks that had more give than his fingers. The taste of salt came into my mouth and the lightbulb on the desk multiplied into a thousand stars.
"Wherethegurl?" a parrot somewhere said.
"She must'a gone out the back," I repeated.
"I'll kill you, niggah, no lie."
He slapped me again and I tried to think of what I could say to save my life. But I didn't know anything, not even the frightened woman's name. I decided that, since he was going to kill me anyway, I would go out bravely. For once I would be as brave as my friend Fearless. I had never stood up to a bully in my life. So at least this one last time, in a back room in Watts, Paris Minton would show some backbone. Fuck you, asshole, was on the tip of my tongue.
"Please don't, brother." My trembling words betrayed me. "I don't know nuthin'."
He slapped me again. My head turned around so far that I was sure my neck had broken.
"You a dead man," my attacker said.
A child's voice squeaked, "Mr. Minton, you okay?"
"Who's that man?" another child screamed.
I fell to the floor, noticing as I hit that my killer wore leather sandals on bare feet. As I lost consciousness I thought that if a man was going to kill me, he should at least wear grown-up men's shoes.
"MR. MINTON? Mr. Minton, are you okay?"
It was a man's voice. A familiar voice. There was concern, not mayhem, in the words. I opened my eyes and saw Theodore Wally, the clerk from Antonio and Sons Superette next door. He was a young man, but his face was ready for old age. It was medium brown and soft with fleshy weight around the eyes.
"Mr. Minton?" he asked again. "Are you okay?"
I didn't answer because I was preoccupied with the miracle of my survival. The killer, I figured, was still human enough not to want to murder children. When he saw them he decided to spare me. I lifted my head, and a pain as sharp as Fearless Jones's bayonet traveled the length of my spine.
"Help me up," I said, fearing that I was paralyzed.
The little shopkeeper pulled as hard as he could and I sat up. When I got to my feet the pain was even worse, but I could take steps without falling.
"You okay, Mr. Minton?"
"Why don't you call me Paris, Theodore?" I said, angry at the world.
"I don't know. It's the way I was raised, I guess."
"You call Freddy at the hot dog stand Freddy." A wave of pain crashed in my head. I almost lost my footing, but Theodore held me up.
"You okay? You want a doctor?"
"No. But thank you. Thank you. How come you came in here?"
"Those kids, Elbert and them. They come in the store an' said you was dead, that a big, ugly man killed you."
"Where the kids?"
I tripped over the downed burlap curtain going through the doorway from my back room. When I got outside the sunlight made my eyes feel as if they were going to explode.
"You okay, Mr. Minton?" a too-tall-for-his-age eight-year-old cried.
"Okay, Elbert. Okay. You see him?"
"That man that hit you?"
"Uh-huh." The pain from the sun was so great that everything was tinged in red. I wondered if that meant I was bleeding inside my skull.
"He drove a blue car like my daddy's, only it was a light blue and it had horns."
"What kinda horns?"
"Like the cows in the movies."
I fell to my knees and threw up, hard. The boys skittered away, but Theodore knelt down and held me by the shoulders, then helped me back to my back room.
"You should go to a doctor, Mr. Minton."
"I just wanna sleep, Theodore." They were the truest words ever spoken. "Do me a favor and pull the shades and lock the door. And put up my closed sign. Please, Theodore." I added the last two words because I was a transplanted southern boy who learned manners before he knew how to talk.
Theodore moved quietly around the bookstore pulling down the dark yellow shades. I turned out the lamp on the desk and then lay down on my cot. The back room had no windows and so became very dark. When I heard the front door close I made a powerful effort to stand. At first I thought I might throw up again, but the urge passed. I staggered to my desk and let myself down on one knee. It was an old maple desk, heavy and cramped. I only used it to store and stack papers. Store and stack and secret away a .38-caliber pistol on a ledge behind the center drawer. It was Fearless's gun. I held it for him when he was between apartments. It was in my possession in that capacity when he was sent to jail.
For the first time I lamented Fearless's incarceration.
They had arrested him for felony assault on three crooked mechanics, convicted him on a lesser charge, and given him the choice of paying five hundred dollars or spending nine months as a guest of the county. He opted for the fine but had no money to pay and so asked me for a loan.
"I'm sorry, Fearless," I said through the visitor's grille at the county jailhouse. "But, man, I just can't do it."
Fearless's lean, dark face didn't show the disappointment I know he must have felt. He had put his life on the line saving mine eight years earlier, but over the years since then, I had risked my own skin many times for him — and I was no war hero the way he was.
Fearless was the kind of person who attracted trouble. He didn't know how to look away or back down. He couldn't even spell the word compromise. Whenever he called me, I didn't know if we were going to get drunk at a party or get jumped down some dark alley.
To protect my interests as a businessman, I decided to cut my ties with probably the best friend that I ever had.
"Okay," he said. "I understand. But you know them men did me wrong, Paris."
I CHECKED to make sure the pistol was loaded and took off the safety. Then I climbed into the bed with the gun under the covers next to me. I didn't fall into a deep sleep but instead drifted on the edge of a nervous doze.
WHEN I FELT a feathery touch against my forehead I feared that it was a rat, that I was dead and he came in from the alley to eat my flesh. The thought of food caused me to writhe from nausea, and when I moved I felt her flowery dress.
