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TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 38

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Meet Ayla

Ayla was not, of course, her real name. That was Bethany Tong. She’d chosen Ayla, or rather her pimp had chosen it for her, because he’d thought it sounded exotic. The pimp was long gone; Ayla went solo, after she’d built up a suitable client list that included Dr. Wu.

She was, at the time of this account, 29 years old, and stood 5 feet six inches in height, although the heels on the leather boots she wore added another five inches to that; she was, in full gear, taller than Dr. Wu. Bethany had been born in Richmond; her father worked for AC Transit, as a mechanic. Her mother was not part of her life, having gone insane shortly after Bethany was born; she would live out the remainder of her days in a state hospital. After a troubled youth, with much acting out and, later as a teen, brushes with the law, Bethany hit the streets. She was an habitué of International Boulevard; most of the time, she slept behind a dumpster in an alleyway. Poor Bethany: she was frequently harassed by predatory men (and a few women), and had the scars to show for it. By 25, she was a full-fledged addict. She paid for her drugs (heroin, crack, the occasional hit of ecstasy) with procurements from hustling.

Although she was homeless, and most of her acquaintances were homeless, Bethany—let’s call her Ayla now—was not particularly enamored of her fellow street dwellers. They were the ones who annoyed and provoked her, not the “normal” (Ayla’s word) people of Oakland, not even the cops, but the weirdos, freaks, thieves and rapists who roamed the city at night. She felt superior to them. They were without taste, classless, stupid and dirty; Ayla may have been living in an alley, but she always managed to keep herself clean (the women’s restroom at the public library was where she made her toilette), and as long as she was in the library she made a point on most days to read a newspaper and browse through magazines, especially fashion ones.

It was her pimp who’d encouraged her to become a dominatrix, for pecuniary reasons. Clients were willing to pay more money, often much more, for a hot B&D scene than for a simple fuck or blowjob. For example, under her pimp, Ayla could earn $25 for sucking off a guy (which took about ten minutes), but quadruple that for a steamy leather session, which usually occurred in a cheap single-room occupancy hotel just off Franklin Street; her pimp (and, later, she herself) rented it by the hour. Once Ayla went out on her own, she charged $250 for a 60-minute session. Dr. Wu preferred two-hour sessions; to the $500 fee he would add a $100 tip.

Sometimes, Ayla contemplated her life, with decidedly mixed feelings. She had hopes and dreams, like everybody else. She wanted a family, the house with a garden, friends, security. She could envision herself living some kind of T.V. fantasy: going to her daughter’s ballet classes, attending parent-teacher conferences, dining in a nice restaurant with a nice husband. It seemed very distant, but then she would remind herself that she was still in her mid-twenties, and had plenty of time; and, in a funny way, she rather liked the freedom her life accorded her. She was wise with the money she made from work. She opened a savings account, which on her 28th birthday had a balance of $7,500. Granted, living in an alleyway was a drag, especially during the cold, rainy winters (which seemed to be getting colder and rainier lately), but Ayla figured this would not be her fate forever. She had a vague notion that, when she reached thirty, things would change. Exactly how, she never determined; it was just a goal. But she liked herself and trusted her intuition and felt that things would be all right.

She met Dr. Wu just after she parted ways with her pimp. It was a foggy May midnight. Ayla was at her usual station, in front of the Kit Kat Klub. She was in her most alluring and eye-catching costume: black leather knee-high boots, red silk boxer shorts that barely extended below her thighs, a metallic red tuxedo jacket over a yellow padded bra. Dr. Wu told Gladys he had to go to a Kaiser meeting, but he headed straight to International Boulevard, impatient at the stoplights. He knew what he was looking for, and the sultry, slutty lady who caught his eye was exactly it. He slowed down, lowered the passenger-side window. Ayla also knew what she was looking for. Mutuality having been established, Dr. Wu pulled to the curb. A deal was struck. They went to the SRO hotel. Thus the relationship began.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 37

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Dr. Wu’s Secrets Pile Up

One night, a naked Dr. Wu found himself in a dungeon, his hands shackled behind him, his ankles bound with soft braided rope. Down on his knees on a cold concrete floor, he was being tortured by a fierce-looking Asian woman, scantily clad in leather. The woman—Ayla was her name—alternately tickled his nipples with a tasseled flogger, and used it to slap him hard across his face. Dr. Wu found such maltreatment irresistible, although he did insist that Ayla not create any visible marks on him that others might question.

