I looked down from the third-floor office window onto the hastily built greenhouse in our back-fence neighbors’ yard. The hothouse frame was constructed from pine four-by-fours. This structure was tightly wrapped in semiopaque plastic sheeting that fluttered only slightly in the morning breeze. The structure reminded me of an army barracks at maybe one-third size. Standing around six and a half feet high and wide, it was four times that in length, with a partially flattened triangular roof. These current neighbors, seven long-haired hippies, had moved in five months before. They built the nursery and wired it for perpetual electric light on the first day. Nearly every daylight hour since then they went back and forth armed with bags of soil, watering cans, clay pots, insecticide brews, and various pruning devices.
At night they sometimes had parties. These festivities often spilled out onto the front porch and lawn but never the backyard. The hothouse was off limits to anyone except the Seven.
They were an interesting-looking crew. Three young women and four men; all somewhere in their twenties. All white except for one young black man. Wearing embroidered jeans and threadbare T-shirts, they spent an hour or so almost every afternoon sitting around a redwood picnic table eating food prepared, served, and shared by the women. They poured wine from green-glass gallon jugs of Gallo red and passed hand-rolled cigarettes from one to the other in an endless circle.
I liked the city farmers. They reminded me of life in my childhood home—New Iberia, Louisiana.
LA was a transient city back then. People moved in and out with predictable regularity. Five months was a long stay for tenants without blood ties or children.
When the back door to the hippie house came open I looked at the round white face of my Gruen Chronometer mit Kalender. It was 7:04 a.m. on Monday, July 7, 1969. The hippie I’d dubbed Stache came out of the split-level ranch house wearing only jeans. The nickname was because of his generous lip hair. I was standing at that window because Stache came out early every morning toting a long-necked tin watering can, wearing neither shirt nor shoes. This ritual had tweaked my detective instinct.
When Stache bent down to get the garden hose I turned away from the window but remained standing behind the extra-large desk. A case had taken me out to Las Vegas over the past week. This was my first day back at the agency and I was the only one there so far that morning.
For a moment I considered sitting and writing down the specifics of the Zuma case, but the details, especially the payment problem, felt like more than I could handle on my first day. So instead I decided to take a walkabout, reacquainting myself with the offices before my colleagues arrived.
Our bureau occupied the entire upper floor of what once was a large house on Robertson Boulevard, a little way up from Pico. My workspace was the master bedroom at the very back. Walking up the hall from there I first passed Tinsford Natly’s office. Tinsford was generally known as Whisper and his room embodied the understated tone of that name. This office was small and windowless, furnished with a battered oak desk barely larger than a writing table you’d expect to find in a junior high classroom. There were two straight-back wooden chairs, one for Tinsford and another to accommodate any visitor or client who found their way to him. He rarely spoke to more than one person at a time because, he said, “Too many minds muddy the water.”
The tabletop was bare, which was unusual. As far back as I could remember, Whisper would have a single sheet of paper centered on his desk. It was always a different leaf with writing that seemed to say something pedestrian but most often held deeper meanings. There were no pictures on the walls, no file cabinet or carpet. His office was like a monk’s cell where some ageless cleric considered the scriptures—one verse, sometimes just one word, at a time.
A little ways up and across the hall, Saul Lynx’s office was three times the size of Whisper’s and a quarter that of mine. His desk was mahogany and kidney-shaped. Saul had a blue love seat and a padded leaf-green chair for clients. A burgundy swivel chair sat behind the burnished desk, which was crowded with knickknacks and photographs of his Negro wife and their multiracial children. There were at least two hundred books on the shelves next to the window. He had five maple filing cabinets, a huge standing globe of the world, and a small worktable with an overhead lamp where he mapped out his investigative campaigns.
Saul’s office was cluttered but neat. His tabletop and desk were most often disheveled because Saul was usually in a hurry to get out in the street, where detectives like us went up against the jobs we took on. But that Monday morning everything was in its proper place—almost as if he’d left for a vacation.
