I was not having a good morning, well, neither would you be if you had woken up in a dumpster smelling of last weeks lasagna and fish heads. My head was pounding like a thousand bombs had gone off inside it. I guess that must be from the bullet graze that decorated the top of my head.
They must have thought I was already dead when I toppled off the fire escape into yesterdays leftovers.
What had started as a simple babysitting job had morphed into something more sinister. I had taken a call from my old chief, Captain Sam Bennett, he asked for a meet at a downtown bar off Broome Street in lower Manhattan. I hadn’t heard from him in six years since I left the force with the rank of lieutenant and an arrest record longer than I care to think about. After spending six months wondering how I was going to spend the rest of my life, I decided I missed the cut and thrust of police work so I set up as a PI, a Private Investigator. I had to get out and do something, it was either that or spend the rest of my life on some happy hippy’s consultation couch coughing up all my dark memories and getting in touch with my feelings. That was for schmucks, not for me. And anyway, I had an ex wife and two kids to pay for.
I arrived half an hour early, saw they were still doing food so I ordered a meatball Hero on Rye, and a Jack and splash while I waited. The bus girl arrived with my big Italian submarine sandwich five minutes later, and I tucked in. I was starved, and wanted to be in full control of my faculties rather than thinking about food. Whatever Captain Bennett wanted must be serious to ask for a meet in a bar so far off his patch at the 52nd Precinct in the Bronx.
He arrived bang on time with another man in tow. I vaguely recognised the man who sat before me, he was rail thin with a rats face and a politicians grin.
Bennett introduced him as Walter Vaughn, and he was indeed a politician. He was about speak before a Senate Subcommittee hearing in San Francisco on organised crime in the United States. To improve his political standing, Vaughn planned to present a surprise star witness, Pat Renella, a defector from the Organisation in New York. Renella was a wiseguy, a made man who for reasons known only to him had decided to rat out his bosses in the Larocca family. Word was the family was planning something big, and Renella had all the plans locked away in his tiny mind.
“We want him guarded day and night,” Vaughn said, “His testimony could be extremely important. We want him alive when the Commission meets.”
I should have walked away. Last thing I needed was to lock horns with mafioso. Bennett said it was an easy job. He massaged my ego, telling me he could not trust anyone on the job, he wanted an outsider, and immediately thought of Frank Ballard, the best thief taker he ever had.
I knew he was talking crap. I had been a good cop, but at the same time a thorn in his side. I’d been a cop a long time. Ever since I came home from the killing floor in Southeast Asia. It seemed like the natural thing to do. My first assignment was vice, back in Frisco PD, but I got kicked back into uniform when some dirtbag pimp complained I’d roughed him up during a bust. I moved to New York, joined the force there, where I worked narcotics. The first week on the job I killed a dealer in a gunfight. He was shot in the back. The Review Team cleared me–he’d shot first and I nailed him going for the window.
I got a commendation, but they put me back on the beat. That was okay for a while. The people in the community knew me, we got along. I caught two guys coming out of a bodega, stocking masks over their heads, one had a shotgun. I cut them both down. Turned out one was thirteen years old. How was I supposed to know?
They sent me to the department shrink. Nice guy. Gave me a lot of tests, asked a lot of questions. Never said much.
The shrink’s office was in Manhattan. The locks were a joke. I went back there one night and pulled my file. It made interesting reading. Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder, fundamental lack of empathy, blunted affect, addicted risk–taker.
I’d been a sniper in Nam, so they tried me on the SWAT Team. When I did what they hired me to do, they pulled me off the job. Took away my gun.
Then they gave me a choice. I could take early retirement, go out on disability. Emotionally unsuited to law enforcement, that kind of thing.
So here I was, dumped in a San Francisco dumpster and left for dead because of some rat fink named Pat Renella.
We had driven down in the night, me and my best man, Don Gordon. Holed up in a flop house in Bernal Heights off Cesar Chavez Street. Renella was not very talkative, which pleased me, last thing I wanted to do was shoot the breeze with a slime-ball like him.
We only had to stay hidden for another twenty four hours, then we were to bring him to Senator Vaughn’s office where we would hand him over to SFPD’s finest who would look after him as he was transferred to the Senate hearing.
