An Ex-Con, a Bag of Weed, and Rick Springfield on the Radio — Researching Out of Exile

Out of Exile_cover Every criminal thinks they have a story to tell and as a crime writer, I listen to all of them. I first heard the name Frankie Bell from a guy I grew up with who did nine months inside for beating his neighbor to a side of beef because the neighbor played the classic rock hit Take It Easy on repeat for twelve hours. He said, “You want to hear some stories, go talk to Frankie Bell. But whatever you do, don’t let him anywhere near a cop”. He didn’t say why and at the time I didn’t think to ask. I was in the depths of researching Out of Exile and really needed to get out of the office. So I spent half a day on the phone tracking down a number for Frankie and when I spoke to him he agreed to meet the following day.
I stood on a busy corner in Collingwood when Frankie stopped the traffic to pull over and let me in. Horns were honked, abuse was yelled but Frankie didn’t seem to notice or care. He must have been seven foot tall and at least half as wide with hands the size of dinner plates. He had some errands to run around and do and asked if I mined tagging along. I didn’t and we hit the road.
“I just got out,” Frankie said rolling a cigarette with one hand and driving with the other and splitting his eye line between the two.
“How long were you in?”
“Just under three years.”
“For what?”
“Smacked around some coppers.”
“How many?”
“Seven.”
“That’s a lot of copper.”
“That’s why the three years.”
A couple of blocks later he pulled the old XF Ford over to the side of the road in a suburban street where all the houses were worn down by life and time. We climbed out and headed to the front door.
“Just a quick stop,” Frankie said knocking on the door.
A moment later the door pulled back to reveal a little old lady dressed in clothes that hadn’t been fashionable for thirty years.
A smile crossed her face at the sight of Frankie. “Hello, luv. Are you here for your weekly?”
Her name was Joan and her house was hot. Cats were passed out in front of the heater and when she left, Frankie turned to me and said: “I”ve been coming here for years.”
Joan came back into the room before Frankie could answer and in her hands, she carried the biggest bag of marijuana I have ever seen in the hands of the elderly. “There you go,” she said handing it over.
Frankie palmed her some notes as he very politely declined Joan’s offer of a cup of tea and biscuits. Later Frankie told me Joan’s sons have a hydro set up somewhere in the bush and give her some weed to sell for a bit of extra pocket money. She’s only on a pension so Frankie feels good about giving her his business even though he could get better pot for the same price elsewhere.
On the drive back to Flemington, Frankie scanned through the radio looking for a good song. He settled on Jesse’s Girl and turned it up. “That Rick Springfield, what a talent,” he shouts over the song.
But as soon as the words left his mouth the smile dropped from his face and his whole body tensed up.
“What?” I said confused.
He shot a quick glance into the rearview mirror. “We got cops.”
My eyes darted to the massive bag of weed by my feet and back to Frankie. “What do we do?”
“We drive casual.”
“How do we do that?”
“You know, casual.”
If casual were an ex-crim and an over-educated writer cruising through Flemington with a massive bag of weed listening to Rick Springfield’s 80’s classic, Jesse’s Girl, then we were doing it.
I shuffled down in my seat and got an angle through the side view mirror. “They’re still there,” I said.
Frankie pulled a left turn. Then another left turn and yet another after that.
“What are you doing,” I said. “Stop turning left.”
“I can’t turn right.”
“Why?”
“The indicator is broken. They’ll pull us over if I turn and don’t indicate.”
“And this is a better idea!”
“Don’t yell at me.”
“We can’t keep turning left!”
Frankie slowed the car to a T-intersection. “We don’t have any choice.” He hooked a big finger around the lever and turned the indicator on and the moment he did flashing red and blues lit up the street and along with the dying wail of the siren.
Frankie pulled the car to the side of the road as I threw my jacket over the massive bag of weed by my feet and all I could think about was the warning: Don’t let Frankie Bell near any cops.
The cop approached the car and looked at Frankie with a hard look that he probably perfected from watching too much television and motioned to the radio that was still blasting out Jessie’s Girl. “Can you turn that down?”
“But it’s Rick Springfield?” Frankie said.
The cop sighed. “License.”
Frankie handed it over, and the cop looked at it, looked at us and headed back to the patrol to run the license.
Frankie’s face formed a V. “This pig better not mouth off, again. I don’t care I’ll clock him.” He turned to me. “You got my back, right?”
“What, no! Just be cool.”
“Do you see the way he was looking at me?”
“No.”
Before Frankie could lose his shit the cop appeared and poked his head through the window, handed the license back and said: “Have a nice day.”
And then he was gone.
Frankie turned and smiled. “Ah, ha, ha. I”m a convicted criminal I am and look at that, outsmarted the coppers I did.”
“Just don’t use your indicator until he’s gone.”
Frankie wanted to celebrate our escape by smoking a bunch of weed and playing Nintendo. I couldn’t think of anything worse, I probably could but I couldn’t be bothered and had Frankie drop me at home. His hatred for police was seeded in some awful event and harbored for unknown reasons and by the time I climbed out of the car I worked up the courage to ask.
“Why did you beat all those cops up for?”
His eyes dipped with a hint of sorrow, regret and bad luck. “I didn’t know they were coppers at the time. We were down the pub and one of them put his hand up my girlfriend’s skirt. I just lost it.”
“What happened to the girl?”
“Got married while I was in jail,” he said. “I guess she didn’t really love me.”
And then I watched Frankie Bell’s beat up Ford disappear into the traffic.
You can spend years researching your novel. Standing in an office buried waist high in books, magazines and poorly formatted printouts from Google is only going to get you so far. Every once in a while you need to step out from behind the desk, you need to start a fight, you need to fall in love and make mistakes, you need to have regrets and you need to live and fail. And occasionally you need to get into a car with an ex-con, a bag of weed and listen to Rick Springfield.

First Published at Omnimystery

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