The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 03

Outside on the narrow strip of a parking lot alongside the Hornet’s Hive, Red Eyes again jabbed the muzzle of his Glock into Magrady’s fleshy side. He enjoyed intimidating. “What you’d say, punk?”

“I told you I don’t know anything about any money that Curray owed you,” the vet answered.

“You did say that,” Red Eyes’ partner offered, adjusting his snap brim hat. He scanned the boulevard for possible interruptions. An elderly stooped woman trudged by, pulling her groceries in a cart with a bent hub. He stepped into Magrady’s orbit.

“Why you asking us about Savoirfaire?”

“He owes me money too. I’ve been looking for him and that how I wound up here.” Magrady gestured a thumb at the wall of the bar. On it was a faded and chipped mural of Malcolm X, Pancho Villa and Selena dressed like Wonder Woman majestically astride horses on a hill. It was graffiti free.

“Why the fuck would somebody like the Sav owe a punk ass like you money?” Red Eyes snickered as he looked Magrady up and down and glared at his face. “You’re bullshittin’.” To emphasize his point, he jammed the gun in Magrady’s stomach, causing him to grimace.

Red Eyes taunted, “Don’t like it in the belly, huh?”

Magrady remained silent, calculating if he had any options.

“Who are you?” The calmer one in the hat and print shirt said.

“I told you.”

“You told us what you want, but that’s not what I asked.”

“That’s right, pops, it ain’t.” Red Eyes made to punch him in the gut again with the business end of the pistol and Magrady grabbed his arm with both hands. He twisted that arm and pivoted his hip into the other man’s side. Magrady hoped his reflexes remembered those long-ago judo lessons he’d taken on the base.

But damned if he didn’t flip his tormentor over his shoulder and slam his butt onto the asphalt.

“Mothfuckah,” the downed man swore.

Still holding onto that arm. Magrady placed his foot into Red Eyes’ armpit and turned his wrist viciously. The gun came loose.

“I’m impressed,” the second hood said genuinely. He drove a fist into Magrady’s already tender stomach and followed that with a clip to the jaw that was brutally effective.

Magrady teetered and tried to keep his feet up under him, figuring he was in for a boxing lesson. Only Red Eyes wasn’t through. He picked up his gun and backhanded it across Magrady’s face. The older man fell against the fender of a Volkswagen, and slid down against the car’s tire. The two now towered over him.

“You better stay away from ‘round here and out of our bid’ness,” the one in the hat stated. “I don’t know what the hell you’re sniffing around for, but this shit don’t concern you, understand?”

“Yeah,” Magrady said.

“I said do you understand?” He repeated forcefully, but in an even voice. Through all of this, he hadn’t spoken above a normal tone.

“Yes,” the beaten man repeated.

“Good for you.” Red Eyes kicked him in the thigh and the two left in a dark blue Scion.

Magrady sat and recuperated. A decades old Ford pickup with a bed-over tool box pulled into the lot. The driver, in matching plaster smeared khakis and shirt, took a long look at him, then went into the bar. Minutes passed. Having then gathered himself, Magrady got up and limped back into the Hive. Gladys, the bartender, took in his appearance and produced a plastic first aid kit from below the bar.

“Thanks,” Magrady said, as he took it and went into the men’s room. He returned shortly having mostly applied Mercurochrome to the open wound where Red Eyes had slapped him with the gat. He took a position on a stool, sliding the kit back across the bar top. At the far end was the plasterer, having himself a martini, ignoring Magrady and everyone else. Magrady leaned his elbows on the wood and fought back the urge to order a shot.

“Who were those lovely fellows?”

Gladys frowned at him as if he were sticking his tongue at her.

“Names can’t hurt, can they?”

“Right,” she said warily. “You’re an example of that.” She went off to fill an order, then returned. “Why you knocking yourself out like this?

“I hate to be told what to do.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“Then think of me as standing in for all who have been put down and put upon.”

“You’re fuckin’ funny.” Her big earrings tinkled like chimes as she chuckled.

“I’m all about the charm.”

She spritzed him a glass of soda water. “The sharpie goes by Elmore.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. His mama was a big blues fan. The other one, the weed head, is called Boo for Boo-Boo. Only of course nobody calls him that unless they want him to go straight playground.”

“What’s his real name?”

“Don’t know. But Elmore’s family name is Jinks. Not short for Jenkins.”

Magrady nodded and asked, “How about a guy in a wheelchair?” He described the missing friend Floyd Chambers.

“Nope, sorry.” The Manhattans sang “Kiss and Say Goodbye” on the radio piping into overhead speakers.

It was getting on in the afternoon. Sitting there at the bar, gazing into a swirl of dust motes in a cone of slanting light, the effects of the beat-down were overtaking Magrady. Here he was far closer to 60 than 50 playing at Nick Carter, and for what? Get his head busted open was going to be his reward, he glumly concluded.

Still, the notion that he could do this, be of some worth, is what had set him in motion. Also, maybe he’d get one up on that self-righteous prick Stover—surely that was a good thing.

Magrady produced a wan smile and touched his tender face. Unlike the world-weary PI, he had no Girl Friday to patch him up, let alone a place to sleep. Gladys presented possibilities but she definitely wasn’t the kind of woman to take a dude like Magrady home on just meeting him. Especially as he was messing with Elmore and Boo, and she wouldn’t want that kind of potential grief on her doorstep.

