hole lotta shakin'
“What the hell—?”
The shaking woke me up as it also tossed me right out of my bed. You have to understand the type of bed the Victorians had in those days, and this one came with the house. The top of the mattress is almost four feet off the floor. As it turns out, a very… hard… floor. The entire house was jumping around as if being shaken by a giant. You have to know what sort of life I live to understand why I considered checking to see if that was the case.
I could hear Frankie squealing from his room on the third floor and Greystoke was barking to beat the band. It almost sounded as if he was syncopating his yelps with the shakes.
“Come on, boy. We’ve got to get out of here.” I grabbed him by the collar and steered him towards the door, yelling for Frankie to head for the yard. The last place you want to be in a decent-sized quake is in any of the floors of a hundred years-plus old house.
The shaking continued all the way to the stairs and then it began to settle. By the time we reached the lawn the quake was over. Being California born and bred, I knew better than to trust that was the end of it. One thing about Mama Earth and her tantrums, she could start up again at a moment’s notice, be quiet for several years, or whack you when you were the least suspecting.
“Tony,” Frankie hissed at me as I looked up at my beautiful old Vickie, trying to see if there was any sign of visible damage. I had quake insurance, but even at that the insurance company would kick and scream over doing the right thing.
I answered, “What?” As I continued checking. Did that gutter look loose?
Frankie asked, “Aren’t you feeling cold?”
I shook my head. “No,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”
The big guy cleared his throat and said, “Because you ran out of the house without dressing and you’re giving Mrs. Podowski quite an eyeful.”
I looked down and saw mister happy flapping in the breeze. Then, almost as if scripted by a comedy writer, I looked to my right and saw Mrs. Podowski smiling at me. I think I set an all-time record for the bare-assed sprint. Frankie’s wolf whistle didn’t help at all.
A small aftershock rattled the dishes a bit as I rushed into my clothes. There was a case waiting for me across the park so I took the time to collect my various helpers, legal and not-so-much legal. Then I headed downstairs.
Frankie saw my get up and asked, “Aren’t you going to wait for me?”
I thought about it. The issue this client had included some guy with a temper, so it wouldn’t hurt to have the big guy around. You have to know Frankie to understand. He’s slightly bigger than NFL lineman size and a lot stronger. He’s also a part-time raging drag queen, pop culture sponge, and the partner in my Investigation business. He’s not my partner if you catch the subtle meaning there.
Nodding, I said, “Yeah, go get dressed. I’ll get Greystoke fixed up.”
By the time Frankie came back down I had Greystoke, my German shepherd set up in the backyard with food water, and a brief check in his dog house to make sure he didn’t have any squatters in the way of 'coons or skunks. Yes, it happens in San Francisco too.
Frankie finally asked the question when we were on the bus headed towards Geary, “So… what’s this case about?”
“Kind of an odd one,” I said, “Old school, real old school if you think about it. Some guy is going around selling insurance against him coming back and breaking things if the shop owner refuses to pay.”
“Ooo,” Frankie said, “I remember a Brisco County episode about that. It was the one where they introduced Viva, the Elvis—“
I cut off the side trip into TV land. “Yeah,” I said, “Let’s focus, big guy. What do you know about the Richmond District?”
He pursed his lips in thought, “Hmm, pretty ethnic neighborhood. A lot of Russian speakers, well Eastern European really, various dialects… mostly Jewish folk whose families escaped the Iron Curtain…” He looked at me and said, “Not much, really.”
As I said, if you didn’t know the big guy, you’d have probably thought he was putting you on or even being egotistical, but you would have been way off base. He didn’t consider his local citizen knowledge to be all that much, figuring anyone would have to know the same thing about the neighborhood. What Frankie didn’t and probably never will realize is that most of humanity, regardless of where they live is about as shallow as an empty gutter, and anything that does not directly affect them isn’t worth investigating. He was right, though, the Richmond was heavily ethnic in makeup and a good portion of the small businesses there, cafes, shops and stores were owned and run by folks who came across as if they’d just immigrated, even though most were born right on the peninsula.
The old fellow who’d contacted me for help was a dead ringer for Edward G. Robinson in the movie Soylent Green. It was so close I was a bit worried about Frankie’s reaction and told him so.
“Don’t you worry, Tony,” He said, patting my knee, “I’ll be the soul of discretion.”
That’s when I got really worried.
The Richmond runs mostly along the north side of Golden Gate Park, except for that small section that runs along the southern border of the Panhandle. But, since that section of the park is only about as wide as your average street, not much is said about it. The area we were headed to is called “Little Russia”, and it occupies about a five or six block section of Geary running from approximately 20th to 25th streets, with a bit of bleed-over going either way. The entire neighborhood, according to my would-be client was being threatened, but since he was the only one coming forward, it was his shop we were headed to, a curio and tea shop near 23rd and Geary.
