San Diego is home to miles of beaches, Balboa Park, a world-famous zoo, and some of the country’s most expensive home and resort real estate. Yet the city also houses a few items that aren’t actively promoted by the visitor’s bureau: a number of the country’s most corrupt politicians, border-related crimes, terrorists, and the occasional earthquakes. A noir feast!
In the fifty-plus years since Raymond Chandler set Playback in Esmeralda, his name for La Jolla, the population has grown by more than a million, and crime has proliferated as well. San Diego of the past and the present offers the book’s contributors a rich selection of settings, from the cross on Mount Soledad to the piers of Ocean Beach, and perpetrators and victims from the residents of its wealthiest enclaves to the inhabitants of its segregated barrios.
San Diego Noir includes stories by T. Jefferson Parker, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Martha C. Lawrence, Diane Clark & Astrid Bear, Debra Ginsberg, Morgan Hunt, Ken Kuhlken, Taffy Cannon, Don Winslow, Cameron Pierce Hughes, Lisa Brackmann, Gabriel R. Barillas, Gar Anthony Haywood, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Maria Lima.
“When it’s done right, noir is a darkly delicious thrill: smart, sharp-tongued, surprising. The knife goes in at the end with a twist. San Diego Noir, a new 15-story collection by some of the region’s best writers, has all that going for it, and the steady supply of hometown references makes it even more fun.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
BY T. JEFFERSON PARKER Kearny Mesa
You know how these things get started, Robbie. You see her for the first time. Your heart skips and your fingers buzz. Can't take your eyes off her. And when you look at her she knows. No way to hide it. So you don't look. Use all your strength to not look. But she still knows. And anybody else around does too."
"I've had that feeling, Vic," I said.
We walked down the Embarcadero where the cruise ships come and go. It was what passes for winter here in San Diego, cool and crisp, and there was a hard clarity to the sunlight. Once a week I met Vic at Higher Grounds coffee and we'd get expensive drinks and walk around the city. He was a huge guy, a former professional wrestler. Vic Primeval was his show name until they took his WWF license away for getting too physical in his matches. He hurt some people. I spend a few minutes a week with Vic because he thinks he owes me his life. And because he's alone in the world and possibly insane.
"Anyway," said Vic, "her name is Farrel White and I want you to meet her."
"Because I'm proud to have you as a friend. You're pretty much all I got in that department."
"Are you showing us off, Vic? Our freak show past?"
He blushed. "No. But you do make me look good."
Vic was bouncing at Skin, an exotic dance club — strippers, weak drinks, no cover with military ID. "I don't love that place," I said.
"Robbie, what don't you like about pretty women dancing almost naked?"
"The creeps who go there."
"Maybe you'll get lucky. You're lucky with the ladies."
"What do you know about my luck with ladies, Vic?"
"Come on, man. You've got luck. Whole world knows that."
More luck than I deserve, but is it good or bad? For instance, seven years ago Vic threw me out the window of the sixth floor of a hotel he'd set on fire — the Las Palmas in downtown San Diego. I was trying to save some lives and Vic was distraught at having had his World Wrestling Federation license revoked. This incident could be reasonably called bad luck.
You might have seen the video of me falling to what should have been my death. But I crashed through an awning before I hit the sidewalk and it saved my life. This luck was clearly good. I became briefly semifamous — The Falling Detective. The incident scrambled my brains a little but actually helped my career with the San Diego Police Department. In the video I look almost graceful as I fall. The world needs heroes, even if it's only a guy who blacks out in what he thinks are the last few seconds of his life.
"Just meet her, Robbie. Tonight she goes onstage at eight, so she'll get there around seven-thirty. I start at eight too. So we can wait for her out back, where the performers go in and out. You won't even have to set foot in the club. But if you want to, I can get you a friends-and-family discount. What else you got better to do?"
We stood in the rear employee-only lot in the winter dark. I watched the cars rushing down Highway 163. The music thumped away inside the club and when someone came through the employee door the music got louder and I saw colored shapes hovering in the air about midway between the door and me.
I've been seeing these colored objects since Vic threw me to that sidewalk. They're geometric, of varying colors, between one and four inches in length, width, depth. They float and bob. I can move them with a finger. Or with a strong exhalation, like blowing out birthday cake candles. They often accompany music, but sometimes they appear when someone is talking to me. The stronger the person's emotion, the larger and more vivid the objects are. They linger briefly then vanish.
