Excerpt from the novel, Fool Me Once, by Bill Pieper (see press release and reviews)

CHAPTER 15

Breaking News, August ‘64

--FBI Hints at Progress in Mississippi Murders
--NASA Releases More Ranger 7 Moon Photos
--Prime Summer Reads:: Travels With Charley and The Sand Pebbles
--JFK Aide Pierre Salinger Appointed to California Senate Seat
--Breathless SF Countdown To Beatles Arrival Nears End


When you have a guilty conscience and you’re worried about venereal disease, and when your girlfriend is menstruating and thinks she’s being stalked by some guy from her past, those are not propitious signs for a scintillating evening. Fortunately the Du Midi was a Basque family-style place where we had other people at our table, so the tension we were feeling was pushed into the background for a while. Otherwise, tension ruled.

For example, Sheila did call her mother the minute we got to my place, while I took the opportunity to make a final patrol to ensure that no clue of Mara’s presence remained. Not a marijuana seed, a drip of candle wax, a perfumed kleenex, nothing. I’d also left the windows cracked for days to be certain all the dope smoke was aired out. Even before she got on the phone, Sheila complained of being cold.

"I can’t believe you didn’t mention Jon," I said after she hung up.

"Are you nuts?" she responded assertively. "My mom hadn’t called before, which means it was him. All I have to do is breathe one word and my dad will be on the next plane. I never told either of them what was in Jon’s letter...you know, about his moving here. I only mentioned the apology."

"Look, I can talk to Jon, or if he’s too weird, we’ll call the cops."

"We will not!" Sheila exploded. "He’s my problem and I’m going to handle it. Stay out!"

"Handle it how?" I demanded.

"I don’t know yet! But I will. Here, we’re safe. Leave me alone."

That gives you a flavor of how the rest of Sunday went except, like I said, for our dinner out. Then on Monday, we got up early and as a precaution, I drove Sheila to work. Of course there’s nowhere to park near Chevron that doesn’t cost a mint, so I took the Falcon back to my garage on Telegraph Hill and walked from there. On foot, avoiding Sansome to be safe from Mara, I headed a half-block west to reach Kearny.

Focused on not being late, I didn’t see the trenchcoat-clad figure leaning against a building above the wide block of concrete steps that drop Kearny onto Broadway until I was on top of him. That’s right, trenchcoat. The whole thing was turning into a bad movie. It was goddamned Jon Kaplan, in a fedora, smoking a cigarette with his stupid collar flipped up, whose Sam Spade was already a loser compared to Mara’s. He kept his eyes on the pavement, blatantly ignoring me, unaware that I’d had a good look at him in the car mirror yesterday.

Distinctly pronouncing each word, I growled, "Back—off—ass—hole!" as I passed.

He gave a startled twitch and faked mistaken identity. "What do you mean?" he asked.

I paused and turned sideways to him from two steps below. "You’ll be lucky if she doesn’t call the cops."

"Tell me what I’ve done that’s illegal," he said with a nervous smile.

"They’ll find something," I replied sourly, resuming my downhill march.

After another twenty steps I turned back and the little creep was gone. Must have taken the alley running west toward Grant. Christ! He already knew the neighborhood. Sam Spade, bullshit! He was more like Joel Cairo.

But Jon couldn’t have followed us last night. He already knew where I lived. And Sheila was back from New York only twenty-four hours. Just because she first saw him yesterday didn’t mean he was newly arrived himself. We’d been under surveillance before. Shit! The bastard could know about Mara. Now wouldn’t that be sweet?

Well, it was a long day, and an unbelievable one. By 9 a.m. my boss had gotten reamed by his boss over something and improved his own morale by reaming the rest of us. Then Sheila called to say that G.H. had made an amazing offer, which she’d decided to accept. He and his cadre of renegade Republicans were forming an organization called Citizens for Johnson, and they wanted Sheila as executive director. G.H. would put her on leave and hold her current job until after the election. She would start tomorrow, at an office in a former bank near Union Square. They were leaving right then to tour the place.

