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Japantown

Japantown

Excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO

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.

Minutes after receiving an urgent summons, I was charging down Fillmore in a classic maroon Cutlass convertible. Before the midnight call had 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. Now, even with the top down on the Cutlass, I could still smell the stringent lacquer used to fix the thumbnail-size chip on the bowl's rim. Once the lacquer dried I'd apply the final flourish—a trail of liquid gold powder. 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. A crisp night breeze swirled around my face and hair and wiped 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, angry fists shot into the air as the sleek sports car crept up on my bumper.

A pistol appeared next, followed by a man's torso, both etched in ominous shadow against the night sky. Then the driver caught sight of a police blockade up ahead, slammed on his brakes, and snaked into a U-turn. The drastic change in direction flung the shooter against the side of the car, and nearly into the street. Arms flailing, he just managed to grab 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.

***

When the phone rang, I'd peeled off the rubber gloves, careful not to let remnants of the poisonous lacquer touch my skin. With my days filled to overflowing at the shop, I tackled repairs in the darker hours, after putting my daughter to bed. Tonight it was the tea bowl.

Lieutenant Frank Renna of the San Francisco Police Department wasted no time on pleasantries. "I need a favor. A big one this 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. "You'll get your usual consultant fee. Might not be enough, though."

"I'll survive."

"Keep thinking that way. I need you to come look at something. You got a baseball cap?"

"Yeah."

"Wear it low over your eyes. Cap, sneakers, jeans. Then get down here asap."

"Down where?"

"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 scowled. "Could be."

© Barry Lancet


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