New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from The Butcher’s Granddaughter by Michael Lion

It started upstairs with the books at The Reading Room, an underground club on the edge of Los Angeles that’s usually someplace along the beach.

I say usually because sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. When it’s there it’s really basic: the bar is downstairs and once in a while some local band looking for exposure will set up and scream for free; upstairs there’s one big room with no furniture and all these books spilled on the floor and stacked against the walls up to the ceiling. You can do what you want. Some people take them and some people leave them and some people read them. Everything is up there, from old wordy classics by Proust and Dickens all the way up to the slick Japanese things they call “graphic novels,” which are basically just thick adult comic books. Nobody I know can read them, but they’re there. And sometimes, so am I.

I was casually searching for a copy of Camus’ The Stranger, no one in the room but me and some leatherette who had successfully passed out on a mound of Dr. Seuss. There was no band that night and except for the static hum of humanity the place was relatively quiet. I had just stumbled across a small trove of French philosophy when a gentle hand on my arm turned me around so I could stare into her large, moist eyes.

Li Nguyen, a coffee-colored product of French-Vietnam, as smooth and beautiful as a Buddhist statue come alive. I had met her a few years earlier in a downtown café, coming off a monumental bender that had made me more talkative than I would have liked. Her mind spoke three languages and enjoyed getting lost in the noise of the metal clubs at the end of the strip; her body tried to hide in loose-fitting t-shirts, jeans, and leather jackets, but never quite succeeded. She looked like a girl, spoke and acted like a woman. I was probably in love with her but over time had convinced myself otherwise.

Her face needed no makeup and was flawless except for honeyed tears gliding down each of her cheeks. A single strand of black, straight, glossy hair was stuck in one of her eyelashes. At first, she didn’t say anything and neither did I. But weeping women cause mistakes.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, brushing the strand away from her face.

She goofed around with the books strewn at our feet for a minute and then mumbled, “You know things, don’t you Bird?”

“Some things,” I said, playing along. She would get to it eventually.

“You know Jay, right?”

“I know lots of Jays.”

She started to well up again and managed, “I think he steals cars.”

I coughed. “Ballesteros?”

She nodded rapidly, keeping the tears at bay.

“Sure,” I said. “I used to work with him once in a while. He’s a repo man, or was. Worked the South Central grid.”

“Yeah, that’s right. He’s got a girlfriend named Naomi.”

I shrugged. “I don’t walk around arm-in-arm with the guy, but I’ll take your word for it. Girl’s name is Naomi. Check.”

She asked for a cigarette. “Li, you know I’d pretty much do anything for you. All you have to do is ask. So why not just ask?”

She dragged on the cigarette. “Just listen, OK? I’ve got something important to tell you, and I don’t wanna get ahead of myself. And whatever you’re going to charge me is fine.”

I didn’t say anything to that. Friend or not, some things I do aren’t free for anybody. And I knew Ballesteros well enough to understand he was dangerous. Emotionless, with a dovish, friendly-sounding voice, he had talked everyone from crack dealers to housewives out of their car keys. From what I knew he was honest as a seeing-eye dog—never did any chop-shop work or took any payoffs from the people in hock. I also know he killed a black guy with three kids and no wife down in Athens one night. I know it was self-defense and the cops considered it a favor to society and forgot about it . . . and Ballesteros would have drilled the guy even if it wasn’t self-defense.

Li continued. “This girl, Naomi . . . I need you to . . . um . . . protect her.”

“Whoa,” I said, waving a hand and shaking my head. “First of all, I don’t do that stuff any more, and second of all, even if I did, you couldn’t afford it.”

She didn’t look at me, but I thought I could see the tears start to well up again. I took a deep breath and said, “Look, I don’t do bodywork anymore. You know that.” I absently rubbed an old scar on my shoulder while I talked about it. “But just out of curiosity, why?”

