Doc woke up sick, every cell in his body screaming for morphine
— head pounding — eyes, nose, and throat burning. His
back and legs ached deep down inside and when he tried to sit up
he immediately doubled over, racked with abdominal cramps. He
barely managed to make it to the toilet down the hall before his
guts turned inside out.
Just like every day. Day in, day out. No pardon, no parole. Until
he got a shot of dope in him, it wasn’t going to get any better.
Doc knew well that the physical withdrawal symptoms were
nothing compared with the deeper demons, the mind-numbing
fear and heart-crushing despair that awaited him if he didn’t get
his ass moving and out on the street. The worst part was that
three quarters of a mile of semi-molten asphalt and humiliation
lay between him and his first fix, and every inch would be an insistent
reminder of just how far he had fallen in the last ten years.
In the old days, back in Bossier City, all Doc had to do was sit
up and swing his needle-ravaged legs over the edge of the bed
and his wake-up shot was always right there on the nightstand,
loaded up and ready to go.
Well, almost always. Sometimes he would wake in the middle
of the night swearing that someone was calling his name.
When morning came he was never sure that it wasn’t a dream
until he reached for his rig and found it was empty. Even then, he
had only to make his way to the medication cabinet in his office
downstairs to get what he needed — pure, sterile morphine sulfate
measured out in precise doses in row after tidy row of little glass
bottles. And he was a physician, after all, and there was always
more where that came from.
“But that was then,” sighed Doc. The sad truth was that, these
days, he had to hustle like any other hophead on the street, trading
his services for milk-sugar– and quinine-contaminated heroin
that may very well have made its way across the border up
San Antonio, Texas, was less than a day’s drive from New Orleans
but Doc had come there via the long, hard route, slipping
and sliding downhill every inch of the way. Consequences of his
own lack of discretion and intemperance had driven him from his
rightful place in Crescent City society before his thirtieth birthday.
In one desperate attempt after another to escape his not-sodistant
past he had completed a circuit of the Gulf Coast in a little
over a decade, taking in the seamier sides of Mobile, Gulfport,
and Baton Rouge. But when he landed in Bossier City, Shreveport’s
black-sheep sister across the Red River, he reckoned that
he had finally hit bottom.
But he was wrong.
The South Presa Strip on the south side of San Antonio was
a shadow world, even in broad daylight. Squares drove up and
down it every day, never noticing this transaction taking place in
that doorway or even wondering what the girls down on the corner
were up to. The pimps and the pushers were just as invisible
to the solid citizens of San Antonio as the undercover cops who
parked in the side streets and alleyways and watched it all come
down more or less the same way, day after day, were.
Doc stepped out into the street. The block and a half between
the Yellow Rose Guest Home and the nearest shot of dope was
an obstacle course, and every step was excruciating; nothing but
paper-thin shoe leather separating broken pavement and raw
nerve. The sun seemed to focus on the point on the back of his
neck that was unprotected by the narrow brim of his Panama hat
and burn through his brain to the roof of his mouth. He spat every
few feet but could not expel the taste of decay as he ran the
gauntlet of junkies and working girls out early or up all night and
every bit as sick as he was.
There was a rumor on the street that Doc had a quantity of
good pharmaceutical dope secreted away somewhere in the dilapidated
boarding house. The other residents had torn the place
apart several times, even prying up the floorboards, and found
nothing. Of course, that didn’t stop some of the more gullible
among the girls from trying to charm the location out of him
from time to time.
Doc never emphatically denied the stories, especially when he
He turned leftat the liquor store, slipping around to the parking
lot in back where Big Manny the Dope Man lounged against
the fender of his car every morning serving the wake-up trade.
“Manny, my friend, can you carry me until about lunchtime?
Just a taste so I can get straight.”
Big Manny was his handle, but in fact, big was simply too
small a word to do the six-foot-five, two-hundred-and-eighty-
odd-pound Mexican justice. Gargantuan would have been more
accurate if anybody on South Presa besides Doc could have pronounced
it, but everyone just called Manny Castro Big Manny.
Doc shivered in the pusher’s immense shadow but Manny was
shaking his head before Doc got the first word out.
“I don’ know, Doc. You still ain’t paid me for yesterday. ¡Me
lleva la chingada! Fuckin’ Hugo!” He snatched a small paper sack
from beneath the bumper of his car and lateraled it to a rangy
youth loitering nearby. “¡Vamanos!” Manny coughed, and the kid
took off like a shot across the parking lot and vanished over the
The portly plainclothes cop never broke his stride, barely acknowledging
the runner and producing no ID or warrant as he
crossed the lot in a more or less direct line to where Manny, Doc,
and a handful of loiterers were already turning around and placing
their hands on the hood of Manny’s car.
