by M.R. Subias
The battered taxi up ahead weaves around a red mini and I know our guy’s spotted us. I stomp on the Mustang’s gas so our perp, Eddie Mears, can’t pull away from our headlights and lose us. I glance right. Kah-Haas my seven-foot-tall Slitha partner, knees jammed up under his scaly chin in a seat built for humans, calls dispatch for backup.
If our target keeps going straight, maybe some other feds will cut him off, if any are around. The local cops here in L.A. always take just a bit too long to assist. They don’t want other humans to think they’re too eager to collaborate with our alien masters. For them, there’s a fine line between doing the job and being a collaborator.
The taxi heads straight at a slow scooter but before it hits, swerves a hairpin left. A couple holding hands in the middle of the crosswalk freezes in the headlights. The taxi fishtails on wet pavement and skids forward. A pedestrian goes down. A woman screams. Kah-Haas tells dispatch to send an ambulance. In a better world, maybe I’d stop and help, but that’s not the one I get to live in. I slow a little, barely enough to turn clean and miss the pedestrians, then pull straight again. I’ve fallen back, but still see our target.
Our perp makes a sharp right, but I’m ready and take it fast enough to keep up. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my partner’s long, green fingers on his gun, but he doesn’t draw it. These days, Kah-Haas values human life enough not to shoot from a moving car and endanger bystanders. And, if the tip we got is good, we need to take this guy alive. Seems our quarry is trying for a secret escape route for people running from the law. And the same source told us somebody skipped town that way a couple weeks ago, carrying something the Slitha badly want to get back.
We’re gaining on the taxi and our guy brakes hard. The taxi fishtails again, skids, then rear-ends a parked truck. A second later, the driver’s door flies open. I can tell from the broad shoulders the guy who jumps out is Mears. He hits the ground running, into the January darkness swallowing the UCLA campus.
We pull up behind the dead taxi. I don’t wait for Kah-Haas, just get out and run after Mears. My partner needs extra time to pull himself out of a car made for smaller beings, but his long legs always help him catch up. I run down the walkway, trying not to lose the perp in the darkness.
A minute later, Kah-Haas’s voice crackles painfully loud from my earbud. “I see you. Do you have eyes on the suspect? Over.”
“Roger that. Over.”
The campus hasn’t completely shut down since the Slitha invaded fifteen years ago, but there’s more dark than light here. The glow from inside a three-story building outlines our man when he opens the door to go in. The perp ducks inside.
“Kah-Haas, I’ll go in. You go around. Over.”
I jerk the door open and see movement at the end of the long hallway. I run past a few humans talking. They do a double take when I run by yelling, “FBI, stop right there!”
The door at the far end of the building closes. A human leg disappears into the stairwell. I run to the end of the hallway, but Kah-Haas’s outside so I take the stairs up. I get to the second floor and draw my Glock. I see a bathroom and hear something inside. I bolt for the door, shove my way in, and raise my gun.
In front of me, the rust colored Slitha facing the mirror over the sink does just that. A couple seconds later, the loose skin under the sides of his jaw puffs out and flushes red. It turns around, slowly. The alien’s huge, yellow-green eyes with their black slit pupils look down on me.
I lower my Glock and swallow the lump in my throat. “Sorry, sir. I’m in pursuit of a criminal.”
The alien lightly brushes long, sharp black nails down a tweed jacket tailored to his eight-foot height. “Allow me to introduce myself.” The alien speaks perfect English. “I am Professor Sath-Osh.” He sneers down at me. “And there are few crimes greater than a human threatening a Slitha with a gun.”
I pull my earbud out and crank up the volume so we can both hear Kah-Haas arresting Mears. I smile the practiced, professional smile I always use for our masters. “Please, sir, my apologies. My senior partner is of the Race and I’m only following his orders - Kah-Haas can explain why I overreacted. After all, humans must obey their Slitha superiors, and I was just doing my best.”
His smile is cruel. If Kah-Haas can’t smooth things over, being out of a job will be the least of my problems.
Work ends and I head home. Leticia and the boys are asleep. I grab a glass and a cheap bottle of bourbon and sit by the front window cradling my Glock.
I drink, look into the darkness, and wait. Slitha Internal Security could be here any time. I feel the cold metal in my hand and think about who I’ll shoot when they finally come for us. Or just me, if I’m lucky. Our masters would consider eating a bullet honorable compensation for failure if one of them did it. But they look down on humans, so from me it’d just be the act of a coward. And a mortal sin. At least that’s what they told me when I was a kid. I look down at the Glock, then towards the back of the house where my family sleeps. How far would I go to keep Leticia and the boys from dying by inches in a Lizard concentration camp?
I holster my Glock, fill my glass, take another drink, and wait. Dawn opens its eyes and Internal Security still isn’t here. Maybe pointing a gun at one of our conquerors hasn’t earned me an all- expense paid trip to a Slitha concentration camp. Or the security goons might just be giving me time to sweat. I leave while my family still sleeps.
First thing that morning, Kah-Haas and I are standing in Deputy Director Curtis Booker’s office. Our boss’s snarling grimace tells me he’s furious and that his ulcer’s on fire.
“Listen up, you miserable excuse for federal agents, you caught your suspect but thanks to you, the Bureau’s in a whole new world of hurt.” He shakes his head.
Booker rubs his temples, scowls at me, then shoots a frown up at Kah-Haas. “Let’s take this from the top. You apprehended Eddie Mears, a suspect one of our informants told us was planning on going underground. He’s our only lead in finding out where at least a dozen other fugitives have disappeared to over the last three years.”
Booker glares at me. “But you’re supposed to catch little fish like Mears with no problem – not cause new ones doing it.”
Deputy Director Booker pulls a crusty bottle full of something pink out of his desk and takes a slug. “You clowns just had to turn a simple arrest into a train wreck.”
His hand shakes a little as he taps a form on his desk. For the first time in years, I see fear in his eyes, from a man who was still fighting against the Slitha invasion after most of the human race had laid down its guns.
Kah-Haas nods. “You speak of Professor Sath-Osh, the Slitha at whom Agent Cortez aimed his firearm.”
The Deputy Director won’t glare at a Slitha, not even Kah-Haas, so he just winces and nods.
My partner picks up the form and reads it. “This is a serious situation, but one which may yet be weathered.”
We look at Kah-Haas, waiting for the good and the bad news. “This individual is a professor of Slitha studies. Professor Sath-Osh teaches the Slitha language, proper behavior for humans in the company of our race, and history presented in a manner suitable for earth’s inhabitants.”
The loose skin under the sides of Kah-Haas’s jaw tightens up for a couple of seconds, so I know he thinks something’s funny. “I have made inquiries with others of my kind. While Professor Sath-Osh is of The Race and thus may never be spoken of with disrespect, he was assigned his teaching position on earth due to behavior in a military campaign which ‘failed to achieve the level of valor expected of a Slitha warrior against the empire’s foes.”
Booker and I look at each other. He’s not as angry as a minute ago, but his eyes still remind me of a kid roasting ants with a magnifying glass.
Kah-Haas’s mouth tenses again. “While no human should ever suggest that a member of my race lacks courage, were the fact that you pointed your weapon at the Professor to become common knowledge, some Slitha would speculate that Professor Sath-Osh felt considerable fear when this occurred. In fact, his complaint fails to mention a firearm at all, but insists only that Agent Cortez burst in and behaved with great disrespect toward a Slitha. It also suggests that my junior partner is a bumbling incompetent and that I have failed the Race by allowing my human underling to operate without sufficient supervision.” Kah-Haas’s eyes move back and forth, so I know he’s nervous and that the Professor’s still trouble for us.
The Deputy Director Booker nods. “I have to route this complaint up the chain, to Slitha Internal Security. Maybe it isn’t as bad as the Professor accusing Cortez of threatening him with a gun, but it’s still a time bomb. We’re all looking at demotion or worse.” My gut punches me and I almost ask Booker for a slug of that nasty, pink stuff.
Booker looks at me, then up at Kah-Haas. He points at the complaint on his desk. “I can move this slow. Nobody who’ll give you trouble will see it in less than a week.” He nods at us. “Close this case. Do that, and things should calm down.”
