The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 02

“I’m sorry, Sarge, but I’m going to need the space back sooner than I figured.” Jason Spencer looked away and tossed the channel lock pliers and screwdriver into his tool box. He’d just replaced the float valve in the secondary bathroom off the back porch.

“But I’m paying you, Red. It ain’t like I’m freeloading.” The sun was barely up as the hands of Magrady’s wind-up clock crept past 6:30 am.

“I know, but, it’s complicated, all right?”

The stocky vet was in his skivvies and raged T-Shirt. The fading letters on it read: If Paris Hilton Isn’t Free, Then None Of Us Is Free. Magrady was sitting on the couch that was his bed in the makeshift living area in his friend’s garage. This had been a good flop for the past week. There was a mini-fridge, electricity for his clock radio, hot plate and tensor lamp.

All this luxury in the rear of a modest Craftsman located on 37th Street east of Budlong near the Coliseum. Magrady still termed this area South Central or South L.A. despite the newspeak promulgated at nearby USC referring to this as section as “downtown adjacent.”

“Like I said, I’m real sorry.” Spencer started to walk away but turned back to glare at the man who was once his non-com in a time and place lost to fog and fear square on. “I can’t front on you. Fuckin’ Stover is the reason. He had Southwest send a black and white by,” he recalled morosely. Southwest Division of the LAPD covered this neighborhood. “Said they was gonna give me six kinds of grief for operating a business without a license if they had to come back.”

Spencer, nicknamed Red because of his now graying light brown hair, ran a bootleg body and fender concern out of his back yard. The garage was stocked with pry bars, dent pullers and the like. Spencer certainly didn’t make a windfall, but it was enough to keep the widower going, especially since he’d moved in with his elderly mother here on 37th.

“Look, you know, if it was just me,” Spencer began, making futile gestures with his hand to punctuate his rationalization.

“Fuck it, all right?” Magrady said, the anger he wanted to direct at his comrade not being worth the effort to summon. He wasn’t so sure that if the situation was reversed, he wouldn’t have done the same. He was back on Stover’s radar and the cop was going to work double time to ensure he messed with him every which way he could.

“If it helps, you can store your gear here, okay? I can do that.”

Magrady looked at the old fashioned Gladstone suitcase he’d copped years ago at the Goodwill and the small soft-sided equipment bag—the two items of luggage that contained his entire wardrobe. He then regarded the other man and said through tightly held lips, “It does, Red. It does.”

He got dressed and was allowed to use the facilities off the back porch before he left.


On the bus heading toward the Urban Advocacy offices on Union and 8th, Magrady considered where he might lay his head tonight. He could probably bag a couple of nights off of Janis, but that just seemed way wrong. Not that he’d ever had any, what was the word, untoward fantasies about the woman younger than his own estranged daughter.

And frankly, he wasn’t sure that Janis swung that way, as he’d only had ill-defined hints about her social life and sexual leanings. Plus, bunking with her would mean she’d be able to needle him about working for her advocacy nonprofit. He figured he could make a go at doing what she did, essentially getting people together, but he’d still have to learn from her. Not that having a woman as his boss bothered him so much as it was a woman a few decades younger than him that stuck in his craw.Damn, he realized not for the first time while getting off the bus, he was getting old and set in his ways. To underscore that, his leg favored him with a twinge as he walked along.

“Janis around?” he asked an earnest-looking young man he didn’t recognize when he entered the community organization’s offices.

The kid stared at him, then answered with, “I’m afraid we don’t do shelter vouchers here. I can give you the address of the agency that does.”

“Look, man, I’m not—” but he didn’t finish it because he was homeless again but he’d be damned if he let this numbnuts know that. “She here or is she off somewhere dealing with SubbaKhan madness?”

That got him a nod. “Yeah, she’s meeting with some tenants.” He frowned. “So you’re in one of her buildings?”

“Would you mind checking her mailbox for me? There should be a check in there.” The office used cubby slots to separate their staff’s mail. He gave him his name and the young man went to the copy room where the mail slots were. Shortly he returned with an envelope.

“My bad, man. I didn’t know who you were.” He pointed a thumb toward the back, adding, “I asked about you.” He handed Magrady his monthly disability check from the VA. Bonilla let her friend get his mail here—what little there was of it.

“No sweat. Thanks, huh?”

“Have you seen your friend Floyd Chambers?”

“No. Fact I’ve been asking around about him.”

“I was the one assigned to help him secure a unit with this Section 8 voucher. And, well, you know he didn’t come in for it last week.”

Magrady stuck out his hand. “What’s your name?”

“Carl. Carl Fjeldstom. I’m interning here from the public policy program over at UCLA.”

“Does Floyd have a brother or sister you tried?” Despite knowing the missing man for more than seven years, Magrady was unfamiliar with much of Chambers’ personal history. Such was the closed book existence of many of those down and out.

Fjeldstrom said, “There was a number, no address, for a sister that I called, but it was disconnected. And I got nothing from information.”

“What’s her name?”

“Sally, Sally Prescott,” he answered after consulting a slim folder he plucked off of a nearby desk. “The number was an Inglewood one,” he mumbled, re-reading something in the file.

Magrady wondered what else might be in Chambers’ file but decided not to push it with the intern. He would ask Janis later to have a look. “I’ll ask around about her. If the number was funky, then Floyd probably hadn’t seen her for awhile.”

