It was my thirteenth birthday and my best friend Iris and I were gently stroking the hands of a corpse.
Standing on opposite sides of the walnut coffin, we patted the flesh and whispered to keep from being overheard by the family and other mourners.
“Cold,” Iris said.
I nodded, poking at the wrist. “And waxy. Doesn’t feel like skin at all.”
The corpse was Herbert Flitcraft. We’d never met him. But we knew his name from the white plastic letters on a small sign at Dillingham’s Funeral Home: “Herbert Flitcraft. Calling hours: Thursday, 10 a.m. - Noon.” We’d donned our best dresses and pedaled bikes through the bright heat of a southern California summer morning. We’d reached Dillingham’s by 11:00 o’clock, an hour when we thought we could move unnoticed among the legitimate mourners.
I looked at Iris across Mr. Flitcraft’s dead body. She grinned. Her dark eyes were as round as chocolate wafers. I couldn’t see her pupils, but I knew they were dilated from the weed we’d smoked in the bushes before parking our bikes at the front gate. Iris wore a belted navy shirtwaist with white piping. My dress was a ruffled lilac thing from St. Vincent de Paul. It was tight across the chest and seemed to have shrunk since I’d worn it to Elfrieda Mortuary with Iris a few weeks before.
We pushed at the corpse’s skin and giggled. In our visits with the dead we never touched more than the hands. But now I wanted to run my fingers along Mr. Flitcraft’s pale cheek. As I glanced up to ask for Iris’s approval, I saw her expression change.
“Shit,” she whispered, squinting over my shoulder past me.
Her hands jerked out of the casket and folded themselves primly in front of her. She began to back away.
“Carmen.” Someone behind me said my name. I spun around.
Framed in the doorway, like an apparition in a bad dream, was the tall, broad-shouldered, unmistakable silhouette of my twenty-one-year-old brother, Frank. He was wearing his police academy uniform. I turned back to Iris, but she’d deserted me, her dark-blue dress blending into a crowd of old women in black at the side of the room.
I frowned at my pastel ruffles and squared my shoulders as Frank approached, his face a twist of confusion, embarrassment, and anger.
Ten Years Later
“That’s her in the corner. With the tattoos and piercings. And the raccoon eye makeup.”
The larger of the two cops said it. He had black skin, graying hair, and silver stars on his coat.
His fellow officer was shaking his head. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he was frowning.
I was in the ER waiting room at Bay Hospital. A team of med-techs had wheeled my brother Frank in from the medevac helicopter an hour earlier. The rickety metal gurney had swayed under his weight as they’d rushed him down the hall. His hair had been matted with red wetness, and his face—what was left of it—had been covered by a blood-soaked plastic mask attached to an oxygen machine.
Now the two cops strolled across the ER waiting room to where I sat in a corner on a hard plastic chair drinking bad coffee.
“Carmen O’Malley?” the bigger one said.
“Yes?” I was so upset about Frank that I forgot my rule: never identify yourself to cops.
“Come with us please.”
“We need to ask you some questions.”
An hour earlier, the med-techs and ER staff had yelled back and forth and ignored me as I’d stumbled alongside the gurney demanding information. Finally one had mumbled at me, “Everything’s going to be okay.” Then a pair of metal doors marked “ER SURGERY” had swung shut behind them, and I had retreated to the waiting room.
Now I rose from my chair as the cop with the stars introduced himself. “I’m Police Chief Thomas.” He held out his enormous hairy-backed hand.
I pretended not to know him. But he’d been the lieutenant in charge when I’d been booked for drag racing and driving without a license at fourteen, and for marijuana a year later.
What a fucking charade, I thought.
“This is Officer Gallo.”
I was obliged to shake his pasty-white hand.
Chief Thomas said, “Officer Gallo was Frank’s partner.”
“When we were both still driving patrol cars,” Gallo said. “I’m probably your brother’s best friend on the force.”
“You said you need to ask me something?”
Thomas nodded. “There’s a room in the other wing where we can talk.”
My impulse was to run. The door was a dozen steps away. The two cops were big men, bulky, probably slow starters. I was young and lithe and fast. But I thought about Frank, the only family I had, fighting for his life in ER surgery.
I couldn’t leave him.