We had only been there for three hours when I stepped out onto the fire exit to have a smoke, and get some fresh air. The air con was out in our room, and the day was a hot one.
I had just taken my first long drag while half listening to Don ranting at some ball game on the flaky TV. Renell was sat at the Small table playing a game of patience. The door crashed open, and in came two goons, one armed with a pump action, the other a Browning. Don caught the full force of the pump action in the chest as he sprang to his feet.
I went for my .38 Colt Detective Special, which was secured in a Safari-land Model 90 fast draw holster under my left arm pit. I had just got my hand on the weapon when I felt myself falling over the metal railing and pain eating up the top of my head, then the lights went out.
I hauled my stocky frame out of the dumpster, and brushed off bits of paper and crap from my shirt and trousers. My head felt cotton woolly, and a wave of dizziness hit me. I put a hand out to steady myself. I was relieved to find my .38 was still firmly lodged in my holster. I did not fancy any more dumpster diving in search of it. The rancid smell was making me retch.
Once I felt the earth stop moving I stumbled to the drop down ladder, and scrambled up the three flights to our room.
The scene that greeted me was like a crazed Salvadore Dali painting. Blood splatters covered half one of the walls and a pool swelled out surrounding Don’s mangled body. By the look of him they must have shot him a second time. Of Renell, there was no sign.
I had to move fast. The goons who took Renell would be connected, made men working for Johnny Larocca. They wouldn’t kill him right away, would want him to suffer a little. So I still had time.
I quickly fixed myself up, fresh clothes, and sorted the wound. Not having the time to wait for the local cops, I called it in from the phone box on the corner. I could deal with the fall out later. I had a couple of people to see first.
Before I was a beat cop in New York, I worked Frisco’s wild and woolly streets, and I still knew most of the skels, the bottom feeders that ran on the edge of the local big crime families. If anyone would know, or could find out who was responsible for the take-down it would be Jimmy the Dog. He was a small time hustler who ran a car repair shop down an alley off Potrero and Army in Bernal Heights.
I retrieved my car, a 68 Ford Mustang GT, from the underground garage across the road from the flophouse. Five minutes later I rolled to a stop outside.
I recognised Jimmy D right away. He hadn’t changed in the seven years since I last saw him. He had the appearance of a greasy meatball in stained blue coveralls. Jimmy was under a Dodge Charger which was up on a hydraulic lift inside the shop. A large Hispanic looking man lounged on a chair by the wall outside.
I peeled my frame out of the car and casually strolled over, just another customer who wanted to be ripped off by Jimmy D’s high prices.
I nodded at the Hispanic man who nodded back. Standing in the doorway, I looked around the shop. Last time I had been here I would not have trusted Jimmy with a Tonka toy never mind an actual full size vehicle, he must have come into some serious money since the last time we did business. The shop was now equipped with state of the art equipment. Shiny tools sat in racks on the walls. The whole place still smelled of oil and grease though.
“Heya, Jimmy,” I called out to his back.
He gave a start, and slowly turned round, a look of recognition spread across his face. He probably remembered our last meeting. Dangling over a parapet five storeys up where I had caught him after a foot chase over the tar beach rooftops of Sunset Park.
“Ballard, long time no see, you look like bat beaten shit.” he said, “You ain’t here to bust my balls are ya?”
“Do they need busting, Jimmy?”
He came out from under the Charger, rubbing his hands on an oily rag.
“Hey, I’m strictly legit now, and anyway, ways I hear it, you’re no longer on the job, can’t bust me for nufink.”
The Hispanic popped his head around the door, “Everything okay boss?” He said from under his Mexican mono-brow.
“Go take a break, Miguel, Frankie here’s an old friend.”
Miguel grunted, and hefted himself up and wandered off.
“I figure this ain’t no social call, waddya want?”
“Someone just tried to clean my clock, took out my partner, and whisked away the palooka I was sitting on, heard any whispers about who could be gunning for the new boys in town?”
Jimmy’s face grew dark.
“You wanna let this one go, Ballard. You was carrying a heavy duty package, word is he ripped off the Sinaloa cowboys and the Larocca brothers back East, he’s hot property.”
