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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, August 7, 2011

Cage RIder

By William E. Wallace

(Novel Excerpt)

Tommy Souza woke up at exactly 6:15 a.m. and stared up at the ceiling, hands folded behind his head, just as he had every day for the last twelve years. But this time, when 6:30 rolled around there was no loud buzzer that said the cops were opening up the main line so the inmates could go down to morning chow.
       Souza found himself straining to hear the damned thing. Then he remembered that the buzzer was at California State Prison, Soledad. He was lying in a bed in a flop-house in Richmond, California, nearly two hundred miles north of there. He’d left Soledad Friday afternoon on the big gray C-DOC bus, carrying a cardboard suitcase with one change of clothes and $132.57 in gedunk money he had squirreled away.

That was the first time it hit him that he really was out of the state pen. His counselor in the joint found the flop he’d checked into and he had a job interview lined up Monday morning and a meet-and-greet with his parole agent later that afternoon. His entire weekend was free; all he had to do was get through it without fucking up.
It would be a good trick, if he could manage it.
He’d known cons that couldn’t make it through the first eighty hours out of prison without getting into trouble again. Inside the joint, the inmates called them “institutional men” because they didn’t seem to be able to flourish anyplace outside prison walls. Souza didn’t intend to be one of them. Getting into trouble again right after getting sprung was for suckers and half-wits. He was neither. He had seen enough of the California penal system to last him the rest of his life.
Since he didn’t have to get up and follow the other cons to the mess hall for breakfast, Souza laid in the sack until just after eight, trying to figure out what it felt like to be free. He decided he liked it. Then his stomach growled. He yawned, tossed back the skimpy blanket and tissue-thin sheet, swung his legs over the side of the bed and lit a Marlboro.
The flop-house might not have a warning buzzer, a mess hall or guards, and Souza’s status might have changed from state prison inmate to parolee, but somehow that didn’t make him any less hungry when he first got up. He rose, shaved and took a long, hot shower without worrying about bending over to pick up the soap for the first time in twelve years. Then he got dressed for breakfast.
The diner was only a half-block from Souza’s hotel. He took a stool at the counter and ordered coffee and an English muffin from the little Latina-looking waitress who was standing behind it. The black plastic tag on her blouse said her name was Edna Johnson. So much for appearances, Souza thought.
“Excuse me, Edna,” he said. “I notice that you folks don’t have a clock. What time is it?”
She looked at her wristwatch and heaved a dejected sigh. “Late. That’s what time it is,” she said. “It’s a quarter after ten. My relief was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago.  Ah—here she comes now,” she added, brightening considerably.
Souza followed her gaze and saw a tall, middle-aged brunette in sunglasses come through the door.
“Shit, Edna!” the brunette said as she reached the counter. “Sorry for holding you up like this.  I just got into my car and put the keys into the ignition this morning when the landlord ran up and told me the mailman left a package for me with him yesterday. I closed the door when I got out of the car to get the package and I locked my keys in the damned thing.”
She took off her sunglasses and Souza couldn’t help but notice that her eyes were almost the color of brand new pennies. To Souza, they seemed strange but oddly attractive. He hadn’t seen a woman for twelve years, except on TV.  It’s like the Chinese say: “Hunger is the best seasoning.”
“I’ll bet the damned thing has been stolen by the time I get off shift,” the brunette said. “I only live about a mile from the Iron Triangle!”
Souza had only passed through Richmond three times before and he had no idea what the Iron Triangle was or where it was located. His knowledge of the city was based entirely on the brief walk he had taken around the hotel after he’d checked in the previous night.
“How far away is that?” he asked on impulse. He figured if nothing else, this could give him a chance to learn a little something about the city.
The brunette looked at him as if she was wondering what planet he had dropped in from. To her knowledge, she had never seen him before and she had no idea who he was, other than some guy sitting in the diner, reasonably sober, who might or might not be hitting on her.
“Why?” she asked sensibly.
Souza shrugged. “I can go and get your car and bring it back,” he said. “Then you won’t have to worry about it getting whacked.”
The brunette stared at him.  “Whacked?” she said. She had never heard the term used to describe anything but “drunk,” or “crazy,” except when it meant both.
“Ripped off,” Souza corrected himself. Even after twelve years off the streets he found it too easy to slip into the language of his former profession.
She considered the offer. “Well, I probably should just call Triple A,” she said, uncertainly.
