We arrived at Jerry's house at nine sharp. Bekka and I led Jane around the side of the tiny house (which looked even more decrepit in daylight) to the back door, where I pounded for admittance. I had to pound, as Jerry had his stereo turned up loud enough to make the windows rattle. Oh well, he certainly didn't have any neighbors that he could annoy. The door popped open and he stuck his head out, smiling when he saw who it was.
"Did all three of you plan on seeing this guy?" he asked. "Because I don't want him to think I'm trying to crowd him. I thought it would just be me and Lenny."
"That's fine," said Bekka. "Me and her will wait in the car."
Jerry came out, locking the door but not having bothered to turn off the stereo. We went out front. The girls got in the back seat, Jerry joining me up front. He directed me to a house on Ninth St. near Jones, in a neighborhood that screamed "future gentrification target." We pulled up and stared at the front of the house.
"This is where Wallace lives," said Jerry. "He's one of three professional car thieves I know personally. The other two are in Oakland, and wouldn't be wandering around this neighborhood looking for good cars to steal. With Wallace this close, I thought of him immediately. Hell, he could have been out taking a walk, saw your Cutlass, and stole it on spec. Let's go say hi."
We got out and headed for the front door of the fog-stained house. Jerry knocked. The door was opened by a middle-aged black man with a slight paunch. He had a vaguely alcoholic odor, as though it was coming out of his pores. A coffee cup was in one hand. He squinted out at us, frowning at me, and his eyebrows sprang up when he looked at Jerry.
"Hey, Jerry, right?" he said. "How you doin'? Who yo' friend?" His voice had a distinct blues singer roughness to it.
Jerry said, "Hiya Wallace. This here is Lenny, he's from San Diego. Listen Wallace, we need to get some information from you. Can we come in?"
"Sho'. Coffee's on."
If Wallace and his wife were drunks, they were tidy drunks. The house was fairly neat, no piles of flotsam against the walls or long-forgotten dirty glasses on the tables. Wallace guided us into his living room, where Jerry and I landed on a sofa and Wallace occupied a recliner with duct tape on one arm.
"So what can I do for you boys this morning?" asked Wallace.
Jerry said, "Look, last night you pulled a car right here in the neighborhood, a hot rod. Was it a '70 Cutlass 442?"
Wallace frowned. "A '71. How you know dat?"
"It belongs to my friend here. He's trying to get it back. We want to know who you sold the car to, and where can we find them."
Wallace's suspicion deepened. He gestured at me and said, "Who this boy again? Who are you, boy? You from da po-po?"
"No, I'm no cop," I said. "Like Jerry said, I'm a guy from San Diego. Last night you stole my little girl's car, and I want to get it back. Point us in the right direction to find it and we'll be out of your hair."
"Your little girl's car? Junior, don't try to tell me you got daughters of driving age."
I chuckled. "No, she's not my daughter. Still, I am raising her. She's sixteen and she loves that Cutlass. I intend to get it back. You're not going to be an obstacle in front of my goal, are you?"
Wallace sipped his coffee, pushed out his chest a little, and said, "And suppose I don't feel like talking to one of you crazy white boys? I gots nothin' to say?"
I pulled the Beretta out and let it dangle from my hand, the barrel pointing at the floor. I said, "Then I would assume you're lying to me. Out of anger and frustration, I would shoot you through your right foot. It would be at least six weeks before you could drive again. If you continued to be uncooperative, I would shoot you through your left foot. After that I would systematically destroy both of your legs. I have thirty shots, I could drag things out for a couple hours. Who knows, you could bleed out in that time. Capiche?"
The middle-aged black car thief shifted uneasily in his chair. He knocked back the last of his coffee and said, "See, what you ain't thinkin' about is dat if I tell you where the car is, and you go to get it, then they'll know who told you where it was. I am in a rather un-ten-able position."
"So you explain to them that you were up against some crazy punk rocker with a gun. They'll have met me, they'll believe you. Besides.... Well, how much did you get paid for the Cutlass?"
"Nine hundred," sighed Wallace.
"I'll give them their nine hundred back. That's not a bad ransom. They aren't out anything, they're no worse off than they were before. Hell, you're the one that comes out ahead, you're up nine hundred. Out of curiosity, what made you decide to pull my car last night?"
