The California Department of Corrections, Parole and Community Services Division offices in Van Nuys were crowded into a one-story building of gray, pre-cast concrete that stood in the shadow of the Municipal Court building. The nondescript design features of its exterior seemed in step with its purpose; the quiet reintegration of convicts into society.
The interior of the building took its cue from the crowd control philosophy employed at popular amusement parks — though those who waited here usually weren’t always as anxious to reach the end of their wait. A maze of roped-off cattle rows folded the long lines of ex-cons back and forth in the waiting rooms and hallways. There were lines of cons waiting to check in, lines waiting for urine tests, lines waiting to see parole agents or parole officers, lines in all quadrants of the building.
To Cassie Black the parole office was more depressing than prison had been. When she was at High Desert Correctional, she was in stasis, like those sci-fi movies where the journey back to earth is so long that the travelers are put into a hibernation-type sleep. That was how Cassie saw it. She was breathing but not living, waiting and surviving on hope that the end of her time would come sooner rather than later. That hope for the future and the warmth of her constant dream of freedom got her past all the depression. But the parole office was that future. It was the harsh reality of getting out. And it was squalid and crowded and inhuman. It smelled of desperation and lost hope, of no future. Most of those surrounding her wouldn’t make it. One by one they would go back. It was a fact of the life they had chosen. Few went straight, few made it out alive. And for Cassie, who promised herself she would be one of the few, the monthly immersion into this world always left her profoundly depressed.
By ten o’clock on Tuesday morning she had already been through the check in line and was nearing the front of the pee line. In her hand she held the plastic cup she would have to squat over and fill while an office trainee, dubbed the “wizard” because of the nature of her monitoring duty, watched to make sure it was her own urine going into the container.
While she waited Cassie didn’t look at anybody and didn’t talk to anybody. When the line moved and she was jostled she just moved with the flow. She thought about her time in High Desert, about how she could just shut herself down when she needed to and go on auto-pilot, ride that space ship back to earth. It was the only way to get through that place. And this one, too.
Cassie squeezed into the cubicle that her parole agent, Thelma Kibble, called an office. She was breathing easy now. She was near the end. Kibble was the last stop on the journey.
“There she is . . .,” Kibble said. “Howzit going there, Cassie Black?”
“Fine, Thelma. How about you?”
Kibble was an obese black woman whose age Cassie had never tried to guess. There was always a pleasant expression on her wide face and Cassie truly liked her despite the circumstances of their relationship. Kibble wasn’t easy but she was fair. Cassie knew she was lucky when her transfer from Nevada had been assigned to Kibble.
“Can’t complain,” Kibble said. “Can’t complain at all.”
Cassie sat in the chair next to the desk which was stacked on all sides with case files, some of them two inches thick. On the left side of the desk was a vertical file labeled RTC which always drew Cassie’s attention. She knew RTC meant “return to custody” and the files located there belonged to the losers, the ones going back. It seemed the vertical file was always full and seeing it was always as much a deterrent to Cassie as anything else about the parole process.
Kibble had Cassie’s file open in front of her and was filling in the monthly report. This was their ritual; a brief face to face visit and Kibble would go down the checklist of questions.
“What’s up with the hair?” Kibble asked without looking up from the paperwork.
“Just felt like a change. I wanted it short.”
“Change? What are you so bored you gotta make changes all’a sudden?”
“No, I just . . .”
She finished by hiking her shoulders, hoping the moment would pass. She should have realized that using the word “change” would raise a flag with a parole agent.
Kibble turned her wrist slightly and checked her watch. It was time to go on.
“Your pee going to be a problem?”
“Good. Anything you want to talk about?”
“No, not really.”
“How’s the job going?”
“It’s a job. It’s going the way jobs go, I guess.”
Kibble raised her eyebrows and Cassie wished she had just stuck to a one word answer. Now she had raised another flag.