He nods. “Get out of here and find out what Mears knows.”
Eddie Mears sits in a metal chair, chained to a steel table, in the sweltering interrogation room, right over the floor grate hot air rises up from. Sweat pours down his face. We’ve been running him through our good cop, bad cop routine for two hours. Even though he’s not a hardcore Human Defense Force terrorist or even a tough repeat felon, he hasn’t cracked. Still, I see the signs.
I walk around behind him. “So, Eddie. You managed the spaceport fuel depot and set up a racket stealing gas and selling it on the black market. You took bribes from hungry people desperate for jobs and got a fat cut from every paycheck. There’s even talk you sold wakeup drugs to spaceport workers so they could stay sharp during double shifts. We have a witness who’s talked and more we’re going to talk to. What you did was illegal, but not exactly murder. For me, this isn’t personal.” I nod at Kah-Haas.
My partner leans down and spreads scaly, long-fingered hands on the table. He stares at Mears with big, slitted, orange-red eyes. “I, on the other hand, see your actions as violations of the trust the Race put in you. I take the acts of traitors very personally.”
Our perp looks away. Kah-Haas grabs his face, leans in close, and forces Mears to meet his alien eyes. Nails like black spearheads dig into pale cheeks. “I shall have you exiled from earth for the rest of your life to mine fire opals below twin suns on the desert moon of Zath-Hassa.”
The first time Kah-Haas used that line on a prisoner, I broke out laughing. I’d been studying the language and the culture and knew Zath-Hassa was from a Slitha children’s story. You might as well threaten to send somebody to Mordor. Mears doesn’t know that, closes his eyes, and sobs. Kah-Haas glances up at me quick and juts out his jaw, pretty much winking.
I move next to Mears, put a hand on Kah-Haas’s shoulder, and pretend pushing him back is hard. Eddie sits up a little.
I look our perp in the eye. “Eddie, my partner cares about something more than missing gas or some bribes or a few pep pills, something an informant told us you were trying to get to. You help us with that, I’m pretty sure he’ll agree to ask for a reduced sentence, maybe even just a year or two in a regular work camp. How does that sound?”
Eddie looks at both of us, eyes half-tough, half-hopeful. Kah-Haas and I wait. Then my partner glowers, clenching his fists. “There may be truth to Agent Cortez’s words.”
I look at Mears. “Do you know something that might calm my partner down?”
Mears talks fast. “There’s a pipeline to get away and get a new identity. It’s expensive. A couple of guys, Human Defense Force, I think, they told me to give it a shot if things got hot.”
Kah-Haas pulls back his glower a notch.
I nod to Mears. “Keep going.”
South of UCLA, in Westwood. You’re supposed to ask around for good luggage, say you can pay a lot for it. Then somebody contacts you. His eyes give me a sad, hungry look. “That’s where I was headed when you popped me.”
Two days later I’m walking slow through a warm drizzle in Westwood. I keep my shoulders hunched and pull the old, black baseball cap’s brim down close to my face. I’ve got a small, brown suitcase, and phony papers inside my jacket that say I’m Eddie Mears. My weight and height are close to his, and my hair’s been lightened to match. Eddie’s still in solitary, in a dry cell, while I’m getting rained on. Not that I’d want to change places. Of course, if we don’t find our missing man and whatever it is he took, I could soon be joining Mr. Mears.
Every neighborhood in L.A. has gone downhill since the invasion, and with most UCLA classes closed down, Westwood’s worse than most. Student housing turned into cheap motels and seedy apartments. Crowded coffee houses and pricey stores are now mostly cheap bars and second-hand stores. Lots of storefronts stand empty, staring out at me, broken windows for eyes. Paint peels from the walls of once-prized homes. Here and there sit empty lots covered with blackened wreckage, squatter-set fires gone out of control. I’m old enough to remember a better time, when humanity thought it was alone in the universe.
I glance up at a brick wall. One of those big signs stares down at me—the alien metal glows with a rippling inner light. It shows a Lizard, one hand up, fingers spread out, holding up a tiny earth. Written above him in glowing Slitha letters and below in English, the sign says, “Peace and Order.” Our masters started putting up signs like that right after the invasion. Within a week, every one that wasn’t in a high-security area got tagged, usually with something obscene. The Slitha switched to ones with a frictionless coating. The tagging stopped. It isn’t that people like the new signs any better. Paint just doesn’t stick to them. A few rounds of public executions didn’t hurt either.
Worn-down women with hungry eyes lean against walls. A pale blonde with a chipped tooth smiles at me. “I’ve got a place around the corner,” she says, then sneers when I shake my head. There are no Slitha around. It’s not that they’re afraid rebels might be hiding here. There’s just nothing here our alien masters want.
Cheap Rooms is a bottom-of-the-barrel motel. I go into the office and breathe the musty carpet smell while I study the prices on the wall. I slide one night’s worth of cash across the dirty counter. I’ll pay tomorrow if I need to stay another night. The old man with dandruff-spotted, slicked-back grey hair slides over the key.
“Checkout’s at eleven and there’s no cooking in the room.”
I frown. The idea of eating in this place makes me want to swear off food forever. I head up the badly lit stairs.
The room’s small, but the door’s solid, evidence of long-gone, better times. A solid door’s mostly why Kah-Haas and I chose this place. I lay on the bed, then pull out my half-dollar-sized comm unit and call Kah-Haas.
He picks up and I start talking. “I’m settled in and about to go out.”
He responds. “Any problems?”
I scratch a suddenly itchy scalp. “Not unless you count the valiant efforts of the bedbug resistance.”
Kah-Haas’s quiet for a couple seconds, so I can tell he liked that one. I smile before he talks again. “You’re starting with the leads we got from Mears?”
I study a vent on the wall. “Unless something changes.”
“Let me know if you need anything. I’ll continue to find out what I can at my end and let you know what I learn.”
“Roger that. Later.”
I hang up and look at the vent again. Too obvious. I lift the bed and quietly drag it away from the wall. I draw the black-bladed folding knife I keep clipped inside my waistband, flick it open, then use the four-inch, half-serrated black blade to work the edge of the worn carpet loose from the floor. The floorboard pries up easy so I stash my holster and Glock and the comm unit in the space underneath. I open the suitcase. The cash goes in the hole, along with the collection of gleaming, pre-invasion Rolexes. The cash is almost-perfect counterfeit, but the Rolexes are real, part of Eddie Mears’ stash. Anyway, this juicy haul makes the story about being a rich criminal willing to pay to escape believable. Once everything’s hidden and the bed’s back where it belongs, I leave the room, stopping to stick a hair between the door and the jam. If it falls off, I’ll know someone’s gotten into my room.
I walk out into the night. Light shines from scattered homes and struggling businesses and the street people’s trashcan fires. Among the clusters of people warming themselves, men and women with intelligent eyes in deeply lined faces hunch together. I wonder how many had teaching positions before the Slitha decided a new narrative needed to be taught. I look away from the lost souls. No good comes from thinking like that.
First stop is The Noodle Bar. I grab a little table in a corner and study the menu. A skinny waitress drags her feet over, tired as my soul. Her nametag says “Maria.” I order a cheap bowl of ramen and a beer.
“Anything else?” she asks.
I ask just loud enough for people at nearby tables to hear and pitch my voice just a little anxious. “Know where I can score some quality luggage? A friend of mine who passed through bought some around here.” Normally I’d be more subtle, but we’ve got to solve this mess before the Professor’s complaint makes its way to Slitha Internal Security.
Maria flashes a bored smile. “Quality Pawn’s around the corner.” She heads off.
The beer comes. I drink and watch the customers.
The noodles aren’t bad. I take my time eating, order another beer and grab a copy of the Los Angeles Times somebody left on the next table. Newspapers made of real paper were pretty much dead when I was a kid. They’ve made a comeback since our occupiers shut down most of the Internet and new computers are rare and expensive. Tame reporters write stories about how good things are under the occupation and how they’d be even better if humans cooperated more with our masters. Still, you can find classified ads and weather forecasts and stories about what local music scene’s still around.
Somebody comes in and plays guitar for tips. I nurse my beer and work the Times’ crossword puzzle. When my drink is done, I give Maria money and ration slips, then head back to my room.
