Chapter Two

“Wha? Wait, Snapchat or Instagram?! They’re blowing up? 150 likes within ten minutes, fifty comments? And face time on Periscope? They liked it? How many?! Ohmygod, that’s soooo perfect!!!”

“Sorry, could you tone it down a bit…” These kids today, with the selfies and TXTSPK—if they’re always on their phones, how could they possibly have minds of their own? Just more tasking/exploiting high-technical marvels for trivial means. Honestly, gotta get your scene out of that screen, girl—off those blamed de-vices, stress on the latter syllable.

 “Tsk, what’s your problem,” she replied, way uptalking vocal fry, basically ignoring and turning her back to me, balancing her rose gold iPhone X atop a Starbucks Vente to go, in full FOMO mode. A slim-fit nineteener from Moraga or so, early Chabot College coed type, chestnut with a banded mare’s tail, sweats and tattered denim, twizzling about on beaded strap sandals to up her bars. She then maintained safe distance in an indented browsing space just outside Bookworthy’s aluminum-framed display windows. “Gotta go Gina…you the best!”

“You see, I’m in the middle of…” A clash of inputs…diastolic spiking, endorphins dropping like counterweights.

“You okay, mister,” the caller turned back to ask, packing away earbuds on her way across Chestnut Street to another BFF at Tacolicious. She looked at me as if I were south of SSI and Section 8, the breezy eucalyptus nose and sprays of shoreline salt and algae no longer able to mask my sweatful airs.

“No, seriously, I’m trying to process a…” Couldn’t hear myself think…

“So weird, ’cause it looks like you just seen a ghost…” 

“Uh, more like a ghosted writer, if you see what I mean…”

She couldn’t see it at all. The iPhone coed didn’t know or care less that I was blowing up over purloined words. So there we left it outside Bookworthy’s, with her TXTing off to a Tex-Mex tête-a-tête. Speaking of fitful bars, two watering holes lined up conveniently, if not suggestively right next door. Still, face time was fleeting as my runner’s high, and I had no stomach for further feeding a peptic ulcer.

But hey, mobile new media, maybe that was the equalizer, the fast path to Publisher’s Weekly instead of Publisher’s Clearinghouse. I could have gone digital already, posted on Scribd; ebook, Kindled the hell out of it, thrown the whole mess up on Amazon or a selfie website: yah, apps, streams and downloads, no paper ventured, no migraines gained—boiling the whole publishing crucible down to simple likes and dislikes, clear-cut thumbs up or down.

Then again, I’d always been a step off and behind, hopelessly analogue, in a dead tree, hard copy kind of way. Paleo old school stubborn, and look where it got me, to the Hassett eyeful I just caught today, bone tired of paying it all so far forward. Still, too little now, too late for line edits or rewrites, when it looks like the plot and premise have already been packaged and shipped en masse.

I scanned inside the windows, to displays of crossword paperbacks, art piece puzzles of Cezanne, Edward Gorey and Diego Rivera. Nothing of diversional interest there, so I scouted out the hand-drawn freebie book signing notices and ‘Meet the Author’ sessions, mainly local self-help, minor Bay Area exaltation scribes. That’s when it hit me head on: a glossy four-color poster announcing Hassett’s personal appearance for a Danielle Steele fête, framed with a snippet collage of his past blockbuster book covers. But I could see no further than ‘Verdict Street’. Portrayed in that same bomber jacket and a Green Beret, he and mega-writer confrère were to be lauded with a reading/Q&A at the Commonwealth Club downtown in but two weeks time, tickets limited and going fast.

Parched, famished all right, but I’d already been shaken and stirred enough as it was. So I drifted further up fly Chestnut Street, late-day onshores blustering me along, past the darker recesses of the sleek Campus Club, then the Tipsy Pig and its long-buried phantoms of a one-time ferny CSB&G. Both were already rowdy and raftered with a happy hour crowd, the two pubs bookending a precious old 24-karat goldsmithery, strategically located for any boozy, knee bender proposals to either side.

No such luck there, either: reason enough to drag along by facial ID-rigueur therma-skin cell stores and eye, lash & lipstick salons. I negotiated a mannerly sidewalk obstacle course of baby strollers and crusty Marina roller walkers—of retrievers, muggy bulldogs and feisty Labradoodles as if fresh from a Mudpuppy makeover—their leash masters having finally shed some slavish black-on-black for more brilliantly colorful North Face and Patagonia. Nevertheless, I kept coming out on the dark, losing side of all that as well.

