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Mike Hamlin taught AP English at an elite Beverly Hills private school. He was seduced and blackmailed by a brilliant, gorgeous, sociopathic student named Susan Bishop. He found a way to blackmail her back. The Mexican stand-off ended when she come forward first and spun a story that made him look even worse than he really was. So he got fired, lost his wife and kid and served four years hard time in Corcoran State Prison, where every nightmare are you've ever had about four years of hard time in Corcoran Stare Prison came true. When he got out he went looking for Susan, andfound her, and filmed her shop-lifting at Bloomingdale's: round two began. When he confronted her, she told him to turn in the pictures, agreed to go to jail for the larceny charge, convinced him they were soul-mates, and took him to bed.
For four years she had been the mental pin-up on his jail cell wall. He wanted revenge, but she was impossible to resist ...
I stayed in bed with Susan for three days straight. It was everything I’d dreamed about during the last four years, everything I remembered from the first time, and more. She kissed me with real passion this time, deep, hungry kisses that seemed to pulse through me, shifting my organs, changing my blood chemistry, rewriting my DNA. I was becoming someone else, someone stronger, more aggressive, fearless. I was insatiable and so was she. We paused for grapefruit and cold cereal, we watched some old movies on cable, but never a whole one, we couldn’t stay away from each other that long. We slept, but never for more than a couple of hours and we always woke up in each other’s arms. I dreamed I was kissing her, then I woke up and I was doing it.
No prison dreams, at last. Or none that I remembered.
We’d get up, stagger into the bathroom, take a long shower together and dive back into bed. It sounds like some kind of crazy high school binge, but I had never experienced anything like this in high school. Girls had let me move through the required stages of intimacy with a grudging, proprietary formality but no urgency, no real desire. Sex was required, like Algebra 2, and you just did the homework, and waited for it to end.
This you wanted to go on forever. I’d sit up, panting, sore and exhausted and then look down at her, hair tangled on the pillow, legs open and I’d feel a sort of simple stupid amazement and disbelief and sheer arrogant privilege and all of that would turn into lust and I’d roll over on her and bury my head in her breasts and she’d say “Lets do it in the chair, I’ll show you,” and she did and we did and then it was Monday afternoon and we made a late lunch and I turned on my cell phone ringer and saw seven missed calls from Carlos.
“Shit,” I said. “I’m in trouble.”
It was almost three O’clock. Carlos would be in the office for another hour at least. I scrambled into my clothes while Susan watched, casually naked and amused.
“Boss say jump?’ she asked as I was tying my shoes.
“I’m sure he has a lot more to say than that.”
“Like -- how high and how far?”
“Like – where the hell were you today? He wants me to manage his store for him, all right? So it would be nice if I actually showed up for work on Monday morning. It builds confidence. He hired an ex-con. He’s probably wondering about that right now and I don’t blame him.”
“Okay, okay. Go do your worker bee thing. But hurry back. The queen is waiting.”
I got to Carlos’s store-front on Olympic at twenty after three. The place was empty, the trucks wouldn’t start returning from their jobs for another hour at least. I found Carlos in his cramped little office, talking on the phone.
“Mira, las tablas del piso están podridas. Usted va a necesitar a nuevo sub-suelo antes de que podemos empezar. Entonces quieres algo de madera buena - de roble o fresno, con un acabado de alto brillo. Algo que aguantará. Además de que tiene tres perros, y vas a arruinar cualquier acabado. Perros anular la garantía, el Sr. Lohman. Perdón. Muy bien. Piensa y vuelve a llamarme.”
I caught some of that. The guy had rotten floorboards and dogs. Dogs trash floors and this guy on the phone needed a new one, from the sub-floor up. It was going to be expensive and dogs void the warranty.
“You catch any of that?” He asked as he hung up.
“You really know how to sell a customer, Carlos.”
He laughed. “The guy’s a prick. Blow him off right away, that’s my philosophy. I’m out my time on the estimate but so what? Best way to lose money cheaply.”
We sat comfortably for a few seconds. He sipped his cold coffee. He always poured himself a dose at six a.m. and kept it going all day.
He set the mug down and leaned forward on his elbows. “So where the hell were you today?”
“I’m sorry, man. Something came up and -- ”
“You couldn’t call? I kept a team waiting here until nine in the morning before I gave up on you. And I had two guys from Armstrong today with samples, remember? You were supposed to talk to these guys.”
“Shit. I’m sorry, Carlos.”
“Yeah, right – whatever. But I got to count on you, companero. I got to know you’re gonna be here when you say you’re gonna be here, no bullshit.”
