please don't
Axl Watch: Chapter One
by Pete Coco and Scott Stealey

Gatz didn't tell me anything about the job, just said that at six in the morning the guy would be there, at this drycleaners in Koreatown. Sent me a jpeg. Weird-looking guy—slight build, red goatee, red ball cap, red sneakers, red shorts, and a white button-down shirt. Sunglasses covering almost any hint of features. Didn't even tell me his name.

I was to drive the gold Town Car. Gatz was to meet me there in the black Town Car. I was there, he was not. Ten after six, a quarter after six. Gatz was never late. Almost never. Had I been the type to be troubled, this would have been troublesome.

I was shaved, showered, and my nails were trimmed. With the tab this anonymous client was paying, I would appear as a professional private investigator, even if Gatz didn't let me in on enough for me to actually act like one. I was dressed in one of my new gray checkered suits, with a light blue shirt, polished black brogues, a black silk tie, and a matching pocket square. A fucking pocket square. "It's slimming," Gatz had said at the tailor's. "Draws the eye away from the gut you got going there." And then he cupped my face and slapped me a little. I was on a pedestal, and pantsless beside. It was like insult to injury.

The black Town Car was still nowhere in sight. My trench coat lay flat in the back seat, unused. It was October, but L.A. was hot with dry winds. I decided it was a beautiful morning. I was wide-awake, sunlight beamed then came to warm on my elbow, and I had been on time.

The drycleaners. Old blue-green awning, water-damaged rips through the Korean symbols on it. Lights on, but a neon 'Closed' sign in the window. I sat in the gold Town Car about 50 yards or so back, on the other side of the street. Down the block were some small midlevel office buildings. Cars dotted the curbs like sleeping crabs waiting for the tide of morning rush. In an hour this street would be packed. I went back to flipping through my rag mags when I heard a car door shut up the block. It was Jpeg. He had gotten out of a white Maxima across the street and was walking toward the drycleaners.

He wore the same getup, all red to the sneakers. Only now he also had a white leather jacket on, despite the weather. He'd pulled the sleeves of the jacket up his forearms, and I saw the greenish and black blobs of tattoos on his skin there. His cap and large sunglasses obscured his face. He hid a slight stoop when he walked, with a sharply poised neck and head, like the way some guys will walk in handcuffs. It's dignity-saving, which is all it can be.

Jpeg was smoking a cigarette. Because this is L.A. that alone would have made me look at him twice, even if I wasn't being paid to tail him. Here, they frown at you when they pass you in their car if you're smoking. It is not part of a beautiful morning.

I got a good shot of him with my zoom lens when he looked down the street with a cool, expressionless glance. Like he wanted to hail a cab. But no one drove by. On the digital screen of my camera, he could be anybody in downtown L.A., but I felt he was someone I'd seen before. I supposed that was the general sort of feeling around here.

He knocked on the door of the drycleaners. Took off his cap to reveal long red hair that had been tucked up in it. He turned and I noticed a red and yellow design on the back of his white jacket. I was too far back to make it out.

Was a quarter after six too early for a drycleaners to be open? Maybe for customers, I thought. My knowledge of what goes on in the back of a drycleaners was limited. For all I knew, people could be in the back all night, drycleaning. The long motorized rack of clothes all on hangers in plastic bags made me think of an assembly line. I needed answers like I needed a fresh cup of coffee. I looked for Gatz, but the street was quiet.

Something stirred on the side of the drycleaners by the door. I couldn't see inside, the window was at a different angle—the door, blue-green like the awning, opened toward me. It held there like someone on the inside had their arm against it. Jpeg lifted his long hair from his ear. He smiled but then his look turned sheepish. He took off the jacket, reluctantly, and walked inside. The door flapped back in. For a few moments, nothing. I put my camera in the passenger seat and went back to my rag mags. I have found myself partial to OK Magazine. I love the name of it. OK. I read the captions of the pictures with the celebrities' names, matched them to the dour woman sunning herself on the beach, the sculpted man seated next to her. It's like flashcards for me, a new, if temporary resident of Los Angeles. I'm learning who's who, who is wretched, who is hot, who is, like a homecoming queen, "sweet." P.I.'s and paparazzi, we watch from a distance. But we're still bringing others closer together.

Shouting from the drycleaners.

The blue-green door flung outwards, violently, and with it came my guy, stumbling out in his red sneakers. No cap and sunglasses, no jacket. He clutched his chest, and I saw the silver handle of a large knife sticking out of him. The blade had been deeply embedded right in the solar plexus. Blood was spotting up on his white shirt around the handle. His hair covered the front of his face as he fell to his knees.

