by Jenna Rae
She could have done more. The truth is bitter, and there’s been plenty of bitterness in Homicide Inspector Del Mason’s life lately. She will find out who killed Mikey Ocampo, but the honest truth is that she’s one of the people who let the San Francisco teenager down.
But Del has other things to deal with as well. A predator is creeping through the streets of the Mission District and Lola wants Del to deal with the emotional scars that are driving them apart.
Then a startling revelation forces Del to question everything. Especially herself.
Golden Crown Literary Award Winning Series
GCLS Goldie Awards
Turning on the Tide — Winner,
Lambda Literary Awards
Turning on the Tide — Finalist, Lesbian Mystery.
Praise for Jenna Rae
Alice B. Readers Appreciation Committee — Lavender Certificate for Debut Fiction, The Writing on the Wall.
San Francisco Police Department Inspector Del Mason stood next to her partner, Tom Phan, and looked down at the body at their feet. The sun’s first clear rays had burned through the morning’s mist and framed the crumpled figure in golden light, but there was no way to imagine the bruised, bloody boy was a drowsing angel come drifting down to terra firma.
Del spoke first. “What a shitty way to die.”
“Not exactly a great place either.” Phan gestured at the nondescript industrial buildings and parking lot that framed the crime scene on aptly named Shotwell Street. “Gang, you think?”
Both eyed the nearest building, leased to a limousine company. It displayed no identifying graffiti for the Mission District gang currently laying claim to the street that housed their newest case.
“No tagging.” Del examined the kid’s skinny arms and neck. “And no ink. Hair’s wrong too.”
“We’ll check anyway.”
“Of course. I’d say he was dumped.” Del spoke as she tapped notes into her phone. “Male, juvenile. Five-seven, a hundred pounds or so. Fifteen or sixteen. Hispanic, maybe?” Del examined the mashed remains of the boy’s features and shook her head. “Cheap T and jeans, dirty. Hair’s several days greasy. Outgrown too. Homeless, I’d guess. A pro?”
“Eh.” Phan typed into his own smartphone. “Fully dressed. Not much blood on the clothes. Almost none on the sidewalk. I agree, he was killed somewhere else and dumped here. He could have been re-dressed after. Time of death will be important. Could be a working boy, like you say. The john got out of hand? Or the pimp. We’ll see if there was sexual assault. Was he a junkie?”
“I don’t think so.” Del pointed at the body with her phone. “Skinny, but I’m not seeing tracks or meth mouth.”
“Okay. Anything else? Right. Let’s divvy this up. I’ll canvas the street kids if you’ll take the shelters. You check the missing kid files, I’ll do the trafficking database. Deal?”
Del nodded, crouching to take a closer look at the victim while Phan continued. “Tuesday’s usually not too busy, morgue-wise, so if we have a name—”
“Yeah. Hold on.” Del noticed a small scar on the boy’s earlobe. She sprang up and stepped back from the body. She shook off Phan’s hand when he touched her arm. November’s early morning chill suddenly hit Del.
“I recognize him,” Del said. “Mikey, Mikey Ocampo. Rendered unto the tender mercies of the juvenile justice system five or six years ago.”
He looked at her in concern. “Why do you remember him? He was that bad?”
“No.” Del rubbed her face. “He was that railroaded.”
“Not exactly the highlight of my career.”
“Are you okay?” Phan again reached out a hand and again Del shrugged it off.
“No. He was a nice kid, he got fucked over.” She eyed the bruised boy at their feet and shook her head. “I can’t believe he’s dead.”
“Wanna tell me about it?”
“No.” Del scrubbed at her newly shorn scalp, feeling the tight blond curls resist her fingers. “Shit. Yeah.”
* * *
“Why do I get all the kids?”
