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“Hidden in plain sight, an industrial-scale meth lab in a former biotech building in Seattle’s tech hub quietly pumps out millions of carefully hidden profits for the scion of one of the city’s old-line wealthy families. That is, until agents from an Afghan rebel group show up looking for a cut and bodies start washing up on Puget Sound beaches.

“It looks like smuggling – people or drugs – to the murder squad, but the cops can’t believe such a prominent citizen would be involved. It takes former journalist turned true-crime blogger Eric Falconer – narrowly escaping death himself in the heroin-sick alleys of Vancouver, B.C. – to connect the timber-family scion to the murders and a plot to destroy the re-election campaign of a popular governor.

“As the police finally close in, the head of the cartel disappears, murdered for revenge. Only Falconer will ever know the killer.”

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Dick Lilly is a former journalist whose career began with alternative weeklies and took him on to the Seattle Times where he spent 15 years coverning local government from City Hall to the school board. HIs career continued at Seattle Public Utilities as a public information officer and policy analyst working on waste prevention.

Chapters 6 & 7: Starlight Hotel and Caffé Umbria

Chapter 6, Starlight Hotel

Wednesday June 11, 8 a.m.

              Falconer, barefooted but wearing jeans and a light blue button down shirt, Oxford cloth, sleeves rolled up, picked up the local news sections of both Seattle dailies and his coffee cup and walked across the roof deck to the other penthouse that was the office for Falconerblog.com. Perched on the edge of the building overlooking Ballard Avenue, the space had windows almost all the way around. Blonde bamboo floors and varnished fir trim salvaged from an old school before it was demolished gave the office – despite the clutter of computers and newspapers – a warm feel even on cloudy days.

              “You guys see this? ‘Governor’s son arrested at drugs party,’ front of the P-I local section?”

              “Yep.” The laconic speaker was Danny Armster. Twenty eight, a whiz on computers, just a big blue-eyed kid except for his time in Iraq doing things Falconer never wanted to hear about. Danny kept a skateboard by the door and when his brain disengaged – not that often – he’d take it over to the Ballard skate park and zone out in the bowl, enjoying the chance to show off for the younger skaters.

              “Don’t over-react.”

              “Weird!” This time a duo, Danny joined by Kim Watanabe, the blog’s managing editor, a 33-year-old escapee from TV news. Two years before, when Falconer asked her why she wanted to work for him, she’d said, “So I don’t have to wear lipstick and eyeliner every waking moment for the rest of my life and spend a half day a week at Gene Juarez where this guy’s supposed to know how to ‘do’ Asian hair. What the hell is wrong with a ponytail, anyway? I don’t want to look like goddamn Connie Chung.”

              “Weird is what I thought, too,” said Falconer. “Did you see this, near the bottom? ‘Several of the teens arrested said party crashers brought the drugs and handed them out and spiked drinks, according to police reports. None of the students officers talked to said they knew the interlopers, who apparently were gone when police arrived.’”

              “Smarter than your average student, then, much smarter.” Danny had the SPD news release up on his screen. “Less here than in the P-I, so some initiative by the reporter. But they had a day. This happened Monday night, too late for yesterday’s paper.”

              “Odd night for a party.”

              “Graduating seniors. They’ve probably been partying for a week.”

              “A couple of the TVs mentioned it last night but they didn’t have as much as the P-I does,” said Kim, not quite cured, she was the only one of the three who still regularly watched TV news. “They’ll be chasing it today, though. The governor is too juicy to pass up. And we’re only a couple months from the primary.”

              “So tell me, oh brilliant investigative staff, what’s this all about? At most a couple dozen rich kids from Lakeside and Roosevelt descend on a classmate’s house because her parents are gone for a few days. You know this story. You’ve done this. Word gets out, nerds show up, jocks show up, people you never heard of show up, not always the best of types. It gets wild and crazy. The P-I says they lit a bonfire down on the beach.” Falconer refilled his coffee cup from a stainless steel thermos on Kim’s desk.

              “Hey. . .!”

              “Thanks. You make better coffee than I do.”