Detective Hugo Ackerman rarely hurried even when attempting
to catch a fleeing offender. He had worked narcotics for over a
decade, and in his experience neither the junkies nor the pushers
were going far. He caught up with everybody eventually.
“That’s right, gentlemen, you know how the dance goes. Hands
flat, legs spread. Anybody got any needles or knives, best you tell
He started with Manny, haphazardly frisking him from just
below his knees up, about as far as Hugo could comfortably bend
over. His three-hundred-pound mass was all the authority he
needed to hold even a big man like Manny in place, leaving his
chubby hands free to roam at will.
“How’s business, Manny. You know, I just come from Junior
Trevino’s spot. He looked like he was doing pretty good to me.”
“Junior!” Manny snorted. “¡Pendejo! That shit he sells wouldn’t
get a fly high, he steps on it so hard! Anybody that gets their dope
from Junior’s either a baboso or they owe me money. Hey! You
see Bobby Menchaca down there? I want to talk to that maricón.”
When Hugo shoved his hand down the back of Manny’s slacks,
the big man winced.
“Chingada madre, Hugo! Careful down there. My pistol’s in
the glove box if that’s what you’re lookin’ for. Your envelope’s
where it always is.”
“That’s Detective Ackerman to you, asshole!” Hugo continued
to grope around, emptying Manny’s pockets onto the hood of the
Ford and intentionally saving the inside of his sport coat for last
and then pocketing the envelope he found there.
“Ain’t you heard? Bobby’s in the county. Been there since last
Saturday. Fell through the roof of an auto-parts store he was
breakin’ into over on the east side. I guess the doors were in better
shape than the roof was ’cause he was still inside jackin’ with
the latch when the radio car rolled up.” He patted the envelope
he’d put into the breast pocket of his own sport coat.
“It all here?”
“Every fuckin’ dime.”
Doc was next.
“How about you, Doc? Got anything for me?”
Doc half grinned. “As a matter of fact, Detective Ackerman,
I regret that you catch me temporarily financially embarrassed.
You usually don’t come around to see me until Sunday so I reckoned
I had a day or two. Fact is I’m flat broke. Hell, I haven’t even
had my wake-up yet.”
“He ain’t lyin’, Detective.” Manny intervened. “I was just getting
ready to send his broke ass down to Bobby.”
“Relax, relax, Doc. Just thought I’d ask while I had you, so to
speak. I’ll see you Sunday, but damn, Manny! That’s cold! I reckoned
Doc’s credit was better than that around here!” He patted
Doc on the buttand turned and ambled back toward the street.
“All right, then.” Halfway there, he turned around.
“Was that the Reyes kid? The one that took off with the pack?”
Manny shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Well, I’d count it twice when it comes back. He was showin’
tracks the last time I rousted him.”
“Yeah, right,” Manny muttered, but he made a mental note to
check the kid’s arms when he got back. He and the others replaced
their effects in their pockets, and as soon as Hugo was out
of sight Manny stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loud
enough that there could be no doubt that the runner would hear
“Pinche Hugo! ¡Cabrón!” Manny grumbled. “He leaves me
alone ’cause I pay him but then he sits across the street in an
unmarked car and picks off half my customers when they leave
the spot. That shit’s bad for business!” He spat on the ground and
threw in an extra ¡cabrón! for good measure.
“Yeah,” Doc agreed. “The fat son of a bitch takes a fair bite out
of my ass every week as well, not to mention the odd course of
penicillin on the cuff. Then again, I guess he needs to make it
look good . . . Hey, speakin’ of on the cuff, Manny, I know I owe
you but . . .”
At that moment the kid rounded the corner, huffing and puff-
ing, and handed off the pack. Manny didn’t even look inside
before grabbing the kid by the wrist and peeling his shirtsleeve
back, up above his elbow, to reveal that Hugo hadn’t been lying.
“¡Maricón!” he snarled as he backhanded the kid across the face
with such ferocity that blood spurted instantly from both his nose
and his mouth and he tumbled backward in an awkward somersault.
He skidded on the seat of his pants but he hadn’t even come
to a full stop before he was up and gone.
“Don’t come back, Ramón!” Manny shouted after him. “And
I’m gonna tell your mama!” He turned back to Doc, shaking his
head. “I told you, Doc. I can’t carry every junkie on the south side
that comes up short . . .”
“Oh, ferchrissake, Manny. Tell me, have I ever let you down?
