FICTION: The Custodian by William E. Wallace

“Line 23,” the bailiff said, reading the last entry on the printout. “Kettzinger, James Eron. For arraignment and setting.”

“Kent Wales for the people, your honor,” said the deputy district attorney handling the Monday morning calendar.

Condoli stood up and moved to the defense side of the bench. “Carlo Condoli, your honor, appearing specially on behalf of Mr. Kettzinger, who is in custody but . . . uh, not present in court.”

Judge Douglas Walsh looked over the tops of his reading glasses at Condoli, holding the Kettzinger case file in his hand. “Well, counselor, do you want to pass this matter until Mr. Kettzinger is brought from Santa Rita?”

Santa Rita was the county lock-up in Dublin, about thirty miles away. Walsh probably assumed some sort of bureaucratic foul-up had delayed the prisoner’s arrival. It wouldn’t be the first time; not even the first time that day.

“Uh … not exactly, your honor,” Condoli said. “Could we have a short sidebar?”

Walsh looked at the empty courtroom. All the other morning cases had been called and either put over or dealt to other departments. A sidebar conference aimed at keeping things off the record hardly seemed necessary.

With a sigh, he signaled Wales and Condoli to approach the bench. “You say Mr. Kettzinger is in custody but not in court.” Walsh looked to Condoli. “Yet you don’t want to wait. Can you explain?”

“This matter was put on calendar by accident, your honor,” Wales said. “Mr. Kettzinger is, shall we say, indisposed. He’s in the security unit at Highland Hospital with two bullets in him.”

“Yeah, indisposed, your honor,” Condoli said, grateful for the deputy D.A.’s summary.

“When do you expect Mr. Kettzinger to be well enough to make an appearance?” Judge Walsh said. “He hasn’t been arraigned yet.”

“Gosh, your honor,” Condoli said. “I — I’m not really sure.” He looked at Wales.

Wales cleared his throat. “It’s an open question as to whether he is ever going to be well enough to make an appearance, judge. He may not survive. One of the bullets punctured his lung on its way through his chest cavity. The other one lodged in his vertebral column, partially severing the spinal cord. It was a miracle that he made it as far as Mr. Condoli’s office before he went into shock. He’s been in a coma the entire time he’s been in custody.”

Condoli nodded his agreement but did not speak. When he said things in court, he usually ended up in trouble; he’d learned it was better for him to keep his mouth shut.

Judge Walsh looked at Condoli with confusion. “You’ll have to excuse me, counsel. He was in your office when he went into shock? How in hell did he get there?”

Condoli’s face reddened. “I guess he walked, your honor. He’d been shot someplace else.”

The judge’s expression made it plain that Condoli’s explanation had not enlightened him. “Wales, do you have anything to add that might make this a little clearer for me?”

The assistant D.A. cleared his throat. “I’ve only seen the preliminary police report, your honor. I’ve been told a security guard shot Mr. Kettzinger during a robbery near the San Mateo Bridge. The defendant apparently made it as far as Mr. Condoli’s office in his getaway car before he collapsed.”

Walsh opened the file folder. “What did he allegedly steal?”

“I’ll stipulate that Mr. Kettzinger had with a handgun when he arrived at my office,” Condoli said, “and that he was carrying a paper bag that contained forty-seven thousand dollars in cash and a receipt from Calendar Cleaners in San Leandro. I assume the money was taken during the robbery.”

Condoli looked to Wales for confirmation.

“That seems to be the long and short of it,” the deputy district attorney said. “The victims report a cash loss of forty-seven thousand dollars they were transporting for this dry cleaners. There may have been other items taken during the theft. A complete inventory is being prepared.”

Judge Walsh scanned the case folder. “It says here the robbery happened yesterday afternoon, is that correct?”

Condoli and Wales both nodded.

“The victim,” Walsh said, “is the courier, Riggins, Ltd. The accused are Mr. Kettzinger and . . . a gentleman named Roberto Cologne. What happened to Cologne?”

“Killed in a gunfight with the security guards, your honor,” Wales said.

“I see,” the judge said. “Is that how Mr. Kettzinger came to be shot?”

Condoli raised his shoulders. “I’m not really sure what happened before Mr. Kettzinger staggered into my office and collapsed.” He glanced at Wales to see if he had anything to add.

“It was a commercial robbery, your honor, not a run-of-the-mill stick-up,” Wales said. “Riggins is a commercial money courier.”

“You mean like in armored cars?” the judge asked.

“Lower profile,” Wales said. “Cologne and Kettzinger apparently had information about a cash drop at the business. They were there waiting when the courier arrived. They forced him to punch in the entry code, but then inside the building, a Riggins armed guard confronted them and shots were exchanged. The courier, the Riggins employee and Cologne were all pronounced dead at the scene.”