"I was takin' a walk, wishin' I had some money to go to the racetrack this weekend. I saw your car. The people I do business wit' tole me they'll pay up on classic iron, no questions axed, if I find it. I decided the good lord was takin' care of me after all, so I boosted it. I drove up to their warehouse, they gave me the money, I took a cab home. Real smooth. They was real happy with what I brought 'em."
I smiled. "It's a sweet ride, no doubt about it. That's why I want it back. So tell me where I can find it."
Wallace smiled back, but it had a nervous tint to it. "You bluffin'," he said.
Still smiling, I pressed the barrel of the Beretta into the side of his knee. "It will be extremely painful on your part to find out just how much I'm not bluffing. Cough up."
Looking a little damp, Wallace said, "Wait here." I allowed him to get up and walk into another part of the house. When he returned I half-expected him to be holding a dusty and rusty double-barrel shotgun, or a piece of shit .25. But he was only carrying a AAA map, which he unfolded and spread out on the dining room table.
"C'mere," he said. Jerry and I joined him. He pointed down at the map. "Okay, here's the 580. This is Richmond Parkway. You run up the parkway about four miles to Parr Boulevard, an' turn east. 'Bout three quarters of a mile in you'll see a sign for Triton Chemicals on your left. Turn in there and go to the big warehouse in the back. Leave yo' car outside and walk in. You lookin' for a Jap dude named Ichiro, he the one you gonna parlay with. You try to leave me out of it."
"Actually, better if I mention you," I said. "I'll make it clear I pointed a gun at you and forced you to give me the intel. That way they won't think you roll over at the drop of a hat, or shoot your mouth off in bars, know what I mean?"
Wallace grabbed a bottle of Old Crow off the table. He got the top off and took a few swallows. Then he held the bottle out and said, "Belt? It's the weekend."
I took the bottle and knocked back some, then passed it to Jerry, who looked as nervous as Wallace. I thanked him and holstered my gun. The both of them seemed visibly relieved when I did. I began drifting for the door.
I said, "Thank you for your time, sir. Now I need to go get my car back. Good morning to you."
Wallace said, "White boy, I never want to see you ever again, nohow. Okay?"
"So long as what you've told me is accurate, you won't. If you've mislead me, then I will come back, and I will be in a very foul mood. Any other information you want to share with me?"
"I tole you what I know. Thass all. Jerry, you need to check yo'self, and the people you make friends with. You around some crazy folk."
Jerry shrugged and said, "I didn't know he was this crazy."
I put my hand on the front doorknob and said, "Thanks for the drink. May we never meet again. Good morning to you."
We went out and got in the Cougar without speaking. Once we were seated, Jerry said, "I can't believe you pointed a gun at him. Where did you get a gun from? Why do you have a gun at all?"
I fired up the engine and began rolling slowly down the block. I said, "I've had that gun with me all the time. Why do you think I keep my jacket buttoned? And I pulled the gun for the sake of expedience. I knew he would want to hold back, and didn't feel like arguing about it with him. You'd rather I'd have beaten the information out of him? Now where's a good place for breakfast around here, and not Denny's? I only eat at Denny's out of desperation."
"So things go well?" asked Bekka from the back seat.
"Fairly well," I replied. "The gentleman was a bit recalcitrant at first, but I convinced him to share the information I wanted."
"Well, we didn't hear shots, so we took that as a good sign," said Jane, lighting a Newport.
"He threatened one of my contacts with a gun!" complained Jerry. "I don't know if he'll ever trust me again!"
Bekka chuckled at this. "So, you explain that Lenny is just some crazy bastard you met at the club. It's not your fault, you were just trying to help."
Jerry directed me onto San Pablo Ave., where I turned north. We headed into Albany, to a drab brown building just south of Solano Ave. Jerry said they had the best breakfast going, which sounded fine with us. We hadn't eaten since our Big Macs the night before. Jane looked over the menu and announced her intention to order half of it. That girl was always hungry, a growing teen. We got our coffee and placed our orders.
"So you always carry a gun?" asked Jerry.
