Friday, March 16, 2012

M is for Emerson

For those of you who are curious, the FBI did apprehend their suspect from the bank robbery.  During my second stakeout, I spied the subject described to me by the homeless subway rider.  He carried four Macy’s shopping bags into his house before returning to his brand new BMW coupe to fetch his expensive-looking leather coat.  No more slumming on the subways for him.  I passed the tip on to the federal agents, and once they made an arrest, I closed my file and moved on to other work.

When I left my office on Thursday evening, Kyle was using Search Systems to check the most-wanted and outstanding warrants in Bay Area cities and counties.  When we take on a new case, we make our due diligence inquiries to see if the subject (or the client) is wanted by the law.  On the Fremont Police site we spotted a mug shot of our new client, Emerson Barnes, a fugitive wanted for questioning in the murder of his girlfriend, Yolanda Munoz.  Under the “aliases” column, Fremont PD listed “M” for Mr. Barnes.  They had it partially correct.  Emerson preferred to be called “Em” for short.

“You should set up your next meeting on an Alcatraz tour,” joked Kyle.  “And then call the cops on him.”

“No, Em is hiding because he’s innocent,” I replied.  “He was framed.”

In truth, I wasn’t sure whether to believe this, but as I’d deposited a $500 retainer from Emerson, he had my momentary benefit of the doubt.  If it turned out he was guilty of murdering Yolanda, I would gladly refund his money.  Or so I told myself.

That night I spent a few hours walking the neighborhood where the crime took place a week prior.  I watched as teenagers purchased drugs from a man in a painter’s utility van.  The van was a fixture there on the street, judging by the flat tires and the accumulation of leaves and debris around the wheels.  Once the kids had gone, I strolled up to the van’s window.

“Hey there.  I noticed you’ve been parked here a while.”

The painter studied me from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.  His broken nose looked like a relief map of the Colorado Rockies.  While he wore the color-splotched overalls of a housepainter, the white flecks in his moustache did not appear to be paint-related at all.

“You a cop?”

“I hope not.”  I was going for the disarming approach.  It was working.

“You in the market for something then?”

“I’m not sure.  What’s on special this week?”

The painter held up a baggie of white pills.

“These are for relaxation.  They remove all feelings of greed and hostility.”

“You should send some to Wall Street,” I suggested.  “Or better yet, sell them for a million dollars to one CEO and he can poison all his competitors.  They’ll become relaxed and non-greedy, and he can take over.”

“That’s devious,” the painter grinned.  “Sounds like you need one of these.”

“Actually, I just wanted to know if you were here last Wednesday night, around eight-thirty.”

As the painter squinted and checked his mental date-planner, I pointed to the alleyway across the street from the van.

“That alleyway runs behind the homes on the next block.  You see anyone coming in or out of there around eight-thirty?”

“Anyone that looked like George Clooney?” he asked.

“Anyone at all.”

“If I did, I won’t have to go to court, will I?”

“I’m not a cop, remember?  Just a concerned citizen.”

The painter thought it over as he lit another smoke.  Then he swallowed one of his pills and told me about a man in a tan suit who (you guessed it) resembled George Clooney.  According to the painter, this man walked out of the alley and drove away in a Range Rover.  A black one, the painter said, with a bike on top.

“A bicycle?  Like a mountain bike?”

“Yeah, where they take the front wheel off?  It had reflectors and everything.”

I gave the painter a 20-spot and promised him he wouldn’t have to testify in court.  Then I rang Em.  He was hiding in a flophouse motel called the Bayside, down at the southeastern edge of the city by the sports venue that used to be called Candlestick Park.  The Bayside felt like a downscaled San Quentin prison, right down to the barbed wire fence.  I was certain it was for keeping people in, not out.

An interesting place for an innocent man to hide.

I asked Em if he had any friends who drove black Range Rovers and liked to bicycle to keep in shape.  His face darkened.

“Tom Rogan?  It couldn’t be.”

“Does he look like George Clooney?”


“From a distance?” I prompted.

“Maybe if you had glaucoma.”

I waved it off and took out a pen and paper.  Emerson wrote down Tom’s phone number and business address.  Downtown Oakland.

“Guess I’m heading to O-Town.  You wanna come with?”

“No.  Just find out if he did it.”  Em sneered at me and went back to picking at his TV dinner.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bald and Beautiful

I was writing a blog entry when the call came.  Not this entry, but an earlier one from a different case.  My assistant Kyle called from the other room.

“Jim Fabulous on One!”

Jim’s last name isn’t really Fabulous; it is Fabulo.  But no one can resist adding the extra “us.”  And truth be told, Jim was a pretty swell guy.  The only private eye in town that I don’t consider a competitor.  Over the years Jim Fabulous has tossed several cases my way when his plate gets too full, which is quite fab indeed.

I picked up the phone.  Jim gave me the details.  His client, Marri, wanted a detective to track down her missing son.  Marri was agoraphobic, which as it turns out, has nothing to do with having a fear of driving through Agoura, California.  Jim said if I wanted the case, I’d need to stop by Marri’s apartment because she never went out of doors.

Now, I’m not agoraphobic, and I hate to judge… but why would you live in San Francisco if you were afraid of being near people?  We’re stacked four deep over here.

So two hours later I found myself in Marri’s apartment.  She may be afraid of people, but she has no fear of clutter.  Every wall in the place had a layer in front of it.  Boxes, books, and stacks of newspapers.  All she needed was some wood kindling and a match.

“Roland’s been gone for three weeks,” she lamented.  “He won’t answer his phone.  I’m worried he’s gone back to working for that bookie.”

A bookie?  Now things were getting interesting.

“Marri, do you have the name or address of this bookie character?”

“I think his name is Brice.  I have the number.  Last time Roland did call, he called from this line.”

I waited while Marri sorted through four different stacks of debris.  At last she pulled out a torn piece of notebook paper.  A telephone number was scrawled on there, next to a checklist of grocery items.  Marri tore off the half with the phone number.  Then she gave me a photo of her son Roland.  It really wasn’t necessary -- he looked just like her.  Pale and jowly.  The main difference was his head.  Whereas mom wore a tight perm, Roland shaved his head bald.

The phone number wasn’t hard to trace.  My friend at the phone company got back to me in thirty minutes with a street address.  I can’t divulge my sources, so let’s just call him Jerry.  And Jerry always comes through.

Brice the bookie lived across the street from the south side of Golden Gate Park.  As I walked up to his restored Victorian, I could hear distant drums from somewhere in the park behind the trees.  There were no brassy cymbal crashes or tubas, so that ruled out a marching band.  More likely a drum circle of Deadheads from the Haight.  I rang the bell at the first floor.  I waited as the drumming went on for four measures.  Then I rang again.

Around the side of the house, I heard a wooden screen door clatter shut.  I turned to spot Roland hoofing across the street in an orange flight jacket.  The bald dome was unmistakable.  I ran after Roland, but had to do the Frogger leap-wait-leap routine to get through passing cars.  I caught sight of Roland vanishing over a rise as he slipped through the trees.  Moving for the center of the park.

The drumming grew louder as I raced after Roland.  My own personal tribal chase soundtrack, now accompanied by chanting.  Were these Native Americans?  The path came around a bend and I charged straight at a parade of Hare Krishnas, chanting, waving, and beating their drums.  My eyes scanned the crowd for Roland… but it was useless.  Waldo would have been easier to spot.  Every single one of these Hare Krishnas sported a shaved head and an orange wrap.  Roland could have marched right past me and I would have missed him.

After they passed, I looked around the perimeter for Roland, but he was gone.  It was pointless to continue.  Instead, I trotted across the street and returned to Brice’s house.  The side door from which Roland bolted was closed but unlocked.  I entered the house.

“Hello?” I called out.

No shotgun blasts came in response.  No Ninja stars suddenly appeared in my forehead.  I felt confident I was alone, so I moved deeper in.  The first floor was well kept.  Nothing to implicate the house as the lair of a criminal.  Marri could learn a thing or two about housekeeping from Mr. Brice.  I moved upstairs.  In the second bedroom I found an old Hollywood makeup mirror fitted with a ring of naked bulbs.  Beside it sat a row of severed heads.

Let me rephrase that.

Beside it sat a row of white wig forms.  Each blank white face wore a different colored wig.  Some male, some female, some punk.  I stepped inside and examined the wigs.  This might explain Roland’s head-shaving behavior.  If he wore the wigs as disguises, a smooth scalp would make transitions that much easier.

I checked the rest of the room.  One bureau drawer held a collection of wallets with various forged ID’s.  Each had a photo of Roland wearing a different wig.  He was a master con man.

I was startled by footsteps in the hallway.

“Roland?” a man’s voice called out.

My eyes darted for a place to hide.  But there wasn’t time.  As the footsteps came to the bedroom door, I snatched a woman’s shoulder-length brunette wig and slipped it over my head.  I turned to the window as Brice entered behind me.

“I got some food,” said Brice.

Feeling like Norman Bates, I mumbled in response.

“I’ll be in the shower,” said Brice.

Shower.  He actually said that word.  I nearly laughed and reached for a butcher knife.  Brice left.  The ruse had worked.  I pulled the wig off and waited for the sound of the water pipes.  The Psycho reference struck a nerve.  I looked over at the last wig form and recognized the curly red locks.  With that on his head, Roland could easily pass for his Mother.

As she was a shut-in, I guessed Roland had been going about town impersonating her.  That certainly could be why she wanted him found.  Or perhaps that was always their arrangement?

This is San Francisco.  Lord knows, I’ve seen stranger things.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Return of the Subaru

I knew I was in for a long night, so I popped into a Starbucks for something tall and caffeinated.  As I gazed at the overpriced slices of marble loaf cake in the pastry case, the scruffy gentleman ahead of me asked the barista for a black eye.  I nearly offered to oblige the young man when I realized he was only ordering a drink.  Black coffee with two shots of espresso.  For the first time in my life, I asked for a black eye too.

Three hours later I was seated in my Mustang, draining my paper cup and wishing I’d asked for two black eyes.  I’d been sitting in a dark fog two blocks north of Taraval Street in the Sunset District, staking out the home of a bank robbery suspect.  A day before I’d had no suspects at all, but a chance encounter with a subway “resident” provided a solid lead.  But here it was nine P.M. and the house stood dark as a mausoleum at midnight.

My eyes darted to the mirror as headlights cut through the fog.  A hatchback slowed.  I watched expectantly, but the car drove past my suspect’s house and turned the corner.  It wasn’t until the hatchback made a second pass that I took note of the make and model.  The vehicle was a Subaru Tribeca in neon blue, eerily similar to the one I lost two years ago during a paranormal investigation.  I don’t normally tangle with demons and ghosts by choice, but as a favor to my girlfriend I took on the case to help her mother.  Suffice it to say, things went very badly and I lost both my girlfriend and my car.  I never thought I’d see that Subaru again.

Yet here was the spitting image, coasting through the mist.  The car even had a dent in the rear fender that matched the one I’d put in my Subaru when I backed into a mailbox.  I couldn’t say the plates matched because… well, this Subaru had no rear plate.

I was tempted to start my engine, but decided to play it cool.  I would see what this Subaru driver was up to.  By the time he made the third lap, I decided this was no coincidence.  The driver was toying with me.  Given the choice of a long stakeout or a fast car chase, I opted for the latter.

