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TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 29

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Rosey’s Persons of Interest

In Rosey’s long experience as a cop and detective, he’d figured out that there are basically two types of people: Those are have committed crimes but haven’t been caught, and those who have committed crimes and have been caught. Everyone, in other words, in Rosey’s opinion was a criminal.

This gave him a rather gloomy picture of human nature, which is perhaps why he tried to compensate for this dark side by doing many acts of goodness. Rosey was a volunteer coach for a local after-school kids’ basketball group. He was active in his church. He routinely represented OPD at charitable events, and he and Mrs. Brown had organized an effort in their Dimond District neighborhood to pick up litter and trash and plant wildflowers.

Still, Rosey had seen enough of life’s sinister side to realize that every tenth person he randomly saw on the streets had probably killed someone at some point. Maybe it had been a sanctioned killing, as in the U.S. military. Maybe it had not. Secrets made the world go ‘round, Rosey had long ago decided, and this included him: for Rosey, too, had secrets.

He’d been a troubled kid. By twelve, Roosevelt Wilson Brown—named after two American Presidents—had been in and out of Youth Authority in Oakland. At the age of fifteen, he was sentenced to a term of eight months at the Alameda County Detention Center, a youth camp in the Hayward hills, for breaking into cars. He smoked pot, sniffed cocaine, and drank to excess. Rosey seemed headed towards a lengthy period in prison, until a significant event turned him in a new direction.

That significant event was meeting his future wife, Ceci. He adored her from the moment he set eyes on her, at his cousin’s wedding, where Ceci was a bridesmaid. She was tall for a woman, pretty and vivacious. They dated, fell in love, and married after knowing each other for only six months. Ceci’s Dad, Cecil, Rosey’s father-in-law to be, was a minister in the Jeremiah Baptist Church, and it was he who had turned Rosey around.

They called him Reverend Cecil, “Rev” for short. He was one of those guys whom everyone likes; no one had ever heard or spoken a bad word against him. Cheerful of disposition, eternally optimistic, he also had the gift of gab. “I swear, Daddy could sell ice to eskimos,” Ceci remarked. It was true: his Sunday sermons were among the best- attended in town. A few fiery words from the Rev could inspire an audience to rise to its feet and sing.

The Rev saw in the young Rosey the potential for a good man. Yes, he’d done some bad things, but hadn’t Jesus told the world He would forgive all sins for the asking? The Rev took this seriously. As the instrument of God, he saw his task as nurturing the qualities in perplexed young people that would someday blossom into beauty, kindness and love.

Once Rosey and Ceci started dating, he and the Rev grew closer. They went to the Rev’s favorite fishing spots, bowled at the Academy Lanes in Alameda, and had long talks at night, over a few beers, in the course of which the Rev delicately pried open the closely-clustered petals enclosing Rosey’s heart. The Rev—a big supporter of the police, whom he viewed as indispensable in providing safety to Oakland’s poorest residents—encouraged this respect in Rosey too—a big leap for a young man whose street life had inclined him to view cops as the enemy. That was Rosey’s first step towards becoming a cop himself.

He started Cal State Hayward rather late, graduated with a B.S. in criminal justice, and immediately applied to OPD, which accepted him with alacrity. It was evident to his superiors that he was being fast-tracked within the department; and indeed, at the early age of 35, he was promoted to the Criminal Investigations Department, which entitled him to the rank of Detective. There were many who knew him professionally who thought that, in Roosevelt Wilson Brown, they were seeing a future Chief of Police, in Oakland or someplace else.

Rosey wasn’t enamored of the bureaucratic side of police work. He liked working the streets: wearing out shoe leather chasing down leads, turning up clues, following his nose and arresting the bad guys, to prevent them from harassing the great majority of Oaklanders who were law-abiding citizens. It was exactly that nose for sleuthing that prompted Chief Kirkpatrick to appoint Rosey to head up the Homeless Killings Task Force.

