Sunday, July 7, 10:45 p.m.
Cam Le stepped out of her room, pleased to be out of the motel. The smell had troubled her since she arrived. She couldn’t even describe it, because it was so different from anything she’d known. Her peaceful home in the countryside was so different from this busy place. The last few days had been a barrage of new sights and experiences, but she was determined to follow through with her mission. Her mother’s dying wish.
Cam buttoned her thin jacket against the cool night air and set off walking. After a few breaths of fresh air, she hummed a song from her childhood to soothe her anxiety. The phone in her pocket displayed a map of her route, but she didn’t need to follow it. She’d memorized the way. Plus, it was safer to keep the device out of sight. She’d heard that muggers would kill for a phone, and the lateness of hour worried her. She moved quickly, feeling both eager and nervous about the encounter. Her message would probably not be welcome, but it was critically important. For the first time in her life, she felt like she was part of something bigger than herself.
At the corner, she turned off the main street and was soon enveloped by quiet. The shortcut through the industrial area would save her time.
Ten minutes later, as she approached her destination, she heard a car on the road behind her. Most likely, the man she’d come here to meet. Her pulse escalated and Cam braced herself. This would either be the beginning of a new life for her or the end of a long journey.
Monday, July 8, 8:42 a.m.
Detective Wade Jackson stepped into the hospital room, relieved there were no visitors to deal with. He walked to the end of the bed and cleared his throat. The old man opened his eyes and sat up. The baggy hospital gown didn’t hide his thin, scarred arms. Jackson glanced at his notepad and hoped he would say the guy’s name correctly. “Pham Thi Boc?”
“Call me Boc.” The old guy tried to smile, but his expression radiated pain.
“So Pham is your surname?”
“Yes, my family name.”
Jackson circled it. That’s how he and his team would refer to the victim. Pham had been assaulted the night before by a man wielding something heavy, like a pipe. Jackson usually investigated homicides, but his hometown of Eugene, Oregon was blissfully quiet for murders at the moment. His unit investigated all violent crimes though, and assaults were almost daily occurrences, so they kept busy. “Tell me what happened.”
“I heard noise downstairs, behind kitchen, so I got up to see what happening.” His speech was clear but a little choppy.
Jackson wondered how long he’d been in the US. “You live above the restaurant?”
“Yes. Alone now. My wife passed recently.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Jackson nodded to show his sincerity. “You went outside?”
“Yes. I had flashlight, and I saw big man breaking windows. I yelled at him and got out phone to call police. He laughed and called me ‘Chinaman.’ Then I was afraid. I tried to get inside but he attacked me.” The victim touched the white bandage wrapping part of his head. “Here and on shoulder.” He shifted positions and grimaced.
Jackson’s grip on the pen tightened. Why would anyone hit this frail old man? “Can you tell me anything about the attacker? How tall, for example?”
“Big. Like you. Only skinnier.”
Jackson suppressed a smile and jotted down 6 ft, 190? “What about his face?”
“I no see. He wore a stocking.” Pham shook his head. “Not stocking. Like cowboy.”
“Yes. I think so.”
That would make the case challenging. “What about his clothes?”
The victim shrugged. “It was dark and his clothes were dark, but his arms were bare.” Something sparked in the old man’s dark, weary eyes. “He had a tattoo on right side.” Pham rubbed his own forearm from wrist to elbow.
“No. I just see … contrast. Black ink on white arm.”
Jackson wrote down Caucasian, dark T-shirt. “Do you know anyone who would want to attack you? Any personal grievances?” He thought he knew the answer but had to ask.
“No. I make customers happy. Family is happy. Except to lose our sweet Lam.”
Just to be sure there was no connection, Jackson asked, “How did she die?”
“Have you or your restaurant been targeted before?”
“Years ago, my building sprayed with paint.” He struggled for a word. “Graffiti?”
That was common along the bike path and downtown where teenagers and homeless people hung out, but not in this area. Unless it was personal. “Did they find the guy?”
Jackson needed more information about the current assault but wasn’t optimistic. “What time did the attack happen last night?” The police report indicated the 911 call had come in at 10:47, but he needed firsthand information. Especially if there had been a time lag. With assaults, patrol officers handled the initial response, then handed the files over to the detectives in the Violent Crimes Unit. Thank goodness. His life was chaotic enough just being called out to death scenes and campus riots.
“Ten-thirty or so. I had just gone to sleep.”
“What exactly did he say?”
“He say, ‘Go home, Chinaman. This is our country.’” The old man’s face was stoic. “I’m Viet, not Chinese.”
The perp was probably another white nationalist. They were emboldened now, and the number of bar fights and assaults the department had to deal with had doubled.
“Have you ever seen the attacker before? In or around your restaurant?”
“No. But I cook, not wait on people. And most of my customers are like me and want food from our home country. Or they old people.” The guy tried to smile.
“If I find a suspect, I’ll show you his photo and a close-up of his tattoo. Will you be able to identify him?”
“I don’t know.”
Jackson handed Pham a business card. “If you think of anything else, let me know. I’ll do my best to find this guy.”
The victim’s expression tightened. “I buy gun for next time. He hurt too many people already.”
Oh boy. “Maybe install a security alarm instead.”
“Too expensive. Gun is cheap.”
It was the man’s constitutional right, and Jackson couldn’t blame him. Two other Asian restaurants had been targeted with vandalism in the last two weeks, and an import-shop owner had been pushed around. But Pham was the first to confront the perp and get hurt. The conflict and aggression had probably been stimulating to the thug and might have triggered an escalation. Other Asian shop owners could be in danger. “We’ll send extra patrols by your place at night. And now that we know about his tattoo, we can probably find him.”
Or not. A lot of criminals sported ink. Hell, everyone had tats now. “I’ll be in touch.” Jackson nodded and walked out, a mix of emotions propelling him. Anger that hate crimes were happening in his otherwise inclusive community and frustration that he didn’t have a decent description. But the upside was that the perp was likely also an addict or thief and would end up in jail one way or another.
The hospital hallway seemed to close in as Jackson hurried toward the elevator. He hated the place, even though doctors here had saved his life a few times. Including last month, when he’d finally had another surgery to remove more of the fibrotic growth that was trying to kill his kidneys. He still had pain from the incision sometimes, but it was nothing compared to what he’d endured before. But the growth would come back, and he’d likely have another procedure someday. Unless researchers came up with a better treatment. The prednisone he took intermittently only slowed the disease. And made him gain weight. He glanced down at his belly, thinking he should work out more—in case Kera ever wanted to get naked again.
His girlfriend was probably in the building somewhere, interviewing for a job. He hoped she instead took the nursing position at the small medical clinic down the street from his home. Kera only wanted to work part-time, so she could help care for the young boys they both had in their lives. At the moment, they were more like roommates than a couple, but he hoped that would change.
On the elevator, Jackson checked his phone for the time. Too early to head home. On the walk to his car, he called his daughter. Katie preferred text, and he indulged her sometimes, but he was a busy man. He could walk and talk. And drive and talk. But texting required stopping, getting out his reading glasses, and forcing his thick fingers to type a message without errors.
Katie picked up, sounding cheerful. Probably because she had just graduated from high school. “Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
“Just checking in. Will you pick up Benjie?”
“Don’t I always?”
“You often do. And I thank you.”
“I may be late. I’m on my way to find an informant, so anything could happen.”
“I’m not worried about my safety and you shouldn’t be either.” Jackson reached his city-issued sedan and unlocked it. “Just letting you know I might be late for dinner. Criminals and informants don’t process time the same way we do.”
“I know. I’ll make something that will keep warm in the oven.”
“Thanks.” He paid his daughter to take care of her little brother and cook meals, but he still felt guilty about it. It kept her out of trouble though, and for that he was grateful.
“Does Kera like meat? Will she be here?”
“Yes, you know she does. We’ve all eaten together many times. And I’m sure she’ll be done interviewing by then. See you in a bit.” Jackson hung up, climbed into his car, and made another call. This one went to voicemail. “Hey, TJ. It’s Uncle Wade. I need your help with something. Text your location.”
The sun had broken through the clouds, so Jackson took off his sports jacket, drove out of the massive parking lot, and got on the express back toward Eugene. TJ lived in the Whit, as it was now called by the hipsters who hung out there drinking locally-brewed beer. But for old-timers like himself, the fringes of the low-end neighborhood were still known as Heroin Alley. He knew where his informant lived, or had lived, but he hesitated to walk up to the guy’s door. Even with just his black pullover, Jackson realized he still looked like a cop. And he didn’t want to burn one of his only decent street sources.
The freeway hadn’t clogged with after-work traffic yet, so he made good time. Ten minutes later, he parked in the corner of the Red Apple’s parking lot, located across the street from TJ’s apartment complex. As Jackson picked up his phone to call again, it buzzed. He checked the text message: I’m home. Give me ten and I’ll meet you at Prava’s.
Perfect. The meet-up might still turn out to be a waste of time, but at least he could check off this possibility. Jackson walked over to the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, blinking in the bright sun. After three weeks of rain, he was relieved to see the sky. He stepped inside and breathed in the pleasant aroma of simmering beef and basil. The business now served Thai food, but many different chefs had come and gone over the years. So had the informants he met here.
