A Shot In The Arm
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by Barry S. Wildorf
Description: When Nate Lewis is retained to defend a black drug treatment counselor on a minor gun possession rap, he inadvertently stumbles into a rogue government operation smuggling drugs from Thailand into Marin County to buy guns for anti-Communist guerillas in Southeast Asia. Soon a prime witness for the defense is found dead of an overdose and Nate's client is accused of killing, and maybe raping her. Against girlfriend Christina's advice, Nate takes the homicide case but quickly discovers that his big retainer comes from drug profits his client has stolen from the rogue agents. It doesn't take long before his client's cronies begin turning up dead as the government agents pull out all stops to recover the stolen loot. But when the client goes underground the agents come gunning for Nate. Only Christina can save him now.
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: April 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [401 KB]
Reading time: 259-363 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
Twenty thousand dollars was a hell of a lot of dough back in 1973, especially if it came in cash and you didn't mention it to the tax man. In many nice parts of San Francisco, you could get three bedrooms, a view of downtown, and have some bread left over. Scuttlebutt told me that twenty Gs was the standard retainer for someone looking at a murder rap, so that was how much I quoted Umoja Simama.
I was running a shoestring law practice in the Mission at the time. One of his lieutenants, Oso Pardo, showed up at my office with a silvery metal briefcase, snapped it open and dumped packets of bills--a year's supply of cash--all over my desk. I'd hoped that by asking for that kind of money, Umoja would go looking for another mouthpiece. I wanted out, especially for the sake of my relationship with Christina. But as fate had it, Umoja was unaccountably flush at just that moment.
You see dough like that, you get greedy. Your mind gets addled. So I ignored my better judgment and the advice of everyone around me. I took the money in denial that I was making a Faustian bargain by accepting the loot.
"You gonna count it, man?" Oso Pardo asked.
"I don't need to steenking count it," I replied, pretending it was a scene from a post-modern version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Oso Pardo removed his sunglasses and glared at me with red-streaked eyes. His swarthy complexion darkened. His hands balled into fists. His chest expanded to reveal a telltale bulge under his sweatshirt and I became instantly hot. Did he think I was mocking his accent? If it wasn't for me being Umoja's "main man" and if Oso Pardo wasn't his "bro," things might have gone sour right there.
"It was a joke," I said and shrugged, my voice cracking. "From the movie. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. With Humphrey Bogart."
He scowled. He still didn't get it, but recognized it was a joke. His tension dissipated.
I stared at the banded stacks of bills between us. My fingers tapped nervously on the desk. "I'll count them," I said, making little piles for each thousand. "Yep. Twenty. Want a receipt?"
Oso Pardo shook his head. "We work on trust, brother."
I managed a smile, wondering what happened when there wasn't any trust. He snapped the briefcase closed and dropped his shades back on the bridge of his broad nose. "You need any security?" He patted the lump beneath his sweatshirt.
I scanned the street through the plate glass windows that took up the larger portions of two office walls. "Don't think so."
After he was gone, I packed the loot into a worn leather bag that Emile Taub had made for me in his prison handicrafts class--"The balance of your fee," as he put it. I hadn't the heart to tell Emile that it looked like something an eight-year old had made at summer camp. But I had it, so I used it. Five minutes later, I was on my way to Liberty Bank, a hole-in-the wall on Mission Street that was so small, the manager knew my name.
I liked doing business with Liberty and get nostalgic thinking about it. It ceased to exist only a few years later, but at the time, it was one of a number of neighborhood banks. I made a small deposit and opened a checking account after seeing the free safe deposit box inducement in their window. The box remained empty until this unexpected influx of cash filled it.
I soon discovered how bad the bargain was for me. Twenty grand in cash isn't easy to spend when you don't want the IRS to know you have it. They'd just begun a crackdown on defense lawyers. Not long after I came into possession of my burden, a drug lawyer I knew got nine months in the pokey after he couldn't explain how he bought his new Benz. And he wasn't the only one with such problems. So my plan was, every month I'd draw out a few hundred and put that sum on the books for Umoja. In every way, the twenty big ones quickly became more of a curse than a blessing.
