A Short Story
William Whelan pulled the cloth away and saw that her forehead had been cracked open and that black blood had seeped into her curly black hair. Her eyes were open. Mario Escalante, the Echo Park Maniaco behind him, winced. “Jesus,” Mario said. William dropped the wet cloth and looked at her. Maybe it was that she could have been related to any number of the girls he’d been with in the brothels of Amman or maybe it had something to do with his broader suspicion that there was really just one woman with a world’s full of different faces, but he began to feel responsible for her lying there dead on the ground, all alone, with her head caved in.
This, William thought, will get settled.
“All those husbands gave their info into that website that helps you cheat on your wife and it got hacked,” Mr. Vasquez said and touched his wedding ring. “Their names were dumped to the press. You hear about that?”
Lucas Mullins nodded. “What a mess. It’s sad so many men think they need a service like that. People get confused. They think you get married you got to act a certain way.” Diana stood across the room in a black dress. Lucas looked at her curves, so clearly defined where she stood, sideways, before the white wall. “You ever see a Latin girl who didn’t have a great ass?”
“I don’t know.”
Lucas smiled. He’d been through so many versions of this conversation before. He knew how to keep the man on the Path. “I say such a thing doesn’t exist. Even if she’s a mess otherwise, she’s got a great ass.”
Mr. Vasquez travelled to some far-off place in his mind. The House was quiet tonight. An ROC bodyguard drank vodka on the couch and waited for his boss upstairs. Lucas looked at the clock on the wall. He had to meet Detective Marino soon.
“What matters is how you feel when the end comes,” Lucas said.
“I don’t want regrets about my life,” Mr. Vasquez said.
“Yes. At the end, what’s going to matter most is how you did with women. The world’s a beautiful place. Its great gift is the memory of the women you were with. I don’t want to settle for less than my natural desire, that’s what I know.” Diana came over and smiled at Mr. Vazquez. “You ever meet Diana?”
“No,” Mr. Vasquez said.
“You two should have a drink,” Lucas said and left room. He passed by Peyton Thornton, his man on guard duty tonight, on his way out the door. He drove the short way from his house on Kensington to his bar, the Turkey Jowl West, which was on Echo Park Avenue, just north of Sunset. It was one in the morning and Braden Clark was the doorman. Inside, the dance floor was packed. Richie Glass was drinking with some friends in a booth. Esperanza was bartending.
William Whelan approached Lucas. “Those two Hajis are here. At the end of the bar, perving on Esperanza,” he said.
Lucas looked and saw two Middle Eastern-looking young men sitting at the bar. Esperanza was leaning in toward them, smiling.
William said, “The one in white’s the same guy who knew that girl who got her fucking head caved in last month. Tariq Kahn. The Maniacos know him.”
William, with Lucas’s permission, occasionally did muscle work for the Echo Park Maniacos, the Latin gang whose territory their bar was located in. This reinforced the peace between both groups and padded William’s pockets.
“I don’t know the other guy’s name, but it was that Tariq that killed her. I guarantee it,” William said.
Lucas still was not sure why William was so insistent on blaming these two for the dead body he’d stumbled across last month while on a job with the locals. “It’s my first time seeing either of them here,” Lucas said.
“It took all my self-control I had not to beat Tariq senseless.”
Lucas patted William on the back and went to the bar, where he began to watch the two men. Their eyes were fixed not just fixed on Esperanza, but Claudia, Ana, and Luisa as well. Lucas’s women. These were all his Salvadoran beauties that worked at his bar some nights and his brothel on others. It was an open secret among certain criminal circles in Echo Park, the girls in Lucas’s House. As he watched them he could tell by the salacious nature of their gazes, Tariq’s especially, that the two knew they were looking at professional working girls.
Detective Marino walked in the back way. He and Lucas went upstairs so Lucas could give Marino some money and go over a few details of their protection relationship.
Later, Tariq and his friend had split up and Lucas sat down beside the friend.
“What’s the word?” Lucas said to him.
“I’m Lucas Mullins. I own this place.” Lucas held out his hand.
“Maajid Hassan,” he said. They shook hands.
“What do you think of my joint?”
“It’s fine,” he said defensively. Maajid’s jaw was long and bony and his eyes were jittery. His neck was tense.
“Relax, Maajid. I just want everyone to have a good time.” Just then, Luisa Alfaro passed holding a tray of empty glasses. “Luisa, say hello to Maajid.”
Luisa smiled. Maajid smiled back awkwardly. He wanted to please. He was insecure. Lucas realized almost right away that Maajid was a virgin. He must be in his mid-twenties and had never been laid. Lucas could tell this sort of thing easily and he was almost never wrong. He began to feel a deep sadness for the kid.
“Could you bring us two shots of Pappy?” Lucas asked Luisa.
Luisa nodded and was off. Across the room, Tariq, in his white polo shirt, came out of the bathroom and made his way toward them.
“Two shots of what?” Maajid asked.
“Pappy Van Winkle. Bourbon from Kentucky. The good stuff. Cheap booze is a false economy. You know, that’s where I come from, Kentucky. What about you?”
“I was born in Pakistan, but I grew up in New York.”
Luisa brought the drinks. Lucas held up his glass. “To Los Angeles,” Lucas toasted and they drank.
Tariq sat. Maajid made no effort to introduce Tariq to his new friend. There was a silent moment between them. Lucas saw in Tariq’s eyes the cold stillness killers had. The rest of Tariq’s body looked pent-up, capable of boiling over. “Have a great night,” Lucas said and went upstairs.
They were parked on Marathon in William’s Bronco. It was William, Lucas, and Mario, the Echo Park Maniaco, was in the backseat keeping his head low. Lucas rolled down the window and emptied the ashes from his corncob pipe. They were up the street from the house Mario knew.
“There goes that fool right there,” Mario said, pointing.
Lucas looked and saw Tariq and Maajid walk into the house. They were followed by a few cholos from the Maniaco set. Everyone went in.
Lucas said, “So we know what? That these two go to a mosque and deal dope on the side? I don’t like Tariq either but I don’t see what we can do about it.”
“Man, I ain’t trying to get blown up, fool,” Mario said.
“That was only them praying,” Lucas told Mario, then looked at William: “Diming Tariq for that girl doesn’t work because it puts heat on the Maniacos.”
“One time’ll get all up in our shit if you talk,” Mario said, nodding.
“Plus, you don’t know for sure that he did it, or if he did, why,” Lucas said.
“Tariq killed her,” William declared with an even-toned confidence.
“Maybe you’re right, but what are we going to do? Clip both of them ’cause you got a hunch?”
“I’m telling you, boss, something has to be done while we’ve got a chance. These two are up to something.”
Two nights later, Lucas saw Maajid come into the TJW alone. He sat at the end of the bar and ordered a beer. Lucas sat down beside him.
“Maajid. How you been?”
“Your friend Tariq’s not with you?”
“He’s working tonight.”
“Seemed like an angry guy to me.”
“Tariq likes to talk.”
“He talk about my girls?”
“Tell me what he told you.”
“That these women are your sex slaves,” Tariq said judgmentally.
Lucas let out a deep, hollow-barreled country laugh. It drew attention to them from others in the bar. “Sex slaves!” Lucas said and called Diana over.
She sailed over to them, in another black dress. “Yes?”
“Maajid, this is my girlfriend, Diana Figueroa.”
Diana shook Maajid’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Maajid.”
“If he’s interested, I’m going to bring him over to the House around two.”
Diana looked from Lucas to Maajid and smiled. “I hope he’s interested,” Diana said and walked off.
After she was gone, Maajid looked equal parts eager and confused. “What house do you mean?”
“Diana seem like a slave to you?”
“Not every woman in the sex business does it because she lost some fight with society or because she’s being forced to by her master. Some women like to fuck just as much as we do. I don’t own sex slaves, Maajid. I run a brothel.”
“These women, they just do what you say?”
“What happens if they don’t want to?”
“That never happens,” Lucas said.
Maajid looked around the bar. He focused in on Lucas’s women: Diana, Luisa, Ana, and Rosa. His dark eyes began to burn with wonder.
Maajid is on the Path, Lucas thought.
“How do you learn how to say the right things to women?” Maajid asked.
“You want to know the first step?”
“Don’t listen to a guy like Tariq.”
Maajid’s jaw tensed up. He pivoted on his barstool toward Lucas. “What do you want from me?”
Lucas smiled. Guy Harlan was bartender tonight. Lucas ordered two more Pappys. “My interest in you started as completely nonexistent. It began with your friend Tariq. I heard some bad stories about him. But you don’t seem like you should be hanging out with a guy like that.”
Maajid coughed apologetically. “What did you hear?”
“That he hurts women.”
Maajid blinked twice. “Everybody’s always suspicious of you if you’re Muslim. You wouldn’t understand what it’s like.”
“Probably not. I don’t care either,” Lucas said.
