ANGEL - LELAND THOBURN
Sometimes a name can be a barrier.
Like with the Puerto Rican girls who tell you their name is “Lolita,” or “Britney”. Sometimes, if they’re not too lost, you can get them to give you their real names. Most of the time, no.
Sometimes a name can be a window. Like with Angel.
I was working the booking desk on the night shift in the East L.A. station on a Tuesday night in October of ’97 when they brought Angel in. After the perfunctories at the front desk, they brought her to me.
She sat down and tucked her skirt. The station windows rattled from a gust that presaged the windstorm to come. I wiped the sweat from my neck and turned to face a girl who could have been thirteen or who could have been twenty-three. It all depended on how she dressed.
“You got any ID?”
She brushed a strand of black hair away from her eyes, shook her head and glared. I called over the desk matron. She wasn’t carrying any ID when she was booked – no personal belongings whatsoever except what she was wearing and there was damned little of that.
She’d been picked up in East L.A. shortly after midnight. The short skirt, knee high boots, and low cut blouse were an obvious advertisement she didn’t need. She could have dressed in a potato sack and stampeded any intensive care ward in the county.
We both knew the game. The pimps kept their personal belongings to make sure they’d return, and so they’d be “clean” if they strayed into some overeager cop’s line of fire.
“What’s your name?”
“Angel. Angel Moreno.”
“That can’t be your name.” It was more of a prayer than a statement.
“You think I don’t know my own name, copper?”
“Where do you live, Angel?”
That was where all the Latino hookers hung out. That was where she’d been picked up. “Where on North Soto?” I felt silly asking.
“Just North Soto.”
“Cut the crap. Where do you live?”
She remained silent.
“Okay, let me put it this way. Where does your family live?”
“You wouldn’t like my family, copper.”
“Try me. How old are you, Angel?”
She was so hip it hurt just to talk to me.
“You’re lying.” I paused, tapping my pencil just for effect. “I can vag you for twenty-four hours, or you can start telling me the truth.” She just shrugged her shoulders. Maybe she’d never been in prison before. Maybe it really didn’t matter.
“Look, honey, it’s a goddammed dangerous city out there, and what you’re selling makes you a slow moving target for every thief, pimp, hustler, sadist, psycho and sicko we got out there, and believe me, we got a lot of them.”
Again, she shrugged her shoulders.
“I can get you some help, but you gotta ask for it.”
She remained silent.
“You really don’t care what happens next, do you?”
Her eyes were blank. I’d had enough. I called over the desk matron. “Vag her.” That would keep her off the streets for twenty-four hours. She and I both knew where I could find her after that.
I arrested Angel three more times in the fall of ’97. Each time, she was clean. Each time, she was silent. I’d feed her at the station, give her some coffee and a cigarette, go “good cop” on her to try to gain her trust. And to see if she really could be...
There had been a girl, many years ago. The way you do only that one time. She used to call me Poppa. I used to call her Angel. She used to tell me that if she ever had a daughter, she’d name her Angel. That girl’s name was Rachel. Rachel Moreno. I was a musician before I met her. After she left me, I became a cop.
I lost track of Rachel many years ago. Not that I didn’t think of her; I just couldn’t find her. After several years of trying, I put the affair behind me – which isn’t the same as getting over it. Now, impossibly, here was a girl named Angel Moreno.
It was early in the winter when I heard that Angel was in the hospital. She’d been beaten up, nothing serious. Nothing broken but some skin. The emergency room staff had gotten some information out of her. I made them share it with me.
The walk-up was old, dusty, dirty and dark. It smelled a mixture of garlic, cigars and mold. I stopped on the stairs and looked myself over. Sixteen years can do hell to a man’s self esteem. I shook it off. I’d had lots of practice. I hadn’t had practice being scared. I found the door to 3-C and knocked.
A tall Latino woman in her late thirties opened the door. Her long black hair was streaked with auburn. It fell over her shoulders like a shroud. Her mouth bore a shadow of the smile I remembered.
“Hello, Angel.” She stood, momentarily confused. I showed her my badge and pushed my way in.
“My name’s not Angel. How did you find me?”
“Your daughter’s in the hospital.” She caught her breath. “You know what she’s doing, how she got there?”
Rachel nodded her head slowly. “Is she...?”
“She’ll be okay. Just cuts and bruises.” Rachel turned and walked to the couch. Watching her reminded me of many things. The first time I’d seen her she had reminded me of a brook behind my house, long ago. When I was a kid back in Ohio and I wanted to be alone, I’d sit watch the water slip around one particular rock. That was how she walked.
“Goddamnit, what happened to you?”
She started crying. From her, that always shut me up. I looked around the room. It went perfectly with the building. Everything in it looked like shit. I looked back at Rachel. She went with the room.
“So what happened after...?”
“None of your fucking business.”
“It is now. With Angel on the streets.” I paused. “I heard you was seeing a guy named Antonio. Was he, is he... I mean, is Angel his...” I let it hang. She looked up at me with eyes that either wanted to cry or kill, I couldn’t tell which.
“Antonio died in the Panama invasion. He was a brave man. Not like you.”
“Yeah, but it was him, right?”
“How’d you find me?”
“Her driver’s license.”
“Didn’t you see her birthday?”
I shook my head. I’d been more concerned with the address.