We tore along Taraval, ripping like bullets through the fog.  The Subaru made a suicidal left turn in front of a bus, forcing me to brake and wait three seconds before following.  The driver had made a grave mistake though… he was now gunning up the switchback road to the top of Twin Peaks.  There was no escape.

I lost his taillights around the next bend.  By the time I rounded the corner, he was gone.  Already a level ahead.  I pressed on and reached the parking area, where I swerved to a stop at an angle to block the road.  No one was leaving the peak without my consent.  I climbed out of my car and surveyed the lot.  Only two vehicles sat there, a mini-van and a Cadillac.  The Subaru had vanished.

I snatched a flashlight from my car and went to the Cadillac.  I knocked on the window and it lowered.  An older gentleman with a pencil mustache smiled up at me.  Sitting beside him was a stylish younger woman with a bottle of wine in her lap.

“Did you see a car come up here before me?  Blue Subaru?”

“Subaru?” the older man mused.  He turned to his friend “You see a Subaru?”

The younger woman looked horrified.

“I don’t even know what that is.”

I moved on to the mini-van.  Inside, two teenagers were making out and listening to throbbing dance music.  They didn’t notice me peering through the window, or pinning them with my flashlight.  Chances are they wouldn’t have noticed the Subaru either.

I stared up at the massive radio tower on the hill above.  Red lights aglow like some spacecraft ready for launch.  I always thought the radio tower belonged in a Godzilla movie.  It would serve as a memorable prop for the creature to break in half before being taken down by fighter planes.  Tonight there was no Godzilla and no Subaru either.  Just Crispin Darke and two romantic couples, staring down at the blanket of ethereal fog that concealed what would otherwise be a majestic view of the city lights.

I walked the perimeter of the lot with my flashlight, scanning the bushes for a sign of an off-road adventure.  I found nothing of the sort.  I drove slowly down the hill, noting the guardrails for any sign of breakage.  Alas, the Subaru had not taken a plunge; it had simply vanished like a phantom.  Did I imagine the whole thing?  I made a mental note to drop by the Starbucks again to question the manager about the ingredients in their black eye coffee.  But that could wait for tomorrow.  My next move was to hit the Ace CafĂ©, where a bourbon was waiting with my name on it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Subway Story

Today was the third day of my first bank robbery investigation.  Sure, the feds were doing their fine-tuned routine, and it usually works for them.  However, sometimes an outside approach is fruitful too.  The bank manager is a neighbor of mine and was angry that one of his tellers was pistol-whipped.  He wanted to make sure that nothing was missed, so he asked me, the only private eye he knew, for help. He said the robber had on a red ski mask and used the Powell St. BART station as his getaway route.  It made sense; bank’s side exit led straight into the subway station stairs.  My theory was that the robber rode the subway every day and knew the train arrival and departure times down to the second.  And if he were a cautious fellow, he’d keep to his routine even after making the big score.

So for three days I’ve been riding the rails during morning and evening rush hours.  I bring a Kindle with me so it appears I’m reading a Ludlum novel like half the other commuters.  In reality, I’ve been profiling my fellow riders like someone in a Ludlum novel.  So far, I haven’t spotted anyone wearing a red ski mask.  But there are other signs to look for.  Normally this case wouldn’t meet my thrilling threshold, but hey, there was a chance I could go up against an armed felon.  Preferably in a dark alley.

This morning I caught a middle-aged man with a crew cut giving me the evil eye.  His face looked familiar.  I’d bumped into him on the subway before.  He wears the gray uniform of an elevator service company.  A good occupation if you want an all-access peek into every building of the financial district… including the banks.  I looked back at my Kindle.  In my peripheral vision, I saw the elevator serviceman rise from his seat and move deeper into the car.

A minute later, voices of panic arose from down the aisle in three languages.  Two I recognized.  The third didn’t matter.  Panic is a universal language.  I spied smoke rising from the back of the car.  A seat was on fire.  As passengers rushed forward, I reached for the fire alarm.  The train continued to the next stop while the conductor tried to calm everyone over the intercom.  He sounded like he was reading from cue cards.  I’d lay money this was his first crisis on the job.

I couldn’t see the elevator man, but that was no longer my primary concern.  The doors opened and the other passengers stampeded past me like spooked cattle.  I went the opposite direction, climbing over the seats and charging into the veil of smoke.  I flung off my raincoat and smothered the flames.  As the smoke cleared, the bundle of charred cloth began to move.  I sprang to my feet, astonished to find a homeless man beneath the smoldering blankets.

“Wha’ happened?”

“You were on fire, my friend.”

“Wow, man.  Fire?”

Befuddled, the homeless man pawed around the subway floor until his fingers found a burning cigar butt.  He planted it back in his toothless maw.

“You realize that cigar started the blaze?” I asked.

“Must’a dozed off.”

“You could’ve died.”

He blinked.

“You endangered the lives of all the passengers.”

“What passengers?” he inquired. Indeed, we were the last ones in the subway car.

I mopped my hands with my face.  Then I did the reverse.  I shook out my singed raincoat and slipped my arms back into it.  What a loss.

“Lord, this has been quite the week,” the homeless man declared, “got a hunnerd dollar tip on Monday and lit myself on fire today.”

That gave me a flash of insight.

“Someone gave you a hundred dollar bill?”

He nodded with a reminiscent smile.

“Were you on the subway at the time?”

“I’m always on the subway,” he said proudly.  “I saw this dude sittin’ there with a bag full of money.  He spotted me lookin’ as he zipped it up.”

“And he paid you to stay quiet?”

“I suppose.”  He looked ashamed, as if realizing he’d just broken that covenant.

I asked the homeless man if he could describe the “dude” with the bag of money.  He could.  And he did.

It wasn’t as wasted a day as I’d originally thought.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Hobart Ghost


As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the manager of the Hobart Building in downtown San Francisco hired me to investigate the alleged paranormal activity on the 13th floor.  All snickering aside, it was tedious work combing through the digital video files of after-hours surveillance footage.  I was resigned to a long, open-ended case.

That is, until the call came in from the manager that one Terence Whitmeyer was discovered dead in his office on the 13th floor.  An apparent victim of strangulation.

I left Napa and drove across the bridge to The City, where the familiar beacons of a thousand twinkling lights beckoned me home.  You know, like in the Journey song.  The Hobart lobby was open but I needed a police escort to access the 13th floor, where Detective Norman Feasley guided me along the cordoned hallways.  Feasley and I had crossed paths a few times over the years.  He was a skeletal wraith who reminded me of Ebeneezer Scrooge without the night cap.  I kindly brought that to his attention.

“So you, Crispin,” he retorted, “are you the ghost of my past or my future?”

You have to love a guy who can dish it back.  Back to business.  SFPD wanted my hard drive of surveillance footage.  I insisted that I keep the drive, as it was part of my own ongoing investigation.

“I’d be happy to provide you with a disk copy in a few hours, Detective.”

“I’ll send a uniform by your office to pick it up,” Feasley offered in his dry croak.  “You’re still in the…”

“The Ferry Building,” I nodded.

I retrieved my drive from the office at the end of the hall.  As we passed the door to suite 1303, I glanced inside to find two CSI types dusting for latents and running their scanners.  The body had apparently been removed.

“So… Terence Whitmeyer.  You sure he was strangled?” I asked.

“Coroner will confirm.”

“Any suspects?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss.  What was your surveillance regarding?”

“A P.I. case of mine.  I’m really not at liberty to discuss.  I’m sure you understand.”

Feasley fixed me with a narrow stare.  “I want that disk in two hours.”


Back at the office, I burned a disk of the night’s footage.  While I waited for the uniform to come by, I ran the footage on my monitor.  Sure, I could have started at the end and worked backwards from the police takeover of the floor to the murder itself.  But it was more fun to start at the beginning and see what clues I might spot when Terence first entered his office.

The monitor showed only a dim hallway.  A floor of empty offices after the work day.  While I waited for some action, I brought up a few websites on my computer.  The homicide investigation was not my concern, but I had to know something about the victim.  It could be relevant to my paranormal case.  My gut told me they were one and the same.

Who might harbor a grudge against Whitmeyer?  I started by looking at civil cases in San Francisco, using this court records directory.  I input his name and found a case filed by his attorney just four weeks ago, against a “Jacob Perris.”  The Cause of Action?  Money.  Isn’t it always?  According to the online docket, a hearing was scheduled for next week.  It seemed Whitmeyer would be unavailable to attend.

Next I started a file on Jacob Perris.  I ran a Background Check on his name, and finding only one match in the Bay Area, I purchased the full report.  As I scanned the information, a flicker of light caught my eye.  I turned to the monitor showing the surveillance footage, but all was calm.  I rewound the footage by a few seconds and watched again.  Nothing appeared on the monitor.  Maybe the flicker of light wasn’t in the footage itself, but here in the office.

I turned in my chair and listened.  I could hear the creaking sound of footsteps inside my office suite.  I quietly followed and turned the corner.  There at the end of the hallway, the door to my rest room stood ajar.  It was closed a few minutes ago.

“Hello?” I queried.

The door slammed shut, making my heart jackhammer in my chest.  I took a breath to regain my composure.  Had the Hobart Ghost followed me home?

“Be sure to flush when you’re done!”  Corny, I know, but I had to show the presence I wasn’t afraid of it.

I waited for the presence to emerge, but it was reluctant.  A knock from the other end of the hall signaled the arrival of the patrolman.  I handed off the disk and bid him a good night.  When I came back to my desk, I saw that my monitor was off.  The surveillance footage no longer played out for my entertainment.




When I got my drive running again, I found that the surveillance footage from the Hobart building was gone.  Wiped clean.  It might have been a computer or drive error, but I suspect not.  Whatever presence I heard in the office moments before had monkeyed with my footage.

All I could do was move forward with my Internet research.  According to the basic background details on Jacob Perris that I found using Public Records, he lived in the Mission District and used to own a hotel nearby, through his corporation called Endsects Partners, Inc.  I checked California Corporations to verify that his company was defunct.  A search of California bankruptcies, judgments, and liens explained the slow demise of his business.

It was time to pay Mr. Perris a visit.  A couple of BART stops put me four blocks from Jacob’s row house in the Mission District.  If you ever wondered what an immigrant’s America looks like, you simply must visit the Mission.  With my height and pale Anglo skin, I stood out like a banana in a bowl of mixed grapes.  I made a mental note to avoid fruit similes in the future.

As I approached the house, a man came down the stairs toward me.  It was none other than Detective Feasley.

“I see Scrooge is back on the beat,” I summarized.

“And so is my Crispin Cratchit.  But I wonder if he hasn’t confused his assignment.”

“A tenant of the building I am investigating dies by foul play, I figure anyone in his circle could be related to my case as well.  Did you speak with Jacob?”

“He isn’t home.  Girlfriend says he’s been keeping odd hours.  Probably hooked on smack.”

“That’s rather pessimistic,” I teased.

“What else can I be when I live in such a world of fools as this?”

Feasley knew his Dickens.  Maybe he’d been rehearsing since our last meeting.

“I hate to ask this, Detective…” I began, “but could I trouble you for a copy of that disk I made for you?  Seems my original file has been corrupted.”

