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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. . .

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Job for the Chinaman

By Bill Wallace

When crimes get planned on Bottom Street, the planning usually takes place at the Blue Door. It isn’t because the bar is a spot that inspires some felonious muse; it just happens to be the place where the biggest crooks in the Tenderloin hang out.

On the night Noddy Bauman pitched the arson for Wayne Fong, the head of Asian organized crime in San Francisco, the tavern was a virtual hiring hall for thieves: no less than seven of the Tenderloin’s biggest crooks were there to consume alcoholic beverages and tell each other lies. Representing San Francisco’s sexual services sector were pimps Aloysius “Ace” Jeter and Jimmie “Rabbit” Culpepper, while Angel Goodwin and Kelly Martin were present on behalf of the city’s illicit drug industry.

The Bottom Street scammers in the crowd included Ray Campos, LaVonne Walker, Nick Dolman and Eli Jones; Only Peter Boskovitch and Phil Bagwell were missing.

Noddy, who acted as a hiring agent for some of the bigger lawbreakers in Northern California, had no sooner mentioned that Fong was looking for talent than Angel Goodwin started to complain.

“C’mon, man, it’s a fucking job,” Noddy said plaintively.

“Yeah? Who for?” Angel said. “It’s another job for the fucking Chinaman. I’ll bet it’s another fucking microchip warehouse takeover. Nobody makes shit off those—they’re like working at a square job. Wong takes the chips to his Vietnamese guy in Elk Grove and he hooks up with the other guy, that slopehead in San Gabriel. And everybody has to wait like, what? Six weeks for him to unload the shit? Screw that, man. Baby needs shoes right now, not six fucking weeks from now.”

Eli Jones, who had nurtured a low opinion of Angel for the eight years he had known him, figured that Goodwin had never actually done any work for the Chinatown gang boss. Eli pushed his way into the conversation, more to shut Angel up than because he wanted any piece of Fong’s action.

“So, what’s the gig, Noddy?” he asked.

“It’s a torch job, man. Firebuggin’. You got to burn down a house for the guy.”

Noddy didn’t explain why the house needed incineration. People who made a living by contracting out illegal services rarely give unnecessary details about the purpose of those services. Not surprisingly, those they hired rarely asked for those details. The less anybody knew about anybody else’s business, the better for everybody involved.

But anybody who read the local papers knew that Fong ran a whore house out in the avenues that had been hit by the feds a few weeks earlier. The raid was largely fronted by agents from ICE, because the basic beef was that all the women turning tricks were illegals from Korea, most of whom had been lured to the U.S. to work at supposedly straight jobs.

Eli frowned. “What the fuck do you know about arson, Noddy?” he said. “I never heard of you hiring anybody for fires.”

Noddy shrugged. “What a person need to know?” he said. “You go in, throw something in-flammatory on the flo’, drop a match and get the fuck out. The fire do all the heavy liftin’.”

Eli remained skeptical. “What’re you paying for this butt-simple torch job?”

Noddy grinned. “This cat, Fong, he payin’ five large for the fire, upfront,” he said. “He got insurance that going to cover, total loss. Get him out of a shitload of debts with money left over.”

In fact, Fong had offered Noddy ten grand for the job. He was willing to pay extra because his lawyer had been given a copy of the return from the search and the paperwork showed that the agents who raided the operation had failed to find the “trick book” that Fong’s business manager kept stashed behind a wall air intake for the central heating unit on site.

That book was poison: it held the names of a half-dozen state and federal office holders who regularly visited the place, including a state appeals court justice and a deputy U.S. attorney. Collecting the insurance on the cathouse was secondary; what Fong was really buying was a fire that would eat that trick book up before the feds came back and found it.

But Noddy low-balled the amount Fong would pay because he had already pocketed half of it. That guaranteed Bauman a clear profit regardless of what happened to the dipshit who actually torched the building.

When Noddy told Eli what the pay for the job was, Angel got the look of a kid on Christmas Eve. He dropped his earlier bitching about working for Fong, shifting gears so fast that everybody in the room got little carsick.

