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, April 30, 2014

Hot News: Smashwords E-books Are Now Available Through Scribd

Smashwords is now affiliated with Scribd, the search engine/database that has been described as Netflix for books. 

For a flat monthly fee of $8.99, less than many trade paperbacks, subscribers have access to 40 million books and documents, including most of my Smashwords catalog.

Check it out:

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Taking it in the shorts, Part I

Edited by Todd Robinson
(Thuglit issues I, II, VII, IX)

[This is the first on a series of essays about the emergence of a new genre of pulp literature published primarily as e-Books]

I still remember the first two books I checked out of a library, back in the fifth grade as a student in Mr. Warner's class at Rifle Middle School in Rifle, Colorado: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (Eleanor Cameron, 1954) and Giants & Witches, and a Dragon or Two (Phyllis R. Fenner, 1943). 

I couldn't decide then which was better, but now, with the advantage of nearly sixty years of hindsight, it seems to me that Fenner's book of stories must have been superior: I can still remember her description of Baba Yaga's house walking around on hen's feet, the way the Russian witch flew in a mortar by beating it with a pestle, and the sound of her teeth gnashing (like pokers falling over on a heath).

I eventually moved on to better novels than the Mushroom Planet series and to better stories than those in Fenner's book, but I retained a love for a well-told short story for the rest of my life. Some of my favorite tales, particularly of the type that keep you awake at night with your hair standing on end, have been shorts: Algernon Blackwood's masterfully scary "The Willows," "The Automatic Pistol" by Fritz Leiber, "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce, "The Monkey's Paw" by H. H. Munro and "The Whispering Gallery" by William F. Temple.

Because of this, one of the things I most regretted about the death of the old pulp magazines was the seeming disappearance of genre short stories. Short fiction was once a mainstay of general circulation magazines, but today they have either gone belly-up or curtailed production drastically.

Colliers Weekly, for example, pioneered the short-short, the direct ancestor of today's flash fiction, and featured such popular writers as Willa Cather, Roald Dahl, Zane Grey and Ring Lardner; a competitor, The Saturday Evening Post, frequently offered short stories and novelettes by Ray Bradbury, Kay Boyle, C. S. Forester, Louis L'Amour and Rex Stout.

Only a handful of traditional mystery magazines are still being printed and most of the science fiction and fantasy monthlies have vanished into one of the alternative universes their writers used to delight  in creating. Until recently, I was under the impression that short fiction no longer appeared anywhere but in literary magazines like Utne Reader and San Francisco's own Zyzzyva.

But thanks to Left Coast Crime, the conference for writers and fans of detective fiction and other literature detailing human malfeasance, I have discovered that the short story is quite possibly doing better than it has at any time in the past. In large part, the renaissance is due to electronic publishing, which offers a quicker turnover time than the old "hot type" press and cheaper distribution than the fossil-fuel powered trucks and delivery vans used by traditional printing operations.

For someone like me who loves pulpy tales -- those strewn with violent men and duplicitous women, in which every cop is bent and every politician on the take -- a whole new field of pulp has sprung up. 

For the next few weeks we will explore some of these neo-pulp outlets and fill fans in on places where they can obtain short, gritty fiction similar to that that was ground out in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s for a penny a word by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.

Be aware: not all of the stuff that's being published reaches the old Black Mask level of excellence. But even the classic pulps often missed the target. In the titles we will be looking at, the level of artistry attained by the authors is generally quite high -- and the variety of subject matter, attitude and even historical period represented in the stories is broad enough to let the reader skip a yarn that isn't really a grabber and move on to something more to his or her liking.

Let us begin our examination by taking a quick look at Todd Robinson's immensely enjoyable Thuglit.

Todd Robinson, AKA "Big Daddy Thug," editor of Thuglit
Robinson began publishing his continuing journal -- which bills itself as "writing about wrongs" -- in the fall of 2012. To date, nine issues have appeared: Sept-Oct. 2012; Nov.-Dec. 2012; Jan.-Feb. 2013; Mar.-April 2013; May-June 2013; July-Aug. 2013; Sept.-Oct. 2013, Nov.-Dec. 2013 and Jan.-Feb. 2014. Each is available in a Kindle edition from Amazon for less than a buck. That's less than you would have spent for a double at Bertola's, the old family-style restaurant in Oakland's Temescal District.

To quote the sign that used to be on the side of the restaurant, "How can you miss?"

According to Robinson's prefatory notes accompanying Thuglit One, the magazine had previously been published for five years but had gone on a two-year hiatus from September 2010 until the new issue appeared in 2012. "Welcome," the editor said to new readers. "You're beginning a journey into the unwashed alley of crime fiction where the men are men, the women are women, the men are sometimes women, the women play with the big boys and everybody's intentions lean to the unsavory."

He isn't kidding. The first issue begins with a bark -- er, make that "bang."

"Lucy in the Pit," by Jordan Harper, a former advertising man and rock critic who lives in Los Angeles and scripts "The Mentalist," a cop show on CBS, has written a surprisingly sympathetic first-person yarn told from the perspective of a fighting dog trainer who is battling to keep his "tough little bitch, proud little warrior" from succumbing to the grievous wounds she suffered while whipping a bigger, meaner dog. 

