The phone rang three times and Angel answered. "Hey Angel, it's Lenny. How ya doing?"
"I'm fine. You have some news for me?"
"Yes sir. The people you're looking for are in Chatsworth, at 6857 ______ Drive. It's definitely the same people. Oh, and I have three ounces of cut coke that I don't know what to do with. You want 'em? I don't."
Angel chuckled and said, "Just bring them here to the house. We'll mix them in with kilos, no one will be any the wiser. I guess you'll be needing the cash for them."
"One guy wants his money in five days, one wants it in seven days, and I think one dude will forget I was even there. He was pretty spaced out. You want me to run those up now?"
"You may as well. Care to have dinner with Angela and me?"
"Sure, sounds great. What time should I be there?"
"Whenever you arrive. We'll be going to a steak house down in the Valley, they're famous for their prime rib. In fact, why don't we come and get you? That way you won't have to drive, you'll be able to have a few drinks without worry. Sound good?"
"Sounds great. I'm at the Starlight Inn on Sepulveda Boulevard, room 213. See you soon?"
"Give us about forty minutes, I want to take a quick shower. Talk to you soon, Lenny."
And that night Angel and I got blitzed in the restaurant bar, to the mild annoyance of Angela. We closed the place down, with the waiters having to escort us out. At one point I asked Angel what was going to happen to the two vatos I'd fingered.
"Dunno. Maybe they'll get killed, maybe they'll be made contractors for enforcement. In this situation, we don't leave a lot of choice: you either become a contractor or you die. That simple, really."
"They'd make lousy contractors for the same reason I would."
"Which is?" Angel asked.
"It's all about appearance," I explained. "They stick out in a crowd. Not the same way I do, they're lowriders, not punks, but they still stick out."
"See your point. Well, it's not my decision to make. 'S up to people above me. Hey, where did Angela go?"
"She's sitting at a table directly behind us. I think she got sick of hearing us talk shop."
"I think we're drunk, and showing it. I don't own this restaurant, I can't do that."
So I went home the next day, looking forward to being with my lovely bride Bekka and getting to work at Inana again. My hangover hardly bothered me. This time, I thought, my life will return to a state of normalcy. I can put the gun back under the mattress, no more tracking down swine and scumbags. I can relax.
Greater mistakes have been made, but it was a doozy for me.
I got in a whopping two days of sedate living. Then, on a Thursday morning, I got a call from Angel. He didn't sound like himself. He had a tone I'd never heard in his voice, that of panic.
"Lenny? You have to come up here right now. I don't care what you're working on, you must get your ass up here ASAP. Capiche?"
"Um, no problem. What's up?"
"What's up is that you've been too close to a killing. Again. Those fucking Mexicans you fingered got shot to death late last night. I'm staring at a picture of the house in the newspaper, and that goddamn Caprice is right out front. I checked with someone I know at the Times and the shooting happened at the address you gave me. I'm going to ask you what I asked you after Todd was shot: did you kill them?"
"Absolutely not. Come on, who do I need to convince? The people above you? You? A grand jury? Late last night I was in bed with Bekka. We were either fucking, just finishing fucking, or asleep. Bekka will back me up on this, right down to what positions we used."
Angel sighed. "I believe you. Now you need to convince people up above me. They are in a lather about this, and they're sure it's you showing off. I've tried to tell them you don't want to kill anyone, but they aren't listening. They want to hear it from your mouth."
"Okay, I'll be up there as soon as traffic allows. Where should I head, the trattoria?"
"No, come to my place. I'll drive you to where we need to go. And Lenny, this is gonna sound creepy, but...."
"I'm gonna have to blindfold you."
Traffic was unfortunately light. I made good time up to Encino.
Just as well, as I made two stops before hitting the freeway. The first was to pick up a copy of the LA Times, which chose to run the story on page three of the "Local" section. Sure enough, a house I'd been in to purchase cocaine was now surrounded by police cordon tape. The second stop was my place, where I explained to a groggy Bekka that I had to go up to LA for the morning to straighten out a mistake someone was making, that I should be back sometime after lunch (unless Angel and I went to the trattoria), and there was nothing to worry about, it was all a misunderstanding. Okay honey? Go back to sleep, it's only ten.