In the months after my fall I came to understand these shapes derived not so much from the words spoken, but from the emotion behind them. Each shape and color denotes a different emotion. To me, the shapes are visual reminders of the fact that people don't always mean what they say. My condition is called synesthesia, from the Greek, and loosely translated it means "mixing of the senses." I belong to the San Diego Synesthesia Society and we meet once a month at the Seven Seas on Hotel Circle.
Farrel had a round, pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair cut in bangs, and one dimple when she smiled. Her lips were small and red. Her handshake was soft. She was short even in highheeled boots. She wore a long coat against the damp winter chill.
"Vic tells me you're a policeman. My daddy was a policeman. Center Springs, Arkansas. It's not on most maps."
"How long have you been here in San Diego?" I asked.
"Almost a year. I was waitressing but now I'm doing this. Better pay."
"How old are you?"
"I'm twenty-four years old." She had a way of holding your eyes with her own, a direct but uncritical stare. "Vic told me all about what happened. It's good that you've become a friend of his. We all of us need at least one good friend ... Well, guys, I should be going. I'd ask you in and buy you a drink, but it's supposed to work the other way around."
I glanced at Vic and saw the adoration in his eyes. It lit up his face, made it smarter and softer and better. Farrel smiled at him and put her hand on his sleeve.
"It's okay, Vic."
"Just so good to see you, Farrel."
"Vic walks me in and out, every night. And any other of the dancers who want him to. You're a cop so you know there's always someone coming around places like this, making trouble for the girls. But not when Vic Primeval is in the barnyard."
"I don't really like that name," said Vic.
"I mean it in a good way."
"It means primitive."
"It's only a show name, Vic. Like, well, like for a dancer it would be Chastity or Desire."
I watched the inner conflict ruffle Vic's expression. Then his mind made some kind of override and the light came back to his eyes. He smiled and peered down at the ground.
A hard look came over Farrel's face as a black BMW 750i bounced through the open exit gate and into the employees-only lot. It rolled to a stop beside us. The driver's window went down.
"Yo. Sweetie. I been looking for you." He was thirty maybe and tricked out in style — sharp haircut, pricey-looking shirt and jacket. Slender face, a Jersey voice and delivery. He looked from Farrel to Vic, then at me. "What's your problem, fuckface?"
I swung open my jacket to give him a look at my .45.
He held up his hands like I should cuff him. "Christ. Farrel? You want I should run these meatballs off? They're nothing to do with me and you, baby."
"I want them to run you off. I told you, Sal. There isn't a you and me. No more. It's over. I'm gone."
"But you're not gone, baby. You're right here. So get in. Whatever you'll make in a month in there, I'll pay you that right out of my pocket. Right here and now."
"Get off this property," said Vic. "Or I'll drag you out of your cute little car and throw you over that fence."
Vic glanced at me and winced right after he said this. When he gets mad at things he throws them far. People too.
Sal clucked his tongue like a hayseed then smiled at Vic as if he was an amusing moron.
"No more us, Sal," said Farrel. "We're over."
"You still owe me eight thousand dollars, girl. Nothing's over till I get that back."
I saw black rhombuses wobbling in the air between us. Black rhombuses mean anger.
"I'll pay you back as soon as I can. You think I'm dancing in a place like this just for the fun of it all?"
"Move out of here," I said. "Do it now."
"Or you'll arrest me."
"Quickly. It'll cost you forty-eight long cheap hours or two expensive short ones. Your pick."
"I want what's mine," Sal said to Farrel. "I want what I paid for."
"Them's two different things."
"Maybe it is in that redneck slop hole you come from."
The window went up and the car swung around and out of the lot, the big tires leaving a rubbery low-speed squeal on the asphalt.
"I'm coming in for a while," I said.
I had a beer and watched Farrel and the other dancers do their shows. They were uninhibited and rhythmic to say the least. Some were pretty and some were plain. Some acted flirtatious and others lustful and others aloof. Farrel seemed almost shy and she never once looked at either me or Vic from what I could tell. She had a small attractive body. Vic stood in the back of the room, lost in the lush plum-colored curtains, his feet spread wide and arms crossed, stone still.
After an hour passed and Sal had not come back, I nodded a goodnight to Vic and went home.
