The young man with the ebony face and the gabardine suit stands out starkly, surely a mistake, against the pale dust of Chavez Ravine as he waits near a ragged picket of abandoned mailboxes, mopping his face with a cotton handkerchief and sipping from a bottle of Coca-Cola. Two dirt roads intersect here, equidistant from the ramshackle ruins of vacant housing clusters built over the years by Calexican families from salvaged bricks and lumber, and emptied recently by eminent domain of the Los Angeles Housing Authority.
Only a few die hard residents are resisting relocation, and two of them are leaning over the balcony of a clapboard house high on the southern hillside to look down at the colored man, pretty sure that he wasn't there for the scenery.
Sure enough, a green Chevy coupe crests the rise from the Silver Lake side and rattles down the steep gravel slope toward the intersection, grinding gears.
The morning's brume has burned off. A dyspeptic sun beats down on the Canyon, heat trapped between the hills wafts in weird thermals devoid of a real breeze.
Runyan had hoped Lily Himes was wrong about her nephew. He'd tailed him from South Central to Elysian Park, and then followed on foot, taking the winding overgrown paths into Sulphur Canyon, where he understands, now, not only what business the kid is about to transact, but that it is not going to end well without some proactive interdiction.
He comes out of the shade of a half-collapsed carneceria and starts to walk briskly up the road. The gabardine kid is in deep discussion with a trio Mexicans in shirtsleeves and felt hats. It's civil. As Runyan watches, there is a proffer of money, and an exchange of what can only be two paper-wrapped bricks of marijuana. Handshakes all around, some final small talk and every intent to conclude and depart, free market at work, supply meets demand, everybody happy.
Unfortunately, as Runyan has expected, two big black Hudson coupes blow past him and dust him with their backwash, skidding up and hard men spilling out of every door, some with guns, before the nephew or his suppliers can manage a getaway.
Chavez Ravine is still Mickey Cohen territory, still the go-to spot these days for bootleggers and illicit transactions despite (or maybe the genius of it is because of) the Police Academy right next door, and now here is muscle, no doubt all thinking that three brown faces and one black one will not, in the scheme of things, be missed if they simply disappear from God's green earth, and are made an example of.
Plenty of unmarked graves to keep them company.
The Mexicans are put on their knees, their money thrown to scatter into the mustard weed, while Lily's nephew is stripped of the dope and struck with a crowbar swung by a Hollywood B-movie handsome, high-haired man who seems to be in charge of Mickey's crew.
"Johnny Stomp!" Runyan has recognized him: a former Marine and putative Brentwood gift shop owner who's become Mickey Cohen's enforcer since Cohen went to jail, and who harbors a secret crush on Lana Turner, which MGM recently hired Runyan to mediate.
The handsome man freezes and shades his eyes, straddling the fetal curl of the black man bleeding on the ground beneath him. "Runyan? Whatayasaywhatayaknow? Geez Louise. What brings you up here?”
A squat monkey in an ill-fitting brown suit has cocked his pistol and put it to the back of the nearest Mexican's head. Runyan keeps coming, friendly. “Babysitting.” He gestures to Lily's nephew. “Turn my back, he's got his track shoes on, hightailing it up here for some reefer madness with these mariachis.”
Johnny Stompanato frowns as all this new information rattles through his reptile brain. He looks at the Mexicans doubtfully. Mariachis?
“They open every Tuesday and Thursday at the Fall Out,” Runyan lies, arriving, hands casual, in his pockets, finding the trigger of the .38 on his right side, in case he needs it. “Kid is Lily Himes' nephew.” He uses his chin to indicate the gabardine victim at Stompanato's feet.
“That's her.” Runyan looks down at the kid. “I hope that tire iron knocked some sense into you, Henry.”
The nephew stirs. The monkey snorts, impatient. He wants to put a bullet into something.
“They're on Mickey's turf,” Stompanato says.
“True enough,” says Runyan. “But that trumpet player,” meaning the man with the gun to his head, and going all in with the bluff, “he happens to live right up the hill there, one of the last families holding out against eviction -- and that's his dad and his uncle looking down at us right now, so if you whack him, you're gonna have to go whack them, too, which won't be easy as they have the high ground, and some shotguns, not to mention that I doubt Mickey'll to be too thrilled to hear about you starting a war with the White Fence Gang.”
The decision is slow coming. Runyan starts busily calculating the odds he can survive a close quarter fire fight against four armed men with his six shot revolver when Johnny Stomp steps back and waves for his monkey to put the pistol away. “I appreciate that you didn't queer things with Lana when I had that misunderstanding at Culver Studios,” Stampanato murmurs low to Runyan, so that his crew won't hear it.
“Love is a lonely journey,” Runyan says.
“A-fucking-men, brother.” Stampanato glances down, losing interest, at the kid he's hit, and points with the crow bar. “He'll be okay. I cracked him in the one place I couldn't hurt him.”
It's a joke. Runyan has to work a bit to supply the laugh. Cohen's crew climbs back into their Hudsons and, as they jockey around to head back the way they came, Johnny Stomp leans out his window toward Runyan and confides, “she's got the hots for me, Runyan. Nobody believes it, but you and me, we know. Just a matter of time, baby. And I am a patient man.” The Cheshire leer lingers in the dust clouds long after the cars are gone.
Lana Turner, Runyan muses, shaking his head. In your dreams, Johnny Stomp. Only in your dreams.
Lily's nephew is back on his feet. Glassy eyed, thoughts all thickened, his bell rung, slick red blood lurid down the side of his face. But the paper brick of dope has made its way back in his pocket.
“You're welcome,” Runyan says.
Lily's nephew just licks the blood off his lips.
The Mexicans brush themselves off, rattling in Spanish as they bend and stoop to retrieve their money from the hillside weeds. Runyan doesn't know the language well enough, or he'd say something, warn them to keep their business East of the river, but as they return to their car, the one who'd had the gun pressed against his head turns to Runyan and asks, still pale, with no accent, not joking, “how did you know I played the trumpet?”
Now Runyan laughs for real.
And only after they've driven off does he turn to discover that Lily's nephew is already halfway to the ridge, running, too far to chase down, his coattails and silk tie flapping back dismissively in a mocking contempt.
Daniel Pyne is a writer living in California.
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