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Telegraph Hill

by John F. Nardizzi

4.7 stars – 14 Reviews

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Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

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Here’s the set-up:

Private detective Ray Infantino is searching for a missing girl named Tania. The case takes him to San Francisco, the city he abandoned years ago after his fiance was killed. Thrust into his old city haunts, Ray finds that Tania may not be lost at all. Tania saw a murder; and a criminal gang, the Black Fist Triad, wants to make sure she never sees anything again.

Ray enlists help from an old flame, Dominique, but now he has three women on his mind. Meeting with various witnesses—ex-cops, prostitutes, skinheads—he relentlessly tracks the evidence. But the hunt for Tania fires his obsession with avenging the murder of his fiance. When the triad retaliates, and blood begins to flow, Ray must walk the knife edge between revenge and redemption on the streets of San Francisco.

Praise for Telegraph Hill:

“…Just when you thought there was no more room for another lawyer/crime writer, BOOM – a terrific surprise…”

“…well-drawn characters, a plot which moves right along, intimate portrayals of Boston and San Francisco…the prose is thoughtful and poetic…”

an excerpt from

Telegraph Hill

by John F. Nardizzi

Chapter 1

As night slouched on, the flesh and drug trade simmered at the intersection of Turk and Jones. Johnny Cho smoked a cigarette on the fire escape of the Senator Hotel. Johnny could have afforded a better room than the Senator; he was now earning huge sums of cash. Saving like only an immigrant can save, scraping money from every hungry minute.

Two men watched him from the shadows of the alley. They turned away and walked to Eddy Street, waiting for the call. One man tapped his jacket. Ready for the wet work. The men turned left on Leavenworth Street.

Johnny glanced at his watch: 10:33 PM. Across the street, graffiti on a brick wall—‘Plastic people are cute.’ He didn’t understand the reference. Bodies lurched on the sidewalk, glowing in the neon lights of porn shops—crack whores, johns, dealers, trannies, junkies. Some didn’t move at all, sprawled on greasy sidewalks.

His triad owned these sidewalks. They operated three massage parlors in the city’s Tenderloin district: Crystal Massage, The Golden Lotus, and Tokyo Spa. All were fronts for prostitution. The world’s oldest profession had a centuries-old lineage in the city. If not exactly accepted, the profession at least had carved out a certain measure of grungy respect. The massage parlors operated openly, signs beckoning over restaurants, ads in local papers. They generated substantial fees on their own, but as cash businesses, their value as money makers paled in comparison to their main function: laundering a steady torrent of drug money. And because of the triad’s interest in developing new cash businesses, the massage parlors were earning him a very respectable living.

Johnny had left Hong Kong with a group of refugees when he was fourteen. They drifted for weeks across the Pacific on a chunk of rotten wood someone had the balls to call a boat. Eight dead bodies later, he made it to Los Angeles. Since then, he had come a long way from washing dishes in grubby Chinatown restaurants. First, a runner for the numbers, a trusted doorman. Then bigger assignments—jobs issued with a whisper, or on a dirty slip of paper, coded, you never knew the whole deal. Follow the man to see which apartment he enters at 10:30 PM. Get the address of the girl with the purple hat who works at the bank.

Then came other tasks, things he didn’t talk about.

The feuding bosses of the major triads had met earlier that day, twenty-four men in total: bosses, favored lieutenants, and bodyguards hiding behind sunglasses. They talked over a long lunch at a big downtown hotel, ordering dim sum and cold beer, posturing and blowing cigarette smoke at each other. Johnny found the negotiations tiresome. He wanted some time away. A bit of a risk coming to the Senator Hotel with the girls—he usually went to one of the triad houses. But he did not want to be disturbed tonight, and he would have been recognized at the Lotus. He was not in the mood to listen to complaints. So, the Senator Hotel had been pressed into service once again. He’d dine alone too, if he could help it. Tomorrow promised another day of endless meetings.

He watched the street action, reaching absentmindedly for another cigarette. He was out. Where was the girl? She had gone inside over five minutes ago—still no smokes.

He heard a click in the alley. He looked down and saw a wooden door open into the passageway. The cement walkway gleamed, slick from an earlier rain. Two men slid inside. They walked past trash barrels into the shadows.

Johnny stared. One of the men looked up, and met his eye. The man muttered something. Then the men crouched and sprang toward the rear of the building.

Johnny shivered a bit, a spade dragging across cold stones. One of the men reached the iron fire escape. Hunching low, he took two steps at a time.

Johnny didn’t like this at all. Reached down and felt a sickness in his gut—the snub .38 was in his jacket.

He sprang back from the edge of the railing and moved toward the battered steel door. He yanked the door handle—it was locked. He smashed his fist on the door, jammed his face near the small square window. One of the girls looked up, startled. He saw the other girl, the blond, packing her bag near the bathroom. For a second, his eyes met those of the blond, and he drew in her frightened complicity. Fucking whore—she set him up! He watched as she turned away, shouting something to the other girl.

