“What the hell is going on?” Vandalia is seriously pissed off at the scene in front of her eyes. Greeley is on his feet, his back to a crouching Trip who is slowly rising. Mowgli is trailing Vandalia, but not nearly as concerned.
“She spit on me!” Greeley says indignantly, his cheek still wet with spittle. “She actually spit on me!”
“I was just showing him how feminine I could be,” Trip says coolly, dusting off her ass. “Greeley and I were having a philosophical discussion as to whether or not a woman can be tough and feminine at the same time. I was disagreeing with his point of view.” She is openly smirking, though Greeley is deliberately not looking at her.
“Vandalia, I don’t think you should have anything further to do with that bitch,” Greeley says, his lower lip thrust out. And they say women are the pouty ones.
“Excuse me?” Vandalia’s eyes all but disappear. “What did you just call her?”
“She’s a bitch!” Greeley repeats himself, too infuriated to realize that he’s going down in flames. Mowgli rolls his eyes, but stays to enjoy the show. “She comes off all hard and shit, but she’s nothing but a punk underneath. I was just telling her she can be strong and still be feminine, like you, when she got all psycho on me.” Opie sure waxes poetic when he’s pissed.
“I told him that he needed to broaden his definition of feminine and not be so goddamn narrow-minded,” Trip says sweetly, her tone syrupy. “Seems like Mr. Macho needs to have his ego pumped up on a minute-to-minute basis, and I failed to provide him such succor.” Mowgli hides a smile of his own as Trip trots out the psychobabble she devoured when she used to live on the streets. It never fails to surprise people who underestimate her that she is damn sharp.
“What the hell is she talking about?” Greeley demands, his nose out of joint. He looks to Vandalia for support who is less than thrilled with his Cro-Magnon behavior.
“I think we should go,” Mowgli says, finally interceding. “Vandie, thank you very much for putting up with this miscreant.” He busses Vandalia on the cheek. “I definitely owe you one.”
“You owe me more than one,” Vandalia retorts, kissing Mowgli lightly on the lips. “But I have to admit, it’s been intense.” They embrace as Trip goes to her room to gather her stuff. When she returns ten minutes later, the tableau is the same. She shrugs and moves towards the door.
“Nice meeting you, Vandalia,” Trip says over her shoulder without breaking her stride. “Wish I could say the same about your boy.”
“You ungrateful bitch,” Greeley roars, starting after Trip. He is deterred by a large presence in front of him—Mowgli.
“Let it go, man,” Mowgli counsels, knowing it’s a lost cause. No matter how enamored Vandalia had been by Greeley prior to now, she would have nothing further to do with him now that he’s shown his true colors. Vandalia is a feminine woman, yes, but one with feminist sensibilities. In other words, she doesn’t tolerate fools. “Talk to you soon, Vandie.”
“Where’s your car?” Trip asks Mowgli, jiggling her foot. She’s impatient to be on the move, not wanting to present a still target.
“Took a cab,” Mowgli says as he waits for her to unlock her car. “Thought I’d catch a ride from you. Give us some time alone.” Trip tosses her stuff in the back seat and slides into the driver’s seat.
“You thought I’d be out of there today,” Trip corrects him. She starts the engine and zooms away from Vandalia’s apartment. “Where am I going to stay?”
“As far from North Beach or the Mission as possible,” Mowgli counters. “And it’s we, not you. I’m staying with you.” His tone indicates that he will not budge on this one, so they have to decide where they’ll stay. Money is not a serious obstacle because they both have enough to stay in a decent hotel for a week. That’s how much time Trip figures it’ll take before either a) they break the case; b) she’s captured and thrown in prison; c) she’s killed on the spot. They toss around ideas like baseballs, rejecting one after the other. Not the Tenderloin—too close to the action. Not the Wharf—too touristy. Has to be in San Francisco proper because anything else is too far away and too much of a hassle. They decide that Union Square will work because it’s touristy, but not overly so, and it’s central to much of the city.
“Nikkos,” Mowgli suggests, but that’s a bit rich for Trip’s blood. She wouldn’t mind the Sir Francis Drake, but it’s too old-fashioned. They’d stick out without even trying. There are a few places near Chinatown for less than a hundred dollars a night, but it’d definitely be roughing it. They finally settle on the Handlery, which is just off of Union Square. It’s clean, bright, and posh-looking without breaking the bank. They are able to secure a room in these post-9/11 times with little difficulty. Between that, the war and SARS, the tourist business is really hurting. They decide on one room with twin beds although Trip argues for separate rooms. Mowgli points out that there’s safety in numbers, and it’s not as if there’s any sexual reason why they shouldn’t share a room. They give false names, registering as husband and wife with nary a raised eyebrow about the strangeness of a married couple lodging in a room with twin beds. Trip acquiesces with ill-grace and is still grumpy as they head up to their room. It’s more luxurious than Trip’s apartment—it even has a VCR/DVD player, and she plops on the bed closer to the door.
