February 22, 2020

Who Killed Raphael’s Son? Part 3

Editor’s note: This is the second of a five-part excerpt from the novel “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” by Gina Nahai published by Akashic Books.

The witness — bald with sunburned scalp, a long, oval face, and a blind right eye — was George P. Carter III, a.k.a. the Altoid Man. Something of a West L.A. institution, he had appeared on the scene in the mid-2000s—a tall, slim, and elegant figure with a closed eye and an affinity for spotless white sweaters and crisply pressed tan or light-gray pants. At the time, he was a PhD student at UCLA, had a Culver City address, and a seven-day-a-week surfing habit in Paradise Cove in Malibu. 

Then one morning he showed up on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Whittier Drive, across the street from the Beverly Hilton Hotel—the preferred venue for many a charity dinner, million-dollar bar mitzvah, and, throughout that decade, numerous Oscar luncheons—holding up a sign that read, LAPD BLINDED MY EYE AND REFUSES TO APOLOGIZE OR PAY FOR IT.

The sign’s fine print described a weekend altercation between him and the police: he was driving in the area—the border between Beverly Hills and Century City — and the cops pulled him over for no reason; he objected, since “we don’t live in North Korea,” so they beat him, blinded his eye, and took him to jail. Afterward, they wouldn’t even apologize.

He appeared so sophisticated and held the sign with such dogged earnestness, he managed to slow down the already-excruciating traffic on the corner.

Below the fine print, a larger-type font declared that George P. Carter III was not homeless or hungry, didn’t want motorists’ money or their expressions of pity. He wanted “justice” for himself, compensation for his eye, and an apology from the police chief, the mayor, and the president of the police commission.

He got a lot of curious stares, a few people honking their horns and giving him a thumbs-up, but no reaction from the police. So he returned the next day.

Monday through Friday for the next five or six years, the Altoid Man arrived at his post on the seven a.m. bus and stayed exactly twelve hours. Every ten minutes or so he would put the sign down, reach into his pocket, and retrieve a box of “original” Altoids, pop one in his mouth, and resume his stance. He took a half-hour lunch break at noon, and sat out the weekends when the traffic on his corner was light. Over the years his appearance showed signs of attrition. He grew increasingly thin and disheveled, his clothes became ragged and dirty, and his sign turned weather-beaten and nearly illegible — but he never gave up his Altoid habit or his steadfast demand for reparations from the LAPD.

In time, he and his sign faded like celluloid figures off a black-and-white reel; he became just another angry soul riding the buses and wandering the streets of L.A., but he never stopped fighting the good fight. Just in case he was attacked by the police again, he carried a disposable camera in his pants pocket and pulled it out every time a cruiser slowed down or stopped near him.

He told Leon he had been riding the 4 bus from downtown to the beach, which was what he always did, going back and forth all night to avoid sleeping on the street, where he’d be vulnerable to “more police brutality,” or in a shelter, where the company was intolerable “since I don’t drink, do drugs, or speak Spanish or Ebonics.” He’d had to get off the bus at two a.m. to fulfill a pressing urge, “and I don’t mean just pissing.”

He liked Mapleton for that purpose, he explained, because there was a large construction site not too far away from Sunset. From there, he had seen “everything, I can give you minute-by-minute details, but fuck you if you think I’m gonna tell you a fucking thing without first getting my dues from the fucking LAPD.”

“I don’t care what it looks like,” Leon told O’Donnell in his office. “The wife might have helped him escape, but she didn’t kill him.”

There were only two chairs in O’Donnell’s office — an ergonomic executive desk chair for him, and a metal-framed, no-seat-pad or armrests, sorry-excuse-for-a-seating-implement for guests. The latter was so narrow, it barely contained the entirety of Leon’s frame.

Leon wiggled on the chair until he felt semi steady, then assumed a “this is a teachable moment” tone and attempted to bring his boss up to date.

Forget, for a second, that Neda was half Raphael’s Son’s weight, with bird bones and not enough strength to lift a ten-pound dumbbell above her head at the gym; that even if surprised, Raphael’s Son could have crushed her forearm with one hand. Forget, also, that she didn’t have a single nick or cut on any of her fingers; that she had endured nearly eighteen years of living with Raphael’s Son and had no special reason to want to be rid of him now. Or that, with him dead, she would have been poor by the standards to which she was accustomed: Raphael’s Son had no life insurance, and had not kept a written record of where his assets were hidden. And, of course, forget that there was no body and no weapon, no witnesses or other clues.

Leon’s gut told him that Raphael’s Son was not dead. He was just hiding somewhere with the money. He had staged the “accident” and coached Neda to report seeing him bloody and lifeless so he would be declared dead, the case against him abandoned, his creditors giving up on trying to recoup any of their assets, and he could go right on cheating helpless old widows into ripe old age. Even assuming he was dead, however, there was no chance — none at all — that Neda was the killer.

