by Gary Phillips
FourStory presents the first chapter in our fiction editor Gary Phillips’ first novel, Violent Spring. Published initially in 1994 by West Coast Crime, a small press entity Gary was a partner of, the book is set in the aftermath of the ’92 civil unrest. The work introduced private eye Ivan Monk, a product of South Central. The story begins at a groundbreaking ceremony for a shopping center at the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie, where the riots began after the verdicts. The body of a Korean merchant who disappeared before the conflagration is unearthed and Monk is hired by an association of Korean merchants to find the killer. As his investigation proceeds, from the housing projects of Watts to the highrises of downtown, there are various machinations Monk upsets in the political and racially sensitive climate of the City of Angels.
Violent Spring and the other Monk novels have been re-issued in e-book form by MysteriousPress.com.
Ivan Monk wondered if he was the only one who got the joke. Standing next to his mother and sister at the groundbreaking of the future shopping complex at the corner of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles, the private eye remembered the maelstrom this intersection had been not so long ago.
It was one of those significant moments in time, forever etched in the deep cells of his brain. Like the day and the hour he heard his father had died or when he was in grade school and a tearful Mrs. Rogers came in and told the class that President Kennedy had just been shot.
Wednesday afternoon, April 29, 1992 was one such moment. All of Los Angeles had its collective ear glued to radios a few minutes past three as the 65-year-old forewoman of the jury on the live broadcast read the not guilty verdict.
The incredible decision was delivered by a jury of ten whites, one Latina and one Filipina who supported the claim of the LAPD officers on trial for use of excessive force against black motorist, Rodney King. The four cops captured in a hazy and brutal cinema verite as they beat the living shit out of King on a Lake View Terrace street in the San Fernando Valley.
Monk stared open-jawed at the radio, his secretary Delilah gripping his arm, hard, in disbelief. Soon they both got that look on their faces one got from being black in America. That look that said, “Yeah, we been given the short end again, so what’s new.”
The city raged red with blood and fury. Reginald Denny, a white working-class guy, a union truck driver, was pulled from his cab at Florence and Normandie and senselessly beaten and shotgunned in the leg by young black men venting their anger in frustrated and futile fashion.
But having no established avenue of redress—indeed what had the incredible verdict delivered from the white suburb of Ventura’s Simi Valley said to them?—the fellaheen sought justice in the streets. Subsequently, in the federal trial of the cops, two of the four were found guilty. And a city short on money and hope was momentarily spared another conflagration.
But the fact that now Monk stood at Florence and Normandie at a groundbreaking site, a symbolic gesture of rebuilding at one of the flashpoints for the riots that ripped his hometown, was not what he considered the joke.
“Isn’t that Tina over there next to the mayor, Ivan?” his mother said, disrupting his reverie.
Monk glanced at the dais. The mayor adjusted a sheaf of papers held in his thick hands as he stood at the portable podium. On either side of the solid built man in the blue serge suit were folding chairs. Various city officials, business people and some community leaders sat in them or milled about. Councilwoman Tina Chalmers, an African-American woman who represented this district his mother lived in, and Monk’s old flame, sat on the stage talking to an older white man in an expensive looking grey and black flecked double-breasted suit.
“Yeah, that’s her, Mom.” Monk studied the man Tina talked with.
He’d only seen him on television and in news photos previously, but you’d have to have been in orbit on a space station not to have seen or heard of Maxfield O’Day. After the uprising, as the rubble and rhetoric piled high, O’Day emerged as the silver-haired man on the white charger. Lawyer, businessman, developer, political insider. A Los Angeles mover and shaker of the first order who played an active role in the election of one of his boardroom peers as the current mayor of Los Angeles.
Maxfield O’Day was appointed, some wags say annointed, by the mayor and the City Council to head the official rebuilding efforts of the city. His task was to pull a consortium of city and business people together in an effort to infuse South Central and Pico Union with new business ventures. “To massage capital, to give it confidence in doing business in the inner city,” O’Day was fond of saying. Particularly when there was a reporter around. Of course, Monk concluded, if that meant being lax on things like environmental laws, undercutting the minimum wage, and gutting California’s workers’ comp program, well, big money was so insecure.
