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Authors: Thomas Sanchez

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BOOK: Zoot-Suit Murders
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Waves of Shore Patrolmen and Military Police commanded the Zona Roja. The bright streets were jammed with shoving people. Drunken sailors stood with their arms locked around lamp posts as if clinging desperately to a ship’s steel mast in a typhoon. Dark-eyed Mexican women with glaring red lips and wearing tight-waisted skirts blocked the noisy entrance to
, calling and whistling to young sailors surrounding them on both sides of the street. Cigarettes dangling from
the women’s mouths bobbed and glowed like fireflies mating in a swamp, luring even the most hesitant and embarrassed of the sailors.

“Hey, buster, want to cut a rug?”

“Don’t be a square, John, take a chance, buy a dollar dance!”

Younger tried to push through the women. One in a red wig eyed him; for an incredible moment, in the pulsing cascade of neon light from overhead, he thought the woman was Kathleen La Rue. The red-wigged woman rammed her hip into Younger’s leg and jammed the six-inch spike of her high-heeled shoe down on his foot. Her breath smelled like a Baby Ruth candy bar. “How ‘bout you, honey? Buck a dance, take a wild chance!” Younger pulled his foot out from beneath the stab of the spiked heel. “Come on inside, civvie.” The woman swung her purse recklessly by its long straps, arching her back so her large breasts almost pushed into Younger’s face, her bright brown eyes flashing the information that Younger would never be so fortunate to see such a seductive pose again in his adult life. She looked like a farm girl swinging a rabbit by its ears. “Cuuuuuum onnnnnn kidoooooooh, give yourself a treat! Buck a dance, buck a drink, hard to beat!” Younger pushed into the gang of women bartering and laughing with sailors weaving among them like punch-drunk fighters. The red-wigged woman caught up to Younger, grabbing his coat and pressing her lips to his ear. “Wait a sec, civvie! If you come inside with me, I promise you, kiddo, if you can’t get a boner, I’ll let you cop a feel of my cookie. I’m hotter than a Spanish fly trapped in Betty Grable’s pink panties! C’mon, civvie, my cookie’s getting mushy! Treat yourself to a treat!” Younger shook the clinging woman off and continued up the street, trying to stay clear of drunks stumbling out from clubs and squads of Shore Patrolmen walking four abreast, thick black billyclubs swinging at their hips. Hard white shells of Shore Patrolmen’s helmets, with a black
stamped on the fronts, reflected the frantic neon swirl of color around them. Younger knew someone was following him; he almost felt the breath on the back of his neck beneath his hat.
He spun quickly around. A short man nearly stumbled into him, then jerked back with a leer on his face, self-consciously patting the shiny wings of his heavily pomaded hair, the part down the middle of his scalp slashed straight as a white line down the center of a blacktop highway.

“What the hell do you want?” Younger shouted in the man’s grinning face.

The man looked over both shoulders and suspiciously behind him, then slipped a hand coyly inside his coat pocket, drawing out a pack of cards. “Beautiful Mexican cookie. You like to purchase Tijuana circus? Special to you today.” Before Younger could turn away, the man spread the deck in his hand like a rare fan and turned it over, exposing fleshy bits and pieces of a naked Mexican woman caught in different poses across the cards as she amorously ministered to her reluctant partner, a slack-eyed, big-eared donkey.

A sailor hung his pimply face over the man’s shoulder. “Hot dog! Look at that big black enchilada on that animal, must be four feet from belly to floor! How much, senior—for the whole deck, I mean?”

The short man spread the deck wider for the sailor. Younger turned and walked away, the sailor shouting after him, “Hey, civvie! I didn’t mean to break up the deal between you and the senior here! C’mon back, you can buy them! There’s more spic cookie where this came from!”