“That’s not surprising, Cratchit.  I’ll have an extra sent in the mail.”

There was no sense arguing over delivery options.  Feasley had the ball and he was in no hurry to pass it back.

“You want to share a cab back downtown?” I offered.  “Maybe we could stop for a pizza.  Or are you watching your skeletal figure?”

A muffled BANG sounded behind us.  We jerked our heads toward Jacob’s house.

“Gunshot,” I surmised.

“38,” he concluded.  Feasley took a moment to radio in for backup, then he drew his service pistol and charged for the door.  His spindly foot battered it open.  Without thinking, I ran in to cover him.  I didn’t have any conventional weapons with me, but I’ve been known to improvise.



I rushed into Jacob Perris’ house on the police detective’s heels.  Someone had just fired a  gun in there, presumably Jacob’s girlfriend.  We cleared the ground floor, then headed upstairs.  A door slammed somewhere to the right, so Feasley broke left while I broke right to the closed door.  I pulled it open to find an empty bathroom.  The window was shut and barred on the outside.  The sink faucet was loose.  Hot water gurgled down the drain.  It gave me a spooky feeling, like the other night in my office.

“Anything?”  Feasley stuck his head in.

“If someone slammed this door, they must have left another way.”

“She’s dead,” he admitted.

I followed him down the hall to the bedroom on the left.  There we found Jacob’s girlfriend, a petite Cambodian woman with a .38 in her right hand.  She left a lot of blood behind for such a small person.  I was in the City for the infamous ’89 quake.  I was shopping for a lasagna recipe when the whole grocery store jolted to the left and then to the right.  You can imagine what 40 jars of Ragu look like when they crash to the linoleum.  Jacob’s bedroom looked a lot like that.  That’s the nicest picture I can paint for you, I’m sorry to say.

“If she did pull the trigger, does that mean she’s the Hobart killer?”  I didn’t believe so, but it helped to think out loud.

“She couldn’t have strangled Whitmeyer,” reasoned Feasley.  “Look at the size of her hands.  She could barely choke a kitten with those mittens.”

“Then it was guilt?  She knew Jacob had a hand in the murder?”

“Or in something larger,” sighed Feasley.

“That door slammed after we heard the shot,” I reminded him.  “Someone else was in here.”

“Then I’m treating this as a crime scene until further notice.  Which means you need to get lost, Darke.  You were never here.”

I could hear the sirens in the distance.  I needed to find a clue and get an edge on Feasley while I still had time.  I told him I wanted to be sure I’d left nothing in the bathroom.  I had a funny feeling about that hot water tap.

When I returned to the bathroom, I closed myself in and pulled the stopper.  The sink area soon filled with steam, and I was not half-surprised to see the message that appeared on the mirror, written by an unknown messenger’s fingertip.  It was some type of numeric code:  S167M43301.  Can ghosts write on mirrors?

I copied the code into my pocket notebook, then wiped the mirror clean and turned off the faucet.  I had neither the tools nor the time to dust for prints on the mirror.  I had to go on faith that the clue was meant for me by some helpful third party.

Instead of heading back to the office, I returned home to my flat on Sutter Street.  I fired up my laptop and sat down to crack this latest clue.  The letters were the key to the code.  It was too long to be a plate number or a locker number.  It had to be a file number or case number.

I went to this online California criminal records directory and plugged the code into a few court record databases.  First I tried Marin County on Page 2.  Nothing matched.  Then I tried Sacramento County on Page 3.  Still no match for the format.  On Page 4 I found the link for San Mateo County Criminal Court Filings.  When I pasted the number in there, it found a match… a criminal record in Redwood City for “Perris, Arlen.”

Now who was Arlen Perris?  A relative of Jacob Perris, I could only assume.  I tried a people search, but it indicated that Arlen Perris of Redwood City was deceased.  A quick check of the Social Security Death Administration site confirmed it.  The interesting thing was… Arlen died exactly a year ago.  The anniversary of his death was today.  A betting man might wager that Arlen’s friends or foes might show up to commemorate the occasion.  Where was Arlen Perris interred?  My hunch was that if he lived in Redwood City, he would have chosen to spend eternity in Colma, the necropolis just up the freeway.  The valley of Colma is host to a large number of cemeteries and some of them have directories of their “residents.”  I tried a few, such as this one for Cypress Lawn.  All it took was the entry of two words to confirm his final resting place.  Arlen.  Perris.


I spent the afternoon strolling through Cypress Lawn until I located the marker for Arlen Perris.  I moved several yards away to a reflecting pool and waited until dusk for someone to pay their respects.  Anyone would do.  But no one lingered by his grave long enough to capture my interest.  As night began to fall, I strolled back to Arlen’s grave.  The grounds would be closing in a few minutes and then I would effectively be a trespasser.  As I approached the marker, I spotted a new bouquet of white roses lying by Arlen’s marker.  I was quite certain they weren’t there before.

I turned in a circle, looking for the last-minute visitor, but there was no one around except me.  I approached the roses.  As I bent down to retrieve the bouquet… the grass beneath my feet gave way and the earth sank into the grave.  I caught myself on the rim before I could topple into the trap.  As I climbed up, a figure in black whisked out from behind a tree.  I only caught a glimpse before it struck me in the face with something hard.  My head blazed with pain and my eyes flashed white.  Blinded, I grappled with the assailant, but he tore loose and ran off in the dark.

Lights bounced somewhere in the distance.  As I stumbled and cleared my head, a security guard arrived in his golf cart.  It was the beacons of his floodlights that prompted the assailant to flee.

“Park is closed, senor.”  His attitude went away when he saw the blood dripping from my face.  “Dios mio!  What happened?”

“I followed the wrong bread crumbs."

That confused the guard, but he gave me a ride back to my car.  Whoever had attacked me, he was flesh and blood... not a ghost.  That gave me some sense of hope.


The earliest I could get in to visit Detective Feasley was the following morning.  My black eye had settled to a pea green color.  The last thing I wanted to do was recount for Feasley my cemetery encounter with the masked assailant.  Fortunately, he responded to my injury in a different way.

“Good morning, Crispin.  I see you’re dating again.”

“She’s a handful.”

“The girlfriend wasn’t suicide,” he admitted.  “No residue on her hands.”

“Not surprising.  You think Perris killed her?”

“Who knows?”

I could tell Feasley wanted me gone.

“I haven’t received that copy of the Hobart footage.  Can I watch yours?”

Feasley apologized and said his technical people were examining the footage at another location.  Then he feigned an imminent staff meeting and vanished down the corridor.  No matter.  I needed to get back to work on my own.  Perris was a suspect in my book, and still at large.

Back at my office, I searched California court records to bring up the civil case for Whitmeyer vs. Perris.  Contentious as it was, the dollar amount in dispute hardly warranted a murder in cold blood.  I figured Whitmeyer must have more skeletons in his closet.  And if skeletons were on the agenda, what better place to look than the lair of the Hobart Ghost?


I returned to the 13th Floor of the Hobart Building.  For most workers there it was business as usual.  The hallway was vacant, so I picked the lock to Whitmeyer’s office and slipped inside.  The place was still a mess from the murder and subsequent investigation.  With my latex gloves still firm around my hands, I sorted through the papers on Whitmeyer’s desk and in his files.  In a pile of magazines and other debris, I found a Valentine’s card given to Whitmeyer, signed by “Gina.”  It didn’t take long to find the pink envelope matching the card.  There for my pleasure was her return address sticker.  Her name was Gina Rosetti.

A heard a creaking sound from the next room.  I shifted to the wall, ready for an entrance by the unknown visitor.  The doorknob twisted slowly, but the door did not open.  Instead, I heard a spine-wrenching squeal, like nails on a chalkboard.

I lunged for the door and opened it.  The next room was Whitmeyer’s supply area.  It had no windows or other exit doors.  I saw no one inside, and though the room had shelves of office supplies, I found no hiding place large enough to conceal a person.

“I’ll be going now,” I announced to the ghost.  And I was true to my word.

I went home directly and tried a people search.  I input Gina’s name and address and received a report with her profile.  Her address history showed links to other family members, including “Antonio Rosetti.”

I searched the San Francisco property tax database.  I input some of Antonio’s addresses, and based on the high value of the homes, I suspected that Gina was the daughter of the same Antonio Rosetti believed to be part of a mafia crime family.

That was interesting.  V-Day was a few months back.  I needed to know if Gina and Whitmeyer were still dating at the time of his murder.  I thought of a few outlandish tactics to uncover this information, but opted for the direct approach – I called Gina from my caller ID-blocked outgoing line.


“Is this is Gina Rosetti?”

“Speaking.”  Her voice was calm, matter-of-fact.  Certainly not of the bereaved tone.

“This is Marshall from Victoria’s Secret.  I’m sorry to bother you, but Mr. Whitmeyer has you down as a second name on his account.  There’s an outstanding balance and we’ve been unable to reach him.”

“Wait a minute.  You’re saying I owe you for the stuff he bought me?”

“Um… well…”

“Terry’s dead.  And we broke up a month ago.  I didn’t give anyone authorization to put my name on the account.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss.”  A huge smile spread across my face.

“Jerks like Terry think they can smack women around and make things better by sending presents.”

“That’s awful,” I admitted.  “I’m sorry to bother you.”

I hung up the phone and imagined how Antonio might have responded upon learning that his daughter was being beaten by an insurance salesman.  Heck, I imagined how I would respond if I were in his shoes.  For the first time in this case, I had a true motive.

Jacob Perris, however, still remained a wildcard.



By late afternoon I was back in my office, returning messages and emails concerning other matters.  When the microwave beeped I pulled out my defrosted lunch and peeled back the plastic cover.  What horror.  I should have left it frozen.  The pungent odor was a far cry from the picture on the box.  So much for the China Star Lite brand.


Kyle ran in from the foyer.

“I thought you were heading home early.”

“There’s police all over the marina.  Boats and everything.”

“They find a jumper?”

“I don’t know, but Feasley’s there.”

I dumped my China Star chicken a la rat and grabbed my coat.

Ten minutes later I double-parked at the marina and slithered through the growing crowd of onlookers.  Down on the beach I found Feasley standing over a covered body.  Cops and fishermen huddled around him.  I waved from behind the police cordon and Feasley eventually approached.

“Cratchit.  Why don’t you join the force.  It would make this a lot easier.”

“Would you put in a good word for me?”


A seagull landed on the shrouded body.  A cop waved it away.

“Who’s the victim?  Anyone we know?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”  Feasley pointed to the three fisherman giving statements to another plainclothes detective.  “Their fishing line dragged up a weighted body.”

“So it wasn’t a bridge jumper.”

“Not unless he jumped with a weight belt on.”

Feasley grinned at me, enjoying the suspense.  I resisted the urge to give his ear a full twist.  Instead I merely grinned back.

“Are you going to tell me who they dragged out of the water?”

“A red herring,” Feasley joked.  “It’s Jacob Perris.”


That evening Detective Feasley was kind enough to invite me back to the station.  I brought him four China Star Lite frozen dinners in return.  We speculated on the implications of Jacob’s murder.  His killer wanted the body to disappear, possibly so Feasley and I would continue searching for Jacob as the suspect in Whitmeyer’s murder.  If that were true, it meant that Jacob was framed from the start, and his girlfriend was killed as part of the set-up.

