Regular readers will know Sam McPheeters as the author of some of VICE's most gratifyingly exhaustive features.
Regular readers will know Sam McPheeters as the author of some of VICE’s most gratifyingly exhaustive features. Topics have included: the Jerusalem syndrome, Brooks Headley’s transformation from ferocious drummer to world-class pastry chef, DIY cryonics, arachnophobia therapy, former Crucifucks singer and self-proclaimed Messiah Doc Dart, Glenn Danzig, and a cornucopia of other subjects. He also guest-edited our 2010 Anti-Music Issue, and earlier this year began writing The Brutality Report, a weekly column for VICE.com. Listeners of quality tunes will also recognize Sam as the singer for Born Against, Men’s Recovery Project, and Wrangler Brutes.
In addition to Sam’s exemplary nonfiction work, VICE has had the pleasure of publishing a few of his short stories. So last year, when Sam told us that he was in the midst of hammering out his first novel, we became excitedly impatient and demanded to know more. Then, when he told us that the plot concerned “Trang Yang, a gas-station franchise owner with a flair for earnings and a fondness for violence who roams Los Angeles seeking out the corporate spies who beset his stations,” we began harassing him on a weekly basis for more details. So it is with great relief and pride that we can now present to you three chapters from The Loom of Ruin, which will be released in paper and e-reader formats on April 1 from Mugger Books (muggerbooks.com) and is now available for preorder.
1. THE NOSES
Trang was angry. He rested against his white cargo van on the periphery of the Hoover Street Chevrex lot, the outer boundary of his domain, scanning the faces of each incoming customer. It was the first morning of October, bright but not yet sweltering. As he squinted into the distance beyond the lot, an overhead gust rustled the buoyant palms hovering over the office park next door. He tensed his jaw in irritation at the distraction, then sniffed at the breeze to reaffirm a suspicion. Someone was coming, was almost here.
As the owner of nine Chevrex gas stations in Los Angeles, he had plenty to be upset about. Insurers gouged him. Employees disobeyed commands. Customers disrespected his property. People—strangers—dishonored his restrooms. Then there were those who were neither employees nor customers. Vandals. Saboteurs. Hostiles. He saw each of his stations as an isolated outpost in a vast wasteland.
This morning, Trang was angry about the noses. The noses came to his stations to spy. He had caught them before: snoops, agents, secret shoppers trying to administer covert psychological tests. They nosed around his properties like wraiths, interested not in the sundries of his stores or the three grades of gas at his pumps, but in creeping into his head and extracting his secrets. He’d spent the last four hours in motionless vigilance, leaning perfectly straight against the cool metal of the van door, alert in animosity.
His anger had many irritants, but its source was indivisible; Trang had felt no emotion but continual rage for the past ten years, ever since the autumn day in 2001 when an off-duty LAPD detective accidentally shot him in the face. The bullet entered Trang’s head from a low angle, piercing his cheek and shattering his right second bicuspid at the root before slicing up through his anterior frontal cortex and exiting just above the hairline, leaving a fontanel the size and shape of a cigar burn. When Trang woke from a three-day coma, he found himself reborn. He saw the world clearly for the first time. The vast clutter of his life had been swept away, and all that remained was hatred.
A stooped figure approached from the Chevrex’s Food Mart. It was Rupert Bhatnagar, the morning’s sole employee. Rupert had been beaten by the world long before he’d washed up at the Chevrex on West 20th and South Hoover streets. Everything about this man—the terminal slowness, the sloping paunch, the pockmarked, flaccid face—enraged Trang. Rupert worked his multiple shifts at different stations, a Trang-arranged schedule that avoided overtime pay. Sometimes he pulled 16-hour days for a week straight. Large bruises hung beneath both eyes. It was difficult for Trang to resist the urge to thrash him savagely every day.
“Mister Trang,” he said without emotion. A breeze ruffled Rupert’s oily comb-over. Trang’s full focus narrowed to this one pathetic employee.
“Mister Trang. It is ten. It is time for my ten-minute break.”