Bracing against the rail, Johnny slammed his shoulder against the door. Nothing—the steel door was immovable.

The sudden heightening of senses, the pungent smell of cement and rain.

Footsteps clanged on the black iron of the fire escape. Johnny turned toward the stairwell—climb to the roof, maybe crawl up somehow. He took two steps, curling over the railing.

They were already in range.

He heard a popping sound from below, and his ribcage shuddered. And again. He tried to breathe past the pain lancing his chest. Chinese voices, and another voice, unidentifiable. Cold on his cheek, and he knew he was down on the ironwork. Something like boiling soup poured on his stomach. He felt some leathery thing brush his face, and then a whooshing of wings peeling away across a vast black canyon.

Chapter 2

Ray Infantino strode along the red brick sidewalks of Beacon Hill in Boston. Old elms shaded the stately row houses, set close to the narrow streets and bordered with iron gates and granite steps. Small gardens exploded with color—foxglove, bleeding heart, purple cone flowers spilling over the brick. Across the street, a group of tourists fired madly away with their cameras at a particularly well-preserved brick mansion. One of those lush days in a fast and furious New England summer—it made the existence of winter seem an impossibility.

For the upcoming meeting, Ray dressed in a navy blue suit with a cobalt shirt and patterned gold tie. He avoided button-down collars, a sign of epic repression.

He knew that he would be scrutinized by one of Boston’s best criminal defense lawyers, Lucas Michaels. Lucas had invited him to his home office, where he was working for the day. Lawyers like Lucas often had ambivalent relationships with investigators. Investigators could be a problem. They needed to be roped in all too often. Too many cowboys telling war stories from back in the day when their cocks got stiff without help from a little blue pill.

Ray rang at the door of a three-story Victorian row house topped with a copper dome that had faded to a green patina. The golden dome of the state house peeked over the hill a few blocks away. He brushed back a wave of unruly black hair, and pulled the suit jacket over his spare boxer’s physique.

He rang again and heard a buzzing sound. The door clicked open, and Ray stepped into a foyer painted a brilliant white. A thin man in his sixties walked toward him.

“Lucas Michaels,” the man said, extending his hand. “Thanks for coming over so soon, Ray.” Lucas wore a faded blue polo shirt over tan slacks. His face was all sharp angles, topped by a crisply cut hedge of white hair. He looked fit and rested.

Although lawyers were often guilty for lauding each other with bloated reviews, Lucas’s reputation as one of the top defense lawyers in the city was legitimate. His fame had not come easily. After working on the West Coast as a young lawyer, he had returned home to Boston and worked unheralded for many years as court–appointed counsel for indigent defendants. In 1963, he undertook the defense of the Scollay Slasher in a murder trial with national coverage. The defendant had murdered seven women in back alleys of the decaying Scollay Square section of Boston. He was acquitted after Lucas’s brutal cross-examination of two witnesses exposed major flaws in the police investigation. He had never looked back, regularly defending the city’s most hated and controversial figures. His reputation grew, one of thoroughness, a solid, if unspectacular, intelligence. And a certain ruthlessness. He seemed to enjoy eviscerating witnesses on the witness stand, even those he did not suspect were lying; he enjoyed it just a bit more than even the bruising standards of his profession allowed.“A feared elder statesman of the Boston defense bar,” a mutual friend, Paul Artemis, had said of Lucas before arranging the meeting with Ray. “A real prick.”

Ray knew that elder statesmen of the bar were often late payers. He’d make certain to get a retainer.

Lucas led Ray through the living room filled with dark, ornate furniture, and into an informal brick-walled study. Books of literature and law lined the walls. A white oak bar filled one side of the study. The two men sat down in overstuffed leather chairs. The smell of cigar smoke filled the air.

“I’ve heard a lot about you over the years,“ Lucas said. “Paul Artemis at Boswell & Giles spoke well of you. Said you were an uncommon talent.”

Ray nodded in recognition of Artemis’s name. “We did some work together on a civil rights case against the White Aryan Nation.”

“Paul said you have a talent for finding and handling witnesses. This might be the right case for that talent.”

Ray tried to think of which investigator Lucas had worked with on past cases, but he drew a blank.

“Tell me more of your background,” Lucas said. “How did you come to work in the PI field?”

“While in law school, I started working one summer for the Southern Law Project as an investigator,” said Ray. “I developed a strategy for placing undercover operatives in hate groups. Based on some of the evidence we developed, the Law Center filed a civil RICO case and was able to seize the Aryan Knights’ assets. Even the Aryan Knights name was turned over. They can’t use the name anymore without infringing a trademark.”

Lucas nodded. “That must have infuriated them. Sounds interesting. Those are some rough people.”