I wandered from the back offices up to the repurposed foyer, where Niska Redman’s desk sat.
Niska was our secretary, receptionist, and office manager. A few years earlier Tinsford got her father out of a jam and she went to work for him. When I had my windfall and decided to start the WRENS-L Detective Agency, she came along with her boss. The caramel-cream biracial young woman was perfect for our needs. She was a night-school junior at Cal State, friendly, and completely reliable. She knew all our quirks and needs, temperaments and habits. Niska was that rare worker who did the job without direction and was more than capable of thinking on her own.
I sat down at her sleek cherrywood desk facing the front door to our offices. Taking in a deep breath, I noted how it felt good being alone and unhurried. Everything was fine, so I’m not quite sure why the darkness entered my mind . . .
Four years before, I’d been drunk for the first time in many years, driving barefoot down the Pacific Coast Highway at night, far above the rocky undergrowth along the shore. I tried to pass a tractor trailer, met oncoming traffic, and was forced off the pavement onto the soft shoulder, which then gave way to nothingness.
Some hours later Mouse, under the direction of the witch, Mama Jo, found me.
The coma lasted for weeks but I was still aware under that pall, feeling as if I had crossed far beyond the border of expiry. The moments of a wasted life littered the floor around my deathbed.
That same debris surrounded me in Niska’s sunlit office space. Breathing became a chore and the memory of a life filled with pain and dying seemed to grasp at me from an incalculable depth. It was as if I had died in the accident and so whenever the specter of that time returned I had to struggle once more against the desire to let go. I could have breathed my last right then and there. Later I’d be found by my friends, having passed away from no apparent cause.
Though assailed by hopelessness I was not afraid. The suffering of my people and my life pressed like tiny embers burning away at the release the numbness of death promised. I took one breath and then another. My chest and shoulders rose and fell slowly. In sunbeams coursing through the windowpane I saw motes of dust illuminated by the light. These floaters were accompanied by unimaginably small insects going about their winged search for sustenance, succor, and sex. Hearing the intermittent sounds of the house creaking in the morning breeze, I somehow slipped back into the rhythm of living.
After all that I was both exhausted and relieved. It was a reminder that the most desperate battles are fought in our hearts and souls, and that death is only one final trick of the mind.
“Hi, Mr. Rawlins.”
I glanced at my white-faced watch before looking up at Niska Redman. It was 8:17. Nearly an hour had passed since I commandeered her office chair.
Niska wore a one-piece shamrock-green dress that didn’t quite cover her handsome knees. I liked the freckles around her nose and the smile that said she was honestly happy to see me. Hanging from her left shoulder was a rather large buff-colored canvas sack.
“Hey, N. How you doin’?”
“Fine. I made brown-rice pudding last night.” She swung the shoulder bag out onto the desk and opened it wide. Therein I saw her polka-dot blue-and-white purse, a few books, an exercise mat, a fine-toothed comb and an Afro pick, two brushes, a makeup bag, and a quart-size Tupperware tub. This last item she brought out and set before me.
“Want some?” she asked.
“Maybe later.” I stood up from her chair and she moved to stand next to it.
“Were you looking for something in my desk?”
“No. Just getting a different perspective is all. Where’s Tinsford? I don’t think I’ve ever gotten in before him unless he was on a case.”
“Uh-huh, excuse me, but I have to go to the restroom.”
She went down the hall of offices to the door just beyond Whisper’s. I pulled a guest chair from the far wall and set it before her workstation, still feeling the tremors from my mortal battle with demons of the past.
The phone rang once and I reached over to answer.
“WRENS-L Detective Agency.”
“Hey, Saul. Where you callin’ from?”
“Niska didn’t tell you?”
“She just got in.”
“I’m up north. At the Oakland shipyards.”
“The IC called last Wednesday,” he said. “They’ve been underwriting a policy for Seahawk Shipping Lines. Too much cargo’s gone missing over the past eighteen months and they want us to look into it.”