No sooner did I say good-bye than Mara cruised in and sat on the edge of my desk to make suggestive conversation. She was wearing the white skirt again and the experience for me was one big sexual flashback. Though delivered in code, her message was that she’d found the proper undergarments to give the skirt a more demure look and thought I’d appreciate it. Her tone was an affirmation and a denial that anything had ever happened between us. She also said she’d really enjoyed meeting my friend, Mr. Mellors, and hoped he’d be "hanging out" at the Asp on a regular basis. My weak and distracted replies don’t bear repeating. Everybody I worked with—young, old, male, female—threw me strange glances when she left.

After lunch Sheila called back with the news that Jon had telephoned her at Foreman Publishing, apologetically saying he wanted to be friends and really wanted to see her and not to be afraid and so on. He’d gotten her SF home and work addresses through the Pembroke Alumni Association all on the up and up. That his apartment overlooked hers was an accident, he claimed, and was just a temporary sublet while he found something permanent. He couldn’t start his new job until September, because BART’s board had to approve a civil service waiver to bring him on. As a result, he was home all the time, and he suddenly sounded like the nicest guy in the world, to hear her talk.

"Wait a minute," I said, hoping she wouldn’t realize how agitated I felt. "You’re not going to see him, are you?" If Jon knew about Mara, he obviously hadn’t told Sheila by phone, but he could be saving it for face-to-face.

"I told him I would...but only after he moves. That’s my leverage. And it’d have to be very public, like downtown for lunch, maybe."

"It’s a plan," I acknowledged, conveying maximum disapproval. "But pretty risky. He could misinterpret your intentions. Pick a place with no stairs."

"I know what I’m doing. I also promised I wouldn’t call the cops...as long as he doesn’t bother me again. Something convinced him I was going to, and it would mess up his job if I mentioned his pushing me. He still insists that was an accident, by the way."

"Listen, Sheila, I wanted to tell you tonight, so we could assess what it means in person, but he was outside my apartment this morning when I took the Falcon home."

"You sure?" she gasped.

"Yes. Saw him clear as day, then he ran down an alley." I wasn’t going to tell her Jon and I had spoken, because I might create sympathy for him by what I’d said.

"How did he follow us?"

"I don’t know, but he didn’t get my address from the Pembroke Alumni Association."

"Oh, this is awful."

I grabbed my chance. "You want to reconsider calling the cops?"

"No. I promised I wouldn’t. And what law has he broken? He hasn’t threatened us."

"Not directly," I said in a confrontive tone.

She didn’t budge. "Now Will, I told you, he’s my problem. Don’t you dare bring in the police without my permission. I told G.H. the same thing, and I mean it. Once Jon starts his job and moves to another apartment, everything will settle down. He’ll be working in Oakland, he thinks, and will probably live in Berkeley."

"How much does G.H. know?"

"The whole story. He and Una want to help."

"Good." Sheila had fended me off, but maybe they’d convince her to drop the idea of meeting Jon. I wanted zero contact between her and that damn guy.

"Yes, but it’s going to be hard on us. I thought we could be together at Vallejo Street, but not if I have to worry about him there, too. I need to move in with the Foreman’s instead. That’s the best thing."

My stomach inverted itself. "You sure?" I protested. "For how long?"

"Until Jon leaves Mason Street. A week at least, maybe two."

"Come on," I argued. "If it’s not worth calling the cops, why so drastic?" Zero contact with me was not what I’d been angling for, though I might have deserved it after Mara.

"My mind’s made up," Sheila answered. "Be at my place by six with the car. G.H. will drop me off, and you can help me pack and drive to Foreman’s later. I’m sure they’ll invite you to dinner, but you can’t stay overnight. It’s too awkward the way their place is laid out, and too much to ask."

* * *

That was the capper. Thanks to Jon, the fucking little creep, I lost my girl-friend for the rest of the month. All I got out of it was half a roasted game hen cooked by Una and a chance to show off my table manners. Not bad enough that the army had blitzed the end of our July, and New York had blitzed the middle of our August. Now we had him and Sheila’s new job, which was starting to blitz everything night and day anyway. But as far as Jon was concerned, she had disappeared, and he’d have a much harder time ratting me out whatever he might know. She was gone from Foreman Publishing, gone from Mason Street, and gone from my place as well.

