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I stayed in bed, pretending to be asleep until Nola left for work. I needed to piss and take a dump in the worst way but I knew if I got up while she was still home, she would get into it with me about getting out of the apartment and finding a fucking job.
So I held out, lying with my back toward her and breathing as quietly as I could until she finished her toast and coffee, pulled her purse off the hook in the closet and left.
Thirty seconds after I heard her turn her key in the door, I slid out of bed and staggered to the john, barely making it in time.
When I finished my business, I poured what was left of the coffee she’d made and lit my first Marlboro of the day.
I’d met Nola Manning at Carney’s, the bar at Telegraph and 19th in downtown Oakland. You’ve probably never noticed the place if you’re not in the life: most of the shitty dives in Oakland have been torn down and replaced with the kind of toney joints where hipsters hang. The guys in fedoras and earrings call the district “Uptown” these days and it’s the kind of place where kids go to have their iPhones and Androids stolen by mean-looking black guys in Oakland Raider jackets and pants that show the cracks of their asses. Carney’s is just about the only legit dive left in the area. I don’t know where the ex-cons, dips and muggers are going to wet their whistles when the twenty-somethings finish taking over.
It was my first full day out of the state prison in Vacaville and Nola and I were flirting and bullshitting at the bar the way people sometimes do when they’re loose and randy.
Out of the clear blue she asked if I wanted to go back to her place with her. What the hell, I figured. I had no wheels: the repos had glommed my Malibu while I was in the joint, right out of the garage at a friend’s house in Concord where I’d stored it. Without a vehicle, I had no place to sleep. I was half in the bag anyway, so free room and board, even for a single night, sounded pretty good.
That had been nearly three weeks ago.
We fucked like rabbits when she took me back to her place. Why not? She was a good-looking woman, though that was probably less important than the fact I was hornier than a Kansas City feed lot.
Nola worked for a big box store alongside the Nimitz in Hayward, about twenty miles south. She was just a sales clerk, really: one of the platoon of people at the front of the place who ring up people’s merchandise and make change. But her paycheck said she was a “sales associate,” which made her sound like she earned more than minimum wage, got paid vacation and holidays and had a future beyond social security when she reached 67.
In fact, she was just like me when I was in the pen— only she had to purchase her food and clothes, buy health insurance and pay rent. I got all that free of charge, courtesy of John Q. Public.
When she finally asked me what I did for a living, I fudged and told her I was in construction.
“Well, why aren’t you doin’ it now?” she’d said.
“What?” I asked.
“Constructin’ somethin’,” she said. “We been partyin’ together for the last five days, getting drunk every night and then havin’ sex. Now two of those nights were on the weekend, so I can understand why you didn’t get up each morning afterward, pack a lunch and head off to the job. But the last three days, you might have noticed that I got up pretty early and went to work. When I did, you were still lying in the sack. Why’s that?”
I looked at her with a new appreciation. She wasn’t as dumb as I thought she was.
“I’m what you call between jobs,” I said. “I got laid off my last one.”
She crossed her arms, waiting for more.
“I’m trying to find another one,” I said. “I just haven’t scored yet.”
“Well, where’re you lookin’?”
I shrugged. “Most everyplace,” I said. “Right here in Oakland, in fact.”
She peered at me with one eye screwed up like she was studying a bug through a microscope.
“When?” she asked.
“When you’re at work,” I said.
She frowned but gave me the benefit of the doubt.
“Well, okay,” she said. “But I hope you find somethin’ soon. I’d hate to think that I’m keepin’ a man who can’t keep himself.”
So it went, for another two weeks. I’d sleep in every morning and then stay up late, drinking or boffing Nola. The situation was ideal: I didn’t have to do a lick of work and she paid for my food, bed and drinks.
In fact, I was looking for work, just not the kind I could explain to Nola.
I’d spend most of every afternoon hooking up with old buddies — at least the ones who weren’t still in prison or sitting in the county lock-up in Pleasanton waiting to be sent there. I was trying to put together a crew I could count on to pull off a few robberies that would bring in more than pin money.