Chief Thomas led the way. Gallo followed close behind me. After a maze of hallways we reached a corridor ending in two huge mahogany doors. Thomas opened them without knocking, and the two men escorted me inside.
We entered an enormous room that smelled of new carpet and fresh paint. It was furnished in leather sofas and chairs. At the far end stood a grand piano. By the door, a porcelain coffee service was centered on a marble-topped table. It was clean and fancy and elegant, and I felt out of place in my black jeans, strap-buckle boots, and faded black Marilyn Manson tee-shirt.
“This is the VIP lounge,” Thomas said. “Would you like some coffee?”
I nodded and waited for him to get it for me. He stood his ground. I thought, He thinks I’m a scuzzbucket so he’s not going to cater to me. I poured my own coffee and added what looked like real cream from a silver pitcher.
“Please sit down,” he said.
I sat and sipped my coffee. It was strong, warm, and without aftertaste or bite, a far cry from the lukewarm pisswater in the waiting-room vending machine.
Chief Thomas sat on the sofa beside me.
Dropping into a chair on my other side, Gallo cleared his throat and said, “We’ve secured permission to use this room until—until Frank is out of surgery.”
I’d been trying not to think about my brother. But he’d been shot. At close range. Part of his head was gone. He probably wouldn’t survive.
I began to cry.
“I’m sorry to put you through this, Carmen,” Chief Thomas said in a flat tone. He passed me the tissue box from the end table. “But when a police officer like Frank is shot, it’s a—a momentous crime. If a man shoots a law officer—who’s armed and trained to fight—imagine what he’d do to the average unarmed citizen.”
I dried my tears and wondered where this was going.
“We have to get as much information as we can. As quick as we can. So we’re here talking to you.” He paused. “I understand you’ve been living at Frank’s?”
I nodded. “Since last week. I got here a week ago.”
Officer Gallo scribbled some notes in a little spiral-topped notebook.
“Got here from where?”
“I’ve been living back East.”
“Boston.” I looked directly at Chief Thomas. “What does this have to do with . . . anything?”
“We’ll get to that. You came back a week ago. Why?”
“An impulse,” I said. “No real reason.”
“Then let us help you figure it out,” Chief Thomas said, leaning toward me. “You wanted to get away from your criminal record in Massachusetts?”
His tongue darted out as he spoke. I could tell he was enjoying this. “You wanted to get away from numerous convictions, ranging from possession of marijuana to grand theft auto.”
“Wait. That was—”
“Not to mention drunk driving and wrongful influence of a minor.”
“Some of those charges were, um, dropped . . . .”
Gallo said, “So why’d you come back to Zaragoza, Carmen?”
I stared at the damp tissue in my hand. “Frank’s my only family. Christmas is coming. I wanted to be in California again.”
I looked from one to the other. “Is this an interrogation?”
Gallo reached out and patted my hand.
“Not at all,” said Chief Thomas. “An interview. Not an interrogation. We want to get some things clear.”
I jerked my hand away from Gallo. His eyes moved back to his notebook. “In the week you’ve been staying with Frank,” he said, “have you noticed anything peculiar?”
“Peculiar?” I said.
“Anything that struck you as odd.”
My mind wandered to Frank and how surprised he’d been when I’d knocked on his door unannounced six nights before. He’d welcomed me in. It was storming, and I’d dripped water on his cabin’s linoleum floor as I’d entered. The last time I’d seen him before that, I’d been fifteen. He’d just bailed me out of Zaragoza Juvenile Detention Center for dealing marijuana. It was raining that night, too. Next day I skipped town for Mexico, stiffing Frank for the bond money. I’d always wondered, was he glad I left? Was the lost bail a cheap price to be rid of me?
“I’ve only been here a week. I don’t know his routine.” I lifted my coffee cup from the table. “I don’t know what’s odd and what isn’t. Besides, he’s never home. He’s busy with work. He gets in late. A few nights, we stayed up and talked. Other than that, I haven’t seen him much.”
For as long as I could remember, Frank had wanted to be a cop, to go to the big police academy in L.A. But he was the family breadwinner, and he’d wanted to stay in our small town of Zaragoza until I finished high school. As if that would happen. For Frank and his policemen mentors, I was an embarrassment. When I got in trouble—every other week—we’d had terrible fights. He’d try to reason with me. I’d slam doors and smash things and scream, “I HATE YOU!” He’d yell back, and Mom, drunk and passed out on the sofa, would wake up and start to cry.
