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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Friday, September 10, 2010

Damage Control

By William E. Wallace

               “What can I bring you tonight?”

               The waitress was cool, a redhead: she seemed friendly enough in that distant sort of way people in the service industries often are, but her eyes let me know that her smile was strictly professional. That was okay with me;  I would rather have indifference than the phony intimacy a lot of people who sling drinks and food think passes for good service. 

               I had been planning to order a glass of chardonnay, practically the only thing on the drinks menu I could actually afford but I decided for no good reason to indulge myself.

               “Bring me a Stolichnaya, over,” I said. “No – make it a double. With lime, please.”

               When she left, I surveyed the crowd. Even though it wasn’t quite five o’clock, the joint was already full; mostly young people, drinking cocktails with names I could only guess at.

               You get parochial when you do most of your drinking in shot-and-a-beer places.  There’s something to be said for wanting an alcoholic beverage that’s carefully thought through and lovingly crafted. It shows a degree of sophistication, a cosmopolitan attitude.

               Me? I just want a drink that gives me a good hard right in the solar plexus and then starts clouding everything up a half hour later. That’s why I drink in bars where most everybody is looking for brand-name hooch with a piss-poor but intoxicating back like Pabst Blue Ribbon.

               The waitress came back with my Stoli, solo, on her tray.  She put it on the table and cleared her throat quietly, waiting for me to pay.

               I couldn’t pretend I didn’t notice her, not and pick up the drink, anyway. “Can I start a tab?” I asked. “I’m waiting for two . . . business associates.  They should get here in a minute or so.”

               I didn’t really like calling Spilf and Carmody “business associates,” though I suppose the term fit them as well as anything else would. The term suggested that they were friends of mine, which they weren’t.  “Business antagonists” might have been a better fit, though I wasn’t actually in a business where they could antagonize me anymore.

                She had apparently spotted me for a deadbeat from the jump, however, and she wasn’t inclined to test her judgment by trusting me.

               “I can start a tab, but I need a card to give the bartender,” she said, so coolly that she frosted my eyelashes. “Do you have a card?”

               She didn’t pose the question in an accusing way, but she gave it enough of an edge to let me know she was serious.

               “Tell you what?” I said smiling and putting a Jackson in her tray. “I expect to spend some time with these gentlemen talking about a business arrangement.  I’ll let them give you a card, later, while we’re chatting.  For now, I’ll pay my own way.”

               She gave me a smile as thin as orphanage gruel and disappeared with the bill.  I sighed. Until my unemployment insurance arrived at the end of the week, that twenty and three others with Washington’s mug on them were all I had in my billfold. I hoped she would bring me some change.

               When she returned, she had a five and two ones on her tray and I groaned inwardly. I was going to have to make it through Thursday and Friday with only ten dollars.  I could barely afford two Happy Meals.

               Fortunately, Carmody and Spilf chose that moment to show up and the first thing Spilf told the waitress was “keep the liquor coming and bring us a bar menu, honey.”

               She looked at him warily. “Do you have a card?” she asked with obvious skepticism.

               He tossed one onto the tray with a smile that seemed to say he could hardly wait for her to ask.  It was an Amex platinum.   


               “So Cyrus,” Carmody said, settling into a chair. “How’s retirement?”

               I gave him a sneer. “I didn’t retire,” I said. “I got canned along with 35 other people, almost all of whom were making at least a hundred a week more than Guild scale.  When you retire, they give you a watch and a speech.  We just got the shaft.”

               “Found anything new since you left the paper?”

               I shrugged. “Not really,” I said. “I get a nibble here, a nibble there, but nothing seems to gel.”

               “How’s your money situation?” Spilf asked.

               My exasperated expression should have told him all he needed to know but just in case he didn’t get the hint, I added, “It sucks.”

               He and Carmody exchanged glances that looked like they had been practicing them all day long.  I could almost imagine them working it out in that columbarium Carmody occupied at City Hall.

               “I’m sure it breaks what you two have that passes for hearts to hear how well I’m doing,” I said. “So are you finished gloating over how I got screwed? Have you got something to propose or did you just arrange this meeting so you could catch me at my low point?”

               Spilf looked at Carmody with mock surprise.  “Do we look like the kind of guys who would kick a guy when he’s down, Cy?” he asked. “I mean, come on now. Really.”

               “Yeah, Cyrus,” Carmody tossed in with a perfectly straight face. “I thought we were just three old acquaintances getting together for a drink or two.”

               “Can the bullshit, guys,” I said. “The last time I had contact with you two assholes, you were trying to spin your way out of the laundered campaign contributions your guy Petrovsky got from the garbage company in the mayor’s election. That was nearly four years ago. We aren’t exactly big buddy fuckers, are we?”

               My story had cut Petrovsky’s lead by nearly 20 percent, but he won anyway, primarily because he was running against a field of opponents who couldn’t find their way out of a pay toilet with a road map and a compass.

               “The only reason you would want to meet with me is if you thought I could do something for you,” I said. “But I don’t have a paper any more and I don’t have a job.  So there must be something else you think you can get out of me.”

               Spilf looked at Carmody with a grin. “He’s not as stupid as you always said he was, Bob,” he told his partner with a chuckle. Turning back to me, he continued: “Yeah – we have a job to offer you, and its right up your alley.  Let’s have drinks, steaks and a bottle of wine or two while we line things out for you and see whether you are interested. You get drunk and eat well whether you say yes or no, okay?”

               I smiled for the first time since they had appeared. “I’m here to listen boys,” I told them. “Can you throw me a little raw meat right now though.  Are you going to ask me to do something illegal?”

               Carmody laughed. “No,” he said. “It’s legal. Mostly anyway. What we want you to do is real simple and basically on the level.”

               I waited for it.

               Spilf had the zinger: “You know the guy running against Petrovsky this time? We want you to destroy his reputation.”


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