Jordan Harper: his story is structured to suck you in. . . 
At the same time, he is trying to keep the dog's vicious owner at arm's length and prevent him from putting the dog in another contest -- one that will almost certainly kill her.

I'm not a dog fight fan -- far from it, in fact; To me, dog fighting is one of those repellent pastimes that makes me waver in my opposition to the death penalty (violating the public trust is another, but it's harder to stay angry at crooked authorities; there are so damned many more of them than dog-fighters that it's hard not to become inured to their misdeeds).

But the way Harper tells the tale sucks the reader in completely. It's a first rate story -- worth a hell of a lot more than the 99 cent price of admission, even if the rest of the pages in the magazine were blank.

Fortunately, they aren't.

Hilary Davidson, author of The Damage Done, which won a Crimespree Award and the Anthony Prize for best first novel, offers up "Magpie," an excellent story about a tough bitch of a completely different type: a woman who will lie, steal and cheat in order to keep her doctor husband from reuniting with his family and opening a practice in the impoverished rural community he originally comes from.  

Hilary Davidson, one of Robinson's Lady Thugs

And don't forget Johnny Shaw, the author of Dove Season and Big Maria and editor of the hilariously funny Blood and Tacos, a neo-pulp e-Mag that will be reviewed here next week. Shaw chips in with "Luck," a very funny yarn about a couple of border-area mokes who don't seem to have any.

Johnny Shaw: his characters Violence and Scrote are like Jay and Silent Bob tanked up on cheap whisky and meth.

You just have to love a pair of guys who are named "Violence" and "Scrote," right? If you get the impression from those names that they are sort of like Jay and Silent Bob, only tanked up on cheap whisky and methamphetamine, don't bother sending in for that correspondence course on how to be a private detective; you already understand clues well enough to run the FBI resident agency in Boise.

Since Thuglit One, Robinson has managed to maintain these high standards.  In ThuglitTwo, he gives us: "The Carriage Thieves" by Justin Porter, a yarn about a couple of turn-of-the-century knuckleheads who decide to steal a horse drawn bus to sell for scrap but make the mistake of rounding up the horses to move it from the glue factory -- on the other side of town; "Participatory Democracy" by Katherine Thomlinson, a grim yarn in which a volunteer for an up-and-coming politician gives him the kind of civics lesson they never dreamed up in the local high school;  "Spelled with a K" by Buster Willoughby, about a repo man who has a run-in with Satanists; and "The Name Between the Talons" by Patrick J. Lambe,  a tale about a guy who wants to be a police officer in the worst way -- and gets his wish.

And Thuglit Seven continues the string of hits with "Pegleg" by Ed Kurtz, a violent little narrative about a simple robbery that goes way bad; "The Last Job" by Justin Ordonez, in which an industrial spy gets himself in so far over his head that the best he can hope for is to lose it; "Two Sides of the Same Coin" by Christopher E. Long, a heart-warming story about a dope dealer addicted to his own product who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the woman who is strung out on him; and "Chum" by Michael Sears, in which a Wall Street options trader gets a chance to swim with the really big fish.

Mind that these are just a few of the stories I enjoyed in the three issues of Thuglit I've read so far.  There are dozens more where these came from.  

Admittedly, not every tale is terrific, but even those that aren't are thoroughly entertaining, full of violence, greed, lust and other twisted yearnings.

And 99 cents for as many as ten stories? That comes to only nine cents a hit.

As the sign on the wall at Bertola's used to say, "How can you miss?"

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Gangster Who Couldn't Shoot Straight


Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow thought he would clean up as Peter
Chong's Number Two Man.
Instead, Chow just took a bath.

From the way he's been written about in the local papers, you'd think that Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow was some sort of master criminal -- an underworld genius like Moriarity, the archfiend who squared off against Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, Chow was more like another fictional criminal: Kid Sally Palumbo, the hapless Mafia leader modeled on "Crazy Joey" Gallo in Jimmy Breslin's classic cosa nostra comedy, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

The FBI affidavit that details Chow's misdeeds as the Emperor of Chinatown's rackets portrays him as the "Dragonhead" of the Chee Kung Tong, also known as the Chinese Freemasons, a branch of a secret society that was originally founded during the Ching Dynasty and is suspected of a variety of criminal activities including extortion, prostitution and illegal gambling.

The affidavit also identifies Chow as a leader of the Hop Sing Tong, another secret society involved in criminal activity. As a boss of the Hop Sing, Chow supervised "underlings" who were directly involved in racketeering, the affidavit says.

As part of a negotiated plea of guilty in a racketeering case involving the Hop Sing in the late 1990s, Chow admitted that he had dealt heroin and cocaine, engaged in loan sharking, murder for hire, arson, robbery and illicit gaming.

Sounds like a genuine nogoodnik, right?

