Gordon Basichis

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

The Blood Orange

 

 (this is Chapter 11 excerpted from my published novel, The Blood Orange)

 

 

 

 

Like much of the city, the Los Angeles barrio gave a mixed impression.  Boyle Heights in particular was part of the contrast.  It was an older section of the city, named for Andrew A. Boyle, who in 1859 bought the hill east of downtown for 25 cents an acre.  Boyle Heights grew and evolved, serving as the way-station for a series of immigrant groups–Europeans in the early years, many of them Jewish, and Hispanics later on.  Finally, after the years of neglect and the expansion of the city, Boyle Heights grew old and worn, seedy in some ways, comfortable in others–like a faded easy chair or a broken-in pair of shoes.

Max turned off the freeway and headed up the old Brooklyn Avenue, now named after Cesar Chavez, the main business street, with rows of weathered old shops selling anything from bargain dry goods to appliances and auto parts.  There were food markets and family restaurants serving home style Mexican food.  From the top of the hill Max had a view of the towering ultra-modernism that was downtown L.A.

Buildings sprouted everywhere, like a rampaging bar graph gleaming against the early evening sky.  The buildings stood less than two miles from Boyle Heights, but generations apart in culture and commerce.  Looking down from Boyle Heights, the amber fog lights of metropolitan L.A. gave the empty streets an eerie cast, like a separate city still waiting to blossom.

Max drove through the streets, passing through blocks of residential stucco, shingle and Victorian wood frames offset by the older brick storefronts, the strip centers and the modest industrial structures.  Beat up cars lined the curbs, and more than a few houses needed landscaping and a fresh coat of paint.  It was poor, but a community with its past and present reflected in the colorful epic murals adorning the walls of corner groceries and public buildings. On the sidewalk an old time huckster sold fruits and vegetables off his truck. Max passed cholos, gang kids, hanging out in drive-in stands or brooding under the streetlights.  They just stared as Max drove past.

Benito Cabrillo lived in an old Victorian three-story house on a rise overlooking the city.  There were two flights of cracked and uneven concrete stairs leading up to the wooden porch where Cabrillo was waiting to greet Max.  He was standing in the porch light in a worn charcoal suit and an old man’s white business shirt buttoned to the collar.  He stood alone, deliberately alone, as a matter of pride.  He drew himself up and smoothed his jacket, spreading his feet for better balance.

The harsh light accented the myriad lines in his face, the furrowed brow and deep-set eyes peering studiously from behind his wire rimmed glasses.  His hair was white, tussled and wavy; a bushy white mustache straddled his lip.  An old man with a lot of time on his hands, he was eager for company yet wary of the intrusion.

“Senor Cabrillo,” Max greeted him, shaking the man’s hand.  Despite his more than ninety years, Bennie Cabrillo still had a grip like a vice, a vestige of his days as a wrangler and God knew what else before finding gainful employment in Hollywood westerns.

“I am Bennie Cabrillo,” he said as if confirming it for himself.  “How is your father these days?”

“He’s doing alright.  I guess you know he pretty much stays on his ranch up around Victorville.”

Cabrillo shrugged and made a face.  “I didn’t until he called me.  Fifteen years,” he sighed, his eyes cocked, watching for reaction.  “It’s a long time between phone calls.”

“It’s a long time for anything,” shrugged Max, uncomfortable that his father hadn’t bothered to keep in touch.

The old man smiled, and in that smile a glimmer of his youth was apparent for that instant.  It was a youth full of mischief and raising hell.  Of unspeakable dangers and carnal pleasures.  Max had seen the look before.  His father had it and so did Bobby Gonzales.  It was the look of having once been immersed in a bacchanalian world of chaos and peril that made reconciling with a conventional life anything from a reluctant compromise to an exercise in futility.  Give guys like this the slightest reason and they would be back in the saddle again, shooting from the hip as they galloped toward their final destinies.

“Come inside,” gestured Cabrillo.  “We’ll talk.”

The interior of the house was scented with the mixture of spices used in Eastern European and Mexican cooking.  The smell represented generations of meals cooked by different families, the sharp and musky aroma seeping into the walls.  Max stepped inside and sniffed the air, finding the house oddly seductive.  An old woman, round faced and ruddy cheeked, her gray hair in a bun, smiled at him.  But her eyes bored in, reading his face, his every gesture.  She was Maria, Cabrillo’s wife.  She was the sentry, the human radar tracking character flaws and potential trouble.  Unassuming and very subtle, she was perfect for the job.

