The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 08

Magrady was behind and to the right of Boo-Boo before the brigand noticed him. He’d been distracted trying to mack on a smooth-skinned honey who had the good sense not to give him those digits.

“How you doin’, fuckhead,” he said while simultaneously jabbing the screwdriver into the hoodlum’s lower side. He wasn’t looking to puncture a kidney, just get a response.

“Motherfuck,” Boo-Boo screamed, squinting then going wide-eyed at the sight of the evilly grinning vet. “That’s your ass, old man.” He lunged for Magrady who immediately dropped to the ground and went into a fetal position. He yelled, “Oh my God, he attacked me. Help. Help.”

Boo-Boo was dependable. “Shut the fuck up,” he bellowed, aiming the point of his too clean Jordans toward Magrady’s stomach. Anticipating such, the other man had Xd his forearms in front of his body. Three of the VA’s security guards who were weaving in and about of the farmer’s market ran over.

“He just went crazy,” Magrady avowed, “I’m a veteran and he hates vets, he said.”

“Hey wait,” Boo-boo started as one of the guards, who’d recently taken the Sheriff’s exam and was anxious to learn the results, tackled him.

Magrady scooted out of the way. He had to give Boo-Boo his props. At first as the guards swarmed him, he went on instinct and fought back. But even what passed for a mind atop the thug’s thick neck understood the hole he’d been placed in, and further action on his part was only sucking him down deeper. He became compliant. Problem was the guards were amped and as Double B declared, “I give,” the would-be deputy tasered him in the side of his neck. His legs and arms convulsed and he swore a string of profanities, with some particularly illustrative language aimed at Magrady and his kin. They got him to his feet, his legs the consistency of over-cooked pasta.

“Mister, you okay?” One of the earnest young protectors asked. He was taller than Magrady with a Norman Rockwell look about him.

“Yes, I think so.” Magrady iced the cake. “For some reason he singled me out. I think he’d seen me here before, he knew I was a Vietnam vet.” That would set him in solid with these guys. “Walking around mumbling about how the Marines wouldn’t take him ’cause of some sort of criminal charge.”

“You lying shit-faced bitch ass punk,” Boo-Boo drooled out.   “I’ll fix you for this.”

“Keep quiet,” the deputy hopeful said as he used metal cuffs on the bargain store gangster. They bent him over a table with boxes of mushrooms on it and patted him down.

“Look, we’re going to take him in and see if he has any priors,” the embodiment of All-Americanism said. “I mean we saw him attacking you.”

“So did I,” a woman in pedal pushers holding a plastic sack of tomatoes said. “He simply went Rambo on this poor man.” She looked about, embarrassed. “Sorry, I didn’t say that right.”

The guard continued, “Look, you might have to swear out a complaint for the police, so we’ll need to get in touch with you.”

“Not a problem.” Magrady gave him the address and phone for the Urban Advocacy offices. He shook Jack Armstrong’s hand and went in search of Floyd Chambers. At the start of the trouble, he’d wheeled away. Magrady figured they’d come in Boo-Boo’s car, and that he’d be able to track him on foot in the vicinity. He hoped that Boo-Boo did have some unanswered charge or bench warrant for traffic tickets and that the cops would keep him locked up at least for a few days. Once he got out ... well ... that was once he got out. Too bad the roughneck hadn’t brought his heater with him. Guess he wasn’t that stupid, Magrady concluded.

Huffing it out to Wilshire Boulevard, Magrady spotted Chambers on the other side of the street heading east. This part of the thoroughfare was wide and given the entrance and exits of the 405 freeway, the traffic was steady with assorted vehicles and buses. “How the hell did he get over there so quick?” Magrady muttered to himself. This section of the Boulevard was minus a   crosswalk or light. But he couldn’t let him slip away now so he timed it and darted out into the street. Drivers braked and swerved and give him the finger or cursed him. He went around he rear of an accordion bus and made it to the other side, a motorcyclist blaring, “Idiot grandpa. Go back to your rest home.”