No one in the homicide division responded to newly transferred Del Mason, not even to rib her for whining. She grabbed a couple of items from what had just become her desk before heading to the nearest interview room. Seated at the only table was the social worker, a prototypically bleary-eyed civil servant. Her graying roots, dark-ringed eyes and sallow complexion proclaimed the weight of her workload, while her dirt-grimed, white, Disney-themed Dooney and Burke satchel bespoke a happier, more hopeful past. The two women exchanged nods, not bothering to introduce themselves, and Del considered how to proceed. After too many years in sex crimes, Del had hoped not to spend any more time interviewing traumatized kids. Wasn’t that what her transfer to the homicide division had been about?
Curled up in a ball in the corner was a kid who let his eyes flick in her direction for only a second. Looking much younger than the eleven years claimed on the patrol officer’s paperwork, Mikey Ocampo was maybe the size of a normal eight-year-old, underweight not in the way of a rapidly growing child but of a chronically underfed one. His eyes were black holes burned into sallow skin. His nose had been broken at some point and not fixed. He would have breathing problems his whole life, however long that was. His toes pressed against the thin, straining fabric of his too-small, cheap canvas shoes and looked close to poking through. His faded blue sweatpants were too short by a few inches, and bunched around his narrow waist. His T-shirt was so worn it was almost transparent. He’d chewed his fingernails to the quick. Mom wasn’t just poor, then. She was neglectful, maybe abusive. Was she an addict, an alcoholic?
Del forced her muscles to relax. The kid’s antennae were out, though his eyes stayed focused on the floor in front of his bunched legs. He was trying to decide how dangerous she was. Not whether or not she was dangerous, how much so. She couldn’t show any of what he expected to see, tension or contempt or disgust. She had to stay as neutral and blank as possible without seeming indifferent. Del sat on the floor a few feet away from the boy, careful not to look at him or move too quickly. She pulled out her phone and checked her messages, pushed her hair back off her forehead, turned off the ringer, put her phone away. The boy watched her out of the corner of his eye.
She pulled out a toy car and set it on the floor. Mikey was too old for toys, or thought he was. But Del would bet he hadn’t had a lot of age-appropriate playthings when he was little.
“My friend gave me this.” Del spoke as though to the opposite wall. “We’re not friends anymore but I still kept it.”
The boy eyed the die-cast plaything.
“She gave it to me when I crashed my real Mustang. It was red like this. God, it was beautiful. It took me three years to get it running, only drove it for six months.” Del smiled wryly, still not looking at Mikey. “I guess I thought I was a NASCAR driver. Went too fast around a curve and totaled it. Walked away without a scratch, but I destroyed the most beautiful car I’ve ever owned.”
The boy shifted an ankle and spoke in a barely audible voice. “I got in a crash once, it was me and my mom. We didn’t get hurt too bad. Just like here.” He pushed back his hair and showed her a jagged scar that ran up his ear and disappeared into his hairline. “My mom thought she was a NASCAR driver too.”
“Funny, how we see ourselves isn’t always the way we really are.”
“It’s a good memory, the day she gave it to me.” Del pushed the toy with her fingertips. “Means a lot, when somebody does something nice for me. It’s always kind of a surprise.”
Del pulled out a couple of candy bars and put them both on the floor. “You pick.”
Mikey waited nearly a minute before choosing the milk chocolate bar. He slid it closer but left it on the floor next to his hip.
Del took the remaining candy and pointedly ignored the boy while nibbling a corner. Eying her, Mikey picked up his and peeled off the outer wrapper without tearing it. He smoothed the paper, folded it, put it in his sweatpants pocket.
Del was yanked back to fourth grade, when she got a perfect report card and the teacher gave her a candy bar. She opened it like this kid, trying not to tear it. She remembered how strange it felt, eating a candy bar like a regular kid.
It was like the toy car. Elise did nice stuff for Del all the time when they were together. She used to buy Del all kinds of gifts, just cards and treats, little things like the toy car. Del wondered if Elise knew how much she appreciated those affectionate gestures. Other girlfriends had been like that too, always buying some little present for her, showing up with surprises and treats. Thoughtful gestures Del had never acknowledged beyond cursory thanks—how had she gone from a grateful kid to a selfish adult? Del shook off the strangeness left behind by her recent breakup. It had been slow and protracted and nearly silent, like most of her breakups. And there had, she realized with a pang, been far too many of those.