I knew it was her. That was my kind of luck. The kind of woman I wanted most, the kind of woman I should stay away from at all costs, that's the woman who I will awaken to from a slumber that might have been death.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
I could barely see her in the darkness.
"Does it hurt much?"
"Like a toothache set in a broken jaw."
"I'm so sorry," she said, reaching out to touch my brow again.
"What's your name?"
"Elana Love. What's yours?"
"Paris Minton. Paris Minton." The repetition was my attempt to extricate myself from the trouble in that room. But I wasn't going anywhere, and neither was she.
"That's a nice name."
"How did you get back in here?" I asked.
"I never left," she said. "When Leon came in I looked for a back door, but I didn't see one, so I squeezed in behind the file cabinet and waited until he left. I was going to run out, but then that other man came in."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I thought you might be mad that I didn't help you against Leon."
"Who is this Leon?"
"Leon Douglas. We used to see each other before they sent him to jail. He was in for armed robbery and attempted murder, but a lawyer got him out."
"What did you do, cheat on him or something?"
"No," she said in a flash of anger. "I broke it off with him before he robbed that store. I told him that no love was gonna make me live with a criminal."
"Maybe he didn't like that."
"He thinks I have somethin', but I don't have it. I don't, but he won't believe me."
"But Reverend Grove knows where it is?"
"How did you know about him?" She was suddenly wary. "Oh, yeah. I told you."
"Does he?" I asked. For some reason talking made me feel better. I sat up.
"Reverend Grove. Does he have what Leon wants?"
"Uh-uh," she said, but I wasn't sure that I believed her. "I told Leon that he did though. I was seein' William for a while back there, and I thought he could help me against Leon. But when the church was gone I didn't know what to do."
Silence brought back the awareness of pain. I didn't care about Grove or Leon either. I didn't care what they were hiding or looking for.
"Why are you still here?" I asked.
"When you went outside I looked for a back door, but there wasn't one, and where could I go anyway?" she asked. "Maybe Leon's waiting around outside somewhere."
The thought of that killer lurking outside my door made me queasy again.
"How did he know you were here?"
"He made me come," she said in a pained tone. "He told me to come in and get his property from William or else he was gonna break somebody's neck."
"Yeah," I said. "I got that."
"You have to help me, Mr. Minton."
"I can go to the market next door and use their phone to call the police," I offered.
"No. No, not the police."
"Why not? He's threatenin' you and he almost killed me."
"Leon has a lot of friends," she said. "Even if he gets arrested, he'll send somebody after me, and maybe you too."
"Me? Honey, I don't know either one'a you. All I was doin' was sittin' here mindin' my own business." I thought of Fearless then, of how he was always saying how he was minding his own business when all hell broke loose.
"But now that he's seen you, he might think that you're in this with me."
"In what? I don't even know you."
Elana reached out and touched my chest then. It might sound like a silly gesture, but when a woman like that lays hands on you, it's hard to ignore.
"Listen, honey," I said, despite my thrumming heart. "You're gorgeous. I only meet a woman like you about once every five years or so. But when I do, somebody always ends up wantin' to kill me. And you know I could find me an ugly girl, be half as happy, but live ten times as long. I don't want anything to do with you or your boyfriend or your ex-boyfriend. So please, go back out the way you came and shut the door behind you."
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough to see the struggle in her face. She wanted to convince me, to make me her protector but couldn't quite figure out how.
"I don't even have bus money. If I go out there alone he could kill me," she said.
That was my downfall right there. I took pity on her the way I did time and again with Fearless. I came to a compromise in my head even though I knew that what I should do was throw her outdoors.
I made it to my feet and said, "Okay, I'll give you a ride wherever you need to go to get away, but that's it."
ELANA DIDN'T COMPLAIN when she saw me pocket the .38.
"Might as well go out the back," I said. "I mean, he'd probably be covering the front. Does he have any friends?"
"He was with two friends." Elana sounded defeated. I clearly wasn't the protector she needed.
"What're their names?"
"What difference do that make?"
"Well, let's go out the back door," I said. My head was still light and my stomach was churning. I swallowed once and gazed at a piece of wall with a cabinet handle screwed on at just about waist height. The reason that Elana hadn't found her way out was that my back door was almost invisible. It was just a rectangular slat that swung on three rusty old hinges.
My red Nash Rambler was parked against a salmon-pink stucco wall that ran the length of the alley separating the houses on the residential street behind. There was no sign of Leon, his horned car, or his nameless friends. Elana slid into the passenger's seat and laid her head against the window. She was a picture-perfect damsel in distress.
If I were Fearless Jones I would have run headlong into the fray, taking any blows and doing anything to protect her. But I didn't believe that even Fearless would have stood long against Leon Douglas.
I started the motor and we slid off into the afternoon.
"Where to?" I asked.
She rattled off an address on a street named Hazzard.
"It's off Brooklyn Avenue in East L.A."
I WAS CUTTING left and right on side streets, making my way east, looking up into my rearview mirror from time to time. We'd driven for more than five minutes in silence.
"What does this Leon guy want from you?" I asked.
"You don't want to get involved, remember?" she said.
"Have it your way, honey. All I thought was that maybe I could give you some advice."
"The only thing anybody could give me is manpower or money. Either that or Leon Douglas is gonna kill me."
I looked over into the side mirror and saw the flash of a powder blue Chrysler with horns on its grate as it swerved, aiming to cut me off.
- On Sale
- Jun 5, 2001
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company