“You friend of Colin Gernes.” She pronounced the name “Olin Ernes.”
I said, “Yes.” Colin Gernes had been my supervising officer when I first broke in with the St. Paul Police Department.
I nodded. Close enough.
“You cop no more.”
“No more,” I confirmed.
“You not come to roust poor Phu.” She pronounced the word “oust.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
“You come maybe buy camera?”
The shop assistant who met me at the door was now behind the glass counter. She scrunched up her nose and shook her head like a sudden chill had run up her spine.
“Cut it out, Phu,” I said. “You’re embarrassing the help.”
Phu glanced over her shoulder at the young woman.
“Oh, nuts, McKenzie. She’s my teenage niece. I embarrass her just by being in the same room.”
“If they didn’t work cheap, there’d be a bounty on them. So what can I do for you, McKenzie?”
I took Phu’s arm and led her deeper into the store, away from her assistant.
“Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that I wanted some paperwork done and didn’t want to trouble the bureaucracy. What would that cost?”
“Didn’t you try to arrest me for that once?”
“Nah. That was two guys who looked like me.”
“Seriously, Phu. Can you help me out?”
“So am I.”
“Who are you kidding?”
“Help you? You want me to help you?”
“Times have changed since you were last in my store.”
“Tell me about it.”
Phu gave it some thought, then said, “You’re not going bad on me, are you, McKenzie?”
“I need to hide in plain sight for a while, just like your clients.”
“What are we talking about, McKenzie? Not passports.”
“Nothing that elaborate.”
“That’s good, because I don’t do passports anymore. Not since 9/11.”
That’s my girl, I thought but didn’t say.
“So,” she added. “Driver’s license? Credit cards?”
“Yes to both.”
“Anyplace but Minnesota.”
“I need it right now.”
“Three thousand.” And she didn’t mean dong, the official currency of Vietnam.
I agreed to the price.
Phu led me down a flight of stairs to her cellar. She unlocked one door, then another, and ushered me into a cramped room where a digital camera mounted on a tripod and a pair of strobe lights were aimed at a blue screen. The camera and lights were cabled to an Apple computer. There was a gray filing cabinet against the wall, a table, and three chairs. Yeah, Phu. You’re retired.
I said, “Can I ask a question?”
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
“Mostly I help immigrants and refugees. You know that.”
“No, I mean, why do so many Southeast Asians live here?”
“I don’t understand.”
“In the seventies, St. Paul became a kind of refuge for people fleeing the war. The population was small back then. But it grew because the refugees had family here. It’s like the Swedes and Norwegians. They settled in Minnesota because there were already Swedes and Norwegians in Minnesota, which in turn encouraged even more Swedes and Norwegians to come to Minnesota.”
“A lot of Southeast Asians live here because a lot of Southeast Asians live here.”
“Makes sense. When did you come to Minnesota?”
“I was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital on the Fourth of July 1948.”
“Why, then, do you insist on speaking in that pidgin English of yours?”
“So many of my white customers expect it.”
Phu shooed me in front of the blue screen. Noting my appearance—unshaved, unruly hair, creased black sports jacket over wrinkled maroon T-shirt, blue jeans, white Nikes—she asked, “Is that what you want to look like?”
“No. I want to look like Russell Crowe, but what are you going to do?”
The lights flashed, and a moment later my image appeared on a computer screen. I actually looked pretty good, all things considered, and urged Phu to take another photo. It took several more shots before we were able to duplicate the vacant-eyed, mug-shot expression that we’ve all come to expect from bureaucracy photography. Afterward, she filled in my height, weight, eye color, and hair color, then slid a card printed with the outline of a rectangle in front of me.
“Sign in the box.”
“What’s my name?”
“Jacob Greene.” She spelled it carefully, and I signed slowly.
“Where am I from?”
She told me, “Rapid City, South Dakota. Have you ever been there?”
“No, but my parents have.” Mount Rushmore is near Rapid City.
“You sit. You wait.”