LATIN BOYZ, my 13th novel might be the pinnacle of my love affair with Los Angeles. At least contemporary L.A. My novels set there invariably seem to dwell in the darker underbelly of the city of Angels, rather than the glitz and glamour many think of when Los Angeles/Hollywood are mentioned. That underbelly was a place I grew to love despite that darkness, or maybe because of it.
I've never wanted to take the easy way. Like most young people I figured I was indestructible, so I thought nothing of picking up and taking the Greyhound to Los Angeles in 1978. I know I meant to stay there for a while, but I had no idea how long. I came with a couple of spec scripts with the dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. I began to realize it wasn't the life for me when I found myself no longer telling people I was a writer. Hollywood writers were not held in high esteem—they have no esteem at all. Everyone in Hollywood was a writer, even when they really thought of themselves as actors or directors of auteurs who did it all. So I stopped saying I was a writer. I didn't stop writing, but I kept it to myself.
After a couple of decades writing SF I finally turned to writing mysteries, and my first one was published. I've always had a fascination with gangs from years of reading about them in the L.A. Times and talking to cops like Tony Moreno author of Lessons From a Gang Cop. I was especially fascinated by the Mexican Mafia, often called la Eme. La Eme are in the background of LATIN BOYZ. Those and the Avenues who rule Glassell Park, which is very near Cypress Park where LATIN BOYZ is set.
I've often used both gangs in other books; for LATIN BOYZ I wanted a story about gangs from a different angle. I also wanted to write about the real front line cops instead of detectives, who in the real world, are more desk jockeys than street cops. Face it, once a homicide detective gets involved, the violence is a done deal, their role is to figure out who did the deed, which is more head work and talking to a lot of people than chasing them and getting into gun fights.
I have a great deal of admiration for street cops. Patrol officers are the one who face violence daily. They're the ones first through the door into an unknown situation. The ones that answer domestic abuse calls or pull a strange car over. They face things that most people never see or think about. Yet often the only time we think of uniformed police is when the media reports something negative. But their jobs are not only to stop crime but to deal face to face with the victims and civilians who are sometimes friendly but just as likely to be hostile. I wanted to write about all that type of officer. A young, idealistic cop not yet beaten down by the system.
Then I had the fortune of becoming online friends with an ex-LAPD officer, Tim Bowen, who describes himself this way:
Timothy A. Bowen, ex-LAPD Officer, retiree, suppository, author of the absolutely hilarious you got photos? you got prints? you ain't got S.H.I.T. (Some Heavy Intellectual Testimony)
I bought the book, and loved the stories he told of things that happened in his years in the LAPD as a patrol officer so I emailed him and we got to talking. He sent me even more stories, some of which have made their way into LATIN BOYZ in the form of Alejandro Cerveras patrolling Cypress Park.
Alejandro is gay and fairly open about it. When he meets Gabriel Aguila, who is having violent run-ins with a local gang called Locusts Crew XIII, Alejandro is strongly attracted to Gabe. Gabe lives in denial. He refuses to admit his feelings for men and especially Alejandro. He's also too busy protecting his younger sister, injured in a drive by three months earlier that killed their mother. In the end, Gabe has to decide whether he wants vengeance or Alejandro's love.
Twenty-one year old Gabe will do anything to keep his family safe from the Locusts XIII Crew, a Cypress Park gang, especially his 14-year-old sister Nattie. In Gabe's struggle to keep his small, fragile family safe, he meets LAPD patrol officer Alejandro Cerveras and must come to terms with his attraction to him--and decide whether to believe his Church’s teachings or what his heart tells him. Then tragedy strikes, fueling his rage. As the need for vengeance drives him past all reason, violence and hatred erupt between Gabe and the gangbangers, spiraling out of control, leading to tragedy and the greatest loss of all.
I barely drifted to sleep when tires screeched outside. The harsh blast of a car horn followed. It was all the warning I got. The first shot blew through the bedroom wall over my head. Drywall dust puffed out, at the same time my sister, Nattie, screamed.
