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Walter Mosley - Fearless Jones

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Walter Mosley - Fearless Jones
Fearless Jones
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Описание книги "Fearless Jones"

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“WHY DID YOU KILL Sol Tannenbaum?” Sergeant Bernard Latham asked for the fourteenth time.

“All I did was try and stop the bleedin’, man,” I said. Then I squinched up my face, preparing for the blow. But that time he didn’t hit me.

“Tristan confessed,” Latham said instead. The sergeant was a blocky-looking specimen. He was like the first draft of a drawing in one of the art lesson books I sold in my store. Block for a chest, squares for the pelvis, and cylinders for legs. A cube for a head. The only thing that humanized him was a protruding gut.

“Confessed to what?”

“He said you did the stabbing.”


“I don’t think you understand, Paris,” Latham said, pretending that he was my friend. “If he says that you did it and testifies to that, you get the gas chamber and he goes free. We don’t believe him, so what do you have to say?”

“Whatever Fearless says,” I replied.


“Whatever Fearless says. If he said I did it, then okay, let’s go to court.”

Latham’s backhand was in great form. He could have gone pro. His blow reopened the cut that Leon Douglas had made in my mouth the day before.

A knock came on the door of the eight-by-eight gray room that the East L.A. cops used for questioning. Another white policeman stuck his head in. I was sprawled out on the painted concrete floor. Latham was deciding between a kick or another backhand.

“They want him for the lineup, Sergeant,” the head said.

When the sergeant didn’t answer, the head asked, “Should I tell them you need a few more minutes?”

It had to be a nightmare. Nobody had luck this bad.

“No,” Latham said. “We want him walking for the lineup. I can work on him some more after that.”

With that he lifted me by the shoulder and brought me to another room where a variety of black men about my size were milling around. A couple of them registered shock when they saw my face.

“Just goin’ on ugly, you the one to pick,” one man in a brown T-shirt and green pants said.

We lined up against a blank wall. A severe light came on, and we stood there. A few seconds grew to a minute. One minute became three. The light went out, and we were led from the room.

Latham came up to me, and I remembered his promise to work on me after the lineup.

It had to be a nightmare.

“Come on,” a small uniformed cop next to the sergeant said in a loud, officious voice.

“I wanted to talk to him a little more,” Latham complained.

“This man is under the authority of this precinct, Sergeant. When you arrest someone in Hollywood, you can have a shot.” Obviously Little Big Mouth didn’t like the sergeant.

I followed him to a large room that was cut in two by a metal grate. On the other side of the grate were large metal shelves with cardboard boxes stacked in them.

A door to my left opened. A lanky police officer walked in, followed by Fearless. My friend was glowering until he saw me. Then he smiled.

“Hey hey, Paris.”

I sighed in response. He knew how I felt. His jaw was lopsided from some heavy questions they asked him.

I looked around for Latham, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“All right,” the cop who accompanied Fearless said. “You guys can go now. But we know where you live.”

I had given them my address but neglected to say that the building had burned down.

A man from behind the grate brought our confiscated belongings to the window. There wasn’t much. Twenty-nine dollars in my wallet, the keys to Layla’s Packard, and Fearless’s empty paper wallet.

We went out through the door where Fearless had entered and then to a door that led to the street. It was a side door, so it was fortunate, or maybe unfortunate, that they saw us.

“Gentlemen,” she called from down the street.

At first I didn’t know who it was. I saw two white women with a big white man, that was all.

“That’s the old man’s wife,” Fearless said. He waved at her and took me by the arm.

A thought crossed my mind: for seven dollars I could catch a bus to Frisco and get a room for two dollars a night until a dishwashing job came through. It was the thought of a job, though, that reminded me of my bookstore.

“Come on, Paris,” Fearless said. “I gave my word.”

The women approached us. One was indeed the old woman who cried so hard over her dead husband that she couldn’t tell the arresting cops that Fearless and I were not the attackers. The other woman was taller and awkward looking, somewhere in her twenties. They were accompanied by a big, dumpy-looking guy who wore black slacks with a white shirt that wasn’t tucked in very well. The pale skin around his chin was blue, though I would have bet that he had already shaved for the second time that day. He was taller than Fearless but soft looking, shaped something like a bowling pin. His big hands were worth looking at; the fingers were long and held out straight, making his hands resemble those of a stroke victim.