“Like I said, she’s his girlfriend. But I was sitting in Larry Parker’s a couple of hours ago and Sheff comes in and sits down. Says he’s got a new girlfriend. Went on and on about her and how she’s really cool and they like the same things and all that bullshit. You know Sheff, right?”

“No.”

“He’s this guy I kind of have a thing for. And I listen to him ‘cause he’s my friend and all. After a while he starts to describe her and I freak. I asked if her name was Naomi. And he said, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’” She sucked harder on the cigarette and then stamped it out with the toe of her boot. “So I tried to be calm and said, ‘You know she’s got a boyfriend?’ He started to get sort of pissy, like that never stopped him before, you know? Then we sat for a minute without saying anything and then he just got up all of a sudden and headed for the door. I said, ‘Sheff, where you going?’ But I already knew. He’s had that look that guys get, you know?”

I nodded. That I did know.

“He said he was going to see her. And then he jumped on his bike and took off, with me yelling after him not to go, because it was like, a quarter-to-one.”

I looked at my watch. It was twenty-after-two. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Tonight’s Wednesday. Jay only does a couple of cars on Wednesdays. It’s the end of his week. He’ll be back at his place in a couple hours. If Sheff’s there with Naomi, I don’t know what he’ll do. Jay loves her—as much as Jay can love anything. And he carries a gun, like, all the time.”

I did some math. If he started at eleven, did two boosts, he would be home already. I leaned my head against the wall and thought for a minute. Li was staring at her boots. I finally said, “Okay, a lovers’ quarrel. You big friends with this Naomi girl?”

“No.” She said it too quickly and didn’t look at me when she did.

“Well, I’ll go talk some sense into her.”

She looked at me and for the first time the panic seeped in behind her eyes. Her voice cracked. “No, Bird. I want you to protect her.” She reached in a pocket and pulled out a roll of money. “Is this enough?”

I pushed it back at her and made her put it away. “You’re not telling me something. You say you’re not friends or anything with this Naomi girl, but you’re willing to throw a wad at me to protect her. So you’re hiding something. Tell me what it is. If you don’t, I can’t do anything. More than that, I won’t do anything.”

“I’m not her friend,” she said firmly. She stared at her shoes again and her lower lip went thin in an effort to keep it from quivering. “See, Naomi’s real name is Song . . .” Her voice trailed off and then came back strong. “She’s my sister.”

The rest of her story I caught in a blur as I flew out of the Reading Room and started my motorcycle. It wasn’t much. Song, or Naomi, was Li’s sister, but she had been disowned by very strict Vietnamese parents after she told her dad to take the high hard way, and had moved in with Ballesteros. To her parents, Song no longer existed. It was not the living in sin but the parental defiance that got her exiled. Li was still culturally Asian enough to respect her parents, but that didn’t stop her from keeping tabs on her sister. I got the impression that Song was older than Li. She wasn’t. She had just turned eighteen.

I told Li I would check up on her sister and give her a call if anything went wild, but I didn’t think it would. She thanked me with a hug, and I tore into the late evening traffic.

One thing stuck in my mind like a glass splinter: Ballesteros carried. Love and guns go together like cars and alcohol, so I dropped by my place on the way to Jay’s apartment and picked up my own little security blanket: an Israeli Arms nine-millimeter with no serial numbers. I could have gotten a Saturday Night Special for the cost of a downtown movie, but you buy a gun like that waiting for somebody to make you use it. All I wanted was a showpiece.

Nonetheless, I popped the clip and made sure it was full before I stepped off my bike in the parking lot of Gorky’s Café. A block away I could see a light on in Ballesteros’ fifth-floor apartment.