The Foreman’s lived in a posh high-rise on Russian Hill with a secure underground garage and a uniformed bouncer-type stationed in the lobby. Not only did Jon not know where that was, I could barely get in myself without being fingerprinted. There was no way he could follow me if I used the motorcycle, but he was probably lurking outside my apartment, or I could swear he was, in his god-damned Sam Spade outfit, scurrying away before I spotted him. What a colossal, piss-off pain in the ass.

For no good reason my life now consisted of army worries, working, avoiding Mara, avoiding Jon, trying to catch up with Sheila, not getting laid, and finding ways to fill the time Sheila and I used to spend together. We had long phone conversations between Vallejo Street and the Foreman’s every night around 9:30, but that was it. I had already read my new Hemingway plus To Kill a Mocking Bird, taken the Yamaha all over town on aimless night-time tours, played too much chess with Herbie at the Unicorn and done heavy amounts of bitching, mostly to myself.

The next Saturday night and all day Sunday the Foreman’s had given Sheila and me the use of their Mayacama retreat in Napa, and I was longing for it. The first chance for us to be alone in any normal sense since she left for New York. Still, I was pissed at her, as though all this was her fault. Finally, on Friday, after one more frustrating evening by myself and one more long phone conversation devoted to promises of deferred gratification, I did something irresponsible. I checked for Mara at the Asp, and when she wasn’t there, I headed for Napier Lane with the intent to knock on her door.

Also, because there never seemed to be an intermission in this bad movie, I had to keep looking over my shoulder to be sure the ersatz Sam Spade wasn’t on my tail in the gathering fog and the dark. I’d decided that Jon actually did know about Mara from spying on me while Sheila was in New York, and his agenda was to get incontrovertible proof and use it so he could make a move on Sheila himself. Nuts, yes, but that’s what the guy was. How the hell did he get my address, anyway?

As I went over the crest of Telegraph Hill on a path through the bushes at the base of the tower, I looked back across the lights of North Beach to Russian Hill and picked out the Foreman’s building and what might easily be their balcony. If Sheila were on it with G. H.’s telescope, she’d be able to count my shirt buttons, fog notwithstanding, and know from my face that something was up. Of course she wasn’t there, and it was virtually paranoid to think that Jon was following me, but to eliminate the possibility, I dodged behind a corner of the tower’s concrete pad and waited for him to show. He didn’t. No footsteps, no movement, no nothing, so I started down the Greenwich stairs.

Since the fog hadn’t pushed all the way east yet, the bay below me glimmered black against the sky and against the electric glow of the Berkeley Hills. The reflection of a single, isolated moonpath bisected the open water between Alcatraz and Richmond. Something was always in bloom along those walkways, and tonight gardenia or jasmine or both were scenting the air. I reached Napier Lane and turned left. The planks were rough and creaky beneath my feet.

At the end, no more than sixty feet away, dim lights issued from Mara’s place. In fact, the door was open and dreamy music, one of Stan Getz’s bossanova albums, joined the external sound of crickets and distant foghorns. In my pants I felt Mr. Mellors come to life, and I found myself walking more and more slowly. Someone was standing outside Mara’s, facing away from me, smoking a cigarette and watching a tanker come through the Golden Gate. No, it wasn’t Jon, but almost as bad. It was Sly/Sidney Catlett, Jr. from the Asp, wearing the round little hat for which I called him Mr. Beret. Bye-bye, Mellors. A plank shifted under me and Sly pivoted.

"Hello, my man," he said, with no evident hostility.

"Hi. Mara around?"

"She’s around, but she’s...ah...busy. Say, meant to tell you, that was a good crack you got off about my father being a fine drummer. Didn’t think you’d know Sidney Catlett from Sidney Greenstreet."

"Appearances can deceive."

"Believe it," he replied. "But stay cool. I’ll cut the shit and introduce myself proper." He shocked me by sticking out his hand. "Sylvester Boggs. Friends call me Sly."

"All I’ve got’s Will Perry, the name you heard before. Friends call me Will." We actually shook, and firmly. "To what do I owe the honor?"

Sly shrugged. "Mara says you OK, then you OK."

"She’s busy how?" I asked. My mind wanted an orgy to be going on, or Ken Kesey back from his bus ride and holding court in the landlord’s upstairs digs. I don’t know which I’d have preferred.

Sly smiled and stroked his goatee. "On a trip, shall we say. Eelectric kool-aid, if you take my meaning. I’m helpin’ out...running interference."