What the affidavit doesn't say is that Chow was a flop in most of these activities. The proof of that is the fact that he has spent much of his adult life in state and federal penitentiaries. His first trip to the big house came in 1978 when he was arrested for a string of robberies. He did an eleven year jolt for those crimes and paroled out in 1985.

Only two years after hitting the street, however, Chow was involved in shooting incident and was busted again. The gunplay earned him another three years in the state pen.

When he got out, he ran into a man named Peter Chong.

Peter Chong wanted to amalgamate various
Chinatown gangs into a single national syndicate.

Now Chong actually was a criminal mastermind. An ambitious member of the Wo Hop To triad, one of China's largest criminal organizations, Chong came to the U.S. posing as a promoter of Chinese entertainers, like Amy Yip, a big star in Hong Kong. In fact, Chong put on a number of Chinese language shows that drew their audiences from Chinese expats living in America, but the song and dance business was just a front.

What Chong was really in the U.S. for was to build a nationwide syndicate of Chinese gangs into a single mob headed by his own Chinese organization, the Wo Hop To. 

The umbrella group he established was fancifully referred to as the "Whole Earth Association," and consisted of troops recruited from disparate Asian crime gangs, many of which had previously been at each other's throats. 

They included the Hop Sing Tong and its youthful auxiliary, the Hop Sing Underlings; a Hop Sing splinter group from Portland, Oregon; Other members were part of the old Wah Ching street gang that had been involved in the infamous Golden Dragon massacre (Chow was at the Golden Dragon the night of the shooting, but the gunmen responsible for the attack missed him and his associates); the Jackson Street Boys; and the Suey Sing Tong.

Chong even sent some associates to Boston to assassinate another gangster as part of a plan to bring Beantown's On Leong organization into the fold. 

He enlisted Chow as a deputy because Chow knew the Bay Area and had his own small following within the Hop Sing Tong. Chow, in turn, recruited members of the Hop Sing Tong and another gang of young street criminals, the Jackson Street Boys, as enforcers for Chong's Whole Earth Association.

Remember that Chow's career as a racketeer had been anything but stellar up to this point. He was a small timer with a small timer's outlook, and Chong was the real brains behind the Whole Earth group. His partnership with Chong didn't turn Chow into an overnight success as an organized crime leader, either -- he still was short sighted and prone to the kind of violence that almost certainly would draw the attention of law enforcement agencies.

For example, "Shrimp Boy" sent some of his deputies in the Hop Sing group back to Boston to eliminate Bike Ming, a rival gangster, in a Golden Dragon-style ambush; the underlings blew the job and had to return to the Bay Area.

Chow himself traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to pick up a load of heroin. That caper also fell through -- Chow, gripped with paranoia, funked out on the purchase. On his return through New York he was stopped by the cops and caught with $12,000 in buy money. He was eventually released but the cops grabbed the cash as evidence and Chow failed to bring back the drugs that had occasioned the entire trip.

During the same period, Chow attempted to kidnap Norman Hsu, a wannabe bag man for the Democratic Party who supposedly owed the Wo Hop To a wad of money. That scheme, too, fell through:  shortly after Chow grabbed Hsu, the car he was transporting the abductee in was pulled over by police; Hsu made himself scarce and Chow was lucky to escape without being arrested.

Meanwhile, underlings were getting pinched right and left for petty crimes. Theoretically, Chinese organized crime has the same code of silence as the Italian Mafia, but the underlings had no real discipline and were given to blabbing to the police the minute they were arrested, even for minor crimes.

By the early 1990s, the cops and feds were putting together a complete organizational chart for the Whole Earth Association. The process accelerated when they convinced a federal magistrate to let them tap the telephones of Chong, Chow and other key Wo Hop To players. Now the gang was under federal scrutiny and it was only a matter of time before arrests would be made.

The last straw seems to have been an arson fire that was set in 1992 by Andy Li, 18, a "red pole" or enforcer for the Wo Hop To, and Chol Soo Lee, a Korean man with a long prison record. The fire was supposed to destroy a three-unit apartment house in the Richmond District that Chong had been using as a house of prostitution. 

The arson Chol Soo Lee had been hired to set left him crippled and disfigured.

Neither Li nor Lee had any prior experience as arsonists, however, and after they had sloshed the structure with gasoline, the pilot light on a kitchen stove touched off the fuel. Not only was the building set afire, but the flames also horrifically injured the two would-be firebugs.

The Whole Earth Association was crumbling. Chong split and turned up years later in Macao. Without him as the glue to hold the association together, it was doomed. 

Between the probe by the feds, the wiretaps on top members' phones and the loose lips of Hop Sing Underlings and other junior-grade gangsters, law enforcement began to roll the organization up from the bottom, persuading lower-level members to give evidence against their bosses in return for a break in sentencing.

Chow found himself in federal court with a dozen former criminal associates testifying against him. He took a fall for gun running and drew a twenty year sentence, though the racketeering charges lodged against him ended in a mistrial. Even Chow, Peter Chong's right hand man, found the prospect of a negotiated plea impossible to resist. Had he held his mud and taken the full fall, he would probably still be serving time in the federal joint.

