RIGHTEOUS by Joe Ide - #2
Ten years ago, when Isaiah Quintabe was just a boy, his beloved brother was killed by an unknown assailant.
The unsolved crime has gnawed at his gut and kept him up at nights, boiling with anger and thoughts of revenge.
The search for the killer sent him plunging into despair and nearly destroyed his life.
Now, Isaiah has a flourishing career, a new dog, and a near-iconic status as a PI in his hometown of East Long Beach, but a chance encounter reopens a wound that never fully healed.
He has to begin the hunt again -- or lose his mind.
A case takes him and his sceptical don't-call-me-a-sidekick partner, Dodson, to Vegas, where Chinese gangsters and a terrifying seven-foot loan shark are stalking a beautiful DJ and her deadbeat boyfriend.
If Isaiah doesn't find the couple first, they'll be murdered.
Awaiting the outcome is the love of IQ's life: fail, and he'll lose her.
Isaiah's quest is fraught with treachery, menace, and startling twists, leading him to the mastermind behind his brother's death, Isaiah's own sinister moriarty.
Rich with action, suspense, and ingenious surprises, Righteous confirms Joe Ide as one of crime fiction's most exciting new voices.
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Isaiah was seventeen years old when his older brother, Marcus, was killed in a hit-and-run. Isaiah dropped out of school and spent months trying to track down the driver of the Honda Accord that left Marcus lying on the pavement smashed to pieces, his life-force draining into the gutter. His brother was his mentor, his friend, his guide through life, his only family. Everything.
Eight years later, he was at TK’s wrecking yard when he stumbled upon the Accord. It was dusk. He was walking along the old race course route through the rows of abandoned cars. They reminded Isaiah of the Civil War photos he’d seen at the library. Dead soldiers on a battlefield. Crumpled bodies, chrome teeth grimacing, shattered eyes staring back at a hundred thousand miles. There was no breeze in the dying light, a lone crow atop the mountain of tires squawked plaintively, the last one on earth. Isaiah came around a corner and there it was. The sight of the murder weapon brought back a paralyzing upsurge of pain and memories: Marcus’s smile that warmed and comforted, his voice, sure and soulful, the loving eyes that saw Isaiah’s future, bright and full of promise. When the memories finally eased off, Isaiah blew his nose, wiped the tears off his face, and felt another surge of emotion, this one molten, made of anger and purpose. He wondered why he’d quit the search in the first place and he thought about the driver and how he was out there living his life not even caring that he’d killed the best person in the world.
Isaiah left the wrecking yard telling himself it was a long time ago and to put it behind him. The search had nearly killed him and sent his life spiraling out of control. The anguish and torment from those times were scarred over now and there was no point sticking a dagger into that old wound.
That night, he sat on the stoop sharing an energy bar with the dog. As a puppy, the purebred pit bull belonged to a hit man. When Isaiah put the guy in prison, he kept the dog and named it Ruffin after Marcus’s favorite singer, David Ruffin. At ten weeks, Ruffin was cute and funny and weighed twelve pounds. Nine months later, he was a formidable fifty-seven-pound, slate-gray adolescent with amber eyes that made him look fierce and nobody thought he was cute or funny, and he could pull Isaiah down the street like a child’s wagon. Isaiah realized he was fooling himself. He’d never gotten over Marcus’s death. If there were ever two words that had no meaning they were moving on. Sorrow isn’t a place you can leave behind. It’s part of you. It changes the way you see, feel, and think, and every once in a while, the pain isn’t remembered, it’s relived; the anguish as real and heartbreaking as if it was happening all over again.
Ruffin followed Isaiah into the house, down the hall, and into the second bedroom he used as an office. A heat wave had descended on Long Beach and the room was stuffy and hot. It was so spare it looked forgotten although he used it all the time. There was an old teacher’s desk, a squeaky office chair, two file cabinets, boxes of records stacked on the floor, and a six-foot folding table with nothing on it. No knickknacks or anything personal except for two snapshots on the wall. One of Marcus and Isaiah mugging for the camera. The other was of Mrs. Marquez holding up a chicken by its feet, the poor thing struggling and helpless. Isaiah had accepted the bird as payment for his services just to get it away from her. She’d named it Alejandro after her pendejo ex-husband. When the hit man came to the house to kill Isaiah, he inadvertently blasted the bird into a cloud of feathers.
Isaiah put one of the storage boxes on the table along with a folder of info he’d gathered so far. The Accord’s VIN number had led to the car’s owner, Fred Bellows. His Facebook page showed a paunchy white guy in his forties, with a face like an unbaked biscuit, his pants pulled up to the third button of his blue, brown, and yellow madras shirt. His wife looked like his twin sister, the three kids already showing paunches. Fred lived in Wrigley Heights, a nice area just north of Hurston where Marcus and Isaiah once had an apartment.
Isaiah took some photographs out of the file folder and spread them on the table. They were pictures of the Accord taken at the wrecking yard. The car’s right front headlight assembly was smashed, the crease that ran along the top of the bumper was dented, and some paint was scraped off. It seemed wrong and impossible that a little bit of damage like that had resulted in Marcus’s death. A massive bomb crater or a charred redwood split by lightning would have been more credible.
The seats and dash had been ripped out of the car’s interior but Isaiah had found things on the floor. There were four smashed cigarette butts, Marlboros, four empty Carta Blanca cans, a crumpled white food bag, and a balled-up sandwich wrapper. Isaiah laid the items on the table. He opened the wrapper. Part of the sandwich was still there, shrunken and mummified, along with a few shriveled jalapeño circles, bread crumbs in the crinkles of the paper. The wrapper was from Kayo Subs. Their logo was on it: a target of rainbow colors with a fist punching through it holding a sandwich.
Isaiah had a Google Earth map of East Long Beach inside his head with landmarks for every gang turf, crack house, flophouse, bar, dance hall, pool hall, drug corner, hooker stroll, murder scene, sex offender, abandoned building, liquor store, and park in the area. Any locus of criminals, crime, or potential crime. Isaiah placed Kayo’s on his map. It was right across the street from McClarin Park. He and Marcus had played basketball there just before the accident. Isaiah heard a single faint ping on his internal sonar.
The white bag was generic. It held unused napkins, a packet of mustard, and a receipt for one twelve-inch sub and a bag of chips. It was dated the same day as the accident at 5:02 p.m. Marcus was killed around six. Ping ping. Fred was no doubt capable of knocking back four Carta Blancas but he looked like a Budweiser or Coors man, and he wouldn’t leave the cans in the car, not with a family. They belonged to the driver. A&J Liquor was two doors down from Kayo’s so the driver gets his sandwich, buys some beer, then sits in the car eating and drinking and smoking—but for an hour? A Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s might take you that long but this guy didn’t even finish the sandwich. More likely, he was waiting for something, eating because Kayo’s was there, taking a few bites and leaving the rest; more interested in smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer every fifteen minutes, which meant he was either an alcoholic chain smoker or he was nervous. Really nervous. Ping ping ping.
After Isaiah and Marcus finished their basketball game, they walked north on McClarin until it ended at Bethesda, made a turn onto Baldwin, and walked two blocks to Anaheim, where the Accord hit Marcus as he was coming off the curb. Isaiah’s sonar was pinging like a torpedo was fifty feet away and closing fast. The Accord was going from west to east when it ran down Marcus. To come from that direction the driver would have had to leave Kayo’s and take a circuitous route around and away from the brothers to get west of them, and why would he do that unless he was setting up to run Marcus over?
This was no accident. This was a hit.
The dance floor was a street riot under a disco ball, hands sprouting out of the crowd waving green light sticks and six-hundred-dollar bottles of Ciroc, go-go dancers in fur bikinis and fishnet body stockings writhing like tentacles of smoke, the air warm and close, soggy with the smells of alcohol, musky colognes, and pheromones.
It was Saturday night at Seven Sevens. The DJ was dropping a dubstep, the bass deep and pounding as the earth’s pulse, a nasal whine snaking through the syncopated beats while a Buddhist monk on speed chanted The world is mine the world is mine the world is mine, the music accelerating, synthesized strings spiraling upward, keening into what they called trance, the breathy beat driving faster and faster, the dancers frenzied as warring ants, the energy so extreme it threatened to crack the walls, and then mercifully, a break, the keening winding down, the beat decelerating into a thumping, head-bobbing tom-tom.
An Asian girl was on the DJ stand, held in a column of vaporous light like Scotty had just beamed her down to work the turntables. Her gleaming black hair thrashed like a horse’s tail, a yellow star on her red belly shirt, her denim shorts so short Benny said he could see the outline of her junk. She shouted into the mike, jubilant and fierce: “Whassup my people! This is your queen kamikaze, the heat in your wasabi, the gravy train in the food chain, the champagne in the chow mein, I’m DJ Dama, baby, that was my set, and I’m gettin’ up outta heeerre, PEACE!”
