Authors: Joseph Wambaugh
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural
“I want you to put him in jail!” the whiskered woman demanded. “The worse kind a scum.”
“He’s the kind a pain-in-the-ass wino that really gives me a headache,” said The Bad Czech absently. “I’d like to hang that wino.”
“Too good for him, you ask me,” the whiskered woman said. Then she spun around huffily and went wheezing back down the path.
He never heard them coming. Elmo McVey was suddenly lifted two feet off the ground by the back of his army field jacket, looking into the demented gray eyes of the biggest, strongest and unarguably the meanest cop in Rampart Division. The Bad Czech let him dangle for a moment and he did indeed resemble a mangy cat, wiggling and hissing.
“I ain’t did nothin,” Elmo McVey spat. “I jist wanted to hear the score a the ball game!”
“There ain’t no ball game, Elmo,” Cecil Higgins said, while The Bad Czech continued to suspend the wino by the scruff of the neck and glare at him.
“Well, I thought there was a ball game, is what I thought,” Elmo McVey said. “Once a Met fan always a Met fan. I thought the Dodgers was play in in New York today. I was jist gonna tune in that radio to catch the score, is what I was gonna do.”
“Why don’t you go back to New York, Elmo,” Cecil Higgins said as The Bad Czech lowered the wino to the ground, but continued to hold him by the nape of the neck.
“Too cold in New York. L. A.’s my kind a place,” Elmo McVey said, getting quite uncomfortable what with The Bad Czech’s hand, the size of a catcher’s mitt, clamped around his neck.
The Bad Czech finally spoke: “I musta asked you a thousand times to take your act downtown to Main Street, Elmo. Did I ask you a thousand times or not?”
“Don’t like Main Street. Too many winos down there,” Elmo McVey said, looking fearfully up into The Bad Czech’s deranged gray eyes.
“Well I ain’t gonna ask ya no more,” The Bad Czech said.
“Whatcha gonna do?” Elmo McVey asked.
“I’m gonna hang you,” The Bad Czech answered.
And while The Bad Czech walked Elmo McVey south through MacArthur Park, Cecil Higgins followed along reluctantly, wondering what this latest bullshit trick was all about. He felt vaguely uncomfortable because The Bad Czech’s loony eyes looked a little loonier than usual today. Just the hangover, Cecil Higgins finally decided. Until they got into the secluded alley east of Alvarado and north of Eighth Street.
“I noticed this when we walked through yesterday,” The Bad Czech said to Cecil Higgins when they arrived in the alley.
“Noticed what?” Cecil Higgins looked around. The alley was away from traffic, and quiet. There were some wooden boxes separating a pink stucco apartment building full of Latin American aliens and an auto parts warehouse, which had more alarms, barbed wire and steel bars around it than Folsom Prison. Aside from the wooden boxes and the derelict remains of a bicycle, there was nothing else in the alley.
“I saw this,” the monster cop said.
Tucked behind a peeling metal downspout was a twenty-foot length of rope which someone had tied over the bottom step of a fire escape that was held in place at the second floor by a rusty cable. All business, The Bad Czech began fashioning a noose with the oily length of rope.
Cecil Higgins and Elmo McVey looked quizzically at each other, and Elmo McVey giggled uncomfortably and said, “I thought capital punishment was abolished in this state.”
“They brought it back,” Cecil Higgins said. “But they ain’t used it in a long long time.” Then to his partner: “Hey, Czech, what the fuck’re you do-in?”
“I told him a thousand times to take his act on the road. Down to Main Street,” The Bad Czech said, cinching up the noose, checking the snugness of the knot as it slid down to the size of a thirteen-inch neck. Then he opened the noose wide and left it dangling there from the fire escape while he crossed the alley in three giant steps and picked up a wooden box.
“This ain’t much of a scaffold,” The Bad Czech said, “but it’s all we got.” He placed the wooden box under the noose and said, “I asked you a thousand times to …”
“Ain’t this gone far enough?” Elmo McVey whined nervously. He wisely decided to talk to the black cop, who, though an evil looking old nigger, was nevertheless more agreeable to Elmo McVey than the gigantic madman with the eyebrows all over his face.
