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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, June 1, 2011

Casting Call, an exerpt from a novel in progress

            Jack Morris looked up when Art Sullivan and the crew he had put together walked into the lounge of Citizens, the 24-hour coffee shop at the corner of 45th and Clement.

            Sully had brought Alec Lemnos, the halfwit who once got himself stuck in a bus door. Morris rolled his eyes. Lemnos was so dumb people occasionally had to remind him to breathe. Morris couldn’t remember a crime Lemnos committed that hadn’t ended with him getting arrested. His only advantage as a criminal was he always got cut loose because judges found him incompetent to assist in his own defense.

            With Lemnos was Waldo Reminger, the guy the hookers on lower Jones had dubbed “The World’s Creepiest Man.” It was said that even Alice Bowman, the trailer trash crack whore people called “White Fang” because of her missing front teeth, had once told Reminger to take a hike.

            Morris wondered what it was like to be rejected by butt-ugly streetwalkers, even when you had a bunch of cash in your pocket. Must be hard on the self-esteem, he thought. Reminger was the only man he could think of who had been eighty-sixed from Moonlight Ranch. Twice; six years apart.

            “Hey, Jack,” Sully said, sliding into the booth beside Morris. “What’s shakin’?”

            It was typical Sully: walk into a casting call with a pair of stiffs and open with a line so lame it could fill an entire ward at a Shriner’s Hospital. Morris decided to play along; if he was lame enough in return, maybe Sully would leave and take his Munchkins with him.

            “Nothing but the leaves in the trees,” Morris replied, taking a sip from the bottle of PBR on the table in front of him. That response was paraplegic, he thought to himself as he put the bottle down.  If that doesn’t chase this loser and his buddies, nothing will.

            But Sully just looked at him and licked his lips expectantly. Morris realized that Sully was waiting him to follow up with, “What are you boys drinking?”

            Ordinarily, that was the procedure in a casting call. A guy wants to put together a crew to pull off some sort of crime, he asks somebody with contacts to hook him up with some prospects at a mutually agreeable site. And then the guy looking for help sets up the first round, maybe more if the prospects look particularly good; if they’re sensational, he might even buy dinner for everyone.

            Fuck that shit, Morris thought, pointedly taking another sip of beer and nodding the neck of the bottle toward Sully, as if trying to demonstrate how rude he could be.

            Sully’s expression melted from anticipation to barely concealed irritation as he realized that if he didn’t personally provide liquid refreshment for the two knuckleheads sitting across the booth from him, they would go thirsty. Eventually, he decided on the latter, reasoning that if Morris was going to breach low-life protocol, so would he. He waved the cocktail waitress Angie over and asked for a rum and Coke.

            “If you boys want something, you better order up,” he said, looking at Lemnos and Reminger innocently.

            “Naw, I’m good,” Lemnos said, oblivious to the fact that two people had now failed to stand him to a drink. Anyone else might have thought about changing the brand of their deodorant, but not Lemnos. He hadn’t thought about anything for years; maybe not ever.

            Reminger looked disappointed but he didn’t say anything, just shook his head. He was probably feeling too horny to be offended.

            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 booth, 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.”

            Sullivan allowed Jack to see a thin smile. “You’re lucky I could come up with these two dipshits,” he said, glancing at his companions. Both were looking at Jack and Art curiously, as if they were wondering why they hadn’t been invited to join the conference. “In case you don’t read the papers, asshole, there’s been a crackdown on the usual suspects in the Tenderloin.”

            Morris had been out of touch for a while, courtesy of a visit to Vacaville as a guest of the state. He should have been sent to Soledad, but he’d managed to spend most of his 24-month sentence at the Northern Intake Center next door to the state hospital for prison inmates in Vacaville. For a year he had messed with the heads of twelve corrections department headshrinkers, convincing them he was a psycho.

            But the staff split 5-4-3 on his exact diagnosis and couldn’t agree on a course of treatment. By the time he left, at least two of the psychiatrists were already planning to write books about his case and each was planning to identify him as a classic example of a completely different mental illness.