I shared with Feasley my suspicion that Antonio Rosetti was behind Whitmeyer’s death.  But it was only a theory, lacking any real evidence.

Feasley popped a disk into his computer and finally allowed me to view the uncorrupted footage from the Hobart building on the night of Whitmeyer’s murder.  He cued the footage to a certain point and we watched the hallway on the 13th floor as the door to the men’s room opened and man in dark clothing emerged, wearing a black ski mask.  He crept to Whitmeyer’s door and vanished inside.

“That could be the guy who assaulted me at the cemetery,” I admitted.

“So that’s where you got the shiner.”

“Does this show him going into the men’s room?”

“No.  Either he came in through the window…”

“Of the thirteenth floor?”

“… or he came in during regular hours, hid inside, and then put on the mask.”

That was my guess too.  But Feasley had already tasked a technician with studying the footage from start to finish to track everyone who entered and exited the men’s room.

“It’s simple,” I explained.  “The one who goes into the bathroom, but doesn’t emerge during business hours is your guy.”

Feasley grunted.  “I know, Crispin, but in one case a few men come out simultaneously and the faces aren’t captured clearly.”

“Show me.”

Feasley tracked through the various cued points of the footage, using the chart drawn up by his technician.  In one frame I spied a familiar man entering the men’s room.

“I know him.  Does he come out?”

We checked through the footage.  It didn’t appear so.

“Who is he?”  Feasley was puzzled.

“You’re not familiar with Oz?”

“Should I be?”

He used many aliases, and I never did determine his legal name, but Oz was a shadow figure rumored to have ties to Rosetti’s crime family.  I bumped into him once in Daly City while tailing James Marco, a “person of interest” in another case.  At four in the morning as I sat in my Mustang in the parking lot of Floyd’s Early Bird diner, Marco emerged from his Cadillac and Oz appeared out of nowhere.  I looked into his eyes as Oz found mine.  He pinned me with a stare as he plunged a needle into Marco’s neck.  I started my engine and tried to catch Oz, but he eluded me in a high-speed chase using Marco’s Caddy.

“Oz prides himself with being invisible,” I explained to Feasley.  “I may be the only P.I. who has seen his face.”

Feasley caught up with me and laid it out.

“So Rosetti hires Oz to kill Whitmeyer.  Oz does the deed, but then sees you coming into the Hobart building and finds out you’ve been filming there as part of a supernatural investigation.  He knows you will recognize his face, so he destroys your hard drive and he gas-lights you, hoping you’ll confuse the murder investigation with the Hobart Ghost case.”

“But he knows that won’t stick for long, so he also frames Jacob Perris.”

“And he tries to kill you before you can piece it all together.”

It added up, but until we could catch Oz, we couldn’t know for sure.  We had to connect Oz to Rosetti with something firmer than a rumor or theory.  Feasley cracked his knuckles.

“I hate these cases where some wildcard shows up in the last act.  I like to have my suspects up front and close in on the right one in a nice, logical sequence.”

I reminded Feasley that real detective work is not always like a mystery novel.

“The way I see it,” I began “Oz is the real phantom here.  He’s been trailing me from the start.  I’ll bet he knows I’m here right now, watching this footage.”

“So you have a plan?” Feasley asked.

Indeed, I did.


It was late when I left the police station.  The fog had rolled back in, giving the streetlights an eerie glow.  As I walked alone, my footsteps echoed across the street.  Fog can play tricks with your eyes as well as your ears.  It can subvert sounds and throw them in different directions.  At one point I stopped and the echo of my steps continued, almost as if they belonged to someone else.

I thought of Jack the Ripper, stalking his victims in the dank London streets, using the fog as his cloak.  I turned around and stared into the mist… waiting for an apparition to emerge.  I didn’t realize that Oz was actually ahead of me at that point, so when I turned my back, he came up behind me silently and threw an arm around my neck.  The same move he pulled on Marco before injecting the poison.  I was expecting that part at least.

I curled into Oz and threw him over my shoulder.  As he scrambled back to his feet, seven police officers charged out of the mist and tackled him.  Feasley made his entrance at last.

“Nice work, Crispin.  You okay?”

“Never better.”

We found a cell phone in Oz’s jacket.  I scrolled through his call log and recognized a sequence of digits from my earlier research.  When I dialed, Antonio Rosetti answered.

“Why are you calling?”

“This is Oz,” I said.  “The cops are on to me.  They know about Perris and Whitmeyer.”

There was a long, delicious pause.

“If they know your face, I can’t hire you any more.”

“That’s okay, Mr. Rosetti.  I think I’m going to retire.”

I hung up the phone and smiled at Feasley.  We’d made the link.

As the officers cuffed Oz and marched him to the station, Feasley and I stood together in the dark.  Unlikely but effective partners.

“There’s one thing I still don’t understand,” Feasley admitted.  “Who or what is the original Hobart Ghost?”

I didn’t know.  And perhaps it was better that way.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

N is for Knife

She was attractive enough. I'll give her that. Sharp, well spoken.  A nice dresser.  When we sat down for dinner at the hotel restaurant in Union Square, I assumed she would make for a perfect client.  However, halfway through the meal and her pitch, I had to stop her.

"I'm sorry.  You seem like an interesting person and I like your sense of humor. The trouble is, I can't take on your case."

"Why not?" she inquired.  "We need to find out who is vandalizing the neighborhood."

"Of course," I replied.  "And I wish you luck."

"So what's the problem?"

"I mean no offense, but your case just isn't... thrilling enough.  I am Crispin Darke, Thrilling Detective."

My never-to-be-client stared through the 14-foot plate glass window at the lights along the arches of the Bay Bridge. From 42 floors up, the bridge actually managed to appear small.

"At least we can finish the meal and this bottle of wine."

"You don't have to cover dinner," I assured her.  "It's been a nice evening."

She poured herself a second glass of wine, but I stayed true to my whiskey sour.  Never did like wine for that matter.  The label read "Viognier."  What in the world is that?  The veal, however, was superb.

My mind wandered to the thrilling cases already on my plate.  There was Dr. Omar, the deadbeat dentist who sold off his equipment and x-ray machines in Reno. The bank wanted their hundred grand back from Dr. Omar for said equipment, but he was playing hard to get. Rumor had it he blew the cash on a cocaine binge and was hiding outsomewhere in the Bay Area with a couple of prostitutes and two canisters of nitrous oxide.  I guess drilling teeth all day will do that to you.

Then there was the matter of the disturbances on the 13th floor of the Hobart building.  In a few hours I'd be reviewing the footage from the surveillance cameras I set up in the hallways and offices.  The cause of the spooky footsteps, wall-poundings, and spontaneous eruptions of flame was probably a demon or ghost.  I hoped it turned out to be the latter.  My last case involving a demon didn't go so well.  I lost my client, my girlfriend, and my Subaru wagon.

After dinner I strolled home through the gathering fog, my black-leather coat a shell against the bone-chilling cold.  I turned right on Mason and leaned into the steep grade.  At this point, the stroll became an arduous climb.  A left on Sutter and I had a slight reprieve.

Ten yards ahead, I came across a street punk kicking the beans out of a homeless man.  I recognized the victim as Willy, who earned his nickname for the faded and stained purple suit he wore, straight out of Willy Wonka's wardrobe.  I removed my shoes for two reasons, the first being that it allowed me to approach the punk from behind without being heard.  The second reason became clear to the punk a few moments later, when I batted his ears with the heel of each shoe.  The punk spun around, palms pressed to his head in surprise.  As he stared at me with wide green eyes, the silver studs piercing each of his black eyebrows glinted from the streetlight.

He made a move to come at me.  I turned quickly, leaned back, and caught him crisply in the solar plexus with my socked foot..  The punk grunted, stumbled into the street and tripped over his baggy denim pants.

"Go hit on somebody with less style," I advised.  He wobbled away into the night.

"Thanks, Crispin," said Willy.  I tossed him a dollar and slipped my shoes back on.

"That all you got?"

"I'm afraid I've depleted my handout fund, Willy, but I'll give you five bucks for the hat."

Willy pulled his purple top hat snug on his head. "Hell no.  Where would I stash my toilet papers?"

My mobile phone buzzed, so I had to bid Willy adieu.  "Crispin Darke, thrilling detective," I answered.  The voice on the other end was female, and quite young.

"Detective Darke... my name is Morinne Moorehouse. I need your help.  Can you come to my winery in Napa Valley?"

"I'm really not much of a wine guy," I admitted.

"This isn't about wine," she assured me. "It might be about old secrets." 

It always is.  I asked her to send an email with her contact info.  In the morning I would decide if it was worth the drive to Napa. At least the parking there was cheaper than in the city.  A lot cheaper.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The next morning I hopped on a cable car on the California Line and rode the rails down to the Embarcadero.  Not nearly as fun as playing Bullitt with my Mustang GT down the same stepped hills.  For safety reasons, I only do that after 11 PM when traffic is light.  Less chance of sideswiping a taxi or bicycle messenger.

 My office is in the Ferry Building, so on weekday mornings I endure the foot traffic from the bridge and tunnel crowds down at the end of Market Street.  San Francisco is a commuter city and I’m one of the lucky ones that doesn’t have to set aside an extra hour to get to work.  I crossed at the light and inhaled the crisp air of the Financial District.  It actually smells like a brand new 20-dollar bill straight out of the freezer.  Unless, of course, you happen to be passing by Willy or one of his other friends.  Most smell more like old pennies on the floor of a movie theater.

“Shine ‘em up!” cried the shoe shine man at the curb, a carnival barker in a circus of suits and business skirts.  A few feet away sat Transistor Joe, a mentally ill former Berkeley grad student who parks himself on a bench each day with a radio and debates with the talk show hosts.  The rapid-fire speech of Transistor Joe reminded me of a manic Christopher Lloyd character.

At nine I made it to my office.  Bleary eyed from watching three hours of Hobart surveillance footage the night before, I poured a third cup of coffee.  All I could make out from the footage was a shadow that appeared to take five careful steps every ten minutes.  That’s all I need… another obsessive-compulsive spirit, I told myself.

The lumbering footsteps in the hallway preceded the arrival of Kyle, my assistant.  Poor guy.  Kyle suffers from severe short-term memory loss.  I have fired him on several occasions, but Kyle always seems to forget and shows up the following day, ready to try his best again.  He says his medical marijuana is helping, but I think it’s his prescription that’s the problem.

"There you are, Kyle.  How was the ride in?"

"Subway was crowded.  I lost my BART pass.  Oh... here it is."  Kyle discovered his pass hiding in his left hand.

"When you get situated, look for an email from Morinne Moorehouse.  I want to run up a profile on her."

After getting burned a few times, I made it standard practice to investigate my clients before investigating their cases.  Kyle collapsed into his chair and stared at the cork-board mounted over his desk.  Kyle had pinned dozens of 3x5 cards on the board, each with a different clue that helped him perform his daily duties.  The note cards prompted Kyle with helpful tips like "Wash Your Hands" and "Turn PC on" and other meaningful bits of information such as passwords and usernames.

I sipped my coffee and counted sailboats in the Bay.  It looked like a postcard day of fun on the water, but I wasn’t fooled.  The Bay is a cold witch that doesn’t like flies on her back.  She swats at them with frosty waves and icy winds.

