For giggles and perchance for your entertainment, I present herein a chapter from White Tiger, a thriller cum police procedural cum martial arts fest I wrote with the ardent wordsmith Derek Paterson. This is a bit of a departure from my normal fare, in that there are no zombies, vampires, attack helicopters unmasking from behind intervening terrain, and no Army Special Forces shooting up the place while yelling “Hooah!”
San Francisco, California
For just a moment Hal Ryker thought the world had gone to hell in a handbasket and no one gave a damn any more, but then he saw a familiar face behind the hotel reception desk, talking to a pair of elderly Japanese. The clerk glanced at him briefly, then ignored him. Her name was … damn, he couldn’t remember, why was he so awful with names? … and she’d gotten her inspector’s shield six months ago, he remembered the frosted donuts and the coffee salute as everyone welcomed a new gladiator to the arena. He wondered what she thought of him—not that it mattered anyway because they worked out of the same precinct and only an idiot crapped in his own nest. Ryker didn’t know a cop-on-cop relationship that had ever worked out to anyone’s satisfaction, most especially his own, and he sure as hell wasn’t going down that bumpy road again … even if the bogus hotel clerk did have eyes a man could drown in and legs that went all the way up to her armpits.
Chee Wei stood waiting for him by the bank of elevators, one of which lay open with a printed Out Of Service sign on the frame. Ryker nodded hello and they stepped into the elevator. The young Chinese turned a key that was already in the control panel, then thumbed a button. The doors slid shut and the elevator climbed smoothly. The distant hum of motors and cables provided a background to Chee Wei’s inevitable question: “So, did you get any over the weekend?”
“Damn right I did. Your sister dropped by,” Ryker said, not taking his gaze from the display as the numbers got higher and higher, heading for the thirty-eighth floor. “I’m going to have to buy a new bed, she busted the springs. Neighbors were banging on the ceiling all night. Hey, I’ll bring in the tape. You can show it to your folks so they know what a talented daughter they have.”
“Tell me how much a new bed costs, they’ll want to pay for it,” Chee Wei said without change of expression. “Of course, my sister’s eye operation will have to be postponed. We’ll just buy her a guide dog instead. It’s cheaper.”
“Speaking of eyes, who’s that behind the desk downstairs?”
“That would be Sandra Raymond. Locker room says she likes girlie stuff, but that’s because she hasn’t had a solid date in over a month. You thinking about punching her ticket?”
“We have anyone else down there, or is she it?”
“Two plainclothes from the Bay area. Jackson, you know him, and a guy called Blacque, with a ‘q.’ You walked right past them.”
“I meant aside from them.”
The corner of Chee Wei’s mouth turned up, telling Ryker his bluff hadn’t worked. Then again, he hadn’t seen Jackson since spring last year when they’d rubbed shoulders on a double homicide. “Uh-huh. Couple of uniforms on permanent station round the corner with their radios open. We whistle, they come running. That’s assuming some crazy guy with a knife shows up looking for more dicks to cut off.”
The elevator slowed to a stop and the doors opened. Ryker nodded to the uniform waiting for them. The cop jerked a thumb over his shoulder indicating a cluster of bodies at the far end of the huge room, just in case they couldn’t find the corpse on their own. The dimensions of the place staggered Ryker. And the décor didn’t just impress him, it took his breath away. The furniture, the flooring, the rugs, the wood paneling, even the chandeliers hanging ten feet above his head each cost more than he made in a year. No, two years. The stench of wealth assaulted his nose. Just being here made him feel like some bum who’d wandered in off the street. He had an urge to take off his shoes out of respect, but that would only leave an embarrassing trail of foot-shaped sweat marks across the polished wood.
Chee Wei said, “You’re thinking, how much does this cost per night?”
Ryker shook his head. “No, I’m thinking what kind of loony-toon cuts a guy’s dick off.”
“A frustrated wife? A scorned lover?”
“See, you’ve solved the case already. Round up the usual suspects. You can start with my ex-wife, those alimony payments are crippling me.”
“Did Adrienne cut your dick off too?”
“She still keeps my balls in a glass jar beside her bed, that’s for sure.”
As Ryker and Chee Wei approached the emperor-sized bed, the small crowd dispersed to let them have a better look. Ryker recognized three forensics among the cops, one of them a Korean girl he’d only recently learned was hardcore lesbian. That thought was enough to send a man running to get a sex change. She walked to the top of the bed and took more photographs with her digital camera, the strobing flash turning the room into a disco. She had eyes for no one in the room except the naked Chinese lying on his back and decorated by a rusty film of dried blood. The forensics team leader, a crew cut named Klein, said, “We’re still trying to figure cause of death, but it looks like he was—” Klein paused momentarily for the appropriate comedic timing “—dismembered.”
Ryker understood only too well that humor at a grisly crime scene was essential. A well-timed joke could often stop a stomach from heaving and spilling its contents, adding to the disgust. He found himself chuckling and welcomed the emotional release, even if it was the diametrical opposite of what he felt at that exact moment.
The other forensics guy had his toolbox-cum-chemical lab open on a table. He saw he had Ryker’s attention and said, “There’s semen trace on his stomach. Looks like he came just before his assailant cut it off. And there’s trace in his mouth, too.”
“Is the semen in his mouth his own, or someone else’s?” Ryker asked, even as his brain, paralyzed by the sight of a dead man apparently eating his own penis, told him it was too soon for results to be available.
“Samples are on their way to the lab.”
“Too bad it happened last night,” Klein said. “If we’d gotten here within thirty minutes of ejaculation we could have put the two semen groups together on a slide. That would have told us whether they were exclusive.” He bent his arms at the elbows and made the motions of flapping wings, grinning all the while.
Ryker nodded; he’d seen the training film, dubbed “Cock Fighting” by the forensics fraternity. He knew the case’s history. A female student had been attacked on her way back to her dorm and raped by two men. When semen samples were examined under the microscope they were found to be very much alive—and fighting each other like crazy. Until then Ryker had assumed that semen had one purpose in life and one purpose only, to swim toward and fertilize the female’s egg. But, put those feisty little tadpoles in along with semen from another man and half of them would stop swimming and fight a rearguard action to prevent the egg being fertilized by the competitor.
Klein went on. “I’m estimating time of death at twelve thirty, give or take sixty minutes. Blood loss would have killed him soon enough. But before it did, this happened.” He pointed a gloved finger to a dark spot directly above the dead man’s heart. “Stab wound. From above, straight down. Slipped between the ribs, smooth as silk, and into the heart. You might call it a surgical strike. Either the knifeman, or the knifewoman, was very lucky not to have the blade turned by a rib—or they knew exactly what they were doing.”
Ryker examined the chest and stomach. “Just one puncture?”
“That’s affirmative,” Klein said. “There’s severe bruising around the wound, caused by the hilt impacting the flesh. Bam! Like Travolta and Uma Thurman, you know? We only have to insert a measurement probe into the hole to discover the exact length of the blade.”
“Do that,” Ryker said. He looked for Chee Wei and found him standing over by a window, looking out across the sprawling city, his back to the crime scene. Ryker joined him. He rarely got to see San Francisco from such a vantage point. Sometimes he forgot just how beautiful his adopted city was.
“I assumed, you know, this was some bi or gay thing,” Chee Wei said. “I didn’t consider the possibility that his own semen might have found its way into his mouth from his penis.”
“Just adds to the charm, don’t it?” Ryker said. “What else do we know about him?”
“Got his name from the register. It’s Danny Lin.”
He couldn’t have surprised Ryker more if he’d put on a clown’s nose and started dancing around the room. Danny Lin, aka Lin Dan, aka the son of James Lin, multi-millionaire Chinese industrialist and personal friend of at least two United States senators.
Ryker looked closely at the dead man on the bed and finally recognized him. The pale, bloated features had fooled him.
“Thought that would get your attention,” Chee Wei said. “Didn’t you have some kind of—” He broke off in response to Ryker’s stare, and held up both hands, palms outward.
Klein came up behind them and said, “We’d put Kyung on the suspects list but she has a solid alibi, she was working last night.” He meant the Korean girl. She’d moved round to this side of the bed and was close enough to have heard Klein, but if she did then she gave no sign.
“You’ve used up your funny allowance for the month,” Ryker said, perhaps too sharply. “Have you found the weapon?”
Klein frowned, suddenly serious. “No, but I’ll tell you this. We’re talking a damn sharp blade. It went through the guy’s dick like a laser beam. Perfect cut, absolutely no tearing or bruising.” He made a horizontal chopping motion with his hand. “With knife wounds, usually you can tell if it’s left-to-right or right-to-left. Not this time. Cross-section’s the cleanest I’ve seen. A machine couldn’t have done a better job.”
“It couldn’t have been a machine,” Chee Wei said. “The Three Laws clearly state that a machine can’t harm your dick, or through inaction allow your dick to come to harm.”
Klein laughed but Ryker rolled his eyes at such intellectual humor, and went to speak with the Korean forensics girl. She’d taken shots from every possible angle. Now she displayed them in batches of twelve on her camera’s 3.5-inch LCD, tilting it so Ryker could see. “What resolution?” he asked.
“Twelve megapixels, and it’s got a ten-by zoom,” Kyung said. “Not to mention a whole range of light enhancement settings. Which is how come I noticed this.” She expanded one of the thumbnails and indicated the wall section behind and above the bed. The writing was barely visible to the naked eye because of the natural shadows cast by bright daylight falling onto the floor beside the bed.
“Can you read it?”
Kyung shook her head. “Nah, I’m an American. It’s probably Chinese.”
They both looked at Chee Wei. He joined them and Ryker indicated the camera, then the wall. Kyung manipulated controls with her thumb so the characters painted on the wall in blood expanded to fill the display. Chee Wei’s eyes widened.
“Are they Chinese?” Ryker prompted him.
“Is the Pope Catholic? Sure they’re Chinese. Bu zhan bu he.” He frowned, then repeated the sounds, “Bu zhan bu he.”
“Is that somebody’s name?”
“What? No, no, it’s something, I’m trying to remember where I might have heard it before. It means, eh, it means no war, no peace. Bu zhan bu he. No war, no peace.”
“Does that have any special meaning in Chinese?”
Chee Wei thought about. “Not that I know of.”
Ryker looked at Kyung, who shrugged and moved away to talk to the forensics guy with the toolbox. She glanced back over her shoulder and caught Ryker looking at her butt. He pretended to have something in his eye even though he knew he wasn’t fooling her for an instant. Feeling like a dumb schoolboy, he turned to Chee Wei.
“Okay. The victim lost his cherry around twelve thirty. Who found him, and when?”
Chee Wei didn’t even consult his notebook. “Room service got here at eight thirty, breakfast trolley and wake-up call rolled into one. Knocked on the door, didn’t get an answer, used his pass key. He called the day manager using the room phone, the manager called nine one one. Uniforms arrived at eight forty-seven and sealed off the floor. The night manager is on his way back in, but when I talked to him on his cell phone, he didn’t know a damn thing about this. The room service logbook doesn’t list this suite after nine p.m., at which time Mr. Lin called down to order breakfast from the Chinese menu, to be delivered this morning promptly at eight thirty. If he had company with him, I guess they brought their own wine and food.”
“Or maybe he intended to order food after he had sex,” Ryker suggested. “Only he didn’t get that far.”
“Makes sense. Need to show you something.” Chee Wei headed for a door that led to a luxurious marble-tiled bathroom the size of Ryker’s apartment. The bath could have held a football team. Chee Wei indicated the wash basin. Ryker didn’t know what he was supposed to be looking for, but then the light caught something in the drain plughole. He bent down and moved over to the other side so he could see it more clearly.
“We need a plumber,” Ryker said.
“On his way. I’ll have him take out the pipe and put a bucket underneath. We’ll flush it down.”
