Main Hard Luck

Hard Luck

After serving five years at the Women’s Correctional Institution in Diablo, California, Elizabeth Taylor Bundy has been transitioned into a halfway house in San Francisco called Omega for six months of community service. On May 31, 1996, if all goes well, Elizabeth will be released out of Omega and placed back into society as a free woman. Free to do what? Free to work a mind-numbing, dead-end job for minimum wage? No, Elizabeth has a better idea of what to do when she gets out. It’s one last con, and then she’ll have enough money for the rest of her life. It’s the perfect plan—until it isn’t.
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SUMMARY




After serving five years at the Women’s Correctional Institution in Diablo, California, Elizabeth Taylor Bundy has been transitioned into a halfway house in San Francisco called Omega for six months of community service. On May 31, 1996, if all goes well, Elizabeth will be released out of Omega and placed back into society as a free woman.

Free to do what? Free to work a mind-numbing, dead-end job for minimum wage? No, Elizabeth has a better idea of what to do when she gets out. It’s one last con, and then she’ll have enough money for the rest of her life. It’s the perfect plan—until it isn’t.

For fans of Hard Fall: A McStone and Martinelli Thriller, Hard Luck picks up where Hard Fall ends. For readers who wonder whatever happened to Elizabeth, Hard Luck provides the surprising answer.





HARD LUCK

AN ELIZABETH TAYLOR BUNDY THRILLER





HARD LUCK

AN ELIZABETH TAYLOR BUNDY THRILLER





Pascal Scott





SAPPHIRE BOOKS

SALINAS, CALIFORNIA





Hard Luck - An Elizabeth Taylor Bundy Thriller Copyright © 2019 by Pascal Scott. All rights reserved.



ISBN EPUB - 978-1-948232-82-1



This is a work of fiction - names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business, events or locales is entirely coincidental.



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without written permission of the publisher.



Editor - Tara Young





Book Design - LJ Reynolds


Cover Design - Fineline Cover Design





Sapphire Books Publishing, LLC

P.O. Box 8142

Salinas, CA 93912

www.sapphirebooks.com

Printed in the United States of America First Edition – November 2019



This and other Sapphire Books titles can be found at www.sapphirebooks.com





Dedication





For all of us who survived foster care.





Acknowledgment





Thank you to Josette Murray, my wife; Tara Young, my editor; Christine Svendsen, my publisher; and the entire Sapphire Books family.





Prologue





“Who torches seven million dollars?” Annabelle asked.

Inside the Women’s Correctional Institution in Diablo, California, Annabelle Watson Cook was doing a nickel stretch for armed robbery after she and her husband tried to hold up a Brink’s truck in San Francisco. Elizabeth guessed that Annabelle’s IQ was no more than ninety at the most—Elizabeth had tested at the genius level in high school—but when you were stuck in a nine-by-twelve with no one to talk to, you had to accept conversational stimulation where you found it. Annabelle and Reginald hailed from Fresno, which Elizabeth thought helped to explain their failure as grand theft masterminds.

It was August 13, 1990, the first day of Elizabeth Taylor Bundy’s six-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. Her cellie Annabelle, on her third year of five, had just finished telling Elizabeth more than she had ever wanted to know about “bad money.” Annabelle was explaining that bad money was what the suits at the Fed called worn paper bills that needed to be taken out of circulation.

What Elizabeth learned from Annabelle’s rambling monologue was this: Once a month, bad money was collected at banks throughout the country and sent to a designated facility for disposal. West of the Rockies, it was delivered to an impenetrable building in the Financial District of San Francisco. For states on the West Coast, old currency was air-freighted in to SFO, where it was picked up by Brink’s. Once the shipment was loaded safely into the Brink’s armored vehicle, it was transported to the Fed’s reinforced concrete-and-steel fortress at the northeastern end of Market Street. There, the paper bills were dumped into a furnace and burned. Each year in the U.S., hundreds of millions of dollars were burned like trash.

“That’s just a fuckin’ waste,” Annabelle said.

“It is,” Elizabeth agreed.

“Seven million bucks was gonna go up in flames. We figured we could use it better than that. Ya know?”

Elizabeth did know. She immediately thought of a dozen ways she could make good use of seven million dollars, including getting the hell out of California, maybe off to the French Riviera, or better still, some Caribbean island that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

“But how do you jack a Brink’s truck?” Annabelle asked rhetorically.

You don’t, she concluded. Not unless you’re willing to die. Reginald had bled out during the gunfight that followed the attempt.

“I used to wanna off that bitch who shot my Reggie.”

“It was a woman? A female guard?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yeah, Michelle Forrest, that was her name. They put her picture in the paper like she was some kinda fuckin’ hero. I wanted to off that bitch.”

Elizabeth’s eyes squinted as if she were trying to see something more clearly. “What did you say her name was?”

“Michelle Forrest. It was all over the papers.”

“Did this happen in Los Angeles?”

“Nah. San Francisco. At the airport.”

“Huh. Must be the wrong one. I used to know a Michelle Forrest. But she lives in LA.”

“Yeah, well, I wanted to off Michelle Forrest. But not now. When I get out, I’m goin’ straight. Fuck this shit. I don’t ever wanna be back in Diablo.”

“I hear you.”

Michelle Forrest.

How do you rob a Brink’s truck? You don’t.

Not unless you know an inside man.





Part One





Chapter One





The first time Elizabeth saw them together after she got out of prison, she wanted to kill them both. They were sitting inside the Omega Café, and Miss Edie—the six-foot-two-inch server with a voice like honey and hands the size of beehives—had just set down the plated Saturday night special of soul food gumbo. Elizabeth was still on dish duty back in the kitchen. She hadn’t earned her bones yet and moved up in culinary duties, according to the strict house rules enforced by the Omega Foundation.

She saw them as the door swung open, at table three. It was just a glimpse, but it all came back to her. The butch looked dapper with her hair slicked back and her dark eyes smiling. She had dressed up for the evening, and that was different. Elizabeth remembered her only ever wearing jeans or Dockers. The femme was in a silky black dress cut low, with a gold necklace that dipped into her décolletage, with matching hoop earrings. Her shiny black hair flowed onto her smooth, bare shoulders, ending in tight ringlets. Both of them had let their hair grow a little longer than it had been when Elizabeth had known them.

It was a flash, an image, the opening and closing of a door, but it was enough. Miss Edie followed her line of vision with a turn of her head.

“Ooh, sugar, you should see your face. If looks could kill.”

Elizabeth glanced at Miss Edie, at her true brown eyes under her false black eyelashes. Miss Edie opened the door just wide enough so that Elizabeth could get a better look.

“Baby girl, what did they do to you?”

Elizabeth regarded Miss Edie and then the couple.

Ruined my life. Sent me to prison. That’s all, she could have said but didn’t.

“Tell me something else, sugar. What do lesbians have against dresses?” Miss Edie asked, following Elizabeth back to the sink.

“One was in a dress,” Elizabeth said.

“Yeah, but the other wasn’t. I’ll bet that one has never put on a dress in her life. I just don’t understand why a woman who is born with a real pussy and perfectly beautiful tits would want to hide it all inside a sports bra and baggy-assed slacks. When she could wear cashmere, chiffon, lace, and silk, she puts on flannel, cotton, and denim. Now don’t get me wrong, honey, I love men and I love being a man, but if I were a woman, you would never see me out of a dress. Except in the bedroom. Or the backroom. Or a toilet at the gas station.”

Elizabeth turned her attention back to her dish duty. In the soapy water of the wash sink, she could feel the scalding heat through her rubber gloves. She pulled the spring-action faucet down and sprayed a greasy pan.

“Runner!” Lenny the chef yelled, sliding a plated dinner onto the long shiny surface of the pass.

Miss Edie picked up the order and used her hip to push open the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Elizabeth shoved her gloved hands to the very bottom of the dirty water.

Stone McStone and Zoe Martinelli. How fair was it that they could eat and drink and laugh while she worked her ass off in this hellhole of a halfway house? It wasn’t fair at all. She wished they were dead.

But that wasn’t the plan. The plan was to follow the advice her case manager had given her on the day Elizabeth was released from Diablo and boarded the prison bus waiting to deliver her to the Omega Foundation in San Francisco for six months of community service. Keep your nose clean; don’t fuck up, and you’ll be free after you’ve paid your debt to society.

Free to do what? Elizabeth felt like asking but knew better. To work at the Omega Café for minimum wage? Go back to exotic dancing? If she could even get a job at her age. She was thirty-one now. Club owners liked girls who looked like horny teenagers. Even though she still had a good body and the right attitude, Elizabeth knew she would be considered too old for that kind of work.

Elizabeth had always made the best of bad circumstances, and she was no whiner, bitching and moaning about every little thing. But looking at her life now, Elizabeth had to question where all that forbearance had gotten her. To prison for something she had been forced to do. She had killed Emily Bryson, her college roommate; yes, she admitted that. The court had found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, and that was right, too. Elizabeth hadn’t planned it; it wasn’t premeditated. Elizabeth hadn’t meant to kill Emily.

As for Zoe Martinelli, the femmie private investigator in the silky black dress dining tonight with Elizabeth’s ex—adding insult to injury—that case of attempted murder had been thrown out of the Georgia courts because of the arrest, which had been unlawful. The arresting officer had been an Atlanta cop who had driven out of his jurisdiction. The court had been right about that, as well. It was a bad arrest.

If Zoe had just minded her own business and not gone snooping into the disappearance of Emily Bryson, she wouldn’t have crossed paths with Elizabeth and come close to getting herself killed, too. The irony was that in both cases, Elizabeth hadn’t wanted to hurt either one of them. They had given her no choice. They had brought it on themselves.

Emily Bryson, Zoe Martinelli, and Stone McStone—each woman in her own way had done her part to kill Elizabeth’s dream of a career in academia. “Anchor to education,” that was what the administrators at the Cary Foundation had told Elizabeth when they had given her a college scholarship for former foster children. And she had. Elizabeth had anchored to education and charted her course toward a PhD. She had envisioned her future as a respected professor of women studies. Students would have filled her classes to overflowing. Later, there would have been publication in scholarly journals, and then books that garnered a review in the New York Times, praising Elizabeth’s “important contribution to the complicated terrain of gender politics and power dynamics.” Even her academic rivals would be forced to acknowledge Elizabeth’s impressive rise from throw-away child to academic star. It would have been perfect. They had ruined everything, Emily and Zoe and Stone.

When you came right down to it, the only thing Elizabeth had done wrong was to get caught. People broke the law every day, and if they had money and connections and privilege, they got away with it. If they were nobodies like Elizabeth, they paid the price. Society didn’t care about girls like her. Her only misstep had been to trip up and be careless. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. Next time, she would be careful. Next time, everything would be perfect.

Miss Edie lifted Elizabeth’s chin and stared into her eyes.

“Where are you, Elizabeth darlin’? You’ve got that faraway look in those baby blues.”

Elizabeth brought herself back. It was the end of their shift, and she had finished loading the last of the gumbo-smeared dishes into the commercial washer. The Omega Café was closed for the night. Miss Edie had changed into an orange wraparound with matching high heels and was waiting for Elizabeth so they could walk back to the Omega Point together.