Outside, I feel eyes on me and stop at an unbroken shop window to look at the reflection, but it’s too dark to see if anyone’s following me. A car comes this way, so I move fast and cross just before it gets here. Across the street is a big dark shape. Could be a man. Could be nothing. No need to risk getting jumped to find out.
Next day, I check in with Kah-Haas. No new leads. I hide the comm unit under the floorboard again. I think about the dark shape and almost take the Glock but decide against it. The noodle place stays open all day, so I sit at the bar and get dishwater coffee and a dry, tasteless roll. A pale, young guy with a metallic-red ponytail works the counter. I read his nametag and meet his eye. “Morning, Roy. I’m Eddie.”
He wipes the counter. “What do you need, my man?”
“I’m taking a trip and need some high-quality luggage. You know where I can score some?”
Roy stops wiping and looks at me for a long second, then nods. He points at a cork board on the far wall with ads on it. I finish my roll and take my coffee over and look.
No one’s advertising secret escape routes for fugitives, but people are selling just about everything else. I grab a three by five card that says “Best Luggage for Sale” with a phone number, then fold it in half and stick it in Mears’ wallet by some lawyer’s business card. Another cork board ad shows a picture of a crystal ball and proclaims that Madam Sabina can provide “all life’s answers.” Don’t I wish.
I pull out Eddie Mears’ cheap burner phone and make the call. A mechanical voice tells me to leave a message. “A friend of mine came this way and said somebody could hook me up with quality luggage.” I pause, talk a little faster. “I want to take a trip right away and I can pay.”
It’s a slow walk down the street to Quality Pawn. I push the buzzer and an older, Asian woman in tidy jeans and a faded Metallica t-shirt comes to look.
Her sharp eyes peer through the glass and her head leans to one side. She buzzes open the door. “Good morning. Let me know if you need any help.”
I go in and look around. The place is clean and well-kept, like every store back before the invasion. A smiling, gold cat by the register waves mechanically. I browse and keep up my trying not to be afraid act. “Do you have any luggage? I’m looking for something nice.”
I say this even though I’ll look stupid, since I already saw shelves with luggage on them. The woman looks at me like somebody must have once dropped me on the head, but I need to make sure she knows what I’m looking for. She points at the obvious row of waiting suitcases.
“Yes, but I mean something nicer.”
“Just what you see.”
I ask a few questions about the luggage and who pawned it. She brightens at the possible sale but gives me only vague answers while trying to get me to buy something. I leave empty-handed.
The rest of the day, I check out other places we think fugitives visited. Evening comes. I walk back to the room, go in, and lock the door.
I pull out the comm unit. “Kah-Haas, you there? Over.”
My partner speaks with a quiet, serious voice. “I am here, agent Cortez. What have you found? Over.”
“No breakthroughs yet. I’m waiting for a couple of leads to develop.”
Kah-Haas says nothing. I look at the time, then the power light on the comm unit. Still green. I wonder what’s causing the holdup.
“I have called in favors and learned exactly what it is we seek.” Kah-Haas’s hissing accent lowers in pitch. “It is a journal.”
“A journal. I got it. And?”
Again, Kah-Haas keeps me waiting.
Finally, my he speaks. “Someone stole this and passed it to a fugitive who fled two weeks ago.” He pauses. “Agent Cortez, you can never reveal to anyone what I am about to tell you.”
My hands feel damp. Kah-Haas is scared.
“There are Slitha who keep such journals, and a senior officer of the fleet who did so was slain in battle. His possessions were recovered with the intention of delivering them to his heirs on our home world. Someone stole the journal and passed it on to one of our missing fugitives.”
That’s when I know my partner wouldn’t tell me about the journal unless he thought it was the only way to crack this case. Kah-Haas’s also warning me that learning too much about this journal could get both of us disappeared.
I barely hear him speak. “This senior officer wrote extensively about the course of the war. He documented certain embarrassing defeats our fleet has suffered which have, as you humans say, been hushed up. Such details, should they come to light, could ruin the careers of several of our top political and military leaders and bring chaos to the empire.”
No wonder the Slitha want this back. Somebody might read it and figure out how to contact the aliens the Lizards are fighting, maybe even recruit them as allies against our occupiers. This journal could be a goldmine for the resistance, maybe even give humanity the political leverage to make the Lizards stop grinding their boot on our necks. No wonder our alien masters want it back so badly.
“I have said too much, Agent Cortez. If anyone should learn what I have told you, our lives would be forfeit.”
“If anyone asks, all I know is that we’re looking for a journal written in Slitha, but that I don’t know who wrote it or what’s in it. If it comes to that, I’ll also tell them that my Slitha isn’t that good.”
Kaah-Haas responds. “You’re clever – for a human - Frank Cortez.”
“You’re not too slow for a big lizard either.”
“Goodbye, Agent Cortez. Until tomorrow.”
I try to sleep before going out into the night but thinking about the journal keeps me up. The rain’s ended by the time I head into the darkness. I walk to Rocco’s Tavern, a dark wood and brick bar where a now-dead informant spotted two Human Defense Force bomb makers before they disappeared. I do the same drill and ask about luggage and friends who came through here. The waiter gives the same useless answers.
I feel something in my gut and look around the room. A man walks up to the table. He limps just barely enough I can see it. He’s got coal-dark skin and a buzz cut and wears an oversized military coat. The guy sits down and pulls a plastic case out of his pocket. He opens it with gloved hands. The open cover hides its contents from passersby. Inside is what looks like a sniffer for finding bugs. Seems like leaving the comm unit in the room was a good call. He pulls an earbud out of one of his pockets and plugs it into the sniffer and his right ear.
Some kind of West Indian accent comes out. “Let’s see the phone.”
I pull Eddie Mears’ cheap, burner phone out of my pocket and slide it across the table.
I tell him. He uses it and hooks the phone to the sniffer. I’ve made some calls consistent with being the fugitive I’m impersonating. I watch the crowd, drink my beer, and let him work. He finishes, slides the burner back, then puts away his gear.
“Call me Sharp. You’re looking for a way out and can pay.”
I could ask how he knew, but Sharp probably wouldn’t tell. He’d probably think I was stupid for asking.
I ask a different question. “How do I know I can trust you?”
We shut up while a waiter stands by the next table for too long. Then he talks. “Lester Moore, Bill Carson, Libby Schultz, Ignacio Salazar.”
I let the smile spread out. Two of those are aliases used by the Human Defense Force explosive experts who went missing. The others were criminals who also disappeared around here. Sharp probably figures I know at least one of those names. No common thief or con artist would have that information.
Sharp pulls a shapeless dark green beanie out of a pocket. “Wait ten minutes. I’ll be out back. Keep your distance and follow me.”
His expensive gear and what he knows tells me he’s no common criminal. Just in case, I say something to protect myself. “What I have that’s valuable isn’t on me.”
Stifling a laugh, Sharp gets up and leaves. Ten minutes later, I settle my tab and follow.
I get to the alley behind Rocco’s. There’s a human shape at the far end of my vision that looks like it’s probably Sharp. It starts moving. I follow.
I listen to night noises. A loud argument from an open window. Atonal Slitha classical music, just loud enough to hear. A cat’s rising yowl. Something big breaks loose from the shadows.
A fist the size of a small ham flies at my face. I drop down and raise my left arm. My forearm moves the punch off-line, just barely, but huge knuckles scrape my skull and rock my head. I drive my right fist at the center of mass. My punch lands solid, but there’s barely a grunt and my hand feels like I drove it into a side of beef. The big man steps to my right so I circle to keep us face to face, left shoulder forward. My left hand stays up while the right drifts low and close. I’ll be on the ground if this monster lands a solid punch. The big man shuffles forward, hands up like a boxer. I move back. He throws a jab, then a cross. I slip to my right, just in time to keep from ending up on the ground. He pulls back his next cross and I step in fast and whip my open left hand at his face.
One of my fingers hits his eye. The big man curses. Before he can do anything, I pull the knife from inside my waistband with my right and I flick out four inches of steel. The big man backs up a few feet and raises his hands. Smart move. I’m about to tell him to run when I hear a gun’s hammer pull back.
Behind me, I hear a slight Jamaican accent. “Drop the knife.”