The afternoon I first met Umoja Simama, I'd just won a court martial for Jim Davis, a black Air Force sergeant, and was feeling chipper. In the context of the times, this was no mean task. Only a few months earlier, six hundred black airmen and women attempted to demonstrate on Travis AFB. Some called it a race riot. Others described it as a civil rights protest. The "bloods," as they called themselves, had been given the full "Bull Connor" treatment, complete with riot police, dogs, fire hoses and threats of mutiny charges. Less than a week later a hayseed airman accused Davis of stealing his wallet, just after payday. The cracker made a positive ID of my guy even down to the two stripes on his utility shirt. With the riot fresh in their memory, the brass weren't feeling very sympathetic to servicemen of my client's racial persuasion. It hadn't looked good.
The problem for the prosecution though was that Davis, a Vietnam vet with an impeccable record in his forty-five months of service, was a three-stripe sergeant. I got the airman to affirm on the witness stand that he was as certain that he'd been robbed by a two-striper as he was that Davis was the guy. The five-officer jury went with the stripes. Any airman who didn't know what a sergeant looked like in uniform didn't deserve his pay packet anyway, they reasoned. Davis was straight up with me. He paid most of my fee and I bought a new Peugeot ten-speed to celebrate.
I'd just finished stashing my new bike in the back room. Outside, the summer fog lurked like baby drool on the lip of Twin Peaks. I knew the weather patterns in my neighborhood well enough to expect that it wouldn't be long before it tumbled down, engulfing my office in chill dampness and a brisk breeze. I shivered at the thought of having to pedal back home in that stuff and cursed my optimism for not having brought along a proper coat. "What you got for me?" I asked Diz.
Although I was no Perry Mason, Isabel "Dizzy" Chavez, was my "Della Street." She was a classmate of Christina at State and Christina vouched for her. She was honest and loyal, typed poorly and was even worse at filing. She had an annoying habit of telling Christina every faux pas I committed at the office, but her salary was within my means and I had no doubt that in a pinch, she'd hang tough. She was from the gritty Mission District of San Francisco, not a squealer, and given the business I was doing--small time crooks, drugs and petty police rousting--her street smarts and connections more than made up for the correction fluid she went through.
"It's been pretty quiet, Nate," she reported as she handed over a couple of pink messages. I took a quick look: one from my court reporter, wanting to know when she'd be getting payment on her bill; another from an ex-client who wanted me to send his file to his new lawyer. I wondered whether the new guy had gotten his retainer out of the money the stiff owed me.
I took the messages to my ten-bucks-at-a-redevelopment-auction desk and impaled them on my nail-in-block-of-wood message holder. With the weather, the dunning and the unsatisfied client, my mood was going sour. I should have read these as omens.
In the next moment, Umoja's shadow fell across the cheap rug a client had left for me as a demonstration of his good faith that it would someday be converted into money I could credit toward his account. He was standing on the other side of the plate glass, the sun at his back, reading the political posters taped to my windows: Viet Nam Vencera, Free Los Siete, Free The Chicago Seven! Free Huey! He was wearing a dashiki over black Karate gi pants and a red, green and black knit skull cap, and was leaning on a long, crooked pole that might have been a walking stick or a weapon, depending on your point of view.
Practicing law out of a corner storefront in a sleepy San Francisco neighborhood a long way from becoming gentrified, I got to see a lot of crazies and crackpots. They gravitated to storefront services the way groupies infest rock concerts. And he looked like another one. I shuddered at the possibility that he might decide to come in--but enter, he did.
With dismay, I peeked over the great leafy ficus benjamina serving as a partition between my desk and the waiting area and caught Diz's eye. She raised her eyebrows and flashed a tight-lipped smile that she quickly erased when he propped his staff in the alcove, opened my door, coughed and announced with a gap-toothed grin, "I need a lawyer."
Diz dropped a finger in the direction of a rickety settee that was part of an ensemble including a busted armchair with a prosthetic crate for one leg and a spool table strewn with lefty propaganda. "Just have a seat there."
His bulky frame lurched toward the settee on a pair of spindly legs. He grinned some more and stroked his gray-flecked beard as he plopped down with either the most naive trust or an intention to sue. The seat creaked in protest but held up. Umoja shrugged with admiration at the thing's resilience. He plucked a dated Ramparts from the pile of literature on the spool table and began to flip pages.
Diz sighed and returned to hunting and pecking on her ancient electric clunker. Every few moments, she tore the paper from the machine and, while grumbling Latino cusswords, contributed it to a crumpled pile on the floor that seemed to be erupting like Krakatoa.
