Jul 10 2012 9:30am
Gutshot Straight by Lou Berney is the first crime caper in the Shake Bouchon series.
Professional wheel man Charles “Shake” Bouchon is too nice a guy for the life he’s led and not nice enough for any other. Fresh out of prison, he’s supposed to deliver a package to Vegas strip-club owner Dick “the Whale” Moby and pick up a briefcase for Shake’s former boss and lover, Alexandra Ilandryan, pakhan of L.A.’s Armenian mob. But when the “package” turns out to be Gina, a wholesome young housewife, Shake decides to set her free—a move as noble as it is boneheaded.
Now Shake and Gina are on the run in Panama—looking to unload the briefcase’s unusual contents while outmaneuvering two angry crime bosses, a heartbroken ex-linebacker, and a sadistic thug plagued by erectile superfunction. And Shake’s learning that Gina is less wholesome and more complicated than he initially imagined.
Charles Samuel Bouchon—“Shake,” for short, ever since his first fall for grand theft auto when he was nineteen—took another look at his hole cards.
He tended to fold with a bullet showing and his opponent betting big, but Shake was sitting on a pair of hearts and he was pretty sure the beast across the table from him wouldn’t recognize a flush if it jumped into his lap and kissed him on the mouth.
The beast was Vader Lincoln, a mean young black con from block C who was one long rope of muscle, braided around and around and around until it was a wonder he could walk. He was doing a dozen years behind a first-degree manslaughter charge, aggravated. Extremely aggravated, according to the rumors.
Shake, on the other hand, was just a rangy white guy up on another GTA, forty-two years old and feeling every minute of it. But he’d survived the last fifteen months here at Mule Creek and wasn’t going to roll over just because some pumped-up, puffed-up con glared at him.
He called Vader’s bet. “I’ll pay to see that last card,” he said, and gave Vader a friendly smile.
Missouri Bob, the dealer, took his time with the turn. Missouri Bob’s hand was tooled with crude blue tattoos—roses and rose stems and thorns.
Finally, dramatically, he showed them the last card.
Queen of hearts.
“Tramp of hearts,” Missouri Bob said. “Lovely but dangerous. Beware.”
Shake waited till he was sure Vader was watching him, then he frowned.
Vader saw the frown and smirked. Shake felt a little sad, how easy this was.
“Bet it all,” Vader said. He pushed his entire bankroll of Top Ramen noodles into the center of the table.
“The bad-tempered brother wrongly convicted of manslaughter bets it all,” Missouri Bob said.
“I heard what the bad-tempered brother said,” Shake said.
“Small-change white-bread stalls for time.”
“I don’t know how we’d manage without your commentary, Bob.” Shake gave the queen of hearts another frown, just to see Vader smirk again. He noted that Vader’s head was too small in relation to all the muscle it was perched atop. His mouth, by contrast, was too large in relation to the head.
The fourth person at the table, a tweaked-out kid with one eye focused, the other swimming, tried to get a peek at Shake’s cards.
“That right, Shake?” he asked. “You’re small change?”
“Walks outta here a free man in 72 hours,” Missouri Bob said.
“Sixty-eight,” Shake said. “Not that I’m counting.”
“Call or fold, motherfucker,” Vader said.
Shake pushed his call in. “Show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
Vader started to rake in the pot. Shake dropped his flush.
Missouri Bob clapped a hand to his bald head and whoo-heed. Vader stared at the cards with affront and confusion, like a dog that’d just banged its head against a glass door it didn’t know was there.
“Five hearts,” Shake explained, tapping them one by one. “Young and in love.”
Vader turned to Missouri Bob. His expression was both plaintive and murderous.
“Don’t beat three aces, do they?”
Missouri Bob shook his head sympathetically.
“Like a rented mule.”
Vader slammed his forearms against the table. The impact bounced the queen of hearts to the concrete floor.
Vader stood up. His expression was just murderous now. Not plaintive. The tweaked-out kid’s good eye went wide and Missouri Bob began edging discreetly away.
