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. . .

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Another Serious Over-"Reacher" by Lee Child


By Lee Child
Hardcover, 405 pages
Delacorte, 2012

I started the latest Jack Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, in a Berkeley theater at 1:30 p.m. February 6 while waiting for the movie Parker to begin.

I finished it at 1:30 a.m. on February 7 -- even though the book is 405 pages long and I took an hour and 54 minute time-out to watch the movie.

Of those twelve hours, at least the 114 minutes it took me to watch Parker were well spent. *

A Wanted Man had its enjoyable moments. But they were so few and far apart, they seemed like rest stops along the unnamed Interstate through Nebraska and Iowa on which much of the novel’s action occurs.

And, like the open prairie  that stretches through those two states, Child’s novel is a barren wasteland that piles coincidence on coincidence, overuses catch phrases ("Good to Go," "Not so much"), and overdoes the Popular Science and Gray's Anatomy techniques for padding a book with unnecessary technical detail.

For a suspense novel, “A Wanted Man” is almost completely devoid of thrills. A couple of surprises, yes; but thrills? To borrow one of Child’s current pet phrases: not so much.

Surprise number one: two people die suddenly and unexpectedly, one of them as the result of natural causes, and, if you are like me, you probably won’t see those deaths coming. Surprise number two, it turns out that the government has a hideaway in the middle of the prairie where it is stashing people who have stumbled on sensitive information about national security that puts them at risk; that, too, was somewhat unexpected. 

And surprise number three, although the FBI agents in this novel are mostly bureaucratic assholes who behave in a squirrelly fashion, none of them are actually working for the bad guys; that definitely was a surprise, since there has been at least one turncoat fed or local cop in every Reacher novel I have read so far.

But the basic story line doesn’t have a single legitimate thrill in it. There is never a point in the novel where Reacher seems to be at risk of death or even serious injury. It is always clear that, by the end of the novel, Reacher will have figured out and disrupted the intricate plot that is driving the story, not to mention eradicated the villains responsible for it. And – with one exception in this particular novel – it is equally clear that the innocent will be rescued from mayhem by Child’s hulking ex-Military Police major.

The novel starts with Reacher, who is hitchhiking, being picked up by two men and a woman on the Nebraska Interstate. It takes him a full 85 pages to discover that the woman  is an unwilling passenger and that the two men hijacked her car after committing some sort of crime that got them covered with blood.

Thirteen pages later he finds out that the two men are carrying guns. It takes another 24 pages before one of those guns is pulled and aimed at Reacher.

In other words, we are more than a quarter of the way through the book before Reacher is confronted by what appears to be a truly dangerous situation.

The. Book. Moves. Just. That. Slowly.

Apparently Child never read Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he says that writers of hard-boiled fiction face a demand “for constant action; if you stopped to think, you were lost. When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

Yes, somebody does get murdered in the first 400 words of the book. It wouldn’t be a Jack Reacher novel if there wasn’t at least one body littering the landscape at the onset.  But the killing takes place off camera, so to speak, and we learn about it second hand. The second grisly death doesn’t occur for another 160-odd pages.  And the real bloodletting is postponed until the last tenth of the book, though Child makes up for the wait by having Reacher kill more than 20 people in that one 54-page segment.

(Spoiler alert: As is usually the case, when Reacher takes on the worst baddie in the crowd, it is an anticlimax.  Here he faces an evil American traitor working with foreign terrorists in what appears to be a nefarious plot to poison most of the ground water in the Midwest, but when we get to the final showdown – a literal “High Noon” style fast-draw competition – “Reacher raised the Glock and shot him in the face.”)

(There is no real build up; no real catharsis; just another human cockroach quickly and unceremoniously dispatched by Child’s superhuman hero. Ho-hum.)

And Child seems to lose track of unexplained mysteries along the way -- for example, we never get an adequate explanation of why the first victim is killed. What’s more, we are teased with the existence of a ringleader for the terrorist organization that is the central focus of the book but never find out for sure who he is or what happens to him. 