Wales glanced at the police report before continuing. “Kettzinger was also shot but managed to remove the satchel from the courier’s arm and stagger outside. He drove to Condoli’s office and went into shock shortly afterward. Condoli called 9-1-1 to get an ambulance. From the description of Kettzinger’s wounds and the earlier call from Riggins about the robbery, the dispatcher had a black and white unit accompany the paramedics. That’s where Kettzinger was placed under arrest.”

Walsh looked at Condoli. “Mr. Kettzinger was obviously seriously injured. What’s more, he apparently knew it. Why did he come to your office instead of seeking medical assistance?”

Condoli licked his lips. “Your honor, I’ve represented Mr. Kettzinger in the past. He knew me. My office was only three-quarters of a mile from this Riggins company, but the nearest hospital is a couple miles away. My guess is he went to the closest place he knew where he could get help.”

Wales smiled and said, “There is also the fact that a hospital or clinic would have to report gunshot wounds to the police. Mr. Condoli has no such obligation. Perhaps Mr. Kettzinger thought his wounds could be managed through the judicious application of first aid.”

“Wait a minute,” Condoli said. “I was the one who called 9-1-1 in the first place. When Mr. Kettzinger arrived at my office, he needed medical attention in a hurry. I didn’t know what happened — he might have been robbed, himself. I had no time to tell him how he could avoid being arrested.”

“Frankly, your speculation is defamatory, Mr. Wales,” the judge said. “You’re suggesting that Mr. Condoli’s client went to him in the hope he might help him evade the law. I have no reason to believe that Mr. Condoli would do such a thing. Do you?”

Wales colored. “No, your honor. I withdraw my comment.”

“Thank you, your honor,” Condoli said. He glared at Wales.

The judge gathered up the case files. “It seems obvious to me we can’t proceed until we know whether Mr. Kettzinger is going to pull through. At this point we have 100 percent recovery of the stolen money and several dead bodies. If Mr. Kettzinger lives, we will bring him in and arraign him on whatever charges seem reasonable at the time, probably homicide, even if Mr. Kettzinger didn’t fire his gun. As both of you are aware, under California’s felony murder law, a crime partner can be charged with any homicides that occur, regardless of whether he or she is directly responsible.” He smiled without humor. “On the other hand, if Mr. Kettzinger dies of his injuries, well, that would seem to wrap the case up. Are we in agreement, gentlemen?”

Both lawyers nodded.

“All right then,” Judge Walsh said. “Mr. Wales, stay on top of this. Let me know if the defendant’s condition changes. And keep Mr. Condoli in the loop, too, please. Hopefully this case will work itself out without tying up one of our oversubscribed courtrooms. Good day, gentlemen.”

Condoli and Wales exchanged business cards outside in the corridor. “I’ll be in touch, Carlo,” Wales said. “Probably sooner rather than later, the way things look for Kettzinger. It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?”

“What’s that?” Condoli asked.

“Three men dead and another one dying. All over a lousy forty-seven thousand dollars in cash. It hardly seems worth it.”

“Times are hard, counselor,” Condoli said. “Maybe they had bad information about the drop.”

“Well, it’s a damned shame, that’s all. See you in court.”

Condoli watched the deputy district attorney make his way down the crowded corridor. A smile spread across his face as soon as Wales was out of view, but he managed not to pump his fist and shout “Yes!” until he was outside the courthouse and halfway to his car.

***

There was somebody behind the plank at Tip’s at 6 a.m. every day, but Harrigan was just there to let in the beer man and the guy who hustled bonded stuff for the Beam distributorship. You could stop in for a couple of pops as soon as the doors opened but paying customers never seemed to show up before 10 a.m. If you came in before that, it was like the song by George Thorogood: you’d drink alone, with nobody else. That’s why it was a surprise when the door squealed and Carlo Condoli walked through it.

“Hey, counselor,” Harrigan said with a grin. “What’s shaking?”

Condoli held out a hand and vibrated it in a mock palsy. “Nothing but my meathooks, Harry,” he said, grinning at his own wit. “A couple more minutes and I’m going to start seeing spiders crawling up my arms. I need some ethanol to stave off the DTs.”

Harrigan smiled, but not because Condoli was funny; it was expected of him as a bartender: you laugh at the customer’s jokes, listen to their tales of woe and call them cabs when they get too loop-legged to drive.

Putting his skinny bottom on a stool at the bar, Condoli said, “Gimme the usual.”

“Relska or call?” Harrigan asked.

“Make it the good stuff, friend. I’m feeling expansive this morning.”

