TWO shades of red darkened the Japantown concourse by the time I arrived. One belonged to a little girl’s scarlet party dress. The other was liquid and far too human. City officials would evince a third shade once reports of the carnage hit the airwaves.
But long before the news jockeys began grappling with the Japantown slaughter, the problem landed on my doorstep.
Minutes after receiving an urgent summons, I was charging down Fillmore in a classic maroon Cutlass convertible. Before the midnight call had interrupted my evening’s work, I’d been repairing an eighteenth-century Japanese tea bowl, a skill I’d picked up in the pottery town of Shigaraki, an hour outside of Kyoto. Now, even with the top down on the Cutlass, I could still smell the stringent lacquer used to fix the thumbnail-size chip on the bowl’s rim. Once the lacquer dried I’d apply the final flourish—a trail of liquid gold powder. A repair was still a repair, but if done right, it restored a piece’s dignity.
I swung left on Post hard enough to leave rubber and cut off two gangbangers tooling uphill in a flame-red Mazda Miata. A crisp night breeze swirled around my face and hair and wiped away every last trace of drowsiness. The gangbangers had their top down, too, apparently the better to scope out a clear shot.
They slithered in behind me, swearing in booming voices I could hear over the screech of their tires, and in my rearview mirror, angry
fists shot into the air as the sleek sports car crept up on my bumper.
A pistol appeared next, followed by a man’s torso, both etched in ominous shadow against the night sky. Then the driver caught sight of a police blockade up ahead, slammed on his brakes, and snaked into a U-turn. The drastic change in direction flung the shooter against the side of the car, and nearly into the street. Arms flailing, he just managed to grab the frame of the windshield and drop back into the Miata’s cushioned bucket seat as the car peeled away with a throttled roar of frustration.
I knew the feeling. If I hadn’t received a personal invitation, I’d have done the same. But I had no choice. A marker had been called in.
When the phone rang, I’d peeled off the rubber gloves, careful not to let remnants of the poisonous lacquer touch my skin. With my days filled to overflowing at the shop, I tackled repairs in the darker hours, after putting my daughter to bed. Tonight it was the tea bowl.
Lieutenant Frank Renna of the San Francisco Police Department wasted no time on pleasantries. “I need a favor. A big one this time.”
I glanced at the pale green digits of the clock. 12:24 a.m. “And a fine time it is.”
On the other end of the line, Renna gave a grunt of apology. “You’ll get your usual consultant fee. Might not be enough, though.”
“Keep thinking that way. I need you to come look at something. You got a baseball cap?”
“Wear it low over your eyes. Cap, sneakers, jeans. Then get down here asap.”
“Japantown. The outdoor mall.”
I was silent, knowing that except for a couple of bars and the Denny’s coffee shop, J-town was bottled up for the night.
Renna said, “How soon can you get here?”
“Fifteen minutes if I break a few laws.”
“Make it ten.”
Nine minutes on, I found myself speeding toward the blockade, an impromptu cluster of rolling police steel parked haphazardly across the road where the pedestrian shopping mall on Buchanan came to an abrupt end at Post. Beyond the barricade I spotted a coroner’s wagon and three ambulances, doors flung open, interiors dark and cavernous.
A hundred yards short of the barrier, I eased over in front of the Japan Center and cut the engine. I slid off tucked black leather seats and walked toward the commotion. Grim and unshaven, Frank Renna separated himself from a crowd of local badges and intercepted me halfway. Behind his approaching bulk, the rotating red and blue lights of the prowl cars silhouetted him against the night.
“The whole force out here tonight?”
He scowled. “Could be.”
I was the go-to guy for the SFPD on anything Japanese—even though my name is Jim Brodie, I’m six-one, a hundred-ninety pounds, and have black hair and blue eyes. And I’m Caucasian.
The connection? I’d spent the first seventeen years of my life in Tokyo, where I was born to a rugged Irish-American father, who lived and breathed law enforcement, and a more delicate American mother, who loved art. Money was tight, so I attended local schools instead of one of the exorbitant American international facilities and absorbed the language and culture like a sponge.
Along the way, I picked up karate and judo from two of the top masters in the Japanese capital, and thanks to my mother got my first peek at the fascinating world of Japanese art.
What drew my parents to the far side of the Pacific was the U.S. Army. Jake, my father, headed up a squad of MPs in charge of security for Western Tokyo, then worked for the LAPD. But he took orders badly so he eventually returned to Tokyo, where he set up the city’s first American-style PI/security firm.
He began grooming me for a position at Brodie Security a week after my twelfth birthday. I accompanied him and other detectives on interviews, stakeouts, and research trips as an observer. In the office I pored over old files when I wasn’t listening to the staff speculate about
cases involving blackmail, adultery, kidnapping, and more. Their conversations were gritty and real and a thousand times better than a night out at a Roppongi disco or an ultracheap Harajuku izakaya, though I managed to work those in too, four years later, with a fake ID.
Three weeks after my seventeenth birthday, Shig Narazaki—Jake’s partner and “Uncle Shig” when he visited our home for dinner—took me on a “watch-and-see.” It was a simple information-gathering stakeout for an extortion case involving the vice president of a major electronics firm and a local gang of yakuza wannabes. Japanese mafia. Just a recon trip. No action, no approach. I’d been on dozens like it.
We sat for an hour in a car tucked up an alley watching a neighborhood yakitori shop long closed for the night.
“I don’t know,” Shig said. “I may have the wrong place.” And he left to take a look.
He did one circuit around the restaurant and was heading back when a street thug sprang from a side door and clubbed him with a Japanese fighting stick while the rest of the gang escaped out another exit.
Shig collapsed and I leapt from the car and yelled. The attacker zeroed in on me, glaring and cocking the stick like a baseball bat, which told me he had no training in the art of bojutsu. Then he charged. Luckily, the stick was the short version, so the instant his front foot shifted, I rammed my shoe into his kneecap. He went down with a howl—enough time for Shig to recover, snag the guy, and take me home with a story that made my father proud.
Unhappily, the incident demolished what was left of my parents’ rocky marriage. While Jake loved his adopted country, my mother never really took to it. She felt like the perpetual outsider, a pale-faced Caucasian in a size fourteen dress surrounded by a sea of eternal size sixes. “Putting me at risk” was the last straw in a precariously high haystack. We flew to Los Angeles, and Jake stayed in Tokyo. The arrangement became permanent.
But that was fifteen years ago. A lot had happened in between: my mother passed away, I moved to San Francisco, and I got a handle on the art trade—soft work, according to Jake, but a world I found as fascinating as my mom had, though it was filled with its own brand of shark.
Then nine months ago, not a word between us in years, Jake died
suddenly, and when I flew to Japan to attend the funeral, I landed in the path of real yakuza this time, not Uncle Shig’s cheeseball yaki hopefuls. I managed to hold my own against them—barely—in the process tracking down a long-lost tea bowl that belonged to the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyu. The events made the headlines and I became something of a local hero.
Which was another reason I’d been invited to Japantown. That, and the fact that I had resources the SFPD did not: Jake had left me half of his agency, despite our estrangement.
Both my parents were gone, and I was being sucked into the life that had driven them apart. Which is how, at the age of thirty-two, I found myself juggling an art store and a detective agency. Refined on the one hand, brutish on the other.
In short, I was the bull in the china shop—except I owned the shop.
And tonight I had a very bad feeling about where that might lead.