The way Rosey saw the emerging investigation, there were no suspects at this point, but there were persons of interest. Such individuals are often identified in the early stages of investigations; the majority turn out to be innocent. But an investigation has to start someplace, if it is to start at all, and there were three persons of interest on Rosey’s list so far: Devon Camber and the Wu’s, both the doctor and his wife. All of them, in all likelihood, were completely innocent of any crimes related to the murders. But the statistical probability, plain and simple, was that one or more of them knew something that could lead, however indirectly, to the apprehension of the real killer. It was Detective Brown’s task to crack the puzzle and find out what that something was.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 28

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A Wedding!

Danny finally gave up and agreed to have the baby.

“Well, you’re making good money, you have that nice little house, and Cindy’ll make a great mom,” Nick told him encouragingly. I’ll be 28 in a few weeks, Danny thought; although he was freaked out by the thought of marriage, he figured it was probably time to start a family. Cindy was ecstatic. She would have had the baby anyway, even if Danny strongly disagreed, even (she thought) if she lost him: that’s how much she wanted this child. But now, he was onboard. Relief! But that led to another issue.

“Let’s get married,” she told Danny one night.

“Aww, Cin,” he frowned. “Really?”

“Really. Haven’t you always dreamed of a wedding? Church bells, bridesmaids, best man, tuxedo, wedding cake?”

“To be honest? No. I always thought it was weird.”

“We don’t have to have a huge wedding. It can be whatever we both want. Maybe just a few friends.”

“And your parents?”

That stopped Cindy cold. “I’m not sure they would come, even if we invited them.”

After much conversation, they planned a small, simple outdoor wedding. The location (for which Danny applied and was given a permit) was the circular old Lakeside Park Bandstand, in back of Children’s Fairyland, with a pretty view of the Lake. They would be married by a woman, a friend of Flambé’s, a Wiccan priestess, in the ancient pagan manner. The music was played by other friends: flute, electric keyboard and chimes. Cindy and Danny invited Nick and Flambé, of course; Flambé asked if she might bring her friend, the new councilmember, Devon Camber. The Wu’s were invited; Dr. Wu refused to come, and despite initially agreeing to give her daughter away, Mrs. Wu decided otherwise when she learned Cindy was to be married in a religious ceremony she—devout Catholic—found blasphemous. The guest list was rounded out by a dozen other friends of the happy couple.

It was a sweet and dignified party. Afterwards, everyone snacked on sushi (with a vegan option), sweet pastries from Tao Yuen, and Prosecco for the imbibers, bottled water and Kombucha for the teetotalers. By 5 p.m. things were breaking up; the guests kissed and hugged the newlyweds, who for their one-night “honeymoon” stayed at the East Brother Lighthouse B&B, on the Bay in Richmond.

That night they toasted each other. “To Mrs. Eagleton,” Danny smiled at his bride, lifting his glass. “To Mr. Wu,” she replied, with an impish grin. They decided that their mutual last name would be a hyphenated Wu-Eagleton. Then, with their baby, barely four months old, slumbering inside Cindy, they made love, while the lighthouse horn moaned mournfully over a foggy Bay.


“Parkerization” is not a myth or a lie

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown surprised no one with her glowing defense of her “greatest mentor,” Robert M. Parker Jr., which she published the other day, on the occasion of Parker’s “immediate” retirement from The Wine Advocate, the periodical he founded in 1978.

That Parker was the most famous and influential wine critic of the last 35 years, as Perrotti-Brown writes, cannot be disputed. In making the following arguments, I cite my own position: as the lead California critic for Wine Enthusiast Magazine for many years, I had a privileged seat at the high table of wine criticism—a seat that enables me to make these observations with some degree of eye-witness veracity.

I would not challenge a single word of Ms. Perrotti-Brown’s encomium. Bob Parker absolutely was “the father of modern wine criticism”; he did indeed “raise the bar” for all of us who followed. But where I part ways with Perrotti-Brown is in her unfettered denial that Parker created an “international style” of ripe, high-alcohol wines. This is not a “big lie,” as she asserts, but the pure, unadulterated truth—and everybody in the wine industry knows it.

