Sometimes when you make love, sex has nothing to do with it.

            When I tossed the cell phone into the corner in disgust, Val had scootched up, taken my face between her hands, and kissed me like she had never kissed me before.  Her mouth was so warm on mine.  Her tongue was so moist. 

            I don’t remember our clothes coming off.  Maybe I was in a movie.  Maybe I was still dreaming.  She was on top of me and I was inside her, and I was alive.  Her chest and neck above her breasts were flushed.  Blood was pumping under her white skin.  I think she came.  She was very quiet.  I know I came.  That wasn’t important, but that was where it ended.  We held each other.  It was better than sleep.  We were quiet together.

            Do you think it was an inappropriate time to make love?  Then you and I are very different, because I can’t think of a better time.  In fact, I can’t think of a time when it is ever inappropriate to make love like we did that early afternoon.

            I asked her if she had recovered from the events at the cottonwood tree last night.  She cried.  For some stupid reason I thought it would help her to talk about it. 

            She related the events in a very flat, detached way.  Redlands’ threats, his smell, the gun against her head; it was as if she were reciting a shopping list.  Pepper, milk, bread, my God, he’s going to shoot me.  She gave me details but no real truth.  That’s how Val can be sometimes.  She’s hard to understand.  There’s a moment of connection and then the line goes dead again.  I think it all goes back to her dad, but that’s only a guess.  I’ve only ever gotten snippets of info about her childhood.  None of the bits are good.  But I can say that, the way she talked about being a little girl was exactly how she related her side of the near-death experience Redlands had put her through.  Talking about it, she was just as calm as a dead bird.  It scared me.

            I was angry.  I was a male who wanted to protect his mate.  I uttered a few graphic threats.  I would disembowel Redlands.  She told me to be quiet again.  She said I’d handled it as well as I could.  I don’t know if even she belived that, but she said it, and I let it go.  We lay there together for awhile longer.  Then she kissed me very lightly and looked into my eyes from five inches away.  She stayed like that for about a minute, then she kissed me again and jumped up, heading for the bathroom.  I loved her naked ass.

            I heard the shower kick in, and I counted the cracks above me, waiting for a new plan to emerge.  Mikey had pled guilty.

            “You are charged with homicide in the first degree.  How do you plead, Mr. Hutchence?”  It must have echoed in the marble courtroom.

            “Guilty, Your Honor.”

            “Has your counsel explained the consequences of your plea?”

            “Yes, Your Honor, he has.”

            Mikey probably looked at his feet the whole time.  Thad Cuddigan most likely stood beside him and looked grim.  You’d be grim too, if you needed a drink as bad as fat boy Thad probably did.  He had convinced Mikey that he was going to fry unless he took the deal.  Mikey was a coward.  He’d get life with no rich Duncan Hines brownies or parole.

            You think only guilty people plead guilty.  You pick up the newspaper, and after you finish the sports section or look up a movie time, you notice an article about a speed dealer who admits he raped and killed a prostitute somewhere down in Vaporville.  You think, “Good, that’ll save us taxpayers a buck or two.”  You figure another crime has been solved.  Maybe you say to yourself, “Pity they ain’t gonna kill him.”  I don’t blame you.  You really believe that’s the way things should be.

            Valerie came back in the bedroom drying her hair with a white towel.  She dressed right in front of me.  That was unusual.  She would undress in front of me or let me undress her.  But she had never put her clothes on with me watching.  I liked it.  It was the sexiest thing I had ever seen.

            “Mikey plead guilty.”  Salt, mushroom soup, the idiot copped a plea.

            “I know.  I could hear Vandy on the phone.”

            “He didn’t kill Terri,” I said.

            “We’ve had this conversation.”  She was right.

            “Father Hunter blew his head off.”  I tried to be as matter-of-fact as Val.  Margarine, Jell-O, bananas, he fucking decapitated himself.

            “Did he tell you anything?”  She had her shoes and socks and jeans on.  She was wearing a white lace bra.  She held my hand.  It was so intimate.

            I told her everything.  Doug and Terri, their plan, Torey running out, Terri dying, all of it.

            “The same guy?”

            “That’s what Doug said.”

            “Do you know what he meant?”