An hour later, I checked on Kyle.  He may have trouble remembering things, but he’s a whiz at finding information and keeps careful notes.  He sat me down at his keyboard and walked me through what he’d accomplished so far.  I brought Google up in the browser and I typed in “Public Records,” knowing that the first result would be our favorite site at  I first went to Search Systems' Corporations and Companies database and looked up the California Corporation ownership for the winery, then went back to the home page and input “Napa” into the county search field and looked at what was available for Napa County Public Records.

 I looked at Kyle’s notes and saw that he was right, had about 20 Napa County online databases listed.  Nothing for Morinne in Napa County criminal records, warrants, or even traffic tickets.  That said a lot.  Kyle showed me how to find the Moorehouse family and winery property records.  I ran the impressive list of parcel numbers through the Napa County GIS map service and whistled.          

"We like wealthy clients." Kyle grinned.

I looked at the map and the printed documents Kyle had found online.  "She’s also generous.  Morinne heads three different charities."

"So you're going?"

"I'll get the Mustang and head to Napa in time for lunch.  You hold down the fort here."

Kyle nodded and studied his corkboard again.  Every man has a crutch, I suppose.


I tore the Mustang across four lanes of paved bridge, taking advantage of the mid-morning lull in traffic. Most was going the other way on the level above me, into the city. I was bound for the east side of the bay. I always got a chuckle out of the movie The Graduate, when Dustin Hoffman takes his car eastbound across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley, and the camera follows him on the upper deck. Everyone knows the eastbound traffic is on the lower deck of the bridge, not the upper deck. They must have shut the entire bridge down to get that shot of Dustin driving the wrong way.

Once I got loose from the tangled artery of highways between Berkeley and Oakland, the land opened up and it was like driving through the countryside. A warm breeze greeted me, carrying the smell of some kind of tree. I’m sure there’s a scented candle named after it, but I’m no good with tree names, or candle names for that matter. I’m usually more concerned with the names on mailboxes, gravestones, and bogus checks. It did smell a lot like the inside of Kyle’s knapsack, and I made a mental note to look into his frequent “cigarette” breaks.

An hour later, I rolled into Napa Valley. I must have passed a dozen wineries on the way to Moorehouse. Tourists buzzed up and down the row of wine houses like bees on a pollination marathon. Why not pick one spot and settle down for the afternoon? The wine culture still eluded me. Wine seemed like a strange obsession... I suppose not entirely unlike my passion for digging up the truth while dodging knives and flying projectiles.

I found the Moorehouse winery set back from the main road a quarter mile up a gentle incline. I could see the Moorehouse estate across the vineyard, set apart from the winery buildings. With all the giddy tourists stopping by, it made perfect sense for the family to want their privacy. I sure as hell would.

I waited in the foyer of the house while a servant went to fetch Morinne. Everything about the house was a shade of brown or tan. It had a Native American adobe look, with woven rugs on the floors and walls boasting tribal designs I was not qualified to interpret. The wide-open space of it all came like a welcome balm. The claustrophobia of San Francisco can become so permanent you forget there are other ways to live. I felt like a sardine, escaped from his can.

Morinne entered, poised like few 25-year olds ever are. She reminded me of Tiger Woods' wife. Sorry, ex-wife. The kind of girl I’d make the mistake of hitting on at Safeway. The kind that would reject me with a sympathetic smile.

"Crispin Darke, at your service."

"You're younger than I expected." Her crystal blue eyes appraised me.

"I have an old soul," I explained. "No one will let me trade it in." At a solid six-foot four, it wasn’t my age that usually commanded respect.

Morinne showed me to her father's study. The soft Native American theme ended here. Like any rich man-room, the study was decorated and appointed with the trappings of wealth and power. I need to get a room like that someday. Leather couches, brushed steel portrait frames, a glass coffee table, a cigar humidor. Strong and solid items, made to last.

"My father passed away a few weeks ago."

"My condolences," I said, hoping it sounded sincere. I'd read up on Louis Moorehouse and his heart attack at age 77 through an obituary site Kyle had found online for me. Louis was already in his fifties when he fathered Morinne.

"I found this in the closet." Morinne produced a small wooden box with a broken lock. It looked quite old.

"This was your father’s?"

"I assumed it was my grandfather's. It was in a box with other stuff my father inherited from his father. Like this knife I used to pry open the box." Morinne showed me a tarnished combat knife on her father's desk. An old war relic by the looks of it.

"And inside the box you found...?"

Morinne smiled and opened a desk drawer. She handed me a yellowed paper, a legal document, signed and stamped. It was a title deed, dated June 14, 1928. I held it carefully and read it doubly so.

"This appears to be a title deed to property here in Napa."

"Our property, I think," said Morinne. "Or one nearby. Look at the owner."

I did. Ernest Sandoval was listed on the document as legal owner.

"As far as I know, my grandfather was the original and only owner of this property. He started the winery."

"Your grandfather, Albert Moorehouse?" I watched her nod sincerely. "So who is Ernest Sandoval?"

"That's what I need you to figure out," explained Morinne. "And if that land has any correlation with ours."

I was impressed by her honest nature, but I worried she might be a tad more naive than her poise would suggest. This land and winery was worth millions now. That’s what made this case interesting enough to meet my criteria.

“I’ll see what I can do, Miss Moorehouse.”

I told her I would return to my office to start the research. Morinne insisted that I stay in the house as her guest while I conducted the investigation. We compromised by finding a bed and breakfast nearby called Wagon Wheel where I could do my work. The Wheel was close enough to do any field work needed, but not directly under the client's nose. I made that mistake in 2006 and never will again.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The Wagon Wheel was a quaint affair with a broken wagon parked in the front yard. It would have been fine if the owner hadn’t painted the house in Mary Kaye pink and the wagon to match. A color like that attracts bees, which I’m allergic to.

Thankfully, the interior wasn’t as garish. I endured some small talk in the foyer with the owner, a 60-ish woman named Mae, and a couple of wine tourists from Los Angeles. I escaped an invitation to the Robert Mondavi winery by feigning a migraine.

"It feels like a small troll is inside my head, stabbing my optic nerve with an ice pick," I explained. "While screaming the lyrics to Mony Mony at the top of his tiny lungs."

The tourists made faces at each other and vacated the room. Not everyone is a Billy Idol fan. Mae fetched me an Advil and offered me a neck rub, which I politely declined.

Once safely locked in my room upstairs, I linked my laptop to their router and poured myself a whiskey. Armed with a photocopy of the newly discovered 1928 deed, I checked back with for online recorded documents in Napa County. Unfortunately their database didn’t offer deeds or mortgages prior to the 80’s, so it looked like I was going to have to make a visit to the Napa Recorder’s Office.

A short drive later and I was looking at the official file copy. To my surprise, the document the Recorder’s Office provided did not match the one from Morinne. The filing numbers and dates were different. Morinne’s was from 1928 and the county’s was dated February 4, 1930. Sandoval was listed as owner on both. I found a more recent deed from 1934 that listed new owners, James and Annabel Horriner. Perhaps the Depression forced the Sandovals to relocate.

By looking up the address of the Moorehouse estate, the truth became clearer: The Moorehouses and Sandovals were neighbors from 1928 to 1934. I made photocopies of the recorder’s deeds while turning over the facts in my mind. Why wasn’t the first Sandoval deed in the county files? And why did Albert Moorehouse have a copy of his neighbor’s title deed in a locked box? There was one man I could trust to help me solve this riddle and I needed to see him soon.


The following morning I met with Mr. Raine in Vallejo. Not at his office, but in River Park, under the Sears Point Road bridge. It was a quiet overcast morning and we loitered like henchmen in our trench coats while wary gulls watched us from the far bank of the Napa River. The water gurgled past as Mr. Raine compared the deeds I brought.

Mr. Raine is a long-time client of mine. A shrewd title attorney, and one of the few kindred souls with a darker sense of humor than my own. Mr. Raine prefers not to be seen in public with me and for that I take no offense. I have been his secret weapon during many an investigation. We are a lethal team. First, I track down the con men that have defrauded the title insurance companies. Then, using only incisive questions, Mr. Raine makes them cry. He says that he aims for dry heaves but will settle for tears. That is his gift.

Once I helped Mr. Raine win a judgment against a fraudster named Nicky Hosht in Seattle. Acting quickly Mr. Raine cleaned out Nicky’s bank accounts and transferred the money back to the title company. Upon discovering his sudden misfortune, Nicky called Mr. Raine and promised to drive down to Vallejo to kill him. Mr. Raine calmly brought up a map of the best driving route and sent it to Nicky, and also made a motel reservation in Vallejo, in Nicky’s name.

“Before you come to kill me, you’ll need your rest,” explained Mr. Raine.

Nicky lost his nerve and never came down to confront Mr. Raine. I was disappointed to hear that. It would have been a very interesting meeting of the minds.

“So, Mr. Darke, what brings you to Vallejo?” A joke? He knew damn well why I was there. “You miss my company, I assume.” Mr. Raine offered a sardonic smile.

“I’m missing something, I guess.”

“Only the crux of your entire case.”

Mr. Raine pointed to the legal description on the first 1928 deed and showed me the matching description on the 1930 deed. Almost matching, I should add. The property line had shifted… in Moorehouse’s favor.

“I’ll be damned,” I admitted. “The property lines in the Moorehouse deed line up perfectly with those in the 1930 Sandoval deed.”

“But there’s no earlier Moorehouse deed, is there? And the 1928 Sandoval deed gives Ernie thirty percent of Moorehouse’s property.”

“You think Sandoval sold off a chunk to Moorehouse?”

“If the sale was legal, it would be recorded at the county.”

Mr. Raine was correct, yet nothing of the sort appeared in my search. We both jumped to the next conclusion – someone may have moved the property line and covered it up with falsified documents. There were no fences around the vineyards back then; property lines existed only on the deeds.

“They’re both large properties,” I reasoned. “In the grand scheme of things, would thirty percent really give Moorehouse an advantage in grape harvesting?”

“A question for the wine experts,” Mr. Raine advised. “Assuming he’s now dead, how did Sandoval buy the farm? Natural causes?”

“I’m getting to that. If he is dead, Ms. Moorehouse may need an heir search to clear the title on the family property.”

“Or your client could simply lose the 1928 deed and the box it came in.” Mr. Raine smiled with a twinkle in his eye.

“I figured you’d say that.”

“How many people know of its existence?”

“The three of us.”

Mr. Raine raises his eyebrows. “I never heard anything about it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Raine.” We trudged back through the park.

“How goes the Hobart demon case?” Mr. Raine was well informed about my other work.

“It isn’t a demon. It’s a ghost of some sort.”

“I hope so. For your sake.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

On the drive back to Napa, I called Kyle at the office. He said there were three calls for me and relayed the messages he’d scribbled on his pad for the first two. During the third call, he’d forgotten to write down the message, so it vanished into the void. Frankly, I was impressed that Kyle remembered there was a third call, even if he could not recall the details.

I reminded Kyle to search the Social Security Death Index in order to find Ernest Sandoval’s death record. Once Kyle could match that to our subject, based on the scant information on the title deeds, he could order an informational copy of Sandoval’s death certificate, by using Vitalchek.

