About Me

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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. . .

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Soledad, an exerpt from Bottom Street, a novel in progress

            To the casual observer, the main lobby of Soledad Prison looked a little like the security area in a large international airport but with one major difference: the people who passed through it were going to be waiting a lot longer for their departure.
            The sign on the wall said:
            Simon Gallifoy took his California driver’s license out of his wallet and slipped it to the guard on the platform through the slot in the bullet-proof plastic window in his cubicle.  He followed it with the plastic laminated S.F.P.D. press card that identified him as a staff writer for the San Francisco Sentinel.
            The guard looked sort of like a white-haired version of Sam Elliott, the actor who played The Stranger in “The Big Lebowski,” right down to the bushy eyebrows, walrus mustache and loose folds of skin under his sharply chisled chin. But Sam Elliott didn’t have the guardbuzz cut  that showed little pale round scars all over his head, or a long purple line of scar tissue that started next to his Adam’s apple and ran up the left side of his face to his temple.
            Gallifoy wondered how the guard got the scars but he suppressed his urge to ask.  He followed the rest of the instructions on the wall and passed through the metal detector.
            A second guard with a blond buzz cut and a paunch looked over the personal effects Gallifoy had placed in the gray plastic bus tray, turning the shoes upside down over above the tub and shaking them to make sure there were no guns, ammunition, power tools or explosives inside he might use to help a convict escape. A third guard with watery blue eyes kept them glued to the X-ray machine the tub had passed through, just in case the one inspecting Gallifoy’s belongings missed something important.  Apparently satisfied, the blonde dropped the shoes into the tray and handed it to Gallifoy.
            “Take a seat over there,” he said, gesturing to a line of uncomfortable looking plastic-seated chairs that were bolted to the floor on the left side of the room.
           The writer wondered about that. Who would try to steal chairs in the waiting room of a state prison?
            Gallifoy was retying his shoes when the guard on the platform turned on the intercom.
            “Gallifoy?” he asked.
            Gallifoy looked up. “Yes?” he answered uncertainly.
            The guard on the platform, who appeared to be in charge, looked at him carefully, as if memorizing his features.
            “Inmate L’Hurieux is still out-processing,” he said after a long pause. “It will be a few minutes more before he’s ready to leave.”
            He had a deep baritone voice with a drawl as thick as blackstrap molasses that even sounded a little like Sam Elliott. Gallifoy shivered  involuntarily. All three guards looked like they would fit right in at a depression-era Mississippi cross-lighting or lynching.
            “Thanks,” he said, settling back and looking around.  He was glad he wasn’t going to have to spend much time with this group of yahoos.
            Closed-circuit cameras mounted in the corner of the room swept back and forth mechanically for the benefit of backup watchers located elsewhere in the prison. There was little for them to see; at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, Gallifoy was the only person other than the guards in the lobby.
            The room’s walls were free of any decorations except for the sign telling visitors the security protocol. The lights on the ceiling and at the tops of the walls were in recesses, covered by metal grid work, ostensibly to prevent someone from hiding a bazooka or machine gun in them to use in a breakout.
            The interior of the lobby had been painted a pale government green that was rendered even more repellent by the harsh overhead fluorescent lighting.  The plastic chairs bolted to the floor, of course, were pastel shades of red and blue that clashed hideously with the interior paint.
            Gallifoy had been told that all the furniture in California prisons was made by prisoners, so he assumed some inmate had fabricated the ugly and uncomfortable bank of chairs he was sitting in.  He wondered if there was a central paint shop in each penitentiary where prisoners learned how to mix that disgusting shade of green.
            Simon looked up.  It was the guard with the mustache again.
            “Yes?” Gallifoy said hesitantly.
            “Are you the Simon Gallifoy that wrote an article for The Nation about six months ago?”
            Gallifoy’s mouth suddenly felt dry.  “Uh, could be,” he said.  “What was it about?”
            The guard with the mustache smiled.
            “It said California was on its way to becoming a police state,” he said. “You talked about how much the cost of law enforcement and courts had increased since the 1980s.  You said the guard union had become one of the most powerful organizations in the state.”
            Gallifoy squirmed. “Yes,” he said.  “I wrote that article. Why?”