“You drive them fancy damn cars all the time,” Kibble said. “Most people that come in here are washin’ cars like that. And they ain’t complaining.”
“I’m not complaining.”
“Then nothing. Yes, I drive fancy cars. But I don’t own them. I sell them. There’s a difference.”
Kibble looked up from the file and studied Cassie for a moment. All around them the cacophony of voices from the rows of cubicles filled the air.
“A’right, what’s troubling you, girl? I don’t have time for bullshit. I got my hard cases and my soft cases and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna have to move you to HC. I don’t have time for that.”
She slapped one of the stacks of thick files to make her point.
“You won’t want that, neither,” she said.
Cassie knew HC meant High Control. She was on minimum supervision now. A move to HC would mean increased visits to the parole office, daily phone checks and more home visits from Kibble. Parole would simply become an extension of her cell and she knew she couldn’t handle that. She quickly held her hands up in a calming gesture.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Nothing’s wrong, okay? I’m just having . . . I’m just going through one of those times, you know?”
“No, I don’t know. What times you talkin’ about? Tell me.”
“I can’t. I don’t know the words. I feel like . . . it’s like every day is like the one before. There’s no future because it’s all the same.”
“Look, what did I tell you when you first came in here? I told you it would get like this. Repetition breeds routine. Routine’s boring but it keeps you from thinking and it keeps you out of trouble. You want to stay out of trouble, don’t you, girl?”
“Yes, Thelma. But it’s like I got out of lockdown but sometimes I feel like I’m still in lockdown. It’s not . . .”
“I don’t know. It’s not fair.”
There was a sudden outburst from one of the other cubicles as a convict started protesting loudly. Kibble stood up to look over the partitions of the cubicle. Cassie didn’t move. She didn’t care. She knew what it was, somebody being taken down and put in a holding cell pending revocation of parole. There was always one or two takedowns every time she came in. Nobody ever went back peaceably. Cassie long ago stopped watching the scenes. She couldn’t worry about anyone else in this place but herself.
After a few moments Kibble sat back down and turned her attention back to Cassie, who was hoping that the interruption would make the parole agent forget what they had been talking about.
There was no such luck.
“You see that?” Kibble asked.
“I heard it. That was enough.”
“I hope so. Because any little mess up and that could be you. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Perfectly, Thelma. I know what happens.”
“Good, because this isn’t about being fair, to use your word. Fair’s got nothing to do with it. You’re down by law, honey, and you’re under thumb. You’re scaring me, girl, and you should be scaring yourself. You’re only ten months into a two-year tail. This is not good when I hear you getting antsy after just ten months.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Shit, there’s people in this room with four and five and six year tails. Some even longer.”
“I know, I know. I’m lucky. It’s just that I can’t stop myself from thinking about things, you know?”
“No, I don’t know.”
Kibble folded her massive arms across her chest and leaned back in her chair. Cassie wondered if the chair could take the weight but it held strong. Kibble looked at her sternly. Cassie knew she had made a mistake trying to open up to her. She was in effect inviting Kibble into her life more than she was already into it. But she decided that since she had already strayed across the line, she might as well go all the way now.
“Thelma, can I just ask you something?”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“Do you know . . . are there any like international treaties or agreements for parole transfers?”
Kibble closed her eyes.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Like if I wanted to live in London or Paris or something?”
Kibble opened her eyes, shook her head and looked astonished. She shifted forward and the chair came down heavily.
“Do I look like a travel agent to you? You are a convict, girl. You understand that? You don’t just decide you don’t like it here and say ‘Oh, I think I’ll try Paris now.’ Are you listening to yourself talking crazy here? We aren’t running no Club Med here.”
“Okay, I was just —”
“You got the one transfer from Nevada, which you were lucky to get, thanks to your friend at the dealership. But that’s it. You are stuck here, girl. For at least the next fourteen months and maybe even further, the way you’re acting now.”
“All right. I just thought I’d —”
“End of story.”
“Okay. End of story.”