Their bourbons came. Maajid took a drink. “Tariq’s a passionate person. He’s very religious.”
Lucas saw Maajid’s reluctance to speak but he also saw that Maajid felt guilty about something. Yes, William Whelan was probably right about everything, Lucas thought again. Not only had Tariq killed that woman in Echo Park, smashed her head in, but these two were up to something much more serious. “What about you, Maajid?” Lucas asked. “Are you very religious?”
Maajid looked down at his empty bourbon glass on the bar. The Pappy was flowing through him and he closed his eyes in satisfaction. Lucas ordered him another. Maajid looked up and spoke to Lucas in a tone of childlike anticipation. “What did you mean about us going to a house later on?”
Lucas nodded. “The House is a place I keep near here. We should go. Diana’ll be there. You liked Diana, didn’t you?”
Maajid finished his drink. “Why do you want to take me?”
“Because I’m a nice guy. Let me ask you something. Where’d you lose your virginity?”
A look of white fear covered Maajid’s face. “Why?” he asked.
Lucas signaled for another round. “Because a man’s really from where he loses his virginity. That’s how it was always explained to me. You said you were from Pakistan, but is that where you first got your tip wet? Or are you from New York?”
Maajid’s mind was so overstuffed he didn’t know what to say, or even what sort of a face to make. “You are a strange person,” he told Lucas eventually.
Lucas smiled. “So tonight’ll be it then?”
Another glass of Pappy came. Maajid drank it all, once again, in a single gulp.
Lucas asked, “The women in your family, do they wear them big black sheets over their heads?”
They were at the House. Maajid, who was sitting at the bar, looked at the clock on the wall. It was two A.M. Lucas was behind the bar. Braden Clark watched the door. There were no other clients in the lounge.
Diana was upstairs, getting ready for the big moment.
“No,” Maajid said. He was drinking ice water. “I mean, some relatives in Pakistan do, but I haven’t been there since I was a kid.”
Lucas stepped around the bar and took a seat beside him. “No wonder those guys are so mad all the time when that’s all the donanny they have to look at.”
“Donanny. It means pussy. Is that why you never got laid, because you’re a Muslim?”
“Most parents want their children to be married before they have sex.”
“Not mine. My old man did what I did. Always told me that getting married to my mother was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. She took off and this was how he made a living while he raised me, doing what I do now.”
“Do you make a lot of money doing this?”
“I make a lot more than you and Tariq make doing those dope deals with the Maniacos. They’ve been stiffing you, you know.”
Maajid’s mouth dropped open. “How do you know about those?”
Lucas waved off the question. “You ready for this?”
Maajid tapped his fingers on the bar. “I’m nervous.”
“That’s all right. With a woman it’s important to always be a little nervous.”
“Diana is your girlfriend?”
“We’re not the jealous types,” Lucas said. Maajid looked confused again. He was interacting with a man who dealt so casually with emotions that he didn’t understand. “You know you can’t just walk up there, jump on her, and shove it in. You gotta get her snapper to open up like a flower blooming.” A second look of white fear covered Maajid’s face. He had certainly never heard that combination of words before. “Diana’ll show you how to do it to her. Don’t worry.”
Just over an hour later, Maajid walked downstairs and stepped slowly back into the lounge. His muscles seemed loose and his eyelids looked heavy. William now stood by the window across the room.
“How’d it go?” Lucas asked.
Eventually, Maajid said, “It was relieving.”
“You remember my friend William?”
Maajid looked at William. William was stern and red-faced. His military buzz cut had the feel of a recent trim. “He works at your bar,” Maajid said.
William said, “You must be something special, kid.”
Maajid looked at Lucas fearfully. He was wondering what William was up to.
“What William means is that Diana is our best girl. And he’s right. You are special to us.”
“Why?” Maajid asked.
“William doesn’t just work at the bar. I let him do muscle work for the Maniacos on the side. Maybe you don’t remember him. But he remembers you when you and Tariq would buy weed from them. The Maniacos.”
The relief that Maajid felt faded. “And?”
“There’s a dead woman. And the cops never found the guy who did it.”
“Her name was Renata Ayaan,” William said. “It was on the news. She was a waitress in Silver Lake.”
Lucas looked at Maajid for a long spell. “Did Tariq kill her?”
“What?” Maajid asked.
“We’re your friends here and we need to know. We need to know if something needs to be done about this guy. Tell us the truth.”
“Yes,” Maajid said. “He did.”
“He knew many bad sins about her. She was guilty of great shame.”