“I need to eat,” Trip declares, looking at the clock on the nightstand. It’s well after noon, and she had only picked at her breakfast. They decide to eat in the restaurant downstairs because it’s convenient. They grab their respective bags and are out the door. Soon, Trip is eating a patty melt while Mowgli is chowing down on a double cheeseburger with all the trimmings. They both ordered fries as well, of course.
As they eat, Trip fills Mowgli in on her points of interest. One of the things that makes Mowgli a great friend is his ability to listen without allowing anything to distract his attention. With his eyes fixed to Trip’s face, Mowgli listens to everything she has to say. He doesn’t fidget or interrupt; he just eats and listens as she lists her plan. He doesn’t even nod or shake his head to indicate how he feels about her thoughts; he just listens. When she finishes outlining her plan, he nods once and continues eating. They have been friends long enough for Trip to recognize that he’s digesting what she’s told him. It’s useless to push him to speak before he’s ordered his own thoughts. His concentration is so complete, he ignores the last fourth of his burger so he can arrange things satisfactorily in his mind. Trip watches him think, finishing off her own sandwich in the meantime. She orders more fries and an extra Diet Coke while she’s waiting. She finishes off both before Mowgli is ready to speak. She asks the waitresses for a dessert menu which the waitress recites to her. Trip selects a slice of blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream—from Mitchell’s, of course, an infamous ice cream place in San Francisco—and is halfway through the slab before Mowgli speaks.
“You have to get the evidence if it still exists,” he says emphatically, picking up his burger again. “The rest of it is pie in the sky. You can’t let anything deter you from getting the evidence. Once you have that, you control the show; the ball is in your court. You use it to force DiCalvo’s hand, then you take him down.” Mowgli’s eyes are cold as he talks. They ice over even further as he adds, “Del, there’s one point I can’t stress enough. Do not allow your anger at DiCalvo to cloud your thinking.” He puts out a hand as Trip opens her mouth, forestalling her protest. “I know you. You want the bastard for what he did to you. It’s a personal thing, and I don’t blame you. The asshole did a number on you which could cost you your life. I’d want to kill him, too. However, this is your life we’re talking about. You cannot afford to let a vendetta get in your way, understand?” There is no warmth in his eyes as he stares at Trip who is gazing steadily at him in return.
“You’re telling me to look at the big picture, to be the bigger man and all that crap, right? Well, screw it. That asshole is going to pay for what he did to me. No one but no one messes with Trip Wire and gets away with it. How’s it going to look on the streets if I don’t take care of him? I have my job to think about.” Trip pushes away the few remaining bites of her pie and slurps the dregs of her soda.
“How is it going to look with you dead?” Mowgli doesn’t need to raise his voice to be scary. “Get the evidence by doing what you do best. Then we’ll turn the tables on the assholes. Let them know how it feels to be the prey. Once we have the evidence, they’ll be dancing to our tune.” They finish up their meal and jet out of there, leaving a generous tip. Trip always gives at least a twenty-five percent tip, figuring that the waitresses are sisters under it all. Shitty job, cosseting egos, putting up with crap—perhaps even a pat on the ass or two. They deserve every penny they earn. Trip and Mowgli head out to the country, which is a two-hour drive.
I hate guns. I’ve told Mowgli that, but even he can’t understand the depth of my hatred. I watched my father terrorize my mama with a gun more times than I care to count. Pistol-whipping her, cracking her in the ribs with the butt of a rifle—good times with a good ol’ boy. Of course, Mother never told as it would have been too shameful if she let it be known what was happening inside that house of ours. Daddy never used that particular terrorist tactic on me except one time. It was my sixteenth birthday, and he was fall-over drunk. My mother had baked me a cake and bought me a few presents. On that day, Daddy got laid off from his job at the mill. It was a long-time coming because he was so erratic, but it hit him in the gut. He managed to convince himself that he was a sterling worker who was done wrong by his boss.
When he got home at noon—they didn’t even wait until the end of the day to fire him—he was in a tear. He laid into my mother who managed to lock herself in the bathroom with only a bleeding gash on her hand from where he stabbed her. She laid there, whimpering, her bad hand pressed to her mouth listening as her husband pounded on the door and screamed curses at her. I don’t know how long she sat like that in there because I only know of this secondhand. I was in school, of course, and arrived home at three, unaware of what was happening inside the house. All I knew was that it was my sixteenth birthday and Jamie Johnson had kissed me in front of my locker after class. My first kiss. It was enough to make me forget my usual caution as I pushed open the front door to scene of my father shouting himself hoarse outside the bathroom door, his rifle raised in the air. There were holes in the ceiling above him, and a few in the door in front of him.
“Where’s Mama?” I asked, foolishly rushing forward. “What have you done?” At the sight of my father, my birthday was forgotten; the kiss from Jamie was forgotten—all I could think was, ‘What did he do to Mama?’
