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. . .

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"I Wait to Die!" An Excerpt from a Work in Progress




(Excerpted from a Work In Progress)

By William E. Wallace


The Redi-Money robbery was supposed to be the job of a lifetime: no alarms to disconnect, no vault to open; just a plain old-fashioned stick-up, a little bit like knocking over a 7-11.

A 7-11 with nearly five million dollars in the till, that is.

Unfortunately, things don't always turn out the way they're supposed to and that’s how it was with Redi-Money. Only one thing about the robbery ended up being as it was advertised: it was the job of a lifetime; mine and that of everybody else in the crew.

That’s why I’m sitting here with the shades closed in a motel room on MacArthur Boulevard, drinking rye whisky and watching the minutes crawl by. 

 I’m waiting to die.

§


Harvey Kettler had first brought up Redi-Money three days earlier when he picked me up at the Amtrak Depot on Oakland’s Embarcadero. I’d been on ice for awhile at the time; a big deal in Los Angeles six months earlier had gone sour, leaving me flat and my five-year-old photo in prison dungarees on all the local television stations. I had to go someplace where I could hang out until things cooled down. Harvey fronted me enough to get to Denver, so I owed him. 
I got back on my feet during my stay in the Mile-High City. Then Harvey sent me word that he had something shaking in Oakland that could set both of us up for a good long time.
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I caught the next train home.

I called him from the pay phone in the station and he picked me up out front, tossing my suitcase in the trunk of his old Chevy. 

“You still got a piece?” he asked casually as we caught the Nimitz, letting me know right away this wasn’t going to be a job for a guy who laid awake at night worrying he might have to hurt somebody.

I nodded. “Two of ‘em. That’s why I was on the train, Harve. They don’t like you to carry weapons onto planes these days,” I added sarcastically. “You might have read something about it in the papers?”

“Good,” he said, ignoring my crack. “I got a deal lined up that will put you on easy street, but we have to take the money away from some people who aren’t going to want to part with it. You in?”

I looked out the window. The stuff I’d been doing in Denver was strictly nickel-dime I hadn’t seen any serious cash for some time. Still, I didn’t want to seem desperate.

“What’s the target?” I asked. 

He smiled because he knew right then I would go for it. A guy who doesn’t want to participate in a crime just says so up front. When a guy starts asking questions about what’s involved, it’s obvious he’s already at least part way on board.

“It’s a check-cashing joint,” he said. “But the real money is in loaning people cash until they get paid. The suckers who use the place pay a big fee for the privilege.”

I turned it over in my head. Maybe I was still groggy from my train trip, but I seemed to be missing something.

 “This is your big deal that puts us on easy street?” I asked. “Seems like chicken shit to me. I’ve seen these places before: they have ‘em in every skid row in America. The people who use them are no-hopers, like your old man before he died of liver cancer – lousy jobs or no job at all; people on welfare, waiting for their next check from the county. How you plan to make a decent score by hitting a place that caters to down-and-outers?”

I was skeptical but also interested. Harvey didn’t blow smoke; if he thought there was money to be made, he usually was working some angle that made it at least possible. He gave me that wiseass face he makes when he knows something I don’t and turned back to the road.

“How much money do you figure these five-and-dime outfits have in the cage at any given time?” he asked.

I shrugged. “A few grand maybe,” I said without giving it much thought. “Maybe twenty-thirty K, tops.”

He was grinning openly now, watching traffic as he got off the Elaine Brown near downtown.

“What would you say if I told you that when we hit this particular outfit, it will have more than four and a half million dollars on hand, all cash, used bills, mixed denominations?” he asked.

It was my turn to grin. This had to be a joke. If it was, it showed Harvey had grown a sense of humor while I was out of state.

“I’d say you were full of shit,” I said.

He glanced at me again. “But if it was true, if there was actually was that much there, ready to grab, what would you say then?”

I laughed. “I’d say, ‘what’s my cut gonna be?’”

Harve gave me a wink. “Let’s get a beer,” he said.

§

Over a couple bottles of Budweiser, Harvey laid out the situation:

Redi-Money operated ten stores in the East Bay, each located in the kind of neighborhood that municipal officials like to describe as “troubled,” meaning they run hot and cold with shit-birds the way some places do with cockroaches.

Every Sunday night, he said, the cash from nine of those operations is delivered to the main branch in Oakland, a cinder-block bunker on East Fourteenth Street, the six-mile stretch of pavement that do-gooders downtown renamed “International Boulevard” to build community pride among the junkies, hookers, crack-heads and hustlers who infect it like flesh-eating bacteria.

In the bunker, the weekly take from all ten branches is run through a counting machine, bundled and prepped for an armored car to pick up at 8:30 Monday morning.

“We can go in at 8:20 a.m., ten minutes before the armored car gets there, and pick up the bundles,” Harvey said. “We throw ‘em in duffle bags, toss the bags into the back of a van and scoot.”

He raised his hands, palms up and empty, to demonstrate how easy it would be.

I mulled over what he’d told me, looking for holes.

“You say the main branch is concrete brick?”

“Yeah,” he said. “The front is on the street and the check-cashing operation is in the offices there.  The counting room is at the rear, with a loading dock where the armored car makes the pick-up.”

“The building is on an open lot, right?  And there’s a chain-link fence around it?”

He nodded. “There’s a single gate that opens on the side street,” he said. 

I visualized it and locked in the image.

“I assume this receiving area is well lit?”

“Not so much,” he said. “There’s a bank of lights over the dock and two lights on the fence.”

“What about closed circuit TV? Is anybody watching?”

“The CCTV is inside the offices. A guard monitors the camera from a security post at the rear, near the loading dock, only inside.”