“Come here, please…I want to show you something,” said Cabrillo after giving Max a minute or two to exchange pleasantries with Maria.  He led Max into large study with a vaulted ceiling and polished wooden floor.  It was a cluttered room, but assembled clutter by people who liked it that way, as opposed to a room created by happenstance and rotten housekeeping.

There were Spanish antiques and family heirlooms daubed in lamplight softened by tasseled silk shades.  A piano was off in the corner, covered with family photographs.  More photographs covered the walls, as did shelves of books, paintings and an antique Indian blanket.

“See this.”  Cabrillo motioned to a black and white photograph of a half-dozen men in cowboy garb back grounded by a movie set.  “That’s your father and me, and the rest of the gang.”

Max studied the picture from inches away, finding his father and Bennie.  They were strong, tough and handsome.  It was their prime, and they relished the moment.  For the first time in his life Max wished he were among them, between takes on a B western, hamming it up on the set.  He was looking at his father with different eyes, appreciating the man instead of indicting the parent.  He wondered if R.C. had a picture just like this one, and how many others he possessed that would one day be treasures for his son.

“Take a look at this one,” said Bennie tapping the glass on another photograph, a sepia tone from the early part of the century.  “This is my uncle and Poncho Villa.  It was taken in Guaymas, during the revolution.”

Something tugged at Max’s nerves.  He had seen many photographs of the infamous bandit in books, museums and in Mexican restaurants.  They had all seemed so remote, mere curiosities from a distant age.  Now here before him was a connection to that time and to the man.  The legend, Villa, and Cabrillo’s uncle were hanging out in that sleepy Mexican fishing village where traditionally smugglers outnumbered the fish.

Cabrillo was subtle and patient, letting Max see who he really was, while testing his perception.  Cabrillo was no longer offering of himself the wild wrangler, or the feeble old codger.  He was the man he had become–old and wise, deceptive in his frailty.  He was a brujo, a sorcerer, in tune with nature and full of magic.

Cabrillo gestured for Max to have a seat.  “Your father said you had something you wanted to ask me.”

“Tell me about the old bandits’ treasure.”

Cabrillo hesitated, a thin smile appearing as he adjusted his glasses and ran his fingers through his hair.  “What do you know about the history of old California?”

“About as much as the next guy.”

“Which is nothing.”

Max promptly agreed.

“It is a difficult history, some of it secret and some of it forgotten.  Sadly, most of it has been ignored.”

Cabrillo sighed in recollection and then launched into a brief recounting of the history of old California.  He spoke of the missions along the highway and the vast ranchos that spread from the mountains to the sea.  He talked about pride and heritage and said although Mexico owned the land, the people didn’t think of themselves as Mexicans.  They were Californios.  This was their home, not Mexico.

And when the war broke out between the United States and Mexico, they fought the Americans, not for the Mexican government but for their right of self-determination.  They wanted to choose their destiny, either as an independent state or, as some proposed, under the protection of Britain or France.  As for being a territory of the United States, this was simply out of the question.

“But the United States did go to war with Mexico, and Mexico lost.  A treaty was signed in 1848 giving the United States title to California as well as Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and parts of Colorado.”

Cabrillo paused and took a thoughtful sip of coffee.  He stared out the window to his meticulously landscaped cactus garden where high saguaros and assorted succulents stood in the moonlight, transforming his backyard into the desert of his native Sonora.  Out of the corner of his eye he spied on Max, searching his face for signs of interest.  Finally Cabrillo grunted, cracked his knuckles and started in again.

“In the time of the bandits, 1850 or so, there were grave injustices.  The ranchos were taxed and taxed again, and the owners were stripped of their land.  Gold was discovered in 1849, and miners rushed to the gold fields.  Many of them were Sonorans, my people,” he said, tapping his finger to his chest.  “A year later, pffft…The Greaser Act was passed, which made it illegal for anyone who wasn’t a gringo to take gold out of the ground.

“The Californios were very angry.  Some turned to banditry.  They covered the territory, stealing horses, gold, and jewelry, anything they could find.  When the rangers and vigilantes chased them, they would hide in the mountains, or a sympathetic ranchero would give them shelter on his property.”

“Bennie cocked his head like a suspicious parrot.  “One such bandit was Joaquin Murrieta,” he smiled, raising his eyebrows for emphasis. “It is not the name Murrietta that’s important, but the name Joaquin.”

“I don’t understand,” said Max, leaning forward, his elbows on his thighs.  At last, he believed, he was getting somewhere.  He could see it in Cabrillo’s expression, the way he toyed with the moment, milking it in the way the lonely strive to make the most of any event they deem significant.

Cabrillo grunted and poured more coffee.  “During the French Revolution the revolutionaries used a special code word, a name that would identify each other and at the same time not give themselves away.  The name was Jacques.  In Spanish that name is Joaquin.”