“Hey, I got this one, Noddy,” he said before anybody else could speak. “I done this kind of thing before. Piece of cake.”

Noddy eyed him. “So, you in, Angel?”

“Yeah,” Angel said. “All I need is somebody to muscle up a jerry can of gas. I can handle it.”

Eli turned his skepticism on Angel. “You done arson before, Angel?” he said, surprised.

Angel grinned. “Who you think burned down the gym at St. John’s Prep? Sure as fuck wasn’t Smoky the bear.”

LaVonne whistled. “Man, that was seven, eight years ago,” he said. “You must have been, what? Fourteen years old?”

Angel shrugged. “April 13, 2001,” he said. “It was Good Friday. I was 15. I was transferred to St. John’s a year earlier. Man, I always hated that fucking place.”

The mention of St. John’s seemed to wake up Mokie Travers, the slow-minded kid who worked at the American Café down the street and enjoyed hanging out with the guys at the Blue Muse. “Hey, Ang!” he said, his face showing surprise. “I didn’t know you went to Catholic School. I thought you was at Mission High, like Eli.”

Eli displayed that wise-ass smirk that pissed so many people off. “He was after he got thrown out of St. John’s,” he said.

Angel darted Eli a look that warned him to shut up.

LaVonne had a confused look on his face. “So did you get thrown out of Catholic School for burning down the gym?” he asked.

Angel shook his head. “Naw, they never figured out I was the one who did the gym.”

Eli cut in, ignoring another glare from Angel.

“Angel got tossed because he got caught shaking down kids for lunch money,” he said. “That got him his first trip to Youth Guidance Center. By the time he got back from juvie, the nuns figured out he had been doing it for more than a year. The kids who were getting ripped off ratted him out when he was at the center. They also found out he had been taking money from the collection box on the Sundays when he worked as an usher at St. John’s Chapel. That’s what got his ticket punched at St. John’s Prep.”

Mokie gave Angel a glance. “What’s a prep school, Ang?” he asked.

Before Angel could answer, Eli, whose quick mouth sometimes entered the room a couple of minutes ahead of his brain, cut in again.

“It’s supposed to prepare you for an institution of higher learning, like a college or something,” Eli said, his smirk bigger than ever. “But the only prep school Angel ever graduated from was YGC. When he finished up at juvenile hall, he was ready for Deuel Vocational Institution.”

The vein on the right side of Angel’s forehead was standing out enough to throw a shadow. “You got a big mouth, Eli,” Angel said hotly. “You seem to know a lot of shit. Maybe you want to tell them how I got to Deuel, you being such a smart motherfucker and all?”

Eli’s wiseass smile began to fade as he realized he might have gone too far by taunting a dangerous lunatic . “Hey, no need to get all mental, Ang,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to piss you off.”

There was silence for a moment. Mokie broke it.

“Well, how did you get to Deuel?” he asked, still struggling to understand why the sisters would boot a guy for stealing lunch money. He thought everybody did that.

Angel kept his eyes on Eli. There was a smile on his face now, but there wasn’t anything humorous about the set of his mouth.

“There was a guy named Walt Kipling used to needle me all the time at Mission,” Angie said. “He had a big mouth just like Eli, here. One day he was riding me about something while me and some other guys were sharing a fifth of Everclear. I threw that shit on him and set his ass on fire. Isn’t that right, Eli?”

Eli, who had been two years ahead of Goodwin at Mission, said nothing. His wiseass smile was completely gone. He had passed by Kipling in the street two months ago and Walt still had scars all over his face from that fire.

Angel turned back to Noddy. “So you can see that I’m completely checked out on burning shit,” he said. “Five grand sounds pretty fucking good to me. I’ll pay five hundred to somebody who’ll tote the gas. That’s a pretty easy payday for a little bit of labor.”

Noddy showed the gold incisor on the left side of his grin. “You got it, champ,” he said. “You going to come up with the toter or you want me to do it?”

Angel smiled. “I’ll use my buddy, Mokie,” he said, clapping Travers on the shoulder in a friendly way. “He can use the money, I’m sure.”

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