“Rough,” agreed Ray, fading out and thinking of the Project. He forced himself to think of the meeting, letting his thoughts of the Project diffuse in the air. Ignore it. “A few years later, I went out on my own. I specialize in interviewing witnesses, handling the fact-finding on complex cases,” he concluded.

“Well, I hope you can assist me,” Lucas said. “I have a client with a personal issue involving a young member of the family.” Lucas stood up, walked behind the bar, and bent down to open a small refrigerator. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Water is fine, thanks.” Lucas returned with two miniature bottles of water, some fancy imported stuff with a label crowing about gelid springs and eternal life. Ray sipped his water, and waited.

Lucas shifted in his seat and made himself comfortable. “The client is a Chinese family who I have represented for many years in business matters. They are based in Hong Kong. They asked me to assist in locating a missing family member, a woman named Tania Kong. Her sister is the one who is leading this inquiry.”

“Tania is of Chinese-Thai descent. She was always the black sheep of the family. She had a difficult childhood. Her natural mother died when she was a young child. Her father remarried a few years later. That unfortunate series of events brings us here.”

Lucas paused and sipped his water. “Growing up, Tania was rebellious, depressed. She never got along with her stepmother.” He shrugged and opened his hands. “The usual fairy tale. Tania was raised by her father in Hong Kong. The family fell on rough times when he passed away after being fatally injured in an auto accident. Tania was devastated by her father’s death. As I said, her relationship with her stepmother was never warm. At age eighteen, she left the family compound and was living on her own.”

Ray noticed that Lucas spoke in a formal, literary manner that, while probably appealing in court, could be off-putting in casual conversation. He was surprised by this habit, given Lucas dealt with criminal dregs. He forced himself to focus.

“A few years ago, after moving to San Francisco, she disappeared,” said Lucas. He sat back in his chair. “The client is only now pursuing this. They tried to reach her every now and then, but she seems to have just dropped off the face of the earth.”

“Does the family know of any friends in California?” asked Ray.

“None that we know. We have no address, no telephone number. This is why I called you. There is very little to go on. Nothing really.” He leaned forward. “Do you think you can assist in finding her?”

“Absolutely. There are things that can be done, local city records, courts, that type of thing. Interviews with people—“

Lucas interrupted, “That brings me to the next point: the client is a prominent family in Hong Kong. Various businesses, restaurants, nightclubs. Real estate on both U.S. coasts. They don’t want to be on page one with a story about their wayward little girl. That is a major concern. Avoid the paparazzi. They simply want to find her and make sure she is all right.”

“I understand. Do you have a photo of Tania?”

“Not yet, but I will have the client provide one. The photos will be a bit dated, obviously.”

“And you say the family does not have even a last known address in the city?” asked Ray. “Maybe I can speak with the family just to confirm that they have no information.”

“Certainly,” Lucas said. “The client has told me they have no information about where she may have lived in San Francisco. She never corresponded with them while she was there. Not by mail or telephone. She was reclusive.”

“So there really is not much to go on.”

“Not much at all.”

Ray nodded, rubbed his chin. Find the missing girl. Easy enough, usually.

“I know you cannot give guarantees,” continued Lucas, “but approximately how long do you think before you can begin to see some results?”

“I would give it at least a few weeks, but can’t be certain at this point,” Ray replied. “I’ll run her name and date of birth just to see if something obvious pops up in the databases. Although I doubt that, based on what you said about a previous investigator not finding her. I can be in San Francisco by Tuesday. This will probably require some lengthy public records research there. I’ll need a retainer before I travel.”

“That will not be an issue. What are your fees?”

“$195.00 per hour. Plus expenses.”

“You charge more than most investigators,” said Lucas.

“I get results. Usually anyway. This is a humbling business. I stay in good hotels, nothing ridiculous though. Travel time is billed; half this job is waiting for the golden moment.”

“I understand,” Lucas said, nodding. “I’ve taken clients to court to show them why I had to sit in a hallway while a judge conducts a motions hearing. But your fees will not be a problem. The client wants your best efforts and they expect to pay for it.”

“I’ll send over an engagement letter,” said Ray. “I think a $10,000 retainer should be fine to start.”

Ray handed Lucas a card. “I’ll wait to see the photo before I make any plans. As I mentioned, any personal identifiers such as a date of birth or even a green card number, that would be helpful too.”

“Yes, thanks for reminding me. I’ll check on both points.”

Lucas sat down at an antique desk in a corner of the room, where he jotted down some notes. Ray admired the oak wainscoting, honey colored and smooth. Lucas finished writing and stood up. He reached out his hand to Ray. “This client expects superior results. They always do. And that is why I called you. This type of case is probably routine for you.”

Ray nodded. “It’s routine—until it’s not.” He smiled. It was tempting, but he wasn’t about to promise anything. Lucas stared at him for a moment, and then a tight smile crossed his face. “I look forward to working with you,” he said. The men shook hands, and Ray walked toward the door.

