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Authors: Thomas Sanchez

Zoot-Suit Murders

BOOK: Zoot-Suit Murders
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Thomas Sanchez’s
Z
OOT-SUIT MURDERS

“A deeply political book told in hauntingly lyrical prose.”


Washington Post Book World

“A master writer.”


Vanity Fair
                            

“Riveting, fast-moving and fiercely visual… and for once, a believably human and non-prescient protagonist, in a novel of ideological intrigue, set in the war-time Los Angeles of 1943 against the historical backdrop of the now-famous zoot-suit riots.”


Los Angeles Magazine
            

“Haunting… Sanchez is a writer of sensitivity and power.”


Boston Globe
                          

“The no-nonsense tension present in the best of thrillers… Sanchez brings the novel to an unexpected and shocking climax.”


Publishers Weekly
                   

“[Sanchez is] a writer of enormous gifts.”


Cleveland Plain Dealer
          

ALSO BY
Thomas Sanchez

Rabbit Boss
Mile Zero

To the Bright Angel
Stephanie Dante and
Thomas Louis Sanchez
age 21
“missing in action
somewhere in the Pacific”

1943.

1

T
he Zona Roja was blacked out. The hysterical pitch of an airraid siren wailed down the crowded street. Neon signs above stores and clubs went dead. Nathan Younger tried to keep his team of teenage boys together on the sidewalk, screaming commands in the hot night air as he pushed them against the wall of Club Bongo, trying to keep them from being knocked to the pavement by running sailors. Younger knew he had made a mistake, but he couldn’t disappoint the boys. He had promised them Cokes if they won the ball game against Pico Rivera. He didn’t plan on the game going till dark, having to herd his victorious team through a blackout just to get to the soda fountain at Ortega’s White Owl Drugstore. In the street, cars with headlights blinded by black tape honked furiously at people trying
to dodge between them. Only the forms of thick-waisted women did not move, their shadows lounging against open doorways. Younger looked anxiously to the cloudless sky. In the sudden darkness distant stars glittered in his strained gaze like a million bomber planes invading Los Angeles from infinity. “Cruz!” Younger lunged for one of his boys slammed to the pavement by a sailor. The boy was scrambling to his feet, trying to grab the fleeing sailor’s pants leg. Younger pulled Cruz up, pinning his struggling body to a wall, yelling into his face above the sound of the siren, “Don’t bitch it up! No fights with sailors! You promised!” The hundred-pound weight of Cruz’s body strained like one uncontrollable manic muscle beneath Younger’s grip. “Don’t bitch it up!” As suddenly as the siren’s song of fear had begun, it stopped. The sound of another siren huffed in staccato bursts from the cement needle crown of City Hall blocks away. Younger anxiously counted his boys along the wall, tapping the baseball cap of each as he ran down the line. All nine were there; his team was intact. The blackout drill was over.

The Zona Roja lit up. Neon lights down the distance of the chaotic street flashed irregularly to life. Electric current flowed in garish colors through letters on pretentious marquees that jutted over cluttered sidewalks, blinking urgent messages:

CLUB COOCH-COOCH
CLUB COOCH-COOCH CLUB COOCH-COOCH!
GALS! POOL! POKER! PINBALL!
GALS! GALS! GALS!!
AWOL CLUB AWOL CLUB AWOL CLUB
AWOL CLUB AWOL CLUB!

From inside clubs and bars Frank Sinatra’s crooning voice, gay strumming of Mexican guitars, and the fierce lament of Benny Goodman’s clarinet blared from jukeboxes, competing with the clanging bells of pinball machines. Younger tried to move his team of boys through the maze of sailors choking all pathways
to Ortega’s White Owl Drugstore on the distant corner. He didn’t want the boys to get caught in the net of drunken sailors jostling them. The thick-waisted women with tight side-buttoned skirts made loud kissing sounds with their bright puckered lips. “Chico, chico, chico!” Younger pushed the boys away from the laughing women to the edge of the sidewalk, elbowing a path between dark blue forms of several vomiting sailors. Flashing red lights of a Shore Patrol jeep whipped across the faces of Younger’s boys as he herded them to the intersection blocked by two sailors locked in drunken combat, each clutching the brown neck of a beer bottle in one hand and the neck of his partner in the other. The sailors grunted and shoved each other back and forth, banging against honking cars, oblivious to helmeted Shore Patrolmen jumping from the jeep. From both sides of the street, gangs of teenagers screamed encouragement, booing and hissing as the Shore Patrolmen tried to break up the drunken dance, wedging long clubs between the furious-faced brawlers. The shouts and taunts from the two gangs clashed over the heads of the fighting men, just as the Zoot suits they wore clashed in color and cut, broad-shouldered baggy coats of yellow and chartreuse draping below their knees, flared green and purple pants cuffed skin tight around ankles above oversized waxed shoes. Younger tried to get his boys past one shouting gang that was blocking the entrance to Ortega’s Drugstore. A great whoop arose across the street from another gang, standing like an impenetrable forest of outrageously clothed trees around the short fat pumps of the Signal Gasoline Station. The whooping converged from both sides of the street as Shore Patrolmen clubbed the two sailors until they staggered away from one another, stunned and bleeding. Younger broke his way through the cheering gang before the drugstore, their eyes excited beneath the slouch of wildly colored hats, as Shore Patrolmen pulled the sailors into the glare of red light, handcuffing them together like an improbable pair of doomed lovers. Younger was astonished at how the young sailors looked exactly like his brother the day he went into the Navy, totally bewildered. He
turned back to his team of boys, pushing them through swinging doors into the safety of the drugstore. The Shore Patrolmen were no longer concerned with the subdued sailors. They confronted the two wildly dressed gangs challenging them with angry stabs of Spanish taunts. The patrolmen’s clubs swung nervously at their sides as they stalked along the edge of the crowded sidewalks like lion tamers backing off a dangerous beast.

Younger had pushed the last one of his boys into the drugstore when he heard a new sound that made him shove his way back into the crowd. The scream of a woman was almost lost in the overwhelming blast of car horns. Suddenly the woman appeared, running, dodging between cars. Younger thought he recognized her, her blond hair twisted and bent in a bizarre ring of curls around her exhausted face, her screams turning to a distinct, terrifying plea. “God’s sake! Someone!” Two men zigzagged through the cars behind her, the leather of their shoes slapping against pavement, breath bursting from their lungs in short angry grunts, their bodies heavy and sweating beneath their suitcoats as they closed on her. She ran into the intersection, the horror in her face caught in the whipping red lights of the jeep. The patrolmen turned from the shouting gangs on the sidewalk, trapping the woman in the cleared intersection. She stopped, caught between patrolmen with menacing clubs and the two men about to grab her. “Someone! I’m being kidnapped!” Younger recognized the theatrical twist of fear in her face. He knew who she was: the movie star Barbara Carr. He tried breaking through the crowd to save her. The intensity of her screams stunned the crowd to immobility. Younger could not break through. The anguish in her face even stopped the patrolmen, their clubs dropping harmlessly to their sides, their mouths gaping as she ran between them into the gang of Zoot-suiters clustered around the pumps of the gasoline station. From the forest of the bizarrely dressed gang gunshots rang out, the loud metallic claps reverberating in the intersection. The two men chasing Barbara Carr reeled backward, the impact of bone-smashing bullets knocking them onto hard pavement.

The crowd Younger was pushing against suddenly gave way. Screaming people struggled in wild knots of panic as they tried to run from the scene. Younger got to Barbara Carr, her hands tearing into her blond curls as she tried to protect herself from the gunshots still thundering in her head. Younger grabbed her, trying to shelter her from the stampeding crowd. At both ends of the street, paddy wagons of Shotgun Squad cops were unloading. Barbara Carr’s terrified eyes stared directly into Younger’s eyes, her fingers flying up, the nails digging into Younger’s cheeks as he screamed at her, “Barbara! You’re safe now!” The pain in Younger’s torn face broke his hold on her and she twisted free. A redheaded woman appeared from behind the pumps of the gasoline station and grabbed Barbara Carr, slapping her face until the sobbing turned to whimpering and she collapsed into the safety of the redhead’s arms.