Ryker straightened and nodded; Chee Wei had everything covered, as usual. Feeling superfluous and twenty years too old, Ryker said, “You know, I miss the good old days. You’re too young to remember, but once upon a time the only people who wore earrings were women.” He wanted to rip the sink apart and get his hands on whatever was down there. It looked like a stud diamond set in silver but maybe he wasn’t seeing all of it.
“Whoever dropped it didn’t stick around to call a plumber, that’s for sure. They were in a hurry.” Chee Wei frowned. “Now, if it belongs to the murderer, he or she would have tried to retrieve it, or flush it away so no one would ever find what might be a telling piece of evidence. But … and forgive my presumption … if the owner wasn’t concerned with leaving trace and hoped she might be able to return at some time in the future to pick it up …?”
Ryker noticed how Chee Wei had assigned the unknown earring owner a sex, following Ryker’s thoughts exactly. “Take it one step further. How would she get access to this place?”
“Hotel staff. Cleaning staff. Maintenance.”
“If our plumber turns out to be a girl, slap cuffs on her and hold her on suspicion.”
They both looked back over their shoulders as a huge shadow filled the doorway. The guy wore coveralls and carried a toolbox and a plunger. He must have weighed three hundred pounds. He looked from Ryker to Chee Wei and said, “Someone report a blocked sink?”
Chee Wei negotiated the mid-morning traffic in silence, giving Ryker a chance to think about the Lin family and in particular James Lin, father of the deceased. James Lin owned shipping, electronics, real estate. He had ties with several influential US senators eager to broaden profitable trade links with China, the growing economic and industrial giant that was gearing up to take over the world. Ryker had also heard through the private grapevine that James Lin had ties to various criminal figures, both in the US and Asia. That didn’t concern Ryker. What did concern him, and still irritated him greatly, were the events of six months ago.
An actress named Shannon Young had died at a party thrown by Danny Lin for some big shot friends of his up from LA for the weekend. The strikingly beautiful blonde had the bad manners to overdose in her host’s bathroom. The coroner’s report said the heroin she’d injected into her veins was almost pure, which suggested that someone who didn’t know what the hell they were doing had supplied the gear. The finger of suspicion didn’t just point at Danny Lin, it shoved itself all the way up his ass and tickled his prostate.
Ryker had disliked Lin instantly, not because of his father’s wealth or even because of his unconcealed arrogance and his general contempt for Westerners. No, it was because Danny Lin regarded Shannon Young as nothing more than an unpleasant smell that was stinking up his bathroom. He didn’t care that she’d died, he just wanted her removed and the place cleaned up so his party could continue. For this reason alone Ryker had intended to make things as unpleasant for Danny Lin as possible, starting with a very public arrest, and not forgetting his partying friends, not a single one of whom claimed to know the dead girl.
But suddenly the order had come down from above like a blazing meteor, commanding all concerned to regard Sharon Young’s death as an accidental misadventure, with no one to blame except herself. As if that wasn’t bad enough, twenty-four hours later Ryker had been bewildered to read an addendum to the crime scene report detailing how substance traces had been found in her purse and in her Mercedes, intimating that she had brought her own heroin to the party. When Ryker queried this anomaly, his own captain told him bluntly to stop asking damn fool questions and let it go, the case was closed. It was obvious as all hell that James Lin had used his power to derail the investigation. Equally obvious was the fact that no one could do a damn thing about it.
Which brought them to the present. What steps would James Lin take to cover up the manner in which his son had died? Ryker could well imagine. A single phone call to the mayor’s office, or perhaps even the governor’s office, and Ryker and his people would be pulled off this case too. A special team would be brought in, part investigator, part diplomatic mission. For Christ’s sake don’t piss off the mega-rich Chinese businessman. What could Ryker do about it? Absolutely nothing, but until he received the order to abandon ship he intended to operate the pumps to the best of his ability. And if his actions somehow pissed James Lin off just a little bit, then he felt he would have earned this month’s pay. Which was why he and Chee Wei had passed Japantown and Pacific Heights and were heading along California Street on their way to the Sea Cliff District, to Danny Lin’s house overlooking the beach and the Pacific Ocean. A subtle telephone inquiry had confirmed that Mrs. Valerie Lin was home. Not only had she agreed to see Ryker, she had also accepted his unwillingness to discuss the matter in detail over the phone, which Ryker thought must make her the most incurious woman in the city. He intended to find out why.
His cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number but accepted the call. “Ryker.”
“This is Sandra Raymond.” It took Ryker all of three seconds to remember the detective working hotel reception so she could keep an eye on everyone coming and going. Whose idea was that anyway, hers? He wondered whether her bed skills matched her cleverness. “You wanted to know about an earring?” She sounded uncertain, probably because Ryker was taking so long to respond.
“Yes. What about it?” The plumber had removed the wash basin pipe and caught the diamond stud as it fell out. It was on its way to the forensics lab together with other evidence from the Taipan Suite, but first Ryker had showed it to a jeweler in the hotel mall who’d given the single piece a four-figure value, and estimated the matching pair would have cost no less than thirty thousand dollars. The jeweler had similar merchandise but was certain these earrings hadn’t come from his store.
“Kyung printed a picture,” Sandra Raymond said. “We’ve been showing it around. Bingo, one of the room maids remembered seeing earrings just like these.”
“Time and place,” Ryker demanded, prompting Chee Wei to glance at him.
“The maid was working the thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth floors within an hour of our murder. Sheer luck we got hold of her, she’s covering early shift for a friend whose daughter’s getting married today. She describes a Chinese woman, twenties, tall, film star looks. Could have been around the Taipan Suite elevator. Mulholland’s got his laptop, they’re putting together an identikit.”
Breaks like this came only rarely; Ryker had learned to appreciate them as little acts of God. “Wire it to me as soon as they’ve got something. We’re on course for the vic’s wife.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“You’ve done enough. Take the rest of the month off, hop a plane to Hawaii and charge it to the department.” She laughed before Ryker disconnected. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and told Chee Wei, “Some maid remembered seeing the earring. And the good-looking Chinese woman who wore it.”
Chee Wei grinned. “Shouldn’t take too long to interview every hooker in San Francisco. One of them is bound to confess.”
“Think about it for a minute,” Ryker said. “Put yourself in Danny Lin’s shoes.”
“Hey, no thanks, I like my dick just where it is, attached to the rest of me.”
“You’ve booked one of the most luxurious—and expensive—suites at the grandest hotel in town. Why? You’re not going to breeze through Chinatown and hope you pick up some street hooker on the way there.”
“No you’re not, because you’ve already arranged a very special night with your mistress.”
Chee Wei laughed. “Oh come on. Quick, Watson, a Hansom cab! I’ve solved the case!”
“Would you give a pair of thirty-thousand-dollar earrings to a one-night stand?”
“Depends how good she is. Okay, maybe not. Maybe you’re onto something. So maybe someone knows who Lin Dan’s mistress is. I’ll shake a couple of trees, see what falls out. Hey, the wife finds out about the mistress. Gets a little pissed. Takes a kitchen knife to the hotel and, zzzziiittt.” His hand slashed the air, complementing the sound effect.
“Klein said it was a damn sharp knife.”
“Twenty bucks and postage’ll get you a boxed set of ninja steak knives.”
Remembering Klein’s statement, Ryker wasn’t at all sure whether the Shopping Channel had supplied the hardware that had separated Danny Lin from his manhood, but he let it go for the moment as Chee Wei’s portable navigation system instructed them to take the next turn, and they moved down among the big, rich houses that comprised Sea Cliff District. Chee Wei’s fascination with modern electronics had compelled him to spend good money on a state of the art journey planner, a combination satellite-fed Global Positioning System and street map that boasted details of every city, town, street, “points of interest” and ATM in the United States and Canada. Ryker was duly impressed but given that Chee Wei hadn’t set foot outside of San Francisco in ten years the gizmo seemed like a waste of money that could have better spent on his other interests, gambling and hot women. Then again, money was the last of Chee Wei’s concerns. His parents owned a profitable restaurant and worked their asses off eighteen hours a day for the sole purpose of accumulating wealth for their number one son. It didn’t seem to concern them that Chee Wei would rather wear a shield than an apron and had no interest in their endeavors; the Chinese family dynamic was all that mattered to them.
“My parents are pissed with me,” Chee Wei said at that moment, surprising Ryker, who wondered whether some kind of telepathy was at work. “I mean, what era do they think we’re living in, the 1920s?”
Ryker had no idea what Chee Wei was talking about so he contented himself with admiring the packed mansions on either side of the car as it crawled along the street, headed for Danny Lin’s humble abode.
“It’s like they think I’m still a kid who can’t decide things for himself.”
“How many guesses do I get?” Ryker said. He pointed at a house half-hidden behind a high wall with overhanging trees. Chee Wei nodded and pulled in just past the driveway, occupied by a Range Rover SUV and a gleaming black Audi A8 with tinted windows. They got out and climbed the winding rock bordered path that led up to the front door. Ryker noted a carefully sculpted ornamental pond filled with fish that glinted silver and gold, which he was sure hadn’t been there the last time he’d had occasion to visit. A stooped, white-haired Asian man tended a patch of garden ablaze with warm colors.
“So who is she?” Ryker asked, arriving at the door. He thumbed the button and listened for a noise within the house, but didn’t hear anything. He wondered if the doorbell was broken and looked around for the old Chinese gardener, but he was gone. Maybe he was stealing the hubcaps off the department Crown Vic.
Chee Wei made a sour face. “I don’t know. We were betrothed when I was five years old. My mother waved the contract under my nose as if it was some kind of legal document I’d signed. Twenty-two years later, I’m supposed to marry this total stranger from another country. She’s mainland Chinese, from Guangzhou, they still go in for that stuff.”
“Maybe she’s rich,” Ryker said. “Maybe she’s good looking. You should find out.”
“Did I ever tell you I’m allergic to marriage?”
Ryker cupped his hands around his eyes and peered through the glass. A shadow moved inside the hall, coming closer, resolving itself into someone wearing a maid’s uniform. “You just haven’t met the right girl yet,” Ryker said. The maid stopped as a second shadow appeared. Something was said; the maid turned and went away.
“Oh, so you’d recommend the institution, would you?”
It was Ryker’s turn to make a sour face just as a lock clicked and the front door opened. The most gorgeous Chinese woman he’d ever met stared at him, her delicate brows coming together to form a frown that did nothing to detract from her looks. Ryker fumbled for his badge while thinking, Danny Lin was seeing other women instead of coming home to this? He found the concept difficult to believe. His badge eluded his questing fingers and he had to open his jacket wide to show it to her, at the same time exposing his Glock 17 riding in its armpit holster. Her gaze flashed to the weapon.
“I presume you’re the policeman who telephoned earlier,” she said, her English perfect and her accent almost nonexistent, the result no doubt of expensive classes. He understood that many Chinese businessmen insisted their wives learn to speak fluent American English and lose all trace of the “old country” lest they be thought rustic. “I’m Valerie Lin.”
“I’m Inspector Hal Ryker, SFPD. This is Inspector Fong Chee Wei. I hope I didn’t alarm you.” Was she smiling or was that just wishful thinking on his part?
“Not at all. Won’t you please come in?” She stood aside, inviting him to enter.
“Mrs. Lin,” Chee Wei said, just as Ryker began to move forward. “Wouldn’t you like to know why we’re here?”
Her expression didn’t change. “I presume you’re just about to tell me.”
She led them along the hallway and into a lounge that instantly reminded Ryker of the Taipan Suite. The scale was much reduced but the decor, including hand painted silk screens and jade carvings and statuettes, added up to an impressive collection that could have graced a museum. Among this moved the slim figure of Mrs. Lin Dan, widow, dressed in dark slacks and a cream silk blouse, her black hair twisted up and held in place by a silver filigree clasp. Her earrings were twin pearls, simple but effective. Ryker supposed it would have be too easy to have found her wearing only one diamond earring, the mate of the earring Danny Lin’s killer had left behind. But part of him had lived in hope. …
She sat down and invited them to sit facing her on a couch. The maid who’d almost answered the door appeared. Ryker guessed she must be in her fifties, though it was hard to tell. “Will you take tea, or coffee?” Valerie Lin asked. She exuded imperturbable calm.
