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"There you go," he said to his date, placing the martini glass before her. He sat close to the handsome woman at an oval table. Someone had carved into its worn surface a crude cartoon of a skull wearing a policeman's hat. "Cheers, again," Madeleine Jirac responded, clinking her drink against his pint. She had light-colored eyes and thin, well-proportioned lips. The dark-haired woman was dressed casually in slacks, and was golden-hued from an afternoon session on a tanning bed.
"No doubt." He leaned over, and they kissed.
"So, Bruno," she smiled as their lips and tongues parted, "you think that Immanuel Kant would be a political consultant, a hack working for somebody like Mayor Fergadis, if he were alive today, huh?"
The crow's-feet at the edges of Cortese's eyes became pronounced as his mouth crinkled into a half-moon. "'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made.' Now, a guy who has that kind of outlook, what else could he be suited for?"
"Wouldn't wanthim wasting time teaching, now, would we?" Jirac sampled some of her drink.
She watched him over the rim. "You like it."
His beeper vibrated before he could formulate a retort. Going out with a woman smarter and older than he was kept him alert. He clicked off the beeper without looking at its screen. "Gotta batter up, baby."
"No cowboying, right?" Her blunt fingers touched the back of his veined hand.
"Never." He got up, bent to kiss her again as he rubbed her back. "I'll call you later, okay?"
He finally took a sip of his beer. Then Cortese walked through an archway toward the exit. He rolled his shoulders like he always did to get loose, to work the tension from his neck down into his arms and lower regions. It was a habit from his days of high school football at St. Brigid's, where he was a running back and made all-city one year. Peripherally he glimpsed someone in a corner booth, and had to look directly to make sure. The man he'd spotted, sitting underneath a wall of photos ranging from cop tournament poker games to darts, pretended he was more interested in the frizzed dirty-blonde he was huddled against, and that he hadn't noticed him. Cortese knew that wasn't so, but what did it matter? He snorted a laugh through his nose and went on through the arch.
The exit was at the back of the hallway, where the bathrooms and an office were located, too. Andre, the head bartender, came out of the washroom and they nodded at each other.
Plastered on the rear door was a monochromatic poster warning kids of the dangers of drugs. The waiflike teenage girl staring out from the announcement had a hand-drawn word balloon attached to her mouth stating, Discount blow job for cops. Cortese leaned a shoulder against the door as he simultaneously pressed against the release bar. He went outside to the usual tableau of busted-up crates and plastic trash bags found behind countless taverns, fast-food stands, and restaurants across the city.
He paused and put a hand to an ear as he cocked his head into the humid night air. The theatrical actions were unnecessary, for the moaning was steady and audible. Another half-moon materialized on his face as he trudged to where he knew the sounds originated. He stuck a toothpick in his mouth and went across the warped blacktop of the back lot. To the rear of this a series of stone steps older than Joan Collins led up to a tier of brush and dirt paths. The paths wound their way into Elysian Park and part of Section D of Dodger Stadium.
"Goddamn, Rafe," Herlinda Delarocha murmured pleasurably. She was bent forward, her hands gripping a rusted pole. The woman's panties were halfway down her spread thighs, and her jeans collapsed around her Doc Martens boots. The pole she held onto went upward to a dilapidated wooden overhang that was part of a small building on the back lot that once, many decades ago, had housed city fire hydrants and now was used as a storeroom. A lone floodlight, barely giving off illumination, washed the lovers in cream yellows. There was a pair of handcuffs snapped around the woman's wrists.
Cortese worked the pick in his teeth. He leaned on the corner of the shed, watching the two for several beats, listening to their rough lovemaking. Then he said, "We got to hook and book, pardner."
"Can't you see he's busy, cheddar dick?" Delarocha said hoarsely.
"Can't you see I don't give a fuck?"
"All right," Rafael Santián grunted. He ceased and straightened up behind Delarocha. "You two ought to take that act and get a radio show." He stepped back, shook his now limp penis, and hiked up his boxers and jeans.
The pretty young woman stood erect and glared at Cortese. "What you lookin' at, mothafuckah?" She was a tall Latina with pronounced cheekbones and a teardrop tattoo in the corner of her heavily mascaraed right eye.
Cortese flicked his toothpick at her exposed leg.
"Bastard," she flared.
Cortese ignored her. "The Gargoyle has landed, Saint."
"Righteous." Santián stepped from around Delarocha as she hitched her clothes around her wide hips. Patting her on the butt, he said, "See you later, Linda." He started to step away with Cortese.
"Yo." Delarocha rattled the cuffs still keeping her bound.
"Leave her ass like that," Cortese chided.
"Be cool, Cheese." Santián tossed a key to the woman.
"Sorry about that."
"That's okay, baby, I know you got to run off with your bunghole buddy and fight crime and shit." She undid the cuffs.