Ray walked down the granite stairs and headed toward Beacon Street. He cut through the Public Gardens. Stands of willows arched over the swan boats as college kids paddled languidly through the dark green water. He strolled past expensive bistros and shops on Newbury Street, and walked into the brassy dusk of the Capitol Grill steakhouse. The show was on: the glasses sparkled, the bartender mixed drinks in a lunchtime fury, a busty waitress let select customers look down her blouse a little bit. He sat down in a window seat and ordered a rare steak with French fries.

The meal came and Ray dug into the steak. He would have to thank Paul Artemis for referring him to Lucas. Personal recommendations were the touchstone on which the private world of lawyers relied. It would be a good case—defined as a riddle wrapped in a puzzle situated in an interesting locale. And backed with a sufficient budget. And while he was in California, he would personally undertake work on the Project, perform the necessary pruning. It was long overdue. This would be his first trip to the city in five years.

Ray delved into the delicious rare slab of beef and watched the antics of the lunch crowd. Then he paid the bill and headed back to work.

* * *

Lucas watched as Ray headed down the street. He had not expected a cowboy, and he was pleased. He had heard a story from a colleague about this man. The trial lawyer had asked Infantino on the witness stand what he did for a living; Infantino had replied that he looked into people’s eyes to tell if they were lying. Laughs all around, and the jury loved it. Lucas suspected Infantino was only partly joking. Lucas knew what his client wanted: someone who had yet to rot in the suburbs, someone not easily denied. This was the guy.

He called California from a disposable phone he used for three months and then tossed. The line was picked up.

“Our investigator will be out there next week.”

“Who is he?

“Ray Infantino. Highly recommended for this sort of matter. Once he finishes his work, make sure you finish yours.”

Chapter 3

At Hunan House Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Tamo sat back in his chair. The forty year old Shanghai native had a crude bulk that made other men step back despite his lack of height. An assortment of scars and cuts on his hands and neck were living mementos of a highly evolved violent streak. Tamo finished the last call and jammed the cell phone in his pocket. Damn thing was overheating. He picked at his dinner of spicy shrimp.

The message came two hours before, and it was very clear: The bosses wanted the whore. And they wanted her now. She was a witness who saw something downtown and got out of the building before the job was done. Cops had picked her up, interviewed her. They couldn’t take any chances.

He filtered a slightly different version into the flinty night. The long reach of the Black Fist Triad came into play: photos passed, descriptions detailed, names and addresses reviewed. Kids selling newspapers on Kearny, the night clerk at the liquor store, bartenders, club kids, truck drivers, anyone of them could make an easy grand for a positive ID on the girl. She had taken something—speculation was money, but no one was certain—taken something that was not hers to take. That was the story. No one asked whose money, and no one asked how much. People seemed sensitive to the vibration. The Triad was calling for justice for one of their own. When a tiger gets angry, the grass gets trampled. No one wanted to be the grass.

Tamo now had over seventy men sitting on her apartment. The young bloods loved stakeouts. This was the private eye shit they saw in the movies. How good some of the kids were at surveillance, though, was open for evaluation. But what some of them lacked in experience, they made up in sheer numbers—that was why he had fourteen cars out there. The men parked at staggered points around the block. Four or five guys to a car, meandering around the neighborhood.

He had three cars on Larkin Street, which had sunk into its customary vileness by 11:00 PM. Solitary men in hoodies dealt meth in the shadows of withered trees dying on the sidewalk. Suburban addicts drove around the block, nervous but desperate, risking it all for a one hour high. Tranny hookers perched on street corners. A steady trail of cars rolled by with young guys ogling the tits and ass. A few Triad soldiers razzed a Latina tranny in red heels with enormous fake breasts bursting through her blouse. “Ass-smellin’ bitches!” she hissed. Billy didn’t take that shit from no man in a dress. He tried to get out of the back seat to bash her skull. The crew held him back, laughing crazily, high fives all around. The tranny stalked up Post Street. The men returned to watching the apartment.

Tamo left the restaurant and had a beer at an underground card game near Stockton. So many tunnels had been dug in the basement that no one was sure anymore which building they were sitting beneath. By 1:00 AM, he was thoroughly pissed at the lack of news. He worked the cell again. He ordered dozens more soldiers into the Tenderloin, North Beach and Telegraph Hill, the bars near the Marina, downtown, SOMA, the Mission. The soldiers walked all night long, a scanned photo from some years back jammed in a pocket; others sat in cars watching the clubs empty out and compared faces to a photo set on the dashboard. Not perfect, but better than nothing. They scoured Chinatown and Nob Hill, driving slowly and ripping the streets with eyeballs. They drove up and down Broadway staring at any girl who fit the profile: Chinese, early 20s, pretty eyes, face as seen in the picture.

No sign of Tania by the next morning. Another hour. No word by noon. Tamo smacked the table—how the hell do six hundred men not find this girl walking the streets? He made more phone calls, burning through the anger with sheer activity.