Cabrillo had conjured a legend, dissected and redefined a history so few understood.  Arcane relics of a dusty past suddenly took on a different relevance.  “You’re saying that bandit Joaquin was actually a revolutionary?”

“There were many Joaquin’s.”  Cabrillo ticked them off, counting them on his fingers.  “Murrietta, Ocomorenia, Valenzuela, Botellar, Botello, Carillo, Vasquez, Moreno, Soto…Flores.”  He looked up, having run out of fingers.  “There were others, too.  How else could Joaquin have been spotted in so many places at once?”

“Good question.”

“Here were all these guys running up and down the territory, calling themselves Joaquin, robbing and killing, and then retreating to their hideaways up in the mountains or finding sanctuary with sympathetic ranchers who were plagued by taxes and the constant threat of losing their lands.  That’s how folk heroes are made, amigo.”

“So you’re telling me there were many Joaquin’s all making up one big organization.  They were just a bunch of rambling guys, pooling their resources and waiting for the revolution.”

Bennie shrugged in the inimitable Latin manner that signified allowances for mortal sins and human flaws in even the noblest of endeavors.

“Sometimes they worked for the cause, but mostly they worked for themselves.  But loot was hidden, some of it stashed in these very mountains,” he claimed, waving in the direction of the Hollywood Hills.

“Really?  In Los Angeles?”

“Los Angeles has always been a haven for bandits and rogues.  Remember, back this city was a very small pueblo, maybe twenty five hundred people.  The Hollywood Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains were very far away from the pueblo in what is now downtown.  It was a good place for bandits to hide.  A very good place,” he smiled with a knowing gesture.

“So it’s possible that treasure could still be buried, even after all these years?”

“It depends on what you know,” said Bennie.  He was stern, his eyes hard and burning, waiting for Max to tell his story.

“I don’t know enough,” sighed Max.  He then went on to describe the events leading up to his meeting with the brujo.  He spoke the Linda Vista Brochure, and told him about Bobby and Cissy and how they had been murdered.  He said he thought, all in all, it was very thin stuff but worth pursuing largely because so many others seemed interested.  Which meant it was either mass illusion or a real possibility.

“I used to live in Florida,” he said.  “Down there you hear so many rumors about pirate’s treasure.  Every tenth person has his or her story to tell.  Sounds like the same kind of thing to me.”

“But you know it’s not just a rumor,” Bennie responded.

“I’m a cop.  I look for evidence.”

Bennie grunted and lit a cigar before going on about the others who also believe in the legend, who are always watching for signs.  For more than a hundred years the story had been passed from father to son, descendants of the renegade bands that once terrorized most of California.

“To them, it is their treasure.  They wouldn’t like it for some gringo to take it out from under their noses.”

“I take it you know those people.”

Cabrillo fixed his eyes and stared in silence for what seemed like the longest time.  “I am those people,” he whispered as if suddenly they were in the presence of hidden spirits.

Max looked around, half expecting to find the ghosts of ornery pistoleros stepping out from the walls.  He felt the hair stand on the back of his neck and the stabbing chill that traveled like lightning from his heart to his balls.  He had to laugh.  The old man had trapped him, lured him in as the rickety sentimentalist and then led him through the corridors of changing personalities until the wily old fox had emerged from his den with his eyes on the future and a key to the past.

It was a balancing act now, for Max.  A lonely walk along a thin and rusty wire whipped by the crosswinds of deception, vengeance, and greed.  He would walk the wire as best as he could.  He would use his wits and play the angles, seeking escape and avoiding his doom.  And if he ran out of moves, the game was over.  He’d fall, plummeting like a rock attached to a meager thread of twisted logic.  When he reached the end, the thread would break.  He imagined the thud when he landed.

 

 

Info about The Blood Orange:

 

A chapter excerpted from his novel The Blood Orange, a hard-edged romantic mystery thriller.

The novel is set in modern times and is in the tradition of L.A. Noir. It is a story of transition and transcendence, a quest for a treasure and a search for the soul.

 

Links:  

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=gordon+basichis

www.gordonbasichis.com

www.corragroup.com

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

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BIO

 

Gordon Basichis is the author of the critically praised, The Guys Who Spied for China, a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards.   He is the author of Beautiful Bad Girl, the Vicki Morgan Story, a non-fiction novel that helped define exotic sexuality in the late twentieth century. He is the author of The Constant Travellers.   His most recent novel, published in 2016, is The Cuban Quartet.  He is Co-Founder of the Corra Group, specializing in background checks, and corporate research and investigation.  He has also written screenplays and for television series.  He lives in Southern California.

 

 

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