That’s how Mantra’s daddy used to put it.
Know thyself, motherfucker.
His daddy, all seven feet two of him, humping ass down the baby food aisle at Kmart, looking for blueberry-banana puree to mix with his 25oz of Rolling Rock. Mantra couldn’t help thinking about the man, wondering what in the fuck happened to him. What he said in his head was, you can wonder all you want—it ain’t going to give you no answers, motherfucker. Then he thought about the phrase, no answers. No, he told himself, say it like this: Know answers.
Know answers, motherfucker.
That’s as far as he went with it because he got a hunger for nicotine and lit a cigarette, sat smoking in the driver’s seat of a broke-ass Jeep Cherokee he lifted at the outlet mall near Beaumont. One-eighty-thou on the motherfucker; the in-line six growled like a Slurpee machine the whole way back to Palm Springs. So bad that Mantra said fuck it. Started blasting Top 40 hits out of a local radio station, power one hundred and something.
He leaned back in the seat and squinted at the bungalow.
It was dark already—six in the evening—and there was one light on in the living room. Every now and then, Mantra caught a shadow passing through or partly blocking out the light. Sheila, maybe. Or the Dude.
That fucking piece-of-shit Dude.
Little downtown Palm Springs bungalow. This fucking dude. Mantra couldn’t believe Sheila fucked the man. He puffed out smoke and watched the street. Wide lanes with those rounded curbs, palm trees and eucalyptus swaying high above them. The Jeep’s driver’s side window was lowered slightly and Mantra could smell the flowering oleanders and a hedge of roses in the bungalow’s front yard.
All right, Dude. Nice place you got.
Little Palm Springs joint, huh?
A fuck pad, huh?
Mantra finished the cigarette, flicked it out the window. He lit another and kept watching. A shadow appeared in the window, shrank back into the bungalow’s mysterious throat. You like that bungalow dick, Sheila. Man, Mantra thought, I never figured you for bungalow dick. Never figured you for wanting to fuck a dude who took tennis lessons and played polo.
Never would have figured.
He was halfway through his second cigarette, watching for more shadows in the bungalow, when his cell phone rang. He picked it up without looking at the caller ID, blew smoke into the mouthpiece. “This is Mantra. What up?”
“Yo, Detective Mantra. This is Louie over in—”
“Louie Ants, that you?”
“Shit, yeah. Course it is, buddy.”
“I thought you had a retirement coming up?”
“I do,” Louie said. “Shit. I did. I’m doing some part time consulting for the County Sheriff’s Department.”
“No shit,” Mantra said. And then he thought: Know shit.
Know shit, motherfucker.
“Reason I’m calling: We got a body out in the hills. A gangbanger.”
“Another one bites the dust, huh?” Mantra watched as the bungalow’s light dimmed and a smaller light emerged in the window. Goddamn candle. Now they were lighting candles. “I known a few gangbangers in my time. Let’s have it.”
Louie gave Mantra the rundown: About five-seven, one-forty. Two tear drops tattooed under the left eye. A bulldog on the right shoulder. Your run-of-the-mill Mother Theresa shit across the abdomen. Some Jesus tats, too.
Mantra asked what kind of shoes. Why’s that matter? It just does, Louie. Nike. Okay, what kind of Nike? What do I mean, what kind? Oh, the crime scene techs say Air Force Ones. Is that important? Maybe. Yeah, maybe.
Louie said, “I’m just trying to get an ID on the motherfucker. You know how it is when they don’t got a wallet or an RIP tat, right?”
“I know how it is,” Mantra said. He watched the candle flicker in the window. How motherfucking romantic. This fucking Dude and Sheila.
“Any of this tug on your balls?”
Mantra said, “You got an eye color for me? What about hair style? They wear the same hair style, usually. Even when they get older.”
Louie cleared his throat. “Thing is, he got the top of his head shot off. Only thing I can make out clear is the two tear drops.”
“Well,” Mantra said, “it must have hurt if he was crying.”
That got a laugh and Louie said, “Yeah. It hurt so bad he died.”
Mantra didn’t laugh. He watched the candle flicker. “None of this is giving me a picture,” he said. “I can’t say I ever had the pleasure of meeting your dead man. Not that I can remember, at least.”
“You don’t know him, huh?”
“Nope. I don’t know him.”