From frequenting this concession only once a month or so, Dr. Wu had in recent months increased his visits, so that he was now coming once a week on average, usually on a weeknight, when he could tell Mrs. Wu that he was attending a meeting at Kaiser. Dr. Wu was not a particularly reflective person, so he could not have explained the increase in visits. But this did coincide with a strengthening of his conservative beliefs, the chief evidence of which was his participation, sometimes several times a day, on the Breitbart website. Dr. Wu could not have called himself a white nationalist, because of his Asian ancestry; but he was an ardent American nationalist, and the pro-American expression he found permeating the Comments section appealed to him. So did the putting down of Democrats, whom Dr. Wu, like others on Breitbart, took to calling “snowflakes” and “libtards.”

He took great pains to hide his increasing isolation and secret life from, not only Mrs. Wu, but from other family members and from his friends and colleagues at Kaiser. To his fellow primary care physicians Dr. Wu was a model of probity, a superb diagnostician; in patient satisfaction surveys he always scored near the top. A few wondered about a certain aloofness they sensed in him, but this never went beyond them thinking he was simply a man who valued his privacy.

When a fifteenth body was discovered slain—another homeless person, and the first woman—only blocks from Kaiser’s Broadway hospital, Dr. Wu was as shocked as everyone else. By now the “Oakland Homeless Killings,” as they were known in the media, had become a national story. America is obsessed with mass murders, but a serial killer is perhaps the sine qua non of sensationalism: and Oakland was now home to the most infamous string of serial killings America had known for decades.

The gender of the latest victim, as well as the location of the murder, took Rosey by surprise. The fact that it was a woman broke the pattern; homicide detectives hate broken patterns, because it upsets their earlier calculations, and forces them almost back to square one. Then, too, whereas all the earlier killings had occurred in Jack London Square, Lake Merritt or West Oakland (at least, that’s where the bodies had been found), this one had moved considerably northward, to Mosswood Park. This too troubled Rosey: the killer was on the move. He (it was almost undoubtedly a “he”) might have been feeling endangered by restricting his activities only to certain areas the police were heavily investing. He might alternatively simply be feeling adventurous; or, perhaps knowing something of the forensic arts, maybe he was merely throwing his pursuers off the scent. Whatever the motive, this geographic shift concerned Rosey.

The deceased woman was not difficult to identify. Her name was Ruth Bates. She was 54 years old, without family in the area, or friends; apparently, she’d been living in the streets for years—yet another loner, on the far fringes of society, living out a meager life. Oakland Social Services had extensive records on her: she was diabetic, mildly schizophrenic, with high blood pressure. She’d been in and out of hospital emergency rooms: the last time, a few months before her death, because of shingles. Rosey made inquiries. Bates’ attending physician at that time had been Dr. Edwin Wu. It was, Rosey decided, time to pay the good doctor another visit.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 36

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Flambé Arrives in Cuernavaca

Flambé finally raised enough money for the breast enhancement surgery: $11,550 in total, mainly from her GoFundMe account. With Nick’s help (he was good at that sort of thing), she made her travel and other arrangements.

The plan was to arrive at La Casa de Pechos and have her initial consultation, with the surgery occurring a day later. The entire procedure included ten days of post-operative accommodations in the Cuernavaca clinic. She would book an additional two final days at a private hotel nearby, just in case she didn’t feel like returning home immediately—a booking that could easily be cancelled with 24 hours notice. Nick would drive her to the airport and pick her up again on her return. Then, she’d recuperate at the Perkins Street flat.

She told her dog-walking clients she’d be unavailable for the next three weeks, although she didn’t tell them why. Finally, the big day arrived. Her flight to Cuernavaca was scheduled for 8:30 a.m.; she and Nick arrived at Oakland International Airport two hours early. They had a quick breakfast together, then said their goodbyes. “I know how important this is to you, Flambé,” Nick told her. “I’m really happy for you.” Flambé, with tears in her eyes, embraced her friend. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time,” she said, as Nick held her. “I know, sweetie, I know.” Flambé had a fleeting thought: she wished it were Devon there with her instead.

