When cop Leo Eliasbroke, alcoholic and desperatehears about an unsolved bank robbery, the stolen money proves too strong a temptation. Elias takes the case into his own hands, hoping to find Emily and the money before anyone else does.
A sharply drawn cast of charactersdirty cops, Russian drug dealers, Chinese black-market traders, street smart Cambodians, and shady entrepreneursall take part in this unflinching tour through San Francisco’s underbelly. Hoffman writes with unstoppable momentum and produces twists that will surprise until the end.
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The man who had been following her stepped into the bar. Emily remembered that. At the time she didn't know he had been following her, but she remembered the way he had stepped into the bar. She remembered the door opening. She remembered him backing into the bar and closing the door. She remembered him turning to face the bar. He was big and white and dressed like someone who had a job in an office. He hesitated at the doorway and then continued in.
Emily was sitting in the back. An old Chinese man sat toward the front. There was only the bar and fifteen stools, nothing fancy. The bartender, a woman with thick makeup, seemed happy to see the new man. She greeted him with a smile. It was a Tuesday night. There were only four people in the Kum Bak Klub.
"I'll have a whiskey," said the man, having already looked toward Emily's drink and seen something brown. There was just enough light to make out the color of it. The man had an accent of some kind. An accent and a silver watch. That was a lot. She looked him over. He seemed handsome. He was a big guy with a watch in the Tenderloin. Maybe he was here for a convention or something. He sat on his stool and sipped his drink. She sized him up.
Emily was thirty-one years old. Her hair was pulled back tight in a ponytail; she had on tight blue jeans, men's basketball shoes, and a red 49ers jacket with gold trim and snap buttons. She was pretty, but in a beat-up way. She would have been prettier in a different life. She had on black eyeliner. Her teeth were not straight, or white. Her nails were bitten down. She had a star-shaped scar on her forehead.
She sat there and watched the man's reflection in the mirror until she got distracted by the baseball game on the television. The Giants were playing; the playoffs were coming, and it was cold outside; San Francisco weather. The bartender and the old man near the door watched the game, too. Later she tried to remember how they had started talking. He was doing something. He had been writing in a notebook.
"You writing a memo?" she'd asked.
The man said, "I know it's rude to work in a bar." He put the pen back into his jacket pocket.
Emily barely understood what he had said. She heard the words but only vaguely. "It's all right," she said. She waved her hand toward him the way people talking in bars do. "You could keep doing it."
"Excuse me?" he said.
"Where you from? France?"
"I am from St. Petersburg, Russia. You know it?"
"Of course I know it," Emily said, staring at the TV. She fixed her posture a little more straight.
"Would you like another drink?" he asked.
"Yeah. I'll buy it, though."
"Please, I insist."
"All right, but I can only have one more," she said.
He moved a seat closer to her, leaving an empty seat between them. The drink came and after a minute he got her another. They talked haltingly at first and then more fluidly. He told her he did real estate. He said he was staying at a hotel south of the city, near the airport. She lied and told him she was a social worker. She said she helped people with drug problems. It was cold here, he said. She agreed, it was cold.
They drank more. He switched to Hennessy, saying he had never tried it. She asked him questions and answered his with a laugh. The bartender turned on the jukebox and they listened to Chinese pop music. People came and left the bar. He kept buying drinks. The bartender looked on happily.
After a while Emily announced that he was her ace boon coon. He said that she was his milaya moya. The bartender tried to teach them one of the songs. He tried to teach them a Russian song. They were drunk and he leaned on her and she leaned on him.
"You don't help people with drugs," he said. "Come on?"
"I ain't lying," she said.
She could smell cabbage on his breath. She could see the pores on his nose. They watched a loud guy come into the bar and leave.
"Have you tried drugs?" he asked.
"Have you tried cocaine?" he asked.
"You a cop?" she said.
"I'm Russian," he said. He tried to laugh it off.
"You a KGB?"
"No, I'm curious," he said. They smiled, nodded, and shifted. Their legs touched.
"I've tried it," she said, leaning her head closer to his. "Why, let me guess, you wanna try it?"
"Perhaps, I don't know — yes," he said. He measured every reaction she gave. He had only one intention and that was to get her back to his hotel. That was the starting point, get her to the hotel.
Emily made her own calculations. He didn't move like a cop. Emily didn't trust anyone, but he didn't seem dangerous. He had money, he paid for every drink; he had a nice watch, clean shoes, clean hair, clean face, nice-looking wallet. He wasn't grabby, he wasn't drunk. Doing drugs with him seemed like a good idea.
"Perhaps? Yes?" she asked, looking at him with her eyebrows arched up.
"In point of fact," said the Russian, "my friend gave me this." He reached into his front pocket and palmed a plastic bag filled with crack rocks.
"Hell no," she said. "Put that away, stupid!" They left the bar, Emily feeling certain she had hustled him, the Russian feeling certain of the opposite.
