“Forget it, will ya, that’s the cops’ business…”
“But the whole thing looked familiar somehow…”
“G’wan, all those little bundles look alike. Who knows what kind of cocktail she was doin’? I’m talking about the real funny shit going on around here.”
The police had ushered me along Moulton Street by laser light, forewarning it was none of my business. Yet I still couldn’t shake the bleak image of a young woman strung out, splayed that way, even now. In retrospect, I imagined the victim had been abused until she was blue in the face—internal blunt force trauma, to where even a naloxone shot to the bone marrow wasn’t about to bring her around.
“All right, alright, what’s the story?” But at the moment, I did still feel beholden to this dick, could have used a new freelance gig about then as well. “I’m all ears, I mean after our little TapeGate and everything. You know I still owe you for the no-play screwup on that Ramsey case…”
“No player? You can say that again,” Eisenhoff offered me a room temp bottle of Sierra Springs water across his desktop, a bumper sticker reading, ‘Best Tail on the Trail’ pressed under glass. “Unforced error—just like with that Rayale Caffe that was down there across the street.”
“Uh, how do you mean?”
“You did frequent the place, right?”
“Well, not frequent, exactly, but…”
“So you knew enough about it then, but still didn’t peg it right.”
“What was there to peg?” I asked, with a twist of the cap. To me, Rayale had just been a plan B since the shutting down of my caffeine routine uphill once MeccaJava Café had given way to yet another pricey fashion outpost for a red haute New York brand. “Cheap, bad coffee and strange sandwich concoctions. Weak wifi and music of the weirdest subterranean kind, for this part of town at least. So I guess Rayale didn’t have a prayer over the long haul.”
“How about the bunch that ran it?”
“What about them? Didn’t say much except the basics, take the order and frown,” I followed his gaze across Fillmore Street. “Kinda surly, guess that was just part of the vibe in there, but it’s long gone now…”
“That they could have been a sleeper cell for all you’d have known…”
Sedge ‘Sy’ Eisenhoff came off as a true second-story man, directly above a vacated pastry shop that never had a chance either. His agency fronted a full floor of offices, pole position, so to speak, due to the sheer longevity of its legacy lease or what he had on the owners. It was on a block that ebbed and flowed with the commercial real estate market, particularly at street level. Down with blanketed sleeping bags of fetal bodies on the sidewalks, in the doorways, where binge drunkards crashed inside bank ATM branchlets. Currently, Sedge’s bastardized Victorian’s neighbors between Filbert and Greenwich were a tipsy Vicky saloon, Indian restaurant, trendy taqueria and wine bars.
Across Fillmore, the storefronts were a boxy lot: beige on beige 50s style. Anchoring the largest was that gray faced, tour de force Euro bike shop, serving full-race coffee that could torch their Nanoflex kits and melt their Vittoria tires. Firing up on the four-barrel French Roast blend were a clutch of ralleye bound cyclists comparing carbon frames, Dura Ace groupsets and GPS map apps on a classic post-war Citroen delivery van split into a wooden bench pop-up park. They were generations removed from the detective agency herein, which likely could relate to hoggish Harleys or Duce Moto-Guzzis at best.
“I mean, the joint always did seem a little weirdly placed for the neighborhood, don’t you think?” Eisenhoff pushed back the sliding glass of his bay window, pointed over toward a squat, incongruously one-story structure mid block, just north of Pixley, another of those San Francisco ‘tween streets. “Like there was always something hinky going on…”
“Dunno, not that much weirder than the Vedanta temple over there on Filbert, with all those onion bulb turrets and ogee arches…”
“Except that thing’s legit, especially since they dolled it up—been there forever, too,” said Eisenhoff, fixing us both past Ginsberg’s Howling sidewalk plaque, onto what remained of that shabby cappuccino brown caffe on a downward slope across the way, with its spoiled creamy cornices and consoles, backed by the fabled Matrix barn now called ‘White Rabbit’. “Same time, Rayale was rotting like old bundt cake until that new salad joint there worked it over.”