And was his resistance to calling Janis just because she’d bug him to come to work for Urban Advocacy? Or was it that he didn’t want to appear weak and needy to her. Intellectually he knew she wasn’t the judgmental type, so why did he want to maintain such a perception with her? Did he dig her in that way or hey, if he was a father figure to her, that too was a reason to show no cracks.

Now he could surely bunk with Angie Baine, as getting past Asher the deskman was more of a game than obstacle. But it would be a signal to her that they were taking up again. The last time they’d tried that some 15 years ago, during an argument she’d had one of her goddamn spells. Going on about how he was devious like this producer who’d screwed her out of her comeback role. She’d nearly scaled the skin off his face by chucking a pot of boiling rice at him.

For an old girl originally from a staid blue-veined family in Bridgeport,  Connecticut, she had plenty hood rat in her, Magrady reflected. It made for interesting encounters, but he’d already been roughed over once today.

“Fuck it,” he mumbled. He was too worn out to be hustling on the streets tonight. “Can I borrow your phone?” he asked Gladys. “It’s local, I swear. I mean it’s 323.” Inglewood was in the 310 area code. A working pay phone, particularly in this part of town east of the airport was rarer than Lindsay Lohan not crashing a car.

Gladys placed an old rotary job on the bar. “Two bucks and you only get a minute. And I see what number you dial.”

What had he been smoking? A tough broad like her give him a place to lay his head? Even in the storeroom in this joint? She’d laugh herself sick if he’d have asked.

“Janis,” he said when he got her on her cell phone, “You give a veteran’s discount, don’t you?”

“Hey, Magrady, you trying to proposition me?” She joked.

He explained his situation. Aware too that while he was consciously keeping his voice down, the whiskered gent with the metal cane was giving him a sideways glance.

“That’s not a problem. Only I’m not getting home till around 10 tonight. I’ve got a strategy meeting with the coalition. What don’t you come by that and then we go from there?”

He said he would and ended the call. Magrady thanked Gladys again and got off the stool to leave. His body was stiff and he seriously considered just one jolt of whiskey before he got back out there. He could handle that, shit he wasn’t no kid, he a grown ass man.

“You were in Vietnam?” The old fella asked him. He was looking straight ahead across the width of the bar at the assortment of bottles on their shelves.

“I was.”

“Chosin,” the regular answered. “Heard of it?”

“Sure. It was a meat grinder during the Korean War.”

“Blood froze before it could spit out your body,” the old man said hollowly, looking off and shaking his head slowly. “We swabbed our M-1s in antifreeze-soaked rags to keep them from freezing up. Toes and fingers getting black from the gangrene ‘cause of creeping frostbite.” He stoped talking and had more of his drink. He didn’t continue so Magrady figured the VFWer just wanted to say that to another GI who might understand what it was rattling in his skull. But he started out again. 

“Knew your boy Floyd,” the old man said. “Knew him before the accident that put him in that chair.”

Magrady said, “How do you know him?”

The other man shook the ice in his now empty glass like a shaman preparing to roll the bones. Or seeking tribute.

What the hell. He bought him another round. “Well?”

“He wasn’t always in that chair, you know. Some kind of fall or something on the job. One of them construction jobs over there in El Segundo ‘bout ten, eleven years ago. He was a welder.”

“You still haven’t said how you know Floyd.”

“More it was his sister I knew. Had a little appliance store not too far from here and she clerked there for me. Floyd would come by when she was through to pick her up.”

“Sister got a name?”

The other man laughed and it echoed into the glass at his lips. “Want to make sure you’re getting you’re money’s worth, huh?”

Magrady remained quiet.

“Sally Chambers.”

“Not Prescott?”

“Not when I knew her.”

“Since she worked for you, any idea where she lived?”

He completed a leisurely sip, then, “My store survived the Negroes and Mex-cans tearing shit up in ’92 only to have some sweet ol’ sister on her way home from church get the Holy Ghost behind the wheel. She plowed that bad boy through the front of my shop like them hurricanes leveled the 9th Ward.

“Between the hassles with the insurance company and the surviving family of that psalm-singer who went to see the Lord, I said enough of this mess.” He got quiet and simply sat and stared.

“You have an old file somewhere with her last known address?”

He raised both eyebrows.

“Maybe I can call you down here in a couple of days if you get a chance to look.” He handed a five to Gladys. “Another one on me.” He needed an expense account.

“So what made you all chatty?” Magrady asked. Long shadows of late afternoon spilled under the bar’s curtained threshold.

“You got in the face of those two assholes,” the old man said. “Always in here buying a beer for us peasants or haw-hawing about what big men they are. Shit,” he drawled. “I survived Chosin Reservoir.”

Magrady told the man his name and stuck out his hand.

The other one shook it and said, “Mulgrew…Fred. Call me Freddy.”

“Pleasure.”

At a Dawn to Mid-Nite, a ghetto version of 7-Eleven, Magrady bought and microwaved a chicken and jalapeno burrito. He ate that and drank a grape-flavored Gatorade as he waited at the bus stop. Eventually he got to the meeting of the coalition of community groups doing work around gentrification. It was being held in a Lutheran church on Figueroa a bit north of the USC campus.

“Prone out,” a voice yelled from the darkness as Magrady ascended the church steps.

A police chopper thundered over head and suddenly he was back in ‘Nam, back on the LZ as the mortar rounds exploded in his ears.

 

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

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