The IC was actually the IIC, the International Insurance Corporation, an indemnity provider owned by Jean-Paul Villard, president and CEO of P9, one of the largest insurance consortiums in the world. JP’s number two was Jackson Blue, a good friend of mine. The IIC had us on commission and so whenever they called, one of us answered.
“You ever hear of a group called the Invisible Panthers?” Saul asked.
A toilet flushed in the back offices.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“They say they’re some kind of left-wing political group that don’t want to be known.”
Niska came out from the hallway and pointed at her ear with a query on her face.
“It’s Saul,” I said to her, and then I asked him, “It’s a whole political organization?”
“I really don’t know. Maybe paramilitary. Is Niska there with you?”
“Tell her hello for me.”
“Those radical groups up there are dangerous. Maybe you should have somebody with you. I could ask Fearless.”
“No. At least not yet anyway. I’m just making some contacts buying black-market Japanese electronics. Nothing to worry about so far.”
“Okay. But don’t cut it too close.”
“Don’t worry. Tell Niska I’m saving the expense reports for when I get home.”
“Okay. Talk to you later.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Lynx!” Niska shouted before I hung up.
“He says he’ll have the expense reports when he comes back.”
“That’s what he always says. Tinsford’s gone too.”
Niska started organizing her desk while answering my question.
“This older white lady named Tella Monique came in last Tuesday,” she said. “She wanted for him to find her son Mordello because her husband had disowned him and threw him out when he had married a Catholic woman nine years ago.”
“Uh-huh. But now that her husband died she wants her son and his family back.”
“So where’s Whisper doin’ all this?” I asked.
“He’s in Phoenix ’cause the son was mixed up with a motorcycle gang called the Snake-Eagles, somethin’ like that, out there.”
“A black motorcycle gang?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Damn. I hope he got his will up to date.”
Niska grinned and said, “Nobody ever sees Mr. Natly. They won’t even know he was there.”
“Any news for me?”
“Not really. You got the check from Mr. Zuma?”
“Um . . .”
Charles “Chuck” Zuma was a millionaire who had a twin sister named Charlotte. It took Charlotte most of her thirties to run through her half of their sizable inheritance. Then she used a loophole in the family trust to turn Chuck’s twenty-eight million into bearer bonds. After that Charlotte Zuma disappeared.
Her brother offered me two-tenths of one percent of as much of the money as I could return. I took the job because there was no violent crime attached. I was trying to take on easy jobs that didn’t include, for instance, motorcycle gangs and left-wing paramilitary groups.
“Did you get the money?” Niska asked again.
“Technically how much?”
“The sister learned from her wasteful years,” I said. “Her investment advisers increased Chuck’s money to nearly forty million.”
“That’s an eighty-thousand-dollar fee.” She did this calculation without using her fingers.
“The forty million is all tied up in funds that a whole army of forensic accountants have to disentangle.”
“But all you need is eighty thousand.”
“Chuck’s broke. He’s living with a rich cousin up north of Santa Barbara.”
“So we don’t get paid?”
“It’ll take at least a year before he gets his and we get ours. But he gave me collateral.”
“What kind of collateral?”
“A pale yellow 1968 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI.” I might have grimaced a little while reciting the name.
“They only made a few hundred of ’em,” I said. “And none in America. It’s worth at least twice what Zuma owes.”
“But you can’t put a car in the bank.”
“I could sell it.”
“You parked it downstairs?”
“It’s in the shop.”
“A car that doesn’t even work?”
“I’ll be in my office.”
I liked Niska. She considered every problem before offering an answer and therefore almost always did a good job. But I wasn’t in the mood for good service or comradeship. That morning I had a yen for isolation. Just hearing her footsteps down the hall wore on me. When she went to the restroom a second time I had to put down the book I was reading because of the whining of the pipes and the sound of the door clicking shut. Even the faint whiff of her essential-oil perfume seemed to crowd my space.
