Chapter Fifty-Six

“It’s about seeing the light
              with Saturn, view the gloom 
          then fade to bright.”

“Why don’t you ask her,” Paulen said, pulling his smartphone from his vest pocket, speed dialing a number. “Mel came along for the ride west with morbid curiosity for closure on everything San Francisco-wise in her mind, so I’ve been filling her in. Probably rushing to check out of her Cow Hollow B&B for SFO as we speak. Here, one last chance, better catch her whilst you can.”

“Huh,” I blurted, as Paulen handed me his iPhone. “Moon? Hi, Moon, long time…I knew I must have seen you on that moto-cable car over on Union Street…”

“Kenny? Tsk, I should have known—what is wrong with you now,” she scolded into her cell phone. “Good ol’ Mister Otherway, still always wanting what you can’t have instead of what you do…” FZZZZT…

“Moon, I…Moon?!” Drop out, there went the connection…

Could well have hitched aboard the rocketboat load of sightseers that had somehow slipped through the Coast Guard thicket to whisk past Torpedo Wharf, beating a choppy retreat back to Fisherman’s tourist launches. But to no avail. At NPS headquarters’ end, the Bay Trail curved gently leftward some to an ordinarily breathtaking straight-on view of the bridge. That grand, riveting span in international orange vermilion, the strong, graceful ironwork of its latticed trusses, how its inter-pylon arch vaulted so majestically over the barbette tiers and parapet cannon mounts of masonry scarp-walled Fort Point.

Not today, however—at least not for us, not now, what with this wind tugging at the bridge’s harp strings, pushing on its Art Deco towers. We could barely make out the Gate itself, let alone any ensuing suicide jumpers or head-on colliders along its enshrouded railings and deck, or whatever other crisis was developing out there. Instead, Paulen gestured us further across the cramped, trapezium-shaped cradle of an open area forming the ultimate sea-level gateway to the Golden Gate.

Clogging it were gaggles of pained yet persistent tourists from the Inland Empire and Plains States, sorely underdressed for the occasion. Canadian and Taiwanese visitors lingered along the thick metal links of an anchor line and concrete posts of a chain retaining barrier that had taken over for the lengthy seawall—flapping, unfolding, otherwise lost in their freebie guidemaps as though they actually had somewhere else to go.

“Sir, you’ll have to come along with us now,” the detectives instead looped my arms, their keys and belted handcuffs clanging with conviction. “We need to ask you some more questions about the crime scene up there…”

“Sorry about the fading bars, Herbert, appears she’s gone. Ironically, she told me she would have been on another moto-cable car over here if it weren’t for this threat assessment alert and Presidio road closures. Alas, she has a Denver plane to catch back to her Flatirons chateau,” Paulen had grabbed his phone, punched re-dial, tapping his Bluetooth earpiece. “But as for me, I was just doing my duty—must keep my nose clean these days to bolster my extracurricular resume. Besides, I’ve not actually thought this bigotry business of you, certainly not of a fellow alumnus from CU. So I suppose I am endeavoring to help you clear things. Even if it has taken some ethnological hyperbole on my part to draw you out—keeping you honest, so to speak.”

“Yah, right, live and lose,” I snapped, reaching into my vest jacket to pull a tiny receiver from a rear inner pocket, a little trick I guess I learned quite a long while ago. By now the damp cold wind was turning my front teeth blue. “B-b-but wait, officers. I’m the mole in this, the one kinda working undercover. So if you want a real person of interest, try the professor here. Listen, I have the goods on tape and everything, let me hit this recorder…” Click, click…“Play, goddammit, play!”

“Ahem, just a moment here,” Paulen shook his head, as though dressing me down in tutorial contempt. “Come now, Herbert, you didn’t honestly buy my whole spiel, did you? Not since I was often speaking hypothetically, employing a reductio ad absurdum device from a bit of methodological research. Primarily to assess you on this Thornia matter, understand, discover whether you were actually capable of such a hate crime.”

