An award-winning San Francisco Chronicle reporter, William E. Wallace retired early from a 26-year career to be a full-time novelist and short story writer. His books Dead Heat with the Reaper (2015) and Hangman's Dozen (2016) were released by All Due Respect, and his short stories appeared in numerous online magazines such as Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Over my Dead Body, Dead Guns, Spinetingler, and Dark Corners Pulp.
The gun dealer told Nick McCoy the Colt Detective Special he was buying weighed only 21 ounces, but wedged into Nick's waistband, it might as well have been 50 pounds.
McCoy had wiped the pistol down with a dry cloth after cleaning and oiling it but it still had a glassy sheen and seemed to slide greasily between his fingers. As he walked through the door of Louie's Tavern, he had a nightmare vision of pulling the snub-nosed revolver, pointing it in the bartender's face and having it slip from his hand and clatter on the floor.
In two decades as a professional crook, this was the first time Nick had carried a gun. It made him nervous.
He shook himself to ditch his jitters. It didn't make sense to get a case of nerves before he actually hit the joint.
By trade, McCoy was what people used to call a second-story man: a burglar who broke into upstairs apartments, often without leaving a trace. He considered himself an aristocrat among criminals; the take was often small but the chances of detection were minute and there was no violence involved.
Nick, who stood five-eight in shoes and weighed 135 pounds, hated violence. Whenever a fight occurred, he somehow managed to be the one taken to the emergency room. It seemed he'd been avoiding thugs and roughnecks all his life, so when he decided to become an outlaw, doing the second-story thing made sense.
Unfortunately, two years ago Nick broke his legs and hip when he slipped and fell from a window ledge. The accident had ruined him as a second story man: his painful hip, which was held together by pins, still made him limp. The plunge had made him too unsteady to stand on a chair and change a light bulb, let alone climb through a stranger's window more than a story off the ground.
His fall and arrest had sent him to Vacaville, the state hospital for prison inmates. While he was doing a deuce there, he met Sammy Glover.
The meeting would change his life.
"What'll it be, Mack?" said the bored-looking man behind the plank.
"Nick, not Mack," McCoy said. "Make mine Budweiser. A glass of water, too, please."
"You want a water back with a fucking beer?" the bartender said as he used a church key on a bottle of Bud and set it in front of McCoy. "That's a new one. Most people who come in here order whisky or vodka and chase the hard stuff with beer."
"Serious drinkers, huh?" Nick asked.
The barman sneered sarcastically. "It's a fucking bar, Mack."
"It's Nick, not Mack."
"Whatever," the bartender said. "People come here to drink. What else would they do here? Hold a fucking prayer meeting?"
The bartender was beefy and nearly six feet tall, with tattooed arms crossed on a barrel chest. His obnoxious attitude was familiar: McCoy had spent his life dodging muscle-bound lugs like him—guys who enjoyed hassling people who fell lower on the food chain.
McCoy had grown up in an eight-wide sitting on cinder blocks alongside Buck's Bar Road in El Dorado County. His mother had croaked when he was in the third grade and he rarely saw his father, a road hand who cleared snow and patched potholes in the county roads alongside U.S. 50.
When the old man knocked off for the day, he plunked himself down at Joe's Alaska Club, a tavern near the county corporation yard. There he would remain until he had the blind staggers and was barely able to drive to the family's trailer.
McCoy had been an easy target for the townies at James Madison Elementary and the county high school. The kids who lived in homes without wheels called him "trailer trash." They tripped him in the hallways, pushed books out of his hands on the bus and gave him sneaky punches in the school gym when nobody was watching.
There was nothing he could do about it; the teachers and administrators always sided with the kids whose parents had businesses and lived in town. Nick had no backup. After all, it wasn't like he could run home after class and tell his father that bigger students were picking on him.
Without somebody to watch his back, McCoy grew up solo, avoiding other kids as much as possible so he wouldn't have to explain his cuts, scrapes and bruises to his father. And because the old man drank up his paychecks and couldn't fry an egg without burning it, Nick also grew up hungry.
