The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 11

Magrady impotently kicked some busted-up wooden crates toward the Scion. He turned and ran to get the hell out of there and spotted a couple of bulging plastic trash bags overflowing from a dumpster. He lurched forward and grabbed the bags as the Scion bore down on him. The vet flung the bags over his shoulder and, risking a quick glance around, saw them splatter all manner of slimy human detritus across the windshield. This impaired Elmore Jinks’ vision but he kept the car straight and unswerving, his humming wipers smearing the mess more.

Scared and losing his balance, Magrady tripped like some fool pursued by the freaks in a horror movie. He scuttled forward on all fours toward the dumpster. He scampered to its far end and used his shoulder to shove it crookedly into the alleyway. The Scion’s bumper grazed the edge and Elmore, still not seeing clearly, instinctively reacted by twisting the wheel. The car veered into the wall opposite, tearing up the front fender.

“Motherfuckah,” Elmore swore, skidding to a stop.

Magrady grimaced as he got on his feet, having wrenched his back pushing the dumpster. He looked around for something to hit the younger man with, but would have to rely on his fists. Rather than wait for the attack, he rushed forward as the other man got clear of his car.

“I told you to stay the fuck out of my business, old man.” Elmore socked Magrady in the gut and he doubled over. He moaned but would be goddamned if he was going to let this rooty-poot get the best of him that easy. He got his arms around the other’s waist and, driving his legs as Jinks pounded his back, crunched them against the Scion. They tumbled to the ground, grappling like kids in a schoolyard brawl.

“Get the fuck off me, Sanford and Son,” Elmore shouted, trying to nail Magrady with a right to his jaw. The vet slipped that blow and got his hands around Elmore’s neck and choked.

“That’s enough,” a voice boomed over them, followed by the rapid cracks of a baton along Magrady’s shoulder blades and the base of his neck. Stunned and winded, he let go and tried to get up. Elmore took this as an opportunity to exact more damage and kneed Magrady in the groin.

As pain made him curl fetal-like between the wall and the Scion, Magrady heard Elmore hollering. He got an eye open and saw the taser dart sticking in the young man’s chest and he smiled wickedly. If he could, he would have peed on him to spark him up.

He rolled over and the officer place a foot in his chest, his nine aimed at his nose. “Don’t fuckin’ blink,” the cop ordered. He called in the incident on the radio clipped to his shirt then said, “Both of you on your faces, now.”

The two did so, with Magrady’s face lying on the back of Elmore’s calf. They were both secured with plastic cuffs, then told to sit against the wall, away from the Scion.

Magrady said, “I need some medical attention, officer.” His face and upper body were going numb and his joints were stiffening.

“Uh-huh,” he said in that non-committal way cops answered arrested assholes. He’d dug out their wallets and was reading their ID’s. He wore a bike helmet and shades and had come up on them on his T3. These people movers looked a little like a Segway, but had three wheels for better balance and mobility, and were really more like a kid’s futuristic electric scooter. They were built with a platform and raised handle. Magrady had seen several of them being used by the cops patrolling downtown areas.

“How you feelin’, champ?” Magrady said to bother Jinks. He was a few feet from him, his head down and breathing shallowly.

“Shut up,” the cop, a youngish Asian man with planed shoulders, said. A bicycle-riding officer peddled up and the two separated the prisoners and interrogated them briefly. Magrady coughed up blood at one point. This was from a cut in his mouth, but he hoped they’d think it was worse than that.

“Hope you drown, bitch,” Elmore snickered.

The two cops were conferring when a cruiser came on the scene piloted by a sergeant. After parking, she talked to her officers then walked over to Magrady.

“You said you want a doctor?” she asked. Her dark green eyes probed his face and form. She looked closely at his scalp and there was a crimson wetness in his hair.

“I’m hurt,” he said, meeting her gaze.

There had been several recent incidents of hospitals dumping indigent patients on Skid Row, a couple of times caught on cell phone video—once with an LAPD patrol car going past. Added to that a homeless woman had bled out three weeks ago, after being stabbed and somehow getting into the secure lobby of a converted loft but not being able to summon anyone, even though she buzzed several apartments. The story made the local news and a guest op-ed in the L.A. Times by a homeless advocate poised the obvious question would this woman have been ignored if she wore Uggs and had been accosted walking her chihuahua?

The sergeant had no desire to have to explain to the brass why an AARPer had died from an untreated head injury or sepsis under her watch. Magrady was transported to the 13th floor of County USC, the jail ward. In there an imposing female nurse with veined forearms and her blonde hair in a long braid, sternly and competently tended to the aching Magrady.

“Rest,” she commanded and made a once around the room to check on the others under her charge. Everyone was silent, there was no sound save the quiet scrape of her rubber soled orthopedics across the worn linoleum. That changed as soon as the Asgardian stepped out through the secured door.

“Fly me to the moon,” a tatted and buffed vato in the bed on one side of Magrady suddenly crooned in a pretty fair imitation of Sinatra. He actually wasn’t too bad, especially as he helped drown out the sounds of the man in the bed on the other side of him.