The big 747 took off under clear skies, and soon, Flambé, from her window seat, was watching California fly by beneath her. They made the wide, sweeping arc over San Francisco to head south; Twin Peaks loomed over the central part of the city, while Salesforce Tower, with its swooping funnel shape that always reminded Flambé of a dildo, dominated the east. They transited the Peninsula and the Santa Cruz Mountains, then, south of Big Sur, the jet veered out to sea. Flambé put on her sleep mask—ruby red in color—adjusted her neck support pillow—royal blue—slipped half an Ambien into her mouth, and settled back for a nap.

She awoke somewhere over the Central Mexican Plateau, a vast region of brown fields, punctuated here and there with green patches of farmland and the occasional village or small city, limned on the east by the Sierra Madre mountains. Eventually she saw distant Cuernavaca, at first a grey smudge on the horizon, then gradually expanding and coming into focus, its red-roofed buildings assuming distinct geometric shapes, interspersed with parks and plazas. Then they were on the ground. After a brief interval going through customs—no problems encountered—Flambé found her way to the passenger pickup area of the small terminal, where La Casa de Pechos had sent a driver, in a town car that had seen better days, to meet her.

Her driver was Carlos, young, curly-haired, smiling and unabashedly flirtatious. Under other circumstances, Flambé might have been interested, but after the long flight, her nerves were fluttery, and the unknown risks of the immediate future rattled her. Carlos, whose English was passable, understood. “Don’ be scare, lady,” he told Flambé, looking at her through his dashboard mirror. “It gonna be okay.”

La Casa de Pechos was in an old colonial mansion, originally built (so she learned) in the 1820s, as the residence of a wealthy livestock rancher. It had lush gardens through which flagstone paths wound; everywhere the blues, yellows and greens of clay tiles lined walls, balconies, balustrades. Orchids bloomed by plashing fountains; palm trees shushed in the mild breeze; here and there a peacock strode, or colorful parrots squawked in violet-flowered jacarandas. Flambé was shown to her rooms, which consisted of a small sleeping/sitting area and bath, with a patio leading to the garden. There was a welcome dinner planned for that evening, for Flambé and one or two other newly arrived clients. Tomorrow, she was told by the concierge (a sweet lady named Lydia), she would have her first consultation with Dr. Lopez.

At the welcoming dinner she met two other Americans who had arrived that day: Mistral, from Venice Beach, and Roberta, a young standup comedian from Miami, whose routine was geared to Lesbian clubs. In addition there came to the dinner four of Dr. Lopez’s patients who were in various stages of post-operative recovery. To eat, there were tamales and tacos of all kinds; the house drink was Prosecco, there being no medical restrictions on alcoholic beverages, except on the day of surgery. It was an easy, informal gathering, a good opportunity for the newcomers to interrogate their more experienced neighbors as to what to expect.

Flambé went to bed early. She was tuckered out after the long, eventful day. Tomorrow, she knew, would start early: up at 6 a.m., and her initial consultation with Dr. Lopez at 8. There was much to do, much to learn; on the day after that would come the surgery.

* * *

Her room phone rang promptly at 6 a.m., awakening her from a deep sleep. Her dream had had something to do with walking the dogs through a thick, weird jungle; but she could remember no specifics, only a feeling a dread. She showered, ate a quick breakfast (toast, papayas, yogurt, coffee), then made for Dr. Lopez’s office.

The consultation was thorough and impersonal. Dr. Lopez, whose English was good, first inquired about Flambé’s general health and mood. Then he turned to the size and look of the new breasts she would shortly acquire. It was a topic Flambé had barely thought of. She wanted nice breasts, of course, but not enormous ones: she wasn’t a drag queen. Dr. Lopez showed Flambé brassieres in different sizes that she could try on and see how they looked in the mirror. He also had a virtual reality simulator on his computer, so that Flambé could view herself, with her new breasts, from a variety of angles; it even allowed for changes of clothing: a Chanel suit, a flouncy blouse, a gown, a bikini, or no clothes at all.