Shotgun Squad cops blocked all possible escape from the street, handcuffing Zoot-suiters trapped in the crush of the crowd. Younger could see his boys inside Ortega’s, their shocked faces pressed to the plate-glass window. Between the abandoned gasoline pumps, a lone man knelt, chalking a white circle around a .45 caliber gun lying on the pavement where only minutes before the Zoot-suiters had stood.

Younger gazed down at one of the bullet-riddled men sprawled at his feet. The man’s dark suitcoat flared open at his sides like the spread wings of a dying bird of prey, a coursing red glow of blood soaking around the exposed gold badge pinned to the rayon lining of the coat. Three letters on the badge’s elaborate engraving could barely be made out in the swirl of the neon-bright night: FBI.

2

T
he Hollywood stars were cold as ice. The afternoon sun was blistering. The field grass was withered yellow. Younger steamed beneath his shirt and tie. The San Francisco Seals were hot. Younger was going to lose his bet with Wino Boy. Angel Parra was burnt out. Across the dusty diamond, in the bleachers high above the Seals’ dugout behind third base, Younger saw the man he was waiting for. Younger did not signal the man; he turned in his hard seat and shouted at the pitcher, “Come on, Angel, throw the Seal a spit! He can’t hit! Throw him a spitter!” Angel’s pitch went wild and was called ball four. Younger kept shouting more encouragement at the young pitcher, even though he knew it was hopeless. The Stars were cold as ice and the sun was getting hotter.

The man Younger was waiting for worked his way around the stadium through half-empty wooden bleachers; no one paid him any attention. The twelve-year-old peanut vendor spotted the man and ran toward him, but the man brushed the boy aside, walking on, adjusting his dark glasses, pulling the bill of a Hollywood Stars’ baseball cap further down over his face, walking blindly to Younger’s box seat.

“What took you so long, Senator?” Younger asked the question without looking at the man slipping across the paint-peeled bench and sitting so close to him their shirt sleeves almost touched.

From behind thick lenses of dark sunglasses Senator Kinney’s eyes were fixed out on the pitcher’s mound as Angel threw down his mitt and walked disgustedly off the field toward the dugout. “What’s wrong with Angel, Younger? Something sure is eating him. This just isn’t the kind of squared-away team it was last month. No way they can go for the pennant now. The Beavers are sure to murder them next week in Portland.”

“His brother was killed, Senator.”

Kinney lowered his glasses a crack below his gray eyes; Younger could see wrinkled lines of disbelief running up from the top of his blunt nose into the sweating forehead.

“Guadalcanal, Senator. His brother was one of the boys killed there. They didn’t find his body for four days. Buried in a bomb crater under twelve other marines. Four days to find his body and six months to notify his family.”

Kinney shoved the glasses tight against his eyes. “Fucking Nips.”

“Fucking war.”

Kinney watched Angel walk slowly from the dugout and take up a bat, swinging it viciously at something invisible and menacing in the air. “How can the guy even play?”

“Why did you summon me to testify before a session of the committee next week?”

“Information. We want information.”

“Everything I can possibly say about the situation is public
record. I already told everything I knew at the Zoot-suit preliminary hearing weeks ago, Senator. If you bring me out into daylight like this, it won’t be safe for me in the Barrio.” Younger looked over his shoulder to see if anyone had slipped into the empty seat behind him. He lowered his anxious voice. “What new information could I possibly give you in public that would be worth risking the setup we have going? It’s crazy, an undercover agent testifying to his own bosses.”