“Get everyone out there. Roll out every dickweed by the carload!” All they wanted was one little whore.

Chapter 4

The sun was shining and joggers crowded the crumbling paths on the banks of the Charles River. Ray headed to his office in Cambridge, located on the top floor of a 18th century brick building near Harvard Square. Harvard College had been founded in 1756,the nation’s first men’s college. As the college’s elite reputation spread, the neighborhood outside its red brick walls grew with it. Some people thought the neighborhood had grown too much and lost its distinct flavor; it now resembled any other urban center. Ray strode past the few funky cafes and bookstores that refused to be shouldered aside as national retailers moved in, undaunted by rising rents. A crew of young punks at the subway station kept a wary eye on the upward mobility of the Square.

Ray walked into his office. Bookcases lined the crimson walls. A Fiji mask hung near the door, grinning a razor smile, a crazed god watching over some forgotten crevice of the universe. His receptionist and editor, Sheri Haynes, sat at her desk in a sunny corner.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Hello Ray.” She stopped editing a report and looked up. “Nice shirt. Love that color.”

“A question for you. The guy at Brooks said this color is mauve.” He pulled at his shirt. “I say lavender.”

“It’s lavender, Ray. He’s color blind.”

“We agree on something.” Ray poured a cup of black coffee, and sat down.

“That attorney overnighted the retainer,” said Sheri. “For the case in California.”

Glancing out the window at the street, Ray saw a man wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers with black dress socks cross Massachusetts Avenue. The man, probably a professor, soon disappeared behind the brick wall of Harvard Yard. Ray shook his head in disgust—denizens of Harvard had a polluted sense of style.

He turned to a tidy pile of mail on his desk and opened a letter from Lucas Michaels. It contained a check written out for ten thousand dollars and two photos of Tania. A brief note listed Tania’s date of birth and Social Security Number.

He looked closely at the photos. One was a close-up of an Asian woman with long black hair combed back and parted in the middle. Her skin was tan, darker than most Chinese, leavened as it was with Thai blood. Her eyes were set just a bit too close, so that she was bumped from the ranks of the beautiful into the merely intriguing— a far better category, in Ray’s opinion. Her face radiated an inquisitive intelligence. The second photo showed her thoughtful, unsmiling, holding her awkward teenage body slightly toward the camera. She was dressed in jeans with a white shirt that just showed a sliver of stomach. A note stated that the first photo was taken when Tania was twenty years old, while the second was taken when Tania was seventeen years old.

Ray turned to his computer and ran Tania’s name and birth date through several locator databases. The databases were built on information from credit applications, phone records, real estate transactions, licensing records—the citizenry of the United States reduced to its essential numbers and sequences. Tania did not come up in any database. Ray guessed that she was using cash, flying low to avoid the radar.

He looked down at his calendar, checking the schedule. No pressing meetings for the next few days. He worked mostly for lawyers, narrowly intelligent men who still wore suits on Fridays and tried to look older than they were. Serious faces for serious business. On their behalf he undertook the messy work of facts, of witnesses with criminal convictions and flawed memories. The thousand nicks and scars that make a human.

They asked him to interview witnesses. They asked him to put people under surveillance. He had a modest army of surveillance operatives. Rich clients especially loved that aspect of investigations: a transitory omnipresence, watching your opponent’s daily rituals. They called on weekends, demanding constant updates. They wanted descriptions, auto makes, shoe sizes, and facial details. They wanted the name of the awesome blond. He once had a client in California who had requested that Ray keep an enemy under surveillance around the clock for two years. There was a beauty to such demented pursuits.

He decided he would waste no more time in Boston. His personality was geared to projects, numbered lists. Check them off and the day is done. He devoted time to it, the detailed tasks in a notebook, the required follow-up. And now he had two projects in California.

“Sheri, will you take this to the bank now?” He handed her the check. “I’m heading west.”

“You’re off where?” she asked, coming to him and taking the check.

“San Francisco.”

Sheri stared at him. “Are you working on Cherry yourself?”

“Partly,” said Ray. “The check covers other work actually.”

She paused, an odd look on her face. “You ready to jump back into that?”

“San Francisco is where I have to go. The path to a molten ending is made of a thousand cold steps.”

Sheri adjusted her glasses. “What’s that from? Faulkner?”

“That’s from me,” said Ray. Then he flicked on the computer and booked a flight to San Francisco.

Chapter 5

Head low, Tania skittered through the narrow, sun-blasted alley. It looked too open, a concrete shooting gallery. This place always made her nervous. But she had to get off Market Street. The wind ripped down from Twin Peaks, blowing newspapers against her leg.

She pulled her hoodie close to her face. She looked like a homeless wreck, a huge ratty sweatshirt, old sneakers. She should cut off her long hair—too noticeable.