I frowned, no one said anything about a Mexican Cartel being involved, or maybe they didn’t know. Maybe Renell was running a scam on everybody. Wouldn’t be the first time some mook had run NYPD like a racehorse. Seemed to me he’d got his fingers burned and saw the only way out was to spill his guts. Here’s hoping I found him before his guts spilled for real.
“I can’t let it go, Jimmy, where would they take him? I figure they’ll keep him breathing for a while yet so all the players can get some payback.”
“They got some warehouses down on the docks near pier 30, I hear its quiet down there at night, now if you’ll ‘scuse me I gotta get back to work.”
“One last thing, what is it Renell knows that he could use as a bargaining chip, do you know?”
Jimmy sighed, looked at me, his eyes narrowed, a frown deepening his already wrinkled face.
“Word is, the dago brothers are gonna join forces with the boys across the border, even I know no good can come of that.”
It was something I suppose, and it was all I had to go on. A warehouse! Mafia boys are so cliched. I thanked Jimmy, and headed back to my car. Jimmy was right, it would not be good news, Mafia and the cartels working together.
I pulled out of the alley near the intersection of Potrero and Army. That was when I clocked the muscled up Dodge Charger with two up front. One thing that got my blood up was hoods who thought they were above the law, and these two fitted that description, I had clocked the open display of firearms. The passenger was tooled up with a pump action. I wondered if these were the two goons who gatecrashed my hotel room.
I swung onto Army, and headed West.
The Mustang was an anonymous drab shark in an ocean of quicker, brighter little fish—all of them darting about, secure in their, fog-light-blazing perkiness—at war with glowering pedestrians, all engaged in a mutual ignorance pact when it came to traffic signals. I feathered the throttle, knowing the Mustangs stump-puller motor could break the fat rear tires loose in a heartbeat.
I felt the power kick in pulling me ahead of the following car. Manoeuvring around several vehicles gave me some breathing space.
After travelling a few blocks, I checked my rear-view. The Charger was three cars back. It swung out in an attempt to pass the car in front but was forced back by a delivery van. At Precita I threw a u-turn, and then peeled right onto York Street. I had a few precious minutes to turn the tables on my followers. Spying an alley, I swung into it. Rolling to a stop just out of sight and waited.
If anything made me antsy, it was having a couple of thugs trying to chase me down, I preferred it the other way round. How they found me I had no idea. Only thing I could think of was a clean up crew had been sent to the hotel, and they clocked me when I was leaving.
I didn’t have long to wait. The Charger nosed past the mouth of the alley. I thought they had spotted me, but they had been too busy checking the alley on the opposite side.
I threw the Mustang into reverse, with my wheels kicking up alley trash I burst out onto York to the honking of horns from disgruntled drivers. I swung the hood around, aiming it at the rear of their vehicle like a spear from hell.
I throttled down and gave them a little bump. I was letting them know I was there.
The hood in the passenger seat spun around, a what the fuck, expression on his face. There was a lot of hand waving and the Charger increased speed as the driver floored it.
The passenger popped his head out and got off a shot with the pump action. I swerved to the left using the angle of their car for cover.
More horns blared.
Screech of tyres.
I dare not return fire in fear of hitting an innocent. It wasn’t like in the movies, firing a gun while driving at the same time was a hard act to pull off.
I was all concentration now, silent fury was building inside me. My partner was dead, and Renell who was in my care was missing. I was not a happy chappy as the Limeys would say. And the fact I had to deal with these two schmucks before checking out the warehouse was not making my mood any better.
They shot across oncoming traffic, taking the corner onto Kansas Street. Two pedestrians managed to dive out of the way as the Charger crashed through a pile of boxes and rubbish bags.
I was not expecting that move so I overshot, and had to back up. Once I made it onto Kansas I had enough time to see them take a right onto 20th Street, we were heading towards the Potrero Hills district, an area I was unfamiliar with. I had to stop this and soon.
We drove for several blocks. Houses and various businesses shot by in a blur. I would gain on the vehicle, they would take pot shots at me and pull away. Why Frisco’s finest hadn’t descended on us I had no idea.