I do what Sharp says, slowly, then raise my hands. The big man lifts a hand and rubs his angry eye.
Sharpe says more. “My friend and I have a proposition.”
Somehow, I don’t think they’re really giving me a choice. These guys are smart and cool-headed, and no common criminals. I’d bet my badge they’re Human Defense Force.
The big man slides over to my side. I tense my stomach, ready for a revenge gut punch. Instead, he pulls out a little flashlight, turns it on, and gently searches my pockets. I get my first clear look at him. Male Caucasian just under six feet, huge chest, thick arms and legs, bearded blond, but bundled up too much for me to see more. He finds my fake papers, reads them, and puts them back. He digs out Mears’ wallet, takes out the business cards, looks at them, shows one to Sharp.
A deep bass rumbles. “Lawyers.”
Both men laugh.
The big man keeps looking through the wallet, “And Doctor Delaveau’s luggage.”
Silence follows. The bearded man gives me back the wallet and puts away his little light.
Sharp says something I half expected. “You’ve been asking around. My friend and I are also unpopular with the Lizards and need the escape route you’re looking for.”
I start to speak but one big hand grabs the back of my head and the other covers the half of my face my mouth is on. The big man squeezes, and lifts and my feet leave the ground. My head feels like it’s in a vice. The big man could break my neck without trying. I sweat, but don’t do anything stupid.
“The man who left this card, Doctor Delaveau, he controls part of this escape route. You need to make contact and find out if he can get us out.” He pauses. “Now you can talk.”
The big man puts me down and takes his hands away.
Now I understand why these two jumped me. They needed to know how I act under pressure, if I could walk into a dangerous situation without falling apart.
“Why don’t you two just go in there yourself?”
“Things are not always what they seem. Who knows? Maybe Delaveau’s working with Lizard Internal Security and they’re sending anyone who looks for help to some concentration camp.”
I take my first relaxed breath in days. These guys have given me my big break. And if this Doctor Delaveau is a stooge for Slitha Internal Security, doing what Sharp wants is just going to help me close this case faster. The journal Kah-Haas and I need is probably still sitting on the doctor’s desk or maybe waiting to get processed in some backlogged Internal Security property room.
This wouldn’t be the first time two law enforcement agencies worked the same case from different ends without either one knowing about it.
I make my voice tremble but add a note of defiance. “So, I could end up in a concentration camp?”
“We don’t consider it likely, but, as I said, no need to take chances… at least on our end.”
I nod, “So, how do we do this?”
Sharp’s quiet for a few seconds even though I know he already has a plan.
“My friend will walk you to your stash. Then you’ll make contact with Doctor Delaveau.”
“How do I know your big friend won’t put my head through a wall and take everything I’ve got?”
Sharp grabs my right shoulder and turns me around. His black, snub-nosed revolver is leveled at my right eye. I take a deep breath. Sharp lowers the pistol and presses it into my hand.
He looks me straight in the eye.
I flip open the cylinder. It holds five, .357 rounds. I check them one by one. None are blanks. Sharp must think whatever valuables Eddie Mears has are worthless compared to a chance for freedom. He also believes I’m smart enough to understand that. I nod and slip the gun into my right coat pocket and pick up my knife. Of course, he and his friend might try to rob me later. But with any luck, Kah-Haas and I will arrest them first. The big man, who I’ve decided to call Silent, walks with me through the dark. We reach Cheap Rooms and head up the stairs.
The fight’s adrenaline rush fades. I’m tired and my head throbs where Silent’s fist rocked my skull. I open the door and we walk in. The big man stops just inside the room and shuts the door. I put the suitcase on the floor, pull the bed from the wall, and kneel on the carpet. My body blocks Silent’s view. I glance over at him with my peripheral vision. The counterfeit bills and the Rolexes go in the case. I leave the Glock and the comm unit. I can’t talk to Kah-Haas with Silent here and, if I take it, Sharp might run another scan and figure out I’m a cop. I replace the board, carpet, and bed.
Now for my doctor’s appointment.
Silent walks me most of the way, but I go alone the last block to Dr. Delaveau’s house. Homes and yards are big, though not like the Beverly Hills mansions a couple miles east. Thick-leaved trees line the street and create a sense of privacy. My head aches from when Silent hit me and my left forearm throbs where it blocked his punch. Maybe the Doctor can do something about that.
Before I go up to Delaveau’s house, I hide the suitcase by the bottom of the stone steps leading to his door, back behind a black, wrought-iron bench mostly hidden by sweet-smelling lavender.
I climb the steps to the two-story house. Before the invasion, doctors didn’t work from home. Now, many do. I hammer the front door with the tarnished brass knocker.
A tiny metal hatch opens near the top of the thick door. An eye examines me.
A man speaks. “Is there an emergency?”
“My name’s Mears. Someone said I could buy luggage here.”
A pause. The man has a slight French accent. “Do you have references?”
I name a criminal who told the real Mears about the escape route before he disappeared. I hear a bolt slide. The door swings open. Male Caucasian with a medium build, just under six feet, with swept-back iron-grey hair. He wears a loose, grey jacket and keeps his right hand in his pocket.
Light shines from inside and he looks me up and down. “I’m Doctor Delaveau. Please come in. But don’t make any sudden moves.”
I walk in with my hands by my sides. We head down the hall to a dining room. “Please sit. Would you like coffee?”
I sit. “Sure… please.”
He returns with two cups. There’s cream and sugar on the tray, but neither of us use it. He gestures towards me. “You’re injured. Is it anything serious?”
“I wouldn’t turn down some aspirin.”
Delaveau gets up. “Please excuse me.” He leaves the room.
I look around and drink up, hoping coffee will fight my fatigue. The rich, smoky, dark-roasted flavor is like heaven. Twelve years of alien occupation and food rationing hasn’t cramped the doctor’s style. I see expensive furniture and shelves heavy with leather-bound books and beautiful crystal sculptures. If this is a Slitha sting, the doctor left to call his bosses. After they show up, I’ll identify myself. Then, maybe we can figure out where the journal went.
The doctor comes back with aspirin and an ice pack. I swallow the pills and hold the ice pack to my head. “Thanks.”
“I enjoy taking care of my guests.” He smiles. “And speaking of that…”
He takes our empty cups and comes back a few minutes later with fresh ones, and a pot on the tray. “You may wonder how I came to provide the service you seek.”
I stay quiet and drink. Delaveau’s the kind who likes to talk.
“I lived well before the Slitha arrived, though their arrival made maintaining my lifestyle difficult. But strange as it seems, the invasion improved my life. As with others, events forced me to live by my wits in a way I never would have otherwise. Consider the black market. Everyone uses it, and by so doing, all become lawbreakers. And those who survive best are the ones who have become exceptional criminals. So, while I still practice medicine, my humanitarian sideline supports a fine lifestyle and gives me the pleasure which comes with being exceptionally clever.”
I finish my coffee. He pours me a new cup.
Delaveau talks about how humanity had become soft and how the Slitha occupation sharpened our dulled minds and put us in touch with our primal instincts. The doctor barely lifts his cup as I suck down my coffee, instead going on and on about how the invasion was some kind of great gift.
I yawn, too wide. “Can I use the bathroom?”
“Of course.” He smiles. “In the hallway.”
I nod, get up, use the bathroom, throw water on my face. I step back in the hallway, but decide to lean against the wall, just for a second. As I slide down, I think about how Doctor Delaveau kept talking and talking after he finished his first cup of coffee while I drank deep.
My head feels fuzzy when my eyes open. I see a ceiling, but not in the hallway. I try to get up but can’t. I look down. Three heavy, canvas straps pin me to a stainless-steel table with a raised metal rim. One goes across my chest, the second crosses my upper forearms and lower stomach. The third holds down my legs, just above the knees. My jacket’s gone. Shoes too. I blink and look again. My head feels fuzzy. I laugh. At least I’ve still got my socks. I shake my head and look around.
This room’s bigger than the dining room. There’s an incinerator in one corner, probably for medical waste. By that, gas cans. Between my feet, not far off, I see a metal door with a heavy bolt. I turn my head to the right. There’s a desk maybe five feet away. Spread out on the top are Eddie Mears’ identity papers, his wallet, the burner phone, and Sharp’s revolver. Other IDs sit in an “in” basket nearby. Next to that is a thick, yellow folder and a big book with the black, metallic cover Slitha like to use.