“Tell Mama,” Miss Edie said in her syrupy voice.

Elizabeth hesitated. If she was going to trust anyone, it would be Miss Edie, although she wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe because Miss Edie was even more of an outlier than she was.

“I-I thought I knew them. Those two girls at table three. That’s all.”

Miss Edie tilted her head. In the changing room, she had slipped out of the waitstaff uniform: a white shirt with a black vest, black pants, patent leather shoes, and a thin black necktie. Over her kinky hair, which had been cut short by the in-house Omega barbers, she had fitted a red-orange wig, saying, “Big hair don’t care,” one of her throw-away lines.

“Who are they to you, baby girl?” she asked now.

Elizabeth considered. If life had taught her anything, it was that honesty didn’t pay. Honesty only made you more open to betrayal.

“Nobody. They’re not important.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“It won’t take me long to change. You wanna wait for me?” Elizabeth asked.

“Sure I do. You and me are sisters.”

Miss Edie followed Elizabeth into the dressing room and sat like a lady on one of the wooden benches parallel to the rows of lockers.

“You know, Ms. Elizabeth, I’ve known you for five months now, and I still don’t know your proper name.”

“You don’t? It’s Elizabeth Taylor Bundy.”

Miss Edie’s left shoulder dipped forward. “Elizabeth Taylor? Like the diva?”

“Yeah, like that. My mother thought it sounded glamorous.”

“Well, Ms. Elizabeth, that’s a very pretty name. It becomes you. I was born Tyrell Edward Williams thirty-six years ago in Savannah, Georgia.”

Elizabeth had taken off her kitchen-duty clothes—a short-sleeved white blouse and black pants—and was putting on what she always wore: a scoop-necked black T tucked into dark wash jeans that fell to the top of her white sneakers.

“Can I ask you something, sweetheart?” Miss Edie said.

“Sure.”

“You’ve got nice tits. Why don’t you do something with them?”

“You think so?” Elizabeth looked down at her breasts.

“Hell yeah. Show ’em off instead of hiding them inside those…” She flipped her fingers at Elizabeth’s shirt. “…monochromatic rags you wear. I wish I had a rack like that.”

Elizabeth shut her locker and twisted the dial on the padlock. Miss Edie stood, rising to six-four in her heels.

“Come on, girlfriend. It’s Game night. We don’t want to be late for The Game.”

“I hate The Game,” Elizabeth said.

“Oh, snap. But we gotta play to stay. And you know what it’s like for us ‘returning citizens.’ Nobody wants nothin’ to do with a sister who’s been incarcerated. We’re lucky to have Omega.”

Miss Edie put a muscular arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder and pulled her close. “Chin up, sweetie. Let’s you and me cut this dump.”





Chapter Two





The Omega Point was in a former Masonic lodge on Geary Boulevard that had been converted twenty-two years earlier into a sixty-bed halfway house. Omega provided vocational training and corrective therapy to its residents and had graduated into society more than a thousand ex-cons, drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and homeless people, according to the foundation’s fifty-nine-year-old founder, William Dewey Brandt.

After being admitted to Omega at the end of last November, it had taken Elizabeth less than a day to see that Billy was a ubiquitous presence at the Point. He was there in the broadcasted messages that droned over The Wire, an in-house radio network piped into every room, including the single bedrooms and the communal bathrooms. He was there in profile in the black and white posters that hung on every wall and promulgated the motivational slogans of the program. Life is what you make it. Every end is a new beginning. God helps those who help themselves.

And of course, Billy was always there at each biweekly session of The Game. Tonight was no exception. Shirtless, in jeans overalls that only partially covered his pink flabby chest, Billy looked more like a farmer than a Vietnam vet and recovering heroin addict. He still wore his hair cropped military-style, but his doughy, battle-scarred, bulldog face now hid behind a scraggly, salt-and-pepper beard. A few years earlier, he had gone prematurely gray. By the time Elizabeth met him, his hair was completely white. His eyes were a crazy blue and had the capacity, with a single glance, of nailing a new admit to the wall.

From the twisted hammer loop of his dungarees hung a shiny steel snap hook; at the ring end dangled dozens of keys. At 10:02 p.m., Billy shut the door to the small, musty meeting room, locking it with a key from the fob. Pulling out a director’s chair, he joined the circle of eleven residents, making it an even dozen.

“What we’re doing here at Omega is a social experiment,” he began, for the benefit of a new admit—a pale, young white boy with disheveled hair who looked like he wouldn’t last five minutes in prison but had just been paroled out of a two-year sentence for possession of MDMA. Billy spoke with a rural Southern drawl that made him sound as if he had a mouthful of marbles.

“We’re bringing together the outcasts of society. In this room, you’ll find the Aryan Brotherhood sitting next to the Black Panthers. The Mexican Mafia is here, and so are the Crips and the Bloods. In this room, there are cross-dressers and homosexuals, parolees from our state prison system, and inmates from Diablo who are re-entering society through our center. Everybody is here at Omega.”

Billy looked around the circle.

“You see, most of you came from families that didn’t want you. You were rejected. By the time I got you, you were like a sponge that absorbs everything around it. You had what people with fancy degrees call ‘spongy personal boundaries.’ Now we know that a person with spongy personal boundaries is a person who needs someone to tell him what to do. That’s my responsibility. My job is to teach you how to set your boundaries so they’re strong as steel. And the only way I can do that is by insisting that you follow my rules.

“And the first rule is this: You will accept your new family. You are part of a new family now, a family that loves you just the way you are. Omega is your new family, the family you never had. Look around you. These are your brothers and sisters now.”

Only the new admit did as he was told. He looked around the room. Everyone else looked at the floor or at their shoes.

“All right then. It’s time for The Game. Who wants to start?”

The question was met with silence. Billy let it ride. When no one said anything, he continued.

“Well then, I’ll start. You, new boy.”

The boy, whose gaze had moved downward in imitation of the others, looked up quickly. “Yes, sir.”

“No ‘sir’ here, boy. You can call me Billy. What’s your name, son?”

“David.”

“David. How do you feel about being here at Omega?”

“Ahh.” David hesitated. “I’m a little apprehensive.”

“A little apprehensive?”

David’s face blotched red and white. “Okay, I’m a little scared.”

“A little?”

Now he looked angry. “Fine. I’m scared shitless,” he asserted in a tone that was part sarcasm and part truth.

“Scared shitless. Do you have a girlfriend, David?”

“No.”

“A boyfriend?”

“Fuck you.”

“Oh, fuck me. I see. You like the older gentlemen.”

A few of the men in the circle chuckled.

“Fuck you. I don’t like men at all.”

Billy sat forward in his director’s chair. It was the only one that had been personalized. William D. Brandt, it announced in white letters on black canvas.

“What happened to your girlfriend? You said you don’t like men, so I take it you like girls. You’re an attractive young man. You must have had a girl. What happened to her?”

David’s knee bounced up and down in his loose jeans. “We broke up. I didn’t love her anymore.”

“You didn’t love her anymore. Which leads me to conclude that you did love her once. Is that right, David?”

“Yeah.”

“Wrong! How can you love someone when you don’t love yourself? Answer me that.”

David stared at Billy wordlessly.

“David? Cat got your tongue? Answer my question.”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know. Well, that’s going to change. I checked your jacket, and it informed me that you’re in for twelve months with us. Now some of these good folks in this circle came to Omega voluntarily, and they can leave any time they want. But you are one of our parolees. If you try to leave, you’ll violate the terms of your parole, and you’ll go right back to prison. So, David, here’s what’s ahead for you at Omega. During the next twelve months, you are going to learn all about yourself and your miserable life, and the next time I ask you a question, you’ll be able to answer me. I don’t ever want to hear the words ‘I don’t know’ coming out of that pretty-boy mouth of yours again. Do I make myself clear?”

David gave Billy a long glacial look before he answered. “Crystal.”

“Now let’s start again. How can you love someone when you don’t love yourself? Answer me, David.”

David was silent for a few minutes, looking around the circle. No one met his gaze.

“I guess I can’t.”

“You guess?”

“No. I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

David exhaled loudly. “I can’t love someone else when I don’t love myself.”

Billy relaxed, slouching back against the canvas of his chair.

“There now. That wasn’t so hard, was it? This is how we play The Game. You’ve spent your whole life bullshitting people, but that stops right now, right here. There’s no bullshit at Omega. We tell the truth here.”

David looked as if he was thinking that maybe he should have stayed in prison.

“All right, Omegans, who wants to give David a haircut?”





Chapter Three





A “haircut” was Omegan speak for a dressing-down, an all-out verbal assault by the group aimed at one participant in The Game. All new admits were given a haircut during their first week at the Point, an experience that lasted from one to seventy-two hours, depending on how much psychological resistance the newcomer offered. If there were no new arrivals in the circle, then it was anybody’s guess who would be the victim of the evening’s assault. It all depended on Billy, who always led the attack.

Tonight, it had been David, whose haircut lasted only an hour. He was easy to break, but then he was just a kid, Elizabeth thought. His weakness had been an unacknowledged attraction to other boys. In prison, he had been forced to fellate his cellmate. Billy got him to admit he liked it.

Elizabeth figured they were in the clear and that Billy would call the session. It was Saturday night, after all, and the clock on the walnut-paneled wall showed it was 11:35 p.m. Didn’t that count for something? But no, with David broken, Billy turned his focus on her.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “How are you doing?”

Elizabeth took a deep breath and thought about the sex slave training she had undergone when she was just a little younger than David. Like now, circumstances had thrown her together with a dominant, sadistic personality who enjoyed humiliating people into submission. It was classic mind control, Skinnerian behavior modification. Anyone with an IQ above a hundred could see through it if they tried, Elizabeth thought.

“I’m fine,” she said.

Prison had given her many empty hours to fill, and she had filled those with books. In the short stacks of the library, Elizabeth had found a copy of Sal Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. From Alinsky, she learned about power; from Watts, about detachment. “The real action is in the enemy’s reaction,” Alinsky instructed. Watts claimed to be able to experience each moment with equanimity, no matter what was happening, by “sitting and watching, with the mind completely at rest.” Elizabeth applied both principles now.

“Elizabeth came to us from our friends at the Women’s Correctional Institution in Diablo,” Billy was saying when she returned her attention to him. “How long ago was that, Elizabeth?”

“Nineteen weeks,” she answered calmly.

“Nineteen weeks. You counted. Elizabeth is what we like to call a hard luck case. You see, Elizabeth was rejected by her druggie mama when she was just an itty bitty baby. She grew up in foster care in Los Angeles and was raped by her foster father when she was—how old were you, Elizabeth?”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen. That’s an impressionable age, fourteen. You can just imagine what that did to her sickie.” Elizabeth thought what? My what? And then she realized Billy meant psyche.

Billy stared at her for a long minute. She stared back. She didn’t blink.

“Elizabeth self-emancipated when she was seventeen and came to San Francisco. But as so often happens with troubled youth, she couldn’t leave her troubles behind. In San Francisco, she met a so-called mistress in our underground kink scene, and Elizabeth became that woman’s sex slave. As you might expect, that didn’t go too good for our Elizabeth because a life of sexual depravity never does. But that’s all behind her now. Elizabeth is going to be leaving us in the not-too-distant future. Isn’t that right, Elizabeth?”