            “I just wanted to say it was a pretty good piece,” the guard with the mustache said. “But you had the amount of money the Correctional Peace Officers Association spent lobbying the state legislature last year wrong.  It was only $822,978.50, not a million.”
            Gallifoy blinked.
            “Oh, thanks!” he said. “I will see if I can get them to run a correction.”
            The guard winked at him.  “You do that,” he said.
            Gallifoy was silent for a moment and then his curiosity got the better of him.
            “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you read The Nation regularly?”
            The guard with the mustache nodded without looking up.
            “I have an on-line subscription,” he said. “It’s cheaper than the print edition and you don’t end up with a bunch of paper to recycle. I don't read it as regularly as Etne, but pretty often.”
            Gallifoy swallowed; so much for his ability to read people’s personalities based on their physical appearance.
            A buzzer someplace on the other side of the X-ray machine startled Gallifoy. An electric motor moved hidden machinery with a series of metallic clanks, presumably opening a door inside the prison.  Despite the noise, Gallifoy could see no sign of what was going on: the passageway itself was like an armored airlock, with independently operated doors at each end.
            No sooner had the noise in the entry corridor faded than Gallifoy heard a loud buzz as the massive locks on the near door slid clear.
            “Man coming out,” someone inside the prison warned over intercom speakers that were concealed behind cast iron grilles in the walls.
            Pontius Pontellus L’Hurieux stepped through the gate, dressed in an inexpensive gray suit, a tieless white shirt and a pair of black loafers.  He carried a thin black leather belt looped tightly in his right hand and a flimsy plastic suitcase in his left.  He wasn't as light-skinned as Gallifoy had expected. Those old half-tones in the newspaper had been misleading and the original prints were missing from the morgue.
            Gallifoy wasn’t sure exactly what he had been expecting. His image of L’Hurieux was drawn from those news shots taken at the time of his trial and from faded black and white pictures on the wall of Kincaid’s Gym on Jones Street in San Francisco. 
            The L’Hurieux in those photos was much younger, dressed in black nylon trunks and Everlast shoes, his hands taped, left foot slightly forward, left hand held in a loose fist, chest high, his right cocked back at the same level. It was the pose a kid named Cassius Clay had been snapped in back in 1954 when he was taking boxing lessons in Louisville, Kentucky. Ten years later, that kid whipped a fierce ex-convict named Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship of the world.  The kid changed his name to Muhammad Ali and soon after, every up-and-coming black boxer in the U.S. that fought with an orthodox stance was photographed in the same pose.
            The L’Hurieux in the lobby of Soledad was 21 years older than the 19-year-old glaring out challengingly from the wall at Kincaid’s.  There was a sprinkling of gray in his short black hair and there were a lot more lines in his face.  His body, however, looked even more formidable than the physique of the kid in the picture: his shoulders looked heavier and broader and his waist, surprisingly, narrower.
            The guard with the mustache had come down from the platform.  He shook hands with L’Hurieux solemnly.
            “Punch, you take care of yourself out there, okay?” he said.
            The blond guard grinned and gave L’Hurieux a gentle punch in the shoulder. “Yeah, old man,” he said. “We don’t want to see you back here again unless you come by just to visit.”
            L’Hurieux shook hands with all three guards, smiling with quiet pleasure. When he was done he threaded his belt through the loops around his waist and picked up his suitcase.
            Gallifoy stepped forward.
            “Punch?” he said. “I’m Simon Gallifoy? The writer from the Sentinel? I’m here to give you a ride back to San Francisco.”
            L’Hurieux smiled and shook the journalist’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gallifoy,” he said without bothering to take a last look around the lobby.  “Let’s be on our way." 
            They walked the 100 yards or so to the car in silence. Gallifoy triggered the door looks with the remote and popped the trunk so L’Hurieux could stow his case there. From the way he tossed it in, Gallifoy realized it couldn’t have much in it.
            Punch buckled up.  He stretched with his eyes closed and took a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh.
            “Man, been a long time since I smelled that new car smell,” he said finally.  “It surely does smell fine.”
            “What kind of car is this, anyway?” he added, studying the interior appraisingly.
            “Chevy Cavalier,” Gallifoy said, putting the car in gear and rolling down the eucalyptus-lined drive to Highway 101. “It's hardly new. It's a cheap piece of shit, actually. The Sentinel let me use it.  I don’t own a car myself.”
            Punch looked at him with interest.
