It didn't look like a troll at first. But since this is San Francisco, all sorts of varieties of the weird, the wild, the wonderful and the far-from-wonderful can be found here, and I can assure you that I've seen plenty of city folk who could pass for troll. Well, ok...troll-ish; sure, they didn't have the tusks or the olive-green knobby skin, but they certainly had the personality, the facial hair and the size, and some of them were men. This one...troll, absolutely sure.
I had just left a bar I frequented, the Summersault, and was heading towards the corner where Polk intersects with Eddy, when this long arm reached out of an alley and dragged me into the shadows.
Trolls have two outstanding weaknesses—sunlight and faith. Unfortunately, I don't usually carry a copy of the King James edition with me into bars. As for sunlight, there is a reason why trolls love the city by the bay; a nice thick layer of high fog tends to cut sunlight down to a tolerable level, especially if you're a troll.
With strength capable of ripping a solid-core door right off its hinges, the troll heaved me further into the alley.
I tried to roll as I hit, but it's kind of hard to do that when you're bouncing off an old rusty dumpster.
It's funny how the mind works in times of stress. Mine decided to go for gallows humor, the phrase, that's going to leave a mark, popped into my head as I slammed into the pavement.
Trolls, unlike vampires, are thankfully slow even if they are, excuse the pun, monstrously strong. Any human with even a bit of coordination can dodge a troll's attack.
That is, if that human wasn't covered in brand new bumps, bruises and contusions. I think I sensed, more than anything else, the descending foot and rolled out of the way just in time. The troll's heel thudded into the blacktop and continued on for several inches. I got lucky and the foot got stuck.
Unlike concrete, blacktop is flexible and under pressure it can become gooey. The troll being trapped gave me the time I needed to collect my thoughts and scrabble out of range.
With a final grunting heave the troll pulled its foot free, along with a good-sized chunk of blacktop, but by that time I was at the alley mouth and accelerating. Sure, there was a danger of it chasing after me, but its best run was my jogging speed. And then there were the pedestrians. San Francisco's sidewalks almost always have crowds during the day, and Trolls don't do crowds. Lucky me.
My name is Tony Mandolin and up until last year I was an ordinary, run of the mill private investigator with a penchant for being able to find things for my clients. I have no super powers, extrasensory perception, magic or special fighting ability. What I do have is a very annoying stubborn streak and a tendency to cheat when backed into a corner. Nothing stops an aggressor faster than a quick knee to the tender moments. I don't hit girls.
Some people would consider me tall, but on the not too odd occasion my 6'3" has looked pretty puny in comparison to the other guy...like a certain troll for example. In my younger days I was tending toward blonde with a reddish beard, when I forgot to shave. Now the temples are turning gray, the beard is more white than red and the eyes have an ever growing set of carry-on's. I do keep in shape, but it takes more these days to get the same result. The ladies don't run screaming when they see me, but the current crop of Tom Sellecks are in no danger.
About a year ago I was thrust into a world I had no idea existed. According to a certain alcoholic pixie I know, my human eyes were opened when I decided to take on a case that eventually involved a vampire with ties to the police commissioner's office. How my eyes were opened is still unclear, but now I can see the world of faerie. That's right; the world of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and all the other writers of bedtime stories intended to give little boys and girls bad dreams.
Faeries aren't nice. In fact, in most cases they aren't even cordial. Most of them tend to think of humanity as an irritant at best and a food source at worst. Some, such as my booze-loving pixie, can be bargained with, as long as you understand that the penalties for violating the terms of a faerie contract are far more severe than those imposed by, say, the IRS. At least the government doesn't turn you inside out to think about how badly you screwed up.
The other thing about faeries is that they can't lie, but that just means they have had millennia to figure out ways of twisting the truth. They make used car salesmen, stock brokers and lawyers look like rank amateurs. That makes bargaining with them about as safe as step dancing on quicksand.
