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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. . .

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fully Loaded

By William E. Wallace 

(Excerpt of a work in progress)

            Sullivan was too cheap to spring for first class or even pay $10 extra for early check-in. Instead, Marcus Briggs always ended up cramming his six-seven, 265-pound body into a seat designed for someone five-ten and a hundred pounds lighter.
        Marcus had complained about it to Sully numerous times. In fact, he had mentioned it again that morning before he left for his L.A. run.

            “Man, why do you always do me like this?” he’d said. “I can see you putting Sam or Slow Joe in the cheap seats because they’re both just little guys, but doing it to a former NFL nose tackle borders on criminal.”

            Sullivan used his teeth to move the stub of his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. “You should have stayed in the fucking NFL then, Marcus. In this outfit, nobody gets treated any different from anybody else. Since Mickey, Slow Joe and Sam all fly coach, so do you.”

            Briggs groaned.

            “Besides,” Sullivan added, removing his cigar from his mouth long enough to point it at Briggs for emphasis. “Mickey should be the one complaining. That nigga weigh 350 if he’s a pound. The only way he can catch a break is if they’s nobody in the seat next to him and he can put up the arm rests.”

            Briggs was about to point out that Mickey almost never flew anywhere because Sullivan had him work the long-term parking at Oakland and SFO. Mickey could ride BART to those airports and catch the shuttle to the lots in the passenger drop-off zone in front of the terminals.  But he didn’t get a chance to make that point because Sullivan put his cigar back in his mouth, signaling that, so far as he was concerned, the conversation was officially over.

            So, nearly three hours later, Briggs carefully extracted himself from the window seat on Flight 1952—stooping over to avoid bashing his head on the overhead luggage compartment—and edged himself out into the flow of passengers working their way off the 737 and into the chaos of Los Angeles International Airport.
            It seemed he was halfway to baggage claim before the cramps in his legs from the miserable hour and a half flight from Oakland completely faded. His little rollaway was already waiting for him and he scooped it up to head for the shuttle buses to long-term parking. Now came the part of his job that Briggs actually enjoyed: picking up his ride back to Oakland.

            He never bothered checking the indoor garages or Park One, the lot just north of the 96th Street Bridge. Those lots, much closer to the terminals, were for short term parkers and cost from two to three times as much as the long term lot, Lot C, just northeast of LAX on Sepulveda. 
            In Briggs’s experience, the kind of guy who drove around in an expensive luxury rig would take it to the airport rather than doing the sensible thing and using a shuttle service. And those high-rollers might spend sixty or seventy grand on a set of wheels, but they were almost always too cheap to pay as much as $30 a day to park it.

            So he jumped on the shuttle to Lot C and grabbed a seat at the right rear. Within ten minutes, he had spotted his vehicle: a shiny 2011 Cadillac CTS-V coupe. He got off at the next shuttle stop, gathered his rollaway and dismounted from the coach’s rear about fifty feet from the car.
            The sedan was loaded: it had the wood trim package, sunroof, performance seats, and 19X9 wheels polished to a satiny gleam. The steering wheel even had the suede finish, a detail Briggs found sort of corny but one that jacked up the car’s resale value by at least a couple hundred bucks. Peering inside, he was pleased to see the lot entry tag tucked under the sun visor, right where he expected it to be.

            He allowed himself a grin. Those Recaro seats would crank back to give him plenty of leg room for the 400-plus mile drive back to the Bay Area.

            “Sweet!” he murmured as he unzipped the top of the rollaway and fished through the rings of dealers’ keys stashed inside. The Caddy keys were close to the top, right under the rings for Mercedes, BMWs, and Jaguars, all the big-selling luxury wheels that Sullivan wanted his crewmembers to make their top priority.
            It took two tries to find one on the ring that would open the CTS. Briggs temporarily stowed his rollaway in the back seat; he could always open the trunk later, once he was on the road. He slid behind the wheel, adjusted the seats and mirrors and put the right key into the ignition on the first try: the 556 horse supercharged V-8 came to life with a roar. He shifted it into drive and moved more than two tons of primo Detroit iron toward the cashiers’ booths.

            “How was your trip?” the cashier asked in a friendly way when Briggs handed him the parking tag he’d pulled from the sun visor.
            Briggs laughed bitterly. “It was the shits,” he said. “I’m too big for economy seating and my boss is too cheap to pay for first class.”

            The cashier grinned. “I heard that, man,” he said. “I came back from Desert Storm in the belly of a C-130 when I mustered out of the Army. I spent more than 20 hours with my feet propped up against a blown jet engine they were taking back to the States to rebuild. It took me a month to get the kinks out of my legs. You want a receipt?”

            “Yeah, thanks,” Briggs said. “My boss won’t reimburse anything without paperwork, the cheap bastard.”
            “Say, you look kind of familiar to me,” the cashier said as he handed him the receipt and change from two twenties. “Didn’t you used to play football or something?”
          Briggs smiled. It seemed that most white people he met guessed he was a former athlete because he was big, fit-looking and expensively dressed. They could only imagine a black man making serious money through sports, music or selling dope.
              Musicians generally weren't his size and gang-bangers tended to dress like they were planning to stick up a Seven-Eleven, not go to a Fortune 500 board meeting. That left sports.

           In fact, Briggs had been a pro athlete. But his NFL career had been so short, there was no way this parking lot attendant would have seen him play unless he went to USC home games. 
         “No way, man,” he said anyway, just to cover his tracks. “Sports are too damned rough. A person could get hurt playing football.”