And what is up with this recurrent plot mechanism of Reacher getting kidnapped alongside female FBI agents? Child needs to start looking for another basic way to set up his potboilers. . .  

After reading the first two Reacher novels, Killing Floor and Die Trying, I couldn’t understand why the series was so popular, but I was willing to stick with Reacher a bit longer, just to see if Child was able to sand off the rough spots that bothered me in the early novels. 

A Wanted Man is the seventeenth and most recent installment in the series, however, and while some of his clunkier and more perfunctory writing has been excised, Child still is taking 400 pages to tell a story that could be more effective, exciting and satisfying if it was slashed by a third. 

And while he has eliminated some of the annoying prose tics of the earlier novels, he seems to have replaced them with others that I find even more annoying.  In this novel, for example, he comes up with a seventeen word passage toward the end of the book that he apparently liked so much that he repeats it two more times in different spots afterward (and believe me, it wasn’t all that amusing in the first place).  

Plus he has characters used the catch phrase “good to go” so frequently that they seem to be recovering from an extended bout with constipation.

I think I have been more than generous to Lee Child and Jack Reacher, giving them repeated opportunities to win me over and make me a fan. But now that my youth is well behind me, I don’t want to spend another minute of however much time I have left on the Reacher series.  Child’s next book may be a barn burner, but if it is, I won’t find out unless someone tells me. When it comes to Jack Reacher, I’ve reached the end of the road.





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.”



#

I Hate it When a Plan Doesn't Come Together . .






  • By Chester Himes

    (Paperback)
    University Press of Mississippi
    (September 1994)
    ISBN-10: 087805751X

    Fans of Chester Himes's great detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, may be tempted to pick up Plan B, Himes's last Harlem Cycle novel, published posthumously in France in 1984 and released in the U.S. a decade later. 
Caveat lector!

Plan B was never finished by Himes. The book published under that name is the draft of a novel Himes was working on at the time of his death that has been kludged together with an ending contrived from the author's own notes. It is by no means a finished product, and it has so many obvious flaws that it is not clear that Himes would have been able to put it into publishable form had he lived another twenty years.

The novel starts in typical Himes fashion, with a tenement dweller named T-Bone Smith "laughing like an idiot at two blackfaced white minstrels on the television screen who earned a fortune by blacking their faces and acting just as foolish as T-bone had done for free all his life."

Smith, like many of the low-life characters that figure in Himes's novels, is the broadest possible a caricature of an urban black: a shiftless, ignorant man who lives off his prostitute wife.

In a typical Himes novel, we would follow him through a series of misadventures, possibly as a sidelight to a larger criminal plot, that culminates in a violent confrontation with Digger and Coffin Ed during which the bigger issues come to resolution and the loose ends are, if not neatly tied up, at least lopped off with a meat-ax. 

But this is not your average Harlem Cycle crime programmer.

Almost as soon as he is introduced, a messenger delivers a package to T-Bone from an anonymous benefactor. Inside it he finds an assault rifle and enough ammunition to wage a minor  war, along with these cryptic instructions:

Warning!! Do not inform police!!! Learn your weapon and wait for instructions!!! Repeat!!! Learn your weapon and wait for instructions!!! Warning!!! Do not inform police!!! Freedom is near!!!

T-Bone quarrels over the gun with Tang, the prostitute he lives with: he wants to turn it over to the cops, while she wants to keep it and follow the instructions. She seizes the weapon and tries to shoot T-Bone with it only to find the magazine is empty. The furious T-Bone kills her with his switchblade, police are summoned and Coffin Ed and Digger respond.

Here is where things get seriously strange: Digger, who is usually the more rational of the two detectives, explodes in rage and kills T-Bone for no good reason by smashing his skull with his custom-made long-barreled .38 Police Special. He is placed on suspension soon afterward and spends most of the rest of the book on the sidelines.  

Coffin Ed, who is generally the more violent of the two detectives, remains on the job, but also ends up shunted out of action until the last few pages of the book.

