“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 Kojak 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 an iPhone 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…
“I’m kinda like, getting into it, you know? I mean, it’s sooo awesome, the best thing ever! Like, who’s commenting, not just the comments…the group comments or, like, real personal ones…”
“Sorry, could you tone it down a skosh…”
“You got no pushback? WTF,” she added in reply, way uptalking vocal fry, basically ignoring and turning her back to me. A slim-fit nineteener from Moraga or so, early Chabot College coed type, chestnut with a banded mare’s tail, sweats and shredded denim, twizzling about on beaded strap sandals to maintain her bars. She then maintained safe distance in an indented browsing space just outside Bookworthy’s aluminum-framed display windows. “X amount of time, and, like, you’re getting zip, haven’t even bothered to wall up. That’s sooo basic…”
“You see, I’m in the middle of…” Clash of inputs…
“Because I woulda replied in, like, a millisecond! I totally hate you—I mean, like you really suck,” she cried, balancing her rose gold iPhone X atop a Starbucks Vente to go, in full FOMO mode. “I wish I liked you so much I didn’t have to like, defriend you…”
“No, seriously, I’m trying to process a…” Couldn’t hear myself think…
“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?! VI-ral? Ohmygod, you’re soooo perfect!!! HAK…”
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.
But hey, 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 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 fete, 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 his fellow mega-writer were to be lauded with a reading/Q&A at the Commonwealth Club downtown in but two weeks time, tickets limited and going fast.
“You okay, mister,” the caller turned back to ask, packing away her 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. “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 over 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 an ulcer.
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, road Warrior hoops on the overhead tubes, the two pubs bookending a precious old 24-karat goldsmithery, strategically located for any boozy, knee bender proposals to either side.
Not my speed, 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 roller walkers—of retrievers, 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, Kung Pao Squid, 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 flabby abbs were growling for a Juice Project 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; Blackwood’s American Thai Fusion Mieng Kum Kung and Pad Kee; Dragon Well’s Ma Po Tofu and Tea-Smoked Duck, Stanford 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, barista discourtesy of Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
There I had sipped and steamed, trying to sort out my latest disharmony, absorb and duly process it—to 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.
“Got a touch bar thingamajigger?”
“Not this one, sorry…”
“i9 quad core, 3.5 GHz?”
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 lighted from Ubers and Lyfts in designer casuals and sleek, spectral color apres-sports, faces aglow in their little LED screens, if not N95 viral 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; terriers of every patch and stripe messed with 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 code hackers with their zero-day exploits, the mouthy newsbitchers and dog whistles, 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 petition wielder and sign spinner, everybody else sporting their obligatory New York/L.A. scowls. I then crossed back over toward the more fruitful side, in through a motherboard of minimalist long blond tables perfectly arrayed with everything iThis and That.
Handy touch Pads, small screen and large; Retina phones, R, S and X—Bluetooth, Siri, laptops galore: Sidewall counters were lined with multi-core desktops and HD monitors, all the way back to the store’s pricey accessories and Genius Bar. Buyers and browsers, iZombies and screen slaves alike crowded around each hard wired display like so many Oxy addicts—caressing, toying with the digital iWare, everything so bright and shiny, vividly backlit wall panels smiling brilliantly down. For my part, it was high time to engage in a little MacSpeak, angling to sneak a free online e-peek.
“This one’s dual—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, 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 S³ for the after-hours meeting.
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 tossing loose cleavage my way. Here, the gourmet ghetto fanned out with a savory flourish: organic teriyaki to Vietnamese street food, Blue Barn’s Kale Caesar and Detox Burratas—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, endlessly opening and closing. Couldn’t help but wonder why these people didn’t think of more innovative, imaginative ways to make their nut.
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 like a mini 1916 Exposition, only set circa 1956. 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 rods, amid the latest rallye redux of post-war Detroit glory. Multicolor illumined palm trees shimmered over the pearl luster and metalflake of diagonally stationed, hand-rubbed lacquered classy chassis.
I doted deliriously over a sweet sixteen of cherryed out vintage Chevys and Fords: around a chopped & channelled ’32 Deuce, two-tone ’56 Chevy ragtop, souped up ’55 Nomad, red ’56 fuelly Corvette and turquoise T-Bird for two. Check it out: a ’40 Ford coupe with those tiny chevron tailights, ’57 Bel Air finback, remade el Camino and Ranchero beds. Pedal to the metal, four on the floor. Patrons popped wheelies around Iskys, Edelbrocks, Duntovs, AFBs, line-bored small blocks, heads ported & polished; blue dots, teardrops and necker knobs—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 and chicken pot pies, sucking giant double-malts. They bopped under the framed photo stills and memorabilia from George Lucas’s souped up 50’s teener flick, to the jukebox soundtrack of Spector and Wolfman Jack.
