Ten years later...
It all started after dinner for the third-tier cons. He'd settled in the rec room to watch Training Day starring Denzel Washington. There were mostly blacks and a few Mexicans in the audience. The film didn't appeal to many white cons. Talbot Needham, a big, burly white guard with flat feet, premature gray hair, and rotten teeth tapped Crane on the shoulder with his baton just as the lights dimmed, motioned with his finger for him to follow.
"Warden wants to see you, Crane," he said when they were on the ramp. He motioned for Crane to hold out his hand and right foot.
Crane asked, "What's Warden Moffett want with me?" He held up his right foot for chains. Needham snapped shackles on first one foot, then the other. "What the hell I do, Needham?"
"You know better than to ask that, Crane. You been here a while. If the warden wants to see you, he wants to see you. Move." Needham placed his baton between Crane's shoulders, pushed him forward against the weighted inertia of noisy chains.
They walked the length of third-tier, entered the atrium, walked down three flights of stairs and out across the yard to the administration building. Once admitted, they climbed two flights of green steel spiral stairs that opened to a long wood-paneled corridor. A slow five-minute walk brought them to the warden's office. The massive teak door was flanked by two white guards Crane didn't know. The tall one -- young, crewcut hair, polished shoes, and Marine Corps discipline -- patted him down. The short one -- older, heavier, experienced, with G. Gordon Liddy square jaw and deep-set malicious eyes -- knocked on the door three times. A deep booming voice Crane recognized as Moffett thundered permission to enter and when they did, it was into an office whose atmosphere was saturated with corruption.
Cranford Moffett had been warden of Marion Federal Penitentiary for as long as Crane had been an inmate. Before that he had run Leavenworth and a host of other prisons. In his late fifties, tall and powerfully built, his resonating baritone voice had earned him the nickname of "The Speaker" among prison inmates.
Flanked on either side of his massive mahogany desk by two more white guards whose corrupt faces paled in comparison to the warden's and who could have been Olympic wrestlers, Moffett motioned for Crane to sit down next to three other inmates similarly shackled. Surprised by their presence, Crane shuffled to an empty seat, chains rattling. Collectively known as the "Committee," these men headed up the three gangs that ran the prisons of America.
A white boy in his thirties with a massive upper torso that supported a neck wider than his skull, P. J. was head of the Aryan Brotherhood. He hated anything that wasn't white. Underneath his uniform Crane had seen the massive tattoo across his chest that said white power along with the Nazi insignia. P. J. was a skinhead, and his shaved, pale skull also sported tattoos of hatred.
Jimmy "José" Garcia was head of Marion's Mexican Mafia. A small, slightly built man in his fifties, his jet-black hair was pulled back into a long ponytail that hung to his waist. He too carried authority in numerous tattoos under his uniform: the largest one reading LA FAMILIA, numerous smaller ones on his arms and neck, and a teardrop tattoo below his left eye.
The black inmate was Lee "The Bear" Douglas, who ran the Black Gorilla family. A large man with a massive tattoo of a black bear on both chest and back, Bear fronted a gold tooth over his incisor, while a diamond-studded earring pierced his right lobe. His head was shaved bald. Younger than the others by at least a decade, Bear had made Crane his dog shortly after his arrival at Marion.
A guard stood behind each of the chairs, and as Crane reached his, Needham took up his position. Knowing the protocol required, Crane accorded each inmate respect before acknowledging the warden, but slapping Bear's hand to show where his allegiance lay. When he finally looked over to the warden, Moffett said, "Glad you could join us, Crane."
Crane asked, still suspicious, "What am I supposed to have done?"
"Nothing, dog," Bear said. "Speaker got a proposition for you."
"Warden Moffett, Douglas," said Needham, threatening.
Bear turned around, looked silently at Needham with raised eyebrows of contempt.
"A proposition? What kind of proposition? What's this all about, anyway?"
"We have a problem, Crane," Moffett began, "and we think you might be able to help us. We need," he said cautiously, "to get our hands on something that will benefit everyone." He sat back in his chair, eyes taking in the entire room. "It belongs," he went on, gray eyes moving across the faces of the gang members in turn, taking them in, "to these gentlemen here and to me."
