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.