A serialized noir novel: Chapter One

NEVER go to the city, they say.

Hear that the first few times, and it’s a statement so broad in its interpretations that it has no power. It comes across as a “chip on the shoulder” moment of the jealous and misguided, the lazy and complacent. But it’s not, no sir, not at all. What they say is true. Never go to the city. Because nothing good ever happens there.

Evidence of this fact slumps before you on the Transbay BART at 4:30 in the morning.

Now, before you jump to point out the factual inaccuracy of the BART’s hours of operation, proof your author is not quite as clever as she thinks she is in disguising her lack of local bonafides, you’re gonna have to trust me on this: It is indeed 4:30 on a Thursday morning on BART.

And, behold, this scrawny white dude before you.

He looks to be a “rough” 26 years or a “high-class” 45, lean-sleeping at an awkward angle in that row of blue, hard plastic. His face is flattened against the glass, and a drop of spittle hangs from his mouth so that between the real thing and its fogged reflection, it looks kind of like a sloppy, glistening letter U.

No point beating around the bush: This guy’s our hero.

Milo Arnold, but he goes by “Pug,” a nickname he’s had since the fifth grade when his then-best friend brought his dog to school and the resemblance was striking. Pug snores like an asshole, and through a tear in his stained jeans you make out the red patch of a recently-skinned knee. He’s got bruises on his elbows, and you can smell the liquor on his breath from here.

Not pretty to start with, that’s for sure. But the cuts, bruises, and puffed eyes are recent additions.

The night started out fine enough. He’d made it to the city an hour early to re-obtain the bike of one Mr. Winston Gloss, a first-time “client” he’d been put in touch with through a friend of a friend of a friend. Gloss was a techie import who’d had his ultra lightweight, carbon-framed road bike stolen after he’d idiotically left it locked up — get this: running the chain through only his wheels — overnight in the Mission. Police rightfully laughed him out of their precinct, so Gloss turned to his buddy Rafael, who knew Amber, who knew Pug, who did this sort of thing for a modest fee.

A few deftly-worded internet searches later, and a meeting was set up for Gloss to ostensibly buy his own bike back. But Pug offered to do him one better and do the deal himself while using “proven intimidation tactics,” skipping the payment entirely, with Pug taking a percentage. Gloss wanted the bike back most of all, but dollars saved were dollars earned, so the approval came swiftly.

The plan was simple: Meet the thief at Capp and 17th, feign calling radio back-up to come and arrest the perp, watch him scurry off, pop the recovered hot wheels into his Geo Metro, drop it back at Winston’s, get paid. A simple, easy way to make the week’s funds.

But a complication this particular Friday night was the long-planned switch from the old Bay Bridge to the new, necessitating a closing of the eastern span from 8 p.m. that Wednesday through the weekend. To satisfy the populace’s transportation needs, the city was running BART 24/7 during the closure, but that’d be irrelevant to Pug, who’d easily be safe back in Oakland by the time of the shut down.

Pug told the crook six o’clock and got there early to scout the location from the confines of the Uptown, a bar kiddie-corner to the meet. He climbed on a stool and ordered a pint.

“Impending doom is coming,” leaned a bald, goatee’d and pockmarked stranger into Pug’s personal bubble. “Beware signs of its approach. For example, like that…,” the stranger pointed to the Uptown’s jukebox, a stout job with about a hundred albums to flip through. “Once that becomes an internet-connected monolith, where every recorded song spanning God’s vast creation can be selected from the comfort of one’s own thumbs, it’s over, man.”

With a bombastic shake of his head to stress his point, the stranger twirled his turquoise feather boa through a puddle on the bar and tipped off his stool into Pug’s lap. Pug hoisted the drunk back onto the smooth edge of the bar top, downed his own glass, and ordered one more. Halfway through, the thief texted that he was ready for the swap.

“Mind watching this?” he asked the slumbering luddite in the boa, dropping a coaster on top his glass in case the message didn’t get through. He went outside and waited for his bar-eyes to adjust to the fading sunlight, and across the street he saw a kid in his late teens rocking nervously, and holding the bike in question. As Pug crossed the street, he took his phone out.

“You the man with the bike?”

“You the man with the money?”

“Yeah, but I’m gonna hold onto it,” Pug said, and brought his phone to his mouth like some mimed walkie-talkie. “Backup, backup, 8–2–4–1, backup!”

The kid dropped the bike and ran up 17th into the ether of pedestrian traffic. Easy money, thought Pug, until he tried to roll the bike back to his car and it traveled half the length of a wheel before slamming to a halt. The dickhead thief had stuck a U-lock in the tire, making it more paperweight than vehicle.

Pug carried it the two blocks to where he’d lucked into a parking spot, but when he got there, the spot had been taken by something other than his “vintage” 2000 auburn Geo Metro. He checked the street signs for convoluted tow traps: clear. He fumbled in his pockets for his keys: gone. He scanned the pavement for clues: turquoise feathers littered the ground.

Mother. Fucker.

Pug headed back to the bar and called the SFPD to report the car theft, then had three or four more rounds waiting for their reply, which never came. Closing time forced him to stumble to the 16th Street BART, carrying that damn bike on his shoulder. His knee gave out on the final set of subterranean stairs and he tumbled down the rest. Pummeled knees, skinned elbows, bent rims, metallic screeches in the cavern. He lurched into the next BART and passed out against the cool window glass.

Two or three rides back and forth across the tube later, he was woken by an ancient black man, grizzled with grey stubble on his chin. He wore a wrinkled old suit and shook a paper cup with coins rattling inside. He poked Pug in the arm, and with no response, he poked again.

“Fucking hell, man!” said Pug.

“I have four quarters,” the suited man said. “Have a dollar I can trade them for?” Pug wiped his eye and, surprising even himself, pulled out a crumpled bill from his pocket. He made the trade, and after one perfect beat, the old man deadpanned, “Got any change you can spare?”

Pug smirked at the hustle and flipped two quarters to the old man. “All I got.”

The old man tipped the rim of his hat and walked off. Behind him, Pug saw the massive white cranes of the Oakland harbor slide into view like giant, pale sentinels providing cover to those returning home. He exited at 19th Street, carried the shithead’s bike up the stairs and all the way back to his apartment, cursing the night he’d just had, blissfully unaware of the shitshow yet to come.

* * * * *

Note: To download the much easier-to-read and way-better-designed PDF of this chapter, go here. If you want to download a PDF of all seven chapters of Part One, head here. If any of this is to your liking, head to oaktownoir.com to sign up.