Kim thinking: And I should be over there in the morning to make it for you.

“Anyway, I remember going to a party like that when I was in college, spring vacation one year. I was in the Bay Area. Up in the city we heard about this party and drove down to Palo Alto, I kid you not, half lost and half drunk all the way, to see what was happening. Amazing that we even found the place.” Falconer laughed. “Maybe we didn’t find it. Maybe we stumbled on a different place just like the one we were looking for. I’ve never seen anything like it. The furniture was gone. They must have removed all that before the party. Kitchen floor deep with beer, broken glass everywhere, not surprising. Most amazing thing was, the kids tore the fixtures out of the bathroom. Destroyed ’em. Water was running down the stairs. No one cared. No one I saw, anyway. It was a two-story white house, colonial, with big columns in the front and a steep roof with green shingles. Drunk guys up there straddling the roof peak waived at the cops when they arrived and then threw beer bottles. If Hieronymus Bosch had been an art student at Foothills, the junior college down there, he couldn’t have found a more inspiring scene. We got the hell out, I think more sober, less drunk, anyway, than when we arrived.” Danny and Kim gave him an indulgent look. They were used to Falconer telling stories, and some they’d heard more than once, but they never quite figured out if he did it to recapture his past, rejuvenate fading memories or maybe to show off what a cool, adventurous guy he was. Some of it was local lore he put to use writing Falconerblog.

              “Was I boring you?”

“No, sir.” Chorus of insincerity.

“OK. What do we know? Our Laurelhurst kids Monday night never get that crazy. Seniors out this week, like you said, so Monday works. Anyway, they weren’t even that noisy, probably most of them making out. The Roberts place has got to have five or six bedrooms. And the party’s quiet enough that none of the neighbors calls the cops until the kids light a bonfire on the beach below the house. The paper says, ‘A neighbor called 9-1-1 when he saw flames and thought the Roberts’ boat house was on fire.’ Once again, crack investigative minds, what’s this story all about?”

              Kim looked up from her screen where she was organizing the blog’s list of upcoming stories. “The governor’s kid.”

              “Totally.” Agreement from Danny.

              “Uh-huh. And that’s why unknown party crashers dispensing drugs seems funny to me. Suppose you wanted to get our just-a-little-bit-moralistic governor in trouble with her uneasy fundamentalist supporters?”

              A grin from Danny. He brushed a shock of his disorganized bleached hair off his forehead. “Sweet. Get her son arrested at a drugged out orgy, that’s what they’d call it for sure. An orgy.” He rolled the word around his tongue as though sampling its flavor. “Not hard to do. Definitely not hard to do.”

              “Apparently not.” Falconer stood with his back to the desks, staring over the tops of Ballard’s new condos at Phinney Ridge where like much of Seattle outside of downtown the trees worked pretty successfully at hiding the houses. Through a gauzy white curtain of cloud, the sun shone pale as a light bulb.

“I think there’s someone out there who’d like to see our governor gone. You know, normally, I’d chalk up her son’s arrest to bad luck, something the family will have to struggle through. We can expect a news conference with mom and dad and Will together, probably later today, ‘We regret what appears to be an unfortunate lack of judgment on Will’s part . . . He’s a good boy . . . We’re supporting him through this . . . I assure you that the investigation will proceed fairly and objectively.’ All that. But add the arrest, complete with mysterious party crashers, only a couple days after I get a red-meat tip from that woman who found me at Vera’s, and you could think Maureen Collins has a very determined enemy. Coincidence? Could be. I’d hope so for the governor’s sake, though neither of these things is exactly good news.”

              Falconer refilled his coffee, this time from a pot on the built-in buffet, resumed pacing. “Suppose there’s someone out there who wants her out, wants to get a more reliably conservative Republican on the ticket. Political ambition? Quite a few candidates there – literally – a couple of them running, so far hopelessly, against her in the primary but even a little scandal could change that. It might be enough to weaken her, give the values-voters second thoughts, have her big fundraisers wringing their hands or, assuming she makes it through the primary, pulling back during the crucial next few months, all of which helps Sonny McCracken’s run from city hall to the statehouse. And the way it looks now he’s sure not going to win without some outside help. This could be it. ‘Governor’s son arrested deep in an Ecstasy trance at teen sex party, wild goings on at Laurelhurst mansion.’ McCracken? On the other side, some clique of conservative Republicans?