Perrotti-Brown has been trying to undo or obfuscate this truth about the “Parkerization of wine” for years. Last June, she wrote her piece de résistance on the topic, a robust rebuttal that does not stand up to scrutiny. Parkerization is “a myth,” she says. It is “a lie.” Its effect on wine is “purported.” Yes, Parker’s reign, she admits, coincided with a time when “wineries…developed styles that fit the trend” of riper, fruitier wines. But “it was not Parker who created the trend, consumers did.” Those who continue to decry Parkerization and the international style, she states, are merely seeking “a villain.” Wine writers who dare to suggest that Parkerization is real are just “looking for something to write about that attracts more viewers.”

These are patronizing, insulting remarks that Perrotti-Brown did not have to make. But she did, and they need to be addressed. I’m certainly not looking to “attract more viewers” by writing these words, and I never thought Parker was a “villain.” I admire the man tremendously. But I was there, in the front row, watching this whole phenomenon unroll, from the early 1980s until I formally retired from wine criticism in 2013 (and even since then I’ve kept my eye on the scene). And I can state with clear conscience that Parkerization was and is real.

We all know that alcohol levels in wine rose drastically during Parker’s era. Bordeaux, Burgundy and California in particular, as well as the Rhône, saw these increases—all regions Parker specialized in. During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.

Why did it happen? Perrotti-Brown says that “consumers created the trend.” That is a misstatement. Consumers do not create such trends in wine; they respond to them. Consumers enjoyed wine before the Parker era when alcohol levels were between 11% and 13%. There is no evidence that a consumer uprising occurred in the 1980s, in which these consumers demanded riper, higher-alcohol wines. Talk about “myths”!! It simply didn’t happen.

What did happen was that wine periodicals, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, assumed a far greater importance than ever before, as a maturing and wealthier Baby Boomer generation realized it needed help figuring out what to buy (and cellar) among the thousands of competing brands. Parker’s Wine Advocate wasn’t the first to fill that market niche, but it was the most successful and influential. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker lionized, did indeed cement his reputation. After that, he was golden.

I can’t prove the following assertion but I strongly believe it: wine critics who became well known after Parker’s rise, including James Laube, James Suckling and myself, felt they had to praise the same sorts of wine as did Parker. This may not have been a conscious thought on their part; but wine critics don’t work in a vacuum. The handwriting on the wall was very clear by the late 1980s: Parker was giving huge scores to wines like Groth’s 1985 Reserve (the first California wine to get 100 points from him). With each high score, not only the winery’s reputation was boosted, but Parker’s, as well. Wine writers took note! The concept that big, fruity, high-alcohol Cabernets were better than their thinner, less ripe but often more elegant counterparts became entrenched. No wine critic is immune to his environment; like artists, they are affected by their contemporaries. There has got to be a scale or continuum of hedonism in criticism; otherwise, criticism makes no sense; and what Parker bequeathed the rest of us was to define the upper scale of this continuum.

This is what is meant by “Parkerization.” Parker himself never denied his personal preference for big wines; he simply recoiled from what he felt was the smear of calling them “Parkerized.” And now, his successor at Wine Advocate, Perrotti-Brown, has picked up the mantle of outraged indignation. But I really don’t see why. Why is it so irksome to her (and to her “greatest mentor”) that Parker had this impact on wine? The only reason I can surmise—and it’s just my guess—is because Perrotti-Brown shares to some degree the belief common among younger (and some older) critics and sommeliers that some wines have indeed become too ripe, too alcoholic; and to the extent there’s a reason for this, it’s because of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.

History will be the final judge of all this. Does anyone doubt that History will record that Parkerization and the international style he inspired were real and not fake news? Meanwhile, Perrotti-Brown should calm down. The more she denies the reality of Parkerization—the lady doth protest too much–the more defensive she appears. As for Bob Parker, I salute you, sir, and–speaking as one whose retirement preceded yours–I welcome you to our ranks, and wish you peace and health!


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 27

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Rosey Zooms In On Devon Camber

The morning dawned rainy, windy and cold. Flambé, who had a physical aversion to bad weather, hated the thought of having to walk her clients’ dogs on such a day. But it had to be done.

