Authors: M. C. Grant
Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area
The Pink Bicycle is
renowned for its great selection of
sliders, but I haven't known Pinch long enough to be sure of how sensitive he is to the vertically challenged aspect of his stature. I mean, he's not
short. And as a girl whose Barbies preferred my neighbor's G.I. Joe with Kung Fu grip over the leaner and more emasculated Ken doll, I've always found shorter men to be more appealing.
Erring on the side of caution, however, I assume it's never smart to insult a hired killerâ
“What do you recommend?” he asks, looking up from the menu.
“There are no wrong choices here. It's all good.”
“What about the sliders?”
I grin, relieved at the opening. “Fantastic. We could share the variety platter of six with yam fries on the side.”
“And a salad?”
“If you need the roughage, sure.”
Pinch's eyes dance with amusement although his lips barely twinge. He closes the menu. “So what's the ulterior motive?” he asks.
“Does there need to be one?”
“No, but there is.”
The waitress arrives and we order. After she leaves, I lean across the table. My bust is so small that my shirt barely puckers. Disappointedly, his eyes don't even attempt a sneaky peek.
“You ever heard of the Red Swan?”
Pinch doesn't blink, but neither does he answer.
“Krasnyi Lebed,” I continue. “He'sâ”
“I know who he is,” Pinch interrupts.
“I want to meet him.”
“It's for a story I'mâ”
“Still a bad idea.”
“He's a news junkie. He'll like me.”
“He might, but it's better to be off his radar than on.”
I lean back again. “You ever work for him?”
I narrow my eyes and shake my head. “No, you haven't, have you? If you had, you wouldn't be living here.”
Pinch tilts his head to one side, a move that neither confirms nor denies my claim.
“People in your profession don't retire,” I continue. “You disappear someplace where people don't know you. You picked San Francisco because you did most of your work on the East Coast. Am I close?”
I lean forward again. “I'm not expecting you to give me an introduction; I just need to know how I go about meeting him. Your name will never leave my lips. I hope that I've proven that to you.”
Pinch nods. “You have.”
“So will you help me?”
The waitress returns with our platter of assorted mini burgers and lays it on the table. A basket of crispy yam fries, chipotle mayo dip, and a carafe of ice water quickly join it. After she leaves, Pinch tucks his napkin under his chin and picks up the first burger: Angus beef with aged white cheddar.
I don't tell him the napkin makes him look darn cute.
“We'll talk after we eat,” he says.
I agree and dive in.
I'm lifting my second sliderâa teriyaki and green onion pork patty with pineappleâto my lips when a businessman in a bold pinstriped suit collides with our table and his elbow smacks my hand.
Like something out of a Max Payne video game, time slows. The burger leaves my hand, the top half of the bun accelerating faster than the bottom. In the same instant, the carafe of water is blasting off at an angle that would make NASA hit the self-destruct button.
I push my chair back in an attempt to avoid the worst of it, but out of the corner of my eye I see Pinch moving forward, his hands imperceptibly faster than the unfolding disaster. While his left hand plucks the glass carafe out of the air and lands it upright with barely a splash, his right hand intercepts the catapulted burger and slams it down onto the table. The only escapee is the top half of the bun that, like a miniature flying saucer that's low on fuel, loses altitude and crashes to the floor before reaching our neighbor's table.
The businessman laughs with such gusto it's evident he's indulged in several lunchtime martinis.
“Nice hands,” he says to Pinch, then winks at his companions. “You'd make a good
stop for our company baseball team.”
Pinch removes his hand from the ruined burger and wipes the sauce from his palm on a napkin.
“You owe the lady an apology,” says Pinch.
Color rises in the businessman's cheeks and some of the glass evaporates from his eyes. “It was an accident,” he snarls. “No damage done.”
“Then a simple apology will suffice.”
“Look, shorty, Iâ”
“Why do you choose to insult me?” Pinch asks in a calm voice. “I didn't call you a clumsy buffoon or a drunken asshole or even an arrogant prick. All of which, I might add, seem like a perfect fit. So whyâ”
“Hey, fuck you, midget! I bumped your table, big fucking deal.”