            “The man on the fourth floor, Val.”

            “Yeah, I get it.  The same guy.”  Val squeezed my hand.

            “The same guy.”   I squeezed back.  I told her about the last moments of Doug’s life.  I told her about the tapes on the table.

            I told her about the naked boy on the screen.  How much like Torey he was.  I told her how Terri had been counting on some mysterious friend, how Mikey didn’t help, how Terri’s naive plan to be like Tools had collapsed in some kind of betrayal.  I told her again how Terri had died, and Torey had run away with the most important of the tapes.

            “What’s on this tape Torey has?” she asked.

            “I’m not sure.  Doug blathered about some pointing finger, I don’t know.  He talked about a mistake that the camera picked up, some giveaway.”

            “And this ‘same guy’ has got some policeman looking for Torey.  Shit, it has to be…”

            “Don’t say the name, Val.”

            “Why not?”  She looked at me like I wasn’t making sense, and she was probably right.

            “I just don’t want you saying the name.  Any of the names.  If this leads where I think it leads, then I’m going to have to do some things that you shouldn’t be involved in.  You’re a lawyer.  Go ahead and think what you want to think. You can’t be asked to testify about what you think.  Be careful what you say.”

            “O.K., Marty.”

            Then I told her how the fake video got dubbed off.  That way Mikey was in the crosshairs, and if Torey did surface, and started telling tales, they could discount him as a child traumatized by his own father.  I told her about Torey’s friend, Pies.  I think I told her all that.  I was just barely holding it together.

            “So how can we find this Pies kid?”

            “He’s a neighborhood boy.  I can find him.”  I really thought I could.  I knew this place.  I knew Torey, if he was anything like me, anyway.  I could track him down.  Corleone gave me a small bit of a lead.”

“Where’d you see him?”

“At the Golden Calf.”

“You went to the casino?”

“I saw him there.”

“That’s all?”

“I stole some money.”

Val thought for a second.  “O.K. then.”  As long as I wasn’t gambling it was fine.  Val hated gamblers.  “What did Kenny tell you?”

“He said Pies might live down by the lead refinery.”

“That does narrow things down a little.  But, Marty, that’s a pretty rough neighborhood.”

I almost laughed.  “And we live in Beverly Hills.  I forgot.  Listen, Val, the point, is I have an idea on who might know something about this Pies kid.  I’ve got to find Torey quick.  I’m sure these people would just as soon not deal with him in court.”

“Shit, Marty, they’ll kill him.  What if they’ve already…”

“Forget that, Val.  I’m going to find him.”  It was God’s own truth.  I felt it deep in my bloody guts.  The only question was, how long would it take? “I’m going to find him.  And, Valerie, I need to ask you to do something.” 

            “What?”  She wasn’t saying yes too quickly.  I’d called her Valerie.  Trouble.

            “The videotapes I brought.  I need you to watch them.  I can’t.  I just can’t.  I want you to look for a face, the perpetrator’s face, the bastard’s face might be on there somewhere, or this finger that Doug kept talking about.  Whatever….  Anything… It’s not going to be easy, I know.  But I need you to watch them.  I can’t.  I already saw part of one and…  Thank God I didn’t see Torey.  I saw another boy.  But I know Torey’s on there somewhere.  I don’t think I could…”  I was babbling.  I was feeling sick and so fucking tired.  “Can you?…”

            She stood up, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out an opened bottle of wine.  She grabbed the protruding cork with her teeth, yanked it out, and spit it on the floor.  “O.K. I’ll watch them.”  Then she put the bottle to her lips and chugged half of it down.  She wiped her mouth and caught her breath.  “I’ll look at them.”

            “Thanks, Val.  I just can’t.”

            “I know… I know.”  It was going to be terrible and she knew it.

            “Thanks.”  What else could I say?

            She took another swig. “After that, if I’m sober enough, I’m going to go down to the courthouse and see what’s up.  Maybe I can corner…”  Val paused, thought about it and then continued, “Maybe I’ll talk to our dear friend Kensington, make him sweat.”  Anger flashed in her eyes.  It was getting very personal for her.  Hell, she’d already made Kensington pay big time.  Now the bill had gotten bigger, and it was way overdue.  This was for pawns like Redlands,  and all the big pieces on the board.  Valerie was in crusade mode now.