* * *
Two days later Vic left a message for me and I met him outside the Convention Center. There was a reptile show in progress and many of the people were entering and leaving the building with constrictors around their necks and leashed iguanas in their arms and stacks of clear plastic food containers filled with brightly colored juvenile snakes.
"Look at this thing," he said. He reached into the pocket of his aloha shirt and pulled out a huge black scorpion. "They don't sting."
Vic Malic had enormous hands but that scorpion stretched from his thumb tip to the nail on his little finger. It looked like it could drill that stinger a half inch into you anytime it wanted. In his other hand was a clear plastic bag filled with crickets. They were white with dust of some kind. They hopped around as crickets do.
"Scorpion food?" I asked.
"Yeah. And they dust them with vitamins for thirty cents."
He looked down at the creature then slid it back into his shirt pocket. "That son of a bitch Sal is stalking Farrel. That was the third time I've seen him. He shows up everywhere she goes."
"Tell her to come fill out a report. We can't do anything until she does that."
"Doesn't trust cops."
"She seemed proud of her dad."
"I'm only telling you what she told me. Sal loaned her ten grand because she totaled her car with no insurance, and her baby had to have chemotherapy. Darling little baby. I saw it. Just darling but with cancer."
"That is a shame."
"Yeah, and he was all charm at first, Sal was. She kind of liked him. Started paying with favors, you know, but the way he had it figured was he'd get anything he wanted for two years and she'd still owe him half. Plus he likes it rough and he hit her. Then he said he's got friends. He can introduce her to them, you know — they'd really like her. He's a Jersey wise guy, all connected up. Says he is. You heard him. He said he wants what's his and what he paid for."
I know who the mobbed-up locals are here in America's Finest City. Sal wasn't one of them. We've had our wise guys for decades, mostly connected to the L.A. outfits. There's a restaurant they go to. You get to know who they are. I wondered if Sal was just a visiting relative, getting some R&R in Southern California. Or maybe a new guy they brought in. Or if he was a made guy trying to muscle into new territory. If that was true there would be some kind of trouble.
I watched the scorpion wriggle around in the shirt pocket. The pocket had a hula girl and it looked like the pincers were growing out of her head.
"I'm gonna get that eight grand for her," said Vic.
"I got a start with the book sales."
Vic has been hand-selling copies of Fall to Your Life!, which he wrote and published himself. It's about how "the Robbie Brownlaw event" seven years ago at the Las Palmas Hotel changed his life for the better. He does pretty well with it, mostly to tourists. I see him sometimes, down by the Star of India, or Horton Plaza, or there at the Amtrak station, looming over his little table with copies of the book and a change box. He wears his old Vic Primeval wrestling costume of faux animal skins — not fur, but the skins sewed together into a kind of bodysuit. It's terrifically ugly but the customers are drawn to it. To attract buyers, he also sets up an aging poster of me falling through the sky. He used to charge five bucks a copy for the book but a year ago it went up to ten. Once a month he still gives me a cut from each sale, which is twenty-five percent. I accept the money because it makes Vic feel virtuous, then turn it over to the downtown food pantry and ASPCA and various charities.
I did some quick calcs based on what Vic paid me in royalties for July — traditionally his best month due to tourists. My take was five hundred dollars, which meant that Vic pocketed fifteen hundred plus change for himself.
"It'll take you at least six months to get eight grand," I said. "Plus winter is coming on and you've got your own expenses to pay."
"Do you have any money saved up, Vic?"
"I can get the money."
"So she can give it to him? Don't give her anything. Have her file a complaint with us if he's such a badass. She can get a restraining order. You don't know her and you don't know him. Stay away, Vic. That's the best advice you'll get on this."
"What do you mean?"
"What about this doesn't scream setup?"
"A setup? Why set up a guy who doesn't have any money? She hasn't asked me for one nickel. She's the real thing, Robbie. That little baby. I don't have a world class brain, but my heart always sees true. Farrel passes the Vic Malic heart test."
"The best thing you can do is have her file a complaint."
"She won't. I already told her to. She said the cops can't do anything until they catch him doing something. What she's afraid is, it's gonna be too late when that happens."
Which is often true.
"But Robbie, what if you tell her? Coming from you, it would mean a lot more than from me."
The San Diego mob guys own and frequent a downtown restaurant called Napoli. It's an unflashy two-story brick affair not far at all from police headquarters. They have controlling interests in a couple of much swankier eateries here, but they do their hanging out at Napoli.