“I thought Jill was coming today,” Odessa, Monk’s sister, said to him.
“She was, but the case she’s trying unexpectedly wrapped up Thursday. She has a meeting with the attorneys this afternoon.”
“Isn’t it about time you two jumped the broom? You’ve been going out for three years now.” His mother looked toward the front, but her eyes glanced at him peripherally.
“What you really mean is, when are we going to have some kids. ’Course you already have one grandchild.”
Nona Monk turned her head, gazing into his goateed face. “Not from the male side of my family. At the rate you two are going, I’d be happy to settle for the kids if not the marriage. You’re in your late thirties, Ivan, and even though the good judge fudges her age, we all know she’s a couple of years older than you. Y’all better get busy.” She smiled crookedly at him.
Monk patted his mother on the shoulder. “Yes, Mother.”
The mayor tapped the live microphone at the podium and the crowd of a hundred plus community residents gave him their attention. The electronic and print media halted their meandering about the scene and, like trained bloodhounds, aimed the unblinking metal eyes of their cameras on the dapper mayor.
The mild-mannered public official drew himself up to his full height and began. “We are pleased today to have this historic groundbreaking take place little more than a year after the upheaval that tore our city apart.” Monk watched O’Day stifle a yawn. “Even more so at this site that has come to represent the financial and social neglect that has plagued South Central.”
“No thanks to you and those other sellouts in city government sucking up to downtown business interests,” Odessa mumbled under her breath.
The mayor droned on for ten dull minutes, the crowd shifting uneasily in the afternoon sun. When he finished, O’Day came to the podium next. “Good afternoon,” the businessman said in a modulated tone. “I know it’s hot out there, so I’ll make this sweet and to the point.” Several people clapped. The mayor displayed no change of face, save a shifting of his eyes.
O’Day, by comparison to the stodgy, steady delivery of the mayor, was smooth and avuncular in his brief address. He reminded Monk of a cross between a Cadillac dealer and a coffin salesman. One of those guys who could stick you with a knife in the kidney and convince you it was in your best interests.
O’Day left the podium and Councilwoman Chalmers came up. Off to the left and behind her, a bulldozer belched to life. The machine idled on the expanse of dirt where the new shopping complex was to be erected. The earth was level and its hue a rich terra cotta that suggested only good could come from its depths.
“Up here you see Korean, black and Latino representatives of the business and grassroots elements of our community,” Tina Chalmers said. “The road to rebuilding, indeed the road to true economic justice in our community is not easily tread. As Mr. Perry and Mr. Li and Mr. Santillion can testify to.” Chalmers gestured to the men seated behind her.
Linton Perry, sitting to her left, the executive director of the black self-help group, Harvesters Unlimited, nodded his head slightly. Luis Santillion, on the other side of her, from the Chicano-based group El Major, grimaced. Pak Ju Li, sitting next to Santillion, head of the Korean-American Merchants Group, grinned without humor.
Tina Chalmers went on. “We have been through a difficult period these past months. It seemed at times that each ethnic group was willing to be pitted against one another in an attempt to devour what little meat remains on the bone.” Perry and Santillion stole wary glances at one another. O’Day smiled broadly. “A bone that old white men who play golf at restricted clubs throw at us contemptuously.”
Applause rose from the crowd. Maxfield O’Day crossed his legs casually and rubbed the side of his hand across one knee.
“None the less,” Chalmers said, “today we begin to make the effort at rebuilding Los Angeles real. And really, the effort is not rebuilding, because that would only be reinstating the same status quo that led to the uprising.” Many people murmured “right on,” and “tell it,” in the crowd.
“This has to be a new day. A day that makes the banks play fair in their lending, and the police play fair in the streets.” Applause rose again from the assembled community residents. “Whether it’s the gang truce or the signed contract in the suites, we all must abide by doing the right thing to our fellow human beings. For this city, the Council that I’m on and the other officials must show that a partnership between the private sector and the public can be achieved. And not at the expense of community people or their dignity. Or surely our efforts will be shown to be a hollow exercise in manipulating public perceptions.”