The younger man made a face. “Most of this, and as you can see it isn’t much, is from an intake done a few years ago by someone who doesn’t work here anymore. I only met with Floyd one time. When I asked him to update his information he took a quick look, said it was cool, and that was that.”

Magrady asked, “What changed that you’d get on his case now? I mean, I know they have to keep you busy, but why was Floyd all of a sudden in the running for an apartment?”

“SubbaKhan,” Fjeldstrom said tersely.

Magrady raised an eyebrow.

“The fallout from negotiating with them has had a positive ripple effect with some of the other developers along or near the Figueroa Corridor. This landlord who has several buildings around here,” he indicated the streets beyond the walls, “and near the SC campus has been salivating to go condo.”

Magrady nodded. The Corridor was the term the organizer types used to describe the stretch of Figueroa Street from the northern end where SubbaKhan’s Emerald Shoals complex was being constructed heading south into the predominantly Latino and black areas where even there the land speculation fever had hit. It was the ’hood where Magrady, whose folks came from the Delta by way of Chicago, grew up in before they even called it South Central.

“But with Emerald Shoals having more bling than this guy can muster, thus already enticing the upscalers he hoped to seduce, he then decided it was worth his while to have his buildings remain apartments and agreed to some low-income set-asides to fill vacancies.”

The vet, who consistently had to put up with the inside baseball minutiae from Janis, had tuned the sincere young man out without letting on. “I guess Floyd came up in the rotation,” he said to prevent Fjeldstrom from going on.


“Thanks for your time, Carl, I appreciate it,” he added quickly.

They shook hands again. He still didn’t have a solid idea on shelter for tonight but was juiced trying to figure out where Floyd was and what that had to do with the murder of Jeff Curray, the piss ant gangsta who’d gone by the tag Savoirfaire.

At the TransPacific Bank on Olympic, Magrady cashed his monthly $712.32 veteran’s disability check. Through a pilot program partnered with the bank and public interest law firm Legal Resources and Services of Greater Los Angeles, their homeless veterans rep had helped him set up a bank account. He deposited twenty bucks and got some quarters for a five.

Two bus rides and a hour and a half later, he walked into the Hornet’s Hive on Manchester near Cimarron. Somewhere in the haze that occupied part of his brain, Magrady had the impression he’d been here before, but when was lost to pickled memory. KJLH played softly on the sound system.

“Gimme a club soda,” he requested to the woman bartender. She took an anemic swipe with her rag as he sat before her at the bar. A few patrons also inhabited the gloomy dive, but none sat together. The Hornet was where you came to drink and mope and hope for another day. It was also where Savoirfaire was known to conduct his shady business. This information obtained through some questioning Magrady had been doing.

“Here you go, trooper,” she said, placing his glass on a coaster. “That’ll be one-fifty.”

Magrady forked over a couple of ones and asked, “Any of Savoirfaire’s associates roll through here lately?”

The bartender was a large framed, handsome woman with more muscle on her arms than flab. She wore a Angels baseball cap and pendulum earrings.


His response was a non-committal shrug. “Need to tighten up with him, you know.”

“He something to you?”

Magrady slowly sipped his seltzer. “What difference does that make? We both know he’s gone to the happy hunting grounds.”

She chuckled. “You don’t sound too upset about that.”

“Are you?”

An old timer in a worn flannel shirt with a metal cane leaning against his stool spoke up, clearing phlegm and settled smoke from his voice box. “Hit me like you mean it, Gladys.” He shook his glass.

She gave Magrady a put-upon smile, then went to fill the pensioners order. When she returned she said, leaning a little closer, “You don’t seem stupid.”

Now he chuckled. “Hard-headed maybe.” He had more of his fizzy water. “Had a play auntie named Gladys.”

“That right?” she said, her smile revealing a tooth with a tiny star shaped diamond in it.

“Would I kid you?”

“I imagine you would.” She adjusted some items below the bar. “Why you so hot to get with any of them fools that ran with Savoirfaire?” And as if on cue, Gladys’ eyes shifted from him to two new clientele who entered from the sunlight into the cloying dimness of the bar.

She didn’t say anything else to Magrady as her expression told him what was up.

“Hey now, girl,” one of the men said, leaning onto the bar. “What up?” He was at least ten years the bartender’s junior. His homie sprawled in one of the ancient red leather booths.

“Same old shit,” she answered, automatically taking a swipe with her rag in front of him.

Magrady waited until the newcomer placed his order, then pivoted toward him on his stool. The man was dressed in slacks, a colorful shirt and a snap brim hat.

“Just being curious, but did you inherit Savoirfaire’s Escalade?”

The man barely acknowledged Magrady as Gladys returned with his bottled beers. He then nudged his head toward the booth. “Over here,” he said.

Magrady followed and sat opposite the two. The second man, in a velour track suit, had red eyes and smelled of weed.

“Dude here knew Savoirfaire.” The neatly dressed one tipped back some beer.

“Ain’t that fascinatin’,” his buddy slurred, straightening up. He didn’t take a sip. He did reach a hand below the table and Magrady then felt the tap of the gun’s muzzle against his knee.

“Where’s our money, bitch?” Red Eyes demanded, his voice suddenly clear as spring water.


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


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