A SUDDEN BANGING ON THE FRONT DOOR sent a chill down my neck and into my chest. It was two thirty-nine in the morning. I was up and out of my bed immediately, though still more than half asleep.
I had to go to the bathroom but the knocking was insistent; seven quick raps, then a pause, and then seven more. It reminded me of something but I was too confused to remember what.
"All right," I called out.
I considered staying quiet until the unwanted visitor gave up and left. But what if it was a thief? Maybe he was knocking to see if there was anybody home. If I stayed quiet he might just break the two-dollar lock and come in on me. Im a small man, so even if he was just your run-of-the-mill sneak thief he might have broken my neck before realizing that Paris Mintons Florence Avenue Book Shop didnt have any money in the cash box.
I slept in an illegal loft space above the bookstore. It was the only way my little business could stay in the black. Selling used books doesnt have a very high profit margin, except for the reading pleasure. Some days the only customers brought in books to sell or barter. Other days I was the only patron, reading Don Quixote, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or some other great novel from sunup to sundown.
Mostly I sold westerns and mysteries and romances. But I rarely read those books. The womens genre wasnt written for a mans sensibilities and popular mens books were too violent.
"Let me in there, Paris," a voice I knew better than any other called out.
"Yeah, man. Let me in."
I hesitated a moment and a moment more.
I opened the door and Fearless Jones strode in, wearing a green suit with a white shirt, no tie, no hat, and dark shoes. The tip of the baby finger on his left hand was missing, shot off in a gunfight that almost got us both killed, and he had the slightest limp from a knife wound hed received saving my life in San Francisco many years before.
Fearless was tall and dark, thin and handsome, but mostly he was powerful. He was stronger than any man Id ever known, and his will was indomitable. Fearless wasnt a smart man. A twelve-year-old might have been a better reader, but if he ever looked into your eyes he would know more about your character than any psychiatrist, detective, or priest.
"Im in trouble, Paris," we said together.
Fearless grinned but I didnt.
"I got to go to the toilet," I said.
I walked back through one of the two aisles of bookshelves that made up my store. Fearless followed me into the toilet, unashamed and still talking while I relieved myself in the commode.
"It was a woman named Leora Hartman," he was saying. "She came up to me at the Soul Food Shack."
"Yeah?" I said. "What about her?"
"You know her?" Fearless asked.
"Oh," he said on a sigh, and I knew I was in deep trouble.
Fearless never hesitated unless he knew that he was going to cause problems for someone he cared for. And that someone was almost always me.
I was washing my hands by the time he said, "Shes a good-lookin womanLeora. And that little boy was so cute."
"What little boy?"
"She said his name was Son. Thats what she said. But come to think of it, that musta been his name, because even though I think he was part of a tall tale, he was just a child and a child dont know how to lie about his name."
We walked back to the front room of the bookshop. The space up there was furnished with a card table that had three chairs and a sofa built for two. I sat in one of the wood chairs.
"Leora is a pretty woman," Fearless said, following in my wake like a bullet coming after a moth. "Talked like she had some education, you know? And she was refined."
"What you mean by that?" I asked. I had learned over the years that even though Fearless and I spoke the same tongue his limited use of language was often more subtle than my own.
"I dont know really," he said with a frown. "She looked like just a regular girl, but there was somethin that set her apart too. Thats why, thats why I didnt think it would hurt to help her out."
"Fearless, what are you talking about?"
"Leora come up to me with this cryin three-year-old boy named Son. She told me that his father had left her and that her and Son was in the street on accounta he done taken all her savings with im."
"She picked you outta the blue?"
"She said that Sons father is a man named Kit Mitchell. Kits a farmer from Wayne, Texas. I been workin for him the last month or so."
"The Watermelon Man?"
Fearless and I received thirteen thousand dollars apiece after we were involved in the shootout that maimed his baby finger. With my money I bought and refurbished a building that had been a barbers shop. When I was through I had a new used book store. I also bought a used Ford sedan and put a few hundred dollars in the bank with a solid two percent interest rate.
Fearless got houses for his sister and mother at thirty-five hundred dollars a go, bought a fancy car, and spent the rest on a good time that lasted about three months. After that he sold his car to pay the rent and took on a job for a man selling counterfeit Texas watermelons. Counterfeit, inasmuch as they came from the seeds of the green-and-white-striped Texas variety of melon but they were grown in Oxnard on the leased farm of a man I only knew by the title of the Watermelon Man.
The Watermelon Man hired Fearless to harvest his melons and put them on trucks that he had fitted with Texas license plates. Then he would send his fleet of six trucks into Watts, where they would sell the giant fruit on street corners, telling everybody that they were getting genuine Texas melons. Texans believe that the best food in the world is from down home, and so they spent the extra nickel for this prime commodity.
"So the woman was the Watermelon Mans wife?" I asked.
"Thats what she said. She was his wife and the boy was his son. The whole time we talked, Son was cryin that he wanted his daddy. You know he cried so hard that it almost broke my heart."
"When did you meet her?" I asked.
"I just told youthe other day."
"You never saw her with this Kit?"
"Uh-uh. I didnt even know that he was married."
"So then howd you know that she really was his wife?" I asked, wondering at the endless gullibility of the deadliest man in L.A.
"Why she wanna lie to me?" Fearless replied. "I didnt even know the lady."
"Maybe because she wanted to find Kit for some other reason," I suggested. "Maybe he owed somebody some money, maybe hes in a jam."
"Yeah." Fearless ducked his head. "Yeah, you right, Paris. Maybe so. But when I saw her and heard that boy cryin, I was just so sure that she was the one in trouble."
"And she wanted you to bring her man back?" I asked, worrying about what my deadly friend might have done.
"No," Fearless said. "All she wanted was to know if I knew where to find him."
"And did you?"
"No. Thats why I believed her story."
That was when I should have stood up and shown Fearless the door. I should have said, No more, brother. I have to get back to sleep. Thats because I knew whatever it was he saw in her story was going to bite me on the backside before we were through.
"Why?" I asked beyond all reason.
"Because Kit hadnt shown up to work at the gardens on Monday. He wasnt there Tuesday neither. His drivers all came but he never showed. I wasnt surprised. The last couplea days out there he kept talkin about some big deal he had and how he was gonna make a whole room fulla money."
Fearless shook his head.
"Did anybody call him after he didnt show up?" I asked.
"Nobody knew his number. And we really didnt need him. You know I was the one loaded the trucks anyway. And I never liked the fact that he was pawnin off those melons like they was real Texas. When he didnt come in on Wednesday I called it quits."
"And when did Leora come to you?"
"Day before yesterday."
It was Monday morning, so I asked, "Saturday?"
"No . . . I mean yeah."
"You want some coffee, Fearless?"
He smiled then, because coffee was the signal that meant I was going to hear him out.
Copyright © 2003 by Walter Mosley. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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