Her biggest gripe about the rain and wind concerned her appearance. Flambé was a girl who put much store into the way she looked. Her hair was a particular joy; she had dozens of wigs and falls, in every color of the rainbow; no matter what her mood, she could find a hair piece that suited it: curly, flirty, elegant, severe. She loved dressing up; the old flamboyance was still there. A poofy blouse…a cheerleader’s skirt to show off her legs (always one of her best features)…sequined scarves—she had to cover this all up in wet weather with dreary raincoats or hoodies that made her look, she thought, like a trash bag.

She had five dogs today, and not much time to walk them, for she had a rare appointment. A detective Brown had phoned her, asking to see her for some questions, part of an investigation he was conducting. Actually, Rosey had tracked Flambé down easily. Camber’s neighbors verified that the councilmember frequently had a late-night visitor, an attractive woman of color. It wasn’t at all difficult to locate street surveillance videos to identify her. Facial recognition artificial intelligence, owned by OPD, positively identified her as one Frank Wilkerson, which greatly piqued Rosey’s interest. Wasn’t Frank a man’s name? Wasn’t Camber’s friend a woman? But Rosey was used to anomalies, as are all police officers who have been active for any length of time.

Wilkerson’s phone number also was easy enough to obtain. He called, asked if he were speaking with Mr. Frank Wilkerson. Flambé replied that this was she, Ms. Wilkerson. Rosey, momentarily taken aback, adapted. Would, uh, Ms. Wilkerson prefer to visit him in his office at police headquarters? Because he would be glad to come to her, at a location of her choosing. Flambé thought it might be interesting to visit the big station she’d seen so often, on Seventh off Broadway. She said so; the detective even offered to buy her coffee.

What each found in the other surprised them both. Flambé discovered a police detective who might have stepped right out of a movie, a bulky, large man in a rumpled brown suit, with a blue dress shirt that had seen better days and cheap, scuffed laced shoes. With his little mustache, he looked like Stanley Hudson, from “The Office.” Rosey for his part—well, he hadn’t known what to expect after the Frank/Flambé misunderstanding. As an experienced officer he’d long learned to keep his personal reactions well-controlled; he’d seen it all on the streets; nothing threw him. Now, here was a tall “woman” who, after taking off her raincoat, proceeded to brush out her hair and examine her face in a little compact mirror she pulled from her purse. They sized each other up quickly. Flambé did not dislike or fear the burly detective; Rosey was curious, receptive and respectful of this man-woman; this would not be a difficult conversation, he decided.

But when Flambé realized he was asking about her relationship with Devon, she clammed up. At first, she denied even knowing him. Big mistake. “Ms. Wilkerson, this isn’t a good way to earn my trust,” Rosey said. When he showed her surveillance photos of her and the Councilmember, Flambé uttered a simple “Oops.” “You have to understand,” she told him, “that my relationship with Councilmember Camber is very private. He’s asked me to keep it confidential, and I have done so, out of respect for him.”

“I understand,” Rosey replied. “You have my word that anything you tell me will be completely private and between us.”

And so Flambé revealed the story—not, she contemplated, that there was that much to reveal. They were simply two adults seeing each other in a private, consensual relationship, that was all. They were doing nothing wrong, breaking no law. Devon wasn’t married or anything; he wasn’t cheating on anyone. And he wouldn’t be the first public figure to wish to keep his private life out of the public’s view.

The detective seemed uninterested in the details of their relationship. He asked nothing about whether it was sexual. Instead, he wanted to know about other aspects of the councilmember’s life. Did he have friends, besides her? Hobbies? Was he a member of a gym? Any extremist views? Had she ever heard him express anger towards homeless people? Where did he hang out when he wasn’t working? “He’s always working,” Flambé smiled. “That’s part of the problem.” But about his life beyond her, Flambé was afraid she knew very little.

Rosey’s long experience in law enforcement had trained him to be a snoop. It was his conclusion, after decades of cop work, that while most people were not criminals (beyond speeding in their cars, or littering, or other minor infractions), at the same time most had secret lives that were, at the very least, embarrassing. They cheated on their spouses. They violated the canons of their churches. These were not indictable offenses. Rosey realized it was a bad habit that as he went about his life he would notice certain individuals and wonder if they had robbed or murdered. It was the cop’s plague: it was a bad way of thinking, but inevitable. He had no reason at all to suspect Councilmember Camber of anything; he had no reason to suspect anyone. At the same time, he suspected everyone, and that included Devon Camber.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 26

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Rosey’s Investigation Expands

Mrs. Wu was furious at her daughter, at her husband, at Danny, at everyone. She exploded at the bridge game she played every Wednesday with her lady friends; a minor bidding mistake by her partner sent her into a towering rage. She remained in poor health, with frequent headaches; Dr. Wu gave her Xanax. The big house they had lived in for more than twenty years was silent and gloomy during the daytime when the doctor was at work. At night, when he came home, things were tense.