As close as he came to home-cooked meals were canned pork and beans, or peanut butter and jelly on balloon bread, washed down with milk. For a treat, his old man would take him along to the bar and Nick would sit drinking a Roy Rogers while eating little cellophane packages of dried shrimp or the salted red and white pistachios from a nickel dispenser on the counter.
Those treats were rare, though. Most days to keep from going hungry Nick light-fingered his classmates' lunches. Inevitably he'd be caught and written up by a teacher or one of the vice-principals who ran the school.
When he brought home the "snitch" note detailing his petty crime, Nick's father always used a leather belt to administer what he called "old school discipline." The whipping was supposed to straighten Nick out, but all it really taught him was to avoid getting caught.
He soon discovered he could steal better quality loot—candy, small toys, the occasional bottle of Royal Crown Cola—from the local dime stores and the mom-and-pop. Unfortunately, the better the payoff, the more severe the punishment when he was caught, so Nick became a world-class sneak thief who could walk out of the average retail store undetected with everything but the cash register.
Despite his skill, McCoy still pulled jolts in Preston School of Industry and Deuel Vocational Institute. After stealing a Plymouth convertible from a Safeway parking lot, he was sent to the state conservation camp in Susanville to train horses and fight fires.
It was his first adult prison beef but it wouldn't be his last.
Doing hard time confirmed his hatred of violence. The constant daily fistfights and stabbings—particularly at Deuel—were the worst part of the years he spent in state. Every time you turned around somebody was getting a chin check or doing the blacktop polka. That's why he'd become a wall creeper.
McCoy put a Lincoln on the plank and looked around. Louie's looked just like Sammy had described, dingy and quiet. It was a classic shot-and-a-beer joint. In a dictionary, its photo could run next to the word "dive."
The bar was snug, barely 2,500 square feet in all. But it was also dark, with a low ceiling that made it look smaller than it actually was.
McCoy was surprised that there were no autographed photos of local athletes on the walls, no posters for home town teams or U.C. Berkeley. Otherwise, it was a typical sports bar: a couple of neon signs buzzed in the windows and on the walls, pimping national brands of beer; a Wurlitzer in one corner played a CD but the sound was so low Nick couldn't hear the tune.
At the far end of the joint, three guys sat together at the bar with their eyes fixed on the flat screen. Near a door marked "gents," two guys shot pool while a third leaned on a cue, waiting to challenge the winner. Two more sharing a little table near the door looked like they were discussing something that happened where they worked.
McCoy glanced at his wristwatch and saw it was about 1:30 a.m. State law requires businesses that serve alcohol to close at two, but most close ten or fifteen minutes early. Closing time was the sweet spot, Sammy had told him. That's when the cash register got emptied and the receipts were out of the safe for the daily count.
Nick glanced at the TV again and saw an ESPN panel discussing a world of fair play, million dollar contracts and corporate ownership. It wasn't his world so he sipped his beer and reminisced about Sammy Glover.
Sammy was from Oakland and had a rap sheet that included busts for battery, theft, credit card fraud and a variety of other crimes, but actually he was a two eleven specialist: a thief who took other people's money and valuables at gunpoint. When McCoy tried to make friends with him in physical rehab, Glover blew him off. Nick was sure the robber didn't like him.
"Hi," he said the first time they met in the exercise yard. "I'm Nick McCoy."
He held out his hand and Sammy stared at it like something he'd scraped off the bottom of his shoe.
"Excuse me," Glover said. "You must've mistaken me for somebody who gives a rat's skinny ass."
"Whoa," Nick said holding up his hands defensively. "Don't get all mental, man. Just trying to be friendly, that's all."
Sammy spat on the ground. "Go be friendly with somebody else," he said.
A couple of weeks passed after that initial run-in and Nick didn't approach Glover again. Then when McCoy was crossing the yard one afternoon, he noticed Sammy was watching him walk and saying something to the inmate standing next to him.
McCoy found a shady spot near the gate and leaned against the wall. His bum hip took a lot out of him and he was sweating freely when he reached the shade. He bent and massaged the big muscle in his thigh, muttering to himself about the pain.