The hotel was a Ramada on the east side of South San Francisco, on Airport Boulevard. It was surrounded by other hotels and dark, empty office buildings. The taxi driver took them back and forth down twisting roads until he found it. Emily, drunk, loud, and nervous, kept making the driver turn the music up. She rapped along with the radio: I wear my stunna glasses at night.
The Russian already had a room. He walked directly into a center courtyard and out through the far corner. She followed him up a flight of stairs: room 214. Lucky 214, she thought, touching her knuckles to the wooden door as she entered.
The room was empty and clean. Emily was nervous. The Russian had become quiet and businesslike.
"Nice place," she said.
"So what's up, stupid?"
"Excuse me," said the Russian. He fished into his pocket and pulled out the plastic baggie: a quarter ounce of crack. He weighed it in his hand. "Relax," he said.
"All right," Emily said, taking off her jacket and throwing it onto a chair. "But I ain't a prostitute."
"Please, no. I didn't — I am not interested in that." He sounded English now. "I'm just here to have a good time, I assure you. Party. You know, do-duh-dodoo," he said, making a dancing gesture with his head, hands, and shoulders.
"As long as we're on the same page."
"The exact same page. Don't worry, I — I have beers in the refrigerator. Relax, please, first — it's fine, I tell you I am not even sleeping in this room." He waved at her like he was shutting her up and went on. "I have it, but for ... funny reasons — you know, work — I have another room, too." He went to the refrigerator and handed her a bottle of beer.
"They got a radio in here?"
The Russian looked around the room. "I don't know," he said, and then, "Just TV." He turned on the television and opened a beer for himself. "Just TV and fun."
Emily sipped her beer. She was drunk already, but the quietness of the room was sobering her up. "You got a pipe?" she asked.
"Of course," he said. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a brand-new glass pipe, and handed the bag to her. Emily examined the rocks; they looked fine. They were big and yellowish-brownish-white like parmesan cheese. She pinched off half of a rock with her thumbnail, put it into the pipe, and sat down on a tall chair that looked like a throne.
"So, you don't mind if I?" she asked.
He handed her a green lighter. She took two hits, blew out smoke, leaned forward, her mind opening up, and handed the pipe to the Russian. He was still standing. He took the pipe awkwardly, flinching when he grabbed the wrong end. He took the lighter from her, then walked over to a chair near the desk and sat down. He seemed nervous. Emily's own nerves had been calmed by the drug. The room had a nice warm light, and the Russian, who a few seconds earlier had looked a little scary with his big shoulders, his creviced face and big hands, now seemed friendly, maybe even pitiful. He lit the pipe, barely sucked in, and blew out a small cloud of smoke.
"Thank you," he said, standing up and handing the pipe to her.
"That's right," she said. She looked at him and nodded like a teacher pleased with a student.
She smoked the pipe and passed it back and he did the same. They went back and forth like this for a while, drinking beers in between and talking about nothing important.
The Russian eventually became quiet and put his head down and refused to smoke any more. He sat there for a minute, a worried look formed on his face. Emily wondered if he was thinking about sex.
"Will you excuse me?" he said, standing up. "I'll be right back." Emily watched him go and then stared at the TV and repeated, I'll be right back, trying to mimic his accent. The idea that he was going to walk in wearing some kind of pervert's outfit, leather, or a dress, or a diaper, crossed her mind. She wasn't too worried. He seemed all right. She was fucked-up herself but she could scream loud if she had to. She smoked from the pipe, stood up, and strained her ears, trying to listen for any sounds. Then, distracted, she put the pipe down and fixed her hair in the bathroom mirror.
Five minutes later he came back in. He walked the length of the room like he was preparing a speech, and then his hands went to his pants pockets and then up to his breast pocket. He pulled out some money.
"I said I'm not a prostitute."
"Oh, no, no — this? Shhh — no, I wanted to give you this as a gift. Just for coming here. Don't worry — I have so much money." The bills were shaking in his hand. "Friends," he said.
Emily took the money. She counted out ten twenty-dollar bills and laid them out on the bed in front of her. "I'm not gonna act in no porno movie, either — get all scandalous up in this hotel room — hell no." She seemed suddenly angry with him.
"Please," he said. "Just hanging around."
He had a smile on his face, but his eyes didn't look right. Maybe he's just high, she thought. "Well ... stupid, Russian, cracker, punk," she said, and put the money into her front pocket. "Thank you." Nothing's for free, she thought.
"My wife's here," he said.
"I told you, I don't want to get into no freaky-deaky shit with you, man. Stop playing."
"No, please listen, she's here —"
"Hell no, motherfucker, please yourself."
"No, please, we are here, to make money," he said. He was visibly high. "We have a plan to make some. We are asking you if you want to help? To join us? You know, partner kind of thing?"
"Yeah, right," said Emily.
"It's the truth."
"Well, where is she?"
"She is in our room — not feeling, she's not feeling well." He put his hands up like he didn't know how to explain it. "Tomorrow we meet."
"How y'all gonna make this so-called money?" Emily asked.
"We have a plan, but I can't tell you it right now."
"Then how am I gonna decide?"