            Within twenty minutes he was on the 405 heading north to the Santa Monica Freeway. The tank on the Caddy was nearly full so he didn’t even have to stop for a fill-up. The crystal red paint job was a little flashy and would make the car easy to spot, but the drive to Oakland on I-5 would take only about seven hours if he set cruise control for a casual 65 hours per hour.
            Judging by the stamp on the ticket he’d turned in to bail the car out of the lot, if the Caddy’s legitimate owner was going to be out of town for as little as three days, it would be another twelve hours before he even knew that his Caddy had been whacked. By that time, Sullivan would have the rig boxed up and on its way to a customer in China, probably some big Party honcho or one of the new Chinese “entrepreneurs” who were getting filthy rich by using slave labor to knock off legitimate American products for cheap bastards in the U.S. to buy at Wal-Mart.

            The coupe would probably go for better than a hundred grand, Sullivan’s own personal attempt to counter the U.S. foreign trade imbalance. Sully’s costs were negligible: he had put out about $150 bucks for Briggs’s airline ticket and would give Briggs $2,500 for driving the car back to Oakland. The caddy had been sitting in the long-term lot for two days so the parking tab only added another $24 to the cost of stealing the car.  Even if Briggs bought a hundred dollars worth of gas during his return trip, Sullivan’s costs would be less than $3,000. Sully would realize a 97 percent profit off the Cadillac.
            Briggs smiled. He fucking loved capitalism.

            The best thing about working for Sullivan was its safety and dependability. Briggs hadn’t been hassled by the cops once in the six years he had been stealing high-end wheels. He didn’t have to know anything about the cars except their approximate value: Sully provided the keys and a list of the kinds he wanted stolen. All a member of his crew had to do was walk up to the vehicle like he actually owned it, get in and drive it away.
            Briggs knew that from the time he walked off the plane that morning until he left long-term parking, he had been videotaped by security cameras no less than a dozen times; that was such a given that he didn’t even bother to think about it. Those photos would all be long shots anyway, so as long as nobody got a really good look at him, all they would be able to tell the cops was that the car thief had been a tall, well-built black man in a business suit and tie. That description and a couple of bucks would treat the cop to coffee and a donut but it wouldn’t give him enough evidence to make an arrest.

            Even if he got pinched, Sullivan fronted all the expenses and took care of any legal problems that might crop up. But Briggs didn’t remember ever hearing about any of Sully’s crewmembers being popped for stealing cars.
            And today’s grab had been the cakewalk he had predicted it would be.  No muss, no fuss, no bother. He had collected a $100,000 set of wheels within 90 minutes of landing at LAX and drove it away without so much as a second look from anybody.

            Beats being an NFL lineman all to hell, he thought with a grin. At least in this racket, nobody is trying to kill me.
            Later in the day he would remember having that thought with more than a trace of irony.

             Evgeni Klyuchenko was not having as good a day as Briggs.  First of all, his partner, Sergei Ivanov, had been ten minutes late to their rendezvous, a Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard not far from La Brea. Then the barrista at the shop had given Evgeni a regular latte with whole milk and the full dose of caffeine, even though he had clearly ordered a double decaf low-fat; by the time he realized the order was wrong, they were too far behind schedule to get it replaced. Finally, they had run into a traffic jam on the 405 where it meets the Santa Monica Freeway, and the delay had made them another ten minutes late getting to LAX.
            The last straw came when they pulled into Parking Lot C and couldn’t find the red Cadillac that was supposed to be waiting there for them.  Klyuchenko had Ivanov make two complete circuits of the lot while he looked but the car simply wasn’t there.

           That, unfortunately for Klyuchenko and Ivanov, meant that the two matching suitcases in the Caddy’s trunk weren’t there, either.  Each suitcase contained more than 40 pounds of high-quality Cali cocaine worth a half-million dollars at the current U.S. market rate. Klyuchenko’s boss might be willing to write off the loss of a missing $80,000 Cadillac: the damned thing had been stolen off a fleet delivery truck in Dearborn, Michigan, in the first place; but Igor Polkovnikov, the man the FBI’s organized crime division called “The Colonel,” would never willingly walk away from more than a million dollars worth of drugs.

            “Fuck my mother, military style,” Klyuchenko muttered angrily.  He hadn’t slept well last night to begin with and all the morning’s irritations had combined to give him a nagging low-grade headache. Now, faced with the missing Caddy and dope, it threatened to become a full-scale migraine.
            “Nu, Evgeni,” Ivanov said. “So what do we do now?”

            “We find the fucking car,” Klyuchenko spat out.  He opened the briefcase on the floor between his calves, pulled out the GPS locater and switched it on. “We were stupid enough to let Morales and his fucking Colombians talk us into leaving the Cadillac in an airport parking lot for pick up, but we weren’t stupid enough not to have them put a tracking device in it.”
            He stared at the little screen, picking up the path of a bright dot heading north a mile or two from where they were stopped. “Ah,” he said. “There the motherfucker is.  It looks like he is heading for the Ventura Freeway.  We’ll catch up to him and follow him until he pulls over somewhere.”

            Ivanov handed the lot attendant a bill and turned out onto Sepulveda, heading for the nearest on-ramp.
            “What then?” he asked as he maneuvered the car through traffic and hit the freeway, dropping the hammer until their Lincoln Town Car was cruising at a couple of miles per hour over 65.

            Evgeni smiled for the first time that day.  “We recover the car and the dope,” he said, raising his shoulders in a shrug of indifference. “And then we kill whoever it was that took them.”
(End excerpt)

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