The one good thing about the vampire case was it earned me enough green to buy myself a house. It was no mansion, but it was certainly better than a third floor walk-up overlooking an alley. Not to mention that, being paid off and all, the monthly breakdown of taxes made my house a lot cheaper than rent. I didn't have a Pacific Heights address by any means, but my front porch did look out on a nice neighborhood park right across the street and it even came with a garage, a rarity in the city. Now all I needed was enough scratch to afford a car and some driving lessons.
I still kept my office. There was a nice comfortable feeling about having a spot in one of the seedier parts of the city with a glass door that had my name on it. It felt like tradition, and ever since last year, for me, tradition had become rather important.
I'd also picked up a partner, of sorts. One Franklin Amadeus Jackson, Frankie to everyone else except the police and a certain billionaire and crime lord we'd helped out.
Frankie, besides being a black man, was the size of one of your average draft horses, incredibly strong and a raging cross-dressing diva...when the mood took him. Imagine a Cher impersonator wearing size 16 pumps and you get the picture.
Ever since the vampire case, Frankie had taken to dressing more like Sam Spade rather than Samantha. I have to say, his Bogart was a better impersonation than his Shatner.
Even though I was able to see all the assorted dwellers in the world of faerie, that didn't mean I had an automatic ticket to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It does exist, you know, but that gold belongs to the Leprechauns, and Leps tend to get rather possessive about their gilt. You know that series of horror movies about a certain Irish fae? They are closer to the truth than is comfortable.
The last big case I'd had brought in enough of a payday to buy the house, but it had also been the last big payday. It seems the police commissioner never forgave me for being partially responsible for the capture of her meal ticket, even if that meal ticket happened to be an electrolyte-sucking vampire responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of innocent humans. Since then the lovely Ms. Commissioner had managed to scare off every whale in the ocean. Sure, I still got the occasional cheating husband/wife case, and finding lost poodles kept the utilities paid, but I was getting damned tired of subsisting on pot noodles and coffee.
Ex-police Lieutenant Rorche, a mustachioed, blonde, slightly overweight mass of corruption who had tried to kill me...twice… continued to cool his heels in an orange jumpsuit while reflecting on his various sins. I was almost becoming used to the idea of not having to look over my shoulder. But...Rorche wasn't the reason for my problem with the commissioner. Neither were Randal Driver, the wealthiest man in the state, nor Antonio Luccesi, the top crime boss in the city, even though they were mostly responsible for forcing the commissioner to back off when she tried to put a wedge in the investigation I had involving her favorite vampire. Driver's twin daughters were killed by the vampire and, through no little effort on the part of yours truly said vampire was delivered into Mr. Driver's loving hands. However, the world of politics being what it is, my two favorite whales were occupied with protecting their own assets; pun intended.
So, Tony Mandolin, private eye with one foot into the world of faerie, is forced to pay his bills finding lost fidos and proving whether or not so and so is cheating on so and so.
I made it back to my office with no further interruptions. Opening the door revealed the pile of mail that had been shoved through the slot while I was out. Sorting through it showed me several offers I couldn't refuse, a couple of pleas from Nigerian royalty for me to share their wealth...as long as I was willing to launder it for them, and, of course, the usual bills.
A glance at the phone told me no new messages had come in, and another glance at the clock told me I had a couple of hours to go before I could honestly turn the open sign around to read closed. And my stomach was already starting to growl.
I used to chuckle at the portrayal of private eyes on television, especially the movies done in the old days. Gorgeous woman walks through the door and bam, the PI's world suddenly becomes exciting. I used to laugh, until just exactly that happened last year. Now I was getting used to experiencing the other part I used to chuckle about, playing solitaire.
Frankie came into the office while I was trying to find the red jack I needed. He had on his Bogart trench coat and fedora, plus a suspicious-looking bulge under the coat. Well, suspicious only if you didn't know the bulge was caused by a squirt gun filled with white vinegar. The last big case, remember? Contrary to popular opinion, vampires do not drink blood and they actually like the taste of garlic. Their food of choice is actually the body's electrolytes, which makes their physiology very sensitive to acid, hence the vinegar.