I unholstered my .38 and carefully approached. Jpeg fell on his back, the last stars of life shaking out of his limbs. I prettyfooted a little closer to get a look at his face, my gun out in the direction of the door. The handle of the large knife stuck into his chest was of exquisite design. Nepalese, I figured. Ceremonial. I could see the tassel now, sprouting from the pommel.

The dead man's face. I didn't need OK Magazine to know who it was.

I lowered my gun, but then the door swung open again. A large Asian man with a shaved head stood in the doorway. His eyebrows were thin and stretched nearly into one another on his wide forehead. A patch of black hair grew just below his lip. He was wearing a sleeveless black t-shirt and black jeans, prison tattoos curling up from under his collar. I raised my gun and I asked him.

"Did you just kill Axl Rose?"

* * *

The last and only other time Gatz was late. A month ago, back in Chicago, the day he told me about L.A. He came into the office at ten. His tie hung around his neck, a sling, holding his right arm up against his body. His right eye was full of burst capillaries, both eyes were puffy with sleeplessness, or sadness, or both. Stitches crawled out of his mouth and an inch up his cheek on his lean, stern face. His suit was wrinkled firm at the shoulders, meaning that he probably slept in one of the Town Cars. My first thought was it might have something to do with the former Mrs. Gatz. You'd think a P.I., with all he sees everyday, might know how to keep love from going so sour. Gatz knew all kinds of things most P.I.s could only hope to know. But he didn't know that.

He went straight to his office, sat down in his squeaky desk chair and proceeded to bang his head against the desktop. His calendar muffled the impact, but only a little. After three solid blows he stopped, leaving his head down. I thought I had just witnessed his hara-kiri. I had only been working for Gatz a short time, but already he seemed the type who might, with great nobility, kill himself in some obscure but necessary gambit.

I waited. His fingers twitched. Then, without moving his head, his good arm reached down to the drawer and pulled from it a .38 and a bottle of champagne and placed both on the desk next to his head.

He turned his neck so he was facing to me. "Diplopia," he said. "You know what that is?"

I consulted the Internet. "Seeing double," I said.

"Good. I am diplopic today. Doctor says I should be fine by tonight, that it is just my concussion and it will go away. But fuck. From where I stand I just have a headache, and the fact that there are two of you is feeling like more of a cause than an effect. You get what I'm saying?"

"You have a concussion?" I asked. I straightened up in my desk chair. "And what doctor? The one making slings out of neckties?"

He looked at me straight but didn't answer.

"You're an hour late." I said. "A client left. Wasn't happy."

He pulled his head up and grabbed the bottle. Using his left hand, he had a little initial trouble with the cork, but he got it.

"It's a special occasion," he said. "Trust me." He poured into the mug on his desk.

"I'm just saying. I don't get a lot of alerts on my Outlook, Gatz."

"The only thing that matters to me is my work," he said. He kept his look on me with those puffy eyes. What could he do to me in his condition? He lifted the champagne bottle and motioned with it.

"You should have some too," he said. "A couple month's in and you haven't gotten drunk on the job yet. Tons to learn, this one."

I pulled a dixie cone out of the spring water tap in the hallway and poured myself a snowcone's worth.

"It's a common misconception," Gatz said, "that champagne should only be drunk in celebration. But that's a myth. A marketing ploy, like, say...," and here his red puffy eyes fluttered, "...Mother's Day."

"Mother's Day isn't a marketing ploy," I said.

"Depends on the mother, I suppose."

"Or the son." But it didn't. I was just trying to talk, to get some opinions from him, some judgments, something for me to mark whatever it was he cared about. Because it wasn't just his work.

"You're impossible," he said. "Both of you."

Gatz and I drank the bottle of champagne at his desk, him in his squeaky chair, me across from him, in the client's smooth leather chair. I'm not much of a drinker, so I was buzzed by the time the phone rang.

"Don't answer that." he said. "We're closed."

"Alright Gatz," I said. He felt tragic to me then.

"Go home for the day," he said, and then he sniffed hard and fluttered his weary eyelids, trying to jostle himself more awake. "I'll pay you for it."

"I don't know if you should be alone in your condition," I said.

He stared at me for a moment, and I'm ashamed to say that my arm reached down under the chair for my briefcase before he spoke. Gatz perked up.

"No, no, I suppose not. Then talk to me. There are two of you. Exactly alike. You're both talking at the exact same time. You're like the fucking Bobbsey Twins."

"The Bobbsey Twins were fraternal."

"But the joke is that there were two of them, chickenshit."