“The fact is,” he explained to O’Donnell, “Iranian Jewish women do not kill.” Even if they did — and they don’t — they would not kill their husband. 

Leon’s gut told him that Raphael’s Son was not dead. He was just hiding somewhere with the money.

It’s true some things have changed for Iranian women since they came to the United States. Cheating on one’s husband, which was rare to nearly nonexistent, is no longer out of the question. But having a nice, quiet affair with a friend’s husband in Bel Air while your own spouse is off chasing hookers in Southeast Asia is not nearly the same thing as sending the man to his grave. In America, Iranian women have reached a milestone or two. They have become brain surgeons and CEOs, renowned artists and engineers and architects, but killers they were not and will never be.

“I would go on,” Leon concluded his lecture, “but I see you’re pressed for time.”

O’Donnell had checked his watch three times in the last three minutes. He checked it again and said, “Well, that’s the biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve heard all day.”

The last person to see Raphael’s Son alive, assuming one believed Neda’s story of having found him dead in his car, was his bookkeeper and personal slave, Edward Araxamian, in the Century City offices of Soleyman Enterprises on the evening of Monday, June 24, 2013. The building’s security cameras and sign-in log showed him arriving at work that Tuesday morning at 9:40 a.m., and leaving nearly fourteen hours later, at 11:30 p.m. In between (this according to the hallway and elevator cameras), Araxamian had taken eight bathroom breaks (he had an overactive bladder fueled by a constant stream of Turkish coffee which he made on a camping stove in the office kitchen), thirteen cigarette breaks (he also had a long-standing death wish that became more urgent the longer he worked for Raphael’s Son), and one lunch break (he bought a stale bagel from the Starbucks in the building lobby, took three bites, threw it away, and smoked two Marlboros instead). His key card had been scanned in the building’s parking structure at 11:34, and his image had been captured behind the wheel of the ancient blue Volvo station wagon he had bought in Orange County from a beautiful middle-aged woman named Marilyn; she had told him she was a poet and introduced him to her cat, and then she had voluntarily knocked off $1,000 from the asking price of the car “because I sense you’re under pressure.” She was right, if “under pressure” means wanting to set himself or someone else on fire several times a day.

From the outside, the apartment building where Eddy lived appeared condemned and uninhabited. There were no balconies, and the windows had to remain closed to keep out the noise and pollution of the freeway, and because the frames would bend and stick too often. The intercom was left over from the ’70s. There were no names or apartment numbers next to the rows of buttons, probably because most of the tenants were in the country illegally and did not wish to be found.

Leon parked his car at the 7-Eleven across from the building and dialed Eddy’s number. The phone was turned off, probably to avoid the rush of callers fishing for information about the case, his voicemail full. But the Bengali who owned the 7-Eleven told Leon that Eddy was home. The Bengali’s wife was Eddy’s mother’s emergency contact: bedridden and barely able to use the phone, the mother spent the entire day alone while Eddy was at work. The 7-Eleven was open twenty-four hours, and Eddy checked in with the Bengalis every time he left or returned home.

“I’m very worried,” the husband told Leon when he inquired about Eddy. “He’s never missed work before.”

In the front vestibule, the elevator, such as it was, had been broken since the day it was installed, so Leon climbed up three flights. He had to knock three times before a man’s voice invited him to “get lost.” Then he had to identify himself and threaten to keep knocking till the door fell open.

Edward Araxamian, a.k.a. Eddy Arax, Caucasian male, 5 feet 11 and 143 pounds, suffering from high blood pressure, arrhythmia, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, lived with his sixty-eight-year-old, ailing, legally blind mother in a one-bedroom apartment in a three-story gray cement building one block down from the San Fernando Road exit off Route 134 in Glendale. His was not the Glendale of the twenty-first century, with its megamalls and overpriced sushi bars, Armenian-owned Persian bakeries with rows of marzipan in forty-two colors displayed in the window, and the original kebob place — an outdoor restaurant owned by an Armenian named Raffi that served only rice and kebob, none of the “Royal Persian Cuisine” of Westwood and Beverly Hills. Where Eddy lived, the landlord was an Armenian from the former Soviet Union (not to be confused with Armenians from Iran, since there’s a lot of bad blood between the two factions: the Iranians are gentle, law-abiding citizens; they’ll tell you that Soviet Armenians are thieves and cutthroats who give their people a bad name). Rent was collected every two weeks, in cash, and never claimed on a tax return. City inspectors — Latinos, for the most part, who depended on the generosity of the landlord to afford luxury cars for their wives — vouched for the safety of the building, sight unseen.

