Then they were driving away from the university, Israel struggling with the GPS on his phone and also trying to drive.
“Look.” Manny drew in a deep breath, then turned to face his friend. "Look, Israel. I’m fine knowing the guy’s name, but I don’t want to see him.”
“Ok.” Israel shrugged. He stopped in front of a red light and quickly typed something into the GPS search bar. “Lafayette Street…” he muttered to himself.
“So…so we’re not looking for him, we’re just looking for his name, right?” Manny checked.
“Ah, so we’re headed to that side of town. Eeesh.” Israel set his phone on the stand on the dashboard. Then, glancing at his friend, “What were you saying?”
“What—what side of town?” Manny turned the phone to face him. Israel had typed a full address into the GPS. Their destination was twelve minutes away.
“Your uncle’s side of town,” Israel replied. “Deep, dark, dirty downtown.”
“That is not my uncle’s side of town,” Manny immediately defended. “Uncle Leon is a real estate owner. I don’t think he has a single property in downtown.”
“No, he probably just sells property in downtown.” Israel stepped on the gas, his grinning face turned towards the windshield. “Drugs, to be precise on what kind of property.”
Manny shook his head. “Uncle Leon is not a drug dealer.”
“Well, he looks like one. And he has an awful lot of money, coincidentally.”
“Stop being so racist.” Manny gave his friend a firm glare. “I’ve seen one of his properties, ok? He owns an entire apartment complex on Rushford. That’s where he lives, as a matter of fact. See, he may drive a Porsche, but he doesn’t spend money carelessly. He just buys the things that mean a lot to him, that’s all.”
“That dude, as a property manager, would be broke as hell.” Israel grinned again. “There’s no way he’s not selling drugs. Hey, maybe he sells to his renters. Nah, never mind, then he’d never get any rent. He looks like a drug dealer, and I’m pretty sure he is.”
“Why? Because he’s black?”
“No. Because he has a weird lion tattoo on his hand, his facial hair is always exquisitely perfect, he has money pouring out of his ears, he knows every part of town like everything is his own backyard, he has a million connections, and—last but not least—he gave you a very specific list of areas in San Diego never to go to. Meaning, he’s been there and knows exactly what they contain.”
“I don’t even remember that list.” Manny tipped his head against the backrest. “He’s not a drug dealer, Israel. He’s lived in San Diego most of his life. Of course he knows the city well.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to one of the places on that list right now,” Israel commented mildly.
Manny sat upright. “What?”
“Yeah. Northeast Downtown. Pretty sure that was on there somewhere. Though, he might have called it something else.” Israel scratched his head. “I remember looking at a map and kinda getting a feel for where the places were that he mentioned.”
“Are you serious? Why are we going, then?” Manny’s back went rigid. “What is this place, anyway?”
“It’s um…a restaurant, I think.” Israel glanced at his GPS.
“We shouldn’t do this. We should go back.” Manny’s face paled at the windshield.
“No, we’re not going back.”
“Yes, we have to! I’m not going to some random restaurant in the middle of a place Uncle Leon told us to steer clear of! If we have to know this guy’s name, we can ask again at the frat house!”
“No, I already had a head-off with Brice, ok?” Israel passed his friend a dark glare. “That dude…” Israel tossed his hand slightly. “Man, I don’t know. But I hit a stone wall. I’m not about to go back to him and swallow my pride and tell him that I couldn’t use the information he already gave me because I’m too chicken to be seen in that part of town and can he please, please, please give me an actual name—because my friend and I really need to know who this guy is!”
“I…I don’t…I don’t really need to know,” Manny offered, sinking into his seat slightly.
Israel slapped his hands on the steering wheel. “Ok! Well, I do!”
Why? Manny wondered. But he did not ask the question out loud. Maybe he didn’t want Israel to answer. He did not have a good explanation for his own curiosity—even an excuse to be letting it exist.
Campus neighborhoods changed to tall, square skyscrapers. Traffic became forming and fading grids of centipede-like lines of cars. Israel turned off onto an overpass and followed it down to an interstate. The skyscrapers melted away for half a mile, then abruptly returned as Israel and Manny entered the older side of downtown. Mildew-blackened walls towered over narrow streets, squeezing sidewalks in against the curb. Spanish rap songs poured loudly out of an auto shop on the corner. A man with sagging pants and a red bandanna hanging out of his back pocket waltzed along the sidewalk to the music playing through his over-sized headphones. Cars with blindingly silver hubcaps marked every corner and alleyway. The roads narrowed still further, but the buildings shortened. Yellow streetlights cast a faded glow on packed blocks. Powerlines arched over the suburb like gaunt skeletons.
Israel slowed to a crawl in front of a neon-lit building with shadowy figures dotting the sidewalk in front. Clouds of cigarette smoke seemed to fill the air around the building, illuminated in shades of pink and purple from the neon lights.
“Wha—why are you stopping?” Manny sat up straight and looked quickly out the window at the building. One of the shadowy figures on the sidewalk was approaching their vehicle.
“I think…” Israel’s voice trailed away. He adjusted his phone on the stand on the dashboard. “I’m pretty sure this is the place…”
“What? No. No way.” Manny shrank into his seat, then sat upright again. “There’s someone—why is that person—is she coming over here!?” Platform heels clacked against the concrete sidewalk as the figure approached. She walked oddly, stepping with a sway like she was strutting the red carpet, not crossing a littered city sidewalk.
“Um…” Israel brought the vehicle to a full halt. He was leaning down to get a better look through the windshield.
“No. Why are you stopping!? No!” Manny looked up worriedly at the approaching silhouette.
“Yep. It says…Tucker’s…” Israel was looking at his phone again.
