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Antar Absalla was not one who enjoyed having a finger poking at him. And he was particularly not fond of Mrs. Reyisa Limón, twice widowed. He was therefore hard-pressed to hold his tongue as the older woman hooked her talon at his face as she reprimanded him.
"Where were your security people, Mr. Absalla?" she demanded for the fourth time since the meeting had begun a long hour ago.
Absalla mentally centered himself before speaking. "At those hours of the morning," he began with a forced calm, "there is a thinner crew than during peak time. This was a financial decision that your tenants' association made, Mrs. Limón. As you'd be aware if you'd reread the minutes from past board meetings." He managed not to smirk.
"You don't need to remind me of the procedures of Robert's Rules, Mr. Absalla," she leveled. "It's your performance that's in question here."
"I don't think that's quite the case, Reyisa," Henry Cady, the president of the tenants' association, responded. The aging black man did that little self-effacing clearing of his throat and adjusted his black horn-rimmed glasses. "We've convened this emergency meeting to see what we need to do to make sure something like this horrible thing doesn't happen again."
Several heads around the square conference table indicated agreement.
Mrs. Limón leaned back in her seat, the chair creaking under her commanding size. The woman made a slight gesture, a slice of her palm like the drop of an axe. "I'm not saying we aren't. I am saying we hired a twenty-four-hour security force who are supposed to be ensuring the safety of our residents."
"And the Ra-Falcons were on the scene in less than three minutes," Absalla pointed out. "My team was helping put out the fire before the fire department got here. And two of them were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation after trying to enter the premises to get free Mr. Cruzado." Indignation made his face warm but Absalla was determined not to lose his temper, and thus play into the scheme of this tormentor who sat across from him.
"You do have a point," Juan Carlos Higuerra said. "I think if we can discuss this so we can better the patrols, we can get something accomplished."
Limón fixed a gaze to seize hearts on Higuerra, silently damning him for his usual conciliatory approach. "We must also talk about how we're going to deal with this vicious gang element."
"The Ra-Falcons security are not the police," Cady asserted.
"But"—the long finger went to work again—"Absalla does employ those he admits are ex-gang members. They can find out who killed the Cruzados. If they don't know already."
"I've asked my people what they've heard, and no one knew about any rumor to harm the Cruzados. And of course we will continue to ask around to see if we can find out anything." Then he used his index finger on Limón.
"Yes, some of the Ra-Falcons used to be gang members," Absalla continued. "They come from these impoverished neighborhoods. They are also young men and women who have decided to turn their lives around, and give something back. This is not so-called, it is a fact. None of my crew are criminals. They wouldn't be on the patrol if they weren't disciplined and dedicated."
"Some of them used to be Scalp Hunters though, right?" Mrs. Graves, who'd been quiet until now, asked.
"Yes," Absalla answered. "Just as some of them used to be members of one or more of the Rolling Daltons set or the Del Nines."
Mrs. Limón leaned forward again, her heavy breasts expanding against the edge of the table. "What's important is that everybody around the Rancho says it was the Scalp Hunters who firebombed the Cruzados' apartment. The little bastards set the fire off in the girls' room. They broke the window and shoved their ..."—she paused, searching for the word—"Molotov right in there between the bars." Her sunken face testified to the cruelty of the crime.
"How do you know that?" Cady inquired.
"It's common knowledge," she barked.
"I don't mean the rumor about who set the fire," Cady clarified. "I mean how do you know where the device went off less than two days after the incident."
"I have friends on the fire commission," she said proudly.
She bestowed on Absalla a sidelong glance, which seemed to imply she also had friends on other commissions—like the one that oversaw the police department. He felt like backhanding her.
"I've already sat down with my sergeants to figure out how we can change our patrols to best cover the complex during the off-hours. But I'm afraid it's difficult without putting more people on staff."
Limón snickered but didn't say anything.
Cady said, "We're under the knife on this, Mr. Absalla. As you know, the owners of this property will soon be allowed by the Housing and Urban Development Department to place the Rancho on the private market. To counter that, we have to have a two-thirds majority of the families organized to agree to buy the property for themselves. If the residents vote to incorporate as a limited-equity cooperative, we can qualify for federal grants and loans to do so."
Cady removed his glasses. "I don't need to tell anyone here, the conservatives who control Congress are looking for any excuse not to allow those grants to be issued. These murders must be cleared up if we are to have a chance at realizing something for ourselves."
"I know we need results," Absalla said sincerely.
"Not to mention your contract comes up around the same time as the grant application," Limón needlessly reminded him. "And if the murderers of the Cruzados remain free, let alone if more horrible things happen to other Latino families, this body will take that as a sign we may need to do things differently."