“Any strange calls?” Officer Gallo asked.
“I wouldn’t know. Frank doesn’t have a land line. He uses his cell.”
“Any strange people dropping by?”
“Any large amounts of money around, or expensive jewelry, or other valuables?”
I rolled my eyes. “You said you knew Frank. He’s a major tightwad. He doesn’t own any valuables. That’s why there’s no land line. He’s too cheap. All his money is invested. And even if he had that kind of stuff, he’d have it locked in a bank vault.”
The night I’d arrived, Frank had hugged me so tight I could barely breathe. When he finally let go, his face was beaming. He gave me a towel to dry off, and, corny as it sounds, fixed me a hot bowl of soup. We’d talked until 3:00 a.m., when he’d pulled out the hide-a-bed, draped it with woolly blankets, and said, “Have beautiful dreams, Carmen.” It was the good-night phrase he’d always used when I was a kid. Over the past six days, he’d never asked what I was doing there. Or how long I planned to stay. Or whether I intended to get a job and find a place of my own. He’d never even told me to wash a dish.
“Why are you asking me this stuff?” I said.
Gallo looked at Thomas, who shifted in his seat.
“Tell her,” Thomas said.
“There are, uh, “ Gallo cleared his throat, “rumors. In the police department. Alleging that someone’s been taking money. Bribes—”
“—and we think the shooting might have been—”
“No fucking way.”
“—a suicide attempt. In remorse. Over what he was doing.”
“Frank taking money?” I said. “You say you’re his friend but you . . . ,” my mind groped for the right word, “you slander him?”
“Nobody’s slandering anyone,” Chief Thomas said. “We’re telling you a theory. One of many theories. The gun that shot him was one of two .38 caliber Smith & Wessons we know he owns. We’ll test to see if he recently fired a gun.”
“We’re trying to get this straightened out,” Gallo said.
“In case Frank doesn’t make it,” Thomas said.
I stared at the floor.
“If we establish there’s no wrongdoing, no suicide,” Thomas said, “he’ll be given a policeman’s funeral. Full honors, color guard, fallen officers’ hall of fame . . . .” His voice trailed off.
I looked up. “And if not?”
Both were silent.
“Oh, God, no. He’ll be buried in—in dishonor?” I was trembling. “Disgrace?” I looked from one to the other. “And what are you talking about? He’s still alive.”
The door opened at the end of the room, and Gallo and Thomas looked up.
“Vicky!” Officer Gallo smiled and leapt to his feet.
A tall uniformed policewoman stood in the doorway.
“Come on in,” Chief Thomas said.
As if two cops aren’t enough, I thought.
She was younger than Chief Thomas, about Frank’s age I guessed. Her police uniform didn’t reveal much of her figure, but her face was stunning: high cheekbones, straight nose, clear blue eyes, and flawless skin. She closed the door behind her. “Chief, look at you! You’re stylin’. We don’t often see you in police duds.”
His eyes moved to his uniform, with the stars on his coat, and he grinned. “I’m addressing the Cub Scouts this afternoon.”
“You look like a celeb,” she said.
“You’re the celeb.” Gallo grinned at her. To me he added, “Our leading anti-drug spokesperson. She’s on TV every night in her uniform, which she wears pretty nice. . . . I mean it looks good on her. . . . “
He was fawning over her. They both were. It was pathetic.
“. . . with public service announcements for the ZPD. That’s Zaragoza Police Department.”
A blond curl had escaped from the bun at the back of her head, and it bounced beside her face as she nodded at him.
“I know what ZPD means,” I said.
Her eyes focused on me. “Carmen?”
“Sorry, I’m Victoria Wolfe. Call me Officer Vicky. Or just Vicky.” She smiled showing perfect teeth. “You’re Frank’s sister, right?”
“She’s been staying out at Frank’s for a week.” Thomas said. “We were just asking her if she’d noticed anything unusual—”
Their sudden good humor was annoying.
“No, you weren’t,” I said. “You were accusing my brother, who’s fighting for his life in surgery, of being a crook, of taking bribes.” My eyes stung as the tears welled up.
Thomas looked at Officer Vicky. “We mentioned the reports we’ve had—”
“Reports or rumors?” I said.