"What a mouth," Cortese remarked.
"Don't she, though?" his partner observed admiringly. They turned to leave again.
"Ain't you gonna need these?" Delarocha held the cuffs and key aloft.
"Keep 'em." His back to her, Santián waved his hand dismissively. "We got plenty." "I'll save 'em for next time, honey," she chortled. The weak floodlight gleamed on her darkly lipsticked mouth, lined in black. She puckered her lips and blew Santián a kiss.
He looked back at her upon hearing the smack and grinned.
"I don't know what you see in an eightball chick like her." Cortese idly scratched his muscled belly.
"I'll pick my own route to ruin, padre." Santián was an inch shorter and not as wide as Cortese. Where his partner was built like a slumming WWE wrestler, Santián had the body of a baller. He was solid but lean, with bulked up triceps and biceps. The two ambled side by side, around the corner of the Code 7 to the parking lot. Santián beeped off his Malibu SS's alarm and unlocked the driver's-side door.
"Hey, guess who the fuck was playin' slap and tickle inside?" Cortese sat on the passenger side of the cherry '72 Chevy.
Santián juiced the ignition, and the big-block 420 rumbled alive on the first crank. "Who?" he asked, unlatching the emergency brake.
"Mr. Motto and some hard-lookin' white trash broad I've seen somewhere before."
Santián had backed the car up and then got the shifter into first. Wearily he said, "You know Ahn is a 1.5-er, Cheese, a Korean-American born in Korea and raised in America."
Cortese grinned. "Whatever, Mister PC. Anyway that fuck carried on like he hadn't eyed me, but we both know we peeped each other."
"Maybe McGuire's got him working twenty-four-seven since she decided to run for mayor. If she can get some real dirt on the squad, her handlers must figure that's good for a ten- or fifteen-point boost in a dead heat."
"Who's doing her campaign?" Cortese had rolled the window down and gazed into the side mirror.
"I heard she's been meeting with that slick prick Pablo Pastor."
"She's going for the nuts, that's for sure."
"Don't she always?"
They drove along. "What's up with Curtis?" Cortese asked, to break the silence as they passed Eisenhower Park.
Grooves appeared in Santián's brow. "Man, that kid's gonna kill me quicker than the goddamn Crazy Nines. If it wasn't for hoops and girls, he'd have no reason to be going to school."
"I guess I shouldn't crack about chickens and how they always come home to roost, huh?"
"Have I mentioned lately just how funny you are, mothafuckah?"
The two laughed softly. Santián sped through an intersection against a light turning red. In less than fifteen minutes, the Malibu was rolling through the core of the Venice Heights section, a dense twelve-miles-square area just west of downtown. The Heights-or V-12, as the gang members called it-was like a lot of neighborhoods that had gone through various ethnographic transitions over the years. There was still a Greek restaurant that did overflow business during the week. But the tailor shop next to it had been replaced in the last three years with a carnicería complete with a full-scale plastic bull statue on its roof.
There were also leftovers of the black businesses that used to populate the landscape. To be sure, the staple of African-American mom-and-pop outlets, the three Bs of barber, beauty, and barbecues, were not as plentiful these days anywhere in L.A. But the West Texas Palace of Savory Meats, a rib-and-hot-links joint of citywide fame, was still owned and operated by a family who'd been around since Santián had been a kid.
"The Lanciliers." Cortese nodded at a seven-story building of a design from the Beaux Arts era. Behind the structure the cross-town MTA subway train thundered along the elevated tracks.
"And there's Big T." Santián made a left and guided the car toward a haphazard row of cypress trees alongside an auto parts store. He parked and the two alighted from the vehicle.
"Z'up?" Santián addressed Theo "Big T" Holton. He was an imposing black man a little over six-one with a wide beer-truck carriage of a body. He was always in a rumpled suit with one of his stingy-brim hats jammed over his cube of a head.
"My crackhead snitch says Villa snuck back into town from El Paso last night. Says this meet has something to do with the Nines and the Baja cartel settin' up a new thing." He took off his hat and scratched at his graying, short-cropped thatch.
Santián got the Malibu's trunk open to reveal several 870 semiautomatic shotguns and zippered duffel bags. "About what?"
"Nobody 'cept them locos up there in Lil Puppet's crib"-he pointed at the apartment house-"know for sure. But me and Ronk figure it's tied to what went down three days ago. The police chief of Juarez, across from El Paso, was driving back from mass in his supposedly bulletproof Suburban."
"The chief was cut down by heavy-duty ordnance a short two blocks from his headquarters." The new speaker was Barry "Ronk" Culhane. He was Holton's running buddy, a naturally slender individual who maintained a serious regimen of weights and bulking powders. His face was bristling with whiskers, and his thinning blond hair glistened with a recent application of Rogaine.