“Motherfucker cheated,” Vader said.
Shake gathered up his winnings. It wasn’t smart to start a beef with 68 hours left on your ticket. He hadn’t cheated, though, and resented the accusation. Plus, he had a hunch, glancing up at Vader, that this beef had started without him; it was just a question, now, of how it ended.
There was a C.O. across the room, watching some cholos play checkers, but Shake knew the guards weren’t paid enough to intervene in Vader’s business, not until it had been safely resolved.
“Said the motherfucker cheated!”
“No, Vader,” Shake said, “you just weren’t paying attention. Odds tell you I’m playing hearts in the hole.”
“Fuck the odds, motherfucker.”
Shake shrugged and bent to pick the queen of hearts off the floor. From beneath the table he saw Vader shift his weight to his back leg, preparing to strike.
“You can run, motherfucker, but—”
Shake kicked hard and drove his heel into Vader’s knee cap. Vader’s back leg snapped with a soft damp crack and he dropped like he’d been chopped in half.
“Whoo-hee!” Missouri Bob said, then he beelined for the door as fast as his legs would carry him. Shake followed close behind, trying to think of a good parting shot, while Vader thrashed around with pain and rage.
“You a dead man!” Vader bellowed. “You ain’t leaving here but in a motherfucking bag!”
“I think I’ll just walk,” Shake finally came up with, but not until he was already out of the room, halfway across the yard.
At lunch, Shake carried his tray across the room and found Tatum. Tatum was considered the best go-to guy in the California state system. Even the blacks and Mexicans, who had their own fixers, used him for important acquisitions. Tatum was wired top to bottom, inside and out, and could score just about anything, for a price that was generally fair.
“I need something,” Shake said, sliding in next to him. “Chop chop.”
“Like what?” Tatum said. “A coffin?” He cracked himself up.
Shake waited patiently for him to finish laughing. “Word travels fast, doesn’t it?”
“You gonna need a bazooka take Vader out.”
Shake passed him a piece of paper.
Tatum read it once, then twice.
“A say what?
“By tomorrow afternoon.”
“Can you get it? That exact one?”
“Course I can get it.”
The line for the working payphone was long. Shake approached the guy at the head of the line, a Fresno Bulldog he knew from laundry detail. He slipped the Bulldog a pack of Crest White Strips he’d won last week playing Omaha and the Bulldog surrendered his place in line to Shake. Just in time, because a minute later Vader came limping along.
Shake picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone. When he could feel Vader right behind him, sour and sweaty, he shook his head.
“No, I said Tuesday,” Shake said into the phone. “If you don’t hear from me by Tuesday, I want you to do it. Understand?”
He hung up before Vader heard the dial tone and realized there was no one on the other end of the line. Shake turned and pretended to notice him for the first time.
“Vader! What’s happening?”
Vader glared at him. The cords in his neck were as thick and rigid as rebar.
The C.O. at the door sensed the sudden spike in electricity. He moved a thumb to the panic button on his radio.
“Buddy of mine on the outside,” Shake explained, tapping his knuckle against the phone. “Nice to have friends, you know?”
“Ain’t no friend of yours gonna hear from you by Tuesday,” Vader said. “Guarantee that shit, motherfucker.”
Vader let the threat sink in. Shake assumed an expression of appropriate gravity.
“Is that right?” Shake asked.
“That’s right.” Vader nodded—once up, slowly; once down, slowly. Then he pushed past, smacking Shake hard with his shoulder.
Shake watched Vader limp off, then checked the clock on the wall.
A quiet Sunday, after chow. A couple of boomboxes were dueling. Fifty Cent on tier two, Metallica just above. Most of the cons were still in the yard, though, scheming and dreaming and dying slowly from boredom.
Shake stretched out on his bunk, hands behind his head, and worked on the menu for the restaurant he planned to open once he was a free man.
Pan-fried chicken, maybe, lightly floured and lots of spice. Mashed potatoes and cream gravy. A couple of gumbos, of course, with a roux like Shake’s grandmother used to make.
