Gerald Petievich

Money Men


The tiny motel room had the odor of mildewed carpet. Charles Carr waited, peeking out occasionally through the yellowed Venetian blind at the room Rico was in. An ancient air conditioner rattled outside the window, filtering warm August smog into cool August smog.

Carr's partner, Jack Kelly, slouched on the bed in rumpled suit and tie, watching the Johnny Carson show on a television set that was bolted and chained to the wall. The room needed painting, and the ceiling mirror reflected a stained bedspread with a cigarette burn.

Each time Carr peeked out he could see the neon sign. It proclaimed SUNSET MOTEL-WATERBEDS, TV, FREE ICE, as if the hookers and their johns who slithered in and out of the rooms cared about such extras. Carr preferred to use the Sunset for undercover operations because the rooms were easy to observe from either of the buildings that faced each other across a small parking lot.

Across Sunset Boulevard was a dingy hot-dog stand surrounded by Hollywood's new breed-runaways with no bras, shirtless punks in vests, skinny men dressed as women. Farther down the street a dwarf hawked phony maps to movie stars' homes.

He remembered bringing dates twenty years-even ten years-ago to the classy theaters on Hollywood Boulevard, stopping for a drink near Grauman's Chinese.

Now, he saw the town as a population of crooks and victims. The street people had taken over. The old ladies who lived on the side streets had either moved to Newport Beach or put up wrought-iron window bars.

In fact, eight years ago, when he had first met Sally, she had lived in an apartment in Hollywood. Awhile back, when she had moved to an apartment near his in Santa Monica, she said it was because of the street people. But Carr knew that was only part of it. She had wanted him to get used to her being close. It had worked.

He wanted to call her tonight, but didn't know quite what to say. He didn't look forward to the explanation of why he hadn't phoned in almost a month. There was no particular reason except that he had been busy making arrests because of Rico. Plenty of arrests: pimps and pushers, blacks and whites, anyone who had counterfeit money for sale.

The underworld had bought Rico hook, line, and sinker. It had been Carr's idea to give Rico plenty of leeway, and it had worked. Rico's answering-service phone hadn't stopped ringing for a month. The word of a solid buyer had spread fast. The project chart showed twenty-one separate hand-to-hand buys in a month. Twenty-one trips to the federal lockup for the sellers. Even in court, with Rico on the witness stand, some of them had difficulty believing the surly Rico was a United States Treasury special agent.

'Why cause misery?' Kelly said during a commercial. 'Ever think of it like that?' He folded meat-hook hands behind his head. 'Everything we do causes shit for somebody. You get a call to a liquor store … somebody passed a phony twenty. You give the liquor-store man a receipt for the twenty. He is pissed off. You find the guy who passed the twenty and arrest him. He is pissed off. You find the printer and arrest him. Now you have enemies. In court the federal prosecutor doesn't like the case, so he's pissed off, and the judge hates you on general principles. So I ask you: Why should we break our ass making cases? Why cause misery?'

'Because it's a lot of good clean fun,' Carr said, with a wry smile.

'Yeah, and so is cancer,' said Kelly.

Carr looked at his watch. It was 11:30 P.m. He tested the volume knob on the Kel Kit radio receiver on the table next to him. If the batteries held out, he would be able to hear every word in Rico's room.

Straddling a chair, he leaned closer to the Venetian blind. He removed the gold Treasury badge from his pocket and clipped it to his coat pocket so it would be in plain sight for the arrest.

The radio receiver blared. Rico's voice was young and upper Bronx. 'I'll make the phone call now,' Rico said. 'Better tell Kelly to wake up.' He laughed.

'Wise ass,' Kelly said to the television.

Rico dialed the phone.

'Hello, Ronnie? This is Angelo,' said the young undercover agent. 'I got your message. I'll see you in room seven at the Sunset Motel near California Street within a half hour. I'm ready to deal and I'm not going to wait any longer than thirty minutes… Right… I will show you my ten-grand buy money before you show me the funny money… You have nothing to worry about if what you deliver is like the sample you gave me.'

Good job, Carr thought. Set the time limit and the rules.

The waterbed made a sloshing sound as Kelly lumbered off it. He looked a little like an old bear. The parts of his body were oversized. Enormous hands and feet, big nose and jowls.

'Sounds like your star pupil is catching on,' he said, tucking in his shirt.

Carr nodded and stuck his hand in front of the Venetian blind, giving Rico the thumbs-up sign. Rico returned the gesture, then closed the curtain of his room-, standard procedure.

The bedsprings creaked. Rico sat down on the bed in his room to wait. Everything having been planned, everyone having been briefed, there was nothing else to say. The arrest signal would be the usual one. Rico would say, 'That seems to be all of it,' after he had counted the counterfeit money. Then the door would go down.

'Does Rico have an undercover piece?' Kelly said.

'Two inch in an ankle holster,' Carr said. The question caused him to reflect for a moment on the fact that he had found it necessary to remind Rico of safety precautions a little too often. He had chalked this up to the 'Elliot Ness syndrome,' which he had surmounted over twenty years ago. He figured everyone went through it. Running a finger through flame.

'You know why Rico's been doing so well in this project?' Kelly fiddled with the handcuffs on his belt.


'Because he looks more like a crook than the people who sell him the counterfeit money. Olive complexion, black hair, pinky ring; a real Richard Conte.'

'He's too young to know who Richard Conte is,' said Carr as he stared out the window at the hot-dog-stand freaks.

'Walking entrapment. That's what Rico is. Some shyster will probably bring that up as a defense someday.' Kelly lowered his voice. 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, look at this mean-looking Italian. He scared my poor client into selling him counterfeit money. How's that for a defense?' Kelly rubbed his barrel stomach. 'I'm hungry,' he said.

'He sounded real nervous over the phone,' Rico said. The transmitter gave his voice a hollow, metallic tone.

Carr wished he could say something back, thought for a moment of phoning Rico's room, but decided against it. The seller would be arriving any minute.

Kelly peeked out the opposite end of the Venetian blind. 'This room smells like the dog pound. They should rename this place the Dog Shit Motel. The Hollywood Dog Shit Motel.'

Carr shook his head.

Over the radio came the sound of Rico lighting a cigarette.

Kelly began pacing around the room to kill time, running his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair at regular intervals.

'There he is!' said Carr. A young man carrying an attaché case approached Rico's room. The man appeared to be about thirty, medium build, and wore a stylish black leather jacket. He glanced behind him nervously.

Standing at the door, Kelly undid the inside latch and tested the handle, making sure it was unlocked. He pulled his revolver from the shoulder holster and held it next to his leg.

The man in the leather jacket took a final look behind him and knocked on the door. He went in.

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