Out on the barren field, the bulldozer bellowed into gear on cue, its powerful engine drowned by the applause Councilwoman Chalmers received. Black smoke churning into grey clouds escaped its vertical exhaust pipe, pumping fumes into the clear afternoon air. The driver turned the machine ninety degrees and the scoop front levered toward the sky on hydraulic braces of tempered steel. The operator brought down the rear ripper, a long hooked device in the shape of a giant saber tooth.
With the ferocity of an attacking scorpion, the ripper plunged into the tender meat of the clay brown earth. Again and again it drove its tail into the dirt until a large circle of moist soil was broken and mounded up. The driver spun the machine on its tractor treads until the scoop hovered over the new mound. He brought the blade down and its cutting edge dug into the dirt and lifted out a scoopful.
This the driver deposited in a waiting dirt hauler. He went back to tearing out earth as everyone moved forward to the sawhorse barrier separating the crowd and the field. The bulldozer pivoted once more, and the cutting edge of the blade again gathered a considerable measure of loam.
The crowd and the hosts moved toward the field. Tina Chalmers pulled close to Monk. She said her hellos to his sister and mother, then turned her attention to him.
“Looks like you lost some weight since I saw you last,” she said, putting an arm around his waist, “You must be hitting the gym again. Are you still doing your private eye thing?”
“Probably till the day I die. I’m hooked.” They kissed one another on the lips, and she withdrew the arm. Monk added, “Racing toward middle age made me realize all my meals can’t be at Meaty Meat Burgers.”
“Uh-huh,” Chalmers said. “Of course it wouldn’t have anything to do with your little Asian friend.”
“Now, now, behave yourself, there are cameras present.”
The two moved toward the sawhorses blocking the field. Old friends unencumbered with the need to fill the silence with aimless chatter. They came to the edge of the field, and Chalmers again put an arm around Monk’s waist. “Have you seen Ray at all?”
“No, not lately.” Monk placed his arm around her waist. “The last time I heard about him he was staying over on 39th near Denker. I went by one day, but the landlady said he’d moved on.”
“Yeah.” She shook her head in understanding. “Well, I better get back to the dog and pony show. Look me up sometime, big boy.” She smiled at him and went out onto the field to join the other merchants of optimism.
Chalmers, the mayor, O’Day, Linton Perry and most of the remaining official guests were now out on the field, standing near the freshly dug hole. Everyone trying their best to look natural as they roamed about a dirt field with a hole in it. The community residents stood behind the barricade of sawhorses. Casually, the mayor handed out shovels to O’Day and Chalmers. He kept the longest one for himself. No sense being mayor if you couldn’t have the biggest stick.
The City Hall photographer, an old rummy named Lucasiks who Monk knew in passing, lurched forward to get the shot. The mayor spaded the earth onto the edge of the pit. He held his body rigid, one foot on the shovel, the other planted on the ground. He bent forward slightly, as Lucasiks got into position. Tina Chalmers and Maxfield O’Day stood on either side of the mayor, their shovels held upright in one hand, the blades barely breaking the surface of the soil. Terrified, Monk reasoned, that if they worked up a sweat they’d ruin their photo op.
Lucasiks took three shots of the pose. The mayor glanced down into the pit, then his head came up slowly. He looked over at Chalmers, then looked back into the pit. The motion wasn’t wasted on Monk, who began to move onto the field. The mayor straightened up and motioned for the five Los Angeles Police Department officers, who up until then had been standing around listless and bored, to come onto the field.
They ran up, the crowd instinctively halting itself as the law revved up. The sergeant, a bruiser with a smashed nose, looked into the pit, got down on his knees to take a better look, then got up. He whispered something to the mayor, and the demure man nodded in response.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the mayor said in a loud voice. “I ask everyone to please stay behind the barricades for their own safety.” To underscore his request, the five cops stationed themselves in front of the pit, which only heightened the crowd’s curiosity.
“What’s in the hole, Mr. Mayor? Is it a possible crime scene you’re trying to protect?” one of the news people shouted. A chorus of echoes went up from the other news folks and several of the community residents. The news people prowled back and forth, in and around the crowd. A pack hungry for a sexy story and sniffing its proximity, they weren’t going to let the scent go until they landed a kill.