Thinking he was being accused of theft, Crane blurted out defensively, "I haven't taken nothin' from them or you." His eyes, still suspicious, now fearful, darted from the faces of the convicts to Moffett. He started to stand but the powerful meaty hand of Needham slammed down on his left shoulder, pushed him back in his seat, chains rattling.
"Nigga," said Bear impatiently, "ain't nobody said you did. What? You got a guilty conscience or somethin'?"
"I'm just saying I ain't ripped nobody off. That's all."
"We know that, you muthafucka," said P. J. "Why don't you do us all a favor and shut the fuck up and let him finish?"
"As I was saying, Crane," Warden Moffett went on, "we need some way to get our hands on this item and figure you just might be the one who could help us do that." The warden looked Crane levelly in the eyes, drawing him in.
"Well," said Crane, "what is it?"
"A trunk," said Bear. "A big-ass muthafuckin' trunk like the kind you seen on the Titanic. 'Member them old-time steamer-type trunks they showed them rich white folks loadin' up?" Crane remembered the movie...remembered every Titanic movie Hollywood made. He nodded his head.
Crane said, "Steamer trunk. All right. What's in it?"
"That's not important, homes," said José softly behind steely black eyes, lilting Latin accent. "Not for you. We just need you to get it for us. That's all."
"All right," said Crane, confused. "Where is it?"
"Here," said Moffett, sitting up, handing Crane a photograph across the wide expanse of the desk. Crane looked at the photograph and laughed, but stopped when he noticed the others were silent. He looked at the photograph again.
"It's in this building, you say?" he asked, still fishing.
Warden Moffett leaned across the top of his desk and with a long steel ruler pointed to a spot on the photograph. "In a room on the top floor. That's where it is."
"And this building is where?"
"Los Angeles," said the warden.
"What do you want from me?"
P. J. was restless. Impatient. "Jesus, Crane. We gotta spell shit out for you? We need you to tell us how to get the trunk from point A there" -- and he pointed to the photograph with his fingers from across the space -- "to point B here!" and he slammed both hands on the armrests of his seat, chains rattling.
"Well, who's got it now?" Crane asked.
"We've got it, you dumb muthafucka," cried P. J. "At least our people have it."
Crane said, "I don't understand. Just have them bring it here, why don't you? Seems simple enough."
"But it's not," said Moffett. "The building is under surveillance. DOJ has been on the trunk since it arrived."
The fog was beginning to clear. Department of Justice. A trunk full of drugs. Crooked inmates. Crooked warden. Crooked guards.
"I see," said Crane. "You want me to devise some kind of plan your people can use to get the trunk out the building without the Feds knowing. Right?"
P. J. slumped in his chair, long thick arms dangling between his legs, chains scraping the floor. "Finally," he said.
Crane bristled. He said to P. J., "Well, if you'd said that in the beginning instead of all this double talk -- "
"Fuck you, nigga," P. J. said.
"No, fuck you, you punk-ass faggot white boy!" Crane snapped. He tried to stand but Needham shoved him down hard, his chains rattling in his lap. "I'll tell you who you can fuck. You can fuck your mama first. And then your sista and -- "
"Shut up. Both of you," Moffett boomed loudly, his deafening voice filling the room. "We're here for mutual interests. Let's remember that." He looked at Crane. "We had to be sure, Crane. You can understand that. Right?" he said, voice returning to its normal but still slightly thunderous pitch.
"We don't usually bring cons in on Committee business, dog," Bear said.
"Why me?" Crane asked, still fingering the photograph, eyes spitting hostile glances at P. J.
"Because you the famous bank robber, homes," José said, genuine admiration behind the words. "You're a legend. Your shit is poetry in motion. If the girl hadn't broke, even you would've got out of Dodge. You got a bad break. But it was beautiful to watch, homes. Smooth, like in the movies."
Crane stifled the urge to smile, thought of The Thomas Crown Affair. It took great effort for Crane to conceal his pride. He kept his eyes on the photograph until the moment passed, then looked up at Moffett. "I guess I can give you a couple of ideas to pass on to your people in L.A." he said, placing the photo on the desk.
