On Monday I was back at the Starlight Motel. They were getting used to me. The clerk asked me if I was doing business in the area. I told him, "You might say that. I'm a low-level soldier for the mafia, and if I don't solve that murder in Chatsworth in the next eleven days I'll probably be killed."
He smiled and handed me my key.
Bekka and I took a long weekend, and barely left the house. We made love until we both ached from it. We took Ecstasy like it was free. Bekka sobbed with worry on several occasions. I joined in a few times. I felt like a soldier who had been called to battle in some dirty war on the other side of the planet, saying goodbye to his wife, praying he would see her again. Only I wasn't going to war, I had to somehow solve a murder or my own employers would either cripple or kill me.
The police reports provided me with loads more technical jargon about bullet angles and velocity, but other than providing the full names of the deceased --- Luis and Roberto Hernandez, two names that would cause a Greek chorus if yelled at a DMV --- the reports did me no good.
On a hunch I cruised Chatsworth for taquerias, stopping in at every one I could find. In the fourth and fifth I struck gold. There was a wake being held Wednesday night for "Los Hermanos Hernandez," tragically struck down in their primes by a murderer's bullets. The wake was being sponsored by the Los Caballeros Locos Car Club of Chatsworth. I called the information line, but it was busy.
That much accomplished, I headed back to the motel and relayed this information to Angel, who was happy with any news. He didn't say as much, but the assumption was that if I took a dive, so would he. He didn't say what would happen to him (and possibly Angela), but I had an imagination.
Tuesday I scoped out the location of the wake. It was being held at a dead gas station on Plummer Street. I saw people moving around inside, so I didn't stop to investigate. Presumably I'd located the clubhouse of Los Caballeros Locos. Then I went and had lunch at one of the local taquerias that I'd stopped at before. I made an obvious point of reading the flyer for the wake again.
"Tragedy, just a tragedy," I said to no one in particular. I did attract the attention of the counter girl, who asked what I was talking about.
"Aw, these two brothers that were killed. I think I met them a couple times. Do you think they'd mind if an outsider showed up tomorrow?"
"It's going to be crowded, I don't think they'll notice one more person," she replied.
"Cool. I want to stop in and pay my respects. Oh, and I'd like a carne asada burrito and a side of rice please."
I showed up fashionably late for the wake, entirely by design. It would be easier to get lost in a crowd by being late, while being early would have attracted attention to myself. Things were already rolling along, and I tried to follow what was being said over the P.A. system with my limited Spanish. Two semesters in high school does not prepare you for a language.
Something something something.... "their community service" (I nearly laughed out loud when I heard that).... Something something something.... "members in good standing of the Los Caballeros Locos car club".... Something something something.... "Roberto planned to attend Cal State Northridge".... Something something something.... "the police continue to investigate."
I was trying to scan the crowd as casually as possible. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I figured I'd know it when I saw it. I didn't have a clue as to what I hoped to accomplish by being there at all, but it was an effort, and that was the important thing, right? Really, I was just along for the ride.
After a while I noticed something that caught my eye: another white guy. Closer inspection revealed it to be someone familiar to me.
For some reason, Frankie was at this shindig.
They were busy passing around a bucket with a slot cut in the lid, taking collections for the family of the deceased. I dug into the money Angel had provided to pay for cocaine and extracted five hundred. If Angel squawked, I'd be able to cover it from my own funds. I made my deposit and moved towards Frankie.
He was startled to hear his name called. I figured he'd been sent up here by Angel to keep an eye on me. He didn't look too happy right then, actually. No surprise: in his three piece suit, he'd be pegged as a plainclothes cop by anyone there, sent to keep an eye on things. I got close to him and he finally noticed me. I said, "Frankie dude, what brings you here? Aren't you supposed to be at Inana right now?"
"Just, y'know, checking things out. Angel wanted me to attend this thing, see what I could learn...."
"But this is an interview day. Who's taking care of those?"
"It was just four girls, so I had them moved to tomorrow. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, really. Besides, you know as well as anybody some of those interviews are over before they start."
"Well.... Keep your eyes peeled for whatever we're supposed to find. Signed confession or whatever. Hey, I know a great taqueria about six blocks from here, lemme buy you lunch."
"No, after all this is over I really should get back down to San Diego. I'm gonna keep circulating, see what there is to see." Apart from a ton of lowriders and an itinerant elotes man who hoped to pick up a few dollars, damn little. I gave Frankie the usual man-hug, and noticed he was wearing a shoulder holster.
"Hey Frankie, when did you start wearing a gun? I thought you preferred your little .380."