"You should lay off the coke," I editorialized through the foliage.
She snarled an ethnic response.
Diz had a bad coke habit, but it wasn't the powder kind. She consumed at least a six-pack of cola every day, beginning around ten in the morning. By two most afternoons she was like an alcoholic with tremors. The more she erred, the more jittery she got. The more jittery she got, the more she gulped her Cokes. The more she drank the more she erred. No legal paper ever left my office later than three p.m. without at least one page uniquely stamped with a light brown bottle ring.
Finally, she pushed herself back from the disaster and sashayed around the ficus. Leaning over my desk, she ran a brown hand through her mound of jet-black curls and arranged the tresses over her shoulders, rolled her large dark eyes, and whispered, "You gonna see this customer or am I gonna have to look at him all afternoon?" When I hesitated, she added a slightly louder "Well?"
Grinning, I waved her closer to whisper, "He's a client. Lawyers have clients."
"Lawyers have offices, too," she countered, louder than she should have, "not storefronts. Stores have customers."
"Lawyers have secretaries, too. Real secretaries."
"And typewriters, they've got working typewriters," she retaliated.
Umoja was snickering now.
I gave in and from behind the greenery introduced myself. "Hello, I'm Nate Lewis. What can I do for you?"
Umoja pushed himself out of the settee with some difficulty and offered me a hand that seemed a bit too small for his size. "Umoja Simama."
I pointed to the oak armchair beside my desk. "Have a seat, smoke if you want, Mr. Simama."
"I don't smoke." His black eyes twinkled.
"Good, neither do I." A smoke might actual improve the air quality, I thought. He smelled a little musty. I smiled thinly as I fiddled with a paper clip. "Now, how can I help you?"
He gritted his gapped teeth. "What I'm gonna divulge is the absolute truth," he said.
I tilted my yellow pad into writing position. "That's a good policy when talking to a lawyer." I snuck a peek out the window to check on the advancing fog. "First, though, I need a little information, just for my records."
He exhaled disappointment and deflated back in his chair. "What ya wanna know?"
I raised an eyebrow. "How about your name, for starters. Umoja Simama isn't the name you were born with, I bet."
He shook his head. "My legal name's Amos Decker."
He had a lilting accent I couldn't quite place. Caribbean? "Okay. Good enough. Where do you live, Mr. Simama?"
"On the hill, Bonview Street."
"I need an address and phone," I said, raising an eyebrow. "For the bill."
"There gonna be a bill for this talk?"
I shrugged. "We'll see. Depends on what you have to say. You waste my time, I'll send you a bill for sure."
Umoja clucked. "Check that, bro. I dig."
I knew then that any bill I sent him would be just more of a waste of time. I could only hope his story would be less of one.
He leaned over the desk and became conspiratorial. "I'm havin' a problem at work, drug treatment clinic out in Marin. Ever hear of a place called Marin Treatment Center?"
I shook my head.
He wasn't deterred by my ignorance but continued as if I knew it well. "I been a drug counselor out there for a couple of years. We just got us a new director. I applied for the gig but the fix was in. They brought in a motherfucker from outside who's dirty as shit."
"You think they're discriminating against you?" I asked, stroking my chin, feigning thoughtfulness.
"I wish it was only that," he said, maintaining his good humor. "I got this here call a couple days ago from a blood who works at the program, Willie Jackson. Said that 'Mo' Weiner, that's the new director, just accused one of my clients of holdin'." He checked me out to see if I knew what 'holdin' was.
"What was she supposed to be holdin'?"
"Never actually said. Smack? Weed? Who knows? Who the fuck cares? Anyway, Willie says I better come right on down to straighten things out with Weiner. Well, when I get there, I see there's a couple of cruisers parked out front, so I park down the block a ways and make sure I'm cool. Ya dig?"
I didn't dig. "Cool?"
"Sometimes I carry." He put an index finger to his broad nose. There was a twinkle in his glance. "So, I stashed my piece. Well, I go in and right off, the pigs confront me. Block me from my office. Over their shoulders I can see they got my client, Joan Deering, sitting on a bench and she's all red in the face like she been cryin'. And they ask me who I am and all that kind of shit. I tell 'em I work there, that I'm a senior counselor. And they say they got a report of a disgruntled employee who's been threatening the new executive director.
