It's noon Sunday and Bekka and I are seated with Vinny in a restaurant not six blocks from Angel's trattoria. This place has the same air of exclusivity, for the same reasons. This is Vinny's prize: a place with good food where you can talk about anything without worrying about the other diners. There's a two month wait for Sunday brunch. We walked in and were seated at once.
"So, coke. What did you need to know?" asked Vinny. He's still feeling sharp from what we snorted before coming here.
"I want to know who is dealing at the ounce and quarter pound level in the Valley," I told him. "Especially if they're Hispanic."
"I don't move less than a kilo at once. I could make some calls and find out who their customers are, but that's a risky proposition. They'd want to know why, and I wouldn't know what to tell them. You got a reason?"
"Yeah. I want to know who Todd bought from. We think ---" The waitress was standing above us.
She gleamed a smile and said, "Hi Vinny. Three brunch specials?"
"Yeah, perfect," he said, and whacked her on the ass with a menu. She continued her smile and scooted away, probably to let the people out front know there was still a two hour wait for brunch. Ass-whacking was reserved for a select few. Vinny had already let Bekka and I know we were among the select.
"As I was saying, I figure Todd was offed over a coke deal. Track down the dealers, find the car, and we're set so far as who killed Todd. It should be simple.... If I can find out who and where the dealers are."
"And like I said, that's a tall order. I can't risk alienating my customers. Coming up for a reason as to why I need that information? What the hell would I say?"
"Tell them your nephew is going into business at a low level, but is short on cash and needs a front from somebody. I'm your nephew, and I'm not stupid, just broke. I figure they can all dig that.... All dealers start small, and usually on fronts."
"That could work. Hey Marta!" he yelled across the dining room. The waitress slid back over. "Get us a Johnnie Walker on ice, a double bourbon, and.... For you, Bekka?"
"Whatever Mexican beer you have, please."
Vinny said, "You got that? Good girl. See you in a minute." There was no assault to her buttocks this time.
"Anyway Vinny," I said, "there's a good chance I'll bump into these guys I'm after if I'm around enough dealers at that level. I don't need to accost them, just find out who they are and where they hang out. Or better yet, where they live. Latino dealers are who I want to find, really."
"See, you're asking too much right there. Why would a white kid care about the ethnic background of the person he's picking up coke from? That'd sour things real quick."
"Since I'm never going to see them again except to give them money, I don't care about souring coke dealers. I just want to find two of them, and quickly."
"Okay, I'll see what I can do. Ahh....." Our drinks arrived, and this made Vinny happy. I wouldn't doubt they carried his favorite brand of bourbon as a standard, making sure to never run out. Sort of like biker dives that would always have Jack Daniels even if the kegs were running dry.
Vinny took a sip off his bourbon. "Your idea can work. I'll pass word along to my down-line, see what I come up with...."
Thirty hours later I was seated in the living room of my first pigeon, an old hippie named Rex. He dealt strictly with powder, no rock. He was happy to tell me about various Hollywood types he'd sold to over the years, names which currently rated as has-been in that business. Rex didn't have chairs, he had bean bags, and it showed in his posture: he walked with a hunch.
"I don't normally do fronts, but the people above me say you're okay," he told me. He set a scale on a board on the floor and went about the intellectually taxing process of weighing out an ounce of cocaine for me. "So you're just starting out?" he asked.
"Yeah, there's, like, a lot of call for it where I go to school. I figure I can pick up some spending money and make people happy. Do you step on yours?"
"Absolutely not. Mine is as clean as it comes. Care for a whiff?"
"Sure, what the hell." I'd know if it was cut then. I wouldn't know who did the cutting, but I'd at least have the knowledge.
He finished with my bag and tossed it over to me. Then he reached behind him and pulled a mirror off of a shelf, which was emblazoned with the word "Cocaine" in the same font as the Coca Cola logo. He reached in his shirt and pulled out what looked like an Indian medicine pouch, suspended from a cord around his neck. From this he dumped out a small pile of powder. "So you're starting out?" he asked me.
"You asked me that once," I pointed out.
"Shit, I did, didn't I? And you said you were gonna sell it at your school. 'Which school' is what I meant to ask you."
"SDSU down in San Diego. It's kind of a hard-partying campus, You know anyone down there?"
"No, and as long as you pay me, I'd just as soon have your business. Seems a distance to travel to pick up coke, though."
I laughed and explained, "I had to come this distance because of family. See, I actually work for the mob, and I'm trying to track down two dealers who did the family wrong, you know?"
"Of course I am. Just a joke."
I spent the night in the Starlight Inn again, and after making a call in the morning I went to see my next contact.
This turned out to be a charming fellow with a shaved head, thin red suspenders, and Doc Martens with his jeans cuffed way up. He was listening to Skrewdriver on his apartment stereo.
"I didn't know they'd send me a fucking punk," was his greeting. He looked like he'd forgotten how to smile around sixth grade.
"It's just business. No need for hostilities. We could make a lot of money off each other," I told him. "Can I come in?"
"Yeah. You wanna beer?"
