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.