"Well, you and Vinny are so happy with your Berettas, I figured I'd pick one up too."
"Right on. After I'm done with my probation restriction, we should go to a range together, see who gets the most points."
"Yeah, aiming at a wetback-shaped target."
This was a surprisingly hostile thing to come out of Frankie's mouth, but I didn't question it. I let him go his way into the crowd, making my own way to the back. Fuck this, I thought. There is nothing to be gained by me being here. I want some lunch anyways. I drove up to the taqueria and went in.
The place was already crowded. I was sixth back in line just to order. The cook was moving like the proverbial one legged man at an ass-kicking contest. The girl at the counter was taking orders as fast as she could scribble them, and calling out names for pick-up as they came forward. I finally got my chance to order my carne asada burrito.
She recognized me from the day before. "So how was the wake?" she asked.
"Still going on. Very spirited," I told her.
"So what's your connection with the Hernandez brothers, anyway?"
"I work for the mafia, and my bosses are interested in finding out who killed them. If I don't figure it out myself, I'll get killed."
She giggled and said, "Sure, punk rock mafia man. I believe you. Next!" I slid to the side to wait for my order.
After I wolfed down my lunch, I returned to the wake to find it was turning into one hell of a street party. Guys with trays full of Corona snaked through the crowd, selling them for three bucks a pop. I bought one to stay in the right frame of mind, to blend in with the crowd.
I was minding my own business, watching the banda group jam out another dance tune, when I was accosted by a vato in a hairnet. "Who the hell are you?" he asked.
"I'm Lenny. Who are you?"
"I'm Arturo. Why you care about the hermanos Hernandez?"
"I did some business with them, and was sad to hear it was over with. Entiendes?"
"So you did business with los hermanos Hernandez. I'm in the same line of work. We should talk."
"Gimme a phone number," I told him. "I'd give you mine, but it's private. Know what I mean?"
He got hostile again. "Maybe mine is private too."
I shrugged and said, "Hey, if you don't want to do business...." I turned to walk away.
He grabbed my shoulder and said, "C'mon. You got a pen on you? I"ll trust you and give you my number, okay? But you don't give it out to no one else."
"That's copacetic with me," I said.
He had a bulletin, a program of the day's events. He wrote down his number on a blank side and tore it off for me. He told me, "I move anything from single grams to quarter pounds. And my shit is clean, no cut. We can work something out. Entiendes?"
"Entiendo," I said, and drifted away into the crowd, briefly dancing with an older woman who clutched a handkerchief to her nose. The beer, and the clandestine joints and bottles of tequila which were passed around, were having their effect on the crowd. It was time to boogie, before another Arturo showed up demanding why the hell I was there. I didn't want my car flipped, or get beaten by a mob for not being the right color.
I was at loose ends. I reported the events of the day to Angel on the motel phone. He was curious about Frankie's presence. "I didn't send him," he told me.
"Well, he was there, and he said you sent him up. It seemed to make sense, so I didn't question it until just now. How'd he even know where to go?"
"All he'd have to do is eavesdrop on a call between our wives. They have quite the gossip circle going on, between Angela, Bekka, Christina, and Chelsea. Angela and Bekka get along like a house on fire."
I stretched and said, "That doesn't sound good. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, to be honest."
Angel replied, "No, the girls are careful who they talk to. I don't worry about them too much. Like our meeting with Don Ventimiglia, they'll never know anything about that. Don't worry about the nattering of three housewives and a porno queen. Heh, if it weren't for their gossiping I'd have a harder time of things. Like right now, I know you're only half-listening to me. The other half is back in Encinitas, worrying about Bekka who is worrying about you. Lenny! Snap out of it!"
"I'm with you, I'm with you. And you're right, I am worried about her. She doesn't need this kind of stress in her life, you know? I have to admit I was expecting being in the family to be a lot more dull than it's turned out to be. Now, who gave me the impression that things were a piece of cake, hmmm?"
"It's not my fault you're a bullet magnet, Lenny," Angel groused. "We've done those suitcase runs from the airport fifty times without a problem. You show up and bam! Instant war zone."
"Yeah, but I've only pulled the trigger of my gun six times in my life. Four times when I took down Rick, and twice as cover fire in South Gate. If it wasn't me, it would have been somebody else getting shot at and having pistols shoved into their back, So I've had a run of bad luck when it comes to guns, they're always around me. I'm still moving under my own power, so I must be doing something right."
"Lenny, do you have a lucky charm of any kind?"
"Yeah, my Zippo lighter."
"Never lose it." (*click*)