“Hate crime?! Yeah, suurre you were. Now it’s an assessment spiel, too?” I fiddled away with the balky minicorder —this is what that grubby private dick gave me to work with? What the hell I’m supposedly getting paid for?! While his mark here is killing me with his collegial concern… “So then what about the sexual harassment mess at CU?”

“No, unfortunately that issue still shadows my inbox,” Paulen winced, stuffing the phone back into his vest pocket. But I assure you it is simply a misunderstanding—tempest in a contretemps. It will all blow over with the foothill winds should I return to Boulder, and get back to teaching Social Interpenetration and Symbolic Interaction. Back to publishing, not perishing, as well. After all, I’ve also my anti-Semitica program to pursue. Moreover, CU is building us a brand new Behavioral Science Center.”

“Whatever, doc, I don’t know what’s up with you truth-wise…”

“Did you actually think I would go back and shoot up the campus, or something? Please, I’ve a much better charm offensive planned than that. And, if not reinstated, I’ll simply sue the bastards. Now, gentlemen, deed done. So if you don’t mind, I have a recalcitrant lost child to deal with, now that her hippie mother has gone and taken leave of her sanity.”

“Ha, likely story! Anything to deflect responsibility and blame…”

“Look, Herbert, you know that little tattooed girl the punker deviant was leading around by her nose ring up at Calvary Cathedral? At mother’s memorial service, Alison claimed Blissy is mine by a previous…deflowering, but Nicholas is investigating that claim for me in return. Alas, perhaps another broad spreading of the Verniere seed. I mean what do you think had me safely holed up in Boulder all this time? Ciao.”

sr dingbats

Yet once past the NPS HQ, we too became frozen in emergency crunchtime, suspended like the bridge’s suspension cables in full lockdown mode. Those park service vehicles revved away, though similarly finding in short order they were on a red flashing mission to nowhere. From here, all the way out to Fort Point, Marine Drive stood bumper to grill bra still. Towncars, clunkers with day-glo ‘Do No Harm’ bumperstickers, sagging Tioga RV/campers, stretch Continentals and smoky, flabby tour buses: God forbid any of the first responder rigs should wend their way through that winding gridlock to the fort itself.

Warning lights blinked, sirens beeped and wailed atop the fire engines and heavy rescue vans, motorcycle cops wedged ahead. All were officially intent on delivering paramedics and bomb squads out to the fort, along this narrow roadway snaking between the coastal range and overslapping bay. Amid the chaos, I found myself mentally drifting up into those coastal slopes, tracking a Yahoo ad-muralled MUNI bus rolling slowly around an upper Lincoln Avenue curve, the 101-North traffic stalling on Doyle Drive, over to the toll plaza.

Even through the deepening fog cover, I could picture miles upon thousands of miles of untamed sea outside of that bridge approach, just beyond the geometric underspan gaps, wondering how such wide-open spaces could be so clotted here on this sliver of an inlet. Still, I gained some hazy relief from the bushy green West Bluff hillsides, sussing out the spotty yipping coyotes, tangled wildflowers, a soaring Cooper’s hawk over buggy poison oak—needing something a little more anodyne.

Except any momentary calm was shattered by the sudden clap of unseasonal thunder over the Golden Gate, opening dark Doors like ‘Riders on the Storm’. Interagency airborne police cruisers and choppers, circling newscopters and overall commotion nearly blew a chevron formation skein of brown pelicans into the water, ravenous and sickly as they already were, diving for baby chinook salmon. The CG cutter patrolled a socked-in Gate as if it were the Persian Gulf; orange helicopters swept and swooped about the bridge at Fort Point, searchlights scanning, bullhorns crackling with warning calls, gulls scattering around them as armed commandos descended on windblown harness lines. Hovering above it all, that cotto salami gliding in and out of the fogbank had to have been the red Saturn airship.

“Hey—there, that’s him right there,” shouted an older kibbutzer recalled from further back along the seawall, as though waiting out the next Blue Angel’s flyover. He vehemently pointed a uniformed Park Service policeman toward Paulen with his binoculars as they approached. “That’s the bozo what must be ring leadin’ this terror shit!”