“Not you.” Kinney watched Angel chop air at a ball high and outside for strike three, throwing the bat against the wire mesh of the backstop to the boos of the crowd. “We want information on the redhead, Kathleen La Rue, the one who was there the night of the FBI killings.”

“What could La Rue know?”

“We want her to be there when you testify. With you being called to testify before us, she will never suspect who you work for. We’ve got an angle on her and want you to investigate.”

Younger slipped a stick of Juicy Fruit gum from his pocket, scraping tinfoil off the wrapper and rolling it into a bright silver ball. He flicked the silver ball angrily onto the playing field as the third Star struck out, the sound of the umpire’s voice rising above the hissing crowd, “Steeeeeeriiiiiiike!”

The muscles in Younger’s cheeks coiled nervously from his jaw, working at the stick of gum. “Why didn’t you tip me to the situation instead of hitting me cold with a subpoena?”

“We couldn’t take a chance on not going through regular channels to subpoena you. We want you normal, above suspicion.”

“You don’t believe this Mankind Incorporated outfit she’s head of in the Barrio is a Sinarquista front? The Sinarquistas are heavy-handed Fascists; they aren’t interested in having a white girl who speaks barely passable high school Spanish front for them. They want the Zoot gangs, that’s who they’re after. The Fascists always develop from the bottom, from the street gangs up.”

“We think she’s something. FBI ran a report. She’s clean.
Too clean. Born in San Francisco, a bright girl, only child, went to college at Berkeley, graduated summa cum laude. You tell me why an educated girl from a rich family would join Mankind Incorporated.”

“She’s probably sexually frustrated. Frustrated females are impossible to figure. La Rue believes this Mankind Incorporated business about a superhuman race of metallic-headed men who will liberate mankind. Let her have her fantasy. Why waste our time?”

“Hey! He struck him out! See that, Angel struck the Seal out!”

Younger stared blankly at the cursing batter. He tried to control the anger in his voice, irritated he couldn’t shout his opinions at Kinney. “The cops shook La Rue down after the FBI shootings. They couldn’t pin a thing on her with those murders. Just some dumb woman out to save the world from itself. So what’s new?”

“The LA police didn’t find any fingerprints on the gun that murdered the two FBI agents in the Zona Roja.”

“No fingerprints doesn’t prevent the court from trying to pin the murders on twelve Zoots not much older than eighteen. They’ll get the electric chair if convicted.” Younger stopped chewing and rammed the wedge of gum up under his top lip. He looked like he had just been slugged in the mouth. “You don’t believe La Rue killed those two agents. La Rue couldn’t even lift a .45 magnum. I doubt she could punch her way out of a paper bag. If she fired the .45 that night, it would have knocked her off her feet. I saw her at the Zoot-suit hearing; she can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds when she’s soaking wet.”

“Anything’s possible in wartime, Younger. These could be Fascists in Mankind Incorporated we’re dealing with.”

“Then I’ll investigate her, but I don’t believe she’s a…”

“It’s not your job to
believe
anything.” Kinney’s voice rose as he clamped his fist around the rusted iron-bar railing in back of the empty seat before him. He looked nervously over his
shoulder to see if anyone had heard his loud words. He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “I can’t sit around and argue the point, Younger. I’ve got to get back up to Sacramento for a hearing in the morning on whether or not to lock up Italians living along the coast, same way we did with Jap sympathizers. Any of these foreigners could be a spy. It’s okay for America to be a melting pot during peacetime, but right now you can’t trust your own mother.”

“I just don’t believe La Rue’s a killer.”

“And Chamberlain didn’t believe Hitler would invade Poland.” Kinney turned the glare of his sunglasses on Younger, his mouth puckered into an ironic smile. He stood up to the organ music blaring over the loudspeakers for the seventh-inning stretch, his last words barely discernible as he walked quickly away. “There are political enemies in the Barrio, Younger, and if you don’t find them, they’ll find you.”

BOOK: Zoot-Suit Murders
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