The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 10

“So Floyd wants the head back because it will cure him,” Bonilla opined.

Magrady remained stone-faced.

“That was a joke, son.”

“Maybe it ain’t to Floyd.” He flashbacked to moaning and bleeding soldiers, their wounds super-glued together, taking drags on heroin-laced cigarettes to cut the pain and mumbling prayers for quick evac. These were the recipients of Charlie’s Bouncing Betties, which severed limbs and spines. These were mines that when triggered shot up about three or four feet in the air then exploded, their payload of screaming shrapnel ripping through bodies like buckshot through tissue paper. Too many times this happened not because your patrol didn’t find the mine, but you’d improperly crimped the thing. This was squeezing the blasting cap and the fuse together just so as you disarmed the device. While invariably some junior officer fresh from asshole school was rattling you as he barked from a safe distance about hurrying up like that task was easy as ordering a pizza.

“He might truly see this as a way to walk again, Janis,” he said reverently.

Momentarily she looked chagrined for belittling what might be their friend’s dream, but then brightened. “Or he wants to sell the head for money.” A selfish reason was okay to deride.

“To who?”

She lifted a shoulder. “Tamock’s head’s gotta be worth something to a university or a collector. These kind of people pay big money for a baseball card with Ted Williams picking his nose on it so there must be a market for something like this artifact.”

Magrady wondered if his head would ever become an object of lust. That when he was gone, homeless crackheads would use a rusty hacksaw to remove it from his wizened body and place it in a clear plastic box with a light inside of his hollowed out skull. They’d use his noggin as a nightlight to find discarded crack pipes containing minute residues of the enslaving rock. “His sister’s office is over at USC, that policy project of SubbaKhan’s.” He stopped himself before admitting to her it was from that office he’d swiped the cassette tape. He didn’t think she would object but if she didn’t ask, he didn’t have to tell.

Bonilla said, “She takes this gig to snatch the head back?”

“That can’t be right.” Or could it?

“Anyway, so where’s the head now?” She then added before he could respond, “Savoirfaire gets killed ’cause he had it?”

“What the hell would he have been doing with it, Janis? He wouldn’t know it was valuable.”

“What if he was holding it for ransom?”

Magrady considered this. “But Floyd came to me to get that chump to back off.”

“Because Floyd had borrowed money from him. At least that’s what he made it seem to us.”

“Yeah ...”

“But what if it wasn’t?” Bonilla countered. “He put you against Savoirfaire to sic him on you. Maybe he was going to slip it to him where to find you after your first encounter and as he came after you, Floyd would burglarize his house to get the head back.”

“I’m pretty sure being a paraplegic cuts down on your breaking and entering opportunities.”

“He had help, champ.” She playfully socked him. “His sis.”

“Come on, she’s got this square job.”

“But she’s working on the inside,” Bonilla insisted. She then lightly slapped her palm on the desk top. “What if SubbaKhan has the head?” She stood up, excited by the idea. “Eli Craven is on their board and he has that private art gallery up in Malibu. We should go up there and see if the head is on display.”

Magrady chuckled. “They ain’t hardly going to let you in there, Sub-Comandante Marcos.”

“How about your sorry self? Shit.”

“Here’s what I think,” not deigning to acknowledge her dig, “Floyd needed me to get Savoirfaire off his ass ’cause he was going after the head and knew if homeboy was on him, he might mess that up or take it from him once he stole it back.”

She held up an index finger. “So Floyd is after someone else who has the head?”

“Yeah, the guy who found it. Assuming it was a construction worker or laborer on the Emerald Shoals site. When did it break ground?”

“About a year and a half ago,” she answered. “But you don’t know who that is. And if he had it once, then say he turned it in to the bosses, how’d he get it back?”

“What if he didn’t turn it in? Could be he kept it and showed it to Floyd.” Then it occurred to him. “He could be the sister’s boyfriend. Only Floyd had said ‘they’ didn’t know what they had.”

“It could still mean he was referring to the sister and the boyfriend or maybe the boyfriend and a buddy.”

A charge surged through Magrady. He felt as if the door was finally creaking open, if only a sliver. “I need to talk to his goddamn sister. Can I use your phone?”

Bonilla checked her watch. “Go ahead, McGarrett. I need to get to get going anyway.” She went to her desk to retrieve her messenger bag. As she slung it over her shoulder she asked, “You crashing at my crib tonight? Or you tippin’ in with one of your honeys?”

“It better be your place if you don’t mind.”

“Okay, playah.” She tossed him a key. “I had this cut just in case.” She now shook her index finger at him. “But don’t you be bringing your 90-year-old hoochies over there. I run a respectable house.”

“Thanks, Janis. You’re, you know ...” he let it end there, suddenly self-conscious that they were in an open space.

She grinned. “Yeah, whatever.” She left and he made a few calls on her office phone, including leaving a message for her friend, Shane Kolso at Legal Resources, who was supposed to get in touch with Sally, Floyd Chambers’ sister. He was certain she’d want a meeting with him now given she knew he had the tape, and must have assumed he’d listened to it.