We turned onto Franklin Street heading East at 70 KPH. The wind whistling by outside. I could see the Coit Tower and Saints Peter and Paul Church silhouetted against the afternoon sky. I put my foot down and slammed into the right wing. The Charger fishtailed but held its course.
We swerved around a Cab, and the passenger fired again. I was too slow, my windshield took the full brunt of the shot. Starred and shattered, I had to kick it out.
I followed the vehicle onto Taylor, we were doing 80 downhill. Taylor is an undulating road, like a snake. We’d hit a rise and take to the air, slamming down with bone crunching intensity. How long my Mustang could take this kind of punishment I had no idea. I had lost three of my hub caps already.
Off in the distance I could hear the rise and fall of sirens approaching fast.
At the bottom of the hill the car swung right onto Filbert heading West. On our right we were passing the Chinatown campus of San Francisco City College. Several students stopped to cheer us on.
A few more blocks and we drove onto the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Traffic was heavy and we were soon weaving in and out of the way of other vehicles.
Near the end of the Parkway I could see traffic blocking the way, some kind of accident was preventing movement. The driver in the other car saw this too. We were approaching a gas station at the corner of Guadalupe and North Hill Drive. The driver saw a gap in the traffic and manoeuvred across the lanes. He was going to try and cut through the forecourt of the gas station. I shadowed his move perfectly. I ignored the horns of indignant drivers and put my foot down as the vehicle reached the edge of the forecourt. I slammed full on into his rear. I was trying to slam him into the side of the building. Instead, the vehicle spun across the forecourt and slammed into the pumps. Gasoline geysered into the air as the pumps were sheered off. From the drivers side something spun into the air.
Sunlight glinted off metal.
A Zippo lighter!
Who the fuck lights a cigarette during a car chase?
I wrenched the wheel wildly, felt the rear end start to slide, then brought it out with a splash of power. The Mustang crashed through the fence bordering the forecourt and scraped alongside the cars backed up alongside. I swung onto North Hill just in time. The gas station went up with a whoosh of ignited fumes. In my rear-view mirror I saw the hoods car engulfed in red and orange flames. They had a burning desire to get away from me, now they were just burned.
I heard more sirens in the distance, time for me to get my Lilly white ass out of there.
I floored it, taking me away from the conflagration as quickly as possible.
Night fell on the city, slipping into its alleyways and avenues like a velvet glove. After leaving the gas station I had driven up into the hills, I figured Renell would not be dealt with until dark. I drove back into the city and parked up in an underground garage. A dark blue Camero pulled in four bays down from me, the youth who alighted was dressed in the uniform of a nearby hotel. He would be heading for the start of his night-shift, as my car was now too inconspicuous because of the windshield, his would be perfect. And I might be able to return it before he realises it’s gone.
From the garage I drove to a club at the corner of 20th and Rhode Island. Breeze was owned by an old friend of mine, Briony Kerrigan. Briony had worked vice until she caught a bullet from a pimp effectively invaliding her from the force. The club had belonged to her brother until he was killed in a car accident, Briony took it over and turned what was an ailing club into a growing concern.
I knew I would need some back up when I went to the warehouse, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to watch my back. If I could persuade her.
A huge hairy biker type dude was sat on a stool just inside the front doors, he grunted a greeting, and I asked him where Briony was. He indicated inside the bar with a meaty thumb.
“You’ll find her at the bar, hey you ain’t from the fire marshals office are ya?”
“Why? You in code violation?”
I didn’t wait around for his answer. I pushed my way through a pair of faux bat-wing doors into the dimly lit interior, smelling of liquor and faded dreams. The club was about half full. The crowd a mixture of thirty somethings, and younger trying to look hip. Three girls in cropped shirts and Daisy Dukes worked the bar like a trio of magicians assistants, spinning and whirling in syncopation with the rock beat playing out from the juke in the corner.
I spied Briony at the far end of the bar area. Her fiery red tresses, like her personality, standing out from the crowd. I weaved through the crowd until I was standing behind her.
“Bri, been a long time.”