"And Villa was made as one of the shooters?" Cortese racked the twenty-gauge he'd removed from the Malibu's trunk. Culhane shook his head vigorously. "Not a positive, no. But we understand our boy was down there to have a face-to-face with Rosario Del Fuego."
Santián processed the information. Rosario and his maniacal brother Felix ran the so-called Baja cartel. In reality, the cartel was not headquartered in Baja. But the legend went that the two brothers engineered the assassination of a key member of the Columbian Cali cartel in a Baja whorehouse, thus solidifying the rise of their drug empire. "And he did this hit on the police chief on orders from the brothers?"
"The El Paso cops have issued an all-points for him," Culhane added. "So let's go ask him," a fifth man spoke. Alvaro Acosta was in his dark blue patrolman's uniform. The younger man's black hair was cut military-precise, and the brown skin of his face was unblemished.
"Okay, Mister Eager, we will." Santián shut the trunk, then reconsidered and extracted two mini Astro walkie-talkies out of one of the duffles. He also clipped a shell carrier onto his belt. He used his back pocket for his two-way. He handed the other one to Culhane. "Let's be cool and cautious," he said.
Ronk Culhane took the instrument and sniffed the air. "Smells like testosterone."
Holton displayed a gap-toothed grin. The other three gave quick nods. Acosta looked on, impressed. This was where he belonged.
"Okay," Santián began, "Lil Puppet's apartment is on the fourth floor, that corner with the blinds drawn," he pointed. "There's a side exit piled high with debris, so they ain't goin' out that way, ¿que no? Ronk, you take the initiate 'round back and come in through the laundry room. Us three will take the front."
"Do we need a warrant?" Acosta said, a worried expression contorting his face.
The four glared at him as if fungus was spilling out of his ears. "We have probable cause," Cortese reminded the new man. "We are in pursuit of an alleged cop killer. We have an eyewitness who saw Ramón 'Gargoyle' Villa enter said domicile on or about twenty-two hundred hours. Said domicile is home to one Chester 'Lil Puppet' Ochoa, who is out on parole and who cannot consort with specifically named individuals."
"Villa being one of them," Acosta piped in.
"Now you gettin' with the program." Holton slapped him on the back. "Don't let that high-yella twist McGuire get you all knotted up. We're righteous." He took his shotgun in both hands and shook it. "The streets belong to us."
"Fuckin' A," Ronk said.
The team walked in a diagonal across the wide thoroughfare of Westlake Avenue toward the front of the Lancilier Apartments. A late model Passat drove by, the driver honking at the men.
"Our fuckin' fan club," Cortese said, waving at the driver.
"Don't underestimate the power of the public, my friend," Santián quipped.
"Especially if it keeps the dogs off of us," Holton put in.
The team split up as they got nearer. Culhane and Acosta trotted toward the rear along a narrow passageway alongside the apartment building. The trio arrived at the glass-paneled front door with a brightly lit vestibule beyond it.
"Hold this, Sarge." Holton handed his shotgun to Santián. He then extracted a lock-picking kit and removed the proper tools: a pick and a tension wrench. He bent and went to work. "You'd think," the big man muttered, "that these old locks would be easy. But Yale really knew how to make 'em back in the day."
"You got to get some new hobbies, Big T," Cortese joked.
He got the door unlatched. "My only hobby is justice, son," he said in mock solemnity, straightening up.
Santián handed the shotgun back to the detective. He took the lead and plunged into the building. There was fresh paint on the walls, the latest gang pictographs having been brushed over by the tenants. In the main hallway was an elevator, but these cops knew from experience that it seldom operated. The three got to the stairs in the rear and began to ascend beside the old-fashioned banister.
Not too far from the Lancilier, Linda Delarocha also ascended a set of stairs. These were wooden steps in need of repair that ran outside the rear of a two-story structure along a hilly street called Santa Ynez. She got to the top and opened the screen and inner door leading to an austere and clean kitchen.
"'Bout time," her mother, Lucía Delarocha, said. She was pouring juice into a glass. The woman, still a looker, who'd recently turned forty, set the carton back on the shelf and closed the refrigerator. Outside, a clean-burning bus rumbled by.
"I got held up." The daughter lifted her year-old son, Frankie, out of his high chair. She made a face at him and he squealed happily.
"Sure you did," her mother remarked knowingly. She drank her juice and placed the glass on the cracked tile of the counter.
"Let's not throw drama tonight, shall we?" Linda Delarocha went though the kitchen's swing door carrying her son, her mother following. The two entered a small dining room with a built-in sideboard and leaded glass cupboard. "Look, Linda, I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger, huh? About the only thing I did right was have you when I was seventeen. But I ran those same streets you're running now."
Excerpted from BANGERS by Gary Phillips Copyright © 2003 by Gary Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
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