I try to smooth the waters with a reasonable, “All we wanted was for you to say sorry.”
Pinstripe glares at me like I've just farted in church and blamed the minister.
“Fuck you, too, lesbo. I'm tired of you freaks thinking you deserve equal fucking treatment everyâ”
The blood suddenly drains from Pinstripe's face and his throat releases a squeal that expertly imitates a hungry piglet that can't find its mother's teat. Pinch has left his chair and is standing with the man's crotch cupped in his hand.
Looking over at me, Pinch asks, “Remember what I taught you about the groin?”
“Ignore the penis, always go for the balls?” I answer like the star pupil I am.
He nods as the man continues to squeal. “And?”
“Don't tug,” I answer. “Twist and squeeze like you're juicing a lemon.”
Pinch rotates his wrist and the man's squeal hits a pitch so high that it becomes silent. He grabs the table as his eyes roll to the back of his head.
One of his companions steps forward, but Pinch lifts his free hand and wags one finger. The would-be rescuer stops dead in his tracks, a primitive part of his brain kicking into overdrive to warn him that, in this case, flight is a better option than fight.
I realize the waitress has appeared with our bill. She barely glances at the squirming suit.
“Umm, I don't want to call the police,” she says. “But you're disturbing the other customers.”
Pinch offers her a thin smile of apology before turning his attention to Pinstripe's companions.
“I believe your friend would like to pay for our lunch in apology for being such a jerk. Is that your understanding?”
“He-he's our boss,” says one of the men. “Not really a friend.”
Pinstripe finds his voice and utters a guttural moan of undecipherable meaning.
“Erm,” continues the man, “but I'm thinking that means he would be happy to buy you both lunch.”
Pinch turns to me. “Have you had enough to eat?”
I haven't, but I nod before adding, “Although I did leave room for dessert.”
Pinstripe groans again and foamy drool drips from the corners of his mouth.
“But we could go elsewhere for that,” I add.
A flicker of a smile creases Pinch's lips before he turns back to Pinstripe's employees. “Would you like to take a photo before I let him go? Might come in handy if the economy gets worse and he's trying to decide who to lay off.”
“Ugh, no, that's okay, thanks.”
Pinch leans in close to the boss's agonized face to whisper a final thought before releasing his grip. Upon release, the man's forehead jerks forward to hit the tabletop and his skeleton turns to rubber. He slides to the floor and curls into a fetal position with his bruised ego cradled in his hands.
Pinch removes a twenty from his pocket and hands it to our waitress.
“Sorry for the disturbance,” he says.
“No worries,” says the young woman. “That one's pinched my ass so many times, I've thought of doing the same thing. Twist and squeeze, huh?”
Pinch winks at her and holds the door open as we exit.
At Polka Dots, I order a chocolate-chip mint sundae with rainbow sprinkles and proceed to the vinyl booth where Pinch is already devouring a dark chocolate malt.
“Do you know what he did wrong?” Pinch asks as he licks his plastic spoon.
“Pinstripe?” I ask to make sure we're not talking about the pimply faced vendor behind the ice-cream counter.
“He underestimated you,” I say.
“Worse. He overestimated himself. He's a big shot in whatever bullshit company employs him and he mistook that sliver of middleÂ-management power for strength. He thought that because he gets away with being an asshole at work that he can be an asshole everywhere. The Red Swan isn't like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Krasnyi Lebed will come across as a gentle old soul who likes playing chess and inviting members of the symphony to play at his cocktail parties. He will be charming right up until the moment he sinks an ice pick into your neck. Power didn't make people fear him; fear made people give him power.”
I swallow as the teenager delivers my ice cream. I notice that he's done an excellent job on the sprinkles. Nothing worse than a stingy sprinkler.
“If Pinstripe had crossed Lebed's path,” Pinch continues, “ruptured testicles would be the least of his worries. The Red Swan does not bear insult or disrespect. He would have found out where the man worked and chained the doors closed before torching the entire building. Life means nothing to such a man.”