"Both of us do, dear," said Bekka. "Right now Jane has one, but that's only temporary. There's some trouble in SoCal that we're involved in, and having her unable to protect herself seemed unfair. But yes, Lenny and I carry. Does it bother you?"
"Yeah it does. I'm not used to being around them. I mean, what are you guys up to that you think you need guns for?"
Bekka and I looked at each other. "Should we tell him?" I asked.
"May as well, it'd be dishonest not to tell a new friend," said Bekka.
"They're in the mafia," announced Jane. "I sort of am too."
"Thank you, Jane," said Bekka. "Lenny is an associate, and for various reasons, the Don of Southern California has told me that he wants me inducted as a full member. I'll be the first female mafioso ever. Jane here is a mascot for a bunch of soldiers in LA. But yes, we are involved with the Southern California mafia. Strange how these things happen."
Jerry sat there slack-jawed. "So how did this happen?" he asked.
"I was recruited after I started running Inana,' I said. "The studio is owned by my capo, and he felt I had potential. Heh, everybody thought he was crazy, bringing on some punk rock dude."
"I was opposed to the idea at first," Bekka threw in.
"Opposed!" I cried. "You told me you'd leave me if I ever gave it serious consideration!"
"Yeah, well, I changed my mind, didn't I? And as it turned out, a lot of my fears were well-founded. Like Angel says, you're a damn bullet magnet. Cops wives don't worry about their husbands as much as I worry about you sometimes. Especially in the beginning, when they had you doing those coke runs."
"And I came out on top in all those situations, didn't I?"
Bekka laughed. "Yeah, while you made the local auto glass people rich. Check this out, Jerry, he had every window but one in his car shot out, some more than once. Nobody had ever had trouble with those coke runs, then he comes along and it turns into a shooting gallery. Not to mention you nearly getting snatched in Gorman. The shit hits the fan when he's around. And he expects me to not worry. What a laugh."
"Ah, that Acura was always bad luck," I said dismissively. "And the shit really hits the fan when we're together. What about when Chrissie got kidnapped? What about when Boss had that hit out on him? Or when you got stabbed, for chrissake? Weird shit happens around us. Hell, look at today. We've gotta go deal with stolen car merchants with no backup just to get our own car back. Face it sweetie, together we're a jinx."
"So why the guns?" asked Jerry.
"Because in too many situations, it's a choice of either shoot back or die. Personal protection is a big thing in the family. We have to protect ourselves. No less, no more. I don't like using my pistol in an offensive manner, like I did this morning, but I will. It was the most expedient way of getting information out of the man. I'm sure that dude Wallace was burning up the phone lines as soon as we were clear of his house, so we're gonna be watched for when we get to that warehouse. I'm not worried about it, I'm offering them a reasonable deal. Like they said in 'Repo Man,' only an asshole gets killed over a car. They'll give it up as soon as they see we're not kidding, and that they aren't out a penny. It'll work out."
"I'm coming with you, right?"
Bekka and I looked at him and started laughing.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
I said, "Dude, you don't have a gun. The last thing we need is an extra person running around naked. Nothing personal, but you'll just be in the way. I'm not happy that Jane is along on this ride, but she does as she's told and she's got a Beretta in her pocket if things get out of hand. If things turn bad she can drop anything chasing her and run like hell. You, you're naked. We don't need the liability. After breakfast we drop you back off at your house and we go take care of business. We'll call you when it's over, okay? We're expecting flak. No sense in a guy we just met catching any of it."
"Hey, I can handle it...." protested Jerry.
"This is going to be a tense situation. I'm not doing that to a guy I haven't known twenty-four hours. Forget it."
Bekka said, "If it's too tense of a situation, we back out and just call the insurance company, right? Right?"
"Of course, dear," I said in my most patronizing tone. "After stirring up the hornets nest, we'll back off and say we were just kidding, we'll call Allstate and settle things through them. The hornets won't mind one bit."
"Lenny...." Bekka said in a warning tone.
