SAN FRANCISCO, 7:05 A.M.
The phone call came far too early to herald anything good.
"Feel like taking a ride?" Detective Frank Renna asked when I picked up.
"Got to get Jenny ready for school soon and I have a high-end client coming into the shop first thing today. She's eager to drop big money on an Oribe tea bowl."
Oribe was a sometimes-brilliant Japanese ceramic style named after Furuta Oribe, a sixteenth-century tea master and samurai. I sold the distinctive green-and-white pieces and other Japanese antiques out of my shop on Lombard, west of Van Ness.
"Nice to see you making headway on the diplomatic front," Renna said, "but move it to the back burner and pack your daughter off. This is important. We're heading out to Napa."
"Are we now?"
"Yeah. There's a Japanese kid we need to see. He doesn't speak English."
"So put a phone to his ear and I'll talk to him. No reason we need to drag ourselves out to wine country."
"Kid's gone into shock and he's babbling. He's driving the local badges up a wall."
Renna was a lieutenant with the San Francisco Police Department, and a friend. He'd been instrumental in getting me a consulting job with the SFPD as their local Japan expert, which last came into play with an incident in Japantown. But I wasn't on call and received no retainer. Our arrangement was on a case-by-case basis, clearly a detail that seemed to have slipped Renna's mind.
"Isn't there a Japanese speaker closer to Napa?" I asked.
"None in their department and they don't have anyone on file. That's why they need you."
"How do they know the kid's Japanese?"
"Because that's what his father was."
"Yeah. There's a body, too."
* * *
Ten minutes after Renna's call, I was waiting outside in the morning fog, ungloved hands snug in the pockets of a down jacket.
I watched brief shafts of faint red light penetrate the fog. Heard the sound of a car engine approaching. Saw, finally, a boxy vehicle emerge out of the cottony whiteness and ease to the curb. Renna had arrived in a dusty unmarked SFPD car that looked exactly like a dusty unmarked SFPD car.
The passenger-side window buzzed down.
"You're doing a good imitation of something the cat wouldn't drag in," my friend said.
"I was up until seven talking to Tokyo," I said. "Finalizing details for the shows. Fell into bed five minutes before you woke me."
The mayor of San Francisco had launched a Pacific Rim Friendship Program to improve the city's relations with its Asian neighbors, and Japan was up first. I'd rebuffed City Hall's first two advances to be their liaison, accepting with reluctance only after the big man himself called to press me into service.
"Coffee up," Renna said, passing over a cup of Peet's dark roast as I collapsed into the front seat. "It's all downhill from here."
He urged the vehicle back on to the road. "You get Jenny off to school?"
"Neighbor upstairs will drive her."
"Client take it well?"
"Wife said her husband would be furious, but we rescheduled for later today, so I squeaked by. Listen, I get the babbling kid bit, but why are we on the road? It's Napa, not SF."
As was his habit, Renna rolled imaginary marbles from cheek to cheek while he considered the question. "A Napa bigwig rang our dear mayor and he rang the chief."
"So this is another favor for City Hall?" I said, wondering if they weren't pushing the boundaries.
"Not even close. The mayor hoards his political capital. He called my boss. I'm under orders. You're doing this for me. Since Japantown, everyone thinks I'm your goddamn social secretary."
"I could live with that," I said.
"You do recall we're cruising over marshlands soon, right?"
Overhead, a sign announced our approach to the Golden Gate access road. Our route took us over the bridge into Marin County. We'd pass the monied Marin communities of Mill Valley and San Rafael, cross the reedy marshes edging the upper fringe of the San Francisco Bay, then head north to Napa.
"You piss me off, I'll toss you into the muck and you won't be living with anything. You'll be lucky if your bones surface in a decade or two."
"Probably less painful."
The lieutenant grunted. "Hard to argue that."
I took a sip of the coffee. A hearty Italian roast rolled over my tongue. It cut through the early morning chill, but made not the slightest dent in my exhaustion.
"I've got to close my eyes for a minute," I said. "Can you handle the drive alone?"
"Sure. One thing first, though. Napa guys sent you a present."
"Am I going to like it?"
"Wouldn't think so."
He stretched a finger toward the face of his Smartphone anchored in a dashboard cradle, but before he could tap the screen, my mobile buzzed.
An unknown number. "Hold on a sec," I said, then into my phone: "Hello?"
"Is this Jim Brodie?"
"Sean Navin. We haven't met yet but you're on my black list."
That was a first.
Before I could reply, Navin said, "You canceled on us this morning. No one does that to me."
"Sarah already rescheduled."
"I'm cancelling it."
"I normally don't—"
"Save the excuses. I'm sending my wife to one of your competitors."
I closed my eyes. There goes the Oribe tea bowl commission I sorely needed. The loss was going to hurt.
"Sorry to hear that," I said. "As I explained to Sarah, it's an emergency."
"Time is money, Brodie. You play fast and loose with my time, I spend my greenbacks elsewhere."
In his voice I heard none of the goodwill I'd earned over the last couple of years. Quality art from my shop decorated his home. Some of the rarities I'd tracked down in distant corners of Japan.
"I regret it happened, Sean. If there was any way around cancelling our appointment, believe me I would have found it."
"You made a bad decision and it's gonna cost you."
"So you've told me. Do what you have to do," I said and disconnected.
So much for squeaking by. His wife was a valued customer, but mind games from an overbearing husband I didn't need. Life was too short.
Renna glanced my way. He'd pieced together enough of the conversation to know that I was going to pay for this morning's excursion.
"I'd pegged you for more diplomatic," he said.
"Husband kept twisting the knife. Got a feeling he was enjoying it."
"A lot of those types around."
"Yeah. Too bad. His wife was a regular. You were saying?"
"A present from the Napa boys." Renna punched the Smartphone screen. A recording began.
"Can you tell us your name, son?" a clearly annoyed adult male voice said.
"Mondai attara Jimu Burodi-san ni denwa shite kudasai. Mondai attara Jimu Burodi-san ni denwa shite kudasai. Mondai attara Jimu Burodi-san ni denwa—"
"We hear you, kid," the man said through what sounded like gritted teeth. Then: "I'm telling you, Dick. That's all the little guy's said since we got here."
Dick gave it a shot. "Hi'ya son. I'm Officer Richard Kendall. Can you give us your name? Just your name?"
"Mondai attara Jimu Burodi-san ni denwa shite kudasai. Mondai attara—"
"See? Repeat loop," the first man said.
"Considering the circumstances, can't say I blame him."
The dispatch ended and Renna said, "Still want to close your eyes?"
They were anything but.
In the recording, the babbling kid had been asking for me.
© Barry Lancet
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