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, polychromatic palm trees and tomato soupy 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.
“C’mon, 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 blue-gray 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 place was simply tied up in some drawn-out probate litigation, while its tasseled gingerbread trim and sagging festoons wore further away.
Tonight, 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 dip strewn with doggy bags, crushed cigarette packs, shattered beer bottles and dried hurl, beside a large rotted flower box, appeared to lay 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. Somehow this figured, though 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 now. For it left such a nasty taste in my mouth…
CHAPTER THREE. An appointment
with a private eye opens one up to
several local scenarios, wherein he is
pressed to keep his peeled…
“Imitation is the seamiest
form of flattery…”
Okay then, let’s strap it on, give this a go…
Then came a full frontal assault, smack in the grille—a black letter/gilt foiled, rejiggered slap in the face. Here I was, in the endorphin zone, having just come off the usual 5-K, a hill-aerobic, gale-blown slog through San Francisco’s greater Presidio, stately Pacific Heights on down—anything to drop a fleshy belt roll or two. Camphorous, peeling eucalyptus groves, olive-drab military history gone bright Spanish white and terra cotta: the route was usually hard-run balm for my atrophying body and increasingly aggravated mind.
“Do I look like I have any money on me?”
“And I do? Just down from Paradise, lost it all up there. Fire is greedy, you know. It takes everything. Fire’s terrible that way.”
But this homeless encounter now brought back memories of Spare-the-Air granular skies and cherry red-dot sunsets—of particulate matter from the infamous Camp Fire, mixing with residual vestiges of previous Tubbs and Nuns. My lungs still ached some from inhaling the effluvium of these seemingly inescapable Indian summer infernos, and a Kincade Fire had come menacing Napa-Sonoma all over again. The firestorms were largely byproduct of hellacious offshore winds downing power lines, exploding overtaxed transformers across the Bay Area come Labor Day, upshot of climbing temps, deeper brush and drought desiccated fuel beds; of bark beetle infestations, denser savannahs and chaparrals. Designated urban firestorms, they were byproduct of hellacious offshores downing power lines, of exploding overtaxed transformers, lightning arresters, sparky three-phase reclosers all across the wine country terrain.
“Uh, really sorry about that,” I looked away, edging to slip aside, again pointing to my ragged blue Asics running shorts and ancient Puma tee. I was thankful for the rising Air Quality Index of late, but that wasn’t tempering my sudden downward mood swing in the slightest. “I can imagine…”
“Oh, you can, can you…” This haggard street stander reached out from the torn pockets of an ill-fitting black trench coat, leaning forward sockless, in scuffed, brown wing-tipped shoes.
“Have a good one, okay,” I nodded, moving on. For there were still so many horror stories like his—of Venturi swirls, fire tornadoes, high-velocity eddies and vortices slinging sparks and cinders, creating 100 m.p.h. thermal columns, hoovering combustible material as they rose, soon igniting acreage in vast horizontal swaths. Plumas to Paradise, vineyards to the Emerald Triangle: News accounts had mapped the spread of indiscriminate wildfire destruction—charred chassis, cherished heirlooms, spindly Walmart lounge chairs—hillside mansions to overreaching subdivisions and a valley of quondam mobile homes.
The worst such firestorm in California history, Camp had gutted the lives, precious lands and material treasures of locals like him, who fled extreme events with go-bags in the middle of the night, facing ferocious Diablo winds and ember flows, horrific hot-flash reckonings and door pounding evacuation orders by the municipal scores. This while sucking in the toxic smaze from charred tiles and roofing, thick wood smoke spiked with torched polymers, viscid ash—a carbonic stew of flame retardant and spent fuels—spilling all the way down to The City. Made a person wonder where thousands of displaced victims like this guy would be sheltering through years of cleanup, recovery and missed compensation deadlines, having as I did some residual skin in that game.
Otherwise, it was grief and pain and pray for rain: Blame PG&E, rampant overdevelopment or climate change for these horrific fire seasons, power shutdowns and red flag warnings they bring. Not that a decent winter season and cooler temperatures hadn’t eased the infernal threat some lately, All the same, I was suddenly burning even hotter in the here and now.
“Unbelievable,” I gasped—oh, no, not this now.
“That’s one way of putting it, to be sure…”
“No, I mean, this can’t really be happening…”
“Oh, but it can, sir,” she beamed, “went up just today.”