They hung up and Mantra watched the window and the candle flickering inside it. Too bad, he thought. I didn’t know the man. And I couldn’t help the man. He flicked his cigarette out the window. Know thyself, he thought.
Know thyself, motherfucker.
Two days earlier Mantra met Sheila at a donut shop on Slauson, sat chewing a jelly donut while she poured powdered creamer into her Starbucks cup. They sat at a wobbly table and Mantra said, “Not even gonna buy a Bear Claw, huh? You come in here with your upper-middle-class coffee and use the man’s creamer. Can’t see it in your heart to kick some dough his way?”
Sheila sighed and looked sideways at the glass display with all the rows of donuts and pastries. “This fucker has enough dough, if you ask me.”
No fighting Sheila, Mantra decided.
He slurped red jam through his lips and asked her why the fuck she was taking him away from his perfect LA day chatting up suspected murderers and letting widows cry on his cold shoulder.
“Because I can, that’s why,” she said. “You’re my brother-in-law, right?”
“Only by marriage.” Mantra smiled, dabbed at his front teeth with a big purple tongue. “You know, I got a real job, Sheila. I can’t be taking time to eat donuts and talk about getting our nails done.”
“Like Randle doesn’t have a real job?”
“My brother—older brother, mind you—teaches second grade.”
“The man sits around doing basic arithmetic and taking attendance.”
Sheila sipped her coffee and shook her head. “You’re such a prick, Mantra. Just because you’re a cop, you think you’re so fucking important.”
“I got a gun and a badge.”
“And a pencil-slim dick to match.”
Mantra exhaled through his nose, got serious. It wasn’t like Sheila to talk that way, especially not with her husband’s little brother. He wiped his sticky fingers with a napkin. “What’s wrong, Sheila?”
“Sheila, what’s wrong?”
“I called you because. . .”
It sat there on her face. In her eyes. Something deep and unspoken and too dangerous to put into the hot air of a Slauson Avenue donut shop.
Mantra saw a few lies cross her mind, saw them emerge in the wrinkles at her mostly smooth temples, in the sharp points that formed the outside of her eyes, in the slightest twinge of an upper lip. You get so good—as a cop—that you can see a lie before it crosses a person’s lips. But Sheila didn’t lie. Mantra had to give her that. She didn’t lie to him. Instead, she trailed off and sat there scratching the top of one hand with a manicured fingernail—a blood-red fingernail. Mantra put a hand on top of hers and said, “If something’s wrong, Sheila—if something’s wrong, I’m here to help. We’re family.”
“Yeah. I mean, no—nothing’s wrong. I just. . ."
“I have to go. I-I forgot about something. I’m sorry, Mantra. Thanks for meeting me, okay? I just. . .I have to go.” And she did.
He watched her through the donut shop’s window as she hustled across the parking lot, climbed into her leased BMW. Black as night and sleek as an insect. She pulled onto Slauson and headed east.
Something’s wrong all right, Mantra thought. Wrong as fuck.
He started tailing her that evening.
And now, here ye sit, he thought. Watching your brother’s wife suck off some country club Dude with a Maserati and a Palm Springs bungalow.
Mantra started the Jeep and cruised past the bungalow, squinted at the flickering candle in the front window. He didn’t know what to do. His brother was at a teacher’s retreat in Ojai. Should he call and let Randle know his wife was fucking somebody else? Or just drive back to LA and let it ride? Was this any business of his? Mantra turned the Jeep onto Palm Canyon, the town’s main drag, and headed south through trinket shops and quaint Italian restaurants. After a few blocks, he parked on the street. He locked the Jeep and walked into a Tiki Bar—the sweat rolling off his face dried with the cool air conditioning inside the place.
The decor was pure Polynesian, warrior masks and palm fronds. The bar was already full this early in the evening; Mantra found a spot on the patio overlooking the street. It was hot on the patio—despite the hoses spraying cool mist—and he ordered a piña colada. The drink arrived and Mantra sipped it while he thought about his brother.
His only brother.
Yeah, they were close. Did everything together as kids. Mantra played quarterback in high school and he set a few records throwing to Randle, the all-city receiver. They went off to separate colleges—Mantra at LA City and Randle in the Midwest.
Randle became a teacher.
Mantra became a cop.
Know thyself, motherfucker.
