Authors: Joseph Wambaugh
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural
“You oughtta go in that kitchen sometime,” Dilford said through a mouthful of mu shu pork as he clicked his sticks expertly and looked toward the take-out counter, where the boxes of chow m
in were being bought by Mexican factory workers as fast as Fu could get them up.
“Why would I wanna go in the kitchen?” Dolly said, eating her shrimp fried rice gingerly, extremely doubtful as to the true nature of the “shrimp.”
“Fu’s so good he can fry a cockroach without making it dance. All that old oil in those woks goes up on the ceiling and drops back on the floor. In fact, it isn’t a floor. It’s more like an oil slick. The cockroaches can’t even walk on it without cleats.”
“Jesus Christ!” Dolly yelled, leaping up and knocking her plate off the table. “My mushroom moved)”
The later events of their Boat People Day were what caused Dolly to get so drunk at Leery’s that she bought drinks for the house. And that is about as drunk as anyone ever got.
It was an “unknown trouble” call, which is very unsettling to police officers who, finding police work unpredictable enough, would prefer to have a more precise idea of the nature of their radio calls. In this case, a neighbor recently arrived from Cambodia by way of Bangkok had trouble explaining the problem to the operator at communications, hence the unknown-trouble call.
Jane Wayne and her partner Rumpled Ronald-now only thirty-four hours and fifty minutes from his pension and thus fearing just about everything, especially unknown-trouble calls-had arrived at the apartment building near Ninth and Catalina streets before Dilford and Dolly arrived.
Jane Wayne’s shag was purple-streaked in the sunlight from her recent cellophane job, and she looked brazenly handsome in her tailored blues, with her broad shoulders, crimson mouth and narrow hips.
“We’ll back you up,” Jane Wayne said, uncoiling her long body from the radio car while her partner reluctantly followed, feeling his forehead for the tenth time this morning.
“I think I’m getting a fever,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be something? Drop dead from an Asian virus the day before my pension?”
It was near Korea Town, and many of the buildings were occupied by boat people, like the Cambodian who placed the call. Those who had survived war and famine, pirates and cutthroats, and arrived in California alive.
The apartment house was one of the many stucco buildings with Spanish tile roofs built in the late 1920’s for the burgeoning population in central Los Angeles. It was pressure-packed with refugees now, and like the Latinos on other streets in other pressure-packed apartment buildings, they had to park their battered cars blocks away, since each apartment unit contained three or four times the people it was built to house. Parking tickets often wiped out the meager salaries these boat people earned in a day, working as they did in the same kinds of places that hired the illegals from Latin America.
The stench of pork was overpowering. Rotten pork. And gamy chickens that restaurants in Chinatown or Korea Town or Thai Town had disposed of. The four cops looked at each other, and Dolly thought she might just vomit.
There was a community kitchen serving the entire building. It was at the end of the darkened hall, and when Dilford yelled, “Police Department. Who called?” and got no response, the cops walked into the kitchen, which was the size of Leery’s dance floor.
It had one apartment-size gas range and oven. Two hot plates were on the sink and the kitchen housed a noisy old refrigerator. Jane Wayne nudged open a door and saw it was a darkened pantry. Suddenly a dark scum of water began to flow out on the floor into the kitchen from the pantry.
Except that it wasn’t water.
It was a wave of roaches. Jane Wayne, despite her macho ways, let out a yelp and instinctively pulled up her pants legs. So did Rumpled Ronald, who instantly wondered if roaches carried plague. So did Dilford and Dolly, Dilford saying, “Back! Back!” to the wave of roaches, scrambling, crawling, flowing around their feet like sewer water. Dilford stomped on a few dozen, and shiny bodies crackled like bacon frying. Dolly said, “Let’s get out of here!”
Which they did. And fast.
“Eeeee!” Rumpled Ronald cried as he shook some roaches off his pant leg.
ing!” Jane Wayne cried, shivering.
ing!” Dolly cried, remembering the mushroom that moved.
Then they saw the paws in the petunias.