"That's the joke?" I'd learned once, from another mentor, that the best way to keep a concussion victim awake is to agitate them. "I don't think that's the joke. Jokes are hard. They aren't easy, like associations."

Gatz's eyes flashed anger but then he laughed. "That's good, kid. Very smart. Well, keep it up. I won't take it personal."

"Well, that sure defeats the purpose here, don't it, nimrod?"

He laughed some more.

He had gotten to the point where one drunk person sizes up the other. "You're a bright one," he said. "You think quick. And you can talk. That took me the longest to learn—how to talk." A ponderous silence.

Gatz said, "Let's say I double your salary and take you with me for an extended job in Los Angeles. How long would it be before you asked any questions?"

"A month." Money's money. "But," I added, "you have to let me take you to the hospital first, check out that arm."

Just outside the window, a Blue Line train rumbled into the station. This was August and all of our windows were open. The tracks were closest to Gatz's side of the office. You could flick a cigarette butt onto them from his window, which we did often, whenever he made me smoke a cigarette out the window with him.

A commuter in the very front of the first car stared at us like an ape, his arm hooking up over the metal standing bar. Gatz put his fingers in his ears before the train pulled out again.

He went begrudgingly with me to the hospital, and slammed the door of the gold Town Car shut without a word, right outside the ER. He had misplaced his wallet. The exhausted nurse on duty let me sign him in as me, with my ID and insurance card. Gatz is maybe 25 years older than me, but he looks young. His face isn't gray or wrinkled, it is malleable and shiny. I sat with him until the nurse called my name.

"Edward Tunnicliff," the exhausted nurse said.

Gatz got up and followed after her, slumping through the two white panel doors.

The next day, he was in by the time I got there at 9. He was freshly shaved, his hair was brillantined. His arm was now in a cast. His eyes were healthy. The only evidence aside from his cast and stitches was the .38, still there on the desk, unholstered. He never told me what had happened, and I've never asked. Waiting on my desk was my ID and insurance card, along with cash for the medical bill from the hospital. I took all this as "thank you."

Oh, Chicago. It's hard not to think you made us who we are.

* * *

"Did you just kill Axl Rose?"

The large Asian man raised one hand to rub the sweat from the back of his chubby neck. Then he sighed.

"Not exactly," he said.

His face was welted, his nose was smashed, and his hands were massive. He pointed a fat sausage of a finger at Axl. "That guy is dead, though."

He let his fat arms hang at his sides. The flesh jiggled like there was a network of telephone wires in it. His reach was considerable, but he knew my trigger finger would be faster.

I heard footsteps behind me. I kept the gun pointed at the hulky Asian and turned my head. I saw Gatz trotting up the sidewalk, his right arm still in a cast. It slowed his movement toward me.

"Jesus, Gatz," I said.

Big Asian made his move. His bulky arm swung up and knocked the gun out of my hand. It went off, and the bullet whizzed through the awning above. I heard the gun land in the street as his other arm wrapped itself around my throat and squeezed me into him. I couldn't breathe, the lights were going out. The sun beamed right into my eyes—it left these shapes. His arm flexed and I felt his muscles forcing their way into my windpipe. Fuck, I could feel my windpipe. But then the mighty arm relaxed. The wires burned out. My breath came back to me and his body began to slump down. I pulled myself off of him.

Big Asian fell unconscious beside Axl's body.

Gatz was shaking his cast arm. I was surprised it didn't crack against Big Asian's thick skull. "Just in time," he said. "Sorry about being late." He looked at Axl, splayed on the ground with the exotic knife in his chest.

"Where's the jacket?" Gatz asked.

I rubbed my throat. I couldn't really make much of a sound, so I pointed inside the cleaners. Gatz ran in and quickly ran out with the white jacket. He draped it over his arm with the cast. The Guns n' Roses insignia was stitched on the back of the jacket.

"He killed Axl," I croaked.

Gatz shrugged and started down the street without me.

I picked up my gun beside the curb and looked down the street. Not so much as a newspaper out yet this morning.

"Tunny," Gatz said without turning back. "Move it." He was walking faster but even as he got further away he was careful not to raise his voice, didn't want to attract any attention. The jacket was like a baby nuzzled in his arm. I barely heard him when he said, "Time to clear out. I'll see you back at the hotel. Oh, and nice work."

I knelt down over Axl and unfolded my pocket square. I laid it over his face. Gatz would probably fire me on the spot if he saw this, but I knew the shieldies wouldn't care. Big Asian's prints were all over the knife for sure.

It was open and shut.

Pete Coco and Scott Stealey are the editors here. To go to the next chapter of Axl Watch click here.

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