By 10:17 I made a decision. It took a few more minutes to tamp down the unreasonable anger before going out to the front office.
Niska was typing at great speed on her IBM Selectric. She typed, organized, and filed away our notes, correspondence, and case journals. At seventy-five words a minute, the rapid-fire clack of the letter ball on paper set my teeth on edge.
“Yes, Mr. Rawlins?” She stopped the racket, looking up innocently.
Behind a forced smile I asked, “You like that Transcendental Meditation stuff, right?”
The surprise pushed her head back two or three inches.
“Um,” she said. “Yeah. How come?”
“They have those two-week-long getaways where everybody does yoga, right?”
“There’s some exercises but mostly they meditate. I went to two weekend retreats but the week-longs are very expensive. And I only get two weeks’ vacation anyway. I was thinking of going to one around Christmas maybe.”
“How expensive is it?” I asked.
“Hundred and thirty dollars—a week.”
“What if I gave you two weeks off and enough money for the retreat—on top of your salary? You could call ’em and go right up there this morning.”
“But what about the files and the phone?”
“Files can wait and I learned how to answer a phone before you were born.”
This was something new for the receptionist/office manager. Her eyebrows creased and her freckled nose scrunched up.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“I want to be alone, honey. That’s all. Whisper and Saul are already out, probably for a while. I think it would be good for both of us.”
“So you just want me to pack up and go?”
“Right after I draw the money you need out of the safe.”
She hemmed, hawed, and argued mainly because there was little precedent for a boss letting employees off from work on a whim back in 1969. And two hundred and sixty dollars plus two weeks’ salary for doing something you loved was unheard-of. But the offer was too good to pass up, and so by noon she was off and I could return to my office in solitude.
I leaned back in my ample oak throne and sighed deeply.
“Alone at last,” I said aloud.
“Either for good or not for long,” a bodiless voice intoned.
In life that voice belonged to an old man I knew only as Sorry. He was the wisest man of my childhood, whose advice would come to me every couple of years or so to remind me that I didn’t know everything and so to watch out for banana peels and blind corners, jealous husbands and comely wives.
More than once I worried that that voice was an indication of severe mental disease. But then I’d remember that we lived in a world filled with insanity; where war, nuclear threat, and the slaughter of children crowded every day with distress.
In the America I loved and hated you could make it rich or, more likely, go broke at the drop of a robber baron’s hat. That’s why I had a pile of cash hidden somewhere safe, no rent or mortgage payment, and no property tax either. And that was just the material of life. My true wealth was a small family, a few friends, and a phone number that was unlisted even to the police.
These were just normal precautions. One thing I never forgot was that I was a black man in America, a country that had built greatness on the bulwarks of slavery and genocide. But even while I was well aware of the United States’ crimes and criminals, still I had to admit that our nation offered bright futures for any woman or man with brains, elbow grease, and more than a little luck . . .
There was a sound out past the hallway toward the front of the offices. One of the settling cracks of the foundation, most probably. But then again maybe there was no sound at all but just my intuition.
I looked up and saw the shadow of a man standing a few feet back from the doorway, the only exit from my office.
Go left or go right but never move straight ahead unless there’s no other way, Mr. Chen often taught in his self-defense class. Look for the upper hand instead of trying to prove that you are the strongest. The other man is always stronger, but you will best him from either the right or the left.
The problem was that I was sitting in a chair at a desk with my closest pistol in the bottom drawer. Whoever had walked in was good; he hardly made a sound. Even if I fell to the right and grabbed at the drawer he could have shot me right through the wood.
He took a step forward. I could see that he was tall and lean with a pantherish gait, but still his features were hidden in shadow.
“Are you Easy Rawlins?” he asked.
With those words the unannounced visitor crossed the threshold. He was in his early twenties with very short sandy-blond hair and an ugly bruise on his left temple. He wore a peach-and-white checkered short-sleeved shirt over a white undershirt. His blue jeans were stiff, ending at silent white sneakers. I already knew he was a white boy by the spin of his words.
