Authors: T. Jefferson Parker
That's what his letters to Bernadette said.
"You still have no arrests of who killed your father?"
"Let me out and I'll deliver his killer within twenty-four hours. Talk to the DA, Phil Dent. He can get me out."
"You killed a cop, Sammy."
"I'm innocent. I'll prove I'm innocent."
"Until then, maybe you could find out about Alex."
"I need more phone time to do that."
"You've got half an hour coming up at four."
"I'm only supposed to get fifteen minutes."
"I'll get you a bonus, Sammy. Please produce."
"I've got some stuff on the Cobra Kings," said Sergeant Ray Flatley. Ray was in charge of the Gang Interdiction Unit. I sat in his sheriff's department office, looking out the narrow window at the city of Santa Ana below.
"I appreciate your time, sir."
Flatley's a slight man, graying hair that looks too neat to be real, but it is. He lost his wife to cancer two years ago, and it obviously haunts him. He's a piano player and his wife was a singer, and they used to moonlight as the Sharp Flats—restaurant lounges, private parties, that kind of thing. They played one of my Academy graduation parties. Ray impersonated popular singers, could sound like any one of them, really made good fun of them. But his wife was the one with a voice like an angel. I remember seeing his eyes get a little misty when he backed her on "When a Man Loves a Woman," though he'd heard her sing it a thousand times. Actors can mist on cue, but not Gang Interdiction cops.
"Sure," he said. "I always liked Will. We worked crimes against property when we were young."
"He always spoke highly of you too, Sergeant."
He studied me a moment. "Okay. The Cobra Kings are loose, spreading across the country, nominal leadership in Houston. Locally, the Cobra Kings have something like forty men and women. They're equal opportunity that way. The older ones are mixed bloods—Vietnamese and American—and they started back in Vietnam after the war. Since then, they’ve picked up some of everything, mostly the kids who don't fit in racially. They're bad people, Joe. They're hard to figure, hard to penetrate. They’ve got the business sense of the Asians—they were stealing chips and other high tech hardware years ago, here and up in Silicon Valley. There's some talk of selling contraband to the Chinese for out-of-patent knockoffs, I can't confirm that. They've got the machismo of the American gangs. The colors are overcoats, and sometimes caps of American baseball teams, word is the soldiers take a scalp—a life—before they're in."
"Do we have any of them?"
"I wish. Rick Birch wishes. The nearest we have are two up in Pelican Bay—the contract killers who took out the Mexican mafia guy last year.’’
"With machine guns."
"Of course, we got the fourth guy from Will's murder in the ICU now—Ike Cao. He's an eyewitness to all of it. If he pulls through, maybe we can get him to talk. The Kings are tough that way—nobody knows anything."
I remembered the four sharp pops as the Tall One silenced his men the fog.
"Now, here in Southern California the top dog is John Gaylen. Twenty-six years old, born just after the fall of Saigon. Half black American and half Vietnamese prostitute, I've heard. Arrested three times for assault and battery—no charges filed. Once for selling stolen goods, no conviction. Once again for conspiracy to commit murder, but he beat us in Court. Trouble is, people are scared to testify. We can't get close to him undercover or even with snitches—he keeps smelling them out. We’ve tried a couple of times to turn his soldiers, but they won't play."
"Is English his first language?"
Flatley frowned and studied me. "Why?"
"I heard a voice that night. I'll never forget it and I know exactly how it sounded. Deep and very clear, with a funny . . . almost a lilt to it."
"Did it sound ah, maybe a little like this, Joe? "
"Exactly like that."
He smiled. "Vietnamese meets French meets English meets hip-hop and Southern Cal slang. I hear a lot of it."
He shook his head and sighed. For a minute I could tell that he wasn't thinking about John Gaylen at all. Maybe he was thinking what a sweet thing a woman's voice can be.
"Joe, I don't know what language he learned first. Vietnamese, I'd assume. Maybe French. Here, take a look at these. Surveillance pics."
He set a folder on the desk and I opened it. Gaylen looked humorless, a little wicked, too. I was surprised to see a shirt and tie on him, and said so.
"Yeah, the Cobra Kings are sharp dressers. They make a lot of money, like to show it off. Upscale gangsters. Check the toys. Check the girl."
Picture number three showed Gaylen opening the passenger door of a late-model black Mercedes four-door. His suit hung right, like only a good suit can. One hand on the car door, the other at his mouth with a big cigar.
The woman about to get into the car was a sullen black-haired beauty with pale skin and a necklace that sparked with light.
I knew her, because I'd seen her picture about one hour before. Bernadette Lee, the love of Sammy Nguyen's life. Of John Gaylen's, too?
I studied the pictures, eight in all.
Flatley leaned back in his chair. "The men who hit Will, caps and overcoats?"
"Overcoats with the collars pulled up."
"That's what the soldiers wear. We suspect Cobra Kings in a handful of unsolved homicides across the country. One of them here in Orange County. It's always been business, so far as we can tell. Doesn't seem like your father would be doing business with this kind of pond scum."
"I helped him with a lot of his business," I said. "He trusted me and we talked. Never a word about John Gaylen or the Cobra Kings. But that shooter knew who he was—called him by name. It was an execution No doubt what they were there for."