At first they didn’t know they were paws. They looked just like two white petunias among the pink and mauve ones. They were tucked inside the petunias, and the entire bouquet was wrapped in foil and left outside one of the doors on the first floor of the apartment house as though it were a love offering.
Dolly thought for a moment it was the dusky light and shadows on the napless, greasy, urine-befouled carpet. Then she bent down and looked. She gingerly touched the paws in the petunias. She felt the little black nails and the rigored toes.
“What the hell is this?” Dolly said.
Rumpled Ronald said, “It’s two paws, is what. Dog paws in the petunias. Jesus! It’s gonna be disease and pestilence that gets me on the next-to-the-last day. Don’t get that thing near me.”
“Dog paws?” Jane Wayne said incredulously. “Real dog paws?”
“They’re real all right,” Rumpled Ronald said. “The Chinese gangs send them as warnings. They also send dog’s heads. There’s a lot a heads and paws around here but I ain’t never seen a dog’s body. Wonder what they do with the body?”
“You been to Fu’s for lunch lately?” Dolly said, turning chartreuse around the mouth.
“Fu woks his dogs,” Dilford said, but nobody laughed.
“Somebody probably didn’t make their extortion payment,” Rumpled Ronald said as they ascended the stairs. “Maybe somebody works in a shop in Chinatown or … oh, shit!”
They found the dog’s head. It had been a dirty bone-colored mixed-breed. The dog’s head was attached to a door on the second floor. A swatch of muddy-looking blood had coagulated on the door where the head was attached. It was a dire warning all right. The head was pinned to the door by an eight-penny nail driven through the animal’s distended tongue. The ragged mutilated collar of fur was peeled back from the severed neck, and the dog, obviously killed nearby, had bled quite a lot onto the floor outside the door of the doomed man’s apartment. A baby rat had been happily frolicking in the gluey ooze, and ran with a blood-glistened grin right past the faces of Dolly and Dilford, who were nose-high with the second-story landing.
Dilford drew his revolver and was trying to show he wasn’t nervous by making a few more cracks about the menu at Fu’s Fast Foods. The others were silent. Dolly was grimly trying not to vomit.
“Police!” Dilford shouted in the second-floor hallway, in the seemingly deserted apartment house.
There were signs everywhere of Southeast Asian boat people jammed into the filthy little rooms. Paying exorbitant rents to the slumlord who, as it turned out, was one of the fun-loving Westsiders who paid $10,000 for a gold-plated .38 revolver engraved with his name by Bijan, the Happy Iranian of Rodeo Drive, who had created them for the design-conscious clients at his Beverly Hills men’s store.
Still there was no answer in the upstairs hallway. Most were out doing their unskilled labor in the many shops and businesses owned by Thais, Koreans, Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Chinese, or in the downtown sweatshops owned by round-eyes who considered themselves keepers of the American dream by sweating the Asian boat people as diligently as they’d sweated the Mexicans before them. The four cops-now with guns reholstered, since there seemed to be no more mutilated animals lying around to scare the crap out of them-decided to try the third floor in the hopes of finding out who the hell called the police in this spooky place.
The four cops climbed to the third floor, their Sam Brownes creaking, keys jingling, breath coming hard, not from the easy climb but from the anticipation of more Oriental warnings left on people’s doorsteps by cutthroats the boat people had failed to elude as they had eluded others in their journeys across treacherous seas in terrifying boats, hoping to escape rape, robbery and murder, only to find it again and again during their journeys.
These were the lucky ones, those survivors who had been miraculously delivered to freedom here in central Los Angeles, where gangsters from their own and neighboring countries nailed dog’s heads to their doors if they didn’t cough up their hard-earned greenbacks.
“Screw it,” Dilford said. “I don’t know who the hell called and I don’t care. This place makes The House of Misery look happy. Let’s get outa here.”
Then they heard a woman moan. It was the kind of moan that is almost a chant, the moan of people who have watched the skies too many years for fire and explosion, who have nothing more than cries of anguish with which to entice mercy from oppressors.
