Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Hobart Ghost

CHAPTER 1

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.”

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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.

Interesting.


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CHAPTER TWO

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.

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CHAPTER THREE

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

“Hello?”

“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.

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CHAPTER FIVE

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.

“Crispin!”

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?”

“No.”

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.”

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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.

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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.

THE END

1 comment:

  1. there is only one suite on the 13th floor.

    ReplyDelete