Dr. Lopez explained what Flambé could expect immediately before, during and after the surgery. She’d be medicated at 6:30 a.m., with antibiotics. “Before” photos would be taken; then she’d be wheelchaired to the operating theater, where Dr. Lopez, Lydia (who was a registered nurse), an anesthetist and an assisting physician would perform the procedure. The anesthetist would run an I.V. into Flambé’s right arm. “That’s the last thing you’ll be aware of before you fall asleep,” Dr. Lopez explained. “When you wake up, you’ll be in recovery.” The actual surgery, he added, would take about an hour, depending on whether there were complications. He expected none, he said.

And in fact the operation went smoothly. When Flambé awoke, she was in a post-op room, white, sterile and air-conditioned, with a tube in her arm and her chest heavily wrapped and iced. She felt no pain, at first; later, Dr. Lopez had warned her, the pain would come; but when it did, she would have an ample supply of OxyContin.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 35

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Cindy’s Visit Home

The first thing Cindy and Danny had to turn their attention to, when they arrived back home after their honeymoon, was the impending birth of their child. Cindy bought books on childbirth and rearing; she made Danny read them. They went out and bought a crib, a stroller, baby clothes, toys and other accoutrements. No parents are fully prepared for the birth of their first child, but Danny and Cindy were as ready as most; and if Danny was not quite as enthusiastic as Cindy, he at least acknowledged that his life would now be changed in major—and, he hoped, positive—ways.

There remained the problem of Cindy’s estrangement from her parents—indeed, from her greater family. The intensely clannish Wu and Chin families (Gladys’s maiden name was Chin) stood by the doctor and his wife; it was a shame, the elders gossiped amongst themselves, that Cindy had become so westernized, and had turned her back on the ancient traditions; and even the younger generation, Cindy’s cousins, who might have been expected to side with her, didn’t.

Cindy felt their shunning. One night, shortly after she’d left her parents’ home, she’d phoned her cousin, Lily, with whom she’d grown up; the two were close in age. Lily was abrupt and cruel. “Why are you doing this to your parents?” she asked a startled Cindy. “What am I doing?” “You’re hurting them. They raised you; you have an obligation to them.” Cindy had hung up in anger.

It was a situation she did not wish to continue. She was willing to take the first step to end it; obviously, she would have to swallow her pride, but that was okay. But her parents would have to meet her halfway: accept Danny, and accept the coming baby. One night, a Thursday, after finishing her Lyft stint, she stopped by their house. She had no appointment; driving past, she’d seen the lights on, and their two cars parked in the garage. Knowing they were home, she made a spot decision.

Mrs. Wu answered the door. When she saw he daughter, her face registered nothing; except for the slightest of nods, she might have been a mannequin. “Who’s there?” Cindy heard her father inquire, from the unseen living room, where the T.V. was on. “Our daughter,” Mrs. Wu replied. Cindy heard the familiar sound of her father arising from his easy chair, the small groan of oak planks as the floor received his weight, the flap-flap of his slippered footfall. Then he rounded the corner that separated the living room from the front hallway.

Mrs. Wu seemed to vaporize into the shadows, as she always did in the presence of her husband. There the three of them stood, frozen in a three-sided tableau: the doctor in his slippers on the Persian rug, Mrs. Wu wringing her hands, and Cindy, still at the top of the front steps, her black hair glinting yellow in the harsh front-door light.

Dr. Wu said, “Well, at least come in.”

There were no pineapple buns this time. Cindy got straight to the point. She was sorry, she told her parents, for any grief she had inadvertently caused. She wished to reconcile; her coming child would need its grandparents, and indeed the greater family. For her part, Cindy added, she had done nothing wrong, except to fall in love with a white man.

“And get pregnant out of wedlock,” Dr. Wu sneered.

“Yes, papa, I did,” Cindy retorted, “but we’re married now. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”

“It shamed us,” he went on. “It shamed your grandmothers.” Both Mrs. Wu’s mother and the doctor’s mother were alive, the former living in San Francisco, the latter in a retirement home in Hayward. “At Kaiser, people ask me how my daughter is doing, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell them, papa, that your daughter is expecting your first grandchild, and how pleased you and Mrs. Wu are.” Dr. Wu just grunted.