“Open your mouth!” My father ordered, wheeling around so the gun was trained on me. I stopped in my tracks, unwilling to get any closer to him.
“Why, Daddy?” I risked asking, my panic rising.
“Do it,” he hissed, cocking the gun. I opened my mouth without hesitation, and he jammed the gun inside. I stood as still as I possibly could, praying my knees wouldn’t give way. “You are one sorry-assed cunt, and I curse the day we adopted you. Now, turn around and take your fucking ass out of here, understand?” He held the gun there for a minute longer before sliding it out of my mouth. “Now!” He moved the gun slightly to the left of me and shot once. I turned and ran, cringing slightly as I did. I was sure he’d shoot me in the back, but he didn’t. The minute I was out the door, I ran to the neighbors and called the cops. That wasn’t what made me leave, but it turned me off guns forever.
Now, here I am in the countryside, holding a pistol that feels heavy in my hand, pointing it at a tin can, which hasn’t harmed me in any way, sitting on a stump some ways away. With this innocuous piece of metal so pretty and shiny, I can easily take a life without blinking an eyelash. There is no greater equalizer than a gun, but I still hate them. I hate the feel of one in my hand; I hate the looks of them; I hate the smell of the cordite after a gun has been shot. If I had my way, there would be no guns. Guns advocates say it’s not the guns that kill people—it’s people. Well, it sure makes it easier to kill people with guns. Who ever heard of a drive-by stabbing? I stare at the gun, now loaded, but don’t squeeze the trigger.
“It’s not going to work with you just looking at it,” Mowgli says gently, firing a round himself. Left-handed, of course. He hits the can with authority; he always gets his man. “Guns don’t shoot by osmosis.” He shoots another can, then another. Mowgli has no affinity for firearms, but he doesn’t have my squeamishness for them, either. He sees them as a necessary evil, and keeps his eye sharp by practicing at least once a month. “Del, sometimes you have to be a soldier. Don’t wimp out on me now.”
The magic words. I’ll be damn if I punk out in front of my best friend. I lift the gun, steady my hand, and fire. I hit the can straight in the heart if it had one, then pulverize its best friend. I keep shooting until I’m exhausted; shooting is hard work. By the end of an hour, I am back to top form. Mowgli and I each set up ten cans from fifty feet away, and I beat him nine to eight. The air stinks of cordite, and my arm is about to fall off, but I am satisfied that I can shoot the damn thing if I need to, which disturbs me more than comforts me. A small voice inside my head tells me not to take the gun, even as back-up, but I tell that voice to shut up. Mowgli is right. This is my own private war, and I have to be armed. Even if I don’t shoot the thing, it’ll even up the sides just a bit more, especially if they have guns as well. We clean up our debris then climb back into the car. I’m still disconcerted, so Mowgli drives.
“How you doing?” Mowgli asks as we head back to the city.
“Fine,” I reply tersely, not wanting to talk about it. I’m doing what I need to do; I have no desire to yap about it as well.
“What’s the plan for the rest of the night?” Mowgli asks, his eyes on the road. “Just to let you know, I’m not going into work tomorrow, although I was supposed to. I’m kinda bummed out because I like working on Saturdays. No people, you know.”
“I’m breaking into Blanche’s apartment,” I say, closing my eyes. “I don’t know about you.”
“I think I’ll have a little chat with your friends in the Tenderloin,” Mowgli says, a touch grimly. Though he has no problems with women; indeed, he enjoys their company much more than do many straight men, he’s not comfortable with the ladies of the night. “See what else can be squeezed out of them. What was your friend’s name again?”
“Mona Lisa,” I say, wondering idly what her real name is. “She knew Angel. It’s quite possible that she knew Blanche as well.” I ponder a bit before adding, “I’m changing my plans. I’m going to go with you so I can talk to Melody. Then I’m breaking into Blanche’s place.”
“You’re not going to the club ,” Mowgli says immediately. “I bet they have cops crawling all over that place.”
“I need to talk to her,” I say adamantly, opening my eyes again. “She’s the weak link. If I can break her, I’m halfway there.”
“Tell you what, you concentrate on getting into Blanche’s apartment tonight, and I’ll bring Melody home.”
“To the hotel?” I am incredulous. “I don’t want her to know where we’re staying.”
“Shit, you’re right.” Mowgli thinks a minute as he drives. “OK, how about this? Swing by the Phoenix after you finish your business, and I’ll have Melody there.”
“Whom shall I ask for?” I ask snottily. “Mickey Mouse?”
“Antonio Banderas,” Mowgli says immediately.
“No,” I say flatly. “He’s too recognizable.”
“No!” He has a thing for using Latino names even though he’s Filipino. I can’t blame him, though, as I’ve used Yoko Ono in my past, even though I’m not Japanese.
“I got it!” Mowgli snaps his fingers, but keeps his eyes on the road. “Che Guevara.”
“Good enough,” I say, closing my eyes. It really has been a hell of a week.