“What’s she to him?” William asked.
“An apostate,” Maajid said.
“A what?” Lucas asked.
“It means she quit being a Muslim,” William clarified. “In countries where Hajis run the government they can kill you for that.”
Lucas looked to Maajid with a genuine shock, like this was one of the most disheartening things he’d ever heard.
“He’d seen her around the neighborhood,” Maajid said. “They were friends for awhile. I think he pissed her off about something. Tariq probably told her she wasn’t faithful enough and she told him to get lost.”
“But he kept following her around,” Lucas said.
“And he beat her fucking head in?” William asked.
“Yes. That’s what he told me.”
“You have any hand in that?” Lucas asked. “You help him get away with it?”
“He told me after he did it. Tariq likes to talk.”
“Is that the kind of guy you want to be, Maajid? A guy like Tariq?”
Maajid looked at the floor shamefully. William was noticeably angry but kept still. Lucas walked across the room and stood close to him.
“Maajid, I don’t want you to worry. You did the right thing here.”
“You were just using me?”
“You need to think about how lucky you are here and now.”
“Are you going to kill Tariq?”
Neither of them answered. William clenched his fists.
“Are you going to tell the police?”
Lucas smiled. He stared at Maajid with pride. “You, Maajid, are a man from Los Angeles, California. That’s what you tell people from now on when they ask.”
Maajid thought about that for a moment and nodded. He liked the sound of it.
The sun rose. William drove them to the Brite Spot where they met Richie Glass and ate breakfast together. To Maajid’s relief they did not talk about the murdered woman and it was a fine time. He thought about his night with Diana and felt like he was floating. That is was what heaven must be like, he thought. But he was not in heaven. He was still on earth, with white men. After breakfast, Lucas drove him back to his car at the Turkey Jowl West lot.
“Diana was very nice. Please thank her again for me,” was all he said.
Maajid drove to the Silver Lake Reservoir and parked along the north side. He walked to the path and moved along it slowly. Joggers passed him by. At the grass he saw two white women in bikinis lying down on towels, sunbathing. They were close to the fence. One faced the sky and the other faced the ground. The girl on the left had black hair. The one on the right was a blonde. Their scent carried on the wind. They were coated in all sorts of lotions and oils.
“The kid’s name is Tariq Kahn,” Lucas told Detective Marino.
“What about him?”
Lucas and Marino were out in the back alley of the Short Stop. Lucas’s girls liked to come here for the dance floor. The Short Stop, an old Echo Park bar, was a former cop hangout during an earlier era, before the Rampart scandal. Detective Marino didn’t like coming here because it reminded him of how much he’d seen the world change.
Lucas smoked his corncob pipe. “Tariq and his buddy hang out at the Turkey Jowl West. We got suspicious about him, so we talked to the buddy. A kid named Maajid. Maajid gave everything up: Tariq is a killer.”
They were close to the street, away from all the kids. Marino spoke softly regardless. “Who’d Tariq kill?”
“A woman named Renata Ayaan in Echo Park. You remember that?”
Marino nodded. “Got her skull bashed in. They never found the guy.”
“Renata’s boyfriend bought weed off this Tariq creep and Maajid. Tariq had a thing for her. She wasn’t interested, so he followed her for a while, then killed her and said his religion gave him permission. He thought she deserved it.”
“‘His religion gave him permission?’ What does that mean?”
“The money they make off these weed deals is going to their mosque, which, according to Maajid, is planning some serious Jihad shit.”
“So you’re giving me, a city police, a Muslim terrorist?” Marino, so often numb to most aspects of his work, was suddenly genuinely interested in this conversation.
“When I look at this kid Tariq, I don’t doubt for a second that he would be capable of something like that.”
Marino thought. “What type of Jihad shit?”
“He’ll tell you when I give him over.”
“Why’d this kid tell you all this?”
“He’d never been laid,” Lucas said. “I let him fuck Diana and he gave it all up,” Lucas snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”
“When can I talk to him?”
“Seems to me like this is a big win for you, the kind of thing that cools down any investigation into local corruption? It’ll be national news, stopping a plot like this.”
“That’s probably true,” Marino said.
“I’m thinking this should, at the very least, buy me a few favors. I sell women and I sell bourbon, Detective. I’m not out to destroy the world. I’m out to make it more tolerable. Guys like Tariq are a serious problem to all of us, any way you look at it.”
Diana, taking a break from dancing, walked out to them. She saw Detective Marino standing there and smiled at him. “Hello, Carl.”
