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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 somebody’s ass.
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 was lonely.
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 fence.
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 me now!”
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 him.
“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 even younger.
“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 period?”
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 the translation.
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…