When did I ever fail to pay a debt, to you or anybody you know!
I can’t work in this condition. Besides, amigo, I wasn’t worryin’
about money when I was diggin’ that twenty-two slug out of your
ass last year, now was I?”
“Oh, so that’s how it is, huh, Doc? All right, then. See how you
do . . .”
The bickering continued until the ritual was completed with
an unintelligible grunt and a secret handshake, Manny pressing
the little red balloon into the palm of Doc’s hand. Manny had
known he was good for it all along. All the hemming and hawing
was just for show, an oft-repeated performance for the benefit of
any deadbeats standing within earshot. A businessman had his
reputation to consider, after all.
The hardest part of the whole ordeal was the long haul back up
the block, retracing the same steps on even heavier, shakier legs.
He never carried his wake-up shot back to the boarding house in
his pocket or his hatband anymore. Instead, he cupped the dope
in the hollow of a clenched fist as if it were some magical winged
creature that would vanish into thin air if allowed to escape. He
could feel the balloon against his sweaty palm and sometimes he
swore that he could taste the dope inside. By the time he got back
to his room and cooked it up he had to fight back a wave of nausea,
a Pavlovian response to the smell of sulfur and heated morphine.
Tie the tourniquet, find the vein, pull the trigger . . .
Burnt sugar on the back of the tongue, tingling scalp, aches and
pains evaporate, leaving only a whisper behind:
“Say, hey there, Doc, my old back’s actin’ up somethin’ awful . . .”
“Not now, Hank,” Doc said out loud and the sound of his own
voice was all that was needed to weigh him back down to earth
and the business at hand.
Oh, well. It was only a taste to get him straight enough to work.
The beer joint was dark, if not cool, inside, and this time of day
it was quiet because only the most hard-core alcoholics came in
this early and they never wasted their money on the jukebox or
the pool table in the back. Doc ordered a draft, and Teresa, the
barmaid, dutifully drew it and took his money, though they both
knew good and well he couldn’t choke it down on a bet, at least
not until he got a little more dope in his system. The two bits was
more like a rental fee on the little table in the back of the joint
where everybody on South Presa knew Doc could be found every
day between eleven and five.
Business had been slow lately and there were days that Doc resorted
to petty theft and short-change scams to support his habit,
vocations that he considered beneath him and that he was never
very good at. By noon that day he was beginning to get more than
a little discouraged. No one had so much as looked in his direction
all morning long and it was only Tuesday; the week ahead loomed
like a long, dark tunnel. Then the screen door creaked open, announcing
a new arrival, a stranger, and things started looking up.
The tough-looking pachuco clicked and clacked noisily across
the room, the metal taps on his brilliantly polished tangerine
shoes announcing that he was a big man in his barrio and not
afraid of anyone in this one. A sad-eyed young girl followed a few
tentative steps behind. He ordered a bottle of Falstaff, and when
Teresa reached for the dollar bill he laid on the bar, he covered it
with a cross-tattooed hand and leaned over to whisper in her ear.
She nodded in Doc’s direction, and the youth clattered across the
room to stand threateningly over Doc, a dark little cloud ringed
in fluorescent light. The girl waited by the bar.
“This girl” — the boy motioned behind him with a cock of his
head — “is in trouble.”
Up close the chico didn’t look so tough. All the hair grease and
attitude couldn’t hide the fact that he was just a kid, at most nineteen
or twenty. Doc gripped the edge of the table to steady himself
and leaned sideways to peer around him at the girl, who was
“You the daddy?”
The boy only stared coldly back.
“Well, Slick, where I come from a gentleman never leaves a
lady who’s in the family way standing around on a hard concrete
floor.” Doc waved at the girl. “Honey, why don’t you come on over
here and take a load off your feet?”
The kid’s fierce features instantly darkened but he still said
nothing, and the girl didn’t move.
“Okay, Slick, it’s up to you. But if you want me to help you,
then I need to ask your gal some questions, or maybe you can tell
me what I need to know. When did she have her last menstrual
That did it. The boy motioned the girl over to the table. Doc
pulled out a chair for her and began talking directly to the girl in
low, reassuring tones, though he knew she couldn’t understand
a word. He eyeballed the boy, who grudgingly interpreted the
girl’s obvious terror into impatient, condescending English. A big
tear that suddenly escaped her eye, trailing down one cheek, confirmed
Doc’s suspicions that his bedside manner was being lost in
Doc stood up, and the boy suddenly shrank beside him as Doc
threw a surprisingly strong arm around him and escorted him
toward the door…