Absent the two detectives -- who are the usual focal point of a Harlem Cycle story --  the remainder of the novel traces the history of a African-American militant named Tomsson Black and his forebears back to the Civil War era. It also follows a series of business transactions involving a company called Chitterlings, Inc.

These parallel stories unfold against the backdrop of a series of mass shootings involving disparate black men equipped with assault rifles almost identical to the one received by T-Bone Smith.

In each case, the gun was delivered without explanation by a messenger. The weapons have no identifying marks and their ammunition has been custom-made to eliminate features that would allow police to trace it back to its manufacturer.  

Eventually, it becomes clear that the mass shootings are intended to provoke a racial war. Each massacre is described in gory detail, and each results in a violent counter-strike by white police officers or well-armed white racists. 

Soon black citizens are issued identification cards, placed under strict curfews and restricted to their own black enclaves -- only to fall prey to roving bands of white people determined to eradicate them.

It is never explained why those who receive the weapons are so quick to use them in suicide attacks on whites. Because some of the gunmen are described as successful professionals, the reader is left to conclude that the only motivation that is necessary to turn any black man, rich or poor,  into a race warrior is his pathological hatred for whites.

The random shootings, in any event, seems to backfire: instead of provoking a racial revolution, they result in a bloodbath that seems likely to end only with the extermination of the black minority by the white majority.

As the action proceeds, we come to understand that the mysterious Tomsson Black is behind the ten million guns that are flooding the ghettos and provoking racial Armageddon.  But the only people who seem to be able to figure this out are Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, who confront Black in the final pages of the novel. 

Plan B is by no means the first time Himes has looked at the  seemingly intractable issue of conflict between blacks and whites in one of his books; in fact, it seems to be the central thread that runs through almost everything he ever wrote.

But this novel lacks the humor Himes brings to most of the rest of his hard-boiled Harlem novels, a bleak drollery that lampoons whites for their mindless racism at the same time as it spoofs blacks who conform to the stereotypes whites have assigned. 

In Plan B, Himes is serious -- deadly serious -- about the inability of American blacks and whites to coexist. And in the final analysis Himes seems to conclude that the racial animosity that gives the novel its shape is actually insoluble --  even through the prophylaxis of violence.

"Tomsson Black would have liked to have had the time to organize the black race into effective guerrilla units, and the units into an effective force, in order to add weight to his ultimatum," Himes writes in the final chapter. 

"He would also have liked to have granted white people the time for reflection and consideration before they made their choice. Somehow it had gotten out of his control.  Now all he could do was complete the distribution of the guns and let maniacal, unorganized and uncontrolled blacks massacre enough whites to make a dent in the white man's hypocrisy, before the entire black race was massacred in retaliation."

But this passage seems as if Himes has suddenly realized that his plot has run off its tracks, and he tries to make up for  inadequate story-telling by simply summarizing information that should have been explicated more thoroughly and skillfully as his narrative progressed, not thrown in at the very end.

But the worst is yet to come: Himes aware that he has painted himself into a corner with his fantasy of racial warfare, now cops out completely in a manner that is utterly incomprehensible to anyone who has read any of the other novels about Digger and Coffin Ed.  

He has Digger, the most reasonable member of the team, come to Black's defense, while Ed, the man with the hair- trigger temper and the slippery hold on his emotions, inexplicably sides with the white racist status quo.

Given time enough, Himes might have worked out some mechanism that rationalizes this complete personality reversal, but not a word of explanation is offered.

Even more inexplicable is what happens next (spoiler alert!): Digger ends up shooting Coffin Ed, his long-time partner and closest friend, just before he is murdered himself by Black. 

The novel ends with Black's unnamed companion, "a beautiful black woman," asking him why he shot Grave Digger since the detective was on his side.

Black lamely explains that Digger had to be eliminated "because he knew too much."

"I hope you know what you're doing," the woman tells him in the last line of the novel. It is a flat ending to a flat tale that is full of violence and mayhem, but to no particular purpose.

Unfortunately, Himes doesn't appear to have known what he was doing when he was writing Plan B.  And the editors who pieced together the bits and pieces he left behind when he died seem to have been clueless as well. How else to explain such a radical transformation of Himes's two best-known characters and the holes that riddle the novel's plot like a sieve?