His place was in the Santa Fe Building, a ten-story gray dinosaur on the northern edge of L.A.’s South Central district. Sixty years earlier it had housed a bank on its ground floor and every business from shyster attorneys to legitimate chiropractors above. The architecture reflected a period when people wanted their banks to look like places where you would put your money—muscular. In the 1960’s it had been condemned and listed for demolition, but developers put a little money into it, turning the office space into studio apartments. They were huge and L.A.-cheap at less than a dollar per square-foot. Three decades of lenient leases and art students from the local campuses have left their mark. Most of the twelve-foot-high walls sport murals or at least some type of original paint job, usually ethnic, often impressive. Ballesteros’ apartment had one, a portrait of its last tenant. Catching my breath on the fifth flight landing and wondering if the mural was still there, I took the gun from my inside jacket pocket and shoved it into the back of my jeans.

The block-and-a-half walk from Gorky’s had given me time to get nervous. I stood outside the door, convincing myself that everything was going to be cool. Jay was probably already home and asleep, having thrown both Song and Sheff out on their cheating asses.

When I stepped into apartment 5E, I was only one-third right. He was already home.

I listened at the door, cracked open about an inch. There were none of the usual habitation sounds —water running, footsteps, groaning. Moving like I was in a dream, I silently pushed it open far enough to fold around inside, ready to call out a tentative, “Jay?”

His name froze in my throat.

The short walls of the portico hid me from most of the room, but I could see Jay, sitting in a faux-antique wingback armchair. He was leaned forward with his elbows on his thighs, staring at the floor in total silence, barely breathing. His hands were crossed limply between his knees, one of them holding a cigarette, and his head was slung so far down between his shoulders that it looked to be growing directly out of his chest. The only clothing he had on that wasn’t black was a pair of torn and bleached Levi’s with both knees blown out and a faded drawing of a long-stemmed rose on the left thigh. Aside from that, he wore a black turtleneck underneath a leather motorcycle jacket, which had bunched up when he leaned over, giving his back a deformed, grotesque look.

He either hadn’t heard me come in or simply didn’t acknowledge me. To a stranger, he would have looked like any twenty-year-old kid who’d just gotten off the late shift and was having a cigarette before going to bed. They would not know what I knew: he was damn intelligent and, unfortunately, knew it. That made him arrogant, which he didn’t like, but couldn’t help. He was an extremely driven individual, and I knew from experience that being around him could be mentally and emotionally draining. Now, sitting perfectly still, he was coldly masking a mind that was moving like an open freeway, careening and twisting but only converging on three subjects. The first was his girlfriend, Naomi or Song or whatever, sitting across from him in their bed, naked, her eyes wide and making no effort to hide fear. The second was a male individual who I took to be Sheff, sitting next to her in roughly the same position, just as frightened and also looking it. The last, and which was probably giving him the most trouble, was the .45 automatic that he was holding in his right hand.

When Song saw me peek around the corner of the entryway, the fear in her eyes subsided for a second but returned when I put my finger to my lips and didn’t seem to want to do anything.

I didn’t. If Song could have read my mind right then she would have screamed—I could not have cared less about her. I just wanted to go back down the stairs, let what was clearly about to happen, happen, and make whatever I could off the homicide squad for what I had seen. Instead, I stood at the door, just inside the portico, thinking.

Jay was obviously not aware of how much time had gone by. When a two-inch ash from his cigarette broke off onto the toes of his black Converse high-tops, it was the only movement the room had seen in some time. But to him it probably seemed just seconds since he had casually crossed the room, sat down, and pulled out the gun.

In contrast, Song was in a raw panic. Her eyes darted between the gun and the side of Jay’s face like they were watching a tennis match. She was looking for a twitch, a blink, anything to give some sign that she was still looking at a human being. I could tell it wasn’t going to happen. Jay looked like a parody of Rodin’s “Thinker,” in whose hands some joker had placed a cigarette and a gun.

I played it over in my head, picturing her on the downside of an orgasm, Jay walking in and flicking on the light, she being slow to turn around and realize who was standing in the corner with a face that had all the animation of an egg. I imagined the pleasure draining from her features and being replaced by the pure fear that was evident now in every crease of her face.