Instead, he turned state's witness against Chong. 
And Chow played a role in its collapse -- not because he turned state's evidence and testified against Chong, but because he and his confederates were so inept that every crime they attempted ended up leading the feds back to Chong and his crime organization.

Mind you, both the Hop Sing and Jackson Street gangs remain a serious criminal threat in San Francisco, even though Chong was sent to prison and remains there. On Nov. 22, 2010, for example, Michael Tsan, an identified member of the Jackson Street Boys, was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison for extorting the operator of a Chinatown Mah-Jong parlor.

It was not Tsan’s first brush with the law: in 1995, he was a passenger in a car with two other gang members when rivals opened fire on them in an ambush at the intersection of Bernard and Taylor streets, wounding two people and killing one.

Five years later he was arrested as part of a gang sweep by 140 FBI agents and a host of other law enforcement officers connected to a massive loan sharking operation that preyed on the patrons of Bay Area card clubs.

In the case that led to his most recent conviction, federal prosecutors said Tsan had been pressuring the Mah-Jong operator for an extended period, taking money from her to “protect” her gaming operation. In March of this year, she refused to make the payment and Tsan responded with violence, striking her and threatening her life. He was arrested a month later and pleaded guilty to a single count of extortion earlier this fall.

“Extortion is a deplorable and rarely-reported crime,” said Stephanie Douglas, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Northern California, after Tsan was sentenced.

The conviction will allow the citizens of Chinatown to rest easier said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, the head U.S. prosecutor in San Francisco. 

Tsan is a relatively minor figure in the Jackson Street Boys, a gang that federal prosecutors said largely supplanted Chong’s Wo Hop To organization by the year 2000. Law enforcement agencies say the gang is involved in loan sharking, the sale of illegal fireworks and the extortion of legitimate businesses. One leader of the San Francisco group, Simon Shixiang Ruan, was arrested by Seattle police in 1997 as he was trying to establish a branch of the gang in Washington State.

The Jackson Street Boys have clashed repeatedly with rival gang members in a series of violent confrontations, some of which have resulted in deaths. According to an affidavit filed in connection with the 2000 loan sharking investigation, the gang’s members rely “on intimidation and their reputation to collect the money . . . The consequences include the sending of underlings to threaten, assault and possibly shoot those who own money.”

Chow may have had some role in those crimes, but hardly as the world class villain he seems to be in news accounts.

His attorney, Tony Serra, says "Shrimp Boy" has gone straight and the charges against him are bogus; that seems equally unlikely. If a leopard has trouble changing his spots, think of how difficult it must be for a tiger shrimp to switch his stripes.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Suburb Full of Squares So Twisted They Could Be Called Parallelograms

The Warlord of Willow Ridge
By Gary Phillips
340 pages
(Dafina; Oct. 2, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0758203853
ISBN-13: 978-0758203854

If you like pulpy crime fiction -- and I am guessing that you do, otherwise, why in hell are you reading this blog? -- I wholeheartedly recommend Gary Phillips' latest novel, Warlord of Willow Ridge. It has just about everything you might want in a hardboiled story about the underworld:

Rape; Murder; meth cookers, dealers and users; money laundering; counterfeit designer goods; outlaw bikers; Mexican gang-bangers; armed robberies; an armored car heist; theft from commercial businesses.

Not to mention assault with a deadly weapon. Several deadly weapons, in fact: knives, a weed-whacker, a cricket bat, shotguns and semiautomatic pistols. At one point, the insecticide Chlordane is even brought into play with telling effect.

The action revolves around Phillips' anti-hero, a professional badass named O'Conner (his first name is never disclosed, but his friends call him Connie), whose police-auction motorcycle peters out on him as he is tooling to a caper in the Bay Area from L.A.

He ends up in Willow Ridge, a gated community that has fallen on hard times courtesy of the bank-engineered crash of the U.S. economy. Many of the houses have been abandoned by their former owners because of the credit meltdown. Connie ends up squatting one of the repos, using it as a temporary headquarters while he rebuilds his bike and prepares to be "in the wind."

As a newcomer to Willow Ridge, Connie is met with reserve by the not-so-solid citizens who remain. For one thing, he is big, strong and violent -- surprisingly so for a man of advanced years; for another, he is black, while most of the community's residents aren't. He is tight-lipped about his past and intentions, but the residents of the Ridge get the impression his life hasn't exactly been on the up and up.

No worries; a lot of these suburbanites are more than a little bit twisted themselves.

His neighbors quickly realize that Connie is living in a house to which he has no legal title -- which also makes them nervous. But after he breaks a menacing biker's jaw with the previously mentioned cricket bat, several of them decide to live and let live.

Welcome to Willow Ridge, neighbor! Want to borrow a cup of sugar? A cricket bat, maybe?

Besides, the folks who remain in the community have bigger problems than termites and crabgrass: Mas Treces, a Mexican drug gang, has set up a crank kitchen in one of the abandoned homes and is dealing meth to all and sundry in partnership with an outlaw motorcycle club, the Vandal Vikings. 