Plan B is a sadly unsatisfactory way to end the Harlem Cycle. Better that Himes hadn't bothered to start a final book at all than to have left this travesty that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of those who love his other work.



No nooses.

Nicky's Deal

An Excerpt from Bottom Street, a novel in progress

By Bill Wallace


Nicky Dolman might have been stupider than a bedful of cracker crumbs but his lack of mental horsepower didn’t keep him from being ambitious. He wanted to call his own shots so when he cooked up the tool trailer job he pulled in Ray Campos and LaVonne Walker but didn’t say a word to Eli or Bosco, the actual leaders of the Bottom Street crew.


“It can’t miss,” Nick said as he bought Ray and LaVonne drinks at the Blue Door. “We just pull the bobtail up to this trailer, hook her up and wheel her out. Piece of fucking cake.”


“How do we get in where this trailer at?” LaVonne asked. He thought the basic plan had promise, but he was automatically skeptical of anything Dolman said. Nick Dolman couldn’t find his way out of a phone booth with a roadmap and a compass so if he was pitching a moneymaking scheme, LaVonne figured it was a good time to keep his hand on his billfold.


“LaVonne’s got a point, Nick,” Campos said. “You said this trailer full of power tools is behind a cyclone fence that’s chained and padlocked. How do we get inside?”


Nick sighed. He hated to let LaVonne and Ray in, but they were the only guys lower on the Bottom Street food chain than him. Even Bagwell, the college kid that scammed office equipment by pretending to be a repairman, got more props than Nick, Ray or LaVonne—and Bags wasn’t even part of the crew.


“Look guys,” he said patiently. “It’s a trailer full of construction tools: power saws, drills, what they use to build stuff. It’s inside a fence where they’ve been putting up all those new condos this side of Concord. The fence just has a chain locked on the gate. I got a bolt cutter that’ll get through it in a New York minute. We go in, hook the trailer up to the truck, then rock and roll.”


He spread his hands, palms up, to show how easy it would be. “That’s all there is to it,” he said confidently.


LaVonne was still skeptical. “Man, I don’t know,” he said. “What you think these tools are worth?”


Nick was ready for that one. He pulled out a newspaper ad for a discount tool outlet in Newark, south of Oakland, and stood up to point out various items to Ray and LaVonne.


“This is a cut-rate outfit that sells a lot of cheap gear,” he said. “But even they are charging like $50 for a good power drill, $65 for this saw here, and look at this compressor—they’re asking nearly two grand for it!”


“What the fuck’s a compressor?” LaVonne asked, furrowing his brow. “How you use something like that on a construction job?”


“How the hell would I know?” Nick asked angrily. “Do I look like a construction expert?”


“Hey, guys, let’s be nice,” Campos said soothingly. “What’s this thing here?” he added, pointing at one of the devices on the cluttered advertisement.


Nick sat back down with a grin. “One of them boxes you can roll around with drawers for putting tools in,” he said. “They want 250 bucks for the son-of-a-bitch. Man, I’m telling you guys, this is gonna be like taking off a bank, only without guards or dye-pack. We can probably sell all this shit to that Chinaman in Oakland, the guy who loaned Eli and Bosco all the stuff for that big office scam they ran.”


“Mr. Chan?” Campos said. “I’m not sure he fences this blue collar junk. I don’t remember anything but office stuff in that big warehouse of his.”


Nick shrugged to show indifference. “If he don’t want it, he can probably tell us where to unload it,” he said.


“It best be someplace where they don’t care how old stuff is,” LaVonne said sarcastically. “I hear Chan pay top dollar for the shit he buy but he want it like fresh off the showroom floor. This stuff you talking about going to be hella rasty and beat up, man: tools people been using on they jobs, with all kinda dings and scratches and dirt. Even if we can unload power tools onto Chan, he ain’t going to want no funky old bullshit that’s past its prime.”