Chambers’ arms were churning and he wheeled swiftly under the overpass. Magrady jogged after him, aware he was breathing harder than he’d like to be. He slowed his pace but kept on as Chambers worked his wheels with a practiced flourish. On the south side of Wilshire east of the overpass was the Federal Building where such offices as that of passport and the FBI were located. There was a contingent of protestors in front, which was not unusual, except this was a weekday in the mid-afternoon. Who the hell would be out now?

Magrady had to assume it was anti-war stalwarts. But as he dashed through the smattering of people he noted a sign with a cut out of a lazing polar bear on it with the words Save Them printed on it. Another read, Stop Global Warming More Ice for the Bears.  Swell sentiment, he reflected as he watched Chambers roll to the other side of the true believers. Did they expect the Bureau to drop their current caseload and build rafts for the polar bears?

Feeling guilty for being a cynical asshole, Magrady took some deep breaths and got his arms and legs pumping. Chambers had turned right on Veteran. The soldier’s graveyard was to his back on the north side of Wilshire. More than one of Magrady’s comrades was interred there. The one thing that Magrady could do to close the gap was cut across the huge lawn of the Federal Building. Chambers had to stick to the sidewalk for better traction.

“Come on, Floyd,” he yelled, running across the grass, “Hold up. What’s the deal, man?” He prayed that there weren’t 24-hour snipers on duty up on the roof just waiting for some nut to sound vaguely threatening so they could relieve their boredom by misting his brains.

The disabled man glanced at him, then kept on trucking toward Ohio Avenue, a residential street. Magrady could feel his burst of energy dissipating and laughed inwardly at those who said age was just a number. Shit. Age was your body letting you down and sweat pouring out of you like a bucket with a hole in it. Fuck if he wasn’t going to get away from him, a dude in a wheelchair. He guessed that wasn’t being PC. But getting pissed gave him focus and that gave him a kick and Magrady, never one for the treadmill, put all he had left in a last effort to catch his fleeing friend.

“Watch it, lady,” Chambers hollered as he went off the curb and tried to cross in the middle of the street. A young woman talking on her cell phone, Amy Winehouse rockin’ on her car’s sound system, had turned onto Ohio from the far corner and roared toward Wilshire in her late-model Mustang, too wrapped up in her conversation to see Chambers until she was on him. She slammed to a halt. Floyd’s gloved hands locked on his wheels and he fish-tailed his wheelchair into the side of the driver’s door. Chambers fell over. The young woman, a strawberry blonde with heavy mascara scolded, “Dude, look what you did to my door.” She was staring down at Chambers, on his side, in the street, next to his downed wheelchair.

“What he did to you?” Magrady said, running up, out of breath. “You just ran over a disabled man, miss. We need the police to test you for marijuana or ecstasy or something.” Gasping, he continued, “I saw everything. You never once slowed down.”

She screwed up her face at him, then looked past to the bear lovers who’d also come over. “Wait, what are you saying?”

“You know damn well what I’m saying,” Magrady helped Chambers, also breathing hard, sit up and righted his chair. “You’re going to jail. You’re a menace.”

“Maybe I should call my lawyer.”

“Yeah, I do think you should call mommy and daddy’s lawyer. And I’ll get some witness statements while you’re at it.” He got Chambers into his wheelchair. “How are you, sir? Can you understand the words coming out of my mouth?” He over-enunciated, stealing the line from that comedy with Chris Tucker.

There was a conflicted look to Chambers’ sweating face. He rasped, “I think I’ll be okay.” It didn’t escape him that Magrady had a grip on the handle of his chair.

“Well, your medical bills should be added to the lawsuit,” he said louder than necessary. “You’ll need to get checked out thoroughly.”

The driver had put a sandal-clad foot on the ground preparing to step out of her car but froze at that statement. “He’s all right,” she insisted, looking from Chambers to her dented door.

“Really? Magrady challenged. “We better let a doctor determine that.”

She sat in the car again, closing the door. It creaked. Several drivers slowed to rubberneck, then went around them in the street. “There’s no need for that.”

