Chapter Five.

“I’m telling you, Alison, ain’t no goddamn joke this time,” he screamed, even though she had clearly made her deselection and now was nowhere to be seen.

But over the pitched din of horns, sirens and cab calls, I once again tuned in to Gunther’s spiel. There he was, all cranked up, still pacing furiously, dripping in fire accelerant and bicycle chains. The final gas can lay dented and empty aside his rumpled canvas duffel. Although my moling and scoping had brought me to San Francisco’s downtown on other matters, I froze and turned back en route. I couldn’t help but rivet on Gunther again, along with his transfixed crowd—catching my breath, striving to remain somewhat upwind.

Gunner continued strategically staging his little psychodrama near one of Union Square’s busier corners, precisely centered beneath a quartet of breezy entranceway palm trees. By now, the Square’s platinum power shoppers and shopping cart people had begun fully encircling him, milling in and out without appearing to look straight on. Some even tried to talk him down from this; otherwise, a gang of baggy overgrown skateboarders curled and sailed his perimeter, baiting him with matchbooks in mid-flight. Smartphone cameras were catching it all, HD video and stills, Samsungs and i’s raised like this was LeBron at the post-play podium.

“That’s right, no givin’ in, Alison,” Gunner ranted on deliriously, appearing to scratch scattered bug scabs, vapors rising from his shoulders in the high afternoon sun. “Why the holy fuck should I?!” His long bike chain scraped back and forth, sparking against the sidewalk, unmuffled by even the steel-wheel rumble of passing cable cars. “I like her, I love her…I hate her!!” Yet she was nowhere to be seen at the time.

The skate bangers’ taunts soon proved entirely unnecessary, as he decided to take it upon himself, though already beyond the pale. “You killed us, she killed us, understand? So I kill…for love…”

He waved his green BIC wand like across his chest, then lowered it to his groin and flicked. A full flame torched his legs and torso as the gathered circle gasped, shrieked, turned blindly away. While Gunther ignited, I simply froze, transfixed—halfway staring, halfway averting—as though glimpsing fresh vomit on the sidewalk, wishing it away as nothing more than spilled cioppino. But this was no flambé fantasy, nor could it be dismissed as Tarantino cinema of some Buddhist monk unknown. Gunner’s harrowing, Hadean screaming and wailing sealed that verdict most conclusively.

“Holy heaven, somebody get him,” a Scandian tourist cried over my shoulder.

“Lady, I’m afraid there’s nothing there to get,” I muttered, having edged in behind her, alternately shielding my Chronicle and grainy leather Gold-Pfeil bag before my eyes.

“Then get what’s left of him, for godsakes,” gasped a Saks matron in passing. “Open a hydrant, anything!”

“For-get about it,” said her shopping sherpa, as he pulled her along. “That guy’s just another whacko…real incel loser, if you ask me.”

Fourth degree, fade to black: by now, Gunther’s entire aura was vastly shrinking away, his nerve endings shot, tendons and muscles contracting, his limbs shriveling up into a barely forensic fist. He’d already been gagging and choking, steadily asphyxiated in the toxic fumes, the intense heat searing his lungs amid wholesale tissue disintegration. Flames had consumed hair, dermis, constricted vessels; granular, germinal epidermis down to the capillaries, the papillary and reticular layers. Scalded swatches peeled away from his charred hide, dangling like oily rags—raw, red-blackened gore bubbling like overboiled gristle, leather to the bone. His pressure-cooked carcass reeked of acrid petrochemicals and fetid pork. I was sickened by it, even over here.

A clot of converging sirens pried through stalled downtown traffic like Baffin icebreakers toward Union Square. At long last, traffic eased, fire crews and ambulances arrived, shopping carts rolled on, as did the clack and glide of airborne skateboards. Facebook posts were climbing the walls; Instagram, WhatsApp,Twitter and Pinterest uploads were well on their way. Yet Union Square itself already began returning to what passed for normal once the inferno had scorched away any remaining humanity. Sleekly turned-out shoppers resumed platinum charging toward Tiffany, Bally and Neiman-Marcus with upscale diligence and dispatch.

