The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 14

Floyd Chambers wheeled into the Three Fires Gallery and earned a nod from a hottie in low risers displaying plenty of skin between her jeans and tight-ribbed tank top. She turned to talk to one of the metrosexual men languishing about, and he got a squint at the elaborate tattoo on her lower back, its tendrils descending to her barely covered crack. Chambers was mightily tempted to compliment her on her tramp stamp, as they called such tats, but got his head right. His sister would kill him if he f’d this up.

Mind on my money, he admonished himself. Anyway, the honeys would be taking numbers once they pulled this off. Given this was a gathering of the cool and trendy, there was no security guard. Besides, what self-respecting stickup artist would go for any of this stuff? It’s not like a woven basket representing Chumash culture or the photos of the trolley car storage yard had street value. Chambers couldn’t help but grin. Chumps.

Sally, his sis, had moved to the other side of the space, faking like she was interested in a desk and chair set up said to have belonged to socialist muckraking lawyer Job Harriman. He once came close to being the mayor of Los Angeles until, some argued, his campaign was torpedoed by a conspiracy or at least a collusion of interests that at its center involved the bombing of the L.A. Times building.

A Latino dude all bristly with stout upper arms sidled over to her. He was definitely not rocking that in-between gender vibe. This vato was on the prowl for some of that artistic poontang. The two exchanged nods and low modulated words. Maybe he should be concerned about Sally staying on point.

He wheeled behind Professor Cyrus Langston, who was talking to a man and woman about Tamock’s head. “It is rather amazing that the head turned up where it did.” He sipped some of his white wine from a clear plastic cup. “But how fortunate that Wakefield Nakano brought this amazing find to our department at USC.”

The older man was lanky with bowed legs, half glasses on a chain around his neck, and one of those Ahab kind of beards that had Chambers giggling when his sister had first shown him the archaeologist’s picture.

“How did you identify the head, professor?” the man asked. He was the studious type with a thin, gaunt face.

As Langston explained there had been the vestiges of a headband on the mummified head that corresponded with a known drawing of the shaman, Chambers reached around to the pouch draped on the backside of his chair. It wasn’t time yet, but he needed reassurance.

“Oh yes,” Langston went on, “prior to the project that’s there now, there was a building dating back to the early part of the 20th century. I mean even then you would have assumed the digging that went on when that structure was erected would have turned up the head or some other artifact.”

“None had been found in that area before?” The woman asked in a accent Chambers couldn’t place. She touched a heavy necklace around her neck as if invoking, or warding off, ancient ghosts.

Langston inclined his head. “As far as my research has yielded, there has not been any such Chumash or any other American Indian remains or items culled from that part of downtown Los Angeles. Though mind you,” he added, brightening, “the former Produce Exchange office building that was there had quite a history, including murder.”

“That’s something,” the woman said, regarding her smiling companion, then turning back to the professor. “Continue, would you?”

Langston did and Chambers tuned him out. His sister got into position and he casually retrieved the three oblong, hand-fashioned smoke bombs from his pouch. Using a recipe obtained online, Chambers had made the little wonders on the kitchen stove using easily obtained chemicals. He wheeled toward the restroom located along a short hallway.

The gallery owner, a pretty, running back sized woman in a flowing peasant dress with an explosion of black hair, raised her glass for attention.

“I want to thank you for coming out tonight,” she began. “And I’m so pleased that Cyrus could finally be present.” She indicated Langston, who bowed slightly. Chambers finished counting to sixty and lit the short fuses on his smoke bombs. He prayed in case the good Lord could see fit to protect their criminal enterprise.

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“It was sure good seeing you, Esther,” Magrady told his daughter.

“Same here, pop.” She touched his hand, frowning slightly.

He nodded, understanding. Was this for real this time, or just a long setup to get money out of her? They sat at the dining table, a coffee cup before him and a wine glass before her. “Amazing how they grow,” he added, referring to his sleeping grandkids Jerniah and Casey, short for Casina. The girls were twelve and ten respectively. The last time they’d seen him, they’d been in their Hello Kitty PJs, scared and fascinated at the mumbling drunk grandpa who fell down in their kitchen. This time they were naturally standoffish at this serious looking old man who knew he shouldn’t try too hard to gain their affection—at least on this visit.

He’d brought them an assortment of novels for young adults. That earned him a point or two right off with his wary daughter. He would have brought toys but Magrady had no idea what kind girls their age liked. Janis Bonilla had suggested the books. Gifting them had showed he was concerned about them broadening their minds, as Esther was a big reader, even if they didn’t dig the selections. When Esther had called him back and after they’d discussed her mother’s illness, she’d asked him to come out for dinner. It wasn’t lost on Magrady that it was a way for her to size up her pops without having to worry about him taking the girls to a movie or amusement park. She was willing to see him, but she didn’t trust him.

Well, Magrady assessed, he and Claudelia had raised their daughter right to be no one’s fool, especially when a family member was involved. A comfortable silence ebbed between them. He eventually asked, “Say, you mind if I look through some of those boxes I left you before I get going?”

“You could spend the night, you know. We have the spare room.”

“For sure next time.”

She fixed him with a look. “This big case of yours you have to solve.”

He spread his arms.

“Come on.” Unnecessarily, she led the way through her townhouse in the now aging, but comfortable, subdivision. Newer, shinier ones had bloomed around her. It had been some time, but he did know the way, as the attached garage was accessible through a side door off the kitchen.