“It won’t happen again.”
He finished his coffee, winced in disgust.
“So what happened? Better not be drugs. I can’t have nobody in here fucking around with drugs.”
“Some woman then?” He saw some recognition in my face and smiled. “Okay then. You been in jail a long time. You deserve a little fun. But that shit don’t last. Today, you want to eat her up, you know? Tomorrow you’ll wish you had. Bang your little puta … but save it for after work, all right?”
“Now get outta here. I re-scheduled the Armstrong meeting for tomorrow morning. Nine O’clock. Set your alarm and make sure you get your ass into the store on time. And wear a tie.”
“Okay. Thanks. Carlos.”
I stood up. He half lifted himself out of his chair to shake my hand.
I walked out into the roasting sunlight and the smog, light-headed with relief. I felt smart and lucky and untouchable.
Then I got home.
Chester Tompkins, my stubborn and relentless Parole Officer, was waiting for me.
He was sitting on the front steps reading the racing form. He spent most of his off hours at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. He folded up the paper and stuffed it in his jacket pocket and stood up, straightening his stiff, narrow body like a pocket ruler. He shook my hand.
“We have to talk, David. Let’s go inside and turn on the air conditioning.”
Inside, I pulled him a glass of water from the big Arrowhead bottle in the alcove by the kitchen and we sat down side by side on the tattered corduroy couch.
“Well,” He said, loosening his tie a little, and pulling out his racing form to use as a coaster. “You’ve been a busy boy.”
The friendliness vanished instantly. “Don’t play dumb with me, son. I’ve been following you. I’ve spoken with your employer. I’ve spoken with your ex-wife. I know what’s going on.”
“Wait a second. I’m not really sure what you’re trying to -- ”
“—suggest right now, but I’m really not -- ”
“David! Stop talking and listen. Here’s what happened. A young lady named Courtney Hillerman called the Los Angeles police inquiring after an officer David Hamlin. Lucky for you, I got the heads up and backed them off. They wanted to throw your ass back in jail, boy -- and I had to do some fast talking and call in some big favors to stop them. I told them you were mentally disturbed. I told them it was a one-time incident, I told them you were my job and my responsibility and they told me I would take the full force of the responsibility if you fucked up again. Are you following me? I went out on a limb for you and it’s a thin one and it’s bouncing under my weight and it’s a long way down. Do you get me?”
“So do not fuck with me. I see you on my branch with a saw in your hand, I will shoot you dead. Do you understand?”
I nodded again.
“I followed you from the Cache store into Bloomingdale’s and I followed you to the girl’s house and I waited two days and then I gave up and told your employer to call me when you showed up and he did. So I came here to wait. I hate to ruin your mood because you have that shiny just-fucked look, but you had no business anywhere near that girl and I can send you back to jail just for that.”
I looked down. Condensed water was spreading through his racing form. It seemed like a waste. I didn’t care about the coffee table. There were already cigarette burns in the peeling veneer.
“I know,” I said.
“So no more lies and fast talk. Don’t kid a kidder, son. You are on your own tree limb, and it is my personal desire as well as my professional responsibility to make sure you do not lose your balance and fall into ruination and disgrace. I do not let my parolees fall. Sometimes it’s drugs, sometimes it’s gambling, or joy-riding or chasing young boys. It don’t matter because it don’t happen. I keep them on the straight and narrow and I will do the same for you.”
“That’s better!” He grinned and slapped my knee. Then he stood up, gulped down his water and started pacing the room. “Now here is what’s gonna happen, son. You are going to take this new job and work your ass off. You are going to walk away from this girl and never look back. And you are going to call your ex-wife and be a man. You may not be a husband any more but you are still a father and it’s high time you started acting like one. You move fast, or that daughter of yours is gonna forget you. It feels like it’s too late but it’s never too late to start being a man, That’s my philosophy and all my clients abide by it, just like I do. So where are we?”
“I’ll stay away from Susan, work hard and start seeing my daughter.”
“That’s right! Very good. And in return I’ll close down the impersonating-a-police officer beef and forget you ever saw that girl again. No one knows but me and no one has to know. However … fail to do any of these things and I will come down on you like Katrina on New Orleans. You will be starving in that Superdome crying and begging for some way back to this moment. But there won’t be any way back for you. Do you see the light?”
“Good. Thank you for the water.” I stood up and he pulled a folded piece of notebook paper out of his pocket. “This is your ex-wife’s new phone number. Call it.”
“I know you will! Don’t falter now, David.” He jabbed his hand in my face and flexed his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. “You are this close to a new life. This close. Don’t throw it away.”