Dumb fucking nigger, Nick thought. You think you’re so smart with all your questions and bullshit. He didn’t say it, though. He really needed a crew for this job, not just for practical reasons but because he wouldn’t be a real shot-caller unless there was somebody there to follow his orders. He couldn’t afford to alienate the only two crooks he had done any business with since he got out of the federal slammer. So instead of telling LaVonne to fuck himself, which would blow the whole deal, he decided to play it cagy.


“Hey, if you don’t like the job, that’s fine with me,” he said, raising his hands, palms out. “I’m sure I can line up some other guys who are interested in easy money.” He drained his beer and stood up to leave.


“Hey, now—wait a minute,” Ray said, giving Nick the stop sign. “Don’t be so hasty.” Turning to LaVonne he added: “Come on, man, we could use some dough. I already blew what we got from Eli and Bosco for breaking down that office after the start-up scam. I got rent due and I can’t sweet-talk my landlady again. I gotta score some cash pretty soon or she’ll throw my ass out on the street.”


LaVonne rolled his eyes in exasperation but Nick knew he would cave; Walker didn’t like Dolman but he was sitting here drinking his beer and tolerating his company. Nick could think of only one plausible reason: he was just as broke as Campos.


“Aight,” LaVonne said finally. “I’m in, but this seem like a fucked-up deal to me.” He nodded at Dolman. “I don’t think Professor Moriarty here thought this job through too well and I bet something going to come back and bite us in the ass down the road. But I’ll play—until the shit hit the fan. Then I’m out of here so fucking fast it make your head spin.”


Nick grinned triumphantly.


“So, when we going to bag this trailer?” Campos asked, taking a sip of beer.


Nick’s face clouded. “Uh, any time now,” he said.


“How about tomorrow?” LaVonne asked.


Nick shook his head. “No, we can’t do it tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll have to pick a time and then get back to you both and let you know what it is.”


“Hey, a few minutes ago you were about to look for some other partners because we were taking too long making up our minds,” Ray said with a sharp edge to his voice. “You were the one in a big hurry. Why can’t you pick a time right now?”


“Well,” Nick said, blushing, “I have a little problem that is keeping us from doing it right away.”


“What’s that?”


Nick swallowed hard. “The truck,” he said. “I haven’t found the bobtail we need to pull the trailer.”


#

Bosco ran into Ray and LaVonne in the Blue Door, drinking on a tab. He could tell they had both already managed to go through the money they had picked up in the Mandragola Ventures scam. It was the same every time a Bottom Street guy scored: he just didn’t seem to be able to get rid of the cash fast enough.


Bosco ordered a straight rye from Ronnie Pervez, the Door’s owner. Sipping it, he joined Campos and Walker at their table.


“You’ll never guess what I just saw,” he said as he sat down, grinning and shaking his head with an expression of amused exasperation.


“A UFO full of them little green guys?” LaVonne said. “Shit, I dunno. What?”


Bosco hooked a thumb toward the door. “On the other side of the street, there’s this Mexican-looking guy, maybe middle-eastern but I’m guessing Hispanic,” he said.


“Maybe he just has a good tan,” Campos said with a tight smile. His father and uncle were rapoñeros—pickpockets from Colombia who had come to the U.S. to ply their trade on the gringos at LAX. Both eventually were deported, but not before Ray's father had met and married a Mexican woman and sired little Ray. The woman, who was also an illegal, was deported 18 years later, but by then Raimundo Elizondo Campos—his U.S. citizenship a happy accident of birth—had already acquired a lengthy juvenile rap sheet and was doing a stint in the California Youth Authority.


Because of his background, Ray was a little sensitive to perceived slights against Latinos.


“Could be,” Bosco said, mulling it over. “He also could have been a Jewish brain surgeon moonlighting by doing yard work. The fact is, where he came from isn’t really part of this story. You want to hear it?”


Ray lifted his beer bottle in a gesture for Bosco to continue.


“Anyway, he’s got this leaf blower and it’s all cranked up, you see?” Bosco said. “He’s blowing all the leaves from the far side of the street over to this side.”