“Yes, Billy.” With time off for good behavior, the prison system had advanced her release date from the fall of 1996 to the spring.

“Just this week, Elizabeth earned her WAP. Her Walking Around Privileges. Forty bucks and a day off, spent any way she likes. Maybe if we’re all nice to Elizabeth, she’ll tell us what she did on her day off. It was last Monday, wasn’t it, Elizabeth? Monday is your privilege day.”

“Yes, Billy.”

Billy narrowed his blue eyes. They reminded Elizabeth of crackled glass marbles. Billy had marbles in his mouth and marbles in his eyes. One eye was always more open than the other because of a Vietnam injury, and the right side of his face was still partially paralyzed, giving him an off-balanced look.

“Elizabeth is one of our gay residents. A Sapphic. Elizabeth is a female homosexual. Maybe she used her day off to visit one of her lesbian lovers. Did I guess right, Elizabeth?”

“No, Billy. I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

Everyone laughed except Billy, who looked irritated. She’d be damned if she was going to confess what she’d actually done on her first day of WAP. Forty-eight more days of good behavior and she’d be out of this hellhole forever and an ocean away from this fucked-up state. She just needed to stick to the plan and not act impulsively, to remember that the real action is in her enemy’s reaction. She needed to keep her cool and stay Zen.

“Does anyone have anything to say to Elizabeth? What do we think about Elizabeth being a lesbian?”

Billy looked from face to face until he found a likely critic. “Raul, what do you think?”

Raul crossed his arms, lifted his buzzed head, and looked down his nose at Billy. Below one eye, a tattooed tear threatened to roll down his cheek but never fell. Each arm was covered by a sleeve of red and blue ink. The most obvious tat was an Aztec eagle. The Aztecs were a Mission District-based gang that had been indicted in drug trafficking, murder, rape, and hate crimes.

“I think it’s a waste of good pussy,” Raul said.

There was more low laughter.

“Yeah, man,” someone else said.

“That’s a lock that hasn’t met the right cocksmith,” said a third male voice.

There were two other women in the circle, and even they joined in.

“It’s disgusting is what I think.”

“I’m with you, girl.”

Elizabeth didn’t hear them. She had stopped listening because she knew what was coming. They would all follow Billy’s lead. They would bully and berate and project their own insecurities onto the victim of the hour. Right now, it was Elizabeth. Earlier, it had been David. The next time, it could be anyone. Anyone except Billy, of course. He never got a haircut.

Elizabeth closed her eyes and began counting backward from one hundred. Ninety-nine, ninety-eight…She followed her breath, in and out. Ninety-seven, ninety-six…The group was yelling at her now, but she could barely hear them. They were only a small annoyance, as unimportant as a buzzing fly.

“Are you listening to me, Lezzie?”

Billy was in her face, his big, ugly misshapen features twisted in scorn.

“Yes, Billy.”

They would never break her. No one would ever break her.





Chapter Four





Where she had been on her first day of WAP was not to visit some lesbian lover, as Billy had fantasized. It was to the main branch of the public library, to the cubbyhole that housed the phonebooks. After she had found what she needed, Elizabeth had ridden the Muni Six Parnassus to a house in the Haight.

“Fuck,” its occupant said when she opened the front door.

“Nice to see you, too. May I come in?” Elizabeth asked.

She stepped back to let Elizabeth inside. “Lizzie Bundy.”

“Mickie Forrest.”

“How long has it been?”

“Seventeen years, give or take a day or two.”

“Ya wanna beer?” Mickie asked.

It was a violation of her WAP, but urine testing was random and seemed to happen mostly to Omegans with known substance abuse histories. Luckily, Elizabeth wasn’t one of them.

“Sure.”

She followed Mickie down the worn carpeted hallway into the kitchen at the far end of her flat in the Lower Haight. The kitchen walls had been painted a gaudy yellow over the original avocado green. A little of the green had bled through, giving the room a sick pallor. Mickie pulled two Coors out of a beaten-up Maytag and handed one to Elizabeth. As the refrigerator door closed, Elizabeth noticed a photo held in place by small black magnets. It was a young woman sitting on the back of a Harley—a dark-rooted blonde with a headful of frizzy curls and a get-you-in-trouble look in her big brown eyes.

“Pretty,” Elizabeth said. “What’s her name?”

“Denise.”

Elizabeth twisted off the top of her beer and sat at a thrift-store table in a wobbly wooden chair that didn’t match.

“So, what brings you to my humble abode?” Mickie asked, sitting across from her.

She thought Mickie had lost weight. She didn’t remember her cheekbones being so prominent and her face so thin. She had the same eyes, though, the same blue-gray as hers. It was ironic. Strangers who didn’t know better always said they could see the family resemblance.

“Can’t a girl want to visit her long-lost foster sister for purely sentimental reasons?”

“Cut the crap, Lizzie. You want something. I remember you. Even when we were in care together, you always were playing the angles.”

“You’re right. I was. I am.”

“So. What is it?”

“Today is my first day of WAP.”

“WAP?”

“Walking Around Privileges. I’m in Omega, the halfway house for ex-cons.”

Mickie nodded. She didn’t seem surprised.

“I went to the library this morning and looked you up. That’s how I found your address. And I found out something else.”

“And that is?”

“You made it, Mickie. You know what the stats are on foster kids. So many of us end up hooking or hustling or in jail.”

“Yeah. So?”

“So, you didn’t. You left it behind you in LA. You’ve got a pretty girlfriend, and I know you’ve got a good job with Brink’s.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Somebody told me how you stopped a robbery attempt. I read all about it today.”

“What do you want, Lizzie?”

“Maybe I just want to be part of your life again. Would that be so hard to believe?”

“Honestly, it would. I haven’t seen you since you made up that lie about our foster father—”

“It wasn’t a lie—”

“And they sent you to the group home. He couldn’t foster after that, and that meant I got kicked out of his home, too. Things didn’t go so good for me after that.”

“I’m sorry, Mickie. I know you ended up on the street.”

“I’m not even going to tell you all the crap I went through.”

“I can imagine.”

“But I’ve got my act together now. And you’re right. I’ve got a girlfriend and a good job. I don’t need you screwing up my life again.”

“I can appreciate that.”

Elizabeth took another sip of beer and then stood. The bottle wasn’t even half empty. Mickie had already drained hers and was getting another out of the refrigerator.

“Are you leaving? Already?” Mickie asked.

“You don’t want to me to stay, so, yeah, I’m going.”

Elizabeth started toward the door.

“Sis.”

It had been a long time since Mickie had called her that. Elizabeth stopped.

“Wait. Come back. Finish your beer at least. Let’s talk.”

Elizabeth walked back to the table and sat down.

“Be honest with me, Lizzie. What do you really want?”

Elizabeth hesitated for less than a moment. “Money.”

Mickie leaned forward, resting her forearms on the stained red and white checkered tablecloth. Her black T-shirt slid up over her wiry biceps, revealing a half sleeve of black and blue tattoos on her ropy arms.

“How much?”

“That’s exactly what I want to talk to you about.”





On the bus ride back to Omega that evening, Elizabeth had watched as the sight of the city’s painted ladies moved past her window, the iconic row of colorful Victorian houses that symbolized San Francisco. Prison life had been mind-numbingly bland, all grays and whites and vomit yellow. San Francisco’s painted ladies were still as psychedelic as the 1960s in their wild reds and yellows and blues. Was it a coincidence that both she and Mickie had ended up in the Bay Area? Given their history in Los Angeles, maybe it was inevitable. If you were a free spirit, where else would you go?

The only difference between Mickie and Elizabeth now was their circumstances. Elizabeth believed that everyone had a criminal element in their psychological makeup; they just needed the right environment to release it. It was like flipping the breaker in a fuse box. All you had to do was find the correct toggle, and the lights would go on. It wasn’t until she had asked about her health that she found Mickie’s switch. Elizabeth had watched it happen, observing the way Mickie’s eyes clouded with self-doubt. That was her tell, the weakness Elizabeth could exploit. The big secret. Mickie had epilepsy. Because of that, as a foster child, she had been labeled hard to place and bounced from home to home before landing with the Bauers when she was ten.

Epilepsy. Certainly, Mickie hadn’t revealed her illness to Brink’s or even to the DMV. Mickie had probably lied about her condition for years. And why not if it served her purposes? Elizabeth could understand that. There was something else she understood, that without a driver’s license, Mickie would be unemployed and, given the kind of work she had chosen, essentially, she would be unemployable. She would lose her driver’s license, her job, and her livelihood.

Elizabeth hadn’t expected Mickie to say yes right away. She had worked for Brink’s for ten years, and judging by her shock at Elizabeth’s suggestion that they steal a delivery of bad money together and split the take—“Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”—Mickie had never considered breaking the law. Other than smoking a little pot and speeding around the Bay Area on her Super Glide, Mickie was a law-abiding citizen. Elizabeth knew she’d have to wear her down.

Elizabeth had her work cut out for her, but at least now she had a modicum of freedom. Omega required residents to log their departure and return times with the perpetually smiling receptionist in the front lobby. After hours, Omegans were trusted to sign the unattended logbook, while showing their picture ID to the guard who stood armed at the locked front door. Elizabeth signed in and out Tuesday through Saturday to work at the Omega Café. From today forward, Monday would be her WAP day, from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

And then on the last Friday of May, if all went well, Elizabeth would walk away from Omega and be released from the prison system forever. If everything went according to the plan she was formulating in her head, by June, she and Mickie would be millionaires, sitting on a beach somewhere sipping piña coladas. This time, Elizabeth would think through her crime. There would be no acting on impulse the way she had in the past, no going off half-cocked. All she had to do was persuade Mickie to steal a little money that was just going up in flames anyway. Mickie’s Achilles heel was her epilepsy. Elizabeth would use that weakness to wear her down. It would be a challenge, and it wouldn’t be easy, but Elizabeth was sure she could do it.

And then she met Denise.





Chapter Five





There was a routine to living at the Point. Over The Wire at 5:00 a.m. each day, residents were awakened by the clanging of a cowbell. Everyone got up, whether they were ready to get up or not. By 5:15 a.m., faces had been washed, teeth brushed, hair combed, and bodies dressed. Beds had been made with hospital corners for the morning inspection. Omegans stood silently at attention in front of their single beds, backs straight, chins up as the Commitment Keepers moved from room to room. Residents who failed to meet inspection were denied privileges like meals or punished by placement in isolation.

Breakfast was served cafeteria-style at 5:30 a.m. Scrambled eggs, oatmeal, granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, muffins, bagels, and whole-wheat bread were always available, as much as anyone wanted to eat. There was coffee or tea, orange juice, or bottled water. Produce was trucked in twice a week from The Farm, a second residence on a six hundred forty-acre parcel of land in Petaluma. One hundred Omegans lived on The Farm, raising vegetables and chickens and cows.

After breakfast, at 6:00 a.m., all residents were required to attend the daily morning assembly in the Point’s three hundred-seat auditorium on the first floor. Billy opened each meeting by reiterating the Omegan philosophy—“Life is what you make it”—before moving on to policy changes and other internal news. He ended each gathering by reminding Omegans of their obligations to the program before reciting the slogan once more. Then he pounded a gavel on the lectern, saying, “This meeting is hereby concluded. Go forth and be wise.”