Dr. Wu told her about his interview with the police detective, Brown.

“What did he want?” Mrs. Wu asked her husband.

“He’s investigating those homeless killings.” Mrs. Wu had heard about them on local T.V. news broadcasts.

“What do you have to do with any of that?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” her husband replied. “I guess he’s checking every lead he can. I got the impression they don’t have a clue.”

“Well, what did you tell him?”

“I told him what I know: nothing.”

“I don’t understand. Why did he want to talk to you? You’re just a Kaiser doctor.”

“I treated the first victim.”

Mrs. Wu’s eyebrows shot up like a rocket soaring into space. “Really, Edwin? You didn’t tell me that.”

“There was no reason to. And I didn’t want to upset you, what with—well, all the stuff with our daughter.”

Mrs. Wu reached for a cigarette from a small box she kept on the mantle.

“Gladys, you’re smoking again,” her husband told her.

“And why not? It steadies my serves. God only knows they need steadying. You’re no help.”

Back at police headquarters, Rosey also was thinking about Dr. Wu. An interesting character, he thought. Slippery. What more did Rosey know about him? An investigation showed that he had had a prior run-in with the law: in 2008, the Wu’s neighbors had called police about a domestic incident, when one night loud screams and crashing sounds came from their house. When officers arrived, they found Dr. Wu with a black eye, a very drunk Mrs. Wu with lacerations on her face, and a terrified Cindy—then only a teenager—hiding in an upstairs closet. It proved impossible to determine who had started the fight, or why; neither Dr. Wu nor Mrs. Wu was arrested. But the case remained on-the-record.

Rosey was curious. Police departments have ways of finding things out that the public does not. Rosey dug, prompted others to dig, and found: Dr. Wu had been in psychotherapy for anger-related issues. This had occurred in 2009-2010—within a year or so of the domestic violence incident. Rosey took due note.

The discovery of the newest homeless victim, one Homer Coolidge, while not entirely surprising nonetheless shocked Oakland. It was downtown, not on the furtive edges of the city but in its heart. Moreover, this murder was particularly violent: the victim had been, not only shot in the head as were the others, but mutilated in the face. Rosey knew enough of the academic side of serial killers to understand that, at some point if left unchecked, the killers gradually escalate their level of violence. They grow bored with their initial technique and seek newer, more creative  and dramatic ways of expressing their towering rage. In his study of the literature, Rosey knew that such a development foreshadows, not a diminution of criminal activity, but an escalation of it.

That day Rosey started on his workspace, as he thought of it. He cleared a large section of a wall, hitherto jammed with memos and shelves, and decorated it with small yellow index cards, each with the name of the 15 known victims. Beside them he posted, on white index cards, the names of persons of interest. These included everyone he had already interviewed: Devon Camber and Dr. Wu among them. They were not “suspects.” They were not even potential suspects; but they were all Rosey had. That was how investigative work happened: you started with what you knew, no matter how trivial or insignificant it seemed. From there, you took baby steps laterally. Sometimes, leads evaporated into the nothingness they really were. But sometimes, you stumbled across something shiny and meaningful.

