By William E. Wallace

The big guy with the shaved head, shades and black leather trench got on at Oakland West, giving everyone in Car 412 a challenging stare as he sat next to the door and spread his legs to hog the seat. A pair of buds on wires were pressed into his ears; when he flipped his coat open to dig out his iPod, the worn “Anthrax” T-Shirt underneath was visible.

Sitting three rows away, Julius Robertson looked at the big fellow with distaste as the Bay Area Rapid Transit train to San Francisco pulled out of the station. The man with the iPod fiddled with the device. When the raucous hiss of heavy metal began to escape his buds with an obnoxious hiss, he smiled idiotically and haphazardly stamped his engineer’s boots on the dirty thin carpet in time to the music.

“I love public transportation,” Robertson sighed, just loudly enough to be heard by the middle-aged woman in the beige business suit and flats sitting next to him.

She smiled warily before resuming her blank, middle-distance stare, the one that bus and subway riders believe makes them invisible to fellow travelers.

Robertson was the big man’s polar opposite; his photo could have been used to illustrate the word “fastidious” in a dictionary: his well-trimmed mustache made him vaguely resemble the British flyers in World War Two. All he needed was a wool cap and a pint of brown ale.

As the train entered the trans-bay tube, a skinny black man in a ratty corduroy coat and tennis shoes with flapping soles forced open the doors to the next car and entered, leaning wearily by the intercom to rest.

The newcomer peered at the other passengers through half-closed, bloodshot eyes. He was unshaven and had a dark bruise below his right eye.

“Cain’t someone please hep me out?” he asked in the self-pitying manner of someone who’s spent his entire life listening to people say “no.”

When nobody responded, he added, “All I need is some change, y’all. Cain’t none of you fine people hep me out?”

He pushed himself away from the wall and stumbled forward unsteadily, holding out a crumpled cardboard cup from a fast-food outlet and shaking it so the few coins at its bottom rattled.

“Just a coupla dollas all I need, folks,” he wheedled. “Just a coupla dollas for some food and a place to sleep.”

He rattled the cup in front of a girl with pierced eyebrows, pink hair and dark mascara. “Cain’t y’all hep me out, Missy?” he whined, clutching the handhold on the back of her seat as if he might collapse if he let go. “Jus’ a coupla dollas if you please.”

The girl turned to look out the window.

“A’ight, then,” he said, pushing back and waggling his cup in front of the elderly man with wire-framed glasses sitting across from Miss Pink Hair. “How ‘bout y’all? Cain’t you give me some hep here mister?”

The old man, too, peered out the window intently.

The skinny black man swung back from the seat, holding his cup out and gripping the handhold as if his life depended on it. “Cain’t nobody PLEASE hep me out?” he pleaded, tears beginning to flow through the gray stubble on his filthy cheeks.

The big bald-headed man stood and put the iPod back in his trench coat pocket. Gripping the bar that hung from the ceiling he loomed over the black man.

“Hey, nigger! Shut the fuck up!” he said, spraying a fine mist of saliva on the black man and poking him in the chest with a finger as thick as a knackwurst.

The vagrant cowered back, blinking in terror. “'Scuse me, mister!” he said, raising his hand imploringly. “Beg pardon! I’m just trying to get me some hep here, is all.”

The big man towered at least eighteen inches over the skinny vagrant. “I don’t give a shit, asshole!” he yelled, the blood vessels in his neck standing out so sharply they threw shadows. He grabbed the front of the black man’s grubby corduroy coat and shook him violently, then pushed him back to the door.

As the other passengers in the car watched in horror, he bludgeoned the skinny transient, battering him with both hands, shoving him down and driving his knee up into the black man’s rail-thin body so hard that it lifted him off the floor.

The attack seemed to go on for a half hour but could only have lasted a moment or two. As the train slid into San Francisco’s Embarcadero Station and the doors opened, the big man released his victim and lurched off, disappearing into the crowd on the platform.

Most of the passengers in car 412 sat rooted, unable to move. Robertson, however, stood up the second the bald man left the train. He squatted beside the vagrant, using a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his sport coat to wipe viscous smears of red from the fallen man’s nose and mouth as he guided him to the seat the skinhead had vacated.