But he was not paralyzed. He shrank back, clutching those hands to his chest when we moved to meet them.

“I’m so sorry,” the elder woman said. “I saw what they did to you. I’m sorry.”

“We’re sorry about your husband, ma’am,” Fearless said gallantly.

“You the one who looked at me in the lineup?” I asked.

“Both of you,” she said. “They kept trying to make me say that you were the ones who attacked Sol. One of them was tall like you,” she said, looking at Fearless, “but he had a bigger face and dead eyes, and he wore a cowboy hat.”

“A cowboy hat?” I said, thinking about the horns in my side mirror.

The old woman nodded. “When I said no, they told me that you would never be able to hurt me again. I was afraid that they were going to kill you.”

“Are you all right?” the younger woman asked. Her homely face made her concern seem that much more sincere.

“We have to go,” the man said, putting his discomfort into words.

“No, Morris,” the older woman said. “I have to talk to these men.”

“You don’t know them, Aunt Hedva. The police said that this one just got out of jail.”

“Didn’t my Sol just get out of prison?” the diminutive woman asked.

“That was different,” Morris said. “You don’t know them. Why were they even at your house?”

“We were makin’ the rounds,” I said. “Askin’ some’a the older white folks if they needed a gardener, and we stayed to try and save his life.”

The younger woman said, “Hedva told us that these men helped Sol.”

“Be quiet, Gella,” Morris ordered. “For all you know they could all have been working together.”

The sloppy man looked at us then and flinched, not, I thought, because he was ashamed of treating us like we were invisible but instead because he realized that we really could have been in on it with the man who stabbed his uncle.

Morris didn’t seem to fit with the women. He was right there, and scared. They were someplace else altogether, like characters from a romantic novel who found themselves in a fast-paced crime story.

It’s not that the two women were cut from the same cloth. No. Gella and her aunt were as much opposites as people of the same race can be. The younger woman was tall and lean. Her ears and nose were large and so were her lips. Every movement she made was executed in two operations. If she reached out to touch her aunt’s shoulder, her hand would make it half the way, stop, and then go the final distance. If she spoke, first she’d lift her head and open her mouth, then she’d lower her chin and do it all over, ending with whatever she had to say.

The older woman was short and round with small features. She had beadlike eyes and almost no lips. Her motions were quick and accurate. I had misjudged her earlier in the day. It was the shock of seeing her husband bleeding that had made her scared and confused.

“We have to go now,” Morris said to the women.

It was almost as if Fearless and I weren’t there on the corner. As if our dark skins somehow blended with the dusk and whisked us away.

“These men did not hurt us,” Hedva said, still involved in the earlier argument. “What they say is true. They saved Solly’s life.”

“Saved his life?” I said. “The cops told us that he was dead.”

“No.” Hedva shook her head. “Not dead. He’s in the hospital. They can’t wake him up, but he’s still alive.”

“Which one of you is Fanny?” Fearless asked.

“I am,” Hedva said. “That’s what they called me when I was a child.”

Fearless nodded, staring straight into the older woman’s face. She was his charge now. Fearless would never forget that Sol, lying bleeding on the floor, had instructed him to protect Fanny from being robbed.

“Well, I’m glad it turned out all right.” What I wanted was to break up our little powwow and get on with the business at hand. Sol wasn’t dead, but he could still die. I wasn’t dead either but, the way my luck was going, staying alive had become a long shot.

“Can I help you?” the older woman asked. “Something to make up for what they did?”

“No thank you, ma’am,” Fearless said out of reflex. “But can we do anything for you?”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Tannenbaum,” I interjected, “but my friend here and me don’t have anything to help with. We don’t even have our car. If you and your family could give us a ride back to your place, at least we could get that.”

“Of course,” Fanny assured me.

“There’s no room,” Morris, the bowling pin, said. “I have boxes in the backseat.”

“You can put them in the trunk.” Fanny waved her hand dismissively. I’d’ve bet it wasn’t the first time she treated him like that.

