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One minute, big-talking dealer Eddie Marchetti and his executive assistant, Clarence Tate, are setting up a peaceful buy for visiting ex-con Wilton Cooper and his buddies; the next minute, Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay, who've come to score some dope, have slightly overreacted to an insulting remark Eddie made to his stoned-out girlfriend Vivian Lee. The next thing you know, Dimitri and Marcus are backing out the door with Vivian and with $20,000 that isn't theirs. Eddie, who calls himself "Eddie Spags" and tries to talk like Superfly, is too gutless to do anything but goggle. But Cooper swings into action as swiftly as Dimitri and Marcus shut down his deal in the first place. Backed up by half-wit brothers Ronald and Russell Thomas and by Bobby Roy Clagget, a kid who'd rather shoot than get involved in a lot of talking, Cooper tracks his prey to their homes (a memorable high-wire scene between Cooper, polite as pie, and Dimitri's mother) and places of business (a predictable shoot-up at Marcus's record store). It's all for the money, of course—only it isn't: Dimitri and Marcus, who know they've made a big mistake, would love to find a safe way to offload the loot, and imperturbable Cooper isn't nearly as interested in recovering the coin—he insists he's only a broker on Eddie's behalf—as in exterminating the upstarts. Pelecanos keeps up the tension with constant collisions over race, sex, and what passes for honor, as the characters hurtle toward a climactic Fourth of July confrontation that reads like a downscale urban remake of The Wild Bunch.
Now that he's gotten rid of the outsized heroes of The Big Blowdown (1996), Pelecanos can concentrate on what he does best: showing lowlifes at work, bragging, sweating, killing. As Eddie Spags would say, this book smokes.
Wilton Cooper reached for the speaker, counterclockwised the volume. It sounded to him, with all that static and shit, like the brothers were talking Chinese. Like he was watching some chop-socky thing, Five Fingers of Death or something like that. Anyway, Cooper didn't need that tinny-ass box hanging on the window. He knew the dialogue by heart. He'd seen Black Caesar, what, five, six times already. Even had the original sound track on cassette tape. James Brown, doin' it to death. "Down and Out in New York City." "The Boss." And all that.
It wasn't Black Caesar that Cooper had come to see, anyhow. And it sure wasn't that peckerwood biker picture—Angels the Hard Way—no, Angels Hard as They Come, that's what it was—that had gone second on the triple bill. Cooper had come to check out that new one, The Master Gunfighter, with Tom Laughlin and Ron O'Neal. Billy Jack and Superfly, way out West. Yeah, that would be something to see. He'd been waiting on that one to open for a long time.
Wilton Cooper took a last swig of Near Beer, crushed the can, tossed it over his shoulder to the backseat. He placed the speaker back in its cradle, got out of his ride, walked past rows of cars to the darkened field behind the projection house. With all that liquid in him, he had a fierce need to drain his lizard, and he just couldn't abide waiting in the men's room line.
Cooper moaned a little as he let a long stream fly. He could see the screen, Fred Williamson walking out of Tiffany's just before being gut-shot by that Irishman dressed as a cop. He always liked this part, and then the wild chase scene through Manhattan, people on the street looking right into the camera, the director not bothering to edit or reshoot, maybe because he had no budget for it, or he just plain didn't give a shit. Cooper dug checking out the extras, trying not to look into the lens but not able to help themselves, doing it just the same. On a bigger-budget feature the producers never would have let that slide. Cooper thought it was cool, though, just the way it was.
He shook himself off, tucked his snake back in where it belonged.
He saw a white boy then, heading from the opposite end of the field in the direction of the projection bunker's rear door.
The boy had one of those ratty, blown-out Afros, big as Dr. J's. He wore lemon yellow bells, with a rayon print shirt tails out over the pants. The shirt was untucked because he had slipped a short-barreled rifle—or a sawed-off, Cooper couldn't tell which—down inside the pant leg along his right hip.
Cooper knew. He had been with stickup kids who had done it the same way, walking into liquor stores and banks. Point of fact, this boy he knew, Delaroy was his name, he had worn his shotgun just that way when the two of them had done that Gas-and-Go outside of Monroe, Louisiana. That was the last armed robbery Cooper had ever done, the one that got him his five-year bit in Angola. He was into different shit now.