“Then what does?” I ask.
“Nothing. He has no weakness because he has no conscience.”
“So I can't appeal to his better nature?” I ask.
no better nature. He is what he is, and what that is isn't pleasant.”
“So you won't help me?” I ask.
“I just have,” says Pinch.
Eddie is sitting in
his usual spot at the rear of Mario's Deli when I enter. The door to the back room is slightly ajar and Eddie's talking to someone just out of sight in the shadows of its interior.
Before I reach the booth, the door closes.
“What's in there?” I ask.
“A room,” Eddie answers.
“Yeah, but what kinda room? What goes on in there?”
Eddie shrugs. “It's just a room. You have too much imagination.”
“Can't be a journalist without curiosity,” I say.
“Can't be a runner without legs,” he replies.
I recoil. “Jeez! Talk about ominous. It was just a question.”
Eddie shrugs again. “See. Imagination. What did I say? You need legs to be a runner. A simple truth. But you, you take it another way. That's why I don't use imagination. People see a horse and they imagine it will run fast because it has a clever name. Is that logical? No. I get rich on imagination.”
“So does your friend behind the door have a name?” I ask.
Eddie almost smiles, but it could be my imagination.
“What can I do for you, Dixie? Ready to make that big wager?”
“I have a question.”
“Am I guru now? Does this look like mountaintop cave?”
“Not so much, but you're the closest to one I've got.”
“I pity you then. Must not have many friends.”
“Always room for one more.”
“Not even your imagination is that vivid.”
I smile. “You're a curious one, Eddie. You remind me of Yoda in that last Star Wars movie when he whips off his cloak to fight the bad guy and all of a sudden the old cripple is as spry as a teenager.”
“If you're trying to confuse me, you succeeded. I do not know this Yoda. Now do you wish to place a bet?”
My smile fades. “I want to meet Krasnyi Lebed.”
Eddie doesn't even blink. “So why come to me?”
“You know everyone.”
“I know who's important to know, nobody else.”
“And the Red Swan is important to know.”
“So where can I find him?”
“It is not so difficult, but neither is it advisable.”
“So I've been told.”
“But still you persist.”
“It's my job.”
“Curiosity, they say, is lethal to felines.”
I recoil again. “Jeez, Eddie. Enough with the doom and gloom. I just want to talk to the guy.”
He releases a heavy sigh. “I can give you an address, but only on one condition.”
piss him off and do
mention my name.”
“I can guarantee the latter, but I tend to have some trouble with the former.”
“That you do.”
He gives me the address anyway.
When the taxi arrives at the address, I release such a loud guffaw that it makes the olive-skinned driver with a boastful Seventies-era moustache jump in his beaded seat.
“Sorry,” I say as I pay the fare. “Bumped my funny bone.” When he doesn't smile, I point at the mat of wooden beads he's sitting on. “Are those comfortable or is it more like flagellation? I've always wondered.”
He chooses to ignore me as he tucks the cash in his money pouch.
“I'll ask the next driver then,” I say sarcastically. “Obviously, you've got places to be.”
The taxi takes off as soon as I close the door, leaving me standing across the street from The Russian Tea House. Instead of harassing my contacts, I could have just looked in the phonebook under most likely place to find a Russian immigrant in need of an afternoon pick-me-up.
For a mob boss who likes to keep a low profile, Lebed certainly isn't hiding.
I cross the street and push through the front door.
The interior of the restaurant is first-class all the way: white linen, bone china, polished silver teapots and cutlery. The furnishings are antique dark woods against stark white walls with occasional touches of glittering robin's-egg blue, pomegranate red, and caterpillar yellow. The chandeliers are glistening crystal and gold, and I have a feeling the menu doesn't bother listing prices.
Dixie's Tips #14:
If you need to ask how much something costs, you can't afford it. To avoid embarrassment, head to the washroom and climb out the window.