"Sure, sounds good." He handed me a can of Miller.
"So, I'm supposed to front a punk rocker an ounce of coke with no guarantee. Sounds like bullshit to me."
"You do have a guarantee. The people who referred me to you," I pointed out. It was true. They'd cover costs if I welshed on anyone.... And promptly find a new supplier. The family didn't want this to happen, so ultimately I would be buying the family's own coke back. Angel had told me he'd cover the bills.
"What's your name?" he asked, gesturing me to the sofa.
"Just call me Lenny. And yours?"
"Call me Skitch."
"Well Skitch, I'm on kind of a tight budget time-wise, so are we gonna do business or not? I'd hate to take things down to South-Central."
Skitch spit on his own carpet. "Fuck that. Those niggers just move rock these days anyway. Lemme grab my shit, I'll be right with you." He seemed eager to go forward on a front to a relative stranger.
He came back in the living room with a crusty triple-beam scale and a bag of powder. "Wanna rail up?" he asked.
"Sounds good," I said. Maybe it would improve his mood, I was kidding myself.
"You dealing to niggers?" he asked.
"Whoever's got the cash."
"Figures. Coke used to be a classy drug, and the niggers turned it into street crack," he groused.
"It was jazz musicians who first made it popular," I commented.
"Yeah, and before that it was a patent medicine. I know my history."
I asked, "This stuff feels alright, what's the purity?"
He smiled --- I was amazed --- and said, "At least sixty percent. This is the real McCoy here. I don't move no garbage."
"Cool. So what are your terms?"
"I get a grand in seven days. I'll find you if you don't pay up in that time."
"Don't worry," I said, "you'll get your money. Even if I have to sell it to niggers."
"So how come you never joined the brotherhood?"
"Not much of a joiner, I guess. Thanks for the beer." I got up and got out.
Third time's a charm.
I pulled up to a house in Chatsworth, a town I already associated with trouble. There was a blue Caprice parked in the driveway. It can't be this easy, I thought.
The vato answering the door looked like he was just out of high school. "You must be the cat our connection told us about," he said. "C'mon in, hermano. Luis, tenemos un visitante, un gringo loco." He led me in.
I was stopped before we entered the living room. "You packing?" asked the kid. I held open my jacket to display the Beretta. He slid it out of the holster, saying, "You'll get it back when you leave."
Luis was watching a novela on television. He had a familiar look about him, as did the younger one. He ignored me until a commercial came on, then smiled and gestured towards the sofa. I took a seat.
"You must be the guy our connection said it was cool to front to. We don't normally do fronts, but the money is guaranteed.... Although having our conexión pissed off at you would be a bad thing, man. Real bad. We'll get our money, right?"
"Name the time frame, dude," I stated.
"I can do that. If it's good, I can flip it in less time than that. Is it, like, awesome?"
"The cleanest you can find anywhere. Wanna try a line?" he offered.
"Sounds good." He chopped a couple up, crossed himself, and snorted one through a fast food straw. Then he passed it to me, and I did the same. He was right: this was cleaner than the stuff the last two guys had. Now I knew who was doing the cutting.
I sniffed and set the mirror down. "Thanks. Hey, I was wondering, is that your Caprice out front?"
I gave him a dazzling smile and said, "I've been, like, thinking about trading in my Acura for something more comfortable. Does the Caprice qualify?"
"Yeah. They're solid, too. No troubles with ours so far."
"Right on. So...."
"So you wanted an ounce fronted? I guess I'll take the risk, you got the references. So just where you gonna move it, anyway?"
"Down in San Diego," I explained. "I won't be stepping on anyone's toes around here. I, like, go to San Diego State and there's no good coke around, just speed. All the fraternity boys totally want coke, I guess to impress their girlfriends or whatever."
"And you couldn't find no one down there."
"Not that would front me the amount I wanted."
"So long as you don't try ripping us off, we can stay in business for a while. It's bad news for you if you try." And with that he reached into the cushions of the sofa and pulled out a revolver, which he pointed at my face and cocked. I stared at him and not the gun.
"No need for that," I said. "The other guy took mine away."
He let the hammer back down and made the gun disappear into the sofa again. "Just so long as we understand each other. You got five days. No partial payments, no returns, just a solid grand, cash. That clear enough?"
"Dude, no problem," I told him.
"Lemme weigh you out, then," he said, pulling a scale from underneath the coffee table. He weighed from the same bag he'd pulled our lines from, something the other two dealer hadn't done. Given that what they'd shared was stepped on, I was afraid to think about just how much baking powder was sitting back at the motel.
He handed me the bag and called for his brother, Roberto, to give me back my gun. I tucked it in its holster and said, "I'll remember to leave that in the car next time I'm here."
"You can bring it, we just hold onto it while you're in the house, entende?"
"Entiendo." He looked startled at that.
I went back to my motel room, mulled things over, and then did a line out of the ounce I got from Luis. Then I lay down on the bed and flipped through channels. Even on cocaine, nothing had much appeal, so I made the inevitable call to Angel.