Anyway, that was Louisiana, and this here was Fayetteville, North Kakilaki. Now what the fuck was this white boy going to do with that big gun?
Cooper watched him walk—strut, really—toward the cinder-block bunker. The kid's left hand was cupped at his side, and he kind of swung it on the down-step. As the kid passed below the light of the floodlamp, Cooper could see the four-inch heels on the boy's stacks. Those platforms, the Afro, and the kid's street-nigger strut: a white-boy, wanna-be-a-black-boy cracker. He had the walk down, a little too much with the hand action for Cooper's taste, but not bad. And the kid was cooler than a motherfucker, too, the way he went straight through the door without knocking, not even looking around before he did. Cooper wondered, What's going to happen next?
It took about a hot minute for him to find out. Cooper heard the muffled report of a long gun come from the projection bunker just as the redheaded phony cop fired his pistol into Fred Williamson on screen. So the kid had timed whatever he had done to go with the gunshots in the film. Maybe he had seen Black Caesar enough times to plan the whole thing out. Or maybe he wasn't into the movie and he just happened to work at the drive-in. Cooper was curious either way. He figured he'd hang back there in the dark a little bit. Wait until the white boy came out, ask him then.
When Bobby Roy Clagget walked into the projection bunker, the fat man didn't even turn around. Couldn't hear the door open and shut, what with the whir of the reels and the flutter of film running through the gate. Clagget stood there, watching the fat man's back, his rounded shoulders, red fireman's suspenders over a blue work shirt holding up a worn pair of jeans hanging flat on a no-ass frame.
Clagget pulled the sawed-off Remington up out of his pant leg by its stock. He racked the pump, pointed the .12-gauge at the fat man.
"You know what this is?" said Clagget. "You recognize that sound?"
The fat man turned around at Clagget's voice.
"Bobby Roy," said the fat man, a friendly smile right away, noticing the shotgun but not showing fear or surprise. Not showing Bobby Roy a bit of respect. "Who's coverin' the concessions?"
"I said, you recognize that sound?"
Damn, he hadn't even heard the pump. This wasn't at all like the script he had written up in his head. Clagget went ahead with the dialogue anyway. There wasn't much else he could do.
"That there," said Clagget, "was the sound of your own death."
"Say what?" The fat man looked Clagget up and down. "Shoot, son, what y'all doin' with that hog's leg? You fixin' to take out some crows?"
Clagget looked over at the cot in the corner of the booth, where some sort of needlepoint the fat man had been working on lay on a pillow atop wrinkled sheets. Clagget had known nearly all projectionists to have their own funny hobbies—model-car making, Nam memorabilia, shit like that—and this one was no different than the rest.
Clagget's eyes went along the dust-specked shaft of light, through the rectangular window to the screen. Fred Williamson was crossing Fifth Avenue with the Tiffany presents in his hand. The bogus uniformed cop had begun to close in.
"Go lay down on that cot," said Clagget, "and put that pillow over your face."
"Huh?" The fat man chuckled. Clagget couldn't believe it. By God, he had actually laughed.
Black Caesar bumped into a man in a suit, a decoy for the cop. In another second or two would come the shot.
"Why you want me to lay down, Bobby Roy?"
"Never you mind that now," said Clagget. He stepped forward, gripped the Remington tight.
"Bobby Roy?" said the fat man.
And Clagget squeezed the trigger.
The fat man flew back, hit the cinder-blocks, took down a bulletin board hung there. Clagget pumped the shotgun—it felt good, doing that—and watched the fat man kind of flop around for a few seconds like a dry-docked perch. A jagged piece of bone jutted up from the center of the fat man's shredded shoulders. Clagget wondered idly where the man's head had gone.
He slipped the shotgun inside his pant leg. Walking to the door, he wiped what felt like a warm slug off his cheek, flung it to the side. He imagined Fred Williamson, shot now and staggering across the street. Bobby Roy Clagget began to sing the J.B. vocals that he knew were now filling the interior of every car on the lot: "Look at me, you know what you see? See a baaaad mother. . . ."