Campos shrugged. “Probably hired by Connaughey over at the funeral home,” he said. “That guy’s a fucking neat freak.”


Bosco held up his hand to indicate he wasn’t done. “Over on this side of the street there’s another Mexican-looking guy with a leaf blower,” he said. “And he’s blowing all the leaves from his side over to the other side.”


LaVonne looked puzzled. “These motherfuckers blowing leaves onto each other or what?” he asked, struggling to visualize the scene.


Bosco shook his head. “No,” he said. “One is up at the far corner, by Jones, and one is down near Leavenworth, at the other end. But they’re working their way toward each other. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen when they do meet up in the middle.”


Ray chuckled. “I’m glad you told me that story and not that sick fuck Dolman,” he said. “He’d spend the rest of the day yammering about dumb Mexicans.”


LaVonne laughed. “Not while you around, Ray,” he said. “He never talk shit about a group of people while any of them nearby.”


Campos looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”


“What he means is you’re a Latino, so Nick won’t run Mexicans down as long as you can hear him,” Bosco said. “Nick never pisses on a particular type of person so long as a member of that specific group is nearby. You remember when he was going on and on about the hot air blower the other night?”


Ray nodded.


“It was rag-head this and sand-monkey that,” Bosco said. “But whenever Ronnie over there walked by, he stopped running his mouth.”


"What's your point?" Ray asked.


Bosco shrugged. "Ronnie is Persian," he said. "Nick isn't going to talk shit about Iranians someplace where one might hear him—particularly not one who can refuse to let the cheap bastard run a tab."


Ray considered this. “I guess I never noticed that before,” he said slowly as he mulled it over. “Now that you mention it, he’s always ranting about niggers when we’re alone together, but not when LaVonne or Eli or Bags is around. And I can’t remember him ever saying anything bad about Latinos when I was with him.”


LaVonne laughed again, clearly enjoying Ray’s reaction to this revelation. “Yeah, but you leave to take a shit, man, and he’s all over spics and wetbacks and motherfucking chili chokers,” he said. “I know. I been there when it happen.”


“Why’s he do that?” Ray asked with a puzzled look on his face.


“Dolman is a person of color himself,” LaVonne said with a smile. “His color’s yellow. He got a big-ass stripe of it from the back of his head to the crack of his ass.”


Bosco shook his head. “I don’t think he does it ‘cause he’s chickenshit,” he said. “I think he does it because he’s shrewd. He doesn’t want to piss anybody off that he might be able to get something from. If he’s nice to you, buys you a drink or something? That’s ‘cause he wants something from you.”


Ray and LaVonne looked at each other. LaVonne grinned broadly as a light bulb finally went off in Ray’s head.


“That must have been the reason he bought us all those drinks the other day,” Ray said. “He wanted us to work with him on that tool trailer deal.”


Bosco frowned. “What tool trailer deal?” he asked.


“We wasn’t supposed to say nothing to you or Eli about it,” LaVonne said. “Nick found this construction job where they got a trailer full of construction shit he gonna light finger. He cut Ray ‘n’ me in on his scam. I think he was gettin’ off on having his own crew for a job.”


“What do you mean construction shit? You mean like tractors and all that bop?” Bosco asked.


“Naw,” Ray said. “This is all small stuff. Drills, and electric saws and things that you can store inside a trailer on a construction site.”


Bosco considered this. “What exactly does Nick have in mind?”


“He’s going to try and find one of those front ends from a trailer-tractor rig,” Campos said. “He wants to cut the chain on the gate, drive the truck inside, hook up to the trailer and haul it away. He’ll stash the trailer someplace safe, go through all the shit inside and fence the goods.”


The scheme would only sound like it had possibilities to a knucklehead like Dolman, Bosco thought. Where in hell could you temporarily stash a trailer full of construction tools without having somebody report it? Where would you get rid of the damned trailer after you cleaned out anything valuable inside? And who would buy that kind of stuff? There were all kinds of hot goods dealers in San Francisco but Bosco didn’t know any that specialized in small pieces of construction equipment. You’d probably have to cart the swag all over town, going from one pawn shop to another to unload it.