Younger walked, faster, then started running to catch up with the shouting crowd at the corner. Beneath the white glare of his helmet a Shore Patrolman swung the length of his club menacingly, barking at the crowd to stay back on the curb. In the middle of the street spinning lights on top of a Shore Patrol jeep splashed its red color all over the old Packard three patrolmen had stopped, banging their clubs on the metal roof. Younger made out two Zoots trapped inside the paint-peeled car, refusing to crank down the windows, slouched deep on the front seat, their faces obscured by wide brims of purple hats. One of the patrolmen smashed the driver’s window open, to the applause
of the crowd on the curb, and pulled a frightened Zoot from the car, slamming him up along the back fender, jamming a billyclub behind his Zoot’s neck and knocking off the purple hat. The Zoot’s hair was long and tied up in a black braid; the patrolman grabbed it in his fist, tugging like he was reeling in a reluctant fish, snapping the Zoot’s neck back against the club.

No nos vencerán! ¡Chale!
” The Zoot’s terrified screams filled the street as he futilely tried kicking backward at the grinning patrolman who was choking him with the club.

Younger knew what the Zoot was screaming. “You can’t defeat us! No way!”

A siren cut through the Zoot’s screams, a black-and-white police car slamming to a stop behind the jeep, six policemen with shotguns piling out, one handcuffing the screaming Zoot while the others prodded the second Zoot from his sanctuary in the Packard. Even after the Zoots were handcuffed and locked in the backseat of the police car and it sped up the street, Younger heard the shouts of the Zoots, their wild eyes glaring from behind the caged-in thick glass of the police car at the fist-shaking crowd. “
No nos vencerán.



The red-white-and-blue neon words blinked above the doorway of a small two-story shop. Younger pushed the door open. A little bell tinkled over his head, breaking an atmosphere of intimacy in the hazy smoke-filled room. A young shirtless sailor sat cross-legged in a straight-backed chair, a dark fat man bent before him, delicately darting a needle into the pale skin of the sailor’s chest. The fat man’s arms came out of his white T-shirt like enormous blood sausages, the tight skin covered with a tattooed menagerie of lions, tigers, parrots, and dragons fenced
in at each wrist by a tattooed identity bracelet declaring
1922. Each of the man’s fingers was ringed elaborately with a woman’s name:
. Younger could read the names clearly as the steady fingers pricked the needle into the sailor’s pasty white chest, embroidering into soft flesh the picture of a muscular arm with a snake ferociously wrapped around it. The hand of the newly tattooed arm was choking the snake, which astonishingly had the human face of a Japanese, fierce razor-sharp fangs jutting from his mouth. In bold letters, like a newspaper headline, beneath the bizarre struggle being enacted on the sailor’s shaved chest was the inscription
. The sailor’s eyes were inky and luminescent, drifting around the room. A sloppily rolled brown cigarette dangled carelessly from his slack mouth, its ashes falling unnoticed into the black hair of the fat man bent to the task before him. Younger smelled the wet, grassy odor of marijuana in the thick haze of the room.

“Are you Tony Tomale?”

“Does Jell-O roll off a tit?”

“Tony, I’d like to see the Virgin Mary.”

The needle in Tony Tomale’s fat fingers moved steadily as he answered Younger without looking up. “You got a nickel, price of a phone call, you call up the Virgin.”

“Isn’t this where the Virgin lives?”

“Is a Chinaman’s asshole slanted?”

“Look.” Younger reached into his pants pocket, taking out five bills. “I don’t have a nickel but I do have five bucks. What do you say? Will it get me in to see the Virgin?”

Tony Tomale laid down his needle and fished another one up from a bowl of alcohol. “The Virgin is a class act, buddy, not some Flores Street dude cruiser.”

“Well, then.” Younger reached deep into his pocket again. “How about ten smacks? Cash on the barrelhead.”

“Say, dog balls, why don’t you go over to the church with your ten spot and light a candle? Tell your troubles to

“I want to bet on a Horse.”

Tony Tomale dropped the needle into the bowl of alcohol, his head swinging around on his bull neck. He stared straight at Younger. “You really want to bet on a Horse?”

“Sure, a real Horse. I’ve got the dough.”

“You really think this is that kind of place?”