“You always just walk in on people like that?” I replied.
“The door was unlocked,” he said. “I said hello when I came in.”
He took another step and I sat back again. His empty hands hung loose at the sides.
“I’m Rawlins. Who’re you?”
He took another step, saying, “Craig Kilian.”
One more step. It felt as if he was going to walk right up on my desk.
“Why don’t you take a seat, Mr. Kilian?”
The offer seemed to confuse the young man. He looked to his left, identified the walnut straight-back chair. After a moment he went through the necessary movements to sit himself down.
“You just out the military, Craig?”
“Uh-huh. You say that ’cause’a my crew cut?”
There was a haunted look in Kilian’s eyes that would have probably still been there if he hadn’t been walloped upside the head. All through World War II I’d encountered soldiers from both sides of the battlefield who had that look, who had been shattered by the din of war.
Craig took a pack of True cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Plucking out a cancer stick with his lips, he drew a book of matches from the cellophane skin of the pack. He lit up, took in a lungful of smoke, and exhaled.
Then he gave me a quizzical look and asked, “Do you mind if I smoke?”
I did mind. I’d been trying to quit for a couple of years. But there was something about Craig’s glower that made me want to give him some leeway.
Watching him suck on that cigarette, I was reminded of an early morning in October 1945. It was outside of Arnstadt, Germany, and I was on guard duty after a long night of heavy rains. The war was just over and so we weren’t as sharp as we had been in battle. My brand was Lucky Strike. As I smoked I was wondering what it would be like to go back home to Texas after outflanking and outfighting the white man, and becoming friendly with his women too.
I don’t know what made me look to the right—a sound, an intuition—but there I saw a German soldier in a filthy and tattered uniform bearing down on me with a bayonet raised high. I turned just in time to grab the knife-wielding hand by the wrist. In that instant we had seized each other, locked, almost motionless, in a struggle to the death. My cigarette fell onto his coat sleeve. I don’t know what I looked like to him, but his gaunt face was desperate and, oddly, almost pleading. He pressed harder and harder but I matched him sinew for sinew. Probably the deciding factor in that brawl was the fact that I was well-fed and he was not. He might have been trying to kill me in hopes of getting a few rations.
The smoldering sleeve started to burn. Smoke got into my left eye. I winced and he pressed harder. We were both shaking under the exertions, literally on fire. I noticed a tear coming from his eye. At first I thought it was in reaction to the smoke, but then I saw, and felt, that he was crying. He shook harder and I was able to press him down onto the rain-soaked mud. There I got the upper hand, forcing the blade toward his throat. He was trying his best to protect himself while blubbering.
I could have killed him as I had a dozen others in hand-to-hand combat. Death dealing was second nature after years on the battlefield. But instead I pushed his bayonet arm to the side, slamming it down on the wet earth, extinguishing the fire. He released the dagger, curled into a ball, and cried for all he was worth. I sat there next to him for long minutes. When he finally sat up I handed him my rations and indicated that he could leave. I should have taken him as a POW, but lately our troop had been executing anyone they deemed a Nazi.
It is 1969, and flames can be seen on the horizon, protest wafts like smoke through the thick air, and Easy Rawlins, the Black private detective whose small agency finally has its own office, gets a visit from a white Vietnam veteran. The young man comes to Easy with a story that makes little sense. He and his lover, a beautiful young woman, were attacked in a citrus grove at the city’s outskirts. He may have killed a man, and the woman and his dog are now missing. Inclined to turn down what sounds like nothing but trouble, Easy takes the case when he realizes how damaged the young vet is from his war experiences—the bond between veterans superseding all other considerations. The veteran is not Easy’s only unlooked-for trouble. Easy’s adopted daughter Feather’s white uncle shows up uninvited, raising questions and unsettling the life Easy has long forged for the now young woman. Where Feather sees a family reunion, Easy suspects something else, something that will break his heart.