A rush of wind sent debris skittering along the empty sidewalks, filthy gutters, and streets long in need of repair. Though few vehicles passed through the darkened skid row intersection of Northwest Third and Couch at three a.m., its lone traffic signal, swaying in the wind, continued to cycle its colors, casting hues off the sides of old buildings and the cracked windshield of a decaying station wagon propped up on four rusted wheels.
A lone dog, a white mutt with protruding ribs, a broken ear, and a two-inch stub for a right rear leg, hobbled along the sidewalk, sniffing at a wino's puke and startling on every noise. On an especially dark southwest corner of the intersection, it stopped and looked up one of the city's few remaining turn-of-the-century lampposts, a fifteen-foot high, paint-chipped black column crowned with four skeletal arms reaching outward in cardinal directions, as if holding court over the sad, decaying streets.
A rope, one end looped over one of the lamp's arms, the other end around the neck of an old man, rubbed and creaked against the flaking metal with each gust of wind that lurched the body. Red, amber, and green played on the bloody, black face.
The three-legged dog emitted a low growl, and backed up two or three irregular steps, sniffed right, left, and looked back up at the limp figure silhouetted against the night sky.
He cowered against the building wall and began a trembling whine.
About a quarter of the way down the block, two sets of eyes peered around the edge of a graffiti-covered alcove of a long, empty building, watching and smiling as the body slow danced in the wind.
"Where to, weary traveler?" the black man asks, as he stuffs my two pieces of luggage into the back of his green cab. He's in his sixties, bald, big happy face, and a monstrous belly. I give him my home address. "Won't be a problem," he says, slamming the trunk. "No sir." He opens the backdoor for me. "Where you flyin' in from?"
Oh, good, he's a gregarious sort—just what I need with a jet-lagged brain, hairy and mushy from the twenty-six-hour flight. "Saigon," I say. "Vietnam."
"Oh goodness!" he laughs, his big shoulders shaking. "Saigon. Know it well. Beaucoup. Number ten. Our hot day here probably don't mean nothin' to you right now, right? When I was there in the war, we used to say 'If you can't take the heat we shouldn't have tickled the dragon.' Get it? Land of the dragon and we tickled it? 'Course they tickled us right back and some." He guffaws, which makes his big belly shake and quake. He shuts my door and calls a loud greeting to the cabdriver in line behind us.
I retrieve my cell, tap in Mark's number for the fourth or fifth time, and listen to it ring and ring. Where is he? We chatted for a couple minutes when I was boarding the plane in Saigon, and he confirmed he would pick me up at five p.m. in the new Lexus he bought a couple days ago as a retirement gift to himself. I told him he sounded as giddy as a cheerleader.
"I am, indeed, Sam," he laughed. "Lots to be giddy about. I bought my dream car, I decided to take the PD's early retirement offer, David is thinking about retiring too, and you're coming home. Life is good."
Mark and I have been friends for most of the fifteen years I've been a cop and for the three years I've worked the Burglary Unit in Detectives, he's been my boss. We've been through lots together, especially these last few months with all my shootings and the horrific aftermath. He's been a wonderful friend; me, not so much, and I desperately want to change that.
The driver, laughing at something the other cabbie said, struggles to squeeze his bulk behind the steering wheel. "Yes, sir, spent eighteen months in Saigon back in nineteen sixty-eight and sixty-nine," he says, as if our conversation hadn't had a two-minute break. He turns up the fan. "It's hot here, eh? Eighty-six today. Thinking of changing my policy to 'No shirt, no pants, no problem.' So hot I saw a funeral procession stop at a Dairy Queen for ice cream. But hey," he laughs, "don't mean nothin' compared to Vietnam's heat. They probably don't say 'don't mean nothin'' over there. No, probably don't. But the heat over there, it was somethin' for sure." He shakes his head, and guides the car around the long line of cabs and takes the ramp out of the airport pick-up area. "Tet is their New Year celebration, you know. When New Years happened in nineteen sixty-eight, it was one crazy-ass time. VC hit us so damn hard from so many directions we didn't know if we was comin' or goin'. Crazy-ass time, for sure."
"Thanks for your service," I say. "It's a beautiful city today. Most of the population now weren't alive during the war." I see a folded newspaper on his dash. "Is that today's paper?"
"No, sir," he says, retrieving it, though he can barely reach it because his belly is already pressed to the max against the steering wheel. "It's two days old, but I've been savin' it 'cause of what happened. You been gone for a spell, right?"
"About two weeks."
"Crazy-ass thing happened right here in Portland—my hometown, no less. Sadness for sure, right there on the front page. Never thought I'd see such a thing again. No, sir. Didn't think I'd see it again. Not in my hometown."
I unfold the paper. The large font headline reads: AFRICAN AMERICAN FOUND LYNCHED.
