To the average gomer sitting in the stop-and-go, it was just another Central Valley commute snafu: somebody’d rolled a southbound 2002 Malibu on the 99 interchange in Ceres, clogging traffic to Fresno for an hour.
To Chase Willard it was more. Much more. For Willard it was a third strike that meant a life slam in some shithole. Maybe Corcoran, San Quentin or High Desert. He’d already worn out his welcome at the low security joints like Avenal, San Luis and Solano.
Things had been going great until Willard lost his left rear tire on 99 just south of Ceres; that’s where the bullet fired by the cop outside the bank in Ripon finally worked its way through the bead.
When it did, Chase was doing the limit, listening to Albert King on the Malibu’s Blaupunkt. Witnesses told police the car rolled three times as it left the road. The wreck knocked Willard out like a fifth of Jack on an empty stomach and when he came to, he was handcuffed to a bed in the detention ward of some hospital in Modesto.
The guy guarding him was tall, skinny and weather-beaten, dressed in a suit and hand-tooled boots. From his slicked-back hair and the plug in his cheek, Willard would have pegged him as a John Deere sales manager or rep from the local Farm Bureau but Chase knew he was a sheriff’s detective because he had a six-point county star hanging from his belt.
A white on black plastic name tag over his breast pocket said he was Sgt. Johnson. He eased himself into a metal chair bolted to the floor.
“Chase Willard, professional stick-up man,” he said cheerfully, shooting a cheekful of chaw into the waste basket near the bed. “You been out of the joint, what? About a year? That’s ‘most a lifetime for somebody with a rap sheet like yours. Y’all had yourself a pretty good run for a while there, Willard, but this time you going inside long enough to end up in the prison cemetery.”
“I need a lawyer,” Chase said. He fixed the cop with that exercise yard stare convicts learn during their first flop in the state joint: the dead-eye that gives up nothing but sees everything.
“You gonna need more than that, son,” Johnson said, spitting again. “You gonna need a fuckin’ miracle to keep some cabron in Folsom from reaming your asshole wide enough to park an F150 long bed.”
Chase licked his lips. “Just the same, I want some law.”
The skinny guy grinned as he got up to leave. “You gonna be buried in it, Chase,” he said. “The D.A. says he’s going to stick enough shit on you that you’ll end up looking like a Chia Pet.”
The redneck’s grin broadened when he reached the door. “Son,” he said. “You in a world of hurt.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” William told Johnson’s back as the detective left.
Unfortunately, the peckerwood with the boots was right: when Willard had recovered enough for arraignment, they’d trot him in to face armed robbery and possession of a firearm by a felon. There’d also be an assault charge because he’d used the Ruger, a big-assed Blackhawk .45 he’d borrowed from his old cellmate, Dick Sealy, to crack the skull of the rent-a-cop guarding the front door to the Wells Fargo branch.
And for what? A $3,847 score, barely enough to finance a weekend in Vegas.
Chase groaned as he remembered there would also be a felony auto theft beef: he’d boosted the Malibu from the Walmart parking lot in Manteca, complete with the box of CDs that included the Albert King record.
What were the words to that King song he’d just cued up when the tire blew?
Born under a bad sign
I been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck,
I wouldn’t have no luck at all.
Chase sighed. At this point, he was pretty sure he’d prefer doing without.