Jackson ordered black coffee and resisted the food server’s suggestion of a pastry to go with it. He still had hopes Kera would stop sleeping on the couch and come back to his bed. He was already down a few pounds and liked how it felt. But his relationship with Kera was more strained than his belt. She’d left Eugene for eight months to take care of her ailing parents, and while she was gone, he’d almost had an affair with another detective. A woman he loved as a friend . . . and possibly more. But at the time, he’d thought Kera wasn’t coming back.
Nearly a half-hour later, as Jackson considered leaving, TJ finally waltzed in. Only twenty-seven, he looked a decade older, his cheeks hollow from missing most of his back teeth and his facial skin sagging from nicotine use.
“Hey. Sorry if I’m late. My girlfriend is having a rough day.” TJ slid into the booth across from him, smelling like wet dog and cigarettes.
Jackson didn’t ask about the girlfriend because he didn’t want to know. He leaned forward. “I’m looking for a guy about my size with a tattoo on his right forearm. Probably a skinhead or white nationalist type.”
“That’s all you got?”
“He’s been targeting Asian restaurants along West Eleventh. Last night, the perp assaulted an owner who confronted him. A frail old guy who’s in the hospital and lucky to be alive.”
“Rocks through windows and some graffiti.”
“Show me the tag. They all have a signature, you know.”
Jackson knew. So did the property-crimes detectives who were working the vandalism cases. “Our experts don’t recognize his style, so they don’t think he’s part of a gang.” Jackson pulled out his phone and showed TJ a picture of the weird symbols the perp had spray-painted on the first two buildings.
The informant shook his dirty hair. “I’ve never seen anything like that. But I’ll ask around and see what I can find out.”
“Quickly, please, before anyone else gets hurt.” Jackson put away his phone and pulled on his jacket.
“Hey, you gotta give me something for my time,” TJ whined.
Jackson took a ten from his wallet and slid it across the table. “If you want real money, I need real information.” He hurried out, ready to shake off the grit of the day and be home with his family.
He parked in the driveway of the home he’d lived in for most of his life and sat for a moment, relishing the quiet. Kera’s car was out front, so he knew she and her grandson were inside. Whenever the two boys were together, the activity and volume could be overwhelming. Raising these little men would be so different from taking care of Katie. So much more work. His daughter had matured early—most likely because her mother had been an alcoholic and she’d had to be responsible. So his daughter had needed company but not much supervision. And she’d been quiet, even with friends around. But he loved the boys and looked forward to doing guy stuff with them when they were older.
Jackson grabbed his satchel and headed inside. The sound of laughter greeted him at the door. Katie sat at the kitchen table staring at her phone. She looked up, gave him a quick wave, then went back to reading. Jackson took his weapon straight to the gun safe in his bedroom, then hurried back to the living room. Kera was on the floor with the boys, helping them build a tower with colorful Legos. Her beauty took his breath away. Classic cheekbones, perfect symmetry, and full lips. But no features that could be called delicate. Still, when she walked into a room, everyone—men and women alike—turned to stare. Tall and striking, she would always command attention..
“Daddy!” Benjie was the first to notice him. The boy ran and leapt into his arms. Jackson hugged him tightly. Eighteen months earlier, he’d found Benjie under the house at a crime scene where his mother had been murdered, and the boy had clung to him. With no relatives to take him, social services had relented and let Benjie stay with Jackson. Now he couldn’t imagine his life without this sweet child.
“Hey, my turn.” Kera stepped up.
Benjie reluctantly let go, and Jackson pulled Kera in for a tight hug too. “How was your day?”
“Excellent. I got my old job back at Planned Parenthood. Half-time, as requested.”
“Great news.” Jackson sat on the couch, his feet aching. But he knew better than to take off his shoes. If he did, he’d get called back to work. Kera sat next to him, and her grandson came up to Jackson and hugged his legs. The boy had been bonded to him, but Kera had taken Micah and been gone for eight months. In the perspective of a five-year-old, that was eternity, so they were sort of starting over. “Hey, Micah. How was your day?”
“I went to school. With Benj. We practiced colors.”
“What’s your favorite?”
“Blue, like the water.”
Jackson smiled. “Me too.” He’d once owned and restored a midnight-blue 1968 GTO. But he’d sold it to pay for his daughter’s therapy after her mother died. Both thoughts made his heart ache for what could have been.
Katie came into the living room and announced dinner was ready. They all moved into the kitchen, and Jackson gave his daughter a quick one-armed hug. That was all he could get away with. But she smiled sincerely. She’d been happy and pleasant lately. And suddenly that worried him.
Four bites into his meal, his phone rang. Jackson’s gut tightened as he checked the ID. Lammers. He stepped away from the table as he took the call. “Jackson here. What have you got?”
“A homicide. A transient found her body near a dumpster.”