A serialized noir novel: Chapter Two
PUG WOKE the next afternoon with that kind of hangover you shake off in your 20s, but feels like wading through an invisible, viscous slosh once you hit your 30s. He peeled the sweated-through sheet off his bare “skeleton with a gut” body, and rolled off his single mattress, tucked in the corner of his studio apartment, onto the dirty red Persian rug he’d received as payment for some previous caper, he’d forgotten which.
He flicked on his phone. Fourteen messages, one from Tommy, the others from Winston. A stickler for professionalism, he called his client back first.
“Didn’t go as planned,” he told Winston, and eyed the U-lock that kept the bike in stasis. “The punk ran off soon as I got there and took the bike with him.”
Pug slid a clear plastic bin from under his desk, and discarded his hand-saw, knife, wrench, and hammer onto the building’s fake wood floor. He pulled out an electric drill and plugged it in. “But I saw his face, so I’m APB-in’ my crew soon as I hang up.” The drill began to whir. “You still owe me my retainer, though.” The lock clattered to the floor in two pieces. “I take Paypal.” Click.
Pug staggered to the bathroom and drank straight from the spigot of his low-power faucet. He wiped the crust from his eyelids, deodorized, threw on a white t-shirt that read NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF!!, and shouldered on his black jean jacket. He hoisted the now-usable bike onto his shoulder, kicked open his laminate front door, lit a cigarette in the stairwell. He ran down the three flights, exited past an information kiosk about the building’s new ownership group, and staggered out the front door to the street. It’s true what they say about remembering how to ride a bike.
He took Telegraph south through Uptown, past the new cocktail joints and Cafe Van Kleef, to where it smacked into Broadway near the indefinite renovation. He passed 12th Street BART, the downtown Marriott, the Smart & Final, finally arriving at the blocky building of the OPD that stands like a looming chaperone next to the highway. He hopped off the bike in mid-pedal and let his cigarette fall from his mouth to the sidewalk as he slipped through the station doors.
“You’re supposed to run away from the police when you steal something, Pug,” said Frank Harris. Blonde, blue-eyed, chiseled chin, but a tad too short to take seriously, like someone’d lopped a foot-and-a-half off the “perfect” mold. They’d met in high school chemistry.
“Can I just, like, leave this here? For you to keep an eye on?” said Pug as he tipped the bike against the foyer wall. “I’m sure that’s completely normal and fine and perfect protocol.”
“Not at all, nope, not one bit,” said Frank, but Pug had already disappeared through the metal detectors.
He went to the property theft department and told the drowsy clerk behind the rage-proof plastic that he wanted to report his car stolen. He was given a stone-faced “sorry to hear that” and a clipboard, so he sat his ass down and started filling in the blanks. Frank loomed.
“Sorry to say, but the city ain’t our beat,” said Frank. “If you haven’t noticed, we’re an entirely different place altogether on this side.”
“I’ll have you know, I have already alerted the highly professional authorities on that side,” Pug said. “Got to cover all my bases.”
“Normally, I’d say that’s smart,” said Frank. “But I’ve seen your Metro. That wouldn’t make it over the bridge.”
“Underestimate the Beast at your peril,” muttered Pug, and signed the bottom of the form.
He stuffed the report under the glass with a wink at the clerk, turned around, and there was April, costumed in the societal disguise that served to transport her from the squats of a DIY gutter punk into the public defender’s office: sharp suit, black heels, cropped hair, glasses, clipboard, stern look. Pug had met her years ago while a juror on one of her boss’ cases, evidence enough you can’t trust the system.
“I’d say you look like shit, Pug,” said April. “But I’ve taken healthier-looking shits. What happened to you?”
“I think that’s just, like, how he looks,” stage-whispered Frank.
“Think I look bad, you should see the set of stairs,” Pug said. “Never mind all that. I was just coming to find you. They took my car, putting a kink in my plan of making a bonafide career out of cleaning up the backseat puke of Uber passengers. Need some cash, got anything for me?”
She did. The case came in the night before. A man named Royce Grace (“harsh across the tongue,” Pug noted) had gone to the home of his mom’s landlord, a man named Gardner. He rang the doorbell, introduced himself with a handshake, and proceeded to knock the ever-living shit out of this Gardner. Neighbors got between them soon enough and held back Royce, who plopped himself right down and waited for the cops to show.
“Landlord checked himself out of the hospital after a night,” April said. “I need a statement from him. Standard questions, easy money. Record it, bring it, we’ll cut you a check.”
Pug took her handheld recorder, hopped on his bike, and rode back up Telegraph, through that triangular patch of grass and cement outside City Hall named after Frank Ogawa or Oscar Grant, depending on one’s own order of justice. Standing on the top step of the carved-out amphitheater preached a white man with a grey ponytail, yelling on a bullhorn about something or other, to stoned nods and encouraging shouts from his peppered crowd. Pug couldn’t make it out.
He took San Pablo to Grand to Poplar, into the so-called “bullseye” of properties that realtors had already begun to salivate themselves dry over, and tossed his bike onto the lawn of that landlord named Gardner he was there to see. He knocked one, two, three times on the metal grate outside the door, glanced back at the status of his bike parked on the lawn, and turned into the two round voids of twin shotgun barrels. In retaliatory response, Pug let a nervous fart waft through his jeans.
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