Monk, standing on tiptoe behind several others, couldn’t see anything. He looked at Tina, but she would only return a blank stare. His mother and sister were behind him.
“Ivan, what do you think it is?” Odessa asked him, also straining to see.
“I don’t know.” But he did have a guess.
One of the cops left the field and headed for a patrol car, two broadcast journalists trailing him. A video camera operator clambered onto the roof of his station’s news van.
The sergeant noticed it and swore audibly. The camera operator zoomed his lens onto the hole. The cops closed tight around it to block the shot.
“Goddamn. It’s a body in there,” someone shouted from the crowd. “It’s gotta be. That’s why they’re trying so hard to hide it.”
People looked at one another and back to the field. A heated din rose from the crowd like naked electricity. Monk felt himself being pushed forward. Another human’s death was a magnet for the living that he’d never get used to. The cops hoisted their batons and advanced.
The mayor glowered at the sergeant, and the two exchanged quick words. The sergeant pulled his men back, their clubs held at present at arms rest. The crowd moved in, sawhorses falling away like so much papier mâché.
The four cops didn’t flinch, but Monk could feel the tension rise. The news crews maneuvered forward, trying to get a picture. Mikes jabbed at the mayor, the councilwoman and O’Day. The cops poked their clubs into several rib cages.
“All right folks, this is now an official police matter. If you don’t disperse, you will be arrested,” the sergeant yelled.
The crowd slowed its pace, then stopped.
“Please, everybody, just step back and let the police do their job,” the mayor cautioned.
The citizenry of South Central glanced at one another, uncertain of how to proceed. Two of the cops came forward, arms up, palms outthrust. Slowly, but forcefully, they eased the crowd back to the edge of the field. The news people protested the loudest, but they too were moved back away from the pit.
Monk could see three patrol cars come south on Normandie and turn onto the dirt lot. The cars sped to where the pit was, billowing flowery plumes of brown dust. Cops exited the vehicles en masse, and some took up their command around the hole. The remaining ones formed a curtain of grim-faced dragoons between that portion of the field and the crowd. Many of the residents were already starting to leave.
“I guess the show’s over for today,” Nona Monk said. She started to head toward her car, Monk and his sister following behind.
“Yeah, but who did the body belong to? And who put him in his grave?” Monk said more to himself than to his family. He turned various scenarios over in his mind as they walked.
“Take it easy, Boston Blackie,” Odessa said, patting his back. “You can’t solve all the murders in Los Angeles. Leave a few for the cops to do.”
The trio laughed, but Monk couldn’t help taking a last look at the field. The sergeant and another cop were down on their knees, doing something with their hands in the hole. Tina Chalmers and the others stood back, their eyes fixed on the cops working in the pit.
Heading for their car, they passed Maxfield O’Day who managed to escape the whirl of events on the field. He sucked on a thin cigar ratcheted in his tight jaw. His eyes smoldered with icy fire. He looked toward the field, and visibly drew back as two TV crews descended on him.
O’Day was standing under the banner that spelled out the name of his organization, an amalgam of private business people, public officials, community leaders and charitable foundations. A grouping that went by the acronym of SOMA, Save Our Material Assets. The logo was a stylized hand—its hue and shape indeterminate of race or gender—with a globe in the open palm emerging from red and orange flames.
SOMA was the name of the drug people took to induce docility in Aldous Huxley’s classic book of a corporate future England, Brave New World, a book Monk reread two times as he worked his way around the world, and half again when he was an engine mechanic as a merchant seaman.
Truly an inspired title he concluded, getting behind the wheel of his mother’s late model Taurus. Several more news people were now around O’Day, who seemed to have regained his composure. He gestured with his hands making boxer-like thrusts in the air, and threw his head back to explode in quick bursts of laughter. Alexander the Great holding court for the unwashed and unknowing.
Monk brought the car to life. As he drove away, he could see O’Day pointing to the SOMA banner for the camera crews. Maybe he got the joke. Or maybe, Monk surmised ominously, it was his joke on the city.