The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 16

Wakefield Nakano was already through a metal door at the end of the hallway, opposite the way Magrady had come. He ran after the CEO, sorry that he didn’t work out more and lamenting his advancing years. But damn that. Old ass notwithstanding, he was going to catch this mufu and shake some answers out of him.

Magrady leaned his shoulder to the door and popped the crash bar. He stepped into a dimly lit narrow stairwell where he could hear Nakano’s footsteps descending. Having the advantage of empty hands, Magrady grabbed the railing on either side of the stairs and was able to jump over several steps at a time by hoisting himself aloft and sliding down. Still, when he reached the bottom Nakno had made it out the exit.

Close on him, Magrady found himself back outside in the cold and fog. Security lights snapped on as his body triggered their sensors, but little of their illumination pierced the soup. Momentarily disoriented he crept forward, straining to hear and locate himself. Selfishly he was glad that there weren’t any sirens approaching or security guards around to interfere. This was his baby. Magrady didn’t give a shit about headlines or glory or figuring out how to turn a buck on this like selling his story for a book or the movies. Not that any designer-water-drinkin’ studio VP would care about any of this. But it felt good that he’d stuck with this from start to finish—even if that meant him winding up face down or doing a jolt. He’d seen it through and he couldn’t say that about much else in several years.

Stalking forward in the muck, his shoes sounded across asphalt, and feeling to his left his hand came upon the moist metal casing of the arena. Logic told him they must have come out somewhere near Nakano’s Mercedes. Or at least that’s where he’d have to be heading. Magrady concentrated to call up the layout of the stadium’s perimeter in his head. He debated yelling for El Cid for backup. That’s when something disturbed the space in front of him, causing him to instinctively rear back.

Magrady swung but only connected with air, the form having evaporated. Whatever Nakano had swung at him, he was pretty sure it wasn’t the plastic case with Tomack’s noggin in it. He wouldn’t mess up his prize. He had the impression too that the exec wasn’t about having the thing for some sort of underground collection. But this wasn’t the time to be distracted. He turned to his right, expecting Nakano to come at him on the flank. That’s what he’d do. The form reappeared before him.

Magrady lashed out with a foot chest high and earned a grunt from his adversary. But he retreated again into the gray. How the fuck was this chump pinpointing him, Magrady wondered. Was that goddamn head responsible? Maybe it really did have magic properties and was talking to him. Shit.

Magrady smiled grimly at that notion as he crouched and, holding his arms out, swept the area in front of him as he darted this way and that. He collided with Nakano, who whapped the vet on his forearm with an object.

“Fuck,” he hollered. Nakano had hit him with a polo mallet. Figured. He must have had it in his car. Gritting his teeth from the pain, Magrady ducked from a blow aimed at his head. Nakano could have driven away but decided to stay and fight it out. He wanted to punish him for interfering. Where was the peace and calmness in that?

The blunt mallet arched out of the fog again and banged Magrady on his bicep as he turned his body trying unsuccessfully to avoid the blow. Ignoring the throbbing in his arm, he lunged and almost wrapped his arms around the executive. But the other man was elusive and jammed a knee into the underside of Magrady’s jaw. Down on all fours, he rolled and the mallet struck him on the back of his shoulder blades.

“Usurper,” Nakano said as Magrady latched on to his ankle and yanked, causing the younger man to stumble backward but not go over.

Magrady got to his feet. Each circled the other, no more than five feet apart. Plenty of room for that polo-lovin’ prick to hit him again, he assessed unemotionally. “The fuck you talking about, Nakano? What’s this ugly ass mummy head mean to you?”

“Don’t pretend with me, Magrady ... I see what this is. That’s why you haven’t used your gun. I might have hidden the head and if I’m dead, you might not find it in time.”

“Glad you’ve seen through me.” He hesitated threatening to shoot a man with Nakano’s considerable resources. But whatever it was about Tamock’s head, it had him in thrall. He held the plastic mallet tight in his hand at an angle from his body, ready to strike. “Why’d you want the head back so badly, man?”

“The same reason you want it. You know its promise. Why else would somebody like you keep at this? Why you mustn’t stop me.”

“Wakefield,” Sally Chambers yelled through the fog.

Magrady couldn’t pinpoint her. “I’ve got people here too, Nakano,” he told the other man, implying that the authorities were on their way. Of course the last damn thing either him or El Cid would do was call the law. But Floyd’s sister might have talked her big bro into giving her back her piece and that made him nervous.

Nakano suddenly was in front of him and aimed the mallet it at his rib cage. Magrady tucked in his arm and took the hit on his elbow, earning an audible crack of bone. But he put what he had into a punch with his left hand, and tagged the SubbaKhan man flush on the face. His right arm was tingling with numbness but Magrady pressed on. He threw his body into Nakano’s, knocking him over. Standing over him, he reached across his torso and pulled his gun free from his jacket pocket.

“Let go of the mallet or I let one loose in your kneecap.”

Nakano stared up at him with disgust but did as ordered.

Behind him Magrady sensed a presence and from the look on Nakano’s face, he could tell it wasn’t Sally Chambers. He said, “Glad you made it, El. Might want to keep on point, there’s a pissed off sister limping around with a bullet I put in her and a gat she knows how to use. Floyd’s here too.”

“On it,” he said and allowed the fog to envelop him as he faded into it to look for the woman.

“What happened between the time Tamock’s head was dug up and you turning it over to the university and now?” Magrady asked Nakano, who stood up. “Why all this to get it back? And what promise are you talking about?”

The executive smiled like a man with the winning hand. “So you really don’t know.”