“This isn’t a social call, Mrs. Lin,” Ryker said.
She dismissed the maid with the smallest of gestures. “Very well. Then let’s get down to business, shall we? What has my husband done, Inspector, and how much will it cost to make it go away?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ll write you a check. Or would you prefer cash? That may have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Mrs. Lin, when did you last talk to your husband?”
“Oh, that would be, sometime in 1997, I think.” She turned her head so she was looking out the window, lost in her own thoughts. Rain clouds had gathered out in the bay and seemed to be moving closer to land. “Yes, I remember the occasion. It was his brother’s wedding. Everyone had moved out into the garden. I was having a conversation with some of the other wives. We were all so very happy to be there.” Her lips twitched. “We don’t get out much, you see. We were discussing how beautiful the bride’s dress looked when my husband pushed through the crowd and berated me for talking too much.”
The silence stretched over a dozen heartbeats. Ryker exchanged glances with Chee Wei whose eyebrow rose a millimeter. Taking a deep breath, Ryker said, “Mrs. Lin, do you happen to know where your husband was last night?”
“I have no idea. I knew he was in town but I didn’t know where. Or with whom. I realize that must sound awful. You must understand, my husband answers to no one except himself. And to his father in business matters, of course.”
“Your husband rented a suite at the Mandarin.”
“Is that a crime? He is a sophisticated man with expensive tastes.”
“He was not alone.”
“Are you determined to shame me, Inspector?”
“What I am determined to do, Mrs. Lin, is find out who murdered him.”
Heavy raindrops spattered the window. The sudden clatter made her flinch visibly. Her face looked terribly pale. Water ran down the window in rivulets as she clasped her hands on her lap, the tightly clenched fingers turning white and pink with pressure. In that frozen moment of time, Ryker knew beyond all shadow of doubt that Valerie Lin had not murdered her husband. The rain washed away his suspicions and replaced them with a profound sympathy that manifested itself as a desire to move to her and take her hands in his and apologize for bringing such grief to her door. His mental turmoil sent confused signals to his groin which began swelling immediately, much to his embarrassment. He wanted to laugh out loud just to gain the relief such an outpouring of emotion would offer him. He leaned forward, placed his elbows near his knees and clasped his own hands, hoping that this perfectly natural posture would conceal his erection, which over the space of only seconds had grown steel hard. He made a mental resolution there and then to masturbate at least twice every morning from now on before leaving for work. And twice more during the day. That would be easy—all he’d have to do was think about Valerie Lin with her tiny breasts, narrow waist and inviting hips with a black triangle marking the entrance to Heaven.
“Mrs. Lin,” Chee Wei said. “This is just a formality, you understand, but we must ask if there are any witnesses—family, friends, employees—who will be able to attest to your whereabouts around midnight last night.”
She didn’t appear to hear him. Chee Wei opened his mouth to speak again but Ryker gave a little shake of his head. They waited. Ryker sucked in long, deep breaths and tried to calm himself, willing his erection to go down. With primitive cunning his penis has slipped down one leg of his boxers before swelling to strain up against the material of his pants leg, like some monstrous leviathan rising from the deep. Moving his left forearm to either side would reveal his rigid manhood. How would Valerie Lin react? He imagined her eyes widening in shock. Ryker bowed his head, trying not to giggle. For Christ’s sake, focus! The thought that he’d probably tell Chee Wei about this on their way back to the station house only made matters worse. His stomach muscles trembled in anticipation of a mighty guffaw that he simply could not allow. He concentrated on the implications of such unprofessional behavior. James Lin would undoubtedly learn of it. Shortly thereafter, Ryker would be summoned to Captain Jericho’s office and thrown across the big oak desk for the butt-fucking of a lifetime.
That did it—the leviathan groaned, rolled over and descended back into the inky ocean depths. He began to relax, then realized Valerie Lin was looking directly at him. Did she know? Or had she said something, only he was too lost in his juvenile fantasy to hear? He chose a neutral gambit—“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lin ….”—and deliberately allowed his voice to trail off. She could interpret it one of several ways: I’m sorry for your loss. Could you say that again please? Someone chopped off your husband’s penis, stuffed it into his mouth, then stabbed him through the heart.
“My housekeeper should be able to verify … I did not leave the house. I also made a telephone call, to my sister-in-law. We talked for some time. That must have been around …” She shook her head, sighed, then shook her head again. “Does my father-in-law know? Have you told Lin Yubo?”
“We thought we should break the bad news to you first, Mrs. Lin.”
Something changed in her. Ryker couldn’t quite put his finger on it but the temperature of the air between them dropped a couple of degrees. “You don’t know who murdered my husband,” she said. “You came here to judge my reaction. You suspect I may be responsible.”
“Those are exactly our reasons for being here, Mrs. Lin.” She blinked in surprise at his unexpected candor but Ryker saw no reason to sugarcoat it. “The first thing we do when someone’s husband suffers an unnatural death is call on the wife. Ten will get you twenty that she did it, or knows something about it. My first impressions of you are favorable. I don’t believe you murdered your husband. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically dismissed from the list of suspects. But if you let us talk to your housekeeper and your sister-in-law, and if what you just told us checks out, we won’t bother you again unless we absolutely have to.”
Chee Wei looked bemused, which was fair indication of how far Ryker had crossed over the line. But he wasn’t a robot any more than Chee Wei was a virgin. He was also on totally unfamiliar ground. Valerie Lin spoke good English but was, first and foremost, Chinese. Was he supposed to break the news as he would to an American wife whose American husband had been found dead? Or was he doing the right thing by laying all his cards on the table? Would she take this as it was intended, as a gesture of respect, or would she take insult instead? He held his breath and waited, only too aware of the risks involved.
“Thank you, Inspector,” she said at last. “For being so honest.”
He inclined his head, a quarter-bow rather than a mere nod.
“My sister-in-law is in China,” she said. “She lives in Shanghai.”