Flatley raised his eyebrows. "I'm surprised he didn't kill you, too. He left an eyewitness. Maybe two, depending on Cao. A shot in the chest and a shot in the head, though—doesn't look good."
"If he saw me as poorly as I saw him, I wouldn't have been a good target."
Flatley nodded. "What about the cars?"
"I couldn't make them in the headlight beams and the fog."
"The soldiers like the hot little Hondas, you know, the lowered Civics with the big stinger headers. The brass, guys like Gaylen, strictly Daimier Benz."
"The headlights looked like Hondas. They were loud."
Flatley paused. He looked concerned, but very, very tired. "Rick Birch has all this. He's one of our best. If there's someone who can button this case, it's Rick."
"He's trying. The Cobra Kings are tough to find because they have turf. They're mobile. They're like the damn fog that rolled in on you."
He looked at me again, a skeptical gleam in his eye. "Are you doing some extra work, maybe holding back a little from Rick?"
"Extra, yes, sir. Holding back, no."
He nodded and shrugged. "I understand. I wanted the doctors to let me in on my wife's surgeries. I thought I could do some good. Of course, they talked me out of that. Probably for the best."
"Now I know how you felt."
"You always wonder, though, if you could have done more."
"I do, sir."
"Five guns against one, Joe, and you took out two of them. I wouldn’t wonder too much if I were you."
I put on my hat and stood.
"Did you hear about Savannah Blazak? Ten o'clock this morning FBI rolled on a sighting way down in San Diego County—Rancho Santa Fe. Two eyewitnesses saw her. Both identified her from the press conference last night. By the time Marchant got there she was gone."
"Was she alone?"
"No word on that yet. Marchant didn't say."
I got some dinner at a drive-through and headed home. The food smelled good.
My old Mustang grumbled in the heavy traffic from light to light until I hit the freeway. It's a 1967 model, fairly rare, and I've got it pretty much restored. It's got the original tach and instruments. I put on some aftermarket stuff to up the horsepower. Sounds great when you punch it, and it'll throw your head back in every gear.
But cars on Orange County freeways at six o'clock move about as fast as cars on showroom floors. I only used the alleged freeway for a mile, got off and took my shortcut home, along with several thousand others.
I served the take-out food on one of the partitioned TV dinner trays that I keep for this purpose. I listened to the phone messages while I ate. A lot fewer calls now than the day before. I'd already talked to most of the people I wanted to talk to. I'd declined all of the press and media requests, except for June Dauer of KFOC. So she'd left her third message, asking me to be the subject of her afternoon show one day soon.
I called her back to say no and save her any more calls.
Her voice was pleasant enough and she thanked me for calling her back. I tried to explain why I couldn't do her show when she cut me off and said that her station was part of the Public Broadcasting System, and dedicated to public service. She explained her show,
: interviews broadcast live, personal but not prying, informational but "definitely not bottom feeding." She tried to find "newsmakers who aren't necessarily celebrities, real people caught in an interesting moment in their lives."
She told me that she'd always been interested in my story, ever since she heard about the baby who got the acid thrown in his face by his father. She'd seen some pictures of me in the local paper when I was six and played Little League. She remembered the big spread on me when I turned twelve, and the full-color face shot on the front page of the
Living Section. She said she'd seen me interviewed several times, and still remembered quite clearly the ABC feature when I turned eighteen and was all done with high school, bound for police science and history classes at State Fullerton.
"I'm sorry but I can't, Ms.—"
"Dauer, June Dauer."
"I won't be able to do an interview, Ms. Dauer."
"Won't be able or aren't willing?"
"Am not willing."
Silence then. I was a little sorry to let her down. I don't like disappointing people.
"Yes, ma'am, I mean, Ms., I mean—"
"All right, June."
"Joe, listen to me. I've been wanting to talk to you for just about my whole life. I wrote a report about you when we were both in the grade. You're perfect for
Joe. Give me a chance! You let that lady on channel seven do it, the one who dabbed the tears off her surgically uplifted face while she blubbered her outror. I saw that, Joe she
"She did? For what?"
"To incite pity in her viewers. I thought it was disgusting. And that was commercial network television—we're
I considered this. "Well," I said. "Thanks for being interested."
She sighed. "Joe, you have to do this, and do you know why?"
"Because out there, there's some little boy or little girl who's going through something just like you did. Maybe something even
what you went through. And that little person is sitting in their own dark little . . .
hell. . .
and they're wondering what the use is, what damned use of going on, anyway? And Joe, you never know, but the chance that person could be listening when
is broadcast, could hear you and realize they have a chance."
I thought about this. She had a pleasant and honest and convincing voice. "Is inspiration better than pity?"
"I think it is, Joe! Inspiration gets listeners to go beyond themselves. Pity just makes them happy they're not you."
"You'll do it?"
"You might not be extremely happy about doing this, Joe. But I am. And somebody else might be, somebody you don't even know."
"I'm glad that you're pleased."
I was already regretting it while we agreed on a time and day and she gave me the KFOC address up in Huntington Beach.
Two hours later I parked down the street from Alex Blazak's secret place of business. It was a building in the light industrial zone of Costa Mesa— chain-link fence, no lights, dogs barking a few lots over.