            “Stay away from Kensington.”  I tried to sound casual.  I didn’t succeed.

            Val’s eyes widened.  “Kensington is…  Of course, Kensington’s the fixer… Terri knew him, right?  Shit.  That fucker.  Marty…”

            “Just stay away from him, Val.  Stay here and watch the tapes.” 

            “All right.”


            Val’s eyes flashed.  “Do not talk to me in that paternal tone, Marty.  I swear I’ll…”

            “I’m sorry, Val.  I am.  But just stay here, please?”

            “All right.”  She let me off that little barbed hook.

            I jumped in the shower.  Hot water is the reason an ordered society and civilization is so worthwhile.  I used some of Valerie’s lilac soap.  I wanted to smell like her.  Lilac — it reminded me of a bush on a hill.  I felt guilty.  I was thinking about Terri all of a sudden.  The water ran down my back, and I wrenched my mind back to Torey and Pies.  I wondered, did my kid have a nickname?  I’d never given him one.  My dad had called me “Fella.”  He was the only one who did.  Fathers, good fathers, should always give their kids nicknames.

            I dried off and found some clean Levi’s in Val’s closet.  I had snuck a few personal items into her place over time.  My toothbrush, a couple pairs of jeans, some shirts, and an Ozark Outhouse were here.  They announced my intentions.  The Ozark Outhouse was cool.  It was plastic, and when you opened the half moon door a little boy inside slowly turned and squirted you using his little plastic penis.  I used to put it next to Valerie’s ashtray and try to extinguish her Marlboro Ultra Lights.  She hated it.

            I tossed on my old T-shirt.  It didn’t smell too bad.  I buttoned up a blue shirt, tucked it in, and pulled on some tennies over my old socks.  They didn’t smell too good.  With a Cubs jacket and one of Val’s Oakland Raider baseball caps, I almost looked urban.

            We sat down at the kitchen table.  The French Vanilla coffee was heavenly as usual.

            “He’s not dead, Marty.”  Val knew what was in the back of my mind.

            “I know.”  I did know.  I hoped I did.  I was rested now.  I was starting to think clearly. I had a plan.  I had to get back into wise-ass mode.  That’s when I do my best work.

            “You’re not going to Abe’s?”  She should have known better, but she knew better.  The question made sense.

            “No.  I’m going to go buy some meth.”  I gave her my cutest little boy look.

            “Not really.”

            “No, really, but not really.  If Torey is in smelter-town, he’ll be hanging out with the wrong crowd.  That’s what I would do.  Especially since he thinks he’s the one in trouble.”

            “Where will you start?”  She almost trusted me.

            “Younger Street.”  (Cole) Younger was, obviously, a block over from (Jesse) James.  Check a Western folklore book.  Younger was a veritable Board of trade for drugs, sex, and pirated rock and roll.  They knew me there.

            I gave her a kiss.

            “I called Sally while you were in the shower.”  That would be Sally Rosemond, Val’s pal from the defender’s office who didn’t approve of me.  “She’s got a line on those sealed records about Kensington.  She might be able to get a hold of them, but she’s not sure.  She’s going to the Bahamas on vacation.”  The image of Sally Rosemond on a beach in a bikini made me want an extra umbrella in my coconut.  “She’s gonna let me use her car until mine is fixed.”  It was insane.  Lending a car to Valerie.

            “Great..  What’s she drive?”

            “I don’t know, some kind of Mercedes.  An E class?  Does that sound right?”

            “It sounds about fifty thousand dollars worth of car, all right.”  It was worse than insane.  It was a symptom of organic dementia to lend that kind of car to Valerie.

            I kissed her again, and then she kissed me.  “Don’t go anywhere, please.”  I hit the street.

            “I’ll meet you here later,” she shouted after me. 

            It took me about twenty minutes to shoe leather it over to Younger.  I like walking.  The day had turned into a sunny November surprise.  It was in the low fifties, and it would have smelled like autumn if I hadn’t been in the heart of Vaporville.  Walking gave me time to think.  I was able to come up with a name in my keen thinking machine.  Baldie, that was his name.  He sold all sorts of interesting drugs, and he used kids to do it.  He would know every troubled kid in that part of town.  Dickens would be proud.