Ryker knew that Chee Wei would have the telephone company records pulled and Valerie Lin’s claim either verified or refuted within the hour. These days all calls going through the international switchboards were electronically recorded as a matter of course and scanned for keywords that might reveal terrorism at work, before being compressed and copied to permanent storage media. He wondered if Homeland Security would give them access to that particular data stream?
“I’ll go talk to the housekeeper,” Chee Wei said. He got up and left the room. Ryker immediately felt awkward at being left alone in the presence of this beautiful woman who had captivated him from the instant she opened the front door, and who made him feel like a schoolboy caught up in the first stomach churning blossom of puppy love.
“Are you from Shanghai, Mrs. Lin?” he asked, feeling the need to make polite conversation that would put her at ease.
“I lived there soon after we were married, before we moved to San Francisco, but I am from Chongqing. Are you familiar with China, Inspector?”
“A little. Just enough to know Chongqing is a long way from Shanghai.”
“Most people don’t even know that much.”
“I was only a kid when the Bruce Lee thing hit the States like a whirlwind, but it left a lasting impression. Kung Fu schools were springing up everywhere. I became a student so I could learn how to beat up entire roomfuls of Japanese karateka. It didn’t quite work out that way, but my teacher was an elderly Chinese who introduced his pupils not only to the martial arts, but also to the history and traditions of his country. His family was from Wuhan Province. His name was Chen.”
“You surprise me. Truthfully, I didn’t think any Americans cared enough to learn about China. I once met a woman, the wife of one of my husband’s American business associates, who thought Japan and China were …” Her words became a convulsive gasp. She covered her face with her hands and closed her eyes. Ryker looked away, not wishing to embarrass her. She sobbed once, just once, and then she said, “I apologize for my unseemly behavior.” When he looked at her she was perfectly composed.
He wanted to tell her it was okay, he understood and sympathized, but again that would probably embarrass her so instead he said, “May I ask your advice? On the matter of your father-in-law. As far as I know, he is unaware of your husband’s death. Would he—would you—prefer it came from us? I don’t know how your family works. I will be the one who tells him. It’s my duty. But, if you would prefer to convey the news, if it would, I don’t know, gain him, or you, some measure of release? Rather than coming from a stranger. Please forgive me if I’m being too presumptuous.”
“Your concern is greatly appreciated, Inspector. Thank you. Truly. But … if I am being honest … I do not relish the thought of telling my father-in-law that he must bear the pain of loss for his second son. Coming so soon. I would much rather … if it is not too much to ask … I would much rather it came from you.” She rose with fluid grace and moved to the window. There she stood with her back to him and her arms wrapped around her own body as if for comfort, her white knuckled hands visible, the fingers pressing into the fabric of her blouse. If ever there was a perfect moment for him to go to her and take her in his arms and tell her she would never again have to worry about anything for as long as he lived, this was it. A hard pulse beat in his own throat and surf waves crashed inside his ears as he actually contemplated implementing this insane physical action that would destroy his career and probably his life. Such was the power this woman had over him and she didn’t even know it.
The bubble popped when Chee Wei appeared in the doorway, flipping his notebook shut. He slipped it inside his jacket along with his pen, and nodded when Ryker threw him a curious look.
Ryker reluctantly got up. “Thank you, Mrs. Lin. If we need to speak to you again, we’ll call first. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
She didn’t answer or turn from the window. The rain had stopped, only a brief shower, leaving the garden gleaming and fresh. Chee Wei turned to leave but Ryker stopped halfway to the door, a sudden thought having surfaced.
“Mrs. Lin. If I were to say, ‘No war, no peace,’ would that mean anything to you?”
For a moment he wasn’t sure whether she’d heard him or not. Chee Wei was watching her too, looking for some gesture or change in body posture that might reveal knowledge. But all she did was shake her head, the slightest of movements. Ryker realized she was watching his reflection in the window glass. He forced himself to stop drinking in every line and curve of her body, and followed Chee Wei out. Leaving her alone with her grief made him feel nauseous.
The maid, or housekeeper, opened the door for them and bade them farewell with a tight smile. Ryker and Chee Wei made their way back to the car. But as they neared the end of the path something made Ryker stop and turn and look back at the house.
He couldn’t see Valerie Lin at the living room window, not that he thought she was responsible for the unsettling feeling that had literally sent a shiver up his spine. His eyes searched the trees and, among the shadows, he found the white-haired gardener they’d seen on the way in. The old man stood motionless, his hands folded within his jacket sleeves. Ryker didn’t know what to make of it.
Chee Wei said, “If that’s how they build them in Guangzhou, maybe this arranged marriage bullshit won’t turn out so bad after all.” He unlocked the car with his remote. “Yeah, right, what are the chances? Her nickname’s probably Elephant Butt.” He climbed in behind the wheel. Ryker studied the gardener for a moment longer, then walked to the car and climbed in the passenger side, still feeling strange about what had happened.
“Yeah, four hundred pounds of blubber. I’d lose my dick in the folds of her fat,” Chee Wei continued. He turned the key, started the engine. “The housekeeper says they had a quiet night in. Watched some Chinese soaps on satellite TV, then went to bed around ten thirty. Then they had their nightly lesbian fest. Mrs. Lin got hers first. The housekeeper says she likes it rough, right up to the elbow. She squeals like a pig when she comes. Hey, you listening?”
Ryker was listening but with only half an ear. He was thinking back to the night Shannon Young had died in this very house. Valerie Lin had been out of town. Ryker didn’t recall seeing the housekeeper then either, or the gardener. Were they employees or family? Did they travel with her? He knew someone must have checked it out, just as he and Chee Wei were checking on Valerie Lin’s whereabouts around midnight last night. Maybe the records still existed. Or had James Lin conspired to have them erased, as he’d so easily erased the minor problem of his son being charged with supplying tainted drugs that led to Shannon Young’s overdose?
“So I’m guessing you’re thinking about Mrs. Lin. Maybe she’s just your type. Maybe you’ll get the chance to talk to her again. Who knows where it might lead? A quiet dinner for two. Touching knees under the table. An electric spark. An invitation back here for a night cap. With any luck her husband’s slippers will fit. Maybe his robe and his pajamas, too.”