The room exploded in laughter. Guards. Moffett. Gang leaders.
"The dumb shit still doesn't understand," grunted P. J., bending over, head hanging down as if straining on a toilet.
"Just a couple of ideas, homes?" José managed to say, laughing, but not as loudly as the others.
"Yeah," said Crane, not reading behind the humor. "A couple of ideas. What more do you want? L.A. is two thousand miles away and I'm here twenty-five to life."
Moffett's laughter stopped as abruptly as it had begun. "That could be changed," he said as the laughter died.
Crane wasn't sure he'd heard Moffett correctly. He said, "What did you say, Mister Moffett?"
"I said it could be changed," the warden repeated.
"That's the proposition, dog," said Bear, bringing manacled hands to Crane's shoulder. "Warden gonna spring you from here. Send you to L.A. to get our shit."
"Go to L.A.? Serious?"
"As a heart attack, homes."
Crane was in shock. He looked at Moffett as if seeing him for the first time.
"You figure out a way to get our trunk from under the noses of the Feds -- your twenty-five to life is history," Moffett declared from across the desk. "No DOJ record. No Federal Bureau of Prison record. Nothing. Nada. Everything about Alonzo Crane is deleted from DOJ's computer. You'll be a free man, Crane. Probably have to change your name. Get a new social security number. New identity and all. Can't see that being a problem for you."
"You down for this, dog?" asked Bear, envious.
"The fuck you think!" Crane said. "But let me make sure I understand what Mister Moffett is saying. If I can come up with a plan to get your trunk and deliver it here -- "
"Not here, Crane," the warden interrupted quickly. "You won't deliver it here. Pick a safe place. Our people will take it from there."
"All right," said Crane. "And if I do that you'll fix it so I won't do any more time? Have I heard you correctly?"
Warden Moffett leaned back in his chair heavily, crossed his legs.
"You have," he said. "Of course, if you don't want to do this," Moffett went on, "then no hard feelings." Suddenly Moffett sat up and leaned back across the desk, eyes burning into Crane's. "And this meeting never took place. Understand?"
"It's a new chance at life, homes," said José, looking at the warden but speaking to Crane. "A chance to be free. And how often does that happen to someone here? You'd better take it while you can, homes."
What Crane understood was that no hard feelings meant he wouldn't live another twenty-four hours. He knew what happened to inmates who refused the Committee. Not even his friendship with Bear could protect him. More important, he had always benefited from providence -- when he recognized it. No one with another fifteen years in prison would refuse an offer of freedom regardless of the danger. And since it would be his plan, he felt he could control the danger to a large degree. Still, something about the offer troubled him.
"What guarantee do I have you won't change your mind when it's all over?" He asked, addressing himself more to Moffett than the others. "How do I know you'll keep your word -- won't roll over on me, play me for a chump?"
P. J. said, "Warden Moffett doesn't want a prison riot on his hands, Crane. Especially one that starts in his joint and spreads across the country. Which is exactly what'll happen if he rolls over on you. Isn't that right, Mister Moffett?" P. J. was anything but subtle with his threat.
Moffett yawned. "Who wants that?" he said, agreeing.
"And, homes," José added, leaning forward to look around Bear and catch Crane's eyes, "If you're thinking of running out on us -- don't! There's no place in America you can hide. Nowhere in the world you can go we won't find you. Remember that. For the moment, your freedom is ours to give -- or take away. You remember that, homes. This is not a game."
Crane said, "I'm no fool," gratitude and reproof in his voice. "I'll hold up my end."
"That's why we chose you, homes. Because you're smart. And you're no fool."
"Word," said Bear, touching manacled fists with José.
"All right then," Crane said, picking up the photograph, studying it once again. "I'll need some time to work things out. A week. Maybe two. How long will the trunk be there?"
Bear said, "Until you come for it, bro."
Crane nodded, satisfied. He said, "I'll need more pictures. Maps. Anything else you can get on the building will help."