Slitha words glow in silver on the black book’s tall spine. I shake my head and make myself focus. Chronicles of a Time of War. I exhale slowly. I’ve found what Kah-Haas and I need, but I might not live long enough for it to do us any good.
I notice something else. Next to the desk sits a row of mismatched suitcases. Above those, on hooks, hang backpacks, a few purses, and a single, lonely baby carrier. I fight my bonds and arch my neck. Fifteen feet from my head, I see a normal-looking door. Much closer sits a tray of medical instruments, heavy on knives and the surgical saws. Directly above my scalp, built into the table, is a drain. My throat goes dry. I know where all the fugitives have gone. Piece by piece into Doctor Delaveau’s incinerator.
I listen for an opening door but Delaveau is taking his time. When the Doctor stripped off my jacket, he pulled the bottom of my shirt loose from my pants. I reach under the loose fabric for the knife clipped in my waistband. One finger touches the handle, but the strap pinning my arms keeps me from doing more. I inhale deep, then exhale everything. The bonds still feel tight, but not as bad as before. I keep my lungs empty for a couple of seconds, just long enough to grab the bottom end of the knife handle between two fingers. I draw the folder, breathe in, get a solid grip, then flick it open with my thumb. I lay the edge under the strap holding my forearms, inhale to make a tiny bit of extra room, then saw away with the serrated half of the blade.
Just when I’ve cut the strap a little over halfway, the doorknob rattles. The strap doesn’t feel as tight as before. I slip the knife inside my waistband, flip some loose fabric from my shirt over the cut I made, and move my hand back by my side. The door opens, Doctor Delaveau walks in, wearing green surgical scrubs. His medical mask is down, and he has a clear, plastic visor ready to be lowered. The final touch is a white, plastic apron.
He’s right over me and I see his quiet smirk. “My dear Mr. Mears, you had a bit of a fall, so I decided you needed to lay down.”
“Doc, I’m feeling a lot better. I think I can get up now.”
He smiles wider. “Be my guest.”
I can tell he likes the banter, so I shut up.
Doctor Delaveau frowns. “I see you’ve discovered my escape route.”
I keep quiet. His smirk turns into an icy frown.
“I’m disappointed in you Mr. Mears. I found nothing of value on you.”
I get an idea. “I’m not a fugitive.” His frown gets bigger. I talk faster. “Just hear me out.”
He stares. “I was hired to recover an item. What you do for criminals isn’t of interest to me. There’s a big reward.”
He nods. “Go on.”
“A collector wants that black book on your desk, no questions asked.”
Delaveau purses his lips, then smiles. “Though far from fluent, I am a student of the Slitha language. Over the past weeks, I’ve had few patients, and been translating this diary in order to further my education. The contents is quite fascinating.”
He pauses, as if he wants me to say something, maybe to beg. Maybe to tell him how smart he is. I can tell Delaveau isn’t interested in my offer, so I stop talking again.
The doctor raises his voice. “Do you know what, Mr. Mears? Like more than a few of my clients, I believe you hid your ill-gotten wealth before you came to my door.” He watches my face. “Some who come to me in search of sweet freedom hide their valuables in one of my neighbors’ yards, or even my own.” He shakes his head and smiles again. “Please excuse me for a moment.”
Delaveau walks to the desk and picks up Sharp’s revolver. “As you’ve just learned, one can never be too careful.” He flips open the cylinder, smiles, and closes it again. “Never fear. I’ll be back soon.”
The door closes behind him and I attack my bonds again. Seconds later, I cut through the middle one. Now my arms are free.
That’s when I hear the first gunshot. I jerk my legs, trying to pull them out from under the strap that holds them down, but it’s too tight. Two more shots go off; one close, the other farther away. I start cutting the strap over my chest. Voices echo through the house. More shots ring out. I tell myself Kah-Haas could be out there, but I’m lying to myself. None of those shots came from a Slitha weapon.
My chest is free. I sit up, but whatever drug Delaveau gave me makes my head spin. Only the strap over my legs keeps me from falling off the table. My knife saws at the last strap. A gunshot again, just on the other side of the door. I cut too fast and slice my leg. The last bond splits. I stand up. My legs buckle. I grab the edge of the table to keep from falling.
Another gunshot cracks down the hall. I take a breath and stumble towards the door. I reach out to lock it. Before I can, it starts to swing open. I see part of a plastic visor and red-spattered white apron. Another shot pops. A muzzle flash lights up the hallway. A dull, wet slap sounds on the other side of the door. I fall against it, turn the lock, take another deep breath. It looks like Human Defense Force has come to avenge their murdered friends.
My legs almost feel steady. I walk to the desk fast, stuff the burner phone in one pocket and grab the journal. I rush to the back door and yank the bolt. The other door crashes wide open. A gunshot cracks and a bullet slaps the wall by my head. I shove the back door open and run into the night.
When I’m sure no one’s following, I stop, get my breath back, and flip through the journal. My fingers smooth pages passed hand to hand across years and lightyears. Flowing Slitha cursive documents fleet logistics and weapons systems. Tables list kills and casualties. Star maps show enemy positions and battles. I wish I had the time to sit down and read it.
Finally, I use Eddie Mears’ burner phone to call Kah-Haas for backup.
I got the journal, but maybe Sharp and Silent will find Doctor Delaveau’s partial translation. They might escape before Kah-Haas arrives with reinforcements. The resistance could get the leverage it needs to become a force for real political change. And now that we’ve got the thing back, I doubt our masters will pay much attention to complaints from some puffed-up Slitha night-school teacher.
I could have grabbed Delaveau’s notes when I took the journal. It would have been easy. But I didn’t. I need to return the journal to my alien masters to keep my family safe. But the Slitha don’t know about the Doctor’s notes and I don’t have to tell them. Like I always say, there’s a fine line between doing the job and being a collaborator.
Long-time science fiction fan and longer-time Chicano, M.R. Subias prowls the frontiers of the imagination, seeking strange beauty. As part of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society, he founded the speculative fiction critique group Westside Weird and ran it for more years than he can remember. He’s currently editing Intrusion Zone, a hopeful YA cosmic horror novel set at the end of the world.
Giggles y Yo
by Tommy Villalobos
Giggles walked like she was dancing to Oldies But Goodies, Volume One. But she also looked sad all the time. It was like she wanted to be sad. Her friends already had a Sad Girl so they called her Giggles.
People called me Gordo. I wasn’t fat. Maybe just a little.
But let me get back to Giggles. She was the finest one in the Projects, 1950’s.
One day, Lil’ Chango, skinny with a face that not even a madre could love, tried talking to her. He was barking like a seal up the wrong playa. I looked at her face when she was listening to the bato. Her lips were twisted. Like he was making funny noises with his nariz.
He walked away with his head looking down, like he didn’t care if a carucha hit him. She looked at me and I made a serious face. Inside, I was laughing like when I saw that cartoon where the coyote gets hit by a giant rock when he’s chasing the pájaro loco.
Giggles started walking again with that special wiggle. I wanted to tell her something like a priest. I walked fast.
“Hija, you can tell me,” I said.
She turned to look at me like I was a cucaracha walking around her sopa.
“I don’t know you.”
“I want you to.”
“I like someone.”
“Never saw you with someone. Never saw you with anyone.”
She looked at me like I was another cucaracha but this time in her sopa.
“Are you following me around?”
“Even when I sleep.” I was trying to sound romantic like in a song.
“All girls like being looked at.”
“We’re meant to be.”
“Uh-uh.” She walked quickly away. Almost ran.
People could ask me why I didn’t give up. You know, chase other girls who liked gordos.
I would tell them that girls act in different modos. They can hate you but then you say or do something they really like, they grab you and put your arms around them. You feel like an octopus wearing a Pendleton.
“Where have you been, Felipe?” said my mother as soon as I walked in the door.
“Getting fresh air.”
“There isn’t any.”
I wanted to tell her about Giggles but she might not like her walk.
“Áma, I like this girl and—”
“She won’t be the last.”