Too angry to speak, Trang merely waved him away. Rupert shambled off with unhurried baby steps.
A Latino man in an oversize sports shirt stepped down from a pickup truck at pump 12. As Trang watched, the man glanced around the lot and then headed toward the now-unmanned Food Mart. The jersey flapped about his torso. Trang speed-walked to the opposite entrance, reaching the building at the same moment as the man. With a spark of anger, he registered that the huge shirt featured the airbrushed face of Kobe Bryant.
“You work here?” the man asked.
To answer, Trang stepped behind the counter, saying nothing.
“Hey, can you tell me how to get to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles?”
Trang stood motionless, immobilized by fury. The man laughed.
“Fair enough, chief. The last station didn’t know where it was either.” He retreated a half aisle away to browse, whistling, through the stacks of candy bars. He selected two and placed them on the counter. Trang did not look down but remained perfectly still, glaring into the stranger’s face.
“She’ll like these. My niece.”
Trang said nothing.
“Kids are real troopers,” the man continued. “They can deal with all kinds of procedures and needles and what-have-you.” He tapped his fingers nervously on the countertop.
“Don’t know if you have any kids, but man… I’m glad I don’t. I don’t know where my brother gets the strength. You know? Thank God they have insurance. Anyway, just the candy.”
“You have asshole face on shirt,” Trang said.
For the first time, the man made eye contact. “What?”
“You tell them.”
Trang’s English was imperfect. He only spoke long sentences in this boxy, confining tongue when absolutely necessary.
“You tell them. No one take my gas away.”
The man blinked helplessly, his mouth an oval of confusion. With one fluid movement, Trang reached below the register and produced the machete that was never more than a few seconds from his side, placing it with a flat clank on the counter, just next to the candy bars, as if tendering a counteroffer.
“You leave,” Trang Yang said with unwavering rage.
“I see you again, I cut head off.”
3. THE UNTOUCHABLES
“What else? Have we discussed the untouchables?”
In a diner booth eight blocks away, Sergeant Stephen Berquist sat across from Officer Jimmy Rango, whose first week on the LAPD was now observed by an uneaten slice of coconut cream pie on the table between them. Rango looked up and shrugged. Jimmy was Stephen’s sister-in-law’s brother-in-law, a young guy, not the brightest, but family nonetheless. Stephen had solemnly promised his wife that he’d take the rookie under his wing.
Berquist continued. “‘Untouchable’ as in ‘those-that-cannot-be-arrested’?”
“Celebrities?” Jimmy finally asked.
“Celebrities? Yeah, all celebrities are completely off-limits from prosecution.”
Rango continued to stare.
“That was a joke, Jimmy. Seriously, fuck them. Celebrities are a treat to arrest. I’m talking about the people that cannot be arrested under any circumstances.”
“There’s three groups of untouchables. One: diplomatic envoys,” he said, counting off with an index finger. “There’s a certain kind of card this person carries. It’s small and orange. Make sure it’s paper and not laminated, and make sure it’s embossed. Run your thumb over it,” he said, jutting out his own thumb and momentarily pantomiming a gun shape.
“Two: the mayor. That includes his chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, and director of communications. Learn their names. If confronted by any of these guys, you freeze the situation and call dispatch for further instruction.”
Jimmy nodded, his lips parted. Stephen realized it wouldn’t take much effort to force the younger man’s face down into the pie. He could probably tell his wife it’d been a hazing ritual.
“Three: Trang Yang.”
“That’s that gang, right?”
“A gang? No. Listen, Jimmy. It’s one man. Trang. Yang. That’s his name.”
“Trang is a Chinese guy. Comes to America in 2000. First week in town, he’s waiting for a bus, accidentally gets caught up in some demonstration for Mexican rights or something. Wrong place, wrong time. Some of our guys mace him and get him in the skull with a riot baton. Sucks to be him. Big class-action settlement. Fast-forward one year. The poor schmuck is out driving around with his wife, and blam! He catches a slug in the face. This time it’s crossfire from a robbery 200 feet away, but the bullet’s one of ours. Cosmic coincidence. The only reason the media didn’t turn the whole thing into 9/11 is because it happened at 10:30 at night, and the next morning actually was 9/11. But we—the whole department, all of us—dodged a mighty shit storm. If anything ever, ever, ever happens to this guy again, at least by our hand, the whole thing’s gonna turn into World War III. Trang got an expedited $2.1 million, a record settlement. Since then he’s off-limits.”