Whereas his place was more like a boiler room, with all the double blind, shoe leather trimmings. A florescent lit office, very 50s-60s, permed secretary, portrait on agency wall of former agency partner, Jack ‘Tracer’ Diggens, who was a real Mike Connors character with a Niven mustache and Chuck Connors cut of the jaw. Surrounding the founder’s oil rendering were expired wanted posters, voided mugshots, crimebeat articles and fading covers of Police Gazettes. Mounted elsewise were matted posters of Eastwood’s Alcatraz Escape and McQueen’s Bullitt, alongside numerous City Hall commendations, under the needlepointed slogan, ‘We don’t just tail ’em, we nail ’em’.
Yet I couldn’t help glancing off, toward the graphic salmagundi marshaled about deeper sidewalls, a virtual murderer’s row of celebrity and infamy. Who couldn’t train on framed mugs of Dillinger, Baby Face—Greenstreet, Cagney and Bogey, Eddie G. and George Raft—stills of Dragnet Friday, Serpico, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum P.I.? I spotted autographed action shots of Cheech Marin and Nash Bridges, of Harrison Ford, Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. Then there were crinkling yellow cameos of Duryea and Spillane, Carver and Chandler, with Nick and Nora teeming in—sluiced me back to Gittes and the Mulwrays. Even Eisenhoff’s toothy gal Friday, Geldora Reno looked sleuthy as an Ida Lupino hitting her mark.
“Well, maybe things had been a little slow in that caffe toward the end, all these craft coffees around here and everything,” I squeezed and sipped from the little plastic bottle like a baby rife with colic. “Actually, I hadn’t been in there for a long while…”
Sedge Eisenhoff himself was his sole surviving sidekick and partner in a shootout, wherein Tracer met his Magnum head on, .357 hollow point made. Trim and slick as Tracer appeared in his prime front-office shrine, Sedge seemed to have rounded off to a desk-bound common denominator ever since. Heavily into ensemble noir, a silver string tie offset his sartorial blackness: his Kojaked ankle boots and flared slacks to satin shirt, leather vest and wool waistcoat, albeit fastened and festooned in ersatz gold.
“Nevertheless, I happen to have a client who’s convinced Rayale Caffe was a front all along,” he leaned in, tossing a pushy ponytail back over his shoulder, time-worn pendulus to a graying horseshoe crown.
“Affront—you mean architecturally or…” I couldn’t help suspecting he was packing an ankle piece under that boot cut of his.
“No, genius, a front for who knows what,” said Eisenhoff, grabbing for his red-sashed Stetson, nitpicking its brim before the don. “But you never seemed to pick up on that, did you? See what I’m getting at?”
“Guess so—but what difference does it make now?”
“Listen to me, Herbert. I had long been casing that place with my 8x telescope and a security cam. It got so they were hardly ever open toward the end. Why do you think that was?”
“Could be because business was down. Maybe because everybody from Kinkos to the bike shop is selling better coffee these days, and nobody was eating their oily food anymore…”
A long tail of cyclists turned the corner below us from around the bike shop’s Citroen parklet, in a logoed lycra blur out Fillmore Street, velocitizing toward a twisty tour de Marin—Bermuda Triangle, Marina, bridge, Headlands on up to Stinson Beach. The high pedaling streak drew my eye across Pixley Street. I recalled the flapping, wind-tattered green and white canvas awning outside Caffe Rayale.
Open for business on and off, although there appeared to be fewer takers than usual near the end, free wi-fi or no. Most activity that did evidence about the place had usually spilled out onto Pixley alley, to the discernible tune of Michael Franti and Spearhead. Must have been half a dozen of Rayale baristas, cookstaff and other young male hangers on, often teaming up for a little circular kick ball out there, hands idle as the caffe’s espresso pulls. But by now the renovated place was clean and green as a Palo Alto bistro.
“So what did you make of that?”
“They never told me anything,” I said, recapping the Sierra Springs like it was water torture in a bottle, careful not to spill on my off-brand plaid U-Tuck-It and chinos. “Matter of fact, those guys mainly didn’t talk much at all. Except this one skateboarder dude, from Santa Cruz—he worked some afternoons, making hummus salad plates and pulling capps. At night, he builds bizarre sets South of Market for sado-bondo video shows—real Tor/onion router stuff…”
“Ever talk shop? About the caffe business plan and why the oddball hours,” Eisenhoff pounced, cracking his own bottle with a snap of a Rolexed wrist. “About the mokes he worked for, why when Rayale was open, they just hung outside on Pixley there, all stank eye and cuffing smokes. What was up with that?”