In the meantime, I returned to the Wagon Wheel and dodged a few bees in the front yard. Mae had a spread of pastries and coffee in the foyer, but to partake meant to engage in conversation with the other patrons. I was on the clock, so I quickly moved upstairs to my makeshift office without a word.

I checked email on my laptop and found a message from Kyle. In the half hour since I last spoke with him, Kyle remembered that he already looked up the information on Sandoval the night before, after I’d checked in with him. Kyle also ordered the death certificate last night. It would be arriving at the Wagon Wheel address today by courier. I telephoned Kyle again.

“Kyle, did you write down any of the information from the death index?”

“Yes. Right here… Sandoval died on January 28, 1930.”

I thought about it for a moment. So the second deed was filed on February 4, 1930… just days later. How very curious.

“Good work, Kyle. Take a long lunch today if you need it.”

I knew that Kyle’s favorite lunch stop was a soup place in North Beach. To make it there and back within an hour, Kyle had to sprint both ways, and often his take-out soup container sloshed open on the return hustle.

An hour later, UPS dropped off an envelope for me. I tore it open to find the death certificate for Ernest Sandoval. Cause of death? A puncture wound to his lung. I felt my pulse quicken. This is the thrill I live for.

Sandoval’s death may very well have been a homicide.


Twenty minutes later I strolled up to the Napa County Sheriff’s Department main office. It was an intimidating building with a windowed tower above the main entrance that reminded me of a widow’s walk on a typical New England harbor home. I wondered if there were any widows up there waiting for their lost sailors. The desk sergeant glared at me. His name badge read “G. Ramos.”

“I’m Crispin Darke, private detective.” I showed him my identification. “Can you tell me how I can pull an old homicide file from 1930?”

“Crisp and dark? Did someone leave you in the sun too long?”

“That’s quite funny. I’m thinking of doing some amateur standup. You should join me.”

Sgt. Ramos did stand up. He was three inches taller than me. I squinted up at him and did my best Dirty Harry impression.

“So can you help me, or should I see the chief?”

Sgt. Ramos pulled a pen from his breast pocket and clicked it with slow menace.

“What’s the name?”

I showed him the death certificate copy and Sgt. Ramos kindly suggested that I check back in a week or so. I explained that I was only in town for a brief visit and that I needed the file today.

“We can’t give you a file.”

“I just want to know the results of the investigation. Was it ruled a homicide? Was anyone prosecuted? Maybe you can give me the broad strokes, since I’m just a PI and not smart enough to be a real Sheriff’s Deputy.”

I offered to pay a research fee to the department and left a fifty on his desk for expenses. Sgt. Ramos grumbled to me that it would take an hour. I think I made a new friend.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Since I had an hour to kill, I called Morinne and met her for lunch. Much to my relief, she chose a local French bistro that seemed more of a local secret than a tourist attraction. Not only did the staff know Morinne, they seated us at their best table. I tried to order my usual drink, but Morinne insisted that we sample their wine.

“Do you have Viognier?” I asked. It was the wine my speculative client ordered a few nights ago in the City. I’m sure I butchered the pronunciation.

“Are you ordering veal?” Morinne asked. Confused, I shook my head.

Morinne quickly suggested another wine and the server vanished. I felt embarrassed by my attempt at sophistication.

“You must try the’05 Juslyn Vineyards Perry’s Blend. It’s not well-known, but I find it delightful. The owners are good friends.

“If you insist.”

I went over my findings to date. We discussed the property line in question and the fact that Sandoval was deceased. I left out the circumstances of his death. Until I had results from the police, it wasn’t necessary to upset her.

“Your current neighbors…” I began as delicately as I could, “are their vineyards as successful as yours?”

“They do alright,” she admitted. “Their land is lower in the valley where the climate is warmer and doesn’t have the chalky soil further up the hill.”

“So that’s an advantage?”

“For some types of wine. The grapes in the valley are sold in bulk for use in blends or ultimately end up in jugs. If you want remarkable wine, you want to grow the vines in rockier soil, such as the hillsides where our vineyard is. The soil is chalkier there, with more minerals. We produce far fewer grapes per acre, but the wines we produce are much more valuable.”

The wine arrived and the server went through the ritual of uncorking it and pouring a small glass for Morinne to taste. After Morinne gave the bottle her approval, she poured a glass for me. I had to admit, it went down smooth. It was like the first bite of a perfect plum on a hot summer day.

“This is grown on Spring Mountain. It’s the difference that the right soil, climate, and location can make.”

I drew a map on the back of a document copy, placing the Moorehouse and Sandoval parcels side by side. I then drew a circle around the area in the center of the Moorehouse property – the area in question.

“Which part of your vineyard falls in this area?”

Morinne added lines that showed me the position of the rows of grape vines around her property. She drew angled marks to show me where the elevation changed. The 30% in question was right where the hillside rose to the rockier soil. Morinne and I shared a silent stare. Neither of us needed to comment on the obvious. If it could be proved that Albert Moorehouse swindled Sandoval out of that area of land, the living Sandoval heirs could have quite a case against the Moorehouse Winery, and claim not only part of their land, but damages and lost profits over the years.

“If you want to pursue this, we may need to track down all of Ernest Sandoval’s heirs. You’ll need to have your lawyers contact them to resolve this title dispute.”

“You’re asking me if we should pursue this.”

“You found the 1928 deed, which may or may not supersede the 1930 deed. This is your choice entirely. Don’t let me sway you.”

Morinne took another swallow of wine. She set her glass down carefully.

“I want my peace of mind. That’s why I hired you. I don’t want this coming back to bite us later. If my family comes forward with this now, we can settle for a smaller amount than if the Sandovals come at us later.”

I suppose her logic was sound and commendable. Yet I could still see Mr. Raine smirking on my other shoulder. He didn’t believe in letting sleeping dogs lie. He preferred to kill them before they awoke.

“I’ll continue with an heir search. In the meantime,” I cautioned, “don’t say a word of this to any of your family or staff members. Let’s get all the facts, then you can decide as a family what to do next.”

Morinne nodded. In the corner of my eye, I saw a diner at the next table watching us. As I turned, his eyes darted back to the novel in his hands. Dressed in a suit, with speckled gray and black hair, he could have been a realtor or attorney. The book was an odd choice, a threadbare romance paperback. It smelled of a quick prop by a professional goon. His table was empty and he wasn’t eating yet. Just reading and listening to our conversation. I looked away. Let him think I wasn’t on to him yet.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Morinne returned home and I drove back to the Sheriff’s office. The clouds scattered above, bringing in welcome slivers of sunlight. It was time for the truth to break through as well.

I brought Sgt. Ramos a dessert tart from the bistro, packed in a small Styrofoam container. Ramos rolled his eyes and read from a yellowing file.

“Sandoval, 1930. Cold case.”

“So it was a homicide?”

“All they had back then was a poker player friend of the victim, who skipped town around the same time Ernest Sandoval was stabbed.”

“The poker player have a name?”

“Yeah. Michael Turrick, AKA Moose.”

“The Moose ran loose, huh?”

“Apparently.” Sgt. Ramos finally grinned.

“They find a murder weapon?”

Sgt. Ramos flipped through the file. “Nope. He was stabbed with a knife. Never found the knife. “By the way, here’s your fifty back,” said Sgt. Ramos. He’d overlooked the obvious bribery attempt. I laughed. I liked this guy.

Sandoval gets knifed in Napa and then his property is carved up. Coincidence? As I returned to my car, I spotted the Danielle Steele fan from the bistro across the street, talking on his cell phone. Pretending not to see me. I took off my shoes and sprinted across the road while his back was turned. As I stalked closer with a shoe in each hand, the goon in the suit turned around, closing his phone.

“You okay?” he asked.

I pointed a shoe at his chest. “I’m not as stupid as I look. Stay away from me and the Moorehouse estate.”

The goon blinked at me. “I’m sorry, I think…”

“I think you’re leaving town,” I suggested.

The goon frowned and skittered away. Nothing particularly menacing in his body language. I watched him until he turned the corner. His act was pretty convincing. Maybe I had miscalculated. Maybe he was just a lonely realtor who liked romance novels. What the hell. At least he’ll have a funny story to tell his friends.

And if he really was a threat, at least I put him on notice.


It was highly possible that I had a tail in Napa. Rather than returning to my base camp at the Wagon Wheel bed and breakfast, I decided to throw any would-be pursuers off the trail. I drove back to my office in San Francisco to do some heavy research with Kyle. It felt good to be back on familiar ground with a colleague I could trust.

Five years ago, I found myself at the courthouse in Oakland, arguing with a dull-eyed clerk about a civil docket sheet that apparently wasn’t locatable. A young man doing research on the public computer in the lobby waved me over. He showed me how to find the Alameda County docket sheet online.

That’s how I met Kyle, a Stanford graduate who, despite his intelligence and training, was unable to hold down a steady job due to his memory lapses. He’d fallen behind financially and made the mistake of borrowing money from some questionable Chinese businessmen. In a desperate attempt to raise cash before they came to collect, Kyle began freelancing as a bicycle messenger for an attorney service. Racing between law offices and courthouses to get documents filed and retrieved. Making matters more difficult, Kyle did not even own a bicycle. He ran instead, and took advantage of public transportation whenever possible.

As I left the court house, I caught sight of two Chinese goons in matching yellow and black Adidas warm-ups. Their shaved heads matched too. They came up fast behind Kyle, who broke into his trademark sprint. Just then, a lime-green Acura with racing tires and a ridiculous spoiler swerved in front of Kyle and I watched him bounce over the hood. Three against one was terrible odds, so I removed my shoes and proceeded to lay out two of the Chinese in the street. As I’ve come to discover, most of the Asian bad guys out there know little more about martial arts than a seven year old Karate student at the local Y. Looking like Jackie Chan and fighting like Jackie Chan are very different things.

The driver of the Acura got the drop on me with his Tech-9 machine gun, a terrible weapon in terms of accuracy, but when you can spray 20 bullets a second, who needs accuracy? I had no choice but to capitulate and strike a deal with the gunman’s boss to pay off Kyle’s debt. In return, Kyle agreed to work as an apprentice for me. The arrangement worked out and now Kyle is a full employee with health benefits.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I got to work brewing coffee and Kyle got to work on his computer. First we looked at Ernest Sandoval’s death certificate and noted the informant, Belinda Sandoval, and her address. Kyle used the Social Security Death Index again and found Belinda’s death record. She died on August 23, 1956 in Los Angeles County, California. Kyle ordered Belinda’s death certificate from VitalChek. The heir search was on.

Kyle used an advanced Google search to find an obituary online for Belinda Sandoval. It mentioned three children, Jackson, Nancy and Paul. According to the obit, Jackson died during the Normandy Invasion in WWII. Nancy and Paul were alive as of 1956, and Paul was married with a son, Peter. Kyle found a death record for Nancy, who died in 1976, leaving no children. Paul and his wife Gail both died before 2000, so it appeared that the only surviving heir thus far was their son Peter.

We checked Los Angeles County voting records, but found no records for Peter Sandoval. I tried property records as well. Kyle tried a nationwide people-finder search and found a match for Peter Sandoval with the correct date of birth. The address was in Las Vegas, Nevada. Using the property links for Clark County, Nevada at, we searched by Peter’s name and also by address, only to discover that he sold the property a year ago. The phone number from the people-search was disconnected.