"I tell 'em I don't know what the fuck they talkin' about. Just then Mo, he comes out from somewhere and he goes, 'That's him.' And I say, 'Man, what the fuck you talkin' 'bout?'"
On another day, at another time, hearing what he just told me, I might have shooed him out the door without so much as a "how-do-you-do." But I was still high from my recent courtroom triumph, the fog was dampening my interest in taking a cruise on my new bike and there was nothing productive I needed to do that day, so I rocked forward and said, "Yeah?" Thinking back on that moment, I can't help but wonder how such a small thing can loom so large in the end. Meanwhile, he's still talking...
"They don't find nothin'," he assures me, as if that proves his innocence, "...'cept these two .22 bullets in my vest pocket that I took out of my piece when I unloaded it."
"So you stashed your weapon but kept the bullets on you?"
Umoja frowned and shook his head. "Yeah, man. I fucked up."
I smiled. "Well, it isn't illegal to be carrying around a couple of .22 bullets. It's not contraband."
"Yeah, but then one of the pigs says, 'Mind if we search your vehicle?' and I say 'get a fucking warrant.' When Mo Weiner hears that he says that his employees are supposed to cooperate with the po-lice, that we work with law enforcement and not against them and that as long as he's the lah-de-dah head of the Marin Treatment Center, he ain't gonna put up with none of his employees making cops get no fuckin' warrants. And so he gives me this direct order to let them search my ride. So I tell him to go fuck his self. And the cop says he can get a fuckin' warrant easy 'cause of the bullets. And I say that if it's so fuckin' easy, he ought to just get on his wheels and get it. And so he gives me this fuckin' push against the wall and tells me to stay right there while he gets the warrant."
I began to make notes.
"Next thing I know, they searchin' my wheels."
"They ever get the warrant?"
Umoja shrugged. "How the fuck do I know, man? They got me jacked up the whole time."
"So what did they find?" I asked, pen poised.
"They come up with my little bitty .22 derringer. I had it unloaded, in a locked box in the back of my van; the way the law says you gotta carry guns. Anyway they pried open the box and then they charged me with illegal possession of a concealed weapon, resistin' arrest and threatenin' my employer over the phone, which they say is a federal offense."
"Who the fuck knows, man? It all happened yesterday and I had to come up with five C-notes so that bondsman would make my five thousand bail."
"Sounds like you walked into a trap."
"I don't suppose it makes much sense to ask you whether you got fired?"
Umoja nodded. "You got that down, man."
"You got a court date?"
"You want me to represent you?"
"You up to it?"
"I've got only one problem," I said, raising an eyebrow. "The retainer."
"I just went into the hole five bills for bail, man."
"Bail's nice but it ain't the same as having a lawyer defend you. A fiver would help on that front."
Umoja shook his head. "I ain't got that much, man. I ain't got no job no more. I thought you was a People's lawyer," he said, pointing at the posters taped to my plate glass.
I looked at the posters as if I'd never seen them before. "I don't see one there that says I work for free. Do you? How do you think I pay my high-priced secretary over there? Or the rent? And I actually like to eat three meals a day--at least two. You just doled out five bills to a capitalistic bail bond company. I bet you didn't try out your 'I ain't got a job' line on them," I said through pursed lips. "You knew how far you'd get with them. How come you're trying to treat a People's lawyer worse?"
"But I'm short, bro," he whined. "I ain't got no job."
"And if I worked for free, I'd be in worse shape than that, because I'd have a job but not be getting paid for doing it. If you can pay a capitalist insurance company for bail, you can pay a People's lawyer for his work defending you."
"I got two hundred cash to start," he 'fessed up, reaching into a tooled leather pouch that had hung on a strap over his shoulder the whole time he was sitting there. He pushed the two C-notes across my desk until they were in front of me. I looked at them and shook my head. "This won't get you past the hearing next week."
"Jeez, you're bein' a hard ass," he said.
"You think I'm being a hard ass, try some of them big dope lawyers downtown. They won't even write your name on a yellow pad 'til they see a grand. If I put my name on the record, I'm stuck with you and all the bullshit that the DA and judge want to shovel at me. And if the judge doesn't want to let me out of the case, I could end up going to trial for weeks--all for that two hundred. Five up front is my minimum, Umoja. I'm cutting my rates for you, based on your story," I lied. "I'll take the two now on account but I gotta see three more before your court date next week or I won't put my name into the record. Sorry man, that's the best I can do. It looks like your case is gonna be a whole lot of work."
