Read an Excerpt
Actually, I was sitting on my bed in my apartment in Culver City, watching the Lakers game with the sound turned off, while I tried to study vocabulary for my introductory Japanese class.
It was a quiet evening; I had gotten my daughter to sleep about eight. Now I had the cassette player on the bed, and the cheerful woman’s voice was saying things like, “Hello, I am a police officer. Can I be of assistance?” and “Please show me the menu.” After each sentence, she paused for me to repeat it back, in Japanese. I stumbled along as best I could. Then she would say, “The vegetable store is closed. Where is the post office?” Things like that. Sometimes it was hard to concentrate, but I was trying. “Mr. Hayashi has two children.”
I tried to answer. “Hayashi-san wa kodomo ga fur . . . futur . . .” I swore. But by then the woman was talking again.
“This drink is not very good at all.”
I had my textbook open on the bed, alongside a Mr. Potato Head I’d put back together for my daughter. Next to that, a photo album, and the pictures from her second birthday party. It was four months after Michelle’s party, but I still hadn’t put the pictures in the album. You have to try and keep up with that stuff.
“There will be a meeting at two o’clock.”
The pictures on my bed didn’t reflect reality any more. Four months later, Michelle looked completely different. She was taller; she’d outgrown the expensive party dress my ex-wife had bought for her: black velvet with a white lace collar.
In the photos, my ex-wife plays a prominent role--holding the cake as Michelle blows out the candles, helping her unwrap the presents. She looks like a dedicated mom. Actually, my daughter lives with me, and my ex-wife doesn’t see much of her. She doesn’t show up for weekend visitation half the time, and she misses child-support payments.
But you’d never know from the birthday photos.
“Where is the toilet?”
“I have a car. We can go together.”
I continued studying. Of course, officially I was on duty that night: I was the Special Services officer on call for division headquarters downtown. But February ninth was a quiet Thursday, and I didn’t expect much action. Until nine o’clock, I only had three calls.
Special Services includes the diplomatic section of the police department; we handle problems with diplomats and celebrities, and provide translators and liaison for foreign nationals who come into contact with the police for one reason or another. It’s varied work, but not stressful: when I’m on call I can expect a half-dozen requests for help, none of them emergencies. I hardly ever have to roll out. It’s much less demanding than being a police press liaison, which is what I did before Special Services.
Anyway, on the night of February ninth, the first call I got concerned Fernando Conseca, the Chilean vice-consul. A patrol car had pulled him over; Ferny was too drunk to drive, but he was claiming diplomatic immunity. I told the patrolmen to drive him home, and I made a note to complain to the consulate again in the morning.
Then an hour later, I got a call from detectives in Gardena. They’d arrested a suspect in a restaurant shooting who spoke only Samoan, and they wanted a translator. I said I could get one, but that Samoans invariably spoke English; the country had been an American trust territory for years. The detectives said they’d handle it. Then I got a call that mobile television vans were blocking fire lanes at the Aerosmith concert; I told the officers to give it to the fire department. And it was quiet for the next hour. I went back to my textbook and my sing-song woman saying things like, “Yesterday’s weather was rainy.”
Then Tom Graham called.
“It’s the fucking Japs,” Graham said. “I can’t believe they’re pulling this shit. Better get over here, Petey-san. Eleven hundred Figueroa, corner of Seventh. It’s the new Nakamoto building.”
“What is the problem?” I had to ask. Graham is a good detective but he has a bad temper, and he tends to blow things out of proportion.
“The problem,” Graham said, “is that the fucking Japs are demanding to see the fucking Special Services liaison. Which is you, buddy. They’re saying the police can’t proceed until the liaison gets here.”
“Can’t proceed? Why? What have you got?”
“Homicide,” Graham said. “Caucasian female approximately twenty-five years old, apparent six-oh-one. Lying flat on her back, right in their damn boardroom. Quite a sight. You better get down here as soon as you can.”
I said, “Is that music in the background?”
“Hell, yes,” Graham said. “There’s a big party going on. Tonight is the grand opening of the Nakamoto Tower, and they’re having a reception. Just get down here, will you?”