The bus dropped us off a half block from the shop meaning we needed to walk down to the light and cross the street and then hoof it back the way we came to get to the store. That was just fine with me. I wanted to use the time to think about what to say and to also watch for any possible surveillance from whoever our bad guy or guys were. From what I was told, I was thinking it had to be some recent additions to the Russian population. Someone who was looking to make some noise and get noticed by their better organized and far more powerful fellows down on The Point.
I said to Frankie, keeping my head straight and my stride consistent, “Keep an eye out for anyone a bit too interested in us and where we go, okay?”
He murmured, “Gotcha.” Frankie was becoming an experienced operative, well… for the most part.
Unlike downtown, most of the Richmond is wide open, tree-lined streets with single-story shops whose fronts sit beneath brightly colored awnings. Most of the taller buildings are churches, like the Russian Orthodox on the corner of 26th and Geary. Foot traffic was light, but that could have been because of the trembler.
The shop address, according to the card was right next to a greengrocer on the north-facing side of the street, in sight of the dome of the Orthodox Church.
“Ooo,” Frankie said veering off to look more closely at the produce, “Look at those strawberries!”
“Not now,” I said, “We’ve got a case, remember?” I did notice one thing, this area did not look at all shaken. The quake must have been centered further to the south, or it just may have been the way my house was built.
“But…” He pointed. “Look at them, and it’s the height of the season.”
“They’ll still be there when we’re done Frankie,” I said, “Come on. We’re on the clock here.”
He came along, but his face sure said he’d rather be shopping.
A bell dinged as we pushed through the door, and there we were, almost as if we’d gone back in time and onto another continent. The shop had that feel I’d seen in so many others like it was part of a movie set more so than a place to buy collectibles and knick-knacks. It didn’t look dusty, but it felt that way. Nearly every surface was filled with shelves, cases, and stands and nearly every shelf, case and stand were filled to overflowing.
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” the aged voice came from the back of the shop, and the feeling of déjà vu washed over me. I’d gone through this whole scene before. But it was probably just old memories pasting together to create one that really didn’t exist. Regardless, there it was.
Frankie’s gasp told me I had to be quick on shutting down any fanboy nonsense if I wanted to get anywhere on this case. As I said, the shop owner did look very much like Edward G in his later years, complete with the beard, the hat, and the shuffling walk.
He had his head down as he came forward and then he looked up. “Ah,” he said, “Mister… Mandolin?”
Frankie squee’d, “He sounds just like him.”
“Easy, big guy,” I murmured.
The shop owner looked at me as he pointed a thumb at Frankie, “Is he okay?”
I nodded, “Yeah. So tell me, Mister… uh, you never did give me your name.”
“I didn’t?” The old man smiled up at me, then he winked, “Mannie, Mannie Goldenberg at your service.” He held out a hand.
I heard Frankie’s muffled gasp behind me.
Mannie peered past me and asked, “You need some water?”
“No, no,” Frankie waved away the offer, “I’m okay.”
I looked at them both and then shook my head. “All right, Mister Goldenberg,” I asked, “what’s going on? You said you were being strong-armed by a protection racket?”
“Mannie, please,” He said, and then he turned to the side and beckoned us to the rear of the shop, “Come back here. Let’s talk.”
He led us to a very cozy sitting room that looked to be more a part of a home than a shop. The furniture was antique, and very well cared for and the walls held photos of what had to be family and scenes of the old country. Mannie chose an overstuffed chair with a lamp and a reading table next to it. An ornate Russian teapot sat on the table with a matching cup. The cup held what looked like used tea leaves.
Waving us to the other two chairs in the room, he said, “It started about a week ago. A new group of east European immigrants moved into the neighborhood. At first, we were glad to see them, new blood and all, but then they began paying visits to the businesses and making statements about how much a shame it would be for such nice things to be damaged, or to burn down.”
“Did they offer to ensure that did not happen… for a price?” I asked.
Mannie shook his head slowly, “No… not at first. First, there were… the accidents.”
“Accidents?” Frankie asked.
I nodded to Mannie to continue.
He sighed and said, “My neighbor, the greengrocer? He lost an entire delivery of oranges because some gasoline got spilled on them. Who stores oranges under gasoline? And then, across Geary, Sophia Schumwalt, her café gets invaded by cockroaches. Interestingly, the exterminator was there the day before for regular maintenance.”
Mannie shrugged, “Accidents? Eh, more like vandalism if you ask me.” He gave the statement a dismissive wave.
I nodded, “Probably. By the way, are there any photos or descriptions of these people?”
He got up from the chair, “As a matter of fact… wait right there.” And then he shuffled out of the room.
Frankie turned to me and said, in a breathless rush, “Tony, Manuel Goldenberg is Edward G. Robinson’s real name! And his family came from—“
I stopped him right there. The big guy, geeking out in fanboy ecstasy was not going to get this case solved, or us paid. “Just ease off, okay Frankie? It’s remarkable, I know, but you’ll probably irritate him and not flatter him. I’m sure he’s had to endure enough already.”