             Unfortunately, the papers of choice in Vacaville are the worthless home-town Reporter or the Sacramento Bee, which is nominally better, but focuses on news of the state capitol and nearby communities.  Morris hadn't seen a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle for months. 

            “So what? Crackdowns on crime in San Francisco are a nickel a dozen,” Morris said. “There’s a new one announced every election year. How does that keep you from finding some quality people for a crew?”

            “The really ace operators are victims of the new D.A.,” Sullivan replied. “He wants felony scalps and he told Tardy’s holdovers that 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 donkey’s years. Morris had always liked him: the guy, a coke-freak and pothead, was usually stoned each day even before he left for his three-martini lunch with Superior Court Presiding Judge Sheldon Simmons, and he was too paranoid about being shown up by someone on his staff to hire anything but dumb ass-kissers as lieutenants.

            Consequently, San Francisco had the lowest conviction rate in the state of California and less than five percent of the people who actually were found guilty of felonies there 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 had been sent to the joint only once in San Francisco, even though he had been arrested there 47 times in the space of ten years. He figured a two-year jolt was only fair, considering all the times he had walked.

            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.

          The paper's primary newspaper had said as much eighteen months ago after comparing Tardy to the prosecutors in 57 other counties. The staffer who wrote the paper's editorials dubbed the D.A., “Perennial” Lee Tardy, saying “he is always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to fighting crime.”

            “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 an entire fucking staircase. Some kid named Robert Gentry, a senior deputy D.A. out of San Mateo County, decided to run against him last time. He was the first real candidate Tardy faced in six elections. Gentry was way smarter than those other fools, though: he lined up all the Democratic Party clubs in the city behind him on the QT. Had the black churches in the Bay View eating out of his greasy palm. And he got the Downtown Improvement League to put together one of those phony committees to send out hit pieces to every voter in town.”

            The Downtown Improvement League was a cabal of corporate wheeler-dealers that considered San Francisco personal property, much as they might a yacht tied up at the marina, or a private plane hangared at SFO. It totally dominated politics in San Francisco like a stilettoed madam with a cat-o-nine and an electro-stimulation rig. Carefully concealed behind the scenes, the League had cracked the whip in city politics since the administration of George Christopher.

            “Gentry also dredged up all the shit about that chick Tardy hired as his office manager,” he said, shrugging as if to suggest that the prosecutor might as well have stepped in front of an 18-wheeler in the middle of Highway 101.

            “You mean the lap dancer at Harry Twitchell’s sex club who couldn’t type or take dictation but was paid more than $100 K a year?” Morris asked.

            “The very same,” Sully said. “The one that gave Tardy blowjobs every day when he got back from lunch with the judge. It made the papers and that was all she wrote. Old Lee ended up with so few supporters he couldn’t have put together a decent poker party.”

            Jack went back to the original subject. “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 without fucking them up. 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 am I supposed to do with them, drop them in the roadway like cinderblocks to divert traffic when the cops are chasing us?”

            Sullivan looked amused. “Well, who in hell would you rather work with, hotshot?” he said, his tone mocking. “Cleary? He’d be a really good choice but 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,” Sully said. “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.”

            Sully looked around Citizens melodramatically, as if he half expected to spot Christopher Walken or Brittney Spears sitting at one of the tables.

            “Funny, but I don’t see any of the top operators in here,” he said when he looked back at Morris. “I don’t see any of the second rank, either. Or the third. Jack, 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 closed his eyes and gave his temples a little rubdown with his knuckles. He reopened them after taking a deep breath and hissing it out noisily, like a kid trying to gin himself up to cut class in the middle of the school day.

            “So what you’re saying is, you vouch for these two lettuce heads, right?” he asked finally.

            Sully grinned. “If I wasn’t ready to do the job myself, I wouldn’t be fobbing these two guys off on you,” he said, taking in Alec and Waldo with a wave of his hand.

            “I take it that means that you’re in, too,” Morris said, making it more statement than question.

            Sullivan nodded.

            “Hey, Jack,” Sully said suddenly, with a note of desperation in his voice and something 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?”

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