Kibble leaned over the desk to write something in Cassie’s file.
“I don’t know about you,” she said as she wrote. “You know what I oughta do is I oughta thirty-fifty-six you for a couple days, see if that clears your mind of these silly ass ideas. But —”
“You don’t have to do that, Thelma. I —”
“— we’re full up right now.”
Cassie knew a 3056 was a parole hold — an order putting a parolee in custody pending a hearing to revoke parole. The PA could then drop the revoke charge at the time of the hearing and the parolee would be set free. Meantime, the revisit to lockdown for a few days would serve as a warning to straighten up. It was the harshest threat Kibble had at her disposal and just the mention of it properly scared Cassie.
“I mean it, Thelma, I’m fine. I’m okay. I was just venting some steam, okay? Please don’t do that to me.”
She hoped she had put the proper sound of pleading into her voice.
Kibble shook her head.
“All I know is that you were on my A list, girl. Now I don’t know. I think I’m gonna at least have to come around and check up on you one of these days. See what’s what with you. I’m telling you, Cassie Black, you better watch yourself with me. I am not fat old Thelma who can’t get off her chair. I am not someone to fuck with. You think so, you check with these folks.”
She raked the end of her pen along the edges of the RTC files to her left. It made a loud ripping sound.
“They’ll tell you I am not someone to be fucked with or fucked over.”
Cassie could only nod. She studied the huge woman across from her for a long moment. She needed some way to defuse this, to get the smile back on Kibble’s face or at the very least the deep furrow out of her brow.
“You come around, Thelma, and I have a feeling I’ll see you before you see me.”
Kibble looked sharply at her. But Cassie saw the tension slowly change in her face. It had been a gamble but Kibble took the comment in good humor. She even started to chuckle and it made her huge shoulders and then the desk shake.
“We’ll see about that,” Kibble said. “You’d be surprised by me.”
Cassie felt a weight lifting off of her as she came out of the parole offices. Not simply because the monthly ordeal was over. But because she had caught a glimmer of understanding about herself while inside. In her struggle for an explanation of her feelings to Kibble she had arrived at an essential conclusion. She was marking time and she could do it their way or her own way. Her decision was clear now and in that clarity were feelings of both relief and fear. Inside she began to feel the slight trickle of melt water from the frozen lake that for so long had been her heart.
She walked between the municipal and county courthouses and through the plaza fronting the LAPD’s Van Nuys station. There was a bank of payphones near the stairs leading up to the police station’s second floor entrance. She picked one up, dropped in a quarter and a dime and punched in a number she had committed to memory more than a year earlier while in High Desert. It had come on a note smuggled to her in a tampon.
After three rings the phone was answered by a man.
It had been more than six years since Cassie had heard the voice but it rang true and recognizable to her. It made her catch her breath.
“Uh, yes, is this . . . is this D.H. Reilly?”
“No, you have the wrong number.”
“Dog House Reilly? I was calling —”
She looked down and read off the number of the phone she was standing at.
“What kind of crazy name is that? No Dog House here and you’ve got the wrong number.”
He hung up. Cassie did, too. She then turned around and walked back into the plaza and took a seat on a bench about fifty feet from the payphones. She shared the bench with a disheveled man who was reading a newspaper so yellowed that it had to have been months old.
Cassie waited almost forty minutes. When the phone finally started to ring, she was in the midst of a one-sided conversation with the disheveled man about the quality of the food service in the Van Nuys jail. She got up and trotted to the phones, the man yelling a final complaint at her.
“Sausage like fucking Brillo pads! We were playing hockey in there!”
She grabbed the phone after the sixth ring.
“Don’t use my name. How you doing, sweetheart?”
“I’m okay. How are —”
“You know, you been out now like a year, am I right?”
“Uh, actually —”
“And all that time and not even a hello from you. I thought I’d hear from you before now. You’re lucky I even remembered that Dog House Reilly schtick.”
“Ten months. I’ve been out ten months.”