Magrady resisted the impulse to slap him silly with the barrel of the gun. “That all you got to say?”

Nakano chuckled mirthlessly, “It would seem.” He took on a shrewd look. “I should probably call my lawyer.”

“Fuck that,” Magrady shouted and advanced, giving in to his impulse. “You don’t get to hide behind your $500-an-hour shysters, Nakano. I’m going to get the goddamn truth out of you.” Magrady jabbed the gun in Nakano’s stomach like Boo-Boo had done him. “Told you play time was over,” Magrady growled at Nakano’s surprised face.

Before the assault escalated, Floyd Chambers rushed out of the fog in his wheelchair and collided with Magrady. He tumbled into Chambers’ lap and the wheelchair fell over on its side. Nakano ran away as Chambers used his developed arms and chest to grapple with his the vet.

“Come on, Floyd, cut this shit out.”

“Can’t let you ef up my pay day, man.”

Magrady felt bad but clubbed him on the top of his head with the butt of the .45, dazing him and allowing the vet to scramble loose. The Mercedes’ engine turned over and headlights pierced the gloom, coming in their direction. Magrady turned and dragged Chambers out of the way as the car careened through the thick mist, the passenger side missing them by inches. Magrady’s back to the wall, the car scraped against the side of the stadium ahead of them and roared away into the gloom.


LAPD Captain Kelso Stover shook a finger at Magrady. “I don’t believe a goddamn thing you have to say.”

“Like I give a fuck.”

“Gentlemen,” attorney Gordon Walters said in a soothing tone, “let’s try to keep the rancor down, shall we?” 

Hands on his hips, Stover stalked around the interrogation room inside the Nickel Squad’s headquarters in the former Greyhound Bus station. “You don’t have any evidence supporting this bullshit claim of yours that Sally Chambers did in that unfortunate.”

Sitting side by side at a metal table with a handcuff rail, Walters put a hand on Magrady’s arm to stop him from reacting and spoke. “Investigating this is not our job, Captain. The fact remains that there are witnesses placing Chambers and his sister at the gallery, coupled with my client’s assertion that they stole the mummified head and delivered same to the now missing Wakefield Nakano.”

“Who he might have knocked off like he did Savoirfaire,” Stover added.

“As you would say, there is no evidence supporting that claim,” Walters countered. “There is evidence that, as Mr. Magrady has said, Nakano came at him and Floyd Chambers with his vehicle. I have the results of the paint scrapings taken from Galaxy Stadium and they match the factory batch of paint used on the model of the Mercedes registered to Mr. Nakano.”

“That could have been from anything. He backed up and accidentally hit the side of the building.”

“Find him and ask him, Captain.” Walters looked at Magrady who stared at Stover. “But so far the district attorney has not indicted my client nor do I believe, in light of these new facts that he has unearthed, will he do so.”

“Isn’t that lovely?” Stover mumbled, glaring at an ochre-colored wall.

“We’re done for now, Captain,” Walters and Magrady rose.

At the door Magrady said, “Hey, Stover.”

“What, asshole?”

Genially he asked, “You ever suck a dick sweeter than mine?”

It took Walters and three uniforms to separate the two.


“Thanks, Janis.” Magrady said to the Urban Advocacy organizer over his recently acquired cell phone. “I keep owing you. And I don’t mean just money.”

“Just find your son, big dog. I’m’a hold it down on my end. Looks we’re getting close to a settlement with SubbaKhan.”

“Right on. See you when I’m back.”


Magrady severed the call and stepped from the vestibule of Diamond Desmond’s check cashing and jerk chicken emporium onto Flatbush Avenue. Bonilla had wired him three hundred dollars as the search for his son Terry had initially reached a dead end, and he’d tapped out the funds he’d brought with him to New York. But running down one last lead in a used bookstore in Tribeca, and a pleasant chat with an ex-girlfriend of his son, had provided some fresh names—some of whom were unpleasant folks, she’d warned him.

Heading to the subway, Magrady passed an indoor newsstand and ducked in, curious. He found the L.A. Times and, after leafing through to the California section, he bought it. For the past week he’d been pursing his hometown paper when he could find one since seeing the newscast on CNN in a bar in the airport. The report was about a missing hiker in the Cleveland National Forest, near where there had recently been a fire. Now a second hiker had disappeared in the National Forest.

That night when Nakano nearly ran him and Floyd Chambers down, as the car went past, Magrady had glimpsed a map labeled Cleveland National Forest displayed on his dash navigation monitor. Subsequently he read a long piece in the L.A. Times after Nakano had gone missing, saying that in college he’d been a cultural anthropology undergrad and that various rare books on early California history, the Aztecs and their rituals had been found in his home.

Bonilla added an interesting bit to that. From a friend of a friend she heard that a contractor for SubbaKhan, who was part American Indian, said that as he and Nakano were heading to a meeting with the Community Redevelopment Agency, the exec had asked him about his beliefs. That did he think the Great Serpent could come forth again as it had in the past. This about a month before the head was stolen.

“What’d he say to that?” Magrady had asked her.

“What can you say when the guy who is essentially the boss of bosses says something crazy? He told him he’d sure check into that the next time he went to the sweat lodge.”

They’d laughed then but Magrady now wondered if Nakano had gone off his nut, got fixated with getting Tamock’s head back, and was now sacrificing hikers to bring back some Aztec demon or god or whatever they were supposed to be. And hadn’t that experimental plane gone down in the woods there, the CobraHawk? But that was before Nakano got his hands on the head.

One thing at a time Magrady reminded himself, descending the subway’s steps ... one thing at a time.


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


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