“Living large, eh?” Harrigan put a pony glass on the bar, dropped in three ice cubes and rolled a lime on the bar to free the juice inside. He split the lime with a paring knife and deftly squeezed every drop of liquid it contained onto the ice, one hand per half. Then he upended a bottle of 100-proof Stolichnaya into the pony glass, filling it a quarter inch below the brim. He gave the vodka a swipe with a spoon and set it in front of Condoli.

Condoli drank half the liquid in one pull, said, “Mother’s milk.”

“Remind me not to date your mother.”

Condoli knocked back the rest of the cocktail and squinted as the icy coldness punched him above his eyes. He banged his empty on the bar. “As Johnny Mnemonic would say, ‘hit me.’ Might as well get a buzz. I got to run back to my apartment and pack some shit. I’m going to be taking a little trip.”

Harrigan manufactured another of the potent cocktails. “What’s up? You almost never come in here until after five o’clock. Now you say you’re going traveling. You hit the Superlotto or something?”

“I’m in early because I had a morning calendar case to attend to. I just became the custodian of a sizeable amount of money and I wanna get the fuck outta town before anybody notices it’s gone missing.”

Harrigan looked at him skeptically. Condoli sat around the courthouse all day waiting for clients who didn’t have their own lawyer but had been turned down for some reason by the public defender. When that happened, the judge appointed an attorney for the hourly rate set by the courts.

Bottom-feeders like Condoli, who’d finished 239th out of his law school class of 247, often got the nod. In fact, Harrigan knew, it was the only work Condoli had been able to scrounge for the last ten years.

“A sizeable amount of money?” Harrigan said. “Shit, man. I’ve seen guys drop more coin into parking meters and juke boxes than your clients pay you.”

“No, seriously,” Condoli said. “You know Jimmy Kettzinger?”

Harrigan blinked. “Jimbo, the world’s most unsuccessful robber? Yeah. I thought he was in the joint for knocking over a check-cashing outfit?”

Condoli shook his head. “He got out. The other day Kettzinger and a buddy knocked over some courier outfit by the San Mateo Bridge. They grabbed a shitpot full of money but Jimbo got shot. He made it as far as my office and told me to stash the loot. Then he conked, right there in my visitor’s chair. A coma. He hasn’t come out of it yet.”

Harrigan smiled. “Your idea of a shitpot of money is different from mine. How much did he steal?”

“He was carrying it in a Halliburton,” Condoli said. “Honest to god — when I opened it there was a brown paper sack on top that held nearly fifty grand.”

“That’s hardly a shitpot,” Harrigan said. “That’s a down payment on a Tesla.”

Condoli waved off the objection. “That was just chicken feed. Underneath was a bunch of bundled hundred dollar bills, ten grand’s worth in each bundle.”

Harrigan’s eyes bulged.

Condoli laughed, a raspy sound like somebody sawing through plastic foam. “That’s right,” he said. “I am the custodian of two million worth of Ben Franklins. Two hundred bundles at ten large, each. I’m thinking of taking a world cruise. At least as far as the Bahamas, anyway. Hell, I might even buy a small island down there.”

“Whose money is it, anyway?”

Condoli shrugged. “I’ve no fucking idea, man. That’s the thing that has me puzzled. The inventory filed with the Hayward cops was only for the fifty- thousand. It didn’t say anything about the two million.”

“Sounds like maybe it’s funny money or something,” Harrigan said. “Forget the Bahamas, Carlo. You better go someplace where you’ll be invisible. There’s no way whoever was moving that kind of cash was doing it legitimately. And if they find out you have it, there’s no way they’re going to let you keep it.”

“Maybe. But I’m going to try. As soon as I get done with this cocktail, I’m stopping by my apartment to pick it up. I’ll spend a little for a plane ticket out of the U.S. and the rest when I get where I’m going.”
He shrugged. “I figure if there’s something hinky about that cash, the people who lost it can’t send the cops after me. Besides, they have no idea who I am.”

***

Condoli got the call in his car while he was on his way back to his apartment. He pulled over so he could use his cell phone without getting a ticket. It was Wales with news about Kettzinger.

“Sorry, Counselor,” Wales said. “Your guy didn’t make it.”

Condoli wasn’t terribly surprised, or unhappy. “What happened?”

“It turns out there was an EMSA one-eleven on file for the guy,” Wales said, “a Do Not Resuscitate order. They missed it the first time they checked his records. The only thing that was keeping him alive was the heart-lung machine. When they turned it off, his ticker quit. He never came out of the coma.”

“Figures,” Condoli said. “He had enough bullets in him to start a war. What was the official time of death?”