I said I would. I called Mrs. Ascenio next door, and asked her if she would watch the baby while I was gone; she always needed extra money. While I waited for her to arrive I changed my shirt and put on my good suit. Then Fred Hoffmann called. He was watch commander at DHD downtown; a short, tough guy with gray hair. “Listen, Pete. I think you might want help on this one.”
I said, “Why is that?”
“Sounds like we got a homicide involving Japanese nationals. It may be sticky. How long have you been a liaison?”
“About six months,” I said.
“If I was you, I’d get some experienced help. Pick up Connor and take him downtown with you.”
“John Connor. Ever heard of him?”
“Sure,” I said. Everyone in the division had heard of Connor. He was a legend, the most knowledgeable of the Special Services officers. “But isn’t he retired?”
“He’s on indefinite leave, but he still works cases involving the Japanese. I think he could be helpful to you. Tell you what. I’ll call him for you. You just go down and pick him up.” Hoffmann gave me his address.
“Okay, fine. Thanks.”
“And one other thing. Land lines on this one, okay, Pete?”
“Okay,” I said. “Who requested that?”
“It’s just better.”
“Whatever you say, Fred.”
Land lines meant to stay off the radios, so our transmissions wouldn’t be picked up by the media monitoring police frequencies. It was standard procedure in certain situations. Whenever Elizabeth Taylor went to the hospital, we went to land lines. Or if the teenage son of somebody famous died in a car crash, we’d go to land lines to make sure the parents got the news before the TV crews started banging on their door. We used land lines for that kind of thing. I’d never heard it invoked in a homicide before.
But driving downtown, I stayed off the car phone, and listened to the radio. There was a report of a shooting of a three-year-old boy who was now paralyzed from the waist down. The child was a bystander during a 7-Eleven robbery. A stray bullet hit him in the spine and he was--
I switched to another station, got a talk show. Ahead, I could see the lights of the downtown skyscrapers, rising into mist. I got off the freeway at San Pedro, Connor’s exit.
What I knew about John Connor was that he had lived for a time in Japan, where he acquired his knowledge of Japanese language and culture. At one point, back in the 1960s, he was the only officer who spoke fluent Japanese, even though Los Angeles then had the largest Japanese population outside the home islands.
Now, of course, the department has more than eighty officers who speak Japanese--and more, like me, who are trying to learn. Connor had retired several years before. But the liaison officers who worked with him agreed he was the best. He was said to work very fast, often solving cases in a few hours. He had a reputation as a skilled detective and an extraordinary interviewer, able to get information from witnesses like nobody else. But most of all, the other liaisons praised his even-handed approach. One said to me, “Working with the Japanese is like balancing on a tightrope. Sooner or later, everybody falls off on one side or the other. Some people decide the Japanese are fabulous and can do no wrong. Some people decide they’re vicious pricks. But Connor always keeps his balance. He stays in the middle. He always knows exactly what he is doing.”
John Connor lived in the industrial area off Seventh Street, in a large brick warehouse alongside a diesel truck depot. The freight elevator in the building was broken. I walked upstairs to the third floor and knocked on his door.
“It’s open,” a voice said.
I entered a small apartment. The living room was empty, and furnished in the Japanese style: tatami mats, shoji screens, and wood-paneled walls. A calligraphy scroll, a black lacquer table, a vase with a single splash of white orchid.
I saw two pairs of shoes set out beside the door. One was a man’s brogues. The other was a pair of women’s high heels.
I said, “Captain Connor?”
“Just a minute.”
A shoji screen slid back and Connor appeared. He was surprisingly tall, maybe a hundred and ninety centimeters, well over six feet. He wore a yukata, a light Japanese robe of blue cotton. I estimated he was fifty-five years old. Broad-shouldered, balding, with a trim mustache, sharp features, piercing eyes. Deep voice. Calm.
“Good evening, Lieutenant.”
We shook hands. Connor looked me up and down, and nodded approvingly. “Good. Very presentable.”
I said, “I used to work press. You never knew when you might have to appear in front of cameras.”
He nodded. “And now you’re the SSO on call?”
“How long have you been a liaison?”
“You speak Japanese?”
“A little. I’m taking lessons.”