"Blacks get attacked too," one of the African-Americans interjected.
"Nobody's saying different," Mrs. Limón blurted.
Trying to ease the tension, Cady said, "Let's stay together, people. This whole body must examine and discuss the facts. We have to set the example for the rest of the Rancho." He looked directly at Mrs. Limón. Surprisingly, she bestowed a deferential smile on him without displaying any of her usual combativeness.
Absalla promised to submit a revised patrol plan to the tenants' association by the end of the week. Leaving the multipurpose center, Absalla noted not for the first time the tranquility it was possible to find walking around the projects. Sure, all the cinder block buildings, lying squat and heavy and uninteresting-looking against L.A.'s lethal air, wouldn't be on the cover of Architectural Digest anytime soon. And yes, the taupe-colored apartments were in bad need of paint, having last seen a fresh coat sometime during the middle of the Bradley Administration.
But many of the residents took pride in keeping their plots neat, their stoops swept clean. Arrow shirts and prim little girls' dresses hung nonchalantly from clotheslines, and several dogs romped around, wagging their tails, their brown eyes gleaming with playfulness.
As he turned a corner on the row of apartments along Biddy Mason Lane, Absalla spotted several young black men lounging against the fender of a lowered '73 Monte Carlo, the front raised on jack stands. Despite himself, he instantly categorized the youth. Due, he reasoned as he confidently strolled past, to the blaring boom box at their feet and the ubiquitous forty-ouncer being passed around.
He purposefully slowed down. "You young brothers ought to put as much time into cracking a book as you do standing around bullshitting and drinking that piss."
One of the young men was tall with elongated muscles like an NBA pick. His shirt was unbuttoned, displaying a torso adorned with three California Youth Authority–type tattoos. He bowed slightly. "A-Salam-aleikum," he said, chuckling, and the others also dipped their heads.
"Got some pigs' feet if you want one, Minister Absalla," another one piped in.
The security chief didn't even bother to shake his head as he moved on. The offices of the Ra-Falcons were located on the second floor of the building housing the laundry rooms. It was a structure on the southwest end of the complex, some distance from the old, defunct Southern Pacific tracks that cleaved diagonally through the Rancho.
Originally, when the place was built in the waning days of FDR's New Deal years, the Rancho, located near the central city, was envisioned as an experiment in planned multiracial living. The Taj, as the old-timers called the place, along with public housing places like Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts farther south in Watts, had also been part of that vision. They were all part of a plan that was drafted by the progressives who'd burrowed their way into the local Housing Authority. It was an objective endorsed by the bipartisan reform forces at work in the city in those days.
But those people, and that dream of institutions playing a role in the engineering of racial harmony, had both long since been discarded like so many old bottles.
Absalla's reflections ended as he arrived at the RaFalcons' office. On its steel door was a colorful decal, which displayed a stylized profile of a falcon's head with a golden ankh prominent in the center of its ebon orb. Encircling the head was a border containing various African and Egyptian symbols of the warrior and the harvest.
Before he could grasp the knob, the door swung inward to allow a man with sergeant's stripes on his shirt's bicep and another man, a corporal, into the passageway.
"Brothers," Absalla greeted the two.
The sergeant, Eddie Waters, said, "Boss man, how'd it go at the meeting?"
"We got to get on this bad, Eddie," Absalla said, zeroing them both with a stern look.
"I know," Keith 2X, the other one, answered. "There's already been a retaliation."
Absalla didn't want to seem out of the loop in front of his crew, but he hadn't heard and so was forced to ask. "What happened? I've been so busy with the tenants' association that I didn't catch this."
"Old Mrs. Ketchum and her sister got a nasty note tacked to their door last night," Waters said. "The note said something about how the blacks at the Rancho bring down the place, and how maybe somebody's going to do someming about it."
"Their apartment's near the Cruzados'," Absalla said. "I guess they didn't see who left the note."
"No, but it's a sure thing them Los Domingos did it," Keith 2X replied.
"We're on our way to check it out, and maybe get a little sumptin' sumptin' on them punk-asses," Waters added with enthusiasm.
"Don't be no provocateurs, you hear," Absalla warned them. "Just confirm it if you can, understand?"
"We ain't scared of them mojados," Waters spat with bravado.
"Restraint, black man, remember," Absalla retorted.
"It's cool," Waters said, and the two started to leave. "Oh yeah, there's an ese in there to see you." He grinned.
"Surprise." Waters tapped 2X on the shoulder, and the two departed.
