For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Casey's Pub, Grand Ave., Monday, Feb 23, 2009…1pm
The big Arab was faster than he looked and was beside my table hovering over me before I could ferret out an escape route. I glanced out the bay window to make sure Judy and Ronnie were okay then mentally prepared myself to be murdered in front of twenty or thirty eye witnesses. Holding my breath for a five count I leaned back in my chair and gave the grizzly faced thug my best tough guy sneer, pushing the chair across from me toward him with my foot. The rickity old chair made loud scraping and squeaking noises, like fingernails on a chalkboard as the narrow legs skid along the wood planked floor. Then, lazily I waived my hand toward the empty seat and silently invited my would-be assassin to sit and be my guest. He smiled wryly and took me up on the offer. We eyeballed one another for a second or two before I took the high road and initiated contact.
"Fancy meeting you here. Hassan isn't it?" I said. He did not answer.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
"Thank you, no," he replied finally in perfect English, the accent of whatever his native tongue may have been was barely noticeable.
"My compliments Mr. Roode, you have a much better memory than our mutual acquaintance, Detective Abernathy. And thank you also for confirming you over heard our very private conversation the other night," he added.
Hassan folded his hands on the table in front of him, lacing his fingers together slowly, as if preparing to pray. His hands were large, his fingers thick and covered with a generous amount of black hair that matched the wavy mop on top of his head. The man's eyes were black as coal and he studied me intensely with them, amused by the look on my face as I realized I'd revealed way too much, damn it! The fact that he never blinked under those bushy eyebrows, not even once, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Actually, between you, me, and the fencepost, it made my sphincter pucker as well. This was one scary fella!
"Yeah, well let's not fall in love just yet slick? Fact is Ray Ray ain't exactly a Rhodes Scholar now is he," I said as calmly as I could, trying not to look scared as I was. I doubted he was buying any of it but what the heck, I continued to play the tough guy role.
"But I guess I don't need to tell you that. I mean you're here and he's not, right?" "So much for LA's finest," I added with a grin, hoping my sarcasm masked my fear.
"Detective Abernathy is not important. As for his absence, he is not here because he was a parasite, and, unfortunately for him, had become a liability."
"Yes, was. As have you and your friend outside," Hassan answered pointing through the window in Judy's general direction.
She looked up and caught us staring at her and waived, her eyes asking who'd taken her seat. I waived back and gestured for her and Ronnie to make tracks. She didn't waste any time and spun Ronnie around, pulling her quickly up the stairs to the street above. I turned my attention back to Hassan, making sure that he wasn't planning to pursue them.
"You needn't panic Mr. Roode, I am not here for that," Hassan said without stirring in his seat.
"By that I assume you mean murder. What? Ain't we on your 'to-do' list?" I asked sarcastically, anger replacing fear for the moment.
"Not yet. That will be up to you and Dr. Looney I expect. All my employers ask is that you abandon your investigation into Miss November's unfortunate demise."
Now he went and done it! That was as good as a double dog dare for me. Consequently my addiction to curiosity trumped my basic survival instincts and I pressed him further. Solving Mei Li's murder had become a blood oath after Lu and Jai deaths and I couldn't let that go. Hassan's expression told me that he suspected as much. I really don't have a very good poker face which probably explains most the bad breaks in my life and why I still live alone in a run down apartment in seedier part of Los Angeles. Well, that coupled with the great state of California's version of blackmail, spousal support, what a gyp!
"So what was Sally to you guys anyway? What is it that your employer is afraid we might find?" I demanded more than asked.
"She was nothing to me, merely a task. However, I suspect that she was about to become somewhat of an embarrassment to others, as do all whores eventually."
"That's deep Hassan. Why do I get the feeling that there is more to it than that?"
"Why indeed. In any event you needn't look any further. I will confess that it was I who killed your friend's niece," Hassan said coolly.
"That's it? You tracked me down to confess? How do you know Judy hasn't already called the cops? What if I cuff you right now to that chair you're planted in and wait for them to get here to haul you in? What about that?"
"Please Mr. Roode, do not insult my intelligence or waste my time. Surely you and the good doctor have collected enough evidence now to link the girl with my Russian friends?" Hassan asked tiredly.
"Actually, we haven't, you give us too much credit. What's this about the Russians anyways?" I replied, suddenly embarrassed by how little I really knew.
"Perhaps Detective Abernathy gave you too much praise. I was led to believe you were quite intelligent? Let me spell it out for you in an effort to save time."
His eyes shifted slightly to his right and then to his left before continuing, checking both entrances to the bar. He had my complete attention; I was all ears and pumped full of adrenalin. Russians he said, really? This was getting pretty interesting.
"Miss November was more than an acquaintance of my employer; she was shall we say an employee as well."
"I see; an employee of your Russian friends?" I asked interrupting.