“About twenty minutes before this morning’s calendar session before Walsh.”

“So, in effect we were continuing the arraignment of a dead man.”

“That’s pretty much it,” Wales said.

“What happens to the charges? This morning it sounded like any further action would be based on Kettzinger recovering.”

“Correct,” Wales said. “I just got off the horn with the judge and he said that with the stolen money recovered and everybody involved dead, there’s no point proceeding. The case’ll be scrubbed. You won’t have to make an appearance on Kettzinger’s behalf after all. Sorry, man. I’m sure you could have used the hours the case would generate.”

“Yeah.” Condoli tried to make his voice sound unhappy. “It’s not a total loss because of this morning, at least. Thanks for passing me the word.”

Condoli switched off his phone and did an exaggerated shimmy behind the wheel. “Hot diggity shit!”

***

Usually, Condoli took the three flights of steps to his apartment slowly and carefully, climbing them with the agility and energy befitting his fifty-seven years. But today he was in such a hurry he felt more like a twenty-eight-year-old. He charged up to the third floor two steps at a time, unlocked the door and went directly to his bedroom, sweeping under the bed with his left hand but finding nothing there.

Flattening out on the floor, he peered under the bed. All he could see was enough dust bunnies to fill a petting zoo. The Zero Halliburton briefcase he’d slid beneath the frame when he got back from his office the previous afternoon was gone.

Carlo felt panicky. Could he have left it in the front closet instead? Things had happened so quickly that he couldn’t remember exactly what he had done with the damned thing after Kettzinger had staggered into his office. All he could remember for sure was that the petty holdup man had it crushed against the sucking wound in his chest with both hands when he fell into the chair Condoli used to interview clients.

Kettzinger had looked up at him and said, “Hide this: I stole it. It’s two million.” Then he passed out.

That had been a little less than forty-eight hours earlier. Condoli had waited until the cops and paramedics cleared out before trying to count the money, but he was so rattled that he kept losing track. He didn’t manage to total it properly until he got the briefcase to his apartment later in the evening.

If the Halliburton wasn’t under his bed, it had to be in his hall closet.

Condoli dusted off his pants and retraced his steps. As he reached his living room, a strange voice asked him, “Looking for something, bro?”

He half turned to see a man sitting on his sofa, the Halliburton aluminum carryall next to him. The stranger was holding a handgun aimed at the thick part of Condoli’s body.

Condoli pointed at the case and opened his mouth to say something, but stopped when the pistol made a noise like an old-fashioned photographer’s flashbulb. There was a second popping sound. Condoli, eyes wide with astonishment, sank to his knees and fell onto his face.

***

John C. Riggins was in his office when his secretary buzzed him on the intercom. He touched a button, said, “Yes?”

“It’s Mr. Pax, sir. He says he made the recovery.”

“Send him in.”

Eddie Pax entered and put the Halliburton on the floor next to Riggins’ desk. “I checked and it’s all in there.”

“Any complications?”

Pax shook his head. “I checked his pulse before I left and he was already getting cold. Piece of cake, really.”

Riggins smiled for the first time since the robbery had occurred. “Good job. I appreciate how quickly you were able to wrap it up.”

Pax barely raised his shoulders. “Sometimes things go the way they should. Kettzinger croaked just when he needed to.”

“There’s no way we could have reported that two million stolen. Money that didn’t exist in a legal sense — a week’s worth of prostitution and drug receipts we’re laundering for the Russian mob.”

“Where’d the fifty grand come from?” Eddie asked.

“A dry cleaning business in Oakland. Totally legit. The courier just stuck it in with the Russian cash. It gave us something to report to the cops, though.”

Riggins opened his desk’s center drawer and drew out two bundles of bills secured with rubber bands. “Here’s your fee.” He dropped the cash on the blotter in front of Pax. “Twenty grand.”

Eddie looked surprised. “The deal was ten, straight up. What’s the other ten for?”

“It’s a bonus for wrapping this up in less than thirty-six hours. Such a quick recovery makes the Russians happy. I like to stay on their good side.”

Pax stood to leave, slipping his money into an inside pocket. “I assume you’ll be figuring out which Riggins employee told Kettzinger and Cologne about this drop then?”

“Count on it,” Riggins said. “And when we do, I’ll have another assignment for you.”

Pax grinned. “You know my number.”

#


William E. Wallace has been a private eye, dishwasher and communications intelligence analyst. For 26 years he covered organized crime and government corruption as an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He would love to be Elmore Leonard, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or George V. Higgins, but all of them are both famous and dead so he’s already punted the first two prerequisites. He and his wife live in Berkeley because they were too lazy to move after graduating from Cal in 1973.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments are closed.