from chapter one...
Two shades of red darkened the Japantown concourse by the time I arrived. One belonged to a little girl's scarlet party dress. The other was liquid and far too human. City officials would evince a third shade once reports of the carnage hit the airwaves, but long before the news jockeys began grappling with the Japantown slaughter, the problem landed on my doorstep.
I was charging down Fillmore at sixty miles an hour in a classic maroon Cutlass convertible Kenny Costello had dropped in my lap for the price of a ticket to Katmandu and an iPod with the complete recording catalog of my favorite shakuhachi musicians, masters of the Japanese bamboo flute. Before the late-night call interrupted my evening's work, I'd been repairing an eighteenth-century Japanese tea bowl, a skill I'd picked up in the pottery town of Shigaraki, an hour outside of Kyoto. I could still smell the stringent lacquer used to fix the thumbnail-sized chip on the rim. After the lacquer came the final flourish—gold leaf. A repair was still a repair, but if done right it restored a piece's dignity.
I swung left on Post hard enough to leave rubber and cut off two gangbangers tooling uphill in a flame-red Mazda Miata. The top was down on the Cutlass, a crisp night breeze swirling around my face and hair and wiping away every last trace of drowsiness. The gangbangers had their top down, too, apparently the better to scope out a clear shot.
They slithered in behind me, swearing in booming voices I could hear over the screech of their tires, and in my rearview mirror I saw angry fists shoot into the air as the sleek sports car crept up on my bumper. In ominous silhouette, a pistol appeared next, followed by a rising man's torso, both backlit by a string of receding streetlights. Then the driver caught sight of a police blockade up ahead, slammed on his brakes, and snaked into a U-turn. The shooter's arms flailed as he nearly toppled over the side before managing to grab onto the frame of the windshield and drop back into the Miata's cushioned bucket seat as the car peeled away with a throttled roar of frustration.
I knew the feeling. If I hadn't received a personal invitation, I'd have done the same. But I had no choice. A marker had been called in....
With my days filled to overflowing at my antique shop, I scheduled repair sessions for the evenings, after putting my daughter to bed. Three nights a week I tackled whatever needed attention—a scratched Sendai chest, a stained woodblock print, or, tonight, a chipped ceramic tea bowl. When the phone rang, I peeled off the rubber gloves, careful not to let remnants of the poisonous lacquer touch my skin.
Lieutenant Frank Renna of the San Francisco Police Department wasted no time on pleasantries. "Remember that favor we were talking about?"
"The one for my wife's steady patronage of your shop?"
Renna's wife shopped regularly at my store. Too regularly for his pocketbook, so I often gave her a break. But apparently not enough of one.
"Oh," I said. "That."
"Yeah. That. Now's the time."
I glanced at the pale green digits of the clock. 12:24 A.M. "And a fine time it is."
On the other end of the line, Renna gave a grunt of apology. "I need you to come look at something."
"Got a baseball cap?"
"Wear it low over your eyes. Cap, sneakers, jeans. Then get down here asap."
"Japantown. The outdoor mall."
I was silent, knowing that except for a couple of bars and the Denny's coffee shop, J-town was bottled up for the night.
Renna said, "How soon can you get here?"
"Fifteen minutes if I break a few laws."
"Make it ten."
Nine minutes on, I found myself speeding toward the blockade, an impromptu cluster of rolling police steel parked haphazardly across the road where the pedestrian shopping mall on Buchanan came to an abrupt end at Post. Beyond the barricade I spotted a coroner's wagon and three ambulances, doors flung open, interiors dark and cavernous.
A hundred yards short of the barrier, I eased over in front of the Japan Center and cut the engine. I slid off tucked black leather seats and walked toward the commotion. Grim and unshaven, Frank Renna separated himself from a crowd of local badges and intercepted me halfway. Behind his approaching bulk, the rotating red and blue lights of the prowl cars silhouetted him against the night.
"The whole force out here tonight?"
He grunted. "Could be."
©Barry Lancet, 2012