It took five seconds for me to process this. Five long seconds, time enough for the Stan Getz album to end one cut and start the next. "Oh," I said. "LSD."

"Shshsh," Sly responded, finger to lips. "Ain’t illegal yet but not smart to advertise. Nice neutral way is to say acid."

"You ever done it?" I asked him.

"Nah, not my scene. Give me Mary Jane from Michoacan."

"Yeah," I said to underline my in-the-know status, "good stuff. Had some with Mara. She get it from you?"

"A very impolite question."

"Sorry."

"But I can say that Miss Mara and I do engage in the centuries-old practice of barter. She obtains certain things from her Prankster friends while I obtain certain other things from my Mexican friends and it would be a shame not to share. A common arrangement in the circles I run in."

"She’s going to Mexico herself, you know. Next year."

"So I’m told. Tonight, though, she’s an armchair traveler."

The music had stopped and I recognized Mara’s voice from inside the door. "Sly...you there?"

"Of course, dear lady," he answered, relaxing into a smile.

"You have to come and see this sunset," Mara said. "Oh, and would you put more music on? Maybe that sitar stuff from India."

I smiled now, too. Sly and I both knew that all vestiges of sunset had been gone from the sky for over an hour. "Got to go," he said. "I’ll tell her tomorrow you dropped by. This isn’t the time."

"Clearly not," I said, but I was somehow in a much better mood. If I got horny again later at home, I’d whack off. "See you, man," I nodded. "Got to go myself."

* * *

Saturday, I was supposed to pick up Sheila at noon on Russian Hill so we could leave for Napa. I spent the morning doing errands and getting ready, keeping an eye out for Jon in the process. No luck. See, in a way, I was hoping he’d be there, because I’d promised myself I was going to knee him in the nuts. Even when the phone rang I thought it might be him.

"Will...it’s Lew. Got some news."

"Hey, all right, what’s up?"

"Just got off the phone with Mr. A. Moreno."

"Finally surfaced, huh?"

"Yeah. Wants to know what the army’s up to...you know, about him."

"Naturally."

"Told him I didn’t know, which I don’t. Then he asked about yesterday’s meeting."

"There was no meeting yesterday. It was Friday. There was no meeting this week."

"I know. He says he can’t tell days or time anymore. Probably jive. Like you say, he’s into conning everybody, even us."

"Easier for him to play a consistent role," I agreed. "How’d he sound otherwise?"

"Tired. Voice real quiet. Impossible to tell if he’s faking. Told him I’d find out what I could if he’d start returning my calls and let me pass along the info face-to-face. I want to see the guy and judge for myself."

"Good idea. When?"

"Nothing set up yet. Have to call a couple of people from the unit and see if they’ll clue me. You know, make like I’m worried about him. Then I’ll get with Armando."

"If you come up empty," I said, "I could try Lt. Raskin, my new boss in med records, at next week’s meeting. He’s not in Rosey’s loop the way you are, but I think he trusts me."

"Go ahead and ask," Lew replied. "Two heads are always better. What’ve you been doing?"

"You’re not going to believe it. This old boyfriend of Sheila’s from back east is stalking her. She had to move in with her boss and his wife, and now the guy’s following me."

"What kind of bullshit is that?"

"Horseshit bullshit. And Sheila absolutely refuses to call the cops...or have me call them."

"Cops wouldn’t do anything anyway if all he’s done is follow her."

"Probably right, but the asshole pushed her down the stairs when they were in college."

"He did what?" Lew rumbled. "Hey, let me take care of it. Where do I find this guy? What’s he look like?"

"Take care of it? How do you mean?"

"Get him to back off. Don’t worry, I’ll be cool."

Maybe that was the answer. Lew asked more questions and I sketched out details. You know...Jon Kaplan, waiting for a job at BART, second-floor apartment at 1134 Mason, estimated height, build and so on. The more I talked the more interesting the idea became. I mean, I didn’t ask Lew to do it, he volunteered. And he wasn’t the cops. Not that I’d tell Sheila. She would find some damn reason to object. But I wasn’t doing anything I’d promised I wouldn’t, and I didn’t really have the nerve to knee Jon in the nuts, anyway.


© Bill Pieper