Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 035 - Johnny Strike


Originally published in the short story collection: A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above, by publisher Rudos & Rubes

There was a mix-up with the paperwork. Even the furlough captain had missed it when he’d stamped all the forms. A light-blue laminated “Inmate Activity Card” with the warden’s childlike signature was paper-clipped to the top of the file.

Later that morning, an older trustee handed the card and a pink slip of paper through the bars to Brendan Cattrell, a.k.a. “Baby Face Cattrell,” before winking lewdly and trotting away. Cattrell laughed. Yes, he still had the charm.

Dumbfounded, Baby Face sat on his bunk and looked it over. “Brendan Cattrell is authorized to participate in scullery work at an undisclosed outside location.”

Cattrell had just been transferred from maximum security Pelican Bay prison, and he was thrilled to his core with this colossal mistake.

The next morning, dressed in his prison-issued striped jacket and gray cap, he waited until two bulls showed up with five other prisoners in tow. A guard unlocked the cell and placed him in cuffs. The group was led down one prison hallway after another, picking up more prisoners, solid metal gates slamming shut and locking behind them. Baby Face told himself that if he could just relax, this would be his greatest escape––one for which the prison system itself would be responsible. He wanted to laugh out loud but, instead, stared at the floor in front of him.

Baby Face Cattrell boarded an old bus with twenty-two other prisoners. Ten minutes later, the bus was rolling down a country road, away from the prison, across a sea of open fields. The fog made the landscape look like Sleepy Hollow. Before long, the bus turned onto a wider highway and then onto a freeway. The handcuffs would have to come off at some point, Cattrell mused.

He gazed at the morning traffic, trying to imagine where people were going and what they were doing in their lives. He would soon be with them. Baby Face concentrated on keeping his heartbeat steady and his mind in a quiet space. He looked at the activity card again. He was number 1640. Added together, that made eleven. That was his lucky number. Added again made two. He was born in February, the second month. The numbers were lining up nicely.

The bus took a turnoff and began to rumble down an industrial road that was also thick with fog. He could make out white buildings, some kind of a metal tower, tractors, cement mixers, a row of pale green portatoilets. The bus kept rolling, the fog dissipated, and eventually the beginnings of the city outskirts were evident: a grocery store, dilapidated housing, weedy fenced-in lots, graffiti-covered walls, a gloomy gas station. The bus pulled into a parking lot behind a three-story warehouse the color of red clay, and parked near an open loading dock.

“Stay in your seats!” the bull barked from the front of the bus. “I’ll tell ya when you can move. And keep your cards in front of you at all times!” He shot a menacing glance at the prisoners before getting off the bus. The driver rustled the morning paper and began to read it. Somebody farted loudly and a general complaint rose up from the men that caused the bull to climb back onboard and command, “Silence, you fucks!” Then he said something to the driver before turning back to the prisoners. “When I call your name, get your sorry ass up and off the bus. You’ll be escorted to the workplace where you’ll work till chow. Understood?” The prisoners grumbled a “yes sir” in unison and the bull called out the first name: “Sanders, front and center!”

Cattrell craned his neck to see the prisoner being escorted by another bull into the entrance. His cuffs were still on. The escape would have to be from the inside. He waited for his name, still worried that someone would discover the mistake that had gotten him this far.

“Okay Cattrell. Let’s go.”

Two bulls glared up at him as he stepped out of the bus, and one pointed him toward the short climb to the loading zone where a city cop stood sucking his lips.

Down a couple of hallways––not so different from the prison, sans clanking metal doors––as the cop and a bull traded comments about a baseball game. Suddenly, he was looking into a deep room with a ceiling nearly as high as a cathedral, crowded with prisoners busy scrubbing pots and pans, loading and unloading dishwashers, filling plastic trays with clean dishes, glasses and little metal dessert cups, and stacking the trays on dollies. The enormous room was filled of steam and noise and sweat and a sense of hellish boredom. A man with crazy, blue eyes, wearing a camouflage bill cap, left the working horde to snatch Cattrell’s Activity Card and look into his eyes with sullen hate. He nodded to the bull, who was removing Cattrell’s cuffs.