By 6:30 a.m., the workday began. In addition to Omega Point, the residence on Geary Boulevard, Omega operated three tax-exempt businesses. In the city, there was the café on California Street, an auto repair shop on Fulton Street, and The Farm forty miles north of San Francisco. Residents were assigned to work areas by Billy, who reviewed each file personally. Workers with evening hours were required to schedule an hour of aerobics during the day; day workers, in the evening.

At noon, for those still at the Point on Geary Boulevard, lunch consisted of sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, soup, salad, and fruit. At 5:00 p.m., dinner was provided, following Billy’s strict guidelines for healthy eating. Billy believed in clean living—no drugs, alcohol, or processed food—and had quit his last vice when his wife died of lung cancer a year before Elizabeth came into the program. Old-timers still talked about the early days, when a Camel cigarette seemed to be an extension of Billy’s hand and a Benson & Hedges was an almost permanent fixture between Dorothy’s slender fingers. Always at his side in those early times, Dorothy was remembered as the calming influence who had been able to moderate some of Billy’s harsher impulses. Since her death, there had been no one to stop him.

The second-in-charge was a middle-aged ex-con from Southern California named Thomas Chambers. Once a minor league drug dealer in Logan Heights, the San Diego State University business major had turned his life around after serving three years in prison for selling cocaine on campus. He came out of Donovan Correctional a changed young man, finished his undergraduate studies, and went on to get an advanced degree in rehabilitation counseling.

But education was one thing; employment was another. San Diego in the late 1970s was a city dominated by Republican politics, a corrupt police department, and a sordid alliance between local economic interests and Mexican cartels. When the city’s chief of police was forced to retire in 1975 after lying to the city council, he was offered a job as head of security for an upscale hotel that served as the city’s main house of prostitution. The bordello was protected by both the San Diego police force and Tijuana drug traffickers who were figuratively if not literally in bed with each other.

No, nobody in San Diego was willing to hire a former inmate with black skin who was honestly trying to stay clean. And so when Thomas had been offered a position in San Francisco with the Omega Foundation, he had grabbed it.

Unlike Billy, Thomas was actually qualified to run a nonprofit. After fourteen years of working alongside the eccentric director, Thomas had concluded that Billy was a walking narcissistic personality disorder whose saving grace was that he could give glib interviews to the press, glad-hand politicos, and motivate his true believers. In stark contrast to Billy’s good-old-boy demeanor, Thomas was polished and pressed in his business suits and ties. To the board of directors, the California Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Thomas was the professional face of the Omega Foundation.

Without Thomas’s management, Omega would have long ago fallen out of compliance with the laws governing nonprofits in California, a fact Billy chose not to acknowledge or appreciate. As Billy’s right-hand man, Thomas had mastered the art of projecting outward aplomb over inward dissatisfaction. The rumor around Omega was that Thomas was just biding his time, waiting for Billy to retire so he could take his place as director of the multimillion-dollar charity. The latest cause of Thomas’s unhappiness had been Billy’s sudden impulsive firing of the organization’s accountant.

It seemed like just another Monday morning when the sixty residents of the Point assembled in the auditorium for the 6:00 a.m. business meeting. As always, Thomas took his seat in a folding chair next to Billy’s lectern. Above the stage, a gigantic screen displayed Billy’s image as he stood on the podium in his bib overalls.

“I have an important announcement to make,” he began. “Today is April 15, Tax Day, and I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Elizabeth glanced at Miss Edie, sitting beside her on a red velvet chair. Miss Edie caught her eye and arched her eyebrows.

“The IRS is coming after us.”

Billy paused for dramatic effect.

“They say we’re not a legitimate nonprofit foundation. They say we owe them money in back taxes. They say they are gonna revoke our exemption. And do you know what I say to the IRS?”

He let a beat pass.

“I say, ‘Fuck you, IRS! Fuck you!”

From the tiered row behind Elizabeth and Miss Edie, two Omegans kicked the back of their chairs as the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause, hoots, and whistles. Seated beside Billy, Thomas’s face remained placid, revealing nothing of what he thought about Billy’s diatribe.

“Fuck you, IRS!” Billy wailed. “And fuck you, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation because I know you’ll be coming after us next. Oh, yeah! They’ll be gettin’ on our asses for noncompliance, and there will be no more contracts with the CDCR. And you know what I say to the CDCR?”

“Fuck you” came the response in unison.

“That’s right! Fuck the IRS. Fuck the CDCR. Fuck ’em both!”

Billy was raising the middle fingers of both hands as the crowd cheered.

“Because I am here to tell you Omegans that from this day forward Omega will no longer be a tax-exempt, F-E-D/CDCR-sucking nonprofit foundation. From this day forward, Omega will be a church. Yes, my brothers and sisters, we are being reborn today as the Church of the Omega!”

A wave of applause rolled through the room along with a collective “Yeah!” Elizabeth looked quizzically at Miss Edie, who was shaking her wigged head.

“What?” Elizabeth mouthed.

Billy had taken a step back from the lectern and was nodding appreciatively in response to the enthusiasm of his followers. He looked over the assembled collective before stepping forward again. In a lower, more intimate voice, he spoke into the microphone.

“And I guess you know what that makes me.”

“Pastor Billy?” Elizabeth said to no one in particular.

“God!” he bellowed. “That makes me your god.”

“Is he kidding?” Elizabeth asked Miss Edie.

“No, baby, I think he’s serious. I always knew that dude was crazy.”

“And as your god, I am handing down a new commandment, a new rule, and this is it. God says that you will be clean and green and—bald!”

“What?” Miss Edie said.

“That’s right! For you to be clean, you must be as hairless as a skinned rabbit. It was revealed to me last night in a dream that hair is a weakness. There is power in a bald head. Hear me now! It has been scientifically proven that if you shave your head, you will experience a rebirth of energy. Last night, I was told that we are like a tree in need of pruning. Have you ever noticed how when you cut a branch from a tree, the trunk sends its energy to the pruned limb? And suddenly, that pruned branch has been reborn and is full of green leaves.

“The same thing happens to the human body. And here’s another fancy word for you to learn. Tonsure. Tonsure is the religious practice of shaving your head. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians—all the great religions of the world—have recognized the power that comes with shaving the head of their disciples. And so, from this day forward, I am requiring all Omegans to be clean and green and bald. Yes, bald! I want to see a room full of skinheads. We’re going to give new meaning to the word haircut.”

Unconsciously, Elizabeth touched the short strands of her hair. Once sun-bleached blond, it had darkened in prison and turned the color of caramel.

“Now you may be saying to yourself, but look at you, Billy, with your fine locks.”

He ran the fingers of one hand through his white crew cut and grinned.

“You, William Dewey Brandt, are a hypocrite. So, to prove to you that I am not a hypocrite, I will be the first to shave. Who wants to volunteer to shave ole Billy’s head?”

Hands rose across the aisles. Billy shielded his eyes against the spotlights as he searched the crowd.

“You!” He was pointing in Elizabeth’s direction, although Elizabeth hadn’t raised her hand.

“Lizzie Bundy! I want you to join me here on this stage.”

“Oh, shit,” Elizabeth mumbled.

Miss Edie squeezed her hand as Elizabeth stood. After navigating her way down the line of knees, Elizabeth moved forward to the stairs of the stage. Behind her, she felt the energy of the throng supporting her. Billy reached down to assist her in climbing the three steps. At the same time, a female Omega Angel in a white robe appeared from stage right with a can of shaving cream, a bucket of water, a white towel, a barber’s bib, and an old-fashioned straight razor. Simultaneously, another white-robed female Angel pushed a wheeled desk chair toward Billy. Both Angels were young and white and pretty, the way Billy liked his chosen few.

The second Angel locked the wheels and put the chair in a slightly bent-back position. Billy sat, perpendicular to the audience. He motioned with a finger for Elizabeth to bend closer so he could whisper something to her privately. She did, feeling his breath hot and heavy in her ear.

“I’ll bet you’ve only ever shaved pussy,” he said.

When she pulled back, she saw the smirk on his twisted face.

Fuck you, she thought but forced her expression to remain impassive. The first Angel laid the bib over his chest, then prepared his head with shaving gel. The other Angel opened the wood-handled straight razor and gave it to Elizabeth along with the towel. Elizabeth draped the towel over the crook of her left arm.

She had never shaved a man, never shaved anything other than her own legs and underarms and pubic hair. But she shaved his head easily, methodically, row by row, starting at the top and sliding the blade forward and down, cutting with the grain of his short white hair. After each row, she lifted the blade and wiped it on the towel, then set it back lightly on the next wave of gel, starting from the top and gliding forward, finishing with the sides. She wiped the blade and repeated the act until Billy had been shaved clean and was smooth and pink and shiny under the hot overhead lights.

Touching his head, Billy swiveled in his chair to face the audience.

“Do you see this, Omegans? I’m bald!”

The crowd broke into a bird-like whoop.

“Now my beard.”

The first Angel moved in from where she had been standing on the sidelines, lathering his face with a soapy white foam. Elizabeth shaved his mustache first, then his facial hair. The last to go was the stubble under his jaw. Her left hand lifted his chin while her right set the blade against his throat. She looked into his crazy blue eyes. Those eyes seemed to read her thoughts. They were daring her to do it. Go ahead, they seemed to say. Kill me.

The old Elizabeth would have taken that dare and sliced open his carotid arteries, right then, right there, in front of everyone. Fuck the consequences. But Elizabeth wasn’t that person anymore. Prison had changed her. Life inside had taught her to restrain her impulses, to control her emotions when they threatened to control her.

Now she shaved Billy’s whiskers and wiped his face clean. His thick hands came up from beneath the barber bib to stroke his cheeks. He nodded at her in approval.

Glancing at the chair next to Billy, Elizabeth noticed that it was empty. Thomas had already left the stage.





It felt strange to be bald, but it was not entirely unpleasant. In a certain way, Elizabeth liked her new look. It did feel clean, although Billy’s analogy to the pruned tree and green leaves was ridiculous. At the end of the meeting that morning, Billy had ordered everyone in attendance to visit the in-house barbershop before the end of the day. Elizabeth and Miss Edie went together to wait for an available shaver. There were a half-dozen barbers tasked with getting the sixty residents shaved before 11:00 p.m. “Big hair don’t care,” Miss Edie said after her hair had been buzzed clean. “As long as I got my wigs, baby, I’m good.”

Newly depilated and dressed for the street, Elizabeth had left her room on the second floor and used the central staircase to walk the one flight down to the front exit. At the receptionist’s desk in the lobby, she had given her picture ID to a pretty young white woman in a peasant blouse and floral skirt whose head was shining from the morning’s shave. The receptionist glanced at the ID and then at Elizabeth and back at the ID, while Elizabeth signed the logbook.

“Everybody looks so different now,” the young woman said.

She was right. The photo showed Elizabeth with short light brown hair. Elizabeth slipped the laminated ID into the back pocket of her jeans.

“Go forth and be wise,” the receptionist said.