"Hello, lover." Try as he may, Frankie has a real problem keeping the diva out of his voice. He may look like an NFL lineman posing as a PI, but scratch the surface and you get a full on Judy Garland. "My, don't we look busy today. Has Tony finally succumbed to ennui?"
"Don't start, Frankie," I growled, "or I may tell the next client that you just love looking for lost kittens." Frankie is terribly allergic to cat dander, swelling and itching allergic.
"Heaven forbid." He held up both hands in a warding gesture. "Never let it be said that Franklin Jackson, PI can't take a hint. Besides, I just may have landed a case that will ease that bruised ego of yours."
"I told you before, Frankie, I don't take same-sex cheating cases, regardless of the size of the deposit."
"Au contraire, lover, this case has nothing at all to do with your typical fare. This little jewel involves blackmail and quite possibly...murder." He phrased the last word using two long drawn out syllables.
I put my cards down and leaned back in my chair. "Tell me more."
He perched on the corner of my desk but backed off when I gave him the stink eye. "Well," he lisped, sulking, "this friend of mine is a Michelin three-star chef. Her specialty is quiche..."
"Let me guess," I interrupted, "her name is Loraine."
His eyes widened. "How did you know?"
Loraine was the executive chef and owner of Le Oeuf Sublime, an eatery far too pricey for this PI. Her bistro -, at the prices she charged calling it a restaurant just did not apply - sat square in the mission district and competed very nicely with the dozen or more eateries within walking distance. The Bistro's public face began with a half-round green awning, the logo and name in white on its front. Inside it was your typical high-end bistro; tile floor, softly textured walls with good quality work hung by local artists and personable small round tables for intimate dining.
The maitre d' met me and Frankie at the door. Frankie was greeted as if an old friend, which he probably was. The kinds of people my unlooked–for-partner knew never ceased to amaze. Me, I got the usual supercilious sneer that door-wardens of places ritzier than the crab shack at the wharf keep in reserve for the working class. Being the dinner hour, the dining room was full. Waiters moved smoothly from table to table, taking orders, checking on the guests and delivering the meals.
Loraine came out of the back and greeted Frankie with the same enthusiasm he got from the maitre d', plus air kisses. I received a cool appraisal and then an offer to sit down and talk.
"Frankie tells me that you are the best detective in the city, Mr. Mandolin."
Chef Loraine was a looker, if a bit short for my tastes. Her eyes were a cool gray with touches of green. She had pale skin and thick straight black hair that she wore pulled back and fixed with a clip. Over what appeared to be expensive black slacks, she wore an ordinary chef's coat.
We were seated at a table situated between the corner of the bar, a futuristic-looking layout with lots of glass block lit by blue and pink neon, and the entrance to the kitchen.
I toyed with the glass of water a waiter had set before me. "Frankie tends to exaggerate, Miss..."
"DeMoran, Mr. Mandolin, but please, call me Loraine."
"Not in a professional relationship, Miss DeMoran," I temporized. "As I was saying, Frankie tends to exaggerate, and if you know him you are already aware of that. I am, however, a very good detective and I just happen to succeed where a lot of others don't."
"Put him on the bad side of that bitchy police commissioner, that did," Frankie interjected. Catty would be an understatement where his tone was concerned, but it did get a smile out of Loraine.
"I see, and brave as well," she breathed. "Perhaps you are the one to talk to after all."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She looked down at her hands. It was then I noticed they were shaking. "I am being blackmailed, Mr. Mandolin. Well, me and a number of members of the restaurant association, the Purveyors of Epicurean Gastronomical Specialties."
"P.E.G.S.?" I asked, a smile twitching at my mouth.
"It reads better than P.I.G.S., Mr. Mandolin," she said wryly. "We are a group within a group. The restaurant association is made up of owners of practically every type of establishment, from bistros even more exclusive than mine to that horrid little crab shack down on the wharf." Her lip curled at the mention of one of my favorite eateries.