Sure enough, when I arrived at Angel's he escorted me to his Maserati where he tied a folded bandanna over my eyes.
"So what's the story with the blindfold?" I asked.
"Just a bit of security," said Angel. "You having no idea where you are makes them happy. It works for me, too."
"What do you mean?"
"It means that if anyone at the residence we're headed to gets shot, there's that much less suspicion placed on you. Look, I believe you when you say you had nothing to do with either killing." Angel wiped at his nose. "But we took your word for it when you talked about two Mexicans killing Todd. You were the only witness, and you never talked to the cops. As far as they're concerned, that case is cold and growing colder. Especially if the people responsible for it are dead."
"Am I gonna live through the day? Be honest now."
"I think so. I hope so. Because if you go, I probably will too."
We arrived at.... wherever we were. Angel got me out of the car and guided me by my arm to the front door. We were greeted by someone who said, "Mr. Morelli, Mr. Schneider, they are expecting you." Then we walked quite a distance without hitting another outside wall.
When we did step outside, it was into a tennis game. I could hear the sound of the ball hitting the strings of the racquets. Angel said, "Mr. Ventimiglia, this is Lenny."
I said, "So, have we reached the piñata yet?"
Angel kicked me in the shin.... And then Mr. Ventimiglia started laughing. "I like this kid! In his circumstances, and he can crack jokes! Angel, take off the blindfold."
I blinked against the sudden glare, then looked around. I was on the patio of what appeared to be an extremely large house. Mr. V. was seated at a deck table across from.... Paul. This worried me more than a little. Paul was the enforcer who carted off my former boss.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," I said. "Hello, Paul."
"You two know each other?" asked Mr. V.
"We've never had the opportunity to form any long-lasting bond, but we've met," I said.
"As to whether you are pleased to meet me will depend on how believable your answers to questions are. I must say, I've never had a punk rocker on the premises before. Do you plan on destroying the place?"
"Shouldn't believe everything you see on the TV news, sir."
Ventimiglia chuckled at this. Then he said, "What I want to know, Lenny, is your involvement in two separate murders. Actually, three, there were two killings at the Chatsworth house. What can you tell me of them?"
"I was the one who made the 911 call to report the killing on Vanowen. Other than the killers, I was the first person in the house after the murder. I dialed 911 and hung up the phone, since they always respond to hang-up calls. Then I got the hell out of there."
"And why did you not stay around and talk to the police?"
"Two reasons. The first being that I had no business there, I had no connection to Todd. I wouldn't be able to explain myself. The second was that I was wearing a pistol, a Beretta, that is extremely illegal for me to have. It's violation of my terms of probation down in San Diego. That would also have proven difficult to explain to the cops. I'd have probably gone to jail again."
"And are you wearing the pistol now?" asked Mr. V.
"No sir. I didn't think I'd need it today. Hopefully I'll never need it again."
"And your connection to the Chatsworth house?"
"I made a small drug deal with one of the guys inside. So far as the killings went, I was in San Diego when they happened. Depending on the timing, you can either check with the waitstaff at a restaurant near my house, or you can ask my wife. I had nothing to do with the deaths at either location, sir. I imagine ballistics tests will bear me out on this."
"Yes and no," he said. "Ballistics exonerate you in the murder on Vanowen Avenue, but.... You said you carry a Beretta?"
"Yes sir," I agreed.
"The slugs recovered at the scene were for a 9mm pistol. The same as yours. Can you explain this?"
"Yes. Berettas are hardly rare guns, nor are they the only gun which fires a 9mm round. Glock makes a semi-automatic pistol which shares the same ammo specs as the Beretta. You know guns, back me up on this, Paul."
Paul shrugged and said, "True enough."
"And I don't know guns," I continued. "I don't even like the fact that I have to carry one in the course of my duties, I'd prefer my aluminum baseball bat as a weapon. Look, unless there is some way of doing a comparative ballistics test between my Beretta and the bullets found in Chatsworth, I don't know what to tell you. You're going to have to take my word that I didn't kill those two Mexicans. That's all I can say."