For the first time since he’d donned the blue, Jimmy made something close to an expression of thoughtful contemplation.
“This is official policy,” Stephen said, “although you’ll never see it written down.”
6. THE SERVERS
In his youth, Nick Skirmopoulos had been a boxer. He was a top-heavy, broad-shouldered Greek with huge meaty fists that he liked to pound and mash into people’s heads. He’d only quit the ring after earning a costly reputation for rupturing the eardrums of his opponents. Nick took a job as a process server because the money was good, the work never dried up, and he got the opportunity to brawl free of legal or financial repercussions. In the counties of LA, Orange, Riverside, and Ventura, he was the man when it came time to serve papers to the ornery and pugnacious.
At high noon on Tuesday, Nick parked his Buick in front of Trang’s Vermont Street station and popped the trunk. Most servers of process used props to accomplish the job. Their cars hid troves of disguises: delivery-service jackets and caps, generic uniforms, wigs, fake beards, sunglasses, and hats. Although Nick proudly saw himself in the grand lineage of process servers before him, subterfuge wasn’t his style. His only tools were two stainless-steel saucepans he’d bought at a dollar store three years earlier.
“Where’s that motherfucker Trang Yang?” Nick yelled out, banging his saucepans together. He marched into the service station barking at full volume, the legal papers tucked into his belt like a pirate’s scabbard.
“Trang Yang is a cheapskate cockadoodle ass-licker motherfuck!” he bellowed. Nick stomped up and down the two aisles of the Food Mart. He crashed his saucepans together with every step.
From the behind the counter, Rupert, baffled and shell-shocked, said, “Sir?” He had just raced from the Hoover Street station to work another eight-hour shift.
Nick spun on his heels. “You Yang?”
Rupert stared. “Sir?”
Nick dropped his pots on the counter with a clatter and produced the legal papers. He read the plastic RUPERT nametag and grunted.
“I’ve been to six Chevrexs today, pal. I don’t have time for your games. Prove you’re Rupert.”
“Don’t ‘sir’ me. Wallet. Now.”
“Give it to me!” Nick roared. “That is a direct order!
The back-office door exploded open, scattering a row of Winston and Salem cigarette packs to the floor.
“Who you,” said Trang. Nick found himself facing a thin Asian man. He was nearly a head shorter than Nick and had high, severe cheekbones and a mop of matte black hair flecked with gray. He stood with his hands at his side, glowering with deep concentration as if he and the process server were ancient enemies.
Amused, Nick said, “Who you?”
“Mr. Trang,” Rupert whispered, more as a distress signal than an explanation.
“Aha,” Nick said. “We…”
Trang stepped forward and snatched the summons papers from Nick’s fist. Nick had never had his quarries preemptively grab their own papers.
“Uh. You just got served, homie.”
Trang hadn’t yet taken his eyes off him. “What this.”
“A lawsuit, Jack. Big fat one.”
“No one sue me.”
“Oh yes. Nadir Imaging Services sue you. Big-time.”
“No. They not sue,” Trang said, his voice an unnerving staccato of self-assurance.
Nick folded his tree-limb arms and smiled.
“And why don’t they sue you, little man?”
“Because you make them. You make them drop lawsuit.”
“And why would I do that, little man?”
“Because I make you make them drop lawsuit.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?”
“I have you home address.”
Nick stared a moment in disbelief.
“No, you don’t.”
“It on you driver license.”
“You don’t have my driver’s license.”
“It in you wallet.”
“Yeah,” Nick said, unconsciously placing a hand on his pocket. “That is where it is.”
“And now you give me wallet.”
Nick leaned against the counter and smiled nervously.