“One camera?”

“Exactamundo.”

“Any hundreds?” I asked, using cop shorthand for alarms.

“Controlled from the same guard post. An audible that also rings up the cops.”

I thought about that. “So if you get the guard post, you’ve got the entire compound, then.”

Harvey grinned.  “Everything but the bar and hot tub. One-stop shopping.”

“How did you plan to take control?”

“Through the street entrance,” he said. “The check-cashing operation locks down around 1:45 p.m. each night.”

“Same as bars, right?” I said. “They probably don’t want the place jammed with drunken losers after closing time.”

“Right. The check-cashing crew goes home. There’s three people in the counting room plus the guard, and the only thing between the check cashing center and the counting room is a combination door.”

I frowned then for the first time. To get the money we’d have to go through the combo.

“How do we get in?”

“We’ll have the code numbers.”

I looked at him, my smile back and spreading across my face. No wonder he kept getting that smug grin. 

“You have somebody inside,” I said.  My tone made it a question but it wasn’t, really. Even with a sketchy security set-up like the one at Redi-Money, you could only knock the place over with the help of an employee. Otherwise, you would have to use so much physical force to get the cash that you’d wake up every cop sleeping off his graveyard shift in the alleys of East Oakland.

Harvey nodded. “Our contact not only knows the combination, but is giving us a key to the front so we can get in after the cashiers leave for the night. That way we don’t have to pick the front lock or crash it. That gives us more time and plenty of quiet.” 

“Is this guy a friend of mine?”

He hesitated before answering. The pause, all by itself, told me everything I needed to know. 

“It’s not a guy,” he said.  “And she isn’t somebody you know. But you will.”

§

I sighed. Up until then, the Redi-Money job had sounded pretty sweet. Throwing a stranger into the mix changed everything. I didn’t like working with people I hadn’t been properly introduced to. What’s more, I had never done a job with a chick in the crew.

“How does the woman come into this?”

“We’ve been living together for the last few months,” he said.  “I met her in a bar and we went out a couple of times drinking and fooling around.”

“Let me guess: she mentioned that she worked for Redi-Money and you started thinking about all that cash she was handling.”

He looked pained. “Come on, man,” he said. “Give me a little credit. I like this chick a lot. I wouldn’t cozy up to her just to get a shot at the place she works. After we shacked up, she found out I had done time and asked me what for. I told her I was a stick-up artist. She was the one who suggested taking down Redi-Money, not me. She’s the one who told me how much cash passed through that Oakland office, and what the layout of the plant was.”

I stared at him with my mouth hanging open. This was sounding messier and messier. Not only was one  member of the crew a woman, but she was also an amateur who had never done a robbery before. On top of that, even though she didn’t know her ass from a hole-in-the-ground, she seemed to be the one who was setting up the damned job.

“I dunno, Harve,” I said. “How do you know you can trust this chick?”

He looked sheepish. “Because I love her,” he said. “When the job is over, we’re going to get married and go live in Amsterdam: we’ll drink beer and Schnapps, stay high all the time and fuck like rabbits.”

That’s when I should have got up and grabbed a cab back to Amtrak. I’d always thought of Harvey as a level-headed guy; dependable, even, for a crook.  But he was violating all the important rules on this one: bringing a stranger in on a job, working with a woman, letting her call the shots and doing all of it in the name of love. He was going to end up taking a fall, and everybody in his crew would go down with him. 
That was what my cold-blooded analytical side was telling me. Unfortunately, it was speaking in a whisper. That $4.5 million, on the other hand, was the loudest son-of-a-bitch in the room, and the only thing I could hear was its voice calling my name.

“So how many people are we going to need for this job of a lifetime?” I asked.

“I figure you, me and one other guy with a gun. Plus a driver for the van.”

“So five altogether, counting your girlfriend, Bonnie Parker?”

“What?” he said, giving me a blank look.

 “Your woman inside,” I said. “Does she get a full share?”

He smiled. “She’s going to be sharing my cut with me.”

Yeah, right. She would be satisfied to share Harvey’s end.  He was farther gone than I thought. 

“That’s a little more than a mill a head,” I said. “That’s based on a total take of $4.5 million.”

“Janice says $4.5 million is just the average that goes into the armored car,” he said. “It could be more, maybe a little less.”

“I take it Janice is the little woman, your fiancée,” I said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I wasn’t very successful, but Harvey didn’t seem to notice.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a lot of money for what will probably be about an hour’s worth of work. The best thing is, since the money is already in circulation, we just divvy it up and spend it. We don’t have to fence the shit for pennies on the dollar.”

He was right. It was a lot of money; more than I had ever made on a job up to then.  In fact, it was so much money it made me nervous. I had to shove my hands in my pockets to keep them from shaking.

“I’m worried about the size of the take,” I told him.

“What’s to worry about?” he asked.

“There’s too much of it,” I said. “You got some penny­-ante check-cashing operation here that is rolling up something like forty-five grand a branch each week? That seems awful damned high to me. Where is all that money coming from? It sure as hell can’t be people paying back advances on their general assistance checks or unemployment insurance.”

Harvey spread his hands. “What difference does it make?” he said. “It’s money, man. Enough to retire on.  Enough to last a guy the rest of his life.”

I rubbed my temples. “I dunno,” I said. “It makes me nervous, is all.”

He grinned. “Drink up,” he said. “Let me take you home and introduce you to my bride-to-be.”

I did and he did.  And within five minutes of meeting Harvey’s fianceé, I knew the job wasn’t going to end in a four-way split because Janice was way too good for my best buddy.

Hell, she was way too good for me, but that wasn’t going to stop me from taking her away from him. 

###

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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