There was tapping on glass. Manny turned and uttered a harsh gasp when he saw that shadowy figure was now standing right next to the car, tapping on his window. “This is not it. Let’s get out of here,” Manny hurriedly told his friend.
Israel let out a tense sigh. But rather than step on the gas, he hit the button on his door to roll down Manny’s window. The next thing Manny knew were his own panicked breaths sounding frighteningly close to an unfamiliar female voice.
“Hi, fellas.” But she visibly hesitated when she made out Manny’s face in the neon lighting.
“Hi,” Israel spoke up, any sign of nervousness vanishing behind his usual confident tone. “Could you tell me if this is Tucker’s, the restaurant?”
The girl had stepped away from the car slightly. Neon light glowed against her exposed midsection below a tight black crop top. She lifted a pale, slender hand and gestured over her shoulder. “Yeah, it’s Tucker’s. Can’t read, or what?”
“I was just making sure this is Tucker’s, the restaurant.” Israel smiled faintly. Then, glancing into his mirrors, “Where do we park?”
“There’s a lot in the back.” She made another over-the-shoulder gesture. “You can parallel park up front for thirty minutes, too.”
“Ah, great.” Israel raised his hand in a small wave. “Thanks.” He rolled up the window.
“We’re not. We’re not parking,” Manny breathed.
“She seemed nice. What are you scared of?” Israel pulled neatly into the space beside the sidewalk and put the car in park.
“Nice?” Manny shot a glance at the smokey, neon building. “Nice? She looked—did you see what she was wearing!?”
“Yes…” Israel shut off the engine and threw back his seatbelt.
“She’s a hooker, isn’t she?” Manny went ghostly pale. “Wearing that? In this weather? And the way she just walked up to our car?”
Israel grinned nervously. “Maybe.” Then, gesturing for Manny to take off his seatbelt, “Let’s go. Come on, I borrowed a car, and we drove all the way out here. I’ll have to fill up the tank whether we find out who your one-night stand is, or not.”
There was nothing Manny wanted less than to walk up to that door and go inside. But also afraid to stay in the car alone, he found himself following Israel past the floating silhouettes and into the building. Tucker’s, written in blue neon, shed an eerie light on a heavy oak door. But beyond that, Manny was relieved to find that middle-class restaurant ambiance met his eyes. Quiet music was playing, tables and chairs were clean and inviting, fairy lights hung at the liquor shelves behind a full bar. There were only a few people in the restaurant, most seated at the bar, and all of them older men. There seemed to be no host on duty, and the first employee Israel and Manny caught sight of was a female bartender.
“Uh. Hi.” Israel started over to the bar, towards the girl with the high ponytail and large hoop earrings. She glanced up from mixing a drink. Drake, a black-inked tattoo over her eyebrow read. She had sweet blue eyes, but the heavy eyeliner around them made them look almost sinister.
“What can I do for you?” And then it hit Manny: the way she spoke, the way that girl outside had spoken—they both talked like they were not from around here. They were missing that sharp accent of ghetto San Diego—the one Manny knew so well from hearing Leon Devatré talk.
“Um…” Israel spun a semi-circle on the balls of his feet. “I…was told to ask for…angel?”
“Angel?” those lined blue eyes froze on Israel’s face for a moment. Then, turning back to her work, the girl shook her head. “He’s not working tonight.”
“He?” Israel halted the girl again. “So…so ‘Angel’ is someone’s name, and that someone is a guy?”
Manny reached out and quietly grasped Israel’s sleeve. He half turned towards the door, as if ready at any moment to run.
“Uh, yes?” the girl gave Israel a sharp look.
One of the men at the bar swiveled around in his chair. “Boy. Do you even know where you at?” There it was, that sharp accent.
“Uh…” Israel pressed his hands into his pockets and grinned awkwardly. “Not exactly, to be honest.” He turned back to the bartender. “Could you just—like, answer one quick question? I’m looking for a good-looking Asian guy. I was told I could ask here for his name.”
“Angel.” The girl shrugged. “You came looking with the right name, but I told you, he’s not working tonight.” Liquid flew into a whirl at the ushering of the long-handled spoon she dipped into a glass. Then she was sliding the glass easily across the smooth bar surface to the man. “We don’t have any other Asian boys. I can give you the name of an Asian girl, if you want that. There’s a Latino boy, also.” She dropped her hands squarely onto the bar top and gave Israel a level stare. “But that’s all I got.”
“Ah…thanks. No, I was just looking for the one person.” Israel gave the girl a parting nod and turned towards the exit.
“Yeah, that’s right lil’ boy,” the man at the bar growled. He took a swig of his drink and passed the two students a gold-filling smile. “You git you lost lil’ ass back where it belong.”
“Angel?” Manny breathed when the passenger’s door was shut behind him, and Israel was starting the engine.
“Well, you said he was pretty,” Israel pointed out. He pulled onto the road.
“Why does he work in a place like that? I mean, the place itself doesn’t seem too bad, but in this part of town?”
Israel shrugged. “A lot of students have to grab jobs wherever they can get them.” He sighed. “Tomorrow, I’m gonna search the university email registry and see if I can find his last name.”
Manny dropped his head against the backrest. “Why?”
Israel shrugged again. “I need a last name to do a socials search.”
“You’re gonna search him on social media? Why?” Manny sighed. “Why do you care so much about this? It was just…It’s just…” Manny’s eyes drifted towards the window. Angel. Damn. That name fit the beautiful boy perfectly. Not another name Manny could think of was capable of summing up that boy’s flawless complexion, beautiful face, beautiful body—what little Manny remembered seeing of it. “Something I need to forget.”