Clagget issued a brief sigh. Killing the fat man, it hadn't been like he expected. No thrill, no fear, and no remorse. It was no different than killing an animal. Nothing more than that.
The pillow would have made a good natural silencer—he had seen Henry Fonda use one for just that purpose in Once Upon a Time in the West—and it was too bad he couldn't have used it himself. The way it worked out, though, he just didn't have the time. Clagget opened the door, thinking about the pillow and not paying attention to anything else. That's when he saw the big black dude, standing just a few feet away on the edge of the field, a funny kind of grin on his face.
Cooper had to smile, seeing the skinny white boy up close, a pattern of blood and who knew what else sprayed onto the front of his cheap print shirt. What was that, Tarzan swinging on vines all over the shirt? Couldn't be.
"What's goin' on?" said Cooper, still smiling, no threat at all in his voice.
"What's happenin', blood?"
Blood. Shit, Cooper couldn't have been more right.
"Just out here relieving myself. Saw you go inside. Thought I'd greet you when you came out."
The white boy cocked his hip, maintaining that all-the-way cool. "Oh, yeah? Why's that?"
"Thought you might need a friend, is all." Cooper pointed his chin in the direction of the boy's chest. "You done fucked up that pretty shirt. From the blow-back and shit."
The white boy looked down at himself, showed real regret at the sight. "Damn. My finest one, too."
Cooper watched the boy run his hand under the shirt, thinking now about pulling the weapon.
Cooper said, "Uh-uh."
"Don't be drawing that long gun out. Don't even try. I'd be on you so fast . . . Look here, little brother"—little brother, Cooper knew he'd like that—"I mean you no harm. For real."
The white boy squinted his eyes. "What you want then, man?"
"The name's Wilton Cooper. You?"
"Make it B.R. For Bobby Roy."
"B.R. Bobby Roy. All right, here it is. I already know you're brave, but, no disrespect intended, that don't make you smart in the bargain. Now, whatever you did in there—"
"I killed a man."
There it was. Like it didn't mean a damn thing.
"Okay. You work here, right?"
"That's gonna make you suspect number one. And I bet you pumped out a shell in that booth, didn't you?"
"I know you did. 'Cause it kind of put a period on the end of the sentence, if you know what I mean. So they're gonna be looking to talk to you, and soon after, they're gonna have an empty shotgun shell with your prints on it. . . ." Cooper let it sink in. "By the way, you got wheels?"
"No ride. How were you fixin' to get away?"
"Walk out, I guess. Through them woods."
"And if you made it through those swampy woods—that is, if the copperheads didn't get you first—what were you going to do then? Hitch a ride out on the two-lane? Wait for the county sheriff to pass on by?"
Clagget's shoulders slumped. "I hear you. But what do you want?"
Cooper said, "Tell you what. You ride out with me; we'll talk about it then."
"I don't know. I need to think."
"While you're thinking on it, think of this: This picture's got one more reel to it, right?"
"Yeah. The Hammer's gotta go and get the crooked cop, the one who fucked him up when he was a kid. Then he goes back to Harlem, gets it himself from the kids in his own neighborhood—"
"I know the picture, man. You don't have to tell me, 'cause I know. The thing is, when this reel is over—oh, I'd say about two minutes from now—your manager or whoever is gonna be runnin' back here to find out why the screen's turned all white."
"I do believe you got a point." Clagget rubbed his face. "Okay. Maybe we better go."
"Good. Mind, you don't want to be walking around where everyone can see you like that."
"Pick me up, then. I'll wait right here."
"And I'll just be a minute. Swing on back around with my short."
Bobby Roy Clagget watched the black man head back toward the cars, wide of shoulder and walking proud. He was big, strong as Jim Brown. Not the uncomfortable Jim Brown from 100 Rifles. The bad motherfucker Brown from Slaughter's Big Rip-Off. Big and bad like that. Clagget wouldn't mind riding with a guy like Wilton Cooper, at least long enough to get out of town. While he was riding, see what this Cooper dude had in mind.