“You a member?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head.  “Do you have to be a member to get Triple A service?  I thought you could just call them and pay them to open your car’s door.
Souza shrugged. “I’m offering to help you for nothing,” he said.
She thought about it. It was clear she was tempted but she seemed to need a little prodding to make up her mind.
“I wouldn’t leave your car sitting out there on the street too long with the keys hanging out of the ignition,” he said, sipping at his coffee. “Even the dumbest crackhead can break a window and drive away a car like that.”
She bit her lower lip as she thought. Souza liked the shape of her lips. He would have enjoyed nibbling on them himself.  She was in her late thirties or early forties but trim and good-looking. And those copper-colored eyes knocked him out. He’d never seen anything like them.
“Okay,” she said finally, acting more on impulse than from any sort of logic. She fished around in her purse for a moment, then looked up at him with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement. “Oh, that was stupid of me,” she said.
She laughed. “I was going to give you my keys so you could get in and start it! Of course, I don’t have them in my purse because they are still in the car.”
Souza smiled. He liked the sound of her laughter, too.
 Coolie Sutton had been watching the pale blue Cavalier on the corner since that white chick from the apartment house across the street with the weird-looking eyes had started to leave in it that morning, then ended up running to catch the bus. Nobody rides the damn bus when they got a set of wheels, he thought to himself. When she was gone, he rolled himself a spliff. He lit the joint then held the smoke deep in his lungs while he looked at the car through the slat blinds in the Section Eight house he shared with his old lady, LaTonya.
He smoked two more joints while he studied the car and figured the angles. He hadn’t crossed over to glance in and see whether she had left her keys locked inside, but he didn’t really need to. He’d guessed that was what happened because when she got out of the car and shut its door to talk to the guy who managed the apartments, she couldn’t get back in.
“Stupid ass ho,” he muttered contemptuously.
Coolie could use a car, himself, even though his license had been revoked nearly two years earlier for DUI. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a job, so he didn’t have the money to buy one.
What kept him from just getting in the Cavalier and driving it away was the same thing that kept him from employment: his basic laziness. He lived across from the chick who owned the Chevy, so he couldn’t just park the damned thing on the street. He might consider her a stupid whore—just as he did every other woman on the planet—but he didn’t think she was dumb enough not to recognize her own car when she came back from wherever she had gone that morning.
That meant Coolie would have to take the car down to the Triangle and see his partner, Rufus, to line up a buyer for the damned thing or to swap it for another set of wheels. Coolie usually got pocket money through strong-arm robbery, so anything that required more concentration and effort than running a block or two after grabbing a handbag or tapping some poor bastard on the head and taking his wallet looked a lot like a regular job to him. Regular jobs were for squares, not gangstas.
He took a final drag off the doobie and was just stepping out the door when he saw a white dude with a mustache like the cops wear walking down the street, looking at a little piece of paper he was holding in one hand. When the man with the ‘stache spotted the blue Chevy, he speeded up, slowing again only to check the back license plate against whatever was written on the paper.
Furtiveness was second nature to Coolie, so he held back, waiting to see what the stranger would do.  To his surprise, the man moved to the passenger side of the Cavalier and bent down to look in, then straightened up and pulled out a wire coat hanger he had tucked under his belt in the back of his trousers. 
He fiddled with the hanger for a minute, untwisting the loop at the top and expertly bending it into a hook. Then he used it to fish inside the window on the passenger door, snagging the door lock and releasing it with a quick pull.
A moment later the man with the mustache was inside the Cavalier, revving the engine and hanging a U-turn in the middle of the street to drive away.
Coolie went back into his apartment and rolled another spliff.  As he fired it up, he pondered the fact that a total stranger had just broken into and drove off the car he had been planning to steal himself. It made Coolie almost as angry as if the Cavalier belonged to him and not the woman with the weird eyes who lived across the street.
Thieving snofabitch,” he said of the man with the mustache. “Stole my motherfucking ride right out from in front of me.”
Coolie’s anger at the theft was partly due to disappointment at missing his opportunity, which was irrational, considering that, during the 45 minutes he had spent smoking dope and thinking about stealing the Cavalier, he could have broken into the damned thing and driven it halfway to Sacramento. But he was also outraged that the poacher had entered his ghetto neighborhood to bag the car, walking up to it as boldly as a Jehovah’s Witness peddling “Watchtower” and breaking into it without even looking up or down the street to see whether a cop was watching. The bastard had a set of cast-iron balls and the way he broke in was really slick. Coolie wished he knew how he had done it. If Coolie could get into cars that easily, he would be tempted to give up his gig as as a mugger.