By the same token, replay of the NorCal conflagrations had further kindled my recollective cortex. Earlier flashbacks began amid second and third winds along the dune grassy flats of leaden Crissy Field, where long-scuppered thoughts surfaced like channel buoys on the choppy San Francisco Bay, merely a slivered beach away. Despite sucking in sand, long-tail ash and heavy salt-marine air out there, I chugged along powerless to deny an abiding endorphin addiction in any way, shape or form.
Top of mind was how Reese Paulen and I had blown up and out of our whole Anti-Buddies routine since 2008. I’d replayed step by labored step the way our Middle East peace train had gone off the rails. Rhetorically stalemated and polarized our own selves, we were getting cheered and hissed, shouted down and booed off debate stages from Mt. Holyoke to Humboldt State. There were the angry protest placards at Rutgers, sit-ins at Brandeis, counter/counter demonstrations at Columbia, trigger warnings and safe zones at Oberlin and Madison, the cross-bred bomb threats at Westwood and UC Irvine. Accused of everything offensive—fake prophesy to cheap seats provocation—being labeled anti-Semites for even broaching the term. Better we had never brought the whole thing up in the first place. But somebody had to try to find some common ground. And so we did, notwithstanding all the political pyrotechnics and geo-barriers, at least until the donations dried up.
We had even tissued out a website, which would eventually have been hacked and trolled anyhow. Moreover we tinkered with a podcast, diddled around with the codings of a killer app, at least until the seed feed ended in a round-one TKO. That was about when our secular, well meaning discourse exited stages left and right. Post mortem: Paulen himself couldn’t sell occupation security/spreading settlements; I couldn’t credibly unpack the Palestinian infighting and BDS/Gaza resistance. Sad to say, it was a long shot from the ’08 moment we were sprung from 850 Bryant Street after being cleared of felony charges, due to lack of incriminating testimony or smoking guns. In retrospect, odd what a guilty conscience can make a body do, and get done to, for that matter.
“But such an incredible hype job…”
“Big launch, for a big figure,” the woman tidied up a stack in passing. “Larger than life, wouldn’t you say?”
“Barely larger than lowlife, maybe. But the jury’s still out on that…”
“Sorry, I don’t quite…”
Jogging along Crissy, I had revisited as how Paulen resettled in Berkeley with his daughter to found his Anti-Buddies Research Center with a MOOC component and seminars at the JCCs—despite so little having changed for the better anywhere in the Levant. Rather, Israeli-Palestinian circumstances had spun into an unremitting southern trajectory and standoff with no peaceable closure on the Mideast horizon.
So much disputed territory, borders to breach and defend: I figured doc had his hands full, what with the Two-State Illusion likely never to materialize as envisioned for so long. The foregoing professor said he was committed to bringing his sociological discipline to bear on issues like anti-Zionism vs. anti-Semitism, BDS vs. DBS, Islamism vs. Islamophobia. Bless him, but the only light at the end of that tunnel was seemingly by IDF or IUD. Meantime, one-state, two-state—instigate, insinuate—a binary boondoggle if there ever was one.
Nevertheless, we did crack crab now and then to keep doors open on that and other heady projects, compare where we were at the moment—although that was a while ago. At least that was how I could re-piece it all together in my ever-running mind. That is, anytime doc more or less popped back in.
Whatever—past history, couldn’t much hang with him any longer anyway: seemed clear I was a stand-in with no standing. Even though I did have my share of battle scars from the Zionist-Zionot wars, from the tortured semantics of anti-Semitism old and new, to where I had begun to come unhinged all over again. I needed to pot down those fractious voices in my head—just wishing the level best for the Middle East—that all parties can secure their sense of peace and place in this world. As if that were the last I’d hear of it, as if I couldn’t pretty much guess where it all was really headed. So by now I was content to cool down with recovery calm and good post-aerobic telomeres, head to toe. Then came this potboiled affront.
“Uh, nothing, no matter,” I said, focusing on what was in store. “Must just be your window display or… ”
“Yes, well, it’s his latest, you know,” rallied the studious sales clerk, who had sidled up to dust the new fiction table, center floor at Bookworthy’s, this literary staple of a Marina District that hadn’t suffered such AQI vapors since Loma Prieta 1989.
“Topping the lists already, is it,” I asked, having been faceplanted to the legal thriller section, my New Balance supinators on their old, worn-through heels.
“You bet, like a Saudi oil well,” she tidied up two high hardcover stacks, prominently front and middle on the display counter, which crowded out other New York Times best sellers like Exxon at a Gulf rights bidding war. “He just keeps pumping them out every year.”
“Seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?” I picked up a top copy of ‘Verdict Street’, flipping past its glittery gold-on-mean streets emblazoned cover to the ISBN and acknowledgement pages—lightly fingering through the aroma of black letter ink and bindery glue, cracking and creaking of its virgin spine—finding little or no consolation.
“Yes, it is almost Pavlovian automatic, like with all his others—such a commanding body of work…” She looked on with all due proprietary concern.
Bookworthy’s was by no means a megastore, but wasn’t a cozy little lit nook either—not insignificant in a day when such brick and mortar retail outlets scarcely survived the Amazon onslaught. Long wall shelves of fiction and non-fiction, of genre after genre sections for every decent taste including war stories and tell-all tomes. Beyond front window banners heralding James Marion Hassett’s latest, this voluminous fiction table was thick with his publisher’s thematic bunting, bookmarks and flyers.
Fortifying that promotional push were gushing Sharpie marker store picks, two strategically centered stacks, four more on adjacent floor display at the foot of a nearly life-size cutout of the writer himself, in a leather bomber jacket and Special Forces ballcap, justice scales prominently in hand. Otherwise, Bookworthy’s prime retail real estate offered racks of local to global periodicals, row upon row of home design, cookbooks, coffee table pictorials, bios/autobios, travel, romance and sci fi—of guides, gifts, posters, kitty calendars, clasped diaries, coffee mugs, studio greeting cards and sheeny wrappings. Nevertheless, mega-author Hassett currently lorded over it all.
“Uh-huh, how do you figure he keeps coming up with these story ideas,” I asked, barely stifling the urge to toss the formulaic 400-page legal procedural at Hassett’s cutout like some Dunk-the-Clown booth on an old Playland midway.
“That’s his pure genius, now isn’t it…” The clerk patted the renowned author’s cardboard shoulder, smile as prim as her pastel H&S separates and tight blond bun.
“Guess you could call it that,” I said, weighing the novel’s tactile heft with a jounce of the hands like a rangy reliever palming his resin bag.
“Sooo, find what you were looking for?” Seemed as if she sniffed a whiff of dissent on my part; either that or she finally caught wind of my poly latex saturation and low-grade bodily functions.
“Yes, ’fraid so…”
“Excellent, now you’ll have to excuse me,” she said in withdrawal, with a glance and nod toward the store manager/cashier, Mahler and Mendelssohn mood speakering about.
The opening grabber read, ‘Fields of green begat streams of red’. What kind of stale garbage was this?! Hmm, otherwise looked similar, title was almost a dead ringer, read awfully damn close, trail of my synopsis and teaser excerpts and pulls. Damn, look at that, a couple of characters were named the same. Even the cover image was straight out of my line of sight, fruit of my overworked imagination. He might as well have given me an ‘as told by’ co-credit, citation on the verso ISBN page, or at least a thank you or liner blurb.
So blindsided, so violated: There was little to do but slam the thing down like a towaway parking citation, and storm out of the store essentially empty handed, hoping not to trip its security alarms. Petty theft, backatcha—all the way out the doors. Negativity bias, cortisol flow: suddenly gone was the endorphin high. Old anterior cruciates were screaming for an MRI. I could feel the burn from my ligaments to lungs: Time to dial things up a notch, and all the rest of it…
Still I paused, and turned to fixate once more on the Hassett hype and idol worship, misplaced though it manifestly was. Christ, what possessed me to start down this road in the first place? Stumble through some hellish hard knocks, scheming about grinding a book out of it. Book, shit, great un-American novel, best seller bound, shopping the slop around like a Market Street meth hero peddling demented guitar licks with Orpheum and Shoreline sell-outs in his drippy custard eyes. Mailing queries, synopses and sample chapters back east, down coast—agent to agent, house to house—lot damn better I’d been faring my own self.
Really, all that Kinko copying and SASE two-way postage, thinking it was actually going to get me somewhere, basically giving the goods away, paying the freight for that warped, weighted hard-copy game, getting form rejections way too long after the fact, with nary a nibble or two. When I might as well have gone the vanity press route anyway—bought into the fees, false hope and self-delusional hokum of outfits like Xlibris or authorHouse, with the bored lit-major housewives, retired K-12 teachers and decommissioned brass.
Yet for all the non-responses and piled up stock reject slips, this sucker was different as I let it burn in. It was more personal, much deeper and more asymmetrical, even crookedly diabolical—this one stuck to my ribs.
CHAPTER TWO. Up the street,
Apple polishing, savoring some
some glittery cherries, then a
turn of a corner into the darkness…