“What about the charges? Possession? Possession with intent to sell? We don’t know that do we? Not yet, anyway.”

              Danny ran his finger down the column. “Looks like it just says ‘arrested.’ Just plain arrested, that’s all.”

              “Story for tomorrow then?” Kim rolled her mouse around, clicked on the blog’s planning files. “Which one of you wants it?”

              “Danny, let’s make it you. You can go play kid for a day. Hang around Roosevelt. Don’t bother with Lakeside. They’ll run you off the campus. See if you can find somebody who knows somebody who was there. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Last week of school, finals mostly over, you may not find anyone we’re looking for. Paper says two dozen kids but only three are named, Will – Wilson – Collins, Lynne Roberts, apparent hostess of this soiree, and Amanda Wallingford. Given that group, must be Victor’s kid and I’ll bet that uptight asshole Victor Wallingford is apoplectic right now. Kid in the soup, proper little turned-up nose caught in a jam. I’d bet the phalanx of Wallingford lawyers put the proper fear of lawsuits into our police officers and prosecutors Monday night and yesterday.

              “The rest are probably minors who will be redacted from the police reports. Download the reports for what they’re worth Danny, but it sounds like you’ll have to ask around the school to get anything on who the party crashers were.”

              “And what about you?” Voice of the managing editor.

              “Oh, I can’t make up my mind whether to chase down Bobby Harms in pursuit of the mystery killer on the fake Carl Barclay boat or sit in front of this computer all day trying to find women whose birth moms gave them up for adoption in San Diego in the summer or fall of 1973. Maybe I’ll flip a coin.”

              Synchronized eye-rolling from the Falconer staff.

              “No, actually, since we’ve already got my story on the discovery of the murder boat and the second body up on the site, I’m leaving for the courthouse. As both of you know, the jury is due back later this morning to tell us if the nice lady who traded her food stamps for Mad Dog 20-20 and forgot to feed her baby girl who died did a really bad thing or if she was just sort of forgetful.”

Kim clicked her mouse a couple times. “People are reading it. It’s by far our most popular story right now.”

              “What kind of ads is Google putting on those pages?”

              “Same as all the others, books. True crime and crime fiction books.”

              “I was hoping for 12-step programs, somebody like Schick Shadel, give us a little more of a public service cachet.”

              “Yeah, a little more cachet.” Pretending at serious thought, Danny rubbed his chin, home of a thin goatee. “And what about baby food? They haven’t exploited that connection. Maybe I should email ’em.”

              Falconer just shook his head. He walked over and sat at his desk, a cluttered old library table against the windows that looked southwest over the street. Above the street trees he could see parts of Salmon Bay between the hoppers and conveyors of the cement plant and the gray boat sheds. On the opposite shore the view included Fishermen’s Terminal and a couple other boat yards, now closed, the frame of an office building rising where only a few years ago hundred-foot fishing boat hulls had been conjured from steel plate and welder’s skill. In the foreground, gulls floated past the window, patrolling up and down the street. Nearby, one of them settled on a parapet to scream, loud as a car alarm. For no reason Falconer could ever figure out, every now and then the birds just screeched at the air: victor or victim, chest beating or existential complaint? He hadn’t a clue.

Chapter 7 Caffé Umbria

Wednesday June 11, 11 a.m.

              Theresa Dalton, brown-eyed, dark hair usually in a ponytail, was a private investigator, a good one when, however rarely, a good case came along, and more than adequate when it came to the boring stuff, skip tracing and spying on plaintiffs for law firms. It paid the bills.