Both groups come and go as they please, scaring the neighbors and menacing small animals: the gated community's gate may remain operational, but the guards who previously patrolled it are long gone. What's more, the local sheriff's department places a low priority on answering minor complaints from Ridge residents: it seems that county taxpayers in less exclusive settings need assistance, too.

Bikers and dope peddlers are not the only parasites at Willow Ridge: a resident who is a real estate broker is running a Ponzi scheme on the side, suckering a group of the residents into an investment that will put them all further in the red; meanwhile, another member of the community is peddling phony designer purses, shoes and other knock-offs to suckers who think the products are legit, despite their ridiculously low prices.

This may sound like an awful lot of ground to cover in a 288-page book and there is no question that stories with this many plot elements can be a mess. Trust me: this one isn't one of them.

Phillips, an ex-community organizer, the former director of a political action committee and head of a pair of non-profit organizations, is one of the new breed of neo-pulp writers who are resurrecting the old form with a Twenty First Century sensibility. 

Neo-pulp author Gary Phillips
(photo courtesy of Thalia Press Authors Co-op)

He has done several stand-alone pulp thrillers and two series: a pair of novels featuring Martha Chainey, a former Las Vegas showgirl who works as a courier for casinos, and three featuring badass private eye Ivan Monk.

He is also one of the writers for Stark Raving press, an e-book publisher that specializes in short form pulp novellas -- the kind of story that used to be the featured piece in the Mike Shayne, Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery mags.

Phillips works that pulp fiction magic here, with tough guys, sexy gals and plenty of action (to quote Raymond Chandler in his Black Mask days, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand").

His dialog manages to tell you a lot about his characters without wandering into boresville. For example, at one point, he tells us that O'Conner and a crime partner are in a stolen car: "He and Reynolds were parked across the street from the strip mall at a Taco Bell. They crunched away on the hard-shell tacos, sitting in a new model Mustang that didn't belong to either of them."

When characters do meth, they refer to it as "Tina:" "The four sparked up and lazed on the large couch," he says, conjuring the scene with a doper's phrase for smoking drugs. Earlier an associate named Maeline mentions a woman named "Sheila:"

"'Sheila?' O'Conner frowned. 'The one who put the knife in the head of that boyfriend with the false leg?'"

"'Uh huh.'"

"'They around these days?'"

"'The old man's doing a bid in Mule Creek,' Maeline says, referring to the tough state prison that contains serial murderer Herb Mullin among others. "'And as for Sheila, I don't know and won't be finding out."

In another sequence, Phillips has O'Conner warn the head of Mas Trece not to pee in his empty swimming pool again. The 'banger -- soaring on grass and vodka -- is so surprised by Connie's in-your-face manner that he isn't sure how to respond:

"[Chan, the Mas Trece jefe] could get all up in this chump's grill, but stomping on the home owners was off-limits unless necessary. There wasn't much of a law presence and the homeys needed to keep it that way. But this dude was straight challenging him without directly sounding like he was challenging him. Like a motherfucka who done time, he concluded."

Only two of his new neighbors seem completely square. Both are unreserved in their appreciation of Connie: a retiree named Stan Yamashira takes an immediate liking to the big man's no-nonsense attitude and enormous heart; and single mom Gwen Gardner, the owner of a chain of auto repair shops, is just as quickly attracted to an even more massive part of his anatomy.

As for Connie, what's an enterprising thief to do? The squares in Willow Ridge are bent enough to be trapezoids and the professional criminals, geometrically speaking, are plane dumb. He smells a big score: debts are pleading to be called in and alliances put to the test. The only question is, can all these loose threads be gathered together and tied up in a way that gives our protagonist enough green to get him to his next job?

Perhaps more to the point: is O'Conner cleaning up his twisted little community so completely he'll be tempted to go straight himself? He's just starting to get used to the little house he's liberated when he gets a letter from the bank telling him to quit the premises or deputies will evict him; he begins to fantasize filling that empty swimming pool with water and settling down for a life of backyard beer, barbecue and boffery with Gwen.

When visions of roses growing along a picket fence start to crowd out reality, a man can drop his guard long enough to end up with a bullet in the body mass. Can O'Conner keep his edge long enough to stay alive?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Convenience Store for Professional Criminals

“The weather here is gorgeous. It's mild and feels like it's in the eighties. The hot dog vendors got confused because of the weather and thought it was spring, so they accidentally changed the hot dog water in their carts.”
--David Letterman

The little silver cart with the white and beige umbrella that sat in the parking strip at Alum Rock and Foss avenues may have looked like a garden variety food stand but looks can be deceiving.

Lethally deceiving.

Until Sept. 2, 2011, the innocent-looking cart alongside the Valero gas station was actually a sort of convenience store for criminals.

A Dairy Mart for dirtbags, so to speak. A veritable 7-Eleven for shitbirds.

If you needed Schedule "A" drugs, you could hit the stand up for blue crystal in large quantities. The cart jockeys would hook you up with a pound of the stuff, enough to wire your eyeballs to the max but still leave you some to peddle to the kids at James Lick High less than a mile away.

