The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 15

“You sure you don’t want me to take the stroll with you?” El Cid asked Magrady.

The two stood inside SubbaKhan’s Galaxy Stadium in Long Beach, past two in the morning. There had been a night crew prepping the grounds but they’d left about an hour ago. Cold air visibly billowed from their mouths as they talked in low voices in a tunnel leading to the field. Outside, a fog was coming in off the ocean, enveloping the open air structure.

Magrady stared beyond the end of the hallway. “I can’t lay that on you, home.”

“You ain’t a virgin either,” his friend answered. Both had been guests in the Graybar Hotel.

“I’ll be all right. Nakano came alone. And you recon’ed the perimeter, so what’s to worry?”

“I’m older than you, Em, that’s the worry. I damn sure might have missed something. Eyes and senses are going quick. And this shit feels ghoulish. What’s he want that goddamn head for? And why the fuck meet here?”

Magrady cinched his coat tighter. “I’ll ask him, big dog.” He clapped him on the arm. “Go on, get some breakfast.” He offered a folded twenty.

El Cid ignored the gesture and, clamping his teeth, grunted, “Tell you what, I’ll hang here. I hear commotion, the cops come rolling up on silent, something like that, I’ll signal you.”

He didn’t want to get his friend in trouble but if he argued with him to leave, he’d be insulted. El Cid needed purpose just as Magrady did. “Cool.”

When the   former Lerp had called Magrady on his way back from   Riverside, brother and   sister had left what was assumed as Sally Chambers’ apartment in Mid-City.

“Can you delay them?” Magrady had asked El Cid over the cell phone.

“What, like ram their car?”

“That’s a bit more drastic than I had in mind. How about letting the air out of one of their tires?”

“But they’re already outside.”

Magrady shot back, “You can’t create a diversion? You’re deep in country, soldier, improvise.”

“Fuck.” So El Cid got out of his car and ducking behind some shrubbery, let out a mighty scream. He wasn’t much of a movie fan, but he’d had an uncle who’d come to L.A. from El Paso in ’49. His Uncle Rafael had designs on being an actor but the one casting director he did manage to get in to see had groused, “We already have a Mexican on our roster.” The racist notion being that one Mexican was like any other when it came to parts in the realm of make-believe. Whites had individuality, everybody else was just a type.

But Uncle Rafael did wrangle a job as the aging Bela Lugosi’s driver, picking him up at his modest home in the Leimert Park section and taking him around to auditions for Grade C films, and sometimes having to score the old man’s dope. So that’s why El Cid had bothered to rent the biopic about Ed Wood. He was able to call up that scene with Martin Landau as the strung out Lugosi screaming like a man afire as he’s attacked by a rubber octopus. That torment expressing his character’s threadbare existence inhabited the yell. It was a cry that resonated with El Cid in an inarticulate but down in his bones way. All that shit he still carried with him from the nightmare of ’Nam that still wracked him was his scream in the bushes.

This got doors opened and heads at windows. The car the Chambers had come in was down the block, as El Cid had parked near them. As everyone was in stop frame trying to figure out who was getting murdered, he was able to creep along, down low behind other cars at the curb. Using the point of one of his keys, he pressed it into the end of the valve stem and depressed the mechanism in it to deflate the tire. He was going to do a second one but figured they would know they were being purposely delayed.

By the time Floyd Chambers and his sister changed the tire, neither being particularly mechanically inclined, Magrady was halfway back to town and transferred to yet another freeway when the siblings were on the road again followed by El Cid. When the brother and sister got to the stadium, they had to wait more than a half hour in their car. Eventually a darkly gleaming Mercedes pulled up and the two vets spied Nakano getting out and letting Chambers and his sister inside a side entrance, which locked back into place.

“No time for half-stepping,” Magrady mumbled.

“Right on, brother.” El Cid faded back.

Magrady trotted down the remaining length of the tunnel. There would be no cheers from a crowd nor replay on the Jumbotron. He paused to light a ball of bunched up newspapers as he approached the end of the tunnel. He and El Cid assumed the other three were up in Nakano’s private box concluding their business. Magrady had been let in by his friend, who given how he dressed and practiced at “going native,” blended in with the prep crew walking in and out of the then open security gates.

He tossed the ball out onto the grass and as it flared up he stepped close to his personal bonfire, knowing he could be seen in the gloomy arena. He cupped his hands to the side of his mouth and yelled, “Hey, you muthas, where’s my cut?”

For several moments the only sound was the crackling of his quickly diminishing fire ball. Then a light high up came on and, over the PA, Wakefield Nakano’s voice said, “Why don’t you come on up, Mr. Magrady?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he said. He ascended the steps until he got to a door that had been partially left open for him. Stepping through, Sally Chambers waited just inside. She leveled an efficient-looking .22 semi-auto on his belly.

“Don’t think I don’t know how to use this, chump. This way.” She jerked her head, indicating a hallway behind her.

Magrady did as ordered. She clicked the door back into place and even if El Cid in spirit had his back, there was no way he was getting in. He was on his own. So be it. Gun at his back, Magrady pushed open the door ajar to the executive suite.

“Pretty swank, Floyd. You’ve done well for yourself.” Magrady took in the suite with its built-in marble wet bar, widescreen plasma TV, plush chairs, matching couches and Agra throw rugs. The disabled man had a drink in his hand and a burning cigar in the other.

“Live like Snoop,” he answered, saluting him with the drink. He took a long puff and let out a stream.

Magrady tried no to interpret that as his future blowing away. He came further into the suite. “As you’ve always wanted.” Tamock’s head was again in a clear case and rested on a desk that Wakefield Nakano, dressed in slacks and knit shirt, leaned against, arms folded.

“We need to do something about him,” Sally Chambers said, moving away from but still keeping her piece steady on the uninvited guest.