              She had showed up at The Times, lured away from the Portland Oregonianto cover education, a couple years before Falconer quit. He’d covered the school district earlier, back when he was married and thought about kids, and they became friends, Falconer mentoring – a role he always relished – for awhile until they settled in as equals. When they were together they still talked for hours about schools or the cases they were working on. No secrets, no lies, the foundation for their intimacy. Most weeks they’d have a dinner out together, dining on the Belltown scene – gossips called them a power couple – or in ethnic restaurants in the far corners of the city.

              At the moment they were sharing stories perched on bar stools in the window of Caffé Umbria, a few blocks from the courthouse where both had been rummaging through files from the pre-electronic past.

              “Lives are so tangled, Eric. No one gets where they think they are going. This case I’m working on – paternity, child support – oh so typical and tragic. The guy I’m working for represents the dad, or the not-dad, depending. He thinks the girl got herself pregnant to marry him. That was ten years ago. They’ve got a ten-year-old and finally the wife’s pregnant again only this time he’s sure it’s not his. He’s been suspicious for years because there’s no resemblance he sees between him and his son. It’s kind of the usual: dad wants a football player; the kid’s small and shy. She’s fighting DNA testing, which makes it look bad, feeds his suspicions.

              “So there she is, Eric, just 27 now, just wants to be a wife and mother and she’s a good mom by all accounts including the husband’s. The kid does well in school, reads way above grade level. But soon a court may find she started it all with a fraud and she’ll lose everything. The boy’s not his blood son so the pissed and maybe cuckolded husband walks. She ends up a single mom, no income, no work history. That is so not where she set out to go.”

              “You know, Theresa, you just want to help her, turn back the clock to a better time, give her a hug and hear her whisper, ‘I’m sorry, Mom.’”

              “And you know, Mr. Falconer, that you can see too damn deep into my soul.”

              “It’s a pleasant place to explore.”

              A pause from Theresa. “How about if we change the subject. I’ll buy you another cappuccino.”

              In the short, big-bang history of Seattle coffee shops, Caffé Umbria was Torrefazioni which grew into a small chain that was bought by Starbucks. The real Italian owners kept the original location, changed the name, remodeled to a sleek, European look without losing too much of the ambiance, and still roast some of the city’s best coffee. So say the aficionados.

              There was pleasure, too, in the location. Occidental Avenue was closed to traffic, converted to a red-brick plaza planted with London plane trees in the heyday of Pioneer Square’s rebirth in the 1970’s. Customers could people watch from the windows or outside tables undisturbed by the rush and smell of traffic.

              “Your turn.” Theresa was back with the coffees in white ceramic cups.

              “Carl Barclay, the political – I should say ‘public affairs’ – consultant.”

              Theresa slid onto her stool. “Consummate insider, kingmaker, super skilled at staying on good terms with everybody who counts, never saw a problem he couldn’t solve, a deal he couldn’t cut.”

              “None other.” Eric got up to hold the café door for a couple of women about Theresa’s age pushing strollers with bicycle wheels, the kind joggers use. Clear plastic windshields were snapped in place to protect the kids from the drizzle. The women shook water off their hats, let their hair fall to their shoulders, and settled in at a table.

              Theresa looked away, stared at the tan whorls of coffee marking the foam in her cup. “In a different life.”

              “What?”

              “Just might-have-beens . . . Nothing. Go on with Carl Barclay.”

“He’s involved with something. Bobby Harms thinks so. I think so. We just can’t figure out what.”

              “Oh, yeah. The “death boat” in the blog and today’s papers.”

              “At least two guys get killed, messily, with large caliber weapons on a sport-fishing boat that’s identical to Barclay’s, and I mean identical. Make, model year, equipment and state registration numbers. They’re twins except for one thing. The tax stickers on the murder boat are fakes, perfect copies, nice computer graphics, peel-off-stick-on, but fakes.

              “Why would someone – or Barclay himself – do that? Smuggling. That’s the first thing you think of. Every so often another bunch figures they can take a yacht or some seiner far enough off shore to rendezvous over the horizon with a Mexican tuna boat carrying heroin. Remember that freestyle skier who bought a C&C 61 about 1980 and got caught, almost caught anyway, returning with sail bags full of dope. The Feds got the boat and the dope but this guy got away. I forget how. Changed his name and lived in Colorado for almost 20 years before he turned himself in. That’s why I remember it, ’cause he lived on the lam for so long. Almost romantic: Robin Hood bringing dope to the poor, happy-go-lucky ski bums and snow boarders.