Still, this cultivated slow-lane congestion did fortify the commingled aromas of Chestnut’s gourmet ghetto. I inhaled not particulates, but the tantalizing essence of taqueria y rottiseria, of the Panotiq bakery across the way, of Hunan Mu Shu, Curry Mi Fun and Mushroom Vi Mein. Bank branch quietude cater-cornered at Pierce Street was broken by an aging sax player wailing solo under Citi’s foyer cover for pennies on the dollar. Trusty millennials stiffly passed him by, lots of downed, fleecy Un-Tuck-It twents robotically snot-nosed through their smart phones, stoplighting their runaway rug rats, heeling sniffy, leaking kennel-bred dogs.

By this time, my flabbs were growling for a Juicy Maca Chia Seed Protein Cacao smoothie, or maybe some garlic parmesan take-out from Lucca Deli. I fought off the urge to dine and dash from the sidewalk tables of a saucy Italian garlic pasteria. Or Blackwood’s American Thai Fusion Mieng Kum Kung and Pad Kee; Dragon Well’s Ma Po Tofu and Tea-Smoked Duck, post-Stanford and Cal cliques queuing across the way. But all I could actually dig out of my key pocket was enough for a caffeine fix and momentary breather at Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

There I had sipped and steamed, trying to sort out my latest disharmony, absorb and duly process itto recall where I screwed up in the process that led to James Marion Hassett’s storied crib job. Swallow and wallow: Peet’s cozy sidewalk bench had provided a long, streaming view of Chestnut Street’s early evening traffic, along with variegated whiffs of strong, exotic coffees masking my aerobic odors, and piscine makings from Naked Fish Sushi next door. A striking roseate dusk had soon set in, igniting pastel facades, creating neon glister from the former All-Star Donuts sign, to the grand double-bill marquee of the renewly Deco Marina Theater.

“i7 quad core, 3.5 GHz?”

“i5 actually—2.5…” 

By now, Marina District restaurants were bursting, bars earnestly firing up. The dinner crowd sauntered up and down Chestnut—smart, gold swipe or (Four) Square pairings alighted from Ubers and Lyfts in designer casuals and sleek, spectral color aprés-sports, faces aglow in their little LED screens, several ‘hyper-breathers’ N95 masked. When I wasn’t caffeine mesmerized by pinging, blinking parking meters, I glommed onto the theatrics of the dogs leashed to them: Yappy Shiatzus and Griffons went at it with reticent Corgis and Pugs, snigglin’ French Bulldogs hounded chillin’ Bernese and Aussies. Passersby paused to fawn over snoozing cocoa Labs and English Cremes like they were family firstborn.

But eventually Sumatra shakes, high-end, zero-day code hackers, those Facebook or Tinder scrollers all got to me. So I cut out between an edgy Vizla and Ridgeback, catching a scent of spicy Ahi, a bouquet of lotions and bath soaps—a mug full of breeze blown smoky alcoholic brine from the cave men in the primeval Marina Lounge. Shapeshifting through hopelessly knotted main-drag traffic, I dodged abandoned e-scooters, a petitioner and sign spinner, everybody  sporting their obligatory New York/L.A. scowls.

I then migrated in through a motherboard of minimalist long blond tables perfectly arrayed with everything iThis and That. Handy touch Pads, small screen and large; Retina 4G phones and laptops galore: Sidewall counters were lined with multi-core desktops and HD monitors, all the way back to the Genius Bar. Browsing iZombies and screen slaves crowded around each hard wired display like so many Oxy addicts—caressing, toying with the digital iWare, vividly backlit wall panels smiling brilliantly down. For my part, it was high time to BS a little MacSpeak, angling to sneak a free e-peek.

32 gigs or a terabyte?”

“This one’s 8—are you…” asked a smiley, red shirted young Apple polisher who had joined me at this laptop table.

“Interested? Definitely,” I replied touch-feeling the new MacBook Pro 16-inch laptop. Yah, interested in freebie checking my email… “Right now I was just hoping to beta check my site’s PHP and SQL real quick…”

“Uh-huh,” he sniffed, dubiously eyeing my sweat wear, up and down.“BRB…” 

Soon as the sales tech was drawn over to an iWatch table, I tapped into my Gmail, wherein I found a message from the Eisenhoff Agency. The head dick wanted me to check in with him ASAP, about a ‘white-hot client and ballistic new case’. No sleeping on this gig, which still rolled in and out despite my Reese Paulen/JonBenet tape snafu in aught-eight. So there was nothing else to do but log off, peel out of the Apple Store, head back uphill to clean up for a potential after-hours meeting. Yeah, three S’s and slip into something more comfortable—but then I’ve never really fit that well around here.