She whirled, her hazel eyes above her strong nose and high cheekbones flashing in recognition. She was still a beauty alright, with the kind of hips that waved hello as she sashayed across the room.
“Frank, my god, indeed a long time,” she said, and smiled a dimpled, wide-mouthed smile that lit up her face, “What brings you to my corner of hell?”
“Business, Im afraid.”
For a brief moment I caught a glimmer of disappointment in her eyes, then they returned to normal.
“Let’s talk out back, you want a drink?”
“I’ll take a Bud.”
“Ah, I only serve my favourite men here, Jack, Johnny, Jim Beam, spirits only I’m afraid.”
“In that case a Jack and splash will be fine.”
She called out to one of the barmaids, Becca, for a couple of shots of Jack. When they arrived she led me to a small office behind the bar area.
As we sipped our drinks I filled her in on the events leading up to my arrival at her bar.
When I’d finished, she put her drink down on the desk in front of her. Her face all serious.
“I’m in, what ever you need.”
“Just like that?”
I was surprised she did not need anymore persuading.
“When the Laroccas knocked Tito off his perch and took over down here they came knocking on Donny’s door, the car crash was no accident Frank, he was murdered, only there was no proof, but I knew.”
“I’m sorry, Bri.”
“Don’t sweat it, you’re giving me a chance at some payback, if that’s all I can get, it’ll be enough.”
She took out a Marlborough from the open pack on her desk, lit it and blew a cloud up to the ceiling.
“So what cha want me to do?”
The area fronting the shore by Pier 30 was all shadows and light. A bit like my life really. I felt like I was living in a twilight world where the rules of normal life did not exist. After leaving the force I thought I would be shut of the crazies, the skels, the lowlife gutter snarks. I would spend my life in the land of easy times, but no, I had to be dragged back into that dark world of insanity and festering evil. That was one of the reasons my wife left me, she said I cared too much about other people, their pain and heartache, than my own family.
Somebody had to.
I could smell the salt water, and heard the slapping of waves. A boats horn echoed on the night air, answered by a couple more. Calling out to each other, adding a melancholy edge to the night.
The click clack of approaching high heels brought me out of my reverie. Walking towards where I hung back in the shadow between two office buildings was Briony. She was dressed in pointy high heels, black stockings and a short sparkly skirt. A cropped white vest top and afro wig completed the lady of the night disguise.
After leaving the club I had headed straight for the shore front and located the warehouse where I believed Renell was being held. Two hoods with slicked back hair and beady eyes were sat on wooden crates out side the door next to the larger roller shutter entrance. Both had bulges under their loose fitting jackets. I found a call box and told Briony where to meet me before returning to my shadow to keep eyes on the place.
Only one other person arrived at the warehouse while I was waiting. By his demeanour he was their boss man. He stayed for five minutes before leaving. I had no idea how many would be inside as the warehouse had no windows. Briony would be my eyes on the inside. Playing a part she was good at, the drunken hooker. She would gain access to the warehouse, and once I entered she would call out the numbers, and then join in whatever fight ensued with her own .38 secreted in her pocketbook. A thin plan I knew but it would save me precious seconds in scoping out the players.
I stayed in the shadows as she stopped by me. She made a show of fiddling with the strap of one of her shoes.
“Two sentry’s by the door, bring them to me,” I whispered.
She popped the gum in her mouth signalling she had heard. Adjusting her skirt she tottered off towards the two men. From my position across from them I could hear every word.
“Hey sister, you lost?”
One of the hoods slipped off his perch, grinned at Briony.
“I’s lookin’ for some fun, hun, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could find some do ya?”
She had deliberately slurred her words, effecting the persona of a horny happy drunk.
“You came to the right place, me and my partner are the kings of fun,” he slung a thumb over his shoulder indicating the other hood who remained sitting on his crate. His expression blank but a hunger rising in his eyes.
“Well fellas I’m all dressed up and no one to blow, lets the three of us slip into that alley across the way…have us a pardy hardy,” her voice dripped with a sultry heat, body writhing in faux desire. I knew she would be cringing inside, but she was a superb actress, she deserved an Oscar for the performance she was giving.