“Hey, Czech, let’s go git some soul food,” Cecil Higgins offered, also sounding a bit nervous. “Little gumbo cleans up a hangover in no …”
But suddenly The Bad Czech lifted the mangy wino up on the box until he stood eye to badge with the beat cop’s silver hat-piece. Then The Bad Czech grabbed the squirming wino under the throat, quickly slipped the noose over his head and cinched it tight. The monster cop stepped back and reckoned that the wino’s feet would never come closer than twelve inches to the ground.
“Boys, this is some kind a fun,” Elmo McVey giggled, grabbing at the rope. “I mean, I been rousted by cops from Manhattan to Malibu. I learned to appreciate the weird sense a humor a you guys. Now kin we jist wrap this up and take me to the slam or… or …” Then for the first time he looked deep into the demented gray eyes of The Bad Czech. “Or … or beat the crap outa me! Or do somethin reasonable!”
“Let’s go git some gumbo, Czech,” Cecil Higgins said. “Now!”
“Fuck it. How do ya know Elmo’s real, anyways?” The Bad Czech said.
And he kicked the box clear across the alley.
When Elmo McVey dropped, so did the fire escape. The rusty cable holding it up snapped with the wino’s weight and both the fire escape and Elmo McVey crashed down in the alley. The fire escape nearly creamed Cecil Higgins, who yelped and jumped into a doorway. It missed The Bad Czech by less than a foot but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Aw shit!” The Bad Czech said. “Let’s tie it to the railing and try it again.”
But by now Cecil Higgins was prying the rope from Elmo
McVey, who was gasping and squeaking and about the color of the cops’ uniform.
“He … he …” Elmo McVey croaked and coughed and babbled and touched the rope burn and took several gulps of air and finally said, “He lynched me!”
“Take it easy, Elmo,” Cecil Higgins said, dusting off the wino’s army-surplus jacket. “Don’t make a big deal outa it.”
“He ‘ fried to hang me!” Elmo McVey screamed hoarsely as The Bad Czech worked silently to redo the noose and find a better gallows.
“Elmo, I was you,” said Cecil Higgins, “I’d forgit all about this here … fantasy about some cop tryin to hang ya. I mean, I was you I’d take one more hard look at my partner and take your act on the road, right down to Main Street.”
“I want a lawyer!” Elmo McVey screamed.
“Elmo,” Cecil Higgins said shakily, “if ya was to make some kind a crazy complaint about bein lynched and all, would anybody believe ya? And even if they did, whaddaya think The Czech would do when he hunted ya down in a alley sometime? I bet he wouldn’t hang ya by the neck next time, is what I bet.”
Then Cecil Higgins reached in his pocket and took out two dollars. “Go git yourself a bottle a Sneaky Pete and forgit this fantasy. And git your shit together and take your act on the road.”
Elmo McVey’s eyes were still the size of poker chips but his face was only slightly lavender when he left that alley holding his neck. “Well,” he said, “Main Street’s got its good points. There’s a mission down there where the food ain’t bad and nobody’s gotta hear too much Jesus crap. And down there stealin bras and panties ain’t a hangin offense.”
Actually, after the rope burn healed, Elmo McVey could not be sure that the hanging wasn’t some terrible alcoholic dream. Even he wasn’t sure that it was real.
Five minutes later, after having disposed of the gallows and rope while The Bad Czech ate a beef-and-bean burrito from a taco truck, the old beat cop cadged a free cup of coffee from the Mexican vendor and decided it was time for some heavy conversation.
“Shouldn’t oughtta eat from these roach wagons,” Cecil Higgins advised The Bad Czech, who was drinking grape soda pop and devouring a burrito like any whiskey-ravaged hangover victim.
“Nother one,” The Bad Czech said with his cheeks full of tortilla. The Mexican, having served burritos to freeloading cops from Tijuana to L. A., just chalked the freebies up to public relations.
After The Bad Czech was belching hot sauce and feeling less cranky, the old beat cop took his giant partner by the arm and walked him over to a bench by the water in MacArthur Park. When The Bad Czech finished his soda pop, Cecil Higgins said, “Know somethin, kid? I been noticin that ya ain’t so happy lately.”
“I ain’t?” The Bad Czech said, belching up a green chile seed which stuck to his wiry black moustache.
“No, you ain’t. Is it maybe your divorce?”
“I’m used to them. After three I oughtta be. I ain’t got no money for the lawyers to take no more.”
“Maybe it’s the booze,” Cecil Higgins offered. “Maybe nobody oughtta go to Leery’s ever single night.”