But when she kept riding me about finding work, I stopped coming home — at least until after she had gone to sleep. The night before had been typical: I’d crept into bed around two thirty, reeking of well vodka, Pabst beer and too many cigarettes. I turned away from Nola before I went to sleep, thinking she wouldn’t notice I was drunk.
As she left for work the next morning, she stopped by the door.
“When I get back tonight, you’d best have a job, babe,” she said, the anger easy to pick up in her voice. “If you don’t, don’t be hangin’ around, understand? I got better things to do than wet-nose some good-for-nothin’ asshole.”
I laid in bed trying to figure out what “wet-nose” meant. I finally decided she meant wet-nurse. Then I fell back to sleep.
When I finally got up, it was after noon. I yawned and stretched and scratched my balls. There was no way I was going to find a straight job by the time Nola got home; hell, I wasn’t even planning to try. I steamed myself completely awake in the shower and jammed my stuff into my beat-up old Samsonite. As I was leaving, Nola’s younger brother Howard walked in.
Howard had first shown up a week or so earlier. He was about six four in shower shoes with a chest that should have had a Freemason’s square and compass below it. His guns were so big and hard that he could break a bowling ball in two like a walnut if he got it in a half Nelson.
Nola told me he had done a stretch at Mule Creek for beating a guy to death in a West Sacramento beer joint. She didn’t tell me the details, but from his size and physical condition, it was hard to believe the death had been an accident.
He didn’t waste any time confirming my suspicions.
The night he showed up, Nola and I went out drinking and Howard tagged along. We stopped at a little bar about six blocks from Nola’s apartment where we’d liquored up before — a friendly little neighborhood joint with a mellow mix of white folks, blacks, Hispanics and even an old Chinese guy. The joint was hella Oakland from Jump Street, the kind of place that cried out, “Cain’t we all just get along?”
We’d had two beers when Howard started running his mouth like the keynote speaker at a Klan rally, bitching about “niggers,” “beaners,” “camel jockeys,” “sand monkeys,” “kikes” and so forth. He went on and on about race-mixing and ethnic purity, pissing on folks he called “mud people.”
That took in about two-thirds of the people in the bar.
Eventually Howard lit into the old Chinese dude, calling him a “chink” and a “slope head.” I don’t know what kind of a point he was trying to make; he was twice as big as the Chinaman and about half as old.
Clarence Jackson, a black longshoreman who loaded ships at the Port of Oakland, finally had enough of Howard’s big mouth and told him to back the fuck off.
Almost like he’d been waiting for it, Howard started in on Clarence, all “nigger” this and “coon” that, with a big smile on his face that said pushing the guy’s buttons got his rocks off.
The last straw was when Howard leaned right into Jackson’s face and told the longshoreman he probably never would have been born if his mother hadn’t been some broken-down whore who couldn’t afford a wire coat hanger.
I’ve done time in three county jails and two state prisons, but never heard anybody ask to have the shit kicked out of him like Howard. Jackson, who moved freight for a living and had the muscles to prove it, stood up and punched Nola’s brother right off his chair.
And then, because he was more or less civilized, he made a big mistake: he didn’t pick up one of the barstools and use it to smash Howard’s head to a pulp on the linoleum where he landed.
Instead, he stood there while Howard, his eyes glazed with hate and smiling through the blood from his split lips, got up and drove Jackson to the floor like a pile driver, hitting him in the head with both hands, punching him at least seven or eight times as he went down.
I’ve never seen a big man move that fast. Worse yet, Howard laughed the entire time he pounded on Jackson, a crazy guffaw like a mad scientist in some B movie.
The longshoreman didn’t have a chance; his hands were still only waist high when his back hit the floor. There was so much gore on his face I couldn’t even tell where the cuts stopped and the skin began.