“We ran out of gas,” lamented Kyle.

“So jump in a different car.” I reminded Kyle that the old school P.I. techniques were still alive and well. The Internet may have led us to a dead end, but there was always the post office. Using the United States Postal Service site, we located the post office nearest Sandoval’s last-known address. The website provides a fax number for each post office as well, so within minutes Kyle faxed over a process server’s “request for change of address” form. The postal carriers receive these forms every day from skip tracers and process servers. It is the carrier’s duty to indicate whether the person still receives mail at the given address, or if mail is forwarded to a new address. The form includes a space for the carrier to write in the new address so he or she can fax it back to us.

I took a break from the research when Morinne called.

“You’re back in San Francisco?”

“Yes, with the amount of research needed to complete this heir search, it was easier for me to work with my assistant at the office. I should be back up there tomorrow.”

I neglected to tell her about my confrontation with the romance reader.

“Take your time, Mr. Darke. There’s no rush.”

“Please, call me Crispin. Mr. Darke sounds like some kind of boogeyman.”

She laughed. “Hopefully you can finish the case out here in Napa.”

Was she getting sweet on me, or did she prefer keeping me on a short leash? Morinne was a difficult one to read. Either way, it would break her heart to confess that I suspected her grandfather of murder. I needed more time and more proof.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love it out there,” I replied, hoping to sound sincere. “I mean, the Wagon Wheel could use a new coat of paint, but otherwise I was having a fine time.”

“Maybe it’s just as well. Dawson was asking about you.”


“My half-brother. He lives in the house with me.”

“Oh. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him.”

“Trust me, it wouldn’t have been a pleasure. Dawson can be a workout. He cracks the whip on the winery operations and I manage the estate.”

I reminded Morinne to keep things under wraps until my investigation was complete. I promised to either see her or call her the next day. As I hung up the receiver, my eyes drifted to the stamp at bottom of the 1930 Sandoval deed. It included the name of the county assessor at the time, Nolan Spinnaker. On a whim, I went to a directory of corporations databases and clicked on the one for California Corporations. I input the search term “Spinnaker” and found several listings. The one called “Spinnaker Holdings, Inc.” was filed in 1930 and was dissolved in 1943. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the officers of this corporation were Nolan Spinnaker and Albert Moorehouse. They were in cahoots! This explained how Moorehouse was able to falsify a deed, extending his property line into Sandoval’s land. Spinnaker arranged the false 1930 deed and Moorehouse kept the original 1928 Sandoval deed in his locked wooden box like a secret trophy celebrating his wickedness.

Did Moorehouse stab Sandoval to death or did Spinnaker? Or did they hire an underling to perform the deed? No pun intended.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I took my baby blue Toyota Prius out of the garage in the morning and purred it to the office. You may think that purchasing a hybrid as a second vehicle was my attempt to offset my Mustang GT’s carbon footprint, but the truth is, no one expects a private investigator to drive a Prius. It is my stealth mobile. I anticipated a return trip to Napa at some point in the day and I was already a marked man there in the Mustang.

Kyle wasn’t at the office yet, so I turned the lights on and made coffee. I found an incoming fax from the post office with a new address for Peter Sandoval. I couldn’t wait to rub it in Kyle’s face. In the meantime, I researched the new address. A rental property, which could explain why Peter was off the people-search grid. I located a phone number through directory assistance.

“Hello?” A woman’s voice.

“Yes, this is Ross Calhoun from the Napa Valley tax assessor’s office. Is Peter there?”

“No, this is his wife, Emma.”

“Do you know where I can reach him?”

“You can’t. Not for another two weeks.”

“Is he out of town?”

“Rehab,” she retorted. “Again.”

“I see. Does he have any children living out of the house? I’m supposed to find phone numbers for all of the family members.”

“What is this about again?”

“Just a property matter here in Napa.”

“He don’t own property in Napa.”

“One of his ancestors did. We just need to clear title on it.”

“Talk to Jessie, my son. He might know something about Peter’s mom and dad. I didn’t know them well.”

Emma gave me the contact information for Jessie. He worked as a dealer for the Gold Spike casino in downtown Vegas. I have distinct memories of the place. I lost ten grand of my father’s money there in the summer of ’95. I made five of it back the next day playing Blackjack on the Strip. The rest I squared with my father by giving him my Cadillac.

A few minutes later, I had Jessie on the phone.

“This is about my grandfather?” Jessie sounded like a true redneck.

“Actually, great-grandfather it would appear. Ernest Sandoval.” At this point, the sooner I could get off the line, the better. I only needed to verify Jessie’s contact information to conclude my report to Morinne.

“I knew they lived up there until he died. Then the family moved south during the Depression.”

“It’s going back a long way, I realize. I’m sorry to bother you.”

“You said it was about a deed. Is there a dispute or something? They had a vineyard up there.”

“Just a small matter involving some conflicting language on various documents.”

“Conflicting in what way?”

“Property descriptions and boundaries.” I instantly regretted the last word.

“So we might still own land up there?”

I stalled, pretending to field a call from across the office. “Sorry, what was that, Mr. Sandoval?”

“You’re saying we still own land there.”

“I’m not saying that. There’s just a discrepancy with a document from 1930.”

Jessie was smarter than I expected. He smelled blood in the water. Or rather… money. “You know that my great-grandfather was killed, right?”

“No.” I lied.

“Can you send me copies of the documents?”

“When we have things sorted out, yes. We’ll contact you shortly.”

I hung up and took a deep breath. That went too far, too quickly. One call to the real Napa tax assessor and Jessie would realize something was amiss. I forgot that the first rule of an heir search was not to reveal to the heirs why you were calling, until you had permission from the client. I made the mistake of assuming the contemporary Sandovals were low-brow renters with no understanding of legal property rights. I would have to warn Morinne before she or her attorney made contact with the Sandovals. I may have already tipped her hand.


On the way back to Napa, I stopped in Berkeley for gas. Yes, the Prius does need to refuel once in a while. I had my laptop in the back seat, along with my briefcase of document copies and research. While I waited for the pump to finish, my mobile phone buzzed in my pocket. I backed away from the pump, so as not to ignite a fuel spark with the phone, and answered the call.

“I’m still on the road, Kyle.”

“There might be a problem.” This had to be bad. Kyle never called to say there might be a problem unless the problem was already underway. He was the type to call and warn you about a possible leak issue while your house floated down the street during a flood.

“What happened?”

“Does Morinne’s family know about the investigation?”

“Start from the beginning, Kyle.”

“Morinne called, but I was on a smoke break. I dialed the winery number on the file and someone else answered.”


“He said he was her brother.”

It had to be Dawson, Morinne’s half-brother.

“I told him I was returning a call from Morinne about the property deed issue.”

“Why did you tell him that?”

“I didn’t know what the protocol was…”

“Okay. What happened then?”

“He kept asking questions and I couldn’t think of what else to say.”

This is why Kyle does the research and I handle the phone calls. Kyle doesn’t improvise or use different voices on the phone, as I often do. Of course, I blew it too when I called Jessie Sandoval.

“How much did you tell him?”

“Almost everything.”

I bit my tongue and returned the gas nozzle to the pump. Had there been something disposable nearby, I would have kicked it.

“Don’t use the phone anymore. Just go home. I’ll take care of it.” I didn’t have the heart to fire him again. I knew it wouldn’t stick anyway. He’d forget and show up tomorrow.

I jumped into the Prius and tried to peel out. It sounded more like a tram leaving the Disney parking lot. I should have taken the Mustang that morning. On the highway, I called Morinne’s mobile phone. I explained to her the problem.

“That’s why Dawson was avoiding me,” she realized.

“Do you still have the deed from the box?”


“Take it with you and leave the winery. You’re not safe there.”

“You think Dawson would…?”

“You’re a potential whistleblower now, Morinne. You can’t trust anyone. I’ll tell you all the details when I get there.”

“Where should we meet?” She sounded scared.

“Somewhere Dawson wouldn’t think of. Make sure he doesn’t follow you.”

“Do you know the Christian Brothers Retreat? It’s nearby, on Redwood Road.”

“I’ll be there in less than an hour.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Forty-five minutes later I turned off the pleasantly winding Redwood Road into the Christian Brothers Retreat. A mission style campus and conference center that made me think of monasteries in Europe I would never see. Morinne stood by a gold Mercedes, waving at me in her oversized Lolita sunglasses. I parked next to her car and she climbed in beside me.

I couldn’t meet her eyes as I laid out my research findings and suspicions. Instead, I kept my sight in motion, checking my mirrors and the parking lot and Retreat for signs of any pursuers. When I finished, Morinne was silent for a moment.

“We’ve gone too far,” she concluded. “Too far to turn back. I have to see this through.” I reached for her hand. I knew this was difficult for her. She was about to betray her family and perhaps sacrifice some of her own fortune. “If this is all true, then the Sandovals deserve justice.”

“I really admire, you Morinne. I’ll protect you, no matter what.”

“So what now? Where do we go?”

“The sheriff’s station.”

I turned the Prius around and sped back down the winding road. A quarter-mile later, I noticed another vehicle behind us, gaining quickly. A dark blue sports car, possibly a Camaro. I cursed myself again for leaving the GT at home.

“You recognize the car following us?”

Morinne turned around to look. “No.”

I kept a steady 40 MPH as I wrestled the Prius around a sharp curve. The pursuing car came around the turn fast. It was definitely a 2007 Camaro. A man with aviator glasses behind the wheel, vaguely resembling Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

“Maybe he’s just eager to pass us,” I reasoned, though I strongly doubted it.

As I hit a straight stretch of road, I slowed the Prius. The Camaro lurched into the passing lane and screamed ahead of us. It pulled in front of me and braked hard. I swerved into the oncoming lane to avoid a collision. Before I could pull in front of the Camaro, it accelerated, keeping pace. To my immediate left was a drop-off, and that’s what Tom Cruise was counting on. He swerved at us, slamming his Camaro into Morinne’s side of the Prius.

“Get behind him!” Morinne screamed.

I slammed the brakes and we dropped behind the Camaro, metal screeching against metal as our sides slid free of each other. The Prius came to a stop. I watched the Camaro stop three car lengths ahead. I was impressed to see that Morinne had the presence of mind to scribble the plate number down on the palm of her hand.

“Hang on.”

I threw the Prius into reverse and backed along the edge of the road. Tom Cruise took the bait and roared into reverse as well.

“Look out!” shouted Morinne.

The Camaro’s rear end loomed at us, ready to smash us over the edge. I spun the wheel to the right, causing the rear end of the Prius to turn right, away from the drop-off. The Camaro’s rear clipped my front fender. The Camaro braked, but it was too late. It tumbled backwards over the drop.

I popped my door open and scrambled out of the car. I heard the explosion below before I could see it. When I reached the edge, I saw the Camaro belly up in flames, twenty yards down the dry, scrub-covered hillside.

“Call the police and fire department!” I shouted to Morinne. I scrambled down the hillside. I came around the burning vehicle to find the driver partially thrown from the open door. His sunglasses were gone and his face was covered in blood from a laceration across his scalp. I pulled him from under the arms before the heat could engulf us both. If you have ever pulled a roast from the open maw of an oven baking at 450, and had that moment of hesitation when you realized that a sudden slip of your foot could send you head-first into the hot oven door, resulting in permanent facial discoloration… then you understand the brief hesitation I had in that moment.