Commodore Dewey’s monument saluted mid Square, billboards for Apple and Niketown smiled down on Gunther’s memory as his corpse shrank into a final fetal position, reduced to an embering heap of rancid skeletal debris to be hosed over by paramedics and hauled away. No lagging rescue sirens, no sidewalk samaritans could have been much help—not that I was any more valorous when it all hit the fan.

sr dingbats

“Attention, people, let’s be clearing a lane here,” shouted a traffic cop, arms waving, whistles blowing all around, which were even drowning out the emergency sirens.

I finally had to disengage from the immolation scene to rather regain some semblance of sanity, focusing on the mission that brought me to Union Square to begin with. Still feeling light headed and nauseous, I plopped down on a park bench directly across from the St. Francis Hotel, preparing to meet my unmaker. I fished rough draft pages from my Gold-Pfeil, hard copy sheets creased and ruffled like a magazine left sunning on a Crissy Field beach mat, as well as a yellow writing pad and quite possibly incriminating correspondence. Getting and holding my ducks in a row, I cursed the afternoon breezes, not to mention my Luddite reluctance to more professionally tap an iPad or Phone.

But too late, no time for lame laments, as hotel doormen and S.F.P.D. motorcycle escorts soon heralded the landing of the bird I was intent on dogging, now rolling down Powell Street, doubtlessly from some salutatory Nob Hill affair. Suddenly, a black stretch limo sliced through it all, traffic jam or no, casting aside taxis, airport vans, Ubers and Lyfts as if the lead car of a presidential motorcade.

The Lincoln Navigator had taken on two extra sets of windows and wings between its smoked glass cockpit and the abrupt rear crown of its Landau roofline. All five side doors opened on cue, a buff, burly entourage wearing charcoal slacks, tobacco brown turtlenecks and blazers choreographed a tight flanking maneuver that served to form an impenetrable corridor between the curb and hotel portico. Like the Secret Service on Five-Hour and anabolics, they plowed away everybody and anything it their paths, barking, Thank you for your cooperation, people” with robotic authority.

Still, I couldn’t resist gathering up my probative caseload, then furtively plodding across Powell Street to mingle with the lit groupies, starstruck window shoppers and a slipstream of passing tourists all amutter in a clash of tongues. Struck hardest was another AIDed homeless guy, who was bowled over by a strategic knee, his blanket and paperback flying. His wobbly luggage cart, stacked and bungee strapped with doorway bedding, toppled like a ten-pin spare. “You’re welcome,” he whispered, then went about righting his sign and earthly possessions, disinclined and ill-prepared to say a further plaintive word.

“Hey, watch out,” I growled, game face planted and attitude on, when a broad, closely cropped personal assistant pulled limo doors open further, well into my wheelhouse. So they upended me, my valise and a warmed-over sample Frappé in descending disorder, all teetering on the curb. “And look what your thugs did to that poor homeless guy over there.”

“Coming through!” Yet another pair of aides, if not plain old bodyguards, pushed open the rearmost door all the more, forming a flying wedge for their still somewhat mysterious charge. Suddenly, a relatively stiff, rangy form emerged from the back seat, built-in bar gleaming, video screens glowing over his shoulder. With that, a crush of gawkers, cameras and autograph junkies vised in from every direction, spontaneously chanting, ‘Marion, Marion, Marion…”

Hotel security guards rushed out to reinforce the cordon, now by a hand-to-hand rope line against the gaping full-court press. A surly MUNI motorman took to yanking the bell cord of an inbound Powell-Mason cable car so hard its clapper all but blew through the brass, its riders climbing down for a closer view of the clamor—not seen since President Ford nearly got his, escaping Squeaky clean. Traffic bound for the St. Francis and beyond stalled behind the trolley clear past the Sir Francis Drake Hotel up to Sutter Street, some drivers blaring and screaming, others abandoning their cars—onrushing, autograph pens in hand. Emergency vehicles fared little better on their pullout, much to the milling Gunner crowd’s handwringing and disputation.

Staring up with invertigo at neon signage for the Drake’s Starlight Room, I rolled forward like a high school tumbler to a full frontal view of the phenomenon before us. James Marion Hassett, mega-selling legal thrillersmith, realigned his loden green wool blazer with his midnight blue turtleneck beneath a back cashmere overcoat. Two steps later, he hiked up his ample black trousers to reveal tooled buckskin-on-brown Tony Lamas.