“Fine then.” He shook my hand. “See you next week. Have good news for me.”
Then he turned and walked out of the apartment. I heard the door slam behind him and I sat back down on the couch again. He’d forgotten his racing form. I peeled it off the table and crumpled it up.
At least there was one vice I didn’t have.
I knew Chester was right and I was grateful to him. He had bent the rules to take care of me, and by doing that he had tangled us up together. I was his responsibility but he was mine, now, too. I had to take care of him. I didn’t want him to regret his kindness. I know this sounds absurd. Both of us know what really happened. But if I tell you how it happened, maybe you’ll understand.
The day that ended with me on the run from the police with Susan Bishop started with a phone call to my ex-wife and my cautious hope for a new beginning.
Chester Tompkins had been gone for an hour. I opened a beer, pounded half of it, snatched the slip of paper Chester left for me, sat down on the couch and poked in the number. Then the phone was ringing. I gulped more beer, braced myself for that lovely resonant voice, my mind a blank, wishing I’d made some crib notes for myself -- some topics, bon mots, appropriate questions. But I had nothing. I was about to close the phone, but I remembered the number would be on her caller ID anyway and I’d look like an idiot if I --
“Hello – Monica? It’s David.”
Silence on the line. Maybe she needed some crib notes, too. “Chester Tompkins gave me your number. He said you’d spoken a few times and -- Monica? Hello?”
“Hello David. I’m sorry. Chester said you might call but I’m -- it’s just a little strange hearing your voice. After all this time.”
“Do I sound the same?”
Funny she should ask -- I realized it was something I’d never told her. Maybe I just thought it was too obvious to mention. No time like the present:
“Absolutely, I said, “You have the most glamorous voice in the world, always did. No, I mean it. You sound like a thirties movie star giving an interview on some radio show. Especially now, with this shitty cell phone connection. I liked telephones, remember telephones? I liked them.”
She laughed. “You also liked typewriters and answering machines with little tape cassettes.”
“Yeah -- and music cassettes. And 8- tracks. 8-tracks were great.”
You were twelve years old when they stopped making 8-tracks.”
“And the world’s gone downhill ever since. Toyota can’t even make cars any more. ‘Moving forward’. That has to look like the worst slogan ever right now.”
Another pause slid between us. I thought I’d said too much, but apparently not.
“I missed you,” she said, finally.
“I missed you, too.”
“Sally asks about you all the time.”
“I should have written to her more I guess, at the time, I thought -- better she should forget me. Especially after you married Rifkin and -- I don’t know. You had a whole family thing going. Best to stay out of it. I didn’t want to confuse things and, you know, what’s the point if it’s just for my benefit?”
“It’s finished with Rifkin.”
“I know. Chester told me.”
“He’s a good man.”
I nodded, invisibly, thinking of three-year old Sally saying “I smiled at Grandma on the phone.”
“Old school,” I said aloud.
“I left Noah eight months ago. We went to court last week. So it’s final now.”
“I never should have – he wasn’t a nice man.”
“He was a prick. And you knew that.”
“But he could be very charming, very sweet.”
“Like every other prick in the world.”
“No, no, don’t say that, David, Please don’t. You did bad things … stupid things but you were never a bad person.”
“And he was?”
“You never hit me. You never hit Sally.”
The shock was palpable, physical, like kicking your bare toe on the leg of chair, walking through your apartment in the dark. “What the fuck? He hit you? He hit her? I will fucking kill that asshole. What – when did he -- ?”
“It doesn’t matter, David. It’s over.”
“What? Wait a second. How could it -- ”
“I had a police report. That’s how I broke the pre-nup. You were right about the pre-nup, I give you credit for that. It was a horrible document. Everyone begged me not to sign it. All my friends. My family. But he was scared, he’d been burned before, so I just ... there was a blanket complete waiver. I got nothing -- not even the gifts he’d given me.”
“But the judge threw it out? Or -- ”
“One of Noah’s partners – Paul Jacobsen? He represented me for free. He always hated Noah, anyway. And, yeah, the judge threw it out. He hated Noah too, I think. There was some rumor, jury tampering or something, years ago. Nothing was ever proved but this Judge, Judge Oliver, he had a thing for Noah. That’s what Neil told me. Noah tried to get a change of venue, but it was too late. Anyway, I got half of everything. The house on Sunset Plaza, two of the cars. And child support until Sally turns twenty-one.”
“So it turned out okay.”
“No it didn’t. I wish it had never happened. I wish none of this had ever happened.
We were quiet for a few seconds. I heard a squeal of tires, the quick blast of a horn. Something bad had just been averted.