I bolted through the door to her bedroom in the back of the house and grabbed her around the waist. Dragging her off the bed, we hit the floor, the pink ruffles of her Disney bedskirts wrapped around both of us. I took the weight of our fall on the hard linoleum floor and my shoulder jolted under the impact of her plump, fourteen-year-old body. I rolled over, and pinned her under me.
She screamed again and smacked me. Her fist hit my back and shoulders. One slammed into my ear. My head rocked sideways and light flared behind my eyes. More shots. The living room window shattered, and the battered, twenty-one inch TV my Uncle Tio and I salvaged from the dump last year imploded.
Under me, Nattie whimpered and shivered. I stroked her hair and whispered soft nonsense words to her. Nothing penetrated her terror.
“Mami!” She flailed at me and screamed for our mother.
All this brought back way too many memories. Memories of another day when shots took the life of our mami and left Nattie permanently brain damaged. All my work to protect her, lost in a new hail of bullets.
More shots hit the front of the house, including the room which had been my mother's until her death three months ago. The room I refused to give to Nattie, even though Tio said it was only right. I knew in my gut I didn't want her in the front of the house.
The screech of tires signaled their departure. Nattie's renewed moans and guttural grunts broke the fragile silence.
Familiar feet shuffled down the hall. I didn't look up when Tio entered the room. His weak, old man's voice quavered. Once he‟d had a cumbra’s voice. Now he was a broken man who looked to me to protect all of us, when I couldn't protect myself.
“Who is it, Gabriel?” he cried. “Who is doing this?”
I couldn't look at him while I tried to calm Nattie. Tio knew as well as I did who it was. Gangsta assholes from Locusts XIII Crew, trying to clean up the business they started three months ago.
“Go, Tio. Call 911.”
“Go. I'll take care of Nattie.”
He left and shuffled to the kitchen where our single working phone hung on the wall.
Nattie clung to me. She no longer screamed for our dead mother. Now she only whimpered. I stroked her back through her worn flannel pajamas. I didn't need light to know it would be the ones with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger all over them. The ones she put on every night since our mother had been shot by the same gang bangers who tried to kill us again tonight. She did so many little things to give herself comfort in a world which must seem mad to her.
It took half an hour to calm her. I didn't put her back to bed.
The pigs would come soon, and they would insist on seeing her, even when they were told how useless their questions were. The sight of them, with their guns and their dark uniforms would freak her out all over, and I knew I would have to calm her again, once 5-0 left. I led her into the living room where we waited.
Dust from the walls hung in the air, the tattered curtains rippled in the breeze which moved through the broken windows. Outside, I could hear the distant wail of sirens. Too few and too late.
I settled my sister on the sofa, sat beside her and smoothed the soft hair off her face. Her eyes, when they met mine, were glazed with fear. I wanted to tell her everything was okay, but I knew the cops would be here soon and make me a liar. It wasn't ever going to be okay.
Another ten minutes passed before a pair of black-and-whites rolled up in front of our small bungalow on Merced Street. Strobes of red and blue lights flashed like they actually thought the choloz would still be hanging, waving their chrome around.
Nattie and I sat in the living room with hot cocoa that Tio made. I reread her the Pooh story to calm her. She was too big to sit on my lap, but she tried. She curled against my side, her thumb tucked firmly between large lips. Her eyes widened when car doors slammed outside and footsteps climbed the cement steps to the front door.
She paled when Tio opened the door. She knew who was out there, and they scared her almost as much as the choloz.
The first cop through the door was an old regular. I had no idea what his name was, it didn't matter, they were all alike. This one was a grizzled panzón gabacho, with his fat belly hanging over his gear, and looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here on this fine January night.
But the other one, the one who followed him into our tiny, bullet-strewn home, was one I‟d never seen before. If I had, I would have remembered. He was raza. Smooth, clean-shaven. A strong face. High cheek bones from his Aztec ancestors. His uniform was sharply pressed and stretched tight across his broad chest and thighs. A thick belt across his hips covered with all the things I was used to seeing on 5-0. Dark eyes under his peaked cap met and held mine. I caught my breath.