There was no resolution—no happy, hugging moment of reconciliation and closure. Cindy stayed for twenty minutes, Mrs. Wu barely opening her mouth the whole time. Finally, there was no more to be said, by anyone, on the topic. Cindy reached into her purse, took something, and held it out in her mother’s direction. “These are pictures of our wedding, mama, and a few from our honeymoon.” It was a small silver-embossed album. “I thought you might enjoy them.” On her drive back to Castro Valley, she found herself weeping. She could not know that her mother also was shedding tears. Only Dr. Wu remained stubbornly defiant.

* * *

Meanwhile, Devon Camber’s star was rapidly rising. He formed a sort of alliance with the more moderate members of the City Council, and also with the second-term Mayor, who saw in him a political ally and, truth be told, possible successor. He marched with Oakland Unified School District teachers when they went on strike, and received widespread publicity, all of it positive. When a tragic fire broke out in the district, in a crowded bar, Devon was there as firefighters battled the blaze; interviewed live on T.V., he demanded better inspections on the part of authorities. He drove his own Prius convertible in the city’s Pride Day parade, and when the Warriors won another N.B.A. championship, he rode on a float in that victory celebration. He weighed in on national issues; Trump, he declared on May Day, was a hateful racist, who had to be turned out of office. He seemed to be everywhere at once, delivering messages that resonated, elevating his profile. Now, when he walked the streets, he no longer was anonymous. “Devon!” people cried out: he had become another one-name celebrity, like Beyoncé and—yes–Obama. He enjoyed this new status tremendously. But it did require re-evaluating his relationship with Flambé.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 34

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Rosey Learns Something About Devon Camber

It was a warm Spring Sunday: baseball weather. Rosey’s plan was to catch the A’s, who were playing the Yankees, on T.V. Ceci, also an A’s fan, had bought the food: Buffalo wings, chips, cheese dip, beer. It had been a long week; all of Rosey’s weeks were long. A few of his friends were going to join them. A nice day was shaping up: Rosey needed this Sunday to relax and recoup.

He and Ceci were watching the pre-game show and chatting. “It’s the weirdest thing,” Rosey told his wife. “I’m absolutely nowhere in this case. But at the same time, I feel like I’m close to something.”

“Like with the Dobson murder?” Rosey remembered that case: a Catholic priest had been found brutally murdered in the Hills. The City was aroused; the public demanded the killer be found. Rosey, who was working the case, had interviewed the priest’s brother twice. The man was a quiet, hard-working plumber who lived in Union City. He seemed profoundly aggrieved by his brother’s death. There was no reason whatever to suspect him, yet there was a feeling Rosey simply couldn’t shake—an intuition he trusted. He did a little snooping. It turned out that both men had had an uncle who had recently died, in Brazil. The uncle owned a vast tract of valuable land in Brasilia. In his will, he had left it to the priest and his brother. That was all Rosey needed. The brother eventually confessed; case closed.

Rosey was opening bags of chips and putting them into bowls when the doorbell rang. Their friends were arriving. In addition to a couple cops, there was a guy Rosey knew from the Rotary Club, Amooz, who owned a little Afghani restaurant on 15th, just off Webster, just a block from Devon Camber’s apartment. Rosey and Ceci occasionally dined there. Afghani wasn’t his favorite food, but he liked Amooz. During a commercial break in the baseball game, one of the cops, a guy named Dudley, mentioned something about that new city councilmember, what’s his name, Camber, making a speech someplace that was critical of the police.

“What’d he say?” Rosey asked.

“The usual crap,” Dudley said. “We’re a good-old-boys club. We protect each other. We’re too quick to shoot.”

“I am tired of that bullshit,” Rosey said. “What’s up with that Camber? What’s he got up his butt?”

Amooz chimed in. “I see him with this flamer all the time at night, one of those, how they say? Trans?”

“Transsexual?” Rosey offered.

“Yeah. Big, black guy, wears a wig, women’s clothing, you know, high heels.”

Rosey and Dudley both whistled. One thing cops know is that everybody, including public figures, has a private life, aspects of which they prefer to keep well-hidden. “You figure that’s his squeeze?” Dudley asked Amooz.

“I see them kissing one time. I see her—the black lady—grab his butt.” Then the game resumed; the Yankees were beating the A’s 4-1 in the sixth inning. Rosey found the information about Camber interesting. He stored it, as he always did with such tidbits, into a mental filing cabinet in the back of his mind. Information like that might come in handy; you never know.


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