“Like you did Savoirfaire?” Magrady drilled her with a look.

She snickered. “We had nothing to do with that.”

Nakano unfolded his arms and said, “I’m sure you’re a rational man, Mr. Magrady.”

“I like to think I am.”

The sister looked from Nakano to her brother. “What? Pay him off?”

Nakano massaged his hands together, though it was pleasantly warm in the suite. “It’s the rational thing to do.”

“But he knows about us,” she protested.

“He’s gonna be cool,” her brother said. He’d placed the drink on an end table and worked the cigar between two fingers and thumb. “What it gonna take, Em? Five, ten thousand sound good?”

“Shit yeah.” At the seven hundred some odd dollars he got a month from the VA and what he made at some odd job doing security at a rave or fixing the brakes on an Urban Advocacy organizer, any amount with a comma in it sounded about right. “But,” he added, “it’s not you two stealing the head on orders from Nakano here that’s the issue, is it?”

“How’s that?” Sally Chambers grinned sideways.

“Somebody killed Savorfaire and made me the chump for it. Is that’s why you came to me, Floyd? Played on our friendship to put me against him so that when you took him out, the spotlight was on me while y’all planned your little caper.”

“It wasn’t like that, Sarge. You know me better than that.”

“Savoirfaire got wind of you and this damn head.” The mummified shaman regarded Magrady impassively. “Bet you were high, huh, Floyd. I know how you like to get your buzz on.”

Chambers looked contrite.

“No, it was Boo Boo,” Magrady corrected, remembering the thug’s stop light eyes when he first encountered him in the Hornet’s Hive bar. “You two were sparkin’ up and you got to braggin’, didn’t you, Floyd? You caught yourself when you were with me and Janis, but you let it slip with your boy.”

“You tellin’ it.” Floyd Chambers placed the cigar in an ashtray and then interlaced his fingers on his lap.

“So that puts the Gold Dust Twins on your ass and why you went gopher.”

Chambers snorted and his sister said irritably, “See?” Sally Chambers shook the gun at Magrady. “He’s going to be a problem.”

“And you know how to deal with problems, don’t you, Sally?”

 

“You’re talking nonsense.” She moved closer to Nakano, who smiled thinly at her.

“Yeah, well, somebody caved in homeboy’s noggin.” As Magrady talked, he shifted his position, angling himself between the two at the desk and Chambers in his wheelchair.

Magrady hooked a thumb at his friend, “I still don’t see Floyd being that devious, but you are.” He pointed at the sister. “Nakano had already cooked this up. Though why he would come to the both of you to steal the head ... oh,” he paused, “you two are involved.”

Sally Chambers jerked the gun upward at Magrady but Nakano gently placed a hand on her arm. The SubbaKhan executive said tersely, “What will it take to satisfy you, Mr. Magrady.”

“Twenty, no, twenty-five thousand for all the bullshit y’all put me through.”

“Everybody’s got their hand out,” Sally Chambers sneered.

“So fill it,” he said.

“And if we don’t?”

“You gonna do me like you did Savoirfaire, Sally?”

Her brother gripped his wheels, tightly. “Get off that, Em.”

“She did it, didn’t she? She took care of that chump. I know like a fat man loves Ding Dongs Savoirfaire had a thing for your baby sis for awhile, huh? He’d invite her over to his crib to talk things over, licking his lips like the puffed up fool he was.”

Nakano and Sally Chambers exchanged an indecipherable look.

The sister charged forward, the gun on Magrady. “Stop talking like I’m not here, asshole.”

He put up his hands and took a few steps away from her. “Okay, all right, my bad, Annie Oakley. Don’t shoot.”

Nakano began, “Look, let’s be calm and—”

Magrady pretended to stumble walking backward, falling to the floor sideways on his hip. As he did this he stuck a hand in his jacket pocket and blew out a hole with his service automatic. If he was a better shot, he would have been clever and took out the light switch like he’d seen in this ’50s crime flick with Charles McGraw. But he knew his limitations and instead aimed above Sally Chamber’s head, getting her to duck. He scrambled on his stomach and elbows and came up in a crouch behind Floyd Chamber’s chair.

“Please, please, this isn’t necessary,” Nakano pleaded. “Sally, honey, we can resolve this.”

“How, Wake,” she yelled. “Money?”

“Yes,” he said testily. “Isn’t that always the answer for what ails us?”

“But he knows, Wake,” she insisted.

“Shut up, Sally,” her brother said. He looked over his shoulder. “We can work this out, right, Em?” Sweat dripped off his strained face.

“Tell her to drop the heater,” Magrady demanded.

“Fuck that,” she snorted. “Let my brother go.”

Magrady had a tight grip on Floyd Chambers’ upper shoulder, his gun peeking from around the seated man. “What about that dough, Wakefield?”

“Yes, come on, let’s all get a grip.” Nakano stood away from the desk, his hands out like someone signaling to stop an oncoming vehicle. “This is bigger than just matters of greed.”

“Oh, I’m greedy now,” Sally Chambers blurted. “Sorry I don’t have the wonderful magic grand vision you have ... hon. Guess you can take the girl out of the ghetto ... and all that.”

“Look, baby, this is so much more than that. You know what this means to me.”

“And what about me?” she screamed.

“Y’all sure got issues.” Magrady used his upraised foot to propel Floyd Chambers into his sister. She fired her gun at him but the Vietnam vet dove sideways and shot her in the calf. She howled and bent over to grab her lower leg and her brother took the gun from her hand.

“That’s enough, Sal.”

Nakano had the head cradled like a football under his arms and was already through the door. Magrady chased after him, briefly taking in brother and sister in each other’s arms as he ran after the escaping man and the head of the lost Aztec, Tamock.

 

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

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