Gritty darkness had descended before I turned a corner on Steiner Street, weaving betwixt some early bird louts on a drunken barfari and accompanying hotties struttin’ their young butts and loose cleavage my way. Here, the gourmet ghetto fanned out with a savory flourish: organic teriyaki to Vietnamese street food, Ace Wasabi’s Sushi to Izzy’s grilled steaks and chops—with wine and probiotic tea bars to wash it all down. So many cafes and eateries on one short block, opening and closing, lease by lease.

Then again, restaurant row went nowhere fast compared to that greasy feast across Lombard Street, just beyond Euro and Central Valley tourists chain smoking outside the Cow Hollow Motor Inn. This mis en scène was beaming like the Marina’s 1916 Exposition, only set circa 1957. Cinematic searchlights and gobs of neon flooded this leg of Lombard’s motel strip, Mel’s Diner packed with ‘American Graffiti’ buffs who longed for or never left the Eisenhower era. I cut through the fabled drive-in’s retro street rod rally, multicolor illumined palm trees shimmering over the pearl luster and metalflake of diagonally stationed, hand-rub lacquered classy chassis.

I speed-shifted around a sweet sixteen of cherryed out vintage Chevys and Fords: past a chopped & channelled ’32 Deuce, two-tone ’57 Chevy ragtop; checked out a souped up ’55 Nomad, red ’56 fuelly Corvette and a ’40 Ford coupe with those tiny chevron tailights. Pedal to the metal, four on the floor—other aging lookyloos popped their wheelies around Iskys, Duntovs, AFBs, line-bored small blocks, heads ported & polished, chrome-reversed wide whites and 4:56 Posi like they couldn’t re-believe. Tonight anyway, Mel’s Drive-In was haul-ass, hot rod heaven—just like the bad old days.

En route, I soaked in all the Gunk and naugahyde, tuned into the loudspeakered ‘Drag City’ and ‘Shutdown Volume 2’. Lording over the diner itself was a Star Wars billboard for the latest boxed set and video stream. Inside, a restaurant full of aging daddy-O duck butts and bobbysoxer dollies gorged on cheddar burgers and meaty fries, dug meatloaf platters or deep-dish chicken pot pies. Sucking giant double-malts, they bopped under the framed photo stills and memorabilia from George Lucas’s souped up 50’s flick, to a jukebox soundtrack, Memphis to Philly to Motown.

I’d grown hungry as hell by now, caught up in Mel’s nostalgia as the star-struck tourists strolling by. Was just as awash in the movie beams, search lights foiling and parrying through the gearhead glitter, platinum palm trees and candy-apple skies—all the way to Mel’s end. But then came the skid marks. Turning the corner around his dumpsters into the mid-block alley between Lombard and Greenwich, I met up with a dimmer backstreet scene. Here, flashing red and blue lights signaled something far more cautionary and grim.

“Just keep moving here, folks, nothing of your concern,” ordered the woman SFPD officer, waving off me and a couple of other shortcutting figures with a lightsaber of Luke Skywalker force.

Easily the darkest, most curious address on this one-block length of Moulton Street was this shabby, misplaced Victorian, and the scraggly birch-like tree it was hiding behind. The place rotted across from some Lombard storefronts’ backsides and a couple of rear offices, none of which ever showed any signs of life. A grimy single-story house better suited to west Petaluma sat brown-white and fading between a boxy new apartment building and nondescript over garage flat.

Torn, water-stained drapes fully covered the Vicky’s front windows, with several odd little tribal figurines left tipsy on one’s inner sill. Its solid windowless front door, a few rotting steps up, bore three deadbolt locks, which raised the question of whether nefarious drugs or worse were going down in there, or the bungalow was simply tied up in some drawn-out probate litigation, while its tasseled gingerbread trim, sagging festoons and rotted flower boxes wore further away. Still, it was a house with which I was a bit too familiar.

Now however, the issue was more felonious than that, at least as far as I could see in hasty passing. Down on a short concrete apron leading to the house’s useless garage door, in a dark dip strewn with doggy bags, crushed cigarette packs, shattered beer bottles and dried hurl, lay what looked to be the the splayed body of a lifeless young woman, face down and away. Squad car flashers and spotlights revealed a shadowy figure wrapped in splashy aquamarine.

I couldn’t much make those contours out any better, and the police were already sheathing the entire apron. But a quick second glance, and I shivered that what if she had once been a fresh, smiling face up at the house, a tenant in beset, tenuous standing—could feel it in my hormones and bones. Somehow this figured; though of course that was just idle projection. All I really knew was the evening was still young; but hereabouts, fields of gray begat tiny streams of red.

That was one way of putting it, but I didn’t want to go there, the scenario leaving a nasty taste in my mouth… 

Care for More?

CHAPTER THREE. An appointment
with a private eye opens one up to
several local scenarios, wherein he is
pressed to keep his peeled…