“Likely just taking a break,” I wondered if I’d been missing some signs. “Could be a Middle East culture thing…”
“Exactly, an Arab thing. Maybe that explains why people weren’t going in there so much anymore, worrying about food poisoning or cyanide drinks. You know, all the terrorist crap going on.”
“Terrorists? C’mon, they just played kickball and Hacky Sack out there…”
Virtual stand off, an awkward moment of silence met with the retro clacking of a Selectric typewriter and humming of a fax machine. With that, I rose to huff off, taking my umbrage along with me. At least until the everyday reality of fiscal shortfalls forced me to sit back down beside Sedge’s desk, much to his leveraged buy-in satisfaction. The PI was all business, and I remained all ears, no longer inclined or able to tune out his hard-boiled rigmarole, much less my growling gut reaction. I had no immediate idea what he expected me to uncover, nor what I would actually do to meet said expectations. I still to this day had nothing against those Rayale Caffe people, let alone anything on them.
Yet this clearly was a matter of billable time served, and an old stiff like me could easily have stood some more hours on the clock…and off the cuff. All I knew was I currently had a headful of vengeful torment and houseful of trouble well beyond Sedge Eisenhoff’s gold-on-black Lexus downstairs. So resolved: sign on—write off that Rayale beat altogether, though couldn’t so easily erase images of a young woman’s Moulton demise.
“Point is, you still gotta sharpen your senses, Herbert, better hone your craft,” Eisenhoff rose, tapping my shoulder, sizing my eyes. “Rayale’s what got me to thinking about all the other kinds of terrorist-like shenanigans goin’ on these days, then this new case came along. It’s got international intrigue written all over it.”
“Look, terrorism could be popping up anywhere, right?” Eisenhoff rose, now spieling over my shoulder. “Well, I have this other assignment in the pipeline, about some Russkie operative with a mommy complex who’s gone counter rogue, MIA since they shut down the Consulate spynest over on Green Street. Sleepers creepers, real Polonium 210-Novichok stuff, if you ask me. But we’ll see where it leads.”
“Isn’t that Feds’ territory?” I saw this as way above my pay grade, not that I was getting paid much anyway. But figured I had better tune in, listen up anyhow.
“That don’t cut it with my client right now. He’s materially concerned—down low, if you catch my drift, same like with ol’ man Ramsey. So it looks like I can throw a little more action your way, Herbert. But you’ve really got to step up your game for this one…”
“And you think I’m up to something like…”
“Out of the blocks, anyway. Now let’s see how this one develops, case-wise. In the meantime, I could still use your eyes and ears. Yah, this goddamn labor shortage is killing me these days. So just mole around the neighborhoods, scope things out as we go…”
“Mole, scope—what things?”
“I’ll be looping you into the specifics,” Eisenhoff glanced again out his windows. “Think eyes and ears for now—peel those eyes, Herbert, perk those ears.”
“Gotcha, drift around now and then, keeping it on the down low, like you said,” I jargoned up some, what with the pep talk. “That, I should be able to handle.”
“Aces. Cause this client is damn important to me,” he dusted phantom traces of dandruff from his lapels. “Think he’s also handing me a domestic case, but I’m not sure about the violence part. He’s a big player overseas, Europe—France. Says he’s looking for his former galfriend, figures she’s in California somewhere, wants me to help track her down. Basically a missing person deal, hush-hush, no pole posters or anything. But we’ll hold fire on that for the time being…”
“Do my best, Mister Eisenhoff,” I stood, squaring up, thinking just what I needed, even more two-bit drama. “Minus the hummus and fritzy tape recorders, that is…”
“Make it a smartphone with a good camera, Herbert, get with the program already. And whatever you do, stay in touch,” said Eisenhoff, clapping his hands after a middleweight fist bump. “Yessir, business is picking up alright. Agency’s goin’ global, so hop to it—lean and mean, jelly bean..it could be well worth your while.”
“R-r-right—maybe I’ll get the one with the rose gold finish…lenses like crazy.” Under the circumstances, it was the least I could say or do. Would that it were true…
CHAPTER FOUR. Tending to some
business downtown, where things soon
take a fiery turn…