“Sure, sure, I’ve got the dime, you’ve got the time, brother.”

“You’ve got the
, I’ve got the
” Tony Tomale shook his head disgustedly, pushing himself up slowly from the creaking chair. “Okay, sports fan, I’ll go talk to the Virgin.”

Younger watched Tony Tomale disappear through a doorway dripping with rattling strings of bright plastic beads. He heard him laboriously climbing stairs, each heavy step thudding down a long hallway. The sailor’s head slumped forward, his chin resting on his brightly colored chest, inky eyes glowing with appreciation at the arm and snake locked in flamboyant indelible combat on his hairless pale white skin. Younger heard thudding on the staircase again. Tony Tomale swept the beaded strings across the doorway back with his fat hand like he was chopping through a canefield.

“Okay, sports fan, go on up. The Virgin is waiting.”

Younger went through the beaded curtain; the long hallway was brightly lit. The fast sound of a clarinet on a record player turned down low grew louder in his ears as he trudged to the top of the landing. A sailor in full-dress white uniform was tilted back in a chair, propped against the wall outside an open doorway where the music was coming from. The cloth of the sailor’s white cap was pulled down tight over his forehead almost to his eyes. The sailor jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the music, and Younger went in.

The dim room flickered from hundreds of candles flaming in soot-ringed bell jars. The smell of incense was thick and syrupy in the stuffy air, mixing with the sweet scent of burning beeswax, wafting over the form of a barely breathing body propped up on stacks of lacy peach-colored pillows strewn over the satin sheets of a large bed. Shiny black patent leather high-heeled shoes
were strapped to the softly breathing body’s thin ankles. Sheer black nylon stockings made a whispering sound as slender legs rubbed together beneath a pink Chinese robe, fastened high around the neck of an olive-skinned face half obscured by a silver sleeping mask in the shape of two startled cat’s eyes. Younger watched the pout of the face’s pink lips as they seemed to tremble in time to the clarinet music on the record player. A thin manicured finger raised, its bright black polished nail wagging back and forth in time to the music.

“Listen to Benny Goodman blow.” The voice was low and sultry. “Listen to Benny boy blow that black snake.” It was unmistakably the voice of a man.

Younger moved his feet uneasily, but not in time to the music. “I was told I could make a bet on a Horse here.”

“Oh?” The Virgin Mary pulled off the sleeping mask. The sharp lines of his oiled golden face were clearly visible, thick blue mascara exaggerating the almond shape of his eyes. “We sell lots of things at lots of prices, but we don’t sell Horse.”

Younger fidgeted more uneasily as the sailor from the hall came in quietly behind him. The heat from the candles made Younger feel like he was in the boiler room of a ship. “I was told I could make a bet on a Horse called Sea Biscuit.”

“Sea Biscuit? Oh, my, Johnny.” The Virgin Mary looked wide-eyed at the sailor and laughed. “Did you hear that, Sea Biscuit? Oh, my!” The Virgin Mary’s laughter was nervous, almost girlish, but not coquettish.

“What’s the joke?” Younger turned around and asked the sailor, who seemed to be inching uncomfortably closer to him all the time.

“The joke’s on you, dear.” The Virgin Mary stopped laughing, slipping a small pearl-handled derringer from beneath a lacy pillow and aiming it between Younger’s amazed eyes.

Younger was afraid to take his eyes off the pistol so he didn’t see the sailor move, but he felt the sailor suddenly grab him from behind with a viselike grip, locking his arms down. Younger tried to shake the sailor off.

The Virgin Mary’s thumb clicked back the derringer hammer. “Don’t get hasty, dear.”

Younger stopped trying to break the sailor’s iron lock.

“That’s so much better, dear.” The Virgin Mary slipped off the bed, slinking up to Younger. In his high-heeled shoes he was more than six feet, taller than Younger. “Now, dear.” He nuzzled the barrel of the pistol under Younger’s chin. “Why don’t you be a good scout and tell us who sent you here? Was it the Sinarquistas?”