            “Really? How you get around the city?” he asked.
            Gallifoy shrugged, peering south to gauge the traffic, then goosing the gas pedal as he guided the Chevy out onto the freeway and pointed it north.
             “I walk a lot,” he replied. “Take Muni. Sometimes I do a cab if I’m in a hurry.”
            Punch settled back and looked out the window.  It was mostly farms between the prison and Salinas – flat, brown fields that were just starting to crack with the green of new crops in the spring.
            “Most of the time I lived in the ‘Loin I never had no car,” L’Hurieux said. “I never really needed one, I expect. Took the bus, mostly, myself; couldn’t afford no cabs.”
            He patted the Chevy’s dashboard.
            “So this seems like a pretty nice ride to me,” he said. “If it wasn’t for you, Mr. Gallifoy, I expect I’d be on one of them gray C-DOC buses.”
            CDOC was the acronym for the California Department of Corrections. Punch pronounced it “C-Dock,” like a place to tie up a boat.  It was the way old cons and guards said it. Only the suits in Sacramento called it the Department of Corrections. Most of them just used the initials, Cee-Dee-Cee.
            On impulse, Gallifoy asked L’Hurieux if he would like to drive.
            The ex-boxer’s eyes were flat.  He moved his head from left to right twice in the negative, slowly but definitively.
            “No, sir,” he said, straightening up in the seat. “Thanks but no thanks.  I got no driver’s license, anyways.”
            Gallifoy shrugged.
            “Suit yourself,” he said. “I expect you’ll be getting one pretty soon after you get settled again in the city.”
            L’Hurieux looked out the window and shook his head again, even more slowly this time, but with even greater assurance.
            “I swore off driving about eleven years ago,” he said. “If I hadn’t had a license, I wouldn’t have ended up in Soledad. The idea of being behind the wheel of a car gives me cold sweats. I got one of those, what-you-call-it’s about driving.”
            Gallifoy looked over at him.
            “You mean a phobia?”
            “More like an aversion,” L’Hurieux said, pronouncing each syllable carefully with a slight smile, as if it was nice to use one of the words he had learned during all those hours he had spent in the prison’s law library.
             “So, tell me Mr. Gallifoy . . .”
            Gallifoy interrupted him.
            “Call me Simon, Punch,” he said.
            Punch smiled again, tolerantly, this time.
            “So, tell me, Mr. Gallifoy,” he said, “what exactly can I do for you?”
            Gallifoy glanced at him then turned his eyes back to the road.
            “I told you in my last letter, Punch,” he said. “I want to write about your case for the paper, for the column I do.  That’s all.  I figured giving you a lift back to San Francisco would give me a chance to ask you a few more questions, size you up. Give me some of the color I need for my column.”
            Punch looked out the window.
            “That’s what I don’t understand,” the ex-fighter said after a few moments of silence. “I wrote you, what? Like 18 letters over the last year since you first got in touch with me.  You wrote me 15 letters with questions in them and I answered them the best I knew how.  I figure you must know just about everything there is to know about me by now.”
            Gallifoy nodded.
            “I have all the basic information, but I still need a hook for my first story,” he said. “I need an angle that will suck people in and get them wanting to know more about you.”
            Punch looked at him.
            “Can’t you just tell the story?” he asked.
            Gallifoy smiled, shaking his head.
            “Starting with you being born?” he asked. “Twelve years of public school? Two years of Army? Eighteen amateur fights, a 15-and-3 record, 12 wins by knockouts?  Nineteen pro bouts, 17-and-1, 16 by knockout?  Your arrest for armed robbery and murder?  Your conviction?  Your eight years in the joint?”
            He looked at Punch.
            “There’s just too much there to throw at people,” he said. “It would read like an encyclopedia profile. People wouldn’t last past the first paragraph. I need something that will grab people and hold onto them. An attention-getter.  That’s what I was hoping would come out of the next three hours on the road.”
            L’Hurieux sighed.
            “Man, I guess being a writer is harder than I thought,” he said.  “I just thought you let the words come flowing out and they made a story.  Not that I ever wrote a damn thing myself.”
            “Well, how you want to do this?” He seemed willing, if not enthusiastic.
            “Well, let’s start with the boxing career,” Gallifoy said.  “See if I can’t get some fresh insight from that.  Maybe it will inspire me.  With your record, both as a pro and an amateur, I don’t understand why you didn’t work your way into some sort of a title bout.”