There, sitting at Bonilla’s desk, he finally took the letter out from his ex-wife Claudelia. He looked at it for a few moments, knowing once he read it he couldn’t ignore its contents. He prayed it wasn’t about his daughter or his long gone son, who he hadn’t seen or heard from in more than ten years. He opened it and unfolded the single sheet. The letter was in that neat and precise handwriting of hers and informed him, after hoping this found him in good spirits, that she was undergoing chemo treatments for thyroid cancer. Her prognosis was good but she told him that he should know in case matters didn’t go as expected. He re-read the letter, then folded it up and slipped it back into the envelope. Claudelia hadn’t included a phone number in her message but Magrady had expected she wouldn’t. She hadn’t sent this so he would come see her. This was about him reconnecting with the other members of his family.

He folded the whole of it in half again and put it in his pocket. He did have his daughter’s phone number and it seemed this was the time to call her. He tried dialing the number from memory but screwed up the sequence. He got his wallet out and found the slip of paper he’d written it on and tried it again.

“Hi, this is the home of Jerniah, Esther and Casey,” a young girl’s voice said cheerily on the phone’s recording. She giggled and he heard the whisper of an adult urging her on. “We’re not here right now but please leave your message. Okay?” The beep followed and he spoke.

“Esther, this,” he began haltingly and started over, “Esther, this is your father. I received the news about your mother and would like you to call me when you have a chance. This is the cell number of a friend of mine and she’ll get your message to me. I’d like to see you and the kids. Thanks.” He nearly said, “Sorry,” his guilt making him queasy from his past failures as a father and husband. Quietly he cradled the handset, glad that no one in the office was paying attention to him—or at least pretending not to do so. He was about to get back in the streets when Bonilla’s phone rang. He ignored the ringing, assuming it was for his friend, and he used the restroom.

“Hey, Magrady,” a voice said after a knock on the door to the toilet. “You in there?”


“Janis called in for you. Said hit her back on her celly.”

“Thanks.” He finished and returned the call.

“Shane told me she’d left two messages for Sally but hadn’t heard back from her,” Bonilla said over the phone. “Only she just heard from her and she was all worked about what was your story, how did you know her brother and all the 411 on you, Superbad.” She sounded pleased about this.

“Good to see I got her attention after my dance with her brother. What else did she say?”

“Sally will only meet with you at the offices of Legal Resources. The implication being that she wants lawyers around in case you try some shit, home.”

Magrady snorted. “I’ll ask Shane to let her know it’s with her and Floyd or it’s no go.”

“Cool by me.”

Once he related his demand to Kolso, Magrady left Urban Advocacy and walked about, heading into the heart of downtown. He tried to discern just what were his emotions about his ex-wife’s illness. Their romance was long ago heaped upon the dustbin of lost love but they had had produced two children and even, if only for a time, a life together. The two-car garage and fondue party bit had gone to shit because of him, so it wasn’t like he held animosity toward her for running away from the drunk, high, irresponsible asshole he’d become back then.

Yeah, like he was a prince nowadays.

Remembering the shouting matches, the broken furniture, and that one awful time when he hit her, a sadness wrapped itself around him and he sagged against a wall, feeling as if he were being sucked into a quicksand of despair that he wasn’t inclined to struggle against.

He remained immobilized and uncertain for several minutes until a female voice said, “Mister, you want Gucci or Louis V? Got quality Louis V, my brother.”

Magrady looked over at a small woman of unidentifiable ethnicity with long garish nails and neon eyeliner topped with piled-high black hair, her ample hips stuffed into too-tight satin pedal pushers. He blinked at her as if she or he had just arrived from an uncharted island as she swept a hand toward her knockoff designer label luggage. He then realized he’d walked down to Broadway adrift in his self-pity and was leaning against the outside of the woman’s cut-rate travel bags and electronic appliance emporium. This was socked into one of the retail slots on the ground floor of what had been the Tower movie theater. A Los Tigres del Norte song, “Mi Lamento,” swooned from a tinny speaker.

“How about Herm├Ęs for your girl?” She cheerfully dangled several purses aloft to entice his interest.

Magrady wiped tears from his face and offered her a shaky smile as he moved away. The Spanish lyrics of the melancholy ballad faded out until it was a ghost sound filtered among the din of the busy street. Various shopkeepers fronted their subdivided stores or stalls, hawking wares from supposed iPhones that looked more like ’80s-era calculators to the latest films still at the cineplex on bootleg DVDs. What the law couldn’t stop from proliferating gentrification soon would.

He wound up on the edges of Skid Row and cut through a narrow alley. He was more or less on his way to see Angie Baine—partly to ask her a question and partly to take another look through Floyd Chambers’ stuff. A car turned into the other end and started to pick up speed as it came at him. It was that goddamn Scion with Elmore at the wheel.


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


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