Sheila and Randle got married fast. Too fast for Mantra’s comfort. But he saw the man happy—really happy, that is—for the first time since their dad got put away. Sent upstate to the joint. All seven feet two inches of him.
And Randle and Mantra never saw the man again.
Last Mantra checked, their dad was a ghost.
Let out of prison in 2010 and nowhere to be found.
For what? For killing their momma. Well, for getting her killed.
Drunk driving down—wouldn’t you know it?—Slauson Avenue on a Thursday night. You can bet the phrase is real: Cars do wrap themselves around telephone poles. Or people wrap cars around telephone poles.
And that was the heart of it—Sheila looked like momma. Talked like her. Hell, sometimes you looked at Sheila and thought: That must be momma’s reincarnation. But it wasn’t weird that Randle fell in love with Sheila.
She was different, too.
Had a little hustle in her.
Some kind of hot fire.
And it looked like she was burning Randle. No-goddamn-way. No way in hell. No-goddam-way. Nobody burns my brother. I’m a LA city homicide cop and nobody—no-fucking-body—burns my brother. Mantra took the final sip of his piña colada.
He had a bungalow to visit.
Mantra puffed and watched. The candle in the bungalow’s window was out, but another light was on deep inside the place. In another window. The bedroom, probably. He puffed and puffed. Sat there seething and thinking and breathing. At about nine that night, he got another call.
“This Mantra. What up?”
“Mantra? It’s me.”
“I thought you were up in Ojai?”
“I am,” Randle said. “Got about three more inclusivity modules to attend.”
“Watch you ma-call-it?”
Randle chuckled and said, “Man, if anybody needs sensitivity training, it’s you. I bet you drive around looking for people to shoot.”
“Somebody’s got to do it.”
“Right,” Randle said. “Hey, bro: You mind driving over to my place and checking on Sheila? She was supposed to go out for dinner with a friend, but she should be back by now. I can’t get a hold of her.”
Mantra stared bullets at the lighted window.
“It’s just, you know, I want to make sure she’s okay.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You want to make sure she’s okay,” Mantra said. But he thought: She sure as shit ain’t okay. And you won’t be either, Randle.
“You can try to call, but she’s not answering.”
“I hear you,” Mantra said. “I’ll head over there now. I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Yeah, me too.” Randle clicked his teeth. “It’s just, you know. . .”
“Yeah, I know. Let me call you back.”
“Cool. Thanks, bro.”
Mantra pushed the end call button. As he did, the bungalow’s living room light flashed on. He saw two shadows cross through the light and then it went out again. The bungalow’s front door opened and two silhouettes moved into view on the stone walkway. Mantra watched Sheila and the Dude move down the driveway past the gleaming Maserati and stand waiting on the curb. The Dude looked Mantra’s way, punched a button on his phone. Sheila stood there in a white gown; the gown clung to her figure like stretch fabric. God, he thought, she does look a bit like momma. What Mantra wondered:
What are they doing?
And then he saw headlights flash in the Jeep’s rearview mirror.
Ride share. Here Sheila was with her Palm Springs Dude and they were going out for a night on the town. Maybe get a little drunk and cruise back to the bungalow, have a nice Palm Springs fuck. And with Randle pulling his pud up in Ojai.
God, Mantra thought. Damn.
He acted without thinking—he felt a surge of anger run through him and he twisted the Jeep’s ignition key, slammed his foot against the gas pedal. The vehicle shot forward, crossed through the gaze of headlights behind him. He saw the Dude’s face squirm into a frown and—for an instant—he saw Sheila’s eyes glaze in fear. He ran them down and knew they were both dead. Their bodies made thumping sounds—thump-thump-thump like a boxer hitting a bag—against the bumper and along the undercarriage. He stopped the Jeep and the tires squealed. The car behind him stopped too and Mantra sat there bathed in the headlights and his own uncontrollable rage. Nobody but nobody fucks with my brother, he told himself. Nobody but no-fucking-body.
He slammed the throttle again and steered the Jeep onto the main drag. He sped toward the freeway and, when he was headed west on Interstate 10 toward Los Angeles, he picked up his phone and called his brother.
“She okay?” Randle asked. He had a wheeze in his voice. Like he’d been running. Or like he’d been worried as hell. “You find out if she’s okay?” “Yeah,” Mantra said. “She’s all right. Trust me, brother. She’s just fine.”