Esther had been married to one of those enterprising brothers who’d attended Howard, did the stomp pledge for Alpha Phi Alpha, and attended grad school at Stanford. Rod Delaney started and sold off various successful businesses from a limo service specializing in ferrying pro athletes to several chain sandwich shops placed strategically in two malls out here in Diamond Bar and parts of San Bernardino. Early on he’d made a deal with a developer of those malls before the entity was swallowed by SubbaKhan, closing some of his stores in the process. But by then his hard charging son-in-law had invested in new enterprises.

Though he was conscious of his diet and worked out on his stationary bike, Delaney’s total workaholic drive silently ate at his insides, and at 39, four years ago, he had a fatal heart attack. Esther Delaney Magrady, which made her kids giggle to say their mom’s rhythmic name, sold off most of the investments. Thereafter she made studied and conservative stock market investments toward the girls’ college fund while maintaining her career as a clothes buyer for the Tilson department store chain.

“Need any help?” She asked from the top step as her father sifted through the stacked, and mostly unmarked, cardboard boxes. Now they were on one side of the two-car space, once having been pushed to the rear. But Esther only needed the family van these days.

“I’m okay, Chongo.”

He used to call her that goofy name when she as a kid. It made her wince as a teen when he did it in front of her friends and he’d been weaned off doing it by enough “Daddy, please” pleadings. Now it made her nostalgic. She left him to his digging.

He’d opened a rectangular box that contained the tool belt he wore as a cable installer, along with wires, alligator clips, voltage regulator and so on that he’d used for that work as well as when he was doing security systems installations. He’d also worked as a beer truck driver and tire and tune up mechanic at Pep Boys. Fingering an old work shirt with his name tag sewn on it, Magrady revisited the jobs he’d had, most of them punching the man’s clock.

But there was that time in the late 80s with a couple of buddies from the service they started a magazine and paperback distribution business. The partners had put their money together and bought a two and a half ton cargo truck used in ’Nam. They rebuilt the engine and differential. One of the buddies knew a local writer who churned out crime potboilers for a mass market division operated by a skin mag king. Because the publisher didn’t like the percentage cut he was getting from his mainstream distributor, he gave the virgin operation a shot. And given Magrady had contacts with liquor stores in South Central, Watts and Compton, due to his beer delivery days, this opened up new territory for the girlie mags and paperbacks.

Things were going so good at one point the partnership was able to purchase two newer vans. But it turned out the girlie magnet managed cash flow situations via a 300 acre pot farm outside of Arcata near the Oregon border. His bust led to the dissolution of his company and their lucrative business. Magrady didn’t exactly rebound from that setback. Rather, given he’d been introduced to the wonders of powdered cocaine at a few Topanga Canyon parties the paperback writer had invited them to, he figured to seek answers in an enlightened state. How shocking the blow didn’t make him wiser, only broker and more pitiful to his wife and kids.

There in a small box containing, among other items, his Distinguished Service medal and Combat Infantryman’s badge, he found wrapped in a cloth over an oil cloth his disassembled Army-issued .45. He rewrapped that and other recovered flotsam, including a wedding invitation, in a paper shopping bag he’d taken from the kitchen. He wanted to take this small clay bear his son had made for him in first grade. But it wasn’t like he was going to have an office anytime soon, and use it for a paperweight like he did back in the distribution days. For certain, moving about as he always had to do, it would get broken. Carefully, he packed the bear away again.

“All set,” he said to Esther as he re-entered the living room carrying his grocery bag like it was for an oversized lunch. She was reclining on the couch, her head back with a contented look on her face. The prepaid cell phone he’d bought vibrated in his pocket. That had to be the call from Sid Ramos. The robbery must have gone down. Outside was a rented car Angie Baine had obtained for him. That was one solid chick.

“I’ll try to hunt down Terry. Last I knew, he was in New York, Brooklyn that is.”

“What was your brother doing?”

She bit part of her lower lip. “He was kind of vague on that, pop.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. But anything you can find out, you know.”

“Yeah,” she let the rest go unsaid. She and her brother had lost touch with each other as well. “If nothing else, I want to tell him about mom.”

“I’ll call her.”

“Good.”

He kissed her on the forehead as she gave his arm a squeeze. They remained embraced for several moments and when each let go, they smiled at each other, their eyes teary. He got going, promising to call her next week. In the car, Magrady hoped he wouldn’t screw it up this time. He had learned that life was no storybook, that relationships required attention and adjustments, not retreat.

Driving on the freeway, he phoned El Cid.

“You should have seen it, man,” his fellow vet said, happily. “It was like one of those Ocean’s 11 flicks. I’m hunkered down outside like we planned. These artsy and pinhead types are gabbing inside and genuflecting over this or that in the exhibit. Though let me tell you there were some fine heinas up in there, home. Damn.

“So anyway the dragon puffs and smoke fills the gallery. I hear a woman’s voice, probably Floyd’s sister, yelling fire. Naturally these candy ass civilians hurry their rarefied selves to the sidewalk. Then from this side street as a fire truck approaches, I spot a Camry light out.”

“How’d you know it was them?”

“First off, if it was you that just ran out, would you book. No? You’d hang around and see the show.”

“Good point.”

“Uh-huh. Plus I’m using night binocs and couldn’t miss Floyd’s big head in the car.”

They both laughed.

“They came back to an apartment near Midway Hospital.” He gave him the location on Curson.

“I’m on my way,” Magrady said.

“Hold on,” El Cid said, “they’re coming back out.”

“Shit.”

“Get to steppin’, Em ...”

 

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

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