“Right,” Elizabeth mumbled under her breath.

At the front door, a glabrous black guard stood stiffly in black military boots, black slacks, and a black polo shirt. He eyed Elizabeth suspiciously as she left the building to begin her second day of WAP.





Chapter Six





“Your head is the perfect shape for that,” Denise said.

“You think so?” Elizabeth touched a tender earlobe.

“Yeah. And I like your earrings.”

On her way to Mickie’s house, Elizabeth had stopped at Southern Cross, a piercing and tattoo shop on Haight Street. The symmetrical holes she had pierced in her earlobes as a teenager—with a sewing needle and an ice cube—had healed shut while she was in prison, where inmates were forbidden from wearing jewelry. Today, she had used part of her WAP money to have the holes repierced and faux diamond studs put in.

“Thanks. Bald looks better with earrings.”

They were hanging out, drinking Coors, waiting for Mickie to come home from work. Denise was lying at one end of Mickie’s sagging couch, upholstered in a dated, autumn-leaf pattern. Elizabeth was at the other. On the oat-colored carpet, a spot across the room had been stained black with oil from Mickie’s motorcycle.

“Mickie keeps her Harley in the living room?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yeah. She’s afraid somebody’ll boost her ride if she leaves it on the street.”

Closer to the couch, a table made of steel and tempered glass showed skid marks on the spot where Mickie made a habit of resting her big boots.

“Where are you from?” Elizabeth asked, making small talk.

“Bern. You’re from LA, right? Mickie said you were in a foster home together.”

“Yeah.”

“What was LA like?”

Elizabeth took a sip of beer. She would never learn to like beer, but sometimes, you had to drink it to be sociable. And it was good to be able to drink again, even if she was violating Omega’s rules.

“It wasn’t like anything. It wasn’t like the movies, if that’s what you mean. Hollywood and all that.”

Denise was drinking, too. The difference was that she seemed to like beer. A lot. “Is that where you lived? In Hollywood?” Denise asked.

“Yeah. West Hollywood. Where is Bern?”

“It’s east of San Diego County. Way the fuck up in the Cuyamaca Mountains.”

“What was that like, growing up in Bern?”

“You know what they say about Fresno? That it’s the armpit of California? Well, if Fresno is the armpit, Bern is the asshole.”

Elizabeth laughed.

“For real,” Denise continued. “Nothin’ ever happens in Bern. It’s just hunters in the fall and campers in the summer and a population of like fifteen thousand year-round. The only good thing about Bern is that I-8 runs right through it. That’s how I broke loose. I put my thumb out, and fuck me if the nicest gang of bikers didn’t stop to give me a ride.”

“Seriously? Bikers?”

“Angels, yeah. They were on a drug run from Tijuana to Oakland. There’s a biker bar on I-8 they stop at sometimes on their way back.”

“You were wild, girl.”

“I was,” Denise said and tilted her head. “I still am.”

“So, Mickie’s not your first biker,” Elizabeth said, ignoring that head tilt.

“Mickie’s not a biker. She rides a bike. There’s a difference.”

“You’re right. There is,” Elizabeth said. “How’d you two meet?”

Denise studied her for a moment. Elizabeth did the same. Denise was maybe nineteen, twenty, with that storm of bottle-blond curls and a dangerously angelic face, a good little bod inside a man’s white T-shirt—probably Mickie’s—that hung loose, nearly to the knees of her ripped jeans. Bare feet. Elizabeth could see the appeal.

“In a bar. I was horny, and so was she.”

“Hmm,” Elizabeth mumbled.

Denise was still studying her. If Elizabeth hadn’t known better, and maybe she didn’t, she would have guessed that Denise was sizing her up for sex. After a moment, Denise reached over and set her bottle on the glass tabletop.

“Why don’t you come over here? Closer to me,” she said.

Why? Why? Because you’re sleeping with my foster sister, for one thing. Because you’re too young, for another. Elizabeth stood.

“That’s the thing about beer. It goes right through you. Where’s the, ah—?”

Denise’s pink lips formed an exaggerated pout. “Oh, boo. You’re dissing me. Maybe another time. It’s down the hall, on the left.”

“Thanks.”

In the bathroom, Elizabeth opened the wall cabinet fronted by a black-splotched mirror. Inside she saw a bottle of mouthwash, a stick of deodorant, rubbing alcohol, and an amber vial of meds. That was what she was looking for. Pulling it off the shelf, she read the label—Depakote, 125 mg.—before opening the top and tipping a capsule into her palm. It was white and blue, marked RDY 532. She pulled a piece of toilet paper from the roll, wrapped the capsule, and stuffed it into the pocket of her jeans. Then she recapped the bottle and returned it to the shelf, used the toilet—beer really did go right through her—washed her hands, and walked back to the living room.

Mickie was there now, still in the blue shirt and black pants of her Brink’s uniform. A semiautomatic pistol hung in a leather holster from the thick belt on her waist. Denise had gotten up from the couch and had wrapped herself around Mickie’s tall, lanky frame in a sloppy kiss. They didn’t break when Elizabeth entered the room.

“Don’t mind me,” Elizabeth said.

They didn’t.





Back in her bedroom at the Point after lights out at 11:00 p.m., Elizabeth tried to ignore the incessant soundtrack of barely audible propaganda that droned over The Wire around the clock. She needed to think about how to drug Mickie. If Mickie paid attention to her meds, she’d notice the change right away. But how many people actually looked at their pills before popping them? Elizabeth could dump the contents of the capsules down Mickie’s bathroom drain and substitute something innocuous, like corn starch or flour. Taking the dummy placebo, it wouldn’t be long before Mickie had a seizure; that was guaranteed, once she was off her meds. Hopefully, the episode wouldn’t happen while she was on the job. If it hit while she was off duty, it might frighten her enough to agree to the heist.

Assuming that it went down like that—that an off-duty attack scared Mickie into agreeing to steal the money—then Elizabeth would need to get Mickie back on her meds before she realized that Elizabeth’s meddling had caused the seizure in the first place. If Elizabeth had dumped the real Depakote down the drain, that wouldn’t be possible. What would be better would be if she could replace Mickie’s pills with a substitute and then, after she’d had an episode, Elizabeth could return the original capsules to the bottle. That would work.

She could do it on one of her beer-necessitated trips to Mickie’s bathroom. The only question now was, where would she get empty blue and white capsules that could pass for Depakote? She had to think.

There was another problem. Billy was going off the rails. Clearly, he was losing his mind. San Francisco had seen this kind of religious delusion before, in Jim Jones and his People’s Temple in the 1970s, and Charles Manson and his hippies when he lived in the Haight during the 1967 Summer of Love. There was Synanon and Scientology, the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas. It always took a while for the media and authorities to catch up. By the time they did, it was often too late, as in Jim Jones’s massacre in Guyana of more than nine hundred adults and children, including four journalists and Congressman Leo Ryan, who had been sent to investigate the cult.

Elizabeth wasn’t going to wait for outsiders to figure out what was going on inside Omega. And if the authorities did find out what was happening, what would that do to the transitioning inmates? What would become of them if Omega lost its license and closed? The Omegans who were there voluntarily could leave and fend for themselves. But what would happen to the convicts working their way toward release? Would they go back to prison?



She was so close to finishing her sentence. Just forty-six more days. “God helps those who help themselves,” a soothing female voice whispered over The Wire. Only now Billy claimed to be god, and Billy wasn’t going to help Elizabeth. No, that was something she was going to have to do for herself.





Chapter Seven




Thomas Chambers didn’t mind being bald; in fact, he thought it gave him a certain bad-ass quality. Since his head shaving at Omega, he was getting more sideways glances on the street from both women and men than he had in the past, even in the distant past when he was a cocky young dude from southeast San Diego. Cocky and stupid, he thought now. He remembered one night with a date—a white girl, he was sleeping with girls back then—when he and his date, whatever her name was, and another brother and his date, also a white girl, drove to downtown San Diego, to the parking lot of the police headquarters on Broadway. Cruising past the row of black and white Crown Vics, Thomas had slowed his ride to point out the line of unmarked vehicles.

“See those?” he had asked his date. She was one of those wide-eyed sun-blondes he found all over the San Diego State campus, where he was a sophomore. She was a freshman, undecided, going to school on Daddy’s dime. Not like Thomas.

“That’s what the narcs drive.”

He was showing off in front of everybody, even Gerry, the other brother in the backseat. Thomas thought he so was smart. He was smart, and he had a good future ahead of him until he got busted. Couldn’t quite figure out how that happened until the day of his trial, when he sat in the courtroom and Gerry walked in to testify against him. Turned out, Gerry was a snitch, a former pusher who had been busted once himself and worked out a plea. Posing as an SDSU student, Gerry had been sent on campus to scope out dealers selling to white kids. Gotta protect the children of the white folk.

Prison was hard for anybody, but for a closeted gay black man, well, prison was something Thomas didn’t ever want to do again. All that was behind him. The past was the past. This was now. And now presented troubles of its own. Like Billy. Billy had lost his mind. This Church of the Omega strategy was brilliant, on the one hand, and pathological, on the other. It was Billy desperately trying to conceal his crimes. Thomas knew that Billy was embezzling from Omega, had probably been stealing from the start. And not just taking a little off the top; no, Billy was doing some serious theft. Like tens of thousands of dollars serious.

The board didn’t know yet. The accountant had been falsifying records for years, no doubt at Billy’s insistence. Billy had just fired him, probably to cover his tracks. Like nearly everyone associated with the Omega Foundation in an official capacity, the accountant was an ex-con. Four of the five board members were former Omega residents. The only board member with a completely clean record was Sally Whitman, a well-meaning seventy-something notary who rubber-stamped board decisions.

And then there was the IRS. The IRS was saying Omega owed back taxes. Rock and hard place, yeah. What were the choices? If Thomas told the board about Billy’s embezzling, it would set in motion a chain of events as predictable as dominoes falling. Billy would do prison time. Omega would lose its government contracts. Private donors would be gone quicker than a politician’s handshake. Thomas would be unemployed. The media would have a field day. Oh, yeah, the media. The press built you up and then they tore you down.

Honesty wasn’t looking all that good. Cover it up? That was an option if Billy could just keep his dumb cracker mouth shut. But knowing Billy, that wasn’t going to happen. Thomas didn’t know what to do. But he was going to need to do something, and soon.





Chapter Eight





Mr. Wing, owner of Wing’s Herbs, argued that he didn’t sell the capsule Elizabeth held in her hand. No, no, she tried to explain; it looks like this one, but it’s not this one. She was looking for a medicine that looked like this. He nodded vigorously beneath a gray newsboy cap.

From a glass display case, he pulled two white boxes imprinted with black Chinese letters. The first, he said, was for xìngyù gàn. On the box, Elizabeth saw a line drawing of an amorous couple in an erotic embrace. Uh, no. Mickie was getting all the help she needed with her xìngyù gàn from Denise already, thank you very much.

The second was for energy. For qi. It sounded like it was some kind of traditional ginseng formula. That was the one, Elizabeth told him. She opened the contents to make sure and looked inside. The capsules were blue and white, and except for the markings—they had none—they were perfect. And a little ginseng never hurt anybody.

