The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 04

Magrady’s reality titled sideways then spun corkscrew fashion into a tornado of the senses. In a distant part of him he knew he was face down on the landing of the church, and that several officers were rushing past him. A few of them not minding in the least that their thick-soled sure-grip Oxfords stepped on his hands and arms. But the main show was given over to the flashes of gore and death making him nauseous and the booming that disoriented him.

The flashback overtook him when a cop from the bushes barked at him signaling their barrage. This was immediately followed by the stab of the overhead light and thunderous whoop of a swooping police helicopter. He didn’t try to move or speak. As far as he could tell, no officer stood over him with their nine or Monadnock T-handled nightstick cocked to rat-a-tat-tat the rhythm of compliance on his skull.

The war’s replay uncoiled and Magrady watched, yet again, a soldier named Edwards die spectacularly before him. His entrails splattered over the sergeant’s torso as he sought to get his men together for evac while simultaneously seeking to isolate the source of the incoming VC fire.

Breathing like a labored steam engine and his heart flooding his throat, Magrady heard in real time cops and civilians yelling at each other as pews were upset, their wood splintering and objects crashing and shattering on the earthen tiles of the church. Magrady had once gotten a sweet little gig to replace those tiles in a rear portion of the sanctuary due to damage from the water main. He rolled over on his back, his chest finally rising and falling at a more normal rate.

A female cop’s face slid into view over him. She was handsome and alert in a stressed out kind of way, and blinked hard at him.

“Is he one of those Sudanites?” She incorrectly asked someone out of his line of sight, pointing at him. “They’re coming over here now, right? All that shit that’s going on over there in their desert villages.”

A heavy man’s voice sighed. “That’s one of ours, Reynolds. He’s an American black. We can’t give him back.” The man chuckled. But how right he was. Where indeed would Magrady go if he was kicked out of the U.S.? Or more likely put on a boxcar with other malcontents and hauled out of town on a rail. The method of forced relocation practiced at various times on hobos and union agitators in the ’30s by the cops and goon squads in the pocket of the big bosses.

He hummed “Joe Hill” as he’d heard the 78 platter his mother used to play of Paul Robeson singing that number when he was a kid. Another round of shouting started up, only this was orders given from command to the grunts. The flashback wore itself out and some gendarmes roughly got Magrady on his feet. He, along with the other members and staff of several community-based organizations, were culled together on the lawn of the raided Lutheran church.

“The fuck, man?” Janis Bonilla demanded of the cops en masse. “We don’t need a permit to be on private property. We’re going to sue the shit out of your donut-eatin’ asses.”

“Take a chill pill, Ms. Bonilla.” A stout LAPD captain addressed her, separating himself from the grouping of cops but not actually moving closer to her. “This was about the illegals at this meeting.”

Bonilla and several others glared at him open-mouthed.

“What?” Magrady’s friend said, a few others echoing her. Murmuring among the crowd intensified as several men and women emerged from inside and around the corner of the building. Stenciled on the backs of these arrivals in big yellow cap letters was the word ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security. Accompanying them were unfortunates in handcuffs, those who were members of the assembled community organization.

“This is bullshit,” somebody said and there was loud agreement.

The captain smiled knowingly. “This is a new day of joint cooperation. If it bothers you, take your concerns up with your do-nothings in Congress.”

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“Those motherfuckers,” Bonilla seethed, swirling the diet soda in its plastic bottle. The police and ICE left with their undocumented arrestees along with four arrests of citizens on charges ranging from a bench warrant on a jaywalking beef to one for late child payments. Naturally the community groups held an emergency meeting post the round up. There would be a legal response involving public interest allies like Legal Resources and Services, and a press conference at Urban Advocates was planned for tomorrow morning at 10 am—in time to be broadcast on the afternoon news. Already, an e-blast had gone out to political and advocate blogs about the action, and buzz was building.

“You gonna name SubbaKhan tomorrow?” Magrady asked.