Warden Moffett pushed himself back from the desk, opened a drawer, withdrew a large brown envelope, and handed it to Crane. "We anticipated that," he said, smiling, gray eyes pleased with himself.
Crane took the envelope, leafed through its contents without removing them, sealed it back up. "Good," he said. "Now, I'll need some front money. About ten grand should do."
"What for, dog?" Bear asked.
"Planning. Equipment. Supplies. I'll need to pull a team together. Six. Maybe seven men. That costs money."
"You could use some of our people," P. J. suggested. "Save money."
"Thanks but no thanks," Crane said, shaking his head. "I choose my own team. It's not negotiable." The balance of power had shifted in Crane's favor. He was taking control now.
Bear said, "Everything's negotiable, bro."
"You been here ten years," said P. J., "How you gonna pull any team together?"
"People owe me."
"If they're still around. What do you do if they're not?" José wanted to know.
"Like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, I'll worry about that tomorrow."
"You'll worry about it today, Crane," Moffett thundered across the desk. "We'll arrange a place for you to stay in L.A. and a contact man," Moffett went on, scribbling on a yellow pad. "The money will be there before you."
"When can we see your plan?" P. J. wanted to know.
"You don't," Crane said, growing bolder.
"Muthafuck if we don't," cried P. J. "You think we just gonna let you take chances with our shit and not know what you up to? In your dreams, muthafucka!"
Crane said, "That's how I work."
"Not this time," P. J. said, agitated, trying to stand, being pushed back down by his guard, chains rattling in his lap.
Crane tossed the envelope back at Moffett, sat back in his seat, relaxed.
"Fine," he said. "Get someone else. I go tell you the plan...may as well put it on CNN...start selling tickets. I don't work that way. You said I was poetry," and Crane turned to look at José. "If you believe that, it was because of good planning. I never let my right hand know what the left is doing until the last possible minute. I don't intend to change that. So if I can't do it my way, you get someone else. I'm out," said Crane, playing poker, bluffing.
José was silent. He looked at Crane for a long time, studying his face for truth. He brought his manacled hands first to P. J.'s shoulder, then to Bear's. "We have a lot to lose, homes, if you fail."
f0 Crane said, "And if I fail, what? I come back to the joint? Lose my freedom?"
José said, "Maybe your life, homes. I can green-light you in less than a second."
Crane turned to Moffett. "So that's the way it is? No margin for error. That what you're telling me, Mister Moffett?"
The gray eyes blinked hard before the booming voice escaped.
"Failure," he said, "has never been in my vocabulary, Crane."
Crane now understood fully. The offer was conditioned on success only.
"Then you'd better let me do it my way if that's the case. 'Cause for what you want I'm the closest thing to a guarantee you'll ever get."
The room was silent for what seemed like a long time. Each looked at the other, weighing the odds. Finally José nodded to Moffett. It was barely perceptible, but Moffett saw it and took his cue. He picked up the envelope and handed it back across the desk to Crane.
"All right, Crane," he said reluctantly, "your way. I hope for all our sakes, but especially yours, Crane, that what you come up with will deliver the goods."
Crane didn't smile. He wanted to. But now was not the time. He would smile when he was really free. He studied the envelope. A long-forgotten movie popped in his head, followed by a second. Soon there were others. A myriad of heist films that spanned a century began flooding his brain. And then it suddenly came to him, the entire plan, beginning to end, and he knew then he could pull it off and he knew how.
"Mister Moffett," he said, asserting control again, "I'll get your trunk for you. Trust me. The Feds'll never see it coming. Because what I have in mind," and with this he began to laugh, more to himself than the others, "you only see in the movies."
Copyright © 2003 by Roland Jefferson
Ten years into his sentence, Crane is offered a chance to leave prison when a corrupt warden, in league with a prison gang, gives him a secret assignment. If Crane can pull it off, his prison record will be wiped clean. Now all he has to do is enlist the help of former cellmate Duffy, a small-time hustler with big-time ideas, and Trixie, Duffy's gorgeous girlfriend with a cocaine habit and a nose for trouble. And if Crane can successfully mimic the plot of an action film he's seen, this time he might stand a chance....