Beside me, Nattie stiffened. Her eyes widened and I knew she saw their weapons. Even with her soft mind she recognized guns.
I tried to stem her panic with gentle words. But she was beyond that. I broke eye contact with the younger cop and stroked my sister's sleep-matted hair. I pressed her face against my chest, whispered to her and dried her tears.
The older cop talked. After a while I realized he had introduced the two of them. Officer Adam Donnelly and Alejandro Cerveras.
“Can you tell me what happened here tonight?” The brown cop spoke Spanish. Was that supposed to give us common ground?
I didn't answer him right away. I needed to deal with Nattie first.
“Mami,” she whispered.
“Mami's not here right now, bebé,” I said.
“I need you to talk to me,” the cop said like it was only him and me in the room. “I can help you. But you have to tell me what happened tonight.”
He must be new in the area. Otherwise he‟d know it didn't matter what happened. He wasn't going to be able to do anything about it.
“In a minute,” I snapped.
I knew my anger upset Nattie, but I found it hard to hold it in check. I looked up when Tio slipped back into the room. “Tio, take Nattie to her room. Read to her.”
“We'll need to speak to everyone in the house,” the Latino cop said.
“You talk to me. No one else can tell you anything.”
I didn't look at either cop when I passed the book over and urged Nattie to follow her uncle. My obedient sister did as she was told. Her bunny slippers flopped on the cracked and yellowed linoleum floor with its curled edges.
I watched until they were gone, then swung around to face Cerveras.
“Took you long enough to get here. We called over an hour ago. For all you knew, we could have been lying here, bleeding out.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“A car full of G's got busy on us.” I looked at the wall behind the cop's head where the bullets had torn holes in the already old wallpaper. Then I looked at the destroyed TV and sighed. “Again,” I added.
Cerveras's eye brows went up at that. “This has happened before?”
“Pendejo, don't you people talk to each other? Write reports?” I spun around. Both cops tensed at my sudden movement. I slowed and spread my arms to calm them. Last thing I needed were nervous cops in my living room. “We've been over this already. Every time I call you, it's the same fucking thing. I'm always calling, and it's always the same.”
“Always calling about what? Other drive-bys?” Cerveras said.
His calmness infuriated me. “I wasn't aware of any recent gang activity in this area —”
“I keep calling to find out what you guys are doing to find my mother's killers.”
“Tell me about that, sir. When did it happen?”
“Thanksgiving, last year. Mami—my mother—and my sister, Natalie, were sitting outside.” I jerked my chin toward the front step. “Taking a break. It gets hot in here when you cook. No air.” My hands tightened into fists to stop them from shaking at the memory. My fingernails dug into my flesh. It didn't do any good to know even if I had been here, it wouldn't have mattered. I would probably be dead, too. “I wasn't here. I was in the backyard.”
“And what happened?”
“Vato next door was rumoured to be White Fence. The Locust Crew sent a couple of soldiers after him. One cabrón hit the wrong house.” I rubbed my bare arms, which were crowded with goose bumps. That had been Sadboy, P-Bull's idiot brother. Sometimes I wondered how accidental it had been. Sadboy knew I didn't run with his brother anymore. He had never liked me when I did. “My mother was killed. My sister…my sister wasn't.”
Donnelly wrote something down. He looked bored. Cerveras faked his sympathy real good. As though anyone would believe he felt sorry for a couple of 'hood güisas.
“You guys were pretty useless then, too,” I added. “Nobody sees anything and you don't do anything.”
“I'm sorry. Sometimes our resources are stretched thin.”
“Especially when the ones calling you are brown, right? Then they real thin and scarce.” I brushed aside the denial I saw in his eyes. “Forget it. It's old news. Question is, you gonna do something this time?”
Cerveras looked puzzled. “If they had the wrong house last time, why are they still harassing you?”
