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Original Essays

The Grand Guignol 'Hood

by Will Beall
  1. L.A. Rex: A Novel
    $1.48 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    L.A. Rex: A Novel

    Will Beall

I'm walking the drab, cavernous corridors of the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. Witchy purple light flickers from those Flintrol Insect Electrocutors. I put on booties, plastic gloves, a plastic apron, a filtered 3M mask that is supposed to protect against airborne pathogens.

The corridors are lined with bodies lying on wheeled steel tables, some draped in opaque plastic sheets. One of them doesn't look like a body at all, but an uprooted tree stump. Blackened. Gnarled. Flaking. Arms still raised against the fiery explosion that killed him.

I'm new to the Homicide Squad and one of the coroner's investigators pulls me aside to show me the body of a young Japanese man. He was Yakuza. His tattoos are some of the most exquisite I've ever seen. He'd displeased his bosses and I guess he opted to hang himself rather than face whatever the organization had in store for him.

The smell is stronger in the examination room.

There's a gangster in here that I recognize from my time in the gang unit. I've arrested him before. Not exactly a fellow of infinite jest, but I knew the guy and here he is on a slab. But I'm not here for him.

My victim is the older cat on the second table from the end with a lot of holes in him that shouldn't be there. White spots on the x-rays where some of the bullets came to rest inside him. They use garden clippers to cut through the ribcage. One by one, the doctors remove the man's greasy organs, drop them into a hanging scale and then place them into a steel pan. Their yellow rubber gloves are marbled with blood.

The doctor holds the man's heart in his hand, a dense burgundy thing. No wonder primitives found such magic in it. Even now it radiates power, freed from its cage in the doctor's hand. The doctor wiggles his gloved finger through a bullet hole in the left ventricle.

They slice off the man's scalp, peel his face down from his skull like a rubber mask. This is what the homies call having your cap peeled. I have to remind myself that he can't feel this. Can't feel anything anymore. They use a whirring electric bone saw with a vacuum hose attached. I stand back to avoid the spray as they saw off the top of his skull. His brain is beautiful, delicate. Everything he knew, everything he was, is now resting on the kind of scale they weigh newborns on.

Christ, I think. I hope I can find who did this to you.

When I was a rookie, I rescued a cat. This happens on one of those heartbreaking Sunday mornings in the hood. The jacarandas are blooming. The air is clear. The shitbirds are still asleep. My training officer and I get flagged down by this nice older guy out there getting an early start on his yard work. We were on one of the Avenues. Third, I think. Guy tells us there's a cat stuck up on this telephone pole behind his house, says some pit bulls chased it up there. Thing's been up there a couple of days, and now the guy's getting worried. Guy says he's already called the fire department and I guess they don't come out for cats in real life. Anyhow, the guy points out the pole and I can see the cat way up at the top, like a cotton ball on one of the crossbeams.

I climb the guy's back fence and from there I can reach the first of those steel pegs that come out from the side of a telephone pole. I remember about halfway up the pole, getting that don't-fall tingle in my palms and the backs of my knees. How high is a telephone pole anyway, sixty feet, eighty? By the time I reached the top I was ready to shit. I'm thinking: if I die in a shootout, at least that's heroic. If I fall off this pole and die trying to rescue a goddamned cat, my buddies will all chuckle through my funeral.

Then I saw the cat. Its fur was filthy and matted, battle-scarred. One was eye milky and gibbous. It makes this low sound and hisses. But a crowd has gathered down on the street to watch and now I'm committed.

I used the hobble restraint, this nylon strap we keep on our belts for arrestees who try to kick us. Slip the hobble around the cat and pull good and hard. The cat comes loose, swinging like a pendulum, hissing and snarling and trying to claw everything at once. I have to hold my arm straight out from my side to keep the cat from reaching me, which makes the climb back down a bitch, but I make it. I save the cat. Cheers and applause.

Almost nine years later, that remains my finest hour on the job, my only unequivocal triumph. I rescued a cat and all my other victories have been Pyrrhic.

A desire for confrontation was part of what drew me to policework. There were other things too: a need to be active, a yen to do good, cold terror at the idea of working the rest of my life in an office. But in there somewhere was a hankering to grapple with some clearly defined opponent.

You got hints from the instructors who taught you that the formal department curriculum, and the knowledge they actually believed we would need in the field, were not the same. But I still was not prepared for what I actually encountered on the job.

My first radio call: I was 26, a newly-minted probationer at LAPD's 77th Division in South Central Los Angeles and I was glad to get a call I knew I could ace. A robbery report is an easy lay-up, one of the most basic patrol functions. The crime is elemental: someone threatens someone, punches someone, or pistol whips someone, and takes something that doesn't belong to them. The Preliminary Investigation Report consists of crisp little boxes to fill. Addresses, names, times, descriptions. Easy-Peezy.