The Ra-Falcons' office was one large room with two feeder rooms off that. A third area had been a walk-in utility closet, but the door had been removed. It now served as residence for a fax and a small refrigerator.
The larger area contained a black vinyl couch trimmed in ash wood with matching chairs scattered about. Several other chairs and desks, spanning various eras and tastes, were also present.
Hunched over the phone at the main desk was a woman who also had sergeant's stripes on the sleeve of her dark blue uniform, LaToyce Blaine. She made small circles with her free hand as she talked, her vermillion nails flashing like dry blood on shark's teeth.
"Hold on," she said to whoever she was talking to. "Five-O in there to see you," she whispered to Absalla.
The security chief didn't break stride as he went into one of the lesser rooms that served as his inner office. He came upon a Latino, who he made to be a Chicano, dressed in an olive green gabardine suit. He wore a bronze-hued tie, offset by a dark green shirt.
The cop, who'd been looking at a mounted photo of Absalla leading a contingent at the Million Man March, turned to greet him. "I'm Lieutenant Marasco Seguin," the man with the drooping mustache said. He handed Absalla a card.
On the card's left corner was a raised-relief image of a detective's shield in silver. Superimposed over that was a gold banner proclaiming his rank in blue lettering, City Hall in gold, and below that a bar in gold with his badge number in blue. The card stated that Seguin worked out of Wilshire Division on Pico.
Absalla put the card on his desk and stood looking at the clean-decked cop. "Look, Lieutenant, a couple of detectives from Newton have already been all over me about this Cruzado mess." He let his annoyance show. "'Sides, aren't you out of your division?"
Seguin scratched at his chin. "This is an investigation the brass wants solved, with haste. I'm temporarily reassigned, and in charge of Fitzhugh and Zaneski's investigation."
Absalla was tempted to tell Seguin he'd found Zaneski particularly funky to deal with, but he wasn't sure this Chicano would empathize with a black man's plight. He moved behind his desk and they both sat down.
"Why is this murder so important to the LAPD?" Absalla asked.
"It's a little unusual even for the Rancho to have a triple homicide in one night." He paused a beat, and as he went on, a sour look contorted his face. "Especially when one of them was a little child."
"And the city wants the turnover of the Rancho and other public housing units to go through," Absalla observed. "No more matching funds the county is obligated to pony up if there's no federal program. The cost savings must look real good to the county supervisors what with the budget shortfalls we always have."
"Sometimes interests collide, Mr. Absalla," Seguin countered. "Some of your employees have records, don't they?"
"You know they do. I've asked all of them if they know anything, and they say they don't. These young folk who are the Ra-Falcons have demonstrated time and again they are no longer following the life, Lieutenant."
He put his hand flat on the desk like a distended creature. "I vouch for each and every one of them." His gaze didn't move off Seguin.
The cop said nothing and Absalla continued. "And it's still anyone's guess on who did the firebombing. I heard that Cruzado may have been mixed up in some kind of trouble back in his hometown in Mexico. That's why he came up here."
"I'd like copies of everybody's personnel record, Mr. Absalla."
"I don't think so without a court order."
"This isn't about you against the blue-eyed devil, man. This is about finding the guilty."
"A ten-year-old black boy named Troy was gunned down three months ago in what we gleefully call a cycle-by. Where was your special assignment then?" Absalla demanded.
"Sometimes it takes the deaths of one too many innocents to make things happen."
The right kind of innocents. "Uh-huh."
"I'll have the court order in the morning, Mr. Absalla." Seguin stood up, unconsciously fingering his tie. "I want to repeat that the department is looking for a slam dunk on this. Cooperation can go a long way."
"I'll bear that in mind."
Seguin left and Absalla sat looking intently out the grilled window at a cracked concrete walkway and one of those plastic tricycles designed to look like a rocket sled. After some moments, he got up and went back into the outer room.
Blaine was busy filling out her patrol report from last night. An oldies soul station played softly on the radio near her.
"Who was that brother you mentioned to me?" Absalla asked, moving about the room like a panther in search of meat.
The sergeant's braided head tilted toward the ceiling. "Ah, Pope or something like that."
"And he's a private detective?"
The young woman shook her braids. "I think so. At least, he helped a girlfriend of my friend whose boyfriend was shot to death."
He didn't bother to follow that trail. "Get his number, will you?"
"What you up to, Antar?"
"About not being put in a trick bag." With that the stocky, shaved-headed Muslim went back into his office, closing the door tightly against what he could feel was a mother of a storm gathering.
Excerpted from Bad Night Is Falling by Gary Phillips. Copyright © 1998 Gary Phillips. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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