The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 01

“Who you supposed to be, old school?” Savoirfaire taunted, flexing his shoulders and shifting his weight onto his back foot. “Captain America don’t live here no more.”

“I’m telling you it’s through,” Magrady repeated calmly, eyes moving from the man’s hands to his face, locking onto the faux designer shades the discount desperado wore. “You and Floyd are done.”

“You his older brother, cousin, somethin’ like that?”

“You’re missing the point, Flavor Flav,” Magrady said. “My message is what you should be focusing on. Floyd Chambers is no longer on your loan list. No more vig off his SSI checks.”

The two men stood on Wall, smack in the womb of L.A.’s Skid Row. Unlike the street’s more famous incarnation in Manhattan, the west coast version didn’t boast of edifices as testament to giddy capitalism. Trickle-down had long ago trickled out.

“Oh, uh-huh.” The bottom-feeder nodded his head. “You taking’ over some of my territory, that it?  Don’t look like you got enough weight between your legs to be doin’ that, nephew. Don’t look to me you got enough left to run this block.”

Several homeless people had stopped to watch the show.

Both men were about the same height, roughly the same build. But where Magrady’s face was lined and his whiskers gray, Savoirfaire’s decades younger features were untroubled and unblemished -– the mask of the uncaring sociopath.

“We’re done,” Magrady said, beginning to step back and away from where the other man stood outside the open door of his Cadillac Escalade with its twenty-two-inch gold spinners. Incongruously, Sam Cooke played softly on the vehicle’s sound system.

The thug was butter smooth in whipping out his pruning knife. The blade was vectoring toward Magrady’s neck by the time the Vietnam vet reacted. Forearm up. The sharp crescent sunk in.

“What you got to say now, Negro?” Savoirfaire gritted his teeth, expecting to easily pull his weapon free while ripping flesh and sinew. But, having been forewarned by Floyd, Magrady had wrapped several layers of cardboard around his arms under his over-sized flannel shirt. The knife got hung up.

As Savoirfaire tugged the blade loose, Magrady drove the heel of his boot into the hoodlum’s knee, eliciting a decisive crack. The asshole teetered and Magrady landed a straight left to his jaw. He plopped down heavily on the contoured seat of his ostentatious ‘Lade, his sunglasses askew. Swiftly Magrady slammed the door on Savoirfaire’s shins, three times.

Over the yelping, Magrady repeated, “It’s done.” He sliced the hook knife into one of the Escalade’s expensive sport tires. Magrady walked quickly away as it hissed flat and Savoirfaire screamed profanities, but didn’t come after the older man. There seemed to be a collective disappointment that went through the small crowd. For now they had to return to the dreariness of their survival.

Making sure to move through the back routes, Magrady eventually made his way west on 6th Street. He hadn’t been stupid enough to expect a rational discussion with the punk, yet had hoped it wouldn’t come to violence. But really, why else had Floyd come to him seeking his help?

His friend was in the offices of Urban Advocacy on Union at 8th as had been arranged. “How’d it go?”  Floyd asked, his strong arms propelling him to Magrady in his ergo-wheelchair with its slanted-in wheels.

“Just peachy.”

“Great,” Chambers bubbled.

“Cut it out,” Janis Bonilla chided. The community organizer was twenty-six, medium height and honey-skinned, with several tats and piercings.

Magrady put his hands up. “It went like it went. You just stay off the Nickel and that chump’s radar and it’s gravy, dig?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Chambers said. “If things work out like it’s lining up, I’m on the ones and twos, homey.”  He popped a wheelie and spun in a tight circle.

Magrady and Bonilla exchanged wan smiles. Chambers had been saying such for a long time.

Bonilla’s cell chimed part of a song by Kinky and she answered it. “Gotta bounce,” she said after a quick back and forth over the phone. “We’re planning a big turnout in City Hall over the SubbaKhan Emerald Shoals project. The environmental impact report just came in, and I’ve got to get to an emergency meeting in Councilwoman Ricks’ office.”

“The war goes on,” Magrady said dryly.

“The offer’s still good, champ,” Bonilla said, packing files into her messenger bag.

She’d asked him recently to consider being an organizer with UA. He’d been sober this time for six months going.

“I’ll sleep on it.”

“Sure you will.” To Chambers she added, “See you, Floyd.”

“Maybe,” he said cryptically, and the three left.

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Past one a.m. in the flop he’d scored for that week, Magrady had the night sweats. He woke with his heart thumping in his ears. He reached for a bottle of whiskey that wasn’t there. The jungle had gone hot and yellow in his head again. Booze. Coke. The meds. The group sessions off and on at various VA facilities. All of it had helped and hindered, but none of it stopped the gnawing for long.

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Two days later, a black and white jumped the curb in front of Magrady, and one of the uniforms beckoned him over with a motion of his baton. The cops ferried him to what had been the Greyhound bus station on 5th Street. Inside, among the luggage and electronic gadget shops, the LAPD had encamped their Skid Row detail. The cops and the denizens called them the Nickel Squad, as 5th bisected Skid Row.

“How you doin’, Sarge?”  Captain Kelso Stover had the haunch of his lanky frame resting on an industrial desk, gym-pumped arms folded. His office had no windows and the only adornment on the walls was a map of Oregon displaying old bus routes in red.

