The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 05

Shane Kolso agreed to let Janis Bonilla know if she heard from the sister of Magrady’s in-the-wind friend from Skid Row. Problem was that also meant the sister would know he was looking for her brother and she could tip him to stay hid. If he was hiding, and if he she had any party in that. Maybe all this was nothing but the unhinged perspective of a man in search of a mission when really his best years, if he had any, were behind him.

Sitting in the tidy breakfast nook of the organizer’s apartment, enjoying his morning coffee in stoneware instead of Styrofoam, it occurred to Magrady maybe Bonilla was just humoring him. Sharp young chicks like her knew the best way to handle addled oldsters like his rootless butt. She dealt with all sorts of barely hanging on tenants, folk who should be receiving outpatient psychiatric services or do better institutionalized.

He’d watched her soothing the agitated without being condescending. She’d coax their stories of neglect and mistreatment out of them with the precision patience of a mohel about to do the cut in a bouncing rickshaw. Individuals who kidded themselves they were okay and went off their meds or who’d been booted out of the system due to the infinite and unknowing regulations of the great and grand bureaucracy. Bonilla working herself raw to cobble together a membership of undocumented busboys and brothers Magrady’s age pissed off ’cause they figured it was those lower paid busboys who took away the decent jobs. Hell of a burden she carried.

But Jeff Curray was still dead, and those two chuckleheads, Boo-Boo the discount store psycho and the slicker Elmore, had their fangs out on the prowl. They were the rocks in his bed as the old song went. Something had gone down and signs indicated Floyd Chambers was all up in the shit—for there was the card.

Magrady had placed it on the kitchen table as he sipped his coffee. Looking at it occasionally as if he’d get a flash of insight. Too bad that unlike that bit that Johnny Carson did, Karnak, he couldn’t slap the card to his forehead and get a clue.

He stretched and yawned and scratched his crotch. That’s something Dick Tracy never did in the comic strips or those ’40s black and whites he used to get a kick out of when he was younger. Okay, maybe he was off his nut, but he’d proceed as if he were on point. Circling back to the Hornet’s Hive later today was useless at this point even if the old fella, Freddy Mulgrew, did find an address for the sister. Of course the way things were going, it would probably turn out to be yet another location, he glumly concluded. Given his luck, it would be out in San Bernardino or some damn other county that might as well be Pluto as far as his means to get there were concerned. Plus he wanted to be ready should he have to do the cha-cha with the two thugs again. He’d been weighing to go retrieve his service sidearm. But that meant a reunion with his daughter and, well, that required more cajones than he could swing at the moment.

That left him with the SubbaKhan magnetic swipe card as his most immediate lead—and the most obtuse. It wasn’t like he could go over the SubbaKhan offices in their highrise in Century City and test it out to see which door the thing opened. He knew from Bonilla there was security in the lobby.

In Long Beach SubbaKhan had a stadium where pro soccer games and, of all things, polo matches were played. Seems some wheel at SuhbbaKhan had a jones for the so-called sport and funded an amateur polo league. Magrady snickered imaging Bonilla and her comrades discussing as part of the community benefits agreement a polo field for the at-risk youth of South Central. Yes indeed, horses galloping and mallets a-swinging down Western Avenue. She’d also told him at one point about some sort of research effort the conglomerate had funded, but she wasn’t sure where.

He showered and decided to go the library and find out more about SubbaKhan. It beat sitting around for Kolso’s call. He needed to feel useful. Indulging himself, he used some of Bonilla’s fru-fru shampoo on his bristly short hair. Lathering the scented goo into his scalp, he felt the spot on the top of the back of his head. Was the hair getting thinner there? Man.

Dried off and in his boxers, he laid across the bed staring at one of her posters, a silk-screened Nelson Mandela print. Yet political stirrings weren’t energizing him as they should and he got out of the bedroom before he sunk to sniffing through her underwear drawer. He shaved in the kitchen listening to KNX, the news station.

That done, Magrady stepped into clean jeans—he’d been able to wash his gear in her laundry room—and a buttoned down shirt Bonilla had given him before she left this morning. She hadn’t explained whose shirt it had been. Magrady, a 2XLer, was pleased that it fit and wasn’t snug. Now what did that say about her taste in men? Enough.

He almost felt like a square on his way to his slave. Only it was after 9:30 am, and this was like that leisurely pace of those young punks on that show, Entourage. Each episode they filled up their days chasing tail and scoring weed. He’d seen three or four of the half hours on a DVD player over at the James Wood Center in the common area. Fact he’d watched them with Floyd Chambers among others. They’d been amused and incensed by those pampered dudes and their antics.

Magrady had riffed was the doings on that show what the down and out should aspire to? Chambers had added that like Baby Doc’s wife Michelle, the downtown visionaries would start putting caged TVs all over downtown. On screen would loop vids of mink coats four deep in walk-in closets and racks of trendy shoes to make Imelda Marcos and Condie Rice jealous.

Now it’s one thing to be a dictator. It’s another to rub the peasants’ noses in it. Baby Doc and Michelle got bounced. But could Entourage have inspired Chambers in some way?