“Me? Begging your pardon, sir,” Paulen spouted, stepping forward, just behind a young mother taking leave of the area, her infant wrapped in a suffocating papoose baby sling. “But I’m afraid your are dreadfully mistaken…”

I seen him, officer, heard him, too,” the old man added, flipping his blue Navy U.S.S. destroyer cap, waving his arms around like a flight deck cadet, then pointing toward the techie foursome. “Talkin’ on that ear contraption. Think he was yappin’ to his own self? Naw, was him and them Arab terrorist punks, over there, what’s causin’ all this! G’wan, grab the bugger before he…”

“Hmph, with all due respect, this is absurd,” Paulen countered, looking plaintively past him, to the park policeman. “Rest assured I am the last person to be fellow traveling with such terrorists. I either happened to be speaking with my companion or these good officers here—one or the other—and I wasn’t talking about any preposterous bomb plots with those Islamists. We were discussing Mister Herbert. Tell them officers, if you will. For it was no picnic steering him out this far, believe me.”

“Whatever, doc here all but admitted to me he’s a sexual harasser, if not an actual child killer,” I spouted, rankling at the detectives’ firmer arm grab, trying to point the finger at my buttonhole mike while stabbing at the recorder’s jammed buttons. “Really, I was hired to wear this cheesy wire by a private detective outfit in a second story Victorian over on Fillmore. Look it up, they’re working for Big John and Lou Smits, looking for a possible pedophile predator killer. Trying to sniff out the professor here as a JonBenet suspect…”

“Oh, right,” Detective Lisle sighed. “Enough of the BS, Lane, what say we run in this nutjob, once and for all.”

“No, seriously, I got roped into this because of my connection with San Francisco and Boulder, too,” I sputtered, scratching into my jacket pocket for the PI’s card. “So I’ve been sorta playing devil’s advocate to keep him spillin’, trying to tease out his angry side. It’s just a one-off gig—you know, rehashing old times, stuff like that. I had no idea this was where it was headed, believe me. Here, I have the dick’s business card—check it out.”

“Oh, I see—just doing your job. Where have we heard that before,” Paulen derided my balky tape machine. “But you underestimate me, Herbert. I sensed your baiting charade early on, gathered what you were fishing for, still had to keep you in tow. Honestly, buying that Boulder spiked shoe yarn—textbook confirmation bias.”

“Suure, yet you did keep motor mouthing, now didn’t you…”

“Okay, okay—let’s calm it down,” Lisle seemed unconvinced either way.

“Admittedly, I played along—as when fabulating on the Jay-Bee case—get that on your sneaky little tape recorder! You didn’t actually believe your contraption would clearly capture my voice, did you? You’d be lucky to pick up wind shear out here. And to think I was just trying to extend you some kindly redemption. Thank god I’ve been able to enlighten Melissa—particularly as she contemplates a changing of the guard.”

“Yeah, well, cram your kindness BS where the sun don’t shine,” I spit, wringing the recorder like a hand squeezer. “Who can believe what you say about anything now, anyway…”

“Please, I was simply employing something of a singular cohort analysis, benchmarking an extremist baseline,” Paulen dismissed, with a nod to the detectives. “Merely to draw him out as best I could on your cliffside body case.”

“Any of this gibberish true,” asked Detective Treywater, coming dubiously off his own call to headquarters, taking my card. “What say we cool jets here until we can go down to Bryant Street and sort all this out. Have us a little chat, just to play it safe.”

“That, and we have another cold case to discuss with you, Mister Herbert,” said Lisle, standing our ground against a white barrier railing. “Over around Gashouse Cove, going back like, 30 years or so. The whole damn thing stinks like a cum bucket, if you ask me.”

“Oh great,” I muttered, thinking what a miserable time and spectacular place this was to be Mirandaed and detained. “Talk about a shipwreck…”

“I concur, Herbert,” Paulen tapped his Bluetooth earpiece, digging deep for his pocket phone. “Funny, that’s just about what Melissa used to say about her relationship with you.”

Stormy Fort & Bridge

“Can’t believe this is happening…”

“Tell me about it…they think they can foist their will on everybody else.”

“It is like, sooo annoying…”

Responders’ feet to the fire, we stood peds to the metal. Goal being better containment of the Marine Drive traffic jam, park police had swung shut a bulky white steel restraining gate normally meant to close the 1½ lane stretch due to high-wave dousing or imminent seawall collapse. That pretty much served to seal off the paved western tip of this cramped wedge space and beyond, much to the consternation of hypercurious chin rubbers, lookylosers and pseudo-sleuths commingled breathlessly about this slender Y fork in the bayside access road.

Nearest to us, a harried beach boot camp instructor, tall and tight as a Stanford breaststroke medalist, had strode testily eastward from deep within the Fort Point tie-up—mucho pilates, muay booty thighs—flexing all the way. Rolling up to her in hot pink pants commiseration, was a somewhat belligerent six-wheel blader, Cow Palace derby combative as the San Francisco Bay Bombers in their day.

“Rully, waterboarding, stress squats are too good for the raggy lot of them…” said the rollerblader in air quotes, side slide braking attitudinally against an NPS tour guide sign stand.

“No, I mean this,” the boot camper said, banging her cell phone for naught. “I have an SUV load of school kids out there, I’ve run out of granola bars and my phone’s gone dead. How dare they?!”

“Which they do you mean exactly?”

I could just as soon have hitched aboard the rocketboat load of sightseers that had somehow slipped through the Coast Guard thicket to whisk past Torpedo Wharf, beating a choppy retreat back to Fisherman’s tourist launches. For at NPS office’s end, the Promenade curved slightly leftward to a usually breathtaking straight-on view of the bridge and fortress.

Not today, however—at least not for us, not at the moment. Instead, Paulen had guided me into the cradle of an open area forming the lone sea-level gateway to this side of the Golden Gate. Filling it were clusters of more painfully farragoed tourists from all points east and west, cold snapping beef and cheesecake shots against the bridge backdrop, family gatherings briskly huddled for warmth against the world-renowned Gate-Headlands tableau before any incendiary DHS hell broke loose.

“So, if Moon said that about me, I can just imagine what she says about you and CU…”

“Why do you think I’m here and she’s not, at least not for much longer,” Reese Paulen rambled, punching his phone again, then resetting his Bluetooth earpiece.

“Yeah, been here, done that, alright,” I said, finding myself commencing to roll some other roadblocks around in my head. “Though not quite the skulduggery part…”

“As the good detectives explained, it is necessary to ascertain whether you are the Ken Herbert in question, if you would know anything about that grisly discovery,” Paulen said, glancing over to Detective Treywater, who was maintaining keen eye on us. “And therefore would resist my leading you out here, coute que coute.”

“He means the nature and degree of your possible involvement, Mister Herbert,” said Treywater on approach to the white restraining gate rails Paulen and I were leaning against like we were two bibbed farmers over some soybean cions and mint Skoal dip. “We’re just collecting the factual evidence to make the connection.”

“This is totally unbelievable,” I shook my aching melon, suffering a serious BDNF deficiency from this entire spook vs. spook, stoolie vs. stoolie routine.

“So hang tight while we determine whether to walk you through the crime scene up there,” Treywater returned to his phone, Detective Lisle waving our way—got so even he pitched in to untie snarled traffic.

“B-b-but you’ve got me all wrong, I’m telling you. That’s not me at all,” I sputtered, bouncing material witness off person of interest on my personal rap sheet.

“Easy Herbert,” said Paulen, “don’t dig your hole any deeper…”

“Yah, well when I get out of this mess, you’ll see what I’ve really been up to around here,” I tapped and re-tripped the wire’s switch to no avail, fopsweat soaking through the inner vest pocket that had concealed the recorder. “By the way, where exactly did all your family money go, anyway?! Signing on to some cheesy sting like this…”

“Alas, blew through that tuition fund ages ago,” Paulen lamented. “But as to you, I’m only hearing your sketchy iffywhens and wheres. Meanwhile, the way things are going, my chances of amicably returning to the Sosh Department and CU Faculty Club are vanishing in the fog. Ergo, another ‘privileged white male’ bites the dust.”