She was sitting Indian-style. Her hands were white-knuckled around the lip of the sheet that she had failed to completely cover herself with. Her small, tan breasts rested innocently between her arms. I’d never had the pleasure of seeing Li naked, but it was obvious that she and Song were sisters. I thought about that and popped a match lit with my fingernail. It sounded like a jet engine starting up.

Jay was the first to move, but Song was the first to open her mouth. As Jay raised his head, she asked in a voice so locked with fear it creaked, “Who are you?”

I ignored her at first because, although I didn’t feel like I was in any real danger, I also wasn’t totally sure what Jay would do—and a .45 makes an exit wound a nine-year-old could crawl through. I was standing there with the lit match suspended about six inches from the end of an unlit cigarette, letting my breath out slow and controlled, when he went ahead and answered Song for me.

“Bird. What the fuck are you doing here?”

Getting the important things out of the way first, I said, “You gonna use that cannon on me?”

He shook is head and re-adjusted it between his shoulders. He said “No,” to the floor. I didn’t ask if he was going to use it on anybody else.

Song chose that moment to assume, wrongly, that my arrival somehow broke the tension or even affected the situation. She suddenly shuffled across the bed to get her shirt. Without looking up, Jay raised the gun, leveled it at Song and cocked the hammer, which cracked like a high-tension wire in the cold silence of the room. She froze, looking at me like I had forgotten something. I deliberately lit my cigarette and inhaled and exhaled reflectively, all without looking at her.

“This is a little weird, Bird,” Jay said to the floor, “you showing up right now. You can sit down if you want. You been standing there a while.” He waved the cigarette at the foot of the bed.

Not wanting to have to move around any bullets if Song continued to exercise her I.Q., I said, “I’ll stand, thanks. I’m here because I was asked to be. I’m not going to tell you by who because . . . well . . . just because.”

There was some silence. It’s amazing how long you can linger over simple decisions. For me it was: stay or go? For Ballesteros: kill her or not? For Song: Sit there and wait, or move and die?

Jay finally asked, “You scared, Bird?”

“No.” I wasn’t lying.

“I am, man.”

That surprised everybody. “What are you scared of?” I asked, studying the end of my cigarette.

“I’m scared I’m gonna do something really stupid, you know? I mean, I got a problem, and . . .” His words trailed off to a whisper and he twitched the gun at the bed.

He was talking about Song like she wasn’t even in the room, which scared her back into the tennis game between his face and the gun. He hadn’t even mentioned Sheff, but hadn’t shot him either, so I figured he was safe.

“I’ve been sitting here trying to decide whether to kill her or not,” he continued. “But, like, not as if she was a person—like she was a problem. I mean, you know me, man. I got a problem, I get it out of the way.” He grew quiet for a moment, then gazed emptily between his shoes and said, “You think killing her is the best thing?”

Song’s facial expression was split between the relief she felt because he was at least talking now, and the realization that she was essentially sitting on her deathbed. The academic tone of the conversation Jay and I were having could not be helping any, either.

Jay was still looking at the floor. From his voice I could tell his mind was calm, and he was in control. He was figuring all of this out as best he knew how. He was being careful, and therefore, slow. He didn’t seem to be aware of the anxiety this was causing. I took a relatively minor chance and said, “Sheff, get dressed.”

Sheff looked at me like I had told him to cut off his left foot. I moved my chin enough to indicate the door behind me. He moved so slowly at first that I thought he was going to pass out. Jay didn’t even lift his head. Once Sheff got the message that he wasn’t going to get shot, he dressed so fast he wound up with his shirt on backwards and inside-out. He paused outside the door and said, “I owe you . . . big.”

“That’s right,” I said under my breath. “You do.”

His shoes whispered down the stairs and when the click of the big entrance door closing echoed up the stairwell, I decided to play it out.

“You know,” I said casually, “you could kill her.”