Umoja nodded slowly. "You got me over a barrel."
"I didn't put the barrel there," I pointed out. "How come they went to the trouble of setting you up for a bust? Is it just because you were a rival for the director's job?"
"They got a game they're plannin' on runnin' out there," he said. "And they know I'll get in the way."
"When I was livin' in New York, back in the '60s we used to call Mo Weiner 'Mighty Mo.' For a time he headed the New York Addiction Services Agency. You never heard of him?"
"No, why should I?"
"He started out as the right hand man of Don Silva, the guy who, back in the early '60's, founded the New Life Community upstate--the first modern drug rehab program. They claim Mo's some kind of specialist in drug addiction psychology and methadone maintenance. In the past few years, he's been the executive director of five different drug treatment programs, from New York to Arizona. Every place he turns up there're busts of revolutionaries and once he get's 'em out of the way, the community gets saturated with hard drugs. The dude's connected with the DEA. He's a big time dealer and uses drug treatment programs as his cover. That's what's goin' down now in Marin and how come they busted me. They gotta get me off the street 'cause I can't be co-opted."
Oh Christ! Five hundred won't be a quarter enough if this dude isn't pulling my chain. What have I gotten myself into? "How do you know all this?" I asked.
Umoja settled back in his chair. Another long story?
"Coupla years ago, back when I was livin' in the South Bronx, I got into a hassle with him. We know each other."
"I was runnin' an outfit called the '2A2C.' Anderson Avenue Community Control. We was doing community organizing. Rent strikes. Petitions for community control of the pigs. And mostly, I ran a drug detox clinic."
Umoja grimaced. "No way, bro. That's just another addictive drug. You get clean on smack and hooked on the methadone and you still need the man. Nah. We done cold turkey and then po-litical education so that the brothers and sisters could learn who was feedin' 'em the poison and who was makin' the profits off their lives. And the ones that made it through, they joined us.
"Anyhow, we get this tip that there's gonna be this big deal goin' down 'tween this bad ass dealer and Mighty Mo. And so we watch for it and get evidence to prove it happened. Then we put that information out on the street. Paste up posters with photos showin' 'em doin' the deal, all over the hood. Then that dealer, they find him dead in the basement of a tenement in the neighborhood. Bullet in the brain. Next thing ya know, there's all this heat comin' down on us. Busts. Searches. Confiscations. And the community's gettin' all up tight 'bout the heat 'cause a lot of good people are gettin' jacked, so we had to close up. I came out here. Not long after, Mo left town for D.C. or San Diego, I don't remember which."
"How come they let you get away?"
Umoja leaned over my desk. "I used to be in the NYPD," he mumbled, as if the room was bugged. "Quit after they shot Brother Malcolm."
I assumed he was talking about Malcolm X. Sometime after Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, the facts revealed that at least one of his bodyguards on that deadly day was an NYPD undercover agent. Another bodyguard mysteriously left the scene with one of the pistols used and then turned it in cleaned. An investigator, hot on the trail of a federal agent that might have been involved, was killed in a suspicious car accident. Even though the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was shot, was totally infiltrated by law enforcement at the time, some of the shooters were allowed to escape and were never identified.
"But there's still a bunch of good people on the force and sometimes they do me a favor," he said, winking. "They put out the word for me to split."
I set my pen on my yellow pad. Oh fuck! A rogue cop, drugs, murder. Either I've just agreed to represent a nut case or I'm up to my ears in shit. "A lot more here than meets the eye," I muttered, scratching my chin. "I don't know about this," I told him as I ushered him to the door. "I think my retainer quote may be a tad too low."
"You up to this?" Diz asked after he had left.
I shook my head. "What do you think?"
"I think you ought to give him his two hundred back, go home, smoke a nice big doobie and forget you ever heard any of it," she said, wiping a drop of coke from her lip. "Either he's a loon or he'll bring you more trouble than you can handle."
I shrugged. "I think you're right."
"One thing every lawyer has to learn..." she said, sliding her hands over her round hips.
"Is?" I asked.
"Is to listen to his secretary." She smiled and grabbed her coat. "I don't know about you but I'm going to take the advice I just gave you."