Her friend lived in a gray house with a heavy steel door. She looked toward Mission and back to Market. No one was following. She took the key, opened the door and slipped inside. The door clanged shut behind her and she breathed out audibly.

In the hours after the murder, she had been out of her mind with fear. She had left the hotel running but a cop stopped her after he saw her leaving the front gate. She sat in the car, and he took her downtown. As the cruiser pulled away, they were watching, three of them, staring at her through the glass. She told the cops nothing and got out few hours later, but the damage was done. She had survived the shooting and now they thought she was a snitch. A death sentence two times over.

They would shoot her ten, twenty times, right in the neck and face. The girls called these kids the walking dead, because despite their youth, they harbored no hope, no feelings. The whole thing involved a different breed now, these kids, they planned nothing and just reacted, cyclone spasms of mayhem. Pulled from typhoid slums in China, they only wanted to live large for a few crazed years and then die like men. The triad promised them a life where both desires would be fulfilled.

She had eaten almost nothing for days. She would shape shift and let hunger carve her appearance into something new, unrecognizable. She couldn’t eat anyway. Every goddamn guy that came near her.

She remembered one story of a triad member who shot a guy from a motorcycle. He wasn’t sure if his mission was complete. That was the word the kids used—they went on missions. The guy stopped a motor bike in front of a crowd of people. Revved the engine and sent smoke into the crowd. Then he walked over to the kid lying on the street, bent down, and emptied the gun into his face. This was who they were sending after her.

The night the men had stormed the hotel, two of them charging up the fire escape, they put a dozen bullets in her friend’s back. Jesus, the way one guy came in, calmly, methodically, like he was coming to fix the sink. Then he just unloaded everything at Cindy, the booming shots in the hallway, total chaos.

She panicked and ran for her life. The sight of a girl running down the street half-naked did not arouse undue suspicion in San Francisco. She made it into some night club, just to get off the street. She had no money—Johnny got shot before he paid her. The club turned out to be some sort of S&M club. There were different floors with chains drilled into the walls and wood contraptions that looked like torture devices from a distant Spanish century. The lighting was dim, red, surreal. Smells of cigarette smoke, sweaty bodies, a desperate kind of lust in the air. Tomorrow, no one would remember she had been here; this was a place that erased memories.

She walked through the cavernous club for the entire night, just killing time. At 4:30 AM, the place was dying down a bit. She found a huge hole in a wall, some abandoned expansion project, downstairs in the basement. She slipped inside and cried herself to sleep. The club closed and no one bothered her.

She woke up the next day, and slipped out the rear door while a beer truck unloaded. She was starving. Her teeth felt nasty. She needed a shower.

She stopped by a store on the corner of Mission. Inside the grocery, an Asian kid alternated between reading a magazine and staring at her. Too long, she thought. Heart hammering her ribs. She paid for a candy bar and an iced tea, then walked outside, half-expecting the last view of her life would be the battered yellow doorjamb of this little store.

Her foot hit the pavement. The second she was clear of the door, she started running.

Chapter 6

Ray chatted with an Ohio housewife sitting next to him on the plane. “That must be interesting,” she remarked upon learning he was an investigator. Everyone said that. Sometimes, sometimes not. Ray didn’t want to repeat any war stories, and grew quiet after the pretzels arrived. He watched the tiny houses below as the plane began its slow descent into San Francisco International Airport. Red salt ponds lined the coast to the south, while the city of San Francisco lay to the north.

San Francisco, California. Where you went when no one on the East Coast was talking to you anymore. You traversed the country on a personal gold rush to show parents, childhood tormentors—everyone you ever knew— that something rare boiled inside you. An accident of geography lifted San Francisco into the ranks of sublimely beautiful cities. Sharply etched hills—Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Nob Hill—offered sudden vistas of the blue Pacific, which drew the day to a close with a foggy gray curtain. San Francisco was rich, seductive, insatiable, demanding, and even after you saw her grimy face and wasted ways, you loved her like a woman—the endless promise of California.

Ray expected to interview numerous people over the next few days. He had rented Detroit spawn. A Cadillac: big, American, faintly ridiculous. He liked pulling up to witnesses in a Caddy. Americans had been raised on mob movies, and instinctively associated the Caddy with power, ruin, conspiratorial afternoons in villa gardens. Something like that.

After clearing the airport, Ray headed up Highway 280, taking signs for the Port of San Francisco. The traffic flowed and weaved as he arrived at 6th Street. He headed east toward the waterfront. He arrived at the Embarcadero, where palm trees graced the median and a pale strip of glass brick lined the sidewalk. The Bay Bridge soared over the bay, straddling the twin cities of Oakland and San Francisco.

He turned right on Broadway, racing past the strip joints and restaurants, zigzagged his way on the small side street just before the tunnel, then left on Mason over Nob Hill. It felt good remembering all the old shortcuts. Ray parked and walked a few blocks to pick up a cheese steak sandwich. Then he headed toward the criminal courts. He had decided he would check the dockets first to see if Tania had caught a case.