Grilled fish of some sort, whatever was fresh and good. With a grenoblaise sauce, maybe, though that might be too fancy for the effect he was after.
Shake let his mind wander. The only thing, in here, that could. He remembered something he’d heard about death row up at San Quentin. A condemned man, so he’d heard, could request anything he wanted for his last meal—lobster and creme brulee, barbecue shrimp, you name it. Apparently, though, orders were filled in-house, with whatever the prison mess had on hand, so the poor doomed bastard who ordered filet mignon and strawberry ice cream usually ended up with the chopped hamburger steak and a cherry popsicle.
That was pretty shitty, Shake thought, to get a guy’s hopes up like that, even if he was more than likely a baby-killing sadist. But that was the California Department of Corrections, for you—experts at making your life pretty shitty.
He heard the squeak of rubber wheels. Tatum, rolling a meal cart for the keep-locks. He stopped outside of Shake’s cell.
“Got it?” Shake said.
Tatum checked the tier for a nosy C.O., then handed Shake a package wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. It was the size and shape of a phone book.
“You sure you don’t want to tell me what you need it for?”
Shake slid the package under his bunk.
Vader didn’t come alone. Shake hadn’t expected him to. Just before lockdown Vader showed up with another black con, leading him on a leather leash attached to a rhinestone-trimmed dog collar. Both of which, Shake guessed, had been procured by Tatum.
Shake, sitting on the edge of his bunk, gave Vader and his boy a polite nod.
“Help you fellas?”
“This here my top punk,” Vader said. “Mad Ty.”
Shake considered. “Mad as in angry, mad as in crazy, or mad in the hip-hop sense meaning excellent?”
Mad Ty lunged on the leash and snarled. He was cranked up, or hopped up, or both.
“He gonna shut that smart-ass mouth of yours once and for all,” Vader said.
“Think he can handle the assignment?”
“Either way,” he said. “You get lucky and jack Mad Ty, you go straight to the hole, stay right here at the Creek and don’t walk.”
“And you stay clean.”
“Not a bad plan,” Shake admitted. He reached under his bunk.
“Go on. Get out your shiv.”
“I don’t have a shiv, Vader. I believe in the power of the printed word.”
Shake produced what had been in the brown-paper package the size and shape of a phone book:
A phone book. Clark County, Nevada, white pages, 2007-2008.
Vader was momentarily perplexed.
“The fuck is that?”
Shake didn’t answer. He assumed the question was rhetorical, though with Vader you could never be sure.
Vader finally gave a derisive snort.
“You gonna hit him with that?”
Shake hefted the heavy book in his hands. Not the worst idea in the world, come to think of it. But instead he dropped the book to the floor. It landed with a boom.
“2214 Sunset Circle,” Shake recited from memory. “Henderson, Nevada.”
Mad Ty lunged again. “Lemme kill that peckerwood! Kill!”
Vader yanked Mad Ty back.
“Hold the fuck on, motherfucker.”
“Your brother and sister-in-law live at that address, right?” Shake asked pleasantly. “Couple of nieces?”
Shake waited for him to remember the conversation at the payphone. Then he gave Vader a little help, just to speed things along.
“ ‘If you don’t hear from me by Tuesday, do it.’ What I told my buddy on the outside, remember?”
“Kill! Gonna tear off that peckerwood’s head and stick my—”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Vader gave Mad Ty another yank, even harder, and the rhinestone collar bit into Mad Ty’s throat. Mad Ty made an ack-ack sound, like he needed to cough up a furball, and shut the fuck up.
“You mentioned one time you had family in Henderson,” Shake said, “so I looked it up. Sure enough.”
“The fuck you think you playing at?”
“You see, V,” Shake said, “I was just paying attention. What I’ve been telling you.”
Vader’s braided muscles vibrated helpless rage. He started to open the mouth that was too big for his head that was too small for his body. Shake had to smile.
“Motherfucker,” Shake said. “Yeah, I know.”