"Yes. As I was saying, Miss November was far too close an acquaintance if you ask me, but alas that was not my business. In her capacity as a hostess shall we say; she was privy to certain habits of powerful and influential individuals, a position of trust, a trust which she chose to violate, a deadly choice in the end. Her ambition was equal to her beauty, which as you know was considerable. Apparently her ambitions led her to keep a journal of these potentially valuable facts to use as the foundation for her dangerously unwise demands. And, she had a partner. A friend of yours I understand. Their mistake was choosing the wrong broker."
"Yes, this is where Detective Abernathy enters the picture. By the way, he was also an occasional employee of Russian friends. Shall I continue? You look puzzled?" Hassan asked.
To be honest I was flummoxed as to why he was telling me all of this, when it would be much easier just to put a bullet between my eyes and give Judy the same treatment? I'd suspected that Mei Li was in over her head from the get go, but blackmail? That hadn't occurred to me. I had a pretty good idea who her partner was and Ray Ray wasn't him. He may have been involved but he wasn't smart enough to be a player, at best he was probably shaking down Mei for freebies to look the other way. I didn't need Hassan to tell me that Ray Ray's association with Sally had cost him his life. That was obvious. But now I was pretty sure that Hassan knew what I knew, that he all about Jai as well, which meant it Hassan who'd killed my friends, the rat bastard! Strange as that sounds it was a relief to know that they hadn't killed each other. I had figured out that Sally was working with Jai, which meant that he knew all along she was nearby and that he kept that information from Lu. What I hadn't figured was why and for how long. Neither of them was around to grill. Jai didn't need money, he and Lu were loaded. And soft touch that he was, Mei Li would want for nothing in life with good old Uncle Lu nearby. It just didn't add up for me, it just didn't make sense until now. God damn it, now I was pissed!
I wondered why Hassan was putting so many cards on the table. That bothered me. I sensed that he wanted more than he asked for. Was he setting me up somehow, and for what? Or was he warning me? As bad a dude as this guy was, there was something odd about him approaching me that struck me as genuine concern? Why would I get that sort of vibe from a hired gun? I needed time to think, I needed to talk to Judy again. I needed to know what the retest on those threads may have uncovered. Was Hassan the one who'd been tailing her, it seemed likely now, or was it me he was stalking through her? If Judy was his mark then it was Hassan who murdered Ernie, the lab rat at UCLA. Maybe, but for some strange reason I didn't think so. There was a huge piece of the puzzle missing and what or more precisely who was on those threads might prove to be the key. Hassan cleared his throat and I could see that he was getting impatient. I decided to lay a couple of cards of my own on the table and watch how he played them. For now I needed to convince him that I would take his advice and back off.
"Yeah, I gottcha Hassan. You killed Sally November to silence her. Then you did likewise for her partner Jai Lei. And then you added in Ray Abernathy for good measure. Does that sound about right?"
"The consequence of their actions, do you understand Mr. Roode?"
"Wait minute! Her journal, you never found her journal, am I right? Oh brother, three murders and nothing to show for them. The Russians must be pissed!"
"Yes, they are concerned. So you see why I am here now, yes?"
"You're warning us that solving this case would be fatal. But why warn me, why not just kill us?"
"I kill when there is a need to kill, when I am hired to do so, not for sport," Hassan explained.
"Leave it be Mr. Roode, and live," he added leaning toward me for effect.
"What about the journal? What about your employers? Won't they wonder why you let us go?"
"You misunderstand. They do not know that you or Dr. Looney exist. I know, but they do not. As long as that remains true you're both safe. Let it be Mr. Roode, let it be and live."
"Call me Whitey."
"Very well, let it be Whitey, your life depends on it."
"I see, well just one more question then."
"What do you plan to do about the law? You murdered a freakin police detective for Christ sake! Look, I'm no super sleuth, but if I got close enough to earn myself a personal visit from you, then so will the coppers sooner or later. Have you thought about that Einstein?"
Hassan shrugged and relaxed for the first time since he arrived. Straightening his collar he gave the lapels of his sport coat a quick tug and signaled for a server to come over to the table. For a moment there I thought I saw a grin forming slowly on his big face.
"I believe I will accept your drink offer now," he said, catching me by surprise.
"As for the police, perhaps we extend the offer to them as well," he added pointing at a couple of Lt. Celaya's detectives about to enter the bar. I recognized Iggie Ingram right away but I had no clue about the Asian doll with him? If she was typical of Oscar's crew back at Hollenbeck, my old stomping grounds, then I needed to consider begging for another chance! Seriously though, this wasn't a good coincidence. I had to choose between getting pinched for breaking into Sally's apartment and obstructing justice or risk becoming a corpse my own self by ignoring Hassan's warning. No brainer Whitey, just wait for Oscar's minions to come over, invite them to join the party, run a tab and play host to the circus for a while and pray that Hassan doesn't whip out an Mac-10 and kill the lot of us! I'll just meet up with Judy later and we can decide our fate together.