Nick’s scheme has more holes in it than a cheese grater, Bosco thought.


“So are you guys in on this deal?” Bosco asked.


LaVonne sighed. “Man, we know Nick is a moron, but we both need work,” he said. “You and Eli don’t have anything for us and we got to do something. Only I got a bad feeling about this deal. It smells like it going to blow up in our face.”


“Yeah,” Ray said. “Nick could fuck up a wet dream. If he’s setting this up, there’s bound to be a hole in it big enough to stash this trailer he wants to steal. What do you think, Bosco? Should we tell Nick to pack sand or what?”


Bosco shrugged. “You’re both big boys now, you have to figure this one out for yourself,” he said. “It will probably be a couple of months before Eli and I run another number, so you’re right about us not having any work for you right now. I could loan you both some cash, but I have to hoard part of the take from Mandragola as start-up for our next scam, so it probably wouldn’t be that much.”


He smiled. “Besides, the way you two assholes spend money, it wouldn’t go very far anyway.”


“I think I’m going to go with Nick on this deal then,” said LaVonne. "I hate to do it, but money talks and bullshit walks. And I ain’t walkin’ bro."


“Yeah, me too,” said Ray. “If it ends up being FUBAR, that’s the breaks. I can’t go back to working the dip at Pier 39 and Hallidie Plaza. The cops all know me too well there and the merchants, too. First pocket I pick, I’m violated and going back to Corcoran. I still got parole conditions from that 211 that earned me a six-year stretch there.”


“Well, fuck,” Bosco said, lifting his glass in a weak salute. “I guess that’s it then. I hope it goes well for you guys and that you make a big score. I hope it all works out for the best.”


#

The more Bosco thought about it, the more it ticked him off. Nick was one of Eli’s hires and Bosco considered him a charity case. He was too dumb to use in a big con, even for a walk-on part. The only thing he was really worth a damn for was loading the truck when the game was over and they were breaking the scam down, like at Mandragola. And Bosco wasn’t even sure Nick was any good at cleaning up the site. Now he wondered if the dumb bastard had left a bunch of fingerprints on something or spread his own DNA all over the scene.


“What an asshole,” he muttered angrily as he nursed his Jim Beam Rye.


The best that could come of Nick’s scheme was a bunch of second-hand boodle that nobody would take off the stupid bastard’s hands. There probably wasn’t going to be much profit, even if he had good luck moving the swag, but that was a relatively minor downside. The real problem was that the scheme could end up getting Nick and his partners arrested: they had to find some way to ditch the trailer they stole; the vehicle they used to haul it away could be traced. The cops would eventually track them down and each guy from the crew who got grabbed was a potential rat. That meant Bosco and Eli got exposure from Nick’s caper, even though neither had anything to do with it.


“Stupid fucking asshole,” he said, angrier than before.


This was all Eli’s fault. All the dumb fucks they worked with had been recruited by Eli: Dolman, Campos, Walker and that dipshit Carnahan who got grabbed by the cops sticking up an Arab liquor store and was doing 25-to-life on his third strike. None of them were worth the powder to blow them to hell.


The brainy people—like Bagwell if he’d ever take the bait and join the crew, and Carole Peterson, the chick that had done such a beautiful job in the psychic number they had run two years back, were Bosco’s hires. He sighed. Too bad Carole got married and moved out to Walnut Creek. She'd been smart and really quick on her feet. She probably had two kids, a Volvo station wagon and 80 pounds of extra flab by now. Even so, she could still out hustle Dolman, who had the IQ of a jar of oysters.


Bosco had once raised the issue with Eli but got no satisfaction.


"Dolman is an idiot," he'd said. "Why do you keep that dipshit in the crew?"


Eli just gave him that smirk that irritated people and used his forefinger to pet his little soul patch. "I know he's not the sharpest knife in the kitchen, but the guy is funny," he said.