“No,” Morris said sternly. It might have been the first time that Morris stood up on his hind legs. Fanny’s small eyes widened an eighth of an inch.

“I, I have a spare in the trunk,” Morris said. “There’s no room.”

“I can take them,” the younger woman said. “I drove my car from home.”

“I forbid it!” Morris shrieked.

He took a step toward her. She shrank back a half step. Morris grabbed her by the arm, and Fearless tensed up. I was afraid we’d be right back in jail, but Fanny saved the day.

“Get your hands off of her,” she commanded.

Morris clenched his fist hard for a moment, then he let his wife go. He locked eyes with me. I could see his rage at being forced into line by a woman. He muttered something and then stalked off down the alley.

“I’M GELLA, the younger woman said on the way to the car. “Hedva’s niece.”

“Paris Minton,” I said. “And this here is Fearless Jones. Thanks for takin’ us.”

Gella smiled and looked away. She was shy and near ugly, but there was something fetching about her awkwardness, something that made your hands feel that they wanted to reach out to make sure she wouldn’t fall or get lost.

Gella drove an assembly-line prewar Ford. It was painted black and didn’t even have a radio installed. A spare machine, it was spotless and unadorned. Fearless and I sat in the backseat, while Fanny and her niece rode up front in silence. It was only a short ride, ten or eleven minutes. On the way we passed many white and turquoise and blue little houses, all sporting neat lawns and white cement driveways. It was around six o’clock, dinnertime for working people. Through many windows and open doors, you could see brown-skinned and some white-skinned people eating at family tables.

A few men were standing out in front watering the grass, or maybe lugging a trash can. Any man that saw us drive by stopped what he was doing and looked. That’s because Los Angeles was still a small town back then, and most residents were from the country somewhere. They treated their surroundings as familiar and friendly, and they wanted to know who was driving on their street.

There I was swallowing the slow trickle of blood from the cuts inside my mouth, being driven through a blue-collar paradise. I had the irrational notion that I could just ask that gawky white woman to stop the car and I could open the door and walk out into a peaceful life, leaving the trouble I was in behind. But before I could speak up, we were pulling into the Tannenbaum driveway. Layla’s pink car was still parked at the curb. Fearless was there next to me, pressing his swollen jaw. There was no escape.

When we were all out of the Ford, Fearless went up to Fanny and shook her hand.

“I promised your husband that I wouldn’t let anybody rob you, Mrs. Tannenbaum,” he said. “So if you need me…”

Fanny looked up at Fearless with an expression that many women had for him. There was trust and hope and even faith in that gaze. Gella and I exchanged worried glances.

“Have you eaten?” Fanny asked us.

“Why no, ma’am,” Fearless said.

“Hedva,” said Gella.

“What, dear?”

“I have to go home.”

“Go on then, I’ll call you.”

“But…” Gella let the word hang in the air, obviously meaning that Fearless and I were the reason she could not leave.

I didn’t blame her. Her uncle had been stabbed, she had just been to the police station, her husband was angry and scared enough to have raised his hand to her. And then there we were with our disheveled clothes and bloody faces, looking like thugs.

“Go home to your husband,” Fanny said flatly. “I’m fine.”

“But…” Gella said again.

Fanny raised her voice and fired words in a language I did not understand. The meaning was harsh though — that was evident by the lowering of the younger woman’s gaze.

“I’m sorry, Auntie,” the girl said. She looked at us and hunched her shoulders in an apologetic sort of way. Then she went to her car and got in.

As the engine turned over, Fanny said, “Come in, gentlemen.”

We followed her through the front door we’d been to earlier that day. This time we were ushered in with a smile.

Fanny was five feet tall, tops. Her husband had maybe an inch on her. The house reflected their height with its low ceilings and small chairs. The rooms were tiny, even for me.

She sat Fearless and me down at a round table in an alcove off of the kitchen. The meal came quickly and in courses. We had cabbage stuffed with ground beef, potato dumplings that she called knishes, chicken soup with rice, and chopped chicken livers on white bread. It was all delicious. For me, a man who had faced death twice in the last two days, it was a king’s feast.

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