The Patrolman (2) - Prologue
North Spring ought to be the safest area in L.A.
It is the geographical center of the city. The San Gabriel Mountains are fifteen miles north, the major industries and impoverished areas of East L.A. surround the harbor, the largest man-made port in the world. The waterfront lies exactly twenty miles due south of Spring. Thirteen miles west is the Pacific and the neighborhood of Venice; which was still its own city until fifteen years ago. To the northwest are the Santa Monicas, with HOLLYWOODLAND hovering above the foothills on stilts. Despite making the cover of most visitor pamphlets, 200 North Spring Street is known primarily for City Hall.
It houses the Mayor, the City Council meeting chambers and serves as headquarters to the Los Angeles Police Department. The Chief of Police keeps an office on the eighth floor. City Hall opened in Downtown in 1928, occupying a full city block, bounded by Main, Temple, First and Spring streets. Several prominent institutions also keep their headquarters here: the L.A. Tribune, Cónsul Incorporada (the Cuban tobacco company) and the International Savings & Exchange Bank to name a few.
That day, the routine motions were disturbed by gunfire.
TED Officer J. S. Thomson of Central Division was safe and off-duty when it happened.
LAPD’s Traffic Enforcement Division covered over 32,000 street intersections and Thomson happened to direct traffic at one of the busiest in Downtown, which suffers the highest percentage of traffic-related injuries and fatalities in the city. Thomson worked 7th & Flower Street – just over a mile from N Spring. He worked the day swing – that was ten a.m. to six p.m. – five days a week for five years. His shift entailed the afternoon rush-hour. Captain Bill Parker who ran A.I.D. (the Accident Investigation Division) was cutting costs and doubling watches. The son-of-a-bitch was getting cost-effective – ready for when he becomes Chief. It came despite the view that TED officers were notoriously underpaid, the unit underfunded and overworked: writing up a quarter-million citations per annum. Thomson’s relief, Policeman Dallas W. Walters, worked the mid and p.m. watch, and came to relieve him at six pronto. That day they shot the shit about some fender bender for a few minutes, then Thomson took his leave. It was Friday.
A wave of violet shadow poured through Flower Street. Apart from the background noise of coffee shop muzak, the wide empty street was just that. Businessmen and women, curators, attorneys, bankers, and whatnot had been home since five o’clock. They would be talking with their partners, taking their showers, or preparing their eveningwear. In half an hour, Downtown would roar back to life with the slew of Friday night ‘cocktail traffic’ as it came to be known.
He turned right onto 6th, striding past Pershing Square – fruit central. Old homos curb-crawled at five mph, young homos in pleated jackets patrolled the sidewalks, beckoned the tricksters over or shrugged them off entirely. Thomson idled by, doffing his hat. They didn’t bother him; he didn’t bother them. They had an understanding. The gigolos knew him. After his shift every Friday, the cop walked their route. There had been some trouble in the past, but that’s where it stayed. They were well-versed in the detection of policemen. Cops often came in felony cars, known as F-Cars. The drivers, plainclothesmen, were just looking for fags to roust. When one got cuffed, the other gigs rabbited. Thomson wasn’t so bad when it all boiled down to it, nothing compared to that asshole, homo-hating cop Donlon who was paid to walk this beat daily.
Thomson was a protty Scotsman by race. He was six-two and built like a football player. He’d been on a diet for several months and was now healthier than he’d ever been, though he could stand to lose a little more weight. His pants weren’t as tight and the revolver riding in the spring waistband holster was slightly more comfortable, fifty-six ounces of steel thudding into one’s side tends to grate on you after a while. The gun was fully loaded with six .38-calibre rounds, the snub-nosed revolver was the standard-issue weapon of nearly every cop in the city. His size twelves hit the pavement with noisy slaps. He had blue eyes and dirty blond hair. He was on his way to City Hall, Cónsul’s, 200 S Spring St. The old guy who worked the counter sold him Breva cigars at 10¢ a pop – the uniform had its perks sometimes. Since he’d quit drinking, he allowed himself one cigar on a Friday night. That was his only vice. It became the thing that killed him.