“I’d like to see you sometime,” Monica said. “Just, I don’t know -- have lunch together? And if that went well ... I know Sally wants to see you, too. Chester says you’re doing so well. Maybe we could ... I don’t know. I don’t want to jump into anything. But we could try at least.”
“I’d like that.”
”How about Monday? At the Bicycle Shop? You always liked that place.”
“I’m amazed it’s still open.”
“They managed to hang in there, somehow. They’re stubborn”
”A useful trait.”
“One O’clock? My treat.”
”Let’s go Dutch. I’m gainfully employed these days.”
”All right, David. That sounds good. See you then.”
I closed the phone and sat back on the couch. I realized I’d been perched on the edge of the cushion, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. But it was fine. It had gone well, better than I had expected, better than I had dared to hope.
Still, there was one more call to make -- the most important one. I had to end this thing with Susan before I could start anything else. I understood that now. But of course I didn’t have her number. It was a cell phone and it wouldn’t even be listed, I’d come up against that problem with her before. Why didn’t someone list cell phone numbers somewhere? That would be a great service. It sounded like a million dollar idea if you could figure out how to do it.
Meanwhile I had no way to reach Susan.
I had to go there. I knew it was a bad idea but I didn’t have a better one, and risky as it was, part of me preferred to break things off face to face, anyway. There was something cheap and gutless about a phone call. I was shameless: given the opportunity I might have left the bad news on her voice mail.
This was better. I’d see her, explain everything and walk away. Honesty, finality, closure: the holy trinity of the self-help movement. Chester would surely approve.
I drove to Susan’s house, rehearsing what I was going to say. It would be best to treat the whole thing casually. We owned no property together, we hadn’t made any plans. I could probably have just disappeared, but I didn’t want her coming looking for me, showing up at the house or the store some day, wrecking everything. We needed a formal agreement.
She was cleaning the house, vacuuming in a bikini bottom and a UCLA t-shirt, when I got there. Rugs and pairs of boots and trash bags were scattered on the lawn. The door stood open.
I walked up the steps and slipped inside. She must have sensed the movement. She turned to see me and turned off the vacuum with her toe. I took a quick breath. Looking that good was hostile, tyrannical. It forced your submission before the battle began. She had been sweating; the t-shirt was clinging to her, tantalizingly transparent. The face that launched a thousand ships? How about the body that sank them? Scuttled by their crews, drowning by choice in defeat and despair.
She smiled at me, pushed her hair off her forehead. “Let me guess. Wifey’s back.”
I stared at her. “How could you possibly -- ”
“Well, you’re obviously doing the Sayonara house-call -- look at your face. And you’d never walk away from this over someone new. Queen takes Bishop -- as it were. Besides, there’s a kid involved. Nothing competes with that.”
“And you’re okay with it?”
“Does it matter?.”
“I guess not. I mean …”
“This was crazy, this had no future. Love doesn’t conquer all. Love gets its ass kicked. Love is the wimpy kid in the schoolyard. Love is the prisoner they shoot as an example.”
“I love Monica.”
She laughed. “You can barely say it aloud. It’s okay, David. I understand. You think you have to go straight. That’s what everyone’s telling you. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. I guess I should have known this would happen. This thing between us, it’s like a magnesium flare. It burns hot, it lights things up. Then it’s gone.”
“It’s not gone,” I said. “It’s just impossible.”
There was a long silence. Then she said, “Listen David, I got you something. A little present. I guess it’s a farewell gift now, I picked it up at the Beverly Center yesterday. It’s still in the car. I’m parked around the corner, Let me get dressed, I’ll walk you over. Then we can say goodbye.”
My first thought was -- great, now I’m receiving stolen goods. But so much was wrong with that moment, and I couldn’t fit any of it together. In retrospect it seems obvious: her strange stoicism, her lack of surprise, the running shoes she changed into(I had never seen her wear sneakers before) and most of all, the big canvas bag she was carrying when she came out of her room. Why would she need that for a stroll to her car?
But at the time I just wanted to get out of there. Her wardrobe and accessories didn’t matter. I was about to get an authentic second chance, and the ritual of this little farewell gift was the last obstacle. I was five minutes away from a new life, less than that. And I was pleased she had gotten me a present. I might as well admit it. On top of everything else, I still wanted to grab her, just fuck her one last time so the look and the feel of her would be fresh in my mind when I walked away.
In short: the usual mess.
Well, you know what happened next, or at least you think you do. Here’s how it really went down: we were walking by her local 7/11 and she said she wanted to grab a pack of cigarettes.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I said.