“I think I’d really get grouchy if I didn’t go to Leery’s ever single night,” The Bad Czech said.
Cecil Higgins, still boozy from last night, was being hypnotized by the green pepper seed on The Bad Czech’s moustache. He pulled himself together, plucked off the fiery seed and threw it in the water, where a white duck bit into it and got totally pissed off, quacking furiously.
“I know what it is!” Cecil Higgins suddenly cried. “It’s the fuckin newspaper. You’re gettin goofy from readin the
L. A. Times
“Ya think so?” said The Bad Czech. “Ya think I’m gettin goofy?”
“Kid, the Times ain’t good for your head,” the old cop said. “Ya take it too serious.”
“Maybe you’re right.” The Bad Czech nodded. “But, Cecil, am I really gettin goofy?”
“Czech, I think you’re aware that hangin went out in this state, oh, maybe eighty years ago. Like, they ain’t even gassed nobody in years. I mean, the chief, the mayor, the public defender, the A. C. L. U., even Alcoholics Anonymous, almost everybody I can think of would not like it one fuckin bit, they was to catch ya hangin winos.”
Then The Bad Czech turned his demented gray eyes toward Cecil Higgins and said, “But Cecil, how do ya know for sure that wino was real?”
“Gud-damnit!” Cecil Higgins yelled, getting up and throwing his police hat down on the bench.
Then he pulled out his nightstick and whacked a palm tree which brought a little palm frond down on his bald scaly bean and he said, “There ya go again with this real bull-shit!”
“Cecil, don’t get cranky!” The Bad Czech pleaded. “Look, the chief justice a the state supreme court says that smugglers shouldn’t have to get rid a their Gucci luggage and buy sniff-proof containers for their dope. Don’t ya get it? Even a dog can get his balls slapped for search and seizure. Don’t y
“It ain’t real. I mean it ain’t really real in … in … a … a philosophical way.”
-sophical!” Cecil Higgins groaned. Then the old black cop paced back and forth snorting disgustedly. “I shoulda knowed. Ever since ya took that night-school class at L. A. City College. Up until then the biggest word ya ever said was enchilada. Philosophical. Shit. Night school’s fucked up your head worse than the L. A. Times.”
“But ya said yourself, Cecil, that even you ain’t always sure what’s … really real and what ain’t.”
Then Cecil Higgins sat down on the bench. A burly man in his own right and, when standing erect, at least six feet tall, he had to look straight up at The Bad Czech, who had most of his great height in his torso. Like John Wayne, he always bragged.
“Okay, Czech, I’m gonna tell ya what’s real” Cecil Higgins said. “What’s real is that nobody, I mean no civilian outside a the fat broad with the whiskers is gonna care about what’s really real when it comes to hangin winos. And if ya insist on hangin winos, or anybody else for that matter, what’s gonna happen is they’re gonna send some headhunters out to throw ya in the slam and then they’re gonna send ya to San Quentin. And up in Q there’s these gangs a bad-news niggers like the Muslims and so on. And one day in the prison yard old Elijah X or some other head-shaved motherfucker is gonna give the signal and all these spades is gonna jump on your bones and pull your pants off and about eighty a them’s gonna lay more tube than the motherfuckin Alaska pipeline and your asshole’s gonna end up lookin like the Second Street Tunnel and you’re gonna be able to carry your bowlin ball and six armadillos no hands for the rest a your fuckin life which is gonna be real short anyways. And that’s what’s real! Kin you dig it?”
It was the longest speech Cecil Higgins had ever made. The Bad Czech seemed impressed. “Okay, I won’t hang no more winos,” The Bad Czech said, “if ya promise not to ask to work with somebody else. You’re the only person left I kin talk to.”
For once, The Bad Czech’s demented gray eyes didn’t seem to smolder. The old beat cop brushed a palm nut off his scaly noggin and looked at those eyes and-well, he had to admit it: the big wacko had started to grow on him. Truth to tell, Cecil Higgins didn’t have anybody to talk to either, outside of the other losers at Leery’s Saloon.
“Okay, kid,” Cecil Higgins said. “I promise to work with ya right up to my thirty-year pension. Which I don’t expect to live to see anyways. I jist hope I don’t end up in San Quentin with a asshole big enough for a motor scooter to turn around in.”