The toilet flushed in the next room. LaTonya, who’d been out turning tricks until nearly three a.m., had finally got out of bed.  She stood naked in the doorway behind him, scratching her side and yawning.
“What’s up, Daddy?” she said in her little girl's voice. She could tell he was in a bad mood, but as a matter of fact, he usually was.
Coolie sat down on the couch and rolled another joint. “Some motherfucking white guy just stole the car across the street,” he said, lighting up and drawing a big lungful of smoke.
LaTonya took the joint out of his hand and took a drag.
“So what?” she said in a squeaky voice as she struggled to hold the smoke in. “It’s not like it was yours, is it?”
“He just got a lot of fucking nerve, coming down to the ‘Hood to do his crime,” Coolie replied. “’Sides, I was planning to grab that car myself.”
LaTonya exhaled. “So, what you gonna do about it?” she asked. She was pretty sure she already knew what the answer was. Her boyfriend had the same solution to every problem he faced.
Coolie didn’t disappoint her. “I ever see that peckerwood again,” he said, “I’m going to kill his skinny white ass.”
When Souza walked back into the diner, the brunette was serving breakfast to a couple in one of the booths. He took the same seat he’d been in before and turned over the clean mug there, waiting to drop her keys on the counter until she brought over the coffee pot to fill it. “I parked it in the lot behind the restaurant,” he said.
“Wow,” she said with both surprise and relief playing across her face. It had occurred to her after he left that she had told a complete stranger exactly where he could find her car with the keys locked inside. For all she knew, he could have taken it himself.
“That was fast!” she added, giving him a smile and looking at him closely for the first time. He was sort of cute in a ratty way: his clothes were shabby but he had puppy dog brown eyes, dark, wavy hair and a mustache that drooped slightly over the ends of his mouth. “You were gone only a little more than a half hour. How’d you get inside it?”
“I used one of the coat hangers from my room,” he said, sipping coffee. “Sort of ruined the hanger, but I didn’t have a coat to put on it, anyhow. As for how long I was gone, you only live about a mile and a half from here so I followed the directions you gave me and just walked. I like to walk. I haven’t had much opportunity to do it lately. You’re so close that I’m surprised you drive back and forth, actually.”
She gave him a rueful smile. “You don’t know Richmond do you, Mr., uh . . .”
He smiled back and held out his hand. “My name’s Tommy Souza,” he said. “And you are . . .?”
“Jeanette Helmso,” she said, taking his hand in a friendly way. “Everybody calls me Netty, though.”
Her hand was cool and soft in his. He released it reluctantly.
“I had the Jeanette part,” he said pointing at her name tag. “Didn’t have the Netty or the Helmso, though. You’re right about me not knowing Richmond. Last night was the first I ever spent here. I think I drove through a couple times in the past, but that’s about the size of it. The last time must have been fourteen, fifteen years ago.”
“Most people don’t walk here, not in this part of town, anyway,” she said. “Walking around here is a good way to get robbed or raped or something.”
Souza grinned. “Well, I don’t have anything worth stealing and I don’t think anybody’d be interested in raping somebody with a face like mine,” he said. “Lot of crime here, huh?”
She nodded. “We have one of the highest murder rates in the nation,” she said. “It can be a pretty violent place.”
“Why do you stay, then?” Souza asked.
She shrugged. “I spent my whole life in Richmond,” she said. “I was born here. Graduated from Richmond High in 1989. I guess it’s just stubbornness: I feel like I can’t let thugs chase me out of my own hometown. So where are you from originally?”
“Around,” Souza said. “Colorado, Utah, Idaho. My dad was a construction stiff. But I used to work about 40 miles south of here in Hayward more than a decade ago.”
“What brings you to Richmond?”
It was Souza’s turn to shrug. “This is where they sent me,” he said. He didn’t feel like adding that “they” were the folks at the California Department of Corrections. “I have a job interview here Monday morning. I’ll see how things work out from there.”
“Well, welcome to Richmond, Tommy,” she said. “The coffee’s on me.  And next time you come in and I’m working, I’m picking up the tab for your meal.”
Souza decided to press his luck. “I’d be much obliged. When do you normally work?” he asked, hoping he wasn’t being too obvious.
“Saturdays and Sundays, I’m the ten ‘til seven girl,” she said with a smile. “Monday through Wednesday, I work swings, three p.m. until twelve.”
“I live just down the block and I’m used to three squares a day,” Souza said, grinning. “You’ll probably be seeing me in here so often you get sick of me.”
She laughed. “I doubt it,” she said.
Souza hoped she was right.


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