"Hey, it's Robbie Brownlaw," said Dom, the owner.
"Dom, I need a word."
"Then you get a word, Robbie. Come on back. How's San Diego's famous detective?"
He's a round-faced, chipper fellow, early sixties, grandson of one of San Diego's more vivid mob figures, Leo the Lion Gagnas. Leo and his L.A. partners ran this city's gambling and loansharking. Back in 1950, two men out of Youngstown tried to get in on the Gagnas rackets, and they both washed up in Glorietta Bay one morning with bullets in their heads. Leo and company opened Napoli back in '53. He was tight with Bebe Rebozo, who was a big Nixon fundraiser. Beginning in 1966 Leo did two years for tax evasion and that was it. He never saw the inside of a prison before or after.
We sat in his dark little office. There were no windows and it smelled heavily of cigar smoke and cologne. The bookshelves were stuffed with well- read paperback crime novels — plenty of Whit Masterson and Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane. A floor safe sat in one corner and the walls were covered with framed photographs of Dom's ancestors and the people they entertained at Napoli — Sinatra, Joey Bishop, John Wayne, Nixon, Ted Williams.
I looked at the pictures. "Where's the new celebrities, Dom?"
He looked at the pictures too. "They don't come around here so much anymore. A time for everything, you know? It's good. Business is good. What do you need, Robbie?"
I told him about Sal — his alleged New Jersey outfit ties, his bad attitude and slick black Beamer, his fix on a young dancer at Skin named Farrel.
Dom nodded. "Yeah. I heard. My nephew, he's a manager at Skin. I got some friends checking this guy out."
"Ever had any trouble out of Jersey?"
"Never. Not any trouble at all, Robbie. Those days are long gone. You know that."
"What if he's what he says he is, trying to move in?"
"In on what?"
"On business, Dom."
"I don't know what you mean, business. But somebody blows into town and starts popping off about he's a made guy and he's mobbed up in Jersey and all that, well, there's fools and then there's fools, Robbie. Nobody I know talks like that. Know what I mean?"
"I wonder if he's got help."
"He better have help if he wants to shoot off his mouth. I'll let you know what I find out. And Robbie, you see this guy, tell him he's not making any friends around here. If he's what he says he is, then that's one thing. If he's not, then he's just pissing everybody off. Some doors you don't want to open. Tell him that. You might save him a little inconvenience. How's that pretty redhead wife of yours? Gina."
"We divorced seven years ago."
"I got divorced once. No, it was three times. You know why it's so expensive, don't you?"
"Because it's worth it."
"You've told me that one before, Dom."
"And I was right, wasn't I?"
I met Farrel at Skin that night before she was set to perform. We sat at the bar and got good treatment from the bartenders. Dom's nephew, a spidery young man named Joey Morra, came by, said hello, told Farrel the customers were liking her. I took down Farrel's numbers and address and the name of her daughter and hometown and parents. And I also got everything she could tell me about Sal Tessola — where he lived and how they met, what he'd done for her and to her, the whole story. I told her she'd need all these things in order to write a good convincing complaint. We talked for a solid hour before she checked her watch.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "San Diego Noir"
Copyright © 2011 Akashic Books.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I: WORKING STIFFS,
T. Jefferson Parker Kearny Mesa Vic Primeval,
Diane Clark & Astrid Bear Sherman Heights The Home Front,
Jeffrey J. Mariotte Mount Soledad Gold Shield Blues,
Martha C. Lawrence La Jolla Cove Key Witness,
PART II: NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH,
Debra Ginsberg Cortez Hill The New Girl,
Taffy Cannon Rancho Santa Fe Instant Karma,
Morgan Hunt Hillcrest The Angel's Share,
Ken Kuhlken Newport Avenue Homes,
PART III: LIFE'S A BEACH,
Don Winslow Pacific Beach After Thirty,
Lisa Brackmann Ocean Beach Don't Feed the Bums,
Cameron Pierce Hughes Mission Beach Moving Black Objects,
PART IV: BOUNDARIES & BORDERS,
Gabriel R. Barillas Del Mar The Roads,
Gar Anthony Haywood Convention Center Like Something Out of a Comic Book,
Luis Alberto Urrea National City The National City Reparation Society,
Maria Lima Gaslamp Quarter A Scent of Death,
About the Contributors,