"I got an aunt that's funny like Nicky Dolman," Bosco replied with disgust. "She's up in the Q ward at Napa because she jammed a pair of scissors through my uncle's left eye. Someday Nick is going to fuck us all, wait and see."


Bosco drained his glass and ordered a second. It looked like that someday was now. He was going to have to have a heart-to-heart with Nicky Dolman, and really soon.


#

Soon ended up being a little after 3 p.m. the next day. Nick hadn’t been around Bottom Street since LaVonne and Ray bought into his trailer heist so Bosco went looking for him. With a word here and there, he learned Dolman had been hanging out at Lucy’s, a dive a couple of blocks from the Hall of Justice. That made sense, Bosco reasoned: the son-of-a-bitch spent so much time in the county lock-up he probably hated to wander far from his home away from home.


Nick was just starting his second beer and looking at the funnies in the afternoon paper when Bosco walked through the door, crossed the room and spun a chair around to sit down across from him with his arms on its back.


“Nick,” he said quietly. “You’d be amazed at the shit you hear sometimes. Somebody told me you were going solo on us.”


Dolman almost choked on his beer. “Who the fuck told you that bullshit,” he sputtered, wondering how Bosco knew where he was and how he had found out about the trailer deal.


“A little bird,” Bosco said with a humorless smile. “Is it true? You running your own game now?”


Dolman’s flushed with embarrassment. “No!” he said. “I just had a little job I stumbled onto that I wanted to do by myself, that’s all.”


“You planning to go solo regular, man?” Bosco demanded.


“No, honest,” Dolman said, shaking his head frantically.


“Because if that’s what you want, I can understand,” Bosco said, ignoring his response. “Sometimes a guy wants to spread his wings a little, be his own boss, you know?”


“No,” Nicky blurted before realizing he was giving the wrong answer. “I mean, yeah, I understand what you’re saying, Bosco,” he added, correcting himself.


Bosco stared at him. “A little free-lance piece, huh? I hear you got Ray and LaVonne in it with you, so you aren’t exactly doing it by ‘yourself,’ are you?” he added, using his fingers to make imaginary quotation marks in the air around the word “yourself.”


Nicky had the look of an animal in a spotlight. “Well, yeah,” he said, licking his lips. “They were between jobs. I didn’t figure you or Eli would care or I would have mentioned it to you.”


“Why would we be interested, Nick?” Bosco said. “I mean, you guys are all adults, right? You’re big enough to make decisions for yourself. You don’t need me and Eli hanging over you and telling you what to do, do you?”


“No,” Nick said, then didn’t like the way it sounded. “I mean, yeah, we’re grown-ups. But it isn’t like I was cutting you loose or anything.”


“I mean it’s really none of our business, is it Nick?” Bosco added.


“No. I mean yes,” Dolman said weakly. He was now completely confused about what question he was actually answering—or whether Bosco had asked a question he was supposed to answer in the first place. Sweat was beading on his forehead and he could feel it well up in his armpits and trickle down his sides.


He had never been afraid of Bosco or Eli before; they were just con men, not hard guys like that mob hit man he had met at the federal joint in Dublin. But there was something in Bosco’s manner today that reminded him of the hit man. Nicky was beginning to wish he had never thought about that tool trailer job.


“But it would be our business if you fucked it up so much that one or more of you assholes got busted, wouldn’t it?” Bosco said, lowering his voice so Dolman had to lean forward to hear what he was saying. “It would definitely be our business, because if any of you guys go inside, you become a threat to Eli and me.”


Nick said nothing. He was trembling so much that he looked like one of those dolls with the big heads they give away at the ballpark.


Bosco leaned forward himself and poked Dolman in the chest with his forefinger. “You go ahead and do this solo number, Nick,” he said, lowering his voice even more. “But if you guys fuck up, you better watch your back, because Eli and I aren’t going to end up in your shit, dig? Not now. Not ever.”


Without another word, Bosco stood, turned and walked out of the bar. Nick sat there for several minutes, still shaking. When he finally got up, he went directly to the bathroom, leaving a little puddle on the seat of his chair.


(Continued in Nicky's Deal II)