America’s pre-eminent fount of commercial fiction rotated 180 degrees to fluff his lacquered, thinning gray pompadour as if reflected in a Saks display window across Powell. The celebrated author then adjusted his tortoise shell Alain Mikli shades, before turning like one of his stunning plot twists to greet the latest crowd of semi-literate Marionets, star sapphire and amethyst birthstone rings shining on his fat little fingers.

“Please, keep respectful distance now, people,” firmly pled a running assistant, as the forward edge enveloped Hassett, leading him like pulling guard up into the hotel foyer, swiping aside various flat-surface autographables, scanning the tightly pressed crowd, as though for stalkers or rooftop snipers. “Mister Hassett is in for an address over at the Commonwealth Club, and he wishes his St. Francis stay to be most undisturbed, thank you very much.”

By now, Hassett had been escorted safely into the hotel, nodding and waving his way up the red carped staircase, through the gilded, scarlet canopied portal. Some boyish, buzz-cut handlers scurried about in his wake, bearing books. They held their short stacks closely to their Marion-logoed pullover sweaters, and scattered about the sidewalk, tossing new hardcover copies of ‘Verdict Street’ about the ropeline crowd like so many tee shirts at a Giants ballgame giveaway, selfies going off in a show of hands. One even dropped one on the homeless guy, which glanced sorely off his shoulder. “Here you go, folks,” they said en unison,“hot off the presses.”

“Whoa, real consolation,” I shouted, despite myself, over the hostile clang of cable car bells, irate blowing of shuttle horns and waning Marionet chants. “That poor guy supposed to use it as a pillow, or what?”

“Here, brother—read all about it,” said the nearest advance man, pausing to push a colorfully covered copy my way. “Remember, James Marion understands the pain of your struggles. He’s always fighting for truth and justice, right there in your all’s corner!”

“Hey, I know something about your bossman here, okay,” I blurted, clutching the book like an evidential dossier, save for a flier flying out of it, mapping a Bay Area bookstore touch and go signing tour, from Corte Madera to Menlo Park. “Maybe a whole lot more than you’d care to think…”

Which wasn’t to say I didn’t stand somewhat awestruck by the blitzkrieg spectacle of Team Marion’s latest North American book tour. The sneak glance at the novel itself found a bright red-orange and blue jacket, with sketched, shadowy imagery of Man under stress, Woman knuckled under his thumb. Blurbs front and back proclaimed ‘Verdict Street’ to be Hassett’s latest, perhaps greatest effort to date—destined, no preordained to for number one ranking on every bestseller list in the land, every land, let alone a large and small screen movie adaptation.

Front flap to airbrushed author’s rear jacket photo, the volume exuded genre dominance and slick, cross-market packaging. But further scrutiny of its liner notes, then a flip-through review of my tablet scribbling left me as heavy of stomach as light of head. I hardly noticed the small silver foil seal on the cover’s lower-right corner, was not certifying early NYT bestseller status, but that ‘Verdict Street” was already hitting the market at 25% off list.

From there, it was a numb, flustered nod to the street sleeper, who was sitting quietly, already paging through his robo-autographed copy, phlegm blue blanket pulled clear up over his head. I reeled away, down yellow wheelchair access corner curbing toward Post Street, traffic homing in again as I flogged my forehead with legal-rule tablet and hardcover thriller. I was plotting to storm through the intersection, along a well-worn Powell Street glidepath between posh St. Francis shops and Chinese lantern streetlights outside the cavernous old hotel.

But I got jammed by an idling Airporter, stuck in a holding pattern now that Hassett’s limousine had rolled on to gobble up a vacated white zone, freeing up the Hyde cable car and two blocks of constipated traffic. A directional cop froze me altogether in fretful place at the crosswalk, taking control of the clog with a shrill whistle and flailing arms. I glanced back between muttering tourists, Marion’s limousine, then at his celebrated new novel itself, with the blunt force reckoning that I couldn’t just let this all pass like so many abrading gallstones. Not when I knew some of Gunther’s demons, had once felt his desperate rage—had it in writing, at that.

Spinning around again toward Post Street, I caught a slimly familiar figure emerging from Saks’ shadows, apparently intent on minding her Mini until a AAA tow truck finally broke through. But not before stopping to snatch a parking ticket or two from under the windshield wiper of Gunner’s sand-tan Daihatsu Charade. I didn’t need a new smartphone to catch a glimpse of that.

Care for more?

CHAPTER SIX. On the Homefront,
rumblings of figures gone
and tremors to come…