An expertly lit glass tower at the entrance holds four impressively bejeweled FabergÃ© eggs, although I doubt they're genuine; last I heard, an original is worth a minimum $10 million. And even if you can afford one, very few ever appear on the private market.
On the second shelf from the top is the largest egg at just over nine inches tall. It is light blue and held aloft by three golden lions. I'm intrigued by the domesticated elephant that crowns the fragile dome as the royal carriage upon its back reminds me of a scene from the third
Lord of the Rings
I lean forward to see if there are small figures of Frodo and Samwise running around.
“Table for one, madam?”
I turn to see a handsome ma
tre d' dressed in an unusual stark white tuxedo with black bowtie and shiny black shoes. Despite the flattering cut of his suit, it's obvious he likes to hit the gym, and I wouldn't be surprised if I could scrub my delicates on his stomach on washday. (Which reminds me again of my need to do laundry.) His eyes are deep, dark, and chocolaty, but the perfect manicure, the closeness of his shave, and a posture that would make a ruler-wielding Catholic nun proud make me wonder if he's straight.
“I have an opening by the window,” he offers.
The restaurant is completely deserted now that the lunchtime rush is over, so he can seat me anywhere, but the offer of the window is still gallant.
“I'm actually here to talk with Mr. Krasnyi Lebed.” I dig in my pocket for a business card and hand it over.
When he glances up from the card, some of his charm has been replaced with a steely aggression that sucks in his cheeks to reveal sharp, angular bones beneath. A small tingle ignites in the base of my brain stem to tell me he's more than a head waiter.
“Do you have an appointment?” he asks.
“No, sorry. I wasn't sure how to contact him.”
“Then I'm afraidâ”
“I doubt you're the kind of man who gets afraid very often.” I smile flirtatiously. “Especially not when it comes to women. Could you please show Mr. Lebed my card and see if we can set something up?”
My charms don't seem to have much effect.
“I'll wait here,” I say. “And guard your eggs.”
He glances toward the display cabinet, and out the corner of my eye I spot a tiny, almost imperceptible green light blink in the base of the topmost egg.
“You will wait here,” he says.
I hold up three fingers with my pinkie trapped beneath my thumb. “Scout's honor.”
The waiter scowls slightly before walking away, which makes me wonder if maybe they don't have Scouts in Russia and I've just given him the Moscow equivalent of our one-finger salute. That could be embarrassing.
When the waiter returns, his eyes and his mood are even darker.
“Mr. Lebed will see you,” he says. “Hold out your arms.”
I raise a quizzical eyebrow but comply, wondering if he wants us to play airplanes, which could actually be fun if we were both naked and the landing strip was a chocolate fountain.
The waiter moves in to pat me down. He's not shy about it either, but neither does he linger in the spots where I wouldn't mind some male attention.
“I usually get a man's name before I let him do this,” I quip.
“And I usually get a woman drunk first,” he says.
“That's disturbing,” I say.
“It's meant to be.”
Suddenly feeling more violated than aroused, I follow the no-
longer-charming waiter through the deserted dining area to a private room in the rear, separated from the main restaurant by a pair of frosted glass doors.
The waiter knocks once before opening the door. He stands to the side as I enter, and I'm relieved when he closes the door behind me to return to his duties at the reception desk.
Inside, the room is half private-dining area and half office. Directly in front of me is a rectangular table sporting white linen, fine silver, and china place settings, but behind it is an elongated wood desk with two computers back-to-back that are being operated by what appear to be identical redheaded twins.
The twins are dressed smartly in black dress pants and white shirts with the sleeves rolled up to just below the elbow. Each has an identical pair of tortoise shell glasses. One is wearing a blue tie, the other green.
Neither of them flash me the top-secret Ginger Wink of Solidarity. Maybe they didn't get the memo.
I look to my left and see a mountain of a man with shoulders as wide as my legs are long. He's wearing a suit that must have been custom made in a tent shop, but it fits him well. The only flaw is a slight bulge beneath his left arm that tells me he's carrying a larger gun than the tailor intended. Then again, that could be on purpose, to give trouble pause before it starts.