“My baby was born in February.” She paused, as if she wasn’t going to say it. Then she turned away and spoke quietly. “February, 1981.”
Rachel had walked out on me in June of 1980. I closed my eyes to keep her from seeing inside, and to hide a tear. I may have been successful at the former. Not the latter.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I never wanted to see you again. I thought you were out of my life.”
“Goddamnit, Rachel, how many times do I have to say I’m sorry? If I die, would that be enough?”
“She was my sister.”
“She was nothing to me, and you know it.” Now there was hate in her eyes. “Not like you. You were...special. You were different. You killed me that day, you know that?” She stared at me. “Why do you think I became a cop? Huh?”
When she made no attempt to answer, I did so for her. “So someone would have an excuse to finish what you’d begun. I loved you like no one, babe. Like no one. Ever again.” There were tears in her eyes, but no words on her lips.
“Does she know?”
“She thinks her father died in Panama. Don’t you ever tell her otherwise. If you do, I swear to God I’ll finish you myself.” That did me. I stood up.
“I’ll do what I can for her. It won’t be much. She thinks I’m just a cop.”
I saw Angel just once that winter. She’d been badly beaten. One eye was swollen shut, and the burns on her arms looked like they’d been made by a cigarette.
“Who did this to you?”
“I’ll take care of my own, copper.”
“You haven’t yet. Look, let me help you. You don’t have to be perfect to get a little service around here.”
She wouldn’t tell me anything I could use. I made sure she received treatment at the hospital and then got twenty-four hours rest, courtesy of the City of Angels.
I tried to read her eyes. Did she know? Had her mother told her? I couldn’t decide.
I didn’t see Angel again until the spring. One rainy day late in March, as I was leaving the station, there she was, standing alone on the sidewalk, waiting and getting wet. It took me a few moments to look her over and decide. She had a black eye and a cut on her cheek. I took her inside.
“You going to let me help you this time?”
She looked up at me. Then looked down at her shoes. Her indecision was boiling her. It was all I could do to do nothing. Finally, she spoke.
“You know my mom?”
I held my breath and said nothing.
“She said I shouldn’t trust you.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I don’t think she’s right.”
“She’s not. I’m...” I bit it off. “Did she say why you shouldn’t trust me?”
Angel shook her head, then looked me the question.
“Maybe she just doesn’t trust cops. She’s a friend of a friend. That’s all. How can I help you Angel?”
Eventually she told me about a guy named Jesus. His territory was North Soto. He’d been stalking her, taking her money, threatening her, slapping her around in front of his friends. He was the one who had beaten her. She didn’t want to swear out a complaint, so there wasn’t anything I could do except listen.
“I just want to forget everything, to start over. I can do that, can’t I?”
I wanted to say yes. Instead, I told her the truth. “Someday, you’ve got to face it. Who you are – that never changes. What you do today, tomorrow, for the rest of your life – you can always change that. But what you’ve been, what you’ve done, that’s with you forever.”
If I’d just said yes, maybe she wouldn’t have walked away from me. Maybe she’d still be alive.
The last time I saw Angel was in May. It was in the morgue. She wasn’t pretty anymore. They never are after they’ve been strangled.
I spent the rest of the day at my desk, breaking pencils and thinking. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. That’s all reality is – the ashes and dust of the dreams of two people who had been very much in love. Too many mistakes, too many lies, had bred too much hate and the dream had died. And with it, any hope Angel had of a life.
I stood up. I was mad at myself for sitting there, thinking, when I should be out doing something. I put on my hat, my coat, and my gun and left the station.
I wasn’t there when Rachel called. I was looking for Jesus. I found him around the time Rachel picked up Angel’s body. He was just another punk. L.A. was full of him. I hit him so hard I broke three knuckles on my right hand. It took him four days to die.
I was suspended from the force for two weeks pending an investigation. Angel was buried sometime during those two weeks. I didn’t attend the funeral. I kind of lost track of the time.
When I returned, I was busted for using unnecessary force in the course of an investigation. It was Thursday when I went to the station to turn in my badge and say good-bye. The captain took me aside.
“That boy, Jesus. He’s got friends. God knows how his kind gets friends, but he did. Word on the street is they’re huntin’ you. Be careful. Stay away from North Soto. Let me know if you need any help.”
I used my left hand to take my gun out and put it on the captain’s desk. The right hand was still in a cast.
“Thank you captain sir, but it’s no longer the business of the LAPD now, is it? At least, not ’til one of us finds the other.” I set my badge on his desk, along with my nightstick, mace, and cuffs – everything I had used to keep myself alive out on the streets. I was almost too much into myself to know when I had a friend. Almost. I looked up at the captain. “Thank you Jim. I appreciate it.” I shook his hand.
I walked out of the station. The hot desert winds had returned, whistling around the corner of the station house, blowing newspapers into the street. I was a civilian again. I had no more rights, no more authority, no more power than anybody else who was out there scraping by, trying to live in this hell.
I also didn’t have a gun, a stick, a knife. Nothing, except one broken hand and a decision that had to be made.
I looked up at the sky. The station. The blowing papers. The people who were walking somewhere as if it was important.
I turned left and headed for North Soto.
BIO: In addition to writing, Leland Thoburn plays jazz saxophone and flute, and explores old ghost towns and mines in the California desert. Mr. Thoburn is working on one novel, one memoir, and a gaggle of short stories.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago