“Blame past guilt and shame
for gumming up things today
whilst you make your way.”
“They gonna blow that sucker up…”
“They’re going to blow us up with it!”
“I heard they gotta suicide bomber up there.”
“Naw, a whole cell of suicide bomber jumpers…”
Reese Paulen and I soon navigated the cluster’s blustery courtspace, crisscrossing with frigid tourists donning new souvenir windbreakers from the Warming Hut. More fisherfolk continued to flee in from Torpedo Wharf with their nets and chum buckets, poles and sinkered lines waving carelessly over their double sweatered shoulders, menacingly catching the eye. Weathered asphalt cracked under our feet as we angled over near the outer former mine depot, skirting its untracked garage doors, tapping the white-on-brown ‘scoop your dog’ poop sign at storage shed’s edge. Two of the retreating old red crabbers packed their dripping gear atop the wharf’s bordering seawall, surveying this waxing scenario over the howl of wind and fog.
“No way—suicide scuba divers with remote-controlled bag bombs…saw their dinghy and everything.”
“A whole planeload of dem qaeterheads!”
“Can’t see ’em—can you see ’em?!”
“It’ll be 9/11West if they don’t…”
“It’ll be a goddamn bridge to oblivion.”
Fog cover or no, a turn of the corner, and that International Orange icon was right there ahead of us, elegantly traversing the Golden Gate strait, an errant green and while Cessna splitting the twin tower uprights, or what was left of them, like a Fog Bowl field goal. Not party to this emergency scramble, a huge Crowley tug towed its dredging barge in beneath the span, seemingly pulling more misty chowder in with it, chugging slowly mid channel past Torpedo Wharf. While tacking further inward, scattered tall sails glistened under the remaining East Bay sun. Either way, would that I could have caught their wave.
“So, hey, how’s about that dinner,” I asked, seeking some cold comfort, possibly a means of escape. “We could grab one of those cabs, over there in the lot…”
“Hold on, Herbert,” Paulen replied, making way for a little old woman bossing her Y-leashed lap dogs around. “Come now, it’s time to, as they say, talk the talk, and walk the walk.”
“Huh? What are you…”
“The point is, there is some unfinished business, way past due…”
“What business,” I fretted, running down some questions like what’s he doing here with that blasted phone? Who sent him after me, why’s he asking me all these questions? What’s with him and CU women and why’d he really leave Boulder altogether? And then there’s that goddamned JonBenet thing… “Better point is, how the hell did you track me down here, anyway?!”
“Googled you, actually, and through CU’s alumni office. They have you filed away under Cautionary Tales. From there, it was a little surveillance and process of elimination in the Upper Fillmore cafes. I happened upon a neighborhood throwaway paper. Its gossip page had a photo of some Junior League brats toasting Java capps, with none other than you, the elder in the background. Then I spotted Robin Williams mugging for the crowd in front of that Mecca place, and voila, there you were.”
“Shit, I haven’t even heard from CU in years…”
“And vice versa. Still, they have their ways, their postal, big data ways,” Paulen beckoned me along. “In any case, I haven’t been entirely level with you…”
Fully rounding the depot’s corner, we now could barely see the south bridge tower top. Never mind the north—even less Marin’s rolling North Headland backdrop. A gray-out made the lime green mainsail of a 39-foot Beneteau gybing off that rust-hulled container ship pop out of the oatmeal continuum like neon against concrete tiling. Sooner still, we were up against where Bay Trail traffic was headed, albeit at a layabout harbor seal’s pace, if that. So we negotiated a tight squeeze around the former utility shed, into a faceful of mast-snapping gales. Against them, a San Francisco fireboat rushed past us toward Fort Point, hose spigots gushing great guns.
“Oh, yeah?” Join the club, I thought, scratching my own back again. “What do you mean by that…”
“Actually, my purpose here has been two-fold. I primarily arranged to scare you up as a long-lost cause for Melissa, who always wondered whether underlying bigotry played a role in your all’s demise. She happened to have a double-forwarded birthday card you must have sent her quite some time ago, but it did have your return address. Thus, in due course, her cause coincided with my need for an initial test case.”
“Lost cause, test case…in other words, what? You’re saying I am some sort of biased guinea pig?”
More immediately, a couple of acai junkie runners in black lycra, tighter than CGI capture suits from the LucasWorks’ Presidio render farm, veered our way like cross-eyed sea gulls to avoid the milling, murmering crowd. Geeky guys with huge upper bodies and slimmy, gymmy legs; women with epifannies freezing in racer tanks, bitched about how right when autumn comes, San Francisco turns to summer. Then just when summer weather arrives, this late-fall frigidity barrels in on a dime. But no time for such flat-footed irony, what with all this code-red ruckus going down.
“Let’s just put it that I have anti-Semitic profiles to develop, and you could possibly prove to be my groundbreaking, prototypical subject.”
“Oh, great—fodder for some goddamn recidivist sociological abstract,” I spouted. “Who could ask for anything more?”
“Ah, but I’m afraid there is more,” Paulen sighed, holding close. “Something rather disturbingly more.”
“That’s it, doc,” I turned away. “I’m outta here…”
“Hold your horses. I’d like you to meet detectives Treywater and Lisle, San Francisco Police…” Then and there we reached this flat black Chevy Impala sedan with black spotlights and steel bumper guards up front parked strategically before us, not to mention the two vaguely familiar blokes gangsta leaning cross-armed against it, checking out Paulen and me—emphasis on the me.
“Mr. Herbert…charmed,” said Detective Lane Treywater, a bit condescendingly for my taste, albeit with a firm shake of the hand. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Then an 87-foot Coast Guard cutter shot past Torpedo Wharf, sprung from Alameda like a crash-test Benz toward the gate, parting the sea lions and sevengill sharks, its wake splashing up against us at the cement breakwall, whereby we had drifted, so as to avoid an overwrought Presidio Terrace matron heeling her scabbed-ass standard poodle, its fluffy pom-poms matting in the mist.
By this time, Homeland Security’s lamebrain color codes had gone red as blazes. Affording cover directly overhead, a new MH-65c gunner copter, courtesy of recent DHS funding, swung counterclockwise—an armed escort with mounted M240 barrels cooling out its side hatches in the salty marine air. Amazing enough, the chopper’s turbo propwash failed to blow away a lone stand-up surfer paddleboarding madly ashore.
“Y-y-you have…for me?”
“Yessiree, Mister Herbert. Seems we have a situation here,” said Detective Chet Lisle, pressing in to my other side.
“Situation,” I replied nervously, noticing a chain of police vehicles, red lights flashing, sirens screaming our way up along Doyle Drive. “Yeah, that, I can see…”
“No, Mr. Herbert—Ken, is it,” Treywater asked, flexing his shoulders underneath a black leather jacket. “We have another situation, more in our jurisdiction.”
“Huh?” I recalled these hefty, plainclothes greasers. “You guys were up at MeccaJava…”
“Familiar with one Thornia de Wilde,” asked Lisle, revealing a silver SFPD badge chained like a disco medallion around his jet black turtleneck.
“Dame Thornia? Yeah,” I said quizzically, glancing bayward. “Haven’t heard that name in ages though—like, since a little after the quake in ’89…”
“Ever know what became of her, Mr. Herbert,” asked Treywater, sending a phone ping to voicemail.
“How so,” I hedged, spotting the goodship Thoracle escaping unscathed in and around the mark maneuver over this side of Angel Island, the keeling catamaran’s tall ebony sails glistering under a slender patch of lingering sun—wishing I had done the same. “Last I knew she was in the hands of her assistant, Richard…Richard Muntz.” (A little Vaporback story…)
“That would be the Richard Muntz who washed ashore quite a while back,” Lisle asked. “Went from search and rescue to recovery mission overnight—soon those body parts got fished out by Alcatraz Island.”
“Washed asho…Christ, the last I remember, Richard had taken possession of her at SF General—became her caregiver, or caretaker—more like the latter.”
“Bridge jumper…no, not pretty, that one—total shark bait, Mr. Herbert,” Treywater said, snapping his Juicy Fruit. “Coroners IDed him through dentals…”
“That’s right, sea lions couldn’t save that sucker,” Lisle nodded, closing in.
“Can’t be,” I gasped, glancing over at Paulen. “Say, what is this all about, anyway?
“See, told ya,” Lisle fingered his badge accusingly. “He’d be acting like he don’t know jack…”
“My other purpose,” Paulen winked toward the dicks. “A solid favor for my old Uni High School compadre in basic socio-criminology, now Chief of Detectives, Nicholas Falzio.”
“You dragged me all the way out here for this?!” I stood further torn by this whole conscience-raising exercise, wondering how these guys got wind of me in the first place.
“This and that, Herbert, this and that…”
The continuing Coast Guard scramble hardly went unnoticed among lingering wall huggers, shaken and rattled by all the heavyweight bay action. These were the hardier gate groupies with stubborn curiosity, painting pretty conspiratorial scenarios of Al Qaeda shooting bridge videos, plotting a 9/11 redux on the golden span via radical online Islamic forums. As in, towers come tumbling down, manic fanatics saving the world by blowing it up: Christ, where had those MeccaJava cellmates vanished to anyhow—was it Yemen, Algeria, or the Centerfolds Lounge?