Song shot her eyes at me and let out a high squeak. Jay raised his head and waited for me to go on, like I had made the decision for him and he was waiting for me to tell him what to do next.

“Think about it. Nobody knows who she is. Just another eighteen-year-old in the big city. She’s a Jane Doe. Got no home but this one, and her name’s not on the lease, right? She may split the rent, but there’s no record of that. You ace her, toss the body a couple blocks away in a liquor store dumpster, and she might as well have died in another country. No I.D., nothing. Beauty and the unknown beast.”

Song started sniveling, very quietly and very high.

“After all,” I continued, “you’re trying to say something with that gun, now, aren’t you? Something to Naomi here?”

He looked puzzled. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“You think Naomi has anything to say to you?”

He hadn’t thought of that one. He didn’t move or speak.

I turned to her. “Do you, Naomi?”

She didn’t know whether to talk or not. Her mouth moved for a minute, but when nothing came out she shut it.

“Look honey,” I said, “Jay’s not the fuckup here. He’s not gonna go first.”

At that Song started crying, but I couldn’t decide if it was fear or grief or both. I waited a second and then said, “Talk, Naomi.”

She shook her head as her body racked with sobs.

“Talk!” I yelled. I crossed the twenty feet to the bed in three strides and grabbed her shoulder, squeezing hard. Jay watched intently but otherwise didn’t move. “You’re going to start with ‘I’m sorry,’” I said firmly. “And then you’re going to tell him more. You know what I mean,” I said, pulling her over to me and whispering, “Song.”

Her eyes got wide, and then the apology flooded out of her. It was insincere, but it was exactly what Jay needed to hear.

“I’m sorry,” she coughed, “but this is the first night, Jay. The only night, I swear to God. Maybe I’m not ready.” She thought about that one. “I’m for sure not ready for this. You’re too much for me. Too intense. You’re wonderful, Jay. But I wanted something else.”

“What?” I said.

“To get out.”

“Why?”

She looked up at me with those eyes like Li’s. They didn’t have the same effect. “Tell him,” I said flatly. She still looked blankly at me. “Tell him why!” I yelled, and wrapped a hand around her neck and stood her up at the end of the bed like a rag doll. The sheet fell away and for a split second there was complete silence, Song’s sudden, brutal nakedness filling the room and freezing us both with her sheer vulnerability.

Then she screamed and Jay stood up, his .45 swinging in a hard arc. Almost in tandem I pulled my own piece and pushed the muzzle into Song’s soft neck just as Jay settled his aim, rock steady, at my chest.

“Stop it, Bird. I swear to God I’ll kill you.” This was delivered in a tone of voice he might have used to order a sandwich.

“First,” I said, keeping my voice from shaking, “you need to hear this. Second, you’ll take us both down.” I could feel my jacket collar sticking to my neck. But if he would protect her from me, he wasn’t going to kill her anymore. I slowly pulled the gun away from her neck, staring him down. “Tell him, Song. Tell him why you want out.”

Jay didn’t say anything. He just stood there waiting. Later on, that would bother me.

Using her real name out loud made it clear. She blew it all—told Jay about her parents, who he thought were dead, about the lie of her whole life. “You were part of it, Jay. Part of the lie. I thought that I loved you but I was wrong. When I slept with Sheff, I guess that pretty much showed me how I felt. I needed out.”

“Then get out,” he said. It wasn’t hateful. There simply wasn’t anything left to say. The problem was solved. He wanted it to leave.

I had put my gun away as she spilled her guts. I waited by the door until she got dressed and went past me with her head down and scuttled down the stairs. If she hadn’t been Li’s sister, I would have had to fight the urge to kill her myself.

Jay was standing in the middle of the apartment, his hands hanging limply at his sides. The gun was all but dropping to the floor from his fingers.

“I’ll be around,” I said.

He didn’t speak except to mumble, “Loved her. The only one.” Then he dropped the .45’s hammer and tossed it on the bed. I nodded, shut the door, and trudged down the stairs.