He slowed his pace a bit. Thomson walked with unhurried purpose. He had twenty minutes before the Elysian Park bus came. He even started to whistle a tune from the Ink Spots. I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire – Thomson had no intention of doing that either, didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
When he made Spring Street fifteen minutes later, a woman’s voice cried out for help. He couldn’t see her. Thomson, unlimbering his gun, picked his way through the hurrying cars – making for the source of the noise as fast as his legs could carry him. The people moving around him became a meaningless blur, he was flat-out sprinting. A hundred yards ahead, the door to Cónsul Incorporada came into view. Next to it, tucked away in the corner was a small family-owned gun store. They’d opened another store over on Alvarado a few months back. It seemed to be the cause of the disturbance. When he got closer, he saw a ’37 Ford Hearse mounted on the sidewalk. The driver stood by, cradling a shotgun. He looked terrified. The woman was standing on the opposite side of the street, pushing a stroller, yelling obscenities.
A yellow barrier blocked the sidewalk, Thomson sidestepped it. It had L.A. Railway Corp Maintenance Dept. on it. There was a manhole cover surrounded by hard-hatted workers, some drank coffee while the others chatted. The ruckus disturbed them. One of the workers’ eyes imprinted on him in passing. ‘Call the cops. Tell ‘em it’s a Code 3, possible 211.’ He yelled over his shoulder.
He was coming up on the gun store, fast. He darted to the other side. A bus screeched behind him. ‘Get out of here, lady.’ On approach, he got into a two-hand stance. Then he raised his gun at the robber. The guy shook behind his shotgun. Thomson heard the squeak of the stroller’s wheels, the woman running to get help.
‘Sir, I need you to stay perfectly still.’
‘Leave now, copper. It ain’t worth dyin’ for.’
Thomson swallowed. ‘You move - I’ll shoot, copacetic?’
The man’s eyes told him he wouldn’t. He’d have to swing the gun ‘round for that – it would take him half a second. The getaway driver would know Thomson could blow him away within that fraction of time. Before he could give a single pull on the trigger. He nodded, resignedly.
‘Drop the gun.’
‘You clearing weapons or the cash register?’
His bottom lip trembled – go. The robber’s eyes went mobile, to his right. Thomson caught on. Thomson wheeled ‘round, finger on the trigger. Some skinny kid was standing there now.
He hadn’t heard the kid approach.
He was on the skinny side, twenty-something. The face was lightly-sunburned with straw-like hair. Thick, overdrawn brows hid the eyes. The kid stood there in a raincoat as if wanting to die, stood there like a question mark, a listlessness in him.
‘Kid, get out of here.’ Thomson said.
Footfalls – it was too late to run now. Three armed thugs came out of the gun store, saw him, and stopped in the doorway.
The kid said he didn’t wanna die.
Thomson pulled the hammer back. ‘If you shoot, fellas, your friend dies first – at this distance I’m Wild Bill Hickock.’
The three robbers swivelled, fanned out a step to have a clear field of fire. With disciplined precision the three men aimed at different points down Thomson’s body – the head, the chest, the groin. Thomson noticed each man wore a knapsack – with two shotguns poking out.
The smart thing to do was to let them keep their guns, ammunition, and get away. But Thomson wasn’t wired up like that, he was a cop.
The getaway driver swallowed, closed his eyes.
The robbers coiled their trigger fingers.
Thomson drew breath, okay then. Time to earn your payslip.
Vaguely he registered the kid utter a word – sorry. It was at that moment he realised he’d been bushwhacked.
Behind him there was an explosion. Thomson’s body was hurled forward as though he’d been kicked. The round slammed into the back of his head. It blew out the back of his skull and exited through his nose. He hit the deck. There was a small puff of dust from the sidewalk, then Thomson lay absolutely still. His face mostly obliterated, the concrete tatted with blood.
The kid kept his gun on the body, dazed.
It was 18:37 p.m. The robbers bundled into the dingy hearse. With a squeal of tire smoke, it drew abreast of the kid. The engine pop-pop-popped. The three robbers were sat on three of the four little seats at the corners of where the coffin ought to have been. The driver sucked a sweet, flicked it over with his tongue: ‘Get in,’ he said.
The kid was frozen stiff.
Spring Street roared. People took cover behind doorways and benches. Police sirens grew closer. Uniformed cops tore out of City Hall and plowed across Grand Park. In a minute, they’d be apprehended or shot. ‘Noah,’ the driver said.
The kid looked at him.
‘Get in the car.’
Just five minutes for the job. Dead on time.
The hearse made a scruffy U-turn and moved at a ridiculous speed up to the intersection. There, it turned right onto East 1st Street and at fifty miles an hour tore through a red light. The men chatted excitedly. They now had the firepower to pull their score, the largest score. In less than two minutes, they’d hit Skid Row and disappear east, headed for Boyle Heights.
The kid, Noah, sat in the car. Still hadn’t come to grips that he’d murdered a cop outside City Hall in broad daylight.