            Punch eased back into the seat.
            “Man, I haven’t had anybody ask me about that stuff for years,” he said.  “That’s a damn good question, I guess."
            He thought about it for a while before he answered.
            “I think it was really bad economics,” he said, finally. “That and my size. The two are related in a way. The top fighting weight I had was 195, just a light heavy. I tried to bulk up from time to time but when I did, I lost speed and endurance. Carrying too much unnatural weight.”
            “The big money always been for the cats in the heavyweight division.  People would rather watch big men with a lot of knock-out power than somebody lighter and faster. A lot of the heavies, they slower than hell when it comes right down to it. But they connect, they put a man on the mat.”
            He spread his hands.
            “They just wasn’t any guys that was legit light heavy contenders out here on this coast,” he said. “I couldn’t line up quality fights because they wasn’t any to be had.”
            Gallifoy was surprised at the complexity of the answer. L’Hurieux might not have much education, but he was clearly intelligent and thoughtful.
            “What did you mean about the economics being wrong?” the writer asked.
            Punch frowned.
            “When I was peakin’ out,” he said, “it was a bad time for the light heavy division.  There wasn’t enough black people supporting the division. The only folks with money that was willing to spend it on fights didn’t want to watch two undersized black men beatin’ on each other.”
            It was Gallifoy's turn to frown.
            “I remember seeing lots of black people in the audience in videos of those old fights in the late 1980s,” he said.
            Punch shook his head.
            “Them folks were there for the top of the card, not the prelims,” he said. “Easy to get black high-rollers to turn out for Evander or Tyson. Not so easy to get them to turn out for a light heavy. Think back then – who do you remember that was a light heavyweight?”
            Gallifoy shrugged.  He wasn’t a boxing expert, but he had down some research when he was first getting into L’Hurieux’s story.
            “I don’t know,” he said.  “Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard.  Maybe Mike Spinks . . .  He trailed off.  There were others, he was sure, but he couldn’t remember their names.
            L’Hurieux smiled.
            “You just proved my point,” he said.  “Leonard wasn't a light heavy. He fought in a lot of weight classes, but he wasn't natural in that one. Hearns and them other guys, they didn’t get a patch on the publicity that the big boys got, and they was only a few of them that was sharp enough to catch the public eye.”
            “The people who had the money were white folks,” L’Hurieux said. “They always been the people who spent money on boxing tickets and pay-per-view. If they were going to spend money on a light heavy fight, they wanted to see some undersized white guy beatin’ the fuck out of an undersized black man or some undersized brown guy.”
            Gallifoy looked confused. “That sounds more like a matter of racism than of economics,” he said slowly.
            Punch smiled but there wasn’t a lot of humor in it.
            “Man, in this country, economics and racism always been two sides of the same coin. The South got strong picking cotton for the mills in the North. They used slaves to do it, dig?  Everybody got rich off that bop except for the slaves.”

            They drove in silence for a while, with L’Hurieux looking out the window at the passing farmland.  Eventually he turned and looked at Gallifoy curiously.
            “You not from around here are you Mr. Gallifoy?” he asked.
            Gallifoy frowned. “What makes you say that?”
            L’Hurieux shrugged. “You don’t talk American,” he said bluntly. “You talk . . . politer, somehow.  Your voice got better manners than most, kind of quiet and considerate.”
            Gallifoy laughed, tumbling to what he meant.
            “My accent, you mean,” he said. “I’m from England. London, actually.”
            L’Hurieux shook his head, smiling gently.
            “I never met anybody from England before,” he said.  “Is everybody there as polite-sounding as you?”
         “Not really,” Gallifoy said. “Some are downright rude.”
            In point of fact, a lot of people thought Gallifoy was fairly rude.  And those were generally the people with kinder opinions of his character.
          L’Hurieux sighed.
            “That’s a damn shame,” he said, looking out the window again. “It’s purely a pleasure to listen to someone with as polite a voice as yours.  Now where was we?”
            They were passing a field in which workers were weeding a new crop and L’Hurieux perked up at the sight.
            “Those lucky bastards,” he said watching them intently.
            Gallifoy glanced at the band that spurred Punch’s comment.  To him, it looked like they were working hard, close to the ground.  He didn’t see what made them so lucky.