I still had work to do.

I thought I would have to chase her down, but she was waiting for me outside the old building’s thick double doors. She stepped out from behind a scrolled column next to the sidewalk and opened up on me with her fists. They felt like a rabbit’s feet thumping softly against my chest. She was still crying a little, and when I got hold of her wrists her mouth took up where her hands left off.

“Fucker, fucker, fucker! Who the fuck do you think you are! Do you know who I am?”

She struggled, the gold pendant around her neck getting tangled in her hair. I glanced up and down the block, too aware that I was a white boy manhandling a screaming woman who would look black from ten yards away. Before she could continue the screeching, I dragged her back inside the doors and all but threw her against the stairs. She continued turning the air blue with English words sprinkled liberally into broken Vietnamese phrases whose meanings could not have been compliments. I almost yelled at her to shut up, then simply pulled the gun out instead and she went dead silent in mid-shout. Sighing disgustedly, I paced back and forth in front of her. “Think for a minute,” I said to her. “Use your fucking brain for just a second. Five minutes ago you were an inch from getting your head removed and I pulled you out. I’d be pissed, too, if someone busted in and made me spill my guts to a lover, particularly a lover holding a gun. But before I beat the shit out of him I’d want to know a few things.” I took a deep breath and stared at her the way a teacher stares at an indolent student. “Don’t you?”

She was still fuming so badly that droplets of sweat were pilled on her forehead, but she had started to think. She didn’t get very far.

“What the hell would I wanna ask you, you fuckin’ dickhead? I could’ve handled it. He wasn’t gonna dust me. He loved me.”

“Right,” I said. “Nobody ever got killed by someone who loved them.” I was getting tired of guiding her through this. “So you got out with your life, now what? Know a comfortable wino you can curl up against?”

She threw her nose in the air. “I got lotsa places to go.”

“Yeah? Name two.”

She didn’t say anything.

“If it hasn’t occurred to you yet, and I don’t think it has, I know a little more about you than you suspect. And one of the things I know is that you’ve got no place to go. That’s why you screwed Sheff in your own bed. What the hell were you thinking, cheating on a guy like Ballesteros?”

“I’ll make out all right.” She was tough, I had to give her that. Stupid, but tough.

“Lady, you’re doing a stellar job already,” I clipped. “But this’ll make it a little bit easier.” I took a matchbook out of my pocket and wrote Li’s phone number inside it. She looked at it, obviously didn’t recognize it. “Your sister, Li, sent me because she thought you might be out here screwing up. I guess she was right.”

Song whispered her sister’s name and stared vacantly at the matchbook as I talked.

“She claims not to care about you, but she’s shoveling it. She cared enough to chase me all the way out to The Reading Room. If you call her, she’ll come get you. She’s got her own place. You won’t have to deal with your parents.”

The mention of her parents seemed to mellow her, and I got her to walk with me to Gorky’s. I knew I wasn’t going to get any gratitude, and knew even deeper that I didn’t deserve any, so I started my bike and left Song standing on the corner of Eighth and San Pedro. When I circled back around toward my apartment, she was on the phone across the street. Through the scratched and graffitied acrylic windows of the booth I could see her smile in what seemed like relief.

I’m glad I got to see her smile at least once.

The air was that greasy cool you only feel late at night in the city, and the last of the vampires were peeling themselves off the streets as I flashed past the numbered blocks along Olympic Boulevard. It was four-thirty in the blessed a.m. The first trickle of traffic, which would become a fuming, honking deluge in forty-five minutes, was beginning to fill the pay-parking lots that decorated every corner with asphalt. I turned off on a side street deep in the Garment District and wandered the motorcycle into its space next to my bedroom window. I ran the chain through both wheels and snapped the lock home. My back creaked as I stood up, discussing bed with me.

Yeah, I thought, stretching, it’s been a long night.

And people owe me. Oh, do people owe me.