            When I walked up in front of Baldie’s house, the music didn’t sound anything like “Oliver.”  The melodic stylings of the late Old Dirty Bastard were slappin’ out o’ da house and bouncin’ back from the brick wall of the day old bread store across the narrow street.  Hip Hop insanity.  You either like it or you don’t.  It fit the setting.  I liked it.  I think the song was “Ghostface Killah.”  I’m no expert.

            I was met at the chain link gate by a thirteen-year-old.  His eyes were older, and, I believed, so was the gun in his waistband. 

            I nodded.  I wanted to look cool.

            He just stared at me.  He didn’t think I was cool.

            “Baldie.”  If I said the name, maybe it would act as a password.  He didn’t move.  The kid didn’t even blink.  Maybe I should have said, “Sesame.”  It was getting a little uncomfortable.  The song thumped on.  I had an inspiration.

            “The Wu is the way…”  I hoped it was the right group.

            He blinked and replied, “The Tang is the Slang.”

            Now what was it? Oh yeah, “The Clan is the Fam.”  It was the Wu Tang Clan, famous gansta rappers.  It was amazing the flotsam and jetsam I heard once and stored away.  I seemed to have broken through my young friend’s reserve.

            “Whatta’ you want?” He wasn’t exactly my friend yet.  But the hostility had been turned down half a crack vial.

            “Baldie.  I want to see Baldie.”

            He looked me up and down.  I opened my coat without him asking.  He could see there was nothing in my belt.  I pulled out the pockets.  I’d gone through softer security at an airport.

            “A lot of folks want to see Baldie.”  He relaxed even more.

            “Tell him Tools is outside.”

            “You want some crack?”

            “Not today.  I’m trying to cut down.”

            He looked disappointed.  After all, he was working on commission.  He’d tried to make the sale.  There are so many untapped resources around the hood.  Prudential Insurance could turn this kid into a big producer if they’d get down here and recruit.

            He hopped up the front steps and disappeared inside.  It was a four story square frame house.  There were big bay windows in front on the first two floors, and tall double hungs on the top two narrow floors.  I was sure there were one or two pairs of eyes on me.  In this neighborhood, the total number of eyeballs watching me could have been an odd number.  My pal reappeared and opened the gate.

            “Second floor to the left at the top of the stairs.”  He didn’t turn to watch me go in.  His eyes were back on the street looking for customers.  He hadn’t stayed home from school to lay around all day.

            Normally, you’d expect me to talk about the degradation and stench I found inside.  The fact is, it wasn’t bad for a crack house.  There was a bank of scented candles burning on an old occasional table in the entryway.  I’m sure that was an OSHA violation.  I’d point it out to the proprietor later.  A few people were milling around in the front room to my right.  They didn’t talk to me, and I thought it wise not to talk to them.  There were some animal sounds coming from down the hall past the stairs.  Somebody was getting a blow job, or a St. Bernard was talking in his sleep, one or the other.

            I took the steps two at a time.  They curved back towards the front of the house.  I took a left at the top.  I was in the room with the big bay window.  So was Baldie. 

            He looked up from his desk.  My back was to the window.  In the land of drive-bys, that’s the way he wanted it.  Baldie motioned for me to sit down.  I did.  He was typing away madly on a computer keyboard.  It was a Gateway.  Guess he didn’t have as much class as I thought.  He sure made enough money to buy something good like an Mac-G5.  Well, none of my business if he wanted to crash and burn.

            I waited while he finished his keyboarding.  I will say this, the cat could type.  Me, I’m strictly two fingers and a delete button.

            “What can I do for you, Tools?  Long time no see.”  He was magnanimous.  His gestures were big and disconnected to his words.  His hands flew around like the room was full of flies.  His toupee was straight out of Monty Python, the color of a dead Norwegian Blue.

            “ Hi, Baldie.  I need to find somebody.”

            “Don’t we all?”  What was he trying to kill with his hands?   Were there bugs on the keyboard?  Maybe in Baldie’s chemically saturated eyeballs there were.  It was distracting.  His hands stopped, and one motioned for me to hold it.  He started in on the keyboard again.  His fingers were going to catch fire if he moved them any faster.