Glover moved next to him and watched him work "What's wrong with your leg?" the robber asked.
Nick looked at him, surprised at Glover's seeming concern. "It's my hip. I fell and broke it doing a house burglary. Broke my legs, too, but they're all healed."
"That what you did? Climb-in artist?"
"Yeah. I used to be pretty good at it, too."
"You couldn't have been all that good if you fell and broke your hip and legs, man."
Nick sighed. "I panicked when the security guy walked in on me in the middle of the job. Tried to go down the same way I came in. Big mistake, trying to climb down the side of an apartment building holding a knapsack full of loot."
"Well, you seem to be okay now," Sammy said. "You going to go back to wall crawling when you get out?"
McCoy grimaced as he kneaded the muscle. "To be honest, I was thinking about going straight," he said. "I'm getting a little long in the tooth to be climbing walls. Besides, I have vertigo and acrophobia since my fall."
"What's acrophobia?" Glover asked. "Fear of acrobats?"
"No. When I get more than ten feet off the ground these days, my head starts to spin and I seize up. I'm afraid I'm going to fall again."
"Can't you do anything else? Besides second-story work, I mean?"
Nick shook his head. "It's my main deal," he said. "I don't really know anything else."
"How about working a straight job? You got any skills?"
Nick shook his head.
"Why don't you take a shot at strong arm?" Glover said with a glint in his eye.
"Dunno how," Nick said with a shrug. "Like I said, wall crawling is all I ever done."
"It's easy," Sammy said. "Don't take any particular talent, neither. You just get yourself a gun and learn how to shoot it well enough so as you don't fuck up and embarrass yourself on your first heist. Then find some schmuck to hold up who looks like he has a wallet full of dough."
"See," Nick said. "I don't know how to tell what a guy has in his billfold. I don't even know what I'd look for."
"The mark will show his hand," Sammy said. "They always do. He'll flash a wad at the bar; wear gold chains or an expensive watch. Even easier if you are going to take down a mom-and-pop or a saloon: go in and see how many customers there are. Mom-and-pops are easy. To an armed robber like me, a 7-Eleven is like an ATM, only you never put any money in the machine. It's all about the withdrawals, man."
Nick was still skeptical. "How do you get people to cooperate?" he said.
Glover rolled his eyes at McCoy's naiveté. "That's what the gun is for," he said, using the same tone you would talking to someone slightly retarded. "Stick the mother fucker in the mark's face. He'll give you his money and just about anything else he happens to be carrying. Most people you heist are too scared to do anything else."
"I dunno man," McCoy said. "I get a gun, I might shoot somebody."
Glover made a face. "Only if you screw the pooch," he said. "People never argue with a man who's packing heat. You point a gun at them and they'll do what you tell them."
McCoy thought about it. He was too poor and too young to retire from the life yet, but it was obvious his second-story work was done and he was going to need a new gig. The possibility of hurting or killing someone bothered hell out of him, though.
"I'm not sure I can gut out a solo robbery," he said. "The idea of staring down some square John eye-to-eye gives me the willies."
"Then try robbing a joint," Glover said. "Do a tavern. Most convenience stores have video cameras. Most bars don't. I even know a place for you to get started with your new career," Sammy said. "There's a joint in Oakland's Old Town called Louie's. It's on a back street a couple blocks from the cop shop. It's perfect. Go in around closing time, close to two a.m. There is hardly anybody in the place after midnight, just the bartender and a handful of customers."
"You say it's a piece of cake?" Nick asked.
Sammy's mean smile made Nick nervous.
"With fudge frosting," Sammy said. "Trust me. You can't go wrong."
"You okay?" the bartender asked McCoy as he put a pint glass of water in front of him.
"What?" Nick said.
"You were staring off into space. Thought maybe you found a bug in your brew or something."
Nick shook his head and gave the barman a weak smile. "No. I was just thinking of something somebody said to me a while back, that's all."
The ex-con scanned the room. "Not too many women here tonight," he said.
The barman looked at him with surprise. "There's never many women here," he said, gesturing at the other customers. "Why would there be? Does this look like a pick-up bar?"