“Maybe if I was nicer, I don’t know.” She cut off her thoughts with her words and her words with a snapping chomp of chocolate.
“You blew it.” The boy’s voice was muffled by a chunk of candy.
“I really did.”
“You could say you’re sorry.” This was a gift, and Del nodded in thanks and agreement. The boy let his legs uncurl and stretch out in front of him.
“I probably should.”
“But you’re not going to.” The boy’s sidelong glance was knowing.
“No.” Del gave a rueful laugh, and the kid smirked in response. They watched each other’s faces fall.
“Sometimes sorry isn’t enough.” Mikey let his candy hand drop. He looked for all the world like a lost toddler, and Del swallowed hard.
“Accidents happen, mistakes too,” she offered.
“He’s dead, isn’t he, Mr. White?”
Del waited until Mikey turned to look her full in the face.
“Still alive, last I heard.”
“I kilt him.” He let go a great hiccup and started crying.
Del turned away from the kid, knowing his tears humiliated him and that he didn’t want her to see them. “He’s still in surgery.”
“No.” He wiped his nose with his arm. “I’m a killer.”
“Are you?” Del tilted her head. “Did you want to kill him?”
The boy shook his head and tears scattered.
“Did he hurt you?”
A shrug, then a denial.
“Did he hurt your mom?”
Mikey curled his arms around his head, one hand aloft to keep the candy safe, and his snuffling turned to choked sobs. Del waited him out.
After a few minutes, the boy settled down and tried to regain his stony expression. It just made him look unbearably vulnerable.
He turned to face Del, curling his legs to the side. She turned and mirrored his posture, only vaguely aware that she did so.
“Mr. White’s a total prick.”
When the boy checked for a response to the word, Del just nodded.
“He’s always doing weird stuff. He made my mom—she’s had a real hard life. Had me when she was only fifteen. Nobody ever helped her, not even her parents, they just threw her out. They don’t care about her. Or me.”
Del nodded again, her face open and neutral.
“She works real hard. She’s the assistant manager at Chicken Shack, plus she works at the carwash sometimes.” He wiped his nose again. “But they don’t pay that good. So we’re broke all the time.” Mikey’s eyes searched Del’s. “We moved here so my mom could be a manager. She’s a real good worker, they said so.”
“Must be, to get a promotion to assistant manager.”
“But the rent here costs too much.” He lapsed into silence, staring at the candy bar in his hand like he wasn’t sure how it got there.
“It’s too much for most everybody, Mikey. It’s crazy. Puts people in a real bad spot. Any other problems besides money?”
“Problems?” Mikey reddened. “Mr. White started hanging around, talking to my mom and stuff. She didn’t like it, but he let her pay the rent late sometimes. It took most our money to move, plus she had to pay bail for Brian.”
“Yup, but he went to jail anyway. So then she didn’t have no money from him, plus he wasn’t there to keep Mr. White away. He showed up this morning, bugging my mom.”
“They started fighting. Mr. White was bugging her for money. He was weird. He asked if I was mixed. He asked if she only likes white guys, you know, ’cause Brian is white. She told him to leave me alone, and Mr. White got real mad. He called her a whore. Mom slapped him and he punched her, real hard. Then he, like, grabbed her and took her to her room and locked the door.” The boy’s gaze drifted away. “She was crying, I tried to help her. Tried to open the door but it was locked.”
“She told me, get to school, leave me alone.” The boy shook his head. “But she’s the one that wanted me to stay home to keep him away. I think so. Maybe he came by before when I was at school, I don’t know.”
Del let him ponder that for a moment, knowing he would return to the story.