The hoods were convinced. All thoughts of duty vanished as the brain between their legs took a hold. Briony started tottering towards me. The two hoods trailing like hounds in heat.
I slipped back into deeper shadow, drew my .38.
They both had a hold of her as they stepped into the alley. I moved towards them, my gun held at waist level. Before I could speak, Briony was on the move. She was a blur, before I could blink, both men were unconscious on the ground. It had been an impressive display of Kwai Chang Caine shit I had ever seen.
I stared at her, mouth open.
“I met a Chinese cat by the name of Mr Lee in Oakland, taught me some slammin’ tricks, been practising ever since,” she grinned from ear to ear, “Nice to see the shit works for real.”
I laughed, “Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
“C’mon, phase two,” she whirled and headed back towards the warehouse.
Without pausing she wobbled over to the warehouse door, back in character again. She pushed it open and disappeared inside. I was to give her to the count of thirty then follow her in.
I ran over, and waited by the door, counting off in my head.
Hitting thirty, I cracked the door and slipped inside.
Inside it was a twilight world. The only illumination was a single light in the centre of the roof. Dust motes floated in the air which smelled of dry wood, and oil. The warehouse was long, and low, filled with crates ten high. A single passage led deeper into the warehouse. I could hear male voices, Briony’s laugh.
I skulked along the passage. Heard Briony say, “A party it is boys, the six of us, ya better give me a swig of that bottle, figure I’m gonna need the stamina.”
More male laughter.
She was telling me there was five of them.
I quickened my pace. Moving towards the sound of the voices.
The passage ended at an open space. I quickly took in Renell tied to a chair, his battered face hung down on this chest. On a small table before him was some kind of recording equipment. Briony was leaning against a table, the men standing in a semi circle before her like they were at some kind of Burlesque show.
I shot the nearest man to me. He flew back, a neat little hole where his nose used to be. Briony came up with her own weapon. The men scattered, drawing their weapons. I caught one in the back as he made his way towards the cover of a passage nearby. Briony shot two of them. The one that was left had more presence of mind. He made for Renell, putting his gun to the mans head, with his other hand he drew a Magnum from the waistband of his pants, moving it from me to Briony.
“Drop your weapons, or I do him!”
I stepped towards them, my pistol out before me.
“Nah, you drop yours and we’ll let you live.”
He laughed, a harsh sound in the dank air of the warehouse.
“Whatcha think I am a fool, you’ll kill me. I’m leaving here, and taking him with me.”
I stepped closer, aiming to distract him. I had a sudden thought.
“What’s the recording equipment for?”
I lowered my weapon.
The man laughed.
“Mr Larocca likes to have recordings of our little, erm, question and answer sessions, he wanted to know everything Pat knew about his business.”
“I had a feeling that was the case.”
My gun came up and I shot Renell twice in the chest. The hood stepped back, shock flowing from his eyes. He was even more shocked when two of Briony’s slugs took out those same eyes.
“I don’t get it,” Briony said, “Why’d you shoot, Renell?”
We were back in her office at the bar. The recording equipment sat on the desk n front of us, alongside a suitcase stuffed full of more money than I had ever seen in my life. I had to take it, for safe keeping see, anyone could have walked in and stolen it. I saw it as a profoundly moral act in a kind of moral, biblical, old testament sense: an eye for an eye, and a bag of money thrown in. The fact that the eyes had had a brain and a skull behind it was incidental.
I raised my glass of Jack in a silent cheer to my partner Don before answering.
“Way I saw it, Renell was the one ultimately responsible for Don’s death, and what Vaughn was after was what Renell knew, they recorded it all so we didn’t need the rat, we was in a Mexican stand-off so I took him out of the equation.”
“What did Bennett say when you called him?”
“My ear’s just starting to stop aching, but when I told him we had it all on tape it mollified him some.”
She nodded at the bag of money.
“So, Frank, what you gonna do with all that money?”
“Thought I might take you out to dinner.”
“Thought you’d never ask, you still owe me for that burgher I bought you, I accept, but no Mexican,” she said, “Oh, and no Italian either.”
We both fell about laughing before knocking back our Jacks and heading out into a night full of pleasant neon shadows and light.