McCoy scanned his fellow patrons.
They were built like the bartender: big upper bodies and chests, although a couple had started to flab out around the waistline. They were like pro athletes who'd been out of sports for a while, strong but starting to go to seed. It looked like they all did the same sort of work-a job that either required hard physical labor or forced them to stay in shape in case it was needed.
They gave off a vibe that they all knew each other. Sipping beer, Nick wondered whether they might be gay, like the butch faggots who wore beards and dressed in flannel shirts and faded blue jeans. What was it that Sammy called them? Oh, yeah: "bears."
Somehow he didn't think so. There was a comfortable ease between these guys that didn't seem sexual. It was more like the camaraderie of servicemen who'd faced danger together. No beards, either.
Maybe they were fire fighters, Nick thought. It was unlikely he would ever find out, though. He planned to do his business in the bar and leave as quickly as possible.
"No," Nick said. "It doesn't look like a pick-up bar. Not enough ferns and stuff. Actually, forget about the women. There just aren't many people here at all."
The bartender shrugged. "You want a crowd, you have to come in around four. That's when the day watch knocks off and the night shift starts. And a Tuesday like this is slower than a turtle on crutches. Fridays are our big nights, anyway."
Nick finished his beer. He wondered why the barman used the term "day watch" instead of day "shift," but it seemed a minor point. Maybe that was the way everybody talked in Oakland. Otherwise everything Glover had told him was accurate. He had worried the robber might be shining him on about Louie's, but it seemed Glover's Four-One-One was right on target.
He reached under his jacket and felt his fingers close around the cold iron of his revolver. He'd been waiting for the right time to make his move but he realized his nerves were keeping him planted on his stool. It's now or never, he thought. Let's rock and roll.
"This is a stick up," he said, pulling the Colt out and lining it up with the bartender's nose. "Clean out the till and the lockbox and give me all the money you were going to put in the safe."
Now that the robbery was underway, McCoy was confident, in control. The pistol gave him a feeling of power. He'd spent all the nights since his release from the state pen thinking of this moment, imagining every way it could go wrong. Instead it was unfolding smoothly.
The bartender stared at him as if he didn't believe what was happening. Then he slowly grinned.
"You have to be shitting me," he said. "That's a toy gun, right? No way it can be real."
"It damned sure is real," McCoy said, waggling the barrel. "It can punch a hole clean through you. You want me to demonstrate?"
Behind him McCoy heard a metallic click, then another. The room suddenly echoed with the sound of steel sliding against steel and when he turned he found himself looking down the muzzles of eight guns: revolvers with long and short barrels, automatics of various calibers.
There was a louder metallic sound directly behind him. When he spun around, the bartender had a shotgun trained on his chest. Judging by his position he had just chambered a round.
It was like an NRA convention. Somehow he'd launched his career as an armed robber in a bar where everyone was packing heat.
"I'd put that snubbie down right here, Mack," the barman said, patting the bar top with his free hand. "Do it before you get shot so many times people can stand you up in front of the TV and watch 'Dancing with the Stars' through the holes."
McCoy, moving very slowly, put the revolver on the plank next to his empty long neck.
"I got cuffs," one of the men at the pool table said, taking a pair of blued steel Smith and Wesson manacles from a worn leather case on the back of his belt. "I'll lock him up for transport, Cal. Why don't you call it in?"
"Thanks, Jerry," the bartender said.
As his hands were bound behind him, McCoy shook his head. "I don't get it," he said. "A pal who's lived in Oakland all his life told me this was a perfect target for an armed robbery. He said all I had to do was show a gun."
Cal the bartender laughed in Nick's face.
"Your friend must have hated your guts," he said.
McCoy remembered Glover's mean look when the heist artist told him about Louie's. "What makes you say that?" he asked.
The bartender sneered. "Because half the cops in Oakland and all the sheriff's deputies who work at the county jail two blocks away hang out at Louie's. The place is fucking famous. It's the most popular cop bar in Alameda County."
Copyright © 2016 William E. Wallace.