She would buy that one and replace the Depakote capsules in Mickie’s bathroom cabinet with the blue and white ginseng. Then, as soon as Mickie had a seizure—or two if she was still reluctant to agree to the heist—Elizabeth would return Mickie’s original capsules, with the actual Depakote in them, to the prescription bottle. That was the plan.





“No,” Denise said.

“What do you mean, no?”

“Let me work Mickie. She’ll do it for me.”

How was it that Elizabeth had just confessed her plan to Denise, this girl who was much too young for her, not to mention the fact that she was sleeping with her foster sister? Elizabeth needed to get ahold of herself. It was her third day of the freedom that came from WAP, and how had she used it? To buy capsules that morning in Chinatown and to end up now—what time was it anyway? A little after 3:00 p.m.—to end up lying here now on damp sheets with Denise in Mickie’s bed. And how dumb was that? And how had that even happened?

Elizabeth had to blame it on the joint they had shared, which had made it easier to say yes to the tequila shots, which had made it easier to say yes to the beer chasers, which had made it easier to say yes to Denise. Mickie wouldn’t arrive home from her shift until after 4:00 p.m., and they both knew that. And yet Elizabeth had agreed to have lunch with Denise at noon, and had she really believed that it would be lunch? Like, a sandwich and chips lunch?

No, lunch was dope and Cuervo and Coors and feeling the hunger of going too long without a woman’s touch. It was the Indigo Girls on the boombox in Mickie’s living room and a trail of tossed-off clothes that led to the bedroom. Fuck. How dumb could she be? And worse, she had just confided to Denise the plan, her perfect plan.

“No,” Denise said. “Mickie’s already pissed at the company. She can barely pay for her meds. They’re like three hundred dollars a month, and she can’t use her insurance because the insurance company would tell Brink’s and then she’d get fired. Did she tell you what they pay her?”

“No. I assumed she made a good salary.”

“No, she doesn’t. It’s bullshit. Long hours, low pay, no breaks. That’s why I think she’ll do it. She’s already scared shitless they’re gonna find out she’s spastic and fire her.”

“She’s not spastic. She’s epileptic.”

“Whatever. She said she got really bad after that robbery. Before that, I guess it was kinda under control. She killed a guy, did you know that?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, that really did a number on her. Mickie isn’t a killer. Now my ex Dirty Dan, the Hells Angel, he’s a killer. Like a natural born killer. But not Mickie. No, you don’t need to make Mickie have a fit. Let me work her.”

“I don’t know.”

“No, I can do it. I can turn her. Especially if you’ve got a good plan.”

“Oh, the plan is good. The plan is perfect.”

Denise rolled over on her side and pushed a pillow under her head. On the smooth skin of her right bicep, a skull tattoo stared out of hollowed-out eyes. Denise blinked her long lashes at Elizabeth, flashing those big impish eyes the color of strong tea. A silver barbell sparkled in her right eyebrow. Her wild, bleached-blond hair fell forward like the forelock on a palomino.

“So, tell me about this perfect plan,” Denise said.

Elizabeth found herself wanting to trust Denise, even though she knew better. Maybe it was because it was a little like looking in a mirror. When she looked at Denise, she saw a younger version of herself.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said. “Once Mickie agrees, it’s simple. The next time she’s got a pickup at the airport, she’ll drive there with her partner like it’s just another routine job. While she’s there, she’ll have her partner wait in the truck while Mickie goes inside to sign for the shipment. After she comes back and has unloaded the bags, she’ll tell her partner that airport security needs to see him. If he asks why, Mickie will say she doesn’t know. Her partner will leave the truck and go inside.

“As soon as that happens, Mickie will drive away. She’ll go to the parking lot of the Airport Hilton, where I’ll be waiting in a getaway car. The Mexican border is about eight hours driving distance from the Bay Area if I take I-5. I’ll drop her off at the bridge in San Diego that crosses over into Tijuana. I’ll give her enough cash to see her through a few weeks. The Tijuana Airport isn’t far from there.

“Customs doesn’t check foot traffic, so she can walk right over like she’s just another gringo tourist. At the TJ Airport, she’ll buy a one-way ticket to Belize. Belize doesn’t extradite criminals to the U.S.”

“Doesn’t what?” Denise asked.

“Extradite. Belize doesn’t send Americans back to the U.S. We don’t have a treaty with them.”

“Cool.”

“Belize is one of the best places in the world to hide money. Their bankers don’t ask questions, and they don’t report large sums of cash deposits the way American banks do.”

Denise was listening carefully. “How do you know all this? About Mexico and Belize and robberies. Is that what you learned in prison?”

“How do you know I was in prison?”

“Mickie told me.”

“Yeah, I suppose she would. No, when I was at Diablo, I didn’t tell anybody about my plan. You’ve got to be careful who you trust. I’ve used the library here in San Francisco on my WAP days.”

“Awesome.”

“Yeah, I’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“What do you do then? After you leave Mickie at the bridge.”

“Then I find a storage unit in San Diego, near the border. I’ll get a unit and unload the bags there. I don’t think the feds will be coming after me, but in case they do, I want the cash safely out of the Bay Area.”

“Makes sense.”

“When the heat is off, I’ll start taking trips to Belize from Tijuana, delivering the cash to Mickie for deposit into an offshore account. At the same time, I’ll open up several bank accounts in San Diego to launder the money. You can deposit up to ten thousand dollars without alerting the feds.”

“The library again?” Denise asked.

“Uh-huh. I looked it up in a law book. It was part of the Money Laundering Control Act from a couple of years ago. Before that, there wasn’t any problem. You could just dump as much cash as you wanted into a bank account, but the feds changed that because of drug money.

“Anyway, eventually, all the money will be transferred, one way or another, into that offshore account. Then I’ll move to Belize. My first choice would be to go to the French Riviera, but that’s not as practical.”

“Because of extra, uh, extra—?”

“Dition. Extradition. Yeah, France extradites U.S. citizens, although there are ways around that. Or Spain. Spain is good, too. Barcelona is supposed to be beautiful. But Belize is better.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” Denise said.

“It’s perfect. It has to be perfect.”

“When do you want it to go down?”

Elizabeth considered.

“It’ll have to be after I get out of Omega. That happens on Friday, May 31. Until then, I only have Mondays free. That doesn’t give us enough flexibility. After May 31, I’m a free woman.”

“What’s today?”

“April 22.”

“That’s not that long. It shouldn’t be a problem about Mickie. You’ve already got her thinking about it.”

Elizabeth lifted herself up from her elbow and sat up straight. “How do you know that? That she’s thinking about it.”

“Mickie tells me everything. She trusts me.”

Seemed like everybody wanted to trust Denise. Still, if Denise could manage it, it would be easier to have her persuade Mickie than for Elizabeth to trick Mickie’s brain into having a convulsion.

“Okay. You work on Mickie. And if it doesn’t happen your way, I’ll switch out her meds.”

“Awesome,” Denise said. “But a couple of things.”

“What?”

“Thirds. We split the money in thirds.”

“Okay, yeah, in thirds.”

“And I drive the getaway car. I know where to get a stolen car.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Elizabeth said.

“And in San Diego, I’ll help you unload the money into that storage locker you’re gonna find. And then we’ll drive back to the Bay Area—”

“No, we’ll fly,” Elizabeth corrected.

“Fly?”

“Yeah, we need to leave the stolen car at the border. To make it look like Mickie was alone.”

“Oh, okay. Makes sense. So, we’ll fly back to the Bay Area—”

“On separate flights,” Elizabeth interrupted.

“Yeah, okay, separate flights. And then we’ll go back to normal. Like nothin’ happened.”

“For a while, yeah, it needs to be life as usual,” Elizabeth said.

“Right, right.”

They were both quiet for a moment. Then Denise said, “So, deal?” and extended her hand to shake.

It was weird, Elizabeth thought. Here they were, still wet from sex, and Denise was asking for a let’s-make-a-deal handshake as if they were business partners. Which, Elizabeth realized suddenly, they were.

“Deal.” Elizabeth shook the hand that twenty minutes ago had brought her to the first orgasm she’d had with another person in more than half a decade.

“Sweet. We’ll need IDs. I can get those. I know a guy.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But, uh, Lizbeth?”

“Yeah?”

“We probably shouldn’t be naked when Mickie gets home from work.”

“Oh, right.”

“One more thing,” Denise said.

“Yeah? What?”

“That was hot. You and me, we’re good together.”





Chapter Nine





The Nash Residential Hotel was a shabby, red-brick building in the Tenderloin that provided the low-income housing known as SRO, single room occupancy. This was where Denise lived, even though she spent most of her nights at Mickie’s place in the Haight. For months, Denise had been resisting Mickie’s suggestions that they move in together. Denise had promised she would “just as soon as,” an excuse she justified by an obstacle course of new challenges that appeared with predictable regularity in her life.

The hotel’s residents lived in eight-by-ten rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Inside Denise’s room, there was a single bed, a three-drawer dresser, a floor lamp with a tan linen shade, a radiator, and a window covered by a tattered venetian blind. A small scratched-up wood table held a coffeemaker and an ashtray full of quarters for the phone downstairs. Conditions were cockroach-shabby, but the inducement was the rent. Denise paid only three hundred forty dollars a month to have her own permanent address. Elizabeth had no clear idea how Denise earned a living but was certain it wasn’t legal.

By the second week of May, they had fallen into a pattern. Every Monday, Elizabeth would visit Denise at the Nash for mid-morning sex. By 4:00 p.m., they would be at Mickie’s, drinking beer and ordering pizza, trying to talk Mickie into agreeing to the plan. Mickie hadn’t consented yet, but it was only a matter of wearing her down, Denise assured Elizabeth. Elizabeth would leave the Haight in time to make her 10:00 p.m. curfew at Omega. Denise would spend the night with Mickie.

Mickie didn’t know that Denise and Elizabeth had become lovers. Denise said that unless Elizabeth wanted a threesome, it was better to keep Mickie in the dark. Elizabeth was willing to do just about anything to get what she wanted, but a threesome was out of the question. She had done enough of that sort of thing when she was a sex slave for Gina Hunter and her husband, Buddy. And besides, Mickie was her foster sister. There was something really creepy about having sex with your sister, even if you weren’t blood relatives. Bad enough that she was sleeping on the sly with her foster sister’s lover.

Elizabeth realized she was letting Denise take the lead in a plan that had become dangerously triangulated. She wondered absently how that had happened. Denise had a slippery way of usurping authority. Elizabeth would need to be careful.





“I’ve got something to tell you,” Denise said.

Denise licked the tip of her middle finger and ran it lightly over the areola of Elizabeth’s left breast, the more sensitive one. Elizabeth had passed out, literally lost consciousness, after climaxing, she didn’t know how many times, with Denise this morning. Denise had the sex drive of a hormonal adolescent. At this very moment, Elizabeth felt Denise’s hand sliding down her flat belly.

“No,” Elizabeth protested weakly.

“Mickie said yes,” Denise said.

Elizabeth’s eyes popped open. She pushed herself upright in Mickie’s bed. “She said yes? And you’re just telling me this now? When did she say yes?”

“Last night. She’d been goin’ back and forth, back and forth, and I was like, ’Ya want syrup with those waffles?’”