Shake would have preferred a giant iron gate rattling open, sunlight pouring down and making him squint, the wide horizon stretched out limitless before him, a swell of violins, all that. That’s how you were supposed to leave prison a free man, wasn’t it?
Instead a C.O. walked him out a side door, through a couple of chain link gates, and left him in a gravel parking lot across the highway from a bus stop.
Shake didn’t complain.
Shake rode a city bus into town. The next bus to L.A. didn’t leave for a few hours, so he ate lunch at a fast-food place. Where—Jesus—the scope and variety of choices on the brightly lit plastic menu board left him a little dazed. Salads, pita wraps, burritos. Saver size, super size, brown bag combo. He had to step away from the counter for a minute and regroup before he ordered.
He carried his tray to a table by the window. He had a little more than four hundred dollars in cash on him. He had the clothes he was wearing when he was busted and was wearing now—a pair of Levi 501 jeans; a striped, pale green button-down shirt; a pair of comfortable brown leather shoes he’d bought on sale at Nordstrom’s; a brown leather belt. He had a key to a storage unit in Inglewood, by the airport. In the storage unit were a few more clothes, his books, his tools, and another grand or so. The storage unit would be his first stop when he got back to L.A.
That was the question.
Shake decided not to tackle it till after lunch. Right now he’d just enjoy his grilled chicken pita wrap and appreciate the view of dusty green strawberry fields, no barbed wire or gun towers in sight. He’d ignore both future and past and live in the present, live in the moment, just as he’d been advised to do by one of the C.O.s—a reformed crack dealer and self-styled Buddhist—the first week of his first fall, all those years ago back in Louisiana, Shake just a kid and scared out of his gourd. Live in the moment. Shake, even now, couldn’t decide if that was the best advice you give a man doing time, or the very worst.
“You all done with this?” asked an empty-eyed girl in a bright orange uniform.
Shake looked down at his tray, at the balled-up wrappers and flattened ketchup packets. He realized he must have been waiting for the whistle, tell him chow was over.
On the bus to L.A. he sat next to a tiny bird of a woman who seemed impossibly old, a hundred years at least. She was already asleep, snoring softly, when he took his seat.
Ten minutes into the trip the sun set without fanfare. The world bled out suddenly and left behind nothing but the bright bubble of the bus, rocketing along through the darkness. With the flare, every minute or so, of the green mile markers when the bus headlights hit them.
Shake tried to figure out who he’d call when he got to L.A. He knew a couple of women who had nice places, and if they were still single he was pretty sure they’d put him up for a few nights. But if they were still single, that meant those few nights would be complicated. It was probably better, he decided, to find a cheap motel, maybe one near the beach, stay there while he lined up his next job.
His next job. After he got settled, he’d drop in on Frank. Frank was certain to have something for him, or know someone who did. Shake didn’t consider himself the best driver in the business—only assholes and beginners thought in those terms—but he knew a lot of people on the West Coast would be eager to hire him, now that he was in play again.
That thought should have made him feel good, had in the past, but right now it had the opposite effect. Here he was, forty-two years old, and what did he have to show for it?
Four hundred bucks, the clothes on his back, a key to a storage unit in Inglewood, and a path ahead, if he wasn’t careful, that looked a lot like the path behind.
He wondered where exactly in his life his shit had gone sideways, and why. It was hard to say. It hadn’t been a couple of momentous decisions that had determined the course of his life. No volcanic eruptions that altered and fixed his personal topography. Instead what happened were all the little decisions along the way, most of which he didn’t even at the time realize were decisions, the bits of coincidence and circumstance, good luck and bad, the steady slow accretion of rock and soil and sediment.
He needed a volcanic eruption. He needed to make a move. If he didn’t want to find himself back here on this bus again, ten years from now, ten years older, thinking these very same thoughts. Or dead. Or worse.
He had good ideas for the restaurant he wanted to open, and he knew he had the chops to make it work in the kitchen. But the business end, the money, permits, partners, the ridiculous odds against just staying above water—Shake tensed up just thinking about it.