            “What are you working on, Baldie?”  I was curious, aren’t you?

            “A novel.  A novel of the demi-monde.”  He had taken French in high school, too.  It meant, I hoped, a book about his work, the world he lived in.

            “No kidding.”  I was skeptical.

            “I already have an agent, and we’re close to a deal at Random House.  It’s titled, ‘Confessions of a Crack Artist.’ I’m reaching the penultimate point in the conflict now.”  He was using too much of his own product.  That’s an occupational hazard.  Anyone who’s seen “Scarface” knows that.  “Don’t sample the wares” is the moral message of the film. A quality movie.  I still think that “Scarface” is the best remake of “Citizen Kane” ever made. 

            It was obvious that Baldie’s sampling had impaired some of his communication skills.  When dealing with a crazy person, sometimes you go along with their fantasies, sometimes you ignore them and clutch tightly to your own sense of reality.  I stuck with my plan, not his.

            “You know a kid named Pies?”

            He stopped typing.  His hands flew around his head like insects.  One would land on his chin, then take off again as the other landed momentarily on the top of his dead parrot.

            “Pies?  Pies?  Yes,  I might know a kid named Pies.  I might.”  His hands fluttered on.

            Now some would think that if I’d just flip him a C-note he’d tell me.  Don’t be absurd.  Baldie had plenty of C-notes.  He only told people stuff when he wanted to.  I decided to slip into his delusion – cheaper, easier, and more likely to produce results.

            “It’ll really make your main character look good, Baldie.”  Baldie’s book had to be about himself.  That seemed obvious.  Writers should always write about what they know.  “You could put it in your book.  The Crack Artist helps out a friend.  It’ll show his inner nobility.  He helps a worried father find his missing kid.  A bit of pathos in the story.”  I let that sink in.  Then, in case he missed it, I said, “I’m a worried father with a missing son, Baldie.”

            His eyes finally settled on me.  His hands typed a quick line and stopped.  He read what he had written.  “Yes, yes… The hand that has written on the wall moves on and writes no more.  Our hero has noble blood.  He shows mercy to the lost boy and the frantic father.”  Baldie looked at me.  I happen to know that he has at least fifteen kids.  As a father himself, he understood.  And no matter how morally reprehensible some would judge him to be, Baldie had a heart.  Jesus, it was  a Damon Runyon moment. 

            “Pies lives just down the block on Eighth, a green house, usually.  He’s in the book.  He used to run for me.  His eyes are wrong.  He’s pie-eyed.  His eyes look in opposite directions.  He was a great lookout, I’ll tell you.”  His hands started twitching, and he went back to the keyboard.  I was already on the way down the stairs by the time he hit the first key.

            The armed toddler stepped back as I bounded his way.  I high-fived him, which was weird because nobody high-fives anymore, not even in the NBA.  I hopped over the front gate.  The little sentry called after me, “Sure you don’t want no crack?”  I was running towards Eighth.  “Did you buy some crack?  You God damn…”  Then he noticed I’d slipped him a fifty during my white man hand slap on the way past him.  “Hey, thanks man!…What a motherfucker…”  It was a term of endearment the way he said it.  But I wasn’t listening.

            I was to Eighth in a minute flat.  My heart sank. 

            I saw the green house.  It was three stories and narrow.  There was a battered white door up three steps from the walk.  And there it was again, and again, and again, and again… There were a dozen identical green houses on that block of Eighth Street.

            I looked a block up.  No green houses, only a burnt out Safeway.  One block further down was the Amalgamated Lead Refinery.  It took up three city blocks.  This had to be the place.  One of those houses was Pies’.  It looked like I was going on stake-out duty.

            That’s what I was thinking when a patrol unit turned onto the block.  I don’t like patrol cars.  I told you that.  I ducked into the doorway of an old sewing machine shop on the corner of Younger and Eighth.  I slumped down and tried to look homeless.

            The black and white cruised by slowly.  The cop was looking for something or someone.  He turned his head in the direction of my doorway.  Son-of-a-bitch!

            Officer James Redlands looked straight at me.


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