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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. . .

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Job

He signaled to Angie, the waitress, and she waddled on over to the booth.

 

 By William E. Wallace

(Excerpt from a work in progress)


Jack Morris looked up when Art Sullivan and the crew he’d put together walked into the lounge of Citizens, the 24-hour coffee shop at the corner of 45th and Clement. Sullivan slid into the booth next to Morris while his companions sat on the other side of the table.
Morris stared at the two of them with disgust. On the left was Alec Lemnos, the halfwit who once got himself stuck in a bus door, a guy so dumb people occasionally had to remind him to breathe.
Jack rolled his eyes. He couldn’t remember a single crime Lemnos had committed that hadn’t ended with him under arrest. His only advantage as a criminal was he always got cut loose because judges found him incompetent to assist in his own defense.
Next to Lemnos was “The World’s Creepiest Man,” Waldo Reminger, a pervert so widely despised in the Tenderloin that even Alice Bowman, the albino speed freak whose marketability as a hooker was severely limited by her missing front teeth, had once told him to take a hike.
Morris wondered what it was like to be rejected by butt-ugly streetwalkers, even when you had cash in your pocket. Reminger was the only man he knew who had been eighty-sixed from Moonlight Ranch.
“Hey, Jack,” Sully said with a grin. “What’s up?”
 “Nothing but my dander,” Morris replied, taking a sip from the bottle of PBR on the table in front of him. “What’s up with you?”
Sully licked his lips expectantly. Morris had called the meeting so street protocol required him to buy the first round. Sully was waiting for Jack to ask, “What are you boys drinking?” but Morris remained silent and took another sip of beer, tipping the neck of the bottle toward him in a sort of salute.  It was almost as if he was telling Sullivan, you bring me a pair of lames like this, you can buy your own freaking drinks.
Sully’s decided that if Morris was going to breach street protocol, so would he. He signaled to Angie, the waitress, and she waddled over to the booth.
 “So what’s this, she said, putting down her tray and resting her hand on her hip. “Are the guys down at the Hall of Justice letting inmates go home on weekends these days?”
“Business meeting, Ang,” Sullivan said. “Jack called it,” he added, giving Morris a resentful glare.
Morris’s sour expression told Angie everything she needed to know about why he was sitting on his wallet. “What’ll it be then?” she asked Sullivan.
“I’ll have a rum and coke,” Sully said.
“You want to call it or is well rum okay?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Long’s it contains ethanol, it’s fine with me. If you boys want something, you better order up,” he told Lemnos and Reminger.
“Naw, I’m good,” Lemnos said, oblivious to the fact that two people had now failed to buy him a drink. The snub might have led anyone else to think about changing his brand of deodorant, but not Lemnos. He hadn’t thought about anything for years; maybe not ever.
Reminger was smart enough to realize Jack’s parsimony meant he didn’t want Waldo’s company, but if he was disappointed he didn’t show it. He just shook his head. To be honest, he was feeling too horny to take offense.
Morris decided to cut the bullshit. “Art, can I talk to you, privately?” he asked Sully, gesturing toward the alcove next to the jukebox.
“Sure, Jack,” Sullivan said, scooting out of the booth to make way for Morris.
When they were well away from the others, Morris turned to him and pinned him to the wall with a forefinger on his sternum. “Excuse me, dickhead,” he said in a low but irritated voice. “Is this the best backup you could find? A fucking pervert and a moron? I said I was looking for a crew, not refugees from the Q Ward at Napa.”
“Come on, Jack,” Sully said with what looked like a plea for tolerance in his smile. “Even a dipshit needs work, right? How else is the sorry sonofabitch going to learn how to stop being a dipshit?”
Morris rolled his eyes. “For Christ’s sake, Art,” he said. “You couldn’t find anybody for me to work with but this pair of losers?”
Sullivan glanced back at his two companions. Both were looking at Jack and Art curiously, wondering why they hadn’t been invited to join the conference. “You’re lucky I could come up with these two,”  he said, “In case you don’t read the papers, asshole, there’s been a crackdown on the usual suspects in the Tenderloin.”
Actually, Morris hadn’t been reading the papers. He had been a guest of the taxpayers of Alameda County for the last six months, enjoying a temporary stay at Santa Rita, the county jail.  He’d been released only a week earlier and hadn’t bothered to mention his incarceration when he asked Sullivan to help him round up a crew.