“Aren’t you going to get your mouthpiece on the phone? I want to talk to him,” Magrady said authoritatively. He hedged this behavior would have her backing down.

“He’s okay, right?” the young woman asked.

“I’m not saying that,” Magrady said.

“I’m asking him,” she retorted irritably.

“I can make it,” Chambers said.

She started the Mustang. “So let’s just call it even.” Putting it into gear, the vehicle slowly crept forward as the onlookers watched her go.

“I’ve got her plate number,” One of the good citizens shouted. She looked to be the same age as the driver, but tanned, wearing a T that exposed her taut belly and the jewel stud in her navel. She stepped forward and handed Magrady the information on a crumpled index card. He thanked her and she displayed very even teeth. She was cute. Magrady got back on task.

Mustang Sally took all this in but continued going. She got the corner and then turned east into the afternoon flow.

“I’ll make sure he gets home okay.” Magrady said and half-waved to the concerned.

“I can take him to a doctor,” the nice tanned lady said. “he might have internal injuries or who knows what.”

Magrady squeezed Chambers’ shoulder blade, grinning.

“Thank you, but I’m fine. It’s okay.” Chambers got the message. Doubtless too he didn’t want to be hung up at some emergency room or clinic for several hours. He and his lowlife buddies were duck hunting, Magrady reasoned. And he intended to find out what kind of game it was.

“Now I’m going to wheel your ass over here,” Magrady was close to his friend’s ear, pushing him at a normal speed across the side street, away from the bear patrol.

Chambers licked his lower lip. “Why you all up in this, Magrady?”

“Why’d you try to vamp on Angie?’

“It’s not like that, man. She’s been straight with me. I just wanted ...” but he didn’t finish.

They got to the curb and Magrady turned the chair around and cocked it back to pull the wheelchair up and onto the grass strip of the sidewalk.

Behind him was a row of gray and white apartment buildings. “Then why you and Boo-Boo making like Starsky and Hutch?”

“I had no choice.”

The two moved further into the residential section. “You need to let me know what the hell’s going on, Floyd.” They went along some. “This have something to do with your sister, doesn’t it?”

Chambers looked off to one side. “You talked to her?”

“No. But I know she works for that division of SubbaKhan.”

“What else do you know?”

“That my sorry self has a possible murder beef hanging over me.”

“They can’t make it stick. You know that.”

Magrady said, “I know that Stover will be giving it the ol’ college try.” He stopped pushing him and, coming around in front, clamped his hands on both of Chambers’ shoulders, leaning into him. “What the fuck are you up to, Floyd? You know me, I don’t give a fuck what kind of scam you’re setting up or trying to run.” He let go of him. “But you ain’t gonna make me your goat. You got me involved in this shit when you used me to go up against Savoirfaire, then all of a sudden he winds up dead.”

“You sayin’ I did that?”

“I’m saying that’s a mighty funny coincidence.”

Chambers worked his wheels back and forth, his face downcast. “It’s not like I don’t think you’re down, Magrady. But this, this could be big.”

“Big how?”

He smiled, eyes lit up like he was tore up. “The rainbow, baby.”

Magrady was tired of this bullshit. “I’ve got your magnet card and the cassette tape, Floyd.”

That deflated his balloon. “I need that tape, M. I guess you haven’t played it yet, huh?”

“What if I burn it?”

Chambers held up a hand. “We can work something out.”

“What’s the play, Floyd?”

For a moment it seemed he might try to bolt again. Instead, he took in a deep breath. The two had stopped partially up the incline of a rising street, the kind where the garages were set below the house and cut into the hillside. He motioned with his hands. “It’s, you know, it’s what they dug up.”

“Like lost treasure?” Magrady almost laughed.

His friend nodded quickly. “Yeah.”

Now he did laugh. “Come on, Floyd. You’re after Blackbeard’s treasure chest?”

“The thing was dug up at the Emerald Shoals. Only they didn’t know what they had.”

A tickle feathered Magrady’s spine. “But your sister found out what this is and she told you?”

Chambers shook his head. “It’s wild, Magrady, wild as sin.”


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


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