I didn't tell him my history with the Locusts. Not his fucking business. Instead I said, “They don't like the noise I been making about them. Been trying to get you guys to do something for the 'hood, shut them down. I'm bad for their business.”
“Did you see the shooters tonight?” Donnelly asked.
“Sure, I raced out the front door and wrote down their plate number while they drove off. I'm bullet proof, vato.”
“No need for sarcasm, sir.” Donnelly seemed genuinely put out.
I rolled my eyes. “No, I did not see them. I was lying on the floor in my sister's bedroom, trying to keep us from getting our heads blown off.”
“We'll canvass the neighborhood. See if anyone saw anything,” Cerveras said. He had a strong voice. Strong, but surprisingly gentle. Something I would never have expected from an LAPD cop. He seemed regretful when he said, “We'll do what we can. But without an ID or a lead on the shooters, or their car, we have no one to approach.”
“I give you an ID. But you don't do nothing with it.”
“P-Bull. Him and his brother, Sadboy. Their real names are Jesus Acosta and Tomas Acosta. They used to live next door.”
“How do you know it was them?”
“P-Bull always had a hard-on for me.” At least he had since P-Bull got jumped in to the Locusts and I didn't.
“But you never saw him tonight? Either of them?”
“We'll talk to them, sir, but with no witnesses, it's hard.”
It was about what I'd expected. Still, for the first time, I felt disappointed, and that was stupid. LAPD weren't going to stop the Locusts, no matter how good their intentions were, and I wasn't always too sure their intentions were much of anything. LAPD cared about Westside. Not South-Central. Not Cypress Park. I had to hope the Locusts got bored and found fresh targets. Leave my family alone.
Like that was going to happen.
What I really needed was to find a way out of Cypress Park.
And since I‟d just started community college, and worked a part-time, minimum-wage gig at a local car wash, that was about as likely as winning the state lotto. Some nights I dreamed about skating my way out. Years ago, there had been one carnal brother who had won some contest and got himself a bunch of sponsors, and he‟d moved to Hollywood, where last anyone heard, he had his own line of boards and was riding in style.
“It must be hard on you, having to fill in your mother's footsteps.”
“Listen, what's gonna happen here? I really need to see my sister gets to bed.”
“A detective from the gang unit will meet with you. See if they can find anything the shooters might have left behind.”
I pointed at the wall behind him where several bullets had sunk into the cheap plaster. “Feel free to collect their brass. Save me digging them out myself.”
“Start by telling us your name. We'll need it for the official report.”
“You sure there's gonna be one?”
Cerveras was insistent. “Your name.” His hand poised over a note pad with a pencil.
“Your full name.”
“Fine. Gabriel Torres Aguila. My great uncle is Marco Aguila, and my sister is Natalie Magdeline.”
“Those are the only members of your household?”
“Yes,” I ground out. My home life wasn't any of this cop's business, no matter if we were both raza. “That is all I have. My father died years ago.” I didn't mention Jaime, my older brother, serving fifteen to life in Tehachapi. The last kite I got told me he was a full blown carnales for the Eme. He had let me know he had my back from inside, and every time one of his got out he sent them to me with messages. Stay cool, he always said, stay safe. I got your back.
I guess the Locust Crew didn't have a connection to Eme. They didn't know my brother. They missed the memo I was protected.
If this basta needed to know all that, he could find out without my help. Bad enough the assholes think we're all bangers or chronics no matter what they see. I wasn't gonna give him my family's dirty history.
He didn't give up. He wrote down everything I said. He ignored his partner, who had gone past bored and was desperate to leave. Outside, the lights from the patrol cars still pulsated. The neighbors, the ones who didn't see anything earlier, would be watching the cops like garbage rats and would know exactly when they left.
“What's your date of birth, Gabriel?”
When I told him, his eyebrow went up. “You're twenty? How old is your sister?”
Almost twenty-one, I felt like telling him. Instead I muttered, “Fourteen. What's it to you?”