With a stricken expression he stared at the vagrant, who had that glassy-eyed look people sometimes get when they are going into shock. “You poor bastard,” Julius said softly, shaking his head. “I’ll help you, my friend.”

He pulled out his wallet, dug two twenty dollar bills out of it and pushed them into the vagrant’s hand.

“Thank you, sir,” the black man muttered in a voice so low and shaky it might have been a whisper. “Didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

Turning to the crowd with a determined look, Robertson called out, “How about it, folks? You saw what happened to this poor bastard. Anybody else want to help him get back on his feet?”

The woman in the business suit stood and put a wad of money into the black man’s hand as she shuffled off the train. The elderly passenger in spectacles was next. As Robertson dabbed red off the black man’s ragged coat and stubble of beard, eleven good Samaritans answered his challenge, pressing money on the shabby vagrant.

“He probably needs to see a doctor,” said the last donor – the girl with pink hair – as she scavenged a ten, two fives and three ones from her purse. “That big bastard really beat the hell out of him.”

“Thanks,” Robertson said. “Can you help me get him up? I want to call the paramedics when we get to Montgomery Station.”

She helped Robertson lever the stunned vagrant out of his seat. As Robertson steered his charge through the door, he smiled at her gratefully.

“I can get him from here, I think,” he said. “Thanks again for your help.”




The black man’s name was Winston Fell.

Robertson sat across from him outside the Starbucks near the BART exit, sipping coffee while Fell used his handkerchief and several paper napkins to wipe the last traces of red from his face. The corduroy jacket was a lost cause: he would never be able to get it completely clean. Luckily it had only cost him two bucks at the Goodwill in downtown Oakland.

Robertson saw Bob McClatchy, the bald man in the trench coat, moving down the sidewalk. He stood up and waved to him. As McClatchy joined them, settling his massive bulk into a chair, he grinned, “So how’d we do?”

Fell smiled. “After I gave Julie back the two Jacksons he used to prime the pump, the total take from Car 412 was $284,” he said. “That’s almost a hundred bucks each for a twenty-minute train ride. Not the best we’ve ever managed, but not the worst, either.”

He picked up his coffee and took a swig. “We should get one of them gadgets you can swipe a credit card with,” he said, giving his partners a wink. “We’d do better if we took Mastercharge or Visa.”

“Good performance this morning, guys,” Robertson said. “You each get better every time. It really looked like you were working Winnie over, Bob.”

“It’s the blood capsules from the costume shop,” McClatchy said. “That’s what sells it. He chomps down on a couple of those while I have him pressed up against the wall, lifting him up with my knee. When people see that red goop, they think I’ve knocked his teeth loose and broken his nose. They don’t realize that it’s all smoke and mirrors, just like in the movies.”

Robinson drained his coffee and glanced at his watch. “Ninety-plus bucks each is a good start, but it’s only eleven o’clock,” he said. “There’s five million more people in the Bay Area. What do you say, gentlemen? Shall we see if we can find some more suckers before lunch?”

Fell tossed his empty in the trash. “I’m ready,” he said. “But this time let’s try the tunnel between Rockridge and Orinda. Them Contra Costa County mofuckers got lots of money. I think they should be sharin' it with us.”


William E. Wallace has been a house painter, cook, dishwasher, newspaper and magazine reporter, journalism professor, private investigator and military intelligence specialist. He took his bachelor's in political science at U.C. Berkeley and was an award-winning investigative reporter and special projects writer for the San Francisco Chronicle for 26 years.

His work has been published in All Due Respect (which has nominated it for a 2014 Pushcart Prize), Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter Online, Crime Factory and Dark Corners PulpIn addition, he has stories awaiting publication in Spinetingler Magazine, Plan B and Near 2 The Knuckle.

Wallace’s longer fiction includes three self-published novels: The Jade Bone Jar, Tamer, and The Judas Hunter; and a novella, I Wait to Die. He is currently working on a new novel, Bottom StreetA Dead Heat with the Reaper, two noir novellas, is being published by All Due Respect books later this year.

Copyright 2015 William E. Wallace. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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