You say you want to withdraw a little walking around money from the till of the local 7-Eleven but you forgot to stock up on the ammo you need to get the job done? No sweat: With just a couple hours lead time, the cats behind the food cart's steam table could set you up with 2,000 high-grade rounds and five magazines to contain them.

Got guns? If not, you're covered, homes: your friendly food stand vatos could front you revolvers, automatic pistols, sawed off shotguns -- everything right up to a full rock 'n' roll AK-47, a handful of clips and enough shells to pop a cap in every one-timer wearing a badge in Santa Clara County.

A fully automatic AK-47 like one of these was available through the hot dog stand in San Jose less than a mile from a city high school. Federal gun experts test fired the weapon after they bought it and found it was a true "street sweeper" that would empty a magazine with a single pull of the trigger. 

When undercover cops posing as criminals bought the machine gun, the food  stand's proprietors tossed in a Ruger magnum six-shooter like this for a few bucks more. Such a bargain!

Hell, if you worked up un poco apetito while you were shopping for illicit merchandise, the two carneros who ran the wagon could even provide you with a fully-loaded perro caliente, complete with chips and a cold can of soda to wash it all down.

Dig it: a hot dog stand that actually sold dogs -- along with virtually all the tools of the criminal's trade.

Sure the dogs might be made out of horsemeat and contain more fat that a chunk of cheap chorizo, but at least they were filling; Consider them a convenience for customers, sort of like eating the rubbery meatballs at Ikea after you've wandered around for an hour or two trying to locate the bathroom.

This wasn't some cheap-jack set up, either: no drugs stepped on so many times they looked like a welcome mat at a Nevada whorehouse; no nickel-plated Saturday Night Specials more likely to blow away your fingertips than the manager between you and the money on the other side of your neighborhood  mom-and-pop's check-out counter.

No sir: this was the real deal, the genuine article. The cart moved methamphetamine that assayed out at 73 percent pure; that's primo toot, my friend. What's more, it dealt 17 firearms in only four and a half months -- and those were just the guns it sold to undercover cops! 

God only knows how many more it put into circulation when the 5-Oh was looking the other way.

As Ginzo the grifter once said: "They'd sell you everything you needed  but a piece of ass."

These days the food stand is still sitting in the Valero parking strip with an ice chest full of cold ones on the ground alongside, surrounded by locals with a junk food Jones. But the cart's lucrative sideline arming the underworld and supplying those damned blue-collar tweakers with Tina are through.

As it turns out, the food stand was the target of an undercover investigation by the San Jose police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The probe went on for nearly five months. On Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two crystal meth buys engineered by undercover cops and the feds, the men behind the underworld convenience store were collared like a pair of gimps at a BDSM play party.

That was then; this is now. Last week, the saga of the crime cart was scheduled to come to a partial close when one of the two proprietors, Guillermo Gonzalez  Castillo, 23, was up for sentencing in U.S. District Court in San Jose.

It isn't clear from court records what happened at his April 7 sentencing. The last document in the case was filed on April 4, and U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila placed the record under a court-ordered seal that makes it unavailable to the public.

What we do know is that Castillo, who goes by the street name "Gallo" (Rooster), has been cooling his heels in jail since his arrest back in 2011. He agreed to plead guilty to thirteen separate violations of the federal criminal code last Sept. 16. 

Those counts included dealing in firearms without a federal license, sneaking back into the U.S. after being deported, selling undercover officers illegal AK-47 assault rifles, being an illegal alien in possession of firearms, possession of a Ruger Mini-14, a 9-millimeter Marlin Model 9 rifle, a Simonov Semiautomatic carbine, a second AK-47, a sawed-off Remington twelve gauge and selling methamphetamine.

And don't let the NRA jerk you around: these weren't guns for repelling burglars, protecting yourself from muggers or resisting the U.S. government when it comes to take you away in chains. With only a couple of exceptions, these were military grade weapons -- the kind being used to kill and cripple American G.I.s in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Gallo" and his crime partner, 58-year-old Jose Gilberto Ortiz, an ex-con who is known on the street as "Chepe," were indicted by a federal grand jury on Oct. 12, 2011. 

Prosecutors identified Ortiz as the man who actually owned and ran the hot dog stand and acted as a contact and intermediary for Castillo. 

The grand jury said Ortiz had violated the federal criminal code a total of eleven times. Specifically he was charged with: engaging in gun sales without a license; being an ex-con in possession of firearms; possession of an unregistered .357-magnum Smith and Wesson revolver; a 5.56-millimeter Romarm SAR 3 rifle that resembles an AK-47; an A.A. Arms, Inc. 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol; a Norinco 9-millimeter knock-off of the Russian Tokarev military automatic; and a Mauser 9-millimeter, a German handgun that looks like a Luger.

"Chepe" Ortiz was an ex-con barred from legally owning firearms, but that didn't keep him from possessing a Romarm 5.56-millimeter AK knock off like the two at the top of this illustration, a Chinese-made Tokarev copy like the one in the middle or a Mauser 9-millimeter like the pistol at the bottom.