              “Nowadays, there’s still plenty of dope moving, more hard stuff now, but the real cash cargo is people, illegal immigrants, around here mostly Chinese, some Koreans and Vietnamese. They bring them in from Canada. Bobby and I think maybe that’s it. But why Barclay? It doesn’t look like he needs the money. Why a duplicate boat? My theory – Bobby won’t tell me his, you know, he just nods, you can’t tell if it’s politeness or agreement or he thinks I’m a dumb asshole, probably that – my theory is that it’s a decoy. The real boat is the decoy. Barclay crosses legally, checks in with customs and immigration, and the registration number – stick-on vinyl letters and numbers on the bow – goes into the computer cleared for Canadian waters. Meanwhile the twin boat cruises on a different errand, apparently legal to any patrol boat that happens to look at the numbers through binoculars. It works the same returning to the States. Computer puts the registration number on the right side of the border and no one has any reason to stop the boat and see if it’s really Carl Barclay at the helm.

              “The theory fits some of the facts, anyway. Carl and Sally cross every month or six weeks even in the winter.”

              “Why on earth? That’s suspicious enough.”

              “Not really. They share a house on South Pender Island with a Canadian couple from Vancouver. They’ve been going up there for almost 10 years. Boat’s pretty new though. He got it from the factory in Florida in 2001, just before the worst of the dot-com crash. Bobby says – I talked to him a couple hours ago – that about the same time one of the big California yacht brokers, Ardell or somebody like that, sold a sister ship to a retired guy in San Diego. Early in 2003, the retired guy sold the boat for a lot of cash. He told the cops who dropped in on him early this morning that, yes, he thought the buyer was a dope dealer because of the cash but, hey, he broke his hip and he wasn’t going to be using it again. The manufacturer’s hull number molded into the transom says that’s our twin, probably trucked up I-5 shortly after they bought it.

              “Right now Bobby’s trying to figure out the smuggling deal and get something on Barclay. He’s watching Barclay in town and he’s got the Everett port cops watching the dock up there. But where’s that going to get him? With one of the boats wrecked, whatever they were doing, they’re out of business. They can’t commit a crime, at least not the one Bobby’s got them figured for.

              “That leaves the dead guys. No leads, nothing. Both had impeccable fake I.D., still in their pockets, making them residents of non-existent houses in a La Jolla subdivision. No prints on record for the big guy, not much in the way of fingers on the other one. Sea creatures took care of that. Bobby tells me the big guy “had an accent,” according to the clerk at the Seahawks team store who sold him a Twelfth Man jersey. Nobody else in the whole metro area seems to have laid eyes on him. The driver’s license pictures are being circulated. Right now, it looks like the best chance for a lead is finding where they kept the second boat, the wrecked one. The cops, with help from half a dozen cities and the eight counties on Puget Sound are canvassing every marina from Olympia to Bellingham and out to Port Angeles. I wish ’em luck.

              “Anyway, sooner or later, it’s going to make a great story on the blog. What we have up now – same stuff as the P-I and the Times – barely scratches the surface.”

              “You know, Eric, I enjoyed being a reporter and an investigative reporter when they let me do it and I enjoy being a private investigator despite the sleazy parts. But these kinds of stories, where such horrible, brutal killings are just business as usual . . . I have a hard time admitting that into my world. I can understand screw-ups and venal sins and all the sad bleakness in people’s lives, but I cannot understand cold-blooded evil for even one second. Who are these people?”

              Falconer shook his head. He had no answer for that.

Along the avenue of plane trees, they walked back to the courthouse through a steady drizzle. It always rained half of June but at least it wasn’t cold. Tiny drops of water strung themselves along the strands of Theresa’s hair that, escaped from her ponytail, framed her face. Falconer thought she looked beautiful, but he didn’t say anything.

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