“Who the hell’s that?” Jane Wayne said.
And the tall young woman crept toward the third door on their left, one from which the brass door number had long since been stolen, along with the copper plumbing now replaced by plastic. Jane Wayne, using her stick, tapped on the door and all four cops stood well clear of it. The moaning rose and fell in tinkling, chantlike undulations.
Then the door was opened by a little boy of nine. He was a frail child with lashless eyes. He bore a homemade haircut that left him with whitewalls clear to the top of his head.
“You speak English?” Dilford asked, and the child, wearing an “I love L. A.” T-shirt and short pants and hand-me-down sandals tied to his feet with strings, only stared. Unblinking.
“Shit,” Dilford said nervously. Then he stuck his head into the apartment, which had been divided in half with a plywood partition by the ever-resourceful slumlord in order to double the number of tenants in each apartment.
Dilford said, “Hey, anybody here speak English?”
The chantlike moans from the back room stopped momentarily and resumed. Then a man walked out of the moaning room. He was ageless, had spiny black hair, was gray-yellow and gaunt. He wore pants six sizes too large, tied by a cracked leather belt. He wore rubber shower sandals with a thong between the toes. He wore a dirty sweat-stained undershirt.
And he wore a thousand cuts.
“I don’t need this shit,” Rumpled Ronald blurted. “I only got another day and a half.” But Rumpled Ronald left the company of the three young cops and came forward. He took the ageless man by the arm and nodded.
“Okay?” Rumpled Ronald said. “Okay? No hurt. Okay?” And he pulled up the dirty sleeveless undershirt, baring the bony torso of the ageless man, and he said, “A thousand cuts. I don’t need this shit.”
And the ageless man, who did not understand a word of
English, looked at the rumpled cop as though to say, “Neither do I.”
Although Dilford was senior to Jane Wayne and Dolly, and with his three years of police service fancied himself a salty veteran, he had not worked long in Asian neighborhoods, not among the boat people.
“The Chinese gangs do it,” Rumpled Ronald said. “This guy doesn’t look Chinese.” Then to the ageless man he said, “Cambodia? You?”
The ageless man stared at the wall, accepting whatever fate might be his. The little boy with the lashless eyes stared at the police officers, unblinking.
“What happened to him?” Dolly said. Then she came forward and touched his right arm. Every inch of flesh between his throat and navel was crisscrossed by slivers of scab and healing tissue, as though his entire body had been written on in Arabic script.
“They use sharp knives,” Rumpled Ronald said. “They don’t cut arteries. They want the guy to be able to work and earn the money to give them their payoffs.”
“Payoffs for what?” Jane Wayne cried.
“For the right to exist, for chrissake!” Rumpled Ronald looked at his watch and counted the minutes.
“I’m reporting this to the Asian Task Force,” Dolly said, her voice trembling. “These people have got to learn to come to the police for protection and …”
“What is that?” Jane Wayne said suddenly.
Jane Wayne, who stood almost as tall as Dilford, was looking into the squalid little moaning room.
“What is that?” Dilford said, and both Dolly and the rumpled cop walked cautiously over to the doorway.
A woman was kneeling and moaning. She was perhaps thirty years old, not ageless like the man. But she had the same look about her. The look that said: Whatever you do to me cannot be worse than what has already been done. And I expect no better. In short, she had the look of the boat people.
“It’s a baby doll,” Dolly said, standing on tiptoes to see over the broad shoulder of Jane Wayne.
“It’s a baby!” Dilford said. “I think.”
One couldn’t be sure. It was lying naked on a straw sleeping mat. The windows were covered with musty velvet drapes left over from a time long past, not stolen by previous tenants, because they were so torn and stained by the Latino illegals who occupied these rooms before the boat people came. It was dark in the room and the baby did not stir. The woman knelt beside the naked baby and chanted her moan of anguish.
“Is that baby sick?” Dolly asked.
“Is that baby dead?” Dilford asked.
“That’s a strange-looking baby,” Jane Wayne said. “It’s all … deformed.”