Janine Van came down from the DJ stand and moved through the crowd. She loved this part, people woo-hooing, whistling, clapping, high-fiving her. A group of drunk college boys howled at her like love-struck coyotes, the brothers checking her out, leaning back with their hands on their chins. Hey, being a hottie never hurt. DJ Young Suicide was up next, not even looking at her as he went by. Prick. Like she was a scrub, not worth acknowledging. Yeah, that’s aight, he’d wake up one day and be Old Suicide and she’d be headlining at the Marquee club.
Janine had chosen Dama as her DJ name because it was different and the Chinese word for weed. She had a following in LA and San Francisco but especially here in Vegas, her hometown. The club gave her the early set, opening for Suicide, DJ Twista, and DJ Gone Viral, but that wouldn’t be for long. Chinese tourists were discovering her. They loved seeing one of their own do something besides play Ping-Pong and solve math problems. You’d think Jeremy Lin invented noodles the way they carried on.
The pay was good, seven hundred and fifty bucks a set, not bad for a twenty-one-year-old who’d only been mixing professionally for eleven months. She played two sets a week, enough for most people, but the slots and blackjack tables were disappearing her paychecks as fast as she could cash them, and now Leo had her and Benny by the Ben Wa balls. They’d only borrowed five grand but they hadn’t paid the twenty percent vig in four weeks and now the five was nearly nine; fourteen hundred for the vig alone.
Once in a while they tried to stay away from the tables; kick the monkey off their backs and focus on their careers. Janine on her DJing, Benny a rising star on the motocross circuit. For two or three days they’d have a lot of sex and smoke a lot of weed until the monkey came back like a silverback gorilla, and they’d be off to the casinos pledging to manage their stake more professionally this time, which made no sense if you were going to spend it all no matter how big you won or how fast you were losing. A few months back, Benny’s sponsor dropped him because he hadn’t shown at a couple of meets. He couldn’t afford the maintenance on a sophisticated racing bike so to solve the problem he and Janine gambled more, and didn’t even talk about quitting. They played whenever they had money. On Christmas Day, they both had pneumonia and twenty-seven dollars between them but they played nickel slots at the Rio until security threw them out for coughing up loogies fat as slugs and spitting them into plastic cups.
Janine loved Benny. God, she loved him. He was funny and sweet, and an Olympian in the sack. He wasn’t especially smart but he listened to her and was good to her, hard-to-find qualities these days. But Benny was also a lousy gambler, more than half the debt was his. Janine resented it, Leo considering the two of them as a single deadbeat unit. He was diabolical like that, knowing Benny would never leave Vegas, and if she did she’d be leaving him with the debt and breaking both their hearts. She hoped Benny was lying low. Leo was a mean son of a bitch. If he had you down he’d hurt you and smile while he was doing it.
Leo had snitches all over town. Lots of people owed him money and were happy to rat out their friends for a little extra time. Leo caught Benny at the Siesta Vegas Motel going to the vending machine for a Mountain Dew. He took Benny’s key and they went back to the room, Balthazar trailing to make sure Benny didn’t bolt.
“Do you have my vig or don’t you?” Leo said. “And don’t bullshit.”
“Soon, Leo, I swear, really soon,” Benny said, shaking his head at the same time. “My grandmother’s estate is out of probate and the lawyer says he’ll have a check for me in a few days, a week tops.”
“You told me that one already,” Leo said. Leo couldn’t have been anything else but a loan shark. Large rose-tinted aviators perched over a rodentlike face and a permanent smirk, his long, greasy hair swept back over his ears. His fashion sense tended toward paisley disco shirts with jumbo collars; nobody telling him that seventies retro was not now and never had been in. Leo was a gold-medal asshole, giving you shit even when you paid him off, and he didn’t seem to care that everybody, including the people he called friends, would rather hang out at the morgue than have a drink with him.
“All I need is a little more time,” Benny said. “You know, like a grace period.”
“Grace period?” Leo said. “Who do you think you’re dealing with, the Stupid People’s Credit Union? Grace period? That expression is not in my daily lexicon, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a criminal. A dedicated, lifelong, unrepentant, lawbreaking motherfucker and I play by no one’s rules but my own and rule number one is Pay me my fucking money.”
“You know I don’t have it,” Benny said. “Look around.” The motel room that Benny and Janine rented by the month was a dump to begin with, but with all their damp, random, unlaundered shit piled up everywhere the place was hardly livable. Benny used to park his motocross bike inside, but he kept it at Ray’s now so Leo wouldn’t take it. Janine stored her DJ equipment in Sal’s garage.