An elderly African American man was found hanging from a rope tied to a light post at NW Third and Couch Street early this morning, according to Portland Police Spokesperson Darryl Anderson. An early morning jogger found the body. Anderson says foul play is suspected in the hanging. There are no suspects at this time, and the name of the victim is being withheld until notification of next of kin.
It must have happened right at press time because the piece is short but definitely not sweet.
"What have the follow-up stories said," I ask.
"The po-lice aren't sayin' much. Must be gettin' their ducks in a row or somethin'. Yesterday they didn't say his name, only they thought he was in his seventies. Po-lice got no suspects, or least they aren't sayin'. I think it's 'cause it's sensitive, you know. Some folks had a rally outside the downtown po-lice station last night demanding to know what's goin' on."
I refold the paper. This is going to be huge. I know the local press and every other major news organization across the country, and probably every black church, black community leader, and civil rights organization are swamping the PD with calls right now.
"The sh*t's about to hit the fan," the cabbie says. I nod, looking out the side window. When I look back toward the front, I see the cabbie's eyes studying me in the mirror. "You're a po-liceman, right?"
Oh man. I'm back in Portland less than an hour and I'm recognized. It's been almost two months since my mug was splashed all over the bloodthirsty news and everyone wanted to kick my butt, and I was hoping being out of sight meant I'd be out of mind. Guess not. I look out the side window again and wait for him to order me out of his cab.
"Yes, sir. I thought it was you when you walked up to my cab. I got an eye and a memory for faces. Recognized you from the TV news. I'm a news junkie, you know." I keep looking out the window. "Remembered your physique too. You must be a lifter." Out of the corner of my eye I see him look back at my arms. I'm wearing a dark blue polo shirt. "Lordy," he says, shaking his head.
We ride in silence for half a minute, and I can feel him looking at me through his rearview mirror.
"Hey, man. The sh*t hit the fan for you didn't it? Lots of people sayin' bad stuff about the po-lice when you killed the little boy. Me, I wasn't one of them. I saw a lot of sh*t in 'Nam and I got a cousin back in Baltimore who's on the PD—city cop. I know personally how somethin' can go down and how it can turn to sh*t in a quick hurry."
He doesn't say anything for a minute, which I'm thinking is hard for him to do. I look toward the rearview mirror, and into his eyes.
"Yes, sir. Everybody says I talk too much, especially my wife. Guess I do. But do you mind if I say something—just a little worthless advice from a man who's been where you are. For me it was during the war, a short ways outside of the city you just visited."
"I don't know. I'm pretty tired. Actually, I'm very tired."
"Just a quick comment, sir. For what it's worth, that's all. My sweet mama, God rest her soul, used to say to me and my six sisters, 'If God sends us on strong paths, we are provided strong shoes.'" He shakes his head and does the loud guffaw again. "I was barefoot for a while after I come home, yes sir. Then I found me some strong shoes." He looks into my eyes. "I've been driving a cab for thirty years and I know how to read people, probably better than some of these shrinks getting a hundred dollars an hour. I can tell you're a good man. I wish you luck, brother."
"What's your name?" We're on the freeway now, heading west toward the city.
"Rudolph Abraham Lincoln, the third. I go by Rudy."
"Well, thank you, Rudy," I say softly. "I'm Sam. You're very kind."
"You are most welcome, Sam. Mind if I ask you your take on this lynching?"
"I don't have one yet. I've only been back an hour and just now read this. My educated guess is if the perp isn't apprehended quickly things are going to get bad. And if it turns out to be racially motivated, things are going to get even worse."
"Yes, sir. I hear you."
"It's fastest if you take the Forty-Seventh Street exit and head south … Oh, sorry. I guess if you've been driving for thirty years you know your way around."
"Yes, sir," he says, taking the exit. "Tell me, there been many crimes like this lately?
They call 'em hate crimes, don't they? Were you on the department when all the skinhead nonsense was going on in the early nineties?"
"Came on in ninety-five, but I know what you're referring to. There were lots of hate crimes back then. Of late, I don't know. I was off for nearly two months. Kinda kept my head buried in the sand for a while, plus I've been in Saigon for the last several days. I haven't a clue as to what's happening."
My cell rings. It's Mark.
"Mark! What's going on? I landed at five and called you several—"
"Sam …" Voice weak, strained.
"Mark? What is it?"
"Mark? What's going on? Are you okay?"
His words come in a nonstop rush. "David and I were attacked. We were just sitting by the river and he's unconscious. I'm okay. We're at Emanuel Hospital can you come here?"
Rudy could easily be a Saigon cab driver. I ask him to take me to Emanuel Hospital as quickly as he can, and he pulls a one-eighty so fast, if my seatbelt wasn't fastened, I would have been thrown against the door. We're heading south on Northeast Thirty-Third now and breaking multiple traffic laws. I'm glad I didn't say "really fast."
(The above is an excerpt, including the prologue and a section of the first chapter, from Dukkha Unloaded-A Sam Reeves Martial Arts Thriller by Loren W. Christensen)