“And how’s it been?”
“Okay, I guess. Good, actually.”
“Not if you’re calling me.”
There was a long silence then. Cassie could hear traffic noise coming from his end. She guessed he had left the house and found a payphone somewhere on Ventura Boulevard, probably near the deli he liked to eat at.
“So, you called me first,” Leo prompted.
“Right, yeah. I was thinking . . . “
She paused and thought about everything again. She nodded her head.
“Yeah, I need to get some work, Leo.”
“Don’t use my name.”
But she smiled. Same old Leo.
“You know me, a classic paranoid.”
“I was just thinking that.”
“All right, so you’re looking for something. Give me some parameters? What are we talking about here?”
“Cash. One job.”
“One job?” He seemed surprised and maybe even disappointed. “How big?”
“Big enough to disappear on. To get a good start, at least.”
“Must not be going too good then.”
“It’s just that things are happening. I can’t . . .”
She shook her head and didn’t finish.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I feel good, actually. Now that I know.”
“I know what you mean. I remember the time when I decided for good. When I said fuck it, this is what I do. And at the time, hell, I was only boosting air bags out of Chryslers. I’ve come a long way. We both have.”
Cassie turned and glanced back at the man on the bench. He was continuing his conversation. He hadn’t really needed Cassie to be there.
“You know, don’t you, that with these parameters, you’re probably talking Vegas. I mean, I could send you down to Hollywood Park or one of the Indian rooms but you’re not going to see a lot of cash. You’re talking fifteen, twenty a pop down there. But if you give me some time to set something in Vegas I could push the take.”
Cassie thought a moment. She had believed that when the bus to High Desert pulled out of Las Vegas six years before that she would never see the place again. But she knew that what Leo was saying was accurate. Vegas was where the big money was.
“Vegas is fine,” she said abruptly. “Just don’t take too long.”
“Who’s that talking behind you?”
“Just some old guy. Too much pruno while in lock up.”
“Where are you?”
“I just left the PO.”
“Nothing like having to pee in a cup to make you see life’s possibilities. Tell you what, I’ll keep an eye out for something. I got a heads up about something coming up in the next week or so. You’d be perfect. I’ll let you know if it pans out. Where can I reach you?”
She gave him the number of the dealership where she worked. The general number and not her direct line or her cell phone number. She didn’t want those numbers written down and in his possession in case he took a bust.
“One other thing,” she said. “Can you still get passports?”
“I can. Take me two, three weeks cause I send out for them but I can get you one. It will be fucking grade A, too. A passport will run you a grand, a whole book twenty-five hundred. Comes with DL, Visa and Amex. Delta miles on the Amex.”
“Good. I’ll want a whole book for me and then a second passport.”
“What do you mean, two? I’m telling you the first one will be perfect. You won’t need another with —”
“They’re not both for me. I need the second for somebody else. Do you want me to send pictures to the house or do you have a drop?”
Leo told her to send the photos to a mail drop. He gave her the address in Burbank, which she wrote directly onto an envelope already containing the photos. He then asked her who the second passport was for and what names she wanted used in the manufacture of the false documents. She had anticipated the questions and had already picked the names. She also had taken money from her savings account and offered to send the cash with the photos but Leo told her he could front it for the time being. He said it was an act of good faith seeing that they were going back into business together.
“So,” he said, returning to the main business at hand. “You going to be ready for this? Been a long time. People get rusty. If I put you out there, I’ll be on the line, you know.”
“I know. You don’t have to worry. I’ll be ready.”
“Okay then. I’ll be talking to you.”
“Thanks. I’ll be seeing you.”
“Oh, and sweetheart?”
“I’m glad you’re back. It’ll be like old times again.”
“No, Leo. Not without Max. It will never be the same again.”
This time Leo didn’t protest her use of his name. They both hung up and Cassie walked away from the phones. The man on the bench called after her but she couldn’t make out what it was he had said.