“Not rumors. Reports, from a reliable informant, that someone in the department is on the take,” said Gallo.
“Doesn’t mean it was Frank.” A full-blown crying jag was coming on, and I was too exhausted to stop it.
Thomas cleared his throat. This time I didn’t get a tissue. He said, “The shooting gives us reason to believe—”
“Chief,” Vicky said quietly. “You’re upsetting her.”
He shot her a puzzled look.
“Do we have to put her through this?”
I was crying hard now, and gasping for breath between sobs.
Gallo stood up, disgusted. “I know you and him were pals, Vic. Him and me were pals, too. But there’s good reason to believe he attempted suicide.”
“You don’t know that!” I screamed it out.
The three of them stopped and stared at me, frozen like deer in headlights.
Officer Vicky came around the coffee table and sat down beside me. “Carmen,” she said, draping her arm around my shoulders, “they don’t mean to upset you.”
She was only about ten years older than me, but I relaxed into her, crying like a child with its mother.
She unbuttoned her breast pocket with her free hand and took out her iPhone. She logged on, pulled up some kind of writing, and passed it to the Chief. “This just hit the Internet,” she said quietly.
He slipped on a pair of reading glasses from his coat pocket and read, his lips moving as he scanned the small screen.
Curious, I sat up and dried my face. “What is it?”
“A news story,” Vicky said.
“About the shooting,” Thomas said, handing the iPhone to Gallo. “This is why we need information from you. Before the media screws everything up. And in case Frank—uh, in case we can’t get it from Frank.”
I craned my neck and read:
Cop Shot at Dawa Beach
Special Report by Bob Dellachiesa
A jogger at Dawa Beach discovered the still-breathing body of Zaragoza police detective Frank O’Malley, 30 years old, early this morning. Shot in the head at close range while seated in his Jeep Wrangler, O’Malley was an expert on organized crime and drug trafficking. . . .
My eyes brimmed with tears again. Officer Vicky spoke up. ““We want to help you,” she said. “You and Frank. We want to find out who did this terrible thing.” She patted my arm. “We’re the good guys here, Carmen. We’re just a little insensitive sometimes.” I saw her gesture with her free hand to Chief Thomas on the other side of me. I knew she was mouthing something to him behind my head. “Are you hungry? Chief, can we get some food in here for Carmen?”
She stood and reached out her hand, encouraging me to join her. We stepped over to the coffee pot while Chief Thomas took his phone back from Officer Gallo. Vicky poured me another cup.
I was turning to take it from her when the mahogany doors banged open.
I squinted as a brilliant flash lit the room.
A man stood in the doorway with a camera held to his face. “Hey, sister!” he said and twisted his body for a second shot.
Officer Vicky made a grab and caught him by the wrist. She bent the man’s arms up and behind his back, pretzel-style. Chief Thomas jerked the camera from its neck strap.
“Bobby Cheeser,” Gallo said in recognition.
The man was scruffy and tall with disheveled black hair and a huge nose.
Fourth runner-up in a Howard Stern look-alike contest, I thought. “Who is he?”
“Bobby Della-Cheeser,” Chief Thomas said. “A reporter.”
“It’s Dellachiesa, Della-key-aysa,” the man said. “You know how to pronounce it. I respect you as a black man, Chief. You could respect my Italian heritage.”
“I—I think I know that name?” I said.
“He wrote that news article,” said Vicky. She released his arms and banged his elbow with her baton.
“That’s brutality!” he protested.
Chief Thomas gave the camera to Gallo, who said, “He’s our worst pain-in-the-ass. He has the police beat. If he can’t get a story, he’ll make one up.”
“That’s not true and you know it,” said Bobby. “Look, you clown. Just pass me the damned thing and I’ll show you how to delete the photos.”
Gallo was turning the camera over in his hands like a child investigating a foreign object.
Gallo surrendered the camera. The photographer pushed some buttons and held it up, showing a blank screen.
“You sure they’re deleted?” Gallo said.
Chief Thomas’s cell phone rang. He turned his back and answered it as Vicky looked at the camera and nodded to Gallo.
I stared at the man’s eyes. “Bobby?” I said. “I think I know you.”
“I used to play with your sister Melissa when we were little kids. I think we played cowboys and Indians with you one time in Cougar Canyon.”