“Gimme what you’ve got on you,” Leo said.
“Aww, come on, Leo,” Benny said. “That’s my rent money.”
“Give it,” Balthazar said, “or I’ll break your fucking neck, eh?”
Balthazar was from Saskatchewan, right across the border from Montana, the difference being Montana grew brown trout and buffalo instead of terrifying freakazoids. Balthazar was seven feet tall with a jutting chin and comatose eyes set under a Frankenstein forehead; his body cobbled together with parts from an orangutan and an office building. Benny wondered where he got his clothes. He’d joked about it, asking Balthazar if the guy who made his pants also made circus tents. Balthazar swatted him with a hand that was more like a foot. “Don’t be a smart-ass, eh?”
Benny gave up his wallet, his last eighty-three dollars in there, money he’d won at the Lucky Streak, a dive over in Henderson. He liked to play there when he was bummed or stressed out. The casino was smoky as a forest fire, frayed felt on the blackjack tables and lots of senior citizens in Hawaiian shirts shuffling around on walkers. Sign up for the comp club and get a free six-pack of Pepsi, but you could play craps for a dollar, even in the morning, and for $3.99 you got two eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausages, toast, and a Belgian waffle.
“Take your clothes off,” Leo said.
“You heard me. Do it or Zar will do it for you.”
“Hey, wait a second, you’re not gonna—you don’t want to do that, Leo, I’ve got diarrhea!”
“Don’t be disgusting, and leave your boxers on. I don’t want your corn hole smelling up my car.”
“I know I owe you but you don’t have to humiliate me.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m doing this for fun.”
As Benny stripped, Leo said, “Look at you, you fucking loser. Don’t you believe in doing your laundry? Your socks don’t even match. You and your plastic wallet and your fucked-up haircut and that stupid-ass puka shell bracelet. Why Janine hooked up with a dud like you is one of the world’s great mysteries. One of these days in the not-too-distant future she’s gonna realize she could pick a better boyfriend out of a lineup and leave your ass flat.”
“My wallet isn’t plastic,” Benny said.
Benny rode in the backseat of Leo’s white Mercedes, more like a limo than a car and quieter than the motel room at four in the morning. They drove out of Vegas proper and through North Las Vegas, a Whitman’s Sampler of housing developments, all of them different but the same. Now they were in the desert, so dark you could only see what the headlights saw, not even a gas station out here.
“Where we going, Leo?” Benny asked for the fifth time.
“Like I told you five times already,” Leo said, “you’ll see when we get there. Where’s Janine?”
“Playing a gig at the War Room.”
“Can’t you open your mouth without telling a lie? She’s at Seven Sevens, her name’s on the fucking sign.”
“Come on, Leo, be reasonable. If you mess me up I won’t be able to pay you back.”
“Not from the tables, not the way you play. Like I told you before, you need to get the money from someplace else.”
“I will, Leo, I swear on my little sister. Did I tell you she’s got cancer?”
“Your sister is older than you and she died of cancer. Remember we went to the hospital to hit her up for a loan?”
They made a turn and drove through a parking lot, vast and empty, ominous in the yellow floodlights; the place where the girl looks back, sees the killer, and starts to run. They stopped at the end.
“Get out of the car,” Leo said.
“You go, I’ll wait here,” Benny said.
Balthazar reached back with his orangutan arm and smacked him. “Get out of the car, eh?”
As soon as Benny smelled garbage he knew where he was. He’d come here on a school field trip when he was eleven years old. A dork who looked like SpongeBob in orange coveralls gave them the tour. “The Apex Regional Landfill is one of the biggest in the world,” he said, like it was the Grand Canyon. “The pit covers three hundred and sixty acres, it’s two hundred feet deep, there’s five hundred million tons of refuse in there so far, and when it’s filled to the top it’ll be a billion! That’s right, kids. A billion tons of trash! What do you think of that, young man?”
“I think it stinks,” Benny said.
Balthazar pushed Benny toward the landfill, Leo leading the way with a flashlight. Benny felt the air pressure change; gases from the moldering garbage creating its own atmosphere of heat and rot.
“Don’t, Leo, please don’t do this,” Benny said. “I’ll get the money someplace else, I swear on my—”
“Swear on your what?” Leo said. “Your two-year-old niece that’s got syphilis? Your mom that’s dying from ass tumors? Shut the fuck up.”
Benny remembered the huge pyramids of trash and garbage, the valleys so deep they could swallow you up, and all of it splattered with seagull shit and crawling with a million rats.