 “So what? Crackdowns on crime in San Francisco are a nickel a dozen,” Morris said. “There’s a new one every election year. How does that keep you from finding some quality people for a job?”
“Ask the new D.A.,” Sullivan replied. “He wants felony scalps and he told Tardy’s holdovers they could either come up with them in a hurry or expect a pink slip with their next paycheck.”
Leland Tardy had been the prosecutor in San Francisco for twelve years. A coke-freak and pothead, Tardy was stoned each day, even before he left for his three-martini lunch with Sheldon Simmons, the presiding judge. The D.A. was afraid that anyone smart on his staff might be ambitious enough to run for election against him and win, so he never hired anyone but dumb ass-kissers as assistants. Consequently, San Francisco had the lowest conviction rate in the state of California and less than five percent of the people city cops arrested for felonies ever ended up in state prison.
Jack Morris was one of those five-percenters but he didn’t hold a grudge against the D.A.  He’d been sent to the joint only once in San Francisco, even though he had been arrested there eighteen times in the last decade. He figured the two years he’d spent in San Luis Obispo was fair, considering how often he’d pled out and been sentenced only to the time he’d served before he’d been able to make bail.   
In any case, every crook in California knew the score: San Francisco judges and juries hated only one thing more than having criminals run free, and that was putting them behind bars. The consensus of state prosecutors, police, sheriff's departments and even some criminal defense bar organizations was, San Francisco had the worst D.A. in the state.
 “So what happened to Tardy?” Jack asked.
Art shook his head. “He lost a step,” he said. “Actually, he lost more than a step: he lost a whole fucking staircase. Some kid named Robert Gentry decided to run against him last time. Gentry lives out in the Sunset but he was a deputy D.A. in San Mateo County. Worked murder cases down there mostly, some dope. He was sending so many people to the joint that state corrections had to buy a new bus to transport ‘em all up to the reception center in Vacaville.”
Sullivan shrugged, as if to say the world was going to hell and there wasn’t anything a working stiff like him or Morris could do about it.
“Gentry got all the Democratic clubs behind him on the QT,” he said. “Had the black churches in the Bay View eating out of his greasy palm. And he got the downtown people to put together one of those phony committees that send hit pieces on Tardy to every voter in town.  That was all she wrote for Leland Tardy.”
 Jack mulled this information over. “So, okay,” he said. “I understand that the heat is on. But how much heat? It’s San Francisco, for Christ's sake. Half the cops are on the pad and the rest can’t spell their own names when they sign an arrest report. I still can’t understand why you couldn’t line up a couple of A-list operators. Why'd you bring these two schlemiels with you? Both are totally useless; what do I do with them, drop them in the roadway like cinder blocks to slow up the cops chasing us?”
Sullivan looked amused. “Well, who in hell would you rather work with, hotshot?” he said, his tone mocking. “Mike Cleary? He’s doing twenty-five to life at San Quentin for armed robbery, his second strike. Malloy? He drew an 18-month jolt in the county cooler for beating up his ex-wife the last time he got out of Folsom. Rodriguez? He was in Soledad for two weeks last month before some chickenshit Sudeño wannabe shanked him over a pack of cigarettes. R.I.P. Armando Rodriguez.”
“Face facts, Jack,” Sully concluded with a sigh. “Everybody who’s worth a shit is either dead, in the joint or working in Contra Costa or Sacramento – someplace where the temperature’s not so high. You're gonna be taking sloppy seconds no matter who walks in here holding my hand. At least these two guys are out of stir and still drawing breath.”
Morris was beginning to get a headache. He glanced back at Lemnos and Redinger.
“Do you vouch for these two lettuce heads?” he asked.
Sully nodded. “Yeah, I’ll back ‘em,” he said, then waited a couple of beats before he added with a grin, “after all, I wouldn’t bring you somebody I’m not willing to work with myself.”
Jack brightened. That last bit was the first good thing to come out of the conversation so far.
“Then I take it you’re in, too,” he said.
Sullivan nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m in.  Now, you want to tell me what it is we’re all going to be doing?”
It was Morris’s turn to grin. “It’s a hold up,” he said.
Sullivan frowned, a little disappointed. “So what are we going to rob?” he asked. “A bank? An armored car?”
Morris’s smile widened. “Neither,” he said. “We’re going to rob the City and County of San Francisco.”



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