“You fell off a rock and almost drowned in the river? You’re that Carmen?” A smile spread across his pockmarked face. “Frank O’Malley’s your brother?”
“Fuck,” he said and grinned, “I’d have backed off if I’d known!”
“You can back off now.” Gallo said. “Or we’ll lock you up. For interfering with an investigation. Again.”
“Yeah, I hear you.” Bobby’s nasally voice was grating. “And I’m like, shaking all over, dude, at the awesome power of the ZPD—”
Chief Thomas interrupted him. “That was the ER. Frank’s out of surgery. A doctor’s on his way to talk to us.”
I sank down the sofa.
Vicky and Gallo were about to hustle Bobby out of the room when a silver-haired man came through the doors. He wore a starched white lab coat and a name tag: Dr. Herrera.
“Carmen O’Malley?” he said.
I stood up. “Is Frank—?”
“He’s out of surgery.”
Everyone focused on Dr. Herrera, but he ignored them and spoke to me. “Carmen, let’s talk.”
He put his hand in the small of my back and guided me to the opposite end of the long room.
“Bobby? Don’t leave, okay?” I said over my shoulder. Then to the three cops I added, “I want him to stay.” They frowned in response.
“Let’s sit down.” Dr. Herrera gestured to a pair of chairs by the piano. From the corner of my eye, I saw the police turn their backs. Gallo grabbed Bobby’s arm, spinning him around, too, but I could tell from the tilt of his head he was straining to hear.
The man settled into the chair across from me and stretched out his hand. I shook it. “Carmen,” he said. “I’m Dr. Herrera, director of emergency surgery. How are you holding up?”
“If you want the truth, I’m exhausted.” I leaned against the leather upholstery behind me, too tired to cry any more.
He nodded with an understanding smile.
“My brother. Is he going to—?”
He frowned. “He suffered a gunshot to the head at close range. He’s out of surgery. He’s still unconscious. He’s in intensive care. Being a policeman, he’s getting VIP treatment. We’re doing everything we can.”
“But he won’t be—?”
“It’s too early to say what will or won’t be. The bullet went through the side of his face and penetrated the skull. There’s a lot of swelling. We’re trying to avoid a herniation that could compress the brain stem and compromise vital functions. . . .”
The room was warm. I was really overheated. I could feel sweat on my face, and the heat was making me dizzy.
“. . . these head wounds can surprise us by not being as bad as we think.” He peered into my face. “Have you had lunch?”
This confused me. The way he said it, it sounded like he was asking me for a date.
“Because I recommend you get out of the hospital. You look pale, fatigued. Go get something to eat. Get some fresh air.”
“I need to let Frank’s dog out,” I said weakly.
“Good idea. Go home and do it. There’s nothing you can do for him here.”
“But the police want to question me!” The words came spilling out. “They have to find out whether Frank was—was doing something illegal. In case he dies. And he might not get a policeman’s funeral. He might be buried in . . . disgrace. It’s the worst thing they could do to him,” I could hear my own voice rising in hysteria. “The worst. I have to stay here. I have to explain. I’m being interrogated, and I have to answer questions, convince them. . . .”
His eyebrows went up in surprise. “Interrogated? Is that what’s going on here?”
I nodded and wiped my eyes with my fingers.
“That will stop. Right now. You go home and rest, Carmen. And don’t you worry about your brother’s reputation.”
“But the funeral—”
“Carmen, Frank’s still alive,” he said.
“But if I leave while he’s in still intensive care, won’t people think—”
“The hell with what people think.”
He was right.
“What’s your cell number?” he asked.
“I lost my cell phone,” I said. It had fallen out of my pocket at some gas station or other during the drive from Boston.
“I’m going to give you a phone, and I promise we’ll call you on it as soon as we hear something.” He opened a cupboard behind the piano and passed me a cell phone in a clear plastic bag. It was a generic cell with no camera or extras. The phone number was written in black marker on the outside.
He withdrew a card and a small yellow envelope from his breast pocket. “My cell number’s on this card. Call me tonight if you haven’t heard from us. These are for you, too,” he said, holding out the yellow envelope. “You don’t have any allergies, do you? You’re not on any medications?”
I hadn’t been high since Boston, so I shook my head.