“What's wrong with her?” he asked softly and his tenderness jolted through me. I pulled away from him, hating his pity. I took a deep breath and clenched my fists at my side.
Fuck that shit. This asshole didn't know dick and he wanted to pretend he cared?
“The bullet that killed our mother went into Nattie's brain,” I said. Even now, three months later I still grew nauseous at the memory of finding my baby sister on the ground beside our dead mother, her head bleeding, her skin so pale I thought she had died, too. “By the time anyone answered our 911 call, Nattie was in shock and damn near died in the ambulance.” I didn't tell him that sometimes I thought she might have been better off if she had. She would never fulfill the goals Mami had driven us to so relentlessly.
She wanted us all to go to college, but especially Nattie. We all knew she had the brains in our family. Instead, she would be a child all her life and someone would have to take care of her that long, too.
That someone, apparently, was me.
I pinned him with a look. “You keep saying that. Why're you sorry? You pull the trigger? You know who did? If you do, don't be sorry, go out and cap their ass. It won't bring my family back, but at least you‟d be doing something, which is a lot more than the rest of 5-0 doin‟. Now if that's all, I have to see about getting Nattie back to bed.”
I turned to leave and Cerveras stopped me with a touch on my bare arm. A burst of electrical heat went straight from his fingertips to my groin. In horror, I realized I felt the stirrings of an erection. I jerked away from the touch, but not before Cerveras's eyes widened and I knew he felt the same rush of desire. Neither of us spoke for a long time. He broke that silence.
“We'll let ourselves out. If you think of anything else, Gabriel, please, don't hesitate to call.” He handed me a pale purple card with his name and Northeast Community Police Station on San Fernando. I couldn't help staring at his hand, the fine black hairs on the knuckles, the smooth, trimmed fingernails. Surprisingly soft-looking hands. I dropped the card on the end table, planning to toss it the minute they left.
With one last, slow look, Cerveras tipped his hat, and followed his partner outside. I locked up, and stood in front of the door for several seconds. I listened to their footsteps, the muffled voices as they talked with the cops who had stayed outside, and the slam of car doors. After a while there was only silence. Still, I stood there, mind filled with unwanted thoughts that whipped back and forth.
What the hell just happened? I‟d always knew I had an unholy attraction to men. I fought the desires, but I‟d never been able to stop my urges whenever I saw a fine-looking man. I wasn't sure what it was I wanted to do with them, but there had been more than one night I woke to find my sheets stained with shame, and my balls empty. So far I didn't think anyone knew about my sinful thoughts, but if I kept on like this, it was only a matter of time.
Then the Locusts would have a real reason to greenlight me and even my brother wouldn't be able to keep me off their listas. What the hell was I gonna to do about it this time? Because I knew I hadn't seen the last of Alejandro Cerveras.
Rubbing sweating palms on my pant legs I took a deep breath, then I walked slowly back through the living room, down to Nattie's bedroom, where I heard Tio reading to her and telling silly jokes which had her giggling. It struck me that Tio and I had conspired between us to protect Nattie in a world which would be happy to eat her alive. Not bad for a twenty-year-old punk.
“Everyone decent?” I called out, part of our ritual that always made Nattie laugh and me smile. No smiles tonight, though I forced my lips into a fake one. I walked in and found the two of them on Nattie's narrow bed, the covers neatly back in place.
Tio smiled at me. Half his teeth were gone, the ones he still had were brown and crooked. The three tattooed dots beside his left eye looked odd in his wrinkled face. Mi vida loca. My uncle had that once. But his crazy life was over. “Are they gone, Gabriel?”
“Yes, Tio. They're gone. You can go to bed now.”
Tio kissed Nattie and shuffled off to his room.
Even after he left, and I had tucked Nattie in with a kiss of my own, my thoughts wouldn't leave Cerveras. What had happened between us tonight? And what was I going to do about it?
Because I was fucked if I couldn't figure out a way to stop these sinful desires before I did something stupid, like act on them.