Ortiz was originally schedule to stand trial last Aug. 24, but after a court hearing a couple of weeks earlier his trial date was vacated. The court docket for the case does not disclose the status of the criminal charges against Ortiz at the time, and no new trial date has been scheduled to date.

Both men were arrested Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two transactions in which they allegedly sold crystal methamphetamine to undercover officers at Ortiz' hot dog cart.  Court record said the pinches were the result of a five-month undercover probe.

The charges against Castillo could put him behind bars for 60 years; those pending for Ortiz could result in a 20 year prison sentence.

According to court records, the cart and its unusual merchandise came to the attention of police sometime prior to April 17, 2011. An affidavit sworn by BATF agent Dennis M. Larko said an undercover San Jose police investigator identified only as Flores had learned Ortiz was dealing guns early in the investigation and contacted him by telephone.

"Ortiz told [undercover officer] Flores that he knew someone selling an AK 47 rifle," the affidavit says.  "Ortiz gave . . . Flores the phone number of a person who he referred to as 'Gallo.' UC  Flores contacted 'Gallo' and arranged to purchase the AK 47 with four magazines and 2000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition for $1,400."

It was the first of what would end up being a series of illicit transactions over the next four and a half months. Additional arms buys were made on June 17, June 22, July 8 and 26, 2011, and two months later on Sept. 2. Court records say that during two of those sales, Castillo met with undercover investigators near a house on 343 West Court where the guns apparently were being stored while awaiting a buyer. He used a baby stroller to transport the weapons from his pick-up truck to the buyers' car for sale.

343 West Court, San Jose, California.

In addition to guns, methamphetamine was purchased from the food cart duo during the undercover investigation.

It is comforting to know that Castillo, a scoff-law who clearly was not slowed down by his prior deportation, is facing a long prison sentence, but it is troubling that  the charges against Ortiz have gone nowhere. After all, court records indicate that he owned the food cart and acted as the broker for the gun and drug deals.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that the really big fish in the case is the person that supplied Castillo and Ortiz with their weapons and drugs -- and he (assuming it is a man and not a woman) is not mentioned in the indictment or any other court documents available to the public.

That means that even though the hot dog cart has stopped arming the underworld, there is still somebody in the San Jose area who is putting guns on the street without difficulty: "Gallo" and "Chepe's" original supplier.  

Let's hope that the ATF and San Jose cops are looking for him, too. Otherwise, we may be hearing about another convenience store for hoodlums in the near future. Only this time the weapons it sells may end up wounding or killing some innocent citizen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hilarious Spy, Laugh-out-loud Dialog and Sharp Characterizations Put World War Two Yarn at the Top of the "To Read" Stack

By Jerry Jay Carroll
(Published by the author)
362 pages
ISBN-10: 0989826902
ISBN-13: 978-0989826907
(Also available in Kindle format through Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

Lowell Brady, Jerry Jay Carroll's fictional whistle-blower in The Great Liars, is the damnedest spy in contemporary literature.

Brady lacks even rudimentary tradecraft, has no particular expertise with weapons, and operates under a cover that is anything but glamorous, passing himself off as a southern "hog grower." In fact, Brady resembles James Bond, the gold standard for fictional undercover operatives, only in his overactive libido and seemingly insatiable desire for fine wine, four-star dining and expensive clothes.

All of which is to say he is a splendid antidote to the Jack Ryans, Jack Bauers and Jason Bournes that currently clog spy fiction, a trio of supermen who always manage to stay mentally at least one step ahead of their enemies, can knock an ant's eye out with a nine millimeter from 100 feet and know every type of martial art practiced in the mysterious East.

If you are looking for a protagonist who tries to avoid danger (or even hard work), constantly pursues his own self-interest and still makes out like a bandit, Brady's your huckleberry: in the entire 362-page yarn former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carroll has written about Brady and his misadventures immediately before, during and after World War Two, the only time Brady gets into trouble is when he succumbs to a momentary urge to do the right thing.

Author and former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jerry Jay Carroll

It is just such an altruistic error that makes him a target of the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI.

Here's the set-up: Brady is a spoiled only child who oils his way through life on personal charm and a deft wit. He uses his family connection to a powerful U.S. Senator to win appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and, despite his mediocre performance at that institution, he gloms an assignment to the White House after graduation and becomes a pipeline for intelligence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

From this vantage point he is privy to some of the most closely guarded secrets of World War Two, and shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he learns that the U.S. has broken the Japanese diplomatic codes and is reading messages that presage the attack on the Army aircraft and U.S. Navy vessels that are there.

The attack will give the U.S. the excuse it needs to enter World War Two, just as Roosevelt wishes. The president has been manipulating the fleet to put dozens of ships and thousands of men at risk solely for this purpose -- to inject the country into the conflict before England and Russia are defeated.