“How’s it goin’, Stu?” he asked the guard.

“It’s alright. Here’s another slave.”

Crazy Eyes laughed and studied Cattrell like an insane drill sergeant.

“I want grease, chump. Elbow grease. Time’s a wasting, lady.” He led Cattrell over to some sinks filled with what looked like near-boiling water. An ugly pan coated with dark slime floated on top. Baby Face removed his cap and jacket. Next to the sink, a stack of cruddy pans of various shapes and sizes rose to the height of a short man––no, make that a short woman, Cattrell thought. Crazy Eyes handed him a pair of blue rubber gloves and winked, “To keep yer hands nice and soft.” Then, “Do it! Now!”

Cattrell dug in, scrubbing at the pan with a bristled brush, but it was so thick with gluey gravy that Cattrell felt there was no possibility of the pan ever being clean again. He gave up, filled it with some of the boiling water, and placed it on the floor. The next one he tried seemed more promising and, after a few minutes of scrubbing, showed signs that it might actually be cleaned in his lifetime. Cattrell worked away but kept scanning the room, observing and noting the general set-up. Behind him was a new guard, and on the other side of the room stood two more watching the deep cavern like a pair of vultures.

Baby Face Cattrell turned around and looked at the guard behind him sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup. The bull stepped closer and said, “What’s the problem? Get back to work.” Baby Face pleaded that he had to use the bathroom. He held his legs together and made the most pathetic expression he could muster.

The guard laughed at his discomfort and took another sip. He narrowed his eyes and sipped again. “There’s a piss break coming up soon,” he said, but then saw that Cattrell was in a bad way. “Okay, son, come with me,” the guard said, and Baby Face peeled off the gloves. In the hallway, they stopped in front of the men’s room. The guard said, “I’ve gotta put the cuffs back on.” Cattrell went back into his leg-squeezing pose and pained expression. The guard still had his coffee. He thought for a moment, then said, “Okay, go ahead. I’ll come with you.”

The bathroom was empty. There were no windows. Cattrell turned to the urinal and unzipped. He slipped out a brush handle with a jagged piece of metal from a dessert dish imbedded into it and wrapped tight with a shoestring. He had contrived the weapon under the hot dishwater, which ended up making it weld together nicely. The guard lit a cigarette and the smell was almost intoxicating to Baby Face as he went ahead and urinated.

As soon as he finished, Cattrell turned and leapt like a wild animal at the guard, savagely plunging the shiv into his throat and twisting it around. As he fell, the guard made gasping sounds, and tried to kick Cattrell off while he groped for his gun, but in a matter of seconds Baby Face had finished him off with a vicious kick to the head. He bolted the door, washed up, and got the guard’s dark trousers off. He pulled them over his own jail stripes. He took his bloody prison-issued shirt off, settling for only a white t-shirt. He took stock of his newly acquired items: a loaded revolver, fat wallet, pack of Camel filters, Zippo lighter, set of cuffs, and keys. He picked up the lit cigarette and took a drag. He dropped it on the floor and stepped on it. He stood on the sink and knocked out the air vent cover above. After he had raised himself inside and closed up the vent, he crawled along a narrow air shaft like a human worm, trying not to breathe too deeply; there was a vague smell of burning plastic.

At the next opening, he removed the vent cover and peered down into an empty room of lockers and benches. Once inside the room, he found a smelly, red sweatshirt, which he put on, and even a pair of sunglasses, which he propped on his head. He let himself out and walked the hallway looking for an exit. He passed a man in a suit and another in a chef’s outfit deep in a heated discussion; neither seemed even cognizant of him. Still, he kept a firm grip on the gun in the pouch of the sweatshirt. Outside, he found himself in a parking lot with a city street just beyond it. He crossed the lot and became a “free man,” walking along a block of East Oakland. He turned a corner, then another, and boarded a bus.