Mannie came back into the room carrying a small black binder. He held it out to me, saying, “Sometimes it pays to keep up with technology now and then. Go ahead, open it.”
I did, and found myself looking at a couple of high-resolution screen captures from an obvious security camera. The two fellows I was looking down at could have stepped right out of the casting call for unnamed Russian henchman, large with heavy shoulders and jowls, they had the buzz cut hairdos and the black leatherette jackets. I was pretty sure they also spoke with the heavy broken English accent, even though they probably had a better command of the language than half the folks in East Oakland.
I asked, “How often do they come around?”
He shrugged, “A couple times a week, usually right around closing time.”
“Do you know where they live?”
He nodded, “Last I heard they were staying in one of those hostels for foreign students down off Market Street.” He snorted, “Hostel, right. More like headquarters.”
Right then we got a small aftershock, just enough to shake loose some dust and rattle a few of the curios in the shop.
“Oy vey!” Mannie cried, “This I don’t need.”
“It’s all right, Mannie,” I called out, “It’s over. It’s over.”
Things settled rapidly. It had been a short small tremor, but I could see Mannie was more shaken than his shop. Frankie and I took our leave and headed back to the bus stop. There were a couple of ways to go with the information Mannie gave us. One, we could head downtown and check around, using the photos he gave me to find the would-be racketeers and teach them the error of their ways. However, if they had friends, as most of those type do, we might get our heads handed to us, so the better avenue was option two, see about having their own do a bit of house cleaning.
When I told Frankie, he was less than enthusiastic. “China Basin? Ivankov? Tony, I’d like to live past tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Ivankov will consider this a favor, not interference.”
“Yeah,” Frankie shot back, “Right after he takes his pound of flesh for all of that rare scotch we burnt up.”
“Water under the bridge, big guy,” I said, mostly to convince myself, “Remember, Luccesi said it was taken care of.” In one of my last cases, we’d been involved with what I was later told was Surtr, a fire elemental. As a result, a few bayside warehouses went up in flames along with a few billion dollars of rare scotch and drugs. Pat Monahan, police Captain and just about the only friend I had on the force had a hard time not laughing as I explained to him what had happened. Antonio Luccesi was a leader on the other side of the tale. He was not laughing. He headed the most powerful crime syndicate in Norther California, powerful enough to make the Russians, the Cartels, and the Triads accept my story. Luccesi seemed to think he owed me, big time. So the other baddies weren’t real happy about it, but they did accept it.
He grumped as he got onto the bus to take us downtown, “Well… I’d rather be on the water than under it.”
We took the bus all the way down Van Ness to Market. The plan was to start with the hostel closest to the Market/Van Ness intersection and then work west through the South of Market district to where a whole cluster of the things sat. There was a heck of a lot more foot traffic on Market and an awful lot of the conversations I overheard as we walked down 11th toward Mission were on the subject of the earthquake.
Frankie called out, “Hey, Tony, look! It’s Billy. Want a dog? I know I could eat.”
The big guy was talking about the city’s favorite hot dog cart vendor, Billy Bunty, standing a whole 5 foot seven inches and wearing a belt about as long as he was tall. Billy loved eating his sausages in a bun about as much as he loved selling them. The guy just liked people and could always find something good in everyone, including politicians.
He looked up from preparing one for a customer and smiled big when he recognized us. “Tony! Frankie! Hey, guys. How about a dog or two. I got some new ones in, polish, Cajun and a few Cumberland, but those are going fast.”
Frankie was getting his mouth all ready to order one of each. He had an ever bigger appetite than Billy. Then I saw one of the fellows from Mannie’s photo. “Thanks, Billy,” I said, but we’ve got an appointment to keep. We’ll check back later.” I grabbed Frankie’s sleeve and pointed.
He was about to protest when he noticed the subject of my point, “But— hey, that’s one of the guys.”
Billy waved and we kept on walking. Our target turned west onto Mission, which was about as busy as Market. I hoped keeping about five or so pedestrians between him and us would prevent his noticing the tail.
About halfway down the block, he turned left into the alley between the parking garage and the government building. That’s when we ran into a bit of a problem, no more crowds. My making a rookie mistake and not paying attention to where my feet were because I was focused on the guy didn’t help either.
Our target turned at the sound of me kicking the soda can and then his eyes widened in recognition.
“Damn,” I thought, “He’s going to run.”
No, he didn’t run. Instead, he pulled out some sort of tube and pointed it at us. I shoved Frankie to the side as I yelled out, “Gun!” and ducked.
Some sort of crackling and spitting ball of blue gunk went sailing past us and then the big one hit. The ground heaved under the force of the quake and I could hear car alarms going off in the parking garage above me. There was this deep, deep basso rumbling from below and then things got worse with a bang. Yes, literally, a bang. It was like a cannon went off right next to my ears and the concrete below me became a hole. As I fell, one of those spitting globs zipped past me and hit the rock. Then everything went white.
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