            “Seems like a hard life to me,” he said.
            L’Hurieux kept watching until the workers passed out of sight.
            “The last five years I worked on the ag detail at Soledad,” he said, turning back to face the highway.
            “We were basically working for canteen money, just enough to buy cigarettes for the fellas that smoked, so we weren’t even making as much as those poor old boys for doing the same shitty work: chopping and weeding crops, picking in season. Trying to keep from getting sunstroke and holding our piss and mud until the straw boss said we could go relieve ourselves, one at a time, in the little plastic shitter that they rolled out there on a trailer into the field where we were working.”
            “But them Mexicans we just passed have one thing none of us convicts ever had.”
            “What’s that?” Gallifoy asked.
            “When they finish up at the end of the day, they can go down to the local cantina and have a beer,” Punch said. “They get to go home to a meal of beans and rice and tortillas, and to sleep in their own beds.”
            He turned to Gallifoy.
            “We got to get back on a bus that hauled us back to a concrete box, eat fat and gristle and watery mashed potatoes and sleep with one eye open in a place where everybody was trying to get over on you,” he said.
            “Man, there were times in the last eight years I would have given my left nut to be one of those Mexicans,” he said with a smile.  He turned and grinned at Gallifoy. “Well, maybe not really my left nut, if you know what I mean.”
            Gallifoy smiled. “I imagine it’s pretty tough inside,” he said.  “I have to imagine it, since I’ve never been locked up.”
            L’Hurieux sat back and looked out the window. “You don’t know the half of it, man,” he said.  “I would lay awake at night and wonder if I was going to make it.”
            “You pulled a twelve year sentence for armed robbery,” Gallifoy said. It was one of the questions that he had wanted to ask L'Hurieux during the trip. He was surprised the convict had opened the subject up himself.
           “No priors whatsoever," he said, pressing the point. "You were eligible for parole two years ago. But you served ten years altogether. Why didn’t you go for parole?  Why did you stay inside for another two years?”
            Punch grinned.
            “Hell, I was ready to do the whole twelve,” he said. “You get paroled, you got some hard-assed agent watching your butt. Every cop with an attitude is looking to violate you back into the joint.”
            He raised his shoulders slightly.
            “I figured I’d do the whole jolt,” he said. “Get it over with.  Come out the gate with no strings attached.”
            Gallifoy looked confused.
            “What made you change your mind then?”
            Punch chuckled. 
            “Some guy named Simon Gallifoy,” he said as he watched a flock of ravens circle over a fallow field. “When you got me hooked up with Mr. Weider, the lawyer, and that detective fella of his, Mr. Colombatto, I started thinking maybe I wasn’t crazy to think I get my case reopened.”
            “I decided I been sittin’ inside and stewing long enough,” he said, raising his shoulders again. “It was time to get out and clear my name.”
            “In other words, you were ready for another fight,” Gallifoy said with a grin.

            Punch looked at him with surprise. "Well, yeah," he said. "That's about right, I guess."
            “Bingo," Gallifoy said. "That’s my fucking angle!”
            The next two hours went quickly.  L’Hurieux relived the events that had put him in prison and Gallifoy quizzed him about his trial, the witnesses that appeared and other details of the prosecution. They went over L’Hurieux’s life inside Soledad – what he had done to cope with hard time, the hours he had spent in the prison library and the correspondence courses he had taken.
            When they turned off onto 280 through the Bayview and Potrero Hill, both were surprised at how much distance they had covered, both in miles and years.  By the time they reached the Tenderloin, L’Hurieux was becoming excited at being back home again after ten long years.
            “Thanks for the ride, Mr. Gallifoy,” he said as he got out of the car at the Statler Central Hotel and pulled his plastic suitcase out of Gallifoy’s trunk.
            “Thank you, Punch,” Gallifoy said. “When do you check in with your parole officer?”
            “I’m spoze to see him Tuesday, but I’m going in first thing in the morning Monday,” L’Hurieux said.
            “Well, good luck,” Gallifoy said. “You have my office number and my mobile, Punch. You need anything, give me a call, okay?”
            Punch shook hands with the columnist solemnly.
            “Yessir,” he said. “I sure will. Thanks again for giving me that lift home.”
            Gallifoy grinned. “No problem, man.  Take care.”