“What is this about?”  The last time he’d seen Stover, Magrady’d been lying on the sidewalk in front of the Escape Room, the side of his head soggy from where it had contacted the cement after being chucked out of the dive. And there was the captain, all grins and eyes shiny like he was high on the Buddha, the tip of his spit-shined shoes poking the wasted Magrady.

“Why’d you do it, Sarge, why’d you kill Jeff Curray?”

It took Magrady a beat to realize Curray was Savoirfaire. “I didn’t kill him. I defended myself.”

“Yeah?” Stover began, getting off his desk. “Well somebody broke his arm in two places, caved in his sternum, then pounded his skull flat like a landing strip at his crib in Ladera Heights. Coroner figures it was a heavy duty pry bar that some bughouse butt-head wielded on the unfortunate.”  No matter who the dead was, a pious nun or a dope-slanging Crip, Stover referred to them as the unfortunate.

“Bit out of your jurisdiction, isn’t it?”

“Savoirfaire had his loan shark and dope hustle on from Inglewood to here. But you’re my person of interest.” Stover grinned and poked a finger at Magrady. “My theory is after your public altercation, you went away to toast your victory, holed up with some crack ho skank. Sexed up and blitzed out, you got the bright idea you’d better do Curray before he did you.”

Magrady was inclined not to argue. What good would it do?  He knew Stover was going to remand him to central booking, if for no other reason, because he wouldn’t let go of the past.

“When the hell are you going to get over it, Stover?” Magrady said anyway. “It’s been more than thirty-five years ago, man. We were all just a bunch of scared…kids for God’s sake. Kids playing soldier.”

For a brief moment, glaring at each other, they were transported back to those moments before that hellacious firefight in that no-name village off the banks of the Ia Drang River. Magrady the green sergeant, Stover the corporal, and his hometown buddy Jerry among the other privates in the recon. Jerry who Magrady ordered on point that day and who caught the first VC round, the high-caliber burst turning his brains to spray.

But that flushed away like pissed out cheap gin as Stover leaned a sneering face into his. “Have a good time in lock-up, Sarge. Too bad you screwed up your life and don’t have a family or your shop anymore, huh?  Can’t hold your liquor, Can’t hold onto your woman or the respect of your children.”

“Always a pleasure,” Magrady said, getting closer.

Both breathed hard, each ready to lash out at the other. The door opened. “Get him out of here,” Stover seethed to the patrolman, “Get him the hell away from me.”

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Thirty-six hours later, Bonilla arranged for a legal aid lawyer from Legal Resources and Services to spring him. So far there was no physical evidence, no witness connecting him to Savoirfaire’s murder, but of course the investigation was ongoing.

“Floyd’s dropped out of sight,” Bonilla said, as she and Magrady shared lunch at the Bent Clock on San Pedro.

“You think he’s on the run?”  Magrady munched on his couscous. If there was any benefit to the gentrification of downtown, where sweatshops were being converted to lofts and GR recipients and the working poor were being squeezed out, at least the caliber of eateries had improved.

She hunched a shoulder. “The day after your run-in with Savoirfaire, Floyd’s Section 8 apartment came through. I reached him on his cell and he was, like, nonchalant.”

“Still hinting about his big deal?”

“Yep. I kind’a got angry. We’d managed to help him get that in less than two years.”  They both knew of people waiting more than eight years to get a place. Bonilla added, “So he never came in to get the paperwork, and now his cell is disconnected.”

He chewed some more as he considered this.

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After lunch he used Bonilla’s cell to make a call, then walked to the Chesapeake, one of the few remaining SROs in the area. He went up the stairs to the second landing where the entrance was. A security mesh screen door blocked his way. He put his eye to the mail slot. Asher, the one-armed desk clerk, looked from him back to the older lady doused in perfume standing next to his desk counter in the preserved cocktail dress.

“No hanky-panky,” Asher advised Angie Baine. He waved his prosthetic pincers.

“No, baby,” the 74-year-old former actress assured him. Her skin was leathery from years of imbibing, but still a kind of something radiated from her. “He’s here to fix my dresser. You know how handy Magrady is.”

Asher made a sound in his throat but buzzed Magrady inside. In one of Baine’s two tiny rooms, Magrady went through the boxes Floyd Chambers had left with her. On the dresser, beside her outdated cell phone, was a glamour shot of the ex-bombshell from nearly fifty years ago. She’d had small parts in two Sam Fuller films, The Crimson Kimono and Shock Corridor, and done a few drive-in second billers in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“What’d you find?” Baine asked, looking over his shoulder, whiskey fumes palpable.

Magrady held a magnetic swipe card with a familiar logo on it. “You recognize this?” he asked her, indicating the stylized lettering on the mag card.

“Nope. But you can worry about that later, hot stuff.” Baine was sitting on the bed, legs crossed, patting the spread.

“There’s no time for that now,” Magrady pleaded.

“I didn’t have to let you in when you called, big daddy.” She removed her uppers and winked broadly.

“Lord have mercy,” Magrady grumbled. But he did his duty.

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Later, walking around while he tried to remember where he’d seen the logo, he found himself in front of the massive Emerald Shoals construction site on Figueroa. There was to be a football stadium, hotel, movie theaters and retail. There’d been a temporary halt due to the actions of community groups like Urban Advocacy working with public-interest law firms.

The logo on the card that Magrady was looking at again was the SK of SubbaKhan –- just like the one on the sign he was staring at.

“So how did Floyd get this, and what does it open?” he wondered aloud.

 

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Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.

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