The ShortRead of 17 September
Author: James Ellroy
What's the story:
The author of LA Confidential and White Jazz turns his considerable skills to the tensions of Los Angeles, 1941. As the US stands on the brink of entering World War II, the murder of a Japanese family draws the political spotlight. Four investigators gain unwanted attention, making an already challenging inquiry downright impossible.
Blockbuster writing, Perfidia is another joyous slice of American prose from Ellroy. If you want to see the famed crime author discuss his new work, indulge in a spot of Q&A and sign a copy of your favourite book (preferably one written by him), best pencil 4 November into your diary - he's popping over to London for a very special event organised by ShortList. Head here to find out more.
Release date: Out now
There – Whalen’s Drugstore, 6th and Spring streets. The site of four recent felonies. 211 PC – Armed Robbery.
The store was jinxed. Four heists in one month predicted a fifth heist. It was probably the same bandit. The man worked solo. He covered his face with a bandana and carried a long-barreled gat. He always stole narcotics and till cash.
The Robbery squad was shorthanded. A geek wearing a Hitler mask hit three taverns in Silver Lake. It was 211 plus mayhem. The geek pistol-whipped the bartenders and groped female customers. He was gun-happy. He shot up jukeboxes and shelves full of booze.
Robbery was swamped. Ashida built the trip-wire gizmo and chose this test spot. He’d created the prototype in high school. His first test spot was the Belmont High showers. He used it to photograph Bucky after basketball prac—
A car swerved northbound on Spring. The driver saw Ashida. Of course – he yelled, “Goddamn Jap!”
Ray Pinker responded. Of course – he yelled, “Screw you!”
Ashida stared at the ground. The feeder cord ran across the street and stopped at the curb in front of the drugstore. The geek bandit parked in the same spot all four times. The cord led to a trip-action camera encased in hard rubber. The wheel-jolts of cars parking activated gears. A shutter and flashbulb clicked and snapped photos of rear license plates. Rolls of film were stashed in rubber-coated tubes. A single load would cover a full day’s worth of cars.
Pinker lit a cigarette. “It’s a wild-goose chase. We’re civilian criminologists, not cops. We know the damn thing works, so why are we here? It’s not like we’ve been tipped to another job.”
Ashida smiled. “You know the answer to that.”
“If the answer is ‘We’ve got nothing better to do,’ or ‘We’re scientists with no personal lives worth a damn,’ then you’re right.”
A bus passed southbound. A Mexican guy blew smoke rings out his window. He saw Ashida. He yelled, “Puto Jap!”
Pinker flipped his cigarette. It fell short of the bus.
“Which one of you was born here? Which one of you did not swim the Rio Grande illegally?”
Ashida squared off his necktie. “Say it again. You were exasperated the first time you said it, so I know it was a candid response.”
Pinker grinned. “You’re my protégé, so you’re my Jap, which gives me a vested interest in you. You’re the only Jap employed by the Los Angeles Police Department, which makes you that much more unique and gives me that much more cachet.”
Ashida laughed. A ’38 DeSoto pulled up in front of the drugstore. The wheels hit the wire, the lens clicked, the flashbulb popped. A tall man got out. He had Bucky Bleichert’s dark hair and small brown eyes. Ashida watched him enter the drugstore.
Pinker ducked across the street and futzed with the bulb slot. Ashida window-peeped the drugstore and tracked the man. The glass distorted his features. Ashida made him Bucky. He shut his eyes, he blinked, he opened his eyes and transformed him. The man evinced Bucky’s grace now. He glided. He smiled and displayed big buck teeth.
The man walked out. Pinker ran back across the street and blocked Ashida’s view. The car drove off. Ashida blinked. The world lost its one-minute Bucky Bleichert glow.
They settled back in. Pinker leaned on a lamppost and chain-smoked. Ashida stood still and felt the downtown L.A. whir.
The war was coming. The whir was all about it. He was a native-born Nisei and second son. His father was a gandy dancer. Pops guzzled terpin hydrate and worked himself to death laying railroad track. His mother had an apartment in Little Tokyo. She was pro-Emperor and spoke Japanese just to torque him. The family owned a truck farm in the San Fernando Valley. His brother Akira ran it. It was mostly Nisei acreage out there. Mexican illegals picked their crops. It was a common Nisei practice. It was shameful, it was prudent, it was labor at low cost. The practice bordered on indentured servitude. The practice assured solvency for the Nisei farmer class.
The practice entailed collusion. The family paid bribes to a Mexican State Police captain. The payments saved the wetbacks from deportation. Akira accepted the practice and implemented it sans moral probe. It permitted second son Hideo to ignore the family trade and pursue his criminological passion.
He had advanced degrees in chemistry and biology. He was a Stanford Ph.D. at twenty-two. He knew serology, fingerprinting, ballistics. He went on the Los Angeles Police Department a year ago. He wanted to work with its legendary head chemist. He was a protégé looking for a mentor. Ray Pinker was a pedagogue looking for a pupil. The bond was formed in that manner. The assigned roles blurred very fast.
They became colleagues. Pinker was admirably blind per racial matters. He compared Ashida to Charlie Chan’s number-one son. Ashida told Pinker that Charlie Chan was Chinese. Pinker said, “It’s all Greek to me.”
Spring Street was lined with mock-snow Christmas trees. They were coated with bird dung and soot. A kid hawked Heralds outside the drugstore. He shouted the headline: “FDR in Last- Ditch Talks with Japs!”
Pinker said, “The damn gizmo works.”
“You’re a goddamn genius.”
“That rape-o’s still operating. The Central Vice guys make him for an MP. He dicked another lady two nights ago.”
Ashida nodded. “The first victim resisted and tore off a strip of his armband. He wore his uniform shirt under his civilian coat. I’ve got fiber samples at my lab in my mother’s apartment.”
Pinker ogled a big blonde draped around a sailor. The sailor fisheyed Ashida.
“Bucky Bleichert’s fighting at the Olympic tomorrow night. The skinny is he’ll fight a few more times and come on the Department.”
Ashida flushed. “I knew Bucky in high school.”
“I know. That’s why I said it.”
“Who’s he fighting?”
“A stumblebum named Junior Wilkins. Elmer Jackson collared him for flimflam. He was running a back-to-Africa con with some shine preacher.”
A ’37 Ford coupe parked upside the drugstore. There – the wheels hit the wire, the lens clicks, the flashbulb pops on cue.
Pinker coughed and turned away from Ashida. A man got out of the car. He wore a fedora and an overcoat with the collar up. Ashida prickled. It was no-overcoat warm.
Pinker hacked and coughed. He was almost doubled up. The man pulled a handkerchief over his face.
It was perfect. It was ideal. Pinker didn’t see the man. They had the plate number. He could let the crime occur. He could run his forensic study from inception.
The man entered the drugstore.
Ashida checked his watch. It was 9:24 a.m.
Pinker turned around and lit a cigarette. Ashida scanned the drugstore window. The man walked down the toothpaste aisle. Ashida checked his watch on the sly.
The man hunkered out of sight. 9:25, 9:26, 9:27.
Pinker said, “My wife thinks it’s dirt in the air, but I say it’s just excess phlegm.”
The man ran out of the drugstore. He gripped a paper bag and a half-visible pistol. He knocked over the newsboy. He shagged his car and peeled out.
Pinker said, “Holy shit.” The cigarette dropped from his mouth.
The newsboy ran into the drugstore. Pinker ran toward a call box. Ashida ran up to the gizmo.
He unlocked it and knelt close. He studied the negative in the feeder. There, faint and blurred: “Cal KFE-621.”
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(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)