“Diana, you look lovely as always,” he said.
The wall was covered with details about LAX: routes, times of day when various parts of the airport would be most crowded. But the brothers weren’t focused on their mission today. Today their focus was on a news story.
The French authorities had finally arrested Salah Abdeslam, the driver in last year’s Paris attacks. Salah, who had driven the bombers to the stadium, was supposed to have blown himself up as well but his discarded suicide vest was discovered in a Paris trashcan and he had disappeared without a trace for months. Now that he was caught, the media was reporting that the information leading to his capture had come from sources Salah knew inside the gay community of Paris, a community of which he, allegedly, was a well-known member. Beneath the large black and white flag adorned with Arabic lettering that covered the wall furthest from the window, away from any prying eyes, the faithful brothers debated whether Salah was really a homosexual or being framed as one by some shadowy and powerful adversary:
“Salah was arrested with three AK-47s,” Tariq said. “These must have come to him from our brothers, who would not help him if he lay with other men. The story was created by the Kafir.”
“It is not that difficult to get a weapon,” Ahmed said.
“Salah the warrior is not a faggot!” Tariq screamed back.
Fadi and Abdel nodded, in agreement with Tariq and as always, moved by his towering religious passion. All four of these men had thought a great deal about what the media would say about them one day, after their goal was acquired. At no point during the meeting did any of them observe that their brother Maajid was not present.
A sudden blast came from the front door and the door, now off its hinges, was smashed in. FBI agents rushed forward in full tactical gear with guns drawn. They screamed directions. All four suspects raised their hands in surrender. They lowered themselves to the floor and were arrested.
Later that night, Maajid watched this story on the news. Details emerged about the suspects and the explosives that they planned to detonate at LAX. He went to the TJW. Everyone talked about the story. In private, Lucas congratulated Maajid. Maajid, as he drank, began to realize that his life was not always dictated by God’s plan, but most often decided by himself. Then he looked around the Turkey Jowl West for women.
He saw quite a few.
Maajid, his feet wet, marched down Kensington Street in the dark. He moved with determination, quite drunk, but still knowing his path, even in the dark. He made it to the three-story Victorian house that overlooked Echo Park Lake and was surrounded by the tall black metal gate. The House. Between the bars he could see lights on inside through the windows. Maajid reached in his pocket for his cell phone. The battery was dead. He growled and banged on the gate. He shook it so they would hear him. It clanged and echoed. A dog barked. William Whelan came out. He opened the gate and poked Maajid in the chest. “The fuck is wrong with you?”
“I want to see Diana.”
“Did you, since the last time I saw you tonight, get enough money to see Diana?”
“He’s busy. I’m running the House tonight.”
“Go fuck your mother!”
“After what I did?”
“Kid, that’s gotta be the tenth time I’ve heard that shit from you.”
Maajid swayed. His eyes were jittery. The rain returned and began to fall on them. “I’ve got to see Diana.”
William sighed. “Look kid, I know you got a late start with the ladies — ”
“Why do you always have to bring that up?”
“You’ve gotta get ahold of yourself.”
“After what I did,” Maajid said.
“What does that mean? That we owe you for doing the right thing?”
William took a deep breath and thought about the dead body of Renata Ayaan. The kid had made that right. William knew more war was coming. People like Maajid gave him hope, the only hope he had. This kid was the future if there was one. “Don’t talk like a fucking snitch and do not think we’re going to carry you forever. Go to the Turkey Jowl West. Look for a girl that’ll fuck you for free. Eventually you’ll find one. One day you might even find a wife. Think about that.”
Maajid stood still. The anger on his face faded. Something inside him seemed to click. He thought about tomorrow, when he would be restored, when he would try all of this again.
Peyton Thornton walked out through the gate. “What’s going on?”
“Abu here’s trying to take a piece of ass from Diana on the arm.”
“Again? I’ll call him a car.”
“No, I’ll do it. You stay here.” William looked at Maajid. “You’re lucky Lucas likes you, kid,” William said and walked into the House.
Peyton waited with Maajid in the rain. In his heart the failures of Maajid’s day left him and he thought again of his first night with Diana. He remembered that he had many years of his life left to live, an ocean of time laid ahead, and his home for it was a city where phenomenal occurrences had always been possible.
“A wife, maybe,” Maajid said to himself, softly. “Maybe even a son someday.”
ANDREW MILLER is a crime novelist, screenwriter, and essayist living in Los Angeles.
Originally published at mystericale.com.