Cooper brought his ride—a 1970 Challenger convertible, red on red with a wide black hood stripe running between the NACA scoops—around to the side of the projection house. Clagget went to the passenger side, opened the door, pulled the shotgun free, slipped it back behind the seat, dropped into the bucket, and shut the door. He ran his hand along the wood-grained dash.
"Damn," said Clagget. "Vanishing Point!"
"You know your movies, Cooper?"
"I've seen a few."
"I'm into movies myself."
"I sensed that in you, B.R."
The big screen had gone blank. A white man in a starched white shirt sprinted toward the projection bunker as a cacophony of horns filled the night air.
"That your boss?"
"Then we best be on our way."
It took a little while to get out of the drive-in. Some frustrated customers up ahead had decided to go on and leave. Cooper put the Challenger into the back of the line, got comfortable in the bucket, let himself relax. He wasn't worried about the cops just yet. He was a patient man until things got real good and hot, and he could see that the kid was, too. Cooper reached into his shirt pocket, withdrew a Salem long.
"I could use one of those myself," said Clagget.
Cooper shook one free, struck a match, held the flame out for Clagget. In the light he saw the awful cranberry red acne patterned like vomit on the boy's cheeks. The acne ruined his looks, but other than that, like many backwoods white boys, Clagget seemed almost featureless. Just a boy, most likely, not yet twenty-one.
"Thanks, bro," said Clagget.
"Sure thing," said Cooper, and he put the match to his own smoke. They were moving now, almost out of the exit gate.
"Funny thing," said Clagget.
"The fat man. He never knew it was coming. Not even up till the end. And even then, I don't believe he ever knew why."
"Why'd you croak him then, man?"
"He was always lookin' at me. Lookin' at me and smilin'. And as hard as I'd look back at him, he'd still be giving me this smile. It got to the point I knew I'd have to take that smile off his face for real."
"You killed him 'cause he smiled at you."
"You ever think, B.R.—and I'm just makin' conversation here—that the man was smilin' just to be friendly?"
"I don't know. You could be right." Clagget dragged on his smoke, shrugged, looked down at the cigarette between his thin fingers. "Ain't too much I can do about it now."
"You got that right, B.R. You surely do."
They were out of the drive-in and going west on the two-lane. A cop car screamed down the asphalt toward them.
"Let's put the top down, Wilton."
"Might want to wait a minute on that one. Let the sheriff get on past." Cooper steadied the wheel with his thighs, put his hands over his ears to shut out the siren as the cop car went by. He hated that sound. He watched the taillights fade, put his hands back on the wheel. "Well, there goes your ride, boy. The one I was describing to you earlier."
Clagget nodded. "I do thank you."
"Glad to help."
Posted February 17, 2008
For those who have yet to read Pelecanos, I would reccomend starting with this one. It is violent and funny and without a doubt his 'coolest' book. As the Karras/Clay series goes on it on it gets even better, more of the soul Pelecanos is known for. I started with the Karras/Clay trilogy (King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil) before reading the Strange/Quinn Quartet (Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus, Hard Revolution) and each book is great. But I'll always love the K/C trilogy the most. So unlike anything in crime fiction before or since. Basically three really great revenge stories. Pelecanos is the most organic crime writer alive, his books like the best of American movies - great genre stories with something bigger to say than their genre trappings usually allow (think Chinatown, The Wild Bunch, The Godfather).
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Posted July 20, 2010
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This is an amazing book!!! I just finished it about 30 seconds ago and I just had to spread the word out to all readers that George Pelecanos is one of the greatest crime novelists of all time. Pelecanos, along with peers such as Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and Richard Price, write crime novels that are entertaining, heart-felt, and also very realistic.
I do not want to really describe the plot because the reader should just open this book and enter Washington D.C. in 1976. With the amazing writing from Pelecanos, it is not hard to do this. Pelecanos greatly describes the music, clothes, cars, movies and television shows of the period. Read all of his books along with all the books of the writers I have mentioned above, plus all the seasons of The Wire, you will not be dissapointed.
Posted October 17, 2007
I have read and enjoyed several of the more recent (2001 - 2004) Pelecanos books and bought this 1997 earlier one. It is mostly drugs, swearing, murder, masturbation and sodomy. My copy is going into the trash.
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