Magrady mused on this as he closed and locked the kitchen window in preparation of leaving his friend’s homey digs. L.A. was where dreams were served along with your fresh-squeezed orange juice, wasn’t it? There was desire and envy for the Britneys and Pitts. We built them up so as they’d fall further when we kicked the stepladders out from under them—this the sport of kings and queens. No wonder nobody gave two shits about the homeless. What hopes and dreams could you project on those poor fucks? Maybe Chambers did get his the best way he could.

Magrady exited through the back door, descending to a garden patch behind the apartment building of raspberries, tomatoes and mustard greens. These were tended by a retired tenant who’d once been a bookie. Heading north on Catalina, the Vietnam vet got to a bus stop on Wilshire and took one of the red-trimmed Rapid buses into downtown. He sat next to a kid with his hair frizzed out hair at numerous angles. He was listening to his iPod while reading a Philip K. Dick novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. He wore a Free the Buses T-Shirt, a fightback effort Magrady had belonged to several years ago.

Back then with Legal Resources and a couple of other public interest law firms committing its lawyers and resources, the grouping had legally challenged the transportation agency, the MTA. This was over the argument for more monies allocated for increasing clean buses on inner city routes. Magrady had been down with that. Though he found some of the enviros, as they were called, way too anal about the green thing. The diehards pushing in meetings the suit be a tactic toward abolishing buses in favor of rail, and thus more rail meant less cars.

In theory that had merit. Magrady could see a combination of the two. But certainly folks needed those buses to get to their jive jobs, and knowing too that the MTA was inclined to put rail out toward the better-off suburbs. It came down to too many meetings and pre-meetings being consumed with who had the correct analysis, and not enough being in the face of the MTA. So Magrady was one of the ones to drop out. At that time he’d maintained he was taking a principled stance. Or was he just a cut and runner full of rhetoric and rationalizations? Like dodging and ducking his responsibilities when his family had depended on him.

Off the bus, walking along Flower toward the main library, an unmarked LAPD car passed him, the movement registering in the corner of his eye. The car double backed to a medley of horns honking and idled where he stood.

“What’s happening, home folks?” Fuckin’ Stover. He was dressed in civvies.

“What, I’m not walking fast enough for you? Gonna give me a ticket for loitering? Too bad I don’t have a milk crate with me you can confiscate.”

“Man, you sure are Mister Grumpy this morning. Me I feel great.” He grinned broadly. “Heard some of your mojado running buddies got vamped on last night.” 

“Your empathy is underwhelming.”

The police captain laughed.

“I don’t have time for your bullshit, Stover.” He started to walk away.

“See you in court,” the cop said cheerily as he drove off.

What a giant A-1 asshole. Magrady walked up the steps of the Richard J. Riordan Central Library. In ’86, two consecutive arson fires by even bigger assholes resulted in some 350,000 books being burned up and 700,000 being damaged. He remembered they had to freeze dry the books to preserve them. Under the then Tom Bradley administration, air rights were sold to a developer to build the Library Tower to help pay for the massive renovation.

The skyscraper was now called the U.S. Bank Building. In 2001, the Library Commission, its members appointed by Riordan, who succeeded Bradley, voted to rename the wonderfully redone complex for hizzoner. The commissioners cited his tireless efforts in the service of libraries. Bradley got a wing named after him.

Magrady nodded to a couple of dudes he knew from the streets playing go at a table in an alcove after he entered the facility. He had fond memories of coming here with his father when he was a kid to look for the science fiction novels his old man liked to read. In those days there were massive statues of Egyptian gods built into the stair structure on the mezzanine level leading to the fiction section. He always saw them as the guardians of the magic found between those cracked covers by his pop’s favorites like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Jack Williamson, and those Carson of Venus and John Carter of Mars books his dad would get for him by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

On a few sheets of unfolded paper, Magrady had a copy of various references for SubbaKhan culled from Lexis-Nexis. Bonilla had given him this as Urban Advocacy was always doing opposition research. She’d taken her laptop with her to the news conference and had no other computer at home. Using the printout as a basis, he looked though microfiche files and found a year-old interview in the Downtown News with the regional VP of the entity, Wakefield Nakano, a Japanese American local surfer boy from Gardena who made way good. He was the one overseeing the Emerald Shoals project. In the interview Nakano mentioned the policy effort they’d just funded, and that it was located on the USC campus.

Magrady rode public transportation over to the campus and strolled onto it. He didn’t much look like a student and he knew ’SC’s campus cops didn’t take no shit. But it was daytime and they were used to community people being there for this or that meeting so he figured as long as he didn’t get butt naked and try to dry hump the Tommy Trojan statue, things should be copacetic.

After stopping several students and a janitor, he found the door to the Central City Reclaiming Initiative on the third floor of the business school. The name of the project spelled out in neat 14-point raised metal letters on the otherwise plain locked door. There was no response to his knocking. Retracing his steps, he’d noted a recessed metal door along the hallway. It was unmarked but had one of those electronic locks on it—the kind where you had to swipe a coded card through.

Like Raffles, he looked both ways along the quiet hallway and tried the magnetic card he’d found among Floyd Chambers’ stuff. The red light on the lock turned green.


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


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