Eddy was a good and honest man with an astonishing memory, but he had no high school or college degree, and wasn’t trained to do anything except smoke and drink Turkish coffee. He was also adept at dodging bombs and sidestepping land mines, which he had learned by “serving” the Islamic Republic for three long years in the Iran-Iraq War until he nearly died from the effects of one of Saddam’s dirty bombs and received a medical discharge; but Los Angeles wasn’t exactly rife with demand for such skills. He spoke Persian with a heavy Armenian accent, and his English was elementary at best. He did, however, have command of a good number of words in Bengali.

These language issues aside, Eddy was in the United States on a tourist visa that had expired six years earlier. Back then, he had spent a year looking for a bookkeeping job, but no American with two pennies in his corporate account was willing to trust a person who, when asked where he obtained his license, named a school that did not exist. The Iranian business owners he approached for jobs did not hold his immigration status against him; they were, after all, recent refugees themselves. What kept them from hiring him was that they couldn’t bear to look at his face.

Thanks to Saddam’s dirty bomb, Eddy’s face, neck, and hands were a patchwork of light skin mottled with large yellowish-brown blotches. On the right side, his upper jawbone had crumbled, so that the flesh of his cheek hung limply between his nose and ear, like plastic that had melted and cooled. On the left, his cheek had caved in because he had lost all his molars. The skin on his forehead was crumpled, and the front part of his scalp was all scar tissue. The only part of the face that had remained intact were his eyes, and these, anyone who looked at him long enough would see, were bottomless holes of sadness.

It was the sadness, and the fact that he couldn’t read or write English, didn’t have a driver’s license, and radiated cigarette smoke, that prevented other Iranians from hiring him for an accounting job. They did, however, want very much to help Eddy, so they handed him “a small offering” — a hundred dollar bill, maybe, for his troubles. They might as well have spat on his father’s grave.

The apartment was small, and smelled like laundry detergent and fabric softener. An ugly brown leather couch doubled as Eddy’s bed. A round glass table, the kind sold in the small Korean-owned stores up and down Venice and Robertson Boulevards, functioned as dining table and desk. There was an ancient TV perched atop the arms of a dining chair, and a three-drawer plywood dresser, painted a faint pink with white plastic knobs, that leaned against the part of the wall closest to the kitchen area. The dresser looked like it had been salvaged from a little girl’s room and purchased in a yard sale. The kitchen consisted of a two-burner portable stove, a narrow refrigerator, and a washer and dryer all crammed into an alcove with a sink. The stove and a carving board sat on top of the washer and dryer; the top of the dresser served as storage space for cooking utensils and condiments. Eddy himself looked like he had had one Turkish coffee too many that day.

“So what’s going on?” Leon said as he searched around for a place to sit. “Where’re you hiding him?”

Eddy was not amused. “I already talked to the American cop.”

“Who? O’Donnell?”

“Whatever his name is. And some Armenian woman called too, but I told her to fuck off.”

“But you don’t mind if we talk,” Leon said, apparently without irony. That showed what a lousy detective he was: you had only to see the way Eddy cringed at the very sight of Leon to realize just how much he did mind.

In the bedroom behind Eddy, a woman moaned pitifully every few seconds.

“Go ahead,” Leon nodded toward the door. “I’ll wait.”

Instead, Eddy headed to the “kitchen.”

“So is he dead or not?” he asked with obviously feigned indifference.

“What do you think?” Leon tested.

The lab had determined that there was only one person’s blood in the car, and that it was Raphael’s Son’s. The coroner had decided there was too much of it for Raphael’s Son to have survived without an immediate and extensive transfusion. The forensic team had yet to find a single trace of the man anywhere outside the car.

There was the moan again. Eddy sighed and rubbed his left eye with his fist.

“What the fuck do I know?” 

“If he’s dead, and you were the last to see him, I’d say you may know a great deal.” Eddy’s face flared with rage. “I hope he burns in hell, is what I know.”

The rawness of the statement sent a shiver up Leon’s spine. He tried hard not to look away from Eddy.

Eddy started to mash a cooked apple with the flat side of a fork. Cautiously, because it appeared too old and unstable to support his weight, Leon sat down on the arm of Eddy’s sofa bed.

“So you do believe he’s dead.”

Eddy opened a twelve-section, seven-layer pill container and took out a capsule, opened it, and poured the contents over the mashed apple.

“This thing tastes like poison,” he said, mixing the powder much too forcefully and making sure he looked only at the plate. He added some sugar and what looked to Leon like chocolate powder, crushed the paste some more, then finally picked up the plate and a teaspoon.

“I have to feed her this,” he said as he walked past Leon. Two steps later he stopped, let out what sounded like an ironic laugh, and peered back at Leon.

“I don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” he said, “but if he’s dead, I’m willing to swear the Riffraff did it.”

To be continued.