“As to me? Truthfully, I don’t know what’s up with you.” What was that my private dick advised me—when people lie they look down and to the right? Or did he say up and to the left? In any case, nothing around here’s really what it seems. So is he pre-scripted or thinking out loud? A mole or just a hole? Is he or isn’t he? Does he or doesn’t he? Is it or isn’t it on the screws? “Nice ring, by the way. Where’d you get it?”

“This?” Doc flashed his blue-black stone and orbital pewter setting with a wave of the hand. “Actually, it was a gift from Melissa. She has a certain fondness for star sapphire, you know.”

“Heard that somewhere before, myself,” I swallowed hard.

We remained frozen here beside NPS’s field office, as the bordering traffic in this emergency crunch time—suspended like the bridge’s harp strings, in full lockdown mode. Those park service vehicles may have revved away, but similarly found in short order they were on a red flashing mission to nowhere. For from here, all the way out to Fort Point, Marine Drive now stood bumper to grill bra still. Towncars, campovers, stretch Continentals, news satellite vans and smoky, flabby tour buses: God forbid any of the responder rigs should wend their way through that winding gridlock to the fort itself. Warning lights blinked, sirens pinged and wailed atop the fire engines and rescue vans, motorcycle cops shoehorned ahead, officially intent on delivering paramedics and bomb squads out to the bridge along this narrow access road snaking between the coastal range and overslapping bay, spinning wheels at best.

“So did you actually do it,” Paulen asked me, sotto voce. “The dame…”

“No way, not a chance, I…how about you?”

“Don’t be absurd…was simply intruder theorizing, venting my Jay-Bee spleen for what actually may have happened to that poor little girl.” We looked one other over closely, and over again. But I do know one thing, this side trip downtown won’t help my reinstatement case in any way, shape or form.”

“Hey, wanna keep a cool on over there,” Lisle shouted, still trying to coax traffic along with an airfield swing of the arm.

“Yeah, well I guess now we’re both victims of mislaid blame,” I glanced across the trapezium space to their unmarked sedan, like a man jurisprudently possessed. “So then what about your studies program?” This, I asked while wondering how totally the situation would trash my chances of bootstrapping into a seed round for Saturnonymous.com.

“Ah, well, so long as the River Jordan doesn’t change course over there, neither will I, no matter what or where the Middle East goes.”

Amid all this chaos, I found myself drifting up into those coastal slopes, following an ad-muralled MUNI bus rolling slowly around a Lincoln Avenue curve, the 101-North traffic stalling on Doyle Drive, over to the toll plaza. Even through the deepening fog cover, I could picture miles upon thousands of miles of free untamed sea outside of that bridge approach, just beyond the geometric under-span gaps, the hidden cannon barrel carriages of Battery Chamberlin, wondering how such wide-open spaces could be so clotted here on this sliver of an inlet.

Still, I gained some hazy relief from the bushy green West Bluff hillsides, sussing out the spotty wildflowers and manzanita. Except any momentary calm was splattered with the black-camo commando suits of police sniper teams up there, shattered by the sudden clap and crackle of unseasonal thunder over the Golden Gate, marine layers and upper level troughs opening dark, drizzly Doors like ‘Riders on the Storm’.

“But what if that river, were to, you know, change course,” I asked, the words Transjordan and Jordan Valley inexplicably popping top of mind.

“Who can say? We are talking age-old forces of nature here…”

“I mean what if Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas seize the moment?” There you go, change the subject again, maybe extrajudiciously redeem thyself in the process, while you can. That’s the ticket out, isn’t it…”

“I wouldn’t bank on that, Herbert. Indeed, it sounds as though those two scoundrels might be just close enough to blow things sky high,” doc said, eyes on Treywater, as though pondering whether his old school chum, Nick Falzio might be on the other end of the phone line, bailing him out of all this. “Unless someone sincerely wants peace more than the process, that is…”

“Depends on if someone wants peace more than parcels—as the case may be.”

“Devil is in the details, Herbert, devil’s in the details… ”

Care for more?

Chapter Fifty-Six + (Details)

Chapter Fifty-Seven. The clearing of a
pathway gets more problematic as
least resistance encounters a
scrambling show of force…