Howard had his foot waist high to stomp the longshoreman when I realized that he intended to kill the poor bastard. If I got caught drunk in that bar during an ag assault I’d be back in the joint, looking at a third strike and a life jolt.
I grabbed Howard and pulled him away from Jackson, tying him up with my arms and yelling for him to chill. Nola, who had just come back from the women’s room, helped me hustle him out of the bar and get him to her apartment.
When we were inside, Howard was soaked with blood, a lot of it Jackson’s. He took off his T-shirt to jump in the shower and I saw he was covered with racist ink: swastikas, SS lightning bolts, the Confederate stars and bars, all that bop.
The biggest, most visible tattoo was an Iron Cross squarely in the middle of his back with a little swastika in the middle like the medal Nazi soldiers earned. Above and below it in English were German-style Gothic letters that said:
All the human culture, all the results of art, science and technology that we see before us today, are almost exclusively the creative product of the Aryan. — A. Hitler.
I hated to think Howard was the best the Aryan race could do.
Between his psychotic violence and his bald-assed racism, I concluded right then and there that Howard was probably the most dangerous person I had ever run into, in or out of prison. The only good thing about him was, he didn’t stick around. He left after his shower and only came back twice in the days that followed. That’s why it surprised me when the door swung open and Howard walked in. I didn’t even know he had a set of keys.
“What are you doing here? I figured you’d be out looking for a job,” he said, giving me the hairy eyeball.
“Why’d you think that?” I asked, lighting another cigarette.
He shrugged. “Nola said you spend your days trying to find work,” he said. “She said that’s what you told her. Did she get it wrong?”
I shook my head. “No, that’s normally what I do. But I felt sick this morning and decided to sleep in.”
“Sick, huh?” he said giving me a superior smile. “Probably more like hung over. I can smell the booze on you all the way across the room.”
He spun one of Nola’s cast iron chairs around and sat down, stretching and yawning. “So, you having any luck?” he asked, leaning forward with his thick forearms folded on the chair’s back.
I shook my head, wondering how long he was going to hang around. “Not yet,” I said. “You know of anybody who’s hiring?”
“Not really. I don’t hang much with working stiffs.”
I smiled slightly. “I prefer to avoid doing much labor myself, but a guy’s gotta eat.”
He gave me that cobra look. “I haven’t noticed you missing any meals,” he said, his smile gone. “Of course, you have a woman supporting you, don’t you?”
If he was looking to piss me off, he was doing a pretty good job of it, even though what he said was true. “Yeah, I do. At least temporarily,” I said. “What about you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I shrugged. There was a big butcher knife on the sink counter an arm’s length away and I figured I could reach it if he went crazy on my ass. It gave me enough nerve to sass him back.
“Sounds like you aren’t exactly pulling 9-to-5s yourself,” I said. “You got some chick taking care of you, Bro?”
The vein in his jaw started throbbing. I could tell he was gritting his teeth. It occurred to me he was still pissed because I’d pulled him off Jackson.
“I’m not your bro, fuck stick,” he growled. “And I don’t need to leech off a woman. Me and my real brothers got something going that’s going to change history.”
I frowned at him. “You got brothers? I thought Nola said you were her only kin.”
“I mean the guys in my unit,” he said.
“Unit, huh? You a boy scout or something?”
“Something,” he said, giving me his cobra eyes again. “I’m with a bunch of guys that are trying to make this a better world. Not like you, you worthless fuck. We’re a paramilitary organization. The head honcho’s my commander.”
I remembered that big-ass tattoo he had on his back.
“This like a political group?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, cautiously. “Sort of.”
“Interesting,” I said as I smoked. “There any money in it?”
He gave me a suspicious look. “We’re not in it for the money.”
“You need any help?” I asked, pretending I was interested.
He showed me his teeth. I guess it was supposed to be a smile.
“We got enough people already,” he said. “You get too many assholes in on something like we got, one of them is likely to run his mouth in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think I said as much as I should already.”
“Right,” I said. “Wouldn’t want to get the ‘commander’ all pissed off. Better to let him do your thinking for you.”