I held up my hands. "Look, if I'm outgunned, I'm outgunned, and we beat a retreat. But you weren't expecting a warm welcome from these people, right? They'll be dealing with a new situation, the legitimate owners of a vehicle showing up at their door demanding their car back. I'm hoping that makes them flinch, and they give up the Cutlass peacefully. Hell, we have the keys to the damn thing, not much to stop us from firing up the beast and driving it away."
"We're not having our usual argument. I'm going in with you, and that's that."
Jane said, "I'm going too."
I told Jane, "You're waiting in the driver's seat of the Cougar, ready to follow us when we take off in the Cutlass. I'm not letting anyone point a gun at you."
Jane pouted at me, "It's my car. Besides, I have my own gun to point. I'll be okay."
"I said forget it. Me and Bekka have handled this sort of situation in the past. I'm not dragging you in. I should have left you with Ivanka and Ginny, you could be in the City having fun right now. Dammit, for once you'll do as you're told."
Jane frowned, crossed her arms, and slouched back in her seat. "I do what I'm told all the time," she groused. "I can help you guys."
"And you will be helping," said Bekka. "You're our getaway driver for the Cougar."
"Where did you get that car from, anyways?" asked Jerry. "You have a 1971 Cutlass you're getting back, and you managed to get a hold of another hot rod. Where did this one come from?"
"Borrowed it from a friend in the City. Didn't I introduce you to Ivanka and Ginny last night? It's Ivanka's car, she's a stripper, she lives on Telegraph Hill and works in North Beach, so she walks to work. She offered us use of her car while we take care of this bullshit."
I got up to check out the jukebox in the corner. It was loaded with oldies, which suited me fine. I selected Duane Eddy, ? and the Mysterians, the Coasters, and Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs. While I was punching in my selections the waitress coasted up next to me and asked, "Is that Becky Page the porn star you're with?"
"Sure is. You a fan?" I asked.
I got a glare. "I hate her," she said loudly, pitching a dirty look in the direction of the table.
"Oh yeah? Why?" I decided to not bring up the whole marriage thing for the time being.
The waitress sighed. "My boyfriend is all hung up on her. Do you have any idea what it's like to be constantly compared to a sexual dynamo with a perfect body? At his insistence, I even started, um, shaving like she does. She makes me puke. How do you know her? Why is she here, of all places?"
I smiled. "She's my wife, and we're having breakfast with a new friend, a guy we met last night. She's not a sexual dynamo, she only plays one. And she'd love to hear that she has a perfect body. I try to tell her that, but she doesn't believe me. She's a nice girl from Encinitas, California, who has been very successful in a strange industry. Come talk to us when you bring us our breakfast."
"Okay. I'll try not to hate her." A bell rang. "That's probably your breakfast now."
I went back to my seat as "Along Came Jones" by the Coasters filled the room. The waitress brought over our food. She cut off our eating by saying, "You're Becky Page, right?"
"That I am," smiled Bekka.
With her most forced, I-am-trying-to-be professional smile, the waitress asked, "Could you give me your autograph? It's for my boyfriend, he's a big fan."
"Wha-at?" exclaimed the waitress.
"I won't give you my autograph. Boyfriend or not, I can see in your eyes you hate me, and we've never met. I'm sorry you hate me. I'm just some bitch from Southern California, you have no reasons to hate me, but you do. Sorry, I owe you no favors. Explain why you hate me and maybe I'll change my mind. But right now I just want to eat my breakfast."
"I'll tell you why," the waitress growled. "You're trying to steal my boyfriend. I'm sick of hearing about how hot and sexy you are. You really are a witch, just like in that one damn movie of yours. My boyfriend is all worked up over you, you're taking him away from me. In the last six months I've seen your pussy more often than I've seen my own. He's obsessed with you, with some bitch he's only ever seen on video tape. You're taking him away from me and yeah, I hate you for it!"
Bekka's fork paused over her home fries. "Your boyfriend is obsessing over a fantasy," she said. "I've seen it before. Tell him he needs to check himself. He ever done this before? Over another porn star, or some screen celebrity?"
"No he hasn't. You're the first."
Jane said, "You have that effect on men, from what I've heard. I'm just glad Lance never got all hung up on you, that would have been weird."