The Virgin Mary dug the tip of the barrel into Younger’s jawbone. “Listen, you dirty little dope addict, somebody had to put you on to me. There isn’t one boy in the street who doesn’t know the Virgin Mary hates
, heroin, hates Horse. It’s not a love potion like cocaine; it kills you between the legs. I don’t like my sailor boys dead between the legs when I get them, understand?” The Virgin Mary pressed the barrel harder. “I like my seafood served nice and crisp when I reel it in. Know what I mean, dope addict?”

Younger tried to answer, but the pistol barrel was jammed so far under his chin it pressed against the base of his tongue, slurring his words painfully. “I didn’t come here for Horse… I came here for Sea Biscuit.”

“Isn’t that cute?” The Virgin Mary released the pressure of the metal barrel. “You don’t want to connect, all you want is to bet on Sea Biscuit.” He rammed the barrel harder into Younger’s chin. “Now who sent you to me to make this bet?”

“I’m not after to connect!” Younger heard Tony Tomale thudding up the steps. “Wino Boy told me to come and ask to make a bet on Sea Biscuit.”

“Tony, darling.” The Virgin Mary slipped back from Younger, fluffing the blond curls of his wig as he waved the small pistol, motioning Tony Tomale into the room. “Tony, would you be a darling and show our little sports fan here what we do with liars?”

Tony Tomale moved his bulk directly in front of Younger,
the shiny metal sliver of a tattoo needle held delicately in the sausages of his stubby fingers. He moved the sharp silver needle to Younger’s face.

“Now, dear.” Virgin Mary puckered his lips at Younger and blew him a kiss. “Tell us the truth or Tony darling is going to give you a new face. How would you like to look like Rin Tin Tin?”

“I’m telling you the truth.” Younger tried with the full power of his back muscles to break the hold the sailor had on him. The needle in Tony Tomale’s steady hand came closer to Younger’s face. “I was sent here by Wino Boy. He said you knew everything there was to know in the Barrio. I want to know who set the Horse loose again. It’s all over the streets out there. I’m not a pusher. I’m a Catholic social worker. I’m trying to stop the Horse from killing those kids. They’re your people being killed.”

The Virgin Mary’s lips lost their pucker. He took the tattoo needle from Tony Tomale and held the point straight to Younger’s left eye, watching the pupil pulse and dilate in fear beneath the sharp metal point. “Now listen, dear.” His voice hissed in Younger’s face. “I’m going to give you the benefit of a Catholic doubt, but if you are lying to me and want Sea Biscuit for the wrong reasons, darling Tony here will hunt you down and darn this needle right through your eye and out your brain.”

Younger didn’t move. He felt the sailor release his iron hold. The Virgin Mary turned and swished back to the bed, lounging across the sheet in a flurry of silk, satin, and nylon.

“What about my bet?” Younger was still afraid to move, the Virgin Mary’s pearl-handled pistol shining alongside a bottle of fingernail polish on the nightstand next to his bed.

“What do you mean, dear?” The Virgin Mary batted the thick lashes drooping from his heavy eyelids.

“Wino Boy told me to say I’d like to place a bet on Sea Biscuit.”

“Oh, yes,
Sea Biscuit.
Dear, if you’re really such a sports fan you must go to pier 128 in San Pedro, always before dawn.
If you are a good little scout, learn your knots and say your prayers sooner or later you will see Sea Biscuit. I promise you, Sea Biscuit will win, place, or show.”

Younger moved cautiously toward the door, but Tony Tomale’s hulk was blocking it.

“Dear?” The Virgin Mary’s voice came up low and sultry. Younger turned to see him slip his slender legs open with a whisper of nylon, a bulge beneath his pink panties. “Don’t you think my cookie is better looking than a movie star’s, like Rita Hayworth’s or Barbara Carr’s?”

“Yah.” Younger winked. “I think you’re a real cute trick. But I think you ought to try a different toothpaste.” He turned and shoved his way past Tony Tomale and out the door.

BOOK: Zoot-Suit Murders
3.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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