“Give me a few minutes to change.” He turned and disappeared behind the shoji screen. “This is a homicide?”
“Who notified you?”
“Tom Graham. He’s the OIC at the crime scene. He said the Japanese were insisting on a liaison officer being present.”
“I see.” There was a pause. I heard running water. “Is that a common request?”
“No. In fact, I’ve never heard of it happening. Usually, officers call for a liaison because they have a language problem. I’ve never heard of the Japanese asking for a liaison.”
“Neither have I,” Connor said. “Did Graham ask you to bring me? Because Tom Graham and I don’t always admire each other.”
“No,” I said. “Fred Hoffmann suggested I bring you in. He felt I didn’t have enough experience. He said he was going to call you for me.”
“Then you were called at home twice?” Connor said.
“I see.” He reappeared, wearing a dark blue suit, knotting his tie. “It seems that time is critical.” He glanced at his watch. “When did Graham call you?”
“Then forty minutes have already passed. Let’s go, Lieutenant. Where’s your car?”
We hurried downstairs.
I drove up San Pedro and turned left onto Second, heading toward the Nakamoto building. There was a light mist at street level. Connor stared out the window. He said, “How good is your memory?”
“Pretty good, I guess.”
“I wonder if you could repeat for me the telephone conversations you had tonight,” he said. “Give them to me in as much detail as possible. Word for word, if you can.”
I recounted my phone calls. Connor listened without interruption or comment. I didn’t know why he was so interested, and he didn’t tell me. When I finished, he said, “Hoffmann didn’t tell you who called for land lines?”
“Well, it’s a good idea in any case. I never use a car phone if I can help it. These days, too many people listen in.”
I turned onto Figueroa. Up ahead I saw searchlights shining in front of the new Nakamoto Tower. The building itself was gray granite, rising up into the night. I got into the right lane and flipped open the glove box to grab a handful of business cards.
The cards said Detective Lieutenant Peter J. Smith, Special Services Liaison Officer, Los Angeles Police Department. Printed in English on one side, in Japanese on the back.
Connor looked at the cards. “How do you want to handle this situation, Lieutenant? Have you negotiated with the Japanese before?”
I said, “Not really, no. Couple of drunk driving arrests.”
Connor said politely, “Then perhaps I can suggest a strategy for us to follow.”
“That’s fine with me,” I said. “I’d be grateful for your help.”
“All right. Since you’re the liaison, it’s probably best if you take charge of the scene when we arrive.”
“Don’t bother to introduce me, or refer to me in any way. Don’t even look in my direction.”
“I am a nonentity. You alone are in charge.”
“It’ll help to be formal. Stand straight, and keep your suit jacket buttoned at all times. If they bow to you, don’t bow back--just give a little head nod. A foreigner will never master the etiquette of bowing. Don’t even try.”
“Okay,” I said.
“When you start to deal with the Japanese, remember that they don’t like to negotiate. They find it too confrontational. In their own society they avoid it whenever possible.”
“Control your gestures. Keep your hands at your sides. The Japanese find big arm movements threatening. Speak slowly. Keep your voice calm and even.”
“If you can.”
“It may be difficult to do. The Japanese can be irritating. You’ll probably find them irritating tonight. Handle it as best you can. But whatever happens, don’t lose your temper.”
“That’s extremely bad form.”
“All right,” I said.
Connor smiled. “I’m sure you’ll do well,” he said. “You probably won’t need my help at all. But if you get stuck, you’ll hear me say ‘Perhaps I can be of assistance.’ That will be the signal that I’m taking over. From that point on, let me do the talking. I’d prefer you not speak again, even if you are spoken to directly by them. Okay?”
“You may want to speak, but don’t be drawn out.”
“Furthermore, whatever I do, show no surprise. Whatever I do.”
“Once I take over, move so that you’re standing slightly behind me and to my right. Never sit. Never look around. Never appear distracted. Remember that although you come from an MTV video culture, they do not. They are Japanese. Everything you do will have meaning to them. Every aspect of your appearance and behavior will reflect on you, on the police department, and on me as your superior and sempai.”
“What’s a sempai?”
We drove past the searchlights, down the ramp into the underground garage.