Authors: Michael Lion
THE BUTCHER’S GRANDDAUGHTER
New Pulp Press
The Butcher’s Granddaughter
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Lion
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THE BUTCHER’S GRANDDAUGHTER
She was one of the young and the bored that pour into Los Angeles at the rate of about a thousand a week. Four-thousand during the summer. Her point of origin was somewhere in the Pacific, but they come from everywhere, be it the death-hole of New York City or some shit-splat town between highway exits. They get off the bus or the plane or the train or however they wasted their time getting nowhere and they expect pink stucco and palm trees and a cool job. What they find is a soulless style of existence where the traffic and the pollution and the human mass blend into a white noise that turns the midnight sky gray and makes them wonder where the stars went. They learn quickly not to live during the day. Waking up later and later without being able to help it, they wander out onto Sunset or Hollywood Boulevard or La Cienega and see people they’ve met before in the mirror. They come out at night because that’s when things happen.
And I join them. I haven’t seen daylight that isn’t of the late-afternoon variety since I was in high school. I make my living by knowing certain things and being in the right place at the right time, by understanding how the world operates after the sun goes down.
They call me Bird.
I am not from their world, but I am part of it. Because after I figured out how to live in L.A.’s twenty-four-hour-a-day-open-all-night-please-come-again orgy...I figured out that I liked it. That’s one of my problems.
Another one is those early mornings when I lay awake, thinking of her.
Trying to believe.
The ride along the Santa Monica Freeway was quick and cold, and my lips were numb when I got off on Olympic Boulevard and made my way back into the Garment District. The dark hole of my former apartment was no longer a refuge, where I could hide from the people or the city or myself. My bike still fit in its space, and I didn’t bother chaining it. There would be no need. I sat on the saddle gazing at the front door until my eyes were drying out from not blinking and I could hear my own labored breathing. Then I reached behind me and pulled the crowbar from the rack.
I took a glance at the lock, even though I knew it had been brazed over. I tore the yellow crime scene tape that was still fastened across my front door, shoved the crowbar into the jamb, and broke the door open with a single heave. A chunk of brick clattered to the ground and there was silence. I stepped inside.
Purple light fell through the high windows and cascaded across the floor in funereal waves. I dropped the bar to the floor and it broke something, a plate or a coffee cup, and then clanged into an echo. My steps across the floor were a sliding, dragging, indistinct sound in my ears.
I stood at the end of my bed and drank it all down in one vicious gulp. I had two choices: burn the place level with the asphalt and leave my pain in the smoking ash, or take her memory and carry it somewhere else, forever.
I wanted her back. But worse than that, I didn’t want it to be my fault that she was gone.
After a while I left and drove around looking for something to do. I didn’t find anything. When I woke up the next morning wrapped in another woman’s arms, my throat was a little sore. It was a long time before I remembered the screaming.
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’
, 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 Li Nguyen’s large, moist eyes.
A coffee-colored product of French-Vietnam, Li was 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.
“You know a guy named Jay, right?”
“Jay with a ‘y’ or just ‘J’ with a period?”
My unfair teasing made her well up again, but she managed, “He steals cars.”
I coughed. “Ballesteros. Yeah. I know him some.”
She nodded rapidly, keeping the tears at bay.
“He’s a repo man, or was. Been a long time since I boosted cars for a living. He worked the South Central grid, if I remember right.”
“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. I gave her one and said, “Li, you know I’d pretty much do anything for you. All you have to do is ask. So why not just ask?”
She lit up and 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, in love or not, some things I do aren’t free for
. And I knew Ballesteros well enough to understand he was dangerous. Emotionless, with a dove-ish, 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?”
“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 had that look that guys get, you know?”
I nodded. I was familiar with it.
“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, and 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
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
“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.