It wasn’t so much that I had to save Tom Cruise’s life. I just needed to know who he was before he became crisp and dark.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Within twenty minutes, the Napa emergency crews took control of the scene. The fire-gutted Camaro smoldered under the spray of fire hoses while police officers covered the driver’s body with a yellow blanket. Morinne and I gave statements to the Napa police officers. I could tell these city cops weren’t quite sure which driver meant to harm the other. Did they really think a PI would engage a Camaro in a road duel, while driving a Toyota Prius?

I told the officers to check with Sgt. Ramos at the sheriff’s department. Ramos would vouch for me. In fact, we were on our way to see him when the Camaro clown showed up. Or should I say William Frederick Cambridge, born April 5, 1976? What these cops didn’t know was that after I pulled Cambridge free of the wreck and confirmed he was dead, I checked his wallet and memorized his driver license information. I also found an envelope stuffed with twenties inside his jacket pocket. Two grand in cool cash. I’d bet my father’s Caddy that cash was the down payment from Dawson to Cambridge to rub us out. Now I just had to prove it.


An hour later, Morinne and I walked into the Napa County Sheriff’s Station. I gave full disclosure to Sgt. Ramos, who promised to keep the Napa police in cooperation. Sgt. Ramos suggested that we stay close. He was in our corner.

While he did his fact-finding, Morinne and I did our own. We found a trendy coffee shop that catered to the younger crowd. A place no one would think to find us. Using their wi-fi, I brought up some of the sites Kyle uses. I paid for a nationwide criminal record search, searching by Cambridge’s name and birth date. I found three convictions there. One for reckless driving, one for burglary, and a third for assault. I also did a federal criminal record search, and found a methamphetamine case from 10 years ago.

“We already know he was a criminal,” Morinne reasoned.

“We need the connection to Dawson.” I confirmed. That was my next move.

Using a people-finder service, I brought up a list of William Cambridges in Northern California. I used the date of birth field to narrow that list to our guy, who also went by Billy Cambridge. Then I viewed his address history. In another browser window, I did a second people search for Dawson Freeport. I compared address histories and found a match.

“Right there. Apartment complex in Berkeley.”

Morinne verified the match. Back in their college days, Dawson and Billy were neighbors. They lived on the same floor. A coincidence? Maybe, but not likely. Morinne was devastated.

“I can’t believe Dawson tried to kill me.”

“He wanted to stop you and get that deed. We don’t know that he wanted to kill you.”

“If he only wanted to stop me, he would have confronted me at home. He wouldn’t have paid Billy Cambridge to run us off the road.”

Her logic was quite sound, but I didn’t tell her that. The sheriff would soon have a chat with Dawson and see how he reacted to the news of Billy’s death. I was very curious to see what he would do then. Dawson could put others on his payroll if we didn’t shut him down soon.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Curiosity got the better of us. Morinne and I parked on the far side of her property. I held her hand and led her through the dark vineyard like teenagers looking for a secluded spot. We came close enough to view the parking lot and entrance to the Moorehouse Winery visitor area, where two Sheriff Deputies were questioning Dawson. One stood facing Dawson while the partner stood a few feet away, forming a triangle. We couldn’t make out the conversation, but we did see Dawson stiffen at one point. Then he tried to look nonchalant. He did a lot of defiant head shaking.

“He did it,” Morinne whispered. “See how nervous he looks?”

“They won’t take him in now. Not enough solid evidence.” Mainly I wanted to see what Dawson would do after the deputies left. That would be the tell.

After the patrol car rolled away, Dawson paced around the parking lot. He took out his mobile phone and dialed. A moment later, Morinne’s phone beeped.

“Don’t answer! Kill it!” I whispered. Morinne silenced her phone before Dawson could hear it in the distance. We watched him leave some kind of brief message.

Dawson moved for the winery doors, but sweeping headlights stopped him. Dawson turned around as a dust-covered Ford Explorer parked in the lot. Dawson approached, waving the vehicle away.

“Wine tasting hours are over.” Morinne explained.

Two men bounded from the Explorer. I instantly recognized Jessie, a fireplug with a black crew-cut. “That’s Jessie Sandoval. I saw his Facebook photo.”

“Straight from Nevada? Just what we need.” lamented Morinne.

I also recognized Jessie’s buddy from the friends area on Jessie’s Facebook page. A tall Jamaican fellow with a name like Jimarcus or something. He wore a long dark face and haunting eyes. The three men engaged in an argument. I saw Jessie pull out a paper and unfold it. Dawson tried to swipe it from him, but Jessie pulled back.

“Did that fool bring a deed copy?”

“Do something.” Morinne insisted.

Jessie grabbed Dawson by the shirt and Dawson shoved him back. Jimarcus dove in and grabbed Dawson around the neck. As Jessie threw a punch, I pulled out my mobile phone.

“Napa Sheriff, please.”

I reported the incident and in no time the two deputies roared back into the parking lot in their cruiser. Morinne and I stayed in the shadows of the grape vines. I saw Jimarcus break away and hide in the vineyard twenty yards from us. The deputies pulled Dawson and Jessie apart and questioned them separately.

“Let’s get to the house.” I suggested. We crept away through the vineyard. I could hear footsteps trailing us. Jimarcus was following us. Morinne heard him too.

“He’s behind us.”

“Keep moving.”

We left the cover of the vineyard and sprinted for the house. Once inside, we locked the door.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I took Morinne to the study. What better place for this case to end than the place where it began? Morinne gave me the original 1928 deed copy, which I laid on the desk beside the broken wooden box and the old army knife. I took out the deed copies from the Recorder’s Office and placed them on the desk. Then I picked up the knife and studied the tarnished blade.

“The last question I have is whether or not this was the murder weapon.”

“My grandfather fought in the first World War. It must be his.”

I sat at the credenza behind the desk, where Louis Moorehouse’s computer was set up. I opened the web browser and a search engine and began searching for images of American military knives. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Morinne and I went to the foyer and opened the door to find the two deputies with their prisoners. Jessie and Dawson wore matching steel bracelets.

“We’d like your help getting something straight.” said the first deputy.

“The Moorehouses stole our land. They killed my great-grandfather!” shouted Jessie.

I took the group back to the study, where all the evidence was laid out. A deputy gave me an exact copy of the mysterious 1928 Sandoval deed. Jessie said he found it in his father’s files, after I spoke with him on the phone. As the deputies compared the 1928 deeds and the 1930 deeds, I tried to summarize the case for them.

“The proof is right there!” said Jessie. “How can anyone contest the facts?”

Morinne glared at Dawson, but he suddenly found the hardwood floor more interesting.

“Albert Moorehouse killed Ernest Sandoval. He stabbed him, with a knife just like that…” Jessie pointed to the army knife on the desk. “That’s why the deed was hidden in Albert’s little box there.”

The two deputies looked to me for clarification. Could I confirm Jessie’s story? I looked to Morinne and she nodded her consent. I cleared my throat.

“Deputies, you can arrest both of these men.” Jessie and Dawson looked at me in surprise. So did Morinne. “They are each guilty of a different crime.”

“What are you talking about?” hissed Jessie.

“Pipe down!” yelled the first deputy.

“Dawson hired his old friend Billy Cambridge to run us off the road, possibly kill us, and reacquire the 1928 deed that Morinne found here in the study.”

“You can’t prove that!” Dawson shot back.

I continued, “His motive was simple fear. Fear of losing a large portion of his inheritance if that deed turned out to reverse the fortune of the Moorehouse estate. I’m sure he’ll confess if you sweat him long enough.” I concluded.

“What about Jessie?” Morinne prompted.

“No one said anything to Jessie about finding the 1928 deed in a wooden box,” I pointed out, “so why did he just finger that box on the desk?”

The deputies looked at the box and then at Jessie. One of Jessie’s eyes twitched.

“The answer is simple. Two weeks ago, after Louis Moorehouse died, Jessie planted that box in the closet of this room. He saw his opportunity to rewrite the past and he created an entirely false 1928 deed. This also explains how Jessie was able to conveniently find a copy of the fake deed so quickly after I phoned him. I gather Jessie was prepared to come up to Napa whether I tipped him off or not. That’s why he needed two fake deeds. Just in case Morinne failed to take the honorable course of action.”

Morinne’s mouth opened wide in realization. All along, we’d suspected the 1930 deed was a fake, a cover-up. We’d been fooled by smoke and mirrors. Moorehouse had always owned the same amount of land.

“It wasn’t faked,” stammered Jessie, “any more than my great-grandfather’s murder.”

The deputies looked back at me.

“Yes, the murder of Ernest Sandoval was a convenient fact for you, Jessie. Unfortunately he was murdered, and unfortunately, the case was never solved. However, you can’t pin that 1930 murder on Moorehouse because of the army knife here.”

I turned the computer monitor so everyone could see the photo I had found online. It was a perfect match for the knife on the desk.

“This is a combat knife manufactured between 1940 and 1945, used by American soldiers in World War II. This knife didn’t exist in 1930. Many of the men who died on the beach at Normandy had knives like these in their scabbards. Men like Jackson Sandoval, Jessie’s great uncle.”

Jessie’s eyes flared.

“I’m willing to bet that Jessie inherited this knife from his great uncle, who died in the war. Then he planted it conveniently near the box with the deed, in the chest with Albert Moorehouse’s keepsakes. It was all too neatly staged.”

Morinne suddenly screamed. I looked to see a haunting face in the window. Jimarcus. He turned and ran into the night.

“That’s my friend, he didn’t do anything!” insisted Jessie.

The second deputy rushed out of the room to catch Jimarcus, while the first deputy kept Dawson and Jessie under his watchful eye.

“What do you have to say about all this?” sneered the deputy.

“I want to talk to my lawyer.” was Jessie’s reply.

I looked over at Morinne and grinned.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The deputies took Dawson, Jessie and Jimarcus to jail for the evening. I’m sure each made a heartfelt call to a criminal defense attorney. Morinne and I celebrated the resolution of the case with a fantastic bottle of wine. I even remember the make, model and year, a 2004 Shea Vineyards Pinot Noir from Oregon. There’s hope for me yet.

“He was always a little creepy, my half-brother.” she admitted.

“Too bad it took an even creepier guy to push Dawson over the edge.”

“So I guess the property is safe,” she mused. “Funny, I was ready to let it all go.”

“And that’s why you get to keep it.” I concluded. “You committed yourself to finding the truth, whatever the cost. With that resolve comes great peace of mind.”

“You know, Crispin, your room at the Wagon Wheel is reserved for another few days.”

We smiled at each other. “Maybe I can relax for a change. Enjoy some more wine.” Then my phone rang. If I was British, I would have said “bugger.” “Crispin Darke, thrilling detective.”

It was the manager of the Hobart building. Someone had been murdered on the 13th floor and police wanted the surveillance tapes from my ghost hunt.

“Damn it, I have to go.” I told Morinne about the supernatural goings-on in the building.

“Sounds intriguing. Give me a call and let me know how it turns out.”

“Maybe you can come down to my neck of the woods and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Morinne smiled. I hiked off through the dark vineyard to find my car.