“I should,” she answered, taking a long pull on her drink. It was already past one in the morning. “But yeah, I know that would be irresponsible, wouldn’t it?” Bonilla had already had this discussion with her executive director. There was, at this moment, no evidence laying the blitzkrieg at the feet of the mighty magnets of the mega, all-consuming kraken that as far as Bonilla was concerned, was headed by the tentacled triumvirate of Dick Cheney, Dr. Doom and Morgan Le Fey.

“Plus you’d get fired,” Magrady offered.

“But it can’t just be coincidence,” she insisted.

“Look, my boy Stover could have alerted his buddies to keep their antennas tuned to your doings.”

She fixed him with a look. “He does have a fierce hard on about you, that’s for sure. I mean, it wasn’t your fault.”

“There’s that,” he said, gesturing with his hand in an effort to halt her from going into painful history. One service-related and guilt-wracked visit to the past was all he could take for an evening. “The other thing to consider is that y’all have a spy in your midst.”

“A police spy? Like back in the day of Chief Gates and his Public Disorder Intelligence Division? Those zealot assholes who infiltrated groups like the Coalition Against Police Abuse?” Bonilla was a student of L.A.’s activist archives, and had spent hours poring over files and articles from the ’70s and ’80s down at the nonprofit Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, a repository of this kind of material. Magrady had accompanied her on one such outing.

He said, “I was wondering if it wasn’t some turncoat on the payroll of your arch enemies.”

Bonilla frowned.

“Maybe I’m being paranoid, but if I were the head of SubbaKhan, kicked back at my desk puffing on Arturo Fuente maduro, I’d be figuring out how how to stay one step ahead of you Hugo Chavez quotin’ mau-maus.”

“That would be illegal,” she remarked.

“I’m not sure it is. And even if that were so, how would you prove it?”

“It worries me the way your mind works.”

He smiled thinly. “Me too.”

Bonilla, who’d been pacing, sat down. They were in the small kitchen of her apartment in a 1920s era building, replete with Zig Zag Moderne touches on the fa├žade. It was situated on Catalina in that blended area of Koreatown and Pico-Union. Where carnecerias with life-sized plastic bulls on their roofs sat next door to Korean wedding gown shops. Where their display windows contained ice beauty mannequins with thousand mile stares looking out past the neon Hangul onto the changing city.

“But that’s some shady shit, ya know,” Bonilla stated.

“I ain’t saying you gotta go ape shit and start waterboardin’ fools to talk, but you do have low income and poor folk you’re working with.”

“That’s bourgeois thinking, Magrady,” she groused. “I’ll have to take your ornery ass to the reeducation camp.”

Magrady chuckled. “Or am I being the real Stalinist here? You got people who are barely getting by, Janis. Maybe they have a medical condition or their kid is in trouble with the law yet again. It’s not hard to find out who has what problems. If it’s legal entanglement, a lot of that’s public records, right?

“So one day a swell-dressed man or, better yet, smart-looking woman shows up on my dilapidated doorstep and says hey, we’re not asking you to be a snitch or anything like that.”

“Oh, no,” Bonilla snarked.

He continued. “We’re not asking you to put the finger on anyone, but just let us know, you know, in a general way what they say at those meetings you go to. Now don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t be asking a bunch of questions.” Magrady spread his arms wide and slumped in his seat. “Sit and listen and every now and then I’ll call you up to ask you a few questions and in exchange, a few hundreds in nice, crisp twenties will find their way into your house fund.”

“Then why bust us for our undocumented members? If I was a spy, I’d want to wait until I had something more juicy.”

He wiggled his fingers on both hands. “One branch doesn’t know what the other is up to. If the spy is on the private ticket, there wouldn’t necessarily be coordination with the po-po. Anyway, this is just early morning after we got our ass kicked speculation. Like I said, y’all are easily targets of opportunity or this went down simply because those self-absorbed, Lhasa Apso owning loft dwellers you despise have been complaining, and this is how the cops respond.”

“We have been trying to recruit some of those dog-walkers as allies. It’s not like they shouldn’t have a place to live. But they also can’t act like their shit, and that of their boutique pooches, don’t stink. That it’s them bringing up the neighborhood while the poor and low income get booted out.”

“How’s that working out? Getting them to see you have some common interests?”