The bodyguard is standing perfectly still, and even though he
doesn't appear to be looking at me, I can feel his eyes probing every square inch of my intentions.
When I glance to my right, his shaved-head doppelganger is occupying a similar position. This mountain is darker and swarthier than his companion, but just as silent.
No one is paying any attention to me at all, which only makes me more nervous. I'm not a big fan of silence. I'm happy that Prince Marmalade the Purr Machine is in my life. Bubbles, the world's oldest goldfish, was never much for chatter, but then again I wasn't around for his final words. I can only guess they were cursing my name for leaving him alone with Prince when I went to work. Who knew kittens could jump so high?
A door connecting the private room to the kitchen opens and a razor-thin man enters in a tailored suit that matches the gray pallor of his skin. He smiles at me with teeth that have lost their luster, but none of their bite. His nose reminds me of a shark fin with a small bite taken out of one nostril. If he floated on his back in a pool, small children would scream.
“You are Dixie Flynn the reporter,” he says with a Russian accent that has been refined and polished to remove the grit. “I am Krasnyi Lebed.” He gestures toward the table. “Please, sit. I have ordered tea.”
“Lovely,” I say with a smile, and take a chair.
Lebed rests his elbows on the table and tucks his chin into his hands as he studies me. His wrists are so thin that half the links have been removed from the band of his platinum Rolex watch.
“I am surprised that our paths have not crossed before,” he says, “but then, you do tend to spend more time in the gutter than the palace.”
“I wouldn't necessarily say the gutterâ”
“I would,” he interrupts. “You may call it social conscienceâI hear that is the buzz word people like to use these daysâbut really when you are writing about dumpster divers and injection clinics and former street walkers trying to go straight, the gutter is not below them, it is still all around.”
“And what would you have me report on?” I ask, refusing to rise to the bait.
“What about political corruption?”
I blink. “Well, sure, ifâ”
“I could point you in the right directions.”
My inner radar begins to beep with its
Lost in Space
Danger, Dixie Flynn! Danger!
“That's generous of you,” I say cautiously. “I'm always open to reliable tips.”
“Good.” He unclasps his hands and stares at me through dull eyes that suck in light and make the whole room gloomier. “The tea is here.”
Lebed sits up straight as the kitchen door swings open and a white-aproned server delivers a silver teapot along with a three-tiered tray of crackers, black caviar on ice, smoked fish, pickles, and sweet pastries. I begin to regret going for ice cream with Pinch, but then again I did only have time for one mini burger at the Pink Bicycle.
After the server departs, Lebed pours tea into two china cups and passes one over. He appears to take caution that our fingers don't accidentally touch.
“This is good Russian tea,” he says. “Strong and hearty, like it should be.”
I take a sip, control my shudder at the distinct smoky density of it, and smile. “Nice.”
Lebed shakes his head. “Not nice. Russia does not have such a word. It is
,” I say, attempting to duplicate his intonation.
Lebed smiles for the first time and looks over at his two guards. “
The guards nod ever so slightly in agreement with whatever their boss has just said.
“Would you care for jam in your tea?” Lebed asks.
I shake my head while pretending that isn't one of the oddest things I've ever heard. “Black is fine.”
He smiles again and wags a finger at me. “You may have some Russian in you. A Cold War infidelity, perhaps?”
I don't know how to answer, so I keep silent.
“Have you ever tried real caviar?” he asks.
“I'm not sure, but I do enjoy Greek taramosalata, which isâ”
“Bah,” he snarls. “Peasant food. That is cod roe, not caviar.” He loads a small cracker with a spoonful of black fish eggs, places it on a china plate and slides it over to me. “Place the caviar on your tongue and savor it before swallowing.”
I do as he says. The sturgeon roe is light and salty on my tongue, and as it warms within my mouth, each egg pops open like a champagne bubble. The taste is unusual and exquisite and thanks to the expansion of my palate at the hands of Dmitri, delicious. I scoop the remainder off the cracker with my tongue.