Baby Face Cattrell came from Chicago and didn’t know Oakland or San Francisco. He had been to California only twice: once as a boy, on vacation with his foster family in San Diego, where he’d almost drowned. Still, he remembered the pretty boats, and now arriving at Jack London Square he found boats there, too. Some looked like yachts. His second time in California was when he had traveled to Sacramento for the “job.”

Once off he bus, he bought a gray sweater, and ditched the red sweatshirt in a men’s room trashcan. He walked until he came to a BART station and bought a ticket to San Francisco. He enjoyed the smooth ride and got out at Embarcadero, the first Frisco stop. He walked along Market Street, relishing the reality of his third escape. He needed some ID and then to head south of the border, but first he deserved some fun.

Looking at the San Francisco Chronicle in the vending machines he passed, he was reminded: it was New Year’s Eve. How appropriate, he thought, and pondered if perhaps there was some even deeper meaning. Baby Face sat in a restaurant and ate a “breakfast burrito.” He had never heard of it but had watched the counterman make one: scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese, salsa, bacon and refried beans. He was nearly salivating as it was handed to a friendly girl standing next to him. “I’ll have the same,” he told the arrogant appearing counterman. He overheard the girl order a “Mango Monkey” at the next counter, but he decided he would just have a cup of coffee.

Now satisfied, he sat at the counter and wondered what the night––New Year’s Eve, no less––might hold in store for him. Outside, he lit a cigarette and took a deep hit, then dropped it to the ground and stepped on it, which was his custom. A homeless man, who looked like an extra from a Dickens epic, dropped to his knees, retrieved the fag, straightened it out, and exposed a horrible, toothless grin.

At a bar, Baby Face found an envelope on the floor that contained a ticket to the Golden Gate Yacht Club’s New Year’s Eve party. He had a few drinks and decided to go. Once at the yacht club, he had a few more. He met a flirty and tipsy “Miss Royale” by the punch bowl. She wore a pink-and-black striped satin corset; black elbow-length gloves, a silver bracelet above one elbow; and a purple flower in her dark hair. Her painted face was as fetching as any harlot dreamed up by any newly escaped, baby-faced, lady killer. He smiled his special smile, the one that always worked. He watched with pleasure as her pupils enlarged.

“You’re the most beautiful doll in all the world,” he whispered with a sweet, deathly sincerity. Miss Royale nearly swooned. He offered his arm; she eagerly grasped it, and they left the yacht club together.


The sky threatened rain and Cattrell felt a cold wind kicking up. A clump of white balloons was caught on the electric cables of the bus line. The sidewalk before him was sprinkled with glitter, confetti, a smashed noisemaker.

He watched the attendants wheel the stretcher out of the apartment building. The corpse was covered in a white sheet. He fished out a cigarette, lit it, took one drag, and dropped it to the ground. He looked down and stepped on it.

Baby Face Cattrell thought about his next move. He needed proper ID to get him to Mexico. He knew somebody in San Diego who could supply it. He headed to the bus station and bought a ticket. He found a darkened area in a empty waiting room. He slunk into one corner and, on a hard wooden bench, dozed off behind a San Francisco Examiner.

When Baby Face awoke, he found that the terminal was deserted. There was not a soul in sight. He didn’t feel well, either. He walked around looking for someone but he was completely alone. Spooked now, he desperately wanted to get out, but all the doors were locked. He smashed a glass door with a trashcan; the foul-smelling air rushed in and Baby Face gasped and clutched at his throat. He fell to the floor, his chest contracting with a nightmare force. He struggled to crawl across the grimy floor but he didn’t know where he was crawling to. He felt the blood rushing up his throat and he thought his heart was exploding, silently, profoundly; and then he died. Two men in biohazard suits and gas masks hurried by, barely glancing at Baby Face Cattrell’s lifeless body.

BIO: Johnny Strike is the author of Ports of Hell, and A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above and the founding member of the legendary San Francisco punk band, Crime.

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