“Take a tablet with food right away. Take another at seven p.m., and one before you go to bed. Then four a day, at breakfast, lunch, dinner, bedtime. They could make you drowsy, so don’t drink while you’re on them. And be careful driving. You have any side effects, call me, you understand?”
I nodded. Some kind of downers, I thought, dropping the card and little pill envelope into the plastic bag.
He rose from his seat, saying, “Walk me to the door?”
We crossed the room in silence. Officer Vicky glanced over her shoulder at us and nudged Officer Gallo, who turned around. He opened his mouth to say something, but Dr. Herrera cut him off.
“There’s to be no more questioning of this young lady today.”
Chief Thomas ran his tongue across his teeth before he spoke up. “This is official law enforcement business, Doctor. A policeman’s been shot. We—”
“I said, no more questioning. Not if you want to use this VIP room and be treated politely in this hospital.” He stood with his hand on the doorknob. “Whatever you need to ask can wait until tomorrow. Good day.”
The door closed behind him.
“I’m out of here, too,” I said, eager to follow. “I have to go let Frank’s dog out.”
Thomas stared at me. Before he could speak, Bobby spoke up. “You want me to write that you dudes harassed the injured officer’s little sister?”
Thomas frowned but held up his hand to Gallo and Vicky who were about to object. “Carmen,” Thomas said, passing me his card. “I want the number of that cell phone.” His voice was flat, neither menacing nor friendly. “We need to be able to get in touch with you.”
“Sure,” I held up the bag for him to read the number written on the outside. Gallo copied it into his notebook.
“Bobby, walk me out. I need to ask you something.”
Officer Vicky looked at me, her eyes wide with concern. “Are you going to be okay, Carmen?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
I was lying.
A mob of reporters surrounded the ER entrance. Men and women with microphones and cameras pushed forward and shouted at the dark-skinned man in green scrubs who stood guard with his back to the hospital. I couldn’t see his expression, but I could read his mood from the veins that stood out on the back of his bald head.
I was glad to have Bobby as an escort.
He said, “Be cool, Carmen,” and took my hand.
His tall frame towered over the others as we pressed through the crowd. Newsmen and women were jockeying for position and arguing with the dark-skinned man. Someone noticed us and said, “Bob, who’s the chick?”
“It’s my girlfriend, you dork.”
“You learn anything about O’Malley?”
“Nope,” he said.
A Hispanic woman in heavy make-up and a red business suit pushed toward us. A man with a television camera hovered behind her. She had a huge black bag over her shoulder and a microphone with TV call letters in her hand.
Bobby said, “Get that thing out of my face, Peggy. And tell your film jockey, he comes near me, I’ll break his fucking arm.”
The man with the TV camera moved back a step.
“He was taking payoffs, wasn’t he, Bob?” she hissed. “He won’t get an officer’s funeral, right?”
“Is he dead yet?” another reporter asked. “Say something. We need to work together, here, Bob.”
“Dude, I told you, I don’t know anything,” he called over his shoulder as we stepped down the sidewalk away from the hospital. “Nothing to say.”
At the far end of the ER parking lot, when we’d left the media people behind, he turned to me. “Look, Carmen,” he said, staring down at the camera around his neck. “I’m real sorry about what I did in there.”
“Yeah it is. I shouldn’t have barged in on you. And you know what? I caused this.” He jerked his head at the reporters. “If I hadn’t written that story this morning, none of those dudes would be here.”
“You were just doing your job.”
“Maybe. But sometimes you’ve got to know when to back off. It seems like I never do.” He kicked at some stray pieces of gravel with the toe of his dirty Nike. Then he glanced up, scanned the horizon behind me, said, “Carmen, look up there. Killer moon!”
He was trying to change the subject. We both knew it. But obligingly I turned my head, looked back over my left shoulder. It was daylight, but the moon was there—full and high up in the sky. “Yeah,” I mumbled, “the moon.” I thought about it shining down on Frank as someone shot his head half off.
We were silent for a moment. Then he said, “Where’s your car?”
“It’s that black one.” I pointed to the vintage Volkswagen camper bus I’d driven to California from Massachusetts. It was primer-black with black velvet curtains and a rainbow-colored peace sticker in the windows.
Bobby laughed. “You buy this from the Grateful Dead?”
“A lesbian hippie in Cambridge.”