“You think I’m dumb or something?” he asked angrily.
“Think it?” I said with a laugh. “I fucking know it. You’re another one of these dipshit bar-room brawlers who picks a fight with an 85-pound Chinaman because you haven’t sense enough to keep your mouth shut. You went to the state pen for beating some guy to death. That shows you got shit for brains right there.”
“That asshole deserved it,” he said.
I laughed. “Any dumb cluck who goes to prison over a crime that doesn’t make him any money is a dickhead,” I said.
“What would you know about it?” he said defensively. “You’re just some loser leeching off my sister.”
I smirked. “I do armed robberies, myself, asshole,” I said. “I just got out of Vacaville after taking a year’s fall for robbing a convenience store.”
“Big deal,” he sneered. “Nobody ever got rich robbing mom and pops.”
“I’ve made more money robbing 7-Elevens than you have beating up Jews and niggers, Adolf,” I said. “At least when I do a crime, I walk away with some cash in my pocket. All you get is a pat on the head from some dumb brownshirt. And I’ll bet every guy in your shitty group is just like you: strictly from nowhere. Probably the biggest job any of you numbnuts ever done was stealing the gelt at some Jewish kid’s Bar Mitzvah.”
He was pretty hot by now. I should have kept quiet but I couldn’t help myself: I was feeling reckless, just like I usually do when I’m hung over, horny and about to split on a woman.
“Yeah?” he said, spraying a little spit as he lurched to his feet. “You’re full of shit. I’ll show you what my group’s made of.”
I thought he was going to throw down so I put my hand on the knife. I was thinking what Nola’s face would look like if she came home and found her muscle-bound brother gutted like a fresh-caught salmon on the dining room floor.
To my surprise, though, he clumped into her bedroom and came back carrying the cardboard suitcase he’d had when he first showed up. Putting it on the table, he opened the latches and popped the top.
Inside was wall-to-wall cash — little tight bundles of pale green with a portrait of Benjamin Franklin on each note. Each was secured with gold and white paper bands that had $10,000 marked on them. I had to work to keep from whistling out loud.
“This little case contains a million dollars, wise ass,” Howard said, showing me his teeth. “You ever walk out of a 7-Eleven with that much money in your pocket?”
My mouth was hanging open so far my chin practically brushed my shoes. I moved my head slowly from side to side; I was afraid to say anything because I wasn’t sure I could control my voice.
He shut the case and flipped down the latches, a smug grim on his face. “I didn’t figure as much,” he said.
I lit another Marlboro.
“Where the fuck did you bozos come across that kind of money?” I asked.
“The government changed U.S. currency a coupla years ago and somehow they managed to fuck up some of the security features in the new money,” he said, a crafty look on his face. “More than a billion in new bills had to be stashed in big-assed vaults in Washington, D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas until they figured out how to fix the problem and put it in circulation.”
I vaguely remembered reading a newspaper article about that while I was in Vacaville. I couldn’t remember what was supposed to be wrong with the bills, but I knew they weren’t usable when they came off the press. I hadn’t paid much attention, really; I figured it was just another government fuck-up that I couldn’t use to make any money.
“Go on,” I said.
“One of the guys in my unit knew a guy who worked in the Fort Worth facility,” he explained. “This guy had figured out a way to smuggle fifteen million worth of the new bills out of the place. It got divided up between units in Denver, Dallas and San Francisco. My group got three million of it.”
“So this friend of one of your Nazi chums stole $15 million and just turned it over to you knuckleheads out of the goodness of his heart?” I asked.
“Well, not exactly,” Howard said. “He sold it to us.”
“What do you mean, ‘sold it?’” I asked.
Howard shrugged. “We had operational cash,” he said. “It was nearly $150,000 that we’d raised doing chicken shit bank robberies in Podunk towns all over the western states. We swapped him the operations money for the $15 mil.”
It didn’t sound right to me.
