Inland Empire

an excerpt



Prologue

Dark and broiling, a typical August smothered Riverside, California. David Huynh stood outside the Bang! PC Cafe, smoking a cigarette. At sixteen, he was too young to have bought them legally. At sixteen, he was too young to be in the cafe past the ten p.m. city curfew. Neither of those things bothered David much.

All he cared about was the lack of available computers. David wanted to be online, playing soldier and killing other kids playing terrorists. Interactive play was so much better than going against a machine. Usually, he was in place and surfing the net before the major crowd showed up. Tonight he'd worked late at his uncle's convenience store and it set him behind. He pulled another drag. Sooner or later someone would run out of money and then David could take his spot.

A high-buffed Nissan pulled into the lot. Metallic gold paint along the hood melded into candy orange by the time it reached the aftermarket spoiler. Every window was tinted well past legal limits. A dragon crawled across the top of the windshield, almost undulating in time to low-level base that throbbed from God knew how many speakers. As the car screeched to a standstill, engraved chrome and 24-carat gold rims spun like whirligigs, and multicolored lights chased themselves across the hood. Hydraulics hissed as the Nissan's body juddered downwards.

The pimped-out ride held David's attention for all of a minute. Then he looked back into the cafe. Still no empty seats. When he turned back around, the passenger window was down. A barrel appeared.

David opened his mouth to scream.

The shotgun blast cut it off.





Chapter One


Brandon gnawed on a stale candy bar substituted for actual lunch and tried to maintain the proper aura of ennui in the chaos before their briefing. Task force; the phrase was enough to get him hard. And for the first time ever he was on one. Of all the detectives in Vice, he and Weaver were chosen. Weaver, his partner, had rolled his eyes and groaned at the news. Brandon quietly went for a smoke and did his private happy dance at the top of the municipal garage.

Cops sat a little straighter and feet formerly supported by tables hit the floor as a uniformed lieutenant burst through the door. Like all officers, Brandon knew the moment the brass left the holy hill of downtown, different rules applied. Narcotics, Vice, Homicide, and various gang units crowded the room, warily watching the man move to the briefing podium. "Okay people," a dark hand ran through salt-and-pepper hair. "Y'all know why you're here. Take notes, we're moving fast." He perched on the edge of the desk at the head of the room. "David Huynh, born Huynh Quan, was shot three days ago in front of an Internet cafe. Shotgun blast to the gut. Boy's alive, but critical. Homicide will interview him as soon as he comes to. This has all the hallmarks of your classic gang payback hit. But, other than an online habit, we haven't been able to mark Huynh as either a member or associate. We're probably dealing with Asian gangs. For those who don't know... hell, you can be a freakin' honor student and get jumped into a gang."

The lieutenant snapped his fingers at one of the uniforms, signaling him to get busy handing out information. "Asian gangs are very fluid, kids may belong to one or more." Briefing packets were tossed across the tables like cards. "Most members won't admit they even exist much less who belongs. They don't wear colors, although most have names. We think," he gave a nod towards the uniformed members of the gang unit, "that this was a Khat Mau payback. That's Thirst for Blood for you rednecks who don't speak Vietnamese. Not against the kid, but against the cafe owners. But it could have easily been the County Line Boys or the San Diego Street Dragons, 'cause nobody's jumping up and claiming this hit. Vice and the gang units are constantly rousting underage kids after curfew. Revenue is down in a lot of these cybercafes. We think some of them are turning to other income sources. Naturals are drugs and gambling. So we got Homicide, Narc, Gang Detail and Vice. Who needs introductions here?"

One of the gang squad broke in, "Sir, I've got to get my Polaroid."

"What for?"

She pointed at Brandon, where his tattoos crawled out from under his T-shirt. "Cop biker gangs," she teased, "somebody's got to log those tats into the database."

The lieutenant glared. "Okay, you want to take pictures of pretty boy without his shirt on, you two work it out between yourselves." Cat calls and whistles broke out across the room and Brandon groaned. He so did not want to be the center of attention. The lieutenant let it work out of their systems for a moment. Then he snapped his fingers. "Alright children, come on. Focus. I'm turning it over to the specialists now. Officer Belasteros will bring you up to speed."

"Honestly," a short Hispanic officer stood as she spoke. "We're not going to find ink on most of these kids." Soft voice, but all business, the officer knew her stuff. "They've wised up that tats mean we can spot them easily. Scars are more likely: cigarette burns on the forearms," her fingers indicated the spots on her own body, "and back are most common. In the Vietnamese gangs, these burns are usually in a group of five in a cross. Loosely, it means 'me alone against the world surrounding me.' They've also co-opted the 'vida loca' of the Hispanic gangs. Three burns in a row or triangle. They are still not overly territorial. The Khat Mau are small but they have members in San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and LA counties. They often ransack a business and then shake it down to pay protection against further raids. We think that some of them are hooking up with the old Chinese Triads. Unlike the usual gang member, these kids don't care as much about status and honor. They're not looking for props. It's strictly business."