He walked around the van, inspecting it. Then he turned to face me. “I want to give you my numbers. And I want yours.” He opened the pocket flap of his shirt and withdrew a business card. It had three phone numbers. “The first is my office at the Gazette, the second’s the cellular, and the third is my home.” He copied my new cell phone number into a tiny notepad. “Be careful what you say when you call. I think my phones might be tapped.”
“Cops!” I rolled my eyes, dropping his card in the plastic bag with the others.
“Yeah, but don’t underestimate Chief Thomas. He’s sly as a fox, and he never lets anyone know what he’s really thinking.”
“What about his brilliant suicide theory?”
“He might not really buy into that. He might just be pretending to, as some kind of trick. Anyway, call me,” he said, shifting from one foot to the other. I wondered if he had to take a leak. “I’ve got to head out, but I want to ask you some things.”
“I will.” I climbed behind the wheel. He grinned and closed the door.
I backed out, waving and watching him in the rear-view mirror, then shifted into drive. The van lurched forward.
On the way out, I passed a gun-metal-gray limo with dark-tinted windows parked under some magnolias. Through the windshield I saw the driver, a well-groomed young Asian, straighten his tie. He watched me pass. I saw his lips move as he looked in the rearview mirror and spoke to whomever sat in back. Then he nodded in response, watching me as I drove past.
Frank’s cabin perched on a small rocky point overlooking the ocean. It was once one of four structures that had once formed a tiny fishing resort. The owners had neglected it, and Frank bought the land at auction. He tore down the other three cabins, they were uninhabitable anyway, and saved the biggest one.
The property was an overgrown tangle of trees, bushes, and weeds. Frank didn’t care. He loved raw nature. The plan was that when he retired he’d donate the land as a nature preserve.
As I entered the cabin, Frank’s dog came to greet me—the one I’d come to let out. It was a huge, stupid-looking bloodhound. Its enormous black-and-tan bulk was stretched across the linoleum in the kitchen. It thumped its tail as I entered. Swell, I thought, he’s glad to see me.
His name was Flash. He’d been a tracker. Part of a federally funded program, my brother had told me, for police departments in smaller cities. Even for a bloodhound the dog had a terrific nose, and it won two citations. But funding dried up after four years, and the dog was downsized. That’s how he came to live with Frank.
I’m not a dog person. I’d left two cats behind with my neighbor in Boston. After a week at the cabin, I wondered what my brother saw in the stupid bloodhound. It slobbered. It humped your leg. It shed. It peed on the floor. It humped your leg. It begged food. It pooped on the floor. It humped your leg. It drank from the toilet. It dragged you along if you walked it on a leash.
Did I mention it humped your leg?
Now I prodded the dog to get up from the floor and I hustled it outside. Frank’s cabin was at the end of a long dirt path and isolated from the main road, so traffic wasn’t a problem when the dog had to go out. It always stayed near the cabin, anyway, taking its morning crap right where I would step in it getting in or out of my van.
The cabin door opened into a pine-paneled great room furnished in Salvation Army rejects. A huge oak table, its finish scarred by glass-rings and gouges, dominated the combination living-dining area. The table was pushed to the side and surrounded by three chairs. Against the opposite wall, flanked by floor lamps, was the lumpy hide-a-bed sofa where I slept. A snack counter jutted between this room and the kitchen. Its end sagged under the weight of a TV turned to face the sofa. The floor was linoleum throughout, with a hooked rag rug in the main room and one each in Frank’s bedroom and office. It would have been dreary, but there was a charming stone fireplace and an enormous picture window that gave a breathtaking view of the ocean.
I opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a tomato, a jar of Miracle Whip, a Diet Coke, and four slices of bread. I made a pair of tomato sandwiches, wolfed down one, and fed the other to Flash as I opened the screen door for him. He took it between his front teeth with surprising daintiness for his hundred and fifty pounds. He raised his head, then ducked it down. The sandwich disappeared. He nosed for crumbs, ears dragging on the floor. Convinced he’d found every tidbit, he circled twice and dropped on the linoleum with a thump and a moan.
I filled his food and water dishes. He watched me with big sad eyes.
I said aloud, “Frank will be home tomorrow.”