Senior officers who have ferreted out Roosevelt's plan persuade Brady to warn the admiral in charge of the Pacific fleet that the attack is coming. He reluctantly agrees, but the Japanese attack wipes out most of the fleet despite his warning. The U.S. is able to enter the war as Roosevelt planned, but the moves taken by the fleet prior to the attack make it clear that somebody in Roosevelt's inner circle has blown the whistle. The White House quickly settles on Brady as the backstabber responsible.

Afraid to have Brady eliminated outright for fear his death might give J. Edgar Hoover material to blackmail the White House, Roosevelt and his aides have the captain dispatched to the Pacific where they hope the Japanese will do the job for them. Brady survives, however, and winds up fleeing agents of the CIA and the FBI after the war.

To find out how everything sorts out, you will simply have to read the book. Don't worry: you will enjoy yourself thoroughly.

Carroll unfolds Brady's story by shifting the novel's point of view back and forth from the first-person recollections of the protagonist, a patient enrolled in a veterans' medical facility under the pseudonym Kermit Crockett, to those of Harriet Gallatin, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution who is interviewing him as part of an oral history project.  Later in the narrative, he kicks the plot along by including confidential memoranda commenting on the action from Hoover to Clyde Tolson, his paramour and top deputy.

To a large degree, the plot follows fact in Carroll's book. The U.S. did break the Japanese codes and had advance notice that ships were being deployed for a massive attack against the U.S. And there is no question that information was withheld from the fleet units at Pearl; the only debate is whether this occurred deliberately or through ineptitude. The evidence, best summarized in Day of Deceit by Robert Stinnett, suggests it was deliberate.

But whether the White House conspired to lure the Japanese into sinking of much of the U.S. fleet and killing more than 2,000 people is really secondary in Carroll's book; the real subject of the novel is Lowell Brady, one of the most memorable protagonists in recent memory.

Carroll grabs the reader from the first paragraph when he has Brady tell Harriet, "What I told you about not knowing Franklin or any of the other big shots back then was a crock. I knew him, but not well -- a mile from it. I don't think people even close to him knew the man, not even Eleanor."

This immediately identifies Brady as an eyewitness to important events in U.S. history and also has the effect of forcing readers to engage with Brady's story by forcing them to fill in the blanks -- namely that the Franklin and Eleanor whose names are being dropped are the Roosevelts, critical figures in Twentieth Century America.

What follows is a wild ride in which Brady is a veritable Leonard Zelig, who not only spends time with the Roosevelts and Winston Churchill, but also Harry Hopkins, Wallis Simpson, Charlie Chaplin, Lord Mountbatten, Dylan Thomas, Joseph Stalin, Clare Booth Luce, Douglas MacArthur and many more.

It doesn't hurt that the reader spends most of the book smirking at Brady and the jams he finds himself in; The Great Liars is filled with hilarious dialogue that makes most of it flat-out hysterical.

There are generally two ways to write a funny thriller: have the characters find themselves in humorous situations or have the characters say witty things. Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season, Bad Monkey, Skinny Dip) generally uses the first, putting his characters in the middle of events so ludicrous that the reader can't help but guffaw. Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Lady in the Lake) uses the second, filling his detective Philip Marlowe's mouth with wisecracks and witticisms, often during tense moments in his plots.

While Carroll exploits the former he tends toward the latter. Thus, when Brady tells his young interrogator of an assignation he had with Luce, the playwright and politician whose husband, Henry, was the founder of Time Magazine, Carroll writes:

"She was a woman of 'robust appetites,' she said over a cocktail in the hotel lounge. Fifteen minutes later she was proving it. I never saw a woman get out of her clothes so fast."

"'A brainless fuck; just what I needed,' she said afterward....'I was desperate enough to pick up a stevedore at the loading docks.'"

The novel is liberally strewn with these little pearls. Of a steersman aboard a Naval vessel Brady says: "If dumb was dirt, he'd cover an acre." On transferring to a Navy base in Rhode Island, he says "We arrived back at Newport after the bars closed. It was so quiet the crack of billy clubs on heads carried across the water." Of his own courage during combat, he comments "When bullets fly, give me a job shuffling papers behind the lines and you have a friend for life."

Similar bon mots reward the reader on almost every page, and their quality remains consistently high. For example, toward the end of the book, Brady describes the Marines who were assigned to take and hold Guadalcanal thusly:

"Rough as tree bark, those men. They had brawled with soldiers and sailors in bars from Manila to Peking. They preferred hair tonic to post-exchange beer and could live on goat jerky. But they were crack shots with rifles and pistols and had expert badges for machine guns, grenades,         mortars and bayonets and just about every other weapon you could name. You didn't want to mess with those ol' boys."

The frequent laugh lines will leave readers wearing silly grins that will last for hours -- and don't be surprised if you find yourself trying to work them into your conversations with others.

Despite the book being advertised as a thriller of sorts ("Lt. Lowell Brady knew the government's secret. So he had to die," its jacket says, ominously), there are only a few moments of actual suspense scattered throughout its 362 pages. But this is one of those novels in which thrills are really of negligible importance. The laughs and sharp characterizations that The Great Liars contains more than make up for any nail biting moments it skips, and the humor, alone, is well worth the price of admission.