“This one is the first and only. She is special.”
“She lives in Beverly Hills?”
“Take out the garbage.”
I took the garbage outside. A chavalo called Freddie saw me.
“Hey, Phillip,” he yelled. He was the only one who called me by my name.
“What?” I said to the mocoso.
“You want to play baseball?”
He didn’t see that I was grown up. Baseball was for chavalos. Girls were more fun now.
“Freddie, I like girls now,” I said like I was confessing to a priest.
Freddie was stunned, making a cara like I said I liked wearing dresses now.
“One day, you’ll throw your baseball to your sister because you won’t be able not to.”
I really thought of saying that because his sister Lydia was a better baseball player than him and she was only seven.
“You’re talking crazy, Phillip. Go get your mitt, let’s play.”
“Maybe later,” I said, knowing “later” really meant never.
He turned and walked away. He turned back to look at me as if he wasn’t sure who I was. Then he disappeared into the Projects. I felt kind of sad. Like my childhood was disappearing with him.
Then I thought again about Giggles and I wanted to kick Freddie and my childhood further into the Projects. God made something more fun than baseball.
Then my friend since I forget how long, Jimmy, saw me. We were the same age. He was more serious than me. Of course, my mother would say everyone was more serious than me.
Jimmy loved math and collecting baseball trading cards. His cards took up most of his life.
And the girls all looked at him like he was Elvis. It didn’t seem to matter to him. He spent his time with his math books and cards. Everything else was for other guys.
“Gordo, why are you standing there?” he said.
“Not sure. Where are you going walking all fast?”
“My mom needs butter.”
“You still run mandadas?”
“Sure. You don’t?”
I nodded slowly.
“Jimmy, oh, Jimmy!” said a high voice belonging to a running flaca with flying pelo.
It was Lorna Ritas. She was in a race for Jimmy with Sally Lomenez, Linda Mistasosa and Maria Lobermie. They had a better chance with the real Elvis. Jimmy barely said “Hi” to them but each time they took it like he wanted to make out with them at Belvedere Park.
Like that song, Jimmy only had eyes for Rachel Apenuz.
Rachel Apenuz had no personality I could see. Jimmy saw something the rest of the world didn’t, like in those spooky movies.
Compared to Rachel, Giggles was a shiny pair of spit-shined calcos. Rachel was like my sister’s paper dolls she used to play with. She was like cardboard. Her hair looked tired. In fact, she looked tired.
But I was glad Jimmy didn’t see Giggles. Then I panicked, my mouth turned dry. Maybe he hadn’t seen her glide like a lowered carucha down Brooklyn and Mednik.
“So, are any new girls waving at you?” I said, my mouth even drier now.
He looked at me like I said something in Chinese real fast.
“Yeah, like hot off the comal?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Is Rachel still your, you know…?”
He nodded with a strange smile.
“I still like Rachel.”
I could breathe normal, again.
Jimmy’s sister whistled for him from away off. She had the loudest whistle in the Projects.
Jimmy ran off. I went back inside.
I played “Earth Angel” by the Penguins on my sister’s record player. I played it over and over. The title said what I wanted to sing to Giggles. Then I fell asleep on my sister’s cama. The record player needle was stuck on the end of the record.
“What are you doing?” my sister screamed, making me jump. My heart wanted to leave my chest and jump out the window to find somewhere better to live.
“Man,” I screamed back, “you nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“And I hate to fail. Now I’m really mad.” She got good grades in school. I think that’s why she said that. But she also had a big mouth my mother was always trying to slam shut.
Hearing my sister’s big mouth, my mother came running like my sister was on fire.
“¿Qué está pasando?” she screamed louder than even my sister.
“I have to wash everything,” my sister said, looking around the room like I spread pulgas all over.
“Don’t exaggerate,” my mother said.
“He’s a pestoso,” she screamed in her chavala voice so all the Projects could hear. I think all the people in the Projects were smelling the air.
My mother was quiet as if my sister said something like the president.
“I was only playing a record,” I said, explaining things to the judge, my mother.
Like a bailiff, my mother escorted me out of the room. My hermana had a crooked smile. The door slammed behind us. I would aim pedos into her room next time she wasn’t home.
To feel better, I went back outside. In the Projects you always ran into someone who either made you laugh or was madder than you.
Right now, it was Pete. He never made you laugh or mad. But he always had a problem to share. I tried telling him that was why he had a mother. That’s how they got gray hair.
But today, I think I caught him at a moment when people feel like unloading a problem on the first person they catch.
“Gordo,” he said, “I have a problem.”
“You’re the last bato I would guess had one.”
“I met the finest weesa ever made.”
“When you see her walk, it’s like seeing the ocean at Long Beach.”
“Go write a poem.” I said. It sounded like he was talking about Giggles and I didn’t want to hear.
“I have to win her heart first.”
Pete wasn’t a bad looking guy like some of the truly ugly ones around, but right now he looked like the ugliest feo of all time.
“I love Giggles,” he continued and I wanted to give him a Popeye-sized cachetada.
“Who is ‘Giggles’?” I said with a shaky voice. I was a nervous liar.
“She is a walking angel, like in the song, ‘Earth Angel’.” He said this with a stupid, faraway look.
“You okay?” he then said.
I felt mad then sick then mad again.
“Are you sure-sure?”
“My problem is that she is related to Jimmy and likes Loco.”
I sat on the sidewalk. I saw Loco’s crooked right eye. I think he hated the world and everyone in it because of that eye. He was born that way. God wanted him to look loco so he took the hint and became one.
“You look weird, man.”
“Why Loco?” I croaked.
“That’s what I want you to tell me. He is one ugly bato with an even uglier way with people.”
“And she is Jimmy’s cousin?”
He nodded weakly.
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, yeah. Your sister Rosie talks with everyone about everyone. The Queen of Maravilla Chisme.”
“Hey, that’s my hermana.”
“Everyone knows Rosie, Pete.”
“Yeah, but you’re wise.”
All those times talking to Pete, I was mostly trying to get rid of him.
“So, what do you think?” he said. He wasn’t going nowhere till he got an answer.
“Loco has that name for a reason. Jimmy is probably thinking of a way to stop his prima from getting hooked up with him.”
I said that for myself.
“What do you mean?”
“He wants to stop him.”
“Oh.” I always liked hearing Pete say “Oh.” It meant he was accepting what I said and would go away. Not today.
“You know, Jimmy invited Loco to the show with Giggles?”
I lost my words and thinking.
Pete batted for me. “I saw them walking back to the Projects after they got off the Kern bus. Loco was laughing like a hyena.”
My mother said life has surprises. One just kicked me in the head.
“Should we jump him?” said Pete.
“He would wrap you around me like a pretzel.”
“So, what are you going to do?” he said.
What I wanted to do was pluck Loco’s good eye out and do a pachuco hop on it.
“It’s up to you.”
“Then what should I do?”
I felt like I was running his life when he should be running his own.
“Find another one.”
“There ain’t no other around,” said Pete, looking around as if to prove it.
“All good times don’t lead to Giggles.”
At this point, I think I was again giving advice to myself.
“Yes they do.”
“What if she hates you? And your family? And your dog.”
“She don’t know me. Or my family. And this is the Projects, we can’t have a dog.”
“Maybe she has a drinking problem. She’ll start making ojitos at other batos.”
“How do you know she has a drinking problem?”
“Just looking at all angles.”
“She could wet her bed, chew food with her boca wide open, have a voice like Jimmy Durante, and I would still like her.”
“What if she has a record?”
“Even if she was serving life at juvie, I would still visit her every day.”
He was almost as crazy over her as I was.
“Don’t you have a girl you liked? What about Edith?”
“Edith was in the second grade. Her family moved out of the Projects when I was nine.”
He looked at me real let down. He walked away.
I went and sat on my porch. I saw a girl coming toward me on the sidewalk. She was walking like a wave at Long Beach, like Pete said.
It was Giggles.
“Hello,” I said, trying to sound like some actor I heard in a movie.
She kept walking like I had been a squawking perico.
I was hoping for a “Hello” back or at least her head to turn up all conceited. But she kept walking.
But then for a little bit, she turned her head toward me. Not mad or happy.