“This guy let you have fifteen million in new Treasury bills for only 150 grand?” I said, my skepticism obvious. “He must be the dumbest motherfucker on the planet.”
“Ours was ready cash he could spend right away,” Howard said, spreading hands as big as snow shovels. “This stuff he stole from the Treasury Department was sidelined until the security problems got worked out. He needed the money, like yesterday. For him it was a good deal.”
I thought about it. I had never worked a rip-off that large myself, but guys who had told me they usually fenced the swag for pennies on the dollar in case the bills were marked or their serial numbers listed. That way, they got a big chunk of change they could spend up front; the fence had to sit on the rest of the money until the heat went down and it was safe to circulate. Sometimes that could take years.
“Okay,” I said, finally. “I get the picture. Is this bread still hot or what?”
He shrugged. “The commander said he’d been told the security problems with the new bills had been worked out,” he said. “We’re planning to use it to get stuff that’ll put us in the history books.”
“The commander wants to buy a nuke,” he said.
I was tempted to laugh in his face for a moment, but I’d heard crazier stuff during the time I spent in the joint.
“What the fuck for?” I asked.
Howard shrugged again. “The commander didn’t say, but I figure he wants to blow something up,” he replied. “Maybe he wants to level San Francisco. It’s full of niggers, Jews and Mexicans, after all.”
“That seems dumb as hell to me,” I said, shaking my head with disbelief. “It’s none of my business, but if I had a million dollars, I could sure as hell find something to spend it on besides a fucking atomic bomb.”
Howard looked at me suspiciously. “You’re right, loser,” he said. “It is none of your business.”
He set the suitcase full of cash on the floor next to his chair. That was the end of the conversation. The next time he got up to use the head he took the case with him. He was empty-handed when he came back.
While he was in the crapper, I shoved my own Samsonite out of sight and filled a bowl with skim milk and that nasty cereal with the leprechaun cartoon on the front. Howard made fresh coffee and poured a cup for me, then pulled out his cell and went into Nola’s bedroom to make some calls.
I didn’t feel like washing the dishes but I did them anyway. Knowing that million was in the apartment made me rethink my plan of leaving — at least until I’d figured out how to take the money with me. When I finished clearing up, I took a little walk to touch base with an ex-con I knew from Vacaville.
When I got back about an hour later, Howard had finally split. I waited to make sure he hadn’t stepped out to get a carton of half-and-half or something before I quick-stepped into the next room and tossed it for Howard’s cardboard grip. I found it under Nola’s bed and when I popped the lid, the money was all still inside.
Nola’s brother really was a stupid son of a bitch: it was bad enough that he’d shown me his swag even though his “commander” had told him to keep his mouth shut about it, but leaving the shit in the apartment afterwards was prize bonehead. After all, I had already told him I was a thief — how much more warning did he need?
I grabbed my Samsonite, upended it into the garbage bin under the sink and then refilled it with cash from Howard’s cardboard valise. The Nazi’s luggage went back under Nola’s bed. I gave Nola’s crib a goodbye look, picked up my suitcase and walked out without a second thought. I wasn’t sure where I was heading but knowing I’d be a millionaire when I got there made the destination unimportant.
My getaway was fine until I reached the lobby of the apartment house and Howard stepped out of the corridor next to the mailboxes.
“Going someplace, loser?” he asked, grinning in a way that let me know he had my number. “What you got in that suitcase?”
His leer told me he expected to get an entire evening’s entertainment out of breaking me into little pieces and feeding me to the fish in Lake Merritt. His smirk looked a lot like the one he wore when he sent Jackson to the hospital.
As he started toward me, the apartment door made a hollow clicking sound and swung open. Both Howard and I turned our heads in its direction and watched Nola walk through it.
There were three loud explosions in a row and both Nola and Howard looked at me. A wisp of smoke curling from a ragged hole in the front of my jacket marked the spot where I’d been holding the .38 caliber hammerless Smith I’d purchased earlier that afternoon from my Oakland buddy. Howard’s expression didn’t change as he slowly fell face down on the yellowing linoleum.