This one, bald but also in his twenties, was in a half-body cast and and pleaded. “Please help me,” he bemoaned. “I can’t go back in there. He’s gonna have his way with me. Oh, please Great Pumpkin, I just can’t go.”

In a bed set closer to the door, an older, heavier man with curly gray and white hair lay. He talked to himself doing his multiplication tables. He kept going higher in value, not once making a mistake as far as Magrady could tell. The fifth bed’s occupant, this one under the barred window, lay still on his stomach, snoring.

The nurse had poked Magrady with an IV drip of some sort of pain killer that mellowed him out like when he used to indulge and float away on Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” He put an arm across his eyes and dozed, the looping cacophony of his fellow inmates an infirmary lullaby.

“Dreaming of me?” a harsh voice said, disrupting his reverie.

“Always, darling.” Magrady was loath to remove his arm but did so. The real world had to be confronted. Stover hovered near him, enjoying the sight of the former noncom laid up.

“So what’s the deal with you and Elmore Jinks?” the captain asked, folding his arms.

Magrady considered lying but he figured he’d get more joy out of telling him the truth, demonstrating his defiance. He used the control to raise the top half of the bed. “I was looking for Floyd Chambers and those two jacked me in a bar in Inglewood.”

“Thought you said you didn’t know Savoirfaire.”

“Still didn’t, except for the time we had our tête-à-tête.”

“You find Chambers?”

“Yeah, but lost him again.” That was more or less accurate.

Stover chuckled. “I guess this Peter Gunn thing ain’t your bag, Magrady.”

“Seems that way.”

“Why’d Jinks try to park his car on your chest?”

“What he say?”

Stover examined him. “He didn’t.”

Magrady told him about his run-in with Elmore Jinks’ partner Boo-Boo and him being with Chambers.

“Why you all so hot and bothered to find Chambers?”

“Do you think he killed Savoirfaire?”

Stover smiled thinly. “We got you for that, homey.”

“You honestly believe the DA will press that case against me?”

“I know you to be capable of fatal indiscretions, Magrady.”

“You gotta get off that merry-go-round, Stover.”

Stover pointed at him. “Or you got away with something belonging to Savoirfaire after you iced him and the Wonder Twins want it. Maybe Chambers was in on it with you, set Savoirfaire up for you to bash his head in.”

“Believe what you like, Captain. But Jinks came at me and you need to do your job and put his ass away.”

“Don’t you worry about how I do my job, sport.” He made some specific threats about the consequences of Magrady nosing around in police business and left.

Magrady was then treated to a rendition of “Danke Schoen” from the Singing Vato. There was a TV playing mutely high up in one corner of the room. On it was a newscast about the fire that had consumed several thousand acres in Cleveland National Forest. On screen at one point was an artist’s rendition of a space-age looking jet that, the crawl informed Magrady, was rumored to have gone down in the forest, causing the blaze.

Their dinners arrived, pushed in by an athletically-built light-skinned African American orderly named Rekon, according to his name tag.

“They call you that because you were in the service?” Magrady asked him as he pushed his plate of roast beef and cream corn into place. The knuckles on the orderly’s hands were misshaped from repeated impact.

“It’s my fighting name,” he said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “Short for Rekonso.” 

Magrady frowned. “You’re not a boxer. The bruises on your hands are wrong for that. You don’t get that from wearing the heavy gloves.”

Rekon raised an eyebrow, nodding. “Mixed martial arts, old school.”

“Brutal,” Magrady observed.

“Me and my old lady are pursuing it. She’s got a bout down in Maywood this Saturday.”

“I guess that keeps the arguments to a minimum at home.”

He laughed. “So you try and rob somebody?”

“Just trying to help a friend.”

“I heard that,” the other one said, having been told all manner of chump’s excuses for winding up in the hospital jail ward. He finished his chore and departed.

After sunset the nurse returned and Magrady asked her about making a phone call.

“You’re being sent to central booking tomorrow and you can make it there,” she said tersely as she changed his IV.

“I need to talk to my lawyer. He doesn’t know I’m here.”

“He will,” she said, giving him a squeeze on the arm as she moved off. The gesture had been to reassure him and remind him of her strength should he become insistent.

Magrady felt adrift, deprived of his freedom and prevented from carrying out his duties. Duties? To who? To himself, the eternal search for the greater truth. Naw, that was bullshit. Maybe it was to the magical mummified head of Tamock. Sure, why not?

Later, the sound was up on the TV, though Magrady couldn’t figure out who had the control. There was another news report about the fire. It was now nearly 40 percent contained. Switching from a live feed with a fire captain at the scene, the newscast went to an Air Force spokesman who would neither confirm nor deny the persistent rumors that an experimental aircraft, the CobraHawk, was what had crashed in the forest.

“I can’t speculate on that at this juncture,” the tight-jawed spokesmen said in answer to a reporter’s question that, if the plane did go down, was terrorism suspected.

The night Magrady lay in bed on his back awake in the dark. He imagined some miscreant had used Tamock’s head to bring down the experimental jet and that Boo-Boo and Elmore wanted it to fix horse races and mesmerize large-breasted women to sex them down. Around two in the morning he removed the IV drip from his arm. Pain would keep him more on edge. He needed to be sharp for what lay ahead.


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


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