Jimmy would make everything right. He would talk to his cousin and tell her that he and I were closer than gum under a zapato and she should grab me, crying.
Jimmy said that they were cousins when he came to the door.
“So, she just likes him like a cousin?” I said.
“She and Loco are closer than gum in your hair,” said Jimmy.
“So she likes him like a favorite cousin?”
“She likes him like she likes to kiss him.”
“He kisses her back.”
“You know Loco. You know what he’s like.”
“Since we were babies.”
I swallowed hard. Then I swallowed hard again. Then a third time and maybe a fourth.
“You look like you swallowed a moco,” he said.
“Why do you even know him?”
“He’s my step brother.” Jimmy didn’t even say that like he was sorry.
“I don’t make the rules. Loco’s dad married my mom years ago. My mom had kids. He had one, Loco.”
“So he can’t love Giggles?” I said.
“Why can’t he?”
“She is my cousin but she is nothing to Loco. Well, that could change, but that doesn’t keep them from liking, maybe loving each other and making a whole bunch of kids to spread around Maravilla.”
“That shouldn’t be allowed.”
I walked away, stomping on the ground like it was Loco’s ugly ojo.
I went to Pete’s house to report.
He opened his door then smiled like if I was going to say that Giggles loved him.
I broke the news over his head. But it was my own cabeza that hurt.
Tommy Villalobos was born in East L.A. and also raised there. He thinks of the lugar daily and love the memories while remembering the tragedies of his neighbors and of his madre. Tommy’s mother had a great sense of humor and he inherited about ten per cent of it. She had a quick wit and response to all verbal attacks, whether to herself personally or to her Catholic religion that she loved. Tommy dedicates all his works to her, knowing she had him when she had no idea how she was going to feed him and his four siblings. She was a single mom until the day she died. He lives in a boring suburb now, outside of Sacramento, but his heart and soul will always be in East Los Angeles where his mother was always by his side to protect him.
A Quiet Night on the Boulevard
by Jacob Teran
The block was not as active tonight. Olympic Boulevard is one of the gateways to enter our urban domain known as South Sapro Street and, on this night, it is absent of travelers and hostile combatants.
You can hear the last metro bus making its way down the Boulevard to the depot drop off—final destination. A long day of picking up hard workers, tweakers, cholos, and dropping them off to where they need to go.
Neither juras pass by with sirens, nor local tweakers roam the block looking for a potential vehicle to break into, just, the calm and quiet sound of the wind and train that makes its presence known to our barrio. These nights seldomly visit my barrio and when the sweet sound of silence makes its way to Sapro, the tranquility is always welcomed.
I am in my messy room of my mom’s 2-bedroom apartment that I have not cleaned for days, lying in bed. I can feel the temperature drop from my open window as the smell of rain and burnt cannabis roaches permeates my room. I slip on my already tied DVS skating shoes, grab my hoodie, and make my way out into the abyss of my barrio.
I head to the local Valero Gas Station to pick up a blunt wrap to indulge with my homeboy, Iggy. A light haze of cool droplets penetrates the dark sky making the lonely night that much colder. The smell of wet asphalt is refreshing with each sloshing step that I take. The local Valero was the place to buy a 3-pack of some cheap beer if no one was in the mood to go to Superior Market. The fluorescent lights beam blue and yellow, and read, “Valero Gas Station” with the “o” turned off or perhaps, dead. The people inside know me and even though I am still a minor by age, they never card me when I buy a pack of frajos, especially blunt wraps.
As I make my way back on the wet asphalt of the Boulevard, I can smell and hear all sorts of familiar elements that ignite my senses. Across the street from the Valero was Cedar Ave. Someone was always washing their clothes on the corner of Cedar and the Boulevard in the evening. An old steel clothesline is engulfed with colorful socks, white t-shirts, and blue jeans. Probably a small family since I always see a group of three to four kids playing in the street just before the sun sets. The scent of Suavitel Fabric Softener always reminded me of my Abuelos in Boyle Heights, as their neighbors used a similar product for their clothes.
The next thing I immediately notice is the fresh scent of cannabis burning nearby. It must be the homies from my block congregating at Cheddar’s pad since he lived two houses from the corner of Cedar. The thick skunky aroma of indica burning in the street at night always felt like I was home—a comforting feeling. Suavitel and marijuana were the telltale signs I am home.
Between Cedar and Sapro, an area on the Boulevard, is where I feel the most alone as I walk. As I walk pass Cedar, I look to the left side of the Boulevard stretches to its desolate side of abandoned buildings bathed with graffiti. To my right was a long fence of white wood that closed off the side of an apartment. This wooden canvas is marked “SLS,” for SAPRO LOCOS, the acronym for the locotes on my street. Other times, they were crossed out by the rival barrios in the surrounding area and down south of us, passing the railroad tracks, beyond the Boulevard and away from the domain of Sapro.
The spray on walls, scribes on windows, markings on wooden fences, trees, light posts, and curbsides, are all voices without faces that speak. A language that only people that live here understand.
I walk under the streetlight between Cedar and Sapro, probably the most remote section of the Boulevard where peculiar occurrences would take place. In this desolate part of the Boulevard, voices could be heard with not a single person around, tall, shadowy figures have followed people only to disappear in a blink of an eye, and the streetlight itself would flicker violently when someone walked under. I could never account for the first two things that homies and neighbors have spoken of, but the streetlight flickering, that was real. Probably some glitch with the wiring under the asphalt, but, whatever rationale could explain, it always made me feel like some ominous entity was following me.
I walk under it tonight. It does not flicker.
I pass by the streetlight and eventually the Cliff to walk across Sapro to a dark grey Astro van. I could see the radio’s light slightly brighter as I approach the van’s sliding door. I knocked on it twice before opening it to be greeted by my homeboy, Iggy,
“Fuckin’ Guill! Finally! Ah Ah! Ah!” Iggy’s laugh was always amusing. Iggy or Iggs, always sounded like his laugh was backwards.
“’Sup G, was’ crackin’?” Coming into the van, we shake hands.
“Nada güey, posted trying to get faded. ’Sup with you? Where da bud at?”
“Shit, I thought you had it.”
“Lying ass vato! Ah! Ah! Ah!”
I pop out the grape flavored swisher I bought from Valero as I come in slamming the sliding door after me.
“Firme! Grape will go good with this shit.”
Iggy starts cutting up the swisher with a dull razor as I begin to break up the sticky indica from the baggie I was clenching since the odd streetlight. Iggy hands me a ripped Home Depot cardboard he used to dump out the tobacco from the swisher. Bone Thugs’ “Resurrection” is playing in a CD player he installed for his mom’s van’s radio. The music suits the quiet night and the session we are about to have. The dank bud begins to stink up the van with a skunky aroma as I break up the sticky flower that sticks to my fingertips.
We start conversing about the extracurricular activities that have been making the block hot: South Siders and Veil Street have been coming through our block and hitting up their placas in our area. A few tweakers from a few blocks away stealing the vecinos’ recyclables. Really typical mamadas that occur in our barrio. Sometimes we laugh about it. Sometimes we get into heavier conversations.
I hand the cardboard with the potent shake I just broke up to Iggy, “Trip out G, isn’t tonight quiet as fuck?”
“Fuck yea, Guill…but…” Iggy licks the wrap’s end to seal the blunt, “…it’s firme, I like nights like this. Don’t you?”
“Yeah, it’s just trippy,” I kept looking down the Boulevard from the second-row window of the van. Usually, a suspicious car or jura patrolling would pass, but nothing.
Iggy hands me the lighter, “Do the honors and spark it up, Guill! Ah! Ah! Ah!”
I light one side of the blunt and roll it around slowly as if I’m hot roasting a pig, making sure the cherry got an even burn. I take a couple of light hits as if I was smoking a cigar to get the cherry just right. As the smoke enters my lungs, I can feel it spread throughout my chest making me want to cough. I hold it in and exhale through my nostrils, feeling the euphoria of both weed and Krayzie Bone’s lyricism.
Iggy is chain-hitting the blunt and seemed like he forgot I was in the session with him. He looks halfway towards me from the driver’s seat, “…Guill, I wanna tell you some shit that some OG told me a while back. This vato was a firme ass foo, a real one. The shit he said was the truth dog, palabra, and I still believe this shit to this day.”