“Let’s go talk to James Lin,” Ryker said, and Chee Wei put the Crown Vic into gear.
This is what happens when Special Forces NCOs sit down to dinner. Warning: saucy language and even some (gasp!) double entendres.
Gartrell sat at a table in the D-FAC taking down a surprisingly tasty steak sandwich when two Special Forces NCOs approached him. They carried trays loaded with fooxzd and energy drinks. Master Sergeants Donald “Dusty” Roads and Rick “Barney Rubble” Forringer looked down at him as they stopped at the table.
“You mind if we dance with your dates?” Roads said, parroting a line from Animal House. He even screwed on the urban black accent. Gartrell had to smile at that. It had been a while since he’d thought about the boys from Delta Fraternity.
“Have a seat, guys,” he said.
“You sure?” Forringer asked even though he immediately pulled out a chair and plopped down into it. He definitely did look like a real-life Barney Rubble—straw blond hair, big nose, weak chin, small eyes—but the fact that he looked like a living cartoon character was undercut by the fact he was one of the sharpest SF demolitions soldiers Gartrell had ever known. Roads was an intelligence operator, much taller and leaner than Forringer, and had looks that approached Hollywood handsome. Physically, they couldn’t be more different, but personally and professionally, the two men worked well together. Both men carried their weapons with them.
“It’s a free dining facility,” Gartrell said, “but don’t waste any time sitting down or anything, Barney.”
“I gather no dust when it comes time to chow down,” he said.
“The only thing he does faster than sit down to eat is lie down to go to sleep,” Roads said as he put down his tray and pulled out a chair. The D-FAC was starting fill up, and with the addition of the civilians that had been brought into the complex, room was at a premium. Roads glanced at one of the pole-mounted flat screen TVs that stood nearby and shook his head. The battle for Austin was within a few days of commencing, and the entire 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had been pulled out of Fort Hood and sent to the area.
“Wow, you know how long it takes me to fall asleep? That’s kind of creepy, man,” Forringer said. He dug into his barbeque chicken without delay.
“Why’s that creepy? I thought the two of you were engaged,” Gartrell said.
Forringer frowned. “Please—I’m trying to eat.”
“Like the commentary is going to throw you off,” Roads said. “I figure half the Ranger battalion could be attacking you with a tube of Astro-Glide and you wouldn’t even notice.”
“Boy, do I miss the days of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Seems like Dusty’s about to make a confession, Sarmajor.”
“Try not to get anything on the walls, boys,” Gartrell cautioned.
Roads grinned and started in on his own meal. It had been a while since the three of them had broken bread together, especially since Gartrell had moved over to the Special Warfare Center and started training the next generation of Army Green Berets. Roads and Forringer had remained operational, though Roads had stepped out of the alpha det regime and worked directly for Major “Switchblade” Lewis as the senior intelligence NCO with the bravo detachment. Gartrell asked Roads how he liked working with the walking mountain known as Captain Chase, and was happy to hear a favorable review. Even though Chase was Big Army, Roads thought the huge officer was sharp as a tack and could read a situation for what it was without having to pull anything.
“All right, all right, enough foreplay.” Forringer had finished his chicken, and his lips were smeared with barbeque sauce. He licked them clean and reached for a cob of corn. “We’re here to find out the straight poop, Dave.”
“What happened to Keith and the rest of the guys in the Big Apple?” Roads asked. “I knew Rittenour pretty well, we were pods from the 90s.”
“Ah.” Gartrell finished his steak sandwich and leaned back in his chair. He looked from one man to the other. “Keith’s team handled themselves really well. Rittenour and Leary especially so—those guys were leaning forward in the foxhole the entire time. If not for them, I wouldn’t be here right now. Or I’d have a different pallor and would be eating you.”
“Did McDaniels screw the pooch again?” Roads asked. He and Forringer knew all about the bad blood that existed between Gartrell and McDaniels—a lot of folks inside the community of Quiet Professionals had the inside line on that, since Gartrell hadn’t been the most restrained of individuals in his younger days.
Gartrell took a moment to gather his thoughts before answering. “I’m not sure that Bill Meadows himself could have done things any differently,” he said finally.
Forringer gaped at the invocation of one of the luminaries of the Special Forces universe. “You’re mentioning McDaniels and Meadows in the same conversation? I think this qualifies as a ‘what the fuck’ moment, and it frankly has me scared.”
“Try not to spot your thong,” Gartrell said.
“You want to try and clear that up a bit, Dave?” Roads remained fixed on target, which was what made him such an unflappable type of operator.
“Clear what up, exactly?”
“What happened in New York…and how McDaniels is suddenly a stand-up guy in your eyes.”
Gartrell was annoyed by the questioning, but he tried not to let it show. He thought back to what he had gone through, both with McDaniels and after. The truth of the matter was, Gartrell had always prided himself on being able to keep his emotions in check. He’d always thought that he had the ability to suppress his personal desires and put the mission first. But if that was truly the case, then chances are good he never would have pulled a weapon on McDaniels and threatened to kill him over another disagreement over operational matters.
And then, there was the boy, Jaden. An autistic three-year-old boy Gartrell had tried to save by leading him and his mother through the black subway tunnels beneath New York City. A boy whose final moments in life were full of terror and pain.
“Dude, you all right?”
Gartrell looked up and saw Forringer and Roads looking at him, concern on their faces. He wondered what they had seen in his eyes in that moment when he thought of Jaden and his mother, and the fate he had led them to beneath the streets of Manhattan.
“Dave?” It was Roads prompting him this time, and Gartrell looked at him with a heavy sigh.
“Guys, there’s no mystery to it,” he said finally. “I last worked for McDaniels in, what, 2007? A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Things change. People change. McDaniels has changed. And me, too. He did what he had to do in New York, and he accomplished the mission. Now Keith, Rittenour, Leary…all the troops who went in with us are dead, that’s true. But it wasn’t because of McDaniels. It was because of the fucking stenches.” Gartrell pointed at the nearby TV, which showed a Stryker unit opening up on a gaggle of zombies ambling up a trash-littered highway somewhere in the middle of Texas.