"I don't know what to tell you," said Bekka to the waitress. "Give him time, I'm sure he'll get over this obsession he's carrying around. So far as your loathing of me goes, you're doing the same thing he is, which is obsessing over a figment of your imagination. Like I said, I'm just a bitch from SoCal. I"m not some kind of sex goddess or succubus."
"He wants me to get a haircut like yours," complained the waitress. "And a boob job. Like I'm supposed to get my tits done on what I earn as a waitress."
I said, "Maybe you just need to have it out with him. Sorry your boyfriend is so worked up over what he sees on videotape, and he's not the only one, but the contention is between you two, not us and you. And I think we need more coffee here."
The waitress grumbled and went to get the pot. She refilled us and said, "It's just.... I can't live up to her. What he sees in her movies is beyond my abilities. It's like you set a high water mark that I have to reach. I know it's mean to hate you, but I can't live up to Becky Page."
"I can't live up to Becky Page either," said Bekka. "She's imaginary, she only exists on videotape. If I lived the way that fictional creation supposedly does, my life would be a wreck. I wouldn't have my husband, I wouldn't have Jane, just a long trail of men that I'd fucked. I'm glad I'm not her. Would you like to know who I really am?"
Bekka stuck her hand out and said, "Hi, I'm Bekka Schneider from Encinitas, down by San Diego. This is my husband Lenny and our girl Jane, who we're raising. I have a very strange job, but I've been doing it for eight years and I'm good at it. My hobbies are sewing and riding my motorcycle. I'm just a chick from SoCal with a weird form of employment. What else would you like to know? Do you still want my autograph?"
The waitress sighed and shook Bekka's hand. "I'm sorry, you just had me feeling so jealous. You're right, it's my boyfriend's trip. If it's okay, yes, I still want your autograph. It will be my last indulgence of my boyfriend so far as Becky Page goes. He's getting the autograph and a talking to. This is really your husband, huh?"
"My one and only," smiled Bekka. "The man of my dreams. I may have intercourse with other men when I'm at work, but Lenny is the one I make love with. Understand me?"
"And you don't mean to seduce men by the proxy of video?" asked the waitress.
Bekka laughed. "I don't seduce. I provide masturbatory fantasies for men, and not a few women, as I learned last night. That's all I ever meant to do. My popularity has come as a surprise, believe me, I never dreamed I would be the sex goddess I've turned out to be. Now if you'll excuse me, my eggs are getting cold. I'll sign a clean place-mat and leave it for you. Fair?"
That was fair with the waitress. She came over two more times, once to freshen our coffee and once to drop our bill on the table. I counted money out for the bill, leaving a fair but unremarkable tip. Jerry was impressed with Bekka's restraint. "I know girlfriends who would have gone after her throat!"
I popped a complimentary mint in my mouth and said, "The poor girl is fighting shadows. She hates the image that Bekka here creates, she hates that her boyfriend is hung up on a fictional sex bomb. Ever have imaginary friends when you were a kid? 'Cos that's what this girl was hating on: an imaginary woman, who is more than a woman, she's a goddess. How do you compete against that? In a way, I'm surprised that we haven't gotten more poison-pen letters from angry wives. Bekka has a lot of men obsessed. Hell, she could probably run for State Assembly and get in. She'd have the male vote sewn up, and enough women would be voting for her due to liberal or libertarian-minded logic. Plus the curious. Would you want a porn star, even one you already knew was smart, helping run the state? I would, but I live with one so I'm not the best judge of the situation."
After we packed in, I made an illegal U-turn at Solano and headed back towards Gilman St. and Jerry's place, where we would drop him off. He wasn't happy about this.
"This would be an incredible experience for me!" he complained.
"No means no, Festus," I replied. "For us, this is not some thrilling adventure we're going on, it's a right royal pain in the ass. We're not anticipating anything but a headache. We'll approach the situation in the most rational way possible, and hopefully we'll avoid having our guns out at all. I can hope for that last one, but logic tells me I'm going to need a persuader in my hand at least part of the time. So far as 'life experiences' go, you'll probably be glad you missed out on this one. We'll tell you all about it when we're done, assuming we're not dead, in the hospital, or in jail."
Jerry pouted like a little kid. "Well, okay. But you come to my place when you're done and tell me how things went."