You had to be young, he supposed, to enjoy a volcanic eruption. Young or dumb or convinced of your own miraculous ability to beat the odds. Shake was none of those, unfortunately.
The old lady in the seat next to him stirred and woke. She clutched her purse in her lap with small veiny hands and examined Shake with the clearest blue eyes he’d ever seen.
“I suppose you just got out of prison,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
She nodded, satisfied, then proceeded to chatter cheerfully on for the next two hundred miles. She told Shake she visited her sister in Riverside every month. She told Shake she’d once been courted by Walt Disney. Which, in case Shake couldn’t figure it out, meant she’d had a fling with him. She told Shake she’d married a Marine the day after VJ day. They’d had four children, none of whom had turned out to be worth a damn. Those four children, however, had given her a dozen grandchildren, all of whom, surprisingly, had turned out to be worth a damn. One was a mayor of a small city in Arizona. Her husband had passed years and years ago, when LBJ was still president. She learned to be independent, something her own mother had never been.
“I suppose you expect me to give you some wise advice or such,” she said.
“I wish you would,” Shake said. “I could use it.”
“I don’t have any advice to give. You pick out the kind of person you want to be, then you try your best to be that person.”
“I think that’s pretty good advice.”
She scoffed, as if she thought he was humoring her. Which he wasn’t.
When they finally reached L.A., well after dark, he helped her down off the bus and carried her suitcase to a waiting cab.
She gave Shake’s forearm a surprisingly strong squeeze and looked at him with her clear blue eyes.
“You’re on parole?”
“No, ma’am, I’m free and clear.”
“Get a haircut. You’re a good-looking fellow. You’ve got good-natured eyes and a nice nose. But you look like you got your hair cut in prison.”
He smiled. “That I did.”
“You have a girl?”
He thought he knew what she meant.
“I’m not sure.”
She scoffed. “You’d be sure.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Stay that way.”
“Free and clear?”
He watched the cab drive her off. When he turned away, he discovered that a long black limo had eased silently up to the curb next to him.
No one knew where he was, no one knew he was even out of prison. Why, then, was Shake not surprised when the tinted back passenger window melted slowly into the doorframe and he saw Alexandra Ilandryan smiling out at him.
“Hello, Shake,” she said.
“You are surprised to see me?”
Shake shook his head.
“You are happy to see me?”
That one was more complicated. He gave her a wink.
“Depends,” he said, as she popped the door open for him.
Shake settled himself in the limo across from Alexandra and took a nice long look at her. She hadn’t changed a bit since they’d last met—the languid gray eyes, the cheekbones, the lips parted slightly with just a hint of amusement.
“You just seem to get younger and younger,” he told her. He felt the limo pick up speed as it merged onto the highway. “If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you made a deal with the devil.”
She brushed off the thought with an elegant pale hand.
“The devil,” she said dismissively.
Alexandra Ilandryan was probably the most beautiful woman Shake had ever known. She was also—not probably, but certainly—the most formidable. Shake didn’t know all the details, but enough of them. Married off at age 16 to a brutish, mid-level warlord in the mountains just across the border from Turkey, Alexandra had by the age of 20 dispatched the husband, taken over his operation, driven all local competitors out of business. A few years later she immigrated to America. Within a decade she’d used her charm, her smarts, and a bottomless reservoir of sheer ruthless will to assume control of the entire Armenian mob in L.A. She was the boss, the pakhan. The devil came to Alexandra Ilandryan for favors, not vice versa.
She dropped an ice cube into a glass. She was wearing a silk blouse the same smoky color of her eyes, slacks, and simple black sandals that Shake knew must have cost a fortune.
“Maker’s Mark?” she asked. “Rocks?”
“Good memory,” Shake said.
“You are impossible man to forget, Shake.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
She poured his drink. Her smile revealed nothing. It never did.
“You spend fifteen months in a hard place,” she mused. “I wonder why do you not make plea bargain?”
Shake shrugged. “Dime out the most dangerous lady on the West Coast? And possibly the best kisser?”