In every county seat in the United States, a vast public record exists in the form of court cases, all indexed by last name. On the civil side, the records contain a history of the grievances, complaints and assorted ailments that plagued a society. And on the criminal side, courts maintain historical dockets of deviance and sick behavior, a blueprint of the lives of society’s incorrigibles.

Ray was dressed for court in dress pants, a dark blue shirt with a tan jacket. He drove South of Market to the Hall of Justice. Nine stories tall, and built like a bomb shelter, it was nerve center of law enforcement in the city of San Francisco. He walked through the metal detector, strolling past predators prowling the tiled hallways: rapists, murderers, district attorneys. The tiles made it easy to scrub off the accumulated filth. The rough banter of probation officers, lead-eyed felons, and thick-handed cops. The veteran cops and criminals had an easy familiarity with the place, comfortable in each other’s presence. They understood that they needed each other. They had spent time together in the past, and would likely do so again.

For others, fear and rage clung palpably to the walls here, lives determined in small courtrooms with swinging doors. Signs in English and Spanish on the wall:

Do Not Chew Gum In Court. Weapons Are Not Allowed In The Courtroom.

Conversations boomed and echoed in the hallway so that privacy was something you left at home, for other buildings, other times, a luxury the rich enjoyed in carpeted homes with solid wood doors. An odd sense of racial peace reigned, for this was a place for the democratic poor—black, white, brown, it didn’t matter. One look around confirmed that the jaws of justice chewed meat in all flavors.

Ray walked over to a clerk at the service desk, an attractive Latina in her forties. She was entombed in a bulletproof glass cubicle. He had to shout through a narrow slit to make himself understood. The clerk had dark eyes, and a bosom barely constrained in a light green suit. She got away with it; her curvy nerve got her through.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’d like to check a name for any cases going back to the 1980’s.” He jotted down Tania’s name and birth date on a sheet of paper.

The clerk checked the alphabetized index on her computer for Kong and printed out the results: one case from 1997. Ray filled out an order form and requested the case file. The clerk disappeared behind some rolling file cabinets. After a few minutes, she returned with the file.

“I like your jacket,” said Ray.

“Thanks,” the clerk handed him the file, smiling. “No fear of a full color palette.”

She laughed. “I like to spice it up in here.” She rapped the Plexiglas with her knuckles. “Place is decorated like a penitentiary.” She handed him the file. “Here you go. Let me know if you need copies,” she said.

He was feeling better already. Funny how a bit of human interaction could mean so much to a traveler. He opened the case file, but saw only a single sheet of paper, the criminal complaint. It contained the barest amount of information, announcing with the quaintly Communist language used by California courts: People of California v. Tania Kong. The charge was California Penal Code Section 315: Tania had been arrested for working at a house of prostitution.

There was nothing else in the case — no photos or affidavits or legal papers. The briefly worded complaint stated that on May 24, 1997, Tania Kong had been arrested for prostitution after police raided a brothel at 781 Jackson Street in Chinatown. No other defendants were named.

Ray jotted down the address, and copied the complaint. He returned the file to the light green lovely in her glass cube.

“What did this one do?” she asked.

“A rapscallion. Hardcore.”

The clerk glanced at the complaint. “Poor girl had some bad love.”

“That’s one way to look at it.”

Ray thanked the clerk and left the courthouse.

Chapter 7

Four muscular Asian men strutted along the Embarcadero, radiating that odd mix of intimidation and restraint peculiar to Asian gangs. The men had spent a lot of hours building muscle; being young and violent, they showed off the results of their work with the iron. Thick trapezes danced beneath the muscle tees, hard chests thrust out, triceps rippling. But the men gave way to tourists, didn’t try to overdo the turf walk. They were on business, simple and direct: hunt down Tania Kong.

They walked past an outside cafe, scanning the people. Fit men in black spandex and funny-looking helmets straddled titanium bikes, or lounged on the grass. Kids walked by with their parents, munching on junk food.

They had been looking for Tania for six days. No sign of her anywhere. Everyone had been sure it would be over in forty-eight hours. But they were wrong. Excitement leaked away; frustration set in.

Ricky flicked a cigarette to the sidewalk as he reconnoitered the perimeter of the cafe. “I once seen this show about missing persons—you don’t find them in twenty-four hours, you be fucked.”

Dan looked at him. “Ahh shut ya’ cake hole.” The other guys glared at Ricky, resenting the implication. The fuck-up was reaching major proportions. Word filtered down from the bosses—they were pissed. Tamo was riding them hard. A subliminal pressure was building, the guys could feel it, like the tipping point in football when a linebacker crunches into a quarterback to jar the ball loose. A spirit of collision. Someone had to make something happen soon.