I blinked away tears and thought about the uncertain bond with my older brother who always referred to me as “The Bride of Dracula—with a bad attitude, plus tattoos and piercings.” I swallowed one of Dr. Herrera’s pills and washed it down with Diet Coke. Then I took a steak knife from the kitchen drawer. Working it into the keyhole, I broke into Frank’s office for the second time that week. The other time I’d just stood in the center of the room and gazed at the tall, locked filing cabinets and photocopy machine. Well, okay, I’d tried to use the computer but didn’t know the password, so I’d peeked in all the desk drawers.
This time, with no fear of Frank coming home and finding me, I set about doing more lock picking. Using a paper clip from the desk, I jimmied the file cabinets and rifled through them.
Frank had a shitload of papers. They were stuffed in bulging drawers, all labeled for my convenience. One cabinet was packed with personal stuff: tax returns dating back twelve years, investment statements, canceled checks, insurance policies. Another was crammed with papers from when he’d been a cop years before in L.A. In the lowest drawer was one handgun, accessories for another, and six boxes of hollow-point bullets. The third cabinet had his Zaragoza police files. The top drawer was marked “Current Year Only.” I focused my attention there.
Thick files, neatly labeled and divided, were packed in so tightly it was hard to yank them out. Most were on organized crime. “Cosa Nostra—East Coast.” “Cosa Nostra—Midwest.” “Cosa Nostra—L.A.” There was a folder for “Russian Mafia,” one for “Colombians,” one “Chinese,” one for “Blacks,” one “Irish,” and surprisingly, one for “Norwegians.”
The front half of the drawer was marked, “Current—Yakuza.”
I carried an armload to the hide-a-bed in the next room. Settling in among tattered pillows, I flipped on the floor lamp and selected a thick folder marked “Yakuza—Background.” Seemed like a good place to start.
It held photocopies of articles and chapters from books on criminology, sociology, and Asian studies. Nearly every page had marginal notes—Frank’s personal observations in his neatly-printed hand. I didn’t understand half of what I read. But I gathered “Yakuza” was a Japanese crime gang with the usual rackets of gambling, sex, loan-sharking, and drugs.
Frank’s notes said the Yakuza started like the Sicilian Mafia as a citizen’s protection group. Its earliest members were roving gamblers. The word Yakuza meant “loser.” A magazine article said many Japanese viewed Yakuza as heroic, honorable men. “Good PR, sim. to John Gotti,” Frank had printed in the margin. Another page said they had Mafia-like principles—a code of silence, a rule against sex with another member’s wife—and they forbid petty theft and rape.
I yawned. All this was interesting—to a college professor, maybe—but it told me nothing about Frank. I wanted to find out what cases he’d been working on.
One folder was marked “Yakuza—Ritual and Religion.” An article in it was about “yubitsume,” which was the ritual amputation of a finger. It had photos of Asian men smiling and holding up their pinky-less hands.
Loser is right, I thought.
The next page said most Yakuza were Shinto, some Japanese religion where trees and rocks had spirits. Another clipping began, “There are 207 Buddhist sects in Japan, including multiple varieties of Zen, but the Yakuza prefer the Nichiren school with its strong nationalistic overtones.” Frank had printed “See Ruby B.” beside this line in large letters.
Who the hell was Ruby B.?
Another folder was marked “Yakuza—Names.” It held a letter typed on FBI stationery with a list of about twenty names. They were all Japanese. None was “Ruby B.” There was a page of small labeled photos of Asian faces, a short list of addresses, and an organizational chart. I padded back into the office to warm up Frank’s little copy machine. I copied every sheet in the “Names” folder. The machine was old, but the copies were readable. Except the faces in the photos came out as dark ovals on the white page.
I slipped the originals back into the file, folded the copies and stuffed them in the hip pocket of my jeans. Then I tried to read some more but kept dozing off. I gave up, pulled out the bed, and fell asleep.
When I woke it was late afternoon. My first thought was about Frank dying and having to be buried in civilian clothes, in a state of disgrace. Too restless to read any more, I bustled around the cabin, let the dog out and in, and tried to watch television but couldn’t concentrate. Besides, there were only four stations—Frank, who never watched much TV, was too cheap to have cable. I thought of calling Bobby. But I didn’t want to answer any questions. And I wasn’t sure I could trust him. I thought of calling Dr. Herrera. But I hated to bother him. Besides he’d promised to call as soon as there was news about Frank.
Not knowing where else to go, I did what any native Southern Californian does in time of stress.
I went to the beach.