“Possibly?” She arched an eyebrow and studied him. He wondered why he was here. Some kind of business, no doubt, but there might be more to it than that. He and Alexandra had enjoyed a brief but intense relationship several months before the job that sent him to Mule Creek. Shake still wasn’t exactly sure why the relationship had petered out, or which of them exactly had been responsible for the petering.
“I appreciate your loyalty,” she said finally. “Now I return favor. I have little something for you, put some money in your pocket.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Lexy. The timing.”
“You’re at this time in your life, the middle of things.” She smiled at him. “You want a fresh start. Et cetera.”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. She reached across and touched his shoulder.
“Just listen first before you decide,” she said. “Yes? What can this hurt?”
Shake sipped his drink and watched the city lights flow past.
What could it hurt?
“It’s your car,” he said. “I’m just along for the ride.”
She took him to dinner at a time-capsule steakhouse in Hollywood—framed headshots from the Forties and Fifties, red leatherette booths, grouchy old Iron Curtain waiters in tuxedos and starched aprons.
He ordered the New York strip, hot and rosy in the center, and the creamed spinach. Both were excellent. Alexandra let Shake savor the meal and an after-dinner brandy before she brought up business. It was a simple job, she said after she explained what was involved. Then she corrected herself.
“No. Job I think is too—grand—a word.”
“Errand?” he suggested.
“I drive a car to Vegas. I meet a guy and give him the car.”
“Could not be simpler, no?”
“The guy gives me a briefcase. I fly back to L.A. and give the briefcase to you.”
“A small errand.”
“And you give me twenty thousand dollars. Because . . . ”
“Because I am fond of you, Shake. Because you have paid debt to society and deserve fresh start in life.”
“What’s in the trunk of the car?” he asked.
“Is not your worry.”
“What’s in the briefcase?” he asked.
She laughed musically, a run of sweet notes climbing the scale. Her gray eyes twinkled.
“I miss you, Shake. Your sense of humor.”
“How about the guy I meet in Vegas?”
“He works for a man,” Alexandra said. “Dick Moby.”
“You are familiar?”
Shake was familiar. You didn’t do time West of the Mississippi without meeting someone who’d worked for, borrowed money from, or narrowly escaped being murdered by Dick Moby. Often all three. The Whale owned a strip club in Vegas, but his real business was drugs, shylocking, extortion, immigrant sex-slaves.
“So,” she said.
Shake tried to think of the name of the actor in the headshot above Alexandra’s head. He’d been in The Killers with Burt Lancaster, a character actor who often played a guy you thought was good but turned out bad. Or vice versa. Shake couldn’t remember.
It never worked that way in real life, those sudden character twists, but it made for good movies he guessed.
“I’m serious, Lexy,” Shake said.
“I know you are.”
“I’m forty-two years old.”
He explained to her that if, if he took this job, it would be his last one. And he’d only be taking the job so he could put the twenty grand toward the restaurant he planned to open. Twenty grand wouldn’t be nearly enough, of course, but it was a beginning. And he was resolved to make a new beginning.
She listened politely. He knew she didn’t believe him. He knew she didn’t believe he believed it himself.
Their waiter, a dead ringer for Nikita Khruschev, stomped over and glared at Shake’s empty brandy snifter.
“Another?” he grunted.
Alexandra looked at Shake.
He hesitated. He did believe it himself. At the same time, though, he couldn’t deny how relieved he’d felt when Lexy’s limo had rolled up. When he realized he could just give himself up to the current, one last time, and let life take him where it wanted.
He’d go to work on that new beginning tomorrow.
He shook his head at the waiter. “I’ve got a long drive to make tonight.”
Copyright © 2011 Lou Berney
Lou Berney is an accomplished writer, teacher, and liar who has written feature screenplays and created TV pilots for Warner Brothers, Paramount, Focus Features, ABC, and Fox, among others. His short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and other publications. His first novel, Gutshot Straight, was named one of the ten best debut crime novels of the year by Booklist and nominated for a Barry Award.