"In Vietnam they are known as bui doi, dust of life, street kids that no one cares about. They're ruthless. They're violent. Every day they're alive is just another day. They have cop killers in their midst. They tend to be big into the home invasion robbery racket. You'll find more details in your briefing packets, including estimated numbers and associations."

She smiled at the lieutenant, taking her seat as he stood. "Okay, that's the basics. We're working together on this, folks. It needs to stop and we're going to see to it that it does. So, let's get to it. We'll be meeting here at least once a week for a full report from everyone, but I'll expect you all to be talking a hell of a lot more than that. And I know you all still have regular case loads to work, but this goes to the top of the stack of priorities." Clapping his hands together, the lieutenant signaled that it was over. "Everyone read up on the briefing packets. I'm going to expect to meet again Wednesday after next. Go over everything you've already got on your plates, look at your old cases... it's the odd little facts you already have in the back of your heads that are going to help us break these bangers. I'll expect reports from each division next time around. That's it, head on out."

Weaver grumbled under his breath as they joined the mass exodus. Brandon had to dodge and swerve to keep up, but Weaver just plowed on through, his frame tending to cut a swath through any crowd. Catching up to him at the door to Vice, Brandon snagged Weaver's collar to get his attention. "We got anything going on tonight?"

One eyebrow crawled up as Weaver turned on his partner and crossed his arms; the quarterback stare Brandon had dubbed the look: part calculation, part intimidation.

Intimidation games had never worked well on Brandon, especially Weaver's. While Brandon carried less bulk, he had more muscle and at least a few inches on his partner in the height department. That meant Weaver had to look up to stare him down. Brandon snorted. "I need to bail for a bit later and go run an errand."

Settling his mass against the doorjamb, Weaver thought for a moment. "What errand, Baby D?" Weaver was as much his supervisor as partner.

Brandon waited for a group of uniforms to pass before answering. When he did respond, he kept his voice low. "I got to..." he hesitated a bit, "pick up Nicky at the airport." He and Weaver were still at the not-comfortable-with-my-partner-being-gay phase. Not that Jeff said anything. But Brandon could tell. Any time the conversation went anywhere near Nicky, Weaver was quick to change the subject. "Now that the asshole who tried to kill him has pleaded, he can get his car back. We're going to grab it out of CHP impound while he's here."

"Hmm." Weaver stared across the hall, drumming his fingers on his arm. "What time does his flight get in?"

Not wanting to discuss it where anyone other than Weaver might hear, Brandon pushed past him into the cramped den inhabited by Vice. Chestnut Station was marginally better than Orange Street HQ, but it had been built when detectives still dressed in suits and used rotary dialed telephones. Unplanned urban sprawl had hit the city so fast that they just kept jamming desks in instead of building something more modern. Threading through the maze of file cabinets, desks, and chairs, Brandon grabbed his messages out of the mailbox. Only the big guys got voicemail.

Perching on the edge of someone's workspace, Brandon flipped through the slips of paper. Nothing terribly urgent, just a few follow-up calls on some of his old cases. "Ten thirtyish. I'll take it as a dinner break." He and Weaver were currently on the two-to-twelve shift.

Still framed in the doorway, Weaver grumbled. "We got to hit the street in a bit." Weaver's eyes went narrow. "So after we do our little interview with the guy who claims some other Joe is running a stable out of his joint, you want me to ferry your ass all the way back here so you can get your bike? That'll be an hour round trip at least. You'll be late."

"I'll be quick." Nervous habit kicking in, Brandon fiddled with the series of rings running down the outside of his ear. He'd have had to lose the jewelry on any assignment other than Vice. "I told Nicky I might be a little late." If Nicky had been a girlfriend, instead of a boyfriend, nobody would have given a damn about him taking a little personal time.

Glancing at his watch, Weaver growled. "Fuck, Brandon, it's four now. There's at least two hours worth of reports sitting there. We're supposed to meet our complainant at eight. Plus actually do some police work." Like he was trying to pound brains into Brandon's skull, Weaver reached out and thumped Brandon's forehead with thick fingers. "Look, we'll go talk to our guy and then we'll head over to the airport."

"You don't have to, Jeff. It's out of your way and I can just handle it."

"Actually, coming back here is really out of my way." Weaver coughed and pushed away from the wall. "But you know what, I'm kinda curious. I want to see what kinda guy could make you become Mr. Responsibility all of a sudden. Almost every week you're out to see him. 'I can't make dinner at your place 'cause Nicky needs me to drive him to physical therapy tomorrow.' In Vegas, no less. I know guys who've married girls they didn't do that shit for. So, I want to know."

Brandon shrugged and he fell into step beside his partner as they headed toward the mass of files awaiting their attention. "You've never asked to see a picture or anything."

"You've," Weaver thumped the edge of Brandon's high-and-tight hair cut with his index finger, "never offered to show me one."

"True." Brandon shrugged, "I never have."