I looked at Iggy thinking ahh shit, this foo is faded. “Handles, G.”
Iggy put the blunt down to his chest as it continues to burn, “And I don’t give a fuck what anyone says, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise either. You gotta believe this shit, Guillermo. You’re gonna have foos try to press you, call you a bitch and all that…but fuck that.”
I was thinking, Iggy is never going to get to the point, “Yeah Iggy, handles, I hear you foo.”
Iggy turns as much as he could to the seat behind him where I’m sitting, “You don’t got to be from nowhere and still be G wid’ it. A lot of foos think you gotta be from somewhere to be hard, claim a hood, get into mamadas and put in dirt, and all that bullshit, but chales, güey.” He pauses and takes another rip from the blunt.
“Escucha güey…Just be you dog…and that’s keeping it gangster.” A bit of mota and street wisdom Iggy shares as he takes one big rip and lets out a huge cloud of smoke that makes him start choking and laughing.
Iggs passed the almost finished blunt back to me as he was coughing all over the place. “Damn, foo, you aight, haha!” “Hit that shi…that shit…Mem…” Iggy kept coughing and all I could think about was why he was telling me this.
I sit there as Iggy is coughing his lungs out and felt this was the most genuine thing my homeboy ever told me. Growing up in the hood, I always thought I would eventually get jumped in the hood when the time came. But what Iggy just confided hit me profoundly. I couldn’t stop thinking about it during our session.
We kill the blunt and hear a few of Iggy’s primos coming back to interrupt our private hotbox. Fuck. Who is this? There are a chingo of us on the block and whoever comes to a session either has weed or none.
“Eeeeee, look at you scandolosos right here,” Iggy’s primo Fat Boy always loves putting people on blast.
Iggy looks up and blasts back, “fuck you dick, where were you when I hit you up earlier to blaze it?” Fat Boy smirks. “Don’t even trip, I share my shit homie, not like you assholes,” Fat Boy starts opening up a bag with his own weed that he had.
Looking to me, Fat Boy laughs, “’Sup Memo, where’s all da bud at? You and Iggy are straight holdouts.”
I smirk and laugh. “Dick, you foos had your own VIP sesh, so Iggs hit me up. Got ends? Still have some leftover yesca.” Fat Boy ignores me as his brother Scraps and Cheddar come through pushing themselves in the van talking mumbling and complaining that Iggy and I were smoking without them, although they just smoked without Iggy and me.
“Hey dick, my Jefa is gonna come out trippin’ with all you foos in here being all loud and shit,” Iggy always snapped when unexpected dudes came, even if they were his primos.
“Don’t even trip, my Tía loves me,” Fat Boy said as he was breaking up some of his bud nudging me for the cardboard with the leftover bud on it.
“Not you fat ass, you’re burning the spot,” Iggy capped back as he was looking for a track to play on the van’s CD player stereo. Scraps, Cheddar, and I all started busting up laughing from the exchange between Iggy and his primo, Fat Boy. DJ Quik’s “Pitch in On a Party” surrounds the van’s speakers as the van gets louder and I kept thinking about what Iggy told me.
Fat Boy looked back at Scraps and Cheddar, “Shut the fuck up turkey and you too cheddar.” Fat Boy’s hermano Scraps was chubby like Fat Boy, but shorter. Everyone called him “Turkey” or “Danny DeVito,” which he hated. Cheddar had pretty poor hygiene when it came to his teeth. He never brushed his teeth, and the result made his dientes look like picante corn nuts.
“Dick, you’re fucked up,” Cheddar shakes his head.
“You’re a scandalous vato too, ‘Gay-mo,’” Fat Boy looks to me. The homies would either call me “Guill” or “Memo,” short for Guillermo. Other times, “Gay-mo,” because it sounded funny to them, and I also hated it.
“Just be you dog,” I pat Fat Boy hard on the back of the shoulder.
“Fuck, let’s go finish this shit out in the front of your pad Fat Boy, you burned the spot.”
“Fuck it, let’s bounce then,” Fat Boy said as we all get up to leave the van.
We all walked to the front of Fat Boy and Scrap’s pad. Their mom was asleep, so we had to creep and crawl if we didn’t want to get kicked out of the yard. Fat Boy and Scrap’s oldest brother Beaker wasn’t home either, probably getting all pedo with some lady that he would always say he was going to marry but then break up with weeks later.
We all post up on the bed of Beaker’s 1987 El Camino, laughing quietly, talking about how cold the night was. We start packing bowls from Cheddar and Scrap’s weed pipes and begin a new rotation. Iggy’s stomach was bothering him, so heads to the restroom. The four of us, without Iggy, sit in the back of the El Camino getting faded as the night continues to get colder and quieter.
Suddenly, a car comes out the cut from the corner of the yard where we are posting up, on the Boulevard. Fat Boy and Scraps lived at the corner of our street and had thick bushes that made it hard to see who was walking or driving by, especially at night.
* * * *
We then see four shadows running around the corner of Fat Boy and Scraps’ pad outside the fence. The moonlight was our only aid in seeing through the darkness. One shadow stood at the corner keeping trucha, while one other dude stood outside of the gate. The other two shadows came up to us in front of the fence where we happen to be sitting.
“Where the fuck you from, Ese?! This is big bad Southside Greenwood Gang! Fuck ‘Scrape’ Street!”
The bald shadow brandishes a .45 cuete and points it to each of our stunned skulls. All of us with our sweaty palms open, shield our chests, afraid and frozen in an already cold evening. The nefarious shadow, only three feet away from the silver diamond-shaped fence that separates us, stands fiercely. The streetlight reveals his inked face, a black spider web trapped his entire face with the center of the web starting from the shadow’s nose. Eyes as black as obsidian, stabbing us with his soulless glare, listo for anything.
“Hey dog…we’re from nowhere…we don’t bang. I live right here,” Fat Boy being the oldest of us speaks, shaken up, choosing his words carefully. The shadow looks at him with disdain and then all of us. He points his cuete at each of us asking us individually if we claimed Sapro Street. With our arms raised, palms open, not knowing what to think or do, we deny because we are in fact not from the hood, yet.
“I don’t give a fuck! You’re caught slipping out here! This is Southside Territory! Fuck Sapro Street! Bitch ass levas! The spider webbed shadow looks to his homeboy for confirmation to off us right then and there. The shadow raises his less dominant hand and cocks his cuete. Coming back from the restroom, Iggy comes out to a situation he was somewhat familiar with.
The second shadow by the fence gate sees Iggy and hails out, “Who the fuck are you?! Southside Greenwood Gang, ese!”
Iggy opens his palms towards the second shadow, “Hey, I don’t bang dog. I live right here in the back, this is my Tía’s pad. These are all my primos, we’re just right here burning some bud. My primos are kids G, they ain’t soldiers. We are family right here.” Iggy being much older than us already knew the street lingo—along with his street intellect and rhetoric, Iggy’s response disheartens the shadows.
Although this was a typical night in my barrio, we never had a neighboring group roll up on us like that. This night made me realize the brevity of life, the choices I make and the words I choose influence what can happen next. Iggy’s words echoed in my mind and made me realize a lot of shit—life is short and can be taken in an instant. I want to change and do better, but it’s difficult when you have no direction or positive influences. But Iggy made me think and that was perhaps one of the most impactful things someone ever told me.
The dude with the cuete throws up his insignia, claims his hood one last time so we could all remember it, and dashes off to the car with the other shadows and drove off into the abyss.
The rain never came but the smell remained…Some fuckin’ quiet night.
Jacob “Jake” Teran is a proud Chicano living in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles. Jake is a 2nd generation Chicano who was born in Montebello, Los Angeles, east of Los Angeles. He has published one short fictional story at his community college at Rio Hondo College and a master’s thesis for his graduate program, where he obtained his Masters Degree in Rhetoric and Composition. He is currently teaching composition to several departments in two colleges that include indigenous and Chicanx literature. Jake currently lives in the San Gabriel Valley where he is working on a novel based on his experiences growing up in his barrio that deals with gang lifestyle, drugs, violence, and finding one’s identity in a chaotic concrete jungle.
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