Nola was getting ready to scream. I emptied the rest of the revolver into her, the slugs sitting her down clumsily in the corner next to the apartment building’s mailboxes. As I collected my suitcase and made for the door I noticed a faint look of disapproval on her dead face.
The cab to Oakland International burned the last of my cash, and I sat in the shitter to pop open my suitcase and transfer five crisp Franklins to my wallet. It was more than enough green to book a Southwest flight to LAX, far away from the two bodies in Nola’s lobby.
I locked the Samsonite and ran it through checked luggage before sitting down behind a cold one in the flight lounge to wait for boarding.
If I’d been paying more attention I would have noticed the clerk who’d sold me my ticket pointing me out to two guys in cheap suits. Instead, the first time I saw them is when the one with short blond hair circled the room to my right and his chum appeared on my left.
“Sir,” Blondie said in that toneless voice federal cops practice for hours while shaving, “we’d like a few minutes of your time if you don’t mind. Did you use new hundred dollar bills to pay for your airline ticket?”
I looked up at him, then at his partner. There was no way to get away from them: they had me hemmed in and could easily grab me if I tried to run. I’d already kicked the revolver I used to waste Howard and Nola into a storm drain outside Nola’s apartment. The only way I could have been more helpless was if I was in cuffs and leg irons.
“Who wants to know?” I asked.
Both of them held up eagle and star badges that said they were with the U.S. Secret Service.
“OK, yeah — I did pay with fresh hundreds,” I said. “Why? Is there something wrong with using Franklins to buy a plane ticket?”
The blond smiled, but he didn’t look amused.
“There is when the Franklins are phonies,” his partner said.
I stared at him.
“The sales agent at the ticket counter thought the bill looked strange,” the dark-haired guy said. “It failed the iodine pen and a couple of other security tests. That’s when she called us.”
The blond helped me up and snapped a pair of handcuffs around my wrists.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Those bills are legit U.S. Treasury notes. The guy I got them from said they came directly from the mint in Fort Worth.”
The two feds exchanged glances. “I don’t know where you got this cash, mister,” the blond agent said, “but it’s funny money -— garden variety queer. Somebody probably ran it off with a color printer and a desktop. It’s never been near a Treasury facility. Your friend got scammed. If you tell us where you got it, we may be able to trace it back to the original source. Cooperate and you might be in the clear.”
I swallowed hard. The Nazis were dumb enough to have fallen for one of the oldest grifts in the world, a variation on the pigeon drop: they’d put up their genuine money for a bunch of bogus that probably wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The Nazis had been stung — and so had I.
For a half a tick I thought of telling the agents what had happened. Then I remembered Howard and his sister the way I’d left them in the apartment lobby.
“I’ve probably run my mouth too much already,” I told the blond agent. “Let’s go downtown.”
As they hustled me out of the terminal to an unmarked car in front with one wheel up on the curb, the phrase the agent had used stuck in my head.
“Funny money,” he’d called Howard’s counterfeit cash.
Something told me that it was the last funny thing I would be seeing for a long, long time.
William E. Wallace has been a house painter, cook, dishwasher, newspaper and magazine reporter, journalism professor, private investigator and military intelligence specialist. He took his bachelor’s in political science at U.C. Berkeley and was an award-winning investigative reporter and special projects writer for the San Francisco Chronicle for 26 years. His work has been published in All Due Respect (which has nominated it for a 2014 Pushcart Prize), Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter Online, Crime Factory and Dark Corners Pulp. In addition, he has a story that is slated for publication in Spinetingler Magazine. Wallace’s longer fiction includes three self-published novels: The Jade Bone Jar, Tamer, and The Judas Hunter; and a novella, I Wait to Die!. He is currently working on a new novel, Bottom Street. A Dead Heat with the Reaper, two noir novellas, is being published in paperback and electronic editions by All Due Respect books later this year.