Buzzing around the ebbing crowd were rumors that Osama bin Laden had threatened to strike an array of Bay Area landmarks, not least the GGB, and that Homeland Security was dispatching a military counter-terrorism force on the double. Which left everybody wondering whether this was a legitimate bomb threat or just a make-work disaster drill, although not laying odds on the latter.
So taking leave posthaste were freedom-fried French tourists on rent-a-bikes, greenie-shirted girl scouts, merlot-sipping surrender monkeys moussing their Q scores, overdressed Russkies, scantily clad Thai girls on the make, and smiley Indonesians pushing quilted old man wheelchairs. Alongside came all the trembly blue-dog Shibas, morkies, porgies, yappy shihapoos and laltipoos. But manning up, staying behind to scope out what was up with all this were migrant carloads in from the valley, weekend bangers here from Compton and South Bronx, dogpatch clubbers wielding cone-necked Mastiffs and cage-snouted Rotts.
Meanwhile a tandem of heinous kite surfers hung maniacally out there on the water, getting sandwiched between that Coast Guard cutter and a deck-stacked Han Jin freighter. The pell-mell evacuation left me squeezing between a soggy black-coated retriever and a mesh-grated window at the far end of the corrugated mine shed, right where its corner pinched seawall-ward into the Promenade like a stockyard cattle guard.
“Focus, Mr. Herbert, Thornia DeWilde,” Treywater wiped clean his chrome aviator shades. “We found her remains, and a Cassini ring on her bony finger, had some Saturnia ut sileo in pacis (Saturn to rest in peace) inscription. So a Web search got us to a defunct saturnine.com site—then a WHOIS check on the URL registration turned up your name and address. See that path over there, heading up toward the West Bluff slit trenches and bunkers, look familiar?”
“Familiar? Over where,” I fumed, flashing back on that doomed Internet scheme I talked her into before the tech bubble burst, a fiasco I’d long striven to block out of my mind. “So…what about it?”
“The Park Service has been doing work up there, pickax and shovel excavating for a new trail and stuff.” Lisle pointed to a winding set of trail steps that led up to the bridge, post and cable handrails rising through a Battery East headland ridge of lilies, Raven’s manzanita, purple flowering lessingia and bright orange ironweed—gulls swooping, red-tail hawks hovering over it all. In a midway landing, shaded by wind-bent pine and eucalyptus, was a scrub patch in the shadow of what was left to be seen of the south bridge tower. He explained that the NPS was fashioning a redwood barrier through the ivy-tangled ground, ostensibly to keep the Golden Gate Plaza trail clear of anticipated mudslides, but more for reasons of Post-9/11 security. “So guess what? They happened to move a rotted eucy trunk and dig up the remains in that hollow up there—get where this is going?”
“No, sorry, not at all,” I stammered, recalling how I convinced her the Website would make us rich while she was still around to enjoy it. Let’s see, she must have been sliding into her late 80s around then, ’89 Marina earthquake injuries still plaguing her so. “Doc, what the hell…” (Vaporbackstory: E/Q rescue scene…)
“The brittle remains were wrapped in three layers of trash Glads, then sealed into an official size and weight body bag,” said Treywater. “Nice and tidy package, been up there quite a while, but was pretty well preserved, David-Star cigarette lighter left on the breastbone. Even had eight tiny stone markers framing the sack.”
“Incredible with the symbolism, huh,” I treaded lightly, glancing up the ropelined trail path, past some couples going at it, to that horrific hollow, still cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape and orange traffic cones. “So what’s that got to do with her and…me?”
Thereupon we shifted over to a small clearing, skosh of open space between the corrugated rest room shed and former explosives supply building turned a local NPS headquarters. With a better view of Fort Point and the bridge—which were but a ghostly gray by now—we paused to catch a breath, scarf some water at the drinking fountains, grateful that stiffer westerlies were blowing the eau d’ toilettes well downwind.
Before I could wipe dry my lips, a boots-on-plank commotion seized upon our attention—startingly so, left to right. Olive-uniformed park rangers scurried up and down the slant-set administration building’s wooden rear deck ramp, ducking in and out of its loading doors, peeping out shaded green-framed windows, surveying the lot of us shuffling to and fro between them and the troublous white-capped bay.
“Well, wouldn’t you know, the Feds turned this case over to SFPD, and our investigation made her original handle as Bertyl Weimauer,” Treywater revealed. “She came here smuggled out of Pollackia somewhere after the war. In the process, the lab gave up on carbon testing, but did salvage some low copy mitochondrials from her pelvic bones, found blunt-force trauma to her skull too, under a ratty henna wig—textbook anger-retaliatory, mighty ugly…musta muddied her up real good at some point. But we brought in our forensic artist for some facial recon.”
