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Copyright © 2003 by Walter Mosley
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First eBook Edition: July 2003
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
This book is dedicated to the
memory of H. Roberts Bagwell
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.”