Last night at Buddha Bar, Xio “Kenny” Chu came up with an idea. Lean, well-dressed, a smooth talker, Kenny was dating a girl who worked at a hospital and drove a van for elderly people. He told the crew that the van had “Elderly Services” printed in blue block letters on the side and was outfitted with stuff for the oldsters—the van actually tilted down and had a little conveyor belt that lifted the old people out the door.

“Well, the great thing is, my girl takes the van home each night, she got the keys.” He smiled broadly over his beer as he told everyone. “We can do missions from the handicap van. Roomy and they don’t attract a lot of suspicion.”

He met her at a club, and they did the club hookup, sleeping together after one night out and then trying to salvage the thing and get to know each other afterward. He was still banging her on occasion.

“She told me that if I needed wheels, I could take the van anytime I need it.”

So now the crew had the handicap wheels for the day, cruising around and hunting Tania from the van. They could park in handicap spots — anywhere really — because elderly people voted, they had all kinds of rights, and who was going to ask a van used to help elderly people to move anyway?

So they piled inside and roamed the city. It was funny shit, the van cruising heavily, the way the door opened and the van tilted down like a decrepit elephant so the oldsters could step on.

The guys carried six guns on board, four pistols and two sawed off shotguns. Kenny and Dan placed one shotgun in each corner of the van so they could cover all angles, a rolling fortress. The guns had homemade silencers on them, thick as cans and stuffed with sound deadening fiberglass.

After a dull morning, they parked at the water looking over the East Bay. Kenny and Sammy got off to pick up some lunch when they saw her sitting in the cafe. Asian girl, petite, eyes with a certain Western look to them. Right height, right profile. They ran back to the van to check the picture.

“Yep, it’s Tania,” said Kenny. They passed the picture back and forth, and voted. Sammy shook his head no. They argued. “I’m just saying, the girl in the cafe looks different. I don’t think it’s her.” But Dan, squat and eager, muttered, “Let’s do this.” The mission just seemed inevitable. No one listened to that douche bag Sammy anyway.

Dan pointed to the driver seat. Kenny hustled up to the front and pulled away. They had found their target, they felt the pressure. Plus, Kenny had told them his girlfriend had to drive the van to work the next day.

The van cruised down the Embarcadero toward the cafe. The shooters crouched near the shaded windows. They stopped for a few minutes until Tania got up and left the cafe. She sipped a coffee as she strolled in front of one of docks on the marina. The van rolled slowly by. A rear window cracked open. Dan unloaded, sending a muffled blast right at Tania. Her right shoulder evaporated in a red mist. She toppled over. Then another shot and another shot, muffled humps, as the van rolled peaceably by. Tania lay still on the concrete. There was some ricochet action and a biker toppled over, crashing into a cafe table.

“Hit a mushroom, hahahah!” Kenny loved the mayhem. The shared adrenaline rush, four hard, young badasses. The guys were laughing and belting each other, they should have videotaped the bitch and put it up on Youtube. The geek on the mountain bike was just a bonus.

People on the sidewalk were looking around now, a girl down, a biker screaming. They scanned the street and over the water and looked down the Embarcadero. The elderly van lumbered along, innocuous and overlooked.

Later the papers came out with the story and the girl’s name. Melissa. She was from out of town, a student from Wisconsin.

Another mistake. The bosses were not happy. Dan, Ricky, Sammy and Kenny got the call. A dark SUV came by their Clement Street apartment and drove them to a private bar on Grant Street. Some heavy hitters there, soldiers from the top crews. Tamo had warned that bullshit mistakes would not be tolerated. Two of the soldiers dragged Kenny down a stairwell to the basement. Kenny resisted a bit. One of the men snapped the butt of his handgun on his skull, a hard thwack. Kenny’s limbs jerked a crazy dance. They shoved the other guys downstairs and tossed Kenny into a shallow pit dug into the floor filled with filthy water. Beer cans and cigarette butts floated on the surface. One of the men opened Kenny’s skull with a pipe. Blood mixed with the dark waters. Head wounds always looked worse than they were, the pressure of veins on the skull shot the blood everywhere, but still, the moaning from Kenny unnerved his friends.

Dan, Sammy, and Ricky got knocked around a bit before Tamo decided they had enough. Kenny lay unconscious in front of the others, bleeding into the half dug pit. They emerged with shocked looks from the basement into a side alley. Something different in their faces now. They blinked in the summer light and eyeballed the dumpsters. Still worried the beat down was not over.

Tamo watched them in silence. Then laughter geysered up through him so rapidly that he rocked back and forth, almost dancing. He loved this life. When you felt part of something so close to the top, it was close to perfection. Like a ruined god.

“Dumb little fuckers. We like the handicap van though. Smart!” Tamo pointed to his skull. “That’s why you’re still alive.”

A joke went around the Triad, the crews needed to increase their missionary work: seduce more girls who worked at hospitals, nursing homes, schools for the blind.

… Continued…

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Telegraph Hill

by John F. Nardizzi
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