“What?”

“Syrup with those waffles. Waffling. It’s a joke.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said.

“Last night, Mickie got really quiet,” Denise continued. “And then she said, ‘I’m in.’ I knew exactly what she meant.”

“Oh, fuck.”

Denise spread herself out on the worn sheets, crooking an elbow to support her head.

“Yeah. She said she’s doin’ it for me. I told her she’s doin’ it for us.”

“Wow.”

“There’s a pickup scheduled for the last Friday of May. That’s your last day, right? At Omega?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, so that’s the day it’s goin’ down.”

Elizabeth was counting the days. That was only eighteen days from now. “I can’t believe this is really going to happen.”

“Well, Lizbeth, believe it. We’re all gonna be rich. Somethin’ else I was thinkin’ about. You think we’re gonna need guns?”

Elizabeth adjusted a pillow behind her back. “I hadn’t thought about that. Mickie carries a gun, right?”

“Yeah, but I thought maybe you and me should carry, too. In case there’s trouble.”

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth said. “Do you even know how to shoot?”

“Oh, yeah. My dad taught me. He’s a hunter, a deer hunter. He’s got a cabin north of Bern, up in the mountains. It’s on Rattlesnake Road. I always thought that was funny. Why would you buy a house on Rattlesnake Road? ’Ya know? Unless you like rattlers.”

“But that was a rifle, right?” Elizabeth clarified. “The gun you shot. For deer hunting, you use a rifle.”

“A Remington, yeah. But I know how to shoot a handgun. I’ve shot revolvers, I’ve shot automatics. I can handle a gun. Do you shoot?”

“I’ve held a gun, but I’ve never actually shot one.”

“I could show you how.”

“Do you have a gun? Here?”

“No, I don’t have one in San Francisco. But I know a guy if we need guns—”

“You and your guys. You know a guy who can get you anything.”

Denise laughed. “Pretty much.”

Elizabeth was still considering. “No, I don’t think you and I should have guns. We might be tempted to use them. Mickie will have hers, and that should be enough. So, May 31. That’s the day.”

“That’s the day,” Denise said.





United Airlines Flight 2806 was scheduled to arrive at SFO from Honolulu at 6:25 a.m. Friday, May 31, 1996. About that time, Billy would be telling Omegans to say goodbye to Elizabeth. By 7:00 a.m., Elizabeth would be a free woman, standing on Geary Boulevard waiting for Denise and Mickie to pick her up when the job was done. That was the plan, the perfect plan.





Chapter Ten





Fifteen days and counting. It was Thursday, May 16, as Elizabeth took her usual seat in her usual aisle in the auditorium for the morning assembly. As the doors closed and the meeting began, the red velvet chair beside Elizabeth remained empty. It stayed that way all through the thirty minutes of announcements and updates. Billy stood on the podium, dressed in his signature overalls, his naked head reflecting the bright lights overhead. Behind him, the wide screen flaunted his image, larger than life.

“I have only one item of business this morning.” Billy leaned into the lectern. “It has come to my attention that one of our own has violated our code of ethics. This particular Omegan failed to pass inspection yesterday morning for a most vile transgression. The Omegan of whom I am speaking was discovered by a Commitment Keeper to have hidden contraband under the pillow of his bed.”

Billy turned to the screen behind him as the Billy-on-the-screen did the same. Then he turned back to the house, speaking over the heads of the audience to someone in the far distance.

“Can you bring up that picture?” he asked before looking back at the screen.

After a moment, Billy’s image disappeared, and the screen went black. Then the black became gray, and an object came slowly into focus. When it was completely distinct, there was a collective snicker from the audience. It was a Popsicle-orange dildo. Elizabeth had seen enough dildos in her life to recognize that this one was meant for anal use.

“Oh, fuck,” Elizabeth mumbled. Billy continued talking.

“Now this particular Omegan claimed that he had never seen this vulgarity before and that someone planted this obscenity under his pillow to get him into trouble.”

Billy paused.

“I do not believe that for a minute. I believe we all know better than to do a thing like that here at Omega. I can only conclude that this fellow was caught red-handed with an offensive sexual device and that when he was found out, he told a bold-faced lie. As we all know, there are items that are forbidden here at the Point. We do not allow processed foods, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, pornographic materials, or marital aids.

“All Omegans are required to refrain from sexual acts during their residence at the Point. This means no touching yourself or the intimate parts of anyone else for the purpose of sexual gratification. That’s what it says in our code of ethics, the booklet each of you was given when you arrived at Omega. And I will remind you that you agreed, you signed a document, vowing to live by these rules.

“The Church of Omega is clean and green and godly. Since this incident, it has occurred to me that I have been too lenient with you. I will give this matter further thought and pray over it, and when it has been revealed to me how I can keep you from further error, I will share my revelations with you. In the meantime, the offender will be put in isolation as punishment.

“In other announcements, we have release dates coming up. Today is Stephen Penzler’s last day. When you have a chance, say goodbye to Stephen before he leaves us this morning. Coming up, we have Jonathan Kellerman releasing tomorrow, May 17, Linda Young and Rafael Gonzalez on May 22, Elizabeth Taylor Bundy on May 31, and Raul Luiz on June 1. Anything you have to say to these departing Omegans, you will want to say before they leave us.

“And always remember: Life is what you make it. This meeting is hereby adjourned.” Billy pounded the gavel. “Go forth and be wise.”





The Thursday lunch special at the Omega Café was corned beef with Swiss on grilled focaccia with Russian dressing and coleslaw. Lenny was sliding a plate onto the pass, calling “order up!” to an Omegan named Rachel, who was covering for the absent Miss Edie. Elizabeth knew next to nothing about isolation, other than that it was some place no one at Omega wanted to go, but she was sure that was where Miss Edie was now.

“Any idea when Miss Edie is coming back?” Elizabeth asked Rachel.

“Not a clue,” Rachel replied brusquely.

Elizabeth thought Rachel had the patronizing air of most VSAs, Voluntary Self-Admits. Like they were better than Elizabeth and the rest of the cons just because they were there of their own free will. As if deciding you’re so fucked up you need rehab was somehow morally superior to having the state make that decision for you.

As the shift ended at 3:00 p.m., Elizabeth finished loading the commercial dishwasher, changed into her street clothes, and walked back to the Point alone. In her room on the second floor, she changed again, this time into gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt, and did an hour of mandatory exercise in the gym. Then she showered and dressed in a black T and dark blue jeans for dinner in the dining hall. At 7:00 p.m., she was sitting in a canvas folding chair in the Game room, waiting for the evening session to begin.





Chapter Eleven





“Elizabeth, hang back a minute,” Billy said.

The Thursday night session had ended early, after only two and a half hours. Throughout it, Billy had been uncharacteristically noncombative, ignoring opportunities to skewer the eleven defenseless participants. Elizabeth waited by the door as the rest of the circle left the room. The clock on the wall showed it was 9:33 p.m.



“I need a word with you in private.” Billy put a paternal arm around her shoulder. It took a force of will for Elizabeth not to recoil from his touch.

“Sure, Billy.”

She walked through the doorway and waited while he pulled a key from the chain hanging on the hammer loop of his overalls. When he had finished locking the door, she followed him into the bright vestibule with its gold-veined, white marble floor, oak wainscoting, and rococo chandeliers. If they turned right, they would walk about thirty-five feet to reach the receptionist’s station at the front entrance. A few feet beyond the unoccupied desk stood a black-shirted guard at the arched bronze-and-glass door that opened onto Geary Boulevard. Against the glass, rain was blowing in heavy sheets.

If they turned left, they would walk approximately the same distance to the grand stairway, a wide spiral staircase made of polished maple and acacia. Billy turned left. At the stairway, he ascended the steps, one by one, holding on to the smooth decorative handrail and speaking to Elizabeth at his side.

“‘And they went up the winding stairs into the middle chamber,’” he quoted. “That’s from the Bible. The writer is describing King Solomon’s temple. What he’s saying is that the way to wisdom is never straight or easy.”

“Uh-huh.”

Billy climbed slowly, laboriously, lifting his work boots heavily until his legs had reached the second floor. There he stopped and bent over, panting. Elizabeth was not winded at all.

“Cancer sticks,” he said. “I should have given them up sooner.”

When he could breathe again, he started up the last story. Because the third floor was off-limits to residents, Elizabeth had never seen its stark interior until now.

“The Masons ran out of money before they could finish the building,” Billy explained.

He led her down a dark, empty corridor illuminated only by an occasional globe sconce casting a dim light off the stucco walls. At a corner room at the far end, he stopped to unlock the door. Holding it open for her, Billy played the out-of-character role of a gentleman. Elizabeth stepped inside.

“My office,” he said, flipping a wall switch that turned on a bronze pendant hanging over his desk, a large piece of furniture meant to impress visitors by its size and antique cherry wood. Its legs were ornately carved, ending in feet resembling an eagle’s talon. There were two chairs; the one behind his desk was a black leather recliner. The guest chair was similar but smaller and more modest. It was placed on a black and red Persian area rug and didn’t recline. Billy sat down. So did she.

Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest and stared at Billy over the clutter on his desk. Scattered across the leather pad were sheets of lined yellow paper on which he had written extensive notes in pencil. There were two flip-top index card holders made of gray metal; a daily calendar turned to May 16, 1996; an agate paperweight; a letter tray overflowing with opened envelopes; a stainless steel letter opener embellished with Masonic symbols on its hilt; a wood pencil holder filled with sharp number twos and ballpoint pens; and a display of Billy’s business cards: William Dewey Brandt, Director, The Omega Foundation. There was also a black push-button, corded desk phone; a telephone message pad; and a spindle on which were impaled several pink reminders of calls needing to be returned.

Behind the desk was a credenza carved from the same cherry wood. Above it on the wall hung several framed photographs of Billy shaking the hand of various local politicians, everyone smiling into the camera. Billy leaned back in his chair.

“I’m going to share something with you before I tell the rest of the flock,” he began.

The flock? Elizabeth thought but kept silent.

“For some time, I have been praying over the unpleasantness that arose from a recent incident regarding an obscene object discovered in the bed of one of our residents.”

Miss Edie. And where is Miss Edie? Still in isolation?

“After much prayerful reflection, I have received a vision. It came to me in my sleep, as clear as day. And in this vision, I was told that I am the ‘third partner in the first position.’”

His glassy eyes met hers. “Do you see? Do you understand? What this means is that I am responsible for the well-being of the Omegans in my care. I am responsible for all aspects of their well-being, and that includes their sexual well-being.”

Elizabeth felt her spine stiffen. She didn’t like the direction this speech was going.

“Until now, sexual relations have been forbidden. I set a policy based on what I thought was right. But I see now that sex happens, even when there are rules against it. Frankly speaking, Omegans are going to fuck each other, even though that is clearly in violation of the code of ethics. But instead of meting out punishment, I see now that I must tolerate this weakness and direct it in order to show the path to higher wisdom. Man is sexual by nature. Wiser men than me have understood that sex is a low, carnal need in the human animal. Nature has given us this need and created us with sexual urges. And nature will not be denied.”

Billy stood.