Others issued forth from the front entrance, leaping into their various scooters and minitrucks, coordinating with lagging bridge cops and Federal Protective Services, likewise the squad cars of myriad alphabet agencies. All aimed for the turmoil out at Fort Point, that historic brick garrison tucked beneath the graceful skeletal ironwork arch of a southernmost bridge cantilever, cannons still fixed on battles never waged here, foes who never fully arrived.
From our own immediate vantage point midway along the lengthy HQ building, we could barely make out the centrinel fortress, which was now equally fog obscured. Piss-poor optics, all right: We were near enough the wood piling dock to overhear a frantic ranger’s walkie-talkie squawking on about some mysterious unaccounted-for backpack spotted along the Vertigo ledgeway between the battlement and chainlinked granite seawall. I found myself hoping against hope that those Mecca Javahadis had no taste for liquid ammonia nitrate or fertilizer.
“Recon? Bertyl?! Holy shit, I had no idea…Christ, If I’d have known—I mean, we never talked religion much, dealt on a more astro-spiritual level…”
“But there was more,” Treywater continued. “Namely what seemed to be some kind of bizarre note by Mr. Muntz, taped to the bridge railing. Undated, too bad, but it did say something about how she drove you to it. Then there was this old appointment card, with your name and a phone number scribbled on it. Now, can you explain that, Mr. Herbert?”
“Me? Explain?! How should I…” Damn you, Richard—not this, not now. What the hell have you done?! I should never let that Muntzter sign her out of General Hospital, what with her Loma Prieta injuries. I could just picture him shlepping Dame Thornia’s corpse into a gun emplacement pillbox, probably dressing her for burial, then hauling her skinny dead ass over to the hill for planting in the dead of night. Up there in her favorite Golden Gate inspiration point yet—her source of so much psychic energy, divine creative force, where she could spend all her natural-born days—just like she had always desired. (Vaporbackstory: E/Q rescue scene II.)
“That’s what we’d like to know…”
“What, wait,” I spouted, slowly remembering how she told Richard he should just cremate her, spread the ashes and be done with it. He is the one who weaseled me aside, after the Saturn Return Website went bust, told me he’d totally take over what little she had left from there. Crematorium, nice little SATurn, then spread her love around up there, Richard! Shit, wouldn’t put it past him to dress in drag to cash her social security checks, probably drained her body fat to sell for black-market cosmetics. I could even picture that pervert jumpin’ her old bones. Truth was, the dunce never could get things right…so don’t go hangin’ this on…me. Agghh, whatever, no getting around at this point—time for a roll of those bones. “You actually think I’ve got something to do with this?”
“Could be,” Lisle nodded toward his partner. “Must have pulled this off when the Presidio was still in between honchos, when nobody was digging around up there.”
“Yeah, between the post and the park…that how it went, fella,” asked Treywater, barrel chest rising beneath a black Giants sweater.
“H-h-how should I know,” I sputtered. “I don’t get out this way much…”
“That’s funny,” Lisle broke in,“rangers tell us they see you jogging out here all the time…can’t stay away from the scene of the crime, can you…”
“It’s a cold case, Mr. Herbert, we’re exploring all avenues,” Treywater said, gesturing toward his car dashboard, upon which appeared to sit a crumpled coffee cup from MeccaJava—as luck would have it, mine. “There also was a handkerchief, we’ve recovered some DNA and bacteria besides the victim’s. And since you were cooperative enough to leave behind your snotty napkin at MeccaJava, now we have that fresh DNA sample too. So let’s just say the DA’s paperwork here reads you are a person of interest at this stage of the investigation.”
“Whew,” gasped Paulen, “Nuclear DNA…”
“Damn…b-b-but, I know zip about it, was nowhere near it,” I said, thinking I could have stood a somatic, if not germ-line gene rejiggering right then and there. I re-pictured paranoid Richard tidying up the hanky I must have left behind at my initial session with Thornia so many years ago, how we didn’t get along from the get-go—then shot a glare at Reese Paulen. “You set me up for this all along, didn’t you…”
“Caught up with my old friend at mother’s services, Herbert. Little did I know Nick had risen to department head during my CU days. So we compared notes, and I felt I owed him a solid. He thought I might be helpful when it came to you, once his probe led to your Boulder connection. I was also approached due to my knowledge of Boulder and San Francisco. So we contrived the café bump.”
“Yah, well, what do you think someone like Moo—Melissa would say about this devious little scumbaggery of yours?”
Care for more?
Chapter Fifty-Six. Turmoil, terror
storm in with the fog, force a
restrained reckoning and the
makings of a far-flung plan…