She shrugged. “I started last year. They help when I’m stressed.”
I walked in ahead of her; a mistake, I realize that now, but she stepped sideways to let me go first and I simply followed the physical cue.
I had an odd ironic thought when I stepped into the fluorescent-lit convenience store – the rows of snacks and potato chips, the coolers full of soda, the rack of lottery tickets, the old Mexican guy behind the counter. I looked around for the gang-bangers – they seemed inevitable, somehow. If someone had to be killed, in any movie or TV show, in any book or comic book, if an undercover cop had to give himself away, if some character needed a heroic moment or a life-changing experience, this was where it happened, the convenience store: our premiere venue for gun-related crime and urban chaos.
Nothing particularly ironic about that idea, except -- the thought occurred to me at the exact moment Susan jammed a gun in my hand and pushed me at the counter.
I was the robber this time.
That’s how it looks on the surveillance camera: a big man viewed from above, stumbling into the flickering black-and-white frame, gun clutched in his left hand (But unlike Susan, I’m right handed; she made a little mistake there)-- his arms flailing, his mouth gaped open, shouting something incoherent.
The clerk was ready for us, ready for trouble generally, expecting the worst. He pulled out a shotgun. I saw instantly that he wasn’t aiming it at me. Somehow Susan had drawn his attention. She must have looked feral and terrifying with that big gun in her hand, leaping forward. The sight rendered me invisible, at least to the old Mexican behind the counter. Through the head-spinning lunacy of the situation, I understood one thing: he couldn’t miss at that range, with that rifle. Those big cartridges would tear her apart. A gunshot exploded in the tiny store, hammering my ears, curling and snapping the long chain of nerves down my spine like a whip. For a second I thought I’d pulled the trigger by mistake. I didn’t realize until much later that Susan had shot out the video camera. Two guns -- of course, the bag, and the odd clinking I had heard as she walked down the street beside me, and dismissed as we dismiss any anomaly like that, anything we can’t figure out and don’t want to deal with: the whistling fan belt, the scab that won’t heal.
And now it was too late. All I saw was the old man’s finger, squeezing the trigger. I had perhaps a tenth of a second to make the most critical decision of my life and still, in that eerie flashbulb paralysis before I shot the gun, I had time to see the alternate worlds: the one where I let Susan die, the one where I turned and shot her myself and walked out of the store as the hero; the one where I just ran and left the carnage and the screams behind me.
Then I fired the big 45 caliber pistol and the recoil knocked my arm back and the shot went wild. The old man flinched and took a step back and turned the shotgun on me. My second round caught him in the shoulder and jerked him backward. He dropped the big rifle and I was taken by a howling animal joy and triumph, fighting for my life, feeling the power of the big gun in my hands. Then events took over. For the first time I noticed two kids and a middle aged woman lying flat on the floor. There was a guy, too, some surfer type, twisted up, pulling a cell-phone out of his pocket. Susan was at the register, grabbing cash.
“He’s calling the cops!” she shouted. “Stop him.”
No one remembers that. All they remember is me kicking the phone out of the boy’s hand and aiming my gun at Susan. Susan swiveled her ass over the counter, pushed off with her cash-bristled fists, and hit the linoleum sprinting. “Come on!” she shouted “Let’s go.” I stumbled outside.
The kid must have pressed 911. I could hear sirens in the distance, growing closer, when I lurched into the stinging daylight and the midday heat. I looked around. The world seemed normal, a jarring false temporary normal, one frame with the glass poised in midair, before it shatters on the flagstones. Traffic was passing both ways on Pico Boulevard, no cops in sight yet; just that same suspicious old guy from the neighborhood, walking his pugs again. I guess he had me pegged right, after all.
Susan was running away down the street, laughing. I jammed the gun into my pants and followed her.
“Kiss your old life goodbye, Sweetie” she said when I pushed through her front door, gasping, my heart pounding in my throat. “We’re Bonnie and Clyde now.”
“What the hell are you doing? What the fuck was going on back there? Do you have any idea what you just did? I’m on camera, shooting a gun! I may have killed that guy! What the fuck are you doing with a gun anyway? What the fuck is happening? What are we going to do now? Why did you --”
But I never finished the question. She took two steps forward and jumped at me. I caught her. She wrapped her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist and kissed me -- the kiss almost knocked me over – and she whispered into my ear, and the heat of her breath almost finished the job. I was dizzy and my ears were still ringing from the gun shots. She untangled herself from around me and pulled me down onto the floor and we made love half dressed on the carpet of stolen cash.
That’s how my life of crime began.