"There is no need to decide, here — now. You can stay in this room, for free, obviously. If you want to leave, you can leave." He turned his head and looked toward the door. "But if you leave, you can't come back."
"Y'all Mr. Mysterioso."
"I am," said the Russian. He looked dreadful.
"It's all good," she said. "I don't have anything better to do." The image of her boyfriend, Pierre, popped into her mind; he had been yelling at her, she could feel the bruises on her arm where he had shaken her. If she was going to leave him — and now, finally, maybe she was — she needed some money.
"We will pay you by the day until we decide if you should actually join us. Two hundred a day." His face looked like he was feeling stomach pains.
"You gonna interview me, or something?" she asked.
The Russian forced out a laugh and then asked, "Are you interested?"
"Shit, for two hundred, you could sign me up," she said.
The Russian smiled again. He looked a little unstable. "Oh, I nearly forgot," he said. He stood up and patted his pants and pulled out a prescription bottle and rattled it. "I have some pills for you — for us, to take."
"What kind of pills?"
He looked at the bottle. "Oak-see," he said. He opened the bottle and poured out a handful.
"You really trying to do your thing?" she said. She was drunk and high. She licked her lips. She did a self-assessment and found there was still pain inside of her that needed to be killed.
"Take them," he said.
"You gonna take 'em, too?"
"Of course. Come on, partners?"
"You take 'em first."
He took one, held it between his finger and thumb, put it in his mouth, grabbed his beer, took a sip, and swallowed.
"How many do you want?" he asked, his accent seeming to have grown along with his intoxication.
"How many you got? Just playing. Gimme three. What are they, twenties, thirties? Four's good."
She examined the pills: they were thirty milligrams, oxycodone, baby blue with a stamped M. The name on the prescription was "Valton Getty." She swallowed three with her beer and then wrapped the fourth in one of her new twenty-dollar bills and began crushing it on the table with her lighter. Then she unwrapped it, tapped it out onto the table, crushed it some more, rolled the bill into a straw, and snorted it quietly, like she didn't want to make a scene.
"Now we're talking," she said, rubbing around her nostrils with her fingers.
They small-talked. Emily got up and went to the bathroom. When she came back she noticed her beer had been moved; the label, when she left, had been facing her, and now it faced him. He had picked up her beer. Her thirst overwhelmed her caution and she drank.
The Russian stared at her for a moment as though lost in thought. Then he said, "And Emily, I am sorry, but we must ask for your phone." He walked over to her and held out his hand.
"Y'all getting all National Steal from Emily Day up in here?"
"You understand," he said, "our plans are big and good, but they're secret. No talking."
She handed him her phone.
"I'll take this, too," said the Russian, walking over to the hotel phone and unplugging it (bent over, his breathing heavy) from the wall.
"You tripping, though — that's on you, I ain't paying." I can fight him, she thought. I could fight him. I could scream.
"I will leave you now to think over this — how is it — everything. We should be able to make real money. Not hundreds, but thousands and thousands."
"A thousand thousand's a million," said Emily.
"Exactly," said the Russian, with the same sad face. He walked self-consciously to the door, said good night, and left her alone in the room.
Emily immediately thought about grabbing the crack (there was still some sitting on the nightstand), putting the beers in a pillowcase, calling a cab from the lobby, and heading back to the city. It would have been a good night. She walked around the room on her tiptoes, like she was trying not to wake anyone, and strained her ears again to listen, but she couldn't hear anything. She wanted to look outside, but for some reason she felt scared. She decided to sleep where she was and talk to the Russian and his so-called wife in the morning. It was a nice room, she had to admit, and the Russian did seem like a pretty big-time business partner; not like the regular nickel-and-dimers who came to her with propositions of shoplifting Similac or finding BART cards with leftover fares to turn in for cash.
Fuck Pierre, she thought. She had caught her boyfriend text messaging with a bitch named La La — talking about: U R the Light of my Life. Hell no. When she had confronted him he had started yelling at her, grabbing her arms, telling her not to look at his phone. Twenty minutes after that she stole two hundred dollars from the pocket of his jacket. Teach him to put his hands on her. It was her money now. Let his ass suffer. He had to learn his lesson just like anybody else.
She played the coincidences out in her head. She'd left the dirty Auburn Hotel, where they lived surrounded by convicts and drug addicts, and ended up here at this nice hotel, surrounded by what — businessmen? She'd taken two hundred from Pierre and gotten two hundred from the Russian. Four hundred dollars. Can't argue with that. She was on a roll. At this rate she'd be rich.
Her mind drifted. It was all a little bit of rude good luck. Get rude now, get lucky later. Something like that. Four hundred dollars was a lot of money. And she had pills and rocks and beers and some kind of new Russian associate and his wife. A thousand thousands was a million. Things were looking good. Things were getting better. I'm sippin' on Coke and rum, I'm like so what I'm drunk, it's the freaking weekend baby, I'm 'bout to have me some fun.
She thought about these things for a while and then fell asleep, fully dressed, on the bed, above the covers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The White Van"
Copyright © 2014 Patrick Hoffman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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