“So that’s it, then?” Roads asked. “Nothing more to it? Things change, and McDaniels is a stand-up guy again?”
“Dusty, do you want to ask him for yourself? I realized I bitched about the move he made in Afghanistan, and I still have reservations about it…but in the end, it was his call. He has to live with the fallout too. And right now, we’ve all got a pretty big fight to get ready for, so we need to put aside the petty shit and soldier like we’re supposed to. We’ve got a butt-load of civilians in the compound now, and we have to protect them as well as this facility and preserve it so it can be used to accomplish its mission.”
Forringer cackled. “Hah, this is the command sergeant major talking, right?”
Gartrell didn’t smile. “Guys, I’m all about the mission. I’m the quick reaction force senior NCO, and I report directly to the lieutenant colonel in charge. We can discuss the guy’s merits all night long, but in the end, he’s the one calling shots. That shouldn’t be a gray area, right?” As he said this last, Gartrell looked directly at Roads.
Roads shook his head immediately. “Not for me, bro. I’m good with it.”
“Same here,” Forringer said. “If anyone’s interested, that is.”
“Of course we’re interested in what you have to say, sweetheart,” Gartrell said. “But what was your name, again?”
Forringer shook his head. “I knew it—you’re the kind who just won’t respect me in the morning.”
“Man, we don’t even respect you now,” Roads said.
“Damn you…damn you to hell,” Forringer said in his best Charlton Heston voice.
And there you have it. Usual disclaimers apply, draft stuff, might not make it into the final, blah-blah-blah.
So I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d have a reveal about The Gathering Dead, and here it is. Try not to get anything on your keyboard…
After reading some months ago on the blog of the erstwhile David Gaughran where he spoke of crowdfunding his latest novel, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, the idea to try my hand at this kind of financial networking became lodged in what passes for one of my frontal lobes. I didn’t know if I would be scurrying to recreate Gaughran’s success anytime soon, but it seemed like a potentially nifty process for securing some preliminary funding for a future project. I had no idea what project I might tie this into–I mean, I have so many!–but it was definitely something that I would revisit at some point in time. So I put a mental coda on that.
Well, it’s come around again.
But first, a quick bit of semi-recent history. Let’s stumble down Memory Lane together, shall we?
When The Gathering Dead came out, many folks beyond myself thought it would make a halfway decent film. The comments came mostly in reviews on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and of course I took note of this. Many of the reviews contained actual comparisons with recent films, such as Black Hawk Down, which I felt was more than just slight cool–I mean, my book contrasted favorably with one of Ridley Scott’s best films? Can’t shake a stick at that.
But while nice, the reviews didn’t exactly motivate me to develop the book into anything more than it was. A book is a book, a movie is a movie, and movies are made from books written by other authors. Not me.
Then, as things began to heat up and the book circulated around in both print and electronic media, I received some interesting probes from folks over on the Left Coast. Would I be willing to option the book for a potential film? Why, yes…yes I would!
Unfortunately, Mrs. Knight didn’t raise a dummy for a son.
I asked for contracts with everything spelled out: how long the option would last for, what kind of money was to be doled out and when, renewal rights, script input (actually, I wanted to write the first draft myself), treatment approval, beat sheet review, etc., etc. In short, this wasn’t something I was just going to give up, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to give it up for free. Or even next to free. And I wasn’t going to allow myself to be cut out of any potential revenue streams, either.
Actually knowing what to ask for makes things more difficult. One potential suitor disappeared right off the bat. The second suitor sent me contracts with almost everything I asked for. So I took them to an IP lawyer who is also an entertainment attorney, and after some fairly standard revisions wherein my rights were more clearly spelled out, I sent the revised contracts back for comment. The comment? “Look, you should be happy we’re even coming to you! You’re gouging right off the bat!”
Gouging? Moi? To be specific, I didn’t ask for a million dollars up front or anything like that. My revisions to the contract were pretty transparent, even to a non-legal eagle like myself. I wanted to ensure I was protected, and that meant not giving up everything right away. Suitor two probably understood, but wasn’t interested in starting things off on a level playing field. So…bye-bye.
Not surprising, and if I was acting from a strictly mercenary point of view, I would have accepted whatever I got. You see, attracting interest in the property isn’t particularly hard in the Hollywood industry. If you hit the right plot points and present things in a fairly professional manner, people will take notice. I’ve been there before, and have profited from it, back in the days when I was just an aspiring screenwriter (a lifetime ago). But options almost always expire, the property is tied up during the contract, and really, almost nothing ever, ever gets done beyond some n00b writing some script coverage. That’s it. Really. The chances of a project receiving the green light is about as high as being struck by lightning, or being bitten on the ass by a shark while sitting on your own toilet. And at least in the United States, that’s a pretty dismal success-to-failure ratio. (Though I will admit there have been times when I’ve hummed the theme to JAWS while evacuating, just to see what happened.) So this ends The Brief History of The Gathering Dead in Hollywood. Now, it’s time for take two:
Crowdfunding The Gathering Dead!
So here is where Mr. Gaughran’s blog post came into play. Some synapses fired and I thought: Hey, I’m an entreprenuerial kind of guy–maybe this crowdfunding thing could give me a leg up on getting this done! A few days of research led me to IndieGoGo, where after another few days of noodling around and checking out the other projects available for funding helped me to generally get to how this might work. After a while, I was able to convince myself that this might be a good thing to try.
Once I put The Rising Horde to bed–and it goes to the editor on March 26, 2012, which is a hard date–I’ll start work on my next project, a science fiction adventure set in the Antarctic called Tribes. Jared Rackler provided me with a cover mockup last year, and I’d hoped to have the book finished and available in January. (Alas, such grandiose plans go awry!) That obviously didn’t happen, but the wheel slowly turns, and what promises to be a crackling good adventure read is coming around again. I have a fair-sized portion of the book complete, and will post some snippets once I’m comfortable with the book’s progress.