Thus Rosey determined to add two more persons to his interview list: Mrs. Wu, obviously, who probably knew more about her husband than anyone, and could implicate or exculpate him accordingly. But whom should he talk to about Camber? There was no wife, no family members in the Bay Area. The councilmember knew everyone, and was known by everyone, but seemed to have few personal friends. There was a rumor—but that’s all it was, scuttlebutt—that Camber had a girlfriend; a cop on the beat reported this. But no one knew her name, or where to find her. Rosey decided to find out.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 25

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The Detective and the Councilmember

OPD Detective Roosevelt Wilson Brown—Rosey—and Oakland City Councilmember Devon Camber met for drinks at the Five10 bar, on Fifteenth Street, just a few blocks from City Hall. Rosey was not in a good mood: the Oakland Police Department was under fire from the city’s liberals—again—for an alleged instance of “police brutality”; a young man, armed and resisting arrest, had been shot and killed. Nor was the Councilmember himself all that happy. He was finding himself increasingly frustrated by the Council’s chronic infighting; Oakland politics was proving a difficult game for the ambitious Devon to master. No matter what he said or did, he managed to find himself the object of criticism and scorn, usually from people he found contemptible. He wasn’t used to it; it didn’t fit into his playbook.

They both arrived at the bar on time, found a little table near the pinball machines, and ordered their drinks: a beer for the detective, a glass of red wine for Camber.

“Well, you asked for this meeting, so why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind,” Rosey began. The Councilmember replied, “I understand Chief Kirkpatrick put you in charge of the Homeless Killings case.”

“That’s correct.”

“I have a particular interest in that,” Camber continued. “As you may know, I made homelessness a central issue in my campaign. I promised the voters I would reduce the number of homeless people in Oakland. The people who voted for me expect me to act, and act fast, in that regard. But I’m afraid these killings are disrupting the process. The Council is extremely upset; neighborhood groups, like the Coalition to Shelter the Unhoused, are raising Cain to find the killer, even while they’re demanding the City reduce OPD’s budget and repurpose it for homeless services. It’s a mess. Four of the bodies were found in my district. Nobody, from the Mayor on down, is willing at this point to talk about more funding. Things are only going to get worse, if there are additional murders.”

“And what is it you want from me, Councilmember?”

“I want to know how the case is coming along. Are you doing everything you can? Do you have suspects? Evidence? A profile? How many cops do you have on the case? Can we expect indictments?”

“Councilmember Camber—”

“Call me Devon.”

“Very well. Devon, let me explain how these things work. At this point in the investigation, our work is confidential. I could no more share details with you than I would with a newspaper reporter.”

“I’m not a newspaper reporter, I’m an elected official of the City of Oakland. I should think that entitles me to more information than you’d give to the media.”

“Actually, Councilmember—err, Devon, you’re probably entitled to less. The press has Constitutional rights under our system of law, whereas elected officials are proscribed by statute and law from interfering in the activities of law enforcement agencies.”

“How the hell am I interfering?” Devon was getting hot under the collar. They hadn’t been together for fifteen minutes and already they were  butting heads. “I’m just asking you to bring me up to date, so that when I have conversations about the case with my constituents and other interest groups, I can know what the hell I’m talking about.”

Rosey realized he’d perhaps been a bit too officious with this newby politician. “All right, Devon, I can share a little. But please don’t push me. We have no suspects at this point. We have no profile, except that serial killers are usually white men; they almost always do their work alone. We have precious little evidence. I have four officers working fulltime on the case; I’ve asked the Chief for three more, and she’s asked the Mayor in turn for additional funding. But Schaaf so far isn’t complying, and I seriously doubt if she will.”

Devon took in this sour news with evident disappointment. “I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear,” Rosey added. “But keep in mind, this is still a young investigation. These things can take months, even years; look at the Zodiac killings in San Francisco. Fifty years later, it’s still an open case.”

“Fifty years!” Devon spat out the words. “So in other words, you’re telling me you’ve gotten precisely nowhere, and the murders may continue.”

“I’m afraid that’s true, Devon. Sometimes, serial killers go on hiatus, for a variety of reasons, mainly because they start feeling the heat. Sometimes they don’t. We have no way of knowing.” At that instant, Rosey’s phone began pinging. “Excuse me,” he said, picking up the device. Camber listened in on the one-way conversation, which was brief. “Yeah. Where? What time? Anything else? Okay, thanks, on my way.”

Rosey put the phone back into his pocket. “You’ll have to excuse me, Devon. They found another body. Twelfth and Webster, behind a dumpster.” The latest crime scene once again was in Camber’s district. Moreover, it occurred only blocks from his apartment.



TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 24

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Flambé’s Education Continues. Danny Gets Drunk Again

Esther had had her sex reassignment surgery in Mexico, in a clinic in Monterrey. The total cost, some $22,500, included the initial consultations and the actual cost of surgery and anesthesia, as well as ten days of post-operative nursing care, medications, and all ground transportation, as well as a one-week stay in a local hotel.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” Esther told Flambé, “but if I’d had it done in the States, it would easily have been double that.” Esther had been lucky; she experienced few complications from the procedure. About one-third of patients suffer from complications, mainly a narrowing of the urethra, which makes urination difficult. Many also have post-operative infections. Psychological problems can plague patients, Esther warned Flambé. “But I more or less sailed through everything.”

Flambé couldn’t wait to ask the ultimate question. “So, uh, how long—I mean, did you–?” Esther saw her stammering, knew exactly what was happening.

“It was four months before I could have penetrative sex.” She let that sink into Flambé’s mind.

“And what—how–?”

Esther took her friend’s hand. “Let me tell you, sister, because it’s a good story.”

Within three months of the surgery, Esther was pain-free. Everything seemed to be working just as her doctors had forecast. They had lined her neo-vagina with her old penile sheath, turned inside out and inserted into her body, a drastic-sounding procedure, to be sure, but simple in its functionality. The sheath lost none of its sensitivity; orgasm could be reached, with all the accompanying physical feelings.

In fact, thirteen weeks after surgery, Esther had masturbated herself, using a dildo she’d bought at L’Amour Shoppe, an adult store in downtown Oakland. She did this very slowly and carefully. “I didn’t want to break anything,” she explained, “but I needed to know.” The experiment was a complete success. It was a thrilling vindication of what Esther had done. A few weeks later, after repeated masturbation, she was ready to move beyond self-stimulation to the real thing. It finally happened on a weekend night, with a young man she met at a downtown club.

Flambé took this all in with captivated interest. This was the stuff she’d wondered about all her adult life—something that had seemed so fantastical, so beyond the realm of probability that all it could ever amount to was an unfulfilled fantasy. And yet, Esther—just an ordinary girl—had made the fantasy come true. And now, Esther told her, she—Esther—fully enjoyed sexual relations with men. It was true, Esther added, ironically, that she found herself gravitating towards women for sexual pleasure, but that didn’t detract from the sublime fact that her neo-vagina was in perfect working order.

Flambé felt like she was walking on clouds. At Devon’s that night, nestled beside him in bed, as he slept she crept a hand to her still-intact penis, and began sliding the foreskin slowly up and down the hardening shaft. As her passion built she inclined her face into Devon’s back, kissed him on the neck, breathed heavily and with a gasp came onto her own belly. Devon never awoke as she whispered, “Oh, my God, my angel, how I want you inside my cunt.”

* * *

At Bay Grape they were pouring rosé Champagne. Nick and Danny sat at the bar and, after a little small talk with Josiah, the proprietor, they resumed the conversation about Cindy and the baby. Danny knew he’d been drinking too much lately; the pressures of work and in his personal life drove him increasingly to a few extra glasses of wine or bottles of beer at night. There were frequent times when all he wanted was to zone out, to numb himself and succumb to deep, blissful sleep. He saw nothing wrong with this.

And so he got very drunk. They kept reordering Champagne; the bubbles went straight to Danny’s brain and made him gay and talkative. Nick slowed down at the fifth glass; not Danny. “I don’t know,” he said to Nick at some point, slurring his words, “maybe you’re right, maybe it’d be cool to have a kid, you know what I mean? Hey Josiah, another round! Like, a kid can be fun. I’d like to be the kind of dad who brings his kid to the park to throw a football around.”

“Your kid,” Nick observed, “might be a girl.”

“I don’t think so,” Danny replied. “I just have a feeling. Hey Josiah, another!”

And so it went. By ten that night, Danny was in no shape to drive back to Castro Valley, so Nick invited him to sleep it off at the Perkins Street flat. He, Nick, would call Cindy to tell her. Danny fell asleep the minute his head hit the couch. When he woke up, with a pounding headache, the next morning to drive home, his Camry had a $185 parking ticket. It was street-cleaning day on Perkins.



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