I held back my defense of sourdough and Dungeness, opting instead for earning a paycheck. "Right. So, what form is this blackmail taking?"
"People are dying, Tony," Frankie broke in.
Loraine nodded in agreement. "Three, so far," she said. "Each of them poisoned and each death followed by a letter demanding payment and each payment more than the last."
I considered what I'd been told. Then I asked, "These deaths, they all happened in a gourmet bistro, right?"
Unlike Frankie, Loraine did not seem surprised at my insight. She pursed her lips and replied, "The first was at Steak Au Pam. We thought it was from choking until the letter arrived. The second happened two weeks ago at François. It also looked like a choking, but the diner was eating flan at the time."
"And the third?" I prompted.
Her voice held that dead quality you hear when fatalism is setting in. "A week later, in Mon Ami Toulouse. The demand letter was twice what the first asked for. The police have been no help at all. They keep asking the same questions."
I nodded. It was a good bet that this one also was made to look like a choking victim. Poisoners tend to stick to a one note symphony, just like government investigators. I opened my mouth to say as much when a scream, the sound of china hitting the tiles and cries of alarm came from behind me.
Loraine was out of her chair like a shot, crying, "Oh, God, no!"
Frankie and I were right behind her.
The disturbance came from a table near the foyer. A crowd had already gathered and Loraine pushed her way through. A chef's coat does give you authority in a restaurant.
That snooty maître d' moved to prevent me getting to the diner until he saw my expression. I can scowl with the best of them when I have to. He sniffed, "Some people," and stepped to the side.
This victim was a woman. She lay on the floor, convulsing. A thick white foam flecked her lips. Her date, or husband, knelt next her crying for someone to help. Around the floor lay scattered the remains of what looked to be a salad and the broken shards of a plate. Loraine had her cell phone out, and from the side of the conversation I could hear, she'd called 911.
Frankie stood to his full 6'8" and bellowed out, "Everyone, stand back!"
The crowd moved back. Like everything else about him, Frankie's voice is big.
I moved to stand next to Loraine. "People don't usually choke on green salad and foam at the mouth. This woman was poisoned," I whispered.
She replied in a choked whisper, "This is the fourth victim. Oh, God." She covered her mouth with a hand.
Frankie put a hand on my shoulder. "Tony..."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll take the case," I muttered. "Miss DeMoran, I will need to interview the staff, especially whoever made the salad and bought the produce." All of a sudden I wasn't hungry any more.
She nodded, numbly. "Yes, of course."
I could hear sirens approaching. If everything moved according to form the first arrival would be paramedics. San Francisco's finest tended to like it that way. The ambulance crews could deal with the messy stuff while they asked questions and looked important. Once the PMs had things in hand, Loraine led me into the kitchen and told everyone there to cooperate with me. From the looks some of them gave me I was pretty sure I'd have to spend some time convincing them, through an interpreter mind you, that I wasn't the immigration man come to take them away.
I was just getting ready to talk to the Sous Chef when the door to the kitchen slammed open and in came the police departments own version of Napoleon.
Five foot six, when he wore lifts, police lieutenant Denny Knowlen compensated for his lack of height by inflating his personal self-esteem to aggressive atmospheric levels. As a consequence, any man taller, and especially damning, more competent than he, was immediately filed under the category of potential enemy. I had the unique misfortune of being both, but my most unforgivable sin was that Knowlen happened to be an old friend of Walter Rorche, the disgraced police detective yours truly exposed.
Knowlen saw me and, as his face turned a lovely shade of puce, beckoned to the door with a thumb. "Get out of here, Mandolin. This is police business. If I see you nosing around my case I'll have you cited for interfering with a police investigation."
I shrugged. "Happy to oblige, Detective. The last thing I want to do is mess up your unblemished record."
He scowled. "What's that supposed to mean? Is that a cut?"
I shook my head, smiling. "Not at all. I would never enter into a battle of wits with one of the city's finest. I'll let myself out."