Ventimiglia stared at me evenly and said, "You carry a baseball bat."
"As a weapon."
This was the funniest thing he'd heard all week. "What the hell good is a baseball bat against someone with a gun?"
I told him, "All depends on your strategy. I've also been shot while using a bat --- you wanna see? --- but still came out ahead in the end. The last time I was in Chatsworth, when we tried to retrieve some stolen equipment, I used the bat and some stealth to my advantage. And bats are quiet and never run out of ammunition."
"So if Paul here were to point a gun at you right now, and all you had was your aluminum bat, you would....?"
"I'd be on the losing end of things, just the same as if I was wearing my Beretta. He'd have the drop on me, there'd be nothing I could do in either situation."
Ventimiglia studied me some more. "A bit of a fatalist, are you?"
I shrugged. "More of a realist. I don't play against the odds. There's no way I'd get a gun into play while Paul had me covered. He'd have holes in me before I got my jacket open."
He smiled and said, "A wise choice. Young man, you are a most interesting specimen. By your appearance, I would assume I'd be more likely to see you skateboarding down Hollywood Boulevard. Yet you speak with intelligence and good manners. Mostly. At some point I would like to hear your views of the world. Not now, however, as I have a tennis game to play. I shall consider what you have told me and speak with Angel later in the day." He pressed a button on a squawk box in front of him. "Gaines, our guests are leaving. Please show them out."
Gaines came and retrieved me and Angel, escorting us to the front door. I was glad of it, as you could wander for days in that house if unguided. The Maserati sat where we left it.
"Well, that was fun!" I announced to Angel. "What do you wanna do now? Go harass the hookers at Hollywood and Vine?"
"You're not out of the woods yet, Lenny," Angel muttered. "Notice he never said whether he believes you or not. That's what his call to me will be about. Pray he believes you."
"If he doesn't?"
"Why the hell do you think Paul was there?"
We pulled into Angel's driveway a little past two. I asked if I could use his phone to give Bekka an ETA home, he said sure.
"Did you get things straightened out?" she asked.
"I think so. I find out later this afternoon. I'll tell you about it when I get home," I said.
"Two hours then?"
"Yeah, about that. Make it two and a half. I still haven't had lunch. Or breakfast, for that matter. Our hosts didn't feed us."
"Hit a drive-thru, and I'll plan for dinner around seven. Sound good?"
"Sounds great. Love you."
"Love you too. Later."
Angel called around six, with news that was not good. I was believed.... Conditionally. All that had to happen was for the killer in Chatsworth to be located.
Yeah, that's all.
It didn't matter who did the locating. It could be the LA cops, or me. Or the killer, racked with guilt, would go crying to the Times and confess all. Mr. Ventimiglia wasn't picky how it happened. Just so long as it happened. Oh, and it had to happen within the next two weeks, otherwise I'd have to have another meeting with him, the implication being it would not be nearly as pleasant as my first meeting.
I relayed all this information to Bekka. She said, "So what do we do?"
"I don't know. I don't know the first thing about tracking killers, especially without the resources the police have. Should we just wait and see if the cops are on the ball?"
"Can you get the police reports again?"
"Sure I can---- wait a minute, do you want me to go back up to LA again?"
"Just for a few days. You can at least show you've put in some effort. I think that's what this guy probably wants, is a good-faith effort on your part. He can't be an ogre, otherwise he'd have never let Todd live through the weekend after Vinny got shot. Or give Rick the second chance he did."
"Todd hid, and hid well. Rick pissed his second chance down his leg. And remember, Paul was there at that giant house the same time I was. That wasn't coincidence."
Bekka sighed. She said, "Get the police reports and see if you can get anything out of them, do that for a start. Then, I don't know.... Hang around Chatsworth's low riders and see if you can learn something about the two guys who were killed. Had they always been violent? Had they killed in the past? Was it their own drug deal gone bad, just like Todd? You can find something out, and that'll help.... Where are you going?"
"To call Angel back, and ask him to get me those reports."