“This is what was revealed to me in my dream. Sex will happen here at the Point, that can’t be helped. But here is what’s important. I am always the third partner in the first position. I am the apex of the triangle. The two point to one. I am the one.”

He had moved around and was standing behind her. He put his hands forcefully on her shoulders.

“At tomorrow’s meeting, I will announce a new rule. Going forward, all Omegans will be assigned what I’m calling a love match. I will select a partner for each Omegan based on their psychological profile, and these two Omegans will become a pair. Love matches will be required to fulfill their sexual duty to each other during a weekly two-hour session that will take place in a love room, which I will allot for that purpose. I plan to put a log on the wall outside each love room and have the couples record their time together. Afterward, my love matches will be required to grade each other’s performance so I can be sure each one is being sexually satisfied, especially the males because sex is more important to men.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes. This was unreal. The man had completely lost his mind. Surely, he wouldn’t be allowed to go through with this. But who was going to stop him? Residential programs like Omega were essentially unmonitored once they received the blessing of the government and the media. Gossip among residents had convinced Elizabeth that Omega was not the worst of the lot and that sexual exploitation of clients by staff members was common in the rehab industry.

Billy leaned down until Elizabeth could feel his hot breath in her ear.

“Who will be your love match, Elizabeth?” he whispered.

Not you, dickhead.

“I’m out of here at the end of the month,” she said. “I don’t think those new rules should apply to me since I’m almost gone.”

“You don’t, do you? And that release date at the end of the month? Well, that’s really up to me, isn’t it? I say when you get released, and if I say you’ve been out of compliance, well then, you’ll be spending more time with us at Omega.”

“I need to leave,” Elizabeth said.

She stood abruptly and moved toward the door, but before she could reach it, Billy was there, blocking her way.

“Where do you think you’re going? We’re not done.”

She pushed him aside and reached for the doorknob. The hard slap to the side of her face shocked her, and it took her a moment to register what was happening. By then, Billy had thrown her against his desk. Although she was strong, she was no match for the weight of him, more than two hundred pounds to her one-fifteen. As her back hit the leather pad, her arms flailed, knocking over the pencil holder and scattering pens, pencils, and papers onto the wood floor. The phone went off the hook, releasing a steady high-pitched whine. He was on top of her suddenly, spreading her legs with the force of his body before she had a chance to kick him back. His hands went around her throat. He squeezed.

“You belong to me.” His face had flushed bright red, his eyes dilating until they were black circles ringed with blue, but his voice was calm. “If I say you’re mine, then you’re mine.”

Her hands went reflexively to her throat, trying to pry loose his grip. When that failed, she clawed at his face. A fingernail scraped his bad eye before he could move away. Swearing, he let go of her throat and grabbed her hands. She coughed and gasped as he forced her left hand under her right, so that he held them both down with one hand.

His other hand went to the zipper of her pants, pulling it down and tugging at her jeans and panties. She squirmed and worked a knee up enough to get a solid kick against his groin. He wailed in pain and doubled over, the veins in his neck bulging and pulsing. It was the break she needed. In his moment of weakness, Elizabeth was able to dislodge her right hand from his clasp. She reached back, frantically searching for something, anything she could use as a weapon. The paperweight? The spindle? Her fingers found the sharp tip of the letter opener and slid up the blade to the handle. Fisting it firmly, she brought it forward. As she did, she heard a guttural howl coming from her throat. It was the primal cry of survival.

The steel point hit a muscle in his neck and stuck. His eyes grew wide in shock. Despite the adrenaline pumping through her blood, Elizabeth was cognizant enough to feel surprised that the blade didn’t go in more easily. Grunting, she pushed the steel through Billy’s tough flesh into his artery. His breath came harder then and turned sour. Elizabeth felt time slow and thicken as she twisted the blade. Billy groaned as his blood sprayed into Elizabeth’s face and chest and then began to spurt rhythmically from the wound. Forcing him off her, she watched his body fall onto the floor like a stunned bull. She was covered in blood, Billy’s and her own.

She watched him die. It happened quickly. He bled out, covering the carpet where he lay in a pool of deep red. Getting to her feet, Elizabeth felt as if she were sleepwalking, as if she were moving through a dream. Her legs took her to the drawer in his desk where she rummaged through its contents, finding his wallet. In the billfold, she counted ten crisp one hundred-dollar bills before stuffing them into her pocket. What next? What next? She looked at his body. His eyes were open; the pupils now fully dilated, no blue at all. They seemed to have sunk back into his head, giving him the demonic appearance of a gray-faced gargoyle. His lips had turned blue. She knelt to unclip the keychain on the loop of his overalls.

Now her legs carried her to the door and out, down the dark empty corridor toward the central staircase. No. She doubled back, looking for an exit door. It was here somewhere; it had to be. All the doors were painted gray except one, which was green. She tested the handle. Locked. One by one, she tried the keys until she found the one that fit. She opened it hurriedly. It was the exit, her way out.

Down the stairs, four flights to the basement. Across the double door of the fire exit, a chain had been strung, secured by a padlock. How did Omega get away with this shit? She found the right key, opened the padlock, and threw it off. She set herself free. Outside in the alley, rain was falling. She looked left and then right, trying to get her bearings. The passageway was black and deserted. There was one streetlamp, its light reflected in the puddles of the asphalt. A red no-parking-at-any-time street sign. Two rust-green dumpsters. A narrow sidewalk. A cross street to her right. That would be Leavenworth. A shadowy figure, bent over and running, was hurrying down Leavenworth toward Geary. The rain was coming down hard. The rain would wash away the blood. The rain would wash her clean.

Elizabeth began walking.





Chapter Twelve





Elizabeth stood in front of the locked stainless steel grill that prevented intruders from entering the front door of the Nash. Although the rain had stopped, Elizabeth was still soaking wet, but at least she was not bloody. She had left the Point wearing only a lightweight T, jeans, and sneakers. Chilled and shivering, she watched a young woman approaching, strolling down Turk Street. A creature of the night: stringy brown hair, pale skin, too much makeup, and multiple tattoos, wearing knee-high black leather boots, black hot pants, and a black tank top. Stopping in front of the hotel, the night creature slipped the thin strap of a shiny black purse off her shoulder and removed a key.

“Hey,” she said to Elizabeth.

“Hey.”

When she opened the door, Elizabeth hurried to hold it for her. The woman gave her a fuzzy-eyed nod. Elizabeth followed her inside, through the empty lobby, and up a staircase. The woman continued up one more flight as Elizabeth opened the door to the second floor. Walking down a narrow hall punctuated by yellow doors, Elizabeth stopped at 206 and knocked softly. After a minute, a sleepy-faced Denise peered around the partly opened door through a chain lock.

“Lizbeth. What the fuck?”

The face disappeared; the door closed, and Elizabeth heard the scratch of the chain being pulled off the track. Elizabeth let herself in, then closed and locked the door. Denise had already crawled back into bed.

“What happened to you?” she asked. “You look like a drowned rat. And why aren’t you at rehab?”

“You got a towel, Denise?” Elizabeth asked, ignoring Denise’s questions.

“In the drawer.”

Elizabeth found a threadbare white towel and mopped her hair.

“I need to get out of these clothes.”

Elizabeth removed her photo ID card from her back pocket and set it on the dresser. Then she stripped down, dropping her wet clothing onto the stained lime green carpet.

“Put ’em on the radiator. That’s what I do. There’s a laundromat down the street, but it’s closed now.”

Elizabeth laid her jeans, T-shirt, bra, panties, and socks over the hot radiator and placed her shoes in front of it. Then she dried her body with the thin towel while Denise watched her.

“You gonna tell me what happened?”

Elizabeth moved her jeans to make room for the towel on the radiator. “Tomorrow. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

She slipped in beside Denise’s warm body.

“Get the light, will ’ya?” Denise said.

Elizabeth reached over to twist the knob on the lamp. The room darkened, lit now only by strips of red light filtering in from the neon Nash Hotel sign outside the window. Elizabeth lay between the scratchy sheets, her body exhausted but still twitching with adrenaline.

“If you can’t sleep, there are some ludes in the top drawer.”

“Thanks. I can sleep.”

After a while, she did. Despite everything, Elizabeth fell into a heavy sleep.





Elizabeth didn’t sleep long. Before the sun was up the next morning, she was down in the hotel’s lobby, dressed in her radiator-dried clothes, using the public phone. When she was done, she hung up the handset and went back upstairs. Denise was awake by then, pouring a cup of coffee. She hadn’t bothered to get dressed.

“You got a cup of that for me?”

Denise emptied the pot into a second mug. Everything in the room was Salvation Army or Goodwill, including the coffee cups. Both were Christmas-themed, depicting carrot-nosed snowmen with charcoal eyes.

“Where were you? I woke up, and you were gone,” Denise said.

Elizabeth took the cup and sat on the end of the unmade bed. There was nowhere else to sit. Denise put her cup on top of the chest of drawers and slipped back between the sheets. She positioned herself against a pillow and brought the coffee to her lips. Elizabeth noticed that Denise’s nipples were erect.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Elizabeth said. “I went downstairs to call Greyhound. There’s a bus leaving at 6:15 a.m. for San Diego. I plan to be on it. I borrowed a quarter, by the way.”

“What time is it now?” Denise asked.

Elizabeth looked around the room. “Didn’t you used to have a clock in here?”

“I did, but it broke.”

“Oh. It was 4:00 a.m. when I went downstairs. There’s a clock in the lobby. Don’t you have a watch at least?”

“I did,” Denise said. Elizabeth got it. “But it broke,” they both said in unison.

“When you get your million, buy yourself a Rolex,” Elizabeth said.

“I’ll buy us both a Rolex. Why don’t you wear a watch?”

“They aren’t allowed at Omega. Or in prison.”

Denise tilted her head, causing a strand of bleached hair to fall into her face. She brushed it away with her hand. “You ever gonna tell me what happened last night?”

Elizabeth hesitated. There was always that feeling she had about Denise, that reservation and doubt. But she needed to tell somebody.

“I killed Billy.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I killed him. Billy’s dead.”

“Holy fuck. How’d that happen?”

“He tried to rape me.”

“Shit.”

“So, I need to get out of town, and that means you and Mickie are going to do the job without me.”

“Yeah, yeah. We can do it.”

“So, here’s what I’m thinking. We’ll still follow the plan, even though I’ll be in Belize. After you’ve done the job, you’ll drive Mickie to San Diego and give her enough cash to see her through a couple of weeks. She’ll walk across the bridge to Tijuana, get to the airport, and catch a plane to Belize. I’ll meet her at the airport in Belize City.

“Then you’ll do what I was going to do: get a storage locker in San Diego for the haul, and then when things cool down, you can start moving the cash to Belize. The feds may be watching you for a while because you were Mickie’s girlfriend, so you’ll have to be careful. You don’t want to do anything that would bring attention to yourself. Play dumb, like you had no idea Mickie would ever do something like this.”

“I know how to play dumb.”

“Uh-huh.”

Elizabeth had that same momentary feeling of déjà vu that she had experienced before with Denise. Only it wasn’t quite déjà vu; it was more like looking in a mirror, if the mirror image was more than a decade younger than the person looking at it. Denise was, what? Nineteen? Twenty?

“How old are you?” Elizabeth asked suddenly.