“Then Mr. White comes out. He goes in the kitchen, eating my mom’s food. You know? Like it’s his food. There’s not enough already, now he’s gonna eat our food? He figured he could just do whatever he wanted.”
“He had no right to be there.”
“He had no right.” Mikey nodded, making sudden tears fly. “He doesn’t own us.”
Del swallowed painfully.
“Brian left his gun when he went to jail. He kept it on the fridge, it was still there. Mom knew she could trust me not to touch it.”
There was a shred of pride in this, in being the one man his mother could count on. Del nodded, squeezing her mouth tight.
“Go on, Mikey.”
“Mr. White told me to go to my room. Like he’s my dad or something. I asked, real polite, can I please get my school supplies off the fridge—Brian put the gun in a cardboard box. Is he gonna get in trouble? He’s not supposed to have guns ’cause he had trouble before in Visalia.”
Del shook her head.
“Mr. White said I could get my homework stuff. ’Cause I knew how to act. He said most Filipinos are too uppity.” The boy reddened. “I said he was right, I called him sir.” His eyes pleaded for her understanding.
“You had to go along with him, just for a minute.”
“I had to. I think I had to. Anyways, I took the box to my room. I took out the gun. It was real heavy, I didn’t know it would be so heavy. I thought maybe if I waited a while, he would leave and I wouldn’t have to.” The boy looked at the flickering fluorescent light in the ceiling, and Del held her breath. Now he would lie or tell the truth. He was deciding, and she didn’t want to interrupt. After nearly a minute, the kid shifted his feet and shook his head.
“But he wouldn’t leave. I couldn’t let him hurt my mom again.”
“I get that.”
And she did. The kid was just old enough to feel like he had to protect his momma. And the other side of it was there, too, in Mikey’s clouded eyes. A mean man hurt the one person he loved, and he wanted that mean man to pay. That wasn’t hard to understand either. The question was, how much of the shooting would legally qualify as self-defense, and how much would be considered revenge?
“He told me to come in the kitchen, but I didn’t want to.” Mikey held out his hands. “I had the gun, and I didn’t want to, but I could hear my mom crying and I didn’t want him to get mad and hurt her again. I didn’t want to.”
“You felt like you didn’t have a choice.”
“I shot him,” Mikey announced. “It was heavy. I couldn’t make it work at first.” He reddened. “Mr. White was laughing at me. I was crying, and he said I was an uppity little bitch and then I figured it out, I slid the thing, and then I shot him and he was surprised, and he got up and he slapped me and I shot him again. Then he fell down and there was a lot, a lot of blood. A lot, all over.”
“You were scared he would hurt your mom again.”
The boy nodded.
“Were you scared he would hit you again?”
Mikey nodded again.
“After he fell down, did you call for help?”
“They told us at school, call nine-one-one. I didn’t want to kill nobody, I just didn’t want him to hurt me and my mom.”
“Okay. Did your mom come out to the kitchen after you shot Mr. White?”
“Yeah. She started screaming. She ran over and fell, ’cause the floor was all wet. She fell down all in his blood, and I was on the phone with the nine-one-one, the lady couldn’t hear me and I dropped the phone. My mom was freaking out and she just sat there screaming so loud and crying and she wouldn’t look at me, there was blood on her.”
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know. She left. She don’t have a car and they put me in the police car by myself.”
“Okay, Mikey. Thanks for telling me.”
“What’s gonna happen to me?”
“I’m not sure exactly. You’ll probably have to answer the same questions I just asked you a bunch of times. Other than that I’m not sure.”
She looked at the social worker, who continued to stare at the wall and ignore them. The woman looked ten paces past tired, had probably been up for a couple of days. Was she high? Del examined the social worker’s eyes, skin, posture. Not high, maybe. Just checked out. It happened a lot with cops, social workers, teachers. The very people kids in crisis needed the most. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? Too many fucked-up families, too many kids in one emergency after another and too few resources to help them with. It was a soul eater, trying to empty the ocean with a slotted spoon.