“I could die down there, Leo.”
“Yeah, if you’re lucky.”
“Please don’t do this,” Benny said. He could see the edge of the pit, the smell was so strong it was almost gelatinous. He was crying now. He tried to backpedal, but Balthazar grabbed him by the neck, lifted him like he was hanging him on a coatrack, and walked him forward. “Don’t do this, I’m begging you,” Benny said. “I’ll rob a bank, I’ll go to the bus station and suck dicks in the men’s room.” He was blubbering like a child, the words so wet they were barely words. “No, please, Leo, please, ple-ee-eese.”
“The vig by Friday,” Leo said, “or tell Janine she’s next.”
“Okay, now that’s over the line—”
Leo nodded and Balthazar shoved Benny into the blackness, his scream cutting in and out as he bumped and tumbled down the slope, hardly making a sound as he landed wherever he landed. Leo waited for Benny to groan or call for help but he couldn’t hear anything except garbage bags flapping in the breeze. Leo wondered if Benny had broken his neck.
“I warned him, didn’t I?” he said, a pinhead of regret in his voice.
“He’s lucky, eh?” Balthazar said. “We could have shot him first.”
Citrus and Cypress Trees
Isaiah was in Beaumont’s store buying a cranberry juice when his cell buzzed. He didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?” he said.
“Isaiah, is that you?” A woman’s voice.
“Yeah, this is Isaiah.”
Isaiah’s heart seized up. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “It is?” he said.
“Yes, it is,” she said, laughing. “It’s been so long. How are you?” Her voice was happy and relaxed and confident. It was breathtaking.
“I’m fine,” he said. “How are you?”
“I’m good, Isaiah, but listen, I’m sorry I don’t have time to talk right now, but I’d like to get together and catch up. Would that be all right?”
He had to clear his throat before words would come out. “Yeah, sure, that’d be great.”
“I know this is short notice but how about tomorrow night, around eight? I’ll be at the Intercontinental Hotel in Century City. Do you know where that is?”
“No,” he said, “but I’ll find it.”
Dizzy with excitement, Isaiah hurried out to his car, wishing he didn’t have so much on his plate. Somebody broke into Miss Myra’s house and stole, among other things, a brooch her mother had given to her when she was on her deathbed, honeycombed with cancer, a rattle in her throat as she hummed an old spiritual about going home. The brooch was a flimsy thing; painted metal and colored glass, not even pawnable, and nobody but Miss Myra would wear it. Any self-respecting thief would have tossed it away. Finding it would mean searching the storm drains, dumpsters, and alleys near her house. Then there was Doris Sattiewhite, a checkout clerk at Shop ’n Save who was being stalked by her ex-husband, Mike. He’d show up at her work, get in line, and pay for something with pennies and nickels so she’d have to count it while he said I’m coming for you, bitch. You hear me? I’m coming for you.
Raymond Marcel, aka Rayo, was thirteen years old, and lived in a foster home with a woman who kept a padlock on the refrigerator and a crowbar under her pillow. Rayo was built like Shrek and was three times the size of anybody in his class; a lifetime of abuse and a passion for bullying festering in his angry, broken spirit. His favorite victims were members of the Carver Middle School Science Club. A delegation from the club showed up at Isaiah’s door and pleaded with him to do something about Rayo. They were afraid to go to school, afraid to leave school, afraid all the time. Unfortunately, the club president said, as she tried to get her backpack off while she held on to her tuba case, the club could not, at the present time, afford Isaiah’s per diem. However, they could offer him a promissory note, payable when their startup went public, or, the club president went on to say as she tried to extract some hair from her braces, the club could act as Isaiah’s eyes and ears around the neighborhood. Operatives, as it were. Isaiah said he’d consider it and the meeting adjourned.
He wasn’t looking forward to any of it. The problems were important but mundane, as challenging as cleaning the stove, and now Sarita called out of the blue. He’d experienced a lot of anxiety during his cases but in those situations he could figure a way out or solve the puzzle and end whatever it was that was making him anxious. This was different. He didn’t understand the situation or even if there was one, and if there was a puzzle to solve he couldn’t identify it.
A ’66 Dodger-blue Chevy Nova rolling on chrome twenties pulled up in front of the store, the engine loping at idle, a 327 small-block by the sound of it. Rap music was pounding like it was trying to break a window and get out of the car. Isaiah wasn’t a fan of rap to begin with but this had accordions and trumpets in it and sounded like some pissed-off Mexicans shouting over a polka band.