But it was hard to find the guy. No address on the call, the RTO said. Look for the victim standing next to a brokeback El Camino mounted on blocks in a driveway. As we pulled up in the dark, we could see instantly that the El Camino was our guy's home. Covered in primer, gunmetal grey, and packed with shit — clothes, garbage, fast-food wrappers, some kind of makeshift curtains in the window. Our robbery victim was standing next to it — a black man of indeterminate age, emaciated and sallow looking. Eyes were sunken in his head, and his cheekbones reared over concave cheeks. He had missing teeth, and matted hair that might once have been ironed. It was a dark residential street, and despite the late hour, there were children playing nearby. No one seemed the least surprised to see the police. They grow up around us.

I began jotting the guy's story. But the details got so convoluted so fast, one crime folding into another. My head was swimming.

Some dude named Fee-Rat gave our victim a hundred-dollar bill and told him to go to Tam's burger on his bicycle and get him a burger and a little something for himself, and make change for the C-note. Turns out that the big bill is counterfeit. The Tam's people keep it, and call police, so the man tools away on his bike empty-handed. Fee-Rat demands his money and his hamburger, grows enraged when neither are forthcoming, socks up our victim, and takes his wobbly bicycle.

Guy's talking a blue streak and I'm trying to write it all down, fit it into my PIR's crisp little boxes. But it wasn't quite working. There were all these hitches I hadn't been prepared for. I got stuck at the box labeled, "address." What was I supposed to put? Maybe the El Camino's license plate? Then came the suspect's name. "Does Fee-Rat have a real name, a Christian name?" I asked. Blank stare. "How do you spell Fee-Rat?" I asked. Guy looked at me like I was insane. All the while, my hardass training officer was standing behind me, fuming with impatience and tapping his watch. I was taking too long.

Finally, I'm ready to put out an initial crime broadcast with the suspect's particulars. I ask the victim which way Fee-Rat was headed when he last saw him. That's when he mentioned that he had actually seen Fee-Rat again after the supposed robbery. "He come back and want to beat on me some more so I stabbed him," he told me.

"Wait, you stabbed him?" I said, incredulous. "Where?" I meant, where on the Fee-Rat's body, but the guy thought I meant the place and walked me to a car parked nearby. I shone my flashlight on the hood, and saw blood. The hood was thick with it. It looked like a pig had been butchered there.

Behind me, my training officer was rolling his eyes, our simple robbery suddenly looking like a possible 187. "Holy shit. How many times did you stab him?" I said. The man shrugged.

"Don't know," he said. "I was pretty upset."

We had a helicopter and dogs out there, searching not for a suspect, but for a possible homicide victim, dying in the bushes somewhere. We never found him, but the next night, we happened by the same location. There was the El Camino, up on its blocks, completely engulfed in flame. My robbery victim was standing next to it. "I guess Fee-Rat survived," I said.

"Yeah," the guy smiled. "He always come back."

Almost every call was like that. Guys drinking together, playing dominoes together, fighting, shooting, drinking and playing dominoes again. The despair of it just blew me away. It wasn't simply poverty, although I had never seen poverty like this before. It was the way every dispute could result in bloodshed or death, the way civilization was so friable down here, and what that did to people.

Years before that, I had been a prolific reader and a writer. I worked briefly as a journalist after graduating. But when I entered the academy, I had determined to leave all that behind. I was a cop now, not a writer.

I started writing again a week after I was assigned to 77th Street Division. Fee-Rat had knocked me back into it. I needed a place to put everything that I was experiencing, a way to make sense of it. I started by keeping a journal. It didn't become fiction until much later. At some point, I began changing names and altering details for reasons of confidentiality. After a while, I just took myself out. In a way, writing a journal in the first person seemed to make the material less true. It automatically made me the center of things, and by then, I knew was just a bit player, a walk-on. Even the hint of a central character cast as hero seemed wrong for what I was trying to convey. By then, my gunslinging fantasies were long gone.

Near the end of my rookie year, the LAPD Rampart corruption scandal broke, and with it, the department was shaken to its foundations. Lawsuits against the department and its officers were proliferating, and there was all this fear among the officers. They would no longer speak freely in the patrol cars for fear the cars were bugged. The mounting civil damages and political uproar over Rampart would change the department profoundly. One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, What would happen if the son of one of these flamboyant attorneys always suing the department — maybe not Stephen Yagman, but someone like him — became a cop? I started writing about that character. And that's how L.A. Rex began.

I don't think I really believed I was writing a salable novel until the day Riverhead bought the thing. My dual identities as writer and cop are still unreconciled: I'm not sure how the two work together, or whether they ought to. I've met a thousand Fee-Rats since that first night. I was interviewing an arrestee the other day and he was bragging to me about how he'd bitten this guy's ear off and spat it into the dirt.

L.A. Rex isn't a straightforward whodunit because nothing about South Central is straightforward. If you're looking for sanitary chalk outlines, bloodless crime scenes and polymerase chain reactions, save your money. This isn't The Moonstone, man. This is The Song of Roland. This is the Grand Guignol 'hood and Harry Bosch doesn't work down here.

I've worked gangs. I'm working Homicide now, but I remain, in some sense, the humbled rookie. I became a cop instead of a writer thinking I was choosing action over reflection, and instead found myself muddling through the twin realms of policing and writing, confronting, in both places, no adversary more formidable than my own incomprehension. spacer

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