“Don’t be cute. It doesn’t suit you.”

“I take your point, sub-commandante.”

She was thoughtful then, “You think that’s what Floyd was doing. Why he was hinting about how he was about to get over?”

“Except it seems he had the goods on someone, doesn’t it? And there is that SubbaKhan magnetic swipe card he had.”

Bonilla pointed at Magrady. “He saw the CEO try to rape this woman. She resisted and when they fought, he accidentally bashed her head in and Floyd, who’d been hired on a disabled program, was in the office late and decided to blackmail the dude.”

“Amusing. I saw that movie too. Only the dude was a thief.”

“Just trying to be as devious as you are, champ. So what if Floyd stole that card from a SubbaKhan employee?”

“Could be. Of course that raises the question of where the hell Floyd could have been with the employee.”

“You’re the one playing peeper.”

Magrady grunted. “Playing is right.” He yawned. “I keep getting vamped on but no further along in figuring this out.”

She also yawned and playfully slapped his knee. “The case is young yet, you’ll get onto something.”

He stood and stretched, “Yeah, blisters on my feet from hoofing it all over Creation and a couple of knots upside my head.”

“Tough guy.” She stood and nodded a head toward her front room and the couch where she’d given him a blanket and a pillow. “You gonna be okay?”

“This is great, Janis, I really appreciate it.” He touched her shoulder.

She covered his hand with hers and squeezed. “I told you it wasn’t a problem. I’ll ask around if anyone knows of someplace for you to rent out like a room or something.”

“Cool.”

“Good night,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. He flushed and was glad she couldn’t tell. At least he hoped she couldn’t tell. Damn young women.

He slept as if shrouded in a womb of warm black velvet and awoke to the smell of coffee. For the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to fantasize he was back in his house with his wife and children as they got ready for school. But to believe such was cruel and a lie, certainly not therapeutic. For he’d also have to remember why he’d derailed the Father Knows Best bit with the drinking and the drugs and the erratic behavior, and why it was he didn’t have a home any more or any communication with his estranged family. Why he didn’t deserve to have those comforts.

“Hey,” Bonilla said as they shared morning coffee at the kitchen table, “Carl texted me a message about Floyd’s sister.”

“When?”

“’Round seven.” It was now 7:40 am. “He had to be in early to help prep for the press conference.”

“Y’all work your interns worse than green recruits,” he commented. He’d asked his friend to ask the intern he’d encountered at Urban Advocacy, to see if there was any other pertinent information in the thin file they had on Floyd Chambers.

“Wait, when did you send him your message?”

“On our way home. Carl’s a video game fiend so I knew he’d be up killing aliens with his geek buddies from who knows where plugged in. He lives on those energy drinks.”

Magrady suppressed a shudder. “Okay, can you let a brother know?”

She told him and he was somewhat surprised it wasn’t an Inglewood address. It was in Altadena and he didn’t know how many bus transfers that was, though he assumed the Metro Rail could take him to Pasadena at least.

Maybe he ought to invest in a motorcycle. But the old TV ad of the elderly lady on the floor saying “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” rolled up on him. Where even the remote clapper—“clap on, clap off”—couldn’t levitate him. This and the amount of careening SUVs that populated Southland roadways dissuaded him from getting his brittle butt back on a bike after about 30 years.

“Before we get on our respective horses, Carl had mentioned someone who used to work at UA had taken the information for Floyd’s file. Do you know who that was?”

“Sure,” Bonilla answered. “That was Shane.”

“Alan Ladd?”

“Shane Kolso, a woman. In fact she’s a paralegal over at Legal Resources now.”

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A little past nine, Magrady talked with Kolso on the phone after Bonilla had left her a message vouching for him.

“Sure I know who she is,” Kolso said after he’d asked her about the sister. “We helped her on a tenant-landlord matter not too long ago. She came to us because me and her have stayed in touch.” She paused. “Because you know Janis, I could probably contact her for you.”

“She’s in Altadena?”

“No, here in L.A.”

“Huh,” Magrady said, adrenalin and caffeine exciting him.

 

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

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